Monday, September 28, 2020

The Lost Orphan

Title:  The Lost Orphan
Author:  Stacey Halls
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0778309320 / 978-0778309321

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

Opening Sentence:  "All the babies were wrapped like presents ready to be given."

Favorite Quote:  "There was a pause. 'You are doing a fine job, madam. You're doing the very best you can.' They were not the same thing."

The Lost Orphan is the story of motherhood for the orphan in this book is truly neither an orphan nor lost at all. Two women become mothers, not of their own choosing.

Bess Bright is a shrimp seller, living with her father and the brother, who seems headed for trouble. She ends up pregnant after an encounter with a handsome strangers who makes her dream of a different life. She is poor, and her father forces her to places her child with the Foundling Hospital in London. She works and waits and saves and dreams of reclaiming her daughter one day. When that day comes, she finds her daughter gone.

Alexandra Callard is a widow raising her daughter alone. She has wealth and position in society. Tragedies in her past lead her to a scared, well-measured, restricted, and eccenctric life. She does not leave her home except for church on Sunday, and no one is allowed in either. The restrictions apply to all in the household, including Alexandra's daughter. The limitations seem to extend to Alexandra's ability to love her daughter. "How was it that the love for a child was the most complex of all? How could one feel envy, grief and rejection at the same time as simple, uncluttered affection? How was it that I could barely touch her, yet would know her smell blindfolded, and could draw every freckle on her face." The reasons behind her fear are revealed late into the book. 

Charlotte Callard is the six year old that binds these two women together. Why and how becomes clear early on in the book. 

The biggest issue I have with the book is that the story of the two women somehow does not ring true. What should be an emotional tale of motherhood leaves too many open questions and too many convenient coincidences for it to have the intended impact. For example:
  • How does a street smart Bess end up falling for a one-night stand and end up alone and pregnant?
  • Why does Alexandra bring Charlotte home?
  • How does Alexandra all of a sudden allow a caretaker for Charlotte to move into the house?
  • Why is Dr. Mead so willing to help Bess?
  • How does Bess end up in the right place at the right time and meet the right person?
  • How does such an abrupt and complete character change occur?
As the story progresses, so do the questions until the very end. The dramatic change in one character and the willingness to let go does not ring true given everything that has come before.

Part of this book explores the vast economic divide between the rich and the poor in 1700s London. That is the background of the book but actually, for me, becomes the interesting aspect of the book. I do walk away with a picture in my mind of the the time and place.

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Orphan of Cemetery Hill

The Orphan of Cemetery Hill
  The Orphan of Cemetery Hill
Author:  Hester Fox
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  152580457X / 978-1525804571

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

Opening Sentence:  "Tabby's legs ached and the wind had long since snatched her flimsy bonnet away, but she kept running through the night, her thin leather shoes pounding the cobbled Boston streets."

Favorite Quote:  "We all of us contain a great reserve of power, yet most of us will go through life without ever trying to mine that reserve. Perhaps we all have something of your sister's gift, but have just not learned how to access it. Perhaps we are all of us conduits to the great beyond. ... this is my gift to you - the motivation to find within yourself the extraordinary gift that you have heretofore taken for granted."

***** BLOG TOUR ****


The Orphan of Cemetery Hill is Hester Fox's third book. All three have followed the theme of CHARACTER of LOCATION. All three main characters are women with an unusual history. All three are set in New England. All three are gothic with witches and powers and conduits to the beyond. Beyond that, each one has been unique. The Witch of Willow Hall is about a young woman finding her voice. The Widow of Pale Harbor is more romance than anything else. The Orphan of Cemetery Hill is about grave robbing, "scientific" experimentation, and actual villains dubiously named Resurrection Men.

In Boston in 1844, twelve year old Tabby is all alone. Her parents have died. Her aunt and uncle want nothing more than to exploit her. She and her sister Alice have run away. Now, Alice too is gone. Tabby is running and finds herself seeking refuge in a cemetery. That seems both a haven and a danger for Tabby can communicate with the recently dead.

Fast forward almost a decade. Tabby is still living by the cemetery, having been taken in and cared for by the cemetery caretaker. Now, the intrigue and a romance begins. The intrigue involves first a robbed grave. "She had known that there was evil in the world, had seen the darkness and greed that had driven her aunt and uncle, had felt the devastating injustice of being robbed of her parents. But she had never known the depth of depravity that could lead men to steal the bodies of the dead. The trials of this world were bearable because of the promise of divine rest, of reuniting with loved ones on the other side; how could anyone endure life otherwise?"

Then, it gets worse. There is a murder. Then, a kidnapping. False accusations, jail breaks, fleeing fugitives, really bad guys who will let nothing stand in their way, secret societies, and even Harvard Medical School all keep this book moving at a fast pace. Mind you, this book is less about gothic mysticism and communing with the dead and more about individuals looking to exploit others for their own benefit. It is more action adventure than ghosts and ghouls, but a gothic mystery nevertheless.

In the middle of all the action is also love and family. Tabby and her adopted father Eli. Eli's backstory and what Tabby will do to protect him. Tabby and her sister Alice. Caleb and Rose. Tabby and Caleb. The relationships ground the mystique and gothic mystery in reality. I vest in the characters and want to follow along, particularly Tabby herself. She is by far the strongest character of the book.

Although similar in look and feel, all three of Hester Fox's books have brought their own unique twist, with this one being my favorite. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

About the Book

The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission.

Boston, 1844.

Tabby has a peculiar gift: she can communicate with the recently departed. It makes her special, but it also makes her dangerous.

As an orphaned child, she fled with her sister, Alice, from their charlatan aunt Bellefonte, who wanted only to exploit Tabby’s gift so she could profit from the recent craze for seances.

Now a young woman and tragically separated from Alice, Tabby works with her adopted father, Eli, the kind caretaker of a large Boston cemetery. When a series of macabre grave robberies begins to plague the city, Tabby is ensnared in a deadly plot by the perpetrators, known only as the “Resurrection Men.”

In the end, Tabby’s gift will either save both her and the cemetery—or bring about her own destruction.

Author Bio

Hester Fox is a full-time writer and mother, with a background in museum work and historical archaeology. Most weekends you can find Hester exploring one of the many historic cemeteries in the area, browsing bookshops, or enjoying a seasonal latte while writing at a café. She lives outside of Boston with her husband and their son.

Q&A with Hester Fox

Q: Why is historical fiction so popular, particularly gothic?
A: Historical fiction provides an escape. It transports you to another time, and with Gothic in particular, another atmosphere. Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves fleeing through a stormy night in a white nightgown, heart pounding and adrenaline flowing? Who doesn’t want to see good vanquish evil, and fall in love along the way?

Q: How do you approach your research?
A: I try to consume everything from the time period, from the music, to books, to even food if possible. Pre-Covid days, I would go to historic houses or museums to help me get in the right frame of mind. Beyond that, I like to research as I write, otherwise I can get stuck in a never-ending research rabbit hole.

Q: What was the most challenging part to write in The Orphan of Cemetery Hill?
A: This was the first time I wrote scenes set outside of New England, and leaving my comfort zone was both exciting and challenging. Part of the story takes place in England and Scotland, so I had to branch out and research things like dialects and local history for whole new settings.

Q: What was your most favorite part and why?
A: Writing the seance scene was probably my favorite. Can you imagine what it would have been like to attend a Victorian seance? It must have seemed like the pinnacle of scientific advancement, a heady promise of actually being able to make contact with dead loved ones. Even just the spectacle of a practiced medium would have been incredible to witness.

Q: What's a typical writing day for you?
A: These days it’s just finding bits of time between household work and my baby’s naps. When I’m in the drafting stage, I try to write about 1000 words a day if I can get a good chunk of uninterrupted time. That said, there are some days when I don’t even have a chance to sit down and write, and those days are important too, as they give me a chance to rest and recharge.

Q: Where do you like writing and why? Favorite snacks and/or beverages?
A: We just moved, so I don’t have a dedicated writing space at the moment. I am dreaming of building a tiny writing shed in our yard, filled with books and art though. Pre-Covid, I did a lot of writing in coffee shops and I really miss that. Iced vanilla soy latte and a big pastry are my writing fuel!

Q: What was your last 5-star read and why?
A: Ghost Wood Song by Erica Waters. Atmospheric, haunting, gorgeous prose, and ghosts, ghosts, ghosts.

Q: How would your main character(s) fare with a stay-at-home order?
A: I think Tabby would do very well, and there’s probably nowhere safer to be than a cemetery these days!

Q: Is there anything you can tell us about the book that is not a spoiler and not on the blurb? Something you'd like to share with us?
A: The eponymous cemetery of the title is based on Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End, which you can visit to this day on the Freedom Trail. Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood of brownstones, you can really get a sense of what it must have felt like over a hundred years ago.

Q: What was your inspiration for writing the book?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries, and have spent more time than is probably healthy exploring the graveyards of Massachusetts. I really wanted to set a story in one, but wasn’t sure what that story would be. The answer came to me when I found a little informational plaque about a doctor in the 1800’s who was fined for having employed graverobbers to procure corpses for his medical dissections. I knew a little bit about the history of graverobbing in the UK, but hadn’t realized that it had happened in the United States, and so late into the 19th century. From there, I begun spinning out a story that incorporated all my favorite things: ghosts, graveyards, plucky young women, and of course, romance.

Q: What came first, the novel or the title?
A: The novel, but the title came shortly after. I wanted to stay with the theme of the SOMEONE OF LOCATION like my previous two books, The Witch of Willow Hall, and The Widow of Pale Harbor.

Q: Which character/s do you relate to the most?
A: I probably relate to Tabby the most because she is very concerned for the people around her, and feels things deeply. That said, Caleb was so fun to write because he had such a journey as a character, from deeply flawed and not a great guy, to someone soft and loving.

Q: What do you like most about writing?
A: I love the freedom it gives me to explore different times and places, and being able to write the books that I want to read. Sometimes the writing process can be tedious or difficult, but it’s never boring.

Q: What scene, in the book, are you most proud of?
A: Caleb’s first scene when he is on his way to his father’s funeral. I just loved researching the funerary customs in the 1850s, and it was a lot of fun to write a scene that incorporated those details.

Social Links

Author Website:
TWITTER: @HesterBFox
Insta: @trotfoxwrite

Buy Links

Barnes & Noble

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

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Lending Library

  The Lending Library
Author:  Aliza Fogelson
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2020. 299 pages.
ISBN:  1503904016 / 978-1503904019

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

Opening Sentence:  "I was sniffing glue again."

Favorite Quote:  "This little library was going to do so much good for the people of Chatsworth. Thinking about it made my cheeks glow like the windows of my beloved book-filled retreat, a shelter against lonely nights or difficult days for anyone who wanted to come inside."

I love books about books and libraries and people who love books. This book had me at the title and the cover. I loved the initial concept. A neighborhood library in Chatsworth, Connecticut, is closing. A young woman decides that is simply not acceptable. She opens a little library of her own in a room in her home. The project takes on a life of its own and brings a community together. Sweet, charming, and totally up my alley. The fact that it has a reference (if your recognize it) to The Princess Bride makes the set up all the more appealing. I don't know if the connection is purposeful or intentional, but a reference to "rodents of unusual size" could not be coincidental, could it?

I am not quite sure what to make of the main character, Dodie Fairisle. She is an art teacher. She is a book lover. She is a woman of a certain age concerned about finding a partner and starting a family. She lives independently in her own home. She is surrounded by family and friends. Yet, at times, her character does not come across as the mature, adult woman this description might imply. One particularly memorable phrase thought at an interaction with a man ... "flambéed my underwear" ... epitomizes the dichotomy between the two visions of the character. Ewww and really?

The character seems not to change or evolve through the book. In its execution, the storyline, however, goes in so many different directions. The library and the community feature but so does infertility, the biological clock, a baby, sisterhood, romance, adoption, death, sexual orientation, religion, and, at some level, a unsafe/unwelcoming home environment for a child. The seriousness of the issues that enter the book belie the sweet, light-hearted set up. Each one of these topics could lead to a book on their own; in fact, each of these topics has led to many book centered of each one individually. These topics are serious enough and important enough to warrant that attention. Put all together, this story does not appear to do justice to any one. Some story lines appear summarily addressed, and some seem to disappear completely with no resolution. That is unfortunate for it appears to undermine the issues themselves.

Some of these issues involve other people in Dodie's life and yet Dodie's story moves from thing to thing. This fact unfortunately makes Dodie a relatively unlikable character. The cursory way in which such serious topics are address make her seem shallow and self-centered. I found myself wanting to know more about some of the secondary characters whose heartache seemed so much more real.

The title of the book - the lending library - was the reason I chose to read this book. Sadly, that entire storyline becomes almost a side note in the entire book. It gets lost as does almost every other story thread. I am disappointed that this was not the book I expected. I was definitely not the right reader for what this book actually is.

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

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Book of Lost Friends

Title:  The Book of Lost Friends
Author:  Lisa Wingate
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2020. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1984819887 / 978-1984819888

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

Opening Sentence:  "A single ladybug lands featherlight on the teacher's finger, clings there, a living gemstone."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm trying to impress upon my students that everyone has a history. Just because we're not always happy with what's true doesn't mean we shouldn't know it. It's how we learn. It's how we do better in the future. Hopefully, anyway."

The "lost friends" is a historical reference to loved ones and friends lost to slavery. The term was used by the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a newspaper published out of New Orleans, Louisiana, for the African American community from 1877 to 1929. The newspaper was a project the Methodist Church. The "Lost Friends" was a section that published letters from people searching from loved ones in the hopes that it would reach them or someone who knew of them.

"'I have written all of them' She shows me her work, while I look down in wonder. 'These pages, by the beginning letter of the surname.' She turns to a page with R, which is a letter I know, there at the top, she reads off, 'Amalee August Rain.' I sit down beside her and she gives it over to me, an I turn through all the pages. 'I'll be,' I whisper. 'A book of lost friends.'"

As I contemplate the history, I am horrified and saddened beyond measure that such letters or such lists were made necessary in this nation that was built upon tenets of equality and freedom. It saddens me that conversations for and the word toward equity still continues today. We have not reached that goal. This specific aspect of history - the letters, some of which are reprinted in this book - will stay with me for a long time to come.

The book tells this story through Hannie Gossett in the aftermath of the Civil War and Benedetta in the 1980s. The story begins in Louisiana. Benedetta has come to be an English teacher in a small school. The school embodies the inequities that permeate the US school system. Benedetta sets out to capture her students imagination and teach them through their own history. Hannie's story is an integral part of the history of Augustine, Louisiana. She is slave who loses her entire family as the South grapples with the Civil War and the thought of emancipation. Hannie's family is lost through the actions of - ripped apart one person at a time in the trading of humans. Now, she is supposedly free, a sharecropper on the very farm where she and her family were slaves.

Hannie's voice takes a little getting used to, but this quiet book pulls me and does not let go even after the last page. I turn the page looking for more of what happens to Hannie. The book comes alive and leaves me with a visual and emotional picture of the time and the place.

Benedetta's story, in its own way, draws me in. I find myself relating to her relationship with books. "Books made me believe that smart girls who didn't necessarily fit in with the popular crowd could be the ones to solve mysteries, rescue people in distress, ferret out international criminals, fly spaceships to distant planets, take up arms and fight battles... Books made me feel beautiful when I wasn't. Capable when I couldn't be. Books built my identity." I also find myself sharing her struggle with how to best be an ally to her students.

The final chapter of the book somewhat comes out of nowhere in Benedetta's story. Yet, it leaves behind an important lesson as does the rest of the book. "We all have scars. It's when you're honest about them that you find the people who will love you in spite of your nicks and dents. Perhaps even because of them. The people who don't. These people aren't the ones for you."

Most of all, I appreciate this book for the sad history it leads me to research further in nonfiction sources. The challenge and struggle of that history continue on.

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Road Out of Winter

Road Out of Winter
  Road Out of Winter
Author:  Alison Stine
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0778309924 / 978-0778309925

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:  "I used to have dreams that Lobo would be arrested."

Favorite Quote:  "'The world's gone crazy,' Grayson said. 'No,' Janey said, looking out the window. 'It was always this way.'"

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


The world is an eternal winter. Actually, we don't know if it is the entire world because phone, internet, and all connection has been lost. It is definitely eternal winter in Ohio and Appalachia. The apocalypse is never explained, but at the beginning of the book, it is no longer new to this community. The book begins at a point of desperation with people trying to flee the winter and society devolving into lawlessness and profiteering.

Wil, Grayson, and Dance are all alone, each having been abandoned by family. Wil lives alone and runs a weed farm. Grayson and Dance are also surviving. The theme of abandonment and the search for love plays out throughout the book. There is also an unrequited romance in the book, but it does not really seem to serve a purpose other than to be there and to clearly identify a character type. Reading the author's interview, it appears that identifying a character is the point.

This ragtag group creates its own family until it doesn't.  The overarching theme still becomes every person for themselves. The family comes together and then dissipates just as quickly and easily. That, however, is the main emotional impact (or lack thereof) of the book. Everything that happens is just there. For all its harrowing circumstances - an apocalypse, drugs, lawlessness, looting, destruction, murder, rape, suicide, and more, the book does not elicit an emotional reaction from me. I never truly connect with or vest in the characters.

The story becomes literally a story of the road. The main characters - Wil, Grayson, Dance, and those who join them on the road - carry through the story. Yet, the book feels like vignettes of each challenge they face and each community - the town, the Church, the Skate State, the Occupied Forest, the dressed in white folk and so on - they encounter. With just a bit of background added, those could almost stand individually as short stories for each community represents a stereotype. The stories are vivid and descriptive, but the characters binding the story together seem to remain the same throughout. The ultimate climax of the book is at best a tenuous connection that truly does not have to do with the theme of living in a post-apocalyptic world.

One thing I do not understand in this book is the geography. Will stars off in Ohio and is bound for California to find her mother. She has a phone connection long enough to map out somewhat of a route. Later of the journey, they manage to find some maps. Yet, the rest of the story references West Virginia and Tennessee. Looking at a real map, those two states are not on a route from Ohio to California. Suspending disbelief, it could be said that forced detours and lack of direction cause this group to veer off. However, the reference to West Virginia and Tennessee almost seems to imply that they headed off the in wrong direction - east - to begin with. Warranted, where they are becomes somewhat irrelevant to the story, but it is a jarring detail.

The ending, when it comes, provides no closure. It is not a cliffhanger but does appear to be simply a stopping point. I wonder if a sequel is planned to continue the journey. At this time, I don't know that I will follow further along the road out of winter.

Author Bio

ALISON STINE lives in the rural Appalachian foothills. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She has written for The Atlantic, The Nation, The Guardian, and many others. She is a contributing editor with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

About the Book

Surrounded by poverty and paranoia her entire life, Wil has been left behind in her small Appalachian town by her mother and her best friend. Not only is she tending her stepfather’s illegal marijuana farm alone, but she’s left to watch the world fall further into chaos in the face of a climate crisis brought on by another year of unending winter. So opens Alison Stine’s moving and lyrical cli-fi novel, ROAD OUT OF WINTER (MIRA Trade; September 1, 2020; $17.99).

With her now priceless grow lights stashed in her truck and a pouch of precious seeds, Wil upends her life to pursue her mother in California, collecting an eclectic crew of fellow refugees along the way. She’s determined to start over and use her skills to grow badly needed food in impossible farming conditions, but the icy roads and desperate strangers are treacherous to Wil and her gang. Her green thumb becomes the target of a violent cult and their volatile leader, and Wil must use all her cunning and resources to protect her newfound family and the hope they have found within each other.

Author Q&A

1. If Wil had a favorite song, what would it be?
I feel like she would have grown up listening to country, and to the music her mama liked, as I did, like Linda Ronstadt, Crystal Gale. I think she would really like Kacey Musgraves, and would have snuck a copy her albums to her friend who was raised very strict. But I think Wil’s favorite song would be Burning House by Cam. It was on the radio when I was writing. I used to sing it to my son. The lyrics speak a lot to Wil’s situation: “stay here with you/til this dream is gone.” It would have been on the radio when she was driving home from seeing the person who could never love her the way she wanted, driving through the place that could never love her back.

2. Which character in ROAD OUT OF WINTER do you most relate to?
Wil. We were a few months into the pandemic when I realized I actually am Wil. Writing her made me realize I’m stronger than I know. I can get my family cross-country safely. I can make it work. All of her plant knowledge is my own, which I gained from living in rural Appalachia for so long, and from my friends and neighbors. I cry more than she does, though.

3. What was your favorite scene to write? No spoilers!
Everything involving the skaters, though it scared me too. My son is a skater and my partner is (and I used to be, before getting hurt!). Friends of ours have a homemade skate ramp out in the country. Several of my friends basically have their own compounds which, I’m not gonna lie, is a dream. Anytime I can convey the wildness, strangeness, and the abandon of rural Appalachian Ohio is a good writing day. It can be scary but it can also be really fun, living in the middle of nowhere. You can do what you want, to both good and bad results.

4. Who was your favorite character to write and why?
Jamey. In my real life, in part because of my disability, I’m quiet, especially in new situations. I hold back. Jamey says the things I wish I could. She’s also, as my smart friend and early reader Ellee pointed out, a survivor: she can be sarcastic and harsh sometimes because of what she had to endure. Her defense mechanism is pretending not to care. But she does care, deeply.

5. Why was it important to you to have a queer character in your story?
I didn’t consciously set out to make Wil queer and I don’t know that she would call herself that exactly, if she has that language or community yet. She loves who she loves, but her experience of romantic love in a small town has been things just not working out. Nobody really seeing her. That was also my experience for a long time. I’ve only felt comfortable calling myself bisexual in the past few years, despite having had long-term relationships with both men and women. That was how I grew up, in a small conservative town. Wil wants love, and the woman she loves wants something else, a bigger life, that Wil always hoped she could make somehow right here where she grew up. My experience is that sometimes you have to make that life elsewhere. Sometimes rural spaces are not the friendliest, home is not the easiest. But I am very proud and glad to have a bi woman in a rural space in my book. I guess I wrote the book I needed when I was young and couldn’t find. It’s still hard to find bi characters, especially in adult literary and commercial fiction. It’s even harder to find them celebrated. We seemed to be skipped over quite a lot. Often I feel invisible, like my life and experiences and struggles don’t matter. Being bi is just who she is, it’s not a plot device. Just a fact, as it is in life.

6. Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I like to surprise myself so I am mostly just plunging into writing. The best stories come from dreams, in my opinion. Then once you have the dream, you need to wait a little while until characters and the main events take shape. I usually know the three main acts before I start to write a book, but that’s it. I start to know the end by about the middle. With ROAD OUT OF WINTER, I knew nothing, because the book originally did not go where I wanted it to and so I stopped writing. I thought they were going to go clear across the country and so I stopped. When I came back to the manuscript a few months later, I realized, no, they were never supposed to get out of Appalachia. And I finished the book.

7. Where is your favorite place to write?
I can work anywhere, and have had to, being a single mother for most of my child’s life. But a lot of ROAD OUT OF WINTER, and my next book, were written and revised at The Westend Ciderhouse, a cidery and bar in my town. I would go in the afternoon—they opened early on Fridays—and had my favorite table. Nobody bothered me. Several of the bartenders were my friends but they knew I was working. It was very quiet, and kinda dark and cool, and I would just write—and drink one cider, until it was time for my son to come home from school. I write better in bars than in coffeeshops. I guess I’m just that type.

8. What's the worst writing advice you ever received?
That you need the approval of a teacher or professor or workshop or a degree to write. Writing is being a collector and interpreter of experiences. You don’t have to study writing formally or major in it, and looking back, I kinda wish I had explored more of my other interests in music and theatre and art. All that would have helped my writing too. Don’t let go of the other stuff that makes you happy. Everything you do helps fill your well as a writer—other art, sports, travel, friendships. Books are your best teachers. The best thing you can do to be a better writer is to read, to experience, to write, and to live.

9. What is the best book you’ve read this year?
The best book I read this year so far was Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. I read and loved all the books in the trilogy. They were some of the first books I could get through in the early days of the pandemic, when my mind and heart were all over the place. They helped center me, in part because they made me feel seen. The trilogy focuses on women, queer folks, bi folks, and how we might survive in a world that doesn’t really see or even want us—and that matters to me.

10. What are you working on next?
My second novel TRASHLANDS is coming out from MIRA in the fall of 2021. It’s about a single mom at a strip club at the end of the world. She has to choose between being an artist, being a parent, or being in love, which isn’t much of a choice at all but the kind that women throughout time have been forced to make. And I’m starting to write my next novel, about a reporter who is hard of hearing (like me!) and is called back home to investigate something really bad.

Buy Links

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Last Story of Mina Lee

  The Last Story of Mina Lee
Author:  Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2020. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0778310175 / 978-0778310174

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:  "Margot's final conversation with her mother had seemed so uneventful, so ordinary - another choppy bilingual plod."

Favorite Quote:  "She wondered how many women had been trapped - in terrible marriages, terrible jobs, unbearable circumstances - simply because the world hadn't been designed to allow them to thrive on their own. Their decisions would always be scrutinized by the lives at which they were able to sacrifice themselves, their bodies, their pleasures and desires. A woman who imagined her own way out would always be ostracized for her own strength."

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


Mina Lee is an immigrant who comes to the United States alone from Korea at the age of forty-one. Margot Lee is her daughter. Mother and daughter love each other, and yet Margot wants that separation from her mother, from Koreatown in Los Angeles, and from the lifetime of growing up "different" as immigrants are often labeled. Mina continues to live in Koreatown; Margot has built a life in Seattle. Unfortunately, Margot discovers that her mother has died. The book then goes back and forth between Mina and Margot's perspectives to reveal how and why.

This premise sets up what should be a powerful story of the immigrant experience - both first and second generation. The book does tell that story to an extent. The book makes several statements about the immigrant and the American experience. "All of it would be shattered, too. Because their life would be part of the lie that this country repeated to live with itself - that fairness would prevail; that he laws protected everyone equally; that this land wasn't stolen from Native peoples; that this wealth wasn't built by industrious white men, "our" founders; that hardworking immigrants proved this was a meritocracy; that history should only be told from one point of view, that of those who won and still have power. So the city raged. Immolation was always a statement." Statements such as this are all true and all relevant, but they remain statements rather than woven into what should be an emotional story.

This premise also sets up what should be an emotional story of the relationship between a mother and a daughter. Again, the book does tell that story to an extent. "But if she allowed that story to continue to be told, over and over again - that her mother was a nobody, anonymous, an immigrant who couldn't speak the language, another immigrant who worked a job that no one else wanted, another casualty of more important people - she would be letting them win, wouldn't see? She would be allowing them to sweep her mother away like dirt and dust." It is clear that mother and daughter love each other. However, Mina's chapters are primarily from before Margot's birth or with a baby, and Margot's chapters are after Mina's death. So, the readers hears the relationship but at the same time the relationship does not fully realize because the perspectives do not overlap.

Mina is a single mother, and Margot's father has never been part of her life. In fact, she does not even know who her father is. This premise sets up a story of women, more so than I could have imagined from the book description. Again, it has the potential to be a story of strength and survival. Yet, again, somehow, it does not ultimately leave that lasting impression. 

Finally, there is the mystery of Mina's death. What happened, and which of the themes of the book does her death relate to. The ending, once it comes, leaves with a question. Really? With all the buildup and the potential, this is what happened. Let's just say it is anticlimactic and veers away from all the themes of the book.

Ultimately, the story had amazing potential, but somehow manages to stay at a distance in all its themes. It feels like the story is told not lived. Passages such as the following contribute to that reaction. "Beauty is a construct, but theory is not at the reality we live, she thought. Theory didn't live in the bones. Theory didn't erase the years of self-scrutiny in a mirror and not seeing anyone at all, not a protagonist or a beauty, one a television sidekick, a speechless creature, who at best was 'exotic,' desirable but simple and foreign." The emotion of the story - which should have packed quite a punch - remains just out of reach. It leaves me sad because it was a missed opportunity.

Author Bio

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, The Offing, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love (or Live Cargo),” was performed for NPR/PRI’s Selected Shorts in 2017 with stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Phil Klay, and Etgar Keret. THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE is her first novel.

About the Book

THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE (on sale: September 1, 2020; Park Row Books; Hardcover; $27.99 US/ $34.99 CAN). opens when Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, doesn’t return her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous and invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.

Interwoven with Margot's present-day search is Mina's story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she's barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.

Author Q&A

1. What was your inspiration for writing The Last Story of Mina Lee?
I wanted to write a story that I had never seen before, a story that explored the complicated interdependence between an immigrant mother and her American-born daughter, the ways in which they love, need, and sometimes resent each other. For example, as the only child of an immigrant single mother, the protagonist Margot loves her mother more than anyone in this world. She needs her. But at the same time, she resents how, growing up, she has to work at her mother’s store over the weekends and during school breaks. She resents how her mother refuses to talk much about her past, and Margot’s father, her origins as well. I also wanted to write a story that centered women, in particular marginalized women, and show how they not only live but lead extraordinary lives. Although this novel begins with a tragic ending for Mina, she is nonetheless very much the hero and the heart of this story—a woman who took risks and created change, a life for herself in surprising and unconventional ways.

2. Did you have to do any research during the writing process?
I didn’t need to do much research while writing this book because I’m very much a product of the communities that I write about. I might’ve asked friends or people I know some questions about Korea and Korean culture, but it was all very casual.

3. Korean food is mentioned throughout your book. Was this done intentionally?
As Margot tries to figure out what happened to her mother on the night of her death, she experiences Koreatown as an adult for the first time in her life. As she goes out to eat at Korean restaurants with her friend Miguel and spends time in her mother’s apartment by herself, Margot realizes that food was not only a way for her mother to show love; it was a way of teaching Margot how to nourish and take care of herself in a world that is often harsh.

4. How important is Korean food in your life and what is your favorite Korean meal?
I always say that “Korean food” is just “food” for me. It’s very much a part of who I am, and was perhaps, as it is in many immigrant families, one of the principal ways my mother showed me love. I don’t have a favorite Korean dish because I love so many of them depending on the occasion, the weather, the mood. But some of my favorite banchan (side dishes) include yangnyeom gejang (spicy raw crab), myeongnanjeot (fermented pollock roe), and kkaenip (pickled perilla leaves). All I need is one of those and a bowl of rice.

5. What was your favourite food-related scene to write and why?
There are so many food scenes, moments, and images that I love in this book. But the most memorable food scene for me is about three-quarters through the novel—after Mina and her friend Mrs. Baek reunite after over twenty years apart. They go to a restaurant and have soondubu jjigae together. I love the delicacy, the tenderness of this scene, how each of these two characters is attempting to rekindle and navigate this friendship with the guardedness that comes from being hurt and heartbroken so much. Mina also realizes that despite how strong and supportive Mrs. Baek has always been, Mrs. Baek needs Mina and friendship just like everyone else. Mina played and can play a large role in Mrs. Baek’s life and her survival too.

6. Which character in the book do you relate to the most?
I like to believe that I am both all of my characters and none of them at the same time. But I’m closest to Margot in age and certainly I know the challenges of being the daughter of an immigrant single mother. I also know how difficult it can be in your twenties. That was actually a terrible time for me because I found myself being pulled, or pulling myself in so many different directions. But I had to make all those mistakes to get to where I am today. I’m glad that decade is over!

7. Even though the Korean War technically ended in 1953, major turmoil still exists today between the North and South. How has Korea's past and present situation directly impacted your life?
Both sides of my family come from what is now North Korea. As children, my parents fled the north during the war. So at the age of 13, my father left his home in advance of his mother and siblings, not knowing that a permanent border would forever keep them apart. For his entire life, he never knew what had happened to them, if they survived the war or if they continued to live behind the border, a border that continues to divide not only a culture and country but real families whose lives and identities have been shattered.

There were so many painful things, worries and regrets, traumas, that my father and mother did not talk about when I was growing up. Silence was a form of protecting us, and themselves. But the silences in my family also left me with a lack of understanding of my parents, just as Margot never quite knows her mother’s story, even if the reader does. It’s these silences that I’m attempting to capture and write through and out of in my work. I think one of the beauties of fiction is how it can bring together the impossible in one story. For me, the conversations that would and could never happen in my life happen in this book.

8. "Movement for her mother was essentially an experience of loss that Margot, American-born, could never imagine. And Yet, Margot herself had inherited the same anxiety about driving fast, particularly on freeways. She thought too much about the experience of speed itself, its danger, rather than getting somewhere at last." Can you speak to the experience of movement for both women?
What I really love about the structure, the dual narrative, of this book is that we experience how both Margot and Mina, are at turning points in their lives; they are both thrust into new narratives about themselves, new ways of being alive. For example, the book begins for Margot with the death of her mother which forces her to question who she is without her. (Who is Margot if she is not someone’s daughter?) While the book begins for Mina when she enters the United States in order to start a new life after the death of her husband and daughter. (Who is she now without being someone’s mother or wife?) Both of them are in mourning, mourning the dead as well as their past identities and lives. They are both terrifyingly unmoored and free to reinvent themselves. What story should they each tell now about who they are? So movement is very much tied to identity in this book.

9. Why did Margot resist embracing her past so much?
It’s important to note that Margot never experiences the Mina that we, as readers, see, know, and love throughout this book. Margot never witnesses her mother fall in love. She never knows the full story of why she had fled to America. Although her mother clearly makes so many sacrifices for her, Margot views her mother as often harsh, secretive, inaccessible. For this reason and in the context of a society that often doesn’t fully embrace other cultures, as an adult, Margot resents her mother; she is ashamed of what her mother represents because she has internalized some of the mainstream views, even xenophobia and racism against her. She judges her mother by the standards of the larger culture: “Why didn’t her mother learn to speak English?” Of course, this is only until her mother dies, which opens up the opportunity to finally get to know her mother, not only as a mother, but as a woman with an extraordinary story and life.

10. What is the number one take away you want your readers to leave with after finishing Mina's story?
I hope this books sparks conversation about the mysteries, the secrets, and the silences within our own families. I hope this story encourages readers to ask the questions they’ve always wanted ask of the people whom they love the most. I hope we risk discomfort more.

11. At one point, she said that "the fear of hell kept her alive." How much did religion play a role in Mina's life?
Religion and places of worship play an important role in immigrant communities, often serving as resource centers where people find each other and themselves. For Mina, church is a place where she can simply insert herself every Sunday and feel as if she belongs through sermon and song. For the most part, she doesn’t involve herself too much socially in the church, but she finds solace once in a week in the crowd.

12. Do you have plans for another novel? If so, can you share with us any details?
Yes, of course! I’m writing my next novel which also takes place near Los Angeles’ Koreatown and centers on the life of a Korean American family still grieving the mysterious death of the mother five years ago. Since I live in California where the housing crisis is very real and ongoing, the book explores issues of gentrification and homelessness through the lens of an immigrant family, struggling in their own ways to belong.

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