Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Lost You by Haylen Beck: Reading Room Review

Lost You is the second Haylen Beck I've read and the second one written under this name by acclaimed Irish author Stuart Neville (The Ghosts of Belfast). I haven't read anything under the Neville name yet, but I am a solid fan of Haylen Beck. The first Beck book, Here and Gone, was a favorite of mine from 2017, and although I'm just reading it now in 2020, Lost You is a favorite from 2019. Both books deal with mothers and children, lost and found, and the lengths a mother will go to for her children, but they are worlds apart in their stories. Lost You has two desperate mothers and one gobsmacking twist, the kind of twist that I live for in reading--well executed, not forced, and gasp-worthy. The story you start reading is not the story you end reading, and, yet, the pieces are there, just not arranged how you expect.

Libby Reese and her three-year-old son Ethan are on vacation at an luxurious resort in Naples, Florida, a reward that Libby is allowing herself for her hard work on her soon-to-be published book. For Ethan, who loves swimming, the resort with its seven pools is paradise. For Libby, it is a chance to relax that has been a long time coming. She has been raising Ethan by herself since he was six months old and his father/her husband left them. Their first day at Casa Rosa they meet Charles and Gerry, a couple who instantly take to Libby and her adorable child. Gerry is especially good in his helping Ethan to enjoy the pool, and Charles is quite adept at getting Libby to let her hair down a bit. After an evening of some music and dance with Charles and Gerry, with Ethan in tow, Libby is saying goodnight to Charles at the elevators when Ethan disappears into an open elevator. Libby can't catch the elevator before the doors close, and her son is whisked up and away. A frantic search ensues with no success. The police are called in, and Charles is found injured on one of the staircases, and Libby fears that her new friend didn't just fall. She is now certain that Ethan's disappearance is anything but accidental or happenstance. 

So, what follows is a book about the search for a lost or abducted child, right? Wrong. What follows is the story of how life for Libby Reese and her son Ethan got to the point of that night, when their world would be forever changed. Haylen Beck delves deep inside his characters and shows us how they came to be the people that they are. Whether you like a character or not, and there will be some of each in Lost You, you come to understand that character through the skillful development by the author. I felt both the joy and the heartache that the characters in this story experience, and as with life, it's sometimes both at once. Lost You is going to be a read that you find hard to put down, and when the twists come, you will feel them full on.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Author James Ziskin and Capturing the 1960s

In 2017 I did an interview with Jim Ziskin for this blog.  It was the year of his fourth Ellie Stone mystery, Heart of Stone, which won an Anthony, a McCavity, and was a finalist for an Edgar and a Lefty.   Today the seventh Ellie Stone, Turn to Stone, is released, and I wanted to post something more than my review about Jim and his amazing writing.  So, I was reading over this 2017 interview and came across the question and answer about the 1960s setting of these books.  Jim does such a remarkable job of integrating elements, historical and pop, into the stories, and I had asked him about this seamless inclusion and the research he did for it.  Being born in 1954 and growing up in the 60s, I find the setting especially fascinating.  Following is my question and his answer.  Do you as readers have any favorite or memorable 60s moments that Jim has included in this series, or do you have some famous 60s moments you'd like to see in future Ellie Stone stories?

Reading Room:  The 1960s setting of the Ellie Stone books is so seamlessly entwined in the stories, never appearing forced or gratuitous.  I was amazed at the inclusion of so many 60s connections, both large and small, such as the building of the Berlin Wall; the John Bircher; types of clothing, like blue seersucker dress.  How do you go about deciding what to include and achieving this natural flow of authenticity?  What forms of research help you become ensconced in this time period?

JWZ: Everything in good measure. I think the key to setting the scene properly is to do huge amounts of research, then use only a tiny fraction in the actual story. The effort that goes into research should be felt by the author, never by the reader. As a writer, I have to know which details to use in the book. It's tempting to add every historical nugget you unearth, but the danger is that you'll create a book that stinks of research.

When I'm preparing a new Ellie Stone novel, I study old newspapers, television shows, movies, and popular music. I also find great details in period advertising. Some of the clothing I describe comes from the 1959 Sears Catalog or print ads from women's magazines. But the best way to create that nostalgic impression is to sprinkle the story lightly with normal, everyday objects that communicate the time period succinctly and believably. For example, in STONE COLD DEAD, there's a scene where Ellie is forced to wait to make phone call until the woman hogging the party line hangs up. Maybe I'll put a skate key in some future book. And who remembers pipe cleaners, Vitalis, telegrams, horizontal hold, and shortwave radios? Today, most people don't even know what those things are, but they were in wide use in 1960 when the Ellie Stone books take place. Recreating people's attitudes and mores is a little trickier, of course. But it comes from copious preparation and judicious use of what you find.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Blue Christmas by Emma James: Reading Room Review

Author Emma Jameson is so good to her reading fans.  She promised to have Blue Christmas out at Christmas, and although Emma had other things to deal with last fall, she came through for the readers, and we had the most lovely of treats for our Christmas Day reading.  The 6th installment of the Lord and Lady Hetheridge series is a follow-up book to the devastating events of Book #5, so it's impossible to review without referring to those events and their fallout.  I always try not to spoil a book for readers, but in a series it's too often a case of one book leading to the next and building on it, and Book #6 is rooted firmly in what Tony and Kate went through and survived in the fifth book, as the events in that book had been building in previous books, too.  It's such a terrific series that reading it from Book #1 and seeing the relationship start and develop between Tony and Kate and seeing how the nefarious villain of Book #5 has taken hold in the other books is just the right way to read it.  

Tony and Kate, along with the rest of their extended family, have spent many months at their country estate, trying to heal both physically and mentally from their near-death rooftop experience atop a London building.  While Kate's physical healing was a lengthy process, it is her mental state that Tony fears will be the deterrent to a full recovery.  He convinces her to see a therapist, as well as seeing one himself, and by December, Kate has finally agreed to a week in London with Tony to see how she handles it.  Of course, ever the considerate and loving husband, Tony has leased a place with the best security measures possible.  Having Kate feel safe is key to the London trip encouraging her return her Scotland Yard job and a life in London for them all, including Tony's new enterprise of being a private detective.  It's a tall order to achieve her sense of safety, but if anyone can do it, Tony can.  

They haven't even gotten properly settled into the London house before their former investigative partner at Scotland Yard, Detective Sergeant Deepal "Paul" Bhar calls to tempt them with a bizarre murder case he's just landed.  Surprisingly, Kate is interested, not to say she's agreed to come back to work, but wanting to become involved in this most interesting murder.  Tony agrees to come onto the case as a hired consultant, since he's no longer employed as a Chief Superintendent by Scotland Yard.  But the three of them are friends as well as colleagues, so it's good to have them back together again.  The pièce de résistance that Paul dangles in front of Tony and Kate to come on board is the method of the murder of miserly millionaire Barnaby Galen.  The murder weapon is a horror prop of a skeleton dressed as a "granny," and it's pop-up appearance has apparently scared the old miser to death.  Paul knows they won't be able to resist working on such a case, and he is absolutely right.  

Emma Jameson has created such a wonderful cast of characters in this series, and while Blue Christmas focuses mostly on Kate and Tony and Paul, the other characters are mentioned, and we know that they are just around the corner waiting to all be together in another story.  Tony's and Kate's relationship is the glue that holds it all together, and it is such a model of respect, consideration, and love for each other.  Their romantic moments are aptly placed and appreciated, as readers want them to enjoy the fruits of their labor, their working on a beautiful love story.  Paul Bhar provides much comic relief in the series, with his love life and his mother, who is a romance author and is relentless about looking out for her son.  Paul may just surprise his mother in this current book.  Kate's brother and sister and nephew have all become a part of her and Tony's family, and it speaks volumes as to Tony's love for Kate and his character as a person that he has accepted them all so graciously.  Even Tony's staff make for interesting characters and parts of different stories.  And, the villains in the stories are fascinating, too, although readers are always glad to see them felled.  With the characters and the setting and the stories, this is a series that will quickly become a favorite, one you will even want to reread .

So, once again, well done Emma Jameson, and thank you for your most welcome 2019 Christmas gift!  Blue Christmas was the icing on my holiday season.  Did I mention that the ending brought sweet tears to my eyes?  It did.

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Turn to Stone by James Ziskin: Reading Room Review

Mamma mia, James Ziskin, you have left no stone unturned with Turn to Stone, Ellie Stone #7. This author, whose linguistic training always makes reading his stories a mellifluous experience, has gone one step further with this book by sharing the heart and soul of his expertise and familiarity with Italy and the Italian language. It is, in a sense, a love letter to the country and its language, because it is a beautiful tale beautifully told. I think it is a book that James Ziskin was fated to write, with every road and path he took—be it his academic work or his career choices or his writing of the Ellie Stone series. Of course, all the Ellie Stone books are wonderful, and I have been thrilled by all of them, but I do consider Turn to Stone a novel that touches the inner sanctum of Ziskin

Ellie Stone has arrived in Florence, Italy in September of 1963 to attend a one-day academic symposium, where she will accept an award for her late father’s work in Italian medieval literature studies. Arranging this honor was a Professor Alberto Bondinelli, who had heard her father lecture in the 1930s and had become a fan. Following the symposium will be a weekend with some of the attending scholars, including Bondinelli, at a country house in Fiesole, which promises to be a relaxing, luxurious time. With that weekend and two weeks after to follow her own touring schedule of Italy, Ellie is excited to be in the city she had long ago visited with her father. And, she has brought her treasured Leica camera, a gift from her father, and a new 135mm Elmar lens to capture her Italian holiday. So, it looks like Ellie can take off her newspaper reporter’s hat and have some fun in the Italian sun. However, Ellie isn’t there a day before her host, Professor Bondinelli, is discovered floating face-down in the Arno River, and the police are starting an investigation to see if foul play was involved.

Despite the tragic death of the professor, the other participants in the symposium and the weekend retreat decide to go ahead with the plans Professor Bondinelli had painstakingly made for them. After the group’s arrival at the Villa Bel Soggiorno for the weekend, those plans go rather askew. First, the owner, Max Locanda, was supposed to be away with his girlfriend in Switzerland, but they end up at the villa, too. Then, Inspector Peruzzi, in charge of the investigation into the professor’s drowning, informs the group that the drowning may not have been accidental, so everyone there needs to be available for questioning. And, the cherry on top is one of the women in the group comes down with what might be rubella, resulting in a quarantine of the whole house of guests for an undetermined amount of time. It’s suddenly become a locked-room murder atmosphere, especially for Ellie, who can’t help but put back on her reporter’s hat to sniff out a possible guilty party. What Ellie doesn’t expect is the long reach of this suspected murder back to the days of WWII and Fascist Italy and the time of 10,000 Jews being sent to death camps. Who was Professor Alberto Bondinelli and what is the connection to Max Locanda’s family, and why would Ellie’s father who was Jewish be friends with someone who might have been involved in a Fascist regime? While the group eats the best of Tuscan food and drinks the finest wines, they spend each night telling tales related to the Decameron and the suspected murder, and Ellie spends time with Bondinelli’s fourteen-year-old daughter who has joined them from boarding school in England. Getting to know the people in the group and the owner of the villa is a priority for Ellie as she struggles to discover who has motive for a murder.

Once again, James Ziskin puts the mark of the 60s on this Ellie Stone story, and he does so seamlessly, never forced or superfluous are the details that place the setting as the 1960s. From the new airport in Rome to the JFK Presidency to the 45 Beatles’ records, it’s an organic part of the story. Having purchased “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles as my first 45 record and remembering the Beatle invasion into the United States, I was especially thrilled with the inclusion of that part of pop culture. This series has been solid since the first book, and I seem to say each one is my favorite. So, my new favorite is Turn to Stone. Each book has historical elements by just being set in the 60s, and I love learning from them. Turn to Stone explores some of Italy’s history during WWII and how the different factions have existed over time. Questions that war inevitably brings forth about forgiveness and morality run through this history. There is so much layering in an Ellie Stone novel that keeps the reader intrigued from beginning to end. I can’t wait to see what Ellie encounters next. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes: Reading Room Review

For some time I've had a fascination about the pack horse librarians in Kentucky, and I love reading my history through historical fiction, well researched by the author for authenticity. Reading about Jojo Moyes' research for The Giver of Stars, I felt confident the story was well rooted in facts. This heartfelt story about the five women who comprised the group of Pack Horse Librarians in a small town in southeastern Kentucky, part of the Appalachians, was a love letter to those amazing women who worked in the WPA Pack Horse Librarians Program during the late 1930s into the early 1940s and to reading as a salvation for those who had little else. Books brought hope and light into a depression era world of poverty and back-breaking labor, and the pack horse librarians brought the books every week to two weeks to different remote areas in the mountains, where isolation was a way of life. And, this book, The Giver of Stars, also tells the history of the plight of women in a man's world and the strength that came from friendships with other women, and the story raises the awareness of the chokehold that the coal companies had on the people of Appalachia. Life was hard and it took a special kind of determination to try to make it better. The pack horse librarians had that determination, spurred on by the encouragement of our country's first lady at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt. 

Alice Wright thought that leaving her home in England and marrying American Bennett Van Cleve would bring her relief from her critical parents and stifled life. She dreams of living in a big city where life is exciting and fresh. But, Bennett and his father live in a small town in Kentucky, Baileyville, not a big city, and Bennett is satisfied to live in the family home of his father, where his father rules with an iron fist. Alice has simply traded one prison for another. When there's a town meeting asking for volunteers for the Pack Horse Librarian Program, she sees an opportunity to get out of the oppressive household for long days away delivering the books. 

Heading up the small group of women for the Pack Horse Library is Margery O'Hare, an independent, unconventional woman who lives by herself in a cabin outside of town with her dog and her mule, and as well as knowing the land and its paths through the mountains like nobody else, she is a toughened survivor from a family of a bootlegging father who beat her and her brothers with impunity. Margery is just the person to take an incongruous mix of women and turn them into an efficient group of reliable, responsible librarians on horseback (or muleback). Each woman has her strengths and weaknesses, and each one is determined to succeed. Alice, with her English accent and unfamiliarity with the people and mountains brings her horsemanship and need to find some meaning in this new life she's chosen. Izzy doesn't let her struggle with a leg shortened by polio affect her conquering her fear of riding a horse, as she needs to prove to her parents that she isn't an invalid to be coddled. Beth, who smokes and curses, coming from a household with brothers and a father but no mother, has dreams she hasn't dared to speak because they are so far from where she is. Sophia doesn't ride, mainly due to her being black and the community not being accepting of that. She was a former librarian at a black library in Louisville where her skills of organization and book repair save the new Pack Horse Library of Baileyville from becoming a disorganized mess of ruined books. Later, another local woman, Kathleen, joins the group. Kathleen is a recent widow, whose family benefited from the books delivered by Alice, and whose husband Alice read to as he lay dying from black lung disease. This disparate group of women find strength, friendship, and purpose in their jobs as Pack Horse Librarians, and they develop a support system among themselves that proves to be life altering.

The juxtaposition of the altruism of the Pack Horse Library reaching out to those in need and the coal mine beating people down and keeping them entrenched in poverty is powerful. And, there is the resistance to change, from women being only subservient to being in charge, from people being uneducated and prone to manipulation to people being educated through reading and knowledgeable about their rights. At the head of the opposition to the librarians is Alice's father-in-law, Mr. Van Cleve, and he plays as dirty as dirty can get. While his son isn't the despicable lout his father is, Alice finds herself in a loveless marriage without any hope of it changing. So, the reader is on an emotional rollercoaster with being swept away by the beauty of the hills and the touching stories of lives improved by books and the friendship of five women, but then the heart breaks at the insidious actions of those who put the almighty dollar above life and truth. There is romantic love, too, in this multi-layered story, love that shows how men can love strong women without it being a battle for control or a need to dominate. Moyes describes what I think is the perfect definition of love in the following encounter: "Time flew, and each ended the night full and happy, with the rare glow that comes from knowing your very being has been understood by somebody else, and that there might just be someone out there who will only ever see the best in you."

This story is the first Jojo Moyes book I've read, and I'm eager to read another one to determine if all her books contain the beauty of thought and language that The Giver of Stars does. She creates magic from her words, with sentences the reader will want to read more than once to savor that magic. Enjoying the prose as well as the story is an absolute delight. The characters are inspiring. How all the women working for the Pack Horse Library change over the course of the story is masterfully developed by the author. Jojo Moyes has taken a piece of history and woven a story through it that should touch anyone's heart. I only hope that the movie version of it will capture just how special it is.