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Wednesday, September 30, 2015



I have just updated an ongoing post for Seanan McGuire's OCTOBER DAYE SERIES with a review of A Red-Rose Chain, the ninth novel in the series.

Click on the pink-link series title above to go directly to the new review.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Christopher Moore: Conclusion of the CHARLIE ASHER DUOLOGY

Author:  Christopher Moore
Plot Type:  Comedic Urban Fantasy (UF)
Publisher: and Titles  William Morrow (Imprint of HarperCollins)
          A Dirty Job (5/2006)
          Secondhand Souls (8/2015) 

This post contains reviews of both novels in this duology arranged in reading order. Although there is a nine-year publishing gap between the two books, the plot-time separation is only one year. In order to get the most from your reading of Secondhand Souls, be sure to read A Dirty Job first. Be aware that my review of Secondhand Souls contains spoilers for A Dirty Job.

     Both of these novels are set in the same weird San Francisco that we find in other Moore novels, specifically his three vampire-centric "love-story" trilogy: Bloodsucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me. (Click HERE to read my reviews of those books.) Several of the same characters play supporting roles, including the mystically nutty Emperor of San Francisco and the fumbling detectives Alphonse Rivera and Nick Cavuto. 

     Although these novels are threaded with humormostly aimed at the expense of modern-day inanities, his characters deal with death, love, and hope as they lose loved ones and fight valiantly against evil. 

                         NOVEL 1:  A Dirty Job                         
     Charlie Asher is a pretty normal guy. A little hapless, somewhat neurotic, sort of a hypochondriac. He's what's known as a Beta Male: the kind of fellow who makes his way through life by being careful and constant—you know, the one who's always there to pick up the pieces when the girl gets dumped by the bigger/taller/stronger Alpha Male.

     But Charlie's been lucky. He owns a building in the heart of San Francisco, and runs a secondhand store with the help of a couple of loyal, if marginally insane, employees. He's married to a bright and pretty woman who actually loves him for his normalcy. And she, Rachel, is about to have their first child.

     Yes, Charlie's doing okay for a Beta. That is, until the day his daughter, Sophie, is born. Just as Charlie—exhausted from the birth—turns to go home, he sees a strange man in mint-green golf wear at Rachel's hospital bedside, a man who claims that no one should be able to see him. But see him Charlie does, and from here on out, things get really weird.

     People start dropping dead around him, giant ravens perch on his building, and it seems that everywhere he goes, a dark presence whispers to him from under the streets. Strange names start appearing on his nightstand notepad, and before he knows it, those people end up dead, too. Yup, it seems that Charlie Asher has been recruited for a new job, an unpleasant but utterly necessary one: Death. It's a dirty job. But hey, somebody's gotta do it.

     Christopher Moore, the man whose Lamb served up Jesus' "missing years" (with the funny parts left in), and whose Fluke found the deep humor in whale researchers' lives, now shines his comic light on the undiscovered country we all eventually explore—death and dying—and the results are hilarious, heartwarming, and a hell of a lot of fun.

     Charlie Asher is your typical "normal" guy trying to survive life's challenges—a Beta Male, as Moore dubs him. Chapter one begins with this great first line that sums up Charlie's Beta Male status: "Charlie Asher walked the earth like an ant walks on the surface of water, as if the slightest misstep might send him plummeting through the surface to be sucked to the depths below." Moore dedicates the entirety of chapter 4 to "The Beta Male in his Natural Environment," riffing in great humorous detail on the problems faced by men like Charlie as they have navigated treacherous societal waters since the beginning of time. "While Alpha Males are often gifted with superior physical attributes—size, strength, speed, good looks—selected by evolution over the eons by the strongest surviving and, essentially, getting all the girls, the Beta Male gene has survived not by meeting and overcoming adversity, but by anticipating and avoiding it. That is, when the Alpha Males were out charging after mastodons, the Beta Males could imagine in advance that attacking what was essentially an angry, woolly bulldozer with a pointy stick might be a losing proposition, so they hung back at camp to console the grieving widows…The Beta Male is seldom the strongest or the fastest, but because he can anticipate danger, he far outnumbers his Alpha Male competition. The world is led by Alpha Males, but the machinery of the world turns on the bearings of the Beta Male." The problem faced by modern-day Beta Males is that "there's just more Beta Male imagination than can really be put to good use. Consequently, a lot of Beta Males become hypochondriacs, neurotics, paranoids, or develop an addiction to porn or video games." 

The cast of characters includes the following:
   > Sophie, Charlie's lovely, good-natured daughter, who goes from birth to first grade during the six-year period of this novel. As a toddler, she develops several magical abilities, including the deadly "Kitty" command, and somehow acquires a pair of 400-pound black hounds named Alvin and Mohammed who serve as her bodyguards.

   > Lily, a clove-cigarette-smoking, tough-talking teenage Goth girl who works in Charlie's secondhand thrift store. "She was sixteen, pale, and a little bottom heavy—her grown-woman form still in flux between baby fat and baby bearing. Today her hair happened to be lavender: fifties-housewife helmet hair in Easter-basket cellophane pastel." Lily prefers to be called Darquewillow Elventhing, but no one will agree to use that name except the mailman, but "because he was cheerful and seemed to like people, she deeply mistrusted him." Lily's best friend is Abby Normal, one of the characters in You Suck

   > Ray Macy, a lonely, horny, retired policeman who also works in Charlie's store. He's "a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor with an unhealthy lack of boundaries between the Internet and reality" and spends a great deal of time looking for love on the web site called "Ukrainian Girls Loving You" (aka UGLY).

   > Mrs. Korjev, a large Russian woman, and Mrs. Ling, a small Chinese woman, both of whom live in Charlie's building and babysit for Sophie. "What they had in common, besides being widows and immigrants, was a deep love for little Sophie, a precarious grasp on the English language, and a passionate lack of confidence in Charlie Asher's ability to raise his daughter alone." 

   > Jane, Charlie's beautiful, blond, lesbian sister who keeps stealing and wearing his expensive (secondhand) suits. "It had long ago been determined who was the Alpha Male between them and it was not Charlie."

   > Minty Fresh, a seven-foot-tall black man who is partial to wearing green suits and carrying big guns. "Mr. Asher, you can resist who you are for only so long. Finally you decide to just go with fate. For me that has involved being black, being seven feet tall—yet not in the NBA—being named Minty Fresh, and being recruited as a Death Merchant…I have learned to accept and embrace all of those things."

   > The Emperor of San Francisco: "a great rolling hear of a man, his shoulders broad but a little broken from carrying the weight of the city. A white tangle of hair and beard wreathed his face like a storm cloud, As far as he could remember he and the troops [two dogs] had strolled the city streets forever, but upon further consideration, it might have just been since Wednesday. He wasn't entirely sure."

   > Alphonse Rivera and Nick Cavuto, two SFPD detectives who have seen some very weird things that they have never included in their police reports. Both played supporting roles in Moore's VAMPIRE TRILOGY, which is where they learned of the existence of vampires and other creatures of the night. They are suspicious of Charlie at first, but eventually become his allies.

   > And now the villains: a trio of sibling war goddesses (Macha, Nemain, and Babd—known collectively as the Morrigan) and their master, the underworld god, Orcus, who are living in the sewers and trying to capture souls before the Death Merchants can get them. If they eat enough souls, they can come up to the surface world and do their mad-power thing.

     And now, the story: When Charlie's wife, Rachel, dies just hours after giving birth to their first child, Sophie, Charlie's life moves into a very weird zone. For unknown reasons, he becomes a Death Merchant, a human who is forced to collect animate objectssoul vesselsthat hold the souls of the recently dead and then sell those objects to the people who are destined to receive them. You this world, not everyone has a soul.

     As part of Charlie's new duties, he is instructed to keep a calendar and a number two pencil next to his bed. That's where the names of the newly dead soul-bearers are written (in his own handwriting, although he never remembers writing them down) and the date by which Charlie must pick up their soul vessels. When Charlie arrives for a pick-up, he becomes invisible to by-standers. That's how he knows that he's on the right track. As a Death Merchant, Charlie has the ability to recognize soul vessels because to him, they glow "a dull red, nearly pulsing, like beating hearts." 

     Charlie is a nuanced character who can veer from slapstick clumsiness to heartrending emotion in the blink of an eye. Moore constantly reminds us of Charlie's Beta Male status. For example, unlike his sister, "Charlie was not a brown mustard kind of guy. Brown mustard was the condiment equivalent of skydiving—it was okay for race-car drivers and serial killers, but for Charlie a fine line of French's yellow was all the spice that life required." Charlie deeply loved his wife, and the early scenes in which he deals with his grief are truly touching. As the underworld villains threaten Charlie's friends and family, he steps up to (temporary) Alpha status, leading a motley crew of misfits against the villains even as he fears that he might not survive.

     This is another weird and wonderful tale from an author who specializes in freaky take-downs of societal norms. Charlie is another in a long string of well-developed characters who are like everyman on steroids, dealing with the ups and downs of their supernatural-infused lives and making us chuckle, laugh out loud, shake our heads, and sigh all along the way. 

     Click HERE to go to a GoodReads page with hilarious quotations from A Dirty Job. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this novel's page. Just click on either the cover art or the "Audible Narration" icon. 

    FAIR WARNING: This review of Secondhand Souls      
      contains spoilers for A Dirty Job.      
                         NOVEL 2: Secondhand Souls                          
     In San Francisco, the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing—and you know that can’t be good—in New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore’s delightfully funny sequel to A Dirty Job.

     Something really strange is happening in the City by the Bay. People are dying, but their souls are not being collected. Someone—or something—is stealing them and no one knows where they are going, or why, but it has something to do with that big orange bridge. Death Merchant Charlie Asher is just as flummoxed as everyone else. He’s trapped in the body of a fourteen-inch-tall “meat puppet” waiting for his Buddhist nun girlfriend, Audrey, to find him a suitable new body to play host.

     To get to the bottom of this abomination, a motley crew of heroes will band together: the seven-foot-tall Death Merchant Minty Fresh; retired policeman turned bookseller Alphonse Rivera; the Emperor of San Francisco and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus; and Lily, the former Goth girl. Now if only they can get little Sophie to stop babbling about the coming battle for the very soul of humankind.

RECOMMENDATION: Read A Dirty Job before you read this book because without that background, you will never understand the complicated story behind the creation of the Squirrel People, the true meaning of the word "kitty" when voiced by Charlie's daughter Sophie, or the the Death Merchants' tortured relationship with the Morrigan, all of which are key elements in this book.

     Nine years after Christopher Moore left poor Charlie Asher dead from Nemain's venom, he picks up the story again, setting it a year after the death of Charlie's physical body. Charlie's mind, emotions, and soul, though, are currently still alive "in a tiny body…cobbled together from disparate animal parts and a good-sized block of turkey ham" by his girlfriend, a Buddhist nun named Audrey. "When she'd met him he'd been a sweet, handsome widower—a thin fellow who wore nice, secondhand suits and was desperately trying to figure out how to raise a six-year-old daughter on his own in a world gone very strange, Now he stood knee-high, had the head of a crocodile, the feet of a duck, and he wore a puple satin wizard's robe under which was slung his ten-inch schlong." 

     After a year of relative peace, the underworld is again making a power play in San Francisco. Detective Inspector Alphonse Rivera, who has temporarily retired from the SFPD, is running a bookstore and has taken over Charlie's Death Merchant position, but he hasn't collected a single soul. After the Morrigan's serial murders of most of the Death Merchants in the city, only three of the original Merchants remain alive: Minty Fresh, Carrie Lang, and Charlie, who—in his present form—can't really do his Death Merchant thing any more. 

     The action kicks off when two very different people turn up in Rivera's bookstore with dire warnings. First, the Emperor of San Francisco claims that souls are floating to him from the fog of the bay, asking him to write down their names so that they won't be lost. Then, a shrieking banshee (aka bean sidhe) pops up to warn him that a new "dark one" has replaced Orcus (the underworld death god who was destroyed in the previous book): "This one won't come bashing through the front door like Orcus. This one's sneaky. Elegant." Next, Sophie's hell hound bodyguards disappear and her "kitty" command doesn't work any more. Minty Fresh contacts Charlie and sums up the situation for him: "So there's a banshee loose in the city, warning of coming doom. You, Rivera, and possibly many other Death Merchants have not been collecting soul vessels for over a year, and we don't know what happened to the souls of all those who died in the city during that year…And the only thing that was keeping the forces of darkness at bay has been demoted to, what, a first grader." Charlie responds, "Second…But she's in the advanced reading group."

     Added to the mix are a bridge painter named Mike Sullivan who can communicate with ghosts and a rebellion by Audrey's horde of Squirrel People, led by Bob, one of the tiny heroes of the previous book. Mike's connection with the Golden Gate Bridge, which is swarming with souls, is a key plot element: "A bridge is a place between, we are souls that are between." I'm not going to try to summarize the twisty-turny plot, except to say that the horrible Morrigan sisters are back, looking for payback and accompanied by their sinister new leader, who drives a huge, chrome-laden, vintage, yellow Buick.

     By the end of the book, Moore has tied up every loose end from A Dirty Job, making sure that all of the characters have either achieved their HEAs or have been properly punished for their accumulated sins. As in all of Moore's books, this one is a hilarious mix of slapstick action, quirky characters, snarky dialogue, bloody action, and snide commentary on modern life. 

     Particularly moving is Lily Severo, the wannabe Goth girl who worked in Charlie's thrift store in A Dirty Job. Lily wants nothing more than to have some important magical powers—just like Charlie, Minty, and the rest of their "Scoobie" gang. After she and Minty started a restaurant (a jazz/pizza parlor that failed almost immediately) and broke up, Lily became a suicide hotline responder, which sets her up to play a key role in this book's main story line. Moore gives Lily more layers this time around as she desperately tries to prove to herself and her friends that she is important—that she has a definite place within their ranks. At various times, she is outrageously profane (most of the time), devastatingly sad, efficiently in charge, and (always) emotionally on edge. In this book, she is the most highly developed of all of the characters.

     If you are a Christopher Moore fan, this duology is not to be missed, but please read the books in sequence or you'll hate yourself. (Really, you will.) Click HERE to go to a GoodReads page with humorous quotations from Secondhand Souls. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt on this novel's page. Just click on either the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

     Just one small nitpick: Annoyingly, this book is scattered with word-use errors, probably due to a reliance on electronic spellcheck and a lack of effective eyes-on-the-page copy proofing. Just a few examples: "Here" instead of "her"; "ringer" instead of "wringer" (for a mop bucket); "It your daddy" instead of "It's your daddy." 

Some of the funniest lines:
   >> In a dialogue between Rivera and Nick Cavuto, his gay former partner, Cavuto complains, "I got outed by surprise." Rivera responds: "How is that a surprise? You were marching in the Pride Parade wearing your dress blue uniform with no pants and a yellow codpiece."

 >> Sophie Asher is in a time-out for sassing a nun: "Sophie…glared over her shoulder at Sister Maria la Madonna con el Corpo de Cristo encima una Tortilla, the Irish nun, who had stripped her of her recess and exiled her to this cold limbo by the fence." (Click HERE and HERE and HERE to see examples of Jesus images on various tortillas.)

 >> Lily keeps a tally of the suicides she prevents: She tells Minty, "I've saved five and a half lives this month already." Minty responds in confusion, "A half?" Lily replies, "Jumped but lived, so, you know, technically, I didn't stop the guy from jumping, but he failed, too, since he lived, so it's a tie, so half a save."

 >> Sophie composes a bear-centric poster under the heavy influence of Mrs. Korjev, her Russian babysitter: "LOST. 1 Irish Hellhound. Very black, like bear. Huge, like bear. Answer to Alvin and Mohammed. Like to eat everything. Like bear!" Lily asks Sophie if she wrote the text. Sophie responds, "I put in two bears and the Irish part…Daddy said that no one would believe you if you called them hellhounds, but if you said Irish hellhounds everyone thought they'd heard of them."

 >> Sophie becomes a vegetarian because "Jane convinced her you could still be a vegetarian if you only eat animals that eat vegetables, too."

 >> Lily is depressed because she is the only one in the group with no supernatural powers. After she is assigned to crosscheck lists of thousands of names of dead people, she grumbles, "I feel like the accountant for the Justice League. If someone finds a magical cat or an enchanted stapler or something, I'm calling dibs…"

 >> The Squirrel People revolt: "Ha!" said Bob. Don't call me Bob. that is my slave name. I now remember my name from before, when I was a man, I am Theeb the Wise!"

  >> Concepción Argüella and Nikolai Rezanov were real people with a real love story. Click HERE to read their story.

 >> The man dressed in yellow tells Sophie to call him "the Magical Negro," which is an actual American fiction trope in which a wise, insightful black man with supernatural powers mysteriously appears solely to help out a white character. The question here is this: Is that an accurate nickname for the man in yellow? Click HERE for a description of this trope.

 >> The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco looks just like Moore describes it: "the only church in the world designed after a washing-machine agitator….If the outside...resembled a washing machine, the interior was a minimalist starship, with the round dais and altar at the head of the nave, and a pipe organ built into a platform that rose and cantilevered over the mourners on the side, like the control center of the great vessel."

Saturday, September 26, 2015


Author:  Hester Young 
Plot Type: Romantic Paranormal Mystery/Thriller
Ratings:  Violence3; Sensuality3; Humor—2 
Publisher:  G.P. Putnam's Sons (Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC) 
    1  The Gates of Evangeline (9/2015) 
    2  The Shimmering Road (2/2017)

This ongoing post was updated on 3/1/2017 to include a review of The Shimmering Road, the second novel in the trilogy. That review appears first, followed by a brief overview of the world-building and a review of the first novel.

                    NOVEL 2: The Shimmering Road                    
     A pulse-pounding mystery from the author of The Gates of Evangeline featuring Charlotte “Charlie” Cates, an unforgettable heroine whose dark visions bring to light secrets that will save or destroy those around her. 

     When soon-to-be mother Charlotte “Charlie” Cates begins to have recurring dreams about harm coming to her unborn daughter, she knows these are not the nightmares of an anxious mom-to-be. They are the result of her mysterious gift. But before she can decipher what these dreams might mean, Charlie learns that the mother who abandoned her when she was a toddler is the victim of a double murder in Arizona. The other victim—Jasmine, a half-sister Charlie never knew she had—has left behind a child, a little girl who speaks to Charlie in her dreams and was present on the night of the murders. Convinced that she must help her orphaned niece, Charlie travels to Tucson, Arizona, where she must confront her painful ties to her mother and delve into her sister’s shadowy past.

     To untangle the web of secrets that will reveal the truth of her nightmares, Charlie can no longer avoid her family’s checkered history. Who is in the racy photos that turned up in Jasmine’s apartment? Where is her niece’s father, whom Jasmine was rumored to have been seeing again on the sly? Was her mother’s charity work in Mexico really as selfless as it seemed? And most important of all, what did her niece really witness on the night of the murders?

     The search for answers leads Charlie across the Mexican border, from the resort town of Rocky Point to the border town of Nogales, and elucidates the meaning of her dreams in most unexpected ways. Ultimately, to protect her niece and her unborn child, Charlie must battle not just evil but the forces of nature, in one final terrifying encounter in the Tucson desert.

     A thrilling mystery that combines literary suspense and romance with a mystical twist that is unputdownable. If you love Kate Atkinson and Alice Sebold, you should not miss Hester Young.

     The story begins about eight months after the ending of The Gates of Evangeline. Charlie is now living in Sidalie, Texas, with her baby daddy, Noah Palmer. Yes, Charlie is 34 weeks pregnantthe result of an alcohol-fueled night of unprotected sex with Noah back in New Orleans. Although they were blindsided by the pregnancy, their budding romance has, so far, survived, and even blossomed. Noah is pushing for marriage, but Charlie isn't ready to commit to a new relationship that might fail just as badly as her first marriage. The author divides the novel into seven parts, all based on the geographical location of the action, which moves back and forth among four locations: Sidalie; Tucson, Arizona; Sonora, Mexico; and Nogales, Mexico.

     Once again, Charlie is having nightmares about the death of a childthis time her own child—her unborn baby girl. In her recurring dream, Charlie is always taking a shower in the same bathroom when she is shot three times and dies. She has shared the dream with Noah, who fully believes in her visions (because he has seen them come true), and they are both on the lookout for the specific blue-and-yellow-tiled shower that appears in that nightmare.

     In Part I, Charlie has a new dream. This one features a small dark-haired child walking through puddles of blood in search of her mother. The next morning, Charlie's Aunt Suzie calls to inform her that Charlie's mother (Donna) and her half-sister (Jasmine) are deadshot by an unknown murderer in Jasmine's Tucson apartment. Naturally, this is a huge shock for Charlie. Donna left town when Charlie was just an infant, and she has neither seen nor heard from Donna since. Even worse, Charlie never even knew that Jasmine existed. Adding to the tragedy, Jasmine's young daughter (Micky) was in the apartment when the shootings occurred and may have seen or heard the killer. (Notice the connection between the murder and Charlie's nightmare.) Micky has been placed in foster care, but Charlie and Noah agree that since she is part of Charlie's family, they need to go to Tucson and scope out the situation with an eye toward a possible adoption.

     When Charlie and Noah get to Tucson, they gradually get drawn into the murder investigation, which the police are treating as a drug-related crime (because a hoard of Rohypnol was found in the apartment). But as Charlie meets Donna's friends and learns about her life as an advocate for abused women, Charlie isn't so sure that the police are on the right track. Then Charlie begins to have dreams about a dead girl—one of Donna's clients—who supposedly killed herself. The girl lets Charlie know that her death was murder, not suicide, and begs Charlie to help her younger sister. As Charlie and Noah wade deeper and deeper into the case, their own lives become endangered.

     Young has created a complex mystery/thriller with a well-drawn set of likely suspects who will keep you guessing all the way to the end of the story. Who was the real target of the murderer, Jasmine or Donna? Was Jasmine using/selling drugs? Was Donna? Is Jasmine's aggressive boyfriend (a policeman) involved in the crime? Why is his partner following Charlie? Who is the threatening man in the pineapple-printed, Hawaiian shirt? From the moment she involves herself in the investigation, Charlie can't trust anyone because she finds that they are all holding back information and keeping dark, personal secrets.

     Charlie is particularly conflicted in her feelings about her mother. Did Donna truly clean up her life, or did she drop back into her old habits of drug and alcohol abuse? As she listens to Donna's Tucson friends extol Donna for her compassionate work for the abused women of Nogales, Charlie muses, "Why couldn't my long-lost mother be a junkie, a self-involved bitch, some cheap and stupid floozy I'd never miss? Did she really have to Do Good Things? To have been a positive influence in the life of a child? If my mother had value as a human being, if she could demonstrate kindness and compassion in her life, where does that leave me, the daughter she discarded and forgot?" But then more clues accumulate that cast a darker light on Donna's activities in Nogales, and Charlie wonders, "Who were you, Donna?...Were you good or were you bad? a saint or sinner? And the biggest question of all: "Who killed you?" 

     Meanwhile, Noah is desperate to keep Charlie and their unborn baby safe, while Charlie is just as determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. Adding to the friction between Charlie and Noah is Carmen, Noah's gorgeous ex-wife. She is an attorney who enters the story at a critical time to help save Noah from being sent to jail for a crime he didn't commit. 

     Charlie is writer, so she always notices the mundane details of life, particularly in her descriptions of various people she meets. I don't mean to pick on realtors, but here are Charlie's descriptions of two of them. In Sedalie: "Brandi Babcock may possess the name of a porn star, but she has the body of a butternut squash, a solid top that flares out into an epically large backside." And in Tucson: "He wears a golf shirt, khaki shorts, and large aviator sunglasses, and his hair is slick with gel....he smells like a frat boy—Axe body spray or something like that. His skin emits waves so intense that I wonder briefly if my gestating child will suffer grave birth defects with prolonged exposure."

     Young has created a suspense-filled thriller in which her intelligent and adventurous heroine deals with burgeoning pregnancy while listening to the women and children in her visionary dreams and doing her best to save them. I have to admit, I thought that I had figured out the bad-guy situation several times, but was always wrong—so wrong! My advice is to keep guessing, but relax and trust Young to roll out the mystery slowly and carefully, rewarding you with a big slam-bang ending that will answer all of your questions. Warning: If you are in the habit of reading the ending first, you will hate yourself because that would defuse the suspense and take all of the joy out of Young's meticulous, tension-filled build-up to the big reveal scene.

A dwelling at the
Tirabichi dump.
Child waste-pickers gather
recyclables at Tirabichi.
    Click HERE to read Frost Magazine's "A Day in the Life/Hester Young" photo essay that follows the author as she visits southern Arizona and the Mexico borderlands to research the compelling scenes set in the settlement that formerly existed at the Tirabichi garbage dump just outside Nogales. Here is Charlie's description: "I see it all in three vivid dimensions: the mountains of trash, the human dwellings constructed from waste, the trees adorned with whatever plastic bags caught a breeze, and the strangely pastoral green hills rolling in the valley below. This is the stuff of postapocalyptic action movies, the kind of bleak and gritty setting Hollywood directors spend millions trying to achieve, only with more sunlight, more color."

     Click HERE to go to this novel's page where you can read or listen to an excerpt by clicking on either the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

     Young's inspiration for the first novel in this series comes from a recurring dream her grandmother had about the death of one of her sons. She constantly dreamed that he fell from an open window, and eventually that is exactly what happened. After his death, Young's grandmother never dreamed that dream again. 

     As the series opens, the heroineCharlotte "Charlie" Catesis trying to pull her life back together several months after her four-year-old son, Keegan, dies suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Charlie, who is divorced from Keegan's cheating father, has only one other relative, her grandmother, who is in a local assisted living facility. Charlie's mother deserted her during her early childhood, and her father was an alcoholic who died in an alcohol-fueled auto wreck when she was just fourteen. From that point on, her grandmother raised her.

     Several months after Keegan's death, Charlie begins having premonitory dreams about children. Unlike Young's grandmother, Charlie's dreams are not about her son. Instead, she has prophetic dreams about familiar and unfamiliar children, both dead and alive, many of whom speak to her and ask her to help them. 

     In an online guest blog, Young shares her thoughts on fictional heroines: “I’ve always enjoyed female characters who, for better or for worse, actively shape their own fate. Don’t give me a heroine who finds herself paralyzed by fear—at least let her try to smash the bad guy in the head with a lamp. The fictional women I want to spend my time with may not be entirely wholesome rays of sunshine, but they are resourceful, courageous, clever. They are individuals and not accessories." Charlie Cates certainly lives up to Young's description. As she tells her story in her wry, self-aware, first-person voice, we watch her set up her investigation, draw conclusions (frequently not the correct ones) from the clues she gathers, and begin to make friends in this new life she is developing for herself. 

                        NOVEL 1:  The Gates of Evangeline                             PUBLISHER'S BLURB: 

     From a unique new talent comes a fast-paced debut, introducing a heroine whose dark visions bring to light secrets that will heal or destroy those around her. 

     When grieving mother and New York journalist Charlie Cates begins to experience vivid dreams about children after her only son passes away, she’s sure that she’s lost her mind. Yet she soon realizes these are not the hallucinations of a bereaved mother. They are messages and warnings that will help Charlie and the children she sees―if she can make sense of them. 

     The disturbing images lead her from her home in suburban New York City to small-town Louisiana, where she takes a commission to write a true-crime book based on the case of Gabriel Deveau, the young heir to a wealthy and infamous Southern family, whose kidnapping thirty years ago has never been solved. There she meets the Deveau family, none of whom are telling the full truth about the night Gabriel disappeared. And as she uncovers long-buried secrets of love, money, betrayal, and murder, the facts begin to implicate those she most wants to trust―and her visions reveal an evil closer than she could have imagined.

     A Southern Gothic mystery debut that combines literary suspense and romance with a mystical twist, The Gates of Evangeline is a story that readers of Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson, and Alice Sebold won't be able to put down. 

     Click HERE and scroll down to read an the prologue and chapter one of this novel, or click HERE to listen to January LaVoy read that same excerpt aloud. (Note: LaVoy also narrates Kim Harrison's new series, PERI REED CHRONICLES.)

Charlie's dream about
the little boy in the swamp
     As this this Southern Gothic thriller opens, Charlie is living in Stamford, Connecticut, so grief-stricken over her son's death that she has nearly lost the will to keep up a normal life. Her professional life as managing editor of a Cosmopolitan-like magazine is no longer appealing, but when an old friend offers her a job writing a book about the disappearance of a young Louisiana boy thirty years ago, she almost turns him down. Then, she dreams about a dead boy who has been drowned in a swamp, probably by a sexual abuser: "A picture forms. Swamp. I'm in a rowboat, drifting through brown water and swirls of green scum. Around me I see dead leaves, rotted branches curling like fingers, partially submerged trees clawing their way upward. On my right, I catch a flash of movement. Watchful green eyes peer up at me. An alligator." The little boy is glad to see her: "Will you help me?…He hurt me…You gotta tell on him." As Charlie awakens and the dream fades away, she wonders if this boy could be Gabriel Deveau, the two-year old toddler who disappeared three decades ago. Charlie's dream is so powerful that it makes her accept the writing job and a three-month-long visit to the bayou country of southern Louisiana. 

     The book is divided into four sections. The first and last are set in Stamford, Connecticut, where Charlie currently resides. The middle two sections are set in on the Deveau estate in Chicory, Louisiana. There, Charlie moves into a small cottage on the estate grounds and meets the members of the spectacularly dysfunctional Deveau family and their staff. As she investigates the case, she develops close relationships with two men: Remy Minot, a local police detective who has been assigned to reopen the investigation of Gabriel's disappearance, and Noah Palmer, a Texas landscaper hired by Hettie Deveau, the dying family matriarch, to restore the estate gardens to their former glory. One becomes her friend and ally, and the other becomes her lover.

     Young has created a Southern Gothic novel that drips with atmosphere: "The trees thicken, forming a dense canopy. Spanish moss drapes down, gloomy and majestic...The swamp creeps closer and closer...The silence is, to a city dweller, unearthly. No birds, no rushing water. Only stillness. I...gaze at the green-brown water. There's a smell I don't like, a dank and almost moldy odor, like someone's leaky basement." When she reaches the gated estate, she sees the white-pillared, French-windowed house "waiting at the end of the drive, lovely and white, half shielded by the trees. An elegant, expectant ghost of a home." In a scene set inside the Deveau mansion, someone pulls the drapes open to let in some light, "but the study's dark and somber furnishings expertly fend off natural light. It is a room for migraine-ridden women, scholars burning the midnight oil, grave old white men weighing matters of political and economic import." 

    The Deveau siblings are a disagreeable lot: twin sistersone stridently dissatisfied with her life and the other smug and pretentiousand their in-the-closet older brother, who runs the family hotel business. All of them are harboring secrets, some harmless and some devastating, and it's up to Charlie to dig deep enough to bring those secrets into the lightan intense and sometimes dangerous task.

     As Charlie narrates her way through her investigation and her love life, we get to know her in a very personal wayher grief over Keegan's death, the big shift in her feelings of distrust for close friendships, and her blossoming emotions as she begins to fall in love. When she thinks about Keegan, she grieves, "No one told me then, He's yours, for four years. He's yours, but not for long. I am not by nature an optimistic or hopeful person, but when I held my child, I believed absolutely in the future. His future." All through the book, Charlie wrestles with her beliefs about the role of God and the ramifications of religious faith. She meets Justine, a religious woman who has lost her daughter, Didi, and wonders "How can you pray to a God…who is so unfair? How can you look in Didi's empty bedroom and see any reason, any purpose? It isn't a rhetorical questionI really want to know the answer. Justine told me that prayer gives her comfort, but I can't imagine seeking solace from the being who orchestrated my misery."

     Charlie is a richly drawn protagonist, always alert to the everyday details of life. For example, when she and Noah stop at a local restaurant, they are waited on by a puffy-eyed, hung-over teenager "who has a faraway look like she's mentally composing a suicide note." (Haven't we all met that waitress?) When Charlie stops in at the local library to do some research, "The gray-haired woman at the reference desk…wears a purple turtleneck with a garish studded snowflake pin that only a teacher, librarian, or grandmother would find attractive." (Yes, that can be construed as a stereotypical statement, but still…I know exactly what that pin looks like.)

     But there is a major problem with most of the people with whom she interacts: very few of them are telling the whole truth about themselves, and some are telling outright lies. Young does a masterful job with her plotting, keeping the reader in deep suspense all the way up to the final scene. Although I made some close guesses about the truth of the kidnappingwhich is at the heart of the plotmany aspects of the final resolution surprised me.

     On the downside, Young wraps up that resolution a bit too neatly. It's hard to imagineeven in a tiny bayou townthat in the face of the deadly final events, most of the details are kept hidden from public knowledge and from law enforcement. But that didn't bother me as much as, perhaps, it should because I truly enjoyed every page-turning scene, from beginning to end.

     Young gives us a haunting, sometimes heartbreaking, tale in which her smart and adventurous heroine follows her dreams as she introduces us to a wealth of quirky characters and ferrets out chilling answers to dark questions that have been kept secret for thirty long years. As one reviewer has written"Eerie and haunting, the novel is as addictive as mint juleps served by servants in white gloves on the verandaand just as creepy." This is a terrific debut novel from an up-and-coming author. Its mix of eerie Gothic and ghostly elements, amateur sleuth and whodunit tropes, moral and religious issues, murder, and betrayal will grab you by the throat from the very beginning and take you on a wild ride through the bayous. 

  Here are some links to interviews with and guest blogs by the author on the subject of this novel:

     > Click HERE to read an interview on the Shelf Awareness web site. 
     > Click HERE to read Young's guest blog on Dead Good Books.
     > Click HERE to read Young's interview with Publishers Weekly. 
     > Click HERE to read Young's interview with Shelf-Awareness.