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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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Frontier Grit

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 FRONTIER GRIT

THE UNLIKELY TRUE STORIES OF DARING PIONEER WOMEN

Author | Marianne Monson
Shadow Mountain | 2016
Hardcover: 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1629722276
Genre: US History/Biography/Pioneer Women

ARC e-book from Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review

★★★★☆

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“What constitutes a frontier?…To me, a frontier is simply a place where your people have not gone before…it might be an unexplored theological issue, …a newly invented technology, or an insight irreconcilable with current social norms.”Marianne Monson, Frontier Grit

As a young girl I was in love with Calamity Jane. Well, actually Doris Day’s version. Whip, crack, away! A gusty woman in a man’s world.

Marianne Monson has scoured American history and selected twelve very special women who left their mark, improved the lives of others and truly reflect the pioneer spirit. Their names may be unfamiliar to you now, but after you read their stories you will never forget them.

Each chapter features one of these remarkable women. All of these women were migrants or immigrants from other countries or other regions of America. But in the end, where they came from wasn’t as important as who they became and how they created a new life for themselves, often in defiance to social norms. Their lives, as a rule, faced unimaginable obstacles and hardships but each refused to be defined by their gender and social roles. And when faced with superhuman odds, they never stayed down for the count when knocked off their feet.

After you meet these incredible women, you might look at your own life and recognize how their sacrifices and courage affected your life today. We owe a lot to the past generations of women willing to take a chance, push social limits and to take a stand. These stories are intended to inspire you; to help you pick yourself up and dust yourself off when you get knocked down.

The author encourages you to read more about each woman by conveniently placing a bibliography at the end of each chapter.

I already knew something of Nellie Cashman, gold prospector, as her story coincides with a branch in my family tree. Indulge me as I give you some personal information that places Nellie Cashman in Dawson City.

In 2005, I was gifted a copy of a book by the authors, Ed and Star Jones entitled, All That Glitters: The Life and Times of Joe Ladue, Founder of Dawson City. Joe Ladue was one of the earliest pioneers in the Yukon and my Great-Grand Uncle. “Uncle Joe” filed his application for a 160-acre town site on July 27, 1896. As luck would have it, a major gold discovery was made in Bonanza Creek, a little more than a mile from the new town site shortly after he filed.

As the Jones’ wrote, “Cashman might be considered the feminine counterpart of Joe Ladue. A petite, pretty woman with jet black hair and dark eyes, she was gifted with a stamina and toughness denied most men.”All That Glitters, pg 45.

nellie-cashmanWhen news of the Klondike strike reached Nellie Cashman in 1897, ” she put together a $5000 grubstake” and hot footed to the Chilkoot Trail. “Arriving in Dawson, City, she opened a store in the basement of the Hotel Donovan and a restaurant called Delmonico….She acquired No. 19 Below Discovery on Bonanza Creek and it proved a prudent investment. All That Glitters, pg 46

SO….You want to know more about Nellie?  And remember!  She is just one of twelve stories! You’ll have to get a copy of Frontier Grit.  The Yukon story is just a piece of this incredible woman’s life.

Recommended for all young girls, women and enlightened men.

  

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My Girl

my-girl-cover

My Girl

Author | Jack Jordan
JJP | 2016
Paperback: 226 pages
ISBN: 1532815387
Fiction / Suspense

Source: ARC e-book via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

★★☆☆☆scared-woman

I’m not going mad. Someone is taunting me.
I’m not doing this. I would remember.
I’m not losing my mind.

Paige Dawson’s life has spiraled out-of-control. Preferring to drown her grief and hide from reality, Paige has relinquished her self-respect and dignity to remain in a drug laden and alcohol stupor.

For the first few seconds after she woke, Paige Dawson lived in a world where her husband Ryan was snoring lightly beside her, and her daughter Chloe was sleeping peacefully in the next room. When reality slowly trickled in…[she] reached in the dark [for] the tray of tablets…and picked up the half-empty wine bottle and took a swig.

Ten years ago, her only daughter, Chloe, 14 at the time of her abduction, was murdered savagely. After an exhaustive search, Chloe’s dismembered arm was found frozen in a nearby river, fingertips reaching to the sky for recognition. Her husband, Ryan, had tried to rescue Paige from her despair but at some point lost his own will to live. Two months ago, he slashed his wrists in the bathtub forever scarring what was left of Paige’s sanity with the image of his lifeless body.

Ryan’s mother, Paige’s father and her cleric brother, Maxim offer support and counsel but nothing seems to stop her from her self-destructive path. Her repeated social misconduct during her blackouts only further alienates her from help when she begins to question strange encounters and disturbances in her home.  No one believes her when she reports someone has been in her house and removed items, cut her husband’s face out of every photo album, and cleared her daughter’s room of memorabilia.

As the story gains steam, I was ready for intrigue and some intense suspense. But it wasn’t long before I felt like I was in a train wreck that just wouldn’t end. Wild and crazy things happened that showed great imagination but they seemed to come out of no-where. One twist caught me by surprise but after the shock of discovery, I was disappointed that we weren’t given background on the reason for the character’s behavior.

The author has great potential and unquestioningly has writing talent. Hopefully, as his literary career matures, he will better develop his characters lives and avoid repetitive actions intended to create suspense but serve only to dull the story. Keep writing, Jack Jordan. I will look for your next book to see where you have strengthened your focus. You’ve got what it takes, kiddo. Keep trying.

Jack Jordan is the bestselling British author of two novels: Anything for Her (2015) and My Girl (2016). He describes himself as introvert disguised as an extrovert, an intelligent person who can say very unintelligent things, and a jack-jordan-authorself-confessed bibliomaniac with more books than sense.

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The Heart of Henry Quantum

The Heart of Henry Quantum.jpg

The Heart of Henry Quantum: A Novel

Autbroken-hearthor: Pepper Harding
Gallery Books| 2016
Hardcover: 288 pages
ISBN: 978-1-5011-2680-2
Genre: Fiction/Relationships

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

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In the bestselling tradition of A Man Called Ove and the beloved film Love Actually, a quirky, socially awkward man goes on a quest to find his wife a last-minute Christmas gift and encounters several distractions—including bumping into his ex-girlfriend who was the one who got away. http://www.simonandschuster.com/row-of-hearts

Having read A Man Called Ove, I was so excited to find another quirky novel that promised to bring me some much needed lighter reading. I have tended toward heavy social issues recently.

The book is arranged in four parts featuring Henry, Henry’s wife, Margaret, and Daisy (Henry’s brief affair).

An unknown friend of Henry narrates what transpired for each of these three people in the same 24-hour period. It is December 23. Christmas is fast approaching and Henry awakens at 7:35 am and remembers that he has nothing for his wife, Margaret, for Christmas. Margaret impatiently waits for Henry to leave for work, occasionally sniping at him on general principle. Finally he leaves at 9:15 am and Margaret dresses to meet her lover, Peter.  At 2:24, Daisy bumps into Henry out shopping for Channel #5 for his wife and sparking memories.

So far so good, huh? Well let’s back up to Henry at 7:35 am and I am sorry but I have to put you inside his mindstream to grasp where I am headed next in this review. As I read the following run-on sentence I found myself feeling short of breath.

However, when he reached for the soap his hand froze mid-grab because the water bouncing off his shoulders made him think about the miraculous impermeability of his own skin, and this made him think of the wonder of nature, which, when he thought about it, included the entire cosmos, and thus the Hubble telescope came into his mind and the pictures of the galaxies he had seen at the NASA booth at the Sausalito Art Festival back in September, particularly whirling-dervishthe Sombrero Galaxy, which actually did look like a sombrero, and this led him to recall something that had been drilled into his head since junior high school, namely that life travels at 186,000 miles per second, and when you look at a distant object, say, the Sombrero Galaxy, what you are actually seeing is how the object appeared millions of years ago (in the case of the Sombrero Galaxy, thirty million years ago) and not how it is now; in fact, who could say what it looks like now?

I seriously toyed with the idea of not finishing the book but I had to see where it was going so I kept my inhaler handy and moved into Margaret’s day in Part Two.

I assumed that Henry was the only character that would have his own galaxy inside his head, but our narrator felt we needed to watch Margaret dress for her adulterous rendezvous. I’ll spare you the details but, trust me, it rivals Henry’s shower scene for the world’s longest run-on sentence. Margaret turns out to be a heartless narcissistic *itch revealing itself when stuck in traffic near the Golden Gate Bridge. Someone is threatening to jump and traffic is tied up back to infinity.

Anything happening yet? she asked. I don’t know [answered another motorist].
It seems to me if you want to kill yourself, go ahead….
If the person is going to jump they should get on with it!
She bolted from the car, vaulted over the traffic barrier, bulldozed her way through the bleating crowd…leaned out as far as she could over the icy waters…and screamed at the top of her lungs, Let the f***ing *itch jump!

Daisy’s a mess and a little more likable.  Maybe because she is not speaking in run-on sentences. Nevertheless if you have stayed with the book thus far, you are now subjected to the histrionics of woman looking back at the whata-coulda-shoulda’s of a brief affair.

Overall I just couldn’t see any meaningful plot and I was overwhelmed by drifting off into topics that made no sense to the story. The publisher, Simon and Shuster, tells us that the author, Pepper Harding, is a pen name of an author that has written books on totally different subject matters. This book, to me, felt contrived, as though the author was delving into a subject matter she wasn’t comfortable describing.  Having written my feelings and sense of the book, I must say there have been others that have written glowing reviews, so if you feel inclined, please pick up a copy and see what you think for yourself.

I don’t like to leave a book with a rough review without finding something positive. Having lived near San Francisco myself for a while, I enjoyed the tour of the city. Almost made me want to hop a plane and go back for a visit.

I want to thank Galley Books (imprint of S & S) for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my honest review.

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Wilderness: A Novel

olympic-mountainswilderness-cover

Wilderness

Author | Lance Weller          easystreet DEBUT AUTHOR
Bloomsbury USA| 2012
Hardcover: 304 pages
ISBN: 9781608199372
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review Source: Personal Copycivil-war-quote
Rating: ★★★★☆
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The old man began to tremble, though the wind was still mild and the rain still warm. He could not help but see, once again, war’s sights and hear war’s sounds and know, once more, war’s hard gifts that are so difficult to live with after the war.

After Lee surrendered in 1865, Abel Truman raced westward hoping to outrun the memory of the sights and sounds of war. When he found himself as far west as possible on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, he built a driftwood shack. For many lonely years he lived surrounded by the memories of the now long dead from his previous life.  His sole companion was an old dog that wandered into his life and they loved each other unconditionally.

On what would be his last morning in that idyllic setting, while scouring his beach for washed up treasures, Abel came across a blue door that triggered a tsunami of emotion and loss that drove him to the edge of despair. As casually as picking a flower, Abel burned his home and began to walk without purpose or forethought into an unknown future, dragging with him his heavy past.

“A fire burned from the little stone-lined pit…the night before he left…The old man did not yet know that he was going but he felt something inside him shift. The dog sensed his despair and knew what the old man did not… that he would soon try a thing and fail…The dog also knew that they would not return.” 

Abel’s story is complicated and must be savored slowly to capture the author’s true purpose. The story is so much more than the Civil War. Yes, the Civil War scenes are severe but hidden in the carnage is the individual humanity of each soldier. The reader is made to lie down in the dirt, crawl inside the mind of each character, and become a witness to history. When Abel’s torturous nightmares flare, it is as though you are remembering with him. We find in the heat of battle that each man reveals his true nature. Here’s a snippet from a battle scene with the battle-hardened Abel and David Abernathy, a young man, facing his first fight.

David’s knuckles were white upon his rifle, barrel and stock. His eyes stung with sweat…He was distantly aware [that] his spectacles had slid down the long thin line of his nose until he eyed the coming battle over their moon-round tops. A spattering of bullets sent sprays of dirt over him…[Abel] reached out one grimy finger and gently pushed David’s spectacles back up his nose, then patted his shoulder with an air of the paternal…Abel, good-naturedly nodding toward the field said, ‘When you do fire, point it thataway.’

Let’s head back to Abel’s last journey as he encounters others for the first time in many years. He finds that mankind hasn’t changed. The world is still a dangerous place and his body, scarred from war, is repeatedly mauled by miscreants, tossed aside like a broken doll. But he also finds good Samaritans willing to nurse him back to health often jeopardizing their own safety.

As Abel fights his aging body and the elements, he too, exhibits his strength and courage – his ability to spit in the eye of death. And as often as he has been dragged back to the land of the living, he offers the same care to others.

Weller has crafted each secondary character so well that you smell their fear, recognize their intentions and applaud their courage and sacrifice. As Abel faces winter’s wrath, keep a sweater handy as you will feel the frigid elements to your core.The story is riddled with loyalty, caring, brutal savagery, racism, pain, redemption, and finally, peace.

Lovers of the movie and/or the book, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, will be drawn to Wilderness.  I forgave the author for challenging this old man and his dog with so many perils. At times, it did seem so over the top, but I will admit to a few tears and flushes of frustration, anger and futility as I struggled to embrace Abel and offer comfort and friendship.

Highly recommended for those willing to take on life’s roughest edges head-on.

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Orphans of the Carnival

orphans-of-the-carnival

Orphans of the Carnival

Author | Carol Birch
Doubleday | November 2016
Hardcover: 352 pages
ISBN: 9780385541527
Genre: Historical Fiction/Entertainers
Review source: Advance Reader E-book

★★☆☆☆

Where do you begin when you leave a book in an emotional trash heap?

I fell in love with the cover immediately and still think it is one of the best I’ve seen this year.  And certainly the flashy promise in the press blurb worked its magic on me. I leapt at the chance to read the book.

The dazzling new novel, evoking the strange and thrilling world of the Victorian carnival, from the Man Booker-shortlisted author of Jamrach’s Menagerie.

Let’s start with some true facts. The protagonist in the novel, Orphans of the Carnival, was a real person. In 1834, a native Indian woman living in western Mexico gave birth to a child so fiercely abnormal the mother feared her daughter was the result of supernatural interference and fled with the child into the mountains. Upon discovery two years later, the child, covered from head to foot with dark black hair and an ape-like face was abandoned by her mother and placed in an orphanage. The child was found to be highly intelligent and blessed with a sweet disposition. A local governor adopted the child tojulia-flyer serve as a maid, caretaker to an elderly family member, and an in-house oddity. In 1854, upon the death of her charge, the child left to return to her native tribe. Somewhere in that journey, she was discovered by an American showman and was convinced to join him for a life in the world of human curiosities thus enabling her to fulfill her dreams of seeing the world outside her small village.

The child’s name was Julia Pastrana and in her short lifetime became one of the world’s best known curiosities.

The author has done her research. The major facts known about Julia Pastrana are in the novel. I know this because I was affected enough to learn more about the real Julia. Believe me, Julia’s life story coated with the fictional embellishments will rip your heart out.

I was appalled at the horrors and mental cruelty she suffered at the hands of greedy carnival men and “respected” medical authorities that repeatedly reported that she was a hybrid human. There’s no doubt that this fiction represents Julia’s reality.

julia-pastranaIn the real world, one well-known New York medical authority examined her and declared she was a half-breed of human and orangutan origin. This wasn’t a new idea. Two hundred years earlier a Dutch doctor stated that orangutans were born “from the lust of Indian women, who mix with apes and monkeys with detestable sensuality”.

Each time Julia stepped on a stage and faced the hordes of gawkers ostensibly interested in her singing voice and her talented dance routines, she knew, and you, the reader knows they are just there to stare at her face. Her greatest desire in life was to be loved and for people to see her, to see beyond the hairy body and the “world’s ugliest face”. Her single most need was the answer to a simple question…Am I Human?

Julia’s final manager, Theo Lent (and husband) must have been a real son-of-a-bleep.  The author presents him from two sides- the face of the carnival barker who lived to make money off his “precious possession” and the lonely friendless leech marrying to force Julia to remain with him. When tragedy strikes, Lent shows his true colors and they are not pretty.

A misfit modern day junk collector finds a discarded broken doll and her fictional story reveals itself to have links to Julia. Overall, this added story was a distraction to the emotional turmoil surrounding Julia and her unfortunate life. I believe that sticking to Julia and the other poor unfortunate souls in this macabre world of entertainment would been better. In my advance reader copy,  Rose’s story breaks into Julia’s story making it difficult to keep track of the narrative. Having said that, the ending of the book was a complete surprise to me.

I wanted to give this book a 3 star. In so many ways, it probably deserves it. The first half of the book had me flipping pages. The story just repeated itself over and over. New city, new show, same old cruel taunts and jeers. Midway I found myself ignoring Rose’s story and just reading to finish the book. As much as I flinched at every cruel word flung at the unfortunates, I never felt a depth to the characters themselves.

I do want to thank Netgalley and Doubleday for the advanced readers copy. This review reflects my own personal views and reaction to the novel.

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Notorious R. B. G. : The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Notorious R. B. G. :notorious-rbg-with-frame

The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

AUTHORS  |  Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
PUBLISHER  |  Dey St (Wm Morrow) | 2015
Hardcover: 227 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-241583-7
Memoir / Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★☆

 truth

During the February, 2016 memorial coverage of Justice Antonin Scalia, I found myself drawn to a photograph taken in India in 1994 of Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg together lumbering along waving from atop an elephant.scalia-ginsburg-elephant It stopped me in my tracks as I knew they represented the yin and yang of the American Justice System. Was it conceivable that they were friends outside their hallowed chambers? What was my little 5 ft tall Jewish icon of Women’s Rights doing hanging around the man that declared that the constitution didn’t bar sex discrimination?

That question rattled around in my brain and prompted me to look into her biography. I needed to know more about Ruth as a person, not just a Supreme Court Justice with fancy collars and a fiery pen. There are some great choices available, including books written by Justice Ginsberg herself, but I fell in love with Carmon and Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

This glossy picture strewn work brings RBG to life in short but thorough stories of her progression from Kiki, the baton twirling teen, deeply in love with the adventurous and independent Nancy Drew books to present day, a strong and resilient Supreme Court Justice not afraid to stand up and fight for human rights.

RBG, born in 1933, began her steady growth toward gender independence fighting as she states, with three strikes against her, “[I was] a woman, a mother and a Jew.” But as she fought for her own survival and career, she wasn’t as yet a strong advocate for feminism. As a college professor, Ruth, inspired by student activism, joined a national movement that has steadily over tme moved toward not just women’s rights but equal rights for all regardless of gender, race, or social status.

Ruth began to fight her way into a “man’s world” pulling all women along with her. She knew the importance of staying focused and educated on issues. She formed her own style. Pick your battles. Fight hard but not loudly or brash. Permanent change must be achieved through baby steps, carefully. When you have something to say, say it with a steady hand and carefully chosen words. Your voice will be heard over the din.

format_quoteAnger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg

As much as I was fascinated by all the legal briefs and dissents that Ruth presented, the most important message I got from the book is best said by the two people perched on top of that elephant so many years ago.

“Call us the odd couple,” Scalia said. “She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like — Except her views on the law.”

[Likewise, Ginsburg could acknowledge her differences with her good friend Nino while still admiring his peppery prose.] “I disagreed with most of what he said, but I loved the way he said it,”

George Washington University event, 2015

These two people, at odds in their legal lives, can also see the human side of each other and share the richness of friendship and love.  In our current political climate, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have shown the importance of civility, respect and friendship.

I am going to jump in here with a diversion from the book and a personal comment.  As we head into a new world in America, my best guess istrump-ginsburg-rant that Justice Ginsburg will not be deterred by tweets or taunts. She will stand with her principles and continue to represent all of us to the best of her ability.  Highly recommend reading.

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Banned Book Week

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Celebrating the Freedom to Read:
September 25 – October 1, 2016

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read…[It] highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community; librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types, in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

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http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek

I was naive as child to assume I could have access to any book I wanted to read as soon as I was able to read it.  Back in the dark ages of the 1950’s, I thought I was a real big shot when I mastered Fun With Dick and Jane. It wasn’t until high school that I learned that some books offend some people and those people didn’t think I should make my own reading choices.

The American Library Association’s Office of Information Freedom began collecting data about challenged and banned books in 1990 and that list of 20,000+ is just the tip of the iceberg – it doesn’t include unreported challenges.

If you want to see a list of the most popular titles listed by challenge reasons, visit the link to the ALA in the graphic above.

Each year, I choose a title from the latest list of challenges and read it for myself. This year’s selection is:

LOOKING FOR ALASKA

by John Green.

looking for alaska.jpg

AWARDS
ALA Best Book for Young Adults
Top 10 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers
2005 Booklist Editors’ Choice
Kirkus Best Book of 2005
2005 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age

CHALLENGE REASONS

Offensive Language
Sexually Explicit
Unsuited for Age Group

 

New York Dutton | 1st Ed. 2005
Hardcover: 350 pages
Genre: Fiction
Audience: Secondary School (High School)

Stayed tuned for my review and thoughts in the coming weeks. If you choose  to read a title from the banned books list I would love to hear about it!

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News Of The World

news-of-the-world-cover

NEWS OF THE WORLD

by Paulette Jiles

Harper Collins | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-240920-1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: ARC E-book from edelweiss

★★★★cowboy

 

There has always been a soft spot in my heart for stories best read around a campfire. I have shared time in the woods, fire crackling, sipping hot cowboy coffee with the Virginian, Rooster Cogburn, and now Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd.

It’s 1870, the late, great War of Northern Aggression or Civil War, depending on your allegiance has ended. The Captain, now 70, like most of the men of his era, having survived the war, must now find a way to endure the hardships of postwar life. In his younger years he had been a printer but the war had taken this life from him. These days, he finds the alluring smell of printer’s ink on his hands on papers printed by someone else. His wife, long dead, his children now grown, he makes his living drifting through Texas frontier towns reading the news of the day to news hungry townsfolk willing to pay 10¢ to escape Texas for an hour.

Known to be a man of honor and respectability, Captain was approached at one of his readings in northern Texas about returning a recently recovered orphan, captured 4 years earlier by Indians, 400 miles south to her family near San Antonio.

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Johanna Leonberger was six years old when she was taken captive by the Kiowa after witnessing the savage murder of her parents. Now four years later and fully assimilated into tribal customs, Johanna has been torn from her loving Kiowa mother, and ransomed for fifteen woolen blankets and a set of silver dinnerware to the US Army. This blond haired blue-eyed ten year old having locked all memory of her first life in that dark place in the mind where horrors hide finds herself alone in a strange world where people sleep with roofs over their heads and wear shoes.

Agreeing to deliver the young girl to her Aunt and Uncle’s care, Captain Kidd begins the three-week trip with the challenge of harnessing Johanna’s trust. The arduous journey through flash floods and hostile territory is filled with marauding bandits of all stripes. Along the way, the limits of loyalty, friendship, bravery and honesty are tested. Many endearing side characters will warm your heart and a few bad men get western justice along the ride. Pure Western with heroes and heroines that will leave you smiling You might even learn something new in the news of the world.

Recommended!

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The Life We Bury

the-life-we-bury

format_quoteI remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head…If I had known how that drive would change so many things- would I have taken a safer path?

The Life We Buryblood-splatter4-md

by Allen Eskins

Seventh Street Books | 2014
Paperback  | 300 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61614-998-7
Genre: Fiction/Murder Mystery
Review Source: Personal Copy

★★★★  4/5 stars

blue-ridge-readersThe first time I water-skied (and stayed upright) I remember the exhilarating thrill of being pulled up rapidly onto the surface of the water and the feeling of flying out of control in the wake of the boat.

The opening paragraph of The Life We Bury left me feeling that I was up on my skis and heading into one hell of a story, as it too, careened out of control. Allen Eskins’ debut novel measures right up there with the best for suspense and drama. Things start out small and build and build until you are holding your breath as the plot reaches its climax. And the final chapters bring you back to a soft landing with a real feel good ending.

What makes this book so special to me are the well crafted parallel story lines.  The hardships of a self-funded college program are difficult enough but Eskens has tossed Joey other battles such as abuse of the disabled, parental alcoholism, mental illness, caregiver stress and the emotional struggles of dealing with an out of control bi-polar mother.  Other topics that certainly were explosive and thought provoking include vivid descriptions of Vietnam service and religious fundamentalism.

Joey Talbert, 20, recently left home in the dead of night, not to join the circus he says, but to avoid the heated argument certain to occur if he told his mother he was leaving to attend college. The hard part was leaving behind his beloved severely autistic brother, Jeremy Naylor. His wildly erratic alcoholic mother, Kathy Nelson would have pitched a fit if she had had a chance to stop him.

His decision to attend the University of Minnesota was so last minute that his class choices were limited and he had to fulfill his English language requirement with Biography English.  His term project was to interview an elderly person to “tell about the struggles and forks in the road that made them who they are.”  Without living grandparents he needed to find an elderly person pronto so the obvious place was a nursing home. Hillview Manor had more than its share of elderly but only one resident still had all his marbles, Carl Iverson.

Carl Iverson had arrived at Hillview Manor straight from Stillwater Correctional Facility where he served 30 years of a life sentence for the horrific rape and murder of a teenage cheerleader. Carl’s life sentence would end soon as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. With little choice, Joey reflected that at least his biography project of the life and times of a deranged murderer would be unique. While he waited to see if Carl would agree to be interviewed, Joey did research on the murder.

“I found a picture [of Carl Iverson] in the bowels of the University of Minnesota’s Wilson Library… The archive room had the feel of a tabernacle, with millions of souls packed away on microfilm like incense in tiny jars, waiting for someone to free their essence to be felt, tasted, inhaled again, if only for a moment.”

The moment they meet sparks fly. In a scene somewhat less traumatic than Clarice and Hannibal Lector, Carl and Joey agree to answer each other’s questions honestly – quid pro quo.  And thus begins a hair-raising experience that nearly costs Joey his life. Carl’s biography evolves into much more than a college project and as the suspense builds you want to hold Joey back… don’t go there!

Threaded through the main arc of the story is a tender friendship that eventually leads to a deepening love relationship between Joey and his neighbor, Lila.  And I just had to save mentioning my favorite part until the end – the deep love between brothers. Jeremy’s story brought tears to my eyes.

Highly recommended.  Fabulous book club selection!

AWARDS

Winner—Rosebud Award, Best First Mystery Novel
Finalist—Edgar® Award, Best First Novel
Finalist—Anthony Award, Best First Novel
Finalist—Minnesota Book Award, Best Genre Fiction
Finalist—Barry Award, Best Paperback Original Novel
Finalist—Thriller Award, Best First Novel
Best Books of 2014 (debut), Suspense Magazine
Best Debut Novel of 2014, MysteryPeople
A LibraryReads pick, October 2014
Library Journal Editor’s Pick, fall 2014
Amazon Editor’s Pick, “Books We Loved” 2014

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Managing Bubbie

hot bubbie

Bubbies book

 

Managing Bubbie

by Russel Lazega

Managing Bubbie netgalley

CreateSpace| 2015
Hardcover: 244 pages
ISBN: 978-1499126297
Genre: Memoir/Jewish Culture/Holocaust

ARC  E-book from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★★ 5/5

Winner of 20 Book Awards!

“I vant you should make this book.”

Shortly after Lea Lezega’s grandson, Russel, finished college, his Bubbie tells him, again she might add, he must write about her life. It would make them all millionaires! She is certain! Years pass before Russel grabs a pen and starts researching truth from fiction in Bubba’s stories. Ten long years of interviews and document searches confirm that Bubbie indeed led one hell of a life.

And tell the story her eynikl, Russel Lazega has done!  Bubbie would be very proud! Hang on to your reading glasses… As Bubbie says,My life – oy! my life is full of crazy stories.”

Lea Lazega, the ultimate Jewish Bubbie to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, is straight out of a Neil Simon play with over-sized tortoise-shell glasses and that instantly recognizable Yiddish accent percolating invectives at one or more family members.  The book opens in Miami in 1987 with Bubbie telling Cousin Leon some far-fetched theory that Ronald Reagan is her long-lost half brother. Trying to follow Lea’s logic feels like running headlong through a corn maze blindfolded.

Nearing the end of her “golden years”, Bubbie finds her body failing her unrivaled spunk and she is as offended by its physical weakness as she was by the murderous Nazis. Despite her better interests she struggles to be the manager of the situation, not the managed. Her family struggles to keep her out of trouble. She has always done what she wants regardless of the rules of civilized and uncivilized society. It is a battle of wits and Bubbie, as she has done throughout her life, wins!

No assisted living facility in Florida will accept her …She’s worn out 6 already…2 in one month! She’s been blacklisted. “She just won’t follow the rules!” Yet in the midst of trying to make her final years comfortable and hitting brick walls,  the younger family members see the strong amazing woman that towed her young family threw hell and back to outwit the Nazis as they muscled their way through Europe.

Lea was born in 1911 in a small desolate Polish village, a child of a skirt-chasing flirt determined to become a world famous entertainer and an iron-willed mother striving to turn her man into a husband. Her parents had just returned to Poland following a five year stint in America; one of Isaac’s misguided efforts to become rich and famous gone horribly awry. There was one good thing that did happen in America. Esther gave birth to Lea’s sister, Evelyn making Evelyn a US citizen and at the first opportunity she returned. Lea, growing up in Poland, a young victim of anti-Semitic bullying and discrimination vowed to follow her sister. I promise mineself then that I’m going to America- No matter vat, I’m going to follow my sister to the greatest country in the world- America.

Lea’s first chance at a new life took her to Brussels, Belgium where her menial sewing factory job didn’t improve her living conditions but it did provide her freedom from her battling parents and the bullies. Soon after, she married a timid tailor and life was rosy with Lea in charge. When rumors of German mistreatment of Jews in far off European countries sifted into everyday conversation in Belgium, Bubbie’s radar told her she needed to leave Europe and head to America.

With one ear to the ground for safety for her family, Lea haunted the halls of governments from Belgium through France and into Spain to obtain those all important documents needed to reach America. Bombs crushed cities, Nazis prowled the streets and countries fell but Lea never lost sight of her goal. So many close calls but always outwitting the enemy. Hunger and abhorrent living conditions never slowed her drive. As always, rules never applied to Lea. Line up, sign up, hands up…not Lea. Her winter passage on foot through the deadly Pyrenees mountains into Spain with her babies was awe-inspiring. And in the end, Lea planted her flag- in America.

Russel has done a phenomenal job of telling Bubbie’s life scattering humorous moments in America with her life during the Holocaust. I guarantee you will cheer her victories and huddle with her in those terror filled moments-just inches from death. He vividly describes Lea and the children cowering behind a large rock in the Pyrenees too afraid to build a fire for warmth against Bubbie’s fury at Ed McMahon for telling her falsely she had won $10 million dollars. Sue him Russel, sue him for me!

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Highly recommended for book clubs.

I conclude with one more story from Bubbie. Listening to President Reagan on TV visiting a War Memorial in Europe. Reagan: For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow…Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation…Bubbie with a tearful eye and a broken smile answers, “Oy, Brother you don’t know the half of it.”

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Entwined:

entwined cover
Entwined-

Joyce Wallace Scott

Beacon Press
2016
215 pages

978-0-8070-5140-5
Memoir/Twins

ARC: Hardcover copy from Library Thing’s Early Readers in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★★

Few times in my life can I claim to be speechless and really mean it! joyce and judyThis is one of those times. The lives of these two remarkable women will affect you forever.

Joyce Wallace Scott wrote this heart-wrenching memoir to honor her beloved twin sister, Judith. Judy was born with Down’s Syndrome and developed Scarlet Fever as an infant that left her with undiagnosed deafness. Judy, unable to respond to verbal test questions, was thought to be severely retarded with an IQ of 30 and without the ability to live a meaningful life. At 7 years old, under the advice of doctors, she was made a ward of the State of Ohio and discarded like a factory reject. Judy was taken away in the dead of night without any warning to her twin, Joyce, and warehoused for 35 years in the most inhumane circumstances.

The first seven years of their childhood, Judy and Joyce were bonded in a voiceless communion. Too young to understand the cold and seemingly heartless parenting of their mother, Joyce became more than a twin by accepting the role of guardian and caregiver to Judy. With the abrupt severing of their union, Joyce, over the next 35 years, struggled with the ever present loss of “her other self”. As young child, Joyce’s visits to Judy are heartbreaking as she has to continuously beg an adult to take her.

In her search for a way to fill the void, Joyce makes several bad personal decisions, one that results in abandonment by her mother at a time in her life she needed her most. Despite all of her own pain, Joyce never loses sight of Judy’s loveless circumstances.

As an adult, Joyce takes action to become Judith’s guardian welding the two hearts together again. In seeking the best board and care arrangement for Judy, Joyce also learns about Creative Growth Art Center, where adults with disabilities are given free reign to express themselves in the arts. Judy slow rolled into the program but when she found her artistic medium she ignited.

In the last 18 years of her life, this lovely little woman found her voice using fiber art. No one understood Judy’s language or what inspired her work but everyone can feel the message emotionally and visually. Although Judy died in 2005, her silent art can be heard in museums all over the world long after her death.

I find it impossible to describe the resilience and strength these twins revealed throughout their lives.  I highly recommend this memoir be added to every library collection and would make a superb book club choice.

 

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Smooth Operator

smooth operator

Smooth Operator

by Stuart Woods and Parnell Hall

G.P. Putnam’s Sons| August 2016
Series: Teddy Faye #1 (with Stone Barrington)
Hardcover: 339 pages
ISBN: 9780399185267
Genre: Fiction/Suspense/Private Investigators

ARC: E-book from First To Read in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★☆☆

Galloping Galoshes! Why haven’t I gotten back to Stuart Woods’ books sooner? They always entertain and take you on a suspenseful run through the underworld. Over time I drifted away from my tried and true favorite authors to sample debut authors and different genres. Thanks to First To Read and Penguin Random House I was offered a chance to read Smooth Operator prior to publication.

It felt like I had run into an old friend at the supermarket! The kind of friend where it may have been years since you saw each other but you just pick up conversation like it was yesterday.

Smooth Operator begins a new series featuring Stone Barrington’s friend, Teddy Faye. Much like Clancy’s Jack Ryan or Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Teddy Faye is a master at lethal force and one man wrecking ball.  A former CIA agent, Faye “could disguise himself as anyone” and appear as a distinguished head of state or a bumbling investigator like Colombo.  Before leaving the CIA, he eliminated any trace of his existence. “For all intents and purposes, Teddy Faye had ceased to exist.” And he preferred it that way.

When the college-aged daughter of the Speaker of the House is kidnapped, Faye’s status as a phantom agent makes him the perfect person to unravel this unfathomable mystery. As he threads his way through the waste waters of the criminal world to save the girl, the mystery deepens, the US Congress is threatened and bullets fly.

What can you say about a good cheesy story that has you flipping pages?  There are weaknesses. If you haven’t read previous Stuart Woods books you might not understand the much beloved friendships between fan favorite characters appearing here to help introduce Teddy Faye to the world of “secret agent man”.  Personally I am willing to suspend judgement on the somewhat thin plot lines and the tendency for the story to bog down in places.  Can’t wait for the next book! Just met the guy. Have to give him a chance to get up to speed.

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Love That Boy

fournier book cover

LOVE THAT BOY: 

WHAT TWO PRESIDENTS, EIGHT ROAD TRIPS, AND MY SON TAUGHT ME ABOUT A PARENT’S EXPECTATIONS

Ron Fournier, Author

Harmony Books, April 2016
Paperback: 219 pages (978-0804140485)
Genre: Non- Fiction/Family & Relationships/Parenting 

agt_family_offWformat_quotehen a woman is pregnant, we say she is expecting. Expecting a baby and filling with expectations…Parenthood is the last chance to be the person we hoped to be. We want to get it right. We want it to be perfect, and that’s the problem. It’s a hard slog between aspiration and realization. Ron Fournier

Several weeks after I finished Love That Boy I was unsure of how I felt about the book.  Since I laid down my paperback ARC copy, and began reflecting on the impact the book had on me, Ron Fournier has appeared on several TV programs promoting the book often with short video clips with his son, Tyler.

My first impression of the book was mixed.  I had expected a straight forward biography based on the subtitle…What Two Presidents, Eight Road Trips, and My Son Taught Me About A Parent’s Expectations. I am glad I gave myself time to let my thoughts marinate because I have grown deeply affected by the book.

Ron Fournier was a successful White House correspondent caught up, in his words, “an ego-inflating career that I often put ahead of my wife and kids“. His youngest child, Tyler, arrived with a bright, loving and funny disposition.  His precocious vocabulary and professorial demeanor left no doubt that he would have a bright and successful life.  But there was another side to Tyler.  Publicly Tyler would exhibit an “inappropriate” social awkwardness that made Ron uncomfortable and embarrassed.

As time went on it became obvious the idealized image and expectations for Tyler’s life didn’t match up against reality.  Tyler’s awkward social behavior had only increased much to his parents’ dismay which led to frustration and family disharmony.

The turning point for all their lives began the night that Lori Fournier discovered, while watching a TV Series entitled Parenthood, that Tyler shared the same characteristics as the child on the program.  She was immediately knew Tyler “would not outgrow it.”  Shortly thereafter Tyler, at age 12, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

love_that_boy_image

Ron and Tyler Fournier

Ron takes the reader on his journey of discovery to understand Asperger’s.  Utilizing Tyler’s love of history and the need for father and son to spend time in each other’s company, they visit historic settings across the country.

Ron fills in the spaces of his family’s story with information and knowledge meant to enhance the lives every family; not just those challenged with a special needs child.

When I stopped trying to figure out why Ron skipped back and forth between Tyler, the medical professionals, and the personal stories of the community, I realized that story wasn’t as disjointed as it first appeared.  Ron was sharing his own story as it unfolded for him.   Step by step we are drawn into heart of this fabulous Fournier family.   You can’t help yourself… you WILL love that boy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you, Ron Fournier and Harmony Books for the ARC paperback through Shelf Awareness.  The receipt of this paperback in no way influenced my review.  Around the same time I received the ARC I was granted an e-galley version by Harmony books via Edelweiss.

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Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide

Old Age cover

“If life is a race to the finish line, I’m years ahead now.  In the course of our lives, most of us will get… [bad] news…one day.  And every day you don’t get …bad news increasgrandfather-clipart-granddaughter-grandfatheres the chance that you’ll get it tomorrow. So get ready.”

by Michael Kinsley

 

Tim Duggan Books| April 2016
Hardback: 160 pages (978-1101903766)
Genre: Non-Fiction/Aging/Parkinson’s Disease

ARC hardback copy provided free of charge by Tim Duggan Books via edelweiss in exchange for my honest opinion.

Michael Kinsley, for the edification of the younger generation, is well known to Baby Boomers for his left leaning politicBoomer graphical commentary in print and publicly on numerous televised shows including Firing Line  and as co-star of Crossfire representing the left side of the political spectrum pitched against Pat Buchanan on the right.

In 1993, at age 42, Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  At the peak of his career, he had crossed “the line” from rising star to dying star.  In astronomical terms, a “red giant”.

Successfully ensconced  in self-denial for nearly 9 years, challenged by the advancing effects of the disease, had to release the diagnosis publicly in 2002. This admission cracked open his career and forced him to face his future.  The first casualty was a retraction of an offer to run the highly acclaimed magazine, The New Yorker.  He found solace to this first blow to his rising career with success with other endeavors…but it was a sign of things to come.

Now at age 65, Kinsley has written what he hopes will be a guide to fellow Baby Boomers as they, too, face a future with a rapidly approaching expiration date.   He writes, “This book is supposed to be funny, as well, on a subject that does not lend itself to humor.”  Admittedly at times there are witty statements that will make you smile, at the same time the self-deprecating remarks that leave you sad as you understand that a vital and creative journalist has lost his “edge” and he knows it.

Several of the chapters have been lifted from essays appearing previously in other print sources.  My overall feel is that book is somewhat disjointed but delivered with heartfelt genuineness.  Kinsley veers from discussing his life with Parkinson to comparing it to other mind altering diseases such as Alzheimer’s.  He concludes the book with a lecture on the legacy Baby Boomer’s should aspire to achieve.

As an aging Baby Boomer myself, I finished the book with mixed emotions.  Apprehensive about my future, resigned that I can’t do much to face the inevitable but inspired to live this final chapter as fully as possible and to love each sunrise and all my friends and family.

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Hide

HIDE cover

 HIDE

by Matthew Griffin
Bloomsbury/Macmillan  | 2016
e-Reader (978-1-63286-339-3)
Hardback: 272 pages (978-1-63286-338-6)

★★★★

Debut Author
Genre: Adult/Fiction/LBGT

IndiesIntroduce-red-637-331

 

ARC was provided free of charge by Bloomsbury/Macmillan in exchange for my honest opinion.

I was on my way to the window to flip my notice from OPEN to CLOSED…and there he was, standing on the train tracks…

“Excuse me”, I yelled. “Were you looking for something?”  

“Naw,”  “Nothing in particular.”  “Frank Clifton.”

“Wendell Wilson.”  “Pleased to meet you,”

he said, smiling wide and earnest, and I thought I’d be struck down by it, the way it struck down mortals to behold Zeus in his full, blazing divinity.

A war-weary veteran of World War II arrives home by train, unsure what the future holds for him in his small southern hometown.  Frank Clifton has battled more than the recent enemy aboard; he has had a lifelong battle to suppress his inner emotional and physical needs.

Wendell Wilson, then 23 and a self-trained taxidermist, stands in the window, looking at his yet undiscovered future. Reviled by his parents as a teen, aware at the tender age of 14 as his “friend Paul pulled his sweaty, dirt-streaked shirt over his head” and plunged into the water off the bridge that from that moment his life would be in some way…alone.

It’s the 1940s.  Homosexuality, always abhorred, has suddenly become negatively visible in public discourse. Preachers pound the pulpit and rail against its sinful and immoral nature.  Psychiatrists and medical staff consider it a serious mental disorder. And civil authorities have laws criminalizing homosexual behavior.

“Love at first sight”, that deeply felt and openly displayed reaction between two people is not permitted outside of traditional relationships. Wendell and Frank dance around each other when they meet, afraid to hope, praying to find someone they can love.  And they do.  But their love comes at a tremendous cost.

Frank, the apple of his mother’s eye, cannot break ties with her.  He is well known in the town and he has so carefully avoided any suspicion that he knows that he must continue to maintain that false identity in public. Wendell and Frank are never seen in public together. They must always be on guard against discovery.

After Frank’s mother dies, the two men purchase a secluded home far from town where they live and love openly in their refuge.  Frank, college trained, gives up the promise of a well-paying career, to work as a mill worker. His decision to isolate himself from his old friends and family is painful for everyone.

Until. Frank, now 83, is found laying in his garden, the victim of a stroke. The like-wise elderly Warren,  must open their lives for help and yet maintain their cover becoming Frank’s brother to the world.

Through Warren’s voice, we learn about their feelings, their personalities and their weaknesses.  Most importantly we learn about their years of painful sacrifices endured for the most human of all emotions…the right to love. Could most of us deny ourselves 50+ years of publicly expressing our love for our partners?  Openly, unashamed?

Frank’s curmudgeonly personality is at times amusing and at times cruel.  As his mind slips back and forth in time, Warren must adapt and hold on tight.  To do otherwise, would again leave him alone…

The story has harsh elements that might be too strong for some readers.  Warren’s avocation, taxidermy, plays a graphic central role and in one instance is hard to stomach. At times the reader is left wondering in Warren’s case…why did you stay and put up with Frank for all these years.

But ah.  Who are we to understand the depths of another’s love relationship?  Who can deny that these two men lived a true marriage in name only if not in fact?

Recommended reading.

 

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A Man Called Ove

Very goodEvery year I find that one book stands out in relief from all the others.  Sometimes it has made me laugh or cry, sometimes it makes me think about an issue from another perspective and sometimes it just entertains.

In 2014 that book was A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

I received the advance ebook from NetGalley and very quickly spread the word that this book was going to be a hit.  As a matter of fact my book club, The Blue Ridge Readers, will be reading this book next month.  What follows is the edited book review I placed on Goodreads.com.

I just read one of the best books of the year (2014). I laughed, chuckled, roared and admittedly shed a few tears.

Ove endured an unbelievably tough childhood filled with loneliness and lack of nurturing. Forced to survive on his own he structured his life around rules and principles. Over time he formed a crust over his personality that seemed to harden him into an ill-tempered old neighborhood crank.

Thankfully for Ove there were people who saw the cracks in the crusty soul and loved him deeply. The love story of Sophia and Ove will leave you in tears. Ove could not have foreseen his future the day the neighbors moved in and ran over his mailbox.

Poor Ove, despite his attempts to alienate children, cats and kooks, his snappy one-liners and his over-sized kind heart couldn’t fool anyone who took the time to look closely at the man. As Ove would say himself, “It isn’t what a man says that matters, it is what he does.”

Ove was obsessed with his car, a Saab, and the company was so enthralled with the story of Ove’s life they uncharacteristically did a book review on their company’s website. First published in Sweden, it has been translated into English. A must read!

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