Let Me Tell You About Gigi (written three years ago in preparation for this day)

Inca cuddled up with Gigi today, knowing her friend wasn’t feeling well.

I had a bit of a scare recently. My dog Gigi developed a fever, lost her appetite and began to act lethargic. She’s 12 years old, so I wasted no time taking her to her vet. Dr. Good, who rolls around in a mobile clinic, did a thorough exam, took blood and urine and an X-ray—and found nothing wrong other than the obvious presence of an infection. So Gigi went on antibiotics.

I’m happy to say Gigi recovered. But while she was sick, I began to dread the possibility of losing this amazing creature with whom I share my life and my home. I thought I would write an obituary about her now. Because when she dies—because she will die—I won’t be in any shape to write. At this stage, who knows how long she’s got? She’s a big dog, and the big ones don’t tend to live as long.

So I decided to write about Gigi now, while she’s still with me and I can discuss her unique characteristics without breaking down in floods of tears.

On the surface, Gigi is just a very doggy dog. She’s half Labrador and half German Shepherd, with maybe a dash of Doberman. She’s black-and-tan and shorthaired, with floppy ears. As much as I love her, I do not share my bed with her because she’s 75 pounds of elbows and she farts and groans all night.

I wasn’t looking for a dog when Gigi came to my attention. I had lost my dog, Ringo, a year previously and was still in mourning. My daughter Kerry saw an ad on Craig’s List that said, “Sweetest dog in the world needs a home.” I looked at the picture. This dog was much larger than I wanted. She was black-and-tan, which is not a color scheme I admire. And she lived about 65 miles away.

I called her owner. Apparently, they rescued her when she was about six months old, and loved her dearly. But the landlord of the house they had just moved into said the dog had to go. I asked question after question, because living with Ringo taught me the right questions to ask. (Loved that dog, but he was a hot mess when we first got him.) The answers seemed good, so my husband and I drove 65 miles to meet the dog.

The dog’s name was Gertie, a name I knew I couldn’t live with. She greeted us with kisses and a wildly wagging tail that slapped against our legs like a baseball bat. I observed her with a baby and with cats—completely calm. I did everything I could to elicit a dominant or aggressive response—grab her collar, squeeze her paws, roll her over, and so forth—all of which she responded to with kisses and wags.

I decided I wanted her, but we had five houseguests with a sixth on the way and I felt it was unfair to plop an adopted animal down in the midst of all this chaos, so I said I’d come get her when the house had cleared out. Her owner agreed, but later told me that the landlord had threatened to evict them if the dog wasn’t gone by a certain date. On that day, I drove back to collect her.

Gigi in her salad days. She almost always walked around with a stuffy toy in her mouth. I selected stuffies on the basis of how much they amused me.

In the interim, we had a lively family discussion about what to call the dog, as Gertie just wasn’t going to cut it. I thought we should pick a name that was similar to Gertie so she would adapt to it quickly. I suggested Gigi. My daughter said it sounded like a stripper. After a two-hour discussion, Gigi it was, though still over my daughter’s objections.

When I picked her up, her owner burst into tears and rushed us out the door, handing me a ceramic jar for dog treats. It was clearly a painful parting. I put Gigi in the back of my car and headed home. Gigi rested her chin on my shoulder for the entire trip home, which I thought was a good sign.

It turns out I needn’t have worried about the abundance of guests or about the name. Gigi walked into the house and acted as though she had lived with us her entire life. She also responded to her new name instantly. As a matter of fact, as the houseguests began to go back to their own lives, Gigi seemed to miss the party atmosphere of an overcrowded house. She still loves a good party.

Then we began to get to know her. First of all, Gigi is an extremely obedient dog— except when she isn’t. For example, if she needs to go outside to go to the bathroom or check out the gophers, she will go outside. If she doesn’t, she will wag her tail and refuse to move. I have learned to trust her on things like this and will only insist if there is some compelling reason. She has a stentorian bark that wakes the eldest grandchild from her nap, so I put Gigi out when Jessamyn is napping so if the doorbell rings or there is a package delivery, she won’t sound the alarm. Gigi goes reluctantly, but she goes if I really insist.

She can make friends with just about any other animal. I have seen her buddy up to:
At least two coyotes
A bunny (kisses were exchanged)
A feral cat
A cat that was so terrified of her that it refused to come into the house until Gigi performed her ambassadorial work
Innumerable other cats and dogs and humans

The feral cat is my rescue kitty, Inca. When I first acquired Inca from a rescue organization, they told me she was one of a litter of feral kittens. They were considered too old to domesticate, but they seemed to be adapting to humans, so the rescue decided to place them with families. Inca was okay with me as long as I kept her confined to a bathroom, but she was horrified by Gigi. When I let her out of the bathroom, Inca disappeared for two weeks, flitting about in our peripheral vision like a bat.

One day, I saw Inca and called to her. To my astonishment, she strolled over and climbed into my lap. After a bit, Gigi came into the room and lay down. Inca trotted down the length of the couch, mewing at Gigi. I had no idea what would happen, as I hadn’t had either of them for very long, but Gigi came over as though Inca had been calling her and proceeded to kiss her. Inca adores Gigi. It’s pretty funny to watch her try to give this enormous dog a bath with her tiny pink tongue.

I give Gigi a lot of credit for the rapidity to which Inca adjusted to domestic life and became an affectionate pet. She never used to let me pet her tummy, which I longed to do (best part of a cat). One day, I gave Gigi an extensive belly rub. Inca watched intently nearby as Gigi groaned with happiness. When I finished with Gigi, I turned to pet the cat. Inca flopped down and presented her own belly for a rub, and she has enjoyed it ever since.

Inca and Gigi have seldom been parted, but there was one weekend when I had to use a pet-sitting service. Gigi went to the sitter’s home, but the service had a large enclosed cat area for feline borders, so they were separated for about four days. When I went to pick them up, Inca was there, but the sitter had not returned Gigi. I told them to have the sitter bring Gigi directly to my house as soon as possible, and left with Inca.

When we got home, Inca shot out of her carrier and began searching the house. She went from room to room, mewing loudly, but of course, Gigi was nowhere to be found. When the sitter showed up with the dog about two hours later, Gigi made for her water dish immediately because it was a sizzling day. She put on the brakes when she saw her kitty friend, and the two of them checked each other out carefully, kissed, and then Gigi got her drink.

You might be wondering about the coyotes I mentioned earlier. I am familiar with the coyote trick of sending a fertile female to lure a male dog to its doom (the original femme fatale). That wasn’t what was happening here. The first time, I noticed Gigi making play bows along the fence enclosing our yard. Something was moving around vigorously in the tall grass and weeds on the other side of the fence. When I got closer, I saw it was a small, young coyote. The two animals were playing, each on one side of the fence, play-bowing and running, then bowing again. They seemed to be having a lot of fun.

In the second instance, my son-in-law Mike came home and saw Gigi in the back yard with what he thought was a fox, just hanging out together. He videoed it, calling Gigi in, so we were able to see it was a young female coyote that had found a way under the fence. Apparently, Gigi and the coyote had been chilling together in the back yard for quite a while. We don’t really want her socializing with coyotes, so we fixed the fence.

There is an exception to Gigi’s long list of friends. My daughter’s dog, Hendrix, is a Japanese Chin. He’s one of those fluffy, goggle-eyed little dogs. He annoyed Gigi at first acquaintance by biting her ankles. Gigi responded by squashing Hendrix flat with one big paw, but unfortunately, this triggered Hendrix’s bad back, requiring expensive meds. Although he has lived with Gigi now for four years, Hendrix has not improved his behavior and sometimes still bites her ankles. Gigi has learned to ignore/not squash him, but she cannot overlook it when he steals her chew toys.

Gigi loves to carry toys around in her mouth, usually a stuffed animal, but sometimes a chew toy. Hendrix isn’t allowed bones or chews because of major, life-threatening allergies, and he steals her toys out of jealousy. One night, Kerry took a bone away from Hendrix and returned it to Gigi. Gigi took it with her customary gentleness, but never stopped staring at Hendrix. Finally, she turned her back, walked away a few paces, turned around, and THREW the bone at Hendrix with a snort worthy of a teenaged girl.

Gigi has been wonderful with the grandkids, gentle and protective. She permitted all kinds of indignities, though we tried to spare her and teach the children to be gentle with animals—which they are. When Tom and I aren’t at home, Gigi sleeps in Lilah’s room, squeezing completely under the bed. She’s so big I’m not sure how she gets out again. Both the grandkids learned early to dodge Gigi’s lethal tail. It smarts when her tail connects with human flesh.

The kids loved Gigi. Gigi loved the kids.

While I don’t doubt that if anyone threatened us, Gigi would rip his throat out, I trust her 100% with children, guests and pets. She is one of the most utterly trustworthy personalities I have ever encountered. It’s not like having a dog around so much as having an odd-looking grandmother. A grandmother who might attack burglars.

Whenever I have had to treat Gigi for an ailment, she is the soul of cooperation. She will do anything the vet asks, patiently enduring indignities such as rectal thermometers and intrusive examinations. Once both her ears became infected. I had a bottle of liquid that I had to flood both ears with twice a day—something most dogs would strenuously resist. When Gigi saw me coming with the bottle, she would lie down on one side and present an ear. When I was done treating that ear, she would roll over and present the other one. She’s that way with every medical treatment—including acupuncture, which helps with her arthritis when it get bad—apparently understanding that we are trying to help her even if she doesn’t understand what we are doing. (Although I wouldn’t take any bets on her lack of comprehension.)

We live in a beach town. It’s also a dog town, and many people bring their dogs to play at the beach. I took Gigi frequently when we first moved here, but after a couple of years she started coming back limping and sore. Age, alas, is catching up with her, and her once-black muzzle and face are now frosty. She has arthritis and some old joint injuries that cause her problems. Unfortunately, she just doesn’t understand moderation. If I take her to the beach, she runs around and greets and plays with every other dog present, and most of the humans, too. We have had to curtail her beach visits, which is sad, because she used to have a blast.

It’s hard to express this without sounding kind of woo-woo, but this animal is enormously spiritual—more than most humans I know. She’s kind, gentle, intuitive and loving. I respect her as much as I would respect another human because she is her own creature. She knows who she is. She has a presence. Don’t get me wrong—she’s still a dog. She begs at the table. Sometimes she pees in the wrong place (but only if desperate). She barks at nothing and she barks at everything. But looking in her eyes, I see a kindred being who communicates clearly without words, who respects and loves me.

And when she goes (may it be many moons from today), I will be as grief-stricken as I would be for any family member. That’s why I’m telling you now, while I can, that I have in my keeping a great and beautiful soul. It’s a beautiful soul that farts and groans all night, that’s all.
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Gigi died today (November 26, 2019) at the age of approximately 15. So I had three excellent years with her after I wrote this piece. She was going downhill fast, and I wanted to say goodbye before her life became a complete misery to her. She died at home with her family around her.

Blogging, Publishing, Disappointments, Runes, Dried Cod Slathered in Butter

Okay. I admit I am not the world’s most dedicated blogger. I haven’t posted since the end of my Iceland trip, sometime in July—and I was cheating, because after we left Iceland, we went to Copenhagen, then Stockholm, and had a wonderful time. Except for the heat. It was 85 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time we were there, and of course, Scandinavia doesn’t know from air conditioning. My husband, who walks six to eight miles EVERY FUCKING DAY wanted to walk everywhere. I vividly recall standing in a jeweler’s shop looking for gifts and raining sweat on the display so hard I didn’t even contemplate looking for better prices because I was so embarrassed.

The only place I recall being air conditioned was the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It is a museum that was built around an entire 17th century ship called the Vasa that sailed for 1500 yards on her maiden voyage, then keeled over and sank. It turns out she was top-heavy and there wasn’t sufficient ballast. A great pity for the king of Sweden, who had commissioned the ship and assured she was as gaudy and painted and stuffed full of guns as a wild west whorehouse. A greater pity for the thirty people who drowned when the Vasa sank. But a benison for the rest of us, because the ship was raised nearly intact and restored so that we can marvel at her and the astounding objects and decorations that she flaunted so briefly. And the entire building was positively freezing. I loved it.

But back to blogging. Why do I blog? I blog because I hope it will help sell my novels, although I don’t talk about my novels that much. I guess I am hoping that you’ll adore my prose style and want MORE! MORE! MORE!

But I have a problem, and I suppose I’d better discuss it. I have two novels of a trilogy in paperback, ebook, audiobook, etc.: “The Obsidian Mirror” and “Fire in the Ocean.” I also have a children’s book that was self-published, but let’s leave that aside for now. Last January, I sent my publisher, Diversion Books, the draft of the third, final, and (in my opinion anyway) best book of the trilogy, “Lords of the Night.”

My publisher basically said, “Oh, did we forget to tell you? We’re focusing on non-fiction now.” Long story short, they are still making the first two books available, but nothing further, and they won’t be bringing out “Lords of the Night.”

I believe that’s called “trilogus interruptus.”

Fast forward to last week, and I attended the World Fantasy Conference In Los Angeles. I wish I could say that a publisher stepped forward and rescued my entire trilogy, all the while warbling promises of AWESOME book promotion, but that didn’t happen. I did talk to an editor at Daw, and editor at Tor, and an agent that handles fantasy, and they all said the same thing, more or less: you are so screwed.

It seems that publishers don’t like picking up series in the middle, even if they can (my publisher will give me back my publishing rights). The advice was to take “Lords of the Night” to Kindle—maybe all three books—and do my own promotion. The agent suggested that a smaller publisher might pick up the trilogy; it would be worth trying. And then I can write my next book—unrelated to the trilogy—and find an agent and a new publisher.

Interestingly, I met at least three other writers who said the same thing had happened to them. Being a novelist is so glamorous.

But I did come back newly energized. I plan to pitch a few publishers and see what happens. And I have started on a new book. It will be set in settlement-era Iceland, as the Vikings began to turn into farmers and build a new society. 


But there will be magic, and it will be Icelandic magic, which is different from other magical systems I am familiar with. As a consequence I am studying the Elder Futhark, which is the set of Icelandic runes used in fortune-telling in the Icelandic tradition. In this tradition, the runes themselves are magical, not just another alphabet. Each does have its own sound, which means the runes can be formed into words—but each also has its own meaning, both symbolic and literal.

For example, berkana:

As you might suspect, the sound associated with it is “B.” It means “birch.” Its more mystical meaning is “purification, fertility and birth.” This can be interpreted a number of ways, depending on where it falls in the casting, whether or not it is reversed, and its relationship to the other runes in the casting. It’s almost as complicated to learn as tarot, except that a standard tarot deck has 55 cards, while the Elder Futhark has only 24 runes. Which I guess makes it about half as complicated as tarot.

I am the rankest of amateurs and I don’t actually believe in magic, but I have been a bit awed by the runes and how accurate they tend to be. I’m looking forward to the role they will play in my new book.

For now, I will leave you with this random observation. In old Iceland, food was always an issue, and many times life depended on finding something dead washed up on the beach. One standby food was dried fish. Here’s what dried cod looks like (this one has a tag on it from the supermarket):

I suppose this could be rehydrated and cooked in a stew, though I haven’t gotten that far in my culinary research yet. But the preferred way of eating it was to break off a piece, cover it with salted butter and eat it. Icelanders still enjoy this as a snack, kind of like we eat potato chips.

I admit I did not know this when we were in Iceland, or I would have tried it. Next time.

The Saga of the Pink Bunny


It’s been a lo-o-o-ng time since I blogged (March 22!). I could say that I’ve been busy, but that isn’t really true. I finished my third novel, “Lords of the Night,” the third book in my trilogy, in February. I sent it in to my publisher. My publisher informed me that they have decided to focus on non-fiction books. That leaves a fantasy writer right out in the cold. The good news: they will continue to stock and sell my books until I find a new publisher.

I decided to look for a literary agent. I’ve never had one, but I hope that an agent can secure a better deal—with more book promotion, ideally. So I am sending out pitches to agents. Fun.

But that doesn’t keep me busy enough to justify my failure to blog for almost three months. Well, there’s always the looking-after-the-grandkids excuse. Or the volunteering-for-voter-registration excuse. Or I could blame the pink bunny.

My youngest granddaughter, Jessamyn, thinks I am a master seamstress because I once sewed something together. The truth is that I am a person who owns a sewing machine. The machine, a sturdy old Kenmore, was once the property of someone who really knew how to sew, judging by all the bells and whistles I don’t use.

So one day Jessamyn asked me, “Nana, would you make me a pink bunny?”

I was stricken with terror. I had never made a stuffed animal before. I had no idea in the world how to make a stuffed animal, or even if patterns for such things existed. I was strictly a two-dimensional kind of gal. But I thought, “How hard could it really be?” Experience answered this question.

I went online, of course, searching for bunny patterns. It soon became apparent that there are tons of bunny patterns online. Some are even free, but I chose a pattern for sale on Etsy because it was modeled after “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a childhood favorite. I paid a small fee for the PDF download.

I then searched for suitable fabric online as well, and found an inexpensive remnant of light pink “minky” fabric, which is that impossibly soft and cuddly fabric used a lot these days in baby blankets. I also purchased crushed walnut shells for the weighting called for in the instructions. So far, so good. I settled in to wait for my purchases.

That was when Jessamyn, dear little creature that she is, began saying things like, “Have you given up on making my pink bunny, Nana?” Or “Is my pink bunny ready yet?” At five, I don’t expect her to understand that these things take time, but the heat was definitely on.

When the fabric arrived, I read the instructions more closely. Uh-oh—the instructions said if using a stretchy fabric (minky fabric is stretchy), to buy fusible interfacing to give it stability. Okay, off to the nearest fabric store to buy fusible interfacing. (Interfacing is one of those advanced mysteries of sewing that I never bothered with before.)

At the fabric store, there were many bolts of white netted stuff in various weights that were clearly marked “fusible,” but none were marked “interfacing.” I selected one of them, bought a half a yard, and carried it home.

By the time i realized that what I had purchased was not interfacing but actually adhesive designed to glue one fabric to another, my iron was covered with melted plastic. (Come on—I said I wasn’t very good at this, right?)

Okay. Clean iron (not very successfully). Back to the store. This time, I asked a sales associate to identify interfacing for me. Home again. Iron interfacing onto fabric. It didn’t stick very well, but I decided to plow onward regardless.

Laying out the pieces for cutting, I realized that the instructions had skipped a few steps. Because the PDF was downloaded and printed onto regular letter-size paper, the head and body had been split into smaller pieces that needed to be assembled, taped, and then used as the pattern. Not only did the instructions never mention this, the pattern pieces required for this operation were unlabeled. No worries, I figured it out. But then I had three unlabeled pieces that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Plus, the main body piece didn’t have any paws, and none of the random unlabeled pieces fit as far as I could tell.

I contacted the creator/seller of the pattern to ask about this, but received no reply. So I improvised the paws myself. Then I cut out all the pieces, including the unlabeled ones.

Now that the tedious setup portion of the project was over (by this time I was at least three weeks into the bunny), I began to sew. I really think it would have been a lot easier if the instructions had been correct. For example, in making the ears, I was instructed to place two pieces “right side to right side.” No problem. Except when the ears were finished, the wrong side of the fabric showed along the sides. I got out the thread picker and picked all those tiny little stitches out and did it all over again. The parts of the interfacing that hadn’t stuck properly slipped and slid across the fabric, making sewing more difficult.

Have I mentioned that my husband would remark at least once a day that I should have purchased a white bunny and dyed it pink? Really, if I were going to succumb to defeat like that, I would buy a pink bunny and save some time.

Not that I wasn’t tempted. The pattern pieces fitted together awkwardly at best, and I did a lot more improvisation before I was done. There were still three unlabeled pieces that never fit anywhere. And there was also a lot of hand-sewing as I tried to make up for both my lack of expertise and the shortcomings of the pattern and instructions.

Despite the setbacks, yesterday I finished the pink bunny! The kids were out all day with their parents, so I set up the bunny on a child’s chair in the front hallway to greet Jessamyn on her return. I was waiting to see her expression when she came through the door.

She walked in, stared at the bunny, then ran past me, giggling hysterically. Her parents called her back and told her that it was the pink bunny that Nana had made for her. She picked it up and buried her little face in the soft pink fur, and slept with it last night.

That made it all worthwhile, of course. Except that now she wants a rainbow unicorn sloth. If there is a rainbow unicorn sloth pattern online, it is safe from me.

The Tale of How a Little Book for Kids Grew Up and Became a Little Book for Kids


Once upon a time, many years ago (many, MANY years ago), I was a college student at Beloit College (it’s in Wisconsin and that’s all you need to know about it). I was earning a Master’s Degree in Teaching, and one of the courses I took was Children’s Literature. Much of our grade was based on two essays the professor had assigned. Two essays that I am sure the professor had selected carefully for their learning potential, but which I thought were incredibly boring.

So without any notion of what I was really doing, I asked my prof if instead of writing two essays, I could write two children’s books instead. He agreed.

I spent the better part of the next several weeks holed up in the house trailer where my husband and I lived at the time, writing a little book called “I Am Not a Bear,” and illustrating it in pen and ink and watercolor. I painted the scenes and then pasted the typewritten text onto the watercolor paper. Lacking any sort of binding option, I punched the pages with three holes and fastened them with binder rings. It was a crude production, but the best I had to hand.

The original illustration of Paul picking up his room.


The new illustration of Paul picking up his room.

The story is about Paul, a little boy who wants to live with the bears because bears don’t have to do math, pick up their rooms, or eat oatmeal. He winds up trading places with a bear cub, Growf, who wants to live with people. Both discover there really is no place like home, but they do meet each other in the end and have a good laugh about it. It’s a simple story with a sweet message about family and home—and whether or not the grass is really greener elsewhere.

My prof liked the book and read it to his kids, who also liked it. I got an A+ in the class. End of story.

Except it wasn’t the end. I kept this opus in a file drawer for many years. When my kids hit the right age (around four years old), I pulled out my “book” and read it to them. They seemed to enjoy it, even if it didn’t become a favorite like “The Cat in the Hat.” But then, my book didn’t rhyme.

The decades passed. The grandchildren came along. I read “I Am Not a Bear” to them, too. But as I was reading it, I noticed a few things with embarrassment. It was too long and wordy for the target age. The illustrations were crude, and I had learned how to paint in oils by this time and had paintings hanging in galleries. Even more important, print-on-demand had been invented, so I could create a genuine book for my grandchildren—something they could keep if they wanted.

I rewrote the book, trying to cut verbiage and page count. Then I re-illustrated it in pastels. I wanted a soft, fuzzy look, and pastels seemed ideal. I had never used pastels before, but I didn’t let that stop me. It turned out pastels weren’t that much different from painting in oils, just…drier. Then I formatted it for lulu.com and printed a few copies for the grandchildren and sundry other kids belonging to friends and family.

I thought that was the end of this little story. But no.

I became distraught over the separation of families at the border and the imprisonment of immigrant children. I lay awake at night, agonizing over those poor kids and their families, frustrated because there was nothing I could do to help.

Then it occurred to me I could help. If I could find an appropriate organization aimed at helping immigrant families at the border, I could self-publish “I Am Not a Bear” as a bilingual English-Spanish book and donate all the proceeds to that organization to help them be more effective.

I approached only two refugee assistance organizations. The first one never replied to me. The second, the National Network for Refugee & Immigrant Rights (NNIR), responded immediately and enthusiastically that they would love to work with me on this. They have been an appreciative partner.

Just one problem. I don’t speak or write Spanish. I can find my way around a Spanish-speaking country by dint of speaking only in the present tense and waving my hands around a lot, but I didn’t even know the Spanish word for “bear cub.” (It turns out a lot of people who speak Spanish don’t know that either, which made me feel better.)

Fortunately, I have a Spanish-speaking friend who grew up in Mexico, Clod Barrera. I asked Clod if he would translate my book, for the magnificent compensation of nothing but my eternal gratitude. Clod, being a wonderful person, did so. And then I passed the translation around to a few other people to make sure all was copacetic—because I sure wouldn’t have known if there were a problem!

Finally, everything was ready to go. Except for formatting the new version of the book on lulu.com. For some reason, this took forever, and I have no intention of boring you with why, but it is finally ready to sell.

I don’t usually ask people straight out to buy my books, but I’m making an exception. If you care about the plight of children and families at the border—and know a child (around four to seven years of age) who would enjoy the book, or know of a school that could use bilingual books for young children—I’m asking you to buy “I Am Not a Bear/Yo no soy oso.” One hundred percent of the profits will be donated to the NNIR for at least two years. Here’s where to get it: http://www.lulu.com/shop/kd-keenan/i-am-not-a-bearyo-no-soy-oso/paperback/product-23979188.html

I thank you in advance. Every book that sells sends more money to help immigrants and their families.

This illustration didn’t make it into the book for purely technical reasons. but I kind of like it anyway.

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.

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.

Free Sneak Peek! Chapter 1 of “Fire in the Ocean”

Sierra glanced up from her inflight magazine and stared at her companion with concern. Chaco’s face, normally a warm, glowing brown, was a sickly gray with green undertones. Sierra 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 couldn’t get sick. He was an Avatar. He was thousands of years old, and had literally never been sick a day in his long life. If Chaco 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 needed…!”

People were still craning in their seats, trying to see what was going on. The curtain had been drawn across the galley space, so there was nothing to be seen. Chaco had been roused from his lethargy by the commotion.

“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.”

“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 not magic. 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. This is all new to me, too, you understand.”

“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, demi-god 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.”

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, not connected to my land. The people there are probably not even Native Americans.”

This Sierra did know. “They’re Polynesians. They came from Tahiti, I think. But we won’t even know until we land. Once you get your feet on the ground, maybe you’ll feel better.”

“Maybe,” was all that he said, directing a morose gaze out of the little window at the clouds. It was the last thing he said until they landed in Honolulu.

* * * *

It had started as a fun vacation with her fiancée, 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 eco-tourism gig that allowed some 20 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 this 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 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 in the future.

“I’m going anyway,” she had told Clancy. At his look of surprise, she added, “Remember? My employer 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 said. “That okay with you?”

There was a long silence. Clancy finally spoke. “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’s moved on. Kaylee always moves on.”

“Oh. Well, what about taking Kaylee with you? Or Rose? Or Mama Labadie?” Clancy listed off Sierra’s three 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. There could be no other explanation for the commotion among the flight attendants and that telling shriek of “Green! Monster!”

Fred was a mannegishi. When he was 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. In short, 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 could be a tourist, she thought. At one point, Chaco’s suitcase began to squirm, but he kicked it sharply and unobtrusively, and the suitcase subsided.

Their hotel was an enormous complex of tall buildings, and they had a room on the 17th 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 staring 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 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 from 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 somewhere. There’s got to be a bar in this hotel somewhere.”

As it turned out, the hotel had many, 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,” he said finally.

“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.

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 Clancy and Chaco and Fred. Not relaxing. She opened them again, only to find the rest of her drink gone as well as all the fruit.

“Fred!!!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.