April 2016 – Book Review

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Karan Bajaj’s The Yoga of Max’s Discontent was apparently well-received in India, and, upon its upcoming release in English, I can see why. Bajaj’s characterization of his main character, Max, is vivid and realistic, at least for the most part. Max, completely distraught by his mother’s death, desires more out of life, or at least a better understanding of how to live and what to believe. So, he journey’s to India to find a guru and practice yoga, to rid himself of his discontent. I generally enjoyed reading Max’s exploration of life.

There were two things that I did dislike though: one is minor and the other major. Bajaj does seem to jump pretty suddenly between different settings, both geographical and chronological. He very suddenly leaves New York and finds himself, somehow completely comfortable, in India. Max, after several chapters and just a few months spent at an ashram, has then suddenly spent three years of his life there. The pacing just seems a bit off. The other, bigger problem I have is Max’s blatant disregard for his physical health. I understand that, in his yoga practice, his mental prowess and his ability to remain calm and completely focused on his path to transcendence is the central goal, but you can’t really transcend if your body withers away. This dissonance may just be because I’m not overly familiar with this practice, but I just can’t get over that.

Even with these two problems, I did really like this novel. It’s a relatively fast and easy read, and it does make you think about your place in this world and your spiritual life, I guess. I’m usually not one to read books that discuss the best way to live your life, how to take care of yourself spiritually, and all that, but I did enjoy Bajaj’s novel. I wouldn’t necessarily classify this as a religious novel, but rather a spiritual one. 3.5/5

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The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) has given us an entertaining, fast, and fun read with The Cuckoo’s Calling. This novel, the first in the undeniably cool-sounding Cormoran Strike series, tracks the apparent suicide of supermodel Lula Landry. Former military and current private eye Cormoran Strike, along with the help of temporary secretary Robin, interviews a series of individuals associated with Landry–fellow tenants, friends, family members, employers, etc.–and discovers that her suicide may in fact be a murder. While the result of Strike’s investigation isn’t necessarily all that creative–I may have figured it out rather early on–the writing is so inviting and easy to read that I wanted to see where the story went and how Strike would solve this crime.

I don’t read too many mysteries, so the only other novel I can really compare it to is Hammett’s The Thin Man, which I read in March. Hammett’s novel is certainly more complicated, and you can easily lose track if you don’t pay attention. That’s not really the case with The Cuckoo’s Calling, but that’s okay; I have no qualms with that. In fact, the only qualm I do have–and it’s quite minor–is that, for a mystery novel, it seems light on action. The climax of the story, of course, has some action, but the bulk of what’s here consists of interviews. I’m hoping there’s a bit more action in The Silkworm. Overall, though, this was an immensely readable and fun story, and I’m excited to see where Galbraith takes us next. 4/5

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

I don’t freely hand out five stars to books; they must truly astonish me and impact me in ways which can only be described as profound. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is such a book–“required reading” as the great Toni Morrison states. I find it hard to review this book, to eloquently put it into words. This is a letter to Samori, Coates’ son, and this letter delves into the author’s existence as an American with a black body, a body that must continuously struggle. Coates details his experiences with his family, attending Howard University, meeting his wife, losing friends, and feeling the chains that are still present in the current American culture.

It’s no wonder why Between the World and Me won the National Book Award. For it’s timeliness and effectiveness, this is something that I think should be read by as many people as possible. It’s importance is something that will only grow in time. 5/5

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

I wonder what compels us to read so much World War II literature. Are we still so fascinated by a not-so-distant past, where such monstrosities occurred, that we see this literature as both unfortunately possible and yet so indescribably irresistible? Are we able to willingly be dazzled by such atrocities? Are we able to see past the terror when reading through the veil of a book, especially if it’s a work of fiction? Do such manifestations make these events–real or fiction–more digestible, more palatable, more welcoming? Do they give us a better, clearer understanding of the past? What if the author wasn’t present? I’d say yes to all of these.

On it’s tenth anniversary of publication, I finally got around to reading The Book Thief. I’m not sure where I was, or why I’m so late to the party, but I did finally read it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I knew relatively little about the novel–only that it was set during World War II in Germany and that there’s a not-so-impressive movie adaptation. (Though, I still do want to see it.) Liesel Meminger has had a rough life. The war has begun and she’s already lost a number of things she holds dear. However, when she rescues a book–well, she steals it–she finds a new journey to begin. A number of obstacles come her way, but Liesel persists and continues her book thievery to survive. Not everyone can survive, however. Even though there are such glints of happiness, ultimately that cannot be the norm for Liesel.

Zusak’s writing is generally easy to read, and there’s a nice ebb and flow to the story. The characters are defined well. My biggest complaint that I have is the narrator, Death. He’s kind of annoying and reveals too much information. He gives up the ending a number of times. Yes, I understand that this is a YA novel, but I think we can read between the lines. We don’t need to be spoon-fed here.

I studied abroad in Germany in 2013. My courses focused on literature with themes of authority: being suppressed by it, abused by it, overcoming it, and dealing with its circumstances. I read such works as 1984White NoiseSlaughterhouse-FiveNever Let Me GoOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and others. And I’m curious, after having read The Book Thief, why we never read it. Perhaps it was too juvenile. Perhaps Liesel’s acts of book thievery were too subtle, too small, to be considered rebellious. I don’t know exactly. But, I am glad I finally got around to reading Zusak’s novel.

While in Germany, I did visit the Buchenwald concentration camp. It was completely snowed-out; you could barely see five feet in front of you. I distinctly remember a large group of elementary school children laughing, playing, loudly calling to each other. Everyone in my group was completely silent, and I was unable to understand why these children were acting the way they were. Perhaps they were just children and didn’t understand, but I don’t think that’s true. I feel like it shouldn’t be, anyway. To this day, there’s still some dissonance there: a group of children laughing and playing on the grounds of such torture and death.

I think I have a different mindset when I do read World War II literature and non-fiction books. It’s one thing to read about these experiences from afar; and, yes, this novel can be and should be read by as many people as possible, as it’s an important book. However, once you’re there, in the midst, with history facing you from all sides, it’s difficult to not be changed and read subsequent works in a different light. The horror that is somewhat-lightly touched upon–or, perhaps, not so gruesomely detailed–was in the back of my mind throughout my reading. 4.5/5

March 2016 – Book Review

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What a lovely book. This is my second time reading through Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, and I’m still struck at the simplistic, straightforward nature of it all. Once again, Murakami transformed himself from the wacky (A Wild Sheep Chase) and bizarre (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) into a deeply meditative, personal, truthful story about loss, love, and growing-up. It’s a shame that, upon its initial release and worldwide praise, Murakami was unresponsive to all of the attention the novel received. I guess I can understand why he didn’t initially want to be remembered for this simple (yet stirring) love story–especially after reading some of his other works–but I also think I’d enjoy the praise. For me, though, Norwegian Wood is a clear winner, and it remains my favorite work by Murakami (though, I’ve only read his first five novels, so this may change, especially when I get to the beloved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84). 5/5

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Sheer magic. Truly. I mean, it really is. I first read A Wrinkle in Time when I was 8, and I loved it then. I was enraptured by all of the science, the magic, the fantasy, the love the story was imbued with. And now, 16 years later–with multiple reads in-between–I still love it. Sure, some messages are now clearly obvious, but I still love it. Call it nostalgia. I don’t know. I doubt I could ever dislike this novel. Plus, the copy I read at 8, yellowing and issuing that wonderful old book smell, is the one I read. I’m so happy that I chanced upon this book during an elementary school book fair because A Wrinkle in Time was the singular book that sparked my love for reading. Madeleine L’Engle created something extremely special, and I am so grateful that she brought this story to us. 5/5

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If I Had A Gryphon is a fun little picture book about a girl who, at first, is uncharmed by her ordinary hamster and imagines how great it would be to have a mythic creature as a pet. While she goes through a wide assortment of cool beasts, she comes to a conclusion that may surprise you. It has some neat illustrations by Cale Atkinson, too. I don’t normally go around reading picture books–that’s not really my style–but I work at a book store, and, as I set this book up for a new promotion, I thought, “Eh, why not?” 3/5

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Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man is a satisfyingly sharp, complex, and often hilarious hard-boiled detective story that’s certainly worth a read.

The story follows two alcoholics, Nick and Nora Charles, a married couple that just happens to get caught up in solving a mysterious murder spree. Nick, a former detective, immediately sees interest in the Wynant family, and it appears that the patriarch, and former client, Clyde, has gone off on some murderous rampage. His ex-wife, Mimi, and two children, Dorothy and Gilbert, are altogether caught up in their relative’s circumstances, too. Shade is thrown all around, and not everything is as it appears to be; only Nick and Nora–well, mostly Nick; the socialite Nora spends most of her time consoling Dorry and making cocktails and snide remarks–can solve the case. Hammett has some great one-liners sprinkled throughout, which makes this somewhat convoluted plot much more digestible*. The Thin Man is a wild ride, and I’m all the more curiouser to finally read Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon after reading this and seeing the 1941 film several times. 4/5

It’s no wonder that this novel was turned into a film, an almost precursory film noir, but with a healthy smattering of humor.

* “‘What do you have to do to get a drink?’ I said: ‘You have to walk over to that table where the ice and bottles are and pour it.'” & “Dorothy, behind me, said, ‘Balls!’ under her breath, but with a lot of feeling.”

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Roman stoked the fire, adding a log for the flames to gobble up, which they did rather happily. The room felt stale, murky, and the faun thought to change the atmosphere.

A large record player sat next to the fireplace—somehow Calvin had missed it before—and the faun sauntered over to it and put something on: Florence + the Machine’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Calvin thought: At least the faun had good taste. Roman replaced the record’s jacket onto a wide shelving unit that had quickly appeared from somewhere in the darkness.

“Now, drink your tea,” Roman told the boy, “and I’ll tell you why you’re here.”

Calvin took the cup of tea and sat down in one of the chairs next to the fireplace. It was more comfortable than what he thought it would be, with all of his breaking wicker and a lumpy, grayish pillow. This place was full of surprises, unexplainable illusions, magic. The cup was hot in his hand. He took a sip and it warmed him through. Literally. His matted hair and soggy clothes dried with the sudden heat wave.

“Sorry. No saucers,” Roman told Calvin as he loosely clutched the teacup. “I’m not that proper.” Though, Calvin questioned his sincerity in this apology; he certainly didn’t sound too sincere.

“I don’t mind,” he responded. “Where are we exactly?” Being left in the dark on this point worried him, made him anxious. If he traveled through time, then he surely wasn’t anywhere near home.

“The where isn’t exactly as important as the when,” he replied, “but I shall tell you anyway.” Roman took a long sip of his tea and nestled the cup back in his hands, the warmth tingling his somewhat furry fingers. “We’re in something of a safe house in a land known as Aryashi. On the planet Uriel. We’re far away from your earth, Calvin, but Aryashi is not unlike what you’re used to. In fact, you may find it to be a place of hospitality and comfort. The people are usually kind, friendly, what have you. Water falls from the sky and finds itself in streams and lakes; deer, eagles, whales, all sorts of creatures inhabit the place. Just like on your earth. You may even find some creatures you’ve locked away in your imagination. There are some fantastic beasts in Aryashi. Rather interesting, yes.

“However, Aryashi is not all it appears to be. Just as you may find comfort, you might find discomfort. Here’s why: there’s a vile, melancholic demon on the outer edges of this place—a twisted, dark shadow, you could say—and it’s coming ever closer toward us. This has happened before, mind you, but never to this extremity. Most of us Aryashians are horrified. A few are optimistic. Those of us with a bit of that confidence have brought you here in hopes that you could remedy this ugly phantom. We believe you can help.”

“We?”

“Yes, we.” He nodded.

Roman paused and took a breath. Calvin noticed the faun’s hands trembling around the teacup, slides of the liquid running over the edge. He wasn’t sure if Roman was a horrified Aryashian or an optimistic one. Time will tell, he said to himself.

The record had long stopped—the last notes of “Mother” dispelled quietly into the thick air—and a low, scratching hum dulled the room. The faun stood up to change the record, and, before Calvin could protest, the conversation. He’ll learn soon enough, the faun thought as he sat back down.

“Now, for the time being, you are currently restricted to this safe house. No exceptions.”

“But why?” Calvin asked. “What am I supposed to do cooped up in here?”

“Well, you need to acclimate to your surroundings. And, for your safety, I guess. I assure you, your detention to this house is only temporary. A few days at the most, mind you.” Roman took a last sip of tea. “And, there are plenty of things to do in here. I’m sure you’ll find a way to pass the time.”

“Is it really that dangerous out there?”

“More so than you would think. While Aryashi holds a multitude of wonders, there are also some great perils, least of all this impending demon. You’ll find that the mountains and rivers are riddled with things nearly unimaginable.”

Calvin looked around the small space, trying to gain some semblance of reality in this place. He tapped his foot against the stone floor, which echoed in a brusque rhythm. Roman said, “Please do excuse the mess. I’m not in charge here, but I guess its appearance is my fault. The house has fallen a bit into disrepair. Shambles. It’s sad, really.”

Calvin looked at the faun. “It’s actually quite nice,” he said. “Cozy. More comfortable than I expected.”

“That’s a polite thing to say. Still, it’s trashy. But it’s home. Well, not really. I don’t live here.”

The record spun around and around, playing the Beatles: “Hello Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “Norwegian Wood.”

“You like an array of music, don’t you?” Calvin asked the faun. He himself was a fan of the 60s, having grown up listening to it. He could spend hours listening to Elvis Presley, Dusty Springfield, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, The Righteous Brothers, Petula Clark. He started humming “Downtown” against the melodious beats of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

“The 60s were one of the best times in music. And, Florence just has it, you know?” Roman went over to the bookshelf and pulled a few books off to lend his new acquaintance. As he handed Calvin the books, he said: “These will certainly help. But if you bend even a single page, tear it, mark it, breathe on it in any foul or otherwise ungrateful way, you will wish we never brought you here.” In addition to A Wrinkle in Time, Roman gave Calvin pristine-looking copies of Atonement, The Tempest, and The Namesake. Calvin had heard of them all, but hadn’t ever read them. “Read over these while you’re staying here; you should be able to get through them.”

And with that, Roman walked over to the record player, stopped the Beatles, and entered the shadows of the far wall, appearing to have disappeared completely, leaving Calvin to lonesome.

He looked at the covers of the books and then promptly set them on table next to the copy of A Wrinkle in Time. Only the noise of the fire and the words on those pages could keep him company. Well, and his thoughts, but those were always scary. Nothing like the vast mysteries of the universe to keep one’s mind preoccupied.

And then, a tiny, animated black ball of soot rolled out of the darkness, somewhere by the far side of the bookcase, and nudged itself against Calvin’s left foot. It gave off a happy crackle and spun around on its head in glee. It had bright eyes, which it slowly blinked, like a baby trying to focus in on the world. Roman hadn’t mentioned anything like this, and he gasped in surprise. Several more rose out of the darkness and gathered around this new stranger, their crackling laughter bouncing on his shins. I guess I won’t be alone after all.

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The stars blinked kindly; the dusty luminescence swayed above his head. A small fire burned at his feet, blazing around and licking up the deadened logs of ash. The grass was sweet, puckered in the chilled night, and the distant hymns of nightbirds barely rang through the muddied air. A tent was pitched, its patchwork of colors bruised in the absence of sunlight.

He twiddled a stick between his fingers. The bark was coarse and uneven, cold. The humble firelight bumped up on his face and neck, which grew warm from the heat. He was bundled in a thick coat of dark feathers, hoping to defend against the coldness promised by the others. Though, surely, he thought, it would get much warmer.

He pitched himself upon a cliff, a rocking lake below, a forest behind him. The fire cursed, shouting gravely at him, but he paid no attention. The flames’ crusade was beneath him. He had other concerns.

Dew had lain itself upon the grass. The moon—blank, deserted, crumbling—quivered amongst the stars, fearful to be completely extinguished. The waves of willows’ leaves spun in the air and on the ground. The fire acted again, incorrigibly. It was becoming a nuisance.

A reserve of water sat at his feet and he killed the fire. Thick smoke rolled through his nose and eyes, staining his clothes and ears. A violent sizzle fizzled out. The stars grew brighter as another source of illumination vanished into night. The wind in the willows blew around the encampment, and he felt a sudden rush of something. He couldn’t think of it, this emotion.

The words flew about within his head; they were simple, but effective, easily remembered. They only had one destination, and tonight they would be used accordingly. The words possessed much more than he could imagine, and, yet, he was not frightened by this. Or, perhaps, he merely put it out of his mind. He simply hoped nothing would go awry, that no chime of guilt would echo in his bones or blood, make him long for what once was. He needed this.

Sertaqa iza,” he spoke to the night. His feathers elongated, the wings on his back ascended; he flew up into the air to watch the stars die and fall to him.

He watched as, one by one, the kind lights jolted from their atmospheres, where they had so lovingly clung, and tumbled downward in mesmeric spirals. His pursuits succeeded, and he smiled. A wind bellowed. The stars stung the black sky with their array of colors, streaking it. The moon shied away, turning herself into an invisible nonexistence.

The first star bounded to him and he clutched it between his two hands, his fingertips gripping the molten, luminous sphere; it was heavier than he thought. Though seemingly afire, the star did not singe his skin or curl his feathers. He pressed his hands against the star and condensed it, molded it into a slighter, more perfect orb. It burst into color, rapidly transforming from white to a lustrous sapphire.

And with it, he placed the glowing sphere into his mouth. It crackled as it met his tongue, his saliva reacting to such a foreign object. The star tasted of ash, blood—almost putrid, but somehow satisfying. He savored the lingering flavor as the soft sphere coalesced with his body. It found its way through his esophagus and into his stomach. A blistering feeling erupted, and an immediate desire to vomit. Yet, he silenced the urge. As the star swirled, it relocated to his chest, through the lungs, and made residence in his heart. It stiffened and bled out, trickling down into his blood.

A second star met his hands, and he ate it, too. Then a third, and a fourth. Piles of stars plagued the cliff he hovered above. He would continue his meal throughout the oncoming days.

The moon turned around to look at this damned occurrence. She squealed with rage, but sought no revenge. For what could she do? The last of the stars amassed itself upon the bodies of its brothers, scarcely gleaming. He floated down, wings scraping the air, and nestled himself amongst the stars.

A blackness had devoured the sky.

February 2016 – Book Review

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What a marvelous book. I’m not much into science-fiction or fantasy, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Magicians. It’s a grown-up, modernized mash-up of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia, and I loved every minute of it. Quentin Coldwater travels to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, where he meets Alice, Eliot, Janet, Penny, and a slew of other magicians as they tackle and refine their abilities. Scattered throughout the novel is a series of books set in Fillory where the Chatwin children visit. And, just maybe, Quentin gets to visit, too. A truly great, witty, fun read. Lev Grossman’s prose is a delight to read. I’m so glad there are two more books after this because I never want to leave this world. 4/5

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Anyone who follows me on Goodreads knows that I had trouble with The Devil in the White City. I’m still really quite torn. There were elements I liked and there were elements that left me completely uninterested. The biggest problem I have is that there are two, in all reality, separate stories that don’t really go together. On the one hand, we have Chicago’s World’s Fair: it’s planning, creation, operation, and aftermath. On the other hand, we have the story of H. H. Holmes: murderer. Everything about H. H. Holmes is fascinating. Everything about the World’s Fair is generally boring; I just could not get into it. Unfortunately, nothing really clicked until the midway point, and the only reason I finished the book was because I had already invested so much time into it and so I might as well have finished it (in addition to larger sections dedicated to Holmes). There is a singular mention of Holmes attending the Fair, and that’s it. That doesn’t work for me. That’s not enough. Larson’s writing is good, but even he can’t spin the “connections” between the two stories. I would much rather have read a book just on Holmes, with the World’s Fair simply being the setting. I really don’t have any desire to ever read it again. Though, with a film adaptation coming up, I will say I’ll watch what Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio come up with. 2.5/5

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My Murakami Marathon continues with his fourth novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. This novel is wholly unlike any of the previous Murakami novels I’ve read; it truly cannot compare. There are two interlocking stories here. Hard-Boiled Wonderland follows the path of an unnamed man who meets a mystifying Professor and his granddaughter and gets caught up in the “shuffling” of information, discovers his past, and plans for the future, all wrapped around a rather unique mystery. The End of the World follows the path of an unnamed man who is stuck within a walled town, aptly named End of the World, and becomes the Dreamreader, someone who reads information-laced particles of light that emanates from skulls.

Part detective story, part post-apocalyptic utopia (though, of course, utopia it is not), wrapped in post-modern dreams and themes. It’s a truly bizarre book, but Murakami’s strength lies in his description and the juxtaposition of these two connected stories. Every page was truly interesting and captivating, mesmerizing. A seriously good read. 4/5

 

Look for me on Goodreads here.

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Part 1 – Summer 1909

 

Chapter 1

“Ursula, you must not speak such vulgar and irreverent language!” protested Agnes Miller, who promptly giggled in her high register at the surprising embarrassment of Ursula’s disgustingly obscene words. “Your tongue will simply fall off at this very moment; I am unwaveringly sure of it.”

“Oh, contrary to your wanton beliefs, my dear, sweet Agnes, my tongue has never been so supplanted in all of its twenty-three years!” retorted Ursula Poole, “and it shall remain so until I perish from this very earth.”

The two ladies sat outside in the bright summer light around a beautifully carved wooden table; they perched themselves out in the exquisitely manicured garden of Ashton Woods to take in the air and to get away from the men who spent this morning curiously indoors. Rather odd, one would think. The clouds were beginning to appear, if only marginally. The heat was stifling and surprising, especially since there had been an onslaught of rain these past several days.

Around the embellished table sat four other women: Gladys Barrow, Eugenia Mayfield, Poppy Sutton, and Edith Wilby. All were in their twenties as well, though Gladys, that most unfortunate creature, looked to be in her mid-forties (some horrifically scarring accident left her face in irreparable shambles).

Delightfully droll the conversation was, though all but Agnes Miller agreed on that point. Edith Wilby remained perfectly silent, however, as she unquestionably loathed this sort of female gathering she has always been forced to attend; her face gleamed with disinterest. A perfectly light breeze circulated the table, rustling the women’s dresses, napkins, eyes, and conversations.

“Perhaps we should start back again,” suggested Eugenia. “I was off gazing at the lilies—those that only a proper English countryside villa can provide—and completely missed such vulgarities issuing from Ursula’s obviously wretched mouth.”

“You are always off gazing at something or other, aren’t you Eugenia?” questioned Gladys in her unexpectedly low voice (another hopeless circumstance for this poor woman). “What could you possibly be thinking about?”

“Oh, why nothing at all, Gladys. That’s the beauty of it. Pushing out my thoughts is one of my greatest strengths. That and my ability to capture men who have yet to realize their desire for me.”

“You are quite the spider, aren’t you, Ms. Mayfield? Just catching them up like dumbfounded flies in that pink and lacy web of yours,” said Poppy.

“I successfully accomplish two types of speaking, Ms. Poppy Sutton. Only one is less vocal than the other,” replied Eugenia with her natural wit and indecency.

“Why, we are a match made in heaven, aren’t we Eugenia?” proffered Ursula. “I must undeniably be your twin, as we share the very same assets! I feel as if we are sisters who have known each other for eternity.”

“I was one to believe that we were off the subject of your repugnant lips.” Agnes Miller stood up from her chair and sauntered closer to the white lilies Eugenia so longingly gazed at beforehand. They sparkled in the shimmering sunlight, still blistered with morning dew. She took up her pink parasol and it bloomed above her head.

“Come now, Agnes; be reasonable,” stated Gladys.

“It’s so absurdly despicable this morning,” she replied, looking up into the achingly bright light.

“Oh, please be careful, Agnes. Do not spend your time gazing into the sun. It’s killed many a person before, surely. Or at least affected their sight.”

“That would be such a pity, wouldn’t it?” Ursula muttered under her breath.

There was a slight pause in the conversation, a buckle upon the mouths of the women. Though, curiosity got the best of them, and Eugenia repeated her desire: “Shall we start back again, Ursula? I had missed your point moments ago.”

“We’re treading on a troubled track, I am absolutely sure of it!”

“Agnes, please. This shall all be over in one solitary second and then you may rejoin us if you so desire,” Poppy told her. “Look at dear Edith. She’s said nary a word and looks completely at ease.”

Edith aggressively glared at Poppy but remained quite mute; she did not want to pursue this avenue, which would undoubtedly result in an un-lady-like debacle.

“Now, Ursula, what were you about to say?” asked Eugenia emphatically. She leaned in closer with considerable anticipation.

“Such vile, contemptible nonsense,” mumbled Agnes to herself.

“Well, just like a firework—”

 

An ache was forming within his head, as if it were scraping upward toward his skull, searching for a way out but finding an impenetrable barrier in its path, blocking any possibility of escape.

“Come now, Dexter Wilby, sit yourself down here and relax yourself,” spoke Charles Grant to his dear friend. “Have a fag if you are so worried about Purcell’s arrival; surely that would help. Don’t let’s get all excited over nothing, my friend.”

“He really ought to be here by now, don’t you think, Charles?” questioned Dex Wilby. Even though he had been properly dressed by Jennings, his trusted valet-butler, he looked unkempt and worn down, perhaps with worry, as it seemed to be, or something of the unconscious; in any case, it was unquestionably clear as to the state of his current appearance. His dark, shadowy-colored hair, smoothed back mere moments ago, now hides part of his face, making him look slightly crazed. His hands visibly shook.

“Ju-just calm yourself d-down, D-Dex,” stammered William McVeigh. The poor man was affected with a sublime stutter, and thus seldom spoke unless absolutely necessary. He had a strong sense of composure, though, and was usually the one who quieted any sort of storm that may be brewing. He offered the same suggestion as Charles, and Dex leaned over, grabbed a cigarette from his golden case, and lit it with a match.

“This is to be a relaxing weekend in the country, dear boy,” spoke Edward Hall, looking as tall and formidable as ever. “Perhaps get your mind off of Purcell and back to the festivities of this afternoon. We shall all go riding, or hunting, or fishing, or something along those lines. I’m sure your father has it all figured out. Hunting, I’d suppose.”

Ashton Woods, the country villa in which these people are currently stationed, belonged to James Anderson Wilby. His family has owned the estate for several decades after, of course, it fell into the hands of James’s great-grandfather Adam Wilby from some indeterminate legal matter from Lord Edward Ashton that has almost never been brought up in polite conversation. Nevertheless, riches swiftly flowed into the Wilby family, and a more than comfortable life was present at Ashton Woods.

“Yes, I think perhaps a hunt is planned for later this afternoon,” Dex stated glumly. He never particularly enjoyed a hunt, but his father did and so he felt obliged to always partake in such occasions. In any case, the hunt would perhaps be postponed, not only because of Oliver’s tardiness but also the possibility of a storm. The butt of his cigarette glowed a brilliant orange-red color, and the smoke washed away into the darkness of the humid air within the drawing room.

 

Felicity Wilby, a gangly, freckly girl of about twelve years of age, barreled down the bright grassy knoll and through the overgrown meadow to escape to the small, slightly secluded pond, which sat near the edge of Ashton Woods. The Mermaid’s Trench, she called it, was hardly bigger than a standard room, but it cradled a variety of aquatic life, even in its smallest of crannies, and that excited her curiosity immensely.

At the far side of Mermaid’s Trench, bolted down, plunged through the soggy earth, rested a stiffened diving board. Although this pond was small in width, it had a great depth. Felicity would occasionally practice her diving skills, but that would be inappropriate today. It would take her ages to dispose of the clinging water if she submerged today. The temperature wasn’t particularly warm, anyway, and so she decided to simply perch on the diving board and stare into the hazy blue.

Trombone, Felicity’s incorrigible but lovable pet cat—her domesticated “lion”—sauntered over toward her. He had a certain gait, one that made him look as if he only possessed three walking appendages; however, he truly contained all four. Perhaps he was vying for attention wherever he went. It didn’t matter, though. Felicity remained in love with that silly, shaggy beast. Trombone scrunched up his face and sneezed several times in succession. He was allergic to the sun, you see.

Mermaid’s Trench, which usually had a ferocious current of activity, was rather muted this particular summer day. No frogs were hopping or burping or unleashing their tongues upon unsuspecting prey; no dragonflies were skimming around the top of the waters. It seemed almost devoid of any aquatic life. Only once did she miraculously witness a miniscule guppy jump out the water to attempt a fly capture; it failed tremendously. The water lilies lingered on the surface, bobbing slightly if a minor wave swam by. Otherwise, static.

Perchance the pond was cursed, however. Ever since… Sometimes, shadows… But she decided to think on something else.

Felicity said to herself aloud, “Perhaps Oliver would fancy the sight of Mermaid’s Trench?” She knew the answer already and laughed.

Oliver Purcell was a young man who often visited Ashton Woods for several months, beginning in summer. Felicity had known he would like to see Mermaid Trench, as she always escorted him to that little slice of paradise when he came to visit. Oliver was muscular, blonde, and tall—much taller than she—and he usually doted upon Felicity’s older siblings, Dexter and Edith (perhaps because of the closeness in their ages; Dexter was twenty-four, Edith was twenty, and Oliver fell somewhere in between).

Trombone sneezed again. Felicity looked down to see the feline shifting positions and curling up into a furry orb. Her attention diverted back to Mermaid’s Trench. Miniscule ripples floated across the top; she imagined these as horrific wave crashes for the small flying things that usually balanced on the watery surface. She dipped her hand into the bath and then removed it, watching the water form slim lines down her palm and back to its rippled reservoir.

The sun shone on Mermaid’s Trench. It was getting hot, and Felicity knew she should return; she’ll try to avoid the superfluous individuals who were currently spaced throughout the home and garden. She heard their echoes already, and that displeased her. Felicity glanced down to find the cat and noticed a vaguely human figure shimmering on the water’s surface; it looked like her, but perhaps it wasn’t. The little ripples twisted the image just so.

Scooping up Trombone—who jerked and groaned from the viciously sudden skyward movement—Felicity meandered back through the foliage toward the domineering fortress, the antediluvian and colossal trees shadowing the top of her bright, butter mellow head.

 

“See, Agnes, we’ve completely finished that conversation; it shall never be brought up again,” Ursula stated mischievously. Everyone there, including the relatively naïve Agnes, knew the entire conversation would be repeated multiple times over the course of the weekend.

Agnes swiveled around, closed her parasol, and retreated back to her seat. She was not accustomed to this sort of talk. Her mother rejected it, and, thus, so did she.

“Did you hear about Florence Wells? Her terrible cousin is coming for a visit.”

Silence.

The air seemed boiling and any notion of a breeze left the women to glisten with pimples of sweat.

Ursula swiveled around and asked her neighbor, “Tell us, dear Edith, did you have a successful trip in, oh where was it, Barcelona? Such a queer destination for a holiday. Did you ride a mule perchance? If I were a gambling woman, I would undoubtedly bet as much. I’m astounded you did not holiday in Italy. That’s much more fashionable, don’t you agree? Oh, everyone says that Italy is much chicer. I heard that Honeychurch girl holidayed in Florence; she went with her aunt, I believe. You went with your Aunt Briony, is that correct, dear?”

Ursula and the rest twisted their bony necks toward Edith and glared, waiting for a reaction from their taciturn acquaintance.

Edith, ignoring Ursula’s remarks completely, abruptly stood straight up, said, “Excuse me; I suddenly feel quite ill,” and glided back to the house in much haste, her dress swaying aggressively behind her.

“What ever is the matter with her?” asked Gladys. “We’re all roasting out here. At least we have the decency to manage ourselves in uncomfortable situations,” which meant much more than just the present issue. “Cheeky.” She picked up a cucumber sandwich, placed it in her mouth, and chewed rather grotesquely, her morning sweat rolling down her beaky nose onto sandwich, dampening the soft, chewy bread.

 

The grandfather clock sighed some chimes and then promptly shut down, as if that was the only opportunity to make its mark at any given hour; its hands shown noon.

Dexter Wilby sucked in and blew out a controlled puff of grisly grey smoke, which clawed and clambered its way through the air until it disappeared into nothingness. He then sat up, straightening his back and firmly planting his feet down on the oak floor. Glancing at the miniature clock that hung from his jacket, Dex found it to be two minutes past noon and replaced the clock into the appropriate pocket. He inhaled then exhaled, with less control this time.

His unhappiness seemed to breed, and now all the men appeared to be sulking in an unsuitable fashion, considering how glorious this weekend will surely be. Not even McVeigh could surmise an adequately uplifting phrase to lighten the mood. But then Hall offered a suggestion: “How about we leave you to it, Wilby? I think us lads need some fresh air, and those women will certainly need some interruption from their sisterly and holy chats.”

A round of agreeing headshakes flittered about the room, and Wilby responded, “Quite right.” The gentlemen escorted themselves out into the garden and Dex remained in solitude, which was actually preferable due to his present state of mind. They left in a cacophony, leaving a peaceful reticence.

Dex tapped his foot on the floor in rapid repetition, making a heavy clanking sound reverberate throughout the room. Looking ahead, he found the framed painting of St. Jude atop the fireplace; he wasn’t particularly religious, but Dex often found himself glancing at St. Jude, hoping for some sort of remedy. He thought himself a lost cause, mostly because his mother often told him as much. Ophelia Wilby was a dominating force, and she placed such a cycle of hardships on her children that Sisyphus would be grateful of his own constant problems. Her smoky breath drew nightmares in his sleep.

But enough of her. Inhale, exhale; do not overreact, dear boy. You’ve waited this long, Dex. What’s a few more hours of ragged breathing and foot tapping? Dex, stop tapping your foot. What would your father say? Patty and Felicity? Why is the temperature so ghastly infernal today? Such heathens! What grim night visions! The clock is pitter-pattering again. But I shan’t check it again. Worry rears nothing but more worry. Surely—

He grabbed his pocket watch and checked the time once more: 12:12. His foot continued to tap monotonously, endlessly. His fag burned out, and grabbed another; it burned, and he inhaled that ghostly presence.

The vivid, gloomy, sticky light of August broke through the stain-glassed windows on the far side of the room, painting a cascade of harmonious colors upon the floor wooden floor, Dex’s feet and face. He stood up in the middle of the floor, and remained static, not going left, not going right.

He wondered.

 

Trombone leapt from Felicity’s cradling grasp and onto the waving grass beside her. He reviled being carried, though he usually dealt with it. His owner continued to walk at a leisurely pace beside him. Felicity had given up hope that Oliver would arrive on time, though he never had in the past, so her tall expectations were quite unfounded. She walked under Ashton Woods’s ancient trees, their jagged yet strong branches groping outward and upward to the cloudless August sky, catching the sunlight in their hands.

Felicity enjoyed her lackadaisical approach to her walk home. There was no urgent desire to return and spectate amongst everyone else; even the occasional greeting by the elders left Felicity a smidgen reticent. If only her good friend Dolores were here; she would have made everything better.

Nevertheless, she continued down the grassy path with Trombone beside her, who was now chasing after a bee, unaware of any potential dangers that lie in such an endeavor. A horde of ants was piling out of and into their underground burrow, and Trombone hissed his unpleasantness. Gentle birds flitted overhead, their voices cascading into Felicity’s ears; the sound was peaceful and relaxing, and she began to daydream.

It was mostly about her mother, Ophelia. Felicity remembered her mother’s cool, comforting touch, and the way she would say darling whenever she spoke directly to her; Ophelia’s voice, Felicity recalled, seemed crumpled yet sonorous, and always contained a hint of honeyed rasp, a strangely inviting sound. If only she wasn’t stolen away, so many years prior.

Felicity missed her mother desperately. It had been six years—nearly half of her life—since Felicity last saw Ophelia. She didn’t quite understand as to why this was, but she trusted her father implicitly. She would do anything to get her mother back, though. Anything at all.

It soon became breezy; the wind ruffled Felicity’s dress. Trombone looked up at her and rubbed against her leg, meowing affectionately; or, as affectionately as a cat could. She could see the underbellies of the tree leaves above her, and she knew it was about to rain. Her mother told her as much. However so many years ago.

She evaluated the skies and came to the same conclusion.

 

As most would agree, it was harshly unsettling to feel one’s own stomach violently compressing and then lunging ascendant. Edith skirted behind an impeccable stripe of decorated topiaries and vomited rather unceremoniously. Such a rare occurrence caused immense discomfort and distress, and left an acidic bite on the tongue and a curdling shock on the teeth.

Edith suddenly felt deeply morose and unreservedly confounded by this certain predicament. These emotions came rather unexpectedly as there was no forewarning of any sort of illness. Perhaps it was an ill-prepared meal or some other sort of disastrous plague going round the English countryside. She decided to place blame on Ursula, for her sheer annoying personality. And the others as well because, well, why not? Might as well.

Nevertheless, Edith was, and rightfully so, apprehensive. If this condition had not originated from poorly produced food nor the displeasure of her former party, then, perhaps, something from her recent holiday had created this unwelcome circumstance, as she had only been back at Ashton Woods for three days.

Edith recovered herself. She clawed at some luminescent emerald grass and spread it about her production, and she then straightened herself up, checking her clothing for any sort of unsavory residue. Instead of returning to the mind-numbing festivities at the table, she headed back to the house. Along the way she passed the men, who were happily migrating toward the women, smoking their fine cigarettes and howling with cheer. She opened the door, and, upon entering, noticed Dexter in his customary state of being: restless worry, slight panic, wide-eyed surprise.

 

Edith had opened and closed the door rapidly, and, in the beams of the vivid August light, walked over to her older brother. Dexter could tell her mood was changed from mere hours before—when she begrudgingly left with the other girls outside—and decided to transform his own demeanor to compensate, a philosophy he had adapted to long ago.

Dexter had a complicated relationship with his first sister. Though close in age, and a relatively happy childhood together, they had increasingly drifted apart in recent years. Nowadays, their relationship consisted mostly of polite hellos and the occasional mockery of the other, but hardly ever moved beyond that. A full conversation was a rarity and silence was a regular staple whenever congregated.

“Hello.”

“Hello, yourself.”

Edith sauntered over to the couch and sat in the position where her brother formerly presided. “You’re looking unwell,” Dexter told her. He noticed her slightly shaking frame, a quiver upon her lip, a glassy quality to her eyes.

“Yes. Well, the heat was unbearable. And the others, too. They were nearly as intolerable as the sun.” She smiled slightly, let a strained chuckle through.

Dexter laughed himself, as he was in agreement with Edith. He looked at his sister and gently smirked. Still standing, though, he began to pace; a bit of sweat lingered on the shoulder blades, gravity willing it to slink down his back. Silence, their common friend, settled in. Edith gazed up to the ceiling, breathed in, breathed out, watched the black, putrid shadows roaming on the crackling walls, foreign beasts and persons past colorlessly jumping up and down. There was clearly something on her mind, but Dexter held his tongue.

“Oliver, then,” interjected Edith, betraying that swollen silence. “Have you heard anything?”

Of course he would be brought into the conversation; it was a matter of when. His presence was expected by everyone; he was intended to be talked about, almost in mythological terms. “No,” he said bluntly, “but he should arrive presently.” His fingers began playing a tune on his right thigh; nervousness led him to the comfort of music, and thus piano playing in the air tended to soothe that sensation.

This movement was odd but recognizable to Edith, as Dexter tended to act thus when anxiety strangled his nerves. He always had this fretful apprehension, an unending worriness, as far back as she could remember.

When Edith was eight, a Mr. George Ellis was to attend a dinner held by the Wilbys. She was excited, giddy at the fact that someone else would be joining their home, even for a briefest visit. Edith was an explorer, a wondering wanderer, and any new person—interesting or not—was a person who would change the day’s atmosphere, a promising specimen ripe for inspection. Mr. Ellis was a rotund, pompous, arrogant man—not a particularly good role model for such a youth—who travelled the world (an exciting fact for Edith). Dexter was less excited for Mr. Ellis’ arrival. A generally energetic boy, his demeanor changed drastically when George Ellis’ visit was announced; he slowed, moved inward on himself, quieted, began tapping his foot, his fingers; his blue, whispering soul curled round itself, shrunk. Novelty became uncomfortable. Dexter did not glance at Mr. Ellis for the dinner’s entirety. Not once. Edith, however, chatted with him almost constantly, investigating his travels, his life. They got on swimmingly; he inspired her. She wanted to travel with him to uncharted lands, to get out of her chair and see the world (a desire that betrayed her now). Mr. Ellis left that evening after the dessert course. Edith was devastated to see her newfound friend leave; Dexter was exhilarated to return to normalcy. That was the last the Wilbys heard of Mr. George Ellis, who tragically perished in a fire, but left an mbira, a small thumb piano, to her, as he promised her a trinket from his travels.

“He’ll be here soon, Edith. I’m sure of it.”

“Yes, of course,” she responded.

“Have you seen Felicity recently?”

“Hmm, no. She left for Mermaid Trench this morning, but I haven’t seen her since. I bet she’ll be back soon. It’s getting too warm outside and she knows better than to stay outdoors.”

“I expect she’s on her way.”

They sunk back into silence. Their conversation seemed to end. Dexter began playing the air and Edith stared neatly at her knees, her soft, lengthy hair gliding down upon her breast.

 

Felicity realized that she was incurably bored, incapable of finding much interest in anything at all. Not even Trombone, who scampered beside her, could hold her absolute attention.

She was nearing home and thought, again, of her friend Dolores. Felicity often felt her presence around the grounds of Ashton Woods, even though she had been gone for more than a year now. For, you see, Dolores was found dead the previous summer, waterlogged in Mermaid Trench. Felicity’s world was turned sideways, flattened in utter destruction. She collapsed, her bones instantaneously weak from grief; she cried ceaselessly for weeks on end—and for good reason. Dolores was her closest friend, and to hear of her sudden and mysterious death was earth-shattering; to have it occur at her home was just as petrifying. A long spell of nothingness waved over her, and not even Gideon Lark, her favorite groundskeeper, could boost her spirits. The individual responsible for Dolores’ death was never found, though months of rigorous investigation took place. Today her emotions were relatively back to normal, as much as they could be considering the circumstances. She promised herself not to slip into these dark doldrums, and the return of Oliver brought back happier memories, those of laughter and springtime bliss. Nevertheless, Felicity’s thoughts frequently travelled to Dolores. Oftentimes she even believed she had spotted her friend wondering on the grounds, in the shadows of trees or disjointed crooks within her timeworn home; a gleaming specter, a reminder.

Trombone brushed against Felicity’s shins and she gently plucked him from the ground. She arrived at her home and opened the door, dropping Trombone onto the creaky wooden floors. Entering the room, she closed the door behind her and saw her brother and sister. The cat scampered past and out of sight. Dexter looked forward and Edith stood up, both catching sight of their sister.

Felicity ran to them and hugged them individually.

“Hello, monkey,” Dexter said.

“Hello, goose,” her sister told her.

“Are we all here waiting for Oliver?” Felicity asked them. Both of them nodded their heads in agreement. Their eyes flicked between them. An energy was bubbling between their bodies, noticeable to the trained eye.

Echoes of laughter travelled from the outdoors, and then suddenly turned to echoes of shrill discontent.

They all sat down and waited. Outside it began to rain.