Monday, October 20, 2014

A Breast Cancer Alphabet by Madhulika Sikka

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. The greatest risk for developing breast cancer? Being a woman. Is there anyone who doesn't know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month? I'm sure Madhulika Sikka, executive producer of NPR's Morning Edition was aware of that month before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. But, she wasn't aware of all the little things that go hand-in-hand with that diagnosis. That's were her book comes in, A Breast Cancer Alphabet.

With her opening and closure, Madhulika Sikka illustrates that anyone can be diagnosed with breast cancer. There she is, at the White House, when she receives her news. And, a year later, there she is again, after going through everything involved in that diagnosis. Sikka is a reluctant member of the pink ribbon club. She says right out loud, "It sucks to get cancer." And, she takes readers through all kinds of subjects that aren't usually discussed. "A is for Anxiety." Sikka says there's nothing like all the fear and anxiety that comes with diagnosis, and gives women the permission to be anxious. Why are women always expected to be strong, to be warriors in a fight? She doesn't talk about nutrition or fighting through the pain. She talks about pain, and not ever being hungry, the need for pillows. She's brutally honest about going bald, and wanting to look better despite everything a woman goes through during chemo. And, she's honest about the days when she just couldn't force herself to get out of bed. And, she says it's all OK.

Sikka's book is an absorbing warning, a look into the world of a breast cancer victim. The author manages to add traces of humor, but the best part of the book is the honesty. And, each chapter, each letter of A Breast Cancer Alphabet, is short, informative, and comforting in that honesty. I do wish, though, that I could show you the stunning illustrations by Roberto de Vicq de Cumpitch. They truly illustrate Madhulika Sikka's words.

I do have one problem with this book. When do you give this informative book to someone? Do you give it to every woman you know in October? Do you wait until someone is diagnosed, and they're too stunned to care? Or mid-way through a year, when they can see themselves on these pages? Madhulika Sikka's A Breast Cancer Alphabet would be a valuable gift. What is the etiquette of passing this on?

Madhulika Sikka's website is

A Breast Cancer Alphabet by Madhulika Sikka. Crown Publishers. 2014. ISBN 9780385348515 (hardcover), 209p. (Also available as an ebook and on audio from Random House.)

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Mr. Miracle by Debbie Macomber

Debbie Macomber's Christmas novels are staples of the Hallmark Channel. So, now you know all about this year's book. It's a romance, ends happily, and it's set at Christmas time.Mr. Miracle introduces a new angel, a friend of Macomber's other angels, Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy. But, honestly? It's just another Christmas novel with nothing remarkable about this one.

Harry Mills is an angel who has been sent to a Pacific Northwest community on a trial mission. He's teaching at Southshore Community College, where he's supposed to assist an insecure student returning to take one class. His mentor, Celeste, warns him though that he's to obey the rules at the college, and try to avoid the college president while working with Addie Folsom. Addie is dyslexic, and is finally returning to college, hoping to continue on and work in the medical field like her late father. But, Harry's charge has a few problems. She's stubborn, and has a long history with her neighbor, Erich Simmons. Harry's job is to assist Addie, in school, and in her personal life.

Needless to say, Harry has a few problems with his assignment. He's not prepared to deal with human emotions of anger, embarrassment, sexual attraction. And, he's not quite as competent with his assignment of Addie as he thought he would be. He needs that mentor because he overestimated his own abilities.

Macomber does do something a little different with Mr. Miracle. Because Harry is teaching English, he assigns his students to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol. And, she uses the story as a message about change.

Saying Debbie Macomber's Mr. Miracle is just an ordinary Christmas novel isn't a disparaging comment. Instead, it creates the atmosphere we expect, and appreciate, in Christmas stories. Addie's feelings about the holiday actually perfectly expresses what readers expect of most Christmas novels. She considered "...the holidays an extra-special time of year. Magic hung in the air, and people were gentler, kinder to one another. Differences are set aside, friendships deepened, and people in general were more charitable and happier." Mr. Miracle just wasn't quite as magical as I had hoped.

Debbie Macomber's website is

Mr. Miracle by Debbie Macomber. Ballantine Books. 2014. ISBN 978055391152 (hardcover), 255p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sons of Sparta by Jeffrey Siger

Some of Jeffrey Siger's mysteries expose the underside of Greek life and politics. Although there are some political elements to his latest novel, Sons of Sparta, this is a story that emphasizes Greek family life and connections. And, for a change, the emphasis is not on Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis. His assistant, Detective Yianni Kouros, is the focus of a family story with a legendary past.

Kouros' family has a violent, criminal past in the mountainous Peloponnese where the people, the Mani, say they are descendants of the ancient warriors, the Spartans. The Mani have a history as pirates, highwaymen, and warriors. But, they may be best known for the blood feuds, the vendettas against other families. And, when Kouros' uncle, the shrewd head of the family, and a retired criminal, dies unexpectedly before he can sign the paperwork for a lucrative deal, Kouros fears his cousins will start a war to avenge his death. And, Kouros, an honest cop, knows that family supports family. Kaldis may be caught up in an investigation involving land deals in Crete, but he certainly doesn't want powerful families going to war in the Peloponnese.

With Siger's insider's knowledge of Greece, his mysteries are always fascinating exposés of life, crime, and politics. Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, along with Kouros, and Kaldis' best friend and mentor, Tassos Stamatos, are a formidable team. They are shrewd, powerful men who work the system beautifully, pulling strings while manipulating criminals and crooked politicians to provide answers. This triumvirate actually only yields to the women in their lives, Kaldis' wife, and Tassos' girlfriend, Maggie, who is also Andreas' secretary, office manager, and the most powerful behind-the-scenes person in the police department. 

Siger always manages to beautifully combine a police procedural with some of that black humor that allows police to get through the daily grind of dealing with corruption and crime. Although he's been known to almost predict the next Greek crisis, in this case, Siger's story of crime and corruption has a much more personal angle. The story of the Mani, descendants of the Spartans, and those formidable Spartan mothers, is a fascinating story of lawlessness and revenge. Siger's Sons of Sparta brings that story into the twenty-first century with a powerful mystery of family, murder, and vengeance.

Jeffrey Siger's website is, and he can also be found at

Sons of Sparta by Jeffrey Siger. Poisoned Pen Press. 2014. ISBN 9781464203145 (hardcover), 254p. (Also available as trade paperback, large print, and ebook)

FTC Full Disclosure - The publicist sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Cozy Debut Series Giveaway

I'm giving away two terrific mysteries this week, books that kicked off new series. Good luck!

Death is Like a Box of Chocolates is the first Chocolate Covered mystery by Kathy Aarons. Chocolates and Chapters is a combination bookstore and chocolate shop owned by best friends Michelle Serranno and Erica Russell. But, the success of their business is threatened when a photographer is found murdered, poisoned by one of Michelle's signature truffles. With Michelle at the top of the suspect list, the two must pick through the suspects before their business melts away.

Or, you could win Mary Kennedy's Nightmares Can Be Murder. Have you ever heard of a dream club, a club where members get together to discuss their dreams? Taylor Blake is a little skeptical about her sister Alison's dream club and their interpretations. But, when one of the dreams resembles the murder of a local dance club instructor, and Alison had a relationship with him, this dream starts to become a nightmare.

Which book would you like to win? You can enter to win both, but I need separate entries. Email me at Your subject heading should read either "Win Box of Chocolates" or "Win Nightmares Can Be Murder." Please include your name and mailing address. The contest will end next Thursday, Oct. 23 at 6 PM CT. Entries from the U.S. only, please.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Christina Baker Kline at the Southern Festival of Books

I really shouldn't lead off my occasional recaps of the Southern Festival of Books with Christina Baker Kline even though she was the first author I saw there. She also had one of the best presentations I saw in the three days. The author of Orphan Train showed us some heartbreaking slides, and told us fascinating stories of history.

Orphan Train is the #1 book club book in the country. Kline has been a novelist for 20+ years, and this was her fifth novel. She has always been traditionally published, always a midlist author with her first four books. She thought her life was great. She had reasonable advances. She worked as a professor, and edited manuscripts, as so many authors do. The success of Orphan Train came as a shock to her. It took everyone by surprise; Kline, her editor, her publisher, HarperCollins.

Why was this book such a success? It's her same voice. Why did it hit a chord with readers?

Kline found incredible archival documents and photos about the history of the orphan trains. And, she showed us some of these photos telling the stories of these children. 250,000 children were sent from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929. This was the largest single migration of children in U.S. history, hidden in plain sight. Why does Kline say "hidden in plain sight"? There are twenty books with this same title, Orphan Train, and yet the vast majority of people never heard of this movement.

Kline's book is a novel, not nonfiction. It's the story of a ninety-one-year-old woman, a wealthy woman living in Maine whose hidden history was as a train rider. It's also the story of a seventeen-year-old girl, a foster child, Goth. She steals a book from the library, and, after being caught, is assigned community service or she'll end up in juvenile detention. She's assigned fifty hours cleaning out the attic of the wealthy woman. She's hostile at first. And, then they find they have a lot in common. The book takes place in the present, first person narrative of the ninety-year-old woman. The seventeen-year-old is part Penobscot Indian and part white.

Before continuing the program, Christina Baker Kline asked that people not ask questions with spoilers in them at the end of the presentation. She said on her web page,, she has the top ten questions that book clubs ask, so she probably answered those spoiler questions there.

Kline said she has a family connection to the train riders. The children were from ages two to fourteen. She and her family were visiting her in-laws in North Dakota, and her mother-in-law pulled out a family album. In it, there was a newspaper article about five kids. The oldest one was fifteen, so he had to get off the train and get a job. He was too old for the orphan train. That oldest child was the father of Kline's mother-in-law. The others were her uncle and her three aunts. None of them had told any of the family about their story. There are over 3 million descendants of those 250,000 train riders who rode over seventy-five years.

Kline found a vast amount of resources, but she was afraid to take on the story. However, she gathered files about the stories.

How did the orphan trains come about? In 1853, a Methodist minister, a reformer, Charles Loring Brace realized there were 30,000 kids living on the streets. Poor children were labor. Immigrants were pouring into the city. The Irish were particularly vulnerable. While other ethnic groups would come over as families, due to the potato famine and the English, the Irish were so destitute and persecuted they could only send one or two family members at a time, not whole families. There were large numbers of Irish children on the streets. Brace's Children's Aid Society's orphanage was soon overrun. Brace looked to the bucolic Midwest farms. Sending children to the Midwest was a work program from the very beginning. Future laborers were sent where there was a demand. Notices were placed in Midwestern newspapers saying children would be arriving, and farmers would come. Children were chosen by whoever wanted them.

When Christina Baker Kline showed us photos of the children, she showed pictures of working children in New York City. Boys became boot blacks or newsies. And, they joined gangs for protection. Girls were seamstresses or took care of children. The orphan trains were work programs. The aid societies only sent desirable children with no problems. The children were between the ages of 2 and 14. Then, they were indentured until they were 18-21. Scrappy boys were desirable as farm workers, but at that age, they were often doomed to be trouble.

The orphan trains carried children numbering in the tens to thirties at a time. Kline wondered who was paying to put those children on trains. Someone was subsidizing the movement of children.

The orphan trains ended in 1929. Why? With the Depression, there were even more kids in dire straits. Roosevelt's plans that helped the poor started later, 1939 and 1940. Why end the program in 1929?

In 1854, the railroads were expanding across country in places where no one lived. They needed bodies in those areas. They gambled that kids would stay in the Midwest and not return to New York. The vast majority of the kids not only stayed in the state where they were sent, they also stayed in the same town. By sending kids to these places, they provided labor for farmers, populating the empty spaces. The railroads paid for the orphan trains. In 1929, they built the last depot, and then they stopped paying.

There are fewer than ten train riders still left. Kline went through over 300 archives. Train riders were interviewed. She spoke to seven living train riders.

Not everyone was in favor of the program. There were backlashes in the Midwest. Newspapers ran articles saying stop sending us our garbage, your riffraff. Brace had hoped to get heathen children, Catholic children and others, into good Christian Protestant homes. He hoped that the shipment of children would lead to adoption, but it usually didn't. Farmers plucked out boys to work the farm. But the rest of the family didn't want them inheriting the land. Often they didn't tell the neighbors they took in a train rider. There was a stigma to it.

Why did the children never leave town? Once they were picked out from the platform, they never again saw another kid who rode the train with them. And, they thought the train they were on was the only one. They were given a new outfit, and told to forget about their old life. It was over, and there new life was here. When they arrived at the depot, they were lined up by height on a platform. The platforms resembled slave auctions, and people checked their teeth and bodies. Some of the children took the place of slave labor, slaves who had been freed during the Civil War. The war was over, but labor was still needed. And, the children were indentured until they reached the ages of 18 to 21.

Although Christina Baker Kline could have showed us more slides, unfortunately her time was up. But, she did show us a map of where the children went, actually all over the country. I checked out some of the states where I lived. There were very few in Ohio; none in Arizona, and 3,555 train riders ended up in Indiana.

And, she ended with a little humor. She said remember how she said there was a family connection. Irish children were often sent, including her sons' great-grandfather and his siblings. Even then, there was a stigma against the Irish and redheads. There were always superstitions surrounding redheads; their quick temper, that they were trouble. And, the final slide was of Christina Baker Kline's two oldest sons, college-age young men who are definitely redheads.

Christina Baker Kline's website is

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. HarperCollins. 2013. ISBN 9780061950728 (paperback), 278p.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dean Koontz and His Dog, Anna

I think Dean Koontz was a little jealous of all the attention his dog, Anna, received the other day. He sent a follow-up piece, an interview he did with Anna. And, since all the proceeds for the book Ask Anna goes to Canine Companions for Independence, I'm more than happy to share the interview. So, welcome, Anna and Dean!

1) Dean interviews Anna

Dean: Hey, sweetie, how does it feel to see your first book, Ask Anna, in print?

Anna: Better than a bee stinging me on the nose, maybe not as good as being given a membership in the Sausage-of-the-Month Club. I'm a little worried about the celebrity thing, so I've ordered a custom disguise that makes me look like a poodle.

Dean:  When did you first realize you had the Dear Abby gene and could give meaningful advice?

Anna: Remember a year ago, Dad, when you went shopping and came home with those hideous shoes? I just had to pee in them to prevent you from being seen wearing them in public. You went out and bought another pair of the same, and I peed in those, and you decided to take my advice. I realized then that I had something to offer that might help people and dogs. I don't mean pee. I mean common-sense advice. Who in the world makes lemon-yellow patent-leather platform shoes, anyway?

Dean: Never mind. I was flashing back to my disco days. Now that you have written a book of advice for dogs, might you write advice for some other species?

Anna: Cats need a lot of help, but they don't take advice well. You never know when they'll respond to a friendly suggestion by clawing your nose. Offering counsel to cats is like being the psychiatrist for Tony Soprano.

Dean: There's an article in your book that reveals how people like Noah and Albert Einstein changed history by listening carefully to their dogs' advice. Are you aware of any more recent famous people who failed to heed the advice of their dogs?

Anna: Tragically, yes. Mr. Johnny Depp's dog warned him not to play Tonto.

Dean: Is there any down side to a dog being a successful author?

Anna: Carpal-tunnel paw. Hollywood wanting to buy the film rights and recast me as a gerbil to be played by Adam Sandler in a furry suit. Perhaps a catty review here and there. Static electricity from the computer screen standing my fur on end, so that for hours at a time I go around looking as if I stuck my tongue in a wall plug.

And, Anna even gets to turn the tables on her father and ask him some questions.

2. Anna interviews Dean

Anna: Hey, Dad, what's it like having to share the limelight with me now that I'm a published author?

Dean: I have no jealousy whatsoever. I hope you enjoy a career that is bigger than mine. And don't worry: I would never--never!-- put one of those annoying post-surgery cones around your head for no reason at all except envy or something. And I would never--never!--change your name to Pussycat and make you answer to it.

Anna: Good to know. Sometimes we go for a ride in the car and you let me drive, and then you insist on sticking your head out the window. Are you mocking me when you do that?

Dean: No, short stuff. It's fun! All the great smells!! My ears flapping in the breeze!!! People pointing and laughing!!!!

Anna: There are days when I worry that you have an identity problem. So you have a new novel coming out in January, Saint Odd, the last of the Odd Thomas novels. Is there a dog in it?

Dean: One. But he has just a walk-on part, a few pages, nothing more, and he's not a golden retriever.

Anna: Then I'll probably read the new John Grisham instead. Since my book is about advice, is there any advice I've given you that you're sorry you didn't take?

Dean: That incident with the angry ferret comes to mind. But they sewed the thumb back on nearly where it was before, and I can still hitchhike with it if I ever need to.

Anna: Hey, Dad, let me put the loop of my leash around your hand, and I'll take you for a walk.

Dean: Great! Can we go to the park? Can we? Can we? Will you throw the ball for me? Better yet, the stick! Will you throw the stick?!?

(I think Anna's right. Dean may have an identity problem. But, there's no problem in identifying their book for you. All of the author proceeds of Ask Anna will go to Canine Companions for Independence. Anna and her friends, along with her advice, can be seen on Facebook at

Ask Anna: Advice for the Furry and Forlorn by Dean Koontz and his dog, Anna. Center Street. 2014. ISBN 9781455530793 (hardcover), 96p.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Stirring the Plot by Daryl Wood Gerber

Food, books, and a town's Halloween celebration. Daryl Wood Gerber's Stirring the Plot sounds light and seasonal. But, she never forgets that murder is serious, and the owners of The Cookbook Nook are determined to find justice for a lost friend.

All of Crystal Cove, California celebrates Halloween. The Winsome Witches, a charitable group of women, use the celebrations to raise money for literacy, culminating in a fund-raiser luncheon. However, Jenna Hart, owner of The Cookbook Nook, notices that some of her Aunt Vera's friends seem a little snappy. But, the luncheon is successful and the women end up at the High Priestess' house afterward to toast their success. Unfortunately, Pearl's party is disrupted by her angry daughter, Trisha, who makes a scene, saying hateful things about her mother. And, then the next day, three of the Winsome Witches, including Jenna's Aunt Vera, find Pearl dead.

With an excellent police chief, Cinnamon Pritchett, the Winsome Witches should let her solve the crime. But, Aunt Vera is convinced she lost her psychic powers after Pearl's death, and, in order to get them back, she needs to find the killer. Jenna fears she herself may have brought bad karma to the town. And, she wants to support her aunt.

Daryl Wood Gerber excels in the description of Crystal Cove and its Halloween celebrations. The town, the bookstore and all of the other shops are beautiful participants in the season. Halloween is truly celebrated in the book.

There does seem to be an extreme hysteria in the book. Aunt Vera fears her loss of power. Jenna is all over the town with her suspicions and her fear for her aunt. However, as I wrote this, I realized hysteria and witchcraft, even pretend witchcraft, go hand-in-hand. So, maybe it isn't so out of line for Stirring the Plot.

Although the feeling of hysteria bothered me, Stirring the Plot was delightful. It's about women who truly care for each other, and the search for answers to the death of one of them. At the same time, Gerber manages to incorporate Halloween, food, an excitement about books, and a touch of romance. It's a fun, seasonal treat.

Daryl Wood Gerber's website is

Stirring the Plot by Daryl Wood Gerber. Berkley Prime Crime. 2014. ISBN 9780425258064 (paperback), 287p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.