The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

The banners on this blog show my various bookshelves, and one of them contains the book The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. I bought it at last year’s Twin Cities Book Festival, and actually met the author and had him sign my copy.  I was looking for new mysteries, possibly for my Mystery Book Club.  Eskens was very unassuming, approachable, and taking some flak for his quiet demeanor from a fellow mystery writer who was hawking her wares like a pro.  

  
I finally read it, and it was a page-turner.  I finished it off in two days, and it was, in a word, transporting.  It’s one of those books that makes you forget what’s going on around you.  There are two story lines, one in the past, and one in the present, and each is fraught with injustice, misunderstandings, and most importantly, characters you want to win against life’s crazy odds.

Joe, a college student, is trying to complete an assignment for his English class.  Sounds simple enough.  He has to find a stranger and interview that person and write their biography in brief.  His idea is to find someone at a nursing home to talk to, but the person he ends up meeting is not at all what he bargained for.  Carl Iverson is a convicted murderer who’s been in jail for thiry years, but has just been released to the nursing home because he’s dying of cancer. 

But Joe is committed to finishing the assignment.  It took all he had just to leave home and start college. And his mother keeps calling, needing him.  She’s an alcoholic and Joe’s been the parent of the household for a long time, putting his own life on hold.  Then his mother calls from jail, and Joe has no choice but to go back home, not for his mother, but to take care of his older brother Jeremy, who is autistic.  

Jeremy is a sweet kid, and Joe is stunned when Lila, the girl in the apartment next to his, who he’s been trying to chat up for weeks, warms up to Jeremy immediately. After Joe convinces Lila to come to dinner with him and Jeremy, she finds out about the interview and clashes with Joe over the idea. The argument ultimately causes the two of them to investigate the murder further, partly because Carl isn’t talking about it.   Joe doesn’t mind, as it’s more time he gets to spend with Lila, but it’s suddenly a lot to juggle–taking care of his brother, attending college, working a part-time job, trying to keep away from his toxic mother, and maybe having a girlfriend. 

Eskens’ writing is solid, and there were several passages that had me on the edge on my seat.  At one point, Joe upsets some people who don’t want him investigating Carl’s history, and he’s attacked and then stranded in the woods in a Minnesota snowstorm. How he survives is brilliant fun, a cross between one of writer Gary Paulsen’s wilderness survival tales for kids and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

The Life We Bury is a fabulous debut for Eskens. The characters are flawed and likeable, the setting is a beautiful, unpredictable character of its own–Minnesota in winter–and the action builds to a nail-biting crescendo.  Mystery/thriller readers will love it, but I suspect it will gain a wider audience.  Joe is just trying to break away from his family and figure out how to be his own person, and who can’t relate to that?

“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

If you, like Indiana Jones, have a severe aversion to snakes, you probably won’t enjoy Awakening by S. J. Bolton–the snakes will be just too distracting. 

  
Clara is a veterinarian in a small town, where she works at The Little Order of St. Francis, which was founded by Catholic monks in the late 1800s to treat sick and injured wild animals, including snakes, badgers, and wild birds.  She relates better to animals than to people, but a rash of snakes in the village plunges her into the spotlight as the resident expert, whether she likes it or not.  Clara is under the mistaken illusion that living in a small town will afford her the privacy she so desperately craves, when really, her every move is much more under the microscope in a small town than if she lived in a big, anonymous city.  

Clara’s aversion to other people comes from being severely self-conscious about a deforming scar on her face that dates back to her early childhood. The reader only gradually learns more about this scar, as Clara herself hardly likes to think about it, and she’s narrating the story. 

So, the snakes.  A man dies from a snake bite, but Clara is suspicious, as a bite from this snake rarely kills.  Turns out she’s right, that the amount of venom found in the body is so high that it could not have come from a bite–someone injected it to kill the man.  Then a family wakes in the middle of the night to a house filled with a “swarm” of snakes, which theoretically could happen.  I found this rather alarming, I must say, but by that time there was a ghost in an old, crumbling house, a hot police detective, and a mystery, and I couldn’t put it down.

Awakening is a great title, as it works on several levels, including Clara’s own awakening to how people really see her as opposed to how she thinks they see her.  There’s also some fascinating history about a real religious sect that used snakes in their rituals, as well as snake-handling in general and the genuinely unsolvable mystery of how some people can handle snakes and never get bitten.  I liked that Bolton found some mystery to leave unsolved, and had such a fascinating solution to the crimes involving the snakes and the ghost.