Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
I often enjoy a mystery regardless of solving it myself or not, for various reasons. In this case, the pacing and the humor kept me so amused I forgot to try to solve the murder.
Talkative, a bit flaky, and quite attached to her designer shoes and handbags, Gracie Elliot is one of those characters who would drive me crazy if I had to meet her, but she’s hilarious in print. Her inner dialogue shows enough self-awareness that her flaws become funny rather than obnoxious. Her involvement in solving a crime is refreshingly up-front and intentional. She thinks the fastest way to get the murder of a client in her senior match-making service solved is to jump in and do it herself—and make her husband help. As with any amateur sleuth mystery, there’s an element of the implausible requiring suspension of disbelief, but within the context of the plot, characters and setting, Gracie's actions and motives work, and so does her husband Blake’s more reluctant involvement. Their marriage is a delight for the reader, full of wit and affection.
That said, there’s nothing saccharine about this cozy mystery. Some cozies are just too cozy to live, and I can’t finish them. This one is tart rather than sweet. Gracie is a sharp and critical observer of her fellow humans’ appearances, personalities, mannerisms, fashion sense and home decor—which is an asset in the both the mystery and the comedy departments. As well as being an aficionado of quality handbags and shoes, she’s a former fabric designer (laid off and desperate to make a living—hence the senior dating business), and she can assess a woman’s income and lifestyle from her living room and her clothes and accessories, which makes Gracie a suitable detective for the particular crime she’s looking into. I was so amused by the parade of suspects, especially the ones with bad taste, that I didn’t care which one of them had done it.
Gracie aspires to become a romance writer, and her observations on learning the craft of writing add an extra layer of enjoyment for a writer reading the book.
This review is written by someone who seldom watches movies. I never saw Titanic or The Unsinkable Molly Brown, so I’m not comparing it with anything. I’m interested in history, but the rich and famous tend to escape my notice and I had to look up some of the more celebrated survivors. I’d never heard of some of them. Reading this made me learn more about popular culture of the times.
The best part of the book is its exploration of women’s roles and how they were changing in the early 20th century, the contrast between American and British views of class and rank, and the use of the Titanic disaster as a symbol and an anchor for these themes.
The story focuses on a young working class Englishwoman, Tess Collins, who survives because of working for a first class passenger, the designer Lady Lucile Duff Gordon.
The description of the night of the ship’s sinking is stunning and vivid. The characters are worth following. I kept hoping the story would go longer, following Tess’s career, but it wraps up with the romance plot. A woman’s life is not wrapped up with the romance plot, and the story seemed headed in a more intriguing direction. Nonetheless, it was a good historical read, and I was delighted to discover Margaret Brown and her place in history, and to read about the Suffragists, and the investigation into the Titanic’s lack of preparation.
Crater tells hard truths with beautiful language, in voices unique to each of the two narrators: Maggie, a black woman who came of age in the late nineteenth century, and Caroline, a white woman who was a child in the 1950s. The reader is given Maggie’s spoken voice as heard by Caroline in spirit and memory, and Caroline’s written voice, her story told for a very personal audience.
This is not light reading, but there’s no heavy-handed message, either. Just the truth. Without a shred of nostalgic illusion about the Old South or about the fifties, Crater explores the reality of women’s lives in those times. This book travels through history on the inside, from the post-slavery years when its shadow hung heavy on society and the Klan could rampage through the night, to the civil rights years, when it took courage to confront the segregationist norms, and when women’s rights were barely on the horizon. Caroline is speaking of delusions about love when she says, “We still sleepwalked under the sway of romantic myths, even though we were the victims of them.” But this line also speaks to me about the way Americans sometimes cling to romanticized views of the “good old days” and underestimate their legacy.
The unpleasant things in the back of our country’s closet are aired out in this book, but so are the strengths of ordinary people. I never found the story depressing. The darker events the characters endure are woven through with a sustaining breath of love and occasional flashes of humor. Communities and friendships keep the women going when life hits them with the unbearable.
If you’re in a book club, your book club should read this. The discussions will be deep. And despite the serious subject matter, it’s fluid, effortless reading, hard to put down. Some people might class this as “women’s fiction” since it is about women’s experience, but a male audience will find it just as profound with its insights into the traumas some women survive, and the historical context of being an American woman.
An image that stayed with me was Caroline’s fascinated childhood observation of the outfits her mother wore to work—once her mother managed to convince her husband and in-laws that she should be allowed to work: the armor of undergarments, the layer of make-up, and the high-heeled shoes that constituted looking properly feminine. The author doesn’t say anything critical about this, simply describes it through a child’s eyes, but I couldn’t help seeing all this uncomfortable accoutrement as a symbolic little prison a woman carried with her, right next to her skin.
Author's web site:https://theresacrater.wordpress.com/
You can find background on the book here and buy links for purchasing it.
A mystery with many layers, the first of Anaya’s Sonny Baca novels is crime fiction and also literary fiction with mythical depths. At one level, it’s the story of a young private detective’s search for his cousin’s killer; at the other level, it’s the story of his spiritual development and reconnection with his traditional culture and his ancestors. The story also reflects on the ecological and ethical challenges facing New Mexico as some seek to develop it and others to preserve and protect it. The sacredness of earth, sun and water, and their spiritual place in human hearts, is as important as the question of who committed the crime, and even inseparable from it.
Sonny Baca, great grandson of the famous Elefgo Baca, is—like his bisabuelo—a flawed hero. Sonny is still maturing as a man and in his profession, learning from his mistakes, but at the same time he’s smart, perceptive, and courageous, and he thinks a lot about both the world around him and the struggles within him. For a reader used to the pace of most crime fiction, this occasional descent into deep wells of thought may feel digressive, but Sonny’s insights are part of the story. Most of the time, the pace is intense and the story flies along.
One way Anaya sustains the flow is that he never translates or explains the Spanish words and phrases his characters sprinkle throughout their conversation. This not only kept the pace and the authenticity, but taught me. I began to understand them as I read. (If you’re not a Spanish speaker, notice how you figured out bisabuelo already.)
Though they have full personalities, there’s an archetypal quality to the characters. Sonny’s neighbor don Eliseo is the Wise Old Man, human and believable, not idealized. His spirituality is both transcendent and earth-bound. Rita, Sonny’s girlfriend, comes close to seeming too perfect, a strong, loving, nurturing goddess, but she’s written as seen by a man in love with her. The villains of the story are the inversions of these benevolent archetypes, making them some of the most disturbing criminals I’ve come across in a mystery.
The writing is engaging, as one would expect from a literary master like Anaya. The first chapter, however, is the weakest, heavy with backstory. Don’t let the slow start deter you. After that, the story comes alive. While the crime is horrific, the fullness of Sonny’s life and circle of friends balance this element with humor, love, and mystical wisdom.
New Mexico Magazine recently profiled Anaya in a wonderful and thorough article, linked here.
I love mysteries that go off the beaten path, and a Neanderthal Ice Age trek is wonderfully far from that old, too-familiar path. In another fascinating genre blend of historical, adventure, and mystery, Kaye George again succeeds in bringing her Neanderthal characters and their land and culture to life, complete with their religion, their language, and their female-led social structure. Having just read Dean Radin’s Supernormal, on scientific research into telepathy and other psi abilities, her portrayal of Neanderthals as using shared telepathic imagery more than spoken language was even more intriguing. According to Radin’s research, this ability exists and seems to be latent in most of us, but becomes more pronounced through intimacy, emergency, and spiritual practice. The Neanderthal tribe in this book, the Hamapa, is closely bonded, and they practice this skill as a normal part of life, saving speech for special occasions. George shows how telepathy could be a liability as well as an advantage. Since the Hamapa seldom use spoken language, she effectively uses a simple vocabulary and such structures as “most tall” and “more strong” to imply the nature of the Hamapa language and their way of thinking. It has the effect of hearing an ancient saga around a Neanderthal fire.
She acknowledges that she moves various early humans who were not known to be in North America into her chosen setting for the sake of the story, and it works well. This is well researched historical fiction, but it is fiction, after all.
The mystery plot is secondary to the adventure plot, the tale of the trek itself, the tribe’s long journey to avoid the encroaching glaciation of the Ice Age. But, needless to say, under such stresses, people snap, and someone is killed. The process of identifying the killer has to take second place to the need to keep the tribe moving, alive and united, leaving them uneasy as they travel with a possible murderer among them.
The normally perceptive protagonist makes a foolish mistake toward the end, one that I wanted to yell at her for making, but it leads to a satisfying wrap-up for both the mystery and her personal story.
I recommend reading the first book in this series before this one. It will give you grounding in the ways of the tribe. I know it takes the author years to write these, with the amount of research involved, but I look forward to the next one.
I enjoyed the fast pace, the working friendships, the portrait of a marriage that thrives despite the police careers of both partners—or maybe even because of the shared stresses and the way they understand each other. The in-depth details of police work are fascinating, and the story engages with the issue of conflicted police-community relations without taking sides or preaching. It’s part of the realistic setting. And it relates to the apparent motive behind a vigilante reality TV show that makes cops look bad.
I loved the way Hitchens and Scully cracked the case through attention to subtle clues. Hitchens is more likeable and interesting than Scully, but that’s partly an effect of point of view. The narrator, Scully, is more observant of others than he is self-revealing, so he is harder to get to know even though he’s telling the story. The first person POV blunts a certain amount of the tension, because obviously the narrator survives, but there’s enough tension to go around that this seldom weakens the suspense.
I suspect the author consciously chose to build a scene around a certain old-fashioned form of peril that was used in a number of late nineteenth century plays and satirized in several popular silent comedies. It doesn’t seem possible that he wrote this particular scene without awareness of its historical antecedents, and I bet he had fun plotting it. I would have fun saying what it is, but that would be a spoiler. (No, the protagonist does not hang from a cliff.)
Some people approach the topic of psychic phenomena from a standpoint of immoveable conviction. There are those who believe psi events happen, and no science or statistics would convince them otherwise. On the other side are those who believe such things do not happen, and no evidence from even the best quality research could convince them otherwise. It’s like politics. Minds seldom change. But that doesn’t mean they never do. Science progresses through study and replication and further studies, and the word “proof” is seldom used outside of mathematics. This book should interest readers who would like to assess the evidence with an open mind.
Having said that, I think it may be useful to preface this review with the author’s credentials:
Dean Radin, PhD, is Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). Before joining the research staff at IONS in 2001, he held appointments at AT&T Bell Labs, Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, and SRI International. He is author or coauthor of over 250 technical and popular articles, three dozen book chapters, and three books including the award-winning The Conscious Universe (HarperOne, 1997), Entangled Minds (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and the 2014 Silver Nautilus Book Award winner, Supernormal (Random House, 2013).
Taken from http://www.deanradin.com/NewWeb/bio.html
The author works hard to make statistical analysis and research methodology accessible to a reader without a background in those fields. Having spent the last ten years of my academic career helping first-year college students learn to comprehend the language of scholarly journals, I have mixed feelings about this “translation.” Would it have been better to teach his readers the terminology, or was paraphrasing it the right choice? I don’t know. Sometimes he tries too hard to funny, like a professor who attempts to lighten up his lectures with strained jokes, but that’s a minor issue. Overall, I found the book well-structured and thoroughly researched. (384 sources are listed in the back, exceeding the number of pages in the book.)
Supernormal is primarily about how scientists study psychic abilities, not about spectacular events, so anyone wanting to read amazing, colorful anecdotes won’t find them here. It’s not essentially about yoga, either, though it will have more meaning to a reader who has studied yoga philosophy, and Radin has some good quotations on that subject. In yoga, the siddhis are not, as I understand it, as important as simply achieving awareness and quieting the cravings and cluttered noise of the mind. The siddhis can happen, but they are not the purpose or goal of practicing yoga. Nonetheless, in Radin’s research and in studies by other scientists, subjects with a regular meditation practice performed significantly better in experiments testing clairvoyance, precognition, and other psi abilities, so there appears to be a correlation between meditation and being psychic. An impressive number of well-designed studies support this. (My own experience fits the pattern. When I began yoga and meditation at age twelve, I began to have precognitive intuitions and dreams.)
I’d recommend this book to a reader who wants to get “down in the weeds” in the labs where these studies are done and examine the designs, the methods, and the analyses without going to the original scholarly journals. It’s a solid summary of what’s been found so far. The questions raised about the nature of reality and the nature of mind and consciousness are intriguing. How did the future find a crack into my dream and appear in perfect detail? Some of Radin’s studies address the emotional aspect of psychic material. He set up one study using long-term couples with one partner who was ill as subjects, and included the emotional bond and loving intentions as part of the design. Why does this matter? As with any other sense, we may be constantly filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on what is salient. It’s only when we dream that a friend is about to die or hear a voice warning us of something dire for a loved one that we let the psi phenomena take central focus. Otherwise, our psychic sense’s input can be ignored as background noise, the way unimportant input from our hearing often is. Perhaps if we learned to tune into this sense and trusted that it was real, we might act with more awareness and wisdom.
Much of what happens in psi is small—a sense that something is about to happen, or that one is being stared at—so we pay no attention. Radin studies all of these phenomena in minute detail, even documenting patterns of brain activity. I could go on, but that would be a spoiler, if there can be such a thing in science.
Radin almost pulls the rug out from under himself when he drifts off into a page or two of speculation on unrelated phenomena such as UFOs and crop circles that the skeptics and debunkers (some who rail against his studies) have actually already done good job explaining. Even though he doesn’t say he believes in these things, and uses them as a take-off point for ruminations about reality, they have no natural connection with psi ability and probably don’t belong in in a book on that subject. (I suspect that editors sometimes don’t tell famous authors—whether they are novelists or established scientists—to “kill your darlings.”) Nonetheless, as a yoga teacher, a long-time consumer of the scholarly literature on psi research, an individual who has occasional psychic experiences, and of course as the author of a mystery series featuring a psychic, I found this to be a worthwhile read.
Though he makes his living writing crime novels, Martin Canning is a shy, gentle man. But when he witnesses a road rage incident at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he steps in to save a stranger from being beaten to death. The story begins in the point of view of the beaten man, and he does something for hire that’s on the shady side of the law, though the reader knows not what. The book also ends in his POV in a neat frame for the narrative, with a twist that ties up his role and reveals his trade, but also opens up a whole new set of questions as to who was chasing whom from the beginning.
Martin’s one good turn takes him into a labyrinth of troubles. Other witnesses to the same incident become the other major players in the story. The plot weaves their stories together, using all of their points of view. The incident is like an impact point of a meteor crash and or the center of a starburst pattern, and it’s also like the outer doll in the Russian nesting dolls that are a repeating image throughout the book. Each of these witnesses is a fascinating character drawn with depth and humor, especially Gloria, the resourceful and disillusioned wife of a corrupt tycoon. Jackson Brodie is sort of a part-time protagonist; it’s not uniquely his story. And it’s not a conventional murder mystery. The nested dolls of time and memory are part of the unusual structure. Sometimes this flashback technique works and sometimes it doesn’t. As Jackson muses on his relationship’s past joys and present difficulties, it works. When he thinks at length about the swimming pool at his house in France while trying to haul a dead body out of the sea at risk to his life, it’s not only implausible but kills the scene with loss of continuity and tension. As Gloria’s memories are gradually revealed, it seems contrived, because she’s not discovering insights. Although she encounters many new externals, as far as her internals go, she’s known all along exactly what drives her. The challenge for a writer using so many points of view is to keep secrets from the reader without making the reader aware of the author withholding information that is known to the POV character. Martin’s recollection of his trip to Russia is parceled out bit by bit, as if it were a new story in the background, a narrative with installments embedded into his ongoing experiences. Is it even a flashback? Realistically, it seems that every time something reminds him of the worst part of that trip, he would think directly about the specific event, not build up to it in a reconstruction of the entire journey. His fantasy life, however, is a wonderful creation, a revelation of his character, his self-image, and his psychological evolution.
There are two murders, but the instigating event is not the murder, and the plot doesn’t turn on finding out whodunit. There are layers of motives and connections to puzzle out, but it’s pretty obvious, after a while, who the killer is. That’s not a weakness in the story, in my opinion (though there are others).
The role of Tatiana, the Russian woman is ambiguous, and figuring her out might take a full rereading. I’m left wondering if the author knew everything this character was up to behind the scenes and thought the reader would get it, or if she simply found it convenient to have a character who remains mysterious, her actions and knowledge and connections not fully revealed. This is the second time I’ve read a book by this author that made me think she wrapped up loose ends offstage because she either ran out of space in her projected word count, didn’t have a solid solution and wanted to hide it, or wanted to leave the reader trying to figure out a lot she didn’t put in the story.
The endings of all the personal-life subplots are given the right degree of partial closure. There are implications of what could happen for Martin, for Jackson, for Gloria, and others, though no certainties. Again, Atkinson delivers characters who carry the story, brilliant writing, natural humor, and a complex but vaguely unsatisfactory plot. Once again, five-star characters, setting, and language and three-star story-telling and plot=four stars.
Some people have all the luck—the bad luck. And in this book, they find each other. The writing is so good and the characters so engaging, it didn’t matter in the long run that I occasionally wondered if that many bad things could really happen to people in close proximity with each other. Oddly enough, in such a feast of disasters, there’s also humor—not funny incidents, but perspectives on life and events as seen through the characters’ eyes. I loved teenaged Regina (Reggie) Chase, the ultimate plucky, spunky kid, but not a stereotype. I’d have followed her anywhere, no matter what the plot.
A couple of aspects of the mystery felt a little loose or not quite realistic. There was the matter of one man having another's driver’s license and not his own after nearly dying in a train crash. No one follows up on his missing credit cards or license for a long time. I kept thinking, “What about his credit cards?” and felt relieved when someone finally thought of it. A final twist in one of the layers of the romantic subplot struck me as impossible to pull off in the 21st century, though it probably could have been done fifty years ago, and an aspect of the mystery plot was deliberately left unexplained, something for the reader to figure out, with only a hint as to how it might have happened. Figuring it out would have meant going back through the book and piecing together the timelines of events and clarifying where the affected characters were at various times. The book was due back at the library, so I didn’t do this. (Maybe I’m dense and other readers got the explanation right away.) I wonder if the author felt the book was getting too long and decided the only way to tie up this thread was to dangle a hint about it, or if the unfinished, unexplained aspect was intentional, a secret one of the characters successfully kept from the police.
A narrative device that I had mixed feelings about was showing a scene in one character’s point of view, ending it, and then switching to a short recap from another POV as the transition to the next scene. I understand the urge to do that, but there are ways to suggest conflicting perceptions without retelling. I don’t mean omniscient head hopping, but choosing the POV of the person with the most at stake and then letting subtle details of expression or behavior on the part of the non-POV character imply what they might be thinking and feeling. This transition technique was not done too often, but it jumped out at me as something a writer would have to be famous and well-established to get away with. Others would be advised to pick up the pace.
Five stars for characters, dialogue and setting and three stars for plot=four.
Since a lot of the people who follow this review blog are mystery fans, I thought you might like to know where you can find some mystery and thriller bargains this weekend. Book One in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, The Calling, is on sale for 99 cents along with many others, spanning all aspects of the mystery and thriller genres.
For my fellow Nook owners and others who read on something other than a Kindle, my books are on all e-book retail sites, never just Amazon.
Beautifully written. The language and the depth of interiority have the quality of literary fiction, while the plot is a solid mystery, and the ending is original, avoiding the clichés of the genre. Brilliant though it was, I was relieved to be done with it. My soul craved light and joy after immersion in so much unsavory gloom. This is a dark book, populated by masterfully drawn characters each with his or her special kind of unhappiness. I will need a long break from this author and his Dublin of drinkers and smokers and sinners, but he writes so well I still recommend the book, misery and all.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and it delivered what I want from that medium: it kept me wildly alert on long drives (except during one of the sex scenes, which ran on so long I found myself thinking, “No, I don’t want to hear about a third orgasm; get on with the story.”)
Just when you think the mystery is solved and there’s nothing left reveal, there’s more. (Kind of like that sex scene, only more exciting.) Brown accomplishes this layered process of revelation through police procedure, an investigative journalist’s persistence, and authorial sleight of hand. The first two are done well, but I’m not a fan of authors overtly withholding from readers. In this case, it makes a certain big discovery feel like a trick rather than part of the growth of an organic plot and I was thrown out of the story for a while. Having the protagonist suddenly share a stunning secret that he has known all along, while effective in making me sit up and say “Whoa!” didn’t work for me otherwise. If he knew this truth, and more than half the book is in his point of view, and he never once thinks about this secret in his private ruminations or during interactions with affected people, especially with a close friend who knows the secret, it’s out of character for such a deep and introspective man. Aside from that and the over-long sex scene, however, this is a great book, masterfully crafted, with intense and believable relationships. Brown waits until the antagonists’ biggest secret has been revealed before showing their points of view. She uses diary excerpts effectively to get yet another point of view and a glimpse of the past. While Deadline isn’t perfect, I still recommend it for fast-paced listening, an excellent audiobook for long stretches of highway. You won’t get close to falling asleep at the wheel.
This next comment is more of a footnote than part of the review—food for thought. The book is set in the South and yet everyone is apparently white. Maybe some authors don’t think they should mention race or skin color in a description, but if hair color and eye color are worth noting, why not skin color? In the points of view of a white protagonist, white love interest, and white close friend and ally, it seems that other races and ethnicities would be noticed as a matter of observing appearances, not judging or categorizing. Without any mention of race at all, I got the image of a hundred-percent white cast of characters, and I have never gone a day in the South or the Southwest without interacting with diverse people. (Am I the only reader who ever has this thought? Do other readers have auto-diversity imaginations?)
At first, I thought I was reading the parallel stories of two leaders in two different cultures during the American Revolution, Tanarou, a Tuscarora elder and Sgt. Howe of the Colonial New York militia, since the first two chapters open in these men’s points of view. The plot at first appeared to be about the progress of the war and the conflicts among the Iroquois confederacy, the Colonials, and the British. Then it became the stories of two younger warriors, Ginawo, a promising leader in his tribe, and Private Joseph Killeen, and the unwelcome alliances Native tribes were obliged to make when caught between two sides. Finally, it evolved into Joseph’s story, with the broad view of the war narrowing down to focus an intense light on one young man and his cross between two cultures. Though the dialogue is sometimes forced and in one instance becomes a clunky “I did my research” display as one character unrealistically tells another things she already knows, the writing otherwise flows well and the relationships are portrayed with affecting depth. I would have liked the book to be longer, a fully fleshed out novel. There was potential in it for a big story. However, it was still worth reading, and once it found its focus on the protagonist and I realized what the arc of the plot was about, I was totally immersed in it. My interests in Native American history and eighteenth century history led me to this book, and Hedbor didn’t disappoint me at all in the depth and quality of his understanding of the cultures and setting. Since I’ve already acquired another book in the series, which explores the Revolutionary War in various locales, I’ll probably read it, but I don’t think I’ll get hooked on the series as a whole. History buffs who like short books, however—it was only 167 pages on my Nook—may well become whole-series fans.
A bomb goes off outside a high school basketball game in Shiprock, and the “wrong” man dies …
Set partly in New Mexico, partly in Arizona, and entirely within the Navajo Nation, this is Anne Hillerman’s best yet. Again, her strengths are character, setting and relationships, as well as a solid plot. A good mystery is not only a case to be solved, but a story about people the reader cares about. Hillerman integrates police work with family and friendships, Navajo culture, and a sense of the sacred.
Bernadette Manuelito is again a strong and engaging central character, with Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn in supporting roles. It was wonderful to read a few chapters in Leaphorn’s point of view, and I admired how the author tuned into his thinking and personality, with explorations of his inner life as well as his process as he solves a puzzle. The new characters are unique and original personalities, including, as Anne Hillerman always does so well, genuine, natural humor. The bombing victim’s story is sad and true to life, making this one of the most emotionally moving mysteries I’ve read, and the man who was the real target of the attempt is developed with depth and complexity.
The various Native cultures linked to the Grand Canyon region have meaningful moments in the telling of the story, and the canyon itself comes to life as a setting. The red herrings are believable and the final solution to the mystery makes sense without a single forced bend in the trail to get there.
This is the twenty-first book in the series. A reader could begin here and not be lost, but I recommend reading all of them, the three by Anne Hillerman and the ones by her father Tony Hillerman that preceded them. When I moved, I gave away most of my paperback mysteries, but I kept these.
Never can I write of Damascus
without my fingers becoming
a trellis for her jasmine.
Nor can my mouth speak that name
without savoring the juices of her apricot,
pomegranate, mulberry and quince.
Poem by Nizar Qabbani.
Translated by students in the Iraqi Student Project
Never Can I Write of Damascus: When Syria Became our Home, by Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck is a memoir of the couple’s years with the Iraqi Student Project, preparing Iraqi refugees in Syria in to attend college in the U.S. Huck and Kubasak chose the work of creating educational opportunities for Iraqi young adults as their way of compensating in some small way for the damage done to Iraq by the U.S. invasion. They chose Syria because it had welcomed such large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Little did they know that in seven years they would be leaving Syria themselves, and that this country they came to love would be flooding the world with its own desperate refugees.
If I were not about to retire from education, I might use this book in a first-year seminar, teaching college students how to explore intellectually, do critical thinking, engage in civil discourse, and appreciate learning, language and culture for their own sake. The model of highly motivated learning in the ISP groups is fascinating, as they discovered world literature and poetry in discussion groups and worked together in writing workshops, to a large extent self-directed with guidance from Kubasak.
Through this book, I’ve learned more about Syria than I have ever learned from the news. I got a clear feeling for what it must be like to leave your home and your possessions because your life is in danger and your country at war within itself, and also for how Syria made room for refugees, first from Iraq and then from its own disrupted society. Though they make occasional references to politics, most of all Huck and Kubasak have written a love letter to Damascus: its language, its architecture, its food, its artisans, its spirituality, and its people. Damascus as it was. The city in this memoir is full of music, dancing, fresh fruit juices, family, prayers, creativity, and most of all friendliness and generosity.
The authors use excerpts from student writings, interviews with local residents, and quotations from books and poetry to illustrate the themes of each chapter. One moving story is from an Iraqi refugee. She tells about stopping in Mosul on a cold night as one of many escaping to Syria, taking shelter in a mosque. The travelers didn’t know each other, but little by little they drew closer to each other for conversation and for warmth, and thus they spent the night, comforted by each other’s human presence and warmth. They were Shia, Sunni and Christian in that group, and it no longer mattered at all.
Author Nupur Tustin casts composer Franz Joseph Haydn in the role of amateur sleuth, and does so with believable realism, creating a situation in which Haydn has no choice but to take on the role. Not only has his principal violinist disappeared, but the missing man has stolen some of Haydn’s unpublished new music. The plot grows more complex, entangled in political unrest and a love affair.
The working life and the social standing of musicians and their place in a royal court is a fascinating part of the historical setting. The book is full of original and intriguing characters, especially Haydn’s observant and difficult wife. Though she’s hard to live with, she provides valuable insight into the mystery. Finding her to be such a strong character, I would have enjoyed a little more description of her kitchen and her clothes (since she seems fonder of cooking and shopping than of her husband). I want to know her better, and hope to see more of her in future books in the series.
The author’s musical background—she is a composer herself—gives authenticity to the book. She strikes a good balance between the elements of a historical novel and a cozy mystery. The plot is unpredictable. Every time I thought I had the mystery figured out, along came another surprise, right up until the end. And the end is excellent. One of the best final lines I’ve read lately.