The Book Adept

Ghosts for Hallowe’en

Now that we’re coming up on October, someone on “What Should I Read Next?” (Facebook page) just asked for good ghost stories or scary books for their teenager and, although I have a few favorites (more about those in a later post), I think that niche has been underfilled with good works. But T. L. Huchu is helping to change that, with his new book (published this summer), The Library of the Dead, listed as “Edinburgh Nights #1.”

The book’s protagonist is a fierce, brash, in-your-face 14-year-old girl with green dreadlocks named Ropa, a part-Zimbabwean, part-Scots “ghostalker”—I’m not sure whether this was Huchu’s (unattractive) way of spelling ghost-talker, or whether he purposely left it hazy as to whether she is a talker or a stalker!—who carries messages between the living and the dead in a vaguely post-apocalytpic Edinburgh. She, her little sister, and her beloved Gran live in an immobile caravan (trailer) parked on someone else’s land, and while Gran pays for her medicines with her knitting, Ropa haunts the streets looking for ethereal customers whose relatives will pony up a fee for a message from the dead, in order to pay the landlord for their parking space and buy their food and coal for heating. She draws on her Zimbabwean heritage by using an mbira, an ancient African musical instrument, as an aide to better communicate with the spirits, whose messages can be “tuned” into coherence by music.

Jomo, a friend of hers since childhood, has recently begun a job about which he is being extra secretive, but Ropa knows how to play to his ego, and she is soon being ushered (surreptitiously) by him into a library that operates as a secret society, available only to those with an interest in and talent for the occult. Although Ropa dropped out of school in order to support herself and her family, she is a lifelong reader and is thrilled with the opportunities offered by the library, once she gets past the daunting gatekeepers. Some of what she learns comes in handy when Ropa finds out from some ghosts on her turf that (live) children are being kidnapped and exploited in weird ways, and decides to track them down and return them to their families.

I was immediately drawn into this book—the narrative voice is fantastic. Ropa uses street lingo like a hansom cab driver from a Regency novel, but also throws in a lot of teen slang (presumably Scottish), so that while she is completely understandable, her turns of phrase are quite entertaining. The scene-setting is likewise amazing: History has taken the heart out of Edinburgh, and while there are only slanting references to wars and conflicts that leveled buildings and changed the financial dynamic of the city, a clear picture emerges that seems like London after the Blitz, if London had also suffered from climate change! It’s clearly a victory of some other country (England?) over the Scots, since everyone greets one another with the call-and-exchange of “God save the King!” and “Long may he reign!” with a nervous look over their shoulders to make sure people observe that they are following protocol. It’s little details like this that make the book so immersive and such fun.

The book is populated by quirky, fully fleshed-out side characters, both sinister and benign, and draws on Ropa’s two cultures—Zimbabwean and Scots—to make things even more interesting. There are truly scary scenes and also a lot of sarcasm and humor, and I predict a big hit with teens from about 13 up, although this is one of those young adult books that speaks to a wider audience. If you are an adult and enjoy a good ghost story, by all means recommend this to the teens in your circle, and then go read it yourself!

I’ll review an array of Hallowe’en-appropriate books for teens (and others) as soon as the month turns to October…

Grace

I have just finished reading William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. it’s so interesting to me how different is the voice between his two coming-of-age tales—this and This Tender Land—and his Cork O’Connor mysteries, of which I have read half a dozen now. The titles reveal all you need to know about the former, because his perspective and his writing are both tender and graceful as he looks back over life events big and small in the early 20th Century in which he sets them—This Tender Land in the depths of the Depression, and Ordinary Grace in the rapidly changing world of the 1960s. While I am not disparaging his mystery series—I enjoyed some books more than others, but none was either poorly conceived or written—I feel like his true gift lies with this obviously more personal look at boys of a certain age and how they meet the challenges they encounter as they move towards adulthood.

The main character in Ordinary Grace is Frank Drum, a 13-year-old boy growing up in a small town in Minnesota in 1961. He has an older sister, Ariel, who is aiming for a place at Juilliard (she is a musician as well as a composer), a younger brother, Jake, who stutters, and two parents who, while they love each other and their children, seem to be on different trajectories when it comes to finding satisfaction in life. As the book progresses, a series of tragedies are visited upon the town, some specifically on Frank’s family, and we see how each of these people, as well as other key characters in their orbit, reacts to the events of that year.

While I am always and forever a bit uncomfortable when someone chooses to explore the role of religion in these kinds of events, I have to say that Krueger doesn’t unduly intrude his own beliefs (whatever they are), but provides a nice array of contrasts when it comes to this subject. In Ordinary Grace, the protagonist’s father is a Methodist minister with a deep and all-encompassing faith partially born out of his experiences in World War II, while his mother—even though she does her wifely duty, attending services and leading the choir—feels somewhat betrayed that he didn’t become the lawyer he was planning to be when she met him, and is impatient with the constant expression of his beliefs. And the children are able to begin to come to their own conclusions, based on what they observe in their parents, in their friends, in the world, and in the events of their lives. Nathan, the preacher, comes across alternately as the hero and the fool for his consistent faith, while others in the book similarly go back and forth between seeming either pragmatic or shallow based on their own sentiments. I really liked that Krueger let his characters—and his readers—work things out for themselves.

I loved the easy, gentle pace of the book—at one point two of the characters discuss how a railroad track is like a river, because it’s there but it’s also constantly moving somewhere else—and I felt this to be a good analogy for the telling of this story. The characters are all well fleshed out and present themselves as individuals, and the language is beautifully lyrical in its descriptions of nature as experienced by the narrator. The only flaw I found is that someone (presumably not the author, since this was not the case in any of his other books) went through and excised a whole slew of necessary commas (maybe three-quarters of them?), including the ones that would have set off dependent clauses in their sentences. It was disconcerting to read, and I found my editor’s brain silently inserting each one as I went, sometimes making it hard to be present in the story.

I became impatient with the story line at one point, because I didn’t quite understand what the book was supposed to achieve. When one of the characters dies in mysterious circumstances, it seems like the purpose of the book is to figure out why, how, and by whose hand, but since I was pretty sure from about halfway through about both the issue of whose fault it was and which person acted to end things, I initially felt cheated that the author hadn’t made a better mystery out of it. Then, as I continued to read, I gradually realized that the book wasn’t about the mystery at all, but rather about how each character in his or her diversity would react to the truth of what happened.

This is a beautiful exploration of life, death, brotherhood, friendship, family, and community, and ultimately a commentary on the painful acquisition of wisdom and also on the nature of grace, whether it’s being considered as something granted by a supreme deity or given or withheld by the humans around us in times of crisis and loss. Even though it is framed in religious terms, for me the concept of grace in the novel was vastly wider, encompassing the ideas of tolerance, empathy, and respect. And I don’t want to give away the specifics, but when the moment finally comes when you find out where the title of the book came from, it’s different from what you expected, and delightful (or at least I found it so).

The final lines of the novel are both simple and profound enough that they deserve to be immortalized in the same way that we remember “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” as the first line of Rebecca, or “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show” as the beginning of David Copperfield. I wouldn’t dream of revealing them here, but do read the book and discover them for yourself.

Inheritance

I just finished reading two new books in a series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, author of the ever-popular The Naturals. These are so different from those books, though, that I didn’t know whether I would like them. But I think she pulls it off, and although I’m not sure it will be quite as popular with teens as The Naturals, it will still engage them with its mysteries and puzzles. I thought, after reading both, that this was going to remain a duology; but despite feeling like things were well enough wrapped up at the end of book #2, I discovered on Goodreads that there will be a book #3. Hmm. I’m not sure what’s left to discover, given that the mysteries are pretty much solved…unless she’s going heavily into the romantic aspect. I hope not.

The Inheritance Games and The Hawthorne Legacy reminded me of two other books, one for children and one for adults: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware. I’m not a personal fan of The Westing Game—I find it convoluted and confusing, and feel like the characters are all made of cardboard—but I can’t deny its appeal to middle school kids, who will grow a few years older and like Barnes’s new series very much because of it. Both books are about people inheriting money and having to play games to do so, although it’s direct in The Westing Game, while in The Lying Game it’s a case of mistaken identity wherein the protagonist decides to keep her mouth shut and go along with it for the sake of the inheritance. The Inheritance Games books are a sort of mashup of those two, although the protagonist has no need to lie, since she is the clearly designated heir; she just needs to figure out why, and to do so before someone manages to kill her to get what they believe to be rightfully theirs.

Avery Grambs is a somewhat disadvantaged girl who grew up in a mostly one-parent household (Dad is kind of a deadbeat), then lost her mother a few years back and was raised the rest of the way by her older half-sister, Libby. Then one day she is summoned to the reading of a will—and it’s not just any will, but that of the fabulously wealthy billionaire, Tobias Hawthorne. She figures that for some random reason the man has decided to leave her some money; but she never in this world expects that he has left her his entire estate, minus some minor bequests, while disinheriting both his daughters and all four of his grandsons. Some would consider it a dream come true; but as Avery is uprooted from everything she knows and has to take a crash course in how to deal with all the repercussions and unexpected issues that come with great wealth, she isn’t so sure that it’s not a potential nightmare instead.

To receive her inheritance, Avery has to live at Hawthorne House, a sprawling estate where most of the rest of the family also resides, for an entire year. Dragging along her sister Libby and attempting in vain to evade the paparazzi, Avery moves into her new home, only to discover that Tobias Hawthorne was a wily old gent whose house is filled with secret passageways, hidden compartments, and a bunch of puzzles, riddles, and codes that may solve the mystery of: Why her?

Meanwhile, half of her new-found family is out to get her, while the other half is fascinated by the puzzle she represents, and all of them, whether hostile or friendly, are trying to use Avery to their own ends.

There is a nice story arc that carries you from the first book to the second, and the riddles and clues will delight most teenage readers as much as they stymie the teens in the book. There are a few confusing subplots that I think we could have done without, but they don’t distract too much from the main trajectory. Barnes is great at the slow build-up and the big reveal, and uses it to good advantage several times to promote further suspense and interest. There are also enough details about parties, clothes, and jet-setting to entertain those who enjoy the trappings of wealth, and a little incipient romance to satisfy that longing as well. This is a series that teens will enjoy, and perhaps some of their parents will too! I look forward with both anticipation and trepidation to see what becomes of everyone in book #3, which has a tentative title of The Final Gambit and is due out sometime in 2022.

Interludes

As I have previously mentioned here, sometimes I take a break between what I would consider more “significant” works (or at least the works of writers unknown to me) to read something lighthearted, whether that is a book written with juveniles as its audience, or a “bit of fluff” characterized by chick lit or Regency romance. This past week or so, I did both, with some surprising results.

The first book I picked up was The Extraordinaries, by T. J. Klune. Given that Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, is one of my favorite books ever, I had high expectations for a book in which ordinary people have the potential to become extraordinary, and the extraordinaries have complicated relationships with their ordinary contemporaries (and with one another). What can I say? First, I have to face that there is no comparing any book with the brilliance that is Vicious. It stands alone (well, except for its sequels). Second, I read Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea first, absolutely fell in love with that, and then read this. Who could not be a little disappointed?

The Extraordinaries is exactly as billed: A YA novel about a kid with ADHD who wants to be a superhero or, alternatively, wants to be beloved of a superhero. It’s cute, it’s inclusive, it’s frank and matter-of-fact about sexuality, it has some great characters, and teens will love it. Me? Not as much. I see its worth and its value without being able to immerse myself in its story. Also, I feel like the (ultra-serious) post-er who decried the glorification of the police (always the good guys, regardless of bad behavior) in this had a point. Not to the extent he carried it, but still…yeah. But for kids who like comics and graphic novels, this is a next step, and a fun one. I had planned to read the sequel, Flash Fire, but after the first couple of chapters I put it aside. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just not for me. But like I said, teens (especially lgbtq etc. teens) will be enthused. (I do, however, look forward to the sequel to Cerulean Sea with unabated hope.)

I decided instead to move on to my reliable go-to author for light relief, the inimitable Georgette Heyer, writer of the quintessential Regency romance. But I ended up being surprised by a book that was not quite like most others she has written. A Civil Contract is surprisingly serious in tone compared to her light, frothy stories of witty, clever people, and owes much to Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility.

It has a common theme of star-crossed lovers who may or may not prevail, and who probably appreciate the person with whom they end up more than the one they initially desired. But in this case there is no blinding realization that they have come to love that person, but rather a quiet acceptance that the relationship they have created will in the long run suit better, regardless of their feelings.

Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, an officer in the Peninsular War, is called home upon his father’s demise to discover that his family’s fortune has been decimated by his happy-go-lucky, completely improvident parent, and that he is on the verge of ruin. He has a mother and two sisters to support, and the youngest is not yet “out” (presented to society); without a dowry or indeed any basic support, her fate at least will be grim if he can’t figure out their financial situation in a hurry.

Before he left for the war, Adam had an understanding with Julia Oversley, for whom he has conceived what he believes to be a lasting passion, and which is returned by the beautiful Julia. But he knows that her father is not so unworldly as to agree to a marriage between his daughter and a man who can’t support her. While he is steeling himself to sell significant parts of the family’s estate, including the country seat, Julia’s father approaches him with the idea that he make a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a fabulously wealthy but admittedly vulgar merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, to whom Mr. Oversley owes a favor. In exchange for his daughter Jenny achieving the social status that comes with marriage into an aristocratic family, Chawleigh will pay the myriad bills accrued to the estate and buy back all of Adam’s mortgages on the country home. Jenny, a school friend of Julia’s, goes into the marriage knowing that Adam still loves Julia. And the rest of the book details the emotions still held by the two parties in the doomed love match, as well as the new wife’s adaptation to being married to a man who not only doesn’t love her, but holds her father in revulsion, despite his own resolve, for being who he is and wielding power over Adam’s every decision.

This book, rather than a recounting of the making of a marriage, is an exploration of what constitutes a successful one once the deed is done. It incorporates the many sacrifices one has to make by tolerating the baggage of relatives and friends that come with a partner; it reveals the necessity of kindness, tolerance, patience and, above all, a sense of humor. It showcases, in fact, that the significant parts of married life are the ordinary, everyday events rather than the moments of exaltation or grand passion.

Julia Oversley is the Marianne Dashwood of the story—beautiful, impulsive, sensitive, willful, and somewhat selfish—while Jenny is Elinor—practical, somewhat shy and retiring, and more concerned for the feelings of others (specifically Adam’s) than for her own. Jenny’s father, Jonathan Chawleigh, is somewhat reminiscent of Sir John Middleton, in that he speaks his mind in an embarrassing manner without thought for what he is saying or how it will affect his listeners. But he goes far beyond that character in both coarseness and good-heartedness, and steals the show whenever he appears on the page.

There was rather too much historical narrative for my taste regarding the various engagements between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, but it’s well written and definitely pivotal to the plot. This is one of the few books of Heyer’s that has a quiet, satisfying ending rather than an “Ahah!” moment, but it doesn’t suffer for that. While it was an unexpected read in the midst of Heyer’s others, I still both enjoyed and appreciated it.

The Madness of Crowds

If it’s August, it must be time for the annual Inspector Gamache mystery by Louise Penny. It’s amazing to me that she can keep turning one out every year, no matter what. A few times I feel like the series has suffered, but mostly they are intricately plotted, with intelligent dialogue, in-depth philosophy, and compelling characters. This one was no exception, although there were a few moments while reading it that I wanted to say, Where is your editor in all of this?

The setting is once again the village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, Quebec (the previous book in the series occurred while the Gamaches and Beauvoirs were on a visit to Paris), and it is post-covid. I’m sure that when Penny wrote it, she anticipated a legitimate post-covid world in which everyone was going about their normal lives again instead of one plagued by variants that threaten to keep us in masks and in isolation for yet another season (or year). But at the heart of her plot is a moral issue that has sprung to life partially as a result of the medical shortages and triage of the worst days of the epidemic, and it’s dark.

Never assay a Penny mystery expecting it to be an ordinary police procedural. She incorporates not only philosophy and politics, but also art and poetry, and while the police work is meticulous, the feelings and intuitions of the officers involved (with Gamache at their head) are always as essential as are the bare facts of the case. One of the things I enjoy about Penny is that she inserts real poems and quotes and books into her fictional works; the title of this one is based on a book by Charles Mackay, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. She immediately made me want to seek it out.

This book uses its characters and story to explore such social issues as disinformation and propaganda, xenophobia, and eugenics. I feel like her pivotal character, Professor Abigail Robinson, is consciously modeled on some of the charismatic but wildly morally skewed characters who have appeared as players in the recent American story, in the way that she divides the culture in two over the validity of her theories with the sheer strength of personality and certitude.

One Goodreads reviewer opines that this novel is “the most allegorical of Louise Penny’s work. The actual murder is incidental to the plot, serving only as a springboard to examine morality on both personal and societal levels.” I’m not sure I would go that far; but there is occasionally an arms-length feel to the crime they are supposed to be solving, as opposed to the debate they are constantly having.

Gamache is asked to provide security at a lecture being given by a professor of statistics. Given the presumably dry content of a speech on statistical analysis and the fact that it’s taking place at an obscure university auditorium in between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Gamache is puzzled as to why anyone would approach the Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec to oversee this task; but then he does a little research on the likely content of the professor’s speech and immediately musters a far bigger response than anyone would expect at what should be an incidental, poorly attended event. More people show up than the venue can accommodate, and Gamache has a volatile and angry crowd on his hands as the professor steps up to speak.

One thing that bothered me about this book is how long it takes to reveal the specific contents of the professor’s government-solicited (but later repudiated) report on which her call for action is based. Another was how long it took to get to the actual murder, using some “foreplay” crime to keep the reader going until we arrive. And a third was the resolution of the mystery: There were multiple individuals who could have been the culprit, and none of them stands out for long, as facts are discovered that exonerate each one, only to raise more doubts about the others and then circle back around again. It felt like Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste spent an aeon going over basically similar theories for why each person was or could be the murderer, and they all made sense! This is one of the few of her books that didn’t have that “Ahah!” moment in it when the unexpected solution arises and proves to be the truth. I think this is probably because Penny wanted the social commentary, rather than the murder, to be the star of the show…but it made the actual mystery a long, drawn-out process.

With all this caveating (is that a word?), I was still thoroughly engaged by and absorbed in the story. We are reunited with familiar villagers, get to know others who haven’t been prominent before, and are also introduced to a variety of strangers, each of whom brings their own twist to the plot. The physical details are, as usual, spot-on for a winter interlude in coldest Canada, and made me want to drink hot chocolate even in 100-degree Los Angeles! (I sometimes wish that her annual pub-date was in February, so I could be in accord with her characters as they snuggle up with comfort food and beverages around the fire.) And the moral dilemma around which the entire plot is wrapped is likewise riveting, albeit deeply disturbing.

I made a comment in my review of A Better Man (two books back) about a stylistic shift I saw taking place in Penny’s writing structure and, while I noticed that it mostly disappeared again in All the Devils Are Here, it’s back in this book. She does this short-phrase, incomplete-sentence thing that can occasionally work as a device to emphasize something, but is less pleasing when it constantly occurs. Perhaps she (or her editor) will see this comment, here or elsewhere and, taking it to heart, go back to the more fluid literary construct of yore. But even with that, I still give the book four stars out of five.

Jane in person

I am a sucker for time travel stories—although I really hate it when they are poorly conceived and/or realized. Likewise, I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but have learned to be wary of embracing the countless Austen spinoffs and glorified fan fiction spawned by authors who don’t have the chops to write anything close to canon. (I don’t know which is worse—the juxtaposition of Pride and Prejudice with zombies, or the creation of an Austen theme park in which young women can act out their Regency-born fantasies.) So imagine my delight when I discovered a book that sends a couple of intrepid explorers back to 1815 to see if they can retrieve additional Austen materials and bring them up to the present day to delight literary scholars everywhere?

In The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn, Rachel and Liam are sent from their rather sterile and unsatisfying present—they live in a world that has experienced “the Die-off” (no more trees), and eat food created by 3-D printers—back to 1815 England. They have been immersed in history for months, properly clothed (albeit with only one outfit apiece), and furnished with what will be an inordinate amount of money for the time period (although it’s mostly counterfeit), and the opening to the past has dropped them in a field near a town called Leatherhead. Most important to their mission, they have been cautioned that they must interact as little as possible so as not to effect change while trying to achieve their mission, which paradoxically will require a particularly close acquaintance with their subject! They are cast as the Ravenwoods, brother and sister, recently arrived in London from Jamaica after having manumitted their slaves on the coffee plantation and sold up to make the move. This back story ensures that they have a ready explanation for small awkwardnesses in local custom, as well as their lack of acquaintance with anyone who could expose them as impostors.

Their mission is to cultivate sufficient intimacy with Jane Austen and her family so as to gain access to letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra, as well as to an unpublished manuscript that was previously thought to be incomplete—only three chapters exist in their time—but, it has been learned through the recent discovery of a letter from Jane Austen to a friend, was rather held back from publication because Jane thought it too revealing of her own personal family situation.

Apart from staying in character, which is particularly difficult for Rachel, since she is an independent single woman and a medical doctor in the present day, the challenges are enormous. They have about a year to become established enough in London to curry an acquaintance with Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, and then to win an introduction by him to his reclusive sister, whose books are not even published under her own name. It would be hard for Jane to imagine the extent of her fame and the reverence for her work held by scholars and commoners alike, a couple of centuries hence; almost as hard as it is for Rachel and Liam to restrain their enthusiasm and wonder at being a part of her close circle.

All sorts of things go awry, as they are wont to do in time travel adventures, given the necessity for lying through your teeth, sticking to appropriate behavior for the times, and knowing your specific place in society—whether it’s how familiar to be with your kitchen staff, or how much flirting you can venture without compromising your reputation. There are many surprising turns in this book, and with a year to accomplish their mission, the author was able to space them out nicely and make everything feel logical and/or inevitable.

I really enjoyed reading this and, unlike some books where you wish an editor had stepped in to cut a couple of hundred pages, I could have asked for more. There was adequate detail about everything, but absolutely no excess. I would have liked to know more about Liam, in particular, before the adventure began (the book is told from Rachel’s viewpoint), and also welcome would have been just a little bit more detail about the specifics of daily life in both past and future, and some explanation of why particular interactions turned so awkward. But over all, I have to applaud the author for pulling this story off so well—it had enough history, enough romance, enough intrigue, and never went overboard. If you have enjoyed the Outlander books, or Connie Willis’s multiple forays into time travel, I venture to say you will also get a huge kick out of The Jane Austen Project.

(One exception that I have to confess as a guilty pleasure in this oeuvre is Lost in Austen, a four-part British miniseries in which a P&P fan opens a hitherto unknown door from her bathroom into the Bennet household, trading places with Elizabeth, who steps into the present day, whereupon the door disappears and each is stuck in the other’s life. It’s hilariously well done. Jane Austen is spinning in her grave. Check it out.)

Coming of age w/dogs

I somehow never picked up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, back in 2008 when it was published and getting all the buzz. I had started my first job in my new career as a youth services librarian, and was far too exhausted ordering books for the library and trying to get current on children’s literature to read much of anything for my own pleasure. I was buying some remaindered books from bookoutlet.com recently and saw that it was available, so I included a copy in my order and started reading without knowing anything about it.

It reminded me, with its gorgeous prose, descriptive scene-setting, and intriguing characters, of a few other books I have lately read—This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger; The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni; and Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. Like those books, it has a young protagonist with a challenging facet to his character, and is both a coming-of-age saga and a snapshot of the times and locale in which its events take place.

In This Tender Land, the boys are orphans being raised in a reservation institution during the depths of the Depression; in Sam Hell, the protagonist is born with red eyes, an odd genetic marker that is a target for bullies; in Crawdads, Kya grows up in isolation in the North Carolina marshes after being deserted by her family, and is regarded with suspicion by the rural community surrounding her. Edgar Sawtelle is more fortunate than these others, in that he has two loving parents and a meaningful life working on his family’s farm in northern Wisconsin, breeding and training dogs for sale. But Edgar has his challenge, too: He was born mute. He hears, but is unable to speak, scream, or make any kind of verbal noise. He is fortunate to meet a woman early in life who teaches him and his parents to sign, and he and his mother go on to make up their own peculiar gestures for all the dog-related trainings, which he does silently with his hands while she verbalizes.

When Edgar is a teenager, his uncle Claude comes back into their lives (he has been in prison), and as soon as he is on the scene, things begin to change. Edgar’s father and his uncle quarrel almost constantly, his father’s native caution coming up against his uncle’s rash impulsiveness. It begins to seem like they are all doomed to live in a constant state of turmoil. Then Edgar’s father dies unexpectedly, leaving he and his mother to carry on the ambitious and taxing breeding and training program with the family’s dogs, and Claude begins to insert himself into the business as his mother, bereft and grieving, reaches out for help. When Edgar has an astounding realization about Claude’s character and actions, he lashes out with tragic consequences and flees into the woods with three of the dogs from “his” litter. But he can’t stay away forever, and is ultimately forced to face the consequences of his flight.

The book has been called a riveting family saga and a compulsively readable modern classic, and I couldn’t disagree with either of those descriptions. Edgar is an immediately sympathetic character, beset by frustration and grief and unable to make himself understood. The story is so moving, in both its triumphs and tragedies. There are those who quibble that the details of the dog breeding and training involve way too much description and attention, just as some readers disliked the lengthy descriptions of nature in Crawdads and asserted in each case that these were flaws of a first-time writer; but I actually enjoyed learning about this trade, and also specifically how it was undertaken by a boy who was mute and couldn’t call out his commands. Others decry the hint of magical realism and/or the anthropomorphism involved in having a few chapters told from a dog’s point of view. But for me, the characters of both the humans and the dogs come to life on the page and are so distinct and compelling that it’s hard to leave them behind when the book is over.

I honestly don’t know what to say, however, about the resolution of the book. I kept expecting, despite all the portents, for it to be a heart-warming boy-and-his-dog story, and up through about 75 percent of it I hung onto that; but the last 25 percent devastated me. After it was over, I went back to Goodreads and discovered that the author had patterned the book on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It might have been good knowing that, going in! I can’t say that I wouldn’t have read it anyway; but perhaps I wouldn’t have invested so heavily in my belief that there would be a redemptive, if not precisely happy, ending.

I have probably said too much for either proper readers’ advisory or a book review; but it’s hard to get over the emotion that was provoked by this book. It’s beautiful, evocative, and tragic. I would still say to read it, but hold a tiny part of yourself in reserve from wholly committing to the characters.

Tangier melodrama

I just finished reading Tangerine, a novel of suspense by Christine Mangan, a first-time author, and I am struggling to put into words what I found compelling and also how the book ultimately failed in its task (for me, at least).

There was a lot of chatter in the blurbs about this being the next iteration of The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, with Lucy understudying the role of Tom Ripley. But I think it is this central issue that caused the book, although somewhat engrossing, not to work for me. Ripley did all the things that he did because he was a sociopath. He presented, as did Lucy, as charmingly naive; but underneath it all, there was no empathy. He saw something he wanted, he saw what he would have to do to get it, he pondered the ways to achieve it, and then he took them on, however reprehensible and with whatever consequences. But in Tangerine, Lucy’s motivation is not so clear.

Lucy is obsessed with Alice—in love, she would probably say—and Alice, of higher caste and income than Lucy, has foolishly created a dream future for Lucy by carelessly promising that, after they graduate from Bennington, they will go together to Paris, possibly to stay, or perhaps traveling on to Spain and beyond. Lucy, in her obsession, takes this casual remark as a promise, one that she slowly comes to realize that Alice will fail to fulfill, once Alice becomes involved with other people and essentially abandons their one-on-one relationship. It is this failure of a dream that causes Lucy to become the ruthless driving force who alters Alice’s life; and it is only at that point in the book that she begins to resemble Mr. Ripley in her conscienceless manipulations.

That evolution somehow didn’t ring true for me. I see the similarities—Tom + Dickie with Marge as the outsider, and Lucy + Alice with Tom (and John) as the problem third wheel—but for some reason, it just didn’t feel the same. Perhaps one flaw that caused the disconnect is that Alice is such a wishy-washy character with so much baggage that she doesn’t act as a sufficient foil to show Lucy’s true colors. Everything seems to be lovely; then there are a couple of red flags that Alice confronts with confusion because she’s so unsure of her own mental state that she halfway believes she imagines them; and then everything goes to hell. As one writer on Goodreads said of the two, they are “ghosts of far more fascinating characters found in a Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson novel.” I tend to agree!

The author drew such a line between strong, decided Lucy and weak-willed Alice that at one point in this story I actually believed we were going to be subjected to a dissociative identity disorder type of thing, where Alice and Lucy turned out to be (two sides of) the same person. While I’m thankful that didn’t happen, if the author had the moxie to try to pull that off I would have given her respect. By contrast, the evolution of the two characters in the actual story just didn’t gel for me. The setting of Tangier, where the relationship reconnects and continues to the end, was a potent one, and some of the subsidiary characters, notably Youssef and, to a lesser extent, Aunt Maude, are compelling, but the central struggle seemed too diffuse—too much took place in the confines of each character’s mind and out of the other’s tangible presence for there to be true drama. There were great moments, scenes, but they didn’t connect enough to give me the story arc. Also, the author frustratingly introduces mysterious characters who show up at the door, deliver veiled threats, and never appear again. There’s nothing I dislike more than a red herring that flops around and doesn’t actually swim anywhere.

The most interesting part of the book, honestly, is its setting, which is telegraphed by the title. Tangier is portrayed vividly and tangibly, with description but also from the gut reactions of the characters themselves to its peculiar atmosphere. There is much made of the fact that some people, arriving in a place, instinctively recognize it as “home,” while others quickly realize that, no matter their inclination, the place will never be a good fit for them. I enjoyed all this scene-setting immensely, with its contrast between the hot, dry, dusty streets with the sun beating down that cause Lucy to revel, and Alice’s wistful memories of rolling hills of green, and winter by the fire at Bennington that contrast so forcefully with her present surroundings. Tangier, a bit lawless, innately spontaneous, a little dangerous, definitely furthers the ruthless actions taken within its confines. But a gripping setting is not enough to carry the action.

I can’t honestly pan this book; it’s fairly exciting in parts, and kept me reading to find out what happened. But if you have never read any of Highsmith’s Ripley books, I’d definitely give preference to those.

More Barclay

It turns out that my last read by this author, No Time for Goodbye, has a sequel, called No Safe House. So I decided to read that too, but while I was waiting on a copy from the library, I picked up his book Never Look Away. I think this one is my favorite so far, in terms of the drawn-out suspense.

It actually answered questions that came up when I read his more recently published Promise Falls series. It’s the back story of one of the protagonists from that series—David Harwood, the newspaper reporter. There are comments made in that series about the tragic events involving his wife that took place the last time he lived in Promise Falls, and this book tells that story.

David and Jan Harwood have been married about six years, and have a darling four-year-old boy, Ethan. But lately Jan seems to be struggling with depression. She isn’t able to articulate what’s wrong, so David encourages her to see the family doctor for a talk, and hopes for the best. They make plans for a little getaway one Saturday, taking their son Ethan to a new amusement park that has just opened. But shortly after they arrive, Jan takes her eyes off Ethan’s stroller for just a couple of minutes, and when she turns back, he’s gone. The parents split up to search the park and finally, when they have almost given up, David spots Ethan’s stroller, with a suspicious-looking man running away from it. He’s relieved to find Ethan unharmed—the kid apparently slept through the entire abduction!—and calls Jan’s cell to let her know everything is okay. David waits with Ethan just inside the park for Jan to meet up with them, but after standing there for a really long time, David starts to wonder—has he found Ethan only to lose his wife?

In the days that follow, David’s work life impinges upon his personal situation in such a way that the police start to look at him with suspicion in the matter of Jan’s disappearance and continuing absence. It’s up to David to figure out how he could have gotten his signals so crossed up and what, exactly, has happened to Jan…and why.

No Safe House takes us back to Cynthia (Bigge) Archer, whose family disappeared without a trace one night when she was a teenager. This book takes place six years after the end of No Time for Goodbye; Cynthia’s daughter Grace is now 14 years old, and is responding with typical teenage contrariness to Cynthia’s admittedly somewhat paranoid attempts to keep a tight hold on her schedule. After a particularly fraught interchange, Cynthia moves out of the house and into a sublet apartment to take a break from family life, leaving husband Terry, who’s a little less tightly wound, in charge of Grace. Grace takes advantage by telling her dad she’s going to the movies with a girlfriend and will get a ride home from the friend’s mom afterwards, but instead going out with Stuart, a former student of her father’s who is a couple of years older and exemplifies trouble on two feet. Later that night, there’s a panicky call from Grace to her dad: “I think I might have…done something.” And this sets off events that bring the family back in contact with the lawless Vince, who helped them out during their drama six years ago and suffered for it, and Vince’s stepdaughter Jane, who proves to be a tower of strength for Grace. Things escalate, as is typical of Barclay stories, and stay pretty exciting and perilous throughout. I enjoyed this follow-up even more than I did the first book.

I’m going to take a break now from mysteries to embrace some other genres, but I’m sure I’ll be back with Mr. Barclay someday soon.

Promise Falls

On the recommendation of my friend Patrice, who also enjoys mysteries, I checked out a few books by Linwood Barclay, whose writing I had yet to explore. It just so happened that a fairly recent trilogy by him was available through the library (e-books), so I first read Broken Promise, Far From True, and The Twenty-Three.

The structure of this trilogy seemed to me like an anomaly among mystery writers: Although many write series featuring the same detectives, most of the books in those series are self-contained; that is, a mystery is opened at the beginning of each book and solved by the end of that same volume. But this trilogy carried several complex situations over from book to book, so that small parts were solved in books one and two, but it took until book three to reach final resolution on all sides.

Additionally, instead of just one detective protagonist (or a team), these books feature three protagonists, each with a different profession and a separate agenda, although all of them are ultimately interested in solving the complex situation taking place in Promise Falls, an upstate New York town seemingly plagued by bad luck.

We are introduced to the town in Broken Promise by David Harwood, a “native son” who decides to move back from Boston and a decent (though stressful) career as a reporter, after the passing of his wife. He applies for and gets a job at the local newspaper, only to have the paper fold within a week of his returning home, and he and his son Ethan are stuck living with his parents until he can figure out some other way to support them. Then his cousin Marla, who suffered a recent devastating loss when her child was stillborn, turns up with a baby that is not her own. She claims the child was left with her by an “angel” who exhorted her to care for it; but when the child’s mother turns up murdered, all eyes are on the somewhat unstable Marla as the culprit. David puts aside his own concerns to focus on finding out the truth, but other strange events in town muddy the waters even further.

The second book, Far From True, features Cal Weaver, a private investigator who, subsequent to a major tragic event that takes several peoples’ lives, is hired by one of the deceased victims’ daughters to look into a break-in at his house. Cal discovers far more about a number of supposedly upstanding town citizens than he ever wanted to know; but how are their activities related to the break-in, and are they also connected somehow to the murders the local police are still trying to solve?

The third book’s narrative, The Twenty-Three, is primarily driven by Detective Barry Duckworth, the lead officer on almost every criminal case in Promise Falls. Right now he is feeling out of his depth, torn in five different directions, between the murders he has yet to solve, the new and ominous events that are piling up around the significant number 23, and the latest disaster that is sending a good portion of the town’s citizenry to the emergency room—and some to the morgue.

Although each of the books begins with a particular narrator and may feature more details about that person and his efforts, all three of the protagonists appear in each of the other books as well, and it’s a bouncing timeline that jumps from one crime scene to another, from one character to another (and not just the protagonists), from one interview to another, as the three pursue their separate agendas but also come into contact with one another—sometimes for an amicable exchange of information, other times as opponents or even suspects.

I enjoyed these books in a different way than with regular mysteries, since the cases took three books to solve; the pace is more leisurely and allows you to get to know the characters better (and also for the author to add characters without too much confusion as to who they are). At first I did have to pay close attention to the different story lines between David and Cal, because they are about the same age and share some of the same concerns and characteristics (intelligent, curious, fit, interested in some of the women with whom they interact); Barry Duckworth was much easier to keep separate, since he was the only policeman involved (initially), as well as being a decade (or two) older than the others, married, and described in different terms (a big gut owed to an irresistible sweet tooth, a sweaty suit and tie rather than casual dress, etc.). I liked having all the different perspectives from which to draw conclusions, and I also appreciated Barclay’s introduction of other colorful characters from the community, particularly the former (and hoping to be future) mayor, a genial sociopath who mucks up the works for all of the crime-solvers in his attempts to be both relevant and constantly in the public eye.

In the end, it was a lot to wrap up, even for a trilogy! Serial murders, sex scandals, opportunistic former mayors, a series of what amounted to terrorist attacks on the people of Promise Falls…and basically only two detectives and a couple of well-meaning amateurs working full-time on all of it. In the hands of a less skillful author this would have become a confusing mashup, but I feel like Barclay handles the multiple trains of thought well and keeps everything focused in the general direction he wants things to go. I saw one of the guilty parties coming, but only because our attention was so firmly directed towards someone else; but I was blindsided by the other one. A good conclusion, although Duckworth’s final situation left something to be desired—by him! Still, he knows he has cake in his future…

After completing the trilogy I decided to read a few more of Barclay’s books, which are for the most part stand-alone. One, Too Close to Home, harks back to a specific event in the history of a minor character from the later trilogy; Derek Cutter (father of cousin Marla’s baby in the trilogy) was just 17 when the family next door were all brutally murdered while he hid in their basement. Barry Duckworth has his eye on Derek as his prime suspect, and Derek’s father, Jim, has to do some quick work to figure out who else besides his son could have done the deed and, almost as important, why? Soon Jim has a potential culprit in his sights, but Jim’s wife, Ellen, thinks Jim is taking this opportunity to exact revenge on a former rival. Getting to the truth proves more complex than anyone expects.

The other, No Time for Goodbye, has a fascinating premise: One morning when she is 14 years old, Cynthia Bigge wakes up to discover that her entire family is missing from the house—her mother, father, and brother Trevor. The cars are both gone, and she initially assumes that they have left for work, school, or errands before she came downstairs. When they don’t return, however, the suspicion by the authorities is that they have left—and left her behind. There’s no note; no clothes or possessions are missing; there are no circumstances that overtly indicate a violent end; it’s completely baffling. Twenty-five years later, Cynthia and her husband and daughter are dealing with the trauma afresh, after Cynthia goes on one of those television documentary shows that tries to solve cold cases. Weird things start happening: A car lurks in the neighborhood and seems to follow Cynthia when she walks Grace to school; an anonymous phone call hints that the mystery should be abandoned; a strange artifact from the past appears inside the house. Cynthia’s husband, Terry, is trying his best to be supportive, but can’t help wondering if it’s all a figment of Cynthia’s anxious imagination—or worse, that she’s the source of all of it. Cynthia, determined to solve the mystery, hires a private investigator, and his actions soon send things out of control.

I really enjoyed both of these books. The writing is engaging and entertaining, the plotting is smart and convoluted without being confusing, and the outcomes are nearly always unexpected. I would probably label his books thrillers rather than straight mystery, although there is an element of detecting going on throughout. But the pacing and the level of suspense (and the ultimate revelations) definitely qualify as thriller material. I’m happy I’ve been introduced to Linwood Barclay and will look forward to reading more.