Tag Archives: Fiction

The Slasher Story Goes Meta – My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

book cover

“You sure you should be working around kids?” Jade asks. “Or even around, you know, living people?”
“Tried the morgue in Boise,” he says. “There was . . . an incident. Ask your dad about it sometime, he was there.”
Jade waits for him to guffaw or chuckle, because this has to be a joke, doesn’t it?

“Can’t I just like horror because it’s great? Does there have to be some big explanation?”

Before you sit down to read Stephen Graham Jones’s most recent novel (well, this week, anyway. The man produces King-ian, Asimov-ian volumes of work), My Heart is a Chainsaw, you might want to prepare a large bowl of popcorn, not that microwave crap, actual popcorn, kernels from a jar or bag into a pot with pre-heated oil, and a lid ready to pop over the top, to keep your kitchen floor from getting covered with flying bits. If you’re like me, there will be a second burner dedicated to melting a slab of butter. Once the popping stops, pour some or all of this heavenly treat into a large bowl. (Well it does not have to be too large as you are probably reading alone.) then drip the melted butter across the top, mix it up a bit. Open up a shaker of popcorn salt and apply. This calls for an oversize cold-drink for help in washing it down. It really should be a Friday or Saturday night. And why go to all this trouble for a book? Because Stephen Graham Jones is taking you to the movies.

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Cutting edge author, Stephen Graham Jones, on his way to work – image from 5280 Magazine – Photo by Aaron Colussi

You may or may not have been around in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, or some of the other decades noted here, but videos of the films made back then have been available for a long time and formed a major part of Jones’s cinematic education as a young person. His life was considerably enriched from seeing a lot of horror movies, slasher films in particular. He loves them.

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Adrienne King as Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th – image from movieactors.com

In this book, SGJ offers up an introductory class on the genre, or sub-genre. (Can’t say how closely it might mimic the course he taught on the subject in his day gig as a college professor. But I would love to see the syllabus for that.) in the form of chapters titled Slasher 101. These remind us, for example, that the slasher is always driven by revenge. His rage is not mindless. That there is usually a significant gap between the commission of the crime that is being avenged and the execution of that mission. That there is always a “final girl,” the purest of heart, who ultimately (usually) either escapes or bests the baddie, for the moment, anyway. In his 2015 novel, Aquarium, David Vann does something similar, calling attention to the structural girders being put in place as he places them, in his case for the literary novel form. Reads like these are always extra fun.

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Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers – in Scream – image from Den of Geek

As Jones walks us through the stages in a slasher film, he echoes the tropes in the novel through his lead, Jade Daniels, a damaged seventeen-year-old Native girl who has seen and caused a huge amount of trouble. She seems to be in conflict with the world more or less constantly, but she is not a bad kid. She does janitorial work for the county. She is smart, resourceful, and a huge fan of horror, particularly slasher films, toting with her Jones’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. She is maybe a bit too obsessed with this stuff. I mean, if your only tool is a hammer, every challenge begins to look like a nail. But what if you have, by pure chance, made yourself the perfect tool for this very prominent, thin piece of metal sticking straight up out of your town. A bloated tourist body floats to the top of the lake and blood starts flowing like the elevator at the Overlook. Jade knows, or at least thinks she knows, what’s coming.

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JLC at Laurie Strode in Halloween – you don’t get to choose your family – image from Den of Geek

She writes reports (the twelve Slasher 101 chapters) for a favorite teacher, one Mister Holmes (Grady, (which reminded me of Delbert Grady of The Shining fame) not Sherlock), each one explaining one or more of the tropes of horror films. Each trope is summoned into being in the real world, of course, making this very meta.

Metafiction is a form of fiction which emphasises its own constructedness in a way that continually reminds the audience to be aware they are reading or viewing a fictional work. – definition from Wiki

Jade lives in Proofrock, Idaho, proud possessor of several of the elements native to slasher flicks. Teenagers, of course. A lake (Indian Lake) with its own historical spook, Stacey Graves, bent on avenging wrongs done to her family,

Stacey Stacey Stacey Graves
Born to put you in your grave
You see her in the dark of night
And once you do you’re lost from sight
Look for water, look for blood
Look for footprints in the mud
You never see her walk on grass
Don’t slow down, she’ll get your–

a camp on the lake with its own sanguinary history, and LOL name, Camp Blood, as least that’s what everyone in town calls it. Fifty years ago it earned that designation with extreme prejudice.

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Robert Englund as Freddie Krueger – from Nightmare 3 – What a Rush! – image from Screen Rant

There is not a lot going on in Proofrock, (which MUST BE a reference to T.S. Eliot’s first published poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which, according to Wiki, is a dramatic interior monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.”) Jade provides that inner take here. She certainly experiences isolation, and endures frustration and impotence, not to mention personal abuse. Jade is both wishing for the slasher to be real and for him not to be real. Great, if it is. You were right all along. Take a bow. On the other hand, you are likely to be killed. Hmmm, decisions, decisions. She is actually eager for the inevitable bloodbath to begin, finding this strangely exciting. Well, maybe not so strange for a kid with suicidal impulses. She’s got her reasons.

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Jane Levy (yes, that Zoe) as Mia Allen in Evil Dead 2013 – Image from Screenrant

Jade is a Cassandra (another slasher film trope) trying to tell everyone that dire days lie ahead, but no one believes her. The new wrinkle in Proofrock, Idaho is the arrival of The Founders, a group of billionaire families who managed to have some of the national forest on the other side of the lake made un-national, and have begun building an enclave, Terra Nova. Yachts and smuggler boats have begun to appear on the lake, homes are being erected. And the daughter of the alpha male of that crowd befriends Jade. Letha Mondragon (are we meant to think or Arthur Pendragon here?) fits right in with Jade’s narrative. She is the supreme final girl. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, it was coined by Carol J. Clover in 1992.

The original meaning of “final girl”, as described by Clover in 1992, is quite narrow. Clover studied slasher films from the 1970s and 1980s (which is considered the golden age of the genre) and defined the final girl as a female who is the sole survivor of the group of people (usually youths) who are chased by a villain, and who gets a final confrontation with the villain (whether she kills him herself or she is saved at the last minute by someone else, such as a police officer), and who has such a “privilege” because of her implied moral superiority (for example, she is the only one who refuses sex, drugs, or other such behaviors, unlike her friends). – from Wiki

Think Alice Hardy in Friday the 13th, Laurie Strode in Halloween, Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street and on and on and on.

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Sigourney as Ripley in Alien – Get away from her, you bitch! – image from Yahoo! Entertainment

The good-girl element of the final girl trope eased over time, offering more kick-ass than kiss-ass, with final girls like Ripley in the Alien series, or Jamie Lee Curtis sticking it to Jason in Halloween. Jade spots Letha as the final girl of the upcoming carnival of blood. She is a really good person, and an actual model, with unbelievable skin. She is athletic, morally strong, and seems to have been sent over from central casting. She is also unbelievably hot, and Jade has a bit of a crush on her. Nevertheless, Jade determines to do everything in her power to see to it that Letha has the weapons and knowledge she needs to go to battle in the inevitable final bloodbath, aka The Body Dump.

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Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – image from BitchMedia

But we know, or at least suspect, since the slasher film story is usually told from the perspective of the final girl, that maybe Letha is not the one.

I wanted to push back against the notion of the final girl being a supermodel, valedictorian, or babysitter. Since the 1970s, they’ve all been Jennifer Love Hewitt types. For many girls and women, that’s an impossible ideal. The book’s main character, Jade, has dealt with feelings of inadequacy her whole life. Also, most of the victims are rich and entitled white guys, not 17-year-old cheerleaders. – from the 5280 interview

The mystery is who (or what) is perpetrating mayhem, and why. That satisfies the need, or, certainly, a desire, for a mystery. Slasher movie bloodlettings are acts of revenge. Ok. So, what is it that is being revenged, why, and by whom? The how is where movie directors and novelists get to come up with creative ways to pare back, sometimes waaaaay back, the character list.

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Heather Langengkamp as Nancy Thompson in Friday the 13th – image from StopButton

Jones always keeps an eye on social content, payload that arrives with the story. It, or at least some of it, usually has to do with Native people and their relationship with the white world in which they are embedded. Very real-world stuff. No Magic Indians need apply. The presenting issue here is gentrification, an invasion by the Uber-rich into a very working class area, upsetting everything, taking public land for private use, trying to buy their way into acceptance, while toting along a significant shortage of moral concern. There is also the existence of racist elements in the town and the Native people getting the lesser end of things economically.

When people in Proofrock can direct their binoculars across the water to see how the rich and famous live, that’s only going to make them suddenly aware of how they’re not living, with their swayed-in fences, their roofs that should have been re-shingled two winters ago, their packed-dirt driveways, their last decade’s hemlines and shoulder pads, because fashion takes a while to make the climb to eight thousand feet.

Secondary characters run a gamut. Some are cannon fodder, of course, but there is a nice collection of understandable town characters. Jade’s teacher, Holmes, is wonderfully understanding, and has plenty of quirk (and anger) to support it. The town sheriff is a remarkably understanding sort, with a soft spot for Jade. He may not understand, or accept what she tells him (she is a Cassandra, after all, and there is the very real possibility that he might be hiding something) but he seems to be quite well-intentioned. Her father is a horror, and his bff may be even worse. There is sympathy for Jade in surprising places. They know something we do not. The Founders are mostly cardboard cutouts, which is fine. And then there is Letha (last name not Weapon). While presented as impossibly perfect, she is the one member of that clan given a closer look. Is she or isn’t she what Jade sees her to be, a paragon of final girlhood?

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Jennifer Love Hewitt as Julie James in I Know What You Did Last Summer – image from ScreenRant

Throughout the novel, there is a pervasive sense of humor. The quote at the top of the review is a prime example of that. There is more. Not sayin’ you’re gonna shoot your beverage of choice out your nose, but there is plenty here that will make you smile.

…if you don’t have those staged resets, those laughs, then horror just becomes the flat screech, and that’s no fun. – from the GQ interview

GRIPES
Not much. The deus was messing with his ex, machina, a bit too much for my taste. I could not fathom why Jade was not more curious when a stranger’s cell phone falls into her hands. And I was not entirely thrilled with the last bit of the ending. (But then, SGJ has written a sequel, so, maybe put a hold on that.) But these are minor concerns. My Heart is a Chainsaw is both a jaw-dropping, brilliant homage to the slasher genre, and a bonafide member of the club.

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Sharni Vinson as Erin Harson in You’re Next – image from Wicked Horror

So, when you read this, takes notes, consider all that is going on. There will be a test. Pass/Fail. Pass, and you gain three college credits toward your degree. Fail? Well, trust me, you really, really do not want to fail.

She’s everything Jade always wished she could have been, had she not grown up where she did, how she did, with who she did.
It’s going to be epic, the final battle, the final girl against slasher high noon.
Unless Jade’s just making it all up, she reminds herself.

Review first posted – August 27, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – August 31, 2021
———-Trade paperback – March 29, 2022

I received an eARE of My Heart is a Chainsaw from Saga Press of Simon & Schuster in return for a fair review and some extra-strength fishing-hooks. Thanks to S&S, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

Interviews
—–GQ – 8/26/21 – Horror Writer Stephen Graham Jones’s New Nightmare by Colin Groundwater
—–Locus Magazine – 9/9/21 – Stephen Graham Jones: Slasher Cycle
—–Nightmare Magazine – April 2017 (Issue 55) Interview: Stephen Graham Jones by Lisa Morton
—–Nuovo Magazine – Stephen Graham Jones Battles Stereotypes and Serial Killers in His Breakout Novel by James Grainger – about The Only good Indians but still interesting for Jones’s take on the world
—–Vol, 1 Brooklyn – MORNING BITES: STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES INTERVIEWED, VIC GODARD, FRED THOMAS’S MUSIC, BILL GUNN, AND MORE – August 11, 2021
—–5280 Magazine – August 2021 – Colorado Horror Writer Stephen Graham Jones Is Back With a Killer Follow-Up by Philip Clapham

The horror genre is full of books and movies that make a political statement, like the films Dawn of the Dead and The Purge. Which is scarier: real-life terrors or fictional ones?
I think for the last four or five years, we’ve seen people doing reprehensible things and then not being punished for them. The slasher genre is basically a justice fantasy. But the bad thing about living in a slasher world where wrongs are punished is that they’re punished brutally. You might catch a machete to the head.

—–Bull – Stephen Graham Jones by David Tromblay

Before The Only Good Indians, I’d done two slasher novels, I guess—Demon Theory, The Last Final Girl—but I hadn’t said even close to all I wanted to say in and with and around the slasher. So, I committed to the slasher. I wrote this one, then another, and another. But I also wrote a haunted house novel. Oh, and a slasher novella, I guess. And I guess a ghost novella. I just love all the parts of horror, but the slasher, the slasher’s really special for me. I like the sense of justice in it. I like how bad deeds are punished. That’s not the world we live in, but, while reading a slasher, we can pretend for a little bit…

—–Montana Press Monthly – April 2020 Rez Gothic: Stephen Graham Jones by Jay MacDonald – not specific to this book, but good on SGJ
—–Goodreads newsletter – Meet the Writers Behind Those Truly Terrifying Books
—–Colorado Public Radio – Ten Stories Novelist Stephen Graham Jones Says Will Make You Afraid Of The Dark by Stephanie Wolf –
10 stories Jones says are great gateway reads into the horror fiction genre:
• “The Black Cat” by Edgar Alan Poe
• “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs
• “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft
• “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
• “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
• “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby
• “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
• “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler
• “The Jaunt” by Stephen King
• “The Night They Missed the Horror Show” by Joe R. Lansdale

My reviews of (sadly, only two) previous books by Jones
—–Mongrels
—–The Only Good Indians

Item of Interest
—–Smithsonian – The 1980 Slasher Movie ‘Friday the 13th’ Was Filmed at This Boy Scout Camp in New Jersey by Kellie B. Gormly – October 26, 2021 – A fun piece for fans of the original

The List
I started keeping track of the names of the mentioned flicks once I had read a bit, so my number is probably not close to the actual total, but even with not beginning from the beginning I came up with 93, the list that follows. I have seen, maybe, 23, enough to be able to follow along without feeling that I was missing out on too much. Not all are slasher films, but all 93 are horror of one sort or another. If I made any mistakes in entering the titles please let me know and I will make the needed repairs.

Alien
Alien 3
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Alone in the Dark
April Fools Day
Bay of Blood – from 1971 – a possible grandfather of the slasher genre
Black Christmas
Blue Steel
Burial Ground
The Burning
The Cabin in the Woods
Camp Blood
Candy Man
Child’s Play
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
Cold Prey
Cold Prey 2
Cold Prey 3
The Craft
Cropsy
Cry Wolf
Curtains
Cutting Class
Dead & Buried
Dead Calm
Deep Star Six, Leviathan
Demons
Donkey Punch
The Dorm that Dripped Blood
Evil Dead
The Exorcist
Exorcist III
Fatal Attraction
Final Destination
Final Destinations
Fire in the Sky
Friday the Thirteenth
Friday the Thirteenth Part II
Friday the 13th Part III
Friday the Thirteenth – The final chapter
Ghost Ship
Girls Nite Out
Grizzly, 1976
Halloween
Halloween III
Hannibal Lecter
Happy Birthday to Me
Hell Raiser
High Tension
The Hitcher
Home Sweet Home
I Know What You Did Last Summer
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
Jason Takes Manhattan
Jaws
Just Before Dawn
Kristy
The Land that Time Forgot
Last House on the left
Lord of Illusions
Mausoleum
Mortuary
Mother’s Day
My Bloody Valentine
New Nightmare
The Night of the Hunter
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Poltergeist 2
Popcorn
The Prey
Prom night II
Prophecy
Prowler
Reeker
Ringu
Road House – 1988
Rosemary’s Baby
Scream
Scream 2
Slaughter High
The Shining
The Silence of the Lambs
Sleepaway Camp II
SS Lazarus
Stage Fright
Terminator
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Triangle
Trick or Treat 1986
Twisted Nightmare
Virus
Wishmaster

In my post-posting travels I came across a site that provides a much more inclusive, and visually appealing, list. Letterboxd shows a total of 154 film mentions (not all of which are horror films, per se) I saw 37 of those.

Articles on Final Girls
The Final Girl is a trope that has come in for some criticism over the years. Below are several articles that address this, and the changes that have taken place in how Final Girls are portrayed from the 1970s to the present. If you know some good pieces on this subject, I would be happy to add them to this list.

—–NY Times – October 22, 2015 – In Horror Films, the ‘Final Girl’ Is a Survivor to the Core by Erik Piepenburg
—–Wiki – Final Girl
—–Cinema de Merde – Is the Final Girl an Excuse?
—–Pretty Scary – Gender Roles within Scary Movies by Alex Boles
—–Ax Wound – Teenie Kill & The Final Girl by Hannah D. Forman

Clover argues we shouldn’t just ask ourselves: “Does this film depict violence against women?” but rather, “Why does it do so? From whose point of view? Creating sympathy with whom? And what final message?” The answers to these questions no doubt are complex and reveal much about how we view the sexes, the double standards that underlie our behaviors and social mores we are brought up to follow.

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Filed under Horror, Reviews

True-Crime Family – The Family Plot by Megan Collins

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My parents named me Dahlia, after the Black Dahlia—that actress whose body was cleaved in half, left in grass as sharp as scalpels, a permanent smile sliced onto her face—and when I first learned her story at four years old I assumed a knife would one day carve me up.

I’m not looking for evil. I’m looking for answers.

You know straight away that this one will be told with tongue firmly attached to cheek. The four siblings are all named after famous murder victims. The Lighthouse family has seen quite a few lives dashed on the rocks, well, not personally, or well, maybe personally. That is the crux of the mystery. There is a never-caught serial murderer on the island, The Blackburn Killer, responsible, so people think, for the murders of seven women over two decades. The family is gathered on this wind-swept, rocky isle when father dies, mostly unlamented, a heart attack,

”Dad’s heart was a real bastard about it. took him out in two seconds flat. Pushed him face down in his venison stew…Mom had to wipe the meat off his cheeks before the paramedics came. It’s poetic really. Dad hunted so many deer in his lifetime, and in the end, he died on top of one. Seems almost…intentional, doesn’t it? Like his heart knew what he’d been up to and murdered him for it.”

summoning the now-grown children (well, three out of four, anyway, as the fourth had left a note ten years back announcing he was leaving for good) back from their definitely-NOT-on-this island homes for his funeral and burial. But when the caretaker of the considerable grounds digs up dad’s assigned plot, he is surprised to find that it is already occupied. The missing brother, Andy, gone ten years, has been found. Oh, dear.

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Megan Collins – image from Wheaton College

The whole thing stems from the title, which is not how I usually do my books at all. The title usually comes last, and I agonize over it. But I was working on something else, and I was trying to title that, and I asked my husband for some suggestions. And I said I want something that speaks to the family aspect of the book and he just threw out, “I don’t know, The Family Plot?” And I was like, no, that doesn’t work for this, but that is amazing as a title…that just rattled around in my head for a few days, until it was like a burst, that came to me, of a family that came together to bury one family member, only to find another member of the family in that grave. So then from there I thought well, what family would it be most interesting to see in that kind of story? It would be really interesting to see someone who, a family who was so interested in true crime that they built a library. And now they’re in the center of true crime story. – from the World of the Write interview

Interested understates it a bit, as the Lighthouse family, stemming from mom, is obsessed with true crime, so much so that the kids, who were home-schooled, studied famous murders. In place of the usual book reports they were charged with producing murder reports. There is a room in their large, creepy home, that is designated the Victim Room, as it holds the considerable collection of books and reports the family has amassed on the most notorious serial killers, and greatest murders, solved and unsolved, of all time. No wonder the locals refer to it as Murder Mansion.

Our docent in this odd place is Dahlia, 26, returned (Dead leaves skitter around my feet as if welcoming me home – Yikes!) from the mainland where she has been living since she moved out at age 19, obsessed with finding her lost twin, Andy (named for Lizzie Borden’s father).

The trust fund is how I manage the way I do—jobless, hunched over my laptop, scouring photos of any crowd on social media, looking for crinkly eyes, for the cowlick on the back of Andy’s head.

She has always felt that she and Andy had a special twins bond and that, if he were dead, she would know it. Her older sibs have been holed up in New York City since they fled the island, as soon as they could. Charlie (named for the Lindbergh baby) is an actor who appears in off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and nowhere-at-all-near-Broadway productions, when he can get cast, and when he is sober. Tate (named for Sharon Tate) has an on-line following of 57,000 for her site @Die-orama, on which she produces miniature reproductions of famous crimes. We all do what we’ve gotta do to cope with what came before in our lives. Am I wrong? Tate continues coping by making a diorama of the finding of her brother’s body. Charlie plans to turn the house into a temporary display, The Lighthouse Memorial Museum, to show the Blackburn island residents that the Lighthouses are actual people, not some homicidal, Addams family knockoff. Even Mom (Lorraine) Lighthouse deflects actual emotional dealing into consistently failed attempts to bake cookies, a running joke.

I just went and threw everything into it that I am obsessed with and that I love. I love true crime. Threw that in. I love secluded, dark little islands. Threw that in. I love mini things, so I had this diorama thing. I love these creepy mansions, so I had that. I went wild with all the things that excite me in the hope that if I am excited about them, hopefully it makes a good story, and other people will be into it. But yes, atmosphere, definitely tons of atmosphere… – from the World of the Write interview

There is a fun supporting cast. A mysterious local girl (Ruby Decker) used to spy on the Lighthouse manse at night when Andy was still around. The local detective on the case is Elijah Kraft, who just happens to be the son of the detective who was in charge of the Blackburn Killer investigation back in the day. He had always been convinced that Daniel Lighthouse (the recently deceased dad) was the killer and junior seems determined to pin Andy’s killing on him as well. At the very least, pin it on some member of the family. We see him mostly while sparring with Dahlia. Fitz, the lifelong caretaker, does not always make it to the ferry for his nightly trip back to the mainland. Why is that? Greta, a friend, runs a café below Dahlia’s apartment, and shares the Lighthouse obsession with true crime, if not the family history. She stands in for the more typically obsessed true-crime aficionados in the world.

I’ve never written plays, but it kinda felt like writing a play sometimes, thinking of like almost every scene in the book takes place in the house except for a few of them, so there is a kind of claustrophobic sense. And so the house really felt like a set to me that I was moving the characters around and now they’re the living room and what’s happening in there, and now they’re in the room that they call the victim room because it has all their books about true crime. – from the World of the Write interview

She also gives us a taste of backwater mentality, and eagerness to believe the worst of people who are different. And the separation from humanity of many true-crime enthusiasts, fixated on details of murders to the exclusion of pain and suffering, the human experience of those personally impacted.

Dahlia is an honest broker, well, mostly. She truly wants to find out who killed her beloved brother, and who the Blackburn Killer might be, even if it turns out to be family. There are twists aplenty, and swaths of atmospherics. Collins clearly had a lot of fun writing this book and it comes across.

I did have one gripe. Are we really expected to believe that a family would construct an entire home-schooling curriculum around murders? It was a bit much to swallow. But if you are willing to suspend belief, and, yes, your honor, I confess to doing just that, The Family Plot is a delicious bit of mystery fluff, a fun, roller-coaster ride of a yarn. If you pick up The Family Plot looking for a very entertaining Summer read, you will be dead on.

…the fact that their bodies were returned to our shore, spit onto sand instead of carried to another coast, is proof that the ocean wants us here, contained to Blackburn Island.

Review posted – August 20, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I received an ARE of The Family Plot in return for crucial intel on an unsolved case. Thanks to Maudee at Atria.

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

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

Interviews
—–World of the Write Review – – video – 30:09 – by Kerry Schafer – if you have to choose only interview to check out, it would be this one.
—–Player FM – A murderous chat with CT Author Megan Collins! – Renee DeNino – Audio – 16:30
—–Dead Darlings – Interview with Megan Collins, Author of Behind The Red Door by Susan Bernhard – 8/6/20 – this interview was done long before The Family Plot came along, but still has some interesting intel, such as

My instincts as a storyteller are to begin as close to the inciting incident as possible. By the end of the first chapter, I want some sort of bomb—big or small—to have been dropped on my characters, so that the reader has a sense of the stakes right away.

—–Megan Collins: Author of The Winter Sister – also done before Collins’ latest book, but of value nonetheless

Items of Interest from the author
—–Crime Reads – What Scares a Thriller Writer – 8/4/20
—–Collins’ site – links to 22 other pieces

The book site for The Family Plot lists gothic among its genres. It felt like it was close to that on reading, but not quite, so I resorted to this scorecard, which I used a bit more grandly in my review of While You Sleep. So, is it or isn’t it?

Gothic Novel Scorecard

Ticking off the gothic criteria
1 – setting – old mansion – check – secret passages – yep, and more
2 – atmosphere of mystery or suspense – you betcha
3 – ancient prophecy or legend – nothing supernatural here
4 – omens, portents, visions – well, portents maybe (no good tents, though)
5 – supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events – the deaths on the island – Andy’s demise
6 – high, overwrought emotion – for sure
7 – woman in distress – Dahlia – yep
8 – Women threatened by powerful, tyrannical male – murder vics, presumably – there is no living tyrannical male in this telling – and while The Blackburn Killer is assumed to be male, there is no certainty of the killer’s gender for most of the book.

Frequent Gothic Elements
Wind – always
Rain – don’t really recall, so if it was there, it was not particularly memorable
Doors on rusty hinges – I don’t think so, but maybe
Eerie sounds – not really
Character strapped in a room – no
Approaching footsteps – yep
Ruins of buildings – not really

It may not tick off ALL the boxes that define Gothic novels, but it marks enough of them to matter. It is clear that while Collins worked from her notions and was not trying to craft a classic gothic novel, The Family Plot is certainly gothic enough to count.

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Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson

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He pictured the 24-7 tree herself: a monster, grown even wider now than the twenty-four feet, seven inches that originally earned her the name, three hundred seventy feet high, the tallest of the scruff of old-growth redwoods left along the top of 24-7 Ridge. He’d circled that tree every morning for the last thirty-five years, figuring the best way to fall her, but it had always been just a story he’d told himself, like his father before him, and his granddad before that. Someday, Rich remembered his father saying. As a boy, it had seemed possible, though generations of Gundersens had died with the word on their breath.

“The real timber’s gone,” Lark said. “What’s left, ten percent, including the parks? Two thousand years to grow a forest, a hundred years to fall it. No plague like man.”

It’s 1977 in Klamath, California. Redwood country. Rich Gunderson has rolled the dice. He staked all the money he and his wife, Colleen, have been saving to buy a once-in-a-lifetime piece of property, the 24-7, over seven hundred acres of old growth forest, ripe for logging. But he needs the Sanderson Timber Co., which he has been working for all his life, to build a road close enough to it that he can get the logs out. It seems likely to happen, given that Sanderson is currently logging adjacent parcels. But when a skull is found, all work is halted until it can be determined whether the logging will be allowed to continue. A halt could mean the difference between making back his investment and having land of his own, a place on which he and his family can live, with a nice bit of cash beside, and losing everything.

The pilot had followed the coastline, turning inland at Diving Board Rock. It was Rich’s first and only ¬bird’s-eye view of his life: the small green house with its white shutters set back on the bluff at the foot of Bald Hill, the cedar-¬shingle tank shed. The plane’s ¬engine noise buzzed inside his chest, a hundred McCulloch chainsaws revving at once. They’d flown over 24-7 Ridge, the big tree herself lit by an errant ray of sun, glowing orange, bright as a torch, and, for an instant, Rich had caught a glimmer of the inholding’s potential—an island of private land in a sea of company forest. They’d flown over the dark waves of big pumpkins in Damnation Grove—redwoods older than the United States of America, saplings when Christ was born. Then came the patchwork of clear-cuts, like mange on a dog, timber felled and bucked and debarked, trucked to the mill, sawed into lumber, sent off to the kilns to be dried. The pilot had flipped a switch and spray had drifted out behind them in a long pennant—taste of chlorine, whiff of diesel—Rich’s heart soaring.

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Ash Davidson – Image from the Grand Canyon Trust

He and Colleen have suffered some serious losses already. They have a five-year-old son, Chub, who is about to start Kindergarten. But they had hoped for a larger brood. Colleen, only thirty-four, has just suffered her eighth miscarriage. Rich does not want for them to go through that again, so is keeping his distance, frustrating Colleen, who is eager to keep trying.

He does not keep his distance from this land, however. Carrying on the tradition of his father and grandfather before him, Rich is a high climber, a particularly perilous specialty in an already dangerous line of work. He is very fortunate to have lasted longer than his forebears, surviving into his fifties. Bunyonesque at over six feet six inches, Rich is a gentle giant, determined to take care of his family. But how he can go about doing that is becoming complicated. He remembers his father taking him up to the 24-7, and pointing out the biggest, (There she is. Twenty-four feet, seven inches across. Someday, you and me are going to fall that tree.) a lifetime ago, when his father had just turned thirty.

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A high rigger – using just his rope and spiked boots, he must climb the tree sawing off tree limbs as he goes – image and descriptive text from the Washington Historical Society

Colleen works as a midwife. Hers are not the only reproductive anomalies in the area. Miscarriages are rampant, as are birth defects. One woman she had been helping gave birth to a baby that was anencephalic. In the Library Journal interview, Davidson talks about her inspiration for the book.

My family lived in Klamath, California, where the book is set. My parents weren’t loggers—my mom taught school, my dad did carpentry work. But they did rely on a nearby creek for drinking water, similar to Rich and Colleen’s setup in the book, and became so concerned about herbicide contamination in that creek that they stopped drinking from our tap. Still today, not one of us does. I was three when we left Klamath, but I grew up hearing stories about our life there. I’d always wondered: what were those herbicides? – from the Shelf Awareness interview

Daniel Bywater was raised locally. An erstwhile classmate and an old flame of Colleen’s, he is back in the area, doing a postdoc in fisheries biology, testing the water to see what might be causing the significant reduction in fish life. It is pretty clear that the cause is the toxic chemicals that Sanderson sprays relentlessly in the area, making sure the logging roads do not get overgrown, and access to the to-be-logged trees is uninhibited. With the prompt of Daniel, Colleen begins to see that the environment in which she lives may be a factor in her difficulties carrying a baby to term. The Gundersons get their water directly from Damnation Creek.

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Redwoods – image from homestratosphere.com

The conflict is set. Sanderson, eager to fend off any attempts to prevent them from clear-cutting the lands they control, versus those concerned with the health and safety of the people living and working in the area, and the carnage being wreaked on the local eco-system. The company is not above using bribery, blackballing, physical intimidation, and worse to control the allowable debate.

People are struggling. Deer Creek has dried up. It is probably wise to head indoors when the far-too-frequent company chopper passes overhead spraying something that smells of chlorine. Folks live in single-wides or rent houses they used to own, now property of the government on a 25 year lease, after they were eminent-domained for parkland. Pay has been shifted from production based to a daily rate. Not an idyllic existence

It would be an easy thing to present the company as pure evil (well, it pretty much is here, so scratch that), and the locals who support cutting-uber-alles as ignorant rubes. Some are, and there are those who are willfully ignorant, and willing to go to dark extremes to protect their personal fortunes, but Davidson has offered instead a very close look at the crux of the conflict. Can you really expect people who, for generations, have known only one way of living, to welcome outsiders telling them that they can no longer continue to work the jobs they have worked for decades, to live the way they have been forever? Even if that way of life is harming them (it is), that harm may not be felt immediately. No one except the company owners and upper managers are living well. It is a hard-scrabble existence, even for the fully employed. The loss of that small income would be harsh and sudden. And there is no certainty that other means of getting by will magically appear. For good or ill, people’s livelihoods are tied to the survival of the timber company. To damage that is to imperil them all. In showing the perspective of the people residing in the affected area, Davidson treats the issues she raises in a serious, nuanced, and respectful manner.

”Ask any of these guys. You won’t find a guy that loves the woods more than a logger. You scratch a logger, you better believe you’ll find an ‘enviro-mentalist’ underneath. But the difference between us and these people is we live here. We hunt. We fish. We camp out. They’ll go back where they came from, but we’ll wake up right here tomorrow. This is home. Timber puts food on our tables, clothes on our kids’ backs. You know, a redwood tree is a hard thing to kill. You cut it down, it sends up a shoot. Even fire doesn’t kill it. Those big pumpkins up in the grove, they’re old. Ready to keel over and rot. You might as well set a pile of money on fire and make us watch.”

It is clear that, even though he is in the business of removing trees from the landscape, that Rich does have a feel for, a love of the land. He often brings his son out into the woods to show him the woods, the topography, the beauty of their home. Rich wants to make sure he passes on what he can while he can. A charming element of this is when Rich teaches his son to use his hand as a map of their area. I could not help but think of Rich as a Fess-Parker-as-Davy-Crockett-or-Daniel-Boone sort, substantial, serious. But also kind and educable, interested in doing right by his family. This creates an internal conflict for him. Protect his family by seeing to it that the land he bought gets logged, and thus ensure their financial future, or consider that maybe Colleen is right to be concerned about the perils to them all of Sanderson’s spraying.

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Image from Santa Cruz Land Trust

It is not spraying alone that is problematic. Hillsides, denuded of the plant life that held firmly onto the ground, lose their ability to absorb the considerable rain that falls in the area, and their ability to remain in place. It has got to be tough to remain connected to the land if the very land itself is washing away.

Colleen suffers additional misery to that of enduring multiple miscarriages from the fact that her sister, Enid, seems to get pregnant at the drop of a condom. Enid uncrosses her legs for two minutes and a baby pops out.

There is imagery aplenty to help things along. The huge lighthouse of a redwood has already been mentioned as a symbol of both permanence and possibility. Rich endures a bad tooth for much of the novel, maybe a conscience, or growing awareness that needs tending to. A dog which has had its vocal cords cut by a heartless owner surely stands in for silencing alarms of impending danger in the wider world. Showing the multigenerational element of the community reminded me of judging the age of a tree by the number of rings, but I am pretty sure that is just my projection.

I think sometimes we assume that working in an industry like logging is a choice easily substituted with another choice, but there is real grief in letting go of a good job that has defined you. Damnation Spring is set forty years ago, but we see parallels in industry today. There are plenty of reasons why a coal miner in West Virginia can’t just pick up and move west to work on a solar farm. When your whole life is in a place, the idea of uprooting it is so overwhelming, it’s understandable that dying in the life you know might be preferable to starting over. – from the Library Journal interview

There are also a larger perspectives one can see here. We can see in the microcosm of a small community what a larger society might look like when there is only one dominant political and economic power source, and it acts in its own interest regardless of the harm it does to all around it, and having no respect for the truth. This is what happens when there is power without accountability. Davidson shows how behavior ripples outward, from industry to community to family to individuals. The feckless, short-term profit-motive of Sanderson Timber forces the community to come to grips (or not) with the ecological and personally biological impacts of its work, which manifests in public (and secretive) behavior, pushing families into hard choices, and impacting individual lives. There is also the larger echo of events over four decades back (and more) impacting the world today. How much carbon in the atmosphere, for example, is not being sequestered because of clear-cutting? How many species of animal and plant life are being exterminated because of short term profit motives? And there is the immediate contemporary echo of so much of the planet still being plundered instead of managed, harvested, and renewed.

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A 2006 mudslide in Northern California – image from DCBS News

The story is told from the alternating perspectives, Rich, Colleen and Chub.

Damnation Spring started out as a first-person novel in Rich’s voice. But I kept running into walls–things he couldn’t know or wouldn’t notice. Even after I added Colleen, they were both so quiet. I needed Chub. He’s curious. He’s lower to the ground. He’s five at the beginning of the book. I’d worked as a nanny, so I had some experience with children that age. They’re observant, but not judgmental, and still fully alive to the magic of the world, from birds’ nests to Bigfoot. – from the Shelf Awareness interview

This works well to offer a rounded take on the action of the story.

Davidson spent the first three years of her life in Klamath, not of a logging family. Mom was a teacher, dad a carpenter. But they used a nearby creek for drinking water, like Rich and Colleen in the novel. Her parents became concerned about chemicals in the water, so stopped using it. Davidson heard about this later on, but retained curiosity about the experience. The story grew from that to wondering about how families and a whole community might respond when their homes, their communities became unsafe to live in.

Gripes
Throughout the course of the book we are given relentless examples of the horrors being inflicted on people, fauna, and flora, in addition to the huge reproductive issues. Beehives are obliterated, diseased deer stumble through the woods, nosebleeds are ubiquitous. This can get overbearing, as if we are being beaten over the head with it all, over and over and over. Yes, yes. Everything is being poisoned. Do we really need twenty more examples? Got it.

The story-telling is effective. We see the characters and how their relationships with each other work. It is dense with detail, but maybe too much detail, enough so that it makes it, sometimes, tough to see the forest for the trees, and sometimes a slog to read.

There is a response Rich has late in the book to something Colleen does that had me thinking of the real-life Daniel Boone. I understand the possibility of his response, but found it a bit of a stretch to accept in the 20th century, in the culture which is portrayed. He might have reached the destination to which he arrives, but it would have been with considerably more weeping and gnashing of teeth. In this case, maybe, a bit more detail would have been warranted.

Overall, though, Damnation Spring is a powerful example of eco-lit, a humanity-based look at crimes against nature, featuring strongly-drawn characters that you can care about, dastardly doings enough to keep the action moving, some payload on the dynamics within a stressed logging community, and more on the impact of chemical spraying and clear-cutting. The book is printed on recycled paper, but you might feel more comfortable giving the trees a break and reading this one as an e-book.

You can bury us, but you can’t keep us from digging our way out.

Review first posted – July 30, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hard cover – August 3, 2021
———-Trade paperback – May 3, 2022

I received an ARE of Damnation Spring from Scribner, of Simon & Schuster, in return for some seedlings and fertile soil. Thanks to ZC at S&S for providing, Cai at GR for cluing me in to this book, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

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

Interviews
—–Shelf Awareness – Ash Davidson: Living and Dying on Timber bny Samantha Zaboski
—–Library Journal – Debut Author Ash Davidson Discusses Her Epic, Immersive Novel Damnation Spring – this was sponsored by Simon & Schuster

Books this one made me think of
—–Annie Proulx – Barkskins – a historical novel, a saga, showing the logging of North America since the 17th century
—–Richard Preston – The Wild Trees – non-fic about tree-climbers, with a lot of interesting intel on the earth’jhs wooden giants

Song/Music
—–Johnny Cash – My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You from “November 6 – Colleen” chapter

Items of Interest
—–Coast Redwood Ecology and Management
—–Nashville Review – August 1, 2016 – Higher Ground
—–Book Club Guide

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A Life Revived – Eudora Honeycutt is Quite Well, Thank You by Annie Lyons

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“I am eighty-five years old. I am old and tired and alone. I have nothing I want to do and no one I want to see. I am not depressed, merely done with life. I don’t want to end up dribbling in an old-people’s home, wearing adult nappies in front of a shouting television. I want to leave this world with dignity and respect. Now, can you help me out?”

Life is precious and as long as we have a reason to continue, we should follow that path.

Eudora Honeycutt does not seem to have much reason to go on. She is quite the curmudgeon. Maybe not the broomstick-wielding (or shotgun-toting) crank, screaming “get off my lawn, you damn kids!” Eudora is far too proper for such behavior. But the inner resentment is there. She is uninterested in having the sort of death her mother endured when, a husk of her former self, she died, a frequent flyer (often. needlessly) in the ER, she was kept going by a medical system that cared less about the quality of one’s life than extending it at all costs. Sick of the world, fed up with its rampant and growing narcissism, and seeing no meaningful future ahead, she gets in touch with a clinic in Switzerland that might be able to help her end her life with the dignity she wants.

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Annie Lyons – image from her site – shot by Harriet Buckingham

everyone is selfish and caught up with themselves these days. They have no time to notice her or others like her. They consume news or food as if they are trying to eat the whole world; they watch and judge and spit out their opinions as if they’re the only ones worth listening to. Eudora is invisible to these people, but she has stopped noticing them, too. They’re welcome to their “post-Brexit, Donald Trump, condemn everyone, be kind to no one” world. There is no helping them now. Soon enough she won’t be around to witness their continuous decline into moral torpor. Good riddance and good night.

But that is not all there is to Eudora. She has seen little kindness in the world, has endured more than her share of its opposite, and yet there is, inexplicably, still a lode of the stuff buried inside her. And she has stumbled across a crew of miners, happy to bring it to the light of day.

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Dame Maggie Smith – image from Jewish News

There are new occupants in the house next door, primarily a ten-year-old girl. Rose is the bubbles in a bottle of champagne, the chirping birds that welcome dawn, sunshine after days of rain, an iced drink on a hot day, a huge jolt of distilled wonderfulness, rain after a drought, and a rainbow after a shower. The rainbow part of that is not much of an exaggeration, as Rose always seems to be dressed in a garish array of colors that may or may not go with any of the other eye-popping hues she is wearing. One typical ensemble is made up of buttercup yellow, ecclesiastical purple, and neon orange. Rose is exuberantly neighborly, and decides that Eudora is going to be her new best friend.

Rose may have the wearying positivity of a jack-in-the-box, but she is kindness personified.

The next new addition to Eudora’s life is Stanley, a widower, a gentleman of a certain age. It was Stanley who had come to her aid when he’d seen her fall recently. Made sure she was seen to. She remembers him not at all, finds him irritating even. But Stanley persists with Eudora, offering her interest, engagement, and kindness, with a persistence not unlike Rose’s, but without the flamboyance.

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Haribo Cherries – image from Amazon – Eudora buys some for Rose

Like a wrestling tag-team, Rose and Stanley both engage Eudora individually (and sometimes together), seeing something in her that she does not see in herself. Rose’s exuberance is as delightful as it is persistent and overwhelming. It seems that when it comes to Rose, resistance really is futile. As Eudora, bit by bit, is drawn back into the world, she encounters even more people who offer kindness and understanding. She meets Hannah, a death doula, who gives a talk at a local community center, and has made a career of helping people near the end of their lives. But not all the kindness is delivered to Eudora by local folks reaching out to her. In her dealings with the Swiss clinic that provides help for people choosing a decent death, she engages with Petra, her contact there, who is also welcoming and supportive to Eudora.

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Dame Judy Dench – image from The Hamilton Spectator

Throughout the novel we get looks back at Eudora’s life, (18 by my count) beginning in 1940, when she was five years old. Her beloved father took her out for a birthday treat, a memory that has lasted a lifetime. He is heading off to war, and mom is pregnant. What happens with her father impacts the rest of Eudora’s life and the lives of those around her. One inspiration for the character of Eudora was:

…my mum, who also lived through the second world war and had that sort of resilience and stoicism, but also that stubbornness and that refusal to ask for help, and I’m just going to get on with it, and I’m ok, and I don’t want to talk about it. My mum was a real sweetie. She was not as difficult as Eudora. But it’s part of that generation I think. To write her story, but then to juxtapose it with Rose was just…I love to read books about inter-generation friendships…It was my way of looking at it in an uplifting way. – from the Better at Home interview

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Dame Helen Mirren – image from The Mayor’s Fund for London

One of the inspirations for the book was Lyons reaching middle-age (no numbers have been offered), and realizing that half her life was over. It sparked a concern about (an interest in) death and how people view it.

[The book] explores our denial and inability to face death as a reality. However, through Eudora’s honesty and Rose’s curiosity, it also shows different ways to view death – whether it’s through Eudora’s discussions with Petra at the clinic in Switzerland or Hannah, the death doula’s talk on what it is to have a good death or Rose’s enthusiasm for the Mexican Day of the Dead. – from the Book Q&As interview

In alternating past and present, Lyons does an excellent job of linking todays realities to Eudora’s history. We get to see how life’s many disappointments shaped Eudora into the grouch she has become, with each section about her past explaining one of Eudora’s present-day reactions. We see, also, how Rose, Stanley, and others offer Eudora something far greater than resignation.

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Michael Gambon – image from The Irish Examiner

In the Book Club Girl interview Lyons offered a few dame names for dream actresses to play Eudora. I have peppered the review with images of those. She offered a suggestion or two for Stanley. So, ditto.

This is a beautifully written, heart-warming novel, not just about death, our experiences with it, and thoughts on it, but about the value of kindness, of our connection to others, and what is important in life. Lyons has written characters we not only care about, but love. Trust me. Tears will be shed, more than a few.

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Jim Broadbent – image from The Indian Express

By the time my father was my age he’d been dead for over a year. Not that I think about that much, not me, no. So, maybe it is easy to imagine that a book about a woman contemplating her personal end times might be of some interest. But, if I go with my maternal DNA instead of my paternal for projecting my likely mortality, it looks like I may have a few good years left. I hope I can fill them reading books as wonderful, as entertaining, hopeful, and uplifting as The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeycutt. It is a brilliant book and an absolute must-read.

For beauty lives with kindness.

Review posted – July 16, 2021

Publication dates (USA)
———-September 8, 2020 – (USA)
———-October 19, 2021 – Paperback – Morrow

It was published in the UK on September 8, 2020 under the title Eudora Honeysett is Quite Well, Thank You

This review is cross-posted on Goodreads

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

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

Interviews
—–Library Love Fest – An Interview with Annie Lyons, author of THE BRILLIANT LIFE OF EUDORA HONEYSETT – with Virginia Stanley – audio 28:24 – begin at about 1:00
—–Blblio Happy Hour – Talking with Annie Lyons + a dive into the week’s new releases – by Victoria Wood – audio – 29 minutes – begin at the 6 minute mark
—–Better At Home – Annie Lyons
—–Book Club Girl – Discussion with Annie Lyons – Includes her US editor Emily Krump – video – 47:11
—–Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb Q&A with Annie Lyons
—–Library Love Fest – An Interview with Annie Lyons, author of THE BRILLIANT LIFE OF EUDORA HONEYSETT – audio – 28:24 – by Virginia Stanley

Songs/Music
—–Oscar Seagle – Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile) – chapter 1
—–Dame Vera Lynn – We’ll Meet Again – chapter 3
—–This is Me – the greatest song from The Greatest Showman, Rose’s favorite film – It really should have won the Oscar for best song.

Items of Interest from the author
—–Writing and Wellness – Featured Writer on Wellness: Annie Lyons
—–Female First – Seven things I learned in lockdown by Annie Lyons

Items of Interest
—–Wiki for It’s a Wonderful Life – mentioned in chapter 4 (and my personal all time favorite film)
—–Wiki on the British TV Quiz show Pointless – referenced in chapter 7
—–Wiki on the film Coco – mentioned in chapter 7
—–BBC – Babycham – a popular drink of the time – Eudora orders one at a dance with her bff Silvie
—–A brochure from lifecircle – a Swiss organization that helps people with end-of-life decision-making. The author references this org as a source for her research on Eudora’s planning.
—–PopMaster – referenced in chapter 11

Recipe
—–Chapter 2 – Cornish fairings

Reminds me of
—–Benediction by Kent Haruf – Dad Lewis is nearing the end of his life when he encounters eight-year-old Alice
—–Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver – a couple deciding whether to end it all when they hit 80 – review pending
—–News of the World by Paulette Giles – a 70-something escorts a difficult 10-year-old back to her family
—–Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton – A 78-year-old astrophysicist may be the last man on Earth until he meets a young girl, alone in the Arctic
—–Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney – An older woman takes a walk on New Year’s Eve, the stops along her way recalling her life

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Re-wilding the Highlands – Once there Were Wolves by Charlotte McConoughy

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I had always known there was something different about me, but that was the day I first recognized it to be dangerous. It was also the day, as I stumbled out of the shed into a long violet dusk, that I looked to the trees’ edge and saw my first wolf, and it saw me.

They’re more dangerous than we are.”
“Are they?” I ask. “They are wilder, certainly.”
“Isn’t it the same?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s civilization makes us violent. We infect each other.”

Inti Flynn had always had a feel for nature. Her father had been a woodsman, first working for a lumber company, then, later, living a mostly solo subsistence life, in Canada, trying his best not to contribute to the global demise. He taught Inti and her twin, Aggie, about how to live in and with the wild. Their mother, a detective in Australia, was more concerned with teaching them how to contend with the wild in civilization. There is a lot in here about parents, of both the human and lupine persuasion, teaching children or pups how to cope in the world, how to defend against predators. The human sorts offer different approaches, some counseling firm defenses, others advising understanding, and some resorting to extreme kinetic measures. There are plenty of parents teaching questionable lessons.

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Charlotte McConoughy – image from If.com.au

Dad used to tell me that my greatest gift was that I could get inside the skin of another human. That I could feel what nobody else could, the life of another, really feel it and roll around in it. That the body knows a great deal and I have the miraculous ability to know more than one body. The astonishing cleverness of nature. He also taught us that compassion was the most important thing we could learn. If someone hurt us, we needed only empathy, and forgiveness would be easy.

Inti’s gift is not metaphorical. Her ability to experience what others feel, gives her a unique advantage in understanding both wildlife and people. It also makes her very vulnerable.

I am unlike most people. I move through life in a different way, with an entirely unique understanding of touch. Before I knew its name I knew this. To make sense of it, it is called a neurological condition. Mirror-touch synesthesia. My brain re-creates the sensory experiences of living creatures, of all people and even sometimes animals; if I see it I feel it, and for just a moment I am them, we are one and their pain or pleasure is my own. It can seem like magic and for a long time I thought it was, but really it’s not so far removed from how other brains behave: the physiological response to witnessing someone’s pain is a cringe, a recoil, a wince. We are hardwired for empathy. Once upon a time I took delight in feeling what others felt. Now the constant stream of sensory information exhausts me. Now I’d give anything to be cut free.

McConaghy’s prior novel, Migrations, looked at the demise of wildlife (birds in particular, and even more particularly terns) in a slightly future world. In this one, she continues her interest in the impact of people on the natural environment. Officially, the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680. There are reports of wolves being seen as late as 1888, but Scotland has been essentially wolf-free for well over three centuries. Sadly for Scottish woodlands, it has not been farmer, sheep, or climate-change-free. Part of the problem is that the local deer population tends to linger in place long enough to lay waste to new shoots. A great way to keep them moving is to reintroduce wolves. Good for the goal of restoring natural forest, re-wilding at least part of Scotland is good for the health of the deer population as well. Thus, Inti’s presence. She is leading a team charged with re-introducing a small population of wolves to a remote part of Scotland, near the Cairngorms, a mountainous area in the highlands.

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The Cairngorms – Image from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

As one might imagine, there is considerable resistance among farmers concerned about the potential loss of livestock. The minimal-to-non-existent actual danger to humans is played up by those opposed to the reintroduction. Battle lines are drawn. The program has official sanction, but the locals have guns, and itchy fingers. And then someone goes missing. Inti’s primary concern is with the danger to the program, as she expects her wolves to be blamed.

The mystery for us is why, and how this person vanished. After a meet-cute early in the book, Inti and the local sheriff, Duncan MacTavish, team up, in a way, to try figuring out what happened. There are other mysteries as well, albeit of a different sort. What happened to Inti’s sister that had left her so damaged? Is Duncan trustworthy? The book alternates between the present and looking back at two periods in Inti’s and Aggie’s lives, with their father in British Columbia, where they learned how to live off the land, and as adults, when Inti was working on a wolf project in Alaska.

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Red deer are Scotland’s largest surviving, native, wild land mammal. It’s estimated that there are 400,000 of them in the Scottish Highlands – image and text from Good Nature Travel

Inti struggles with her desire to protect her wolves, and her need to engage with the locals as something other than as a know-it-all outsider. The complexity of the town’s social relations is quite fascinating. Duncan is our eyes on this, and a big help to Inti, knowing so well the people in the community in which he had grown up, understanding motivations, relationships, and local history much better than any outsider could.

Abuse is a central issue, in both the Old and the New World, whether at the hands of the distraught, the damaged, or the downright evil. Multiple characters in Scotland come from homes in which there was violence, whether against spouses, children, or both. It is clear that one of the locals has beaten his wife. Other instances of family violence are important to the story. The abuse that does take place is mostly done off-screen, reported, but not seen first-hand. Inti’s attempt at restoring the Scottish landscape, of giving new opportunities to a much-reviled species mirrors her attempt to heal, to restore the vitality of her own family.

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A wealthy landowner in Scotland is hoping to bring wolves from Sweden to the Scottish Highlands to thin the herd of red deer. – image and text from Good Nature Travel

One can probably make too much of it (I am sure I did), but I found it fun to look at the wolves for indications of comparison to the human characters. Was Inti like Six (the wolves are given numbers not names, for the most part). Who might be lone wolves? Who is fiercest in protecting their pack/family? Who are the alphas?

There is much resonance with Migrations. Both leads are working far from home. Both are trying to do something to help in a world that seems set against accepting any. Although she has her sister with her in Wolves, Inti is primarily a solo actor. She finds a family of a sort with charming, and not-so-charming locals, in the way that Franny Stone in Migrations teamed up with the fishing boat crew. Like Franny, Inti bears the burden of deep, traumatic family secrets. Like Franny, she is trying to find her true home, whether that be in Scotland, Canada, Australia, or maybe wherever the wolves are. Inti has a near-magical power of sensitivity. Franny had special abilities in the water. Like Franny, Inti teams up with a guy in a position of some power. In Migrations it was Ennis Malone, captain of a fishing boat. Here it is Duncan McTavish, the local sheriff. In both novels McConaghy shows the concerns of those imperiled by the front lines of attempts to correct a bad ecological situation. Of the two, this novel struck me as a bit more optimistic about the possibilities of making meaningful change.

In the real world, wolves have not been officially introduced back into Scotland, but there is one wealthy individual who is looking at doing so in a limited way. Who knows? Maybe the re-wilding of Scotland is not entirely a pipe dream.

Once There Were Wolves offers a close look at the issues involved in programs of this sort. The locals are accorded plenty of respect for and insight into their legitimate concerns, as we get to see past the rejectionist veneer. Very hard choices must be made, and the decision-making is very adult. Inti is a tough young woman with a challenging responsibility. It is easy to care about what happens to her. McConaghy keeps the action flowing, so there is no danger of losing interest. The main mystery is very intriguing and the final explanation is twisty and wonderful, with Inti finding her inner Miss Marple to sleuth her way to the truth. Once you sink your canines into this one, you will not want to let go. There are hankie moments as well. Tears will be shed. Set in a wintry place, it seems an ideal book to cool off with in the hot summer months. (Of course, if you read this in cooler months, it is distinctly possible that you will be wearing some wool, and thus will be reading a book about wolves while in sheep’s clothing. Just sayin’.) It seems appropriate to keep a modest supply of whiskey near to hand, just for ambience, of course. Or for those of the teetotaler persuasion, maybe some Irn-Bru. As for the best place in which to read this book, and read it you should, that should be obvious, in a den.

There is violence in me, in my hands, which vibrate with the need to exert some kind of control, some defiance, and if it is revenge for the things that have been taken from me then fine, I will have that too. I am done with falling prey. I will be predator, at last. I will forget the walls and the self-protection and I will become the thing I hunt and feel it all.

Review posted – July 9, 2021

Publication date – August 3, 2021

I received an E-ARE of OTWW in return for a fair review. Thanks to Amelia at Flatiron, to NetGalley for hosting the book and to MC for facilitating.

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

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

Interviews
Interviews with CM re this book have been as tough to find as Scottish wolves, but I did unearth an oldie, from 2014. I am sure after the book is released there will be more interviews available. There are several interview links in my review of Migrations
—–AusRom Today – AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Charlotte McConaghy – from 2014 – this relates to her very early, romantic fantasy writing

My review of McConaghy’s previous book
—–2020 – Migrations

Items of Interest
—–Sea Wolves – Panthalassa.Org – mentioned in Chapter 8
—–Good Nature Travel – Bringing Wolves Back to Scotland by Candace Gaukel Andrews
—–The Guardian – Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction by Claire Armitstead
—–Wiki on mirror touch synesthesia – yes, this is a real thing
—–Travel Medium – Why Are There No Trees in Scotland? by Paul McDougal – this is a wonderful overview of how Scotland lost so much of its woodlands over the last 6,000 years
—–Public Domain Review – Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – Inti’s father kept a copy for use in his work – Chapter 3
—–The Guardian – Rewilding: should we bring the lynx back to Britain? by Phoebe Weston – 8/16/21 – One proposed re-wilding site is the same one used in this book

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The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

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It felt as if a kind of pestilence, a plague, were spreading through the college—like in a Greek myth, the sickness that destroyed Thebes; an invisible airborne poison drifting through the courtyards—and these ancient walls, once a refuge from the outside world, no longer offered any protection.

When Zoe calls her aunt from Cambridge to tell her that her best friend has gone missing, Mariana Andros, a group therapist in London, heads to her alma mater immediately. In no time she has ID’d a likely suspect and proceeds to find out everything she can, hoping, expecting to show that Professor Edward Fosca is a murderer.

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Alex Michaelides – image from The Irish Times – photo by Manuel Vazquez

He certainly seems a likely candidate. A gifted teacher of classics, Fosca (This name derives from the Latin “fuscus”, meaning “gloomy, dark, black, (voice) hoarse, hollow, cavernous, (of thoughts) dark, secret, occult” – uh, oh – from name-doctor.com) has a Svengali-ish charm. He has assembled around him a small cult, female students who dress alike, attend private instruction with him, and who knows what else? They are known as The Maidens. Zoe’s friend, Tara, had been a member. They, under the leadership of Fosca, are into an ancient cult that was particularly focused on the line between life and death.

Mariana couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical—her background in group therapy told her, as a rule, to be suspicious of any group in love with a teacher; those situations rarely ended well.

But, Mariana may not be in the best frame of mind to take this all on. We would expect that a trained psychotherapist would be a good judge of people, but looking at the world from behind the veil of her grief, gives us cause to question her judgements. She is still mourning the loss of her beloved husband, Sebastian, who had drowned a year ago, while they were vacationing on the island of Nexos, a vacation she had pushed him to take. Guilt much?

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Tarquin and Lucretia – image from Wikimedia

Michaelides offers us a list of alternate suspects. Among them are a dodgy university porter, an obsessed patient of Mariana’s, the Maidens themselves, and a young man who seems particularly enamored of Mariana, persists in wooing her, and who claims an ability to foresee things.

Mariana picks up some collateral support, including a former mentor still at the university, and an erstwhile school chum, who is now consulting with the police. He offers her access to investigation intel, over the objections of his superior, DI Sangha, in the seemingly-mandatory dickish cop role.

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Tennyson – image from The Daily Mail

There are some of the elements of a cozy here, the amateur sleuth, with a friend on the force, the violence taking place off-screen, local sources that help one suss out the landscape, and quirky secondary characters. But this one is more a thriller, with sharper teeth. It features an undercurrent of dread well beyond the mystery of a simple whodunit. The violence, even though we get no front seat to it, is biting. No Miss Marple, Mariana is not merely an outside observer, but a participant in this drama. And a potential victim.

I thought a lot about the secretive nature of groups as I was writing – especially within Cambridge. There are groups within groups. I studied group therapy myself, that’s what I specialize in. It all goes back to the classic mysteries that I love, from authors like Agatha Christie: Everything is always set in an enclosed location, like an isolated house, a train, a private island. Cambridge is similar.

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Trinity College – image from The Maidenssociety.com

Tennyson comes in for multiple mentions. Greek mythology figures large and Mariana even finds herself succumbing to a bit of atavistic religiosity at times. The mythology that permeates the novel is a particularly fun element, offering an incentive to crank up the search engine of one’s choice and dig in a bit. You may or may not recall the ups and downs of Demeter and Persephone, but there are some other items from ancient Greek stories that I bet you never heard of. It is always fun to learn these things. Michaelides grew up on Cyprus where, he says, Greek mythology was in the air. The old stories were part of general cultural knowledge, with the old plays being regularly restaged, like how we generate new films of Spiderman or Jane Austen novels here.

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Return of Persephone, by Leighton – image from Holographical Archetypes

Additional spice is provided by seven chapters that offer a psycho-side view of the world, an ongoing battle-royale between the dark side and the fading light. Is this our killer? Michaelides has a background in psychology, specifically group therapy, so writes strongly about both psychopathology, and treatment.

He was a screenwriter for twenty years before his first novel, The Silent Patient, was published to huge success. The lessons he learned from that experience translate into a fast-paced read, strong on visual flair, with excellent atmospherics and tension-building. We can easily engage with our lead. Mariana seems a decent sort. She has suffered a terrible loss, which increases our sympathy for her. It is not hard to root for her to ferret out the killer, and to remain alive.

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Leda and the Swan, date unknown, by Franz Russ the Younger (1844-1906) – image from the site Mara, Marietta

There were a few things that bothered me in the book. How could Seb, who was fit and a good swimmer be drowned by a stormy sea? Surely, he knew his limits. Why would anyone go to dinner at the private rooms of a suspected murderer and not tell anyone where they were going? Most significantly there are two characters involved in a major plot twist at the end. While there were some breadcrumbs established for one of them, it seemed to me that the hints re the other were sorely lacking.

That said, the bottom line is that The Maidens is a fun read, a real page-turner that will get your blood pumping, and offer an opportunity to refresh, or learn for the first time, some fascinating Greek mythology.

Death was no stranger to Mariana; it had been her traveling companion since she was a child—keeping close behind her, hovering just over her shoulder. She sometimes felt she had been cursed as if by some malevolent goddess in a Greek myth, to lose everyone she ever loved.

Review posted – June 25, 2021

Publication date – June 15, 2021

I received an ARE of The Maidens from Celadon in return for an honest review and some small blood sacrifices. Really, there is no need to involve the police.

Thanks, too, to MC for encouraging the gods and goddesses of ARE distribution on my behalf.

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

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

Interviews
—–Good Morning America – video 3:24
—–Entertainment Weekly – Alex Michaelides on the most unsettling elements of The Maidens by Seija Rankin
—–The Irish Times – ‘I asked myself what Agatha Christie would do, and what she hadn’t already done’
—–Barnes and Noble – Agatha Christie, Sleight of Hand, and Psychological Complexity: An Interview with The Silent Patient Author Alex Michaelides – by Jeff Somers – Obviously mostly focused on Michaelides’ earlier book, but there is material in here that is relevant to this book as well

Items of Interest from the author
—–Criminal Element – The Five Best Plot Twists in Fiction
—–Criminal Element – The Five Best Movies Adapted from Thrillers

Items of Interest
—– Eleusinian Mysteries and Psychedelic Enlightenment
—–Wiki on Eleusinian Mysteries
—–Greeking.Me – Demeter, the Lady of Eleusis – there is a nice summary in here of Demeter and Persephone’s difficult situation
—–Greek Legends and Myths – Leda and Zeus in Greek Mythology
—–Tennyson’s poem – Mariana

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, psycho killer, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

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Santi steps closer as she holds the light up to the gears. ‘Think we can fix it?’
Thora puts her weight to one of the gears and tries to shove it backwards. ‘No,’ she says, after a few seconds. ‘I’m afraid time has stopped.’
Santi tries to push the gear in the other direction. Giving up, he steps back. ‘I guess it has.’ He smiles at her sideways in the flickering light. ‘Welcome to forever.’
It’s a pretentious thing to say. But Thora has to admit that’s exactly how this feels: a moment taken out of time, with no beginning or end.

Imagine you are looking at the screen in a large cinema. There are blips in the image, fleeting, but present. As the film moves on to the next scene, there are more blips, holes in the image, with another image, another, pentimento film, going on behind the up-front film. Another scene on the big screen, with more blip, until the characters in the front film, look at each other and say, “did you see that?” As they slowly become more and more aware that there is something going on in the film behind them, they turn and watch, and their behavior in the front film changes, to take account of the new knowledge.

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Catriona Silvey – image from Harper Voyager – photo credit – Hazel Lee

That is what reading Meet Me in Another Life is like. Thora and Santi (Santiago) find themselves in Cologne. (neither is a native) They meet cute, at first, anyway. Until, oopsy, soon after they meet, tragedy. It takes only a short time to know that these two have a special bond, one that will persist through life after life, as one or the other is gone by the end of each of the eighteen chapters, to be reunited in the next. Their ages vary in each iteration. In a few they are the same age. In some, one or the other is older, a little, more than a little, or maybe a lot. Their positions of authority vary as well, parent/child, teacher/student, cop/trainee, patient/caretaker, if there is any such hierarchical relationship between them. They have varying personal relationships, with each other (bf/gf, married, prospects), or he with Heloise, she with Jules. But their passion for learning, for exploration, for science binds them together.

It is clear to us early on that there is a mystery to be solved. Why the recurring lives? Why the disparate ages, roles, and relationships? After a time, it becomes clear to Thora and Santi, too. They begin to realize that they have known each other and remember things from their former lives. Also, there are some consistencies, some places and characters that recur, unchanged.

Recurring elements (Santi’s cat, a tattoo on Thora’s wrist) first gain meaning through repetition, and then become touchstones, triggering inferences for the reader about how the characters have changed and where they might be headed. Once Santi and Thora realize they are trapped in a loop, they (along with the reader) must piece together the clues scattered through the narrative to figure out what might really be going on. – from the LitHub article

The notion that sparked the book is very down to earth. But these are two characters who are reaching for the stars, and Silvey’s solution was very fantasy/sci-fi-ish.

…the question was: can two people ever know each other completely? That led me to the idea of characters who meet again and again in different versions of their lives…I think of the book as an argument: Thora and Santi have very different attitudes to their situation, and that leads them to respond to it in different ways. – from the Deborah Kalb interview

There are obvious similarities to other works that deal in re-iteration. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (when Thora refers to herself as the Fox to Santi’s Wolf, is that a nod to that book?) uses the method in consideration of England in the first half or the 20th Century, and looking at the possible branches life might take were one to choose A instead of B, or B instead of C, giving the available choices a go until a desirable path forward is found. Thora, in particular, and Santi try this out, but it is not enough to solve the puzzle. Cloud Atlas is another novel offering common characters in diverse times (and places. This one is all in Cologne). Groundhog Day is the most famous cinematic rom-com loop and Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs gave it a similar go in 2020. 50 First Dates anyone? There is a clear romantic element in this one, too, as Thora and Santi are souls who are clearly meant to be together, (Yeah, I know, some might see them as merely tethered. But my take is that there is greater depth to their connection.) despite the fact that Thora is bisexual and has major hots for a woman, Jules, in many of the stories. Santi and Thora are a couple in others.

Their divergent perspectives offer a fascinating core to their discussions. He is religious, believes in God, an afterlife, and that there is a reason for being, maybe a mission even. Life should make sense. He thinks if he can figure out what God wants of him they can step outside their seemingly endless repetitions. She is an atheist and is having none of that. They talk about faith, determinism, eternity, and plenty more that raises this above the level of a simple entertainment.

Santi has always trusted in fate: that there is one way thing have to go. He isn’t literal enough to believe that the future is written in the stars—he’s doing a PhD in astronomy, after all—but his memories of other skies still unsettle him. The idea that there are other possible configurations for the universe, that God could be running them all in parallel, cuts against everything he believes. The only way he can reconcile what he remembers is to think that it’s a message, one he’s not yet ready to understand. He watches the world like a detective, like a poet, waiting for the meaning to come clear.

Santi’s faith seems more in fate than in the divine, given his inability to allow for a deity capable of managing multiple universes. But the faith he has, of whatever sort, is put to the test, repeatedly.

They struggle to know themselves, as much as they try to understand each other.

”This’ll never work, you know,” she says conversationally.
Santi frowns at her. “Who says?”
“All my exes. Most recently, my ex-girlfriend Jules. She told me when we broke up what my problem is.”
“What’s your problem?”
“I always want somewhere else. I’m never just—content to be where I am.”
He shrugs. “Neither am I.”
She gives him a look. ”What do you mean? You’re, like, Mr Serenity.”
A smile cracks his face. “That may be what it looks like on the outside. But inside, I’m always searching…We’re the same that way.”

As in any good mystery, there are plenty of clues sprinkled throughout the eighteen stories. Making sense of them is the challenge for us readers as much as it is for Thora and Santi. I was only partly successful at sussing out what was going on, even with keeping an excel sheet to track differences and commonalities among the stories. (Don’t judge me!) This is a good thing. Of course, you may be a lot smarter than me and figure it all out early on. That would be too bad. Not knowing, trying to figure it out from the clues provided, was part of the fun.

None of this matters if we do not care about our two leads. Not to worry. While both characters have qualities that raise them well above average, they often find themselves in everyman (and woman) situations and pedestrian lives. Their clear bond with each other is almost a third lead, so strongly does this come across. You will definitely be rooting for them to figure out how to get off what seems an eternal hamster wheel. The novel is as engaging and enjoyable as it is intellectually stimulating.

My only gripe, and it is minor, is that there seemed a bit too much exposition. There is nothing wrong with exposition, but the telling/showing seesaw felt a bit too heavy on one end at times.

Are Thora and Santi two star-crossed lovers or is their connection made in heaven? Only the stars (and the author) know for sure. Allow yourself to be delighted. There is plenty here that can generate that feeling. You may forget about this review, this book, for a while, but I am fairly certain the book, preferably, will turn up again in your life. Try your best. It will be worth your time. Remember.

If God’s test were easy, it would be meaningless.

Review posted – June 11, 2021

Publication date – April 27, 2021

If you are looking for a SUMMER BOOK, this is my rec – no-holds-barred, #1 fab beach read, or anywhere read.

The film rights have been optioned by Atlas Entertainment and Pilot Wave, with Gal Gadot to produce and star. I spotted much news coverage of this that was, IMHO, wrong-headed, in portraying the book as an LGBTQ sci-fi novel. Thora is indeed bi-sexual, with more story time with female than male partners, but that is sooooo not what this book is about. We do know that once Hollywood gets its claws on a novel, the end product can diverge dramatically (or even melodramatically) from the source material. This initial coverage is not encouraging. But then, many film-rights options are never exercised. So we, who favor hewing as closely as possible to written source material, are a long way from having to fret over this.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal, GR, and Twitter pages, and her academic site (Silvey has a PhD in language evolution, and has published numerous papers)

Interviews
—–Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb
—–The Royal Institution – Formatted Q/A – thin, but fun

Q/A

I asked Silvey a question on the Ask The Author part of her GR page, to which she offered a response in very short order.

Q – How did your research on the evolution of language manifest in MMiAL?

A – That’s an interesting question! My honest answer is “not really”… I did realise after writing the book that there is a linguistically informed way of thinking about time loops, and why they might be appealing to a reader – I wrote about that in an essay on LitHub: https://lithub.com/on-the-counterintu… But if my experience as a researcher influenced the book at all during the writing, it might be in the way Thora and Santi’s situation mirrors the strange, lonely-together rootlessness of academics – people who are usually foreigners in the place they’re living, brought together by shared passions, using English as a lingua franca but often talking past each other.

Songs/Music
—–Silvey’s Song list for Thora
—– Silvey’s Song list for Santi
—–What Silvey listened to on repeat while working on the book
———-Tom Rosenthal and dodie – Years Years Bears
———-The Mountain Goats – Love Love Love
———-Michael Stipe & Big Red Machine – No Time For Love Like Now

Items of Interest from the author
—–Silvey’s site – Excerpt – Chapter 1 – Welcome To Forever
—–Crimereads – Excerpt – Chapter 8 – 115 – We Are Here
—–Lithub – On the Counterintuitive Appeal of the Literary Time Loop – in this article, linked in Silvey’s Q/A response above, she explains very clearly how time loop narratives work in a literary framework. This is MUST READ material!

Items of Interest
—–Smithsonian – Félicette, the First Cat in Space, Finally Gets a Memorial – referenced in chapter 3, et al
—–Contact – referenced in chapter 7
—–I was intending to provide a link here to the Odysseum in Cologne, a science museum of note in the book, but their site is currently unavailable

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Sci-fi, Science Fiction, Science Fiction

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker

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If you have not yet read The Golem and the Jinni, stop! Right now! Go back. Read that, then we can talk about the sequel. Read it already? Great. Not yet? Ok, I’ll wait, but not for a thousand years, like some.

You’re back? Cool. Great book, right? So Chava, the golem of book #1 and Ahmad, the jinni of that tale, are a bit older, and a bit wiser. They are also a bit more rounded as characters. We’ll get to them in a bit.

The story begins with an extremely devout rabbi, Lev Altschul (very old school) on the Lower East Side (not the guy from the earlier book) He has come across some ancient texts, books with arcane knowledge. He is not the greatest parent in the world, a widower, much more devoted to his studies than his daughter, Kreindel. She is taken care of by, essentially, a committee of congregation members. But she loves her pop and wants to learn, wants to study. Of course, girls were not welcome to imbibe the texts that Jewish boys were encouraged to learn. She spies on lessons and picks up what she can. As it happens there is a pogrom underway in one of the usual places in Eastern Europe. The rabbi, with the help of those old books, can now do something about it. He determines to send to a rabbi in Lithuania a weapon that can be used to defend oppressed Jews there. He works day and night to construct a golem for them. It does seem that Wecker’s golems always run into transit issues. Instead of heading across the Atlantic, as planned, this one, Yossele, remains in New York, due to an untimely building fire. He awaits only wakening.

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Helene Wecker – image from Fantasy Book Cafe

Speaking of golems, Chava is trying her best to be as human as possible, given her natural limitations.

Q: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter? Adam from earth? The famous Golem of Prague, the greek myth of Prometheus, or Pygmalion? Frankenstein’s monster? Or even the idea of creating a modern robot? Did you want to write from those traditions or come up with something completely different?


A: I certainly wrote the Golem’s character with those legends and stories in mind. In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of Prague. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But it became clear that that wouldn’t do for a main character. So I made her more empathic, more “human” in that sense, and I think that brought her closer to the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question, of what happens when we create life that approaches human but isn’t quite. – from LitLovers interview re Book One

Despite being a magical clay being conjured by a spell, Chava still feels the compulsion to help others. And being telepathic allows her to have a pretty good idea of what folks feel, and need. Shutting out the onslaught of telepathic noise remains a challenge, but a much reduced one, as she has learned how to block a lot of it out, and she tries to stay away from overcrowded places. Concerned about people noticing her agelessness, after so long a time at the bakery, where she has been working since she arrived, Chava decides it is wise to move on. After completing a course of study at Teacher’s College, she finds an excellent gig at a Jewish orphanage in Manhattan, teaching cooking.

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Lt Commander Data of Star Trek NG – image from Wikipedia

Speaking of hot things, in Book One, Ahmad was mostly an elemental character, all fire and immediate gratification. Book Two shows a bad boy who can still bring the heat, but who has gained considerably more awareness, of himself, and of the world around him. He has grown a sense of decency, personal responsibility, and a need for purpose. He remains in business with Arbeely, the man who had released him from his thousand-year imprisonment in a flask. He molds iron with his bare hands. Business is good, booming even, so they expand to grander quarters, where Ahmad’s smoldering creative ambitions ignite to full blast.

Sleepless in Manhattan, Chava and Ahmad walk the streets and rooftops in the wee hours. They are best friends, committed to exclusivity with each other re the benefits of their connection. The young man enamored of Chava in Book One, her husband, is no more, killed off in that earlier tale. She is rightfully concerned about the downsides of having a husband or bf made of flesh and blood, and who might not live, ya know, forever, not to mention the risk of him discovering what she really is. Ahmad has sworn off humans, after the damage he did to Sophia Winston in the first book.

And, speaking of damaged heiresses, Sophia has been promoted to a top-tier character. She struggles to cope with the affliction that resulted from her getting jiggi with a jinni. I guess you could call it an STD, but not the usual sort. (Even had penicillin been invented, it would not have done the trick.) She cannot get warm. Sophia is convinced that only place where there is any hope of succor is the Middle East. She travels to many ancient sites, in a constant search for local experts in pharmacology able to concoct potions that alleviate her perpetual chill. (I suppose one might see in Sophia’s inability to douse her inner flames a symbol of her carrying the torch for someone. I wouldn’t. But some might.)

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Cleopatra’s Needle, was transported from Egypt and installed in Central Park in 1881 – image from Wikipedia

In case there were not enough magical beings wandering about, Wecker balances the scales, tipped by the weighty presence of Yossele, by adding one more. As it happens, Sophia encounters in her travels yet another fire being, a jinniyeh, Dima. It appears that the iron-bound jinni (Ahmad) is a character of legend in the jinni world. This female jinni has something special about her too, (I mean, aside from being a jinni, and going about her business unimpeded by attire) and is hoping to meet up with the only other jinni she has heard of who is also an outsider in their particular circle. She stands in contrast to Ahmad, presenting as the self-centered ball of fire he used to be.

Everybody wants something. Chava wants to be human; Ahmad wants a purpose; Sophia wants a cure; the jinniyeh wants a compatriot, maybe a partner. And in case that is not enough, Yossele wants to protect his master. Kreindel wants to study Hebrew and learn all that her father had learned. More? Remember Anna, a former workmate of Chava’s at the bakery? Chava had seriously put an end to Anna’s husband whaling on her, and subsequently helped Anna and her son, Toby. Anna is terrified of Chava and wants her to stay away. In this book, Toby is a fifteen-year-old Western Union messenger, who wants to know who his father is, and who that creep in his recurring dreams might be, and what the deal is with Chava and that Arab guy.

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Replicants from Blade Runner – image from NME

Wecker has seriously kicked up her game for this novel. There was plenty going in in the first book in terms of discussions about serious questions of religion and morality. That is no less the case in this one, with the exception that these characters are better drawn, more complex, and more interesting. They struggle with ethical dilemmas, and are challenged to make difficult decisions. There are some lovely interactions among them that will make you smile, maybe even recognize similar tete-a-tetes from your own experience.

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Pennsylvania Station – image from Traditional Building

This is not a ha ha funny book, but there are some elements of humor here and there. In a way it is a running joke that Ahmad, while working on a large construction, has continual problems keep the over-sized glass panels he has designed from smashing. Given that the primary ingredient in glass is sand, it seems fair to ask if Ahmad might be trying to build a literal sand-castle.

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Washington Square Park – circa 1907 – image from NY Public Library

Speaking of palaces, not all are hidden. The newly opened Pennsylvania Station, a glorious structure, is seen as a kind of palatial caravansery, a roadside inn for travelers from all over, where information was exchanged and commerce was conducted. It is a favorite spot for Ahmad on his urban peregrinations. He does not tell Chava about it, however, which makes Penn Station a bit of a hidden palace for him. Enough, certainly to merit being shown on the cover of the book. The ancient city of Palmyra, which we visit in Sophia’s wanderings, had once been a center of trade, and had a caravansary, but was mostly a ruin at the time of her visit. Palatial buildings are not the only old-world structures that echo in early 20th century Manhattan. The famous arch in Washington Square Park, erected in 1895, which was featured on the cover of The Golem and the Jinni, is reminiscent of the famous arch of Palmyra. The Greenwich Village arch is encountered again in Book Two. Cleopatra’s Needle, a two-hundred-ton obelisk, originally built in Egypt in the 15th century, was transported to Central Park in 1881. Sophia’s father visits it often.

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The arch in Palmyra – image from Wikipedia

There are many historical touchstones, as the book begins in 1900 and ends with the approach of World War I. Wecker notes the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the 911 of its time, with mass casualties, and people jumping from the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building to keep from being burned alive. We hear news of the start of World War I in Europe, come across the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and see the Arab community in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood beginning its move to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

We also see some of the anachronistic social and legal norms of the time. Kreindel is not allowed to study what Yeshiva boys can. Chava is not allowed to own property. Women walking alone at night are considered suspect. So the women in Wecker’s stories have to be extra strong.

I don’t think I set out to deliberately showcase strong women, but I did consciously work to give every female character her due. I was very aware that I couldn’t be lazy about the women in my book, that the Victorian setting and the “fairytale” aspects might pull me toward more stereotypically weak or flat female characters if I wasn’t careful. At the same time, I couldn’t be anachronistic; I had to be true to the constraints that women lived with in that era. In the end, I became very interested in how they lived with those constraints, how they either chafed against them or found a (perhaps uneasy) peace and a certain amount of self-expression despite them. – from the Fantasy Literature interview in 2013

Secrecy is a theme that permeates. Chava thinks Ahmad would prefer having a jinniyeh to her, but cannot bring herself to ask him. He is hiding from her what he has learned about a huge sacrifice Arbeely had made for him. Kreindel lies about her age, and is hiding the fact that there is a golem under her control in Manhattan. (For my money, Kreindel is the most intriguing character in the novel, a child with limited tools forced to cope with life and death decisions, in an often hostile environment. She generates both admiration for her tough-as-nails exterior and empathy for her suffering.) Sophia is hiding her need for a special potion. Dima hides from her kind what her special characteristic is. In addition to hiding from humans what she actually is, Chava keeps Riverside Park and the streets she walks by day secret from Ahmad, as he keeps Penn Station secret from her. Ahmad is working on a huge project in his building that he will not let anyone see. I suppose one might see each of these characters as their own walking, talking hidden palaces.

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The Williamsburg Bridge under construction circa 1900-1906 – image from the Library of Congress via Untappedcities.com

The whole Golem/Jinni duology (so far) might have gone in a very different direction. Wecker talks about how it all got started in a lovely interview with the blogger Lady Grey, who has, in fact, been a friend of Wecker’s since childhood. It was during her MFA program that Wecker ran into a problem. She had wanted to write a book of linked stories, family tales of cultural background and immigration. Wecker is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American. She was impressed by how similar their family stories were, and wanted to highlight that.

You don’t pay all that money for them to be nice to you. They’re gonna tell you what they think. I was having this conversation with a friend of mine, Amanda, who was in my workshop with me. She gave me probably the best tough love conversation I’ve had in my life. She said, “Helene, can I ask you a question? Why are you writing like this?” I said “What do you mean, writing like what?” She said, “Ok, you’re doing these very Raymond Carver, very realist short stories. Very MFA model. But that’s not who you are. I’ve been to your apartment. I’ve seen your bookshelves. I know what a nerd you are. And you are always talking in class about injecting the genre into literature, and busting down the barriers and bringing magic into stories and that’s what you groove on. So why are you not doing that?” I honestly had never thought of that. She had taken my head and whipped it around to where I needed to be looking at. You know I’m still like “But that’s not…these stories…don’t…with the,…that, no.“ She said “ok, look. The next thing I see from you in the workshop, I want it to be about your family, but I want it to be magical.” I was like, “Ok…well that’s my marching orders. I’m going to do what she said. I went home and sat and thought about it. It was, literally, two hours later I had the rough outline for what would be The Golem and the Jinni.” – from the Lady Grey interview

It has been eight years since The Golem and the Jinni was published. Why did it take so long to wrote Volume Two? When her first novel was published, Wecker had a one-year-old. That child is now nine and a second has joined the family. Go ahead, try writing a novel with a baby, then giving birth to another, then having small children to take care of, even if you are sharing the duties with your mate. Piece of cake, right? Her editor was pretty understanding, at one point even telling her that if she was not ok with what she had written so far, to take another YEAR! So, supportive beyond belief.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again. Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning. – from the Fantasy Café interview

I guess that may have provided the needed direction, but her real -world constraints remained, and the work took much longer than hoped. I have seen no affirmation that a third Golem/Jinni book is planned. A third book is expected from Wecker, but there is no certainty that it will be another Golem/Jinni novel. In the interview with Lady Grey, Wecker talks about having a slew of material that was cut from this book. It sounded to me like she was contemplating a volume of stories that could accompany her two novels. But the ending of this one presents several hooks that could be developed into a third novel. I know which direction I hope she takes.

My gripes are minimal. While there is some humor in the book, it could have done with a bit more. The larger concern is that, even with some elements resolved, there are some in need of further exploration, and, in the absence of a third novel in the series, the ending leaves one hanging. While I would place a cautious wager on the series being made into a true trilogy, it is far from a certainty that this will happen, so far as I know.

Her lead characters are complex, and sustain our interest; their wants and challenges are clear; the secondary characters work well to support the narrative stream; Wecker offers an insightful portrait of a place and time; the action keeps us flipping the pages, eager to see what happens next; there are intelligent and emotional discussions about real-world concerns and moral issues; and there are sane outcomes offered to the challenges the characters experience. Ultimately, as will become clear when you read this book, it was worth the extra time it took for The Hidden Palace to find the light of day. It is as intelligent, engaging, and delightful a read as you could possibly wish for. Helene Wecker is a gifted weaver of tales, a fabulous, magical story-teller, and she is only getting better.

Review first posted – May 28, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – June 8, 2021
———-Trade paperback – June 7 ,2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

—–Library Love Fest – An Interview with Helene Wecker, Author of THE HIDDEN PALACE – with Chris Connolly – audio – 36:21
—–Fantasy Literature – Marion chats with Helene Wecker by Marion Deeds – this one is from 2013, and deals directly with the first Golem/Jinni book, but the content of the interview is still very informative for readers of the current book
—–LitLovers – An Interview with Helene Wecker
—–Discovering Magic with Helene Wecker – audio – 42:19 – with Lady Grey – they were friends since grade school – Trek nerds

Items of Interest from the author
—–Fantasy Café – Women in SF&F Month: Helene Wecker – on her challenges in writing The Hidden Palace
—–Jewish Book Council – Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Odessa pogrom of 1905
—–Wiki on Palmyra
—–The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
—–The Hotel Earle
—–Penn Station

My review of The Golem and the Jinni

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City

The Perfect Daughter by D.J. Palmer

book cover

“When we arrested her, she was covered in blood—it was all over her body, in her hair—so when you come to the station, you should bring a change of clothes.…there are no visible wounds on Penny. But the victim was found deceased at the scene, and we believe it’s the victim’s blood on your daughter’s body.”
Grace got the impression the detective was holding something back.
“She’s calling herself Eve, but that’s not the name on her license.”
Again, a chill ran through Grace. Eve.
“She said she doesn’t remember anything that happened before we showed up. We think maybe she’s in shock, but we’re not sure,” Allio went on. “Is Eve a nickname?”
Grace paused, deciding how to answer. “It’s more complicated than that,” she offered.

It certainly is.

A bucket of ammonia, boats and water, a book with a blue cover. What do they all mean? The clues keep popping up, from different voices throughout the novel. Of course, the voices, however diverse they may be, all reside inside one body. Penny Francone is afflicted (or is it protected?) by a mental health condition now known as DID, or Dissociative Identity Disorder, what we used to call Multiple Personality Disorder. People with this are seen today as a single, splintered personality, rather than separate entire personalities vying for literal face time.

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D.J. Palmer, or Daniel Palmer or son of Michael Palmer – From Judith D. Collins Consulting

We are presented straight away with a particularly tough scenario. It was sixteen-year-old Penny’s birth mother, Rachel, a woman with a checkered past, who was brutally murdered. Penny had been found, unaccompanied, in a city park when she was four years old. Birth mother and daughter had recently reestablished contact, and Penny had gone to b-mom’s place to meet. Penny was found next to the body, covered in blood, holding the murder weapon. Did Penny kill her mother? Looks pretty open and shut. But perhaps it was one of her alters, Eve, maybe, or Ruby, or Chloe, or even some other, as yet undiscovered, alter. But the question remains. Is Penny a supremely gifted liar, fooling everyone, and truly guilty of slaughtering the woman who had cruelly abandoned her, or is there something else going on?

Grace Francone is terrified for her child. DID is not a fully recognized condition, and there is a strong likelihood that her teenager will spend the rest of her life in prison, for a crime she apparently cannot recall committing. She is currently being held in a less than cushy state institution, largely a grim custodial service for the criminally insane. Penny’s eighteen-year-old brother, Jack, serving the needs of exposition, is planning to make a documentary about his sister. We get his intermittent second-person commentary, as if he is telling Penny about his plans.

Your shrink at Edgewater was a guy named Dr. Dennis Palumbo, who we all despised. Well, maybe all but Ryan, because Palumbo thought the same thing he did: that you didn’t have DID. According to Palumbo, DID wasn’t even a real condition, and didn’t belong in the DSM…It’s thought that DID is just a variant of a borderline personality disorder, or in your case an antisocial personality disorder, and that the appearance of your alters is akin to fantasy play rather than a verifiable neurological state. In short, Palumbo thought you were an expert liar.

Thankfully, Palumbo (The name of this character, BTW, was sold at auction to raise money for The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation. There is a real-world writer/psychologist named Dr. Dennis Palumbo out there.) is replaced with a different shrink, someone with a more open mind, Dr. Mitchell Hughes, a guy with issues of his own, (does there exist a shrink with none?) but an eagerness to learn the truth about his patient.

In order for Penny to avoid becoming a permanent resident of a penal institution, she will need support for her not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea with an official DID diagnosis. Doc Mitch is skeptical, but willing to look at the facts. He and Grace form a team trying to ferret out the truth, and give Penny at least a fighting chance. Most mysteries entail sleuthing in the concrete world, and there is plenty of that here, for sure, but this Doctor Holmes and Ms. Watson must do a lot of their work inside the world of Penny’s personalities. It is far from elementary.

This was a bit of a change for DJ Palmer.

This was the hardest book I’ve ever attempted. There were so many moving parts and for my first ever mystery (mostly I do crawl out from a hole thrillers, not murder mysteries with clues peppered throughout). – from the Judith D. Collins interview

And nicely done too. It is the author’s third novel under this name. Saving Meghan came out in 2019 and The New Husband was published in 2020. But DJ Palmer is an alter, of a sort, for Daniel Palmer. He is the son of physician and noted author of medical thrillers, Michael Palmer. Daniel even wrote some books that were published under Michael’s name (“with Daniel Palmer”) after his father died. His books as Daniel tended toward the technological thriller sort, building on his years working in the tech industry, while those written as DJ tend more towards the familial and medical. Saving Meghan, for example, is about Munchausen’s by Proxy.

When I switched from writing as Daniel Palmer to writing as DJ Palmer, my themes changed along with my name. The DJ books delve more into family drama and psychological suspense. – from The Nerd Daily interview

As such, DJ can step back from the ready-set-flee that permeates so many thrillers and look at the family dynamics at play. Loyalty, for example, comes in for some attention. Grace is fiercely loyal to and protective of Penny, and her brother, Jack, is on her side as well, but big brother Ryan is more hostile than helpful. A question is raised as to where Penny’s loyalties lie regarding her birth mother.

The story is presented through several non-DID points of view. We see most through Grace, as she girds for battle, and enters the fray. Jack offers some exposition in his once-removed take, as he addresses Penny, as if writing letters to her. Finally, there is Doctor Mitch, who offers us medical expertise, and the step-by-step of exploring a very strange terrain.

Palmer offers not just a medical take on DID, but shows how it impacts in personal, family, legal, and medical ways, and how easily it can be misdiagnosed. He does a great job of showing how DID affects not only how her family relates to Penny, but how the world does. There are serious legal implications for her if the people in a position to decide her future deny the existence of the DID diagnosis entirely. In that case, it is off to jail forever. Life over. In addition, Grace having to take on the out-of-pocket legal costs and spend her time working on the case instead of at the family business (a pizzeria based on Palmer’s experience with owning a small restaurant) has serious implications for the family’s financial welfare, and stress level. It certainly turns on its head the supposed legal presupposition of innocent until proven guilty and shows how families of the accused are punished along with those charged with a crime. A dismissive diagnosis can destroy a life, but also cause collateral damage to all those connected to it. One of Palmer’s aims in the book was to dispel myths about the DID condition. He certainly changed my perception.

The action continues apace, as clues are found, investigated and incorporated or dismissed. This is a very readable, engaging thriller-mystery. But every now and then there are passages that made me break out into smiles.

On that bleak afternoon, Lucky Dog looked anything but. The dark interior had the ambience of a power outage… Four of the nine stools at the dark varnished wood bar were occupied by beefy men, who put the dive in dive bar… Behind the bar stood stacks of bottles that looked sticky even from a distance. The air reeked of booze and cleaners, overlaid by a whiff of desperation.

Just gotta love that.

DJ Palmer has integrated multiple elements, of medical mystery, suspense, family drama, and high-tension-watch-your-back thriller, into an engaging, white-knuckle read. Polly-Eve-Chloe-Ruby Francone may not be the ideal progeny, but The Perfect Daughter is a perfectly fabulous read. Set aside as many hours as it takes. You owe it to your self.

“Dr. Cross, who gave us the DID diagnosis, said that we all start out with multiple personalities when we’re young. Is that something you believe?”
“I do,” said McHugh, nodding. “It’s like learning about life through committee. Those disparate voices in our young minds help us figure out the world and how different environments and stimuli affect us. Do we like things sweet or sour; what’s funny to us; what scares us? By age nine, our experiences tend to mold us into the person we become, and all those likes and dislikes, our moods and disposition, solidify into a single identity—this concept of self.”

Review first posted – April 30, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – April 20, 2021
———-Trade paperback – April 5, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

My review of Palmer’s 2022 novel, My Wife is Missing

Interviews
—–The Nerd Daily – Q&A: D.J. Palmer, Author of ‘The New Husband’
—–Three Good Things – D.J. Palmer and Lisa Unger – chatty, offers a feel for the author, but is not particularly informative
—–The Poisoned Pen Bookstore – DJ Palmer in Conversation with Lee Child – This is a really good one
—–Judith D. Collins Consulting – Q & A with D. J. Palmer – there is a fair bit here

Items of Interest
—–The Perfect Daughter Discussion Guide
—–American Psychiatric Association – What Are Dissociative Disorders?
—– American Documentary – Busy Inside – the film is a documentary about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder – this link takes you to the film’s site, but not to the film itself

The following emerged from some inner rhymester

CLUES
Boats and water figure large,
a book with a blue cover,
A bucket of ammonia,
And meanings to discover

Ruby, Chloe, Eve, and Penny,
We’re not sure, in truth, how many,
Did an alter kill her mother
Or could it be it’s someone other?

Tough to question any one
So quickly are they here and gone.
But answers lie behind those screens
All is rarely what it seems.

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

book cover

I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window. She was little more than a dark shape with a predator’s hungry eyes, razor-wire skinny but somehow female, staring in through the partly open drapes. Sunrise lit up the thin, silvery hair that straggled out from under her hat. I should have leaped up screaming. I should have run at her with any weapon I could find. Instead I thought, I hope she’s not standing on my basil plants, hazy and unworried. Even half asleep, I knew that there was no such thing as witches. I’d long forgotten the most important thing the theater had ever taught me—that the human body can hold two truths at once. Even truths that seem to rule each other out: There’s no such things as witches, true. And I was looking at one.

Once upon a time is a familiar beginning. The Brothers Grimm (Jake and Willy) collected a trove of European folklore notable for, among other things, its dark content. Jackson was raised with those stories, (I always reference fairy tales in my books. Ever since I was a young child, I have been an avid reader. I like fairy tales, so I just put them in the stories. – from the No Apologies interview) maybe a bit more than most of us. She lends this part of herself to her desperate lead, with some added brio.

I’d been raised on Grimms’ fairy tales by a mother who saw the world as something huge and wild—carnivorous. Her world was full of witches.

And sometimes the darkness of life matches the depths of grim imagination. Soon after her first witch sighting, there is a second, at her daughters’ school. And all it takes is a momentary lapse of attention and her infant son, Robert, is snatched away. No changeling is left in his place, but there is a message. Follow my instructions to the letter, or else.

All my books, in some way or another, look with varying degrees of hope and cynicism at how far we can walk into the black and still be saved. What are the tiny lights that turn us and call us home, and why do some people see those faint, glowing calls, while others walk straight off the edge of the world and are lost? Many of my dearest people from my lost years are dead, or went into the prison system or disappeared. And me? I have this lovely life, much like Amy’s, where I go to book club, make lasagna and walk the dog. – from the Book Reporter interview

That certainly makes one wonder about Jackson’s wastrel past. The task she is forced to undertake has unexpected and horrifying results that threaten Bree Cabbat’s beautiful life. She had been born poor, but got a scholarship to college and then married well, securing an upper-middle-class utopia with a successful studly lawyer husband, three beautiful kids (well, for now anyway) a lovely home in a well-to-do neighborhood, and a satisfying community life. But, one wrong move and it could all vanish. How fragile life can be, no?

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Joshilyn Jackson – image from the Atlanta Journal Constitution – photo by Bob Andres of AJC

Poverty, class origins, the randomness of opportunity, the fragility of a happy life, all figure large in Jackson’s novels. Her previous novel, for example, Never Have I Ever, let us know that her lead, Amy, had done things that her family’s means were able to keep under wraps. But her comfortable life is threatened by a blackmailer who knows her big secret. In this one, Bree is stuck having to deal without even knowing what her nemesis is tormenting her about. Jax makes the point that for those with money or damn good luck it is possible to screw up and get a second chance, or a third, fourth and so on, while for those on the lower economic fringe, one mistake and your future becomes a hopeless, eternal present.

I serve on the board of a small non-profit, Reforming Arts (reformingarts.org.). We teach college-level liberal arts classes to people incarcerated in Georgia’s women’s prisons. I try to teach one semester a year, and so far, all my classes have been in the maximum security facility.
Our students are diverse in terms of age and race and orientation. The one thing they almost universally have in common is that they were raised in grinding poverty, often by disordered or abusive families. We punish the poor more quickly and more severely; sometimes it feels as if being poor is itself a crime.
– from Book Reporter interview

A lot of the impetus for Jackson’s writing about mothers derives from her personal experience.

…motherhood was transformative for me…I felt I became a more dangerous animal once my heart was living and breathing and toddling around on little fat legs outside of me, out in the dangerous world. – from the Book Reporter interview

Here we have two mothers at war. One is seeking revenge for a long-ago wrong. Bree is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her baby. Both are in full-on Mama Grizzly mode, and find a sort-of empathy with each other, despite the ongoing horror. Their links are not just through their common concern as mothers, but in their common class background. This bond between enemies is a technique Jackson carries over from her prior novel, Never Have I Ever, in which Amy Whey and her blackmailer, Roux, find themselves to be strangely sympatico, well able to understand each other, while those around them seem not to get them.

Never… represented a redirection of sorts for Jackson, away from romantic comedy-drama. But even in the books she wrote prior to that there were often underlying crimes that drove the action. So the shift to writing thrillers was not really all that big a change. It has been, however, a very effective one. Mother May I is a can’t-stop-reading-page-turning-keep-you-up-all-night domestic thriller. Every time you think you can see the road ahead, there is the squealing of brakes hitting a hairpin curve too fast, and, with a sudden acceleration, you are speeding off in another direction. (Re the books she loves to read, Jackson says, My favorite kind is the first reversal just 25% into the book, then stays windy from there – from the Inside Flap interview) This book has more twists than a box of rotini.

A strong piece of this novel is Jackson’s use of her theatrical background to support her character’s actions and capabilities. She was a theater major in college, has done some acting and even reads audio books professionally, not just her own. She gives Bree her theater training, the better to allow her to lie in public, with her words and her body. That’s what actors do, right? It helps Bree in dire circumstances, but also in lesser ones.

There are several elements that appear in some or all of Jackson’s novels. Deep secrets figure large, whether our lead is looking to penetrate one or defend against one of theirs being exposed. Class and family resources, or lack of same, are frequently core elements. That is very much the case here. There is a duel between antagonists. Check. Redemption turns up a lot. In fact, in the Library Love Fest interview, Jackson refers to herself as “a redemption-obsessed novelist.” Her characters, certainly her lead characters, seem to be in persistent need of cleansing from the wrongs they have done. That is less the case for Bree in this book, per se, but the need for redemption is still a strong element. Jackson has a gift for ending her chapters with hooks that generate many a late night ”goddammit!” as readers know that they will not be able to go to sleep until they can read just one more chapter, and then just one more chapter, and then just one more chapter, and so on. There are usually adolescents involved, although in this novel, they play a secondary role. Jackson is also fond of portraying constructed families. As with the teens, that is here, but in a very small way. She also includes fairy tale elements (check) and says that there is a Stephen King reference in all her books (not telling). Readers familiar with her work will be more than satisfied with Mother May I, holding to the familiar themes and story elements while adding some newer, harder-edged moving parts. Readers new to her work are in for a great treat.

In her Inside Flap interview, Jackson was asked, “Is it one of your goals, to have us think as we read?” She said, “My goal is to write a book that you can pour yourself a giant Marguerita, go down to the beach, have a great time and never think again if you don’t want to. But, if you want to, it’s there for you…there’s those layers. This is a book about class…how class plays into what justice looks like.” Either way, it works quite well.

No one’s personal history is lily-white. Some witches are real; the past never forgets and needs only a little prompting to come after you, teeth-bared; happily ever after is for fairy tales, and sometimes not even there.

Review first posted – April 23, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – April 6, 2021
———-Trade paperback – April 5, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

An aside. In the Book Reporter interview, Jackson said, “I’m working on a book called TWO TRUTHS AND A LIAR right now. The first line is: “The day my baby disappeared, I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.” I am not sure why the title changed, but I expect that opening line was thought to give away too much too soon. The baby is not swiped until chapter 2 in the final version.

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

Interviews
—–The Inside Flap – Ep. 119 Method Writing With Joshilyn Jackson by Dave Medicus – audio – 1:26:04 – start at 29:30 to 51:00
—–No Apology Book Reviews – Interview with Joshilyn Jackson (Mother May I) by Danielle
—–Library Love Fest – Editors Unedited: Emily Krump in conversation with Joshilyn Jackson, author of MOTHER MAY I – audio – 34:27 – A convo between Jackson and her editor
—–BookReporter – Interview: July 31, 2019
—–Los Angeles Public Library – Interview With an Author: Joshilyn Jackson by Daryl M.
—–Owltail – How Story Works by Lani Diane Rich

Items of Interest from the author
—–Novel Suspects – excerpt
—–The Atlanta Journal Constitution – Paths Not Taken – definitely check this out – it explains a lot

My reviews of other books by Joshilyn Jackson
—–2019 – Never Have I Ever
—–2017 – The Almost Sisters
—–2016 – The Opposite of Everyone
—–2013 – Someone Else’s Love Story

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller