Lori Rader-Day – “Little Pretty Things”

Little Pretty ThingsCan you “win” high school?

What if you spent all of high school as an also-ran hiding in the shadows? What happens if you felt perpetually overshadowed, overlooked?

Little Pretty Things will take you back to those feelings of inferiority. That is, unless you were class valedictorian and the star athlete.

I doubt you’ll find a better example of strong point-of-view in a protagonist. Lori Rader-Day rolls out a richly three-dimensional character in Juliet Townsend—and gives us full access to all the slights she has felt, all the bitter humiliations and stinging frustrations. Juliet retains vivid memories of her high school experience. She recalls the pain. It’s palpable. Of course, she hasn’t gone far, just down the road to clean rooms at the Mid-Night Inn, “a step above a roadside dive.” We’re outside Indianapolis. It could be anywhere, U.S.A.

Juliet (Jules, the perfect nickname) is no angel. She knows the motel looks clean, but knows how to fake it. Short-cuts, sure.  And little things, little pretty things, might disappear if you are staying in one of the rooms she cleans. She is a collector, let’s say. Juliet feels she’s owed. “This thing—shiny, silver, gold, pink, beaded, flowered, whatever it was. Some little pretty thing that was someone else’s. With the flick of a wrist, it became mine.”

And then, one night, Madeline Bell shows up. Madeline Bell “had always meant the same thing to me. Another loss. Another very near miss.” And Juliet, who spots a certain shiny thing on Maddy’s finger, can only think she’ll be the one who might get to clean Madeline’s “fair locks” from the shower drain the next morning.

But Madeline Bell, it turns out, has come to see Juliet. Could that be true? Why would she? They were rivals on the same track team—but “Maddy” always won.

The two share a delicate drink and dicey chat in the Mid-Night’s bar. There’s a reunion coming up, the tenth year.  What does Maddy want? Why is she stirring up Juliet’s pain?  “For a moment,” Juliet thinks, “my life split in two and I was the me I could have been and also the me I’d become.”

And the next morning, Maddy is found hanging by her neck from the balcony railing at the Mid-Night.

And we’re off.

But Rader-Day doesn’t set this up as a typical amateur detective story. This is much more novel, to me, than mystery—even though there are secrets to uncover, pasts to dig up. Juliet becomes a suspect. We know that’s coming. But Juliet doesn’t whip out the magnifying glass or start button-holing suspects. Her work on the “case” comes more from situational conversations and the overall squeeze of the moment. Juliet’s predilections are exposed. She burrows back into the high school hallways, the gym locker rooms, and the pages of the yearbooks. She is looking for meaning in moments and the power of winning during those formative years. Along the way, she ruminates on the versions of herself that she might have become without Maddy eclipsing her high school experience.

Just what is a trophy? What does it mean? Did Juliet know everything Maddy was going through? Back then? Maddy made it look so easy—was there more to it?

Little Pretty Things has already won the 2016 Mary Higgins Clark Award at this spring’s Edgar Awards ceremony and it’s nominated for the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original.

No surprise on either count. Little Pretty Things (such a great title) is taut and slow-grind tense from start to finish. And as a case for rethinking high school reform—putting less emphasis on letter jackets and class rankings—it’s a must read.

Q & A #45 – Allison Leotta, “The Last Good Girl”

Last Good Girl 2Did you read the non-fiction Missoula by Jon Krakauer?

How about the entire text of the statement that a rape victim read out loud in court to her attacker, a former star athlete at Stanford University?

There’s a lot of this, unfortunately, going around.

As a topic, campus sexual assaults are ripe for fiction and The Last Good Girl by Allison Leotta dives straight into the fray.  It’s a compelling read.  My full review follows. First, Allison was kind enough to answer a few questions about her approach to this novel, the fifth in her Anna Curtis series.

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Question:  The Last Good Girl reads like the perfect fictional bookend to Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, his non-fiction account of college town acquaintance rape and how the cases are handled (or mis-managed) at both the college and police levels. Did you read Missoula or was The Last Good Girl inspired or informed by another specific case or cases?

Allison Leotta:  I read Missoula while I was midway through writing The Last Good Girl.  I realized that Krakauer had written the non-fiction version of the novel I was writing.  He did a great job with the research; it all felt very authentic.  I saw cases like the ones he highlighted over and over when I served as a sex-crimes prosecutor in DC.  In writing my own book, I took details from those cases and also from cases that were in the news.  Unfortunately, in this area, there has been too much “inspiration” to draw from.

Question:  In an interview about Missoula, Krakauer said he was “appalled” when he learned about the rate of rape and abuse and that he felt a bit ashamed about not paying attention to the issue of rape, the impact on victims, and the low percentage of cases that are prosecuted. What’s it going to take to change the culture and the way these cases are handled? Do you sense anything changing?

Allison Leotta:  We need to talk about this – which is actually something that is happening.  Even the terrible Brock Turner case, appalling as the sentence was, was helpful in a macro sense, because it sparked a national conversation.  I think a lot of people were in a similar position to Krakauer pre-Missoula: not realizing how prevalent the issue is and how harrowing an experience for the victims. The conversations we’re having, even here on your blog, Mark, are a crucial first step.  This is a crime that has thrived in silence.

Question:  There is a positively harrowing scene toward the end of The Last Good Girl where you decided to show readers the crime, up close and personal. What was your thought process about putting this on the page? Was it hard to write? How did you know when you had enough detail?

Allison Leotta: It’s a scene I learned about over and over, from the victims to whom it happened.  If we’re going to have a conversation about this, I figured, let’s talk about what it really is.  I just tried to convey that authentically.

Question:  Do you plot before you write or dive in and start writing? Did you know Emily Shapiro’s fate before you began?

Allison LeottaAllison Leotta:  I’m a plotter, I outline like crazy before I start chapter one.  I did know Emily’s fate before I started—but I didn’t know exactly how it played out, what exactly went down.  When I got to the crucial scene, it suddenly came to me, and it was so elegant and perfect.  It was one of those magic writing moments.

Question:  Anna has a lot on her hands in The Last Good Girl, including some questions about her own relationships and what they mean for her future role (or roles). How do you balance the romantic elements and the mystery/crime elements as you write? Do you know where Anna is heading with her life, long-term, in future books?

Allison Leotta:  The romantic and professional elements of Anna’s life seem to balance pretty naturally, in part because I was in that situation.  I and all my prosecutor friends were navigating our private lives—dating, getting married, planning families—while prosecuting sex crimes.  It’s a unique POV.

I have no idea where Anna will head in future books.  I’m just happy she made it through this one!

Question: If benevolent dictator Allison Leotta could change one law around sex crimes at the federal or state level, what would it be?

Allison Leotta: Hm, if I’m the dictator, I’ll change two laws.  First, I would expand the statutes of limitations for sex crimes.  Many children are raped, and only summon the courage years later to talk about it. In many jurisdictions, those cases are barred because too much time has passed.  That needs to change.

The issue affects adult victims too.  There’s an incredible book out this season called “Jane Doe January,” by Emily Winslow, a crime writer who was raped when she was in college.  Twenty years later, they found her rapist—and had to let him go again because of a statute-of-limitations issue. Outrageous, infuriating stuff.

Second, I would mandate that all rape kits be tested immediately and the results uploaded to CODIS, the national DNA database. There’s an estimated 400,000-kit backlog.  When they’re tested, we find serial rapist after serial rapist.  But we can’t stop these predators unless we get the testing done.

Question:  There are tool kits out there, data being kept and published about reported crimes on campuses—and lots of good information for students to protect themselves. Is it enough? Have you found any colleges or universities that are taking this issue seriously?

Allison Leotta: Most are taking the issue more seriously, which is great.  Activists have forced this conversation, and it’s much harder for colleges to ignore it now.  Still, there are some terrible instances of outrageous college responses.  Brigham Young University recently expelled some women who reported their rapes, for violating their honor code.

Question: What writers inspire you?

Allison Leotta: Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman.  I have a serious girl crush on Linda Fairstein.

Question: And, what’s next?

Allison Leotta:  I’m heading to Costa Rica. Just me and my two boys, ages 6 and 9.  (Wish me luck!) We’ll take some Spanish classes in Tamarindo then meet up with my husband hang out in Nicaragua. I plan to drink fruity cocktails and avoid thinking about writing until I get back!

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Allison Leotta’s Website

Read Allison’s Blog Entry: “Beware the Adorable Rapist”

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Review:

What happened to Emily Shapiro? We see her, in the opening scene, at a bar near campus. She is listening to the “mating call” of a frat boy: “Wanna do shots?” To anyone else, “she probably looked like any other carefree girl basking in a Friday night.” The bartender puts down two shots of a “shimmery blue potion” but soon Emily knows she needs to leave to avoid an encounter with a guy she’d rather not meet. Or see again. Ever.

The first thing Anna Curtis sees of Emily Shapiro is on a “grainy surveillance video, the type that only become relevant when something terrible happened.”

We’re in Michigan. Anna, a prosecutor, has temporarily moved to the Detroit area to be with a man she befriended during a previous case involving her sister, Jody. Anna has known the man she’s living with, Cooper, since the two were in elementary school. Anna is still sorting through the wreckage from her previous relationship with Jack and her ongoing relationship with Jack’s daughter, a girl Anna thought she would end up mothering. Cooper is a former Army Ranger who lost the lower part of one leg from an IED explosion in Afghanistan.

Anna’s life, and all its romantic and sexual entanglements, make for a stark contrast to the college-boy antics of the case she’s about to dive into. Jack, it turns out, turns out to be in Michigan on a work-related matter; he’s the chief of homicide at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.

Without going into too much detail here, Jack pulls Anna into the case of the missing Emily Shapiro.

Complications abound. So legal technicalities. Dylan, the boy on the grainy video with Emily, is identified. Dylan’s father is Michigan’s lieutenant governor. Dylan belongs to Beta Psi, “a college fraternity in the Skull-and-Bones tradition. Four U.S. presidents were alumni, along with countless senators and CEOs.” And Emily’s father is the president of the university, where maintaining reputation and public image is paramount.

And so Anna dives in. She’s thorough, methodical, detailed and tireless. What she finds will be no surprise to anyone who has followed the recent stories of campus sexual assault and rape from Vanderbilt to Missoula to Stanford—and for many decades prior. The story in The Last Good Girl s loaded with legal and strategic intricacy. It’s rich, layered—and gives you the feeling for why the arrogant frat boy college culture has been allowed to persist on so many campuses. The palpable tension over Emily Shapiro’s whereabouts is heightened by the fact that Emily has left a video diary of her chilling experiences. Leotta intersperses excerpts with Anna’s investigation. The trails leads to the top, the “1 percent of the 1 percent,” and to the secret basement caverns with the secrets, the histories, the traditions, the culture.

The ending offers a fine twist, two back-to-back gulp-gasp moments. Leotta handles them skillfully. The Last Good Girl is clearly the product of a writer who knows the territory (Leotta’s real-life credentials in this territory are sterling). With Anna’s layered romantic adult complications providing a solid counterpoint to the spotlight Leotta shines on exploitation and college-age cruelty (and the adult enablers of it). There is one scene that is a graphic and jolting that brings the crime, the product of entitlement and power, front and center.

The Last Good Girl is a topical, layered, tense and palpable piece of crime fiction. You just wish it weren’t quite so real, so plausible.

 

 

 

Q & A #44 – Susie Steiner, “Missing, Presumed”

Missing Presumed with ShadowThis fabulous novel, Missing, Presumed debuts today (June 28).

That’s the U.S. cover up top here. I’ve put the U.K. version down below.

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy. My review is posted online at New York Journal of Books here.

Yes, it’s a novel.

It features a unique detective.  And a ticking clock, of sorts.

Does that make it crime fiction? Does that mean it can’t be a novel?

Susie Steiner says she was going for a “combination of literary riffing and relationship-led meandering, with a strong narrative drive.”

She nailed it.

Check out my full review (you’ll learn the meaning of the word ‘gurn,’ if nothing else) and then come back here to read more about how Susie Steiner approaches her work. She answered my questions via email from her home in North London.

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Question: Did you know when you started writing that the underlying theme of “family” would be one of the driving forces to Missing, Presumed? And, by the way, do you agree?

Susie Steiner: I always start out with the broad arc of the story, without knowing much of the interweaving detail, so of course the final book ends up being quite a different beast from the original twitch of an idea. Yes, I think one theme is family and – despite my best efforts – I seem to go back to this motif over and over (my first novel, Homecoming, is about the relationship between grown children and their parents). I blame my unconscious/upbringing.

Question: Manon Bradshaw acknowledges that she isn’t sure how she feels about human contact. But she’s a cop whose job requires plenty of precisely that, at all levels. Was there a specific flash of inspiration for her character and this particular paradox?

Susie Steiner:  I think Manon expresses ambivalence about most areas of life and it’s her ambivalence that has made readers respond to her so warmly. She is a chequered character – far from perfect. She wants to get involved, to be in a relationship, but she also doesn’t like most people and is reluctant. Who can’t relate to that?

One of my all-time favourite films is Broadcast News, starring Holly Hunter as Jane Craig – a fiercely clever, brilliant news producer who sets impossibly high standards both for herself and others. There were lingering shots of the character sobbing uncontrollably during moments alone, not because she was weak, but because life can be such a struggle. I loved that so much – her complexity, the way she was brilliant but needed someone. That was definitely an inspiration for Manon.

Susie Steiner

Susie Steiner

Question: Did you plot this out before you wrote? It seems so carefully crafted in terms of plot and resolution—clues, details, dead ends, etc.—that I’m guessing you had it mapped out first. Was there a real life case that inspired it?

Susie Steiner: Numerous cases fed into it, because I am an avid newspaper reader. And everything I’m reading/watching feeds into the book I’m writing. The plot became complex through multiple rewrites – I revise for about a year, and enjoy the revising more than creating the initial draft (which always comes out as a rather crude version, a bit like an undercoat). So no, it wasn’t all plotted in advance, but neither do I just drive hopefully out into the dark.

Question: Like Tana French and a few other writers, you seem to have expanded the concept of mystery or straight police procedural by wrapping it into a novel. Thoughts on this? Character first and foremost? Do mysteries need more real-life weight around the core puzzle?

Susie Steiner: I’ve been slightly wrong-footed by being wedged into the crime/police procedural genre because it didn’t feel as if I was writing a procedural at all. I’m a huge fan of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels and I was aiming at that combination of literary riffing and relationship-led meandering, with a strong narrative drive. For me, that’s the most enjoyable kind of novel. I tend to read contemporary literary fiction rather than mysteries, in general, but always love the ones which cross genres – which give you the best bits of each. And I get very frustrated by literary novels where nothing happens!

Question: So many perspectives rotate throughout Missing, Presumed and yet there’s an honest, straightforward flavor to each of the perspectives. How did you choose? Did you purposely avoid deploying any ‘unreliable narrators?’

Susie Steiner: In earlier drafts, I had more PoVs – everyone I needed to feed in the different elements of plot. And writing those PoVs is helpful in creating subsidiary characters. But there were too many and they had to be culled, so I whittled them down to the characters I felt I really knew, who were distinct and pleasurable to be with. I think when you’re reading back over your manuscript, you can sense that ‘Oh yes, it’s nice to be back with him/her.’

Question: Clearly, from the acknowledgements, you did your research. What are the pros and cons of approaching fiction as a former reporter?

Susie Steiner: There are a lot of pros – as a reporter, you are used to interviewing experts and translating their expertise for the general reader. Your training is in debunking, in sifting the interesting from the anodyne. And this all comes into play when sifting research. You don’t want to overload your novel with info for the sake of it. Also, I felt quite confident approaching the police, who proved very open and supportive. I can’t think of any cons. I wasn’t a very brilliant reporter, in truth. I much prefer making it up.

Question: That whole frenzy after “Crimewatch” airs its piece on the Edith Hind case; did the police officers you spent time with talk about the pros and cons when cases blow up like that?

Susie Steiner: Yes, all the Crimewatch info came directly from the murder squad: the way TV appeals tend to bury them in false leads, the way they observe the family members who give press conferences, to see how they behave; the way every false lead has to be followed up, however nutty.

Question: I’ve seen online that you are a Scrivener fan. For those writers daunted by the commitment, care to tell us why we should give it a whirl?

Susie Steiner: I’m a huge fan of Scrivener. I only started using it for the final drafts of Missing, Presumed but they were very crucial drafts when intricate plotting took place. Scrivener enables you to split the manuscript into scenes, so that you’re not dealing with an unwieldy 90,000-word document. You can move scenes easily, see the structure of your novel in the binder, and play about with shifting structure about. I love it. I’ve written the whole of the next book in it.

Question: What writers inspire you? Who are you reading now?

Susie Steiner: Right now I’m reading an Australian novel called Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett, which was nominated for the Bailey’s prize here in the UK. It’s funny and accomplished and I’m learning a lot about turn-of-the-century whaling. I’m inspired by literary writers who achieve beautiful things both at sentence level and at an emotional level. One of my all-time favourite books is American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and I adored Eligible, her take on Pride and Prejudice. I loved Where’d  You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple, and recently marveled at The First Bad Man by Miranda July.

Question: Is Manon (one hopes) coming back? What’s next?

Susie Steiner: Yes, she’s back and she’s even more ambivalent than ever (said in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice).

Susie Steiner’s Website

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Missing Presumed UK Shadow

 

Stewart O’Nan – “City of Secrets”


Stewart O'Nan City of SecretsCity of Secrets
takes us to 1945 Jerusalem. We see the volatile city through the eyes of Brand, a former mechanic turned taxi driver who is now a member of the underground resistance against the British control, the Mandate, over Palestine. The British, in fact, try to control everything, including the flow of Jews headed to the land of Israel. It’s still three years until independence.

Brand, a Latvian Jew, lives in the shadows. His job is to listen. He’s dragging the memory of the camps, and all that happened to his family, with him.

“When the war came Brand was lucky, spared death because he was young and could fix an engine, unlike his wife Katya and his mother and father and baby sister Giggi, unlike his grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins … The winter after the war with no home to go back to and no graves to venerate, he signed on a Maltese freighter and landed in Jerusalem, realizing his mother’s lifelong dream.”

It’s the dream of many others, as well, to live here. And also, through sometimes violent means, to convince the British to leave. In this spare, clean novel (190 fast pages), O’Nan puts us immediately into Brand’s inner turmoil. He’s got to navigate through his sorrow. He’s always in long lines or slowed down at checkpoints. The city is his own personal weigh station; limbo.

“The city was a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers. The Turks and Haredim, the showy Greek and Russian processions—everyone seemed to be in costume, reenacting the meticulous past.”

The resistance is a puzzle, too. Who to trust? Brand is a man lost, cut off completely from his past and trying to find a way to settle into this new world. His anchors are his relationship with the decade-older Eva, an ex-actress and member of his cell. She works as a prostitute and also, in her job, gathers information. She listens, too. His taxi allows him a certain kind of freedom, even though he knows he is never safe. He buffs his old black Peugeot to a “mirror-like shine.” It’s the one thing he needs and the one thing he trusts.

Through most of City of Secrets, Brand is finding his way.

“Some nights, navigating the shadowy labyrinth with its vaulted galleries and courtyards and bazaars, Brand felt as if he’d traveled back in time. Others, coming to her half drunk and wildly grateful to be alive, guarding the happy secret of his myopic, impossible love, he saw himself caught up in an exotic adventure. He knew they were both illusions, knew precisely why he needed them. He was no hero, no Romeo, just a fool, untouched as yet by the Angel of Forgetfulness.”

Brand’s cell is Haganah. Others are the more violent Irgun. “Times change,” says Eva. “We all want the same thing.” Should Irgun and Haganah combine forces?  Whenever the Irgun strike, the British crack down harder.

Despite all the layers and complications, City of Secrets is as much a mood piece as character-based thriller. The entire question of Israel’s gathering strength seems to be embodied in Brand’s growing recognition of the stakes and also of what’s right. City of Secrets is a study of a man struggling to shed sharp and painful memories, or deal with them. O’Nan’s brush strokes are quick and efficient. The descriptions are rich and thorough yet the plot moves quickly—there’s a ton of action here, including a harrowing scene where his cell detonates railroad tracks and stops a train.

Brand is a man with his own code and questions. He’s keen on understanding cruelty and how violence is justified. At first he’s the kind of freedom fighter who makes sure his finger stays on the trigger guard, not the trigger. Later, he finds himself caught up in rebel success and wonders why he suddenly wants to blow everything up. Identity is fluid. Politics are personal. Self-preservation isn’t a bad thing. The ending is a piece of work—that’s all I’ll say.

City of Secrets is a master class in understated writing, unsentimental prose and character development wrapped around a story with high stakes. I finished the last page and went back to the beginning and started over.

 

 

Emma Cline – “The Girls”

the girls emma clineMy review of The Girls  by Emma Cline for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Q & A #43 – Michael Harvey, “Brighton”

Brighton - Michael HarveyMichael Harvey’s Brighton releases today.

It’s really good.  In this case, as good as the killer blurbs (from the likes of Stephen King) and advance buzz.

It’s already been optioned for film by the same producer who did “The Town” (with Ben Affleck) .

Harvey has been around awhile–mostly writing with a Chicago setting. If you don’t know his private eye, Michael Kelly, you should: The Third Rail, The Fifth Floor, The Chicago Way. 

My full review of Brighton is posted here at the New York Journal of Books.

Michael was also kind enough to answer a few questions via email.

How many crime writers do you know who can discuss Aeschylus? He’s a guy who knows his classical literature (see Harvey’s suggested reading) and can also offer a thoughtful take on the future of journalism today.

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Question: Okay, so, it’s clear your fan of classical literature and you have pointed out that writers like Sophocles and Aeschylus were dealing with the same crimes and tragedies as modern crime writers today. In Antigone, Sophocles wrote this: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” That almost seems like the issue that haunts Kevin Pearce in Brighton. Thoughts? Agree? Do you go back to Greek tragedies (and others) for inspiration?

Michael Harvey: A quote from Antigone. Love it.

What Sophocles is saying here is that men (and women) can be held captive by their pride which sometimes will not allow them to see their wrong, never mind correct it. If we examine the Seven Deadly Sins, we can see the same sentiment. Pride is considered to be the greatest of the sins because it blinds man to his essential nature and thus provides a gateway to all the other transgressions.

I think Kevin is, in many ways, blinded by his pride. Like many people, he believes he can go back into his own past (which, in this case, means going back into his old neighborhood of Brighton) and “fix things.” Kevin’s childhood pal, Bobby, has a much more fatalistic view of life. In Bobby’s world, once the die has been cast and events start to unfold, there is very little any one man can do to change or alter his fate. When Kevin shows up on Bobby’s doorstep, Bobby likens it to a letter that was posted in the mail twenty-five years ago and has been circling ever since. Bobby knew one day that letter would land in his mailbox and he’d have to open it. There was no avoiding it, no “fixing” it. What Bobby did once he opened the letter would ultimately reveal his character and shape his fate. Very different life view from Kevin.

Question: Care to suggest a few page turners from the classics? A few must-reads from classical literature?

Michael Harvey: By no means an exhaustive list…

The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer.

The Oresteia (The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides) by Aeschylus

The Oedipus cycle (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) by Sophocles

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Virgil’s Aeneid

Cicero’s Orations against Cataline

The Republic by Plato

Phaedo by Plato

On the Nature of Things by Lucretius

Question: You are from the Boston area originally, correct? I’ve lived in Lincoln, Newton, Cambridge and Boston itself and Brighton was, to me, just such an overlooked area. I couldn’t even say where the town begins and ends. Why set this in Brighton?

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey: The simplest answer is Brighton is where I grew up.  It’s an edge neighborhood which means it’s part of the city of Boston but right up against Newton, Brookline, Chestnut Hill and across the river from Cambridge. Even though it’s geographically close to these towns, it was worlds away in every other respect. Things have changed now, but back then Brighton was a blue-collar working neighborhood — mostly Irish, Italian and African-American, living in three-deckers, two-families or public housing. No one had any money. Everyone had lots of kids. If I had a picture of myself and twenty of my pals on the street corner when we were kids, I’d guess half of them have gone on to have great lives – jobs, families, etc. Another third to half, also great kids, were dead or in jail by the time they hit thirty. Why does one go one way and one go the other? Good question. Good fodder for a story!!

 Question: Of course I’m not going to give anything away. But given the holy smokes ending—are you a plotter or do you write and discover as you go? Did you know before you wrote where this was all headed?

Michael Harvey: No idea where it was headed. I just start somewhere and see where things go. The characters walk out onto the page and they are pretty much in charge. As long as it feels real and feels authentic, then I’m going with it.

Question: What was the flash point of inspiration for this one? You’ve written some heavy urban noir fiction, what steered you away from the Chicago setting? Or did you set out to watch a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter sweat and squirm?

Michael Harvey: I don’t know. I guess I wanted to write a neighborhood book and a childhood book. I wanted to capture the sweep of time and show how things that happen when we’re young really shape our lives…sometimes in devastating ways. In some sense I guess it was an exploration of free will vs. fate. How much are we in charge? Can we shape and reshape our lives? Or, once certain levers are pulled, is there really no stopping things? Is our only recourse to deal with whatever’s coming down the track? I’m not saying I was thinking of these big issues as I wrote Brighton. Not at all. But some of that seems to be bubbling just below the surface.

Question: Brighton’s darkest characters aren’t pure dark. How do you go about giving your bad guys a likeable side? Do you think about the moral spine of your books before you set out?

Michael Harvey: I wish I thought of this stuff before I start out. Be so much easier! The truth is I just try to make my characters as authentic as possible. I’ve done a lot of work in the real world of criminal justice as a journalist and documentary producer. Interviewed a lot of cops, interviewed a lot of killers. It’s been my experience that people are almost always a mixture or good and evil. Sometimes good wins.  Sometimes, evil. Makes life interesting, no?

Question: Pros and cons of writing from multiple perspectives?

Michael Harvey: If you just write from one perspective, especially if it’s in the first person, then your reader better really like that character because he or she has to carry the book. If you move it around, there’s a lot more flexibility, especially in terms of plot. Of course, sometimes flexibility breeds chaos and confusion, but that’s something that’s probably coming for the writer anyway!

Question: What is about The Red Sox and Boston crime novels? As a Red Sox fan, I love seeing the references and in Brighton you take us back to the “soothing voices” of Ken Coleman and Ned Martin and slip in a great reference to the long-forgotten Billy Rohr. But somehow The Red Sox as backdrop seem to fit with crime novels in a way that say, The White Sox, do not. Thoughts?

Michael Harvey: If you grow up in Boston, the Red Sox are part of your DNA. Maybe it’s the park. Maybe it’s because they were bad for so long … and the Yankees were so good. Maybe it’s just that Bostonians love their history and love rooting for the underdog … and there was no bigger underdog when I was growing up than the Sox. I’m not really sure, but there was no way I was going to write a book set in Boston and NOT have the Sox in it. Not gonna happen!!

Question: What’s the latest on the movie production for Brighton? Are you writing the screenplay?

Michael Harvey: The book was optioned by Graham King (GK Films) who has produced “The Departed” and “The Town,” as well as a ton of other great films. When we heard Graham was interested, it just seemed like the perfect fit. Edgy Boston crime novel acquired by a producer who’s the best in the business at adapting exactly this kind of material to the big screen. I’m not writing the screenplay. They’re in talks right now to hire someone. Fingers crossed.

Question: There’s a great reference here to the same Catholic Church scandal that the movie “Spotlight” grappled with—and that The Boston Globe exposed. Given the shrinking size of newspaper staffs, are you worried about the future of reporting? Of journalism?

Michael Harvey: Worried? No. I think journalism will be fine. It may not look like it’s looked for the past fifty or sixty years, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many evolving media platforms out there and the news cycle is non-stop. Quite stunning. I think we will continue to see a rise in citizen journalism through social media, etc. and more and more personal POV creeping into straight news reports. Some of that troubles me. But I love the level of engagement I see in journalists and the incredible immediacy we can bring to our news coverage. Overall, I think we will continue to see more of everything. More good coverage, more bad coverage and more stuff that falls somewhere in between. The bigger question lies not with the journalist but her audience. Are they listening? Are they engaged? Are they doing what they should be doing in a healthy, thriving republic? Or are they zoned out at home binge watching Netflix or buried in FB? Stay informed and stay involved, people!!

Question: What’s next? Back to Chicago? Or a companion novel? Say, Allston?

Michael Harvey: Working on another novel set in Boston. All I got right now.

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Q & A #42 – Richard Cass, “Solo Act”

SoloActFrontAh, Boston, you’re my home.

Well, I grew up in the suburbs but I lived in Cambridge, Newton and in an apartment so close to Fenway Park that it only took a few minutes to walk over and sit in the bleachers and watch the Red Sox.

Boston is a great setting for crime novels–Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker, William Tapply, George V. Higgins (this would be a long list) have all used the setting.

Welcome Richard Cass to the fray with Solo Act. “An alcoholic walks into a bar … and buys it.” You won’t soon forget that particular recovering alcoholic, Elder Darrow.

A full review follows but, first, the very thoughtful Richard Cass was kind enough to answer a few questions.

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Question:  Where did you get the idea for Elder Darrow and, while we’re at it, that name, ‘Elder?’ Have you ever owned or managed a bar? If not, how did you learn about the job?  Is there a specific bar in Boston you used as a model for the Esposito?

Richard J. Cass: I was looking for a way to put my hero in a serious conflict from the get-go and since I knew I was going to be writing a mystery set in a bar, I thought this would start him out with a problem before the book even began. I chose the name Elder for a couple of reasons—I wanted him to sound as if he came from an old New England (read Mayflower-passenger) family and I thought it might give him a little extra weight as a character to have an old-fashioned name.

I worked behind bars all through college and managed a couple as well. It’s a very interesting way to collect stories and observe human actions without having to participate in the craziness too much. The Esposito, where Solo Act is set, is more a combination of a number of bars I’ve both drunk in and worked in over the years but isn’t based on a particular one, though it shares some characteristics with the old Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall in Boston.

Richard Cass

Richard Cass

Question:  What about the idea for a putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar? What was the inspiration?

Richard J. Cass: Conflict, conflict, conflict. There’s a funny story that goes along with this. When I first started shopping the novel, a very prominent New York agent told me the premise was ridiculous and no one would ever buy the idea of an alcoholic in charge of a bar. I hope I’ve made it believable, even if it seems unlikely. My take is that the tension between Elder’s alcoholism and his testing himself every day adds to the conflict in the book—in a way it’s like an added love interest, only turned sideways.

Question:  You decided to show us what the bad guys are up to – and go from first-person with Elder to third-person with them. Was that hard to do?

Richard J. Cass: Pure inexperience, I think. Solo Act was the first mystery I finished and there’s a lot where I was writing by the seat of my pants. In a way, it’s a mark of my lack of sophistication as a writer at the time that I let myself get away with things like that. I probably know too much now to do something like that unconsciously. On the other hand, I’ve always been a sucker for Elmore Leonard’s depictions of the criminal mind from inside—bad guys are often more interesting than straighter characters.

Question: You started your writing career as a poet so how does poetry influence how you write fiction? Or does it? Do you still write poetry? And, who are some of your favorite poets?

Richard J. Cass: If poetry influences me in any way, it’s in always trying for the maximum concision. It also means I sometimes underwrite, though. One of the hardest things for me in the transition to mystery fiction was leaving behind most of the lovely vocabulary and imagery I could deploy in poems. That said, I was probably a mediocre poet—I hope I’m a better fiction writer. I do not commit poetry any longer, though I do read as much as I can. Some favorites: Mary Oliver, Charles Simic, Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder, Raymond Carver.

Question: Did you plan and plot this book out?  Or do write and see what happens?

Richard J. Cass: Total seat of the pants on the first draft, though I went through eight or nine drafts by the time I was done. What I often do, and did with this book, is break the draft into scenes in an Excel spreadsheet to look at POV, balance of characters, order of events, and so forth. But that’s always after I have a completed draft.

Question:  Tons of jazz and music references are sprinkled throughout the book—where do your tastes in music run? Care to mention any favorite, overlooked musicians (or bands) that are folks should know?

Richard J. Cass: Huge jazz fan, obviously, both old time and contemporary. My idea of a good night is a bottle of Pinot Noir and a roster of Dave Brubeck, Paul Desmond, Johnny Hartman, and others from that era. I also have a taste that I don’t confess to just anyone . . . for middle-of-the-road rock from the seventies and eighties. About the only kind of music I don’t listen to regularly is opera–and I’m working on that.

Question:  Okay, I’m just going to come out and say you’ve got a really good eye for detail when it comes to describing clothes, both for men and women, and great descriptions of how people look and carry themselves, too.  Any tips for writers along these lines?

Richard J. Cass: Mostly close observation, I think. I believe everyone has maybe two or three characteristics—physical or assumed—that combine to mark them as unique. My hope in creating characters is to describe them economically but accurately in as little space as possible. Clothes, jewelry, etc. can be dangerous, though, because the temptation is sometimes to use them in place of character development rather than as a supplement to. Nothing I like better than sitting in a public place and trying to catalog people by their physical selves.

Question: Ultimately, Elder Darrow’s terrific internal struggle is what carries the narrative—the tension over his efforts to not drink and also the tension over whether he can stop considering himself a failure. How did you map out or think about his emotional journey in the book and how it fit with his investigation into the death of Alison Somers?

Richard J. Cass: Writing this book was such intuitive work for me that I don’t know if I can come up with a coherent answer to that. I’ve known people in situations like Elder and Alison and I think the extent to which I’ve been able to empathize with them helped me make better characters. But as far as conscious planning or mapping out of the path? Not here. Just lucky, I guess.

Question:  And what’s next?

Richard J. Cass: One of the unhappy things about the publication of Solo Act is that Five Star, the publisher, has quit publishing mysteries. (I’m assured that Solo Act was not the cause of that decision😉.  So it’s unclear if Elder has a future, though I have written two other novels using him as a character. I am also currently shopping a standalone thriller, set in Portland, Maine, about a man avenging his fiancée’s accidental death who winds up killing the wrong person. My next project may or may not be a procedural about a rookie cop on the Montreal police force . . . but I’m only three pages in.

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Richard Cass on Facebook

Richard Cass on Twitter

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REVIEW:

Elder Darrow’s family had been in investment banking “since the Revolution.” He was raised to “learn the mores and manners of the ruling caste.”

But now he’s a recovering alcoholic and he owns a bar called the Esposito. He’s into jazz. He’s a bit of music nut. Managing the soundtrack at the bar is one of the ways that Darrow is trying to upgrade the reputation of the once-bleak watering hole, purchased with a trust fund windfall. He knows when Paquito Rivera needs be swapped out for Bill Evans.

Darrow is trying to upgrade the bar, and its clientele, the same way he’s trying to upgrade how he thinks about himself. His reputation. His last chance for “straightening out” is the management, in fact, of this bar. “All forty-four by fifty feet of it, sixteen-foot tin ceilings and the twelve metal stairs, same number as to the gallows, with a steel-pipe railing up to the street door.” There’s a triangular stage in the corner, “big enough for a trio as long as none of them was fat.”

Darrow has been sober for a year a half, but has positioned himself smack in the middle of temptation, pouring drinks for others. Darrow’s days as the owner of a pub started with a grand bargain. The deal was that his father’s bank would hire him if he could stay dry for two years and run the Esposito at a profit. But then dad died and he is left to wonder why he still cares. Elder Darrow is good at asking questions of himself.

One of Darrow’s regulars is a jazz-loving cop named Dan Burton who gets called away on a “sidewalk diver.” That suicide turns out to be a singer named Alison Somers. Darrow had been “utterly absorbed” with Somers for six months and the idea of her taking her own life doesn’t sit well.

As the motivation for amateur sleuths go, this is a nifty one. Darrow’s interests in Somers’ demise tangle with his own personal journey of discovery and the daily tests of his sobriety. His background, after all, could not have been more different than her youth in Roxbury, the poorest part of the city. How well did he know her? He had a pact with Somers—and assumed the pact remained despite the split. The deal was this: he would stay sober if she’d keep taking her anti-depressants. “But if I were ever going to be sure of that, I was going to have to find out for myself. Because I was afraid that if she had killed herself, then I would find my own reason to start drinking again, and then both of our stories would be over. If I didn’t do something, I was failing her memory and probably obliterating my own.”

With this great set-up, Solo Act follows Darrow as he begins asking questions and poking around. This isn’t a case of bar/restaurant turned Jack Reacher, it’s a case of one real man taking one step and then the next to get at some troubling and unresolved questions. Cass doesn’t push the pace, he lets the weight of Somers’ demise tug on Darrow’s soul.

Crafted for humanity and not designed to set pulses racing, Richard Cass chops in nifty, poetic snippets of Boston streets and alleys, noir-ish vibes and sounds (cue the sorrowful sax.) Cass intersperses Darrow’s trail with chapters that give us glimpses into the lives of the prescription pill bootleggers with their questionable plans and distrust in the ranks.

The Boston setting comes to life, but it’s a glitz-free view with back alley trash and dank smells. There’s a woman. And temptations. Failure lurks. One slip and Darrow know he won’t get credit for all the time he stayed clean. Darrow examines addiction from all angles. The investigation becomes a reflection of his own nature as much as finding out why Alison plunged to her death. In the end, Darrow is both bartender and barfly. He’s the wise mixologist, a bartender keenly aware of the poison he’s dispensing, and he’s got a burning need to know.

 

 

 

Q & A #41 – Christine Carbo, “Mortal Fall”

Mortal Fall 3Christine Carbo’s Mortal Fall launches today, the follow-up to her debut, The Wild Inside.

Both novels are set in Montana’s Glacier National Park and both come with a healthy dose of the great outdoors.

If you like fresh air and complicated interior lives with your suspense, Carbo’s books might be just the ticket.

My review is posted on the New York Journal of Books here.

Mystery Scene magazine has already chimed with an upbeat review that recognized Carbo’s ability to craft well-drawn characters. “I found this book more and more engaging as it moved along a dark and dangerous path to a surprise conclusion,” the reviewer wrote.

Denver-area pals, take note–Christine will be at the Tattered Cover on July 28. Her full tour schedule is here.

In the meantime, Christine was kind enough to drop by the blog, a place she has visited before.

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Question:  I asked you last time for what sparked The Wild Inside, so I have to ask again—what was the ignition point for writing Mortal Fall?

Christine Carbo: I’d like to say it was something very interesting and dramatic, but it was quite the opposite. Basically, because the fascinating grizzly played such a major role in The Wild Inside, my editor at Atria who was interested in the manuscript asked me, “which animal in Glacier will you feature in the second?” I hadn’t really considered having another animal but it kind of made sense. I had to think quickly on my feet, and the first thing that popped into my mind was the embattled wolverine population in Glacier Park, so I said, “Oh, the wolverine.” She loved the idea, and I was able to let many plot lines grow organically from the endangered wolverine and the researchers who actually tracked them in a study that took place in the park. My third novel doesn’t feature an animal, but deals with some forest fires that ravage the park as they did last summer in 2016.

Question: Did you know when you were writing The Wild Inside that you might feature Monty Harris in the next story?

Christine Carbo: Yes, I knew that I’d feature him. I really enjoyed him in The Wild Inside and planted a few small questions about his situation that might linger for those that read the book. I hope readers enjoy seeing through his eyes in contrast to Ted’s. They are very different characters.

Question: This is the second you’ve written in the male perspective in first person narrative. Was it difficult to write across gender for another male other than the one you spent so much time with in The Wild Inside? And, while we’re on the topic, are you planning to feature a female protagonist in the future?

Christine Carbo: Because Ted and Monty are very different people, I didn’t have any trouble switching to Monty’s perspective. When writing from the male or female perspective, I don’t typically think that they need a voice that corresponds to their gender. I tend to think of my characters as people with flaws and some specific challenges, so their voice stems from those predicaments, not necessarily from their gender. That’s not to say I’m not willing to deal with gender issues if they crop up. I just want them to crop up organically from the character, not because I’m thinking: “now I’m writing a male, so how would a male act or feel?” Rarely do I consider that question. The question for me is more like, “now I’m writing a human being with these specific challenges, so how would this person act or feel?”

In my third novel, I am telling the story by switching between two first person perspectives: one from a female’s and the other still from Monty. It will be a challenge to keep their voices distinct, but again, I am not thinking in terms of gender. I am developing them in terms of who they are as humans and how they tackle their own issues as related to the case at hand.

Christine Carbo

Christine Carbo

Question: Okay, tell us the secret to putting so many interesting characters on the page. Nobody’s perfect, would you agree?

Christine Carbo: I think you just nailed the secret yourself. Nobody’s perfect, and I find characters more interesting when I explore what it is that makes them happy, scared, bothered, and angry, and what basically pushes them to the edge. In The Wild Inside, the park itself is the antagonist that pushes Ted to his edge. In Mortal Fall, it turns out to be his brother, circumstances from his childhood, and his failing marriage that haunt him.

Question: I mean this in the best way, but Mortal Fall takes its time. It’s not, well, breathless or over-excited. What’s your approach to pacing your stories? As with Ted Systead in The Wild Inside, it seems to me that the interior journey is at least as important to you as everything else. Thoughts?

Christine Carbo: I suppose it’s very subjective. I’m sure some readers will not like that “it takes its time,” and prefer the breathless approach and some will cherish it the way it is, but thank you for the appreciation of the pace. I do like the interior journey very much in detective stories and I know that Michael Connelly says that the best crime novels “are not about how a detective works on a case; they are how a case works on a detective.” I love the statement because I find that the mysteries I have enjoyed the most are the ones where the case and all it includes – the people, the community and the place in which the crime occurs – impact the detective in intriguing ways. The story sometime gains much more depth when the detective is affected as well. And sometimes, you just need to take your time when you’re exploring those depths.

Question: Without giving away some of the issues at the heart of Mortal Fall, did you know going into the story that you’d pull in some non-wilderness, non-wildlife issues?

Christine Carbo: Yes, I did know. As I mentioned above, the wolverine was an afterthought when the editor asked me about more animals. I had already been gnawing at the idea of a fictional wilderness school for troubled teens close to the park. We have many in Montana, as I’m sure you do in Colorado. Utah is especially well known for wilderness schools where parents send their troubled teens. It’s a romantic notion about the west, I suppose, that perhaps stems from manifest destiny. “Go west, young man,” as if psychological issues can be cured by the fresh air, the ruggedness of the wild and a nice mountain view the way we thought agriculture and mining could solve many of the nation’s problems of poverty and unemployment characteristic of the big cities in the east in the nineteenth century. Many of these wilderness therapy schools are unregulated though, and some have been far from therapeutic. I thought it made for an intriguing story.

Question:  Are you going to be writing about Glacier National Park for the foreseeable future? What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of writing about a place with so few full-time residents? And what was the response in places like Whitefish and West Glacier to The Wild Inside?

Christine Carbo:  You definitely don’t want to be tripping over dead bodies, but I try to include the entire Flathead Valley, the canyon leading to Glacier and other surrounding areas so that it’s not just the tiny town of West Glacier. We actually do have crime in these parts, like much of rural America. The small towns outside the park are no different, which makes the park’s setting and its surroundings ripe for crime fiction. Just driving to Glacier includes going through economically depressed areas such as Hungry Horse or Coram, or the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. We have large income disparities with trendy ski towns not far from timber or mining communities, and neighborhoods full of huge second homes – built by people who only come for two weeks out of the year – just down the road from trailer parks. When there is this kind of disparity, crime emerges: robbery, the production and selling of meth and other drugs, human trafficking, poaching, etc. It’s difficult to imagine when viewing our breath-taking, bucolic scenery, but it does exist. No one locally argues the fact. Some readers have asked me why I choose to portray such a side of our towns, and I simply, say, “well, I am writing crime fiction.” Northwest Montana can be a joyous, happy place where people from all over the world come to visit, but it can also be an unforgiving, rugged place where many of its surrounding communities struggle for survival.

Question:  What do you know going into your second book launch and tour that you didn’t know about your debut? You have quite the schedule coming up—coast to coast and then New Orleans for Bouchercon. Do you enjoy the promotion aspect of the business?

Christine Carbo: Of course, like many authors, I’ve learned to grow a thick skin. Putting your writing and yourself out there makes you vulnerable, and practice makes it a little easier each time. But, for the most part, readers are very gracious and supportive, and I have met so many incredible people through the publishing process. I never lose my appreciation when readers take the time to not only buy and read my work, but to write me or visit me at an event.

The tours are great fun, and I love visiting bookstores and going to conferences where I meet fans, other authors and catch up with friends I’ve made in the business. Sometimes, promoting is difficult, and I can’t say I’m all that great at it, especially social media. At times, I forget to go on Twitter or Facebook for days, but I do try and fit it in as much as it makes sense for me and fits my schedule. But, hey, I invite you to follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter if you get the chance! I’m getting better and better at it!

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Christine Carbo’s website.

On Twitter

On Facebook

Instagram: christine.carbo

Carbo Two

 

Q & A #39 – Ray Daniel, “Terminated”

TerminatedI met the ever-friendly Ray Daniel in Long Beach at Boucheron in 2014. We’re both fellow ‘Inkers.’ That is, we’re published by the same cool house, Midnight Ink. I’ve run into him at other writing conferences and he’s a fellow board member with Mystery Writers of America.

Terminated is the first in the mystery series featuring uber-geek and hacker extraordinaire Aloysius Tucker.

The Boston Globe called it “a smart novel with plenty of witty asides (and) slam-bam action.” Corrupted Memory followed and Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review (“compulsively readable”). Coming this summer is Child Not Found. 

Daniel’s short story “Give Me a Dollar” won a 2014 Derringer Award for short fiction and “Driving Miss Rachel” was chosen as a 2013 distinguished short story by Otto Penzler, editor of The Best American Mystery Stories 2013.

Daniel’s short fiction has been published in the Level Best Books anthologies THIN ICE, BLOOD MOON, STONE COLD, and ROGUE WAVE; as well as in the Anthony-nominated anthology MURDER AT THE BEACH (Down and Out Books).

A full review of Terminated follows but, first, Daniel was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail.

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Question: So much crime and mystery fiction has been set in Boston, did you find it a challenge to do something different with the setting or did you just go with the flow? And, by the way, why is Boston such a great setting?

Ray Daniel: I know authors who worry about setting books in a city popularized by Parker and Lehane, but that comparison has never worried me.  We all live in our own version of our cities.  The aspects of the city that strike me aren’t the ones that struck previous authors.  Also, Boston keeps changing, so there’s always some new wrinkle to examine.

There are several reasons that Boston is a fantastic setting for stories. The first lies in the varied neighborhoods crammed together into such a small space.  It’s only a 45-minute walk from the North End to Fenway Park and in that walk you’ll pass Faneuil Hall, Downtown Crossing, the Boston Common, Beacon Hill, and the Back Bay.  It’s easy to cram different types of people together in Boston.

Another reason that Boston makes a great setting is that it has been a great setting many times.  Readers and moviegoers are familiar with Boston and so feel grounded in stories there.  It’s been said that people argue whether New York or L.A. are the best settings, but both sides agree that Boston is next on the list.

Ray Daniel

Ray Daniel

Question: Software designers and software debuggers—is it really two different camps? Two different mindsets? Will designers ever be able to design a hack-free computer or device? Is there always a weakness? And why don’t the debuggers sit in when the architects are working and point out mistakes?

Ray Daniel: Three great questions. As to the mindsets or camps, you might compare it to authors vs. editors.  While it is possible to have someone who is good at both roles, people definitely have strengths in one direction or the other.

The author/editor split also applies to the question of having debuggers involved in the architectural process. The problems a good editor solves are not usually apparent until the entire story is written.  The same can happen with software.

As for whether it’s possible to create hacker-proof computers or devices, it is possible as long as the device doesn’t do anything.  A brick is pretty hacker-proof. Once you start adding functionality you are almost certain to create security holes that can be exploited.  Even something with no electronics at all, a lock, can be hacked (or picked in that case.)

Question: Terminated relishes the particular joys of the modern day industry convention. You sound like an old pro and these things. Do you enjoy, hate, endure…or a combination? Any convention survival tips you’d care to share?

Ray Daniel: I’m an extrovert who feeds upon the energy of crowds, so I love conventions and conferences. My biggest tip is that if you are working a convention (for example if you are at the American Library Association Conference signing books in your publisher’s booth) never stand on your booth’s carpet.  Always stand in the neutral walkway carpet.  This keeps out you there meeting people.

When you meet a new person always ask, “Have you seen our booth yet?”  That way you have a next step whether they answer “yes” (“What brings you back?”) or “no” (“Let me show you around.”)

Question: Tucker’s three days in Terminated are, to choose one word, harrowing. How did you determine how many close shaves he could handle?

Ray Daniel: Poor Tucker takes it on the chin every time I think the audience may get bored.  Since I’m paranoid about boring my audience, he takes it on the chin a lot. Also I’m a big fan of books in which the main character is in real physical danger, so again Tucker bears the brunt of it.

My biggest challenge as a new author was learning how to write the scenes where Tucker responds to his close shaves.  Being in danger is an emotional experience, and it would be flat if Tucker didn’t respond to the danger.

Question: The exchanges between Tucker and his dead wife Carol, who materializes at surprising moments, are both colorful and, again, funny. How did you develop this idea? Have you ever had an experience like Tucker’s, seeing and talking with the dead?

Ray Daniel: Carol was an in-the-moment inspiration when I was writing the scene where Kevin had left Tucker alone for a moment in his office.  I wanted conflict in the scene, but Tucker was alone, and the idea for Carol popped into my head at that moment.

Once I had the idea I wanted to make sure that Carol didn’t fall into the category of “My sainted dead wife.” That’s become something of a cliché.  That’s why they fight so much.

Also, once you’ve been married long enough, you don’t need the other person around to have the fights.

Question: Favorite Boston (or New England) writers—go. And, sure, feel free to mention any others you like, maybe a few unsung heroes of yours.

Ray Daniel: This question and the next question have the same answer: Robert B. Parker.  I used to tell people that I liked reading “First-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries.”  So, when I started writing I wanted to write first-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries, and I do.

Question: Who or what inspired your mystery writing career?

Ray Daniel: <above>

Question: What’s next?

Ray Daniel: Tucker’s third book, Child Not Found, publishes on June 7th. Tucker takes his cousin’s daughter sledding on Boston Common and loses her in chapter one.  I really liked what Kirkus had to say about this book: “As usual, Daniel is more than generous with the violence, guilt, tweets, craft brews, and compassion.”

I love the fact that I’ve reached a point in my career where a reviewer can use the phrase “As usual.”  It looks like I have a recognizable style!

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Ray Daniel’s Website

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Review:

Terminated begins with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind. The first two words of the book, however, offer a somewhat helpful clue. “Morning sex…”

The five days of plot in this brisk novel, after the opening action, never let up. Our erstwhile techie hero Tucker manages to get in a few stops for various bits of Boston nosh and beverage along the way. This guy needs a drink. Or four. He’s had it rough and it’s going to get worse.

Tucker and his wife Carol developed controversial security software. They were a team, of sorts, at a company called MantaSoft (what a great name). Carol was viciously murdered in their home six months prior to the gauntlet of mayhem that takes place from Sunday to Thursday within the pages of Terminated. It turns out that Tucker and Carol’s marriage had plenty of bumps and not much going on in the bedroom. But that doesn’t mean Tucker doesn’t care who killed her. He cares, in fact, very much.

But now “Carol” follows Tucker around and he can often be seen having conversations with her in public, though the Bluetooth gizmo prevents others from questioning his sanity.  Yes, this is a familiar device but Ray Daniel’s uses it sparingly and Carol pops up, appropriately, at some wonderfully inopportune times. And they continue to bicker about what went wrong. Hilarious.

A few pages into Terminated, Tucker’s pal at the FBI is letting him in a new lead, a somewhat worrisome photo of a woman, someone Carol once hired when she worked at MantaSoft.  She’s dead. And someone thinks Tucker may have played a role in the woman’s demise, further fueling Tucker’s need to find out what’s going on at his old company.

Tucker can hack or debug anything. “You really solve puzzles through a flash of insight,” he says. “Then you work your way back through the logic so you can explain it to others. After years of debugging software, I was good at generating flashes of insight.”

And he’ll need them. By the time Tuesday rolls around, Tucker makes Jack Reacher look like nothing more than the captain of a Swan Boat in Boston Garden.  Tucker isn’t likely to take on five big men with only his fists, but he seems to attract as the violent type. He’s a mayhem magnet.

Humor and violence live side by side in Terminated. And Daniel flashes some very funny lines.

“If you took a bowling ball, taught it to talk, and bought it a custom bowling-ball suit, you’d wind up with Agent Bobby Miller.”

“The prosperity of the 1960’s blew past Boston’s dying textile industries. While other cities were making money and dropping down the architectural equivalent of bell-bottom pants, Boston was too broke to build.”

“The beach still curves gracefully toward Nahant, but the only noted attraction is Kelly’s Roast Beef, which is ‘World Famous,’ according to its sign. I’d once asked some folks from Budapest if they had heard of Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere and they had not. It was very disappointing.”

Tucker has lots to sort through. Not everybody is what they appear to be. And Tucker will soon realize, despite a sharp ability to debug anything, that his smart aleck ways are helping leave an easy trail for would-be assassins to follow.

Terminated (a title that probably carries quadruple meaning here) is a fun and hair-raising romp through the streets of Boston. It ends, like it starts, with a bang. I’ll let you figure out which kind.

 

 

 

 

Q & A #37 – Christopher Merkner, The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic

411hmzqv7tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Skip this intro!

Go down to the Q & A.

Then find yourself of copy of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic.

What, you’re still here?

Okay, know that Christopher Merkner is worth following. He teaches classes through Lighthouse Writers here in Denver, so go get yourself some Merkner.

He’s teaching a class on Deborah Eisenberg and Joy Williams beginning in April; check it out.

Last summer, Merkner’s volume won the 2015 Colorado Book Award for best short story collection. Also among the finalists was the previously quizzed Wendy J. Fox.

So, now: read the Q & A.

Oh, a full review follows.

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Question: Short sentences. What gives? Are you comma adverse? Sure, you have some long sentences but it seems as if you really prefer them short, punchy. True? And why?

Christopher Merkner: With Scandamerican Domestic, my position was Less Is Best. The primary characters are all white heterosexual men feeling very badly about themselves for no objectively defensible reason. So, while I have little doubt that these men “in reality” would have no qualms about carrying on and on, eloquently and otherwise, my thinking was that it seemed appropriate and necessary to neutralize them with a language they more fully deserve, which is a language with as few words as possible.

Question: “Scandamerican” – is that a thing? And what about the domestic aspect here? Did you know when you gathered these stories that there would be a lot of child rearing, coupling, and painting walls? Of negotiating roles and responsibilities?

Christopher Merkner: As far as “Scandamerica” is concerned– it’s definitely a thing, Mark. C’mon! It’s huge! Next time you’re in Rockford, Illinois, stop by the Stockholm Inn. Very much alive, Scandamerica, I assure you, and when you are there they will treat your just right.

As far as the domestic aspect, my whole life is my wife and kids. I haven’t had a drink outside our house in perhaps five years. I have three friends, maybe two. I have no hobbies. I listen to my parents complain on the telephone from their home in Illinois. I haven’t spoken to my sister in Wisconsin in about two years. I dwell on and lament memories of my youth, when I had what some would allege was “a life.” I go to a grocery store between ten and fifteen times a week. I try to play catch or Frisbee with my daughter and son. I drive the kids to swimming lessons, then back home again, sometimes strongarming them into a grocery store on the way home. I find this life pretty rich, and I really enjoy it, so I write about it – not my life, necessarily, but the life that exists around me as I conduct this life with my family. Maybe that makes me imaginatively narrow. I’m sure it does. And for now that’s okay.

Scandamerica built up around these stories and this life, not the other way around, and I just feel grateful daily that someone was kind enough to say, “Yes, this is a book.” I could not be more grateful, nor could I be more aware that I should be grateful, given the amount of important creative work being created out there that isn’t getting published.

Christopher Merkner

Christopher Merkner

Question: Why is the family unit such a source of amusement, if that’s the right word, to you? Or terror? Do amusement and terror live side by side?

Christopher Merkner: Amusement and terror, at least for my writing, are just aesthetic tools. Family by contrast is a concept, and it’s a really important concept for me, very close and dear to me, and amusement and terror are the tools I apply to the expression of that concept because I personally find them both vastly better fits than their alternatives in helping me say what I want to say about family and families in America today.

Question: The Missouri Review said: “In Merkner’s stories, the things that tempt us come to pass.” There does seem to be a free-fall to some of these stories. You can’t believe a husband is going through with, say, holding a party for his spouse’s ex boyfriends. All of them. Do you agree with The Missouri Review’s conclusion? Is that a fair thread? Care to discuss?

Christopher Merkner: It became pretty clear, pretty early on, that Scandamerican Domestic would not be interested in realism, anyway, so in many ways this idea that wouldn’t “likely happen” doesn’t really apply. But I guess I’m also pretty confident that the men who tell the stories in the book definitely see their lives in free-fall, just as most Americans like these characters do. And this is of course ridiculous and founded on all of the most ridiculous foundations of their privilege. There really isn’t a narrator in the book that isn’t authoring the hardship by which they find themselves feeling victimized. I have very little patience for men, especially angry and stunted-feeling white ones in the middle and upper-middle class, and I imagine that must be creating this sense that things that “probably shouldn’t happen” are happening to them. They author these things in a world where they are free to author almost anything they want. They set themselves up, foolishly, and I’m just helping them find their inevitable realization. Maybe that’s too political. And maybe that’s just too cruel and unfair. I don’t mean it to be.

Question: There are several (many) stories that involve negotiations between husband and wife and that show the struggle with roles and responsibilities. Why does this space draw such interest? And does your wife check your work before you submit?

Christopher Merkner: Molly reads everything I write. If I have anything as a writer, I owe it to her. And we’re both in agreement that the “crises” of the characters in these stories are as incriminating as they are authentic.

Question: “Last Cottage,” I must say, is particularly warped and fantastic. Can’t we all just get along? You write that one from the collective “we” perspective, almost like the “we” is the whole community’s consciousness. The town wants every spare bit of shorefront commercialized—or else. What sparked this one and using that larger “we”?

Christopher Merkner: It has to be pretty normal to discover your creative work is really nothing more than an unwitting synthesis of your personal concerns, feelings, memories, attitudes, ideas, people, anecdotes, etc. Imagination is part of it, of course, but I think imagination is servant to these other pressures. Or, at least, that’s what’s going on here with me. This story started off as a sort of warm, commemorative note on the town I really grew up in—Wauconda, Illinois. But I feel like there’s no way to control this sort of thing, at least not with such an oppressive constraint as “commemorative,” so in revision it just kept expanding, drawing more fully from a fuller range of attitudes, issues, and practices I’d experienced in that town, with those people, my parents, friends, and my sister. And myself. I think it’s important to say that I am very much part of this “we” in this story, not in any sort of literal way, but in the way that one is invariably drawn into one’s own metaphors. Anyway, the deeper that story went into revision, the more fully it became clear that the characters were complicit in their own demise, all parties, all of them white and fairly, relatively solidly upper middle class. Why can’t we all just get along, indeed! But that’s the point or function of the book as a whole: Americans who really have no actual or real problems, relative to the broader world, working diligently to create problems for themselves.

Question: For folks out there like myself who have spent a long time working on full-length novels, what is the advantage, do you think, of working on your short story craft? I saw in another interview that you might be working on some longer pieces. True? Is it a difficult transition?

Christopher Merkner: For me, anyway, there are no advantages. For me, stories pester tirelessly. They are indefatigable, incessant naggers, and I think that’s because there are just so many of them to be attended to, always desperately needing something. The novel, I’m finding, is always beholden to these demands. The novel is louder, yes, but it frankly can’t compete with the multitudes of nagging, needy voices, at least not without becoming angry – and anger doesn’t flatter the novel, at least not for me. Maybe it’s a maturity thing, the way that grandparents can “handle” grandchildren with relative indifference to their annoyance, and still carry on their daily lives without being upset by or having their days ruined by the demands of their grandkids. But at this point in my life stories are just very much needing constant attention and the novel is just like a teenage kid doing its own thing, off a bit on its own, capable of enormous damage, moving toward something awesome but forever stepping on the brink of its own demise, but the stories…I just can’t stop paying attention to their needs. And the transition between the two is annoying when I think of it as annoying. I just try to just stay in contact with them both and give them each the kind of attention they seem most pleased to receive…and of course I’m inadequate to the cause. I mean, that’s the prevailing feeling, inadequacy.

Question: Lydia Davis. Is there anyone else out there like her? Who considers each word with such surgical precision and who gets so much done in so little space?

Christopher Merkner: Lydia Davis is the gold standard, at least for me. I am so grateful to her. If I look past her, back to the writers that I admired before I’d really started valuing Davis, I have to admit that it was Donald Barthelme who opened the door to the room in which I found Davis, and so I could not possibly forget him. Other writers that I find in this same room with Davis? Let me just say it this way, as I’ve said it before: I think everyone should spend some time reading Selah Saterstrom (Slab), Meg Pokrass (Damn Sure Right), David Leavitt (The Marble Quilt), Padgett Powell (The Interrogative Mood), Josh Russell (My Bright Midnight), Margaret Luongo (If the Heart is Lean), Imad Rahman (I Dream of Microwaves), Chris Bachelder (The Throwback Special), Tara Masih (Where the Dog Star Never Grows), Spring Ulmer (Benjamin’s Spectacles), Josh Harmon (The Cold Season), Wendy J Fox (Seven Stages of Anger), Luke Rolfes (Flyover Country), Danielle Dutton (Sprawl), Greg Howard (Hospice), Sara Veglahn (The Mayflies), Chris Narozny (Jonah Man), Erik Anderson (The Poetics of Trespass). These are good people writing good books.

Question: What’s next?

Christopher Merkner: What’s next, indeed. I have to try to get my kids to the mountains once more this winter; I have to get groceries for their lunches; I have a birthday party to get my daughter to Sunday, and my son needs to do his physical therapy stretches more consistently. They both have homework. The entrance to the house needs to be vacuumed. The laundry is backed up. It’s hand-to-hand combat here in this house, Mark, and what comes out of it all, in terms of writing, is still in process, and I won’t know it until it’s let me know it, I’m confident. But I’m grateful for you asking!

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Christopher Merkner’s Website

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Review:

A few of the words that came to mind while reading The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Acerbic. Biting. Caustic.

And absolutely, in spots, hilarious. In a sort of morbid fashion.

Christopher Merkner doesn’t waste time revealing his sensibilities. He kicks things off with the first-person narrator of “Of Pigs and Children” worried about how he’s going to explain how he “accidentally gaffed” his uncle in the temple “with one of my musky bucktails on a very simple and heaving backcast.” He needs to explain what happened to his mother but she’s distracted by her Vietnamese potbelly pig. The story of Uncle Ackvund’s demise comes to us in bits and pieces and we soon learn all the grisly facts, from wheelbarrow to “slop in the culvert,” about the narrator’s miserable attempts to save his uncle’s life.

The opening sentence of “In Lapland” is a perfect example of Merkner’s breezy, easy style: “On Thursday my wife returns from work and says she needs some color in the house, can’t live in this cell-hole another minute, what have we done to bring ourselves to this way of living at our age, we aren’t twenty-five-year-old twist, not anymore.” When the couple encounters a color snob in the form of saleslady who tries to talk them off the “Country Rill” green they are chasing, they bottle up their wrath. “We’ve reserved all this direct outrage for the car ride home and really let the car windows have it,” the husband reports.

The painting project is really, in fact, all about their sexual dynamics and sexual tension between the couple and Merkner isn’t subtle. He goes after the blush.

“Friday, the brush is frayed and starchy, limpid and stiff at the same time—caked in a sort of translucent lacquer and generally incapable of offering a stroke of Country Rill that does not somehow ruin a previous stroke. My whole rhythm is off. I’m doing harm. My wife just winces, says things like ‘Oh, Guud.’”

Merkner finds humor in the ordinary. The stories seem to ask, why are things the way they are? Do we have to accept them just because? How did I get here?

Merkner pushes the envelope, surreal in spots and sardonic in others. Merkner’s characters seem to simultaneously participate in the story and turn to at the reader and say, “can you believe this is happening?’ You catch a wink like Kurt Vonnegut, a flash of humor like the best of Tom Robbins, and then a fun patch of prose a la John Updike.

The titles are ample clue to the tone, “When Our Son, 26, Brings Us His First Girlfriend” and “Check the Baby” and “We Have Them To Raise Us,” a story about a wife who goads and cajoles her husband into helping plan a party with her ex-boyfriends—all 36 of them. (“We Have Them To Raise Us” would make for a great episode of “Portlandia.” So would a few others.)

The last story is a doozie. “Last Cottage,” told in the collective “we” third-person that speaks on behalf of an entire community that’s in favor of “progress” in the sense of commercial development. The “Larsons” have been coming to Slocum Lake for fifteen years and possess the only waterfront property that has not succumbed to The Borg.

The Larsons have been subject to a series of bullying tactics but so far seem oblivious to the collective message to give up their quaint family ways and see the light. So a plot is hatched to electroshock the lake and cover the Larsons’ beachfront in dead fish. The Larsons greet the escalating affronts with pluck, resourcefulness and an innocent shrug. How infuriating!

The ending borders on Kafka country and reminded me of Thomas Berger’s fine novel “Neighbors” in its ambiguous moral compass around a tale set in a place where we’re all supposed to get along.

“Getting along,” in fact, might be the dark undercurrent here—the notion of what we’re supposed to do in middle class, Midwestern America versus how things actually play out.

Merkner’s characters reference the general suburban-Scandinavian-porcelain gene pool, but seem to recognize the pros and cons of their heritage. “My specific roots are northern Midwest, settlers near Green Bay,” the narrator of “We Have Them to Raise Us” informs us, “and while we know our way around the labyrinth of deception, because we are half the time misleading ourselves, we are not actually well prepared genetically for the confined chambers of overt and sustained lying.”

Such explicit self-analysis is rare. More often than not, Merkner’s characters are genetically well prepared for standing in wonder. They don’t often fight. The sabotage in “We Have Them to Raise Us” is sweetly mounted but only after we get some insights on the benefits of passivity. These are not journeys of self-discovery but surreal views of family intimacies that turn the world cock-eyed and make you wonder what we all take for granted.

Two quotes to keep in mind as you read The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic:

Salvador Dali: “Surrealism is not a movement. It is a latent state of mind perceivable through the powers of dream and nightmare.”

Frank Kafka: “I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.”

Darkness and, in the case of Merkner, a healthy dose of humor.

 

Ausma Zehanat Khan – “The Language of Secrets”

The Language of SecretsEsa Khattak is just too cool.

He’s thoughtful, careful and analytical. He sees the world in subtle, complex ways. Best of all, he knows who he is and what he’s up against. He’s a Muslim. He’s a detective. He works in multi-cultural Toronto. And he just happens to work in the special community policing division, handling sensitive cases. And he’s coming off a rough outing for how he managed the investigation of the murder of Christopher Drayton (in The Unquiet Dead). That case required diving into a tight community of survivors of the war in Bosnia and, more specifically, the massacre in Srebrenica.

Licking his wounds, and fully aware of his shaky reputation among his superiors, Khattak is handed a new case in The Language of Secrets. Again, Khattak wades into tricky, pricklish turf. The murder victim, Moshin Dar, was an estranged friend. Moshin “believed in the Islamic nation, a supernatural community whose faith transcended language, sect, ethnicity, and borders, tied together by a spiritual commonality.”

But when he was murdered, Moshin Dar was on an undercover mission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And Khattak is asked by the federal intelligence agency to figure out what happened all while not disrupting or giving away the ongoing undercover work into a terrorist cell that operates out of a Mosque and is running commando training in the suburban woods. To make matters worse, few cops trust Khattak. He’s constantly being reminded of his missteps and, occasionally, being baited into “anger and indiscretion.” Oh, and one more thing. Khattak’s sister is involved with the erstwhile leader of the Muslim cell.

These are just a few elements that frame this layered novel. As in the first installment, Khattak works with his partner Rachel Getty, as purebred Canadian as they come. But agnostic Rachel must first go undercover to the mosque as a potential new recruit, as someone who is thinking about converting to Islam. The only religion Rachel cares about is ice hockey. While Khattak turns to prayer to ease the “ferment of his thoughts,” the only thing she’ll pray for is to have her cherished Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup.

Khattak and Getty are a terrific pair. One of my favorite things about these two is how considerate they are of each other. The cliché approach requires tension between odd-couple protagonists. The cliché approach requires quick-fire repartee and rapid retorts, but Khan avoids the tired tropes and puts two real people on the page who are struggling with their own self-doubts and struggles. She admires Khattak’s “understated elegance” and hopes to emulate it. He wants to expand their relationship to genuine friends—just because. He shows her a few things about how to approach the case, but he would never ask her to moderate her partiality to the “young and dispossessed.” They like each other, get along. The point is to see this case from two different vantage points and Khan slips effortlessly back and forth, alternating chapters as we absorb Khattak’s more nuanced intake of the clues and as Getty bounces, more youthful and a touch wide-eyed, into the heart of the fray.

It’s Khattak’s ongoing struggle with his identity that gives The Language of Secrets its weight. It’s also his ethics and his interest in simple truths about how the story of his people (his faith) is being skewed and skewered in public. Khattak is fully aware of his secret fears. He has ample reason to sink into an abyss of cynicism and anger, but he remains a believer in peace even as his dusk prayer breaks his heart anew each night. Ultimately, of course, it’s Khattak’s keen knowledge of the culture that begins to break the case and soon Rachel Getty finds herself in deep jeopardy. In the tense finish, Khan takes full advantage of the rugged Canadian winter and Rachel’s familiarity with ice.

Language across cultures (meaning, emphasis, subtleties, nuance) and secrets (between people and within both Rachel and Essa) play critical roles in unraveling the conspiracy, which is based on a real-life case from 2006. Esa Khattak, in a beautifully written scene, isn’t afraid to whisper to an “unseen presence.” He’s also not afraid to listen—and observe—with care. The whole issue of subordination to existing authority versus a higher spirit, in Esa’s case, is fascinating. What makes these first two Khattak-Getty novels click is the space between two interesting, contrasting characters who model thoughtful, mutual respect.

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Previously reviewed–The Unquiet Dead, including Q & A with Ausma Khan.

Unquiet Dead

 

 

Helen Macdonald – “H is for Hawk”

H is for HawkDon’t we read, sometimes, to be surprised? H is for Hawk is one of those books. It’s almost indescribable.

How many topics does it weave together? Brit Helen Macdonald trains a goshawk. She explores grief over the death of her father, a news photographer. She reflects on writer T. H. White, who wrote his own manual (in 1951) about training the goshawk. She shows us the connection between White’s personal life and his approach to telling tales about King Arthur (The Sword in the Stone). She ruminates on  oppression, World War II, homosexuality, repression and oppression. She is also very aware that she is writing another animal book—and that they don’t always end well.

And, somehow, she pulls it all together.

The training of the hawk, which she names Mabel, becomes a prism for processing her thoughts. She’s an experienced falconer before her father dies, but the goshawk (much feistier and edgier than some birds of prey) represents a new challenge and so does her state of mind: “While the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life.”

The goshawk is part alien. It’s a loner. T.H. was part alien. And a loner. At least, he knew he was different—and Macdonald’s dredging up the business about White’s fantasies about spanking boys, while not easy to read, shows Macdonald’s drive to confront as many of those “hurts of human life” as possible.

Macdonald pours herself into Mabel, lives through her—and kills alongside her. Her father taught her to look through a viewfinder as a way to distance herself from the subject and to compose photographic, organized thoughts about the images coming through the lens. Mabel becomes Macdonald’s viewfinder and she hopes to find herself in the training and hunting and, yes, killing. The two connect. While I found it a bit hard to believe that a bird’s moods could be deciphered as easily as say, a dog’s, Macdonald convinced me.

This is a mesmerizing memoir. It’s slow in parts. It skews dark. I’ve seen some other comments that Macdonald comes across as self-absorbed but that never occurred to me; she stirs the pot with so many other issues and ideas and observations that I was never bored.

A sampling of the writing as Macdonald meets Mabel for the first time:

“A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within. ‘She’s got her hood off,’ he said, and frowned. That light, leather hood was to keep the hawk from fearful sights. Like us.

“Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.”

(Porpentine…arachaic for porcupine.)

“Nature books” don’t get much more rich than H is for Hawk.

It’s about nature – including the human kind. In looking at herself so deeply at a time when she was going off the rails, and pulled herself back up, she looks at all of us, from our darkest moments to the brightest. H is for Hawk is like “daylight irrigating a box.”