All Things Bright and Strange – James Markert

I’m not going to try to knock out a synopsis of this book. There’s a lot, and it’s both complicated and very simple; there are holes in the plot, and predictability, but also genuine creepy horror elements and interesting characterization.

Note: If you’re a Yankee like myself, it may help you in reading this book to know that Hoppin’ John is a dish made with black-eyed peas, smoked ham, and rice. Sounds good. Now that you know the details, you might end up very very hungry by the end of the story, because one character is famous for her Hoppin’ John, and makes it a lot.

There’s also a lot of alcohol flowing through this book, Prohibition or no Prohibition. The characters have all had to live through WWI, after all, either on the home front or the actual front, and none of the soldiers came back unscathed. It’s realistic, and well-told, the alcoholism and the fight against it, or the surrender to it.

My complaint about this aspect of the book is the language used about it. “You’ve been dipping the bill in too much giggle juice”… Over and over, in deadly serious contexts, with no levity whatever, characters referred to booze as “giggle juice”. I have no idea how dialectically accurate it was – but I found it irritating, especially in light of all the other little regional euphemisms that kept cropping up – “jingle-brained” was one that was perhaps over-used. When a woman’s “getaway sticks” were referred to, it took me a couple of pages to figure out that that meant “legs”. And the desire to go up to someone and “drygulch him in the noodle”, while not as puzzling, still made me go “huh?”. Even the more common language felt out of place; I don’t know if the author was working to avoid curse words, but in at least one place a character was speaking angrily about something he had every reason to be angry about, but still said “darn”.

So, basically, the language drove me a bit crazy (and that’s not even including the one character who adopted a pseudo- manner of speaking which looked like nothing I’ve ever seen before). But I have to say what was said was memorable. There are images from this book that will stay with me for a while – beautiful and wondrous things, like a flock of cardinals in the form of a man, and a town with all of the trees and flowers blooming at once … and terrible, unsettling things, like a deer ramming its head into a tree, over and over, and like people – and animals – walking backwards … that made the hair stand up on my arms just typing that out.

But, as mentioned, there was a sort of tedious predictability to it all. I kept hoping the plot would take a turn and do something amazing – but while the climax of the story was overall satisfying, it could have been so much more. Everything felt like it was building up to something huge and heart-rending … and I was just left a bit flat. I felt like there were major missed opportunities.

But I finally found out why live oaks are called that: “That’s ’cause they hold on to their leaves nearly all year like an evergreen.” Hey, thanks.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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