Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van PeltRemarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction, magical realism, relationship fiction
Pages: 360
Published by Ecco on May 3, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook

A novel tracing a widow's unlikely connection with a giant Pacific octopus.
After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.
Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.
Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.

My Review:

Remarkably Bright Creatures is a story about higher numbered chances than merely second and the long tentacle of coincidence that helps them happen.

Initially, they don’t seem to have much in common. A man whose prime isn’t very prime, who seems to have thrown away all his chances. An aging woman who has lost both her husband and her son, living lonely but determinedly in the house her parents built. And a giant Pacific octopus eking out his final days in the tiny Sowell Bay Aquarium on Puget Sound.

But Marcellus the octopus, whose placard outside his tank lists him as a “remarkably bright creature”, is as clever as he is bright. He’s also an intelligent observer of human behavior and a bit of an escape artist. There isn’t much else to do, all alone in his tank.

So he occasionally squeezes himself out to graze on the sea cucumbers – or even hazard a trip to the staff break room when the smell of leftover Chinese takeaway is too tempting to resist.

Which is how Tova Sullivan finds him, outside of his tank, caught in a tangle of wires and electrical cords and about to suffer what Marcellus calls “The Consequences” of being out of a tank for more than 20 minutes. Which he can calculate.

Marcellus is, after all, a remarkably bright creature.

Tova rescues him from the tangle. Not only that, but she doesn’t report Marcellus nighttime excursions to the aquarium’s director. It’s their little secret and the beginning of their unlikely friendship.

A friendship that ultimately results in both of them achieving the dreams they never admitted that they held. Not even to themselves.

Giant Pacific Octopus at the National Aquarium in Washington DC

Escape Rating A-: This book turned out to be WAY more charming than I expected. It was recommended by someone in my reading group so I was expecting a decent to good read, but this turned out to be just lovely.

This is kind of a quiet story, where things happen slowly and truths emerge over time. To the point where it borders on literary fiction a bit. But instead of being dark and gloomy where nothing happens and everyone argues a lot – which is how I tend to see litfic – the situations all start out a bit gloomy but everyone gets better. Even Marcellus.

At first you kind of wonder how Cameron’s story is going to link up to Tova’s and Marcellus’. And that coming together takes a while and goes off on a couple of tangents as it meanders along. But once it does, it all fits together beautifully.

What holds the story together – besides Marcellus’ tentacles – is Tova. Her son disappeared without a trace when he was just 18. Her husband has passed away. She’s alone – and yet she’s not. She has friends, she has a job, she makes sure she has purpose. And yet she also has concerns about what will happen to her when she can’t live on her own anymore.

Being Tova, she doesn’t wallow. Instead, she takes steps to determine her own future for her own self. In her situation I’d want to be her when I grew up. She’s a character to both admire and empathize with. To the point where we want her to get a better ending than it looks like she’s headed for when the story begins.

Cameron is not initially all that likable. He’s not bad, and he’s taken some seriously rough knocks, but he’s not good at taking responsibility for himself. And at 30 it’s past time he did. He arrives in Sowell Bay searching for his sperm donor in the hopes of a big financial score. He’s doomed to be disappointed – and it’s the making of him.

Marcellus – who is much more present as a character than one might think – is an absolute gem. At the same time, his intellectual presence in the story, his perspective on the events that he helps to bring about, is both fascinating and a bit equivocal. Anyone who wants to believe that all of the thoughts and actions ascribed to Marcellus are in the minds of Tova and Cameron – in the same way that we all believe we know what our pets are thinking when we most likely don’t – the story still works – and works well.

But it’s so much better if you let yourself believe that Marcellus is helping Tova and Cameron all along – and that they are helping him as well.

I enjoyed Remarkably Bright Creatures a whole lot more than I ever expected to. And in that way that when you are conscious of something you suddenly start seeing it everywhere – like getting a new car and being aware of all the cars of the same make and model sharing the road with you – I liked this so much that I started seeing books with octopi characters everywhere. In addition to Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus from a few years ago there’s The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler coming out in October, and Sea Change by Gina Chung next year.

I’m going to hunt me down some more octopi to read about while I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next!

Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Review: Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli WeidenWinter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Pages: 336
Published by Ecco on August 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository

Winter Counts is a marvel. It’s a thriller with a beating heart and jagged teeth. This book is a brilliant meditation on power and violence, and a testament to just how much a crime novel can achieve. Weiden is a powerful new voice. I couldn’t put it down.”  —Tommy Orange, author of There There
A Recommended Read from:
Buzzfeed * Electric Literature * Lit Hub * Shondaland * Publishers Weekly

A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. 
Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop.
They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.
Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

My Review:

Winter Counts sits on that uncomfortably sharp knife-edge between thriller and mystery. And when that knife edge cuts, the majority of the story feels like it falls on the thriller side of the equation. And what a thriller it is.

The reader, following in the footsteps of Virgil Wounded Horse, isn’t looking for merely whodunnit. For one thing, Virgil thinks that he already knows. But what he’s really in the middle of is more of a “something rotten in the state of Denmark” situation, with the Rosebud Indian Reservation standing in for Hamlet’s Denmark.

And the something that’s rotten? That lives up to another cliche, the one about the fish rotting from the head down. A head that is more than savvy enough to keep Virgil just distracted enough not to turn his eyes in its direction.

Virgil is the reservation’s enforcer, an unofficial position that exists in a yawning chasm, the howling abyss between the misdemeanor level of crimes that the Tribal Police are legally permitted to investigate and the felonies that the U.S. Federal Agencies are willing to take on. Serious crimes like rape, child abuse and assault all drown in that huge gap. Virgil’s position – and it really does exist on many reservations – arose so that people on the reservation could get some kind of justice. That the guilty would pay something for their crimes, even if the law never went after them.

Because it doesn’t. (That the rape of women on reservation land inevitably falls into this gap is one of the many, many, too many hills that the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has died on. A fact that is disgusting on so many different axes that I can’t even. Period.)

Back to the story.

Considering what Virgil does, it is not illogical for Tribal Councilman Ben Short Bear to contact Virgil about someone running heroin on tribal lands. But’s it’s not completely logical, either. Not just because Ben already knows who the drug dealer is, but because he paints this as a more than big enough crime to actually get the Feds off their asses to investigate. Major drug busts make both cops’ and prosecutors’ careers, and this one seems to be plenty big enough. Something about this one smells fishy, fishy enough that Virgil wants to think about it for a few days.

Then his nephew, Nathan, the teenage boy that Virgil is raising, barely survives a heroin overdose. Virgil is suddenly all in on a case he wasn’t sure about getting involved in – and isn’t that a huge coincidence? Nathan has had some issues, but up until this point drugs have not been one of them. A circumstance that should have seemed very fishy to Virgil, but he’s too emotionally compromised in this case to be thinking clearly.

As the criminal intended.

Virgil has to juggle this case he didn’t want, an on-again, off-again romance that he isn’t sure needs to be on again, and his care for a boy who is suddenly up to his neck in more trouble than either of them can handle.

Even the Feds are involved, with Virgil and Nathan playing “piggy-in-the-middle” in a tug of war between feuding drug gangs, rival jurisdictions and that rotten fish at the top of the food chain, playing all the ends against Virgil and Nathan in the middle.

Escape Rating A: It felt like Winter Counts was a thriller because of the way that the story works. The reader, and Virgil, both believe that they know what the crime is at the very beginning. It’s only as Virgil investigates that the picture begins to shift and the reader realizes just how badly he – and everyone around him – have been deceived.

I knew who the real villain was from the very beginning. I just didn’t know exactly what his villainy consisted of – or how or if Virgil was going to expose that villainy. And it was the two-steps forward, one-step back nature of that search and that exposure that kept me going through the story.

I felt compelled to know – even as the picture kept getting darker and murkier. As much as I had figured out the who, I was nowhere near sure about all the tendrils of the how and the why was still stunning in the depths to which it reached, as well as the amount of collateral damage it piled up.

Virgil begins this story as a man who may be doing a job, but is mostly looking for a bit of his own brand of justice against the men who, once upon a time, were the biggest bullies in a high school that looked down upon him as not being fully Lakota. He only gets fully invested when Nathan gets swept into the case, as intended by the crook he doesn’t even realize he’s pursuing.

In order to both solve the case and save his nephew – and himself – he has to move forward. He has to look for healing for his old resentments and reconcile himself to the wounds that can neither be healed nor avenged.

Considering that Virgil is the adult and Nathan the teenager, there’s a big part of this story that is about both of them growing up and facing the future. In order to be prepared for the next time that evil turns its gaze upon them. As Winter Counts is purported to be the opening book in a new series, I expect that will be sooner than Virgil would like, but not nearly fast enough for readers, like this one, who want more.