Review of “Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel” by James Markert

This novel is about a hotel in California that has a fountain at its center, the water from which restores the memories of those who drink from it. The water has some deleterious side effects however, so the restoration of clarity for those with dementia comes with a cost. Robert Gandy, a sculptor by trade, built the hotel for his wife Magdalena, who was born in Tuscany in 1866 but had to escape (for reasons we find out later) when she was seventeen. Along with Juba, another friend from Tuscany, the three took a boat to America and used Robert’s family’s money to build the hotel, which opened in 1887.

The Tuscany Hotel was abandoned after the death of Magdalena six years earlier, but now, in 1946, Robert, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s with intermittent moments of clarity, goes back to the hotel to finish what he considers his life’s work before he dies. Vitto, Robert and Magdalena’s son, who just came home from the war and is suffering from acute PTSD, goes after his father. He is joined by his wife Valerie, their five-year-old son William, and by Juba, who mysteriously knows they are back at the hotel.

The hotel grounds are like a museum, filled with statues of Greek gods and goddesses carved by Robert when he was younger. The walls of the rooms are all painted with pictures from the Renaissance done by Vitto when he was a small child and apparently a child prodigy. Now they all work together to restore the hotel, and Robert puts an ad in the paper declaring that the hotel is reopening. He specifically invited those inflicted with memory loss to come and drink from its magic waters.

The elderly begin flocking to the hotel. They all find their own kind of renewal at the hotel, along with some answers to the secrets that Robert, Magdalena, and Juba had been hiding all those years.

Discussion: The surprising revelations about the mysteries of the hotel did not impress me as well developed, and I found them to be absurd in any event. Also, Vitto’s war memories struck me as over the top and not at all convincing – it seemed as if the author crammed every bad thing that could have happened into this one soldier’s thirteen months at war. The subplot with the newspaper reporter seemed ridiculous as well.

None of the characters were that fleshed out; it felt as if the protagonists’ lives took a back place to relating stories about the Greek gods. This overriding theme, which took up most of the narrative space of the book, was not disclosed in the publisher summary.

One must, however, give credit for the lovely cover for the book.

Rating: 2/5

Published by Thomas Nelson, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2019

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Review of “The Guinevere Deception” by Kiersten White

The King Arthur stories are so numerous and varied that they offer a lot of opportunity for reworking. This appealing re-telling of the legend for young adults adds diversity, a coming-of-age aspect, and unexpected romance and gender reversals. Most significantly, the focus in this version of the legend is on Guinevere, Arthur’s bride, rather than on Arthur. As the author writes in her Acknowledgments at the end, she wanted to emphasize “the girls and women overlooked in stories and in life, who still find ways to create magic and grow in power and truth.”

Princess Guinevere, 16, comes to Camelot because Guinevere has been matched in marriage with 18-year-old Arthur, the King of Camelot. Arthur was anointed after he was able to remove the sword called Excalibur, deeply embedded in a stone, which had previously held fast against all other attempts to extract it. The great wizard Merlin, Arthur’s mentor, pointed out that only the “true king” of Camelot could remove the sword from the stone. Arthur, thus recognized as King of Camelot, vowed to bring goodness to the Kingdom. In order to do so, he had to push back the forces of the Dark Queen and magic. Alas, this also meant banishing Merlin from the land.

Merlin believed in Arthur, and refused to leave him unprotected. Thus he sent his daughter to claim she was Guinevere, the princess from a faraway kingdom promised in marriage to Arthur. Although she felt like a fraud, Guinevere also believed in Arthur’s vision, and would do whatever she could to protect him from any threats. While she did not possess the full panoply of Merlin’s skills, she did know some elements of magic, and she knew how to sense it in others:

“Until magic was truly gone, it could threaten him. She would be the shield against any magic seeking to destroy what Arthur was doing here. As ill-prepared as she felt, she would not fail him. She would live up to Merlin’s legacy.”

As for Arthur, he thought the problem was elsewhere:

“[It is with] other men. We do not need a dark queen when we have so much darkness within ourselves. But we will beat back the chaos and the darkness.”

Guinevere was not so sure, and saw perils that looked like magic all around her. And indeed, there was increasing menace in the kingdom. Not least, a mysterious masked knight who was winning all the tournaments seemed not quite human to Guinevere. And one of the biggest dangers of all? You might say it was Guinevere’s hormones. She knew, as only an “arranged” wife, she was a companion to Arthur but not a priority to him. She desperately wanted to be loved.

Evaluation: Some young adult books seem “too young” for me at my advanced age, but this one was endearing and entertaining. It helped that there was more at stake in this story than high school and homework; the very future of civilization was at risk. Moreover, while the men were physically adept, their strength was no match for the intelligence, creativity, and courage of the young women in this story. I thought it was an excellent retelling of King Arthur. Best of all, it is only the first book of a trilogy. Unlike some first books of trilogies, I did not feel cheated at the end, and it can even be read as a standalone. But I can’t wait for the next installments.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Delacorte Press, 2019

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Kid Lit Review of “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family” by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali

You may recognize the author’s name from her success at the 2016 Summer Olympics, where she earned the bronze medal competing for the American fencing team (while wearing a hijab). Ibtihaj Muhammad was born and raised in Maplewood, New Jersey, and is of African American descent. Her parents converted to Islam and raised their five children as Muslims. S.K. Ali is an award-winning author of books for young adults.

This picture book for ages 4-10 tells the story of Faizah, a little girl who is about to get her first hijab. Her mother suggests she choose pink, but Faizah wants a blue hijab matching the one worn by her sister Asiya. Faizah reasons:

“Asiya’s hijab isn’t a whisper.
Asiya’s hijab is like the sky on a sunny day.
The sky isn’t a whisper.
It’s always there, special and regular.”

Asiya has gotten teased and bullied because of her hijab, but Mama helps shore up her confidence, explaining:

“Some people won’t understand your hijab… But if you understand who you are, one day they will too.”

Mama also advises Asiya:

“Don’t carry around the hurtful words that others say. Drop them. They are not yours to keep. They belong only to those who said them.”

Faizah can’t wait to wear the same hijab as Asiya: “Saying I’ll always be here, like sisters. Like me and Asiya.”

The author, in an Afterword, explains that she too was bullied as a child for wearing the hijab. She writes:

“You wouldn’t think that a simple headscarf could cause such commotion, but throughout my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, it has. It isn’t easy, and I’m sure girls today face the same treatment – or worse – than what I faced.”

Thus she was inspired to write this story to help children in the same position see kids like themselves in a picture book, and read about feeling pride in wearing a hijab. She wants them to hear “that the parts of ourselves that might make us appear ‘different’ are worth celebrating.”

Author and Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad (Courtesy of Hachette Book Group, Inc.)

She concludes:

“My hijab is part of me – it’s a testament to my faith and love of Allah. . . . My hijab is beautiful. To the young girls out there reading this story who are hijabis: So is yours.”

S.K. Ali added in an interview about the book:

“THE PROUDEST BLUE is an exploration of the pride, warmth and happiness that many Muslim girls feel, twinned with the reality of a world that doesn’t accept that this could be the case. . . . . this constant internal turmoil didn’t and doesn’t now erase the beauty we found in being Muslim, and the strength we developed in sustaining that belief in an increasingly hostile world.

That’s why THE PROUDEST BLUE ends on a note of the kind of gutsy resilience that’s carried Ibtihaj and I and all our sisters in the faith to who we are today as strong women, women who don’t let others dictate the terms of our happiness.”

The illustrator, Hatem Aly, uses a style reminiscent of comics and graphic novels. His ink-wash and watercolor artwork cleverly shows the bullies only as faceless silhouettes, while the sisters stand out as well-defined in their strength.

Evaluation: Bullying by children aimed at those perceived to be “different” for any reason remains common and often devastating to those on the receiving end. Books like this may help increase the resilience of those who are attacked and the understanding of those who aren’t. The story also is commendable for showing the importance of the loving support of family members.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little Brown and Company, 2019

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Review of “Scavenge the Stars” by Tara Sim

Author Tara Sim used The Count of Monte Cristo as a template for the plot of this young adult fantasy, re-situating the action in a different world, updating it, switching genders of some of the characters, and adding a lot of diversity. The original story is quite complicated, and Sim does a nice job in making all the identity swapping, manipulation, and deception understandable and interesting, rather than tedious, to untangle.

We first meet Amaya Chandra as a young girl. She is working on a debtor ship staffed by children sold by their parents to work off debts. The ship is commanded by Captain Zharo, a villain who, like the other bad guys in the story, is a caricature of evil, with no nuance whatsoever. The non-villains, on the other hand, are drawn in shades of gray, often musing about whether to do the right thing or satisfy their less admirable desires for revenge, oblivion, or other negative behaviors.

After Amaya, now a young adult, dares to abandon her work on the ship to rescue a man she sees drowning, Zharo is enraged. Amaya and the man, whose name is Boon, are forced to jump ship to save their lives. When they are safe, Boon tells Amaya that in payment for rescuing him, he will help her get revenge on Zharo if she helps him destroy his own enemy, a nobleman named Kamon Mercado. She agrees, and Boon proposes they get to Kamon through his son, Cayo.

With Boon’s help, Amaya assumes the disguise of a rich Countess, “Yamaa.” She soon meets Cayo Mercado, and reluctantly finds him quite likable. Cayo is not at all like his father, and Amaya comes to realize that destroying Kamon by hurting his son would not be fair or satisfactory in any way. Moreover, as she and Cayo become closer to one another, they discover truths about the other characters and their own family histories that change everything they thought they knew.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book. The world-building was sketchy, but the story was complex enough already without having to learn all the sociopolitical aspects of this world. I look forward to seeing how the story evolves in the next book.

Rating: 3.25/5

Published by Disney Hyperion, 2020

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Review of “Hour of the Wolf” by Håkan Nesser

Håkan Nesser is one of Sweden’s most popular crime writers. This particular title is the seventh of a “Nordic Noir” police procedural series featuring Chief Inspector Van Veeteren.

Much of the book is narrated by a criminal who is being sought by the [fictional] Maardam police force, members of whom narrate the remainder. Homicide Chief Inspector Reinhart has taken over for the man everyone continues to call “The Chief Inspector,” Van Veeteren – still a legend and still revered by everyone including his successor.

The story begins with a tense scenario in which a drunk man accidentally kills a young boy along the side of the road and flees the scene of the crime. He feels bad, but then becomes unhinged after he receives an anonymous letter from “a friend” saying he knows about the death and demands money in exchange for silence.

We don’t learn the identity of either the criminal or the blackmailer for most of the book, but neither do the somewhat feckless police. Then bodies begin to pile up that seem connected somehow – or maybe not. All the parties involved reflect on the way in which, once billiard balls are set in motion, their path is inevitable – the consequences are inexorable. [The Swedish title for the book is Carambole, which refers to a type of billiards, the object of which is to score points by caroming one’s own cue ball off both the opponent’s cue ball and the object ball(s) on a single shot.] In any event, Van Veeteren gets drawn to the investigation, and his instincts – ironically triggered by a game of chess rather than billiards, help break open the case.

Evaluation: This book is more about policing than about characters; we never get insights into who any of them are beyond one or two dimensions. Fortunately the crime and policing aspects are fascinating, and, along with a building of tension as the story progresses, makes for a diverting read.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in Sweden in 1999; Published in the U.S. in a translation by Laurie Thompson by Pantheon, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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