Wednesday, September 13, 2023

September-October's List

September-October's List

Okay, this list took awhile. The reason is besides my usual writing and reviewing, I am also reading and summarizing books for Wiser Books. So I have several projects going on at the same time. Like my last list, this will probably cover two months. 

Starcrossed A True Romeo and Juliet Story in Hitler's Paris by Heather Dune McAdam and Simon Worrall

Doreen Valiente Witch by Philip Heselton

The Connected Species How The Evolution of The Human Brain Can Help Save The World by Mark A Williams 

A Festive Juxtaposition by Paul R. Stanton

Satan Fan Club by Mark Kirkbride

Just a World Away: A Collection of Modern Folktales Edited by John Tannhauser

Horn(y): A Shadow Spark Publishing Anthology by Erika McCorkle, Kaitlin Corvus etc al

The Protrectress by Ayura Ayira

My Queen My Love: A Novel of Henrietta Maria (The Henrietta of France Trilogy Book One) by Elena Maria Vidal

A Shadow Upon His Soul: A Gripping Story of Survival and Forbidden Love in WW2 London (World War II Hidden Lives Series Book One) by Ophelia Caton

The Music Within Your Heart by Isaac Samuel Miller*

Water Doesn't Lie (Book One of Dalton & Gibbs Investigations) by Kim Booth

Third Wheel by Richard R. Becker

Cryptic Spaces: Foresight by Deen Ferrell

Solstice Sunrise: A Supernatural Novel by David Baugher

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*These are books reviewed for LitPick and will not be featured on my blog, only on LitPick's site. 

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Well that's it. Thanks and as always, Happy Reading.


New Book Alert: Joy: The Art of Making Tofu An Autobiography by Simon Boreham; Heartwarming and Heartbreaking Book of Love, Loss, Grief, Joy, and Tofu

New Book Alert: Joy: The Art of Making Tofu An Autobiography by Simon Boreham; Heartwarming and Heartbreaking Book of Love, Loss, Grief, Joy, and Tofu

By Julie Sara Porter

Bookworm Reviews 

 Simon Boreham's memoirs, Joy: The Art of Making Tofu: An Autobiography is a lovely, moving, and heartbreaking and heartwarming book about Boreham's 59 year marriage to his wife, Dawn and her death in 2021. 

The book begins shortly after Dawn's death as Boreham wrote his memoirs. Even from the beginning, he wrote of the aching memories of going through a house and the things that he and Dawn once shared and suddenly carried many beautiful and painful memories. The white-framed mirror that was her favorite. The porcelain vase with a crack that they bought at their Greystones home in Torquay. The handbag that she took to the hospital. All things under normal circumstances might have been overlooked and ignored that now carry significance and emotional weight. This chapter alone carries Boreham's grief, sadness, and his loving happy memories in a few short pages.

Boreham recounts Dawn's death with her hospitalization from angina and the painful seemingly endless waiting with their children, Catherine and Jason especially because they couldn't be in the hospital room with her because of the pandemic. Boreham combines this with other memories such as when he and Dawn entered the restaurant business in the 1970's and '80's and when he wrote a poem called "The Crying Man." This effect of going from one memory to another even at one point switching the point of view to the second person talking specifically to Dawn is how a person's mind works when it goes through deep stress and grief. It flickers from one memory to another when the current situation becomes too painful and wanting the person to still be there. 

Boreham keeps his and Dawn's years alive through great recall and detail. He talks about his middle class upbringing with his parents, Sybil and Mike, moving through several countries because of his father's career at Barclays Bank. Sybil and Mike eventually settled in the U.K. in 1959 until her death from cancer in 1976. Their happy but doting marriage was a detriment because as Dawn pointed out, she couldn't live up to their expectations for their son so they rarely visited the couple. In fact after Sybil's death, Mike fell apart and moved to South Africa. Boreham writes them as a couple insulated by their reserve and love for each other and their son. It was admirable because it gave Boreham an example of a happy marriage, but they were still standoffish towards Dawn.

Boreham captures his childhood with multiple senses and delightful memories such as the various books that he and his mother read together, Sybil's perfume, his grandparent's tomato garden, Boreham's crush on Disney's Snow White, and his father carrying him after a dog bit him. He also writes about his time in a boarding school that was structured with rules, upperclassmen who teased the younger ones, and a few loyal friends. These memories depict a man with a nice childhood and sometimes difficult youth that filled him with knowledge, thoughts, encouragement, and security. Things that he aspired towards in his marriage. In fact, his main act of rebellion was moving to Canada in the early 60's only to return to a steady life.

In contrast, Dawn was a very opinionated young lady. The second of three children, she was considered her father's favorite. As compared to Boreham's parents, Dawn's parents got along with her husband. In fact, Boreham thought of his mother-in-law Elizabeth as a second mother. Elizabeth, called "Dizzy Lizzy," was something of a character who responded to her son in law's poems with letters decorated with matchstick cartoon characters. She actually had an affair with Boreham's father which continued after both their spouses died. While Boreham and Dawn outwardly supported it, they still felt uncomfortable. While not outright stated, Elizabeth's open hearted eccentric personality may have inspired her daughter's outspoken unconventional nature 

Instead of the private school upbringing of her husband, Dawn attended a Catholic state school. When a nun constantly berated her, Dawn pulled her wimple off. When her sister saw cane marks on Dawn's legs, she and her younger brother were pulled out of that school. This showed Dawn as the type of woman who was more forward in her personality than her reserved husband. It was a strange attraction of opposites that proved compatible for over five decades of marital happiness.

In 1962, Boreham met Dawn while he was working in the hospitality industry and she was a hotel receptionist. He remembered what she wore and where they went those passionate first weeks before he left on a misadventure in Germany. He returned to England and Dawn began a love affair that lasted 59 years.

He remembers Dawn being the type who initiated the emotional response, but letting Boreham think he was leading her. When he kissed her during their dating, Boreham realized that Dawn expected and wanted him to.

Dawn's spirit comes alive in her widower's writing. She was high spirited, sociable, outspoken, intuitive, strong willed, outgoing, and joyful. She loved jazz, dancing, flowers, experimental cooking, and occasionally horse betting, and drinking single malts while quoting Robert Burns. This is told by a man who is still in love with his wife even after she left this world. The sharp grief may recede and be pushed back at times but he will always remember who she was and what she meant to him.

The Boreham's experiences in parenthood contain moments of humor like when their son Jason swallowed a cupboard key and anxiety like when he had fragile health and needed heart and kidney operations during his infancy. Many parents would relate to these situations.The Boreham parents were able to pass their tremendous love for each other to their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

Besides the Boreham's marriage, this book is about their experience in the food business. Like many entrepreneurs, it took some time for the duo to find their niche. They went from a high-spend fish restaurant, to a steak and fish place. In 1989, two years after Boreham was let go of his job they purchased Dragonfly, an organic whole food manufacturing business. 

Their specialty was tofu which at the time was not widely made and sold except in family owned shops in Asia. The duo learned the hard way about the difficulties of making food by themselves without a factory and personnel. They found themselves quite busy making and delivering food only taking off for two weeks between Christmas and New Year's.

Boreham also writes of the toll that starting their own business worked on their marriage especially between two obstinate individuals who believed that they knew what was best. This is evident when after an argument, Dawn, fed up with her husband's high handedness, engaged in a one-woman strike and walkout leaving her husband to finish the clean up. After that he learned to accommodate her personality to his and that her solutions might be different but they weren't always wrong. Their time running Dragonfly helped strengthen their relationship by working towards a goal and implementing their diverse personalities to the end product.

Naturally the final chapters are filled with moments that tug at even the most immovable heart strings. Little moments are captured such as when they bought an antique turquoise pot that was too big to fit anywhere but Dawn just wanted to buy it anyway because the colors represented meaning and life. A pot that would eventually become the funeral urn to carry Dawn's ashes and was big enough to also hold the ashes of their late dog and Boreham when his time comes to be with them. Talk about meaning.

In the end, Boreham writes through his grief in keeping his wife's memory alive but still enjoying the life that he still has. He still can enjoy writing, and bonding with his children, grandchildren and great granddaughter, studying Eastern philosophy and other uplifting sources, and finding joy and happiness around him.

While Joy: The Art of Making Tofu is a sad book about grief and loss, it is also funny and moving as it tells of the memories of a happy marriage, and to find joy in not only those times but the remaining time that we have left.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Weekly Reader: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid; Brilliant Realistic Character Study of the Real Life and Love Behind a Glamorous Movie Star

 Weekly Reader: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid; Brilliant Realistic Character Study of the Real Life and Love Behind a Glamorous Movie Star

By Julie Sara Porter

Bookworm Reviews

Spoilers: I can't tell you how long I have waited to review Taylor Jenkins Reid's The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

 I bought it four years ago and read it three times. I can't remember how many times I scheduled it but put it aside. I own this book so requested reviews from authors, book PR groups, and publishers came first. I read and reviewed many wonderful books and hope that I did my part to call attention to many deserving authors. But this one had always been in the back of my mind as an always unfinished project. Well now it's time to give Evelyn the spotlight that she has always deserved and highlight this wonderful character study of a glamorous movie star and her private lives and true loves.

Monique Grant, a writer for Vivant, magazine has received the offer of a lifetime. Evelyn Hugo, a film star who was once famous from the 1950's-80's, but now a recluse has agreed to tell her story so it will be a book published after her death. Her requirements are very clear. Monique must interview her. If they send someone else or Monique refuses, there will be no book. Monique is very curious and welcomes the potential fame and money that the interview will bring. During her time with the star, Monique learns about Evelyn's humble beginnings, her illustrious film career, her famed romances particularly her seven husbands and the real love of her life. Monique also learns why this plum interview was granted specifically to her.

It's clear that Reid knows her Hollywood stars and made Evelyn a composite of them. The romances and multiple marriages certainly call to mind Elizabeth Taylor. Both Ava Gardner and Bette Davis granted book length interviews later in life with writers who became close friends. (In fact I have Davis' book The Girl Who Walked Home Alone which is attributed to Davis and her interviewer/author, Charlotte Chandler.) Like Rita Hayworth (formerly Margarita Carmen Cansino) did with her Hispanic origins,  Evelyn had to hide a Latina background to pass as white. Formerly Evelyn Herrera, she dyed her hair and eyebrows blond, removed all traces of her Cuban-American accent and knowledge of the Spanish language, and changed her name to Evelyn Hugo to receive the starring roles and fame that her white counterparts did.

Evelyn is the typical poor girl who becomes famous. Technically, there isn't anything really new to her personal trajectory. But she is written so well and multifaceted that Evelyn herself is unique even if her story is not.

Even during her youth in Hell's Kitchen, New York with an abusive and potentially incestuous father that she can't wait to get away from, Evelyn is in control of herself and her path. She is aware of her developing body and how she attracts men and certain women. She already has an allure that draws many to her. Once she goes from local beauty to glamorous movie star, Evelyn's attraction only increases.

We see Evelyn's career take off when she gets the part of Jo in a film adaptation of Little Women with fellow actress Celia St. James (who eventually plays an important part in Evelyn's life) as Beth. We see her scandalous romances and private life and how it played into her film career and the audience's perception of her. We see her setbacks when one failed romance lowers her standards as a bankable actress until a sexy role in a French film and the lead in Anna Karenina bring her back to A list status. We experience her triumphs like winning an Oscar for All of Us and her troubles especially later in life when changing entertainment tastes and the losses of those closest to her leads her to becoming a recluse.

Evelyn is the type of star who is beautiful and smart enough to know what she wants off camera. Even as a senior, she coldly informs Monique that she is not there to confess her sins. She is there to tell her life story matter of factly. She made choices in her life that ended up not always being the right ones but they were made, and there is no point in regretting the past.

Over that glamorous upfront nature, there is a hidden insecurity that few get to experience. Once Evelyn is under the spotlight, she does everything that she can to stay there. She makes choices at the expense of her own heart and personal happiness. Sometimes, her head rules over her heart and it's only later that Evelyn realizes this. 

Evelyn is like many people who are good in their craft: charming, charismatic, forceful, devoted, fiercely loving, alluring, obstinate, self-absorbed, stylish, talented, exasperating, unique, and independent.

While Evelyn is the star, the supporting cast of characters is excellent as well. Her seven husbands are a mixed bag

There is Ernie Diaz, whom she married to get out of Hell's Kitchen, Don Adler, an actor with an alcoholic abusive temper, Mick Riva, a gullible singer that Evelyn married after a quick courtship, Rex North, Evelyn's Anna Karnina co-star whom she married for publicity, Henry Cameron, a producer and one of Evelyn's closest friends, Max Girard, a controlling director who loved the image of Evelyn he created rather than the real woman, and Robert Jamison, an heir who marries Evelyn to help her with a final request.

Some like Ernie, Mick, and Robert come and go so quickly that their presences are barely known before they are divorced. Some like Don and Max turn out to be abusive and controlling.

By far the best husband is Harry, Evelyn's closest friend. Even though they are not in love with each other, for reasons that I will get to in a minute, they are best friends who will do just about anything for each other. They even have a daughter, Connor. It is clear that this is one of the truly happiest moments in Evelyn's life where she can be herself to someone who knows her well, sometimes as much as or even better than she knows herself.

Actually, the greatest love of Evelyn's life is none of her husbands. Her true love is Celia St. James, her former co-star and rival. When Celia reveals her feelings towards the other actress,  Evelyn kisses her in return. The two embark into an affair that is mostly secret for fear of the decline of their careers, ostracization, and for a time in prison.

Celia is more passionate and emotional than Evelyn with a focus more towards the personal than the professional. Even though she wins three Oscars and is as highly regarded as Evelyn, one gets the feeling that if Evelyn asked her to, she would give it all up to be with her. If they lived in a more accepting and free time period, she might have.

But they don't and Celia has to stand in silence as Evelyn marries to avoid the gossip that surrounds the two women's closeness.

As compared to Evelyn's seven marriages, Celia only marries once: to football quarterback, John Braverman. This also plays into Evelyn and Harry's marriage which occurs at the same time. In reality, the seeming heterosexual marriages were covers for the two sets of gay and lesbian lovers: Evelyn and Celia and Henry and John. Once again, this shows a real closeness and love in this small family. It isn't fair that they couldn't be with the ones that they truly love but the quartet (quintet counting Connor who also loves her "Aunt Celia and Uncle John" as much as her Mom and Dad). are supportive and devoted to one another and their meaning of love, friendship, and family. It is also significant that this is the first time any of the four make any sort of public acknowledgement of their sexuality. After the Stonewall Riots, they donate anonymously to LGBT causes. They are not totally public, but it was a better gesture than anything that they have done for others like them so far.

The open marriage between the two couples is a happy time that unfortunately does not last.

Monique does not do a whole lot until towards the end of the book but it is clear that Evelyn's story has an effect on her. She becomes more assertive in her conversations with her boss and ex-husband. She also ends up confronting a long hidden family secret and learns the exact reason why Evelyn chose her to tell her story. Monique's reaction to this revelation shows that in some ways she was the right person to hear and share Evelyn's story with the world.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is among the best books about Old Hollywood by revealing the real human beings behind the glamorous aloof surface. It is like its protagonist a real star.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Weekly Reader: Everlasting Spring Beyond Olympus Volume 2 Colton and Blue Star by Francis Audrain; Sequel Mostly Better Than The Original Everlasting Spring Book

 Weekly Reader: Everlasting Spring Beyond Olympus Volume 2 Colton and Blue Star by Francis Audrain; Sequel Mostly Better Than The Original Everlasting Spring Book

By Julie Sara Porter

Bookworm Reviews

Spoilers: Francis Audrain's previous volume in The Everlasting Spring Beyond Olympus series, Benjamin and Boudicca was an incredibly uneven work. It recreated the leadership and independence in Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, but it came to a screeching halt when Benjamin, a newly converted Christian found himself in Britain and spent most of his time trying to convert the queen to his religion rather than actually helping her fight the Romans. It was clear that Audrain cared more about pushing an agenda rather than telling an engaging historical fiction or even an accurate one (especially since Christianity didn't enter Britain until centuries after Boudicca's death). I suggested that it might have been better if Benjamin encountered a historical character that actually did convert to Christianity or at least a fictional character.

However, Audrain's second volume, Colton and Blue Star, improves on that. While Christianity is a huge part of this book, it is relegated to the background with characters letting their actions and values represent their religious beliefs rather than constantly talking about them. It also presents a fascinating novel with characters living through times of great change and turmoil and how they survived through times of emigration, violence, harsh conditions, war, and racism. Except for a few respects which I will get to later, it is mostly a better volume than Benjamin and Boudicca by far.

The book begins in 1820-40's with Fiona Daley, an Irishwoman who loves to study the history, literature, and legends of her country, particularly the story of Boudicca (who is implied to be her ancestor, tying the two books together). With Protestants taking land and harassing Catholics, Fiona and her parents decide to emigrate to the United States. On the boat, both of Fiona's parents die and she falls in love with Aaron Patrick Cohan, a sailor. They marry and Fiona gives birth to their son, Colton Patrick Cohan.

Fiona and Aaron are pretty interesting characters who unfortunately don't get as much time as they should. It would have been nice for the book to focus on them a bit more or better yet, Audrain made a second book about Fiona and Aaron and made Colton and Blue Star the third book.

Well Colton is a good character as well and this book deals mostly with his adulthood where he moves to the west, gets involved with the Civil War, and falls in love with Blue Star, a beautiful Native American woman.

Colt goes on his own after he kills a man who raped his mother. As many do, in the mid 1800’s, the young man goes west. From a historical perspective, one of the best moments in the book is when Colton is in St. Louis. He sees several steamers and covered wagons all with the same destination as him. It is awe inspiring and at the same time sad at the thought of a country on the verge of expanding and eventually causing the decline of the environment and the people who lived there first. It is possible to feel both hopeful and in despair about the future that we know is coming. 

There are plenty of moments of historical or religious diatribe where the action stops and someone explains something, usually some form of exposition that slows the plot and even some of the characterization, but thankfully it’s not as present or as distracting as it is in Benjamin and Boudicca. Mostly the exposition serves more of a purpose than to give a sermon to the characters and by extension the Reader. Instead, it is used for educational purposes like when Fiona is teaching Colton about his country’s history and why she and her husband immigrated there or as a backstory like when Colton’s friend, Jim Hunter explains about his travels and why he is going west. The exposition can be a bit tedious but does show that Audrain certainly did his homework in writing his novel and inserting his fictional characters in this historical setting. Perhaps, he loved the research so much that he couldn’t bear to part with it so he inserted it into the dialogue as history lessons.

The plot doesn’t get moving again until Colt goes on the Oregon Trail (1980’s kids will surely recall the many bouts of dysentery and cholera, snake bites, and drowning in rivers along the way). There are some interesting details about the costs of horses and wagons, how doctors treated the patients on the trail, and the appearance of a Pony Express rider. There is also a real sense of place and setting as the wagoners travel from Missouri, to Kansas, to Nebraska, and so on. Plains, plateaus, flora, fauna, and weather are present in many paragraphs. The intent of the setting is to recognize the vastness of the lands that surrounds and overwhelms the characters. 

Thankfully, the book does not vilify Native Americans. In fact, it emphasizes how friendly and peaceable most encounters between Natives and European Americans actually are by showing trading exchanges and Natives guiding the white people along their path. In fact the few “Indian attacks” in the book are shown to be isolated incidents, rivalries between tribes, or specifically in self-defense because the European-Americans attacked first. 

Colt is, like I said, an interesting character. In the beginning he is intelligent through his history lessons but also awestruck on the trail. Everything is a new and exciting experience for him, so he learns by example. He also shows tremendous courage when he goes to help Yomba, a Shoshone chief, save his daughter, Blue Star, who was kidnapped by a rival tribe of Paiutes. 

Though cleverly, we are saved from a typical fight because Colt is taken out easily, is resuscitated by a nun, and learns that Blue Star, who is helping to nurse him, escaped on her own accord. Our hero, folks, rides a horse and gets knocked out! Clearly, there are moments to show that Colt, while eager and brave, is still out of his element and is capable of messing up and making plenty of mistakes. He also has a temporary attraction to the gold other riders have found but thankfully it doesn’t drive him to the extreme avarice and addiction of gold fever that many of the miners in California and Alaska would succumb to. Instead he settles in Virginia City, Nevada and agrees to be the partner and bodyguard to Bill Stewart to help keep the peace in Virginia City (an extremely tall order as there are plenty of violent shootouts, Southern sympathizers taking the Civil War to the west, and con men taking advantage of newcomers). 

Unlike Benjamin and Boudica, Colton and Blue Star don't just talk incessantly about Christianity. Colt acts according to his beliefs. Coming from a family that was treated horribly in their home country, Colt has a natural aversion to slavery so sides with the Union and the belief in making the United States free and equal for everyone. He also has to show a lot of honor and integrity by upholding the law against various people who want to take the Civil War to Virginia City. 

While Colt may not be tempted by gold, he is tempted by other interests, showing that though he bestows Christian behavior he is far from saintly, perfect, or self-righteous. He briefly returns to the east, discovers the fate of his parents, and enlists in the Union Army. After being wounded, he enters into an affair with Virginia, a nurse. Colt’s dalliance with Virginia squeaks by because he is under the impression that Blue Star returned to her tribe and married, but he has very little resistance in engaging in an affair with the other woman. In later chapters, it does not go unnoticed and leads to subsequent results.

While Colt is well written, Blue Star does not fare as well. She is written as beautiful, kind, quick-witted in learning to speak English and effectively communicating with Colt and other white people, strong-willed in escaping from the Paiutes on her own, and loyal to Colton who becomes her lover. However, she is treated more as the object rather than the subject. She does not get a point of view chapter and even disappears from the narrative for a time. Most of her thoughts and actions are interpreted by Colton so she is often deprived of her agency. She shows some spunk in later chapters when Colton is assigned to keep an eye on Confederate sympathizers and saboteurs. She learns information by talking to Confederates and provides it to the Union, but she is still often seen as helpless and needing rescue by Colton. It is a sharp contrast to the woman who escaped from the Paiutes and walked her own way from captivity to freedom. 

It could be since Boudicca was such a strong protagonist in the previous book, that anyone after her would falter. But Fiona is an effective lead in the beginning of this book and even gets the POV in the first two chapters. In Virginia City, there are plenty of well written women that are capable of representing themselves such as Julia Bulette, a Madam who helped build the Virginia City community. Fun Fact: Prostitutes often helped build many of the western towns and communities, using their money to build buildings like stores, schools, and churches. They eventually became influential businesswomen and community leaders in their own right. Their contribution was so important that these prostitutes were part of the reason that Wyoming was the first state to grant women’s suffrage. It’s great that Audrain includes this bit of true history in his writing. 

So Blue Star’s uneven characterization and exclusion in telling her own story is even more evident with better women written about in her own book. Audrain should have developed equal time to his heroine as he did in his hero, alternating their perspectives as he did with Benjamin and Boudicca.

Colton and Blue Star deals with much of the hardship and sacrifice of the time period, of living and surviving in an unknown land and fighting to hold the country together. There are plenty of deaths and great sadness, but there is also a strong sense of community, love, family, and friendship that can be found during those times. 

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Weekly Reader: A White Hot Plan by Mike and Ayan Rubin; Suspenseful Tense Thriller About Hate Groups and Domestic Terrorism

 Weekly Reader: A White Hot Plan by Mike and Ayan Rubin; Suspenseful Tense Thriller About Hate Groups and Domestic Terrorism

By Julie Sara Porter

Bookworm Reviews

Spoilers: Despite what Right Wing Media would like to say, domestic terrorism based on white supremacy is still very much alive and well. The hate crime shooting in Jacksonville, Florida is one such example and is only the most current. In 2022, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,225 hate and anti-government extremist groups, 109 of them are white supremacist, in the United States. The groups and individuals that focus around former President Donald Trump, argue against his indictments, and create conspiracy theories that paint Trump as some sort of innocent victim or a Messiah for their delusional religion have made these hate groups more noticeable and willing to come forward. The presence of social media has also allowed members to come out from behind the fringes, their white robes and hoods, and secret codes and meetings to display their hatred openly. Hate groups never disappeared. They are just now upfront and mainstream.

So yes with that environment, it is easy to see why a psychological thriller like Mike and Ayan Rubin's A White Hot Plan would be so timely.

Starner Gautreaux has just been reassigned from his position as a police officer in New Orleans to become a deputy in tiny Petit Rouge Parish, his old hometown. He expects the job to be mostly writing tickets and pulling over drunk teens. Not like solving murders and stopping gang fights of his past. 

Starner's boredom is about to come to an end when he pulls a dead man away from his exploding tractor-trailer. Another man gets shot in the head at his used vehicle parts store. A school bus driver is poisoned by gas. 

It doesn't take long for Starner to realize that these murders are related. While Starner and his colleagues are working at solving these murders, a White Supremacist group has plans for a future terrorist attack, one that will make the news and that no one will ever forget.

Starner is a good lead for a book such as this. He is very reminiscent of Jarod Huntington, protagonist of Lee Allan Howard’s recent thriller, The Covenant Sacrifice. Both left their rural communities behind for the big city only to return and face the prejudices that they thought were left behind. 

In Jarod’s case, he is a gay man returning to a town whose residents appease a supernatural demon by sacrificing an LGBT person. The sexuality theme is more of a subtext underneath the supernatural front. In the case of A White Hot Plan the prejudice is front and center. Monsters and demons are unnecessary when human villains operate on their own prejudices, biases, and hatreds. 

Starner knows the racism that surrounds him and that investigating these murders will be an uphill battle. He knows that even though Petit Rouge Parish has plenty of residents, both black and white, that many neighbors still hate one another because of their skin color and some are willing to put that hatred to violence even if it is against someone that they have known their whole lives. 

This is the type of thriller where we get the protagonist and antagonist’s perspective so we get inside the mind of the hate group members, in particular its leader who goes by the name of Precept and Kenny, a newcomer who is slowly climbing the ranks. We see their aliases, so no one knows anyone’s real name. We see their secret codes, messages, and signs of recognition so they know who is part of the group and is privy to their plans. 

Thankfully, A White Hot Plan takes the perspective from the antagonists, but they are not portrayed sympathetically. We might understand why they joined such a racist group and how the thought of white supremacy acts like a poison that corrodes the soul and destroys whatever reason that they might have. But they are fanatic, cruel, delusional, and so driven by their hatred that some are willing to die for it and if this plan comes to fruition, they just might. 

This process of capturing the protagonist and antagonists’ points of view puts  the Reader ahead of the law enforcement but only up to a point. We know who they are. We know who they killed. We know why they are doing it. What we don’t know until the very end is what is their final objective and how they are planning on achieving it. When their final plan is set, it is every bit as chilling and gripping as the build up predicted. It is definitely a tense several chapters long event that propels the narrative into a tense chase between Starner and the white supremacists. 

A White Hot Plan is definitely suspenseful and thrilling. The most frightening part is in a highly toxic divisive world where the very definition of racism is challenged and many won’t even permit it to be talked about, this fictional scenario could very easily become fact.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Weekly Reader: Offset Children of the Gulf Written by Delvin Howell Illustrated by Hans Steinbach; Despite Some Flaws, An Excellent Continuation to Bimshire's Legendary Heroes and Villains

 Weekly Reader: Offset Children of the Gulf Written by Delvin Howell Illustrated by Hans Steinbach; Despite Some Flaws, An Excellent Continuation to Bimshire's Legendary Heroes and Villains

By Julie Sara Porter

Bookworm Reviews

Spoilers: When last we left the island of Barbados AKA Bimshire in Delvin Howell and Hans Steinbach's Offset: Mask of the Bimshire, Kyle Harding studied a form of martial arts that uses a sugar cane as a weapon.

With his new friend, Damien Collins and a group of friends and family members including his kid brother, Damien, Kyle had to face human gangs and various monsters from Bajan myths. Most frightening of this rogue's gallery is the Heart Man, a man transformed into a creature who removes hearts from his victims and Mrs. Pringle, a witch who transformed and controlled the Heart Man.

In the second volume, Children of the Gulf one year has gone by. Kyle and the others are trying to adjust to a normal life. But now some potentially supernatural events such as someone disappearing into thin air and Kyle being attacked by invisible enemies suggest that Bimshire's legendary monsters have returned to fight Kyle, "The Inheritor." Kyle has to fight both human and supernatural enemies while Collins and young Damien have their own encounters that set their own fates and destinies. Kyle also receives some unlikely help from Sniper, a former enemy to face the latest group of villains.

The Mask of Bimshire is a great volume. Children of the Gulf however is good but not great. It has some great terrifying moments and many of the characters, particularly the supporting ones, receive more depth and twists in their individual paths. However, it stumbles particularly with antagonists who are not as interesting or as memorable as those in the previous volume. Perhaps The Mask of Bimshire's excellence is a detriment to Children of the Gulf. The first volume left such a memorable impression that its successor either had to match it or falter. Unfortunately, in this case it pales in comparison.

In this volume, the supporting characters really shine through when their own paths are revealed. Collins discovers that his chance meeting and friendship with Kyle might not be coincidental after all when he is recruited by a secret organization known as the canecutters and is taught abilities that could help Kyle or cause him even more trouble. Their divergent paths may pit Kyle and Collins against each other.

Sniper, an antagonist from the first volume, shows some depth and vulnerability in this volume, saving Kyle a couple of times and questioning his life as a pelt-ing (a gang member that throws bottles at victims). He seems to emerge as an anti-hero and potential frienemy of Kyle's. Sniper could end up becoming a potential future sidekick if Kyle and Collins end up at odds. Sniper's trajectory is good, but Collins is a great character and his and Kyle's friendship is one of the highlights of the series. It's just a possibility hanging in the air.

Damien Harding however has a more potentially disturbing development. He is also being noticed by the dark spirits and they see potential in him. Damien is also going through a rebellious questioning phase against Damien and their guardian, Mr. Beckles. Damien begins meeting the spirits in secret and appears to be starting a darker nature. We could see the young boy develop as a potential villain selling his soul to the darkness around him. There is a potentially terrifying future for this young man.

Unfortunately, because the supporting characters are built up more in this volume, it emphasizes more how bland a lead Kyle is. There is one great moment when he reunites with a relative and instead of greeting them with a warm hug, he lets them have it for this destiny that Kyle ended up inheriting that he didn't ask for, wasn't consulted on until he was left alone to deal with it, and puts him and his friends in constant trouble.

However, except for this moment, Kyle does very little except fight villains. It was like once his hero story was revealed, there was little left for him to do, so instead the other characters got built up.

Kyle isn't the only character who is a distinct letdown. The villains are nowhere near as developed as The Heart Man and Mrs. Pringle in The Mask of Bimshire. For the most part these villains are practically interchangeable and their backstory isn't as compelling as The Heart Man's bargain with Mrs. Pringle in the previous volume. There are some pretty creepy moments when some sinister little spirits called the baku demand payment. But they aren't as memorable as the Heart Man's terrifying transformation from regular guy to heart stealing monster.

Also, this volume does a major misstep in failing to recognize a regular primary antagonist in Mrs. Pringle. She was a sinister delight pulling the strings behind the Heart Man's actions and viewed Kyle as an "Inheritor" and worthy opponent. Unfortunately, she is removed anticlimactically and her full potential is never realized. 

While there is some supernatural presence throughout this volume, it mostly remains in the shadows and isn't fully involved in the characters which means the dark and light magic in the previous book gives way to more physical action fights which are nowhere near as compelling or entertaining as they were before. That could be the point as the real villains may be saved for next time. But these antagonists are pretty lackluster.

Sometimes the second volume in a book series has greater characterization by developing the characters' journeys and widening the ensemble. Sometimes it has a weaker plot because it contains repetitive fights and little resolution to be saved for the next volume. In Children of the Gulf's case it has both: better development but a weaker plot and antagonists. That averages out to okay but could be much better. At the least the flaws aren't large enough to get in the way of good expectations for volume three.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

New Book Alert: Dark Beauty by Blake Rudman; Twisted Tale of Twins Tarnished Beauty, Ambition, and Sudden Fame

 New Book Alert: Dark Beauty by Blake Rudman; Twisted Tale of Twins Tarnished Beauty, Ambition, and Sudden Fame

By Julie Sara Porter

Bookworm Reviews

Spoilers: Blake Rudman's Psychological Thriller, Dark Beauty, is a twisted tale of a pair of twins who are tarnished by ambitions for beauty, fame, wealth, and revenge.

Identical twins, Tessa and Kristin Morgan are on the eve of superstardom. The former models turned actresses are coming off the premiere of Dark Beauty, a critically acclaimed box office hit film that is already receiving Oscar buzz. Well most of the acclaim is directed towards Tessa who is being hailed as the latest discovery since Jennifer Lawrence. As for Kristin, well "wooden" and "erratic" are some of the kindest comments. The twins' argument is interrupted by a stalker who sprays acid on both twin's faces leaving them with physical and eventually mental and emotional scars. Most of the book takes us to the twins' lives before the accident and sudden fame and their lives afterwards.

Dark Beauty does the usual theme of the good twin vs. bad twin, but thankfully subverts expectations by giving Tessa and Kristin subtleties and facets that break stereotypes to be interesting individuals who are caught up in a continuous rivalry and duality that probably has been going on since the two shared a womb.

Chronologically, Tessa and Kristin first appear during their senior year in high school when both are seen as pretty, popular, and smart but Tessa is favored by their parents and peers while Kristin retreats into sullen rebellion. It gives the impression that Kristin at one time tried to be as nice and scholarly a girl as Kristin, but the comparisons wore on her so she gave up and stood away from her sister in a self imposed isolation. 

Ironically, after graduation Kristin wants Tessa to join her in a modeling career instead of going to UCLA and medical school to become a doctor. She says that it's because twins are a rare angle for agencies, photographers, and advertisers to explore, but it could just as easily be that she believes that Tessa has the same ambitions and desires that she does and wants to share the glamorous life with her. 

Tessa however has her own goals and identity to discover. She has wanted to be a doctor since she was five and loves her sweet boyfriend, Daniel so she is ready to start her own life. But Kristin is a narcissist, along with displaying symptoms from some other mental disorders suggesting that she is a very troubled woman. Kristin only considers what she wants so she spikes Tess's bottled water with LSD so she'll bomb her final exam. So her only option is to leave UCLA and join her sister into the modeling field.

Of course, Tess gets the laugh when their careers change from modeling to acting. Tess works hard to study her role of the bad sinister twin in the movie (no doubt by a slight case of Method acting by taking on her sister's attributes to play the role). Kristin however falls into addiction and partying with an endless stream of men which affects her performance. Tess who never wanted to be an actress or model gets praised while just like when they were kids, Kristin is ignored.

While Tess is mostly hard working, kind, and intelligent while Kristin is scheming, self-centered, and aggressive there are times when their personalities don't shift so much as their good/bad twin dichotomy becomes fuzzy. Tess at times behaves very cold and self righteous especially regarding Kristin's behavior. Kristin displays a self-sufficiency and a sharp mind that allows her to survive despite adversity.

Perhaps this is why Tess is able to play the part of the bad twin in the movie so well. She isn't playing her polar opposite based on her sister. She is playing her own subterranean thoughts, things that she always wanted to do but hid behind a good girl veneer. After the scarring, she retreats into her self-pity and depression. It is only when she discovers what Kristin has been doing that she takes control of her own life. To do that, she has to be as angry, controlling, manipulative, and scheming as her sister. She has to out-Kristin Kristin in reality not in cinema.

Kristin herself shows much of her strength and self-sufficiency in her post-scarring. Ironically, without Tess around she shows a great deal of intelligence and control of her life instead of being thought of as always second to Tess. Her career after the scarring is too juicy to get into but it displays not only her dark nature but her ability to put herself forward, away from her sister. 

The twins' confrontations are as tense and suspenseful as accusations are made and secrets are revealed. Together they reveal the beauty and the ugliness inside the darkness.