Friday, September 30, 2022

Review: The Double Life of Katharine Clark by Katharine Gregorio

Communism. Dissidents. Repression. Secret Police. How do we know about these things today? We know about them because of the reporters and journalists who risked their own access and livelihoods to inform the West what was going on in the countries behind the Iron Curtain, to the people and the institutions not represented by a free press. Most of these journalists were men. But not all of them. Katharine Clark was one of the few women who lived this life too. She not only reported on Yugoslavia, but she was instrumental in getting the writings of former Vice President and outspoken dissident Milovan Djilas to the West. This is the story of her drive for the truth, her friendship with Milovan and his wife Steffie, and what she risked in smuggling Djilas’ work, including The New Class, out of the communist country right under Tito’s nose. It is a history forgotten until now.

Katharine Gregorio is Clark’s great-niece and namesake and she has done an impressive amount of research into her great-aunt’s life and work overseas. Spanning the decade during which Clark and her husband, a fellow reporter for another news outlet, covered the unrest in Eastern Europe and that part of the world’s relationship with communism and the Soviet Union, this is less a biography of Clark than the tale of how she came to play such a pivotal role in Djilas’ access to the West. While Gregorio does weave some of Clark’s personal life into the book, the overall focus is on the single-minded drive to get a story, the obstacles Clark overcame as the only female accredited journalist in the area, and the pulse pounding, spy novel worthy ways in which she got information out of the country while trying to protect Djilas and his family from their own government.

Although this is non-fiction, Gregorio has chosen to share Clark’s interior thoughts and feelings. And while these might be reasonable extrapolations from diaries and letters, the reader so frequently knows Clark’s musings that they come across as invented. Once Gregorio gets to Clark’s work with Djilas and the means she used to make sure that his work would be published and publicized (to help keep him safe), the narrative slows down under many, many details, ostensibly because this was what her great-aunt chose to record so meticulously, in contrast to the time before she became friendly with Djilas. The tension was certainly higher once she started working with the former Communist official on his papers but the unequally detailed recounting made the tale lopsided. The fact that there were only a few brief paragraphs about the last twenty years of Clark’s life was a bit of a disappointment; focused as the story was only on her pivotal role in Djilas’s public denunciation of Communism rather than her life as a whole. Katharine Clark was an impressive woman with nerves of steel and it’s wonderful that her role in all of this is finally being told but I got bogged down in some of the minutia and often felt at a remove from the story itself. Fans of Cold War history, readers who want a close look at the importance of a free press, and those who enjoy stories about trailblazing women will likely enjoy this narrative non-fiction, despite my noted reservations.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Built to Last by Erin Hahn

The book is being released by St. Martin's Griffin on October 18, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: Erin Hahn's Built to Last is a sparkling second chance romance about owning what you’re worth and fighting for the one who got away.

Shelby Springfield has spent the last ten years trying to overcome her past, sanding it away like the rough spots on the vintage furniture she makes over. But as a former child star, it’s hard to forget a widely documented meltdown and huge public break up with her former co-star Lyle Jessup. It’s also hard to forget her other co-star and childhood sweetheart, Cameron Riggs—the one who got away.

Anytime Shelby has called, Cameron has come running… And then he runs right off again to chase stories around the world by making documentaries, too scared to admit what he really wants. But when Lyle stirs the pot, getting the two back in the spotlight with a home renovation show, Cameron can't help but get on board.

There's something in it for everyone—almost. Cameron wants to set down some roots. Shelby wants to prove she's not the messy party girl anymore. And a jealous Lyle can’t help but try to get in the way. But for his two childhood friends who had more chemistry than he could ever dream of, nothing is getting in the way of their second chance at love.

Review: Funeral Train by Laurie Loewenstein

Several years ago, Loewenstein's first Dust Bowl Mystery was selected for the Great Group Reads List by the Women's National Book Association. At the time, I wasn't really reading mysteries, even literary mysteries, but since I'm the Chair of the committee that chooses the list and my committee had overwhelmingly voted for it, I had to read it. I'm so glad I did. And now I've gotten to revisit the small, struggling Oklahoma town of Vermillion, its sheriff, his wife, and so many of the other characters from the first novel in this second book of the series, Funeral Train.

Sheriff Temple Jennings is on the way to the train depot to pick up his wife, Etha, who has been away visiting a friend when there is a terrible noise and it becomes clear that the train has derailed. Etha is seriously injured and ends up in the hospital in the bed next to an elderly black woman she recognizes from a brief interaction before the derailment. The woman was only spared an immediate death because she was outside the dangerously rickety colored car at the time of the derailment. Temple wants to focus on Etha and her injury but when the cause of the derailment is most certainly sabotage, he must investigate. The following day a reclusive bookkeeper who lived by the railroad tracks is found murdered and now Temple has a derailment and a murder, potentially connected, on his hands. Temple, his deputy, a young man from the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), and the detective from the railroad will have to work together, with an assist from Etha, to solve the crimes.

Although this is the second book in a planned trilogy, it easily stands alone. Loewenstein has done a masterful job evoking the hardscrabble town, limping its way through the Depression and the crop smothering Dust Bowl years. She weaves sad and tragic realities of life at the time through the plot without dwelling heavily on them: the suicides, bootlegging, the bankruptcies and subsequent poverty, alcoholism, hopelessness, and moral lapses. She does a wonderful job of bringing small details, like Gwendolyn the wayward cow, from the beginning of the story back in the end. Temple and Etha are lovely characters, devoted to each other and kind to others around them. The mystery is perhaps not the hardest to figure out but the story is more about the people and the community than it is about the mystery. The derailment is based on an actual train derailment in 1929 and the conditions of the colored car and subsequent horrific deaths were taken from that real event. Given that basis, the racial aspect of the story did not play as big a role as might be expected although it definitely feels as if that dangling plot thread will come back again in the final book of the trilogy. I enjoyed checking back in with the residents of Vermillion and appreciated the engaging story so I'll look forward to book three whenever it arrives.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this to review.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Review: Travels in Mauritania by Peter Hudson

Several years ago I thought it would be interesting to read books set in countries I knew nothing about beyond their names. I promptly ordered books for this project and then let them languish (as happens with most of the books I buy since I buy faster than I read). Peter Hudson's Travels in Mauritania had been sitting on the top of this languishing stack forever and I thought, despite having given up on the project long ago, that I should finally pick it up, read it, and perhaps learn something about the country of Mauritania.

Written in 1990 about his 1988 trip to Mauritania, a West African country slowly succumbing to desertification from the encroaching Sahara, this is a travelogue in the truest sense. Hudson goes to the country, visiting cities, villages, and Bedouin camps, meeting people of all classes, and taking his time to learn about and absorb the uniqueness of each place he visits. He makes friends easily and those friends not only offer him their perspective of their country and fellow men but also direct him on his wide travels. He sees parts of the country not often visited by foreign travelers and while he reports on the people he encounters and what he sees, he works hard to understand everything from a place beyond his own innate prejudices. Mostly he succeeds. The writing is very visual but there are also black and white photographs and line drawings to reinforce the pictures in the reader's mind's eye. The pacing of the narrative is slow, as if the reader is plodding through the sand with Hudson and sometimes that can feel a bit interminable but his genuine interest in the culture and people help to make up for this. Little actually happens throughout the book but Hudson has drawn a richly complex picture of a little-considered-by-the-West country for those curious to learn about it (at least as it was four decades or so ago).

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Once Upon a December by Amy E. Reichert

The book is being released by Berkley on October 4, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: With a name like Astra Noel Snow, holiday spirit isn’t just a seasonal specialty—it’s a way of life. But after a stinging divorce, Astra’s yearly trip to the Milwaukee Christmas market takes on a whole new meaning. She’s ready to eat, drink, and be merry, especially with the handsome stranger who saves the best kringle for her at his family bakery.

For Jack Clausen, the Julemarked with its snowy lights and charming shops stays the same, while the world outside the joyful street changes, magically leaping from one December to the next every four weeks. He’s never minded living this charmed existence until Astra shows him the life he’s been missing outside of the festive red brick alley.

After a swoon-worthy series of dates, some Yuletide magic, and the unexpected glow of new love, Astra and Jack must decide whether this relationship can weather all seasons, or if what they’re feeling is as ephemeral as marshmallows in a mug of hot cocoa.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Review: After Everyone Else by Leslie Hooton

What would you do to protect your family? Would you take a murder rap if you were afraid that either your beloved husband or child had done it in your stead? That's the central question at the heart of Leslie Hooton's newest novel, After Everyone Else.

Bailey Edgeworth, a respected, award-winning, Atlanta-based restaurant designer, has just been accused of the murder of her ex-husband in New York City. Her DNA has been found all over his apartment and she is clearly visible on his apartment building's security camera. She has an explanation for all of this and insists that she didn't do it. But she's not being entirely honest with her lawyer and he knows it. The question is, why? If she didn't do it, why isn't she being transparent? Who is she protecting? Her husband Griffin, who was also in New York that night? Their daughter young adult daughter Charlie, who lives in New York and is a recovering alcoholic who had a lapse that night?

Although the novel starts out with Bailey's arrest for murder, this is not really a mystery; it is a family story. With first person narration by Bailey, alternating between "Now" and "Then," the novel moves from the present of the arrest and fact finding with Bailey out on bail to her past, marrying Griffin, starting their family, and achieving major professional success. The past portions of the story are longer and more detailed than the present portions, showing the strength of her love for Griffin and his for her. It also highlights her feelings of inadequacy as a working mother and the difficulties, both large and small, she and Charlie had as Charlie grew up. Bailey's certainty that Griffin wouldn't let her take the fall for him if he had committed the murder quickly removes him as someone who needs her protection but as strong as their love is for each other, she still can't ask him why he was in New York that night. This inability is a major plot point but seems a bit inexplicable given their obvious level of trust.

Hooton has portrayed a strong and good marriage, although it has not been without its challenges, and her portrayal of a mother and daughter at odds is well drawn too. The murder charge plot line, while necessary to the story overall, is the thinnest part of the story. The dialogue, which makes up a large portion of the novel, is a bit stilted with its overwhelming lack of contractions. The level of detail about Bailey's designs helps the reader see her vision and the descriptions of food and drink from both her husband and brother will have the reader heading to their own (probably disappointing) refrigerator in search of a gourmet snack. This is a sequel but it does stand alone (not having read the previous book myself, I can say that with confidence). If you too would protect your family without question and want to lose yourself in a story about love and motherhood and guilt and familial bonds, this might be the book for you.

For more information about Leslie Hooton and the book, check our her author site, follow her on Instagram, look at the book's Goodreads page, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Caitlin from Wunderkind PR for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Frederick Sisters Are Living the Dream by Jeannine Zusy

The book is being released by Atria on September 20, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine meets Early Morning Riser with a dash of Where’d You Go, Bernadette in this very funny, occasionally romantic, and surprisingly moving novel about how one woman’s life is turned upside down when she becomes caregiver to her sister with special needs.

Every family has its fault lines, and when Maggie gets a call from the ER in Maryland where her older sister lives, the cracks start to appear. Ginny, her sugar-loving and diabetic older sister with intellectual disabilities, has overdosed on strawberry Jell-O.

Maggie knows Ginny really can’t live on her own, so she brings her sister and her occasionally vicious dog to live near her in upstate New York. Their other sister, Betsy, is against the idea but as a professional surfer, she is conveniently thousands of miles away.

Thus, Maggie’s life as a caretaker begins. It will take all of her dark humor and patience, already spread thin after a separation, raising two boys, freelancing, and starting a dating life, to deal with Ginny’s diapers, sugar addiction, porn habit, and refusal to cooperate. Add two devoted but feuding immigrant aides and a soon-to-be ex-husband who just won’t go away, and you’ve got a story that will leave you laughing through your tears as you wonder who is actually taking care of whom.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Ski Jumpers by Peter Geye

The book is being released by University of Minnesota Press on September 13, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: A writer and former ski jumper facing a terminal diagnosis takes one more leap—into a past of soaring flights and broken family bonds

A brilliant ski jumper has to be fearless—Jon Bargaard remembers this well. His memories of daring leaps and risks might be the key to the book he’s always wanted to write: a novel about his family, beginning with Pops, once a champion ski jumper himself, who also took Jon and his younger brother Anton to the heights. But Jon has never been able to get past the next, ruinous episode of their history, and now that he has received a terrible diagnosis, he’s afraid he never will.

In a bravura performance, Peter Geye follows Jon deep into the past he tried so hard to leave behind, telling the story he spent his life escaping. It begins with a flourish, his father and his hard-won sweetheart fleeing Chicago, and a notoriously ruthless gangster, to land in North Minneapolis. That, at least, was the tale Jon heard, one that becomes more and more suspect as he revisits the events that eventually tore the family in two, sending his father to prison, his mother to the state hospital, and placing himself, a teenager, in charge of thirteen-year-old Anton. Traveling back and forth in time, Jon tells his family’s story—perhaps his last chance to share it—to his beloved wife Ingrid, circling ever closer to the truth about those events and his own part in them, and revealing the perhaps unforgivable violence done to the brothers’ bond.

The dream of ski jumping haunts Jon as his tale unfolds, daring time to stop just long enough to stick the landing. As thrilling as those soaring flights, as precarious as the Bargaard family’s complicated love, as tender as Jon’s backward gaze while disease takes him inexorably forward, Peter Geye’s gorgeous prose brings the brothers to the precipice of their relationship, where they have to choose: each other, or the secrets they’ve held so tightly for so long.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Review: Fire and Ice by Rachel Spangler

Curling. That's Canadian, right? I'm kidding. Sort of. Curling is very definitely not a high profile sport in the US in any but an Olympic year. As a result, it remains a bit of an unknown sport. Most people on the street wouldn't be able to tell you much more than that it is an ice sport with stones and brooms. To be fair, I am one of those people. But I thought a romance centered around curling like Rachel Spangler's Fire and Ice sounded like a fun thing to read. And it mostly was.

Max Lauren is a disgraced reporter whose only chance to repair and potentially recover her reputation is to take the less than appealing assignment her boss offers her: follow one of the top ranked US curling teams for several months. Max is bitter about her fate. She's arrogant and dismissive and can't even be bothered to research this sport she knows no more about than the average Joe on the street. Callie Mulligan is the "Skip" of the team that Max has been assigned to follow. She is a cheerful, driven perfectionist who makes huge sacrifices for her sport and her team. The team is wary of a reporter who knows nothing about curling following them and they put the clearly condescending Max through a hazing ritual of sorts where she ends up splayed on the ice more times than the reader can count. Determined rather than humbled, her first piece on the team does not win her any friends. Despite this, Callie, recognizing something in Max, urges the team to allow Max a second chance.

Told from Max and Callie's alternating points of view, this f/f romance has a hefty dose of sports in it. With Max knowing nothing of curling, it allows the reader to learn the basics with her, ensuring that the audience for the novel is not just curling fans. Spangler also does a good job showing the commitment these women make to curling and to their team and how hard it can be to work their dream around the life and work they can't afford to eschew. The thing that destroyed Max's career isn't revealed until quite late in the book; she was such an unpleasant brat for so long that revealing this earlier might have made readers want a happily ever after for her rather than rooting for her comeuppance. As it was, it was hard to understand why Callie fell for her on anything other than a physical level. The sexual tension between the two women was pretty high though and the continued missteps kept the relationship in flux and the plot moving along. This was very much a story about learning to trust on so many levels. The curling piece of the novel was interesting but sometimes hard to follow, perhaps because it's hard to describe something that is so intricate and visual. Readers who are interested in a romance set in the world of a less mainstream sport and those who don't mind an initially quite unlikable main character will appreciate this contemporary romance.

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