Talking To Luke
eBook & Paperback (400 Pages)
May 21, 2016
A Review by Carol Kean
After giving up on dozens of novels that read like everything else out there, I shook my puny fist at The Muse and pleaded: Lead me to something fresh and compelling with characters I’d follow anywhere–fictional folk who become people I’d hang out with in real life, and I’d cry “Come back! Come back!” when they sail off into the sunrise. Please? Pretty please, with sugar and stars on top?
Then I found Talking to Luke. Thank you, Muse! Thank you, Diane Ryan!
The voice of Luke is like no other. Not since Daniel Day Lewis brought Honest Abe to life in the 2012 movie Lincoln have I heard so much thoughtfulness and eloquence. I’m tempted to stop talking right now and just copy and paste the opening pages here.
I stand in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, watching my mother’s back as she tends a pot on the stove.
But where do I stop?
… “Mama,” I say, my gaze pinned to a strand of her dark hair that has strayed from its clip. “I have something to tell you. Lee surrendered–I’m coming home.”
I left out the descriptions, which are rich, detailed, and more like memories than fiction. Those, I’ll leave for other readers to experience firsthand.
Just don’t fall too deep into the lovely, lyrical prose. This is not a light, easy read. There are dark passages. Yet for every disaster–trivial, comical, or tragic–the narrative flows like a river, riveting the reader to every word. Hearing Luke reminds me of Daniel Day Lewis telling a reporter how he found the voice of Lincoln, “almost as if being drawn into the orbit of another life; almost a physical sensation.”
Wherever the voice of Luke came from, Diane Ryan has channeled it, and I’m hooked.
“My fate has been fortuitous,” Luke tells us. “I survived this mockery of war, this blight on a nation where I saw the ground saturated with Rebel blood.”
Lest anyone suggest that a real life 22-year-old soldier wouldn’t sound so formal and eloquent, try what Diane Ryan did: reading letters written by Civil War soldiers. She’s captured a time, a place, a voice we rarely hear. A hundred and fifty years later, only our best and brightest come anywhere close to writing as competently, much less as eloquently, as last century’s country school drop-outs. Today’s kids can’t even read cursive, much less write someone a thoughtful, coherent letter, longhand. Back then the average man’s penmanship was flawless, as lovely as calligraphy.
I’d never come across Civil War photos of shirtless men with battle-weary eyes and tousled hair, but Diane Ryan did. And boy, does she know how to deploy these images in her prose. Not just Luke’s voice, but his face and eyes and whole person haunt us. Having devoured sepia photos from the Old West (Karl Moon’s Navajo Boy!), I know what it’s like to stare into the eyes of a long-ago face and dream of meeting that person in the flesh.
Talking to Luke pulls us right into that dream-come-true. The story is better than a synopsis could convey. Tania, like Luke, is 22. She’s smart, friendly, attractive–an overtly normal college senior–but when it comes to boyfriends, she has better luck in dusty mausoleums, listening for voices from the crypt. One of her electives is research in Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). Sometimes the equipment registers a crazy amount of electromagnetic disturbances which coincide with other signs of a ghostly presence.
Tania discovers she is a natural for attracting the attention of those who haven’t moved on yet to the other side. All her life she’s had a peculiar sensitivity to electrical activity, but ghost hunting ratchets it up to something unbelievable.
By degrees, the air developed a charge. Her body tingled, and the fine hair at the nape of her neck stood on end. A lot like–no, exactly like–she’d come in contact with a mild electric current.
When a Civil War soldier speaks to her without the techno-gadgets, Tania knows she’s achieved the Holy Grail of researchers everywhere. Even her professor and mentor, Evelyn, is eclipsed by a novice, which is one reason Tania keeps Luke a secret.
Then the voice becomes an apparition.
…”You can see me?”
…It was the same voice she’d heard in the cloakroom.
…”Yes,” she answered, finding her voice. “I can see you.”
…Cautiously, he pointed to the video camera. “How’s that work?”
…Tania was speechless. How indeed? Three years of field research, an intensive study of electromagnetic pulse, her exposure to nearly every kind of electronic recording device–and suddenly she had no explanation for what was happening.
At its most unbelievable moments, the story is totally believable because the characters are.
“I listened to a Leighgendarium podcast of an interview with Chris Pourteau the other day,” Ryan blogs, “and in it, he made this statement: Everything is about character. Plot is secondary. Imagery is secondary. Atmosphere is secondary. It’s all about character.”
Character, Ryan added, “is the only reason I write.”
Every character in the story, however minor, is memorable and authentic–Geoff, Evelyn, Chris and Lily, Tania’s unfortunate dates, her parents, and hometown hunk Philip. The cat, Nero, is as real as any person. So is Kobi, the ghostly white dog who leads Tania into a whole new pastime, animal rescue, after EVP research has left her, shall we say, with an epic case of burnout.
There’s a maddening subplot with Tania realizing she has no future with a ghost, so she allows herself to fall for the advances of the local bad boy. Luke has ways to show his disapproval, forcing Tania, ultimately, to find a scientific way to banish Luke from her life.
Just try not to laugh about the ”Pest Control” scene. I dare you.
Diane Ryan can find humor in the darkest hours of human existence. She also flips a trope like nobody’s business. We can laugh when a dead woman mutters “spider webs” yet cry over a single, simple word, “braids.”
In romance, the hero all too often thinks like a woman, speaks like one, and acts like one, except when raping and pillaging or blowing up in a fit of anger. Luke sounds real. He makes us laugh, when he isn’t moving us to tears. Dishes were piling up in my sink, books piled up in my Kindle, but I’d put my life on hold to hear just a few more words from him, which is sort of what Tania does in this ground-breaking novel.
Evelyn warns Tania not to interact with ghosts, and Luke himself tells her how dangerous it can be. The more she sees or hears of him, the more things blow up or catch fire. X-Ray machines malfunction (nope, not telling you who ends up in the hospital or why). Photos are ruined by inexplicable glare or flukes of lighting when Tania’s ghosts are in the picture.
Luke’s knife-edge of satire, his sense of timing, and his capacity for mischief leave readers begging for more. This guy has been around for parts of two centuries and a new millennium. Ghosts tend to blink in and out, with long gaps in between, and lots of questions that haven’t been answered or they’d have moved on by now. Luke has been eavesdropping in a classroom and picking up contemporary slang while staying close to the site of his death.
The Luke we first meet in 1865 sounds stoic and philosophical, yet we hear the full measure of his passion, his humanity.
God be thanked that no mothers will know how their sons died tonight. There is some consolation to be found in that.
Over and over, I kept rereading his words. This, in particular:
In the corral, the horses are terrified. They rear and squeal, surrounded on all sides by flames that are reflected in their eyes. Their tails are singed, and the smell of burning hair gives way to that of burning flesh. The gate is a slide pole, a single pine log. I pause to lower it, wondering what kind of man I am. I’ll slice a human throat without hesitation, yet risk a bullet to save a horse. This logic leaves my thoughts scrambled and my conscience torn. I collapse against a Napoleon’s carriage and slide downward to the ground. It’s been said that a true warrior can kill with one hand and love with the other. I study my hands and see no difference between them.
It gets worse:
My fingers are gray, and nails are blue–the irony of these colors is not lost on me.
I’ll say nothing of the bunker, the bullets, the rats. But I will say it’s astonishing to me that a woman who’s never been there could capture the shocks, aftershocks, and brutality of war so vividly.
We don’t return to Luke’s point of view until the final chapter. Hearing him again is sheer magic, after all the storms (emotional and electrical) and ship wrecks, the heroine’s rocky coming of age journey, the missteps, and the tremendous leaps of faith.
For lesser authors, opening a novel with the hero suffering a horrible death would scare away women readers, who make up the lion’s share of the book-buying market, but Talking to Luke is unconfined by genre. There’s snappy dialogue, ghost hunters as intrepid as tornado chasers, smart women, foolish choices, and men who can be selfish bastards even though they’re really not evil.
Escapism is what I want from fiction, and this novel is a great trip away from every-day life. Call it romance-ish, paranormal-ish, historical, contemporary, funny, fantastic, science-ish, but above all, call it great.
One of the perks to buying “Talking to Luke” is that proceeds benefit an animal rescue in Virginia. On her Facebook page, Diane Ryan tells us the dog in Talking To Luke is “based on a very real dog named Kobi, who was found in the middle of winter (2013) dragging a logging chain through the snow. My husband and I followed him for miles, until finally my husband drove our Blazer’s front tire over the chain and Kobi couldn’t run anymore.”
Kobi, in real life as in the novel, “was skin and bones, terrified of everything that moved, and in the company of another, much more aggressive dog who bullied him relentlessly. There was some reason to believe, based on the way the chain was bolted around his neck, that the two dogs had actually been chained together for some length of time. In Virginia, this constitutes cruelty, and had an owner ever been discovered, they quite possibly would have been charged with a crime. Kobi was adopted to a wonderful woman who loves him dearly. Today, Kobi lives in New Hampshire, the first state in the U.S. to achieve state-wide no kill status.”
I can attest that this author spends her last dime on dog food and risked her marriage to shelter 20 to 40 dogs at a time to spare them from the kill shelter. In the past three years she has put her writing on hold and dedicated all her energy and resources to saving the lives of creatures other people irresponsibly cast aside. Am I mad enough about this to blow up like Tania’s lamps and light fixtures? Yes. But at last, we have Talking to Luke, and more novels to come from Diane Ryan, who is one of the most high-impact, most polished writers I have read in recent times.
During a reader’s slump when even our Indie Authors seemed to deliver the same old ideas and formulas, something dazzling and different has come along. I can’t say enough good things about this story. Is it flawless? I’ve yet to find the novel that is. For only $3, and for the sake of lost, orphaned, abused, but lovable furry animal companions, this is a must-have book.