If You’re From a Small Town, You Have to Read THE OPERATOR

The Operator by Gretchen Berg takes place in Wooster, Ohio in the early 1950s. It follows the story of Vivian Dalton, an operator who has a tendency to listen in on conversations as she connects them. When she overhears something that will change her world, there’s no turning back. 

The town I call home wouldn’t be the town it is today if it weren’t for a telecommunications company that was founded here. A lot of the history I know about the town I learned from someone who used to work as the operator at the company. (Full disclosure: she swore she never listened in on conversations.) The photo featured on this post is taken at my local museum where the original switchboards are on display. 

The dynamic of the Ohio town was so relatable and that made this book very enjoyable. I read it aloud with my partner and soon we found ourselves making references to the book, like when Ben emphasized that he “knew people.” 

The characters in this book were so real to me and I typically always had someone I had in mind who reminded me of someone from my rural Arkansas town. This is definitely a book where you grab a cup of coffee and get cozy for a wholesome read. This is a story about a small-town family, the secrets they can harbor, the depths some people go to find out the truth, and the wide-spreading gossip of a small town.

A huge thank you to William Morrow for sending me a copy of this book. I would recommend this book if you enjoyed The Help or authors like Elizabeth Strout or Anne Tyler. 

American Dirt is the Wake Up Call We Need

5 stars that sparks a much needed conversation!

“On this side too, there are dreams.” This powerful sentiment really illustrated what American Dirt  by Jeanine Cummins is about. This is one of the most powerful stories I’ve read in a while. It’s about something that a lot of us as Americans really can’t relate to, yet some of us harbor some really strong assumptions about. 

Immigration and wall-building has been a hot topic for a while now. But when it comes down to it, we have no clue what some people suffer, what they have to endure and overcome to get here. 

American Dirt tells the story of Lydia and her son Luca. Their entire family has gathered to celebrate a quinceañera with laughter and good food. The story opens with this celebration turning to tragedy when the cartel arrives and murders the entire family, except for Lydia and Luca who managed to remain undetected in the bathroom. 

The level of loss and grief is hard to imagine. Being able to function and realize the grave sense of danger Lydia and her son are in is unfathomable, but Lydia jumps into action. She gathers up all she can and heads off, desperately clawing her way to the only hope of safety, el Norte

This book is a wake up call, it’s a call to action that can’t be ignored. This book follows the daunting and miraculous journey to America. It’s not without great risk and overcoming the greatest obstacles and sacrifices they have ever imagined. 

I am so glad that this book was chosen as Oprah’s Book Club selection. Oprah has a track record of selecting books that demand our attention and she’s couldn’t have selected a better book for right now. Please, go to your local bookstore, go to LibroFM and get the audiobook, anything you have to do to get your hands on this book. Stephen King “[defied] anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it.” If Oprah’s endorsement wasn’t enough, surely Stephen King’s can get your attention. 

I want to thank Flatiron Books and LibroFM for providing me an advanced copy of American Dirt. I’ve been looking forward to it’s publication day so I can sing its praises to everyone!

Blog Tour: How Quickly She Disappears by Raymond Fleischmann

Imagine growing up with a twin sister who you idolized and one day, at 11 years old, she’s no longer there. Simply vanished, run away and never returned. There’s no death, in which to seek closure. The thought of her being out there somewhere is ever present as you are forced to continue you life. For Elisabeth Pfauts, living in Tanacross, Alaska in 1941 this is reality. She sees the invisible presence of her sister in her daughter, Margaret. Having an unbreakable and incredibly strong bond with her sister, she’s never given up hope. 

When Alfred, a German pilot, lands unexpectantly in Tanacross, he quickly befriends Elizabeth, who feels a moral obligation to extend hospitality to this gentleman, welcoming him into her family’s home. Something about this guy seems a bit off, but she dismisses it as the general uneasiness of having a stranger in her home while her husband is away for work. Alfred soon commits an inexplicable act of violence, followed by a starling revelation: he knows what happened to Elisabeth’s sister, but will only reveal the truth if she fulfills three requests. 

Immediately filled with doubt, but the glimmer of hope of at last knowing what happened to her sister she’s feels a strong urge to play along. After all, Alfred has just validated her feelings of her sister really is still out there. How far is she willing to go to find out what happened? Is it worth potentially ripping apart her family? How can she trust the stranger who’s already committed a most handouts act?

How Quickly She Disappears has been compared to Silence of the Lambs. The comparison is very fair. However, personally, my only qualm with this novel is it seemed to be a bit too derivative of it. I don’t want that to take away from this being a great novel in its own right, but I would have appreciate a greater variation from Hannibal Lectar. 

Beginning with the unsettling arrival of the pilot and ending with his and Elisabeth’s final confrontation in the woods, the evolution of their creepy cat-and-mouse game will captivate through the last page.

Giveaway

I’m honored to be featured on a blog tour of this amazing novel on its publication day! To help celebrate this book I’ve partnered with its publisher , Berkley, to host a giveaway of How Quickly She Disappears. This giveaway is running on my Instagram from Jan 14 – Jan 21. Be sure to enter and good luck!


A Conversation with Raymond Fleischmann

(From the publisher)

What are the main themes of the novel?

I’ve always been attracted to characters who do bad things for good reasons – or at least, what they think are good reasons. I like writing about characters who are at once intelligent but reckless, thoughtful but neurotic, will-intentioned but misguided. Theme comes from character, and from the writer’s own subconscious, and although it’s always difficult to generalize what a story is “about,” I’d say that this novel explores themes of isolation, loneliness, displacement, paranoia, obsession, and grief. 

The first scene you wrote was one of a man lashed to a meat cache in Alaska. How did that image come to you? How did the story unfold from there?

With any story I’m writing, whether it’s a short story or a novel, I tend to imagine scenes for days or even weeks before I put a single word on the page. And that was how this novel began: I thought about it nonstop for days, but I didn’t write at all. I thought about its characters and their various motivations, which in turn made me think about potential scenes. And I knew that this scene in the meat cache would be the climax of the novel’s first section. It just had so much natural tension and intrigue to it, and even the setting itself felt evocative and interesting: the smell of the cured meat, the light slipping between the slats of the cache, this wide-eyed dangerous man restrained to a chair. The scene felt so clear to me that the rest of the first section fell into place quite easily around it. From the first draft of the novel to the final draft, the first section of the book is the most unchanged, and I think it’s due in large part to the groundwork laid intuit scene in the cache. 

What do you want readers to take away from the novel?

I hope that my work strikes a chord with people in the same way that the novels of Flynn Berry and Ottessa Moshfegh have struck a chord with me: I hope that readers find my book to be exciting, interesting, and compulsively readable, while also finding it to be a thoughtful meditation on family, loneliness, grief, and obsession. I hope that my novel is fluid and entertaining, certainly, but as much as that I hope that readers find it to be emotionally rewarding and introspective. 

Interview Discussing Nothing More Dangerous with Allen Eskens

Allen Eskens has proven himself to be one of my favorite authors. You probably know him from The Life We Bury. His latest novel is a stand-alone novel about Boady Sanden, a fifteen-year-old boy who finds himself in the crossfires of CORPS (Crusaders Of Racial Purity and Strength), a white supremacy group and his black neighbors who have moved to Jessup, Missouti to straighten up the local factory after an embezzlement scandal. 

This story isn’t just another story about racial injustice, it’s much more than that. It’s about friendship, small town dynamics, and integrity. Boady sits in his Catholic school cafeteria and overhears a group of older boys plot to spill chocolate pudding on the only black girl in the school. In a spur of the moment decision, he sticks his foot out and trips one of the boys as he’s walking over to the girl. This sets off a series of events that will forever change Boady’s life. 

Lida Poe has gone missing. Being a small town in Missouri during the 1970s, a black woman going missing doesn’t exactly make the front page of the newspaper. Jessup is a town where the local factory employs about half of the townspeople. When Charles Elgin, a black man with his wife, Jenna, and son, Thomas, is sent down from corporate to investigate suspected embezzlement, Jessup isn’t the most inviting of places. 

Though a bit unexpected, a friendship between Boady and Thomas soon flourishes, but they find themselves the target of CORPS. How far are they willing to go to find out more about Lida Poe? When staring in the face of hate how will they react?

If you enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger, or Where the Crawdads Sing, this is a must read. 


Interview with Allen Eskens

I loved this book, I reserve my five-star reviews for truly spectacular books. I was honored by being able to ask Allen Eskens a few questions about Nothing More Dangerous. I hope you enjoy and rush out to buy a copy of this book. 

At the beginning of the novel, you state that this book was twenty years in the making. What made it challenging for you to write?

In 1992, when I started writing Nothing More Dangerous, I wasn’t a writer. I had never taken a creative writing class and I didn’t know what I was doing. It started as a short story that I wrote just for my own enjoyment. I liked Boady and wanted to turn that short story into something more, so I started studying the craft of writing. I studied and wrote for twenty years, and although I had a completed manuscript, I knew that it wasn’t ready. I put it aside, wrote and published five other novels and over the course of that time, I grew as a writer. I returned to Nothing More Dangerous two years ago and wrote it from scratch and am very happy with how it turned out.

The first encounter Boady and Thomas have of each other is them literally colliding next to the pond that Boady goes to spend his time. Personally, I feel this has a bit of foreshadowing of their friendship. Was this intentional and what significance does their meeting have?

I wish I could say that the circumstance of Boady’s and Thomas’s first meeting held a foreshadow, but in truth, I wanted Boady to have to work to earn Thomas’s friendship, so I made their first meeting fraught with problems, all caused (intentionally or unintentionally) by Boady. 

One of the things I love about your writing is the characters are so dimensional and you really feel connected with them. I read this book aloud with my partner. My favorite character was Hoke and his was Jenna. How do you create your characters? In this book are they inspired by anyone you know?

The first thing I did when I returned to Nothing More Dangerous (after writing my other 5 novels) was to outline the story from beginning to end without looking at the previous manuscript. I knew the story but I wanted to write it from scratch to avoid the mistakes I had made in the previous draft. The first thing I did in my outline was to list every character and write what motivated them in the story. I gave every character a backstory. If I know who they are, deep down, I can write them with depth. All of the characters are drawn from my imagination, but they are real in my head (and in my outline) before I sit down to write.

This question is a bit cliché, but I have to ask it. Nothing More Dangerous is a great title for this book. Can you tell us a little about why that title spoke to you and how it represents the story?

There is nothing more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I draw my titles from the themes of my stories. In the novel, Hoke is telling Boady about the nature of prejudice and racism, and he recites a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that “there is nothing in all the world more dangerous than sincere ignorance.” That is a perfect encapsulation of Boady’s starting point in the novel.

The story takes place in the small Ozark town of Jessup, Missouri. Which, while it is a small town, it’s really quite diverse. The story is centered around race, but really is much more than that. What challenges did you have keeping this balance of diversity and have the story not just be another story about racial injustice?

I think the key was to keep the focus of the story on the characters and the human dynamics. I wanted to show that racial animosity is often a rationalization for something else that is going on. For example, if you look closely, you will see that much of the racially charged violence about the shift in power for this small community and not so much about skin color.

Read Ruth Ware’s ‘The Turn of the Key’ with the Doors Locked

Ruth Ware is one of those authors that I’ve heard so many great things about, but hadn’t actually read until The Turn of the Key. I have been missing out! 

This is pretty rare for me, but I read this book in a day. The writing style was amazing, similar to Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. The narrative is Rowan Caine writing from incarceration for a crime she didn’t commit, pleading a lawyer to disregard what he’s heard from the press and take her case. She tells her entire story from seeing an ad for a live-in nanny position to explaining the unraveling events that led to her incarceration. 

The moment she steps into the home is like stepping into a future. The home is a smart home with everything from the constant video surveillance, lights, curtains, even the shower all controlled electronically. This home isn’t new though, it has quite a history itself. 

Sandra, the mother of the three children informs Rowan that she and her husband are leaving the next day for a very important conference. There’s no time to bond with the kids and everything she needs to know is in a binder written in great detail. But this doesn’t tell Rowan everything. 

In her room the first night, she covers the surveillance camera and notices a locked door. After she finally figures out how to control the curtains and light, she goes to sleep without thinking much of it. Until she’s woken up by creaking above her, like someone is pacing upstairs. But there is no upstairs, only the door that is locked inside her bedroom. 

This book never wanes and has a constant level of foreboding. And believe me when I tell you, you’re not going to see the end coming. I’ll definitely be reading her other novels very soon. Oh, and one more thing- read this book with the door locked!

The Art of Remembering Unfolds a Beautiful Story

5 Stars!

It’s always intrigued me what attaches itself to memory. How a smell can take you back to a time long before, in technicolor detail. For professional ballerina, Ailsa MacIntyre, the ivory keys of a grand piano coming from the apartment downstairs while she’s recuperating from a tragic accident ignites a memory of who she used to be.

In Alison Ragsdale’s The Art of Remembering, she introduces us to Ailsa. Ailsa had it all. Life was going blissfully with a loving husband, Evan, and career as a principal dancer until she was devastated by a tragedy of a diagnosis. When she emerges from a life-saving surgery her memory isn’t what it was before.

When the sound of the grand piano reignites her passion, the broken pieces of her life reassemble and what she sees isn’t the picturesque vision of life she knew before. Evan seems to be more focused on her career than being the nurturing husband he should be. Ailsa must navigate the conflicting visions of her past, and potential future as they collide.

This was my first Alison Ragsdale novel I’ve read. Her storytelling is vivid and her character development is phenomenal. This story was one that really stays with you. I highly recommend this book!

I want to express a grateful thank you to Kate Rock Book Tours for allowing me the great pleasure of participating and to Alison Ragsdale for writing such a wonderful novel.

Please visit my Facebook/Instagram for a chance to win a digital copy of The Art of Remembering.

The East End Is a Must Read Debut

4 Stars to Jason Allen’s Debut, The East End

Curiosity and mischief can sometimes get the better of us. This is something Corey Halpern, a permanent resident of the Hamptons ,learns as he develops as pastime for breaking into rich people’s homes. The Sheffield’s home is one of the homes that is very familiar to him, his mother has worked for the family for many years. Corey harbors some resentment for this family for how the Sheffield’s reacted to his mother dropping an expensive vase. 

With careful and meticulous planning, Corey orchestrates his break in. But this planning soon crumbles beneath his feet and what happens next is a fast-paced plot of death, forbidden acts and consequences. Jason Allen’s debut shows that he is a masterful storyteller with lyrical prose and a plot development that makes you think. 

Thank you Park Row for allowing me to participate in the blog tour.

Q&A With Jason Allen

Q: What inspired you to write THE EAST END?

A: Initially, I mainly wanted to illuminate the inner lives of the working class people of the Hamptons. I grew up there, and as a working class person in a seasonal resort area that attracts the wealthiest of the wealthy, as the Hamptons does, it’s impossible not to compare what “they” have versus what “we” have. I’d always been fascinated by just how extreme the disparity was between the multi-millionaire visitors and those of us who scraped by year after year, and that tension played out in so many ways each summer season. So I wanted to explore class, but also addiction, secrecy, obsession, and to do my best to write a complex story that highlights that tension among the disparate classes of people in the Hamptons. What I found over time, after delving into the depths of each character’s psyche, is that I truly believe that we are all more than the assumptions others might impose upon us.

Q: What are some of the main themes in the book or some of the key takeaways?

A: The main themes are class (specifically class-divide), alcoholism and addiction, secrecy, obsession, loneliness and longing, and identity (including sexual orientation/ identification). The key takeaway, I hope, is that we should try our best not to judge any book by its cover. I had an easy time empathizing with the teenaged character, Corey, even as he starts breaking into houses, and also for his mother, Gina, even as she’s hitting bottom with alcohol and pills and is relatively absent from her two sons’ daily lives. I was surprised to find how much I cared about the billionaire character, Leo Sheffield, when in the past I could have easily written him off as just another greed-driven destroyer of the world, someone who deserves no empathy—but it was gratifying to care about them all, despite their flaws and bad decisions.

Q: What are the commonalities you discovered between the elite and the middle-class characters?

A: Everyone suffers. Everyone loves. Everyone longs for something or someone. We’re all so flawed, all bumbling along through our lives; we’re all having a human experience, no matter our socioeconomic status. It just so happens that it will always be a bit harder for working class people in general—hardest of all for the poorest of the poor.

Q: Your author bio says you grew up in the Hamptons and worked a variety of blue-collar jobs for wealthy estate owners.  How much did you draw from personal experience when writing this book?

A: I mined lots of lived experience for both the setting of the novel and the characters. My mother worked for a millionaire family at their summer estate in Southampton for more than a decade, and while the plot and characters are fictional, the setting is closely based on the estate where she worked (and where I worked with her for one summer). I also worked for the mega-rich in the Hamptons as a pool guy, a carpenter’s helper, lots of labor jobs in my teens and twenties.

Greg Iles Captivates with Cemetery Road

5 Glowing Stars to Cemetery Road!

Most people that know me know that I am a huge Greg Iles fan. I recommend his Penn Cage series to anyone that will listen, especially those that live in the South. A good friend recently said, “Being a Southerner and have not read Iles is like not having read Grisham.” And it’s true! The way that Iles writes the South is unlike any other and captures the essence of the South so beautifully. 

In his first stand-alone since his Penn Cage Trilogy (Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree, and Mississippi Blood) which focuses around civil rights, Cemetery Road tells a story of life in a small struggling town, political corruptness, and a forbidden love triangle. 

In one of the best opening chapters in literary history, we’re introduced to Marshall who “never meant to kill [his] brother.” Like most Southern men, at some point we find ourselves coming home to take care of our families. He has withdrawn from a very successful Washington DC reporting career to help his ailing and estranged father keep his small Mississippi town newspaper afloat. 

Shortly after his arrival Buck, a father-figure to Marshall is found floating in the Mississippi River. His wounds aren’t consistent with a fall or drowning and Marshall begins to find that perhaps some people of the community thought Buck was sticking his nose too far where it didn’t belong, potentially jeopardizing a business development that would be detrimental to the town’s success. 

In typical Iles fashion, the writing is phenomenal and the plot is full of twists and suspense that keeps you flying through the pages. 

Lyndsay Faye Dazzles with The Paragon Hotel

Two copies of Lyndsay Faye's novel The Paragon Hotel.
4 brilliant stars to Lyndsay Faye’s The Paragon Hotel!

Alice “No Body” James wants to get as far away as she can from Harlem, she finds herself on a Pullman car with two bullet wounds  straight through her chest, headed for Oregon in 1921. “No Body” is a nickname for her capacity to hide in plain sight. Which I think a lot of us can relate to in some aspect, but “No Body” is whoever you want her to be- or rather, whoever she feels she needs to be. On this Pullman car, she meets Max, who takes her immediately to the only hotel in Portland that accepts people of color. While Alice isn’t black, it’s clear she doesn’t fancy herself for a normal doctor. Max takes her to The Paragon Hotel where she meets and quickly befriends a resident, cabaret singer, and the ever so eloquent Blossom Fontaine. 

Blossom is my favorite character and I could listen to her talk in her whimsical and witty way forever. Blossom has had the opposite experience of Alice, she has at least as many secrets as Alice.  However, Blossoms’ secrets are the kind where she has to be relentlessly herself and defend it in a way where her persona does not waiver, but remain fixed always. 

The novel is a double-helix storyline of Alice and Blossom’s friendship at The Paragon Hotel and Harlem, where Alice finds herself in the middle of feuds between the five families of the Italian American Mafia. The story unwinds to reveal an ending that reminds us things aren’t always as they seem and illustrates the depths that we will go to keep others from finding out our secret. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Lyndsay Faye at novel., one of my favorite booksellers in Memphis. To celebrate the launch of Dustjacket Reviews, I had Lyndsay autograph two copies of The Paragon Hotel to giveaway. There are two chances to win: one copy will be given away on Instagram and the other will given away on Facebook. This giveaway is open to US residents only. This contest is open Jan 15 to Jan 25 midnight (CST). The winner will be announced on Saturday, Jan 26. Thanks for reading and following on social media.