Thursday, November 30, 2023

Famous in a Small Town

Famous in a Small Town
  Famous in a Small Town
Author:  Viola Shipman
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2023. 352 pages.
ISBN:  152580507X / 978-1525805073

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:  "It was the spit heard 'round the world!"

Favorite Quote:  "So much of life is an illusion. We create this image of what a perfect life and family is supposed to be. And when it doesn't turn out that way, we seek distraction or perfection, but it will never be that way. The glass is going to crack at some point in our lives. We just have to decide if we're going to be the ones to get cut or to clean it up and move on."

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


I enjoyed the very first Viola Shipman book I read for a simple reason stated in my review of The Recipe Box... Sometimes, I just need a feel good book that reminds me of the priorities in life and the bonds of family. This is one of those books. 

That reason continues to hold through the author's books. The books continue to be set in beautiful northern Michigan settings and continue to be about family and friendship. The stories continue to go in predictable directions, which is part of the expectation now. As a reminder, Viola Shipman is the pen name for Wade Rouse, a popular, award-winning memoirist. Rouse chose his grandmother's name, Viola Shipman, to honor the woman whose heirlooms and family stories inspire his writing.

This book is the story of two women. Mary Jackson is elderly woman running a store in the small town of Good Hart, Michigan. Beck Thatcher (like the Mark Twain character!) is a school administrator, who comes to the Lake Michigan coast with her best friend after a breakup. She has fond memories of the area from childhood trips with her grandparents.

The connection between the two women is tangential. The idea of a Fata Morgana is introduced. A Fata Morgana is a mirage viewed at the horizon. This tangential connection and a chance meeting becomes the basis for the book.

The arc of the story can be described in two statements in the book about the Very Cherry General Store. 


"The Very Cherry General Store epitomizes what we all want and desire in our lives again: nostalgia. Escape. A return to the simplicity of small-town life. Life as it should be, on our own terms, not as it really is."


"I know this isn't the charming Norman Rockwell picture you'd expect when you wander into the Very Cherry General Store, but every story is carefully edited. Every legend becomes a legend for a reason."

The setting of this book is beautiful. The small town intrigues are entertaining. The individual histories of the women make for good stories. The bonds of friendships - old, new, and rediscovered - are lovely to read about. However, the connection between the two women is so tenuous that the instant connection and resulting conclusions becomes a little far fetched. The emotional bond attempted in the book fails to completely connect for me. An entertaining summer read but perhaps not as engaging as some of Viola Shipman's other books.

About the Book

Fried Green Tomatoes meets Midnight at the Blackbird Café in USA Today bestselling author Viola Shipman’s FAMOUS IN A SMALL TOWN, a heartwarming story about intergenerational friendship and self-discovery, set in beautiful Northern Michigan.

In 1958, 15-year-old Mary Jackson became the first woman ever crowned The Cherry Pit Spittin’ Champion of Good Hart, Michigan, landing her in the Guinness Book of World Records, and earning her the nickname Cherry Mary. Nearly 80 years old at the story’s start, Mary runs The Very Cherry General Store, a business that has been passed through three generations of women in the family. While there is no female next of kin, Mary believes the fourth is fated to arrive, as predicted by “Fata Morgana,” a Lake Michigan mirage of four women walking side by side.

Becky Thatcher (yes, like the Mark Twain character), an Assistant Principal from St. Louis, has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend and heads to Good Hart for a healing girl’s trip with her best friend. When Becky drunkenly spits a cherry pit an impressive distance, Mary urges her to enter the upcoming contest, and wonders if Becky could be the woman she’s been waiting for.

Inspired by, and paying tribute to, Michigan’s National Cherry Festival, to the Tunnel of Trees, to lake life, and to the beauty of intergenerational friendship, FAMOUS IN A SMALL TOWN is "full of summertime delight…and sweet, nostalgic charm” (Heather Webber, USA TODAY bestselling author of Midnight at the Blackbird Café).

Bursting with memorable characters and small-town lore, FAMOUS IN A SMALL TOWN is a magical story about the family you’re born with, and the one you choose.

About the Author

VIOLA SHIPMAN is the pen name for internationally bestselling author Wade Rouse. Wade is the author of fifteen books, which have been translated into 21 languages and sold over a million copies around the world. Wade chose his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, as a pen name to honor the working poor Ozarks seamstress whose sacrifices changed his family’s life and whose memory inspires his fiction.

Wade’s books have been selected multiple times as Must-Reads by NBC’s Today Show, Michigan Notable Books of the Year and Indie Next Picks. He lives in Michigan and California, and hosts Wine & Words with Wade, A Literary Happy Hour, every Thursday.


Excerpted from Famous in a Small Town. Copyright © 2023 by Viola Shipman. Published by Graydon House, an imprint of HarperCollins.

August 1958

“Good News from Good Hart!”
by Shirley Ann Potter

It was the spit heard ’round the world!

Our town is still atwitter over the news that the daughter of Mr. Peter Jackson was crowned the 35th Annual Cherry Pit Spittin’ Champion of Leelanau and Emmet County last Saturday. Fifteen-year-old Mary Jackson, an Emmet County high-school sophomore, was not only the first woman—uh, girl—to win the contest, but her stone flew a Guinness Book of World Records–breaking distance of ninety-three feet six-and-a-half inches, shattering the previous record set by “Too Tall” Fred Jones in 1898 at the state’s very first Cherry Championship right here in Good Hart.

News of her accomplishment has flown farther than her cherry pit, with reporters from as far away as New York and London anointing our town sprite with the moniker “Cherry Mary.”

I caught up with Mary at the Very Cherry General Store—our beloved post office/grocery store/sandwich-

and-soda-shop run by Mary’s mother and grandmother—to see how she managed such a Herculean feat.

“My mom taught me to whistle when I was a kid (“A kid!” Don’t you just love that, readers?), and I had to be loud enough for her to hear me when she was down at the lake. I think that made my lips strong,” Mary says. “And I started eating sunflower seeds when I was fishing on the boat with my grandma. She taught me how to spit them without having the wind blow them back in the boat.”

Mary says she practiced for the contest by standing in the middle of M-119—the road that houses our beautiful Tunnel of Trees—and spitting stones into the wind when a storm was brewing on Lake Michigan.

“I knew if I could make it a far piece into the wind, I could do it when it was still.”

While her grandmother was “over the moon” for Mary’s feat, saying, “It’s about time,” Mr. Jackson says of his daughter’s accomplishment, “It’s certainly unusual for a girl, but Mary isn’t your average girl. Maybe all this got it out of her system, so to speak. I hope so for her sake.”

The plucky teenager seems nonplussed by the attention, despite seeing her face all over northern Michigan in the papers and the T-shirts featuring her face—cheeks puffed, stone leaving her mouth—and the words Cherry Mary in bright red over the image.

“A girl can do anything a man can,” Mary says in between retrieving mail, spreading mayonnaise on a tomato sandwich and twirling a cherry around in her mouth, before perfectly depositing the stone in a trash can across the room. “You just gotta believe you can. That’s the hard part. Harder than spitting any old pit.”

Mary seems ready to conquer the world, readers. Cheers, Cherry Mary! Our hometown heroine!


June 2023

“Okay, Benjie, would you like it if Ashley did this to you?”

He scrunches up his face to stave off tears and shakes his head. “No.”

“Well, it’s not a nice thing to do.”

I study Ashley’s hair, then take her face in my hands. “It’s going to be okay. Trust me?”

The little girl nods her head. I give her a hug.

I walk over to my desk and open the bottom drawer . There is a large jar of creamy peanut butter sitting next to a bag of mini Snickers. The peanut butter is for emergencies like this: removing gum from a little girls’ hair. The Snickers are for me after I’m finished with this life lesson.

“Well, I’m just glad neither of you are allergic to peanuts,” I say. “Allows me to do this.”

I cover the gum stuck in the back of Ashley’s pretty, long, blond hair and then look at her.

“I promise this works,” I say. “I’ve performed a lot of gum surgery.”

She nods. Her eyes are red from crying, her cheeks blotchy.

“Why did you do this, Benjie?” I ask the little boy seated in the chair before my desk.

He ducks his head sheepishly, his brown bangs falling into his eyes, and murmurs something into his chest.

“I didn’t catch that,” I say. “What did you say? Remember it’s okay to express your emotions.”

He looks at me, freckles twitching on his cheeks. “I can’t say,” he whispers.

“Yes, you can,” I say. “Don’t make this any worse than it already is.”

Benjie glances toward the door to ensure that it is closed. “Tyler Evans told me to do it or he’d punch me on the way home.”

Being a grade-school administrator is akin to being a detective: you have to work the perp to get the truth. Eventually—no matter the age—they break, especially when a verdict on punishment is waiting in the balance.

It’s the last day of school. Benjie does not want his summer to be ruined.

I lean down and slide the gum out of Ashley’s hair. I go to my sink, dampen a cloth and put some dish soap on it, return and clean the rest of the peanut butter off her locks. I move to a tall filing cabinet and retrieve a clean brush. The filing cabinet is filled with bags of sealed brushes and combs, toothbrushes and EpiPens, certificates and old laptops. I run the brush through her hair. I hold up a mirror for her to see the back of her head.

“See, good as new.”

“What do you say to Ashley, Benjie?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Do you accept his apology?”

Ashley shakes her head no. “You ruined the last day of school. You’re a big ol’ meanie.”

“Ashley,” I say, my tone sweet but authoritarian.

“I accept your apology,” she says.

“You’re free to go,” I say to her.

“But you’re still a big ol’ poop head,” she says, racing out of my office, bubblegum-free hair bouncing.

I actually have to clench my hands very hard to stifle a laugh.

Big ol’ poop head.

How many times a day would I—would any adult—like to scream that at someone?

“Are you telling my parents?” Benjie asks.

“I have to,” I say, “but I’ll tell them why you did it, and then I’ll have a talk with Tyler.”


“I have to do that, too,” I explain. “And I’ll talk to his parents as well.”

He looks at me, his chin quivering.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy here for bullying,” I say. “Trust me, Tyler won’t do it again. You have to stand up to bullies. You have to show them the right way to do things. Otherwise, they never change.”

In addition to being a detective, an assistant principal is also akin to being the vice-president of the United States. Everyone knows your name, everyone knows you’ve achieved some level of status, but nobody really understands what the hell you do all day.

“I promise it will be okay,” I say. “Just promise me you won’t do it again. You’re a nice boy, Benjie. That’s a wonderful thing. Always remember that.”

“I promise.” He looks at me. “Can I go now?”

“One more thing. You know you aren’t supposed to bring gum to school.”

“I know. But one of the moms was handing it out before school.”

Mrs. Yates, I instantly know. She wants to be the cool mom. She’s Room Mom for 2A, and, Mrs. Trimbley, the Room Mom for 2B, told me that competing with her this year was like being a contestant in Squid Game.

Benjie continues. “It’s Bubble Yum. My favorite. My mom won’t let me have it because it’s bad for my teeth.”

Benjie opens his mouth and smiles. He resembles a jack-o’-lantern. He’s missing teeth here and there, willy-nilly, black holes where baby teeth once lived and adult teeth will soon reside.

Too late, I want to say to Benjie, but he won’t get my humor. Only my best friend, Q, understands it, and my grandparents who made me this way.

I think of how much I loved chewing gum as a kid.

“Do you have any more?”

“Am I going to get in trouble again?”

“No,” I say with a laugh.

He reaches into the pocket of his little jeans and hands me a piece of grape Bubble Yum.

My favorite.

“Do you know what my teacher used to say when I’d sneak gum into class?”

“You snuck gum into class?”

He stares at me with more admiration than if Albert Pujols from the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly appeared with an autographed baseball.

“I did,” I say. “It was about the only bad thing I ever did. My teacher used to hold out her hand in front of my desk and ask, ‘Did you bring enough gum to share with the whole class?’”

“Did you?” Benjie asks, wild-eyed.

“No,” I say. “That was the whole point. She wanted to embarrass me. And it always worked. Teachers just liked to say that.”

I take the gum from Benjie. “This is just between us, okay?”

He giggles and nods.

I pop the gum into my mouth. It’s even more insanely sweet and sugary and tastes even better than I remember. My taste buds explode. I chew, Benjie watching me with grand amusement, and then—looking out my window to make sure the coast is clear—blow a big bubble. A massive bubble, in fact. It expands until it’s the size of a small balloon. Benjie continues to watch me in silence as a child today might do today trying to figure out how to use a rotary phone. After a few moments, the flavor subsides.

“Want to learn a trick?” I ask.


“If you ever get caught chewing gum, don’t stick it in a nice girl’s hair or swallow it. Learn to do this.” I narrow my lips as if I’m going to whistle, puff my cheeks and spit my gum into the air as if Michael Jordan were draining a game-winning three-pointer as time expired. The purple gum arcs into the air and deposits directly into a trash can next to a low-slung sofa ten feet across my office.

Benjie pumps his fist and lifts his hand to high-five me.

“Where did you learn to do that?” he asks.

“Sunday school,” I wink. “My grandma taught me.”

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Monday, November 27, 2023

What You are Looking for is in the Library

What You are Looking for is in the Library
  What You are Looking for is in the Library
Author:  Michiko Aoyama. Alison Watts (translator)
Publication Information:  Hanover Square Press. 2023. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1335005625 / 978-1335005625

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

Rating:  ★★★★

Opening Sentence:  "When Says sends a text to tell me she has a new boyfriend, I instantly write back: What's he like?"

Favorite Quote:  "Life is one revelation after another. Things don't always got to plan, no matter what your circumstances. But the flip side is all the unexpected, wonderful things that you could never have imagined happening. Ultimately it''s all for the best that many things don't turn out the way we hoped. Try not to think of upset plans or schedules as personal failure or bad luck. If you can do that, then you can change, in your own self and in your life."

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


This book has books, plants, and a window seat on the cover. It has "library" in the title. The title promises that all can be found at the library. I am sold before I even start!

I love books that, somewhere in the text, appear to self-describe. "I believe that every kind of contact between people makes them part of society. And that goes beyond the present moment. Things happen as a result of our points of connection, in the past and the future." This book starts to read like a set of short stories. Books and book people play a role in each of them. Then gradually, the points of contact and connection reveal themselves. The right books and the right book people find their way into each life at the right moment and in the right way. 

This book is very much a love to letter to books, libraries, and librarians. I am a reader who firmly believes in the transformative and healing power of stories. Stories give voice to what we cannot sometimes express or give voice in an eloquent way that we cannot manage. Stories take us around the world and can make us feel less alone right where we are. The right story at the right time - the foundation of this book can literally be life altering.

This book is also a love letter to readers:
  • "You may say that it was the book but it's how you read a book that is most valuate, rather than any power it might have itself."
  • "When I buy a book, I also become part of the process as a reader. People working in the book industry are not the only ones who make the publishing world go round; most of all it depends on the readers. Books belong to everybody: the creators, the sellers and the readers."
At its core, the ability of this librarian to find the right book for the right person at the right moment is a lesson on growth, transformation, and inspiration. Each individual who is pointed to a story is transformed. For some, it leads them to new paths and gives them the courage to pursue them. "You can decide things, but there's no guarantee everything will go as planned. It's just that ... In a world where you don't know what will happen next, I just do what I can right now." For some, it makes them realize the gifts they already possess. It is a push to reach out for dreams. "There's no guarantee of certainty in anything. But the flip side to their being no guarantee of security, is that there's also no certainty that something is a dud."

In a world drowning in conflict and negativity, this uplifting book is a beautiful and sweet interlude. 

About the Author

Born in 1970 in Aichi prefecture, and currently living in Yokohama, Michiko Aoyama worked for two years as a reporter for a Japanese newspaper in Sydney after graduating from university. After her return to Tokyo, she started to work as a magazine editor at a publishing house before turning to full time writing. Her work has won the 1st Miyazakimoto Prize, the 13th Tenryu Literary Prize, and has been a runner up of the 2021 Japan Booksellers Awards. This is her English-language debut.

Book Summary

For fans of The Midnight Library and Before the Coffee Gets Cold, a charming Japanese novel about how the perfect book recommendation can change a readers’ life.

What are you looking for? is the question that Tokyo’s most enigmatic librarian, Sayuri Komachi, poses to those who come to her for their next book. The list of recommendations she gives, however, always contains one unexpected addition that promises to give its the borrower the motivation they didn’t realize they needed to change their life.

Each visitor comes to the library from a different juncture in their career, family, or stage of life, from the restless sales attendant who feels stuck at her job, to the struggling working mother who dreams of being a magazine editor. The conversation that they have with Sayuri Komachi – and the surprise book she lends each of them – will have life-altering consequences.

With heartwarming charm and wisdom, What You Are Looking for is in the Library is a paean to the magic of libraries, friendship, and community, perfect for anyone who has ever found themselves at an impasse in their life and in need of a little inspiration.


Excerpted from What You Are Looking For Is in the Library by Michiko Aoyama. Copyright © 2023 by Michiko Aoyama. Translation from the Japanese copyright © Alison Watts 2022 Published by  arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Two days later, I’m standing outside the elementary school with my laptop in hand. I follow the directions from the Community House home page and walk along the school fence until I reach a narrow road. There it is: a two-story white building with a sign over the canopy at the entrance that says “Hatori Community House.”

I go through a glass door and see an old guy with bushy gray hair at the front desk. In the office behind him, a woman with a bandana sits at a desk writing something.

“Um, I’m here for the computer class,” I say to the old guy.

“Put your name down here. It’s in Meeting Room A.” He points at a folder on the countertop. A sheet of paper inside has a table with columns headed Name, Purpose of visit, Time of arrival and Time of departure.

Meeting Room A is on the ground floor. Going past the front desk to the lobby, I turn right and find it im­mediately. Through an open sliding door I can see two students sitting at long tables facing each other with their laptops open: a girl a bit older than me with soft wavy hair and an old guy with a square face.

The teacher turns out to be a woman, not a man. Ms. Gonno is probably in her fifties.

I go over and introduce myself. “Hello, my name is Tomoka Fujiki.”

She gives me a friendly smile. “Please, sit wherever you like.”

I choose to sit at the same table as the girl, but at the other end. She and the old guy are concentrating so hard on their own stuff they take no notice of me. I open up my laptop, which I’d already started up at home since I haven’t used it in ages and which took forever to boot. My fingers feel like bananas on the keyboard, probably because I only ever use a smartphone. I should probably do some practice in Word as well.

“Ms. Fujiki, you want to learn Excel, don’t you?” says Ms. Gonno, glancing down at my computer.

“Yes. But this computer doesn’t have Excel.”

She looks at my screen again and moves the mouse around a bit. “Yes it does. I’ll make a shortcut for you.”

A green icon with an X for Excel appears at the edge of the screen. No way! Excel has been hiding in my computer all along?

“I can see you’ve used Word, so I assume you have Office installed.”

I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about… But I did ask a friend at college to set up Word for me when I couldn’t figure it out for myself. Maybe that’s how it got in there. This is what happens when you leave stuff up to other people.

For the next two hours, I learn all about Excel. Ms. Gonno wanders between me and the other two but I get special attention, because I’m the newcomer, I suppose.

The most amazing thing I learn is how to perform addition by highlighting cells. Just press a key and bam! with one touch they all add up! It impresses me so much I can’t help cheering, which Ms. Gonno seems to find funny.

While practising as instructed, I overhear the conver­sation between Ms. Gonno and the other students. I get the impression they are regulars: the old guy is building a website about wildflowers, while the girl is setting up an online shop. I feel like such a waster. All the time I’ve been lazing around in my apartment doing noth­ing, not far away these two have been getting on with stuff—learning things! The more I think about it, the more pathetic it makes me feel.

When it’s nearly time to finish, Ms. Gonno says, “There’s no set textbook, but I’ll give you a list of rec­ommended titles. Don’t restrict yourself to these, though. Have a browse in a library or bookshop and see what you can find for yourself that’s easy to follow.” She holds up a computer guide and smiles. “You might like to look in the library here in Community House.”

Library. What a nice-sounding word. So comforting. I feel like I’m a student again. Library… “Am I allowed to borrow books?”

“Yes, anybody who lives in the ward can borrow up to six books for two weeks. I think that’s the rule.”

Then the old guy calls for help and Ms. Gonno goes over to him. I make a note of the recommended titles and leave.


The library is also on the ground floor. I pass two meeting rooms and a Japanese-style room at the back of the building beside a small kitchen. The door is wide open with a sign on the wall that says “Library.” Rows and rows of bookshelves fill an area about the size of a classroom. A counter to the left of the entrance is marked “Check­outs and Returns.” Near the front counter a petite girl in a dark-blue apron is arranging paperbacks on a shelf.

Feeling shy, I approach her. “Excuse me, where are the books on computers?”

Her head jerks up and she blushes. She has huge eyes and hair tied back in a ponytail that swings behind her. She looks young enough to still be at high school. Her name tag says “Nozomi Morinaga.”

“Over here.” Still holding several paperbacks, Nozomi

Morinaga walks past a reading table and guides me to a large shelf against the wall. “If you need any recommen­dations, the librarian is in the reference corner.”


“You tell her what you’re looking for, then she will do a search and give you recommendations.”

I can’t find any of the books Ms. Gonno recom­mended on the shelf. Maybe I should consult the li­brarian. Nozomi said she was at the back, so I make my way to the front desk, then look toward the rear. That’s when I notice a screen partition with a sign hanging from the ceiling that says “Reference.”

Heading over, I poke my head around the corner, and yikes! My eyes nearly jump out of their sockets. The librarian is huge… I mean, like, really huge. But huge as in big, not fat. She takes up the entire space be­tween the L-shaped counter and the partition. Her skin is super pale—you can’t even see where her chin ends and her neck begins—and she is wearing a beige apron over an off-white, loose-knit cardigan. She reminds me of a polar bear curled up in a cave for winter. Her hair is twisted into a small bun right on top of her head, and she has a cool kanzashi hairpin spiked through her bun with three white flower tassels hanging from it. She is looking down at something, but I can’t see what exactly.

The name tag around her neck says “Sayuri Komachi.” Cute name.

I edge a bit closer and clear my throat. Ms. Komachi’s eyes roll up to look at me, without moving any other part of her body. The whites of her eyes are enormous. She’s stabbing a needle at something the size of a Ping-Pong ball balanced on a mat the size of a handkerchief. What is she doing? Putting a jinx on someone? I almost scream out loud.

“Ah…it’s, ah…it’s okay,” I manage to squeak, but all I want to do is turn tail and get away as fast as possible.

“What are you looking for?”

Her voice…it’s so weird… It nails my feet to the floor. As if it has physically grabbed hold of me somehow. But there’s a warmth in it that wraps itself around me, mak­ing me feel safe and secure, even when it comes from that unsmiling face.

What am I looking for? I’m looking for… A reason to work, something I’m good at—stuff like that. But I don’t think that’s the kind of answer she expects. “Um, I’m looking for books on how to use a computer.”

Ms. Komachi pulls a dark-orange box closer. I rec­ognize the design of white flowers in a hexagon shape. It’s a box of Honeydome cookies. I love these. They’re dome-shaped, with a soft center, and made by Kuremi­yado, a company that specializes in Western-style con­fectionery. They’re not exactly gourmet, but just a little bit special and not something you can just pick up in a convenience store.

When she lifts the lid, I see a small pair of scissors and some needles. She must be using an empty box for her sewing things. Ms. Komachi puts away her needle and ball, then stares at me.

“What do you want to do on the computer?”

“Excel, to begin with. Enough to tick the boxes on a skills checklist.”

“Skills checklist,” Ms. Komachi repeats.

“I’m thinking I might register on a career-change site. I’m not that happy with my current job.”

“What do you do?”

“Nothing great. Just selling ladies clothes in a general department store.”

Ms. Komachi’s head tilts to one side. The flower tas­sels on her hairpin shake and sparkle.

“Is being a sales assistant in a department store really not such a great job?”

I don’t know what to say. Ms. Komachi waits patiently for my reply.

“Well, I mean… Anybody can do it. It’s not like it was my dream job or anything I desperately wanted to do. I just kind of fell into it. But I live on my own, so I have to work to support myself.”

“You managed to find employment, you go to work every day and you can feed yourself. That’s a fine achievement.”

Nobody’s ever summed up my life in this way before. Her answer makes me want to cry. It’s as if she sees me, just as I am.

“But all I do to feed myself is buy stuff from the con­venience store,” I blurt out clumsily, though I know that’s not what she really means by “feed yourself.”

Ms. Komachi’s head tilts to the other side. “Well, the motive doesn’t matter so much as wanting to learn some­thing new. That’s a good attitude to have.”

She turns to the computer, places both hands on the keyboard and pauses. Then she begins typing, at amaz­ing speed! Shoo‑tatatatata! Her fingers move in a blur and I nearly fall over myself in surprise.

Ta! She gives one final tap, then delicately lifts her wrists from the keyboard. Next moment, the printer springs into action.

“These should be suitable for a beginner on Excel.” Ms. Komachi hands me the sheet. A Step-by-Step Guide to Word and Excel, Excel for Beginners, Excel: Fast Efficient Notebooks, A Simple Introduction to Office. Then I notice, right at the bottom, a title that stands out.

Guri and Gura? I stare at the words. The kids’ picture book about two field mice, Guri and Gura?

“Oh, and this too.” Ms. Komachi swivels on her chair slightly as she reaches below the counter. I lean forward a bit more to sneak a look and see a wooden cabinet with five drawers. She opens the top one, which seems to be stuffed with soft, colorful objects, picks one out and hands it to me. “Here you are—this is for you.”

Automatically I hold out my palm and Ms. Komachi drops a lightweight object on to it. It is round and black, about the size of a large watch face and with a straight bit poking out. A frying pan?

The object in my hand is a felted frying pan with a tiny round clasp on the handle.

“Um, what’s this?”

“A bonus gift.”

“Bonus gift?”

“Yes, something fun, to go with the books.”

I stare at the frying pan…er, bonus gift. It is sort of cute.

Ms. Komachi opens the Honeydome box and takes out her needle and ball again. “Have you ever tried felt­ing?”

“No. I’ve seen it on Twitter and stuff, though.”

She holds up her needle for me to see. The top is bent at a right angle for holding it, while the tip at the end has several tiny hooks sticking out.

“Felting is mysterious,” she says. “All you do is keep poking the needle at a ball of wool and it turns into a three-dimensional shape. You might think that you are simply poking randomly, and the strands are all tangled together, but there is a shape within that the needle will reveal.” She jabs roughly at the ball again.

There has to be a ton of felted things inside that drawer. Are they all bonus gifts to give away? But her attention is now completely focused on her hands, as if to say My job here as librarian is done.

When I return to the shelf of computer books, I find the recommended titles and choose two that seem easy enough to understand. But what about Guri and Gura? Maybe I should get that too. I read it many times when I was in kindergarten. I think I remember my mother reading it to me too. Why would Ms. Komachi recom­mend this book? Did she make a mistake?

The children’s picture books are in a space next to the window sectioned off by low bookshelves. It’s a shoes-off area covered with interlocking rubber floor mat tiles. When I enter and find myself surrounded by lots of cute picture books, I feel peaceful all of a sudden. Calmer, and more relaxed. There are three copies of Guri and Gura. I guess the library keeps multiple copies because it’s such a classic. Maybe I will borrow it… I mean, it’s free, isn’t it?

So I take my two computer books and Guri and Gura over to Nozomi at the checkout counter, show my health-insurance card as ID to apply for a borrower’s card, and check out the books.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Perfumist of Paris

The Perfumist of Paris
  The Perfumist of Paris
Author:  Alka Joshi
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2023. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778386147 / 978-0778386148

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

Opening Sentence:  "Imagine running amid a field of lavender bushes with your friends."

Favorite Quote:  "The measure of us isn’t in the day-to-day. And it’s not in our past or our future. It’s in the fundamental changes we make within ourselves over a lifetime."

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


The Perfumist of Paris is book three of the Jaipur trilogy. The first in the trilogy was the author's debut novel, The Henna Artist. That book brings us to Jaipur, India, and to Lakshmi. She is a child bride at fifteen but escapes to build a life for herself and ultimately for her sister Radha. Book 2, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur brings us back to Jaipur but also to Simla. It continues to with Lakshmi's story but focus on Malik, who is Lakshmi's protegé and like a brother to her. In the first book, Malik is a boy - a street urchin. In book two, he is an adult determining his place in the world and the principles by which he wants to hold that place.

Book 3, as the title suggests, brings the reader to Paris. It also travels to Agra, India, but the home of the story is Paris. The focal point of this story is Radha, Lakshmi's younger sister. To some extent, she comes to Paris for love. However, Paris is also an escape far away from the reality of her childhood - an unrequited love and a child.

From Lakshmi's world of henna to Malik's world of architecture and construction, this book is Radha's world of marriage, motherhood, and fragrances. The plot of the book is about Radha coming face to face with her past and how that changes her present and her future. It is also about a young woman who loves her marriage, loves her children, and yet seeks a fulfillment beyond as she explores her talent and builds her skills.

The one odd note in the book is the interaction that occurs towards the end of the book between two people close to Radha. Without a spoiler, I will say that it is completely unnecessary and in fact detracts from the fact that the decisions Radha makes about her life are based on all that has come before and her needs and dreams. It is unnecessary, and then left somewhat unresolved other than the following statement. "I’ve come to think that some people are meant to be in our lives for a certain length of time and not a moment more."

Other than that, the characters - in India and in Paris - come to life in this book as does the world of fragrances. The smaller stories of the other women in the book - Radha's daughter who quietly takes on the role of protector, Radha's mother in law, the ladies in Agra, and the young girl whose finds in herself a leader - are all memorable. The secret of Radha's past is resolved somewhat easily and perhaps with too much understanding. However, the story that surrounds it and the women whose journey it documents carries the book to a satisfying ending.

Now that the trilogy has ended, I look forward to seeing what Alka Joshi will tackle next.

About the Author

Born in India and raised in the U.S. since she was nine, Alka Joshi has a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from California College of Arts. Joshi's debut novel, The Henna Artist, immediately became a NYT bestseller, a Reese Witherspoon Bookclub pick, was Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, & is in development as a TV series. Her second novel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur (2021), is followed by The Perfumist of Paris (2023). Find her online at

About the Book

"A stunning portrait of a woman blossoming into her full power…this is Alka Joshi's best book yet!” —Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Diamond Eye

From the author of Reese's Book Club Pick The Henna Artist, the final chapter in Alka Joshi’s New York Times bestselling Jaipur trilogy takes readers to 1970s Paris, where Radha’s budding career as a perfumer must compete with the demands of her family and the secrets of her past.

Paris, 1974. Radha is now living in Paris with her husband, Pierre, and their two daughters. She still grieves for the baby boy she gave up years ago, when she was only a child herself, but she loves being a mother to her daughters, and she’s finally found her passion—the treasure trove of scents.

She has an exciting and challenging position working for a master perfumer, helping to design completely new fragrances for clients and building her career one scent at a time. She only wishes Pierre could understand her need to work. She feels his frustration, but she can’t give up this thing that drives her.

Tasked with her first major project, Radha travels to India, where she enlists the help of her sister, Lakshmi, and the courtesans of Agra—women who use the power of fragrance to seduce, tease and entice. She’s on the cusp of a breakthrough when she finds out the son she never told her husband about is heading to Paris to find her—upending her carefully managed world and threatening to destroy a vulnerable marriage.

The Jaipur Trilogy

Book 1: The Henna Artist
Book 2: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur
Book 3: The Perfumist of Paris


Excerpted from The Perfumist of Paris by Alka Joshi © 2023 by Alka Joshi, used with permission from HarperCollins/MIRA Books.

September 2, 1974
    I pick up on the first ring; I know it’s going to be her. She always calls on his birthday. Not to remind me of the day he came into this world but to let me know I’m not alone in my remembrance.
    “Jiji?” I keep my voice low. I don’t want to wake Pierre and the girls.
    “Kaisa ho, choti behen?” my sister says. I hear the smile in her voice, and I respond with my own. It’s lovely to hear Lakshmi’s gentle Hindi here in my Paris apartment four thousand miles away. I’d always called her Jiji—big sister—but she hadn’t always called me choti behen. It was Malik who addressed me as little sister when I first met him in Jaipur eighteen years ago, and he wasn’t even related to Jiji and me by blood. He was simply her apprentice. My sister started calling me choti behen later, after everything in Jaipur turned topsy-turvy, forcing us to make a new home in Shimla.
    Today, my sister will talk about everything except the reason she’s calling. It’s the only way she’s found to make sure I get out of bed on this particular date, to prevent me from spiraling into darkness every year on the second of September, the day my son, Niki, was born.
    She started the tradition the first year I was separated from him, in 1957. I was just fourteen. Jiji arrived at my boarding school with a picnic, having arranged for the headmistress to excuse me from classes. We had recently moved from Jaipur to Shimla, and I was still getting used to our new home. I think Malik was the only one of us who adjusted easily to the cooler temperatures and thinner air of the Himalayan mountains, but I saw less of him now that he was busy with activities at his own school, Bishop Cotton.
    I was in history class when Jiji appeared at the door and beckoned me with a smile. As I stepped outside the room, she said, “It’s such a beautiful day, Radha. Shall we take a hike?” I looked down at my wool blazer and skirt, my stiff patent leather shoes, and wondered what had gotten into her. She laughed and told me I could change into the clothes I wore for nature camp, the one our athletics teacher scheduled every month. I’d woken with a heaviness in my chest, and I wanted to say no, but one look at her eager face told me I couldn’t deny her. She’d cooked my favorite foods for the picnic. Makki ki roti dripping with ghee. Palak paneer so creamy I always had to take a second helping. Vegetable korma. And chole, the garbanzo bean curry with plenty of fresh cilantro.
    That day, we hiked Jakhu Hill. I told her how I hated math but loved my sweet old teacher. How my roommate, Mathilde, whistled in her sleep. Jiji told me that Madho Singh, Malik’s talking parakeet, was starting to learn Punjabi words. She’d begun taking him to the Community Clinic to amuse the patients while they waited to be seen by her and Dr. Jay. “The hill people have been teaching him the words they use to herd their sheep, and he’s using those same words now to corral patients in the waiting area!” She laughed, and it made me feel lighter. I’ve always loved her laugh; it’s like the temple bells that worshippers ring to receive blessings from Bhagwan.
    When we reached the temple at the top of the trail, we stopped to eat and watched the monkeys frolicking in the trees. A few of the bolder macaques eyed our lunch from just a few feet away. As I started to tell her a story about the Shakespeare play we were rehearsing after school, I stopped abruptly, remembering the plays Ravi and I used to rehearse together, the prelude to our lovemaking. When I froze, she knew it was time to steer the conversation into less dangerous territory, and she smoothly transitioned to how many times she’d beat Dr. Jay at backgammon.
    “I let Jay think he’s winning until he realizes he isn’t,” Lakshmi grinned.
    I liked Dr. Kumar (Dr. Jay to Malik and me), the doctor who looked after me when I was pregnant with Niki—here in Shimla. I’d been the first to notice that he couldn’t take his eyes off Lakshmi, but she’d dismissed it; she merely considered the two of them to be good friends. And here he and my sister have been married now for ten years! He’s been good for her—better than her ex-husband was. He taught her to ride horses. In the beginning, she was scared to be high off the ground (secretly, I think she was afraid of losing control), but now she can’t imagine her life without her favorite gelding, Chandra.
    So lost am I in memories of the sharp scents of Shimla’s pines, the fresh hay Chandra enjoys, the fragrance of lime aftershave and antiseptic coming off Dr. Jay’s coat, that I don’t hear Lakshmi’s question. She asks again. My sister knows how to exercise infinite patience—she had to do it often enough with those society ladies in Jaipur whose bodies she spent hours decorating with henna paste.
    I look at the clock on my living room wall. “Well, in another hour, I’ll get the girls up and make their breakfast.” I move to the balcony windows to draw back the drapes. It’s overcast today, but a little warmer than yesterday. Down below, a moped winds its way among parked cars on our street. An older gentleman, keys jingling in his palm, unlocks his shop door a few feet from the entrance to our apartment building. “The girls and I may walk a ways before we get on the Métro.”
    “Won’t the nanny be taking them to school?”
    Turning from the window, I explain to Jiji that we had to let our nanny go quite suddenly and the task of taking my daughters to the International School has fallen to me.
    “What happened?”
    It’s a good thing Jiji can’t see the color rise in my cheeks. It’s embarrassing to admit that Shanti, my nine-year-old daughter, struck her nanny on the arm, and Yasmin did what she would have done to one of her children back in Algeria: she slapped Shanti. Even as I say it, I feel pinpricks of guilt stab the tender skin just under my belly button. What kind of mother raises a child who attacks others? Have I not taught her right from wrong? Is it because I’m neglecting her, preferring the comfort of work to raising a girl who is presenting challenges I’m not sure I can handle? Isn’t that what Pierre has been insinuating? I can almost hear him say, “This is what happens when a mother puts her work before family.” I put a hand on my forehead. Oh, why did he fire Yasmin before talking to me? I didn’t even have a chance to understand what transpired, and now my husband expects me to find a replacement. Why am I the one who must find the solution to a problem I didn’t cause?
    My sister asks how my work is going. This is safer ground. My discomfort gives way to excitement. “I’ve been working on a formula for Delphine that she thinks is going to be next season’s favorite fragrance. I’m on round three of the iteration. The way she just knows how to pull back on one ingredient and add barely a drop of another to make the fragrance a success is remarkable, Jiji.”
    I can talk forever about fragrances. When I’m mixing a formula, hours can pass before I stop to look around, stretch my neck or step outside the lab for a glass of water and a chat with Celeste, Delphine’s secretary. It’s Celeste who often reminds me that it’s time for me to pick up the girls from school when I’m between nannies. And when I do have someone to look after the girls, Celeste casually asks what I’m serving for dinner, reminding me that I need to stop work and get home in time to feed them. On the days Pierre cooks, I’m only too happy to stay an extra hour before finishing work for the day. It’s peaceful in the lab. And quiet. And the scents—honey and clove and vetiver and jasmine and cedar and myrrh and gardenia and musk—are such comforting companions. They ask nothing of me except the freedom to envelop another world with their essence. My sister understands. She told me once that when she skated a reed dipped in henna paste across the palm, thigh or belly of a client to draw a Turkish fig or a boteh leaf or a sleeping baby, everything fell away—time, responsibilities, worries.
    My daughter Asha’s birthday is coming up. She’s turning seven, but I know Jiji won’t bring it up. Today, my sister will refrain from any mention of birthdays, babies or pregnancies because she knows these subjects will inflame my bruised memories. Lakshmi knows how hard I’ve worked to block out the existence of my firstborn, the baby I had to give up for adoption. I’d barely finished grade eight when Jiji told me why my breasts were tender, why I felt vaguely nauseous. I wanted to share the good news with Ravi: we were going to have a baby! I’d been so sure he would marry me when he found out he was going to be a father. But before I could tell him, his parents whisked him away to England to finish high school. I haven’t laid eyes on him since. Did he know we’d had a son? Or that our baby’s name is Nikhil?
    I wanted so much to keep my baby, but Jiji said I needed to finish school. At thirteen, I was too young to be a mother. What a relief it was when my sister’s closest friends, Kanta and Manu, agreed to raise the baby as their own and then offered to keep me as his nanny, his ayah. They had the means, the desire and an empty nursery. I could be with Niki all day, rock him, sing him to sleep, kiss his peppercorn toes, pretend he was all mine. It took me only four months to realize that I was doing more harm than good, hurting Kanta and Manu by wanting Niki to love only me.
    When I was first separated from my son, I thought about him every hour of every day. The curl on one side of his head that refused to settle down. The way his belly button stuck out. How eagerly his fat fingers grasped the milk bottle I wasn’t supposed to give him. Having lost her own baby, Kanta was happy to feed Niki from her own breast. And that made me jealous—and furious. Why did she get to nurse my baby and pretend he was hers? I knew it was better for him to accept her as his new mother, but still. I hated her for it.
    I knew that as long as I stayed in Kanta’s house, I would keep Niki from loving the woman who wanted to nurture him and was capable of caring for him in the long run. Lakshmi saw it, too. But she left the decision to me. So I made the only choice I could. I left him. And I tried my best to pretend he never existed. If I could convince myself that the hours Ravi Singh and I spent rehearsing Shakespeare—coiling our bodies around each other as Othello and Desdemona, devouring each other into exhaustion—had been a dream, surely I could convince myself our baby had been a dream, too.
    And it worked. On every day but the second of September.
    Ever since I left Jaipur, Kanta has been sending envelopes so thick I know what they contain without opening them: photos of Niki the baby, the toddler, the boy. I return each one, unopened, safe in the knowledge that the past can’t touch me, can’t splice my heart, can’t leave me bleeding.
    The last time I saw Jiji in Shimla, she showed me a similar envelope addressed to her. I recognized the blue paper, Kanta’s elegant handwriting—letters like g and y looping gracefully—and shook my head. “When you’re ready, we can look at the photos together,” Jiji said.
    But I knew I never would.
    Today, I’ll make it through Niki’s seventeenth birthday in a haze, as I always do. I know tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow, I’ll be able to do what I couldn’t today. I’ll seal that memory of my firstborn as tightly as if I were securing the lid of a steel tiffin for my lunch, making sure that not a drop of the masala dal can escape.

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Author Website:
TWITTER: @alkajoshi
FB: @alkajoshi2019
Insta: @thealkajoshi

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Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Key to My Heart

The Key to My Heart
  The Key to My Heart
Author:  Lia Louis
Publication Information:  Atria / Emily Bestler Books. 2022. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1668001268 / 978-1668001264

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

Opening Sentence:  "I know exactly who Lucy's going to choose."

Favorite Quote:  "As much as they're lovely, houses are just - houses. But your life - not so much. So, I say live in the way that you want to."

Natalie is a young widow. Her husband died suddenly in an accident two years before the book begins. Natalie is a musician who is now unable to write or play music. Her grief is her entire life. The one exception to that is a piano at a London train station. Natalie finds solace in playing that one instrument. She continues to feel anonymous in the middle of the hustle and bustle of a train station. She plays only for herself, unaware the impact her music has on those around her. Her wish is to remain invisible, enveloped in her memories.

Sheet music that represents important moments in her and her husband's life begins showing up at this piano. It is clearly left there for her to play. A sign from the beyond? Something else? Who? Why? At first, Natalie just plays. Then, the mystery of the sheet music provides an anchor and an incentive for Natalie to do more and to investigate how this music appears.

Lia Louis's first book Dear Emmie Blue is about a woman reckoning with the impact of a traumatic childhood event, a friendship whose conclusion the reader sees coming way before Emmie does, and a cast of mostly endearing characters. The book does incorporate serious issues including abuse and an unhealthy relationships. Yet, the book ends up a sweet, feel good story about the power of love and friendship.

Eight Perfect Hours works in somewhat the same way. The serious issues in this book include a young accidental death, depression and mental illness, caregiving, and aging. Once again, as the reader, I see the conclusion well before it arrives. Once again, the book ends up more about the power of self discovery, friendship, and the courage to live your life.

This book goes about where you would expect it to. There is definitely a "who" responsible for the music. The serious issue of this book is a journey of learning to live with grief, but to live and find joy nevertheless. Once again, the ending is clear to the reader pretty early one. So, at times, the book seems to take a long while getting there. The story is sad and bittersweet. 

Some lists have this book labeled as a romance. There is a romance in the book, but this book is much more about grief and healing. The main takeaway is that grief is an individual journey. It does not and cannot conform to the expectations of family or friends. It is a path to healing.

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

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

My Wife is Missing

My Wife is Missing
  My Wife is Missing
Author:  DJ Palmer
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2022. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1250267889 / 978-1250267887

Rating:  ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "As Michael Hart rounded the corner to his hotel room, he saw a small, lifeless shape lying on the floor of the hallway."

Favorite Quote:  "She was the one person her children depended on to keep them safe. What if her instincts couldn't be trusted?"

Natalie and the children disappear on the first evening of a family trip to the city. Michael does not know what has happened. Natalie has suffered from insomnia for a while. Perhaps that is the cause. Perhaps, something terrible has happened. What if something terrible does happen?

So begins this thriller based on marital trust and distrust. Turns out Natalie has not gone missing. Nothing terrible has happened to Natalie. Natalie has taken her two young children and run away.

Why? That question is the crux of this book for both Natalie and Michael. It is also the subject of the investigation. The investigator thinks he knows why, but does he? Are his suppositions and conclusions correct?

Everyone has secrets - Natalie, Michael, the investigator, the victim, the friend. Everyone! The secrets from the past and the present all collide together in a dramatic conclusion. Getting there is an entertaining read.

The book is narrated from the alternating perspectives of Natalie and Michael. Neither one is a reliable narrator. Natalie may not may not suffer from delusions due to her insomnia. What she believes may or may not be true. Michael may or may not have secrets he wishes to keep hidden - from the distant past and the near past.

In the present lies the disappearance of a family and the death of a young woman. In the past is the unsolved murder of another young woman.

Some concerns about the believability of the plot. Natalie's insomnia, her logic, and the resulting conclusions she reaches are ... well ... a reach. Her outlook at the end also seems rather sudden. The dramatic ending about the past seems to emerge with no real relevance to the present. The solution to the mystery of the present is less surprising. The book keeps you guessing, but, with a rather small cast of characters, there are only so many choices. 

The book does attempt to add some additional mystery by the multiple timelines - after Natalie runs, the months and days leading up to Natalie's escape, and times from Michael's past which seem to contribute to his current predicament.  The final few chapters tie the pieces together. However, the lead up of the rest of the book does get repetitious in Natalie's worries, Michael's angst, and the hardcore detective's detections. For that reason, the book also seems long at times.

Suspending disbelief, the book provides quickly read, albeit forgettable, entertainment.

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

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The Winners

The Winners
  The Winners
Author:  Fredrik Backman
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2022. 688 pages.
ISBN:  1982112794 / 978-1982112790

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

Opening Sentence:  "Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew him well enough to call him Benji, probably knew deep down that he was never the sort of person who would get a happy ending."

Favorite Quote:  "The end of life is as unstoppable as its beginning, we can't stop the first and last breaths we take any more than we can stop the wind."

The Winners is book three in a trilogy. Beartown introduces us to the town bearing that name. Having read two other Fredrik Backman books, I was still hesitant because the book centers around field hockey, a sport of which I have little knowledge and in which I have little interest. I read it based on the author's other books and love it. That book becomes about the question about how far a person, a set of people, or a town will go to put club above all. What will be the price for putting club first? Will that be a price that everyone is willing to pay or will someone stand up for what is right?

Us Against You becomes about the politics and economics of the sport. It seems to mirror the paradigms on a global scale as The personal, individual catastrophic impact of decisions are subsumed in the broader political discussions getting the headlines.

The Winners brings the book back to the people. It is about the young people of Beartown who, each in their own way, comes home. Some come willingly. Some are forced back home. The story winds back to the beginning that started it all. That is part of my issue. Much background is re-explained in this third book. Perhaps, it is intended that it can be read alone without having read book one and two. If I was that reader, perhaps my reaction would be different. However, I am not that reader. I have read both books. As such, the retelling of some of book 1 and 2 goes beyond what I need it to be.

The story is told in bits and pieces and different perspectives. At almost 700 pages, it becomes challenging to follow the continued staccato tone from Us Against You and to stay engaged with the characters that I once say good bye to at the end of Beartown. 

The fact that the book begins with the end does not help. "Boys like Benji die young. They die violently." The only question that remains is how the story gets there, and what is the connection of that incident back to the beginning.

I want to love this book for how much I enjoyed Beartown and how much I loved some of the other works by the author. Unfortunately, I enjoyed Us Against You a little less than Beartown, and I find myself even less the reader for The Winners. I will, however, continue to look for Fredrik Backman's books for all the joyful reading experiences his work has added to my life.

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

Monday, November 6, 2023

The Witch and the Tsar

The Witch and the Tsar
  The Witch and the Tsar
Author:  Olesya Salnikova Gilmore
Publication Information:  Ace. 2022. 432pages.
ISBN:  0593546970 / 978-0593546970

Rating:  ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "When my own landed on my shoulder, I knew heartbreak was not far behind."

Favorite Quote:  "Once war is on men's minds, it festers within, claiming them."

The myth / folktale of Baba Yaga is an old Slavic one. Baba Yaga is shown to be a fierce, sometimes deformed woman. Her home is said to be a hut on chicken legs which can travel to her or stay as needed. Typically, she is associated with wildlife and said to live in the forest wilderness. Some may seek her out for help for her supernatural abilities and the remedies she may be brew.

This retelling of the tale of Baba Yaga is not quite that. It is set in the Russian era of Ivan the Terrible. The Yaga in this book is half-goddess, old but young, and beautiful. She has the ability to travel between the worlds of the living and the dead. She does indeed live in a hut with chicken legs in the middle of the forests. She is knowledgeable, but at the same time, an emotional being scarred as a child by the loss of her mother and the manner in which society ostracized her. Because of this, she chooses to remain secluded, living with her chicken hut, her wolf, and her owl. 

Yet, those who need her manage to find her. "Whoever came ... did so when their prayers had gone unanswered, when the mortal healers had thrown up their hands. They came in the depths of their despair."

A visit from an old friend and an even older enemy brings Yaga out of her seclusion to the Tsar's court in Moscow. Mythology meets Russian history. Politics, centuries old battles, wars, deaths, betrayals, near escapes, and all other manner of intrigue embody this story. Gods and goddesses - both good and evil - bring the human intrigue to a whole other level. The conflict between the gods of mythology and the new Christian God adds another dimension to this multi-layered tale.

The story is entertaining but long. It also takes some study to follow. The book includes a glossary of names of the real and fictional characters, an explanation of Russian naming conventions, and a list of real and fictional places in the book. That glossary explains a bit of how the real and the fiction mixed. In this fictional account, though, the mythology wins out for me. Other than the general familiarity I have with the history, I do not find myself sifting through the fiction to find the actual history and then researching to learn more. Rather, the history submerges and becomes part of the mythology, and I enjoy an entertaining book about gods, goddesses, and monsters.

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

Sunday, November 5, 2023

The Matchmaker's Gift

The Matchmaker's Gift
  The Matchmaker's Gift
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2022. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1250278090 / 1250278090

Rating:  ★★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Sara was ten years old when she made her first match."

Favorite Quote:  "There is too much cruelty in this world. I've seen it and I know you've seen some, too. It isn't enough to fight against cruelty. For my whole life, I fought for love. Not just romantic love, you understand. The love of a parent for a child. The love of one friend for another. Fight for something, sweetheart. Not just against. That's the best advice I can give you. And if you can't decide what you want to fight for, love is as good a cause as any."

A shadchan is a male Jewish matchmaker. A shadchanit is a female matchmaker except that there were not many - if any - of them in the early 1900s on the Lower East side. Making matches was a career for many and could be big business depending on the wealth of the client. For example, almost 2,000 guests were invited to the actual wedding of the daughter of the New York "pickle millionaire" in 1909. The matchmaking was an inherent part of the orthodox Jewish culture of the Lower East side, deeply imbedded in the immigrant community that lived and thrived in the neighborhood.

This is the historical world where the story of Sara Glikman is imagined. She is a first generation immigrant to the United States. Sara has a gift that she discovers at age 10 on that ocean voyage. She is able to see connections between individuals and can identify the perfect matches. However, she is ten and a girl. She buries that instance. However, throughout her life, the gift resurfaces. Sara never monetizes her gift; hence, she does not consider herself a matchmaker. When family events bring financial hardship, she comes out of the shadows and claims her profession. If female matchmakers even existed, they certainly were not young, unattached, and potentially eligible themselves. Sara's decision to be a matchmaker reverberates throughout the community. Throughout it all, Sara keeps records of her matches.

Therein lies the connection to the other side of the story line. Abby is Sara's granddaughter. When Sara dies, Abby inherits her journals. At first, she does not know what to make of them. As she slowly discovers Sara's gift and her history, the question arises. Why leave the journals to Abby? Given the nature of the book, the answer to that question is pretty clear. Abby's journey to learn about Sara becomes a journey of self-discovery as well.

The story goes back between the perspectives of the two women. I do have to suspend disbelief on the ability of an individual to see matches, or perhaps it is more engaging to believe in the idea of soulmates and the idea that soulmates can be clearly identified. As with many two timeline story, one - Sara's - is more compelling than the other. Both are interesting, but Sara's story with its history and its picture of a time and place is the one I will remember. 

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