The Cozy Mystery Flop: A Review

I love cozy mysteries. Especially English cozies. This may be because I started with Agatha Christie—I tell a lie, it was actually Nancy Drew, so there goes that theory.

Anyway, I like the whole tea-and-crumpets thing. And I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so when someone teddibly, teddibly English narrates, like Davina Porter or Simon Vance, I feel fully immersed in jolly old Blighty.

But they have to be well plotted, too. Really, the core of a mystery is its plot. A mystery is a contract between the author and the reader. The author promises not to spring the solution to the mystery on the reader without first hinting at it or making the critical information known to the reader. The author’s skill is in disguising the information in such a way that the reader never guesses, or is at best unsure until the end. Like many mystery readers, I love to try to figure out the solution before the author reveals it—but I don’t want it to be obvious, either.

In the end, the reader has to be able either say proudly, “I figured it out, but it wasn’t easy,” or, “I should have seen that coming, but I didn’t.” Either way, it has to be a satisfactory end that explains all loose ends and does not defy the laws of reality as we know them.

A few years ago, I stumbled across G.M. Malliet’s mystery series about life in Nether Monkslip, an isolated English country village. The star is an Anglican priest, Max Tudor, an ex-M15 agent who wearied of the life of a spy and went into the god-bothering business. Being an Anglican priest, he gets to have a love life, too. The object of his affections is Rowena, the hippy-dippy owner of the village pagan/spiritual/wicca shop. I’ll just say they are a fun couple.

I adored the series, but soon read all of the existing books, so I picked up another mystery by Malliet, this time with her Detective Inspector St. Just. The first two books were not as enthralling as the Max Tudor stories, but good enough that I purchased a third, “Death at the Alma Mater.”

There are spoilers from this point forward, so please stop reading now if you intend to read “Death at the Alma Mater.”

The story takes place at the fictional St. Michael’s College of Cambridge University. The college hosts a weekend get-together for Old Boys and Girls, and they invite only the wealthiest alums because the intention is to dun them for seriously large donations. One of the guests is gorgeous and wealthy Lexy Laurent, who is famous for being famous, her ex-husband, Sir James Bellows, and his wife India, who took James away from Lexy after only three years of marriage.

It is 20 years after the graduation of these Old Boys and Girls, yet Lexy is believed to still have an obsession with Sir James. When Lexy turns up dead by the boathouse, the fun begins.

I won’t expose the entire plot, but what is supposed to have happened is that James, a writer, had published an early novel that promptly sank from view without notice. He casually gifted his then-wife, Lexy, with the rights to this novel, never thinking it would ever be worth anything. (We don’t know this detail until the exposition at the end.) Lo and behold, the novel develops a cult following and then becomes an overnight best seller years later. Movie deals are being discussed. James, knowing that Lexy will be at the reunion, asks for the rights back. Lexy, having finally reduced her passion for James to ashes, refuses. James pretends it’s no big deal, but plots her murder during the reunion at St. Mike’s.

He carries out the murder near the college boathouse before dinner. After dinner, he is seen by several people having a serious chat with Lexy in the garden. In truth, “Lexy” is a plastic blow-up doll with a Lexy wig on (she’s famous, remember?), wearing an academic robe. This is supposed to establish that Lexy was alive, though in fact she has been dead for a few hours. This gives James an alibi, as he is careful to be within sight of the other guests until the body is discovered.

This is where G.M. Malliet and I parted company. I just didn’t believe a disguised plastic blow-up doll, even if seen only from the back, could pass as a human being. And the jiggery-pokery of blowing up the doll, dressing it, moving it, making sure people saw it but that no one got close enough to see that it wasn’t Lexy, and then somehow getting it out of there without anyone seeing either him or the doll—nah. I became unwilling to suspend my disbelief. (I mean, have you SEEN one of those dolls?)

The other major point is that James killed Lexy for the rights to his book. It was never mentioned that Lexy might have a valid will leaving everything to the Orphaned Hedgehog Home or something. The ex-husband certainly would not be handed the rights back if he were not specifically granted those rights in the will. So it would have been all for nothing.

I can only recommend the St. Just series with muted enthusiasm, and “Death at the Alma Mater” not at all. However, I most heartily recommend all the Max Tudor books. They are everything English cozy mysteries should be, and satisfying reads, every one.

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.

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.

 

Book Review: “The Shepherd’s Crown” by Terry Pratchett

shepherds crown

Yesterday I finished Terry Pratchett’s last book, “The Shepherd’s Crown.”

[Pause to wipe unexplained moisture from eyes.]

First, I’m glad it was a Discworld story. I have enjoyed everything Pratchett has written on his own or in collaboration with someone else. But­—as with most of his readers, I suspect­—I adore Discworld. I adore its cast of thousands, many of whom have become old friends. I adore Discworld’s manic buffoonery, it’s defiance of science in favor of its own wacked magic, the humor and humanity of its inhabitants (many of whom are not actually human).

Second, I’m glad it was a Tiffany Aching story. The first Aching novel I read was “A Hat Full of Sky.” I didn’t realize it took place in Discworld. It seemed to exist in the wide spaces of the High Chalk, covered by an expanse of endless blue sky and connected to nothing else. I fell in love with Tiffany. And I enjoyed the stories of the other witches enormously. I loved the idea of witching as a profession. I loved that witches served the needs of their community, not for gain, but because somebody had to do it. I loved that they didn’t often use magic in the performance of their duties, but usually applied common sense, deep insight into the foibles of humanity, and—not infrequently—threats. You don’t have to actually turn someone into a toad if they truly, deeply believe that you will if they get so much as a hair out of line. I loved the tension between the tough old witches like Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and the New Age witches with their tinkly amulets and sparkly dresses.

By the way, I am embarrassed that after reading all those books, it wasn’t until last night that I realized why Nanny Ogg was named Nanny Ogg. {Blush}

As world-building goes, Discworld is a shining, if unachievable example to other fantasy writers. It is so detailed and internally consistent that during the time I was immersed in a Discworld story, I believed in a flat world resting on the back of a giant turtle floating in space. I believed that Death was a kindly, inexorable presence in a black robe who SPOKE IN CAPITALS and rode a white horse named Binky. I believed that there was a City Watch consisting of a werewolf, a female dwarf, a troll, something called Nobby Nobbs, and the uncrowned King of Ankh-Morepork, headed by Commander Samuel Vimes. I believed, and if that isn’t magic, what is?

I had to look up the shepherd’s crown of the title. Shepherd’s crowns are fossilized sea urchins commonly found in the chalk downs of England. They have five ridges that meet in the center of the fossil, looking somewhat like the star on some species of sand dollar (a closely related animal). Apparently, the ridges looked like a crown to someone, if not to me. Back in the day, these fossils were thought to be magical charms against evil. In this story, a shepherd’s crown is passed down through the Aching family to Granny Aching, and finally to Tiffany. Because Tiffany belongs to the Chalk, the little fossil becomes a powerful talisman in her last fight against an invasion of evil elves from Fairyland. (Those who have read “Lords and Ladies” will remember that in Pratchett’s universe, elves are beautiful, glamorous, powerful—and the cruelest, nastiest creatures imaginable.)

The story is about what happens when people band together to fight a just cause. Traditional adversaries become allies. Strong becomes stronger. And Tiffany truly comes into herself as a witch. Beyond that, I’m not giving out any spoilers.

Is “The Shepherd’s Crown” Pratchett’s best Discworld novel? No, not in my opinion. However, I am absolutely certain it is the finest novel in any language or genre written by a man dying of a vicious form of Alzheimer’s Disease. I am certain he had lots of help here, but it is Pratchett’s voice and spirit that shine throughout the tale. It is his last love letter to humanity, and his last admonition to us to behave like witches—practical, wise, kind when called for and tough when not, taking up the burden of service because it is the right thing to do. “The Shepherd’s Crown” sums up what Terry Pratchett has been trying to tell us all along: “Do the right thing.”

Time for a snack. I’m going to have a rat on a stick, how about you?

The Last Day in Kona, Revisiting Sam, Plus Kukui Nuts and Awa

Day 6: Hawaii to Molokai

Our last full day here dawned bright and beautiful. The plan was to visit Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park, the place of refuge. We had visited years ago and thought it was beautiful. There is a restored heiau, ancient fishponds, interesting plants, and more.

Hōnaunau sits on the opposite arm of the bay where we went snorkeling a couple of days ago. There is an easy entry into the water there, and I hoped to snorkel that side of the bay, as we had done before.

Which reminds me of a story that Bob told me that I forgot to relate. One day in ancient times, the shark god took human form and stepped out of the bay at Hōnaunau. He was greeted in a friendly way by the people, and took a wife among them. He lived with them happily, but in the end had to return to the sea. Before he assumed his shark form, he told the people that because of their kindness and hospitality, the bay between the two points would always be a safe place for them to swim; his people (sharks) would not come there. And so it is to this day.

As I was fixing breakfast on our open lanai kitchen, I heard the sound of crashing surf. This is  thousand feet above the ocean, and perhaps four miles away, as the crow flies. I had never heard the surf from the lanai before. I peered out at the sea and I could see the white spume flying up from the bay at Hōnaunau and along the coastline cliffs. We would not be snorkeling today.

However, Hōnaunau is always worth the visit, so after breakfast, we drove down there. Sadly, the park was closed, a ranger standing at the barricade patiently answering the same question over and over and cars wheeling around and heading away. Of course, we had to ask, too. He told us there was a lot of damage from the storm.

What storm? It had been clear and calm the night before. We headed to Two-Step to see what we could see, and the road was covered with sand and rocks. Huge waves were crashing on the rocks, but people were paddling around in large pools that had been left by the water that splashed over the rocky barrier. We walked out on the rocks (not too far) to take pictures, then left.

Wave surge at Two-Step Beach.

Wave surge at Two-Step Beach.

 

View of Hanaunau from Two-Step. You can see the restored heiau on the point.

View of Hanaunau from Two-Step. You can see the restored heiau on the point.

On the way back, I spotted a wonderful tree that looked as though it were melting. I wanted Tom to take pictures. The tree is truly amazing, with aerial roots and twisty white tendrils that looked as though made of wax rivulets from a burning candle. There was a macadamia nut-Kona coffee-fruit store across the road, so we wandered over to look. I asked the shop keeper what kind of tree that was across the road. He looked blank and said, “What tree?” I guess that incredible-looking tree was just same-old, same old to him. (It turned out to be a banyan.)

Is this not an amazing tree?

Is this not an amazing tree?

The shop keeper’s wife asked what we were doing on the Big Island, and I explained I was researching a novel. She said her daughter wanted to write a book, and how did I get published? I said I’d be glad to help her daughter out if she wanted to email me. I don’t think I can help anyone get published, but I can tell her a bit about how the industry works–or doesn’t.

We tried raw macadamias (meh), then roasted and salted (yum!). But the absolute best were chocolate covered with sea salt–to die for. We bought some, needless to say.

I wanted to go see Bob again. I wanted to tell him about my experience with the lei at Kilauwea. I also wanted another healing–this time on my elbow and ankle. My elbow was so sore that day I could barely touch it (don’t know why), and my ankle has arthritis. Also, my hair was beginning to bug me. It is curly, and when it gets longer, it flies around and looks awful. The humidity of Hawaii wasn’t helping any; I might have been walking around under a gray haystack.

Bob was delighted to see us again. He listened to my story with great satisfaction, then told me more tales of his personal encounters. As he was speaking, a lovely Hawaiian lady came in and sat down. Bob talked and snipped, snipped and talked, until finally I said, “my husband is going to kill you if cut any more off.” I was afraid he would just keep on until I had a fashionably bald head (fashionable for young men, but not for ladies my age).

I said he should take the Hawaiian lady next and I would wait for my healing, but she said to go ahead, so we did. It was the same quiet ritual as before. I thanked her for her patience when we were done; I don’t know how long it all took, but where I live, the next customer would have been foaming at the mouth by then.

After the healing, my elbow in particular felt better. Not perfect, but better to the point where I could touch it without pain. I am really indifferent to whether or not I am merely suggestible, so long as the results are there.

Then we headed off to Greenwell Botanical Gardens, as it had been closed the last time we tried to go. It turns out the garden is operated by the Bishop Museum. Ken’s friend Peter was sick that day, so I will have to email him. I selected some books for the grandkids and chatted with Aloha, the lady behind the counter. Tom took off around the garden by himself, and I followed later.

Greenwell is dedicated to growing and preserving native Hawaiian plants. They don’t charge visitors. Tom and I wandered, reading the informative signs, which noted how the Hawaiians used the plants for food, dye, adornment, etc. I collected a list of questions to ask one of the guides. (We had elected to walk around by ourselves for a while.)

Native loulu palms at Greenwell Botanical Gardens. Highly endangered in the wild, although they once formed forests that carpeted the islands.

Native loulu palms at Greenwell Botanical Gardens. Highly endangered in the wild, although they once formed forests that carpeted the islands.

Back at the visitors center, I introduced myself to Jim, a guide with a magnificent white beard and twinkling blue eyes. After I asked a few questions, Jim cocked an eye at me and said, “Where are you from? You seem pretty well-informed.” That made me happy. After doing all this research, I still feel like the greenest newbie.

I won’t bore you with all the questions I had, but I did think what learned from Jim about Kukui trees was interesting. Kukui nuts were used by the Hawaiians as lights, and are also known as candlenut trees. The nuts are full of oil. The Hawaiians stacked them in a vertical row along a straight sliver of wood and ignited the top nut. It would burn for a while, then ignite the nut below it, which would burn in turn. I knew this, but what I wanted to know was if they were edible. In response, Jim found a good nut lying on the ground and cut it open for me. I tried it. It was a lot like the raw macadamia I ate at the store, and I commented it would probably taste better if toasted a bit. Jim said Kukui is sometimes roasted and salted and used as a condiment for poke. But you can’t eat very much of it, or you get the runs. He hastily added that the small amount I had consumed wouldn’t have that effect on me.

If you shop at Trader Joe’s you have seen some of the staff wearing Kukui nut leis. They polish up beautifully.

Koa trees are acacias, but their leaves are a beautiful, long sickle shape. Koa produces a gorgeous hardwood with light and dark streaks, and it appears the population is not endangered. Ancient Hawaiians made short surfboard and canoes out of the wood. I asked about this peculiarly non-acacia type of foliage, and Jim said they put out juvenile leaves that have the typical feathery appearance of acacia, but this new growth falls off and is replaced by the sickle-shaped leaves–which aren’t leaves. They are structures called “phyllodes,” but as they perform the necessary task of photosynthesis, I don’t think us non-scientists need to worry about the difference.

I noticed what looked like a tiny heiau (temple) constructed of lava rock near the visitors center. It was shaped like a four-sided pyramid, with the top flattened to make a small platform. It had an oval stone standing upright on top of it, like a Ku stone. I asked Jim about it, and he said it was built by the men who worked in the garden. It was not a miniature heiau, it was a replica of a district (aha-pu’a’a) marker. I asked if the stone on top was a Ku stone, and he said, no, it was dedicated to Kama-pu’a’a. I don’t yet know how the Hawaiians could tell the difference between one sacred stone and another.

Now seems as good a time as any to tell you about Kama-pu’a’a, the pig god. Kama (if I may be informal) was born on Oahu to parents who were of divine and chiefly ancestry. Kama was born in the shape of a little pig, and he got into all sorts of mischief in this form. In that sense, he is rather like Coyote the Trickster, of Native American tradition. There are many such gods/culture heroes, like Anansi (Africa), Loki (Norse), and Ti Malice (Vodun).

Kama’s human form was that of a stunningly handsome young man. Eventually he moved to Kahiki and married a woman there. But Pele began to beckon him across the ocean with her smoke. Given what happens next, I am not clear why Pele did this, but if you expect legends to make sense, you should probably stick with mathematics. (Not that math makes any sense to me. That’s why I write fantasy.)

Kama returns home to Oahu first, to recruit the assistance of his family in dealing with Pele, whom he knows is a fierce and powerful goddess. His grandparents agree to follow him to Hawaii (hidden in his genitals, which sounds uncomfortable), and Kama turns into one of his other body forms, the humu-humu-nuku-nuku-a’pu’a,a, and swims to the Big Island.

Kama makes his way to Pele’s home at Kilauwea in his human form, which had been enhanced  by his grandparents until there was no more beautiful man in all of Hawaii. He begins to chant at the crater’s edge. 40,000 of Pele’s people come out of her home to see who is chanting, and her sisters see this dazzling young man and desire him. They tell Pele about him because they are under kapu unless Pele frees them, but she is scornful. She tells them he is a hairy pig, and not worthy of them, but they don’t believe her and think she just wants Kama for herself.

Kama didn’t come for the sisters, he came for Pele. He chants to her with alluring words, whereupon she chants back, heaping insult upon insult. Kama is humiliated, and takes it out on his grandparents by slapping them (talk about adding injury to insult). More insults fly, and then Pele sends her lava right to Kama’s feet. A great fight ensues, and Kama’s family helps him. His sister floods Pele’s house, making it unfit to live in. Pele rekindles her fire and begins to chase Kama, who reverts to his pig form. Pele scorches his bristles, causing one of his grandfathers to die of grief, thinking his grandson dead, but Kama lives.

Pele finally chases Kama into the sea, where he assumes his fish form. Pele sends her eager sisters to the shore to entice him with their bodies (I’m being euphemistic here), but he mocks them from the waves. The Pele clan gives it up as a bad job and goes home. Kama resumes his handsome human form and follows. The sisters being as enthusiastic as ever, Pele releases them from the kapu, and Kama makes love to both of them. But he wants Pele, who has assumed the form of an old woman. Undeceived, Kama sweet-talks her into an assignation. They go at it for days, and Pele is in danger of dying. Another sister of Pele, who has a detachable, flying ma’i (Remember what a ma’i is? It’s her lady parts.), dispatches this organ to distract Kama from his piggish behavior with Pele. This is successful, and Kama goes chasing off to the other side of the island. So the dry side of Hawaii is Pele’s, and the wet side is Kama’s, and they continue their love-hate relationship to this day.

Whew. You wouldn’t believe how much detail I eliminated from this story in the interest of not losing my readers!

Then I asked Jim about awa (pronounced ah-vah, and known as kava in much of Polynesia). I knew that awa was cultivated by the ancient Hawaiians as a social drink, sometimes as part of ceremonies. I wanted to know what it tasted like, and what the effects were. (Research, you know). I asked where I could experience this–as long as it was not prepared in the traditional manner. (Traditionally, people–often children–chewed the root and spat into coconut shells. The resulting ickiness was imbibed.)

Jim looked at me and asked, “Have you tried going to a kava bar?”

Well, no, Jim, we hadn’t. It never occurred to me that such places existed.

So next stop, Ma’s Kava, which turned out to be immediately next door to Shear Magic. Ma’s Kava was a teeny space that shared its commercial doings with Qina Girl Floral. There were several small children surging around behind the bar. There was a diminutive bar made of koa, and three little bar stools. Both businesses are operated by a nice young couple, April and Josh. April has a degree from University of Hawaii, and Josh is a Fijiian ex-British Army guy. They served us two coconut shells full of a cloudy, pale, beige-ish liquid. Tom took two sips before deciding that was enough, so Josh gave him a half-cup of nettle tea to take the taste away. The tea, made of stingless nettles, was tasty, comparable to oolong.

It is abundantly clear that awa is not drunk for the taste, which is muddy, with a slight bitter aftertaste. Because I was, after all, doing research, I drank his as well as mine. It really is not intoxicating. After two shells (as they say), I was perfectly clear-headed, but maybe a little livelier than usual. Awa soothes body soreness, is a muscle relaxant, and a mood elevator, according to April. She and Josh showed us an awa root, which was about 12 feet long, twined and tangled. April said the older the root, the more potent the awa. It is extremely tough and has to be pounded a long time before it can be used. The taste differs with the variety, as does the potency. It left us wondering how anyone originally discovered its effects, as without modern equipment, the stuff is hard to make.

April shows us an awa root.

April shows us an awa root.

 

Awa is not regulated like alcohol or marijuana. April said there were kava bars in most areas, but not in every town. Their customers were mostly working men who come in for a shell after work to ease soreness and relax at the end of the day. They had no other customers while we were there–maybe we scared them off. We thanked April and Josh and went back to Camp Aloha.

We had a lovely evening. Joan came out and we offered her some wine and talked and talked. Casey eventually showed up, and more wine was poured. And there was more talking. Eventually, our hosts retired, we cleaned up the lanai kitchen a final time, and so to bed.

But before we begin the journey to Moloka’i, here is a photo of the amazing spider that hung outside the lanai. It had spun a white “X” in the center of its web, and it always sat right in the middle of the X, as you can see. The X consisted of zigzags of thicker white silk. I looked this up, and they don’t know why spiders sometimes do this. One theory was to make the spider look bigger to discourage predators, and you can see that this might indeed be so. It was quite large enough to discourage me.

X marks the spot.

X marks the spot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Reviewer Blogger Liis Pallas Reviews “The Obsidian Mirror”

Liis Pallas reviews “The Obsidian mirror”–and I am thrilled!

Cover to Cover

Environmental issues, power-play, ancient Mayan gods, a Coyotl (yes, Coyotl) that turns into a drop-dead-gorgeous young man, a green being of mannegishi, vodun (no, not voodoo), and a bit of reality- admit it- it sparked some interest in you!

from Goodreads

A few days ago I published an interview K.D. was so very kind to tackle.

You know what? It feels strange how some times you read a book, or watch a film, on a serious issue (such as environmental problems, a nuclear power plant worry, fracking causing earthquakes, rubbish in the vast oceans, etc) and when we read about these issues in books, or see them in the movies, we tend to take them as someone’s brain-children, or brain-babies. But I really am humbled and in awe and in the process of having my faith restored because people notice! Authors notice the issues, the global issues that should…

View original post 195 more words