The Janus Stone [Book Review]

Janus Stone

That I missed the first installment of the Ruth Galloway Crime series wasn’t a deterrent at all. In her follow-up The Janus Stone, Norfolk [England] police find a child’s body under a threshold at a demolition site and a cat skeleton elsewhere at the same location. What links the two sets of bones: headless. No skulls. An archaeological dig outside of town provides a nice counterpoint and plenty of information about Roman and Celtic burial rites and sacrifices. Janus is the two-faced Roman God, simultaneously looking forward and backward, the god of doorways and boundaries; once sacrifices were offered to him, buried under doorways. Hence the title. But the bones at the construction site are much more recent. Forensic archaeologist—bones expert—Ruth Galloway is called in to consult.

Part mystery/detective story with a healthy splash of soap opera, The Janus Stone is a fast, intelligent read. The relationship elements (which guy for Ruth? Police detective Nelson? Archaeologist Max? Druid Cathbad? A question complicated by her first-term unrevealed pregnancy. . .) are mostly dramatic seasoning and only occasionally stray into comedy/melodrama, as in the climactic scene when the three leading men all join forces to confront the villain.

The present-tense voice is fresh and the multiple characters’ viewpoints are expertly handled.  Griffiths portrays an England where Protestant/Catholic tensions and biases are still acknowledged, counterpointed by Ruth’s scientific agnosticism and Cathbad’s paganism, painted in wry humor. (“You don’t have to be religious to be Catholic,” Nelson claims at one point [45], and Ruth is disinterested in what she calls “the age-old struggle between Catholic and Protestant.” Although, she concedes, “Catholicism has nicer pictures” [79].) Priest Father Hennessey is portrayed sympathetically, which is to say as human.  Even Ruth’s staunchly Born-Again parents come around to compassionately accept her illegitimate pregnancy. It’s a nice balance, completely free of authorial bias.

Although Cathbad might be the most interesting character of the lot. Generally clad in purple druidic robes, he has an uncanny sixth-sense and susses out Ruth’s pregnancy—and the identity of the father—with an unexplainable intuition. In the penultimate dramatic scene, as Nelson and Cathbad are racing to rescue a kidnapped Ruth, Cathbad is preternaturally calm:

                        Nelson reaches forty miles an hour before he has backed out. . .but, beside him, Cathbad is calm and serene. He is the only person Nelson has met who is not terrified by his driving . . . . Nelson puts the siren on and they weave madly between lanes . . . [while] . . . Cathbad hums a Celtic folk song (292).

He even puts on a black shirt for the funeral which follows identification of the child’s body: none of the religious characters are caricatures.  It’s wonderfully refreshing.

Smart, humorous, and well-paced, with an appropriate and intriguing subplot (although again, the subplot veers toward soap operatic), The Janus Stone is a good read. The focus on relationship elements skews it more to a female audience, but it is nowhere near the romance genre and is firmly a female-oriented who-dunnit.

One quibble: no self-respecting druid would celebrate Imbolc on May 23, even if Cathbad does acknowledge that “the weather’s been so bad . . .I don’t expect Brigid will mind” (50).  I assume that the author is trying to tie [saint and/or goddess] Brigid’s threshold connections to Janus in order to provide thematic unity. As bloggist Jan Richardson reminds: “Brigid was known as a bridge-builder and a threshold figure, symbolized in the story that tells that her mother, Broicsech, gave birth to her as she crossed through the doorway into her house.” And despite my neo-pagan familiarity, I can’t actually confirm if pagans really do dance around a bonfire (so is it possible there is a touch of caricature—or merely that everyone loves bonfires?) but the inclusion of families and children at the bonfire was realistic.  Bonus: they didn’t dance ‘skyclad’ or as my friend would say ‘bucky tale nekkid’.

A strong, entertaining read.

The Secret Life of Children’s Books Set in New York City

            Although I grew up in Central New Jersey, a little over an hour from Manhattan, our family rarely went into New York. We saw the Statue of Liberty when I was young—so young that all I remember is climbing all those many stairs; afterwards, my parents stopped at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. My father, sightseeing in a t-shirt that warm summer day, was turned away from dining because he wasn’t wearing a tie. It was the 1970’s. Today my memories of 9/11 and the architectural marvel of the Twin Towers are mixed with the shame I felt upon seeing my father denied admittance.

Apart from that one visit to the Statue of Liberty and a crazy spontaneous trip to Rockefeller Center one Thanksgiving when I was in middle school, we didn’t go into New York. Everything I knew about New York I learned from Children’s books. These are some of my favorites:

house east 88 lyle

          Bernard Waber’s splendid Lyle, Lyle Crocodile features a lovable (yes: Lovable Lyle is another title in the series) crocodile who is more roommate or house-guest than pet. Crocodile or not, he has real personality. The illustrations in The House on East 88th Street recreates New York’s Upper East Side with a verisimilitude I didn’t recognize until I became an adult. Everything I know about New York brownstones I learned from Lyle.

Magic in the Park

          Ruth Chew’s 1972 Magic in the Park taught me everything I needed to know about city parks. (It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t Central Park as I’d long thought, but Prospect Park in Brooklyn.) The childhood parks of my suburban hometown lacked ravens, pigeons, lakes, and islands; a magical tree was no more fantastic that a park big enough to hold a lake!

elephi

          I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Jean Stafford’s 1968 Elephi, the Cat with the High IQ to re-read it and verify, so I can’t confirm if this is actually set in Manhattan or any quintessential city. Does it really matter? It feels like New York. One GoodReads reviewer confirms it is “full of 1960s NYC period details” while an Amazon reviewer claims “New Yorkers will love the book.” I absorbed its epic New York Cityness without even realizing it.  Today, as an adult, walking through my new hometown of Philadelphia, I’ll see cats surveying the world from curtained ledges above the street and think of Elephi. Regrettably, I assume this book is out of print since I’m having such difficulty finding it.

George Seldon’s classic 1960 The Cricket In Times Square? Meh. It was assigned reading in third or fourth grade.

            And trendy sophisticated Eloise (Kay Thompson, 1955) always seemed too entitled for my working-class tastes.

The Number One Best All-Time Children’s Book set in New York? From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler of course!

mixed up files

This 1967 E.L. Konigsburg book remains a classic. Its descriptions are so strong I still can see them 30 years later: the children pack clothes in the violin cases which act as their luggage when they run away from home. Every time I see a museum fountain with coins I want to wade in and gather up the money. And when I visit certain museums, I am still seized by the thought of crossing the red velvet rope to lie upon famous beds in bedroom exhibits.

All those authors brought New York to me.

secret life of pets

          A new story—a movie, a cartoon—recreates New York with the versimulitude of these books. The Secret Life of Pets is well plotted, entertaining, highly visual, even laugh-aloud funny for adults sans children. Best of all is the animated cityscape, beautiful, skillfully displayed. (I can’t comment on the sewers.) Someday a child-grown-up will recognize the Brooklyn Bridge and think “there’s that bridge from The Secret Life of Pets.” And that’s a good thing.

secret life pets bridge 2

          When you can’t get to New York, let New York come to you through books and film.

 

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

A- as an magical alternate world with a fairy-tale feel. There aren’t enough girl ‘buddy’ stories: B+ as a good female friendship story. B- for plot: the teen protagonist seducing the mentor is questionable because real-world high school teachers would get fired for sleeping with a student (even if the student initiated it). A+ setting: the menacing forest and battles therein are fresh and original.

 

3 out of 5 stars.

Uprooted_Novik

The Blessing of the New Year

Here’s a Highlands New Year’s Blessing from the Carmina Gadelica. It’s traditional to say this poem “the first thing on the first day of the year.” (I’m a little late.)

"Camhanaich" by John McSporran.Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/127130111@N06/16477446765/in/photolist-r74dRK-pCvAqb-3vH1uX-742jEJ-5WoZyN-5WjHAx-jgcbLB-5NA2iD-59z2D5-5Wp1ao-5Wp1rN-idk3uu-quULh1-NtL9m-5NBxs8-3ujV2S-idket1-qpVmtD-dGi73e-qD5eAS-3gxPUj-6tnBKg-4fWSH4-pYVokH-teYUrb-6vk4bs-pVvZZS-8E7XxW-ifnC2R-dz925x-4f1gn3-CsoXck-8HAAKT-nkGcMA-axsW3e-nCbMGx-s8u7Rp-9dyfK4-4nsuoU-41wC45-4nsvnA-5Sqb6x-9dBg8b-9dBc5d-6cbe6Q-diHrH5-uJWiXq-APLtMP-qYDTsk-ASuxXP

“Camhanaich” by John McSporran via Flickr. Creative Commons License.  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

GOD, bless to me the new day,

Never vouchsafed to me before;

It is to bless Thine own presence

Thou hast given me this time, O God.

.

Bless Thou to me mine eye,

May mine eye bless all it sees;

I will bless my neighbor,

May my neighbor bless me.

.

God, give me a clean heart,

Let me not from sight of Thine eye;

Bless to me my children and my wife,

And bless to me my means and my cattle.

.

Happy New Year and many blessings for a brand new day: a new beginning every day.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale [Book Review]

“It was Christmas Day of that year and Dell Martin hovered at the double-glazed PVC window of his tidy home, conducting a survey of the bruised clouds and concluding that it might just snow; and if it did snow then someone would have to pay out.”

Not the first line, but it should be, of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Art by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Photo by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Twenty years ago, a daughter/sister/girlfriend went missing. No traces. Presumed dead or some other tragic end. If she was all right, she would have called. Even if she’d run away, she would have written. For twenty years her loved ones have been stifled by the inpenetrable grief of not-knowing.

Then Tara Martin reappears on Christmas, young and slight, looking not a day older, unable to account for her whereabouts. She makes up a story about traveling but eventually discloses her truth: she had spent time—in her mind only six months—with the fairies.

Doctors are brought in; dental records are checked. She meets with the local psychiatrist who explores amnesia, traumatic memory loss, and confabulation. Tara’s tales of the fairies’ sexual exploits are presumed to be projections of her own repressed self. But questions remain: Is the girl who she claims to be? Why hasn’t she aged?

This novel presents a deft handling of the faerie mythos. Set in “the deepest heart of England,” it is a welcome addition to modern Fairy Tale lore. Author Graham Joyce has a familiar knowledge of faerie story tropes and carries his premise to its logical conclusion: what would happen if someone today were taken to and returned from Faerie?

The clash of modernity with traditional folklore is accentuated by Graham’s frequent epigraphic references to the Bridget Cleary case. In 1895 near Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six year old Bridget Cleary was burned and murdered by her husband and family who believed she was a changeling, a fairy imposter, a fairy in disguise. Ten of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for murder. To Graham, the Bridget Cleary case illustrates the ascendance of law and rationality over superstition.

Now, in his novel written and set over one hundred years later, he explores a parallel question: how would modern society respond if the folklore proved true?

A true gem for the faerie and fairy tale enthusiast.

Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. London: Orion Publishing, 2012.

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

 

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

Judgment-Free Zone

I saw this sign when I was out running errands:

Judgment Free Zone

 

Judgment-Free Zone.

My heart got a little squishy. I have zero interest in joining a gym, but I reached out toward that advertisement with longing: I want to go to a judgment-free zone.

               It reminded me of that time when as a children’s librarian I was reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to a preschool group. Usually I pre-read the books in advance, but this was a classic, and I figured I knew it well. I turned the page and got to the line, “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” And my heart scrunched and my eyes watered up in front of all those three and four year olds. Me too, I’d thought.

where_the_wild_things_are

Despite my disinterest in joining a gym—[I’m overweight; I probably should, but that’s a topic for another day]—I give props to that advertisement campaign. Brilliant. Isn’t that what we all want? Acceptance. In particular, my own childhood was excessively strict and punitive. Nearly everything I did was wrong. To this day I have a hard time trusting—even my friends. I’ve been looking thirty years for a judgment-free zone.

It got me thinking about the places and spaces in my life.

I’m fortunate that my church is a judgment-free zone. It’s one of the few judgment-free zones in my life. That and my therapist’s office. Too many people find only judgment in church.

My relationships? Well, perhaps some of the perceived judgment is my own worries and not reality.

Still, that one gym advertisement prompted me to consider:

 

Am I making my home a judgment-free zone?

How do I make my workplace judgment-free?

As a supervisor, I need to require proper employee behavior, but do I encourage or discourage?

 

How would the world look if every place was a judgment free zone?

Join with me and commit to making your world a judgment-free zone today.

 

Grammar Note:

Despite the advertising poster, “judgment” in the preferred American spelling. Judgement (with an e) is sometimes considered acceptable in British English.

 

 

Hermits and Saints

I went to morning prayers yesterday and my priest commemorated, among others, St. Colman of Ireland. A Celtic saint I didn’t know! I was pleased and flummoxed. Flummoxed because I would now have to go and research him . . .

A perusal of Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a Google consultation soon followed (not necessarily in that order). Butler concisely informs that St. Colman was a bishop and hermit in Western Ireland who escaped to the barren Burren “because he had been made a bishop against his will.” (There’s been a few of those, no? Perhaps a topic for another day.) Apparently burren (boireann) means “great rock” in Irish—not a very habitable place. During my 2003 trip to Ireland, we traveled through the Burren. It’s an inhospitable mound of rocks about which one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers famously stated had “not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.”

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

The Burren, photo by the author, 2003

Tradition says St. Colman retreated to the Burren ‘forests’—had the forest had been cut down by the time of Cromwell a thousand years later? The St. Colman Mac Duagh Burren Forest page has pictures of the dense brush today; I’m not sure I would call those scrawny trees a ‘forest’ but landforms change over the course of a millennium. At any rate, it is a place far more austere than St. Kevin’s lush Glendalough. Not a place I would want to live.

St. Colman later founded a monastery at Kilmacduagh, near Galway. I can piece together the Irish meaning: Kil-mac-duagh, church (kil) of the son (mac) of Duagh. Butler eludes to the legends of St. Colman’s friendships with a mouse, fly, and cock without recounting them, and you’ll have to visit the Russian Orthodox Christianity page on St. Colman to read them yourself.

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Kilmacduagh Monastery Ruins by Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Once, I may have wanted to be a hermit . . .

In therapy, I talk quite a bit about my introversion and social anxiety—(although it’s not social anxiety as we normally think of it, it’s still a helpful if imprecise term). My therapist’s advice ranges from the self acceptance of embracing my introversion to cognitive-behavioral promises not to be the first person to leave a party. I attended a family event last weekend—a pleasant, wonderful visit which nonetheless left me utterly exhausted.

In my therapist’s office on the eve of St. Colman’s feast, I lamented adult-ing. I wanted to go back to my high school self and sit in a corner reading a science fiction paperback for the entire duration of a party. I entertained what I call my “Unabomber” fantasy [sans bombs] in which I daydream about living off-the-grid in a cabin in Wyoming and walking into town once a week to buy my groceries and check my email through the public library computers.

I am more functional than I was twenty years ago; I make the effort; I force myself to attend dreadful odious baby showers because it’s the right thing to do. I’m probably less lonely. I’m not sure if I’m significantly happier. People exhaust me.

Knowing of my faith, my therapist spontaneously asked me if there were any hermetic examples or outlets I could explore or learn from. Doubtful, I told him glumly. A good number of hermits are only temporary hermits; eventually, after many years of solitude, they end up getting dragged (against their will!) back into the community and end up abbot of a monastery or something. The solitude teaches them the fortitude they will need for their future endeavors. It happened to St. Colman, and many others. We had a good laugh.

The next morning I learned it was St. Colman’s feast day. Later in the afternoon I discovered it was also National Hermit Day—a day dedicated to stepping away from the frenzy of our lives and the tyranny of our electronic devices. We are encouraged to “retreat to someplace quiet.” The National Day Calendar tips their hats to St. Colman, their inspiration for this nouveau holiday.

Three hermit references within twenty-four-hours. Once upon a time, I would have considered it a message from the Universe.