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.

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.

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.

Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage

It’s 1928 and, in Britain, women of property now have the vote thanks to brave and tireless women like Mattie Simpkin.  Even so, Mattie stays in contact with her suffragette sisters, continues to lecture on her experiences and for the right of all women to vote.  She also carries a small club of polished ash in her handbag and lives in a charming old house called the Mousehole with her friend and assistant Florrie Lee, known as The Flea.  When they engage a sixteen-year-old housemaid named Ida, Mattie begins to see just how limited ordinary young women of the day actually are.  With Ida as the first member and reluctant recruit, Mattie begins a club for girls and young women – outdoor activities, exercise, sleuthing games, debate and adventures.  Mattie believes in living life with brio, and it all goes swimmingly, as they say.  Until, that is, Mattie, always a confident woman, becomes a bit over-involved, puts a foot wrong, steps in something smelly, and it all goes to hell.  But keep your eye on the wickedly intelligent Miss Simpkin.  This good woman has a sure instinct for steering the right course, and she will find her way.

Tell you what.  I think I was in the mood for (or maybe in need of) a case of the Brits.  Steadying, bracing, what is it?  Don’t know about you, but I can only go so long without ‘em, and Ms. Evans book is so very, very……well, it’s as British as a cup of tea and a biscuit.  Characters, time and place, humor – loved all of it, and there’s an interesting political timeliness as well.  Topping, spot on, jolly good, righty-o and all that.  This one will put you right as rain.

Available now, so shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by HarperCollins Publishers / Harper Perennial 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.

Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo

According to Christy Lefteri, the question she asks in her novel is this.  What does it mean to see?  Afra, an artist and the wife of the beekeeper, is blind.  Is it because her eyes are damaged or because she does not want to see any more than she has already seen?  Nuri, the beekeeper, sees a small child called Mohammed.  Does this child exist or does Nuri want to see him, need to see him?  When do we see what is there to be seen, and when are we blind?

As soon as I began to read, my question was this:  Who is Christy Lefteri, and how does she know so much about Syria, the Syrian people, the culture and its refugees?  Is she Syrian?  No, she isn’t, but this talented writer must also be a magician because I was transported, a rare and profound experience.  As she explains in the Author’s Note, Ms. Lefteri worked as a volunteer at a UNICEF refugee center in Greece – absorbing faces, stories, mental images of Syrian and Afghani refugees.  Back in the UK between stints, she engaged a Syrian tutor to teach her Arabic, and this young man also served to verify authenticity as she wrote this fine book.  OK, that’s the background, the good practical answer, but it doesn’t explain the magic.

But bees are magic, aren’t they?  Must be.  Bees turn pollen into honey.  Somehow they build perfectly uniform cells in which to store honey and raise their young.  They communicate without words, cooperate, sacrifice and live peacefully within the hive.  Oh, wow, magic.  We can’t do any of that, and we’re humans.  In a once peaceful Syria, Nuri and his cousin Mustafa, a scientist, kept bees that could do all these magic things, but it is not peaceful now and the bees have died.  Mustafa sends his wife and daughter to safety in the UK and soon joins them, but Nuri and Afra stay behind amid increasing fear and destruction.  Mustafa begs Nuri to come to the UK where they can start again with the bees they love, and, at last, Nuri and Afra join thousands and thousands of refugees making their way out of the Middle East and across Europe.  Hoping, despairing, giving up, hoping.  No guarantees.

Something powerful going on with those bees.  Is the Universe calling on Line One?  So many bee-themed books in recent years, don’t you think?  And here’s another one………that you should read.  Doesn’t matter how many bee books there are.  This one.

This one buzzed onto bookstore shelves back in late August, so go ahead and order up a copy from your local indie bookstore now.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine / 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.

Louisa Treger’s The Dragon Lady

I was ready for a good chunk of a novel – not genre, not froth, not gimmick, not avant garde.  And by chunk, I’m not talking about heft, but rather, density, depth, a novel that you unpack as you read.  A novel that ends before you want it to.  Are you with me?  I just wanted a dadblamed book!

So…..you know that first line thing, lines that get the job done?  Well, here’s one.  “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget, yet the smallest thing takes me back to the time the Dragon Lady was shot.”  Let the unpacking begin.  The Dragon Lady is Virginia Courtauld (Gini), wife of Stephen Courtauld, and the dragon is not a dragon.  It is a snake, a fearsome serpent, tattooed up the side of her leg.  Scandalous.  How far up it goes no one knows except Stephen.  Did such a tattoo ever exist?  Not sure about that, but Gini and Stephen did, and The Dragon Lady is a fictionalization of their lives – Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld.  In fact, their home, La Rochelle in what was then Rhodesia, is now a hotel.

Stephen’s family is British and very wealthy.  To be more precise, they are upright folks, filthy, stinking rich, and so is he.  He’s a WWI vet (with flashbacks), a highly principled man, involved in the Arts, devoted to Gini, and he spends gobs and gobs of money.  Gini, well, she is already tattooed when she marries Stephen.  She is wealthy, too, but not as, and it’s upstart wealth.  Also, she’s half Italian, half Romanian.  Hmmm.  Antecedents are so important, you know.  A fascinating, mysterious woman and a bit of a social climber, but, to her disappointment, she never quite makes the cut.  As a couple they are genuine, liberal, philanthropic and always, always controversial.

The book moves back and forth in time from the 1920s to an epilogue in the 90s, but focuses on Stephen and Gini in Rhodesia in the 1950s.  They move to Africa for a new start, and build a beautiful home only to find that native Africans are held in dreadful contempt, and white society is both fearful and fearfully racist.  The Courtaulds reach out for ways to help.  They start a Home and Craft Center for native women, a school for African children, a model farm teaching agricultural methods; they build a theater and an art gallery.  However, as you well know, no good deed goes unpunished.  Stephen is ultimately knighted for his work, but they gain only anger and animosity from their white neighbors.

Oh damn, I hope I haven’t managed to make a slam dunk sound boring.  And I was off to such a good start, too.  Trust me, Rhodesia, a powder keg at that time, cannot be boring.  Neither can Stephen and Gini.  Nor can a ghost, a pet lemur, ladies who smoke slim cigarettes and people who – as if in a Noel Coward play – call each other “darling”.  The very names of African trees will make your eyes light up.  And did I mention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor?  This, my darlings, is a book.

Book your trip to Rhodesia and the past on August 13 when The Dragon Lady hits bookstore shelves.  Support your local indie bookstore if you like by pre-ordering here.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Bloomsbury USA / Bloomsbury Caravel 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.

Tupelo Hassman’s gods with a little g

I was loving it.  I did love it.  I do love it, but there’s a but, and we’ll get to that later.  Snarkily self-protective high school student Helen Dedleder (hmm, her dad’s a postman) lives in Rosary, California.  Her mother is deceased, so it’s just Helen and her dad, but her dad is zombified with grief, so her Aunt Bev, a psychic, moves to Rosary and opens the Psychic Encounter Shoppe, henceforth referred to as the shoppe.  Now, Rosary, you see, is home to a giant belching refinery, lots and lots of churches and lots and lots of religious folks that Helen calls Thumpers.  The Thumpers pretty much control Rosary, and they are not happy to have a psychic shoppe in their town.  They’re even more unhappy with Aunt Bev’s second job in the back of the shoppe after hours.

Helen and her friends call themselves the Dickheads and they hang out after school at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage, drinking beer.  Thumpers aren’t happy with the Dickheads either, and the Dickheads aren’t happy with the Thumpers, so there you go.  Me, I was riding the crest – sexually-obsessed teenagers, quirky misfit angst, a rollicking good time.  Then, near the end, almost home-free with a standing ovation, Ms. Hassman throws in an ill-advised scene that gave me the vapors.  I won’t go into it, but I will say that no one is hurt, so there’s that.  It is, however, ugly, unnecessary, and unnecessarily ugly.  Now this particular scene might not bother you; it doesn’t have to.  And, when all is said and done, this is a meaningful book, a raucous riot of a book, but……..it did bother me.  So, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

Farrar, Straus and Giroux will put this novel in your hands on August 13 as long as you shop your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Farrar, Straus and Giroux 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.