Category Archives: Book Reviews

SIMON THE FIDDLER


[Hear the plaintive song “Lorena” on his violin].

Anyone who read, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, might remember the name Simon “The Fiddler” Boudlin and the love of his life, Doris Dillon. Jiles’s newest work, Simon the Fiddler, brings the life of the young Paducah, Kentucky lad, Simon Boudlin to center stage. Jiles reminds us on her website:

“. . .  Simon from News of the World. . . was playing his fiddle in the Spanish Fort . . .  You remember the love of his life Doris Dillon. This is the story of how they met, how Simon survived the last battle of the Civil War and how they lived through his own terrible mistakes and the chaos of Texas under Reconstruction. It is a story of music and what those who create music must endure in a rough-and-tumble world.

It seems that Simon’s life began on the fly, so to speak. His father, an itinerant fiddler, paused long enough in Paducah to impregnate Simon’s mother and to pass along the genetic predisposition to love music. Simon’s mother died when he was young leaving him double grieved – born a bastard;  now, an orphan. His kind elderly great-uncle, a bachelor, named Walkin’ Dave did his best to raise him.

Throughout the majority of the Civil War, Simon and his uncle thrived and stayed out of the horrific conflict. The day arrived, however, near the end of the war, that their lives were upended. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s forces swept in and burned Simon’s family’s treasured horse barn to the ground and confiscated the horses for the cause.

As a result, Walkin’ Dave walked away. Simon, now in his early 20s, packed his prized violin and set out to make a living performing music gigs where ever he could find them. Present at every turn was the possibility of running into military “conscriptors”, both Union and Confederate, hungry for troops to sustain the fight. He had one advantage; he was slight of build and appeared much younger than his actual age. He also had one disadvantage; a hot-button fiery temper.

Jiles presents a flawed character in Simon. A young man raised in a world without a “normal” family. In her simple style, we follow Simon – a man with a plan as he conceives a future that will bring him peace.

He loved solitude; it was as necessary to him as music and water.

All he needs is a wife, the right wife, a woman that accepts his need for solitude and shares his love of music. A homestead, a place where he can live a life without social interference.

It was there at the Confederate encampment . . . that Simon considered his life and how he would survive in the world to come.

Through the thunder of war, through raucous scenes of bar fights, through placid moments where he is a peace with nature and his own music, we find Simon resolved to live a life of his own choosing. He can be friendly but lacking role models, never learned what it means to be a true friend. He knows what he wants and does what it takes to achieve his dream.

The weakest link in the story is the improbable love story of Simon and Doris. The reader is led to believe that love at the first sight can be sustained while separated through war and reconstruction. The question hangs out there… once reunited and married, can their dream be sustained when facing real life together?

The journey became tedious at times and bogged down with slow motion coverage of the same thing over and over.

The strongest theme throughout the book is the place music plays in life. Ed Power (Irish Examiner, January 31, 2020) expressed the power of music in our lives:

Music moves us – not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically – reducing stress and improving mood. And it’s been doing it for centuries. . . In the darkest days. . . music feels like a shard of light cutting through the gloom.

In the end, I enjoyed the book but News of the World remains my favorite. That said, any book that has me still thinking about issues and the place of music in our lives is a worthy read.

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Covid-19 Matters

As I try to form my thoughts here, I am reminded of Ian Strachan’s children’s book –The Boy in the Bubble. I can’t be the only person on the globe that’s chafing at the bit to get their hair cut and a hug from my best friends. Ya, I know. I could do those things. But you see, I am of the opinion that a longer life with my family outweighs looking good for the funeral director.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I live isolated on Alec Mountain. The only people I see regularly are the mail carrier and the garbage pickup crew. About every 2-3 weeks, I mask up and head to the grocery store.

But I want to tell you that life as a hermit isn’t perfect. By nature, I am a worry wart. Have been for over seventy years.

In the mornings, when the weather permits, I build a tiny fire, plop my tush in my wooden glider, sip my morning coffee, and watch the sun rise. The birds are outrageously loud this year.  It makes me feel better to be outside. I look around and realize that the natural world is going on just fine in spite of the pandemic.

I have my concerns and worries just like everyone else. There are family members serving their communities in the health care field to worry about. My son lives in Germany and recently had a serious crash on his bicycle requiring surgery and I can’t go to see him. My sister is in an Atlanta area nursing home where many residents and staff have Covid and a fair number of residents have died. I am her trustee and have been handling complicated financial transactions on her behalf standing in front of drive-up bank windows; the last time in the rain.

So where am I going with all this? I have come to the conclusion that my brain has been stunned and I just can’t stop my mental wanderings long enough to write reviews for my blog. I still read. I have read some very fascinating new fiction – pickup a copy of The Book of Lost Friends  by Lisa Wingate. Stay tuned, I will be back in the near future.

In the meantime, I will tend my gardens and occasionally sneak to a secret camping spot on the Chattooga River for a restful overnight. Alec Mountain is a wonderful refuge and I have generous neighbors that have allowed me to establish a series of hiking trails on their properties.

My wildlife camera captures guests on those trails. Some delightful and others requiring some intervention. Imagine my surprise to recently capture images of an entire herd of cows that had broken loose from their pasture and some how climbed the mountain to enjoy my trails. Please stay safe. Things will get better.I am sure of that for a fact.

Back with you soon.

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HER LAST FLIGHT

Beatrix Williams won’t disappoint her fans with this latest book when it hits the shelves in June of 2020. She has all her trademark elements – strong women, mystery, plot twists, historical time frames, and in her own words “sexual power”.

“Sexual power is something I deal with in every single book because it’s so fascinating and essential to the process of becoming an adult and the power negotiation between men and women.”

Her Last Flight captures the spitfire spirit of the early aviatrixes like Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols and Louise Thadon. Although there are strong inferences to Amelia Earhart, this is not a fictional accounting of her life. References to lead character, Irene Foster’s interest in surfing is likely modeled after surfers like Isabel Lethan.

Bardenas Reales, Spain. January 1947.
War correspondent, Janey Everett, stands alone in the desolate whipping desert sands next to the remains of a Spanish military aircraft.  A clue has led her here. She has been on the search for the whereabouts of a daredevil stunt pilot, Sam Mallory, who disappeared in 1937. Inside the cockpit, she finds human remains and Sam Mallory’s personal journal. The discovery of Sam’s journal is invaluable for the completion of  her current literary project; a Sam Mallory biography.

Reading the dusty journal, Everett is startled to find a clue about Sam Mallory’s most famous aviation student, Irene Foster, who also disappeared in flight. Foster and Mallory, in 1928, were the most famous aviators with a history of flying together on long distance rallies. By 1937, Irene Foster was flying solo. On a flight circumnavigating the globe, she failed to arrive at a planned stop to meet up with her husband, George Morrow. Extensive searches concluded she was lost at sea. Yet, Sam’s last journal entry from 1937 was a scrawled message – GM to rescue at last thank God She will live.  Could Irene Foster have left her husband and traveled to Spain to be with Sam? Was she with Sam when his plane crashed? Is she alive?

Janey Everett, hungry for first-hand knowledge about Sam Mallory, employs all her investigative skills to unearth clues to Irene’s whereabouts. Skills that include employing her supersized libido to seduce information from Sam and Irene’s closest past associates.  Irene, indeed, survived and has living the past ten years as a recluse in a small Hawaiian ocean-side town.

Hanalei, Hawai’i October 1947
The day comes that the two women meet face to face. The lionesses circle each other cautiously. Each has carefully guarded secrets. They meet, alone, at the ocean where Irene has been surfing. They parry. Janey plays her trump card – Sam’s journal. Stone-faced, Irene tells her, “Come with me.”

We know that Janey is successful in discovering Irene’s secrets but we are dealt them out like bits of a Hershey bar – bite by bite.  Irene’s story, told from her perspective, appears in excerpts from Janey’s book, the Aviatrix. that begins with a timeline of 1928. 

Alternate chapters are written present day that begins in 1947 as the two women leave the beach together.

The two story lines have just the right tension and plot twists to keep the reader guessing the ending. The astute reader might spot clues; but not everything is as it first seems. What I liked in particular was the historical coverage of the early aviation. The bravery of those early aviators barnstorming in planes  that were as safe as running a soapbox car in a NASCAR race. And who can not love Sandy, Sam’s cat who travels through the book showering love and contentment to soften the often highly charged scenes.

Nice read during these turbulent times.
Thank you, LibraryThing.com Early Readers for selecting me to read an ARC of the book.

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THE BOOK OF LONGINGS: a novel

 

 

 

He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, a sound of thunder . . . All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night . . . What he heard was my life begging to be born.

Book Summary:
The Book of Longings is a work of fiction.

Ana, the daughter of the chief scribe to Herod expresses her longings to be remembered throughout time in this pseudo-diary account of her life. She wants the world to know what life was like for a woman in the time of Herod and Pontius Pilate – and what  life would look like if you buck the system.

Her story is a simple but harsh one. Women, in general, had no rights. They’re property to use and misuse. Wealthy men use their daughters as bargaining chips to enhance their wealth and power. The lower class women live lives of arduous physical labor while bearing child after child.

Sue Monk Kidd has chosen to present Ana as representative of all women – rich and poor- who dare to speak out, who seek recognition to make an impact on their own as  individuals; women with the right to chose their own futures and live their own dreams.

Ana’s early childhood in an upper class home was unorthodox. She preferred learning foreign languages and idles away time in her father’s library developing talents as a scribe. Her relationship with her mother is contentious as Ana refuses to learn skills necessary to become a subservient wife. Her relationship with her father is distant. He doesn’t so much indulge Ana as overlook her quirky behavior with disinterest.

When Ana is fourteen-years-old, she begins her menses, and is quickly betrothed by her father to an old beetle-eyed and cruel landowner. Ana’s introduction to her betrothed is a public spectacle in the heart of the marketplace intended to highlight the high status of both families. Her reaction upon meeting her intended was to faint dead-away. She is rescued from her fall by a young bearded man who visage brings on “odd smelting” in her thighs.

The old goat croaks before the marriage takes place. And more importantly before it is consummated. The death marks Ana’s future as it is assumed that the betrothed Ana is no longer a virgin thus useless baggage to society. Ana at fourteen-years-old, is seen as a widow facing a bleak future through no fault of her own.

Ana defies social custom and wanders the forest and hills nearby for solace and discovers a cave – and in the cave she discovers the kind savior from the market, the young peasant, praying. They introduce themselves and she learns his name is Jesus. This unlikely duo form a close friendship that ultimately leads to marriage.

There is no doubt that Ana and Jesus love each other unconditionally. In one touching scene, Ana earns the endearing nickname “Little Thunder” as Jesus overhears some internal struggle occurring inside her gut while she slept. She, expresses her love, by calling him Beloved.

For Ana, moving to Jesus’s family compound filled with siblings and their spouses is a shock. She has to partake in harsh physical tasks that she assumes to the best of her ability. In time, their marriage is strained as Jesus begins to realize that he has a mission from God that he must fulfill and begins to spend massive amounts of time away from Ana. The day arrives that Jesus tells Ana that he must go on alone to discover what he must do to fulfill his predestined future.

Ana never gives up on Jesus. Her life, after he leaves her, is one tragic day after another. With the help of other enlightened people, she is provided the means to document her story returning to her own passion as a scribe. Through Ana we follow the final days of Jesus concluding with his death. We feel her agony as she witnesses his final steps burdened with the weight of the cross. We cry with her as she stands at the foot of the cross.

Reviewer’s Note:
Phew. This was a hard one. It took me a couple of weeks to address this review. Here is it is, Easter weekend 2020, sheltering in my home. Ana’s story is powerful but being married to our Savior, Jesus Christ of Nazareth will always beg top billing.

The book, well-researched, at times felt stilted and started out slowly in my estimation. Things did speed up as familiar Biblical names and scenes entered the story line. By the end of the book, I was in tears.

Now with the world crushed by Covid-19, and several of my family valiantly serving on the medical front lines, my nerves are on edge and affects how I perceive or react to things. This prickly reaction to things, that in the past would roll off my back like water off a duck, most certainly affected my review of this fiction that touches sensitive religious topics.

Ana’s need for her husband, Jesus, to be “just a man” bumps up against his insatiable need to serve his God. After years of my viewing Jesus in stained glass windows rocking a halo it felt, at times, strange to see him described as a plain and simple man, just like the rest of us poor souls. Vulnerable and weak. I am not a deeply religious person so my discomfort was surprising to me.

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AN UNWANTED GUEST

Gwen has never been so frightened in her life . . .
Is someone else dead?
She wonders if soon there will be no one left at all.
She wants to live, but she hopes that if she has to die, she isn’t the last one.

Outside Mitchell Inn, high up a remote mountain road in the N.Y. Catskills, the blizzard is intensifying. Snow pelts the windows like bullets and the wind howls angrily. Inside, the fireplace crackles and snaps throwing welcoming heat around the lobby. The weekend is about to begin and the mystery awaits.

The family-owned upscale  hotel normally fills all twelves rooms on a winter weekend. This weekend, the forecast of a snowstorm brought cancellations. Just as well, as non-resident staff are unavailable. James, the owner and the house chef, and his son, Bradley are not worried. There are only six reservations and everything has been prepared in advance.

As the Friday afternoon light begins to fade, the sounds of tires crunching on fallen snow fills the parking lot. The guests are looking forward to a respite from their hectic lives totally disconnected from clamor of city life. Mitchell Inn advertises they are completely off grid. Other than electricity and a single landline, guests will find no internet or cell service.

Our cast of  quirky Agatha Christie-lite characters arrive, stomping off snow in the entrance way and shivering from the arctic cold. Ian and Lauren, a newly dating couple hope for privacy to deepen their relationship. They bring with them Gwen and Riley, old college friends, rescued from their disabled vehicle on the trip up the mountain. Gwen, living with the stain of a bad decision from long ago hopes to help Riley suffering from PTSD after years as a war correspondent in Afghanistan. David, a criminal defense attorney, needs the quiet solitude to recharge his mental batteries. Beverly, a middle-aged housewife, has booked a quiet get-away hoping to recharge her failing marriage. Her husband, Henry, reluctantly has agreed to come with her. Candice is looking for a quiet place to put the finishing touches on her debut fiction novel. The wealthy Matthew and his fiance Dana, take a needed break from planning their high society wedding.

The guests arrive for Friday’s evening meal, each surreptitiously scanning the room, checking each other out as they gathered. The stunningly beautiful Dana, now shed of her winter cloaks, strode elegantly into the room flashing the fist-sized diamond on her left hand. The men sat taller and the women groaned. After dinner and cocktails, everyone headed to their rooms feeling safe and comfortable as the raging storm outside screamed and threw its fists at the windows.

The peace and calm inside ended early Saturday morning with the sound of a hysterical scream.The beautiful Dana was discovered bloody and broken at the bottom of the first floor stairs. Was it a terrible accident or was she murdered? As the crowd gathered around her dead body, each reeling at the discovery, Mitchell Inn went dark from downed power and telephone lines.

With her death, the game is afoot. Upon closer examination it was determined she was murdered! The perfect weekend has ended as they stand in the dark, the temperature in the Inn falling rapidly without a functioning furnace. The atmosphere darkens hour by hour as they realize they have no way to notify the authorities. Some one is a murderer in their group! Accusations fly, more bodies are found, and each person reveals their true self under pressure.

What? Did you expect me to tell you what happens next? Nada gonna happen. This short novel is the perfect anecdote to stave off the anxiety of staying confined in your home during this nation wide crisis. Not exactly a cozy mystery offering on par with Ruth Rendell or Agatha Christie but none-the-less entertaining. Having been born and raised around winter blizzards, I can still hear the wind howling and the bite of snow on my face. Thought the setting heightened the stories tension well.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the advanced reader copy in exchange for my review and opinion.

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THE END OF THE WORLD RUNNING CLUB

A personal mea culpa is owed Edleweiss and Sourcebooks
for taking so long to review this ARC.

It’s hard being a human. Most of the time we’re just blind idiots seeking joy in a world full of fear and pain. We have no idea what we’re doing, and on the rare occasions when we get things right, we’re just lucky.
-Ed Hill (End of the World Running Club)

Edgar Hill is a self-centered egotist overweight slob uninterested in exercise and more interested in a cold brew. He prefers time away from his family and the drudgery of home life with squawking children and the admonitions of his exhausted wife. He loves his family; just doesn’t see the point in investing his time with them. He doesn’t seem to find the point of anything, actually.

His heavy drinking has obscured what has been happening in the news so when the world ends, he is caught flat footed. There had been rumors in the news that something bad might happened; no one, most certainly Ed, took it seriously. When it happened, asteroids destroyed most of the UK, leaving the landscape resembling the craters of the moon.

We’re idiots. Creatures of denial who have learned not to be afraid of our closets. We need to see the monster in the room before we scream. The monster burst in on Sunday. . . All I know is that the end – in the end – came from the skies.

Ed, his wife and two children were miraculously rescued and join survivors, under the control of what remained of the military, at the site of a former military base. One day, while a handful of people, including Ed, were out scavenging for food and supplies, helicopters evacuated the refugee camp to another site nearly 500 miles away.

And just like that, Ed finds himself alone with a half dozen strangers. With nothing. With no idea what to do next. All realizing they have been abandoned.

Ed’s journey to find his family is the crux of the story. This once degenerate husband and father finds it took the world coming to an end to make him see himself in the eyes of his family. The story progresses slowly, often sprinkled with heart-rendering descriptions of tragedy witnessed along the long road back to his family.

There are moments of humor and levity that provide relief from the harsh conditions and anxiety of survival.  I, like others who reviewed the book, found that the title didn’t exact match the dialogue.  Ed’s running didn’t occur until roughly two-thirds of the way through the book. Just why a character that finds physical exercise and running in particular offensive, is an interesting twist. Ed never learns to love running but he discovers what Maslow defines as self-actualization, the desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

A good read during these uncertain times.

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WHO DID YOU TELL?

I smell him first, or rather the aftershave he used to wear. A ’90s vintage scent – masculine and woody. I spin round, but no one’s there. . .
Then I see him, sprinting toward the sea, the furry flaps of his trapper hat flying in the breeze. . . Simon.

Who Did You Tell?, the second published novel from author, Leslie Kara, returns the reader to the British seaside village of Flinstead-on-Sea. Her first published novel, The Rumor, examined the dangers of malicious gossip.

Who Did You Tell? is the story of a struggling alcoholic recently released from rehab with nowhere to go but to move in with her mother. Mom has let her know that this is it – fail this time and you are truly on your own. Astrid hoped leaving her old life behind, telling no one where she was going, and moving to Flinstead where she is unknown, would provide the base from which to rebuild her life. A name change from Hiliary helps with anonymity.

To her credit, she dutifully, but reluctantly, attends weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Astrid is not ready to open her sordid story to these strangers. Long years of drugs and booze have left Astrid filled with paranoia and guilt leftover from hazy memories and big gaps of her life lost in long periods of blackouts. She has a very dark secret – she believes she is responsible for the death of her one true love, Simon. Simon and Astrid had a codependent relationship centered on getting high and socially unacceptable methods of funding their needs. After breaking up with Astrid, Simon entered rehab and began a sober life.  A serendipitous meeting with Astrid found Simon falling off the wagon, and shortly after, committing suicide.

In time, still finding it difficult to curb the allure of alcohol to self-medicate, Astrid makes a good friend from AA, finds a new love interest, and begins to believe that she just might be on the road to a better life. Until.  She begins to smell Simon’s uncommon aftershave in strange places and gets that eerie feeling that she is being watched.

“I don’t want to look over my shoulder because that feels like giving in to the fear. . . I force myself to turn round just long enough to see there’s no one there. . .”

She’s scared. . . For a second I think sensed me. She stops dead in her tracks and spins round. . .  [I pretend.] My forefinger curls, then squeezes. The bullet hits it target. . . Not yet. The game’s only just begun.

Who Did You Tell? is a mixed tale. Addiction and its perpetual grip on lives and the importance of friendship and family in helping hold steady against the strong pull of addiction. A mysterious stalking stranger insidiously begins a campaign to destroy Astrid’s new life by first messing mentally with her mind before hoping to end it all with her tragic death. Astrid struggles with questions – What did I do?  How was I found in Flinstead? Who did I tell?

The strongest theme, in my opinion, was Astrid’s battle with her demons. The mysterious stranger was effective at obfuscating the reason for stalking Astrid and was entertaining. Her romance and potential future with Josh wasn’t my favorite part of the book; didn’t feel right and possibly was included as a false flag as the potential stalker. I settled on rating the book at 4 stars because of the example of Astrid’s life as an addict. Enjoyed the book and look forward to any future fiction from this author.

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The Confession Club : #3 Mason

Confession Club started accidentally. It used to be Third Sunday Supper Club . . . after a while, they decided to meet [weekly]. At each meeting someone confessed to something she’d done . . . And just like in church, it made people feel better . . .

My book club, the Blue Ridge Readers, just finished discussing Elizabeth Berg’s #2 book in the Mason, Missouri series – Night of Miracles. Someone says,”Did you know there is a new Elizabeth Berg book set in Mason?” The group votes unanimously, “Put it on the list for next season!”

You don’t need to read The Story of Arthur Truluv and the Night of Miracles to enjoy The Confession Club – but I recommend you do so. In any case, I want to give a thumbnail of each book in the series to entice you to read the entire series.

We had all fallen in love with Arthur Moses in Book #1 –The Story of Arthur Truluv. We were enchanted with the characters and felt like we should move to Mason, Missouri in these turbulent times. Sometimes you need to go a place where everyone knows your business and your neighbors accept you with all your warts, quirks and flaws. That kind of book that makes you feel good inside and out without being sappy or cookie-cutter cute.

Arthur  gave a homeless pregnant teenager (Maddy), abandoned by the child’s father, a place to live. We meet Arthur’s next-door-neighbor, Lucille and we fell in love with her eccentricities and hugged her when she needed it. In time, Lucille moves into Arthur’s house joining Maddy, her daughter, Nola, named after Arthur’s wife, and Arthur; together they form a loving family. When Arthur passes on to reunite with his beloved wife, we know he is in a better place.

Arthur’s home becomes the central setting for book #2 – the Night of Miracles. The house now belongs to Maddy. When Maddy completes college, she marries her college professor. The newlyweds move away leaving Lucille, alone, living in Maddy’s house. Lucille’s baking classes have become a booming success and she hires an assistant, Iris Winters; an unlikely choice as she doesn’t know the first thing about baking, to help her handle the financial and business aspects. Arthur’s loving presence is always there.

Book #3, The Confession Club, is once again is set in Mason, Missouri. Our beloved Lucille has passed on (not without giving the angel of death a run for his money). Iris Winters now lives in “Arthur’s” house and is carrying on Lucille’s baking classes. Maddy and Nola have inexplicably returned to Mason and moved back into the house with Iris.

The newest book opens with a cluster of  town women in a weekly meeting of the Confession Club commiserating with each other over mistakes and “naughty” moments in their past that they regret. The confidences are not exactly earth shaking but the fellowship with friends is the point of the whole exercise. In time, Iris and Maddy stumble on the group and soon become members.

The central stories involve Iris and Maddy.  Iris develops a relationship with an unlikely new love interest – a homeless man squatting in a remote abandoned house. As we learn more about the man, I am not sure that it is a healthy relationship but -hey – I’ll suspend my suspicion until the fourth book. Hint hint Elizabeth Berg. Meanwhile, Maddy and Nola’s sudden return to Mason, Missouri bewilders Iris along with the faithful fans of the first two books.

I will be honest. The Story of Arthur Truluv is my favorite. The next two books feel comfortable and easy. Reminds me of coming home to Grandma’s house and finding out what is new in town since my last trip to my old hometown.

Recommended women’s fiction.

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THE MOTHER CODE: a sci-fi novel

 

 

Carole Stivers
Berkley Press
2020
Science Fiction
ARC from Netgalley

★★★★☆

Excerpt from Amazon Book Synopsis 

What it means to be human –and a mother– is put to the test in Carole Stivers’ debut novel set in a world that is more chilling and precarious than ever.

It’s 2049, and the survival of the human race is at risk. Earth’s inhabitants must turn to their last resort: a plan to place genetically engineered children inside the cocoons of large-scale robots—to be incubated, birthed, and raised by machines. But there is yet one hope of preserving the human order—an intelligence programmed into these machines that renders each unique in its own right—the Mother Code.

The Apocalypse Begins

December 20, 2049.
The US military, beleaguered in the long war against terrorism and following secret orders, deployed an air drop of deadly nano bots, NANS, in a remote area of Afghanistan. The intended target – the lungs of Afghan terrorists residing in a desolate area. Due to the remote location, the deployment was deemed a low risk for inhalation by persons outside the kill zone. The NANs that were not inhaled were programmed to fall to the ground and become inert.  U.S. military scouts found the bodies; the mission deemed a success.

The high fives were short lived as a rapid-onset virus began spreading through the country. The U.S. powers-that-be turned to the scientists that created the NANs for help. Their nano-tech scientists, having reported that the NANs had not been fully vetted for use, had been kept in the dark about the deployment. Suddenly it was a deadly race to determine if the NANs could be stopped before it turned into a pandemic. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

In their search for answers, the scientists found the only way to survive the NANs would be to alter the human genetic code. It was possible to create embryos with altered DNA but it was impossible to use human surrogate mothers to birth and raise the children. There wasn’t time.

A small doomsday project set aside long ago was dusted off and put into production. “Mother” robots would be used to perform all the functions of a human mother from carrying the embryo through fetal stages to birth. Socializing, educating, and protecting the children would continue until they had reached self-sufficiency. Reminded me of that early Superman movie where the baby Kal-El is given all the knowledge of his ancestors and information about his new home -Earth.

The story is well told traveling back and forth in time until reaching an equilibrium – the vestiges of mankind receding but the memories and knowledge of the past alive in the Mother Code and her human offspring. The characters are interesting and believable. It was simply told in a manner that seemed more like a Young Adult book but nonetheless engaging.  Inherent in the story are questions of morality and spirituality that challenge the reader to question things.

Reviewer’s Thoughts

As I neared the end of the book, the news of the corona virus broke out in the real world. It knocked me back on my heels. Are there plans in the works now that we don’t know about to sustain human life beyond a pandemic?

Consider the scenario where we would relinquish care and raising of children to robots. I realized it was very possible. Think about it. We don’t even have to parallel park our cars any more. SIRI provides answers to questions that used to require humans to think for themselves. How many people do you know that rely solely on their phones for everything.

Finally, it wasn’t scary but maintained a positive and uplifting message. Those characters facing their own mortal end find the strength to put the future ahead of their own demise. Hurrah! And there’s a secret in the story that I won’t reveal. Find it for yourself!

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A LADDER TO THE SKY

Maurice Swift took a notebook from his bag… and began to make some notes.
“What?” asked Erich, “Did I say something particularly wise?”
“I’m writing something down about balance. You seem to have struck a good equilibrium between your work life and your artistic life,” said Maurice.
“You can’t write all the time, Maurice. There’s more to life than words and stories.”
“Not for me there isn’t,” says Maurice.

And believe me, this diabolical sociopath really means it.

In 2018, I was granted an advance copy of a reprint of John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky. I have always enjoyed his works including the 2006 young adult book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the wonderful 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.  But somehow this book became buried in my TBR stack. Now that I have read A Ladder to the Sky, I could kick myself for waiting so long to read and review it.

Truth be known, I can’t remember when I intensely disliked a protagonist more than Maurice Swift. I found myself hissing and booing but totally unable to put the book down. We have all met people that are manipulative and taken advantage of us. They have the uncanny ability to upset our resolves and get us to reveal our deepest insecurities or darkest secrets. Sometimes they seem to enjoy causing pain or harm to us for no reason other than they can do it.

Maurice Swift has always wanted to be a writer. And not just any writer. The best of the best. Someone that history will remember as a literary great and whose books will never go out of print. But he has one problem. He can put together the words on paper but he is incapable of generating the original idea; he lacks imagination.

Maurice is well aware of his assets. He was gifted at birth with a Hollywood attractiveness that he used to his best advantage throughout his life. He was also born an undiagnosed sociopath with a innate ability for furthering his long-term goals with charismatic charm, flattery, and deceitful behavior. His early books rejected or published with little success didn’t deter his goal. He just had to find someone with a story and steal it.

The novel offers three views into Swift’s life. The first begins as a novella of an aging German-American novelist. There’s a melancholy edge to his story. Narrated in the first person, Erich Ackermann speaks to us about his childhood, his literary career development and his modest successes. The narrative darkens as he relates meeting a sexy barkeeper who tells Erich that he hopes to become a successful author himself one day. Like a frog placed in a pan of tepid water on the stove, Erich doesn’t sense the danger until he is sucked into Maurice’s dangerous web and is unable to extricate himself. It is too late when he is tricked into sharing a dark secret from his own youth in Nazi Germany. Erich’s worst nightmare from the the past is exposed in Swift’s highly successful fiction entitled, Two Germans.

The second part of the book, to me, was the most interesting. Maurice Swift, accompanying his latest victim, American author, Dash Hardy, unexpectedly met the renowned Gore Vidal at his home in Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest. This serendipitous encounter exposed Swift’s wiles as he tried to vandalism Vidal’s life and ingratiate himself into his social community; if successful there would be no need to squander his unproductive time with Dash. The world-wise Vidal recognized Maurice’s tactics. The acerbic literary elder sparred with Swift and privately let him know that wasn’t blind to the young man’s game; he couldn’t out-master the master.

Dash, poor defenseless Dash, was obviously besotted. . . Gore  lamented quietly, his heart grieving for the pain that this young man would inevitably cause his friend.

The third part of the novel begins with Swift, now recognized for his successful fiction, Two Germans, celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary with his wife, Edith. After five years, Maurice hasn’t achieved the second of his two life ambitions -becoming a father. Edith has been unable to produce a child having suffered four miscarriages.

To add insult to injury in Maurice’s mind, Edith, also an author, has recently published her first novel, Fear, to rave reviews. It has been eleven years since Maurice published Two Germans and he is beginning to be perceived as a has-been. When Edith announces that she has begun a second novel, the wheels come off the bus.

In the end, Maurice Swift earns his just reward, landing in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell after a lifetime of treachery.

I rarely give a book 5 stars. Giving a book a perfect score usually requires me to be transported to a different place and/or time. There were flaws in this book, but I have found myself reflecting on many aspects long after I finished reading it. Why did his mentors, sensing his disloyalty,  turn into simpering snivelers grasping at his ankles as he pulled away. But of more import to me revolved around the question -where do ideas for a book come from? When is it right or wrong to use something overheard or told by someone? And does anyone understand why a narcissistic sociopath would set being a father as a life ambition? Humm.

Recommended.

 

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WESTERING WOMEN: historical fiction

WESTERING WOMEN

Sandra Dallas
St. Martin’s Press
Historical Fiction
January 2020 – ARC Netgalley  ★★★☆☆

If you are an adventuresome young woman of high moral character and fine health, are you willing to travel to California in search of a good husband? Do you want to instill God and Civilization and Righteousness in the westernmost part of our country?

What to do on a rainy day and suffering a 9.0 Richter scale head cold? Snuggle with a book with a simple and entertaining story-line. Sitting in my email inbox that morning, was an offer from St. Martin’s Press to read Westering Women in exchange for my review; a promising choice. Serendipity.

Being an adventuresome old woman, not necessarily of high moral character, I decided to  spent the day traveling with forty-three woman in a train of prairie schooners heading from St. Joe, Missouri to California. The book amused me but I won’t say it made me feel like I connected with the characters. As a woman born at a time when my father had to sign for my first credit card, I could relate to many of the misogynistic scenes; there were times I could see where the use of a good war club might serve as an attitude adjuster.

But there is always a place for a good sappy read that tosses out obvious hints and clues well in advance. It doesn’t take a genius to see where scolding a bratty child repeatedly be careful while crossing a raging river and being repeatedly ignored might lead to tragedy. Staying with that scene, days later the mother just hitches up her skirt and says … Oh,well. Life goes on. She’s with Jesus. I don’t have to worry about her anymore.

There was a healthy dose of Christianity sprinkled everywhere like holy water. Not a surprise to the reader as the trip was sponsored and led by two preachers. At the same time, the travelers’ faith comforted them and sustained them through, what was surely true in 1850s dash across the continent, soul bending moments.

As expected, not every woman on the journey headed out through hell and high water to get a husband. The twelve or so main characters each have a hidden secret that is revealed in the fullness of time.

There were the inevitable accidentals, cholera death, and clashes with Native Americans. Fragile women escaped brutal husbands and every man they encountered on the journey seemed to want “carnal knowledge” or provide a sound beating to the woman who dared to escape their wrath; justification in my mind to head west to start over leaving bozos behind – but as expected, the bozos just had to track down the women and give them grief; bad move guys. Don’t attack a pack of feisty women.

Let it be said that this old gal did raise a hand in salute at the strength and determination of the women to form a cohesive sisterhood; broken women can heal like a broken bone – stronger in the end.

Sandra Dallas fans will enjoy the story. As I said in the beginning, I enjoyed the read. Didn’t strain the brain and was an easy read that I never felt I had to just put it down. I will admit to a couple of -“on come on, really?” moments.

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A Lightless Sky


I have only half an understanding of the routes that I have traveled; and then there are some moments that are etched in my mind forever. These are the ones I know I will never forget. – Gulwalhi Passarlay, Author of Lightless Sky

Gulwalhi Passarlay was born in 1994. His early childhood, as a son of the local doctor and the grandson of a nomadic sheepherder, was remarkably filled with love and strengthened by a strong connection to his Islamic faith. Beginning at four-years-old, he spent summers high in the mountains with his beloved grandfather, living a subsistence lifestyle, learning life and survival lessons while tending the flock; life skills that undoubtedly helped him a few years later. Inside his young mind he thought life was just about perfect. As do most of us at that tender age in a self-centered universe.

When he was around seven-years-old, the United States was attacked and retaliated against Afghanistan for harboring Osama Bin Laden. At the time of the invasion, his Uncle Lala, was a high ranking Taliban secret officer. The Passarlay family’s earlier association with the mujahideen during the recent war with Russian brought the Americans to Gulwalhi’s home suspecting stored weapons. Tragically, the American raid left his father and grandfather dead.

By 2006, Gulwalhi, now twelve-years-old, and his thirteen-year-old brother, Hazrat, were caught in an untenable position – the Taliban wanted them as soldiers or martyrs and the Americans wanted them as spies. Facing a no-win situation, Gulwalhi’s mother feared for the lives of her sons. She made the heartbreaking decision to send them away to hopefully save their lives. Scraping funds from the extended family, she paid a network of human smugglers to deliver the boys, together, to safety in Europe for a better life.

The boys were sad to leave but somewhat excited about the journey. The promised two week journey began with deception. The boys were immediately separated.  Gulwahli found himself among streams of constantly changing refugees, mostly older adult men, some who shielded and protected him as best they could under the circumstances.

The actual journey took the heartbroken and terrified Gulwalhi a harrowing year through nine different countries. He suffered torture and imprisonment three times in adult prisons  – Iraq, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and with the wiles of the innocent and dumb luck, escaped three times. He, incredibly, survived each leg of the journey, barely, suffering physically from starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, and a myriad of unimaginable conditions laced with beatings, mental cruelty, and  constant threat of danger. The refugees seen only a paycheck and viewed as chattel – subhuman.

He was mentally and emotionally burdened with loneliness, terror, and depression; attempting suicide more than once. He traveled by car, lorry, train, plane, boat, horse, bus and long painful foot marches; passed along from one unscrupulous underground agent to the next – each assuring these refugees that their next leg of the trip is guaranteed.  Finally reaching England, Gulwalhi discovered that even in the perceived promised land nothing is guaranteed.

Guaranteed. That word again. In my experience, nothing on this journey was ever guaranteed.

Imagine yourself as twelve-years-old. Your family shattered by war yet you are still surrounded and loved by what remains of your culture and family. Abruptly you find yourself thrust onto an airplane among strangers with total control over your life.

Gulwalhi’s story, is told from memories of his stolen childhood. It is a hard read and sometimes from the safety of my “taken-for-granted” life I wanted things to move along more quickly. Then, I would remember this was an unaccompanied child thrust in a world completely foreign to him. How did he survive when so many of adult refugee men that cycled in and out of his journey did not? Those life skills learned in the mountains with his grandfather gave him a heads-up. In a recent British video interview, he stated that in today’s world, the same journey would not be successful. As children, we all feel immortal, take chances, make poor choices, and face dangers with innocence.

He was a plucky daredevil who stayed true to his Islamic faith yet realized that the world is not one-size-fits all. By the time he reached England he had matured and recognized the need to open his heart and mind to the diversity of world cultures and customs.

His greatest reason for telling his story is to humanize the plights of those willing to face death in the unknown journey rather than stay in a country where is death was certain. The world has changed- and not for the better. More and more people struggle to stay alive, chancing death every day to live in safety.

The world has changed- and not for the better. More and more people struggle to stay alive, chancing death every day to live in safety. He wants to the world to open their hearts and minds to see that most, certainly not all, refugees are looking for a hand-up not a handout. He realizes the pressures placed on countries where refugees are flocking to for help are struggling to handle the influx. He just wants the refugees to seen human and treated humanely while in transition.

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TEARS IN THE GRASS

Secrets are like pods of the milkweed. They always burst open… Red Sky in the Morning

The old rocking chair faced east looking down the Qu’ Appelle valley in Saskatchewan, Canada. God knows where its journey began, but when the Cree Indian woman found it abandoned in the plains grass, she knew it was special and dragged it back to her tipi. Her young daughter, Red Sky in the Morning, was the only one that heard the chair’s past in the creaking wood.

When the Indian Act of 1876 forced this First Nations family onto reserved land, the chair traveled with them and continued to collect memories. It soothed the pain of the uprooted people and saw the hardships of life on the reserve. It sat in wait for ten-year-old Red Sky to return after she was forced to attend the Canadian government’s religious-run school. The school was a harsh environment. The children were treated as curs in need of retraining and received little kindness and suffered hard work and long hours controlled by bells and regimented routine.

Eighty years later, Red Sky in the Morning, now known as Elinor, sits in the old rocker, still facing east to the rising sun. She still lives on the reserve trading life in a tipi for a rickety wooden house that to Elinor is paradise. She is ninety-years-old and harboring a seventy-five-year-old deeply buried secret that began the day she was raped by a  school employee. A secret she did not share with her beloved husband, Joseph, and after his murder, with her daughter, Louise, or her granddaughter Alice.

The secret – a daughter was the product of the rape. A child she named Bright Eyes. A child stolen from her arms moments after birth by the nuns and replaced with a grainy black and white picture. Time is now short. She wonders why she waited so long to take action on something that has pained her every day of her long life. The secret must be shared so she can die in peace. She must find her first born child and she will need the help of Louise and Alice.

Life has not been easy for Elinor but she is a survivor with a feisty spirit and an insane determination to live her life on her own terms. Her teenage daughter, Louise, mysteriously disappeared from the reserve, leaving a heart-broken Elinor to wonder for years if she was responsible for driving her away?  Now years later, living in separate worlds but reconciled, the mother and daughter have a guarded relationship.

Louise’s reason for leaving never discussed between them. Louise, strong-willed like her mother, has done well with her life but she has found that she will never be fully accepted in the white man’s world. In the white man’s world, this highly educated and ambitious lawyer finds herself facing much more than a glass ceiling. Like her mother, Louise harbors a deeply held secret. And like her mother, she found a loving husband; a white man with a heart of gold who does not know her darkest secret. Their union producing a great love in Elinor’s life, her granddaughter, Alice.

Alice has a secret she shares with the reader. It’s 1968 and she is a gay Chee half-breed. A toxic mix in a mixed-up wartime world. She is not sure her family will accept her if they knew and she knew the world at-large would not accept a gay school teacher. She would lose her job.

Elinor, slight in stature, slender as a dry stalk of grass, and in frail health holds center stage in the novel. There is no doubt who is in charge during the search for Bright Eyes; the need for the search never in question but clues are few and Elinor takes matters in her own hands. Did the trio ever find Bright Eyes? I am not going to tell.

I will tell you I will never hear the wind, pluck a flower, listen to rain, or watch a tree sway in the wind the same again.  Tears in Grass is exquisite in its simple prose and symbolism. It is a simple story with deep resonance to themes that plague us all; family relationships, societal strains, personal secrets that fester and affect our lives.  It is a story balanced with the beauty of the natural world and the belief that what comes next after death should not be feared.

The book may not appeal to all. It is slow paced. Not in a hurry or filled with heady suspense. I savored the quiet moments of reflection with Elinor as I sat in my own rocking chair, facing my own scenic world, and listened to my babbling stream. Yes, Elinor there is no place like home.

The novel is filled with magic and as much unreal as real. A talking stuffed buffalo?  Even the description of evil suffered by Elinor is handled in a manner much like childbirth itself. Painful beyond belief but instantly forgotten when you look into the eyes of a newborn.  As the last chapter in Elinor’s life closes, you will be satisfied.

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FIND THE GOOD: unexpected life lessons from a small-town obituary writer

Back in 2016, while researching book titles that might be of interest for a local book club, I stumbled across – Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons From a Small-Town Obituary Writer. Intrigued, I bought a copy of the tiny book and placed it on my TBR shelf. The reading club, limited to 8 titles a year, didn’t select the book. Time marched on and I forgot about it.

My wonderful husband frequently drives me from our cabin in the quiet North Georgia mountains to the Atlanta area to visit my sister in her nursing home; a stressful four hour round-trip on the high-speed interstate highways. It turned out to be the perfect book to read while hurdling down the highway facing the potential of my own imminent demise.

As suggested by the subtitle, obituaries and/or “life stories” play an important part of each of the 18 brief essays.  It was easy reading that was tinged with humor, compassion and uplifting stories about newly departed neighbors and friends in the author’s hometown of tiny Haines, Alaska. Finding the Good is just that – interviewing those that knew the departed and finding the good in their life story yet not ignoring their less glamorous moments. The point of each story was crafting an obituary that showed their humanness and reflected the fact that their lives mattered to others.

Embedded in one story is the following quote that seems to sum up the book’s message.

People don’t gather after a death to mourn, but rather to reaffirm why life matters and to remember to exult in the only one we’ll ever have. We hold funerals, memorials, celebrations – whatever you want to call them – to seek and to find the heart of the matter of this trip we all Life.

This tiny treasure is a perfect gift for a friend or family member that enjoys celebrating life and community. It was a reminder to me that even the tiniest flower or the solitary nature of a hermit can impact someone else’s life for the better.

Heather Lende has written some 500 obituaries obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska where she has lived for over thirty years. She has also authored many essays and stories, mostly about life and sometimes death in Haines, Alaska that have been distributed widely from The Anchorage Daily News and Christian Science Monitor to NPR and Country Living. She is a former contributing editor at Woman’s Day magazine.  She has also authored three books: Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer (2015),Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs (2010), If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: The News From Small-town Alaska (2005). (NY Times bestseller)

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GIVER OF STARS: a novel

6-minute audio with former pack horse librarian

Alice asked Margery, “If you’ve never been further than. . . Lewisburg. . . how is it you know so much about animals in Africa?” Margery yanks her mule to a halt. “Are you seriously asking me that question? ” The answer of course is because of books. Books that brought stories of Africa to Appalachia. . .

In the midst of the Great Depression, Eastern Kentucky was among those states most severely economically impacted. Thirty percent of the state was illiterate. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative, The Pack Horse Library project, implemented by the Works Progress Administration in 1934 brought hope of a better future through literacy. The project provided jobs to local pack horse riders, mostly women, with a salary of  $28 a month ($495 in today’s dollars).  The project ended in 1943 with the ramp up to World War II and the elimination of the WPA projects.

The Pack Horse program was not immediately accepted by the mountain folks. Literacy threatened the status quo.  “Families should be reading the Bible. Nothing else.”  “We are struggling to control what influences are coming in and out of our own homes.”

Jojo Moyes, known for her numerous heartwarming romance novels, several made into movies (Me Before You) has written her first historical fiction featuring the Pack Horse Library project. Fans of her romance fiction will not be disappointed.

GIVER OF STARS, set in eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression, features a coterie of fictional pack horse librarians – Margery O’Hare, the daughter of a cruel and deceitful bootlegger heads the group. A woman comfortable in her own skin, outspoken and independent; preferring life alone in the wilds of the mountains. A woman stained by her family legacy. Alice Van Cleve, the daughter of wealthy English parents, newly wed to Bennett Van Cleve, the  son of a cruel American coal mine baron; her new life filled with coal dust and pack horses not racing thoroughbreds and Mint Juleps. Izzy, the reclusive daughter of local parents; the victim of polio. Beth, the daughter of a local farmer, and Sophia, the African-American sister of a crippled miner and a trained librarian from Louisville.

The town residents and the folks up  and down the hollers and along the creek beds include a destitute and distrustful father struggling to raise his motherless daughters, a few pompous asses of the human kind, most notably, Alice’s father-in-law, and a miner with a heart of gold and a determination to marry the wild child, Margery.

The novel is packed tightly with a whole slew of themes that are examined closely and intimately at times; some painful, some joyous, most true-to-life and a couple dragged out too long. Overall an enjoyable read that brings the reader into the beauty of the mountains at a time when nature is threatened by mining and the isolated residents face a paradigm shift in long-held traditions, gender roles and racial discrimination.

Jojo Moyes and “Giver of Stars” and a second novel by Kim Michelle Richardson entitled “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” were published in 2019 within months of each other and have been the subject of some controversy. Some critics feel elements of “Giver of Stars” closely resemble those in “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek”. Both novels cover the Pack Horse Librarian project. Be that as it may – both novels have been very popular and Richardson’s novel is on my TBR list.

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OLIVE, AGAIN : Olive Kitteridge #2

Olive Kitteridge is from Maine. Several of my friends, after having read Olive Kitteridge when it appeared in 2008, thought Olive was too stern and taciturn. Have they ever met anyone from Maine? An old Mainer friend once told me that Moxie was the greatest beverage in the world (and actually gave me a bottle to try.) I rank it right up there with cough syrup and kerosene. “Acquired taste,” he said. But I digress.

If you know anyone from Maine, you probably noticed that they don’t suffer fools gladly, don’t waste time with long drawn out dialogue, are fiercely independent, have an innate kindness, generous spirit, and are best known to be smiling with a puckered-up lip arrogant expression.

So, don’t judge Olive too harshly. She comes by it naturally. Ayuh (yup anywhere outside Maine). It’s just that she is a bit overboard with her honesty and “just tell us what you really think” personality. You don’t have to read Olive Kitteridge  first, but I recommend it.

Olive, Again picks up a month after Oliver Kitteridge left off. Henry Kitteridge has been dead two years and her son, Christopher, lives in New York City with a new wife and a houseful of children. Olive, now in her 70’s, still lives in Crosby, Maine. If we were to ask her why, she would probably utter her exasperated trademark phrase, “Phooey!” Walking away, she would flip her hand over her head in dismissal.

The point of the new novel; Olive, the unfiltered, presumptuous, and dismissive busybody of Crosby  has bumped up against a much stronger opponent – old age. She’s beginning to realize that she has been a smart-ass all her life and it is just possible she doesn’t have the answer to everything after all. Stress the word – beginning to realize. She’s facing unwanted and uncontrollable changes in her life. One thing she never loses is her “Olive-ness”.

The novel is comprised of 13 interconnected stories of drama and emotion that transpire over the next ten years; some featuring Olive and some she slips through tangentially. Each vignette dives deeply into the troubled behind the scenes lives of everyday people. People that Olive has crossed paths with in her teaching career or lived among for years.

Don’t be turned off by the threat of a gloomy book. It is a book full of acceptance, compassion, and resilience. A struggle to accept aloneness as opposed to loneliness. A struggle to find answers to the meaning of one’s life and the answers to why bad things happen and how we come to accept ourselves.

My favorite chapter, The Poet. Olive is now 82 and walking with a cane.  She is having a lonely breakfast at a local diner. She sits and stares out at the water and admiring the beauty of the land. The waitress oblivious to her presence after taking her order. A young woman enters the diner and sits staring out the window with a deep concentration etched on her face. Olive recognizes her as a former student who has returned to Cosby; a woman, now, who has become a world  famous poet.

Excerpt from The Poet

Olive placed her fork on her plate…and walked to Andrea’s booth. “Hello Andrea, I know who you are.”…There was a long moment of silence – before Olive said, “So. You’re famous now.”

Andrea kept staring at Olive…Finally she said, “Mrs. Kitteridge?”

[They chat for a while with Olive asking Andrea questions but interrupting her with answers to the questions from Olive’s own life. Olive tells Andrea that she reads about her life on Facebook and Andrea is surprised she would be interested. Olive asks if Andrea enjoyed a recent business trip to Oslo. Andrea replied she gets lonely on those trips with little time to sight-see.]

Olive wasn’t sure she’d heard her right… “Well, you were probably always lonely.” [Olive stares at Andrea and remembers the young girl from a poor Catholic family, one of eight children, who always looked so sad and preferred her own company.]

Andrea looked at her then, gave her a long look that confused [Olive] somewhat; the girl’s eyes… seemed to break into a tenderness around their corners as she looked at Olive. The girl said nothing.

[Andrea attentively listens to Olive talk about her life, the ravages and indignities of old age, the recent death of her second husband and the distant relationship between Olive and her son, Christopher. Andrea politely asks why Olive thought children were needles to the heart. When Olive has run out of steam, she rises from Andrea’s table to leave.] Olive wiped her fingers on a napkin, “You can put that in a poem. All yours.” [And she did. A mysterious person slipped a copy of the poetry journal with a post-it flagging the new poem to Olive’s attention under her door.]

Accosted

… Who taught me math thirty-four years ago / terrified me and is now terrified herself / sat before me at the breakfast counter / all white whiskered / told me I had always been lonely / had no idea she was speaking of herself . . .

It was all there. . . the poem’s theme, pounded home again and again, was that she – Olive – was the lonely, terrified one. It finished, Use it for a poem, she said / All yours.

[Olive tossed the magazine in the trash.] “Andrea, this poem stinks.” [But Olive knew better. It was true.]

I thought Olive, Again was the better of the two books and I loved them both. Not a bad read for any person facing the indignity of sagging skin, faulty “towers”, leaking pipes, and the sense that you don’t matter anymore. Loved it. Restored my sense of humor and purpose in old age; do the best you can do with what you got. Highly recommend for book club discussion.

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THE SECRETS WE KEPT : a novel

THE SECRETS WE KEPT: a novel

Lara Prescott
Knoff 2019
Historical Fiction

★★★☆☆ 

When the men in black came, my daughter offered them tea. The men accepted… when they began emptying my desk drawers onto the floor… Ira… put the teacups back in the cupboard… One of the men… said, “it is time to go.”

“Have a seat, Olga Vsevolodovna… I am your humble interrogator… “Tell me,” he said. “What is this Doctor Zhivago about?”  – Excerpt from the opening chapter of The Secrets We Kept.

It’s shortly after the Second World War. The improbable and wary relationship of WWII allies, America and the Soviet Union, further sours in the post-War years entering a period now known as The Cold War. The US diplomat, George Kennan, declared before Congress in 1947, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation… by outside pressures.” One of the policies to achieve that end was called Cultural Diplomacy; a fancy term for a propaganda campaign to promote American values over tyranny and Communism.

In 2014, the CIA revealed a successful mid-century project of “cultural diplomacy” to disrupt the Kremlin’s message and to encourage American values in the post-war world using the power of the arts. Word had reached America that the beloved Russian poet, Boris Pasternak, was working on his first novel entitled Doctor Zhivago. The Kremlin, aware of Pasternak’s popularity and anti-communist politics, was doing everything in its power to suppress the much anticipated book without even knowing what the book was about. The US set about disrupting their plans.

Lara Prescott, in her novel, The Secrets We Kept, opens a window in the look-back machine to reveal what political and life altering machinations took place to bring Doctor Zhivago to the world.  The story told in multiple voices; several points of view.

The most compelling story line belongs to Boris Pasternak and his twenty-two-years younger mistress and muse, Olga Ivinskaya. Their love/hate story is based on fact. Loving an already married man and living in a repressed country was costly to Olga in so many ways. She was used by the Kremlin to weaken Pasternak’s resolve to finish his decades long work on Doctor Zhivago. The Soviet strategy was to learn the subject of the novel by leaning on Olga Ivinskaya. After weeks of harsh interrogation and failing to learn the substance of the novel from Olga, sentenced her to five years of hard labor at a Siberian gulag. Pasternak found that leading a duplicitous life, Olga’s years of incarceration, and the torture and deaths of friends and fellow colleagues of Pasternak, exacerbated his heart problems. He retreated with his wife, Zinaida, to the comfort of his remote dacha to finish his book. Upon Olga’s release from the Gulag, he bought her a small home nearby. (The Doctor Zhivago movie depicting these days at the snowy fictional dacha, Varinkino.)

Meanwhile, over in America, former members of the WWII Office of Strategic Services (OSS) regrouped and became the Central Intelligence Agency. Women who had served their country during the war in OSS clandestine activities, with some exceptions, found themselves reassigned to a typing pool. Fact. The characters in the typing pool are fiction. They were depicted as a giddy bunch consumed with marriage, the latest fashions and lunch dates. Cloistered within their ranks were women who were typists by day and secret “carriers” of sensitive material by night.

One of the typists, Irina, a daughter of a Russian émigré and an accomplished “carrier” is selected for further espionage training. Irina, quiet and introspective, had the ability to be overlooked in a crowd. She was assigned to an experienced spy for training. Sally, a flamboyant femme fatale was Irina’s polar opposite. In time, the two fell madly in love. Their lesbian love dangerous to the future of their careers.

The filler story becomes the actions of the CIA to receive a copy of the completed Doctor Zhivago from the Italian publisher who was able to secret out the original draft from Pasternak. After negotiating a copy from the Italian press, it was translated back into Russian. The final and dangerous step was smuggling the banned book back into Russia. It was accomplished, in the book with the help of the fictional Irina, by brave recruited Russians attending the Vienna World’s Fair.

It was a hard book for me to rate. The Boris and Olga story was my favorite. Their relationship was complex and left me wishing I could have asked Pasternak – Was the book worth the hell you put your family and Olga’s through?

The story of the CIA and the sacrifices and dangers faced by the clandestine workers was fascinating. But the book was billed as a thriller and I never got chills up my spine. I did get my feathers ruffled over the sexual bigotry; especially as women proved so admirably throughout WWII that they were more than airheads.

Finally the long drawn out lesbian affair between Sally and Irina was interesting but unnecessary to the book in my opinion. A worthy topic for sure, but seem to detract from the purpose of this story.

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely. But with the comment that this is a love story overall;  not a “deep-throat” spy novel.

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The Dutch House

The blue Oldsmobile station wagon rumbled up the pea gravel driveway parking in front of an aging architectural matron, known locally, as “The Dutch House”. The wealthy previous owners, now long dead, remain omnipresent leering down in life-size portraits over the delft blue mantel; their Dutch heritage visible in every room –  everything left just as it was the day they died – hairbrushes to bath towels.

Cyril Connor’s wife, Elna, is uncomfortable in this neighborhood. When Cyril announces this is their new home, Elna is in shock. Their five-year-old daughter, Maeve, is excited! Her brother, Danny, our narrator, not yet a twinkle in his father eye.

Serving as a docent, Cyril strolled room to room pointing out the silk curtains, flamboyant furniture, and the numerous objets d’art from a bygone era; oblivious to the distress manifestly growing on his wife’s face. A man more comfortable with real estate than human relationships. After they move in, the house suffocates Elna. She begins to spend time away from the house. Until one day she simply disappears without a farewell to her children. Their tight-lipped father says she has gone to India.

Years later – the same old blue Oldsmobile is  parked across the street from the Dutch House. Maeve now sits behind the wheel with Danny in the passenger seat. Listening in to their nostalgic conversation, it is obvious that devastating things have happened to them after their mother left them. They stare through the massive ground floor windows at the only constant in their past lives – the house – hoping they will find an answer to that unanswerable question -Why? Why to so many things. As we return to the house with them over the years, we witness Maeve’s strength of character and Danny’s development into a adulthood guided by his sister’s love. Together, this family of two, aided by several loyal friends, show us that in the midst of abject helplessness, life will go on, love will grow, compassion and forgiveness is possible.

After their mother left, their aloof father and the loving household staff established an unconventional family. Like cogs in a well-oiled machine, things ran smoothly for several years; right up to the day their father broke rank and brought home a young woman for a visit. Unlike their mother, Andrea Smith stepped over the threshold, glanced at the fretwork, cornices, and opulent furnishing with reverence and she nearly genuflected in reverence to the old house.

Cyril married Andrea and right from the start, the two Connor children played second fiddle to their step-mother’s plans. But as much as Andrea needled, belittled, and provoked anger at every turn, she never dented Maeve’s armor or broke the close bond with her younger brother. Behind the scenes, Maeve, despite struggling with her own life threatening diabetes, provided guidance, protection and affection to Danny and Andrea’s two younger children, now living in the Dutch House.

Cyril’s sudden death after four years of marriage to Andrea rocked the household. The Connor children are tossed to the wind, penniless and homeless – abandoned once again by a mother figure. Maeve shows us incredible strength of character and willingness to sacrifice her own dreams to stay close to her brother. They are not perfect and they do struggle but we watch as time and again they pick up the pieces and grow to become incredible adults. The ending is much warmer and fuzzier than you might imagine.

Loved the book. Recommend for book clubs.

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THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM

If Hedy [Lamarr]’s society had viewed her not simply as a blindingly beautiful creature, but as a human being with a sharp mind capable of significant contributions, they might have learned that her interior life was more interesting and fruitful than her exterior. – Author, Marie Benedict

Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler  was born on November 9, 1914, into an upper-crust Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Her father, Emil, a successful banker, was frequently absent on business none-the-less he spoiled Hedy when he was home. He encouraged her education and her love of the arts. Her mother was caustic and critical of her father’s attentions and left Hedy to the care of tutors and nannies.

Hedwig was a very smart and lonely child. She found a way to mask her loneliness by creating alternate worlds expressed in little plays where she entertained her dolls. A childish habit that eventually lead to her internationally renowned acting career.

Europe,1933.
While a malevolence festered in Germany, on the stage in Vienna, Austria, Hedy, now a 19-year-old stunning beauty, had moved from dolls to become a well-known stage actress. In the audience at one of her performances was Friedrich (Fritz) Mandl, a shady Austrian arms dealer, known as the “Merchant of Death.” Mandl decided a stunning young wife accompanying him to lavish political dinners would be an advantage.  He possessively pursued her. Her parents, sensing the danger of displeasing this distasteful older suitor, advised her to marry him – ending her career as an actress. If rumors were true about the dangers for Jews in Europe, he might prove her family’s savior. Or so they thought.

Her marriage with Fritz began as a fairy tale but swiftly transitioned into a nightmare as her husband became obsessive, abusive, and controlling. Trapped into this bed of isolation and cruelty as her nation struggled to survive annexation by the Nazis, Hedy found she could use her beauty as a mask.

Behind the quiet bejeweled exterior, an active mind was engaged in learning secrets of the coming Anschluss and the annexation of Austria. It never occurred to her husband’s loyal servants or the powerful political figures, that this gorgeous woman sitting like a potted plant by her husband’s side, actually understood everything they discussed openly in front of her. Smiling demurely, wearing her mask of vapid airhead, she learned of weaknesses in the weapons of war sold by her husband and the plans for removing the Jews from society.

As Nazi troops gathered on Austria’s border, Hedy knew it was time to play her greatest performance. Using her contacts in the entertainment industry, she disguised herself and escaped her husband and the Nazis by emigrating to the United States – taking with her Nazi secrets. Unsure what to do with this knowledge.

In October, 1937, Hedy Kiesler Mandl stepped off a train in Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr. Once more, relying on her well-honed skills as an actress, she enchants Louis B. Mayer from MGM Studios. She quickly becomes an internationally loved movie star. And once again, she finds herself controlled by men.

A chance meeting with the  avant-garde composer and pianist, George Antheil, led to Hedy making a friend who could look beyond the pretty face. Hedy, having spent hours in her husband’s personal library had amassed specific knowledge of torpedoes technology. Still struggling with what to do with her knowledge of the weaknesses in Nazi weaponry, she enlists Antheil’s help in creating technology that would improve the American Navy’s accuracy in torpedo accuracy.

They are successful. The patent office approves her invention and forwards the information to the Navy – who promptly refuses to take seriously anything invented by a woman. Yet, she had the last laugh. You can thank, Hedy Lamarr, for your cell phone. Her invention was instrumental in its development.

I am glad I read the book. It wasn’t a perfectly crafted book. The character development was weak. Some instances were covered poorly; while in America Hedy was approached to help orphaned European children by adopting. We see her reach for an application but we don’t learn until later that she did adopt a child.

Personally, I feel that the book would have been better if it was less a recitation and more invested in Hedy herself. Sadly, it came across to me as though we never really got behind Hedy’s mask. Perhaps that was intentional? It’s a good book. Just not great.

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz: historical fiction

Auschwitz, the name sends a chill of terror up the spine.  The word expresses the deepest depth of inhumanity. There are innumerable books about the Holocaust, none of them easy to read, all of them, a reminder of what man is capable of doing – and must never be repeated. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a glimpse into the true life of one prisoner, Lale Sokolov expressed as a work of historical fiction. One man, among the millions, submerged involuntarily into Dante’s darkest circle of hell.

The story is told in plain simple dialogue. In my mind it reflects the atmosphere – the nonstop hum of danger much like the electrified fence. Communication between the imprisoned had to be sparse and reflect deep meaning in a short amount of time. A glance, a touch, a need to find a kernel of hope for survival in a field of despair. It reflects the motto – Save the one, save the world.

The setting and circumstances of  Konzentrationslager (KL) Auschwitzcan play a harsh backdrop. The cruelty hard to read.

His job in the camp as the Tätowierer offered him special privileges such as freedom to roam in the camp, a private room, and extra food rations. This was a mixed blessing – he was scorned by those who saw him as a cohort of the Germans and worshiped for those he smuggled extra food and traded black market items to the guards in exchange for favors for others

Yet at the heart of the story is optimism. A tale of one extraordinary man who knew six languages and used his wily curiosity and daredevil spirit to survive the Holocaust. Within the confines of the world’s most horrific death camp complex, he discovered his life-long love, Gita.

As much as this is a love story between Lale and Gita, it is also a love story of human dignity and compassion. It shows the amazing ways those suffering and dying prisoners extended a helping hand of kindness to one another in the hopes of saving the one – someone to tell their story to the future.

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SOMETIMES I LIE

Where to begin. Perhaps with the truth. Some people are going to love the sneaky slow twisty evil of this psychological novel set in England.

Others will prefer more structure; books that open with an evil event in the first chapter followed by the introduction of the “Sherlock Holmes” character with a nose for clues and the slyness of Columbo. A satisfying conclusion with justice served.

Pure and simple. Sometimes I Lie is a masterful head fake. To describe the book too intimately would ruin it for the next reader. In this case, my local bookclub.

NOW, BEFORE, and THEN. The story weaves its way through three time periods causing whiplash. The atmosphere of the whole book is heavy, dark, and claustrophobic. There is the feeling that everything is seen through heavy gauze – you ask yourself -do you really understand what is going on?

NOW we meet the paralyzed Amber and crawl inside her head. She awakens to discover that she can not move, speak or open her eyes. She is fully present but unable to communicate. At first she is unable to figure out what happened to her. As she listens to conversations around her she begins to put together the edges of a bizarre jigsaw puzzle – does this jigsaw picture forming in her head resemble reality? I’m not going to tell. There are some pretty heady and disquieting moments. But remember- she says, “Sometimes I Lie“.

BEFORE is presented in the form of a child’s detailed diary of her disturbed childhood. The complex friendship of two young girls from two sides of the track. One bullied and the other – her protector.

THEN happens when Amber awakens. Sorry no more clues but things really pick up speed in the book. You find yourself duped, if not questioning everything you ever knew about little girl friendships.  And what an ending!

I wasn’t sure that I really liked the book. It made me feel queasy at times. I surely didn’t like the characters.  That delicious feeling from a well crafted psycho thriller. But I find myself rethinking what does love really mean? Who or what was at play in the events that unfolded throughout the book?

Recommended if you like complex characters and an evil dimension not unlike some of Stephen King’s work.

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STILL LIFE: Chief Inspector Gamache series #1

THREE PINES, Quebec

Three Pines is a village that isn’t on any maps. There is a sense that it’s only ever found by people lost. No one goes there on purpose. They sort of bumble into it. But the people who do find it were meant to find it. -Louise Penny, Author

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Louise Penny began her career as a radio broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After years struggling with personal issues and with the support of her husband, she found her literary voice at age 46.  It was difficult at first. Her first cozy murder mystery, Still Life, was rejected or ignored 50 times before Minotaur Press opened the door to the enchanting world of Three Pines, Quebec.

Still Life, with its the eclectic cast of lovable characters and down-home setting, was inspired by Quebecois places and people. The book garnered immediate popularity and received numerous awards. With the success of her first book, Penny began writing a murder mystery a year for the past thirteen years. Each new book returns readers to Three Pines where we step back into the lives of the core characters much like returning home for an annual family reunion. The characters have become our neighbors and friends. The town has become real. So much so, that ardent fans travel to Quebec to visit the area just north of the Vermont border to capture the feel of the Eastern Townships for themselves.

Dunne/Minotour published her 15th novel in the Chief Inspector Gamache Series entitled,  The Better Man, on Aug 27, 2019. Like all of her previous books in the series, the newest book can be read and very much enjoyed as a stand-alone-mystery.

If you have not read any of the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, I recommend  you begin at the beginning with Still Life.  Join the highly decorated Inspector Gamache as he investigates a death occurring in a middle-of-nowhere place called Three Pines; a cluster of homes and a few small businesses. A place known to only a few; stumbled upon rarely, but a place, once discovered is never forgotten.

The First Book – Still Life

Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning miss of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all round… She’d fallen spread-eagled, as though making angels in the bright brittle leaves… Chief Inspector Armand Gamache… knelt down [near her body.] Jane’s gentle and kindly eyes stared as though surprised to see him… Shot through the heart by an arrow.

The Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force located in Montreal, taps the infamous Chief Inspector to investigate the death or identity the death as a hunting accident. He heads out of Montreal, crossing the Champlain Bridge, heading into the Eastern Townships.  The scenery changes from congested urban environment transitioning to pastoral greenery and suburban villages. Suddenly, off to the side, is a pockmarked metal sign pointing down a rough-and-tumble dirt road. The road dead ends revealing a charming magical scene – a “Thomas Kinkade” village that exudes peace and calm. A most unlikely setting for a violent murder. A place one resident told Gamache she doesn’t remember a crime of any kind during the twenty-five years she has lived there.

Gamache begins his trademark style of investigation – patient observation; patiently letting the story  begin to unfold itself. He parks himself on a bench in the town square and casually watches. We dine at the Bistro, brush off crumbs from croissants purchased at the boulangerie, browse the bookshelves of the retired psychologist turned bookstore owner, rein in the crusty feisty septuagenarian who happens to write popular poetry and discover the home-life secrets each resident disguises in public.

As the misdirection proceeds, Gamache must deal with an arrogant Agent trainee who repeatedly upends his investigation plans. He learns that the victim, a beloved retired schoolteacher and reclusive artist, has submitted her first publicly viewed art work at a local gallery just days before her death, and the murderer, once revealed stuns Three Pines.

The victim, Jane, was prescient, when she quoted the British poet W. A. Auden in a flashback moment,

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.

Reflection

Be warned! Three Pines is addictive. Each succeeding book gets better and better. The central characters in Still Life  return in every future book, growing older, experiencing life as we all do with its up and downs. But always, Gamache and Three Pines meet to solve another sudden mystery and we drive down that dirt road to join old friends.

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THE PASSENGERS : a novel


London (CNN) Driverless cars will be on UK roads by 2021, says government.
Wed, February 6, 2019, (Lianne Kolirin)
The new technology is a step closer after UK ministers announced plans to move forward on advanced trials for automated vehicles… The new regulations seek to ensure that anyone trialing driverless cars must publish safety information, trial performance reports and carry out risks assessments…

The CNN excerpt is for real.
The Passengers by John Marrs, set in the “not-too-distant” future, is fiction. The nomenclature has changed – there are no longer drivers, they have become passengers. Fasten your seat-belts. This thriller will have you spinning pages.

The government’s propaganda campaign has been successful. Automated vehicles are 100% safe. Gone are the steering wheel, accelerator, and brake pedal as well as the ability to override the AI system to take control of the vehicle. Sit back, watch TV, take a nap – all that is required of the passenger is a destination.

In the rare instance of an accident, the vehicle’s black box is retrieved and reviewed by a Vehicle Inquest Jury comprised of government authorities and one token civilian jurist selected at random. The jury process, more a symbolic gesture to appease the general population, is believed to be unnecessary as the vehicles are incapable of errors or the AI capable of being hacked.

One bright sunny day, the Vehicle Inquest Jury, led by a pompous cabinet minister, gathers to assess liability in six accidents. It is not long before the sole civilian jurist sets the cabinet minister on a verbal rampage when she questions his interpretation of events.

As tension builds in the jury room, eight hapless people enter separate driver-less vehicles- a young pregnant woman, a terrified wife finding the strength to escape her abusive husband, an old soldier shouldering his medals with dignity, an aging actress with a failing mind but an insatiable need for adoration, and four others.

Shortly after heading out, each passenger is startled to hear a strange voice calling out to them by name within their vehicle. After the message is finished, the windows become opaque and they each realize they have become a hostage.

The voice, known as the Hacker, says calmly, “It may have come to your attention that your vehicle is no longer under your management. From here on in, I am in charge of your destination… two hours and thirty minutes from now, it is highly likely you will be dead.

It is soon apparent that the Hacker’s intentions go well beyond terrorizing the eight passengers. Each local news station reports a sighting of a frantic passenger clawing to escape their vehicle. As it is realized there are eight hostages, the news spreads nationally at first; then globally through every news medium. Soon images from within each vehicle appear everywhere.

And just as suddenly, the situation expands to include the Vehicle Inquest Jury. The Hacker’s voice fills the jury room. The images of the startled jury and the irate cabinet minister are now part of the mystery. What unfolds is a horrific version of the Truman Show.

Every subsequent chapter draws the tension higher and higher. To share anymore would spoil the impact of each new revelation. It is a real nail-biter! With the advancement of self-driving vehicles currently under development and the privacy issues of our current social media sources, the reader is left hoping this fiction isn’t a prescient warning. Another 1984!

Highly entertaining  and recommended reading.

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THE BRIDGE BETWEEN: an Edisto novel


Still Waters: An Edisto novel #1 (Itzey review)

Glimpse of Still Waters ….. [Cora Ann Halloway looks at a photo] of a sunset view from Still Waters, Cora Ann’s grandparents’ [Edisto] beach cottage… A classic beach bungalow with the Atlantic in the background and seagrass waving in the breeze.”  A place filled with happy memories until one traumatic event chases her to the mainland where she learns that you can’t outrun some things. It is a story of love, sadness, and bonds of family that carry you through the hard times.

Dear Reader, If you have time, please read Still Waters, before diving into this second marvelous novel, The Bridge Between! Pull up a beach chair, a cold drink, feel the breeze, smell the pluff mud and listen to the rolling waves. It isn’t necessary that you do so, but the family you will fall in love with in Still Waters continues in this newest work. Having read both books, I feel I know the characters so well that I am surprised they are not neighbors of mine.

The Bridge Between opens where Still Waters endsOn Edisto Beach at Still Waters. In this latest novel, we look deeper into the events exposed in Still Waters offering context to life on Edisto after Nan’s death. Lou and her rambunctious triplets have moved into Still Waters. Lou’s ex-husband, David Halloway has moved onto the island with the hopes of a second chance. Cora Ann and Tennessee are still in a budding romance. And the triplets are still wreaking havoc in everyone’s daily lives as they rumble through the plot.

If you are meeting the Halloway family and their extended relatives and neighbors for the first time, it will take you a few chapters to come up to speed. Think of it as the first time you met your future-in-laws at holiday time. Perhaps it reminds you of returning home after a long time away to find that everyone’s life has moved on just like your own; circumstances and chance have intervened. You are faced with the fact that people make choices; and choices have consequences – both good and bad.

But deep down, at heart of things, that which drove people away hold seeds of better times and the potential to rekindle new memories and forgiveness. The Bridge Between is filled with emotions and feelings – hope, suspicion, anger, love, understanding, repentance, resolution, acceptance and deep convictions of faith.

Highly recommended for readers of women’s and Christian-centered fiction. A request to the author, please take us back to the island. Let us follow the triplets into adulthood and deeper into the futures of all our new family and friends.

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CORNELIUS SKY : a novel

Author and Novel’s Backstory
One hot summer’s day in 1990, Timothy Brandon sought refuge in the public library. Wandering in the stacks, he discovered the numerous volumes of the New York Times Index.

“I discovered two abstracts concerning family members. The first, from 1937, about my grandfather, contained the startling keyword of suicide. The second, from 1974, about my uncle, offered this highly curious instruction: ‘See JFK, Jr.'” After pulling the microfilm and reading the articles, he remembers thinking, “If I could somehow capture the bleak irony and pathos of these pieces.”

Thirty years later, having obtained an MFA from NYU, he has crafted his debut novel weaving the reference to JFK, Jr.  and suicide into the story.  The novel’s setting is familiar to him as well; home life in the low-income public housing projects of Chelsea in New York City. A generational workplace as doormen at a posh Fifth Avenue apartment building. The sad history of a few ancestors, parking themselves in pubs, attempting to drown life’s sorrows and inequities.

From all these loose threads,  he crafted, the one, the only, Cornelius Sky.

Our narrator begins the story in 1974 with Cornelius, henceforth known as Connie, as he stumbles home in the dead of night in his usual manner; three sheets to the wind. With difficulty he tries to insert his key in the door only to discover the locks changed and his marriage over. Connie leaves with no destination or plan in mind. He wanders the streets, his doorman cap askew, his gait staggering, too stewed to know what to do next.

He is currently employed at a ritzy Fifth Avenue apartment building. This job, now floundering, like the many others over the years. His charm gets him in the door. His custodial duties are masterful. He starts each job deliberately with high standards. It is critical that he that makes him indispensable right away because it won’t be long before he starts his downward spiral – late to work, drunk on the job, slovenly dressed, and at times, nasty and churlish to the residents.

The firing, when it comes this time, is particularly difficult. He has a developed a friendship with the son of a wealthy resident, a Presidential widow. A thirteen-year-old named John. This friendship seen perhaps as a chance to redeem himself for estranging his own children or just two lost souls finding solace together over a cribbage board in the back hallway.

Connie’s tragic story began in his childhood in the low-income Chelsea projects. His father gave up early by committing suicide. His choice to turn on the gas oven and stick his head inside also killed Connie’s baby brother as he slept. His mother moved on to an abusive lover that made Connie’s life hell. The one place he hoped to find peace, church, was marred by a predatory clergyman. Without a responsible adult in his life, he soon learned self-prescribed doses of alcohol keep everything tolerable.

I can’t picture life without it. He tried to feel out in his mind for an image of himself as a person who did not drink, and nothing came. The construct of a character named Connie Sky who lived a sober life eluded him, terrified him down to the ground. . . 

But not all is doom and gloom. The story begins to feel, after a while, like the narrator is Della Reese and we are watching an episode of Touched by an Angel. We see Connie at his worst, sense his potential, and can’t help but beg him to find help. To find the peace that so deep down he wants.

When it seems that he has lost everything including his soul, we sense that “angels” have arrived to steer him back to life and to a future he thought never possible.

Recommended reading.

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WINTER SOLDIER: a novel

One of the conflicts doctors face in wartime is that they are often asked to do something that is against their healing instincts, because curing a soldier and returning him to the front may mean sending him to his death. This complicates our oath to ‘do no harm.’ I wanted to examine a doctor faced by such choices. 
Interview with Daniel Mason

Winter Soldier is a riveting story of a medical student and a mysterious nun, Margarete, thrown together in a makeshift hospital in an abandoned church in the Austro-Hungarian region of World War I. With a pew for a surgical table and forays to the woods for sustenance, they compassionately offer care to the limbless and horrifically disfigured soldiers in their care. In time, it became a love story. In time, it became a fight for individual choice vs. a doctor’s need to pursue medical care beyond the scope of his duties.

Twenty-two year old, Lucius Krzelewski, was born to a wealthy Polish aristocratic family living in Vienna. His father, an ardent patriot, spent his days reliving the glory days of  the fierce soldiers known as the  Polish Winged Hussars. He did his best efforts to instill that military fervor in his youngest son, but Lucius showed no aptitude or interest in becoming a soldier.

Lucius wanted to become a doctor and pursued his dream.  He found the study of neurology and the workings of the mind particularly intriguing, but overall, by his sixth year, he was a frustrated medical student. All books and no hands-on patient contact. When war broke out, medical students with six of their eight years training completed were allowed to enlist as medical lieutenants and work alongside doctors as assistants.

Shortly after enlisting, Lucius received  several brief assignments with disappointing duties. His fifth assignment was to the front lines of the war, to a place he was led to believe was a fully equipped Regimental Hospital of the Third Army in the Carpathian mountains in the tiny village of Lemnowice. A duty assignment that assured access to surgeries and trauma training. Lucius was about to face a side of humanity he would never learn from textbooks.

Standing before the door to the Regimental Hospital, a small bombed wooden church constructed of rough-hewn logs, he wondered if he should just turn around and head back to Vienna.

He knocked on the door. An eye appeared in the narrow window.
Krzelewski. Medical lieutenant. Fourteenth Regiment. Third Army.

The door opened. A nursing sister with a rifle dangling from her hand stood before him.
May I speak to the supervising physician? . . .
She replied . . . Didn’t you just say you’re him?

Lucius, stepping into the church, was about to meet the one person that would change his life in many ways, Sister Margarete of the Sisters of Saint Catherine. The diminutive nun with the mental strength of a Winged Hussar held true to her position when typhus claimed the lives of 3 of the nurses, one doctor fled from cowardice and the last fled in the middle of the night from losing his mind. Aided by the hand of God, Margarete, exhibiting her superior sense of practicality, did what had to be done in the two months she was alone.

Since December, there have been forty amputations, on twenty-three men. . .
And who, Sister Margarete, has performed the amputations?
He has.
And whose had was he directing?
She held up her little hands.

The little nun, with respect, trained the medical student, and together, with nothing more than, scalpel, morphine and ether did what they could to save the men that streamed through the church door. Until one day, a winter soldier arrived curled in a fetal position in a wheelbarrow. The man could not move or speak although he had no physical injuries. His arrival changes the dynamics of the story.

Blogger’s Comments
This review has given me fits for days. I find it hard to describe Lucius’ love for science, his discovery of deep personal strengths and tenacity, and his need to accept that the needs of the many out-weigh the intense needs of one in war. And dear Margarete, we never learn her secrets, but we are privy to her humor, her intense compassion, and total acceptance of the present. If you will permit me, I see a fiery young Shirley McClain with a soft heart and Kenny Roger’s ability to “know when to hold ’em , know when to fold ’em,  know when to walk away.”

Highly recommended.

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A MADNESS OF SUNSHINE : a novel

Which way should she run today? . . . along the cliffs above the beach. . . along the beach? It was the light that decided her. . . [ the cliffs]. [She saw] a standing form in the distance. . . Her feet took her closer and closer. . .

“Oh,” she said coming to a stop; startled.
I didn’t expect to see you here.”

Miriama, A Madness of Sunshine

About the Author
Nalini Singh is a popular novelist within the science fiction sub-genre of paranormal romance and fantasy romance. She is known for her extremely popular Psy-Changling and the darker sexier Guild Hunter Series.

A Madness of Sunshine is her first stand-alone thriller and devoid of her usual steamy scenes and beyond-the-normal characters. She has issued a warning to her most ardent fans, “[This book] is not written as a romance suspense or romance;” a fact that drew me to read the book. The book will be published in December, 2019.

The setting. Golden Cove. A fictional town tucked in the bush on the West Coast of South Island, NZ. “[A] primal and untamed landscape [with] trees born of ancient seeds and the ferns huge and green”; each fighting for dominance before reaching the jagged cliffs over looking the Tasman Sea and gorgeous beaches. A wild place where tragedy happened in the past when three visiting hikers disappeared into the bush without a trace over the summer. Present day, life has calmed and the disappearances of those three girls only a sad memory dragged out now and then.

The town recently received it first police officer, Will Gallagher; an exiled big city lawman with an award-winning career but a propensity for quick anger. A man, now seeking redemption.

A prodigal daughter leaves a highly successful music career in London to return to Golden Cove. Her husband’s sudden death and the discovery of his long-time infidelity the catalyst.  She moves back into the run-down shack where she grew up.  Annahera Rawiri hopes to live a life of solitude among the people she has always known and trusted.

Though the town’s population is small, it has the requisite mix of bad boys, rich landowners, dowdy housewives, and the community hub- Josie’s cafe. There in the cafe, among the daily crowd, works an achingly beautiful teenager, Miriama Tutaia, much beloved and the object of desire for every breathing male. A golden girl with a promising future in photograph.

Mirihama returns home after work and is unwilling to stay alone in the house with her slimy step-father. She changes into her running clothes and heads out on a little used hiking trail. . . and never returns.

The town is shaken to its roots. Is she injured? Or . . . reviving old memories of the missing girls. Has something evil invaded their isolated world again? From within the community or outside?

Will and Annahera, along with the residents of Golden Cove, join ranks to search for Mirihama. As the search is conducted, the atmosphere  darkens. Annahera begins to see that time has changed her friends; some for the better and others for the worse. Will reveals himself to be a source of comfort and strength to all; and feared by those with something to hide.

Blogger’s Thoughts
A solid three-star effort. Fans expecting the author’s normal writing style might be a little let down. There are red herrings, plot twists, and a pinch of romance. The author took a chance on branching into a new genre. It is a good first try and hopefully will step-up in a future effort.

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TELL ME WHO WE WERE : stories

Mr. Arcilla died. . . Handsome and scruffy and achingly tall. . .He was just out of college. . . to teach twelve-year-old boarding school girls the fundamentals of Spanish and French. . . Spanish then French. . . He never made it to French. . .

Six twelve-year-old boarding school girls at the precipice of womanhood; all individually in love with their romance language teacher. Their budding pubescent lives firing up and things getting itchy in new places in their bodies. That time in their  lives where they all felt daydreams foretold the future; where the difference between reality and imagination is blurred.

Chapter One is a short story entitled, The Translator’s Daughter, and is narrated by one of the girls as an older woman. She introduces Lilith, Romy, Evie, Claire, Nellie and Grace and reveals their interpersonal relationships, their individual backstories and their deep individual attraction to their twenty-five-year old teacher, Mr. Arcilla.

When his body is discovered floating naked in a nearby pond, the girls are devastated and disconcerted to find themselves alone to sort out the meaning of life and death and to discover that Mr. Arcilla, the kind and patient teacher, did not share their affections. He turned out to be just an ordinary man with individual troubles not unlike themselves. The scars from this event would affect each of them for the rest of their lives. The slender thread of Mr. Arcilla’s death is the only thing that remains of their friendships after they leave the halls of Briarfield.

Mr. Arcilla. Our first real love, our first real loss. We felt it keenly then, as if he had left each one of us. . .without a good-bye. . . Cast aside. Disregarded. Left on our own, alone.

We will again meet Lilith, Romy, Evie, Claire, Nellie, and Grace, featured separately in the next six stories. Each story, a slice from each girls’ future, as inspired by the works of poets and translators famous for myths about women.

The author has done a nice job of maintaining the magical realism revealed in The Translator’s Daughter in each of the subsequent stories.  To quote the publisher who summarizes it best:

Throughout these stories, these bright, imaginative, and ambitious girls mature into women, lose touch. . . achieve success and endure betrayal, marry and divorce, have children and struggle with infertility, abandon husbands and remain loyal to the end.

I particularly liked that the book is a short story collection. I savored one each night this week as I wound down my day. Readers of The Night Circus, The Snow Child and Life of Pi will find it appealing.

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THE RUMOR

It starts with a rumor. Whispers at the school gate.
“There’s a strong possibility that a famous child killer is living right here in Flinstead,” she says, pausing to let her words take effect. “Under a new identity of course” …

The Rumour debuted in the United Kingdom in December of 2018. The setting is the fictional “cozy” seaside village of Flinstead-on-Sea and the dialogue is distinctly British. The novel crosses the Atlantic in June, 2019 and has been revised for an American audience. Just in time to pick up a copy for a nice beach read! Other reviewers have called it a psychological thriller or heady suspense but I would place it more as a women’s fiction with a who-dun-it theme.

Joanna Critchley, a single mother, was a very successful real estate manager in a large metropolitan area near the sea. She gave it all up – the big salary, beautiful home, and fancy car – to give her son, Alfie, a new life away from cruel school bullies.

She surprises herself by choosing to be near her mother in the small seaside town of Flinstead. When she was eighteen-years-old she couldn’t leave Flinstead fast enough. The tiny town is a mecca for retirees and she longed for the bright lights of the city and the more hip crowd. Now returning, she hopes that Alfie being near his beloved grandmother and entering a new school system would give him a brighter future. Alfie is a bi-racial child and the reader is left to assume that Joanna expected the smaller community would be more tolerate of her mixed race child.

She soon learns that a small town can be harsh on newcomers. Children aren’t the only ones to find it difficult to find a place in the existing pecking order.

Encouraged by her mother, Joanna makes an effort to meet other women in local social activities and joins a book club. When another member of the book club is being hazed over her love life, Joanna attempts to deflect the conversation by asking,

“Just out of curiosity, has anyone heard of Sally McGowan?”. . .  that child killer from the sixties . . . I’m sure it is a load of garbage, but someone mentioned they’d heard something about her living in Flinstead, under a new identity.”

And just like that – the rumor begins to spread throughout the town like a lightning strike in a hay field. Once ignited, the rumor is unstoppable and splinters into different directions fueled by fear, curiosity, paranoia, and suspicion.

Suspected victims are harassed and threatened. No one is above suspicion. And everyone remembers who first brought up the subject. Joanna becomes a target by someone who seems to know Sally McGowan and she fears for her life and that of her son.

The twisty plot explores the damage an innocent comment can do in a small town with everyone having an ax to grind. The truth of the rumor becomes a rationale to expose the town’s underbelly.

The book is not overly harsh and easy to read. The kind of book you would take on a plane trip; it doesn’t require the reader to deeply engage in the themes just enjoy the journey.

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IMAGINARY FRIEND


The clouds always made him feel safe.
There was one cloud more beautiful than all the rest.
The one that looked like a face. . . And it was always there [every day] smiling at him. It was always there.

 . . . until the day he needed it most to feel safe.

PUBLISHER’S SYNOPSIS

Christopher is seven years old. Christopher is the new kid in town. Christopher has an imaginary friend. The epic work of literary horror from the #1 bestselling author of THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.

We can swallow our fear or let our fear swallow us.

At first, it seems like [Mill Grove is] the perfect place to finally settle down. Then Christopher vanishes. For six awful days, no one can find him. Until Christopher emerges from the woods at the edge of town, unharmed but not unchanged. He returns with a voice in his head only he can hear, with a mission only he can complete: Build a tree house in the woods by Christmas, or his mother and everyone in the town will never be the same again.

Soon Kate and Christopher find themselves in the fight of their lives, caught in the middle of a war playing out between good and evil, with their small town as the battleground.

BLOGGER’S REVIEW

Grand Central Press recently offered me a chance to read and review in Netgalley, an ARC e-book of Stephen Chbosky’s second novel, Imaginary Friend, in advance of the book’s October, 2019, release.

Chbosky’s first book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, was a coming-of-age teen drama of an introverted and friendless boy who struggles with issues from his past. Imaginary Friend, debuting twenty years after Perks, also features a child protagonist. This new book is less warm and fuzzy with a much darker theme – the eternal battle against good and evil centered in an out-of-the-way town. This book seemed to offer a diversion from the overtly religious themed books I have reviewed in the past weeks.

Christopher and his mother, Kate, are fleeing an abusive home life in the dead of night. Kate has chosen to move to Mill Grove, Pennsylvania; the typical out-of-the-way town with little to attract the attention of the outside faster paced world.

The story develops slowly at first, taunting, tantalizing the reader with a glimpse into the minds of the residents. Hidden behind the pleasant atmosphere lies the gray side of each person; lives lived on the knife edge of right and wrong.  Townsfolk and the school children, on the whole, are decent people. Each has issues. Some a hot temper. Others jealous. Most devote Christians. Typical small town.

Christopher suffers from a learning disability that places him in the special education program at school.  Typical of schools everywhere, bullies thrive and victims coalesce for support. His one comfort is the beautiful sky and the large smiling cloud that always greets him in the morning and follows him where ever he goes.

Christopher begins to hear voices and messages that he can’t decipher. One day he drawn into the densely forested and foreboding Mission Street Woods. Despite a town wide manhunt, no sign of Christopher is found.  Mysteriously, six days later, Christopher reappears and it is immediately obvious that something happened in those woods to change him. And the reader begins to note that the atmosphere in town is growing creepy and scary.

The story is hard-charging at this point and nearly impossible to put down. Supernatural creatures, seen only by Christopher, float through town screaming and battling one another. The deer in the forest seem possessed and appear in the weirdest moments; almost like stalkers. Christopher is aware that he can read minds and that his touch has a chilling affect on anyone he lays a hand upon.

Then the story reaches it climax before beginning to struggle.  No pun intended; all hell was breaking loose in Mill Grove. One particular character, a teen girl, the one that was making a deal with God when she was about to break her curfew and discovered Christopher standing in the middle of the street at midnight, begins to play a more prominent role.  A role with heavy religious themes; too much in my opinion.

All this happens by page 350. There are over 350 more pages to go. The book has a five star start and fizzles toward the end repeating the same violent scenes over and over. I found myself at one point wondering if I had inadvertently changed my e-book location back a couple of hundred pages. In my humble opinion, the book could lose those last 350+ pages. It is has the potential to become a best seller and there is plenty of time between now and October to stop the repetitive scenes.  The character development is believable and the central theme of good vs evil is well played out. There is so much to like here. Just not so much of the same over and over.

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BOY ERASED: a memoir of identity, faith, and family

[T]he American Psychiatric Association [in 1973] had removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [as a mental disorder] . . .

[Frank] Worthen disagreed, and started Love in Action [after hearing the voice of God] . . . “It was God’s answer to the APA saying homosexuality was normal. And God is saying, ‘not really.’”

I have now lived geographically in the heart of the Bible Belt for thirty-three years. I was permanently transplanted here quite by accident from northern New York State. The very first question I was asked by the very first person I met was, “Are you saved?” It was news to me that I was in danger and my immediate reply was – From What?

Now that I have been here over a quarter of a century, I still don’t understand how my upbringing as a member of a large Roman Catholic community who believes in the Holy Trinity -Father, Son and Holy Spirit should be considered a non-Christian cult. How does it differ so radically from my evangelical neighbors? My only hope, I’ve been told, is to accept Jesus as my personal Savior. Since I thought I have all along, I still can’t figure out what I am doing wrong.

My book club selected Boy Erased for last month’s discussion. As I read the book and smashed into the inner struggles of Garrard Conley’s life, I felt like I was dropped from 35,000 feet into Dante’s inferno.

Garrard was raised, much like myself, in a religious vacuum. There is comfort in a community that sees themselves as the one true religion. Everyone knows the rules and the dangers of violating them. Rule by fear. For me, there was weekly confession where I could profess my dastardly sins. For Garrard, there was no one to  help him understand his unsettling nature. There was no one to help him see deep into his troubled soul to see that a loving God accepts you just as you are; not as you are judged by men.

Garrard knew at an early age he was a miss-matched fork in the silverware drawer. Different, somehow. He knew his parents loved him dearly and he knew that what ever made him different inside, if exposed, would threaten his relationship with them and, more importantly, his salvation. As he matured, he realized that he preferred boys to girls and his internal conflicts accelerated; he had a name now for his disquiet – gay.

At age 19, Garrard broke tradition within his family and left for a secular education at a “liberal” college. Although his parents were concerned that his relationship with God would be affected by exposure to secular education, they paid his tuition.

At this time, his father, a successful businessman in his work life, decided that it was time for him to become a fundamentalist preacher and like, Jesus, become a fisher of men. While Garrard struggled with his identity, his father was asked by the elders responsible for approving his ordination if he would advocate for intolerance of the LGBTQ community; sinners living this lifestyle by choice – a giving in to the Devil.

Garrard was raped by a male college classmate; someone he considered a friend. For whatever evil purpose, this “friend” revealed to Garrard’s mother that her son was gay. This information began a cataclysm within his family and within himself.

After consulting their church pastor, Garrard’s parents were convinced to send him to a strict gay conversion therapy group known as Love in Action. Nip things in the bud, so to speak. As I read the horrors that occurred in the name of God by the counselors in this reclusive organization, I became furious and physically sick forcing me to put the book down now and then and step outside for a breath of fresh air.

Garrard hasn’t lost his parents’ love but their relationship has forever been altered by the conflicts between their vision of God and sexuality. As he feared, exposure of his secret affected his parents within their religious community. His father became tainted for having a gay son. Along the way, he lost God’s voice in his life. He affirms it may be irretrievable.

As the step-mother to a gay man and enjoying friendships with several members of the LGBTQ community, I needed this book. Please be patient as you read Garrard’s story. Within the chapters, his story flips erratically from past, present and future showing his inner struggle. Anyone wanting a glimpse of what it is like, at the individual level, to feel different.  To live in the shadows. Always fearful of losing your job or even your life because society disapproves of you and who you choose to love. Read this book.

As I write this today, our national leaders are pushing hard to remove safe-guards to eliminate discrimination and actually condoning outright violence against the LGBTQ community. My heart breaks at the cruelty done in the name of religion.

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HALF MOON BAY: a novel

Publisher’s Synopsis

A smart, haunting tale of psychological suspense from the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of Turn of Mind.

Jane loses everything when her teenage daughter is killed in a senseless accident. Jane is devastated, but sometime later, she makes one tiny stab at a new life: she moves from San Francisco to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay.

She is inconsolable. and yet, as the months go by, she is able to cobble together some version of a job, of friends, of the possibility of peace.

And then, children begin to disappear. And soon, Jane sees her own pain reflected in all the parents in the town. She wonders if she will be able to live through the aching loss, the fear all around her. But as the disappearances continue, she begins to see that what her neighbors are wondering is if it is Jane herself who has unleashed the horror of loss.

Blogger’s Review

I lived in Monterey, California before moving to Sand City, a tiny community nearby and not that far from Half Moon Bay. The memories of my tiny rental house sitting on a dune with the eternal sounds of pounding surf and the sense of isolation sprang to mind when I was given the chance to read Alice LaPlante’s newest book, Half Moon Bay.

Sadly, the memories, the salty smells, and the sounds of surf were not enough to keep my attention on Jane and the remaining pop-up characters that populated the story. Recognizing that some books start out slowly and build suspense and mystery before ending with a ” I didn’t see that coming” ending, I plotted along and finished the book only to find that the conclusion fizzled out predictably.

I would have given the book a one star rating but for the intriguing descriptions of the floral plants featured in the nursery where Jane worked. I found myself turning to my collection of botanical books parked on the side table of more interest than Jane’s psychological and emotional issues. The plant intrigue earned a second star for the book.

The protagonist, Jane, is a grieving mixed-up character with a history of histrionic behavior. Her teenage daughter dies in an auto accident caused by a distracted driver. In the following months, she loses her husband to infidelity and both parents die unexpectedly. When the woman responsible for her daughter’s death is found guilty but only receives a slap on the wrist, Jane repeatedly reacts violently against her and is lucky she doesn’t end up in jail.

Hoping for a new start, she escapes to a small seaside town. It turns out that her issues come with her; the only change is geography. The loss of her daughter consumes her thoughts. She gets along well with everyone in town on a surface level but internally she is a lonely mess.

A creepy couple move to Half Moon Bay and soon become the talk of the town. The charismatic Edward  ostensibly has moved to town to stop the development of a high-end resort on a fragile piece of coast land.  Edward begins to stalk Jane and soon begins to appear nightly at her house for a romp in the sack. Jane becomes obsessed with the attention and doesn’t question his motives. Weird.

When Jane meets Alma, Edward’s significant other, she worries that Alma would find out about her relationship with Edward. Surprisingly, Alma already knows and doesn’t give a flip. The couple smothers Jane with over-the-top affection and frequent invitations to their home. Their seduction routine leads to daredevil deeds that require Jane to endanger her life and to commit large scale vandalism.

In the meantime, local young girls, one-by-one, are kidnapped and murdered. Jane’s violent past and the death of her daughter are exposed to the townsfolk making her a murder suspect in everyone’s eyes- except to Edward and Alma. As Jane unravels with all the negative attention, she goes to Edward and Alma’s home uninvited and discovers she has been duped.

My honest opinion?  The book is disjointed and ricochets around in Jane’s mind. The various plot lines don’t seem to build suspense and feels like life in a wind tunnel. I think it could have been a good book with more judicious editing and deeper character development. As it is now, the characters are flat, the plot and conclusion obvious, and the story feels like a blindfolded foot race through a corn maze.

Alice LaPlante has proven her skill as an author with her first book, Turn of Mind. Here’s hoping she is more successful next time.

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BENEATH THE TAMARIND TREE: A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram

Go under that tree!. . .They’d arrived at a Boko Haram Camp . . . The hundreds of girls moved en-masse for protection and stood weeping at the foot of the [tamarind] tree . . . Do you know why you are here? . . . It is in your best interests to choose our religion . . . Even if you refuse to accept our religion, you must wear the hijab.

April 14, 2014 dawned like any other in the Local Government Area of Borno State, Nigeria known as Chibok. The Area is located in northern Nigeria and has it’s headquarters in the town with the same name of Chibok; a microdot agrarian village comprised of many Christian families. Militant Islamic groups have killed and maimed innocent residents as well as destroyed towns in the region.

The marauders endeavor to eliminate any Western influences and to force native peoples to their extreme Islamic views.  The most notable of the violent Islamic terror groups is known as Boko Haram; whose name loosely means “Western education is a sin.”

Their heavy-handed tactics have resulted in the closure of all Nigerian Government Schools – except one. The tiny school in the poverty laced Area of Chibok.

On the morning of April 14, 2014, Boko Haram descended on the town of Chibok and “serendipitously” discovered the Government School and the 276 girls receiving Western education. The Jihadists assumed all schools had been closed and couldn’t believe their luck to find one still open. Recognizing the opportunity and exposure they would receive by kidnapping these terrified young girls, the militants forcefully spirited them into the desolate Sambisa forest; the group’s largest home base.

Their actions did bring international attention at first, but soon the plight of these innocent children remained a horrible nightmare to only their bereft parents and a small cadre of activists. Nearly 50+ girls managed to evade capture or escaped enroute to the Sambisa forest but the fates of over 200 remained a painful mystery.

Nearly two years to the day from their capture and in the heart of the divisive United States 2016 election season, Boko Haram revived attention to their insidious kidnapping by releasing 21 girls. Once again, and for a brief time only, the world renewed its interest in the fate of these innocents.

Author, Isha Sesay, born in Sierra Leone and serving as a CNN Africa reporter has now dedicated her life to discovering the fate of the Chibok girls, to keep their memory alive, and to further efforts to discover those still missing. The failure of her network to air an exclusive interview with the newly released girls in lieu of wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential election outraged her and has led to this incredible book, Beneath the Tamarind Tree.

This, soon to be released book in 2019, is a must read for lazy Americans who probably couldn’t point to Nigeria on a globe much less locate Chibok. Count me in on that point. I knew all the buzz words in the news- Boko Haram, the Chibok girls, the kidnapping, the release of a few of the girls. . . But aside for a momentary sense of compassion for the girls, their parents, and their community I became distracted by news at home.

I applaud Isha Sesay for educating me on the history of Nigeria in a way that was easy to read and showed how it’s history is tied to the US. Her unique access to the released Chibok girls and their parents has brought the story down to the individual level while at the same time offering the reader an overview of life in the area as a whole. I was so amazed how desperately the parents wanted their girls to be educated; to be valued as a person and to reach their highest potential. The efforts of these destitute families, living without running water or electricity and the dedication of the girls themselves to honor their parents sacrifices for education is remarkable.

Much of the strength and courage of these families resides in their deep belief in a Christian God and his mercy and wisdom. I honestly had tears in my eyes as I read the interviews from the released girls and their willingness to stand true to their faith and not be forced to convert to Islam. I, also understood, the need for self-preservation and did not judge those girls who “converted” in an effort for survival.

It is a story of heartbreak and cruelty cast in a light that doesn’t offend the reader but offers insight into the daily lives of peoples constantly under crushing terror and emotional distress. In my heart of hearts, I believe everyone should read this book. It is now five years since the abduction and more than 112 girls are still missing. These innocent girls are representative of thousands more girls and boys that have been murdered or turned into slaves for a virulent cause all around the world. The world for those unfortunates that have survived has been irrevocably altered. There is a message here for all of us.

Remember “there but for the grace of God, go I”, when one religious group forcibly dictates the rules and denies the rights of individuals to their own vision of a supreme being or the right to not believe in one at all.

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THE SUN IS A COMPASS : a 4000 mile journey into the Alaskan Wilds

There is always a certain level of risk involved in negotiations with wild places and wild elements. Even those places that seem tame, or familiar. . . The key is finding a balance – trying to determine whether the risk is worth the reward. Caroline Van Hemert

Caroline Van Hemert and her husband, Patrick Farrell have reached a pivotal point in their lives. Life-long naturalists,  experienced wilderness trekkers and residents of Alaska have found themselves defined by their jobs and miserable. Caroline, after years of academic study is a research wildlife biologist “locked” inside a science lab peering into a microscope. Patrick, a home builder, yearns to see the trees still rooted in nature and simmers with repressed wanderlust.

They now face the end of what I call their “immortal” years. That spry time where you dream of what you want to be when you grow up and live life to its fullest pushing decisions that must be made aside for the time being. Unencumbered by children or full-time careers, Caroline and Patrick were free to dream and travel the world at leisure to experience the thrill of discovering what lies around the next bend.

But now they have reached their mid-thirties and they discover themselves sitting at the top of the roller-coaster staring down at all those weighty thoughts they put off thinking about.  Do we want a family? Have we reached that point in our lives where we live day-to-day repeating our activities like Ground Hog Day? They realize that they can’t answer those questions without taking time off to reflect. They are still strong and capable of physically challenging adventures and if they are to take one last fling at living life on the edge, it is now or never.

A long neglected plan created by the duo to travel over 4000 miles from the rain forests of Washington state to a remote point on the frozen shores of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean was dusted off, reexamined and with the help of family and friends carefully laid out. They were planning to “go where no man had gone before”. Traveling wild areas, some uncharted and vaguely described on maps. Testing their mettle in ways they could not have imagined. Meeting strangers and experiencing kindness and generosity unimagined.

Armchair adventurers, you are in for a treat. Caroline has a gift for writing that will have you breathless with excitement, slack jawed with awe, and dumbfounded that anyone would take on such a challenge to face starvation, marauding bears, and extreme weather conditions. Her descriptions of awesome beauty found in a single flower or the burst of birdsong flood your mind. The words so carefully chosen that the reader is engaged fully in Caroline’s journey physically and emotionally. She lets it all hang out and it is her honesty and sincerity that makes the book so special. The uninitiated backwoods traveler will be surprised that within the isolation and raw weather extremes, the mind slips into a zone where the issues that led you into the wilderness will surface giving true meaning to the phrase- finding yourself. We share her tears, laughter, joy, sorrow, thrill of discoveries, and love of life shared with her partner and husband, a man whose incredible skills seem to good to be true.  Everyone needs a man that can look at a fallen log and see a canoe – and makes it so!

The epilogue is icing on the cake; it would seem she found the answers to her mental questions. Recommended reading.

ARC provided by Edelweiss in exchange for my opinion and review.

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THOSE PEOPLE : a novel

My relationship with him? Mutual hatred, I would say. I recognized his type straightaway. Doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. Uncivilized, basically. – Ralph Morgan, 7 Lowland Way

Lowland Way is a lovely tree-lined residential street filled with old Victorian homes. This award-winning community is known for self-monitored harmony and peace; a place where children can safely play in the streets on every Sunday. This upper class oasis turns a blind eye to the economically depressed area on the other side of their manicured hedges; this “Stepford” community pats itself on the back with haughty self-importance and perfect neighborly respect for rules and regulations. There is suspense hovering over the neighborhood. Who will inherit the home of the recently deceased neighborhood matron who lived at 1 Lowland Way?

The opening chapter reveals that the new owner, Darren Booth, having moved in eight weeks earlier, was not fondly received and that something tragic has happened at that address. The British Metropolitan Police are interviewing one of the residents, Frank Morgan from 7 Lowland Way.

Yes, we’re aware that someone’s been killed; of course we are. What a terrible way to die, absolutely horrific. . . Yeah, it all looked normal on the corner when I left. The usual scrap heap. Piles of rubble everywhere. . . A total disaster zone. . .

The neighborhood’s hopes that the heir to Jean’s home would be a respectable up-and-comer were dashed when Darren blew into town with massive sound system, fleet of rusting used cars, and a tool box filled with ear-splitting devices. This misplaced commoner began a 24-hour renovation of the house and staged a used-car business parking his broken down vehicles in the limited parking available on the street.

1 Lowland Way is a duplex; one of the only semidetached homes on the street. The residents of the other half of the house are introduced to Darren Booth in the dead of night when the adjoining wall in their baby’s bedroom came under assault from a power tool. The jack-hammering noise was overlaid with an accompanying dose of heavy metal music.

An elderly resident across the street from 1 Lowland Way suffers financial ruin as her B&B loses it’s ranking due to the situation at the Booth house. Guests were turned off by the noise, the rusty cars, and the haphazard scaffolding.

Day after day the noisy intrusion continues with no relief to be found. “Friendly and unfriendly” visits to the new home owner have been worthless.  The police and the community council feel they have no reason to step into the fray.

As the police investigate, what at first appears to be a tragic accident, the placid nature of the neighborhood begins to slowly disintegrate. Tempers rise and suppressed feelings surface that break apart friendships. A seismic shift begins in their group dynamics; everyone within range of 1 Lowland Way exposes their dark side.

When the repeated police interviews begin to reveal that a murder has been committed, everyone begins to take sides. Cue the finger-pointing and accusations.

The story unfolds slowly; excruciatingly slow, flipping from present day to events leading up to the tragedy. Although the story hones in on the lives of Darren Booth’s neighbors, we never get inside the heads of Darren or his girl friend, Jody. We are given just enough information to deduce that neither side of the neighborhood conflict is without fault. It is an interesting study of human behavior when individuals are put under uncontrollable pressure. Those People creates a scenario where both sides of the social strata make no attempt to find an amenable compromise. The ending, predictable, has a few surprises but overall leaves the reader feeling underwhelmed.

The book was an easy read but fails to match the success of the author’s first book, Our House.  Let’s hope the author steps up to the plate with her third book.

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FINDING DOROTHY

“Just because you can see a rainbow doesn’t mean you know how to get to the other side.” ― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Twenty years after the death of the “original Wizard”, Frank Baum, his seventy-seven year-old widow, Maud, headed to Hollywood. It’s 1938. MGM is making a movie based on Frank’s very popular book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. She’s ready to step onto the yellow brick  to help Dorothy on her journey.

Frank, himself, had seen the potential of bringing Oz to life in film but he feared, without his oversight, the intended message would be lost. Someone must protect Dorothy! Frank turned to the love of his life, Maud Gage Baum, to stand in his stead.

The engaging historical novel parallels narratives alternating between Maud’s time in Hollywood and her life story beginning in Fayetteville, NY when she is ten years-old. Tucked nicely in each narrative are clues to the magic of Frank’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the source of Maud’s strength of character and inimitable spirit.

Much like our present day civil rights advocate, Tarana Burke and the Me, Too Movement, Maud was surrounded by strong willed 19th-century women’s suffragists. Her mother, Matilda Joslyn Gage and her “Aunt” Susan B. Anthony famous still today. She watched by the sidelines as her mother, a modern day Sisyphus pushed the large rock of gender discrimination up the steep hill toward equality.

Matilda was determined that Maud would get a world class education and was elated when she was accepted as one of the first women at Cornell University. Maud soon found that university life and studies were more her mother’s aspirations than her own. When she met her roommate’s cousin, Frank Baum, she knew where her destiny lay. She had met her soulmate.

Life was tough in the Baum household. Frank was a fabulous father, a dreamer, an actor, and a playwright. He lived with one foot in the real world and the other in his vivid imagination. A quick wit and a kind heart don’t go a long way to support a growing family. Maud was the backbone of the family and stood by her man through thick and thin as they moved from town to town following Frank’s latest vision.

Their destinies changed when Frank sat down and drew upon a lifetime of memories and wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The popularity of that first book led to many others and the family finances and security improved greatly.

Back in 1938 Hollywood, Maud knew the secrets of Frank’s books and our author has interjected some of them in the novel. Read carefully and you will spot some of them yourself.

It is true that Maud met Judy Garland and was on set during the filming. The author has chosen to expose the ugly underbelly of Hollywood and the tragic impact it had on Judy Garland’s personal life. It is doubtful that Maud had as much contact with Judy as the novel describes but it is engaging to think that Maud in some way did try to protect the innocence of a young actress.

“Magic isn’t things materializing out of nowhere, Magic is when a lot of people all believe in the same thing at the same time, and somehow we all escape ourselves a little bit and we meet up somewhere, and just for a moment, we taste the sublime”
― Elizabeth Letts, Finding Dorothy

Finding Dorothy draws together Maud’s story from all perspectives and makes a fascinating read.  Recommended reading.

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THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS QUOTE: Since its publication, the [Wonderful Wizard of Oz] has become America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale. The first totally American fantasy for children, it is one of the most popular children’s books. It has also inspired a long series of sequels, stage plays and musicals, movies and television shows, biographies of Baum, scholarly studies of the significance of the book and film, advertisements, toys, games and all sorts of Oz-related products.

You might ask what an old grandmother is doing reading and writing about a one-hundred-nineteen-year old book aimed at tweens? The plain and simple answer is that I never read it as a child. My knowledge of the story is from the iconic movie adaptation filmed in 1939 which seems will be appearing on television into infinity.

I am reading an advanced reader’s copy of a new historical fiction entitled Finding Dorothy (February  12, 2019).  Finding Dorothy utilizes known facts about Maud Baum, L. Frank Baum’s widow. Maud, a tough defendant of Frank’s message in the book, is concerned that the movie will not follow Frank’s vision of Dorothy. What was Frank’s vision and message to children everywhere?

I went to Project Gutenberg and downloaded a copy of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was a quick fun read and having seen the movie sixty millions times, I was helped along picturing the movie characters in my mind. As I read along I noticed that the dialogue seemed to speed up with longer sentences and more complex vocabulary at times. Then at times, the short sentences and simpler descriptors felt aimed at an elementary school age child.

Digging deeper into the history of the book, I discovered that it was immensely popular right from the beginning. The first copy sold like gangbusters and does so still today.

In the movie, Dorothy, is cast as a teenager. When her house drops on the wicked witch she inherits the ruby slippers. In the book, Dorothy is a much younger girl, probably 10-11 at best and the witch’s shoes are silver. As you might expect, the plot of the movie varies a lot from the book. The movie cherry picked scenes and enhanced them for a broader audience for entertainment rather than education and highlighting moral themes; Frank’s vision.

The prominent theme, good vs evil is found everywhere throughout the book. An example would be when the Flying Monkeys tell Dorothy that the power of good is stronger than evil. Dark skies vs bright sunshine. Gloomy and scary woods vs flowing meadows filled with bright color flowers.

The only negative reactions throughout the book were the violent scenes; nothing extremely graphic but the descriptions of the lion, scarecrow and tin man protecting Dorothy get a little heavy handed and might traumatize a young child. There’s no bloody scenes, no sex or foul language. And yes, the book and the movie both prove, no matter how humble. there’s no place like home.

Overall what did I think? Great book to be read with a child before watching the movie. Frank Baum filled the book with a myriad of life lessons and topics for discussion.

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NIGHT OF MIRACLES: Arthur Truluv #2

Thank you, Netgalley for the copy of The Story of Arthur Truluv and thank you to my local library for a copy of Night of Miracles.

Lucille Howard, the baking matriarch of idyllic Mason, Missouri, insists that the success of any baking endeavor requires assembling the ingredients in advance. Following Lucille’s lead, I recommend reading Elizabeth Berg’s The Story of Arthur Truluv to fully enjoy Night of Miracles. The Story of Arthur Truluv is the cake’s basic layer and Night of Miracles is the frosting. If you liked watching the Andy Griffith Show with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea, you will like both books.

The Story of Arthur Truluv is a tender story of love, loss, friendship, and acceptance. Arthur Moses, an elderly widower, mourns the loss of his wife, Nola and spends each day eating lunch at her grave-site. Tucked away from view in the same graveyard sits a young troubled teen, Maddy, spending her lonely lunch hours observing Arthur and his one-sided conversations with Nola. In time, they meet and form an enduring friendship. Lucille Howard, Arthur’s crotchety yet kind-hearted next door neighbor and friend, suffers the loss of her childhood true love, Frank, shortly after they are reunited in old age. Arthur’s kind heart draws the sorrowful and depressed Lucille into the circle of love he shares with Maddy. The trio becomes an unconventional family. Arthur, with one leg in the afterlife and the other seeded to the living world is the heart and soul of the book. Maddy, not without flaws, finds Arthur to be more than a surrogate grandfather. When she stumbles, she finds him to be a loyal and accepting friend. She calls him Truluv. Lucille finds a new purpose in life guided by Arthur and his eternal optimism and kindness. The ending is as it should be; Arthur gracefully slips into the next world and joins his beloved Nola.

Night of Miracles feels like a trip back to the old neighborhood. Life has moved things along. Maddy inherited Arthur’s house. When she and her daughter, Nola, (named for Arthur’s wife) left town to attend college, Lucille holds down the fort and continues to host her infamous baking classes to an ever growing number of students.

Maddy and Nola return to visit Grandma Lucille and you can feel the love and smell the fresh baked cookies in the cookie jar.

Our view of Mason, MO has widened and we meet more townsfolk and learn their personal stories. It seems that the good folks of Mason really like to eat. The story is primarily set in Lucille’s kitchen but a lot goes on at Polly’s Henhouse Diner.

Monika Mayhew, a waitress at the Henhouse has her eye on Tiny, a long-distance trucker and a giant of a man with heart of gold. Tiny is infatuated with Monika but extremely shy and fears rejection.

A new character, Iris escaping the aftereffects of her decision to divorce her husband, Ed, was heading for California from the East Coast and became charmed by a stop-over in Mason, MO. Her new neighbor is none other than Tiny. They enjoy each other’s company and soon become good friends. Tiny reveals his interest in Monika and Iris sets out to break the impasse between these two gun-shy lovers.

Meanwhile back in Lucille’s kitchen, Iris, in need of a job, and being more of a consumer than a baker, is hired to help with the odds and ends chores. Lucille, now 88, is well aware that her life’s journey will end soon. Lately her dreams have been filled with repetitive visits from a heavenly spirit wearing of all things, a flannel shirt. Despite his insistence that her time is up, Lucille banishes the thought and tells him to go away. She has more to do before she joins her friend, Arthur.

Our reading journey takes us through other homes where we experience sorrow, joy, love, fear, and hope. We cheer as Monika exhibits courage. We hug Tiny when his big heart is breaking. We share in Maddy’s joy at finding the man of her dreams. We are there to witness Lucille’s transition to the afterlife in a manner totally fitting her personality. The final chapter will make you laugh and cry and hope you get another chance to visit Mason, MO.

My one complaint? Why didn’t Lucille give us some of her recipes! I was constantly drooling. Maybe Elisabeth Berg will put out a cookbook of Lucille’s favorites!

Great books with a touch of spirituality, fantasy, and small town ambiance.

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MAID : Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive

My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.

Stephanie Land’s New York Times’ bestseller, Maid threw a flash-bang grenade into my mind unearthing memories from forty years ago. My husband and I were on a military move with everything in storage and traveling across country from California to eventually, Berlin, Germany. One morning my husband left to get the car washed. I never saw him again for eleven years. He disappeared with the location of our household items, financial records, military ID cards, checkbook and my personal identification. I tell you all this because my own experience colored my view of the book.

You might ask why I would select a book that pushed me back into my own black hole? I applaud anyone successfully reaching a place in life where food, housing, utility expenses, and child care aren’t luxuries. It is not an easy trip up from the bottom of the barrel.

The publisher’s summary indicated that Stephanie’s story was an uplifting memoir of a strong willed woman clawing her way from abject poverty through the kitchens and bathrooms of other people’s homes to become a successful author. Her experience as a household maid highlights what it was like for her to be trapped beneath the ledge of poverty struggling looking for that crack in the wall leading to a better life.

Evicted meets Nickel and Dimed in Stephanie Land’s memoir about working as a maid, a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America.”

Stephanie let a hook-up with unprotected sex force a course correction in her future plans. Unexpectedly pregnant, she had to make a choice – abortion, adoption, or acceptance. She knew, having grown up in a household that struggled to support a family, raising a child alone would be hard. She chose to keep her child and to love her unconditionally.

While Stephanie came to grips with her new situation she took advantage of many public assistance programs. She found that complying with their restrictions and conditions was extremely time consuming. The supplemental income came with a price. When you live paycheck to paycheck at a minimum wage job, she explains, risking your job security by taking time off and losing a day’s pay just to stand in line for hours is a big deal.

She describes the judgmental looks and outright verbal taunts she receives using her assistance cards when shopping. “Get a job.” “You can thank me.” After a while, she felt everyone was judging her; whether they were or not. Some of her negative experiences might have come from her choices of food items. Her preference to use only organic foods was certainly her right but having walked down poverty lane, I believe that she could have had more bang for her buck with lower cost healthy items.

Stephanie had an advantage unavailable to a lot of other single parents in her position; she received regular child support checks. She seemed miffed at the amount, but trust me, as someone who never got a dime, $250 dollars a month would seem like manna from heaven. Stephanie had an even better stroke of luck – the father and his family wanted a relationship with the baby. But from Stephanie’s point-of-view, the time spent with the father was used to destroy her relationship with her daughter. As Stephanie seems to find every relationship a confrontation and everything some one else’s fault, it is hard to accept that things are as bad as she tells us in the book.

You will notice that I haven’t touched on her work as a maid. That is because I really don’t think the story was about her work as a maid. She spent a lot of time describing the horrible conditions she found in each home, the long arduous hours, the costly unreimbursed travel expense and the poor pay. My question? Why stay with the agency when she herself stated she found her own clients that paid much more?

Let me be the first to say that making life decisions is hard when you are scared to give up any kind of paying job to try and grab that next rung up the ladder. Everyone makes stupid mistakes and poor judgement calls. There were a few times I wanted to reach through the page and throttle her. Grow a smile! Look ahead to a brighter life not look around and spend your valuable time in a perpetual pity-party. I know. (I moaned and groaned away my best friend before I stopped whining and took charge.)

Let me close out on a more positive note. Stephanie has revealed one of the biggest issues facing the poor. Childcare. Quality childcare. Reliable and affordable childcare. My greatest challenge was finding childcare for my son while I worked the night-shift. In many ways, finding somewhere to live is easier than finding someone to care for your child(ren).

Read the book? Absolutely. Fabulous book club book. Stephanie has exposed the underbelly of minimum wage workers and single parenthood issues.

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NEVER CAUGHT : the Washingtons’ relentless pursuit of their runaway slave Ona Judge



In January of 2018, a review of a new book featuring George Washington and his runaway slave named Ona “Oney” Judge caught my attention. I picked up a copy to review for Black History Month in 2019.

NEVER CAUGHT – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge is a narrative non-fiction. The book is heavily footnoted and supplemented with a lengthy bibliography and index. In a twist from most historical works on Washington that focus on his evolving beliefs about the concept of slavery, Never Caught flips the script. Erica Armstrong Dunbar examines what it means to be born a free person into a world where you are trapped in slavery.  A world where every effort is taken to strip you of your humanity and rights as a human being. In narrating the unearthed facts of Ona Judge Staines life, Dunbar exposes the raw facts of slavery -man’s inhumanity against man.

I met Ona Judge Staines in the archives. . . I was conducting research. . . about nineteenth-century black women in Philadelphia and I came across an advertisement about a runaway slave. . . called “Oney Judge”. She had escaped from the President’s House. . . How could it be that I never heard of this woman. (Erica Armstrong Dunbar)

Quick. Tell me the first ten things that come to mind about the first president of the United States of America. Bet they include: He was married to Martha. Lived in Mount Vernon, Virginia.  Had false teeth (ivory not wood). Was trained as a surveyor. Fought in the American Revolution.  Became our first President. Never lived in Washington D.C. because it didn’t exist in his lifetime.  Never told a lie (that is a lie).  Served two terms in office. We celebrate a national holiday on his birthday.

What? No mention that George at the tender age of eleven, following his father’s untimely death, inherited a 280-acre farm with ten slaves? By the time he married Martha, he personally owned over 100 slaves. Martha Parke Custis, widow of Daniel Park Custis, brought 84 dower slaves from the Custis estate to Mount Vernon upon her marriage. Dower slaves are part of an estate and can only be inherited by members of that estate. George and Martha controlled them but did not own them and could not set them free. Upon Martha’s death, the dower slaves would be passed along like fine china or an heirloom chair to living members of the Custis estate.

George Washington was reputed to be a “kinder” slave owner which meant he fed and provided for his slaves somewhat better than others. His hot-temper has been sanitized in history and ask the slaves that were housed in the smoke house in the new capital if they had five-star accommodations.

A favorite dower slave of Martha’s, known only as Mulatto Betty, gave birth in 1773 to a daughter named Ona Marie and fathered by Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant. Ona’s “carefree” childhood ended when she was nine years old. She was sent to work full-time in the mansion to become Martha Washington’s personal servant and to receive training as a seamstress from her mother. She excelled at both tasks earning her a “most favored slave” status.

As our first President-elect headed north to New York and the nation’s new capital, he knew slavery laws in the northern states were unraveling; the early smells of manumission and freedom floating in the air. He hand-picked slaves he thought he could trust not to run away if they learned that freedom was a possibility – Ona Judge, now in her teens, was high on that list.

Ona played her part carefully. She yearned for freedom. Yearned for a life where her safety and well being wasn’t subjected to the whims of a trigger tempered slave owner. For safeties sake she outwardly projected submission and affection for the Washington family; a family riddled with grief, misery, and poor health. Perhaps in some way she believed the Washington’s had special feelings for her; they did allow her more liberties to travel within the northern city unaccompanied. It is more likely allowing her to dress nicely was meant to reflect more on their social status than on her well-being.

She learned the truth about her place in their lives when the national capital moved to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania law “required emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months.”  The President, financially strapped back on the plantation feared the lost property value of freed slaves.  To protect his investments, Washington devised a shifty system of uprooting his Philadelphia slaves and rotating back to Mount Vernon before the six months deadline.

What the others thought about their repeatedly uprooted lives we do not know. We do know that Ona knew of the progress toward freedom around her. She guardedly watched for that one split second in time where she could chance leaving. When Ona learned that she would be given as a wedding present to Washington’s volatile granddaughter during the next rotation back to Virginia, she knew it was now or never. Taking her life in her hands, she reached out to the free blacks in Philadelphia for help and fled. Ona, now twenty-two-years old and illiterate, headed out into the scary world alone as a fugitive willing to face death or capture.

Her harrowing journey took her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She found menial labor and despite the back breaking work, enjoyed her veiled freedom. One can only imagine the horror she felt the day she was recognized on the street by a friend of Washington. Once notified she had been located, Washington put on a full court press, illegally using the power of his office, to have a local government official convince her to return of her own volition. After failing at that attempt, Washington repeatedly sought to locate and physically return her. His tiny slave outwitted him at every turn.

Ona fled to Greenland, New Hampshire and stayed out of the grasp of capture for over fifty years. She married, had children, kept a low profile and missed her biological family still back at Mount Vernon.

Shortly before her death February 25, 1848, Ona, nearly 80 years old and still a fugitive slave of the Custis estate, gave interviews with two abolitionists newspapers. Both interviews appear in the appendix. They are believed to be a unique opportunity to view life as a slave in the Washington presidency.

“When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is ‘No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means‘”.

Highly recommend reading for young adults and those interested in history. A chance to look behind the curtains of the first First Family. A chance to learn about a young black woman determined to be remembered – a human being and a child of God.

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THE LEISURE SEEKER: a novel

John and Ella Robina have shared a wonderful life for more than fifty years. Now in their eighties, Ella suffers from cancer and has chosen to stop treatment. John has Alzheimer’s. Yearning for one last adventure, the self-proclaimed “down-on-their-luck geezers” kidnap themselves from the adult children and doctors  who seem to run their lives to steal away from their home in suburban Detroit on a forbidden vacation of rediscovery.

“We are all tourists.
I have recently come to terms with this. . .
I guess we always knew. . .”, Ella Robina

Oh boy. Having to deal with the deaths of my own parents and struggling to accept their individual end-of-life choices, I sense that Ella and John’s story will strike a nerve with readers- some will understand and other’s will have reservations and a critical view of two old geezer’s reaching out to one last good time on their own terms. End-of-life discussion is the pinnacle hot-topic issue in most families.

John’s best friend had been warehoused in a nursing home, tethered to life support, terrified, and living the same events over and over in Groundhog Day style. After his friend’s death, John feared, he too, would follow in his friend’s footsteps. He made Ella vow that if the aperture in his own mind closed, she would not leave him staked out to die a lonely and prolonged death in a nursing home.

In time, John’s memory did begin to fade. At first it was gradual and Ella was able to provide home care. As his Alzheimer’s disease suddenly accelerated, Ella’s physical health collapsed. She was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing cancer. She endured the initial poking and prodding of family and the medical system with the goal to prolong her life. When the cancer became more aggressive, she was pressed to undergo more advanced medical interventions. She drew a line in the sand and refused to do anything more.

These are parents, having expressed their wishes and needs to end their lives without invasive medical intervention, finding themselves at odds with those who care for them. These are common, everyday folks, your neighbors -perhaps much like your own family.

While the children are only concerned for our well-being, it’s still really none of their business. Durable power of attorney doesn’t mean you get to run the whole show. . . Is this [trip] a good idea? Don’t be stupid. Of course it’s not a good idea.

They gassed up their old Winnebago “Leisure Seeker” and left without a word to anyone. Flight – no more fight. Ella knew they were headed from Michigan to California for one last road-trip and a thrill ride at Disneyland. Their slow journey cross country followed the old route of Route 66 across country replicating the path of past family vacations. John was along for the ride; not sure where he is going.  “Are we going home?” What could go wrong with an Alzheimer’s patient behind the wheel?

Ella had been planning this trip for sometime; back when she first knew that her death would end John’s home care. She knew what lay ahead for John after her death. His worst nightmare realized.

She had carefully packed John’s slide projector and boxes of family slides, gathered up road maps, stocked the RV’s pantry, stashed cash and plotted a route through familiar towns and past small town landmarks. At night, settled in some out-of-the-way campground, Ella would hoist a white sheet outside and the pair would reminisce as their children romped in the ocean or played in the yard. Simple pleasures that warmed the heart strings; often sharing the slides with transfixed strangers.

Let me step into Ella’s story for a word or two. This is not a maudlin tale; nor unloving parents isolating their children at life’s end. I had more than one belly laugh and a familiarity with the micro-bursts of emotions that occur between two long married partners. I’ll admit, in those moments when John is aware of his situation, the dialogue gets a bit crusty. He’s angry and scared. Ella is feisty and unwilling to kowtow to anyone – including John. Each has to have the last word. Yet, in a split second, Ella is left fuming and John’s anger switches off, argument lost in the ether. Their relationship exposes the pain and anguish Alzeheimer’s brings to the lost and the left behind. And fear not. . . there are plenty of very tender moments that reveal the deep affection and love these two have shared in over fifty years of marriage.

Not everyone will like Ella’s plan; but most will probably agree it was right for Ella and John. May I have courage to enter that long good night, a life well lived on my own terms, with humor and hopes for everlasting peace.

A good read. Might be too hot for some folks struggling with end-of-life issues.

Side note: The Leisure Seeker was made into a movie in 2018. The movie, renamed the main characters, and changed the story line to reflect more humor than time spent examining the intimate bonds between the couple.

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LEARNING TO SEE: a novel

“It takes a lot of practice to see things as they are,
not as you want them to be.’

A year or so ago I found a copy of Mary Coin, a novel by Marisa Silver, and recognized the cover picture as the iconic Depression era Dorothea Lange image entitled Migrant Mother.  After reading Mary Coin, a book I highly recommend and reviewed on my blog, I was left with a yen to know more about documentary photography and Dorothea Lange.

A new historical novel, Learning to See by Elise Hooper, imagines Dorothea Lange’s life story using known facts and references. I was lucky to win an advanced copy from Early Readers/Library Thing.

Chapter One. Opening scene. 1964, Berkley, California.  If this was a movie script, Dorothea Lange, now elderly and gravely ill, would be seen opening an envelope embossed with the image of the Museum of Modern Art  in New York City. The contents of that letter, we later learn, informs her of their plan for a retrospective exhibit of her life’s work.

The fictional Dorothea, returns the letter to her pocket and without sharing it’s news, turns to the reader to tell her life story in her own words and thoughts. Her flashbacks, narrated as though she is seated across the kitchen table from you; hands wrapped around a hot cup of coffee.

Listen carefully. Her story is complex; much like every person who puts a heavier hand on the scales of life for the greater good over the instinctive need to nurture and protect one’s own family. Dorothea limps over to her desk; she contracted poliomyelitis when she was seven-years-old leaving her with a withered leg, a deformed foot, a permanent limp, and a spitfire will to overcome any other hardship life was ready to throw her way. That strong will, that need to conquer any challenge, will cost her deeply.  She must choose between her burgeoning social justice activism and photojournalism career and her personal life.

I lean over to open a drawer and retrieve [my] files. California, 1936. New Mexico, 1935. Texas, 1938. Arkansas, 1938, Arizona, 1940. Black-and-white photographs spill out…Faces of men, women, and children… They gave a face to the masses struggling to make ends meet. They started conversations… And while I don’t regret my choices, I am saddened that I’ve hurt people dear to me.

 Dorothea achieved her childhood dream of becoming a photographer; a career choice diametrically opposed to the family ideal of academics and cultural interest in the arts. In 1918, a twenty-one-year old Dorothea took the bull by the horns, dropped her birth name of Nutzhorn in favor of her mother’s maiden name of Lange, and headed to San Francisco to be as far away from New Jersey as she could get. Once there, she set up a portrait studio and was highly successful for the next ten years; satisfied to create the images of what people wanted others to see of them; not necessarily reflective of their true nature or circumstance.

The Stock Market Crash in 1929 changed everyone’s future. Her clientele disappeared one-by-one as family portraits become a luxury few could afford. By this time, she had married her first husband, Maynard Dixon, a hot-tempered philandering landscape painter with traveling “genes”.  Dorothea, the mother of two boys, found herself between a rock and a hard place. With a floundering marriage and two dependent children, she needed to find work in a world where everyone needed a job. As she struggled to find new footing, Dorothea made the heartbreaking decision to foster-out her boys to give them a stable caring home. A decision made after seeing children left to fend for themselves in the streets.

I had reached a point where… portraits weren’t enough. It wasn’t just an issue of money… I needed to find…something to lose myself in. I needed work that would consume me, distract me from everything I had lost.

Dorothea’s efforts to see beyond her own pain led to a career learning to see beyond self. Taking a walk to clear her head she came upon a breadline of dispirited and lost souls stringing their way to a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. She feared she would disturb their private thoughts but was compelled to capture the moment. After taking the picture she realized no one had noticed her presence.

This first photo led to twenty years of documenting the lives of the downtrodden with the goal of raising the awareness of their plight to the unaffected. Some of her work proved too revealing. Her photos of the Japanese American relocation camps were confiscated by the government; a nation unwilling to expose its racism against its own citizenry.

Learning to See is so much more than a biography of a lone woman trying to immortalize the pain and struggles of the broken nation. It breaths life into the stolen moment a photograph shows us. The book makes us ask ourselves – could we better stewards? Do we all need to find our better angels? Can the past revealed in iconic pictures move a nation to heal racism, poverty, mismanagement of our God given resources? In the end, Dorothy wasn’t sure.

Recommended reading.

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DEATH OF A RAINMAKER

DEATH OF A RAINMAKER : A DUST BOWL MYSTERY

August 2, 1935
Jackson County, Oklahoma

As soon as [Chester] pulled open the outside door [of the theater] he heard a faint thrumming of wind that resembled the plucking of thick guitar strings… ‘A duster!, Maxine shouted… ‘Tall as a mountain! Oh my God! I’ve never seen one this big!’

Vermillion, Oklahoma in 1935. The Great Depression has strangled the economy of the area and now an unending dry season is destroying the greatest source – the land. The helpless residents face the perfect storm of poverty and an angry earth.

The population of the area is a mishmash of down-on-their-luck souls. Alongside the farms and ranches is a squatters camp down near the train tracks. A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) work camp is nearby; a collection of young men from all over the country gathered near Vermillion for a chance at a job by the government. As in any community, there are the more fortunate families who live a different anxiety – fearful of the unfortunate. It is a jittery and suspicious time for all.

Everyone, rich or poor, has an individual life story that began somewhere else. Vermillion provided abundance and a good living for four generations. By 1935, no one finds Vermillon a haven. The Great Depression had knocked many to their knees. The eight months of drought that year, finished off those who depended on the earth for their livelihood.

Rain, at this point, is their only solution. Rain would keep the farmers and ranchers on their homesteads and bring commerce to town. Believing that desperate times do call for desperate measures, a small group of merchants cobble together the last of their savings and hire a charlatan who convinces them he knows how to make it rain.

Roland Coombs, their hired Rainmaker, struts into town like a conquering hero; a larger than life superhero to some and a distasteful miscreant to others who believe he is taking advantage of a desperate situation to line his pockets. Claiming he learned his technique in the military, he uses massive rounds of TNT blasted into the sky to make the atmosphere unstable. Only time will tell.

The skeptical and the hopeful join the boisterous and arrogant Rainmaker at the blasting site setting up camp on the ground with their picnic baskets and blankets. The crowd watch in awe as the night sky explodes over and over, louder and more illuminating than the Fourth of July.

Everyone leaves in the dark of night hopeful and wakes to find the next day like every other; dry and gritty. Disappointed farmers stared at their barren fields and discouraged merchants stare at their front doors hoping for business.

In the dire circumstances, folks looked for whatever small pleasures could ease their pain. One popular source of relief came at the local movie theater run by the blind owner, Chester. The other is drinking away the misery at the local bar.

The day after the Rainmaker blasted the sky, Chester readies things for that day’s movie, hoping to sell enough tickets to pay the rent. Maxine, Chester’s teenage ticket taker refills the candy shelves and opens the ticket booth for the matinee.

Sheriff Temple Jennings’ day begins alongside his new deputy, a former CCC worker with a healthy dose of work ethic. Today, Mr. Hodges, visibly upset, complains nothing is being done about the continuing visits of a peeping Tom at his house. The Sheriff learns of a fight the previous night between the Rainmaker Coombs and one of the CCC boys at the local bar. These things will have to wait. He has to perform his least favorite job – keeping the peace at the auction of a foreclosed farm.

Out of sight, an enormous dust storm has formed on the town’s outskirts and is barreling their way. The catastrophic storm catches everyone unprepared and people are forced to take shelter best they can. In the hours after the storm blows through, the clean-up begins. Chester, feeling his way through the storm’s aftermath, begins to remove the sand blocking the emergency exit of his theater. He discovers the body of a man and presumes he died of suffocation. Sheriff Jennings determines it is the Rainmaker, Roland Coombs, and he was bludgeoned to death during the storm. The town jumps to the immediate conclusion that the young CCC worker was the murderer.

As the sheriff and his deputy conduct their investigation, personal secrets are exposed and a political campaign takes a malignant turn threatening the Sheriff’s job. The characters remind us that we often judge a person through the lens of preconceived notion. Some people overcome their worst instincts and find themselves better for it. Others dig in and reject the truth staring them in the face.

As the investigation proceeds, Sheriff Jennings believes in the young man’s guilt and the CCC worker is arrested. His wife is not so sure that the murderer has been found. As she begins her own investigation, their marriage is tested. She befriends the prisoner and listens to his story with an open mind. Another part of her recognizes that she is transferring her feelings as she has mourned the death of her own son.

Someone in town during the storm murdered the Rainmaker. The mystery, when solved, will surprise you. Along the way you will fall in love with some of the people and reject the false friendships of others. In the end, you will find a piece of happily ever after.

An excellent story revealing that ordinary life continues amid a larger national tragedy.

Enjoyed the read and look forward to more by this author.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING: a novel

What d’ya mean, where the crawdads sing? Ma used to say that”, [said Kya]… Tate said, “Just means far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.

Behold a story set along North Carolina’s marshy coastline in the 1950s and 1960s that will hold you captive to the very end. Listen closely to human silence and hear the sounds of the crawdads singing as waves lap against the skiff.  Smell the living marsh or feel repelled by the recycling odors of the swamp; a place void of gas fumes, fried foods and the detritus of sanctimonious humans void of compassion and racial superiority. Become one with the lonesomeness and isolation of an abandoned child striving to be alive in all its manifestations – body, mind, and soul.

Kya was six years-old when Ma, wearing her favorite fake alligator skin shoes, left the marsh displaying the fresh bruises Pa had pounded into her. Pa shifted focus and foisted his anger and violence down the food chain onto his five children. One by one Kya watched her much older siblings take Ma’s freedom walk. When she was ten years-old, Pa,too, and never returned.

Being alone in the Marsh didn’t frighten Kya. She had grown used to escaping for long periods into the wilds when Pa would be on a rampage. What did bother her was why none of her siblings or Ma took her with them when they made their escape. Was she disposable? Worthless? Invisible?

Kya, crudely referred to as “The Marsh Girl” by the residents of Barkley Cove, repelled by her own kind, turned to the natural world of the wetlands for emotional and physical survival. The wildlife and waterways raised her. She learned about group dynamics, gender roles, survival techniques, marshland justice, and the natural order of life up and down the food chain. Her best friends are seagulls. Her source of meager income for town dependent supplies – selling mussels to a warm-hearted old African American man, himself stifled by the stench of racism.

The sun, warm as a blanket,
wrapped Kya’s shoulders… whenever she stumbled,
it was the land that caught her…
Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth,
and the marsh became her mother.

One day, a few years after she was abandoned, she unexpectedly finds a boy fishing in her marsh. Although he seems to not see her, she finds gifts of rare feathers appearing in a stump near her house. The careful contact between them leads to a comfortable friendship. The kind-hearted Tate recognizes Kya as smart and intellectually curious and teaches her to read. When Tate graduates high school he breaks Kya’s heart as he leaves for college and a life away from the coast. He vows to return but becomes ensnared in the outside world and reneges on his promise. And the lonely years begin again for Kya.

Occasionally she spots people on her beach, usually a cluster of entitled teenagers she has seen in town. A quickly maturing Kya feeling the need for human contact, spots the teens and watches from a stealth position. She yearns to belong, to share in their enjoyment of each other. The alpha male, Chase Andrews, spots the beautiful and mysterious Marsh girl observing the group. Intrigued, he begins to court her and she falls in love. On his first visit to her house, he had assumed she was an uneducated wild creature and was surprised to find her intelligent, self-educated, and self-sufficient. Over time he promises to bring her to the town, introduce her to his parents with the goal of marrying her. She begins to lower her guard and allows herself to believe she will finally be recognized and accepted.

The world turns upside down when Chase’s body is found near an abandoned fire tower in the marsh. Who killed him? Why? Instinctively, without cause, the town blames the mysterious Marsh Girl leading to an excruciating trial for Kya. Will she find herself imprisoned, alienated from both town and her marsh? A trapped animal?

No more clues. Just remember that Kya is sensitive, extraordinary, curious, intelligent and adaptive. There is a lot more to see here. The final chapters are heartwarming as she finally finds peace and love. The ending will blow your mind.

Outstanding fiction at its best. Good book club selection.

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THE LAST WOMAN IN THE FOREST: a novel

It’s a terrible thing to have loved someone and not know the extent to which you have been deceived… – Marian Engström
Marian Engström scanned the seasonal conservation job listings for her next position. Her latest job had taken her to South Padre Island, Texas to rescue sea turtles but the contract ended and time to move along.

As a dog lover, she was pleased to find a position with Conservation Canines through the University of Washington. The study would be in the bitter sub-zero cold of the snowy mountains near Alberta where oil exploration in oil sands was taking place. The team of dog handlers and trip orienteers would be based out of Whitefish, Montana in a place the group called “The Den”. Marian, and the other orienteers, would assist the dog handlers setting up trip navigation in designated zones locating wolf, caribou and moose scat, bagging each detected specimen, and charting the waypoints. The purpose of the study is to examine the effects of the oil drilling on the wildlife in the area. This aspect of the novel is well researched and reads a little bit clinical but very interesting.

The book opens with the vividly described murder of a trusting young woman charmed by someone she perceived to be a good Samaritan. Labeling the murdered girl, (Stillwater) Victim #1, alerts the reader to watch for clues. One of the primary or secondary characters is a serial killer!

We meet Marian six months after she has moved to the Whitefish base camp. She is wading into Bull Creek sprinkling the ashes of her boyfriend and dog handler,

Tate, and watching them flow downstream. The accident that caused his death unknown to the reader.

It was a beautiful spot…Tate had chosen this location…had pressed the river rock against her palm and asked her to remember.

Marian stands in the cold stream reflecting on their brief relationship with its sweet and sour tones. Heading back to camp, she’s left with an edgy feeling that something was off. Did he really loved her as much as she loved him? Where to begin to unravel her contradictory feelings?

Tate would share life stories with her making her cry in sympathy for him. One tear-jerker described a stray dog he adopted as a child that died after falling into a swift stream. Another time, out of the blue, he tells her he found the body of one of the four Stillwater murders. She decides to confirm the accuracy of this story to ease her mind.

She contacts Nick Shepard, a retired forensic profiler, known to be intimately involved in the Stillwater murder investigations. Although he is dying of cancer, a fact he tries to keep from her, he agrees to help confirm or dispel the facts of Tate’s story.

With Marian and Nick narrating, the story gymnastically flips back and forth in time beginning when Tate picked her up at the airport and ultimately reaches present day where we learn about Tate’s fate. Juxtaposed between Marian and Nick’s chapters are vivid tales of the other three unsolved Stillwater murders that may be a bit disturbing to some people. The final chapters pull together loose threads leading to a dramatic conclusion.

The isolation and loneliness of the job were palpable. As one person said, “It a way of life – not a job”; someone comfortable with themselves alone or someone running from life and reaching the end of the line. It’s do or die time. Survival is not so much the result of luck as it is of skill and training. The overarching themes of observation and situational awareness crisscrossed Marian’s job as well as her personal life.

The job was never a problem for Marian. She was well-suited for the conditions and the work. The issue was emotional and her insecurity with humans. Was she as gullible as it seemed or was she out maneuvered by a mastermind of evil? Surrounded by macho mountain men with personalities like Jeremiah Johnson, was it easy for a young woman to be drawn to a man seemingly devoted to her? Did Nick find peace for the families of the murdered girls?

A good solid book worthy of a read. There’s something for everyone -love, friendship, trust and distrust, murder, dogs, freezing cold and stark wilderness settings.

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EDUCATED


Tara Westover was born sometime in September of 1986, the youngest of seven children. She’s not exactly sure of the date as she was born at home in a remote mountainous area of Idaho; an area popular with other off-the-grid folks living in the western US area known as the Mormon Corridor. There is no formal record of her birth; no birth certificate was issued until she was nine years old. Like most of their remote neighbors, the Westover family were, in name, Mormons.

Now in her early 30s, Tara shares her moving story. She begins with her apocalyptic childhood leading to her adult life off the Idaho mountain and alienated from most of her family. Her journey is harsh and painful but offered to the world openly and honestly. She exposes a side of life most people have no idea exists and tells us how difficult it is to question your parent’s authority and concern for your well-being. She expresses the contradictions she finds herself facing; rebel against her parent’s way of life thus alienating herself from those she loves and freeing herself to discover the past, present and future available to her through education.

I have floundered with this review. I really enjoyed the book but find it hard to tag it. It’s not the usual “woe is me” memoir. Tara openly expresses love and affection for her family; something I am not sure I would feel under the circumstances. It is my opinion that the author had more than the general public in mind when she wrote the book; she wanted to educate the world about the fundamentalist culture, the bizarre and dangerous life she faced with eccentric parents and she needed to justify leaving her loved ones behind to allow herself the freedom to control her own life as she saw fit.

By the time she was born, her mother, overwhelmed with the number of children and the hard work of a subsistence lifestyle had given up on home schooling. She felt her job was done if she taught the children to read. To be fair, there was never a restriction on the children’s reading interests, but any child with an itch to read did so discretely after a full day’s chores. Tara had access to her older siblings aged text books and rabidly self-educated herself.

Tara Westover was not raised in a traditional Mormon family. Her father demanded total obedience in all matters and maintained control over his family’s daily routine. The slightest action could turn him into a demonic authority pontificating his own version of Mormon fundamentals. In this markedly patriarchal environment, male siblings held power over the girls; one particular brother was a cruel bully. Another brother was helpful in encouraging Tara to find her true north.

Imagine a world where your parents told you that everything outside their front door was corrupt. That something called the Deep State had eliminated personal freedoms and the “Medical Establishment” could not be trusted. The family would avoid hospitals and doctors regardless of the severity of the illness or injury.

Her father consumed with an “End of the World” theory, built massive supplies of food, weaponry, and ammunition to protect his family from renegades unprepared for survival in an apocalyptic world. He worked his children like indentured servants in a dangerous junkyard to pay for the supplies. Horrific physical injuries befall several family members; treatment restricted to mother’s self-created herbal medicines. If a sick or injured person failed to survive on their own at home, it was just God’s will.

Over time, Tara’s older siblings peeled away from the family home, escaping their father’s control leaving a very young Tara to fill their shoes in the junkyard. By the time she was fifteen-years-old, she began planning her own escape. She found odd jobs in a nearby town, made friendships outside the survivalist culture and devoured any and all sources of literature to prepare to take the college ACT test. At seventeen-years-old she enrolled at Brigham Young University, and discovered how much of life she knew nothing about.

One of first lectures, I raised my hand and asked
what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it.

Encouraged by “outsiders” who recognized her potential, Tara Westover has achieved a first-class education. It was a struggle at first to fill in the blank slate but she graduated from Brigham Young University with honors in 2008. Following graduation she was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned a Masters in Philosophy from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. In 2010 she became a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge University where she was award a PhD in history in 2014.

Well done, Tara.

Recommended reading. An excellent book club selection.

An in-depth interview with the author can be found on NPR.

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THE DEAL OF A LIFETIME

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE

The last several years, my husband and I have hunkered down in our log cabin and let Christmas pass rather uneventfully. Our kids are far away and have their own lives. But something triggered my need for Christmas spirit this year.

Maybe it was the current political distemper infecting our lives, the loss of several good friends, and the rapidly declining health of my siblings. What ever. I found myself reflecting on my blessings to have a warm roof over my head, plenty to eat, wonderful friends, and reasonably good health for a woman of 70.

My husband, paddling around the discount book sites came across The Deal of A Lifetime by Fredrik Backman.

Isn’t this author one of your favorites? Have you read this book? No, I replied. It is a novella. Actually more a short story so I have passed on buying it.

Not long after, while poking around for something Christmas themed to read and considering revisiting Ebenezer Scrooge and The Christmas Carol, I bumped into The Deal of A Lifetime once more – and bought the discounted Kindle version.

I was moved by the author’s emotional preface. Christmas is nigh, his family is asleep nearby while he sits, poised with pen in hand, to work out the kinks in his mind. In my opinion, the underlying emotions revealed in the preface are reflected in themes of the story. It is not hard to see that he is contemplating the possibility that if he had taken a different direction at one of life’s intersections things might have been better for his family. He comes to the conclusion that “we discover we need someone one to sweep us off our feet to realize what time really is.”

The story opens with a shocking letter from a famously successful and wealthy father to his son. It is intended to shock the reader into attention. As we will learn, the estranged father has made contact with his son, now an adult. He realizes he doesn’t know anything about him.

“Hi. It’s your dad. You’ll be waking up soon, it’s Christmas Eve morning in Helsingborg, and I’ve killed a person. That’s not how fairy tales usually begin, I know. But I took a life. Does it make a difference if you know whose it was?”

Without revealing too much of the story, a self-righteous man bumps up against life’s final hurdle – death. Much like Scrooge, this unnamed man finds himself wealthy beyond measure and lonely. His greedy nature had shielded his heart from his humanity.

While hospitalized for chemotherapy, he over hears a little girl telling her stuffed rabbit that she is going to die soon but she hopes it isn’t going to be tomorrow. He is startled when she runs away suddenly after spotting someone in the hallway. He is surprised to see the same someone he has meet before throughout his life when he had been in a life-threatening situation.

A woman in a thick, grey, knitted jumper… She carries a folder. She has all our names written inside.

Without revealing names or spending time in character development, The Deal of a Lifetime, in 65 pages, exposes our human weaknesses and our ability to atone for callous behaviors that had stifled or alienated us from those we love. It is a story offering the chance at redemption – with a twist ending I didn’t see coming. As an added bonus, the simple illustrations are charming.

Pick up a copy at the book store or check-out a copy from your local library.

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TRAVELING CAT CHRONICLES

★★★★★

Did you know that cats possess the widest range of vocalizations of any domestic pet? Hiro Arikawa’s wildly popular Japanese novel adds a twist by giving a human voice to a sassy stray cat that let’s us know he has kept himself alive for one full year, without a name and human help, thank you very much. 

The simple story has a deep meaning that becomes clearer and clearer before tenderly breaking your heart in the last forty pages. The two main characters, the sassy cat and his master, Satoru Miyawaki, a gentle man with a quiet nature, remain with me long after I finished this fictional gem.  

The hood of that silver van was my favorite place to sleep. Why there? Because no one would ever shoo me away. Even in winter, the sun made it all warm and toasty, the perfect spot for a daytime nap. One day I suddenly sensed a warm, intense gaze upon me…A tall, lanky young man, staring down at me…

And so began the perfect life from the cat’s point of view. The man would place a little food under the van and the cat would allow the man to stroke him in exchange. This worked right up until the day the cat had a run-in with a hit-and-run driver. 

Satoru rescued the injured cat and the two soon developed a deeply satisfying five-year relationship. Their conversations are charming and will warm your heart. It reminded me of the old tv show, The Odd Couple and the snappy repartee between Oscar and Felix. Satoru, named him Nana, as his tail resembled the Japanese character for the number seven. 

Now wait just a second, Isn’t Nana a girl’s name? I’m a fully fledged, hot-blooded male. In what universe does that make sense?

In a move that surprises the readers as much as Nana, Satoru, now about 30 years-old, tells him they are going to take a road trip together –  to find Nana a new home. 

“Nana, I’m sorry. I ‘m really sorry it’s come to this. I never intended to let you go.”

No need to explain. I’m quick on the uptake… so don’t look so glum, chum.

As they travel from one childhood friend’s home to the next along their journey, Satoru’s earlier story unfolds like an onion; an apt metaphor. Each layer revealing another sad chapter, that somehow, Satoru overcomes keeping his remarkably upbeat attitude. The odd duo crisscross Japan in the hopes of finding a new home for Nana. Each old friend seems willing to accept Nana, often with conditions and a promise to feed but not pamper. At each stop along the way, Satoru manages to avoid revealing the reason he needs to leave Nana. Just when it looks like Nana will have a new home, the cat, fiercely loyal to his master, sabotages the transfer.

In the end, Satoru realizes he just can’t part with Nana. The lonely man and the loyal sidekick take a long tour of the highs and lows of Japan together; traveling from Mount Fuji to the beautiful sandy beaches. Along the miles, the reader begins to understand Satoru’s secrets. As the sun sets on their journey, Satoru will find peace and the reader will have a good cry. 

Highly recommended reading for everyone; not just cat lovers.

 

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LITTLE: a novel

Fictionalized Life
little and quote

What comes to mind when you hear the name – Madame Tussaud? The answer most likely will be wax museum. How did a tiny six-year-old orphan, born in the turbulent atmosphere of 18th century France, become so renowned that we know of her accomplishments today?

Truth be known, even the author found contemporaneous clues hard to find; but it wasn’t for the lack of trying to piece it together. He spent fifteen years searching, including actually working in France at Madame Tussaud’s museum, where he gazed at will upon her original wax works that included the wax heads of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette molded from their freshly guillotined heads. The one original wax work that inspired him the most was the self-portrait Madame Tussaud made of herself in wax.

Madame Tussaud was born Anna Maria “Marie” Grosholtz in 1761. She became Madame Tussaud when she married a scumbag named Francois Tussaud and bore him two sons. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Marie Grosholtz became a servant at the tender age of six-years-old. That meant she didn’t have a life of her own; she was subject to the whims and orders of her employer. She was, in some ways, better off than the starving peasants living outside the towns who suffered indescribable living conditions. She remained controlled by her Master until she was incarcerated and sentenced to death during the revolt. She received a reprieve at the last minute and lived to the ripe old age of 89 years-old.

Marie Grosholtz was abnormally small at birth and unfortunately inherited her mother’s out-sized proboscis and her father’s cup hook chin. By adulthood, she was four feet and smidge tall. This small woman looked like a child with a “Punch and Judy” face.

Marie’s father died from a war injury when she was very young. Her mother, a destitute widow with a tiny child, became a reluctant housekeeper for an eccentric and reclusive doctor whose specialty was crafting anatomically accurate wax models from body parts for medical students. Marie’s mother, grieving and morbidly depressed by circumstances, committed suicide leaving six-year-old Marie, nicknamed Little, in the care of the unorthodox Doctor Philippe Curtius. Curtius would never have won “parent of the year”, but in his own way, he set up Marie for success in the future by training her in the art plaster casting and wax modeling. Together they expanded his trade from body parts to wax face masks, and later, full-head “portraits”.

Benjamin Franklin

The pair moved to Paris where Doctor Curtius hoped to fill his collection with the powerful and famous. Curtius rented space in the home of a seamstress, the Widow Picot, a repugnant character interested only in her own well- being. She was so repelled by the sight of Marie that she forced her to live in a barely habitable part of the kitchen. Not once in the ensuing years did the cowardly Curtius take his tiny protege’s side. The weak-kneed simp, played for a fool by Picot, was kowtowed into giving her control over his collection of disembodied wax heads. Undaunted, the curious and inquisitive, Little, managed to keep an upbeat attitude and found ways to stay useful and involved in the wax business and to be near Curtius.

The crafty Picot, seizing the opportunity to use her ingenuity, brought the wax models to life with clothing and staging them in an appropriate setting. The public lined up in droves to view the death masks of murderers and the provocative faces of  the famous. The income poured in enriching everyone… except Marie.

Marie’s life changed when Princess Elizabeth, sister of King Louis XVI, made an appearance in the museum. The spoiled princess, herself an ugly duckling, took a shine to Marie and invited her to Versailles. Widow Picot and Doctor Curtius were not in a position to refuse the Princess. Once at the palace, Marie was showered with endearments and soon found herself sharing secrets and private time with the Princess. When it is learned that Marie was skilled in the new technique of plaster casting and wax modeling, she had a steady line of the famous and rich interested in creating a likeness of themselves. Sadly, over the years, Marie made the mistake of interpreting attention for affection; she was still a servant, the change, just geography.

The years passed. As the atmosphere outside the palace became more heated, the Monarchy sensed their subjects were ready to revolt and feared for their lives. Marie was abruptly returned to Widow Picot’s home, where things there had changed as well. The Royals weren’t the only people fearful for their lives. The angry crowds were targeting anyone better off or successful.

The world in Paris turned bloody and brutal. Bodies lined the streets. Eager crowds gathered round the guillotine to watch the daily beheadings. The jails were filled with the guilty and innocent alike; Widow Picot and Marie among them. It was truly hell on earth. Imprisoned in a tower, Marie found the strength of character to look beyond her own needs to provide care and compassion for the sickly Widow; throwing aside any bad history between them. I found myself sad when the bewildered and failing Widow Picot’s name appeared on the list to be executed.

Marie was freed from jail through intersession of an old friend in exchange for the grisly task of making death  wax models of the newly executed that included people that she knew intimately from Versailles.

During this turbulent time, a dying Doctor Curtius, found his way home to unexpectedly find Marie there. She cared for him to his death, re-establishing the bond they had long before moving to Paris.

My master’s lawyer was the person who told me that there was a will, and the details written therein. “Everything to one person”, he said, “to you.”  

And with that news, Marie, once again, stoically, picked up the pieces and started over, becoming Madame Tussaud. This time she achieved her freedom and thrived. Raising that mighty chin, she was never to be under anyone’s control again.

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Finding GOBI

Exerpt from ESPN interview By Ericka N. Goodman-Hughey | Mar 23, 2017

 I was at the base of the Tian Shan mountain range in northwest China [on a] seven-day 155-mile [ultra-marathon] race in June of 2016. I looked down for one last check of my shoes, and there was a scruffy puppy with the most adorable big brown eyes starting right back at me. . . [A]s soon as the gun went off, the dog ran with me, right at my heels.

First things first. What is an ultra-marathon? Technically, it is any foot race that exceeds the standard marathon length of 26.219 miles. After reading Finding Gobi, I learned that there are people in this world who want to run  50 to 100 miles in a day and then do it again the next day and the day after that! I think that running a simple marathon is nuts; but each to his own. What can I say. I have walked 2000+ miles on the Appalachian Trail and people think I am crazy.

The Gobi March, one of the most difficult ultra-marathon courses, is an annual race crossing the Gobi Desert. In 2016, it was held in the Xinjiang Province of China. Self-supported runners, carrying everything they will need for the entire race, run a marathon a day for four days. The 155-mile course is no road race. The Gobi March traverses grassland, mountains, river beds, rocky terrains, river crossings, and, of course, the Gobi Desert. The terrain is complemented with daily temperature extremes ranging from freezing to extreme heat.

Standing at the starting line on that June day in 2016, Dion Leonard’s only thoughts were the race day, his competitors and his backpack filled with his water, food, and anything else he would need in the next seven days to combat the heat and cold.

In those closing seconds before the starting gun sounded, Leonard wasn’t expecting to look down and see a dog standing there looking up at him. When the race began, Leonard was even more astonished that the little dog took off with him and would eventually ran nearly 90 miles right along side him.

In the year, 2016, the news of the world was filled with the Brexit Referendum, the US Presidential Election, the deadly Zika Virus, and the Syrian Refuge Crisis; lighthearted and heart-warming stories were few and far between.  Therefore, it was not surprising that the story of a Chinese scruffy self-sufficient stray dog and a marathon runner crossing the Gobi Desert would brighten heavy hearts around the world. Even these many years later. My girlfriend, a dog lover, had followed the story in real time and when I told her that I had just finished reading a book about an amazing Chinese dog that fell in love with a marathon runner, her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Gobi!

Day after day, the mysterious stray would be at the starting line with eyes only for Dion Leonard. The littlest competitor ran circles around the super athletes on the course and livened their down-time flitting from one person to the next with charming attention extracting a free meal. Everyone knew there was something special happening.

When the race was over, Leonard faced an even bigger challenge. He had become so smitten with the little dog, he named Gobi, that he wanted to bring her home to the United Kingdom. The road from China to his UK home would be paved with many legal hurdles, heart-breaking tribulations, and was massively expensive in time, manpower, and of course, money.

Gobi, a native of the mountains, would be required to stay quarantined for a month in the care of total strangers in an area foreign to her, a city. Leonard returned home to prepare the complicatedly slow process of repatriating her. During that time, Gobi escaped, and her caretakers hid the fact, thus complicating the eventual search for her. She could be anywhere. With the help of strangers worldwide, Gobi was eventually found. Every lamppost and store front had a lost dog poster. When found, she was discovered to have suffered some painful injuries along the way. If the story of her recovery doesn’t affect you, you must have a heart of stone. It is at times emotionally painful but like any good “Cinderella” story, there is a happy ending.

I had a hard time rating the book and I struggled with the reason. I came to the conclusion that I really didn’t like the runner but loved the dog. Leonard had, in his words, a difficult childhood, and his perpetual need to bash his mother and blame his life-long acting-out misbehavior on her was a turn-off.

There was also something odd that this man would be, self-admittedly, driven by the need to better any challenger while disliking what ever the challenge was that would achieve this victory. This lifelong trait was abrasive as he told us time and again how much he really disliked running but found his need to simply be better than someone else at what ever he was doing the ultimate reward.

I will be the first to admit that there is hope for Dion Leonard and the key to his future more positive and healthy outlook on life was Gobi. Gobi must have seen how much Leonard needed a paradigm shift in his life. Through Gobi, the author learned to trust people, possibly for the first time. In the end, he found the world willing to help a stranger without strings or conditions.

Good read.

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