The magic’s in the fine print in ‘Ink & Sigil’

Aloysius MacBharrais has a problem. Every apprentice he’s taken on to learn his job as a sigil agent — essentially a human who “writes and enforces magical contracts using sigils, which are symbols infused with power that do some remarkable stuff” — has died in one type of accident or another. Seven of them, in fact, the most recent being Gordie, who choked to death on a raisin scone. What makes this latest setback a more serious problem is that it seems Gordie was trafficking Fae creatures like the hobgoblin he had caged in his apartment when he died.

(Let’s pause here to get this out of the way: Different from pure goblins and more mischievous than outright malevolent, hobgoblins were extraordinarily difficult to capture as a rule, since they could teleport short distances and were agile creatures as well, with impressive vertical leaps aided by their thick thighs. If you didn’t know, now you know.)

What was Gordie up to? Who was he selling the Fae creatures to, and for what nefarious purpose? It’s up to Al to find out, before the delicate détente between the Fae and humans is broken forever.

That’s the set-up for Kevin Hearne’s highly entertaining fantasy novel, Ink & Sigil (2020). It’s the first in a new series (the next book set to be published in August 2021), but it’s set in the same universe as Hearne’s previous Iron Druid Chronicles series. Sadly, Atticus and his amazing Irish wolfhound Oberon have only a cameo appearance here, but I found the new cast of characters — Al, the Scot who runs a printing company in Glasgow between writing sigils for interactions between humans and Fae; his indispensable assistant Nadia, who has her own secret abilities; even that hobgoblin, a three-foot tall pink creature who goes by the name Buck Foi — a fun bunch to hang out with, and I was fully engaged in how Al would solve the mystery at the book’s heart and set things right.

The pen-and-stationery aficionado in me loves the idea of specially formulated inks imbuing drawn symbols with power. I could use a few Sigils of Agile Grace myself, to be honest. It’s especially pleasing that one doesn’t need to be a magical creature one’s own self to do magic — it can be learned, like any other skill. I hope Al acquires a new, less evil, apprentice in a future book and we get more details of the way sigils work.

And while this new cast stands well on its own without needing to lean on guest appearances from the Iron Druid or Oberon, I can’t help hoping we get more glimpses of them in future volumes. Although at least we did get this lovely canine tribute in Ink & Sigil:

“He survived because of a very good dug named Oberon. Dogs are beings of pure love and devotion and broadcast hope to those of us who have only memories of such things, for they demonstrate by their existence that love and devotion still walk abroad in the world, and therefore it’s worthwhile to live in it.”

Nero and Archie are bullish on catching a murderer in ‘Some Buried Caesar’

It’s the late 1930s and the normally agoraphobic Wolfe has ventured out of his beloved New York City brownstone to upstate New York, where a feud with a fellow amateur orchid grower has provoked him to exhibit his prized albino hybrids at a county agricultural exhibition. He’s not looking for work, but when the scion of the local gentry is found dead in the pasture where a grand champion bull is penned, Wolfe finds himself trading his sleuthing skills for the opportunity to avoid an uncomfortable, dirty hotel room. Or, as Archie puts it, “this case you’ve dragged us into through your absolute frenzy to find an adequate chair to sit on.”

image of book cover, Some Buried Caesar by Rex StoutSome Buried Caesar (1939) is one of the earliest Wolfe novels but already all the essential elements are in place: Wolfe’s reluctance to leave home, his extreme dislike of riding in a car (see the quote below), the rat-a-tat-tat banter between him and Archie, his ability to solve mysteries well before anyone else, his reluctance to share the solution unless there’s something in it for him. Caesar is also notable for being the book in which Archie first meets Lily Rowan, the ultra-rich New York socialite who becomes his steady companion and partner in witty banter throughout the series.

The setting outside of New York City and the brownstone means Caesar can’t truly be considered an archetype of the series, but in every other element it is a more than worthy entry in the canon of Wolfe and Archie.

I presume you know, since I’ve told you, that my distrust and hatred of vehicles in motion is partly based on my plerophory that their apparent submission to control is illusory and that they may act at their pleasure, and sooner or later will, act on whim. Very well, this one has, and we are intact. Thank God the whim was not a deadlier one.”

— Nero Wolfe

Cold case heats up in ‘This Is How I Lied’

Eve Knox disappeared just before Christmas from her small town in Iowa. She was a high school sophomore, and her body was found later that night in a cave outside of town. Despite a number of suspects, including an abusive high-school boyfriend, the killer was never found. Now it’s 25 years later, and Eve’s best friend Maggie, who along with Eve’s sister found her body in the cave that long-ago night, is a police detective in their hometown. New evidence has been found, leading to a re-opening of the case. Can Maggie, seven months pregnant after years of trying to have a baby, find the killer without turning her own life upside down?

6d8ac4a96e516015976777078414345412f5945_v5I’m always drawn to Heather Gudenkauf’s novels, including This Is How I Lied (2020), because they have interesting premises and they are set in my part of Iowa, in towns that are somewhat disguised but recognizable to me. And I always come away disappointed with vaguely drawn characters, some ridiculous plot points, and a general sloppiness that I’m more inclined to blame on her editor than on her, to be honest. Whenever an author writes in one paragraph that her character had reached through a picket fence and undone the latch to enter a backyard, then inexplicably two paragraphs later writes the character as looking into the backyard through the fence from the outside, an editor has not earned their wings. And the first-person narration shifts from present to past tense within the same sentence, then back again. Pick a lane, people!

For all of that, this is not a bad book. I never felt tempted to Pearl-rule it, and I don’t regret reading it. Indeed, someone less neurotic about grammar may well enjoy this book. I myself have often overlooked inconsistencies when a book is otherwise engaging. There’s a reason I read so many of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury mysteries: Grimes created memorably quirky characters and had a gift for scenic description that made me feel I was right there. Who was I to quibble if I finished the book unsure exactly why the Who had Dun It? Alas, Ms. Gudenkauf has many of the faults and few of the assets of Ms. Grimes.

I have decided I’m no longer going to fall for the “but it’s Iowa” urge and let this author go. Of course, I said that the last time, too …

They’re all good dogs in ‘Olive, Mabel & Me’

I really needed this book. It’s a gentle, often humorous and occasionally profound story of a man and his dogs, and a fair bit of mountain walking thrown in. If you were hanging around on Twitter last March, you may have come across a cute little video tweet featuring two dogs having an eating contest, as their sports commentator owner provided the play-by-play commentary, as seen here:

It’s a clever takeoff on traditional sports commentary but of course what makes it so charming (beyond the very appealing Scottish accent of Mr. Cotter) are those adorable Labradors, Olive (the black one) and Mabel. It went as viral as you’d expect, ricocheting around the Internet at a time when we were all just beginning to come to terms with what the pandemic had in store for us. I loved it, promptly began following Cotter (who I confess to never having heard of, not being privy to much in the way of overseas sports broadcasting) and delighted in the occasional videos he has posted since. (If you’d like to catch up, you can find them all on his YouTube channel.)

Really, there’s not much more to say. If you love dogs, I think you’d very much enjoy the book. The canine averse will probably want to give it a pass. It is not a book that will haunt your dreams or cause you to despair of the loss of our common humanity — that’s what the news is for. Indeed, it will not teach you much about the world, except that Dogs Are Very Good Boys and Girls. I deducted a half-star only because the author has an unfortunate fondness for sentence fragments that made my left eye twitch just a tiny bit. A few moments’ break to look at pictures of Olive and Mabel and all was well again.

Greed turns deadly in ‘The Benevent Treasure’

Candida Sayle and Stephen Eversley “meet cute,” as the kids say, when Candida gets stranded on an English beach as the high tide rolls in and threatens to drown her. At that exact moment, Stephen happens to be out birdwatching in a rowboat, as one does, and finds his damsel in distress clinging to a cliff face. He rescues her, they exchange names and then part, presumably never to meet again.

10B0FDAD-0967-493D-BB96-372113292CE6Oh, but that wouldn’t be much of a book, would it — let alone a mystery. And so our two young people meet again, this time at a very creepy old country house (honestly, is there any other kind in England?) that is rumored to house The Benevent Treasure (1954), brought to England when its aristocratic Italian owner fled Italy centuries ago. Candida is the black sheep of the Benevent family, through no fault of her own — her mother married a man the family did not approve of and cut all ties. Now all the Benevents are dead, except for two strange old sisters, Olivia and Cara, two strange old women who are the sisters of Candida’s long-dead grandmother. They reach out to young Candida to effect a reunion and she goes to visit, although she’s not sure what they want with her.

She meets up again with Stephen, who just happens to be in the neighborhood doing some architecting work (he’s a prime one for being on the spot), and they get reacquainted. But something is amiss inside Benevent House, and Candida seems to be its focus. And if there’s a mystery to be solved, it’s a fair bet that Miss Silver, intrepid governess-cum-private enquiry agent, will root out the truth.

Wentworth returns to her habit from earlier in the series of having Miss Silver acquire her client whilst riding the train. In this case, she is coincidentally traveling to Retley, where Benevent House is, in the same train carriage as the uncle of a young man who had previously worked for the Benevent sisters and disappeared mysteriously, supposedly after stealing jewels from the rumored treasure. Miss Silver agrees to look into the subject, not realizing she will need to solve a current mystery before she can find the truth about the cold case.

There are a lot of gothic elements here, including the way Candida and Stephen are lovestruck at virtually first sight. You know Stephen has it bad when meets Candida in a café shortly after her arrival.

Stephen, waiting in the Primrose Café, saw her come in with a glowing colour and starry eyes. She made a brightness in the shaded place. He had a rush of feeling which surprised him. It was as if a light had sprung up to meet her, and when she came to him and they look at each other the brightness was round them both.

More deaths will occur before Miss Silver wraps up all the mysteries and solves the case, but does it really matter as long as young love wins out in the end?

Amy, who is your father? Nero Wolfe is on the case

I recently picked this up in an ebook sale, and while I have read it before it happens to be one I did not own in paperback so I’ve probably only read it once, many years ago. It’s a fine later (1968) entry in the series.

9D4944E2-C393-451E-A7F0-6A643A7D49E2The client is a young woman whose mother died a few months ago in a hit-and-run car accident. After her mother’s death, Amy Denovo finds a box full of cash and a note from her mom that says, “This is from your father.” But she has no idea who her father is, and she suspects her mother was using an assumed name all these years so how can even the great Nero Wolfe and his trusty legman Archie Goodwin trace her into the past? Complicating matters, at least for Archie, is that Amy works as an editorial assistant for his paramour, Lily Rowan, but Amy insists that he not tell Lily that he and Wolfe are working for her, leading to some semi-comical misunderstanding about why Amy suddenly starts calling him Archie instead of Mr. Goodwin. It all gets sorted in the end, of course, and in a satisfactory fashion. Not many 1960s-era Wolfe novels favorites of mine, as Stout seemed determined to make up for decades of writing in a more prudish atmosphere when crafting plots that involve sex and other tawdry topics. Still, an afternoon spent with Archie Goodwin is never wasted.

Drowning in a ‘Long Bright River’ of addiction

Long Bright River by Liz Moore is an unflinching look at the opioid crisis through a dark lens. None of the characters conform to the usual stereotypes. Cops aren’t always heroes (or villains); addicts aren’t always dangerous or hopeless. Everyone has secrets and people are seldom what they appear to be at first glance. In that way, it’s one of the most realistic novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most moving.

60f3392ac585e1d5974485a76674345412f5945_v5.jpegMichaela (but everyone calls her Mickey) and Kacey are sisters who grew up in the kind of family that does not put the ‘fun’ in ‘dysfunctional’. Their young mother dies of a heroin overdose and their father disappears shortly after in the throes of his own addiction. They are raised by their maternal grandmother Gee, who provides them with the bare minimum of food, shelter and clothing but even less love and emotional support.

The two sisters, even while living in the same Philadelphia neighborhood, take different paths in adulthood. Mickey becomes a cop; Kacey becomes a junkie. Their paths cross occasionally, mostly when Mickey runs across Kacey working as a prostitute to support her drug habit. They seldom speak but the sporadic and distant contact serves as a cold comfort to Mickey, who still feels the responsibility of being the big sister and the one who turned out “okay”.

Just as it becomes apparent that a serial killer is targeting women, Mickey realizes she hasn’t seen Kacey lately on her usual street corner. She tries to find out what’s happened to her, even as she flinches every time another unidentified young woman’s body is found. Along the way a fuller picture of the sisters’ background is parceled out in flashback chapters, complicating what first appeared to be a tragic but common story.

Just like real life, there is no unambiguously happy ending here. Mysteries are solved, story lines are wrapped up, but all of the resolutions seem tentative, capable of being undone with a single slip. All the characters can do — all any of us can do — is just the best we can, one day at a time.

‘A Fatal Lie’ untangles a family puzzle

As A Fatal Lie (2021) opens, it’s three years after the end of World War I and Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge is again in the proverbial doghouse of his Superintendent, Markham. The antagonism between the two men once again sees Rutledge sent to a remote corner of the United Kingdom to investigate an unidentified body found floating in the River Dee in Wales. Through some good old-fashioned detective work (admittedly the only kind available in 1921) Rutledge is able to identify the man, although what he was doing in Wales and who killed him is still a mystery.

1d51ffa7ce40bf0596f2b2b78414345412f5945_v5.jpegIn the course of retracing the man’s footsteps, Rutledge is forced to break the news to his wife, on whom this new load of grief weighs heavily atop the still-fresh loss of her young daughter. Could the two crimes be related? And where does the dead man’s possibly mentally unstable sister come into the picture? The Inspector travels hither and yon where northwest England and northeast Wales meet. All the while, he’s got the voice of long-dead Hamish providing a running commentary in his head, as he has ever since the wretched day during the war when the Scotsman died while serving under Rutledge in the Army. Rutledge knows Hamish isn’t really there, but it doesn’t make the ghostly voice any easier to bear …

This is the 23rd entry in the Ian Rutledge series and it’s a rare series that gets that far along and still produces satisfying mysteries to solve. The mother-son duo writing as Charles Todd manage to come up with unique twists to make each plot unique, even as the characters themselves don’t seem to change overmuch. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll enjoy this one. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, start with the first (A Test of Wills) for the full rewarding experience.

‘The Marrow Thieves’ explores a dystopian indigenous world

What happens when we stop dreaming? And what if we could steal the dreams of someone else and take them for our own? Would we do it, even if it meant the destruction of the people we’re stealing from? That question is at the heart of The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (2017). This Young Adult novel (which even adult readers will find compelling) won a slew of awards and rightfully so. It centers the historical experience of indigenous nations in an imagined future where, sadly, not much has changed from the racist past and present.

921890811545925596d793178414345412f5945_v5In that not-so-distant future, rampant climate change has wreaked havoc on the Earth. Coastal regions of North America have fallen prey to the rising seas, and the seismic shifts have ruptured pipelines and sent pollution spilling across the landscape. The resulting hordes of refugees have strained resources in the habitable areas that remain and sparked wars and societal disruption.

All of the chaos has also caused a less obvious problem: People have lost the ability to dream, causing emotional and physical stress to build. It seems only one group has escaped the dreamless void: Indigenous people, perhaps because of their ancestral ties to and respect for the land, continue to experience normal dreaming. But what at first seems like a blessing quickly becomes a nightmare, as white scientists develop a way to extract dreams from indigenous individuals and implant them in the dreamless people. No one seems to care that the restoration of health to whites means the death of the expendable indigenous people.

The stars began to rip through the hard skin of dark like the sharp points of silver needles through velvet. I watched them appear and wink and fade, and I smiled. This wasn’t going to be so bad. Maybe the end is just a dream. That made me feel sorry for a minute for the others, the dreamless ones. What happened when they died? I imagined them just shutting off like factory machines at the end of a shift: functioning, purposeful, and then just out.

Frenchie is a 15-year-old indigenous boy when The Marrow Thieves starts. He and his brother Mitch have lost both their parents and are on the run, in hiding from the Recruiters who round up indigenous people and take them to facilities modeled on the 19th century residential boarding schools where native children in both the US and Canada were sent to “cure” them of their native culture. The new versions dispense with the re-education and simply “harvest” dreams from their captives, consigning them to a death sentence. The two brothers are separated, and just when things look most dire for Frenchie he meets up with another group of indigenous people who are also fleeing the white Recruiters. Together this ragtag band of strangers makes its way north, where they hope to find safety in a place where few or no white people, the land is less polluted and they will be able to once again pass on their ancient cultural traditions to their children.

Dimaline doles out the backstory for Frenchie and his companions sparingly, alternating flashbacks into each one’s past life with the perilous day-to-day existence they are sharing in the present. The flashbacks aren’t intrusive and they bring the characters to life in a way that simply expositing their backgrounds would not. By the end, readers will celebrate and mourn alongside the characters we’ve come to know.

Really, the only flaw I could find won’t necessarily be a dealbreaker for everyone (or even anyone) else. Because this is a YA novel, narrated by a teenage (though appealing) character, there’s a bit too much self-absorption and time spent on a secondary romance that distracts from the tension of the main plot line. But even those elements are fairly muted compared to some YA I’ve read, and I have no reservations (no pun intended) about recommending this book to readers of all ages. It’s a wonderful book that shines a welcome spotlight on indigenous culture and people.

The ambiguities of race resonate in ‘Passing’

I wanted to read a classic of African-American literature during February and the solution was found when the New York Times Style Magazine’s T Book Club chose Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen as its monthly selection. The slim novel — really more of a novella — is set in the 1920s and explores the practical and emotional ramifications when a pair of black women meet by chance after many years and one discovers that the other has been passing as white ever since she disappeared from the neighborhood where they grew up.

a17ba507f2637395967557178414345412f5945_v5For Irene, who narrates the story, her childhood friend Clare’s choice to pretend to be white raises complicated feelings within her. On the one hand, she herself has been known to occasionally present as white in situations where she would not be welcome as a black woman — certain restaurants or businesses, for example. On the other hand, she is proud to be black, and having married a black doctor and living a comfortable life in the Harlem Renaissance community in New York City, spends much of her time working to raise money to help disadvantaged fellow black Americans. She can’t help viewing Clare’s passing as a repudiation of the pride ‘Rene feels about being black.

Despite Irene’s disapproval of Clare’s life (and the fact that Clare’s husband is an unrepentant racist who has no idea his wife is not white) she can’t help feeling a begrudging admiration and liking for Clare. There are hints that there may even be some sexual tension between them, although this 1929 book does not explore the topic beyond slight hints and suggestions that may be my 21st century brain imposing current cultural norms on the past.

The briefness of the book was a source of some frustration to me. It felt that we never got to the real heart of how and why Clare chose to live her life the way she did. That feeling was compounded by the ambiguous and somewhat abrupt-seeming ending, which I am still unsure of even now. None of that should deter a reader who is interested in exploring the realities of race in 1920s America, though. Short as it is, Passing packs a punch and is well worth spending time with, however brief.