Changing my tune on Whodunits: The Blue Kingfisher (review)

The Blue Kingfisher
Erica Wright
Polis Books (November 2018)

I’ve written a number times over the past ten years on This Is My Symphony of my dislike for mysteries and whodunits. Then I read one and rationalize that this particular title is an aberration–an outlier–a fluke. Except in the past two years, I’ve managed to read at least several. There was August Snow, The Bad Daughter, Girl Last Seen, Unbecoming, Girl Waits With Gun, and at least two Flavia DeLuce mysteries. (I also read a Tony Hillerman and John Grisham that I just never bothered to blog!)

*Cough* Methinks I do protest too much.

And now there’s another: The Blue Kingfisher by Erica Wright. The story begins with private detective Kathleen Stone out for a jog on a foggy morning along the Hudson River. Her destination is Jeffrey’s Hook Light, a place to clear her head because it brings back memories of her childhood when she had a bedroom decorated in a Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge theme. What wouldn’t have shown up in a little girl’s bedroom, though, is the dead body that Kate sees lying on the widow’s walk of the lighthouse. blue kingfisher

What’s worse? The body belongs to Tambo Campion, her apartment building maintenance man–he was quiet, kind, and hard-working, if not always timely. A jumper, the police say–but so out of character for the man Kate knew. (That, and Tambo missed the water.) And so begins her quest to find out the real story behind Tambo’s death.

We learn a lot about Kate as she tries to uncover Tambo’s story. As a cop she was a master of disguise and alter-egos, relying on Russian wig-maker Vondya and any number of personas to help her go incognito. She is Kat. Katya. Kacey. We know Kate once infiltrated drug lord Salvatore Magrelli’s inner circle in an effort to bring him down, but that her cover was blown and now she is hiding in plain sight, using disguises in an attempt to stay one step ahead of Magrelli’s henchmen.

Kate also learns that Tambo was a “un martin pescador”, a kingfisher–someone who found off-the-books jobs for immigrants. That a set of creepy looking masks line the walls of his bedroom. That the masks are a fertility totem. That a hidden compartment in each mask can hold  small pills. 

Could it be the masks that are the clue to Tambo’s death? Or was it his job as a kingfisher dodging immigration officers that put him at risk? Or maybe–somehow–Magrelli and Tambo are connected? Or are those tiny pills the key to his death? Kate gets a job at a Coney Island fishing tour boat company where Tambo secured jobs for illegals, hoping to get closer to the truth.  And in the manner of all whodunits, she does.

A testament to the strength of The Blue Kingfisher is that fact that, unbeknownst to me, the novel is actually the third Kat Stone novel–but it was compelling enough, with just enough backstory to stand on its own. Truth be told, I think I’ll go back and read the other two. Because here’s the deal. I think I like mysteries … I’m just very, very picky. No stale writing, no overblown tropes allowed.

And Erica Wright’s The Blue Kingfisher fits the bill.

Mr. & Mrs. American Pie: review

Mr. & Mrs. American Pie
Juliet McDaniel
Inkshares (August 2018)

mr. & mrs. american pieJuliet McDaniel’s Mr. & Mrs. American Pie is chick lit turned on its head. Call it wacky. Call it madcap. But however you describe it, the novel is 172 pages of fun, largely because the characters and situations are larger-than-life. Here’s a run-down.

Mrs. Maxine Hortence Simmons: Palm Springs junior league social climber, she of the Cartier watch, catered Thanksgiving dinner, and imported gold-foiled wallpaper. A bombshell. Married to airline executive Douglas Simmons–for the first few pages, at least … until she’s exiled to the Kachina Palms Condominiums in Scottsdale, Arizona. Drinks too much.

Robert Hogath: Thirty-something proprietor of the tavern La Dulcinea. A recent transplant from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he is, by his own admission, a “lifelong bachelor”. It’s 1969. And Robert has a secret.

Charles “Chuck” Bronksi: Age twelve, he has big plans that involve the FBI or CIA. Wakes at 5 AM to do calisthenics. Learning to read lips by watching Bugs Bunny with the sound turned off. Keeps spy notes in a little book. Pretty much the sole caretaker of his nearly two-year-old sister Dawn. He’s got an absentee mom and a dad “fighting the commies in Viet Nam”.

There’s a crazy Thanksgiving dinner scene that ends with the turkey in the pool. There’s a nasty divorce. Exile. More drinking.  Chuck and Dawn become Maxine’s ‘wards’ (her word).  There’s an arrest–for something they used to call lewd and lascivious behavior. A rushed marriage at city hall. A honeymoon with the kids in Old Tucson amusement park.

Now that right there? That would be a fine story in itself. But there’s more …

Maxine decides in an attempt to earn prize money and win back her dignity to enter the Mrs. American Pie beauty pageant. She’s got the family now, after all. And so begins the preparations to become June and Ward, Ozzie and Harriet and take home the prize. But first this.

A doctored photo to dethrone one of the current Mrs. Arizona Pie contestants. And some rumors about the others spread thick. As the now-reigning Mrs. Arizona Pie, there’s a cabin decorating contest, a cooking competition involving a dish called Spam ‘n Limas, and a chorus line of Mrs. wannabees singing and dancing to “It’s a Grand Old Flag”. Maxine’s talent? Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. And a revelation–which comes via Chuck’s sleuthing skills–that just might bring the Director of Pageant Operations down.

The real kicker? The pageant is held at the Whitewater Country Club in Palm Springs. And Maxine’s ex-husband is a judge. But never fear. Alls well for this Mr. and Mrs. Chuck has the last word on the night the winner is crowned: “You won and then you lost because you love us!”

And his sister Dawn has the last last word. It’s 1982 …

[NO Spoiler Alert here]

But the end? It’s a keeper.

Ohio: review

Ohio
Stephen Markley
Simon & Schuster (August 2018)

Stephen Markley’s novel Ohio follows four twenty-somethings (Class of 2004) back to their home town in Ohio shortly after Obama’s election. ohioChapters follow each character to New Canaan, giving their backstory with special attention to their high school years. New Canaan has been ravaged by the financial crisis and torn apart by the conflicts in the Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the biblical name, this was no Promised Land. Life in New Canaan was man against man, neighbor against neighbor.

Bill Ashcroft, Stacey Moore, Dan Eaton, and Tina Ross each have their own dark reason for returning to town and one fateful night culminates in conflict. (That word ‘conflict’ is quite the understatement.) In some ways, the character’s stories can stand alone, a bit like the those in Elizabeth Strout’s work. But from childhood through high school and into the present, their lives–and a whole cast of hangers on–have woven together in inexplicable ways and Markley shows us the underside of the tapestry, all loose threads and knots.

Let me be blunt: this book was a difficult read. Markley touches on alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual violence, assault, eco-terrorism, and murder. The angst of a generation–born of economic disparity, family dysfunction, misogyny–is revealed in all its ugliness.

I began reading the book one night before bed and within the first fifty pages had read about a detailed description of a meth trip, a drug-fogged drive involving some sort of contraband, and a funeral with an empty casket–and all I could think was, “This is waaay too depressing. I’m not sure I can finish it.” Twenty-four hours later I turned the last page.

Nearly two years ago I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a raw look at the same time and place, told through the eyes of Vance who had overcome his circumstances–and escaped. While it was an intriguing read, it didn’t touch me quite like Ohio did. There is something about fiction that cuts deep.

So read Ohio … but be prepared to have your quiet world shaken.

Three Things About Elsie: review

Three Things About Elsie
Joanna Cannon
Scribner (2018)

“Everyone’s life has a secret, somethings they never talk about. Everyone has words they keep to themselves. It’s what you do with your secret that really matters. Do you drag it behind you forever, like a difficult suitcase, or do you find someone to tell?”

three things about elsieJoanna Cannon’s first novel The Trouble With Sheeps and Goats was a delight–Cannon’s insight into the hearts and minds of little girls and her portrayal of the rough waters of family life was spot-on.  Her second novel, Three Things About Elsie, gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of Florence, resident of Cherry Tree assisted living, and in this book it’s the rough waters of aging that she explores.

The story opens with Florence Claybourne who has fallen in her room, and, as she waits for help, replays her life both at Cherry Tree (which, by the way, has no cherry trees, much to Florence’s annoyance) and her childhood. Each chapter marks the intervals with a time stamp. Florence isn’t easy to deal with for the staff or residents: she avoids social events, is loud and often belligerent, and (everyone assumes) delusional. The home’s manager Miss Ambrose is her nemesis, probably for continually threatening to send Florence to Greenbank, the next step in care, and dreaded by all the seniors–probably because it’s the Last Stop. When Florence suspects a new resident at Cherry Tree is a shadow from her past out to destroy her, her hunch is summarily dismissed.

So who is this Elsie-in-the-title? And what are the three things we need to know about her? The first is that she is Florence’s best friend. Has been since they were young girls growing up in a small English town. The second thing is that “she always knows what to say … to make [Florence] feel better.” And it’s quite clear from the story’s beginning, that Elsie and Flo were inseparable as children and that even now Florence turns to Elsie, ever at her side, for reassurance and advice. But only a few chapters in, it’s clear that Elsie isn’t visible to anyone else in the story, and the only person who converses with her is Florence. And that’s where I’ll leave Elsie. Because the third thing … oh, the third thing …

Florence, she of the outbursts and crazy rants, gets the attention of Jack, another Cherry Tree resident, and their friendship gives Florence hope simply (simply?!) because he believes her. The end of the novel is tender and poignant, and Florence–for all of her difficult behavior and troublesome accusations–is vindicated at last.

As to that third thing about Elsie? You’ll just need to read the book.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? How love paper-aeroplanes where it pleases. I have found that it settles in the most unlikely of places, and once it has, you are left with the burden of where it has landed for the rest of your life.”

Judging only the cover*: Broken (review)

Broken
Lisa Jones
Scribner (2009)

As I drove through New Mexico on my trip this summer, I was struck by the signs–Leaving Nambe Pueblo; Entering Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo–and those ubiquitous green historical markers–Aqua Fria: a traditional historical community; Bandelier National Monument: home of the Cochiti; Captive Women and Children of Taos County.

This is very clearly a land proud of its heritage and its people.

But as my car slowed to wind through reservation land, I was struck (as many are) by the poverty. It seemed to me that we talked out of both sides of our mouth. “We honor the heritage of these Native peoples, but we really screwed them over … so we’ll honor the heritage of these Native peoples.” I visited the famous Taos Pueblo and saw the love our college-student guide had for his traditional way of life–but I felt like an intruder, traipsing through someone’s living room and gawking at their kitchen. Add to all this the fact that I know many in the New Age movement who have (in my mind at least) co-opted religious traditions and practices that don’t belong to them–and it seems like a kind of spiritual colonization.

Writer Lisa Jones wrote about one Native American, Stanford Addison, in her memoir titled Broken: A Love Story. And while she didn’t lay to rest any of the conflict I felt in New Mexico, she did speak eloquently to the incredible spirit that can transform even the most desperate circumstances–and in that very transformation come to heal others, including her. Through her eyes, I came to see New Mexico in a different light.

As a young man, Stan Addison lived life at full tilt. He boozed it up, used women shamelessly, and didn’t shy away from a good fight. That is until a truck accident left him first, near death, and finally, a quadriplegic. But even while he recovered in the hospital–even when he hadn’t yet accepted his fate–the spirits came to his side and made it clear: he could stay or he could go. But if he stayed, he had some compelling business to attend to. Stan wasn’t ready to leave quite yet, and he gradually came to understand that he was given some powerful medicine. And he was to share those gifts. He held sweat lodges and took on the pain of others so they could heal. Shared his visions. Warned off bad spirits. Gentled horses. Took in young men who needed the anchor he provided.

But that’s Stan Addison’s story.

And, yes, the story in Broken seems at first to be Stan’s–but it is, in the end, the story of Lisa Jones. Lisa grew up in a less-than-functional home. (This, despite the fact that her father was a psychiatrist.) When her parents divorced, meeting the emotional needs of three children wasn’t high on their list of priorities. But Lisa was smart, driven, and independent. A survivor. She became a successful journalist and lived a life of adventure. It was the Good Life. Except when it wasn’t. There were those nagging doubts. Feeling lost. The draw of commitment and its companion, the fear of being tied down. Uncertainty.

Like most 20th century educated professionals, Lisa disguised her fears quite well. Except Stan saw through her and her heart felt the pull of the man with incredible gifts. Lisa became the supplicant to Stan’s sage. So she returned to the sweat lodge over and over again. She listened to Stan’s stories. She argued. Questioned him for hours on end. She washed his hair, lit his cigarettes, and drove into town for his sodas. Cooked meals. Stan waited and Lisa learned–but not without unraveling even more emotional pain.

And that’s what I failed to keep in mind as I drove through New Mexico–I was outside looking in. My eyes saw what might have been material poverty, but they failed to see the richness of spirit.  I wasn’t privy to the private lives of Native peoples or their spiritual practices–but Lisa Jones was when one very extraordinary human being welcomed her into his circle, and I am grateful she shared her story with us in Broken. 

 


* When I looked over the art on the both the hardcover  and paperback of Broken I so. totally. misjudged the book, actually passing it over a few times. (Isn’t there some saying about that … ?) The cover art was rather … romantic … and then there was the subtitle “a love story”. I convinced myself I wouldn’t like the book (I was thinking shades of Horse Whisperer) until I actually read the back cover blurb. I finished the book in just under two days. ‘Nuff said about that whole ‘book by its cover’ thing. How fitting that my first drive through New Mexico left me feeling similar.