Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Things in Jars

Title:  Things in Jars
Author:  Jess Kidd
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2020. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1982121289 / 978-1982121280

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

Opening Sentence:  "As pale as a grave grub she's an eyeful"

Favorite Quote:  "Stories, particularly the bad ones, are told in their own time." 

1863 in London is a time both of wealth and poverty. Birdie is an unusual woman for the times. She calls herself a widow. She lives independently with her seven foot tall, rescued housekeeper. She is a private investigator with many stories in her past, stories she does not want shared with the world.

The plot of the book is a missing child, a parent who would rather not involve the police, and a private investigator hired to find the child. Added to that is the back story of the private investigator, people from her childhood who are now part of this missing persons case, and a literal ghost from her past.

This book took me two weeks to read, which is long time. I kept picking it up and putting it down. I read other things in between. I wanted to know how this story ends. I wanted to know what happens to Christabel, Birdie, Ruby, and even Rose. I wanted to know who and what Christabel was. By the end, I liked Birdie's story and the way the plot of this book ties to her history. However, I found myself not wanting to read the book to get to the end of the story. I finished by one day deciding I was going to read to the end.

One issue is that initially the focus of the story is a missing child. This is no ordinary child. The initial descriptions are of a cage, snails, and heads bitten off of snails. At the same time, the descriptions are of a child calmed by stories - dark, disturbing stories but stories nevertheless.

The description of a "merrow" eventually comes up. As with the background of Himself by Jess Kidd, the idea of the merrow is found in Irish folklore. However, this book does not really go into that history and background. It is the setting for the book but not the story.

I want to know more, but more never really comes. Although the book starts with the missing child, this is ultimately Birdie's story. The child, her oddity, and her ultimate fate become secondary to Birdie's story. The "things in jars" are the background to Birdie's story not the story itself. That leaves me wondering why that background? It also leaves me wondering if that background, why is not developed more?

I also think the writing style got in the way of the story. Here are one description... "The red hair that peeps out from under her widow's cap is rich in the firelight, is likely abundant. When she raises her dirty-green eyes to him his mind conjures images of fickle wood nymphs in dappled glades." This description is of the main character, Birdie. Birdie is an independent, pipe smoking, private detective. The words of the description do not match the personality. It does not fit the character or the story.

Ultimately, this story set in folklore, darkness, oddities, and disturbing images turns into a much more prosaic one of the scars of childhood. I wish it had been more.


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

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Glass Hotel

Title:  The Glass Hotel
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0525521143 / 978-0525521143

Book Source:  I read this book based on the author's prior work.

Opening Sentence:  "Begin at the end:  plummeting down the side fo the ship in the storm's wild darkness, breath gone with the shock of falling, my camera flying away through the rain..."

Favorite Quote:  "There's something in it ... It's possible to know you're a criminal, a liar, a man of weak moral character, and yet now know it, in the sense of feeling that your punishment is somehow underserved that despite the cold facts you're deserving of warmth and some kind of special treatment. You can know you're guilty of an enormous crime ... you can know all of this and yet still somehow feel you've been wronged when your judgement arrives."

To some extent, this book is similar to Station Eleven by the author. The story winds through past and present through the many different perspectives - Paul, Vincent, Jonathan Alkaitis, Olivia, and others. Not all the characters are directly connected, or so it seems. The book shifts between narrative styles. Character threads pick and drop sometimes in the middle of a chapter. Just when I think I have figured out who the story is about and where it's going, it shifts.

Yet, Station Eleven still surprising came together as a whole. Unfortunately, that also means this book suffers from the high expectations set by the other.

If I think of each character, his or her story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Put all together and interspersed with each other, the flow is more challenging. This book is much easier to read and understand once I stop envisioning the whole and start seeing each character as a vignette. 

The outcomes of each character's story are not necessarily connected to seemingly main plot line of the book. Some, in fact, seem somewhat random.  That perhaps is my biggest reason for my reaction - the randomness of what happens to the individual characters. It's like a pinball machine. An action sets things in motion, but then the character are buffeted from consequence to consequence.

All the characters have a connection to the hotel, but given that the title and the cover, I expected the hotel to feature a greater role in the book. I am introduced to that beautiful setting, and then it somewhat disappears.

Finally, the characters themselves are somewhat shrouded in the mist that appears on the cover. Perhaps because of the shifting narratives or perhaps by design, the characters are not particularly likable and do not evolve into characters I relate to.

The one theme that appears to repeat is the power that money conveys and the extent to which people will go to acquire and retain that power. "Money is its own country." Ultimately, that money and its source have its own ramification in these character's stories. As the book description states, the "plot" of the book is about a Ponzi scheme.

However, plot is a bit of a stretch as this book does not follow that plot line really. It is inferred from the events leading up to the collapse of the scheme and about the ramifications for different people. If
the Ponzi scheme is like a rock dropped in a pond, the "plot" of this book is all about the ripples - perhaps concentric, perhaps not connected, eventually subsiding back into the quiet of the pond.

Based on how much I enjoyed Station Eleven, I am puzzled by this book but still look forward to seeing what Emily St. John Mandel writes next.


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

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright

Title:  The Missing Letters of Mrs Bright
Author:  Beth Miller
Publication Information:  Bookouture. 2020. 338 pages.
ISBN:  178681742X / 978-1786817426

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

Opening Sentence:  "The shop labels were still on the rucksack."

Favorite Quote:  "There are things I want to do before I'm too old, and they are things you want to do."

Mrs. Bright is a woman of a certain age and at a certain point in life. She has been married for a long time. Her daughter is grown and out of the house. She works in her husband's business, managing one of the stationery stores. She is still in touch with two friends from childhood. She still writes letters to her friend in Australia. So, what's the problem?

The friend is not writing back even though for years, they have written each month like clockwork. Her daughter has moved out, but is she truly independent. Her marriage is comfortable, but is that enough? Nothing is quite wrong, but then again, nothing is quite right.

Kay Bright takes a drastic step. She leaves her husband. No warning. No conversation. She decides that it is time for her to do all the things that she once dreamt of doing. She wants to go to Australia to see why her friend is not writing back. She wants to fulfill her dream of going to Venice. She wants to pursue the love for photography that she once had. She wants to do things.

Many books have been written in recent years about individuals at certain junctures of life deciding a change in needed. This is Your Life, Harriet Chance. Britt-Marie Was Here. Eleanor Oliphat is Completely Fine. Clock Dance. The True Story of Arthur Truluv. The Lost Letters of William Woolf is about both a character of a certain age and about letter writing. However, in this book the letter writing seems more a literary technique than an integral part of the story.

My reaction to these books has varied depending on the development of the main characters and depending on the authentic feeling of the emotions and relationships. This book deals with many serious, emotional issues:  terminal illness, infidelity, the end of a decades long marriage, and a longing for the road not taken.

The book is a quick and easy read, but it seems to stay at the surface of all the emotions and relationships. A terminal illness becomes a footnote in these story. The end of a marriage leads very quickly to rebound encounters. The revelation of a years old secret is a nonissue. I keep waiting for more.

The story also becomes to some extent about Kay's daughter. I suppose the common theme could be women trying to find their place in life, but unfortunately, it does not quite work. The shift between the individual lives of mother and daughter and then also their relationship with each other scatters the focus of the story. Add to that the sexual innuendo and actual sexual scenes (including a threesome!) in the story of both the mother and the daughter create a jarring note in the story. Sadly, Kay Bright herself comes across as a self-centered character. Not having an sympathetic main character is the final challenge that keeps me from engaging with the story. I don't necessarily want to follow along on her journey to discover herself.


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

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Red Sky Over Hawaii

Title:  Red Sky Over Hawaii
Author:  Sara Ackerman
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0778309673 / 978-0778309673

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Summer 2020 Historical Fiction Blog Tours from Harlequin Trade Publishing free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "when I close my eyes, I still see the fiery glow of lava in Halema'uma'u crater."

Favorite Quote:  "People get knocked off their path all the time. Important thing is you know your Hõk˜upa'a, your North Star, and you bring yourself back on course. The sooner the better."

1941. Hawaii. Pearl Harbor. US enters WWII. This is the history against which this book is set. Some of the history used in the book...

The Kilauea Military Camp was originally built as a rest and relaxation facility for military members and their families. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the facility was used as an interment camp for people of Japanese and German descent. People were rounded up and held on suspicion simply for their ethnic heritage. Families were torn apart, and lives were destroyed.

In the 1940s, Mauna Loa erupted. The army bombed the lava flow to prevent it from reaching the city of Hilo. Per the author's note, the timeline has been changed somewhat to match the timing of the story, but it did occur. According to recent news stories, a hiker discovered unexploded bombs near the crater earlier this year.

The Ãinahou Ranch, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a home built in what is now Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Supposedly, one of the originals purposes of the home was to provide a hideout or haven against a Japanese invasion.

Now the story....

Lana Hitchcock arrives back on the Big Island to see her father. They have been estranged for many years.  Unfortunately, nothing goes as Lana envisions. Her father passes away before her arrival. She meets her neighbors who are of German heritage reconnects with one of her father's old friends, who is of Japanese heritage. The attack on Pearl Harbor happens. To protect her old and new friends, Lana runs with them to a home that her father built, apparently for this very purpose.

The rest of the book is about what happens to Lana and her friends in this new home. Although the book is based on the events of the war, the war itself and the resulting internments fade somewhat into the background of this story. I wish more had been described about the history, but this book goes in a different direction.

For one, a love story develops and takes center stage. The love story I could do without, but that part of the book does raise the question of trust in a relationship and the balance between duty and the responsibility to do the right thing. The book description is very clear that romance is an element of the story. I do, however, wish that the history of internment and its impact on the families had been developed further. The ending too wraps it up neatly without looking at the impact beyond.

The completely unexpected part of this story is what the description refers to as "the magic on the volcano." That descriptor is not a figure of speech. A significant portion of this book is magical realism and the presence of certain powers in a child, in an adult, and in the environment itself. Again, this aspect of the story looms larger than the story of war that I was expecting. Perhaps, it is about the power of belief  and its ability to sustain us through tough time? Perhaps, that is what I need to believe.

That being said, the background of the war against the beautiful, haunting environment of the Hawaii volcanoes creates a readable story of what happens when good people do the right thing and stand together and for each other. That is a lesson well worth reiterating again and again.

Red Sky Over Hawaii
Blog Tour

Author: Sara Ackerman
ISBN978-0778309673
Publication Date: June 9, 2020
Publisher:  MIRA Books


Author Bio:
Sara Ackerman is the USA Today bestselling author of The Lieutenant's Nurse and Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories. When she's not writing or teaching, you'll find her in the mountains or in the ocean. She currently lives on the Big Island with her boyfriend and a houseful of bossy animals. Find out more about Sara and her books at www.ackermanbooks.com and follow her on Instagram @saraackermanbooks and on FB @ackermanbooks.

Book Summary:
For fans of Chanel Cleeton and Beatriz Williams, RED SKY OVER HAWAII is historical women's fiction set in the islands during WWII. It's the story of a woman who has to put her safety and her heart on the line when she becomes the unexpected guardian of a misfit group and decides to hide with them in a secret home in the forest on Kilauea Volcano.

The attack on Pearl Harbor changes everything for Lana Hitchcock. Arriving home on the Big Island too late to reconcile with her estranged father, all she can do is untangle the clues of his legacy, which lead to a secret property in the forest on Kilauea Volcano. America has been drawn into WWII, and amid rumors of impending invasion, the army places the islands under martial law. When they start taking away neighbors as possible sympathizers, Lana finds herself suddenly guardian to two girls, as well as accomplice to an old family friend who is Japanese, along with his son. In a heartbeat, she makes the decision to go into hiding with them all.

The hideaway house is not what Lana expected, revealing its secrets slowly, and things become even more complicated by the interest of Major Grant Bailey, a soldier from the nearby internment camp. Lana is drawn to him, too, but needs to protect her little group. With a little help from the magic on the volcano, Lana finds she can open her bruised heart to the children--and maybe to Grant.

A lush and evocative novel about doing what is right against the odds, following your heart, and what makes a family.

Author Q&A:

Q: Would you tell us what inspired you to write Red Sky Over Hawaii?
A: I’ll start with saying that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (the setting) is one of my favorite places. There is a vast and unearthly beauty there, with a unique rainforest and ecosystem. I spend a lot of time exploring the backcountry and lava flows in the area. One day several years ago, I came upon a rustic old house tucked away in a remote part of the park. You would never even know it’s there. Needless to say, I was intrigued. When I dug deeper and found the house was originally built as a hideaway house in 1941 in case of a Japanese invasion, I knew I had to write a book about it someday. A year or so later, I met a woman who told me about her friend’s mother, who had been a little girl during the attack on Pearl Harbor and how her parents had been taken away and held for over a year by the FBI because they were German. I tracked down that story, which broke my heart, and decided I would merge the two and loosely base my story on them. Also, I’ve always been fascinated at how ordinary people band together during crises, and at the human capacity for resilience, so I wanted to explore this in my novel.

Q: Which character in this novel do you most relate to and why?
A: I would have to say Lana, though Coco might come in a close second. Lana was at one of those difficult crossroads in life, where everything seems to fall apart at once. Though the events of her life are different than mine, I’ve been through these periods where everything looks bleak and you have to pull it together just to survive.

Q: What challenged you the most while writing this story?
A: In terms of life, I had recently lost my father, and so writing about Lana’s father Jack and the house felt very parallel (my father was an architect who built his own house) to my own experience. It was a very emotional book for me to write, and yet I think it also helped me to work through my own grief. In terms of the writing, I didn’t have a whole lot to go on in terms of books or resources of what it was like at Volcano during the war. I’d had the opposite problem with The Lieutenant’s Nurse, since that was about Pearl Harbor. Luckily, I found one publication put out by the National Parks Service that saved me. I also had a few kupuna (elders) here that shared their memories with me. We are running out of living references from WWII, so I feel honored to get to talk story with them.

Q: You must do a lot of research for your writing. What was something interesting you learned while compiling research for this book?

A: When I set out to write it, I knew about the detainment camp at KMC (Kilauea Military Camp) but I had no idea that there was so much military activity up there. In early 1942 the Army 27th Infantry Division set up headquarters there and patrolled coastlines and trained for  another anticipated invasion. When researching, there are always so many unexpected things that turn up. I love it!


Social:
Facebook: @ackermanbooks
Twitter: @AckermanBooks
Instagram: @saraackermanbooks

Buy Links:
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound
Bookshop.org
Amazon
AppleBooks
Books-A-Million
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Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Bitter and Sweet of Cherry Season

Title:  The Bitter and Sweet of Cherry Season
Author:  Molly Fader
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1525804553 / 978-1525804557

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Harlequin Trade Publishing 2020 Summer Reads blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Night in Northern Michigan was no joke."

Favorite Quote:  "They were little things, but it was always the little things that rubbed a person raw. That hurt the most." 

Life has not gone quite as Hope had envisioned it. She finds herself driving in the middle of the night to a place she thinks she's never been, or at least not so that she remembers. She has run out of options for herself and her ten-year-old daughter Tink (short for the nickname Tinkerbell). She is running. The reason, while not immediately stated, is clear from her black eye and other injuries and from the fear.

The destination is a farmhouse in northern Michigan. It is her mother's childhood home. Her aunt Peg still lives there, working the cherry orchard. The home is aptly named Orchard House.

Like Hope, Peg's life is not what she envisioned. She harbors memories and secrets of both joys and sorrows. She takes Hope in with no questions about her injuries or her arrival in the middle of the night. She asks only that if Hope is to stay, she help in the cherry harvest.

So begins a journey of healing for both of them. The beautiful rural setting, the grounding in the orchard and in a garden, a small town community who welcomes, and a precocious child who has lost some of her innocence to fear all contribute to that healing.

Gradually memories and understanding emerge. The past also comes back in a shocking, dramatic way to create the climax of the book.

The book is ultimately a sweet story of family - the one we are born into and the one we create out of love. It is about the lesson that it is never too late to make amends, connect, and create the family that might have been. It is also, as you might expect, about love stories - a new beginning and a love scarred by circumstances but never lost forgotten. The romance is unnecessary to the book. The story and strength of the women is sufficient, but the romance is expected for the genre.

The book is marketed as a summer read, and it fits that bill. It deals with serious issues of abuse in a relationship and substance abuse. However, it does so in the context of a heartwarming, small town, feel good story.

Through the secondary characters in the book, the story honors the diversity of the Michigan community. The women of the town, from different backgrounds, come together in friendship and sisterhood. While this is not a focal point of the book, I love seeing diverse characters because representation matters.

Finally, the book has recipes - cherry ones, of course. I am not familiar with Michigan cherries so I learned something, Michigan producers grow both sweet and tart cherries, producing 70 percent of the US production of tart cherries. One variety of sour cherry, the Montmorency cherry, is used in cherry pies and also marketed as juice. In the past couple of years, the juice has garnered a following in the health community for its benefits. With this story and its recipes in mind. I think I will be looking for Michigan cherries on my next grocery trip.

Food, friendship, and family - the perfect ingredients of a summer read.


The Bitter and Sweet of Cherry Season
Blog Tour

Author: Molly Fader
ISBN978-1525804557
Publication Date: June 6, 2020
Publisher:  Graydon House Books


Author Bio:
Molly Fader is the author of The McAvoy Sisters Book of Secrets. She is also the award-winning author of more than forty romance novels under the pennames Molly O'Keefe and M. O'Keefe. She grew up outside of Chicago and now lives in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter, @mollyokwrites.

Book Summary:
For fans of Robyn Carr, commercial women's fiction about three generations of women who come together at the family orchard to face secrets from the past and learn to believe in the power of hope and forgiveness.

In cherry season, anything is possible...

Everything Hope knows about the Orchard House is from her late-mother's stories. So when she arrives at the Northern Michigan family estate late one night with a terrible secret and her ten-year-old daughter in tow, she's not sure if she'll be welcomed or turned away with a shotgun by the aunt she has never met.

Hope's aunt, Peg, has lived in the Orchard House all her life, though the property has seen better days. She agrees to take Hope in if, in exchange, Hope helps with the cherry harvest—not exactly Hope's specialty, but she's out of options. As Hope works the orchard alongside her aunt, daughter, and a kind man she finds increasingly difficult to ignore, a new life begins to blossom. But the mistakes of the past are never far behind, and soon the women will find themselves fighting harder than ever for their family roots and for each other.

Author Q&A:
What message do you hope readers take away from The Bitter and Sweet of Cherry Season?
Oh wow! So many! I hope they think about about the power of memory in their own lives. That memories are what make us - good and bad. Mothers are fallible in a million ways and most are just trying their best. Grace and forgiveness feel better than resentment. When times are tough - get yourself some chocolate cherry brioche? :)

What's the story behind the story/how you came to write this novel?
Well, the opening scene literally just arrived in my head. Mom with a dead cell phone driving through the dark dark Michigan night. She’s absolutely out of options. Her daughter isn’t speaking to her. And she’s been beaten up.  As far as opening scenes go it’s one of my absolute favorites. Women out of options, out of pride, trying SO HARD to do the next thing… I love it.

Do you have any specific writing rituals (outfit, snacks, pen,music, etc)?
I wake up early, make the coffee and go. Sometimes the internet is a little too distracting so I need to turn it off. But most days, that’s how it works. Some days - when I go on retreats or I’m really behind - I work in the morning, go for a long walk, come back and have a beer before writing some more. When I was a newbie writer I had a few more tricks I needed - there were books I wrote listening to the same album on repeat, but now I can’t have any music. I’ve written some books in different rooms in the house -because for whatever reason that’s where the writing magic happened. The McAvoy Sister’s was written almost entirely in my daughter’s bed room… I have no explanation for it.

Which character do you most relate to and why?
Honestly, all of them in different ways and in different parts of the story. I have never been in the situation that Hope has been in but there have been parts of motherhood when I find myself in situations outside of my control and I have to treat my kids like adults. Or expect them to act like adults. And I know it’s not fair, but it’s what happens sometimes. I can also really relate to how she can find a million reasons to beat herself up as a mother - but struggles to see what an amazing job she’s doing. I think most mothers understand that reality.

I also understand Peg’s reluctance to open herself up to more pain. And how what she thinks is keeping her safe is actually a prison. And I can also appreciate her - If I don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen - stance. I think that’s a very real part of human nature.

And frankly even Tink - I LOVED how she used what power she had to make her point clear. The story about Tink and the broken leg - that came from real life. My kid’s friend spent most of a year wrapping his leg up in an ace bandage and telling everyone it was broken - it was like he was conducting a very specific social experiment on us. And then one day… done.

What can you tell us about your next project?
Oh, I’m so excited about it. The title is always changing… so we’ll skip that part and get right to the good stuff...

Sarah Beecher has died and everyone in Greensboro, Iowa has shown up for her funeral. She was a beloved Administrator and Nurse at the Nursing School who has lived almost the entirety of her life in this small town. Her daughter’s are there - each battling some real life demons but supporting each other, despite old resentments and feuds. They are absolutely firm in the knowledge that Sarah Beecher had no secrets.

Into this funeral walks Kitty Deveraux - legendary star of stage and screen. And she’s there to tell Sarah’s daughters their mother was not who they thought she was.

And neither are they.

It’s got two timelines! Family secrets! Twists! Seriously, I enjoy it so much. AND it’s based in part on my mother’s experience at St. Luke’s Nursing School in Iowa.

Have you been to the cherry festivals in MI?
I have! I’ve been to the cherry festival in Traverse City. I competed in a cherry pit spitting contest and ended up spitting the pit on my shoe. I was an embarrassment to my kids and husband. Luckily there was plenty of cherry ice cream (thank you Kilwin’s!) around with which to console myself after that poor showing.

Actually I spent part of almost every summer of my life in Michigan. First along Southern Lake Michigan - St. Joseph’s and South Haven. And then in Northern Lower Michigan - Traverse City, Boyne City and Petosky. A few summers on Beaver Island. I have enjoyed The Cherry Festivals, The Tulip Festivals, a million Beer Festivals and the odd Elvis Festival. 

Why did you decide to use a cherry orchard?
I wanted to set the book in Michigan. I knew I wanted it to be rural and agricultural and lots of hard work. And after all the summers in Michigan - picking up bags of fresh washed cherries from road stands all over the state - a cherry orchard seemed perfect!

Social:
Author Website: http://mollyfader.com/

Buy Links:


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

Friday, June 12, 2020

Big Lies in a Small Town

Title:
 Big Lies in a Small Town
Author:  Diane Chamberlain
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2020. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250087333 / 978-1250087331

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

Opening Sentence:  "The children knew it was finally spring, so although the air still held the nip of winter and the grass and weeds crunched beneath their feet, they ran through the field and woods, yipping with the anticipation of warmer weather."

Favorite Quote:  "Perhaps now that she'd told the story, it would lose its power over her. She hoped she would never have to repeat it to anyone ever again."

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration ran a competition through the Section of Painting and Sculpture in the Treasury Department for artists to produce work to be displayed in government buildings where all would have access to it. Many of the designated buildings were post offices being constructed. (See also The Truth According to Us, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, and The Giver of Stars for other book set around the history of the Works Progress Administration.) This program is the historical context for this book.

Anna Dale, from New Jersey, is one of the artists selected to paint a mural for a post office. However, her original sketch to go in a New Jersey post office does not happen. Instead, she is reassigned to design one for the post office in the small town of Edenton, North Carolina. She travels there to learn about the town, so as to be able to capture its essence. She meets with both welcome and resentment - for being a woman, for being an outside, for beating out a home town boy in the competition, and for breaking the social norms of Edenton culture.

Decades later, Morgan Christopher is a former art student currently in prison. A woman offers a way out of prison only if she agrees to restore a mural in time for the opening of a gallery in Edenton. Morgan jumps at this second chance even though she has no connection to this woman, no connection to Edenton, and no knowledge of art restoration.

In this way, an artist - Jesse - unites these women across decades. The book goes back and forth between Anna and Morgan. Anna's story is hers. Morgan's story is the slow discovery of Anna's story through the oddities discovered as she restores the painting. Morgan's story is also of her redemption and the discovery of a path forward for her life beyond her incarceration and the accident that led to it.

The story does have some loose ends. Anna's story has themes of mental illness and its possible hereditary factors. Anna is referred to as the artist may went crazy in many different ways throughout the book. Her mother suffered from mental illness. The reasons for Anna's behavior are ultimately explained, but the correlations and differences between mental illness and a trauma response are never clarified.

Edenton, North Carolina in the 1940s brings forth the story of a male-dominated culture and of segregation and racisms. Both of those remain the background for this story is about Anna and Morgan, both of whom are on the periphery of this culture. The element of racism particularly seems muted in this book given the historical facts of the time and place. Given the conversations around the world still taking place, I wish more of that reality had been depicted.

The story is slow to build, but there is an "aha" moment when it comes together. In that way, it mirrors the mural itself. The cleaning and restoration process is painstakingly slow, but the painting reveals its secrets in many "aha" moments.

The ending brings everything together in a neat package. Life is not that neat, but the book does keep me reading until the very last page to see every connection. In fact, I turn the last page to see if there is more. The characters come to life, and I want to know what happens next. That, for me, is the sign of a great read.


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

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Girls with No Names

Title:  The Girls with No Names
Author:  Serena Burdick
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0778309991 / 978-0778309994

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

Opening Sentence:  "I lay with my cheek pressed to the floor, the cement cool against my spent rage."

Favorite Quote:  "We're all hurt and broken ... You're no different. You walk around with that sorry face, as if you're the only one's seen hardship. Have you tried looking at anyone else's face? Everyone in here's been put through the wringer."

Mary Magdalen was a follower of Jesus Christ and is said to have witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection. Some have deemed her a saint. At the same time, history has often also labeled Mary Magdalen a repentant fallen woman. The Magdalen laundries or asylums were church-run institutions for the rehabilitation of "fallen" women. These institutions were prevalent in Ireland even as recently as the 1960s, but they were also found in many other places including Manhattan in New York. Life in these institutions was harsh, and the living conditions were abysmal.

The Magdalen Girls by V S Alexander tells the story of three young women at an institution in Ireland. The Girls with No Names is the story of two young women in a Manhattan institution in the context of their family stories. 

The New York Magdalen Society was founded in 1830 with the purpose of rescuing women from lives of prostitution and vice. A facility was established, named for the Inwood section of upper Manhattan where it was located. Girls were either brought by the police or committed by their families, usually for a period of three years.  That is the ill-named House of Mercy in this book. Interestingly, the organization still exists. In 2016, The Inwood House merged with The Children's Village. Now known as The Inwood House at Children's Village, the organization focuses on teenage pregnancy - education, prevention, and support for young women.

The other historical aspect of this book is the legacy of the Romani community in New York. The Romani arare an ethnic group, travelers. The term used in this book is "gypsy" as it is true to the time. However, currently, the term is considered negative and not used due to its connotations.

The story itself is about two young women - Effie and Mable, but primarily it is about Effie. Trigger warning:  This book has scenes of cruelty depicted.

Effie's story is about family, her illness, and a horrible misunderstanding. This misunderstanding and a child's rash decision - to have herself committed to an institution like the House of Mercy - becomes the basis for the entire rest of the story. The extreme nature of this misunderstanding and decision seems contrived and almost too convenient - if such a thing can be said about such a horrific situation. 

In addition, Effie's story incorporates her mother and her parents' marriage, her sister and her rebellion for independence, and an illness that at the time handed Effie a death sentence. This dilutes the impact of Effie's story at the House of Mercy as does the melodramatic ending. Mable's story is the stronger one as it relates to the history of this book, but her story is clearly secondary to Effie's.

Learning about the history is by far my favorite part of the book and the reason I love historical fiction. This is not history I might otherwise have come across, but reading it in fiction led me to research the actual history - with articles, survivor accounts, and photographs.


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

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Sister Dear

Title:  Sister Dear
Author:  Hannah Mary McKinnon
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 368 pages.
ISBN:  077830955X / 978-0778309550

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:  "The police didn't believe me."

Favorite Quote:  "You can't force someone to love you, however hard you try."

Eleanor Hardwicke is alone. Her father, the only one in her life who has loved her, is dying. Her mother has always favored her sister Amy. Amy is self-centered and living her own life on the west coast. Eleanor Hardwicke is all alone.

An accidental revelation reveals that life may not be as she has always known it. On the one hand, the revelation takes away the certainty she has had in her father's love. On the other hand, what if this revelation provides that opportunity for the family she has never had.

This book is as much a character study as a thriller about a quest gone wrong. The way Eleanor goes about the search for her past highlights the psychological scars of her childhood:
  • "I'd always been the quiet one, the one who wouldn't say boo to a fly let alone a goose, the person everybody overlooked and underestimated. Maybe we were the ones people needed to be extra careful of. We lived in the shadows of other, but didn't that also mean we were the ones who snapped when everyone least expected it. And when we did, every single person in our vicinity got hurt."
  • "This was the kind of passive-agressive crap I'd dealt with from preschool right through to university ... Snide remarks, backhanded compliments, accusing me of being overly sensitive the few times I'd called them out."
  • "... I might be attempting to fill the void inside me with food..."
The book begins at the end. A crime has been committed. The police do not believe this person. He/she has also lost someone they love in this process. The rest of the book is to be the story of how everything gets to this point.

The questions are what is the crime, who is the criminal, and who and what have they lost? Embedded into the obsession is a also a story that could be a happily ever after love story. Unfortunately, if all your life, you have been told you are not lovable, do you believe that someone could love you. Embedded into this obsession is the story of the little girl who has never gotten past the fact that she is not good enough, not thin enough, and not pretty enough.

The book turns this premise into a faced-paced, quickly read mystery. The short chapters lend to the fast pace of the book. Part of the ending I see coming. I won't say why because that would be a spoiler. The extent of the planning and machinations come as a surprise not only to the characters in the book but also to me. The lesson I am left with is that sometimes we want to believe in something so strongly, that we choose to believe even when reason would tell us otherwise. The lasting memory of the book is a lost little girl whose childhood leaves scars that destroy her adult life.

Interestingly, the very end of this book is a plan for the future. I wonder if there is a sequel. I hope there is. I would still like to believe that the adult can overcome the abuses of childhood and find a new life.

Sister Dear
Blog Tour

AuthorHannah Mary McKinnon
ISBN: 9780778309550
Publication Date: May 26, 2020
Publisher:  MIRA Books


Author Bio:
Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing, and is now the author of The Neighbors and Her Secret Son. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her twenty-second commute.

Book Summary:
In Hannah Mary McKinnon’s psychological thriller, SISTER DEAR (MIRA Trade; May 26, 2020; $17.99), the obsession of Single White Female meets the insidiousness of You, in a twisted fable about the ease of letting in those who wish us harm, and that mistake’s dire consequences.

The day he dies, Eleanor Hardwicke discovers her father – the only person who has ever loved her – is not her father. Instead, her biological father is a wealthy Portland businessman who wants nothing to do with her and to continue his life as if she doesn’t exist. That isn’t going to work for Eleanor.

Eleanor decides to settle the score. So, she befriends his daughter Victoria, her perfect, beautiful, carefree half-sister who has gotten all of life’s advantages while Eleanor has gotten none.

As she grows closer to Victoria, Eleanor’s obsession begins to deepen. Maybe she can have the life she wants, Victoria’s life, if only she can get close enough.

Author Q&A:

1. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing, if at all?
With each book my process has become more streamlined, but the biggest change is that, five books in, I feel more in control. That doesn’t necessarily mean it gets easier. Self-doubt always, always creeps in, particularly when I’m writing my first “skeleton draft,” which is a first, very loose version nobody will ever see. It’s rough, dirty and…terrible—my skeleton drafts always have been. However, I’ve learned to trust my writing process. If I can get the bones of the story on paper, I’ll add layers and complexity as I go over the novel again and again in preparation for my editor’s eyes. I accept the finer details will come as I work through the story. Just like most people who draw, paint, or write music or books, the first draft will never be my best work. I’m glad I’ve accepted that because it stops me from being overly self-critical when I start a project. I’m also more disciplined than in the past because I have deadlines. And I’ve always loved deadlines—especially beating them.

2. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
It depends on the novel. For Time After Time (my debut, a rom com) there were geographical considerations, and, as the novel took place from the 1980s to the 2010s, I had to ensure my references to pop culture were accurate. In The Neighbors, Her Secret Son and Sister Dear (suspense / psychological thrillers) there were similar geographical issues to consider, but I also had to research legal details. I sought the help from an advisor from child services, a lawyer, a medical examiner, and a police detective, to name but a few. I’m continually amazed how people are so incredibly generous with their time, knowledge and expertise when I call and say, “I’m an author, honest, and I have a few weird questions.” For example, fellow author Bruce Robert Coffin is a retired police detective, and he’s helped me get away with fictional murder multiple times. His input is incredible!

I don’t do a lot of research before I start writing but tend to put placeholders for areas that need fleshing out, and go back to them after I’ve finished my first draft. That way I’m not spending hours on facts that don’t make the cut, or getting sidetracked by facts which are interesting, but potentially irrelevant to the story.

3. Which thriller author inspired you to get into this genre?
Jennifer Hillier. I was waiting for my son at our local library when I spotted her debut, Creep, on a shelf. Intrigued by the cover, I picked it up, read the blurb and took it home. I devoured it in a matter of days and it was career changing.

When I was younger, I mainly read thrillers, but after a personal tragedy in my early 20s, the only thing I could stomach was light-hearted reads. Creep reminded me of my love of thrillers, and I realized the second book I was working on, The Neighbors, was far grittier than my debut. Jennifer’s book gave me that final push I needed to cross over to the dark side. Fun fact: we live in the same town and have become great friends. Jennifer is an inspiration and fiercely talented, and I have all her books. I’ll read anything she writes!

4. What's the one element of a thriller novel that is a MUST?
Plot twists and secrets. I want to be surprised when I’m reading a thriller, although that can be said for any genre, so I guess you need to throw in a dead body or two somewhere as well.

5. Where do you get your ideas?
So far, I can pinpoint exactly how each book started. Time After Time is a story about a woman who’s unhappy with her life, which was me when we moved to Canada and my HR company crashed and burned, although the rest of the novel is fictional. The idea for The Neighbors came to me when two houses on our courtyard went up for sale, and I wondered who might move in. Her Secret Son stemmed from a news segment I saw while I was at the gym (probably wishing I were eating cake instead).

I’ll elaborate a little more for Sister Dear: I heard a radio segment about a woman who’d found a wedding ring at a playground and was trying to locate the owner through social media. It got me thinking—what if the woman found out the ring’s owner had a dream life, and felt jealous? The more I thought about it, the more twisted things became. I realized the individuals had to be related somehow, and if I made them half-sisters it would add to the drama and intrigue. It seems some of the most despicable acts are carried out within families. That was something I wanted to explore.

6. Has there ever been a moment in your life that inspired one of your thriller novels?
No, I can honestly say that, thankfully, my books aren’t true crime! I do sprinkle little details here and there my family might recognize. Superman pajamas, a stuffed toy, those kinds of things, but otherwise I don’t pull from my life.

7. What is your writing process like?
Very structured, and the more I write, the more I plan. My novels start with an idea—something that pops into my head such as the radio segment for Sister Dear, or a newspaper article or a discussion I overheard. I noodle the thoughts around for a while as the main characters take shape. The next step is to write an outline. I start by jotting down the big picture plot points, which I then use as stepping-stones to build and write the rest of the outline. I fill out personality questionnaires for my main characters to understand them better, and search for photos on the internet to build a gallery I stick on my pin-board. By this point I’m raring to go.

At first, I write a basic, largely unedited manuscript that’s about two-thirds of the final word count, then layer and develop until I’m happy calling it a first draft, and send it to my wonderful editor, Emily. That’s when the real editing work begins, which is incredibly exciting because I know the story will become a thousand times better with her expert input.

8. Do you find it easier to write character and dialogue for the opposite sex because you are the opposite sex? (A woman writing a man’s part and dialogue for example).
I love writing men and women equally, dialogue, and otherwise. My first experience of writing a male point of view character was in The Neighbors, and I adored working on Nate’s chapters. In Her Secret Son, the entire book is written from Josh’s point of view, and it was such a great challenge to do so. Sister Dear is exclusively told by my protagonist Eleanor, but next year’s book features three characters, two women and one man. The one after that will be a man’s point of view and I’m itching to get started because I can hear his very distinctive voice in my head.

To be honest, I try not to overthink whether I’m writing a man or a woman. The important thing is to give them a voice, develop their character, and make them seem as real to the reader as they are to me.

9. When you're not working on your latest novel, what do you like to do for fun?
I love getting outdoors for a hike, I’m a huge fan of the movies (I love the trailers!), I go to the gym and participate in a few obstacle runs in the summer (I live for the mud and obstacles, I’m rubbish at the running part). We have three teenage boys, so my husband and I spend time with them as often as they’ll let us. Watching films as a family is one of my favourite things. There’s something deeply comforting about us having a laugh together and just hanging out.

10. What kind of advice would you give to aspiring thriller READERS?
Try different sub-genres, of which there are many. Perhaps you love police procedurals, or psychological thrillers may fascinate you. Maybe you don’t want something overly graphic, so cozies might be to your taste, or alternatively you could go hard-boiled noir. I think some people have the impression thrillers are all blood, guts and gore, but that’s not the case. There’s something for everyone. Take Jill Orr, author of the Riley Ellison Mystery series. Sure, people die in her books, but her novels are laugh-out-loud funny. She’s a comedic genius.

11. What advice do you have for writers?
Read as much and often as you can and listen to audio books. I wrote an article about how the latter make you a better author here. Write, even if you think it’s rubbish, because an empty page is impossible to edit. Another tip someone once suggested was to skip ahead if I couldn’t get a grasp on a chapter or scene, that I should focus on another part of the manuscript and trust myself enough to backfill later. It was revolutionary to me, and it beats the heck out of staring at a blank page or shoving my hand in the cookie jar. Also, I was advised to read my manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. Doing so helps avoid repetition, improves cadence, and zaps stilted dialogue. And, finally, share your work. It can be scary, but it’s the only way you’ll get feedback and improve your craft.

12. What is the first book that made you cry?
I have absolutely no idea, but the last one was Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. I was a blubbering mess, which doesn’t happen very often! Stiff British upper lip and all that.

13. What is your writing Kryptonite?
Self-doubt. Having some isn’t a bad thing, but you can’t let it rule you or you’ll never finish a manuscript. Also, if I don’t have a deadline I tend to procrastinate, so I set my own, and make sure I beat them.

14. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes, absolutely. When I was in my thirties we had three kids in 16 months (twins the second time around, I’m not an alien, I promise) and while my husband was a stay-at-home dad, I was the CEO of a European IT recruitment company. I was so busy, I don’t think I picked up a novel in five years, and I missed them dearly. I’m so glad reading books is such a large part of my job now, and I love every minute.



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

Monday, May 25, 2020

The Kitchen Without Borders

Title:
  The Kitchen Without Borders:  Recipes and Stories from Refugee and Immigrant Chefs
Author:  The Eat Offbeat Chefs, 
Publication Information:  Workman Publishing Company. 2021. 232 pages.
ISBN:  1523504048 / 978-1523504046
Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This story starts like so many other cooking stories - with a grandmother's recipe."

Favorite Quote:  "And so it was for the variety of countries that people fled, looking for a better life, often leaving everything behind except for their beautiful memories immortalized in the recipes they brought along with them. These tasty dishes represent cultures where cooking is valued as an act of love for your family, not just an elevated art that professionals practice in restaurant."

Eat Offbeat begins with Manal Kahi's story. Manal Kahi came to New York City in 2013. With her, she brought the food and heritage of her culture. From New York City, her adopted home, comes the opportunity of new beginnings. It began with her grandmother's hummus recipe that friends so liked and recommended that she sell. With that was born the idea of all the refugees and immigrants settled in New York City representing themselves through food. The result is Eat Offbeats. The company provides catering, featuring the food from the contributing chefs from around the world.

The current cadre of chefs represents refugees and immigrants from Venezuela, Iran, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Guinea, Syria, and Iraq. This book is a representation of the melting pot of New York City with not only recipes but also the stories of the Eat Offbeat chefs. While the food may not be familiar to some readers, all will relate to the idea that the smell or taste of even the idea of a dish can bring to mind memories. It is these stories that bring the recipes of this book to life as they do in The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook, another New York City enterprise that seeks to  highlight the diversity of our community.

The book is organized into typical sections you might find in a cookbook - appetizers and dips, salads and soups, rice and grains, vegetarian dishes, meat dishes, and desserts and drinks. The beginning of each section provides a list of recipes with the culturally correct name and then a brief description of the dish itself. The ingredients and methodology is clearly laid out, and several include a picture of the dish. I love being able to see the end product.

The book also contains a "pantry" section describing some of the international ingredients that may be less familiar to some readers. Also provided are conversion tables between different measurement systems - Fahrenheit to Celsius and US imperial to metric. The chefs have also provided recommended pairings and menus to assemble the dishes into a complete meal. Finally, the book is expected to contain an index which is not in this review copy. All these features make a cookbook easier to navigate and more user friendly.

My favorite part of the book is the stories and pictures of the chefs. Each tells of their relationship with food and how and why they came to their adopted home of New York City. The personal stories of these family recipes makes them truly special.

The publication of this book is also being done in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). In fact, from May 15, 2020, to May 15, 2021, (including any preordered copies that ship during this period), Workman Publishing will donate 2% of the cover price for every copy of The Kitchen without Borders cookbook sold in the United States and its territories, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and European Union member states, to the IRC, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict, with a minimum contribution of $25,000 USD.

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

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Jungle Book

Title:
  The Jungle Book
Author:  Rudyard Kipling
Publication Information:  Macmillan. 1894. 174 pages.
ISBN:  None for the original. Multiple subsequent editions.

Book Source:  I read this book through the Serial Reader app.

Opening Sentence:  "It was seven o'clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day's rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in the tips."

Favorite Quote:  "One of the beauties of Jungle Law is that punishment settles all scores. There is no nagging afterward."

The Jungle Book is a book I have never read in its entirety. My vision of these stories is based on the many children's book and cartoon adaptations. Most, if not all of those, have focused on the story of Mowgli.

In fact, the name The Jungle Book has become synonymous with Mowgli's story. This is the story of an orphaned human boy who is raised by animals as one of their own. As he grows though, there are those who would sow discord and point out the differences. That seems a familiar story in humans even today even though these stories were originally written in 1894. Sadly, some things never change.

The next most familiar story for me is the story of Riki-Tiki-Tavi, the story of the mongoose versus the pair of snakes. The name is a memorable one.

Most of these stories are based around animals. Research states that some may have their origin in Indian mythology. Rudyard Kipling was born in India and lived there for the first six years of his life. He then moved to England, but returned to India a decade later for about another six or seven years. So, these stories written originally for his daughter are perhaps a reflection of his own childhood experiences. Interestingly, other than the rare reference to a region, the books do not specify where the story takes place, making them more universal.

Most of these stories are based in the animal world. However, the stories are fables, and the themes and lessons are decidedly human. Mowgli is an orphan made a part of a family and then abandoned again. He returns to his human family but is again made to feel the outsider. Riki-Tiki-Tavi is the underdog who overcomes a powerful cobra. Toomai is the little guy who is greatly underestimated but proves what he can accomplish. The white seal is the one who is "different" and who seeks his own path; in doing so, he emerges a leader.

Such themes echo throughout the stories. As is expected in a collection of short stories, some resonate more with me than others. They may not have quite the magic that they did in my childhood, but they do bring me back to that magic and complete my knowledge of this iconic children's classic. Most importantly, they take me on a trip down memory lane through the reading I did in my own childhood and through the special moments I cherish of reading with my children. I hope the legacy continues as stories are shared generation to generation.


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