Swamplandia !

Before Disney took over Central Florida, before Harry Potter was even an idea in J.K. Rowling’s mind to become a Universal Studios attraction, I remember seeing billboards advertising alligator farms on the long stretch of flat Florida highway that never seemed to end.  Karen Russell uses that attraction to create a moving story about a family trying to survive.

After their mother, the alligator wrestler, dies suddenly of ovarian cancer, the Bigtree family and the “Number One Gator-Theme Park and Swamp Cafe” seem doomed, but the three teenagers who have been part of the ongoing alligator show and family business are determined to save the family, the alligators, and themselves as they struggle to grow up without their mother.

Using the voice of young thirteen year old Ava, Russell begins this story with humor and pathos; she follows the children’s  grief over losing their mother as they struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy in a family that is falling apart.   Ava decides she will replace her mother’s act and become the youngest champion alligator wrestler in the world and save the show with a new attraction – a newly hatched red alligator.   Ava’s older sister, Ossie, begins a study of the occult, trying to contact their mother through a Ouija board, and desperately imagines dates with dead watermen and trips to the Underworld to find their mother.  Ava’s seventeen year old brother, Kiwi, secretly longs for a better life and leaves the swamp to take a menial low-paying job at their competitor, “World of Darkness,” the new water slide ride – hoping to save enough money to send back home.

These three key characters are flanked by a grandfather, Grandpa Sawtooth who is sent to live under assisted care after he bites a customer; and a father, Chief, who leaves Ava and her sister alone in the swamp to go off to the mainland to make money.

Swamplandia! sneaks up on you.  One minute you are laughing at the ridiculous situations and funny incidents; then you are crying over the reality of their hard life and the raw reality of how much they miss their mother.   Russell uses the charm of a backwoods Tammy on the river to lull you into thinking this is another sweet story, but soon the sharp lessons of unbearable grief and survival, despite enormous disadvantages, unravel.  The story uses its cast of strong characters to draw you into a wacky world where you will wonder at Russell’s imagination and ability to create craziness.

If you stay with the ridiculous, you will be rewarded as the plot turns into drama, betrayal, and suspense.   Ossie abandons Ava to elope with a strange character, who may only exist in her head.  Ava, alone at their cabin, falls prey to a wandering degenerate who convinces her to come away with him, in search of Ossie.  Kiwi becomes their saviour in an unexpected twist.  The ending is a little contrived but no less powerful.

I’ve had Russell’s debut book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, a collection of short stories, on my shelf for a while – time to dust it off and get into it.  I like this author.

Launch Date

At 4 a.m. Eastern time in the United States, a wedding is scheduled to be launched in London.

At 4 p.m. Eastern time in the United States, a spaceship is scheduled to be launched in Florida.

The wedding schedule was perfect; the spaceship is delayed.

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The Cypress House – Michael Koryta


Arlen Wagner saw plenty of dead men in the war; now as he is on a train to Florida to work in FDR’s new Civilian Conservation Corps to build roads and bridges, he has an eerie premonition that all the men on the train will die.  He convinces Paul Brickhill to leave the train with him.  In the first fifty pages of The Cypress House, the story explodes – the men on the train are dead; the man who gave Arlen and Paul a ride from the train station is dead; the main characters are arrested and jailed, and soon find themselves in the middle of a drug cartel – with no way to escape.

The action is fast, suspenseful, sometimes brutal – and always compelling.  The setting, Cypress House, a former bar and hotel, hidden on a deserted stretch of beach and set strategically near a harbor that easily serves as a way-station for Cuban drugs, serves as the metaphor for life and death.  After a devastating hurricane, Arlen and Paul help the beautiful owner, Rebecca, rebuild – even repairing the smashed generator.  But cypress wood also makes the best coffins.

Koryta includes the requisite romance with some sex, and frames his characters as the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap heroes and sinister villains who callously kill without conscience.  Clever twists build the suspense, but the plot is predictable and the underlying vehicle for the action gets a little hokey: Arlen sees dead people before they are dead; his father talked to dead people after they were dead; and Arlen uses his newly discovered inherited talent to talk to dead victims to help save what’s left of the living in a contrived ending.

The action  and suspense could have survived without the supernatural extras and the zombie element.  I liked his first book, So Cold the River, better.

For a review on another Michael Koryta thriller, read So Cold the River


Lost and Found

I get lost – a lot.  I can take the wrong turn out of the elevator to my hotel room – repeatedly.  If my instincts tell me to make a right at a crossroads, it probably should be a left.  But I really don’t mind; in fact, I like getting lost.

Reading Matt Gross’s New York Times article, Lost in Ireland, reminded me of

Molly Malone

the pleasures of being lost – driving along the countryside, surprises at every turn.


Some of my best adventures have been while lost: exploring the woods around Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, and wondering if I’d make it back for dinner at the main cabin – I did; crossing over the river several times in Paris, looking for the Eiffel Tower to guide me home – it did.

You might think it impossible to get lost on an island, but it isn’t for me.  I can add Florida’s beautiful Amelia Island, Ireland, and Oahu to my list of lost islands  – where I’ve found something I wasn’t looking for.

Of course, getting lost sometimes precipitates being late – and that can be annoying to those waiting.  Nevertheless, those times when I have been so lost that I missed the meeting entirely – those were probably the best meetings I ever found.