Saint X: A Novel

Release Date:  Today, February 18, 2020 / Available here from your local indie bookstore!

There are two sides to everything.  Simple folk wisdom that we use and hear so much it’s almost meaningless.  Nevertheless, it is still wisdom.  And it is this universal dichotomy that Alexis Schaitkin examines in her excellent novel Saint X.  Further, where I am today is rainy, foggy and gloomy, just nasty, so, heck yeah, let’s go to a Caribbean island.  Saint X itself is an island with two sides.  There’s the beautiful side where the resorts are, and the not so beautiful where the islanders go about their lives.  The beautiful side is still relatively unspoiled, not overrun by tourists, so the Thomases congratulate themselves on their choice of vacation spot on Indigo Bay.  Their two daughters, college freshman Alison and seven-year-old Clair, are of two minds about the whole thing.  Pretty, vivacious Alison wants to party.  Clair is a rather odd child, pale and awkward, an observer.  On the last morning of their vacation, Clair wakes her parents and tells them that Alison is gone.  Just gone.  Her body is found sometime later under a beautiful waterfall on an uninhabited island overrun by goats.  And two black men employed by the resort, Edwin and Clive, are suspected.  She partied with them.

Ah, so it’s a murder mystery then?  No, no, it most definitely is not. Certainly it is reminiscent of the famous Natalee Holloway disappearance on the island of Aruba.  In this case, we know that there is a death, but, as in Natalee’s case, we don’t know if it’s a murder.  Unquestionably there’s a mystery, and there are bereft parents, searches, law enforcement, news media, interrogations, witnesses, all that.  However, the depth and unquestionable quality of this book places it well above a “murder mystery” in the customary sense of that term.  Two sides.  Heads, tails.  Concave, convex.  Beauty, squalor.  Edwin and Clive.  Alison and Clair.

Clair is left to grieve and come to terms for the rest of her life – her shining star of an older sister, the beautiful, accomplished girl who snuck out at night to party, drink and dance with Edwin and Clive.  “My sister was an innocent, blameless in her horrific fate.  And it was all her fault.”  Edwin and Clive, too, must start over, and Clive moves to New York where Clair pursues him and, ultimately, develops an odd relationship with this man, built on both suspicion and trust.  “I had to find a way to understand how truth and untruth make each other.”  Saint X  – truly excellent fiction.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Celadon Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

M.T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family

  Now available in hardcover from Celadon Books / Due in paperback on June 30, 2020.  Support your local indie bookstore with your purchase or pre-order!

Welcome to Scandinavia – again (and again).  Sweden, in this case, but not just another Scandinavian mystery novel.  Yes, there’s a murder, and no, we’re not sure who the murderer is, but the mystery is not the story.  The murder may be the reason we have a story, but it is not the story.  The Sandells, the nearly normal family, now there’s the story.  Adam Sandell is a minister in the Church of Sweden, and his wife Ulrika is an attorney.  Daughter Stella is turning eighteen, finishing school and dreaming of traveling on her own in Asia.  Always a headstrong girl, she’s highly intelligent, but likes control and is quick to anger.  Stella loves her parents but is a challenging daughter, and as a friend, she is loyal to a fault.  She stands firm in her individuality, refusing to be anyone other than her unique self.  And she stands accused of murder.

Adam and Ulrika Sandell love each other deeply.  They love Stella as only parents can, but each relates to her quite differently, and their reactions in the face of the charges against her are markedly different as well.  A pastor and an attorney and all that is presumed to entail:  morality, ethics, beliefs, legal and religious standards, personal integrity.  Firm convictions and principles.  Holding fast on higher ground.  Really?  Is it humanly possible?  In these circumstances?  I’d guess so; I’d certainly hope so.  Is it possible for this particular pair, though?

As robust a cast of characters as you’ll find, and as flawed as human beings come.  None will elicit your complete sympathy throughout.  The murder victim himself is pretty despicable, and, in fact, I’m not sure Mr. Edvardsson could have pulled his concept off if the victim had been worthy of our concern.   So then . . . are some less-worthy people more worthy of murder?  Interesting question.  Here’s another:  Did Stella kill him?  You know, I almost felt like I became a character in this book because there are decisions to be made, big, crucial ones; and so many people are in over their heads.  And that’s where you come in.  Calmer, unbiased heads must take a look.  Readers, in all your infinite wisdom, I guess it’s up to you.  Enjoy Sweden.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Celadon Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

 

Alexandra Fuller’s Travel Light, Move Fast

  Release Date:  August 6, 2019 / Travel light but move fast to your local indie bookstore and shop here!

If Alexandra Fuller writes a shopping list, read it; margin notes in her high school biology text, read them; weekly menu plans with beans and franks every Tuesday, read those, too.  Anything you can get your hands on.  Ms. Fuller will always have something original to say – even about the beans and franks.  But, of course, if you are familiar with her brilliant memoirs, you know she is from highly original stock, the peripatetic Fuller family of here and there, Africa, and in her work, she returns to her family again and again without ever losing an iota of freshness or impact.

Of the five children born to Tom and Nicola Fuller, Alexandra and her sister Vanessa are the only two who survived to adulthood – a family of survivors, actually:  tough, hard-working and hard-drinking, creative, intelligent as all get-out, eccentric, frivolous, flawed, forever bereaved, and determined to cope.  And if coping doesn’t work, then cope harder.  At times, over the years, the Fullers were even without a “fixed abode”, but they always managed to rebound, eventually settling on a farm in Zambia raising bananas and fish.

In Travel Light, Move Fast, advice from Tom Fuller appears as chapter headings, and, perhaps, this optimistic dreamer is best summed up in the first one:  “In the Unlikely Event of Money, Buy Two Tickets to Paris”.  Never one to let insecurity get in his way, he would have done just that in such an unlikely event.  In fact, he and his beloved Nicola are on vacation in Budapest when he falls seriously ill and is hospitalized.  Alexandra, now living in Wyoming, flies to Budapest to be with her parents and returns with her mother and her father’s ashes to the farm in Zambia and to a family in the aftermath of another death.  Determined.  Shattered.  Forever bereaved.

As for me, well, I am both besotted with and puzzled by the Fullers.  I have been ever since Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight:  An African Childhood, and I return to them every time the talented Alexandra offers a new opportunity.  If you know Ms. Fuller’s good work, you will be saddened beyond measure by Travel Light, Move Fast.  If you’re new to her books, this latest can be read as a stand-alone, but I’m going to be honest with you, Readers.  While I’m usually not much troubled by jumping in and out of sequence, I’m not sure this book is the best place to make your first acquaintance with this writer and her family.  You see, it is a book of endings.  Personally I’m glad I began at the beginning, but the choice is yours, of course.  The very best advice I can give you is quite simple, really.  Read Ms. Fuller’ books.  All of them.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Penguin Press via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and Edelweiss for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Chasing My Cure: A Doctor’s Race to Turn Hope into Action

  Release Date:  September 10, 2019 / Support your local indie bookstore by purchasing a copy here!

Can’t really say why I’ve been avoiding medical memoirs lately, but this one…..well, this one got in my face, in my head and simply wouldn’t be denied.  After losing his mother to a brain tumor while he was an undergrad, David Fajgenbaum committed himself to becoming a doctor.  He wanted to fight back against cancer, however while in medical school, he found himself feeling extremely tired, his lymph nodes were swollen and other symptoms began to develop as well.  Doctors suspected lymphoma or other blood cancer, but this was not a positive diagnosis.  With lightning speed, he became sicker and sicker:  pain, nausea, massive fluid retention, organ failure, ICU, not expected to live, saying good-bye to friends and family.  Then, just as unexpectedly, his condition stabilizes and he’s released from the hospital, only to relapse soon after.  Finally a diagnosis, and it is not lymphoma.  Good news.  Rather, it was HHV-8-negative, idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease, and he had to google that one.  Almost invariably fatal with death occurring from multiple organ failure an average of one year after diagnosis.  So his illness had a name, but little else, and it was certainly not good news.  David was to suffer five near-death experiences from organ failure.

Castleman disease is one of many orphan diseases, orphaned because they are so rare that study and research for a cure does not come with enough bang for the buck.  Maybe one researcher somewhere, maybe not.  Maybe one study, maybe not.  And David’s illness, as an additional complication, is a variation of this hothouse orchid of a disease, not just your “everyday” version.  So, here, readers, is where the story lies.  David – Dr. Fajgenbaum – chasing his cure.  Around bouts of his dreadful illness, he finishes medical school, but rather than going into a residency program afterward, he goes for an MBA.  He’s going to need business as well as medical savvy because, by now, he has learned how research programs work, and time is critically short.  He realizes he’s going to have to find his own cure, probably through off-label use of drugs already FDA-approved for other illnesses.  You will be astounded by this young man’s story and by his insightful look at the state of medical research.  Everybody, thumbs up and a standing O.  Good job all the way around, Dr. Fajgenbaum.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Ballantine Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Olaf Olafsson’s The Sacrament

    Release Date:  December 3, 2019 / Support your local indie book store and snag a copy here!

A good book, this.  Spare and haunting as Scandinavian works often are, suspenseful and mysterious, a bleak, cerebral look at the darker sides of otherwise decent human beings.  And still I couldn’t help wishing for an even better book – because I think it could have been.  Perhaps it is just that – a “look at” rather than a “look into”.  Motivations are pretty apparent, but something was missing or in the way of understanding the “who” of the characters.

Sister Johanna is sent by Cardinal Raffin to Iceland to investigate allegations against Father August Frans, headmaster of a Catholic school there.  Initially we don’t know what the allegations are, but one is tempted to make an educated guess, of course.  Other than speaking Icelandic, Sister seems an unlikely choice for this assignment, but Cardinal Raffin has knowledge that he holds against her and it soon becomes apparent that this is not meant to be, must not be, a serious investigation.  No one really wants to get at the truth, to have it known.

While the book moves back and forth in time providing background, I still felt that something, some piece or pieces were missing, and I found the chronology somewhat confusing at times, though easy enough to resolve.  Maybe just me and my soggy synapses.  Of course, it’s a rare book that ticks all the boxes, and in spite of all that and the painfully guarded characters, this book is a worthwhile read.  As usual, the driver for me is that I had to know.  So will you, and when all is said and done, you might find yourself conflicted about what you know.  You’ll know the who and the why right enough, but trust me, not just anyone would do….that.  Hmmm, a book that drives you to find out and then leaves you mulling its outcome.  Now, you see, that sort of quandary, that sort of something to think about, can go on the plus side for Mr. Olafsson’s book.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Ecco via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Will World War II ever cease to fascinate us?  I certainly hope not, nor should it for, clearly, we’re abysmally slow learners.  With The Bastard Brigade, Sam Kean brings us yet another story – the Allied efforts to prevent Hitler and his Nazi scientists from developing an atomic weapon.  Or, uh, ahem, at least, to keep them from developing one before we did.  Germany’s Uranium Club versus the Manhattan Project of the US.  Of course, this is not a new story, but, as told by Mr Kean, it is both chilling and oddly charming.  I swear!  Now how the hell did he pull that off?  Like a man with a keen sense of the absurd who knows exactly what he’s doing, that’s how.

First of all, Mr. Kean is a scientist, and a brief course in rudimentary nuclear physics comes with the price of admission, illustrated nicely, thank you very much, in a way that an eighth grader could understand.  Enriched uranium?  Hey, guess what?  I know what that terms mean now, and it was absolutely painless.  Heavy water?  Got that one, too.  In 1940, the Vemork Hydroelectric Plant on an icy, desolate plateau 100 miles west of Oslo, Norway, was the only producer of heavy water in the world, and Hitler’s crew put in their order for hundreds of pounds of the heretofore seldom-sold stuff in January of that year.  (My heart nearly burst with joy when Mr. Kean describes the Vemork officials as being in a state of “flabbergastation” over Germany’s order, and it is my fervent hope that’s actually a word because the Lord knows we need it, but perhaps Mr. Kean was only being tongue in cheek.  He’s more than capable of that, and thank you very much, Mr. Kean.)  Anyway I was “flabbergastated” to learn that it took two dangerous commando raids to remove the existing heavy water supply before the Nazis could get it.  Geez, who knew?  Now there’s a “knowledge knugget” for you, and we have only scratched the surface.

Oddball characters and anecdotes abound, such as Moe Berg, professional baseball player and multi-lingual Princeton man –  first and most unlikely atomic espionage agent.  Madame Curie’s daughter Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot.  The rocky start of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA.  Joseph Kennedy, Jr., eldest Kennedy son, brother of JFK.  Wasn’t he shot down in WWII or his plane crashed – or something?  It exploded, actually, in a bizarre mission constructed from fear of an atomic Germany.  Kennedy, Jr. volunteered, and every plane after his that made the same attempt was lost as well.  I must make myself stop talking about this book.  Loved it, loved it, loved it, and I’m just your average grumpy ol’ she-bear.  If you’re a WWII devotee, a science geek, sports fan, second hand adrenaline junkie, any sort of history buff, weaponry aficionado………..just name a niche.  Cross stitch?  Well, hey, OK then, even if there’s nothing for your particular niche, you’ll still love this book.  Betcha.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Olivia Hawker’s One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow

We’ve all been told that you never get a second chance to make a good first impression, and this book has that going on with a title that should live forever.  First line is good, too.  A killer – literally.  “I was leading the cows to the milking shed when my pa shot Mr. Webber.”  Nothing, not one thing could have stood between me and this book after that glorious beginning.  The Heavens opened, and the angels sang.  However……….oh, hold my hand, please, while I confess.  Further reading betrayed me, and I found myself determined to dislike this one, to find fault.  Melodramatic, a book in search of a direction, hyper-indulgent descriptive language, sentences that rambled on forever.  In other words, I was peevish and digging it.  Continued to read, though, maybe just to see how bad it could be, but author Olivia Hawker continued as well.  Stitch by stitch, she built a gorgeous tapestry of a book – this very book – and my gnarly old heart had to relent.  I gave it up to her work, and the angels sang once more.

Ms. Hawker says she wanted to write about death, however the book she wrote (perhaps inevitably so) is about life and the living – the eternal cycle, the hopeful over and over of all living things.  Just to set the scene for you, it’s 1876 in the Wyoming territories, and the Webber and Bemis families have adjoining homesteads twenty miles away from Paintrock, the nearest town.  No other neighbors, and there is bad blood between the two families.  Death?  It was never far away in those days.  You will fret and worry and care.  Maybe you’ll find a little fault, too, but it’s been a long time since a book earned my respect as this one did.  Worked for it.  Imagine that.  High praise, and enough said.  Readers, expect to be rewarded.

This title flew into bookstores back in October so shop your local indie bookstore for a copy.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Lake Union Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.