Tag Archives: America

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2017 (24 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerThe small town of Grace in Alabama is in trouble. Isolated in many ways from the surrounding world, it is now even separated by its weather. A wall of cloud and looming storm hangs around and over this town. Several of its inhabitants drive out each day beyond the wall, just so that they can feel the warmth and brightness of sun on their skin and faces, and be reminded what normal is like.

Summer and Raine Ryan are sisters and their names reveal how different these teenage girls are from one another. Summer, though, the one who is easy to know and like, is missing and the disappearance reminds the town and its sheriff, Chief Black, of the case of the missing Briar girls. Presumed murdered, these girls continue to haunt the town. They are its curse and surely the worst thing that could happen to Grace is that the murderer has returned to continue his work. Everyone wants Summer found alive, especially her sister Raine and Raine’s friends Noah and Purv.

Beyond this, I’ll say no more about the plot because All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind.

The central mystery is brilliantly told from a range of perspectives, including Summer’s own, and it moves back and forth through the weeks leading up to Summer’s disappearance. We hear from several of the people who influenced Summer’s life and were so deeply affected by this wonderful girl. We’re soon aware that not everything is as it seems but how we learn this, and what we learn, is beautifully told.

Chris Whitaker writes superbly. As with Tall Oaks, I marvel at how this British author captures the mood and sound of an American small town. It’s not overdone. It feels completely natural and each of these characters has his or her own distinctive voice.

But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but in All the Wicked Girls we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Their individual personalities and their friendship come alive in an astonishing way, and this is as due to Chris Whitaker’s stunning and often understated use of language as it is his empathy for young people. This is clever writing. We hear a phrase and it’s only later that we learn the full significance of its meaning and it hits us like a fist. I loved Summer and Raine too (how could I not?) but Purv and Noah made me laugh and cry time after time. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep.

This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

Other review
Tall Oaks

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

HarperCollins | 2017 (29 June) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Corner by Dean KoontzJane Hawk used to be a well-respected FBI agent and investigator. She also had a happy marriage to Nick, a full colonel in the army at only 32 years old, with whom she had Travis, a happy 5-year-old child who is already a vision of his father. But then Nick killed himself, completely unexpectedly, during the course of an ordinary, peaceful evening. His note ‘I very much need to be dead’ left far more questions than answers and so, reeling from guilt and confusion, Jane sets out to find out what it was that drove her husband to a death he greeted with open arms.

Jane discovers that the suicide rate among successful and seemingly happy and high-achieving individuals is on the increase and those who did leave notes, and not many did, left notes even stranger than Nick’s. As Jane investigates the connection between these men and women and their deaths, she discovers a conspiracy that strikes at the very heart of the American establishment and she uncovers something remarkable and utterly deadly. Jane is a hunted woman. Those she seeks will stop at nothing to destroy her and her young son. And there is nothing they can’t do. It will take all of Jane’s ingenuity and experience as a gifted FBI agent to conceal her trail while seeking out the truth. Every day she plans as if it will be her last.

In The Silent Corner, Dean Koontz introduces us to a new series of thrillers, this time featuring Jane Hawk. While this means that not all of our questions about Jane herself are answered in this opening novel, we are still presented with a standalone investigation and cat and mouse hunt that obsesses Jane through these pages. There is no let up in the tension at all as Jane removes herself from all distractions, including her beloved son, to pursue her husband’s killer. This is a chilling portrait of grief. She can’t allow herself to stop and think. Instead she unties the knots, one at a time, of Nick’s sad and tragic loss.

Jane’s grief has altered her. She would be the first to admit it. And we see its effects in her treatment of those she encounters along her journey. She doesn’t want to kill or hurt but she will if she has to and when she does have to she has not regrets. The scenes in which she confronts those involved in the conspiracy are powerfully painted and disturbing, but the most disturbing moments are those when we see something of what these people have done with their wealth and influence.

The Silent Corner is a tense and action-packed conspiracy thriller. It is also cold, its language clever and unusual, stark but also elegant at times. I found Jane extremely difficult to warm to but I don’t think we’re expected to care for her beyond our compassion for someone suffering such a loss. There are moments when she lets slip her guard and it’s those moments which I enjoyed the most, when she draws people to her by revealing her true nature. Dougal Trahern, a man we meet later on, has a similar way about him and his portrayal is drawn with great poignancy and care. And so our feelings are challenged through this novel. Its premise promises cold killing and science but in reality we are presented with people who are suffering greatly and will make the ultimate sacrifice to save their fellow men and women. There is a strong sense of service and loyalty in The Silent Corner.

My only issue with The Silent Corner would be that at times its language feels a little over the top and this distracts from Jane’s character and the plot. It makes the novel feel overlong on occasions. Nevertheless, this is a minor point and, on the whole, I found myself immersed in The Silent Corner, willing Jane on while always fearing the worst. I’m interested to see how the series will develop as Jane moves away from this defining opening case.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia

Quercus | 2017 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy MejiaPine Valley, a small rural community in Minnesota, will not be the same without Hattie Hoffman. The 18-year-old girl, beautiful and playful, is the centre of attention both in and out of school. With ambitions of heading off to New York City to follow her dream to be an actress, Hattie has landed the role of Lady Macbeth in the school play. All eyes will be on Hattie Hoffman. But on opening night, Hattie is stabbed to death in a derelict barn on the edge of town. Close family friend Sheriff Del Goodman is given the terrible task of unravelling the tragedy, of hunting down the murderer of a girl he loved as a daughter. This is a community where everybody knows everyone. One of them, though, is keeping the biggest secret of all. Del will not rest until he uncovers it.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman might begin with Hattie’s murder but this vibrant young woman remains at the heart of the book thanks to its enticing structure. Mindy Mejia presents us with three narratives, belonging to Hattie herself, Del Goodman, and the school’s English teacher and play director, Peter Lund. We also move backwards and forwards through time, focusing on the weeks and days that led to Hattie’s death. Each of the narratives introduces us to the people of the town, often from different perspectives, building up layers of relationships, bits of which are revealed at different times. This gives extra depth to quite a few of the novel’s characters while building up the layers of Hattie’s personality. Hanging over it all is foreboding – we know just how this will end for Hattie.

Hattie’s character is key to the novel. And it most certainly isn’t straightforward. All she wants to do is be an actress, and it’s worth bearing this in mind as she plays one person off against another, time after time. She is an intriguing person, and so too are Del and Peter, but I did find her impossible to like. In fact, I think the only character in the novel that I actively did like was the sheriff, Del Goodman. I enjoyed his sections of the novel most of all.

I was engrossed by The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman but, as the novel went on, I realised that it might not give me all I expected from it. I’m used to twists and surprises in a novel such as this. This isn’t a fault of this book at all but it did mean that I was rather unexcited by the way in which the story developed, while still being caught up by its structure and mood.

The writing is of a high quality and that did keep my attention, as did its atmosphere. The rural location is very well painted indeed. I could picture Pine Valley perfectly from the descriptions. There are few places that people can meet in this town and we move between them, always being reminded that we’re seeing the same people. It makes you understand why Hattie had her dreams of escape. Pine Valley was far too small a town for Hattie Hoffman.

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker

Twenty7 | 2016 | 360p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Tall Oaks by Chris WhitakerTall Oaks used to be such a quiet small American town, unknown to strangers. But then, one terrible day, three-year-old Harry Monroe was stolen from his bed and the country’s media came to call. Three months have passed and Harry is still missing. Harry’s mother Jess is traumatised. Every time she closes her eyes she sees the clown masked-face of the man who stole him. Although the reporters have moved on to the next big story, the detective in charge of the case, Jeff, can’t stop caring, desperate to give the boy back to his distraught mother.

But life has to continue and Tall Oaks is full of busy lives. Teenager Manny sees himself at the centre of much of it and is setting about proving it in his own inimitable style, while trying to ignore the fact that his mother has begun dating again. Jerry is a photographer in the making, a trapped spirit, but his life is tied down to his domineering, awful mother. And moving around them is a circle of family and friends, all interacting, all with their own cares, all finding laughs where they can, and all with their secrets.

At this point I have to say that Tall Oaks is a fantastic novel and all the more brilliant when you consider that it’s Chris Whitaker’s debut. I believe he lives in England and yet he has created a portrait of an American small town that doesn’t just feel real but is also absolutely enchanting – a wonderful blend of the authentic and the strange. Whitaker also blends its mood. This is a story that is at times desperately sad and shockingly tragic but there is also a warm humour that runs through it. Its wit sparkles, especially in the dialogue and in its creation of Manny. If you have to have one reason why you need to read this novel it’s Manny. He might be out to shock but a heart that huge cannot be hidden.

Tall Oaks is another of those novels that is promoted for its shocking twists and, yet again, this does this wonderful book a disservice. There’s a crime in it – the abduction of little Harry – but this is just one part of the story. There are so many other elements to it and it is driven as much by character as it is plot, if not more so. There are some powerful surprises, hardly surprising in a community so private, and one or two stunned me. They felt to me as if they were my reward for growing to care so much for these people. This is what happens when you get to know somebody.

Chris Whitaker is a marvellous, witty writer. His prose feels light and real, flowing naturally, and his gift for characterisation is just wonderful. The character of Manny is a masterpiece. He is complicated for all kinds of reasons that are explored with an astonishingly delicate touch. He is a pure delight to know and how he made me laugh! But there’s more to this novel than Manny. It gives and gives. Tall Oaks also begins with one of the most disturbing opening chapters I’ve read and it continues with writing that made me want to cry and laugh.

I’ve got to say it again – this is a debut novel. Extraordinary. Whatever will be next? But Chris Whitaker is a new author whose future books I will be sure to snap up at the earliest opportunity.

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree | Greg Iles | 2015 | Harper | 850p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Tree by Greg IlesNext spring Mississippi Blood is published. This is the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As part of the celebrations, I was so pleased to post a review of Natchez Burning for an international blog tour back at the end of August and now it’s the turn of The Bone Tree. The Bone Tree follows on directly from Natchez Burning and so this review assumes you’ve read the earlier book first.

Penn Cage, attorney and Mayor of Natchez, a small town in rural Mississippi, continues to hunt for his father Dr Tom Cage, the town’s popular doctor for many years, who is now on the run for the murder of Viola Turner. This elderly black woman was once, in the sixties, Tom Cage’s much loved nurse. She was also the sister of a man brutally murdered by the Double Eagles, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, and she suffered greatly at their hands. Everyone involved is now much, much older and some are in the mood to confess before death claims them. Journalists Henry Sexton and Caitlin Masters (also, just to complicate things, Penn’s fiancée) are working together to expose the truth, and one of the best ways to do that will be to discover and reveal one of the Double Eagles’ killing grounds, hidden within the Mississippi swamps – the Bone Tree. Legend has it that the Bone Tree contains, in addition to the bones of the murdered, evidence that links these men to one of the most devastating and notorious crimes in American history.

The plot of The Bone Tree is a complicated business, as you’d expect from a novel that comprises 850 pages and one that also succeeds the equally substantial Natchez Burning, one of the most satisfyingly structured and richly layered crime novels I’ve read. There are multiple threads and many characters and we move between them – there can be a fair few chapters before we return to each strand – but at the heart of the novel we have Caitlin’s pursuit of the truth, Penn’s hunt for his father and Tom’s struggle to survive at as little cost to the lives of others as possible. All set within a fascinating re-examination of a dark period in Mississippi’s history, one that might not be as safely buried in the past as one might have hoped.

But The Bone Tree differs from Natchez Burning in that there is another investigation on top of all of the rest and for long stretches of the novel it takes precedence over anything else – FBI Special Agent John Kaiser’s investigation into one of the biggest crimes of modern American history. For the time being, the Double Eagles will have to wait.

There are sections of The Bone Tree that are utterly harrowing, tense or thrilling – or all three of these at once. There are moments here I’m not going to forget, there is one in particular that is totally shocking. But these sections are surrounded by great swathes of meticulously detailed discussion into the big, arguably unsolved, mystery of the 1960s. I’d argue that The Bone Tree contains within it a superb, much shorter novel but this, and the pace, has been lost to some degree by the material that surrounds it.

The events of the novel take place over a period of just a few short days and the events of each are described over hundreds of pages. Nevertheless, my interest was kept alive throughout because, despite it all, the evil of the Double Eagles and their terrible deeds can still be traced through the pages. Tom and Penn continue to focus on their crimes, refusing to be sidetracked by Kaiser’s ulterior motives, and Caitlin’s pursuit for the truth is absolutely dedicated, but the author’s fascination with Kaiser’s investigations takes precedence far too often, in my opinion, for the flow of the novel.

This is an extraordinary trilogy, welcoming the reader to become fully immersed in its portrait of evil, focusing on events that took place over just a few days. The conclusion of The Bone Tree is so tense and gripping that it left this reader so excited for the concluding novel Mississippi Blood. It sounds as if this final novel will be half the size of its predecessors which makes me think that its focus will be narrowed further and this time the emphasis will be on the answers we are all so desperate to learn.

Other review
Natchez Burning

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

Natchez Burning | Greg Iles | 2014, Pb 2016 | Hodder | 853p | Review and bought copy | Buy the book

Next spring is published Mississippi Blood, the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As a run-up to the big day, I am so pleased to be part of a blog tour that will review Natchez Burning through September and The Bone Tree during October. I jumped at it. This tour has provided me with the perfect opportunity to read books I should have read a long time ago. I’ve heard nothing but good things and, as I read Natchez Burning, I kept asking myself why on earth I hadn’t read it before. I must have been barmy.

On with the review…

Natchez Burning by Greg IlesNatchez Burning might be the fourth Penn Cage novel by Greg Iles but it is the first in a distinct trilogy. Earlier books are referred to and characters do reappear but you certainly don’t need to have read them to get every bit of satisfaction out of this wonderful book.

Penn Cage, once a prosecuting attorney, is now the mayor of Natchez, a small and relatively quiet community in Mississippi. It wasn’t always that way. Natchez, now reeling from Hurricane Katrina, was once caught in the fire of civil rights abuse, held to hostage by the Ku Klux Klan and, even worse than the Klan, the Double Eagles, a local KKK splinter group that tortured, raped, murdered, with no fear or expectation of justice. Justice in Natchez at that time and place was white and it was supremacist. Few people then stood firm against the Klan, albeit carefully, quietly, and one such man was Dr Tom Cage, Penn’s much loved father and a very well-liked and caring doctor. But, to Penn’s bewilderment, Tom Cage has been accused of murdering Viola Turner, his immensely popular African-American nurse from the 1960s, who, now an old woman, had recently returned home to Natchez to die but had instead met a death that was anything but peaceful.

Tom Cage refuses to defend himself for reasons he will not explain and so Penn is compelled to hunt for the truth. To do that he must tear open the wounds of the past and what he finds is utterly horrifying and terrifying. Natchez is a town rotting with secrets, so many of its citizens stinking of past crimes, but not all of these crimes are in the past and the more that Penn prods the beast, the more it stirs. The murder of Viola is just one of the many mysteries facing Penn as he uncovers hints of a conspiracy that, if revealed, could leave American history in need of a rewrite. It could also mean the death of Penn and Tom. Just how well do you know anyone? This is a fundamental question that now faces Penn.

Natchez Burning is a substantial novel at about 850 pages but its size hides the fact that these are pages that will fly through the fingers. Greg Iles is a great storyteller and he keeps this immensely complex and multi-layered plot well under control so that at one moment you can sense everything coming together while, at the next, you become well aware of a whole new mystery developing legs. And what that means is revelation after revelation, not to mention shock after shock as Penn uncovers the truth, or at least some of it (some secrets are even deeper buried), about the town’s past. This scrutiny of such a terrible period in recent history is also a great thriller and it enthrals from start to finish. The narrative itself moves through time, taking us and Penn even closer to events.

The victims of the Double Eagles, their lives, hopes and deaths, receive care in this novel and in a way provide its heart.

Natchez Burning is a full and satisfactory novel in its own right but it leads directly into The Bone Tree and that is where I’m heading next. I expect great things and I have every confidence that my expectations will be exceeded.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World | Eowyn Ivey | 2016, Pb 2017 | Tinder Press | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn IveyIt is 1885 and Colonel Allen Forrester, with such a small group of men, leaves Vancouver to embark on an expedition to explore the Wolverine River in Alaska. Recently relinquished by Russia, Alaska is now open for prospectors, the military, traders, hunters and the curious. Its resources are believed bountiful, its wildlife as beautiful as it can be dangerous, its Indians as useful as they are feared. Its majestic rivers are Alaska’s natural highways but they are only ice-free for brief months each year. The Wolverine River links the coast with a well-used river way to the north. Its exploration and mapping could prove key for the future settlement of Alaska. Allen Forrester and his men aim to be upon it as soon as it is released from winter’s grip and then they will travel for 1,000 miles, recording what they see, photographing it, trading with the Indians, introducing themselves, forging friendships. Trying to stay alive.

Colonel Forrester’s mind is not entirely on his mission. Recently married to Sophie, he has had to leave her behind in the barracks at Vancouver, with only the other officers’ wives and daughters for company. And Sophie has such an adventurous, independent spirit. She would far prefer to be exploring with her husband, capturing the images on a camera, seeing with her own eyes the wildlife of this remote region. But it is not to be and instead she must stay behind, missing her husband intensely, experiencing a personal journey of her own, every bit as hazardous as the one that her husband must face, fearing that he may never return, too distant for letters, her mind too alive to the risks ahead while doing all she can to combat them.

At the heart of To the Bright Edge of the World are the experiences of Allen and Sophie, told through their journals, alternating between them, covering the great distance between them. There are photographs, sketches, as both Allen and Sophie experience the world around them, from the great glaciers of Alaska to fish, birds, animal tracks and people. But there is also another strand weaving in and out of this novel. In the present day, the latest member of the Forrester family is trying to find a home for Allen and Sophie’s journals and artefacts in a museum by the side of the Wolverine River and this element is absolutely fascinating.

This is not an easy novel to review, largely because I don’t have a hope of doing it justice. To the Bright Edge of the World held me mesmerised. I could not get enough of it, barely putting it down, as I read it in just one day and what a day’s reading it was. I knew this book would be good. I adored The Snow Child, it continues to be one of my very favourite novels, and I knew that Eowyn Ivey’s writing, imagination and deep, penetrating insight into, and empathy with, her own Alaska could not fail. However, I was not expecting To the Bright Edge of the World to exceed The Snow Child but that is exactly what it does.

The writing is breathlessly beautiful. The journal extracts bring the long dead characters of Allen and Sophie to life in such a meaningful, memorable way. They both lay themselves bare and it is hypnotic, a privilege to be allowed so deeply into their lives and thoughts. The illustrations work so well. This is such an attractive book even before you read its words! But what makes it truly astounding is its portrayal of the natural world, not just in Alaska but also in Vancouver. Nature is infused with magic and the imagination. Its wonders are ultimately unknowable despite mankind’s best efforts to record it and trap it, whether physically or through the lens of a camera. It is dangerous but it is also so beautiful. The indigenous tribes are shown to have a much closer connection to the environment they live in, which is hardly surprising, but both Sophie and Allen, as well as the people that Allen travels with, each makes their own meaningful relationships with the world around them and that changes how they interact with the men and women they spend time with.

This creates a haunting, atmospheric setting for this wonderful novel that is matched by the grandeur or simple beauty of its locations, the impact of its changing seasons, its merging of nature with mystery and magic, the contrast of masculine and feminine, fertility and decay, the mix of science with indigenous wisdom, where anything is possible, not only in the natural world but also within the minds of Sophie and Allen, as well as our contemporary protagonists who treasure the legacy of this husband and wife who lived so many years ago.

With no hesitation at all I state that if I read another novel this year that I love as much as this I will be entirely surprised. This is a very special book indeed and Eowyn Ivey is an incredibly gifted writer, bringing to us all the wonder, beautiful strangeness and fragility of the Alaska she loves.

Other review and feature
The Snow Child
An interview with Eowyn Ivey for The Snow Child

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier – Blog Tour Extract

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy ChevalierNext week, Tracy Chevalier’s new novel At the Edge of the Orchard is published by HarperFiction. I’m delighted to post an extract from the novel as part of a Blog Tour to celebrate its release into the world. Here is a description of At the Edge of the World:

Ohio, 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough have settled in the Black Swamp, planting apple trees to claim the land as their own. Life there is harsh, and as swamp fever picks off their children, husband and wife take solace in separate comforts. James patiently grows his sweet-tasting ‘eaters’ while Sadie gets drunk on applejack made fresh from ‘spitters.’ This fight over apples takes its toll on all of the Goodenoughs – a battle that will resonate over the years and all the way across America.

California, 1853. Fifteen years later their youngest son, Robert, is drifting through Goldrush California. Haunted by the broken family he fled years earlier, memories stick to him where mud once did. When he finds steady work for a plant collector, peace seems finally to be within reach. But the past is never really past, and one day Robert is forced to confront the reasons he left behind everything he loved.

The extract comes from chapter one of the novel and the first part of it is told from the point of view of Sadie Goodenough.


Black Swamp, Ohio
Spring 1838

I was used to his slaps. Didnt bother me none. Fightin over apples was jest what we did. Funny, I didnt think much about apples fore we came to the Black Swamp. When I was growin up we had an orchard like everybody else but I didnt pay it no attention cept when the blossom was out in May. Then Id go and lie there smellin some sweet perfume and listenin to the bees hum so happy cause they had flowers to play with. That was where James and I lay our first time together. I shouldve known then he wasnt for me. He was so busy inspectin my familys trees and askin how old each was—like I would know—and what the fruit was like ( Juicy like me, I said) that finally I had to unbutton my dress myself. That shut him up a while.

I never was a good picker. Ma said I was too quick, let too many drop and pulled off the stems of the rest. I was quick cause I wanted to get it done. I used two hands to twist and pull two apples and then the third would drop and bruise and wed have to gather all the bruised ones separate and cook em up right away into apple butter. Beginnin of each season Ma and Pa would get me pickin till they remembered about that third apple always droppin. So they put me on to gatherin the windfalls that were bruised and damaged from fallin off the tree. Windfalls werent all bad apples. They could still be stewed or made into cider. Or theyd have me cookin or slicin rings to dry. I liked the slicin. If you cut an apple across the core rather than along it you get the seeds makin flowers or stars in the middle of the circle. I told John Chapman once and he smiled at me. Gods ways, he said. Youre smart to see that, Sadie. Only time anyone ever called me smart.

James wouldnt let me touch the apples on his trees either. His precious thirty-eight trees. (Oh I knew how many he had. He thought I wasnt listenin when he was rattlin through his numbers but drunk or not I heard him cause he repeated himself so much.)

When we was married back in Connecticut he learned real quick how many apples I spoiled. So in the Black Swamp he got some of the children to pick em—Martha and Robert and Sal. He wouldnt let Caleb or Nathan pick, said we were all too rough.

He was like a little old woman with his trees. Drove me crazy.


James headed out behind the cabin, past the garden they’d begun turning over now the ground was no longer frozen, and out to the orchard. Upon settling in the Black Swamp, the first thing the Goodenoughs had done after building a rough cabin close to the Portage River was to clear land for the orchard so as to plant John Chapman’s apple saplings. Every oak, every hickory, every elm he cut down was an agony of effort. It was hard enough to chop up and haul the trunk and branches to set aside for firewood, or for making bed frames or chairs or wheels or coffins. But extracting the stumps and roots almost killed him each time he hacked and dug and pulled and ground. Prying out a stump reminded him of how deeply a tree clung to the ground, how tenacious a hold it had on a place. Though he was not a senti- mental man—he did not cry when his children died, he simply dug the graves and buried them—James was silent each time he killed a tree, thinking of its time spent in that spot. He never did this with the animals he hunted—they were food, and transient, passing through this world and out again, as people did. But trees felt permanent—until you had to cut them down.

He stood in the melting March dusk and surveyed his orchard—five rows of trees, with a small nursery of seedlings in one corner. It was rare to see space around individual trees in the Black Swamp; normally there was either open water or dense woods. The Goodenough orchard was not spectacular, but it was proof to James that he could tame one small patch of land, make the trees do what he wanted. Beyond them, wilderness waited in the tangled undergrowth and sudden bogs; you had to take each step with care or find yourself up to your thighs in black stagnant water. After going into the swamp, to hunt or cut wood or visit a neighbor, James was always relieved to step back into the safe order of his orchard.

Now he counted his apple trees, even though he already knew that he had thirty-eight. He had expected the requirement for settling in Ohio of fifty viable fruit trees in three years would be easy to achieve, but he had been assuming apple trees would grow in the swamp as they had done on his father’s farm in Connecticut, where the ground was fertile and well drained. But swampland was different: waterlogged and brackish, it rotted roots, encouraged mildew, attracted blackfly. It was surprising that apple trees could survive there at all. There were plenty of other trees: maple was abundant, also ash and elm and hickory and several kinds of oak. But apple trees needed light and dry soil or they could easily not produce fruit. And if they did not produce, the Goodenoughs must go without. The Black Swamp was not like Connecticut, where if your trees had blight or scab or mildew and grew no apples, you could barter or buy from neighbors. Their neighbors here were few and scattered—only the Days two miles away had been there almost as long, though lately others had begun to settle nearby—and had no apples to spare.

James Goodenough was a sensible man, but apples were his weakness. They had been since he was a child and his mother had given him sweet apples as a special treat. Sweetness was a rare taste, for sugar cost dear; but an apple’s tart sweetness was almost free since, once planted, apple trees took little work. He recalled with a shudder their first years in the Black Swamp without apples. He hadn’t realized till he had to go without for over three years how large a part apples had played in his life, how he craved them more than whiskey or tobacco or coffee or sex. That first autumn when, after a lifetime of taking them for granted, James finally understood that there would be no apples to pick and store and eat, he went into a kind of mourning that surprised him. His desperation even drove him to pick the tiny fruit from a wild apple tree he came across along one of the Indian trails; it must have grown from a settler’s discarded apple core. He could only manage three before the sourness forced him to stop, and his stomach ached afterwards. Later, over near Perrysburg, he shamed himself by stealing from a stranger’s orchard, though he took only one apple, and it turned out to be a spitter rather than an eater. He ate it anyway.

In subsequent years he bought more trees from John Chapman—seedlings this time—and grew his own from seeds as well. Trees grown from seeds usually produced sour apples but, as James liked to point out to whoever would listen, one in ten tended to turn out sweet. Like growing anything in the Black Swamp, it took time for the apple trees to thrive, and even those that seemed healthy could easily die over the winter. While the Goodenoughs did have apples within three years of their arrival, they could not be relied on. Sometimes the crop was heavy; other times the apples were scarce and tiny. Sometimes disease killed the trees. For several years James struggled to get thirty trees to grow, much less fifty. More recently he’d had more success, and the previous fall had picked apples from forty-seven trees. Over the winter, however, it appeared nine had died, like a punishment for his hubris.

Luckily no one ever came around to count how many trees they had, as it was too hard to get in and out of the Black Swamp for law officials to bother. None of his few neighbors seemed concerned about the fifty-trees rule. Sadie was amused by the number, and enjoyed taunting her husband with it. Sometimes she would whisper “fifty” to him as she passed. But James fretted over it, always expecting someone to show up on the river or along one of the Indian trails that crisscrossed the Black Swamp and inform him that his farm was no longer his.


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Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O’Malley and Douglas Graham Purdy

Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 387
Year: 2015 (29 January)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Serpents in the Cold by Thomas O'Malley and Douglas Graham PurdyReview
It is 1951 and winter has gripped the city of Boston in a vice. These are dark times for the city. The post-war years have left the streets in decline, the residents depressed, the politicians as corrupt and violent as the gangsters who control the city’s businesses. Even the streets themselves are up for sale, whole neighbourhoods sold to the highest bidder for demolition, communities destroyed by dirty deals. It is a year since the Great Brink’s Robbery, the largest robbery in US history, its proceeds lost in the unhappy streets. And now in this brutal winter which has locked Boston in ice, a serial killer is loose.

Two children walking their dog along the bay discover the remains of the latest victim, a young woman, her throat slit, her body frozen. In life the woman was Sheila Anderson, the sister-in-law of Dante Cooper, a man trying to reclaim his life from drugs and debt to thugs. Dante’s closest friend, Cal O’Brien, used to be a police detective but now, damaged by his war experiences, he runs a respectable private security business. But now both men have one thing on their minds – justice for Sheila. Going undercover, the two men become vigilantes, digging deep into Boston’s secrets, discovering that there is much more to fear than a serial killer. For every discovery they make, the risks soar and the cost becomes ever more dear.

Serpents in the Cold is a historical mystery that manages to consume the reader, pulling him or her into this dangerous world that is little removed from us in time but is a world away in so many ways. The atmosphere is close and claustrophobic. The city feels almost like an island with everyone trapped inside it. Boston’s criminals flourish in all levels of society. It feels unclean. The ice and the cold are bitterly felt. This is a chilly novel indeed. It’s as if everyone is waiting for the ice to melt so that they can make their escape from this trap that is prowled by conmen, gangsters and murderers. It’s not just the serial killers who kill, though. There’s a strong sense that police are losing control and that they need the help of Cal and Dante to solve these murders but Cal and Dante are not your typical detectives.

This is an extremely noir-y and violent novel, reflecting the violent times. The authors pull no punches. At times it is shocking, building up to a climax that is both edge of the seat and disturbing. Cal is haunted by horrors and they come and go through the pages. For Dante, his nightmares are in the present. The story of his marriage is harrowing and we can understand why it means so much that he find justice for his wife’s sister.

As the novel proceeds, we are guided through Boston’s underworld, introduced to its businessmen and politicians, its thugs, and those who are trying to live an honourable life, caring for families, looking after those worse off. Sheila becomes more and more crucial and, although a murder victim, she has a presence throughout the book. Adding to the atmosphere and the strong presence of Boston itself as a central character, the book contains several contemporary photographs of the city in 1951.

There are no tidy resolutions in Serpents in the Cold. There’s a sense from the very beginning that things are going to get nasty and they don’t disappoint. Holding it all together are the charismatic figures of Dan and Cal, each with their own problems and resolutions, but each bringing hope to the novel through the force of their friendship and their dedication to pursue justice, however dirty it gets.

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Publisher: Blue Door
Pages: 496
Year: 2013, Pb 2014
Buy: Hardback, US Paperback, Kindle, UK Paperback
Source: Bought copy

The Golem and the Djinni by Helen WeckerReview
It is 1899 and immigration to New York City is at its height. Not all newcomers, though, are as they seem. Chava is a golem. A creature made from clay, life breathed in to her through spells, binding her to the man who wakes her. But upon being woken aboard the ship sailing from the old world her husband dies, leaving her as alone as one ever could be in a foreign world. On docking, she jumps into the sea and walks to the city underneath the water, dragging seaweed wrapped round her boots. She finds refuge of a sort with a kindly, elderly rabbi and she becomes part of the New York Jewish community, endlessly working, baking and sewing, never needing to sleep or eat, quietly searching for a purpose.

Across the city, Ahmad awakes. He is a creature of fire, a djinni born in the Syrian desert hundreds and hundreds of years before, able to take many forms, but trapped in a brass flask by a wizard of immense evil powers. Ahmad is freed from the flask by a metalworker but an iron band around his wrist enslaves him in human form. He works for the metalworker, heating the metal with his bare hands, becoming a part of the Christian community of New York. Ahmad also never sleeps, instead he explores by night this magical city, protecting himself with an umbrella from the rain that would quench his spirit.

The Golem and the Djinni is a remarkable novel, haunting and mesmerising with the most beautiful prose and alive with perfectly drawn characters, including the character of New York City itself. What a place it would have seemed to the immigrants of the earliest 20th century, and its strangeness and wonder is intensified as we witness it through the eyes and experiences of two beings from another world entirely. Much of the novel leisurely follows Chava and Ahmad’s explorations of the new world, while each tries to come to terms with their own curious and alien lot. Their separate lives are shown to be very different. Chava is newly born and she is a complete innocent, an endearing, earnest and serious figure, trying to please while all too aware that in one flash of rage she could crush the life out of a human being with one grip of her clay arms. Ahmad, by contrast, is ancient. Wise in some ways and naive in others, he knows enough and is confident enough to embrace his new surroundings, finding pleasure in the arms of a rich American beauty. But when the djinni and the golem encounter each other, their night walks together through the city give them both a new focus. But forces have followed them from the old world and the result is likely to be catastrophic.

While the heart of the novel is full with Chava and Ahmad, moving backwards and forwards between the two, there is even more to the novel. There is a full cast of characters from all walks of life in New York City, bringing the streets, houses, parks, ports and businesses to life. With them there is an array of stories, some quite trivial, others more significant. The people that Chava and Ahmad touch are never the same again and for some the end result is utterly tragic. But there is love and hope, too. Every one of these stories is a treat to read. The past, too, has a presence. I enjoyed so much Ahmad’s growing awareness of what happened to him all those generations ago when he was trapped in the flask. The menace increases, as does the friendship and love between the characters, until the final unputdownable third of the book which kept me awake late at night to finish.

The Golem and the Djinni is a debut novel which makes its achievement all the more extraordinary. For me, its success lies in making its magic real. The historical descriptions are detailed and wonderful and given an extra dimension through its evocation of spirits, spells, curses and desert mirages. It is incredible how naturally this portrait of ancient golems and djinnis suits New York City in 1899. I’m not a fan of fantasy, on the contrary, but here we have a book that marries perfectly the real and the imagined and the union benefits both. The figures of the golem and the djinni bridge both worlds, they have no choice, and as a result their story is magical.