This is a Bust, by Ed Lin

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This is a Bust

Robert Chow is not a happy man. When he joined the New York Police Department and was assigned to Chinatown, he thought he would be making a real different for his community. After all, he spoke Cantonese. He grew up there. But as the only officer of Chinese descent in the NYPD, Chow is nothing more than a PR tool. He walks a beat most of the time, except when he is called in to be a Chinese face at some public event. This is a Bust, by Ed Lin, tells Chow’s story as he races for rock bottom in the summer of 1976.

Because Chow is not a detective (though he desperately wants to be), he is stuck walking a beat through Chinatown. Every morning, he fuels up with iced coffee and two or three hot-dog pastries and walks. Some of the inhabitants of Chinatown see him as an outsider because he is a cop. Others, usually older residents, see him as the only policeman they can trust. They tell him things, which annoys and saddens Chow because he’s technically not supposed to do anything with these tips apart from passing them on to the detectives.

The enforced uselessness of his position—and Chow know full well the NYPD is exploiting him for his face—is getting to Chow. He drinks more and more each day. He drinks in the morning. He drinks at night until he passes out watching news from Taiwan and mainland China. He drinks to forget his experiences in Vietnam. He drinks to forget his dreams of making a difference. In spite of all this drinking and Chow’s increasingly bad attitude, people love him and try to help him rescue himself from alcoholism.

The mystery in This is a Bust, involving a trio of older Chinese residents, is a footnote to Chow’s alcoholism. Chow responds when Yip bursts into the barbershop to announce that his wife is dead and he doesn’t know what to do. Chow leaves mid-haircut to take a look and call it in. For the rest of the book, Yip sidles up to Chow for help and to try and make friends with the officer. Evidence and clues about what really happens slowly trickle in. In any other novel about a hardbitten alcoholic cop, the protagonist would have been all over this case. Chow, however, is so angry and disaffected most of the time that he stays warned when his superiors tell him to let the detectives handle the case. It’s almost a surprise when Chow later cracks the case.

This is a Bust reads, to me, like a prologue to explain why Chow is the way he is. In other circumstances, we might have come to know Chow through other mysteries and liked him for his dedication to Chinatown or something similar. Instead, we watch him race towards rock bottom while a case is lackadaisically pursued by others. What I liked most about this book was the setting. Whatever his value as a cop might be, Chow is an excellent guide to the tangle of histories and relationships in New York’s Chinatown during the mid-1970s.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 25 July 2017. 

Arrowood, by Mick Finlay

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Arrowood

William Arrowood hates Sherlock Holmes. The damned man is on everyone’s lips as the best detective of the age. Arrowood would argue (and does, repeatedly) that Holmes is sloppy and relies too much on physical evidence rather than witness statements and lies. In Arrowood, by Mick Finlay, we see a better argument for Arrowood’s superiority (or not) as the detective and his partner, Norman Barnett, track down a missing Frenchman and unravel a criminal conspiracy.

Arrowood begins in classic mystery fashion when a beautiful woman walks into the detective’s consulting room and pursues him to take her case. Miss Cousture’s brother has disappeared. The evidence suggests that he fled back to the sibling’s homeland, France. Arrowood is reluctant, even when she presses him with some much needed coin, but accepts the case only when he learns that the brother works for an old enemy. Mr. Cream was responsible for a death in Arrowood’s last big case. This new case offers the detective a way to take the villain down.

Arrowood is the kind of detective who can read lies in facial expressions and discover clues in omissions. His people skills can get witness and suspects to reveal much more than they meant. He hardly has to stir from his rooms above a bakery to gather information. His style of detecting is enabled by his partner, Barnett. Barnett does all the legwork and is frequently beaten by suspects—which is a useful, if painful way, of learning that they are on the right track. Barnett is also our narrator, so we solve the mystery along with him for the most part. Thankfully, Barnett is not an idiot the way Dr. Watson is portrayed in many of the Holmes’ stories; he just misses tiny clues that Arrowood can pick up on.

While we rarely see Holmes mess up, Arrowood and Barnett make mistake after mistake. Their history with the London Metropolitan Police means that the pair have almost no support as they barge into dangerous situation after dangerous situation. When Holmes does make a mistake, is usually because he’s been temporary outsmarted by a worthy adversary. When Arrowood screws up, its because of bad luck or because the villains are more vicious than anticipated.

I enjoyed the well-constructed mystery at the center of this novel and I particularly enjoyed Arrowood’s soliloquies about Holmes. I’m not sure I’ll follow the series, however. Apart from Arrowood’s potshots at Holmes, I didn’t love this novel. It’s a solid novel, but it didn’t thrill me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.

Where the Light Falls, by Allison Pataki and Owen Pataki

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Where the Light Falls

Allison and Owen Pataki’s Where the Light Falls is the story of two parallel lives during the tumultuous years of the French Reign of Terror and the wars immediately after. André is the son of a marquis who struggles to escape the taint of being an aristocrat. Jean-Luc is an idealistic young lawyer who moved to Paris to be a part of the new government. Both of these naïve young men quickly learn that the truth is not enough to save them when they become the targets of men who are more than willing to use the mob’s bloodlust to settle old scores.

Where the Light Falls opens in 1792, a few months before the Battle of Valmy. Jean-Luc is working for the Revolutionary government, but only as a clerk cataloging the seized belongings of aristocrats and clergymen (most of whom have gone to the guillotine). He wants to do more, contenting himself with working pro bono for citizens with legal complains no one else will touch until something more meaningful comes along. Meanwhile, André serves in the new French Army as it defends itself from foreign forces that seek to restore Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to the throne. It takes several chapters for Jean-Luc and André’s paths to cross. The two finally meet when André’s commander, General Kellerman*, is denounced towards the end of the Terror.

Once the two join forces to try and save Kellerman, the parallels between Jean-Luc and André become more pronounced. André sees his military career trampled and his life endangered when he falls in love with the wrong girl. Jean-Luc grows increasingly troubled as he learns how cynical men are using the Revolution as a weapon. Both men are believers in truth and merit, hoping that honestly will win the day—only to be bitterly disappointed when they finally learn that the world doesn’t work that way, even in a city allegedly ruled according to the ideals of liberté, égalité, et fraternité**.

At times, Where the Light Falls skips over important history (most of the Terror, in fact). At others, we get detailed battle scenes that go on for pages (Valmy and the Battle of the Pyramids). I found this treatment very frustrating as I am fascinated by the French Revolution. I might have liked this book better if the characters—especially the female ones—had been more fully realized. (I was especially annoyed that Jean-Luc’s wife, who had a very interesting secret, got so little page time.) Apart from Jean-Luc and André, most of the characters are straight from central casting: a damsel in frequent distress, two drunkards, and two deliriously evil villains. I finished Where the Light Falls, but I was disappointed by all the missed opportunities and clumsy writing.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.


* The Patakis have no problem manipulating history for narrative purposes. What happens to Kellerman in Where the Light Falls is very different from what happened to the historical general.
** The novel also has a very irritating habit of including French for a bit of flavor only to have an immediate translation included in character dialog. Also, I doubt that eighteenth century French people would refer to each other as their “dates” at balls and such.

The Widow Nash, by Jamie Harrison

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The Widow Nash

Of all the unconventional lives created for fictional heroines, I don’t know if anyone has conjured up anything as dangerously madcap as Dulcy Remfrey’s life in Jamie Harrison’s The Widow NashAs the daughter of a syphilitic geologist/miner, Dulcy grew up crisscrossing the globe as her father searched for precious minerals and cures. His death in Seattle is just the start of her own deadly adventure.

The telegram Dulcy receives at the beginning of The Widow Nash contains a double dose of bad news. Not only is her father in the last stages of syphilis, but she’s been summoned to care for him by her violent, unstable ex-fiancé. This is not a gesture of goodwill on Victor’s part. He wants Dulcy in Seattle so that, first, she can figure out where the profits from his last joint venture with Dulcy’s father went (Walton doesn’t remember) and, second, to reconnect with her. It is with the greatest trepidation that Dulcy travels to Seattle. When Walton dies without divulging his secret, Dulcy works out a way to escape Victor. (Some of the events that show why Dulcy wants to get away may be triggering for survivors of sexual assault.)

Dulcy fakes her death on a train headed back to New York for Walton’s funeral and reinvents herself as Mrs. Nash, the widow of a soldier who died during the Spanish-American War, in the rough frontier town of Livingston, Montana. As the novel progresses, we see her begin to relax into her new life even though the town is full of men as violent as Victor—though she is not the target of their wrath. Of course, some of the women (Dulcy included) are just as devious as the man. I cannot overstate how criminal this book is, as it seems like most of the secondary characters are involved in some kind of racket or other. There is some joy in the middle of all the shenanigans, as Dulcy manages to find real love in spite of her dread that Victor or his henchmen might discover her new name and whereabouts.

Even though this book is full of rogues and villains, I had a great time reading it. The plot meanders to give us excerpts from Dulcy’s former life and her father’s obsessions, but the tangle provides a portrait of an intelligent, determined woman who refuses to let anyone cow her. I loved that this book played around in the darkest of ethical gray areas as it told its tale. Dulcy and her allies bend rules until they break. Others break rules just because they can. What matters in the end, is why the rules were broken.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 13 June 2017.

Devastation Road, by Jason Hewitt

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Devastation Road

The period shortly before and after Germany surrendered in 1945 was violently chaotic. Some troops were still fighting. Others were fleeing across countries to be captured by the country of their choice. Most cities in central Europe had been bombed to smithereens. Refugees (and soldiers) were hungry, wounded, and desperate. All of this makes for a gut punch of a novel, Jason Hewitt’s Devastation Road, that reads like a World War II version of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

All Owen knows about himself as Devastation Road begins is his name, that he was maybe a pilot, and that he’s not in England. A few odd names and memories float around in his head, but nothing sticks for weeks. He also knows that he’s in hostile territory, so it’s fortunately that a young Czech Resistance fighter named Janek takes him under his teenage wing. The two barely share a common language and Janek is increasingly irritated by Owen’s faulty memory. The only reason the Czech sticks around is because Owen owes him two lives—though Owen has no idea why.

The pair duck and dodge German and Russian soldiers, heading west, until they run into another unfortunate soul. A young woman with a shaved head was trying to get someone to take her infant son, someone who could care for the child. After Owen takes the baby, Irena catches up to them and the slowly make their way to the German border through the Czech countryside. None of them are very happy about the arrangement, but not enough to strike out on their own. As the novel rolls along, Owen learns Janek and Irena’s secrets. His memories slowly return, enough for him to remember memories that he probably wishes would have remained buried.

While I enjoyed the characters, what I loved most about Devastation Road was its atmosphere of weary danger. Everyone is this novel is physically and emotionally exhausted (with a few stunning exceptions), but they carry on because the war is not quite over. Ever after the Axis surrender, the war wouldn’t be over for people looking for friends and relatives, their homes, or even just food to sustain them for another few steps. The plot serves, at least in part, as a vehicle for exploring the strange, bombed out world of central Europe in the spring of 1945.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2017.

The Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova

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The Shadow Land

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land is another deep dive into history, though not so deep as in The HistorianIn this lengthy (possibly too lengthy) novel, an American would-be Samaritan accidentally steals an urn from a trio of Bulgarians. This mishap leads Alexandra Boyd all over Bulgaria in an attempt to return the urn, all while being chases by menacing henchmen of a rising politician and trying to learn why the man in the urn is so important. As Kostova writes in her note at the end of the book, this plot serves as a platform to plunge into the history of Bulgaria’s gulag system.

Alexandra has left a depressing set of divorced parents in the Blue Ridge mountains to teach English in Sofia, Bulgaria. She chose Sofia because it was her disappeared brother’s greatest wish to visit the country. Before she even gets to her hostel, Alexandra has a brief encounter with two elderly and one middle-aged Bulgarians. When she realizes she accidentally grabbed one of their bags (which contains a beautiful wooden urn), she does everything she can to return it. All she has to go on is the name on the urn: Stoyan Lazarov. Fortunately for Alexandra, she bumbles into a very useful friendship with a taxi driver, Asparuh, who has a lot more skill in detection that one might expect from the average cab driver. Her only misstep at the outset is to—as any Westerner might—ask the police for help tracing the family.

With the family incommunicado for most of the book, Alexandra and Asparuh end up traveling from Sofia to rural and mountain villages to Plovdiv to the Black Sea coast and back. With each stop, they learn a little bit more why an obscure violinist is of such interest to the politician who might be the next prime minister. The long historical and geographical road trip ends with a fairly spectacular show down in an old forced labor camp.

Unfortunately for us, the full revelations of what’s going on come very late in the book. We have to take the long way round, much like Alexandra and Asparuh. The Shadow Land is a thriller written by a historian. Someone more savvy with the genre’s conventions would have gone through this book like a buzzsaw, trimming unnecessary background (especially the odd first-person chapters in which Alexandra talks about her childhood and missing brother) and possibly a few of the stops. Because Kostova is a historian, moreover a historian with a reputation for writing novels with multiple layers of narrative frames, there are many digressions that are interesting but just slow things down in a plot that should race.

The best parts of The Shadow Land are the rich descriptions of Bulgaria’s varied landscapes, from post-Communist cities to mountains that have been inhabited for centuries. (I particularly loved the story of Baba Yana’s house, though it added only a little to the novel.) I want to go see some of the places Alexandra saw—hopefully not chased by henchmen, though. Some of the secondary characters were wonderful (mostly the old ladies). But by about page 300, I was very ready to be done with The Shadow Land.

We Eat Our Own, by Kea Wilson

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We Eat Our Own

Inspired by the making of and controversy surrounding Cannibal Holocaust, Kea Wilson’s disturbing We Eat Our Own is a story about artistic madness, danger, death, and the unknown. Set in 1979 in the Amazon jungle of Columbia, Italian director Ugo Velluto is attempting to make a new kind of horror film, something that will raise his reputation as a maker of schlock. Meanwhile, his lead actors are trying to keep up with him even though there is no script, his effects people are stymied by conditions and constant changes, and the country begins to descend into open warfare between cartels, the government, and rebels. It’s a wonder this book doesn’t have a higher body count than it does.

We Eat Our Own opens in New York, when an unnamed actor receives a call from his agent that he has been hired to be the lead in a film currently being shot in Columbia. The actor, who has been longing to break into something better than experimental (unpaid) theater and commercials, leaps at the chance. (Irritatingly, the actor’s chapters are written in the second person. I really don’t like reading second person prose, but the rest of the story kept me interested.) Because Ugo is so determined to have his actors’ performances seem real, does everything he can to put the actor into a state of paranoia, confusion, and fear. By the time the actor arrives on set almost a week after taking off from New York, he has no idea what’s going on and is not having a good time.

The unnamed actor is one of the main through lines for We Eat Our Own. The other is a series of excerpts from a court transcript. Ugo has been charged with criminal negligence and, possibly, murder. Sometime between the filming and the trial, the three main actors of Ugo’s film have gone missing. The film Ugo edited and released makes it look like all three have really been killed. Ugo refuses to tell the court what really happened, telling everyone that they need to watch the film and decide for themselves if the on screen deaths are real or not.

The chapters in between these two plot threads are told from the perspective of crew members or members of a local cadre of anti-government, anti-cartel rebels. Some of these chapters answer questions about what’s really going on; others further complicate the set. Ugo only has one chapter from his own perspective (along with the court scenes). For most of the novel, it’s hard to tell if he’s lost in artistic vision or an extremely skilled puppet master.

Throughout the book, characters ask each other or ponder for themselves why people watch horror movies and what those audiences want to see. Ugo is willing to pander to viewers who want gore, violence, and sex, even in his quest for putting something real on film. The actors have differing philosophies about performance. The unnamed actor is devoted to Stanislavski and character analysis. The female lead, Irena, is a master mimic who can switch emotions at the drop of a hat. She doesn’t care about method or psychology so much as she’s interested in the appearance of reality, even if it means taking her clothes off a lot. The director and the unnamed actor have higher ideals, compared to the cynics around them, but they are frequently shown up as out of touch with their audiences.

The predominate theory (both in the book and in what I know from listening to fans of horror) for why people watch these movies is that it provides emotional catharsis. The plots and scares wind up viewers until the climax, when good triumphs or a plot twist releases all that tension. We Eat Our Own does something similar. The confusion produced by the court scenes and the other chapters about what really happened in the jungle builds until the resolution near the end. But it adds an extra twist that makes you wonder if, even after the trick is revealed, the danger has really passed. I can’t say that I enjoyed We Eat Our Own, because it was a white-knuckle read, but it is some damn fine storytelling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read something light and fluffy to get this book out of my head.

An Unrestored Woman, by Shobha Rao

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An Unrestored Woman

In An Unrestored Woman, Shobha Rao tells a series of stories about characters that brush each others’ lives over the course of a century. Not only do characters from various stories meet, the plots share themes of love and betrayal, revenge and violence. The various stories, taken as a whole, offer different perspectives on what people are willing to do to each other to try and find their own happiness—and the prices they have to pay for their manipulations.

Some of the standout stories include:

“The Imperial Police” – Though several other stories feature downtrodden and abused women, this story struck me as the saddest one in the collection. Jenkins is a British officer in the Anglo-Indian police force just before the 1947 Partition (a pivotal event in many of the stories in An Unrestored Woman). He has been posted to the frontier town of Rawalpindi for behavior that becomes clear over the course of the story: Jenkins is attracted to men. He has fallen in love a few times in his life, but has never been able (or allowed) to express his feelings. In “The Imperial Police,” Jenkins accidentally causes the death of his latest object of affection in the growing sectarian violence in the city and now has to inform the man’s widow. As I read this story, I thought about what might have been for Jenkins if he’d lived in another time and another place.

“Such a Mighty River” – This might be my favorite story in the entire collection. Alok Debnath (who appears briefly in another story) is a retired man fading into Alzheimer’s. At 84, he’s making the most of what he has left—mostly the companionship of a woman he pays to spoon with him for a few hours. She serves as a reminder of Alok’s beloved wife. One day, Alok decides to go looking for the woman only to become lost in his memories of a day when his wife went missing early in their marriage. Time becomes a blur as Alok wanders the streets asking for his companion and his wife in turns. This is a moving story with a surprisingly violent ending.

“The Road to Mirpur Khas”- This story is a good example of what one can expect from most of the stories in An Unrestored Woman. The story begins with a disruption to the status quo. In the case of this story, it’s the Partition. Arya and her husband are headed for the orchards of Mirpur Khas, intending to work as pickers, before the unnamed husband’s naiveté means they are repeatedly robbed. The husband (and narrator) watches as his more practical wife becomes a prostitute to earn money. She grows more cynical as he comes to loathe himself. Their initial love for each other dies away because the husband emotionally betrayed his wife at a critical moment; he failed to fight for Arya when she needed him to.

The stories of An Unrestored Woman focus instead on emotional damage (which, for some reason, I can handle better than physical violence). And even though many of the stories are about betrayal and love, they offer different perspectives on what constitutes betrayal and how the victim of that betrayal can respond. The characters can either move on (as many of the female characters do) or let it destroy them (as many of the male characters do). This book is a grim testament to the motto “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

When I finished the collection, my honest reaction was “These stories could have been a lot more awful than they were.” I was relieved. I’ve read some terrifying, difficult stories this year. While An Unrestored Woman is not an easy read by any means, it is not as violent as it might have been.

Murder on Black Swan Lane, by Andrea Penrose

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Murder on Black Swan Lane

With Murder on Black Swan Lane, Andrea Penrose launches a new series featuring the satirical cartoonish Charlotte Sloane and the irascible Earl of Wrexford, set in Regency London. In this debut novel, Sloane and Wrexford team up to defeat a criminal mastermind before the villain succeeds in framing the earl for a series of ghastly murders.

Murder on Black Swan Lane kicks off with a prologue featuring two characters meeting in mysterious circumstances before one kills the other with acid and a knife to the throat. The prologue gives way to Wrexford being questioned by a Bow Street Runner about his whereabouts the night before. He and the victim had been trading increasingly angry words in the newspapers. Meanwhile, Charlotte Sloane, in her guise of cartoonist A.J. Quill, reveals in her newest work that she knows far more than anyone should about the details of the murder.

After Wrexford tracks Sloane down with a mix of bribery and curiously talented servants, the two strike a bargain to share information in order to track down the killer. The more I read, the more I was enthralled by the mystery and the characters. It was clear from the prologue that the central crime would involve some flimflammery about alchemy, but I very much enjoyed the way Penrose grounded the weird with the pragmatically criminal as the plot developed. I also appreciated the sparks between the highly independent investigators. I don’t mean romantic sparks (although Penrose laid some groundwork there for future stories). Rather, I mean sparks between clashing world views. Wrexford swears by logic and physical evidence. Sloane is more intuitive and relies on her wide learning and artist’s eye to figure out what’s missing in the gaps between the evidence.

The book has clear hints that there will be more to come (even setting up future plots here and here). The partnership between Sloane and Wrexford is wonderful reading, mostly because of their senses of humor and mutual inability to suffer fools. I definitely plan on reading future entries in this series.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 27 June 2017.

Crane Pond, by Richard Francis

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Crane Pond

While I know some of the history of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible still pops up in my mind whenever I see the Trials referenced. For those not familiar with the play, The Crucible focuses on the accused and their accusers to show how revenge-based hysteria can destroy a community. Many other accounts of the Trials also tend to focus on the accusers and the accused to try and understand what really happened. Crane Pond by Richard Francis, however, centers on one of the judges who condemned accused witches to hang. This novel is based on the writings of Samuel Sewall, the only justice (as far as I know) to express regret for his actions during the panic of the Trials.

Because of Sewall’s writings, I think Crane Pond comes the closest to explaining how the mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials became a great injustice that politicians have later apologized for. The novel opens some months before the first trials occurred, allowing us to get a sense of Sewall as a person and a judge. Sewall was a leader in his Puritan community in Boston, well respected as a fair judge. In those opening chapters, we are also introduced to the Puritan mindset of a world in constant struggle between god and his elect against the devil and his forces. Sewall constantly tries to turn every day events into divine lessons (which sometimes involve impressive mental calisthenics). Sewall sees the world the way his fellow congregants do. This worldview, however, makes it possible for him to allow the shenanigans of the accusers (fainting, hallucinations, dreams, etc.) to be admitted as legal evidence.

Crane Pond has a long arc. At first, Sewall joins the group of five judges assigned to Salem Village to determine if there is witchcraft involved. To our modern eyes, it seems like the judges are far to willing to believe the accusers. They put the burden of evidence on the accused (mostly older, unconnected, and often cantankerous people) to prove that they are not witches. The insanity spreads until upwards of 300 people were accused of witchcraft and dozens were executed. Sewall is troubled, then disturbed at the way his fellow judges drive the accusations and panic until he feels that continuing to serve is a great sin. By the end of the book, as public opinion shifts away from the court and the accusers, Sewall is tormented by his guilt for voting in favor of execution for so many of the accused.

What fascinated me most about Crane Pond is the way that an intelligent man can bend his reason to believing that witchcraft exists (and that the devil can work retroactively in one astonishing episode). Further, that intelligent people can rack themselves into constant states of anxiety as they worry about the state of their souls and their destination after death. Sewall and his fellow Puritans never rest easy. Because Crane Pond illustrates this struggle so well, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read about the Salem Witch Trials. It captures something that gets lost in modern history books because, I think, one really has to spend time in a Puritan brain to truly understand their actions.