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OLIVE, AGAIN : Olive Kitteridge #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from The Poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accosted

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

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

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

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

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THE SECRETS WE KEPT : a novel

THE SECRETS WE KEPT: a novel

Lara Prescott
Knoff 2019
Historical Fiction

★★★☆☆ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dutch House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loved the book. Recommend for book clubs.

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THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Tattooist of Auschwitz: historical fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SOMETIMES I LIE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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STILL LIFE: Chief Inspector Gamache series #1

THREE PINES, Quebec

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

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

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

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

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

The First Book – Still Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

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THE PASSENGERS : a novel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly entertaining  and recommended reading.

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THE BRIDGE BETWEEN: an Edisto novel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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CORNELIUS SKY : a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading.

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WINTER SOLDIER: a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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TELL ME WHO WE WERE : stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE RUMOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IMAGINARY FRIEND


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

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

PUBLISHER’S SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

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

BLOGGER’S REVIEW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HALF MOON BAY: a novel

Publisher’s Synopsis

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

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

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

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

Blogger’s Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THOSE PEOPLE : a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FINDING DOROTHY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NIGHT OF MIRACLES: Arthur Truluv #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE LEISURE SEEKER: a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LEARNING TO SEE: a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading.

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DEATH OF A RAINMAKER

DEATH OF A RAINMAKER : A DUST BOWL MYSTERY

August 2, 1935
Jackson County, Oklahoma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING: a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outstanding fiction at its best. Good book club selection.

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EDUCATED


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well done, Tara.

Recommended reading. An excellent book club selection.

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

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Finding GOBI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good read.

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OPERATION COLUMBA

operation columba debaillie family graphic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fabulous read. Sure to please history buffs.

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LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VIRGIL WANDER: a novel

VIRGIL WANDER

Leif Enger

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

fire hydrant kite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

when breath becomes air graphic poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BENEATH A SCARLET SKY: a novel

EXCERPT FROM PREFACE
February 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading.

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MY ABANDONMENT: a novel

 

The Spokesman-Review

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Themes and Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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LOLA: a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VOX: a novel

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


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

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

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

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

Setting
Washington, DC in the near future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

OUR HOMESICK SONGS: a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ending is sweet if not long in coming.

Good reading on a rainy day.

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SOLD ON A MONDAY

2 children for sale sign

SOLD ON A MONDAY

by KRISTINA MCMORRIS

depression era childrengreen quote markSometimes we have to make sacrifices for the ones we love…

sold on a monday cover[The detective pulled a chair over to me in the hospital.] I heard, “Can you tell me how it all started?” The reporter in my head blended with the detective before me. I wasn’t entirely sure which of them had asked…
1930s cameraI nodded at him slowly, remembering as I replied.
“It started with a picture.”

Sold on a Monday, like many popular works of historical fiction set in the 1930’s Great Depression is based on an iconic photograph. My favorite being, Mary Coin by Marissa Silver based on Dorothy Lange’s photograph entitled, Migrant Mother. four children for saleSold on a Monday was inspired by a photograph (later questioned as authentic) of a mother and four children on a porch. A sign near them reads – 4 children for sale, inquire within.

sold on a monday graphic.pngAuthor, Kristina McMorris, nudged by the writer’s innate question…what if… has created a world where a dramatic photograph, taken for personal use by a newspaper reporter on his own time, is found drying in the darkroom by the editor’s secretary, Lily Palmer. The moving picture shows two children near a sign reading – “2 children for sale. Recognizing the work of Ellis Reed, Lily shows the photo to the editor.

1930s reporter.jpgThe editor, recognizing the dramatic impact the picture will have on newspaper readers, instructs Ellis to write a story about it. Sniffing a chance to advance himself, perhaps leading to his own column, Ellis obliges. Puffed up proud, Ellis is brought down quickly when he is told that the negative and photo have been damaged and he must replace it immediately. Returning to the house, he finds the sign leaning against the porch and the family gone. (We never learn what happened to the original family; something that nagged at me long after I finished the book.)

ARC NetGalleyIn that instant he panics. He spots 2 children playing nearby at another house. Grabbing the “children for sale” sign, and with their mother’s reluctant permission along with a handful of money, Ellis stages a new photo. Thus begins a spiral of disquiet that follows Ellis into his new career at a larger newspaper; a success launched by this story. As he rises in notoriety, he is constantly aware it is based on a lie. Lily, also observes, he has lost that special something that reaches the common man.

Lily Palmer, harboring a deep secret of her own, is reminded time and again of the deception when letters and gifts continually arrive at her newspaper for the exposed children. The gifts and letters are placed on the porch in the dead of night, the deliverers unable to face the family. The innocent children were never for sale.

After a time, and independently, Ellis and Lily seek to find out what consequences their individual actions have had on that misused family. They are both rocked to learn that the mother has been confined to a sanitarium and has died. The children were placed in an orphanage. The now infamous photograph led to the sale of the two children to a wealthy family.

Using his newspaper network, Ellis finds the family and scouts the new home. Peering through a window, he spots the young girl, Ruby, neatly dressed, and sitting near a smiling woman. He believes he hears a young a boy giggling in another room.

He tells Lily that all seems wonderful at first glance. But further efforts reveal that appearances don’t necessarily define reality. Ellis and Lily set out to right their consciences and dredge up darkness they never dreamed possible. Their lives and the lives of the children are in danger.

Sold on a Monday is a fabulous 1930’s era “Agatha Christie” mystery with some really sharp edges. The suspense moves slowly at first, careers sputter, personal relationships simmer, and all along we are aware that this is the Great Depression. Desperate times where desperation can lead a person to the “Dark Side.”  The novel does come to a spectacular moment that then settles down to a “happily-ever-after” finish.

Good read for a rainy day!

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ADRIFT

ADRIFT:
a true story of tragedy in the icy Atlantic – and the one who live to tell about it

Author Brian Murphy

Adrift coverOn January 16, 1856, the American ship, John Rutledge, left for New York from Liverpool, with 16 crew men and 120 migrant passengers packed into steerage. On February 19, the ship knocked against an iceberg, causing catastrophic damage.
As the ship foundered, passengers and crew raced to the lifeboats – not everyone reached the safety of the 5 lifeboats.

Those souls finding a place in a lifeboat found them ” the simplest of craft. [E]ach lifeboat was about twenty-five feet long and without any kind of cabin or nook for shelter.” There was no mast to hoist a sail, only oars. There were no provisions (only a handful of hard tack and a small container of water). There was no way to flag the boat to standout against the vastness of the sea. There was no way to communicate with the other lifeboats or to send a signal of their location to rescuers; these were the days before transatlantic communication, satellite phones or weather planes. 

ADRIFT graphicAs the five lifeboats pulled away from the stricken ship, the question in everyone’s mind had to be – Have I just delayed my death? Am I really better off than those doomed and unable to reach the lifeboats?

Feb 29, 1856, day nine after the loss of the Rutledge, one of the lifeboats was spotted in the rough icy waters. Seaman Thomas W. Nye, frozen and nearly incoherent, was pulled from the sea by the packet ship, Germania. He proved to be the sole survivor from the Rutledge. After a desperate search for the other four lifeboats from the Rutledge; none were ever found.

Here’s the rub that keeps the book a three star in my view. Well, actually the first part is a two star and Nye’s story is a four star so I decided on the middle ranking.

Thomas W. Nye’s story is remarkable. Interviews with him reveal a harrowing and horrifying nine days spent drifting in the dead of winter with twelve other people; one by one the others die from exposure and starvation. Most died painfully quick after ignoring Nye’s pleas to avoid drinking seawater. I’ll admit I never really understood what it was the seawater did to the body and how it killed in such a short period of time. It is heartbreaking.

The demise of the Rutledge and its passengers was but one of hundreds of big and small ships and nearly 1000 souls lost to rough seas and extreme ice flows during the three winter months of 1856.  The author’s research of that time in world history and coverage of that devastating winter of 1856 is admirable; and he felt the need to share every tidbit and trace. Intermingled with the horrors of Nye’s story are the history of maritime commerce, ship designs, history and ownership of specific vessels, biographies of sea captains and their families, and the mass migration from famine starved countries in the mid 1800’s.

The choice to research the “mundane” John Rutledge and its crew and passengers highlights the disparity of books that cover renowned disasters like the Hindenburg, Titanic  or the Lusitania. The Rutledge was a significant ship in international commercial trade at the time, but insignificant to the world-at-large when placed against the great passenger ships ferrying the rich and famous back and forth across the Atlantic. The foundering of several of these high-class ships was covered much more extensively and of much more interest to the general public than a small transport filled with destitute immigrants.

To his credit, the author, in selecting the Rutledge, shows the humanity of the average seaman and the steerage passengers; those now lost souls with ambitions and hopes every bit as important as the high society victims on the opulent passenger liners.

The interjection of lengthy footnotes and history lessons felt like the interruptions in the flow of a good suspense movie by commercials. I understand that Murphy needed to add perspective and background, but in my opinion, a little less coverage would have been sufficient. Perhaps, if the footnotes were placed in a separate addendum, the story would have flowed more smoothly.

ARC NetGalleyI will say this, I learned a lot. Judging from the wide range of reviews on this book, there is something for everyone to like and I would say if you are interested in sea disasters, you will find it an interesting read.

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I AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER: a novel

I love a book that makes you sit up straight in your chair with a shocking start. What could be better than an opening paragraph with fifteen-year-old Julia Reyes staring into her dead sister’s face. Olga Reyes, the “good daughter”, distracted by her cell phone, had stepped off a bus into the path of a semi and died at the tender age of twenty-two.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Julia’s parents illegally entered the United States in 1993 fleeing a violent life in Mexico with hopes of a better life. They settled in Chicago and maintained the necessary low-profile. Their Latinx culture and extended family contacts tethered by a phone line back to Mexico. With the birth of her daughters, Amà, strives to do her duty to pass along her culture and family traditions to her girls. Olga proved pliant but Julie fights her hoof and nail.

“Perfect daughters” would be obedient, respect elders, and place needs of the family before needs of the self. They would marry a Latino, raise a family and eschew a life away from their parents and ethnic community. Olga was Amá’s pride and joy. But beneath Olga’s quiet nature lies a deep secret. Julia breaks into her dead sister’s sealed bedroom and discovers something strange. In time she learns her sister’s secret and she must decide whether to reveal it to her parents. What good would it do to destroy their lives?

“Here [Olga] was, a grown-ass woman, and all she did was go to work, sit at home with our parents, and take one class each semester at the local community college. What kind of life is that? Didn’t she want more? Didn’t she ever want to go out and grab the world by the balls?

Julia is the polar opposite of Olga. While Olga spent her days cleaning and cooking, Julia escapes (literally) the house to visit art museums and the library. She dreams of college and a career. Her descriptions of her favorite books and pieces of art work will drive you to Google to find out what she sees for yourself. (She identifies with Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin.)

She feels she is holding her breath until she can become  a writer and move to New York – or anywhere that wasn’t Chicago.  She and her mother had been at loggerheads forever but after Olga’s death, Amá was on Julia’s back like white on rice. Amá determined to control Julia’s future and Julia determined to be free from her suffocating mother.

When I tell her I need privacy… she tells me I’ve become too Americanized. ‘You kids here think you can do whatever you want.'”

It is hard to like Julia; she’s every parent’s nightmare. A teenage girl. She is foul-mouthed, abrasive, outspoken, and angry all the time. She lashes out and confronts everyone about everything. Her favorite “power word” is f***.  It is evident that the anger is a defense mechanism to mask her severe depression and anxiety disorder. The softer side of Julia reveals a deeply caring person desperate to be loved and feeling unloved. The book’s powerful discussion of depression and Julia’s suicidal attempt might be a trigger for those teens experiencing the same feelings. Julia’s therapy sessions should offer hope to those same troubled kids.

In and among the cornucopia of stressor topics that derail Julia are strong characters that see beneath her bluster and guide her toward adulthood and peace within herself and among her family. She learns she doesn’t need to cast off her culture to achieve her dreams.

“I have so many choices they’ve never had. And I feel like I can do so much with what I’ve been given. What a waste their journey would be if I just settled for a dull mediocre life.”

Recommended reading.

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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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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 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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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, first appearing in My Name is Mary Sutter, 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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