LITTLE WOMEN, BROUGHT UP TO DATE: MEG & JO

It may seem, this year, as if I am obsessed with Little Women, and it’s true, I have written a fair amount about the book this year, but that’s partly because the Field Notes Book Group read it one month.  In any event, my rereading of the classic book put me in good shape to read the new Meg & Jo, by Virginia Kantra, which is an entertaining update of Louisa May Alcott’s original.

When you’re modernizing a book from the 19th century, it’s always a delicate balancing act to figure out how much to change, to bring a character into the 21st century, and how much to leave the same, so it’s still at heart the same character.  Kantra strikes a good balance here. Meg is still married young, with boy and girl twins, living in the same town in which she grew up. Meg’s being a stay-at home mother is a bigger deal in 2019, and she and her husband, John, negotiated whether she would leave her accounting job and John would change from his low-paying teaching job (which he loved) for a job selling cars (which made more money but wasn’t as satisfying).  No such negotiations were necessary for Meg March in Little Women; the idea that someone would continue working after she married and had children was far from common. 

Jo is a little more complicated.  Of course she still wants to write, and of course she has to work to find herself a way to become a real writer. That’s essential to Jo’s character, and changing that part of her story would radically change the book.  In this version of Jo, she went to New York to get an MFA, and then worked in a newspaper until she was downsized. All she had left of her writing “career” was a blog, Hungry, she wrote about the restaurant business, and since that didn’t pay any amount of real money, she took a job at a high powered restaurant as a line cook, which is where she met Eric Baer, the chef and (this is not giving anything away if you read Little Women) the man with whom she falls in love. 

As you know if you’ve read any of my earlier pieces about Little Women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Bhaer as a worthy spouse for Jo, and only as an adult could I see him as the anti-Laurie and a better match for her than Laurie would have been (my mother, who told me this when I was 12, would have said “I told you so” if she were still around).  I have absolutely NO problem seeing Eric Baer, the romantic lead in this version, as well-suited for Jo, and that’s because he’s very different from Dr. Bhaer. Yes, they’re both German, they’re both older than Jo, and they’re both loving and good-hearted people, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  Eric is black, an extremely successful chef, divorced with two sons, and quite hot. Jo and Eric have a wonderful physical relationship (not too explicit, don’t worry) before they’ve worked out all the more problematic personal aspects of their relationship.

The plot of the book turns on Meg and Jo’s parents, who are three dimensional and far from perfect and idealized in this version.  In fact, their father comes across as one of those people who’s so good at taking care of people outside of his family that he has no time or energy left to be a loving husband or father to his family.  I have long had my doubts about Mr. March in the original Little Women, since he seemed to do very little to merit all the adoration he got from his daughters, so this take on him feels emotionally right.  Abby, their mother, is like Marmee in the original in her tendency to take care of everybody else until she collapses from lack of self-care.  In this case, she is hospitalized with back problems and ultimately needs surgery to correct them, but didn’t want to worry any of her daughters or ask them to help her. 

Meg, as the daughter on the spot, immediately sets out to take care of her mother’s health problems and her business, along with taking care of Meg’s adorable toddlers, even when the additional load of responsibilities proves almost too much to cope with alone.  Jo, working at a demanding job in New York City, is torn between her work (and her burgeoning relationship with Eric) and her eagerness to help Meg and her mother. The other two girls, Beth and Amy, are living farther away and don’t play as much of a role in this book (they’re going to get one of their own later), so much of the plot turns on how Meg and Jo deal with their parents’ issues and their own.  Any adult who’s had to take responsibility for an aging parent with health issues will appreciate the realism of their reactions and their behavior, toward their parents and each other, and I’m impressed at the way the author uses this fairly common adult problem to give us a way to focus on the adult lives of Meg and Jo.

The book is charming and well-written, the characters draw you in, whether you’re a fan of Little Women or not, and it’s a fun read overall, especially in the holiday season.  Re-acquaint yourself with the March sisters in the modern world, and settle in for a good read.

STORIES OF THE TRANSFORMED: WAKE, SIREN

If you read a lot of Greek myths, or if you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you might start to notice a number of similar things going on, specifically mortals having various kinds of interactions with gods and ending up getting changed into something else either to escape the god’s attention or to be punished for the way they responded to the gods. The stories are always told from the point of view of the gods, so it was only a matter of time before someone flipped the narratives to tell these stories from the point of view of the mortals.  We are very lucky that this someone was Nina Maclaughlin, whose new book, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung is a terrific read, chilling and moving, eye-opening and poetic, true to the spirit of the original myths and still infused with a modern sensibility.

I have to confess that I hadn’t encountered all the characters in this book before; there are a few whose stories were unfamiliar to me, despite early exposure to D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but that didn’t make those stories any less fascinating (and when you get the general sense of how gods and mortals interact in these myths, you can guess how things are going to turn out even if you’re not familiar with these particular characters).  There are also many of the more familiar characters, such as Arachne and Daphne and Eurydice. If you’re wondering whether you could “get” the stories without knowing all the myths, the answer (as usual with retellings) is yes. Of course, you get more out of the story if you’re familiar with the underlying myth, but trust me, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on in most of the stories even if you’ve never heard of these characters before.

You should be warned, though: these are not fun stories to read.  Rape is a frequent element, as the gods (usually Zeus and Apollo) tend not to take “no” for an answer, and Maclaughlin doesn’t downplay the pain and trauma of rape just because it’s a god doing it. You are always in the point of view, usually first person, of the mortal character, and the characters’ reactions vary as any human being’s reactions would, from terror to rage. The transformations from human to animal or from human to plant or inanimate object are depicted vividly and there is graphic violence in some of the stories, including frequent f-bombs.

If you’re strong enough to face so much pain and anger, though, you’re in for a revelatory experience, and not all of the stories end sadly (spoiler alert: most of them do). One of the most surprising was the story of Eurydice (whose story with Orpheus is one of the backbones of the Broadway musical, Hadestown), one of the last stories in the book, and one I highly recommend, even if you don’t read all the stories (though of course you should).  The protagonists differ from each other and from the characters on whom they’re based, but they’re all fascinating, their voices vivid and their predicaments painfully real. 

Whether or not you’re familiar with the original myths, you should definitely check out Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung for an enthralling and somewhat terrifying view of relations between gods and mortals. 

MORE THAN A MEMOIR: WORKING

Why should someone read a book about the process of writing biographies, especially if you’ve never read the biographies the author has written?  When the book is Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing, by Robert Caro, the answer to that question is simple: the book is utterly fascinating, whether you’re a writer or not, whether you’ve ever read his Pulitzer Prize winning biographies of Robert Moses or of Lyndon B. Johnson or not, whether you know anything about him or about his subjects.  As a matter of fact, Working is so well-written, filled with so many fascinating details, that I’m seriously considering actually tackling his massive biographies (the very lengths of which have daunted me in the past).

Caro started out as a reporter on a local New Jersey newspaper and then on Newsweek, and he writes about how those jobs sparked his interest in biography, and how each biography he wrote led to the next.  Winning the respect of his editor on Newsweek, who was originally suspicious of a young reporter who’d graduated from Princeton, by his willingness to dig deep into a political story, Caro learned a principle that would serve him well throughout his career: turn every page. Look at everything, dig deeper, don’t settle for the obvious story or the obvious angle. His nearly obsessive adherence to that rule is the reason his books take so long to write, because his research takes him everywhere, not just through all the archives of famous and less famous people (the Lyndon B. Johnson archives, which he describes vividly, contain millions of documents), but to the places where the subject lived and worked. In the case of Robert Moses, for instance, Caro dug deeply into the reasons why he chose to take certain famers’ lands and skip around the edges of certain rich and connected people’s properties, going to the scene of the expressway and talking to the people who lost their land as a result; he traced down the people who were displaced from one Bronx neighborhood so Moses could build one of his expressways, and he describes those encounters in this book vividly enough that you want to see how he handles these situations in The Power Broker.  When writing his first book about LBJ, Caro and his wife moved into the Hill Country where Johnson was born and raised, to get a sense of what that world was like, to find out how Johnson changed his people’s lives for the better even as a young congressman. 

You can learn, from this book, not only how Caro would work his interviews with various people who were significant in the lives of his subjects, but some tricks of the trade of interviewing in general (you will, for instance, learn the importance of SU in interviewing), how to get people to talk to you, how to nudge them into remembering more details than they might have believed they remembered, how to persuade people to tell the truth, rather than the public story.  I am sure, from reading this, that Caro is an expert interviewer, because he seems to have an infinite capacity for listening and very little ego. 

The book gives a vivid picture of the life of a serious nonfiction writer, from the poverty in which he and his wife lived when he was first researching The Power Broker, to life in the New York Public Library’s research room, to his actual methods of writing the books (longhand? In pencil? Who does that??).

The advantage of reading Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing is that it’s much shorter than Caro’s prizewinning books, but be warned: it will make you want to dig deeper and maybe even tackle the books themselves.

 

FORGOTTEN HISTORY: THE IMPEACHERS

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a degree in history and consider myself a history buff, especially when it comes to American history, so it was kind of shocking to me to realize how little I knew about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. I knew he’d come within one vote of being convicted by the Senate, but I hadn’t known exactly what he was charged with or whether it was a good thing he didn’t get convicted.  If you, like me, have only the vaguest notion of what happened the first time a president was impeached, may I recommend an excellent nonfiction book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, by Brenda Wineapple.  And if you think a book about an impeachment that happened in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War couldn’t possibly be interesting, again, I recommend this book, which brings the era, and the questions surrounding the impeachment, to vivid life.

Wineapple is an excellent author, who makes the world of the immediate aftermath of the Civil War come alive and provides quick portraits of all the important characters involved in the impeachment (and what characters they were!  If you think modern politicians are quirky, you haven’t met their 19th century counterparts), illuminating the issues that brought Andrew Johnson to his date with history. While most of the actual articles of impeachment turned on Johnson’s efforts to fire Edwin Stanton in violation of an act of Congress basically designed to protect Stanton from being fired, the last article of impeachment was more general and talked about Johnson’s continuing efforts to defy Congress and refuse to obey the laws.  The book makes it clear that Johnson did in fact have contempt for Congress and felt he was the only person who could make the right decisions about the course of the country. 

As it turns out, the real issues that brought the impeachment to a head were deep questions about what kind of country America would be after the end of the Civil War, specifically what would happen to the former slaves in the South. The Ku Klux Klan was already rising to terrorize African Americans and anyone who was trying to help them be educated or own property or vote.  There were debates in Congress about the extent to which African Americans needed to have the right to vote protected by Constitutional amendment rather than law, there were debates about whether the former officials and officers of the Confederacy should be allowed to reassume power in their state governments. The book describes the debates and the events that led to the debates and informed the reactions of prominent people to the constitutional issues involved.  This is fascinating stuff with obvious parallels to the present, and a keen sense of how decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War led directly to the era of Jim Crow and current issues of racial relations. Would it have been possible to have charted a different century of relations between blacks and whites in America if the Radical Republicans had won the day? 

If questions like this intrigue you, then by all means check out The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson, for a fascinating look at a critical period of American history. 

EDITING THE TIMELINE, REMAKING THE PAST: THE FUTURE OF ANOTHER TIMELINE

When one is an aficionado of time travel books, as I am (no one is surprised to read this, if you’ve been reading my blog at all), the appearance of a new one is cause for celebration, and The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz, is definitely worth celebrating.  Naturally, there are some features that most time travel books share (a chronology that you need to pay close attention to, people meeting themselves in the past, the question of how you deal with paradoxes and whether the past can actually be changed), but each book has its own unique features that make it particularly worthwhile.

In The Future of Another Timeline, the actual mechanism of time travel is one I’ve never seen before, and the author handles it with audacious confidence. There are what are called Machines in various spots on earth, but no human being invented them, and no one knows, at least as of 2022 (one of the time periods involved in the book), where the Machines came from, who or what created them, or exactly how they work, other than that they use wormholes to deposit someone in another spot in time, and they will not transport weapons.  There are other rules that people have intuited about how the Machines work, whether they can send people into the future or not, whether more than one person can travel to the same place at the same time, and so forth, but these are subject to change over the course of the book. One of the cool things about the Machines is that they appear to be natural phenomena and they have been around since at least the Ordovician period (the characters make a few jaunts into that period as well), and are accepted by humanity as a part of the world (this is what I mean about being audacious).  

There are lots of things going on in this book, but there are two main storylines you have to keep track of.  One of them takes place in 1992, where a teenage girl named Beth is trying to survive the summer between high school and her starting college at UCLA.  Her family situation is extremely tense (her father has mental health issues), she’s getting involved in a romantic relationship that leads to trouble, and, worst of all, her best friend, Lizzie, killed the abusive boyfriend of one of their friends and Beth finds herself lying and otherwise becoming an accomplice to Lizzie’s escalating vengeance.

The other storyline follows Tess, a time traveler working in 2022, who, with a somewhat secret group of women known as the Daughters of Harriet (Harriet being Senator Harriet Tubman in this timeline), has been trying to change history (or “edit” it, as they put it) to make things better for women in her timeline.  She’s been tracking some of the worst aspects of the modern world back to the world of 1893, where Anthony Comstock and his followers have appointed themselves guardians of morality and are influencing governments, state and federal, to restrict birth control and female freedoms. But the Comstockites are doing more than just changing the laws in the present; Tess is finding evidence that some of Comstock’s followers are trying to change history so that women never got the vote, and then destroy the Machines so no one can undo their edits.

Naturally, these two people are connected, and they run into each other frequently as Tess travels from the 1890’s to 2022, meeting a woman from the far future and going back to prehistory.  Part of the fun of the book is trying to figure out who Tess really is, whether she’s a grown up version of Beth or someone else. She’s certainly familiar with Beth’s life in 1992, and she’s determined to save Beth from wherever her path with Lizzie is leading her, but her motives are somewhat clouded for most of the book.

The author is great on historical details, to the point where, when you’re in the 1992 with Beth and she’s raving about this punk group, Grape Ape, you feel you should know about this group, and you almost want to look them up on the internet.  When Tess is working at the Expo in Chicago in 1893, similarly, people act and talk the way they would have in that time and place, and the sights and sounds and smells of the era come alive. Using real life characters in historical fiction (or time travel fiction) isn’t new, but she gets a good sense of the real life Anthony Comstock (and good for her in choosing such a great real life character as the ultimate villain!) and the real life anarchists and the Four Hundred of New York City.  Putting them in Tess’ milieu adds more verisimilitude to that whole world (though I really do wish she’d referred to suffragists as such and not as suffragettes). 

The author also shows the immediate effect of edits in a particularly vivid way: a character is killed in the past, and her lover in the present doesn’t remember that she ever existed; laws are changed in the past and an event which we witnessed with Beth turns into something she remembers completely differently later in the book. 

The plot is propulsive, with both storylines suspenseful in different ways.  Because this is so clearly a different timeline from our own (the early mention of Senator Harriet Tubman is a good clue to that), you can’t use any of your own knowledge of history to guess how things are going to turn out, and that’s a good thing. 

 

It’s a wild ride and an entertaining one, and if you’re a fan of time travel, it’s a book you won’t want to miss.

LARGER THAN LIFE: THE WOMEN OF THE COPPER COUNTRY

Might as well get my biases right out in the open here: I not only have a degree in history, but my senior thesis in college was about four American strikes that took place between 1892 and 1914, so The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell, which involves a wildcat copper strike in Michigan in 1913, is right up my alley. My familiarity with labor issues in that period is a two-edged sword, though: on one hand, of course I want to read about these strikes, but at the same time, if there’s something anachronistic or out of keeping with what I know about how these things worked, I’ll be the first to jump on the error, and it’ll destroy my enjoyment of the book.

Well, good news: The Women of the Copper Country is superb.  There was one tiny little error that caught my attention*, but otherwise the setting, the attitudes and the behaviors of the characters were spot on, and even my historian’s critical eye was satisfied. What made this book even more of a pleasure for me was that it described a strike I hadn’t been familiar with, though it referenced others I knew well (including one of the ones in my thesis!), so it was a learning experience even for me.  For someone who is less well-versed in the era and the stakes, the book will be an eye-opener. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a historian or knowledgeable about 1913 Michigan or copper mining to be able to dive right into the story and enjoy it (but, as always, a little extra background gives you a little extra pleasure).

The protagonist is Big Annie Clements, a leader among women and among men in Calumet, Michigan.  Taller than almost everyone around her and filled with indefatigable energy and a deep sense of right and wrong, Annie starts the Women’s Auxiliary to the miners’ union, organizing a group of women of different backgrounds, languages and religions, who all have in common men — husbands, fathers, sons, brothers — who are working in the dangerous copper mines.  Her own husband, Joe Clements, doesn’t support the union and isn’t thrilled that his wife is so powerful; he goes out of his way to cut her down to size, and, while she’s not afraid of him, she’s aware that he could be dangerous to her and that he is, to some extent, standing in her way. Annie is a wonderful character (based on a real life woman): strong, intelligent, hardworking and charismatic, but also quite human, ready to take on forces so much bigger than she is that they could crush her and everyone she cares about.  

The United Mine Workers sends an organizer to the mines to try to build up the union.  Charlie Miller, the organizer, appreciates Annie as a force of nature, but he’s also a little afraid that she’s not willing to take his, or the union’s, advice about how to proceed against the Calumet and Hecla company which owns not only the mines in which the people work, but also the homes in which they live, and which controls whatever it doesn’t own outright.  The union leadership wants to wait for this particular local to grow in strength before it takes on a company as powerful as C&H, especially since the union as a whole is currently financing a major strike in the west.  

However, when C&H introduces a one man drill, which will make the work more dangerous and also make half the workers redundant, Annie seizes the moment and persuades the union to start a wildcat strike against the company, and the battle is joined.  People in the town react to the strike, people outside the town and the company respond, and the whole machinery of law and force is brought to bear. Outside agitators like Mother Jones (vividly portrayed here) come to help the miners, journalists arrive to see where the action is, and in the process make Annie the face of the miners (she helps, with some outsized and brilliant gestures of her own), and over the course of less than a year the strike takes on a life of its own, affecting the lives of everybody involved on all sides.

If you’re hoping for a happy ending, you haven’t read enough history. Labor unrest in the early 20th century was brutal, and people like James MacNaughton, the local head of C&H, were not afraid to use any means, legal or illegal, to break strikes and break strikers, and there is plenty of violence and death throughout the book.  This is accurate, and Russell provides notes at the end of the book to indicate where she diverged from the actual events (she didn’t diverge much) in case you’re interested in reading more about the strike. 

But in the end you’re left with a vivid picture of life and death in the early industrial era, a side of American history you might not have been exposed to before, and some terrific and powerful characters you’ll come to care about.  Check out this excellent read.

 

*The governor of Michigan is described as a Unitarian Universalist, and the two religions didn’t join together as one until the 1960’s.

BACK TO SCHOOL NUTTINESS: YOU’VE BEEN VOLUNTEERED

As a new school year begins, parents of young children often find themselves roped into various kinds of “volunteer” duties at their children’s school.  While I’m past that stage of life myself, I remember what that was like and so does Laurie Gelman, whose latest book, You’ve Been Volunteered, takes us once again to the Kansas City school district where Jen Dixon, star of the earlier book, Class Mom, finds herself sucked into the maw of being a class mother again. If you want to look on your issues, present or remembered, of those “volunteer” efforts with a sense of humor, Jen Dixon is a great guide.

She’s been to this rodeo before, having two adult daughters in addition to 8 year old Max.  She’s lived kind of a wild life in her youth (she alludes to it here and there in her dealings with her 20-something daughter who’s wandering through Europe with her boyfriend’s rock group), so she’s not exactly like the (mostly younger) mothers of Max’s contemporaries.  This comes out vividly in the emails she sends out to the other mothers, which are frankly pretty funny and the sort of things I would write if I had no filters and didn’t care what people thought of me.

During the school year, Jen finds herself caught up in running the school safety patrol (and you have to admire the head of the PTA who finagles her into this; it’s very deftly done) in addition to the usual class mother duties (calling the other parents at 4 a.m. when there’s a snow day, for instance, or making sure there are sufficient chaperones for various school outings).  Her husband has buried himself in work in an effort to create and franchise a new set of yoga studios, her son is falling in with a bad crowd (for third grade, at least), her daughters are giving her a hard time, her parents are getting older and more in need of her help, and the rest of her life is filled with incident and accidents of various sorts. She’s very funny when she’s trying for a girls’ night out and her husband is left alone with their sick son (the series of texts between her and her husband, who apparently has no idea where anything is in the house he’s lived in for years is made even funnier when she intersperses them with her private commentary), and the drunken email she sends to everybody in the class list when she and her husband are out in Vegas is cringe-worthy but funny at the same time. 

This isn’t a deep book or one that forces you to confront serious social issues.  This is a lighthearted funny book with a flawed but believable protagonist, surrounded by realistic (if maybe slightly exaggerated) family, friends and fellow third grade parents (and third grade kids, too).  It’s a quick read, and if you need a break from all your life stresses, spend some time with Jen and her cast of characters in You’ve Been Volunteered.  

A TASTE OF SPACE TRAVEL: TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE

Novellas are experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days, especially in the area of speculative fiction.  Writers like Martha Wells (the Murderbot series) and Seanan McGuire (the Wayward Children series) and Nnedi Okorafor (the Binti series) have been creating wonderful works, short but satisfying, with all the worldbuilding and characters and plots you’d expect from full scale speculative novels.  Add to the list Becky Chambers’ new novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

The novella is written in the form of a communication from Ariadne, a future astronaut, to the people she left behind on earth, describing the adventures she’s had in space since she and her four companions were sent from earth as part of a citizen funded space exploration program.  Ariadne, an engineer by trade but a jack of all trades along with her companion astronauts, is very matter of fact about her life in space exploration, explaining somaforming, a process which changes humans’ bodies to enable them to live in environments that would otherwise kill them (giving people greater strength, for instance, to handle situations with greater gravity than that of earth, or giving people’s skins glitter to make them visible to each other in a world without much ambient light)(the glitter thing was especially charming to me), explaining what it’s like to wake up after having been in torpor for years at a time.  The four exoplanets she and her companions explore could hardly be more different from each other, but each one adds to the mission’s knowledge of how life works on other worlds. Unfortunately, the trips take decades, and while the crew ages very slowly thanks to their time asleep with their bodily systems slowed, time flies by on earth, and the sporadic communications the crew receive from their home planet show them how very different things are back “home”, if earth really is still home for them.

The planets are a delight.  Clearly Chambers has done her research and used her imagination to create plausible worlds with plausible ecosystems, and she conveys the real delights and terrors of human exploration of other worlds in a way that classic space opera sometimes neglects. All four of the characters face major emotional shocks and react to them, with the help of their companions, over the course of the mission, culminating in the reason Ariadne is sending this message in the first place.  

It’s not a novel, so don’t expect multiple subplots or in depth exploration of character, but you will be satisfied by the trip Ariadne takes and shares with you here. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a perfect small meal, a taste of space travel.

POST HUMAN WORLD, AS TOLD BY A CROW: HOLLOW KINGDOM

If I start out by telling you that Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton, is the story of the zombie apocalypse, as narrated (mostly) by a domesticated crow named S. T.,you’re probably thinking it’s going to be told with a certain amount of attitude, that there will be a lot of action in it, and that it (or at least parts of it) will be funny in a Sean of the Dead kind of way.  You’d be correct. What would surprise you is how poignant and powerful the book is.  At least, that certainly surprised me. It’s a terrific book, moving and beautiful in places while also being dark and funny and obscene in others.

Let’s start out with S.T.’s language.  He’s the main narrator, and I won’t even tell you what S.T. stands for (don’t worry, he tells you right away); suffice it to say it’s two four letter words relating to his color and general shape. He has a foul mouth, there’s no question about it.  He comes by it naturally, of course. We don’t actually see much of the man who taught him to speak, but what we find out about Big Jim makes it clear he wasn’t the most refined of people, and the language he used is the language S. T. uses. If you’re a person who’s offended by multiple f-bombs, you probably won’t be able to get through this book.

Which would be a shame, because you’d be missing something really special.

S.T. is a wonderful character.  Raised by the crude and somewhat boorish Big Jim, he refers to human beings as “mofos” (think of Samuel L. Jackson whenever he uses that term), but affectionately.  At the outset of the book, and for quite a while, he thinks of himself as something other than a crow, maybe part human, maybe a human in the shape of a crow. He sneers at the rest of the crows in his neighborhood, and has endless admiration for the mofos, both the ones he’s actually met and lived with and near and the ones he’s heard about and seen on television. If it weren’t for the whole humans turning into zombies thing, he would probably spend his whole life living with Big Jim and Dennis, Big Jim’s hound dog, ignoring the rest of the world.

Of course, something happens, and people start changing in terrible ways. I keep using the word “zombie,” but that’s not what S.T. thinks, and it’s not entirely accurate. Humans devolve into mindless creatures, eating anything that they find (including, horribly, their own pets in some cases), chasing after cell phones and ipads whenever they see them.  Domestics like S.T. and Dennis have to find ways to survive without humans as all the human infrastructure is overwhelmed by a resurgent nature, including all the creatures that ordinarily live in human territories (crows, other birds, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, etc) and the inhabitants of the Seattle Zoo, now freed and making themselves at home.

The book is surprisingly poignant, partly because of some of the things that happen along the line (warning: some characters we care about are killed), but mostly, I think, because our guide through the bulk of  the story is S.T. We first see him in sarcastic and snarky mode, but very soon we discover the depth of his heart, his eagerness to find a cure for Big Jim (a funny and poignant scene in itself), his recognition that Dennis, the hound, is suffering from depression and his efforts to make Dennis happy again.  His relationship with Dennis, in particular, changes over the course of the book from his referring to the dog as having “weapon grade incompetence” to his referring to him as “my Dennis,” and trying to protect him from the outside world, seeing him as a part of S.T.’s “murder” (as crow groups are called).

Unlike the wild animals, S.T. misses us mofos.  He remembers his relationship with Big Jim, and wishes he could get that back.  He thinks with regret of all the wonderful things we mofos invented and did, which the animals now taking over the world will not be able to recreate. He sees the writings the last healthy humans wrote, saying “We did this to ourselves,” and “we deserve this,” and he doesn’t agree with them, though most of the other animals do.  S.T. wants to save what we did best, difficult as that might turn out to be.

Over the course of the book, S.T. changes.  He’s still a dual-natured creature, part crow and part domesticated animal.  There’s always going to be a part of him that’s shaped by Big Jim, by his experiences with humans, but he comes to accept his crow side, and to be accepted by the wild crows for the first time.

There’s plenty of action, plenty of danger, to keep you turning the pages, but ultimately it’s the animals, and especially S. T. (who’s not the only narrator, but the main one; the others, including especially the Mother Tree, add a lot to the book’s depth) who keep you caring, keep you feeling. We don’t need to know how the plague started, but we find out anyway (and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise and the power of it), and as we watch it ravage the human world, and what happens to human beings who survive (spoiler: it’s not good), you might think this is a downer of a book, too sad to read in dark times.

Ultimately, though, it’s not a downer.  There’s hope in the book, hope for the future of the world, even if it’s a world that doesn’t include human beings. I confess I’m not sure about the end; it’s a satisfying end, but it’s not the end I thought we were leading up to, and I’m still not entirely sure it was the right way to end the book.

Set aside some time, because this is a book that sucks you right in and holds you until you’re finished, and drop in to Hollow Kingdom.  You’ll ultimately be glad you did.

 

SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE IN FUTURE AMERICA: THE HOUND OF JUSTICE

In order to get the most out of the second book in the Janet Watson Chronicles, The Hound of Justice, by Claire O’Dell, you first have to read the first book, A Study in Honor.  This is not one of those series you can read out of order or start anywhere; if you haven’t read A Study in Honor, I highly recommend it on its own merits and also as a basis for reading this excellent new novel.

The other thing you have to let go of when you start this book is the notion that this is an African American Female version of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, set in a future and very damaged America.  Yes, you do have a Doctor Watson, in this case Janet rather than John, African American rather than English, who was injured in a war in which she served (and I have to give O’Dell credit for not screwing around with the nature of Janet Watson’s injury: she got part of her arm blown off and in addition to the post-traumatic stress, she has an artificial arm to get used to using; the original John Watson was injured either in his arm or his leg and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never quite seemed to have made up his mind which it was).  And yes, you do have a brilliant and eccentric Holmes, in this case Sara rather than Sherlock, who has connections inside and outside of government and who has musical ability (piano in Sara’s case, violin in Sherlock’s) and a habit of dragging her companion into complicated mysterious situations without sharing a lot of information about what they’re doing or what she knows about what’s going on. But if you come to this book looking for a twisty, complicated Sherlock Holmes type mystery where the genius detective sees and deduces from clues neither Watson nor the reader can see clearly or understand properly, you are going to be disappointed. And that would be too bad, because you’d be missing out on a very entertaining, suspenseful book just because you’re looking for the wrong thing.

The Hound of Justice picks up where A Study in Honor left off, with Watson set up in a really nice job she doesn’t feel she deserves in the Georgetown Medical Center in Washington D.C., with a new and very expensive artificial arm she’s learning how to use.  She’s sharing a room, again, with Sara Holmes, who is cooling her heels, having been placed on sabbatical by whatever government agency employs her (it’s never clear to Watson exactly who’s paying the bills here).  The book starts with a literal bang: on the day of the inauguration of a new president, bombs go off in D.C. and a number of people are killed. Watson happens to witness the bomb blast, and immediately goes to her hospital to help with the damaged survivors. This attack, it turns out, was set up and organized by a group of terrorists associated with the New Confederacy, who are trying to keep the United States from negotiating a peace with the New Confederacy (and this is why I told you you should really read the first book).  It seems Holmes’ and Watson’s adversary from the previous book, Irene Adler (a name that will be familiar to any fans of Sherlock Holmes), who seemed to be killed at the end of that book, is still alive and might be involved with this terrorist activity.

If this were a Sherlock Holmes type story, the next thing that would happen is that Holmes would be called upon by some representative of the government to investigate what’s going on, and Watson would be called upon to help.  While that’s sort of what happens, the focus here is on Watson and her life without Sara Holmes, her efforts to overcome the PTSD of her initial injury, her efforts to rehabilitate herself and work her new arm well enough to return to surgery, and the complications her relationship with Sara brings to her life in general.  Something is going wrong at the hospital: people are being treated for routine ailments and sent home, and then days later return to the hospital to die horribly.  

And then Sara disappears, after intimations that the government is watching Sara and Janet’s every move.  Micha, Sara’s mysterious cousin, reaches out to Janet in Sara’s name, saying Sara needs her to come behind enemy lines in the New Confederacy, without giving a lot of detail or explanation.  As an African American woman, and a veteran of the New Civil War, Janet wants nothing less than to sneak across the war zone, but she forces herself to go to Sara’s help anyway, and finds herself in an adventure of false identities, underground resistance cells and a massive and frightening conspiracy worthy of the best of John LeCarre.  Even in the movies which bore the least resemblance to the original Holmes stories, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson never faced anything as dangerous as this.

The worldbuilding here is excellent; without doing any info dumps, the author manages to give us a vivid picture of a future, and frighteningly plausible, America, an America where the North and South have once again gone to war, but this time with weapons of the 21st century, not the 19th.  She shows us how that war, that political situation, affects everything in the lives of her characters, and she’s especially good at showing how such a world would affect people of color (who comprise most of the characters in the book).

Janet Watson is a character you want to follow, a person you care about: damaged but working on it, proud but willing to admit mistakes, a person whose relationships with her family are complicated but healing (or at least capable of being healed), a person who’s dedicated to her work and the people she cares about. She’s a vivid narrator, even in situations where she herself isn’t sure of what’s going on or what’s going to happen.  

Is there going to be another book in the series?  Maybe. The author leaves an opening at the end, while still wrapping up this plot satisfyingly.  I would be delighted to read another book with these characters in this setting, but if there isn’t going to be another, I’m still glad I’ve read these two, and I definitely recommend them to anyone who wants a good, absorbing, suspenseful read with characters different from the run of the mill protagonists in suspense novels.