44. Love and Ruin (Paula McLain)

Screen Shot 2018-06-03 at 10.56.10 AMFor lovers of historical fiction, Love and Ruin is a terrific book that not only keeps you turning pages but necessitates google searches to learn more about Martha Gellhorn, her writing and her tempestuous relationship with Ernest Hemingway.  If you loved reading The Paris Wife, the tale of Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley, this is a book for you.  It detailed his marriage to a strong women who despite her courage and success seemed to be dwarfed in Hemingway’s shadow by his selfish personality and his success.  Thanks to my kids for this mother’s day gift which I was keen to read before meeting Paula McLain, for the second time, at the Grimsby Author Series (see my post about meeting her in 2015 here!

I had no idea of the strength, courage and tenacity of Martha Gellhorn.  She was a feisty, female war correspondent in a time when women stayed home and had children.  Sadly, she may be best known for her role as wife of Ernest yet she remarkably lived a mile from the front during the Spanish Civil War and even hid in a hospital ship bathroom to witness the Normandy landings during World War II!

The novel describes Martha and Ernest meeting in a Key West bar.  He was married at the time but became involved with Martha and her family.  Martha later obtained fake credentials and met Ernest in Spain after a very difficult journey into the country.  She covered the day to day impacts and faces of the war.  From their she gained a foothold in the role of war correspondent as she fell in love with the incorrigible Hemingway who was then married to his second of four wives.

The couple wrote together in their home in Cuba yet Ernest had to be the centre of attention.  Martha was the first and only wife to leave Hemingway which she did after 4 years of marriage.  It was interesting to learn, via research, that she continued reporting into her eighties, ending her career after the US invasion of Panama in 1989. Sadly she committed suicide (via cyanide) in 1998 to end her struggles with blindness and ovarian cancer with liver mets.

Paula McLain writes about strong women – Hadley Hemingway in The Paris Wife, Beryl Markham in Circling the Sun and now Martha Gelhorn in Love and Ruin.  She researches women with remarkable lives and weaves engaging stories through history.  Watch for a future post where I discuss meeting Paula, at the Grimsby Author Series and describe her enthusiasm and excitement for her writing and research.

As a lover of historical fiction, her books have been not only entertaining but educational.  They draw a reader in quickly and are difficult to put down.  McLain’s books explore amazing women and provide a jumping off point to learn more about these characters!

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43. Dance, Gladys, Dance (Cassie Stocks)

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 1.52.27 PMAs followers are well aware, I LOVE Canada Reads.  I love the lead up to the event, reading books from the long list, reading ALL the books from the short-list,  following the event and best of all attending this literary knock out event!  Gladys Dance Gladys was a light read (lol – listen) for commuting, taken from the long-list.  It is a book that I would not have chosen had it not been connected with Canada Reads.

The reader gets to know Freida and her struggles.  She saw herself as a failed artist, had ended a relationship, had no place to live and needed to find a job.  She answered a unique classified ad, found a room, living with an elderly man when she met Gladys. Not having read the back cover of this book, it was a surprise to find out that Gladys was a ghost – a ghost who Freida came to know and helped her talk through many issues.

The story was amusing to listen to but I am honestly surprised that it made the Canada Reads short list which was chock full of more serious subjects for debating.  This book read like a young adult (YA) novel yet had more mature subjects.  Having said that, I did enjoy the quirky cast of characters who had me chuckling and found this book to be a palate-cleanser between more serious storylines.

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42. Vi (Kim Thuy)

Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 12.52.56 PMLife has been busy and although I have been reading, I have been slow to finish my blog posts.  As fan of Kim Thuy, since devouring her debut book, Ru, I pre-ordered her latest book, Vi in preparation for meeting her at the FOLD festival in Brampton.  The name Vi means “precious tiny one” and the character was lovingly protected by her three brothers during their journey and as they built their lives in Quebec.  Although Vi is a fictional character, there are glimpses of Thuy’s strength, resilience and experiences shared within the novel.

Like Thuy, Vi escaped Vietnam as one of the “boat people”.  Vi’s mother formed a plan to flee leaving her husband behind, to keep her brother’s alive by avoiding their conscription to war or the mine fields.  They were lucky to escape with their lives despite the probable risks of drowning or being killed by pirates.

Since they spoke French, Vi and her family took refuge in Quebec, connecting with other relatives who had escaped Vietnam and rebuilding their lives.  There were high expectations for success and Vi struggled to study linguistics.  This is similar to Thuy’s experience and both the character and the author ended up becoming a lawyer.

After meeting Kim Thuy, it is difficult to differentiate the tales she told at the event from the stories she has written in Vi.  The author and the book are both powerhouses of strength and resilience.  Both the book and the author are full of stories that are condensed into a dainty package which is vibrant, generous and determined.

Reading Vi makes me want to reread my signed, copy of Ru and savour it again after making connections with the author’s experience.  All her books are stories that you can read in one sitting.  Please enjoy them but also read my post about meeting this remarkable woman who shares the stories that are difficult to tell and goes out of her way to meet people to hear their experiences.

Ru, Man and Vi are remarkable books but I hope that Kim Thuy will write her own story in the form of a memoir.  The world needs to hear more about the experience of refugees, to understand and to be inspired to help others!

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Happy Mother’s Day – 2018


It is time to celebrate Mother’s Day!   It is a beautiful spring day to celebrate and appreciate our mothers! I know that I am thankful for a great Mom who has not only supported me but is and terrific role model, my best friend and an amazing grandma!

Interestingly, Mother’s Day, as we know it, was initiated in the 1850s as a way to improve sanitary conditions and decrease infant mortality.  After the Civil War, this led to Mother’s Friendship Day as a way of promoting peace.  The celebration of Mother’s Day has led to the commercial success of this special day.

In considering the history of this day, I reflected on some of the books that I have read since last mother’s day with mom’s and grandmothers.

I hope that readers get to spend some time with their mom, their kids or special role models today!

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Tanya Talaga: Fold Festival

Screen Shot 2018-05-07 at 11.14.21 PM“As long as there is action, there is hope”.

On Sunday the Fold Festival started with breakfast, singing and important discussion about Tanya Talaga’s  book, Seven Fallen Feathers which investigated the stories and the suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven indigenous youth who had moved to Thunder Bay to go to high school.

Tanya Talaga spent many years as a journalist with the Toronto Star before investigating this story.  Seven Fallen Feathers educates Canadians to consider the dreadful past of residential schools, the destruction of culture and terrible treatment of indigenous people while highlighting the strength and sense of community that supports these families.  Tanya lives in Toronto and is a single mother to two teenaged children.

The audience could imagine the Northern part of Ontario, a geographic area the size of France which supported a collection of 49 communities.  Many of these commutes are remote.  To travel, one must fly in and fly out.  There are no malls, no highways, no traffic lights.  There are no choices for students who want to continue their education but to leave their community for a highschool education.  These students end up travelling 400-500 km to board with another family just for the privilege of attending school which is something that many Canadians take for granted.

In 2011, Tanya was sent to Thunder Bay on assignment to understand why indigenous people in the North were not voting.  As she started her research and spoke to a chief, he asked why she was not writing about Jordan Wabash?  He was a teen who had been missing for 70 days.  She admitted that she kept asking about the election but soon realized that she needed to listen to the chief’s story.  What she heard led to her research and sharing a story that needed to be told, a story about 7 youth that had died and a story that had not received any national news coverage.

Tanya learned about Jethro, the first boy to go missing.  He had moved South and was lucky to move in with an aunt who loved him.  When she realized he was missing, the police did not take action telling her that he was “probably out partying like all the other native kids”.  The community mobilized and searched independently for Jordon over 6 days before the police reacted.

The audience also heard about Curran Strang.  He was an 18 year old from a community with a high suicide rate.  The school in his community had burned down and there was no clean water.  He moved to Thunder Bay bringing that baggage with him.

“So many threads from the past that echo into the live of the 7 and echo into the future”.

The festival participants appreciated a brief history lesson describing how thousands of children were taken away from “savage” parents (as quoted by John A. MacDonald) to be assimilated in residential schools.  Six thousand children never came home and those that survived lived with a trail of intergenerational trauma.  While many in the audience were likely aware of the story of Charlie Wenjack, I learned that he was only one of nine students who had run away that day.  His death was part of an inquest in 1967 asking why there were not schools in the indigenous communities which is a question that can still be asked today.

This non-fiction book has stayed with me.  How can we have students with no access to high school in their communities?  Why does federal funding for indigenous schools not match the provincial funding for public schools? What can we do to make a difference?

Tanya suggests that we need to “start to embrace the true history of the community, everyone needs to learn a little more”.  She suggested reviewing the truth and reconciliation book as “understanding will foster change”.  Reflecting on the importance of learning, I love that books can be a starting point for learning more about the true history.  All Canadians should read Seven Fallen Feathers, in fact, a portion of her profits support the indigenous high school in Thunder Bay.  Looking for more reading?  It might not be easy but pick up a memoir like Up Ghost River by Edmund Metatawabin which shares his terrible experiences in residential school.  This is a book that I had to put down at times, as the narrative was so difficult to read.  Looking for fiction?  Try Medicine Walk or Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese.  Not keen on reading?  Indian Horse is currently at the theatres.

“There is hope now, we are talking about issues that did not get talked about”.

I am thankful to have read Seven Fallen Feathers and to have had my copy signed.  Tanya Talaga has told the story of  7 remarkable youth, 7 families and the injustice and racism taking place in Thunder Bay (not to mention the province and the entire country).  This is a book that I will continue to recommend!

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Kim Thuy: The FOLD festival

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 10.53.09 PMWhat a fantastic weekend at the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity) Festival.  Attending sessions on Friday and Sunday, it is great to know that the remaining events will be available on audible soon.  The volunteers led by Jael Richardson did a fabulous job of coordinating a wonderful event full of enriching speakers and engaging panels, bringing together an audience that loves diverse literature.  It was terrific to listen, learn and embrace the experiences of the authors, to attend with members of the CanadianContent Group  on Goodreads (Kim, Srividya and Loretta) and a meet others who share a love of reading!

On Friday, we were awed by the Lunch n’ Lit with Kim Thuy, who was being interviewed by Catherine Hernandez (author of Scarborough).  I had been hoping to meet Kim since reading Ru in 2009 and enjoyed her subsequent books, Man and Vi.  Kim was a powerhouse of storytelling, sharing her experiences with enthusiasm and laughter.  The audience was silent as she shared her experience travelling as one of the “boat people” from Vietnam at the age of 10.  Prior to the trip she shared that she had been “born weak”, allergic to everything and scared of many things.

She did not offer details of the trip on the boat but somehow, this journey cured her of her allergies and built her strength.  Her family collaborated with another family to make walls of used rice bags, forming a tent which 13 people shared, sleeping, pieced together like the shapes in the video game tetris.  She spoke of her first meal in Malaysia – sardines and later the encouragement of her father to see  the positive side of finding worms in their fish – that the family would be eating extra protein!  It is hard to imagine living in a refugee camp yet she shares her story voicing the experience of many refugees today.

Her family was stateless when they were accepted by Canada.  Since they spoke French, they were sent to Quebec.  Before leaving, doctors checked each traveler in a public line up, pulling at her pants and assessing her gender.  She still thinks of that indignity of this examination and has plans to speak to a group of doctors at an upcoming event.  She takes her responsibility seriously and accepts opportunities to speak to her experience, speaking up for other refuges who may not have a voice.

She commented on the different perspectives on refugees, how some may think that her family had moved to Canada and took 13 jobs instead of seeing that her family had enriched Canada with 13 professionals contributing to this country.  She noted that some may be unsure or afraid of refugees but how that they just need to get to know them, to have a conversation and to learn about their experiences.  She described refugees as “super-heroes”, who had walked many kilometres and endured the “ultimate cross-fit” to survive.  She described them as “stronger than strong” and I am thankful that she had shared her own story and that of others through her beautiful fiction.  These stores help readers to understand the hardships and danger refugees experience and reflect on the hope, resilience and strength refugees bring to Canada.

It is hard to imagine Kim’s mother leaving her parents.  She had begged her mother to allow her youngest brother to join her family, saving him from certain death in the minefields of Cambodia.  Her grandfather had decide between certain death in the minefields versus sending him afloat, knowing he was likely to die either way, but hopeful that he would have a better life.

After struggling through a degree in linguistics, she continued her education, becoming a lawyer before writing Ru at the age of 40.  Her latest book, Vi, was inspired by the strength of her cousin.  She had fled Vietnam with her four children leaving her husband, who lacked the courage to escape, behind.  She worked multiple jobs to rebuild a life for her family in Canada.  In the days before the internet, Kim’s family had been reunited with this cousin after pouring over phone books at the library, searching for Vietnamese names which could be family.

Kim described the inspiration she gains from meeting people and hearing their stories.  She has met many friends, by taking taxis, and she treasures the stories taxis drivers have shared.  She met a driver from Cambodia on a trip to Paris, France.  His father and brother had been killed right in front of their family.  The brother’s only crime was that he wore glasses and looked like an intellectual.  Each of  his remaining siblings were sent off to different groups.  At 16 years old, he was sent to work in a sweet potato field, being denied the ability to cooking surviving death for stealing potatoes by falling “dead” and covering himself in dirt.  He lived in the jungle for 2 years with only his boxer shorts after his clothes were stolen.  Years later, he was reunited with his mother in France.  She remained in the same apartment until each of her remaining 7 children were reunited.  These stories touch Kim and she is inspired to share them with others to understand the plight of refugees.

“Every person you meet will teach you something”

If you have not read Ru, Man or Vi, it is time!  These stories are emotional tales of survivors who have fled terrible situations and started over in Canada.  They are stories that should spark an interest in learning more about the history of refugees and make us think about how we can make a difference.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Kim as she signed my books.  She clearly has many more stories to share!  She mentioned that she enjoys joining book clubs in person or via Skype and since she often travels to Toronto, I am hopeful to arrange a book club dinner with her.  It would be amazing to learn more about her life experiences and about her writing process!

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Heather Tucker: Book Club


Nicola, Shannon, Jill, Susan, Heather Tucker, Kim, Shalom and Christine (May 2, 2018)

Book club is aways a great evening, sharing books with a great group of friends but this month we were lucky to have a special guest join us.  After enjoying The Clay Girl, one of our members (thank you Shannon) arranged a fantastic evening and Heather Tucker joined us to talk about her amazing, first book.

Screen Shot 2018-05-05 at 8.58.14 AM

Sent by Heather 

An avid fan of book clubs, we were the 80th group that she had joined.  Always a storyteller, she had been an avid journal writer and hone her writing craft writing policy.  Turning 50 was a transition, leading her to write fiction, after “half a century of research”.

“The problem with writing non-fiction is that you are not supposed to lie and I wanted to change the endings”.

Although Heather touched on personal research from the book, we focused on the professional experiences that influenced The Clay Girl.  She worked as a public health nurse for many years, working in social housing units before leading the night shift on a psychogeriatric unit.  These diverse experiences were rich in stories.  She also worked with bereaved families and as an addiction counsellor during her eclectic career.  Being a registered nurse myself, I have always appreciated the range of opportunities and how each nurse has had a range of unique roles which enrich experiences and impact patient experiences.  These roles tend to leave a legacy of patient stories that change and stay with you.

“It is never too late to reach a goal”.

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art by Heather

It was important for Heather to impart a sense of hope and resilience in The Clay Girl.  Despite statistics that many abused children become abusers, Heather got to choose the ending and wrote the story she needed to tell.  She wanted to write about amazing kids – those that survive and help others, kids that become rescuers like Ari.  Her writing has clearly struck a chord with many readers and she even received a thank you email from a step dad who appreciated her making Len, Ari’s stepdad, a hero in the book.

We loved that Heather shared her journals.  They are beautiful mixed media projects full of her own zentangle art, calendars, meaningful quotations and pictures. She gave permission to take pictures and for her creative pages to be shared in this post.

Heather told the story of her epiphany, realizing that her previous journals no longer reflected who she was.  As she prepared for a trip, she realized that she would not want to share these thoughts with her family should the plane crash.  Before her trip, she left a note saying that if the plane goes down to burn the books.  After arriving home, she drove them to her farm and released her old thoughts into a winter fire.

After 50 years of working with words, she said she was ready to spend the next 50 playing with words (and laughed that if she had more time, she would like another 50 years to to be a potter).  She realizes the huge value in writing to work out issues and had shared this advice when counselling others.  Heather took some writing courses including one taught by Michael Redhill (we enjoyed meeting him and he won the 2017 Giller Prize with his book Bellevue Square).  She started writing short-stories and between the ages of 50 and 60, wrote 6 or 7 novels.  An agent connected with her after the recommendation of a contest judge. The Clay Girl grew from a short story called On the Way to Sydenham I Met a Walrus.

We were curious about the possibility of a sequel to The Clay Girl and Heather reassured the group that she is working on Cracked Pots.  Originally The Clay Girl had been too long for a first book.  Bookstores generally devote one inch of space or 350 pages to new authors so The Clay Girl was only part of her story.  The remainder will form Cracked Pots and she gave us a few hints about what is to come.  She described the inspiration for the title, sharing the Japanese art of Kintsugi where broken pots are more valuable than perfect pots when they are pieced together with gold.

We had ample time for questions and learned that she had a great story about submitting her work, expecting to wait for up to 6 months for an answer and being signed within 2 days!  The Clay Girl is now in its’ tenth printing!

When asking for more details about Jasper (the imaginary seahorse), we learned that Heather had written about resiliency in her professional capacity and that in this resource for parents had suggested that children need someone in their life who is there for them, creative outlets and a positive voice.  Being fascinated by children who coped with challenges by hearing voices inspired Jasper.  Specific to seahorses, she had wondered how they stay up right?  Seahorses have an air bubble for a bladder and in rough seas use their tales to grab onto something which spoke to Ari who has a spark inside and takes hold of supports.   She likened the character Mikey to a dragonfly – fascinating, beautiful with an art for self-preservation and survival knowing that they have been found in fossils.

Like all of us around the table, Heather loves to read.  She acknowledged that she had limited access to books (the bible and encyclopedias) as a child but she had vivid memories of waiting for the book mobile.  She reminisced about when she “met” Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew as reading was an escape.

“I loved not only reading them but becoming part of their world”

Now, Heather always has an audio, paper and e-book in progress.  When asked about some book recommendations she suggested Homegoing, The Underground Railroad, Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, anything by Barbara Kingsolver and poetry by Mary Oliver.  She also gushed about The Humans by Matt Haig and Tim Winton’s Cloud Street and The Riders.

The entire evening was a great deal of fun and we appreciated talking about The Clay Girl and having our books signed!  Thanks to Heather for sharing her love of reading, writing process, inside details on the characters of The Clay Girl and her beautiful journals.  She was inspiring, engaging and an amazing storyteller!  We are looking forward to her next novel and hope to enjoy her company in the future!

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41. The Clay Girl (Heather Tucker)

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 10.12.27 PMEvery once and a while, a book that is unknown and that comes with no pre-conceived expectations blows me away.  The Clay Girl is an amazing story, sadly disturbing yet hopeful.  It is a book that I will continue to ponder and marvel at Hariet’s strength and resilience.  The point of view is unique and it is beautifully written (not to mention the sea horses that mark the pages).

The novel was introduced to our book club by our friend Shannon who had not read it but heard a glowing review from a friend.  We are thrilled that Heather Tucker has accepted an invitation to join our book club for dinner tonight!

We had been warned that the first part of the book might be a bit confusing.  I admit that I read the first 30 pages before bed and needed to reread those same 30 pages the next day.  Whether I had jut been too tired for my first reading or needed to repeat the text to get acclimated to Hariet’s (also known as Ari) voice, it was worth a second read and once I got in the groove of the narrative, I could not put the book down!

The cover shares that Hariet and her sisters were impacted by their father who had “blown his head off” although the reader must try and understand the death through Hariet’s eight year old eyes.  The trauma lead to the redeployment of the six girls to stay with various friends and family.  Hariet (and Jasper, her imaginary seahorse) travel to Cape Breton to stay with Aunt Mary and her partner Nia who are known to “eat little girls” yet who share love, kindness and a sense of  stability that Hariet had never known.

Hariet is forced to the return to the drama and dysfunction under her mother’s care.  The reader is gutted by the descriptions of abuse and neglect yet feels hopeful for Hariet who is resilient and bright.  She meets heroes along the way who encourage, love and support and encourage her to thrive despite her horrible home life.

The Clay Girl is not an easy read but I am shocked that it has not been promoted widely.  I can’t help but pondering Fall on Your Knees, a book that I read many years ago with a similar disturbing storyline.  I am surprised that The Clay Girl has not been discussed with the Goodreads CanadianContent group and I will be sharing my recommendation.

It is a story that anyone working with children and families should read.  Health professionals and teachers need to think of this story as they help children through their struggles and encourage their potential.

Prior to meeting the author, I reviewed her website and was not surprised to learn that she has worked as a teacher, a nurse in both public health and psychiatry as well as a bereavement counsellor.  Tonight will be a fun evening and the discussion should be lively as our book club is  well-represented by teachers and health care professionals.

Still not sold?  Check out the trailer for Clay Girl.

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40. Fruit (Brian Francis)

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 9.48.17 PMListening to Fruit was like a walk back through the 1980s.  Set in Sarnia, I would have missed this 2004 novel if it were not for my goal of completing the 100 Novels that Make You Proud to Be Canadian List.  Fruit became my 45th book from this list and was a contender of the 2009 Canada Reads (before I became a dedicated fan of this annual battle of the books).

It is the internal monologue of a Peter Paddington, a 13 year old boy who is struggling with his weight and his identity.  As a coping mechanism he begins to create bedtime “movies” in his mind, fantasies that include the fact that his nipples talk to him as his imagination distracts him from his day-to-day challenges at home and at school.  Although there are some amusing anecdotes, especially with his dysfunctional family, it is heartbreaking to understand the insecurity and loneliness Peter experiences as he questions his sexuality and struggles to fit in.

It is interesting to reflect on 1980s details, stores like Consumer’s Distributing, Woolco and Suzy Sheer that were part of my own teenage years (in fact, the downtown Brantford Public Library is situated in the old Woolco location).  He borrowed a sweatband and worked out to the Jane Fonda workout album.  I still remember my mom’s double album set complete with pictures!

As I listened, I reflected on the challenges many young people experience and how difficult highschool can be.  I think that this would be a great book for teachers to read and consider how they can support students.  I hope that it would be eye-opening for students to consider how their actions and comments hurt other students while thinking about ways to support each other.

It was interesting to learn more about Brian Francis.  He hails from Toronto and as I reviewed his website, I realized that I had already enjoyed his second book, Natural Order.

“I always wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. By that I mean, in order to be a writer, I had to write. Part of the problem for most young writers is figuring out what they want to write about. So I spent most of my twenties starting short stories (but rarely finishing them), penning melodramatic poems and fantasizing about how great life would be once I was a published author”. Brain Francis

Like many writers, he loves book clubs and I wonder if he would ever consider traveling West for a discussion with our Brantford book club?  I would love to hear more about his writing process and after reading the above quote (from his website), I am inspired that there is hope for my dream of becoming an author!

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39. Sister of Mine (Laurie Petrou)

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 11.42.44 PMThank you to Harper Collins for sharing a review copy of Sister of Mine for an honest review.  

Sister of Mine is a book that should be read in one sitting.  It is a page turner and it is great to read glimpses of the town of Grimsby in the descriptions of St. Margaret’s.  The novel  is a story of sisters, of loyalty and of secrets.  The crime is reported on the first page leading the reader in a struggle to understand what happened leading up to the fire as they discover the complex relationship the sisters share.

Penny and Hattie are bound together through loss and secrets.  Their father had disappeared,  their mother died, they are well-known in their small, lakeside town.   When a fire saved Hattie from her terrible husband, the sisters were bound closer by their past and their secrets leading to resentment, bitterness and settling the score.

It is difficult to say more about this book without risking spoilers so I will suggest this book for a beach day, a lazy afternoon or a quiet evening at home.

Looking to learn more about the author?  Check out my blog post from the latest Grimsby Author Series event with Laurie Petrou, who spends her mornings writing at the Station 1 Coffeehouse in Grimsby.

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