Category Archives: Book Reviews

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 WOMEN 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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OPERATION COLUMBA

operation columba debaillie family graphic

The Belgian farmer could see there was something odd in his field… It was early on a July morning in 1941, just over a year after Nazi tanks had swept through the country… [It] was a small container with a length of white material attached… a parachute. Inside he could see a pair of eyes..and the unmistakable sound of a pigeon cooing… Attached to the side of the container was a message – a request for help.

World War II and history buffs! Gordon Corera’s newest book takes you into the skies over England and Belgium – attached to the leg of a carrier pigeon! This is a well-researched story of Nazi aggression, Britain’s military and intelligence services, Belgium’s brave hometown resistance fighters and the thousands of trained homing pigeons battling bullets and bad weather.

operation columba graphicHoming pigeons have been popular for hundreds of years, in peacetime, with civilians (nicknamed “pigeon fanciers”) and proved to be an invaluable asset in wartime communication. In 1941, the coastline of Europe is controlled by the Nazi war machine leaving England as a sitting duck for invasion. England was desperate to learn the status of the Nazi preparations to mount an invasion, and later, intelligence was needed for planning their own invasion of Europe allied by the United States.

ARC Edelweiss and LibraryThingAgents positioned behind lines in Nazi-controlled Europe had a dangerous, limited and unreliable method of transmitting intelligence in a timely manner via radio. Delivering intelligence information via hand-offs to countries outside Nazi control took months, risked lives, and was months old and practically useless. Desperate times called for desperate measures; hence the development of Project Columba.

Corera sifted through World War II military and intelligence records, letters and correspondence preserved by families of the brave resistance fighters. The result brings those perilous wartime years to life into the homes and lives of the average citizenry of Belgium, into the thickets and fortifications on the beaches, behind bars in the horrors of the Nazi camps, and into the secret enclaves of the British government agencies – often revealing the humanness and warts of those involved on all sides.

Quoting General William Tecumseh Sherman, “War is hell”.

The book is written in an easy to read style. Using the sparse facts available, creates a compelling story of heroism, self-sacrifice, and patriotism of individuals willing to look beyond self for the sake of country.

Fabulous read. Sure to please history buffs.

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LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP

This is a story about a floating barge converted to a book store named the Literary Apothecary. Well, maybe not so much about the barge and more about Jean Perdu, the barge owner, who has withdrawn emotionally for over 20 years following an unexplained romantic breakup by his lover, Manon.

Jean Perdu has an uncanny ability and a liability. He instinctively knows just the book to help solve problems for perfect strangers but he hasn’t been able to help his own stunted life. For over 20 years he has a room in his apartment that he has never entered. Behind that door lies the life he once shared with his love, Manon.

A new neighbor, Caroline, a victim of an adulterous marriage and divorce, moves into his apartment building. He reluctantly enters his inviolate “Manon space” to retrieve a table for her. Caroline finds an unopened letter in the table and returns it to him. The sight of that unsealed letter triggers deep memories. When he finally reads the 20 year-old letter, Perdu begins the travel to the bottom of his heart and then slowly begins to make his way up to a fulfilled life.

There is deep symbolism as Perdu takes refuge on his floating barge and releases the boat from its mooring. The journey begins as an escape to sea but as more and more eccentric characters take refuge with him on the barge, he begins to feel again. At first without understanding what he is doing and finally with purpose, Perdu seeks to find out what happened to Manon.

Before Perdu leaves Paris, he and Caroline had begun to sense a strong bond. He strives to keep the embers of this new relationship alive through letters as he seeks to put out the flames from his old life.

The storyline floats through the lens of fiction and non-fiction works shelved on the barge. As Jean and others bring these works to life through discussion, the remarkably crafted quotes tickle a reaction in the reader as well as the characters.

It has taken me a few weeks to mull over my overall feelings for the book. I only rated the book in the end as a three star because I just never really felt pulled into the book. I disliked Manon and finally decided that Jean needed a good slap in the head to have wiled away 20 years of precious life over a lost love. There were some great moments but in the end things just took sooooo long to resolve. Remember, this is just my opinion. I suggest that everyone read the book and come to your own conclusions.

Thank you, Netgalley and Blogging for Books, for the opportunity to read this book and give my honest review.

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VIRGIL WANDER: a novel

VIRGIL WANDER

Leif Enger

If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself- that is, when my seeing of it began to shift – it would be the day a stranger named Rune ble

fire hydrant kite

w into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom.”

The imaginary town of Greenstone, Minnesota lies somewhere along a remote section of shoreline on Lake Superior. A town that lost its luster and raison d’être after reaching the tail-end of a mining and shipping boom. Long-time residents of Greenstone weren’t surprised when the mines closed and the cargo ships sailed away for the last time. Bad luck has always been around the corner; this was just more of the same.

Greenstone folks are remarkable people. They don’t sit around wringing their hands waiting for the other shoe to drop on them. They just hitch up and help out the person currently caught sideways by the town’s curse. Oh, there are the gossipers, the skeptics, the suspicious, the troublemakers, the confused – but overall decent folks that somehow manage to find purpose enough to stay in the dying town but lack the courage to leave.

icy headlightSo when Virgil Wander, their  part-time town clerk and full- time owner of their decaying local movie theater, skidded off that icy cliff into Lake Superior and his airbag temporarily scrambled his brain, the town sighed, and added his woes to their infinite list of bad luck stories.

This is Virgil’s story to tell. It’s a story about rebirth and second chances. A story of love lost and love found. A story of hope, sadness, compassion, humor, and friendship that forever bonds a town together. There’s a bit of mystery, danger, and intrigue. This is a story told in that stereotypical simplicity of the mid-West; little said but much meant.  It’s a complicated but comfortable story filled with many lovable (and some not so lovable) characters.

It begins the day Virgil wakes up in the hospital after his accident.  He discovers his “storehouse of English had been pillaged” and his cranial gyroscope off tilt. He was most distressed to lose his adjectives but happy to find a few nouns and the essential verbs still there.

His first day back home at the Empress leaves Virgil conflicted. He knows it is his home but everything is off. Struggling to understand his new perspective of himself and the town in general, Virgil absentmindedly takes a walk through town ending up at the abandoned waterfront pier.

Standing on the far edge of the pier is “a threadbare stranger [with] eight-day whiskers and fisherman hands, a pipe in his mouth like a mariner in a fable, and a question in his eyes”. A brightly colored kite is tucked under his arm. The sad old man recently learned that years ago, while on a brief visit to the United States from Norway, he had fathered a child; a son. Returning now, he hoped to meet his son only to learn that he disappeared years ago and is presumed dead.

The two men, each lost in their own thoughts, chatted amicably. Out of the blue, Rune says, “Perhaps you knew my son? He lived here.” Shortly after that, the wind rustled the water and the kite left Rune’s arms to rise high into the sky; as time after time, Rune’s kites will lift the spirits of the town folk during his quest to bring his son alive in memory.

Virgil will fare much better than Humpty Dumpty; he will be able to put most of his pieces back together again. The new Virgil has a bright future and grateful for that second chance.

As for town itself, no worries. The folks learned to face their “hard luck” head on and make lemonade out of lemons. As you flip those final pages and wave goodbye, you will do so with a smile.

Recommended reading for those days when you need a lift into imagination and magic.

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THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE


Years ago, when I was a young girl, my family vacationed in a big city; an environment totally out of my element. On a walk with one of the older city children, we happened upon a spooky looking house. The boy whispered to me that the house was haunted and told me that we had to be careful not to get captured by ghosts and drawn inside. With that he turned and ran away, leaving me alone. To this day, I don’t know what triggered my fight or flight, fear of the house or fear of being alone and abandoned. I remember my world spinning out of control filled with overwhelming fear and terror; as fresh today as it was sixty years ago. Ironically, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House that same year I was frightened to death; 1959.

Synopsis

Dr. Montague, an anthropologist by trade and an investigator of supernatural events as an addictive sideline, has signed a three-month contract to rent the infamously haunted Hill House. His purpose is to definitively document the existence of paranormal activity. He feels his best chance of stirring up the mysteries of the house would occur if other people having had brushes with abnormal events in the past were with him.

He locates twelve persons and issues cleverly crafted invitations specifically avoiding the word “haunted” to spend “all or part of a summer at a comfortable house… the purpose to observe and explore the various unsavory stories about the house…”. Three curious people respond and agree to meet him there:

Eleanor Vance, a friendless, angry, and depressed thirty-two-year-old woman looking  for “freedom, adventure, friendship and love” after years of caring for a mentally abusive invalid mother. Her life post-mother with her evil sister remains loveless and unfulfilling. Theodora, a free-spirit artist, arrives needing to spend time away from her roommate following a spat and hoping for a great adventure. Luke Sanderson, young heir to the house and a liar and thief, sent by his Aunt to represent the family’s interests and to get him out of her hair for awhile. Jackson tosses in a scary pair of caretakers, the Doctor’s haughty wife, and Hill House itself to the cast of characters.

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more… [S]ilence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The first character to arrive is Eleanor. Unlike the others, we are with her as she makes her first bold move away from her horrible life, steals her sister’s car, and heads on on her first road trip, alone. Along the way, she begins to see life in a new way. She enjoys collecting trivia and creates imaginary life scenes in appealing places along the journey. The newly freed Eleanor will continue to be the book’s narrator.

The first sign of danger in this strange opportunity hits her when she arrives at Hill House in the twilight hours of the first night.

She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile; … get away from here at once.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition…turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake… It was a house without kindness…

Things don’t seem as ominous to her when the others arrive and find the house ugly but fairly harmless. For the first time in her life she begins to relax around people. She begins to imagine a new life with these people that extends beyond this brief visit to Hill House; finally friends and people who care about her. She lies to the group to project an image of herself that is appealing and interesting.

Other than doors that shut by themselves and meeting the humorless housekeeper and her robotic mealtime directives, nothing happens that first night. Eleanor falls asleep thinking… this is home. It will be home for the group for the next week.

The group takes a tour of the house and they hear the house’s sad and malevolent history from Luke. They find the house’s atmosphere, dark, morbidly decorated, rooms and hallways oddly laid out with crooked corners, and as confusing as a corn maze. When they reach the library doorway in the eerie stone tower, the reputed scene of a tragic suicide, Eleanor recoils in fear. The reader is left with the sense that heartbeat of house is contained in the tower’s walls.

The story moves at a snail’s pace for the first 100 pages. It enables the reader to feel the creaks in the floor, the shifty lighting, the unsettling feeling of being swallowed by the house, becoming lost in its bizarre layout. We observe a transition happening within Eleanor as she experiences, often in the company of others, increasingly terrorizing nightly sounds that accelerate by the day. The story turns darker as Eleanor begins to fall apart. At the same time, the others ride out the house’s attempts to scare them without negative effects; no one, other than Eleanor, feels any real danger from the house.

Eleanor, rocking to the pounding, which seemed inside her head as much as in the hall, holding tight to Theodora, said,”They know where we are,” and the others, assuming she meant Arthur and Mrs. Montague, nodded and listened.

We slip into Eleanor’s stream of consciousness and feel the mental meltdown as it is happening. She sees, in her mind, that Theo and Luke are conspiring against her and feels they mock her at every turn. She sees them treating her just like her mother and sister. Outwardly she projects an affinity to the group while internally developing rage, hated and mistrust of Theo and Luke. The group, unaware of Eleanor’s degenerating mental condition, finds humor in her unease and proclivity to spout quaint quotes, most often cited, is a line from from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Journeys end in lover’s meeting…

The reader, collecting clues from those tedious first 100 pages, realizes that there are parallels between the original homeowner’s tragic story and Eleanor’s life, real and imagined.

Near the end of that first week, Dr. Montague becomes aware of the effect the atmosphere of the house is having on Eleanor and repeatedly tries to make her leave. But she is adamant she will not be forced to leave leading to a highly dramatic conclusion. Hill House, with that evil grin, wins. Journeys end in lover’s meeting…

Reviewer’s Thoughts

I found it difficult to rate the book. I settled on a solid three star rating. Those first 100 pages seemed to drag with no action. In a 230+ paged book, I found it hard to imagine anything happening that would match the more contemporary horror genre. I was determined to stick with it and thought I would start over with the audio version and it made all the difference. Once I grasp the fact that is was really a psychological thriller, I started watching the dialogue more closely and was sucked inside Hill House.

Returning to my own haunted house experience, I could better understand Eleanor’s inability to extract herself from the creeping insanity. Who knows how permanently scarred I would be if I had wandered into my spooky house as a ten-year-old and spent the night listening to the old house groan against history and neglect. Has anyone else be scared witless? I’d love to hear from you.

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

when breath becomes air graphic poem

blue quotation-marksAt age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land… I could see a nice catamaran on the [Mediterranean Sea]. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be…

I flipped through [my] CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious… The future I imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving evaporated.Paul Kalanithi

Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi grew up in Kingman, Arizona. After graduating  from Stanford University in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology, he found himself caught between the worlds of literature and science; neither a perfect fit for him in his quest to discover the answer to the overwhelming question – what makes life worth living?  What is a meaningful life?

After deliberation, he set a goal to attend medical school, but not before he explored more fully the nature of thought and consciousness; how man makes decisions, defines consciousness, and rationalizes his existence. After attending the University of Cambridge where he earned a Masters of Philosophy in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, he turned to Yale University of Medicine where he graduated cum laude in 2007. Armed with years of theoretical education, he now focused on practical experience and hands-on patient care.  He returned to Stanford University to begin his residency training and ultimately fine-tuning his focus onto the field of neurology. In his sixth-year of a seven-year training program to become neurosurgeon, Paul learns he has stage-four lung cancer.

Now cresting at the top of his field, having struggled with the long duty hours, strains on his personal life, he feels he has a good grip on his personal identity. He will soon become a doctor, counselor and adviser to his patients. He has stumbled and made mistakes along the way to understanding that he must fully understand his patients as a whole to offer the best care.

And now he stands facing his own mortality. He knows he will never have that long sought after career as a neurosurgeon. He has become the patient. His world has come to a full-stop. “Who am I now?”, he asks.

In the end, he became the writer; an early life goal. A man determined to leave a lasting legacy. A man opening his whole life to the world in hopes that in revealing himself, others will learn to face their own mortality and fears; to live life fully, unafraid and ready when the end arrives. Paul, according to his wife, wrote feverishly, determined to lay bare his faults and strengths, his terrors and joys, and finally his acceptance and willingness to face death straight on in his own terms.

It is a hard book to read. The squeamish might want to skip through his cadaver training. And he is strongest when he openly discusses his weaknesses, his lack of empathy for his patients, and the moment he realizes what he has become and makes the change for the better. At times I felt like a voyeur as he shared painful moments in his marital life with his wife, Lucy. Paul’s terminal diagnosis impacted his family’s present and future.

Sadly, Paul never got to finish his book. Some reviewers have found the book rather cold and at times impersonal. It must be remembered that the book was compiled from his copious notes and essays. He undoubtedly would have edited the material had he the chance to do so making it sound less like a doctor’s chart dictation and more fully exposing the full range of his personality.

Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue is riveting and more fully exposes the “whole” Paul. Lucy’s sharing of Paul’s final hours had me in tears.

Readers personally struggling with terminal illness and looking for ways to make decisions about their own care or caregivers seeking inspiration and help on behalf of a loved one are encouraged to view Paul’s videos and interviews online. In the end, you will never forget Paul; he did make a difference. He let us view the meaning of life as he lived it.

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DEAR MRS. BIRD: a novel

DEAR MRS.BIRD

 A. J. Pierce

On 7 September 1940, the [German] Luftwaffe unleashed a merciless bombing campaign against London and Britain’s major cities. Instead of breaking morale, however,  the raids only galvanized the will of the British people for the rest of the war.”

War-time London is the back drop for this coming-of-age story of young adults trying to grow up in a fractured world. There’s something tender in watching Emmy Lake evolve from a day-dreamer to a “grown-up” with a clear eye to the feelings and needs of others. Figuring out the breach from childhood to adulthood is hard enough but facing your own mortality at the same time is something else altogether.

This  quirky story about pipe-dreams and friendships is nestled among the craters in the road and the blackout curtains of war-time London. When we first meet twenty-two year-old Emmeline “Emmy”, she has a steady job as a legal secretary and serves in London’s Auxiliary Fire Service  as a part-time night-shift telephone operator. She loves the looks she gets when she wears her “smart Navy blue uniform with gleaming buttons, stout black shoes, and [is] proud as punch in [her] cap with its AFS badge”.

corona 1926 typewriterEmmy differs somewhat from her closest friends. The others have jobs that take them up-close and personal to war. One working in the war office and the other involved in a fire brigade that spends dangerous hours putting out fires and searching for survivors and victims. Emmy, glides through the mayhem with a smile and a stiff upper lip. Her deepest wish is to become a smartly dressed lady war correspondent calmly describing how well the Brits are doing to defeat Hitler.

A chance glance at the classified ads of the London Evening Chronicle one day, revealed a job opportunity she thinks was tailor made for her. Believing the ad is looking for a junior newspaper reporter at the Chronicle, she doesn’t realize until after being hired, that she will work for Women’s Friend, a failing women’s magazine, housed in the same building as the Chronicle. It takes several attempts by the office manager to convince her that she is now a part-time typist for The Problem’s Page and working for Mrs. Henrietta Bird, a woman outfitted with a myopic view of life, a foghorn voice and the disposition of an irate howler monkey.

Emmy squares her shoulders and takes on the challenge but it isn’t long before she just can’t help herself from interfering in Mrs. Bird’s business. Just as she involves herself in the lives of her friends, with the best of intentions of course, not always appreciated, she secretly answers letters Mrs. Bird has rejected, forging Mrs. Bird’s signature and violating her Confidentiality Agreement.

As she fights her conscience over her deception and the fear of discovery over her letters at her day job, she receives a telegram about her fiance, and fearing the worst, is shocked to learn he is alive, but married to a stranger he met overseas. Adding to her personal stress is finding herself facing the war head-on at night in the Fire Service. The war is happening right over her head now, literally. The Germans have amplified their bombing runs and the Blitz crushes London.

Returning to her home after a long hard night at the Fire Service, she witnesses her best friend’s boyfriend return to a collapsing building to rescue a doll for a little girl he had just saved. Emmy, unable to control herself, demands he stop putting himself in danger for the sake of Bunty. Emmy and Bunty’s lifelong friendship fractures after Emmy’s continued efforts to stop William from doing his job leads to a terrible tragedy.

ARC EdelweissBut dear reader, not all is lost. Emmy pulls herself out the ashes, finds new love, and sees the world through a broader lens. She learns that life is not just all about you. Emmy and England will recover.

Thoughts

Dear Mrs. Bird is a tribute to the strengths of women in wartime. The letters rejected from Mrs. Bird and answered by Emmy are thought-provoking. The sacrifice of self-interest for a great good during wartime deserves respect and admiration. I was a bit leery in the beginning as stories about sappy goofy young women tripping over giddy visions of themselves turns me off. I grew to respect Emmy and the rest of her friends. I don’t know how I would respond under the same circumstances, but I would like to think I would have done as well to serve my country and my friends and family.

Good read.

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COLOR of LIGHTNING: a novel

VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

 

North Texas was a good place to be a black man; slave or free, they were all expected to carry arms… a person could pretty well do what he liked and he could be whatever he took a mind to as long as he had a strong back and a good aim.

 

Color of Lightning, published seven years before the bestseller, News of the World,  illuminates the untamed frontier with its Indian raids, legions of wagon trains determined to settle the land, and the heavy presence of military forts to enforce taibo or “white man’s” laws on the indigenous peoples. 

This is not a made-for-TV setting with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in face-paint and feathers. It is a graphically violent story of two cultures; one struggling to maintain centuries old traditions and the other determined to expand and subjugate the earth and native populations. The book is heavy with emotion and should be read with an eye to each side’s perspective.

In the real-world of 1860’s west Texas lived a newly freed slave, Britton “Britt” Johnson and his wife, Mary. The Johnsons built a home in a settlement along Elm Creek, not far from the Brazos River, and about 10 miles from Fort Belknap. It was a peaceful place with nice neighbors and a promise of new life. The smart and enterprising, Britt, soon established a successful freight wagon business serving the civilian and military communities.

October 13, 1864, Britt Johnson was away buying supplies when over six-hundred Kiowa and Comanche Indians made a murderous raid along Elm Creek. Britt’s wife, Mary and two of their children, Rube and Cherry were among those captured. Britt’s oldest son, Jim, was murdered. The specific details of Mary, Rube and Cherry’s rescue by Britt do vary but his valiant efforts and success are without question.

Through the author’s imagination, Britt is brought to life; a man’s man- proud, brave, courageous, fearless- strong in will, dangerous to his enemies and tender in heart to those in need of compassion and understanding- and capable of mistakes.

We ride alongside Britt as he sets out to rescue his family, making an unlikely friend along the way with a temporary outcast Comanche named Tissoyo. We feel the freedom of riding alone in the unfettered  land and smell the danger that lies in every shadow and thicket.

Our hearts break as we follow behind Mary Johnson and Elizabeth Fitzgerald as they are force marched to faraway Indian villages, suffering unprovoked violence, starvation, and inhumane living conditions. We yearn to offer support as they fight to survive; working long painful hours in the daily rigors of subsistence life with rudimentary tools and ingenuity. We feel each mother’s pain as their children are adopted by tribal families; enchanted by the simple lifestyle, the loving attention and for Britt’s son, Jube, the sense of belonging and power as a warrior. 

Meanwhile, Samuel Hammond, the newly appointed Indian agent, arrives in Texas, armed with good intentions and deep spiritual convictions. The newly redesigned Indian Bureau has turned over management of the frontier to various religious denominations. The Quakers have been given control of  Comanche and Kiowa-Apache territory. Sure of his God and sure of his mission, Samuel forbids armed guards to be present when distributing monthly rations of food and supplies fulfilling the agreement of a recent peace treaty. The efforts to force the tribes into submission with garden tools, calico and Bibles fail; the natives determined to maintain their territory, independence, and freedoms to their last breath. Samuel becomes entangled in the orders from his religious leaders to avoid violence and the reality that religious conversion will not happen, that war is inevitable, and that force is the only way to destroy the will of the tribes.

Samuel looked all about himself on the bare plains and thought what a miracle of endurance it was to live like this solely on God’s bounty, on whatever came to hand, in this sere country… People of great courage and fortitude, born with an unsatisfied wanderlust… And he must bring this to an end. That was his job. That was why he was here.

The Comanche and Kiowa leaders and warriors -unduly cruel, seemingly heartless, devoid of civilized morality, and terrifying to behold – are justifiably distrustful of the “Americans” and their threadbare peace treaties and broken promises.The tribes are caught between worlds; one world, that of the past, with no borders or boundaries, free to follow the seasons and the new world with its imaginary borders, fenced in properties, and self-centered landholders. The new people have brought deadly illnesses like smallpox that have decimated their ranks. The majestic buffalo, a vital resource, are being hunted to near extinction. What choice do they have but to rail against an enemy intruder?

Tissoyo said they were near the estado of Colorado… What is an estado?
The name of a place.
There is supposed to be a line nobody can see.
That’s right.
How do you make a line if it can’t be seen?
It’s only on paper.
You never know what the taibo will think of.

THOUGHTS

The book struggles a bit in the beginning but once the characters reach the panorama of Texas it takes off.

Samuel’s story is the weakest link. His character is naive and it is no surprise the tribes have no respect for him.

The unvarnished descriptions of the gang rapes, unwarranted brutality, and dehumanizing murders, necessary to authenticity, led me to the Rolaids bottle more than once.

I was most affected by the inability of some captives to return to their old life, forced by circumstance to be forever stuck between worlds.

And ending on the beauty of the author’s writing and the peace that solitude on the plains can bring, I leave you with an early morning view from horseback.

There are no mornings anywhere like mornings in Texas, before the heat of the day, the world suspended as if it were early morning in paradise and fading stars like night watchman walking the periphery of darkness and call out that all is well.

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The Alzheimer’s Medical Advisor: a caregiver’s guide

Do you know who I am?

A girl?

Yes, I was your first baby.

You were my #1? 

My mother was a cut-up, an RN, an ambulance squad leader, a mother of four and the last living senior member of my family. When she died, I popped to the top of the old age squad.

alzheimer's medical advisor coverBefore she died, she lost her marbles. All of them. But she never lost her humor or her love of ice cream and her hatred of bananas.

In spite of having 2 RNs and a certified EMT as children, my mother was able to hide her failing memory for a long time. She developed tricks of the trade so to speak. She was always sneaky with her memory so she knew the ropes.

mom and ice cream infoWe faced her fading memory and faltering physical health as best we could right up to the end. Alzheimer’s and good old standard full-blown dementia never come with a manual.

The Alzheimer’s Medical Advisor: a caregiver’s guide comes about as close as a layman can get to a manual. I have had this book for a couple of years; negligent in my responsibility to Sunrise River Press and LibraryThing to provide a review in exchange for this advanced reader’s copy.

Now that my brother faces a severe form of early onset fronto-temporal dementia, I find myself reaching for the book for answers to so many questions. And in doing so, I remembered I owed a review, so here it is.

dementia table of contentsThis book is a gold mine of information. You won’t be smothered in fifty-cent size medical lingo that makes you feel overwhelmed.

The initial chapters cover dementia, general care information, setting goals and stresses the importance of taking care of yourself.

The heart of the book discusses 54 common issues encountered in the care of the patient. Each issue is covered in a two-page spread beginning with basic facts and highlights signs of a possible emergency, lists other important things to observe, identifies ways to handle the issue at home and when to contact medical health professionals.

sampleOne concluding chapter deals with general health issues and gives tips to accomplish the tasks, like taking the temperature or pulse of a confused and scared person, and when monitoring vitals can be helpful.

Another chapter tackles the tricky subject of medical safety and management and does so in great detail.

Quoting the book, “Throughout the course of illness, persons with dementia often require services from multiple types of health care providers in many different settings.” Each level of care is covered from selecting a primary care provider through emergency and general hospitalization all the way to full-time residential care.

The hardest chapter deals with end of life decisions. Everyone and every family must explore their own feelings about the end of life wishes of a person no longer able to make their own decisions. These pages are more of an outline of topics helpful in developing a course of action working with the person while still capable of decisions and understanding the course of their disease or in the case that incapacity precludes that discussion.

The final pages are worksheets that can be reproduced and deal with gathering information necessary before consult with a health care professional. Filling out the personal information and preferences in advance makes a stressful time easier.

I hope this review is helpful. I encourage anyone with ANY long-term illness, not just dementia, to look at this invaluable resource.

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LIES: a novel


It’s a Mummy car. Look, Daddy!
Good spot, matey… It does look like Mummy’s car.
I squinted, trying to make out the
[license plate].

It was her car.
The VW turned into a Premier Inn.
Can we see Mummy?
Can we, can we, can we?

I made a spur-of-the-moment decision
that would change my life.

Let’s go surprise, Mummy.

What’s cuter than a dad and a four-year-old playing car bingo? A kid with his first School Superstar “cerstiff-a kit”. Little Wills spots his mother’s car in traffic and his intense need to share his pride with his mother melts his father’s heart. They track her car into an underground hotel parking garage and bolt upstairs to greet her. Joe comes to a skidding stop when he spots Mel (Mellisa) in the hotel lobby in a heated argument with Ben Delaney, a neighbor. Ben was screaming at her. Joe quickly frog-marches Wills back to the car to wait for Mel.

lies graphicMel swiftly exits the elevator and never sees them before leaving quickly in her car. Once more the elevator door opens and Ben walks out.  When Joe begins to ask about Mel, Ben becomes violent. Refusing to fight the smaller man, Joe gives him a little shove to put space between them, causing Ben to trip over his briefcase and landing on his head on the concrete floor unresponsive with blood trickling out of his ear.

The stress induces a Richter scale asthma attack in Wills. The spare inhaler is not in the car and Wills is in trouble. The two crises force Joe to make a decision – get help for Ben or get help for Wills. Wills wins but Joe does return to find Ben and his car gone along with Joe’s cellphone that he had dropped in the altercation.

With Ben gone, Joe is left to puzzle out the conversation that flipped out Ben. Joe had been pressing Ben about Mel when suddenly Ben shouted, “Just leave it! You have no idea! You’re so f***ing dense that you haven’t seen it, have you?” Just before he fell.

As Joe seeks answers, his warm and fuzzy world begins to fall apart. Ben is nowhere to be found but Joe knows he is alive; he gets regularly cell phone and Facebook messages from him.

Beth, Mel’s best friend and Ben’s wife files a missing person report. The search for Ben gets darker and darker as evidence points to foul play and seems to implicate Joe. On the other side of the equation, Ben’s messages to Joe get more and more taunting and sinister. I am going to destroy you! Mel finally admits she had an affair. All efforts to verify Joe’s claims that Ben has been in contact him are traced back to Joe’s online accounts.

Joe realizes his only way out of this miasma is to find Ben. Against the advice of his newly hired attorney, Joe begins his own private search to clear his name and to save his family.  What he finds confirms what Ben had told him – You had no idea. You never saw it, did you?

Thoughts

I love debut authors and I don’t expect them to rage out of the gate with a blockbuster bestseller. It happens. Not this time. Lies is a easy read, somewhat predicable, and contains elements of mystery and surprise at the end. I found it entertaining and kept my interest. Joe was patently naive and gullible; I think the author was striving for devoted and loyal. Mel, from the beginning, was more worldly and adventurous dusted with a sly and devious capacity to snow Joe. Little Wills was adorable.

Good read for a slow day or long car ride; guaranteed not to make you homicidal.

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JELLO GIRLS

Where to begin. As the book, ostensibly, is billed as a memoir, I’ll begin with the author’s lineage.

In the beginning, Benjamin Hartwell “begat” two lovely daughters, Clara and Edith.  Clara would grow up to become our author, Allie Rowbottom’s great-grandmother. Edith would become the heiress of a huge Jello fortune after marrying into the Woodward family and surviving her husband, Ernest.

Ernest’s story begins with his father, a man with a fancy name of Orator F. Woodward. who spawned six children and supported his family as a manufacturer and selling of a variety of items that included composition balls used by marksmen in target practice. The family lived in the small town of LeRoy, New York where in 1897, a local carpenter somehow discovered a way to make horses hoofs and bones into a tasty fruit flavored dessert labeled Jello. Lacking the wherewithal to market his product, he sold it in 1899 to Orator Woodward who successfully marketed the product into a household name and, in turn, made the Woodwards another newly minted American “nouveau riche” family. The Woodward clan did great things for the town. Their fingers were in every pie from schools, churches to library trust funds, restaurants to factory work.

Clara’s granddaughter, Mary Edith Fussell had a rough childhood; not because of poverty, access to money not a problem. Her mother, Midge, was not a warm and nurturing mother; unsettled and uncomfortable as a woman stifled in world controlled by powerful men. A woman who would have preferred to be a writer to birthing children. Midge dies of breast cancer when Mary Edith was fourteen-years-old leaving her fearful of living under the same cloud as her mother; doomed to a life dictated by “the family curse”, just as her mother had predicted. A curse with as many negative spells as Medusa has snakes. She felt she had seen the curse take her mother when she was a young girl, feared for her own life and feared for the future of her daughter, Allie. She tried to outrun the curse through drugs, drink, sex, and obsession with witchcraft. Always searching for the elusive need to feel loved and wanted in a patriarchal society. Swallowing emotions, repressing and silencing her womanly voice bringing on illness of mind and body.

The curse…It was used to explain all manner of familial misfortune. Death, alcoholism, wealth and the existential boredom it brought with it.  It was, she was told, confined to men and therefore nothing for to worry [her pretty little head about]. Later she would understand…the curse wasn’t confined to men; it came from them, from a social structure predicated on their power. The curse was the silence impressed upon her…and countless women before…

Mary’s story was very much overshadowed by several other themes -the history of Jello and its impact financially and socially on the township of Le Roy. The sweet wiggly product was examined intensely for its marketing and ad campaigns that Rowbottom feels strengthened the patriarchal power and depicted what should be the aspirational goal of every women hoping to please her man at the same time attempting to stay relevant through wars and changing societal norms.

If the intense coverage of Jello didn’t smother Mary Edith’s life, Rowbottom tosses in a mysterious “Tourette Syndrome” like illness that befells LeRoy teen girls in 2011, plays a recurring part; the impression left that these girls, like girls before them, are caught in the tangled web cast by a patriarchal society. Some thin thread alludes to Mary and Allie’s affiliation with the girl’s problems.

In the end, I felt like I was searching through a thick stew to see Mary Edith. There was one scene that physically made me sit back and say…What the? One of Mary’s heartbreaking issues had affected me emotionally. At the chapter’s end I flipped the page to an abrupt change of subject discussing the redesign of the Jello box.

There was no joy, happiness or sense that anything other than doom and gloom follows the inheritors of the great Jello fortune. I never really connected to Mary, Midge or Allie or their assertion that money was at the heart of their problems. Their curse.

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BENEATH A SCARLET SKY: a novel

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE
February 2006

At a dinner party in Bozeman, Montana…I heard the snippets of an extraordinary, untold tale of World War II with a seventeen-year-old Italian boy as its hero. My first reaction was that the story of Pino Lella’s life could not possibly be true… I [later] learned that Pino was alive some six decades later. The story you are about to read is not a work of narrative non-fiction , but a novel of biographical and historical fiction that hews closely to what happened to Pino Lella between June 1943 and May 1945. – Author, Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan, true to his word, gives us the harrowing story of a World War II teenage “Forrest Gump” – a child whose courage would have challenged the most stalwart adult. The story was not an easy one to obtain from him; he had buried it very deep in his memory. Pino was mentally crippled for the rest of his life by the spit-second decision he had to make late in the war – a choice to live or die for the one you love.

Giuseppe “Pino” Lella was ten-years-old when Nazi Germany and Italy’s fascist prime minister, Benito Mussolini, formed an alliance in 1936. By early 1943, Pino was now a pimple-faced seventeen-year-old focused on girls, food, and music; he and his brother Mimo’s attention still centered on themselves and growing up.

Mussolini’s power was waning and Nazi Germany was flooding Italy with troops and supplies to slow the Allies advance from Sicily. The rising scent of war permeated Italy, Pino’s home, and his family’s businesses in the fashion district of Milan. The boys were familiar with and comfortable around the friendly high-ranking Nazis that drove through the city and frequented local shops and restaurants. The evilness and cruelty that lie ahead still dormant in the Italian psyche.

Pino and his younger brother, Mimo, had been fortunate to have been raised in wealth. With foreign born nannies, each had become fluent in English, French, and Italian. Each summer and a month each winter were spend frolicking high up in the Alps at Father Luigi Re’s Casa Alpina, a Catholic boys school. The boys loved their time there skiing and climbing the steep mountain trails.

The trajectory of their carefree lives changed the day Pino “fell instantly in love” with a stranger on the street and asked her for a date. Hoping to meet her at the movies that night, Pino and Mimo headed to the theater (she reneged on a promise to meet him) placing the two boys at the epicenter of the Allies first bombing run of Milan. Both were able to escape major injury but their childhood ended that night.

The boys were sent into the mountains for safety to Father Re. Mimo first, then Pino later when the family home in Milan was destroyed. Pino was soon to learn that the deadly war had reached even the solitude and treacherous slopes of the Alps. At Father Re’s direction, Pino, only seventeen-years-old, spent eight months guiding a multitude of Jewish refuges and downed Allied pilots to safety in Switzerland. Every trip was fraught with danger from the mountains themselves, Nazis, and the murderous partisans preying on the travelers. It is a wonder that the unprepared and inexperienced refugees made it to safety, but they did with the extraordinary help from Pino and other guides that he trained.

Weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Pino’s father ordered him home for a family meeting. At eighteen-years-old, he would be drafted into Italian military service and undoubtedly sent to the Russian front as cannon fodder. Pino’s father and Uncle Albert had, what they considered a better option, albeit one that would require Pino to endure the wrath of the community – enlist in the German Army. With his Uncle Albert’s deep connections, Pino would spend the war in a non-combat Nazi unit.

On July 27, 1944, Pino, aghast at his predicament, donned his uniform of the German Army in the Organization Todt. Everything I have told you about Pino to this point – his courage, his strength of character, his patriotism – pales in comparison to his unexpected role as a prominent spy for  the Allies throughout the remainder of the war in Italy.

It all began at a serendipitous meeting with Major General Hans Leyers, one of the most powerful Germans in Italy overseeing Armaments and War Production and the General’s disabled staff car outside his Uncle Albert’s store. Pino arrived home wearing his Organization Todt uniform on a ten-day convalescence leave for a war injury. The General’s driver stared helplessly at the engine. Pino, grabbed a screwdriver with his good hand, adjusted the carburetor, the vehicle started, and the rest is history.  The General fired his driver and put Pino in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the war.

Uncle Albert, a member of the Italian Resistance as a secret Freedom Fighter, saw the potential of Pino’s close proximity to everything Nazi:

“You’ll go where Leyers goes. See what he sees. Hear what he hears. You’ll be our spy inside the German High Command.”

So began Pino’s life as an Allied spy. Code name: Observer

It is remarkable that this young man could witness the murders, the mutilations, the despair and hopelessness of enslaved captives and pillage of his own country and still retain his composure to relay valuable information that helped lead to the end of the Nazi presence in Italy. He found true love, faced numerous dangers, saw horrors that would scar him for life, yet, Pino held true and served his country well.

It is not an easy read. Many times I felt my stomach get queasy. But read on I did, I owed it to all the Pinos out there that place country over self.

Recommended reading.

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MY ABANDONMENT: a novel

 

The Spokesman-Review

Fri., May 21, 2004
Father, girl reside in Portland park
Portland, Oregon


“Author, Peter Rock, a professor of creative writing at Portland’s Reed College had earned a literary reputation for his skill in bringing to the forefront marginal characters who might easily go unnoticed. As Rock, and most of Portland, followed with fascination the story of the mysterious father and daughter, the writer’s mind filled with questions, characters, and ideas. Eventually he put them all together to create his 2009 award-winning novel, My Abandonment. [In 2018, My Abandonment, was adapted for film and released as Leave No Trace.]

Peter Rock’s work, My Abandonment, is pure fiction loosely based on known facts about Frank and Ruth up to their disappearance. The time after their disappearance, a product of the author’s wild imagination. Frank and Ruth have become Father and Caroline.

We have to be so careful these days.
Why? No one knows where we are, says Caroline
If you think that way, that’s when you get caught. Overconfident.
No one’s ever caught us. No one could.That doesn’t mean anything. You know better than to look to the past, Caroline.

Father is strict. He has to be strict. That doesn’t mean he knows everything I do or think. 

It’s been four years since Father arrived at her foster home in Idaho to reunite with Caroline. We learn about their life together with Caroline narrating through a teenager’s lens as it appears in her daily journal. From this vantage, we never see into Father’s past or into his mind and are left to speculate about his actions and decisions.

As we meet Father, a 52-year-old Marine and Vietnam veteran, and Caroline, they are scouring a salvage yard in the dead of night to steal rebar to strengthen their primitive shelter. If we took a bird’s eye view of their home, we would find  signs of a normal life adjusted for the hardship of living in the wild; his insistence on a ship-shape life probably reflective of his military training. In an effort to remain anonymous and undetected, both have become masters of stealth and skilled at camouflage, denizens of Forest Park.

Father, college educated, insists on daily homeschooling for Caroline; guided by a set of thrift store encyclopedias and a Bible. Father has a deep knowledge of classical authors and uses relative quotes from them as punctuation points in his conversations with her.

The pair do expose themselves to the world, traveling to town when necessary to resupply, dressed to blend in with the town folks. Father, a victim of post-war PTSD, receives a monthly disability check delivered to a post office box in town. The small amount of money provides enough income for food and sparse necessities.

But it is not long before things feel weird. Caroline tells us that Father’s paranoid insistence on caution overshadows their lives 24/7.  Even in sleep, danger seems to haunt him with nightmares about hovering helicopters. Caroline would know, they sleep together in one sleeping bag. Randy, Caroline’s comfort toy, a plastic horse given to her by Father, goes everywhere with her; never leaves her side. Plastic Randy, whose stomach holds a slip of paper with her secret secret – something she must guard and never lose, something Father must never find.

There are other homeless folks in the forest, all with baggage from the past. Father barters with one group of slimy characters; until one of them begins to take too much interest in Caroline.

One day, by dumb luck, a stranger stumbles upon their front door while Father is away from camp and surprising Caroline who’s resting in her hideout in a treetop. Her little yip and her sweaty shirt drying on a branch gives them away. She keeps the intrusion secret from Father. But the stranger leads the police to them and the gig is up.

Helpful authorities find them a home with an elderly farmer. Caroline loves the farm, their little “real” home, and the promise of attending a real school. Maybe it was the open sky and constant contact with the outside world or perhaps loss of control over his own life but Father begins to dissemble, marking the beginning of what will become many faulty decisions. Without warning, he tells Caroline to pack a bag; they are leaving. This move, absent all their supplies confiscated by the police, threatens their survival.

Father never recovers from the removal from Forest Park leading the pair through one dangerous situation after another. Throughout their trek to find a new home, Father remains devoted to Caroline, exercising his control over her life by keeping his thoughts and plans to himself. She has no other option but to follow. As Father stumbles, Caroline becomes stronger and more independent thinking. One final flawed decision by Father ends their lives together leaving Caroline to restart her life in whatever fashion she desires. And we learn Caroline’s secret secret.

Book Themes and Thoughts

Anonymity and Use of Nicknames: The importance of discretion and use of false names a central theme. Do names identity us or dictate who we are?

Violence: Several scenes are gruesome and could be regarded as Triggers for adolescent readers.

Social Norms: This slender novel gives ample reason to question what is “normal”. Do “normals” have the right to interfere with alternative living options? At what point should someone interfere?

Relationships: There is a creepy edge to Father’s relationship with Caroline. His constant use of endearments, overprotective need to control her day, and questionable privacy issues lends itself to child abuse and criminal behavior.

The ending was somewhat disappointing but I found the book overall very interesting. Using a teenager narrator keeps things simple and points out that we never really know anyone’s whole story. I have found myself reflecting about their story days after I finished the book.

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LOLA: a novel

I am a country girl where the biggest fight I saw growing up was between the neighbor’s dog and a skunk. Therefore, my review of LOLA should be taken with that knowledge in mind. I know as much about city gangs, illegal drug sales, and ghetto living as they do about milking cows. Hard to assess what you know nothing about.
Huntington Park is a ghetto suburb of Los Angeles, home to the Crenshaw Six, a small-time drug-running gang. Within that community, Garcia is known as the gang leader and strong man but in reality he hides behind, Lola, the anonymous Mexican-American “Khaleesi”.

Lola is more than happy to be seen as Garcia’s girlfriend; it’s the perfect set-up for now. Lola is hungry for more power and territory but she must wait for the right time and place to make her move – always trying to stay in the background – using her dismissive and meek womanly demeanor to disarm and misdirect.

Her chance arrives when El Coleccioista, The Collector for the Los Liones cartel, interrupts Garcia’s community barbecue. Lola, playing the meek and mild woman, dares to enter the room where Garcia and The Collector are talking to offer refreshments as an excuse to learn what’s going on. She gets away with it because, she, a mere woman, is about as important to The Collector as a floor mat.

Several months earlier, the Los Liones cartel’s largest drug middleman, Darrell King, had his warehouse targeted for a LAPD drug raid. Darrell, alerted in time, was able to empty the warehouse but he was too hot to continue business. Los Liones had turned to the small-time Crensaw Six to pickup up some of Darrell’s territory to keep their drugs flowing to their customers. Now The Collector was back with another “request”. Darrell King is back in business. The problem? He  found himself another drug supplier. Los Liones spies have learned the time and place where Darrell’s courier will be for the first drop with this new supplier. The Crensaw Six must stop it and capture the couriers.

“There will be  two million in product, a corresponding two million in cash. We want your organization to make sure Darrell King never gets his product… and that his new supplier never gets his money.
‘That it?’ Garcia asks?
“We would like you to use whatever means at your disposal to uncover the identity of Mr. King’s new supplier. You will be wondering about compensation. Succeed, you will receive ten percent of the product and Mr. King’s territory. You fail, We take Lola, we will open up her stomach, and we will pull out her guts until she dies.

The Crensaw Six fails to intercept the money and drugs thanks to Lola’s brother’s screw up. When Lola metes out gang justice to her brother by viciously cutting off his trigger finger, Huntington Park now knows who is really the gang leader.

El Liones gives Lola a brief extension on her death sentence to make things right. You would think that Lola would buckle under pressure but Lola thrives. She faces a gauntlet of problems that pop up like whack-a-mole.

Her immature brother, continues to defy her leadership seeing her more as his substitute mother growing up. Her inability to administer the painful death gang justice demands for her brother, threatens her role in the Crenshaw Six. Her drug addicted mother is kidnapped.  Her boyfriend begins to whimper, uncertain of his place in her new world and loss of his stature in the community. Amid all that, she takes time to battle a drug addictive mother with a pedophile boyfriend for custody of her five year old girl.

What did I learn? Everyone has potty mouth. The life of a drug addict is no picnic. Gang members have a very short life span and have developed horrifying forms of torture.  It was a rough book to read. I have great respect for anyone able to find their way out of the line of gang warfare and illegal drug culture.

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VOX: a novel

vox populi, vox Dei
(the voice of the people is the voice of God)


In 2017, author, Christina Dalcher, an expert on theoretical linguistics, submitted, Wernicke 27X, a 750-word piece of flash fiction to a doomsday themed contest. The story introduced the concept of destroying people’s memory of language, hence the ability to communicate, by damaging the Wernicke’s Area of the brain through contact with a chemical in food, Wernicke 27X.

Expanding elements from Wernicke 27X, VOX asks the question:VOX graphic

“What if we, as a society, took a giant step backwards, relegating women to traditional roles as mothers, wives, and homemakers? . . . The [Pure Movement] idea was to go back to Biblical roles, to separate men and women. Females are expected to conform in four ways – piety, purity, submission and domesticity.” – Author, Christina Dalcher

VOX achieves this goal by placing the chief proponent of the “Pure Movement”, the Reverend Carl Corbin, in the White House alongside the President. Stage One: All females of any age must be silenced; a period of retraining necessary. The intent, to reset women’s roles in future generations.  Think Stepford wives without language.

Setting
Washington, DC in the near future.

Scenario
One morning dawned like every other over America. Mothers roused sleepy children to begin their ordinary day. Parents headed to work; the children to school. Unaware that in the blink of an eye, Big Brother would strike and the world as they knew it, stops for every female in the United States.

In an implausible scenario, women and young girls are rounded up and fitted with electronic bracelets that limit speech to 100 words per day. The penalty of exceeding 100 words? A painful charge that will lay the offender out flat, its severity increasing with every additional word.

Edicts are enforced. Women are no long allowed to work outside the home or have access to a formal education. These drastic restrictions include access to all printed materials – cookbooks to newspapers – as well as paper and pens, a potential method of communication, are verboten. All household documents, finance accounts, reading materials must but be locked up and available only to husbands and sons.

Behind the scenes in the schools, a redesigned school curriculum advances their real agenda – instill in the young the importance of dividing the roles of the sexes.

The Patrick and Jean McClellan family, in many ways, is atypical of the rest of America. Patrick works in the White House serving as science adviser to the President; an oxymoron in an administration that derides science. Jean is a scientist specializing in cognitive linguistics. They have four children; three boys and one daughter.

brain and languageThere had been rumblings and warnings that religious extremism was spreading like wildfire and women were losing ground rapidly. Dr. Jean McClellan was too busy with her medical research to worry. Known internationally for her work on Wernicke’s Aphasia, a traumatic collapse of a person’s ability to understand or express language, Jean is close to developing a serum that will repair the brain. And just like snapping your fingers, Jean McClellen learned she was no longer a working professional.

As time passes, Jean is struggling to understand what is happening and feels helpless. Her eldest son has become dismissive and surly, her daughter is severely traumatized, and her husband complicit with the new norms. As the effects of the movement advances through society, rebels attempt to break through but are “dispatched’.

All feels hopeless, until the President’s brother has an injury to his Wernicke’s Area of the brain. And just like that, Jean barters freedom for her daughter’s silence against helping restore the brother’s memory of language. She enlists the help of a close (really close, if you get my drift) male colleague and together they learn the true extent of Reverent Carl and the President’s insidious motives. Rating this book was a hard decision and in the end I gave in to my inner voice and gave it 4/5 stars. There were some parts of the story that just jarred against the reality of this scenario ever occurring. But before anyone dismisses VOX and its premise as a pipe-dream of a few radical religious extremists; Google the “Cult of Domesticity” an early 20th century movement in America. If you are a feminist and want to set your hair on fire, look into the True Woman Movement, part of a larger religious campaign active in the US today called Revive Our Hearts or click here to review their True Woman Manifesto.

I’m not saying religion is harmful or frightening! As Christina Dalcher says, “This is a call to [women] to pay attention NOT a call-to-arms.”

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OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

Come all ye young sailors and listen to me,
I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow,
We’re bound to the south’ard,  So steady she goes.
[old shanty song] ” Fish of the Sea”, verse 1

HISTORICAL BACKSTORY
Canada’s 500 year old cod-fishing industry ground to a halt in 1992 when decades of over-fishing of the Northern cod had reduced the species to dangerous levels. In an attempt to allow the cod stocks to rebuild, Canada placed a cod fishing moratorium along its east coast. Overnight, families living on the coastlines of Newfoundland faced unemployment and the end of generations of family fishing heritage. Most took part in a mass migration to the mainland provinces of Canada to support their families.

When the first fisherman settled Newfoundland, they brought a rich tradition of music with them.

“They sang shanties as they worked and shared ballads and tunes at the end of the day. Over time, the settlers and their descendants reworked the old music and created new songs to tell their own stories. Newfoundland music spoke of work, politics, humour, fear, hope, tragedy and the ebb and flow of day-to-day existence. . .” – (Newfoundland Heritage)

FICTION
Our Homesick Songs, set on the east coast of Newfoundland in a small fishing village of Big Running, features the Aiden and Martha Connors family. It’s 1993. A year ago, the last Northern cod was pulled from their bay. Their fishing boat, like that of their neighbors, sits idle at dock. The government sends welfare checks, but these people are proud and productive. One by one, families abandon their homes and head for the Canadian mainland for work in the oil and gas fields. They leave with a suitcase and their musical instruments leaving behind their identity, their music and their dreams.

As we meet the Connors family, Aiden and Martha are sharing a heartbreaking decision with their children, ten-year old, Finn, and fourteen-year old, Cora. It’s time to go where there is work. They aren’t ready to uproot their lives so they will share a job; one parent will leave for a month and one will stay with the children. Every thirty days, they will switch places.

As difficult as it is for the parents, the decision is harder on the children. Alone, the last family, Cora and Finn must use their imagination to fill their days. Finn, with sea water in his veins, dreams of ways to restore fishing to the village and Cora establishes her own world creating artwork in the abandoned houses that take her around the world. When all the houses have been turned into countries, she runs away from home with a plan.

“Finn, I want to show you something. [Inside the Ryan house] everything was bright yellow and pink and blue and green and red. . . There were pieces of green card cut into cactus shapes up the sides of the sofa and fireplace. . . It’s Mexico, said Cora!”

As we track that first year of the family split across Canada, the story shifts back and forth with the tide to the 1970’s. Back when the cod were plentiful and Aiden Connors spent long nights fishing on his boat singing shanties. Back when the orphaned Martha Murphy sat alone on the shore for years, after her sisters had gone to sleep, crafting fishing net and listening to the mermaid sing far out on the dark sea.

“Mermaids need to sing. Sad songs. homesick songs. And the only one that who could hear it was a lonely orphaned girl. But tying knots and listening to the mermaid sing made her feel better.” Until the day she discovers that the mermaid singing is Aidan and she marries him.

Sometimes, aged Mrs. Callaghan (my favorite character), Finn’s accordion teacher and the community’s matriarch, takes the story even further back with  song lyrics crafted by ancient mariners and fables of old Ireland.

The novel itself, moves very slowly, with gaps and pauses in the sometimes long dialogues. It’s as though the sea winds blow away any unnecessary words. During that first year apart, the lonely separation is hard on Aiden and Martha and they each stumble against their marriage vows.  Cora sets out to see the world with a secret plan to help the family. Finn, bless his little heart, is convinced that pulling the community together in song and music will bring back the fish and bring back the boats.

The ending is sweet if not long in coming.

Good reading on a rainy day.

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