Book Review: Bayou City Burning

It’s evident from the very first line that BAYOU CITY BURNING will be a throwback to the 1930-40s hardboiled fiction. The difference is that instead of Prohibition, in this book set in 1961 Houston, society is dealing with desegregation and space wars. But like any good hardboiled PI story, it still features a tough, wise-cracking PI with his own moral code, willing to bend the law for a good cause while dealing with both the mob and the corrupt political system.

Harry Lark is hired by a stranger to follow a couple NASA engineers and report on their activities. The stranger won’t say why, but he’ll pay—and Harry’s got bills. He thinks it’s over when he hands in the report, but the plot thickens when the stranger is later found murdered in Harry’s office.

Meanwhile, Harry’s 12-year-old daughter Dizzy—her father’s mini-me in personality if not looks—opens a Lost and Found with two friends. They aren’t expecting to be asked to find a “lost” father, but that’s what happens when 7-year-old Sissy doesn’t believe her father really died a train wreck. A Barbie doll arrived in the mail on her birthday, and she’s sure her father sent it. Dizzy and her friends agree to take the case.

It seems that father and daughter are working two very different mysteries, though they help each other out with advice, ideas, and (sometimes unbelievable) actions. However, author D.B. Borton manages to bring the cases together slicker than Harry’s oiled hair.

The pleasure in reading BAYOU CITY BURNING comes from both the delightful prose—which is full of wit, slang, and similes—and the characters. For although Harry is a hardboiled PI, he’s also contemplative and a caring father; and Dizzy is as empathetic as she is precocious. They’re a perfect team. I look forward to their next appearance.

My review is given honestly although I was given an advance copy of the book.

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Guest Blogging Today

I have a short guest blog over at One Woman’s Day. Come on over and see what lesson I learned from a pothole. https://bit.ly/2JHKFDx

Book Review: Sold on a Monday

Sold on a Monday was not what I expected.

When we’re first introduced to reporter Ellis Read, he’s killing time taking photographs. A couple of boys playing in front of a run-down house catch his attention. It’s not until he’s snapping their photo that he sees the sign on the porch: 2 children for sale.

Read’s editor wants to run the photo with a story, but the photo gets ruined. When Ellis returns to re-take it, the family is gone. In desperation, he takes the left-behind sign and stages a similar shoot with neighbor children (who are not for sale).

Sold on a Monday isn’t about either set of children. Rather, it’s about Ellis Read. How far will he go to make his career? More importantly, how far will he go to set things right when the far-reaching consequences of his actions are revealed?

Forgiveness, of self as well as others, is a major theme of the story. As one character states, “Even decent, well-meaning people could make poor choices under pressure.” How then can we determine, both individually and as a society, when leniency should be extended and when it should not? At what point should society make a judgement of a someone (for example, that a couple are not fit to be parents and should not be allowed to adopt children)?

Kristina McMorris obviously did her research for this historical novel. Elements of daily life in 1930s New York are sprinkled throughout, providing a firm setting. I could pick a few nits, but for the main part the book is well written. The characters are engaging and the chain of events is poignant. The pacing varies, as it should in any good story; however, it does drag in a couple of areas while racing too quickly in a couple of others. Overall, a good read worth the time. Four stars.

Sousanna

If you follow me on social media, you know that one accomplishment for me this year was the publication of SOUSANNA: THE LOST DAUGHTER by Sousanna Stratmann. This is the fictionalized memoir a woman who was taken from her family in Greece under false pretenses and adopted in the US in the late 1950s.

I learned some history I didn’t know while working on this book. I also heard, through the voice of one who’s lived it, the thoughts of a young child taken from her loving family and put into a foreign place, and how it affected the rest of her life.

Sousanna had her first book signing event tonight. There was a great turnout despite a cold front blowing in. I feel honored to have played a part in bringing her story—and the story of thousands of others like her—to the world.


Book Review: We Were the Lucky Ones

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter is based on the true story of the extraordinary holocaust survival of an entire Jewish family from Radom, Poland. Well-off and assimilated, they seem too pampered when we first meet them to endure the hardships that will come their way – especially knowing (as we do now) that fewer than 300 Jews of the 30,000 that lived in that town in 1939 survived WWII. As the family is separated and sent to different parts of the globe, each member has to find a way to survive the particular circumstances that come their way. 

It is a compelling story, and one that deserves to be told. This telling of it, however, is lacking in several ways.

Each family member (2 parents, 5 children + spouses, and a grandchild) has several chapters dedicated to their experience. While I understand why the author chose to use multiple perspectives, it did not allow enough time with each character to develop a connection with them.

It also did not allow the full story of any of them to be told. Chapters often ended with a “cliffhanger” but by time the story got back around to that character, time had passed and there was no follow through of the action. For example, (slight spoiler) in one place Mila hides her young daughter Felicia in a sack of fabric when the SS show up at her workplace. Mila has to leave Felicia when all workers are ordered outside. In the hiding place, Felicia hears the boots of the soldiers all around her. They start kicking the bags around her. The chapter ends here, and the story doesn’t get back to them for ten chapters. By then, it’s almost a year later and we join Mila and Felicia on a train. So obviously the soldiers didn’t find Felicia, but we don’t get the rest of that scene. Most chapter are that way.

In addition, the omniscient point of view created distance between me as a reader and the story, so that I could never feel immersed in it; I was being told the story rather than experiencing it with the characters.

The lack of any faults among the characters also made them unrelatable. Every one of them was beautiful, smart, brave, patient, selfless—none of them ever fought or even complained. No one is that perfect, especially in such trying times.

The story tries to be told in present tense, but there is so much remembering and backstory that there is just as much past tense, and the switch was jarring at times. And there were several instances of anachronism.

I give it three stars.

How Urban Legends Are Born

I love research, and I love holidays. So it should come as no surprise that researching holiday history and traditions is a special hobby of mine. Sometimes, this leads to bunny trials that go so far, it becomes impossible to trace the ending back to the beginning. That’s the case in a recent discovery: how did I get from old Christmas traditions to witch’s ladders? However it happened, I discovered along the way how urban legends are born.

Almost all information these days says witch’s ladders are an old, traditional, homemade cord spell. Legend has it that witches would knot a string (or rope, hair, etc.) with feathers while cursing someone, then hide the string. The only way for the victim to escape the curse was to find the string and untie every knot.

Deeper research reveals another story.

“In the town of Wellington, in Somersetshire, [stood a] building of considerable antiquity…Some eight or nine years ago [1878] it was discovered that this building was in so unsafe a condition that its instant demolition was become a necessity…In pulling down the upper storey [sic] there was found in a space which separated the roof from the upper room, and to which there was no means of access from below—First: six brooms. Second: an old arm-chair. Third: a rope with feathers woven into it.”

The above is from an article entitled “A Witch’s Ladder” by Dr. Abraham Colles in the 1887 Folk-Lore Journal (Vol 5, No 1).

The original “witch’s ladder,” AKA sewel.

The article goes on to say, “The workmen who made the discovery of the articles declared them with confidence to be for the following purposes:—The chair for the witches to rest in: the brooms for them to ride on: the rope to act as a ladder to enable them to cross the roof… they had no hesitation in at first sight designating the rope and feathers ‘A witches’ ladder.’”

An associate of Colles, Edward Burnett Tylor, a Reader in Anthropology in Oxford and Keeper of the University Museum, presented the item to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science later that year. Immediately two members of the audience stood up and informed him the object was a sewel, and would have been held in the hand to turn back deer when hunting.

SEW’EL, noun Among huntsmen, something hung up to prevent deer entering a place. —American Dictionary of the English Language, Noah Webster, 1828

Sew’el, n. [Etymol. uncertain.] A scarecrow, generally made of feathers tied to a string, hung up to prevent deer from breaking into a place. –Webster’s New International Dictionary, 1909

Undeterred, Colles’ continued to try to connect the object with witchcraft. He asked some elderly women thought to have knowledge of witchcraft, and a couple of them supposedly mentioned a “rope with feathers” but denied knowing what they were for or how they were used.

Colles published the article quoted above in an attempt to gather more information. He got several responses; among these was a claim that such items were used in Germany and Scotland for “getting away the milk from the neighbor’s cows.” Another came from a man in Italy, who wrote that in that country, such a tool was called a witch’s garland and was used to cause ill fortune. No documentation could be found of either, however.

Then, in 1893, a Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould wrote about a witch’s ladder in his novel Mrs. Curgenven of Curgenven. Colles’ associate, Tyler, wrote to Baring-Gould to ask where he’d gotten his information on witch’s ladders. Unfortunately for the two seekers, the author said he’s made it all up. But on entreaty by Tyler, Baring-Gould asked a local woman known as a witch about the object in question. She said it was “nothing but a string set with feathers to frighten birds from a line of peas.” Another novel about a witch’s ladder appeared a few years later, but again with no documentation.

With no further information to be found, the feathered string was forgotten until 1911, when Tyler’s widow sent it to the Pitt Rivers Museum of Oxford with a note that read, “The “witches’ ladder” came from here. An old woman, said to be a witch, died, this was found in an attic, & sent to my Husband. It was described as made of “stag’s” (cock’s) feathers, & was thought to be used for getting away the milk from the neighbours’ cows – nothing was said about flying or climbing up. There is a novel called “The Witch Ladder” by E. Tyler in which the ladder is coiled up in the roof to cause some one’s death.”

The string is on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, labeled as: “Witches ladder made with cock’s feathers. Said to have been used for getting away the milk from neighbour’s cows and for causing people’s deaths. From an attic in the house of an old woman (a witch?) who died in Wellington.”

See how a sewel became a witch’s tool? Urban legend born.

A Writing Retreat

Earlier this fall, I had the chance to attend a mini writing retreat with some members of one of my local writing groups. It was the first writing retreat I’ve done, and I loved it. An entire weekend of no chores, worrying about what’s for supper, or other distractions. Just days of writing-related activities.

I say writing-related, instead of simply writing, because we had varied goals. Some of us posted our goals for accountability. Whether it was a word count, a number of blog posts (I could take a lesson from that gal), or, as in my case, a timeline and outline, every person who attended met their goal.

Accountability to stay on task.

They laughed at my timeline. Well, it is pretty outrageous, as you can see below.

You can’t really tell from the photo, but this was a pretty long hallway. But the timeline had to cover a couple of decades, so…

But in this case, it’s necessary. This novel has three point-of-view characters. In addition, part of it is set in the 1930s and ‘40s, among historical events. This timeline will ensure I keep the characters not only ageing at the same rate as each other, but also appropriate to what’s happening in the historical setting. If Ruth is 5 during the Night of the Long Knives, she can’t be 10 when the Nuremburg Race Laws were set (the next year), now, can she?

Some of this is purposely blurred. You don’t want spoilers, do you?

I have a pretty good concept of what happened throughout the ’30s and ‘40s, but dates tend to get jumbled in my head, so a good timeline will keep me straight.

This novel is taking me a while to write. Partly because of the other jobs I have (editing & etc.), but more because it is so research intensive. I love that, though. Research might be my favorite part of writing.

Anyway, we stayed in this old farmhouse that has been turned into a B&B. It was large enough that each of us could find our own little private nooks in which to work away, but then as we needed breaks we could gather in the kitchen or elsewhere and visit.

This was my private corner.

Now that I’ve experienced one, I can’t wait for more writing retreats in my future.