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.

Raising Tad

First:
I love animals. I have always had pets, and never believed what I heard from others about how they don’t have the same emotions, or even the same ability to feel pain. Nonsense. Animals are more like us than not, but we have spent millennia trying to prove that we are better, finer, and superior. We have behaved accordingly, acting as though animals could not feel, or suffer. As if they didn’t matter.

So don’t read this piece if you are one of those individuals. You won’t like it.
* * * *

A few weeks ago, my daughter Kerry came home from her teaching job with a jar of water containing two tiny black commas of life: tadpoles. One of her middle-school students had given them to her so that Kerry’s two little girls could observe the miraculous transformation from tadpole to frog. The tadpoles were no bigger than my little fingernail.

Sadly, one of them did not survive. It was a rough journey from his home pond to middle school to our house. But one tiny scrap of life lived. We never named it, nor do we know its gender, but let’s call him Tad for convenience.

Tad took up residence in a plastic food container with purified water and two baby spinach leaves to eat. He swam around energetically enough for a few weeks, gorging on spinach. I marveled at him. He was so tiny that he couldn’t consume even one leaf before it started to go bad. I regularly changed his water and his spinach leaves as he worked on growing out his hind legs.

He became a bit sluggish and one morning, Kerry found him floating on his back on top of the water, apparently dead. But when she picked up the container, he flicked away, very much alive. Kerry consulted the oracle (the Internet) and found that once tadpoles get their hind legs, they also begin developing lungs, so he needed an easier way to breathe at the surface. I selected a rock for his container, one with gently sloping sides so he could almost swim right out of the water onto the top of the rock, which I left rising just a bit above the waterline. I added some sticks for good measure and topped it off with a couple of baby spinach leaves.

I swear he was way happier with the additions. (Go ahead and laugh. I don’t care.) Lethargy forgotten, he careened around his enclosure, now with far less water, dodging between twigs and hiding by the rock’s sloping sides. He did swim right up to the rock to rest in the water while he breathed. I was delighted, and I think that’s when I lost a little piece of my heart to him.

Tad’s forelegs seemed to pop out overnight, each the circumference of a thread. And one day, he climbed right out of the water and sat on top of the rock like a grown-up frog. The picture above is of this event. Terrible photo, but remember, he was teensy, and I was shooting through the plastic walls of a food container.

Tad sat on his rock the entire day without moving. My hypothesis is that he was allowing his lungs to practice breathing, and perhaps this was an energy-intensive exercise. I was smitten. He was just SO cute sitting there like a real frog, and yet—still the size of my little fingernail.

It was time to let Tad return to nature. His tail was nothing but a nubbin and his legs were fully developed. He would need to eat tiny insects now, as spinach would no longer appeal to him.

We live near a large tract of wild woodland. I thought I would let him go in the stream that winds through the woods. Lower downstream where it meanders into the ocean, there is always a crowd of ducks and seagulls, it’s polluted, and the water is brackish.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the forest stream. Although there are places where you can reach the stream easily, they are not near the park road. My husband and I had taken our youngest granddaughter to witness the release and we were also carrying Tad’s container. Jessamyn, age four, is definitely not Nature Girl and objects to long and difficult walks. I had safety-proofed Tad’s container as best I could by removing the sticks, emptying most of the water and replacing the rock with a mound of sodden paper towels so he would have a safe place to sit out of the water if he needed it. But I could tell the movement and jouncing were frightening to him.

So we drove closer to where the creek empties into the ocean. The banks became much less precipitous. I found a spot upstream from where the ducks and seabirds hang out, far enough from the sea that the water wouldn’t be brackish. It was a shallow stretch of streambed with a golden, sandy bottom. I clambered as far down the bank as I could and let Tad out of his container.

With a burst of speed that surprised us, Tad leaped downhill toward the water and disappeared into the weeds matting the stream bank. We lost sight of him within a second. He was such an infinitesimal scrap of a creature that any shadow, any shelter disguised him entirely. It made me wonder how many little animals I have unwittingly walked upon without ever knowing it.

I absolutely would be lying if I told you that were the end of it. No, I worried. Did he make it to the water? Did he live through his first day as a free frog? Did he become a light snack for a garter snake or a sparrow?

Was this silly of me? Yes. Tadpoles are spawned in the hundreds of thousands, and they are ready food for many animals. Frogs, too, are the prey of birds, toads, foxes, raccoons, fish…and so on. Hakuna matata, the great circle of life and all that.

But I still think a lot about that minute froglet, sitting so quietly and proudly on top of his rock. Although Tad’s chances of survival were slim, at least I gave him a safe and predator-free tadpolehood. That is probably the best we can do for our own children before we release them into the wild.

Death Comes for Zippy

This isn’t Zippy, but it looks just like her. (Not that I can tell one Barred Rock hen from another.) I love her smart stripes and contrasting red comb–very stylish.

About a year ago I wrote a blog piece about “bathroom chickens.” My daughter Kerry decided she wanted to keep chickens for the eggs. She and her husband Mike built a sturdy chicken run and coop, capable of deflecting the local predators, which include foxes, bobcats, coyotes, rats, weasels, raccoons, hawks, and eagles. We are less certain the coop would resist the dedicated efforts of the local mountain lion, but so far, the lion has stayed on the other side of our fence.

Kerry obtained five chicks from our local organic farmer guru. These tiny, shrieking balls of fluff lived in the upstairs bathroom. As they grew larger, they became more difficult to care for. Also more annoying. I got tired of cleaning up chicken-foot-shaped shit prints. But the day dawned when our little flock moved into their new chicken palace in the back yard. In due time, they began laying eggs. We had two Easter Eggers that laid green, speckled eggs. The rest, a Barred Rock, an Australorpe, and a Rhode Island Red, laid brown eggs.

We named the chickens. I have a rule that I never eat anything that I have addressed by name. The Easter Eggers, both brownish-red, were named Henrietta and Ruby. The Australorpe, whose feathers are iridescent black, is Chix. The Rhode Island Red, a cheerful yellow, is Sunny. The Barred Rock, stylish in black and white stripes, was named Zippy.

I thought I would become more emotionally attached to the chickens. I love animals, and have had pets from cats to rats to a horse to seahorses. I wept over the deaths of my pet rats as much as over any dog or cat. But I haven’t gotten very attached to the chickens. They aren’t terribly fond of us, either. You would think that being handled every day as chicks, they would be used to us, but no. Clearly, they view us as annoying and intrusive at best—unless we have food, in which case, they prefer us to throw it in the coop and leave as quickly as possible.

I did develop a grudge against one of them, though. Chix proved to be the smartest and most aggressive of the young hens. The other girls huddled away from us when we entered the coop, but Chix came right up and crowded us. One day as I was putting fresh food down (this was before I learned to fling it and leave), Chix pecked both my wrists with lightening speed, raising two juicy blood blisters. I decided I would probably be okay with eating Chix cacciatore after all.

We originally thought Henrietta would be, as Kerry put it, “The boss bitch.” She was the largest of the baby chicks, and the most forward. Then Chix stepped up and flexed her drumsticks. But the one who ruled the roost in the end was Zippy, our Barred Rock. I think Zippy was, in her own way, an ideal leader. She was modest and unassuming, asserting her authority without pecking anyone’s eyes out or raising any blood blisters. While Chix continued to crowd us in the coop, perching on the watering bottles and knocking them over, dapper Zippy quietly went about her business, keeping her little flock on track. After Zippy assumed supremacy, we noticed that Chix wasn’t as aggressive as she had been. Which was a good thing.

As the hens grew older, the eggs got bigger and more plentiful. Once in a while we find no eggs, but usually there are three, four or five eggs waiting for us. I enjoy getting the eggs, sometimes needing to grope under a warm, sitting hen to find them. I always thought they would lay their eggs in separate nests, but all of the eggs go in one nest, and they take turns sitting on them. Sunny is our most dedicated sitter. She never pecks at my thieving fingers and even lets me pet her. (If she’s not on the nest, however, Sunny won’t let us near her.) If Chix is sitting (a rare occasion because Chix isn’t the motherly type), I shoo her away before gathering the eggs. I’m not giving that bitch another shot at me.

I enjoy their “egg song.” When a hen lays, she crows a bit as though to say, “Look what I just did!” I also quietly savor the idea that the descendants of Tyrannosaurus Rex are strutting around in my back yard, providing me with sustenance. Mammals rule, and all that.

Then tragedy struck. Kerry found Zippy’s still-warm corpse in the run without a mark on her. Zippy had laid an egg the day before, and she had also happily gobbled the table scraps I gave them. Although she was only a year old, Zippy’s sands had run out. The Queen was dead. The rest of the flock retreated in horror to the highest perch until the corpse was removed.

I had a rather odd reaction to Zippy’s death. As I said, we weren’t close. But it seemed sad that such a young bird had died. None of the other birds appear ill. Kerry’s research indicated that it wasn’t unusual for a youthful chicken to die unexpectedly, possibly of a heart attack. Just like people, some chickens are born with defective hearts. Still. She had shared my table (figuratively speaking). She was a creature under my care. I wasn’t grief-stricken, but I did feel that Zippy deserved some respect for her wise leadership and lovely brown eggs. So Zippy has been on my mind for a few days.

But not on my plate. As I said, we were on first-name terms.

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.

“Fire in the Ocean” Goes on Sale Today!

“Fire in the Ocean” went on sale today from Diversion Books. Although it is a sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” it stands on its own as a great adventure. It’s set in Moloka’i and the Big Island of Hawai’i, and draws on ancient Hawai’ian mythology and folktales. In honor of the debut of “Fire in the Ocean,” here is the first chapter of the book. I hope you enjoy it!

Chapter 1 of “Fire in the Ocean”

Sierra glanced up from her in-flight magazine and stared at her companion with concern. Chaco’s face, normally a warm, glowing brown, was a sickly gray with green undertones. She scrabbled hastily in her seat pocket for the barf bag and handed it to him.

“If you feel like you’re going to be sick, use this,” she said. “I didn’t know you get motion sickness.” They had just taken off from San Jose International Airport—how could he be sick already?

Chaco waved away the bag with a weary gesture. “I don’t have motion sickness.”

“What’s the matter, then?” she asked. She hoped he would recover soon—and that he wasn’t contagious. But then she remembered:

Chaco was an Avatar. He was thousands of years old, and had literally never been sick a day in his long life. If he was sick, something was seriously awry.

“I dunno,” Chaco replied, closing his eyes. “Do you…do you suppose you could just leave me alone for a while?”

Sierra returned to her magazine, glancing at his tense, gray face every so often. When the stewards came by with trays of lunch, Chaco shook his head without opening his eyes.

When the screaming began, Sierra nearly jumped out of her skin, and she wasn’t the only one. A female flight attendant was shrieking incoherently in the rear of the plane, where the galley and restrooms were located for economy class passengers. Other attendants crowded around her, and her shrieks stopped abruptly. But not before Sierra heard, “Green! Monster! I saw it…!”

“Oh no,” Sierra moaned. “Oh no, no, that’s just what we need!”

People were still craning in their seats, trying to see what was going on. The curtain had been drawn across the galley space, concealing whatever was happening.

Roused by the commotion, Chaco asked, “What was that all that about?”

“It’s Fred,” Sierra whispered grimly. “It has to be Fred. The flight attendant was screaming about a green monster. Sound familiar?”

Chaco closed his eyes again. “Figures.” Sierra waited for more, but he remained silent.

“What are we going to do? Fred will be a disaster on this trip, which is why I told him—firmly!—that he couldn’t come with us,” Sierra asked.

“I don’t know.”

“We have to do something.”

Chaco shifted his long body slightly to face her and opened his eyes. “Look, Sierra. I have no more idea than you do. In fact, I think I’m in real trouble here.”

Sierra looked at his pale face and anguished eyes. “Are you sick?”

“It’s worse than that,” he responded miserably. “I’m mortal.”

“Mortal? Mortally ill, you mean?”

“No. Mortal. As in, I’m just like you, now. I’m not an Avatar anymore. I can get sick. I can die.”

All thoughts of Fred forgotten, Sierra said, “How do you know? How is that even possible?”

Chaco shook his head. “Wouldn’t you know if all your blood left your body? I mean, just for an instant before you died? I’ve been severed from the numinous, the sphere in which we Avatars exist. The power source has been unplugged, if that makes more sense.”

Sierra absorbed this in silence. Finally, she said, “But you’re still alive. So cutting you off from the, um, numinous doesn’t kill you?”

Chaco rolled his eyes. “Apparently not.”

“Okay. Why don’t you try to turn into a coyote? If you can do that, it proves you’re okay.” In addition to being an outwardly young and indisputably handsome young man, Chaco was Coyotl the Trickster, demigod and culture hero of many Native American traditions. Sierra was so rattled that she didn’t consider what her fellow passengers’ response might be to a coyote lounging in a nearby window seat.

Chaco looked at her, his golden-amber eyes now dulled to hazel. Dark circles beneath his eyes made them appear sunken.

“What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the past hour?”

“Oh.” Sierra sat quietly for a long time, thinking. Eventually, she asked, “How did you get separated from the, um, numinous, anyway? How could something like that happen?”

Chaco roused himself from his lethargy. “I don’t know. It’s never happened before. I could make an educated guess, though. I think it’s because I’m no longer connected to my land, the land that created me. I think my land is the source of my power. I’ve never been on an airplane before, so I didn’t know this would happen.”

“We’re thousands of feet in the air. When we get to Hawai‘i, we’ll be on land again—maybe you’ll get it back. Hawai‘i is part of the United States, after all,” Sierra said, trying to comfort her friend.

Chaco brightened a little at this, but his enthusiasm flickered and died. “I don’t know as much as I should about things like history and geography, but wasn’t Hawai‘i built by volcanoes in the middle of the ocean?”

Sierra nodded.

“And when did Hawai‘i become part of the United States?”

Sierra’s dark brows knit together as she tried to remember. She gave up. “I’m not sure, but it was probably about 60 years ago.”

Chaco groaned, almost inaudibly. “So Hawai‘i isn’t part of my land at all. It’s something different. The people there are probably not even Native Americans.”

This Sierra did know. “They’re Polynesians. They came from Tahiti, I think. Once you get your feet on the ground, maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Maybe,” he said, directing a morose gaze out of the little window at the clouds.

#

The trip was originally supposed to be a fun vacation with Sierra’s fiancé, Clancy. At least, Sierra thought it would be fun, but as Clancy pointed out, his idea of an island vacation had more to do with drinking fruity tropical drinks on the beach than with counting albatross chicks. Nonetheless, he had gone along with her plans for a one-month stint on Midway Island. It was an ecotourism gig that allowed some twenty volunteers at a time onto Midway to help biologists monitor the bird life. The island was a national wildlife refuge that provided breeding grounds for millions of sea birds, including several endangered species. The volunteers lived on Midway for a month, counting chicks and cleaning up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch so that adult birds wouldn’t mistake the colorful bits of plastic for food and feed it to their nestlings—thereby killing them.

But Clancy’s boss had asked (demanded) that he cancel his scheduled vacation. Sierra was upset by this, but she understood. Clancy was head of security at a high-tech Silicon Valley firm. The president of the United States had scheduled a visit to the plant to highlight her support of American technology—and Clancy’s vacation was sacrificed amid promises of more vacation time later.

“I’m going anyway,” she had told Clancy. At his look of surprise, she added, “Remember? My job is paying for it. I have to go so I can report on the wildlife conservation work on Midway.” Sierra worked for Clear Days Foundation as a communications executive.

“Oh. Well, sure. I just thought…”

“I’d like to ask Chaco to go with me,” Sierra had said. “That okay with you?”

There was a long silence. “Chaco? Isn’t he with Kaylee? Wouldn’t that be kind of awkward?”

“I thought you knew. Kaylee is dating someone named Guy now. She moved on. Kaylee always moves on.”

“Oh. Well, what about taking Kaylee with you? Or Rose? Or Mama Labadie?” Clancy listed off Sierra’s closest female friends.

“All three of them are going to some animal spirit guide workshop in Sedona, so they’re not available. Look, please don’t worry about this. Chaco and I are just friends. We’ve never been anything else. And I’m going to be on a remote island in the middle of nowhere for a month with a bunch of people I don’t know. I’d like to have a friend with me.”

“I’m not worried. Well, maybe I am, a little. Just tell me you’re sorry that it won’t be me.”

“I’m really, really sorry that it won’t be you!”

He would have to be content with that.

#

Discovering that Fred had decided to stow away on the airplane was unwelcome news to Sierra. But there could be no other explanation for the ruckus among the flight attendants and that telling shriek of “Green! Monster!”

Fred was a mannegishi. When visible, Fred looked like a green melon with pipe-cleaner arms and legs, six flexible digits on each paw, and swiveling orange eyes that resembled traffic reflectors. He had the ability to disappear at will, which had been handy in Sierra’s earlier adventures, but he was a mischievous creature with little or no impulse control and an enormous appetite. Fred was not Sierra’s first choice of companion for a visit to a delicate ecosystem populated by endangered birds.

Now she had to deal with an errant mannegishi as well as a mortal and extremely miserable Chaco. As they walked through the loading tunnel to the gate, Sierra whispered, “How are we going to find Fred?”

Chaco shrugged. “My guess is that Fred will find us. Don’t worry about him—he’s been around the block a few times in the past few thousand years.” He was still drawn and tired-looking, with none of his usual sexy saunter. Sierra guessed that returning to the earth had not restored his supernatural powers or immortality.

They made their way to baggage pickup. When Chaco hefted his suitcase, he nearly dropped it, then frowned.

“I think Fred found us,” he reported.

Sierra looked at him, puzzled.

“My suitcase.” He hefted it again. “It’s a lot heavier than it was when I dropped it off in San Jose. It’s either Fred or someone stuffed a bowling ball in here.”

Sierra was horrified. “Well, let him out! He must be smothered in there.”

“Not likely,” scoffed Chaco. He gave the suitcase a good shake. “Serves him right.”

“What if he’s lost his powers like you have?” she hissed, not wanting to be overheard.

“I don’t think so. He disappeared on the plane fast enough when the flight attendant started screaming. Otherwise, there would have been a lot more commotion.”

Acknowledging that Chaco was probably right, Sierra turned her attention to finding transportation to their hotel. It was located right on Waikiki Beach and wasn’t far from the airport. On the bus ride to the hotel, Sierra took in the tropical plants, caught glimpses of turquoise ocean, and, cracking the window a trifle, breathed in the scent of many flowers—and the usual smells of any big city. The people walking on the streets all looked like tourists to her. Many were wearing shorts, flip-flops, and Hawai‘ian print shirts. Surely not everyone in the city is a tourist, she thought. At one point, Chaco’s suitcase began to squirm, but he kicked it sharply, and the suitcase subsided.

Their hotel was an enormous complex of tall buildings, and they had a room on the seventeenth floor, overlooking the ocean. Sliding glass doors on a balcony opened to let in breezes, and the afternoon air smelled soft and sweet with an underlying sharper tang of salt. They dumped their suitcases on the floor—in Chaco’s case, none too gently. Chaco unzipped the bag and Fred rolled out onto the carpet.

“Ow ow ow ow,” he complained, rubbing his fat bottom and glaring at them reproachfully.

“It’s your own fault,” Chaco said coldly. “I’m going to bed.” He commandeered one of the two queen-size beds and pulled the covers over his head.

“What’s his problem?” the little mannegishi asked. “He didn’t spend hours balled up in a suitcase.”

“He’s lost his powers,” Sierra explained. “He’s a mortal now, and it disagrees with him. Anyway, why’d you do it, Fred? I asked you not to come. Now I don’t know what to do.”

She felt nearly as weary as Chaco. The trip had started with Clancy dropping out. Now Chaco had lost his powers and become mortal—and who knew what that would mean? She supposed it would be like a human losing the ability to see, or walk. And she had to deal with Fred, too. As fond as she was of him, Fred was a nuisance at the best of times.

“Lost his powers? How does that happen?” asked Fred, looking worried. He disappeared briefly then reappeared. He looked relieved but puzzled. “I haven’t lost my abilities. Why did Chaco lose his?”

“He thinks it’s because he’s no longer in contact with his birth land. He says he’s cut off from the numinous, whatever that is.”

“I dunno about numinous, but I’m still okay.”

“How nice for you!” came an irritated growl from under the humped covers on Chaco’s bed.

“Look, Fred, I could really use a drink right now. Disappear yourself, and we can talk. There’s got to be a bar in this hotel somewhere.”

As it turned out, the hotel had many bars. Sierra picked one with an outdoor seating area on the beach and ordered something unfamiliar with rum in it. The drink arrived, bedecked with chunks of fresh fruit, small umbrellas, and plastic hula girls and accompanied by a bowl of peanuts. She cleared away the ornamentation, ate the fruit, and began working slowly on the remaining fluid. It was cold, tart, and sweet. She still felt grubby from the trip, but at least she was near a beach—she could see surfers from where she was sitting—with a fruity tropical drink. And an invisible mannegishi. She could see the imprint of Fred’s bottom on the chair cushion next to hers, and the peanuts were disappearing at a rapid pace.

She picked up her phone and pretended to tap in a number, then said, “Hi, Fred. We can talk now.” Anyone observing would see a trim woman with tanned skin and long, dark hair, sitting alone and talking on the phone.

“So what happened to Chaco?” Fred asked.

“As soon as the plane took off, he started to look kind of green around the gills. Then he slumped down and acted like he was sick. He says he’s mortal now. He can die.”

“That’s not good,” Fred observed.

“Tell me about it,” said Sierra. “I’ve been mortal my whole life.”

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to be insensitive.”

“It’s all right. I’m used to it. Chaco isn’t. Do you know if he can ever regain his connection to the numinous? Whatever that is?”

“Dunno.”

“And why didn’t you lose your powers?” Sierra demanded. The mannegishi was quiet for a few minutes.

“Chaco and I aren’t exactly the same sort of thing, you know.”

“How do you mean?”

“Chaco is—was—an Avatar. Much more powerful than a mannegishi. I’m just a, ah, kind of an…well, I don’t know exactly. I have certain powers, but what I can do is born inside me. Like bees can make honey? I can do what I do. That’s all I know.” Sierra could tell by the sounds next to her that the mannegishi was sucking his digits—a nervous habit.

“Stop that!” The sucking sounds ceased, and the peanuts began to disappear again. Sierra flagged a passing waiter and asked for more peanuts and another round of whatever she was drinking.

“What about your powers?” Fred asked abruptly. Sierra sat for a moment, considering. She had discovered during her earlier struggles against the Aztec god Necocyaotl that she possessed certain disturbing powers of her own. Rose had helped her to strengthen her control over these powers, but Sierra still didn’t understand how they worked. Given a choice, she preferred not thinking about them. But Fred’s question was a good one, so she closed her eyes and searched for the glowing ribbons she visualized when her powers were at work. After a moment, she opened her eyes again.

“I still have my powers, such as they are. No difference.” Why were she and Fred untouched, while Chaco had been drastically changed? The illogic of magic, as always, annoyed her, but she couldn’t do anything about the situation today. Right now, she was sitting in the Hawai‘ian sun on a Hawai‘ian beach, drinking a Hawai‘ian drink, and watching the Hawai‘ian waves. Almost against her will, she began to relax. The waiter brought her a fresh drink and another bowl of peanuts. She thanked him, took a long swallow, and closed her eyes. She began to think about Chaco and Fred and their attendant problems. Not relaxing. She opened her eyes again, only to find the rest of her drink gone, as well as all of the fruit.

“Fred!!!”

#

If you enjoyed Chapter 1, you can find “Fire in the Ocean” at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Apple iBooks (requires app)

Audible.com

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.

 

The Price of Freedom Isn’t Free

“The price of freedom isn’t free.” That’s a saying that ex-service people are fond of using, especially when they are in a more-righteous-than-thou mood. I’m grateful to those who have served, but more than a little put off by this, as in the former client who had an American flag the size of a tennis court in his office. I remarked on it, and he snapped at

 

me, “The price of freedom isn’t free, y’know!” As if I had claimed the opposite for some reason.

As it happens, he was right, but for reasons other than his pride in military service. Yes, the military does the government’s bidding here and abroad, but it isn’t the military that defends the rights and freedoms of American citizens.

It’s American citizens.

And we haven’t been doing a very good job of it over the past four decades. When the Reagan Administration struck down the FCC Fairness Doctrine, there wasn’t a great deal of pushback. The Fairness Doctrine required that if, for example, a broadcaster aired 15 minutes of liberal information or editorial content, they must balance it with 15 minutes of conservative content on the same subject.

Prior to the elimination of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, we didn’t have Fox News. Or ClearChannel. Or Breitbart. Or Rush Limbaugh. Or Alex Jones. Sure, those folks were out there, but they didn’t have a 24/7, 52-week media platform from which to propagate lies and disinformation. As a result, the country has become increasingly polarized as about one-third of the population has willingly walled themselves off from reality to marinate in the “information” they want to hear, as opposed to the truth.

The citizens should have taken to the streets when Citizens United was passed into law. But we didn’t. Citizens United, in brief, changed the status of corporations to people, allowing them to donate money to political campaigns and deeply influence the politics of the country.

The problem is, corporations aren’t people. They don’t act in the interests of the people, they act in the interests of corporations. So if our current laws and policies reflect little to negative concern for the wellbeing of actual human beings, that’s why. The laws weren’t passed for our benefit.

Voter suppression has always been a problem in this country, as certain groups strive to maintain power by excluding others from the political table. However, there are individuals and organizations that are deeply committed to preventing people of color, poor people, and liberals from voting. Here are just a few of the techniques deployed during the 2016 election:

  • Using a voting software program called CrossCheck, allegedly to prevent voter fraud, but in reality designed to throw qualified voters off the rolls when said voters tend to be in the undesired categories. Twenty-eight states used CrossCheck in 2016, throwing literally hundreds of thousands of registered voters off the rolls. Most of these voters were people of color, poor, young (likely to be liberal), or liberal.
  • Voter caging—requiring voters to verify their mailing addresses by sending them small postcards covered with tiny type that often are overlooked as junk mail. Failure to respond resulted in being eliminated from the rolls. These postcards, need I say, were mailed to communities whose residents are poor and/or minority.
  • Voter ID laws—requiring a state-issued ID to vote, which disadvantages poor people in particular as it requires them to travel to the DMV and pay for the ID.
  • Gerrymandering—this is an old (the term was first used in 1812) but successful technique that involves drawing up voting districts that concentrate conservative voters across as many districts as possible to create a conservative majority. (It could work both ways, but it’s mostly Republicans who do this.)
  • Mailing false voting information. Postcards with incorrect information on when and where to vote are mailed into districts with minority populations.
  • Poll closures. Polling places are strategically shut down or closed early in —you guessed it­—poor and minority neighborhoods.

As the Tea Party diligently worked to put whackadoodle candidates in positions of power all across the country, we liberals patiently waited for the checks and balances we’ve been told about to kick in.

Well, guess what? They didn’t.

Turns out you actually have to DO something for the checks and balances to work. As in protest, resist, rock the boat, take to the streets, speak out. As a result, the United States is no longer a beacon of freedom to the world. We are a third-rate developed country. We used to be number one in infant mortality survival, health care, human rights, education, income per capita, equitable distribution of wealth, etc., etc. None of that is true anymore. We’re just another corporate-owned, corrupt, greedy banana republic with an insane tinpot dictator at the helm, masses of increasingly poor citizens, viciously oppressed minorities, and an educational system that turns out ignorant, entitled mistakes like Donald J. Trump and company.

On the other hand, the United States has achieved primacy in many key areas. We are number one in percentage of our population in jail. We are also number one in how quickly we force new parents to return to work. The U.S. spends more per capita on healthcare than any other country (might have something to do with our abysmal healthcare statistics), despite the fact we get less than anybody else for the money. We also have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world and—surprise!—one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world.

Friends, we did not get here due to the enmity of foreign powers. No one attacked us to shove us down the scale of decency and freedom to occupy a position just under Slovakia. We did it to ourselves through irresponsible legislation, punitive laws, favoring corporate rights over human rights, pandering to religious interests (read Christian here), and failing to create an environment where education—the real kind, where you learn how to think—can flourish. And most of it came about because corrupt and greedy people want more money, and they’re not at all reluctant to take it out of your wallet.

The price of freedom isn’t free. We have to work constantly to deserve that freedom. When we see something like the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, or the passage of an insanely wrong law, we have to step up and work to overcome. I used to think that eternal vigilance was just a fancy patriotic way of describing our military. No, eternal vigilance is what we owe ourselves, our families, our communities and our country to prevent the enemies of freedom from invading the halls of power from within.

Let this be the last gasp of oligarchical power, corruption, and bigotry in this country. Let it be the last spasm of hatred for the poor, disadvantaged, minorities and women. Let it be the last of untrammeled corporate greed in this country. Stay awake, be vigilant, question everything. And let freedom ring again.