Sunday, October 31, 2021

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jacksom

If you enjoy writers like Stephen King, Neal Gaiman, or Richard Matheson, I have some great news for you. Shirley Jackson, who was an absolute master of psychological suspense and horror fiction, did it better than any of them. And despite dying of a progressive heart illness in 1965 at just 48, Jackson left behind a relatively substantial body of work for readers to explore and enjoy. 

One of my own Shirley Jackson favorites is her last novel, 1962’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which critics have dubbed a “gothic mystery.” In approximately 150 pages, depending on which edition you read, Jackson creates a weirdly believable small-town world in which jealous townspeople finally find an opportunity to get even with the rich family in town that has for generations made all of them feel so inferior. And one night they get their revenge in spades.

The story begins when “Merricat” Blackwood, one of two sisters living in the Blackwood family home introduces herself this way:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.” 

Merricat, our narrator, then begins a flashback of a few months duration describing the last time she went into town to pick up library books and a few groceries for her and her sister. It is obvious from the way that she is treated in town, that the townspeople see Merricat as something strange and a bit horrifying, and that they feel free to torment her right up to the point where they draw the line at physical abuse. Merricat has so little self-awareness that her inner thoughts and compulsive rituals mark her as a target even for the children living in town. 

Back at home in the fenced-in Blackwood family estate, we learn that some six years earlier the Blackwood family suffered a tragedy that only three of them survived: Merricat, her older sister Constance, and the girls’ Uncle Julian. The survivors have been completely isolated from their neighbors ever since, with the exception of Merricat’s quick Tuesday runs into town for supplies and new library books. The townspeople, while not particularly upset about the number of people who died that night, believe that what happened was not an accident. And because making someone pay for what happened is the easiest way for them to feel superior to the Blackwoods for the first time in their lives, they jump all over that opportunity when it suddenly presents itself.

Bottom Line: We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a mystery that only gradually reveals its truths as each layer of the relationship between the sisters is peeled back. Some of the secrets are revealed through Julian’s rambling memories even though it is apparent that the man’s mind is no longer what it once was. But it is only when a wildcard character, the ruthless cousin of the girls’, moves into the Blackwood estate that their world finally blows up. Neither they, their cousin, or the people in the town will ever forget what happens next — and none of them will ever be the same.  

Shirley Jackson

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 29, 2021

Cost of Living - Emily Maloney

Emily Maloney’s Cost of Living is a series of essays that, when taken as a whole, comprise an interesting memoir of the author’s intimate experience with America’s healthcare system. First as a patient, and then as a caregiver herself, Maloney offers a behind the scenes look that will be probably be disconcerting and scary to some readers while confirming the darkest fears of others who have had a little more experience with how the system works in this country.

For Emily Maloney, it all started when she tried to kill herself as a nineteen-year-old. Maloney’s attempt at taking her own life may have been unsuccessful, but it left her saddled with an enormous medical debt for treatment that she would struggle to pay off for years to come. The failed attempt also meant that Maloney would be seeing mental health doctors and taking a series of psychiatric drugs for years — treatments and drugs that sometimes seem to have done as much harm as good. Ironically enough, in order to pay off her past healthcare debts and to be able to continue affording her ongoing treatments, Maloney decided to work in the healthcare industry herself.

What she learned firsthand about billings and collections, hospitals, emergency rooms, medical staffs, and pharmaceutical companies is enough to make anyone uneasy about dealing with the system. Maloney’s essays do not paint a pretty picture. She speaks of patients and insurance companies being gouged by the purposeful uncharging of doctors and hospitals determined to maximize profits. She tells us about the burned out staffs so common to emergency rooms and the minimal level of care that most patients ever receive in them. She speaks to the indignities and dangers of being treated in a training hospital or emergency room. And using her own experiences with large pharmaceutical companies as background, she gives a thorough indictment of the waste and borderline illegal practices that make medicine so expensive to those who desperately need it for their survival. 

Bottom Line: Cost of Living certainly offers a bleak look at the US healthcare system. While what Emily Maloney has to say about the system will not come as a surprise to most people who have had to deal with major health problems of their own or those of family members, it will serve as a warning to other more fortunate readers who have yet experienced it all for themselves. It will open some eyes. Despite her shaky start in life, the author has achieved much, and it would be interesting to hear her story in a more traditionally constructed memoir that focuses on how she did it. 

Emily Maloney

Review Copy provided by Henry Holt & Company

Cost of Living to be published on February 8, 2022 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Crow Trap - Ann Cleeves

Up until recently, I knew Ann Cleeves only through the television series Shetland and Vera, having noticed that both shows credit Cleeves as originator of the main characters being featured in each. So when I started seeing all the buzz about Cleeves’s new Two Rivers series being generated by the latest addition to the for-the-moment two-book series (The Heron’s Cry), I decided to go back and read The Long Call, the first book in that series, for myself. I enjoyed that one enough to make me want to read something else from Cleeves as soon as I could. But preferring not to wait a year between series books if I don’t have to, I decided to start the nine-book Vera Stanhope series from the beginning instead of immediately catching up on the new Detective Matthew Venn series. 

The Crow Trap (1999) is outstanding for a number of reasons, not the least being that the series lead, Vera Stanhope, doesn’t really show up until page 229 of the 535 page edition I read. (It should be noted that Vera did make an anonymous cameo appearance some pages earlier, but that was only as a rather odd woman who enters a funeral service very late — and very loudly.) And it is only in Part Three of the novel, page 413, that the reader begins to see things from Vera’s point of view. This may be an unusual approach, but it allows Cleeves to describe what is happening through the eyes of three very different women forced to live in isolation together because of their work. By the time Vera begins her investigation, everything is set-up for readers to begin making their own assumptions, and Cleeves has liberally sprinkled hints and red herrings all over the place for them to deal with. 

Too, Vera is not quite what you would expect in the way of a detective worthy of starring in her own long-running series, especially one this popular. The first time she really comes center stage, Vera is described this way:

“She was a large woman — big bones amply covered, a bulbous nose, man-sized feet. Her legs were bare and she wore leather sandals. Her square toes were covered in mud. Her face was blotched and pitted so Rachel thought she must suffer some skin complaint or allergy. Over her clothes she wore a transparent plastic mac, and she stood there, the rain dripping from it onto the floor, grey hair sleeked dark to her forehead, like a middle-aged tripper caught in a sudden storm on Blackpool prom.”

But don’t make the mistake that her adversaries too often make. Vera may very much be her own woman, but she is brilliant. And those who underestimate her are making a bad mistake.

The Crow Trap is a complicated story of small town life in rural England, a place that is still very class conscious despite so many of its residents having a pretty good idea of where everyone’s skeletons are buried. In an even more remote cottage outside the village, three women are working on an environmental study that has to be completed before a local quarry will be allowed to expand its footprint and impact in the area. Some are for it and some hate to think about how different things will be for the locals if the quarry is allowed to expand. Things begin to get interesting after it appears that one property owner has killed herself, but it is only when a second body turns up later that Vera Stanhope and Joe Ashworth learn exactly how ugly everything about this case really is.

Bottom Line: The Crow Trap is an excellent introduction to the Vera Stanhope character even for readers who already have the television image of Vera firmly affixed in their minds. Honestly, since I’m one of those myself, I have to say that actress Brenda Blethyn is just about perfect for the television role, and already having her as my image of Vera was not at all distracting as I read The Crow Trap. Cleeves is best known for her Vera Stanhope and Shetland series right now, and it is easy to see why that is. She has set the bar really high for her new Two Rivers series. Now that she is alternating Vera Stanhope novels and Matthew Venn novels, there is a lot to look forward to — and that’s not even to mention her substantial back catalogue. 

Ann Cleeves

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Suddenly Ann Cleeves Is Everywhere

The Great Shelf Collapse of 2021 has turned into the perfect opportunity for me to go through lots of stuff that I've been keeping over the years for what turns out to have been no good reason. I've spent hours sorting through it all, and I've gladly parted with a number of books, puzzles, articles of clothing, etc. that were desperately in need of a better home. Surprisingly, it's all been kind of fun (despite the $400 closet makeover now required) because I've uncovered a few "gems" that I'd forgotten all about - especially a few books I thought I may have rashly disposed of years earlier. 

Other than that, I've been reading Ann Cleeves's first Vera Stanhope novel, The Crow Trap. My edition of the book is 535 pages long and this is one of the most complicated mysteries I've read in a many characters, with so many individual histories, and so many interconnections that date back a generation or two. That means there is a lot of room for red herrings and wrong conclusions, and Cleeves makes the most of them. It also means that I'm doing something I seldom do; I'm highlighting certain passages for later reference and jotting down a few notes in the margins. I don't think I would do that with most any hard covers, but I'm reading the deluxe paperback version of The Crow Trap, and it doesn't bother me too much to mark this one up even though it's a brand new copy. (I'm weird that way.)

Ann Cleeves seems to be everywhere I turn these days. She's featured in a great interview in the current issue of Mystery Scene and Vera Stanhope is featured in a separate article in the same issue titled "Senior Sleuths." That article compares older fictional detectives like:

  • Agatha Christie's Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot
  • Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch
  • James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux
  • Ian Rankin's John Rebus
  • Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski
  • Ruth Rendell's Reginald Wexford
  • Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder 
  • John Sanford's Lucas Davenport
to a crop of older detectives "still kicking butt" in today's popular fiction. Connelly, Burke, Rankin, and Paretsky are still adding books in their own series, so the use of the word "still" is not quite appropriate, but these are the older detectives that get special attention in the article:
  • M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin
  • Ann Cleeves's Vera Stanhope
  • Daniel Friedman's Buck Schatz
  • Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai
  • Lee Hollis's Poppy Harmon
  • Ragnar Jónasson's Hulda Hermannsdóttir
  • Barbara Nelly's Blanche White
  • Scott Turow's Sandy Stern

I've read way over 100 novels from that first bunch but only a few from the second, so I plan to explore that list a lot more. I've found over the years, probably as a function of my own aging, that I particularly enjoy reading about fictional detectives who may have lost a step or two, men and women who are having to learn little tricks to compensate for their aging if they are to stay in the game much longer.

And then Ann Cleeves popped up yesterday in a live interview as part of this year's Texas Book Festival, the annual festival started by Laura Bush way back when her husband was governor of Texas. The 45-minute interview did suffer a little from connectivity problems between England and Texas, especially toward the end, but I loved every minute of it. The interview can be accessed at this link if you have a little patience with it. You do have to register at CrowdCast, but you don't have to use that app to watch the interview because there is an option for watching it through your browser instead.

I've often envied people who only discover one of my very favorite writers really late because they then have the pleasure knowing that they have twenty, thirty, or even more wonderful books to experience for the first time. I'm starting to think this may have finally happened for me with my recent discovery of Ann Cleeves, the novelist, not just Ann Cleeves the creator of television series. 

And speaking of that difference. I've already seen the television version of The Crow Trap, and did not find it particularly impressive except for the Vera Stanhope and Joe Ashworth characters - and especially Brenda Blethyn's portrayal of Vera. I went back and re-watched the first 15 minutes of the television version last night, and I found it remarkably "dumbed down" as it's presented. I realize that there are only so many minutes to work with for television and movie screenplay writers, but this served as a good reminder that "the book is always better than the movie" and why that is so. 

Enough for now...only 58 pages to go in The Crow Trap, and I hear Vera calling me.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Murder of Mary Russell - Laurie R. King

It seems that I’ve done it again, finally blundered my way into another new-to-me author’s back catalog. This time it’s Laurie R. King and her Russell and Holmes series that caught my eye — and it only happened because someone left a copy of The Murder of Mary Russell on the floor of my local library branch. After almost tripping over the book, I decided to re-shelve it before someone else had the same, or worse, experience, but a funny thing happened…the book ended up coming home with me. And now I’m hooked on both the author and the series. If The Murder of Mary Russell is any indication, this is going to be fun, so my thanks go to whomever it was that was too lazy to pick the book up from the floor that day. 

Even better, it appears that The Murder of Mary Russell could be the perfect spot for late arrivals to the Russell and Holmes series to jump in. The novel is set in 1925, but in long flashbacks it explores the backstories (as envisioned by King) of Holmes, Mary Russell, and especially Mrs. Hudson. King makes all three of these main characters, along with several side characters, vividly come to life as the younger versions of Holmes, Hudson, and Russell meet for the first time and become the more familiar older versions of themselves we have come to know so well. 

When a strange young man from Australia shows up on the Holmes doorstep one day claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s son, Mary Russell reluctantly invites him inside to see what she can make of the shocking revelation. She justifies her decision, one that will place her and everyone she loves in great danger, this way:

“Would most young women accept such a claim without question? Perhaps. And perhaps most young women would be justified in their naïve acceptance. However, I was married to Sherlock Holmes, had known him only a few hours longer than I’d known Mrs. Hudson, and the basic fact of life with Holmes was: the world is filled with enemies.”

And this particular enemy, Samuel Hudson, is here for one reason only: payback. 

As Mary listens to what Samuel Hudson has to say about Mrs. Hudson, she starts to believe him despite how badly she wants not to. The man is looking for something, and Mary can tell that the more frustrated he becomes in his failed efforts to find it among Mrs. Hudson’s things, the more likely it is that he will pull the trigger of the gun in his hand. But if one of them has to die, Mary is determined that it will not be her…or will it be? All Mrs. Hudson can later tell Holmes is that she found substantial pools of blood on the floor when she returned to the unexpectedly empty house. And, as Holmes quickly learns, the blood on the floor is of the same type as his wife’s. Holmes hopes that his wife is being held for ransom, but the amount of blood on the floor tells him how unlikely that is. Is Mary Russell already dead?

Bottom Line: It is easy to see why fans of Doyle’s classic Sherlock Holmes stories have so readily taken to Laurie R. King’s Holmes pastiches. King has been doing them so long now (this is the fourteenth of seventeen books in the series) that she knows the characters as well as anyone ever has, and if this book is at all typical of others in the series, she writes a first-rate historical thriller, to boot. This will definitely not be my last Russell and Holmes novel. 

Laurie R. King

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Thought I Was Dreaming - Boy, Was I Wrong

We woke up this morning about 4:30 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass and all kinds of crashing noises. At first I thought it was all a dream because the noise ended as suddenly as it began. But in the meantime, my wife jumped out of bed and proceeded to break one of her big toes before she could get the lights turned on. After that shock, we started looking around the house and could find nothing wrong maybe it really was a dream?

And then my wife opened up to bedroom closet and found complete chaos inside. Broken glass, piles of open jigsaw puzzles all over the place, books with bent covers and pages everywhere, just a complete mess that made it impossible even to step into the closet to take a closer look. That started a two-hour process during which I began to feel that I was trying to dig someone out of a collapsed mine shaft from the outside. Honestly, it was so awful that I can't even describe it, and I wish I had thought to stop and take a photo before I started in on the mess so you could have seen it. 

As it turns out, the builder made a rookie mistake 22 years ago when the shelves were installed on that side of the closet, and the shelves have probably been trying to escape from the wall ever since. The carpenter measured wrong and apparently missed the studs with all of the top screws. The only thing holding the shelves in place all these years have been the bottom screws because they were drilled into secure wooden mounts at the base of the shelving. Apparently it was easier just to fake it rather than fix it, and that's what the builder chose to do. And neither we, nor the inspector caught it. 

Anyhow, Goodwill has benefited from some of the cleanup efforts, and more will be delivered to them tomorrow. 

I'm finally settling down to do a little reading and wondering how in the world I could have missed out on reading Ann Cleaves and Laurie R. King all these years. I'm reading one each of their books right now, and absolutely loving both of them. I'm about halfway through each, and I'm finding it difficult to choose between them. They are both absolutely excellent.

Tomorrow has to be a better day; it's almost impossible that it wouldn't be. Thank goodness for Ann Cleaves and Laurie R. King because I especially need a good book right now.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Winter Counts - David Heska Wanbli Weiden

David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts is largely set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota where Virgil Wounded Horse offers a measure of justice and revenge to crime victims who are ignored by both their own tribal council and local law enforcement officers. In simple terms, Virgil is the local enforcer — and he is good at his job. 

It is, of course, impossible not to compare a novel like Winter Counts to those of writers like Craig Johnson, Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman, C.J. Box,  and others who cover much of the same territory. The good news is that David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel proves that he can hold his on with the best of them. Several members of the club have, in fact, endorsed Winter Counts because of its authenticity, cultural insight, and riveting storytelling. Of all of them, I think that C.J. Box put it best:

“I’ve been waiting most of my life for this book without realizing it. Winter Counts is a knowing, authentic, closely observed novel about modern-day Lakotas that rings absolutely true, warts and all. The sense of place is breathtaking and raw. It’s a hell of a debut.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t give much credence to author blurbs, figuring that they are more often than not just another case of two writers scratching each other’s back. But now that I’ve read Winter Counts for myself, I could not agree more with the blurbs splashed all over the novel’s back cover. 

Virgil Wounded Horse, who as a kid was badly bullied by some of the same people he sees every day on the reservation, knows what it’s like to feel helpless and afraid. That is probably one of the reasons he is always ready (and why he enjoys doing it) to give an unforgettable beating as final warning to those who would otherwise not suffer a thing for their crimes on the reservation. But then Virgil’s nephew Nathan overdoses on the suddenly available heroin he was given for free at the reservation school and nearly dies. Game changer…now it’s all very personal and it’s going to take more than an “unforgettable” beating to satisfy the intense anger that Virgil Wounded Horse is filled with.

With the help of Marie Short Bear, his ex-girlfriend, Virgil tracks the dealer to Denver, but that’s where things get complicated enough to limit his options. Virgil learns that the man he is looking for is only the link into the reservation for some other very powerful people looking for a new market for their product — and that much more powerful men than him are already looking for a way to put the heroin dealers out of business. Unfortunately, Nathan is about to become a pawn in a scheme that could easily get them all killed.

Bottom Line: Winter Counts (winter counts were the Lakota calendar system) is a genuine thriller, one of those coming-of-age stories in which the kid nearing adulthood will be lucky to survive the process. Weiden is one heck of a storyteller, and it’s hard not to tear right through this one. But the novel is so much more than that. Weiden is himself an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, and he has filled Winter Counts with cultural insights and history that combine to make it all seem terribly real. His explanation of how and why both the American and Tribal legal systems all too often fail Native Americans is a heartbreaking one. Fiction, though, often spreads the truth more readily than nonfiction accounts of the same situation. Perhaps that is the best thing about books like Winter Counts and Craig Johnson’s more recent Daughter of the Morning Star. Read novels like these and tell your friends about them. Maybe someone will finally listen.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden

(My thanks go to Cathy at Kittling Books for tipping me off to this one back in April with her review of Winter Counts.)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Daughter of the Morning Star - Craig Johnson

Daughter of the Morning Star
is the seventeenth novel in Craig Johnson’s popular Walt Longmire series. This time around, Walt and his often-deputized best friend Henry Standing Bear work a case that shines the spotlight on the real world reality that Native American women are being murdered at a rate ten times greater than the national average — and that Native women are not strangers to violence of any kind. As Johnson puts it in his introductory “Acknowledgments” section: “…four out of five Native women have experienced societal violence, with half having experienced sexual violence as well. Half of the Native women have been stalked in their lifetime, and they are two times as likely to experience violence and rape than their Anglo counterparts. Heartbreakingly, the majority of these Native women’s murders are by non-Natives on Native-owned land.”

“It is said that no tribe is truly defeated until the hearts of their women are on the ground — but what if there are no women at all?” - Lonnie Little Bird, friend of Sheriff Walt Longmire

The story begins when Tribal Police Chief Lolo Long asks Walt and Henry for help after her niece Jaya starts receiving written death threats. Jaya is the star player on her high school basketball team, and on the reservation that makes the teen a high profile superstar. Jaya Long is so good at basketball that she’s earned the nickname “Longbow” in honor of her ability to hit shots from all over the floor. Defiant by nature, Jaya knows that the death threats are no joke because her older sister, also a talented basketball player, disappeared a year earlier and has not been seen since. But Jaya is determined to live life her own way, and that is going to make it difficult for Walt and Henry to protect her while simultaneously trying to figure out what happened to the girl’s sister.

Chief Long knows Walt and Henry well; she knows that they get things done and that they don’t always play by the rules in the book. She is hoping that the two can stir things up so much, and so loudly, that the general public won’t be able to ignore what is happening to Native women any longer. Turns out, she is right about that, but it also turns out that Walt catches the attention of a mystical spirit, a soul-catcher of sorts, called the Éveohtsé-heómėse that holds on to the spirits of the dead who are not yet ready to move on to the next plane of existence, whatever that may be. So not only will Walt and Henry face-off against the usual suspects…a small group of racist white supremacists, jealous Natives, rival basketball fans…they will have to deal with a spirit that wants to walk away with their souls.

Bottom Line: Daughter of the Morning Star is another fun visit into Sheriff Walt Longmire’s world despite the fact that Walt is once again on the road. When that happens, some of the series side characters either fail to make an appearance at all or only pop into the picture for a moment or two. That’s what happens this time with Walt’s snarky undersheriff, and love interest, Vic Moretti and his daughter, Cady. Vic does manage to make a brief appearance or two on scene, but Cady’s appearances are even more limited. 

This story is not over because now Walt is as interested in Éveohtsé-heómėse as the spirit is in him, and he’s decided that it’s “impolite” to keep the spirit waiting any longer. I don’t know about you, but my money is on Walt.  

Craig Johnson

Friday, October 15, 2021

A Thousand Steps - T. Jefferson Parker

T. Jefferson Parker’s A Thousand Steps is the coming-of-age story of a Laguna Beach, California, boy who is largely having to do it all on his own. Matt’s father deserted the family six years earlier; his brother is a Vietnam tunnel rat; his mother seems determined to drown her own problems in booze and drugs; and his only sister has just been kidnapped. Matt may be the youngest member of his family, but he is smart enough to know that he is the only hope is sister has now.

It’s 1968 and Laguna Beach is attracting naive dropouts and cynical drug pushers from all over the country. Idiots like Timothy Leary are taking advantage of the new drug culture’s chaos to make themselves famous and rich at the expense of anyone and everyone they can exploit - and it seems that way too many people in Laguna Beach are happy enough to be exploited. Those protesting the justifiably unpopular war in Vietnam make it even easier for the unscrupulous to make a quick buck from all the turmoil. Right in the middle of all of this, Jasmine, Matt’s sister, disappears and no one seems overly concerned about that other than sixteen-year-old Matt, who decides to find his sister on his own if he has to.

Tied down by a daily paper route that is his only source of income, and never sure where his next meal is coming from, Matt still manages to spend his every spare moment in search of his sister, a search that eventually attracts the attention of the Laguna Beach police. The police realize that Matt gets around, and one of them wants to turn him into an informer while another, more sympathetic, cop encourages Matt to keep doing what he’s doing because it is Jasmine’s best chance at being found alive. The boy is in so far over his head, though, that he will be lucky to survive the next few days himself.

Bottom Line: A Thousand Steps makes for a good coming-of-age story, but its setting is really the novel’s strongest point. Parker vividly captures a place, and a time, in American history that was every bit as ugly as it is memorable, a period that changed the country forever. For readers who don’t remember living through those days themselves, A Thousand Steps is a little like jumping on a time machine and traveling back to the counterculture of the late sixties.

T. Jefferson Parker

Review Copy provided by Publisher. A Thousand Steps will be released on January 11, 2022.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Salt Path - Raynor Winn

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a big fan of books written by people who test themselves by long, cross-country trips. It doesn’t matter whether they are walking, riding bicycles or motorbikes, boating, or even driving, I’ve always envied the authors. But now something a little different has come along: Raynor Winn has written a long-walk kind of memoir with a twist. The Salt Path is about the 630-mile walk along part of England’s southern coast that Raynor and her husband Moth took on only because they suddenly found themselves homeless and jobless. Needless to say, this time around I don’t envy the author one little bit.

It could perhaps be argued that Raynor and Moth brought their problems upon themselves, but the only thing they were really guilty of was being a little too naive and trusting when it came to doing business with a man Moth had known since childhood. When that man’s business failed, he wasted little time coming after the couple’s home and business to compensate himself for their supposed share of the failed company’s debts and obligations. Raynor and Moth tried to defend themselves in court, but not being able to afford a competent attorney turned out to be their downfall- and at the end, they were left with only a few days to vacate the property. Everything they owned, and life as they knew it, was gone.

Well, it could just not get much worse than that, could it? The short answer is “yes, it could,” and it does exactly that when within a matter of days of losing their home and everything they own, Moth is diagnosed with an illness likely to claim his life within five years. So, with no place to go, and no money other than the minimal benefits they are eligible for each month, Raynor and Moth begin walking westward along England’s southern coast even though they have no idea what they will do once they come to the end of the trail months later.

The Salt Path is Winn’s account of what it was like for two people in their fifties to strap rather heavy packs onto their backs and trudge along during daylight hours without having any idea where they will be pitching their tent at the end of the day. Along the way, the pair endures the heat of the day, cold and wet nights that make it near impossible to sleep, the constant problem of finding enough water to keep themselves safely hydrated, and living on whatever meager diet they can afford. And if that is not already bad enough, they have to live with the societal stigma of being homeless when people they encounter along the way more times than not treat them as if they are carrying the plague simply because they are homeless. It is almost as if homelessness is a contagious disease. 

Bottom Line: Sad as The Salt Path is, for this reader the saddest part of all is the way that their fellow citizens treat Ray and Moth as soon as they learn that the couple are not voluntary hikers/campers out on some lark. This is particularly disappointing when the penny drops in the middle of a conversation and Ray and Moth’s new “friends” abruptly excuse themselves and leave the area as quickly as their feet can carry them away. The Salt Path has a sequel titled The Wild Silence, but I’m not sure that I’m up to reading that one just yet.

Author Raynor Winn & Her Husband Moth

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Does a Graphic Novel "Count" as a Book Read?

 I have a question for everyone that would be best presented as a poll question, but since Blogger software doesn't make that an easy thing to do (at least I can't figure out how to do it), let's just do it the hard way.  

In all the years I've been reading, the number of graphic novels I've read may now have finally used up all the fingers on one hand. And the one that accomplished the trick was not really a graphic novel; instead,I would call it a graphic biography. It was this 155-page "comics biography" of science fiction author Philip K. Dick:

Despite my admiration for several of Philip K. Dick's science fiction novels, I knew almost nothing about the man's personal life before I picked up this condensed version of his life. To the book's credit, I feel that I now have a solid feel for how all of Dick's personal problems with mental illness, drugs, and alcohol so directly influenced his work - and resulted in five marriages. I may not have a lot of hard, factual detail to back up my impressions but the illustrations added a great deal of depth to the limited text, and I'm pleased with how much better I now know Philip K. Dick, the man. 

So why do I still feel guilty about counting anything but the longest graphic novel as a "book read"? It even took me a few years to stop feeling guilty about counting audiobooks, so maybe this is not even an issue for most readers. 

So my question is this one: Is it legitimate to count a graphic novel that you spent maybe 90 minutes with as a book read when compiling your numbers for the year? 

I will be happy with a simple "yes" or "no," but would appreciate any comments you want to add to your votes. Thanks for participating.

Monday, October 11, 2021

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good - Helene Tursten

Like Dexter, Maud’s more famous fictional serial killer peer, Maud doesn’t kill anyone that doesn’t pretty much deserve killing. Dexter probably has killed more bad people than Maud will ever manage to knock off, but then Dexter isn’t 88-years-old either. Maude, on the other hand, is very near 89 by the end of Helene Tursten’s An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, and she’s still going strong, so who knows what her final bodycount will total?

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good is a collection of five stories featuring Maud, the “elderly lady” in question, who has lived in the same large apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, for her whole life. Due to a legal clause her father managed to slip into a sales contract, Maud has lived in the apartment entirely rent-free for the last several decades, something that is a constant irritant to its owner and her fellow apartment building tenants. Maud has no real friends, and she likes it that way. She is not a lady to ignore the small stuff, and those who threaten her emotional peace or threaten to harm her in any way often pay the ultimate price for their behavior. That may sound a little drastic on Maude’s part, but Tursten’s stories are so funny, and Maude’s victims so deserving of a whack or two on the head, that readers can’t help but laugh at Maude’s shenanigans while cheering her on. 

The five stories collected here were written between 2007 and 2018, but Maud’s attitude  changes very little over time (the five stories are not even presented in the order in which they were written). Sometimes Maud is out there avenging old friends, sometimes neighbors (she has a vested interest in this one), and sometimes just — as she sees it — defending herself. Interestingly, the fifth story turns out to be a prequel to the story that comes just before it so that everything can be seen again from Maud’s point of view rather than that of the first person narrator (and neighbor of Maud’s) who gives us the original version of why a dead body was found in Maud’s apartment. That fourth story (“The Antique Dealer’s Death) is the only one of the five told in the first person; the other four are all in the third person.

Bottom Line: Maud is a hoot. Readers may feel a little guilty about laughing at the way Maud eliminates her problems, but it is impossible not to cheer her on. A second collection, of six stories, titled An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed has just been published, and it promises to continue Maud’s adventures and test her skills to stay out of prison. Go, Maud, go…

(Both collections are translated into English by Marlaine DeLargy.)

Helene Tursten

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics - Heather Lende

Heather Lende lives in one of those little towns where it seems like sooner or later just about everyone who wants to will eventually hold some kind of political office. For Lende, that would turn out to be a position on the Haines, Alaska, town assembly. Haines sits in the extreme southeast part of Alaska, and is a place pretty much only accessible by plane, boat or ferry since the only road out of town goes northward toward the Yukon and terminates in Haines. Because of that, everyone in Haines knows everyone else in Haines…and pretty much everything about them and their families. But as Heather Lende would find out, politics in such a small, insulated community can be a little tricky. And in Of Bears and Ballots: An Alaskan Adventure in Small-Town Politics, she tells us all about it.

Haines may be small, but its citizens take politics very seriously, and as in the rest of the country these days, political disagreements are all too often allowed to end old friendships and affect family relationships. Lende, who rather easily wins election to the Haines assembly,  barely settles into her new chair before she and two other of the more liberal representatives on the assembly become the targets of a recall petition and election. Much of Of Bears and Ballots recounts the emotional rollercoaster the author rides during that long, drawn out process, a process during which she feels betrayed by some of her closest and oldest friends and their families. That none of the three officeholders are successfully recalled is small compensation for the emotional scars Lende is left with and everything she suffers along the way.

While the portion of the book dedicated to the recall election is interesting, the real fun in Of Bears and Ballots comes from Lende’s description of daily life in a place like Haines, Alaska. What she has to say about the day-to-day goings-on that make a little town like Haines click is so intriguing that now I want to take a look at two of her earlier books in which she does the same in much more detail: 2011’s Take Care of the Garden and the Dogs (which was her mother’s dying wish) and 2006’s If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. 

All in all, and despite her rough start in local politics, Lende comes away from the experience feeling better about and more proud of her community than ever. I do have to admit, however,  that I was a little surprised that despite everything she says about being openminded, considering all sides of an argument, and simply listening during assembly meetings, Lende manages to fall into the same old trap that so many of us fall into these days when it comes to dissenting political views. On numerous occasions, she makes sweeping generalizations about her more conservative constituents and their national counterparts that are so naive that they made me smile (despite the fact that I know I often do the same to those who disagree with me).

For instance, apparently even in a town as isolated as Haines, Alaska, it is possible to exist in a bubble so tightly sealed that a reaction like this one is possible: 

“When I admitted to the Unitarians that at least two of my dear friends and many people I know and have hosted in my home voted for Trump, they gasped.”

I know I’m not supposed to find that funny, but it makes me smile…and this is one of the kindest generalizations that Lende makes about “Trump voters.” I won’t point out the more strongly worded ones, but there are something approaching a dozen of them that jumped out at me. Still, that lack of self-awareness is so especially common these days that it is easily forgiven in a book that was as much fun as Of Bears and Ballots.

Heather Lende

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Heaven - Mieko Kawakami

Mieko Kawakami’s 2009 novel Heaven has now been translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd and has been published in a Europa edition. It follows the success Kawakami enjoyed last year when her novel Breasts and Eggs became the first of her books to be published in English. 

Because of its heartbreaking plot, Heaven is not an easy novel to read. It tells the story of two middle school students, one male and one female,  who are so tormented and abused by their classmates that their lives are no longer their own. Everything that happens to the two of them is recounted by the unnamed boy who is being so badly bullied. He is the target of a small group of boys led by class favorite Ninomiya, a handsome, charismatic, but extremely cruel young man. Another gang member, a boy called Momose, is always around when our narrator is being bullied, but never gets his own hands dirty, preferring simply to stare from the outskirts of the action with a blank look on his face and his arms crossed. 

“Without school, I could get by without seeing anyone or being seen by anyone. It was like being a piece of furniture in a room that nobody uses. I can’t express how safe it felt never being seen. I knew the peace could never last, but it was immensely comforting to know that, if I never left my room, no one in the world could lay a finger on me. The flip side was I had no way of engaging with the world, but that was how it had to be.” - Narrator 

Kojima, a girl who comes to school everyday unwashed and having taken no care at all to her personal appearance, suffers a similar fate from a gang of girls who delight in tormenting her both emotionally and physically. She and the boy, despite their common suffering, have never acknowledged each other in the classroom, much less spoken about what is happening to them. Then one day, Kojima leaves an unsigned note hidden in the boy’s pencil case saying, “We should be friends.” The boy is almost certain that this is just another trick and that he is being set up for a new embarrassment at the hands of his bullies, but the notes keep coming and his curiosity keeps growing. Finally, more desperate for a friend than he knows, the boy agrees to meet the note-writer in the stairwell after school. And he and Kojima become each other’s only friend.

For the rest of the school year, through the summer, and into the new school year, the boy with the lazy eye and the “dirty” girl exchange letters and notes, and even meet occasionally to share their lives. They are still mercilessly bullied by their peers, but their lives are a little better for the friendship they share. But, of course, that will not be tolerated by either set of bullies when they finally figure out that Kojima and the boy have become friends behind their backs.

Bottom Line: Heaven is a disturbing novel that shines a spotlight on bullies and their victims. Kojima and the boy justify to themselves their own passiveness to everything they suffer, but the bullies sense their unwillingness to defend themselves and continue to escalate their cruelty. That is hard to watch, and I kept wondering where the adults were while all this was happening — realizing of course, that this kind of silent suffering at the hands of peers often goes unnoticed by parents and teachers until it is too late to do anything about it. This is a coming-of-age novel from Hell, and Hell would have, perhaps, been a more suitable title for this one than Heaven (the title has a specific meaning to the boy and the girl).

Mieko Kawakami