The Tale of Halcyon Crane

The Tale of Halcyon CraneThe Tale of Halcyon Crane
by Wendy Webb
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 9780805091403
Publication Date: March 30, 2010
Pages: 328
Genre: Fiction, Suspense
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks

When a mysterious letter lands in Hallie James's mailbox, her life is upended. Hallie was raised by her loving father, having been told her mother died in a fire decades earlier. But it turns out that her mother, Madlyn, was alive until very recently. Why would Hallie's father have taken her away from Madlyn? What really happened to her family thirty years ago?

In search of answers, Hallie travels to the place where her mother lived, a remote island in the middle of the Great Lakes. The stiff islanders fix her first with icy stares and then unabashed amazement as they recognize why she looks so familiar, and Hallie quickly realizes her family's dark secrets are enmeshed in the history of this strange place. But not everyone greets her with such a chilly reception—a coffee-shop owner and the family's lawyer both warm to Hallie, and the possibility of romance blooms. And then there's the grand Victorian house bequeathed to her—maybe it's the eerie atmosphere or maybe it's the prim, elderly maid who used to work for her mother, but Hallie just can't shake the feeling that strange things are starting to happen . . .

Meh.  A good story, but not a well told one.  In the author’s defence, I think it’s her first book, published about 12 years ago and the only one published by Henry Holt (I believe all the rest of her books are published by an Amazon subsidiary).

The premise of the story is a gripping one: when Hallie was 5, her father faked her and his deaths, spiriting her away to the other side of the country, convincing her that her mother died in a house fire where everything was lost.  He gets away with it for over 30 years, until early-onset Alzheimer’s sets in and a picture of him and Hallie end up in the newspaper honouring him for his dedicated teaching career.  Her mother, thinking her dead all these years, finds out, only to write her a letter, conveniently change her will, and die of a heart attack, leaving Hallie the sole heir of a mother she thought long dead and never got to meet.  A day later, her father passes too.

This is where the book begins, with Hallie heading to the island in Lake Superior, devastated and in shock and wondering why her perfect and adored father would have committed such a crime.

This is definitely a ghost story, unlike my first Wendy Webb (also the most recent, I believe).  It’s just not a very spooky one, although it definitely should be; the crap that went down in that house should have made me hair stand on end.  But it didn’t.

This also tries to be a romance.  I like both the characters and I don’t doubt they fell in loved and lived happily ever after, but I wasn’t moved by it.

I’m pretty sure there’s supposed to be an element of suspense, but I never felt suspended.  I was pretty certain I knew who Iris was, and although I was correct, there is a twist at the end I didn’t anticipate at all.  It should have been more shocking than it was, and instead it just left me surprised; a ‘huh’ instead of a ‘holy crap!’.

Like I said, a lot of good elements, but executed clumsily.  I feel like, had this story been written by someone like Simone St. James, I’d have had to sleep with the lights on for a week.  Instead, I’m not sure I’ll remember much of it by the time I go to sleep tonight.

The Sentence

The SentenceThe Sentence
by Louise Erdrich
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781472157003
Publication Date: November 9, 2021
Pages: 387
Genre: Fiction, Literature
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group

Louise Erdrich's latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store's most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls' Day, but she simply won't leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading 'with murderous attention,' must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls' Day 2019 and ends on All Souls' Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written.

What an extraordinary read.  From first page to last I was awed and riveted.  There was a lot of pain in this book, but Erdrich never overwhelmed the story or the reader with it; there was humor subtly woven through the words like sweetgrass, but it never took over.  The angst – something I’m not normally keen to read about – was authentic, and both was and wasn’t a focus of the story.

It seems that I can only be swayed to read literary fiction when there’s a ghost involved.  First Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, and now The Sentence.  Neither has let me down or made me regret my choice, but I think I might like The Sentence more, even though I rated it half a star lower.  Lincoln in the Bardo was often difficult to read as the human condition was a little too magnified, human and on display to really enjoy it.  But the structure just blew me away.  The Sentence has a traditional narrative structure, and I became invested in the characters’ lives and cared what happened to them, although Tookie’s journey to prison is, while shortly told, both painful and painfully funny.

There are really two, maybe three, stories in this book.  The Sentence begins with the aftermath of Flora’s death and her initial haunting of the bookshop, all of which happens in November 2019.  As the season and the months progress so, too, does Flora’s haunting, seeming to focus on Tookie more than anyone else, and escalating in alarming ways.

Then as 2020 progresses into that fateful March, another story takes over – the story of the pandemic; how it crept up on people and suddenly exploded on the scene in a flurry of hand-washing, sanitisers, and food hoarding.  Stay-at-home orders.  Keeping the bookstore, Birchbark books open.  At this point, I think, this story becomes more fictography, and Flora’s ghost fades to almost nothingness as the narrative is about surviving, staying open, staying safe.

And then George Floyd is murdered by a policeman in broad daylight.  Now the story becomes a fictitious memoir, but only in the sense that the names have changed.  This is the Native American perspective of the riots and it’s about as an effective narrative of the pain, anguish, anger, frustration, bitterness, hope, and need to heal as any I’ve read.  It is the hardest part of the book to read.

As Minneapolis puts things back together, Flora comes back to the forefront of the plot again.  These last few chapters were still beautifully written but it’s this part of the story that kept me from going to the full 5 stars.  The ‘solution’ to Flora’s haunting seems suddenly abrupt; their idea for her release seems to come out of nowhere, although it’s totally in keeping with the theme of the book.  The characters don’t know there’s a theme, so how did they suddenly get from what are were going to do? to wait! I know what she wants! ?  There’s no progression here, so it feels bolt-of-lightning-from-the-blue-ish.  And then the revelation Tookie has that does banish Flora.  I know exactly what Erdrich was trying to do, and I know exactly to what earlier part of the story she was trying to tie it to, but it was clumsily done.  I was left floundering for several paragraphs, and even when the ‘denouement’ came, it failed to have the emotional impact it should have had – I feel Erdrich missed a step that kept the reader from feeling the full power of the gut punch we’re meant to feel.

It doesn’t really matter though – this is a read that will remain with me, and one I want to talk about with everybody I come into contact with.  A damn good story.

The Haunting of Maddy Clarie

The Haunting of Maddy ClareThe Haunting of Maddy Clare
by Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★★
isbn: 9780451235688
Publication Date: March 6, 2012
Pages: 330
Genre: Fantasy, Fiction
Publisher: NAL / New American Library


I put this book on my ‘maybe’ list well over a year ago and then promptly overlooked it for ages.  I even gave up and removed it from my lists altogether because I figured if I hadn’t bought it yet, I wasn’t really interested.

A recent review here on BL highly rating it brought it back to my attention at the same time I received a coupon from my favorite online bookseller so I just ordered it.

Jeez am I glad I did.  I loved this book.  This book hit all the right buttons for me: it was scary without being terrifying; it had great sexual tension (I am not going to call it ‘romance’ because there wasn’t any romancing going on, but it was intense); it had a great plot and interesting characters and it was well-written.  The writing style reminded me of authors of the past, particularly Phyllis Whitney.

My only complaint is now I’m suffering from a book hangover – right before I leave for a long weekend at the beach.