Category Archives: reading

The Monday Book: WALKING ON MY GRAVE by Carolyn Hart

50065987_583494335446320_9215025291901009920_nThis week’s Monday book comes from Martha Evans Wiley, a fellow cat rescuer and margarita drinker. Here’s her review of Walking on My Grave by Carolyn Hart (actually a look at the whole series).

2017 Berkley Prime Crime

One of my great guilty pleasures is hunkering down with a new Carolyn Hart book, more specifically one in her Death on Demand series.  Hart’s written 26 cozies in this series, almost half of the more than 60 novels she has penned in her long career.

What I find most charming about this series is Hart’s gift for establishing a sense of place; set on Broward’s Rock, a wonderful island off the coast of South Carolina, each new book feels like coming home. Hart’s two protagonists, Annie and Max Darling, are transplants to the island having moved there when Annie inherited her uncle’s bookstore upon his mysterious death. Annie is compassionate to a fault –  her endless capacity to believe in the good in people balances well with her husband’s proclivity to be a little cynical. Her wonderful bookstore, the eponymous Death on Demand – “the finest mystery bookstore east of Atlanta” – gives Hart plenty of opportunity to show off her mystery knowledge, throwing loads of references to authors and their work, both past and present.

The latest installment, Walking on My Grave, follows much of the same successful formula that Hart has stuck with over the years. She is a master of the red herring, and it’s always fun to watch an enthusiastic Annie go head-long into impulsive schemes while Max tries to keep up with her. This time the story revolves around a rich older woman whose many heirs all have reasons to kill her – not the most original plot, but again, it’s the characters and setting that makes Hart’s work so much fun to read. She always includes a very handy guide to who’s who in the beginning, and often sprinkles sketches in the narrative to ensure that the reader isn’t left behind.

It’s not necessary to read  the series in order to enjoy it, but if you want to start at the very beginning, pick up “Death on Demand,” which sets up the setting and main characters. If you want to read just one, I recommend “The Christie Caper,” a heftier read than most of the others and a real treat for any Agatha Christie fan, or “Southern Ghost,” set in Beaufort, SC,  a wonderful trip to the old south with its dripping Spanish moss and antebellum houses.

As with any long-running series, there are some tropes – for a small island, there’s no end of people being introduced who are then murdered. Annie, Max and the gang don’t age at all, and they are curiously unaffected by any hurricanes or other weather events. But reality isn’t something I search for in a mystery, and I’m never disappointed in the adventures of Annie and Max. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the island of Broward’s Rock.

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The Monday Book: NEWS OF OUR LOVED ONES by Abigail DeWitt

newsI met Abigail at this year’s Festival of the Book, where we were both featured authors. She sent me a review copy on request for the Journal of Appalachian Studies, since she’s an author from NC, part of our jurisdiction. I’m the book editor for the Journal, although I am relinquishing the position in 2019. (If you’re a member of ASA and interested, please contact the Journal editor!)

Before passing the book on for review, I gave it a read myself. A novel in the form of multiple short stories among characters tied together by war experiences in France and in America after World War II, Loved Ones tends to focus on the family women. The first story is intense and even violent, not in keeping with the gentler, more measured and internally-exploring tones of the rest. Altogether, they trace from the loss of the family home to why the granddaughter raised in America continues to fixate on tragic events from family history.

Witt uses some lovely poetic language, but it is her women, from a small child to a grandmother, who bring to life the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. A gentle, breezy quality suffuses her descriptions with a one-step-removed sense of what horrors the stories may encompass or even hide between the lines.

In Mathilde, for instance, a girl is as much in love with the mother of her lad gone for a soldier as she is the boy himself, perhaps even more as the mother notices and returns affection, accompanied by advice in beauty tips and attracting men. Witt’s description of Mathilde as is lovely in itself, the kind of woman almost translucent in her paleness, made of steel beneath the skin.

I enjoyed News of our Loved Ones as a set of short stories, telling the story of one family and its scattered members, primarily because of Witt’s light touch on a dark time in human history.

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That Moment When….

Last night Deborah and I did our book talk at Arlington Central Library, DC. We’ve done these many times; her memoir Counting Down is a deep dive into a personal adoption story, while my book Fall or Fly is journalism storytelling about the system as it operates in rural Appalachia. cover

We’ve fielded many questions during our 20+ talks together, and at almost every venue–library, bookstore, adoption expo, whatever it was–foster parents have been part of the audience. In Asheville’s Malaprops, a newly licensed couple sat on the front row, hoping their phone would go off during our time together. (It did, but it was a sales call. You never saw so many disappointed audience members.) At Quail Books in NC, parents asked about how to help their 11-year-old daughter communicate in safety with her birth mom.

Last night, two foster parents who had already read Fall or Fly expressed appreciation for its straight talk about two subjects the prep classes and society in general tend to avoid: love and money. One woman talked about how, the first time she held her first foster son in the middle of the night as he cried, she had a “freak out” moment because, “I had no idea who this kid was. He didn’t smell like my birth children, he didn’t react the way my birth children did, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but here I am with him in his onesie and me in my robe, trying to tell him it’s okay and he can sleep safe. There’s nothing about those classes that can get you ready for this. Finally, I don’t feel like a failure. I know other people had this feeling too.”counting cover

Another foster mom was struggling with the fact that the adoption agency had presented her with a “perfect match,” but she and the teen girl were struggling to know one another. “No click, I guess, is the best way to put it. She was perfect on paper, everything I wanted. And like the woman in your book says, ‘You don’t get to choose your bio kids for the qualities you want most. They are yours, and your responsibility.’ So I don’t know, do I take it as a job now for a future of love, or will love never come?” She paused, then turned to me. “You have no idea how grateful I am that someone has talked about this in print.”

As a writer, there is nothing in the world so rewarding as hearing someone say that. That a person has found themselves in your words, identified and no longer alone, is the most energizing thing an author can hear. I’m glad you don’t feel so isolated any more, that the stories are out there, and that people are hearing them at last.

 

 

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The Monday Book: Ivory Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown

Jack’s doing the Monday book – so, of course it’s on Tuesday – –

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them; Nancy Marie Brown

Wendy brought me this book back from one of the bookstores she’s been visiting, promoting her book Fall or Fly. She was correct that it would interest me. It actually has little to do with the chessmen per se, but I don’t mind!

vikings

Brown uses the famous Lewis Chessmen as the mechanism for what is really a geopolitical and historical examination of the Nordic countries in medieval times. I already had some knowledge of the Viking connection to Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, and I even knew that the French Normans were originally Norse men.

But this book was a real eye-opener and introduced me to a world that was much more connected than I had thought. I obviously knew about the Vikings sailing around the north Atlantic but not just how much or how far. I knew nothing about their land journeys including taking part in crusades and hob-knobbing with English nobles!

“Ivory Vikings” can be a challenging read at times. The story of these ivory armies is woven through speculative historic tales of kings Harald Blue-Tooth and Svein Fork-Beard, with diversions into the 13th-century sagas of Iceland’s Snorri Sturluson and the early 19th-century literature of Sir Walter Scott, as well as accounts of the climate and topography of Iceland, the importance of walrus ivory from Greenland financing Viking raids and the origins of chess in India.

Margret the Adroit of Iceland turns out to be Brown’s favored candidate as maker of the chessmen. She was a carver of walrus and other materials and was famous for her craft in her time. One of the kings regularly sent gifts made by Margret to other rulers, one of the reasons the chessmen may be attributable to her. But I think my favorite of all the memorable characters in this book is perhaps Earl Erling Skew-neck who got his name after being whacked in the neck by an adversary in battle and carried his head at an angle ever after!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Norse history and their connections to other northern European countries – particularly Scotland and Ireland.

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The Monday Book: THE HIDING PLACE by Corrie Ten Boom

hiding placeI thought about blogging this book in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings, but wanted to wait a week.

Aside from the easy tease that tomorrow is a mid-term election and we’re all tired of politics and looking for a place to hide from it, this book is no joke. It is intense yet accessible.

For those unfamiliar, it is about sisters in a watch-repairing Dutch family, happy people with a strong Christian ethic. When WWII breaks out, they hide Jewish people. This brings them close to The Resistance–which they don’t work with, other than hiding and moving Jewish people as best they can. There is a poignant scene when Corrie is asked to pass along intelligence that she realizes will get a German officer killed, and refuses to do so. The young Resistance worker in her kitchen is gobsmacked and furious. They become suspect–despite considerable sacrifices.

The scene has come to me again and again in these turbulent times where no one can be neutral and expect to be left alone. If you’re not for, you’re against. You can’t stand in your kitchen and refuse to condemn one man to death while saving six more people in a closet upstairs. Both sides would kill you.

The Hiding Place also asks ethical questions about what it means to be light in a dark place. The family is eventually betrayed, and while the Jewish people they are hiding escape, Corrie, her father and sister do not. The latter two eventually die in a concentration (prison) camp. The women are in their fifties when the Nazis round them up. Betsy is not in excellent health. Yet she insists on standing at the edge of morning roll call, taking the brunt of the cold wind, so she can protect younger women. This infuriates Corrie. When a woman is beaten to death in front of them, Betsy and Corrie have very different reactions.

Corrie also talks about two Somali Jewish women who distrust everyone else in the hospital where she is meant to be a patient, but instead winds up bringing bedpans to others. When she attempts to help the women, who are isolated in language and race, they throw their gangrenous bandages at her. Corrie has to come to terms with what help means, when, and how.

I loved this book as a child too young to understand some of it subtleties. I loved it as a college student enough to write about it for a literacy project, igniting an interesting argument with a professor. I love it now because, in a storm of words bent on winning, it tells the story of a family that redefined what “winning” meant on their own terms. They paid for it, but they also left a legacy that allows Quakers and moderates, and quiet bunny rabbit peaceniks to find a place to stand when people all around scream “If you stand there you’re ______ (insert bad thing here).”

On Christ the solid rock I stand, best as I can interpret him in the whelming flood, alongside the Ten Boom Family, who did an amazing job of not being on anyone’s side while helping everyone they could.

 

 

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The Monday Book

Jack gets to write the Monday Book post – so it’s a day late – –

Bringing Columbia Home – Michael D. Leinbach, Johnathan H. Ward

columbia

I stumbled upon this book in Greensboro NC where Wendy was doing a promotional event in a bookstore. Being a bit of an air and space freak I couldn’t resist it.

This is the whole story of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle disaster, and Leinbach is probably the best person who could have written this book as he was at the center of the mission.

The book chronicles the whole tragic story from the first contradictory clues and suspicions all the way to the gathering of wreckage and crew remains. Along the way we encounter the interactions between rural Texans, Federal agencies, State organizations, NASA professionals, fellow astronauts and the family members of the doomed crew.

The things that stood out for me were –

The very sensitive handling of everything to do with the crew, their families and the inevitable evidence relating to their last minutes. The amazing ‘ownership’ by locals of responsibility for laborious searches for the tiniest fragments in pretty terrible conditions. Then the equally laborious technical work to try to establish what caused the catastrophe.

The book doesn’t shirk placing blame where needed but also lays bare the sheer risks that inevitably accompany space travel. I have visited the air and space museum in DC a number of times and always marvel when I look at the Apollo capsules. How anyone could sit in that atop a rocket and be blasted into space is completely beyond my comprehension!

Just last week I wrote about my memories of the PanAm 103 bombing over Lockerbie in Scotland and I couldn’t help drawing some parallels with the Columbia disaster. I suppose the biggest difference is that the crews of the space shuttles knew the risks involved!

Finally – it was shown after the cause of the crash was established that there would have been no way to rescue the crew even if the damage to the wing had been known. So, as they were carrying out their scientific work they were already doomed.

The book is written for the layman, is easy to read and I found it completely gripping from start to finish.

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The Monday Book: TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME by Carol Rifka Brunt

wolvesThis is a complicated book. Its central character is 14 and has that bouncy back-and-forthness of wisdom and childhood coming out in lovely sentences like “That’s what being shy feels like. Like my skin is too thin, the light too bright. Like the best place I could possibly be is in a tunnel far under the cool, dark earth.”

The book is about June, her older sister Greta, their late Uncle Finn, and Finn’s partner Toby. Finn is June and Greta’s mother’s brother, and both adults are talented artists. But one is doing taxes and one is dying of AIDS. Like I said, it’s complicated.

The writing is beautiful. Some of the main points are kind of unbelievable–like two girls from Westchester can get up in the middle of the night and drive to Bellevue without their parents noticing, etc. But overall the emotional range of the characters and the plot driven by their needs, angers, and hopes holds up well. Everybody wants something. Not everybody can say what they want, or why they don’t want some of their other family members not to get what they want. That’s the point around which the action rotates.

If you like character-driven drama, you will love this book. If you remember ’80s AIDS–ignoring, exploring, deploring–you will love this book. If you have no patience with unresolved plot points, you might not. There are some loose threads left dangling, but as Stephen King says, “Life has a lot of those. Why shouldn’t writing?”

The weirdest part for me, but the part that many reviewers liked the most, is how the sisters used a painting their uncle had done of them to communicate with each other. Worth a lot on the art market, the girls deface it to send coded messages when words fail them. It was an intriguing take on the art book genre.

Overall, I love the way Brunt writes, and how intensely she draws her main characters. One paintbrush up for TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME.

 

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