Book Review: The Price of Vengeance by James R. Scarantino

The Price of Vengeance
A Denise Aragon Novel #3
James R. Scarantino
Midnight Ink, February 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5067-5
Trade Paperback

In this third book in the Denise Aragon series, the tough-as-nails Santa Fe police detective runs up against an unscrupulous United States Senator Sam Baca Valles. His family is being held hostage by Peter Cervantes, a contractor who blames the senator for the death of his two sons, by supporting political schemes.  Cervantes believes Valles is one of those people who make decisions other people pay for while he lives a comfortable life at a safe distance. Aragon had dinner with Cervantes and was overheard saying “take him out,” regarding the senator. She meant that Valles should be ousted in the next election, but that comment brought her to the attention of the FBI. The federal agents believe she is withholding information about Cervantes, and she is considered an accomplice to the kidnapping.

Aragon’s dislike of the senator goes back twenty years.  She knew Valles and his wife Patricia in college—Valles raped her friend who died shortly thereafter in a suspicious hiking accident. She has always blamed him for her death.

Valles, an opportunist who never misses a chance to make himself look good, has gathered a team around him to manipulate the kidnapping to fashion himself as a hero. He plans to rush to the house in an effort to save his family, only to be turned back. He considers having an FBI agent shoot him to add veracity to his effort, while leaving his wife and two sons to the kidnapper.

While Aragon is on another case, hunting for the killer of a Boy Scout, she discovers a meth lab, and she is seriously hurt while arresting the killers—she has no feeling in her legs. When she discovers that the FBI considers her a suspect in the Valles case, she starts her own investigation from her hospital bed.

The Santa Fe setting of this series is spectacular and is the perfect backdrop for the tough detective. Readers who enjoy a main character with nerves of steel and hidden depths, like J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas or Ann Cleeve’s Vera Stanhope, should meet up with Denise Aragon.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2018.

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Roll Over, Ecclesiastes

Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be…there is no new thing under the sun.”

So says the Book of Ecclesiastes.  It’s depressing, especially for novelists.  Readers expect us to turn out daring and original material every time we sit down at the typewriter.  But whether we mine the ancient myths for our ideas or take inspiration from the crazy happenings reported in our morning newspaper, we are building on “that which hath been.”  There’s no getting around it, all stories are derivative.

Plot is, by definition, a narrative of events that are caused by something or someone.  It’s a story that makes the reader ask “why?”  A few years ago I attended the Iowa Writers Festival and had the good fortune to take a class from Bret Anthony Johnston, an award-winning author and current Director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas.  Bret insists there are only two basic plots: hero takes a journey, or stranger comes to town.  The only distinction between the two, he says, depends on point of view.

According to a book by Christopher Booker, there are seven plots.  1) Overcoming the monster; 2) Rags to riches; 3) The quest; 4) Voyage and return; 5) Rebirth; 6) Comedy; and 7) Tragedy.  Because the first five in their purest form all have happy endings, Booker suggests they can be lumped together under the category of “comedy.”  So, either seven or two, depending.

In his The Seven Basic Plots, Why We Tell Stories, Booker compares two plots separated by five thousand years.  The Epic of Gilgamesh is regarded as the oldest surviving piece of literature on the planet.  The story begins when a terrible evil befalls the kingdom.  The threat is traced to a hideous monster who lives halfway across the world in an underground cave.  King Gilgamesh goes to his armorers who equip him with a magnificent bow and a mighty ax.  He sets out on a perilous journey to the monster’s lair.  He and the creature exchange taunts and engage in a tremendous struggle.  Finally, by a superhuman feat, Gilgamesh manages to destroy his enemy and return home triumphant.

In the second plot, circa 1962, a villainous scientist threatens to destroy the Western World.  He lives in an underground cave on a remote island.  The hero goes to his kingdom’s armorer who equips him with state-of-the-art weaponry – a Walther PPK 7.65 mm pistol, cyanide cigarettes, a high-frequency transmitter, and a Geiger counter.  He sets out on a perilous journey to the villain’s lair.  The adversaries engage in some snarky dialogue and engage in a life-or-death struggle.  Against the fiend’s mechanical dragon, deadly spider, and army of machine-gun toting guards, it seems impossible that 007 will triumph.  But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to defeat the evil Dr. No and return home triumphant.

Gilgamesh also bears striking similarities to stories in the Book of Genesis.  It describes a beautiful garden and a deceiving serpent.  It contains a devastating flood reminiscent of Noah and the Ark.  And it provides the same moral found in Ecclesiastes, which is that the best response to death is to live with an appreciation of life.  Gilgamesh isn’t all that different from Odysseus (700 BC) or Luke Skywalker of Star Wars (1977) – all heroes on a journey, embarking on adventure and confronting their antagonists.

As Mark Twain observed, we put the old ideas through a sort of mental kaleidoscope.  “We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

There is no new thing under the sun.  We recycle the same old plots again and again – comedy, tragedy, romance, irony.  Someone quipped that originality is merely undetected plagiarism.  (That last sentence is an example of what Ben Franklin called “the art of originality” – forgetting your sources). But the miraculous thing is how original the old pieces of colored glass can seem when looked at with fresh eyes.  The setting and time period may change, along with the culture, the social values, the narrative emphasis, and the point of view of the characters.  But the unique perspective and distinctive voice of the storyteller are what captivate readers.  That voice makes “that which hath been” become new.

The question of originality has been written about extensively, exhaustively, and far more entertainingly.  But rehashing these insights, and taking them to heart, has helped me to stop worrying over the imperative to be original.  What’s important is to be authentic.  Myself.  Whether you believe a novel requires “five essential elements” or “seven key conventions” or can be written in “eight easy steps,” the form is infinitely flexible.  Those two basic plots are plenty.  Every novel is a new pair of eyes contemplating the world.  Roll over, Ecclesiastes.

Book Review: Keep the Midnight Out by Alex Gray

Keep the Midnight Out
A DCI Lorimer Novel #12
Alex Gray
Witness Impulse, May 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-265928-6
Ebook

From the publisher—

When the body of a red-haired young man is washed up on the shore of the beautiful Isle of Mull, Detective Superintendent Lorimer’s tranquil holiday away from the gritty streets of Glasgow is rudely interrupted. The body has been bound with twine in a ghoulishly unnatural position and strongly reminds Lorimer of another murder: a twenty year old Glasgow case that he failed to solve as a newly fledged detective constable and which has haunted him ever since.

As local cop DI Stevie Crozier takes charge of the island murder investigation, Lorimer tries to avoid stepping on her toes. But as the similarities between the young man’s death and his cold case grow more obvious, Lorimer realises that there could be a serial killer on the loose after all these years.

As the action switches dramatically between the Mull murder and the Glasgow cold case twenty years earlier, Lorimer tries desperately to catch a cold-hearted killer. Has someone got away with murder for decades?

Detective Superintendent William Lorimer is enjoying a few days vacation with his wife, Maggie, on the peaceful Isle of Mull but that peace is disturbed when Lorimer finds the body of a young man apparently washed up at the bottom of his loaned property, although he questions whether it washed up or was deliberately placed there. This isn’t his jurisdiction, of course, so he has to step back but not entirely since he found the body.

The local Detective Inspector is a prickly sort, seemingly because she feels the need to prove herself, but Stevie Crozier is nobody’s fool. Her biggest problem, to my way of thinking, is her reluctance to trust that others may know better than she, if only when it comes to local people and customs. She’s hard to like but I grew attached during the story. Lorimer, naturally, was my favorite of all the coppers, largely because he is intelligent and kind, not to mention just being a very thoughtful man who wants justice for this young man but also for the one from twenty years gone who was so much like this victim.

The setting for this story is deceptive in its tranquility and the people who live here are a varied and motley collection of those who hold secrets and those who simply appreciate their lives on this small island. Initially, it seems that finding the murderer may not be all that difficult but, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving.

We also get a good look at Lorimer’s personal life and come to understand the dynamics between him and Maggie as well as how his association with other professionals developed over the years. I think this is my favorite of the DCI Lorimer books so far because it is so personal. The murders of both Rory and Gary are poignant in their shared circumstances and the chase to catch the killer(s) kept me pondering until almost the end. I’m already looking forward to the next Lorimer case.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

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Purchase Links:

HarperCollins // Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

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An Excerpt from Keep the Midnight Out

CHAPTER ONE

They called it ‘the splash’; though the boat that crept silently, oars dipping lightly in and out of the water creating myriad bubbles of phosphorescence, made little sound at all. It was vital to keep quiet; the time for frightening the fish would not come until the net was properly laid across the mouth of the burn. After that the oars would be raised high and brought down with force, driving the sea trout from their shadowy lairs straight into the trap. It was illegal, of course, had been for decades, but that did not stop more intrepid poachers sneaking in at dead of night and lying in wait for the fish.

Unfair, unsporting, the fishery bodies claimed, though most folk here, on the island of Mull, recognised the thrill of rowing under the stars and risking some wrath from the law enforcers.

Ewan Angus Munro glanced back over his shoulder to see his son playing out the last of the splash net; the ancient cork floats now in a perfect arc across this narrow neck of water.

Young Ewan looked towards his father and nodded; the first part of the deed was done and now all that remained was to ensure that the fish would be scared out from their hiding places by the sudden noise of oars thrashing on the surface so that they would rush towards the net.

The old man turned the boat with an expertise that came from many years of practice, then headed back towards the shallow channel. He raised the oars, resting them in the rowlocks, water dripping like molten rain from their blades. The small craft was allowed to drift a little before Ewan Angus turned to his son again, the eye contact and nod a definite signal to begin the second stage of their night’s work.

Young Ewan Angus stood, legs apart, perfectly balanced in the centre of the boat, one oar raised high above his shoulder as the older man watched him, eyes full of approval. The boy had been given more than just his father’s names: his flair for the splash, too, had been passed down from father to son.

Across the marshy strand full of bog cotton and sweet-smelling myrtle sat a small white cottage. A swift glance showed him that there was no light on anywhere; the holiday folk were doubtless sound asleep, oblivious to the small drama being played out yards from their front door.

The sound of the splash seemed magnified as it disrupted the stillness, echoing over the bay. The young man heaved the oar again and again, each whack making his body stiffen with fear and a sort of bravado. If they were caught they’d lose both the net and the boat, a heavy price to pay for a night of fun and a good catch of sea trout, fish that fetched a decent price at the back doors of the best hotel kitchens.

Several times the boat was rowed up and down, followed by a series of splashes until the old man raised his callused hand to call a halt. Now it was time to wait and see if the fish had indeed been scared witless enough to swim towards their doom.

Once more the old man rowed along the line of corks, his son lifting the net to see if anything lingered below.

‘A beauty,’ the boy whispered, raising the net to reveal a good-sized sea trout struggling in the brown mesh.

‘Ten pounder at least!’ he went on, freeing the huge fish where its gills had caught and hurling it into a wooden box below his feet.

‘Be-wheesht and get the net up,’ his father hissed, though the grin on his face showed how pleased he was with their first catch of the night. The old man bent towards the struggling fish, his fist around the priest, a wooden club that had been in the family for generations. One swift blow and the fish lay lifeless in the box, its silvery scales gleaming in the night.

One by one, others joined the fated sea trout as the two men made their laborious way along the edge of the net.

‘My, a grand haul, the night, Faither,’ Young Ewan Angus exclaimed, his voice still hushed for fear of any sound carrying over the water.

‘Aye, no’ bad,’ his father agreed, a contented smile on his face. One of the middling fish would be wrapped in layers of bracken and left in the porch of Calum Mhor, the police sergeant. A wee thank you for turning his continual blind eye to the nocturnal activities taking place down the road from Craignure. Mrs Calum had guests staying and she’d be fair pleased to serve them a fresh sea trout for their dinner. It was universally acknowledged here on the island that the pink fish was far superior in flavour to the coarser salmon, particularly those that had been farmed.

‘My, here’s a big one!’

The young man staggered as he tried to haul in the final part of the splash net. ‘I can hardly lift it!’ he exclaimed.

‘Must be caught on a rock,’ the old man grumbled, his mouth twisting in a moue of disgust. If they had to tear the net to release it then it would take hours of work to mend, but the operation depended on being in and out of these waters as quickly as they could manage. Hanging about was not an option in case the Men from the Revenue had decided on a little night-time excursion of their own.

Suddenly the young man bent down in the boat, hands gripping the gunwales as he peered into the depths below.

His brow furrowed at the rounded mass swaying beneath the surface, rags of bladderwrack shifting back and forwards with the motion of the waves. Then, as his eyes focused on the ascending shape, Ewan Angus Munro saw pale tendrils that had once been fingers of flesh and one thin arm floating upwards.

He screamed, and covered his mouth as the sickness rose in his throat, then stumbled backwards. The boy flung out his arms, desperate to grasp hold of something solid to break his fall but all he felt under his hands were the wet bodies of slithering fish.

‘What the . ⁠. ⁠. ⁠?’ Ewan Angus turned, an oath dying on his lips as the boat rocked violently, small waves dashing over the bow.

Wordlessly, his son pointed to the waters below. Then, as the old man peered over the side of the boat, he saw the body rising to the surface, its passage out to sea impeded by their net.

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Excerpt from Keep the Midnight Out by Alex Gray. Copyright © 2018 by Alex Gray. Reprinted by permission of Witness Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Alex Gray was born and educated in Glasgow. After studying English and Philosophy at the University of Strathclyde, she worked as a visiting officer for the Department of Health, a time she looks upon as postgraduate education since it proved a rich source of character studies. She then trained as a secondary school teacher of English.

Alex began writing professionally in 1993 and had immediate success with short stories, articles, and commissions for BBC radio programs. She has been awarded the Scottish Association of Writers’ Constable and Pitlochry trophies for her crime writing.

A regular on the Scottish bestseller lists, she is the author of thirteen DCI Lorimer novels. She is the co-founder of the international Scottish crime writing festival, Bloody Scotland, which had its inaugural year in 2012.

Catch Up With Alex Gray On:

Website // Twitter // Goodreads

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Waiting On Wednesday (92)

Waiting On Wednesday is a weekly event that
spotlights upcoming releases that I’m really
looking forward to. Waiting On Wednesday
is the creation of Jill at Breaking the Spine.

This week’s “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is:

Contagion
Contagion #1
Erin Bowman
HarperTeen, July 2018
Science Fiction, Horror, Young Adult

From the publisher—

After receiving a distress call from a drill team on a distant planet, a skeleton crew is sent into deep space to perform a standard search-and-rescue mission.

When they arrive, they find the planet littered with the remains of the project—including its members’ dead bodies. As they try to piece together what could have possibly decimated an entire project, they discover that some things are best left buried—and some monsters are only too ready to awaken.

Why am I waiting so eagerly? I’m enticed, first of all, by the very paucity of the synopsis, making me think of the vast unknown that is space. I can’t even tell who the characters are (although the publisher is HarperTeen so I assume there’s at least one young adult) and certainly don’t have any idea what they might find at the end of their trip. What I do know is this is almost certainly going to be a thriller and adventure wrapped up in some mystery so I expect a humdinger and I can’t wait!

Book Review: The Date to Save by Stephanie Kate Strohm

The Date to Save
Stephanie Kate Strohm
Point, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-14906-7
Hardcover

This succinct story is an oral documentary, delivered in written format.  Quite appealing to this avid reader, it seemed to create the quick, concise medium to appropriately accompany the pace of the plot.  In a kind-of-counterintuitive way, I feel like this is a fantastic format for the wary reader, too.  Essentially composed of conversations, with few notes added; extraneous minutiae is eliminated.  Fewer words means better choices.  Each sentence is carefully crafted and I definitely dig the dialogue.

Students at San Anselmo Prep are stars among California high school scholars, with none so bright as Angelica’s older brother.  Hutch, however; has graduated.  This may very well be Angelica’s time to shine.  Things are already looking up.

The school newspaper’s churlish chief-of-staff has rejected every idea Angelica has submitted.  And yet, she persisted.  Admittedly underwhelmed with the assignment to cover the upcoming Academic Battle, Angelica’s optimism easily overrode the terrible topic to embrace the opportunity.

As any decent investigative reporter knows, one thing leads to another.  The initial inquiry into the Academic Battle shows a more serious scenario.  A school scheduling snafu that cannot have been coincidence is sure to be catastrophic.  Compelled to solve the problem and identify the perpetrator; Angelica nevertheless agrees to help the school mascot when he approaches her with a different mystery, affecting the same date.

Countering the wholly consumed Angelica is Becca.  The determinedly grumpy, blue-haired-bestie is everyone’s fantasy friend.  This fierce non-conformist is a loyal companion bringing balance with her humor and unique outlook.

I found The Date to Save to be a pleasant read with one paragraph in particular that I dearly love, wherein Ms. Strohm articulates a reader’s feelings about books in a way that I want to capture for a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2017.

Book Review: Mayfly by Jeff Sweat

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Title: Mayfly
Author: Jeff Sweat
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Publication Date: May 8, 2018
Genres: Science Fiction, Dystopian, Young Adult

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Purchase Links:

         
         

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Mayfly
Jeff Sweat
Feiwel and Friends, May 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-13920-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Jemma has spent her life scavenging tools and supplies for her tribe in  their small enclave outside what used to be a big city. Now she’s a teen, and old enough to become a Mama. Making babies is how her people survive—in Jemma’s world, life ends at age seventeen.

Survival has eclipsed love ever since the Parents died of a mysterious plague. But Jemma’s connection to a boy named Apple is stronger than her duty as a Mama. Forced to leave, Jemma and Apple are joined in exile by a mysterious boy who claims to know what is causing them to die. The world is crumbling around them, and their time is running out. Is this truly the End?

Several years ago, I read two books of a dystopian trilogy that were based on the concept of all adults having died and the children had very early deaths to look forward to, much like the story in this book. Those books left me kind of cold and there were gaping plot holes, more like sinkholes, but I felt this particular tale was handled much better and I was not left so dissatisfied.

Remnants of the world created by the parents, such as lawns and swimming pools, have been turned to new uses by the children so that they can survive in this mutated version of California and they think of TeeVee as a god. Jemma, a Gatherer, wants out of this community before she can be forced to have a child and Apple, her friend and a sixteen-year-old Muscle, agrees to go with her when she makes her break.

Worldbuilding is weaker than I would have liked—there are lots of small details, which I welcomed, but big gaps in the larger issues—and I really couldn’t stop wondering why these kids go on as they do, bringing babies into this harsh world. I understand the human drives for survival and procreation but, like Jemma, I don’t think I could give birth to a baby with no future beyond seventeen years and, perhaps worse, not even the comfort of a mother past one year.

All that notwithstanding, I had no idea where Mr. Sweat was going to take me and it’s a perilous and wonderful journey indeed. Failings aside, this series debut is well worth the time and I hope to get more answers in the next book. There will be a next one, right, Mr. Sweat?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2018.

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About the Author

Jeff Sweat has made a living from words his entire career, starting out as an award-winning tech journalist for InformationWeek magazine and moving into marketing.

He led the content marketing team for Yahoo and pioneered its use of social media. He directed PR for two of the top advertising agencies in the country, Deutsch LA and 72andSunny. He now runs his own Los Angeles–based PR and marketing agency, Mister Sweat.

He grew up in Idaho as the middle of eight children—seven boys and one girl—and attended Columbia University in New York. Jeff lives in a big blue house in Los Angeles with his wife Sunny and their three kids, two cats, and a racing greyhound.

He loves to travel and writes everywhere he goes, even when there’s not a desk. He likes karaoke, motorcycles and carpentry. He was once shot in the head with a nail gun, which was not a big of a deal as it sounds. But it still hurt like crazy.

Website | Twitter | Instagram | Amazon Author Page | Goodreads

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Giveaway
1 winner will receive a MAYFLY
prize pack which includes
buttons, custom art and maps,
and a t-shirt.
US only.

Enter the drawing here.

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Book Review: The Hostess with the Ghostess by E. J. Copperman

The Hostess with the Ghostess
A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery #9
E. J. Copperman
Crooked Lane Books, January 2018
ISBN: 978-1-6833-1450-9
Hardcover

Alison Kerby returns in the 9th book in the Haunted Guesthouse Mystery series by E.J. Copperman.  Alison, a single mother in her late thirties, runs a guesthouse in her childhood hometown of Harbor Haven, on the Jersey Shore, inhabited by her and her precocious thirteen-year-old daughter, as well as Maxie Malone, Alison’s resident Internet expert, and Paul Harrison, an English/Canadian professor turned detective, both of whom have lived there since before their deaths, and her deceased father.  It would seem that Alison, her daughter and her mother are the only ones who can see the ghosts.  She now acknowledges the ghostly residents, and advertises the inn as a Haunted Guesthouse, specializing in Senior Plus Tours which include twice-daily ‘spook shows.’   From the publisher: Things are never quiet for long at the Haunted Guesthouse.  Right as Alison Kerby finally gets some peace, long-time deceased Paul Harrison’s recently murdered brother, Richard, shows up looking for the ghostly detective.  But Paul has left for parts unknown months ago – – and Alison doesn’t know how to find him.  As she searches for Paul, Alison discovers that Richard, who was a lawyer, was working a case about a woman accused of murdering her stepfather.  It quickly becomes clear that Richard was getting too close to the truth and was forcibly kept quiet.  Now as Alison continues her investigation, she gets a creeping sensation that the murderer doesn’t appreciate her snooping around.  And if she doesn’t stop, she’ll be next . . .

I found it very helpful to have a “Cast of Characters” on the page before page 1 of the book.  I also loved the first paragraph:  “’Something’s missing.’  I was sitting on a barstool next to the center island in my kitchen, having a conversation with five other people, two of whom were alive.”  But Alison, whose quote that is, quickly goes on to explain, and to introduce those with her, both living and otherwise.  After getting divorced from her 1st husband, who she not-so-lovingly refers to as “the Swine,” she returns to her hometown of Harbor Haven, on the “deservedly famous Jersey Shore,” where she opens her guesthouse. Her euphemisms for the ghosts who reside there, after she introduces the “alive people in the room,” range from “non-living” to those who have been “deprived of life,” but they definitely come to life in this delightful, wholly entertaining book. There is also Maxie’s ghost husband, Everett, who still spends time at the local gas station, where he died. He thinks of it as standing guard at his post.

When first meeting the aforementioned Richard, her “first thought was, “I wonder if he’d do some spook shows.”  Alison et al agree to search for his missing dead brother, who she refers to as her “conscience. He was the Jiminy Cricket of ghosts.”  Alison has now been remarried for four months, to one Josh Kaplan.  Also added to the mix is her daughter Melissa’s little adopted ghost dog, destined to “always be a puppy,” of course.  I loved the comment made when Melissa’s interactions with Alison prompts the latter to think that she couldn’t even be grumpy, which puts “something of a damper on my day.  If you can’t be grumpy, what’s the point of being from New Jersey?”  The plot moves nicely into the investigation inhttp://www.ejcopperman.com/to the murders, which is resolved with contributions from the ghosts, of course.

As I have said in the past about the Copperman books, and it remains just as true, the writing is wonderful, with the author’s s trademark laugh-out-loud wit and intelligence, well-plotted mystery and very well-drawn characters, alive or otherwise.  My preference in mystery genres generally does not include either “cozies” or books dealing in the supernatural (not that there’s anything wrong with those, and many of my best friends love them, I hasten to add).  But this author’s writing overcomes any such reluctance on my part – – his books are always thoroughly delightful, and highly recommended.  His dedication to several brilliant comics of years past ends with the words “there aren’t enough funny people in the world,” a deficit which he certainly helps to overcome.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2018.