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Sorcery in Alpara

Sorcery in Alpara

By Judith Starkston


Judith Starkston draws us once again into the ancient world of the Bronze Age as she cleverly combines the story of an actual Hittite queen with fantasy elements. But that’s not all. Ms. Starkston’s great gift is to show us a world we can hardly begin to imagine, and yet she peoples it with characters we can recognize. The book starts when the priestess Tesha, newly married to King Hattu, is on her way, for the first time, to his kingdom, which is under threat. This is a very fast-paced and dramatic story, full of original elements. As we read we’re drawn into a vanished civilization’s customs, art, political alliances and superstitious beliefs. Yet the story also encompasses modern concerns like step-parenting, father-son relationships, PTSD, and disability and how it can be triumphantly managed. The nuanced and intelligent portrait of a marriage is the centerpiece of Sorcery in Alpara, giving the book remarkable depth and maturity.

Sorcery in Alpara on Amazon

The Perfectly Good Lie

By Rose Gonsoulin

Available on Amazon, 2019


Rose Gonsoulin captures the world of pro golf in her story of Buck Buchanan, initially a selfish, shallow competitor in the lower rungs of the professional circuit, a player in every sense of the word. It says a lot about the quality of the writing of this delightful book that despite Buck’s hard-heartedness the reader is hooked by the story. Buck must return home when his mother dies, and finds himself saddled with the care of his not-very-bright, video-game playing younger half-brother Art. In desperation, he makes Art his caddie. Gonsoulin has created a charming character in Art, who becomes Buck’s road to redemption. There’s not a second of sappiness, however, in this book. Ms. Gonsoulin’s snappy dialogue, great scene setting, characterization, fast pacing, her insight into the sometimes seedy world of sponsorship and her lyrical descriptions of how it is to play in a championship game kept this reader turning pages.

Without A Mother

The recent New York Times Op Ed by Hope Edelman hit a chord. Entitled “I Couldn’t Say ‘My Mother’ Without Crying” the article’s theme is that “There’s no quick fix for childhood grief.”

Hundreds of people commented and September 1’s letters column was full of responses.

I look forward to reading Edelman’s new book The Aftergrief. It’s not a happy subject. But it is one that has always been at the back of my mind. Why am I interested? I did not have the misfortune of losing my own dear mother when I was a child.

But she did.

My mother lost her own when she was twelve years old. Her mother, Stella, died of lymphoma at the age of thirty-six. On the cusp of adolescence, my mother and her younger sister had to go and live with their grandmother. While loving, “Gran” was old fashioned and weary after raising her own brood of ten.

Years later my mother told me, tears in her eyes, that she and her sister were not allowed to go to their mother’s funeral, and stayed home alone. When he returned from the burial, their father built a big bonfire in the back yard and burned all their mother’s clothes. And the next day at school, they entered a culture of silence. Neither teachers nor friends mentioned their loss.

This repression haunted my mother ever after. She lived her entire life hiding her never-ending grief, and her anxiety grew and grew.

People often ask what inspires an author. “Is your story autobiographical?” they want to know. Usually it is not. But I do know that in writing my new novel, now finished and awaiting a published home, I drew on what I knew about my mother’s grief. In my book, my protagonist, Maelle, lost her mother at the age of ten in mysterious circumstances. Sent to live with her grandparents, she, like my mother, entered a culture of silence. No one would talk about why and how her mother had died.

That’s where my imagination took off and I created a mystery and a totally fictional family.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress of my book’s journey to publication.


“Coping” by Brian Leon of Ottawa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Summer of 69

 Elin HilderbrandBy Elin Hilderbrand

Little, Brown & Company, 2019


As the summer winds down and fifty years after 1969, I picked up this book. I had never read this best-selling author before. Realizing that the book was based in Massachusetts, where I lived for many years, I was immediately hooked. In fact, I read the book compulsively from cover to cover. The story features four point of view protagonists, challenging for an author, and I admire the way Hilderbrand kept all their stories in control.

The four are all members of the Foley-Levin family; Kate, forty-eight, the mother of Blair who is married and pregnant, Kirby, at college and rebellious, Tiger, who has been drafted and sent to Vietnam, and thirteen -year -old Jessica, who is the daughter of David Levin, Kate’s second husband. The family could not be more upper-crust and conventional. A military family, even. Kate’s first husband Wilder Foley, had served in Korea, and died on his return, possibly a victim of PTSD.

Conventional and comfortable they may be, but the entire family is against the Vietnam War, and when Tiger is called up, Kate goes to pieces. Hilderbrand paints a fine portrait of this immature, spoiled woman, who actually believes the handyman at her family’s summer residence on Nantucket can pull strings, through a distant, third hand acquaintance with General Abrams, to remove her son from danger. As the story moves through July, and the landing on the moon, which happens the same day Blair has twins, the author reminds us that even though war guts us, intimate events like birth and historic events like the moonshot keep us moving forward, all little swimmers in a great steam of history.

The book is full of time markers, with music, food, and lifestyles accurately rendered. A few caveats, however. Jessica is invited to go to Woodstock; she anticipates sleeping in the back of “someone’s truck” after listening to the bands. There’s no way a thirteen-year-old could imagine this is how Woodstock would play out. I’d bet that she’d barely know where Woodstock is, let alone how a huge rock concert could get out of control. This is a girl who at thirteen has be
walked to tennis lessons by her grandmother. She’s exceptionally sheltered, in my view. However, Jessica is the best drawn character in the book.

“Sheltered” is how I would describe all the book’s characters, except of course, Tiger, who is in active combat. Whether Hilderbrand meant to make this point – that for Americans, no matter what their circumstances, life is protected and safe, while the rest of the world spins into terror – is unclear. Hilderbrand lives on the magical island of Nantucket and sets all her books there. Yet for many Americans, life is not easy at all and never was. Hilderbrand alludes to many of the issues that surrounded this era of social change, including civil rights and the lack of access to legal abortion. Yet she skims over the consequences. The African-American characters in the book are upper middle class, summering at Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, hardly the people for whom civil rights activists were risking their lives. Anti-Semitism is called an issue, yet we never see evidence of such prejudice, except in the grandmother, and even then, Jessica, her half-Jewish granddaughter, is her favorite. And even Kirby, the “activist” who attends anti-war demonstrations, is never in danger. There’s always the country club for these characters.

Fifty years on, the summer of 1969 is worth talking about. I would argue that 1968 was the more transformative, with student rebellions happening all over the world, and political assassinations, (Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King) bringing in their wake more profound change. But truly, not much changed that year on Nantucket. And not much does, in this book. Of course, many a famed writer took a small domestic situation to make a point about human nature while war was
exploding off the scene (Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf). But those writers never claimed to be writing about “the most tumultuous summer of xxx century”, to paraphrase this book’s cover. While The Summer of ‘69” was a truly enjoyable read, and I admire Hilderbrand’s professional skill, I’m still waiting for the definitive novel set in this amazing time in history.

My Dear Hamilton

My Dear Hamilton book reviewBy Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Kindle edition, 2018


Alexander Hamilton is having a moment. A very long one, if the success of the musical of the same name is anything to go by. And Hamilton gets by far the biggest billing as one of the Founding Fathers at Philadelphia’s new, magnificent Museum of the American Revolution.

But what of the woman who married him?

In this engrossing novel, Dray and Kamoie bring Elizabeth Schuyler to life as a first person narrator. I relished the wonderfully detailed descriptions of everyday life in the New Netherlandish home of General Schuyler and his family, and then, in the home that Eliza (also known as Betsy) and Alexander make for themselves after their 1780 marriage. Despite being raised in wealth and comfort Elizabeth is no brainless belle. She knows the war and its stakes intimately from her childhood and is fully committed to the cause.

The Revolutionary War drags on and on. It is almost lost, time and again. Even after the bloodshed is over, the union is fragile. The authors bring this point home vividly. The relationships between the Washingtons and the Hamiltons, and between them and other figures such as Lafayette, Jefferson, and Madison are complicated and convincingly told.

This is a long book, covering Elizabeth’s life from her coming of age until her eighties. She lived until she was ninety-seven. She was married to Alexander Hamilton for twenty-four years until his death in a duel with Aaron Burr. These tumultuous years included Hamilton’s involvement in factions and feuds between the Founding Fathers, with the new Republic threatening to break apart several times, and his passionate, even desperate, work to create the foundational
infrastructure to make it viable. Hamilton was involved in so much that the authors have to compress many details, as they tell us in the afterword. His brilliance is palpable, however, in the telling of the story. As is his egotism and occasional recklessness.

For Betsy, these twenty-four years included the birth of eight children and one miscarriage. The story of their marriage is the heart of the book. Elizabeth’s reaction as the humiliated wife of a politician whose extra-marital affair was made public is poignantly told. Yet for Hamilton, raised as an orphan, family was as important as it was to Elizabeth. In an age when childhood deaths were commonplace, the fact that the Hamilton kids all survived to adulthood is a testament to the capability of their mother. But she was also more than a wife and mother. We see Betsy reflecting uncomfortably on the fact that slavery was endemic in her society, and her horror at the conditions under which the Revolutionary War’s ordinary soldiers suffered and the brutal treatment of deserters and mutineers. Her charity work on behalf of widows and orphans was prodigious.

The evidence shows that Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was her husband’s equal partner as much as it was possible to be, even helping him draft some of his writings. She knew from her earliest years the most famous men of the age, and evidence also shows they regarded her with respect. Hamilton’s complicated and ultimately unknowable emotional life as discovered by his wife after his death deals her a blow as great as the death itself. How she lived her long life after being widowed at forty -six demonstrates her strength of character.

The afterword of this book explains the depth of research undertaken by the authors, and their access to the trove of correspondence that survives, much of it due to the efforts of Elizabeth Hamilton herself, who searched for years to obtain it. The effort she put into this (much of the correspondence was hidden for political and personal reasons) shows, the authors surmise, not only that his widow wanted to make the world understand her husband’s greatness, but also that she herself wanted truly to know and understand him.

Lily Campbell’s Secret

Lily Campbell’s SecretBy Jennifer Bryce

Rightword Publishing, 2019

It is 1913, and seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Lily discovers she is pregnant.

Unmarried motherhood is a social sin that was unforgiveable in that time, but this book takes off in an unexpected way. Lily, an upper-middle class girl with a private school education, with a promising position at the Music Conservatory awaiting her, does not wish her baby away. She’s in love with her boyfriend, Bert,a stable hand with a love of animals, and they marry, happily, and have a baby girl, Edith. Not that things are easy. Lily has no idea how to run a house and her horrified parents shun her.

Then the world erupts in World War 1 and Bert enlists. When he returns, he is changed utterly. Lily has to cope with a man with a head injury so severe he needs round the clock help. There’s no money, and Lily must cope as a wage-earner, carer, and mother. How she does this, and the choices she faces, propel the book along to its shocking conclusion.

This book captures all the senses, as well as historical details that all ring true as the author evokes life in a country town. The war is remote, yet its aftermath reverberates throughout the lives of all who lived in the era, and beyond. That’s why this is a timeless story. Jennifer Bryce captures the heartbreak and helplessness of PTSD and brain injury for the victim and their families. With very appealing main characters, Lily, Bert, and Edith, and a well-drawn cast of supporting characters, this book draws the reader in and won’t let go. I could not put this book down. Please read it.

The Wolf Border

By Sarah Hall

Harper Collins Publishers 2015

Rachel Caine studies wolves. An interesting professional choice, since it takes her far from civilization, into a remote part of Idaho, where wolves are being reintroduced to the wild. Rachel guards herself against emotional involvement. She has sex, not relationships, she tells a doctor. Approaching forty, she must change, somehow, unless she’s headed for a lonely old age like her once-promiscuous mother, who never married. This change does not come as an epiphany at her mother’s death. Rachel does not attend the funeral. But when she discovers she is unexpectedly pregnant, she slowly starts to melt her frozen heart. The reader is way ahead of the protagonist on this. Her health insurance won’t cover the cost of maternity. But fortunately, Rachel is English, so she heads back to the UK – and its free medical care – to supervise the reintroduction of wolves in Cumbria, near the Scottish border. Everything changes here for Rachel, though she is still wary of emotional commitment, like a lone wolf. But wolves, too, love their offspring, and observing them with their pups Rachel feels drawn to them even further. They’re teaching her something. Unlike most wild animals, wolves form lifelong bonds with their mates. The blurring of borders between animal and human behavior, between the habitats of animals and the political boundaries drawn by humans, and the choice of whether to be a mother and then how to be a mother, all are explored here. At the end of the book Rachel will have to make a choice. But that is for the reader to imagine. It would be interesting to know which side most readers come down on. Sarah Hall writes gorgeous prose, too. I was sorry to finish this novel. I felt I was just getting to know this complex person and her passionate devotion to wolves. An original and fascinating book.

Sophie Last Seen

By Marlene Adelstein

Red Adept Publishing, 2018

It is a parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child.

To lose a child while shopping with her in a busy mall is unfathomable. Did she run away, was she kidnapped? Is she alive or dead?

After six years, Jesse is still obsessed with her daughter Sophie’s disappearance. She has lost her marriage and her friends, her house is cluttered with found objects that Jesse feels somehow remind of her lost ten-year-old daughter. She drinks too much, can no longer pursue her career as an artist, and, embroiled in an affair with a married man, has lost her self-respect.

And Jesse is not the only one who cannot let go of her grief. Star, Sophie’s best friend, is in full-fledged teenage goth mode. Depressed and anxious, she sees the ghost of Sophie everywhere.

This haunting story has so many moments of emotional truth. What if the missing child was not easy to live with? What if, in addition to her precocious intelligence and fascination with birds, the missing child flew into tantrums when she didn’t get her way? Does knowing this make her mother more anxious when she contemplates the child’s terror if she’s been kidnapped? Make the kidnapper more likely to want to silence the demanding child?

Sophie’s manipulative personality also casts its shadow on Star. She feels guilty that she didn’t want to go to the mall That Day (as it is ever after known) as she’d promised Sophie, because she sensed Sophie was going into one of her melt-down moods.

Marlene Adelstein’s excellent grasp of psychology makes this study in survivor guilt compelling. Sophie is a fascinating child, and her disappearance at the age of ten is probably a loss to future science because Sophie was a brilliant observer of the natural world. Combine this with her parents’ knowledge that they could not handle their child and found her hard to live with at times, and you have the perfect recipe for intensified guilt and self-loathing.

How Jesse and Star separately and then together come to resolve the situation and begin to heal is the crux of this story. This novel has many layers of complexity, remarkable in a debut novel.

I look forward to reading more of Ms. Adelstein’s work.

Seeds of Hope

By Jane Goodall, with Gail Hudson

Grand Central Publishing, 2013


This week I’ve abandoned my usual practice of reviewing a book by a non-famous author. That’s because the great Jane Goodall has, in her unique way, cut through journalistic “the sky is falling” tropes as well as academic gobbledygook to show us how plants can save our planet.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about trees and organic farming for my new novel-in-progress. So when I picked up Jane Goodall’s book, which is sub-titled Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, it was in anticipation of learning about plants through her habit of keen observation. Ms. Goodall has, of course, achieved world-wide fame for her pioneering studies of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

Seeds of Hope is far more broad-ranging than that. Written in a delightful conversational style, the book’s topics range from tales of early European plant hunters and a very brief history of our understanding of plants to the fate of the planet due to climate change and agri-business’s monocultures. It ends with a discussion of organic farming, and the remarkable ability of plants to adapt. As a conservationist, Jane Goodall sometimes lets her mission get in the way of facts, as for example, in the chapter on GMO foods. Her arguments on their dangers are anecdotal rather than scientific. However, she is making a broader point – that human hubris has led to a loss of plant diversity. Nonetheless, as she also points out, flora indigenous to one area have been hybridized for centuries to provide an even greater variety and range of their species.

Never polemical, but written in a tone that invites the reader to join in, as if we were sitting with Jane around her campfire, the book inspires a re-thinking of what we wear and how we eat.

The book starts with a description of The Birches, her grandmother’s home in southern England. Born in 1934, Jane was sent to live there with her sister and mother while her father served in World War II. It was an exceptionally happy home, with a grandmother who cooked from the garden, baked bread, and made her own jam. Lucky Jane! Her freedom to roam the garden, the woods beyond, the cliffs, and the beaches nearby inspired her love of nature.

What’s instructive about the authorial choice to include so much about this childhood in the book is that these happy memories occurred during a terrible war, in which food was rationed and suffering was rampant. Jane was a child, true, and not personally involved in the horrors of World War II. And yet within it she found her Seeds of Hope.

Jane Goodall is saying to us that even if the natural world has never seemed more threatened, we can do something about it. “If plants could be credited with reasoning powers, we would marvel at the imaginative ways they bribe or ensnare other creatures into carrying out their wishes,” she writes.

Humans are their greatest rival. But since we depend on plants for our survival, we can make sure they do. This book plants more than a seed of hope.

The Sewing Machine

By Natalie Fergie

Unbound, 2017


It is hard to imagine today a world in which plastics did not exist, where people used and re-used parts of everything, machines included. Yet this was part of everyday life until recently. The Sewing Machine is set in Scotland in the years just before and during World War I, in the mid-twentieth century, and the present day. Tracking changes in living standards in the past century through the food, clothing and technology her characters use, Natalie Fergie transports us to this world. She starts with an actual historical incident, the Glasgow Singer Sewing Machine factory strike of 1911.

It was an unusual strike in these years before widespread trade unionism because it was huge – involving eleven thousand workers – and because it was a strike on behalf of women workers. At the time British women did not even have the right to vote. In the novel, Jean Ferrier, an eighteen–year- old whose job it is to test the bobbins on the machines, is forced to leave the city with her strike leader boyfriend, Donald Cameron, when he loses his job. The action in the story then shifts to mid-century Edinburgh, where Kathleen Baxter and her daughter Connie sew and mend almost every garment they wear. Connie gets a job at the city’s major hospital as a seamstress. Yes, in those days, British hospitals had a sewing room. All the gowns, nurses’ uniforms, sheets, drapes, and towels were sewn in-house. The third protagonist in this story is Fred Morrison, who, in 2016, inherits his Nana Connie’s old sewing machine, as well as the tenement house in which she grew up.

The sewing machine and the tenement house are so vividly rendered they are almost characters in this story. People live without modern conveniences and in close quarters. Laundry was (and still is, I gather from this book) dried in this damp climate on a pulley in the warmth of the kitchen. Neighbors look out for one another. The old fashioned house which Fred has grown up in and loved is contrasted with the all-white sleek and modern apartment of his girlfriend in London. They work together until he’s made redundant. She visits him in Edinburgh and is so appalled by the old-fashioned house he’s attached to that she dumps him by text.

Living conditions change over time but human nature does not. Disappointments, betrayals, and new beginnings weave their way through this book. I have to say that I loved it.

As someone who has never had the patience to thread the needle on a machine I found some of the technical discussion of bobbins hard to follow. Nevertheless, I loved it. I love the idea of researching and restoring old technology. I especially loved Ellen, a subsidiary character who takes old sewing machines apart and repurposes them into jewelry and art objects. And I loved Kathleen and Connie, who sew into exercise books fabric scraps of every item they make. Record keeping as art. I also enjoyed the time markers indicated by the food the characters ate – broth and bread at the beginning of the twentieth century, stodgy meat pies in the middle, and in the twenty-first, daily treats of sweets and cakes and a bottle of champagne kept on hand.

The story structure alternates between the three time periods, allowing the reader to reflect on societal changes for good or ill. The sewing machine, a product of the industrial revolution, was a godsend to women the world over, who were freed from the daily task of hand-stitching every item of clothing their families wore. It allowed women to earn a living on their own. For Fred, the male protagonist, twentieth century technology allows him to use email and text to communicate and to seek work. Yet this also creates a sense of isolation he must work hard to overcome.

This unusual story was for me, a page-turner. If you like books in which the female characters are strong, not in the sense of being warriors or rebels but simply because they see a problem and take action to fix it, you will like this book. Natalie Fergie is a gifted writer.