Thursday, March 04, 2021

FURIOUS HOURS: MURDER, FRAUD, AND THE LAST TRIAL OF HARPER LEE


 Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, Casey Cep, Knopf, 2019, 336 pp

This was the February pick for my Bookie Babes reading group and I was not sure I would be happy with it since it is nonfiction and I was longing to discuss fiction. No problem. It was great!

I am surely a fan of Harper Lee. I have read To Kill A Mockingbird and seen the movie. I have read the controversial Go Set A Watchman and the Charles Shields biography Mockingbird. Casey Cep managed to incorporate those books and the movie into a deep diving story of Alabama as it influenced Lee's writing and her life.

Furious Hours has three parts, ingeniously constructed like a puzzle that leads to "the last trial of Harper Lee."

Part One: The Reverend concerns a Black man in Alabama, born in the year that Alabama Power began to build a dam which would flood a large area not too far from Harper Lee's family home and thus bring electricity to the state. Willie Maxwell did become a Reverend, preaching to a wide flock of African American Southern Baptists. 

He was also a con man who perfected a life insurance scam. He ensured, then murdered three wives and numerous relatives, after which he collected their death benefits as beneficiary of their policies. He became rich, feared in his community, and suspected of practicing voodoo.

Part Two: The Lawyer. Tom Radney was an Alabama defense lawyer and politician with Presidential aspirations. He became famous for never losing a case. The Reverend Willie Maxwell hired Radney each time he was accused of murder but was never convicted of either murder or fraud.

Part Three: The Writer. Years passed and Tom Radney never made it to the White House due to being too progressive for a Southern politician. When a member of the Reverend's congregation put three bullets into the Reverend's head, that member was charged with murder.

Tom Radney took the case intending to get the murderer of his former, now deceased client, off on an insanity plea. Harper Lee arrived, after years of isolation and no novel to follow To Kill A Mockingbird, watched the trial and determined to write a true crime account of the entire story.

Though the whole book was fascinating from a historical standpoint, Part Three was the best. It was a relief to have Harper Lee finally appear. The amount of biographical material about her in this section stands way above what Charles Shields presented in his biography. I learned more about her relationship with the infamous Truman Capote than I had read anywhere else. 

Casey Cep writes perceptively about Harper Lee's well known writers block and then details the extreme effort The Writer made to bring her book to completion. As far as we know she failed though I was left with the hope that, like Go Set A Watchman, it could still someday appear.

If you are a Harper Lee fan and/or a true crime aficionado, you will most likely be as thrilled with Furious Hours as I and my reading group members were. Casey Cep showed herself to be a consummate writer of creative nonfiction. The amount of history, biography, and cultural critique she fit into just a little over 300 pages is a feat. Especially because she made it so easy to follow and so delicious to read.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

BALTIMORE BLUES

 


Baltimore Blues, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, 1997, 273 pp

Perhaps ill-advised, but I decided to add another mystery/crime writer to my lists. A little over two years ago I read Sunburn by Laura Lippman and was so impressed by her talent in making a misbehaving female character so likable. I have a thing for misbehaving women who manage to escape controlling men!

Baltimore Blues is her first novel and the first of her 12 book series featuring detective Tess Monaghan. Tess had been a top reporter for the Baltimore Star newspaper but like so many papers in the early 1990s, the Star folded leaving Tess unemployed. She is making do with part time jobs, living cheap with a relative who owns a bookstore.

When her rowing buddy gets arrested for the murder of his fiancée's boss, Tess goes into action. She knows the city, she does not believe her friend is guilty, and she usually feels she can do a better job at finding out stuff than anyone else. Annoying, I know. I also have a thing about annoying women who are good at what they do.

I thought the plot was a bit over complicated but so are the plots of Sara Paretsky, whose books I love. Since this is Tess's first go at being a detective, she has to learn as she goes giving lots of opportunities for red herrings and blind alleys. She is at ease with complicated matters due to her half-Irish, half-Jewish family. 

It all fit together in the end. Some bad actors turn out to be good, some rich people turn out to be very bad. Best of all, Tess and I found out who the murderer was on exactly the same page!


Sunday, February 28, 2021

BOOKS READ IN FEBRUARY


 Though February was only 28 days short, it felt long. On the other hand I only read 9 books, I fell behind on my reviews and distractions were many. I started out with a book that took seven days to read, I had two missions of mercy to accomplish and I got my second COVID vaccine giving me a somewhat lost day feeling some reactions to the shot 24 hours later. I feel fine now and ready to take on March with renewed vigor.

It was satisfying to have read so much translated fiction and to put in more time than I have lately on My Big Fat Reading Project. I also finished a rough draft of a chapter for the book I am writing. 

Stats: 9 books read. 5 written by women. 2 mystery/thriller. 1 historical fiction. 2 nonfiction. 1 sci fi. 1 memoir. 3 translated. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project.

Places I went: Poland, France, Egypt, United States (Maryland, Connecticut, Alabama, Wisconsin), Outer Space.

Authors New To Me: Casey Cep, Stanislaw Lem, David Tromblay

Favorites: Poland, Afterlife, Furious Hours, Birds of America











How was your reading in February? Have you read any of these books? 


Thursday, February 25, 2021

AFTERLIFE


 Afterlife, Julia Alvarez, Algonquin Books, 2020, 256 pp

I read this for my One Book At A Time reading group. I loved it.

I have a vague memory of having read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, this author's first novel, about four sisters adapting to New York City after being uprooted from their Dominican Republic home. All I remember is that I did not like it much, found the sisters too flighty and self-involved. I think that says more about me as a reader back then than about Julia Alvarez as an author.

Afterlife, her first adult novel in over 14 years, centers on Antonia; a senior woman, a retired professor of literature and a devastated new widow. This is an author writing what she knows (some of the story feels autobiographical) and what she doesn't know (she still has her husband.)

While Antonia is trying and mostly failing to deal with her bereavement, she is hit from all sides by the suffering of others, including her three sisters and an undocumented pregnant Mexican teen who shows up in her neighborhood. With all these distractions and calls upon her to assist others she finds a way to go on living, with new purpose and hope.

I loved the writing, which is as light as a backyard bird and as full of emotion and imagery as a poem. Antonia's mind and soul are full of literary references from the books she has read and taught for most of her life. Those insights provide sustenance but also require realignment when brought to bear on real life.

I can't say I loved all the characters because many are unlikable but I found empathy for them. Those sisters are just as self-involved and out of control emotionally, while equally bound by their loyalty to each other, as the Garcia sisters were.

All is leavened by moments of almost laugh-out-loud humor, keeping the dark tragedies of the story from overwhelming the tale. I felt cared for as a reader by this largehearted author.

Depending on the day you ask, I still sometimes feel like a 40-something woman but in truth I am in the same age bracket as Julia Alvarez. That may be why I felt her story so deeply. Work, family, politics, loss, can all be so disappointing. Novels like this keep me going when I need encouragement.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

POLAND


 Poland, James A Michener, Random House, 1983, 556 pp

This is the 15th book I have read by this master of historical fiction. Though it has been on my shelves for many years I read it at this time because I had two other novels coming up written by Polish authors. I became interested in the country and its authors through a member of The Tinies reading group who is of Polish descent and has visited there several times. I wanted to learn more.

Michener begins: "In a small Polish farm community during the fall planting season of 1981, events occurred which electrified the world, sending reverberations of magnitude to capitals as diverse as Washington, Peking and especially Moscow." Who knew?

In 1981, Poland was still under Soviet Communist rule. The farmers of that small community sent a representative to meet with Communist officials proposing a farmers union in order to better their economic status. They were denied but the meeting was a turning point in Poland's fight to free themselves the Soviet Union.

In Chapter 2, the story jumps back to 1200 AD in the times of Genghis Khan and proceeds forward, following members of three families and their descendants to show how Poland reached that 20th century crisis. It is a tale of Nobles, Kings, Clergy, merchants, Jews, small land holders and peasants.

Once a vast land, areas of Poland have been carved away over time by the barbarian Tartars, Russia, the Austro Hungarian Empire, and Germany. The propensity of their Nobles to hang on to their lands, castles and riches plays out in relation to what amounted to slavery among the peasants, or serfs as they were then called. For centuries self-interested interactions between the Nobles and surrounding hostile nations led to wars and lack of a strong government for Poland. 

Such a tempestuous journey from Medieval to modern times makes for absorbing reading. Wars and battles, victories and losses, bravery and love of country, artist and musicians (Chopin), a majestic landscape of rivers, mountains and forests. Always the backbreaking work of serfs to keep the population fed and served and to provide cannon fodder for the wars.

Because the novel was published in 1983, plenty has happened for Poland since. The current government has been free of the Soviet Union for several decades now but is right wing and conservative. I looked up some of the history of those decades. Though the country is more sound economically, a strong Catholic presence and the tone of the government impacts women's rights and the freedoms of writers. 

It is good to have the long range picture, including the horrors of WWII, the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet influence after that war, and the ongoing conflicts between Christians and Jews in Poland. In fact, it is difficult to understand the current news about any country so foreign to Americans. Michener's book filled in the gaps in my knowledge and was well worth spending a week to read.

Friday, February 19, 2021

LAND OF BIG NUMBERS


 Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Mariner Books, 2021, 233 pp

It is widely known that I have not been a fan of short stories. By reading more of them lately I am discovering what makes a short story satisfying for me, though I am not ready to articulate that clearly yet.

Land of Big Numbers was a miracle. Every story in this collection is great. The author is, I believe, Chinese-American and a journalist who spent four years as a Beijing-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She seems to have soaked up the essence of 21st century Chinese life.

Each story grabbed me from the first line. It was as if the characters were right in the room with me. Tension builds quietly yet relentlessly tale by tale. I found myself almost holding my breath until I learned what would happen, each time for 10 stories. The theme tying them together is the better life for Chinese people under the current government at the cost of some of their freedom. A heady concept created by this author without outright judgement. 

Thanks to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club for selecting Land of Big Numbers as the January 2021 book. Thanks to Brad Listi at the Otherppl podcast for a penetrating interview with Te-Ping Chen. I will be watching for more from this author.

Monday, February 15, 2021

EXPOSING THE PAST


 Exposing the Past, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2020, 223 pp

Have you ever come across a stranger who looked just like you? I once did many years ago. I saw "myself" across a crowded ballroom. It was extremely disorienting. Was I where I was standing or was I on the other side of the room? I never saw her again. I was not sure I wanted to. I hoped I had imagined the whole thing.

Not so for two of the main characters in Alice Zogg's latest stand alone mystery. Sherry Rinaldi saw her Doppelgänger in the mirror next to her in the ladies room while on vacation on Maui, Hawaii. The two women spoke, joking about being twins. They exchanged first names, discovered they both lived in California; Sherri in Pasadena and Kirsten in San Diego. Then they went their separate ways.

Sherri could not let it go though and despite her husband's strongly worded advice, she pursued the connection. She tracked Kirsten down and eventually they learn the truth but not until another woman dies.

Exposing the Past is an expertly plotted mystery, very up-to-date with DNA testing, cell phone texting and much driving up and down the Interstate 5 freeway. The two women found their answers back in the 1970s.

Alice Zogg is my friend. We met shortly after she had self-published her second book. I reviewed that one for a local paper and she has given me a copy of each new book when it comes out. We meet for lunch occasionally and talk about writing. She has 15 books to her credit now. I have 15 years of blogging about books to mine and a book I am always working on but feel I may never finish.

Life is wonderfully strange but fiction can be stranger, as it is in Exposing the Past. There can also be danger in writing about the past. My book is autobiographical in part and I have spent some uncomfortable days, even weeks, as I look at my past and that of the world. Alice too has written a memoir, mainly for her descendants, though she let me read it. Of course, she wrote hers in just a few months!

Thursday, February 11, 2021

TO MERVAS


 To Mervas, Elizabeth Rynell, Archipelago Books, 2010, 192 pp (originally published as Till Mervas by Albert Bonniers Forlag, Stockholm, Sweden, 2002; translated from the Swedish by Victoria Haggblom)

I have been neglecting my Archipelago Books shelf for too long. I must say that every book I have read from this excellent publishing house of translated literature has provided great reading. To Mervas was no exception.

Marta, a solitary middle-aged Swedish spinster with a troubled past, receives a letter from her lover of over 25 years ago. He writes, "Marta, Mart! I'm in Mervas. It is not possible to get any farther away. And no closer either. Your Kosti."

Though I have never been to Sweden, I have read enough novels set there to have a feel for the country. Never had I heard of Mervas. I learned that it is a region of abandoned mining in the far north.

Marta's journal entries from the November day she receives Kosti's letter, reveal her childhood (brutal), her affair with Kosti (aborted by a huge argument), and her sad life ever since. She struggles with her fear of moving out of her lonely existence and a conviction that going to find Kosti is her last chance to make something meaningful of her life.

The writing is crystal clear, both in the telling of Marta's inner turmoil and in describing the journey she does finally make to Mervas. Elisabeth Rynell is both a poet and and a novelist. To Mervas is her third novel and the first to appear in English. 

It is a story of hope. Even a woman like Marta, who has suffered from terrible trauma and losses, can pull from her suppressed memory the moments when she had strength and so venture again into life.

I loved this novel from its gorgeous cover to its final page.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

FEBRUARY READING GROUP UPDATE


 Though my reading groups are still meeting on Zoom, I did not feel like finding another Zoom image for this post. The books and the discussions are the thing, after all. Only three meetings this month as The Tinies are still on hold due to the illness of one member. 

My best news of the month so far is that my husband and I have received the first dose of the Corona Virus vaccine. Many of my reading group members, since we are predominately over 65, have also received first doses. It takes persistence and paying attention to get appointments and I wish it could all be rolling out faster, but the wave has begun!

All the books for my groups are new to me and I am looking forward to each one. Have you read any of these books?

One Book At A Time:

I have enjoyed the previous books I have read by Julia Alvarez. This is her first adult novel in 15 years and it features a retired woman and sounds just as entrancing.

Bookie Babes:

I am always interested in anything more I can learn about Harper Lee, so while I have felt a little overbalanced with non fiction lately, I will willingly read this.

Carol's Group:

Tokarczuk is another author I have enjoyed. This one has been called a "deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale." It is set in the author's native Poland, a land with uncounted bones beneath the soil. Just today I will finish James Michener's Poland, read so that I know more of the history of the country.






Saturday, February 06, 2021

THE DARKEST EVENING


 The Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves, Minotaur Books, 2020, 299 pp

I read this mystery set in Northumberland for my Bookie Babes reading group. It is the ninth in a series featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope. She is a delightful curmudgeon, middle-aged, competent, single and not thin. I did not feel hindered by not having read the earlier books in the series.

It was a great January read filled with snow and cold and icy roads back in the hills. A manor house surrounded by farms traps Vera's team and the inhabitants due to a blizzard. 

Vera's family home is the manor house, though because of her loser father, she is on the underdog side of the family. Lots of class issues as you would expect in Great Britain, though cell phones (with spotty reception) as well as some rowdy teens put the reader in the present.

A murder, a plucky toddler, questions about parentage and rocky marriages all give plenty of red herrings. I never did figure out who the murderer was until Vera did. I was entertained and not one thing bothered me.

I probably won't get into the earlier books, at least not right away, but it is good to know about if I'm looking for a new series to love.

Have you read Ann Cleeves?

Monday, February 01, 2021

BOOKS READ IN JANUARY


 January was a good month for reading. I read 13 books, including several short reads, several page turning mysteries and thrillers, even two books of short stories.

Stats: 13 books read. 13 fiction. 8 written by women. 6 thrillers/mysteries. 1 horrorish. 1 for my Big Fat Reading Project. 2 translated.

Countries I visited: Ireland, United States (Colorado, Arkansas, California), Germany, France, Great Britain, Sweden, China. 

Authors New To Me: Charlotte McConaghy, Ann Cleeves, Jarret Middleton, Elisabeth Rynell, Te-Ping Chen.

Favorites: Migrations, Red Pill, To Mervas, Land of Big Numbers














Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite reads in January?

Saturday, January 30, 2021

MIGRATIONS


 Migrations, Charlotte McConaghy, Flatiron Books, 2020, 256 pp

This is the best novel I have read so far in 2021. The big idea behind the story is climate change. Set in the future, Earth's oceans are fished out, wild animals have all but disappeared, insects and birds are dwindling rapidly.

The culprits in all this demise are humans. Unless we can change our ways we will ourselves follow since we have decimated the very elements needed to survive. Thus it must be humans who populate the story.

Charlotte McConaghy had already published three sci fi/fantasy series in Australia prior to this international debut. She knows how to create awesome female characters so it is no surprise that Franny Stone, damaged and nearly broken, is also the heroine who drives this epic tale.

Able to love but unable to stay, her search for a way to heal the earth takes her on a journey to track the last Arctic Terns on their migration from Greenland to Antarctica. She finagles her way onto a fishing boat and then convinces its equally damaged and broken captain to take that journey. The opening chapter where Franny meets the captain and his crew is so gripping, I wondered where the author could go after that.

The answer is everywhere, from Ireland to Australia, on the high seas and into the human heart. All the while the mystery of Franny is gradually revealed. When a person has nothing more to lose, when she must engineer her own redemption, there are no limits to her daring.

The writing is at once cinematic and intensely personal. Never does the pace falter. On every page, I wanted desperately to know how the book would end. When it did, I wanted it to go on. I wanted to stay with Franny forever.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

RED PILL


 Red Pill, Hari Kunzru, Alfred A Knopf, 2020, 304 pp

This is an important novel about today's world, about intrusion into our privacy, about a sort of epic battle between left and right in politics, about the ways in which such conundrums wear us out and down.

The title refers back to the 1999 film, The Matrix. It is about a choice: the red pill reveals life-changing truth, the blue allows a state of blissful ignorance. (I did not remember this trope from the film so I plan to watch it again.)

The novel opens with a middle-aged writer, happily married, father of a three year old daughter, but stuck as a writer.

"It is when you first understand," he says of middle age, "that your condition...is not absolutely mutable, that what has already happened will, to a great extent, determine the rest of the story."

In an effort to break through his writer's block, he travels from Brooklyn to Germany on a fellowship. He expects to have weeks of uninterrupted quiet and to work on his next book. 

Instead, he finds a regimented scene where he is expected to write at a desk in a large communal room surrounded by the other writers. He immediately becomes uncomfortable and gains a reputation as odd man out and troublemaker for resisting the rules.

He hides out in his room, binge-watching a violent cop show, and not writing. He takes walks around the town of Wannsee, historically the location where the Nazis planned the final solution. In the dining area he meets Anton, the writer of the cop show and perceives the man to be his nemesis. Eventually an obsession forms that Anton is living in the writer's mind. His actions become increasingly erratic.

I am drawn to descent into madness tales, perhaps because I have been on that brink a couple times myself. Kunzru has cleverly written one these tales but creates a parallel one; society and an individual making similar descents.

This creepy beginning ramps up into a type of psychological thriller. After a stint in a psych ward and finally being rescued by his left-wing lawyer wife, the book ends on the night of the 2016 election as he and his wife throw a party to watch the election results come in. Yes, that night!

I found the end of the book possibly a bit soft and improbable. As I thought about it over several days, I realized that it is so very Hari Kunzru that the nature of his story should be set against an improbable ending. After all, at this point in history we have little idea of where we are headed. 

Not a feel good novel but certainly an illuminating one.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS MINI REVIEWS

When January 1, 2021 finally rolled around I was in a state of despair with nothing to look forward to but January 6 (which brought only more anxiety) and January 20. Finally the longest wait ever was over. Meanwhile I decided to sink into the most distracting reading I could find. For me that is mysteries and thrillers where the pages fly by, justice gets done and the bad people get what is coming to them. It was a good decision! Here are some short reviews of those, for me, sanity saving books.


 The Searcher, Tana French, Viking, 2020, 446 pp

I would categorize this one as a literary crime novel. Tana French has always embedded her excellent plots in a literary style. I have read all of her previous seven books and appreciate how she has branched out in each one.

A former Chicago cop, after a divorce and deep disillusionment with law enforcement, has moved to Ireland. While fixing up his cottage and getting to know the local people and customs in his remote village, he gets pulled into a missing person can by a curious child who shows up on his property.

Though the story takes a while to get going, Tana French builds tension on every page until all the clues come together. The book is a study in culture clash, small town secrets and sad truths. I loved it.


The English Girl, Daniel Silva, HarperCollins, 2013, 473 pp

The 13th book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series is a political thriller. Allon is an art restorer in his public life but also works as an assassin and spy for Israeli intelligence. He is a master at all three roles.

Over the course of the series, Allon has forged relationships with both British and American intelligence. In The English Girl, he is called in via MI6 to find the missing mistress of the (fictional) current Prime Minister of Britain. The criminals behind the kidnapping of Madeline Hart figure the British governing party will pay a huge ransom to protect their guy at 10 Downing Street from scandal.

When Allon penetrates the operation, he finds himself once more at the potential mercy of some ruthless enemies he has made over the years, Russian enemies that is.

Even after 12 books this author managed to raise my heart rate while he began to set up a possible new future for his hero. Also intriguing was how deeply the story penetrated into Putin's true intentions for his country and the rest of the world, intentions that nearly destroyed our democracy over the past four years, intentions he has had since he became Russia's leader in 2012.


Mona Lisa Over Drive, William Gibson, Bantam Books, 1988, 308 pp

The final book in Gibson's Sprawl trilogy is a cyberpunk thriller. He gives us more of his groundbreaking unleashing of cyberspace onto the world of fiction. He exhibits some new fiction chops including deeper characters and an even more nuanced look at the machinations of the powerful Japanese underground, the uses of celebrities, and the mysterious beings behind artificial intelligence. 

His story brings back some characters from the first two books (Neuromancer and Count Zero) while adding Mona with her murky past, a new sort of console jockey, and an endearing but mentally challenged dude named Slick Henry who broke my heart.

After over 300 pages of non-stop action comes the intriguing ending meant to explain the history of these stories, the "why" of When It All Changed. It did not explain as much as it cliff-hangered me.

Will the next trilogy, The Bridge Trilogy, give more answers? Probably the plot will only thicken.


Hard Truth, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 2005, 324 pp

I ended my spree with the 13th book in Nevada Barr's mystery/crime series, all set in National Parks. I started reading this series five years ago and only have six more to go. I am getting there!

Park Ranger Anna Pigeon arrives at Rocky Mountain National Park for a temporary assignment as District Ranger in the midst of a search for three missing girls. On her first day two of the girls emerge from the woods, dressed only in ragged filthy underwear, traumatized and close to starvation. One girl is still missing. The two are rescued by campers but claim to remember nothing.

In a series where the plots are always complex and twisted, Nevada Barr has kicked it up yet another notch. Included in her tale are a wheel-chair bound paraplegic woman, a fringe Mormon community, mistaken identities, and a serial killer who specializes in harming children. 

Evil spreads through the breathtaking beauty of the park. Danger, even to animals, lurks in every valley, over the next peak, and even in the rangers's cabins. This is almost a horror novel.

I must admit that the physical and psychological damage done to the female children was hard to take. Be warned. Anna Pigeon's canny investigating and fearless strength provide much needed balance.


Have you read any of these thrillers? Who are your favorite thriller writers?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

WILD SEED


 Wild Seed, Octavia Butler, Doubleday Books, 1980, 253 pp

This is the last book I read in 2020, for The Tinies reading group. We have not yet met to discuss it because one of us is ill (not COVID thank goodness) so I can't report on what they thought. I found it a tricky book to review because it contains multitudes but here goes.

Wild Seed is one in a series called Seed To Harvest. This book in that series is a somewhat alternate history beginning in Africa in 1690. Slavers are industriously capturing natives and shipping them off to America. Anyanwu is a healer, a shapeshifter, and is 300 years old. She does her best to protect her village from the slavers.

Doro comes upon that village. He had been inspecting what he calls his seed villages. What is a seed village? It is the crux of the whole story. Doro is over 1000 years old. When a body he inhabits becomes old or less useful, he jumps into another one after killing the previous owner. Just to give you some idea of the character. 

Doro has been engaged in a centuries long project to breed people of his race, developing individuals with superior powers and traits. He has brought many of these people to the New World, not as slaves but as almost mystical beings who can fight the powers of oppression.

Upon meeting Anyanwu, he recognizes her special powers and wants to use her to breed more people with such powers and add them to his groups. He also is aware that she is what he calls a wild seed and will need careful handling. So begins a power struggle between the two. Doro may be ruthless but Anyanwu is in some ways the stronger of the two because she has certain characteristics that he is lacking.

To America they go. Two hundred years go by bringing the story to 1840, before the Civil War but during the beginnings of Abolition. Doro and Anyanwu remain locked in their struggle. He demands complete obedience, she refuses to submit fully. She bears many children and suffers many tragic losses but fills a role that Doro cannot: healer, mother and a bit of a check on Doro's power.

The extremes of fantasy and the levels of violence in this tale of visionaries and psychics ride on a knife-edge of madness. It could be too much for some readers. I was fascinated and could not look away. Anyanwu is a heroine of mythic proportions and I had to know if she would survive under Doro or if she would escape.

A word about this series: I read Wild Seed in a 4 book collection, Seed To Harvest. The books in the collection are not arranged in order of publication. I searched for the reason. This collection was published just a year after Butler's death. Some sources say that she wanted the series released in the chronological order of the story, even though she wrote that chronology out of order. Originally the series was called the Patternist Series after the first published book, called Patternmaster. That novel is the last in Seed To Harvest.

From what I could find, readers are divided on the issue of whether to read the 4 books in publication order or chronological. Since I have seen this kind of thing happen with other science fiction series, I decided to go with the chronological option as presented in the collection. I will keep you posted as I read the other three books.

It looks like the four novels get into even wilder scenarios including a far future cosmic invasion! Can't wait!!

Friday, January 15, 2021

JANUARY READING GROUP UPDATE


 I am a bit late posting this but since none of my groups have met yet this month, here goes. Only three meetings. One is on Martin Luther King Day, another is on Inauguration Day and the last is after all the excitement and distraught horrible stuff is hopefully in the past. What a January we are having.

One Book At A Time:

I read this last year but it is a great book to discuss on Martin Luther King Day.

Carol's Group:

I am reading this now and I can tell you that is is astounding. 

Bookie Babes:

I have not read any of the books in this series and it is #9, but I look forward to a wintry read featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope because I have heard good things about the series.



We are all still meeting on Zoom. Are any of your reading groups meeting this month? If so, what will you be discussing? Have you read any of these books?

Here is hoping February will see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

WATER, WASTED

 


Water, Wasted, Alex Branson, Rare Bird Books, 2020, 283 pp

The final Nervous Breakdown Book Club selection of 2020 is possibly the weirdest novel I have ever read, but there was a lot I liked about it. As in Lord The One You Love Is Sick, it is set in a small town, this time in Missouri, right on the Missouri River.

The author grew up in Missouri, he likes to work for nonprofits that actually help people, and he runs an unusual podcast where every episode is the first episode without any sequels, or something like that. 

Central to the story are a middle-aged divorced couple, Barrett and Amelia, who lost their only child, a daughter named Edi. That loss destroyed their marriage leaving them each to become rather isolated eccentrics. The violent death of a teenage boy touches both of them in different ways but prompts them to reconnect and reflect on Edi's passing. 

Several other odd characters of the town turn out to have their own connections to Barrett, including an involved story concerning lots of dogs, a talking goat, a Bigfoot-like entity that ravages the countryside, and a G-man (supposedly a government agent who acts more like an alien.)

The story circles around, back into the past, and through many instances of the Missouri River flooding. During her short life, Edi wrote several fantasy books in which the goat, Bigfoot and the G-man figured. When these entities show up in town, Barrett and Amelia read Edi's books for the first time, trying to make sense of it all. What did she know and was it connected with her death?

I only recommend the novel to those who truly love the weird. It is like China Mieville decided to write a story set in small town America. I can't quite explain why I liked it, but I did. It made me think of some of the people and ideas that seem to have taken over our country in recent years and wonder if they didn't come out of a speculative genre or some parallel universe.

Thanks once again to another Los Angeles based indie publisher, Rare Bird Books, and to The Nervous Breakdown for sending the book out. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

LORD THE ONE YOU LOVE IS SICK


 Lord The One You Love Is Sick, Kasey Thornton, Ig Publishing, 2020, 229 pp

In the November, 2020, selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club, from indie publisher Ig, a slice of life plays out in a small North Carolina town. It is an enlightening read in terms of the supposed conflict between Red states and Blue states. I say supposed because it is my belief that Red vs Blue is a political construct that smothers the actual complexity of American lives.

Kasey Thornton grew up in a town similar to the one she writes about. She still lives in that community. She put this debut novel together by collecting the stories she had written about life in her town. The book reads like a novel, at least it did for me.

After the fatal heroine overdose of his best friend, Dale's life becomes almost impossible. He feels guilty for abandoning his friend, he is training to be a cop, and his marriage is on shaky ground. As all of this plays out, other residents of the town come into the story.

The drugs, the poverty, the vanishing economy, and all the secrets held combine into an explosive mix. The adults are facing down cancer, diabetes, mental illness; the kids are living with instability or abuse; the women are trying, and often failing, to stand by their men.

Yet there are strong religious beliefs and codes of behavior that include not facing reality. I have found this conundrum in much of Southern fiction: Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Jesmyn Ward, Carson McCullers and more.

These issues and conflicts are probably present in any community. The title here comes from the Gospel of John in the story of Lazurus. When he falls ill, his sisters Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus: "Lord, the one you love is sick." If you were raised on the Gospels you know the rest.

Even Jesus had a secret plan.

Friday, January 08, 2021

BOOKS READ IN DECEMBER


 Remember December? It ended only 8 days ago. Sorry I have been missing for a few days but we all have our reasons. So, anticlimactic as it is, but for the record, here are the books I read in that far away month.

Stats: 10 books read. 10 fiction. 5 written by women. 1 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 speculative.

Places I went: Mexico, United States, Spain, Great Britain, Africa.

Authors new to me: Joseph Di Prisco, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Kevin Barry, Nick Flynn, Amy Shearn, Alex Branson.

Favorites: Night Boat To Tangier, Unseen City, Wild Seed.











I am a bit more caught up on reviews than usual. All but the last four of these have been posted.

Have you read any of these books? What are you reading now that is getting you through?