Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writing Alert: Transition to Stage and Screen


The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College is pleased to announce the launch of the Solstice Seminars — two-day intensives that offer writers the opportunity to explore and deepen their craft — beginning with “Writing for Stage & Screen,” to be held on the Pine Manor College campus October 29–30, 2010.

An affordable, high impact, and low time-commitment alternative for busy working writers, the Solstice Seminars are designed to build upon and expand the concentrations of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program by focusing on one aspect or sub-genre of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or writing for young people.

Participants in “Writing for Stage & Screen” will learn playwriting or screenwriting basics with faculty members Anne-Marie Oomen and Lesley Alicia Tye; rehearse newly created scenes with guest director Bob Owczarek; attend a play in nearby Boston; and enjoy a screening of a film with commentary by a special guest.

Anne-Marie Oomen has written and produced seven plays, including the award-winning “Northern Belles,” inspired by oral histories of women farmers; “Wives of An American King,” based on the James Jesse Strang story; and “Recovering Ruth.”

Lesley Alicia Tye has written several feature length screenplays, was co-writer for the television pilot Devin’s Chronicles for Caspian Sea Entertainment, and was a recipient of the Stephen C. Gentry Award for Excellence in Screenwriting. Her film and television credits range from Costume Designer for the feature Two Coyotes to Below-the-Line Agent with Casala, Ltd.

Bob Owczarek has taught theatre at Dean College, the Boston Conservatory, and Boston University, and Pine Manor College. He has appeared on stage, film, radio, and television.  He is a member of the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, the Screen Actors’ Guild, and Actors’ Equity Association.

Directions to Pine Manor College, complete bios of the PMC authors, and more information about the Solstice Seminars and Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program can be found at

Jane Austen, Anyone?

It's a pleasure to pass along word of this continuing Vermont resource! And tomorrow we'll add word of a new Jane Austen mystery, as well as a few others ...  JASNA = Jane Austen Society of North America.

You are Cordially Invited to JASNA-Vermont’s March Meeting:

Ingrid Graff on
~ Learning to Love a Hyacinth:
Emotional Growth in Northanger Abbey ~

Ms. Graff is a popular lecturer for the New Hampshire Humanities Council
on Austen, the Brontes, and Hardy.

Light refreshments served
Sunday, March 21, 2010  2 – 4 pm
Champlain College, Hauke Conference Center
375 Maple St, Burlington VT
Free & Open to the Public!
For more information:  / 802-343-2294  
Please visit our BLOG at:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Calendar Alert: Poetry, March 4, Shelburne Falls MA

The Collected Poets Series
Thursday, March 4, 2010, at 7:00 pm (new starting time!), poets Joan Houlihan and Deborah Bernhardt will read work from their books as well as new poems, in the Collected Poets Series at
Mocha Maya's Coffee House, 47 Bridge Street, Shelburne Falls, MA 01370, 413-625-6292. $2-$5 sliding scale. Wheelchair accessible. See for more information. 

Joan Houlihan is author of three books, most recently The Us, from Tupelo Press (2009). The Mending Worm, winner of the New Issues Press Green Rose Award, was published in 2006. In 2003 Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays was published by Del Sol Press. She is staff reviewer for the Contemporary Poetry Review as well as author of a series of essays on contemporary poetry called Boston Comment. Her work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Poetry Intern ational, Fulcrum, Pleiades, Passages North, VOLT, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press) and in The Book of Irish-American Poetry–Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press).
Houlihan founded the Concord Poetry Center in 2004 and the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference in 2006. She teaches in Lesley University’s MFA Low-Residency Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Deborah Bernhardt received a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, an MFA from the University of Arizona, and fellowships and grants from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing (Jay C. and Ruth Halls Fellowship), the Wisconsin Arts Board (Literary Arts Grant), Penn State Altoona (Writer-in-Residence), Writers@Work, Fishtrap, Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Hessen Literary Society, Germany. She received two fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown, and used the Second Year Poetry Fellowship (2008-2009) to work on her new manuscript. Her first collection, Echolalia, was published by Four Way Books in 2006 as winner of the Intro Prize for Poetry.

In honor of National Poetry Month, the CPS will be holding TWO events in April!

On Thursday, April 1, Lawrence Raab and Regie O'Hare Gibson will be reading from their work.

Thursday, April 15, Adrian Blevins and James Haug will read at a second CPS event.   Both events will take place at 7pm at Mocha Maya's Coffee House in Shelburne Falls, MA.

The Collected Poets Series highlights the work of established and emerging poets. Each event showcases the remarkable local poets of Western Massachusetts and the finest regional, national, and international talent.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE LOCK ARTIST: Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight series of seven books took awards right from the start. Then in 2007 his stand-alone, NIGHT WORK, came out to great reviews. And now it's 2010, and THE LOCK ARTIST is getting more than great reviews. It's a deep, dark, stirring book, a permanent road marker in significant noir fiction.

Right from the start, Michael is as open with the reader as he can be: He's been in the news before, and now he's served nine years of jail time, orange jumpsuit and all. But the story of how and why he's in prison isn't one he can tell sequentially -- it's too hard in too many ways. He'll tell it instead in three directions: from the events of 1999 and those of 2000, and gradually, imperceptibly, opening the door to the tragedy of 1990 that launched his life of pain and sacrifice. He's a boxman -- a safecracker -- a lock artist.

And within the box of his soul, one notched wheel after another has to be turned, pressing all the lock pins carefully into loaded positions, to open the final secret.

Although the entire novel is told by Michael, from his inner eye, we know by the second page that words and images on the page are his only speech; since 1990, he hasn't spoken a word out loud. Think about it: How safe could a mute person be as a repository for secrets, for pressure, for crime? And he's the perfect foil for someone who needs to talk, because he won't interrupt, won't say, "that's nothing, you should hear what happened to me ... " He's the Miracle Boy who .. well, in his words:
I won't drag you through all the doctor visits I sat through. All the speech therapists, the counselors, the psychologists ... Looking back on it, I must have been the ultimate wet dream for these people. To every one of them, I was the sad, silent, totally lost kid with the messy brown hair and the big brown eyes. The Miracle Boy who hadn't said one word since that fateful day he cheated death. WIth the right treatment, the right coacing, the right amount of understanding and encouragement ... that doctor or speech therapist or counselor or psychologist would find the magic key to unlock my wounded psyche, and I'd end up bawling in their arms while they stroked my hair and told me that everything was finally going to be all right.

That's what they all wanted from me. Each and every one. Believe me, they weren't going to get it.
As Michael soon admits, "For whatever reason, I had simply decided to stop talking."

Yet his gifts and talents lead him simultaneously toward teen love and toward a terrible captivity within a life of crime, where his ability to listen extends beyond sound, to the movement within locks and safe mechanisms. And from there -- well, the people who want to use him and his skills are nearly merciless. Knowing he won't talk back confirms their power over him. So does the ultimate leverage that gets applied against him.

The further I read, the more silent I became, and the more reluctant I was to put this book down. Aching with loss and the cost of freedom, it never steps wrong, never loses the tension and suspense. There are few criminals who can earn this sympathy, and who can evoke this anguish.

This is one of the two masterpieces of noir that are must-reads on my 2010 list; the other is Stuart Neville's THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST, which has been reviewed so often and so well that I won't go into it here. But each of these confirms what a really good work of noir can do: make you heart-wrenchingly grateful for the small, precious things that still go right in life. 

And for the chance to read a book like this one.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mystery Author Ralph McInerny (Father Dowling Mysteries) Dies at Age 80

It's been a season of enormous losses. We just learned of another author gone, effective January 29: Ralph McInerny ... his Father Dowling mysteries had devoted fans. He wrote at least five other series, too, including one under the pen name Monica Quill. His other pen names included Harry Austin, Matthew FitzRalph, Ernan Mackey, and Edward Mackin. Here's the stunning list of his novels -- Her Death of Cold (1977) was the first of the Father Dowling books:
  • 1967   Jolly Rogerson, New York, Doubleday
  • 1969   A Narrow Time, New York, Doubleday
  • 1973   The Priest, New York, Harper and Row
  • 1975   The Gate of Heaven, New York, Harper and Row
  • 1976   Rogerson at Bay, New York, Harper and Row
  • 1977   Romanesque, New York, Harper and Row
  • 1977   Her Death of Cold, New York, Vanguard
  • 1978   Spinnaker, New York, Gateway-Regnery
  • 1979   The Seventh Station, New York, Vanguard
  • 1978   Quick as a Dodo, New York, Vanguard
  • 1978   Bishop as Pawn, New York, Vanguard
  • 1979   Lying Three, New York, Vanguard
  • 1979   Abecedary, Notre Dame, Juniper Press
  • 1980   Second Vespers, New York, Vanguard
  • 1981   Second Vespers, New York, Grosset and Dunlap Ace Books
  • 1981   Second Vespers, London, Robert Hale, Ltd.
  • 1981   Thicker than Water, New York, Vanguard
  • 1981   Not a Blessed Thing, New York, Vanguard
  • 1982   The Frozen Maiden of Calpurnia, Notre Dame, Juniper Press
  • 1983   Let Us Prey, New York, Vanguard
  • 1983   Connolly's Life, New York, Atheneum
  • 1983   The Grass Widow, New York, Vanguard
  • 1984   Loss of Patients, New York, Vanguard
  • 1984   Getting Away With Murder, New York, Vanguard
  • 1984   And Then There Were Nun, New York, Vanguard
  • 1985   The Noonday Devil, New York, Atheneum
  • 1985   Rest in Pieces, New York, Vanguard
  • 1986   Sine Qua Nun, New York, Vanguard
  • 1986   Leave of Absence, New York, Atheneum
  • 1987   Cause and Effect, New York Atheneum
  • 1987   The Basket Case, New York, St Martin's Press
  • 1988   Veil of Ignorance, New York, St Martin's Press
  • 1989   Body and Soil, New York, Atheneum. 245 pp.
  • 1989   Sleight of Body, London, Macmillan. 164 pp.
  • 1989   Frigor Mortis, New York, Atheneum. 245 pp.
  • 1989   Abracadaver, New York, St Martin's Press.
  • 1989   Four on the Floor, New York, St Martin's Press. 199 pp.
  • 1990   Abracadaver, A large print mystery, New York, St Martin's Press
  • 1990   The Nominative Case, London, Macmillan. 205 pp.
  • 1990   The Search Committee, New York, Atheneum. 243 pp.
  • 1991   Easeful Death, New York, Atheneum Press. 261 pp.
  • 1991   Sisterhood, New York, St Martin's Press
  • 1991   Judas Priest, New York, St Martin's Press. 184 pp.
  • 1991   Chambre Froide, Paris, Editions Axel Noel. 244 pp.
  • 1992   Le Demon de Midi, Paris, Editions Axel Noel. 305 pp.
  • 1992   Infra Dig, New York, Atheneum. 218 pp.
  • 1992   Judas Priest, large print paperback, Thorndike, ME, Thorndike Press. 290 pp.
  • 1992   Desert Sinner, New York, St Martin's Press. 179 pp
  • 1992   Basket Case, Boston, G.K. Hall, Large Print, 268 pp.
  • 1993   Infra Dig, Hampton, NH, Curley Large Print, 250 pp.
  • 1993   Body and Soil, New York, Atheneum,
  • 1993   Seed of Doubt, New York, St Martin's Press, 346 pp.
  • 1993   The Basket Case, Bath, Cheevers Press, Large Print, 268 pp.
  • 1993   Nun Plussed, St Martin's Press, 216 pp.
  • 1994   Mom and Dead, Atheneum, 214 pp.
  • 1994   A Cardinal Offense, St Martin's Press, 372 pp,
  • 1995   The Case of the Dead Winner, St Martin's Press, 149 pp.
  • 1995   The Case of the Constant Caller, St Martin's Press, 139 pp.
  • 1995   Law and Ardor, Scribner, 251 pp.
  • 1996   The Tears of Things, St Martin's Press, 341 pp.
  • 1997   Half Past Nun, St Martin's Press
  • 1997   On This Rockne, St Martin's Press
  • 1998   The Red Hat, Ignatius Press, 581 pp.
  • 1998   The Lack of the Irish, St Martin's Press, 210 pp
  • 1999   Irish Tenure, St Martin's Press, 246 pp.
  • 2000   Book of Kills, St Martin's Press, 215 pp
  • 2001   Triple Pursuit, St Martin's Press
  • 2001   Still Life, Five Star, Unity, ME, 255 pp.
  • 2001   Death Takes the Veil and Other Stories, by Monica Quill, with a forward by Ralph McInerny, Five Star, Waterville, ME, 215pp.
  • 2001   Emerald Aisle, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, St Martin's Press, 225 pp.
  • 2001   Book of Kills, hardback, St Martin's Press, 287 pp
  • 2001   Law and Ardor, an Andrew Broom large print mystery, Beeler Large Print, Hampton Falls, NH, 201 pp
  • 2001   Book of Kills, a Roger Knight mystery in hardback and large print, St Martin's Press, 337 pp.
  • 2001   Sub Rosa, an Egidio Manfredi mystery, Five Star, Waterville, ME, 235pp
  • 2002   Prodigal Father, a Father Dowling Mystery, St Martin's Press, 341 pp.
  • 2002   Last Things, a Father Dowling Mystery, St Martin's Press, 307 pp.
  • 2002   Emerald Aisle, Thorndike Press Large Print Book, Waterville, ME, 313pp.
  • 2003   Sterben und sterben lassen (Second Vespers), Brendow, Verlag GmbH, Munich, 210 pp.
  • 2003   Ablative Case, Four Star Press, 250pp
  • 2003   Celt and Pepper, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME, 300 pp
  • 2003   Irish Coffee, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, St Martin's Press, 243 pp.
  • 2003   Irish Coffee, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME, 292 pp.
  • 2003   Last Things, a Father Dowling Mystery, Thorndike Press, Large Print Edition, 459pp.
  • 2004   Requiem for a Realtor, a Father Dowling Mystery, St Martin's Press, 263pp.
  • 2004   Requiem for a Realtor, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Wateville, ME, 400pp.
  • 2004   Green Thumb, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, St Martin's Minotaur, 234pp.
  • 2005   Green Thumb, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME
  • 2005   Blood Ties, a Father Dowling Mystery, St Martin's Minotaur, 260pp.
  • 2005   Blood Ties, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME, 379pp.
  • 2005   Irish Gilt, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, St Martin's Minotaur, 232pp.
  • 2006   Irish Gilt, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME, 295pp.
  • 2006   Prudence of the Flesh, a Father Dowling Mystery, St Martin's Minotaur, 260pp.
  • 2006   Prudence of the Flesh, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME, 337pp.
  • 2006   The Letter Killeth, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, St Martin's Minotaur, 233pp.
  • 2007   The Letter Killeth, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Wateville, ME
  • 2007   The Widow's Mate, a Father Dowling Mystery, St Martin's Minotaur, 277pp.
  • 2007   The Widow's Mate, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME, 358pp.
  • 2007   Irish Alibi, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, St Martin's Minotaur, 227pp.
  • 2008   Irish Alibi, Large Print Edition, Thorndike Press, Waterville, ME
  • 2008   The Green Revolution, A mystery set at the University of Notre Dame, St Martin's Minotaur
  • 2008   Ash Wednesday, a Father Dowling Mystery, St Martin's Minotaur

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Long Tendrils of Threat: Cara Black's New Aimée Leduc -- MURDER IN THE PALAIS ROYAL

For the tenth time, Cara Black plunges us into the hectic life of computer security expert Aimée Leduc, in MURDER AT THE PALAIS ROYAL. And it's a wild ride, full of surprises, with damage to some gorgeous clothes, from a vintage Lanvin silk blouse to an Yves St Laurent top ... and most of all, to people that the spirited young detective admires and even loves.

While Aimée experiments with a promising new romance, terrible things are happening at the office of Leduc Detective. Her partner, René Friant, alerts her to a surprising electronic bank deposit into the firm's account, and later that same evening, someone shoots René, leaving him for dead on the office floor. All witnesses swear it was Aimée herself who'd murdered her partner! Since Aimée is, of course, quite sure that she was otherwise occupied at that time (oh my!), she leaps into the investigation, determined to clear herself from an increasingly convincing frame job.

Even her godfather doesn't believe in her innocence this time. What could René have done to provoke such an attack -- and who is masquerading as the Aimée to get the job done? There must be a trail leading from the security work they've been doing, no? But as Aimée's friends confirm for her, there's nobody who resents René. The conclusion sneaks up on her: This is about Aimée herself. Something she's tackled in the past has come back to bite her, with vengeance.

Readers of this vibrant series know that Black takes her security consultant into one "quarter" of Paris after another -- there are 20 of them -- and this time the source of evil lies in a coverup that Aimée hasn't dreamed exists. Its architect has an office in the Palais Royal, in a government office, where favors are traded and threats made on an everyday basis.

But Aimée Leduc's investment in friendships and family has roots that go even deeper. For instance, when she needs access to the grand museum of the Louvre, her name rings a bell with the guard:
"Leduc? I knew one. We called him Le Vieux, tall, thick moustache, broad shoulders."

And warm arms that held her when she'd been bitten by a dachshund in the park. Who took her for piano lessons; then for a hot chocolate afterward.

"My grand-pere."

The guard drew a breath. "Just this once. Don't ask me again."
Black's plotting is tight and tense, her scenes briskly knotted, and the movement of threat and escape like quicksilver across the pages. The best way to read this lively adventure is all at once, with a box of chocolates to one side. Leduc Detective may be a computer security firm on the surface, but Aimée's determination to save herself and her partner, if humanly possible, drives her to new extremes as a detective. And, incidentally, to fresh ways to analyze the potential for romance in her life.


[NOTE: This Cara Black volume is scheduled for March release, but it's already available for online orders. While you're picking up a copy, look for the other March release for Black from Soho Crime: the softcover edition of MURDER IN THE LATIN QUARTER. As always, there's no pressing need to read these in sequence -- but number nine does have an aspect that races across the scene once or twice in number ten, and it's clear that number eleven is going to lean on both of them for background. Such fun!]

Dick Francis Dies, Feb. 14, 2010, at Age 89

With immense sorrow for the loss of this author of a long and entertaining series of mystery thrillers that generally involved horses and racing, we pass along from the BBC word of the death today of Dick Francis.

Poet Lucille Clifton Died February 13, 2010

What a loss for all of us! But also, what a moment to pause and consider the formidable body of work with which Lucille Clifton has enriched us through poetry, children's books, and a well-lived life. Here's a link to one of the earliest reports of her death, in the Buffalo News.

For the Love of Life, Facing Death

Dave and I were excited to see the Feb. 8, 2010,  New York Times article, "A Well-Written War, Told in the First Person" -- for the sake of the writing noted in it, and especially for the jolt of reconnection with poet Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet. The NYT article leads with Brian and his work. By the way, Turner has an ongoing set of conversations at the "Home Fires" blog section of that newspaper's online presence.

It's Valentine's Day, and there will be a lot of attention to poems among Americans today. Few are likely to think of pulling out poems of survival and shock in Iraq to mark this day. Yet Turner's willingness to paint the tension, loss, and human affection of war remind me that love is far more than a cozy dinner out with one's BFF. It's daily work. And it's a determination to seek meaning among the emotion and experience of life.

Turner's second collection of poems, Phantom Noise, is scheduled for an April 1 release from Alice James Books. I'll preorder a few copies. And, oh yes, to celebrate the New York Times article, Dave has just made available two of our signed copies of Here, Bullet.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Back to the Future: Elizabeth Peters, Vicky Bliss, and Writer's Privileges

Sometimes I can be quite late in catching up with a good read. It can't be the fault of Amazon, which deluges me with the latest titles and even books that aren't yet in print. Anything that Amazon can link to me through past purchases, it tosses onto the carpet when I flick over to the site to pick up an item that isn't on hand in this rural segment of Vermont. (Don't ask how many times each week -- just know that I really do "buy local" before I buy online. Sometimes "local" extends for about a two-hour drive, as it will on a book jaunt we've got planned for next week.)

So I should have already been offered a chance to "pre-order" the next Amelia Peabody bundle of suspense: A RIVER IN THE SKY by Elizabeth Peters is scheduled to release on April 6. Yes! I'm always fascinated by the way that this author entwines Egyptian art and history with Victorian society and strong women.

But what actually pulled me into an Elizabeth Peters binge this winter was accidentally bringing home from the public library her 2008 volume, THE LAUGHTER OF DEAD KINGS, featuring art historian Vicky Bliss and her notorious lover, John Tregarth -- a.k.a. "retired" art thief Sir John Smythe. The novel erupts in a startling first chapter that features not only John's arrival (through the upstairs bedroom window and then down the staircase to where Vicky is tackling a craft project), but also word of John's nastily psychotic mother Jen, a knock at the door announcing Vicky's Egyptian friend-in-need Feisal, and the threatened arrival of Vicky and John's least best friend, the stuffy, wealthy, and highly manipulative Schmidt. With, but of course, his newest flame, a nasty spy named Suzi.

If that sound like a setup for multiple moments of confusion, laughter, and threat, you've got good ears. Complicating things further is the absence of a significant mummy -- one might almost say, THE significant mummy. Could John have resumed his life of crime, without quite filling in Vicky? How many times with Vicky and John come razor-close to death in the struggle to clear his name (if he's really in the clear)? All too soon, the underworld figures they are on the case -- and so do the powers of politics in the region, who need Vicky and John in the burgeoning crisis. When Ashraf gathers the team in his office, it's bad news to Vicky's way of thinking:
He took his time, carefully folding back the paper, slowly lifting the lid of the cardboard box it enclosed. Inside was another box, this one of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. You could find boxes like that in every shop in the suk. It had a rather flimsy brass catch, which Ashraf unfastened. Ashraf moed like a slug, in slow motion, watching John, whose expression of courteous patience didn't change. The hinged lid was lifted, the cotton wool inside was removed. And there it was.

A mummy's hand.
Well, you know those kidnap situations where the villain sends back a finger? It's a lot easier to detach part of the anatomy when it's an entire mummy that's being held for ransom ...

Peters pulls off a great caper novel here, with marvelous twists of plot, plenty of moments to gasp or guffaw, and lashes of Egypt's best. It's a delicious way to pass a snowstorm or wait for signs of spring. I'm delighted I found the book.

But here I've rambled on about the suspense, the characters, the plot -- and missed entirely what drew me to want to write about this book at the start of the evening: namely, the author's foreword. Peters gives the best explanation I've seen of the author's privilege of resuming life with a character 14 years later in publishing time, but hardly at all later in the character's life. I recommend it for anyone who reads or writes fiction in separate volumes. In other words, grab this book for the entertainment of a good read. But also, if you're writing or reading multiple books by any author, check it out for the tradecraft, too. Considering that Peters is a Mystery Writers of America grandmaster, winner of a Lifetime Achievement award from Malice Domestic, and grandmaster of Bouchercon, I should have guessed in advance what I discovered -- this light-hearted but tough-minded explanation is a gem.

[PS: Yes, Elizabeth Peters is a pen name for Barbara G. Metz, who also writes as Barbara Michaels. Check out the friendly and well-organized web site:]

Mystical Revelations: WALKING TO GATLINBURG, Howard Frank Mosher's Civil War Novel

Those hauntings you see out of the corner of your eye, in your old house. The sense that things come in threes -- good and bad. Your lucky number, the one you say to other people and the other one you secretly notice. All those books of prediction and awareness, from Nostradamus to The Da Vinci Code and the Book of Revelation. Oh yes, and the original forms of Grimm's fairy tales, with ogres and blood.

That might not sound like the Civil War to you. Yet it's terribly, wonderfully close to some of the disorientation of being a soldier among the guns and death and miracles. And at the same time, it captures the dark underside to what it means to live in New England, or any other region haunted by history and sacrifice. This is the mystical universe that Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher portrays so successfully in his 2010 novel, WALKING TO GATLINBURG.

It's 1864, a deadly year of the War Between the States -- or the War of the Rebellion, depending on how you see what's taking place, as men in gray and blue uniforms (or the rags of what once were uniforms) continue to shoot and knife each other, burn each other's homes and towns, blasat the beds of railroads, drag cannons across mudded landscapes. Women support and seduce them. Hope of peace is a poor thin haunt. And Morgan Kinnerson, a Vermont teenager who agreed to help a fugitive slave named Jesse toward the Canada border, needs his older brother desperately: Guilt for leaving the fugitive to be captured or killed overwhelms Morgan, and the killers are after him now, too.

But Morgan's life is more complex and many-layered than even guilt, fear, and danger.  His home is marked with a runic charcter, Thurisaz, that means "gateway" -- gateway for the Underground Railroad's path into Canada, across the Vermont border, but also to parts of life that terrify Morgan, from women to politics to war. Morgan's cousin Dolt insists that the Civil War is about slavery, and immediately adds, "So don't you never stop looking for Pilgrim!" Why the course of the war depends on Morgan finding his missing brother, long gone into the war as a soldier, is the mystery that the rest of the book repeatedly kisses but never quite tells. In Morgan's terms:
He too believed that he must keep looking for Pilgrim, if only because the looking might sustain his faith that his brother was still alive. As to the war, well, he did not disagree that slavery, the greatest evil mankind had ever devised, was the ultimate issue, but it had long seemed to him that the conflict had acquired a malignant life of its own. Pilgrim had slipped away from it. Morgan wanted no part of it. His sole concern was to stay alive long enough to locate his missing brother.
Switch the brothers' names and the book snaps into focus, for it's Morgan who is the pilgrim here, and as in Pilgrim's Progress, he has temptations to avoid, women chasing him, and his own Slough of Despond to survive.

Five killers have escaped a New York prison -- and it turns out they are hunting for a talisman that the fugitive slave, Jesse, was carrying. In his haste, Morgan has taken Jesse's stone with him, fascinated by the runes on it that include the one marking his own home mountain. Those killers are devilish, as evil as slavery itself; they robe themselves with fragments of hymns and religion, and arrive in deathly arrangements:
Four crows appeared over the ridgetop, silhouetted dark and spectral against the red sky. No, by Caesar, not crows -- tall black plumes bobbing like sooty featherdusters on the heads of four coal black horses cresting the hill in the cut through the woods and pulling a long black hearse escorted by four riders in blue uniforms.
Horses of the Apocalypse? Messengers from Hell? "The green-goggled driver looked like Death at a ball."

Morgan, soon accompanied by an adolescent girl named Birdcall, travels as a grim-jawed innocent in all this. The cruelties he witnesses -- even so small a detail as young boys throwing bullfrogs and worms, alive, into a copper washtub of boiling water -- speak to him repeatedly of the hunt he's on, the hunters following him, and the evil of the land as shown by the "peculiar institution" of slavery. " "To Morgan Kinnerson, spinning on down the current in the green dusk with Birdcall, mankind was of all species the most peculiar, and the cruelest." Sexuality threatens to join this map of evil, as Morgan witnesses a vile punishment being performed:
But what sort of union drove fugitives back into slavery again? What sort of war laid waste to whole states, then allowed such evils as he had seen [to] reign unchecked? Why hadn't someone arrested King George and his goup of madmen? Was there no one left ot rise up and denounce the savage coupling of a bull and a woman in the very capital of a state long renowned for its human  enlightenment? Fire along was insufficient retribution for such demons.
Possessed by a certainty that his missing brother Pilgrim has deserted not only the Union forces but the vile war itself, Morgan pursues the trail ever deeper into the South. Repeatedly the emblems of the Underground Railroad appear along this path -- the runes ("protogermanic" says my reference check, but perhaps meant to be simply Norse) crop up wherever Morgan travels, and each one addresses some mystical opportunity. Nor do the most religious of the people along this path embrace such mystical growth, in general. One asks Morgan whether he has read the Bible, and is shocked that he thinks about his readings and only takes with him what seems useful. He confirms this choice: "I don't stop thinking when I open the Bible."

More temptations surround Morgan as his journey appears to reach a crest of discovery -- temptations of bread and of women, of sleep and of release.
The unclothed girl appeared in the moonlight and again took his hand in her cold grip. When she saw that he feared her, she wet her lips and said, "Just hold me, Morgan. I need to be warm again." But he know that he must not give in to his desire to lie with her or eat the bread or fall asleep.
Whether temptations will doom him or the killers slay him is uncertain nearly to the end, and Morgan's journey echoes that of the country: Once brothers have taken arms against each other for years of bloodshed, even "freeing the slaves" may not be a Happy Ending up ahead.

Mosher's direction in this book follows from the eerie double lives of his earlier work, especially in Disappearances. But it's clear that his years of traveling the country mostly alone in a rattling aging car, to promote his novels in one small town or crowded city after another, have pressed a deeper and more intense kind of haunting into him, and in this book, it spills out. This is no peaceful journey to "look for America" on a long-distance bus with a pocket full of guitar picks; it is instead a course through the gates of Hell, and across the River Styx, to where demons roam at will and goodness is frail, pale in the darkness.

If something buried within you rang in recognition as you read the mystical works of hermits and martyrs, or the fierce novels of Dan Brown or the sly wickedness of William Faulkner, then WALKING TO GATLINBURG will make you leap up in recognition, and in hope. I can't count the number of times I stopped during reading the book to say to my husband, "This is really strange. This is so strange. I know what this is doing and -- it's surpassingly strange."

Strange and good. In the sense that each of us is standing on the shoulders of giants, Mosher here stands on the work he himself has done before, and reaches a new country of possibility. What a read!

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sweet Mysteries of Life: KYLE'S ISLAND by Sally Derby (for Middle Grades, ages 10-13)

The mysteries in KYLE'S ISLAND are the small ones: no criminals, no deaths -- but the poignant puzzles and losses of childhood. This gentle summer novel comes from an experienced author of children's books, Sally Derby (she wrote No Mush Today and The Wacky Substitute, among others). And it has a perfect blend of tension, distress, adventure, and discovery.

Thirteen-year-old Kyle has always gone to the lakeside cottage with his family each summer, where his dad taught him to fish, his mother and grandmother shared merriment with his sisters, and the neighbors all know him and like him. It's a safe place, even for his little brother Josh who's just learning to swim.
I started down the steps to the lake. Halfway down I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, something disturbing the sparse ground cover on the hill. I stood still. Sure enough, there is was again -- a trembling of leaves right beside the next step down. Then I saw it: a little brown toad, half-hidden by a week. I bent down slowly. He didn't move. My hand shot out, and I had him. I cupped him in my palm and looked at him. He squatted there, just tickling the skin a bit. He was all angles and bright eyes. I rubbed my thumb down the skin on his back. It was dry and bumpy.

"Wait till Josh sees him," I said.
But this year is different: Kyle's father moved out. Is he gone forever from the family? Kyle is so angry that he won't even speak with his father on the phone when it rings for his family at a neighbor's cottage. From deciding where to fish to handing the boat and teaching his younger brother the summer skills, everything seems to land on Kyle's shoulders in new and uncomfortable ways. And the worst is yet to come: Because Gram has died, and Kyle's father isn't providing an income, Kyle's mother is going to sell the cottage, uprooting the family's joy. If you can even have real joy when your father has mysteriously left you, that is ...

I loved reading KYLE'S ISLAND. It reminded me of the choices and stresses of summer "before romance," when exploring an island and finding a way to make enough summer income were all-engrossing. And Kyle's struggles with family circumstances, strange neighbors, and sisters who talk more with each other than with him felt very familiar.

For any kid who dreams of summer exploration, this will be a good read. It's also going to be a good discussion starter with youngsters whose parents are making life changes that bring discomfort and even displacement. There's a season of freedom packed into this story, along with a warm armful of hope.

PS: The publisher, Charlesbridge, offers a short activity and discussion guide to accompany the book.