Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

 


The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin evokes the notorious 1888 blizzard that swept across the Great Plains taking the lives of 235 children who died in the snow, some only steps from safety. Benjamin, known for her historical novels including The Aviator’s Wife and The Swans of Fifth Avenue, based this novel on oral histories told by the blizzard’s survivors. 

The book focuses on two sisters: Raina, a new, young, inexperienced teacher living far from home, and her sister Gerda, a young teacher in a school a three-day ride’s distance as they each attempt to help their pupils survive the coming blizzard. The morning of the blizzard was unseasonably warm and the children and their teachers went to school in lightweight coats not knowing what was to come. The children’s fate was in the hands of teenaged girls who’d recently been sitting in classrooms themselves. The novel puts the reader into Raina and Gerda’s minds as they wrestle with their choices. Benjamin makes the reader feel how quickly they had to decide what to do and how few resources they had to help them. 

The novel’s expert pacing places the reader on the prairie as the weather unexpectedly and rapidly changes. Benjamin helps the reader feel the anxiety of the young sisters as they try to ascertain what to do and how much time they have. The book also focuses on the children as they tried to make their way home. It shows, sometimes in excruciating detail, what being lost in a blizzard entails. As the blizzard grows stronger and the children plow on, Benjamin makes the reader feel the chill, fear, and bravery the teachers and children experience.

The novel provides a compelling portrait of families eking out a living as unprepared homesteaders lured west by the optimistic words they read in newspapers. The book is packed with unique characters including Gavin Woodson, a newspaperman, who penned many of the words that made people move to the prairie and was now writing of the children that miraculously survived. The story of one of those children whose life changes because of Woodson’s words is particularly compelling but it would be a spoiler to say more about that character here. The book also offers a brief picture of the abhorrent treatment of the Native Americans and a few African Americans on the prairie. 

Summing it Up: Read this if you love historical fiction and want to learn about the blizzard of January, 1888. Read it to learn of the mistakes made by forecasters and families and of the importance of the media in transforming history and public opinion even in 1888. Benjamin’s extensive research and use of the survivors’ oral histories make this a riveting and accurate tale.

Rating: 4 Stars

Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication Date: January 12, 2021

Author Website: https://melaniebenjamin.com/

Reading Group Guide: https://melaniebenjamin.com/book-clubs-childrens-blizzard.php

What Others are saying:

“Compelling. . . In this piercingly detailed drama, riveting in its action and psychology, Benjamin reveals the grim aspects of homesteading, from brutal deprivations to violent racism toward Native Americans and African Americans, while orchestrating, with grace and resonance, transformative moral awakenings and sustaining love.  —  Booklist starred review

Publishers Weekly: https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-399-18228-0

The Children’s Blizzard is that rarest of novels, managing to be as riveting in its story as it is delicate and empathetic with its characters. Melanie Benjamin has written an unforgettable tale. These characters, with all their heart and foolishness and culpability, bring to life a piece of middle-American history long neglected. The result is a reading experience unlike any I’ve had in ages. Bravo, Ms. Benjamin, one of the great writers of historical fiction working today.

                    — Peter Geye, author of Northernmost

  


Friday, January 8, 2021

A Murder of Principal by Saralyn Richard



Saralyn Richard, author of the award-winning Detective Parrot mysteries, returns to print with a stand-alone mystery.  A Murder of Principal is both a mystery and a novel that exposes the deep divide between schools of privilege and those where some teachers and administrators have low expectations and favor strong discipline over innovative teaching and motivation. Author Saralyn Richard successfully brings the unique perspective of her years as an administrator in a predominantly African-American high school to the book. Set in 1993 when Richard was an administrator, the mystery paints a picture of a similar, though fictional high school. 


The book opens as R.J. Stoker, Lincoln High School’s new principal, drives to the school having moved from Knoxville, Tennessee. 

“He wasn’t thinking of the paychecks or prestige of being the new principal at Lincoln High. He wasn’t thinking of the new two-story Colonial he had purchased, or the new 1993 Cadillac his wife had her eye on. He paid no attention to the train tracks, the abandoned industrial yards, or the untidy lawns and unkempt houses that had sheltered middle-class families decades ago.

Gang graffiti peppered the sides of buildings and viaducts. This scenery was a far cry from the posh Tennessee neighborhood where he’d served as principal for the past eighteen years, commanding one of the highest principal salaries in the South.


What Stoker was thinking, this Indian summer day in 1993, the first day of school for faculty, was the challenge. Having accomplished his goals in Knoxville, he stood ready to tackle the big Midwestern city. Besides, he gained a certain gratification from being able to improve the lives of young people of his own race. Lincoln High School was predominantly Black.”


Principal Stoker is a man who believes that schools exist for students and some of the teachers and administrators at his new school don’t care for his ideas or his disruption of their traditional methods and discipline. Stoker promoted Sally Pearce, a white teacher, to the Assistant Principal position responsible for curriculum and instruction. The reader can tell that Sally believes in and supports students. She and Principal Stoker have great plans to transform Lincoln High into a place where students thrive.


One of the unique aspects of this book is that it explores racial issues in the school from multiple viewpoints. After a teacher tries to put Ms. Pearce on the spot to get her way, Ms. Pearce asks Principal Stoker what to do and he responds:

“Don’t engage in conversation with a Black teacher who calls you a racist. She was just blowing smoke, trying to get you upset, trying to put you in an indefensible position. Don’t fall for it.”


“So how should I have responded?”


“Just ignore her. Or tell her you won’t dignify that statement with a response. You’re going to have run-ins with teachers who try to use race to cover up their own inadequacies. Let them know you see right through it, and ignore the comments.”


Assistant Principal Welburton, a white man, who assumed he’d be named Principal, and who has long run the school with iron-clad discipline, doesn’t like Principal Stoker’s plans. When a student who’s a known gang member leaves a threatening note on the football coach’s car, Welburton wants to expel the student, but Principal Stoker overrules him. Welburton and his allies, including teachers who’ve been rebuffed by the new principal, are ready to rebel when Principal Stoker is shot and killed and there are a bevy of suspects. Was this a gang-ordered hit? Did one of Stoker’s enemies kill him? 


As the police work to solve the murder, the student who threatened the coach disappears with his family. He’s located and brought into custody when a second administrator is killed. Could it be gang retaliation? Is one of the other teachers or administrators hiding something? 


The clever machinations of the teachers and administrators as they play school politics to advance their own agendas set the book apart. They offer a revealing picture of race and expectations. I wish the book had been longer as I’d have enjoyed exploring more of the motivation behind the actions of some of the characters. I loved the way a mystery could show how engaging teaching methods and high expectations could make a difference. I also enjoyed the mystery especially for a unique twist an eyewitness revealed and for the pacing that made it a page-turner.


Summing It Up: A Murder of Principal engages the reader with a fast-paced murder mystery set in an urban high school then uses that engagement to explore issues of race, gang influence, and prejudice without being preachy. This book would make for a compelling book club discussion especially for high school teachers. Readers living in Chicago’s south suburbs and south side will want to explore the issues it reveals.


Note: The digital edition is currently available for $4.99 on various platforms.


Note: I knew the author personally many years ago when our children attended the same schools and our sons were on the same baseball team.


Rating: 4 stars particularly for its exploration of issues we all should consider


Category: Fiction, Mysteries and Thrillers, Book Club


Publication Date: January 8, 2021


Author Website: http://www.saralynrichard.com


Interview with the Author: https://indiecrimescene.blogspot.com/2020/11/interview-with-saralyn-richard-author.html


What Others Are Saying:


Danger, betrayal, and murder roam the halls of Lincoln High. Teeming with territorial power plays, both in the classrooms and on the streets, A Murder of Principal is an intriguing mystery, cleverly penned with the knowledge and experience only a true educational insider can deliver.”--Bruce Robert Coffin, award-winning author of the Detective Byron Mysteries

 

“Curl up on the couch with your magnifying glass, cat, and some chocolate as you sift through the clues of this well-penned mystery. You're in for a treat!”  --Avanti Centrae, author of the five-time award winning and #1 Amazon bestselling VanOps thriller series

 

“Enter Lincoln High School at your own risk--you'll be held captive by this suspenseful page-turner." –Margaret Mizushima, author of the award-winning Timber Creek K-9 Mysteries, including Hanging Falls

 

“Every day we read in the news of black and white confrontations, prejudice, and gang-related crime. In this murder mystery Saralyn Richard tackles these important issues and delivers an exciting murder mystery to solve. The book is an anthem to better race relations and a belief that “we can all get along.” –Belle Ami, author of the best-selling mystery, The Girl Who Knew Da Vinci

 

“Saralyn Richard has written a compelling page-turner of a mystery. The book’s universe, the life of the administrators, teachers, and staff of an inner-city high school, rings with authenticity. A Murder of Principal has richly drawn characters that drive the story. There are many surprises as the story evolves. Start it early enough so you won’t stay up all night to finish it. I did.” –Marc Grossberg, author of The Best People: A Tale of Trials and Errors

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Best Fiction of 2020


I adore reading fiction. Good novels help me understand the world. While 2020 was a momentous year that most of us wouldn't want to repeat, it was a stellar year for fiction. New novels from favorite authors including Louise Erdrich, Peter Geye, Colum McCann, and Anne Tyler always make me smile. Toss in fabulous debut novels and second and third efforts by writers that never disappoint and it made for a great year to sit at home and read. I didn't read much in translation -- I vow to do better this year, but A Girl Returned was a stellar novel and translation and one of the best I read this year.

The Best Novels – It’s a tie. 

The Best Novel I read this year that was published this year:

Northernmost by Peter Geye tells the harrowing tale of Odd Einar Eide trying to survive alone in the Arctic Circle in 1897 combined with his great-great-great granddaughter’s struggles redefining herself and her own escape from a frozen marriage. When Greta discovers her ancestor’s story, she examines her own life as she retells his remarkable adventures. This is a compelling adventure, but first it’s a love story told with heat and compassion. This is the third novel in the Eide trilogy, but it stands alone and can be enjoyed without reading the previous books. The writing is exquisite. It’s one of the best books out this year. Read my complete review here

The Best Novel I read it this year that was published in 2019 (That it's also a debut and National Book Award finalist is amazing):

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips leads the reader through the remote Kamchatka Peninsula on the northeastern edge of Russia where two young sisters disappear. Phillips uses interrelated vignettes to portray the indigenous and Russian inhabitants and their relationship to the girls’ disappearance. The novel makes the reader feel the land then it explodes into one of the best conclusions ever written. Bravo! Sense of place, fascinating details, and brave characterizations make this a debut novel deserving of its accolades. The tension builds over twelve months until we learn the girls’ fate. Book clubs will want to explore themes of xenophobia, racism, gender, vulnerability, and grief. This debut novel was a National Book Award finalist. (2019)

Two others that could have tied as the best of the best:

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich is pure Erdrich perfection. Based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather Patrick Gourneau, a night watchman and tribal elder who fought the US attempt to remove natives from their North Dakota land in 1953, this story offers an intriguing tale with compelling characters, a touch of magic realism, and a view of history we all need to see. Erdrich notes, “if you should ever doubt that a series of dry words in a government document can shatter spirits and demolish lives, let this book erase that doubt. Conversely, if you should be of the conviction that we are powerless to change those dry words, let this book give you heart.” Readers, it did give me heart. You won’t be able to read this without falling in love with Patrice, Thomas, and the other residents of the Turtle Mountain Reservation. It’s a masterpiece. Read my complete review here.

Writers & Lovers by Lily King is simply a great novel. It has boundless energy, extraordinary characters, and an evocation of grief that will lift you. Casey is 31 and trying to finish writing her first novel while working as a waitress to pay her college loans. She’s a wreck with grief over her mother’s death and she doesn’t choose boyfriends who treat her well until she meets Oscar, a famous older author with a delightful family, and one of his endearing students. King is such a gifted writer and this novel feels like a master lesson in creating characters, building a love story, creating a pace that compels the reader to turn the page, and writing authentic dialogue. It will make you believe in love.

The other best novels in alphabetical order by title because they're all great:

Apeirogon by Colum McCann took me three months to read because it requires acute attention and early in the pandemic, I couldn’t concentrate enough to do it justice. I kept coming back for the exquisite metaphors, for the words of the protagonists, and for the birds, especially for the birds. The novel is inspired by the real-life friendship between Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, and Rami Elhanan, an Israeli, whose young daughters were killed in the Middle East. The book has 1001 chapters, some only one sentence, some a blank space, and some interviews with the men. The chapters refer to 1001 Arabian Nights. This is a masterpiece. I plan to reread it when my brain has more bandwidth to appreciate it.

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney, In 1918, Cher Ami, a British-trained carrier pigeon, flew a dangerous mission in France and delivered a vital message that might save US troops. One hundred years later, the pigeon, now stuffed, is on display at the Smithsonian where she remembers the past. Major Charles Whittlesey, an erudite Manhattan attorney and the leader of what became known as The Lost Battalion, tells how he and his men were trapped in enemy territory for six days by the Germans and US friendly fire. He wrote the note Cher Ami carried. Returning home, the Major is hailed as a hero but feels responsible for so many deaths. Flying above it all, Cher Ami sees everything clearly. This is based on actual events of World War I. It touched me deeply.


Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler is quintessential Tyler with its quirky protagonist, a glimpse of a chaotic family, quotidian details, and the joy of the unexpected. Micah Mortimer is a self-described tech hermit who fixes people’s computer woes. He lives a carefully constructed life, but the unexpected finds and upends him when his “woman-friend” is threatened with eviction and he responds poorly and when the college-age son of an old girlfriend appears at his door thinking Micah is his father. In 178 pages that I gulped voraciously, Tyler created a world I’ve pondered far longer than it took me to devour her words.Read my complete review here.


Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is a testament to friendship and the reality of living with secrets and the sins of the father. This debut honestly and realistically describes the south side of Chicago where churches are family and flawed characters work to support each other. I adored this poetic exploration of fear and violence that offers redemption and hope. I flagged almost every page. It’s a compelling story told by multiple narrators including Calvary Church, the place where the characters share their lives and secrets. I still can't believe it's a first novel. It completely captures the south side of Chicago. I was reading it this summer and my daughter who lives in the Beverly area of Chicago, one of the neighborhoods portrayed in the book, was sitting near me. I read a description of a coffee shop in Beverly aloud and said that it captured the area beautifully and wondered if she was describing the Beverly Bakery. My daughter immediately said, "No, that's B-Sides." Catherine Adel West nails the south side down to the coffee shops.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is an exquisite character study that delves into the lives of Shuggie Bain, his alcoholic mother Agnes, his older brother and sister, and his absent father in 1980s Scotland. Stuart portrays Agnes’s vanity and pride while showing the underbelly of her addiction. This was emotionally one of the most difficult novels I’ve ever read. I appreciate Stuart’s skill, yet the novel left me drained. It deserves its accolades as a National Book Award finalist and Booker Prize winner, but it’s one tough read. That it’s a debut novel makes it even more impressive. You must read it, but pick a time when you can handle it. The way it conveys the personal cost of the Thatcher years is magnificent. 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid satirizes the casual racism of supposedly woke liberals while offering a meaningful story. When her white boss calls Emira, the family’s Black babysitter, to take 3-year-old Briar to the supermarket so she won’t be home when the police come to investigate the breaking of a window, Emira, needing the cash, hurries to help. At the store a security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping white Briar and another shopper’s video of the encounter goes viral. This is both a “fun” novel and a surprisingly serious look at race, culture, money, influence, and love. A debut novel isn’t often long-listed for the Booker Prize. It’s perfect for book clubs. I read it months ago and it continues to resonate and make me question myself and current events.


The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett explores identity through the lives of twin sisters escaping their tiny hometown in 1968. All the town’s residents are light-skinned African Americans. Twin Stella easily passes as white and her sister Desiree marries the darkest man she meets. Ten years later, Desiree returns home with her coal-black daughter. Desiree and Stella’s grown daughters later illustrate how secrets affect being. The novel beautifully probes issues of colorism, sexual identity, and self-hatred via careful attention to its vibrant characters and compelling story line. This will be among the most talked about book club selections as there's much to discuss. Go back and read her debut The Mothers. One of my book clubs will discuss it in February.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, was a Man Booker finalist, and was on the New York Times best books of 2018 list. It combines a swashbuckling adventure with a sensitive tale of slavery and freedom. “Wash” Black is an enslaved ten-year-old on a Barbados plantation in 1830 when he’s selected to assist his master’s brother with his invention. After a bounty is put on Wash, he escapes with Titch, who is now his master. This is a miraculous tale of loyalty and freedom. Select it for your book club and get ready for an endless conversation. (2018)

A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum begins in 1990 when 17-year-old Palestinian Isra is forced into marriage and moves to Brooklyn where she is treated brutally when she bears daughters. Rum draws on personal experience and her own escape from such a marriage. The book also shows Isra’s daughter in 2008 who’s imprisoned in the same system. Fans of Netflix’s “Orthodox” will see similar patterns despite the religious differences. This is a powerful, yet disturbing debut. You could have an entire book club discussion about the ending.

Best Translated Novel of 2020:
A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio,
A Girl Returned takes place in 1975 in a small Italian town where a 13-year-old girl is returned to her birth mother and her poor family by the aunt and uncle who’d adopted her. Why? How will she cope with sharing a slim cot with a younger sister who wets the bed every night? This is a beautifully written and translated short novel that will capture readers as the girl returned shares her story twenty years later. A Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews as well as the winner of the Campiello Prize.  (2019)

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Best Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers of 2020


There were many weeks in 2020 when I couldn't concentrate on a single thing.  Mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers saved me by offering puzzles that engaged my brain while taking my thoughts away from the devastation of the pandemic. I read thirty-five mysteries this year including a few series. Reading mystery series is like coming home as characters you know greet you on the first page. Image credit: https://prowritingaid.com

My vote for the best mystery/suspense/thriller book of the year is:

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

It's
much more than simply a great psychological, suspense-filled thriller, it also affords a look at our divided, unequal society. Based on the real-life killing of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins in 1992 by a Korean woman who was convicted of manslaughter but never sentenced to serve a day in prison, Cha takes the anger, fear, grief, and guilt of the families involved and transforms them into a masterpiece of a novel about human nature. Shawn, the cousin of the murdered girl, is a 40-year-old black man who served time and now lives a life of hard work and devotion to family. Grace Park, the daughter of the woman who killed his cousin as he watched 24 years previously, is a pharmacist in her parents’ store who didn’t know about her mother’s crime. Seeing things through both their eyes is brilliant, unsettling, and informative. This would be a great choice for your book club as it brings up multiple issues and the writing is spectacular.

The Best Mysteries, Suspense Novels, and Thrillers of 2020:

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny
The Gamache family travels to Paris to await the birth of a grandchild, but after a reunion dinner, Gamache’s billionaire godfather is hit by a speeding van and is near death. Gamache thinks the hit-and-run intentional and investigates. Corporate secrets and the possibility of corruption in the French police bring in Gamache’s wife Reine-Marie and her research skills to find out what’s happening. I missed Three Pines but loved this clever mystery.


A Palette for Love and Murder by Saralyn Richard 

Palette brings back Detective Oliver Parrott in a case involving the theft of two paintings from a Brandywine Valley estate. When the theft leads to murder, Parrot investigates while trying to understand his wife’s PTSD. The murder victim’s secret past may reveal clues, but the New York City police don’t want Parrott’s help. Read my complete review.

The Sacrament by Olaf Olaffson

The Sacrament is a haunting tale of Pauline, a young woman studying at the Sorbonne who becomes enamored with her roommate Halva, a student from Iceland. When a church deacon thinks Pauline might be a lesbian, he convinces her to leave. Pauline pushes against her instincts and becomes a nun. Years later, the deacon who is now a bishop sends Pauline, now Sister Johanna, to Iceland to investigate charges of abuse in a local school because she speaks Icelandic. The book moves back and forth between these two periods and forty years later when Sister Johanna again travels to Iceland. Sister Johanna is a great character and the tension of the novel builds with the unveiling of the abuse. The ending is spectacular as is the setting. The audio version is extraordinary.(2019)

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries has all the features of a Victorian gothic novel, but it’s set in contemporary England. After Ella, a teacher, is murdered, someone writes in her friend and fellow teacher Clare’s diary. Soon, another teacher is killed and the reader learns more about the characters and crimes from three viewpoints: that of Clare, her 15-year-old daughter Georgie, and Harbinder Kaur, the Detective Sergeant investigating the case. All are intriguing and make the 2020 Edgar winner compelling. There are touches of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White and a clever ghost story within the novel that add to the gothic atmosphere. Hoping for more from Detective Kaur. (2019)

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Winter Counts is an evocative debut thriller that takes place on the South Dakota Rosebud Indian Reservation where Virgil Wounded Knee is an enforcer who metes out justice and revenge when the legal system won’t. When pills and heroin threaten lives, his teen nephew Nathan is trapped. The crime narrative is compelling and exciting, but what counts in this novel is its attention to tribal ceremonies and identity and to the injustice of the federal response to felonies. Read my complete review.

The Widow, The Suspect, and The Child by Fiona Barton


The Child
is the second of Barton’s thrillers told from the point of view of a detective, a reporter, and a person of interest in a crime. A construction worker unearths a baby’s skeleton in SE London. Kate stumbles onto the story and tries to identify the infant. One woman thinks it must be her baby that was kidnapped years before. Red herrings abound. (2019)

*Barton, Fiona, The Suspect is the third in the series and this time
Kate’s son who dropped out of law school to explore Thailand hasn’t been heard from. When two London teens are killed in Bangkok, Kate goes to cover the story and finds that her son is a suspect. Lots of great twists and turns. I love Kate.


*Barton, Fiona, The Widow
is a searing suspense-filled tale told from the perspectives of the widow of a probable baby killer, the detective investigating the case, and the reporter trying to get the story. Your opinion of each will change as you learn more about who they are and how they’re motivated. This is brilliant and was just what I needed as a pandemic read. Can’t believe it’s a debut. (2016)

Other series you might enjoy:

Helen Fields "Perfect" series beginning with Perfect Remains

Margaret Mizushima's Timber Creek K-9 mysteries beginning with Killing Trail 

Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson/Russ VanAlstyne mysteries beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter