Tag Archives: Mystery

My Dirty California by Jason Mosberg

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I love this state, I really do. Yet, at times, California feels like something hip someone in marketing tried to fit in a bottle to sell. California is the kind of place that can make a person who doesn’t care about flowers care about wildflowers. But there’s a dark history below California’s undeniably beautiful surface. A dark history with how its destiny manifested. Japanese internment. The LA riots. The California Alien Land Law of 1913. The Mexican-American War. Facebook. Sometimes I think California never left the gold rush era. Gold was merely substituted with other treasure to chase. Movies. Fame. Waves. Venture capital. Youth. Wine. Love. Spirituality. Technology. I guess I’m part of the everlasting, ever-changing rush.

When I first moved to LA, I realized no one here goes bowling. There’s too much to do. Marty Morrel did it all. He explored every inch of the city of LA, every crack and crevice of the state of California, and it’s all documented in hundreds of videos, thousands of pictures, and scores of essays and journal entries. Even if there hadn’t been any crimes, I think I would have wanted to make a podcast about Marty. But there were crimes. I thought murders would be the most disturbing part of this podcast, but that was before I learned about Pandora’s House. – from a fictional, unaired podcast

As you can see, My Dirty California opens with a fun, noir narration. The sensibility persists, although there is no troubled detective or PI asking uncomfortable questions, drinking too much, and getting beaten up. After that opening bit, Mosberg leaves the boundless beauty (the clean aspect?) of the state to other writers. This is today’s off-the-tourist-map California, violence, murder, drugs, trafficking, scams, surfer dudes, documentary film-making, outrageous, long-lasting parties, portraits of some Cali subcultures, a bit of mental illness, sleuthing, sex (only a little) and some serious other-worldly notions. There are LOLs to be had here, and even some tears. Jody, Pen, Tish and Renata are all searching for something, and Marty Morrel is at the center of it all.

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Jason Mosberg – from his site

Unfortunately for Marty he is not around, as he becomes late early on. After a ten-year hiatus he returned to his home near Lancaster, PA, where his father and brother, Jody, live. Soon after, a hooded gunman killed him, for reasons unknown, and his father, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But before his demise, he had clued Jody in to a project he had been working on

“I’ve been making this thing. I don’t really know what it is yet. It’s called My Dirty California.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s a website. But it’s really just a place I’ve been doing a . . . project. I didn’t even know what it was at first. I wasn’t trying to define it. Eventually it kinda became a video log, about my adventures or whatever. A place to store all the pictures I take. And I kept up with it. Posting these videos online.”
“So it’s a blog.”
“No,” Marty says…“It’s more a place I can store all these photos and videos and essays till I figure out what to do with the project. Maybe at some point I’ll edit them into a documentary or a piece of long-form web video art.”

When Jody decides to heads out to LA to find out what Marty was up to, what got him killed, that collection is his starting point, along with letters and postcards his brother had sent home. Jody is not the only person availing of Marty’s trove.

Penelope Rhodes is a documentary film maker. She’d had some success with an earlier film about a UFO, which gets her several meetings about her new project. The driving force of her life is finding her father, who vanished when she was a kid. However, this is a search with a difference. Pen has a rather peculiar idea of what may have happened to him, involving Matrix-like simulations. Don’t ask. She is fixated on finding a particular place, Pandora’s House, where she believes it might be possible to move from this simulation (the one we are all living in) to another, where her father might be. This obsession has made getting by in this simulation rather a challenge. In her explorations, she comes across Marty’s vast materials, and follows the clues wherever they lead, or wherever she imagines they might lead.

Typhony Carter is young, married, with one son. She works cleaning houses, but cannot get enough work to keep her family afloat. Her husband, Mike, is a dedicated father. But when they go to a rally about cops killing yet another black teen, Mike gets into it with a counter-protester and winds up in jail. Times get even tougher, so when a scheme appears, that involves finding a hoard of art, supposedly secreted away by a recently deceased collector/dealer, she takes on the mission.

Renata, 19, travels from Mexico to the USA hoping for a better life, not, of course, through the legal channels. There is a contact in LA who can help her, a family friend. But things do not go to plan and Renata winds up trying to survive an abduction. Marty had been trying to find out what happened to her. Now there are others looking as well.

The POV alternates among Jody, Pen, Renata, and Typh. Jody is our driving force, where we spend the most time. There are 89 chapters in the book. Jody gets 31, then Pen, 24, Renata, 18, and Typh, 16. The chapters are short, so the four stories move along at a lively clip, clearly a product of a screenwriter’s appreciation of pacing

It also makes it possible to read this whenever you have small bits of available time, if that is something you like to do.

Since this is California, wheeled transportation figures large. Almost all the characters are assigned an auto-trait, like hair or eye color, or age. Jody, for example, drives a gray pickup. Pen drives a Prius. People are tracked, as well as defined, by the cars they drive. There is an Acura, an Accord, an old Lexus sedan, a Ford Focus, even a Tesla, and plenty more. I only started keeping track part way through. It is a small, fun element. There are appealing. surprising cameos by a range of wild creatures. These include a kangaroo, a wobbegong shark, and a jaguar. The notion of moving from one reality to another is given a look beyond Pen’s particular take on it.

Mosberg offers sly commentary on local sub-cultures. He looks a bit at how good intentions are used for dark ends. One thing to be aware of, different characters are on unparallell timelines, although those timelines do intersect. Characters in adjoining chapters could be doing what they do months apart. I found it a wee bit disconcerting at first, as actual dates are not provided, but one soon gets used to it.

Character engagementJody is righteous, on an understandable truth-seeking quest. His motivation makes sense and he is easy to pull for. Pen is also on a quest, although it remains to be seen for us whether there is enough reality basis there for us to go all in with her. Wanting to find your lost father may be a noble ambition, but she may just be nuts. Pandora’s House may be just another conspiracy theory (she nurtures loads of those) Makes it a bit tougher to go all in for her emotionally. Renata is an innocent soul, a pure victim, beset by dark forces, just wanting a better life. But is there enough more about her in here to make us care beyond wanting her to escape? Typh is a decent sort, although, in order to provide for her family, she is willing to go legally and morally rogue. So, depending on what works for ya, you may find one or more of these four worthy of following. I enjoyed the weaving together of the strands, as they all continue to connect through Marty’s storehouse of intel.

There is a considerable cast of supporting actors. Two thuggish sorts were a particular delight, a source of considerable merriment. There are occasional bits in which this character or that is presented in a bit more depth, but that is not what this book is about. It is about the story, and, of course, the state.

Bottom line for me was that I really loved this book. It kept me interested, offered enough characters to care about, gave a peek into places and groups I have never experienced, in short it kept me entertained for the duration. You may or may not ever find your way to Pandora’s House, but you should have no trouble finding your way to a copy of My Dirty California.

“Various rumors exist about Pandora’s House. Some people say the architect Zaha Hadid was paid eight figures to design a top secret underground property in Southern California but she had to sign an NDA, and no one knows where it is. Another rumor suggests the Church of Scientology began building a two-hundred-million-dollar bunker but abandoned the project halfway through and sold the property to a couple millennials whose parents had made billions in the dot-com era, and they use the house to throw elaborate weeklong parties. Some say it’s where the notorious lizard people live underground. Other people say the house was constructed by the US government as a safe house for the top one percent in the case of an apocalyptic event.”
“Has anyone actually seen the house?” asks Matt.
“Lots of people claim to have. It’s difficult to know for sure.

Review posted – September 23, 2022

Publication date – August 30, 2022

I received an DRC (digital review copy) of My Dirty California from Simon & Schuster in return for a fair review, and surrendering certain tapes that had come into my possession. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to Mosberg’s personal and Twitter pages

Profile
Jason Mosberg works as a screenwriter and TV creator in Los Angeles. He is the creator of the CBS All Access series One Dollar

Item of Interest from the author
—–Crime reads – Don’t Turn My Book Into a TV Serieson the fixation in Hollywood these days on Intellectual Property, or IP.

I first wrote My Dirty California as a pilot script and I gave it to a producer I knew—let’s call him Bob—a couple years ago. And at the time, Bob said he read the script and it wasn’t for him. A few days after the announcement of the sale of the book My Dirty California to Simon & Schuster, Bob called and said, “I heard you sold a book, what’s it about?” He was interested. And he had no recollection of the script I sent him because he probably didn’t bother to read it. That was just a script. But this? This is a book. This is IP.

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Filed under California, Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

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The dead don’t walk. Except, sometimes, when they do.

It is a cliché to say that a building’s windows look like eyes because humans will find faces in anything and of course the windows would be the eyes. The house of Usher had dozens of eyes, so either it was a great many faces lined up together or it was the face of some creature belonging to a different order of life—a spider, perhaps, with rows of eyes along its head.

How many of you have not read Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher? Ok, now how many of you read it, but so long ago that you do not really remember what it was all about? All right, the link is right above, so, really, go check it out. Take your time. I get paid the same whether you take half an hour or a year, so no worries on my part. Pop back in when you’re done.

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All right, I think it has been long enough. Those who have not done the reading can catch up later. As I am sure you get, What Moves the Dead is a pastiche, a reimagining of Poe’s tale. Often these are temporal updates, moving the events to a more contemporary setting. But this one is different. Kingfisher (really Ursula Vernon) keeps Usher in the late 19th century. She supplants Poe’s thick style with a more contemporary, less florid, more conversational presentation.

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T. Kingfisher – image from her GR page

Poe’s unnamed narrator becomes Alex Easton, of which more in a bit. We first meet the lieutenant examining some disturbing flora.

The mushroom’s gills were the deep-red color of severed muscle, the almost-violet shade that contrasts so dreadfully with the pale pink of viscera. I had seen it any number of times in dead deer and dying soldiers, but it startled me to see it here.

Ok, definitely not good. Continuing on, Alex is alarmed at the state of the Usher manse.

It was a joyless scene, even with the end of the journey in sight. There were more of the pale sedges and a few dead trees, too gray and decayed for me to identify…Mosses coated the edges of the stones and more of the stinking redgills pushed up in obscene little lumps. The house squatted over it all like the largest mushroom of them all.

The invitation (plea) to visit in this version came not from Roderick Usher, but from his twin, Madeline. Neither sibling had had any children, so mark the end of their line, as many prior generations had failed to provide more than a single direct line of descendants. Both Madeline and Roderick look awful, cadaverous, with Maddy, diagnosed as cataleptic, quite wasted away and clearly nearing death. They are having a bad hair life.

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Redgill Mushroom – image from Forest Floor Narrative

There is another in attendance, Doctor James Denton, an American, whose primary narrative purpose seems to be to provide a conversational and analytical partner for Easton.

We track the demise of Madeline. Given her Poe-DNA, we know her chances for survival are not great. (But was she really dead in that one, or just entombed alive?) Add in a delight of an amateur mycologist, Eugenia, a fictional aunt of Beatrix Potter, who was quite an accomplished student and illustrator of things fungal. Potter is a pure delight upon the page, (maybe she used some spells?) possessed of a sharp mind and wit, and a bit of unkind regard for some. Other supporting cast include Easton’s batman (no, not that one) Angus, and his mount, Hob, who is given a lot more personality than horses are usually allowed.

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Image from from TV Tropes

So, plenty of dark and dreary, but the atmospherics are not all that is going on here. Kingfisher had read the book as a kid, but rereading it as an adult, found her curiosity piqued. She noted that Poe goes on a fair bit in his story about things fungal, so decided to dig into that as a possible reason for the sad state of the Usher land and clan. The result is a spore-burst of understanding,

…so I was reading old pulp, basically going, is there anything here that grabs me that I can see a story in. And I happened on Usher and I was like, I haven’t reread any Poe in a while. And I read Fall of the House of Usher and it’s obsessed with rotting vegetation and fungus. And it’s really short. And they don’t explain hardly anything…I wanted to know what was wrong with Madeline Usher because you get buried alive, that is a problem. And so I started reading about catalepsy which is what it was diagnosed as at the time and also fungus, there was just so much about fungus and I’m like, okay, obviously these two must be linked somehow.; – from the LitHub interview

There is a particularly creepy element, in the hares around the tarn that sit and stare at people through blank eyes. They do not behave like normal bunnies at all in other unsettling ways I will not spoil here.

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Image from Television Heaven

It is definitely worth your time to re-read Poe’s original. There are so many wonderful elements. One is a song that Roderick composes, which encapsulates the dark sense of the tale. There are some bits that were changed or omitted from the original. Poe’s Roderick was heavy into painting, an element that Kingfisher opted to omit. And he was particularly taken with Henry Fuseli, whose dark painting, The Nightmare, certainly fits well with the tale. His guitar work in the original was replaced with piano playing.

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The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli – image from Wikimedia

Kingfisher adds into the story a bit of gender irregularity. What to do if a non-binary person with mammaries wants to become a soldier? Well, these days, can do, but in the late 19th century, not so much. She learned of a practice in the Caucusus, borne of a shortfall of human cannon fodder. A woman could join the military by declaring herself a man, and voila, presto chango, she is legally a dude. Kingfisher took a tangent off that, giving Easton a home in a made-up European nation.

Gallacia’s language is . . . idiosyncratic. Most languages you encounter in Europe have words like he and she and his and hers. Ours has those, too, although we use ta and tha and tan and than. But we also have va and var, ka and kan, and a few others specifically for rocks and God… And then there’s ka and kan. I mentioned that we were a fierce warrior people, right? Even though we were bad at it? But we were proud of our warriors. Someone had to be, I guess, and this recognition extends to the linguistic fact that when you’re a warrior, you get to use ka and kan instead of ta and tan. You show up to basic training and they hand you a sword and a new set of pronouns. (It’s extremely rude to address a soldier as ta. It won’t get you labeled as a pervert, but it might get you punched in the mouth.)

This did not seem particularly necessary to the story, but it is certainly an interesting element.

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Image from Filo News

So, while you know the outcome in the original, (because you went back and read the story, right?) there is a question of causation. Why is the land so dreary? Why are the Ushers so ill? Why was the family tree more like a telephone pole? Kingfisher provides a delightful answer.

So, What Moves the Dead, in novella length, (about 45K words) provides an intriguing mystery, renders a suitably grim setting, offers up some fun characters, with an interesting take on gender identification possibilities, delivers some serious, scary moments, and pays homage to a classic horror tale, while (didn’t I mention this above?) making us laugh out loud. I had in my notes FIVE LOLs. Add in a bunch of snickers and a passel of smiles. Not something one might expect in a horror tale. Bottom line is that T. Kingfisher has written a scary/funny/smart re-examination (exhumation?) of a fabulous tale. What Moves the Dead moves me to report that this book is perfect for the Halloween season, and a great read anytime if you are looking for a bit of a short, but not short-story short, creepy scare.

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. – from The Fall of the House of Usher

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From Otakukart.com – image from Netflix

Review posted – September 9, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

I received an eARE of What Moves the Dead from Tor Nightfire in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating. Wait, why are you staring at me like that? Stop it! Really, Stop it!

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from GoodReads

T. Kingfisher is the vaguely absurd pen-name of Ursula Vernon. In another life, she writes children’s books and weird comics, and has won the Hugo, Sequoyah, and Ursa Major awards, as well as a half-dozen Junior Library Guild selections

Interview
—–Mighty Mu – Spoilers Club 3: T Kingfisher and What Moves the Dead – video – 41:08

Item of Interest from the author
—–Sarah Gailey and T. Kingfisher Talk Haunted Houses, Fantastic Fungi, and the Stories Nonbinary Folks Deserve

Songs/Music
—–Carl Maria von Weber’s Last Waltz is referenced in Poe’s story, in which Roderick played guitar instead of piano
—–John Brown’s Body – Smile-worthy reference to a dead person who still walks among us
—–Ben Morton – Beethoven’s Fifth on piano – …he played dramatic compositions by great composers. (Mozart? Beethoven? Why are you asking me? It was music, it went dun-dun-dun-DUN, what more do you want me to say?)

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Novella

Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivener

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For every girl child, there seemed to lurk a dead-eyed man, hair receding prematurely, with a car and the offer of a lift and a plan and a knife and a shovel. Did we create the man by imagining him or was he idling there in his car regardless?

None of us can escape who we are when others aren’t looking; we can’t guess what we’re capable of until it’s too late.

Durton, New South Wales, 2001, the hottest November ever. Twelve-year-old Esther Bianchi has gone missing somewhere between school and home. Authorities are alerted, and a search is on. Her bff, Ronnie, believes that Esther has not met a dark end, and is determined to find her.

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Hayley Scrivenor – image from Writer Interviews blogspot

Durton is not exactly a garden spot, although a suggestive apple does put in an appearance. It is a secondary town, to a secondary city, a drive west from Sydney measured in double-digit hours. While there may be some appealing qualities to the place, what comes across about Durton is that it is the back end of nowhere, a physical manifestation of isolation, and thus a fitting image for the isolation experienced by its residents, albeit not quite actual outback. It is a place where there are some who are, wrongfully, ashamed of who they are, and there are some others who should be. The main exports of Durton appear to be fear, pain, abuse, and despair. The local kids call it Dirt Town, which is the title of the book in Australia. The name fits. Not sure why it was retitled Dirt Creek for its North American release.

The action begins on Tuesday, December 4, 2001, with the discovery of a body. Then it goes back to Friday, November 30, tracking the events that led up to that discovery, and continues for a few days beyond. Over the course of these days, we follow Ronnie Thompson and Lewis Kennard, Esther’s mates, Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother, and Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels, the detective assigned the case, as they try to figure out where Esther is, and what happened to her, if anything. Ronnie is a first-person narrator, so we get a good close look at her. The Lewis, Constance, and Sarah chapters are in third person, but we still get a pretty good sense of what is going on inside them. The unusual element here is the presence of a first-person Greek chorus, speaking in the voices of children, and offering an omniscient view of the goings on.

I started a PhD in creative writing in 2016. It can be dangerous to ask me about collective narration because my research project looked at novels that had Greek chorus-like narration, and I can go on a bit. But I do have a clear sense of where Dirt Town the novel started. I sat down to write a short story from the point of view of the children of a small town, kind of like the one where I had grown up. What I wrote was largely just these kids coming home from school, but there was an energy in it that made me think it could be a novel. That writing is still in the book, pretty much as it was written. It occurred to me that if I was in these kids’ heads, then I needed something for them all to be looking at, thinking about: an experience that was as big as the town. One of the next flashes I had was that a girl had died, and the story grew from there. – from the Books and Publishing interview

Durton is a close-knit community in a way. Shelly McFarlane, for example, is best friends with Constance Bianchi, Esther’s mother. Shelly’s husband, Peter, is brother to Ronnie Thompson’s mother. There are more, but the connections in Durston occupy a place higher than purely communal, but less than purely familial. And yet, there are many ways to be, or to feel, alone. Constance is English-born, but married a local, and feels very out of place, as the cowboy-ish appeal of her handsome husband has faded under the weight of experience. Lewis has a secret that makes him feel very alone and vulnerable. Sarah must contend with her recent, nasty, breakup with her partner. There are abused people here, who are afraid to tell anyone, lest they suffer even more, given how ineffective or feckless law enforcement has been about such things. This includes a long-ago rape that was never brought to justice. As a part of this, people wonder if they have somehow brought their misery down on themselves, which, of course, only adds to their feelings of isolation. What makes them different also makes them feel alone.

The story moves forward in a moistly straight line, after the initial jump back. There is a bit of history on occasion, for backstory, and there is overlap as different POVs occur simultaneously, reporting events Rashomon-style.

The mystery unravels at a comfortable pace, with clues being presented, conversations being had, and determinations being made about whether this or that connects to the missing girl. There is other criminality going on in Durton that may or may not be related, and there is a pair of missing twins not too far away, whose fate may or may not have anything to do with Esther’s.

The characters are sympathetic and appealing, which makes us eager to keep flipping pages to see if they are ok, in addition to wanting to find out what actually happened. There are the usual number of red herrings flopping about in the bucket. The fun of the clues is trying to figure out which are germane to Esther’s disappearance and which are intended to throw us off the scent. There is also a fair bit about life in Australia, this part of it, anyway. The most interesting element of the novel for me was the Greek chorus. It took a while to figure out who comprised it. That puzzle was fun, too. And the chorus offers a tool for exposition, which worked pretty well.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable, well, considering the subject matter, engaging read, with interesting characters and a mystery that Scrivenor draws you in to trying to solve. Dirt Creek is an excellent Summer entertainment, good, clean reading pleasure.

We are not sure if it was our childhood or just childhood in general that has made us the way we are.

Review posted – September 2, 2022

Publication date – August 2, 2022 (USA)

I received an eARE of Dirt Creek from Flatiron Books in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal and Instagram pages

Profile – from Booktopia

Hayley Scrivenor is a former Director of Wollongong Writers Festival. Originally from a small country town, Hayley now lives and writes on Dharawal country and has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wollongong on the south coast of New South Wales. Dirt Town (our Book of the Month for June!) is her first novel. An earlier version of the book was shortlisted for the Penguin Literary Prize and won the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award.

Interviews
—–Booktopia – Ten Terrifying Questions with Hayley Scrivenor
—–Books + Publishing – Hayley Scrivenor on ‘Dirt Town’
—–The Big Thrill – Much More Than a Familiar Whodunnit by Charles Salzberg
—–Crimereads – COLLECTIVE NARRATORS: THE BEST USES OF THE FIRST-PERSON PLURAL IN LITERATURE
—–Mystery Tribune – A Conversation With Australian Mystery Writer Hayley Scrivenor

Item of interest – author
—–Kill Your Darlings – Show Your Working: Hayley Scrivenor

tiny Q/A
I wondered why Scrivenor had set her story in 2001 and if there were any particular significances to her characters’ names, so I asked, on her site. She graciously replied.

The simple answer to the setting question is that the character of Ronnie is twelve in 2001, and so was I – so it helped me keep my timeline straight!

For the names query, she referred me to an interview in which some of the name considerations are addressed. Here is her response from there:

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the names of characters. Some have been the same almost since the start: Veronica, the missing girl’s best friend, goes by ‘Ronnie’, and that always felt absolutely right for her character. The character of Lewis, a young boy who sees Esther after she’s supposed to have gone missing, gets called ‘Louise’ by his classmates, I had to reverse-engineer a name that kids could play with in that way. Sometimes, names can become a little in-joke with yourself, too. There is a character named ‘Constance’, who is the mother of the missing girl. I called her Constance because she changes her mind a lot, over the course of the story.

—–Author Interviews – Hayley Scrivenor by Marshal Zeringue

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Some of It Was Real by Nan Fischer

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Today an image slips through the carefully constructed peace . . .
Pale sand beneath my feet, a blue-green ocean, foam nibbling at my bare toes. Behind me, a castle—ornate turrets dotted with pale pink shells, a drawbridge made from delicately curved driftwood, beneath it, a moat where tiny paper boats rock in the breeze. A wave gathers on the horizon. It grows taller and white horses gallop across its face. When the wall of salt water strikes, the castle will be destroyed and with it a treasure, something precious . . .
The vision disintegrates. Ghostly lips brush my cheek. I know what’s coming next. A whisper I’ve heard intermittently my entire life.

“It’s important you understand that I don’t have a clear definition for what I do. Psychics use their intuition or spiritual guides to gain information about the past, present, or future. Mediums are channels that deliver messages from those who have passed over. I’ve been called a psychic-medium, and that’s as good a definition as any. But the truth is that I’m not sure why I hear voices, see images, sing at times, or scribble notes—it just happens and I can’t tell you how because I truly don’t understand it.”

Sylvie Young has just gotten a TV deal, the product of a successful run of live stage performances and a top-tier agent. Life is good, and about to get better. Sylvie’s shows are of the psychic sort. Select audience members, offer a connection to a lost one, solve some riddles, answer some unanswered questions, and mostly, offer comfort. Syl is very good at this. But not all of her connections are of the psychic sort.

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Nan Fischer – image from her site

Thomas Holmes is a cynical reporter on a mission. For personal reasons, Holmes believes that all psychics are fakers. It is elementary. His current project is to profile several psychic-mediums, intending to expose their chicanery and, if at all possible, destroy their careers. Which is something he knows a bit about. His own career in journalism has suffered some major blows, to the point where this major takedown piece may be his last chance to salvage his own career.

Both are struggling to deal with their origin stories (Sylvie even opens her shows by telling hers, at least what she knows of it) and their self doubts. Sylvie’s arc is a quest to find out what really happened to her biological parents, explain why she is beset by nightmares of a particular sort, and maybe discover where she acquired her very real personal talent. But is it real, really? Thomas suffered a trauma in his youth that has defined his life. Until he can confront that, the life he has made for himself will never be a proper fit. This is the true core of what Nan Fischer is writing about.

One of the seeds that started this novel with my fascination with imposter syndrome—the inability to believe one’s success has been legitimately achieved or deserved. I wanted to create a character, Sylvie, on the cusp of achieving great success but who doesn’t quite believe she deserves it. I made Sylvie a psychic as that gift is controversial—the perfect job for someone doubting her abilities due to all the critics! – from Hey It’s Carly Rae interview

Thomas has run into some dead ends digging into her past. There are no records of her parents’ supposed plane crash deaths when she was four. He wants her help to dig into this further. She has an interest, as it is a mystery to her as well. And if she can prove to him that she is not a grief vampire, he will drop her from his story. Of course, he expects he will never have to make good on that, as psychic powers are all BS, right? And the game is afoot.

the stories we tell from childhood that have shaped who we are – are based on old and sometimes faulty memories. It’s up to each of us to decide what to accept or discard from our origin stories and to decide who we ultimately want to be in life. – from the Jean Book Nerd interview

Many of the curtains Sylvie needs to part were placed there by others. Thomas erected his barriers to self-knowledge himself. Part of their interaction is Syl challenging Thomas to look deeper into the sources of his own demons, as Thomas challenges Sylvie to examine the ethics of how she is making her living. (“What was the fair lady’s game? What did she really want?” – Sherlock Holmes in The Second Stain)

As one might expect from a book categorized as romance, these two develop an attraction. That complicates matters. How can a journalist write an objective piece about someone with whom he is romantically engaged? He may be trying to take her down, but she is also looking for ways to manipulate him into a more benign view of her and her work. The cynic vs psychic dynamic is entertaining for a while, but Thomas’s relentless disregard of evidence gets a bit old. Really, dude? Still?

Fischer gives us a particularly interesting look at the profession of psychic-medium, offering a perspective that elevates it beyond being merely a connection to another side, whether real or faked. She connects it to something greater.

The structure is alternating chapters, his and hers, both first-person narratives. The voices are effectively different. It is a cat-and-mouse competition, although it could easily be a cat-and-dog one. Sylvie’s constant companion is a very large Great Dane, and Thomas travels with an elderly feline. (Fischer even manages to give her own dog, Boone, a cameo) He keeps trying to find holes in her schtick. She keeps trying to move him beyond the purely factual. Another Holmes might say when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, but Thomas clings to his biases tenaciously.

I was not all that taken in by their supposed attraction, never quite bought it, and wanted the sex scenes to be over quickly. But I did enjoy their mutual interest in helping each other out. I also had trouble with Sylvie’s relationship with her parents, who seemed far more reluctant to share information with their daughter than seemed reasonable, particularly considering that she is a grown-ass woman when she is pleading for intel about her past, intel that they have. Their rejection of her seemed unnatural, very un-parental.

What keeps the story moving along is a steady stream of interesting clues and the pair’s ingenuity on following up on them. There are some pretty nifty twists. It is fun tagging along on the procedural, mystery-solving element of the story. Overall, Some of It May Be Real is an engaging story, a mystery, wrapped in a bit of fantasy, a quest of self-discovery featuring an ongoing cynic-psychic battle, as both Sylvie and Thomas dig into their origins as a way to confront their demons and feelings of inauthenticity. It offers some intrigue, some chills and some very real tears. It is authentically entertaining.

What surprised me most about writing Some Of It Was Real was that I thought my research would lead me to a conclusion about what I believe. I watched documentaries, movies, and TV shows about psychics, clairvoyants and mediums and read studies and articles written by individuals whose goals are to prove the supernatural is a hoax. But in the end, the only real conclusion I drew was that some of it might be real. – from Thoughts From a Page Podcast

Review posted – August 26, 2022

Publication date – July 28, 2022

I received an ARE of Some of It Was Real from Berkley in return for a fair review. Wait, does the number four have any particular meaning for you? I am also seeing something shiny. Sparkles, maybe? No, stars. Yes, definitely stars. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal,
Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages
Profile – from her site

Nan Fischer is the author of Some Of It Was Real (July 2022, Berkley Publishing), and the young adult novels, When Elephants Fly and The Speed of Falling Objects. Additional author credits include Junior Jedi Knights, a middle grade Star Wars trilogy for LucasFilm, and co-authored sport autobiographies for elite athletes including #1 ranked tennis superstar Monica Seles, Triple Crown race winning jockey Julie Krone, Olympic gold medal speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, and Olympic gold medal gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Shannon Miller.

Her prior work was published under the names Nancy Richardson Fischer, Nancy Richardson, and Nancy Ann Richardson. Some of it was Real is her first book under the name Nan Fischer.

Interviews
—–Jean Book Nerd – Nan Fischer Interview – Some of It Was Real
—–Hey, It’s Carly Rae – Author Interview with Nan Fischer
—–Writers Digest – Nan Fischer: On Overcoming Imposter Syndrome by Robert Lee Brewer
—–Thoughts from a Page – Q & A with Nan Fischer, Author of SOME OF IT WAS REAL by Cindy Burnett
—–BookBrowse – An interview with Nan Fischer
with Katie Noah Gibson

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – full text of The Man Without a Country by Edward E. Hale – referenced in Chapter 19
—–The Poe Museum – full text of The Cask of Amontillado – by Edgar Allan Poe – referenced in Chapter 21

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Project Namahana by John Teschner

book cover

They talk about shareholder value because they need to call it something. But there’s no accountability, not to shareholders, not to anyone. It’s chance. You can do everything right, but if there’s a drought in India and orders drop ten percent, you’ll be blamed. Unless you can get transferred in time for the blame to hit the next guy. And it goes all the way up. No matter what anyone tells you, or what they believe about themselves, all anyone is trying to do is make sure there will always be a chair for him to sit on when the music stops.”

“To quote Dr. Wilson,” said Professor Higa, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. Can anyone explain?”

Project Namahana is a book about responsibility. Who accepts it. Who ducks it. How it is spread around so thinly that it ceases to have any substance. Are you responsible if you shoot someone? Sure thing, unless they were shooting at you first. Are you responsible if people are killed because of decisions you made? It begins to get tougher. What if you’d known there was potential for harm? It can be difficult to assign personal blame, particularly when decisions are made by a range of people.

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John Teschner – image from The Big Thrill

Jonah Manokalanipo takes his son and two cousins to a nearby dam for a swim. When he returns for them, after a heavy rain, he finds all three dead. What killed them? Jonah has an idea, and raises a huge fuss.

Micah Bernt is a military veteran, a loner mostly, seriously PTSD’d. He uses this to keep people at a distance, for their safety. He is not completely wrong to do so. Bernt is living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, working selling outboard motors, renting a small place from a friendly older couple. He finds their comity off-putting, not wanting to get too attached and maybe expose them to his darker side. There is one. He did not get his screaming meanies from spending too much time in a knitting circle. There is plenty of guilt to go along with his unwelcome memories.

Michael Lindstrom is an exec with the Benevoment corporation, producers of GMO seeds and bespoke pesticides. There is a particularly promising project underway on Kauai that could yield major gains in production. But it is not quite ready for prime time, and the upstairs suits are eager to try something else, a different genetic mix, that would be particularly harsh on non-buyers. Lindstrom has been in charge of the older product line since its inception, and wants the company to hang on with it just a bit longer. But when it is implicated in the deaths of several local boys in the Namahana area of Kauai, Lindstrom is sent from the home office in Minnesota to get things sorted. Of course, there are additional complications as there might just be a connection to the several locals who have gone missing or worse.

From the sociologist Robert Jackall I learned corporate managers make directives as vague as possible, forcing those lower down the chain to make ever more concrete decisions. And from Stanley Milgram, I learned it’s human nature to shift our model of morality when following orders, justifying actions we would never do on their own. – from Teschner’s Tor/Forge article

Bernt’s landlord, Clifton Moniz, is one of these. The circumstances of his death are seriously hinky. Moniz’s widow, Momilani, knowing that Bernt has some military police background, asks him to look into the death for her. And we are off to races.

Chapters flip back and forth, mostly between Bernt’s local travails and Michael Lindstom’s coming of conscience, as he begins to really feel responsibility for what his company might have done, recognizing that many of the relevant, bad decisions that had been made by the company had been his. He engages not only in an investigation of the problem at Namahana, but in considerable soul-searching.

[the] novel was inspired by a NYT Magazine story of structural violence: for decades, as told by Nathaniel Rich, DuPont factories dumped toxic chemicals in West Virginia streams, abetted by permissive regulators and a corporate bureaucracy that distributed the action of poisoning other human beings into a chain of indirect decisions carried out by hundreds of employees. – from Teschner’s non-fic piece in the Tor/Forge blog

Both Lindstrom and Bernt are on roads that lead to the same place, literally, as well as figuratively. Micah and Michael (maybe the reason for the similarity in names?) are both in great need of redemption, Michael for his managerial sins, Micah for whatever crimes had gotten him discharged from the military with an honorable discharge but maybe not so honorable a final tour.

There is considerable local color, showing a part of Hawaii that is not on the postcards or tourism brochures. Teschner lived on Kauai for seven years, so, while not a native, he knows a bit about the place. This includes not only elements of the local economy, but the relationships among the residents. There is considerable use of local lingo. I read an EPUB, so do not know if the final version includes a glossary. You might have to do some looking-up, but not at a problematic level.

Literally millions of people visit Hawaii every year, but I venture to say that few will find anything familiar in here except for the landscapes. The tourism industry on Hawaii has been so successful, the unique culture of the island itself is almost completely hidden by the stereotypes and the carefully managed visitor experience. – from the Big Thrill interview

Teschner may have presented us with a purely evil Benevoment ag-biz corporation, but his company exec is much more nuanced. We get that he is a well-meaning sort, who sees his work as helping ease world hunger, even if there might be some collateral damage in getting from place A to place B on that road. Micah Bernt is also a good-hearted soul, even if that soul may have acquired some indelible stains. These internal conflicts give the leads some depth. That said, we do not learn enough about Micah Bernt’s challenges while in the military.

Project Namahana looks at systemic, institutional violence foisted on locals by higher-ups in government, the corporatocracy, or both, looks at how personal responsibility fits into that, and fits his two leads with a need for expiation. It is fast-paced and action-packed, with the requisite twists and turns, and even a complicated love interest for Micah. We get to see both the welcoming aloha tradition and the darker side of a brilliant place. It is a fine first novel, showing some serious talent. I expect that the proper reaction to this book is to say Mahalo.

The newest version was the most effective yet, but the tweak in chemistry had made the volatility worse. Morzipronone wouldn’t stay where it was sprayed: a slight breeze carried it miles. It didn’t matter what they put on the label; no application guidelines could prevent drift onto neighboring fields. Any crop that wasn’t genetically modified to resist it would cup and die after just a few exposures.

Review posted – July 22, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

I received an eARE of Project Namahana from Tor/Forge of Macmillan in return for a fair review, and some of that wonderful Kona coffee. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Profile – from the Big Thrill interview

John Teschner was born in Rhode Island and grew up in southern Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, professional mover, teacher, and nonprofit grant writer. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya and rode a bike across the United States. He spent seven years living on the island of Kaua’i with his wife and two boys, where he helped lead Hui O Mana Ka Pu’uwai outrigger canoe club and became a competitive canoe racer. He now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where he is learning how to stay upright on cross-country skis. PROJECT NAMAHANA is his first novel.

Interview
—–The Big Thrill – Project Namahana by John Teschner

Items of Interest from the author
—– The Non-Fiction Pieces That Inspired Project Namahana by John Teschner
—–Tor/Forge – excerpt

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Local Gone Missing by Fiona Barton

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…my childhood was one long nightmare, really. But this is different. Unfinished business—a time bomb ticking quietly like a second heart in my chest.

He’s been up to his old tricks again.

All is not what it seems. Ebbing is a small coastal community, rich with day-trippers, and increasingly, week-enders. We meet a cast of locals, Dave, the owner of a pub, The Neptune, Toby and Saul, who own The Lobster Shack, the postwoman, Pete Diamond, a new arrival eager to run a music festival, the unspeakable Pauline, and plenty more.

Elise knew that Ebbing wasn’t like its neighbors, Bosham or West Wittering. It didn’t feature in the Bayeux Tapestry or have thousands of visitors surging in like a spring tide on a nice day. An old fish factory with a corrugated roof squatted in the armpit of the curved sea wall guarding the harbor, and the ten thousand inhabitants lived mostly in prefabs, housing estate boxes, and salt-stained bungalows rather than thatched cottages but Elise didn’t mind. It felt a bit more real—and it was all she could afford on her own if she wanted to be by the sea. She’d never really considered it until recently—she was a city girl, through and through—but she’d worked up this fantasy that the sea would be company.

DI Elise King, 43, is on extended leave, still recovering from, and being treated for, a nasty bout of breast cancer. Well, that and a broken heart after the sudden end to a long-term relationship. Being stuck, unable to properly get back to major-crimes work is a hardship of another sort.

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Fiona Barton – image from the Madeline Milburn Agency

Luckily for her, there just happens to be a notable local person missing in Ebbing. Charlie Perry is 73, silver-haired, (I see Bill Nighy) a particularly friendly sort, a local sweetheart, with an adult disabled daughter on whom he dotes. He is involved in many local charities, and has a kind word for everyone. We meet Charlie in the prologue, affixed to a chair, gagged, waiting for his captors to return, desperate to escape.

The second piece that gets Elise moving is Ronnie, her charming, if intrusive, next-door neighbor. A particularly effervescent sort, she bubbles over on learning that Elise is a murder detective, and nudges her to get involved in solving the mystery of Charlie’s disappearance, unofficially of course, and just by following small leads.

But there are other local curiosities that bear looking into as well. Two young people collapse at a local music festival after consuming some tainted drugs, (how did those drugs get there?) and a local barn catches fire mysteriously. There is a fair bit of unfaithfulness, more than a bit of financial distress, and lots and lots of secrets.

Of course, small leads lead to more questions, which lead to more leads which lead to… and on it grows. This offers Elise a way to test out her weakened physical and mental muscles, building her confidence, as long as she stays in the good graces of her colleagues in the local constabulary.

The structure is to alternate current action (in which Elise, with Ronnie, conducts a private investigation and in which sundry characters try to cope with emerging facts) with a recounting of events that led up to the present unwelcome state of affairs. We go back to seventeen days before Saturday, August 24, 2019, and step up to the present, day by day for the most part. Chapters are labeled with when events take place using the metric of the number of days before August 24. Both current and look-back chapters shift POV. Our primary character, Elise King, takes the most (37) but Dee, her house-cleaner takes up a fair number (19). Charlie gets 8 and 9 chapters are distributed among other characters. Barton is a master at presenting diverse POVs. It is always clear who is speaking, whose eyes are providing our witness.

One lovely element of this Fiona Barton novel was the rise in prominence of place. It has not been a major focus in the past, except in The Suspect, which included a lot about Thailand.

We moved here three years ago and it was lovely because we’d never lived by the sea before. So I had all this new material when we moved here. Lots of new people to watch and y’know, take notes about and so I decided that I would set my next book in Ebbing. Fictitious town. Did not want to get weighed down by a real location…I’ve had a lot of fun…describing this small rundown seaside town…It is not one of the chi-chi ones that everybody wants to buy a property in, but it’s full of characters. – from The Poisoned Pen Bookstore interview

She writes about the tension experienced in any gentrifying place, as locals become economically squeezed by more affluent outsiders. Another change for Barton this time is that her main character is a detective. Her prior series featured a journalist, reflecting Barton’s many years as a pro in that field.

In any mystery there are two general things to look at, the story itself (Is it interesting? Does it make sense?) and the appeal of the lead. Do you want to spend 384 pages with this person? Not to worry. We are introduced to Elise King as she is struggling to work her way back to the love of her life, the thing she is best at, the thing that gives her the most satisfaction, her work. The limitations she experiences are the result of her illness, an act of God essentially, and not the product of substance abuse or moral failing. Another element that is crucial to a satisfying mystery, a subset of story I guess, is that it offers surprises. You may need a neck brace to prepare for the whiplash from the many twists that Barton has woven into her plot. There are a couple of particularly good ones near the end.

The supporting cast is a true strength in this one. Dee gets a lot of screen time, so we get to know her second-best. It is a fun challenge trying to figure out what is going on with her. Pauline, Charlie’s wife, is comedically awful. Ronnie is a wonderful support and much-needed nudge for Elise. I was very happy to learn that Barton plans another Ebbing-based tale, and Elise and Ronnie will both be back.

Bottom line is that I found Local Gone Missing to be an entertaining mystery, with engaging characters, a compelling core story, and a string of related events that is tightly woven into a very readable book. If you can locate a copy you will not be sorry.

“You have to remember that monsters don’t look the part, Ronnie,” she said. “They’re not marked out in any way. If only . . . They live among us in plain sight. In their cardigans and sensible shoes. They have library cards, buy a poppy for Remembrance Day. They’re the man or woman next door who picks up a pint of milk for you, asks after your parents, or takes in parcels from deliverymen.” All the while planning their next act of depravity.

Review posted – July 1, 2022

Publication date – June 14, 2022

I received an ARE of Local Gone Missing from Berkley in return for finding it in myself to write a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interview
—–The Poisoned Pen Bookstore – Fiona Barton in conversation with Barbara Peters. Barton discusses Local Gone Missing – video
—–Crime Café – Interview with Crime Writer Fiona Barton: S. 8, Ep. 1

My review of an earlier book by Fiona Barton
—–The Suspect (Kate Waters #3)

Songs/Music
—–Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Theme song to Peaky Blinders – Red Right Hand – referenced in chapter 14

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A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari

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Dr. Henry glared at Blake and snatched the champagne glass from her hand. “I can pour my wife’s drink well enough, Blake.” He sloshed a dollop of liquid into her glass, refilling what he had just caused to splash out. He smiled obnoxiously at Mrs. Henry as she accepted the glass from him and took a drink.
With a cold smile to her husband, she said, “Thank you, darling.”
Then Mrs. Henry crumpled to the floor and lay quite still.

Saffron Everleigh is Dr Maxwell’s research assistant in London’s University College biology department, the only woman employed there and thus the subject of whispers. Science was making great strides in the post-war world, but 1923 was maybe not the best time to be a young woman trying to build a career in a heretofore male field. It helps that her father was a renowned biologist, but she must face serial sexism and some truly odious individuals in her quest to advance her studies and career. She finds herself facing a very different challenge, though.

…when I taught fifth grade American history, the story of how America developed felt like a story instead of a bunch of names and dates in a book. Writing about the ‘20’s feels the same- so many things were happening as a result of World War One that influenced everyday life. Technology and science were exploding with new discoveries, women were finding their new place in the world, millions were adjusting to horrible new realities of destroyed countries, bodies, and minds, and politics were ever-changing and charged with fear and hope. It’s a fascinating time to write about.

When we meet Saffron, she is enduring a department party at the grand home of a major donor, and meeting-cute the studly, witty, but mysterious Alexander Ashton, who will become her partner in this. Are those sparks igniting between the two of them or maybe just some spores floating in the air? Ashton is a biologist AND a microbiologist, a weird coincidence, as Khavali’s husband just happens to be a biologist AND a microbiologist too.

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Kate Khavari – image from her site

At the party we are introduced via observations and overheard conversations to a series of characters and potential conflicts. We are let on, for many, to just what we should think of them.

Harry Snyder, Dr. Henry’s assistant, was seated on her other side. With small brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, and thin lips that emphasized his large, impeccable teeth, he looked rather like a rodent. His demeanor, skittish and reticent, matched his mousy appearance.

Probably not setting Snyder up for a heroic role. The excitement of the party turns out to be the sudden collapse, noted in the introductory quote at the top, of Mrs Henry, wife to Lawrence Henry, the man slated to lead an upcoming expedition to the Amazon. Was it an allergic reaction? Young George Bailey might have a good idea just what caused Mrs Henry’s sudden shift from the vertical.

Saffron becomes concerned that the doltish police are settling on her boss as a possible suspect, deciding that since the authorities can be relied on to get everything wrong, it is up to her to find out what really happened at the party. Thankfully, she has considerable knowledge of things biological so the game is afoot, focusing on a particularly poisonous (and fictional) South American plant that her boss had discovered decades ago.

Everleigh keeps pushing to learn more, gaining help from Ashton in her pursuit. There seems to be a connection between the two, but the sexual tension between them seems to blossom, then wilt, blossom then wilt. We are kept in the dark, and thus guessing, about his role in all this. A prospect or a suspect? Is he a reliable partner, or is he using his appeal like that of a carnivorous cobra plant, not as transparent as he appears? This romantic element crops up from time to time in fawning descriptions of the guy.

The tale is of the cozy mystery sort, not much blood and violence on screen, although there is some very definite peril. The investigation is done by rank amateurs. Usually, there is someone with police expertise to advise, but not so much here. The fun feature of this particular book and, I expect, the planned series, is the introduction of botany as the root of all Saffron’s investigations. The possibilities are vast. We are led to suspect first this one and then that one, while maintaining a short list of likely subjects.

Khavari has some fun with names, (I love this stuff) seeding her cast with a veritable garden of botanical references, some obvious, like Saffron, Inspector Green, and Doctor Aster. Alexander Ashton must certainly reference the tree. I am sure there are more. She also has some fun of a different sort with other character names. Does Doctor Berking’s character reflect the etymology of his name? How about Eris Ermine, a femme fatale sort?

She also brings into the tale a consideration much in the world of this era. The long-lasting, personal impact on those involved in the front lines of World War I.

Much has been written about soldiers experiencing shell-shock, so I wanted to explore a lesser known avenue of symptoms and recovery. Alexander’s recovery from the Great War is complex and isn’t straightforward—few cases are—nor it is over. I will just say that many hours of research and consideration went into developing his symptoms and coping strategies… – from The Book Delight interview

Saffron has to deal with MeToo miseries from the more aggressive, and personal and institutional chauvinism all around, even among some thought more advanced. The toxic nature of academia politics is noted. No antidote is prescribed.

This book is hardly a yuck-fest, but there is still considerable humor and the occasional LOL.

Khavari, who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, keeps her characters on the move, and thus holds our interest. Saffron is a decent sort, working hard in multiple ways to produce good results. She is mostly honest, although suffering a bit from a moral disorder that afflicts so many investigators, a willingness to engage in criminal behavior on the grounds of the-ends-justify-the-means.

Ultimately, though, A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons (which was called Saffron Everleigh and the Lightning Vine earlier in its life. I have no inside intel on why this title was not used, but suspect it was a bit too close for comfort to the Harry Potter book titles format.) is a delightful sapling in the The Saffron Everleigh Mysteries series. Who knows? Maybe you will learn a few tricks for preparing that special drink for that special someone. The second volume, A Botanists’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality is expected to sprout in June 2023. It is something to look forward to. Once you begin spending time with Saffron Everleigh, you will not want to leave.

Her eyes fell on the name of a plant from south-central Mexico, brought back decades ago by Dr. Maxwell. The vine was a sickly yellow color and zigzagged around trees as it grew, clinging tightly to its host. Maxwell had named it the xolotl vine, after the Aztec god of death and lightning, since the growth pattern resembled a fork of lightning and the toxin in its leaves struck as quickly. Saffron had the feeling that Maxwell enjoyed the notorious reputation of his plant, occasionally still telling secondhand stories of people dropping to the ground immediately upon consumption.

Review posted – June 10, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

I received an ARE of A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons from Crooked Lane Books in return for a fair review, and the secret to my special tea. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interviews
—–The Book Delight – AUTHOR INTERVIEW: KATE AKHTAR-KHAVARI with Jean M. Roberts
—–Wichita Public Library – Read. Return. Repeat. S2E1: The Books are Back in Town – with Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy – video lists as 43 minutes but the KK piece begins at 1:21 and goes to the 28 minute mark

Item of Interest
—–It’s a Wonderful Life – ”It’s poison, I tell ya, poison!”

Item of Interest from the author
—–In her site, Khavari provides A Botanical Index of all the plants referenced in the book

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Carolina Moonset by Matt Goldman

book cover

My parents owned dozens of paintings by local artists, but the one in the foyer was the only one that depicted night. And it’s the only painting I remembered from my childhood. It showed the dark marsh in heavy brushstrokes. A sprawling oak in the foreground framed an expanse of reeds. A tidal creek snaked through the reeds. The tide was out, and the creek’s muddy bottom reflected the moonlight. A clump of more oaks in the distance lay dark under the full moon shining above them. And behind those oaks, the dark shadow of an immense home, no light in the windows except for one on the second floor. The marsh is beautiful during the day, changing colors with the angle of the sun. But it’s eerie at night. Too many secrets hiding in its vastness and in its crevices. The sea comes in and the sea goes out. Only it knows what’s hidden in the marsh.

The name of that painting is Carolina Moonset. It always gave him the creeps. Too bad the artist’s signature is smudged.

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Matt Goldman – image from Amazon

Forty-something Joe Green (not mean at all) is visiting Beaufort, South Carolina (lives and works in Chicago) to help mom, Carol, take care of his ailing father. Marshall Green, 75, is a good guy who had passed on having a lucrative medical career to open a free clinic on Chicago’s South Side. When he retired, he returned to his home town. Dad is suffering with Lewy Body Dementia, second most widespread form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s.

My mother sat down next to me and said, “It’s like when a person loses their sight, their hearing improves. Except with Dad, he’s lost his short-term memory, and his long-term memory has improved. He tells stories I’ve never heard before.”

Well, that’s one element. Another is that he sometimes talks to people who are not there, which can be unnerving. One such is long-late friend Trip Patterson, who died very young, under dodgy circumstances. Joey is curious who this guy was and begins looking into some family history.

“Aw, Joey. You were always a good fisherman. Even when you were tiny you were fascinated by what you couldn’t see below the surface. That’s what fishing is all about. Curiosity and the patience to learn.”

Fishing of all sorts will be done. Soon after Joe’s arrival a local bigwig is shot dead in the street. Pops did not have a high opinion of the man or his family.

Those Hammonds are nasty sons a bitches. Every one of ’em. Stole that island from the blacks. When the Union Army came through, they gave black people their own land. Gave ’em a chance. And it worked, too. The people prospered. Until the goddamn Klan took over and redistributed the land.” My father had venom in his voice. “Redistributed the land with guns and knives and ropes and trees. I wouldn’t live on Hammond Island if you paid me a million dollars. Hope a hurricane wipes it off the face of the earth.”

Despite his considerable impairments, Marshall is considered a suspect. Particularly when the gun that did the dark deed sure looks like dad’s old revolver. And when Joey looks for his father’s gun, why is it not the usual place? Did Pop pop Thomas Hammond, whether he remembers doing it or not? Faces from the past re-emerge, whether in person or in memory alone. Questions remains, like what ever happened to Roy Hammond, Thomas’s brother, who vanished under mysterious circumstances? What’s the deal with Thomas’s much younger glam-wife, Gail?

As a forty-something, in town sans kids, Joe is prime matchmaking material for his parents’ set. It seems that their next-door neighbors just happen to have a forty-something divorced daughter, Leela, in town for a holiday visit. The senior circuit angles to get them together. And lo and behold, Joey and Leela hit it off remarkably fast.

I was single in my mid 40’s like Joey, and people in my parents’ generation, including my parents, would often mention single women they knew of. I think some people in that generation are less comfortable with a younger person being single, so they try to play matchmaker. I also wanted Joey to have a partner in his informal investigation—someone in whom he could confide—and adding a romantic element to that felt not only fun but true in that life presents beautiful magic and brutal reality at the same time. And finally, I recently experienced a Joey/Leela like courtship. I met my wife in February of 2018 and we married that same year in October. I wanted to show how a combination of chemistry and life-experience can lead to that kind of relationship in a grounded way. – DAB interview

Joe and Leela team up to see below the surface to what might be swimming in the deeper waters, as they try to land a killer. I found their relationship delightful. And can attest, from personal experience, to the possibility of a quick connection between mid-life divorced/single people. Leads are followed. Murder suspects make their way across the page, along with their theoretical motives. In a book with fishing as an element, there are, of course, red herrings. Bait is employed to good effect. The who and why-dunnit puzzles will keep you casting a line flipping the pages for more.

The story takes place in the present, but there are many references to mid 20th century, when some long-ago crimes are crying out to be solved. At the center of these, the Hammond and Green brothers were young men with diverse world views, and some serious personal conflicts.

In addition to the fun of the mysteries and the investigation, Goldman also offers a look at the racist, classist realities of South Carolina, both the actions that took place in the past and their ripples forward to the present.

GRIPES
The cops are portrayed as soulless dolts, which is common enough in mysteries, but remains a disappointing accession to default settings. There are several mentions of Joey’s sisters, but they manage to remain off screen and out of mind once noted. Why include them at all if they are to serve no role? There are several instances of what seemed trite wisdom being proferred. Here is a sample

as teenagers, girls grow more complicated and difficult and boys more stoic. That is a generalization. A stereotype. But having been a boy who fit the stereotype, I believe stoicism is a mischaracterization of our behavior. We are not more stoic than girls. We are more ashamed. Of our boy-thoughts and risky deeds, mostly revolving around or inspired by sex or at least the idea of sex. That seemingly unattainable nirvana ignited by blossoming bodies and invisible pheromones. That shame sends us underground. Quiets us. Our vortex of shame is so powerful all our thoughts and deeds get sucked into it, so we share nothing.

another

A friend once told me women have face-to-face relationships and men have shoulder-to-shoulder relationships. Men do things like watch football and go fishing.

Ok, it is starting to seem like the Gripes piece is getting large. I do not want to give the impression that I disliked this book at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. The gripes are merely what kept me from adding that final star.

There is a lot in Carolina Moonset that is lovely, nice bits of craft that reinforced the steady forward movement of the plot with some meaningful imagery. Paintings, for example, stand out. Not just the strong image of the book-title work. Joe’s uncle David has a painting over his desk and there is a framed work in the Hammond residence that offers some food for thought. Even the word painting is used in other contexts to offer a perspective.

So fear not. Carolina Moonset is a fun mystery with an appealing dynamic duo of amateurs slogging through a marsh of information trying to figure out multiple crimes, one now, others back then, without much help, in fact with only interference from the po-po. The addition of historical/cultural payload makes it even richer. If you reel this one in, pretty soon you will be the one who’s been hooked.

From where I’m sitting, Thomas Hammond’s motto must have been Think Globally, Destroy Locally.

Review posted – June 3, 2022

Publication date – May 31, 2022

I received an EPUB of Carolina Moonset from Forge/Macmillan in return for a fair review, and a lovely mint julep. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From About the Author
New York Times bestselling author MATT GOLDMAN is a playwright and Emmy Award-winning television writer for Seinfeld, Ellen, and other shows. Goldman has been nominated for the Shamus and Nero Wolfe Awards and is a Lariat Award Winner. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and whichever children happen to be around.

Interview
—–Donnell Ann Bell – Author Interview with Matt Goldman & Carolina Moonset

Items of Interest from the author
—–Macmillan – excerpt

Songs/Music
—–Fiddler on the Roof – Matchmaker
—– James Taylor – Carolina in My Mind

A personal aside – a tiny bit spoilerish, nut not enough to hide.
I understand that some might scoff at the speed at which Joey and Leela bond with each other. I can relate to the notion of finding the right person on the second-go-round fairly quickly. I was around the same age as Joey, first marriage done, when I encountered the woman who would become my second wife. It was not a matter of days, as with Joey and Leela, but it was quick as such things go. (I did suggest marriage after our second or third in-person date, if memory serves. But that might have had something to do with a good friend of hers having season tickets to the Mets.) When you reach a certain point in life, you have a sense, in fairly short order, of whether a relationship is likely to work out or not, or at least whether it might be possible. Turns out it was. We have now been married for twenty-one years. (as of 2022)`

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Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd

book cover

“Your problem,” he told himself as he headed back to the Devil’s Vale, “is that you can’t leave well enough the hell alone.”

“Kid walks in here with a bullet lodged in him, I gotta call the cops. Kid walks in showing obvious signs of abuse, I have to contact a social worker. Kid walks in pregnant, I need to inform the parents. Beyond that, for the most part, I’m supposed to keep my trap shut.”
“Who do you call if a kid walks in pregnant, with a bullet wound, showing signs of abuse?” Sam asked.
“A career counselor,” she said, brushing her hair back, “’cause I’m outta here.

Ok, island off the Massachusetts coast, private school, Danforth Putnam. (Thomas Danforth and Ann Putnam were judge and accuser in the Salem trials). Why a high school?

I still think high school is one of the scariest places there is. It’s a place where human beings, who are barely more than children emotionally and mentally, face calamitous, potentially life-ruining choices, while approaching the height of their physical powers and sexual energy…Boarding school is all that with no parental supervision, which just amplifies its Lord of the Flies quality. – from The Big Thrill interview

Friend of the Devil is an enclosed environment thriller of a familiar sort. Think Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (the original book had a different, dodgier title) An eleventh century book has gone missing and SATCO Mutual, (we can imagine what the SAT stands for) the insurer on the hook, has sent Sam (for Sam Spade) Gregory to bring it back. Identifying the perp is not all that challenging for our gumshoe, but there is more to the tale than nabbing a thief. What is a prep school doing with such an ancient book? What is the nature of the book? Why was it stolen? The questions mount. Like what happened to that pre-teen who supposedly returned to the mainland to be adopted? Is he really having a better life?

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Stephen Lloyd writing on an impressively retro word processor – image from The Big Thrill – image by Stephen Lloyd

Sam is a fun lead, with military hair, a capacity for violence, PTSD hellfire memories of ‘Nam, and not much else, and a determination to see his job through to completion. And then people begin dying, with a hint of brimstone in the air. Sam takes his licks, getting repeatedly knocked out in a running joke, but keeps on keepin’ on, following leads and doing what he does.

Harriet (the spy) is our student cozy investigator, epileptic, a nerd extraordinaire, black, bullied, and dogged. She gets her licks in by writing exposes in the school paper. If Sam fails to get to the very bottom of all there is, Harriet is sure to find her way there. Their paths can be expected to cross, eventually.

It is 1980. No cell phones. Memory of the Vietnam War is still fresh. Reagan has arrived in a sulfurous chariot to do some lasting damage to the nation. There is a specimen of that breed at the school, who behaves as one might expect, receiving some unwanted insight in return.

The references keep on coming. Mr. Chesterton is named for G.K.. There are plenty more, overt and not. Laura Hershlag is named for the title character of one of the classic noir films. Dr. Spellman is named for a character in Sabrina. There are references to Poe’s The Raven, the Tales of Hoffman and plenty more, a veritable cornucopia for those who enjoy playing literary treasure hunt.

The staff at this school are not the friendliest. Sam interviews Ms. (Annabel? ) Lee, the librarian, whose cat is named for Alistair Crowley.

When she saw Sam, her mouth twisted into a citrus pucker. “May I help you?” she asked in a voice that could freeze pipes.

The students are no prize either. We expect rich kids to be spoiled, but even the scholarship kid is up to no good. One palooka hopes to juice his way into the NFL, while using his considerable physical brawn to dark purposes. Others are not much better.

Ok, so I had a forked reaction to this one. First is that there were multiple LOL moments, including one ROFL. This is a HUUUUUGGE plus. Not at all surprising from one of the main writers and executive producers of How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family. And I loved all the references.

Second, was that it felt lean, to the point of gaunt. Not quite a novel in length, FotD settles in at a more novella-ish 45,000 words, give or take. Supporting cast was mostly of the cardboard cutout variety. Yes, some background is offered, but only enough to make them cast shadows. (Well, assuming that the characters are actually capable of casting shadows) This is a product of Lloyd’s very successful TV career, (four Emmy nominations) in which the clock is always ticking and descriptions and self-reflection are seen as tools of the devil’s workshop. (which may be in Iowa) There is plenty of gruesomeness, but it is handled with a light touch which, I know, sounds like an oxymoron, and maybe it is. There is a fabulous twist, which is always a delight.

Sam Gregory is a fun lead, an investigator with a Chandler-esque, noir sense of humor, and a war-veteran’s issues with sleep. Harriet, honor student in the civilian investigator role, is one of the better cast members. Their perspectives alternate throughout. It moves along at an over-the-limit pace, while building up a body count, and revealing more and more witchy elements.

Bottom line is that this a devilishly (helluva?) fun summer read. You will blaze right through, pausing on occasion to fall out of your seat laughing. Your brain can occupy itself with catching as many references as it can. This is a fast, pure entertainment, with only an occasional side-glance at real-world concerns. You will not risk eternal damnation if you read this one, so long as you keep your inner demons where they belong, but you may hurt yourself laughing.

Review posted – May 27, 2022

Publication date – May 10, 2022

I received an ARE of Friend of the Devil from G.P. Putnam’s Sons in return for a fair review, and the tiniest sliver of a soul. Thanks, folks

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

————————————————–

Lloyd seems interested in writing a sequel, having set this one up to allow for the possibility. I hope he does.

Possible Titles for Volume 2 – Here, I’ll get you started
Dead Lasso
Demon Elementary
Devil Knows Best
Devil-ish
Distant Relation of the Devil
Everybody Loves the Devil
The Fresh Prince of Level Nine
Flight of the Demons
How I Met Your Devil
Kids Say the Most Demonic Things
Married with Demons
The Marvelous Mrs Scratch
Modern Satanic Family
Young Beelzebub

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

From Penguin Random House

Stephen Lloyd is a TV producer and writer, best known as an executive producer of award-winning shows such as “Modern Family” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

Interviews
—–The Crew Review – Stephen Lloyd | Friends of the Devil – 50:42 – by Sean Cameron, Christopher Albanese, Mike Houtz
—–* The Big Thrill – Up Close: Stephen Lloyd by Allison McKnight

Songs/Music
—–The Grateful Dead – Friend of the Devil
—–The Rollingstones – Sympathy for the Devil

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Noir, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

My Wife is Missing by D.J. Palmer

book cover

The devil again, perched upon his shoulder. He knew. The past was something Michael carried with him, even when he forgot it was there. His mind flashed on an image sourced from memory, one of blood and gruesome cuts to a body, of eyes open wide but seeing nothing. It wasn’t over. It would never be over.

Michael and Natalie are at a Times Square hotel with their kids, a short vacay from their life in Boston. When Nat had suggested it, Michael jumped at the chance. Healing was needed, not just for Natalie’s too-persistent insomnia, but for their marriage. She had been sure Michael was having an affair, despite his persistent denials. He is hoping she is ready to try patching things up. She sends him out for pizza for the family at a local emporium, but when he returns the family has vanished like a Manhattan parking spot. He does what one might do, but the detectives show him hotel video of Natalie and the kids making tracks. No alien abduction this time. His wife has done a runner. The question is why?

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D.J. Palmer – image from Amazon

The book follows two characters Michael, as he tries to figure out what is going on, and Natalie in two timelines, before leaving and after, on the run. So three threads to keep straight. Not a challenge.

Secrets abound. Michael has a large one from his past. Natalie has put together a theory, which reflects poorly on Michael and informs her desire to flee. And then there is the murder to consider.

Palmer give us plenty of fodder to munch on. What is that scar on Michael’s arm? Was it really from a bicycle accident when he was a kid? Why does Michael have no family other than Natalie and their kids? Whose long hair was it that Natalie found on his clothes one night? But the Michael we see seems a pretty decent, if flawed, guy, eager to get his family back, and Natalie has some issues. Her insomnia has become severe and persistent. Has her grip on reality suffered from this? Has she become paranoid?

We see in the looks back how Natalie came to think what she thinks. We do not get a lot from Michael’s history side until near the end.

The supporting cast is fun. A detective who is looking into the recent killing attaches himself to Michael when he goes looking for his family. We presume his intentions are less than benign, as he keeps ramping up his questioning. But Michael really wants to find his wife, and the access a detective has to otherwise unavailable resources makes it worth putting up with the guy being fixated on him as Suspect Zero. Natalie has a bff at work. A company investigator from her work spices things up briefly, and a young attractive sort at Natalie’s job passes on through for a while, is exposed to Natalie’s fears, and steps way back.

The tension builds and builds, as we keep hoping to find answers, but when we get them they arrive with a fresh set of questions. The pace sustains at frenetic, and there are severe twists aplenty, which make sense and are satisfying, however jolting.

I was not all that smitten with the leads here. Michael should not have been so secretive with Natalie about his past. And he should have been much more honest about other things as well. Natalie is ragged, which makes her concerns at least somewhat suspect. She may be right or she may be wrong, but it is a bit tough to get fully on board for her. It is possible she is suffering from paranoia., but just because you’re paranoid, that does not mean that they are not really out to get you.

This is only my second book by this author. One thing I preferred about The Perfect Daughter is that there is informational payload in that one about an unusual medical condition. My Wife is Missing is straight up thriller/mystery, payload-free as far as I could tell. It works fine as that, but I do prefer novels that add in some extra, educational material to give them a bit more heft.

This is a perfect beach read. It sustains a page-flipping pace while offering the sorts of twists and turns that make it a fun journey, without demanding to much deep thought. You may go missing for the few hours it will take to read My Wife is Missing, but we know that you are sure to be found.

He couldn’t be in any picture that risked going viral, and certainly couldn’t tell his in-laws why.

Review posted – May 20, 2022

Publication date – May 10, 2022

I received an ARE of My Wife is Missing from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and sticking around. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

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

My review of Palmer’s 2021 novel, The Perfect Daughter

Items of Interest from the author
—–Soundcloud – audio excerpt – read by Karissa Vacker – 3:48

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller