Category Archives: Book Reviews

STATION ELEVEN: a novel

 

The bitter tragedy
of human life
is that it is all too fragile,
our lives are written
not in the rock forever,
but upon the all too fragile
and transitory parchment
and of human flesh.

[Sermon after World Trade Center attack]

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic world that follows a pandemic of the Georgian Flu. Georgia, the Eurasian country, not the state. This latest assault on humanity arrived in North America on a plane from Russia.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, set in a burned-out shell of the United States, is a physically altered natural world, where the sun never shines and survival is cruel and heartless. This is the usual standard of dystopian fiction. A haunting story of a father desperate to retain his humanity and save his son.

Station Eleven, however, is a more sanitized apocalyptic story, picking up twenty years after the pandemic, and is set along what had been the Canadian and American borders. It is more a mystery than a descriptive survival story with cannibalistic humans and parched earth; it lightly touches on how they stay alive physically but concentrates more on the mental aspects of their new lives.

This now sparsely populated and undefined land, freed of political boundaries, is an unfettered world where nature reclaims everything man has tamed. The survivors of the nearly extinct human race, in a blink of an eye, must face the total loss of everyone and everything. The question becomes – now what?

“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?” 

This multifaceted and multi-voiced story takes highly evolved mankind with its technology and global reach and reduces him to nomadic life. Unlike our early ancestors, these newest nomads have evidence of a past history: rusted cars strung like beads on a broken necklace, crestfallen houses and darken light poles. The further the world travels into the future, the fewer people understand the old world and the old ways.

SYNOPSIS

In the last days of the old world, in a Toronto theater, a Shakespearean play is ongoing featuring the world famous actor, Arthur Leander, playing King Lear. Arthur, in what appears to the audience as a highly dramatic moment, collapses and dies of a heart attack on stage. Unknown to the theater crowd, death has been twining among their seats and in a matter of three weeks, most of them, as well as most of the world, will be dead.

Arthur had just received two copies of a comic book series, entitled “Station Eleven”, designed by his ex-wife, Miranda. Before stepping on stage, he gifted one set to a charming eight-year-old actress, Kirsten Raymonde.

Kirsten and her brother survive and join the millions of people on the run. She carries with her a few comfort items that include these comics. The struggles of the first year on their own mutes her past; the last thing she remembers clearly is the play, the comics, and Arthur.

Twenty years after the pandemic, most survivors have settled into small communities. Outliers remain nomads caravanning along crumbly roads, as predators, traders and in Kirsten’s case, a caravan of musicians and actors calling known as The Traveling Symphony.

Sometimes the Traveling Symphony thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.

Kirsten, now 28, while scrounging for supplies and food in abandoned houses, obsessively searches for Arthur in old newspapers and magazines. When she finds a picture or a story, we are transported backward into his life. Arthur’s parallel story line merges seamlessly and is not a distraction. Other survivors who knew Arthur including his best friend, Clark and one of his three ex-wives, Elizabeth tie the two stories together. The stories come closer and closer together finally merging at the end of the book.

Where’s the mystery you might ask? It begins with The Traveling Symphony’s stop in the community of St. Deborah By The Water; a community much like Jonestown with a similar cult prophet. The Symphony had stopped there a couple of years earlier, prior to the prophet’s arrival, and a pregnant Symphony member and her husband stayed there to have the child. This newest Symphony stop was to retrieve them and to entertain the community with a Shakespearean play.

Things seemed a little off; their friends were not there. When they found three grave markers with their friend’s names on them, they bolted town, only to discover a teenage girl hiding in one of the caravan wagons. A teenage girl expected to be the prophet’s next wife.

How far will the prophet go to recover his “bride”? Rumor had it that their friends were still alive and heading for another community known as Museum of Civilization. What really happened to their friends? What is the fate of the cast members that disappear on the way to the new community? How does Arthur’s story fit into the picture?

This isn’t a book that will make your hair stand on end like a Stephen King novel. Nonetheless I found myself curious and entertained throughout. Somehow, despite the tragedy of the pandemic, the survivors have a beautiful world in which to begin again. The sun rises and falls. The earth stands ready to help man get back up on his feet.

Recommended reading. A nice read on a long road-trip.

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WARLIGHT : a novel


by Michael Ondaatje

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals… I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen…

The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war… [Our guardian was] “The Moth”, a name we invented. Ours was a  family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. [I was called “Stitch” and my sister, Rachel known as “Wren”].

It’s 1945. The WWII armistice has been reached but the war still rages behind the scenes. A piece of paper and a handshake doesn’t cut it for renegades bent on revenge.  Behind the screen labeled peace, a shadow war continues. Warlight is the coming-of-age story of two abandoned children, living in their family home, under the care of a “guardian” appointed by their mother. The guardian, she insists, is someone they met years earlier.

The narrator is Nathaniel, now an adult. Part 1 covers the time immediately after their parents left in 1945. Part 2 begins in 1959 and chronicles his career in British Intelligence where he is able to surreptitiously scour archives to search for his mother’s deepest secrets. His sister, Rachel, appears in both parts, more as a jack-in-the-box, popping up now and again to be a counterbalance to Nathaniel’s devil-may-care personality.

As I read along, I felt like I was in a Twilight Light Zone episode. The dialogue filtered just enough to obscure the depth of its meaning. Each encounter or observation creating a jigsaw puzzle piece the reader must gather to form the final picture.

Part 1 begins with Nathaniel and Rachel seeing their father off at the airport headed to Singapore for a year on a new job. Their mother, Rose, plans to join him soon. Sometime after Rose left, the children discover her carefully packed trunk hidden in the basement.  If Rose didn’t go to Singapore, where is she and what has been she doing?

The years pass with never a word from either parent. It has been a crazy time with strangers wandering in-and-out of their house at all hours. Who were these people? “The Moth” calls them colleagues, not friends. How does their mother know all these people? Or does she? How do they know this house? Nathaniel is always scavenging clues about his mother whereabouts from these people but never getting at the truth. Rachel grows more and more angry and elusive over the years, exuding an awareness of their mother’s secret but never confiding in Nathaniel or the reader.

ghostly men

Their “orphaned” lives are filled with intrigue and adventure. The two children wander the dark-side of London in the company of “The Moth” and another frequent visitor, “The Pimlico Darter”, named for his penchant for illegal greyhound racing. When Rachel drifts away, her place in the midnight runs up London’s canals is filled with Nathaniel’s girlfriend, “Agnes”.

pearl graphic

“Agnes”

Agnes and Nathaniel complement each other. They seek privacy in each other’s company in abandoned building. They believe their escapades are unobserved. Yet. There is always the feeling of being watched. Maybe that was what The Moth meant when he repeatedly told them to be aware… prepare for “schwer”, moments when things get difficult..  prepare for the unknown.  “It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

The Moth, himself, was unprepared for schwer when it arrived.

kidnappedThe Moth had parked in an alley alongside the theater when a man got into the front seat beside him, put a hand behind his head and swung it forward, banging it against the steering wheel then against the door [killing him]..someone else slid in next to Rachel and covered her face with a cloth…. [He] put the same cloth over my face…“The schwer, I’d have thought if I had been conscious.”

A hand touched me in the darkness to pull me awake. “Hello Stitch.”
I recognized my mother’s voice. [Heard her ask someone.] “How did they get so close to my children?”

Before they knew what happened to them, the children were whisked away from their current lives for their safety. They simply disappeared along with their mother. Rose took her children to her childhood home. It is obvious she cared for her children, but she never warmed to the role of “mother”. Rose Williams, known in the dark underworld as “Viola”, hung up her spurs, but not her vigilance. She knew that revenge has no time limits. She knew she faced a day of reckoning. And one day, it arrived.

Nathaniel, jumping his story to 1959, sits down in the secretive intelligence archives. He hopes to learn why his mother chose a life of peril and intrigue over her family.  He works each newly discovered puzzle piece into a jigsaw puzzle of Rose’s life. The final picture shows there are missing pieces that died with Rose; not enough is revealed to give Nathaniel the closure I think he deserved. Schwer.

If you enjoy a book with code names and buried secrets, this book is for you.

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OUR HOUSE : a novel

She must be mistaken, but it looks exactly as if someone is moving into her house.

The van is parked halfway down Trinity Avenue, its square mouth agape, a large piece of furniture sliding down the ribbed metal tongue.

Fi watches … as the object is carried through the gate and down the path.

My gate. My path.
Whose things are these?

No one expects to return home from a weekend trip to find themselves homeless, their spouse missing and all of their belongings gone. Fi knew that Bram had issues, but she never saw this one coming!

This clever and dark suspense will have you up all night reading!

Fiona (Fi) and Bram Lawson were separated after she found her husband shagging a neighbor in the kid’s new backyard playhouse. (His second transgression in their twelve-year marriage.) But the martial breakup was based on much more. It always is. Booze, lying, fits of anger, and speeding tickets in Bram’s case.

Anna and Bram reveal the story in alternating viewpoints. Anna, seeking to make sense of what happened, tells her story in a lengthy podcast on a site dedicated to victims; aptly named The Victim. Bram’s detailed story, written while in self-exile out-of-country, is a confessional Word document that begins with a simple bout of road rage that is compounded by one bad decision after another, speeding toward an ending you never saw coming.

The drama is revealed like a cat’s cradle, weaving in misdirection and building intrigue. British writer, John Ruskin, aptly wrote: the essence of lying is in deception, not in words.

Anna, at times, comes across a little too goody two-shoes naive. But there is no doubt that she is caught in a vortex of evil not of her doing. Bram, unable to curb his base instincts, finds himself trapped between a rock and a hard place, spiraling out-of-control.

Other characters latch on to Anna and Bram like leeches pushing them to the edge; some with souls dark as the devil. How do you define a friend? How do you know friend from foe? How far would friendship go if betrayed?

Somewhere in all this miasma, love lives, despite divorce, albeit now reduced to a level of caring and compassion one would have for an old pet. Humming just beneath the surface are age-old moral codes serving as a balance beam between right and wrong. Who will find a way to stay on the beam; and who will fall victim to the “dark side”?

How would you handle a world turned upside down? Internalize it like Bram; suffocating under the weight of deception? Or project it outward like Anna; broadcasting her pain in attempt to find her way out of the black hole where her life disappeared?

Look for the book in August, 2018.  A good read.

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ONE IN A MILLION BOY : a novel

 

Monica Wood
Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt | 2017
Review source : Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory… certain others … move in and make themselves at home…

Ona Vitkus, 104 years old. The One-In-A-Million Boy

The eleven-year-old boy scout, never named, is dropped at 104 year-old Ona Vitkus’ door by his scoutmaster for the purpose of “doing a good turn” for a couple of months. Other scouts have been here before; each sent packing on day one after failing to meet Miss Vitkus’ idea of what Sir Baden-Powell intended in his first boy-scout directive  – provide assistance to the elderly. Ona took a look at this boy and sensed he needed her as much as she needed him.

Saturday after Saturday, the boy arrived without fail, to fill the bird feeders, mow the lawn, and empty the trash. Something about the boy enchanted Ona; perhaps it was his sincerity, his enthusiasm and his precocious observation skills. The boy’s mind was a sponge for facts and compiling lists of everything; always in groups of 10. Unable to make friends and bullied in school, he found a friend in Ona.

On one of his visits, he asked Ona to help him with a homework assignment. He needed to gather information from an older person about their life. At first, Ona flinched. She had never discussed her past with anyone, including her husband, and 104 years has a lot of suppressed memories. But she soon agreed to be taped, of course, in 10 separate parts.

This is Miss Ona Vitkus. This is her life story on tape. By the time they reached the ninth Saturday, the pair had plotted a way to enter Miss Vitkus in the Guinness Book of World Records for the oldest licensed driver, taped ten sessions of her life history, identified birds, and shared more in those nine weeks than words – they found they had become the most unlikely of friends. You will fall in love with these two as they look beyond age and see inside each other.

On the tenth week, the boy never showed up. And the week after. He had dropped dead, from an undetected heart problem, while riding his bicycle at 5 am, waiting for sunrise, and listening for the morning chorus.

The twelveth week, his father arrived to complete the boy’s contract with Ona; goaded to do so by his ex-wife for his failures as an absentee father. He didn’t explain his punctual boy’s absence to a puzzled Ona but it doesn’t take a wizard to know when someone is grieving.

When Ona calls him on his silence about the boy, Quinn Porter begins a journey to examine his relationship with his son and the loss of his marriages and two divorces to the boy’s mother, Belle. As the family heals, new love blooms, futures look bright for Quinn in his life as a professional musician, and Ona faces her past head-on with their help. The boy’s presence seems to live at Ona’s house; drawing all these imperfect people together as if his spirit is directing things.

The stories of the boy’s parents and their struggles to deal with the death of the boy is alternated with the boy’s visits to Ona prior to his death. The boy’s story is never told from his viewpoint but reflected in his interactions with others; the exception is the ending of the book. An ending that will have you love the boy even more.

Don’t think it is a sad story. There is sadness but there are so many more smiles than tears. The message I took away? You don’t have to be born into a family, to form one. You don’t have to accept that you can’t improve your life. And people are remembered by the tracks they leave in life. One of my top 10 books this year.

My absolute favorite sections of the book are Ona’s taping sessions with the boy; his voice depicted by an ellipsis. His absent voice as clear as if the text was there on the page. Reminiscence of the parents’ absent voices in the Peanuts cartoons.

If you want a real treat, listen to the book. Ona’s voice and mannerisms reminded me of Estelle Getty’s feisty character, Sophia “Ma” Petrillo, on Golden Girls.

Highly recommended.

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THE WOMAN IN WHITE : a novel

Sir Percival Glyde produced a parchment paper folded many times over lengthwise and placed it on the table. Unfolding only the last fold, he dipped a pen in ink and handed it to his wife. “Sign your name there,” he said, pointing to the place…
“What is it I am to sign?” she asked quietly.
“I have no time to explain… Besides, you wouldn’t understand.
“I ought surely to know what I am signing…”
“Nonsense. What have women to do with business? I am your husband and NOT obligated [to explain].

As a major fan of historical fiction, I decided to reach back in history and read a book actually written in the past; not a book reconstructed from research. Some time ago I was introduced to Wilkie Collins’ popular 1860 work, The Woman in White, and is it has been languishing on my to-be-read shelf. This week, I dusted it off and read it (while listening to the audio version, I might add. Really enjoyed the novel read in British accent.)

The Woman in White appeared first as a serial in forty parts in Charles Dickens’ newspaper, All The Year Round, in 1859-1860; a publication for the masses not just the elite. As the story originally was printed in those forty parts, it was necessary to create a crisis with enough suspense and tension to keep the masses anticipating the next part of the story. Woman in White, when published in book form in both the UK and US in 1860, locks all the forty segment endings into one work, appliqueing the increasing intrigue layer upon layer to the drama already established. It has never been out of print. Woman in White has been adapted for film and TV including a new 2018 BBC series.

After finishing the book, I believe that it could be been edited to reduce redundancy but overall worthy of its continued popularity. I did my best to summarize the plot below; it is an intricate story that doesn’t lend itself to summary very well. If you decide at this point in my lengthy review to move on, let me say – just read the book. Many women’s issues in 1859 are just as screwed up today.

My husband upon reading my review replied, “Good God. You actually read this book?” Don’t be turned off. Give it a chance.

Women’s Rights in 1850s Victorian England were very restrictive. Marriage essentially transferred all control from a woman’s father to her husband. Under the law, the husband controlled all property, earnings and economic decisions. Additionally, women themselves became the property of their husbands with no recourse if assaulted or mentally abused. It wasn’t a shock to readers in 1859 that Sir Percival needs Laura’s money and has every right to it.

The Woman in White was the key book in establishing what became known as ‘sensation fiction’: breathless and deviously plotted novels that [features] virtuous women menaced by dastardly cads, and the thirst for gruesome and spectacular crimes…  British Library, Author Roger Luckhurst

SETTINGS AND CHARACTERS

LIMMERIDGE HOUSE
Home to the wealthy reclusive invalid landowner, Frederick Fairlie, and his two nieces, the reluctantly betrothed fair maiden, Laurie Fairlie and her strong-willed norm breaking half-sister and best friend, Marian Halcombe.

BLACKWATER PARK
Home to the dastardly and cunning Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet, the man betrothed to gentle and naive Laura Fairlie.
Other residents include the humorless and obedient Countess Fosco (and Laura’s aunt) and her morbidly obese Italian husband, Count Fosco; a man with a conniving nature masked behind a bombastic and charming personality.

LONDON
Home to Walter Hartright, a young handsome art teacher, on contract at Limmeridge House to teach Laura Fairlie and Walter’s best friend, the effusive Italian Professor Pesco.

WOMAN IN WHITE
Anne Catherick, a mentally challenged is a victim of forced incarceration in a private metal asylum by her mother, Jane Catherick, and their overlord, Sir Percival Glyde. Her escape and discovery by Walter Hartright reveals her to be a doppleganger for Laura Fairlie. The search for the missing Anne Catherick is a pivotal plot thread.

Themes and Plot
Woman in White is the complicated story of Sir Percival Glyde and his conspiracy to settle his deep financial debts by marriage to the wealthy young Laura Fairlie; a marriage betrothal established between Sir Percival and Laura’s father before his death.

Shortly before her marriage, arrangements were to provide drawing lessons for Laura Fairlie. A young handsome London art master, Walter Hartright was contracted. During Hartright’s journey to Limmeridge House he stumbles upon an agitated and unchaperoned young lady, dressed all in white, seeking directions. Arriving at Limmeridge house he learns the woman in white is known to the household as Anne Catherick, the mentally challenged daughter of a former nurse to Laura’s now dead mother. Upon meeting, Laura, Hartright, notes to himself, that Anne Katherick is her doppelganger.

As expected, romance blooms between the art student and the art master. Laura’s older half-sister, Marian Halcomb, aware that Laura has no recourse but to marry Sir Percival, does her best to break up this budding romance by secretly arranging employment for Walter out of the country.

With Hartright out of the picture, the marriage takes place, and Laura becomes Lady Glyde. The newlyweds take up residence at Sir Percival’s estate, the dark and gloomy, Blackwater Park. At Laura’s insistence and to her invalid uncle and guardian, Franklin Farlie’s relief, Marian Halcomb moves into Blackwater Park as well. Lady Glyde is surprised to find her subdued and subservient aunt, Countess Fosco, and her flamboyant Italian husband, Count Fosco, friends of Sir Percival, also living at Blackwater Park.

In his own home, Sir Percival’s true nature reverts to his dastardly conniving self, a personality change anticipated by the girls. Laura had received a mysterious letter just before the wedding warning her that Sir Percival has a deep and dangerous secret that he would kill to protect. In time, it is discovered that the mystery author is the missing Anne Catherick.

Moving rapidly ahead with his plan, Sir Percival orders Laura to his library to sign a legal document. He has cleverly disguised the contents transferring all Laura’s inheritance to him. Laura, in a moment of obstinacy, refuses to sign it until she is told what the document contains. Sir Percival, in the presence of witnesses, informs her that as her husband he doesn’t have to tell her anything.

Percival, furious at his wife’s continuing refusal to sign over her inheritance and terrified of his debt holders ability to destroy his life, turns to his cunning friend, Count Fosco, to work toward an unsavory solution.

The plot thickens. Marian Halcomb’s constant influence over Laura becomes a thorn in the men’s side and Laura, cowed by circumstance, is reduced to a simpering shell.  The hunt is on for Anne Catherick by everyone; the ladies, to learn Sir Percival’s secret, and the men to keep Anne from sharing Percival’s dark secret.

As Percival begins to disintegrate, Count Fosco steps up his role in locating Anne Catherick  by tracking Anne and Marian’s every move. He is convinced she will find Laura and tell her the truth about Percival. When his theory proves true, Anne is discovered talking to Laura, he too, notes that Anne Catherick is Lady Laura’s doppelganger and there is a change in plans!

About this time, Walter Hartright reenters the picture having returned from his overseas assignment. Upon learning about Laura’s cruel marriage, steps up to protect Marian and Laura.

Count and Countess Fosco execute their cruel grand scheme by telling Laura she would be joining her sister, Marian, at Count Fosco’s home in London. Instead, Laura is drugged and taken to the mental asylum dressed as Anne Catherick. Meanwhile, Marian is still at Blackwater Park recovering from typhus; hidden in a secluded part of the estate.

A sickly Anne Catherick is taken to London dressed as Lady Glyde. A forgery passes along the inheritance to Percival but things begin to disintegrate when Anne suddenly dies. She is buried as Lady Laura Glyde back in Laura’s childhood home of Limmeridge House.

Marian, recovered, goes to the mental asylum to ask Anne what she knew about Laura’s death and is startled to recognize a drugged Laura. Marian is thwarted at every turn to restore Laura back to life but eventually is successful.

Meanwhile, Sir Percival, now in command of the inheritance, has bigger problems when proof of his dark secret is discovered by Walter Hartright. Percival rages throughout the countryside trying to destroy evidence; in the end he is struck down by karma.

Count Fosco, buoyed by successfully completing his mission to help Percival, sails off to ports unknown, where he too is struck down by unforeseen justice.

And as you expect, Walter, Laura and Marian live happily ever.

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THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

 

Jane enters the frame – but walking slowly, strangely.
Staggering. A dark patch of crimson has stained the top of her blouse;
even as I watch, it spreads to her stomach.
Her hands scrabble at her chest.

Something slender and silver has lodged there,

like a hilt. It is a hilt.

Anna Fox has been landlocked in her upscale Manhattan apartment by agoraphobia for nearly a year. The novel opens on a Sunday and covers a two-week period in her life.

You might think that it’s not a real hardship to be stuck in an opulent 5-story home, but sometimes the biggest prison is in our minds. Her social life is obviously constrained to visitors and online friendships. Her daily routine includes visits to Agora, a safety net website for others with agoraphobia. She uses her background as a child psychologist as a crutch to help herself as she helps others. Her online handle is appropriately, thedoctorisin. Nice background info about that issue.

Anna has very little contact with anyone in the neighborhood; most are unfamiliar with agoraphobia. She’s thought to be weird, strange, crazy and a drunk … you name it. She does have a physical therapist and a psychiatrist who treat her at home, and an obsessively private tenant renting the basement; but drop-in visitors? Not so much.

Anna is separated from her husband, Ed and their daughter, Olivia. She’s not completely out of their lives; she talks to them every day, usually in the evening – but not before she has fortified herself with several bottles of wine. While speaking to them recently and staring out the window, she observes a family moving into a vacant apartment across the street.

A short time after they moved in, Anna was surprised by visits, one by one, from all three members of the Russell family, the new neighbors in apartment 207. She notes, always in her inebriated mind, all is not right with these people! Ethan, the teenage son, seems depressed, Jane has a secret side, and Alistair is controlling.

One evening, properly stewed on booze and drugs, Anna sees Jane in the window slowly stagger backwards with what appears to be a knife in her chest. She falls out of sight as a dark patch of crimson has stained the top of her blouse. Frantically, Anna calls authorities to report a murder!

The police come to interview her. They have already responded once to an assumed problem at the Russell’s reported by Anna that turned out to be nothing. Furious that no one believes her, Anna begins a campaign to find the truth.

Here’s where the story bursts alive on more than one front…. her personal issues with her husband and the battle to prove Jane’s murder will have you holding your breath.

I hesitated to give the book 4 stars. At times the constant lengthy discussion of her addictions took away from the heart pounding part of the plot. Anna seemed to me to be a very weak character often coming across as whimpering. But in the end I did because there were times that I actually found myself nearly hyperventilating to keep up with the drama. Another plus was Anna’s obsession with classic silent films; you might want to view these yourselves.

Finally, the ending will throw you for a loop.

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LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES: a novel

LOVE AND
OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES

by JAMIE FORD

In 1909, Seattle hosted a world’s fair known as the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, The long forgotten extravaganza was featured in a 2009 DVD celebrating the fair’s 100 year anniversary. The narrator, Tom Skerritt, while discussing human oddities featured at the fair, mentioned that a one-month-old baby boy, named Ernest, was donated by the Washington Children’s Home Society, to be a prize at the world fair’s highly publicized raffle. The ticket was drawn, but no one claimed the baby.

Gobsmacked by a society willing to use an orphan as a contest prize, Jamie Ford draws the winning numbers and does what didn’t happen in reality – he hands over Ernest, as a 12 year-old, to the prize winning ticket holder.

The story unfolds in Seattle in 1962 as Ernest Young’s daughter, Juju, a reporter, discovers a family secret about her father while researching the history of the 1909 world’s fair, a past her father is very reluctant to share. Ernest begins to remember events and people he had submerged years ago. As his past comes flooding back, he realizes that sharing his secret would hurt his wife, Gracie, now sidelined with memory issues. Juju is relentless and the battle with her father to spill the beans is a backdrop to an extraordinary life filled with both pain and happiness in the most unusual of circumstances.

Ernest’s memories take us back and forth from 1962 to 1909; his earlier years described so vividly they feel in technicolor compared to the muted colors of his older years.

Ernest Young, known then as Yung Kun-ai’, was born in China around 1900. Yung Kun-ai’s father, a white missionary, was murdered and his mother, near death from starvation, offered her son a chance to live selling him to smugglers. As a bi-racial child of a white missionary and a Chinese mother, Yung Kun-ai had no future in China; no matter how unpleasant his future would be in America, he would be alive.

His journey to America was fraught with peril dodging death along the way. After a very rough start, a wealth patron, Mrs. Irvine, sponsors Ernest, sending him to an expensive boarding school where he is discriminated against by staff and students. Ernest remains silent about his treatment but tells Mrs. Irvine he is ready for a change. She obliges. She surprises him with tickets to the world’s fair to celebrate his twelfth birthday; traveling to the fair she tells him three things:

 . . .that he would finally be given a good home, . . he would see the President of the United States and that his legal name was now Ernest Young.

Mrs. Irvine, ignoring his pleas to stop and look at the exhibits, walks him to the area where highly popular daily raffles are held. She whispers to him, they are all here for you! They’ve all come to see you and find out who has the special ticket. . . As she steps away from him she says gleefully, someone is taking you home with them. Ernest then realizes – he is today’s prize.

Mrs. Irvine nearly dies of apoplexy when she discovers the winning ticket is held by Florence Nettleton, recognized in Seattle’s prosperous brothel trade, as Madame Flora. The winner never in doubt, as Flora rigged the raffle; she wanted a house boy.

As Miss Maisie May, Madame Flora’s little sister, welcomes him to the Tenderloin, Ernest stands in the doorway stunned; all his senses were on high alert. Whatever my life holds for me now, he thinks, it is not going to be like anything I have ever experienced. That felt like hope; an emotion foreign to him in the past. He asks himself, what goes on here?

The building’s entrance was magnificent, with a glittering voltaic chandelier, the foyer accented with finely polished mill work. . . Everywhere he looked there were tapestries, lace-covered walls, plush French furniture in crimson and gold . . . There was a black man in blue tuxedo playing a piano. He smelled perfume, flowers and savory spices roasting in some unseen kitchen.

Fast friends are made, first kisses shared, and a true family develops supporting everyone when the moral crusaders and powerful community leaders reveal their hypocrisies and lust. Tears are shed and tragedy strikes, but Flora’s family of misfits and outcasts endure together.

It would seem odd to describe a novel where teenage girls are auctioned off for their virginity or succumb to dangers of the trade as heart-warming but Jamie Ford pulls it off. Much like his previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, he scratches the surface and reveals their humanity and emotional needs. His descriptions of Seattle and its culture in the early 20th century- both good and bad – seem real and draw the reader into the novel.

You will not forget Ernest, Fahn, Maisie, and others.

Recommended reading.

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SILVER SPARROW: a novel

ALGONQUIN BOOKS | 2012
340 pages
FICTION : AFRICAN-AMERICAN | COMING-OF-AGE
REVIEW SOURCE: PERSONAL COPY

★★★☆☆

James Witherspoon is an “accidental” bigamist. He didn’t  plan on his mistress becoming pregnant. But she did. (As a matter of fact, he didn’t intend for his wife to become pregnant at age 14 either, but she did.) And now he does his best to provide time and money to both families; just not equally, and the disadvantaged family knows it.

His wife, Laverne, operates a hair salon in their home and the place becomes a daily hub of neighborhood gossip and commentary. But one thing that Laverne, and her daughter, Chaurisse, never discuss with their customers is James’ second family. They are oblivious to his duplicitous life and he wants to keep it that way at all cost.

James supports both families with his successful limousine company assisted by his life-long friend and business partner, Raleigh.  “Uncle” Raleigh slips in and out of both families suggesting normalcy but under the circumstances, nothing is normal. The only other person to know of James’ secret life is Willie Mae, Gwen’s best friend and a weekly visitor to Laverne’s beauty salon.

Gwen lives with the hope that James will leave Laverne, but while she waits, she resents his “real family” and makes darn sure that Dana doesn’t feel second best – but of course she does. With Willie Mae’s help, Gwen is able to follow the goings-on in the Witherspoon family to make sure that Dana never is short-shrifted in favor of the “first daughter”.

Over the ensuing years, Gwen becomes more and more bitter about sharing James and tires of hearing about Laverne. She and Dana begin to take devious side trips to spy on the “first family”. Dana wonders what it is like to have her father 24 hours a day. Why would a father have two families at the same time? Which family – which daughter  – does he love the most? She feels like a sparrow whose survival relies on sharing crumbs that fall from the nest of the favored.

Dana’s narrates the first part of the book and is the stronger voice.  The second half is narrated by Chaurisse. It is an interesting contrast in points of view. This bifurcated life works well for 17 years but the wheels start coming off the bus when Dana and Chaurisse accidentally meet at a science fair. Inspired by Gwen’s jealousy, Dana sets out to revenge her mother by befriending Chaurisse. Slowly over time, the two girls become real friends. Dana is careful to stage their contacts to avoid her father and not to arouse Chaurisse’s suspicions.

James Witherspoon’s life explodes the  same night Chaurisse’s car has a flat tire on the way to a party. Chaurisse does what any daughter would do – she calls her father to come help her.  The problem? Dana is riding shotgun. The gig is up.

The two worlds collide and the fallout warps each player as they find their place on the new chessboard. In the end, James and Laverne reconcile and plan a recommitment ceremony. Gwen never gets over the loss of James’ affection and remains a sour and bitter woman the rest of her life.

With her mother all but lost to her, Dana is left wondering if she has lost her father as well and confronts him:

Don’t you love me?

It’s not about loving people, he said. You have to go home now, I have made my choice, just like you made your choice when you went bothering Chaurisse. You almost took my whole life away from me.

What did you think was going to happen? Did he think that I could live my entire life tucked away a dirty photograph? I’m your daughter.

Everyone knows that now, James said. That’s what you wanted. You got it.

But don’t give up on either the young girls, they are stronger than you think. Wait until you meet their grandmother, Bunny. And the romp through 1980s Atlanta is a delight. In the end, you aren’t sure who should have been the grown-up in the story – James, Laverne, Raleigh, Gwen . . .

A good read.

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THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:

THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS:
the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives,
but they are tangled over giant boulders with dead-fall everywhere
like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. . ..

[A]t dark the place seems impenetrable.
This is when the hermit moves.
He shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools,
and sets out from camp.

Opening Paragraph : Stranger in the Woods.

 

Michael Finkel
Alfred A. Knopf | 2017
227 pages
Non-Fiction | Biography | Maine
Review Source : Personal Copy
★★★★☆

 

In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight walked off his job (installing security alarm systems) for no apparent reason. With little preparation, he got in his new Subaru Brat and drove aimlessly south; away from his home state of Maine. When he never came home, his family matter-of-factly assumed he was off finding himself somewhere. In 27 years, they never contacted the authorities to report their son missing.

Much like Forrest Gump on his infamous walk to nowhere-in-particular, Christopher grew tired of aimlessly wandering and headed back to Maine. Reaching his hometown, Knight drove right past his parent’s house without stopping and kept on driving until the dirt road he chose ended. Tossing the keys on the dashboard, he walked into the woods and was not seen for 27 years. But his presence was felt. 

For 27 years, the circle of cabins surrounding North Pond endured strange burglaries. Mattresses disappeared; others lost clothing, food, batteries, radios, books, grills, propane tanks et all. . . For some homeowners, the home invasions were a mere inconvenience. For others, having been burglarized over 50 times, their vacation homes were a source of anxiety and insecurity.

Law enforcement authorities, for over 25 years, tried every trick in their arsenal to identify the burglar and failed. Finally, employing a highly technical bug devised by Homeland Security, Game Warden Terry Hughes hit pay-dirt. April 4, 2013, alerted by an alarm in the middle of the night from Pine Tree Camp, a day camp for the disabled, Christopher Knight was found “shopping” in the camp kitchen.

As his story unfolded during interrogation, authorities questioned the veracity of this bizarre man in the clunky old-fashioned glasses. They were to change their opinion as Knight led them through a tangled wilderness to his well camouflaged camp.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy
Game Wardens, State Police and Somerset County
Sheriff’s deputies hike
into Christopher Knight’s camp site.

 

As he languished in prison awaiting his day in court, everyone in the “civilized” world wanted to know how he survived the harsh Maine winters, what he did to fill each day, and why he chose to isolate himself from humanity. But Christopher Knight was not a man to share his inner thoughts and actions. After receiving over 500 requests from journalists for an interview, he responded to only one. Something in Michael Finkel’s handwritten letter spoke to Knight. Asked why he thought Knight was willing to meet with him, Finkel replied:

I believe that Knight realized he might be endlessly hounded to tell his story, and that if he told it once, and allowed it to be made public, he might be able to have more privacy going forward.

And what a story he revealed, piece by reluctantly chewed piece. Never revealing more than the bare facts; keeping his inner thoughts to himself. Desperate to feed the curious just enough to release him to a life of seclusion once more; if not in the deep woods, at least in the privacy of his family.

Knight doesn’t consider himself a hermit. He hated the word. He still needed the instruments of civilization to sustain him and to achieve his perfect world void of germs, people, and the great cacophony of society in general. He was known as a child to be a “genius”, a voracious reader, honest and someone who preferred his own company. Probably the hardest part of his solitary life was the requirement to break his own moral code. He must steal to survive. He never tries to hide the fact that he was a thief.

I don’t want people trying to justify my bad behavior in an attempt not to sully what they admire in me. Take the whole package, good and bad. Judge me on that. Don’t cherry pick.

To the arm-chair adventurers, Knight’s ability to survive 27 harsh Maine winters without once lighting a fire seemed mystical. To those more concerned about his felonious talents, he represented less a hero and more a mild Ted “Unibomber” Kaczynski bringing distress to the local community and costing years of tax dollars in the effort to capture him.

When Christopher had shared all he was going to share with Finkel, he told him is was time to leave him alone. And he did.

At times, Finkel strays away from Knight to expound on reasons for solitary isolation. He questions why some human beings choose to exclude themselves from the “pack”. In our current technology oriented world of Facebook, Twitter, and Texting, there is an effort to avoid isolation and self-reflection. There’s a monstrous market in self-help books, each flaunting the idea that they can help find what’s missing in your life. It is no wonder that people are attracted to someone who wholeheartedly rejects their world.

“I think that most of us feel like something is missing from our lives. And I wondered then if Knight’s journey was to seek it. But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing. It’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”

I found myself, a person who treasures her quiet life on a small Georgia mountain, thinking, at what length would I go if I wanted to isolate myself from the rest of the world, never even hearing my own voice. My answer, not very far.

I need friends, smiles, conversation, a campfire and a hot bath.

You are going to either love the book or hate it. Either way, you should read it.

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TO THE WHITE SEA: a novel

 

★★★☆☆

 

MARCH 18, 1945
TOKYO, JAPAN

We are going to bring it to him, the Colonel said with satisfaction.
Fire. This is what you’ve got to look forward to.
This is what he’s got to look forward to.
Tokyo is going to remember us.

black quotation-mark.jpgWe were close to the bomb line… there was that tension you always feel…when the time comes close to drop. Major Sorbo circles us…and I could see two fires [below us]…where we had hit the city.

The next thing was not fire, though later I realized…had fire in it…The inside of the plane had exploded…Then the nose went down, and I knew we were completely gone; everyone on the flight deck was probably dead. The first thing [I felt] was the cold. There’d been a loud pop, a crack like a rifle, and I was sure I had been hit…the chute was open. [As I floated closer to the ground], the smoke came past me. [I landed and thought], I am now in the land of my enemy.     (Sergeant Muldrow, B-29 Tailgunner)

Like every good bibliophile, I cannot pass a stack of books at a garage sale without stopping. I was surprised and intrigued to find To The White Sea by James Dickey. I knew about Deliverance but I didn’t realize that he wrote other novels; he usually hung out in the library in the 20th Century American poetry section.

The book is a one-man show. Sergeant Muldrow’s story in the opening chapters felt a little stilted as we were given his “Naked and Afraid” background in specific detail. The man has survived on his wits and skills since early childhood with only his “Jeremiah Johnson” father for company in the harsh Brooks Range of Alaska. He operated under one theory – trust no one -ever. Expect the worst to happen any second and always be prepared.

High above Japan, the puffy clouds reminded Muldrow of arctic mountains in Alaska where everything is a sea of white. To survive in that environment requires camouflage; like the snowshoe rabbit, you must become invisible. As he escapes the burning plane and parachutes toward a fiery hell on the ground he faces certain death if captured, he has become the prey. Like the rabbit, he must adapt.

His first days on the ground were pure hell as he blended into the city’s fiery devastation; being a part of the exodus yet always aware of his status – the enemy. He takes account of the Army issued survival kit and finds a silk topo layout of Japan leading north to Hokkaido – cold, mountains, snow. He knows where he must go.

The middle chapters take Muldrow further and further away from Tokyo into the poverty stricken farmlands. As he gains confidence, he is transitioning into a solo predator. Like any beast of prey, he glides seamlessly through the countryside, always on the lookout, always prepared to kill to meet his immediate needs – clothing, food, shelter – always changing his outward appearance to match the locals. Never concerned, never giving a thought to the hapless souls lying dead in his wake.

To The White Sea is a dark story filled with graphic violence. As Muldrow enters isolated and wild land areas, he encounters kindred souls seeking solitude and a reclusive lifestyle. He spent time with them, learning new skills like sewing winter clothing from skins. But in the end, when their usefulness was exhausted, he dispassionately murdered them and moved on.

In the final pages, Muldrow, for the very first time, expresses the slightest bit of humanity and regret. He has made it to the white sea and made a friend of an old man. Together they live in a ramshackle shack hunting daily with the old man’s trained eagles. Life is good. . .until. The day he has expected all his life has arrived. The sounds outside confirm the hunt is over.

It was my time now. I laid my knife in the snow and stood up straight. They fired . . .and the whole ridge sparked and crackled. A bullet went through me but didn’t touch me. It was happening.. . .I made it to where I wanted to be. . . The snow came back .  . .and I will be everywhere in it from now on.

Was this suicide by soldier? Did he mean for death to find him under his own terms?

To The White Sea never garnered the support of Dickey’s first book, Deliverance. Overall, I found it impossible to connect to a man completely hollow of morality. His life is a devolution from civilized man to beast of prey; a dispassionate killer.

The intense descriptions of war and the depth of Muldrow’s inhumanity left me feeling ill. On the other hand, the beauty and silence of winter filled me with peace.

Read it if you are into the dark part of a man’s soul.

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MARY COIN: a novel

 

MARY COIN : a novel

Author: Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press | 2013
322 pages
Fiction|Great Depression|Migrant Farmers
Personal copy
Rated: ★★★★★

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

In 1936, Dorothea Lange,  a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration, threaded her way through a crude “Pea-Pickers Camp” in Nipomo, California. She noted an unfortunate overnight freeze had destroyed the pea crop leaving hundreds of migrant families without work. The forlorn workers faced yet another bleak turn in their lives. Suddenly in the midst of this tragic scene, Lange spotted Frances Owens Thompson surrounded by her children and nursing her youngest child. Her series of six photos of the Thompson mother and her young family, that included the now world-famous image entitled, “Migrant Mother” was the capstone of her Depression Era work and did more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression.

Marisa Silver crafted Mary Coin based on this iconic photograph (shown on the book’s cover) useing many of the authentic facts of Frances Owens Thompson and Dorothea Lange’s lives. In this personalized piece of speculative fiction, Frances becomes Mary Coin and our photographer is known as Vera Dare. Our third main character, Walker Dodge, is a modern day inquisitive professor, who finds a copy of Migrant Mother tucked away secretively in his deceased father’s things. Silver tweaked the known facts and inserts Walker Dodge’s quest to discover his father’s secret in just the right way to create a triad of characters that slowly lead toward an answer.

We learn that no matter how powerful a photograph can be, it is nothing more than a split second of a person’s life freeze-framed for posterity. A single photograph does not reveal a person’s life; only a moment stolen from a full life.

By choosing to focus on each individual’s strengths and weakness amid the deplorable times. we see that, regardless of social status, filthy rich or dirt poor, everyone suffered and survived as best they could.

This is not a maudlin story; it is a tribute to the internal strengths we as humans possess. Mary would be the first to tell you that you just pick yourself up and move on when life slaps you down. Life is not fair and never will be. The past is gone and the future is ahead. A single moment, trapped on film, does not tell anything about a person who lives through the flood of seconds comprising one’s whole life.

Shortly before her death as an old woman. Mary enters a museum and sees herself in the famous photograph. Standing there, she hears someone say, “You can see it all in her face.”

What all? What do you see?

She was a ghost in the room. [Like all] the other ghosts in the photographs lining the walls. . .None of them had known that one day they would be hanging in this museum, a single moment of their lives frozen into an indelible past like an insult you can never take back.

Mary turned again to face the picture and saw her reflection in the glass… Two women named Mary Coin.

Highly recommended reading.

 

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WHITE HOUSES: a novel

On a recent trip to Germany, I took two books with me for the long flights to and fro: White Houses by Amy Bloom and Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Loved them both.

My reviews usually begin with a quote and I had one all picked out for White Houses, when serendipity intervened. While preparing my review of Silver Sparrow, I discovered a recent interview by the New York Times with Tayari Jones in which she was asked:

[What was the last book to make you cry?]

“White Houses,” by Amy Bloom. At the center of this great American novel is the great American love story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Eleanor is the name everyone knows, but after this book Lorena will be a name you will never forget. Love is always hard and always worth it.

That sums up the big picture nicely.

WHITE HOUSES

by AMY BLOOM

RANDOM HOUSE | FEB 2018
241 pages
FICTION : PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
ADVANCED READER COPY FROM NETGALLEY

★★★★☆

I am willing to bet that today’s young adults know very little about our longest serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt served 4 terms in office (1933-1945).

Eleanor’s funeral in 1962, when I was 14 years old, honored a woman who could be known as the original Super Woman”. As First Lady, she fought tirelessly for labor and civil rights reform and was at the forefront of the women’s movement. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she rose to the challenge of comforting the nation through action and words; never sitting still, always on the move, ever present where ever needed. Her flamboyant husband’s  larger than life personality was balanced by this engaged strong woman capable of challenging the world to seek its better angels.

In 1978, while commissioned to write a biography about Mrs. Roosevelt, Doris Faber (Eleanor Roosevelt: First Lady of the World and Life of Lorena Hickok, E. R.’s Friend) unearthed over 3000 letters written by Eleanor to her friend, Lorena Hickok. These letters, donated to the FDR library by Hickok, revealed a previously unknown and deeply intimate relationship between the two women. An unlikely bond; one born to abject poverty and the other to wealth and privilege. The surprising correspondence led to a deeper look at Lorena Hickok’s life story and to this surprising side to the First Lady.

Amy Bloom’s White Houses, is a fiction that turns, what was known about the FDR White House, in-side-out. The story is narrated by Lorena Hickok.

Using historical records and the Hickock letters, Bloom reveals the dichotomy of the official and the personal lives of the inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the Roosevelt years. With a wink and a nod, Franklin enjoyed close relationships with other women but no one gave a thought about two old women sharing time in each other’s company. Their lesbian relationship, housed in the most public of all homes, was fraught with danger of detection. Their discovery could disastrous in so many ways.

The book opens on April 27, 1945 in New York City. The radio blares, sharing news from the European war-front. It has been two weeks since President Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Lorena Hickok is expecting company; a friend that sent her away 8 years before and two weeks ago summoned her. Lorena wonders what to expect after the long absence? She has missed her friend and has longed for her company over the years. Has her friend missed her?

She flits about apprehensively checking every detail – the vases of flowers, the music, the food- will remind her guest of favored times together. The door bell rings and an ashen faced new widow and displaced First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt enters the room. Speechlessly she stumbles through the front door ignoring Lorena’s greetings and  heads toward the bedroom shedding hairpins and clothing as she goes. She calls out, “Oh, Hick. If you don’t hold me, I’ll die. Lorena thinks, here is the elephant in the room. Is she just being dramatic or does she really need me?

The atmosphere between the two women is different. Eleanor is not her usual self. Her grief hangs over her like a shroud. They will spend the next three days together, safe from prying eyes, safe to share their secret life. Over the next three days, Lorena does what she has always done: listen, encourage, and allow Eleanor to be free to let down her guard.

The setting stays in New York City, but almost without realizing it we travel seamlessly back and forth through time in Lorena’s memory. We cry with her when she is raped by her father. We marvel at her time in the circus (a fantasy addition to an otherwise accurate story). But without a doubt, the most endearing and yet heartbreaking memories are of her long-term relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

As a fly on the wall, we listen to the two women enjoy each other’s company. The first four years are passionate that slowly, over the years, becomes a slow burn that never dies.  As the glitter of Roosevelt life gilds Lorena’s life, she is always aware that she is a shadow in Eleanor’s life. When she is sent away, she tries to forge a new life, make new friends, but she never found her own identity and purpose; she never stopped obsessing over her one true love.

As this all sounds like doom and gloom, I can not end without assuring the reader that this book is full of life. Without a doubt, Lorena’s smartyalecky demeanor is refreshing staged against pomp and circumstance.

When Franklin was governor of New York, Lorena, then a prominent reporter, interviewed Eleanor.

I sat right next to her . . . in the old-fashioned drawing room. . .and looked at her cheap, sensible serge dress and flat shoes and thought, Who in the name of Christ dressed you.?

I loved the book. Recommended reading. Would make a great book club read.

Addendum:

Excerpt from 2016  New York Post article entitled: Eleanor Roosevelt’s “mistress” died heartbroken and alone

After Eleanor’s death in 1962, Hick lived for 5½ more years, worn down by blindness, arthritis and loneliness. She finally died of complications from diabetes at the age of 75.

With great ceremony, Eleanor was buried alongside Franklin at the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park estate in upstate New York; in addition to the ambassador to the United Nations and two former presidents, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, President John Kennedy attended her funeral, where she was remembered as “the First Lady of the World.”

In her anonymity, Hick was cremated. Her ashes sat on a shelf of a funeral home for 20 years before being interred in an unmarked grave at a cemetery in Rhinebeck.

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ITZEY’S TAKING A SPRING BREAK

Enjoy the Spring Flowers

It’s that time of year when the spring flowers are poking their heads through the weeds and dead growth  I ignored all winter. Time to get outside and freshen up the yard.

Something about digging in the dirt and tidying up the yard helps tidy up my winter stalled mind as well.

I love the sound of rain on my tin roof but I don’t need to hear it every day. It has rained, and I don’t mean drizzled, all winter.  The leak on our back porch has blossomed from plop plop drops to a permanent spillway.

So it is time to put down my books for awhile, pick up my garden tools, badger my husband to deal with household repairs, and take a vacation.

I will return online in May and look forward to checking out what everyone else has been doing.  The cabin will have a pretty new pressure wash and fresh staining, the back porch with have a new roof, and my mind will be freshly fluffed and ready to read.

Here are some titles I have lined up to read when in the near future.

Brass, A Novel by Xhenet Aliu

Endurance: A Year In Space, A Lifetime Of  Discovery by Scott Kelly

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Tumbling Sisters by  Juliette Fay

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FOLLOWING ATTICUS

A friend of mine who is not into mountains or nature or the simple blissful feeling that comes from wind in your face once asked me, ” What’s the big deal? You get to a mountaintop and you see the same view you did from the last mountaintop. I don’t get it.”

While I was looking out on . . . the forty-eight [mountains] we’d encountered. . . I had my answer. How many times can you look upon the face of God?    Tom Ryan, Following Atticus

FOLLOWING ATTICUS

FORTY-EIGHT HIGH PEAKS, ONE LITTLE DOG,
AND AN EXTRAORDINARY FRIENDSHIP

Much like a good country western song packs as many red-neck images as possible in the lyrics, Tom Ryan in Following Atticus reveals a full life packed with heart-wrenching drama complemented by the discovery of the healing nature of the natural world and the power of friendship.

This memoir of an out-of-shape newspaper reporter and his dog, Atticus, is a love story. A love story that opens as Tom Ryan, eleven-years into a one-man community newspaper operation, has grown weary of gathering gossip and political dander in his adopted small town. He struggles with a fractious relationship with his father and yearns to find a source of peace and harmony within himself to counterbalance all the stress in his life.

The story begins when Tom is asked to help find someone willing to adopt an elderly dog no longer wanted by its family. After failing to find anyone else, he reluctantly agrees to adopt the dog himself.

For days we stared at one another thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Although Max was with Tom for a short time, it was time enough for Tom and Max to bond; to share a friendship and to experience love. Tom was ready to take the leap into the next chapter of his life.

Maxwell Garrison Gillis had opened a door,
and Atticus Maxwell Finch was about to walk through it.

ATTICUS TILTED

Together, Atticus and Tom would take the world by storm. The tiny Miniature Schnauzer with an independent streak and the dispirited out-of-shape human became bonded by respect and an intuitive language known and understood only to them.atticus perched.png

A serendipitous opportunity to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire opened a new window in the lives of this oddly paired couple. Day after day, year after year, this unlikely duo forged ahead climbing unimaginably difficult summits in the most extreme winter weather. Their adventures are accurately and vividly described. I’ve been there.

MN and SS on washington[A friend asked me if the winter climbs were actually as arduous as depicted – I assured her they were. See me on Mount Washington with my husband, grasping the summit sign to avoid being blown over.]

Tom found he had deep personal reserves both mentally and physically. He learned he was capable of achieving the nearly impossible.  It never got physically easy for him. But he never quit. Plagued by life’s sorrows and unfair burdens, Tom found the strength to overcome emotional defeat while alone with his thoughts in the isolation. His lifelong fear of the dark traveled with him in the stark dark of night surrounded by things that go bump in the night. He survived these terrors because he wasn’t alone – he had Atticus for company and comfort.

For Atticus, his role changed in the mountains. In town, he played by civilization’s rules; he allowed Tom to be his guide. Surrounded by the natural world, Atticus took charge, roles reversed. Puffed-up proud, the “Little Giant” strode ever onward, stepping instinctively toward each summit, seemly oblivious to the possibility of failure. With one eye on Tom and the other on the way ahead he led Tom ever on and ever upward in more ways than one.

Off the mountain, the emotional rifts and causalities continue in Tom’s life.  Life is a line graph and not every point on the grid is an uptick. There are some seriously Debbie-downer moments; this is true life not fiction. You can’t write away reality. Have tissues nearby.

I was awed by the compassion and affection of strangers when life hands the “guys” a life-altering blow. I was gripped with a sense of Déjà vu over Tom’s dysfunctional childhood. And I share the need to become one with the universe; to be part of a bigger picture.

In conclusion, I  found this book fabulous for so many reasons. There’s something for everyone – small community dynamics, dealing with aging parents, child abuse, puppy farms, mountain climbing, geography, weather . . . et al.

Highly recommended.

Thank you, Tom and Atticus.

 

 

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THE CHALK MAN

CROWN PUBLISHING | 2018
288 pages
FICTION : PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE/COMING-OF-AGE
ARC FROM PUBLISHER AND NEGALLEY

★★★★☆

When you get old and start falling apart, there are changes in your reading habits. When you are young, you have the stamina to stay up all night and read a good book then go to work. I am now at the age where I don’t have to do that! Instead, I spend the lost hours sitting in a doctor’s waiting room reading.  I’ve been saving The Chalk Man for just this kind of moment; and I wasn’t disappointed in my decision when the opportunity showed itself this week.

PROLOGUE 

The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves. Her almond eyes stared up at the canopy of sycamore, beech and oak, but they didn’t see. . . A short distance away, a pale hand stretched out from its own small shroud of leaves, as if searching for help, or reassurance that it as not alone. . .

The Chalk Man will disappoint readers that are looking for a hair-raising blood curdling serial murder read.  The story reminded me more of  Stand By Me or Lord of the Flies. There are mysterious deaths that seem linked, and a myriad number of unexplained and aberrant events between the children, town bullies and adults with serious personality defects. Twists, squirms, and turns more than sordid and graphic murder scenes.

The story is told by Edward “Eddie Munster” as an adult in 2016 and flashes back and forth to 1986. Hence, the lives of the town’s residents and Eddie’s friends are slanted by his view and opinions. We learn more about Eddie simply because he shares more about himself than he does the others. Through him, we experience the hormonal throes of early adolescence and budding sexuality, observe his proclivity for shoplifting and collecting souvenirs and oddball items, and sense the anguish of a child/man slightly out of tune with world.

The relevance of the  title, Chalk Man begins with Mr. Halloran, an albino teacher who attends “Fat Gav’s” birthday party and gifts him with a box of chalk sticks. Learning that Mr. Halloran used chalk messages to secretly communicate with others, the children devise their own secret code – until one day – someone outside their group discovers their code.

I am reluctant to discuss the story in deeper detail; it will spoil the read. But I will toss in a few thoughts and prose that have stayed with me.

If you see something, say something. If you know something and keep it to yourself, you will be haunted by the outcome of your cowardice. Every action has a consequence; for good or for bad. No one is who they seem. No one is perfect. Everyone has character flaws. Life is not fair.

Eddie’s father, dying early of Alzheimer’s, left him with an important thought and I will share it with you. You will need to take this tidbit of wisdom with you into the read:

Never assume, my dad once told me. To assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

Recommended reading for those that like a murder mystery without stomach churning violence. There’s just enough tough stuff to wince but keep going.

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THE GREAT ALONE


Coming Home: Vietnam Veterans In American Society

Click for more information about their abysmal homecoming reception and lack of medical and psychological help.

Sergeant Allbright –

You are a hard man to find. I am Earl Harlan.

My son, Bo, wrote many letters home about his friendship with you. I thank you for that.

In his last letter, he told me that if anything happened to him in that piece of shit place [Vietnam], he wanted you to have his land up here in Alaska.

It isn’t much. Forty acres with a cabin that needs fixing. But a hardworking man can lives off the land up here, away from the crazies and the hippies and the mess in the lower Forty-Eight. . . . . . . .

Ernt Allbright, unlike his friend, Bo, did return to his family after years in a Vietnamese POW camp; scarred in so many ways. He returned to countrymen projecting their hatred of the war on the emotionally and physically damaged Vietnam War veterans. Vets returned to families that became fearful of their soldier experiencing frightening “depression, guilt, flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, angry outbursts, anxiety, and paranoia.”

Ernt and Cora Allbright along with their daughter, Leni (Lenora) represent a family struggling to make a postwar life together; and failing miserably. The happy go-lucky Ernt failed to return from Vietnam. In his stead, a surly, distempered shell of his former self arrived. Unable to tame his demons, Ernt has developed a chronic history of unemployment and alcohol abuse. But these failings are not the worst of his new personality traits. When something triggers his inner demons, Cora, adept at hiding the abuse from Leni,  becomes his punching bag. Much like other abusive marriages, a sweet honeymoon and serial apologies diminishes the beatings. The cycle repeats itself over and over; exacerbated by the dark of night.

For Ernt, Earl Harlan’s letter and offer of a remote refuge seems like the perfect answer to all his troubles; a promise of brighter future. A place where he can make a life without interference of any kind. A place he is sure that he can be free of those things that make him fly off the handle.

“Think of it,” Dad said, lifted out of his seat by enthusiasm. “A house that’s ours. That we own. . . We have dreamed of it for years, Cora. Live a simpler life away from all the bullshit down here. We could be free.”

With little regard for the ambivalent feelings of his wife and child, Ernt packs the family into their beat-up VW bus, hoists a flag -Alaska Or Bust – and heads to what he sees as nirvana. A family about as prepared for the harsh subsistence life as a cub scout leading an Everest excursion.

Arriving in Alaska and dumbstruck by the vastness and the beauty, the family stops at Large Marge Birdsall’s Trading Post/General Store looking for directions to their new home. Ernt announces proudly that they are going to be living full time on the island at Bo Harlan’s old place! It doesn’t take long for Large Marge, a former big city attorney, to spot blatant ineptitude and an ample slice of arrogance as well as two women not excited about living in Alaska.

Marge is also aware that Bo Harlan’s run-down one room shack is “on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on [the Kenai] peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you.”

The isolation and the catastrophic condition of the land and buildings move the locals to provide advice and help; they know the Allbrights have a slim to none chance of surviving the fast approaching winter. In time and with guidance from new friends, Cora and Leni take to the subsidence lifestyle like a duck to water. Ernt, on the other hand resents the interference and his anger feeds his paranoia and violent nature. As Ernt reaches a new boiling point he discovers that Bo Harlan’s father and brothers are survivalists preparing for a nuclear rapture. Earl and Ernt form a dark friendship that threatens the lives of everyone on the island.

Back at the homestead, Cora finds that living in a one room shack won’t allow her to hide Ernt’s beatings. The truth of her parent’s marriage is exposed and promises only to get worse as the perpetual dark of winter drives Ernt to new heights of meanness. And it does.

Leni looked at her mother’s beaten, bruised face, the rag turning red with her blood.
You’re saying it’s your fault?
You’re too young to understand. He didn’t mean to do that. He just – loves me to much sometimes.
He MEANT it.

The island folks have a “come to Jesus” moment with Ernt that sets off a slow-motion fire storm. The years pass. Leni falls in love with a rich neighbor’s son and fumbles through adolescence in a one-room school house. Cora finds life at the extremes suits her. Ernt, away at the oil fields sends home money and returns for brief periods each year; always ready to disrupt island life. Cora and Leni face the truth that someday they are going to have to make life altering decisions. . .But not yet says, Cora. I love him.

Related imageThe months he is away, life on the island seems like the nirvana he envisioned to Cora and Leni and the locals. These years are the happiest of times in the book. Right up until the day Ernt gets fired from the oil fields and arrives home to discover his rich unmarried neighbor sitting at his kitchen table playing cards with the girls.  As he implodes, all the is good inside Ernt is sucked into a black hole and all the evil releases his Kraken.

I’ll leave what happens to your imagination. I want to make sure that all readers take time to enjoy the beauty, expansiveness and surreal extreme of Alaska. Lay back on the ground and watch the sky in multicolor. Hannah, having lived in Alaska, knows how to describe it to perfection.

I was a little disappointed that most of the characters were not fully developed; the exception being Leni. I fell in love with Large Marge and her oversized personality and big heart.

So many themes, alcoholism, untreated PTSD, domestic abuse, abortion, subsistence living, Alaska, sense of community and more. Any book club should enjoy picking the book apart!

Recommended.

 

 

 

 

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THE IMMORTALISTS

THE IMMORTALISTS
Chloe Benjamin

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 2018
346 pages
FICTION : Family | Fortune Tellers
ARC: G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

It’s a sticky summer day in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1969. Eleven-year-old Daniel Gold overhears a conversation about a mysterious fortune-teller while standing in line at Shmulke Bernstein’s restaurant. He excitedly races home to share the news with his three siblings: 13-year-old Varya, 9-year-old Klara, and 7-year-old Simon.

EXCERPT From Prologue . . .

What exactly does this woman do?
I told you. She has powers.
Like what?
What I heard is she can tell fortunes. What’ll happen in your life – whether you’ll have a good one or a bad one. And there’s something else. She can say when you’ll die.
That’s ridiculous. Nobody can say that.
And what if they could?
Then I wouldn’t want to know.
Why not?
Because. What if it is bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?
Then it’d be better to know so you could get everything done before.

It’s unbearably hot in their apartment. Their high-strung Jewish mother is driving them crazy. The four children, desperate for diversion, set out to discover the location of this intriguing rishika. Each child is torn with fear but driven by curiosity, challenge, and excitement to find the fortune teller’s apartment and to learn what she has to say about their future.

They are surprised when the rishika brusquely takes them one-by-one into her apartment; diluting their individual courage. By the time the door opens and, Varya, the eldest enters the room, she is filled with panic and guilt. As the oldest, she feels responsible and guilty about endangering her younger siblings. She becomes terrified to discover that she is alone in the room with the strange woman.

Where are my siblings?
[Outside waiting for you.]

She snaps her fingers and gestures to Varya’s left hand
“We got work to do.”

“Your palm.”
Varya scoots to the edge of her chair and offers her hand to the rishika.
Can you really do it? Do you know when I’ll die?

Before Varya hears that fateful date, the rishika studies her hand in great detail, then abruptly says: January 21st, 2044. (We do not immediately learn the fateful dates for Klara, Daniel and Simon.) The rishika tells her, as she has told the others, not to discuss her revelations.

It is obvious, as the children head home, that each has received disturbing news. A lighthearted childhood adventure used as a diversion to abject summer boredom severs their carefree childhoods. The news each received that day will hang like a pall over their future life decisions. The prologue ends as the Gold family sits around the dinner table that fateful night. The children’s sullen behavior a sign that they have learned of life’s impermanence.

Thus launches this complicated family story told over 50 years in four vignettes. One by one, beginning with Simon, we discover each child has a deep ingrained secret that gets amplified by the gypsy’s prophesy. Their lives are much like our own cycling up and down as we make our way in an imperfect world.  The lesson each of these children learns is that if you worry about death, you will miss out on living: in the end we all die and there’s not a thing that can be done about it. You might as well do what you can to make the best of the life you are given regardless of whether it is long or short.

BLOGGER’S THOUGHTS

I always feel weird when my opinion of a book varies greatly from the majority of reviewers. I liked the book and give it a solid 3 star rating but I found several areas needing a little more meat and depth. The book captured my attention right at the beginning with the promise of magic and fantasy but petered out through the middle delving into hedonism and decisions leading to dark self-fulfilling prophecies. The final quarter of the book rises to a richer and satisfying conclusion and gives hope that change is possible.

[Varya asks the rishika]… what if I change? It seems impossible that Varya’s future is already inside her life like an actress just offstage, waiting decades to leave the wings.

Then you’d be special, “Cause most people don’t.

The author has done her homework with background and historical references. I found the discussion of magical history and techniques fascinating.  The deeply emotional coverage of the emergence of AIDS in our country in the 1980s brought back sad memories of people in my past.  I am reminded of a friend near the end of his life leaving me with these words – Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die.

Recommended for book club discussion.

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AMERICAN WOLF : a true story of survival and obsession in the West

Wolves arrived in Yellowstone National Park via truck on January 12, 1995.
NPS photo

AMERICAN WOLF :
a true story of survival and obsession in the West

NATE BLAKESLEE

“When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, there were perhaps as many as two million wolves on the continent. Most of the early colonial governments, eager to make their settlements safe for livestock, paid bounties for wolf hides. . .

By the 1920s, the wolf had been all but eliminated from the continental United States except for a small population in northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Why did our ancestors feel they had to root out every last wolf, and why were hunters still so eager to shoot them in the few places they remained? “
Nate Blakeslee, American Wolf

CROWN PUB | 17 Oct 2017
322 pages
NONFICTION : OUTDOORS AND NATURE
ARC from NETGALLEY

★★★★★

Click for National Geographic Interview with Nate Blakesley

BACKGROUND INFO

Around 1845, the migration of religiously driven pioneers believing in Manifest Destiny rapidly sped across America ripping apart the lives of native human populations and destroying predatory wildlife habitats.  As homesteads and ranches filled the land, the natural range and sources of food for the large predators shrank leading to incursions in farm fields and leased grazing areas. Inevitably the two worlds clashed head-on and the losers were the predatory animals -specifically gray wolves (Canis lupus).  By 1929, the massive efforts to eradicate gray wolves was achieved.

But there were consequences and conflicts as a result of this extermination.  Not everyone agreed that nature should be so radically altered. Quoting Sir Isaac Newton  – for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction. 

Advocates for preserving portions of the decreasing wilderness and restoring the balance of the natural world prevailed and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant and Congress created the world’s first national park in what was then the Territories of Montana and Wyoming – Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Act provided, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, protection for the wonders such as its geysers and hot springs but also stated:

[The Secretary of the Interior] shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction . . . . .

In time, researchers discovered the role that large predators play in a healthy ecosystem. In 1995, after years of planning, 31 wolves from Canada were released in the Yellowstone National Park sparking a new battle between true believers on both sides of the wolf issue.

REVIEW

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Thanks to Disney and the Three Little Pigs, I can’t get that song out of my head. How about sayings like “wolf in sheep’s clothing” or he’s a ‘lone wolf”? The wolf as predator has been getting a bad rap for thousands of years. After reading, American Wolf, I am not sure who was/is the greater predator these days – the 4-legged or the 2-legged kind.

Flip the cover and begin. Hear the wind whistle though the trees and over mountain tops. Watch and feel the snow as it falls in white sheets. Note that the cold is so intense that the myriad wolf watchers standing in long lines on the roadsides of the park appear frozen in freeze-frames images. Suddenly a wild-eyed elk bursts out of the trees trailed by a blur of snarling fur and the crowd comes alive.

O-6

I’ll set the stage here. The book follows one crowd popular alpha female (including her various mates and off-spring) famously known around the world as O-6 from birth through her death. It will be impossible not to admire and respect her strengths, loyalty, and prowess as a mother and leader of the pack. O-6, having just given birth to her third litter, was shot by a poacher when she trespassed just beyond the Yellowstone boundary. The identity of the shooter remains a secret and is identified in the book by a fictional name. His story is played against O-6’s throughout the book thus providing the negative views of the wolf re-introduction project.

O-6’s death set off a world-wide firestorm, and raised public awareness to the plight of the Gray Wolves. I cried when she died. Yup. If you don’t cry when she dies, you will when you read how her mate reacts.

Ranger Rick McIntyre

Digging in more specifically, let’s take a seat beside Ranger Rick McIntyre as he begins his day peering through his spotting scope. He spots a new den site for a local pack and he leans in to see the new pups as they tumble outside for the first time. We will experience his compulsive need to see his wolves every day. What we see often thrills us, sometimes makes us turn our heads away, and sometimes leaves us haunted. It is no wonder that McIntyre has no other social life; he is unable to leave the park. This is wildlife interacting with the natural world oblivious to cell phones, sit-coms and stock market prices.

Yellowstone, this designated wilderness, the place where a wolf can be a wolf. Where a beaver can make slap happy sounds on ponds. Where ravens elbow around grizzlies for foraged meat. Yellowstone, where lucky visitors shoot only pictures. But this safe harbor exists solely within the unseen boundaries of the park. Trails that lead back thousands of years transect the park leading wildlife through unprotected terrain; into rifle scopes not viewing scopes.

We do leave the park occasionally and head to town to tip a brew with the locals and hear their side of the story. A story often lost in the shuffle about ecosystems and states’ rights – just families and small businesses trying to make a life in an inhospitable environment. We find that the wilderness sanctuary isn’t an island. Its edges rub up against civilization and the two are always at war. Guided elk hunts, ranchers and homesteaders sit on one side of the see-saw with wolf advocates, environmentalists, and biologists on the other. The battle for life and death rages through these pages; some as God intended and others at the hands of man for sport, food, or revenge.

This book is a wonderful read that doesn’t reach an amiable conclusion. The battle between sides continues to this day.

Blakeslee has painstakingly researched this topic and will provide the reader with a balanced view of the see-saw riders. The reader’s bias will have them sitting on their favorite side of the see-saw but hopefully with a better understanding for the opposition.

Highly recommended for nature lovers and wilderness seekers.

RIP O-6.

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The Book Of Ralph: a novel

BOOK OF RALPH

by CHRISTOPHER STEINVOLD

MEDALLION PRESS | 2016
Paperback: 416 pages
Genre: SCIENCE FICTION / HUMOR
Review Source: ARC from Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

Publisher’s Blurb

A message appears on the moon. It is legible from Earth, and almost no one knows how it was created. Markus West leads the government’s investigation to find the creator.

The message is simple and familiar. But those three words, written in blazing crimson letters on the lunar surface, will foster the strangest revolution humankind has ever endured and make Markus West wish he was never involved.

The message is ‘Drink Diet Coke.’

When Coca-Cola denies responsibility, global annoyance with the beverage-industrial complex becomes indignation. And when his investigation confirms Coca-Cola’s innocence, Markus West becomes one of the most hated men on Earth.

Later, five miles above the White House, a cylinder is discovered floating in the night. It is 400 feet tall, 250 feet in diameter, and exactly resembles a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Nearly everyone thinks the cylinder is a promotional stunt gone wrong, just like the lunar advertisement. And this is exactly what the alien in the cylinder wants people to think.

Ralph, an eccentric extraterrestrial who’s been hiding on the moon, needs Markus’s help to personally deliver a dark warning to the White House. Ralph has a big heart, a fetish for Andy Warhol, and a dangerous plan to save the world.

Looking upon the cylinder, Markus realizes we are not the ones in control. The unexpected guest becomes the host, and somehow humans never belonged: “We are the homeless orphans peeking through the banquet window. We are the frills of the universe gazing upon something unspeakably more central than ourselves.”

Blogger’s Review

 An alien landing at the White House in a 400 foot tall Campbell’s soup can was not the way I envisioned “first contact” would happen but it sure captured my attention. So despite my aversion to sci-fi, satire, and dark humor, I knew I had to read this book. In the end I rated the book 3 -stars and that decision rested more on my unfamiliarity with this genre. It would be like asking a kindergarten to tell you how to play a game of chess.

The first chapters were filled with quirky humor as the Earthlings try to rationalize what was happening with an irrational situation. The sideshow alien, Ralph, has been holed up on the moon for 10 years scanning Earth records and transmissions devising a lighthearted way to arrive on Earth thus avoiding panic. (Ten years not even a decimal point in time to a 19,000 year old.)

Ralph’s continued juvenile and giddy responses when pressed about an impending alien invasion began to bug me. Excruciatingly slow in my opinion, Ralph shares his message with his new “Earth brother”, Mark West. Rather than concentrating on character development, the author concentrated on convoluted references to Biblical passages and lectures on philosophy and Freud’s theory of the ego that confused me along with the protagonist, Mark.

About 75% of the way through the book, the story picks up a little steam leading to an interesting conclusion. Sorry. No spoilers.

Switching to a more positive note, I enjoyed a good part of the book. Much like raising children, there are days you could pack on them on an ice floe and send them out to sea but overall you want to treasure their time with you. So, I’ll end by saying this – if you like quirky mindless sci-fi with a tinge of violence and satire this book is for you. Personally I am going to stay away from apocalyptic alien invasions; we Earthlings are doing a fine enough job on that topic by ourselves.

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The Trouble With Goats and Sheep

I don’t understand, whispered Tilly.
How does God know which people are goats and which people are sheep?

I think that ‘s the trouble, Grace said,
it’s not always that easy to tell the difference.

 

THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP

by JOANNA CANNON

SCRIBNER | 2016
Hardcover: 353 pages
Genre: FICTION / COMING-OF-AGE / MYSTERY
Review Source: PERSONAL COPY

1st Published in UK in 2015

★★★☆☆

In the midst of an extraordinary heat wave enveloping England, ten-year-old Grace leans out her bedroom window hoping for a breath of cool early morning air and overhears a neighbor tell his wife, “Margaret Creasy never came home last night. Perhaps she finally buggered off.”

She stumbles downstairs for breakfast sharing the news and sets off a tremor that shakes the neighborhood’s complacency. Thus begins a tale about community secrets buried in the past that now begin to bubble up to the surface, one by one, in the blistering heat of that 1976 summer. The story’s lens never leaves a small middle class England neighborhood where it focuses on the ten or so homes tucked into the curl of a cul-de-sac.

What really happened in 1967? Who knows the truth? Has that nosy Mrs. Creasy figured things out? What has happened to her?

Our narrator is young Grace, a budding ten-year-old, teetering between adolescence and childhood. With her feet still glued in the world of friendships and games, she has begun to view life outside her home as something to explore and challenge.

After attending a local church service, where the Vicar lights a fire in her mind, Grace enlists the help of her best friend, Tilly to investigate Mrs. Creasy’s whereabouts and the reasons for her abrupt departure.  She knows what she must do to help. Assured by the vicar that the lost can be found when they find God, they set out to find God.

How do you stop people from disappearing?
You help them to find God.

How do you find God?
You just have to look.
And if we find God, everyone will be safe?
Of course.
You know that the Lord is our shepherd, Grace. We are just sheep. If we wander off the path, we need God to find us and bring us home.

Oblivious to the buzz in the adult stratosphere, Grace and Tilly set off on their myopic quest of finding God inside the various homes on the Avenue disguised as Brownie Scouts seeking a way “lend a hand”. Through their journey through the neighborhood we see things about each resident that the girls do not.  The rattled adults toss clues to the girls left and right that just fly over their heads, at first, but gradually, the more astute Grace begins to see discrepancies in the neighbors’ stories about Mrs. Creasy and others. They take their little investigation up a notch often to the consternation of everyone, at times jeopardizing their safety.

Those expecting this to end with some explosion of horror will be disappointed. This cozy mystery amuses at the same time offers insight into the dangers of discrimination, innuendo, malicious gossip and the potential for mob violence.  Layered at the girls’ level are lessons on friendship and the frailness of life. The lesson I learned, sometimes it is better to be a goat than a sheep.

I rated the book three stars but do note that it is a good read.  I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest this book to my friends. As a matter of fact, I had received an e-reader advance copy from Edelweiss a while back and forgot; then purchased my own copy that will now be available in my local library. I’ll leave you with my two favorite quotes:

People tend to believe things just because everyone else does. . .They don’t search for proof, they just search for approval from everyone else. [Walter]

I still hadn’t learned the power of words. How, once they left your mouth, they have a breath and life of their own. . . I hadn’t learned that, once you have let them go, the words can then, become the owner of you.” [Grace]

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ENDURANCE : Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

Unlike the land, where courage and the simple will to endure can often see a man through, the struggle against the sea is an act of
physical combat, and there is no escape. It is a battle against a tireless enemy in which man never actually wins; the most that he can hope for is not to be defeated.

― Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

ENDURANCE

Author: ALFRED LANSING

MCGRAW- HILL | 1959
282 pages
NONFICTION / ADVENTURE

Review Source: 2014 ed. /Basic Books
358 pgs with photos

★★★★★

The first time I read this book I was probably in my mid-30s and struggling with some major life issues. I yearned to lose myself in an unfettered wilderness and turned to adventure stories to transport myself to a different place and a different time. Undoubtedly distracted at the time, I enjoyed the story and appreciated the trials but never truly identified with the men and the strength of character displayed by Shackleton.

Now 40 years later, my book club has chosen Endurance as our first read of 2018 and with the wisdom of age and experience, I felt the cold and isolation deep in my bones. We have already read about the unlikely Holocaust hero, Schindler, and look forward to future reads about the courageous Harriett Tubman, or Japanese prisoner-of-war hero, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Toosey (Bridge over River Kwai).

This year we chose Sir Ernest Shackleton; a man hard-wired with courage, resiliency and loyalty who led The British Imperial Transatlantic Expedition (1914-1916), a crew of 27 men, to attempt the first crossing of the Southern Polar continent from sea to sea. A feat, even today, with all our advantages of communication, motorized equipment, and high tech camping equipment, is not guaranteed.

Legend has it that an ad was placed in the London Times that read:

shackleton wantadMEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington Street [London]

Although the authenticity of this London ad has been debunked, the sentiment and reality of the dangers did exist. Anyone volunteering or recruited for the expedition could reasonably assume they were placing their lives in mortal danger. The legacy of previous Antarctic exploration by Shackleton and the stories of his interest in conducting another expedition published in the London papers provided enough attention to garner men willing to tackle the challenge.

The Endurance, a triple masted barquentine (similar to today’s tall ships) was perhaps the strongest wooden ship ever built for Arctic conditions; designed to maneuver well in loose pack ice. She departed her last port of call at the whaling station on the island of South Georgia on December 5, 1914 heading to Vahsel Bay where the crew was to begin the overland journey across Antarctica by dog sledge. By January 15, the Endurance had arm wrestled her way through loose pack ice to within 200 miles of their destination. A “perfect storm” arose resulting in the Endurance becoming frozen in place as solid as an almond in chocolate. 

Endurance, now one with the ice, drifted for months beset in the ice in the Weddell Sea; the men hunkered below deck waiting for warming conditions that would break the ice pack and hopefully allow them to complete their expedition. When the Antarctic spring arrived, it brought grinding forces that splintered the ship eventually pulling her under – abandoning the men, supplies, dog teams and three life boats on a ice flow drifting north at the mercy of the currents.

Thus begins Shackleton’s incredible journey back to safety and home. The opening lines of Lansing’s book reads:

The order to abandon ship was given at 5 p.m. . . There was no show of fear or even apprehension. They had fought unceasingly . . .and lost. . . 

They were simply too tired to care. . . . The date was October 27, 1915. . .[The ship was] deep in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic’s treacherous Weddell Sea, just about midway between the South Pole and the nearest known outpost of humanity, some 1,200 miles away.

Shackleton’s mission now changed from exploration to delivering his men safely out of the Antarctic. He wrote in his diary – I pray God I can manage to get the whole party safe to civilization.

Thanks to the crew diligently maintaining daily diaries and the remarkable presence of a photographer, incredible  considering the hardships endured in the harsh conditions, a record of the journey exists. The book’s dialogue may seem a bit stilted as the true facts are enough. There was no need to create sensational scenes or to interject opinion or supposition; the diary statements tell you everything straight up.

We learn of their deep trust and loyalty for the “Boss”. We feel the humanness of Shackleton’s faults and deep sense of duty he felt for his men. The diaries reveal so much about the indefatigable nature of the men facing food shortages, and the indescribable living conditions.

There were times I had to turn my head when the men had to make choices that would leave emotional scars. Some scenes, necessary for survival, made me cry. Others made me smile. Throughout it all, I leaned into my experience with long winter days and nights spent on long distance wilderness backpacks to try to imagine the perpetual cold and wet conditions they endured. In the end, it was unimaginable.

There is a reason that the story of Shackleton and the Endurance are considered heroes still today.  These men set the bar for overcoming the impossible.

HIGHLY recommended.

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Wrong Place, Wrong Time: a true story

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME :
a true story

I think it is every parent’s nightmare that your young adult child will make some regrettable choice that will affect the rest of their lives. Having raised a wild child myself, there were many sleepless night worrying for his safety and future. Once they have tipped over that spillway of regret and misdirection, there comes the hope that they can pick up the pieces of their lives and find their way back to their better angels.

by DAVID P. PERLMUTTER

SELF-PUBLISHED | 2013
217 pgs
MEMOIR / TRUE CRIME
BEST SELLER IN CRIME & BIOGRAPHY

★★★★☆

 

in the wrong place at the wrong time :

in a situation where something bad happens to you because you are unlucky, not because you do anything wrong 

Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary

SO. What happens when indiscretion is mixed with unlucky circumstance AND you are in a foreign land? David Perlmutter tells us – NOTHING GOOD!

It’s London in the 1980s. David, a young buck in his twenties, is a highly successful real estate agent. One fateful night leaving work, he joins a friend for a pint at the local pub. With a heady glow of success suspending his better judgement, he unwisely extends a friendly pint into a late night revelry that lands him in a London jail. The crime of “driving-under-the-influence” costs him his job, his future and damages his relationship with his parents.

Running away from his shame, he heads to Marbella, Spain to spend the summer there to clear my head and to try and regain my almost shattered confidence. 

His father’s parting words exude caution. There’s little more that a parent can do when an adult child walks through a mine field.

Son, have fun but please be careful, you’re in a foreign country so don’t do anything silly. . . Just watch out for those Spanish cops. He paused for a second, looked into my eyes then went on, Some of them are cunts. I was taken aback. I’d never heard my father swear before.

Take a nearly penny-less hormonal twenty-something young man with a damaged ego and place him in a foreign city famous for topless beaches and an extravagant lifestyle – what could go wrong? To go any further would spoil the story for the next reader.

Personally, I was impressed that the author would be so candid and open about this period of his life. If you have a child clambering for that fun filled summer abroad, make them read the book. There are lessons to be learned here.

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The Seven Rules of Elvira Carr

THE SEVEN RULES OF ELVIRA CARR

Published in UK as The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr

by FRANCES MAYNARD

 

Image result for british custom cream biscuits

Paul’s dad said I knew more about biscuits [cookies] and their history and packaging than anyone he’d ever met.

I hugged myself at the memory. Mother had never thought I could be an expert at anything.

Genre: FICTION / AUTISM
Hardcover: 393 pages
Review Source: ARC e-book from edelweiss

★★★★☆

REVIEW

Elvira Carr is different. She knows this because Mother has made a point of telling her for 27 years. She has a “Condition” that makes it impossible for her to function unsupervised in the world outside their home.

I needed to be kept safe at home for my own protection. I was far too trusting, she’d said, and a target for predators, and she reminded me of the various Incidents that had happened when I’d ventured out and done things on my own.

Father was always away on business trips to Japan. Elvira knows this because Father’s return brought lovely Japanese themed gifts and colorful descriptions of faraway lands. She enjoyed her time with her father immensely and in a way, grateful to have his undivided attention as a balance to Mother’s rigid routines and snarky comments. Sadly, Father dies of a heart attack while “Abroad” when she was 23 leaving her solely under Mother’s thumb and subject to her acid personality.

Elvira’s life changes abruptly the day Mother, the omniscient ruler of her life, suffers a debilitating stroke and is confined to a nursing home.

Left alone to her own devices, Elvira finds the courage to step out into the world – one baby step at a time – on her own.

Thinking about going to the hospital scared me. I didn’t go to new places very often and, since the Incidents, never on my own.

 Successfully taking that first journey, unaided, and arriving safely at her mother’s bedside, Elvira was very pleased. I’d been resourceful, a word Mother used about herself. She would be surprised when I told her.

Elvira continues to challenged herself to find ways to remain independent and capable of interfacing with “NeuroNormals”. She learns to use a computer and discovers that Mother was wrong!

Mother said computers kept people imprisoned in their bedrooms, not communicating with the outside world. . . . And she thought I’d find learning to use one a struggle [and] I could be targeted by predators. I’d failed to understand what Mother and Father meant [by predators] and they wouldn’t explain.

With the discovery of the Internet and word processing, she can now write her own rules – bye bye Mother’s rules! She falls in love with spreadsheets and sets about identifying seven situations that confound her. She hopes to change her life following these guidelines and enlists the help of friends to identify the reasons behind her difficult interactions.

Rule 1: Being Polite and Respectful is always a Good Idea.
Rule 2: If you Look or Sound Different, you won’t Fit in.

Lacking a filter for innuendo, figures of speech, and deception, Elvira struggles but she never stops believing that she can define her own happy place in the world. 

Rule 3: Conversation doesn’t just Exchange Facts – it Conveys how you’re Feeling. 
Rule 4: You learn by making Mistakes.
Rule 5: Not Everyone who is Nice to me is my Friend.
Rule 6: It’s better to be too Diplomatic than too Honest.

Elvira’s journey will amaze you.

OPINION

The author’s choice to use the first person voice gave Elvira a chance to expose the difficulties facing those with disabilities. I found myself cheering for Elvira’s chance at a real life after her Mother died. Her spunk, sweet nature, and obvious yen for life was inspiring. I wanted to reach out and slap a few people for their attitudes about the disabled as well as give bear hugs to those with grace and understanding.

There are two instances of sexual assault in the story. I felt the author missed the mark when Elvira’s parents failed to provide a life lesson on the dangers of predators and how to spot them. The second “Incident” was more dramatic and left the vulnerable Elvira unable to differentiate between friendly interest and exploitation. This heightened sense of outrage on my part is the result of the #Me Too movement and the deep roots of sexual abuse and gender bias in our modern world. Rule 7: Rules change depending on the Situation and the Person you are speaking to.

I want to end on an upbeat note so I will leave you with Elvira’s closing thoughts as she writes one more rule:

And, Rule Eight: Use the Rules to help with difficulties, to make life easier, to understand what’s acceptable, to enhance your strengths, but after that, . . . do things your way.

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WINTER SISTERS: a novel

 

WINTER SISTERS

        Robin Oliverira

Child after child was scooped into welcoming arms, but no one claimed Emma and Claire. Stunned by the cold, the two girls (7 and 10 years old) shivered on the iceberg of snow blown up against the school steps until Emma took hold of Claire’s hand and forged a mountain goat path over frozen drifts in the direction of their home.

Penguin | Feb 2018
Hardcover: 368 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / 19th Century Women’s Rights
ARC e-book from Edelweiss

In Winter Sisters, Dr. Mary Sutter [My Name is Mary Sutter (2010)] returns and is now married to her Civil War colleague, Dr. William Stipp.

BLOGGER’S NOTE:

The catastrophic 1879 blizzard that ravages the lives and landscape of the American Northeast in the opening chapters of  Winter Sisters is based on the Great Blizzard of ’88

On this day in 1888, one of the worst blizzards in American history kills more than 400 people and dumps as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas. . .

On March 10, 1888 temperatures in the Northeast hovered in the mid-50s. But on March 11, cold Arctic air from Canada collided with Gulf air from the south and temperatures plunged. Rain turned to snow and winds reached hurricane-strength levels. By midnight on March 11, gusts were recorded at 85 miles. . .

★★★★☆

REVIEW

It is early March of 1879 in Albany, New York and 13 years after the Civil War. The Reconstruction period saw many new “families” formed from the remnants of the carnage; neighbors, distant cousins, siblings and orphans found comfort and solace creating a whole from their broken individual pieces. One such post-war family includes Drs. Mary (Sutter) and William Stipp and longtime family friends Bonnie and David O’Donnell along with their two beautiful young daughters, Claire (7) and Emma (10).

The Albany weather is balmy for early March and the O’Donnells head out for the day dressed for early Spring; Bonnie to her millinery shop, David to the lumber yard and the girls to school.

By mid-morning, snow flurries suddenly appear. By mid-afternoon a catastrophic blizzard cripples the town. Temperatures plummet. Winds rage. Snow, measuring in feet not inches, races sideways striking windows and any unfortunate being outside like silver bullets. Visibility zero.

Claire and Emma O’Donnell are trapped, along with their classmates, in the Van Zandt Grammar School; their parents unable to retrieve them. As the storm finally abates, desperate parents race to the school to bring their children home. No one notices the two little girls amid the sky-high drifts left waiting for their parents in the bitter cold.

The O’Donnell family has disappeared. Bonnie’s body is found in a snow drift outside her millinery shop. David O’Donnell’s frozen body is found in the street near home. Claire and Emma are never found.

Like many other devastated families, Mary Sutter Stipp begins a desperate search for the girls; her now famous take-no-prisoners style testing the ire and patience of the male dominate community. Mary’s life’s exposes the struggles of women in general, and poor women in particular to survive and thrive in a patriarchal society. As she turns over every leaf in her search, she exposes life’s underbelly.

With the warmer weather returning, the Hudson River ice breaks-up and the melted snows from the blizzard cause record setting flooding. In the midst of this new crisis, the girls are found – alive, alone in the freezing waters, and traumatized. As the mysterious whereabouts of the girls is unraveled, the story becomes painful and unspeakable. Yet, the story doesn’t lose its sense of hope as the extended family surrounds the girls with love and patience allowing them to regain a brighter future.

There are some very positive and touching moments that seem especially necessary for the little girls and for the recovery of the other extended family members suffering their own life’s trials.

The story is painfully slow when the blizzard overshadows the lives of the characters but picks up steam when the girls are discovered and diabolical secrets are exposed. I found myself cheering at justice, albeit poorly rendered, when it arrives.

As much as society would like to think that women’s rights and roles have improved over the years, there’s a contemporary awareness that achievements toward equity are balanced on a knife’s edge.

Recommend reading. Many timely themes for book club discussions. The book should be as popular as My Name is Mary Sutter.

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A PIECE OF THE WORLD: a novel

A PIECE OF THE WORLD: a novel

by CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE

Morrow/Harper Collins |2017
Hardcover: 320 pages
HISTORICAL FICTION/
Christina Olson/Andrew Wyeth
Source: Library Book

★★★★☆

Shortly after completing her popular work, Orphan Train in 2013, Kline visited the NY Museum of Modern Art and viewed Andrew Wyeth’s iconic work of mid-century realism, Christina’s World (1948). Unlike Orphan Train with its vast list of characters, A Piece of the World‘s story focuses on one woman, Anna Christine Olson, a crippled spinster who lived her entire life in the harsh terrain of Cushing, Maine in a home without electricity or running water.

Andrew Wythe met Christina when he was 22, newly married and summering in Maine. The reclusive Christina, then 46 lived with her slightly younger brother, Alvaro, and together they maintained the centuries old family farm. The Olsons instinctively found themselves at ease with the painter and he soon spent every day he was in Maine at their house. Andrew, himself inflicted with disability, spent the next 20 summers lurching up the grassy slope, lugging his art supplies, to Christina’s house to paint undisturbed in a third floor room.

In 1948, when Christina was 55, Wythe observed Christina, now unable to walk at all, crawling through the field using her forearms and elbows. That sight inspired him to create Christina’s World, so named by Wyeth’s wife, Betsy. Christina is portrayed as a young woman and viewed from the back as she slowly and painfully crawls toward her home on the hill. I cropped the young woman out of the painting so the reader can see her determination  to propel herself on those withered limbs through her piece of the world.

Kline, in A Piece of the World, turns Christina around so we can face this incredible strong-willed woman head-on as she tells her life’s story. First believed to have contracted polio when she was 3 years-old, it is now thought that she had CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth), an incurable, inherited disorder that progressively degenerates muscles tissues and touch sensation throughout the body. As this is a work of fiction based loosely on facts, Kline spares us the worst side effects of Christina’s life as her painful disease progresses through the years. Spared those details, it is still hard to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped in her steadily closing conch shell of a body.

Christina tells her story flipping from her childhood with her large extended family to her isolated and debilitating adult life.

Who are you, Christina Olson? he asked me once.
Nobody had ever asked me that. I had to think about it for awhile.

If you really want to know me, I said, we’ll have to start with the witches. And then the drowned boys, the shells from the distant lands, … The Swedish Sailor marooned in ice. [The]false smiles of the Harvard man, and the hand wringing of the Boston doctors, the dory in the haymow and the wheelchair in the sea.

Chistina Olson, Prologue

And that is all Kline and I will tell you about this remarkable woman. It is best you travel with her to find out the answer to Who are you, Christina Olson? As winter is fast approaching in Cushing, Maine, it is the perfect time to grab a hot chocolate, a warm blue knitted blanket, a comfortable chair and A Piece of the World.  A woman crawling through life moves at a snail’s pace.  Take the slow walk through Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the author’s simple yet beautiful prose.

Recommended reading for book clubs.

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Lilac Girls

 

 

 

 

LILAC GIRLS

by MARTHA HALL KELLY

RANDOM HOUSE-BALLANTINE | 487 pages
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION | HOLOCAUST
Source: ARC e-book from EDELWEISS

★★★

Don’t be fooled by the lovely cover photo.  This book will be rough on the emotions.

Author Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was inspired by two real life women who represent the yin and yang of the Nazi era – New York socialite Caroline Ferriday and Dr. Herta Oberheuser of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for women.

Kelly spent nearly 10 years researching the background story for Lilac Girls and based on war crimes tribunal reports, survivor interviews and family records, the fictional Kasia Kuzmerick emerged  to tell her story about life before, during and after the Germany invasion of her native Poland. The three narrators alternate chapters and present the war from three vastly different perspectives.

America, still reeling from WWI, wanted no part of unrest building in Europe. It’s 1939 and a frantic wave of immigrants arrives daily in US ports hoping for safety. Most are sent back; often to their deaths. Caroline Ferriday, a retired stage actress, has found volunteer work at the French Consulate assisting wealthy refugees obtain documentation to stay stateside. The Ferriday’s are Francophiles and have a vacation home in Paris. Caroline is aghast that America has turned a blind eye to those in need and hosts fundraising galas to help French orphans. Her generous spirit is admirable but her lack of understanding what the children need goes without saying.

Meanwhile, Herta Oberheuser has received her medical degree in Dusseldorf, Germany and has found that gender bias prevents her from furthering her education as a surgeon.  While working well beneath her education, Herta spots an advertisement that will change her future:

I picked up The Journal of Medicine and noticed a classified ad for a doctor needed at a reeducation camp for women. . .near the resort town of Fürstenberg on Lake Schwedt. There were many such camps at the time, mostly for the work-shy and minor criminals. [It] had an appealing name. Ravensbrück.

Herta’s naivety upon arrived at Ravensbrück is abruptly shocked. She adapted  quickly to become a sinister criminal but left me thinking of so many in that time period that swallowed the party line – what makes a person become incapable of seeing the humanity in others? In the end, one has to wonder if those perpetrators of such horrific crimes could ever receive adequate justice.

Kasia Kuzmerick’s carefree childhood ends when Hitler declared war on Poland in 1939. Kasia and friends are spying on Jewish refugees hiding in a potato field when German bombers arrive and massacre everyone. The horror motivates Kasia to join the underground movement; a step that ultimately costs her dearly. One misstep and Kasia along with her mother and sisters are captured and sent to RavensbrückKasia and her sister, Zuzanna, were selected for medical experimentation surgery by Dr. Herta Oberheuser. The mutilated women were known in the camp as “Rabbits”.

The author softens the story with Caroline’s adventures in love and luxury but it is hard to look away from Ravensbrück with its inhumanity, pain and death. Caroline’s post-war efforts on behalf of the Rabbits is much stronger than her initial foray into war-time charity with her homemade gifts for the children. Her relationship with her married love interest felt oddly out of place weighed up against the horrors of the concentration camps; it did not occur in real life.

The strongest part of the story lies with the Ravensbrück inmates for their efforts to survive. The stories of the compassion and friendships they showed toward one another and the attempts to “normalize” their lives with little things like hair ribbons and lace collars is heartbreaking. The post-war lives of Kasia and Zuzanna illuminates how long-term trauma of malnutrition, torture, PTSD and disease has changed the arc of their futures.

It was difficult to rate the book. I gave it high marks for several reasons. The author’s research exposed the depth of depravity exhibited by the Nazi doctor’s and camp guards. As unsettling as the subject is, it happened; and stepping away from our creature comforts into that unimaginable horror reminds us that it could happen again – anywhere. The book reminds us that charity begins at home, suppressed hatred is corrosive, and that discrimination of “others” does not make a society stronger.

As a debut work, Kelly did a remarkable job of exposing a little known horror of the Holocaust and the generosity of the Americans for the surviving Rabbits.

Post-War Photo of Surviving Ravensbrück Rabbits living in America

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The Book of Polly: a novel

 

THE BOOK OF POLLY

by KATHY HEPINSTALL

Pamela Dorman Books | 2017
Hardcover: 322 pages
ISBN: 9780399562099
Genre: FICTION/COMING-OF-AGE
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

EXCERPT

I’m not sure at what age I became frozen with the knowledge, certainty, and horror that mother would die one day. . . One of my earliest memories was reaching up and trying to snatch a cigarette from her lips. Even then I knew my enemy.

[Polly] had conceived me in something close to a bona fide miracle, when she and her soon-to-be-late husband of thirty-seven years consummated their love for the last time. From the absurdity of that union came the news that my mother received from her doctor three days after my father’s funeral: Polly, [58], was due to have one more child in the year 1992. [Me.] Willow.

Eight months later I  was born, my family already gone like a train pulled out of the station: my father dead, my brother and sister grown and gone. . . 

Don’t you love a book that latches onto your funny bone? My first impression of Polly Haven reminded me of my favorite cartoon character, Maxine; brash, fearless and prickly. This is truly a southern tale filled with a small cast of unique characters much like Fried Green Tomatoes’s Iggy Threadgoode or Steel Magnolias’ “Ouiser” played by Shirley MacLaine.

Willow narrates the book beginning when she is a 10-year-old sharing her feelings, thoughts and emotions about living with a gun-toting, Virginia Slims smoking, foul-mouthed, Margarita slurping mother who loves her dearly; but Polly’s actions, viewed through a child’s eyes make you wonder if she was a spawn of the devil. The novel covers the next six years of their lives. Six years filled with tit-for-tat conflicts between a septuagenarian mother and a teenage terror with a propensity for lying. The narration in a child’s voice is a softening agent for adult topics like alcoholism, marital disharmony, religion and terminal illness and engenders sympathy for teenage angst and budding first love.

One of Polly’s traits that drives Willow crazy is her unwillingness to share her past life – life before Willow – one that includes deeply held dark secrets.  Willow is determined to peel the onion on that story and other guarded truths in order to find a place for herself in the family timeline. Some place where she understands where she came from and where she will be in the future. She is terrified of finding herself alone in the world without – her mother.

Polly’s cigarette habit frightens Willow the most. She does everything she can to make her mother miserable in attempt to ward off the “Bear”, her mother’s term for cancer.  Her efforts to prolong her mother’s life produce some deeply touching moments and some rather explosive reactions between them.

Polly’s over-the-top reactions to perceived or actual attacks rankles school authorities, her equally cantankerous neighbors and the world at-large. That includes the squirrels that invade her precious pecan tree.

I loved this coming-of-age story and I had more than a few hearty chuckles over the neighbor’s cat straddling the rickety fence, the next door neighbor’s free-range undisciplined Montessori twins, Dalton and Willow’s budding romance, and the bond between her brother’s friend and Polly.

Underlying all the spats and bluster lies the meaning of life for all of us. And the feel good ending, seen coming a mile away, reminded me of the last verse of Desiderata:

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Desiderata by Max Ehrman

 

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Before We Were Yours: a novel

BEFORE WE
WERE YOURS

by LISA WINGATE

RANDOM HOUSE/BALLANTINE | June 2017
352 pages
ISBN: 978-0-425-28468-1
Genre: HISTORICAL FICTION/
ADOPTION/FRAUD/CHILD ABDUCTION
Review Source: ARC from NETGALLEY

★★★☆☆

Novel based on . . .

From 1924 through 1950, Beulah George “Georgia” Tann ran the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from a stately home on Poplar Avenue in Memphis, TN.

Tann used it as a front for an illegal foundling home and adoption agency that placed over 5,000 newborn infants and children, from toddlers up to age 16, to sell to what Ms. Tann called “high type” families in 48 states. 

She used manipulation, deception, pressure tactics, threats, and brute force to take children from mainly poor single mothers in a five-state area to sell to unsuspecting wealthy parents.

Source: http://unsolvedmysteries.wikia.com/

After researching the [Tennessee Children’s Home Society] story, I couldn’t stop wondering about the thousands of children who had been brokered. . .

What became of them? Where are they now?”

Lisa Wingate, Author
Before We Were Yours


At the heart of Wingate’s newest novel lies the question – Do you really know your family history? Do you know what secrets are buried, that if exposed, could change your whole perspective on who you are and where you came from? What would you do if you suddenly found out something that could turn your life upside down? Could you live a life chosen for you rather than the life you were born to live?

The story unfolds in two voices – Avery Stafford, young, beautiful, and living the high-life in present day South Carolina and Rill Foss and her four siblings afloat their father’s scrap lumber shanty-boat in 1939 Memphis, Tennessee. As these two stories unfold, secrets and mysteries of the past are revealed that will forever change both of their lives.

Present day. . . Aiken, South Carolina

Wells Stafford, like his father before him, is known for his long and distinguished political service in the Senate. Senator Stafford is currently struggling after a cancer diagnosis threatens not only his life, but the traditions and lifestyle of his family. Is it time to groom his beautiful “brainiac” daughter to be his replacement?

While touring a local nursing home facility on her father’s behalf, Avery spots a photograph of four women; one of the ladies bears a striking resemblance to her Grandmother Judy. Why would this patient, May Crandall, have a picture of her grandmother? Avery’s inquisitive nature sends her on a mission to discover how this patient and her grandmother know each other.

As Avery Stafford is stalked by a staff of social secretaries and races through a power packed daily schedule day after day, she finds herself nagged by the picture of her grandmother frolicking with three strange women on a beach.

She begins to sneak time between photo shoots and ribbon cuttings to search for clues that eventually lead her to her family home on Edisto Island. What she finds there changes everything she thought she knew about herself and her future.

Memphis, Tennessee backwater, 1939

Briny and Queenie Foss, along with their five children, live the shantyboat life floating from river to river scrounging and hustling as needed to survive. Our shanty boat narrator, Queenie’s twelve-year old daughter, begins her story with her mother near death laboring to deliver twins aboard the boat. It soon becomes obvious that Queenie will die if she isn’t taken to a hospital for care and Briny makes the decision to take Queenie to town. He is forced to leave the younger children alone in the dead of night with his eldest daughter in charge. As the children hunker down terrified, fearful of bandits and mischief makers, the police arrive and take the children off the boat telling them they are taking them to see their parents. The confused and traumatized children are taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home where they are given new names and subjected to unimaginable horrors intended to break the children’s bond to the past.

While Avery searches for answers, May Crandall reminisces about life in 1939 and beyond.

She muses on her childhood life on the shanty boat with her free-spirit parents viewing it all through rose-colored glasses; right up until the happy times for the Foss family ended abruptly. Her fictional memories of the dark world at the Home will traumatize the reader with the truth that actually happened to real life children. Children forced to live in squalor and horror in the shadows and paraded in public as perfect models of angelic behavior for adoption to the highest bidder.

With each secret uncovered, Avery and May’s stories blend toward an inevitable revelation.

Blogger Thoughts . . .

The ending was obvious to me right from the beginning. There’s usually some misdirection to keep the reader engaged and in this case, I found myself staring at the incredible treatment of children as incentive enough to keep reading. The segments on the Children’s Home were hard to read.

It was difficult to rate the book. In the end, I found myself thinking a lot about the underlying theme that children’s futures are predetermined by the circumstance of birth. Can a child with memories of one life ever resolve what might have been had something dramatic not intervened and changed the course of their life?  Can the past stay in the past? How will a future be affected by the past? Will secrets protect or harm future generations?

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Artemis: A Novel

ARTEMIS

by ANDY WEIR

 

Published:
Nov 14, 2017

Crown Publishing Group
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN: 978-0553448122

Review Source:
ARC from Edelewiss and Crown Publishing

★★★★☆

I live in Artemis, the first (and so far, only) city on the moon.  It’s made of five huge spheres called “bubbles.” . . . Artemis looks exactly like old sci-fi books said a moon city should look. . .It’s pricey to get here and expensive as hell to live here. But a city can’t just be rich tourists. . . It needs working-class people too. . . I’m one of the little people.

Jasmine Bashara (Jazz)
Porter and Part-Time Contreband Smuggler

Andy Weir’s The Martian and Matt Damon’s depiction in the movie makes it a hard first book to top! As I prepared to write my thoughts about the newest book, Artemis, I came across an interview with the author that matched my sentiments about the two books.

[Artemis] is my second book. . . It’s likely that The Martian is going to be the most successful book I ever write. . . If [readers say Artemisis not as good as The Martian, but it’s a good book. I’ll call that a win.

The Martian focused on the science of traveling to and living on Mars. Artemis is loaded with science but it primarily focuses on life in the vacuum of space and the richness of the mineral deposits on the moon.

Unlike Mark Watney’s status as the sole inhabitant on Mars, Jazz Bashara, our main protagonist, is a permanent resident of Artemis, the moon’s first city with a current population of 2000. As a low level employee working as a porter (delivery girl), Jazz aspires to become  an EVA trained tour guide for outside the domed city. Don’t ask me what EVA stands for…I couldn’t find the answer but it is obvious that it implies equipment necessary to sustain life outside the oxygenated city.

Artemis, the city, is much like any Earth city: upper class living with access to casinos and upscale hotels, suburbs with shopping centers, recreational sports and theaters, poor district with slum housing and low-paid worker bees. Crime, drugs and a laissez-faire view of whorehouses and sexual activity has been encouraged by the local organized crime syndicate. The city is a mecca for  tourists but the resources and low-gravity setting on the moon is the real reason for it’s success. The biggest money maker is the Sanchez Aluminum operation.

Jazz and her father moved to Artemis when she was six years-old. Her father is a master craftsman specializing in welding; a skill in big demand in the city.  When you live in a welding shop, the lingo and skills become part of your daily life and Jazz is a talented welder in her own right. She was more than a handful in her teen years leading to a break in their relationship. Those rebellious years have stymied her future now that she is in her mid-20s.

Lying to Dad transported me back to my teen years. And let me tell you: there’s no one I hate more than teenage Jazz Bashara. That stupid bitch made every bad decision a stupid bitch could make. She’s responsible for where I am today.

Part of her left-overs from her delinquent years are routine run-ins with Rudy DuBois, Artemis’s head of security. Rudy quit the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to become “what passes for law in town”. He still  wears his Dudley Do-Right uniform but he is anything but a bumble-foot. Rudy is sharp, smart and tough.

If you commit a serious crime, we exile you to Earth. For everything else, there’s Rudy.

These days, Rudy is trying to nab Jazz when she delivers smuggled contraband. She has an extremely efficient smuggling operation going with a friend back on Earth. Nothing really naughty…simple things like cigars, lighters – anything flammable. Flames and oxygen are not compatable.

Out of the blue she receives an offer for a major job that would solve all her financial problems but could get her expelled to Earth. Accepting the challenge leads to exponentially larger problems that threaten not only her family but the city.

The remaining cast of characters, unlike The Martian with Mark Watney’s solo act, provide tension, humor, love, friendship, fisticuffs, terror, and randy dialogue.

Thoughts

I had a hard time liking Jazz.  Her behavior seemed very immature and reminded me more of Gavorche, the street urchin in Les Miserables than a mature adult. It seemed to conflict with her well developed problem solving skills and her talents in improvisation. What was quirky and funny on Mark Watney was less fun on Jazz Bashara.

On a positive note, there were moments when Jazz showed that beneath the baudy banter was a caring soul. She was especially kind when dealing with a troubled teenager.

The science and technology aspects of the story were well researched and rang true to this space novice. I wished I could  tour  old moon landing sites pedaling in my own oxygen inflated “hamster ball”.

Would I read another Andy Weir novel? You betcha! But I sure hope it has nothing to do with welding and chemistry. I learned all I would ever need to know from Jazz.

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The Mountain Between Us

 

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US

by CHARLES MARTIN

 

Broadway Books | 2010
Paperback: 331 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-59249-1
Genre: Fiction/Survival/Adventure
Review Source: Purchased

★★★☆☆

blue quotation-marks

We climbed into the [small] plane. . .Two minutes later we were airborne and climbing. . . [Look out the window.] The High Uintas Wilderness – the largest east to west mountain range on the continent. . . [E]ver seen the movie Jeremiah Johnson? . . .That’s where filmed it.

Scout_Plane

 [Grover] coughed. . .grunted. . .grabbed his chest. . .

Then, as if he’d done it a thousand times, he pancaked the plane against the mountain.

olympic-mountains

My friend had just finished reading the book The Mountain Between Us and recommended it.  Our “cotton-head” gang of old friends will be heading to the theater to view the movie and she thought we should first read the book. I rated this 4 out of 5 stars but this rating came with mental adjustments from what I expected and what I found between the covers.

Adventure/survival stories snag my attention every time. If they involve struggling in snow and ice, all the better. I was raised and played in the mighty Adirondacks and loved the dead of winter. So I want to clear up something right away – it would be impossible in the real world for these two to have survived.

I suspended my hopes for a heart pounding adventure as I smelled a contrived story ahead. Foregoing expectations of something like Jon Krakauer’s Into The WildI settled down and found the story entertaining in its own way.

flight cancelledAshley Knox, a magazine writer, strolled by Dr. Ben Payne, an emergency room trauma surgeon, in the airport and I knew right away where all this was headed. Pretty woman meets married but separated doctor.  When I finished the book, I was mostly right with my preconceived ideas.

A big bad storm of epic size is bearing down on the western states. Commercial aircraft are unable to de-ice their planes and cancelled all outgoing flights. Dr. Ben Payne has numerous surgeries to perform the next day and needs to leave town. He arranges a flight out with an elderly charter plane pilot. Moments before they leave, Ben sweet talks the pilot into taking a second passenger – the sweet young thing he had been eyeballing in the airport. Ashley had confided to Ben that she was to be married in a couple of days and needed to fly out immediately for a wedding rehearsal.

Conveniently as it turns out, the doctor had attended a medical conference and traveled with his backpacking gear. Great care was taken to detail what was in that backpack. The crusty old pilot, while preparing the plane for flight, takes the time to tell them he stores a sleeping bag under his seat and keeps a fishing pole and hunting bow with arrows on the plane at all times.

-blizzardmaninsnow

Moments before Grover has his fatal heart attack, he tells them that this is the largest god-forsaken wilderness in America. Suddenly, with the pilot dead, the broken plane nearly invisible in the snow, a non-functioning locator beacon, no flight plan filed, and no record of the passengers aboard the plane, the survivors must fend for themselves with nothing more than a bag of gorp for food.

Ashley is severely injured in the crash. She is bleeding profusely from several lacerations and sports a maligned leg caused by a broken femur. Ben has broken numerous ribs and a deflated lung and a history of breathing issues at high  altitude. Disregarding his own problems, he sets Ashley’s broken leg and splints it with parts from the plane. He finds Grover’s fishing gear and sews up her wounds.

The action now slows down and leaves the two survivors with only two options. Stay where they are huddled in the fuselage, no one knows they’re there.  Or head out into the unknown wilderness in a blizzard hoping to find civilization and food.

Ben fashions a sled for Ashley out of a broken wing. He gathers all the survival goodies stored on the plane and stuffs them into the sled with Ashley and heads out in thigh deep snow pulling the sled with a harness created from plane parts strapped over his broken chest. For a month he drags Ashley up and over mountains, across rivers, through subzero weather and frequent snow storms.

Amid the swirling snow, sub-zero temperatures, harsh terrain, and wildlife, Ben assumes the role of porter, doctor, hunter, and guide. Ashley, incapacitated by injuries, can offer little help but her upbeat spirit and sense of humor offers levity in the bleak story. Their repartee is a relief to the danger of the situation. The pilot’s Jack Russell Terrier has also survived the crash and his indomitable personality makes him my favorite character.

Ben trudges hour by hour through the snow thinking of his wife and their last argument that has kept them apart.  When settled for the day, he whips out his voice recorder and dictates long conversations about his day, difficult childhood and of the deep abiding love he feels for her to this very day.

The conversations between Ashley and Ben are interesting and it is easy to see that neither of them will ever forget the strength of character and compassion each exhibited through starvation, pain and the isolation of the wilderness.

There’s a surprise ending.  Sorry no hints. I didn’t see it coming.

.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

THE
ABSOLUTELY
TRUE
DIARY of a PART-TIME INDIAN : a novel

Author: Sherman Alexie

Little, Brown and Co. 2007
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Hardcover: 229 pages

The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association reports that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appears on the Top 10 List of Challenged or Banned Books in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.
Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, religious viewpoint, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence, depictions of bullying.

Author Information

Sherman Alexie

The title tells it like it is. Sherman Alexie was born a Spokane Indian. He grew up where the book is set, on a reservation – the “rez” – in Wellpinit, Washington State. He was, like his central character, hydrocephalic at birth, “with too much grease inside my skull”. And in his teens he attended Reardan High School, off the reservation, near the rich farm town, where all the other students were white. Many authors hum and ha when asked if their fiction is in any way autobiographical. This one makes no bones about it and yet skillfully manages to transform his actual experience into a novel. True fiction. Absolutely.

Source: https://theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/04/teenage.sherman.alexie

Excerpt

 Arnold Spirit, Jr says:

I was born with water on the brain. . . My family thinks it as funny when the doctors. . . sucked out all that extra water with some tiny vacuum. . .

My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other so my ugly glasses were all lopsided. . . I ended up with [42] teeth. . . Ten more than usual.

My head was so big. . . the kids called me Globe.

And oh, I was skinny. . .[but] my hands and feet were huge.

I also stutter and have a lisp. . . Every body on the rez calls me a retard. . . Do you know what happens to retards on the Rez? We get beat up. . .

Every kid wants to go outside. But it’s safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and draw cartoons. . . [I] draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. . .

[I] draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.

Book Review and Comments

Life on the impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation is rough on everyone but especially difficult for 14 year old Arnold Spirit, Jr aka Junior. His physical oddities and stuttering make him the perfect target for the mean spirited bullies on the “rez”.

Trapped by poverty and the effects of rampant alcoholism, he finds safety turning inward and dreaming of a better life off the reservation. He hides out in his room with his favorite books and resorts to writing about his life events – drawing relevant cartoons that express his deepest feelings and thoughts. One of my favorite cartoons depicts his parents lives if they were not handcuffed by culture, poverty and alcohol.

Determined not to be identified by his culture and circumstance, he never gives up hope to be seen as an individual on his own merits. We learn of his joys and sorrows through his diary.

Junior’s diary entries are written after the fact. They are openly honest and matter-of-fact; not offered as excuses or for shock value. They are sometimes startlingly emotional, often lonely, and at all times, written with unabashed candor and filled with optimism and hope.

As a child of two alcoholics, Arnold has seen first hand what alcohol can do to a family – hunger is a constant as Dad leaves to get bread and comes back drunk. His beloved Grandmother, who never touched a drop of alcohol, was run over by a drunken friend of Arnold’s father. His father’s friend was later killed in a drunken fight. His sister, Mary, and her husband were inebriated when they died in an accidental house fire.

FACT:   A popular blog on Native American life says that alcoholism is a disease that takes root like a parasitic plant that can affect every aspect of life, even including the potential death of its host. It seems appropriate that this candid view of the subject by Junior presents readers with an opportunity to view the ramifications of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Junior’s life takes a turn when he begins his first day in high school and he is issued an ancient textbook that he discovers had been used by his mother in the past. Faced full-on with the dead-end future he could expect from the inferior education on the rez, he reacts by pitching the text book injuring his teacher, Mr. P.

A week into his school suspension, Mr. P comes to visit him at home.  Junior, expecting Mr. P’s wrath, is surprised, when Mr. P says –

When I first started teaching here. . . we beat rowdy [students]. That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian [in you] to save the child. . . We were trying to kill the Indian culture. . . I want to say you deserve better. . . If you stay on the rez, we will kill [the spirit] in you. . . You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.

Arnold is disheartened by his father’s dependence on alcohol but he never doubts that he is loved by both of his parents. He tells them how important it is to him to leave the rez and transfer to the  high school twenty-two miles away for a better education. His father supports his decision although he knows that Junior will face deeply entrenched racism. His best friend on the rez, Rowdy, gives him a black-eye and a swollen nose as a going-away gift.  He might have been the victim of bullying on the rez but his leaving the culture in his rear-view mirror now labels him a traitor. Indian families follow tradition and stay together.

[His first day at the new school begins with] the white kids. . .arriving for school. They surround me. Those kids aren’t white. They were translucent. . .They stared at me like I was Bigfoot. . .[Their school mascot] was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town.

Junior/Arnold has a very hard time on all sides of his new life battling bullying and insults on both fronts. But as time goes by that first year, the “white” Arnold begins to emerge from his repressed rez cocoon at the new school excelling in academics and sports. He also finds racism, bullying, violence, drugs, girls, and hormonal explosion with exposure to raw sex.

FACT: According to the The Children’s Assessment Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan it is estimated that 40-85% of children will engage in at least some sexual behaviors before turning thirteen years of age (Friedrich, et al, 1991). It is believed by experts that 80% of children have masturbated by the age of three (Parenting, 1997). Children need to learn about sexuality. If children do not receive information about sexuality from their parents, they will receive it from their peers, TV, magazines, movies and other media, which may provide them with misinformation and cause confusion. 

I understand that some parents will prefer that their children acquire sexual knowledge at a time and place of their choosing. However, I am an old woman and I can affirm that when you learn about sex is usually far earlier than your parents think you are ready.

Junior’s life on the rez remains downcast until tragedy strikes his family and the entirety of the Spokane reservation pulls together in their grief and he is accepted back into the fold – with reservations- pun unintended.

By the end of his Freshman year, Junior/Arnold has a girlfriend in town and has his life on the reservation. He has learned many lessons during the year.  The view of the “white’ town, seen as a meca for educational advancement, turns out to be less than perfect- normal in its own way. The problems that plague the reservation may differ based on culture, but all communities have their good points and their bad. He has learned first hand how  poverty can make you feel inferior to those with money for new clothes and fast food. But he also learns that love and friendship can be color-blind.

I think that Arnold/Junior sums it all quite nicely. Yup. A cussword, Often my favorite.

format_quoteI used to think the world was broken down by tribes, I said. By black and white. By Indian and white.But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.

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Still Waters

STILL WATERS

by LINDSEY P. BRACKETT

easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR

 

Firefly Southern Fiction (Sept, 2017)
Paperback: 274 pages
ISBN: 978-1946016232
Genre: WOMEN’S FICTION/CHRISTIAN FAITH
Review Source: Purchase

★★★★☆

I am a Yankee transplant who has lived over 30 years in the South – long enough to appreciate that religion is wrapped around everything and prayer is served with every meal. On the night of September 11, 2017, Hurricane Irma was screaming around my mountainside home. She had already cut the power to the house and I found myself reaching for something to read. I remembered I had a debut novel written by a local author on my Kindle. I lit my oil lamp and I read Still Waters while monster trees were crashing all around my home and I feared for my life. It proved to be a good choice on a bad night.

I was thrown off-guard by the cover of Still Waters – the image of a loving couple embracing on a beach. I was right to assume the book has the central love story – the typical story filled with conflict and tension that ends with happily ever after. But there is so much more – family dysfunction, friends, healing faith in God, forgiveness, and the final mystery – death.

Still Waters depicts humanity in all its imperfections and insecurities. We mere mortal humans are gifted with free will and will freely make both good and bad life decisions; but we do not have to be defined by our mistakes. The free will that allowed us to falter also allows us to pick ourselves up and begin again.

Cora Anne, now an adult, was scarred by a terrible decision she made as a child that resulted in the drowning death of a family friend. Unable to forgive herself, she now lives an unfulfilled life always running from the memory that follows her like a shadow. Choosing to see herself as unworthy of love and attention, she shields herself from the affection and joys of life by deflecting and rejecting the things in life that would make her whole. Looking inward, has also kept her from seeing the humanity and needs of those that love her.

Cor has just graduated from college and has been wait-listed for her graduate program in the fall. Her grandmother, Annie (Nan) has requested she spend the summer on Edisto Island helping her restore the family’s ocean-front cottage in preparation for an upcoming family reunion.  Edisto Island, the scene of her worst nightmare. The last place on earth she wants to spend the summer. Reluctantly she agrees to return to the island to help.

ghost on beach frameMy favorite character is Grandma Nan. This feisty lady is dying but no one knows it. She has set the stage to reunite the fractured family and to bring them home in time to spend her final days surrounded by those she loves. The gruesome scenes of facing cancer head-on are tempered with Nan’s acceptance and readiness to join her beloved Thornton in the afterlife.

The setting of Edisto Island and the ocean are key to the novel. The ocean within each person, the rolling emotions, are calmed by the healing nature of the slow paced life on the island and the unencumbered solitude of Botany Bay. In Still Waters, Ms. Brackett hits the bulls-eye describing the restorative and spiritual nature of the natural world.

I encourage all lovers of Clean Reads and Christian Fiction to take the long slow ride onto Edisto Island where life travels on “island time”.

She closed her eyes and let the wind and the salt and the gray-green surf loosen the burdens she’d carried so long. Here, on this haunted strip of beach, she listened for forgiveness, and she let the surety that her life was bigger than one choice made twelve years ago settle into her soul.

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Ordinary Grace

ORDINARY GRACE

by WILLIAM KENT KRUEGER

Atria | 2013
Paperback: 315 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4585-9
Genre: FICTION/ Families/Minnesota/Murder/Grief
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★★

It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that summer as tragic and I do but not completely so. My father used to quote the Greek playwright Aeschylus. He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. . . . I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful Grace of God.

Years ago, Garrison Keillor invented Lake Wobegon, Minnesota and I found myself yearning to live in that simpler time, a town “where the women are strong and the men good-looking and all the children above average”.

In that same vein, William Kent Krueger has introduced the world to his fictional hometown of New Bremen, Minnesota – a small town seated in the valley of the Minnesota River. A town divided by class, prone to racism, and proud of its deep Christian values. A town where the wealthy homes fill the scenic “Heights” and the working class fill the lowland “Flats”. A place so isolated, the Methodist Church fulfills the spiritual needs of other marooned faiths. A community where everyone knows your name and just about everything else about you – or so they think.

From the first page, the first words, I knew that I was going to be transfixed. The book isn’t perfect; I saw the end coming early but it didn’t detract from the story. It is a fabulous coming-of-age story akin to To Kill A Mockingbird. I would like to add that I am not a deeply spiritual person but this carefully crafted book left me filled with wonder.

The story progresses in a linear fashion and you feel you are standing alongside each character as they are tested mentally, spiritually, ethically and morally. Sometimes you will feel the rush of panic or the agony of despair. Other times you will find comfort in the kindness. Above all, you will cheer the small miracles and the frequent signs of ordinary grace. There are some passages that will stay with you long after you finish the book.

Frank Drum, now middle-aged, narrates the story – a story of New Bremen in the summer of 1961 when he was 13 years old and his brother, 11 year-old Jake followed him around like Peter Pan’s shadow. For the rambunctious Frank and insecure stuttering Jake, summer time meant tempting fate on the railroad tracks that traces the river’s edge and “seemed to reach to a horizon from beyond which came the sound of the world calling.

That tragic summer started when a little boy wandered onto the tracks and was killed by an approaching train. We join the Drum family during the funeral as Pastor Drum tends his flock. His daughter, Ariel, is playing the organ and her brother, Frank thinks – There are [musical] pieces I cannot hear without  imagining my sister’s fingers shaping the music every bit as magnificently as God shaped the wings of butterflies.

Little did  anyone know that Bobby Cole’s death was the first of a cavalcade of deaths that would forever change two families – the  Drums in the Flats and the Brandts in the Heights.  Each of them in their own way will learn the terrible price of wisdom. The awful Grace of God.

As the years have passed and all that’s left are memories of that fateful summer and the people, Frank leaves us with this thought that he heard from Warren Redstone, an Ojibwa  native.

 

Highly recommended!

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The Salt Line

THE SALT LINE

by HOLLY GODDARD JONES

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | Sept 2017
Hardcover: 394 pages
ISBN: 978-0735214316
Genre: DYSTOPIAN FICTION
Review Source: ARC e-book from Netgalley and

★★★☆☆

Decades ago, a particularly virulent tick invaded the United States causing a nation-wide epidemic that divided the Old Republic into factions deeper than the Civil War. Most of the survivors retreated behind quarantined barriers in several geographically defined Zones. Each of these  zones devised some method of limiting tick infestations; some more successfully than others. The most secure and safe zone is the Atlantic Zone; rich in resources and power left over from the Old Republic – safe behind the “Salt Line” – a chemically burned area extending several kilometers beyond the guarded perimeter “Wall.”

“A pregnant miner tick releases a numbing agent, which allows her to work without detection. By the time you feel the itching, [she] has settled in place, laid her eggs and died. In a matter of hours the ticks spread through the body, mature and erupt through the skin creating an unbearable itch. The bites can be survived but 45% of female miner ticks carry Shreve’s disease that spreads rapidly, causes total paralysis and death in a matter of days.”

– OLE Training Course

The pervasive  miner ticks are bit players here. Their lethal presence a source of existential anxiety. They are pawns in a much greater threat – domination and greed by the seedier side of human nature.

Four years ago, a private enterprise, Outer Limits Excursions (OLE), began offering expensive three-week guided trips into the Out-Of-Zone. Some of  their clients are enticed by stories of the purple mountains majesty and the abandoned history and culture of the past. Others are seeking the nefarious pleasures unobtainable in the highly regulated Atlantic zone but provided by the Out-Of-Zoners – free spirits choosing to live free of rules and regulations and chancing Shreve’s in the castoff world.

For personal safety, OLE excursions require each client to undergo a regimented three-week training program in survival skills. When ready, they will leave the Zone in a protective SecondSkin microsuit, -given a “Stamp”, an intense burner much like an old fashioned car cigarette lighter used to fry embedded ticks – and assigned a partner who must stay as close as a conjoined twin.

It’s September and the OLE brochure promises a once-in-a-lifetime view of the mountains in colorful foliage and visits to the remnants of the Old Republic way of life. The training is over – the van  has pulled away from the Salt Line – the emptiness- the vast isolation ahead overwhelms them.

Among the 12 clients are a popular jazz musician and his girlfriend, a young techno entrepreneur, and a middle-aged housewife; each with a hidden agenda and a specific purpose for being there other than viewing the scenery.

At this point background stories of key characters have been defined. The clients have been  together for three weeks  and  have established friendships – or at least allies – and enemies among themselves.

A couple of days into the adventure the startled passengers are kidnapped at gunpoint by their guide and force marched to a rustic commune in the Blue Ridge Mountains known as Ruby City. What looked like a three-week sightseeing tour now has turned violent – one of the passengers was shot – two have had been bitten by miner tics – and the future of the remaining passengers looks ominous.

field of poppies.jpgJune proceeded to shake the hand of each of her captives. . . When Marta’s turn came . . . [June] fixed her hazel eyes on Marta’s demanding contact. ‘You look tired’, she said. ‘That trek is a bit much for women our age. I do apologize.’

‘The trek was fine’, Marta managed to say.  ‘The treatment we received wasn’t’

‘I’m afraid that prisoners of war don’t often get the red carpet rolled out.’
‘What war?’, Marta asked.

Buckle up . . . things are about to take off. And no one is who they seem. And no one’s future is guaranteed.

Recommended

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Banned Books Week : 2017

banned books graphic.png

Celebrate 2017 Banned Books Week

 Sept. 24 – Sept. 30

Support the freedom to read with out censorship.

The American Library Association’s
Most Frequently Challenged Book List

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers — in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

To continue to raise awareness about the harms of censorship and the freedom to read, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) publishes an annual list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books, using information from public challenges reported in the media, as well as censorship reports submitted to the office through its challenge reporting form.

Source: American Library Association

My 2017 Challenged Book Selection

What book will you choose?

part-time indian cover.jpg

This year I have selected:

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Ellen Forney
Little, Brown and Co.| 2007
Hardcover: 229 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-01368-0
OCLC: 154698238
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

This young adult book won a 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has been on the list five times since its publication in 2007.

It was the #1 Challenged Book in 2014.

The reasons cited for the library challenges are: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence and “depictions of bullying”.

  • National Book Award, Young People’s Literature, 2007.
  • Odyssey Award, 2009.
  • Notable Book for a Global Society award winner, 2008.
  • American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner, 2008

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Ban This Book

 

BAN THIS BOOK

by ALAN GRATZ

It all started the day my favorite book went missing from the [school] library. I didn’t know it was missing. Not yet.

Publisher: Starscape/Tom Doherty
Pub Date: Aug 29, 2017

Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8556-7
Genre: Juvenile Fiction (Ages 9-11)
Problem Solving/Censorship
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

ALAN GRATZ is a New York Times bestselling author of a number of novels for young readers. This newest book, BAN THIS BOOK introduces young (and older readers) to award winning books that have been challenged or banned in libraries. The book will be released in time for the 2017 American Library Association’s Banned Books Week slated for September 24 – 30.

BAN THIS BOOK opens with the 9 year-old avid library lover, Amy Anne, racing to her school library to check-out her favorite book for the umpteenth time. This day, Amy Anne discovers the book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is not on the shelf. 

After a complaint by a concerned parent about the moral messages several books in the library teach readers, the local library board skips protocol and has ordered the books, including From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, removed from the library shelf. The library board will hear public comment about the pros and cons of permanently banning the books at their next meeting.

But – it isn’t inappropriate! . . . It’s a great book! It is my favorite book!

I know, [says the school librarian]. . .Nobody but your parents has the right to tell you what books you can and can’t read. I promise you, I’m going to fight this. . .You can help get it back, Amy Anne. . . .[Tell the library board] why you like that book so much. . .

Amy, a shy and reluctant public speaker, attends the board meeting but fails to summon the courage to speak up.

The librarian reminded the library board they had approved the Request for Reconsideration form and specific procedures for considering the merits of a book but they chose to sidestep the rules. The highly influential community matron’s highly emotional speech won the day.

Amy Anne take matters into her own hands and begins an underground effort to keep the books available to other students. She is caught and suspended from school for three days. The librarian, having had no part in the deception, was fired. Mrs. Spenser, emboldened, goes on a rampage stripping more books off the library shelves.

Mrs. Spenser’s own son devises a way to outsmart his mother and to show the library board the need to follow rules. It takes bravery and courage on the part of all the students to pull it off. As expected, all ends well.

There are many lessons  for children here. Reading exposes situations in a non-threatening way that prepares their own life crisis as they grow up.  They learn that even adults break rules but that rules are necessary and failing to follow them have consequences. Amy Anne shows that finding your own voice and standing up to what you believe in is important. And most importantly, free speech is a guaranteed by the First Amendment and no one but your parents should have the right to stop you from reading something.

Recommended.

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Watch Me Disappear

WATCH ME DISAPPEAR

by JANELLE BROWN

★★★☆☆

IT’S A GOOD DAY, or maybe even a great one, although it will be impossible to know for sure later. By that point they’ll already have burnished their memories of this afternoon, polished them to a jewel-like gleam. One of the last days …before Billie died…

Spiegal & Grau | 2017
Hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8946-5
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Missing Persons
Review Source: ARC e-book from Netgalley

Billie and Jonathan Flanagan have been married for 16 years and have reached that stage in their relationship where things have gone stale. Billie rejuvenates herself by trekking in the mountains alone or with a friend. The time comes for a little more “me” time, and she announces she is going alone to a remote section of the Pacific Crest Trail for a few days.

When she doesn’t return, a search discovers her broken phone and a lone hiking boot off the trail. After a lengthy search, she is presumed dead.

A year later, their daughter, Olive, begins to have visions of her mother in various settings that seem to imply her mother is not dead but waiting somewhere to be found. Olive’s erratic behavior and frequent unexcused absences jeopardizes her attendance at an expensive private high school. Some feel it is delayed grief with the anniversary of her mother’s death and others believe she has a medical problem. She is convinced she is a psychic.

Billie cannot be declared officially dead for a year which has left Jonathan in limbo financially. Without a death certificate he cannot receive the life insurance benefits. Shortly before Billie’s death Jonathan had quit his job to follow his dream of writing a book. Now, a year later, without his wife’s income, Jonathan is struggling to pay the bills that include the expensive private school tuition for Olive.

Jonathan has begun the court directed process of “proving” his wife is not dead. In the search through the family’s financial records he discovers secrets his wife has hidden from him. As he peels back the layers of her deception, he discovers a secret life before their marriage.

The mishmash of issues including Olive’s “visions”, financial woes, Billie’s secrets, and Jonathan’s weak-kneed personality seemed so directed and contrived but overall I consider it a nice simple read. If you excuse my vulgarity, the purview of an old woman, I wished Jonathon would grow a pair.

It will come as no spoiler that Billie is still alive, but the reasons why will be a surprise. The ending did make me say, “How about that”. If you are looking for a book with a simple plot that you can take with you to read at the car service center, here you go.

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A Stranger In The House

A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE

by SHARI LAPENA

When they brought you in[to the hospital], you were very disoriented, he begins. Saying things.

She’s anxious now, and wide awake. You kept saying someone’s name over and over. Do you remember that?

She goes completely still. No.

Pamela Dorman | Aug 2017  
Hardcover: 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0735221123
Genre: Mystery/Amnesia/Murder
Review Source: ARC e-book from Eidelweiss

★★☆☆

BLOGGER’S NOTE

I was thrilled when the publisher through Eidelweiss granted permission to preview the book. I didn’t notice when I downloaded it that  a large portion of the book was missing and replaced by strange coding. Always up to a challenge, I decided to see if I could decipher what was going on despite the screwed-up download.

Amazingly, it wasn’t hard at all. The number of characters were few and one-dimensional. The plot fairly obvious from the get-go. The dialogue simple, much like a Robert Parker novel. In other words, an easy read. I do want to note that I rated it only 2 stars but I do so with the caution that I didn’t get the full book to review.

REVIEW

Tom Krupp arrives home from work to discover his wife is not there. Their evening meal is laid out in the kitchen. He notes her purse and cell phone are on the counter. Her car is missing. All very strange and very much unlike Karen’s daily routine.

He begins to call their neighbors to ask if they know Karen’s whereabouts. After a few hours he calls 911 to report his wife missing. His doorbell rings within minutes of this call. Opening his door, he is surprised to find police officers standing there. How did you get here so fast? I just called 911 a few minutes ago.

His wife has been hospitalized after crashing her car into a pole while driving recklessly through traffic. Mysteriously the accident occurred in the unsavory side of town. What was she doing there and what would make her drop everything and head there?

As Karen lies in the hospital struggling to remember what happened, the police discover a murder was committed in an abandoned building near the scene of the accident. Despite their best efforts to make her talk, Karen insists she has no recollection of why she left her home in such a hurry or why she was running scared; scared enough to make her nearly kill herself behind the wheel. The nondescript detectives return time and time again badgering Tom, Karen and Brigid hoping to pin the murder on someone.

Karen’s best friend, Brigid, shows herself to be is a devious conniver who has spend the last two years watching everything that happens across the street in the Krupps household. And poor Tom finds his own past rears up to bite him. The ending is creative and does have an unusual twist.

Truth be told, I didn’t really like any of these characters. Not that it is important that I develop a fondness for the accused, but I don’t like it when I don’t care what happens to any one of them.

Judging from the wild range of ratings by other reviewers, this book either satisfies a mystery appetite or leaves folks with a yawn. Personally, I like a book that has me looking for clues so I can outsmart the author and happy when I am caught off guard and shouting in the end…I didn’t see that coming! Yawn, figured this one out early.

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One Thousand White Women

One Thousand
White Women:

The Journals of May Dodd

Jim Fergus, Author

Rated: ★★★★★

I’ve been hooked from childhood on fiction and non-fiction survival stories after reading Last of the Mohigans by James Fenimore Cooper.

I knew almost immediately that One Thousand White Women would be a book that I would read and reread. It is harsh, heartbreaking, and cruel yet depicts loyalty, friendship, love and strength of character. It reveals the truth that all cultures have good and bad elements capable of extreme behaviors and actions in the interest of their individual survival.

I highly recommend reading One Thousand White Women if you enjoyed the book and/or movie of Dances with Wolves.

The author states, “In spite of efforts to convince the reader to the contrary, this book is entirely a work of fiction. [T}he seed. . . was sown in author’s imagination by an actual historical event: in 1854 at a peace conference. . . a Northern Cheyenne chief requested. . .the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors.” [T]he request collapsed the peace conference, , , and the brides were not sent. In this novel, the brides were sent.

May Dodd was incarcerated by her parents in a mental institution for the crime of bearing two illegitimate children and loving a man far beneath her station in life . Escaping the horrors of the institution, May joins in the first convoy of brides and begins documenting her new life in a journal with the hopes that her estranged children “might one day know the truth of my unjust incarcertation, my escape from Hell, and into whatever is to come in these pages.”

I am currently reading an advanced copy of The Vengeance of Mothers, a sequel to One Thousand White Women, that will be available in September of 2017.

In September of 1874, the great Cheyenne “Sweet Medicine Chief” Little Wolf made the long overland journey to Washington, D.C., with a delegation of his tribesmen for the express purpose of making a lasting peace with the whites. . . The Indian leader was received in Washington with all the pomp and circumstance accorded to the visiting head of state of a foreign land.

At a formal ceremony in the Capitol building with President Ulysses S. Grant, and members of a specially appointed congressional commission, Little Wolf was presented with the Presidential Peace Medal. . . Expressing himself through an interpreter. . .Little Wolf came directly to the point.

“It is the Cheyenne way that all children who enter this world belong to their mother’s tribe. .  . The Cheyennes  are a small tribe, we have never been numerous because we understand that the earth can only carry a certain number of the People. . . . Because of the sickness you have brought us . . .and the war you have waged upon us, we are now even fewer. Soon the People will disappear altogether, as the buffalo in our country disappear.

“I am the Sweet Medicine Chief. My duty is to see that my People survive. To do this we must enter the white man’s world-our children must become members of your tribe. Therefore we ask the Great Father for the gift of one thousand white women as wives, to teach us and our children the new life that must be lived when the buffalo are gone.”. . .

At exactly this point in Little Wolf’s address, President Grant’s wife, Julia, fainted dead away. . .

Official response to Little Wolf’s unusual treaty offer was swift. . . .Little Wolf and his entourage were packed inside a cattle car and escorted by armed guard out of the nation’s capital. . . In private and after the initial uproar had abated, the President and his advisors had to admit that Little Wolf’s unprecedented plan for assimilation of the Cheyennes made a certain practical sense. . .

Thus was born the “Brides for Indians” (or “BFI” program, as its secret acronym became known. . . [I]n a series of highly secretive, top-level meetings on the subject, the administration decided, in age-old fashion, to take matters into its own hands-to launch[ed] its own covert matrimonial operation. . .by recruiting women out of jails, penitentiaries, debtors’ prisons, and mental institutions -offering full pardons or unconditional release, as the case might be, to those who agreed to sign on for the program. . .

The first trainload of white women bound for the northern Great Plains and their new lives as brides of the Cheyenne nation left Washington under a veil of total secrecy late one night the following spring, [in] early March 1875.

Title: One Thousand White Women
Author: Jim Fergus
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin | 1999
Hardcover: 496 pages
ISBN: 978-0312199432
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review Source: Personal Copy

 

Sequel: The Vengeance of Mothers (will be available September 12, 2017)

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The Underworld

The Underworld

by Kevin Canty

W. W. Norton | March 2017
Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-3993293050
Genre: Historical Fiction / Mine Disaster
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

Really happened…In 1972, a fire broke out underground at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho; 91 men died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The disaster had a devastating effect on Kellogg and the nearby communities in Idaho’s Silver Valley. People who were there still vividly remember the events of that day. Source: NPR

Tom Wilkerson and Ron Flory were found 8 days after the fire and were the only survivors. Their story inspired this work of fiction.

When I first saw the title, The Underworld, and read the publisher’s blurb I made a wrong assessment that the book was a fantasy or science fiction. Somehow my brain latched on to the words – “none of the characters that populate the Underworld ever lived. . .” and made the leap to subterranean creatures never before seen.

In reality, the novel, inspired by true events, describes a hardscrabble life in a Colorado company-owned silver mining town in 1972. The cast of characters is small, mainly the Wright family and a few others. All residents are trapped; landlocked geographically, handcuffed by poverty and controlled by tradition. The company owns everything from the homes to the homeowners.

The story opens with David Wright, a college freshman, traveling from Missoula, Montana back to his hometown of Silverton, Colorado to attend a friend’s wedding. David’s easy drive from Missoula on the multi-lane highway ends when it bumps up against the mighty Camel’s Hump. Symbolically, and literally in David’s case, he puts chains on himself and the car’s tires before heading up the narrow mountain road toward home. Toward a place that the unimaginable has happened.

The day expires on the two-lane. . . the chains make a jingly sound that reminds David of Christmas and he sighs remembering all that was lost, everything slipping into the past. He is driving into the past. . .He moves through a whirling tunnel of snow, back and back and back.

From the moment you are born your life is predetermined here.  If you are a woman, you will become a miner’s wife. If you are a miner, your son will be a miner and together you will descend daily into hell praying the mountain will spit you back out at the end of your shift.

There are few secrets in a mining town; much like Cheers, everyone knows your name. You develop deep bonds and friendships as everyone knows that one day, something is going to happen that will forever change things. The underworld. That cramped, damp, hot darkness of the mine fills all their lives; young and old alike.

Fear, the frayed high tension wire that connects everyone above ground as well as those a mile below hums in their consciousness day and night. It colors everything they think and do. Could today’s kiss good-bye in the morning be the last kiss? They drown their fear in alcohol and bravado.  Most try to live loudly but there are those who withdraw into themselves creating a blank space where they smother feeling and emotion. They love, they hate, they fight, they pray…always aware they live on borrowed time.

It is no surprise that many dream of leaving but few have the courage to climb that mountain; it’s too scary to leave the devil you know for the one you don’t. Those that do leave are often pulled back by the bonds of family and the inability to understand and function in an uncontrolled outside world.

Then one day, it happens. . . 171 miners kissed their loved ones good-bye and headed to their underworld jobs. Life above ground followed normal routines. The instant the alarm was heard throughout the town, time stopped. The town’s worst nightmare had become a reality. Family and friends gather silently at the entrance of the mine and the long vigil begins. From that moment on, life will never be the same again in Silverton.

The fire will kill 91.

Whatever anyone thought they knew about themselves and how they would react to a mine disaster would prove to be wrong, Some will find the strength to start over, others will remain fixed in grief unable to restart a new life. This unfortunate town lost more than 91 souls, it lost its identity, its future. Somewhere, however, seeds of hope sprout for those willing to look for them.

In the difficult struggle to rise up, love will bloom and new friendships will be forged.  Those finding the will to change have a bright new future ahead. Others, will remain focused on the loss and become alienated, bitter and unable to rise from the ashes.

I found this book a fast read. I guess I was drawn into the story by virtue of  hearing about the local mine disaster near my home as a child. The story itself was told in simple terms, nothing floral or poetic, just told things in a manner that conveyed things as they probably would happen in real life.

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The Woman in Cabin 10

THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10

by RUTH WARE

Gallery/Scout Press:  2016
Hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN: 978-1501132933
Genre: Murder Mystery

Review Source: ARC e-book from Netgalley

★★★☆☆

Woman in Cabin 10 is an Agatha Christie style murder mystery on a tiny cruise ship heading into the frigid waters of Norway. It is summer here in north Georgia and the pea soup humidity and oppressive heat have me heading to my recliner with a glass of ice tea. I need an ocean breeze to cool things off. Ready, set, read. When I finished, I felt somewhat disappointed about the ending but nonetheless enjoyed the book.

Laura “Lo” Blacklock, a budding travel journalist, is one of a handful of invited passengers on the tiny luxury cruise ship, the Aurora Borealis, as she sets out on her maiden voyage to Norway. The Aurora, small in stature with only 10 luxury suites, has full cruise line amenities and service staff. The Northern Lights Company and its director, Lord Richard Bullmer, hope to find interested investors and to earn complimentary publicity to further the Aurora’s niche market.

Lo’s apartment is burglarized while she is home just before the launch. The home invasion serves no other purpose than to start the story out on edge. We learn that Lo suffers from life-long panic attacks and chronic insomnia that she treats with antidepressants and copious amounts of alcohol. Despite the untimely severe flare of her panic attacks, Lo heads to the ship self-medicated and hung-over – desperate for sleep. Can you spell C-r-a-n-k-y?

Cabin #9 has been reserved for Lo. As she dresses for dinner she discovers she has forgotten her mascara. Hearing movement next door, she hopes she can get a tube from the resident of Cabin #10. A young woman, dressed casually, answers abruptly, hands a tube of mascara to Lo, and slams the door.

Later that first night, Lo hopes to meet the mystery woman at dinner. The remaining key characters (aside from the crew) in this who-dunnit-it glide, elegantly adorned, one by one into the small formal dining room.  There are two tables arranged to seat 12 people. The one empty seat, Lo surmises, is meant for the mystery woman in cabin #10 who has chosen to skip the meal.

Late one night, Lo hears a scream and the sound like something heavy hitting the water. She races to her small balcony and sees what she believes to be blood on the balcony next door and a hand disappearing into the deep. She rings for security and relays what she has seen and heard. A search is conducted but no one, crew or passenger, is found missing.

Unable to get anyone to believe there is a mystery woman aboard the ship and she was murdered, Lo sets out on her own to find clues. The harder she tries to raise the alarm, the more everyone points to her prescribed drug use, insomnia and heavy drinking to discredit her claims. Yet, someone knows what happened! And they let Lo know she was right. The mystery for the reader becomes- Who is warning Lo to “stop digging”?

The climax of the story seemed to me to have too many loose ends. As the story ramps up in the final pages,what was intended to be tension and suspense felt more like chaos and strange. Too many unconnected events. The story could have been improved with fewer characters and more attention to details but overall a quick and easy read.

Most importantly, as expected, the murderer is disclosed..or were they?

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Sometimes I’m So Smart I Almost Feel Like A Real Person

SOMETIMES I’M SO SMART I ALMOST FEEL LIKE A REAL PERSON

by Graham Parke

No Hope Media | 2017
Paperback
ISBN: 978-9491919039
Genre: Fiction / Millennials / Social Angst

Review Source: Kindle copy provided by the author in exchange for my honest review

★★★★☆

A lot has happened since you left, Eric.

For one thing, I had to deal with this really bad break up. Not one to waste time, I immediately turned to my oldest and dearest friend: Google. After…countless generations suffered this fate before me…[all searching] for the best way to deal with the rejections, the heartache, and that longing to spend the days with [The One], it should be known by now.

Not so.

…opening paragraph in the preface

First off, I loved this book.

As Harold begins to describe his story, it is obvious from the get-go that it’s going to be somewhat of a Debbie-Downer.  However, the author has found a way to make loneliness and love-sickness amusing and entertaining. The book is written in a funny self-deprecating style and has the reader flipping pages to see what emotional hole Harold will dig for himself next.

Harold is a 30 year-old socially challenged accountant who still lives with his mother. Together they share a raucous relationship tempered with love. They rarely see eye-to-eye on anything. His mother is fond of reminding him that it is her house. Harold is quick to point out that he pays rent like any boarder and expects his privacy. Sparks fly and doors slam. The house creaks with secrets that neither one wants to admit are there.

Mom recognizes that Harold has social issues and presses him to date or make friends but goes about it in all the wrong ways. Yet her interference does reap rewards in its own way. Here’s one of my favorite lines:

“When I arrive [home from work], Mom’s already complaining. Sometimes I think she starts before she even opens the door, perhaps warming up by telling the wall to stop slouching and stand up straight.”

The failure to find the answer to his love-sick blues on Google leads Harold to set up his own YouTube video blog.  He first calls it: How to get over someone in 600 easy steps. After reflection he changed it to 27 simple steps to happiness.  Each carefully scripted message is a 5 minute vblog narrated anonymously by disguising his face with a Zorro mask and adopting the online name of Leverage.

Despite his hope to spread his “wise-isms” anonymously, he is discovered by several of his followers. Each discovery leads Harold down another road less traveled in his life. One of his followers, using his “wise-isms” becomes a rival to Harold’s best hope for love. The charming and flirtatious sales clerk, Emma, at the Ye Olde Peanut Shoppe strings Harold along by tweeting all day but giving him the Heisman when pressed for a real date. He becomes so obsessed with Emma that he begins imaginary dialogues with her.

Harold’s wild emotional roller coaster relationship with Emma goes from heart pounding infatuation to friendship fatigue. He eventually finds out about her boyfriend and the futility of his hopes. When she continues to text he begins weaning himself away from her.

So that was Part One of my story, Eric.

I hope you understand why I had no choice but to divert all mental resources away from “attracting The One” and on to something much more important.

There’s less snark and more heartfelt substance in Part Two. He has discovered that what he felt for Emma was just a pipe-dream. Now having cleared his mind of mischief he faces several issues in his life that were in limbo. If I elaborate, it would be a spoiler. Best you find out things for yourself. The tone becomes more serious but no less engaging.

The book ended with a few loose threads but not enough to detract from my overall enjoyment. Aside from the quirky repartees, I liked that Harold “found himself”.

Recommended to any reader who love quirky and comical characters.

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The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder

THE WORLD OF LAURA INGALLS WILDER:

The Frontier Landscapes That Inspired The Little House Books

by Marta McDowell

Timber Press
2017

368 pages
978-1-60469-727-8

Biography/Environment/Botany
ARC provided by Netgalley and Timber Press.

★★★★★

“It is the simple things of life that make living worthwhile, the sweet fundamental things such as love and duty, work and rest, and living close to nature.” 
— Laura Ingalls Wilder

You want to make someone smile?  Start talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“Once upon a time.” Like many children’s stories, Laura Ingalls Wilder opened Little House in the Big Woods with this quiet invitation to readers to turn their thoughts back in time. Hers was a long story, rooted in her father’s and her husband’s, tales of family and farms and nature – a nature that was sometimes inviting and sometimes ferocious. It began in Wisconsin. (World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, pg 17)

Marta McDowell, a New York Times bestseller in her own right, commemorates Laura’s 150th birthday with this enchanting book filled with flowers, photographs and delightful illustrations of the places, people, flora, fauna and homes that filled Laura and Almanzo’s lives.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a childish work. The author has crawled beneath the covers of the Little House books and brought the physical world depicted in Laura’s books aliveNo fairy tale here; just hard working pioneers accepting the challenge of working in harmony with nature.

Stand alongside Laura, first as a child, and later as a mother herself, as she gathers berries and nuts from the forest and fields; meticulously documenting what she has found for future reference. Sweat with her as she boils the berries for preserves in a room already sweltering from the summer heat. Hand her the canning jars and the melted paraffin to seal in the fruit and keep out the spoilers. Stand back as she continues with her daily chores – on to fixing a hearty meal for her exhausted husband.

Head out to the forest with Alamanzo and his axe as he clears land for a new home, fields for the crops and domestic animals. As the years progress, observe his willingness to experiment with crop rotations and research new agricultural equipment to expand and improve their livelihood.

Experience the heartbreak of leaving loved ones and good friends behind after calamity has destroyed your hard work. Step up and take a seat in the wagon as they head out; stoically starting over…again and again. Somewhere else. Sit in the buggy and bounce and jostle along wandering through towering prairie grass toward an unknown future.

With all the hard work necessary just to survive, it will surprise you to see how valuable education and literature was to both the Charles (Pa) Ingalls family and later with Laura and Almanzo.  Where did they find the time in each day? Charles nurtured his children with stories about far away places. Laura has provided generations of children with pioneer pride, responsibility, unity of purpose, community spirit and a love for nature and the world. Her books are as popular as ever today.

Meet Laura’s daughter, Rose, named for the sweet smelling prairie flower that infused the air during the Wilder’s courtship. Learn how Rose, a bestselling author, helped her mother hone her own writing talents.

As each chapter was a diorama of a particular home site, I took my time reading the book. My favorite times were sitting on my screen porch overlooking my garden and I found that I shared Laura’s interest in the cycle of life progressing all around me. Laura and I watched birds hatch, flowers emerge from winter sleep, and note the arrival of summer’s sounds.

This dynamic work doesn’t end at Rocky Ridge Farm on the Wilder’s front porch where Almanzo and Laura enjoyed their waning years. It continues with several chapters that include a tour guide to the Ingalls and Wilder homesites today and a handy table listing all the flowers Laura mentioned in her books along with citations to each referenced. Bonus. Sources of heirloom seeds is provided for the inspired gardener.

Highly recommended reading. Here is the perfect gift for a nature loving friend or relative.

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American War: A Novel

American War : A Novel

by Omar El Akkao

Knopf | 2017
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN: 978-0-451-49358-3
Genre: Dystopian Fiction

ARC e-book from Netgalley and publisher in exchange for review

★★★★☆

Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian-born Canadian journalist who has reported on the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring uprising, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

NPR Author Interview

Contemporary American Political Climate

In the current American political climate, split between two extremes for the most part, much of the book will seem prescient. This is a reminder that the book is a novel; a story; not alternative facts. It is not an easy book to read, and for some readers, the topic too emotional or draining to handle at this time. I would recommend reading this with an open and questioning mind

Novel’s Background

It’s 2075. America is beset by flooding linked to climate change and the coastal states have lost significant if not all of their landmass. Washington D.C. was devastated by flooding and the northern capital is now in Columbus, Ohio. World wide temperatures have soared and the continental US experiences unbearable heat. Coastal states have water supplies polluted with salt water and irrigation and agriculture has disappeared.

The US Congress passed a bill prohibiting the use of fossil fuels “in response to decades of adverse climate effects, the waning economic importance of fossil fuels”. The southern states rebelled  to protect the waning coal mining industry and to preserve their southern traditions. The protests led to violence and the assassination of the President.

South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi seceded from the Union in 2074 and formed The Free Southern States (FSS) with it’s capital in Atlanta.

Millions of displaced citizens, some from the ravages of nature and others victims of partisan militias, have been forced into refugee camps. The south, now unable to resupply from the north and western states, is reliant on foreign assistance for food and goods. A rabid civil war, using biological and conventional weapons, raged for the next 20 years.

Story’s Focus

Amid this cacophony of war, we follow the Chestnut family through the nightmare. We meet the twins, Sarat and Dana; polar opposites. Dana, beautiful and admired -ever the family princess is contrasted with Sarat, inquisitive, introverted, furious and observant- over-sized in both body and mind. Simon, the typical teenage boy, is caught up in gangs and searching for his place in this war of against humanity. When their father attempts to take the family north for a better life, he is murdered. The children and their mother are forced into Camp Patience, a misnomer if there ever was one.

At this point the story focuses on Sarat in a story that starts out like Katniss in the Hunger Games as she stalks the edges of mental and physical confinement and ends in unimaginable horror. As we follow Sarat through the years at Camp Patience, we meet evil in the person of Albert Gaines. Gaines slowly and carefully uses Sarat’s anger and fury at the cruel deaths and injuries inflicted on her family to mold her into the perfect weapon for his cause.

Sarat’s radicalization should scare the bejesus out of the reader. If you think your child could resist the pressures of a crafty weasel posing as the answer to their mental confusion about the world- think again. And as Sarat carries out her final mission, the truth of how easy it would be to find this same horror in our own time will rock your world.

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

by Gail Honeyman

Pamela Dorman Bks  | 2017
Hardcover: 327 pages
ISBN: 9780735220683
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Review Source: ARC e-book from Edelweiss

★★★★☆

When people ask me what I do…I tell them I work in an office. [I work] for a graphic design company…Bob, the owner [must have felt sorry for me]. I had a degree in Classics and no work experience…I showed up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.

First thing before I write another word…you are going to love Eleanor Oliphant. She’s had a rough life but there’s something very special lurking inside her and she has a quirky personality that makes her endearing.

Pity isn’t a word Eleanor would use about herself. She’s pretty straightforward about everything – one of the first thing you will notice about her is her lack of a mental filter. She is a recluse but when she bumps up against the world she has a way of expressing herself that is unique and sometimes seen as abrasive.

In her first 30 years Eleanor has learned that the world is a cruel place. She only has to look in a mirror to see that half her face was burned in a fire but she has only limited memory of how it happened. She has grown up  in foster homes; passed around like a white elephant gift. It was easier to pack her up and shove her into a new spot than to address why she doesn’t seem to fit into a normal family life.

Yet despite all of life’s misfortunes, Eleanor is perfectly happy just as she is…she sees the world as out-of-step and strange.

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor…I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life…I am a self-contained entity.

Then two things happen that crack open her self-contained world.

She wins tickets to a rock concert and is star struck by one of the musicians.  This immediate infatuation sends her on a mission to upgrade her image and is convinced that he marry her.

Next, her company computer breaks and she meets a disheveled computer repairman with a gentle spirit and a kind heart. Raymond is the only person in the office that sees her as a person not an object for ridicule and scorn. They begin a routine of lunch hour trips and in time form a social relationship that expands Eleanor’s world.

Eleanor crashes and burns when she learns that her rock star is a jerk. All of her hidden memories of childhood flood back. Her protective shell cracks as she deems herself undeserving of happiness and love. Reaching rock bottom in her life, Eleanor finds the strength to step on that last rung and begin to climb into a brighter and happier future.

As rough as this story sounds, it is not a maudlin book. It reminded me, in a way, of my favorite character in the recent bestseller, Man Called Ove. I was sorry when the book ended but I was cheering and calling out to Eleanor- you go girl! You deserve your new life.

Highly recommended.

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Girl In Snow

GIRL IN SNOW

by DANYA KUKAFKA

Simon & Schuster | 2017
Hardcover: 368 pages
ISBN: 978-1501144370
Genre: Suspense
Review Source: ARC from S & S through Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

Tragedy struck in northern Colorado this morning, where the body of a fifteen-year-old girl was discovered on a [snowy] elementary school playground. The victim has been identified as Lucinda Hayes, a ninth-grade student at Jefferson High School.

Lucinda’s death and the subsequent three-day murder investigation sets forth a firestorm of memories, self-reflection and introspection through three primary protagonists and a host of secondary characters. The three main characters alternate chapters offering different perspectives on the murder and Lucinda’s brief life where Cameron and Russ are told in the third person and we hear directly from Jade.

Fifteen-year-old Cameron Whitley’s first thoughts after learning of Lucinda’s death were that “her shoulder blades framed her naked spine like a pair of static lungs”.  He spends his nights standing still in the dark outside homes watching his neighbors’ candid movements and activities. Lucinda Hayes is his primary interest and over time has become his compulsion. He began his nightly stalking after taking an art class and became curious to people’s lives in candid moments. The community is aware of Cameron’s habits and peculiar behavior; he was considered annoying and presumed as an innocent…until the murder. When stressed, Cameron devolves into a state he refers to as “tangled” and becomes erratic and performs dangerous actions like stealing his mother’s gun for a shooting spree in the woods.

Cameron had started playing Statue Nights when he was twelve years old. The summer after sixth grade, he realized he could pop out the screen in his bedroom window…

Seventeen-year-old Jade Dixon-Burns learned about Lucinda’s death over breakfast and “felt only a foreign lightness: like someone sucked the weight from her legs, taken the terrible thoughts out of her head, softened some sharpness jabbing at her ribs”.  Jade, seen as an outcast and oddball, hated the beautiful, popular and alluring Lucinda. Her hate centers on the fact that Lucinda, just by being attractive, is loved, valued, and appreciated.

We learn the most about Lucinda through Jade’s story. Jade displays a sarcastic and aloof side to the world but we see that she has great strength of character just below the surface. She lives with an abusive mother and sees herself as unlovable.  Her relief valve is her need to write scripts that help clarify her thoughts and feelings.

And she shares Cameron’s need to observe others…she is always aware and watching. She knows things about the murder. She is my favorite character.

Jade Dixon-Burns hates Lucinda. Lucinda took everything from Jade: her babysitting job, and her best friend. The worst part was Lucinda’s blissful ignorance to the damage she’d wrought.

Police Officer Russ Fletcher is stunned. Serving nearly 20 years on the force, this is his first body – his first murder victim. When Russ learns that Cameron is a suspect, he is flung back to an earlier time in his career when he patrolled with Lee Whitley, Cameron’s father, and a promise he made to his old partner to watch over his delicate son. Russ has his own secrets and when revealed, will leave you feeling sad for him.

Officer Russ Fletcher doesn’t know Lucinda, but he knows the kid everyone is talking about, the boy who may have killed her…Cameron Whitley.

Cameron, Jade and Russ lead us to others that play pivotal roles in their lives and we witness the reactions and suspicions of a small town rocked by violence; judgments are made about people and events based on our preconceived ideas and observations that can lead away from the truth.

As a final note, since we are dealing with budding adults with raging hormones, there’s strong references to sexual inquisitiveness and experiences.

In total, it is a complex and twisted story but well crafted. As a debut work, it has pulled together many elements of a true mystery with a flair to the dramatic. There are weak spots in the conclusion and the resolution of the crime but overall a worthy read.

I would definitely read another book by this author.

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The Other Einstein

Rated: 3/5 stars 

Author’s Quote

I confess to beginning this book with only the most commonplace understanding of Albert Einstein and hardly and knowledge of his first wife, Mileva Marić. In fact, I had never even heard of [her] until I helped my son…with a report on…Albert Einstein and it mentioned briefly that…his first wife was also a physicist. I became intrigued.

Marie Benedict’s research about Mileva, her education and scientific promise, and her marriage to the Albert Einstein led her to create a fictionalized account of her life. In telling her story, she has revealed the cultural schism alive and well in the 1900’s world between women defined as breeders and caregivers and men as providers and authority. The author stipulates “whenever possible, in the overarching arc of the story – the dates, the places, the people – I attempted to stay as close to the facts as possible, taking necessary liberties for fictional purposes.”

Mileva Marić  was born December 19, 1875 in what is now Serbia. Much to her parents chagrin, Mileva was born with two handicaps that would make her future difficult – a strong independent spirit and a deformed hip causing her to noticeably limp. From her mother’s perspective, her superior intelligence and headstrong ways coupled with an unappealing physical deformity precluded marriage and children- the only options for women at the time. Her father saw that her precocious mind and unlikely marriageability could lead her to pursue a meaningful life in the scientific world; if they would let her in the all-boys club world.

Mileva’s sheltered life with her parents did not prepare her for socializing with others in a more sophisticated setting. She was quickly manipulated by a narcissist classmate, Albert Einstein, who took advantage of her brilliance and naivete. Albert, flagrantly violated social norms of student behavior, skipping class and defying authority. Discriminated and isolated by her male classmates and professors, Mileva was vulnerable to Albert’s attentions and charms. Trapping her in his web, Albert drew on her strengths to finish his education- leaving Mileva, a shell of lost potential, pregnant and without a degree.

Mileva and Albert were passionately in love in their early marriage and reveled as partners in scientific discovery. Mileva openly shared her thoughts and revelations on topics such as relativity; only to see Alfred positing them for himself and singularly receiving awards and accolades. After graduation, Albert’s slipshod work ethic and laissez-faire attitude in college led to poor recommendations and employment rejections. Mileva, during this time, struggled to hold her marriage together.

Over time, Albert’s charm offensive disintegrated as his ambitions were stymied, his flagrant infidelity was discovered by Mileva, his cruel mental abuses and repeated betrayal of  Mileva’s intellectual contributions finally reached a tipping point in a violent physical attack that led Mileva to find the strength to regain control of her own future despite the stigma of divorce and raising children outside of a “normal male dominated household”.

There were moments in reading the book where I just had to get up and do something constructive around the house. My frustration and anger at the meekness she demonstrated and the continued subordinate way she submitted to Albert made me want to reach into the pages and slap her silly. Wake up woman! After dedicating years of her life to scientific study, mere steps from cracking the glass ceiling, she allows Albert to distract and destroy her future.

Mileva Maric Einstein died alone and unknown in a Zurich clinic in 1948.

It was hard to see how many times Albert destroyed her self esteem and self worth. It became a burden to walk in Mileva’s shoes. In the end, we are left without a clear awareness of the impact she left in the scientific world. However, on the plus side, books like The Other Einstein have done much to restore Mileva’s talents and impact on the gender discrimination and scientific contributions. Young women today should read this book to understand what it took to give them the freedoms they enjoy today.

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AND THEN SHE WAS GONE: a detective jack stratton novel

and then she was gone cover.jpg

AND THEN SHE WAS GONE

by Christopher Greyson

Greyson Media | 2016blood-splatter4-md
Paperback: 328 pages
ISBN: 9781683990024
Genre: Murder Mystery
Prequel to Jack Stratton Series

#1 Girl Jacked
#2 Jack Knifed
#3 Jacks Are Wild
#4 Jack and The Giant Killer
#5 Data Jack

Review Source: ARC ebook from Netgalley and Greyson Media Associates in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★☆☆

Excerpt  From Publisher’s  Blurb….

A hometown hero with a heart of gold, Jack Stratton was raised in a whorehouse by his prostitute mother. Jack seemed destined to become another statistic, but now his life has taken a turn for the better. Determined to escape his past, he’s headed for a career in law enforcement. When his foster mother asks him to look into the girl’s disappearance, Jack quickly gets drawn into a baffling mystery. As Jack digs deeper, everyone becomes a suspect—including himself. Caught between the criminals and the cops, can Jack discover the truth in time to save the girl? Or will he become the next victim?

I am at a disadvantage beginning my exposure to the Jack Stratton mystery series with this prequel. Having said that, I did do a little scouting about the books and learned that Jack, as an adult, obviously achieved his dream of becoming an ace detective.  His path to detective, however, appears strewn with tragedy and emotional baggage that began in childhood and followed him into his future. And Then She Was Gone scours the character list of the other books and gives a back story to those playing integral roles in Jack’s life and career.

We meet Jack Statton shortly before his eighteen birthday. Jack and his best friend, Cameron, have decided to enlist in the military after graduation in order to become eligible for the GI bill. For Jack, the military will be used as a stepping stone toward becoming a police detective. Unfortunately, Jack can’t seem to remember to stay out of trouble. He is fixated on trying to solve the world’s problems and not heeding the advice of the adults in his life.

Like a bloodhound on a scent, Jack plunges recklessly after clues to a recent murder. Tasked by his foster mother in clearing one of her children as a suspect,  Jack gets in over his head and nearly derails the police investigation. He tramples crime scenes. confronts gang members in dark alleys, defies  authorities, ignores his parents advice…in other words…acts like any normal teenager. Immortal and invincible and always right.

My overall feeling started as confusion. Was the series aimed at a young adult audience? There was something in the dialogue that sounded forced. An author trying to make an adult character become a teenager but not quite getting there. The adults, including the police, the murderer and the victim felt like characters in a Charley Brown cartoon going waa waa waa in the background.  Additionally, the author tossed in the kitchen sink covering everything from prostitution to drugs; racial relations to adolescent hormonal overload; homelessness to bullying… a few less hot topics and deeper character and story development would have improved things.

It just seemed to lack that special magic that makes you flip the pages so fast you lose yourself in the story.  Just rated …okay.

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Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

DIMESTORE: A WRITER’S LIFE

by Lee Smith

Algonquin | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61620-502-7
Genre:  Memoir
Review Source: Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was born in a rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia- mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock. My Uncle…used to predict the weather by sticking his head out the window and hollering back inside, ‘Sun on the mountaintop’!  – Lee Smith

Author Lee Smith extends an offer to join her on the porch swing to share intimate details of her life growing up in the heart of coal-country of southwest Virginia. Known for her fictional down-home Appalachian characters in popular fiction such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Dimestore: A Writer’s Story is her first work of nonfiction. Smith lets us know right away that Dimestore is more than a memoir. As the sub-title tells us, it is a writer’s story.

She begins by leading us by the hand into the mountains, down the side trails to hollers and into town where we share her love of the mountain music and the old time religion steeped into the souls of the people. She introduces us to, later famous, musicians that she knew as just “local talent”. It’s not long before you want to be adopted into the larger extended family… a family that accepts you warts and all.

We step inside her father’s Five and Ten Cent Variety Store and peer with her through the one-way window as she sees life in its most candid moments.

Upstairs in my father’s office…[I stood] observing the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass…Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator…it was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

 We chuckle with her at her mother’s desperate attempts to tame the tomboy and provide instruction on lady-like behavior..often involving extended trips to genteel family members …[Mom would send] me down to Alabama every summer for Lady lessons.

And I will admit that the lengthy list of southern cooking treats prized by Mama and her bridge club made me hungry.

But there is a darker side to her life that will surprise you. Both of her parents suffered from mentally debilitating illnesses. Smith turned to intense reading, writing and usually a dog when her parent’s frailties would leave her lonely and dislodged while they were away at local hospitals.

About midway through the book, Smith shifts away from anecdotal stories and introduces the teachers and mentors, not the least of these being the author, Eudora Welty, that help her develop as a narrator of characters gleaned from her own cultural background.

I will admit that I enjoyed the first half of the book more… it is rich with life stories and portraits of small town life that resonated with my own small town past. But for aspiring writers or those curious about what draws some people to a life of imagination and storytelling, this book will perhaps tickle a budding idea that will lead to your own short story or the next great novel.

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Beartown

BEARTOWN

by Fredrik Backman

Atria Books|2017
Hardcover: 432 pages
ISBN: 978-1501160769
Genre: Fiction

ARC ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★

Where are our better Angels at such times/ As these? sweet Virgin, breathe awhile!——

William D’avenant, The Unfortunate Lovers
(licensed April 1638, printed 1643)

Late of evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there…………

Fredrik Backman, in hockey terms, hit me with a “check to the head”. His previous books feature curmudgeonly old men and quirky women that leave you warm and fuzzy inside. This newest book spins 180° toward the dark side. A small dying town, whose residents are obsessed with ice hockey, pin their hopes of economic revival on the backs of a junior hockey team as they head into a championship game. A town that has lost so much over the years needs a win – no matter the cost.

I ran into a group of friends the other day all excited to tell me that they had just finished Backman’s book, The Man Call Ove and wanted to know if he had any new books. As I looked into their eager faces, I told them about Beartown and I watched their faces deflate. Their reaction, I realized, was my initial reaction when I finished the book…disappointment. But I have had a change of heart.

I expected the author to give me another “bear-hug” book. A warm fuzzy hometown story resembling the 1950’s sitcom with “life is beautiful all of the time” Ozzie and Harriet Nelson nuclear families. Instead, Backman shows us that behind the painted-on-smiles and nothing-to-see here attitudes lies complex characters with flaws and less than lovable qualities. Not everyone ends each day with kiss goodnight and a promise of a bright tomorrow.

Tiny Beartown, isolated physically from the world-at large by dense forests and mountain terrain, resembles a tiny village inside a snow-globe. As long as no one shakes things up, the town turns a blind-eye to anything “unpleasant”; things look peaceful from the outside. When something “unpleasant” does happen, they feel it best to act like it didn’t happen. Don’t make waves. Look away!

You never want to get away from home as much as you do when you’re fifteen…It’s like her mom usually say when…her patience [has worn thin]. You can’t live in this town, Maya, you can only survive it.

As the all important hockey championship match draws near, the atmospheric pressure climbs for the town’s residents. It is now that the author has chosen to rock the town to its roots. Over-involved sports parents with their entitled children, down-on-their-luck townsfolk and greedy power-hungry men have chosen to live life vicariously through the talented young hockey team. The fate of Beartown is placed on the backs of children.

If tensions were high enough, the hockey team’s star player, son of a wealthy and powerful businessman, hosts a raucous party when his parents are out of town. The callous young man targets the daughter of the general manager of the local hockey club and makes a bet with his friends that he can get her to have sex with him. He invites her to the party and she goes, knowing that her parents would not approve, but never suspecting the danger. New to the party scene, the girl becomes drunk and charmed into going upstairs with the boy. Alone… he rapes her.

From that moment the future of everyone in Beartown changes. Some find their better angels and others succumb to their baser natures. New friendships are forged, old friendships are tested and other relationships are severed. Loyalty and love are tested. Marriages flounder, tempers flare, mobs form and unexpected heroes shine. The snow globe has been cracked and the residents of Beartown must look introspectively and make decisions to stay and heal the open wounds or to turn their backs on Beartown.

Recommended as a thought provoking book club selection.

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