Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Fiction Writer

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor
  The Fiction Writer
Author:  Jillian Cantor
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2023. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0778310833 / 978-0778310839

Rating:   ★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Last night I dreamt I went to Malibu again."

Favorite Quote:  "That's what writing fiction was, wasn't it? Processing your own life, answering all those questions in any way you wanted to, since fictional worlds operated with their own language and their own rules and their own timelines. They offered their own answers."

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


I am drawn in by the title - the fiction writer. As a reader, I love books about books! The description pulls in a classic - Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. This connection intrigues me further. The main character has written a failed retelling of this classic. She is down on her luck and the project that may save it all has to do with a family's history with and connection to Daphne Du Maurier. The premise of "a captivating story exploring the boundaries of creative freedom and whose stories we have the right to tell" further identifies the potential for this story.

Unfortunately, for me, the story itself falls short of the premise and the build up for a few reasons. 

The opening line is an indication that this is more than a book that builds a connection to Daphne Du Maurier's  book and history. Rebecca begins with the line, "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The exact mirror in this book - "Last night I dreamt I went to Malibu again" - seems to indicate more a retelling than the book description indicates. Unfortunately, retellings have an uphill battle, particularly when pitted against a classic like Rebecca.

Nevertheless, I put that aside and move on, determined to enjoy the story for what it is and not as a comparison. Unfortunately, I struggle with the book. Nothing much happens. This is clearly a book more character driven than plot driven. That being said, the descriptions and actions depicted of the main character do not lend themselves to a protagonist to cheer for. Unfortunately, they also do not lend themselves to a protagonist that is interesting enough in their poor choices to watch and follow just to see what happens.

Olivia is an accomplished, published author whose second and third books are a struggle. The success of her first book led to her distance from some old relationships. Her preoccupation with her lack of current success perhaps contribute to the destruction of current relationships. Yet, somehow, both individuals remain a supportive influence in her life. She is repeatedly shown to be a heavy drinker (entire bottles in a sitting!). For a mature adult, she is also shown to repeatedly ignore the red flags in this situation and the warnings of others:
  • "But I had this weird feeling that I shouldn't come back."
  • "Something just ... feels off about this whole story."
  • "I'd trapped myself inside my own twisted Rebecca retelling..."
  • "There are some rich creeps in Malibu."
Given that this is Olivia's story and mostly a first person narrative, the other characters come across as the stereotypes that she view them as. For example, the other main character in the book is Henry "Ash" Asherwood. Yet, the only thing about him that comes across is that he is "a reclusive mega billionaire, twice-named People’s Sexiest Man Alive." Even at the end of the story, it is unclear what exactly happened in the past and what his role was.

These repeated refrains and the lack of much action in this book make it a challenge and make me not the reader for this book.

About the Book

From USA Today-bestselling Jillian Cantor, THE FICTION WRITER follows a mid-list writer hired by a handsome billionaire to write about his family history with Daphne du Maurier and finds herself drawn into a tangled web of obsession, marital secrets, and stolen manuscripts.

Last night I dreamt I went to Malibu again…

The once-rising literary star Olivia Fitzgerald is down on her luck. Her most recent novel--a re-telling of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca--was a flop, her boyfriend of nine years just dumped her, and she’s battling a bad case of writer’s block. So when her agent calls her with a high-paying ghostwriting opportunity, Olivia is all too willing to sign the NDA.

At first, the write-for-hire job seems too good to be true. All she has to do is interview Henry “Ash” Asherwood, a reclusive mega billionaire, twice-named People’s Sexiest Man Alive, who wants her help in writing a book that reveals a shocking secret about his late grandmother and Daphne du Maurier. But when Olivia arrives at his Malibu estate, nothing is as it seems. Ash is hesitant to reveal any family secrets, and he seems more interested in her than their writing project. The more Olivia digs into his grandmother’s past, the more questions she has—and before she knows it, she’s trapped in a gothic mystery of her own.

With as many twists and turns as the California coast, The Fiction Writer is a captivating story exploring the boundaries of creative freedom and whose stories we have the right to tell.

About the Author

Jillian Cantor is the USA Today and internationally bestselling author of eleven novels for teens and adults, which have been chosen for LibraryReads, Indie Next, Amazon Best of the Month, and have been translated into 13 languages. She has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from the University of Arizona. Born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, Cantor currently lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.


Excerpted from The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor, Copyright © 2023 by Jillian Cantor. Published by Park Row Books.

Last night I dreamt I went to Malibu again.

I stood barefoot on the sand, the cool water nipping at my ankles. And there, high above me, perched on the edge of that magnificent cliff, his stunning house sat as it once had, alive, whole. It had ten bedrooms and was on three private cliffside acres, with a lap pool, a tennis court, and a garden blooming flush with pink and white bougainvillea. But from the beach down below all I could see was its long wall of privacy-tinted glass windows, slanting out toward the sea.

He could see me here, out on the beach. I was certain he could, even in my dream.

He was still behind those windows, watching my every step. Though I couldn’t see him. The glass was one-way. But I imagined him there behind the glass so vividly, it had to be real.

Until it wasn’t. Until the heat from the flames would shatter all the windows, break them apart, send smoke spewing from the piano room, down the cliff, evaporating in wisps into the lonely Pacific.

But in my dream, the flames hadn’t existed yet. Or, maybe they never would. He and his house were there, watching me. Wanting me. Haunting me.

“Come back!” His voice was a desperate echo, my undoing. The smoke was so thick, even out on the beach I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t breathe.

So that’s why I did it, in my dream. I turned away from the house, and I walked into the bone-chilling water. It was so cold, it numbed me, but I walked into the sea, up to my shoulders, my neck, my chin. Until I could no longer smell the smoke or hear his voice.

And then my entire head was underwater, and the tide was strong. It sucked me in, held me there.

But I wasn’t trying to drown. I really wasn’t. I was merely trying to escape the fire.

Buy Links

Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/p/books/the-fiction-writer-original-jillian-cantor/19278291?ean=9780778334187&ref=&source=IndieBound&title=The%20Fiction%20Writer
B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-fiction-writer-jillian-cantor/1142651719;jsessionid=001769DBDE63E04FD6387C931C6C273E.prodny_store01-atgap14?2sid=HarperCollins%20Publishers%20LLC_7310909_NA&ean=9780778334187&sourceId=AFFHarperCollins%20Publishers%20LLC&st=AFF
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/077833418X/keywords=gothic?tag=harpercollinsus-20
BAM: https://www.booksamillion.com/p/9780778334187?AID=10747236&PID=7310909&cjdata=MXxOfDB8WXww&cjevent=3a5c07afea2a11ed822801080a82b82c
Apple Books: https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-fiction-writer/id6444363552

Social Links

Author website: https://www.jilliancantor.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jilliancantor
FB: https://www.facebook.com/authorjilliancantor/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/JillianCantor
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1651861.Jillian_Cantor

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

We Must Not Think of Ourselves

We Must Not Think of Ourselves
  We Must Not Think of Ourselves
Author:  Lauren Grodstein
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2023. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1643752340 / 978-1643752341

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "The man came to my classroom on December 14, 1940, at 4:40 pm."

Favorite Quote:  "There should be another word for this feeling - a sort of sorrowful happiness, or a happiness that only deepens someone's sorrow. The closest I can come to it is the Portuguese word saudade, which nears this feeling but tempers it with nostalgia, a wish for something that was and can never be again. A grieving person lives in a permanent state of saudade, but saudade does not incorporate joy. And grief might be simpler if joy never tried to intrude."

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


December 1940. Warsaw, Poland. This is a story of the Holocaust. From the author's note: "While this book is fiction, it is based on historical events, and real people make cameo appearances. Today, one can visit the Oneg Shabbat Archive at 3/5 Tlomackie Street in Warsaw and see actual diary entries, sketches, and other paraphernalia collected by the archivists."

The goal of the archivists:  "Our task is to pay attention... To listen to the stories. We want all political backgrounds, all religious attitudes. The illiterate and the elite. Every ideology. Interview everyone. Learn about their lives. I need the best minds here to help."

What strikes me most about this description is the need and desire to listen to and honor all. Given the political climate of the world today, that is a powerful statement. To see the descriptions of this book mirrored in current news stories is frightening. 

The book makes an additional statement. The main character, Jewish by birth, speaks of his family who "went in for Palestine several years ago" and who "begged, really - that I come with her." His home, his work, and his entire life is Warsaw. "We had never practiced Judaism before, and I thought myself too old to try believing something new, or to take advantage of an accident of birth to claim some brown patch of desert as my home." 

Such is the power of fiction especially historical fiction. The author Laura Grodstein was born and raised Jewish and has family members who are Holocaust survivors. I do not know if the political statement is an intended one, but it is nevertheless a clear one. This is an important story because it is vital that the history be remembered and the conversation continue towards making "never again" a reality for all.

That being said, I found the storytelling itself challenging to engage with. Given that the history in this book is the collecting of stories, a significant portion of the book is narrated through interviews. As such, the story is "told" rather than "shown." Many of the interviews and the main character's stories also go back in time about how and why that individual comes to be in this place at this time. The main character's story is also about grief at the loss of his wife; that is a tragedy separate and distinct from the tragedy of the ghetto and the pograms.

As such, the storytelling scatters and the emotional connection that should be the heart of such a book seems distant. Nevertheless, the history is such an important one, and this book adds to the canon that will contribute to it being remembered. For me, it introduces me to the Oneg Shabbat Archive, an aspect of history with which I was unfamiliar. The more I read about this time period, the more I realize still needs to be captured and remembered.

About the Book

On a November day in 1940, Adam Paskow becomes a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, where the Jews of the city are cut off from their former lives and held captive by Nazi guards to await an uncertain fate. Weeks later, he is approached by a mysterious figure with a surprising request: Would he join a secret group of archivists working to preserve the truth of what is happening inside these walls?

Adam agrees and begins taking testimonies from his students, friends, and neighbors. He learns about their childhoods and their daydreams, their passions and their fears, their desperate strategies for safety and survival. The stories form a portrait of endurance in a world where no choices are good ones.

One of the people Adam interviews is his flatmate Sala Wiskoff, who is stoic, determined, and funny—and married with two children. Over the months of their confinement, in the presence of her family, Adam and Sala fall in love. As they desperately carve out intimacy, their relationship feels both impossible and vital, their connection keeping them alive.

But when Adam discovers a possible escape from the Ghetto, he is faced with an unbearable choice: whom can he save, and at what cost ?

Inspired by the testimony-gathering project with the code name Oneg Shabbat, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Grodstein draws readers into the lives of people living on the edge. Told with immediacy and heart, We Must Not Think of Ourselves is a piercing story of love, determination, and sacrifice.

About the Author

(from the author's website)
Lauren Grodstein is the author of five novels, including the Read with Jenna selection We Must Not Think of Ourselves, New York Times bestseller A Friend of the Family and the Washington Post Book of the Year The Explanation for Everything.

Lauren’s work has been translated into French, Turkish, German, Hebrew, and other languages, and her essays and reviews have been widely published. She teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden and lives in New Jersey with her husband and children.

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

Monday, December 25, 2023

Women of the Post

Women of the Post
  Women of the Post
Author:  Joshunda Saunders
Publication Information:  Park Row. 2023. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778334074 / 978-0778334071

Rating:  ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Dear Ms. Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, My name is Judy Washington, and I am one of the women you write about in  your work on the Bronx Salve Market over on Simpson Street."

Favorite Quote:  "It is the fight of his life - of our lives - to defend our country and maybe it will show white people that we can also belong to and defend this place. We built it too, after all. It is as much our country to defend as anyone else's."

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


The more I read about World War II history, the more I find there is to learn. This book brings the fictionalized story of the 6888 (6 triple 8) central post battalion. The battalion was a multi-ethnic but primarily Black battalion who was recruited, trained, and sent to the European sector of the war in 1944. The goal was to was to clear the backlog of mail directed to and from soldiers. "The most important thing is those letters... They keep soldiers connected to the most significant people in their lives. Their families, their children, their wives and mothers. That keeps them motivated to fight and to remember what they are trying to win victory for. You get them those letters, you inspire them to live and fight another day. Without the mail, morale sinks."

The concern I have about this book is the boundary it crosses between history and fiction. Some of the main characters - Charity Edna Adams Earley and Abbie Noel Campbell are based on actual historical figures. The author's note explains the liberties taken with the facts of their lives. Some of the incidents in the story are build upon events Lt. Colonel Adams mentions in her memoirs as is often the case in fictionalized accounts. The book also alters the timelines of events to create a narrative, which also happens often. That is why I use the the fiction to introduce me to the history and then go research the history.

However, the book goes further towards the individual lives of main characters. It presents a relationship between Lt. Colonel Adams and Captain Campbell that is completely fictionalized and created to "imagine how that [queer] love might have looked and felt." The author's note goes on to state, "In reality, Lt. Col. Charity Early married a man and remained so until the end of her life in January 2002." To me, if that depiction was a goal, why not create a fictional character as the many others in the book? Elaborating events and condensing timelines is one thing, but altering the entire life course of a historical figures seems too far a stretch of history into fiction.

Not only that, why introduce any romance at all? This is a story of incredibly strong, independent women who made a significant contribution to the war. "Support units are the spine of the war effort. Because we do a job that is invisible and does not take place on the battlefield does not mean what we do isn't difficult or dangerous." To do their jobs, these women leave home and family. They face attacks and bombings. Because they are Black, they face racism and other prejudice. Some of them achieve success never before achieved by a woman, especially a woman of color. "We all found ways to mirror her contributions to America, even when our country never gave us back all that we gave it. It's a shame that it takes going to other places to help us see how to transform into who we are really meant to be."

A romance is irrelevant to that story. The story of the war, the racial inequity, and the sisterhood is enough, and that history is what I will take from this book.

About the Book

For fans of A League of Their Own, a debut historical novel that gives voice to the pioneering Black women of the of the Six Triple Eight Battalion who made history by sorting over one million pieces of mail overseas for the US Army.

Inspired by true events, Women of the Post brings to life the heroines who proudly served in the all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps in WWII, finding purpose in their mission and lifelong friendship.

1944, New York City. Judy Washington is tired of having to work at the Bronx Slave Market, cleaning white women’s houses for next to nothing. She dreams of a bigger life, but with her husband fighting overseas, it’s up to her and her mother to earn enough for food and rent. When she’s recruited to join the Women’s Army Corps—offering a steady paycheck and the chance to see the world—Judy jumps at the opportunity.

During training, Judy becomes fast friends with the other women in her unit—Stacy, Bernadette and Mary Alyce—who all come from different cities and circumstances. Under Second Officer Charity Adams's leadership, they receive orders to sort over one million pieces of mail in England, becoming the only unit of Black women to serve overseas during WWII.

The women work diligently, knowing that they're reuniting soldiers with their loved ones through their letters. However, their work becomes personal when Mary Alyce discovers a backlogged letter addressed to Judy. Told through the alternating perspectives of Judy, Charity and Mary Alyce, Women of the Post is an unforgettable story of perseverance, female friendship and self-discovery.

About the Author

Joshunda Sanders is an award-winning author, journalist and speechwriter. A former Obama Administration political appointee, her fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in dozens of anthologies. She has been awarded residencies and fellowships at Hedgebrook, Lambda Literary, The Key West Literary Seminars and the Martha's Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing. Women of the Post is her first novel.


Excerpted from Women of the Post by Joshunda Sanders, Copyright © 2023 by Joshunda Sanders. Published by Park Row Books.

From Judy to The Crisis
Thursday, 14 April 1944

Dear Ms. Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke,

My name is Judy Washington, and I am one of the women you write about in your work on the Bronx Slave Market over on Simpson Street. My husband, Herbert, is serving in the war, so busy it has been months since I heard word from him. It is the fight of his life—of our lives—to defend our country and maybe it will show white people that we can also belong to and defend this place. We built it too, after all. It is as much our country to defend as anyone else’s.

All I thought was really missing from your articles was a fix for us, us meaning Negro women. We are still in the shadow of the Great Depression now, but the war has made it so that some girls have been picked up by unions, in factories and such. Maybe you could ask the mayor or somebody to set us up with different work. Something that pays and helps our boys/men overseas, but doesn’t keep us sweating over pails of steaming laundry for thirty cents an hour or less. Seems like everyone but the Negro woman has found a way to contribute to the war and also put food on the table. It’s hard not to feel left behind or overlooked.

Thank you for telling the truth about the lives we have to live now, even if it is hard to see. Eventually, I pray, we will have a different story to tell. My mother always says she brought us up here to lay our burdens down, not to pick up new ones. But somehow, even if we don’t go to war, we still have battles to fight just to live with a little dignity.

I’ve gone on too long now. Thank you for your service.


Judy Washington

Since the men went to war, there was never enough of anything for Judy and her mother, Margaret, which is how they came to be free Negro women relegated to one of the dozens of so-called slave markets for domestic workers in New York City. For about two years now, her husband, Herbert, had been overseas. He was one half of a twin, her best friend from high school, and her first and only love, if you could call it that.

Judy had moved with her parents from the overcrowded Harlem tenements to the South Bronx midway through her sophomore year of high school. She was an only child. Her father, James, doted on her in part because he and Margaret had tried and tried when they were back home in the South for a baby, but Judy was the only one who made it, stayed alive. He treasured her, called her a miracle. Margaret would cut her eyes at him, complain that he was making her soft.

The warmth Judy felt at home was in stark contrast to the way she felt at school, where she often sat alone during lunch. When they were called upon in classes to work in groups of two or three, she excused herself and asked for the wooden bathroom pass, so that she often worked alone instead of facing the humiliation of not being chosen.

She had not grown up with friends nor had Margaret, so it almost felt normal to live mostly inside herself this way. There were girls from the block who looked at her with what she read as pity. “Nice skirt,” one would say, almost reluctantly.

“Thanks,” she’d say, a little shy to be noticed. “Mother made it.”

Small talk was more painful than silence. How had the other Negro girls managed to move with such ease here, after living almost exclusively with other Negroes down in Harlem? Someone up here was as likely to have a brogue accent as a Spanish one. She didn’t mind the mingling of the races, it was just new: a shock to the system, both in the streets she walked to go to school and to the market but also in the halls of Morris High School.

Judy had been eating an apple, her back pressed against the cafeteria wall when she saw Herbert. He was long faced with a square jaw and round, black W.E.B. Du Bois glasses.

“That’s all you’re having for lunch, it’s no wonder you’re so slim,” he said, like he was continuing a conversation they had been having for a while. Rich coming from him, with his lanky gait, his knobby knees pressing against his slacks.

A pile of assorted foods rose from his blue tray, tantalizing her. A sandwich thick with meat and cheese and lettuce, potato chips off to the side, a sweating bottle of Coke beside that. For years, they had all lived so lean that it had become a shock to suddenly see some people making up for lost time with their food. Judy finished chewing her apple and gathered her skirt closer to her. “You offering to share your lunch with me?”

Herbert gave her a slight smile. “Surely you didn’t think all this was for me?”

They were fast friends after that. It was easy for her to make room for a man who looked at her without pity. There had always been room in her life for someone like him: one who saw, who comforted, who provided. Her father, James, grumbled disapproval when Herbert asked to court, but Herbert came with sunflowers and his father’s moonshine.

“What kind of man do you take me for?” James asked, eyeing Herbert’s neat, slim tie and sniffing sharply to inhale the obnoxious musk of too much aftershave.

“A man who wants his daughter to be loved completely,” Herbert said. “The way that I love her.”

Their courting began. Judy had no other offers and didn’t want any. That they had James’s blessing before he died from a heart attack and just as they were getting ready to graduate from high school only softened the blow of his loss a little. As demure and to herself as she usually was, burying her father turned Judy more inward than Herbert expected. In his death, she seemed to retreat into herself the way that she had been when he approached her that lunch hour. To draw her out, to bring her back, he proposed marriage.

She balked. “Can I belong to someone else?” Judy asked Margaret, telling her that Herbert asked for her hand. “I hardly feel like I belong to myself.”

“This is what women do,” Margaret said immediately.

The ceremony was small, with a reception that hummed with nosy neighbors stopping over to bring slim envelopes of money to gift to the bride and her mother. The older Negro women in the neighborhood, who wore the same faded floral housedresses as Margaret except for today, when she put one of her two special dresses—a radiant sky blue that made her amber eyes look surrounded in gold light—visited her without much to say, just dollar bills folded in their pockets, slipped into her grateful hands. They were not exactly her friends; she worked too much to allow herself leisure. But some of them were widows, too. Like her, they had survived much to stand proudly on special days like this.

They settled into the plans they made for their life together. He joined the reserves and, in the meantime, became a Pullman porter. Judy began work as a seamstress at the local dry cleaner. Whatever money they didn’t have, they could make up with rent parties until the babies came.

Now all of that was on hold, her life suspended by the announcement at the movies that the US was now at war. The news was hard enough to process, but Herbert’s status in the reserves meant that this was his time to exit. She braced herself when he stood up to leave the theater and report for duty, kissing her goodbye with a rushed press of his mouth to her forehead.

Judy and Margaret had been left to fend for themselves. There had been some money from Herbert in the first year, but then his letters—and the money—slowed to a halt. Judy and Margaret received some relief from the city, but Judy thought it an ironic word to use, since a few dollars to stretch and apply to food and rent was not anything like a relief. It meant she was always on edge, doing what needed doing to keep them from freezing to death or joining the tent cities down along the river.

Her hours at the dry cleaner were cut, so she and Margaret reluctantly joined what an article in The Crisis described as the “paper bag brigade” at the Bronx Slave Market. The market was made up of Negro women, faces heavy for want of sleep. They made their way to the corners and storefronts before dawn, rain or shine, carrying thick brown paper bags filled with gloves, assorted used work clothes to change into, rolled over themselves and softened with age in their hands. A few of them were lucky enough to have a roll with butter, in the unlikely event of a lunch break.

Judy and Margaret stood for hours if the boxes or milk crates were occupied, while they waited for cars to approach. White women drivers looked them over and called out to their demands: wash my windows and linens and curtains. Clean my kitchen. A dollar for the day, maybe two, plus carfare.

The lists were always longer than the day. The rate was always offensively low. Margaret had been on the market for longer than Judy; she knew how to negotiate. Judy did not want to barter her time. She resented being an object for sale.

“You can’t start too low, even when you’re new,” Margaret warned Judy when her daughter joined her at Simpson Avenue and 170th Street. “Aim higher first. They’ll get you to some low amount anyhow. But it’s always going to be more than what you’re offered.”

Everything about the Bronx Slave Market, this congregation of Negro women looking for low-paying cleaning work, was a futile negotiation. An open-air free-for-all, where white women in gleaming Buicks and Fords felt just fine offering pennies on the hour for several hours of hard labor. Sometimes the work was so much, the women ended up spending the night, only to wake up in the morning and be asked to do more work—this time for free.

Judy and Margaret could not afford to work for free. Six days a week, in biting winter cold that made their knees numb or sweltering heat rising from the pavement baking the arches of their feet, they wandered to the same spot. After these painful experiences, day after day all week, Judy and Margaret gathered at the kitchen table on Sundays after church to count up the change that could cover some of the gas and a little of the rent. It was due in two days, and they were two dollars short. Unless they could make a dollar each, they would not make rent.

Rent was sometimes hard to come up with, even when James was alive, but when he died, their income became even more unreliable. They didn’t even have money enough for a decent funeral. He was buried in a pine box in the Hart Island potter’s field. James was the only love of Margaret’s life, and still, when he was gone, all she said to Judy was, “There’s still so much to do.”

Judy’s deepest wish for Margaret was for her to rest and enjoy a few small pleasures. What she overheard between her parents as a child were snippets and pieces of painful memories. Negroes lynched over rumors. Girls taken by men to do whatever they wanted. “We don’t need a lot,” she heard Margaret say once, “just enough to leave this place and start over.”

Margaret’s family, like James’s, had only known the South. Some had survived the end of slavery by some miracle, but the Reconstruction era was a different kind of terror. Margaret was the eldest of five children, James was the middle child of eight. A younger sibling left for Harlem first, and sent letters glowing about how free she felt in the north. So, even once Margaret convinced James they needed to take Judy someplace like that, it felt to Judy that she always had her family in the South and the way they had to work to survive on her mind.

Judy fantasized about rest for herself and for her mother. How nice it would be to plan a day centered around tea, folding their own napkins, ironing a treasured store-bought dress for a night out. A day when she could stand up straight, like a flower basking in the sun, instead of hunched over work.

Other people noticed that they worked harder and more than they should as women, as human beings. Judy thought Margaret maybe didn’t realize another way to be was possible. So she tried to talk about the Bronx Slave Market article in The Crisis with her mother. Margaret refused to read a word or even hear about it. “No need reading about my life in no papers,” she said.

Refusing to know how they were being exploited didn’t keep it from being a problem. But once Judy knew, she couldn’t keep herself from wanting more. Maybe that was why Margaret didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to want more than what was in front of her.

Herbert’s companionship had fed her this kind of ambition and hope. His warm laughter, the way she could depend on him to talk her into hooky once in a while, to crash a rowdy rent party and dance until the sun came up, even if it got her grounded and lectured, was—especially when James died—the only escape hatch she could find from the box her mother was determined to fit her future inside. So, when Herbert surprised her at a little traveling show in Saint Mary’s Park, down on one knee with his grandmother’s plain wedding band, she only hesitated inside when she said yes. It wasn’t the time to try and explain that there was something in her yawning open, looking for something else, but maybe she could find that something with Herbert. Her mother told her to stop wasting her time dreaming and to settle down.

At least marrying her high school buddy meant she could move on from under Margaret’s constant, disapproving gaze. They had been saving up for new digs when Herbert was drafted—but now that was all put on hold.

The dream had been delicious while it felt like it was coming true. Judy and Herbert were both outsiders, insiders within their universe of two. Herbert was the only rule follower in a bustling house full of lawbreaking men and boys; Judy, the only child of a shocked widow who found her purpose in bone-tiring work. Poverty pressed in on them from every corner of the Bronx, and neither Judy nor Herbert felt they belonged there. But they did belong to each other, and that wasn’t nothing.

Buy Links

B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/women-of-the-post-joshunda-sanders/1142106285
Bookshop.org: https://bookshop.org/p/books/women-of-the-post/18847348?gclid=CjwKCAjwzJmlBhBBEiwAEJyLu1nryTwbHOWZl-90gN_Go1Lc0MfbQ-Hn-9VsU-M1ByhrCeWaDjVq0RoCkXYQAvD_BwEAmazon: https://www.amazon.com/Women-Post-Novel-Joshunda-Sanders/dp/0778334074/ref=sr_1_1?crid=22I8IE18R4Y7B&keywords=women+of+the+post&qid=1688669577&sprefix=women+of+the+pos%2Caps%2C129&sr=8-1
Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Wishing Bridge

The Wishing Bridge
  The Wishing Bridge
Author:  Viola Shipman
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2023. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1525812009 / 978-1525812002

Rating:   ★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "If there were one sound that defined my childhood, it would be the chiming of the glockenspiel."

Favorite Quote:  "It's about history ... We're all shaped by it. Most run from it. But it's still in there ... How you come to terms with it is what matters."

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


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. The author's note lays out the themes for this book:
  • "I write winter and holiday novels that are 'ropes of hope' for those who need it most, a reminder that ... 'Life is short as one blink of God's eye, and in that blink, we too often forget what matters most.' Family. Friends. The holidays. Forgiveness, of ourselves and others."
  • "The Wishing Bridge is about the choices we make in life - some good, some bad - but realizing that if we have a strong foundation, it is never too late to cross that bridge in our lives to become the people we dreamed we could become."
These themes 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.

This is a story about Christmas as much for the time of year as for its setting - Frankenmuth, Michigan. The most interesting thing I learn from this book is the existence of this very real town. It is noted as "little Bavaria" in Michigan and is home to the world's largest Christmas store, Bronner's CHRISTmas Wonderland, which has been in existence since 1945.

This is also the story of a 52 year old woman, Henrietta "Henri" Wagner. She is portrayed as the daughter of the fictional version of Bronner's founder. The store is her father's dream, and she comes back to town to tear it down in the name of her career. In so many ways, this book reminds me of the move Up in the Air. The movie, starring George Clooney, is about a man whose job it is to fire people as companies are bought and sold. The book, like the movie, is about a reminder of what life is about. Let's just say, it's not about tearing down. That being said, it's a story that has been told before, and I wait to see if this telling brings in something new or unexpected. It does not.

What I have enjoyed about Viola Shipman's books is the characters having some dimensions and the relationships between the characters developing as the lesson of the book is learned. What I have also enjoyed is that the northern Michigan settings come to life and can be visualized. Unfortunately, for me, neither of these elements is completely successful in this book. 

It is difficult to describe why, but the thought that comes to mind is that the book, the characters, and the place remain two-dimensional. The depth and growth that comes even in other Viola Shipman books, does not come in this one. The image I am left with is a rushed crowd of people with all things Christmas, but not one that is identifiable or unique. The sweetness, warmth, and personal touch of the author's other books just seems missing in this one. I walk away from this one and anticipate the next, hoping it reverts back to the author's earlier work.

About the Book

Once the hottest mergers and acquisitions executive in the company, Henrietta Wegner can see the ambitious and impossibly young up-and-comers gunning for her job. When Henri's boss makes it clear she'll be starting the New Year unemployed unless she can close a big deal before the holidays, Henri impulsively tells him that she can convince her aging parents to sell Wegner's--their iconic Frankenmuth, Michigan, Christmas store--to a massive, soulless corporation. It's the kind of deal cool, corporate Henri has built her career on.

Home for the holidays has typically meant a perfunctory twenty-four-hour visit for Henri, then back to Detroit as fast as her car will drive her. So turning up at the Wegner's offices in early December raises some eyebrows: from her delighted, if puzzled, parents to her suspicious brother and curious childhood friends. But as Henri fields impatient texts from her boss while reconnecting with the magic of the store and warmth of her hometown, what sounded great in the boardroom begins to lose its luster in real life. She's running out of time to pull the trigger on what could be the greatest success of her career...or the most awkward family holiday of her life.

With unabashed winter charm, The Wishing Bridge sparkles with the humor and heart fans of Kristy Woodson Harvey, Nancy Thayer and Jenny Colgan love most.

Includes the bonus novella Christmas Angels.

"A beautifully written story about second chances. Fans of women's fiction won't be able to put this down." --Publishers Weekly on The Secret of Snow

"Viola Shipman knows relationships. The Clover Girls will sometimes make you smile and other times cry, but like a true friendship, it is a novel you will forever savor and treasure." --Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author

"The perfect winter warmer!" --USA TODAY bestselling author Sarah Morgan on The Secret of Snow

About the Author

VIOLA SHIPMAN is the pen name for internationally bestselling LGBTQIA 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 writes under his grandmother’s name, Viola Shipman, 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 The Wishing Bridge. Copyright © 2023 by Viola Shipman. Published by Graydon House, an imprint of HarperCollins.

December 7

I hit the brakes, my car fishtailing on the slippery road. I come to a stop just inches from the car before me.

Ah, the hazards of winter in Michigan and Detroit drivers who think snow is a reason to hit the gas.

I cock my head and see an accident just a few cars in front of me. A man is out of his car, screaming into the window of the car he hit.

Merry Christmas!

I take a breath, sip my coffee—which miraculously didn’t spill—hit my blinker and wait to merge into the next lane.

That’s when I notice it: the abandoned house I drive by every day to work.

There are many abandoned homes in many forgotten neighborhoods in this proud city whose shoulders were slumped by the mortgage crisis, layoffs in the auto industry and never-ending

winters that used to be as brutal and mind-numbing as a Detroit Lions football season. Neighborhoods stand like ghost towns, and, in winter, they look even sadder, the grass dead, the green gone, broken glass shimmering in the sun before the snow arrives to cover their remains.

This particular home is a three-story redbrick beauty that looks like a castle. The windows are broken, the walls are collapsing and yet the wooden staircase—visible to the world— remains intact. I slow down just enough every day to admire the finials, worn and shining from the hands that have polished them over the years.

There is a line of shattered windows just above the ground, and as you pass by, you catch a glimmer of red in the basement. Coming the opposite way, you swear you can see a man smiling.

I stopped years ago to investigate. I parked, careful to avoid nails, and wound my way in high heels through the weeds to the broken window. I knelt and peeked into the basement.


A plastic molded Santa smiled at me. It was a vintage mold—like the one my grandparents centered in the middle of a wreath on their front door every year—of a cheery Santa with red cheeks, blue eyes, green gloves, holding a candy cane tied in a golden bow.

I scanned the basement. Boxes were still stacked everywhere.

Tubs were marked Christmas!

In the corner of the basement sat a sign overrun with cobwebs that read Santa’s Toy Shop!

December 1975

“They’re here! They’re here!”

My voice echoed through my grandparents’ house. I ran to the front door, grabbed the first catalog, which seemed to weigh nearly as much as I did, and tottered down the steep basement stairs. Back up I went to retrieve the next one from Mr. Haley, the postman, who looked exactly like Captain Kangaroo.

“Don’t move!” I said, disappearing and returning moments later.

Then back down the stairs I scrambled once again.

Mr. Haley laughed when I returned the final time, out of breath.

“Last one,” he said. “Oh, and a bunch of Christmas cards for your grandmother.”

I bent over, panting, as if I’d just done wind sprints on the track.

“Tired?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No! Think of what Santa carries! Not to mention what you carry every day!”

“You got me there,” he said. “Here’s the cards. I’ll see you tomorrow. Merry Christmas!”

I watched him trudge through the freshly fallen snow, just enough to dust the world in white. If there’s one thing we never had to worry about in our town of Frankenmuth, it was a white Christmas. My dad said it was one of the gifts of living in a Christmas wonderland.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Haley!” I yelled, my breath coming out in puffs.

I shut the door, tossed the cards on the telephone desk sitting in the foyer and hightailed it back down to the basement.

I looked at the catalogs where I’d set them on the shag carpet and ran around them in a happy circle doing a little jig.

I turned on the electric fireplace. It was so cool, fake brick, and it just faded into the Z-BRICK walls. The flames seemed

to dance, even though they weren’t real.

I went over to the card table where my grandparents played games—bridge, canasta, hearts—and I grabbed my marker from a cup.

The red one.

The one I used every year.

The one Santa would recognize.

I took a seat on the orange shag and arranged the catalogs in a semicircle around me: the Christmas catalogs from JCPenney and Monkey Wards, and my favorite, the Sears Wish Book.

The catalogs were heavy and thick, big as the Buick my grandpa drove. They were brand-new and all mine. I began to f lip through the crisp pages, turning quickly to the ones that showed all the toys, clothes and games I wanted for Christmas.

I was lost for hours in the pages, dreaming, hoping, wishing. “Yes, yes, yes!” I said, my marker in constant motion.

“Are you using a red marker so Santa will see?”

I looked up, and my dad was standing over me. He was tall, hair as fair as mine. He had just gotten off work. He was an accountant at a car dealership, and he never seemed happy when he got home from work.

Until he came down to my grandparents’ basement.

“Of course!” I said. “Finn gets green. I use red!”

“So what do you want Santa to bring you this year?”

I patted the carpet, and my dad took a seat next to me. I began showing him all the things I’d marked in the wish catalogs.

“I want this eight-room dollhouse, and, oh! this Shaun Cassidy phono with sing-along microphone and this battery-operated sewing machine! It’s the first ever like this!” I stopped,

took a deep breath and continued, “And this dress, and this Raggedy Ann doll, but—” I stopped again, flipping through pages as quickly as I could “—more than anything I want this

game called Simon. It’s computer controlled, Daddy! It’s like Simon Says, and you have to be really fast, and…”

“Slow down,” he said, rubbing my back. “And what about your brother?”

“What about him?”

“What does he want?”

“He’ll want all the stupid stuff boys like,” I said. “Stars Wars figurines, an erector set, a Nerf rocket and probably a drum set.”

My father winced at the last suggestion.

“Maybe a scooter instead,” my dad suggested. “What do you think?”

“Good idea, Daddy.” I placed my hands over my ears.

He laughed and stood up.

“Hey?” I asked. “What do you want for Christmas?”

My dad headed over to the workshop he had on the other side of the basement. We lived in a small ranch house on the other side of town that didn’t have a basement, much less any extra room. My grandparents let my father convert this space a few years ago so he could pursue a second career and his true passion: Christmas.

“You know what I want,” he said with a smile.

My dad picked up a sign and turned it my way. It was a handcarved wooden sign that read Frohe Weihnachten! Frankenmuth is a Bavarian town filled with all things German: a wooden bridge flowing over a charming river, a glockenspiel that—on the hour—played the Westminster chimes followed by an entire show complete with dancing figurines,

a cheese haus and competing chicken-and-noodle restaurants. I was named Henrietta, my father Jakob, my brother, Finn. Only my mother, Debbie, escaped the German name game with the

very American moniker.

“What’s this mean, Henri?” my dad asked.

“Merry Christmas,” I said.

“And what do I want?”

“Christmas all year long.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Just like you. Except as a grown-up.” He looked at his sign. “That’s my Christmas wish.”

For a long time, everyone thought this was just a hobby of my father’s, sort of like other dads tinkered on car engines, went fishing or coached baseball. For an even longer time, people thought my dad was nuts.

Why would a man spend all of his time creating Christmas signs in July, or designing ornaments in March?

They didn’t know my dad.

They didn’t how serious he was, that he often worked until three in the morning from October through December and countless weekends the rest of the year.

“You have a good job, Jakob,” friends would tell him. “Don’t ruin your life over some silly notion.”

But my mom and grandparents believed in him just as much as I believed in Santa.

I watched my father work. As he did, he began to whistle Christmas tunes.

The world was finally catching up with my father’s dream.

He was now creating window displays for two of the biggest stores in town: Shepherd Woolen Mill and Koch’s Country Store.

Buy Links

HarperCollins: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/the-wishing-bridge-viola-shipman?variant=41011395461154
Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-wishing-bridge-viola-shipman/1142950495
BookShop: https://bookshop.org/p/books/the-christmas-bridge-original-viola-shipman/19612178
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1525804863/keywords=holiday%20books?tag=harpercollinsus-20

Social Links

Author Website
Twitter: @Viola_Shipman
Facebook: Author Viola Shipman
Instagram: @Viola_Shipman

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

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Paris Agent

The Paris Agent
  The Paris Agent
Author:  Kelly Rimmer
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2023. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1525805088 / 978-1525805080

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Perhaps at first glance, we might have looked like ordinary passengers: four women in civilian clothes, sitting in pairs facing one another, the private carriage of the passenger train illuminated by the golden light of a cloudless late summer sunrise."

Favorite Quote:  "And whatever we do with the freedom we have been gifted, whether our achievements and our struggles are big or small, we will do it in honor of those who gave so much so that we could live in a better world."

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


From 1940 until 1946, the British operated the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret unit to support resistance movements in occupied Europe through espionage and sabotage. To infiltrate the local communities, the SOE was perhaps one of the more diverse units, seeking individuals representing all different facets of society. As such, women played a key role in the SOE.

The Paris Agent brings to life the history of the SOE. This story jumps through time at different points in the 1940s and forward to the 1970s. The anchor for the story is an aging gentleman and his daughter. He suffers the scars of war, and yet his children know nothing of his role in the SOE. Having recently lost his wife and at a crossroads, he decides to reveal his background to his children and search for his past, hoping to regain some memories and resolve the trauma that still accompanies his life. His daughter Charlotte takes on the challenge of helping him.

The story of the past - Eloise, Chloe, Josie, and Fleur - is a little less clear. The characters all have real names and code names. There are only two main female characters in the past but at least four names. The book goes back and forth between names. The chapter headings are one name, and the text a different. It gets confusing! As a reader, I have to pay attention to the chapter date and title to remind myself where I am in the story. At the beginning of the book, this proves a greater challenge because I do not realize what I need to do until I find myself lost in the story and need to figure out the who, what, where, and when. I go back to the beginning and start again.

Perhaps, for this reason, the women of the past seem to merge together and form one story line rather than their own independent paths that converge. This is a multiple timeline story, but the history truly lies in the timelines of the past. Surprisingly, I find myself more engaged in the story of the present - Charlotte and her father. Perhaps, because those characters and that plot line stays constant and consistent, it is more memorable. The romance thrown in at the end is unnecessary but neatly packages the ending.

That being said, I enjoy this book for the history it introduces me to. It is my understanding that the female characters are based on real women like Cecily Lefort, Lilian Rolfe, Diana Rowden, and Violette Szabo. Some of the events like the destruction of the factory are based on historical events. Sadly, so is the eventual outcome for these spies. I appreciate learning about the strength and courage of women who fought in the war.

About the Book

For fans of fast-paced historical thrillers like Our Woman in Moscow and The Rose Code, Kelly Rimmer’s dramatic new novel follows two female SOE operatives whose lives will be determined by a double agent in their midst.

Twenty-five years after the end of the war, Noah Ainsworth is still preoccupied with those perilous, exhilarating years as a British SOE operative in France. A head injury sustained on his final operation has caused frustrating gaps in his memory—in particular about the agent who saved his life during that mission gone wrong, whose real name he never knew, nor whether she even survived the war.

Moved by her father’s frustration, Noah’s daughter Charlotte begins a search for answers that resurrects the stories of Chloe and Fleur, the code names for two otherwise ordinary women whose lives intersect in 1943 when they’re called up by the SOE for deployment in France. Taking enormous risks to support the allied troops with very little information or resources, the women have no idea they’re at the mercy of a double agent among them who's causing chaos within the French circuits, whose efforts will affect the outcome of their lives…and the war.

But as Charlotte’s search for answers bears fruit, overlooked clues come to light about the identity of the double agent—with unsettling hints pointing close to home—and more shocking events are unearthed from the dangerous, dramatic last days of the war that lead to Chloe and Fleur’s eventual fates.

About the Author

Kelly Rimmer is the worldwide, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of The German Wife, The Warsaw Orphan, and The Things We Cannot Say. She lives in rural Australia with her husband, two children and fantastically naughty dogs, Sully and Basil. Her novels have been translated into more than twenty languages. Please visit her at www.Kelly.Rimmer.com 


Excerpted from The Paris Agent by Kelly Rimmer, Copyright © 2023 by Lantana Management PTY Ltd. Published by Graydon House Books.
October, 1944

Perhaps at first glance, we might have looked like ordinary passengers: four women in civilian clothes, sitting in pairs facing one another, the private carriage of the passenger train illuminated by the golden light of a cloudless late-summer sunrise. Only upon closer inspection would a passerby have seen the handcuffs that secured us, our wrists resting at our sides, between us not because we meant to hide them but because we were exhausted, and they were too heavy to rest on our bony thighs. Only at a second glance would they have noticed the emaciated frames or the clothes that didn’t quite fit, or the scars and healing wounds each of us bore after months of torture and imprisonment.

I was handcuffed to a petite woman I knew first as Chloe, although in recent weeks, we had finally shared our real names with one another. It was entirely possible that she was the best friend I’d ever known—not that there was much competition for that title, given friendship had never come easy to me. Two British women, Mary and Wendy, sat opposite us. They had trained together, as Chloe and I had trained together, and like us, they had been “lucky enough” to recently find themselves imprisoned together too. Mary and Wendy appeared just as shell-shocked as Chloe and I were by the events of that morning.

As our captors had reminded us often since our arrests, we were plainclothes assassins and as such, not even entitled to the basic protections of the Geneva Convention. So why on earth had we been allowed the luxury of a shower that morning, and why had we been given clean civilian clothes to wear after months in the filthy outfits we’d been wearing since our capture? Why were they transporting us by passenger train, and in a luxurious private carriage, no less? This wasn’t my first time transferring between prisons since my capture. I knew from bitter personal experience that the usual travel arrangement was, at best, the crowded, stuffy back end of a covered truck or at worst, a putrid, overcrowded boxcar.

But this carriage was modern and spacious, comfortable and relaxed. The leather seats were soft beneath me and the air was clean and light in a way I’d forgotten air should be after months confined to filthy cells.

“This could be a good sign,” I whispered suddenly. Chloe eyed me warily, but my optimism was picking up steam now, and I turned to face her as I thought aloud. “I bet Baker Street has negotiated better conditions for us! Maybe this transfer is a step toward our release. Maybe that’s why…” I nodded toward our only companions in the carriage, seated on the other side of the aisle. “Maybe that’s why she’s here. Could it be that she’s been told to keep us safe and comfortable?”

Chloe and I had had little to do with the secretary at Karlsruhe Prison, but I had seen her in the hallway outside of our cell many times, always scurrying after the terrifyingly hostile warden. It made little sense for a secretary to accompany us on a transfer, but there she was, dressed in her typical tweed suit, her blond hair constrained in a thick bun at the back of her skull. The secretary sat facing against the direction of travel, opposite the two armed guards who earlier had marched me and Chloe onto the covered truck at the prison, then from the covered truck onto the platform to join the train. The men had not introduced themselves, but like all agents with the British Special Operations Executive, I’d spent weeks memorizing German uniforms and insignias. I knew at a glance that these were low-ranking Sicherheitsdienst officers—members of the SD. The Nazi intelligence agency.

The secretary spoke to the guards, her voice low but her tone playful. She held a suitcase on her lap, and she winked as she tapped it. The men both brightened, surprised smiles transforming their stern expressions, then she theatrically popped the suitcase lid to reveal a shockingly generous bounty of thick slices of sausages and chunks of cheese, a large loaf of sliced rye bread and…was that butter? The scent of the food flooded the carriage as the secretary and the guards used the suitcase as a table for their breakfast.

It was far too much food for three people but I knew they’d never share it with us. My stomach rumbled violently, but after months surviving on scant prison rations, I was desperate enough that I felt lucky to be in the mere presence of such a feast.

“I heard the announcement as we came onto the carriage— this train goes to Strasbourg, doesn’t it? Do you have any idea what’s waiting for us there? This is all a bit…” Wendy paused, gnawing her lip anxiously. “None of it makes sense. Why are they treating us so well?”

“This is the Strasbourg train,” Chloe confirmed cautiously. There was a subtle undertone to those words—something hesitant, concerned. I frowned, watching her closely, but just then the secretary leaned toward the aisle. She spoke to us in rapid German and pointed to the suitcase in her lap.

Had we done something wrong? More German words but it may as well have been Latin to me, because I spoke only French and English. Just then, the secretary huffed impatiently and pushed the suitcase onto the empty seat beside her as she stood. She held a plate toward me, and when I stared at it blankly, she waved impatiently toward Chloe and spoke again in German.


“She wants you to take it,” Chloe translated for me, and I took the plate with my one free hand, bewildered. Chloe passed it to Wendy, and so on, until we all held plates in our hands. The secretary then passed us fat slices of sausage and cheese and several slices of bread each. Soon, our plates were filled with the food, each of us holding a meal likely more plentiful than we’d experienced since our arrival in France.

“She’s toying with us,” Mary whispered urgently. “She’ll take it back. She won’t let us eat it so don’t get your hopes up.”

I nodded subtly—I’d assumed the same. And so, I tried to ignore the treasure sitting right beneath my nose. I tried not to notice how garlicky and rich that sausage smelled, how creamy the cheese looked, or how the butter was so thick on the bread that it might also have been cheese. I told myself the increasing pangs in my stomach were just part of the torture and the smartest thing I could do was to ignore them altogether, but the longer I held the plate, the harder it was to refocus my mind on anything but the pain in my stomach and the feast in my hands that would bring instant and lasting relief.

When all the remaining food had been divided between us prisoners, the secretary waved impatiently toward the plates on our laps, then motioned toward her mouth.

“Eat!” she said, in impatient but heavily accented English.

Chloe and I exchanged shocked glances. Conditions in Karlsruhe Prison were not the worst we’d seen since our respective captures, but even so, we’d been hungry for so long. The starvation was worse for Chloe than me. She had a particularly sensitive constitution and ate a narrow range of foods in order to avoid gastric distress. Since our reunion at the prison, we’d developed a system of sharing our rations so she could avoid the foods which made her ill but even so, she remained so thin I had sometimes worried I’d wake up one morning to find she’d died in her sleep.

“What can you eat?” I asked her urgently.

She looked at our plates then blurted, “Sausage. I’ll eat the sausage.”

For the next ten minutes we prisoners fell into silence except for the occasional, muffled moan of pleasure and relief as we devoured the food. I was trying to find the perfect compromise between shoving it all into my mouth as fast as I could in case the secretary changed her mind and savoring every bite with the respect a meal like that commanded. By the time my plate was empty and my surroundings came back to me, the guards and the secretary were having a lovely time, laughing amongst themselves and chatting as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

For a long while, we prisoners traveled in silence, holding our plates on our laps at first, then after Wendy set the precedent, lifting them to our mouths to lick them clean. Still, the guards chatted and laughed and if I judged their tones correctly, even flirted with the secretary? It gradually dawned on me that they were paying us very little attention.

“How far is Strasbourg? Does anyone know?” I asked. Wendy and Mary shook their heads as they shrugged, but Chloe informed me it was hundreds of miles. Her shoulders had slumped again despite the gift of the food, and I nudged her gently and offered a soft smile. “We have a long journey ahead. Good. That means we have time for a pleasant chat while our bellies are full.”

By unspoken agreement, we didn’t discuss our work with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It was obvious to me that each of the other women had been badly beaten at some point—Wendy was missing a front tooth, Mary held her left hand at an odd angle as if a fractured wrist had healed badly, and Chloe… God, even if she hadn’t explained to me already, I’d have known just looking at her that Chloe had been to hell and back. It seemed safe to assume we had all been interrogated literally almost to death at some point, but there was still too much at stake to risk giving away anything the Germans had not gleaned from us already. So instead of talking about our work or our peculiar circumstances on that train, we talked as though we weren’t wearing handcuffs. As though we weren’t on our way to, at the very best, some slightly less horrific form of imprisonment.

We acted as though we were two sets of friends on a casual jaunt through the countryside. We talked about interesting features outside our window—the lush green trees in the tall forests, the cultivated patches of farmland, the charming facades of cottages and apartments on the streets outside. Mary cooed over a group of adorable children walking to school, and Wendy talked about little shops we passed in the picturesque villages. Chloe shared longing descriptions of the foods she missed the most—fresh fruit and crisp vegetables, eggs cooked all manner of ways, herbs and spices and salt. I lamented my various aches and pains and soon everyone joined in and we talked as if we were elderly people reflecting on the cruelty of aging, not four twenty-somethings who had been viciously, repeatedly beaten by hateful men.

I felt the warmth of the sunshine on my face through the window of the carriage and closed my eyes, reveling in the simple pleasures of fresh air and warm skin and the company of the best friend I’d ever known. I even let myself think about the secretary and that picnic, and feel the relief that I was, for the first time in months, in the company of a stranger who had shown kindness toward me. I’d almost forgotten that was something people did for one another.

I’d never been an especially cheerful sort of woman and I’d never been an optimist, but those past months had forced me to stare long and hard at the worst aspects of the human condition and I’d come to accept a certain hopelessness even when it came to my own future. But on that train, bathed in early morning sunlight and basking in a full stomach and pleasant company, my spirits lifted until they soared toward something like hope.

For the first time in months, I even let myself dream that I’d survive to embrace my son Hughie again. Maybe, even after all I’d seen and done, the world could still be good. Maybe, even after everything, I could find reason to have faith.

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

Friday, December 22, 2023

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
  The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
Author:  James McBride
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2023. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0593422945 / 978-0593422946

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was an old Jew who lived at the site of the old synagogue up on Chicken Hill in the town of Pottstown, Pa., and when Pennsylvania State Troopers found the skeleton at the bottom of an old well off Hayes Street, the old Jew's house was the first place they went to."

Favorite Quote:  "It was proof of the American possibility of equality: we all can get along no matter what..."

Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania is a section of town populated by poor immigrants. The primary represented communities are Jews and Negroes. The two exist side-by-side, for the most part peacefully. Certain individuals bridge the gap between the communities. That is how the grocery store becomes a place where people come together. The mystery of the book is that a body is found. The story of how that body comes to be there is meant to draw the picture of this community and this era in history. It leads to a story of these two communities uniting to save one at-risk individual.

I want to love this book. Based on the author. Based on the awards it has won. Based on many saying this is book of the year. Even more importantly based on the fact that it is a story of immigrant community. It is a story of immigrant communities coming together to care and protect and create a combined, bound community. It is a story of a time and place where such communities were marginalized, and yet they are able to survive and, at times, even thrive.

I enjoy the book, but unfortunately I do not love it for several reasons.

The title of the book conjures up what should be a vivid image. The description of a small part of a small town - Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania - conjures up what should be vivid image. This grocery store and the people - especially the woman - who run it should be clear as I read.  However, I find the even after reading the entire book, a clear, vivid image does not emerge. I cannot picture the heaven and earth grocery store. I cannot picture Chicken Hill or its inhabitants. I find that odd in a book that should bring a time and place to life.

The book also has many characters, each with their own stories and subplots. Sometimes, too many. It is unclear why some of the subplots are there, and some don't seem to go anywhere. The names/nicknames of some characters (Dodo! Really?), perhaps appropriate to the time and place, also are a jarring note that, for me, interrupt the flow of the story. As such, I am challenged to remain engaged with the story and its outcome. Often, I am left wondering "what" and "why."

Book Club Perspective

This book ended up a short discussion because most of us shared this view of the book. The discussion is always shorted when our reactions on a book agree! Unfortunately, none of us was enthused enough about the book to pursue much in the way of reader's guides or discussion questions.

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

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

A Grandmother Begins the Story

A Grandmother Begins the Story
  A Grandmother Begins the Story
Author:  Michelle Porter
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2023. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1643755188 / 978-1643755182

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "I had my choice down there, didn't I?"

Favorite Quote:  "People get themselves ready to die. They start going through their memories and bringing out their stories one by one as if there was a photo album in their head and they've got to get through it before leaving. They want to move those stories around, make them mean something. They want it all to mean something. For some people, they can't stand the meaning of their lives and they think they can make up for it real quick at the end. It's like they reach out to grab what isn't theirs to take."

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


Mamé. Genevieve. Lucie. Allie. Carter. Five generations of Métis women. Five generations of one family. Five mothers. Each one is telling her story. Mamé is in the afterlife. Genevieve checks herself into rehab for an alcohol addiction. Lucie says she wants to die and wants help in accomplishing that goal. Allie has a lifetime of unresolved issues with her mother. Carter has an adopted family and this is her birth family. She is a mother herself to a little boy named Tucker. She is also the one Lucie asks for help.

Then, there is Dee, the female bison.

This book gives voice to the individual stories of these women - including Dee. Turn by turn, in short chapter, each woman's story comes forth. Interspaced are the voices of others - the land especially as a living, breathing organism with its own story to tell. 

Each woman and her story is distinct and unique. It takes a bit to distinguish, but, despite the varied voices and the frequent change between the voices, I can follow the thread of each narrative.

The narration reads as a story being told. "Different ways to tell a story. Some tellers make a noise to announce the coming of the story for get someone else to call everyone's attention. Some wait for people to gather around, for the quiet to settle. Others just begin. They don't wait for everyone to lean in - that'll happen soon enough. They don't speak loudly or even want everyone to hear. Those that hear are the ones the story was meant for."

This is in keeping with the author's background in poetry and as a Métis storyteller. The Métis are an indigenous people, particularly in Northwest Canada. The word métis comes from French and indicates a person of mixed parentage. In this context, the Métis descent from a combination indigenous and Euro-American ancestry.

The book description states it is "written like a crooked Métis jig." I had to research what a crooked jig is. According to the dictionary, a "jig" is a lively dance or the music that is danced to. As we know, traditional music is written in a pattern. What makes a "jig" crooked is that the pattern is broken - with notes or bars omitted or added to. That helps me further understand this book. The story jumps from woman to woman. With that, it jumps through time and the generation. The chapter from the perspective of the land or other such facet of the story adds further crookedness.

The jarring note in these stories is the abundant use of cursing and a significant focus on sex and the men. Several of these women (including the bison!) make poor choices in their lives, particularly where men are concerned. I do not know if there is a cultural or personal history embedded there, but that theme is perhaps the lasting impression of what this book is about.

However, the "what" of this story fades in comparison to the "how" and the melody of this crooked jig. It is a fascinating introduction to Métis storytelling and this author's debut work of fiction.

About the Book

Award-winning author Michelle Porter makes her fiction debut with an enchanting and original story of the unrivaled desire for healing and the power of familial bonds across five generations of Métis women and the land and bison that surround them.

Written like a crooked Métis jig, A Grandmother Begins the Story follows five generations of women and bison as they reach for the stories that could remake their worlds and rebuild their futures.

Carter is a young mother, recently separated. She is curious, angry, and on a quest to find out what the heritage she only learned of in her teens truly means.
Allie, Carter's mother, is trying to make up for the lost years with her first born, and to protect Carter from the hurt she herself suffered from her own mother. Lucie wants the granddaughter she's never met to help her join her ancestors in the Afterlife. And Geneviève is determined to conquer her demons before the fire inside burns her up, with the help of the sister she lost but has never been without. Meanwhile, Mamé, in the Afterlife, knows that all their stories began with her; she must find a way to cut herself from the last threads that keep her tethered to the living, just as they must find their own paths forward.

This extraordinary novel, told by a chorus of vividly realized, funny, wise, confused, struggling characters—including descendants of the bison that once freely roamed the land—heralds the arrival of a stunning new voice in literary fiction.

About the Author

Michelle Porter is the descendent of a long line of Métis storytellers. Many of her ancestors told stories using music and today she tells stories using the written word. Her newest book will be published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press this year. Called Scratching River, it’s a memoir that explores the meaning of her Métis heritage through her older brother’s life story. She’s also published a book of poetry, Inquiries (shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for Best Book of Poetry in Canada in 2019), and a book of creative nonfiction about her great grandfather, a fiddler from the Red River, called Approaching Fire (shortlisted for the Indigenous Voices Award 2021). She’s the winner of the 2021 Cox & Palmer SPARKS Creative Writing Award. She holds degrees in Journalism (BA), Folklore (MA), English (MA) and Geography (PhD). Her academic research and creative work focus on home, memory, and women’s changing relationships with the land. She has won numerous awards for her poetry and journalism and her work has been published in literary journals and magazines across the country. Currently she is teaching creative writing and Métis Literature at Memorial University. She is a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation and she lives in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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