OCTOGENARIAN WITCHES: THE WITCHES OF MOONSHYNE MANOR

While there’s a genre of fantasy/magic realism that involves modern day witches living and making magic in our world, they tend to focus on young women who are discovering their magic or dealing with romantic or other complications to their magic.  This is why I was so delighted to discover The Witches of Moonshyne Manor, by Bianca Marais: the main characters are six senior citizen witches.  In fact, they’re almost all in their 80’s.  It’s such a pleasure to read a book in which older people are not treated as if they’re tottering on the edge of the grave, but are having adventures of their own, getting into and out of danger, and living full and interesting lives.  These witches are well aware of their age: they suffer from aches and pains, from memory issues, from arthritis and other age-related issues.  However, they relish their years of experience and wisdom, and fight for their home and their sisterhood despite their flaws.  I want to grow up to be like these witches, and after you read this, you might very well feel the same.

One of the pleasures of the book (and there are many) is the breadth of the characters.  Yes, they’re all witches, they’ve all lived together (more or less) for decades, and most of them are around the same age.  However, their magic differs, their particular personalities are very different, and their approaches to their problems are widely different as well.  From Jezebel, whose magic is sexual attraction, to Ursula, whose power is precognition, to Queenie, who makes machinery of various sorts, to Ivy, whose connection is to plants, to Tabitha, who communicates through a raven named Widget, to Ruby, the missing and soon to be returning witch, each character is vivid in her loves and quirks and approaches to life, though they are all united in their connection to each other and to the house that has been their home for decades.

We also have Persephone, a young woman with a pet dog (named Ruth Bader Ginsburg), who wants to join the witches and help them (and be helped by them), bringing her magic tricks and her vast knowledge of social media (especially TikTok) to bear.  Persephone is not one of those too-good-to-be-true young people, who knows everything the older people need to know, nor is she just a placeholder to allow the witches (especially Queenie) to explain what’s going on (though she does serve that purpose, too).  She has an arc of her own, and plays a significant part in the resolution of the plot.

Ah, yes, the plot: the witches have a mortgage on their old and wonderful home, which has fallen into arrears.  The local men are working together to foreclose on the mortgage, destroy the house and replace it with a sort of amusement park called Men’s World. Queenie has made a deal to get the money from Charon, a very dangerous wizard, in exchange for a magical relic the group stole many years ago.  Only one small problem: none of the witches living in the house knows where the relic was hidden.  The one witch who did know, Ruby, is due to return to the household soon, before the date Charon comes to collect and before the final due date of the mortgage, but time is short, and everyone’s worried about how Ruby, who’s been gone for a long time and hasn’t been in contact with any of them in the interval, is going to react.

There’s a lot of backstory, but the author reveals it brilliantly, giving us just enough information at any time to keep us interested, but not dumping all of it at any point.  You’re always curious about what happened in the past, how these women got to this point, but you’re also always confident the author will give you what you need. There are twists and turns of the plot, but they work, and don’t come across as the author’s throwing in a twist just to show off.

It’s a fun read with wonderful characters, a well-constructed plot, and a very satisfying ending.  Read it for the fun of seeing older women depicted in all their complications and glories, magic or not.

GOING BIZARRE FOR SEPTEMBER: SKINNY DIP

Though we had a smaller than usual group at the Field Notes meeting on Saturday, we still managed to have an interesting discussion about our August book, A Thousand Ships.  The advantage of having a smaller than usual group is that everybody’s vote for the next book counts much more than it would in a larger group.  We had no trouble choosing our selection for September, Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip.  

If you want a humorous take on Florida in all its weirdness, Carl Hiaasen is obviously your go-to author.  If you enjoy quirky, bizarre, plot heavy humor, look no further. Hiaasen has long been one of my favorite authors, and Skinny Dip has long struck me as one of his best.

Just consider the starting point of the plot: a shady Florida scientist is helping some even shadier operators figure out how to dump chemicals in the Everglades without getting caught.  The scientist suspects his wife, Joey, has caught on to what he’s doing and is likely to turn him in, so, in the classic manner of a Hiaasen character, he decides to kill her by pushing her off a cruise liner in the middle of the night, hoping she drowns.  She doesn’t drown because she lands on a bale of marijuana which was thrown overboard by drug dealers being chased by the Coast Guard.  Reaching the shore and being helped by a former police officer turned bitter loner, Joey decides not to turn her husband in for the attempted murder, but to mess with his head, since he thinks she’s dead,  and Mick, her new friend, is more than happy to help her with that.  

It just goes on from there, with a full cast of memorable characters and the usual twisted Hiaasen plot. 

We’ll be meeting to discuss this book on September 24 at 11 in the Field Library program room, and of course there will be refreshments.  It should be a great time for all.  Join if you can.

WOMEN IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, SEEN ANEW: PANDORA’S JAR

It should be no surprise to anyone that Natalie Haynes is really sharp when it comes to Greek mythology and especially the role of women in Greek mythology.  If you’ve read A Thousand Ships, her story of the aftermath of the Trojan War (and this month’s Field Notes Book Club selection), you know how good she is, how careful she is to take the stories we know and look behind them and past them to see the characters and the events in a unique way.  So it’s not a shock that her nonfiction book, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, is so detailed, so fascinating and so well-written.  What is surprising is how much she manages to tease out of the oldest sources of these stories, and how her insights turn the stories around.

You don’t have to be an expert in mythology to recognize some of the characters here.  Has anyone not heard about Pandora’s box, or used that as a shorthand for something that turns out to be much more horrible than you thought before you opened it?  Or Helen of Troy, the “face that launched a thousand ships,” to quote Marlowe – you don’t have to know much about The Iliad to know that Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and her leaving her husband with a Trojan prince was the cause of the Trojan War.  And Medusa, the lady with snakes for hair who turns people into stone, is another of those characters everybody has some familiarity with, even if they don’t know her story (and if you’ve seen either version of Clash of the Titans, you’ve seen her, not to mention her having a brief appearance in the Percy Jackson series).  

But even if you’re quite familiar with the stories (as I consider myself to be, having read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths when I was a kid, and having read any number of books of mythology since), Haynes can surprise you into looking at the assumptions built into the stories of the women in the myths.  Too often the versions of the stories which have come down to us through the centuries have been filtered through frankly misogynistic lenses, making Pandora, for instance, into the villain of the piece instead of an instrument of the gods who might not even have been the one who opened the jar (not a box, probably) that let out all the evil in the world. Once you compare the story of King Midas and Medusa, you start to wonder how the supposed impiety of Midas was punished so lightly while Medusa was turned into a monster and then beheaded for the crime of being raped by Poseidon.  There’s a lot of rape in the backstories here (poor Cassandra, for instance), and the book leads you to see how the shifting of the stories of women shows us how our culture has evolved in the direction of patriarchy.  Even women who have objectively done something terrible in the myths (Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus, or Clytemnestra, who killed her husband, or Medea, who killed her husband’s new fiancee, and – what is more terrifying – her own children with her husband) come through Haynes’ analysis as much more justifiable characters, not pure evil but people placed in impossible situations who responded in very human ways.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking for plays by Euripedes.  Haynes uses his plays often to show other facets of these female characters, and you’re going to want to investigate her claim that he wrote women better than most playwrights in any era.

The other thing I want to mention about this book is that Haynes, in addition to being erudite and an excellent writer, is funny.  Throughout the book, no matter how dark the things she’s discussing, she manages to find a pun or a lighthearted reference (yes, she chooses not to make the obvious “turning to stone” sexual reference in her discussion of Medusa, but she specifically TELLS us that she’s not going to do it).  At one point, talking about Agamemnon’s return home and Clytemnestra’s welcome of him, discussing Agamemnon’s apparent cluelessness, Haynes wonders if Agamemnon has ever met his wife before this event. This is unexpected if you’ve read A Thousand Ships, in which the only humor is in the letters Penelope sends to Odysseus over the course of the booi, but clearly Haynes wears her erudition lightly and doesn’t feel she has to be totally serious all the time to prove she knows her stuff.  

The book is one you can read chapter by chapter; each chapter discusses a different woman’s story.  Each chapter is entertaining and thought-provoking, and by the end of the book the accumulated information and insights give you a deep picture of the major women in Greek mythology and what they really mean to modern people.  It’s a great read, and if it sends you to the original sources, so much the better.

WHEN A FAVORITE AUTHOR FAILS YOU

What do you do when an author you love fails you?  I’m talking about the situation where you’ll read anything this author writes, they’ve never let you down, you recommend their books to all and sundry, and you grab their latest book eagerly and it turns out to be a dud.  This happened to me recently, and I was both surprised and really disappointed.  I’m not going to detail the name of the author or the book, because life is too short to waste time talking about bad or disappointing books.  Suffice it to say that I had never had a bad experience with this author before, and then as I was reading their latest book, I kept wondering what happened to them, why the book was so clumsy, the characters so annoying, the depth I usually love missing altogether. If the author had been someone I hadn’t read before, I might not have even finished the book at all.  I kept reading because I convinced myself that I must be missing something and the book would end up being the usual enthralling work I’d come to expect.  That didn’t happen.

Will I read this author again?  Probably.  Anybody can have a bad day, and I’ve read several other books by them and enjoyed them all very much.  

It’s the “several other books” that makes the difference for me.  I know at least two authors who wrote books I really loved, and then I read their next books, or started and couldn’t finish the next book, in the case of one of the authors (I don’t think I made it through 50 pages, it was that annoying), and that ended my ever wanting to read anything by either of them again. One good book can be a fluke, too, and if the second book isn’t at least interesting (it doesn’t have to be great), then I’m going to assume that first book was the aberration, and the author isn’t really that good after all.

It also depends on how bad the bad book turns out to be.  If it’s really egregious (multiple cliches, tropes that send me screaming out of the room, obvious and stupid “twists”), then the author’s other books would have to have been spectacular for me to want to pick up the next book.  If it’s that bad, as a matter of fact, I might find myself thinking back to those other books and questioning my judgment about them, maybe demoting them from the pantheon.  Someone who’s a good writer may have a bad day, an unfortunate book that shows them at less than their best, but a good writer (and you can argue this with me if you like, but you won’t win) will never write something that’s actually terrible.  Even a book that falls short of their usual standard will at least be readable, and have some interesting parts (the book I’m thinking about now had a clever solution to the murder, which made up for some of the idiot plot developments earlier).  And, contrariwise, someone who writes a dreadful book which piles on the cliches, forgets about proper character development, turns on ridiculous “twists”, is unlikely to be capable of writing a truly good, well-written book. 

So an author who’s high on your must-read list can make a mistake and come out with something you wish you’d never bothered to read, and the author can still remain on your “I’ll read the next thing they write” list.  They may just get reduced to a lower spot on that list, until they either redeem themselves or write another stinker and make you reconsider their position on the list at all.

COMING HOME: A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY

Sometimes you just hit on the perfect book to read right now.  Becky Chambers’ new book, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, happened to be that book for me this week, possibly this year.

It’s the sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and this is one of those sequels where you really are better off reading the books in order (and why shouldn’t you?  Neither one is very long, and both are warm and charming), so you know who Sibling Dex, the tea monk, and Mosscap, the robot, are, and why all the people they encounter react so strongly to seeing Mosscap.

Sibling Dex is a nonbinary monk, one of the most gentle characters I’ve come across in fiction in recent years.  Their job is to drive around their world in a person-propelled cart, stop in different villages and places and let people come in and drink the tea Dex makes and talk to Dex, not as a therapist, not as a confessor, but as a fellow human being who listens and cares.

Mosscap is a robot.  A long time ago, all the robots left the humans who built them and exploited them.  The robots went elsewhere and set up their own civilization and the humans learned how to live without the help of robots, which turned out to be a good thing for humans.  Mosscap reveals itself to Dex, and to the world of humans, with a seemingly simple question: what do you need?

The first book introduced the characters and the setting and started them on their way.  This book takes them into the world of Panga, where people have the opportunity to meet and interact with Mosscap and with Dex as Mosscap’s – guide? Friend? Helper?   To some people, Mosscap is a celebrity, or as close as you can get to a celebrity in this culture which doesn’t have the same mass media fixation as ours.  To some people, Mosscap is a symbol of bad times in the past which we want to forget or get over.  Those people, I hasten to add, react by ignoring Mosscap, not by taking any violent action against it (there is no violence in this book whatsoever, which is a major point in its favor).

Mosscap has a unique curiosity about the whole world of humans.  As it looks at both the natural world and the human constructions with wonder and delight, we the readers get to see the world through its eyes, as does Dex.  It is a wonderful place, a place where I, for one, would love to live, between the low technology and the social organizations (Dex’s family is intensely complicated but there’s lots of love and connection among the members).  

I don’t think there’s going to be another book in this series, because the ending of this book feels right and settled as if there’s not much more to say, but I also think if  Becky Chambers wants to write more about Dex and Mosscap, I would be delighted to pick up the next book.

If you’re in the mood for a gentle, optimistic novel about an alternate society and a world healing from the kinds of mistakes we’ve made in this one, I recommend A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy.  You won’t regret it.

FEAR IS THE ENEMY: FIELD OF MYSTERY’S SEPTEMBER SELECTION, SOLITUDE CREEK

The Field of Mystery Book Group had another interesting discussion on Saturday, especially considering that the group was pretty divided on one of the most important elements of our August book, The Book of Cold Cases.  Whether you liked the supernatural element or not (and it was a really significant supernatural element, with a real haunting and a ghost who makes the climax happen), there was plenty to talk about, including how the book could have been written without the ghosts.  After the discussion, we chose our book for our September meeting (which will be on the 10th rather than the 3rd, so we don’t run into Labor Day Weekend): Solitude Creek, by Jeffrey Deaver.

Surprisingly, the group hasn’t read Deaver before, even though he is a prolific mystery/thriller writer who has written numerous series of books and has been nominated for many mystery awards, including a lifetime achievement award from the Boucheron convention and eight Edgar awards. Solitude Creek stars one of his series characters, Kathryn Dance.

At a concert, someone shouts “Fire” and the people panic, rushing for the exits, which are blocked.  Some people are trampled to death.  It turns out there was never any fire; someone deliberately set up the people to panic and die.  

Kathryn Dance is a brilliant investigator with the California Bureau of Investigations, and as she starts looking into this case, she discovers the perpetrator is a person obsessed with using people’s fears to kill them.  He’s just getting started with the concert, and Kathryn realizes that he’s going to go for bigger and more dramatic killings unless she can stop him first.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk of the Field Library.  Join us for our usual scintillating discussion, and, of course, coffee and donuts, on September 10 from 10:30 to 12:00.

HOW TO BE MORE SANE: I DIDN’T DO THE THING TODAY

The book, I Didn’t Do the Thing Today, by Madeleine Dore, has the subtitle of Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, but really the subtitle could be along the lines of “Not Stressing Yourself to the Breaking Point.  It’s a deep, good-hearted advice book, full of thought provoking ideas that challenge our cultural focus on getting more and more done in less and less time.  Instead of providing you with life hacks that could get you through your to-do list faster, it provides you with questions about whether you really need all the things on the to-do list, and, more importantly, whether you should judge yourself on the basis of how much of that to-do list you managed to accomplish in a day or a week.  Speaking as someone whose daily journal entries tend to revolve around beating myself up for what I didn’t get done, I found this book refreshing and powerful.

It’s not a quick read (so maybe it wasn’t the best thing for me to be reading during the Adult Summer Reading Game, when the emphasis is on page count, an unanticipated issue with the game which I’ll try to fix for the next time). It’s the sort of book you read slowly and carefully, and put down frequently to contemplate the ideas that are being presented.  It’s not that the language or the thoughts are complicated or difficult to understand.  Quite the contrary; Dore writes simply and clearly and frequently quotes people she’s interviewed about these issues in an interesting way.  I found I had to read it slowly and stop frequently to think about it because I was surprisingly resistant to the ideas involved.  Think of your life as something other than a collection of achievements?  Think about time differently?  Slow down? Change expectations?  Consider limitations as a good thing rather than bad?  These are all ideas in the book, and all things that are counter-cultural in the best way.

Even if you’re not someone who reads how-to books and especially doesn’t read self-help books, you’ll probably find something to love in this one.  It’s the equivalent of having a conversation with an incredibly kind and generous friend who happens to have thought a lot about the big questions and is willing to point you in a direction you might not have considered before, without pushing you in any way.

Will reading this book change your life?  Maybe.  Dore would never make that kind of claim (she’s too modest and open minded for that), but I definitely feel I look at my life and the world around me differently as a result of reading this book, and it might do the same thing for you.  Check it out.

A SERIAL KILLER’S HAUNTED HOUSE: JUST LIKE HOME

It makes perfect sense that Sarah Gailey would follow up her brilliant book, The Echo Wife (which I not only persuaded the Field Notes Book Group to read but have pushed into the hands of lots of people as a wonderful read), with something very different.  Her newest book, Just Like Home, is every bit as enthralling and creepy (if not more creepy, at least on the surface) as The Echo Wife, but instead of taking us into a near future where cloning of humans is possible, it sets us in the present, as a young woman goes back, for the first time in years, to the family home where her mother is dying, and where her father tortured and killed several people years earlier.  

This is the kind of book where the main character, in the first chapter, can wonder about something she buried under the front steps and my first thought was that it was either a body or a body part.  It is, in fact, the kind of book that I devour like candy, and I read it in a day because I really couldn’t put it down.

Vera has a complicated relationship with her mother, who is dying from some unspecified but clearly draining disease (which looks like some kind of late stage cancer).  She also has a complicated relationship with her late father, who died of pneumonia in prison some years ago.  Her mother, who called her home, has set up her bed in what used to be the dining room, a room which seems always shrouded in a semi-darkness no matter what the light conditions outside are.  We learn right away that Vera’s mother threw her out of the house when Vera was 17 (eventually we will learn the reasons for it), and that Vera dreads her mother’s anger and hatefulness, and in the first encounter between Vera and her dying mother, the latter tells her to stop referring to her as “mother.”  Talk about unresolved issues!

Vera’s father, Francis, built the house himself, and his presence pervades it.  Vera misses him terribly, and feels guilty for having had no contact with him between his arrest and his death. Gradually, oh so gradually, we get flashbacks where we see what Vera knew about her father and when she knew it.   She is not an uncomplicated character herself (nor did I expect anything less from Gailey).

To make this sojourn more awkward still, Vera’s mother has been making ends meet by renting out the shed on the property to people who are still fascinated by what Francis did, artists and mediums and true crime savants, and the more significant parts of the house itself (the basement, for instance) are preserved as if it were a museum in which Francis’ widow just happens to live. The man living on the property now is a creepy artist, the son of an author whose True Crime book about Francis made the writer rich, made his reputation, and, in so doing, destroyed not only the Crowder family’s reputation but also any possibility that Vera Crowder could ever live a normal life. She carries a not unreasonable grudge against the father, but his artist son, James, is thoroughly hateful and creepy in his own way.

The past will not rest.  Vera starts finding bits of her father’s writings about her in unusual places, pages obviously cut from his missing journal, though James denies doing anything of the sort and Vera’s mother couldn’t physically do it.  Things move around in her room, and she hears noises that couldn’t have come from anything in the house.  Is it James or is there something worse going on?

This is a haunted house story par excellence.  The house itself is kind of strange, and Vera’s experiences are classic hauntings (with the ever present question of whether she’s hallucinating or the victim of a vicious interloper who wants the house himself lurking in the background).  Gailey builds suspense in multiple directions: what’s going on with the house?  What’s James’ real agenda?  What did Francis actually do?  Why is Vera’s mother so angry with her so often and yet occasionally tender towards her?  

But it’s more than a haunted house story (even as it ticks off all the boxes that make a great one).  The heart of the book is Vera and her relationship with her parents, especially her father. Vera’s memories give us an unusual look at a person who was, quite frankly, seriously mentally ill, but who also clearly loved her.  He’s not your typical serial killer, if there is such a thing, and Vera’s love for him and guilt about her role in his arrest have made her who she is today (that’s not necessarily a good thing).  

There’s some gore in the book, but for a novel about the daughter of a serial killer, I found it less violent and gross than most of Jo Nesbo’s works.  It’s very suspenseful and unsettling; everything makes sense in the end (a horrible kind of sense), and it’s a hell of a ride.   If you liked The Echo Wife, you’ll like this.  If you like a good haunted house story, or a good psychological thriller, you’ll like this.  If you like really well written horror, what are you waiting for?  Put this one on your To Be Read list immediately!