Book Review: If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss

If the Creek Don’t Rise
Leah Weiss
Sourcebooks Landmark, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-4926-4745-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

He’s gonna be sorry he ever messed with me and Loretta Lynn

Sadie Blue has been a wife for fifteen days. That’s long enough to know she should have never hitched herself to Roy Tupkin, even with the baby.

Sadie is desperate to make her own mark on the world, but in remote Appalachia, a ticket out of town is hard to come by, and hope often gets stomped out.  When a stranger sweeps into Baines Creek and knocks things off kilter, Sadie finds herself with an unexpected lifeline…if she can just figure out how to use it.

This intimate insight into a fiercely proud, tenacious community unfolds through the voices of the forgotten folks of Baines Creek. With a colorful cast of characters that each contribute a new perspective, IF THE CREEK DON’T RISE is a debut novel bursting with heart, honesty, and homegrown grit.

There are only a few authors I’ve come across that write fiction about Appalachia with authority and with a strong sense of understanding, compassion and respect. Catherine Marshall and Sharyn McCrumb come to mind and I’ve now added Leah Weiss to my shortlist. This may be a debut but Ms. Weiss has created a story that, to me, represents the way I personally feel about the Appalachian people and their way of life.

Those of us who live in more traditional, perhaps more “sophisticated” environs get a good taste of Sadie’s insular, self-contained world and, while we think her pregnancy and marriage at such a young age are appalling enough, it’s much harder to comprehend the way of life that would lead her Granny to treat Sadie so harshly. As Sadie says, “Granny don’t do my heart any good” but Granny is what Appalachian mores and society are all about. It all makes thoughts of murder a little more forgiveable.

My heart was immediately taken by Sadie and I was energized by her hopes of escaping this crushing poverty and illiteracy but, truly, nearly all these people, Granny and the abusive Roy included, tugged at me for one reason or another. Some of my reaction is because of my own familiarity with the Appalachian world from regular family trips to the Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee areas when I was growing up and my fondness for fiction set there as well as nonfiction. Ms. Weiss is responsible for drawing me in this time and I truly hope to see more of Sadie and the people of Baines Creek. In the meantime, If the Creek Don’t Rise has a place on my list of best books read in 2017.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon
Book Depository // Indiebound

An Indie Next, Okra Pick, and LibraryReads 

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About the Author

Leah Weiss is a Southern writer and novelist born in North Carolina and raised in the foothills of Virginia. Her debut novel, If the Creek Don’t Rise, will be released in August of 2017. Her short stories have been published in The Simple Life magazine, Every Day Fiction and Deep South Magazine. She retired in 2015 from a 24-year career as Executive Assistant to the Headmaster at Virginia Episcopal School. She now pursues writing full time.

Website // Facebook // Goodreads

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“Weiss’ debut novel reveals the best and worst of human nature…
The author’s masterful use of language, including dialect unique
to the area, builds another layer of connection between these
characters while she develops a greater sense of inner isolation
and distance from those outside the community. Weiss’ novel is a
great suggestion for fans of the Big Stone Gap books, by Adriana Trigiani,
and Mitford series, by Jan Karon.” – Booklist, STARRED review

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Book Review: Murder Between the Lines by Radha Vatsal—and a Giveaway!

Murder Between the Lines
A Kitty Weeks Mystery #2
Radha Vatsal
Sourcebooks Landmark, May 2017
ISBN 978-1-4926-3892-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Intrepid journalist Kitty Weeks returns in the second book in this acclaimed WW1-era historical mystery series to investigate the death of a boarding school student.

When Kitty’s latest assignment for the New York Sentinel Ladies’ Page takes her to Westfield Hall, she expects to find an orderly establishment teaching French and dancing-but there’s more going on at the school than initially meets the eye.

Tragedy strikes when a student named Elspeth is found frozen to death in Central Park. The doctor’s proclaim that the girl’s sleepwalking was the cause, but Kitty isn’t so sure.

Determined to uncover the truth, Kitty must investigate a more chilling scenario-a murder that may involve Elspeth’s scientist father and a new invention by a man named Thomas Edison.

The early 1900’s have always been a favorite historical period for me with its blend of innocence and the beginnings of the fights for social justice, whether it be the push for women’s rights or perhaps the protection of workers, adults and children. Murder Between the Lines has all the charm and interesting setting I look for in this type of historical.

Kitty Weeks is a natural if unintended sleuth in her zeal to be a “real” reporter and perhaps find justice for those in need and her editor has agreed to let her do more than cover society. A country with high-flying ideals on the precipice of war and coping with suffragettes and the like presents plenty of opportunity for Kitty, herself a wealthy member of society, but she’s drawn to the death of a young lady, a death she finds quite suspicious even after it’s ruled accidental. Kitty had met Elspeth while doing a piece on her boarding school and found her focus on scientific matters most interesting but wonders if that could have led to her death.

With an easy pace and an appealing protagonist determined to solve an engaging puzzle, Ms. Vatsal kept me entertained and following Kitty down several paths before  finally reaching a solution. I thoroughly enjoyed my first adventure with this intrepid young woman and really appreciated the author’s attention to the details of the period. While she’s perhaps not as well-developed a character as I would like, Kitty’s intelligence and her own reactions to the issues of her day make her a young woman I want to meet again.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2017.

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To enter the drawing for print
copies of both Murder Between
the Lines and A Front Page Affair,
the first book, leave a
comment below.
The winning name
will be drawn
Sunday evening,
May 21st. Open to
residents
of the US and Canada.

Book Review: Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister

Girl in Disguise
Greer Macallister
Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2017
ISBN 978-1-4926-3522-2
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Inspired by the real story of investigator Kate Warne, this spirited novel follows the detective’s rise during one of the nation’s times of crisis, bringing to life a fiercely independent woman whose forgotten triumphs helped sway the fate of the country.

With no money and no husband, Kate Warne finds herself with few choices. The streets of 1856 Chicago offer a desperate widow mostly trouble and ruin―unless that widow has a knack for manipulation and an unusually quick mind. In a bold move that no other woman has tried, Kate convinces the legendary Allan Pinkerton to hire her as a detective.

Battling criminals and coworkers alike, Kate immerses herself in the dangerous life of an operative, winning the right to tackle some of the agency’s toughest investigations. But is the woman she’s becoming―capable of any and all lies, swapping identities like dresses―the true Kate? Or has the real disguise been the good girl she always thought she was?

Kate Warne really was the first female detective with the Pinkerton Agency, a woman far ahead of her time and with prodigious abilities; you can read more about her here. Ms. Macallister now offers a fictional account of this endlessly fascinating woman and brings Kate to life for us.

Kate’s adventures don’t seem all that exciting, on the surface, until you remind yourself she was a 23-year-old female doing a traditionally man’s job in 1856. To say she had to overcome some gender-based obstacles would be an understatement but she proved her worth and validated Allan Pinkerton’s decision to give her a chance. In effect, Kate broke the glass ceiling for all the women detectives who followed her.

The reader looking for a typical mystery won’t find it here because there’s no particular case to be solved. Rather, this is a lively recounting of a private detective’s adventures, made more interesting by the times and the excitement of being a Pinkerton.

The fun of this book lies in all the detective stuff we fell in love with as children—codes, deception, disguises and general shenanigans along with derring-do—and the tale is told by Kate herself, giving it a taste of reality as it existed in the mid-nineteenth century, especially during the Civil War. Ms. Macallister doesn’t fill the pages with thrills and chills but, considering how little is known about this captivating woman, she gives Kate a real presence.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2017.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon

Book Depository // Indiebound 

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An Excerpt from Girl in Disguise

THE FIRST DISGUISE

August 1856

Like any Chicago tavern in deep summer, Joe Mulligan’s stank. It stank of cigars smoked the week before, months before, years before. Tonight’s smoke pooled against the basement ceiling in a noxious cloud. I acted like I smelled only roses. The woman I was pretending to be would have done the same.

I was also pretending the sharp tang of men’s sweat surrounding me didn’t terrify me. These were not good men. But I wasn’t a good woman, not tonight. My mission was to ignore the smoke and the sweat, blind a bad man with a wicked smile, and wring out his secrets. There would be no second chance.

So I breathed as shallowly as I could and made my way through the crowd to the bar. Men’s bodies brushed mine, hips and hands and God only knows what, lingering on my shoulder and every- where below. My nerves frayed, and I stumbled. With anything less at stake, I would have fled Joe Mulligan’s as if it were on fire. But I needed the money. The money would save me.

“Drink?” snapped the barkeep.

I squared my shoulders and answered him as the woman I was pretending to be.

“Well, I sure am thirsty,” I said, lowering my head as if sharing a confidence, “but I’m waiting on a friend.”

Empty glass in hand, he looked me over. The low-sweeping neckline of my claret silk gown and the pale expanse of décolletage it artfully framed. The intricately curled hair piled atop my head, shot through with ribbons. The coy smile, all lips, no teeth. I saw recognition flash in his eyes.

“Do your business, but don’t make no trouble,” he said and moved on down the bar to a knot of raucous, rowdy men. The first gate, passed. Now, I was just waiting.

And waiting.

At least thirty long minutes crawled by, and with each one, my relief drained away. The same disguise that had fooled the bartender fooled the patrons. Man after man took turns perching on the red leather stool next to me. They bent close. Their mouths offered drinks and conversation, but their eyes made it clear what they really wanted.

I hadn’t expected to be the only woman in the place. This late at night, the slatterns of Chicago did a brisk business in establishments like Joe Mulligan’s, which is why I’d chosen this place and time. I’d known how it would look and what they would think. But the practice was turning out to be much harder than the theory. Every man had to be skillfully parried away. A single slip would waste the night. The effort exhausted me.

“Oh, sir,” I was saying to the latest one, fluttering my fingers at him, “you do me a kindness. But I really must insist you leave that seat free for my companion.”

He leaned closer, breathing almost into my mouth, and slurred, “I’ll be your companion, sugar.”

I swallowed my disgust and kept my voice steady. Be pleasant, I told myself. Cheerful. Bland. “He’ll be here any minute, I’m certain of it,” I said and gazed over his shoulder hopefully. As if in answer, the door to the outside creaked open.

Rumbles of laughter sounded as half a dozen men guffawed their way down the stairs into the tavern. I recognized my target immediately. He wasn’t the tallest of them, nor the most handsome, but it was clear he was in charge. His smirk showed he was the one who’d told the joke everyone was laughing at.

Henry Venable, better known as Heck, was a sallow man with deep-set, hooded eyes. He wore a hat worn soft with age. The rest of his clothes were so new they practically gleamed. If I were closer, I’d be able to see my reflection in his shoes. He looked, unmistakably, like he’d recently come into money. Which the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the First Eagle Savings Bank believed he had, several weeks before, with the help of three accomplices and four shotguns. Eyewitnesses had given a description that matched Heck’s, but it wasn’t enough. The best way to prove he’d done it was to find the money. He’d spent some of it, clearly, but rare was the man who could spend five thousand dollars in less than a month without leaving some kind of trail. The rest had to be hidden somewhere.

I had to find out where.

Easy, easy, I told myself. I couldn’t shove my way over to him right off the bat. I had to get him to come to me. Somehow.

Still laughing and jostling one another, the six men took their seats at a booth in the corner, much farther away than I would’ve liked. I was too far off to catch his eye, and it would look odd if I changed my seat for no reason. Given that, I sidled down the bar and forced myself to slide onto an empty stool next to a stoop- shouldered man. I sat much closer to him than I needed to and dangled one foot close to his.

“Evening,” I said.

He glared at me through bleary eyes, clearly three sheets to the wind already, maybe four. Well, that wasn’t all bad. He couldn’t cause me trouble if he slipped out of consciousness. I hoped.

“Evening,” he slurred, barely able to manage even the two required syllables.

“What’re you drinking? Looks delicious. I sure could use a drink myself,” I said and gestured to the empty bar in front of me.

He managed to raise two fingers to the bartender, who came right away—clearly, this was a regular—and said, “’Nother round, Jim.”

“Coming right up.”

I edged even closer to him and peeked over my shoulder as discreetly as I could toward Heck and his men. All seated, and some looked restless. Good. There were still possibilities.

My ever-drunker neighbor half raised his glass of bourbon to me. I took a sip and nearly choked. It took all my concentration not to gasp at the burning, searing sensation. I’d have to get better at that. Any man in possession of his faculties could easily see I wasn’t used to strong drink. Tonight, this one’s faculties were thoroughly drowned, but that was luck on my part, not skill. If I made it through this night, I’d put it on my list of things to learn.

Finally, one of Heck’s men eased out of the booth. As I’d hoped, he came toward the bar, into the larger-than-usual space on my far side. He flagged down the bartender and rattled off a complicated order. As soon as he was done and his elbow was resting on the bar next to me, I ignored my marinated neighbor, as I’d planned, and leaned over toward him, my décolletage almost spilling out onto his arm.

“Evening,” I said.

He nodded back silently. He was a striking man, with blue eyes like ice under his thick black brows, but there was something cruel about his face. Something cold. Locked away.

I’d have to generate enough warmth for both of us. “Say,” I nearly purred, inclining my head toward the booth, “would you mind introducing me to your friends there?”

“Yes, I’d mind very much,” he said, turned square toward the bar, and then ignored me as if someone were paying him a goodly sum to do so.

Damn it. The wrong target, I supposed, but what was I to do? I was beginning to panic in earnest. Heck was only ten feet away from me, but he might as well be ten miles if I couldn’t get myself into his orbit. I had it all planned out. Delicate fingers laid on his arm. Breathless, admiring questions. He was known as a boaster with an eye, and other parts, for the ladies. If I was in the right place at the right time—which I was so, so close to being—I could get him to boast to me. Then I’d have what Pinkerton wanted, and in turn, he’d give me what I wanted: a position as the first female operative of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, at full salary.

But it all depended on Heck, and to get to him, I had to get through this man-shaped woodcut first. And all he was doing was staring at the barkeep, waiting.

We stayed like that a few minutes. My brain worked madly, thoughts zooming and swooping around my skull, but I had no good ideas. It could all fall apart this easily. Damn it. Damn it. The drunk on my other side finally laid his head down on the bar; he’d be no help.

At last, another man rose from the booth and joined Blue Eyes, standing close to both of us. His hair was drenched with brillian- tine, and his small, sad mustache was little more than a pencil line above his lip. “Boss wants to know what’s taking so long.”

“See for yourself,” said the taller one, inclining his head in the direction of the culprit, who was hard at work pouring coppery brown liquid out of a silver shaker into six matching coupes. “Ragman’s taking his sweet time.”

The new arrival inclined his head toward me. “Looks to me like you’re caught up in conversation.”

“Heavens no,” I said, pivoting my body toward  his.  “This clod couldn’t make conversation if I spotted him both ends of the sentence. Are you more of a…talker?”

“I could be,” he said with a wolf’s leer.

“Then perhaps I might join your party?” I smiled, but not too wide. Softly, sweetly. Let him think me a sheep.

“Sounds good to me,” he said. “No,” said the first man.

“You’re no fun,” said the second.

“That may be,” said Blue Eyes. “But no need for the boss to get distracted. There’s business to be done.”

“Aw, plenty of time for business when the sun rises,” Mustache replied. “Tonight, I think he’s more in the mood to celebrate, if you catch my drift.”

“I like to celebrate,” I said.

“I bet you do,” both men said in unison, with very different inflections.

With much clattering and fanfare, the bartender finally poured the sixth drink and pushed the glasses across the bar. Mustache immediately grabbed one in each hand. The elegant stems looked especially fragile in his fists. He carried them over to the table, where his arrival was greeted with appreciative hoots.

I assumed Blue Eyes would follow, but instead, he grabbed my elbow sharply and growled in my ear, “What are you playing at?”

“What?”

“Walk away,” he said. “Right now. Walk away.” “No,” I hissed, but my heart pounded.

“All right, then. Come with me.” “I’ll scream,” I said.

“You do that,” he said, cool as the far side of the pillow.

He was right. A scream would call attention my way, but what for? What man among these would rush to my side? I scanned their faces. Heck Venable and his crew were hardly the only wrongdoers here, and some were doubtless worse than mere robbers. First Eagle had been knocked over with no fatalities. There were things far worse than money to steal. I was likely better off taking my chances with Blue Eyes, as poor a prospect as that seemed.

Mustache returned for the rest of the drinks. “You helping?” he asked, clearly confused.

“Naw, you take ’em. I’ll be back in two shakes,” said the taller man, shifting his grip on my elbow around to the inside, so it looked less overtly threatening. His long, rough fingers moved over the delicate skin on my inner arm, and I couldn’t suppress a shiver.

“Oh, I see,” leered Mustache.

Annoyance crossed his face, but Blue Eyes said, “Don’t drink mine. I won’t be long.”

“Sure.”

I wished I could think of something to say to Mustache that would result in him getting me away from Blue Eyes, but my mind was a blank. I never should have taken such a risk. Never should have come here. I didn’t even protest as the taller man hauled me to my feet.

“This way,” he said, steering me up the stairs. I dragged my feet as much as I dared, and a new wave of terror swept over me. Upstairs was the hotel. That was a key reason Joe Mulligan’s was particularly popular with the whores of Chicago: convenience.

His hand was locked around my arm like an iron cuff. He didn’t relax his grip at all, even while using his other hand to unlock the door of a room that I assumed to be his. My throat was dry, and my head swam. Damn it, damn it. I’d disguised myself as a prostitute to crack the case, believing it the best, if not the only, way to achieve my aim. Now, unless a miracle happened, I’d have to choose between certain exposure and an unthinkable act. Blue Eyes was clearly expecting me to follow through on my disguise. Unless I wanted to give up all hope of ever gaining the confidence of Heck Venable and prying loose his secrets, I’d have to deliver on my unspoken promise and do what prostitutes do.

With one more tug, he pulled me inside the room and shut the door.

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About the Author

Raised in the Midwest, Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist whose work has appeared in publications such as The North American Review, The Missouri Review, and The Messenger. Her plays have been performed at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives with her family in Brooklyn.

Social Media Links:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/theladygreer

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/theladygreer/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/greermacallister/

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“an exciting, well-crafted historical novel. Loaded with
suspense and action, this is a well-told, superb story.”
 Publishers Weekly, STARRED 

“Macallister’s story is a rip-roaring, fast-paced treat to
read, with compelling characters, twisted villains, and
mounds of historical details adeptly woven into the tale
of a courageous woman who loves her job more than
anything or anyone else.” – Booklist

Book Reviews: Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon, Need by Joelle Charbonneau, and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Come Rain or Come ShineCome Rain or Come Shine
A Mitford Novel #11
Jan Karon
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-399-16745-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Over the course of ten Mitford novels, fans have kept a special place in their hearts for Dooley Kavanagh, first seen in At Home in Mitford as a barefoot, freckle-faced boy in filthy overalls.

Now, Father Tim Kavanagh’s adopted son has graduated from vet school and opened his own animal clinic. Since money will be tight for a while, maybe he and Lace Harper, his once and future soul mate, should keep their wedding simple.

So the plan is to eliminate the cost of catering and do potluck. Ought to be fun.

An old friend offers to bring his well-known country band. Gratis.

And once mucked out, the barn works as a perfect venue for seating family and friends.

Piece of cake, right?

In Come Rain or Come Shine, Jan Karon delivers the wedding that millions of Mitford fans have waited for. It’s a June day in the mountains, with more than a few creatures great and small, and you’re invited—because you’re family.

By the way, it’s a pretty casual affair, so come as you are and remember to bring a tissue or two. After all, what’s a good wedding without a good cry?

Like so many others, I’m a longtime fan of Mitford and its wonderfully normal citizens, quirks and all, and I’ve laughed and cried my way through every book in the series. Come Rain or Come Shine fits right into the mix and I loved being back in the center of this delightful place. It’s even better that the story centers on one of my favorite characters, Dooley, adopted son of Father Tim and Cynthia, and his upcoming wedding to Lace Harper.

There’s a lot going on in Dooley’s life all at once—graduation from vet school, starting his clinic, getting married—but that really isn’t so unusual and it’s even less unusual that money could be a little tight at such a time. What’s so heartwarming is the way others in the community come together to make this wedding happen, good evidence of the affection the townspeople have for one another.

I do wish there had been more of Father Tim and Cynthia but this is the way life evolves from one generation to the next, isn’t it? Truthfully, there isn’t any real plot here but that’s not what comfort fiction readers look for and the important things, the characters, just sail off the page and into the readers’ hearts.

Technically, this is not part of the original Mitford series but more like an offshoot. When it’s all said and done, I don’t really care because I love this book as much as the earlier ones. I do think there’s a bit too much headhopping and, because of that, I heartily suggest that readers new to the series start at the beginning because, otherwise, you just won’t get the full effect and you won’t understand the characters. Guaranteed, you’re going to love Mitford and it’s citizens 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

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NeedNeed
Joelle Charbonneau
HMH Books for Young Readers, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-544-41669-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

“No one gets something for nothing. We all should know better.”

Teenagers at Wisconsin’s Nottawa High School are drawn deeper into a social networking site that promises to grant their every need . . . regardless of the consequences. Soon the site turns sinister, with simple pranks escalating to malicious crimes. The body count rises. In this chilling YA thriller, the author of the best-selling Testing trilogy examines not only the dark side of social media, but the dark side of human nature.

One of the many things that concerns me about today’s society is that we’ve been teaching our children to expect far more than they’ve ever earned, a sort of privilege in which many of them believe that all good things must come their way. Such is the darkness at the heart of the social networking site, NEED. It’s a hopeful sign that Kaylee recognizes the fallacy behind what NEED offers but she joins anyway. She’s a smart girl, though, and it doesn’t take her long to begin to realize the truly awful things happening and the demands that teens are facing in exchange for having their needs met.

The action takes off exponentially and tension continues to build as teen and adult readers alike go along for the rollercoaster ride until a most satisfying ending. If I have any reservations, it’s that I don’t really think that teens, despite their feelings of privilege, are quite this gullible (although they DO tend to behave like sheep and follow the latest fads just because everybody else does). I also think there are way too many narrators but, on the whole, I do recommend this. It’s not Ms. Charbonneau‘s strongest work—she’s one of my favorite authors—but it kept me up at night and that’s a good thing.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

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The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendThe Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
Katarina Bivald
Sourcebooks Landmark, January 2016
ISBN 978-1-4926-2344-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Once you let a book into your life, the most unexpected things can happen…

Broken Wheel, Iowa, has never seen anyone like Sara, who traveled all the way from Sweden just to meet her book-loving pen pal, Amy. When she arrives, however, she finds Amy’s funeral guests just leaving. The residents of Broken Wheel are happy to look after their bewildered visitor―there’s not much else to do in a dying small town that’s almost beyond repair.

You certainly wouldn’t open a bookstore. And definitely not with the tourist in charge. You’d need a vacant storefront (Main Street is full of them), books (Amy’s house is full of them), and…customers.

The bookstore might be a little quirky. Then again, so is Sara. But Broken Wheel’s own story might be more eccentric and surprising than she thought.

A heartwarming reminder of why we are booklovers, this is a sweet, smart story about how books find us, change us, and connect us.

Being a former bookstore owner and current bookblogger, it’s only natural that I would be drawn to a book about, well, books and the love of books. As it turns out, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was not exactly what I thought it was going to be but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this quiet yet quirky story.

From the beginning, I had to suspend a lot of disbelief. For instance, I found it hard to credit that Sara would leave Sweden and her life behind just because she lost her job even though her life really was all wrapped up in that job and in her correspondence with Amy. I also found the willingness of the townsfolk to have Sara move into Amy’s house more than a little puzzling.

Putting those issues aside, this is an appealing story and, having had a bookstore myself, I totally get Sara’s desire to share her love of books with the town. There’s something truly uplifting about finding the right book for a person or just in helping them experience the joy of escaping into whatever world a particular book offers. I don’t mean to sound silly about it but being a bookseller is a passion that never goes away and I know that librarians and individual readers lending books to their friends feel the same joy. That goes for today’s book bloggers, too, who simply have to tell people about the books they want others to know about. Because of all that, and Sara’s general aimlessness, I did believe in her idea of having the bookstore.

The other aspect of the tale that I found interesting is the juxtaposition of the dying town, Broken Wheel, with the nearby more prosperous town of Hope. Without knocking the reader over the head with the comparison, Ms. Bivald brings the two towns into the full light of day and watching what happens to Broken Wheel and to Sara when she opens her bookstore is endearing to say the least. Bookstores really can be the heart of a community and that’s why I long to be running one again.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

Book Review: The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie AsterThe Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster
Scott Wilbanks
Sourcebooks Landmark, August 2015
ISBN 978-1-4926-1246-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Annabelle Aster has discovered a curious thing behind her home in San Francisco–a letterbox perched atop a picket fence.  The note inside is blunt—trespass is dealt with at the business end of a shotgun in these parts!—spurring some lively correspondence between the Bay Area orphan and her new neighbor, a feisty widow living in nineteenth-century Kansas. 

The source of mischief is an antique door Annie installed at the rear of her house.  The man who made the door—a famed Victorian illusionist—died under mysterious circumstances. 

Annie and her new neighbor, with the help of friends and strangers alike, must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen…and somehow already did.

I’ve never been a true fan of magical realism in my reading maybe because I have a more “literal” mind. I suppose, in a way, that’s why I enjoy the mystery genre so much, being focused on a search for truth. On the other hand, I adore dark fantasy so maybe I’m offbase about my usual meh feeling towards magical realism. I just know I generally don’t like it enough to finish a book because I get distracted and bored by the flighty storylines and the, well, weirdness. All of which begs the question—why did I want to read this one?

Truthfully, I was drawn in by the lovely cover and by the description because I like the premise of communication between two time periods (and this reminded me of a favorite movie, “The Lake House”). Also, there’s a murder (see, there’s my mystery element). So, I raised my hand to volunteer, so to speak, and I’m very glad I did.

Mr. Wilbanks has a sure touch when it comes to characterization. Each of the main characters—Annie, Elsbeth, Christian, Cap’n, Mr. Culler, Danyer—is so vividly drawn that I felt I actually knew them. It’s all in the details, such as Elsbeth’s bitter loneliness wrapped up in her no-nonsense attitude and her willingness to accept what’s right in front of her even when she doesn’t understand how it can be. In just a few words, the author paints a picture of her that’s so compelling, you just have to keep reading. Then there’s Christian who stutters badly around everyone except his best friend, Annie, and who has gaping holes in his memory but he also sees what Annie sees through her magical door.

As for the murder, I’m not going to say a word beyond this—getting there is all the fun.

So, will I give magical realism more of a chance in the future? I honestly don’t know but, if I do, it’ll be because that unknown author has the same kind of whimsical, funny, entertaining way of telling a story as Scott Wilbanks…and I’ll read whatever he puts forth next 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2015.

An Excerpt from
The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Lister

ONE
Pray for Me, Father

May 16, 1895
San Francisco, California
Mission Dolores Basilica

Randall—­

I’ve not forgotten our quarrel, but I’m asking you to put that aside for the sake of scholarship and the friendship we once shared. You were right, I fear. I meddled in something beyond my understanding.  The time-­travel conduit works—­I’ve shaped it as a door—­but not, I suspect, by science or my own hand. You are the only person who won’t think me paranoid should I put words to my suspicion. Something slumbers within it. Something with designs of its own.

Words have power. You know that better than anyone. And I am beginning to suspect the ones the shaman spoke—­and which I foolishly copied into my journal’s companion piece, my codex—­were an invocation.

Please come soon, I beg you. Or don’t come at all. And if you don’t come, then pray for me, Father. Matters are coming to a head, and my instincts say this will not end well.

David Abbott

Cap’n—­adolescent con artist extraordinaire, picker of any lock, leader of Kansas City’s notorious sandlot gang, and unofficial mayor to all its throwaways—­plucked a wilted lettuce leaf from her hair as she peered through a break in the pile of rubbish where she was hiding.

Fabian didn’t look so good, she thought, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. He was lying in the mud, his legs bent at odd angles, and was staring down the length of his outspread arm, his mouth opening and closing in a creepy imitation of a fish on the chopping block. She couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear Fabian was telling her to flee.

He wasn’t going anywhere. Danyer had made sure of that. Whether it was a first or last name, Cap’n didn’t know. He just went by Danyer. He was Mr. Culler’s hatchet man, and he didn’t fight fair. Danyer wasn’t interested in fair, though; he was interested in results, and Fabian had failed. Cap’n knew it was a bad idea to let failure go unanswered in their line of business, but she never imagined it would come to this. Fabian was a moneymaker for Mr. Culler, after all.

Danyer towered over him, a granite block with meat-­hook arms, his legs straddling Fabian’s belly. As his boots rocked in the muck, Danyer’s duster swept back and forth across Fabian’s chest. His voice reminded Cap’n of a humming turbine—­deep and dangerous—­as he read from the letter they’d filched. “‘Please come soon, I beg you—­’” Danyer crumpled the paper, lobbing it into the air. It bounced off Fabian’s cheek and into the mud. “Where’s the journal?” He squatted, grabbing Fabian’s chin with his sausage fingers before slapping him lightly across the cheek. “Hmm?”

Cap’n said a quick prayer for her friend and started backing up. But it was too late. She stepped on a stick that lifted a crate at the base of the rubbish heap just a fraction of an inch, and she could only grit her teeth as a tin can toppled from its perch, tinkling down the pile of debris while making a sound like a scale played on a badly tuned piano.

She froze as Danyer pivoted to stare at the pile of rubbish. He turned back to Fabian, speaking warily. “And where’s Cap’n?” he asked. “Where’s your pet pickpocket?” She watched him slap Fabian’s cheek one more time, the muscles in her legs tensing as he turned and started to walk toward her hiding place. Five feet out, Danyer lunged, but all he got hold of was the remaining head of lettuce as she bolted from the mound, racing down the alleyway in a flurry of muslin, freckles, and carrot-­colored pigtails.

Three blocks later, she rounded a corner, waiting. When the crack of the gun echoed down the street, she ducked into a drainage pipe to collect herself. A cockroach crawled over her foot, its antennae waving. Fabian admired cockroaches, she remembered. He said they were survivors. Suddenly, a whimper broke from her throat, and she ground the bug into a mosaic of chitinous shards before huddling in on herself, sobbing. And just as suddenly, she sat upright, her mouth set in a grim line while she ran the back of her hand across her nose.

Tears were for kids, and she needed to make a plan. When Fabian turned up dead, and there was no doubt he would, Danyer would want to tie up some loose ends—­namely her. She wasn’t too worried about that. She knew every hidey-­hole in Kansas City, and the gang would watch her back. She regarded what was left of the cockroach, one of its severed legs agitating as though not realizing the body it belonged to was already dead, and nodded to herself. It was time to put the shoe on the other foot, she decided. Something had to be done about Danyer and his boss.

************

About the Author

Scott WilbanksScott Wilbanks graduated summa cum laude from The University of Oklahoma and went on to garner several national titles in the sport of gymnastics. Scott’s husband, Mike, is a New Zealander by birth, and the two split their time between the two countries while Scott is at work on his next standalone novel.

Find Scott:

Website  //  Twitter  //  Facebook  //  Goodreads

Book Review: After We Fall by Emma Kavanagh—and a Giveaway!

After We FallAfter We Fall
Emma Kavanagh
Sourcebooks Landmark, June 2015
ISBN 978-1-4926-0919-3
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A plane falls out of the sky.
A woman is murdered.
Four people all have something to hide…

Shortly after takeoff, flight 2940 plummets to the snow-covered ground, breaking into two parts, the only survivors a handful of passengers and a flight attendant. 

Cecilia has packed up and left her family. Now she has survived a tragedy and sees no way out.

Tom has woken up to discover that his wife was on the plane and must break the news to their only son.

Jim is a retired police offer and worried father. His beloved daughter has disappeared, and he knows something is wrong.

Freya is struggling to cope with the loss of her father. But as she delves into his past, she may not like what she finds.

Four people, who have never met but are indelibly linked by these disasters, will be forced to reveal the closely guarded secrets that unlock the answers to their questions. But once the truth is exposed, it may cause even more destruction.

From the opening lines, we’re thrust into the overwhelming fear that must come when a plane is about to crash and, almost in the same breath, we begin to learn a bit about four very different people, different and yet not so much so.

Why was Cecilia driven to quit her job as a flight attendant but, more importantly, why has she abandoned her husband and her toddler son? How can Tom, a CID detective accustomed to seeing and hearing terrible things,, summon the courage and the right words to tell little Ben that his mom was on that plane and, worse yet, she meant to leave them behind?

After thirty years on the force, Jim never thought he’d have to cope with the disappearance of his daughter, Libby. herself a cop on the beat. The signs are all there, though, to a man trained to see them. And Freya, well, this poor girl is about to hear the TV news story that will turn her life upside down.

Four people. Four lives that will be irrevocably changed by murder and the freefall of an airplane.

Multiple points of view don’t always work, in my opinion, but they do in this case. In fact, I don’t think any other style would have been nearly as effective, primarily because only two of the four are clearly connected. Ms. Kavanagh has done a really nice job of bringing these diverse and interesting characters into the reader’s life and I felt a good deal of empathy with each and every one. Also, while it would have been easy for the horror of a plane crash to overwhelm the murder of one person, Ms. Kavanagh never lets that happen.

Part psychological thriller, part character study, After We Fall is well worth a reader’s time.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2015.

************

Emma KavanaghEmma Kavanagh was born and raised in South Wales. After graduating with a PhD in psychology from Cardiff University, she spent many years working as a police and military psychologist, training firearms officers, command staff, and military personnel throughout the UK and Europe. She started her business as a psychology consultant, specializing in human performance in extreme situations. She lives in South Wales with her husband and two young sons.

Leave a comment below to enter the
drawing
for a trade paperback copy of

After We Fall by Emma Kavanagh.
The winning name will be
drawn
on Tuesday evening, June 30th.

Open to residents of the US.

Book Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea
Susanna Kearsley
Sourcebooks Landmark, December 2010
ISBN 9781402241376
Trade Paperback
Also available in ebook format

Being a big fan of historical fiction I was excited to dive right into this book. First of all, I want to say that this is a beautifully written book and I loved the atmospheric scenes of Scotland, the great job the author did with the local dialect, no easy feat there, and the witty banter between Carrie and her agent, Jane, Carrie and Jimmy, Carrie and Graham, and Carrie and Stewart.

I also loved the premise–the idea of genetic memory–and have read postulations on the idea that memories could be passed down to our descendants as well as eye and hair color. It certainly makes sense to me as I have come to understand that even our hands have a memory of their own. Yes! That hand-eye coordination that gunslingers have? It isn’t all connected to the brain, you know, it’s kept as memory in the limb. Okay, off topic here.

Genetic memory aside, I found the frequent juxtaposition between the first person POV in the present time and the 3rd person POV as Carrie plunges into the memories of her 16th century ancestor somewhat jarring. I’d get all cozy into one story and in the next chapter I’d be dumped into another story and another time.

I also felt that the author used her present day character to give the reader historical lessons as a way to set the stage for her ancestral story, but I would rather she had allowed her readers to have the intelligence to know their history, or go look it up. And as a writer, I’d always been taught to show not tell, so these passages felt like instruction from a school teacher.

I thought both stories could have quite frankly have stood alone and I would have happily read both, I just didn’t enjoy reading them in one book.

Last, but not least, I felt cheated to hear Carrie discussing the ending with her agent. If the author needs to rewrite the ending to suit her readers, please let her do it off-stage. As a reader this is sure not what I paid for! What next? Will the author ask the readers how the story should end? BTW: I knew how it was going to end the minute she mentioned the stranger in town.

Okay, I’m sure this author felt a strong need to try something new, and obviously her editor and publisher thought it terrific or it wouldn’t have sold and after all, this is only one person’s opinion and it’s still a darn good sight better than many historical fiction.

Reviewed by guest reviewer RP Dahlke, November 2011.