A Mystery in Luxuriant Marshland

Where the Crawdads Sing     Delia Owens     (2018)

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Mix together some of Barbara Kingsolver’s nature writing, a bit of Pat Conroy’s insights into the American South, and a good chunk of any police procedural mystery, and you’ll get an approximation of Where the Crawdads Sing. Oh, and add some coming-of-age self-realization, too.

Kya Clark is the Marsh Girl, whom we meet in August of 1952, when her mother walks away from her family’s isolated shack, deserting her children to escape an abusive alcoholic husband. Kya is six years old at the time, and already amazingly independent  in the lush woodlands and waterways of the North Carolina coast. She’s a born naturalist (instructed a little by an older brother who departs early in the story) and possesses artistic abilities inherited from her mother, who was a painter.

Within a few years, Kya’s violent and unreliable father disappears also, and she’s left on her own in the wilderness, with no funds and no schooling. Her survival might seem to stretch credibility, but in Delia Owens’s portrayal, Kya’s life among the gulls and fireflies and mussels is almost idyllic. Indeed, the many passages describing the landscape and its denizens are worthy of Aldo Leopold: “Clouds lazed in the folded arms of the hills, then billowed up and drifted away. Some tendrils twisted into tight spirals and traced the warmer ravines, behaving like mist tracking the dank fens of the marsh.” (192)

Owens introduces several characters to assist Kya in her solitude. An African American man who runs a gas station in the marshland exchanges Kya’s ocean catches for gas for her boat. His wife provides Kya with cast-off clothing. A budding young biologist from town who fishes in the marsh teaches her to read and brings her books. Trouble arrives, however, with another young man, Chase Andrews, who is determined to seduce her.

You’ll figure out early on that Kya will be a suspect in the 1969 murder of Chase Andrews. The courtroom scenes in which Kya is tried mark a shift in the tone of the book, from the dreamy, romantic marshscape to the harsh reality of criminal prosecution and defense. This wasn’t a narrative discontinuity for me but rather indicative of Kya’s distress in being separated from her beloved wilderness for her trial in town.

Kya’s estangement from most other human beings keeps her in a state of credulous immaturity even when she’s in her twenties, so the coming-of-age component of the novel has unusual twists. “[Kya] knew the years of isolation had altered her behavior until she was different from others, but it wasn’t her fault she’d been alone. Most of what she knew, she’d learned from the wild. Nature had nurtured, tutored, and protected her when no one else would. If consequences resulted from her behaving differently, then they too were functions of life’s fundamental core.” (363)

Where the Crawdads Sing has been on many bestseller lists and is being adapted into a movie by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a tale well-suited for the big screen, but I suspect that even if the adaptation is good, the book will still be better.

Wheeler-Dealers in Old Amsterdam

The Coffee Trader     David Liss     (2003)

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Dutch burghers of the 17th century had original paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer hanging on the walls of their solid, comfortable houses. For me, this is reason enough to gravitate toward fiction set in Holland in this period, and indeed novels such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), based on the Vermeer masterpiece of the same name, have transported readers into that milieu very effectively.

In The Coffee Trader, novelist David Liss demonstrates that Dutch baroque-era burghers were not only patrons of the arts and archetypes of bourgeois life but also innovators in the establishment of modern commodity markets, with a version of Wall Street trading that was remarkably sophisticated—and treacherous. At the Exchange in Amsterdam, “Some traders came to fill orders or to sell what their ships brought into port, but increasingly men bought calls and puts and futures, trading in goods they never sought to own and would never see. It was the new way of doing things, turning the Exchange into a great gaming pit where outcome was determined not by chance but by the needs of the markets around the world.” (90)

The fictional intrepid trader of the book’s title is Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew who has settled in 1659 Amsterdam after fleeing from the Iberian Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, the internationalism of the Dutch business community made Holland one of the few places in the world where Jews could practice their faith without persecution. The downside of this religious freedom was that Jews in Amsterdam created self-imposed restrictions on their community, in order to assure the gentile Dutch that Jews would not be an economic drain or a cultural threat. A Jewish council called the Ma’amad could impose career-ending sanctions on local Jews, and this is one of the key tensions of the novel.

Miguel is surrounded by vividly depicted secondary characters, including the mysterious Dutch widow Geertruid Damhuis; the impoverished Dutch trader Joachim Waagener; the ostracized Jewish moneylender Alonzo Alferonda; Miguel’s pedantic brother, Daniel; and Daniel’s longsuffering wife, Hannah. Percolating through the narrative, however, is the inanimate character of coffee, which was just beginning to be appreciated in Europe for its pick-me-up qualities: “Hannah . . . loved the way it made her feel animated and alive. It was not as though she discovered a new self, rather, coffee reordered the self she already had. Things at the top sank to the bottom, and the parts of herself she had chained down rose buoyantly. She had forgotten to be demure and modest, and she loved casting off those constraints.” (201)

As Miguel coordinates a risky scheme involving coffee futures, the novelist presents business transactions of dizzying complexity. Some of the financial shenanigans zipped right past me, but I’m not complaining, since I could then focus on satisfying sub-plots involving a nefarious servant, an enigmatic sidekick, and an unhappy marriage.

Immerse yourself in the world of The Night Watch and the Zuiderzee with The Coffee Trader, and if you crave more 17th-century Holland, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

More Than a Mystery

The Other Americans     Laila Lalami     (2019)

Exactly who are “the other Americans” in Laila Lalami’s novel of that title? She introduces multiple narrators, each of whom could be categorized as “other.”

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  • Driss, a Moroccan immigrant who runs a diner, is a ghostly presence in many ways. On the first page he dies in a late-night hit-and-run accident, yet we get his back story piecemeal in chapters throughout the book.

  • Efraín, a Mexican doing landscaping in this California desert town, witnesses the accident but is afraid to come forward because of his undocumented status. We follow his crisis of conscience over many weeks.

  • Anderson, a prime suspect in the accident case, is an elderly white guy who runs the bowling alley next door to Driss’s diner. He sees himself as ostracized in a corporatized and increasingly diverse society.

  • Nora, Driss’s adult daughter, is convinced that her father was not killed accidentally but murdered, and she pushes the police to dig deeper into the evidence. As a musician, she finds some acceptance in the jazz community, despite her brown skin.

  • Coleman, an African American police detective, is assigned to the accident case. She’s smart and savvy, but she struggles at home in raising her teen stepson.

  • Jeremy, another police officer, is a veteran of the Iraq War who clearly suffers from PTSD. Early in the novel he becomes Nora’s boyfriend, and their relationship anchors a significant sub-plot.

The list of characters goes on, and Lalami integrates the disparate narrative perspectives smoothly as she disentangles the mystery of Driss’s death. All her characters (even Anderson in his way) are outsiders, with personal histories that define them in opposition to the people around them. A sense of otherness can arise from many sources, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, immigration status, woundedness, or occupation.

Although the ensemble cast of The Other Americans is very large, the characters are fully fleshed out, with distinct voices. I really wanted Lalami to broaden each of their stories, although I know that this would have cluttered the novel and distracted from the main plot. She does provide a brief and tantalizing wrapup of the hit-and-run accident, several years out, from Nora’s point of view.

I got to know these Americans; I sympathized with many of them and wished them well. Good novels do that to a reader.

Coming of Age in the North Woods

Winter Loon     Susan Bernhard     (2019)

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The loon, a large migratory aquatic bird, can be spotted in the far northern reaches of Minnesota,  Wisconsin, and Michigan (and up into Canada) only in the height of summer. The cry of a loon echoing across a lake is haunting and unforgettable, emblematic of long days in the North Woods. But if you spot a loon in these parts in the winter, the bird is probably injured and is unlikely to survive.

Wes Ballot, the teenage first-person narrator of this novel, is perhaps like a winter loon in rural Minnesota—disoriented, separated from his family, facing grim odds for survival. On the very first page, Wes’s mother falls through the ice of a semi-frozen Minnesota lake and drowns, just out of the reach of Wes’s outstretched arm. If you’re a reader who, like me, has a hard time with fictional death scenes, you may waver in committing to the story, but I’d encourage you to read on, as the path of Wes’s life winds twistingly toward adulthood.

When Wes’s father deserts him, supposedly to find work, Wes is left to live with his insensitive maternal grandparents. A local Native American family is sympathetic toward him, and Wes is smitten with a member of this clan, Jolene, who’s also had a tough life.  “She smiled at me then, a funny, crooked, closed-mouth sideways smile that I would later try to imitate in the mirror. It was like she could see something in me that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to try on that expression so I could know it, too.” (98)

Although Wes has plenty of setbacks, he keeps seeking to learn the facts about his troubled parents, particularly on classic road trips through the American West. “I tried to organize my thoughts, but the miles I’d traveled logged in my veins and I could feel the tire treads rumbling the marrow like I was still driving.” (279)

Some of the people Wes Ballot meets are selfish and cruel. Well, no, a lot of the people he meets are selfish and cruel, and sadly, many teens around the globe find this to be the case. But a few people are generous and kind. Wes doesn’t give up looking for the people who will affirm his worth.

 

California Dreamin'

The Golden State     Lydia Kiesling    (2018)

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Daphne, the first-person narrator and main character in this novel, is the mother of a sixteen-month-old girl nicknamed Honey. She’s also the wife of Engin, who was wrongly deported to his native Turkey eight months before the story begins. And she’s an administrator at the fictional university-based Institute for the Study of Islamic Societies and Civilizations in San Francisco.

After a devastating incident at the Institute, Daphne is at the end of her rope on both the career and parenting fronts. She packs up Honey and heads to a remote rural area in northern California, to a small house that she’s inherited. The people she meets there include a 92-year-old woman on a personal quest and a group of libertarians who want the region to secede from the state of California. Tapping into unreliable internet connections, Daphne sends email excuses to her boss back in San Francisco and phones her husband in Turkey, all the while trying to figure out what path she wants to take for the rest of her life.

Novelist Lydia Kiesling pokes at and deflates a number of contemporary cultural beliefs in this candid novel.

  • The total bliss of early motherhood? Jab. Daphne feeds Honey, diapers her, reads to her, bathes her, kisses her, soothes her when she falls on her face, and straps her into car seats and strollers as she strenuously resists being strapped in. The sentences in which these activities appear are often lengthy and lacking punctuation. With this writing technique, Kiesling is conveying the unremitting and often overwhelming demands of child care.

  • The purity of purpose at major universities? Jab. A sample: “The more education you have the more removed you are from the ineluctable yawning core of work at the University, which is not in fact teaching but is the filling out and submission and resubmission of forms, the creation of scheduling Doodles, the collection of receipts and the phoning of caterers, the issuing of letters and the ordering of supplies and the tallying of points in poorly formatted spreadsheets.” (38)

  • The basic fairness of American immigration enforcement? Jab.

  • The universal good-heartedness of rural Americans? Jab.

  • The excellence of off-the-beaten-path diners? Jab.

The “golden state” of the title clearly refers to California, and Kiesling provides lovely scenes of areas in California that seldom appear in fiction. But it’s also possible that this title is obliquely referring to the representation of motherhood as golden, or of our American political system as golden. Check it out, through the eyes of Daphne.

 

 

Retirement in Pittsburgh? Don't Yawn!

Henry, Himself     Stewart O’Nan     (2019)

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Stewart O’Nan offers no rootin’ tootin’ action in this novel, no daring heroes, no grisly violence. Henry, Himself is a quiet, introspective portrait of a year in the life of Henry Maxwell, a retired engineer in his 70s who lives in Pittsburgh. If you’re already yawning, stop that for a moment and read this review.  

Somehow, novelist O’Nan is able to turn everyday events into drama that drives his narrative in a highly effective way. I haven’t yet figured out how he does this. It could be the naturalistic dialogue. Henry’s conversations with his wife of nearly fifty years, Emily, can be hilarious. The two have well-worn phrases that they toss back and forth, parrying each other’s comments. 

Maybe the novel works because the hundreds of minor quotidian events are enlivened by actions beyond the edges of the main story, such as the troubled marriage of Margaret, Henry and Emily’s alcoholic daughter.  

It’s also possible that I see my own life in O’Nan’s prose because I’m in the same age range as Henry and Emily. But O’Nan is a decade younger, so I don’t know how he’s able to depict the attitudes and approaches of the elderly so astutely. He’s simply a fine novelist.  

So, what exactly does the character Henry do? He may be retired, but he certainly keeps busy every day, well beyond walking the dog. At his basement workbench he re-glues a kitchen drawer because he can’t afford new cabinets. He makes innumerable trips to his local Home Depot store to buy supplies for his fix-it projects, and in his home office he keeps meticulous records of household expenses. Despite his multiple health challenges (which he manages with an array of prescription medications), he golfs with his old pals, trading barbs in camaraderie. Henry’s beloved wife Emily is always in the picture also, and he takes pains to please her with dinner dates for Valentine’s Day and Mothers’ Day. The two of them escape Pittsburgh in the summer for Chautauqua, New York, where they meet up with their children and grandchildren at their lakefront house.  

In the midst of these ordinary activities, Henry mentally retraces significant events of his past—a passionate but doomed youthful love affair, his searing combat experience in World War II, his fulfilling career in aeronautics. His companionable marriage to Emily anchors him even as he is baffled by the animosity between Emily and the wife of their son. The unhappy life of daughter Margaret comes to Henry’s mind frequently, as he assesses whether he has failed her as a father. He muses, ”Late in life, after his mother had died, his father cried at baptisms and funerals and sappy movies on TV, age stripping away a final protective layer. Now Henry could feel the same softening taking place inside him, a helpless grief for the past and boundless pity for the world, and that was right too. No fool like an old fool.” (72)

You can get more of the Maxwell family in two other O’Nan novels that I also highly recommend:  Wish You Were Here (published 2002) and Emily, Alone (published 2011). Both are set after Henry, Himself, which makes Henry, Himself a prequel. I can also vouch for two stand-alone O’Nan novels that probe interpersonal relations in a warmhearted way: Last Night at the Lobster and The Odds. Be aware, however, that O’Nan has also written terrifying thrillers that I have stayed far away from!

For other novels about Rust Belt places like Pittsburgh, check out Anne Tyler (Baltimore), Richard Russo (upstate New York), and Leif Enger (northern Minnesota). For other introspective novels, try Kent Haruf or James Wood or Bernard MacLaverty. You can click the links for my reviews.

Miracles in MN and ND

Peace Like a River     Leif Enger     (2001)

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Most of the religions of the world have in their histories or traditions the working of miracles, perhaps because humans want to believe that the usual unrelenting laws of the universe can sometimes be subverted. Peace Like a River is a book about miracles, but novelist Leif Enger doesn’t proselytize. Right up front, on page 3, his narrator, Reuben Land, writes, “Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

Reuben is an eleven-year-old asthmatic boy living in rural Minnesota with his younger sister (Swede), his older brother (Davy), and his father (Jeremiah, the one who performs the miracles) in the year 1962. After their small town’s two bullies engage in an escalating series of episodes of battering and vandalism, Davy strikes back and ends up in jail. When Davy’s trial seems to be going against him, he escapes, managing to evade both officers of the law and a civilian posse. His family sets off to find him, figuring that he might be hiding out in the rugged Badlands of the neighboring state of North Dakota. The family encounters several distinctive characters on their quest, and the story—after taking turns toward love, fear, hope, and loss—builds to a shocking conclusion.

This forward-driving narrative line alone would be sufficient to keep the interest of many readers, but Enger adds much more. Jeremiah’s miracles, some of which might be odd coincidences, appear when they’re least expected, as the family’s road trip to the Badlands takes on qualities of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Reuben is an unpretentious first-person storyteller who inspires reader confidence in his truthfulness, and his version of 1962 is accurate without feeling forced. His language can be rich: “Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.” (54) He frequently includes galloping verse, based on the lore of the Old West, which he presents as written by Swede, who is unusual in both her name and her precocity.

I sought out Peace Like a River, Leif Enger’s debut novel, after placing his most recent offering, Virgil Wander, on my Favorite Reads of 2018 list. Enger’s prose style has developed in seventeen years, but his writing was already powerful in 2001, and if you’re familiar with the Upper Midwest, you may feel an extra zing. For the record, you don’t  have to believe in miracles to love this novel.

A Cautionary Novel about Cults

Little Faith     Nickolas Butler     (2019)

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In the title to this blog post, I don’t use the word “cult” lightly. I use it to mean a group professing a religious belief that they claim provides exclusive access to salvation. But this alone would not distinguish a cult from many mainstream religious groups. Cults often have arcane rules about conduct of life—rules that can be secretive. In addition, a cult demands absolute obedience to a leader, usually a charismatic man, and urges total allegiance to the group, alienating members from family and indeed from the greater society. The risk of exploitation of members by the cult’s leader is high.

I’ve noticed that the media don’t much use the term “cult” lately, rather giving these groups the benefit of the doubt as “new sects” or “alternative religious movements.” I was raised in the 1960s in a religious splinter group that fell short of being a cult but that could also have been given one of these more benign labels. I see a distinct tipping point between “new sect” and “cult”: When a member’s fervent adherence to the group leads the member to perform destructive (including self-destructive) acts that are widely recognized by civil society as unacceptable or even criminal, to me that group is clearly a cult.

Now, to get the novel at hand, Little Faith. In present-day rural Wisconsin, a retired couple, Lyle and Peg Hovde, are delighted when their long-estranged adult daughter, Shiloh, comes to live with them again. Shiloh brings with her Isaac, her five-year-old son. The Hovdes don’t ask about Isaac’s father; they’re just reveling in their newfound grandparenthood. And Isaac is a bright, sweet child.

The knot of this novel, however, arises when we find that Shiloh has become a member of a cult. True, Shiloh calls the group that she joins her “church,” but it has all the hallmarks of a cult. Lyle and Peg try to be respectful of Shiloh’s beliefs, not the least because they’re desperate to have good relationships with their only child and only grandchild. But the deceptive and damaging aspects of Shiloh’s beliefs become more and more apparent as the story wends through the seasons of a year. Lyle’s own struggles with religious belief weave in and out of the narrative.

Nickolas Butler’s prose is straightforward but occasionally lyrical, his characters are beautifully developed, and his plot is achingly tragic. I challenge any reader of Little Faith not to weep at the ending of the novel, which I will not spoil with a full revelation of the plot. An Author’s Note tells us that part of the story is based on an actual 2008 incident in Wisconsin, where Butler lives. Thus, Little Faith becomes a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremist, authoritarian groups that entrap needy souls in the name of religion.

Click here for my review of another of Nickolas Butler’s novels, The Hearts of Men.

Cozy Mysteries in Maine

The Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries     Lea Wait    (2015-present)

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I’ve recently dipped into this popular American cozy mystery series. In the initial book, Twisted Threads, we learn that the first-person narrator, Angie Curtis, was raised in Maine by her grandmother (“Gram”) after the disappearance of Angie’s mother. When the mother’s body is found after 17 years, 27-year-old Angie heads back to Maine from Arizona, where she’s been working as an assistant to a private detective. Angie’s skills come in handy with the investigation into her mother’s death and other mysteries in the small Maine tourist town of Haven Harbor. After these are solved, Angie agrees to stay on for six months to help Gram run her home-based business, Mainely Needlepoint, which produces high-end custom pillows, chair covers, and wall hangings.

Of course, in subsequent books in the series, other crimes in Haven Harbor bubble to the surface for Angie to tackle. She finds herself pretty happy to be back in Maine with her delightful Gram, the eccentric cast of needle crafters who work for Mainely Needlepoint, and potential romantic partners.

The dialogue in these novels is realistic, and the plots move quickly, resolving in the final few pages, though I did detect signs of haste in the writing. The setting on the coast of Maine comes to life with descriptions of ocean views and luscious seafood. I guessed some of the perpetrators of crimes early on, but I liked learning more about Angie as she weighs whether to stay on in her native Maine or return to the sunny Southwest.

You can read the books in any order, but chronologically works best. The series titles are

Twisted Threads (2015)

Threads of Evidence (2015)

Thread and Gone (2015)

Dangling by a Thread (2016)

Tightening the Threads (2017)

Thread the Halls (2017)

Thread Herrings (2018)

Thread on Arrival (2019)

For other cozy mysteries, see my reviews of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels (also here).

Graham Norton’s Holding is another great cozy, reviewed here.

Surviving Exploitation

Before We Were Yours      Lisa Wingate     (2017)

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When children are exploited and abused by adults, the response of most people is to recoil in horror and call for criminal prosecution. This has occurred with Jewish children in the Holocaust, indigenous children in Canadian schools, children abused by Roman Catholic priests, and Central American children in the detention centers at the southern border of the United States.  

One documented case of severe and widespread child abuse that has not received much attention took place from the 1920s until 1950 at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, under the direction of a woman named Georgia Tann. Although Tann covered her tracks through falsification of thousands of records, some survivors have been able to piece together the history of how they were abducted from their impoverished parents and sold by Tann to wealthy families. Children with blonde hair and blue eyes fetched especially high prices. Tann never came to trial because she died in 1950 just as the her nefarious scheme was being exposed.   

Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours is a novel, but it’s based on the actual remembrances of survivors who lived in Tann’s squalid holding facility while they were waiting to be sold. In this re-creation, we meet the fictional Foss children through the eyes of the eldest, Rill Foss, who is twelve. In 1939, she and her four younger siblings are living happily with their loving parents on a houseboat that plies the Mississippi River. When the mother faces complications in childbirth, the father rushes her to a hospital on shore, and Rill is left to supervise her siblings. She’s powerless when strangers arrive at the houseboat and spirit all the children away to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis. In first-person narration, Rill describes the maltreatment of the children with a level of detail that I found painful to read.  

Novelist Wingate wisely softens this narration by flashing forward in alternate chapters to the life of a young woman named Avery Stafford, an affluent attorney in present-day South Carolina. Avery stumbles upon some pieces of her family’s history that confuse her, and she sets out to unravel the mysteries of her lineage. Readers know that the story from 1939 and the story from the present day are likely to coalesce at some point, and Wingate handles the tension that leads to the solution of the mysteries adeptly, throwing in a couple of sub-plots to further pique reader interest. The tenacity of familial love is a central theme in this fictionalization of a dark chapter in the history of adoption services.  

Postscript: Many thanks to Dorothy Needham Moreno for suggesting this author for me to read! 

Two Novels Set in Detroit

I’m currently writing a novel set in 1960s Detroit, so I’ve been reading widely about this time and place. Two of my fiction finds are reviewed here. Watch for a future post on social histories of Detroit.

We Hope for Better Things     Erin Bartels     (2019)

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Interracial relationships are the theme of Erin Bartels’ multi-century historical novel. In the present-day chapters, white Detroit journalist Elizabeth Balsam, following up on a lead about unpublished photos of the 1967 Detroit riots, ends up at her great-aunt Nora’s farmhouse in Lapeer, about an hour’s drive north of the city. Elizabeth slowly uncovers information about Nora’s romance with an African American man in the turbulent Detroit of the 1960s; readers get this backstory in separate chapters.  

Yet another layer of Elizabeth’s family history is revealed in chapters set in Lapeer in 1861, when the farmhouse was a stop for slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad. I had to pay close attention to keep all the characters straight, but I appreciated all the local color and period detail in Bartels’ writing, as she places her characters at watershed moments of history, such as the June 1963 speech by Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, in Detroit. And that title? It’s from the motto for the city of Detroit: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”

Beautiful Music      Michael Zadoorian     (2018)

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If you’re familiar with the arcana of hard rock in the early 1970s (and I mean way beyond just MC5 and Iggy Pop), you’ll probably love this novel. That’s not my music, so I skimmed over the many references to bands and radio disc jockeys and album covers. I read the book instead for the touching story of a high school freshman at Redford High School, on Detroit’s far northwest side, in a period of increasing racial tension and violence in the city.

Danny Yzemski is a sweet, shy kid who’s bullied in school and beleaguered at home. His coming-of-age is aided by his discovery of the transformative power of music. He demonstrates that if you find the tracks that speak to you, the music can make all the difference in your survival. One chapter is aptly titled “Music Soothes the Savage Brain.” The detailed descriptions of Danny’s neighborhood along the Grand River corridor—the routes he took, the stores he frequented—re-create the era precisely. Even the breakfast cereals that Danny eats are authentic to the period. For vintage Detroit flavor, tune in to Beautiful Music.

Click here for a radio interview with author Michael Zadoorian.

Re-post: Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

The Overstory     Richard Powers     (2018)

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I’m re-posting this review, since The Overstory just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Overstory is a novel that’s massive in scope, sophisticated in descriptive power, and disturbing in message.

I hadn’t read  any reviews before I cracked open the cover, where I met nine characters in the first 152 pages, including a farmer in Iowa, a Silicon Valley computer programmer, a Minnesota couple who are community theater buffs, a soldier serving in the Vietnam War, and a budding scientist in Appalachia. I thought that The Overstory might be a set of interwoven short stories about unrelated people from all corners of the United States. The stories are damn fine, and I figured that novelist Powers might extend each story and perhaps have some of these characters meet each other in the remaining 350 pages of the book. I soon caught on, however, that trees seemed to be a common element in the stories, and the bonds between the people in The Overstory mirror the bonds between species in the forests.

Some of Powers’s characters do meet, as they become involved in radical environmental activism on behalf of trees in the 1980s and 1990s. Then the forests of North America take center stage in the narrative. I learned that humans share about a quarter of their genetic makeup with trees, and Powers is highly effective in portraying the sentient qualities and the community attachments of those leafy overstories: “There are no individuals in a forest. Each trunk depends on others.” (279) One human character, a psychologist studying the personality traits of environmentalists, finds that most of them agree with the statement “A forest deserves protection regardless of its value to humans.” (331)

I’m a great fan of forests—especially of hiking through them—so I devoured segments like this one, where a botanist explores an old growth forest in the western Cascades during a damp September: “The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spiderweb leaves her woozy. Mushrooms ladder up the sides of trunks in terraced ledges. Dead salmon feed the trees. Soaked by fog all winter long, spongy green stuff she can’t name covers every wooden pillar in a thick baize reaching higher than her head.” (134) The description kept my attention for two full pages.

Powers could have framed his book as a nonfiction exposé of the sins of the logging industry, but showing the motivations of fictional “tree huggers” from all walks of life is much more effective in getting across the message that human destruction of forests will eventually, and pretty soon, make our planet unlivable. Put simply:  “Deforestation: A bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together.” (281) And lest you be deceived, the replanting touted by those who exploit forests for financial gain can never replicate the millennia-old diversity and interconnectedness that clear-cutting obliterates.

If you’ve enjoyed Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, or any of Wendell Berry’s poetry, you should read The Overstory. And for another novel about the devastation of North American forests, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.

An Asian American Family

Everything I Never Told You     Celeste Ng     (2014) 

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Celeste Ng’s 2018 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, made my list of the best of that year. I checked out Ng’s 2014 offering, Everything I Never Told You, to get more of her deep probing of complex family issues, and I was not disappointed.  

The first words of Everything I Never Told You are “Lydia is dead,” so it’s no spoiler for me to tell you that the death of sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is the central mystery of the novel, which is set primarily in 1977 in a small college town in northwestern Ohio. The narrative line zigs and zags, back and forth in time, tracing the lead-up to the death of Lydia and, in the process, uncovering the backgrounds and personalities of the other members of her immediate family.  

Lydia’s father, James Lee, is a professor of history at the local college. The Chinese American James has struggled against bigotry throughout his life, and the ante is upped when he marries Marilyn, an undergraduate he meets in 1957 when he’s a graduate student at Harvard. Marilyn, with her honey-colored hair and blue eyes, has battled discrimination and bullying as a woman trying to make a career in science. Her plans to become a physician are scuttled when she gets pregnant, marries James, and drops out of Radcliffe. As a bored stay-at-home mother, she finds a focus for her considerable intellect in grooming daughter Lydia for medical school, even though Lydia doesn’t have the interest or ability that Marilyn assumes. Lydia’s older brother, Nath, is pretty much ignored by the family as he quietly applies to and is accepted by Harvard to pursue his passion for aeronautics. And Lydia’s younger sister, Hannah, hiding under tables and around corners, observes much but is dismissed as irrelevant by the rest of the family.

As the title of the novel lays out clearly, the Lee family members don’t open their hearts to each other. James pushes his biracial children toward conformity, wanting them to fit in even though they look different from everyone else in town. (“. . . different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything.” [251]) Marilyn is mostly able to hide her anguish about her abandoned career, but at a high price. Lydia’s siblings do what they can to support each other, but Nath in particular longs to escape the backwater where he was raised. Novelist Ng takes readers behind the scenes, reconstructing the months leading up to Lydia’s death as well as the months afterwards. The Lees are all stupefied by their grief, but each family member’s reaction to Lydia’s death is unique. The inability of the Lee family to discuss racism and sex discrimination is a microcosm of society’s struggles on these topics. 

When I finished reading Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to hug James and Marilyn and Nath and Hannah and tell them that they are good people who will survive the tragedy of losing Lydia. I wanted to gently encourage them to talk to each other more. I wanted to know how the rest of their lives played out. Obviously, these fictional characters came fully alive for me, testifying to the skill of Celeste Ng. Her intimate family story is sad and poignant and yet glimmering with hope.

A Field Hospital in WWI

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The Winter Soldier     Daniel Mason     (2018) 

Gruesomeness alert: This novel is set in Europe during World War I, so you’re going to encounter dead horses, gangrenous limbs, and rats in the mud. But it’s well worth wading past the paragraphs of war trauma to read Daniel Mason’s novel about a young medical student working in a field hospital on the Eastern Front. And there’s only one actual battle scene, easy to skim over.  

Lucius Krzelewski (pronounced K-she-lev-ski) has had virtually no patient contact when he drops out of medical school in 1915 and leaves his wealthy Viennese family for a posting to a remote village in the eastern Carpathian Mountains. He’s eager to get experience with hands-on medicine, and the converted church with minimal equipment that is the first stop for war casualties shoves him right into surgery. Since all the other medical staff have fled or died of typhus, his mentor is Sister Margarete, a nun-nurse who guides him as gently as possible in treating the horrific wounds of early-20th-century warfare in primitive conditions. Lucius does his share of amputations, but he’s most interested in trying to help the soldiers who are mentally wounded, rendered paralyzed or mute or raging by the terrors of war. We’d call them victims of PTSD now, but in 1915, the WWI descriptor “shell shock” hadn’t even been fixed. These soldiers were assumed to be malingerers or cowards.  

When a local farmer brings Sergeant József Horváth to the church/hospital door in a wheelbarrow, Lucius is intrigued. Lucius’s medical curiosity—and a sincere desire to help Horváth—sets in motion a series of events destined to change the course of his life. Lucius and Sister Margarete are the main actors in this drama, but the supporting cast is large, and each individual is exquisitely portrayed, down to the people encountered by chance in railway cars.  

These characters manage to travel all around war-ravaged eastern Europe, by rail, by cart, or on foot, and Mason’s settings vividly evoke each stop. One example: “In the fields, high grass crowded out the maize and sunflowers. My God, thought Lucius as he stared into the green expanse, he had almost forgotten the land’s fecundity. Great heaps of flax and St. John’s wort rose on the roadside berms, and the road itself, a paisley of mud and tire tracks, was overgrown with brome. Ahead, the mountains rose before him in their grandeur, massive, like the rumpled repose of a stage curtain with its rich, brocaded pleats.” (287) 

Novelist Mason is a physician, specializing in psychiatry, so he writes with authority on the medical side: “It was a curse to be a doctor, to know anything! In this at least his patients were lucky, oblivious to the horrors that could happen. Now the possibilities seemed endless.” (153) Mason’s rich historical details also seem to be accurate. The result is a novel that hews to a grand tradition of war fiction, in which the shattering effects of war on human relationships are exposed in heartbreaking detail. In this, the novel has resonances with Anthony Doerr’s modern masterpiece set in World War II, All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Readers who prefer more cryptic, avant garde novels may find The Winter Soldier too old fashioned. I’ll take old fashioned this time.

The Gilded Age: 2 Novels

Life in the United States today has many elements of the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when the concentration of wealth in a tiny class of industrialists left many Americans in hopeless poverty. The era was not golden for most people but rather characterized by fake gilding. In this post, I review two recent novels set in the Gilded Age.  

A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts     Therese Anne Fowler     (2018) 

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New York City in the Gilded Age is the setting for this novel that seeks to reconstruct the inner life of the historical Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont. Alva is living in genteel poverty with her three sisters and their dying father when she captures the attention of William K Vanderbilt of New York City and marries him in 1875. The Vanderbilt family has made unimaginable millions in railroads but is shut out of the New York social scene by old-money families such as the Astors. Alva is determined to crash the gates. She commissions and helps design spectacular (and gaudily ornate) homes, hosts extravagant balls, travels the world, and eventually finds social acceptance. Yet, according to this fictionalization, she’s never happy in her marriage to William.  

Keep in mind that $1 million in the 1880s would be about $25 million today, so the Vanderbilts were the one-percenters of their era. It’s hard to sympathize with their discontents as they guzzle the champagne, but Alva has a few redeeming qualities. She takes on charitable causes and later in life becomes an advocate for women’s suffrage. The focus of this novel, however, is on Alva’s family and social interactions, from her young adulthood through her middle age. I couldn’t help rooting for her to dump the contemptible William, which she finally does with a scandal-generating divorce in 1895.  

The Lake on Fire     Rosellen Brown     (2018) 

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Like A Well-Behaved Woman, reviewed above, The Lake on Fire is a kind of Cinderella tale, featuring a young, impoverished woman who marries a wealthy man. But in this historical novel the woman is purely fictional, not based on a real person, and the Cinderella story has a number of twists. 

Chaya-Libbe Shaderowsky is a Jewish immigrant from Russia to rural Wisconsin who flees the matchmaking ploys of her family in 1891, running away to Chicago. Her younger brother Asher, a prodigy in both learning and petty theft, tags along with her. He roams the dangerous streets of the city while Chaya works in a sweat shop, rolling tobacco into cigars. Chaya’s  chance encounter with a wealthy socialist, Gregory Stillman, leads to romance. But Chaya is hesitant to follow the happily-ever-after path of the typical romance heroine. She tells her landlady, who encourages the match, “’He doesn’t love me for myself, he loves me for everything I don’t have. He hasn’t known anyone who’s as different from him as I am.’” (134) Chaya poses rhetorical questions for herself: “Is every life a fabric of compromises, then? Warp what you love, weft what you must tolerate, an imperfect weave, however strong and lovely it might look?”  (219) 

The city of Chicago becomes one of the central characters in this novel, and it’s lovingly described, even by those who live in its most sordid quarters: “She [Chaya] knew every inflection of Chicago dawn, different in each season—cool purple turning gold; tranced a dull fog-gray so many days, locked under cloud, or pearly with snow about to let down as if the sky were a trapdoor that silently, invisibly opened.”  (229) 

I visit Chicago fairly often, so I have a good sense of the street grid and of the strong presence of Lake Michigan, whose winds gust their way through the city. The layout of downtown Chicago in the early 1890s is similar to the layout today. From Rosellen Brown’s depiction, I could visualize the magnificent but temporarily constructed Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) of 1893, the site of some of the action in this novel. And the introduction into the narrative of the historical Jane Addams of Hull House fame did not seem forced at all.  

If you’re looking for a Gilded Age novel that depicts both ends of the money spectrum, read The Lake on Fire. If you’re fascinated with the history of the rich and powerful of New York City, try A Well-Behaved Woman.

Bonus Post: 2 Novels about Slavery

Washington Black     Esi Edugyan     (2018)

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Edugyan’s fictional slave narrative, set in the 1830s, artfully establishes itself in the brutal realities of the sugar cane fields of Barbados before drawing readers into grand continent-hopping sequences that take on the quality of myth.  

George Washington Black is about 11 years old in the opening sequence in 1830, narrating his first-person account in language that is evocative of the era and yet unpretentious. We quickly grasp that “Wash,” as he is known, is an exceptional fellow. Right away, readers will want to learn how he develops from an uneducated and maltreated cane-cutter to become not only literate but also eloquent. Wash’s facility with realistic drawing propels him into the protective orbit of Christopher (“Titch”) Wilde, the scientist brother of the plantation slave master. Titch and Wash escape Barbados in a hot-air balloon, ending up first in Norfolk, Virginia, and then in the Arctic reaches of Canada. Wash becomes more and more proficient in marine biology, especially in technical illustrations, as he travels to London, Amsterdam, and north Africa, seeking acceptance and hoping for love. He’s marked not just by his skin color but by a facial disfigurement from an accident, an undesirable identifier as he flees slave catchers.  

Novelist Edugyan probes the inhumanity of the institution of slavery, certainly, but more notably she analyzes the motivations of the abolitionists who aid Wash. Do they truly view the enslaved Africans as equals, or do they want to save white slaveholders from eternal punishment for their viciousness? Edugyan also does an excellent job of portraying the enthusiasms of 19th-century scientists, in an era when the field of inquiry was vast and the methodology was still under development. Her ending to Washington Black is somewhat ambiguous, but then I like tidy wrap-ups, and life is seldom so orderly.  

The Eulogist     Terry Gamble     (2019)

Terry Gamble’s novel is set in the very same era as Esi Edugyan’s, but The Eulogist takes place in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, right on the border between the free states and the slave states of pre-Civil-War America.  

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The fictional first-person narrator, Olivia Givens, is an 86-year-old woman writing in 1890, looking back at her astounding early life. Olivia’s family of well-educated Protestants emigrate from Ireland in 1819, settling in Cincinnati. Olivia’s mother promptly dies in childbirth, and her father soon deserts his teenage children, Olivia, Erasmus, and James. James builds a successful business through hard work and a shrewd marriage, while Erasmus, latching onto religious evangelism, becomes an itinerant preacher despite his continuing habits of debauchery. Olivia, a woman who defies convention, marries a local doctor and is drawn into the many dramas of her husband’s slave-owning family in Kentucky. Slowly, slowly, the Givenses come to espouse the abolitionist cause, mainly because of their individual interactions with slaves.  

Olivia’s story is frank and at times drolly comical. Her language has a 19th-century tone and vocabulary (“Erasmus looked as peaked as an Ohio winter” [38]). The narrator and her readers know the horrors that will unfold with the Civil War, but her characters in the 1820s and 1830s and 1840s do not. This knowledge gives the novel a taut and expectant quality. Gamble’s plot is intricate, with the final connections not offered until the last chapter, and then only briefly. As I read this book, I kept wondering, Who is the eulogist of the title? This question also is answered in the last chapter, and I won’t spoil it for you.  

Both Washington Black, reviewed above, and The Eulogist are excellent novels that explore the issue of slavery in depth, without resorting to stereotypes or platitudes.

Two Novels about Musicians

Love Is Blind:  The Rapture of Brodie Moncur     William Boyd     (2018)

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Brodie Moncur was born with perfect pitch, and this is his ticket out of the grasp of his alcoholic father and repressive family situation in rural Scotland in the 1890s. Brodie’s superb piano-tuning abilities take him to a shop in Paris, where he suggests an endorsement scheme to help sell pianos. This is how he comes to be the tuner for concert pianist John Kilbarron. Brodie travels around the European continent in Kilbarron’s entourage and falls in love with Kilbarron’s mistress, the elusive Russian soprano Lika Blum. Difficulties result.  

Keep the title of this novel in mind: Brodie is blind to all the danger that his head-over-heels passion draws him into. I was on tenterhooks with worry about his affair with Lika being discovered, and I got fully immersed in the melodrama of the great but erratic and fading pianist Kilbarron and Kilbarron’s slimily malevolent brother, Malachi. Flitting from city to city, the fin de siècle characters inhabit sites deftly conjured with only a few broad strokes of description by the novelist. In each locale they create great music or make love or evade discovery, always seeming very much of their era.

The writing here is lyrical and effortless, sweeping the reader along and creating sympathy for Brodie’s plight. Late in the novel he ruminates: “It was astonishing how quickly life could change, how the ground moved beneath you and the landscape you thought you were living in turned out to be entirely different. Like waking up after an earthquake.” (303)

The weaknesses of Boyd’s story lie in the failure to develop fully the tantalizing story line about Brodie’s family and the lack of substance in the depiction of Lika. Even acknowledging these faults, Love Is Blind is a solid read.

The Ensemble     Aja Gabel     (2018)

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Playing in a high-powered string quartet is challenging to the body as well as to the mind; the personal interactions of the four musicians, both on stage and off, are also a part of the mix. Novelist Aja Gabel, described on the dust jacket as “a former cellist,” has an insider’s understanding of the musical details as well as of the relationships involved in chamber music performance.

She introduces readers to the fictional Van Ness Quartet: Jana (hard-driving first violinist), Brit (reserved second violinist), Henry (note-perfect violist), and Daniel (unhappy cellist). If you played in your high school orchestra or if you’ve sung in a choral group or if you’ve collected all three of Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of the Bach “Cello Suites,” you may appreciate the many musical insights about performances of the quartet. If you know little about classical music, you’ll miss some of the subtleties about the rehearsals and performances of the quartet, but you can still enjoy the plot and the very good character development of this novel.

For my review of another novel about a musician, click here.

Century Hopping with Kingsolver

Unsheltered     Barbara Kingsolver     (2018)

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A meme that has turned up on Facebook proclaims, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”* Barbara Kingsolver presents this view in various guises in her century-hopping novel. At one point a character even says, about his fellow citizens, “‘They are happier to think of themselves as soon to be rich, than irreversibly poor.’” (261) How does Kingsolver unfold this story about people who fear homelessness and yet expect wealth? 

In 2015-2016, Willa Knox and her husband, Iano Tavoularis, have just moved into a tumbledown house in Vineland, New Jersey, that they inherited at the same time as their fortunes collapsed. Willa was laid off from her job as a journalist, and Iano lost his tenured post—as well as their house, which was on college grounds—when his college closed. Willa and Iano are taking care of Iano’s difficult and very sick father. Their adult daughter has moved in with them after a mysterious venture in Cuba, and their adult son has saddled them with a newborn grandson. All this occurs in the first chapter, as readers access the story from Willa’s viewpoint.  

Quick as a wink, and with clever word links between chapters, Kingsolver sweeps us back to 1874, to a Vineland, New Jersey, house that is also inherited and also tumbledown. Thatcher Greenwood lives with his social-climbing bride, Rose, plus Rose’s mother and young sister. Thatcher has a job teaching science at a high school where his views on Darwin’s recent publications about evolution are not at all welcome, but he finds support from a neighbor, self-taught biologist Mary Treat.  

As explained in the Author’s Note, some of the characters in Unsheltered are actual historical figures. Mary Treat was one of the pre-eminent scientists of the nineteenth century. And real estate developer Charles Landis founded Vineland in the 1860s as a kind of benevolent utopian community. The settlers lured to Vineland by Landis with promises of prosperity were kept in poverty, though still expecting to become wealthy. Landis turned out to be a charlatan and autocrat. Similarly, Kingsolver portrays the populace of the United States of 2015-16 as being hoodwinked by a presidential candidate called “the Bullhorn,” who is clearly Donald Trump, though never named as such in the novel.  

From our twenty-first century standpoint, we know that Darwin’s theories will eventually gain wide (though not universal) acceptance. In the 1870s, however, Thatcher Greenwood does not have this assurance as he argues for evolution, risking the loss of his job. In chapters that alternate between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, Kingsolver points out the parallels between Thatcher’s era and Willa’s, sometimes very bluntly, as when Mary Treat says,  “‘When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.’” (206) In 2016, Willa’s daughter tells her, “’All the rules have changed and it’s hard to watch people keep carrying on just the same, like it’s business as usual.’” (410) 

Alas, Kingsolver pushes too hard on the polemics in Unsheltered, which comes off as preachy. The sections in which poor Thatcher argues science against creationists are positively painful to read. If this is the first Kingsolver book that you read, please do not judge her by this one novel! She’s a gifted writer. Among my favorite novels of hers are The Bean Trees (1988), Pigs in Heaven (1993), and Prodigal Summer (2000), plus the nonfiction Animal, Vegetable Miracle (2007), with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.

* This quote has been attributed to John Steinbeck but is probably a paraphrase of Steinbeck by Ronald Wright.

Michigan Mysteries

Summer People     Aaron Stander     (2000)

Color Tour     Aaron Stander     (2006)

And seven additional titles 

The sand dunes, the sunsets, the resiny scent of pine forests: Michiganders will recognize the setting of Aaron Stander’s series of murder mysteries set in the northwest section of the Lower Peninsula, around the tip of the little finger of the hand, along the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The main detective in these novels is Sheriff Ray Elkins, a rumpled middle-aged former professor of criminal justice from downstate who has retreated to the North Woods where he was raised. He’s surrounded by a distinctive cast of year-round residents, who disdain the vacationers renting beach houses during the glorious warm months.  

In the series debut, Summer People, Elkins suspects links between a murder and three subsequent unusual deaths. Stander’s plot is nicely complex, and his characters come to life quickly and believably. The Lake Michigan images are spot on: “Ray paused at the door, looked out at the lake. He could make out the silhouette of a distant ore carrier steaming north to the Straits. From that height he could see the earth’s curve across the horizon and the long line of waves moving toward shore—there was a sense of rhythm and harmony in the scene.” (70) 

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In the next novel, Color Tour, it’s autumn in the Mitten State, the summer people have departed, and an elderly resident discovers a young man and woman murdered on a Lake Michigan beach. Since the dead woman was a teacher at a nearby private school, Sheriff Elkins must painstakingly interview a large number of suspects. As the investigation progresses, evidence seems to point to one character, then another and another, in an entertainingly indirect way. Though I did guess the surprise of the subplot early on, the murderer was a mystery to me until the end. 

The many state references will tickle those who, like me, love our nation’s third (Great Lakes) coast. Small Michigan details drop in on almost every page, as in this description of a minor character in Summer People: “A string tie hung on his chest: A Petoskey stone cut in the shape of the Michigan mitten was centered on the two strands of the tie.” (144) And the folks Up North do appreciate delicacies from other parts of the state. For instance, in Color Tour, a detective is sent south to check out some evidence with the words, “’If you have time on your way out of Ann Arbor, here’s a few things I need from Zingerman’s Deli.’” (152)  

I’m sad to report, however, that these two novels desperately needed a copy editor and a proofreader to catch typos, wrong words, awkward phrasings, and inconsistencies, which distract from otherwise competent writing. I still plan to read more in the Sheriff Ray Elkins series, the seven additional titles of which are 

Deer Season (2009)

Shelf Ice (2010)

Medieval Murders (2011)

Cruelest Month (2012)

Death in a Summer Colony (2013)

Murder in the Merlot (2015)

Gales of November (2016)