Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Swan's Nest

The Swan's Nest by Laura McNeal
  The Swan's Nest
Author:  Laura McNeal
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2024. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1643753207 / 978-1643753201

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "She was stuck when she wrote it."

Favorite Quote:  "I will conform my life to any imaginable rule that puts us together."

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


The Romance of the Swan's Nest is a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One verse reads,

"Little Ellie in her smile
Chooses — " I will have a lover
Riding on a steed of steeds:
He shall love me without guile,
And to him I will discover
The swan's nest among the reeds."

The poem, the inspiration for the book title, is of hope. The history and the book make it clear that the  poem is written well before Elizabeth Barrett meets Robert Browning. The descriptions of the outdoors,  the desire for love, and the hope of the eggs in the nest perhaps stem from Elizabeth Barrett's dreams of beyond her confinement in her room as an invalid and perhaps of a time before her illness. "Do you know the swan's nest, the one she describes in the poem? Of course, it was there every spring, at Hope End. We all went to set it, but it was her particular haunt, hers and my father's."

The author's note states the goal - "to tell the story of their romance without contradicting the known record." It also speaks to the challenges of the research. "The Barrett-Browning archive includes thousands of letters, drawings, diaries, manuscripts, and objects." However, the Brownings' only heir himself died without a will or an heir. As such, the estate including the archive was sold at auctions. Some items were sold and sold again. As a result, the archive exists but is scattered, and some of it seems lost forever.

Between 1845 and 1846, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning exchanged almost 600 hundred letters. The letters themselves have been published as books. The first letters is the beginning of this story. "I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett ... so into me it has gone, and part of me it has become, this great living poetry of yours ... I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart - and I love you too." What a beginning to a love story.

That being said I struggled with this narrative of their romance. The book has a multitude of characters and goes into the stories of some of these. Towards the beginning, it is challenging to determine which ones to pay attention to for their relevance to the main story. Sometimes, it is questionable as to why the detail is included.

The side characters become the vehicle for moving the story forward. History demonstrates how much of this romance was contained in letters. As such, there is limited interaction between the main characters themselves. The context becomes necessary. However, it also creates a distance from the main story. It feels at times as if the reader must wade through the surrounding to get to the heart of story. I find myself putting the book down often with no inclination to pick it up. I pick it up to see if it will get me closer only to put it down again. That paradigm does shift later in the book, but, by that time, the connection with the book and characters is lost in the path getting there.

A fascinating history but a challenging one to tell in this medium. Sadly, I find myself not the reader for this telling.

About the Book

(from publisher website)
An engrossing novel about the unlikely love affair between two great 19th-century poets: Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning

On a bleak January day in 1845, a poet who had been confined to her room for four years by recurrent illness received a letter from a writer she secretly idolized but had never seen. “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,” Robert Browning wrote, “and I love you too.”

Elizabeth Barrett was ecstatic. She was famous for her poetry but too frail for the kind of travel that Browning used to fuel his unsuccessful, innovative poems, which were full of spellbinding villains. The two began a passionate correspondence, but Elizabeth kept delaying a visit. What would happen when he saw her in person? Could she trust his emphatic promises? And would she survive if she secretly turned over the rights to all the money she earned to a man who promised he could take her to the bright, healing sun of Italy?

McNeal brilliantly dramatizes the perils of falling in love in the Victorian world, where family duty was the most important value of all, married women could not own property, and the fight for freedom and equality was funded by sugar crushed and boiled in the West Indies. Lyrically written, as rich as a Brontë novel, The Swan's Nest will immerse readers in the radical hope of two people who believed love in practice could be as enduring and faithful as love in poetry.

About the Author

(from publisher website)
Laura McNeal is the author of Dark Water, a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature in 2010, the historical novel, The Practice House, The Incident on the Bridge, and four critically-acclaimed novels co-written with her husband Tom, all of them published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. She holds an MA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and was awarded a 2022 research residency at Baylor University.

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

Tuesday, April 2, 2024


  Savor:  A Chef's Hunger for More
Author:  Fatima Ali with Tarajia Morrell
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2022. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0593355199 / 978-0593355190

Rating:   ★★★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "I get up in Pakistan, playing cricket, basketball, oonch neech, and pithu gol garam with my brother, Mohammad."

Favorite Quote:  "When we think we have all the time in the world to live, we forget to indulge in the experiences of living. When that choice is yanked away from us, that's when we scramble to feel."

I was introduced to Fatima Ali through marketing for a season of the TV show Top Chef. Top Chef is a reality TV competition amongst chefs. During her seasons on Top Chef, Fatima Ali was voted the fan favorite competitor.

Her story and the cultural context of her story resonates with me. She was born in Pakistan. She spend part of her childhood in Texas before returning to Pakistan. She broke social norms by wanting to be a chef. She returned to the United States to study at the Culinary Institute of America. She competed on Chopped and then Top Chef. She worked in many different professional kitchens. "I didn't think I was so special, but actually that was the key: If this ordinary Pakistani girl could pursue the thing she loved most - cooking - and could make it to the tippy-top and do what she loved on TV, then what was to stop all of us little brown girls from carving out new paths, from calling attention to the hungry children, the silenced dreamers, the oddballs and rebels who long to go against the grain?"

Her dream was to open her own restaurant and introduce the world to Pakistan and Pakistani culture through food. Unfortunately, that dream was never realized as Fatima Ali died at age 29 of a rare form of cancer. This book is her story and her legacy. "Instead of my bucket list book, this is the story of my abbreviated life, short but nonetheless possessing secret love, joy and pain, adventure and hard work, luck and its opposite."

Unexpectedly, this book is also the story of Fatima's mother, Farezeh. Hers is a story of a different time and place and yet with similar themes of independence and strength. "There is nothing more empowering than knowing - no, believing - that all you really need is you."

The book describes the process of its own writing. Fatima Ali's original wish for her final year was to travel and experience the world. Unfortunately, her illness did not allow for that. That realization led to the writing of this book. Fatima's telling of her own story began through media such as Bon Appétit providing her a platform. Her conversations with author Tarajia Morrell, and Tarajia Morrell's subsequent collaboration with Farezeh have resulted in this book.

The cultural context of a young "brown" girl and a "brown" woman finding their own path and her voice resonates. The story of an immigrant finding freedom and their dream in the United States resonates. The power of food memories and the power of food to unite resonates. The story of a young life sadly cut short resonates. Fatima Ali's story is one I was going to remember even before reading this book. Reading this book and learning of the other challenges she and her mother overcame further reinforces that this is a life to remember.

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

Monday, March 25, 2024

The Force of Such Beauty

The Force of Such Beauty
  The Force of Such Beauty
Author:  Barbara Bourland
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2022. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0593329341 / 978-0593329344

Rating:   ★★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "The last time they caught me at the airport, I panicked."

Favorite Quote:  "All fairy tales serve the same purpose. One woman's story, told to warn the others. Here is how I lost my feet here is how I lost my voice; here is how I lost my children. Here is the moment I was given from my father to my husband. Here is where the danger lies: the man with the blue beard, the urge in the forest, the tricky gentleman, the lying merchant, the prince in the tower. Fairy tales are not about sparkling shoes or white cats. They are about the ribbons that adorn, then, sever your neck."

The author's note expresses what this book attempts to capture. "For a real-life woman sitting across from a prince, the princess story skips the middleman and marries you directly to the state itself. It's logical. It's rational. It's the desire for a better life. And what could be more human than that? There will always be princesses. Yet - what must it take to spend each day tow steps behind your partner, always in shadow? What must it take from you to discard yourself - modernity, even - in exchange for the illusion of safety? In the case of this book's narrator, Caroline Muller, it takes everything."

Caroline Muller is an athlete, an Olympian, a medalist. Her entire life has been about running. Her elite athlete status has led a to privileged and sheltered life. Everything revolves around her career, and everyone revolves around her, the star. An accident ends her career. With it, life as she has ever known it ends. She is cast adrift, no longer the star or the center of attention. "I learned that the world was made from men - for me - that men controlled the world, and further - that their desire for my attention was the only leverage I possessed." A chance meeting and a series of events lead her to marry Prince Ferdinand Fieschi of Lucomo, her literal prince charming. "It isn't until you feel safe that you realize how difficult  it was before, when you were constantly afraid, as though you have been hearing a noise in the background for so long that you cannot pick it out until someone turns it off. And when you hear the sound of silence, it's sweeter than you knew anything could be."

Sadly, Caroline discovers that her happily-ever-after is not quite so happy for her even in an amazingly beautiful setting in the lap of luxury as a literal princess. "The force of such beauty is meant to destabilize a person. I was no exception." The book description captures that and the book begins with the fact that Caroline tries to run away. This is not the first time. Perhaps, not the last either. The parallels of some of the details of Caroline's story to those of the lives of real princesses is obvious and clear. This book presents the picture that tarnishes the image of the charmed life of a princess. It brings out the rules, the requirements, and the constraints of royal life. It paints a very sad picture. 

The aspect of the book that is perhaps even more fascinating for being unexpected is the view on South African history and politics. Caroline Muller is a runner and from South Africa. "Running was the only sport that could not be segregated by the government, could not be kept down by oppression, could not be bought out from under the feet of my peers. They could not, you see - they could not segregate the roads. Not during the day, anyway." Caroline and her friend and fellow runner Zola have very different experiences as runner and go on to lead very different lives. They stay connected in some way throughout this book, and, time and again, the realities of and changes in South Africa become a fascinating part of the story of the European princess.

A memorable story. Given recent news and requests for privacy, this book takes on a whole new meaning and relevance..

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

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Day Tripper

The Day Tripper by James Goodhand
  The Day Tripper
Author:  James Goodhand
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2024. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778369641 / 978-0778369646

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Wind howls through the rafters."

Favorite Quote:  "The world is as wide as the chances that come our way. Take an opportunity, and it leads to more opportunity, and so on. The world opens  up, like wings or...something."

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


The premise of the book from the description:  "What if you lived your days out of order?"

The expansion of that premise in the book itself:
  • "My whole life already exists? ... Yours, and mine, and everybody's ... We are all eternally surrounded by our own past and our own future."
  • "What if everybody experiences time randomly? It's just that their memory and conscious thoughts provide a grid - map - references for everything - creating the illusion of one chronological, continuous existence."
  • "You and I, regardless of the order in which they come, live each day of our life once. We are just like everyone else in that regard."

The lesson of the book, as you might predict: "This - our predicament - you could see it as a curse, forced to live life out of order, never knowing what comes next, what matters and what doesn't. But it can be a very find gift as well. In the right hands..."

I love the unique premise of this book. The book conveys that premise beautifully. Alex Dean never know what is coming next. Most days, he is even unsure what came before or in the middle. He wakes up every day in the middle. Each day is a piece of the puzzle, and perhaps he can find the picture and a vision for his life.

The first person narration embeds the reader in Alex's confusion and his dilemmas. It works to convey his point of view. At the same time, the first person narration creates a dilemma for the reader. The book jumps into this out of order life and continues day to out of order days. It makes it difficult for me as a reader to find an anchor or to "get to know" Alex such that I invest in the character. I am not sure how a little bit of grounding in Alex's life or the character could be accomplished given the theme of the book, but I wanted some.

I travel along with his confusion. I empathize with individual relationships - parents, girlfriend, friend. However, without the context, it is difficult to invest in the relationships.

That is exacerbated by the fact that the entire book is Alex's perspective. It would have been interesting to perhaps see some of the other characters and their views. Are they having their own out of order experiences? What are the joys and sadness of their relationship with Alex? What have they noticed about him?

Perhaps, that is the entire point of the book. We don't know another's perspective. In order or out of order, we see the world as we see it not as it may actually be. To some extent, the lesson of this book is similar to that of the movie Groundhog Day. In that movie, the character lives the same day over and over again. Over time, he manages to change his entire outlook and his life in that one day. In this case, Alex jumps forward and backwards in time. Perhaps, knowing a future outcome, he can make a change in the past? However, does that then change the future again? If Alex lives each day only once, how does that work? Read the book and find book. A book memorable for its premise.

About the Book

What if you lived your days out of order?

It’s 1995, and twenty-year-old Alex Dean has it all: a spot at Cambridge University next year, the love of an amazing woman named Holly and all the time in the world ahead of him. That is until a brutal encounter with a ghost from his past sees him beaten, battered and almost drowning in the Thames.

He wakes the next day to find he’s in a messy, derelict room he’s never seen before, in grimy clothes he doesn’t recognize, with no idea of how he got there. A glimpse in the mirror tells him he’s older—much older—and has been living a hard life, his features ravaged by time and poor decisions. He snatches a newspaper and finds it’s 2010—fifteen years since the fight.

After finally drifting off to sleep, Alex wakes the following morning to find it’s now 2019, another nine years later. But the next day, it’s 1999. Never knowing which day is coming, he begins to piece together what happens in his life after that fateful night by the river.

Why does his life look nothing like he thought it would? What about Cambridge, and Holly? In this page-turning adventure, Alex must navigate his way through the years to learn that small actions have untold impact, even in a life lived out of order. And that might be all he needs to save the people he loves and, equally importantly, himself.

About the Author

James Goodhand has written two YA novels. His YA debut, Last Lesson, was called "a powerfully charged study in empathy," by the Financial Times. THE DAY TRIPPER is his adult debut. He lives in England with his wife and young son.


Excerpted from THE DAY TRIPPER by James Goodhand. Copyright © 2024 by James Goodhand. Published by MIRA Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
SEPTEMBER 6, 1995 | AGE 20

It’s three-deep at the bar, and I get my order in seconds before they ring for time. I double up: a JD and Coke each and two beers to take with us. The lights are up and the music’s gone quiet as I weave the tray through the punters. Standing in the doorway out to the terrace, I am disorientated. There must be fifty tables outside between here and the river and it’s still packed out, darker and smokier than ever. I search the crowd but can’t see Holly.

I negotiate my way down to the water’s edge. She’s maybe ten tables away, oblivious, a ciggie poised skyward in her fingers like she’s posing for Vettriano. I smirk, enjoy my good fortune again.

“Excuse me, good gentlemen,” I say to a group of four in my path, voice cocky with booze and lust. They shuffle over, not breaking from their conversation. The resulting gap between their circle and the edge of the path isn’t wide enough—a careless elbow would send the tray of drinks into the river, possibly me with them.

“If you don’t mind, guys?” I lay a palm on the forearm of the bloke with his back to me. Their circle opens out and he turns side-on, ushering me past. “Nice one,” I say, glancing at him as I pass.

I look back at the ground. There’s a delay in my brain processing who it is I’m walking past. There’s a moment in which it seems that we’ll just carry on, pretend like we don’t know each other.

The air thickens. Time slows. I stop, a step past him. Look again. Razor-sharp short back and sides, hooded eyes, lopsided mouth. Preppy. It’s a face I catch myself imagining sometimes, never for long. A waking nightmare. Not that my imagination does it justice. Not even close, I now realize.

His recognition of me unfolds in slow motion. Perhaps like me, alcohol has dulled his synapses, delayed the inevitable shift of mode.

Blake Benfield. There have been times in the past when just hearing that name in my head has stopped me dead, left me incapable.

How long since we last ran into each other? I was sixteen—best part of four years, then. Feels so recent. Our paths crossing has always been inevitable; we grew up barely a mile apart. He spat at me that last time, called me faggot cunt. The many times before that I’d just legged it, hidden from his fury and his hatred. But you get too old to do that.

This crowded place seems so quiet now. Like there’s cotton wool stuffed in my ears. The two bottles tip over on my trembling tray, foam splattering to the ground. One rolls over the edge and shatters on the concrete. People turn.

How long have we stood here, him glaring at me, me unable to hold his stare? Saying nothing. A few seconds? Feels longer.

There’s the smell of burned-out house in my nose. The sound of his whisper in my ears that I try to drown out.

Don’t think about it. Do not think about that day.

Why do I shake? I’m a fucking grown man. Why am I shaking?

He takes a half step closer to me.

I once told him I was sorry. It was years ago—when I was still a kid. I was sorry. Does he remember?

I spin around. Where’s Holly? She must be watching this.

There’s no more delay. There is, of course, nothing for me and this bloke to say to each other. We have ventured into each other’s space, and that brings with it a remembering. And, as we always have, we must deal with that in our own way.

His knuckles graze my chin. I stumble backward and the tray falls to the ground. His swing is off, though; there is no pain. Not even surprise. We definitely have an audience now.

My response is pure instinct: palms raised, lean away. Easy now.

I don’t want to fight this man. I want to go back thirty seconds, walk a different route, have this night back for myself.

Blake closes the gap, my weakness an invitation. His second punch crashes into my ear like a swinging girder. My brain slaps side to side in my skull. Vision sways. My head boils, a cool trickle from my eardrum.

Where is Holly? Panic grips. I can’t just stand here and take this.

My eyes flit to our audience. He swings again, this time with his left. But I see it coming, dodge. He stumbles.

I drive my weight, shoulder first, into his ribs. He goes over, sprawled among the spilled drinks and shattered glass.

On all fours, he stares up at me. I’m perfectly positioned. I could kick him square in the face. End this right now. Why don’t I do it? Why can’t I bring myself to do it? I’d rather turn my back and cry than kick his head in.

He glares up at me. Why do I pity him? Why am I so uncomfortable towering over him like this? It’s like the positions we’ve always held have been reversed. The power is mine.

I let him find his feet.

He’s up and level with me again. He glares like a bloodthirsty dog, wipes his nose on the sleeve of his polo shirt. If we were alone, maybe I’d run. But with people watching, with Holly watching, that’s no option.

My punch lands perfectly. His jaws scissor against each other. For a second his head floats, eyes rolling.

I realize my error too late. I should’ve followed up when I had the chance. One punch is only enough in the movies, everyone knows that. His hands are on the collar of my shirt, cloth tearing as he holds firm. His forehead slams into the bridge of my nose like a sledgehammer. My face is suddenly and totally numb. I drop to the ground. A ruby-red stain spreads fast through the jewels of broken glass around me.

He shouts above me. Every filthy word I’ve long come to expect. Something soft disperses against my head. Spit.

The neck of the Stella bottle I dropped lies on the ground. Inches away. Blood gurgles in my mouth as I take a deep breath. I launch like a sprinter. Leading with the dagger of green glass, I’m aiming straight at his face and closing fast.

Blake backs into a table, stumbles, hands slow to cover his face. His eyes widen, abject fear. But this is no time to be derailed.

I see it too late. No time to react. One of Blake’s friends windmilling a table ashtray. The side of my skull cracks like thunder.

The ground feels like a cushion, drawing me in and bouncing me back. My vision finds enough order in time to see the sole of boot accelerating toward me, like a cartoon piano from the sky.

There is no pain. Just a sense of floating in space.

Time passes. More blows land.

The surface of the Thames billows like a black satin sheet as it rises toward me. There’s no fear. Is that Holly I can hear calling my name? It’s so distant, so hard to tell.

The river gathers me in like it’s here to take care of me.

Cool water spears my lungs like sharpened icicles. I sink forever.

A low hum builds in my ears. Lights fades to nothing.

And I sleep.

NOVEMBER 30, 2010 | AGE 35

My head throbs. It doesn’t matter if I open or close my eyes, the pain worsens either way. My mouth is like dust. Joints and muscles lie seized.

Last night is a blank. I hate that. I look above me. Focusing is excruciating. The ceiling is browny cream, textured in spikes like a Christmas cake. An unshaded bulb swings in the draft, the filament shivering. It’s really cold in here.

Where the fucking hell am I?

Buy Links

Barnes & Noble:

Social Links


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

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Man Who Could Move Clouds

The Man Who Could Move Clouds
  The Man Who Could Move Clouds
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2022. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0385546661 / 978-0385546669

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "They say the accident that left me with temporary amnesia is my inheritance."

Favorite Quote:  "There was a difference between keeping knowledge secret, and living in secret. I could do the former, but I would not do the latter."

Ingrid Rojas Contreras biggest acknowledgment of this book credits her mother. "Thank you, most of all, to my mother, who told me stories, and in telling me stories, taught me how to live." The stories are of family, love, Colombian heritage, and of sight and magic.

The impetus for this book is an accident and a shared dream. An accident leaves Ingrid Rojas Contreras with temporary amensia for a period of weeks. She learns that her mother too suffered an accident as a child that left her with certain abilities that were her heritage. "They say the amnesias were a door to gifts we were supposed to have, which Mami's father, Nono, neglected to pass."

Nono is at the heart of this story. Nono, was a curandero, a traditional healer (like a shaman) gifted with "instructions for talking to the dead, telling the future, healing the ill, and moving the clouds." A dream that both the author and her mother have leads them on a quest back to Colombia to disinter and free Nono from the demands and the wishes people leave at his grave. Those requests keep him tethered.

"This is a memoir of the ghostly - amnesia, hallucination, the historical specter of the past - which celebrates cultural understanding of truth that are, at heart, Colombian. The stories in this memoir are the true lived experience of those who lived it, as told to me."

The cultural history in this book is fascinating. The story weaves back and forth between the present to stories of the past - the author, her mother, Nono, and other relatives. At times, the thread is difficult to follow. After a while, I stop trying to follow the chronology and float along on what is at most times a mythological journey. However, that approach disengages from any emotional impact of the book. It is more like reading a story than a memoir. In fact, I have a hard time remembering this is a memoir.

Perhaps, a more focused approach on one or two main story threads may have been a more emotionally compelling book. Perhaps, some greater explanation of the cultural paradigm underlying the curandero would be beneficial in grounding the book for a reader not familiar with the culture and ritual. With the myriad stories and the lack of a cultural context, I am not sure I completely understand the family story being told.

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Slow Noodles

Slow Noodles by Chantha Nguon
  Slow Noodles:  A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes
Author:  Chantha Nguon with Kim Green
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2024. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1643753495 / 978-1643753492

Rating:   ★★★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "In 1975, the Khmer Rouge informed the Cambodian people that we had no history, but we knew it was a lie."

Favorite Quote:  "A refugee must learn to be anything  people want her to be at any given moment. But behind the masks, I am only myself - a mosaic of flavors from near and far."

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


The book poses a question. "When you must flee and can carry only one thing, what will it be? What single seed from your old life will be the most useful in helping you sow a new one?" That is the unimaginable choice faced by those flee or are forced to leave their home and their very lives. Time and time again, history describes such events. News stories today are full of them. Can anyone who has not lived it even come close to imagining it? I think not. That makes books such as this one so important. They offer a glimpse into a reality hopefully we are fortunate enough never to inhabit. It also offers an understanding of those who are flung into a refugee life. It offers lessons, perhaps, of how history seems to end up here over and over again despite each horror being followed by promises that it must never happen again. These memoirs bear witness.

In the 1970s, almost two million Cambodians died due to the policies and program of the Khmer Rouge regime. A genocide of almost two million!

The author, Chantha Nguon, survived. This is her story. "But the past never goes away. The fear and pain are still there, buried in our brains like mines. It is better to defuse them than to leave them entombed, quietly, waiting for a single misstep. That is why I am telling my story."

The facts of the book - the losses of this one individual, the time span, the history, the desperation, the risks - are moving. They are all the more so for the calm manner in which the narrative is related. Occasionally, I find myself stopping and re-reading a sentence over and over again to let the enormity of it sink in. This history of loss is measured in not days, weeks, months, or even years. It is over a decade! "Of course, I should have had more faith in impossible futures. After all, we'd already endured a series of them, each more unimaginable an unforeseen than the last."

What makes this memoir even more gripping is its anchor in food memories. "The dishes I loved best when I was small were the ones that took the longest to make. My puppy sense told me that time equaled loved, and love equaled deliciousness. On the time continuum, instant noodles tasted careless, like nothing at all; the kuy teav noodle maker's hand-cut mee were far superior. But the slowest and best noodles of all came from my mother's kitchen." Throughout the book, you find recipes. Some are for the dishes of the time and place. Some are conceptual as the "recipe" in the book description. Food memories is something we all share. A smell or a taste brings us to a time and place. The relatable memories bring the story closer to us. Although we may never comprehend the enormity of it, in some small way, we can understand a small piece.

The book ends on a note of hope. "But if there's one thing I learned from my mother, it's that losing everything is not the end of the story. She taught me that lost civilizations can be rebuilt from zero, even if the task will require many generations of work." Perhaps, there is hope yet as conflicts and genocides continue across the world today. Perhaps.

About the Book

A haunting and beautiful memoir from a Cambodian refugee who lost her country and her family during Pol Pot's genocide in the 1970s but who finds hope by reclaiming the recipes she tasted in her mother's kitchen.


Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination. Subtract a reliable source of food, life savings, and family members, until all are gone. Shave down childhood dreams for approximately two decades, until only subsistence remains.

In Slow Noodles, Chantha Nguon recounts her life as a Cambodian refugee who loses everything and everyone—her home, her family, her country—all but the remembered tastes and aromas of her mother’s kitchen. She summons the quiet rhythms of 1960s Battambang, her provincial hometown, before the dictator Pol Pot tore her country apart and killed more than a million Cambodians, many of them ethnic Vietnamese like Nguon and her family. Then, as an immigrant in Saigon, Nguon loses her mother, brothers, and sister and eventually flees to a refugee camp in Thailand. For two decades in exile, she survives by cooking in a brothel, serving drinks in a nightclub, making and selling street food, becoming a suture nurse, and weaving silk.

Nguon’s irrepressible spirit and determination come through in this lyrical memoir that includes more than twenty family recipes such as sour chicken-lime soup, green papaya pickles, and pâté de foie, as well as Khmer curries, stir-fries, and handmade bánh canh noodles. Through it all, re-creating the dishes from her childhood becomes an act of resistance, of reclaiming her place in the world, of upholding the values the Khmer Rouge sought to destroy, and of honoring the memory of her beloved mother, whose “slow noodles” approach to healing and cooking prioritized time and care over expediency.

Slow Noodles is an inspiring testament to the power of food to keep alive a refugee’s connection to her past and spark hope for a beautiful life.

About the Author

Chantha Nguon was born in Cambodia and spent two decades as a refugee, until she was finally able to return to her homeland. She is the co-founder,of the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, a social enterprise that offers a living wage, education, and social services to women and their families in rural northeastern Cambodia. A frequent public speaker, she has appeared at universities and on radio and TV news programs, including NPR’s Morning Edition. She cooks often for friends, family, and for private events. An excerpt from Slow Noodles in Hippocampus was named a Longreads Best Personal Essay in 2021.

Kim Green is an award-winning writer and public radio producer and contributor based in Nashville. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, the New York Times, and on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Marketplace, and The New Yorker Radio Hour. A licensed pilot, she was formerly a flight instructor.

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

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Seen Heard & Paid

Seen Heard & Paid
  Seen Heard & Paid:  The New Work Rules for the Marginalized
Author:  Alan Henry
Publication Information:  Rodale Books. 2022. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0593233352 / ‎978-0593233351

Rating:   ★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Seen, heard, and paid."

Favorite Quote:  "To be productive, we need to be seen, heard, and paid fairly for our work. Affording these rights to everyone requires a new look at how work is done and a new set of real-work rules for people who are sidelined and who lack privilege."

This book begins by what it is. "Much of this book is about how to be productive within the system and with the built-in biases of your boss." It also emphasizes what it is not.  "Whether you're being marginalized in particular because of your race, your gender, you religion, your age, your ability level, or anything else, keep this one truism in mind: It's not your job to fix a workplace's systemic discrimination issues... those are battles you should have the right to choose to fight, on your own terms, not battles you're forced to fight just to survive in a workplace."

In other words, this is not a book about the system or about creating systemic change. It is a "self-help" book about tips and techniques - rules - for marginalized persons to survive and thrive in a workplace or determine when it is time to find a new environment.

To begin with, a definition. "Strictly, to be marginalized means you're a member of a social group that has been traditionally kept out of, or away from, power, decision-making, or import and that you are consequently treated as insignificant or somehow less than those who make up the majority or the empowered people. In an office setting, being marginalized can mean being kept from power and decision-making, but it can also mean simply being excluded from the greater culture that permeates the space." Interestingly, the author speaks from his own experiences being marginalized, but the definition in and of itself does not reference race, gender, religion, age, or any myriad of ways in which discrimination can occur. That being said, the examples, situations, and groups references in the book are along those lines. However, I find myself reflected in many of the examples and situations.

The book references research and the work of other authors, especially Ruchika Tulshyan, who is cited many times. She is, in fact, the first person listed and thanked in the acknowledgements. When one body of work is cited so often in a text, I at times wonder if I should read the original cited work instead of this book.

Nevertheless, The book is well organized around 15 chapters, each focused on one of fifteen rules. Within each rule, the subheadings present the key points of that rule. The ideas in the book are not new or at least not new to me. However, seeing them shared through different eyes is validating. The tips and techniques, while not new and relatively common sense, are a good refresher. As with books of this nature, some resonate with me more than others. Some I agree with, and some I don't. Each individual reader's value with differ depending on what they bring to the reading.

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

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West

The  Ucharted Flight of Olivia West by Sara Ackerman
  The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West
Author:  Sara Ackerman
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2024. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0778305341 / 978-0778305347

Rating:   ★★★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Livy had been coming to the airfield for months now but still had yet to go up in an airplane."

Favorite Quote:  "Always assume the best, and the forces of nature will conspire to make it happen ... No, honey, God will make it happen ... Nature and God are one and the same, my dear."

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


Like Sara Ackerman's other books, the history of this book is of Hawaii. This is the first I have read that is not centered around World War II. This book builds on 1920s history of the Dole Air Race. In May, 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed his solo flight from New York City to Paris. In August, 1927, the founder of what is now Dole Foods put for a contest. The first plan to fly from California to Hawaii would win a prize of $25,000. The second place finisher would win $10,000. A small number of pilot applied with their own planes and their own navigators. A smaller number qualified. An even small number made it to takeoff. A smaller number yet made it to Hawaii.

This two timeline story is based in this history, but the characters are all fictional. In the story of the 1920s is Olivia West (as in the book title). She is a pilot, but she is young and a woman. With no backing, she realizes that the only way for her to join the contest is as navigator. A primary motivation is the prize money. In the story of the present is Wren, who receives a surprise inheritance of a home on Hawaii. In both time lines are women determined to make their own way. In both time lines there is a little romance, but the strength and independence of the woman is the focal point. As you might expect, the two timelines and stories connect into the conclusion of the book.

As with all two timeline books, one is more compelling than the other. In this case, Olivia's story is the historically relevant one and the more unusual one. It is about a young woman with a dream. It is about courage and survival. Wren's story is of an unexpected gift and the courage to grasp it and create a life.

That being said, the pacing of the two timelines especially in the first half of the book pulls me more towards Wren's story. Olivia's story is a lot about flying and navigating - the planes, the equipment, the weather, and the skills. It is also  lot of characters - the pilots and others involved in the race. At times, it seems very long and drawn out. At times, it is challenging to follow because as a reader, I am unsure of the characters to pay attention to and remember because they will come up in the present storyline. On the contrary, Wren's story is very limited in place and in the number of characters. As such, the characters - including the dogs - develop an identity and, for me, a connection.

In the middle of the book, Olivia's story also narrows down in focus and establishes the emotional connections. The past connects to the presents, and the story comes together. As expected, the conclusion of the book brings together all the threads of the story into a neat package with a bow on it. It leaves the memory of a sweet story and a knowledge of a unique little snippet of history.

About the Book

This extraordinary novel, inspired by real events, tells the story of a female aviator who defies the odds to embark on a daring air race across the Pacific.

1927. Olivia "Livy" West is a fearless young pilot with a love of adventure. She yearns to cross oceans and travel the skies. When she learns of the Dole Air Race—a high-stakes contest to be the first to make the 2,400 mile Pacific crossing from the West Coast to Hawai'i—she sets her sights on qualifying. But it soon becomes clear that only men will make the cut. In a last-ditch effort to take part, Livy manages to be picked as a navigator for one of the pilots, before setting out on a harrowing journey that some will not survive.

1987. Wren Summers is down to her last dime when she learns she has inherited a remote piece of land on the Big Island with nothing on it but a dilapidated barn and an overgrown mac nut grove. She plans on selling it and using the money to live on, but she is drawn in by the mysterious objects kept in the barn by her late great-uncle—clues to a tragic piece of aviation history lost to time. Determined to find out what really happened all those years ago, Wren enlists the help of residents at a nearby retirement home to uncover Olivia’s story piece by piece. What she discovers is more earth-shattering, and closer to home, than she could have ever imagined.

About the Author

Sara Ackerman is the Hawai'i born, bestselling author of The Codebreaker's Secret, Radar Girls, Red Sky Over Hawaii, The Lieutenant’s Nurse, andIsland of Sweet Pies and Soldiers.

Sara's books have been labeled “unforgettable” by Apple Books, “empowering & deliciously visceral” by Book Riot, and New York Times bestselling authors Kate Quinn and Madeline Martin have praised Sara’s novels as “fresh and delightful” and “brilliantly written.” Amazon chose Radar Girls as a best book of the month, and ALA Booklist gave The Codebreaker’s Secret a starred review.

Find out more about Sara and her books at and follow her on Instagram @saraackermanbooks and on FB @ackermanbooks.


Excerpted from The Uncharted Flight of Olivia West by Sara Ackerman. Copyright © 2024 by Sara Ackerman. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A., a division of HarperCollins

Olivia San Diego, 1920

Livy had been coming to the airfield for months now but still had yet to go up in an airplane. On weekends, when Pa was out fishing, she would offer to wash the planes or do whatever odd jobs she could for a penny, while watching planes go up. Always hoping to get a ride, but so far out of luck. Though not for a lack of trying. She had been pestering Mr. Ryan for months now. “Paying customers only,” was his standard response. “Or students.” But so far, all students were men. A sixteen-year-old girl had no business in a cockpit.

Ryan Flying Company and School of Aviation was on the edge of the Dutch Flats alongside the San Diego Bay and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, a long Spanish-style building with a tall bell tower in the middle. Palm trees neatly lined up in front like green soldiers at attention. When the tide pulled out, you could smell salty brine and decaying sea life. The hangar was modern and clean, but it was plopped on a brown expanse of hard-packed mud that kicked up dust when dry. Of late, the place had become a magnet for all things aviation.

Mr. Ryan had begun letting other people park their planes here free of charge, and customers flocked for the sightseeing tours.

On a warm Sunday in March, after surviving a long sermon at church with her mother, Livy beelined it to the airfield. A new pilot had been hired for the tours and she was hoping he might be a softy, and maybe, just maybe, she could persuade him to take her up. Such a gloomy and gusty day, with dark clouds threatening rain, meant less people taking a tour. It also happened that Mr. Ryan was in Los Angeles for the week, and what he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.

Livy was hunched over, wiping down the wheels of Mr. Hall’s biplane, when she heard the incoming engine. She stood up to watch the wobbly machine approach. A storm was brewing to the south, you could taste it in the air, and that always made the pilots nervous. She watched the plane make a precarious drop before leveling off, and then come in for a hard landing. As soon as he came to a stop, the new pilot hopped out of the plane, waiting for his customer and holding a hand out when she finally disembarked. A red-haired woman in heels, face white as chalk.

Livy walked over, wiping her hands on her overalls. “How was it up there today?”

The woman staggered past Livy without even a glance. “Never again.”

The pilot trailed behind his passenger and shrugged. “What can I say? Usually, they’re begging for more.”

Once the woman left, zooming off in a shiny Model T, Livy moseyed over to the hangar and stood in the doorway. The pilot was at the counter drinking a Coke and studying a clipboard. With his goggles pulled up on his head, his thick blond hair stood out in all directions, as though he’d stuck his hand in an electric socket.

Livy cleared her throat.

He looked up. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“I’m Olivia West. I work here.”

More like volunteer and hope that people would pay her, but she could dream.

“Oh, right. Mr. Ryan said you might be here. I’m Heath Hazeltine, new pilot.” He was staring oddly at her, and for a second she wondered if she might have grease on her face, like she often did while working here, but then he said with a shake of his head, “I was expecting something different.”

“I come in on the weekends, wipe down planes and other odd jobs,” she said, for some reason feeling like she had to explain, then added, “I’m learning to fly.”

That was a stretch, too, but she did always listen to the pilots talk, watch how they got the propellers spinning and closely observe the takeoffs and landings. She knew which part of the runway was more rutted with potholes, and which angle was best for approach.

He cocked his head slightly. “That so?”

“It is.”

One side of his mouth turned up, just a hint. “I didn’t know women could fly airplanes, let alone teenage girls.”

Livy felt her whole face go red. “I’ll be seventeen in four months. And I’ll bet I know more about airplanes and weather than you do, especially down here in San Diego.”

All she really knew about him was that he’d come from Los Angeles and had flown in Hollywood some, doing stunts. No one had mentioned anything about him being so young. She had been picturing some old guy with a sun-beaten face and graying hair.

“Feisty. I like it,” he said.

She stood on her tippy toes and straightened up, all five feet three inches. Though her thick curls tucked under the hat added some extra height. “Take me up, and I’ll teach you a thing or two.”

He laughed. “What can you teach me?”

When he smiled, his whole face changed, making him seem even younger and a little less arrogant—and painfully handsome. Livy felt a swoosh in her stomach and her cheeks tingled. He couldn’t have been much older than twenty, and yet there was a certain worldliness about him. She found herself wanting to impress him.

“Like I said, I know everything there is to know about this area. What have you got to lose?” she said.

He looked at his watch. “My new job, for one. And I have another tour in twenty minutes, so even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Want to help me patch that big pothole in the runway?”

None of the other pilots ever offered to fill the potholes, they always figured someone else would do it. The mud stuck to everything and gave off a rank odor, and a lot of them saw it as beneath them.

“How about I go fill those holes for you, and you take me up after your tour,” she said.

She thought he was going to refuse her, like Mr. Ryan always did, but instead he nodded and said, “You’re on.”

Disbelief flooded through her. “Really?”

“Really. Now get out there before my next customer arrives.”

But the passengers never showed up, most likely on account of the weather, and the books were empty after that. Heath helped Livy up onto the wing with a big, rough hand and a rock-solid arm. He moved like a man who was extremely comfortable in his own skin, as though the world rotated on his time. Livy decided that he was the perfect man for the job. You wanted your first time up to be memorable, but also to be survivable. Confidence was an asset.

“Sure you want to do this? Those clouds look formidable,” he said.

Livy had noticed the band of charcoal clouds at sea, heralding the foul weather moving up from Mexico. A sudden chill came over her, and she tried to blot out the memory that always accompanied storms blowing in. The dark thing that would always be with her, always haunt the recesses of her mind. Blinding salt spray, cold waves smashing over the bow and washing everything from the deck, the sound of her name being stolen by the whipping wind. Olivia! The last moments of his chafed hand holding on to hers. Her heart began to squeeze in on itself, but she willed the thoughts away.

This storm was likely to be a bad one, but hell if she was going to blow her only chance to fly. Timed right, they’d be able to outrun it.

“Positive. From the looks of it, we have about thirty-seven minutes before that front hits here. Just head north along the coast and we should be back in time.”

She climbed into her seat, and he leaned in and tightened the belt on her waist. “Thirty-seven, huh? Not thirty-six?” he said, close enough that she caught a whiff of mint and salt water.

When he pulled away, their eyes met. Chocolate brown with flecks of fire. Her first instinct was to look away, but instead, she held his gaze.

“Nope, thirty-seven. Let’s go, we’re wasting time,” she said. “Oh, and you’ll probably want to come in from the east on your approach. The wind will swing around coming in off the ocean when it moves in.”

When he stepped back, he almost fell off the wing, catching himself on the wire. They both laughed, breaking whatever strange thing it was that had just passed between them. Without another word, he hopped in and started up the engine. After a few sputters, it chugged to life. Livy slid her goggles on, and made sure her cap was strapped tight. The whole plane buzzed, sending vibrations from the tips of her toes to the crown of her head. As they bounced down the runway, gathering speed, she could hardly believe her luck.

One, two, three. Liftoff.

The shift from clunky and earthbound to weightlessness was unmistakable. Everything went light and buoyant and yet Livy was pinned to her seat as the plane went up. It was a steep climb and all she could see was sky in front of her. She let her head fall back and closed her eyes, imagining herself as an albatross soaring. The hum from the wires that held the wings together grew louder the faster they went. Heath let out a holler and Livy found herself half laughing, half crying. It was even more wonderful than she’d imagined.

When they banked to the right and leveled out some, she saw that she had a bird’s eye view of San Diego Bay, Coronado Island and the city itself—white buildings, red roofs and palm trees. The wind from earlier had died down, leaving an eerie stillness in its wake. They flew toward the cliffs of Point Loma and beyond that, the blue Pacific. There were none of the usual bumps and drops that everyone talked about. It was smooth sailing and she was in awe.

About six minutes out, the nose of the plane suddenly pointed skyward and they began climbing sharply. Pretty soon, they were nearly vertical. Livy knew all her specs of the Curtiss JN 4 “Jenny”—top speed was about eighty miles an hour, she dove well, but when climbing fast, she had a tendency to stall. So, what the heck was Heath doing?

Buy Links
Barnes & Noble
Books A Million

Social Links

Author Website

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

Friday, February 9, 2024

A Quantum Love Story

A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen
  A Quantum Love Story
Author:  Mike Chen
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2024. 352 pages.
ISBN:  ‎ 0778310345 / 978-0778310341

Rating:   ★★★★

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

Opening Sentence:  "Carter Cho wasn’t really into science experiments."

Favorite Quote:  "Stop always looking for patterns, embrace the weirdo sh@t."

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


Time travel. A time loop. A love story. An impossible choice. This book is science fiction meets Groundhog Day, which makes February an appropriate release date.

The science fiction first. Mariana Pineda is a neuroscientist for ReLive, a company with a treatment to freeze selective memories in individuals such that they do not fade or get lost. The idea of memories - the ones we make, the ones we keep, the ones we lose, the ones we hope we never lose, the grief of watching someone we love not remember - is a powerful motif in this book and one that resonates with me.

Carter Cho is a technician. They meet when Mariana and a team from her company come to tour Carter's workplace, the home of a particle accelerator, that is in its testing phase. The issue is that the accelerator explodes. Carter knows this is coming because he has lived through it many times before, and he remembers each loop. He knows he is stuck. Mariana does not know any of this until, in one iteration, Carter pulls her into the loop.

Now, the Groundhog Day scenario. There are two people - and only two people - who are aware that they are living the same four days over and over again. The goal is to come out of the loop and resume their lives. But is it? Some loops are about finding a way out. Some are about experimenting and trying new things and indulging for life - health, finances, etc. - will all reset in four days. As Carter and Mariana come together again and again, a connection, a friendship, and perhaps something more.

Of course, Mariana and Carter both have back stories. The opportunity for time travel and a reset button provides a way for both of them to reconcile with or resolve their pasts. Carter and his family discord. Mariana and the loss of her best friend and sister.

Some of the loop descriptions are similar. There is a lot of food and cooking. Perhaps, the joy of a sublime bite of food is about remaining present in the moment, no matter how fleeting the moment. Nevertheless, it is a bit too much and slows down the pace of the story at times. In some loops, creatures emerge and come to life, somewhat Night of the Museum style. A connection is drawn, but the entire episode does not develop into much. It is just there.

It is an interesting question to consider what might break the loop and as the book description states, the sacrifice that may have to be made. "The only thing harder than finding someone in a time loop is losing them."

The answer as to how the book addresses that question would, of course, be a spoiler. The ending seems rather quick and less developed given the premise about time and space and as compared to the development of the story in 4 day increments with each loop. Nevertheless, the emotion in it rings true and leaves a lasting image of love and love remembered. That makes the book work for me.

About the Book

Mike Chen brings us an epic love story—in a time loop. When strangers Mariana Pineda and Carter Cho get stuck together repeating the same four days, finally reaching Friday might mean having to give up the connection growing between them.

On Thursday at 12:42pm, Carter Cho is working as a technician at a particle accelerator when it explodes, striking him with a green energy—and sending him back in time to Monday morning. And this happens over and over again. Which at first is interesting, but quickly becomes lonely as the world moves through the same motions and only he changes. If he ever wants to get out of the time loop, he needs help.

On one of the loops, he finally manages to bring Mariana Pineda in with him by getting her struck by the same energy at the same moment. Now they have to find out how to get the accelerator to finish its current test so that they can finally reach Friday.

Along the way, Carter and Mariana help each other through grief, decisions about unfulfilling jobs, and confronting difficult pasts—all the while eating lots of great food since their bank accounts and cholesterol reset with every loop. But the longer they stay in the loop, the more they realize that getting out of it, might mean they’ll have to give up the connection growing between them that’s slowly leading to love.

About the Author

Mike Chen is the New York Times bestselling author of Star Wars: Brotherhood, Here and Now and Then, Light Years from Home and other novels. He has covered geek culture for sites such as Nerdist, and, and in a different life, he’s covered the NHL. A member of SFWA, Mike lives in the Bay Area with his wife, daughter and many rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter.


Excerpted from A Quantum Love Story by Mike Chen. Copyright © 2024 by Mike Chen. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

Carter Cho wasn’t really into science experiments.

Otherwise, he might have completed his degree in quantum mechanics. Cooking experiments, though? Totally different, because there was a real joy to that process. But setting a hypothesis, identifying controls, and looking for…stuff?

Seriously, that seemed like such a slog.

Except for this particular Thursday morning, on the corner of a crosswalk and standing across from the world’s biggest, most advanced particle accelerator, a science experiment felt necessary.

He didn’t really have a choice. It seemed to be the only way to possibly understand or even escape his very strange predicament.

Carter checked the time on his phone, waiting for it to tick specifically to twenty-three seconds past 8:22 a.m.

At that moment, the crosswalk light would switch, signaling for pedestrians to go.

Then everything would cascade, a waterfall of specific actions by the world around him:

The person on Carter’s right would step out first.

The person behind him would wait an extra four seconds, eyes stuck on his phone.

Annoyed, the woman next to that person would let out an exaggerated sigh, move around, then rush forward six steps into the street before catching her shoe.

Then she would stumble forward, her coffee spilling. The first time he went through this, he’d noticed the spill just in time to sidestep it before continuing on.

All of these actions sat line by line on the old-fashioned paper notebook in his hands, a checklist of what was to come with the precision delivered by his photographic memory.

Science experiments all led to a result. As for this, he wasn’t quite sure what the result, or even the purpose, might be. He already knew he was in a loop of some sort, something that started the instant he woke up on Monday mornings.

And it always ended up with the huge facility across the street exploding.

The Hawke Accelerator, both a modern marvel of technology circa 2094 and also some sort of weird top-secret project that no one really understood—now also the place that would simply go boom.

Carter should know. The first time he experienced this, he was in the accelerator chamber’s observation room, right in the heart of where the go boom happened at precisely 12:42 p.m. on Thursday. Which was today, again. Just a few hours from now.

He’d been through this six times before, each time expanding his acute understanding of the details surrounding him. Usually he wrote things down at the end of the day, a memory trick he’d learned about himself very early on that helped cement the details into place, so even when he started the loop over without any scribbled notes to organize his thoughts, his photographic memory recalled it.

But this morning, he went in reverse, writing out the exact steps as they were meant to be.

And then he’d make sure it played out that way, bit by bit.

After that, he wasn’t sure. Carter thought of his parents, their usual voices chastising him for his lack of planning and forethought, how his teenage foray into coding and hacking was more about fun than applying himself, and now look at him, simply a technician running tests and tightening screws. Even now that he’d been through this loop several times, he hadn’t bothered to call them back from their birthday messages. Part of him used the excuse that he should stay as close to the original path as possible, but he knew better.

Even if this weird loop existence meant a complete lack of consequences, calling his parents was the last thing he wanted to do.

Carter checked his phone one more time, five seconds remaining until the crosswalk kicked off the sequence. He gripped the notebook, staring at the list of things to come.

A chime came from the crosswalk. And Carter began to move.

The person on the right moved.

The man behind Carter stayed.

An exasperated sigh came from behind him. Carter kept his eyes on his notebook, counting steps in his head. “Ack,” the woman said, right when Carter sidestepped. His focus moved down to the next item on the list, then the next, then the next, not once looking up. Instead, he executed through a combination of memory and instinct, sliding sideways when a cyclist rolled by on the sidewalk and slowing down just enough to follow in a group waiting at the front entrance of Hawke.

Someone coughed, marking a time to pause and wait thirteen seconds, enough time to review the next items on the notebook still in front of him:

Front desk hands out mobile device for the David AI digital assistant.

Security guard says something about visiting group from ReLive project.

Passing scientist asks what time Dr. Beckett’s flight gets in.

He moved through the security gate designated for employees, taking him past the lobby threshold and over to the main hallway that split in three directions. He stopped, leaned against the wall and waited for the final item to come to pass. Nothing special or unique, just the sound of heels walking in a hurried cadence from his right to his left. Carter checked the notebook, waiting for the visitor’s David AI to speak exactly what he wrote.

“Your next meeting starts in two minutes,” the AI said from the small mobile unit in his familiar London accent. “Oops! Looks like you might be late. Should I give the meeting notice of that?”

Carter mouthed the words as the visitor spoke, his voice fading down the hallway. “No, thanks. I’ll just hurry.”

David’s simulated voice could still be heard as Carter put the notebook down, holding it at his side while considering what just happened. He wasn’t particularly religious, though part of him wondered if he’d been condemned to some sort of purgatory. The predictability of it all, the strange exactness of everything he saw playing out as written on the notebook in his hands.

The first few times, he’d felt disbelief. Then curiosity. Then amusement.

This time, well, he guessed that was the purpose of this experiment: to figure out how he felt knowing he could predict every exact movement of every person he encountered.

Disbelief, curiosity, amusement, and now the whole thing was just unnerving.

Nothing out of turn. Nothing different. Nothing unexpected.

He blew out a sigh, hands pushing back his wavy black hair. Something tugged at him, a wish for things to be different. A person walking from his left instead of his right. Or the plant behind him coming to life and biting his arm. Or a piano dropping out of the sky and smashing his foot.

Anything at all to end this.

Ten minutes passed with Carter lost in his own thoughts, but that in itself turned out to be a change. Normally, he’d take a walk to clear his head, but the list’s finality wound up freezing him. All the previous loops, he’d tried to follow his original path as closely as possible, always ending back in the observation room where the accelerator started to deteriorate and a massive blast of energy struck him. Perhaps that was the only real difference, as he’d changed spots in those final moments to see exactly where the bolt landed on the floor, even using his photographic memory to draw a precise grid of the floor panels.

What he could do with that information, he wasn’t sure. But it had to mean something.

This time, though, a weight paused him, an all-encompassing blanket that left him pondering far longer than he’d ever done.

And then it hit him: he’d deviated farther from his path than before, and nothing bad had happened.

Heck, if he wanted something bad to happen simply so it could, maybe it’d be best if he pushed farther. Or even went in the complete other direction.

At this point, he’d normally turn right, check in with the technician’s desk, grab his cart of tools and begin going through his assignments for the day. But a sharp, almost foreign defiance grabbed him.

He would turn left. He would not check in with his supervisor. Instead he’d go…

Carter’s eyes scanned, looking for the most opposite thing he could possibly do.

Of course.

His steps echoed as he pressed ahead, a strange jubilance to his feet. He moved around people milling about or talking about actual work things, practically skipping with joy until he turned to the entrance of the Hawke cafeteria and straight to the bakery station and its waft of morning pastries.

Ten minutes passed with Carter lost in his own thoughts, but that in itself turned out to be a change. Normally, he’d take a walk to clear his head, but the list’s finality wound up freezing him. All the previous loops, he’d tried to follow his original path as closely as possible, always ending back in the observation room where the accelerator started to deteriorate and a massive blast of energy struck him. Perhaps that was the only real difference, as he’d changed spots in those final moments to see exactly where the bolt landed on the floor, even using his photographic memory to draw a precise grid of the floor panels.

What he could do with that information, he wasn’t sure. But it had to mean something.

This time, though, a weight paused him, an all-encompassing blanket that left him pondering far longer than he’d ever done.

And then it hit him: he’d deviated farther from his path than before, and nothing bad had happened.

Heck, if he wanted something bad to happen simply so it could, maybe it’d be best if he pushed farther. Or even went in the complete other direction.

At this point, he’d normally turn right, check in with the technician’s desk, grab his cart of tools and begin going through his assignments for the day. But a sharp, almost foreign defiance grabbed him.

He would turn left. He would not check in with his supervisor. Instead he’d go…

Carter’s eyes scanned, looking for the most opposite thing he could possibly do.

Of course.

His steps echoed as he pressed ahead, a strange jubilance to his feet. He moved around people milling about or talking about actual work things, practically skipping with joy until he turned to the entrance of the Hawke cafeteria and straight to the bakery station and its waft of morning pastries.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s totally fine. I, uh,” he said. She bit down on her lip, brow scrunched, though eventually they locked gazes. “I should have watched where I was going.” He gestured at the growing coffee stain on his outfit.

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. It’s work clothes. It gets dirty. No big deal.”

The woman’s expression broke, relief lifting her cheeks into a toothy grin, one of those unexpected sights that made everything a little bit better. She looked back at the group, then the coffee cup in her hands. “Damn it, I spilled a bunch. Is there a place to get a refill?”

“You’re going to the main conference room?”

“Yeah. Spent all week there.”

All week. All the times Carter had been through the loop before, even seen the names of various guest groups on schedules, and yet they’d never crossed paths—not until he did the exact opposite of his routine.

Funny how that worked.

“We finally get to see the observation room, though. In a little bit.” She held up her coffee cup. “Just need a refill somewhere along the way.”

“Café is back there,” he said, thumb pointing behind him. “Way back there.”

“Ah,” she said with furrowed brow, a conflicted look that seemed about much more than a coffee refill. “Probably should meet with the team. Not enough time.”

Not enough time. The concept almost made Carter laugh. “Well,” he said, pulling out a bag, “a donut for making you late?”

She took the bag and peaked inside, cheeks rising with a sudden smile. “I don’t usually like donuts. But these glazed ones. Simple, you know?” She shuffled the bottom of the bag to nudge the donut out the opening. “Are you sure? I spilled coffee on you.”

“Yeah. I’m, uh,” he started, pausing as their gazes lingered. “My fault for running into you.”

The wrapper crinkled as she examined it up close before taking a small bite. “I should get back to my team. Maybe they’ll hand out free coffee by the time we get to the observation room. Thanks for this.”

Carter dipped his chin, a quick farewell as he considered the inevitability of the next few hours, a march toward a chaotic and violent reset. He matched her smile, though as she turned, he pondered saying something.

Normally, he wouldn’t. But with the world exploding soon? He went with the opposite of normal.

“My name’s Carter, by the way,” he said. “Carter, the guy who gives people donuts.”

Her gaze shifted, first looking at the floor, then up at the ceiling, even at the bag on her shoulder before finally locking eyes again. “Mariana,” she said, holding up the donut bag, “the woman always looking for coffee.” She bit down on her lip before glancing around. “I’m going to tell you something completely random.”

“Okay?” Carter said slowly. “About donuts?”

She laughed, an easy, bright laugh, though her eyes carried something far heavier. “No. The group I’m with. We’re touring the facility. But I’m quitting. They don’t know yet. Today’ll be my last day. Science is great until it’s not.” Her shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Probably because we’ll never see each other again.” She spun on her heel, an abrupt move followed by determined steps forward.

“Not unless you need another glazed donut.”

She turned, slowing as she walked away backward, this mystery scientist who spilled coffee on him and then caught his attention. Because the idea that someone didn’t like most donuts, well, that was as opposite as anything he’d ever encountered in his life. “Maybe that,” she said with a small grin.

“I’ll remember your name in case we do,” he said. “Mariana.”

Her fingers fluttered in a quick wave, then she turned, and Carter leaned against the wall, ignoring the people who came and went.

Mariana. Maybe he should write that down, just in case she became important. He pulled the notebook out from under his arm, only to find the pages soaked with coffee.

A pen would rip through those pages. He’d have to trust his memory to recall her name, her voice, her face. On the off chance that they ever met again.

None of it mattered anyway, but as experiments went, this morning did at least prove helpful.

Now Carter knew that he could do anything, even the opposite of normal. And that might just lead to him escaping this thing. Or, at the very least, a lot more pastries.

Mariana disappeared into the sea of people, and as she did, her words echoed in his mind. First her group went to the conference room, then the observation room above the accelerator core. He knew that space well; after all, he’d been in that same room when everything began to explode and—


That was it. A possible connection that he’d somehow missed before. He’d been there, of all places, summoned to check some of the power conduits lining the walls as the whole thing fell apart. Could that exact space be important?

Carter’s head tilted up. Maybe the observation room held the key to everything.

And if it did, what would happen if others were caught in it too? 
Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.