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Sunday, September 30, 2018

What I'm reading (#42)

When I was given a copy of Victor LaValle's The Changeling, I thought it sounded right down my alley.

The story's main character, Apollo Kagwa, is the son of a Ugandan immigrant mother and an American father.  He is obsessed with books from youth, and grows up to become a rare book seller.  But there are some disturbing things in his past -- his father had a major breakdown and abandoned the family when Apollo was little, and Apollo is haunted by dreams of being picked up by his dad and brought out into a dense, suffocating fog.

So far, so good.  LaValle sets up a creepy atmosphere and a sense of foreboding pretty much from page one.  But when Kagwa marries Emma Valentine, and they have a baby, named Brian after Apollo's father, things take a turn for the grotesque -- and the book starts to flounder.  Emma kills their child (not a spoiler, as this much is mentioned in the back cover blurb) and flees, after claiming that Brian "was not a baby."  This launches Apollo on a long quest to find her, and either get her to explain, or else exact revenge.

The story wanders around New York City, with Apollo meeting various odd characters in scenes that become more and more surreal.  The climax -- if you can call it that -- reveals not only where Emma is but why she did what she did, but the path there is so tortuous and gruesome that it wasn't worth the trip.  Also, the explanation is bizarre even by my standards, and left me turning the last page and simultaneously saying, "WTF?"

So unfortunately, LaValle's book did a bit of a face plant for me.  I stuck it out to the end, despite wanting to give it up more than once, but I'm not entirely sure why other than a hope that it would finally improve.  It turned out to be another example of a great concept, and execution that did not live up to its promise.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

What I'm reading (#41)

When I went public about four years ago on my other blog, Skeptophilia, about my ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety, it was not out of any desire to make myself the center of attention.  Hell, half of my anxiety revolves around people judging me, or even looking my way in social situations; baring my soul to the world, especially about something so deeply distressing to me, was a huge step.

The reason I did it is that I wanted to do what I could to help remove the stigma of mental illness.  I have a chemical imbalance in my brain; it is not my fault, nor is it something that I could fix by "thinking positive thoughts" or "going for a walk in the woods" or "looking at the wonderful things in life."  As far as the last one goes, for the last fifteen years especially, I've had a pretty great life.  I'm married to a wonderful woman, my kids are doing well, I've got a nice home in a place I love, a steady job that (despite its frustrations) is important and rewarding, and finally -- a dream of forty years' duration -- my fiction is being published (nine novels and counting!).

None of that affected the depression in the least.  The good things didn't lift me up; the depression pulled me down despite everything that was going right.  Worse, it made those things seem unimportant, worthless, or (worst of all) temporary.  Okay, things are pretty good now, my depression said.  Just wait.  It'll end soon.

My depression is now being managed by an antidepressant and has been ameliorated by therapy, but the truth is, I'm never going to be cured of it.  Accepting that has brought a kind of peace, and a determination that other people suffering the same way come to the same understanding -- and get help.

So when I picked up Jenny Lawson's book Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, I knew I was going to relate to it.  Lawson is a fellow sufferer from depression and anxiety, and the similarity of her experience to mine was apparent from the second page of the foreword:
[A] few years ago... I fell into a severe bout of depression so terrific I couldn't see any way out of it.  The depression wasn't anything new.  I've struggled with many forms of mental illness since I was a kid, but clinical depression is a semiregular visitor and anxiety disorder is my long-term abusive boyfriend.  Sometimes the depression is solid enough that I mistake it for the flu or mono, but this instance was one of the extreme cases.  One where I didn't necessarily want my life to end, I just wanted it to stop being such a bastard.  I reminded myself that depression lies, because it does.  I told myself that things would get better.  I did all of the normal things that sometimes help, but I still felt hopeless and suddenly I found myself really angry.  Angry that life can through such curveballs at you.  Angry at the seeming unfairness of how tragedy is handed out.  Angry because I had no other emotions left to give.
So Lawson went to her blog, The Bloggess, and started writing about what she was going through.

The result was an outpouring of support and "me toos" from her readers.  Ultimately, that experience led to her writing Furiously Happy -- a poignant, brilliant, and often hysterically funny account of one woman's life of dealing with mental illness.  (If you doubt the last bit, I can tell you that I was sitting in bed reading, and kept guffawing so much my wife finally said, "What on earth are you reading?"  I told her -- and when I was done, gave it to her to read.  The result was many muffled snorts of laughter when she thought I wasn't listening.)

[Click the image above if you'd like to purchase the book from Amazon]

Let me put this bluntly: you need to read this book.  Even if you do not have depression or anxiety yourself, someone you know does.  Current statistics are that 7% of Americans have experienced one or more bouts of serious depression in a given year.

Lawson's decision to write this book was a major act of courage -- and a gift to the rest of us.  There are episodes in it that will have you howling with laughter (the footnotes alone were enough for me to have that reaction more than once), and chances are, there'll be a couple of scenes that will have you reaching for the kleenex.

As for me: I said "amen" more than once while reading this book.  Its description of what people with depression and anxiety go through is spot-on.  It's time we remove the stigma from mental illness -- and Jenny Lawson has taken a huge step toward realizing that goal.

Friday, August 3, 2018

What I'm reading (#40)

A few weeks ago I borrowed the book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper -- Case Closed by Patricia Cornwell from a friend.

l've had a morbid fascination for Jack the Ripper ever since I first heard about him when I was a teenager.  The idea that someone could kill between five and seventeen victims -- how many were Jack's doing, and how many either copycats or simply the result of the horrific violence that was commonplace among the poor in London in the 1880s and 1890s -- is still a matter of conjecture.  The "five canonical murders" -- Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, Elizabeth Stride, and Mary Jane Kelly -- were all of poor women working as prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of London.  The killings started out horrid and ended up nothing short of appalling -- the last two were mutilated nearly beyond recognition.

Despite the efforts of the police, Jack's identity was never determined.  This, of course, has led to a plethora of theories -- guesses would be a better term -- about who he was, ranging from known murderers like Seweryn Kłosowski and Thomas Neill Cream to Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence -- the son of King Edward VII.  All of them have points for and against, and some are clearly more preposterous than others.  None, unfortunately, fits with everything that is known about the Ripper murders.

But Cornwell says there's one that's different.  In Portrait of a Killer, she makes a case that all of the canonical murders, plus that of Martha Tabram (which occurred before that of Mary Ann Nichols) and several afterwards, were the work of artist Walter Sickert.

Sickert was, apparently, a strange man, and had a fascination himself for the Ripper murders.  He deliberately stayed in an apartment that had allegedly been home base for Jack at some point (how he could have known that when no one knew who Jack was, I have no idea).  He drew and painted several scenes related to the murders, and many of his other paintings have macabre, grotesque, and violent themes.

[click the image above if you'd like to purchase the book from Amazon]

Cornwell lays out the evidence carefully, making a thorough case for Sickert being Jack.  However, it must be said in the interest of honesty that her conclusions have been called into serious question -- historian and Ripper scholar Stephen P. Ryder has taken Cornwell's argument apart piece by piece, with the strongest evidence against being that there are multiple witnesses who claimed to see Sickert in France when several of the murders took place.

The bottom line is, we probably will never know for certain who Jack the Ripper was.  In fact, I always bring him up in my Critical Thinking classes when we discuss the concept of "sufficient evidence" -- and that, as frustrating as it is, there are times we have to say "We don't know, and probably never will know."  That notwithstanding, Cornwell's book is fascinating reading; even if she's wrong about her central premise, she provides a unique and lucid window into the sordid life of Whitechapel in the 1880s and 1890s.  And her descriptions of the victims themselves are poignant and sympathetic.  It's worth a read just for that alone -- whether or not her favorite theory about the Ripper's identity is correct.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

What I'm reading (#39)

I first ran into the work of Eudora Welty when I was in college, and I read the short story "Why I Live at the Post Office," and laughed so hard my stomach hurt.  It's hard to say why her stories are funny; they're not at all slapstick, and it's far from what I'd call a situation comedy.  But her characters are brilliant and eccentric and absolutely hilarious -- and even more so because I've known people like the ones she describes so well.

A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of her short novel The Ponder Heart at a used book sale, and had the same reaction to it as I did to her short story so many years ago.  It's a quick and delightful read, centering around the misadventures of Uncle Daniel Ponder as seen through the eyes of his niece, Edna Earle Ponder.  Uncle Daniel is a strange man, an eternally cheerful hale-fellow-well-met around his home in Clay County, Mississippi, who if he runs into you might well give you his hat or his coat -- or his car.

Uncle Daniel is beloved by all and sundry -- some because they genuinely like him, and some because of his aforementioned propensity for giving stuff away -- but is singularly unlucky in love.  His first wife, whose name is (I'm not making this up) Teacake Magee, only stays with him for two months before deciding that she's fed up with his oddities.  Then he proposes to young, beautiful, vapid Bonnie Dee Peacock, and all seems to be well -- until Bonnie Dee dies under mysterious circumstances, and Uncle Daniel is arrested for murder.

The trial, and its outcome, are some of the best humor writing I've ever read.  Welty has an absolute mastery of making oddball characters seem completely real.  It occurs to me, however, that part of her charm in my eyes is that I was born and raised in the Deep South, so Deep that (as my dad put it) any Deeper and we'd be floating.  I have to wonder how Welty's stories would play to a Yankee, if perhaps someone who had never experienced that part of the United States might simply find her cast of characters too strange to be believable.

But all I can say is, I've known people like almost every single person in The Ponder Heart, from the steadfast, pragmatic Edna Earle to the supercilious lawyer for the prosecution, Dorris Gladney.  It's a fun read, and a tragicomic lens into the Deep South of the 1950s.  As far as what happens to Uncle Daniel in the end -- you'll just have to read it to find out.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Research and rabbit holes

I've suspected for a while that the FBI is keeping a file on me based upon my Google search history.

This, I suspect, is something that plagues a lot of writers, but it's really hit home apropos of my murder mystery series, The Snowe Agency Mysteries, the second of which (The Dead Letter Office) just released last week.  I've got a line of them ready for release, and the research for them has resulted in some searches that would look seriously sketchy to anyone who didn't know I'm a writer.  These have included:
  • What anesthetic available to a veterinarian would kill a human the most quickly?
  • How fast does a bubble of air injected into an artery kill someone?
  • Would the remains of a person poisoned to death twenty years ago still show traces of the poison?
  • The behavior of psychopathic individuals
  • The physiology of drowning
  • How hard does a person need to be hit in the back of the head to knock them unconscious?
To anyone who is still concerned: allow me to assure you that I have never killed, nor am I planning on killing, anyone.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Writing takes you down some interesting rabbit holes, and I'm not just talking about writing mysteries.  One of the reasons I love writing fiction is that I learn so much in the process -- it gives me a chance to stretch my own brain a little.  Here are a few things I had to research for books I've written:
  • Living conditions in 14th century Norway (Lock & Key)
  • Communications and surveillance technology (Kill Switch)
  • Ancient Greek timekeeping devices (Gears)
  • Medieval Jewish mystical traditions (Sephirot)
  • Creatures from Japanese mythology (The Fifth Day)
  • The effects of untreated type-1 diabetes (Whistling in the Dark)
  • Viking ship design (Kári the Lucky)
  • The rate of spread of the Black Death in England (We All Fall Down)
  • The structure of Baroque contrapuntal music (The Harmonic Labyrinth)
And that's just scratching the surface.

I was chatting with my publisher a couple of days ago, and commented that fiction should open up new worlds, that if my readers are the same when they close the book as they were when they opened it, I've failed as a writer.  However, writing also opens up new worlds for the writer, lets us explore topics we'd otherwise never look into.  (It's all too easy to get lost in research -- to intend to sit down and write, and suddenly three hours have gone by, and all you've done is jump from one abstruse website to another, as my friend and writing partner Cly Boehs would be happy to tell you.)

There are two things about learning: (1) it's fun.  And (2) you're never done.  And when it comes to writing, there are always new areas to investigate, new worlds to create.

So many stories to tell, so little time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What I'm reading (#38)

When a friend gave me a copy of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In, and told me to read it even though it's a vampire novel, I was a little dubious despite my sense that this friend is a real connoisseur of excellent books.

I had no idea how wrong I was -- or spot-on his recommendation would be.

I've got nothing in particular against vampires, mind you, but I hate triteness.  And even the most diehard bloodsucker aficionado has to admit that the vampire trope has been a little overdone lately.  (As have zombies.)  But there's always room for a truly fresh take -- something I found out when I had my arm twisted to watch the zombie movie Warm Bodies last year and absolutely loved it.  So I told my pal that I'd be happy to give Lindqvist's novel a try.

I read it in four days flat.  It's riveting.  The story centers on Oskar, a misfit twelve-year-old in Sweden who is the subject of brutal and humiliating bullying by his stronger and more confident classmates.  Oskar, however, is about to have his life turned upside down by two things -- there is a horrifying murder near his town, and the police have no leads on the killer; and one night soon after, he meets Eli, a thin girl with a narrow, waif-like face, shoulder-length dark hair, wearing a thin pink sweater despite the evening chill.

Eli and Oskar strike up a peculiar friendship.  But they are on a collision course with several other figures -- the pathetic, simpering Håkan; the drunkard foursome of Jocke, Lacke, Larry, and Morgan; dark, unhappy, drug-addicted Tommy; and the trio of bullies, Jonny, Jimmy, and Micke.

And after all is said and done, none of them will ever be the same again.

Let the Right One In is not only a twisted coming-of-age story, it's an absolutely gripping novel.  Lindqvist draws you right in to the cold, long nights of a Swedish winter, and has a deft way of making you feel sorry for even the most despicable characters (while simultaneously wanting to check beneath the bed to make sure none of them snuck in while you weren't looking).  It's not a happy tale; if you like neat, tied-up, they-all-lived-happily-ever-after endings, this story is probably not for you.  But if you like brilliant characterization and a plot you won't soon forget, give Let the Right One In a try.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

What I'm reading (#37)

A couple of years ago I read Ava Norwood's first book, If I Make My Bed in Hell -- a gripping tale of a woman caught in a self-feeding cycle of religious indoctrination and abuse who finally decides she's had enough.  It's a gritty, dark, completely engrossing read, so when I heard that Norwood was working on her second book, I couldn't wait to read it.

That book, Poured Out Like Water, was released last week, and it far exceeded my already high expectations of Norwood's ability at story-craft.  It's the tale of Shannon Grady, scion of The Big Family In Town -- the child who never could compete with her brother and sister, and who never quite measured up to the high standards of her wealthy family.

But the brash, influential Gradys have some skeletons in their own closet, and Shannon eventually sets aside her desire to be an accepted part of the family, choosing instead to create her own family circle, centered around her dear friend Evie.  And for a while, it seems to be working.

But the ghosts of the past are not so easily laid in their graves, and the members of the Grady family remain on a collision course with tragedy.  Some sins can never be atoned for -- and it's often the most vulnerable who end up paying the price.

Poured Out Like Water is a tour de force, drawing you along into the depths of family secrets, jealousy, anger, grief, and desire for revenge.  You won't be able to put it down.  And I can guarantee that once you turn the last page, you will be thinking about the story for a long, long time.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What I'm reading (#36)

If I haven't posted any reviews here in a while, I have an excuse; I've been caught up in Haruki Murakami's massive novel 1Q84, which at almost a thousand pages, is not something you can knock off in a day or two.

It's well worth the effort, though.  It's in his signature lucid but surreal style, where you're not always sure that what you're seeing (through the character's eyes) is real.  He has a way of describing the most ordinary, prosaic settings and making them seem otherworldly, places where you might expect to see ghosts.

The book revolves around two characters: Tengo, a writer who just wants a quiet life but finds himself trapped in an increasingly violent vortex of conspiracy; and Aomame, a sports trainer by day, avenging angel by night, who does what she has to with dispassionate calm until the day she's given a job that will change her life forever.  The two of them had a chance connection in elementary school that neither of them has ever forgotten, and they have both spent the time since trying to find each other again -- at the same time, each not knowing if the other even remembered who they were.

Other characters slip in and out of the story.  The aging Dowager, who got Aomame started on her career of righteous revenge.  The misshapen, hulking Ushikawa, a gun-for-hire who will do anything he's told to do if given enough money.  Fuka-Eri, a teenager with a preternatural imagination.  The Dowager's bodyguard Tamaru, who is ruthless and efficient and has a soft spot for dogs.  Aomame's policewoman friend Ayumi.  The Leader, a desperately ill man in charge of a homicidal cult.  All of them play a part -- and the whole time, the two moons of the 1Q84 world hang in the sky, a reminder that all is not what it seems.

To tell you more would be to spoil the ride.  Murakami's ability to transport us to a side-slipped alternate universe, which he demonstrated over and over in such tours de force as Dance Dance Dance, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and A Wild Sheep Chase, is in full flower here.  Pick up a copy, fasten your seatbelt, and get ready for a trip you'll never forget.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Dead Letter Office -- Snowe #2 is almost here!

If you liked the enigmatic Mr. Parsifal Snowe and his band of intrepid detectives in Poison the Well, get ready for a second installment of murder and psychic investigation with The Dead Letter Office, coming in April!

Crotchety, irritable, self-centered, rich Miss Annamae Dyer has been found clubbed to death in her study, and who had a reason to kill her?

Just about everyone.

From her conniving, scheming nephew Robert, who inherited most of her considerable fortune; to her nieces, cool, superior Katherine Yates and artsy, hot-tempered Marie Mackenzie, both mysteriously written out of Annamae's will; to her cousin, Donna Skelly, who has been put upon and abused by the whole family; to her cold-as-ice personal assistant Taylor Bradford -- none of them liked her.

In fact, none of them much liked each other, either.

In a family where every-man-for-himself is the watchword, and there's a cool couple of millions at stake, someone wanted the old lady out of the way.  But who... and why?

Find out in The Dead Letter Office.

Here's a short teaser from early in the story.  Enjoy!


“I have called you together this afternoon,” Mr. Parsifal Snowe said to his staff, “because I thought it might be worthwhile to bring together what we have currently uncovered regarding the death of Annamae Dyer. Recognizing, of course, that we have only recently begun the investigation, and anything we have is likely to be tentative.”
Seth stretched out his long legs and leaned back in the chair, which creaked slightly. “Are we starting from facts? Or from impressions? If it’s the latter, I’d say we have a pretty interesting bunch of personalities in this case.”
Mr. Snowe smiled beneficently at him. “I would argue that the two are inseparable. As I have commented before, cases are rarely solved by hard evidence alone. There is always the human angle—the feelings, the motives, the emotions. Those are critical, however contrary to logic that may seem. Let us begin, perhaps, with the two individuals that you and Ms. Hale interviewed—the deceased’s niece, Katherine Yates, and her personal assistant, Taylor Bradford.”
Seth nodded. “As far as the facts go, their stories jibed. Yates and Bradford both said Dyer was a heinous old bat—”
“—not in so many words,” Bethany interjected.
“Okay, I’m paraphrasing,” Seth admitted. “Yates’s actual words were something like, ‘Our family is an interesting bunch,’ but this was immediately after she basically said the old lady’s will had shafted everyone but her golden-boy nephew. She even used her will to deliver a posthumous smackdown to her other niece, Marie, I forget her last name.”
“Mackenzie,” Troy said.
“Right. And Yates said—about her own sister—‘not that it wasn’t deserved.’ I’d say Katherine Yates cares mostly about status, and keeping herself in control, but otherwise doesn’t have a lot of compassion.”
“Taylor Bradford said she was a social climber,” Bethany said, “and her husband was a bastard of the first water—”
“—not in so many words,” Seth said, with a smile.
“No,” Bethany said. “And to be fair, we didn’t meet the husband. Taylor Bradford had a great many opinions about everyone, and all of them negative, so I’m not sure how much weight to give them.” She paused. “He didn’t seem put off by what he got in the will, though. Seemed quite happy with his two grand and pile of old books.”
“Were the books valuable?” Jeff Kolnikoff asked, and five heads turned in some surprise toward him. Jeff cleared his throat, and mumbled, “I mean, I just wondered.”
“No, it’s an interesting question, Mr. Kolnikoff,” Mr. Snowe said. “And one I hadn’t considered.”
“Wouldn’t that be funny?” Seth grinned. “She wills some priceless book to her research assistant, and no one knows but the two of them. I can see someone like Taylor Bradford laughing up his sleeve about that.”