Linda Shivers on Midnight Watch


Ever heard of a maritime event called “the Californian Incident”?

Yea. Me neither. It’s not like it’s the Titanic or anything.

But wait. Not so fast. There’s a connection between these two ships. They are tragically intertwined–one mammoth, gleaming passenger liner that slipped beneath the North Atlantic with 1500 souls on board and a tramp steamer, huddled among the icebergs a few miles away observing distress rockets without a response.

It’s astonishing.  It’s curious. It’s confusing and maddening. It’s the rescue that never happened. It’s the second officer who reported the rockets. It’s the captain who remained unmoved. It’s a ship laden with shame and guilt. What a story I’ve missed.

Until now. Welcome to the theme of  David Dyer’s The Midnight Watch  A novel of the Titanic and the Californian. Obviously it’s an eye-opener in the history department. Most people know about some ship beginning with a “C” that was involved, but that was the Carpathia. It arrived a few hours later to pull 700 survivors from lifeboats. The Californian, for whatever reason, stayed put.

And if you want to know why and who was involved, you’ve got to dig into this book. Dyer’s characters are the main players from that April night in 1912. There’s second officer Herbert Stone, who has the midnight watch and sees eight distress rockets. There’s his boss, Captain Stanley Lord, who remains in his cabin and withholds orders to rescue or, at the very least, have a look-see.  A third important character, although this is Dyer’s creation,  is journalist John Steadman, who covers the disaster and keeps digging for years to get the story.

Why? Why? Why? I was forever wondering and asking and pondering. Why didn’t Stone press his captain? Why did Lord ignore a basic rule of the sea–to always answer a distress call? Even after reading Dyer’s recreation of events surrounding these two ships, I still don’t think I have firm answers. I did, however, finish the book believing The Californian didn’t do enough and that many more people could have been saved.

Please don’t steer clear of The Midnight Watch because of my frustration, although you’ll experience it too. Sorry. You will. The Titanic is a tragedy, and Dyer’s book pulls away the curtain to reveal another layer of misdeeds and misfortunes. Yes. It’s a shameful tale of inaction but at the same time there is suspense and curiosity and the need to learn more about what happened.  Go full steam ahead and read it.


To extol, or a famous, roaring rider? (six letters)

twoacross This novel was made for me. It was quirky, which I embrace. The timeline of events pretty much matched my own life, and author Jeff Bartsch spun the whole tale around word challenges— a spelling bee, where our boy and girl wonder meet, and crossword puzzles, my intellectual torture of choice. What more could I ask of a story?

When I go gaga over a book, I sometimes take a step back and start reading book reviews, just to compare my book barometer to other more worldly commentators and reviewers.  The critics at NPR, the Boston Globe and the New York Times had nice things to say about Two Across but found some flaws.  Not me. I loved it from the opening page. In fact, I think it’s movie material.

It’s got a nice rom-com vibe. There’s Stanley, the fatherless genius who lives with his agoraphobic mother in a DC hotel suite (quirky, right?), and Vera, a brilliant math vagabond who  travels with her mother from one business meeting to the next.  Stanley’s stuck at the Hawthorne Hotel, dying to bust out, while Vera would maybe like to stay put and skip places like the Nitee-Nite motel. The two compete at a big-time spelling bee and emerge as co-winners. From there, it all goes downhill.

For as smart as they are, they’re also a wee bit stupid about their emotions for each other and the consequences of their actions. Typical teens perhaps. They’re also a little bit corrupt. Just a little, but enough to pull off a make-believe wedding for fast cash. It was all Stanley’s idea so he could bankroll his way out of the Hawthorne and chase his dream of being a crossword puzzle creator.

Vera goes to college in Cambridge. Stanley follows and eventually there are more little misdeeds, but Vera’s paying the bigger price. She loves Stanley but needs to live on the straight and narrow and leaves him behind. The two separate for years at a time, but find each other with clues from crosswords that each of them creates. Vera is quite the crossword queen herself.

Vera and Stanley are the lighter, far less dangerous version of Bonnie and Clyde. But that may be an overstatement. They’re just messed up young adults, scrabbling for a better life. Over time the couple matures and seeks redemption, a good life, and love. And all the while they’re doing those puzzles. Which is my kind of awesome.

P.S. Did you get the answer to the headline question? A six-letter synonym for extol. Famous, shouting rider? How about ‘revere’?  As in Paul.

Linda Attends a Few Funerals


The last book I read that was set in Ireland? No doubt something by Maeve Binchy. Sweet, lilting and full of charm.

This time around, I experienced Ireland in a new way. The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley is a far cry from anything Maeve would have created.  No cozy Irish villages with cups of tea between friends. No imagined stretches of undulating green. This time the mean streets of Dublin (I never knew there were mean streets in Dublin by the way), a down-on-his-luck undertaker, and a terrifying brush with organized crime take center stage.

Poor Paddy Buckley. He’s still reeling from the death of his pregnant wife, and his career as a mortician never seems to offer the relief he really needs to start anew. The long hours provide distraction but not enough to conquer all his demons. He needs something  a tad more life altering.

And then, without warning, he gets it, but there is no luck-of-the-Irish relief for Paddy.

On a dark night while driving home, Paddy does the unthinkable. He hits a pedestrian and drives off.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, the deceased is Donal Cullen, major Dublin bad-guy and brother to the almighty crime boss Vincent Cullen. For good measure author Jeremy Massey gives us a messy one-two punch with this story line. The Cullens want Paddy and his employer to make the final arrangements. Begorrah!

The book jacket says Massey is a “third-generation undertaker who worked with his father for many years at the family firm in Dublin.” What an opportune bank of knowledge to bring to this thriller. It’s backstage access which makes this book unlike anything I’ve read before. Massey shared lots of grim but fascinating bits about the death business, whether he was describing the embalming room or the widely-practiced Polikoff special, an insider trick to dress a corpse by cutting the back of the clothes before they are placed on the remains. Pretty interesting, actually.

I liked this book a lot. Paddy’s in trouble from the start, and his mates at the funeral parlor provide dark humor to break up the stark details of death. And in between,  our protagonist is just trying to stay alive.  It’s not Maeve Binchy, but it’s a trip to Ireland I’m glad I made.

Swing Time in Berlin

Olympic champion crew team, University of Washington; this team won the gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; Handwritten on border: 1936 - Olympic Champions.

Nah. The Boys in the Boat  isn’t a book about Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey. It’s about rowing and the eight-man crew from the University of Washington that won gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, right under Hitler’s nose.  Deutschland uber alles?? Ah. Not this time.

But first. Some rowing vocabulary. When a team of rowers thinks, moves, and pulls as one, and powers its scull with grace and synchronized beauty, they’ve got swing.  It’s the ultimate experience for a crewman, to row in a scull that’s swinging. It’s what each athlete seeks, and this boat had it.

But not always. And it took a while to find the right combination of mind and muscle to mount a challenge to not only its West Coast rival California, but to the eastern elites like Harvard, Penn, Cornell, Navy and Syracuse.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Author Daniel James Brown tells the story, set in the soggy northwest, through the life and times of Joe Rantz. If all the other student athletes came from solid families rooted in lumber towns or farms, Joe was the outsider looking in. His circumstances were so much less. He was abandoned by his father and stepmother, but somehow found a way to prosper, even in the midst of the Depression. He scraped by and as he grew continued to find jobs that funded his tuition. Rantz’s life alone could fill a book, but his trials to support himself, keep up his grades and compete at an elite level made me look upon him with the utmost respect. It was an honor to read about him and his crew mates. In fact, it was humbling. Brown shares nuggets about each of the young men. No one had it easy, and so many of them were multifaceted personalities. In addition to their athletic skills, many were top engineering students and musicians and, in the case of coxswain Bobby Moch, a master racing strategist.

From the get-go you know we win the gold, but Brown turned me into a shaky mess while recreating the time trials and training and Rantz’s near-miss getting into the championship boat. And then the race for the gold, with one of the crew battling a fever??? Well. Writing and sports stories don’t get much better.

Don’t miss this story. Even if sports isn’t your bag, give it a try. In a way it’s almost like a fairy tale, except there are nine princes and one big bully of a nation in Europe that was already hard at work with its propaganda and war machine. No one there knew what was to follow, but as a reader you do. And it’s a pleasure to read about the good guys pulling off the upset.


Linda Meets Beatriz

TinythingNot Beatrice. Beatriz. So cosmopolitan. Just like the people in her books.

This afternoon I finished Tiny Little Thing by Beatriz Williams.  Tiny is Christina “Tiny” Hardcastle, wife of  gleaming young Kennedy-esque politico Frank Hardcastle who looks, talks and acts like it’s just a matter of time before he’s campaigning for the White House. First, though, is a stint in the House of Representatives, and with his family connections and Tiny by his side it’s practically a done deal.

It’s Camelot. Football games along the Cape Cod shore. Cocktails. Dinners. Speeches. Why is Tiny so uninspired? Turns out there’s a Sir Lancelot in the wings. And get this. It’s her husband’s cousin.

Whose name is Caspian(where does Beatriz get these names, anyway?), a Vietnam War hero who Williams created as a hunky linebacker type against Hardcastle’s  dashing, silver-tongued sophisticate.

The year is 1966. Or 1964, the year Tiny meets Caspian. Chapters go back and forth across the two-year period with Tiny and Caspian giving us their version of events past and present, from their first meeting and fast friendship to an intimate entanglement neither can ever reveal. In the present Tiny is part of the Hardcastle political machine and rarely sees her husband. Caspian has returned from Vietnam to help his cousin campaign, so there’s tension and confusion aplenty. Tiny shuffles around the family beach compound feeling lost and disconnected until her sister Pepper arrives (again with the names).

Pepper is the second of three Schuyler sisters. The third, Vivian, is happily married. Here’s an interesting footnote. Williams has now devoted a book to each sister, which I never discovered until I started doing some research for this post. Her first, The Secret Life of Violet Grant, is  about Vivian. Tiny’s story followed and now,  coming soon, is Pepper’s story, Along the Infinite Sea.

Beatriz is one clever and prolific writer. I enjoyed the time, the places and the players here, so of course I’m going to go back and read about Vivian. Or maybe I should stick with Pepper. Her life wasn’t exactly going as planned. With as much beauty and charm as her sister Tiny, Pepper is bold and brash and now, in a little bit of trouble. That’s all I’m sayin’.

I’ve got one sister down. Two to go. If you like beach reading in the middle of autumn, I’d recommend any of these stories about the Schuyler trio.  And I don’t really think it matters where you start. Each sister is as stunning and perplexed (that’s what I’m presuming) and as full of secrets as the other.

Beatriz,  congrats.  I’m hooked.

Linda Applies to Harvard (not really, but it felt that way)

admissions Know a bright-eyed high school senior applying to college? A highly selective college? Maybe even an Ivy? Yes?

Then you understand the pressure.  The expectation. The ongoing pursuit to get it right, get it done, be the best. All. The. Time.

And this—the go-all-in-because-it’s-Harvard madness–is what The Admissions is all about. Actually, it’s about the entire family connected to the A-lister who’s aiming for Harvard. I’ll introduce them in a moment.

Now. Something you need to know, and I swear it’s not an advertisement. At this time of year I work with students applying to college. My niche? The college application essay. Although I’m not an expert on the entire application process, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that author Meg Mitchell Moore did her homework on this one. She got it right. Everything. The Admissions is a truthful representation of how the best of the best can be beaten down by the application process, their well-meaning families, even their own lofty standards. It made me examine how hard I sometimes push my clients and how hard, 10 years ago, I urged my own daughter to get those applications out there. And hey, how was play practice, tennis practice and that newspaper meeting? Yes. The Admissions made me search my own soul too.

But back to the book–and the Hawthornes– a family of five living the dream in Northern California, just outside  San Francisco. Mother’s a tiger in real estate. Dad’s a consultant. Angela, the couple’s first-born, is clinging to her valedictorian rank at school while her younger sisters take Irish dance lessons or practice reading. Little Maya struggles, you see. It’s a high strung group with much at stake. Angela is going early decision at Harvard. Mom is trying not to hover, but she’s there, a distant helicopter. Dad, a Harvard alum himself, has been pushing the Ivy narrative all of Angela’s life. No wonder Angela is showing some strain. Work is piling up. Her running is off. She’s tired. Remote.

The deeper  you travel through the novel, the more the entire family unravels. There are secrets, deceptions, misdeeds, confrontations. And Angela is making me nervous. She’s only applying to one school. It’s Harvard. Or it’s not.

I loved this book because it captured the truth.  It’s about smart kids who want it all and about colleges who ask for it all and then get loads of applications from academic  superstars.  The Admissions made me wince because I’m a  tiny part of  this elite education business that last fall, according to the New York Times,  rejected 95 per cent of applicants.   A brutal statistic.

You don’t have to know a valedictorian to enjoy The Admissions. It’s a good story  about a modern American family with high hopes for all of their children. Who couldn’t relate to that? But if you’ve got a child applying to college now, next year, or in another 17 years,  it’s a must read.  There’s no better manual to prepare you for what’s ahead.

Linda Meets Mazie Phillips–Real and Imagined

mazie I liked this book, but I didn’t give Mazie enough respect.

It took me weeks to finish because summer just waltzed right in and pulled me away from my reading habit. What can I say? There was too much going on, and summer wasn’t all that lazy or hazy or slow.  But don’t let my experience keep you away from Saint Mazie, a story about a tough New Yorker who  sacrifices her life to stand by family and the army of unemployed, penniless men from the Lower East side of Manhattan during the Depression.

Author Jami Attenberg based Saint Mazie on a real person, Mazie Phillips Gordon, who was profiled in a 1940 issue of The New Yorker. She was known as “the Queen of the Bowery” for her devotion to the neighborhood’s down-and-out. She offered money,  advice, candy to kids, but was best known for helping homeless men  find food and shelter on cold winter nights. It’s reported that she’d find men sleeping out on the streets and wake them up to urge them to find shelter.

I loved Maizie’s voice, which comes through  loud and brassy and fearless with each diary entry—the book is a collection of her diary entries by the way.  I think I’d classify her as a dame. You know. Streetwise with a heart of gold.  A lusty heart beating within her ample chest. The kind of single woman who doesn’t think twice about hitting the bars alone if she wants a drink and some company. That was Mazie.

But that whiskey was well deserved in my view. She scuffled her whole life. Grew up poor with parents not up to the job. She was raised by an older sister with a lethal combination of infertility and fragile emotions. There was a younger sister, too. Jeanie, the lithe, fun-loving sister who was never happy roosting in one spot. She left them for years at a time to work as a dancer. So Maizie earned her reputation. She was a solid, calming presence in her family and stayed put out front of The Venice, in her little cashier’s cage, selling movie tickets and watching the world pass her by.

Attenberg has divided the book into three parts, all connected to neighborhoods where Mazie lived. Her first diary entry–in 1907–begins section one, Grand Street.  Mazie is 10 years old and living in a  apartment with her sisters.  Part Two, Surf Avenue, begins in 1919 when Mazie’s family moves to a Coney Island home and then Part Three, Knickerbocker Village, is back in Manhattan. In between there is Prohibition, the Depression, an unlikely alliance with a nun and a near miss with love.

Mazie is one tough cookie. An angel. A fighter. A rescuer. I hope you do what I didn’t. Find time to really get to know her and not let days go by between readings. She deserved better.

Linda’s Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the USSR

elliottholtLet me not waste time or mince words.  Eilliott Holt is a fabulous writer and her first  novel,  You Are One of Them, has me hungry for more.  Her ending faltered, at least for me, and it may account for one less star, if I awarded stars for my reviews.  But I don’t, so let’s move on.

Here’s what Holt did–she took a little piece of  history and used it to create a story about friendship, family matters, Cold War maneuvering and deception among the 80s superpowers.

Let’s go back in time. Remember Samantha Smith? She’s the real 12-year-old schoolgirl who in 1982 wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to ask about the possibility of a nuclear war with the United States. She travelled to the USSR and became an overnight sensation and peace activist. She died in a plane crash on her way back from London in 1985.

Holt uses those events to structure her novel, only her letter writer is Jennifer Jones,  perky new kid who moves in across the street from the very sad and lonely Sarah Zuckerman. In many ways Jennifer rescues Sarah from the dark abyss of her home, where her mother recovers from depression with ongoing anxiety, anti-nuke research, and activism. The two girls become fast friends. There are sleep overs, walks to school, phone calls–the usual bonding ritual.  After a few years they drift apart, especially as Jennifer becomes an international celebrity.  And then the friendship ends forever as  Jennifer is lost in a plane crash that leaves her entire family dead.

Sarah grows up, attends college, blooms late, and then, near graduation, receives a letter from Svetlana, a young woman who met Jennifer while she toured the Soviet Union back in the 80s. The letter promises a special tour and more info about Jennifer. Too good to resist, right? Sarah takes the bait and travels to Moscow, but Svetlana is  vague and cagey and keeps dropping hints about Jennifer still being alive. When Sarah demands answers Sventlana goes full iron curtain, dodging phone calls and sharing information one drip at time.  Why the intrigue? Both Sarah and I were growing impatient.

I flew through the book because I felt desperate to know the full story. Come out, come out wherever you are Jennifer. Are you there? Why are you hiding?

Linda Reviews Diamond Head

After drug deals gone bad in DC, Nazis abusing French citizens, and a miserable young bride in 17th century Amsterdam, I needed a book break. I settled on Diamond Head by Cecily Wong, a new book that last month received the Elle Lettres  April 2015 Readers’ Prize. Wong is a first-time novelist who’s also appearing on the Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers Selection list.

But enough of the hype already. Does Diamond Head deliver the goods?

Yeah, I think it does.  But I like historical fiction and there’s plenty here to satisfy.  The story moves through China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to Pearl Harbor and life in Honolulu during the 40s and then climaxes at a family funeral in 1964.

Wong tapped into her family’s Chinese-Hawaiian history and lore to create fictional characters that I  believed could exist. I saw them, heard them speak, imagined their clothes and their homes.  I smelled the fish cooking, the scent of hibiscus, the tang of salt air. I loved it. But this was more than an armchair journey to paradise. There was a wide and sticky web of deception and family secrets covering the island. Involved are shipping magnate Frank Leong, his two sons, and the women in the Leong household whose history, circumstances and decisions kept me enthralled for the duration.

I was first drawn to the cover of this book before I knew anything about its author or its splashy debut. There was a red strand of ribbon tied around the neck of a Polynesian woman, and it didn’t take long to understand why. It represents the Chinese fable of a red string that binds each person to his or her destined mate. When life is well lived, the string remains strong, straight and reliable, but with each misdeed comes tangles and knots and love remains elusive. A knotted red string can even affect future generations.

Speaking of the generations, I did become a bit confused in the beginning as Wong jumped through time to tell stories about Lin Leong (Frank’s wife) and Amy Leong (his daughter-in-law) and who was related to whom. As I continued reading, I sorted it out and never looked back.

I often read fiction devoted to China and Chinese women: The Joy Luck Club, Chinese Cinderella, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, to name a few. Their female characters encounter hardship and deprivation and must barter away something in order to survive or live a better life. The same goes for the women of Diamond Head.  There’s adversity, a way out and a price to pay.

Linda drinks in the mean streets with The Martini Shot


The Martini Shot, a collection of short stories plus a novella, is hard-core crime writing from George Pelecanos and a far cry from the stuff I normally read when I want law and order fiction. This is no Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency confection.

At first, I thought I may be too timid for the Pelecanos style. The stories are fast and hip and made me feel like a clueless 60-year-old when it comes to life in the modern American city. I’m out here in rural la-la land while Pelecanos is giving me neighborhoods in scary, unsettling detail. His characters are desperate and often in danger. There are drugs and deals and death everywhere.

But that’s why you read, right? To shake things up. To eavesdrop on people unlike yourself. To step into a new world, even if it is downright terrifying.

And that’s just what happened with each of the seven stories. The book opens with a police informant who still lives at home with his aging parents. I was hooked immediately. Next up is a kid from DC’s Fourth District who’s got problems at home, at school, on the street:  “When I’m runnin ball, though, I don’t think on those problems at all. It’s like all the chains are off, you understand what I’m sayin?”

He caught me off guard with a story set in 1933. Just as I was settling in to the pace and patter of today’s city dwellers, he introduces me to a Greek immigrant scraping by, living with relatives and working odd jobs. I liked taking a break from modern life, but there was no respite from the violence. But then I knew that going in.  The stories will require a seat belt for the duration.

Since this was my first date with Pelecanos, I was unaware of his Spero Lucas series. It didn’t take me long to research these novels featuring Lucas, an Iraqi war vet now working as an investigator for a Washington, DC attorney.  In “Chosen” we learn about Lucas’s childhood with his adoptive parents and how two of his siblings abandon their family. For readers of those novels, this story will provide background into your hero’s past.

The book closes with the novella “The Martini Shot,” and  Pelecanos takes his readers behind the scenes of a television crime drama. Considering that Pelecanos wrote for the HBO series The Wire, I’m thinking all the descriptions of personnel, locations and routines were easy to reproduce. By the way, the title refers to the crew’s phrase for the last shot of the day. When shooting wraps,  drinking follows.

Pelecanos now has another ardent follower. Me. I plan on reading a Spero Lucas novel this summer, and I’ll be watching for whatever he produces next. This guy’s scary good.