The Bookworm: Dealing in deaths, two interesting jobs

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Mask of Shadows”

By Linsey Miller

c. 2017, Sourcebooks

 $17.99, $24.99 Canada; 352 pages

Your someday-dream job is not for wimps. That’s truth: it’ll be real work, and you’re prepared. You know it’ll take training, which will take time. You’ll have to learn to think differently, and that’s okay. You might get discouraged, and you’ll handle it. But – as in the new novel “Mask of Shadows” by Linsey Miller – are you ready to die for it?

At first, Sallot Leon thought the scrap of paper might be money.

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Erland Nobles had been doing that – making money – ever since the war, when Nacea was obliterated. But no, this bit of paper was worth more than money: it was an open call for a replacement member of the Queen’s Left Hand, an elite group of assassin-guards. Come by invitation or by skill, the poster said.

Sal had the skill, for sure.

“Mask of Shadows” author Linsey Miller.

Since the age of eight, Sal worked as a street fighter and could climb anything. There was nothing Sal couldn’t steal. No lock Sal couldn’t pick. Those were skills the Queen needed, just as much as Sal needed to be Opal for the Left Hand and so, to get into the audition, Sal committed murder.

That, as it turned out, was the easy part: after passing the first interview, Sal was accepted and given a mask to wear at all times, the last mask awarded. Twenty-Three people were in the competition, for which the rules were simple: kill your competitors without being seen or getting caught, but don’t hurt anyone not competing.

Nine competitors were killed the first night.

“Mask of Shadows” by Linsey Miller.

As other Opal Wanna-Be’s fell almost hourly, Sal had to rely on past experience and new skills to stay alive. Core-strength training helped Sal dodge spears and arrows from other competitors. Tutoring eliminated illiteracy. Medical training kept Sal from death by poisoning. But there was no way to avoid falling in love with someone forbidden, nor the aftermath that was sure to come …

Though it starts out a little on the clunky side and it may take a minute to get your bearings, “Mask of Shadows” quickly becomes a pretty good novel.

And a unique one, too: it’s rare to find a gender-fluid character in a main position, but that’s where author Linsey Miller places hers – and yet, though unusual, fluidity isn’t the driving force behind this story. We don’t know, in fact, that Sal doesn’t gender-identify until later in the novel. That’s uncommon, too.

As for character development, there’s where Miller shines. Sal starts out a bit feral, a street-wise petty thief, uncivilized but with hungry focus. There’s a lot of selfishness in that early Sal, but as they mature into a trained assassin, egotism is replaced by allegiance and a much finer character. Add in a cast that could, one-by-one, die at any minute and, well, you’ll be hooked.

For fans of “The Hunger Games”-type fiction, that’s going to be too appealing to pass up. It’s going to be too delicious to deny yourself. “Mask of Shadows,” for readers age 15 and up, is going to be a dream book.

“Confessions of a Funeral Director”

By Caleb Wilde

c. 2017, HarperOne

$25.99, $31.99 Canada; 193 pages

It was not the way things were supposed to be. As a teenager, you’d mapped out your life with a timetable. You’d travel there, visit this, see things you wanted to see and experience that which you desired before resuming your schedule. It would be a meaningful life, filled with adventure. But, as in the new book “Confessions of a Funeral Director” by Caleb Wilde, had you planned for a meaningful ending?

“Confessions of a Funeral Director” by Caleb Wilde.

Caleb Wilde was born into death. His father was a fifth-generation funeral director; his mother would’ve been a fourth-generation funeral director. Both sets of grandparents lived in their respective funeral homes and as he grew up, Wilde played near caskets and enjoyed family dinners in a room that doubled as seating for funerals. Death, for him, was no big deal.

Except that it was. He couldn’t help but think about death, as he lay awake in his bedroom above a funeral home. In his mind, he turned over issues of God and death, hellfire and eternity until he ultimately decided that his “childhood God was a God who was broken apart,” and he decided to do something about it. Eschewing the family business, Wilde went instead on a search to “create good” and to “reimagine God to be different from [a] God who had the power to stop tragedy but chose not to do it.”

But death wasn’t done. Though pulled toward a faith-based lifestyle, Wilde instead returned to the family business. He’d done so “Somewhat reluctantly,” but he’d come to see the possibility of participating in “healing the world” through small acts at a small funeral home – although he still had much to learn.

From a man who seemed to know everybody in their Pennsylvania town, Wilde saw that “anyone can … be a part of the death-care process.” At a nursing home, he participated in a unique method of honoring the dead. From a grieving friend, he learned that there are many ways to worship. And he came to understand that “it’s not the ending that defines us, but how we live out our narrative.”

Six feet.  Or maybe more; at any rate, “Confessions of a Funeral Director” is deep. It’s also thoughtful. And refreshing.

Most memoirs by funeral directors take an anecdotal turn at some point, and author Caleb Wilde’s book is no exception: he widely sprinkles client stories inside his own but here, each is taken as a lesson and a reason for introspection. Yes, observant readers may spot an occasional smile, but this is more a memoir for questioners in faith (particularly as related to current events) and for those who have what Wilde calls a “death negative narrative,” which is the notion that “all deaths [are] bad.”

If you’re willing to spend time in thought, you’ll find a serene, silent opposite to that here, and maybe some comfort for our times. Not all deaths are bad, and if you need to know it today, then “Confessions of a Funeral Director” is how a meditative book should be.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.