Book Reviews

Donna Stramella, author of Coffee Killed My Mother, reviewed my novella, Ransoms Are For Amateurs

There’s nothing ordinary about James White’s novella, Ransoms Are For Amateurs. Actually, the unexpected reveals to both the reader and the characters alike. Clearly, the title suggested a kidnapping, but everything else about the book was unexpected. The kidnapper, police detective, and process–all unexpected. Even the kidnapping victim, little Henry was not the expected target. But the terrified and weak three-year-old was one of the reasons I couldn’t put the book down. What would happen to Henry?

Set in San Francisco in the 1980s, the criminal mastermind behind the kidnapping is Cisco, an evil man who cares not if Henry lives or dies. Like other characters carefully crafted in the story, White develops a unique, multi-sensory character in Cisco. We can feel his large, cruel presence; see his oily skin; hear his afflicted speech. He communicates by handwritten notes and in his own dialect, seemingly a result of his unrepaired cleft pallet. In another unexpected attribute of the character, he is also able to speak clearly, a type of “bilingual” skill that he uses as part of his disguise.

A female police detective is assigned to the case, and with a recent promotion, her lack of experience leading such a high-profile, high-stakes case is overcome by her motivation–even at extreme risk to herself. Identifying the kidnapper becomes a puzzle, even with an eye witness. Were there two men? Was there a single man? Was he young or old?

The pages turn faster and faster, with the reader belted in tightly on an action-packed ride with unexpected turns over and over again. Once you start, you’re in for the full journey. Expect to finish this one in a single 100 MPH sitting!

Thanks Donna!

Elizabeth Gauffreau
, author of Telling Sonny reviewed my novel, Borders In Paradise

James White’s Borders in Paradise opens in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow in West Hollywood, California. The year is 1939. The tiny bungalow is the Gaines family’s version of paradise, after twenty-two-year old Juno (John) and his brother Chassy (Charles) “ran away from that den of thieves and malcontents in Texas to start a new life in

California”–the den of thieves and malcontents being their extended family, of course. Their mother and sister Anita (Neet) join them shortly thereafter.

The novel is divided into four parts, with several changes in narrative stance to provide the reader with multiple perspectives on the Gaines family dynamics and the brothers’ coming-of- age struggles.

Part I is narrated in first-person, alternating between Juno and Chassy. Given the resentment Juno expresses toward his “tall, blond, and handsome” younger brother, alternating first-person narration between the two of them was a wise choice on White’s part. Is Chassy as irresponsible and selfish as Juno says, or does the root of Juno’s discontent really lie elsewhere?

Chassy immediately gets himself ensnared in an ill-advised marriage with a young woman from a well-to-do family who works hard to smooth over his Texas roughness. When Chassy realizes that she has had an ulterior motive from the start, he reacts badly and has to beat feet out of town. He joins the US Border Patrol, where he is blown far from paradise to the Arizona desert.

Parts II and III are in third-person from Chassy’s point of view. He is referred to in these two sections as Charles, reinforcing the need–if not his own desire–to extricate himself from his youthful mistakes and forge some kind of future for himself. By the end of Part III, the Draft Board and another ill-advised encounter with a woman put that future in question. Part IV is narrated by Juno in first-person to bring the novel full-circle to its surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, Borders in Paradise is a novel about belonging and personal identity, with family, lovers, and even the government all working to make us over into someone we’re not sure we want to be. The question is, when we finally come to that realization, will it be too late? In the case of the Gaines brothers, you will have to read the book to find out. I would strongly encourage you to do so!

Thanks Liz!

A Journey of discovery, one cup at a time

Coffee Killed My Mother opens with a dream. Author Donna Stramella uses first person to introduce us to the story’s main character, Anna Lee, leading us through a young girl’s nightmare of abandonment and despair. Or was it a dream?

Building from a dramatic opening, Stramella takes us on a coming-of-age story wrapped around a road trip along the Atlantic seaboard with stops at resorts, motels, restaurants and coffee shops. A lot of coffee shops. Along the way, Stramella uses an intriguing mix of dialogue and backstory to introduce Anna Lee’s troubled past; divorced parents, a stolen friendship, and fears about her mother’s mental health. But when they stop at Virginia Beach, the trip takes a sudden turn off the narrative’s main highway. After a mysterious accident, the story heads onto side roads that expose the roots of a conflicted past that convinces Anna Lee it’s time to leave her mother. Then, a few coffee shops later, while visiting her mother’s hometown, another turn in the road follows a new route that leads toward reconciliation.

Anna Lee’s mother, Jacqueline Pierce, is the enigmatic element in the story, a perfect foil to her teen-aged daughter’s fears and self-doubt. Stramella does a wonderful job of doling out Jacqueline’s persona from behind a curtain of secrets and half-truths that drives the story’s pacing to its unexpected conclusion.

You’ll be turning the pages reading Coffee Killed My Mother wondering what the next roadside stop will uncover about the lives of Anna Lee and Jacqueline while asking yourself; Just how many coffees can that woman drink?

Telling Sonny Is A Tale Of Romance, Adventure and History

Author Elizabeth Gauffreau resurrects the forgotten childhood fantasy of running away to join the circus with a twist in her novel, Telling Sonny.

Set in America’s idyllic early 20th century, a time of outwardly polite courtesies and thoughtfulness, Telling Sonny follows a young girl’s tragic fall from respectability to a life of white-knuckled survival among society’s counter-culture of traveling vaudeville entertainers.

Young Faby Gauthier, fresh out of high school wonders what’s to become of her life when the annual vaudeville show comes to her home town of Enosburg, Vermont.

Despite the drab setting in the Enosburg’s Opera House, Faby, accompanied by her sister and best friend, Josephine, is captivated by that year’s cavalcade of acts especially a song and dance number done by ‘America’s Favorite Hoofer,’ a tall, lanky fella known by his stage name, Slim White.

Gauffreau’s attention to setting details and language throughout the novel is exemplary. Faby and Slim are a study of contrasts and Gauffreau does a great job of setting them apart not only by their personalities but also by showing their differences in social customs, colloquial expressions and behaviors. Along the way, Gauffreau entertains us with enlightening anecdotal observations about early 20th century American life in small towns as well as urban centers. All through the story I felt informed and captivated with Faby’s efforts to keep up with her thoughtless, but dashing beau during a perilous time in her life.

Telling Sonny will keep you engaged from the start and you’ll finish the story satisfied, not only with the novel’s surprising conclusion, but also for having learned about a unique chapter in American social history.

Oakland, 1978

I didn’t recognize my stuff when I came across a pile of junk in front of the apartment that wasn’t my apartment anymore.

I stopped at the front door, thinking I might score something when I saw your book,

the one you gave me.

On top of a familiar-looking dresser,

the one with the taped-up leg.

Drawers open, its familiar contents looked lost, exposed in broad daylight.

My busted mattress sagged next to it over an open box of loose papers that once had meaning.

I turned away, distancing myself from things now left behind, but when you called to me at the corner I looked back.

Take the book.

Trembling, I crossed Franklin street, your words ringing in my head.

‘What good are books?’ I replied when I reached the other side.

‘Without a place to read?’

We Fixed The Clock

Dedicated to the Schmidt Family, Karl, Anna, Bruno, Ossi, Oskar, Erika, Anni, and my mother, Gisela

I have an old mantel clock that belonged to my mother’s family, a crowd of eight souls, Oma, Opa, three sons and three daughters.

The clock sat in their home in a village called Elbogen, in the era of the second world war. It now sits atop a sideboard in my living room in a town called Benicia.

The clock fled from the Communists in 1947 riding in the back of a horse drawn wagon along with all the family’s possessions. The escape west out of Czechoslovakia had many accidents including one that put a crack in its front piece. The crack now serves as a reminder of painful circumstances long since forgotten that left a mark I see every day. Family members handed the clock from one to another, all the while the clock did its job keeping time.

I inherited the clock from my father who died leaving little more than a few precious fragments of his and my mother’s lives behind. Since then I’ve tried to keep it clean and lubricated, but it occasionally needs more attention than I can provide. The mainspring gets tired and the gear train needs attention or replacement. After a recent trip to a repair shop it came home with a shiny face plate, its mechanism solid when I wound the mainspring, but it didn’t keep accurate time. After many years of refusing to keep up with the present, it now raced into the future, with a hurried cadence of pendulum swings.

One night I showed the clock to some guests while we drank wine and listened to smooth jazz. It was running a half hour fast. “Whoa,” I exclaimed. “Not so fast, partner.” I had adjusted the pendulum’s swing many times to alter the clock’s speed. It’s a simple procedure, but this time when I twisted the pendulum’s threaded rod, the pendulum disconnected from the clock’s mechanism. “Oops!” Embarrassed, I attempted a hasty repair while my guests looked on, but the clock resisted the intrusion.

“Don’t touch me!” the clock told me over the laid-back sound of Miles Davis. “I will not be treated with hasty disrespect.”

So I apologized to my guests, returned to my wine and let the clock be.

Two days later on a quiet afternoon I placed the clock on the dining room table, opened the back panel and observed the clock’s mechanism. Instead of a simple, straight-forward connection between the gears and the pendulum, the clock presented a puzzle of wires that didn’t look like the arrangement I had seen before. Lengths didn’t add up. End pieces wouldn’t connect the way they were supposed to. I was ready to complain to the repair man, but I’d just had the clock in for maintenance. All I’d done was detach the pendulum. Nothing appeared to be broken. Couldn’t I figure it out?

The afternoon sun bathed the clock’s gear housing with good light. I stared at the brass pieces for a long time and, remembering the clock’s reproach, thought carefully about how to approach the repair.

My grandfather, Karl Schmidt, was a sheetmetal artisan and he worked with careful, skilled machinists. They were tool and die makers, cutting and shaping wood and metal into fixtures, jigs, gauges and clocks. The clock knew these people. Could I be trusted to tinker with their artisanship? Sure, I told myself. It’s just gears and springs. Old world technology, simple stuff.

“The loop at the end of the mounting wire is missing.” The clock spoke with a patient, measured voice when I touched its brass components, feeling for clues. “See the mounting wire in the bracket at the top of the gear housing? The loop links the mounting wire to the connecting wire. The pendulum swings from the other end of the connecting wire. Here. See?”

Mounting wire? Connecting wire? Loop? It sounded complicated. I picked out a length of thin wire from my tool chest, along with a wire cutter and needle-nose pliers. Why not just use one wire? I thought. After fashioning my own connecting wire with a hook at one end, I attached the wire to the bracket and connected the pendulum, bypassing the complicated wire-loop arrangement. I’ll improve the design. Make it simpler, I thought. With an elated “Tada!” I closed the back panel and tilted the clock to start the pendulum swing.

“No!” the clock responded. One swing later the pendulum stopped. “The connecting wire doesn’t attach to the bracket. You need the mounting wire and a loop. Otherwise, the connecting wire won’t swing freely. The wires have to be positioned just so, to allow the pendulum unobstructed movement.”

With the clock’s disappointment ringing in my ears, I searched through my wife’s jewelry and found tiny loops that joined links of chain together. With her permission I salvaged a couple I hoped would satisfy the clock’s specifications.

The pieces were so small my pliers felt like a monkey wrench. Connecting the mounting wire was a trial and error process and all my trials were met with errors. After the second loop fell and disappeared under the table I dropped my tools and slid my chair back. This is ridiculous, I told myself. The only thing that kept me from leaving the table was a stubborn streak my mother’s family was also known for. I fumed and waited for inspiration.

The clock interrupted my vexation with a gruff, impatient command. “You’re going about it backwards. Attach the loop before you fasten the connecting wire.”

“But I don’t have the proper tools.” I rubbed my knuckles. “I’m all thumbs, sitting at a dining room table instead of a clockmaker’s workbench. I’ll never get it to fit.”

“You think the clockmakers in Elbogen had it any better?” the clock sneered. “Pliers and benches don’t make clocks. Clocks are made by steady hands guided by experience and resolve.”

I took a breath, salvaged another of my wife’s jewelry loops and picked up the wire with the pliers. The tiny mounting hole waited for me as unapproachable as ever. I was having a hard time keeping my tools steady. Both hands were shaking. The wire swayed around the hole, bumping into the bracket . . .

“Quit stabbing at the hole!” the clock barked. “Think about making me whole again!”

Elbogen, I thought, the watch makers, my grandfather, grandmother, aunts and uncles living in a village filled with precision, order and love. Down a narrow street, my grandfather Karl’s smiling face appeared in a doorway. He was holding tin snips in one hand, a cigarette in the other. “Clocks are temperamental,” he said. “Like your grandmother. They need to be pampered. Come in. Let me show you.”

I followed him into a small, but busy room filled with tools and machinery. The air smelled of cigarettes, lubricating oil and the musty aroma of hard, patient work. The clock sat on a worn work bench, its back panel open. Karl placed his tin snips in a drawer, took my hand and we carefully threaded the mounting wire through the hole, his rough fingers rubbing against mine. With deft movements, together we fastened the loop to the mounting wire and attached the connecting wire.

The clock made a satisfied ticking sound. “There we are. See?” my grandfather said. “She’s happy now. I’ll let you finish the job.”

I attached the pendulum to the connecting wire, closed the back panel and returned the clock to her place of honor, front and center, atop the sideboard. The pendulum swung with newfound energy. “Well?” I asked, pleased with the repair and grateful for my grandfather’s intervention.

The clock’s shiny face flashed me a peevish look in the fading sunlight. “Sheesh,” she replied. “It’s about time.”