Book Review: Willnot by James Sallis

Willnot
James Sallis
Bloomsbury, June 2016
ISBN: 978-1-63286-452-9
Hardcover

Although I had heard very fine things about this author’s work, it has [obviously] taken me much too long to catch up to him, but fortunately I have now corrected that oversight.  His newest book, Willnot, is written in what has been described as his “inimitably spare style” and “haunting and immensely readable,” and I found it undeniably very enjoyable.

From the publisher:  In the woods outside the town of Willnot, the remains of several people have suddenly been discovered, unnerving the community and unsettling Dr. Lamar Hale, the town’s all-purpose general practitioner, surgeon, and town conscience.  At the same time, Bobby Lowndes – – his military records disappeared, being followed by the FBI – – mysteriously reappears in his hometown, at Hale’s door. Over the ensuing months, the daily dramas Hale faces as he tends to his town and to his partner, Richard, collide with the inexplicable vagaries of life in Willnot.  And when a gunshot aimed at Lowndes critically wounds Richard, Hale’s world is truly upended.

The reader is told of the discovery of the dead bodies in the opening sentence:  “We found the bodies two miles outside town, near the old gravel pit.”  We are likewise introduced to Bobby only a few pages later.  We are told [p.o.v. is that of Dr. Lamar Hale] that he was only sixteen when “he wound up at the wrong end of a prank gone horribly south.  Left town on the school’s band bus for a football game twenty miles away, came back six days after in an ambulance and a coma.  I’d taken care of him for close to a year, touch and go at first, then the long plateau and rehab.  One of those strange mirrors life can throw up to you.”  When asked by the Sheriff what he thinks of what they have found, his reply is “I think we found a hole in the ground with bodies in it.  There’s not a lot more to be thought at this point, rationally.”

A second story line has to do with another of Lamar’s patients of many years, Stephen, now 23.  “When he was eighteen, his parents and sister died in a car crash, hit and run.  He was supposed to have been in the car as well but had begged off. Over the next couple of years we watched Stephen pass from wanting to find the person responsible, to believing that the crash was intentional, not an accident at all but willful murder.  ‘The boy’s gone gumshoe, as Richard said.’ ”  A little later, the sheriff asks him “You ever figure out why so many kooks wind up living here?  His response:  We are, after all, a town rich with uncommon history.”

I found the writing absolutely wonderful, too many instances to recount here, but e.g., at the hospital, a colleague tells him, “much of the time we don’t help them live longer or better, we only change the way they die.”

I plan to catch up on Mr. Sallis’ prior novels; this one is, obviously, recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2018.

Book Reviews: Booke of the Hidden by Jeri Westerson, Gone Gull by Donna Andrews and The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Booke of the Hidden
Booke of the Hidden #1
Jeri Westerson
Diversion Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-1-63576-050-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

To get a fresh start away from a bad relationship, Kylie Strange moves across the country to open a shop in a seemingly quiet town in rural Maine. During renovations on Strange Herbs & Teas, she discovers a peculiar and ancient codex, The Booke of the Hidden, bricked into the wall. Every small town has its legends and unusual histories, and this artifact sends Kylie right into the center of Moody Bog’s biggest secret.

While puzzling over the tome’s oddly blank pages, Kylie gets an unexpected visitor―Erasmus Dark, an inscrutable stranger who claims to be a demon, knows she has the book, and warns her that she has opened a portal to the netherworld. Kylie brushes off this nonsense, until a series of bizarre murders put her, the newcomer, at the center. With the help of the demon and a coven of witches she befriends while dodging the handsome but sharp-eyed sheriff, Kylie hunts for a killer―that might not be human.

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate towards witchy books but this one had a couple of things going for it before I even started—the description sounds awesome and I already knew I’d enjoy this because it’s written by Jeri Westerson. If you ask me, Ms. Westerson is one of those authors who is way under-recognized and I’ve been happy with everything by her I’ve ever read.

When Kylie finds that book, she does what anybody would do, she opens it. What follows—a coven of witches, a possible demon, murder and a bit of romance—turn this find into something quite out of the ordinary but Kylie keeps her cool, for the most part, and her interactions with Erasmus are often laugh out loud funny. Even the name of the town, Moody Bog, draws out a smile and, while the pacing is a little on the slow side, I chalk that up mostly to setting things up for the books to come. I came to feel really attached to the kind of creepy but appealing Moody Bog and its inhabitants and to the story that leads Kylie and her new “friends” down a most unlikely path on the way to solving the murder.

So, did Booke of the Hidden live up to its description? Yes, it certainly did and its essential differences from Ms. Westerson‘s other work make this a really fun departure from her  straightforward historical mysteries. Despite my slight aversion to witch-related stories, I’ll definitely be back for the next book in the series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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Gone Gull
A Meg Langslow Mystery #21
Donna Andrews
Minotaur Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-07856-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Meg is spending the summer at the Biscuit Mountain Craft Center, helping her grandmother Cordelia run the studios. But someone is committing acts of vandalism, threatening to ruin the newly-opened center’s reputation. Is it the work of a rival center? Have the developers who want to build a resort atop Biscuit Mountain found a new tactic to pressure Cordelia into selling? Or is the real target Meg’s grandfather, who points out that any number of environmentally irresponsible people and organizations could have it in for him?

While Meg is trying to track down the vandal, her grandfather is more interested in locating a rare gull. Their missions collide when a body is found in one of the classrooms. Can Meg identify the vandal and the murderer in time to save the center’s name―while helping her grandfather track down and rescue his beloved gulls?

You would think that this series would have begun to show signs of becoming stale and tired by now but that hasn’t happened. Donna Andrews has the magic touch and always seems to come up with fresh ideas and new things to laugh about but the early books still stick with me, especially particular characters beyond Meg.

This time, we have to get along without some of the old regulars (although two of my favorites, Spike the Small Evil One and Meg’s dad, are here) because Meg has gone out of town but her grandparents do a lot to make up for the missing. Meg’s blacksmithing has taken something of a back seat over the course of the series but it’s central to the story in Gone Gull as she’s agreed to teach classes for a few weeks at her grandmother’s new craft studio. Unfortunately, someone seems to have it in for the center, perpetrating small acts of sabotage, and no one is sure who’s doing it. Then Meg discovers a body and the real sleuthing begins.

I have to say the mystery to be solved isn’t as much in the forefront as the wild and quirky activities of the characters but it’s still a good one with some twists and turns to keep the reader occupied while chuckling at what’s going on. Oh, and the gull referred to in the title? That bird and Meg’s grandfather are the source of more than a few laugh out loud moments and, for me, was the icing on the cake. Having said that, I’ll be glad if we have Meg back in her usual surroundings next time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.

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The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Grove Atlantic, November 2017
ISBN 978-0-8021-2689-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

As London is submerged below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds.

It doesn’t happen often but, every once in a while, I encounter a book that just leaves me cold and this is one of them. On the surface, I should have loved it because it’s apocalyptic (one of my preferred subgenres) and follows the physical as well as mental/emotional journey of a young family trying to cope with a world gone sour. To my dismay, I couldn’t connect with this in any way.

Characters, worldbuilding and plot are the three main components of any work of fiction and there is an interesting plot here in that the protagonist and her husband and baby are forced to find a way to escape the floodwaters and the devastation that has crushed London and the English countryside. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no worldbuilding; we know the water has risen to submerge much of England but that’s all we know. What caused this? A meteor strike, global warming, some dastardly act of a mad scientist, an alien attack of some sort? It’s hard to really feel what the survivors have to deal with when we know so little.

Worst of all, the characters are close to being cardboard cutouts when no one even has a name, just an initial. To me, this is a writing style that is almost pretentious and, coupled with the first person present tense that I so dislike, well, I just didn’t care very much. I find this happens fairly frequently when I read what’s called “literary fiction”.

The one thing that helps to lift this above the abyss is the author’s attention to the bonds between mother and child and she does that extremely well. I think perhaps that was intended to be the core theme and the apocalyptic elements just got in the way. Certainly, a lot of readers and inhabitants of the publishing world have a much more favorable reaction and, although I didn’t care much for this story, I think Megan Hunter is an author to watch..

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2017.