Book Review: “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz


Mysteries are different from other genres in that the author has a specific contract with the reader. This contract says, roughly:
1. Thou shalt provide the reader with the clues needed to solve the mystery, if the reader manages to look at the clues in the right way.
2. Thou shalt not conceal the one piece of information needed to identify the criminal.
3. Thou shalt not make the criminal easy to identify because that would be no fun at all.
4. Thou shalt not invent random crap like time travel to explain how the criminal managed to pull off the crime.

These restrictions can make mysteries rather formulaic, but great mystery writers rise above them. And occasionally, an author manages to pull off a tour de force that both respects the contract and rises above it. “Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz is just that kind of mystery.

But before we get into the novel, let’s talk about the two basic genres of murder mystery: cozy and hardboiled. It’s actually more like two separate genres, because cozy readers often don’t like hardboiled mysteries, and vice versa. Agatha Christie is, of course, the great-grandmother of the cozy mystery with her English villages, eccentric detectives, crumpets and tea. Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane epitomize the hardboiled mystery, with gritty, urban settings and down-at-heel, cynical detectives like Mike Hammer.

“Magpie Murders” is by definition a cozy and an English cozy at that. My favorite kind of mystery, in short. Don’t ask me why I am so enamored of vicars, fêtes and jumble sales—I just am. “But “Magpie Murders” is a cozy mystery within a cozy mystery, giving the happy reader not one but TWO mysteries to solve. The murders are unconnected except that the author of “Magpie Murders,” the book within the book, is also the victim in “Magpie Murders,” the novel.

Okay, that might have been a tad confusing so I’ll back up. The story opens with a book editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a manuscript. The manuscript, “Magpie Murders,” was written by Alan Conway, an enormously successful mystery writer and the mainstay of Susan’s employer, a small publishing firm. Susan warns the reader that the manuscript changed her life completely, and then we plunge into the story of “Magpie Murders.”

This story within a story is set in post-WWII England. An apparently accidental death occurs in Pie Hall, the residence of the local gentry, Sir Magnus Pie and his wife. But was it an accident? Small-town tongues are wagging. Then Sir Magnus is found dead in his front hall, decapitated by a sword from a nearby suit of armor. There are carloads of suspects, but nothing that makes any sense. Conway’s fictional detective, Atticus Pünt, is called in. Pünt appears to have solved the mystery—perhaps—by the time Susan Ryeland comes to the end of the manuscript. But the final chapters are missing. And then her boss gets a letter from Conway that sounds a great deal like a suicide note, and they discover he is dead, apparently having thrown himself off a high tower attached to his historic residence.

Susan begins investigating on her own because she needs to find the missing chapters—her publishing firm might not survive without bringing out Conway’s final book. She doesn’t find them, but does discover that someone has taken Conway’s notes and wiped all versions of the book on his computer. She begins to suspect that Conway was murdered. She also finds that there are several people who had excellent motives for murdering him, from his recently discarded lover to his next-door neighbor.

At this point, the reader is working on two murder mysteries, both taking place in English villages, and both involving assorted vicars, village residents, and mysterious visitors. Horowitz does a credible job of keeping the stories distinct. A lesser writer might have led the reader into an inextricable bog of confusion. I listened to the audiobook version, and splitting the narration between a man and a woman helped to keep the two stories straight. Samantha Bond narrated those portions told by Susan Ryeland, and Allan Cordune narrated the manuscript mystery. Both did an excellent job.

Eventually Susan solves the modern mystery and finds the missing pages. She nearly loses her life in the attempt, but then we get to read the end of the story-within-a-story. Both mysteries resolve satisfactorily and adhere strictly to the reader-author contract outlined above. I didn’t guess the solution to the manuscript mystery at all, and only sussed the modern mystery toward the end. Far from feeling frustrated by this, I am always happy when the author outsmarts me—as long as the author plays fair. “Magpie Murders” is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while, and I will look for more mysteries by Anthony Horowitz.

Book Review: “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline


Are you a gamer? Did you play video games obsessively as a teenager, and still sneak in a few games now and then? Are you conversant with pop culture in the 1980s and can name all the characters from “Family Ties”?

Even if you aren’t, you will probably enjoy “Ready Player One.” I can’t remember anything about the 1980s because I was raising small children and starting and running a company—and I still enjoyed it. Our hero is a teenaged boy named Wade. Wade’s life sucks. He lives in a not-too-distant dystopian future with his aunt because his parents are dead. They live with several other people in a house trailer on the top rack of “the stacks.” People have moved to the city hoping to find jobs and food, and space is at a premium. So house trailers are piled one on top of the other in racks that can be many trailers deep, like a rickety multi-story apartment building. Wade’s aunt takes his food rations and gives him nothing, so he has learned to scrounge and deal and make his own way in the world.

Wade’s great obsession in life is the Oasis. The Oasis is a massively complex, totally immersive artificial reality environment reminiscent of Second Life, but eons beyond. Playing is free, but users must have equipment to access the Oasis and create game avatars. All the things an avatar might use, such as magical objects or weapons, cost actual money, as does transportation within the Oasis. Half of humanity spends a significant percentage of their lives in the Oasis because reality has become so unpleasant.

Wade can access the Oasis because he has haptic gloves and a controller through the free school he attends within the Oasis. But he can’t explore the Oasis much because he can’t pay for magical tools and technology (both work within the Oasis) or pay for transportation, so his avatar has only made it to Level Three. This is a huge problem for Wade, because he wants to find the Easter Egg, which requires serious player chops.

The Easter Egg was the brainchild of the Oasis’ original creator, James Halliday. When Halliday died, his will specified that whoever won the treasure hunt he had set up within the Oasis would inherit the Oasis and his multi-multi-billion-dollar estate. Although it has been years since Halliday died, no one has yet found even the first key. Wade, like hundreds of thousands of other “gunters” (egg-hunters), desperately wants to find the egg and win the game. The trouble is, so does IOI Corporation, which has recruited hundreds of people to look for the egg and equipped their avatars with the top-of-the-line haptic equipment, tanks, guns, magic, etc., etc. far beyond the means of a mere gunter.

Wade has spent his entire life studying James Halliday and his obsession with 1980s video games and pop culture. He finally figures out where the first key can be found—and also figures out how to wangle free transportation to the location. He finds and uses the first key, and his life morphs out of all recognition. IOI makes him a generous offer to come work for them. But if Wade finds the Easter Egg, IOI gets the goodies, and Wade knows IOI will make the Oasis into a pay-for-play experience, so he refuses. IOI immediately detonates a bomb, blowing up the stacks where Wade’s aunt lives, killing her and many other people. Wade, who wasn’t home at the time, now has funds gained from solving the first puzzle, so he assumes a false identity and goes underground.

So the game-within-a-game has suddenly become literal mortal combat. Aided by the few friends he possesses, Aech, Art3mis, Shoto and Daito (none of whom he has met in reality), Wade continues the quest.

Wade’s encyclopedic knowledge of old video games and the 1980s assists him through the challenge until it comes to the third and final key. By this time, IOI employee avatars are ahead of him in the game. IOI hit men are searching for him and his friends in the real world. Wade sets up a sting operation. If it works, he and his friends have a good chance of making it to the egg. If it fails, he becomes a lifelong slave of IOI Corporation.

Cline has created a complex world, both within the Oasis and in the real world. It probably adds to your enjoyment if you are familiar with the video games that are mentioned in the story, but even without that knowledge, it’s a tightly plotted and well-paced tale. Also—and this is important—it’s a fun story. Great drama has its place. Tragedy has its place. Interpersonal relationships and their tangled webs have their place. But fun stories are important too, and I found my real-world burdens and anxieties dropping away as I followed Wade and his friends through their half-real, half-simulated adventures. I highly recommend “Ready Player One” as a respite—an Oasis if you will—from the all-too-angst-producing reality of our own world.

So You Don’t Like Fantasy

[This post was originally published at Megan Groom’s blog, https://bit.ly/2HVe5NU.]

I don’t like grenache single-varietal wines. There’s just something about the taste. Unless it’s a well made, carefully husbanded grenache that is bold and fruit-forward, and then I love it. I think the same concept applies to any genre of fiction. The genre doesn’t matter, as long as the writing is good, the characters compelling, and the story engaging.

I am, as you may have already discerned, a fantasy author (also a wine drinker). When people ask me what I do, I tell them I write fantasy novels. This will often result in a studied effort to avoid rolling their eyes, and a polite, “I don’t read fantasy. Sorry.”

My theory is that they just haven’t discovered the fantasy writer or the type of fantasy that they like. Many people were drawn to fantasy after reading “Lord of the Rings.” I think an equal number of people were turned off by it. (Hence the parody, “Bored of the Rings.”) But there are many different types of fantasy, often bearing no resemblance to other fantasies other than being pigeonholed in the fantasy genre. Let’s take a look at some of the fantasy out there that shatters expectations and stereotypes.

The “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon. “Outlander” begins when a young Englishwoman, Claire, steps through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and is transported into the 18th century, where she falls in love with a braw young Scot who is not her husband. The series follows Claire and Jamie and their family through many years and adventures, switching back and forth between the present day and the historical past. Although clearly fantasy, “Outlander” is also romance, adventure, and well-researched historical fiction. It doesn’t easily fit any particular genre—but it’s labeled “fantasy.” The characters could be people you know—flawed in some ways, but worth knowing.

“In Pursuit of the Green Lion,” “A Vision of Light,” and other novels by Judith Merkle Riley. Riley’s fantasy novels are also historically based, and several reflect the author’s interest in alchemy and how it was practiced. I found these novels to be full of drama and adventure, but despite some nasty characters, they also left me feeling good in the end. Some of her stories are set in medieval times, some in the Renaissance, and the historical research is excellent. She has a lovely, subtle sense of humor as well.

Neil Gaiman is, of course, in a class by himself. Gaiman has the career I would have picked out for myself, had I been bolder and smarter. He writes short stories, poetry, novels, and screenplays as well as graphic novels. He travels all over the world dressed in a black leather jacket, black T-shirt, and black jeans, to the adoration of the masses. I could skip the all-black dude-clothes, but the rest would be nice. Gaiman’s work is extraordinarily varied. “American Gods” and “Anansi Boys” are both about Old World gods transplanted to America, and having to deal with powerful New World gods—such as Media. If you’ve been following the TV series of “American Gods,” it’s a good sample of what Gaiman does. One of my favorites in his oeuvre is a children’s book, “The Graveyard Book,” but I don’t recommend reading it to a young child. It’s about a boy who, as a toddler, escapes being murdered by a serial killer, though his family is massacred. He winds up in a graveyard, where he is cared for and raised by the ghosts that “live” there. The story gets pretty hairy at times, and I would recommend not giving it to anyone under, say, 12, and then only if they are not the nervous type. Gaiman’s other children’s books, like “Coraline” or “The Wolves in the Walls,” have a dark edge that many kids enjoy, but “The Graveyard Book” is much darker, though highly entertaining. Gaiman reads many of his own audiobooks, and he is great at it. I would listen to him reading the NYC telephone book, if it still exists.

If you think epic fantasy might appeal to you, there’s always “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin. GOT is more epic than most epic fantasy ever dreams of being. His story involves hundreds of characters, all of their stories revolving around a power clash between the various kingdoms of his invented world—and a more serious threat from the supernatural, which most in his world do not believe is real. If you enjoy long, involved stories with plenty of action, adventure, blood and guts, GOT might be your cup of tea. It literally has everything—wars, intrigue, treachery, incest, romance, bravery, murder, tragedy, family issues, war, politics, magic, comedy, and, of course, dragons.

Diana Wynn Jones is someone I need to read more of. She has written several children’s stories as well as adult fantasies. She wrote “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which was made into an anime movie that has quite a cult following. Her stories take place in invented worlds where magic is a natural phenomenon, like vision or touch, and treated as such. She makes these worlds seem real while we are visiting, which is the mark of a truly good writer. If there is such a thing as a “cozy” fantasy, Jones writes them.

Fantasy writers like to talk about “creating magical systems.” If you incorporate magic into a story, you can’t have your characters solving all their problems by waving a wand or reciting a spell—that would be boring. So you have to come up with a system that has rules and limitations. The maestro of magical systems is Brandon Sanderson. One of his more memorable series is the “Mistborn” trilogy. Set in a created world, certain individuals (the “mistborn”) are born with the power to ingest different metals, each of which gives the wielder specific supernatural powers. (I can’t remember what this ability is called at the moment.) The world is threatened with unexplained phenomena, people are dying, and those in power are helpless to combat the evil. It is the mistborn that discover the source of the threat and how to combat it. It’s epic fantasy, but the heroes aren’t the guys in the tin suits this time. Sanderson’s work is so well respected that he was selected to finish Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series when the author died.

For those who enjoy fast-paced action and intrigue, you might like the work of Ryan Attard, who writes adventure fantasies full of snark and martial arts. Both are equally enjoyable. Attard is an incredibly prolific young writer who lives on the island of Malta. In the time I have known him, Ryan has pumped out something like fifteen novels, while I have produced two and a half. He is a martial arts practitioner, and can take you out with his hands, feet, or katana—your choice—and he incorporates this expertise into his work. I haven’t read all his books, but he has a devoted following. Try the “Legacy” or “Nemesis” series.

There are even humorous fantasies. The British writers Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett come to mind. I think Pratchett uses his bizarre fantasy creation, the Discworld and its assorted improbable inhabitants, to make insightful observations of our world, right here and now. I have written about Sir Terry before, I think he’s beyond brilliant as well as funny, and I’ll leave it there—other than to say I think “Monstrous Regiment” is his best work.

Tom Holt sets his fantasies in modern-day London, where there are discrete firms run by vampires and goblins, and law firms headed by werewolves. His hapless hero finds himself working for one such firm in his first book in the J.W. Wells & Co. Series, “The Portable Door.” It’s a lovely combination of the fantastic bounded only by the restrictions of the utterly mundane.

I have to mention one more humorous fantasy, “The Scriptlings,” by Sorin Suciu. Suciu is a programmer, and he envisions a magic system based on the way computers are programmed. If you’re a bit engineerish, you will find the in-jokes delicious. I am not a programmer, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

So please. Don’t lump all fantasy novels into the bag labeled, “Books I Don’t Like.” Fantasy can be everything from high tragedy to low humor, family drama to twinkly comedy, with themes as broad and varied as any other genre. The really wonderful thing about fantasy is that there are no limits. Fantasy authors don’t have to conform to the laws of nature or science. They can go where their dreams take them, and it can be quite the journey.

So I think I’ll go read “A Natural History of Dragons,” by Marie Brennan. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll have a gorgeous glass of Denner grenache. Because Denner knows how to make great grenache. And some fantasy writers know how to craft excellent literature.

Review: “The Book of Lost Things”

 

“The Book of Lost Things,” by John Connolly, is a fairy story about fairy stories—and not the kind that necessarily turn out happily ever after. More the Grimm kind, where virtue isn’t always rewarded, but evil is always savagely punished. It shows again that fairy stories are primordial, ancient, bred in the bone.

David, our protagonist, is a 10-year-old English boy who loses his beloved mother in the opening days of WWII. His father and he do as well as they can together, but then David’s father marries Rose and they have a baby boy, Georgie. None of this goes down well with David, who is grieving, angry, jealous, resentful and lonely. He also starts seeing strange things like a crooked old man lurking in his brother’s room, and begins having fits.

The one solace David finds in his new situation is the books in his room. They are fairy stories, but different from the ones he has read before—darker and more disturbing. He asks Rose about them, and she tells him they belonged to a great uncle who had loved the books, but he and a young female relative had disappeared one day and were never seen again.

One night David is awakened by his mother’s voice calling him. He knows his mother is dead, but his desire that this not be true is so powerful that he wanders into a neglected sunken garden. The voice seems to be issuing from a hole beneath a great tree there. As David hesitates, he hears the screaming of a bomber overhead, disabled, on fire, and heading right for him. He dives into the hole beneath the tree and discovers himself in a strange land as the bomber crashes through and David’s escape route is blocked. Just to let you know that the story to come will not be about sweet little creatures with butterfly wings, the pilot’s head bounces by David after the crash, blackened and bloody.

David soon discovers that a great evil is growing in this new land. A wolf army is gathering, led by the Loup, half man, half wolf. The Crooked Man is here as well, and seems to want something from David. The dangers here are genuine and they are deadly. The author doesn’t flinch at detailed descriptions of some truly grotesque and bloody deaths.

Amid the growing darkness, David also meets some good people who help him. One of them tells him to seek out the king of this land because he has “The Book of Lost Things” that will help David to return home. “The Book of Lost Things” doesn’t help him to find his home, but it does clear up the central mysteries of the story, pointing David to the truth of the Crooked Man and his agenda.

David proves he is brave, loyal, and resourceful. He discovers that not everything is what it seems, and learns to be discriminating about whom he trusts—a single misstep could be fatal. In the process, he solves the mystery of what happened to Rose’s great-uncle and his young relative, and of course realizes his mistake in rejecting Rose and Georgie. By the time David finds the way home, we feel he has earned his return many times over.

The book follows David’s life after this event. It was not a life free from pain or unhappiness, but he finds love, comfort and a purpose in life. At the end—I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens at the very end. Like a good fairy story, the end wraps everything up in a most satisfactory way.

I would have to say that ‘The Book of Lost Things” is not for the faint of heart. Although the protagonist is a child and the source material is fairy stories, it is definitely not a children’s tale. I might even hesitate to recommend it to a teenager, particularly if they were going through a Goth phase. There is a lot of violence, a pervasive sense of creeping evil, and many adult themes. I would have to say that it cleaves to the original tenor of the ancient stories, though. The old fairy tales are dark and primeval. They have nothing to do with living happily ever after or marrying the prince. They teach us to beware the evil in the dark and the forces we do not comprehend. “The Book of Lost Things” is that kind of fairy tale.

Review: “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”

I like fairy tales. I also like fairy tales re-imagined, but not all of them. For instance, I hated Gregory McGuire’s “Wicked.” I thought it disrespected Baum’s innocent vision of Oz, though obviously I am in the minority, and Gregory McGuire is now a rich man. On the other hand, I loved McGuire’s “Lost,” which skillfully weaves together Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” shades of Jack the Ripper, and some other goodies into a gripping ghost story.

“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” by Fredrik Backman, is a rare jewel. It is a fairy story that combines several related fairy stories and reveals the truth behind them. And it’s completely original, in that it doesn’t rehash older source material. (Not that I’m saying it’s wrong to rehash source material. What would we do without it?)

Elsa, our protagonist, is seven years old and precocious, but I am happy to say she is precocious in a believable, seven-year-old way. Her grandmother is a character, to put it mildly. Among other things, Elsa’s grandmother has taught her a secret language and told her stories of the several kingdoms of the Land of Almost-Awake. Her grandmother is her super-hero, and Elsa adores her. In fact, Granny is Elsa’s only friend, because Elsa doesn’t think much of the kids at school who don’t understand great literature. Like “Harry Potter.” And Marvel Comics.

Elsa, her mother, her grandmother, and her stepfather live in a kind of a boarding house. Some of the tenants are very much in full view, like Britt-Marie, who bosses everyone around about signs in the laundry room and strollers in the stairwell. Others are never seen, including the mysterious “Our Friend,” as Granny refers to him. Elsa’s mother works all the time, her remarried father is not a strong presence, and she resents her stepfather. Her grandmother is her rock.

And then Granny dies. But before she does, she asks Elsa to deliver a letter. Elsa does, and sets off a chain of events that reveal the true nature both of Granny’s stories and of the people in Elsa’s life. Bit by bit, she comes to understand who these people are and how they came to be who they are. She also discovers her grandmother’s hidden connection to every soul in the boarding house.

Elsa eventually discovers a mother who loves her unconditionally, a stepfather who’s actually okay, and a father who turns out to be important after all. She even makes a friend. She learns some things about adults that in the end, she knows she just has to forgive.

While the protagonist of “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” is a child, this is not a children’s story. The heartache and sadness are all-too-poignant, and the adults’ stories are, well, adult. The story is about a child finding her way through the complexities of life by relying on herself and her memories of her grandmother. She learns the truth behind the tales, and adult truth is sometimes difficult and scary.

Fortunately, there is enough humor in Elsa’s take on things that the book never becomes dreary—and I was pleased that the humor never condescended, even though the lead character is a child.

I had a hard time deciding whether to categorize “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry” as a fantasy or mainstream, even though the only fantasy elements in the story are Granny’s stories. It’s a fairy tale, but although it has a happy ending, it is a realistic ending. Granny doesn’t come back to life. Britt-Marie was never a princess. “Our Friend” is not really a wurse from the Land of Almost-Awake. And yet, the fantasy carries the story. Read it and decide for yourself.

 

Review: “Fishing for Stars” by Bryce Courtney

Spoiler Alert: This review is for “Fishing for Stars,” by Bryce Courtnay. It is a sequel to “The Persimmon Tree.” I will be discussing elements of both books. If you haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree,” I highly recommend that you do. And then skip “Fishing for Stars.”

“The Persimmon Tree” is how I discovered writer Bruce Courtnay. Born in South Africa, he had a notable career in advertising before retiring, moving to Australia and becoming a highly successful novelist. “The Persimmon Tree” was a complete surprise to me. It is the story of a young boy, Nick Duncan, and Anna Till, his first love, and it opens at the beginning of the Japanese invasion of Indonesia in WWII.

Nick escapes on a sailboat that belonged to Anna’s father and after run-ins with the Japanese, winds up in Australia, now of combat age. He has an affair with an older woman, Marg Hamilton, fights at Guadalcanal with the Americans, and much later, rediscovers his lost Anna.

Anna’s story is weirder and more harrowing. She is forced to become a “comfort woman” by a high-ranking Japanese officer, Konoi Akira, forcibly addicted to heroin to keep her under control, and trained in the art of kinbaku, a ritualized form of rope bondage and sexual torture. This is why the officer wanted her—to perform kinbaku on him.

Long story short, Nick finds Anna (still addicted) running a kinbaku house in Australia, and decides to take her for a heroin-free cruise on her father’s former sailing ship, in an effort to help her go cold turkey. (Not Anna’s idea, by the way.) They sail into the sunset at the end of “The Persimmon Tree,” leaving us hopeful for their future.

Though I read this book years ago, it made a huge impression on me. It was tightly plotted and pulled me right through the story without a pause. I cared about the characters and rooted for Anna and Nick’s happy reunion.

I subsequently read Courtnay’s magnificent “Potato Factory” historical trilogy based on the life of Ikey Solomon, the model for Dickens’ Fagan character in “Oliver Twist,” plus several other tales. I enjoyed every one of them, even the last one he wrote, “Jack of Diamonds.” I didn’t think it was his best, but he was dying of stomach cancer while writing it, so I thought he deserved a pass.

Which made reading “Fishing for Stars” all the more dismaying. It is, in my opinion, a hot mess. Anna did not respond well to the amateur intervention and stays addicted. She has morphed into a skilled businesswoman with an insatiable appetite for more. Mostly more money, and she isn’t overly choosy how she makes it. She and Nick are lovers, but she won’t allow any touching below the waist as she suffers from vaginismus—a painful cramping of the vaginal muscles. She believes her power lies in preserving her virginity.

Nick admits to being completely satisfied by Anna’s sexual ministrations, but he chunters on ad nauseum about his “need to possess her fully” for YEARS. If I were Anna, I would have dumped him.

Marg Hamilton, the woman with whom he has an affair in his youth, reappears, newly widowed. After several years, she consents to sleep with him again. (I don’t know any men that patient. Do you?) Marg has become a green activist in direct opposition to most of Anna’s commercial activities. The two women call each other “the green bitch” and “Princess Plunder,” and settle down to really despising each other’s guts.

The first third of the book sets the scene and fills in the background for those who haven’t read “The Persimmon Tree.” Not brilliant, but readable. The second part of the story is an action-filled, well-plotted visit to Japan, where Anna confronts her old nemesis Konoi Akira. We get into Yakuza, the Shield Society, kidnapping, Manga porn, murder and mayhem, and it’s all pretty interesting.

The third part of the book is about Marg and her conservation efforts. It is essentially a long and tedious history of the Green political movement in Tasmania and I almost gave up.

In the end, Marg screws Anna (metaphorically), and Anna screws Marg. Nick spends the whole book as a sort of pingpong ball being batted between these two women.

I have always admired Courtnay’s portrayals of women. They are always three-dimensional, strong portraits, contrasting dramatically with the way men often write female characters. However, the way Marg and Anna are written in “Fishing for Stars” turns them into two equally unpleasant viragos—an impression heightened by the narrator, Humphrey Bower. (I listened to the audiobook.) Bower—who is brilliant at accents, from southern Black American to Japanese­—plays Marg as an unusually sniffy school librarian, and Anna as a bitch.

In the final analysis, “Fishing for Stars” is a bad book by a good author, and a very disappointing finale to the characters I loved in “The Persimmon Tree.” I strongly encourage you to read Courtnay’s other work, in particular “The Persimmon Tree,” “The Potato Factory Trilogy,” and “Brother Fish.” You won’t be disappointed.

Review: “Doc” by Maria Doria Russell

I first encountered Mary Doria Russell when I read  “The Sparrow.” It is one of the most memorable books I have ever read. Beautifully written, it is a science fiction story on the surface; a Jesuit priest who is part of a mission to a planet inhabited by intelligent beings finds himself weirdly seduced by an alien culture and eventually agrees to something he has no way of comprehending. The result is catastrophic for him, both physically and spiritually. He is accused of murdering one of the aliens under very sketchy circumstances and is returned in disgrace to Rome. The book is a meditation on how we view and deal with the “other,” and how actions can be viewed through many different lenses, some distorting one way, some another.

So when my husband recommended “Doc,” I was eager to read it. Apparently Russell is as versatile a writer as Jane Smiley, because “Doc” is as different from “The Sparrow” as can be imagined. It’s a fictionalized version of the life of Doc Holliday, the famous gambler and gunslinger of Dodge City, Tombstone, and the shootout at the OK Corral.

“Doc” is as beautifully written as “The Sparrow,” and in some ways as evocative and touching. Russell did her research, reading autobiographies and biographies of the principals and bit players alike, mining contemporary newspaper accounts and the penny dreadfuls, and the surviving letters that passed between Doc and his family and friends.

What emerges is a very different man than the legend of the pitiless gunslinger. Doc acquired his nickname because he was a trained and licensed dentist. Hailing from an aristocratic Georgian family, John Henry Holliday was a well-educated Southern gentleman with rarified tastes in music, art and literature. He also had tuberculosis, contracted from his mother, whom he nursed until her death. He became ill at the age of 22 and died at the age of 38. “Doc” takes us up to the age of 28, when he was still living in Dodge City and before the famous shootout.

The book is an exploration of the man’s friendship with the Earp brothers, the woman who shared his life and bed, Kate Horony, and others, showing him to be a true friend and a kind man who stuck with his profession as much and as long as he could, until the disease destroyed his ability to continue. He gambled to earn money, and spent it lavishly on his friends. Waging what he knew was a losing battle, Holliday stayed true to his upbringing. The stories about the men he had gunned down turn out to be primarily fictions, perpetuated by post mortem accounts penned by people who badly needed money.

I was also fascinated by Kate Horony, his off-and-on lover. Kate Horony was a well-ridden prostitute, a stereotypical figure in Old West literature.

Except Mary Catherine Horony started life as the daughter of a Hungarian-born physician. When Dr. Horony and his wife died within a month of one another in 1867, Kate and her younger sister were left to the care of a lawyer, who seemed not to have cared very much. Kate ran away at the age of 28 and probably became a prostitute shortly thereafter, there being few other positions for women on their own at the time.

Curiously, Russell perpetuates the myth that Kate was the daughter of Hungarian aristocracy, ruined by the fall of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Russell attributed to her a facility in many languages and an appreciation of music, art, and the finer things that would have appealed to Doc Holliday’s refined tastes. Maybe Russell knows something I don’t know, or perhaps she just liked the way Kate’s mythic past fit so neatly into Doc’s actual history that she couldn’t resist.

I found myself really caring about the characters in “Doc,” especially Doc himself and Wyatt Earp, so I was all the more startled and displeased by the way the book ended. Chronologically, the story ends before the shootout in Tombstone. After a lyric, heart-wrenching scene where Doc plays the piano for the first time in years, Russell suddenly switches from telling the story from within the characters’ points of view to a summary of what happened to each of the principals in later life. I found this sudden switch from intimate to remote to be abrupt and almost hasty, as though the author couldn’t be bothered with telling the tale to its natural conclusion.

I understand that a sequel is on the way that finishes out Doc’s miserable, pain-racked life to the end. This is no excuse for dumping the reader by the side of the road and telling him that he has to catch another bus. Will I read the sequel? I might, but I ached for Doc’s suffering so completely throughout the first book, I may have to skip Russell’s no-doubt skillful portrayal of his anguished and impoverished death.