Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West

The  Ucharted Flight of Olivia West by Sara Ackerman
Title:
  The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West
Author:  Sara Ackerman
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2024. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778305341 / 978-0778305347

Rating:   ★★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Livy had been coming to the airfield for months now but still had yet to go up in an airplane."

Favorite Quote:  "Always assume the best, and the forces of nature will conspire to make it happen ... No, honey, God will make it happen ... Nature and God are one and the same, my dear."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

Like Sara Ackerman's other books, the history of this book is of Hawaii. This is the first I have read that is not centered around World War II. This book builds on 1920s history of the Dole Air Race. In May, 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed his solo flight from New York City to Paris. In August, 1927, the founder of what is now Dole Foods put for a contest. The first plan to fly from California to Hawaii would win a prize of $25,000. The second place finisher would win $10,000. A small number of pilot applied with their own planes and their own navigators. A smaller number qualified. An even small number made it to takeoff. A smaller number yet made it to Hawaii.

This two timeline story is based in this history, but the characters are all fictional. In the story of the 1920s is Olivia West (as in the book title). She is a pilot, but she is young and a woman. With no backing, she realizes that the only way for her to join the contest is as navigator. A primary motivation is the prize money. In the story of the present is Wren, who receives a surprise inheritance of a home on Hawaii. In both time lines are women determined to make their own way. In both time lines there is a little romance, but the strength and independence of the woman is the focal point. As you might expect, the two timelines and stories connect into the conclusion of the book.

As with all two timeline books, one is more compelling than the other. In this case, Olivia's story is the historically relevant one and the more unusual one. It is about a young woman with a dream. It is about courage and survival. Wren's story is of an unexpected gift and the courage to grasp it and create a life.

That being said, the pacing of the two timelines especially in the first half of the book pulls me more towards Wren's story. Olivia's story is a lot about flying and navigating - the planes, the equipment, the weather, and the skills. It is also  lot of characters - the pilots and others involved in the race. At times, it seems very long and drawn out. At times, it is challenging to follow because as a reader, I am unsure of the characters to pay attention to and remember because they will come up in the present storyline. On the contrary, Wren's story is very limited in place and in the number of characters. As such, the characters - including the dogs - develop an identity and, for me, a connection.

In the middle of the book, Olivia's story also narrows down in focus and establishes the emotional connections. The past connects to the presents, and the story comes together. As expected, the conclusion of the book brings together all the threads of the story into a neat package with a bow on it. It leaves the memory of a sweet story and a knowledge of a unique little snippet of history.

About the Book

This extraordinary novel, inspired by real events, tells the story of a female aviator who defies the odds to embark on a daring air race across the Pacific.

1927. Olivia "Livy" West is a fearless young pilot with a love of adventure. She yearns to cross oceans and travel the skies. When she learns of the Dole Air Race—a high-stakes contest to be the first to make the 2,400 mile Pacific crossing from the West Coast to Hawai'i—she sets her sights on qualifying. But it soon becomes clear that only men will make the cut. In a last-ditch effort to take part, Livy manages to be picked as a navigator for one of the pilots, before setting out on a harrowing journey that some will not survive.

1987. Wren Summers is down to her last dime when she learns she has inherited a remote piece of land on the Big Island with nothing on it but a dilapidated barn and an overgrown mac nut grove. She plans on selling it and using the money to live on, but she is drawn in by the mysterious objects kept in the barn by her late great-uncle—clues to a tragic piece of aviation history lost to time. Determined to find out what really happened all those years ago, Wren enlists the help of residents at a nearby retirement home to uncover Olivia’s story piece by piece. What she discovers is more earth-shattering, and closer to home, than she could have ever imagined.

About the Author

Sara Ackerman is the Hawai'i born, bestselling author of The Codebreaker's Secret, Radar Girls, Red Sky Over Hawaii, The Lieutenant’s Nurse, andIsland of Sweet Pies and Soldiers.

Sara's books have been labeled “unforgettable” by Apple Books, “empowering & deliciously visceral” by Book Riot, and New York Times bestselling authors Kate Quinn and Madeline Martin have praised Sara’s novels as “fresh and delightful” and “brilliantly written.” Amazon chose Radar Girls as a best book of the month, and ALA Booklist gave The Codebreaker’s Secret a starred review.

Find out more about Sara and her books at www.ackermanbooks.com and follow her on Instagram @saraackermanbooks and on FB @ackermanbooks.

Excerpt

Excerpted from The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West by Sara Ackerman. Copyright © 2024 by Sara Ackerman. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A., a division of HarperCollins

Olivia San Diego, 1920

Livy had been coming to the airfield for months now but still had yet to go up in an airplane. On weekends, when Pa was out fishing, she would offer to wash the planes or do whatever odd jobs she could for a penny, while watching planes go up. Always hoping to get a ride, but so far out of luck. Though not for a lack of trying. She had been pestering Mr. Ryan for months now. “Paying customers only,” was his standard response. “Or students.” But so far, all students were men. A sixteen-year-old girl had no business in a cockpit.

Ryan Flying Company and School of Aviation was on the edge of the Dutch Flats alongside the San Diego Bay and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, a long Spanish-style building with a tall bell tower in the middle. Palm trees neatly lined up in front like green soldiers at attention. When the tide pulled out, you could smell salty brine and decaying sea life. The hangar was modern and clean, but it was plopped on a brown expanse of hard-packed mud that kicked up dust when dry. Of late, the place had become a magnet for all things aviation.

Mr. Ryan had begun letting other people park their planes here free of charge, and customers flocked for the sightseeing tours.

On a warm Sunday in March, after surviving a long sermon at church with her mother, Livy beelined it to the airfield. A new pilot had been hired for the tours and she was hoping he might be a softy, and maybe, just maybe, she could persuade him to take her up. Such a gloomy and gusty day, with dark clouds threatening rain, meant less people taking a tour. It also happened that Mr. Ryan was in Los Angeles for the week, and what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.

Livy was hunched over, wiping down the wheels of Mr. Hall’s biplane, when she heard the incoming engine. She stood up to watch the wobbly machine approach. A storm was brewing to the south, you could taste it in the air, and that always made the pilots nervous. She watched the plane make a precarious drop before leveling off, and then come in for a hard landing. As soon as he came to a stop, the new pilot hopped out of the plane, waiting for his customer and holding a hand out when she finally disembarked. A red-haired woman in heels, face white as chalk.

Livy walked over, wiping her hands on her overalls. “How was it up there today?”

The woman staggered past Livy without even a glance. “Never again.”

The pilot trailed behind his passenger and shrugged. “What can I say? Usually, they’re begging for more.”

Once the woman left, zooming off in a shiny Model T, Livy moseyed over to the hangar and stood in the doorway. The pilot was at the counter drinking a Coke and studying a clipboard. With his goggles pulled up on his head, his thick blond hair stood out in all directions, as though he’d stuck his hand in an electric socket.

Livy cleared her throat.

He looked up. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m Olivia West. I work here.”

More like volunteer and hope that people would pay her, but she could dream.

“Oh, right. Mr. Ryan said you might be here. I’m Heath Hazeltine, new pilot.” He was staring oddly at her, and for a second she wondered if she might have grease on her face, like she often did while working here, but then he said with a shake of his head, “I was expecting something different.”

“I come in on the weekends, wipe down planes and other odd jobs,” she said, for some reason feeling like she had to explain, then added, “I’m learning to fly.”

That was a stretch, too, but she did always listen to the pilots talk, watch how they got the propellers spinning and closely observe the takeoffs and landings. She knew which part of the runway was more rutted with potholes, and which angle was best for approach.

He cocked his head slightly. “That so?”

“It is.”

One side of his mouth turned up, just a hint. “I didn’t know women could fly airplanes, let alone teenage girls.”

Livy felt her whole face go red. “I’ll be seventeen in four months. And I’ll bet I know more about airplanes and weather than you do, especially down here in San Diego.”

All she really knew about him was that he’d come from Los Angeles and had flown in Hollywood some, doing stunts. No one had mentioned anything about him being so young. She had been picturing some old guy with a sun-beaten face and graying hair.

“Feisty. I like it,” he said.

She stood on her tippy toes and straightened up, all five feet three inches. Though her thick curls tucked under the hat added some extra height. “Take me up, and I’ll teach you a thing or two.”

He laughed. “What can you teach me?”

When he smiled, his whole face changed, making him seem even younger and a little less arrogant—and painfully handsome. Livy felt a swoosh in her stomach and her cheeks tingled. He couldn’t have been much older than twenty, and yet there was a certain worldliness about him. She found herself wanting to impress him.

“Like I said, I know everything there is to know about this area. What have you got to lose?” she said.

He looked at his watch. “My new job, for one. And I have another tour in twenty minutes, so even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Want to help me patch that big pothole in the runway?”

None of the other pilots ever offered to fill the potholes, they always figured someone else would do it. The mud stuck to everything and gave off a rank odor, and a lot of them saw it as beneath them.

“How about I go fill those holes for you, and you take me up after your tour,” she said.

She thought he was going to refuse her, like Mr. Ryan always did, but instead he nodded and said, “You’re on.”

Disbelief flooded through her. “Really?”

“Really. Now get out there before my next customer arrives.”

But the passengers never showed up, most likely on account of the weather, and the books were empty after that. Heath helped Livy up onto the wing with a big, rough hand and a rock-solid arm. He moved like a man who was extremely comfortable in his own skin, as though the world rotated on his time. Livy decided that he was the perfect man for the job. You wanted your first time up to be memorable, but also to be survivable. Confidence was an asset.

“Sure you want to do this? Those clouds look formidable,” he said.

Livy had noticed the band of charcoal clouds at sea, heralding the foul weather moving up from Mexico. A sudden chill came over her, and she tried to blot out the memory that always accompanied storms blowing in. The dark thing that would always be with her, always haunt the recesses of her mind. Blinding salt spray, cold waves smashing over the bow and washing everything from the deck, the sound of her name being stolen by the whipping wind. Olivia! The last moments of his chafed hand holding on to hers. Her heart began to squeeze in on itself, but she willed the thoughts away.

This storm was likely to be a bad one, but hell if she was going to blow her only chance to fly. Timed right, they’d be able to outrun it.

“Positive. From the looks of it, we have about thirty-seven minutes before that front hits here. Just head north along the coast and we should be back in time.”

She climbed into her seat, and he leaned in and tightened the belt on her waist. “Thirty-seven, huh? Not thirty-six?” he said, close enough that she caught a whiff of mint and salt water.

When he pulled away, their eyes met. Chocolate brown with flecks of fire. Her first instinct was to look away, but instead, she held his gaze.

“Nope, thirty-seven. Let’s go, we’re wasting time,” she said. “Oh, and you’ll probably want to come in from the east on your approach. The wind will swing around coming in off the ocean when it moves in.”

When he stepped back, he almost fell off the wing, catching himself on the wire. They both laughed, breaking whatever strange thing it was that had just passed between them. Without another word, he hopped in and started up the engine. After a few sputters, it chugged to life. Livy slid her goggles on, and made sure her cap was strapped tight. The whole plane buzzed, sending vibrations from the tips of her toes to the crown of her head. As they bounced down the runway, gathering speed, she could hardly believe her luck.

One, two, three. Liftoff.

The shift from clunky and earthbound to weightlessness was unmistakable. Everything went light and buoyant and yet Livy was pinned to her seat as the plane went up. It was a steep climb and all she could see was sky in front of her. She let her head fall back and closed her eyes, imagining herself as an albatross soaring. The hum from the wires that held the wings together grew louder the faster they went. Heath let out a holler and Livy found herself half laughing, half crying. It was even more wonderful than she’d imagined.

When they banked to the right and leveled out some, she saw that she had a bird’s eye view of San Diego Bay, Coronado Island and the city itself—white buildings, red roofs and palm trees. The wind from earlier had died down, leaving an eerie stillness in its wake. They flew toward the cliffs of Point Loma and beyond that, the blue Pacific. There were none of the usual bumps and drops that everyone talked about. It was smooth sailing and she was in awe.

About six minutes out, the nose of the plane suddenly pointed skyward and they began climbing sharply. Pretty soon, they were nearly vertical. Livy knew all her specs of the Curtiss JN 4 “Jenny”—top speed was about eighty miles an hour, she dove well, but when climbing fast, she had a tendency to stall. So, what the heck was Heath doing?

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Friday, February 9, 2024

A Quantum Love Story

A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen
Title:
  A Quantum Love Story
Author:  Mike Chen
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2024. 352 pages.
ISBN:  ‎ 0778310345 / 978-0778310341

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Carter Cho wasn’t really into science experiments."

Favorite Quote:  "Stop always looking for patterns, embrace the weirdo sh@t."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

Time travel. A time loop. A love story. An impossible choice. This book is science fiction meets Groundhog Day, which makes February an appropriate release date.

The science fiction first. Mariana Pineda is a neuroscientist for ReLive, a company with a treatment to freeze selective memories in individuals such that they do not fade or get lost. The idea of memories - the ones we make, the ones we keep, the ones we lose, the ones we hope we never lose, the grief of watching someone we love not remember - is a powerful motif in this book and one that resonates with me.

Carter Cho is a technician. They meet when Mariana and a team from her company come to tour Carter's workplace, the home of a particle accelerator, that is in its testing phase. The issue is that the accelerator explodes. Carter knows this is coming because he has lived through it many times before, and he remembers each loop. He knows he is stuck. Mariana does not know any of this until, in one iteration, Carter pulls her into the loop.

Now, the Groundhog Day scenario. There are two people - and only two people - who are aware that they are living the same four days over and over again. The goal is to come out of the loop and resume their lives. But is it? Some loops are about finding a way out. Some are about experimenting and trying new things and indulging for life - health, finances, etc. - will all reset in four days. As Carter and Mariana come together again and again, a connection, a friendship, and perhaps something more.

Of course, Mariana and Carter both have back stories. The opportunity for time travel and a reset button provides a way for both of them to reconcile with or resolve their pasts. Carter and his family discord. Mariana and the loss of her best friend and sister.

Some of the loop descriptions are similar. There is a lot of food and cooking. Perhaps, the joy of a sublime bite of food is about remaining present in the moment, no matter how fleeting the moment. Nevertheless, it is a bit too much and slows down the pace of the story at times. In some loops, creatures emerge and come to life, somewhat Night of the Museum style. A connection is drawn, but the entire episode does not develop into much. It is just there.

It is an interesting question to consider what might break the loop and as the book description states, the sacrifice that may have to be made. "The only thing harder than finding someone in a time loop is losing them."

The answer as to how the book addresses that question would, of course, be a spoiler. The ending seems rather quick and less developed given the premise about time and space and as compared to the development of the story in 4 day increments with each loop. Nevertheless, the emotion in it rings true and leaves a lasting image of love and love remembered. That makes the book work for me.

About the Book

Mike Chen brings us an epic love story—in a time loop. When strangers Mariana Pineda and Carter Cho get stuck together repeating the same four days, finally reaching Friday might mean having to give up the connection growing between them.

On Thursday at 12:42pm, Carter Cho is working as a technician at a particle accelerator when it explodes, striking him with a green energy—and sending him back in time to Monday morning. And this happens over and over again. Which at first is interesting, but quickly becomes lonely as the world moves through the same motions and only he changes. If he ever wants to get out of the time loop, he needs help.

On one of the loops, he finally manages to bring Mariana Pineda in with him by getting her struck by the same energy at the same moment. Now they have to find out how to get the accelerator to finish its current test so that they can finally reach Friday.

Along the way, Carter and Mariana help each other through grief, decisions about unfulfilling jobs, and confronting difficult pasts—all the while eating lots of great food since their bank accounts and cholesterol reset with every loop. But the longer they stay in the loop, the more they realize that getting out of it, might mean they’ll have to give up the connection growing between them that’s slowly leading to love.

About the Author

Mike Chen is the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Brotherhood, Here and Now and Then, Light Years from Home and other novels. He has covered geek culture for sites such as Nerdist, Tor.com and StarTrek.com, and in a different life, he’s covered the NHL. A member of SFWA, Mike lives in the Bay Area with his wife, daughter and many rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter.

Excerpt

Excerpted from A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen. Copyright © 2024 by Mike Chen. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

1
Carter Cho wasn’t really into science experiments.

Otherwise, he might have completed his degree in quantum mechanics. Cooking experiments, though? Totally different, because there was a real joy to that process. But setting a hypothesis, identifying controls, and looking for…stuff?

Seriously, that seemed like such a slog.

Except for this particular Thursday morning, on the corner of a crosswalk and standing across from the world’s biggest, most advanced particle accelerator, a science experiment felt necessary.

He didn’t really have a choice. It seemed to be the only way to possibly understand or even escape his very strange predicament.

Carter checked the time on his phone, waiting for it to tick specifically to twenty-three seconds past 8:22 a.m.

At that moment, the crosswalk light would switch, signaling for pedestrians to go.

Then everything would cascade, a waterfall of specific actions by the world around him:

The person on Carter’s right would step out first.

The person behind him would wait an extra four seconds, eyes stuck on his phone.

Annoyed, the woman next to that person would let out an exaggerated sigh, move around, then rush forward six steps into the street before catching her shoe.

Then she would stumble forward, her coffee spilling. The first time he went through this, he’d noticed the spill just in time to sidestep it before continuing on.

All of these actions sat line by line on the old-fashioned paper notebook in his hands, a checklist of what was to come with the precision delivered by his photographic memory.

Science experiments all led to a result. As for this, he wasn’t quite sure what the result, or even the purpose, might be. He already knew he was in a loop of some sort, something that started the instant he woke up on Monday mornings.

And it always ended up with the huge facility across the street exploding.

The Hawke Accelerator, both a modern marvel of technology circa 2094 and also some sort of weird top-secret project that no one really understood—now also the place that would simply go boom.

Carter should know. The first time he experienced this, he was in the accelerator chamber’s observation room, right in the heart of where the go boom happened at precisely 12:42 p.m. on Thursday. Which was today, again. Just a few hours from now.

He’d been through this six times before, each time expanding his acute understanding of the details surrounding him. Usually he wrote things down at the end of the day, a memory trick he’d learned about himself very early on that helped cement the details into place, so even when he started the loop over without any scribbled notes to organize his thoughts, his photographic memory recalled it.

But this morning, he went in reverse, writing out the exact steps as they were meant to be.

And then he’d make sure it played out that way, bit by bit.

After that, he wasn’t sure. Carter thought of his parents, their usual voices chastising him for his lack of planning and forethought, how his teenage foray into coding and hacking was more about fun than applying himself, and now look at him, simply a technician running tests and tightening screws. Even now that he’d been through this loop several times, he hadn’t bothered to call them back from their birthday messages. Part of him used the excuse that he should stay as close to the original path as possible, but he knew better.

Even if this weird loop existence meant a complete lack of consequences, calling his parents was the last thing he wanted to do.

Carter checked his phone one more time, five seconds remaining until the crosswalk kicked off the sequence. He gripped the notebook, staring at the list of things to come.

A chime came from the crosswalk. And Carter began to move.

The person on the right moved.

The man behind Carter stayed.

An exasperated sigh came from behind him. Carter kept his eyes on his notebook, counting steps in his head. “Ack,” the woman said, right when Carter sidestepped. His focus moved down to the next item on the list, then the next, then the next, not once looking up. Instead, he executed through a combination of memory and instinct, sliding sideways when a cyclist rolled by on the sidewalk and slowing down just enough to follow in a group waiting at the front entrance of Hawke.

Someone coughed, marking a time to pause and wait thirteen seconds, enough time to review the next items on the notebook still in front of him:

Front desk hands out mobile device for the David AI digital assistant.

Security guard says something about visiting group from ReLive project.

Passing scientist asks what time Dr. Beckett’s flight gets in.


He moved through the security gate designated for employees, taking him past the lobby threshold and over to the main hallway that split in three directions. He stopped, leaned against the wall and waited for the final item to come to pass. Nothing special or unique, just the sound of heels walking in a hurried cadence from his right to his left. Carter checked the notebook, waiting for the visitor’s David AI to speak exactly what he wrote.

“Your next meeting starts in two minutes,” the AI said from the small mobile unit in his familiar London accent. “Oops! Looks like you might be late. Should I give the meeting notice of that?”

Carter mouthed the words as the visitor spoke, his voice fading down the hallway. “No, thanks. I’ll just hurry.”

David’s simulated voice could still be heard as Carter put the notebook down, holding it at his side while considering what just happened. He wasn’t particularly religious, though part of him wondered if he’d been condemned to some sort of purgatory. The predictability of it all, the strange exactness of everything he saw playing out as written on the notebook in his hands.

The first few times, he’d felt disbelief. Then curiosity. Then amusement.

This time, well, he guessed that was the purpose of this experiment: to figure out how he felt knowing he could predict every exact movement of every person he encountered.

Disbelief, curiosity, amusement, and now the whole thing was just unnerving.

Nothing out of turn. Nothing different. Nothing unexpected.

He blew out a sigh, hands pushing back his wavy black hair. Something tugged at him, a wish for things to be different. A person walking from his left instead of his right. Or the plant behind him coming to life and biting his arm. Or a piano dropping out of the sky and smashing his foot.

Anything at all to end this.

Ten minutes passed with Carter lost in his own thoughts, but that in itself turned out to be a change. Normally, he’d take a walk to clear his head, but the list’s finality wound up freezing him. All the previous loops, he’d tried to follow his original path as closely as possible, always ending back in the observation room where the accelerator started to deteriorate and a massive blast of energy struck him. Perhaps that was the only real difference, as he’d changed spots in those final moments to see exactly where the bolt landed on the floor, even using his photographic memory to draw a precise grid of the floor panels.

What he could do with that information, he wasn’t sure. But it had to mean something.

This time, though, a weight paused him, an all-encompassing blanket that left him pondering far longer than he’d ever done.

And then it hit him: he’d deviated farther from his path than before, and nothing bad had happened.

Heck, if he wanted something bad to happen simply so it could, maybe it’d be best if he pushed farther. Or even went in the complete other direction.

At this point, he’d normally turn right, check in with the technician’s desk, grab his cart of tools and begin going through his assignments for the day. But a sharp, almost foreign defiance grabbed him.

He would turn left. He would not check in with his supervisor. Instead he’d go…

Carter’s eyes scanned, looking for the most opposite thing he could possibly do.

Of course.

His steps echoed as he pressed ahead, a strange jubilance to his feet. He moved around people milling about or talking about actual work things, practically skipping with joy until he turned to the entrance of the Hawke cafeteria and straight to the bakery station and its waft of morning pastries.

Ten minutes passed with Carter lost in his own thoughts, but that in itself turned out to be a change. Normally, he’d take a walk to clear his head, but the list’s finality wound up freezing him. All the previous loops, he’d tried to follow his original path as closely as possible, always ending back in the observation room where the accelerator started to deteriorate and a massive blast of energy struck him. Perhaps that was the only real difference, as he’d changed spots in those final moments to see exactly where the bolt landed on the floor, even using his photographic memory to draw a precise grid of the floor panels.

What he could do with that information, he wasn’t sure. But it had to mean something.

This time, though, a weight paused him, an all-encompassing blanket that left him pondering far longer than he’d ever done.

And then it hit him: he’d deviated farther from his path than before, and nothing bad had happened.

Heck, if he wanted something bad to happen simply so it could, maybe it’d be best if he pushed farther. Or even went in the complete other direction.

At this point, he’d normally turn right, check in with the technician’s desk, grab his cart of tools and begin going through his assignments for the day. But a sharp, almost foreign defiance grabbed him.

He would turn left. He would not check in with his supervisor. Instead he’d go…

Carter’s eyes scanned, looking for the most opposite thing he could possibly do.

Of course.

His steps echoed as he pressed ahead, a strange jubilance to his feet. He moved around people milling about or talking about actual work things, practically skipping with joy until he turned to the entrance of the Hawke cafeteria and straight to the bakery station and its waft of morning pastries.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s totally fine. I, uh,” he said. She bit down on her lip, brow scrunched, though eventually they locked gazes. “I should have watched where I was going.” He gestured at the growing coffee stain on his outfit.

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. It’s work clothes. It gets dirty. No big deal.”

The woman’s expression broke, relief lifting her cheeks into a toothy grin, one of those unexpected sights that made everything a little bit better. She looked back at the group, then the coffee cup in her hands. “Damn it, I spilled a bunch. Is there a place to get a refill?”

“You’re going to the main conference room?”

“Yeah. Spent all week there.”

All week. All the times Carter had been through the loop before, even seen the names of various guest groups on schedules, and yet they’d never crossed paths—not until he did the exact opposite of his routine.

Funny how that worked.

“We finally get to see the observation room, though. In a little bit.” She held up her coffee cup. “Just need a refill somewhere along the way.”

“CafĂ© is back there,” he said, thumb pointing behind him. “Way back there.”

“Ah,” she said with furrowed brow, a conflicted look that seemed about much more than a coffee refill. “Probably should meet with the team. Not enough time.”

Not enough time. The concept almost made Carter laugh. “Well,” he said, pulling out a bag, “a donut for making you late?”

She took the bag and peaked inside, cheeks rising with a sudden smile. “I don’t usually like donuts. But these glazed ones. Simple, you know?” She shuffled the bottom of the bag to nudge the donut out the opening. “Are you sure? I spilled coffee on you.”

“Yeah. I’m, uh,” he started, pausing as their gazes lingered. “My fault for running into you.”

The wrapper crinkled as she examined it up close before taking a small bite. “I should get back to my team. Maybe they’ll hand out free coffee by the time we get to the observation room. Thanks for this.”

Carter dipped his chin, a quick farewell as he considered the inevitability of the next few hours, a march toward a chaotic and violent reset. He matched her smile, though as she turned, he pondered saying something.

Normally, he wouldn’t. But with the world exploding soon? He went with the opposite of normal.

“My name’s Carter, by the way,” he said. “Carter, the guy who gives people donuts.”

Her gaze shifted, first looking at the floor, then up at the ceiling, even at the bag on her shoulder before finally locking eyes again. “Mariana,” she said, holding up the donut bag, “the woman always looking for coffee.” She bit down on her lip before glancing around. “I’m going to tell you something completely random.”

“Okay?” Carter said slowly. “About donuts?”

She laughed, an easy, bright laugh, though her eyes carried something far heavier. “No. The group I’m with. We’re touring the facility. But I’m quitting. They don’t know yet. Today’ll be my last day. Science is great until it’s not.” Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Probably because we’ll never see each other again.” She spun on her heel, an abrupt move followed by determined steps forward.

“Not unless you need another glazed donut.”

She turned, slowing as she walked away backward, this mystery scientist who spilled coffee on him and then caught his attention. Because the idea that someone didn’t like most donuts, well, that was as opposite as anything he’d ever encountered in his life. “Maybe that,” she said with a small grin.

“I’ll remember your name in case we do,” he said. “Mariana.”

Her fingers fluttered in a quick wave, then she turned, and Carter leaned against the wall, ignoring the people who came and went.

Mariana. Maybe he should write that down, just in case she became important. He pulled the notebook out from under his arm, only to find the pages soaked with coffee.

A pen would rip through those pages. He’d have to trust his memory to recall her name, her voice, her face. On the off chance that they ever met again.

None of it mattered anyway, but as experiments went, this morning did at least prove helpful.

Now Carter knew that he could do anything, even the opposite of normal. And that might just lead to him escaping this thing. Or, at the very least, a lot more pastries.

Mariana disappeared into the sea of people, and as she did, her words echoed in his mind. First her group went to the conference room, then the observation room above the accelerator core. He knew that space well; after all, he’d been in that same room when everything began to explode and—

Wait.

That was it. A possible connection that he’d somehow missed before. He’d been there, of all places, summoned to check some of the power conduits lining the walls as the whole thing fell apart. Could that exact space be important?

Carter’s head tilted up. Maybe the observation room held the key to everything.

And if it did, what would happen if others were caught in it too? 
Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Every Rising Sun

Every Rising Sun
Title:
  Every Rising Sun
Author:  Jamila Ahmed
Publication Information:  Henry Holt and Co. 2023. 432 pages.
ISBN:  1250887070 / 978-1250887078

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Shaherazade turned to Shahryar and said, 'May I have your permission to tell a story."

Favorite Quote:  "Men and women before you have been betrayed. Men and women after you will be betrayed. But to be betrayed is not to be broken. And to be broken is not be become a killer."

Alif Lailah. One thousand and one nights. Arabian nights. Most of us have heard of this collection of folk tales. Many more have heard some stories that come from this collection without perhaps realizing that they are part of a bigger collection. Aladdin. Sinbad the Sailor. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. 

The stories date back centuries and have been gathered in different forms by different authors and narrators. What is universal in all the collections is the framework in which these individual tales exist. The story is of a ruler who would marry and the next morning execute the young woman he married because he was once betrayed by the one he loved. One of the brides, Shaherazade sets out to save herself and those who may come after. On the night of the wedding, she asks to tell a story. The story hangs in the balance when morning comes. The ruler gives her a one day reprieve for the story to be concluded that night. Each night and each morning, the pattern repeats for 1,000 nights. And on the 1,001st night, what becomes of Shaherazade? There is a commonly held belief as to what happens then.

This debut novel decides to envision this paradigm through the eyes of Shaherazade. It provides a love story, a family, a "history" of what happens in "real life" between the nights of Shaherazade's stories. Some of the tales are still there, but this is Shaherazade's story. The "real life" has palace intrigue, wars, politics, a marriage, a love triangle, deaths, and more. "The world has ended before. Each time it has arisen anew."

I love seeing these stories of my childhood brought to a new envisioning and perhaps to an audience that may not be as familiar with these tales. Perhaps, this book will send a reader in search of other renditions more classically told. 

The one concern I have is the inconsistencies in the characters. As this is Shaherazade's story and told through her eyes, the other characters including the Malik and the other women of this story do not materialize fully. The reader sees them only through Shaherazade's eyes even though significant calamities befall these characters, and they are responsible for significant turning points in this story.

Narrowing the focus, there are inconsistencies in Shaherazade's character itself. On the one hand is a strong young woman who makes a daring choice, who bets on herself to save not only herself but those around her, who gives sage counsel to warriors, and who is a warrior herself. So many of her decisions are based on the greater good. Yet, a main story point is Shaherazade's allowing herself to be pulled into a relationship that runs counter to all those choices. This ultimately leads to the ending of the book itself, which is considerable different than the ending I have heard in these tales in any prior version. 

The contradiction is not fully explained to the satisfaction of this reader. I can appreciate a good retelling, but enough of the original must remain for it to be a retelling. The ending, to me, is a key part. Perhaps, there is a sequel to come. Perhaps not. Nevertheless, the ending for me undermines the characterizations throughout the book for I do not see why or how.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

The Museum of Failures

The Museum of Failures by Thrity Umrigar
Title:
  The Museum of Failures
Author:  Thrity Umrigar
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2023. 368 pages.
ISBN:  164375355X / 978-1643753553

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "All night long, the crows fought as a jet-lagged Remy Wadia struggled to sleep in an unfamiliar bed."

Favorite Quote:  "Because, ultimately everybody's story was written in scars."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

The story of the museum of failures is ultimately about a family. In particular it is about how parents, even with the best of intentions, can sometimes fail their children. It is about the far-reaching impact of those failures for the children carry those scars into adulthood and into their own journey of parenthood. At the heart of the story is Remy Wadia, an adult who had made a life in America but returns to Bombay, India in the hopes of an adoption. Unexpected events lead him on a journey to questions what he has always believed about his life, his family relationships in India, and his own ability and willingness to be a father.

The book, however, defines itself in different ways at different points. "He had often thought of Bombay as the museum of failures, an exhibit hall filled with thwarted dreams and broken promises." Towards the beginning of the book, the book offers Remy's commentary on India, life in India, and of the reasons he left is all behind. Correspondingly, there is commentary about immigrant life in general and specifically in the Unites States under recent regimes. I almost want to stop as political commentary is not what I expect or want in this book. That commentary does not add to and is completely unnecessary for the story. However, this story is firmly set in Bombay. The US side of Remy's life never really developed. Thus, the political commentary does not permeate the story enough to distract from the focal point. 

Within the global commentary are the individual stories. "Of course, there were unhappy people everywhere on earth, and if you catalogued all their griefs and disappointments, every place could be considered a museum of failures. One could argue that this was the universal human condition." The sadness in this story belongs to Remy, his father Cyrus who is deceased but very much a character in this story, and his mother Shirin. Other supporting characters like Monaz and Dina have their own tragic stories that overlap Remy's.

The progression of the story can be measured in the next time the title appears. "There is no room for hope in the museum of failures. Even if it hangs on the walls for a moment, it usually comes crashing down." Cyrus dies without resolving the failures of their family's life. Shirin goes mute, harboring those failures. Remy holds on to the perceived failures of his parents and bears the scars of the choices. Even as an adult who has gone through therapy to resolve the hurts of his childhood, Remy has yet to reckon with that past. The story of what can only be termed abuse is tragic and horrifying. It seems unbelievable because I would like to think that it could not be possible. Yet, we all know that it is.

The next mention of the title highlights where the story ends up. "Because the only way to destroy the museum of failures is to burn every shameful secret that it has ever held." More than failures, this book is all about secrets. The ending of this book packages this family's entire history from before Remy's birth until his now-middle-age neatly with almost a bow. Every loose end is tied up. Every relationship and every concern is resolved. This, to me, lessons the impact of this story. Life is not neat, and a lifetime of issues are not so neatly resolved. Nevertheless, an emotional family story and a depiction of the immigrant experience that will stay with me.

About the Book

(from the author's website)
An immersive story about family secrets and the power of forgiveness from the bestselling author of Reese’s Book Club pick Honor.

When Remy Wadia left India for the United States, he carried his resentment of his cold and inscrutable mother with him and has kept his distance from her. Years later, he returns to Bombay, planning to adopt a baby from a young pregnant girl—and to see his elderly mother again before it is too late. She is in the hospital, has stopped talking, and seems to have given up on life.

Struck with guilt for not realizing just how ill she had become, Remy devotes himself to helping her recover and return home. But one day in her apartment he comes upon an old photograph that demands explanation. As shocking family secrets surface, Remy finds himself reevaluating his entire childhood and his relationship to his parents, just as he is on the cusp of becoming a parent himself. Can Remy learn to forgive others for their human frailties, or is he too wedded to his sorrow and anger over his parents’ long-ago decisions?

Surprising, devastating, and ultimately a story of redemption and healing still possible between a mother and son, The Museum of Failures is a tour de force from one of our most elegant storytellers about the mixed bag of love and regret. It is also, above all, a much-needed reminder that forgiveness comes from empathy for others.

About the Author

(from the author's website)
Thrity Umrigar is the best-selling author of the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, If Today Be Sweet, The Weight of Heaven, The World We Found, The Story Hour, Everybody’s Son and The Secrets Between Us. Her new novel, Honor, is an Indie Next List Pick for January 2022. Umrigar is also the author of the memoir, First Darling of the Morning and three children's picture books, When I Carried You in My Belly, Sugar in Milk and Binny's Diwali. Her books have been translated into several languages and published in over fifteen countries. She is a Distinguished University Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The Space Between Us was a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins award, while her memoir was a finalist for the Society of Midland Authors award. If Today Be Sweet was a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection, while her other books have been Community Reads selections. Thrity is the winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize, a Lambda Literary award and the Seth Rosenberg prize. She is also the recipient of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard.

Thrity was born in Bombay, India and came to the U.S. when she was 21. As a Parsi child attending a Catholic school in a predominantly Hindu country, she had the kind of schizophrenic and cosmopolitan childhood that has served her well in her life as a writer. Accused by teachers and parents alike of being a daydreaming, head-in-the-clouds child, she grew up lost in the fictional worlds created by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Woolf and Faulkner. She would emerge long enough from these books to create her own fictional and poetic worlds. Encouraged by her practical-minded parents to get an undergraduate degree in business, Thrity survived business school by creating a drama club and writing, directing and acting in plays. Her first short stories, essays and poems were published in national magazines and newspapers in India at age fifteen.

After earning a M.A. in journalism in the U.S., Thrity worked for several years as an award-winning reporter, columnist and magazine writer. She also earned a Ph.D. in English. In 1999, Thrity won a one-year Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University, which is given to mid-career journalists.

While at Harvard, Thrity wrote her first novel, Bombay Time. In 2002 she accepted a teaching position at Case Western Reserve University, where she was recently named a Distinguished University Professor of English. Her articles have been published in national publications such as The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.

Thrity is active on the national lecture circuit and has spoken at book festivals such as the L.A. Festival of Books, the Tuscon Book Festival and the Miami Book Fair International; at universities such as MIT, Harvard University, and Spelman College; and at literary societies, civic and business organizations and public libraries all across the country.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library
Title:
  The Midnight Library
Author:  Matt Haig
Publication Information:  Viking. 2020. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0525559477 / 978-0525559474

Rating:  ★★★★

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection of a local book group.

Opening Sentence:  "Nineteen years before she decided to die, Nora Seed sat in the warmth of the small library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford."

Favorite Quote:  "You don't have to understand life. You just have to live it."

Reader, beware. The book begins with contemplation and attempt of a suicide. If that is a trigger, perhaps this book is not for you.

At some point in our lives, we have all wondered. What if? What if I did not go down that road at that point? What if I lived on a different street? What if I went to a different school? What if I pursued a different career? What if.... What if I made a different choice?

Now, first imagine a library with an infinite number of books! Yes! Now imagine that this library is for you specifically! Yes! Now imagine that not only is it for you specifically, but it answers the question what if. Not just one what if, but every what if ever in your life! It can show you the path and the outcome if you chose a different path.

Given that any one of us makes a multitude of choices even just in one day and given that each choice combination has an exponential impact, it is easy to see how that may lead to what seems to be an infinite number of possibilities. 

That is the wonderful premise of the midnight library. This is the opportunity presented to Nora at the beginning of the book. An opportunity to see the what ifs and then choose. It sounds amazing, right?

Follow Nora's journey to see if it is and what she discovers. Interestingly, Nora's journey into each life is not as the Nora who would inhabit that life had she made that different choice. Rather, it is this Nora who has attempted suicide and is seeing that life without actually being that Nora. In each life, she is in effect acting as herself but is not really herself. "You are right to think of these lives like a plane where you're playing tunes that aren't really you. You are forgetting who you are. You are forgetting your root life. You are forgetting what worked for you and what didn't. You are forgetting your regrets."

Given that setup, the ending of this book goes about where I expect it to. "We only know what we perceive. Everything we experience is ultimately just our perception of it. IT's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." Something unexpected might have added even more impact to the book, but, then again, perhaps this could not possibly have ended in any other way. Regardless, the journey to that end is worth it.

The idea of the path not taken has been explored in many different books and movies. The approach of creating a personalized library of lives makes this book unique and, as a reader, of course appeals to me. That and the delve into the philosophy surrounding this question makes the book work for me.

Book Club Discussion

The reaction in our book club to this read were mixed. Much of that difference centered around the fact that the philosophical premise of this book ties into the nonfiction self-help genre and that does not work for many people. As Nora experiences each life, there are of course the lessons of that life. Most people have either love or really dislike books of that genre, and this reaction to this fiction parallels.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Vacation

The Vacation by John Marrs
Title:
  The Vacation
Author:  John Marrs
Publication Information:  Hanover Square Press. 2023. 464 pages.
ISBN:  1335013253 / 978-1335013255

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "'That's her,' the driver yelled to the three men waiting in the rear of the transit van."

Favorite Quote:  "I see it like this - people are like the tide. Some come into your life and bring things you'll only need for a short time, and others will bring things you'll carry forever. But some are just destined to disappear beneath the waves."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

Tommy. Nicole. Eric. Jake. Matty. Declan. Ron. Peyk. Ruth. Savannah. Jane. 

Northampton, England. Victoria, Australia. London, England. Montgomery, Alabama. Navan, Ireland.

Different people from different places and different walks of life all converge upon the Venice Beach International Hostel. Ron owns it. Peyk is just there. Tommy lives and works there. The rest are backpackers staying in this somewhat decrepit, definitely not up to code hostel. 

Some of the book represents the transient, backpacking lifestyle:
  • "Recently, she had begun allowing herself to imagine what it must feel like to live for the moment - to wake up and not have your day mapped out in front of you; to go where you pleased; to meet new people from all walks of life and to absorb sights most people only witness in TV documentaries."
  • "How long do you stay in each place? It depends. I travel by three rules - never outstay your welcome; always leave them wanting more; disappear when no one's looking."
  • "And only when you allow the warmth of new experiences to fill your heart will you truly realize how precious a gem your life is."
The transient nature of the traveller's is captured in the original title of this book, Welcome to Wherever You Are, upon first publication in 2015. The book still contains and explains that title. "What does Welcome to Wherever You Are mean? It means that it doesn't matter where you are, just as long as you're somewhere." To me, the original is a more apt title for this story as for so many, this is a lifestyle not a vacation. In this case, for many, it is an escape from their lives and most definitely not a vacation as they struggle to survive and outrun their own pasts.

With John Marrs subsequent success, that title is now being re-released as a new title. The premise of this book is this coincidental meetup of people at a traveling juncture. However, no one here is quite who they seem. Each has secrets they wish to keep hidden. For many, it is those very secrets that have led them here. The book is being marketed as a suspenseful thriller.

However, to me, it is not that. The book weaves through the present day in Venice Beach and through different junctures in the back stories of the characters and how they find themselves to be here. There are a lot of characters and a lot of back stories to keep track of. The back stories include controlling abusive parents, illnesses, accidents, infatuations, drugs, crime, and more.

How the story comes together is the intrigue of the book. That takes most of the 400 pages of the book; not a lot actually happens in the present. The connections the author is able to design and depict between these characters are creative and entertaining. It just takes a while to get there. So, the book at times seems long. About half way through, I am ready for the story to all come together.

About the Book

How far would you run to escape your past?

Venice Beach, Los Angeles. A paradise on earth. Tourists flock to the golden coast and the promise of Hollywood. But for eight strangers at a beach-front hostel, there is far more on their minds than an extended vacation. All of them are running from something. And they all have secrets they’d kill to keep…

This holiday-set read is a compulsive and addictive thriller, perfect for fans of T.M. Logan.

About the Author

John Marrs is an author and former journalist based in London and Northamptonshire. After spending his career interviewing celebrities from the worlds of television, film and music for numerous national newspapers and magazines, he is now a full-time author. His books include No1 bestseller and Netflix series The One, The Passengers, award winning What Lies Between Us and The Good Samaritan. Follow him at www.johnmarrsauthor.co.uk , on Twitter @johnmarrs1, on Instagram @johnmarrs.author and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/johnmarrsauthor.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Blacktop Wasteland

Blacktop Wasteland
Title:
  Blacktop Wasteland
Author:  S. A. Cosby
Publication Information:  Flatiron Books. 2020. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1250252687 / 978-1250252685

Rating:   ★★★★

Book Source:  I read this book as a selection for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "Beauregard thought the night sky looked like a painting."

Favorite Quote:  "Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allow you to cut 'em loose. Because that's what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom. Nothing."

The term "blacktop wasteland" is not a reference to a post-apocalyptic ruin of some other worldly calamity. It is rather a reference to the poverty, the racial divides, and the inequity that still inhabits many parts of our nation. In this case, the reader finds themselves in a small town in Virginia. "Progress had left this part of town behind. It was abandoned just like the store. A blacktop wasteland haunted by the phantoms of the past."

Beauregard “Bug” Montage did not have a positive start in life. He ends up in juvenile detention due to petty crimes as a teenager. By the time he comes out, his father has disappeared, leaving him behind. He tries to build an honest life, making a living as a mechanic and trying to be a better parent and example to his children.

Big business moves in, and a  small town mechanic cannot compete with those prices. Dire financial straits bring back into Bug's life people from his past. Bug's passion is cars, and his claim to fame is being one of the best drivers around - one of the best getaway drivers. Is one more heist and stint worth the price if it will secure his family's financial future? Is one last getaway drive possible? Is it possible to get out? Is it worth the price if his children learn that he is on the wrong side of the law to accomplish this?This is the quandry that Bug faces.

"I ain't gonna tell you it's wrong, because you know it's wrong. You gotta promise no matter how bad you think things are, you won't ever do anything like this again. You start down a road like this and before you know it you can't find your way back. You lose yourself. One day you wake up and you're just this thing that does shit and don't feel nothing. And that's the worst thing you can be. I can't let that happen to you. I'm your Daddy and it's my job to protect you. Even if that means protecting you from yourself."

This book was a book club selection and a newer genre for me with its dark, noir setup. With Bug's expertise in cars, his love for his car - a legacy from his father, and a plot line about a getaway, this book is very car forward. I know very little about cars, and my interest is limited to getting from point A to point B. However, I can understand that strong affinity to something that anchors to our pasts, especially to emotions left unresolved.

In addition, the characters and emotions in this book resonate. This is a book about poverty and the impossible choices involved in trying to give your children a better life. "He wasn't robbing Peter to pay Paul. They had both ganged up on him and were mugging him." The main character is a criminal contemplating another crime. He is also an adult abandoned as a child, a husband, and a father. He is a character I find myself cheering for. Throughout the book, I hope that things work out for Bug and his family.

This book exemplifies what I love about book clubs. It often forces me to read beyond my comfort zone, and sometimes it leads to a wonderful new reading adventure.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.