True Love and Secrets

firestarsOf Fire and Stars

By Audrey Coulthurst

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

 Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

 When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

 But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

Via Goodreads

 

So the description above is a good summation of the plot. What I enjoyed about the book was the natural way the relationship between Mare and Denna developed. First they were forced together with Mare giving Denna horse-riding lessons. Then they become friends as they search for the assassin. And finally they fall in love.

The chapters switch between Denna and Mare, each in first person, which could have been tricky. While the voices and styles weren’t completely different between the two of them, I was able to remember who was speaking at all times. Certainly the chapter labels helped but even putting down the book halfway through a chapter and picking it back, I could tell who was speaking.

They need to find out how far they are willing to go to stay in each other’s lives. Denna has been raised to do the right thing, put duty first, so making a choice from love is a scary thought. Mare has always been an outsider in her royal family and as much as she does her own thing, she doesn’t want to force anyone to go along with her.

Add to the romantic tension Mare’s family who abhors magic and Denna’s secret powers. The magic becomes a catalyst for their relationship so it’s more than a fun, flashy element to the story. Mare’s kingdom hates and fears magic, and prepares to go to war with a neighboring kingdom known to support those with magical abilities. Denna must decide if she can trust Mare with her secret; otherwise she will be punished like the others.

Of Fire and Stars is a love story encased in larger tale of kingdoms and war and machinations. It is a story of two young women discovering who they are and what they are willing to stand up for.

Cozy Hats in London

hatAt the Drop of a Hat

Hat Shop Mystery #3

By Jenn McKinlay

Cousins Scarlett Parker and Vivian Tremont’s fashionable London hat shop, Mim’s Whims, is visited by a new customer bearing an old hat box. Ariana Jackson is getting married and wants to restore her mother’s bridal hat and veil for the occasion. The elegant item was made by Scarlett and Vivian’s grandmother over thirty years ago, so Viv is delighted to take the job.

When Scarlett goes to Ariana’s office to consult about the restoration cost, she finds her outside, standing over her boss’s dead body. Though Ariana claims to know nothing about his demise, the investigation unveils a motive for murder. Now, with the bride-to-be in custody and the wedding on hold, Scarlett and Viv must find the real killer before Ariana’s future is boxed up for good.

Via Goodreads

 

I’m very picky about cozy mysteries. I’ll read at least one in any series but I won’t commit to the series unless I like the protagonist. Sometimes the amateur sleuths are a little too nosy for my liking or have too many quirks or problems that make relationships difficult for them. I’m all for complex female characters but the very nature of a cozy, as well as its structure, don’t allow for too much complexity. I enjoy watching characters develop over many books in a cozy series. There simply isn’t enough room in a cozy for a mystery and a deep dive into someone’s mind.

And I read them to escape into a charming world with lovely people I’d like to know so nothing too heavy, please.

Jenn McKinlay succeeds for me on all points. Scarlett has a primary personal problem – a previous relationship that ended spectacularly and in a public/social media way that leads to a vow to not date men for at least a year. Of course the foil is a childhood friend who is clearly interested in her and is quite attractive to Scarlett. This primary problem continues throughout the books, an undercurrent to each mystery.

This installment was nice because as Scarlett starts to resolve her primary problem a new one arises – the question of Vivian’s love life. Her cousin never dates, seems to avoid men who are interested in her and won’t say why. Scarlett is just nosy enough to want to know what is going on with Vivian since she wants her cousin to be happy.

The book ended on an excellent note – as the new problem is explained it impacts the primary problem for Scarlett. This is a great way to keep the tension within the romantic relationship. ‘Will they, won’t they’ can only go on for so long. Introducing a new element is key and well done.

I enjoy visiting Mim’s hat shop in London. Having visited London once, I have enough of a vision in my head to overlay on McKinlay’s story. Tea is constantly prepared, rain always falls and murders must be solved.

A Timeless Feel to a Kidnapping

coatThe Girl in the Red Coat

by Kate Hamer

Newly single mom Beth has one constant, gnawing worry: that her dreamy eight-year-old daughter, Carmel, who has a tendency to wander off, will one day go missing.

And then one day, it happens: On a Saturday morning thick with fog, Beth takes Carmel to a local outdoor festival, they get separated in the crowd, and Carmel is gone.

Shattered, Beth sets herself on the grim and lonely mission to find her daughter, keeping on relentlessly even as the authorities tell her that Carmel may be gone for good.

Carmel, meanwhile, is on a strange and harrowing journey of her own—to a totally unexpected place that requires her to live by her wits, while trying desperately to keep in her head, at all times, a vision of her mother …

Via Goodreads

When I started this book I wondered if it would feel different from other books I’ve read about missing children. I hung in longer than I usually do to see if something would develop and it did – Carmel’s experience while kidnapped.

Carmel is a precocious child and, while at a book fair with her mother, openly talks about how she doesn’t know her grandparents. The man who takes her overhears and uses this information for his cover story. He is her grandfather and will take care of her since her mother was hit by a car.

None of this is what made me keep reading. It was after Carmel wakes up in America with her ‘grandfather’, his girlfriend and her two daughters. He is a traveling preacher and they live out of a shoddy caravan with little money. This felt like something out of time, especially once he has her use her healing hands at a church. I kept imagining an American West from over a hundred years ago, not modern day America with cars and cell phones.

It didn’t feel impossible that a preacher selected a girl who looked like a girl he used to use in services who has since mysteriously gone away. It didn’t feel impossible that she believed his statements about being her grandfather, her mother’s accident and death, her father wanting her to stay with her grandfather since he’s gotten remarried. These are all reasonable explanations, particularly to a child with little agency.

There was a supernatural element (or spiritual, depending on your point of view) in the book that wasn’t fully explored. Carmel sees and feels things when she heals people, sometimes. There may be a case that’s real. Beth learns that her own grandmother was into spiritualism and healing and other flighty things. I think I was invested in finding out if the healing is true because we’re following Carmel through this ordeal. It’s not like the narrator is a distant third person or it’s the grandfather’s story and he believes.

I appreciated the time jumps in Beth’s sections, labeled with the amount of time since Carmel went missing. This literary device helped ground Carmel’s sections that had no labels so we can follow her aging through her mother’s journey. It was a solid choice for the structure of the book.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is Worth the Hype

railroadThe Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

 In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

 As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

Via Goodreads

 

I really want to talk about Colson Whitehead’s ingenuity in The Underground Railroad. The conceit is simple and explosive – the Underground Railroad is a real railroad built in underground tunnels. This could be its own novel: the creation, the stationmasters, the variety of trains used. When Cora and Caesar decide to run, they take a train without knowing where it will go.

Cora travels the rails several times and her first stop in South Carolina brings a story rooted in history, then quickly subverted into an alternate history with the real trains, into modern times. She is in a city that has twelve-story buildings with elevators. There are modern-seeming hospitals. With just enough information to set the scene, Whitehead makes the city seem like today, despite the hidden atrocities. Unfortunately, those don’t affect the reality of how things are today even as metaphors.

Cora is given a fake name in South Carolina and I want to praise Whitehead’s skill with the names. The section opens with a woman named Bessie leaving her job as a nanny to walk to the dormitory where she lives and deciding what to do with her free weekend, which will most definitely include some classes. As the previous section introduced the slave catcher pursuing Cora and Caesar, I assumed Bessie was a new woman we were meant to learn about. Actually, she’s Cora. And that’s the skillful part. We learn about Bessie and her name is the one used. Then we learn Bessie is Cora and Whitehead seamlessly slips back to calling her Cora even in a city where she’s known as Bessie. It’s so well done. It reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s lack of using the protagonist’s name for a significant portion of the beginning of Wolf Hall. Deceptively simple.

As Cora travels from one landing spot to the next, she finds good fortune and bad. She remembers those who helped her, those who hurt her and those she hurt. She learns how difficult it will be to stay free on her terms. Her internal struggle with fighting to never go back is visceral and complicated. Not that she wants to be a slave again but the cost of freedom is unfortunately so high.

The last sections of the book broke my heart several times. Whitehead periodically includes a section about a character other than Cora. One was about Caesar and when he first saw her on the plantation. Another is about Mabel, Cora’s mother who ran away. We learn the truth about that night although Cora never will. She will always carry the pain of being left behind.

This novel is difficult to read at times but so worth it. If you’re someone who strays away from books that receive a lot of hype, don’t. Believe the hype. It will be worth it.

The Personal Impact of “Rapt” by Winifred Gallagher

raptRapt: Attention and the Focused Life

By Winifred Gallagher

In Rapt, acclaimed behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher makes the radical argument that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it. Gallagher grapples with provocative questions—Can we train our focus? What’s different about the way creative people pay attention? Why do we often zero in on the wrong factors when making big decisions, like where to move?—driving us to reconsider what we think we know about attention.

Gallagher looks beyond sound bites on our proliferating BlackBerries and the increased incidence of ADD in children to the discoveries of neuroscience and psychology and the wisdom of home truths, profoundly altering and expanding the contemporary conversation on attention and its power. Science’s major contribution to the study of attention has been the discovery that its basic mechanism is an either/or process of selection. That we focus may be a biological necessity— research now proves we can process only a little information at a time, or about 173 billion bits over an average life—but the good news is that we have much more control over our focus than we think, which gives us a remarkable yet underappreciated capacity to influence our experience. As suggested by the expression “pay attention,” this cognitive currency is a finite resource that we must learn to spend wisely. In Rapt, Gallagher introduces us to a diverse cast of characters—artists and ranchers, birders and scientists—who have learned to do just that and whose stories are profound lessons in the art of living the interested life. No matter what your quotient of wealth, looks, brains, or fame, increasing your satisfaction means focusing more on what really interests you and less on what doesn’t. In asserting its groundbreaking thesis—the wise investment of your attention is the single most important thing you can do to improve your well-being—Rapt yields fresh insights into the nature of reality and what it means to be fully alive.

Via Goodreads

 

I stumbled across a reference to Rapt in a book I read last year and I was intrigued by this quote:

“In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

This resonated with me personally because I have been dealing with panic attacks for five years. I am in a significantly better place than where I started but I found that anxiety and panic attacks colored my perspective on life. Ask me how I’m doing and I’ll probably give a response relative to a panic attack. “Rough weekend, lots of panic attacks” or “Doing okay. I haven’t had a panic attack in a month.” I counted days and weeks between panic attacks, even as they happened less and less, trying to find a pattern of cause and effect.

This book arrived just as I was starting to contemplate that there may be no pattern and no discernable cause and effect for my panic attacks anymore. (There used to be a clear delineation as to why they happened.) Considering a lack of a pattern is terrifying for me because, one, I pride myself on my logical mind and ability to find patterns to problem-solve and, two, because no patterns means there’s no reason and that’s just chaos.

With my therapist I found a way to approach this terrifying conceit – that which I give my attention to becomes the focus of my life. Not that I believe thinking about a panic attack results in a panic attack but that seeing my life through a lens of anxiety colors everything in a stressful hue. Maybe focusing my attention toward something else would change my relationship with my anxiety. I have come to accept I will have it and panic attacks will occur from time to time despite my best efforts. So why keep dwelling on it?

When asked what I value, I told my therapist reading and writing. I will choose those activities over others. I plan my day around writing in the morning, reading on my lunch breaks and doing one or the other most nights. Left to my own devices, I will read a book on a Friday night instead of watching a movie or going out. It felt strange to say I ‘value’ reading and writing, as opposed to saying they are hobbies or interests, but it’s true. I want my life to be filled with reading and writing so I must value them.

We can up with a homework assignment (because I do love homework and I say that without any sarcasm) to focus on what I value even more than I already do. It’s why I started this blog back up, so I have a place to list the books I’m reading and any thoughts I have about them. As I read Rapt during this time, I took notes because there were so many interesting things to consider. I love taking notes. I spent my time with words in a thoughtful, purposeful way and it’s felt good.

Rapt presents a full picture of attention and focus, including work environments and the concept of multi-tasking, but I was drawn to the sections more philosophical or psychological. Gallagher’s main conceit (the aforementioned quote) carries throughout the book. That which you give attention to becomes your life. Maybe you love TV so watching shows after work is a focused event for you. Maybe you’re more like me and it can be about killing time and an idle mind is no good for me. Better to find things that capture my attention and do those. For me that is reading and writing, conversations face-to-face, and selected movies and shows that engage and excite me.rapt

I’m glad I took notes as I read this book because I know I will want to go back and remember ideas and quotes. Refreshing my memory of the book will help me stay on point with directing my attention toward what I value and enjoy.