Ellen Larkin longs to write a blockbuster exposé. As Senior Investigative Reporter at the Boston Chronicle, she covers political and business crimes affecting the citizens of Massachusetts—and dreams of winning a Pulitzer Prize.
When the Chronicle lays Ellen off, she is heartbroken. Driven by her near-empty bank account and the needs of her ailing mother, she applies for a job at Gargantua, a lucrative recruitment website headquartered in the Shelton Mill. Before she even gets the job, she stumbles upon clues that link the company to illegal venture capital stolen from Boston’s Big Dig project. Is this the story she’s dreamed of writing?
Boston’s Irish and Italian mobs, looking to cash in on Gargantua’s profits, will stop at nothing to halt Ellen’s investigation. With the help of two unconventional co-workers at Gargantua, can she uncover the truth before the crooks silence her forever?
Midnight Fire, Book 2 of the Jagiellon Mystery series, marks the suspenseful return of Caterina Konarska to Poland, where she goes seeking medical care for her ailing son. Queen Bona Sforza is delighted to see Caterina again and agrees to arrange the requested medical care, but in return she demands that Caterina travel to the Duchy of Lithuania to dissuade the heir to the throne from undertaking a disastrous marriage.
Faced with this near-impossible task, Caterina arrives in Lithuania just as a puzzling series of murders strikes the ducal court. Can she find the murderer before the heir’s consort is killed? Will the murderer kill Caterina to stop her investigation?
Fans of Tudor-era and European historical fiction will love this book. I highly recommend Midnight Fire.
Letter to My Replacement at the U.S. Park Service
The United States Park Service seeks a Junior Park Ranger, to start immediately. Area of coverage: Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area and West Mountain Peak, Utah. No experience necessary. Low pay. Must enjoy camping.
The Park Service won’t tell you about the snake bites, not during the interview at least. They’ll ask if you own a pair of thick hiking boots–and mark a ding on your application if you don’t.
They won’t tell you because the 1.5 million acres of southwestern Utah that you’ll be covering are home to the Western Sidewinder snake, one of the most venomous reptiles in the continental U.S. They don’t want you knowing that Sidewinders can kill a person with a single bite until you’ve sold all your personal belongings and moved across the country to a cheap motel in Shivwits or Gunlock, where the engines of the long-haul trucks on Old Highway 91 will keep you awake all night.
They also won’t mention that, due to budget cuts, the supply of antivenom has not been replenished in years. After the Great Recession in 2009, Congress cut funding by thirty percent, making syringes and antivenom luxuries that the Park Service can no longer afford.
As I unfortunately discovered, the biggest snake of all is Ranger Magilla. He conducts the final interview and he’s the reason you must like camping. Pity there’s no antivenom for him.
Ranger Magilla practices the opposite of Equal Employment Opportunity hiring. He insists on only hiring women, the younger and more wide-eyed the better. Each applicant must submit a photo and he devotes a good portion of the interview to staring at the interviewee’s breasts, as if assessing whether they’ll bounce under the olive drab shirt that would be her new uniform. Rumor has it he has never yet hired an A-cup.
If you’re like me, you’ve experienced one college internship, spending the summer before graduation in a bleak cubicle farm. You struggled to stay awake during afternoon PowerPoint presentations, envying your less-employable friends, who texted from Cape Cod describing intense games of Frisbee on the National Seashore. While they played Beer Pong, you fielded customer complaints for Chief Service Officers and wrote marketing copy for product brochures. As they rode the waves, you endured a stiff censure from the Human Resources Director the one time you were caught surfing the web during work hours.
You emerged in September a sickly shade of pale that only fluorescent lighting can produce. You’d gained ten pounds from sitting all day and your once-supple muscles, which aced the Peacock pose in college yoga class, make a mockery of the company’s ergonomic chairs.
You returned to campus desperate to avoid a decades-long stint answering emails, rushing to strategy meetings, and dreading your annual performance review. You’ve always loved animals and hiking, so you dream up the idea of escaping the grinding boredom of Corporate America by becoming a Park Ranger. All senior year you fantasize about an exciting career fording cold mountain streams and exploring ancient Native American settlements. You long to commute by horseback, not subway.
When you accept the job as a Junior Park Ranger, life appears bright. Your salary is so low you’re advised to apply for food stamps, but you hear the mating call of Western Bluebirds as you arrive at work each morning. Even though you constantly need to remind tourists—who never listen—not to feed the wildlife (“Patting a cougar is a terrible idea,” you say to a New Yorker with deep gouges on his arms), you wear a badge, the wind tussles your hair all day, and sunlight warms your cheeks from dawn to dusk. Sure, Ranger Magilla blows on the nape of your neck when no one’s looking, but you’ve survived lecherous professors. You can handle him.
Everything changes the day you’re assigned a black bear survey, with him supervising. The Park Service is concerned that the population of bears is exploding, so you win an entire week alone with him, following trails of reeking scat and counting bears through your binoculars.
When you’re told of this assignment, your stomach lurches, but he prepares like it’s high school and you’re his C-cup prom queen. The morning you leave, he’s slapped on so much Brut cologne that your eyes sting. He’s even dyed his combed-over hair dark brown and wears it gelled, like his idol Tom Cruise, whom he resembles in no way whatsoever.
He jumps into the driver’s seat of the Park Service Jeep and inserts his favorite CD, “Greatest Love Songs of the 1980’s,” into a boombox. You sit in the passenger seat, jammed against the door. Whitesnake screeches “Is this Love?” as you roar up the mountains on Hell Hole Pass Trail. While a California Condor circles overhead, you remove his liver-spotted hand from your knee and decline—politely, of course—to call him “Top Gun.”
It’s only when you reach the most remote forest in the Beaver Dam Mountains that he will announce that he has forgotten his camping tent. Darn it. He’ll have to share yours. You debate stealing the Jeep and fleeing back to headquarters in New Harmony, but you don’t. A stint in Timpanogos State Prison on a grand theft auto conviction just wouldn’t look good on your resume.
You awake hours before dawn, stuck 7000 feet up a canyon, with him begging to climb inside your sleeping bag. A Western Sidewinder is slithering into your thick hiking boots and, outside the tent, a black bear is scratching his itch on a Joshua Tree. Trust me, as you fend off Ranger Magilla, the snake and bear will strike you as preferable adversaries.
So, best of luck on your application. I’m going to give him a swift kick in the ass and then I’m becoming a yoga instructor. I wish us both success.
The former Junior Park Ranger
Originally published on Rue Scribe/ Underwood Press on September 30, 2018
Silent Water is an engrossing historical mystery that focuses on a series of murders that grips the royal court of Krakow, Poland, in the year 1519. The book’s first-person protagonist is Contessa Caterina Sanseverino, chief Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Bona Sforza of Italy, who two years earlier had married King Zygmunt of Poland and Lithuania. Caterina keeps watchful vigil over the young girls who serve as the queen’s attendants, but she—and the court around her—are roiled by the discovery of a stabbing victim during the Christmas Night banquet.
The murder at first appears random, but as Christmas turns into the New Year, a second murder occurs. Clues point to the inner circle of Queen Bona, who is controversial not only for the agricultural reforms she is implementing, but for her hawkish advice on how to wage war against the kingdom’s Teutonic and Crimean enemies. At Bona’s request, Caterina sets out to investigate. As her investigation takes her from the castle’s rat-infested dungeon to its kitchen storerooms, she is aided by Sebastian Konarski, a junior secretary to King Zygmunt.
I was particularly intrigued by the book’s setting in 16th-century Poland and how it contrasts the customs of the Polish court with those of the Duchy of Bari, Italy, where Caterina grew up. The book touches on so many fascinating themes, including the religious discord fostered by Martin Luther and his edicts. Also, the book illustrates the many limitations on women’s roles during this era in Poland, which makes Caterina’s bravery and willingness to transgress those limitations exciting. Caterina’s intelligence and inquisitiveness mirror the best qualities of the queen she serves and makes her a strong protagonist, one whom I would follow into the twisty depths of any medieval jail.
Fans of historical mysteries, particularly those of the Tudor period in England, will love Silent Water and appreciate its unique setting in the royal court in Krakow. I highly recommend Silent Water and am eager to read future books in the Jagiellon series.
I have fallen in love—with a book, a peninsula in Siberia, and most of all, with its native Even people.
Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, opens with the abduction of two young white girls from a beach in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Their fate is compared to an earlier tsunami that wiped out an entire town, while the police’s vigorous search for them is contrasted with the earlier disappearance of a native girl, whom they dismissed as a promiscuous runaway.
Long isolated from Western influences, Kamchatka is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the currency devaluations that followed. Older people, who still hang pictures of Stalin on their walls, wrestle with existential questions about whether freedom was worth what they perceive as a breakdown in values, while young adults resent their parents’ pensions, paid-for apartments, and free university educations. Simmering underneath, like the fault lines responsible for Kamchatka’s devastating earthquakes, lies a unique urban/ rural divide: Petropavlovsk is largely white, while remote villages, including Esso and its environs, constitute the traditional homes and grazing grounds of the reindeer-herding Even people.
Told through a series of interlocking stories, Disappearing Earth focuses on the lives and relationships of Kamchatka’s women and how the girls’ abduction impacts them. These women struggle with husbands and boyfriends, their roles in life, and most of all, with how they can better themselves in a society that seeks to relegate them to chain-bound roles: dutiful daughter; slut; and housewife/mother. Under these constraints, how does any woman—native or white—manage to live an empowered life free from violence?
Like reindeer on their circuitous annual journeys, over the course of a year we follow the compromises these women make with life. We meet a white housewife who fetishizes impoverished native construction workers, simply to escape the boredom of childcare. A native woman, caught between her traditional family and the sneering snobbery of her university classmates, carries on relationships with both a controlling Russian boyfriend and an intelligent native man who understands the salmon dances of their people.
The woman who lives the freest life is a lesbian who defies Russia’s dangerous homophobia and shares an apartment in St. Petersburg with her lover. After a painful break up, she returns to Kamchatka for a New Year’s Eve party, where she reconciles with a girlhood friend whom she has never forgotten—and to whom she has never before confided her homosexuality. Be careful, the friend whispers. The police can hurt you.
As a writer, reading Disappearing Earth evoked a flitter of despair: I have never hiked volcanoes, fumaroles, or glacier-carved lakes. I have never felt the ground tremble under thousands of reindeer hooves. I have never counted the stars in a Siberian night sky or heard the air hiss with the smoke of active volcanoes. How can my stories compare?
While I struggle to empower myself as a writer, I am so glad Julia Phillips brought me into the world of Kamchatka and its brave, resourceful women.
I bought House of Spies because it won Kirkus Best Book of the Year—and I am thrilled that I did. The book deserves the award and the bestselling status it has enjoyed
House of Spies is the only book I have read (so far!) in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, and I am hooked by the strong characterization, the sense of danger, and the tenuousness of the lives that Israeli spy chief—and ostensible art restorer—Gabriel Allon seeks to protect. The plot centers on capturing the Iraqi terrorist Saladin, who has perpetrated a series of deadly attacks on western cities that have scarred national treasures like The Lincoln Monument. A committed jihadist, Saladin seeks to install a caliphate that will destroy the very freedoms those monuments celebrate.
I especially loved the various settings of the novel, which take the reader from London to Provence and Marseilles and, in the climactic scenes, to the Berber lands of Morocco. Any book that has me drinking tea at sunset in a Bedouin tent in the Middle Atlas Mountains is going to enthrall me.
One caveat: other reviewers have criticized the repeated sentences, which should have been edited out. I agree, but these were minor foibles in an otherwise strong narrative.
When I finished House of Spies, I downloaded The Kill Artist, Book #1 in the Gabriel Allon series. If the other 19 books live up to House of Spies, I will read the entire series.
Fans of spy novels will love this book.
#suspense #spy #espionage #fiction #danielsilva #houseofspies
A reviewer has described Queenie as a black Bridget Jones, a comparison that doesn’t convey the full scope of Carty-Williams’ complex, unflinching examination of a young woman and the emotional toll her childhood has taken on her.
Queenie is the story of a 25-year-old Jamaican-British woman who is falling apart, a disintegration that begins when her fiance Tom—the love of her life, who nonetheless tolerates his racist uncle calling Queenie the n word—initiates a break in their relationship, right after Queenie suffers a miscarriage. Heartbroken but determined to view their separation as temporary, Queenie endures several disastrous, even abusive interracial encounters—she fears black men don’t want black women, no matter how light their skin—who fetishize her body, trample upon her self-respect, and even hurl false accusations of harassment at work, leading to her dismissal.
As her life disintegrates, Queenie reluctantly seeks therapy, which uncovers the traumas and multiple abandonments of her childhood. Her eventual healing is demonstrated in a two-hour shouting match with a neoNazi skinhead, where she bravely defends her commitment to the BlackLivesMatter movement.
Numerous characters prevent Queenie’s story from turning bleak: her domineering grandmother, who shelters Queenie when she is fired from her job as a reporter; her hilarious friend Kyazike, whose own dates demonstrate the strength that the weakened Queenie must learn to show; and her empathetic colleague Darcy, who eases her panic-stricken transition back to work. Her friends, nicknamed the Corgis (like The Queen’s favorites), are full characters in their own right, with idiosyncratic personalities that add depth to the book. Every woman needs a Kyazike and a Darcy in her life.
I happily give Queenie 5 Stars. By the time she deletes Tom’s contact info from her phone, I was silently cheering for her recovery. I can’t wait to read more of Carty-Williams’ writing.
Salt Houses provides an interesting and vital perspective: the Palestinian diaspora and the emotional toll emigration takes on those forced to wander from country to country.
Through the lived experiences of three generations of a Palestinian family, Salt Houses asks the reader to confront the concept of home: where is home when you have been displaced by war? Can a refugee create a new home elsewhere, even as one’s own offspring reject the values on which their culture is based? How does one maintain family bonds strained by constant upheaval? As the grandchild of emigrants who fled civil war in Belfast, Northern Ireland, these questions resonated with me.
It’s important that Salt Houses is told from the viewpoint of a moderate Palestinian family that seeks to protect its relatives, especially its sons, from jihadists—and who are deeply suspicious of the imans whipping those boys and young men into a frenzy of anti-Israeli violence. Hala Alyan succeeds in creating characters who are far from the stereotype of rock-throwing terrorists. The Yacoub family are well off, with middle-class aspirations, romances, and jobs—and a snobbish disdain for their own compatriots living in refugee camps.
From a writing perspective, several criticisms: there were too many dream sequences, which took me out of the story. Also, I did not get a sense of what many of the characters wanted. The notable exception was Alia, who is desperate to leave Kuwait and live in Amman, even as she wrestles with a deep homesickness for her childhood home in Nablus. Finally, the occasional switch to the present tense was jarring. These issues are the reason I only gave the book 4 stars.
Anyone interested in fictional representations of Middle East history will enjoy Salt Houses.
Calypso is David Sedaris’s most intimate book, a tender, funny, and challenging memoir from an author renowned for writing humor that lays bare his own and his family’s soul. In Calypso, he spares no one, especially himself.
The central theme of the book is his sister Tiffany’s suicide and the emotional turmoil that follows. He writes with great clarity of the mental health challenges that she faced, the fights she inflicted on her family, and his own sanity-preserving estrangement from her. In the aftermath of the suicide, all the Sedaris family has left are strange clues—like a phone number written on her apartment wall—to try to comprehend why Tiffany would take an overdose of prescription medication and tie a plastic bag over head.
Against the suicide’s backdrop, he is forced to face issues around caring for his elderly father, who lives alone and in increasingly-eccentric fashion, determined not to use electricity in order to leave a larger inheritance to the surviving children. More than two decades after his mother’s death, David grapples with residual sadness that she died before he achieved literary success, without their ever confronting her about the alcoholism that left her a mess each night. He expresses his poignant longing to have had the chance to spoil her.
Still, Calypso is about a family drawing closer after a tragedy. Attempting to recreate the summer vacations of their childhood, Sedaris purchases the Sea Section, a duplex on the beach in North Carolina, where he encounters a deformed snapping turtle, a vacationing former FBI Director, and man-eating sharks that fail to terrify his boyfriend Hugh. In their own unique and often-hilarious way, the Sedaris family heals. Every step along their quirky journey is a joy to read.
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