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.

Currently Reading, 1 March 2021

My current read is a book recommended by my friend Ana, which just happened to be available at the library when I checked their online catalog. It’s The Marrow Thieves by Canadian author Cherie Dimaline (2017). 921890811545925596d793178414345412f5945_v5The library blurb is enticing: “In a future world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s indigenous population – and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow – and dreams – means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a 15-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones, and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing ‘factories.”

The book has won a slew of awards in Canada, including the Kirkus Prize for Young People’s Fiction, the Governor General’s Literary Award (Young People’s Literature category), and the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature. As you can see from that list, the book is classified as Young Adult but I have to say the writing shows a level of maturity that makes it an engaging read even for an old lady like me. I’ll post a full review when I’ve finished it, but so far, so good.

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.

‘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.

Delicious murder mystery

‘A Bitter Feast’ serves up delectable meals along with its charming detecting duo

You will be forgiven if your mouth waters uncontrollably while reading Deborah Crombie’s latest entry in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery series, A Bitter Feast (HarperCollins, 2019). The action is set in the picturesque Cotswolds and centers around a pub in the village of Lower Slaughter, which boasts a world-class chef serving up the ultimate pub food. Why such a talent is toiling in obscurity after having shone at a Michelin-starred London eatery is just one of the mysteries that is eventually unraveled here. Others are more momentous, involving multiple suspicious deaths and the private lives of various village denizens.

Crombie often weaves together storylines from the past and present in her mysteries, and A Bitter Feast is no exception. At regular intervals we jump back to chef Viv Holland’s time in London, learning how her culinary career began and why she left it behind. Characters from that past play key roles in the present, drawing the two storylines together in the end. Meanwhile, Detective Superintendent Kincaid and Detective Inspector James find their holiday weekend turned into a busman’s holiday almost at the off, when Duncan is involved in a serious automobile crash that leaves two people dead. His own injuries keep him from fully asserting himself in the subsequent investigations, but fortunately the local constabulary proves to be both up to the task and not afraid to accept help from Scotland Yard when it’s offered. It’s a refreshing change from the usual obstructionism that local law enforcement tends to exhibit in run-of-the-mill murder mysteries.

Devoted fans of the series will be delighted that even though Gemma and Duncan have ventured out of London and away from their Metropolitan Police home base, many of the series’ most prominent secondary characters are along for the ride. Of course the couple’s children are along, and it’s a relief to find that Duncan’s son Kit is starting to outgrow his overly sensitive teenage persona and becoming a more well-rounded character in his own right. But we also get more-than-cameo appearances from Gemma’s detective sergeant, Melody Talbot, and Duncan’s own DS, Doug Cullen, as the quartet are spending the weekend at the country home of Melody’s posh parents.

And then there’s the food. Oh my, the food! Crombie does a fine job of illustrating the chaos of a working commercial kitchen, and an even better job of describing the output of that process in delectable ways. I wasn’t very far into reading before I was tempted to book the next flight to the Cotswolds. Only the knowledge (revealed in Crombie’s author’s note) that the pub and chef are fictional kept me curled up in my reading chair until the end.

For me, the appeal of Crombie’s work is tilted more heavily toward the compelling characters and world that she has created, though there’s nothing wrong with her plotting. I love both Duncan and Gemma, and I enjoy spending time with them, their blended family, and their friends. It was smart of Crombie to give a fresh feel to the series by moving the action outside of London, while retaining the core character set that drives much of the reader’s interest. And as always, even as a mystery is solved, the characters’ lives continue to grow and develop. This time around, I’m eager to read the next entry to find out how Melody’s personal dilemma resolves itself.

If you’re already a fan of Duncan and Gemma et al., you don’t need me to tell you this is worth your time. If you’ve not had the pleasure of meeting them yet, I would suggest starting with the first in the series, A Share in Death, and working your way forward. Some series don’t need to be read in order, but this one is infinitely more rewarding if you experience the characters’ growth and change along the way.

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

Read it before you see it

Long before it was a movie, ‘The Goldfinch’ cast a spell on its readers

With the recent release of a major motion picture based on Donna Tartt’s runaway bestseller, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit my initial review of the book. This review was originally written in 2014.

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in The Goldfinch (2013, Little, Brown) that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension.

I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.

Jackson Brodie returns

Nine years on, the moody detective picks up right where he left off in ‘Big Sky’

When last we saw Jackson Brodie, in 2011’s Started Early, Took My Dog, the introspective private investigator at the center of Kate Atkinson’s literary mystery series was wandering around Yorkshire, trying to track down an adopted woman’s biological family while coping with a rescued dog and his own personal dramas involving at least two ex-wives and a vanished fortune. Along the way, he managed to more-or-less solve a decades-old crime and rescue another stray — this time a toddler. 

He had a lot going on, is what I’m saying. 

When we meet him again in Big Sky (Little, Brown, 2019), nine years on (and after a string of World War II books from author Atkinson set), Brodie is still wandering around Yorkshire, sometimes in the company of his now-teenage son (by second ex-wife, Julia) and an aging Labrador retriever (also courtesy of Julia, who may not want to be married to Jackson anymore but trusts him implicitly with the things she loves most in the world). Brodie’s current job is tailing a local businessman to find out if he’s cheating on his wife. It’s dull work, but leave it to Brodie to inadvertantly stumble into a much larger, more sinister case simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the right time. It isn’t long before he finds himself in the midst of marital secrets, cold cases, and human trafficking on a brisk, business-like scale.

I would certainly classify the Jackson Brodie series in the mystery genre, but Atkinson’s writing does not lend itself to the terse, straightforward “just the facts, ma’am” narrative that most people think of when they think of detective stories. She operates on a near stream-of-conscious level that has lots of space for digressions, asides, and parenthetical additions. Indeed, the first chapter of Big Sky is a scene between Jackson and his son, but the parenthetical conversations, both remembered and imagined, with Julia make her as present a character as if she wasn’t miles away filming a television series at the time. This is not a story to knock off while waiting for your car’s oil change in a noisy mechanic’s waiting room, or in 15-minute bursts of reading time at the end of the day. Atkinson’s demands my full attention when I read her work, but she rewards me with stories and characters that spring to life in my mind.

It had been so long since I read Started Early, Took My Dog that I worried I wouldn’t remember enough to be able to fall back into Jackson Brodie’s world. Those fears were unfounded — I mean, I really didn’t remember much in the way of details but it turned out not to matter in the end. Other than Julia, the only recurring character who makes a significant re-appearance here is Reggie Chase, whom we first met in When Will There Be Good News (2008). Then, she was a Scottish teenager with a tough home life; now, she is a police officer investigating the cold case that brings her back into Jackson’s orbit.

I was disappointed back in 2011 when Atkinson announced that she was done writing about Jackson Brodie, and I rejoiced when she said he was returning this year. The books she wrote in the meantime were critically acclaimed and I thoroughly enjoyed them, which made the return of Jackson Brodie seem like more of a celebration than a grasping at previous success. I don’t know if we’ll meet up with Jackson further down the road, but I’m happy to trust to Atkinson’s instincts about what she needs to write.

Ellery Queen takes a trip

The sleuth leaves the city behind to tackle a small-town family’s misery in ‘calamity town’

My mom had the Wrightsville Murders omnibus pictured at left on our bookshelves when I was growing up. It was a big heavy hardcover book containing three full-length Ellery Queen novels — Calamity Town, Crazy Like a Fox, and Ten Days’ Wonder — that I devoured starting in about sixth grade (40-some years ago). And I knew I had re-read it more than once, but I don’t think I fully grasped how often I must have read and re-read it until I started my most recent read of the first book in the omnibus, Calamity Town.

On every page — nearly in every paragraph — there was a phrase or sentence or scrap of dialogue that triggered the strongest sense of dejà vu. It wasn’t so much that I remember the outlines of the story or whodunit (I actually didn’t) but that I remembered actual words and phrases! I’ve never had that happen before and it was a pleasingly disconcerting sensation.

Fortunately the vertigo wore off after Part I (which makes me wonder if I read and re-read just the first section over and over? I wish I could go back in time to find out, but then again that would mean living through junior high and high school again and no thank you) and I could just enjoy the book for what it is, which is a splendidly plotted mystery full of appealing characters put into realistic situations and left to find their way out.

A brief plot overview: It’s 1940, and famous writer Ellery Queen has traveled to Wrightsville, a small town in upstate New York, in search of “color” for his next mystery novel. While there, he is befriended by the Wright family, descendants of the town’s founder. That leaves him in the perfect place to observe as one misadventure after another befalls the family, culminating in the requisite murder.

Perhaps because they take Ellery out of his usual New York City locale, the Wrightsville novels have always had an extra appeal for me. Whereas the “regular” Queen mysteries set in NYC seem to rely on intricately formed plots with clues and red herrings scattered about, in Wrightsville the characters come to life fully formed and breathing. Incredibly for a novel written in the 1940s, there is virtually no offensive racial stereotyping or cheap laughs gained at the expense of the “hicks” that populate Wrightsville. Ellery does not condescend to his hosts, not even the Town Soak who is prone to declaiming Shakespeare from his drunken perch at the base of the founder’s statue in the town square. It feels so much like a real town that I am half convinced I’ve been there before.

I guess the best thing I can say about this novel is that now I remember why I read and re-read it over and over all those years ago. It’s a magnificent piece of scene-setting and characterization, with a mystery that more than lives up to its surrounding structure. I have a feeling I won’t wait another 30 years before reading this one again …

Illusions of safety and danger

Dennis Lehane dives deep in ‘Since We Fell’

Rachel Childs is a television journalist in Boston whose career is on a steep upward trajectory until she is sent to Haiti on assignment after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The horror she sees and experiences there leave her with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that becomes apparent when she breaks down during a live broadcast.

Back in Boston, her news career in shambles, Rachel struggles with panic attacks that leave her afraid to even leave her apartment. Her relationship with a co-worker doesn’t survive, but when she meets an old acquaintance by chance, his patient understanding of her problems leads to romance and eventually marriage. With Brian’s help, Rachel starts to re-emerge from her self-imposed exile. Her tentative journey back to normalcy is jolted, however, when on one of her first solo trips downtown she discovers Brian in a place he shouldn’t be. The discovery prompts her to use her investigative reporting skills to get to the bottom of the mystery without tipping him off to her suspicions leads her deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation where no one is who they seem.

For my money, Dennis Lehane is one of the most underrated mystery/thriller writers in the business. Yes, several of his previous novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island among them, were turned into feature films, but the books themselves never generate much discussion among my friends who enjoy Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, and others. With Since We Fell (Ecco, 2017), Lehane has delivered another intricately plotted examination of people who are not what they seem being driven to extremes by circumstances they can’t control. I appreciated that Rachel, despite her emotional fragility through much of the first part of the novel, is far from a hapless victim waiting to be rescued. She manages to engineer her own rescue on her own terms, even as she accepts the consequences of what she has to do in the process.

Lehane builds the narrative tension slowly but surely (perhaps a little too slowly at first) to a white-knuckle finish that seems both unexpected and inevitable. Nothing about this book made me any less eager to read the next offering from a first-rate writer.