The Empress of Salt and Fortune

An empire subdues a new acquisition. The conquered people must send their ruler’s daughter to the empire to cement their new “alliance.” When the girl arrives in the capital, she is condescended to by the courtiers who consider her an outlandish barbarian. She is given the title “Empress,” but she has no friends, no power. After she delivers a son, her usefulness is over except as a hostage. Her baby is taken from her and she is sent into internal exile, destined to live out her life alone in a padded and gilded cage, far from the centres of power.

Or so the emperor and his sorcerers think.

Empress In-yo’s story starts in a familiar place, but it doesn’t follow the more familiar trajectories. She is quiet, but not passive; alone, but not friendless; angry, but not rash. And when her moment comes, she catches the rulers of the empire of Anh by surprise, for how much trouble, after all, can a few women make?

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, one of this year’s Hugo contenders for best novella, gets off to a slow and somewhat confusing start, with the entire first chapter (out of twelve, or about 15% of the total) establishing a framing device. The non-binary cleric, Chih, and their travelling companion, a talking bird (a hoopoe) named Almost Brilliant, come to the house where the empress lived in exile, and meet an old woman named Rabbit. Chih explores the house, cataloging the objects they find, and recording the stories Rabbit tells about them.

A dress triggers Rabbit’s memory of In-yo’s arrival at a court modeled on the imperial Chinese. A child of the north, she brings a fine dowry of salt, pearls, and whale oil, and wears the magnificent, one-of-a-kind sealskin dress, made from the pelt of the seal her brother—now dead in the war—had stalked across the ice on his first hunt.

Most of the book is a series of flashbacks, reminiscences. They seem at first to be rather random, disconnected, with no obvious connection to the event in the first chapter that piqued Chih’s interest. But a little patience pays off. The vignettes gradually fill in pieces of a puzzle, and near the end come together to create, in retrospect, a cohesive story arc. (The format is probably not for everyone, but I found it intriguing. I know how stumbling across a forgotten object can trigger a flood of memories.) In-yo herself is not the point-of-view character; her story is told through the eyes of Rabbit, servant first and later friend, confidante, and co-conspirator.

The story is rich and atmospheric, with stronger world-building and characterisation in less than 130 pages than I’ve seen in some much longer books. The emotions are subtle and understated, and the violence mostly happens off-screen, implied rather than articulated. It benefits from a close reading; a fast skim will miss many of the telling details.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series (The Singing Hills Cycle) following the cleric, Chih. I’m looking forward to reading the next, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

Trigger warnings: Violence, forced sterilisation, suicide.

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Banned Book Week 2021

The first headline to catch my eye this morning read “Pennsylvania school district reverses ban on books by authors of colour”. Excellent timing for the beginning of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Banned Book Week. Feel like celebrating? I don’t, not when the censorship involved should never have happened in the first place.

If you haven’t been following this story, here’s the short version: in October 2020 the Central York school board implemented a “freeze” on several hundred books and other educational resources while the board vetted them. The list of “frozen” titles was almost entirely by or about people of colour.

The children’s book I am Rosa Parks, in the Ordinary People Change the World series by Brad Meltzer, was on the list. I haven’t read the book; I don’t know whether whether it is accurate, age appropriate, or even well-written. I do know that Rosa Parks was a woman who looked out both for herself and for other people; a woman I can look up to, in other words. A woman lots of children, Black and White, would benefit from knowing more about.

I’ve written before about the difference between “banned” and “challenged” books. Most of the fights over books in the United States’ recent history have been challenges, not outright bans, but in this case, the materials have been prohibited from classroom use and yanked from school library shelves for over a year. This reads like a ban to me, despite the school board’s attempts to evade the term. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it’s a duck.

That applies to the blatant racism involved, too. Apparently, some parents feel that books addressing issues of race and social justice are divisive. Divisive to whom? To the white snowflakes that want to close their eyes and pretend that systemic racism doesn’t exist, and that American history isn’t chock-full of political, social, and economic divisions between the races? Surely not to the people of colour who are smacked in the face every day with reminders of how much race matters and how little social justice there is for them in the U.S.

The news articles on this story quote one parent saying, “I don’t want my daughter growing up feeling guilty because she’s White.” Well, I agree, a schoolgirl isn’t responsible for the mess the United States is in; she shouldn’t feel guilty about it. But if she grows up without any understanding of the doors open to her simply because of her skin colour, and no willingness to help open those doors for others, then yes, maybe she should feel guilty. She should grow up with enough understanding of her country’s history to know that sweeping problems under the rug doesn’t build a healthy society. Her parents should encourage her to stretch her sense of empathy by reading about other people’s lives; how can that ever not be a good thing?

Fortunately, there are still many more people who do want these stories told than are against them; despite the claims of divisiveness, most of the community came together to demand the ban be lifted. I particularly like the story about a couple of women asking for donations of books on the list to put in their Little Free Libraries. The response has been more than enough to fill every Little Free Library in town; any student in the district who wants a book on the list will be able to get it.

Posted in On Reading | 2 Comments

The City We Became

The City We Became, the first book in N. K. Jemisin’s Great Cities series, is a love letter to New York City, in all its exuberant, chaotic, contradictory glory. And to city life in general. The idea here is that when the conditions are right, with enough people packed into a small space, the city will come to life, literally, bestowing demigod-like powers on a resident chosen to be its avatar.

But the animation has unfortunate consequences. There are forces at work that don’t want new cities to come to life, and that will attack to prevent their birth, with disastrous results. Think Pompeii, Atlantis, New Orleans. The conflict is millennia-old, but in recent times the enemy has changed tactics, catching New York City’s midwives flat-footed.

The City We Became starts with a bang, following a young, homeless, Black graffiti artist painting throats so his still unborn city can breathe. And then he and the city become one, the city is in its birth throes, and the enemy strikes. They battle across the city, New York blocking eldritch tentacles with steel girders and bedrock. The Williamsburg bridge breaks, flinging commuters into the East River. The enemy takes a beating, but so does the city; its avatar is in a coma, easy prey when the enemy recovers.

But he is not alone in this fight. New York City has five boroughs, each with its own personality and chosen avatars, several women and one man who don’t particularly like each other. Will they be able to understand what the stakes are before it’s too late? Will they be able to overcome their differences and work together to protect the primary avatar? What will the others do when Staten Island tells them to get off her lawn?

This is a story, told with passion and humour, about NYC as a spicy, lumpy stew, celebrating all its various flavours, not as a melting pot enforcing homogeneity. I like that the characters are mostly decent, intelligent people trying to work together, trying to do the right thing. Even the villain has plausible reasons for her actions. Plus there’s an excellent send up of H. P. Lovecraft’s racism. But as much as I enjoyed The City We Became, I admit to some strong ambivalence towards it. It has a few problems:

  • People of colour good, white bad: The recurring motif pitting multicultural/multiracial diversity against white bread uniformity and xenophobia was as subtle as a punch in the face. I can understand how Jemisin comes to that point of view, but still… I can’t do anything about my skin colour any more than she can.
  • Pacing: The prologue gets the ball rolling just fine, but the story bogs down in the opening chapters. It’s not obvious to start with how the prologue relates to the amnesiac man on the train, and the explanation for his memory loss doesn’t come until a good ways in. The pace does pick up again by halfway through, and then it feels breakneck, with a rushed ending that left me doing a bit of head-scratching.
  • Fridge logic: The fast pacing of the second half carries the reader along, too busy wondering what happens next to get bogged down in picking apart the hand-wavy explanations. On thinking about it afterwards, however, there’s far too much that doesn’t make sense. Mouse over for spoilers.
  • Things get dropped: People, objects, and at least one idea. The trans roommate in Chapter Two was more appealing than the avatar character we’re following, but he’s dropped, never to be seen again. The avatar character drops his credit card in a park and walks away. A minor point, maybe, but it annoyed and distracted me through the next two chapters.

I never lived in NYC, but I spent thirty years in its bedroom suburbs in New Jersey. I’ve done all the touristy things in the city, gone shopping, ridden the subways, listened to the radio traffic reports with all their newcomer-unfriendly shorthand—the GWB (George Washington Bridge), the LIE (Long Island Expressway), etc—so I have a reasonable mental map of the place. If you don’t, Google Maps is your friend. There is a map at the beginning of the book, but in shades of grey on my e-reader’s small screen, I can’t make out many details. It does display the big blobs of the five boroughs, which is enough to show why Staten Island is more New Jersey than New York.

In sum, the book has a few problems, but it was a fun read. How can you go wrong with a book containing lines like this:

Discovering that one’s roommate is actively undergoing a break with reality is high on the scale of “things one wants to learn before signing the lease.”

Trigger warning: Lots of swearing, some violence, xenophobia, racism, attempted sexual assault, police brutality. Minor mentions: abortion, alcoholism.

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The Collapsing Empire

Without faster-than-light transportation, is interstellar travel possible? In The Collapsing Empire, the first book in the Interdependency series, author John Scalzi imagines a strange phenomenon called “The Flow”, unknown to our current physics. Using normal rocket propulsion to reach a region of space where the Flow interacts with normal space, a spaceship can get into the Flow with a carefully-crafted bubble of normal space surrounding it, and be carried along to other star systems in a few weeks or months.

All of known space is part of a network of Flow “streams” connecting the worlds making up the Interdependency, an empire so named because only one planet in the network has all the resources needed to sustain human life on its own. And that one planet—End, Earth is long lost in this universe—is a backwater, the farthest from all other planets in the network, so it’s a good thing that the Flow streams were mapped out more than a millennium ago and are stable.

Except that they aren’t. They are starting to collapse, and within a few years, interstellar travel will be impossible.

I had not read anything else by Scalzi before this book. I first took note of it when it was mentioned in a panel on climate change at CoNZealand, so I suppose I was expecting a focus on either (a) the moneyed interests’ resistance to any change that disturbs their position at the top of the pile, or (b) the impacts on the billions of ordinary people being lied to and abandoned to cruel fate by political leaders unwilling to make hard choices. I was a bit disappointed in that. There are some parallels with the current climate crisis, mostly in terms of people in power unwilling to face up to unpleasant facts, but the focus was less on environmental and societal impacts than on noble families in conflict.

The ruling Wu family has stayed in power for a millennium by extracting tolls and tariffs from their monopoly control of all the entries to and exits from the Flow streams around one central world, Hub. Another ambitious family sees the collapse as an opportunity to take control by establishing the same monopoly around End—under the mistaken assumption that the streams will simply shift, and not dry up completely—and has no scruples about using any means to accomplish that goal.

There are three main characters in The Collapsing Empire:

  • Cardenia Wu-Patrick, the new emperox (a gender-neutral term for the ruler of an empire). She is an accidental, untrained emperox—her older and recently-deceased half brother was expected to assume the throne—who is having to deal with terrorist bombings, assassination attempts, and unwanted suitors as well as this crisis.
  • Marce Claremont, the dedicated scientist overcoming obstacles—including kidnapping and his own insecurities—to bring the emperox the bad news. He also has to live with the knowledge that with the streams collapsing behind him, he may never see his home world again.
  • Kiva Lagos, a potty-mouthed, sex-obsessed member of a noble family, whose main concern is avoid losing face by going into the red on a sabotaged trade journey.

Cardenia and Marce are fairly standard characters: the underestimated ruler who grows into the job, the charming nerd. Kiva is more entertaining—she is ruthless, conniving, quick-thinking, and even occasionally exhibits a conscience—but plot, not characterisation, is this book’s strong point.

One other thing of note about this series is the gender neutrality. Women hold positions of power—emperox, head of the church, heads of merchant families—without questions about their competence. Many of the major players, both protagonist and antagonist, are women. A butt-kicking sister looks after her gentle brother. The over-sexed Kiva will get it on with just about anything that moves.

On the other hand, Kiva takes advantage of her position to get her employees into bed with her—a trait that isn’t more forgivable when a woman does it than when a man does. So, boo.

Aside from that, this is a fun, easy read, with hissable villains, witty dialogue, and some great action sequences. Good modern space opera, in other words. Warning: this first book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. If you enjoy it, you’ll probably want to go on immediately to the second book in the series, The Consuming Fire.

Trigger warnings: Violence, bad language, and some surprisingly un-erotic sex.

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Book Announcement: The Forge

The Forge, the fifth and final book in the Reforging series, is scheduled to be released on 3 December. I’ve just seen the cover art, and it’s gorgeous:

The artist, Catherine Archer-Wills, has done a fantastic job with all five covers, but this is the best one yet.

Thunder rolls in a continuous barrage, echoing off mountain walls. Lightning blazes across the sky, one jagged flash after another. The bolts that hit their targets leave charred bodies in their wake. The attacks that miss turn spruce and fir into torches, spreading fire until the entire mountain is in flames. Struggling wizards stand out as black silhouettes against the reds and oranges of the forest fire and the white of the deep snow.

In the valley, villagers cower under beds or huddle in cellars. The bravest peek out through gaps in closed shutters and pray for the Fire Warlock to come and save them.

Their prayers go unanswered. There is no Fire Warlock.

Posted in A Writer's Life, Epic Fantasy | Leave a comment

The Stranger House

Young Australian mathematician Sam (Samantha) Flood comes to the small Cumbrian village of Illthwaite looking for information about her grandmother, also known as Sam Flood. The older Sam emigrated from the U.K. in 1960 and died in childbirth only a year later, leaving Sam’s father an orphan. The locals Sam encounters deny knowledge of any Floods ever living in Illthwaite; it’s only by chance that Sam comes across a weed-obscured epitaph carved into the church cemetery wall:

Here lies Sam Flood
Whose nature bid him
To do much good.
Much good it did him.

The Sam Flood the epitaph references was a curate who had come to the village late in 1960, after the present day’s (circa 2005) Sam’s grandmother had already gone. A coincidence? Of course not. (This is a novel, after all, and the Law of Conservation of Detail applies.) Somehow, though, the villagers almost convince Sam that it is. Almost.

Meanwhile, the half-English/half-Spanish Mig (Miguel) Madero also arrives in Illthwaite, looking for information about a much older mystery in his own family: the disappearance of his ancestor, also named Miguel Madero, who had come to England with the Spanish Armada in 1588. Mig, too, is being stonewalled, but as he and Sam keep digging, they uncover some ugly secrets. Multiple mysteries—one from more than four hundred years ago, two from a little over forty—intertwine, and are still influencing current events. Sam—logical, incisive, and outspoken—insists on knowing the truth, a truth that someone, not so long ago, was willing to commit murder to hide.

If you are willing to accept a certain amount of magical realism (Mig, a former Catholic seminarian-turned-historian, see ghosts, and his sensitivity to the paranormal guides him in his search for clues), The Stranger House is an absorbing read. One of English crime writer Reginald Hill’s last works, it is an intricately plotted novel, with a well-drawn and entertaining cast of secondary characters, including a blacksmith/artist named Thor, a motherly innkeeper, a pair of very odd twins, and a retired cop (my favourite of the lot) who reminds Sam of a superannuated leprechaun.

I am slowly working my way through Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series, but The Stranger House is a standalone, without recurring characters. Hill’s writing is a pleasure to read, never losing sight of the plot, but full of humour and details fleshing out the setting and characters. The book is replete with throwaway lines like: Her eyes moved over Sam with the measured indifference of a security scan. Hill’s vocabulary must have been enormous; he is one of the few authors I regularly read who forces me to keep a dictionary at hand. (Whether you think that’s a positive or negative is up to you. Many of the unfamiliar words can be sussed out from context, but sometimes it is nice to know. Maybe I should read more of them on my e-reader, with its built-in dictionary.)

The book did include a few things that annoyed me, one of them being the not-really-believable romance between the two main characters, and another the frequent head hopping, sometimes moving from one character to another and back within a single page. There was also a sprinkling of Norse mythology (quotations from the Eddas, etc.) that felt rather forced and mostly superfluous to the plot. Related to that, the least successful secondary character was a chilly professor of the subject who never felt like a real person.

Sam’s behaviour, however, didn’t bother me. (I’m commenting on this because several reviewers on goodreads called her rude and unlikable.) I thought she was someone I would enjoy talking to. She started out reasonably polite, although frank and a bit irreverent, but with a chip on her shoulder towards the Catholic church (an understandable one, we find out later). Within a couple of hours of arriving in Illthwaite, four people lied to her and a fifth unseen person caused a fall that could have killed or seriously injured her. Wouldn’t you be angry? By the time she understands what really happened to her grandmother, she is ablaze with righteous anger and determined to dig out the truth, by whatever means is necessary. Calling her rude feels like an application of the old double standard, where anger is acceptable in men but not in women.

By the way, the story of what happened to Sam’s grandmother builds on the real history of the Home Children. Between the 1860s and 1970s, some 150,000 poor children were shipped from the U.K. to other parts of the Commonwealth—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. The stated aim was to give them a better life, and for some it did, but thousands were mistreated and overworked, and many were forcibly separated from extant families. Not a very laudable episode in British history.

Trigger warnings: rape, violence, child abuse.

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My Brother Michael

Nothing ever happens to me.

That is the opening line of My Brother Michael. A young Englishwoman—the narrator, Camilla Haven, on holiday in Greece—is sitting in a cafe in Athens, writing a letter back home, and feeling a bit sorry for herself. Not an adventurous sort, she wanders tamely from one ancient site to the next, guidebook in hand, and wishes she had enough money to hire a car and drive to Delphi, the centre of the world to the ancient Greeks.

She should have known better, because in true novelistic fashion, she gets what she asked for, and more. Moments later she finds herself, in a case of mistaken identity, being handed the keys to an already paid-for car urgently needed by a Mr Simon in Delphi. Before she has time to recover from her shock and make sense of the situation, the car-hire agent vanishes into the crowd. He had been told to deliver the keys to the young foreign lady sitting alone in that cafe at half past ten, and he did; his part in the story is over. So, naturally, Camilla drives to Delphi to deliver the car. (Wouldn’t you?) Delphi is a small place (at least it was in the 1950s, when this story was written), so finding Mr Simon won’t be difficult, right?

She encounters a Simon almost immediately on her arrival; an Englishman named Simon Lester who is, like herself, a classics teacher at a British public school. He, however, claims to know nothing about a car hired in his name, or why anyone would do so. He helps Camilla make enquires, but they don’t find another Simon, and the locals give him curious, sidelong glances.

Simon tells Camilla he has come to Delphi to see where his older brother, Michael, died during the war (World War II). Michael was a British Liaison Officer working with the Greek guerrillas fighting against the Nazi occupiers. He died in 1944, more than a decade earlier, but as Simon, with Camilla tagging along, soon discovers, that time span wasn’t nearly long enough to heal old wounds and lay bitter animosities to rest. The locals talk about ghosts walking on Mount Parnassus, and Simon’s arrival seems to have triggered an increase in activity. There was more to Michael’s death than a simple battle with Germans, and the forces that led to the fatal conflict are still at work. Camilla’s desire for a little adventure turns out to be much more dangerous than she could have imagined.

My Brother Michael is one of several of British writer Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels set in Greece. One of the things I like about it is the skilful interweaving of romance, a solid mystery, and a sense of place strong enough that when I see pictures of the ruins at Delphi, I feel almost as if I have been there myself. In my mind’s eye I can see the glare reflecting off the Phaedriades (literally, “the shining ones”), a pair of cliffs on the lower slopes of Mount Parnassus. I can see Simon standing on the stage of the ruined amphitheatre, reciting in Greek from Sophocle’s Electra, calling on the gods to:

…Be near me, and avenge
My father’s death, and bring
My brother home!

This is the book that introduced me to Mary Stewart in my teens, decades ago. It’s one of my go-to comfort books, to re-read when the world feels like it’s going to pot. My biggest quibble with it is that the depictions of the women in it feel dated. Camilla is intelligent and emotionally astute, but more passive than some other Stewart heroines. (Plus she hikes up Mount Parnassus in a dress! Well, women did, in the days before trousers were acceptable, but sixty years later it seems ridiculous.)

Simon, on the other hand, is a dreamboat: tough, tender, decisive, competent, and compassionate. There is some sex in the book, but not involving the two main characters. There is little overt acknowledgement of the growing connection between them, and almost no physical contact, but the understated romance is—at least for me—more compelling for being understated. With so much left to the imagination, there’s lots of room to explore the relationship in our own minds, after the book is closed.

Trigger warnings: violence and rough sex. And everybody smokes, constantly.

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Witchy Fiction

Does a collection of optimistic, easy-to-read fantasy novellas sound appealing? Especially if they include a bit of romance? Then check out the books at This brand is the brainchild of a group of New Zealand writers who began these stories to cheer themselves up during lockdown in 2020. The results are lightweight tonics for times when you need a lift to the spirits, something I’m very appreciative of these days.

The first entries were published in September 2020 and there are now more than a dozen titles available. Of the ones I’ve read—they’ve come out faster than I could keep up with, although I have most of them in the queue on my e-reader—they are all sweet and optimistic, with a witch as the main character. They are set in contemporary Aotearoa/New Zealand, but you don’t have to be a Kiwi to enjoy them.

As with any group of diverse writers, the quality of the writing varies, and the romance isn’t necessarily integral to the plot, but they are fundamentally generous in spirit: LGBTQ+ friendly and concerned with healing broken relationships or with protecting family, friends, and community. These stories are about witchcraft in the mode of herbal remedies and the Wiccan philosophy of “an it harm none, do what ye will”, with magic the outgrowth of connections to the natural world.

Here’s a sample of the Witchy Fiction I’ve read so far:

Raven’s Haven for Women of Magic by Anna Kirtlan

I love this cover. What can I say? (In fact, I like all the Witchy Fiction cover art.)

Cassandra, a young witch working among mundanes for the Wellington City Council, saves one from a deadly, hurtling glass shard during an earthquake. They fall for each other, even though she’s against mundane/witch pairings, as it’s too dangerous for the oblivious mundane. At the same time, Cassandra is trying to keep the witching community’s existence secret, despite the irresponsible antics of her grandmother and other residents of Raven’s Haven for Women of Magic.

When the retirement community’s familiars (all cats) disappear, followed shortly afterwards by the witches themselves, Cassandra has to find out why. And as her two separate worlds collide, she discovers her new admirer is not nearly as oblivious as she assumed.

I enjoy this author’s sense of humour, and this was a fun (if sometimes silly) read, with crones that were more than they appeared to be, some ridiculous puns, a few pokes at local politicians, and of course, cats.

Hexes and Vexes by Nova Blake

A teenage girl begs her older sister, Mia, to come home to rescue their third sister, Camilla, from a hex. When Mia, the witch, arrives after ten years away, she has to confront the fallout from an old tragedy: her best male friend in high school died and the town blames her for his death. Another old friend, Georgia, is embittered and still angry with Mia.

This was an engaging story about the complexities of friendships and family ties and the necessity of both letting go and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The new romance was superfluous to the main plot; the real action was between the four women: Mia, her sisters, and Georgia.

Familiars and Foes by Helen Vivienne Fletcher

Adeline, who doesn’t yet know she’s a witch, can see ghosts. She has watched them all her life, but has never interacted with them. So it comes as a shock when one speaks to her in the supermarket. That one, at least, seems harmless. A more malevolent spirit attacks her in her home. The situation escalates as that ghost draws power from other people in Wellington, casting a pall over the city.

With the help of friends both old and new, including another woman who helps her discover her powers as a witch, Adeline digs into her family history to uncover an old, and still unresolved, tragedy.

There’s a lot to like about this story: glimpses into the lives of two women—one blind, one with epilepsy—with service dogs/familiars, the cohesion of a “found” family, and a romance involving one of my favourite tropes (old friends to lovers).

Posted in Contemporary Romance, Fantasy, Kiwi author | Leave a comment

The Bookman’s Tale

When grieving widower Peter Byerly pulls an old book off a shelf in a secondhand bookstore, he discovers a loose sheet of paper, four inches square, tucked into its pages. He turns the paper over, and nearly collapses in the dusty corner of the bookstore. On the other side is a watercolour portrait of his late wife, Amanda. Only it couldn’t possibly be Amanda; the painting is at least one hundred years old.

Peter is an established antiquarian bookseller. Old books, and a few other people who share his passion for them, are his only friends. An American by birth, he is now living in Kingham, a village (a real one) in Oxfordshire, closer to the centres of activity for his trade. (Like the also-real town of Hay-of-Wye on the Welsh border, with its population of two thousand people and twenty-plus bookstores; sounds to me like a fabulous place.) Determined to find out who painted the portrait and why it looks like Amanda, he goes to a meeting of the Historical Watercolour Society in London, and rather haphazardly finds himself in a conversation with the one person, a woman named Liz Sutcliffe, who is most likely to be able to help him.

Peter’s arrival in Kingham has set other things in motion. A local, whose family had once been well off but was now in financial straits, contacts him, asking for help in selling his family’s collections of old books and papers. Among them is a book that may hold the answer to English literature’s biggest question: who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Or, the book may just be a very well-executed forgery. Peter sets out to determine which it is. Inevitably the two lines of inquiry intersect, and he and Liz are caught up in a centuries-old and still ongoing saga involving forgery, fraud, theft, blackmail, and in the present day, gunfire, deception, and murder. If they are lucky, they’ll only be framed for murder. If they’re not lucky, they’ll be the next victims.

Charlie Lovett’s plot-driven novel, The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession, veers back and forth between past and present, weaving together several narrative strands: the history of a lost copy of the book on which Shakespeare based his play, A Winter’s Tale; a 19th century forger and what drove him to take up his questionable trade; Peter and Amanda’s college romance; and Peter’s present day untangling of the intertwined mysteries. (Well, present day, sort of. The novel was published in 2013. Peter’s present is set in 1995.)

Unfortunately, the novel can’t quite make up its mind what genre it wants to belong to. It starts off seeming to be a fairly high-minded story combining an academic mystery with a psychological study of a man with a serious mental health issue who is not dealing well with the loss of his wife. But by halfway in, it shifts gears to become a thriller. It is reasonably successful as a mystery/thriller—more so than some other books I’ve read recently that were obviously intended to be in that space—despite involving a few too many coincidences, and one plot thread that was glaringly obvious. The sappy romance was not as successful. Amanda never felt real; she was a man’s view of a perfect wife: beautiful, supportive, always sexually willing, and wealthy to boot. (The foul-mouthed Liz was better.) And Amanda’s upper-crust family’s easy acceptance of a boy with a trailer-trash upbringing was unlikely, if not absurd.

Aside from these problems, the story was fun, and interesting enough to make me put aside the other three books I’m currently in the middle of to focus on this one.

The one aspect that I most liked was the glimpses into the antiquarian book trade, and the life of a serious book collector/bibliophile. Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller himself, so presumably he knows what he’s talking about when he throws tidbits about forgery techniques, bookbinding, conservation, and questions of provenance into the story line.

(Confession: I collect books, but I’m not “serious” about it; my shelves are filled mostly with beaten-up genre fiction gathered by the bagful at used book sales. First editions? Pffft! In my world books are like cars, dropping in monetary value the instant they leave the lot/store.)

As for the question of who did write Shakespeare’s plays, this novel doesn’t excite any controversy, coming down as it does on the side of majority opinion. I have no stake in that debate; either way would have been fine with me for the sake of the story.

Trigger warnings: murder, gun violence, foul language, non-explicit but gratuitous sex scenes.

Posted in Historical Fiction, Mysteries | Leave a comment

A Life Well Lived

My father, Lamar Howe, died on 17 May. I’m writing this on Saturday morning, a week after the funeral, at the time when we would have been having our regular video chat. It hurts to know I’ll never be able to talk to him to again, or ever again experience one of his solid fatherly hugs.

His obituary sets out the bare facts of his life, but these few sentences seem so inadequate at capturing the qualities of a life well lived:

Lamar attended Robinson Elementary, Gastonia High School, and Erskine College as well as various business and trade schools. He entered the family business, T.Q. Howe’s Garage, in 1949 and remained there until his retirement in 1994. For 30 years he served as a volunteer fireman, and 25 years as chief, with Union Road Volunteer Fire Department. For 5 years he served as assistant Gaston County Fire Marshall. Lamar was a lifelong member of Olney Presbyterian Church where he served as a Deacon, Elder, and Choir member. He enjoyed golf, photography, traveling, and motorcycle riding.

He was married to my mother for 67 years. He hardly ever left her side after her first fall more than a decade ago when she broke her shoulder. Even after they had to move her into their retirement village’s heath centre because she needed more intensive care than he could provide, he spent most of every day with her until she died, looking after her and keeping her company.

He was, among many other things, a mechanic and a businessman, running a garage that specialised in large trucks and heavy equipment, with customers all over the Southeast. He was a businessman because he had to be; a mechanic because he wanted to be. Because fixing things was fun. He was a skilled diagnostician, often able to pinpoint what was wrong with an engine just by listening to the sounds it made. I understand the thrill it gave him to dig into a tough problem and experience that “gotcha” moment when the root cause finally becomes clear; I got that from him.

He retired at 65 and sold the business. When the new owner proved unable to keep it going, he stepped back in at the age of 70 and started a new business, helping his former employees regroup, and propping them up with his decades of experience until they were ready to keep it running on their own.

He was—first, last, and always—a valuable and valued member of his community. He was buried in the cemetery surrounding the church where he was baptised 91 years earlier and spent his entire life as a member, and where his parents and generations of Howe ancestors and other relatives are buried. It had been decades since he had given up firefighting, but the members of the Fire Department remembered him and turned out for his funeral, laying his fire coat and helmet across the casket. I get teary-eyed thinking about that.

As a kid I was unaware of how much the dangers a firefighter faces must have stressed my mother. The chatter of the fire radio, broadcasting fire calls for all of Gaston County, was a constant part of the background noise in my parents’ house, and I, oblivious teen, frequently tuned it out, to my mother’s great annoyance. She’d catch the sound of a callout from another part of the house and come rushing into the den wanting to know which station was involved. I’d have my nose in a book and would just shrug. “Don’t know.”

Sorry, Mama.

After the fire was out, he’d come home and shed his gear in the carport so the smoke wouldn’t stink up the house. I have jumbled memories of him being out at a fire most of the night, getting an hour or two of sleep and then getting up again before dawn so he could get to the garage to open on time.

I don’t know how he did it, year after year after year, but he was always on the move. He had more energy at 70 than some people have at 30.

When he wasn’t being called out on fires, there were the late-night wrecker calls. We got socked by an ice storm one memorable Christmas. When he got a call to go pull a Duke Power truck out of a ditch, a visiting elderly relative’s sleep was disturbed, and she wanted to know what was going on. With the sleeping arrangements already topsy-turvy in a cramped house, none of us got much sleep that night.

Sometime during those years as a firefighter, he trained and was certified as an EMT. I have no idea how many people have reason to thank him for that training; I just remember him as Doctor Dad. He tended to my bandages after a high school shop-class accident took a bite out of my right hand. Decades later I remember him picking splinters out of my daughter’s hand after an encounter with some faulty playground equipment. He took care of other people’s children, too, always carrying a Band-aid or two tucked inside his wallet to patch up skinned knees or knuckles.

He loved to travel, seeing most of the United States with Mama after he retired. He was funny, curious, and open to new experiences. He saw the value of computerising his business, back in the 1980’s, to ease the work involved in accounts management and inventory control. Computers did give him some trouble, especially video conferencing, but he kept at it so we could keep in touch after my family moved to New Zealand.

My grandmother would tell how excited he got as a little boy whenever she said they were going out, bouncing in his playpen, saying, “Ridey-ride, ridey-ride.” It sometimes seemed as if he was always behind the wheel of something: cars, trucks, fire engines, farm tractors, tractor-trailers, or the honking huge tow truck the garage used to pull those tractor-trailers when they broke down. He was never comfortable as a passenger; he was much happier behind the wheel. When he and his buddies went down to Myrtle Beach for a weekend golf trip, or to Atlanta to watch the Braves play, he drove, hauling a crowd in a big van nicknamed Vanessa.

In later years, particularly after a bad shoulder forced him to give up golf, he spend more time on the motorcycle he bought after he retired. (He’d always wanted one, but didn’t have the money when he was young, and then in middle age he was too busy.) Ten years ago, at the age of 81, he raised money for his church’s building program on a one-day, 403-mile marathon loop through the Carolinas and Georgia.

A few years ago he started having occasional dizzy spells, and had to trade the two-wheeler in for a three-wheeled motorbike, but he still enjoyed his rides. He made a 200+ mile ride through his favourite spots in the North Carolina mountains (Blue Ridge Parkway in particular) to celebrate his 90th birthday.

I knew the end was near when he told us, not long ago, that he had finally had to give that up, too. Although lung disease did him in—years of dealing with asbestos-lined brake pads caught up to him—losing the activity that had given him the most pleasure the last few years took a toll, too.

Miss you, Daddy.

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