Saturday, January 23, 2021

At the Edge of the Haight

Title:
  At the Edge of the Haight
Author:  Katherine Seligman
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2021. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1643750232 / 978-1643750231

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:  "Root skimmed the sidewalk with this nose, sniffing the food wrappers, a black book, and a pair of red tights someone had tossed in a perfect Z."

Favorite Quote:  "People believed what they saw, but it was not the same as what was really there."

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


Review

At the western edge of the Haight in San Francisco lies Golden Gate Park. The Haight-Asbury neighborhood is generally associated with the hippie and counterculture of the 1960s. At this time, the area is "home" to a growing community of homeless individuals. It is in this community that the book is based.

The incident at the center of the plot is from the author's own life. Years ago, as she and her husband were driving home, they encountered a man who was hurt and claimed someone was trying to kill him. When they stopped to help and the police came, they found in the grass the body of a young man who died.

In this book, this incident is witnessed by Maddy Donaldo, a twenty year old homeless girl. She comes from Los Angeles and now survives in Golden Gate Park. In her own way, she has found a community and a family in the other homeless in that park.

More than the death of a young man, this book is about a slice of life picture of Maddy and the life of the homeless. It is about the reasons a person may find herself in this situation. It is about those - parents, churches, shelters, police officers, and others - who offer assistance and a road back "inside." It is about the reasons that an individual chooses to take the help or to remain outside.

That being said, the book does seem to have a rather sanitized approach to telling this story. It makes the situation of the homeless seems less dire than it is. Maddy and her friends drift from helping hand to helping hand, but a helping hand is always there. They seem to use the resources available as they find suitable. Some manage to go home, only to leave again at will. They manage to stay just on the right side of the law or at least come out without dire consequences. The doors to help always remain open. They seem to have a community, a family, and a "home" in the park.

In the afterword of the book, the author gives some facts. "In California, the world's fifth largest economy, the population of unsheltered people reportedly grew by 16 percent from 2018 to 2019; when community groups gathers one chilly December night in 2019 for a yearly vigil to remember those who died outside or in marginal housing, they called out 275 names." This intensity and this loss is not what seems captured in the book. The book was the winner of the 2019 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The social message was just not the one I expected.

This makes me wonder at the target audience for this book. The rose-colored telling or the messaging that help is always available seems more suitable to a young adult audience. It seems to reiterate to young people that there are always alternatives. The book itself seems to be one of the "helpers" putting the message out there for the young people, who choose or are forced into this life. If that is the case, the book gets its message across.

About the Author

Katherine Seligman is a journalist and author who lives in San Francisco. She has been a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, a reporter at the San Francisco Examiner and a correspondent at USA Today. Her work has appeared in Redbook, Life, Money, California Magazine, the anthology Fresh Takes and elsewhere.

About the Book

The 10th Winner of the 2019 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Awarded by Barbara Kingsolver

“What a read this is, right from its startling opening scene. But even more than plot, it’s the richly layered details that drive home a lightning bolt of empathy. To read At the Edge of the Haight is to live inside the everyday terror and longings of a world that most of us manage not to see, even if we walk past it on sidewalks every day. At a time when more Americans than ever find themselves at the edge of homelessness, this book couldn’t be more timely.”
—Barbara Kingsolver, author of Unsheltered and The Poisonwood Bible

Maddy Donaldo, homeless at twenty, has made a family of sorts in the dangerous spaces of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She knows whom to trust, where to eat, when to move locations, and how to take care of her dog. It’s the only home she has. When she unwittingly witnesses the murder of a young homeless boy and is seen by the perpetrator, her relatively stable life is upended. Suddenly, everyone from the police to the dead boys’ parents want to talk to Maddy about what she saw. As adults pressure her to give up her secrets and reunite with her own family before she meets a similar fate, Maddy must decide whether she wants to stay lost or be found. Against the backdrop of a radically changing San Francisco, a city which embraces a booming tech economy while struggling to maintain its culture of tolerance, At the Edge of the Haight follows the lives of those who depend on makeshift homes and communities.

As judge Hillary Jordan says, “This book pulled me deep into a world I knew little about, bringing the struggles of its young, homeless inhabitants—the kind of people we avoid eye contact with on the street—to vivid, poignant life. The novel demands that you take a close look. If you knew, could you still ignore, fear, or condemn them? And knowing, how can you ever forget?”


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

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Find Me in Havana


Title:
  Find Me in Havana
Author:  Serena Burdick
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2021. 320 pages.
ISBN:  978-0778311164

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Winter 2021 historical fiction blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In August, Big Sur crackles with drought."

Favorite Quote:  "When I returned home, my father sat me down and said that family is not a choice. They are our bones and our blood, our past and our future. 'It's not always good,' he told me, 'but it's always importance. Pain and love and laughter and anger go together."

**** BLOG TOUR *****


Review

This book is about the history of Cuba and what happened to those who ended up on the losing side. It is about the immigrant experience between Cuba and the United States. It is about Hollywood and the room it has for performers of a non-white ethnicity. It is about the fickle nature of fame and fortune. It is about abusive relationships. It is about atrocities wrought upon women and girls. It is about the relationship between mothers and daughters. It is about the relationship between sisters. It is about untenable and unforgivable choices. It is about survival. Trigger warning: The book depicts rape, abuse, and other violence against women and young girls.

Serena Burdick's book The Girl with No Names told the history of the Magdalen laundries through the voices of the two young girls. This book follows a similar structure in that it tells this story through the voices of mother and daughter, Estelita and Nina.

At times, the story feels overdramatized. Then, I remind myself that although written as fiction, this book is based on a true story. Truth can be not only stranger than fiction but so often also more tragic than anything we can imagine. Prior to this book, I had never heard of Estelita Rodriguez or her sad and complicated life. Now, as her daughter intended, I will remember her life.

Estelita is nine years old when she first performs on stage as a singer in Havana. Her voice and her own mother's perseverance leads her from Cuba to New York to Hollywood. However, this book is not about that journey. It is about the beginning of that journey in Cuba and a return to that beginning place years later, coming face to face with who and what was left behind. It is about the decision on what comes next and the heart break that brings.

Nina is twelve at the time of most of the events depicted. She knows only America and life with her grandmother, her mother, and her mother's various husbands. Not all of them are kind to Nina. She forever feels that she is the afterthought (if that) in her mother's life. Yet, she never stops looking for her love and her attention. This combined with her mother's sudden death some years later that Nina, the adult, attempts to unravel in this story. Per the author's note, the book is written based on interviews with the real Nina. It would be fascinating to know how Estelita's portions were reconstructed, especially as this is such an intensely emotional story.

The one theme that emerges through both perspectives is the extent to which men controlled and determined the directions of the lives of these women - Estelita's husbands and their treatment of both her and Nina; Nina's father and his presumption of control over Nina; the soldiers in Cuba and the atrocities they bring upon Estelita's sisters and niece; and even Estelita's manager and mentors in the film industry who she relies on but who nevertheless drive so many of her actions. The force behind so much of what transpires is the men's decisions and actions.

A sad but memorable story.

About the Author

Serena Burdick graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in California before moving to New York City to pursue a degree in English Literature at Brooklyn College. Author of the International Bestseller THE GIRLS WITH NO NAMES and GIRL IN THE AFTERNOON, she lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.


About the Book

A new historical novel from Serena Burdick, the author of THE GIRLS WITH NO NAMES, based on the true story of Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban-born Hollywood actress and singer, as her daughter Nina traces her mother's life from Cuba to Hollywood to understand her mysterious death, think NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA meets THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO.

Cuba, 1936: When Estelita Rodriguez sings in a hazy Havana nightclub for the very first time, she is nine years old. From then on, that spotlight of adoration—from Havana to New York’s Copacabana and then Hollywood—becomes the one true accomplishment no one can take from her. Not the 1933 Cuban Revolution that drove her family into poverty. Not the revolving door of husbands and the fickle world of film. Not even the tragic devastation of Castro’s revolution that rained down on her loved ones.

Thirty years later, her young adult daughter, Nina Rodriguez, is blindsided by her mother’s mysterious, untimely death. Seeking answers no one else wants to hear, the grieving Nina navigates the troubling, opulent memories of their life together and discovers how much Estelita sacrificed to live the American dream on her own terms.

Based on true events and exclusive interviews with the real Nina Rodriguez, Find Me in Havana weaves two unforgettable voices into one extraordinary journey that explores the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and the ever-changing landscape of self-discovery.

Excerpt

Excerpted from Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick, Copyright © 2021 by Serena Burdick. Published by Park Row Books.

One
Big Sur, 1966
CLIFFS

    Mother,
    In August, Big Sur crackles with drought. Grass dries to a crisp and turns gold as ember. Rattlers lay in wait. Fat insects purr, and banana slugs languish. The air is ripe with eucalyptus, their slender, green leaves blanketing the canyon paths. Poison oak claws the hillside. This is not the season of lemons trees or emerald hills or crisp sunshine. Summer on the coast is a season of bone-chilling fog.
    Overlooking the Pacific, I stand on Nepenthe’s stone patio, the restaurant’s windows spilling light around me as I watch the gray mass of fog crawl and heave up the cliff. You would have liked it here, Mom, but we never drove up the coast together. We never had the chance. I close my eyes as the fog settles over me, damp and soft as a whisper. Below, the surf thunders against the rocks, and I feel the sway of the sea in my legs and picture myself stepping over the low stone wall and lifting my arms into the air. The ocean will catch me, release me, hollow out my body and wash it up on the shore like an empty shell.
    I need a shell. Hard skin. A barrier against the world of missing you.
    How is there no you left? No Mom. No Wife. No Movie Actress. No Singer. There are photographs, and moving pictures where you swing your hips and make funny faces, but I cannot touch or smell or feel or speak to this two-dimensional version.
    I want an explanation.
    Memories root and twist inside me, blossom, grow thorns, beautiful and gnarled, but the truth remains hidden, and I am left with the image of the bathroom floor and the weight of you in my arms.
    I do not want this to be our last memory.
    Opening my eyes, I take a deep breath, let the cool wetness lie over my tongue. Next to me, a fire crackles in the open hearth warming one side of my leg. I think how outdoor fires do this, warm only one side of you while the other side freezes. I wear a short skirt without pantyhose, white tennis shoes and a tight, knit sweater. The guests have all gone, the movie stars and bohemian artists, the former donning glitter and fur, the latter beads and loose-folding fabric, each hoping to authenticate themselves in originality. Each failing.
    “Nina?” I jump at the sound of my manager’s voice. He stands in the open patio doorway of the restaurant polishing a wineglass. “Your ride is here.”
    He looks at me kindly, unconcerned. He doesn’t know anything about me. I feel the warmth of the fire on my backside and think how cold it will be in the hollowed-out redwood tree where I sleep.
    “I’ll just wipe down the tables,” I say, stalling. I don’t want to face my ride any more than I want to face the cold night on the forest floor with the insects.
    My manager is a slender, vigorous man who looks as if he’s been breathing ocean air since birth. “It’s late,” he smiles. “You go on home now. I’ll take care of the tables.”
    Walking away from the restaurant, the stone path slick with moisture, I dig my doll from the bottom of my bag and tuck her under one arm. She has a cloth body and a plastic head with blue eyes that open and close when you tilt her. Her plastic head is dotted with dark holes where her carefully arranged hair used to be. On her stomach is a scar—held together with a safety pin—from the time I cut her open and pulled out the stuffing.
    Bret waits in his mint-green Volvo with the engine running. He is smoking a joint and doesn’t open the door for me. I slide into the passenger seat and he leans over and gives me a sloppy kiss, his hand pressed to the back of my head as if this is something romantic. His tongue tastes of stale smoke and alcohol. “Hey, baby,” he breathes into my face and passes me the joint. I take it, inhale and try to stifle a cough as Bret maneuvers the car onto the dark road.
    We met five months ago when I first arrived in Big Sur. My friend Delia and I had eaten a handful of mushrooms and were dancing around a bonfire at a beach party when Bret slipped into the wavy, illuminated light of my vision. His embroidered shirt rippled over his chest and I thought he was something supernatural. The next morning when I woke up beside him on the beach, he’d turned solid. He was nothing more than a thin-chested man with a tangled beard and skinny legs sticking out from his cutoff jean shorts.
    Bret hooks the car around a sharp bend, and the wheels kick up gravel that makes a sound like thunder under our feet.
    “You’re going too fast,” I say, pressing my hand flat against the passenger window.
    He grins and steps on the gas, a man who likes to challenge a woman. This is familiar to me. I watched men challenge you your whole life, each one of your four husbands, in their own way, pushing you to the edge. Despite your effort to understand them, to please them, it was, in the end, your unwillingness to be controlled or possessed that got you killed.
    The car takes another corner, and the cliff drops to my right at a precarious angle where sumac and sagebrush cling to the edge. People love Highway 1 for its beauty. They think it cuts a benevolent path along the ocean cliff for our pleasure. What I see is a snake luring us with its curvaceous body, a thing of nature waiting for us to step on it so it can strike and fling us off.
    I squish my doll’s head in, making her face look like something in a distorting mirror. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” I say, watching the doll’s features slowly inflate and pop back into place.
    Bret’s profile remains neutral, his eyes on the road as he reaches over and strokes my thigh. “Don’t be like that, baby. This is good.”
    I’ve tried to break up with him before. I don’t know why he won’t let me go, or how he can feel anything for me when I feel nothing inside. After your death, they sedated me because I was angry and didn’t behave properly. Now, I do what I can to sedate myself.
    “I mean it. I’m done.” I shove his hand away, and this makes him angry.
    He puts both hands on the wheel, grips it with white knuckles, his eyes forward, his jaw clenched. “What the fuck, Nina?” he says.
    The headlights strike the road. Yellow lines blink past like winking eyes.
    His anger scares me. “I’m sorry,” I say. I’m not good at this. Charming men. Giving them what they want. Doing what I watched you do, for the good ones and the bad. You appeased the good men, hoping they’d stay with you; placated the bad ones, hoping they wouldn’t hurt you. With each husband you tried a little harder, stayed a little longer, so certain you’d get it right.
    If Bret is any indication, I won’t get it right, either. Looking at him, his hard profile reflected in the dashboard lights, his scruffy beard and long hair curling at the base of his neck, he reminds me of the rebel soldiers in Cuba.
    This is not a memory I want. “Bret, I really can’t do this. Please, pull over. I need to get out.”
    “You don’t know what you need.”
    The arrogance in his voice disgusts me, the anger I’d been tamping down with drugs is now rising in my throat. For all his meditating and chanting and seeking enlightenment, Bret is a prick. I am twenty years old, you are dead, and there’s no one to tell me what to do anymore. You are not here to laugh it away, or tell me to chin-up, to silence me or put me in a mental institution or stick me in a boarding school. “Fuck you, Bret!” I shout. “Pull over. I want to get out.”
    “Fuck me?” He speeds up, swerves the car near the shoulder of the road, gravel and dirt hitting my window and ricocheting off the glass like buckshot.
    I suck in my breath and grip the door handle. “Don’t do that!”
    “Do what? This?” He swerves again, and all I see, for a moment, is empty, black space.
    What I should do is calm him down, convince him I’m sorry and that I won’t break up with him. Stop the car, and we’ll talk about it, I should say, but a part of me wants him to do something drastic. To pull the trigger for me.
    We are crossing Bixby Bridge. The fog has receded, and I can see all the way down to the dark strip of beach where the waves crash and foam like a giant frothing at the mouth. I know, in that split second right before Bret takes us over the edge, that he’s going to do it. It’s not the plunge into water I’d imagined on the patio at Nepenthe. I am not sailing peacefully off the cliff with my arms out but trapped in a metal box that jerks to the right so abruptly my head smacks the window. I expect free fall, silence, stillness, but the air is sharp and compact and splintered with glass.
    And then you are in my arms, your face flushed, your dark hair limp on your wet forehead, vomit ringing the corners of your mouth. “Help me,” I plead, even though you are the one dying. “Don’t go,” I cry. “I need you,” but I have already hit bottom, and the world has gone quiet.

Social Links

Author website: http://www.serenaburdick.com/
Instagram: @serenaburdick
Twitter: @serenaburdick

Buy Links

Barnes & Noble
Bookshop.org
Amazon
Target
Kobo
Google Play
Libro Audio
Audible


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

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Chanel Sisters

The Chanel Sisters
Title:
  The Chanel Sisters
Author:  Judithe Little
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1525806386 / 978-1525806384

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review for the Fall 2020 historical fiction blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing.

Opening Sentence:  "In later years, I would think back to that cold March day in 1897 at the convent orphanage in Aubazine."

Favorite Quote:  "We didn't have to accept the lot we were given. Not ill-fitting uniforms. Not anything else. Not when we had initiative and our own tow hands. This was about more than the fit of a skirt or blouse. This was about the future, about the power I'd never felt before, all because of the cut of cloth and the placement of stitches."

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


Review

Two statements from the author's note:
  • "While much is known about Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, little is know about her sister Antionette." 
  • "Throughout her life, Coco Chanel lied about her background and her family ... She was, in more ways than just fashion, an illusionist. Tales she'd told about her past and about her sisters may or may not have be truthful. I've based Antoinette's story on information from Coco's biographers, census and other records, as well as times in which she lived."
These statements set the context for this story, which is told from the perspective of Coco's younger sister Antoinette. The story spans from 1897 through 1921. Antoinette goes from being a child to a woman. The story goes from an orphanage in Aubazine to Paris and beyond. It goes through World War I.

I am, of course, familiar with the panache of the Chanel name. Who isn't? However, I have not read anything about Coco Chanel or the family. Although this is fiction, it is interesting to read about the transformation that takes place for - or rather, that is created by - these young women who dream of fineries in magazines to the household name symbolic of that style.

The Graces - Gabrielle, Antoinette, and Adrienne - as they are called at one point in their lives take different path to this goal, but the goal remains. Given the time and place, it is not surprising that many of the paths involve men and relationships. At the time, that was often the only acceptable path for a woman. They also change paths as doors open and close. Yet, the three sustain each other, making this also a book about sisterhood.

The theme that emerges throughout is one of ambition and survival. It is the climb from rags to riches and the drive to belong to elite or the élégante. It is about the search for something better. It is about defying the odds and defying the limits society sets on  you. "Maybe great change didn't come with one bold move ... This was how you get form here to there, from charity case to élégante. You don't accept what you're told you are. You decide for yourself."

Of course, the theme of fashion runs throughout the book as well. The girls are hired out as seamstresses. They take it upon themselves to take apart and redo the uniforms they are assigned at the orphanage. The redesigned clothes are still the worn uniforms, but they fit. Gabrielle's original dream is to be singer, but her skill will a needle and thread is never too far. They study the magazines to see how the rich dress. And the hats! Oh my, the hats.

The fact that the book covers the period of World War I brings in another aspect of history. Much has been written about the rumored role of Coco Chanel during World War II. It was interesting to go earlier in history, even with a fictionalized account.

A lot of time and a lot of characters are covered in this book. However, the anchor of the Chanel sisters pulls the story together beginning to end.

About the Author

JUDITHE LITTLE is the award-winning author of Wickwythe Hall. She earned a BA in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia and a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law. She grew up in Virginia and now lives with her husband, three teenagers, and three dogs in Houston, Texas. Find her on Instagram, @judithelittle, and on Facebook, facebook.com/judithelittle.

About the Book

For fans of The Paris Wife, The Only Woman in the Room, and The Woman Before Wallis, a riveting historical novel narrated by Coco Chanel's younger sister about their struggle to rise up from poverty and orphanhood and establish what will become the world's most iconic fashion brand in Paris.

A novel of survival, love, loss, triumph—and the sisters who changed fashion forever

Antoinette and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel know they’re destined for something better. Abandoned by their family at a young age, they’ve grown up under the guidance of nuns preparing them for simple lives as the wives of tradesmen or shopkeepers. At night, their secret stash of romantic novels and magazine cutouts beneath the floorboards are all they have to keep their dreams of the future alive.

The walls of the convent can’t shield them forever, and when they’re finally of age, the Chanel sisters set out together with a fierce determination to prove themselves worthy to a society that has never accepted them. Their journey propels them out of poverty and to the stylish cafés of Moulins, the dazzling performance halls of Vichy—and to a small hat shop on the rue Cambon in Paris, where a boutique business takes hold and expands to the glamorous French resort towns.

But the sisters’ lives are again thrown into turmoil when World War I breaks out, forcing them to make irrevocable choices, and they’ll have to gather the courage to fashion their own places in the world, even if apart from each other.

Q&A with the Author


Q: I didn't know Coco had a sister. How did you come up with the idea for your novel?
A: When I read in a biography of Coco that she had a sister, I knew right away I wanted to write about her. A lot of books have been written about Coco, but none have been written from the point of view of Antoinette. I thought that the sister of Coco Chanel might have an interesting story to tell, and it turns out that she did.

Q: Explain the staying power and interest in (anything) Chanel?
A: I think that Chanel is the symbol for reinvention and the idea that you can be whoever you want to be and that has a universal appeal.

Q: Do you plan your books in advance or let them develop as you write?
A: They are planned in the sense that they’re based on historical events so there’s already a timeline in place and I know generally what happens. The characters themselves develop as I write.

Q: Have you ever had a character take over a story, and if so, who was it and why?
A: I’ve had minor characters take over small parts of a story such as the baron at Royallieu (I attribute the kite dance idea to him). Arturo also seemed to take over the scenes he was in and tell me what he was going to do instead of vice-versa.

Q: Which one of The Chanel Sisters’s characters was the hardest to write and why?
A: Julia-Berthe was the hardest to write because of the three sisters, she’s the one about whom the least is known.

Q: What does a day in the life of Judithe Little look like?
A: Busy! I’m a lawyer so during the day I take care of my law firm work and in the evenings I typically write or do other book-related activities. Mixed in is typical stuff like grocery shopping, errands, and driving my youngest who is a high school sophomore here and there.

Q: What do you use to inspire you when you get Writer’s Block?
A: This may sound strange but I rearrange furniture or shelves or redecorate in some way. Maybe it’s the new perspective but changing my surroundings seems to get the juices flowing again.

Q: Do you have stories on the back burner that are just waiting to be written?
A: I usually have one or two waiting in the wings.

Q: What advice would you give budding authors about publishing?
A: I think it’s important to have critique partners or a critique group. Mine has been invaluable to me. Persistence and thick skin help too.

Q: What was the last thing you read?
A: Bryn Turnball’s The Woman Before Wallis which I loved.

Q: Book you've bought just for the cover?
A: Susan Meissner’s Secrets of a Charmed Life because I loved the color of the green dress and the way the figure of the woman was interposed with the river and London. More recently, Jane Smiley’s Perestroika because it has a horse and the Eiffel Tower on the cover--two of my favorite things.

Q: Tell us about what you’re working on now.
A: I’m working on a new novel that takes place in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and is told from the perspective once again of someone close to Coco Chanel but who was famous in her own right.

Social Links

Author website: http://www.judithelittle.com/
Instagram: @judithelittle
FB: @judithe.little

Buy Links

Murder By The Book
Barrington Books
IndieBound
Bookshop.org
Indigo
Amazon
Apple
Kobo
Barnes & Noble
Libro.FM
Audible
Google Play


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

Monday, January 11, 2021

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder
Title:
  Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder
Author:  T. A. Willberg
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0778389332 / 978-0778389330

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review for the Fall 2020 mystery/thriller blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing.

Opening Sentence:  "Threads of steam rose from the warm tarmac."

Favorite Quote:  "But that was the thing about death, as Marion knew so well. No matter how much the deceased were loved, life does not wait for the grieving. Though on the inside everything will change and what used matter falls away, the routine and ordinary remain unchallenged."

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


Review

Marion Lane is an orphan. Not much is said of her father. Her mother died when Marion was a child. Her grandmother is her caretaker although Marion is now an adult. Dolores' main goal is to see Marion married off and settled. Marion has other dreams and aspirations. The relationship between the two is a very strained one.

To the outside world, Marion works at a decrepit old book store in London. In reality, the book store is an entrance to an entire underground world, a world with rules and power structures all its own.

Marion Lane is really a first year apprentice at Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries. Miss Brickett's exists for those who know. Their goal is to investigate and inquire into issues around London to keep its citizenry safe. It's never really made clear exactly what or who they investigate except that places exist for those who know to get messages for help to Miss Brickett's. This book, however, is not about those investigations for the book becomes about the institution itself.

A longtime staff member is found murdered within the underground labyrinth of Miss Brickett's. The mystery leads to secrets long buried.

In many ways, this book reminds me of Harry Potter although the characters in this book are adults not children. There are not witches and wizards, but there are special skills and imaginative gadgets. Marion is an orphan. She lives with a relative, who is not loving or kind. She is a first year apprentice in a secret organization.  In other words, she is student at a secret school. There are friendships and rivalries amongst the apprentices. The apprentices seem more able to solve the mystery than the experts. There is even a large, ominous snake in the passages underground. The villain is dispatched with at the end of the book, but the villain is not completely gone. See the parallels.

The cast of characters, however, is considerably smaller. Marion is one of only a few first year apprentices. They are also most definitely adults, given the amount of drinking that goes on. The American who is recruited to help is described as a flashy dresser very concerned about his slicked back hair. I thought ... Elvis. I am not sure that's what the author was going for, but that is the fun image in my head. The setting is the late 1950s London so that is possible.

The book does not literally or figuratively have the magic of Harry Potter, but it is nevertheless a fun read. The ending clearly indicates a sequel might be coming. Marion Lane's apprenticeship is three year. So, perhaps at least a trilogy? I look forward to what direction the story will take next, and I look forward to seeing if and how the characters develop. The first installment provides a fun escape from reality.

About the Author

T.A. Willberg was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and holds a chiropractic masters degree from Durban University of Technology. MARION LANE AND THE MIDNIGHT MURDER is her debut novel and launch of her detective series. She currently lives in Malta with her partner.

About the Book

The letter was short. A name, a time, a place.

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder plunges readers into the heart of London, to the secret tunnels that exist far beneath the city streets. There, a mysterious group of detectives recruited for Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries use their cunning and gadgets to solve crimes that have stumped Scotland Yard.

Late one night in April 1958, a filing assistant at Miss Brickett’s receives a letter of warning, detailing a name, a time, and a place. She goes to investigate but finds the room empty. At the stroke of midnight, she is murdered by a killer she can’t see―her death the only sign she wasn’t alone. It becomes chillingly clear that the person responsible must also work for Miss Brickett’s, making everyone a suspect.

Marion Lane, a first-year Inquirer-in-training, finds herself drawn ever deeper into the investigation. When her friend and colleague is framed for the crime, to clear his name she must sort through the hidden alliances at Miss Brickett’s and secrets dating back to WWII. Masterful, clever and deliciously suspenseful, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is a fresh take on the Agatha Christie-style locked-room murder mystery, with an exciting new heroine detective.

Excerpt

Excerpted from Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder @ 2020 by Tessa Gukelberger, used with permission by Park Row Books/HarperCollins.

THE SECRET STEALER

Somewhere in London
Friday, April 11, 1958
11:40 p.m.

    Envelope encased, the carrier cylinder traveled through miles of pneumatic pipes from its place of origin to the dark, deep dungeon of the Filing Department—falling neatly from the end of the pipe and into the corresponding receiver box, as if by some magical, invisible postman.
    A bell chimed as the envelope landed in receiver box fifty-five.
    Michelle White’s eyes shot open as she lurched back from the edge of sleep. She blinked at the flashing yellow light on the noticeboard above her. It was her job to ensure all letters were sorted out the minute they arrived: those that met agency requirements were to be organized by date and slipped into the Inquirers’ in-box for later investigation. Those that did not went straight into the rubbish bin, and those of which she was unsure what to do with, into a looming pile on the desk. But crime and crookedness had been on the decline the last few weeks in London and so, assuming the letter would be a lead on something petty, Michelle White staggered across the Filing Department in no particular hurry.
    She lifted the lid on receiver box fifty-five, the endpoint of a six-mile pneumatic tube that fed off from a letter case hidden in Passing Alley in Farringdon.
    Envelopes and letters pulled from the receiver boxes were usually addressed to the agency in general: Dear people under the ground, or similar.
    But tonight was different.
    To Miss M. White, Inquirer.
    It was odd, yet she couldn’t help smile at the thought of it. Michelle had once dreamed of becoming an Inquirer; she had come so close to the reality, too. But she was just not good enough. Not clever enough, not brave or talented enough. Not quite anything enough.
    Ten years ago, at the age of twenty-two, she’d been recruited from a textile factory where she’d toiled long hours as a quality control assistant. But like everyone who came to work in the sunless labyrinth, Michelle had swiftly and without much consideration renounced the liberties of her previous, lackluster life in exchange for the opportunity to begin a new and thrilling vocation as an Inquirer, where she’d hoped to finally make use of her very particular set of skills.
    But things had not quite turned out that way, which is why—instead of scouring London’s streets for criminals and delinquents—Michelle had ended up here, spending her evenings as the night-duty filing assistant in the establishment’s dullest department. In fact, had it not been for her other, far more satisfying role—that of Border Guard, protector of the secret—then perhaps she would have quit years ago.
    But now Michelle wondered, as she stared at the envelope in her hand, how whoever had sent it knew where she worked or why they had considered her the worthy counsel of their troubles. She ran her thumb over the words—Miss M. White, Inquirer—as if they might be absorbed through her skin and become true.
    For a moment, she was reluctant to open the envelope, concerned it might be a joke. One of the young apprentices playing a trick. She clenched her jaw at the thought, breathed, then entered the letter’s details into the register file: time and date received, receiver box number and her initials. But when she opened the envelope and read the final detail—the nature of the inquiry—her breath began to quicken.
    The letter was short. A name, a time, a place and one simple revelation. And yet it unleashed a torrent of angst.
    Several weeks ago, something had gone missing from her handbag—something invaluable, irreplaceable, something that might dredge up a secret long since buried across the Border. At first she’d been so certain of who had taken it, and for countless nights thereafter she’d turned in her sleep, anxious the nasty thief would soon come looking for the paired device she kept locked in her private office, and with that the secret would be uncovered.
    But if the letter she’d just received was to be trusted, Michelle’s anxieties had been misplaced—the secret had already been discovered. She wasn’t sure how, or even why, but if she followed the letter’s directions, she might soon find out.
    Though sirens of warning blared in her head, Michelle had already made up her mind. Of course she could take the letter to someone more qualified than herself, but it had been addressed to her—whoever had sent it had entrusted her with this, a most precious and urgent secret. And besides, as the letter had said, if only for tonight, Miss White was an Inquirer.
    As instructed, she lit a match and held the letter under the flame. Once the paper had turned to ash, she packed up her things, grabbed her handbag, locked the office and rushed up the staircase toward the library. She stopped at the lock room gate, far on the other side of the grand hall of glorious bookshelves. The gate was ajar, just as she’d expected.
    She stepped inside, pausing immediately as a wave of something cool and cutting passed in front of her, a curious thing. She rubbed her eyes and looked around the dully lit room, at the hundreds of steel drawers, safes in which were kept the agency’s most hallowed files and documents. The lock room, with its thick walls and high ceiling, was always chilled, but tonight it felt particularly so.
    Crack.
    Something split from the wall behind her. She turned to the sound but saw only a shadow move across the room and something that looked like a large black box being removed from inside the wall. She hesitated, then moved a little closer. But it came again—a wave of cool air, dancing in front of her. She dabbed her eyes with the cuff of her sleeve; they were now surely playing tricks on her, for everything had turned to a strange blur of nothing. Michelle started to panic, her thoughts as unfocused as her eyesight. Her head began to spin. Her limbs to tingle. This might have been the moment she ran for her life, out of the lock room and away from the evil she now knew had been waiting for her there. But terror had immobilized her. There was nothing she could do to get her legs to move, not even when she heard the rush of footsteps, some behind her, some in front. Not even when she felt the brush of air against her neck.
    “What’s happening,” she asked in a staggered groan. “I know you’re there…I know it was you…” She trailed off, the words in her head no longer making sense.
    She dropped her handbag. Something hard rolled out and across the floor. She was too disorientated to realize what it was.
    In a drawn-out moment that seemed to last forever, Michelle’s senses grew dull and viscous. She could no longer trust her eyesight, her ears. She might have seen an amorphous shape crouching in front of her. She might have seen it lift something from the floor. Certainly, however, she felt the sharp burn of a cold, ragged blade as it sunk quickly and easily through the delicate skin across her throat.
    Warmth, darkness and nothing more.
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Sunday, January 10, 2021

Wrong Alibi

Wrong Alibi
Title:
  Wrong Alibi
Author:  Christina Dodd
Publication Information:  HQN. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1335549595 / 978-1335549594

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review for the Fall 2020 mystery/thriller blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing

Opening Sentence:  "January."

Favorite Quote:  "Evie should have been used to the animosity. But How did someone grow indifferent to hatred?"

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


Review

Petie describes herself as "TSTL ... Too Stupid to Live." She works at Midnight Sun Fishing Camp Katchabiggie Lodge, a remote, secluded fishing camp and lodge near Denali in Alaska. She volunteers to be the sole person to spend the winter as the camp's caretaker. Why?

She hides. From her past. From her family, not that her family is looking for her. From anyone who knew her. From the law. For all legal purposes, it is as if Petie does not exist. Why?

At one point in her life, when she was still relatively speaking a child, she trusted the wrong person. Her naïveté led her to choices that, as a reader, I can see were clearly the wrong ones. It is interesting to see her past and to see so clearly that she is trusting the wrong person. Yet, she does.

A crime happens, and the alibi she thinks she has is clearly the wrong one.

This history clearly establishes her as a sympathetic character for this child never gets the support to learn the lessons that might have protected her from these choices. When she sees a welcome and a trust, she takes it at face value, never questioning the intent. It's not entirely realistic given the challenging childhood she has had. At the same time, given her youth, it is believable.

Fast forward to the present. It appears that her past is about to catch up with her. Perhaps, it's that she is about to seek a reckoning with that past. She has done a lot of growing up, and she is not quite as naive as she used to be. Action and adventure ensures, leading up to a dramatic ending.

Much of the ending - really, all but one piece - is not a surprise. The "how" of it and the journey to it makes for a fast-paced, quick read. The one surprise at the end is an added bonus.

Two things don't quite ring true in this book. The first is the family dynamic. It's hard to explain without a spoiler, but the dynamic seems to swing between extremes without much explanation from one to the other. The "why" is never truly discussed or resolved.

The second is the romance and the speed with which it occurs. I can understand what draws these individuals together. However, the main character has learned not to trust people and has spent most of her adult life avoiding interactions and connections. For this romance to proceed from meeting to a physical relationship almost instantly does not flow with the rest of the characterizations.

That being said, if I suspend disbelief, the book becomes a quickly read, fun race to find the villain in a beautiful Alaskan setting. There are subplots to figure out and characters to link together. My understanding is that this book is the beginning of a new Alaskan mystery series by the author. It will be interesting to see which of the characters pop up in other books.

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd writes “edge-of-the-seat suspense” (Iris Johansen) with “brilliantly etched characters, polished writing, and unexpected flashes of sharp humor that are pure Dodd” (ALA Booklist). Her fifty-eight books have been called "scary, sexy, and smartly written" by Booklist and, much to her mother's delight, Dodd was once a clue in the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle. Enter Christina’s worlds and join her mailing list at www.christinadodd.com.

Book Summary

Perfect for fans of Lisa Jewell, New York Times bestselling author Christina Dodd delivers an all-new thriller, featuring a bold and brash female protagonist.

WRONG JOB
Eighteen-year-old Evelyn Jones lands a job in small-town Alaska, working for a man in his isolated mountain home. But her bright hopes for the future are shattered when Donald White disappears, leaving her to face charges of theft, embezzlement—and a brutal double murder. Her protestations of innocence count for nothing. Convicted, she faces life in prison…until fate sends her on the run.

WRONG NAME
Evie's escape leaves her scarred and in hiding, isolated from her family, working under an alias at a wilderness camp. Bent on justice, intent on recovering her life, she searches for the killer who slaughters without remorse.

WRONG ALIBI
At last, the day comes. Donald White has returned. Evie emerges from hiding; the fugitive becomes the hunter. But in her mind, she hears the whisper of other forces at work. Now Evelyn must untangle the threads of evidence before she’s once again found with blood on her hands: the blood of her own family.

Excerpt

Excerpted from Wrong Alibi by Christina Dodd Copyright © Christina Dodd. Published by HQN Books.

Chapter 1

ALASKA
Midnight Sun Fishing Camp
Katchabiggie Lodge
Eight years ago

    JANUARY.
    Five and a half hours a day when the sun rose above the horizon.
    Storm clouds so thick, daylight never penetrated, and night reigned eternal.
    Thirty below zero Fahrenheit.
    The hurricane-force wind wrapped frigid temperatures around the lodge, driving through the log cabin construction and the steel roof, ignoring the insulation, creeping inch by inch into the Great Room where twenty-year-old Petie huddled on a love seat, dressed in a former guest’s flannel pajamas and bundled in a Pendleton Northern Lights wool blanket. A wind like this pushed snow through the roof vents, and she knew as soon as the storm stopped, she’d be up in the attic shoveling it out.
    Or not. Maybe first the ceiling would fall in on top of her.
    Who would know? Who would care?
    The storm of the century, online news called it, before the internet disappeared in a blast that blew out the cable like a candle.
    For a second long, dark winter, she was the only living being tending the Midnight Sun cabins and the lodge, making sure the dark, relentless Alaska winter didn’t do too much damage and in the spring the camp could open to enthusiastic fishermen, corporate team builders and rugged individualists.
    Alone for eight months of the year. No Christmas. No New Year’s. No Valentine’s Day. No any day, nothing interesting, just dark dark dark isolation and fear that she would die out here.
    With the internet gone, she waited for the next inevitable event.
    The lights went out.
    On each of the four walls, a small, battery-charged nightlight came on to battle feebly against the darkness. Outside, the storm roared. Inside, cold swallowed the heat with greedy appetite.
    Petie sat and stared into a dark so black it hurt her eyes. And remembered…
    There, against the far back wall of the basement, in the darkest corner, white plastic covered…something. Slowly, Petie approached, driven by a terrible fear. She stopped about three feet away, leaned forward and reached out, far out, to grasp the corner of the plastic, pull it back, and see—
    With a gasp, Petie leaped to her feet.
    No. Just no. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—replay those memories again.
    She tossed the blanket onto the floor and groped for the flashlights on the table beside her: the big metal one with a hefty weight and the smaller plastic headlamp she could strap to her forehead. She clicked on the big one and shone it around the lodge, reassuring herself no one and nothing was here. No ghosts, no zombies, no cruel people making ruthless judgments about the gullible young woman she had been.
    Armed with both lights, she moved purposefully out of the Great Room, through the massive kitchen and toward the utility room.
    The door between the kitchen and the utility room was insulated, the first barrier between the lodge and the bitter, rattling winds. She opened that door, took a breath of the even chillier air, stepped into the utility room and shut herself in. There she donned socks, boots, ski pants, an insulated shirt, a cold-weather blanket cut with arm holes, a knit hat and an ancient, full-length, seal-skin, Aleut-made coat with a hood. She checked the outside temperature.
    Colder now—forty below and with the wind howling, the wind chill would be sixty below, seventy below…who knew? Who cared? Exposed skin froze in extreme cold and add the wind chill… She wrapped a scarf around her face and the back of her neck. Then unwrapped it to secure the headlamp low on her forehead. Then wrapped herself up again, trying to cover as much skin as she could before she faced the punishing weather.
    She pointed her big flashlight at the generator checklist posted on the wall and read:
    Hawley’s reasons why the generator will fail to start. The generator is new and well-tested, so the problem is:

1.    LOOSE BATTERY CABLE
Solution: Tighten.

2.    CORRODED BATTERY CONNECTION
Solution: Use metal terminal battery brush to clean connections and reattach.

3.    DEAD BATTERY
Solution: Change battery in the autumn to avoid ever having to change it in the middle of a major fucking winter storm.

    If she wasn’t standing there alone in the dark in the bitter cold, she would have grinned. The owner of the fishing camp, Hawley Foggo, taught his employees Hawley’s Rules. He had them for every occurrence of the fishing camp, and that last sounded exactly like him.
    The generator used a car battery, and as instructed, in the autumn she had changed it. This was her second year dealing with the battery, and she felt secure about her work.
    So probably this failure was a loose connection or corrosion. Either way, she could fix it and save the lodge from turning into a solid ice cube that wouldn’t thaw until spring.
    That was, after all, her job.
    She shivered.
    So much better than her last job, the one that led to her conviction for a gruesome double murder.
    “Okay, Petie, let’s grab that metal battery cleaner thingy and get the job done.” Which sounded pretty easy, when she talked to herself about it, but when she pulled on the insulated ski gloves, they limited her dexterity.
    Out of the corner of her eye, a light blinked out.
    She looked back into the lodge’s Great Room. The nightlights were failing, and soon she really would be alone in the absolute darkness, facing the memories of that long-ago day in the basement.
    Good incentive to hurry.
    She grabbed the wire battery connection cleaner thingy and moved to the outer door.
    There she paused and pictured the outdoor layout.
    A loosely built lean-to protected the generator from the worst of the weather while allowing the exhaust to escape. That meant she wasn’t stepping out into the full force of the storm; she would be as protected as the generator itself. Which was apparently not well enough since the damned thing wasn’t working.
    She gathered her fortitude and eased the outer door open.
    The wind caught it, yanked it wide and dragged her outside and down the steps. She hung on to the door handle, flailed around on the frozen ground, and when she regained her footing, she used all her strength to shove the door closed again.
    Then she was alone, outside, in a killer storm, in the massive, bleak wilderness that was Alaska.

Social Links

Author Website: https://www.christinadodd.com/
TWITTER: @ChristinaDodd
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ChristinaDoddFans
Insta: @ChristinaDoddBooks
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/12695.Christina_Dodd

Buy Links

Harlequin
Indiebound
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Books-A-Million
Walmart
Google
iBooks
Kobo


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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life


Title:
  Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life
Author:  Deepak Chopra, MD
Publication Information:  Harmony. 2020. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1984825313 / 978-1984825315

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

Opening Sentence:  "If someone asked me what to expect from meditation, I'd reply, 'Anything and everything.'"

Favorite Quote:  "I am present in everything I see ... I am present in everything I hear ... I am present in everything I touch ... I am present in everything I taste ... I am present in everything I smell ... I am present in everything I think ... I am present everywhere."

I love the concepts of this book. Our entire life is a meditation. Out mind and body are indivisible; together, we are a united whole. The achievement of consciousness and presence is a process. I love the approach proposed. "We should take seriously a famous quote of Einstein's: 'There are only two ways to live. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.' The words are inspiring, but how do you actually live a life with the awareness the everything is a miracle?"

The bulk of the book focuses on the first part, providing definitions and descriptions of words often heard - awareness, through, meditation, mindfulness, self-inquiry, reflection, contemplation, concentration, prayer, quiet mind, controlled breathing, resistance and so much more. This section of the book quotes Bill Bryson's The Body: A Guide for Occupants in a discussion of homeostasis. The entire descriptive dialogue is interesting but perhaps a bit academic and a bit repetitive. It is very much focused on the "what" and "why" of total meditation. Some techniques such as breathing are presented but the focus is descriptive. I feel like one reading is not enough to grasp everything being said.

The last third of the book is titled Making the Practice Richer. To me, these sections are really the "practice" and the "how."

My favorite section of the book is the one titled "Feeling the Miracle: 10 Simple Exercises." It builds upon the concept of the Einstein quote above. The ten exercises point out ten things that we do not often give conscious thought to. The point made is that if we did, they would truly be miraculous. This starts to get to the "how" and I look forward to incorporating some of these considerations in my own life. The section ends with the crucial reminder that "by any measure, just to be here is miraculous."

The next section introduces a seven day course. This section packs a lot of information that I think will require multiple readings to implement. Nevertheless, it provides a structure that can be followed.

The final section of this component covers 52 Sanskrit mantras, one for each week of the year. The use of Sanskrit mantras ties this book to an ideology and a belief system in a way that the rest of the book does not. The remainder of the book discusses some science and some philosophy but not a faith based ideology. Whether or not that ideology works is dependent on the individual reader.

The epilogue pulls the book together into the main concept of presence, awareness, and awakening. The ideas of the book are not new. The author's introduction itself begins with the statement that the practice of meditation dates back thousands of years. So, what does a new book introduce in this genre? It is at times a repackaging or reimagining of the ideas. It is at times that I, as a reader,  need a reminder of the ideas. It is this that gives book in this genre their merit.

I enjoy the book at this point in my own journey where the reentering and the rebalancing is needed. I need the reminder to shift and maintain focus. This book does exactly that.


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

Navigate Your Stars

Title:
  Navigate Your Stars
Author:  Jesmyn Ward
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2020. 64 pages.
ISBN:  1982131322 / 978-1982131326

Book Source:  I listened to the audiobook as a fan of the author's work.

Opening Sentence:  "Good morning y'all."

Favorite Quote:  "I realized education wasn't one choice. It was a lifetime undertaking."

I have loved Jesmyn Ward's fiction and nonfiction work ever since I was introduced to it through a book club reading Men We Reaped. She was born in California, raised in Mississippi, and now is a professor of creative writing at Tulane. She is the winner of the National Book Award in Fiction and of the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship. Her books tell compelling, emotional stories. In fiction and nonfiction, Jesmyn Ward contributes to an important conversation - one that I definitely want to be part of. If I had the opportunity to hear her speak, I would definitely take it.

To some extent, that is what this book brings. It is only 64 pages in length. It encapsulates Ms. Ward's 2018 address at the Tulane commencement. The audiobook is eighteen minutes in length and read by the author. The printed book with its beautiful illustrations is clearly designed to be a gift at graduation or other moment of inspiration.

The message of lifelong learning and about doors closing and doors opening is an important one. "Success is not the result of making one good choice, of taking one step. Real success requires step after step after step after step. It requires choice after choice."

The message of your stars is also an important one. We are, each one of us, on our own individual journey. We must identify our destination and then chart our course through our stars.

As designed, the book will make a lovely gift and a reminder to keep on the shelf when we find ourselves going off course or we make the decisions to change course all together.

If reflective, meditative, inspiration is for you, so is this book.


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