Tag Archives: Fiction

How to Find Your Way Home by Katy Regan

book cover

…here begins one of the last evenings I remember of my old life. The life I had constructed like the tough, prickled outer shell of a horse chestnut around me, before it was cracked open and the truth of my life was laid bare, as frighteningly untouched and uncharted as that shiny conker hidden inside.

Do we choose our homes? Physically, sure. As adults we can move here or there. Does a chick choose its nest? We are not necessarily bolted to our birthplaces, but they are our first homes, and that initial setting is a very powerful thing, rich with association, memory, and attachment, particularly if we remain there more than just a few years. Many, maybe most people move away, significantly away. We may return annually to see family, or not. Maybe the places to which we relocate become truer homes for us. I shudder, for example, at the thought of ever again living in the neighborhood where I was raised. While I love the city, that particular part of it holds no attraction for me. I got out as fast as I could, and never wanted to be back there again. But for many, like Dorothy Gale, there is a primal bond with that ground. There’s no place like home for Stephen Nelson, as well, as he carries deep ties to the place where he was raised. He has been away from it for a very long time.

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Katy Regan – from her Facebook pages

Emily Nelson has different rootedness issues. A connection to her brother is where home is for Emily. Stephen was an amazing big brother, about five years older. Delighted to have her there, eager to teach her about what excited him in the world, which was mostly birds, an interest his father shared and nurtured in his children. And she was always thrilled to be with “Deebie.” They found a particular Eden-ic magic in the avian-rich marshlands very near their home on Canvey Island, (Essex’s answer to the Mississippi Delta) even camping out there sometimes. She is concerned about his survival.

Their allegiance gained significance when their mother, unhappy with her exurban experience, ditched their father for what she’d hoped would be a more satisfying life. Sadly, her new mate seemed to have a bug up his bum about Stephen, always criticizing him, never recognizing Stephen’s strengths, and generally being a total horse’s ass of a stepfather. The sibs really needed to stick together when they were with Mum and Mitch. But something happened when they were still kids. Mitch was severely injured, and Stephen was jailed, from his teens into his twenties. Once out, things did not go well. He has been living rough for the last fifteen years.

We meet Emily in the today of the novel, 2018. She is 31, living in London, a housing officer in the council’s homeless department. She has had a series of relationships, (failure to nest?) the latest of which is with an architect, but:

She realizes that James will not last, no one will until she can resolve the huge hole in her from the loss of Stephen.

They have been out of touch since shortly after his release from prison. She has been desperate to find him for some time. When she hears his voice in her office one day, the chase is on. She invites him to move in with her.

The story moves along two time tracks. First is the contemporary, as Emily searches for Stephen, wanting to reconnect with him, wanting to help him, wanting to get her brother back after a very long absence. This current-day look is split between Emily’s first-person and Stephen’s third-person POVs. The second time track is a slow unraveling of the past, from Emily’s birth to the tragic event that defines the story. What happened in their lives as kids? What forged their bond? What ultimately caused Stephen to be sent to jail? Why has Stephen been homeless for so long? This is told in ten chapters, named for birds, telling stories from their childhood involving specific birds, or breeds, or just using bird imagery. Stork, for example, is about Emily’s arrival. Mother Duck tells of a Make Way for Ducklings event. Cockatoo refers to someone’s hairstyle.

Stephen struggles with hope, whether to keep on or to fly the coop on possibility. Lord knows, he has had plenty of reasons to. His father has been willing to keep lines of communication open, if with less than total warmth. But his mother, unhappily, stuck with caring for the husband whose tetraplegia is the reason Stephen was imprisoned, is not so eager. Stephen has learned to survive on the streets, kept going by his love of birds. He has artistic ability, and picks up some money selling drawings of them.

Regan first volunteered at a soup kitchen for the homeless when she was 17.

My favorite bit of the shift was to sit down after we’d served breakfast and chat. What surprised me then, besides the sheer resilience these people possessed, was how little there was between my life—a “normal life”—and theirs. A few wrong turns, a relationship breakup, some bad luck was all it seemed to take for you to wind up sleeping on the streets and relying on charity to eat. Most of all, what I learned there (as well as from my research for How to Find Your Way Home) was that the difference between those who managed to dodge homelessness and those who slipped through the net was just that: too-big holes in the net. If you’d burned the bridges of your support network or had been abandoned by the people in it, you were out of luck. When I became a writer, I promised myself I would one day write a book telling the story of a homeless person. – from the Bok Club kit

Bird imagery permeates the novel. In fact, there is enough avian material here to fill a king-size comforter. It is as lovely as one of those too, the feathered supporting cast bolstering the issues among the feather-free characters. A skein of geese, for example, is explained as group members taking turns bearing the brunt of the migratory lead. Swifts faithfully return to the same nesting site every year, maintaining their pair-bond for life. Although birds permeate the novel, the bird-title chapters focus on this imagery most pointedly.

Another motif to keep an eye on is windows. Stephen is an outsider from childhood. Emily feels like one as well. Windows always mark a separation, and what you see through them may not tell a true or a full tale.

That’s what you’d see, if you looked through the window: four thirty-something friends, “upwardly mobile” themselves I suppose, having dinner, chatting, having fun on a Saturday night, me in the middle in my orange top that says “Happy Days” on it. But I’m not happy.

Sometimes, windows offer frightening views.

A dark, tall shadow flashed across the kitchen window and I jumped half out of my skin.

Stephen and Emily have some serious issues between them to contend with, in addition to the challenges that both face with the wider universe. Stephen has good reason to be cautious about the world. He may have been sent to prison for a crime as a teen but he seems a pretty decent sort as a served-his-time thirty-something. Emily may have cut herself off from the world of love emotionally, if not physically, but we come to see that this originates in pain. She seems to have a good heart. So, rooting for these two is easy. And there is a very satisfying twist toward the end. HTFYWH was moving enough that my notes include three instances of TEARS!. There is also some exquisite, lyrical writing here.

I suppose there a few loose feathers that might make one sneeze a bit. Stephen seemed to spend an extreme number of years living on the street. Really? No social service types managed to coral him into a rehab program, maybe got him set up with a social worker. Possible? Oh, sure. But, still. Could Emily really have afforded a London flat in a nice neighborhood on a public employee’s income? Also, the wrap-up seemed a bit speedy. Without spoiling anything, situations were presented that seemed lacking in sufficient preparatory support. And yes, there was certainly a large volume of feathery references. Some might find that a downer. I rather liked it. I will spare you the Emily Dickinson quote, but it is certainly an undercurrent here as Stephen’s ability to carry on is bolstered by his love of birds and birding.

Louise Erdrich this ain’t, but it is a lovely, warm-hearted novel. That said, I found myself always very eager to return to my bedtime book home for the week and a half for which I was able to stretch this out. Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like it.

Stephen loved the sounds as much as he loved the space out here: the wind, creeping through the grasses, that reminded Stephen of rain, when it first, softly, begins to fall; the hum of traffic coming from the A130; and the occasional train, slicing through the countryside with its ghostly sigh. Stephen liked these reminders that the town was nearby. It was as if England and all it had to offer was right here, at the edge-lands—a world within a world. And it had been rolled out like a map, for him to run free over.

Review posted – February 4, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of How To Find Your Way Home from Berkley in return for directions. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Katy Regan was brought up in a seaside town in northern England. She studied at the University of Leeds before moving to London, where she worked as a journalist and as a commissioning editor at Marie Claire magazine. How To Find Your Way Home is her fifth book.

Items of Interest from the author
—–A map of locations in the novel
—–Book Club Kit

Songs/Music
—–The Hollies – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – chapter 6
—–Robin S – Show Me Love – chapter 13

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

The Fields by Erin Young

book cover

Never tell.
It was an oath she had broken first, many months later, the words heaved from her in sobs, her parents’ expressions frozen, Ethan stumbling from the room, his face ashen. The secret once shared—once detonated—had destroyed them. Not in the first blast, but slowly, inexorably. A sickness in the heart of their family. A poison that lived for years, quietly working in each of them.

It’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.
———-Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe

Damn, did he have that right. The Iowa of Erin Young’s The Fields is a hell of a lot closer to The Children of the Corn than it is to any Field of Dreams. After spending some time in Cedar Falls and it’s larger sibling, agro-urban-wasteland town, Waterloo, where the rust-belt meets the corn-belt, you might swear off dreaming altogether. Well, town might be down-playing it a bit. Between the two (both are real places) they total about 100,000 souls (not counting livestock), so maybe small cities rather than towns. Abba may have been on to something when they referred to Waterloo. (Couldn’t escape if I wanted to) Some truly can’t. One of those turns up dead in a cornfield.

If not for the University of Northern Iowa—where she’d majored in criminology—with its annual influx of students and money, Riley guessed Cedar Falls would have slumped into the same depression as Waterloo. There had been some brave attempts at regeneration in recent years—microbreweries sprouting on weed-covered lots, kayaks for hire on the Cedar River and an annual Pride festival, fulminated against by local churches. But they were fighting a strong downward pull.

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Erin Young, nom de plume for Robyn Young, showing off her Thriller-writer pose, or her “You expect me to believe that? Come on now.” face – image from her facebook pages

Riley Fisher is local, mid-thirties, single, grew up in Cedar Falls, her grandfather a former head of the Blackhawk County Sheriff’s Office. She knew early on that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Now, after a detour or two along the way, she is head of investigations, to the consternation of others who had hoped for the promotion. The new-found body is in a field owned by the Zephyr Farms cooperative.

Cooperatives were how some smaller Iowa farms had been able to survive the relentless advances of Big Ag. By dominating the market in hybrid seeds, fertilizer and pesticides—the holy trinity of crop production—through aggressive trademarking, swallowing up the competition and tactical lobbying at the highest levels of government, giants like Agri-Co had come to control much of the nation’s agricultural wealth.

Been out there for days, been ripped at in an unusual way, was maggoty, ripe, and unsettling. No problems with an ID, though, once Sergeant Fisher arrives on the scene. Chloe Miller (nee Clark) was one of Riley’s besties two decades back, in high school. But they’d gone their separate ways. Seeing Chloe brings back a terrible time from Riley’s youth, a time that had derailed her life, a time she could never forget.

So, we are faced with two mysteries. What happened to Chloe in that field and why, and what is it about Chloe’s death that has brought Riley to such a state of emotional turmoil? Something happened back when they were still friends, something major. And the revived memories are not exactly a source of comfort. Both mysteries are peeled back like leaves on a lovely ear of you-of-what, bit by bit, the present-day crime via procedural investigation; the personal mystery through intermittent, mostly small recollections.

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Blackhawk County – Image from Lands of America

But wait, there’s more. The discovery of Chloe’s body is the spark that starts the action, but Young has a wider field of view in her sites. A writer of very successful (over two million sold) historical novels, she wanted to have a go at writing thrillers, finding inspiration in

an article she read about the menacing power of Big Agriculture. A decision to set the novel in Iowa, corn-capital of the world, led her to make a fascinating journey across the state – from chance encounters with cops and farmers, and an audience with a local mayor, to shooting Glocks and getting caught in supercell storms. – from her website

A voice is given to concerns about the darker implications of increasing concentration in the age of the agro-industrial complex.

A necessary evil, some called them. Progress, said more. But to those whose forefathers had farmed this land since the days of the first families from New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, who’d settled here after the Black Hawk War when the Ioway had been driven west, these corporations were vultures, polluters and thieves.

(Entirely unlike the settlers who drove out the natives, I presume.) So, not exactly a tension-free relationship between local growers and the bigger side of the farming industry, personified here by the Agri-co corporation. We get a strong oppo position from an activist determined to head off even more governmental pro-corporation actions.

Companies like Agri-Co only care about profit, not the soil and water they infect with their chemicals, or the wildlife they destroy. Cancer rates are rising from pesticides, and, still, their political allies and lobbyists help them sow their poison.

She blames the current governor, up for re-election, for his role in this. Concern with big-Ag concentrating power at the expense of smaller producers and fouling the environment in the process finds an echo in another part of the country.

It was almost a year since Logan joined the department, moving with his folks from Flint. His father, niece, and nephew had been badly affected by the crisis there—when lead seeped into Flint’s water supply after city officials changed the system in an attempt to save money, then tried to cover up the devastating consequences.

It is clearly impossible to run from the national corporation-led degradation of our environment, or from pervasive public corruption.

Riley is an engaging lead, clever in the way we expect our fictional detectives to be. We also expect our lead to carry some personal baggage, challenges at the very least. Her beloved grandfather, Joe, has been in decline for quite a while, coherent and in possession of his memories on an increasingly part-time basis. Her brother Ethan is a bit of a disaster, divorced, a ne’er do well with some substance issues. Riley can usually count on Ethan to step back whenever she needs him to step up. Ethan’s daughter Maddie is a teenager, a decent sort, overall, in a tough situation, but, you know, a teenager, so offering the family their RDA of stress. And Riley still carries the weight of what happened all those years ago. Unfortunately, Riley is saddled with the addition to her team of Officer Cole, an asshole cop straight from central casting, toting the usual bigotries, inflated self-view, and presumptions, with an extra dose of jealousy. Thankfully, Riley’s other partner, Logan, is another good cop.

And then a second body turns up, (not in a field) also not discovered until well past passing, also in very nasty shape, also featuring some remarkable damage. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

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Abandoned meat-packing plant – image from sometimes-interesting.com

Thrillers have tropes like Ruffles have Ridges. Black SUVs put in an appearance. Are they good SUVs or bad SUVs? Ya gotta figure, when Riley spots a large poisonous snake on her property, (Chekov’s snake?) that it will rattle into play at some point. The question is how, when, to whom, and to what effect. News of a coming storm is another one. Usually this signals that the violent final resolution will occur against an atmospherically dramatic background. Young preps us with a mention of eight twisters having touched down in Iowa since April. Will one drop down into the mix here? Now, that would be a real twist. The upcoming Iowa State Fair is also noted, and gave me visions of snakes dropping on fair-goers, transported by a tornado, as everything is revealed in a climactic disaster scene. But Chekov surely does not have to take ownership of all these things. They could also just be foreshadowing images or external representations of the fear and turmoil Riley is experiencing, or the dangers she is facing. (But I sure do like that State Fairground snakenado notion).

So how does the historical novelist fare at the thriller genre? Young ticks off many of the usual boxes that make up the type. The author has to make good with the reader on explaining things at the end, the main things, anyway. Check. A ticking clock? “I’ve had the county attorney on the line already. Less than two months from the state fair and with the gubernatorial coming up? You know how vital this next budget is to the department. I want this case handled quickly. Efficiently.”, so, check. Our hero must face an increasingly perilous set of challenges, no escaping, victory can only be had by overcoming. What’s she gonna do when all those snakes start dropping out of the sky (Ok. I got carried away, again.) But yeah, Riley rolls, doing battle on multiple fronts. An element of suspense? Sure. Got that. Whodunit, why, and who’s next. An appealing hero? Sure. A reliable sidekick with an alternate skill set? Yep. Logan fills the bill. Plot twists? Of course. Red herrings? Bring your fishing pole. There are a few swimming about. Alternate POVs? The story is told in third person, but there is one first person POV that appears a few times. Cliffhangers? That is what made it tough to read only 20-30 pages a night of this book. An exciting climax? Yeah, for sure, even though I was really kinda hoping for the snakenado thing, even though I know it would have been really cool silly.

I quite enjoyed Young’s simple, but dark descriptions.

Waterloo was lifeless in the stagnant air. Smoke seeped from factory chimneys and the Cedar flowed sluggish and brown. Although the roads were clogged with trucks and trailers, there were few people about, just a few vagrants shambling along broken sidewalks, and cleaners and hospital workers trudging to or from shifts…It wasn’t long before she saw the old meatpacking plant on the outskirts of the city…Its twin smokestacks were dark fingers against the pallid sky, old bricks the color of rust. The bottom windows were boarded over, the ones higher up mostly shattered. A chain-link fence surrounded the site, bristling with barbed wire…stepping over heaps of rubbish, she found herself in a cavernous hall. Metal steps ascended to gantries that crisscrossed in between pillars and snaking pipes, conveyor belts and wheels. It all looked like some complex ride at the state fair, only made of metal and rust, fractured glass and hooks. She imagined the steers and hogs shuddering round, the iron spike of blood, steam from spilling guts. Parts of the gantries had collapsed. In places, the floor yawned into darkness.

A good book should teach you something about the world while delivering a good story. You will certainly get a sense of the perils of Big Ag, the history of how such concentration got started, and the impact it has had on the economy and the people of this area (presumed to be comparable in all farming states) You will learn a bit about the potential and potential dangers of genetic research for crops. And will learn some Ag lingo.

Good writing is good writing whether it is for historical novels set across the pond (well, across for us in the Western Hemisphere. For her, living in Brighton, the pond is right there.) or for a gritty thriller set in America’s heartland. Young has made the transition smoothly, with an engaging procedural-cum-political-thriller, featuring a strong lead, a diverse supporting cast, well-paced action, and plenty of mystery to keep one’s curiosity on high alert, all while offering a bit of information about the world, and highlighting very real issues concerning Big Agriculture. I am looking forward to the further fleshing out of Riley’s story and those of her supporting cast. Seeds have been planted. The soil is fertile.

The shoots are emerging for the Riley Fisher series, and look very promising. A bountiful annual harvest is forecast. Volume #2 will be set in Des Moines. I am betting that when she writes it, readers will come.

The lifeblood of rural America was being drained, leaving husks of cities, where poverty and crime rushed in to fill the void. It was a legacy all too visible in the boarded-up factories and processing plants that loomed like broken tombs around the city, haunted by vagrants and hookers, and cruised nightly by the squad cars of Waterloo PD.

Review posted – January 14, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

I received an ARE of The Fields from Flatiron in return for a review that was not too horribly corny. Well, I tried, ok. Thanks, too to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Erin Young and Robin Young personal,
FB, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Ruffles have Ridges
—–Master Class – Masterclass: What is the Thriller genre?
—–A bit of silliness
—–Reedsy Blog- Chekhov’s Gun: Don’t Shoot Your Story In the Foot
—–Crop Prophet – Corn production by state
Corn Production Rankings: 2020
Rank State Production (M bu)
1 Iowa 2296.2
2 Illinois 2131.2
3 Nebraska 1790.1
4 Minnesota 1441.9
5 Indiana 981.8
6 Kansas 766.5
7 South Dakota 729.0
8 Ohio 564.3
9 Missouri 560.9
10 Wisconsin 516.8
11 Michigan 306.5

Items of Interest from the author
Young has a few items coming up for publication soon, one in CrimeReads on her research trip to Iowa, and another in The Big Thrill Magazine. There is also an interview upcoming on Jeff Rutherford’s Reading and Writing podcast

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Cops, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

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1968 was certainly an interesting time. Laguna Beach was an interesting place, an artist colony and tourist destination of about 13,000 residents, and, these days anyway, about six million visitors a year for a current local population of a bit over 20,000. So, even with a temporal discount it had to have been a lot back then too. T. Jefferson Parker lived there for a stretch. It inspired his first, very successful, novel, Laguna Heat, so he knows the territory into which he places his young hero.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony is a hard-working, pretty decent kid. Holds down a paper route for money, building muscle and character on his Schwinn Heavy-Duti bike. Single mom, Julie, holds down a crappy job at a Jolly Roger restaurant. (Might be better named Davey Jones’ Locker?) His older brother, Kyle, is a short-timer in ‘Nam, terrified that something will happen to him in his remaining weeks. Their father, Bruce, a former cop, has been mostly out of the picture for years, but maintains occasional contact. Mom has issues with substances, which are dramatically available in southern Orange County, and her issues are growing more alarming. Matt’s body is going through some changes, which is always a joyous experience. And then his sister, Jasmine, a recent High School graduate, gorgeous, straight-A student, in-crowd, rebellious toward the usual authorities, goes poof! Stayed out overnight (not alarming in itself) but has remained MIA and the local fuzz are uninterested.

I was fourteen-years old in 1968 so I experienced the strange, beguiling world of Laguna Beach as a very impressionable, wide-eyed, wonder-struck boy. When it came time to create a hero/protagonist for A Thousand Steps, I just aged myself—that fourteen-year old boy—into a sixteen-year old on the cusp of getting his driver’s license, and let him take off in his mother’s hippie van! – from the Mark Gottlieb interview

Bill Furlong personifies that disinterest, a large officer, with an interest in Julie for things other than possession of illegal substances. Brigit Darnell is the good cop, young, a mom, willing to listen to Matt. It may or may not matter. He knows his sister. Does not accept that she had simply run off. And one more piece. Bonnie Stratmeyer, 18, missing two months, posters proclaiming the fact up all around, has just been found at the bottom of the stairs at the Thousand Steps Beach. (Last time Parker actually went up, or down, or both, he counted 224, but the number changes with each attempt. It’s 219 in the book.) Bonnie had not taken the usual route down. Thus Matt’s panic about Jazz.

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T. Jefferson Parker – image from Laguna Beach Independent – photo by Rita Parker

The thousand steps of the title is a notable waterfront location, but it might also be what Matt sets himself to take on, in the absence of official interest. The plot is Matt continuing to search for his missing sister, continuing to turn up clues, continuing to pester the cops to do their job, while trying to cope with chaos at home, and while coming of age, physically, socially, and emotionally. Although it may be less of a journey for Matt than other teens. He is a pretty grounded kid. And then there is the local color. A holding pen of new agers, con-men, regular crooks, a biker gang, drug dealers, drug abusers, and feckless teens. There are enough shady goings on here to blot out the California sun.

Mystic Arts World is a bookstore/head-shop/local institution that offers classes on meditation, among other things. Johnny Grail, the owner, is a bit of a local legend, a slippery sort, well able to keep a step or two ahead of the police, (who are desperate to catch him holding or doing anything illegal) to the delight of area residents. The whole New Age thing was not particularly popular with the constabulary. Go figure. But despite their clear prejudice, they actually may have something. Johnny is about as clean as a public crash pad.

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Mystic Arts World (1967-1970), a head shop in Laguna Beach, was ground zero for psychedelic culture in southern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was there that a loosely organized group of artists interested in alternative culture, mystical experience and the transformation of society, “The Mystic Artists”, congregated and exhibited their art. Their artistic expression ranged from Beat assemblage to figuration to psychedelic art. – image and text from The Brotherhood of Eternal Love site

Local color extends to the presence of Timothy Leary, offering lectures at the MAW, and a Swami who has attracted a bit of a following. He offers increasing levels of instruction to his followers. Some reside at his compound, a former seminary. Matt and his brother used to play there when they were kids and it was unused.

The town hosts an annual tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Matt likes this. He is a budding artist and draws a passel of scenes from his experiences to help police in their frail attempts to look for his sister, and address other crimes. He is particularly fond of the work of Edward Hopper.

Working class life contrasts with the lifestyles of the rich, corrupt, and horny. We get a peek at some excusive locations hosting some very dodgy goings on. Matt fishes less for recreation than for a supply of protein, which mom cannot always provide. They live in a clapboard rental, for which Mom struggles to make rent, Matt sleeping in the garage. But we see great wealth on display as well. There is a part of town called Dodge City, for its casual relationship with the law, general run-down-ness and general hostility toward people toting badges. Get out of Dodge? Sure, ASAP. But up-slope and down-slope have plenty of criminal intent in common.

So what happened to Jazz? Is she still alive? As the days pass the odds seem worse and worse. Is Matt’s mom serious about stopping her drug use? He gathers help where he can, and pedals on, but we wonder if he might be wasting his time. Why does Mom want to move to Dodge City? Will his father ever show up to help? He keeps promising. And even if he does, would he be more hindrance than help? Is the Swami as nice and wise as he seems? Girls are becoming more a part of his life, and maybe even some activities that often accompany such associations. Will Matt’s permanent crush on Laurel ever go anywhere?

I am roughly the same age as Matt, so can relate to being a teen in that era. It never hurts to add that into the reading enjoyment mix. On the other hand, my east coast experience was quite different from his Cali life, including the degree of drug exposure. My older brother was in the army too, but not in Viet Nam. My father was around. My mom’s drugs of choice were Tareytons and tea. But still, we all go through adolescence, so there is the coming-of-age element to relate to. Sounds like Matt skipped the parts where your voice goes to hell, your face resembles a moonscape, and embarrassing body parts pop up for no discernible reason, for all to see. Whatever. It is impossible not to love Matt. There is one gripe I have about him, though. For someone who was so smart and intrepid about tracking down his sister, he is startlingly blind about some items, which I will not spoil here, that were jumping up and down and screaming from the pages. Yeah, he is just an unworldly teen, so could easily miss some things, but he seems pretty sharp about other stuff, so it rankled.

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Matt’s bike – image from TJP’s Twitter cache

Parker has been at this for a while. Steps is his 27th book. His first, Laguna Heat, was an instant success, and was brought to the screen by HBO. His work includes multiple series, and has earned him THREE EDGAR AWARDS! So, no slouch. He started his writing career as a cub reporter. In the Internet Writing Journal interview Parker was asked how his journalism background informed his writing.

The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It’s not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It’s the exposure that’s valuable. When I was 23 I was covering cultural events, movies, books, city hall, school board, fires, police — everything but sports and business. It was a crash course on civics, human nature, bureaucracy. It was also a crash course on how the press and the government and business all interact. Those relationships are at the core of what we are as a republic.

He knew he was not a journalistic long-timer, but being a reporter did hone his skills, and also allowed him a venues in which he could collect plenty of details to include in his fictional writing. His craft has grown as well. Keep an ear out for the soundscape Parker has incorporated. It enriches the reading experience.

I read this one at bedtime, 20-30 pps a night, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending. Every day I was reading this book I was eager, very eager to tuck my lower half under the covers, (also good for hiding the cloven hoofs) crank up the laptop for my notetaking, switch on the lights to make reading my hardcopy ARE possible, and reveled. You all know that feeling when you are truly enjoying a book, and look forward to getting back to it every day. Well, presuming that you do not just scarf down the entire thing in one ginormous gulp. I prefer to spread out that joy. So, a couple weeks, and it delivered every night.

Bottom line is that I totally enjoyed this book. Appreciated the portrait of a time and place well known to the author, loved the lead character, and had fun trying to figure out who had committed (was committing?) which crimes, how, and why. A few of those will quickly succumb to your investigative instincts, but the rest will keep you guessing. Mystery, suspense, thriller, coming-of-age? Use whatever adjective suits or mix and match. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, A Thousand Steps will remain a pretty good read. You will not need any LSD or opiated anything to get off on or get into this book. Go ahead. Be a tourist in Laguna Beach for a bit. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – January 7, 2022

Publication date – January 11, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

I received an ARE of A Thousand Steps from Macmillan’s Reading Insiders Club program in return for a couple of hits of that sweet product. Righteous, man.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Parker’s personal, FB, GR, and Twitter pages

What does the T. stand for?
Not a thing. No, really. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Jeff’s mom always explained it by saying she thought the T. would look good on the President’s door.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

Interviews
—–Mark Gottlieb Talks Books – Three-Time Edgar Award-winner and New York Times Bestselling Author T. Jefferson Parker
—–2007 – Bookpage – Only in California by Jay MacDonald
—–The VJ Books Podcast – T. Jefferson Parker – A Thousand Steps by Roger Nichols
—–2018- Bookbrowse – An interview with T Jefferson Parker
—–The Internet Writing Journal – A Conversation With T. Jefferson Parker by Claire E. White
—–2002 – Orange County Register – THE VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE by Amy Wilson

Songs/Music
—–The Rollingstones – Satisfaction
—–Cream – Tales of Great Ulysses
—–Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
—–Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady – Hendrix performs in front of an audience of the sitting dead in Miami
—–The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

Items of Interest
—–The Brotherhood of Eternal Love – their site
—–Brotherhood of Eternal Love – Laguna Beach – Wet Side Story – a bit of Laguna Beach history
—–All That’s Interesting (ATI) – An interesting article about the BEL in the 1960s
—–Wiki on Timothy Leary
—–Wiki on the Pageant of the Masters, an annual event held in Laguna Beach, featuring tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Here is a nifty video promoting the event today.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

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“Between life and death there is a library,’ [Mrs Elm] said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

Every second of every day we are entering a new universe. And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. But how much examination can one life stand? Nora Seed has reached bottom. Her cat is dead. And her philosophy degree is at least as dead as Schrödinger’s cat. She is 35, and has been working in a music shop in her home town, Bedford, (not Bedford Falls) for almost thirteen years. Nora’s boss tells her “I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend.” She was in a band, with her brother, but bailed when the going got too promising. She was also a primo swimmer as a teen, one of the fastest in the country. The pressure put her off it. She had also backed out of her wedding to Dan…with two days notice.

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Matt Haig – Image from Independent – photo by Kan Lailey

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Haig counts down for us the hail of misery descending on poor Nora, the bad choices, the disappointments, the misfortune. Alienating those closest to you does not leave much of a support network, a needed bolster in a tough time. As with George Bailey, we are also introduced to the positive bits in her life. Expect to see them pop up later. But Nora has decided that she is not much use to anyone, that there is no real future for her. Her self image is that of a black hole, collapsing in on herself.

There was an old musician’s cliché, about how there were no wrong notes on a piano. But her life was a cacophony of nonsense. A piece that could have gone in wonderful directions, but now went nowhere at all.

She decides to continue the process to its logical conclusion, and has a go at that.

[I seem to have been on a tear in 2021, reading books that deal with people considering ending it all before life gets even worse. Should We Stay of Should We Go? by Lionel Shriver, The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time look at older sorts considering the dark deed. Younger folks struggle to cope with the damage in their lives, some of which has been self-inflicted, in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful, and now this one. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I may be getting on but I have had my three COVID shots and am not exactly contemplating a self-propelled early exit. Too many books left to read. Just seems odd, somehow.]

But then she wakes, or something, (apparently, she is not dead yet) has a look around, and finds her way through the mist to a modest-sized building with a clock on it, set to midnight. Mrs Elm, a librarian who’d helped her out as a student, is there to greet her. And the game is on.

For a decade I’ve been wanting to do something about parallel lives. Obviously, this is a well-trodden territory in film and literature, so I thought I didn’t have anything new to bring to the table. It had been done so well, so many times. And it was really just getting the concept of the library. What I liked about the concept of the library is that it managed to be a neat plot device, but it was also the center of what I was trying to do on the philosophical side of it…someone who’d reached this point where they’ve run out of options, everything’s bleak.


Between life and death you get to see all these different branches of how things could have been. So I liked the library because it was literally and metaphorically what I was trying to sort of do with the story as well as it being a little love letter to libraries, because libraries, I suppose, are our portals to other places anyway. – from The Strand interview

The Midnight Library offers immersion of a different sort than the experiences one might expect at a more usual book-lending emporium. Nora can select one element of her life she would change. A book appears applying the specific change and Nora gets to live that life. There is technobabble in here about the multiverse and all possible branches being true in some universe. Fine, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Skim.

Libraries have more than a few books, so Nora gets to make more than a few decisions, live more than a few lives. What if she had stuck with swimming? What if she had stayed with the band? What if she hadn’t bailed on her wedding? What if? What if? What if?

The appeal of the novel is that it makes manifest the thoughts that all of us have had. How would my life have been different if I had done this rather than that, chose to focus on this area of study or skill rather than on another? What if I had asked that girl for a date instead of chickening out? What if I had chosen some other boy than the one I chose? What if I had tried harder to save the relationship instead of calling it quits? What if I had called it quits sooner instead of staying in an unhappy situation? What if I had not made that deal with the dodgy Colombian drug dealer? Wait, what? (Oh, never mind) Go ahead, pick a change, get a book, find out.

Personally, I am pretty Zen about the whole what-if scenario. I am completely convinced that had any of my larger life choices been different, I would have wound up in similar or worse circumstances. Maybe I would not have learned the lessons I learned at place B that I learned at place A. Maybe I would not have grown in certain ways with person C that I did with person D. It is possible, of course, that my life might have been dramatically more successful than it has been, which is not terribly. But could I have handled success, even if it had? I expect the universe is a leveler, in terms of personal choices, anyway. We are who we are and our choices reflect that person. Different choices would reflect that person as well, even if the map of our lives might have been redrawn, presenting different challenges from the ones we have already lived through.

There’s a certain formula to tales of this sort. Character is miserable in his/her life, but gets a chance to see how it could have been different, maybe fulfills all their fantasies, or sees how much worse it might have been, and arrives at the end ok with life as it is, more or less. Maybe with a greater understanding, appreciation for what is. Some offer a single, long view of that alternate possibility like George Bailey’s, in It’s A Wonderful Life or Frank Cross in Scrooged, not to mention the original on which that one was based. Others offer iterations like a programming loop: DO whatever UNTIL some condition is met. EXIT. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors has to relive a single day over and over until he figures out how to be a better person. In Palm Springs, Nyles is caught in a time loop with a similar path to salvation. Speaking of loops, they seem to have been in my reading list this year too. The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke and Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey pop to mind. Maybe the universe wants me to be on the lookout for a time-loop story in which older people consider ending things?

At least Nora gets to have different days, places, and relationships. Of course, it’s tough keeping up when you enter every new sphere not knowing your specific history in it. Where do I work? Is that my kid? I live in this house? Cool. Or not. The stress of trying to figure out who she is in each iteration is both comedic and nerve-wracking. Whenever Nora knows (feels, really) that a particular life is not quite the one for her, she dissipates back to the library for another go.

One life Nora never got to have was being a male. Almost, though. The character of Nora began as a male in draft #1. Haig felt that it was not working, that he was writing too much about himself. He wanted his lead to very much NOT be him. Switching to a female lead took care of that quite nicely. The freedom he felt with the change allowed him to actually insert more of his personal concerns into the character without it really seeming to be him.

One piece that is very much about him is that he gave up piano lessons, even though he was pretty good, at age 13, caving to mindless peers who considered piano lessons so uncool. He imagines an Elton John version of himself in a parallel Universe. In a more serious vein, Haig struggled with depression as a younger man, and knows what it feels like to lose hope.

Nora’s alternate lives are diverse, expressing wishes any of us might have had. There are the grand ones of fame and huge success, but others of a much more modest scope, like owning a pub with your partner, salving ordinary regrets. Some focus on doing good, like studying global warming as a glaciologist. Some of the lives are pretty decent, but are any of them the right one for Nora, the right combination of the same, yet different, keeping the good, while minimizing the awful?

I have only one particular gripe with the book. When Nora finds herself in each of the parallel universes what is supposed to have happened to the Nora that was in that universe before the peripatetic Nora arrived? Did she die? When Nora winks out of each of the lives she leaves, does the Nora who was there before wink back into existence? Is she like the understudy who steps in for a time, to be replaced when the star is all better? I know this is fantasy, and not science fiction, so I should just shut up and get over it, but it bugged me. Thankfully not enough to detract (much) from my enjoyment of the book.

I feel like if you’re putting something out into the universe, why not offer people some sort of nourishment, or hope, or usefulness? Or all the things that are frowned upon in some sort of academic quarters. Why not make people feel good?

The book has been a huge success, selling gazillions and making Haig bags of money. Movie rights are sold. Good for him. In a world impacted way too much by darkness and cynicism, it is a welcome thing to have authors eager to spread some sunshine. Nora Seed is a decent person, not fabulous, mind you, but relatable. And she faces many difficult choices in her many parallel lives, well, really, one choice, many times, stay or go. It is not hard to root for her to find the right mix of ingredients in a life somewhere, that will allow her to escape the increasingly unsatisfactory option of death. If The Midnight Library offers you some impetus to consider the choices you have made in your life, and wonder maybe what alternate experiences might have resulted, so much the better. Or you could simply enjoy it as an engaging, heart-warming tale. And you don’t even have to choose one or the other.

Equidistant. Not aligned to one bank or the other.
That was how she had felt most of her life. Caught in the middle. Struggling, flailing, just trying to survive while not knowing which way to go, which path to commit to without regret.

Review posted – December 10, 2021

Publication date – September 29, 2020

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Strand Book Store – Matt Haig with Kristin Hannah: The Midnight Library– video – 1:02:49 – definitely check this one out
—–Independent – Matt Haig: ‘I ignored a phone call from Meghan Markle’ by Olivia Peter

Songs/Music
—–Cher – If I Could Turn Back Time
—–Jim Croce – If I could Save Time in a Bottle

Books noted in the review, and one not noted
—– The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons – Life has been very disappointing. An elderly Eudora is determined to see herself off, until life intervenes and offers reasons to reconsider
—–How to Stop Time by Matt Haig – if you lived forever might you welcome death?
—–Should We Stay of Should We Go?<!– by Lionel Shriver – a couple, many years ahead, considering whether to check out at age 80
—–
Faithful by Alice Hoffman – Shelby struggled, following a trauma, to re-start her life after shutting it down for several years, which included a suicide attempt
—–The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke – too spoilerish to tell
—–Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey – Thora and Santi experience multiple lives, trying to figure out their relationship and how they can step out of the loop. It also features a prominent public clock.
—–A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – skinflint Ebenezer gets some fresh perspectives on his life – full text with illustrations, from Gutenberg
—–Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr – if there is a bigger homage to libraries and librarians, I do not know what it might be

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews

Cleanup in Room 401! – The Maid by Nita Prose

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The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time.

Today at work, I found a guest very dead in his bed. Mr. Black. The Mr. Black. Other than that, my work day was as normal as ever.

A totally charming lead, Molly the Maid, Molly Gray, is as dedicated a guest-services employee as any hotel could wish for. She is an obsessive cleaner, determined to live up to the hotel’s stated desire to return every room to perfection every day, and particularly after guests have checked out…well…in the usual meaning of the term. Molly has the misfortune of entering a room where a notorious guest, Mr. Black, a hotel regular, and wealthy wife-beater who has been giving his second, trophy wife, Giselle, a miserable time, has checked out in the other meaning of the phrase. Cleanup in Room 401!

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Nita Prose – image from her site

It is upsetting, of course, but so is the fact that his shoes are misaligned on the floor, and the room is in need of much more cleaning than usual. She calls down to the front desk, where she can be counted on to be ignored, then sees something so alarming that she faints straight away. Returned to consciousness, Molly phones down to the lobby again, this time demanding that the hotel manager, Mr. Snow, be notified. People soon arrive.

She has some challenges to overcome, both financial and social. When the police get involved in the hotel killing, her problems only multiply. Thankfully there are some who appreciate her, and are willing to help.

Over the course of the book we learn more and more about both the dodgy folks in and about the Royal Grand Hotel, and about Molly herself. It is clear to readers that Molly is on the spectrum, but has found work that she finds satisfying and well-attuned to her proclivities (neat-freak). It has the added element of honoring her beloved, recently-deceased grandmother, who had raised her, following in Gran’s career footsteps. Molly’s penchant for cleanliness stands out in stark contrast to the rather dirty goings on at the hotel. Her social cluelessness makes it tough for her to understand that there is something decidedly rotten about some people she believes to be good eggs. But, while not entirely morally pristine herself, Molly is a decidedly good egg, who values friendship, honesty, and loyalty. Her total recall makes it possible for some of the events of that terrible day to be played back, in detail. This makes it possible to unscramble the mess, at least some, but will anyone listen?

Nita Prose (pen name for Canadian editor Nita Pronovost) has a lot of fun with The Maid. In addition to an appealing, first-person narrator to lead us through the action, she decorates the scenery with nicely chosen colors, patterns, and motifs. Starting with colors, Molly is, of course, Gray. The hotel manager is Mister Snow. Molly’s unpleasant landlord is Mr Rosso (red). Her corrupt supervisor is Cheryl Green (notorious for poaching tips intended for other maids) . An unspeakable ex is Wilbur Brown. One of her co-workers is called Sunshine. Coloring applies to people, themselves. The deader sports red and purple pinpricks around his eyes. Giselle has green eyes. Molly has alabaster skin.

The palette extends to the surroundings, a black and white background against which some colors can glow. As I place a hand on the shining brass railing and walk up the scarlet steps that lead to the hotel’s majestic portico, I’m Dorothy entering Oz. (The Oz notion is picked up later, beyond the visuals, when Molly thinks of Giselle as bridging two worlds.) The hotel features an obsidian countertop on the front desk, marble floors that glow white, and emerald loveseats in the lobby. Molly’s uniform consists of black trousers and a white blouse. The receptionists, in black and white, look like penguins. A white bathrobe is found on the floor of room 401. Giselle stands out for having a yellow (yolk-colored?) purse. One character wears a wine-colored dress with a black fringe. Molly is sensitive to the colors of her world, and they stand out for her like a blood-red rose against a colorless background.

Prose also offers up invisibility as a theme throughout. Molly is invisible to most of the world due to her difficulty with social interactions, and welcomes this invisibility in her job. My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak.; It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible; [Mr Black]…often did this—bowled me over or treated me like I was invisible; Discretion is my motto. Invisible customer service is my goal. Molly is always intensely grateful whenever someone makes her feel seen or appreciated. Some find Molly’s invisibility enviable. And she is not the only person at the Regency Grand to be afflicted with translucence.

Eggs offer a bit of focus, as Molly thinks of people as good or bad ones. And there is a very different sort of egg that impacts Molly’s life. Someone preparing eggs for someone else is a very clear symbol of affection.

As an editor, Pronovost is always thinking about how a manuscript fits into a specific genre or how a story might bend reader expectations in that genre. For her own novel, she imagined mixing a misfit-character trope – inspired by the titular protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – with a contemporary locked-room mystery inspired by the work of U.K. thriller writer Ruth Ware. Add in a touch of the film Knives Out and the board game Clue, and there is The Maid. – from the Quill & Quire interview

But these are not her only influences. Prose provides some hints to the sort of story we are reading, informing us that Molly enjoys reading Agatha Christie novels. Gran has so many of them, all of which I’ve read more than once. But she adds to that Molly and Gran’s fondness for another mystery entertainment. …we’d eat our meals side by side on the sofa as we watched reruns of Columbo. Expect amateurs to do some sleuthing. No hard-boiled detectives in this one. And you may or may not know who they should be investigating very early in the story.

Universal Pictures picked up the film rights to the book. Academy-Award-nominee Florence Pugh is slated to star as Molly. We all know that options are sold all the time, and most are never actually made. So believe it when you see it.

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Florence Pugh – image from Daily Actor

While reading, I was totally reminded of a TV series, Astrid et Raphaëlle, as it is known in France, and Astrid in its release on Prime in the USA. Sara Mortensen plays an autistic woman drawn into helping the police solve crimes with her unique talents. I kept picturing Mortensen’s Astrid while reading this book. The show is delightful.

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Sara Mortensen as Astrid – image from Amazon

Hopefully, you will not wait until all your rooms are in a pristine state to give The Maid a look. It is a charming, engaging, cozy mystery, with a wonderful lead, a colorful cast of supporting players, and an effervescent sense of style. Ideal for kicking back and just enjoying while you recover from the holidays. But be sure to put a coaster under that drink. Someone is going to have to clean that up.

Is now a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?

Review posted – 11/26/2021

Publication date – 1/4/2022

I received an eARE of The Maid from Ballantine Books in return for making a few beds and doing a little vacuuming. Thanks also to NetGalley for calling this book to my attention in their newsletter, and facilitating the download.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Prose (Pronovost) is a vice president and editorial director with Simon & Schuster’s Canada division.

Items of Interest
—–A wonderful review of a personal-favorite TV show featuring an unusual crime-solving duo – Astrid – I pictured the Astrid of the title as Molly
—–Wiki on Columbo

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

Weighing the Cost of Silence – Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.
The convent was a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river with black, wide-open gates, and a host of tall, shining windows, facing the town.

Bill Furlong is a decent man, risen from a lowly station in life to being a respected pillar-of-the-community sort. Not well off, mind, but a coal and wood supplier who keeps several folks employed, his customers supplied, and his family fed, a George Bailey sort, but from a much less settled foundation. There is never much left over, and always a new cost looming on the horizon. In the course of making his rounds he sees something that presents a powerful moral challenge. The story is Furlong’s struggle to decide, stay silent, or do something.

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Claire Keegan – image from her FB page – shot by Cartier-Bresson

1985 is a grim time in New Ross. Ireland is in the midst of a long recession. Despairing of ever finding work, people are emigrating in droves, to England, to America, to wherever work can be had. Those who remain hold little hope for any near relief. Those with work know that they could be laid off in a heartbeat. Those running businesses know that their continued survival depends on the continued demand of their customers, and the customers’ ability to pay. Those without work drain their savings, survive on the dole, or what charity they can find. Too many, employed or not, drown their fears in drink. Keegan captures the bleak tone of the time.

the dole queues were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn’t pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their coats. Women, on the first Friday of every month, lined up at the post office wall with shopping bags, waiting to collect their children’s allowances. And farther out the country, he’d known cows left bawling to be milked because the man who had their care had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat to Fishguard. Once, a man from St Mullins got a lift into town to pay his bill, saying that they’d had to sell the car as they couldn’t get a wink of sleep knowing what was owing, that the bank was coming down on them. And early one morning, Furlong has seen a young schoolboy eating from a chip bag that had been thrown down on the street the night before

Christmas is coming, and one might wonder if that starving boy was a descendant of Tiny Tim’s. Keegan even summons A Christmas Carol to mind, noting that, as a boy, Furlong had received the book for Christmas.

He had had a difficult start to life, raised by a single mother, his father not known to him. Luckily for them, a well-to-do local woman, Mrs Wilson, took in mother and son, employing mom to work in the house. Things could have been a lot worse. Like many other nations, Ireland was host to a network of Magdalene Laundries. These were institutions run by the Catholic Church, with the complicity of the Irish government. Young women who became pregnant were often cast out of their communities, their families even, and these enterprises took them in. Reports eventually emerged revealing the abuses these girls and young women endured, often being forced to give away their babies, living in degrading conditions, essentially forced laborers in church-state workhouses. Thousands of infants died there, and many of their mothers as well. New Ross was one of the places where a Magdalene laundry was run. It is one of the reasons Keegan chose to set her story there. This is not a tale about these laundries, per se, but one of those constitutes the immediate and very considerable dark force that Bill Furlong is thinking about taking on. While delivering coal to the convent, he sees something he was not supposed to see. To act or not to act, that is the question.

Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?

The language of this novel, the imagery is powerfully effective, celestial even. I felt a need to read a lot of this book out loud. (trying to avoid spoiling it with my terribly fake Irish accent) There is a rhythm, a musicality to the writing that propels its powerful imagery towards the intended targets.

The passage quoted at the top of this review offers a sense not only of a grim time and place, but of the hostile force of the nuns, priests, and the Church, as embodied by the crows. The state, participant in the Magdalene miseries, is given passing notice when a local pol parachutes into town for a Christmas-tree-lighting, if it is possible to parachute in while riding a Mercedes and wearing a rich man’s coat. This is a town that is not being well looked after by the authorities.

When she was 17, she went to New Orleans. “I got an opportunity to go and stay with a family there, and then I wound up going to university. A double major in political science and English literature.”
She remembers well what Ireland was like the year she left.
“I really wanted to get out. It was 1986. Ann Lovett had just died. I felt the darkness that is in Small Things Like These. I felt that atmosphere of unemployment, and being trapped maybe. And things not looking so good for women.
“My parents used to go dancing, and I used go with them, down to the pub. I remember everybody getting really drunk at the bar on a Sunday night.
“I remember looking at all the men at the bar – it was pretty much all men at the bar – and they were getting drunk and saying they couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work in the morning. And then others would say they didn’t have any work in the morning.
– from the Independent interview

When she returned home with her degree, Keegan sent out 300 resumes and did not get a nibble. Erin go Bragh.

The harsh times have not driven from people in New Ross the ability to want things, needed or not. Furlong’s wife, Eileen, wants a proper, going-away vacation, as well as some nice things seen in a shop window. His children have small, mostly manageable desires. The people in town want an end to economic doldrums, some reason to stay around instead of emigrating. The residents of the convent want something more significant. Furlong is in dire need of a new truck to replace the one his business relies on, and which is nearing its last gasp. He also wants to know who his father was.

Of late, he was inclined to imagine another life, elsewhere, and wondered if this was not something in his blood; might his own father not have been one of those who had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat for England.

He is no saint, but workaholic Furlong has that rare capacity to look inside himself critically, consider his life, his actions, in light of his values, even recognize where he might have stepped away from the moral line he believes in following. He had opted to ignore wrongs he had seen before, but for this father of five girls, and son of a single mother, this is a tough one to let pass. However, there are powerful, and insidious forces arrayed against his better angels. He is repeatedly warned, when he mentions his concerns, that crossing the Church could be extremely costly.

The cold of the season will make you shiver and want to add another layer as you read. Some Irish coffee might help as well. Will Furlong cross that bridge and do something or let what he knows sink into nothingness in the dark, frigid waters of the Barrow River below? You will want to know, and will read on until you do.

Keegan is mostly known as a short-story writer. She has won many awards for her work, which is marked by compactness, showing what needs to be shown to tell her tale. Do not dismiss this novel for its brevity. Small Things Like These is huge! You may not need to prepare a manger with fresh hay, but I would definitely make room for this novel in your collection this holiday season. It is an evocative, beautiful, moving novel that deserves to become a Christmas classic.

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?

Review posted – November 12, 2021

Publication date – November 30, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Small Things Like These from Grove Press in return for a fair review, and a few lumps of coal. Thanks, folks, and thanks to Netgalley for facilitating. Bless you, every one.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Keegan’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

On her personal site, there are links to, among other things, two of her short stories, in the Links tab.

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Claire Keegan: ‘Short stories are limited. I’m cornered into writing what I can’ by Sean O’Hagan – 2010
—–New Ross Standard – Claire’s novel examines cult of silence in 1980s New Ross by Simon Bourke – April 2021
—–Claire Keegan: ‘I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be’ by Claire Armistead
—–Independent.ie – Writer Claire Keegan: ‘I think stories go looking for their authors’ by Emily Hourican
—–The Writing Life – Claire Keegan and the art of subtraction by Terence Patrick Winch – video – 28:29 – from 2013 – re her short stories

Items of Interest from the author
—–The New Yorker – Foster – this is an abridged version of her award winning story
—–Hollihoux – a reading of Foster by Evanna Lynch

Items of Interest
—–The Charles Dickens page – A Christmas Carol – the full text
—–BBC – Irish mother and baby homes: Timeline of controversy
—–Wiki about The 2005 Ferns Report on sexual abuse of children by priests in the Diocese of Ferns
—–The actual report
—–Wiki on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
—–Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries
—–George Bailey
—–Ann Lovett

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Oh, Yes! – Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout

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Throughout my marriage to William, I had had the image—and this was true even when Catherine was alive, and more so after she died—so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for the breadcrumbs that could lead us home.
This may sound like it contradicts my saying that the only home I ever had was with William, but in my mind they are both true and oddly do not go against each other. I am not sure why this is true, but it is. I suppose because being with Hansel—even if we were lost in the woods—made me feel safe.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.

My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) had been a very successful novel for Elizabeth Strout. She had even written a followup, Anything is Possible, (2017) a collection of stories, in which Lucy visits her Mid-West relations after a prolonged absence. Laura Linney was starring in a one-woman show of the former. Strout was there for a rehearsal when Laura opined that maybe William, Lucy’s ex, had had an affair. A lightbulb went off for Strout and she realized that William had a story of his own. Thus was born Oh, William!

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Elizabeth Strout – image from Time magazine

She carried forward details about William from the prior books and built outward, or dug deeper, from there. There were some real-world elements of William’s tale. William’s father was a German POW, held in Maine, and his mother, the wife of a farmer who was using POW labor, fell in love with him and left her husband. The POW camp is a real place.

So my husband and I took a field trip. We went up there, we went to all the places that Lucy and William go on their own trip, and I took furious notes on everything I saw. And when we came back I settled down and wrote their story. – RandomHouse Book Club kit

Caveat Lector
You should know before diving in too far that, while I have read Strout’s Olive books, I have not read her prior Lucy Barton books. As Oh, William! is a third in that stack, this is not a trivial shortcoming. There are likely to be connections between this book and the prior two that I missed. But I have read up on those a bit, and acquired some gist. That said, I believe Oh, William! can be read, enjoyed and, hopefully, reviewed as a stand-alone. Just sayin’, cards on the table.

On the other hand, I felt very personally touched and engaged by the novel. I am of a common demographic with William, (we even share TWO names) and re-viewing the events of a lifetime is a natural hazard of this place in our existence. One thinks about the ages, the events, the people, the possibilities, the chances missed, and caught, the attempts that failed or succeeded, the misreads and the insights, the absence of understanding and the wise perceptions, maybe the bullets dodged, the awful relationships that never happened, the good ones that did, maybe the actual bullets that impacted elsewhere. In a way one might see this novel as a look back over William’s life from the point of his final days. A life examined. It could also be seen as the life of a relationship examined, the intersection of two trunks, Lucy and William, meeting, intertwining, then branching out in separate but linked directions.

In any such examination, whether of a life or relationship, it is natural, I believe, to wonder what might have been. Could we have performed better in the roles in which we were cast, or in which we had cast ourselves. To wonder why the director led us to this spot, to stage right instead of left, and always wondering at the playwright, and whether there was ever a script at all. This question of choices is one Strout takes on here. How much freedom of choice is there, actually, how much decision-making? William and Lucy talk about her decision to leave him.

I would like to know—I really would like to—when does a person actually choose anything? You tell me.”
I thought about this.
He continued, “Once every so often—at the very most—I think someone actually chooses something. Otherwise we’re following something—we don’t even know what it is but we follow it, Lucy. So, no. I don’t think you chose to leave.”
After a moment I asked, “Are you saying you don’t believe in free will?”
William put both hands to his head for a moment. “Oh stop with the free will crap,” he said. He kept walking back and forth as he spoke, and he pushed his hand through his white hair. “…I’m talking about choosing things. You know, I knew a guy who worked in the Obama administration, and he was there to help make choices. And he told me that very very few times did they actually have to make a choice. [
This was taken from a conversation Strout actually had with an Obama official, about how the decisions to be made were so obvious that there was little choosing required] And I always found that so interesting. Because it’s true. We just do—we just do, Lucy.”

And how might it be that so much of our lives is so constrained? A lot of that is based on where we began. Marx would call it class, and that is a very powerful force indeed. Strout digs into the specific roots of this for her characters. Lucy had grown up poor and miserable, (I have no memory of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence.) and never felt entirely comfortable, persistently invisible even, (I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me.) in the more middle-class world in which she lived with William, a parasitologist researcher (a nod to her father of the same profession) and teacher, despite her successful authorial career, despite living in a nice neighborhood in Manhattan, despite raising successful children. She is not the only major character haunted by an impoverished childhood. It is made quite clear that this other character had been severely damaged by that experience and that it had driven many life decisions.

The external of the story is William’s discovery at age seventy-one that he has a half-sister he had never known about. William and Lucy had remained on friendly terms, despite their divorce and subsequent remarryings. William’s third wife has left him. Lucy is widowed. He asks her go to Maine with him to look into this never-suspected sibling. Although it seems a bit odd, Lucy agrees to go along. It gives them both opportunities to look back, not just on their own lives, but on the lives of William’s parents. Coming to this revelation so late in life raises an issue. Is it ever really possible to truly know anyone? Lucy had kept much of her early life hidden away. William’s mother, Catherine, a very large presence in their marriage, had done the same. William had kept plenty of secrets during their marriage, including multiple affairs. He covered his true feelings with a friendly façade, and Lucy loathed him for that. But Lucy had kept a part of herself turned away from him as well. Her family’s rejection of her marriage to William left a lasting scar. The externals of their trip reveal some buried truths, but this is a novel about internals, not physical action.

How does one cope with the challenges of dealing with other people, with those to whom we are closest? There is the challenge of knowing who they truly are in the first place. And then there is the challenge of letting our true selves be seen, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to trust others with our most delicate emotional parts. This is almost certainly universal. Who among us does not have at least one secret (and I would bet that most have more) that we keep hidden even from our closest friends, our lovers, our mates, parents, children, priests, shrinks, not to mention the police?

There was an amazing film released in 1973, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. (Recently remade for HBO) It examines ten years of a union doomed to failure. The original was a revelation for me. My gf at the time urged me not to see it, concerned about the impact on my view of whatever-it-was we had. Oh, William! reminded me of that, less as a forensic analysis of a marital corpse, but as a broader view of a lifelong connection, in their marriage, and beyond it, a friendship. It looks at what went into building their marriage, at what kept it from being more than it was, and at the impact of William’s mother on their lives. Even after they split up, Lucy often says He is the only home I ever had.

One of the many triumphs of Oh, William! is how Strout offers up many small bits, pointing out the things about their interactions with each other that drove them crazy, that show without telling.

He stared at me, and then I realized he wasn’t really seeing me.
“Did you sleep?” I asked him, and he broke into a smile then, his mustache moving, and he said, “I did. How crazy is that? I slept like a baby.”
He did not ask about my sleep and I did not tell him.

The past is our inevitable root. We are not ents, that can simply follow our needs and drag ourselves away from where we sprouted. That past is inescapable, even if we can change our external circumstances, move up in the world, move away from the painful parts that formed us. But we live in the present, and the past often appears to the here-and-now in the form of ghosts, of one sort or another. When William and Lucy visit Fort Fairfield in Maine, it is truly a ghost town, barely even a town any more. Images they see in the local library conjure a long dead era. In a way their marriage, if not their friendship, is a spectral presence, long dead, although still hovering in the room.

I usually try to come up with something that did not sit well in a book, gripes of one sort or another, elements that might have been better. This time, really, I got nuthin’.

There is so much in this novel that is beautifully portrayed, insightful, wise, and moving. A penetrating portrait of two people and their half-century of connection, warts and all. Oh, William! is a masterwork by one of our greatest fiction writers, at the peak of her creative power. Oh, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again.

There have been a few times—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave that house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)—to have this come back to me presented a domain of dull and terrifying dreariness to me: There was no escape.
When I was young there was no escape, is what I am saying.

Review posted – November 5, 2021

Publication date – October 19, 2021

I received an ARE of Oh, William! from Random House in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Elizabeth Strout: ‘I’ve thought about death every day since I was 10’ by Kate Kellaway
—–Time – Elizabeth Strout Knows We Can’t Escape the Past by Annabel Gutterman
—–Entertainment Weekly – Howe a literary conscious uncoupling and Laura Linney helped Elizabeth Strout write Oh, William! – by Seija Rankin
—–Bookpage – Elizabeth Strout: The heart and soul of an emotional spy by Alice Cary – for Anything is Possible
—–WBUR – Author Elizabeth Strout explores marriage, memory and class in ‘Oh William!’ – audio – 9:26

My reviews of other books by the author
—–2019 – Olive, Again
—–2008 – Olive Kitteridge

Items of Interest from the author
—–WBUR – excerpt
—–Random House – Book Club Kit
—–Literary Hub – excerpt

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

Beacon Hell – The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

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He’s tall and rakish, with greasy black hair to his jaw, a tattoo of a panther on his neck, a missing front tooth. A grin.
“You’re Luna Stay?”
She frowns, confused by the shift to a smile. “Yes?”
He steps forward and eyes her coldly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

2021 – Ok, so maybe not exactly a welcoming committee, with a sparkly, multi-colored sign at the local watering hole, all the residents in attendance, celebrating her return. But I guess it’ll have to do. It wasn’t Luna’s first time on the island of Lòn Haven. She had been there for a spell as a child, and, while her experience was memorable, it was relatively brief, and her exit had been fraught. Now, thirty years old, pregnant for the first time, she is not exactly eager to stick around. But she is there on a mission.

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C.J. (Carolyn Jess) Cooke – image from The University of Glasgow

1998 – Olivia Stay has just left her home in northern England, dragged her three daughters, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover, with her, and headed north on an hours-long drive to a remote island off the east coast of Scotland. She is an artist, with a commission to paint a mural on the inside of a 149-foot-tall lighthouse, which is in less-than-stellar condition. Her mysterious employer has left drawings for her of what he wants. She and the girls will be staying on the lighthouse property, in a small house, called a bothy. The lighthouse has an intriguing name.

“You’re staying at the Longing?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Quite a history, that place.”
“I can see that,” I said, flicking through the leaflet, my eyes falling on an artist’s rendition of people being burned at the stake.
“Why’s it called the Longing?” Luna asked him.
“It’s named for the people who lost loved ones,” he said. “Sometimes they’d visit the site where the Longing was built and . . . pay their respects.”

…or something. The lost loved ones tended to be women murdered by the locals, accused of witchcraft and burned alive. The Longing was built directly over the place where the women had been kept and tortured, a broch, which is a circular castle-like structure, as much as two thousand years old. While there have been five major national bouts of witch-burnings in Scotland, the only witches likely to have been about were of the herbalist, rather than spell-casting sort. The ones with the matches provided the very human-sourced evil involved. The historical burning time of note here was 1662.

Olivia (Liv) is our first-person narrator for much of the book. Other chapters offer third-person POVs from Luna and Saffy. A second first-person account is historical. That one provides interceding chapters made up of passages from a book, left in the bothy, referred to as a grimoire. But it serves less as a source for studying the dark arts than it does as a memoir. Written by someone named Roberts, presumably an ancestor of Liv’s employer, it serves mostly as a fourth perspective, offering first-person exposition of historical events the book’s author lived through, events that inform the present.

We follow Liv as she is introduced to the island, and the local oddballs. (and wonder why she suddenly dropped everything and dragged her kids north several weeks ahead of the appointed time) But when she sees a small, almost feral-seeming white-haired child on the property, and the police do not seem to take her seriously, things get more interesting. Local lore has it that condemned witches, in league with the fae realm, created wildlings, copies of island children, who would appear out of nowhere, intent on wiping out family lines. Locals hold that any such beings must be killed ASAP. Then two of her daughters, Saffy and Clover, disappear.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse – the English lighthouse that provided inspiration for the Longing – image from Photographers Resource UK

In 2021, after twenty-two years of searching for her lost family, Luna is contacted. Her sister, Clover, has been found. But instead of being twenty-nine years old, Clover is still only seven. Is this child even her sister? Or could she be one of the wildlings Luna had heard about when she was a child on Lòn Haven? Her behavior certainly gives one cause for concern.

The story braids the four narratives, alternating Liv, Luna, Saffy, and the grimoire’s Mr Roberts, reporting of their experiences, and the times in which they are in the spotlight, offering nice chapter-ending cliff-hangers to sustain our interest from one strand to the next.

In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Cooke (who is married, with four children) was asked about her inspiration for the book.

I think it came from a range of places – I was thinking a lot (and still am) about how different it is to parent a teenager than it is to parent a baby, and yet the speed with which a baby seems to become a teenager feels like whiplash. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old Sapphire in the book emerged from that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019, I learned about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in women’s lives, and this slice of history is very much concerned with what happened to women – and it also bears a huge relevance to the current moment. Gradually that thinking took shape. Lastly, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the various ideas I had – I came across 14th century spell books, which blew my mind. As I dug deeper into the history of magic and how it impacted women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.

The fraught relationship between 15yo Saffy and Liv will feel familiar, in tone, if not necessarily in the specific content of Saffy and Liv’s interaction. Cooke relied on her own teenage daughter for much of Saffy’s voice. Add to that the fact that Liv is a single mother, struggling to get by. Many of Liv’s struggles with parenting resonated, guilt versus responsibility versus coping with external limitations. Cooke offers, through the grimoire, a first-person look at the 1661/1662 witch-trial hysteria, providing a persuasive take on its causation, at least in this instance. The spell books notion gave Cooke the tool she needed for exploring the past.

I wanted everything for my children. But every single day I had to confront the glaring reality that I simply wasn’t able to provide the kind of life they deserved. And it crushed me.

There is a hint of prior, off-screen abuse in Liv’s background. This is likely a manifestation of Cooke’s experiences growing up in an abusive household in a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. The up-front abuse here is in how power is used to protect those who have it from being held responsible for their actions, at the expense of the powerless, both past and present. And in how murderous impulses, combined with ignorance, under the mantle of religion, and official sanction, present a peril to any who do not conform, in any age.

There are elements of informational payload that help support the story. You will pick up a few bits of Scottish terminology, and even a bit of spice on magical symbology and local fairy lore. Cooke has some fun with triangles of various sorts. We get a you-are-there look at an actual historical time of madness. Cooke, in the interview from The Inside Flap, talks about how surprised she was when she moved to Scotland to find that there had been witch trials there, and that there were no memorials at all for the hundreds of people (not all were women) who had been killed.

There were parts of the book that gave me pause. I had trouble, for example, with the police releasing seven-year-old Clover to Luna, given that there was no way the two were the sisters they supposedly were in any normal time line. There seemed some contradiction in the overall take. Where does magic leave off and other factors enter into things? Could an evil-doer, for example, be stricken with an awful affliction at the hands of a spell-caster? And if so, then a scientific-ish explanation for later events seems undercut. What if that scientific-ish situation was created by magic? And round and round we go.

While not exactly a hair-raising read for me, (few are) I did find some scenes in the book pretty scary, less, maybe for the magical terror involved, but for the willingness of people to do terrible things in the name of insane beliefs, a terror we live with every day, and the fear any parent might feel when their child is in danger.

We can feel for Liv even as we might wonder at her judgment. She is clearly stressed beyond reason. And we can feel for Luna trying to solve this intricate puzzle, while taking on parental responsibility for her now-much-younger sib. The mysteries of the book will keep you turning the pages. In this fictional realm, are witches real? And if they are, did they really curse the island? And if they did, were fairy-generated wildlings a part of the plan? And if they were, was there an intent to end family lines? And what’s the deal with Clover showing up twenty-two years after vanishing?

One of life’s great joys is to begin reading a book expecting to be directed from Point A to Point Z with the familiar stops along the way, and then finding oneself in an entirely other alphabet. The Lighthouse Witches has the magic needed to make that trip possible. It is an enchanting read.

She turns her head from side to side, taking in the velvet expanse of the ocean on her left and the rocks and beach on her right. Ahead, surf furls into the bay. Something there catches her eye, and she wonders if it’s the basking shark, Basil, with his weird two fins. Something bobbing in the water. Seals, probably. Except it’s the wrong color. It’s pale.
She squints at the object. It’s about thirty feet away, moving on the waves. A cloud shifts from the moon and for a moment the light finds the object. It’s a face. A human face, its mouth open in a howl, someone in the water.

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

I received an eARC of The Lighthouse Witches from Berkley in return for casting one or two minor spells. Thanks to EK, and NetGalley for facilitating.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

From About the Author in the book
C. J. Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in twenty-three languages. She teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she also researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative-writing interventions for mental health. Her previous novel is The Nesting.

She has been writing stories since she was seven years old.

Interviews
—– The Inside Flap Ep. 140 The Witching Hour Is Upon Us with C.J. Cooke – podcast = 1:30:00 – from about 30:00
—– The Nerd Daily – Q&A: C.J. Cooke, Author of ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ by Elise Dumpleton
—–Slider –
Episode 2 – Interview with author CJ Cooke – audio – 25:23

Wiki-ons and Other Items of Interest
—–bothy
—–Borromean Ring
—–broch
—–The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662
—–
grimoire
—–On Scottish faeries
—–St Mary’s Lighthouse
—–Cambridge University Press – The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662 – a miuch more detailed look at this abomination – by Brian P. Levack

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, Scotland, Thriller

One Horse Town – Horseman by Christina Henry

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Once, a long time ago, I’d stepped off the track close to the deep part of the forest. I remembered Sander going mad with anxiety, calling for me to come back, but I only wanted to know why nobody in the Hollow went any farther than that point. I hadn’t seen any witches, or goblins, or the Horseman. But I had heard someone, someone whispering my name, and I’d felt a touch on my shoulder, something cold as the wind that came in autumn. I’d wanted to run then, to sprint terrified back to the farm, but Sander was watching, so I’d quietly turned and stepped back on the track and the cold touch moved away from me.

Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (there is a link to the full text of that in EXTRA STUFF) has been read by Americans since it was first published in 1819. What we remember most about it is the image of The Headless Horseman. There is some question about who this very un-pedestrian equestrian might be, a late Hessian, perhaps, whose cranium had had a close encounter with a cannonball, who was eager for revenge, and searched relentlessly for his lost noggin. Or maybe a canny wooer (one Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt) of a local lass looking to frighten the superstitious competition out of town with a bit of over-the-top theatrical horseplay. The story about the horseman had predated Brom and Ichabod vying for the hand (and property) of Katrina Van Tassel, so, was it a real ghost story or just a hugely successful prank?

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Christina Henry – image from her Goodreads page

In Christina Henry’s Horseman we are brought back to Irving’s one-horse town, Sleepy Hollow, two generations on. Brom and Katrina are grandparents now, managing their land, doing nicely with their farm. Brom remains a big man, both literally and figuratively, a powerful figure in local affairs, as well as someone still able to take on conflict kinetically when needed. Ben, our first-person narrator, Brom and Katrina’s fourteen-year-old grandchild, admires Brom completely, would like nothing more than to grow up to be as much like him as humanly possible.

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The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane by John Quidor, l858 – image from The Smithsonian American Art museum

Ben and a friend are playing in the woods one day when they hear a group of riders pass, Brom in the lead. Ben is desperate to see what’s up, even though the group is headed to a part of the woods that is considered way too spooky to venture into, with good reason.

Just beyond the circle of men was a boy—or rather, what was left of a boy. He lay on his side, like a rag doll that’s been tossed in a corner by a careless child, one leg half-folded. A deep sadness welled up in me at the sight of him lying there, forgotten rubbish instead of a boy.
Something about this sight sent a shadow flitting through the back of my mind, the ghost of a thought, almost a memory. Then it disappeared before I could catch it… Both the head and hands seemed to have been removed inexpertly. There were ragged bits of flesh and muscle at the wrist, and I saw a protruding bit of broken spine dangling where Cristoffel’s head used to be.

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Image from ClassicBecky’s Brain Food

And the game is on. Had this bully of a teen been cut down by a violent spectre or was there a more flesh-laden killer on the loose? There is a second mystery, as well. What’s the deal with the “ghost of a thought, almost a memory” that Ben experiences while witness to the carnage? But wait, there’s more. There were mysteries left over from Washington Irving’s original story, such as was it a ghostly headless Hessian who had driven Ichabod Crane out of town, and what had actually happened to Crane after he fell off his horse and vanished?

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Image from Deviant Art – from Kanaru92

Irving makes a point of the superstitious bent of the locals in the Hollow.

…the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs, are subject to trances and visions, and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. – from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A belief in the supernatural, justified or not, prompts the locals to believe the worst (including the W-word) about any they find outside the norm, as defined by their constricted minds. They see dark forces and conspiracies where none exist, well, probably. And seek to blame someone, usually someone perceived as different. I know that reminds me of mindless seekers after blame and conspiracy who roam the planet today, but maybe that’s just me. Feeding the blame-and-conspiracy machine, there is a gender identification seam that permeates as one of the characters contends with being seen one way, while feeling internally entirely other. Other is not an entirely ok thing to be in early nineteenth century small-town America.

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Image from Classic Becky Brain Food – by Jurei-Chan

Family has a lot to do with who we are, who we become, what we might be capable of, for good or ill. Ben’s love for Brom is manifest and a serious source of strength. Ben’s relationship with Katrina is more conflictual, yet with strong underpinnings. But what about other family? There is connection and help to be had in the household, with one of the staff providing a solid core of support. And what about community? Sander is clearly a bff, although not necessarily the best able to offer support in all circumstances. Ben does not seem to have much beyond that. Thus the need for Brom’s strength. Thankfully, Ben has internalized that, so has at least a chance to engage in battle without being entirely over-matched.

We trot along by Ben’s side as dangers present, whether it is obvious or not that they are perilous. Ben does get tingles about certain people, internal red flags of distrust. Are they valid or paranoid?

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Image from Deviant Art – by Ochreface

The book is not marketed as YA, but it felt like a YA title to me. Henry has written several books that take a new look at classic children’s stories, tending toward a younger readership. Most serious violence remains off screen, although we do get to see its aftermath. Profanity is absent. There is a piece in here about people, not all people, but some people, being susceptible to manipulation by an outside force encouraging the dark piece that resides deep within to come to the surface, to take over, even if only for a time. I had a problem with this, as it exempts some from having that bit. Certainly, some people are better than others, more ethical, more moral, kinder, smarter, more empathic, more honest, more responsible, but even the best of us harbors at least a sliver of darkness. This sort of not-quite black-and-white, but maybe charcoal-gray-and-white view of human potential for unpleasantness added to the YA feel. That said, there are a couple of tough physical battles and issues of sexual attraction and predation are raised, which gives it a bit more bite.

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Image from Art Abyss – by Gabriel Williams

In literature, The Woods is generally a symbol of the challenges facing young people on the cusp of adulthood. Ben’s adventures fit quite nicely into that, passing through the fires of challenge to reach maturity in a very different and interesting way. Ben, gifted with considerable horse sense, meets those trials head on. I found Ben’s playtime activities, though, a bit off for a child of fourteen, ten maybe. Perhaps Henry was looking to make the distance Ben travels from this to that seem longer than it really was.

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Image from Disney

But fret not. Though I am well past the YA demo I found this an engaging, fun, creative take on an old favorite. Ben is an appealing lead, struggling with the choices life presents, a dark horse to root for. There are adventures aplenty, head-scratcher mysteries to be solved, clues to be followed, warmth and family love to be appreciated, and a new, quite surprising interpretation of an old mystery. Is it scary? A bit. I am particularly immune to getting the creeps from books, and have a simple metric. Does anything in the book make the hair on my arms stand at attention? For what it’s worth, my pelt remained at ease. But it is clear that there is plenty of creepy material to be had in Horseman, and it is likely that many readers will get more of a frisson from those than might an old oater like me.

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Image from Sleepy Hollow wiki – from the film Headless Horseman

Horseman is a perfect read for the Halloween season. But you might not want to head off to a favorite outdoor reading spot if it is more than just a little way into the woods.

The dark silhouette seemed to unfold—no, unfurl, sinuous and soft—and I thought how can an animal stand like a man?
My breath seized inside my lungs because just for an instant I thought I saw eyes looking back at me, eyes that could not be there because no human was there, no human could possibly have eyes like that—eyes that glowed, eyes that pulled, eyes that seemed to be tugging on my soul, drawing it out through my mouth.

Review posted – October 1, 2021

Publication date – September 28, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Horseman from Berkley, via NetGalley in return for not losing my head writing a review.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Head on over and say Hi!

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest from the author
—–from her site – excerpt
—–from her site – Seven Short Stories

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–Wiki on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
—–History.com – What Inspired ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? by Lesley Kennedy
—–Classic Becky’s Brain Food – Legends of the Headless Horseman – Sleepy Hollow’s topless performer was far from the first
—–One cannot possibly read the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Horseman without recalling one of the greatest tabloid headlines of all time, of April 15, 1983, from the always-classy New York Post

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Songs/Music
—–Argent – Hold Your Head Up
—–Paul Anka – Put Your Head on My Shoulder
—–The Rollingstones – Wild Horses

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, YA and kids

Sweet and Sour – Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa

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It didn’t come easily to me. I had to work at it. But if I learned one thing from Mom, it’s that it was usually worth it being the sweet girl.

“When you die, can I have your skin?” she asked calmly, tracing a finger over my face, before getting up and walking out of the room, leaving me so afraid that I couldn’t move.

Paloma Evans is 30 years old, living in San Francisco. She had been adopted at age 12 out of a Sri Lankan orphanage, the Little Miracles Girls Home. Recently cut off from her parental funds, she engages in dodgy on-line behavior to make a buck, (One of her creepy clients appears to be stalking her) and had to take in a room-mate to help with the insane San Francisco rental costs. But the roomie, an Indian immigrant, learned her big secret, and is blackmailing her, which is bad enough. Arriving home after a few too many, she finds him dead in her kitchen. It gets worse. Chased out of her own apartment by the presumed killer, a seemingly spectral figure, she heads for the stairwell. But fingers close on her neck before she can escape. She wakes up hours later, in the stairway, a scolding neighbor barking at her, presuming she had passed out, drunk…again.

description
Amanda Jayatissa – image from Artra Magazine

Before she can figure out how to deal, the cops arrive. She tells them what she had seen, but when they look through the apartment, the body is gone. The detective does not believe her, and his skepticism is understandable. Paloma is a blackout drunk, unable to recall events that took place, actions she undertook during her blacked-out hours. She really has no idea what happened to the guy, but does remember that she had fled her apartment, looking around after discovering the body, and was chased out of the place by a ghost from her past.

Paloma may be an adult, but, despite years of therapy, she has carried from childhood a powerful belief in an old-country ghostly being called Mohini, (think the freaky girl who emerges from The Ring in desperate need of a makeover, dressed in white). Seeing that terrifying presence in her apartment just after discovering her roommate’s body reinforces her belief. Losing hours after fleeing her apartment does not help. So what’s going on?

Mohini is my favorite ghost story. She is one of the most famous urban legends here in Sri Lanka, a stereotypical woman in white…It’s a story that is very special to me. It’s a story we grew up whispering to each other around the candle in the night. I have actually dressed up as Mohini…to scare my cousins…It was hilarious. I knew that I needed to include this ghost story element into the book…It was the story that defined a lot of the scary stories of my childhood. – from the Books and Boba interview

The tale takes place in two timelines, alternating chapters, today, presumably 2018, give or take, as Covid is not yet a thing, and 2000, also give or take, when Paloma was a 12yo orphan in Sri Lanka. We follow her story there, her friendships, her interests, her hopes. The home is not a bad place, those in charge are a relatively benign pair, but on occasion the girls are given a class with the terrible, the horrible, the most feared Sister Cynthia, a sadistic witch of a person, who delights in physically harming the girls and threatening them with eternal damnation. (zero stars in RateMyTeachers) She is, unfortunately, in charge of Saint Margaret’s Home for Girls, the place where those who are not adopted will be sent after they age out of Miracles, a terrifying prospect. The Evanses are a wealthy American couple, supporters of the orphanage, and many other charities. They are looking to buy adopt a child. The girls at the orphanage are all prepped for when potential adopting parents stop by for a look-see, orphanage management trying its best to make a good impression, get one of their girls adopted, and hopefully gain some extra financial support and good press from the adopters.

Paloma and Lihini are besties at Miracles. Physically similar, fair-skinned, similar in height, build and overall looks. They sleep together often, in the comforting child-like sense, not that other one. We see how their relationship evolves with each chapter back in Sri Lanka. As only one child will be selected, there is understandable tension between them.

Today, give or take, Paloma is frantic. She goes to stay at her parents’ suburban house, as they are away, and remaining at the scene of the crime seems unwise. Was she hallucinating? This is not entirely impossible as she had been warned by her therapist that drinking on top of her new meds could do really bad things to her. But did we mention that Paloma is a blackout drunk? Paloma goes all Miss Marple trying to figure out what happened to her roomie, and why. Then the mysteries start to breed. A neighbor of her parents vanishes mysteriously, and who is that strange woman who seems to be spying on her?

The story is plenty fun enough on its own merits. But there is more going on here. Racial elements permeate. Lihini and Paloma stand out a bit from the rest of the girls because of their relatively fair skin, seen as an advantage for those hoping to be taken in by a westerner. There is a wonderful scene in a restaurant bathroom in which Paloma is mistaken for another Asian women by a somewhat inebriated white woman, an experience Jayatissa has had, and which many people she knows have had. It is not the only moment in the book in which someone is unable to tell two people of color apart. Toss in discussions with other POCs about stereotypes applied to South Asians. Her shrink, Nina, whom she likes, is raucously white, dressing in white, her office decorated all in white, and it is shocking when Paloma sees her wearing anything with color.

She kept all her pristine white files inside a pristine white filing cabinet, in a corner of her pristine white office. When I say pristine, I mean surgical-level clean. When I say white, I mean eyeball-searing, detergent-commercial white. She even asked her clients to take their shoes off so they wouldn’t mess up the spotless shag carpet. And it always smelled like freshly laundered sheets. She probably had an air freshener tucked behind the couch or something, because there was never any laundry in sight.

Gender and madness permeates. The book opens with Paloma about to lose it, dealing with a bank employee who is not quite up to speed with the institution’s processes.

I was suffering from the worst case of writers’ block, and to say my mood was bleak would be an understatement. And then I had a really annoying experience with a customer service associate at my bank, where I found myself wanting to scream and shout and make a scene, but of course I didn’t. I kept it together, like most of us are trained to do, went into a coffee shop, where I pulled out a notebook and a piece of paper and really let that customer service associate have it. I guess you could say that’s how Paloma came about. – from The Big Thrill interview

Difficult women are often presumed to be nuts, and many have learned to couch their displeasure under a polite veneer. Paloma does that in the book. In fact, while one might think of her as foul-mouthed, the profanity in her internal monologue remains unspoken. This is not to say that Paloma is not abrasive and does not need considerable therapy. She certainly is and she certainly does. Orphanage girls must cope with potential. sexual predation, always knowing that they will be called liars or delusional if they report abuse. And there is the trauma of losing children that can drive women mad with grief. Also the danger of internalizing it when people keep telling her she is losing her mind.

Several classic novels are mentioned, among them Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, and, most significantly, Wuthering Heights, all present in the orphanage library, the last being Paloma’s favorite. (Mrs. Evans was going to be my Catherine. She was going to save me.). Unsurprisingly, most have to do with orphans. (Wish she had found a way to fit in a reference to The Pirates of Penzance, as well) Thematically, there are concerns from those books that are reflected here. Sister Cynthia certainly represents a Dickensian nightmare of orphanage management. The girls in these are hassled in other ways by people at an orphanage or a placement. There are other elements of contemporary orphanage life that echo the perils of being parentless in the 19th century, including the timeless emotional pain of losing, or being left by, biological parents.

At first glance, My Sweet Girl offers us an unreliable narrator in the mold of The Girl on the Train’s Rachel Watson, another troubled soul with a drinking problem. Both generally fall into The Madman sort in the classification system to be found here. But Jayatissa takes the unreliable narrator a step further, so that there are times when you are not even certain who the narrator is, let alone the veracity of her reporting.

Unrelated Random thoughts
There is an Agatha Christie, Poirot-ish feel to the story when the facts are laid out near the end.

The preparation the school does with the orphans for the visit by the Evanses reminded me of young women in Austen novels gussying up for the arrival of potential suitors, or going to a meat-market ball.

In addition to the rage at the clerk scene that opens the book, there are other elements taken from the author’s life, some noted above. She named a character for her younger brother, Gavin.

GRIPES
We never get enough of a feel for Paloma’s actual life with the Evanses. She seems not particularly fond of them at age 30. How did that come to be? This could have used more. I had issues with how the POV was handled. It was a bit like one of those time travel stories in which it becomes impossible to keep track of who is where and when. The guilt Paloma experiences is way out of line with what she had actually done. That was a stretch for me.

SUMMARY
Nevertheless, My Sweet Girl is a fun, fast-paced thriller that will encourage you not to drink to excess and be more discriminating in selecting possible roommates. It may offer ideas for how to monetize some used clothing, and offer a perspective on how people perceive people who do not look like they do. It will maybe give you a few chills, and make your head spin like Reagan MacNeil (without the pea soup), with the twistiness of the finale. And you might be forgiven, if, when you get to the end, you feel an urge to hold up your bowl and say, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

…things that don’t feel real during the day have a way of sliding into bed with you at night.

Review posted – September 10, 2021

Publication date – September 14, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

I received an e-ARC of this book from Elisha Katz of Berkley Books in return for an honest review. But then, I may have that wrong. I had imbibed a bit more than usual the day the offer came in, and I was quite distracted by finding that unexpected body in the basement, so…maybe it was her. I am beginning to wonder. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Jayatissa was brought up in Sri Lanka, graduated from Mills College in California, moved to the UK, and now lives in Sri Lanka. She is a corporate trainer and an entrepreneur, with a chain of cookie stores. My Sweet Girl is her second novel. Her first was The Other One, released under the name Amanda Jay.

Interviews
—–Books & Boba – on Player FM – audio – #150 – Author Chat with Amanda Jayatissa by Reera Yoo and Marvin Yueh – audio – 51 minutes
The interviewers claim to have read the book but misidentify where half the book takes place. They also keep saying that it is a debut novel. It is not. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good information in here. Roll your eyes and give a listen.
—–The Big Thrill – When Nightmares Follow You Halfway Around the World by Neil Nyren
—–News line – Award winning author Amanda Jayatissa speaks of her experiences – video – 28:50 – this is from 2018 re her first novel, The Other One, with too much focus on her experience winning an award, but there is other intel in here that makes it worthwhile

Items of Interest from the author
—–Excerpt – From Penguin Random House
—–The Nerd Daily – another excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Amaya resorts and spas – Sri Lankan Folklore:Mohini
—–Gutenberg – Wuthering Heights full text
—–Gutenberg – Anne of Green Gables full text
—–Gutenberg – Oliver Twist full text

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