Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series
"Great books that are impossible to classify … Mae, the series character, is a psychic, but the books will appeal even to readers who aren’t big fans of the paranormal in fiction. Mae is a very real, very grounded character, and her journey makes for compelling page-turners that will keep you surprised." Saints and Trees blog, Best Books of 2014
The first ten pages should light a fire in discouraged progressives, but I think everyone, no matter who they voted for, could learn something of value and interest from this book. There is common ground for all middle-class and working-class and poor Americans in Sanders’ examination of economic issues. He has done his research. I’ve studied in depth a number of the issues he addresses, and as far as I can see, he is accurate in his assessments, especially on health care. The book could have been more tightly edited, but a little repetition when he’s trying to get a point across is okay with me. There are so many important ideas in this book, instead of a formal review, I’ve posted notes I took while reading. They do not in any way replace reading it yourself. A number of my notes are quotations from the book that I think will make great discussion points when my book club meets after reading this. I hope the notes give you food for thought, a reason to read the whole book, and fuel for becoming an engaged, thoughtful citizen.
My delight in reading the Pot Thief books never fades. As I dive into each story, I find something cozy and familiar and yet full of surprises, a quality much like pot thief Hubie Schuze’s happy hour conversations over margaritas with his friend Susannah.
This book has the best opening I’ve read in years. It sets the tone, revealing Hubie’s sense of humor, while introducing the instigating event for the mystery immediately. “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before. I didn’t think I had, but the cloth over my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”
Hubie is brought in this mysterious way to appraise a pot collection. In that collection, he finds something that shouldn’t be there. And the appraisal fee gets sneaked out of his pocket on the return trip. The lengths he goes to in order to get it back are clever (and illegal), and get him into trouble for something he didn’t do: kill the pot collector. Unexpected new romance comes out his attempts to sort out his situation.
Orenduff does something I’ve seen one other author do successfully (Martyn V. Halm, in his Amsterdam Assassin thriller series, which in all other ways is as different from the Pot Thief series as it could be, though just as good). He inserts interludes. These are short chapters which tell a story within the story, about a personal aspect of the main character’s life. These interludes are few, well-crafted and beautiful, revealing details about life in New Mexico and showing Hubie’s appreciation of old friends and of the place he lives. They aren’t unnecessary, though it may sound as if they are. The nature of these books is such that this is the pace. This is the personality. There is suspense, but it’s suspense from the point of view of a man who has some amusing opinions that he freely shares, and who savors the taste of life, from traditional New Mexican cooking and Gruet champagne, to friendships, the scenery on Sandia peak, and the unexpected companionship of a funny-looking dog.
As always, the story is full of fascinating information about what Hubie is studying. The book he’s reading on Einstein and quantum physics plays a key role in the plot and in his thinking, as he struggles to understand the uncertainty principle and figure out who really killed the pot collector.
If you haven’t started this series yet, begin at the beginning and make friends with Hubie in The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras.
As I finished this book, the following image came to me: At the roots of every tree are bacteria and fungi, life forms we may think of as “icky” which are essential to the health of the tree. In and on our own bodies as well, innumerable tiny organisms thrive, and this population keeps us functioning. Democracy, the tree of liberty or the body politic, is no different. We may find some of its components disagreeable, even repellent, and yet taken as a whole, they promote a thriving democracy as long as they remain in balance.
Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of George Washington reveals the complex human being and the social ecosystem in which he matured. There was never a golden age in American history and there was never a president or leader who didn’t have shortcomings or make mistakes. The press was always full of leaks and partisan diatribes, and the American public has always been, since the birth of the nation, susceptible to conspiracy theories founded in fear of big government. Newspapers and pamphlets were the Twitter, TV and talk radio of the day. Backstabbing under pseudonyms, outright lies, and biased editorial policies were as common if not more common than the objective journalism modern media outlets sometimes aspire to. Washington was elected unanimously, but that doesn’t mean he was president of a nation free of minor squabbles or deep divisions.
Chernow makes it clear that Washington’s genius lay not in being perfect but in knowing when to speak and when to say nothing (he ignored attacks in the press), and when to act and when to wait, as well as being tactful, listening, taking time to think, and discerning talent in others and promoting the right people.
Here are two of my favorite quotations from Washington’s letters:
In this, he was writing to his adopted grandson: “Where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain that it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”
The following is an excerpt from a letter Washington wrote to a Jewish congregation in Philadelphia. Note that the word “demean” back then related to one’s demeanor and didn’t have its modern meaning of debasing. It meant comport or behave. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. It is now no more that tolerance is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He found religious tolerance to be too weak a concept, too condescending toward religious minorities.
Perhaps you’ve read this much of the review and think, “Okay, got it, I can skip the book.” Maybe. But I think many people will enjoy reading it. Here’s why.
One of many things I love about being in a book club is the diversity of genres we explore. For October’s read, we chose this 800-plus page book. As you might expect with a book that long, we felt the need to postpone our discussion into November so we could finish it. Many times, we chose a book that one or two members decide not to finish or that someone feels no need to have completed before we meet. This book was different. We all wanted to read every page before we talked about it. What makes this enormous volume so compelling? After all, we know the plot—the main character’s career, who he marries, who won the war, and of course, who won that first presidential election. I’ve tried to identify the features of this biography that make it a page-turner above and beyond the question that keeps a lot readers going in fiction—“how will it end?”
Friendships make great stories. It’s easy to think the strongest drama is in romantic love, but in some lives it isn’t. George and Martha Washington’s marriage was long, affectionate, stable and free of scandal. His friends provided more drama—not that he liked drama, but a reader does. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful, valuable and difficult friend, a needed ally but not an easy one. Lafayette was loyal and affectionate, almost like a son to Washington. The contrast between his emotional, open personality and the reserved Washington makes for good reading, and makes the reader care about both of them and understand their rapport. A story about friendships could be filled with enough variety that no romantic drama is needed: Friends who support the main character and friends who undermine or disappoint him; friends who fail in their struggles; friends who challenge and refine his character and ideas. Washington had all of these.
Enemies make great stories, too, of course, if they are well-developed characters. Washington’s colleagues who wanted to supplant him in the army provide some lively incidents. The way he let these ambitious fellow generals destroy themselves without his taking any action against them is amazing. He could foresee how his enemies might trip themselves up and then wait and let them do it. Once in a while, however, he failed to read character well. Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy are fascinating, more so than any British general. Betrayed trust makes a more complex story than frank, constant opposition. (Historical fiction writers: There’s potential for a novel in Peggy Arnold.) Do you know if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Washington’s friends or enemies? Did he know? Read the book and find out. It gets complicated.
Unexpected characteristics are engaging: Imagine a president who hopes he’ll only be needed for two years and can then resign. (Obviously, he didn’t get his wish.) Washington described being elected in terms comparable to being condemned to death. Martha dreaded being first lady, too, and felt like a prisoner in that role. The aversion this couple had to being famous and powerful is a trait that contrasts with common expectations of people in politics.
Minor characters can be compelling—and reveal a lot about the main character. Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery show in his relationships with his slaves, refusing to permanently separate married couples or to break up families. His personal attendant, William Lee, who went through the war with him, married a free black woman in Philadelphia and asked that she be brought to Virginia when Washington returned home. He didn’t like Lee’s wife and still he did as Lee asked. (What a complicated life this couple must have had when she arrived. Lee is another figure would make an intriguing central character for a historical novel.) In many ways, Washington treated Lee like a valued employee, but he owned him. He showed solicitude about all of his slaves’ health and family relationships, but they still were slaves and he expected them to work as if they were being paid for the labor, and tried to reclaim those who ran away to join the British during the war. The inconsistency in his behavior reveals the conflict he felt inside. It took him his whole life, literally, to resolve his inner conflict about slavery.
Washington’s attitude toward women was positive. He found them better company than men socially. A dinner party was disappointing if it was lacking ladies. He admired female historians and poets, and never seemed to think them inferior to male writers. Even while he conversed with intellectual women like Elizabeth Powel as his equals, he advised a headstrong niece that she should learn to submit her will more to her husband’s. The idea that women might vote never came up, of course, no matter what political insights Mrs. Powel could give him.
Family conflicts create empathy. Who would imagine that a great leader had a whiny, you-never-take-care-of-poor-me mother? Think of the Dwayne-and-Mom sketches on Prairie Home Companion and take them back to the 18th Century, and you have an idea what it was like for our first president to deal with Mary Washington.
Flaws and failures are important. If the main character doesn’t have pain and weakness, there’s no interest. No matter how strong someone is, that person has troubles—family, health, finances, all of the above—and sometimes makes major blunders. A character who can hold a reader’s attention usually has more virtues than flaws, but the balance can be close to fifty-fifty, if the flaws are traits readers can identify with and are paired with the opposite virtue, or are its shadow side. Washington tried to keep his temper but he couldn’t always. He tried to be honest, but he could tell a lie, even though he preferred not to. His respect and admiration for women was a virtue, but it was a blind spot that let Peggy Arnold get away. His generosity was a good trait though he often spent money he couldn’t spare, being short of funds due to crop failures and because he shopped, redecorated and remodeled far more than he reasonably should have. This didn’t stop him from paying for the college education of various young relatives and other deserving young men, and entertaining every stranger who dropped by Mt. Vernon. It would be hard to like a character who only spent too much on home décor, but when his extravagance his extended to paying tuition also, the reader’s feelings lean in his favor. Some of the provisions made in his will say even more about his character, but to reveal them would be a spoiler.
I opened the first page already knowing how the main character lived and died, but all of the features above kept me turning the pages.
Neanderthals, in this original and fast-moving tale, live in small bands led by an elected female chief. They have abilities we lack, traits that author Kaye George imagined as possibilities due to their larger brain size. She handles this fictional world with such deftness, I immediately fell into the rhythm of the characters’ “thought-speak” and accepted her well-researched speculations about the lives of our very ancient ancestors. * George believably creates her fictional tribe’s culture, customs, religion, language and the sagas their story-teller uses to give meaning to crucial moments in the life of the struggling band.
In the Hamapa tribe, women are considered the only ones patient enough to be spear-throwing hunters. Considering the powerful build of Neanderthals, I can easily imagine the women having this skill. I occasionally marveled at some of the physical feats the characters achieve, but then, I remembered: they’re Neanderthals. They are stronger than us. Not only were their brains were different from ours, so were their bodies.
The tension of the story depends as much on the challenges of hunter-gatherer life in an encroaching ice age where giant mammals roam as it does on solving the murder of a cherished leader in a close-knit community. I say this as a compliment: this book doesn’t stick to the formula for a murder mystery in a setting where to do so would be unrealistic. Enga Dancing Flower, the protagonist—like most of the young women of her tribe—is a hunter. Her patience and skill help her solve the mystery. If you like strong female leads, you can’t find one stronger. One of the things I loved about this book is that the characters are free from confining gender roles as we know them.
Death in the Time of Ice could be enjoyed as historical fiction by readers who aren’t normally mystery fans. I read both genres, and this book succeeds as an innovative blend. It didn’t feel like a whodunnit in mammoth skins, but like a genuine and natural story for its setting. Understandably, it takes the author years to research and create a new book in this series, so there is only one other so far, Death on the Trek. I bought it the day I finished this one and am definitely going to read it.
* Neanderthals are not everyone’s ancestors. Asians and Europeans have 1% to 4% Neanderthal DNA. Indigenous sub-Saharan Africans don’t. Modern humans apparently migrated out of Africa and met Neanderthals and made babies with them. It’s possible this is how Neanderthals “died out.” They gradually blended into the general hominid population.
The narrator, Darnda Jones is a bug psychic. She can tune into bugs and inspire them to go away, keeping people from spraying and killing them. This charmed me immediately, since I love insects. That someone so gentle she literally won’t hurt a fly could get involved in a murder investigation seems unlikely, so the juxtaposition is inventive. In Stung, Darnda is engaged to de-bug an outdoor wedding in Houston. She’s not only communicates with insects, birds and other creatures, but she’s learning to move her perception inside of theirs, to quite literally take a bird’s eye view. While in the point of view of a scarlet tanager, she witnesses a murder at the wedding.
Using her psychic gifts, her granddaughter Zo’s complementary intuition with human energy and emotional material, and her skill with people, Darnda investigates the death while also cooperating with the police. This is an amateur sleuth mystery in which it actually makes sense that the amateur can learn things the police can’t. Her psychic experiences are beautifully written and thoroughly researched, showing insights into the ways plants, birds and insects communicate with each other and sense the world.
The humor in the book comes authentically from relationships, events, and Darnda’s offbeat outlook on the world. The murder and other crimes are not made light of. In fact, Darnda and Zo are so sensitive to human cruelty that I felt that the awfulness of certain acts more vividly than I have in other light or cozy mysteries.
Darnda’s self-acceptance and wisdom as well as her unusual talents make her stand out from the run-of-the mill cozy protagonist. This is one of those books that made me care more about the characters than the plot. It wasn’t hard to figure out who done it, though that didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the book.
Houston is portrayed well. The city’s various neighborhoods, its unique character, and its climate, vegetation and insects, all come to life.
My only tiny quibble with the whole novel is a little too much phone business in a chapter near the end, with several scenes back to back that consist of a series of phone calls.
A great read, polished, fluid, and unique, a change of pace in mystery.
Note: Once again, Booklikes had no link for the book I was reviewing, and I had to find and provide the cover image. Am I reading things that are that obscure?
Review of Done From Life by Elspeth Grant Bobbs
Note: Booklikes did not have any link to this book available.
Rumor has it that a number of the characters in this book are based on real people who were part of the art scene in Santa Fe in the fifties. The author was part of that scene, married to an artist, but she didn’t write the book until 2011 when she was in her late eighties. Her ability to immerse her perspective in a fifties mindset without a single slip or anachronism is impressive. It makes the book fascinating and often startling, as the narrator, feisty young Mary McIntyre—Mac to most people—takes the sexism around her for granted, casually describes a fashion of the time as a “squaw dress” without the slightest sense that the word could be offensive, and tiptoes around the fact that someone is gay with what was no doubt open-mindedness and acceptance for those times. I’m not complaining about these features of the book; it’s realistic and well-done. The time period is neither romanticized nor denigrated, shown as it was in society overall, and in particular in Santa Fe (fictionalized as Villa Real, part of the city’s full name, La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis, the Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi).
The characters are irresistibly both likeable and flawed, none of them fatally. Except, of course, one—the killer. Mac, who moved to Santa Fe for her health after spending time in a sanitarium (a true-to-life aspect of fifties New Mexico), works for the local art association. Three of its senior members, established artists, have recently died in accidents. During her illness, Mac read a lot of mystery novels to pass the time. For a lark, she and her neighbor, struggling artist Bill Thorpe, start plotting a mystery novel as if the deaths had been murders. Then, the more they think about it, the more they suspect it’s what really happened. Mac’s problem: she knows and likes all the suspects. Including Bill.
As Mac recovers her health and her looks, she basks in male attention, not hesitating to date two men at once, one of them married, taking unabashed pleasure in the situation and at the same time learning more about the murders that the police are sure were accidents.
As I read, I absorbed new information about an artist’s life and work, got a feel for a city I know and love as it was sixty-odd years ago, and enjoyed working out the puzzle in Mac’s engaging company. I suspected who had done it, but not how or why, though all the clues were well laid. So were the red herrings. Bobbs handles what is normally the worst scene in any mystery—the confession scene—with genuine originality, eliminating almost all of the clichés. At the end, Mac’s decision how to handle her knowledge is morally ambiguous, but her reasoning is clear.
A special charm of this book, for those who know Mrs. Bobbs’ contributions to Santa Fe, is that Mac’s hobby is gardening. Mrs. Bobbs’ gardens at La Querencia are legendary, making her a Santa Fe Living Treasure. The gardens, in fact, are her claim to fame, and it’s quite possible there are many people who know of her for this achievement and don’t realize she wrote a mystery.
I do have to point out a shortcoming in this book. I wish the copyeditor had done justice to it. Sunstone Press should have someone who is more attentive to detail do it over, fixing simple things like run-on sentences, a few unclear lines of dialog, etc. that the original editor should have corrected before publication. These oversights annoyed me considerably at first, but I became so immersed in the story that although I still noticed the problems, I ceased to be so distracted by them. The author earns a four star, but the editor does not.
True or false:
“Bad boys” are sexy.
Dangerous men are exciting.
A man with money and power can make a girl’s life magical.
False, all the way through. Ask Kate Jones. She made the youthful mistake of believing these things were true. This series of novellas chronicles her attempts to escape the consequences of a very bad romantic error, from her first break-out to the follow-ups years later. Each episode is hair-raising and intense. Even though I knew Kate would survive—after all, it’s told in the first person, in her irresistibly frank and sometimes sassy voice—I still couldn’t stop reading, feeling as if she somehow might not make it. I was glad these are novellas so I could reach a stopping point and get some sleep.
In the first novella, an old man in Mexico warns Kate that she has ‘bad spirits.” Without this set-up, some of her extraordinary bad luck in subsequent episodes might not quite work, but instead, it creates a subtle shamanistic element in the series. Kate not only attracts danger but also seers. Their presence reminds the reader that she’s enmeshed in a web of forces largely outside her control, some spiritual, some all too physical, as she keeps fighting, and sometimes running, for her life.
I love long books when they’re done well, and this one is. This in-depth police procedural is as much an exploration of the many chambers of the heart as it is a crime novel, and it inhabits both roles equally well. The forms love takes—from gentle attraction to friendship to passion to unrequited devotion; from the love between couples to the love between parent and child, and even an interlude with a religiously obsessed form of love—fill the story. George keeps the pace engrossing while going deep into the souls of her characters. She also goes deep into the work the police officers do. There’s no quick and easy solution to the crimes being investigated. Every trail leads to new questions.
Set in both London and Italy, this mystery is original and free from predictable genre formulas. Not the standard dead body by chapter three canned plot. No hackneyed confrontation and confession at gun-or-knife-point. The author breaks rules and has the skill to do it.
As well as the theme of love, the book explores the breaking of rules and conventions, which love often moves people to do. Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, more than Inspector Thomas Lynley, drives the story. She’s somehow irresistible, though she’s a mess, or maybe because of it. She does what she isn’t supposed to do, whether it’s the way she dresses, her unhealthy habits, or her on-the-job behavior. When she’s determined to help a neighbor, a close friend, whose nine-year old daughter has been kidnapped, Havers pushes the limits professionally and risks her career. Her friend has broken with conventions in many ways himself. A Pakistani Muslim, a professor of microbiology, the distinguished and gentle man has left his family for passionate affair with a stunningly beautiful English woman, the mother of his beloved child. When she leaves him and takes their daughter with her, it’s the first twist in a winding plot.
One mystery leads to another. The cast of characters ranges from the usual main players at New Scotland Yard to a private detective and his assistants—a colorful lot—to the Italian police as the inquiry into the missing girl becomes an international affair. The mystery plot is full of surprises and suspense, and the variety of subplots layered into it show it taking place in the lives of real people; it’s not just puzzle to be solved. Havers has a profoundly moving scene alone toward the end as she experiences the aftereffects of her long efforts on her friend’s behalf.
This book could stand alone. The backstory is handled smoothly and doesn’t spoil any prior books, but it will be even more appealing to readers who already know and care about Lynley and Havers.
Finally—the sequel! And it’s even better than the first book in the series. The dialogue flows more naturally, the characters are intriguing, and the historical research is once again solid in every detail, including the important aspects of the two types of medicine practiced in the nineteenth century—traditional herbal folk doctoring and academic medicine (which was in its infancy). The narrator, Kate, is as lively and passionate as ever, with an earthy sense of humor that enlivens this tale of difficult times. She matures through the challenges she faces in this next stage of her story, and her sister-law Carolina does as well. The Civil War forces Kate and her wealthy in-laws and their slaves to take refuge from Nashville at her mother’s simple rural home. Kate’s medical doctor husband and her folk doctor or “yarb doctor” mother have to live together—and that’s not the only conflict. Imagine having your entire family with their varying views on politics, their personalities and their habits, sharing one small house.
The complexity of the war, with good and bad soldiers and supporters on both sides, is portrayed in living depth. The effects of the war on various social classes are also shown vividly, from poor farmer to slave to wealthy lawyer. This series would make an amazing TV miniseries. I’d love to see it dramatized.
So much happens in this story, in a true-to-life blend of tragedy, comedy and romance, the pace is riveting. At times it seems that too much happens, but it’s war time—and everyone is together. It's not only the conflicting views of the war and slavery that share a small space, but all the events in the lives of one family and their close neighbors also are compressed into a kind of intimacy where sometimes the only privacy is in the outhouse.
The theme of choice goes far beyond Kate’s personal life. I was particular moved by choices the slave George had to make. I recommend reading the first book before this one, to get to know Kate and her mother. The second book could stand alone, but the evolution of the relationships and the changes characters undergo through extraordinary trials will mean more if you meet them in The Doctor’s Daughter: Journey to Justice first.
Note: I received an ARC of this book for an honest review.
Some of my favorite places in New Mexico are featured in the latest Mae Martin Mystery: the Mescalero Apache reservation, where Mae finally meets her friend Bernadette Pena’s family and attends a ceremony and a powwow; and of course Truth or Consequences, my home and Mae’s. I enjoyed bringing a few of the local businesses and the work of one of T or C’s stellar artists into the plot—with their permission, of course. The cover image reminds me of Mescalero with its high mountains and its sky full of stars.
The fifth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery
A visit to the Mescalero Apache reservation turns from vacation to turmoil for Mae Martin.
Reno Geronimo has more money than a starving artist should. He’s avoiding his fiancée and his family. His former mentor, nearing the end of her life, refuses to speak to him and no one knows what caused the rift. Distressed and frustrated, Reno’s fiancée asks Mae to use her psychic gift to find out what he’s hiding. Love and friendship are rocked by conflict as she gets closer and closer to the truth.
The Mae Martin Series
No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.
For purchase links: https://amberfoxxmysteries.com/the-mae-martin-mysteries/ghost-sickness/
If you haven’t yet started the series, you can buy the e-book of The Calling (book one), for ninety-cents from all major e-book retailers. The sale runs Aug. 10 through August 25. Purchase links:
What a strange book. It’s not a mystery. We know who done it. Keller, the protagonist, is a professional hit man. It’s not a thriller. There’s suspense, but there are few details of his hits. In fact, most of them take place offstage, and if they’re described at all, it’s through Keller’s conversations with his booking agent (I don’t know what else to call her) Dot, after the fact. Block transitions skillfully in and out of scenes that show Keller traveling to each job, planning, scouting, and then debating whether or not to do it, and scenes that show Keller in conversation with Dot about the job once it’s been completed.
There’s a current of dark humor that keeps the story from feeling entirely realistic. The plot is built around Keller’s desire to retire. His first hit is a baseball player who needs to retire. As Keller progresses through his hit parade, he explores his loneliness, his stamp collecting hobby, and his occasional wish that he could be a sociopath so the job would be easier.
Block never gives us a description of Dot or Keller, which I’m sure is intentional, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks with the possibility that anyone, any face on the street, could be someone in this business and you’d never know it. Their personalities are vivid and yet incredibly ordinary. Their friendship, as partners in murder for hire, is also quite normal. That’s part of the bizarre charm of the book. I usually try to include a “who would like this” line in a review, but I’m not sure. I have enjoyed books that have a protagonist on the wrong side of the law, such as Martyn V. Halm’s intense and gripping Amsterdam Assassin Series, and J. Michael Orenduff’s intelligent and humorous Pot Thief Mysteries. Those series are on opposite ends of the law-breaking protagonist spectrum. Block’s Keller sits somewhere in the middle. His job is the same that Halm’s Katla does, but the tone of the book is almost as amusing as Orenduff’s. Go figure. I’m not sure who would like this book, but I did. Oddly enough, it makes you think about right and wrong and the way we bend our minds around our lives to make our transgressions and ethical lapses acceptable.
Each book in this series is complete in and of itself but taken together they become one long story, crafted so well that even though I’m going through the series backward, I’m neither confused about backstory nor being drowned in it. Stabenow delivers the right amount.
The land, the climate and the culture are essential to the plot. It couldn’t take place anywhere else but in this park in Alaska, with its mix of Native people, homesteaders, and outsiders. The crimes’ impact is broad and painful, affecting a community. The characters are real, whole, complex and original and their relationships make me care what happens and balance the starkness of the crimes with humor and warmth. The mystery is more than a puzzle to be solved.
Stabenow’s use of an omniscient point of view rather than exclusively close third person reminds me of James D. Doss, though there is little resemblance between his work and Stabenow’s aside from this, and the fact that the protagonist is Native American. Omniscience is difficult technique to handle well, but Stabenow succeeds.
A good book to read in the middle of summer. Escape to the far north and winter.
I read this because a colleague, an art professor whose work I respect, quoted it in his acceptance speech for a faculty achievement award. He chose lines that made me think the protagonist of the novel might rise above the stultifying absurdities that can take up much of an academic life. It’s more realistic than that, though. His liberation is partial and therefore more believable.
Parts are so funny I really did laugh out loud. Other aspects of the story are comic in a sadder and more uncomfortable way. I found myself repeatedly reminded of an English department in which a friend taught and another studied for her Master’s. (We’re much duller in Health and Exercise Science. My field doesn’t attract the drinkers.) Russo nails the characters and their marriages and extra-marital excursions or fantasies all too well. The story is framed by the narrator’s relationship with his famous father, a literary theorist, remote and intellectual, and his mother, a professor who isn’t much warmer, and the contrast with his own healthier and more affectionate marriage to a high school teacher with a passion for her work.
Writing for the local paper in downtrodden Railton PA, he uses the pseudonym “Lucky Hank” for satirical articles about the college where he teaches, which I assumed to be a reference to Lucky Jim, though he never says so. It’s the only creative writing the professor does anymore, though he was a famous novelist once. (He is aware of the nascent urge to write more, but tells himself that bad books call to writers with the same siren song as good ones.)The fact Hank’s secretary writes more and better fiction than he does may be Russo’s commentary on the effects of academic life on creativity.
Occam’s razor is a running theme, a statement by a 14th century logician that one should shave away superfluous explanations and choose the simplest one that describes a phenomenon (if I understand it correctly). Hank names his dog Occam, and likes that dog for his simple joy in life, running mindlessly in circles, sniffing people’s groins, and other canine pleasures. Meanwhile, Hank’s great theorist father is incapable of connecting his emotions with his life.
The plot meandered at times, and I had the feeling the author looked at it at some point and realized he’d created a monster. Not an ugly one, but a big, messy one with too many loose ends. The only way he could tie them all up was with one whopping long epilogue, long on summary and short on scenes and dialog. When it does revert to more showing than telling, it becomes more like a proper final chapter and has a delightfully funny moment.
Overall, this is a good read, each scene a great story within itself, with some brilliant insights and sharply drawn characters. I was tempted to quote many of the best lines—the book is full of gems—but I’ll leave those for other readers to discover.
The net impact of this book, no matter how many encounters I have with it, is awakening. I’m not claiming it makes me “enlightened,” only that it accomplishes its purpose of teaching—or reminding—the reader how to be more fully alive and aware, moment by moment.
Kabat-Zinn is a gentle teacher, a master of the non-judgmental suggestion and the empathic anecdote. His writing style is accessible to his entire target audience—everyone who experiences stress. It’s a friendly, natural style, with some idiosyncrasies. He’s fond of exclamation points and often says things like “our body” and “our mind,” addressing his readers as a group and as individuals at the same time, while including himself in that group. Grammatically, this plural-singular is strange, but that’s his voice, his way of bringing readers into a conversation with him. Though the book is long, it’s low-stress. The themes are expanded gradually, each chapter building on the next, with steady reminders about the practices he’s teaching. I recommend reading it slowly, a little at a time, and letting it soak in. This turns the process of reading into a kind of meditation.
This was my first exploration of the revised edition. It grew by around 200 pages from the original. The updates were needed for two reasons. One is that the author and many other scholars in health psychology and the study of emotions and stress have accumulated decades of well-designed research on the effects of mindfulness. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is no longer an innovation at one Massachusetts hospital but an established, thoroughly studied program taught all over the world. The results of studies are integrated into the rest of the text. At first I wondered why he didn’t make those a separate chapter, a massive appendix, but a lot of readers might skip or skim this information if it was presented that way. When it flows as part of the story of coping with various stressors, it gets read, and adds substance and science where it’s needed. The other reason the book needed an update was the change in the nature of stress and distraction since its first publication. When it first came out, there was no such thing as texting while driving or feeling the need to sleep with a cell phone turned on and lurking under one’s pillow, no such thing as constantly sharing on social media. The stress-creating tendency he described in the first edition—to be in touch with everything except ourselves—has only grown over the past thirty years.
The chapters on coping with physical pain and emotional pain are especially profound. At one point in my progress through this book, I ended up reading it in the emergency room in the middle of the night. It helped me cope mindfully with a bizarre, ambiguous symptom and the decision to get it checked out, to sit with the not-knowing while I waited to be seen, to accept that I might have something serious that could require eye surgery, and to accept that if I didn’t need it, this was how I’d chosen to respond. I was even able to get a couple of hours’ sleep before seeing a specialist in the morning. (In case you wonder, no surgery was needed. I can now cope mindfully with a mere risk factor—and my insurance company.)
This recent experience with sleep deprivation made me relate strongly to the chapter on sleep stress. This chapter doesn’t seem to have been updated with research the way the others have. I agree with Kabat-Zinn that getting upset about being unable to sleep only compounds the problem. Making peace with the necessity of being awake reduces the suffering. It does not, however, reduce the need for sleep. Adapting to the stress of being tired is not the same thing as being able to maintain normal reflexes, attention or memory. I’ve found shortcomings with this chapter, but that doesn’t invalidate the whole book. In fact, the chapter stands out because the rest of it is so soundly supported.
I have one more critique: The material on the benefits of yoga is valuable but the drawings don’t provide good instruction. The little man in the pictures uses his back incorrectly in several forward bending poses, and uses no props. Using a strap to reach one’s foot in many poses makes a big difference in both benefit and safety. The selection of poses isn’t as balanced as it could be and there is one that I think should have been eliminated, a curled-up inversion that could stress the back and neck. Kabat-Zinn does mention approaching it with caution, but there are safer ways to relax and put your feet up in yoga, such as lying on the floor and putting your legs up the wall. My suggestion would be to read the chapter but to study yoga with a qualified teacher who pays attention to each student and who understands anatomy and injury prevention. Don’t use the pictures as instruction.
There’s an option with this book to buy CDs or download guided meditations. I’ve never done that, having studied yoga and meditation with live teachers and developed a daily practice, but as one of my yoga students was saying after class the other evening, it reduces her stress to have someone else guide her. There are beautifully written instructions for meditation in this book, and some wonderful short experiments a reader can do to begin exploring the practice. I think other readers could do as I’ve done and not buy the CDs. It should work well either way. With or without guidance, it’s challenging to commit to daily practice at first. The book suggests forty minutes. (I prefer not timing it, just doing it.) Daily practice is one of the foundations of the stress reduction program in this book, whether one does the body scan (similar to Yoga Nidra), sitting meditation, walking mediation, or yoga, or alternates among these. Daily, one commits to taking time to be present in oneself. It is, as the author once said, both the simplest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. And it can, through awakening, change your life.
In the second in a series with an amateur sleuth, I always look for the plausibility factor, especially in a series that’s realistic and serious, not a humorous cozy. Jager pulls it off well. Artist Shandra Higheagle finds a body when digging clay for her pottery. She doesn’t run into a new murder, but a decades-old cold case, a body hidden in the earth on the remote ranch she purchased long after the death took place. The connections to people she knows and cares about come naturally as well, and her involvement with understanding how this man came to die there never feels contrived. Shandra is in the early stages of a relationship with Detective Ryan Greer, so the mystery mixes police procedural with amateur sleuthing and the progress of their romance. Shandra and Ryan are strong characters and carry the story.
The plot turns fast. Sometimes I felt that the clues fell into place too quickly, without enough wrong turns—and then, as I reached the end, I could see there had actually been plenty of red herrings, but that they hadn’t looked like such. Now that’s good plotting. I did not figure out who the killer was until Shandra and Ryan found out. The killer’s moment of revelation wasn’t the most believable piece of dialog in a book that otherwise flows well with natural speech—but then, in most mysteries, that particular moment is a bit of a stretch. It’s a genre convention.
Since the situation was set up so well, with so little sense of coincidence or implausibility, I wish the author hadn’t occasionally included lines that drew attention to Shandra having found a body again or Shandra being connected with one of Ryan’s investigations again. In some series, that would be necessary, but not this one. Without those lines, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
Intriguing hints of where future books could go are planted in this one. This series will appeal to readers who enjoy mystery with a western flair and a touch of romance.