Mina Baites plays a bittersweet tune in ‘The Silver Music Box’

Johann Blumenthal is a German silversmith, a talented silversmith who counts both Gentiles and his fellow Jews among his regular customers in The Silver Music Box (2017) by Mina Baites. Filled with love for a homeland that doesn’t always love him back, he enlists in the German Army to fight in World War I. Before he leaves, he crafts an exquisite silver music box for his young son, Paul, to remember him by.  When Johann doesn’t return from the front, Paul and his mother, Lotte, are left to pick up the pieces with the help of Uncle Max, also a talented jeweler. 

a88fee53ca69b69596d345675774345412f5945_v5Fast-forward to the 1930s. Paul, now a young adult, is still captivated by his father’s music box. He’s also captivated by Clara, a doctor’s daughter who longs to be teacher, an occupation closed to those of her religion. So she determines to convert to Christianity in order to fulfill her dreams. Paul does the same in order to be with the love of his life, and for a while all is well. Of course, we know that things don’t stay that way. As life in Germany gets increasingly more difficult and dangerous for Jews, the Blumenthals looks for ways to protect themselves from the coming storm. Each of them — Lotte, Uncle Max, Aunt Martha, and Paul and Clara — seek different paths to safety.

I wasn’t in the best head space to read historical fiction about the run-up to the Holocaust, to be honest, but I was invested enough in the characters and story to keep reading, and I’m glad I did. The narrative takes a big leap in time from 1939 to 1963, content to fill in the tragic details in the form of a later descendant of the family searching for her roots. This lightened the tension, which I appreciated. 

It’s a good story, perhaps a bit simplistically told, but captures well the growing fear of the German Jewish community as the Nazis grow in strength and power during the lead up to World War II.

Andy Weir’s Madcap Misadventures and Math on Mars

The Martian (2012) is the story of an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who gets left for dead when his crewmates evacuate in a crisis. It has a lot of the elements that made me think I didn’t like science fiction for so long. Primarily, it has techno-babble. Lots and lots of techno-babble. And chemistry. And math (“I’ll spare you the math,” narrator Mark Watney says at one point, after having already devoted three long paragraphs to math, and just before devoting the rest of the chapter to … you guessed it, math ). And acronyms galore, from MDV and MAV to EVA and AREC.

f6182b0a5f02e09596a496469514345412f5945_v5So of course I hated it, right? Wrong! The Martian is one of the best books I’ve read this year, with a protagonist who is witty and smart and arctic chill under pressure. And he gets lots of practice being cool and unflappable, as crisis after crisis threaten to end his Mars castaway gig quicker than a barefoot jackrabbit on a hot greasy griddle in August. Even after Watney is able to make contact with NASA to let them know he isn’t dead yet, he faces a real puzzle: how can he survive four years until the rescue mission can reach him, with food that will only last for about a year?

How Watney and NASA tackle that problem, and the other half-dozen that threaten to fulfill Watney’s missed destiny as the late great Martian, kept me turning pages right to the end. Andy Weir tells the story with breezy blasts of profane humor that will almost have you believing that being stranded on Mars wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

The Three Investigators get their start in this children’s classic

With a reluctant helping hand from film director Alfred Hitchcock, no less

The Secret of Terror Castle is the first case for the Three Investigators — aka Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, teenage boys living in Southern California circa 1964. Mastermind Jupiter has recently won a contest that earned him 30 days of access to a Rolls Royce and chauffeur, convenient since none of the boys are old enough to drive yet.

Somehow Jupiter finagles Alfred Hitchcock into hiring them to find a haunted house for him where he can film his next picture. Even more conveniently, there’s a likely location nearby, the former home of a silent film star whose career was ruined when talking movies revealed he spoke in a high-pitched lisp. No one has been able to stay for more than an hour inside the house since the disgraced movie star’s mysterious disappearance, as spooky sounds of a phantom organ and uncontrollable feelings of terror cause them to flee. The boys need to make sure it’s really haunted and plan their own visit to the “Terror Castle.” Is it really haunted, and if so by what — or whom?

I loved these books growing up, ranking them just below Trixie Belden and ahead of Nancy Drew. This debut was first published in 1964, so the series and I were born at the same time (no need to speculate on who has aged better, thank you very much). Reading it as an adult, there is nothing scary or spooky about the story, but I still loved the Three Investigators’ Rube Goldberg-esque “office” arrangements in the junkyard of Jupiter’s Uncle Titus. There are lots of those little details that really spoke to children growing up in an era without CGI or fancy special effects to create realistic paranormal atmospheres. We did it with our own brains, kids!

I probably gave this one a half-star extra just for nostalgia, as the ending was easy to figure out at my advanced age. But now that I’ve located a source for the whole series, I will keep reading and hope the magic never dims so much that they are no longer appealing.

Classic ‘Mother Night’ resonates all these years later

Vonnegut could not have known how his homegrown Nazi theme would play out in the 21st century

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Howard W. Campbell Jr., the narrator of Vonnegut’s brilliant 1966 novel Mother Night, is pretending to be a Nazi — or as he puts it at the outset of his so-called confessions, “I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.” In Campbell’s version of his life story, he became a writer and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda out of expediency — his father-in-law was the chief of police in Berlin; Campbell and his German wife wanted to remain in Germany even after the war began in 1939; joining the Nazi cause was the easiest way to do that. His broadcasts were notoriously vile, filled with hatred and venom toward Jewish people and anyone else who did not conform to the Aryan ideal.

And that for me was the most upsetting thing about this story — that someone could spew such hatred, knowing it would have the most terrible consequences for its targets, without actually feeling strongly one way or the other about the truth of what he said and wrote. The hateful propaganda was a writing exercise, a way for Campbell to keep his creative juices flowing for when the war would end and he could resume his playwriting career. To freely disperse such hate without believing in it — is that not more horrific than the mad ravings of the true believer?

I’ve seen a number of references to this book recently as a sort of foretelling of the current political situation in the United States. As I began reading I expected to find that Campbell represented the people who stormed the US Capitol and tried to overthrow the government, but after reading it I’ve changed my mind. Campbell is the spitting image of every politician, from the very top down to state and local levels, who cynically perpetuated lies and conspiracy theories that they knew to be false, in order to rile up that mob and incite the insurrection. In the end, which is worse?

That’s the question that’s going to keep me up nights.

I had hoped, as a (propaganda) broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.

Miss Silver dives in at the deep end in ‘The Silent Pool’

Who wants to kill Adriana Ford? And how many will die before the villain is found?

The first question to be answered in any Golden Age mystery featuring Miss Silver is simple: How will the retired governess-cum-detective acquire her client? Up to now in the series she has been hired by total strangers on trains, via word-of-mouth from satisfied clients, been called in by the police, and more or less stumbled into situations. In The Silent Pool (first published 1953), it’s much more straightforward — the client calls Miss Silver for an appointment. How quaint! But that’s where the humdrum aspects end.

For one thing, the retired stage actress visits Miss Silver in disguise (seen right through by our sharp-eyed sleuth, of course). Adriana Ford thinks someone in her ragtag extended family may be trying to kill her for her money — there’s been a fall on the stairs, a possibly poisoned soup, and a suspicious medicine tablet. After spilling all this to Miss Silver, the actress decides she’s being overly dramatic and declines Miss Silver’s help. But after the first body shows up, she puts in a call to our Maudie to come sort things out.

Throughout this series (we’re on Book 25 here) I’d gotten used to Miss Silver not showing up until perhaps the middle of a book or even later, so it was a surprise to see her right there in the first sentence this time. That fact, combined with a rather lengthy bit of exposition in the first chapter that brings readers up to speed on Miss Silver’s backstory, makes me think this book was seen as a chance to hook some new readers into the Tribe of Maudie. If you’re one of those people who don’t feel the need to start a series at the beginning, this could be a good one to begin with. But surely you wouldn’t do that, would you?

Anyway, the story is a good one. There’s a satisfying surfeit of suspects (though some clearly preposterous red herrings) and some pleasant characters to root for although not, interestingly enough, the client. In other books Miss Silver forms a bit of an attachment to her client that goes beyond a business relationship, but that’s not the case here. The rest of the cast confirms my theory that Wentworth had much more fun writing terrible people than she did nice ones. Her villains are always just so delightfully villainous.

I’m feeling a little melancholy as we approach the end of the series (just seven more left), but I’m pleased that each outing remains remarkably strong even this far along in the series.

Rogue cops face off against rural Idaho town in ‘Blue Heaven’

can anyone save annie and william?

I have read the first couple of books in author Box’s Joe Pickett series, but Blue Heaven (St. Martin’s Press, 2008) is a standalone suspense/thriller about some rogue L.A. cops who retire to Idaho with their ill-begotten gains and proceed to wreak havoc on the rural community. (The title is apparently a real thing, referring to an area of the northwest state where a lot of California police officers move when they retire from the force.) The story starts with a bang, as two young children witness a murder in the woods and are chased by the bad guys. They escape, barely, but then find themselves in danger again and again as they try to make their way home to their mom.

Mom has her own problems, with the not-quite-live-in boyfriend whose conflicts with her young daughter Annie initiated the current mess she and brother William are in, and the local police and town volunteers who are supposed to be searching for her missing kids. But are they all playing for the same team? The reader finds out the answer quickly, but it takes an excruciatingly long time for anyone in the book to see the light. The only person in this small town who seems to have a clue is Jess, a struggling rancher who has his own personal problems with an ex-wife and an adult son struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Into this small-town morass stumbles a retired L.A. cop on the trail of a gang who pulled off a million-dollar heist at a California racetrack and got away with both the money and the murder of an armed guard.

So much of the book is spent following various characters as they stumble around in the dark (both literally and figuratively) that it’s a surprise when the ending comes together fast and furious and confusing. I’m still not exactly sure what happened at the end, to be honest, but I didn’t care enough to go back and try to figure it out. Maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age, but I no longer especially enjoy books that put kids in jeopardy, especially from the opening pages through to the end of the book. There’s no neatly wrapped up happy ending for everyone here, but that’s actually a point in its favor for me. Less so were the almost cartoonish bad guys and the somewhat predictable plot trajectory. I’d rate this one “just OK.”

‘A Divided Loyalty’

Cold case heats up in latest Inspector Rutledge mystery

When Inspector Ian Rutledge quickly solves the murder of an unknown young woman, he’s just as quickly assigned to follow up on a similar cold case in Avebury, known for its series of standing stones akin to the more famous Stonehenge. The case is tinged with eerie echoes of the prehistoric past, as this unidentified woman is found to have been killed at the base of one of the ancient stones. Was it some sort of ritual sacrifice, or murder with a more modern motive? Could it be connected with Rutledge’s original investigation?

book cover of A Divided Loyalty by Charles ToddThat’s the basic setup for A Divided Loyalty (William Morrow, 2020), the 22nd entry in the police procedural series set in post-World War I England. Rutledge is a classic flawed protagonist, back from serving as an officer in that brutal war with a severe case of what was then called shell shock. It has left him hearing the voice of his dead sergeant Hamish at the most inopportune times. Much of the attraction of this series is observing how Rutledge battles his demons to continue serving as a highly effective Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard. So effective, in fact, that he’s often called on to solve cases that have stymied his superiors, and that’s the situation he faces here. A more senior Inspector was assigned to the initial investigation and came up with nothing, managing neither to identify the victim nor the killer. As Rutledge reluctantly follows in his colleague’s footsteps, he find anomalies in the initial investigation that are hard to explain.

Hard but not impossible, of course, or there would be no book. The author engages in clue-slinging so blatant the reader feels sure the suspect it points to cannot possibly be the true killer. And yet it keeps adding up, and every opportunity to find evidence to counter it is unsuccessful. Ultimately, the case tests Rutledge’s single-minded devotion to speaking for victims and finding the truth, which over the course of the series has been one of the few things helping him maintain a slender hold on his sanity. Will this case be the one that causes him to lose his grip?

I’m a big proponent of starting a series at the beginning, but I will say that if this is your first Ian Rutledge book you won’t feel too disoriented. There aren’t any big spoilers to previous events, and while there are references to things that happened in previous books they are subtle enough not to confuse a new reader. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy reading about flawed but honorable characters and their internal struggles. My only regret is having to wait another year until No. 23.

‘Just Mercy’

Author’s note: It’s #ThrowbackThursday here at An American Bluestocking, when I share earlier takes on books I think are worth your time. I originally wrote this review in January 2016; it was published on LibraryThing.

This book broke my heart.

One of the (few) encouraging things that seems to be coming out of our current deeply dysfunctional political process is growing bipartisan agreement that the United States is in desperate need of criminal justice reform. Politicians from both major parties are realizing that “mandatory minimum” sentencing laws, harsh solitary confinement practices, overly punitive punishment for juveniles who commit crimes, racial disparities in sentencing, overzealous prosecutions that ignore exculpatory evidence in order to secure conviction — all of these are having a profoundly negative effect on our society. (A cynic might note that the recent Republican interest in providing treatment instead of prison for drug users only came once the opioid epidemic struck middle-class whites, but I digress).

All of these issues are explored by Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy (Random House, 2014), subtitled “A Story of Justice and Redemption”. And it’s true, some of the people Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, try to help do receive justice and some form of redemption, eventually. But it’s hard to feel triumphant about the outcomes when you read about how thoroughly their lives have been shattered before that justice is finally served.

Stevenson’s main focus is on Walter McMillian, a black man who has lived a largely blameless life in Alabama until he is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a white teenager despite having been continuously in the company of more than 20 people at the time of the killing. The ways in which justice was mauled in

his initial trial are shocking and infuriating. It’s the sort of tale that would get rejected as completely unbelievable if someone wrote it as an episode of Law and Order. And yes, racism was absolutely a factor in his case, and in many aspects of EJI’s work. More than once, Stevenson himself is spoken to harshly by judges, bailiffs, law enforcement officers who don’t realize they are speaking to a black graduate of Harvard Law School and not just another black defendant. They are unable to see past the color of his skin, even when he is wearing a suit and sitting in a courtroom.

Of course innocent mistakes occur, but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.

Interspersed with chapters about Stevenson’s attempts to win Walter a stay of execution, a new trial, or exoneration are explorations of other aspects of the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed. The EJI successfully argued before the Supreme Court that sentencing juveniles to death row or life in prison without parole is unconstitutional, first for non-homicide crimes and eventually for all crimes. They also advocated for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, many of whom are sentenced to death or life in prison without even understanding what they have done.

Walter’s case is a clear-cut case of wrongful conviction, but not every case that Stevenson and EJI took involved saving the innocent. Many times, the question wasn’t whether the defendant had committed the crime, but whether the sentence received was proportional to the crime, or whether the defendant had received the adequate legal counsel that they are entitled to under the Constitution.

Presenting a mix of cases and circumstances gave the book even more power for me. It’s easy to feel indignant about innocent people being executed or left to rot in jail. It’s harder to feel sympathy — and yes, mercy — for the guilty, but Stevenson’s powerful rhetoric made me understand the need for such compassion in a very personal way.

The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent — strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration. I drove home broken and brokenhearted about Jimmy Dill. But I knew I would come back the next day. There was more work to do.

‘Full Throttle’

New collection from Joe Hill is relentless

Joe Hill is one of those rare authors who seems equally adept at short fiction (see the previous 20th Century Ghosts (HarperCollins, 2007) as he is with full-length novels (my favorites being his debut Heart-Shaped Box (William Morrow, 2007) and The Fireman (William Morrow, 2016). He’s also had award-winning success with the Locke & Key comics series and a number of his works have been adapted for movies or television. It’s all rather irritating for those of us who struggle to master even one of these creative art forms. Despite these personal peeves, I always look forward to new work from Hill, and his latest story collection does not disappoint.

The stories in Full Throttle (William Morrow, 2019) run the gamut from thriller to suspense to supernatural to indescribable, and kept me turning pages to the very end. The collection hits the ground running, so to speak, with the opening story, “Throttle” (co-written with the author’s paterfamilias Stephen King) which sees a gang of aging biker thugs being terrorized by a truck driver carrying a grudge. And from there, we’re off to the races. Not all of the stories have supernatural elements (“Throttle” doesn’t, for instance) but the ones that do are very effective. The standout for me in this sub-genre was “Faun”. I thought I knew early on where this hunter-and-the-hunted story was going; I was delighted and horrified to be so wrong. Other stories have a sweetness to them, like “Late Returns,” about a bookmobile driver who keeps encountering patrons from the past. And “You Are Released,” the final story in the collection, offers a high-altitude look at how the world ends — with both a bang and a whimper.

Bonus content comes at the end, where Hill has written notes describing his inspiration and influence for each of the stories. And don’t skip the About the Author section, where you’ll find a bonus micro-story titled “A Little Sorrow.”

The Stories

  • Throttle — See above.
  • Dark Carousel — Four teens carelessly cross paths with a carousel operator, only to find themselves on the run from the ride’s supernatural spirits.

  • Wolverton Station — A wolf of Wall Street meets his match on a British train.

  • By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain — The childhood wonder of discovering a legend is true, and the childhood frustration of not being believed by adults.

  • Faun — See above.

  • Late Returns — See above.

  • All I Care About Is You — Money can’t buy you love? Don’t tell that to this teenager of the future.

  • Thumbprint — The sins of the desert visit an ex-soldier in Maine.

  • The Devil on the Staircase — A poetic fable about the true costs of selling your soul.

  • Twittering From the Circus of the Dead — Predictable but enjoyable modern zombie tale.

  • Mums — A boy digs up dirt on his dad. As I read, I wasn’t sure if this was a tale of the supernatural or mental illness, and I’m not sure it matters. It’s compelling either way (though please note, Mr. Hill, it’s Iowa State University with the ag program, not the UI Hawkeyes).

  • In the Tall Grass — This one gave “Faun” a run for its money as Story Raising the Most Hairs on the Back of My Neck. Forget everything you thought you knew about the children of the corn; here, the Kansas prairie strikes back.

  • You Are Released — See above.

    Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Have dog, will travel

John Steinbeck hits the road in ‘Travels With Charley’

In 1960 at the age of 58, Steinbeck had already published his last novel (although he didn’t know it), and had less than a decade to live (which he also didn’t know but probably suspected). He was restless, a feeling exacerbated by having spent the past 20 years living in New York and traveling widely in Europe, far from his native Northern California. As he says in the opening pages of Travels With Charley in Search of America (1962, Viking Press), he wondered if he really knew his own country after all that time. So he set out in a custom-built pickup-camper to find out.

The real star of the book, of course, is in the title: Charley Dog, a standard poodle, who Steinbeck clearly dotes on. Every anecdote affirms that Steinbeck is a dog person through and through, and his descriptions of his “conversations” with Charley will be familiar to dog companions everywhere.

It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?

John Steinbeck

The consensus among literary scholars is that Steinbeck’s account was heavily fictionalized, with inconsistencies in the timeline of his travels and dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true. Still, he seemed to capture, and brood about, many of the ways that America was changing in those decades after the end of World War II. Cultural homogenization, from music charts to chain stores and restaurants, was accelerating. Cities were sprawling, the environment was being plundered for profit, hard manual labor was being outsourced to immigrants. And of course the fight for racial equality was coming to a boil.

To that last point: Along the way, Steinbeck deals with bouts of illness, both his own and Charley’s, and automotive mishaps. But the only situation for which Steinbeck seems unable to find a wryly amusing observation is the segment of his journey that passes through the Deep South. He stops in New Orleans to witness in person a situation that made national news: The ugly crowds shouting slurs and profanity at a young black girl outside a white school that was being forcibly desegregated. During the rest of his trip through Louisiana and Alabama he presents conversations with a couple of white men and a couple of black men that serve to cover the gamut of emotions and opinions. The tidiness of encountering a prime example of each set of beliefs was one of the least believable bits of the book for me, but his intention to show the variety of viewpoints and the wide gulfs between them rings true.

Really, so many of the observations Steinbeck made over the course of his journey could be written today. In that sense, it’s a little depressing how little has changed. On the other hand, I had fun imagining how different his trip would have been if he had an iPhone in his pocket.

I’ll leave you with Steinbeck’s gentle skewering of the Lone Star State:

Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty. It retains the right to secede at will. We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization — The American Friends for Texas Succession. This stops the subject. They want to be able to secede but they don’t want anyone to want them to.

John Steinbeck