THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE by Louise Erdich

Official plot:  For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved people, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. To complicate his fears, his quiet life changes when a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the perplexing, difficult, possibly false saint Sister Leopolda. Father Damien alone knows the strange truth of Sister Leopolda’s piety and is faced with the most difficult decision of his life: Should he reveal all he knows and risk everything? Or should he manufacture a protective history though he believes Leopolda’s wonder-working is motivated by evil?

Let me give you a little background.  It is set in North Dakota, beginning at the start of the 20th century.  We meet Sister Cecilia,  a nun with a gift for music.  She is so carried away at the convent playing the piano so passionately that it affects the sister nuns, and the Mother Superior forbids her to play anymore, so she leaves the convent and shows up at the farm of a bachelor.  She improbably ends up married to the besotted man, back to her original name of Agnes, and in a surreal episode, gets caught up in a bank robbery, snatched by the robbers, and as her husband chases the car on his horse, when the car bogs down in the mud, he fights the robber, while Agnes steals the stolen money and hides it in the lining of her coat.  She eventually buys a piano for the farm with the money.  She is widowed, and bereft,  and at one point is visited by a young priest, Father Damien, who is on his way to a remote Ojibwe tribe to be their priest.

He goes on his way, a terrible storm arises, and a flood sweeps away the farm and its piano.  Agnes is caught in the flood, and when she finally gets herself back to land, she sees the body of poor Father Damien, caught in a tree.  She decides to take on his identity, and using his clothes, journeys herself to that far tribe, where she is known only as a man, Father Damien.

The story then becomes about her life as the priest and the friendships she makes there, and the various characters living in the area.

It is a complex tale, all woven together like a beautiful Indian blanket, and almost impossible to summarize the plot in anything like a concise manner.  Because when I try to do that, the map actually does become the territory and the summary becomes as long as the book.  So, here is what you do:  read it.  You will absolutely love it.

 

 

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SUDDENLY ASTRONAUT by Andrew J. Morgan

A fun YA sci fi about a young teen who was born and raised on a space station orbiting Jupiter.  The station was created by a corporation to study the effects of gases, etc.  Whatever.  The station features an AI that has many human attributes, and is called Tom.  The young kid, Ben,  is a loner and bullied, a typical trope of YA fiction.  His only friend is Tom, and because his parents are the heads of the station and rarely home, he is on his own a lot.  On his thirteenth birthday, he is eligible to take a tour outside the station on a small vessel called a tug.  It is a solo ride, piloted by Tom, with the controls closed to his own access.

They have a great day for it …. a big resupply barge from earth was scheduled to dock, and would be great to watch from outside the station.  But something goes wrong, and, well, everything except the tug blows up.  The end.

No, that’s not the end.

The rest of the story is kind of like Andy Weir’s The Martian-lite, as Ben and Tom decide that waiting 5-1/2 months for rescue from earth, which may not even come, is probably the least good option, so they set off in the tug for earth, which Ben has never seen.  The voyage is fraught with just what you might expect of such a voyage, and just as we are down to the wire, ….

Well, OK, of course the young man does not die.  What kind of YA book would that be? Bad enough his parents and all his friends were killed in the explosion.

It was only medium on the science, so we don’t have to worry too much about science plot holes or improbabilities.  The long voyage allows Tom the computer to grow more human-like, and the two forge a tight bond.  Frankly, this was the harder stuff to swallow, but you know?  Science fiction?  Fiction.  We can’t get too snarky because so much of what was once thought improbable is now part of our everyday lives.

 

THE SILVER SWAN by Benjamin Black

As you may recall, I told you that Benjamin Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winner John Banville.  This ‘genre’ series, part detective story, part literary fiction, part soap opera,  starring Quirke, the pathologist,  started with Christine Falls, which I talked about here.

In this next installment, it is two years hence.  The hard drinking Quirke is no longer drinking, the sister of his dead wife, whom he always secretly wished he had married, has died of a brain tumor, his foster father, the Judge, is gaga in a nursing home, his brother-in-law, the ob/gyn Mal is morbid and bumbling around his empty house, and the daughter, who had been told was the daughter of Sarah and Mal, is actually Quirke’s daughter, and is pretty much not speaking to him.

Quirke is approached by an old school mate to request a favor.  His wife, Lauren Swan, (her chosen name) was found on the rocks, naked, in the local river, her clothes neatly folded on the seat of her car.  Obvious suicide.  But the guy asks Quirke not to do the required autopsy.  He is so distraught that Quirke agrees; but does one anyway. He finds an unusual drug in her blood stream, and no water in the lungs.  She did not drown.  Hmmm.

Lauren Swan has pulled herself out of the Flats, an area which Americans would call the Projects, married a decent guy (the friend of Quirke), and has started a business, a beauty salon which offered massages, beauty treatments of various sorts, lotions, potions and all kinds of stuff.  She had a partner, basically a scam artist, who had the ability and charm to pull in the customers.   She met a strange man, a Dr. Kreutz, who styled himself a spiritual healer.  Quirke’s daughter also met the business partner, threads among threads, and as these threads become interwoven, the plot becomes more and more interesting.

As the book closes, our boy puts all the threads and clues together and solves the mystery of Lauren Swan’s death.  Except he doesn’t.  He gets it all totally and completely wrong.

Great plot!

 

DEMIURGE-Blood of the Innocent by Michael R. Hagan

The law of averages dictate, with all the baseless predictions and educated guesses made throughout mankind’s recorded existence, some of these will have proven accurate, many others quite the opposite.  There have however  been examples of auguries or predictions which transpired to be uncannily accurate, describing events and unfolding consequences in such detail, the last remaining defense for any skeptic is the classic, vaticinatio post eventum*…. That they were in fact fraudulently created after the incidents described took place.”

This is one of those mashups of detective mystery, paranormal spirit/demon/god story, The DaVinci Code tale, thriller, archeologically-based plot that partners a somewhat loose cannon homicide detective who has some kind of special foresight or insight abilities, with a respected archeologist working in a dig in Iran, against an entity which we are not sure until the end is a demon, a god, THE god, some universal force, or what.  But this entity believes that mankind has ruined everything and the only way to cure the world is by spilling the blood of the innocent.  This entity has fathered a son with a Nigerian virgin teenager, who dies in childbirth.  The child is found to have some kind of crazy special abilities, such as curing ailments, wounds and injuries, and special foreknowledge.

Yeah, see what I mean?

The detective is called to a murder scene where an entire family has been brutally murdered and placed at their dining room table set as if for a party.  Fingerprints reveal the perpetrator to be a resident of a local psychiatric institute.  Also a resident at this institute is a former preacher, who is now apparently in thrall to the entity, and has as his life’s mission to kill the special boy.  The baby born to the teenage mother, who is now 9 years old),  has been placed in an obscure group foster home for his safety.

The archeologist and his team at last uncover a buried room in a cave in Iran which has cuneform symbols all around it making predictions.  And those same strange symbols were found painted in blood at the murder scene.  An attempt to learn their meaning is what brings together the archeologist and the detective.

The idea is that the entity inserted himself into various places and situations during the growth of civilization in order to create the events that were prophesied.   So we bounce around in the book between the archeological dig, the homicide investigation, the growing problem of protecting the boy, and flashbacks to the entity’s efforts throughout the ages.

As one reviewer put it, “Very Dark, very gnostic, very intense.”   And another calls it a horror thriller with pseudo-mystical trappings that the author outlines in a broad-brush introduction of the ancient myths.”   Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

*or Vaticinium ex eventu,   “prophecy from the event”),  a technical theological or historiographical term referring to a prophecy written after the author already had information about the events being “foretold”. The text is written so as to appear that the prophecy had taken place before the event, when in fact it was written after the events supposedly predicted. Vaticinium ex eventu is a form of hindsight bias.

THE BUTTON COLLECTOR by Elizabeth Jennings

Pleasant enough chic lit (oh, pardon me, women’s literature) offering.  The basic storyline is built around the memories that a jar of buttons brings out for the main character, a woman who was kind of the black sheep of the family.

She goes to a flea market and ends up buying a mason jar of buttons because it is pretty, and then getting out her own mother’s button jar, and as she sorts through the buttons, she remembers the clothes of the various people from which the buttons came, and each button provokes a vignette or slice of memory of that person and the event that possibly resulted in the button coming off the garment.

It is the usual family stuff, mother dying of cancer, who loved who best, etc.  Like I said, pleasant enough, and very readable.

My mother had a fancy large tin in which she saved buttons.   When she died, I took on the curatorship of the buttons, complete with that decorative tin, and part of the joy of sewing garments was sifting through the unsorted buttons looking for matches.  A nice way to keep little fingers busy while I sewed was to give the little one a large blunt yarn needle threaded with a length of yarn, and the button tin, and let her sift through them, putting her favorites on the yarn string.

 

CHRISTINE FALLS by Benjamin Black

Irish novelist John Banville, writing  under the pen name Benjamin Black, has created a crime series that is both detective work and literary fiction, a fine work, interesting and gritty.

It features pathologist Quirke, (who seems to have no other name,so I am assuming it is his last name),  a widower of 20 years who still mourns his wife and dead child.  He works in the morgue of a Catholic hospital in Dublin along with his brother-in-law who is a famous ob-gyn.   The BIL is married to the sister of the dead wife.

Quirke comes upon his BIL in his (Quirke’s) office late one night writing in a file of a young woman brought in, dead of a botched abortion.  But when Quirke goes to view the body, it is gone.  This starts off a casual investigation in which Quirke tries to find out what became of the body.  It becomes more serious, as it appears it was not exactly an abortion, but a botched delivery, in which the baby seems to have disappeared.

The story moves to the Boston area of the USA, and an orphanage and a young childless couple who are given a baby to raise.  It becomes clear that this orphanage and others like it have been established to receive unwanted Irish babies to informally adopt them out, to be later taken back and educated to be priests and nuns.   A source, as it were, to maintain the Catholic clergy.

Quirke’s family is involved, lots of skullduggery and unpleasantness ensue as Quirke more or less stumbles upon clue/fact/incident and is threatened by unknown assailants to stay out of it.

Great story, dark, noir, twisty, and eccentric as only Irish writing can be.

THE ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD by Kazuo Ishiguro

Because they fall

we love them –

the cherry blossoms.

In this floating world

does anything endure?

—   Ariwara no Narihira (823-880)

Yes, THAT Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day fame.   I really like his work.  It all has this somewhat prickly undercurrent of negativity, of pointing out the absurd attitudes we carry around with us.

Set in 1947 Tokyo, it is narrated in first person by an aging artist, now retired, who is faced with the problem of getting his youngest daughter married.  He lost his wife in the war to a stray bomb, and his son was killed in the war, but he was left with two daughters, one now married with a young son.

Not a lot actually happens in this book.  It follows the musings of the old man, now thinking about the current life of his neighborhood, now going back into the past.  He was an acclaimed artist, but before the war, he turned from art to nationalist propaganda, and became a prominent leader of the artists calling for Japanese nationalism and imperial expansion.  Now that the war is over, he is retired, and his reputation is tainted, and there are those who are disgusted with him for his political views. It was felt that the turn toward the politicization of art leads toward fascism.

In Japan at this time, marriage negotiations included hiring a detective to investigate all the family members, and the negotiations of the previous year fell through for an unknown reason.  But of course, everyone is quite sure it is because those investigations revealed his distasteful past, and the groom’s family pulled out of the negotiations.    Now there is another interested young man, and the daughters of the artist are very much afraid that this too will end in a failed negotiation, and so ask their father to please go around to his old acquaintances and ensure that these people will say good things about him.

And what is that floating world thing all about?  “Floating World” describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of the Edo-period Japan (1600–1867).    About 1750, a courtesan named Kiku renounced the sex trade and became the first geisha or arts person, thereby initiating a new cultural tradition. The poetry of the Floating World, like its art, was gritty and realistic and dealt with life as it is rather than as we would wish it. The poets of the Floating World did not feel the need to explain things, and so we find that our artist in this book does not feel the need to explain things, but only to present them as he remembers them.   Is he an unreliable narrator?  Perhaps, but only in the sense that we each of us write our own narratives,  putting ourselves in the light in which we can tolerate being seen.