Book Review: The Presence of Absence by Simon Van Booy

The Presence of Absence

Image of The Presence of Absence

Author: Simon Van Booy

Buy on Amazon

Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

Max Little is dying and wants to leave behind something of his life. A young writer of novels, novellas, and short stories, Max grew up in Wales, is of Pakistani descent, and now reclines in a New York hospital bed, in full acceptance of his terminal illness.

Not wanting to beg the reader’s pity, Max does what he does best by writing, and begins his straightforward narrative by marveling at the magic between reader and writer: “You do realize that by turning the page you’ve decided to follow a complete stranger down a possibly meaningless path?” he says. “Stories lead us behind the curtain of somebody else’s life into the deepest chambers of our own.” Max considers that by the time the reader puts eyes to his words, he, himself, might be absent. “None of that matters,” he assures, “because our lives are braided here and now by this sentence.” Seemingly delighted to embellish his point, Max continues, “For instance, I’m writing this in the present, and you’re reading it in the present. Except there is a gulf of time between us. I might even be dead. Yet here I am.”

In Simon Van Booy’s extraordinary novel, The Presence of Absence, each well-wrought sentence builds upon the next, taking us deeper into Max Little’s life with staggering lucidity. The first part of the story is constructed in descending numerical chapters that decline with a sense of fatalism as the narrator reconstructs his life’s highpoints interspersed with uncanny, existential observations on the business of life, death, and dying. Max confesses his mind’s innerworkings with adroit ease. “Do people ever walk around their homes, wondering which room they will die in? Whether it will be a Wednesday night or Saturday morning at the table with toast and coffee?”  And “What would happen to things like knives and forks once I was gone. Would my wife keep them?”

At the center of Max Little’s concern is his wife, Hadley, and the reader is taken to their first meeting even as Max shares his ruminations on how to best tell Hadley he is dying. Pondering his plight alone on a beach, he arrives at a profound spiritual truth, when he comes to consider himself in the third person. Max posits, “When you nurture the ability to witness your life in the third person, in extremis, or through prayer or meditation, there is an unavoidable shift in consciousness as you realize that who you are is not simply how you feel—but a presence beyond desire of any sort.”

Jeremy Abrams’s mother is dying. He comes into Max’s life through the coincidence of their shared New York therapist. The men bond over the similarities in their life circumstances, and as their friendship grows, it is Jeremy who suggests that Max begin keeping the journal the reader now holds in their hands. Max writes, “You might wonder what dying people look forward to. Being visited, yes, but also being left alone—though that takes a lot of practice, managing thoughts . . . I also look forward to reassuring people it’s okay this is happening.”

In The Presence of Absence, Part Two is theatrically introduced as a quick, black scene change. The section brilliantly holds the subheading, Sotto Voce. The third person story moves forward eight years in time, and fittingly alternates between breathtaking poetry, poignant one-liners, and what miraculously transpires from the connections formed in Max Little’s absence. An insight comes at the hands of one such connection, who stands at a sink washing cups in a basin and thinks, “Like the cups draining on a tea towel, absence has a practical value in how it shapes presence.”

A mind-bending, affecting story that breaks the heart open with startling clarity, this book makes the reader want to take pen in hand to underline The Presence of Absences’ passages. That author Simon Van Booy has taken a universal subject most prefer to shy away from and creatively crafted an accessible work of high art is an unparalleled literary feat. The deft use of language in this tour de force fulfills its own mission when Van Booy summarizes, “Language is a map leading to a place not on the map.”   

Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy is the award-winning and best-selling author of nine books of fiction, and three anthologies of philosophy.

He has written for the New York Times, the Financial Times, the New York Post, NPR, Poets & Writers, and the BBC. His books have been translated into many languages and optioned for film. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. In 2013, he founded Writers for Children, a project which helps young people build confidence in their storytelling abilities through annual awards.

Beasts Of The Earth by James Wade

Beasts of the Earth

Image of Beasts of the Earth

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Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

We know from the start LeBlanc is wounded, that his limping spirit is tantamount to the spare, prison-like furnishings of the low-ceilinged duplex he’s rented on the shanty side of town for the past 20 years, that his economic speech has little to do with still waters running deep, that it’s born of a wariness from what he’s hiding.

It is the economic downturn of 1987 in Coral County, Texas, where thirty-something Harlan LeBlanc works alongside the small crew of Carter Hills High School’s Grounds and Maintenance Department, and partakes of a cursory friendship with a troubled, young co-worker named Gene Thomas. A man of habit gripping to a rote, daily schedule, LeBlanc tends the high school’s football field with each step carefully taken, in a manner telling of his mind frame. “LeBlanc reveled in such undertakings—the opportunity to create boundaries, to ensure the proper area for the rules to be applied. There was an element of control, an upholding of justice, that brought peace

to his mind.”  

It is 1965 in the bayou of Assumption Parrish, Louisiana, and 13-year-old Michael Fischer’s hardscrabble world grows harder when his regionally shunned, depraved criminal father is released from prison. “A boy should be happy when his father returns, but Michael was not happy. He had memories of Munday—memories distorted by time and hearsay—and though there existed still a longing for the comfort and protection of a father, dread guided the boy.” Used to being the man of the house for his morbidly obese mother and younger sister, Michael is in fear when his hard-drinking father is home, and only breathes easy when he habitually disappears.

After home circumstances take an unspeakable, dark turn at the hands of his father, Michael flees to the woods, where he’s met with more danger still, until he’s found by a dying recluse of a poet named Remus, who takes the injured Michael to his cabin, and begins the long road to repairing the traumatized, now displaced, youth.

Over time, the strangers warm to an alliance, and Michael “played at having a father, and Remus played at being one. But the past is not a thing to sit still, and there are no new beginnings. The world itself was begun only once. And since that beginning its every rotation has depended on the one before—each circumstance born from the last.”

Cassie Harper has broken Gene Thomas’s heart. A student at Carter Hills High, there is

more to her than meets the eye. When Cassie is found murdered on school grounds, it rocks the entire community. When circumstantial evidence comes to include Gene Thomas, it strikes LeBlanc too close to home, casting aspersions on his character, and giving rise to his secret, haunted past.  

Author James Wade treads a tight wire between Beasts of the Earth’s dual storylines. He deftly keeps the reader guessing about common ground throughout the tumult of the three-part storyThe tone is shadowy and off-kilter, with elements of gothic-tinged realism vested upon an innocent heart, and a mind in peril of becoming unhinged.

There is much to keep the reader invested. Wade’s pitch-perfect, personality-driven dialogue sings in the voice of life, and his ability to meld existential thought, situational metaphor, and cinematic setting is a full-bodied experience: As Harlan LeBlanc sets out to right a wrong from the past, “He walked along the river in the morning light and watched it widen and grow as it approached Port Neches and then on to the Gulf of Mexico, and he wondered if the river might hold itself or some piece of itself out there in all that ocean—might cling at some molecular level to whatever made it a river in the first place, salt or no salt. But he knew the answer and knew the difficulty in fighting back against an ever-growing tide.”

Beasts of the Earth satisfies the discerning reader. Its balanced, oscillating chapters are played out in riveting complete scenes that take you deeper into the gritty backstory of Harlan LeBlanc, a man you care about, and somehow understand from what he’s not saying, while the town around him holds him in suspicion and his moral compass covertly guides him to truth and justice sought at a personal cost.

A soul-deep exploration of a wounded man in crisis, James Wade’s Beasts of the Earth follows his two widely acclaimed novels, All Things Left Wild, and River, Sing Out, and secures his position as an author of extraordinary merit.  

Author James Wade

James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of River, Sing Out and All Things Left Wild, a winner of the prestigious MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction, and a recipient of the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel from the Western Writers of America. His third novel, Beasts of the Earth, is now available from Blackstone Publishing.

Book Review: A Place to Land by Lauren Denton

A Place to Land

Image of A Place to Land

Author: Lauren K. Denton

Release Date: October 4, 2022

Publisher/Imprint: Harper Muse

Buy on Amazon

Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton

“Lauren Denton unfurls a mystery by reconciling a buried past with a modern-day story set in a town with vibrant characters brimming with Southern charm.”

A delightful Southern story extolling the deep bond of sisters, Lauren Denton’s A Place to Land has a heartwarming tone as it unravels a 40-year-old mystery coming back to haunt a cast of small-town characters whose lives are entwined in Sugar Bend, Alabama, which sits on Little River, with a population of under 2,000 just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Violet and Trudy Figg have an extremely close relationship. Now both in their sixties, their bond comes from “more than just being sisters, more than sharing a home and parents and a fondness for chocolate pudding.” From elder sister Violet’s point of view, “It was a single request from their fragile, damaged mother that linked them with something thicker than blood.” “With a father who was often out on the road in his eighteen-wheeler, and a mother who spent most of her energy dodging blows . . . Violet had accepted her role of Trudy’s caretaker long ago.”  

In their youth, the sisters were complimentary opposites. Trudy enjoyed a wide reputation as a popular beauty pageant queen, while Violet was the quiet, introspective sort who spent most of her time outdoors.

The sisters now keep a steady schedule. “Trudy and Violet both navigated life the best way they knew how—for Trudy, it was working with her materials and setting the pieces just right, while for Violet it was through the birds . . . helping them on their way.”

Trudy creates eclectic visual art with the likes of shells, feathers, and driftwood, while Violet works as a surveyor for the Coastal Alabama Audubon Society. Together, the sisters own and operate Two Sisters Art and Hardware Goods in downtown Sugar Bend, where Trudy’s art is sold alongside souvenirs for tourists.

Eighteen-year-old Maya is seeking her place in the world. She’d “been put in the foster care system after the death of her grandmother, and she’d lived in ten different homes since then.” After turning 18, Maya signed the appropriate papers permitting herself to strike out on her own, and following her instincts, she stumbles upon the quaint town of Sugar Bend, which leads her to Violet and Trudy. After a dubious beginning, the sisters come to embrace her.

Frank Roby has an unhealed past with Violet. A retired law enforcement officer, his long ago romance with Violet came to an inexplicable end, which caused him to jump at the first opportunity to accept a job in another town. After 40 years, Frank moves back to Sugar Bend from Pensacola as a widower. In rekindling his interest in birds, he goes to a class at the local Audubon Society, where he is unwittingly paired as a trainee with 63-year-old Violet. Cautious and still harboring feelings for Violet, he keeps his sentiments for her under wraps.  

Liza Bullock is an outsider who’s worked for a year as the editor of The Sugar Bend Observer. Frustrated by living in a backwater, uneventful town, “If she could find a story with enough meat on its bones, she could write a sizzling expose and land herself at a copy desk in Birmingham or Atlanta.” When a decrepit johnboat “awash with age and river detritus” mysteriously rises from Little River, Liza’s reporter instincts are ignited.

Frank Roby’s nephew works as a Sugar Bend policeman and is in the habit of asking his retired uncle for assistance. When he asks Frank to investigate the suspicious boat awash on the banks of Little River, memories of the year 1981 flash to Frank’s mind, when he was a rookie cop in the throes of a promising future with Violet and was sent to the exact location to investigate a domestic disturbance.  

Unbeknownst to the young Frank of 1981, Violet’s sister had recently married local celebrity, Jay Malone, a successful businessman the whole town revered, and who owned the house Frank was sent to look into. At the time, Frank was unaware Violet had fears for her sister, that she suspected there was more to Jay Malone than met the eye, and that the bruises Trudy tried to hide were inflicted by his hand.

Author Lauren Denton unfurls a mystery by reconciling a buried past with a modern-day story set in a town with vibrant characters brimming with Southern charm. Secrets, coincidence, family loyalty, life choices, and questions of right versus wrong as viewed through the lens of the law are woven neatly in two timeframes, seamlessly linking all characters until they each achieve, seemingly by kismet, the perfect place to land.  

Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.

Buy on Amazon

Book Review: The Old Place by Bobby Finger

As it appears in The New York Journal of Books

The Old Place

Image of The Old Place

Author(s): 

Bobby Finger

Release Date: September 20, 2022

Publisher/Imprint: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Pages: 336

Buy on Amazon

Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton

Debut author Bobby Finger wields crisp, bright language in succinct, ample prose to reveal secrets deliberately hidden from the norms of social order. . . . poignant and memorable.”

Sixty-three-year-old Mary Alice Roth doesn’t know how to fill her days. Feeling wronged and slightly humiliated over her compulsory retirement as a high school teacher, she’s deeply invested in her local standing as a local Billington authority figure, though she’s unaware the community reputation she’s earned is equally divided between her abrasive personality, and sympathy for her tragic losses.

Thirty-something Josie Kerr is a fish out of water but intends to embrace it. Born and raised in Manhattan, she’s married to Travis, who grew up in an affluent family that owns a five-hundred-acre compound just north of Billington, Texas, a town “passersby didn’t really see until the fifth or sixth time they drove through it, a blip on a blip that existed mostly in retrospect.”  

When news of the death of Travis Kerr’s father arrives, Josie and Travis put their Brooklyn apartment on the market and relocate with their young son to Billington, Texas. Josie’s “New York City friends couldn’t believe how happy she seemed in a town so small it didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.” The optimistic Josie looks on the bright side. “In Texas she had a house. And she had family nearby. She even got a job at a school where teachers never left unless they were forced out or dead.”   

Mary Alice resents the existence of Josie, whom she considers the usurper of her school position, now that Josie is her replacement. Were it not for her best friend Ellie’s advice, the intimidating Mary Alice might get away with her repeated attempts at making Josie Kerr’s life miserable.

Ellie Hall is a divorcee who works in a nearby hospital. She has been Mary Alice’s friend for years since she and her son, Kenny, moved into the house next door. As single mothers with sons the same age who formed an immediate alliance, Ellie and Mary Alice enjoyed a strong friendship, until the common tragedy of each losing their son in the same timeframe set their close friendship adrift for 12 years, until Mary Alice reaches out to Ellie from the isolation of her retirement, and the two begin to reconnect over the habit of sharing morning coffee.

At “dark-thirty,” a knock comes to Mary Alice’s front door, and she opens it to discover a ghost from her past in the form of her sister, Katherine, who lives in Atlanta. Three years younger, the once close sisters haven’t spoken to each other since Katherine’s wedding decades before. It was a fight that caused their estrangement, and “Their lives had expanded in different directions, but when you followed the stories down to their roots, you’d find them joined in a million different ways.”

The attractive, well-to-do Katherine is there in person because Mary Alice doesn’t answer her texts, emails, or phone calls. Katherine tells Mary Alice she’s there on a mission “to fix your mess,” and demands she return with her to Atlanta.

When Katherine reveals the urgency of a call to action, the stunned Mary Alice knows the time has come to address what she’s taken great pains to hide from the Billington townspeople, with regard to what really happened to her son, Michael, who had a bond with Ellie’s son, Kenny, that was more than anyone knew. Wanting to forestall public knowledge of her duplicity, Mary Alice asks Katherine to wait with her for three days, until she’s on the other side of the annual Billington community picnic, of which she’s in charge.

For three days, the sisters revisit the tragedies of the past, which were centered on their family’s rural, multi-generational property known as The Old Place, which had been in their family since the early 19th century. “It was twenty minutes outside of town. Not east, toward Trevino, or north, toward the Hill Country, or west, toward Mexico, but south, toward nothing.” “Getting there required directions, not a map. . . . You felt the trip there as much as much as you saw it.”

Because it factored significantly as the setting of troubling stories involving both her husband and son, Mary Alice fears ever returning to The Old Place. In recalling a particular night in high school, when Katherine talked her into throwing a party at The Old Place while their parents were out of town, Mary Alice has reason to consider The Old Place unlucky grounds in her personal narrative. She considers that high school party “as the prologue of her life . . . the start of everything else. And all of it, absolutely all of it, was Katherine’s fault.”  

Debut author Bobby Finger wields crisp, bright language in succinct, ample prose to reveal secrets deliberately hidden from the norms of social order. The backstories of intertwined, multiple characters are brought to a common light, thematically including fear of public opinion in a setting that sings the praise of small-town Texas. The characters are fully realized as each reconciles their part in the story. Their mindsets are understandable, and their dynamic creates a delightful arc of plausible cause and effect to immerse the reader in an experience that’s poignant and memorable.       

Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.

Book Release!

An uplifting, modern day love story written in au currant language that will delight romance readers and more. Author Carol Van Den Hende keeps the reader engaged throughout the story of twenty-seven-year-old Orchard Paige, a beauty industry marketer who hopes to land a job through her company that will give her the chance to work in China, the land of her deceased mother’s ancestry. Orchid perseveres in the face of her unhealed wounds concerning her parents’ tragic death, even as she intends to work with the attractive, Phoenix, who runs a nonprofit organization aimed at supporting veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The author’s knowledge of marketing is informative and impressive, and her taut portrayal of the push and pull of attraction on the road to the eventual allowance of love will keep the reader rooting for Orchid’s happiness with page-turning, even-handed pacing. A heartwarming story full of hope and the promise of happy endings, Orchid Blooming will appeal to lovers of urban fiction and multi-cultural fiction.

A childhood tragedy followed her into adult life. Will she ever claim real happiness again?

Kind and generous, twenty-seven-year-old Orchid Paige will never forget that day. Living as best she can after witnessing her parents’ fatal accident, the beauty industry marketer yearns to win a promotion to China to connect to her mom’s ancestry. But with competition fierce, she despairs she’ll never make the grade… until she meets an encouraging man who makes her feel safe despite her usual distrust.

After Orchid convinces the handsome entrepreneur to let her gain experience at his nonprofit project, she’s determined to keep their relationship professional and ignore their powerful attraction. But when working on his military ad campaign for veterans triggers her own unresolved PTSD, she fears her confident mentor may be too good to be true even if she could trust him with her heart.

Can she conquer her vulnerabilities before she loses her chance at forever?

Orchid Blooming is the captivating first book in the Goodbye, Orchid women’s fiction series, and can be read as a standalone. If you like complex characters overcoming trauma, heart-warming stories, and compassionate connections, then you’ll adore award-winning author Carol Van Den Hende’s emotionally satisfying page-turner.

Carol Van Den Hende is the award-winning author of “Orchid Blooming” and “Goodbye, Orchid” which are inspired by wounded veterans and have won 20+ literary awards, including the American Fiction Award, IAN Outstanding Fiction First Novel Award, and 2020 Royal Dragonfly for Disability Awareness.

Buzzfeed, Parade, and Travel+Leisure named “heartwarming, heartbreaking” Goodbye, Orchid a most anticipated read. Glamour Magazine recommended this “modern, important take on the power of love.” The International Pulpwood Queens, selected Goodbye, Orchid as a 2022 Bonus Book-of-the-Month.

Carol’s mission is unlocking optimism as a writer, speaker, strategist, Board member and Climate Reality Leader. One secret to her good fortune? Her humorous husband and twins, who prove that love really does conquer all.

Please sign up for Carol’s newsletter at carolvandenhende.com/contact or linktr.ee/cvdh

Interview with Carol Van Den Hende:

Q : Orchid Blooming follows your 2020, debut novel, Goodbye Orchid: To love Her, He Had to Leave Her. Can you tell us about the premise and continuation of the story?

A: Thanks for asking, Claire! For both books, I was inspired by people facing challenges. And honestly, who hasn’t faced difficulties in their life? Specifically, the story came to me after seeing a story in the news about a wounded veteran. However, the characters aren’t military people themselves. Rather, they work on military ad campaigns to help veterans.

Here’s the story. In Goodbye, Orchid, generous entrepreneur Phoenix Walker suffers an accident that changes him forever. When he wakes in the hospital, he’s thinking about the woman he loves, half-Asian Orchid Paige. He also remembers that she witnessed the death of her parents as a child, and is sensitive to images of trauma. Now that he’s become the very image of trauma, he has to decide – to love her, will he have to leave her without explaining why?

Orchid Blooming goes back in time to when this couple met. In this prequel, Orchid has worked hard to make a path for herself after being orphaned at the age of twelve. As an adult and successful executive in the beauty industry, she’s motivated to win a work assignment to China, to feel closer to her mother’s ancestry. However, competition is fierce and her best chance is to undertake nonprofit work with Phoenix. Except she must ignore their growing attraction and keep the relationship professional. Then, when they finally begin to admit their emotions, a secret threatens to implode all the trust they’ve built. One beta reader said that the secret “made my jaw drop!”

Q : In your September 2022 release, Orchid Blooming, Orchid Page, the 27-year-old main character, is a beauty industry marketer. What prepared you to write about her background in beauty marketing?

A : I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a long career as a brand marketer and strategist in the fun categories of chocolate, treats and snacks. During these 15+ years, I’ve named and launched new products, worked with amazing agencies on packaging design, been on set for advertising shoots, and so much more. I leaned on some of my favorite parts of these experiences, and also have friends who’ve worked in beauty.

Specifically, Orchid has the opportunity to work with an ad agency founder, and write what’s known as the “brief” for a new ad campaign. (The brief is just industry lingo for a document that lets the creative team know about the relevant target, insights, and benefits of the ad).

Beauty is a fitting industry for Orchid Paige because she comes into the story believing that the perfection of beauty and its curated images might protect her from negative experiences that could remind her of her traumatic past. As with character-driven novels, she’ll find the flaw in her misbelief.

Q : Orchid Blooming is both multicultural romance, and contemporary women’s fiction. Can you tell us how the story fits these genres?

Orchid Blooming has won awards for multicultural fiction and women’s fiction. People are often interested how the series fits these genres (as well as contemporary fiction!) First, the main character Orchid Paige is half-Asian and seeks to travel to China to feel closer to her mother’s memory. Secondly, the story is about her growth as she deals with traumatic events from her past. Ultimately, readers appreciate the hope and optimism in the book’s messages!

Q : Do you anticipate Orchid Blooming appealing to a particular reader demographic?

A: My Goodbye Orchid series appeals to book clubs, men and women, readers who enjoy multicultural characters, disability advocates, and wounded warriors, who inspired Phoenix and Orchid’s story.

Fans explain that they can relate to characters who’ve experienced difficulties in life, or they are readers who appreciate having their empathy deepened.

Q: In your book, you discuss post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What draws you to that subject?

A : Because Goodbye, Orchid was inspired by combat-wounded veterans, my research taught me about the challenges that they can face, including the physical and emotional journey to healing, the effects of PTSD, and sometimes, difficulty transitioning to a civilian career. Each book in this trilogy deals with an aspect of these challenges. My first novel, Goodbye, Orchid, describes Phoenix’s journey after a disabling accident, and was deeply researched with wounded veterans, medical professionals and psychologists.

Experts played a key role in my newest novel, Orchid Blooming, as well. SSGT Aaron Michael Grant read my entire manuscript and shared invaluable input based on his personal experience with PTSD. Clinical Director and trauma specialist Joe Dennis provided important perspective on healing trauma. They’re both thanked in my book acknowledgements, along with scores of others who’ve made this trilogy possible.

Speaking of trilogy, my third book is releasing in 2023. This book, titled Always Orchid, will touch on the difficulty veterans can face when demonstrating that their military skills are transferable to civilian jobs. Early readers have said “This story was captivating from beginning to end!”

Q : The character, Orchid Paige, is interested in connecting with her mother’s Chinese ancestry. What prepared you to write about this subject?

A : Like Orchid, I’m American born and ancestrally Chinese and likewise, I was intrigued how it’d feel to visit my parents’ home country. For more on this topic, please visit Claire Chao’s Remembering Shanghai blog in September, where I’ll be writing about that experience!

Q : . Can you tell us about your background in public speaking?

A : I’m an MBA, global brand marketer and digital strategist for Mars Incorporated, which has given me multiple opportunities to speak publicly.

When I joined the writing community, I was motivated to contribute by translating my experience into actionable knowledge for authors and publishers. For the last decade, I’ve taught foundational workshops on personal brand, visual identity and cover design, marketing strategies and mindset, among other topics at conferences like Writers’ Digest, Rutgers’ Writers Conference, RWA, IBPA and Novelists Inc. I’m proud when attendees provide testimonials like “Carol inspires me and fires me up every time!”

Writers can also find my advice in my Author Marketing Toolkit column at DIYMFA.

I hope readers and writers will find me there as well as on social media: https://linktr.ee/cvdh

Q : You founded Azine Press, which is known for having social and environmental goals into its mission. What inspired you to create Azine Press?

I’m a purpose-driven leader who aims to inspire hope and empathy for people and planet. So when I decided to start a publishing company, it was important that it be registered as a B Corps, or benefits corporation. B Corps “envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good…which is purpose-driven and creates benefit for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.” This is consistent with my mission to share stories that encourage inclusivity and recognize humanity’s interconnectedness, while pushing the boundaries of why and how we do business.

My alma mater recently interviewed me about my strategies for staying agile as an executive and author-publisher. You’ll see the themes of starting with “why” and cultivating optimism play out among my top seven tips: https://alumni.rutgers.edu/stay-connected/alumni-news-and-stories/how-to-reinvent-your-life/

What great questions, Claire, thanks so much for welcoming me here!

ORCHID BLOOMING HONORS
■ 2022 International Book Award Finalist: Women’s Fiction and Multicultural Fiction
■ 2022 Beach Book Festival General Fiction Honorable Mention
■ 2022 New York Book Festival General Fiction Honorable Mention
■ 2022 July International Impact Award Multicultural Fiction
■ 2022 Summer Outstanding Creator Awards Grand Prize Honorable Mention; 2nd Place Women’s Fiction, Multicultural, Romance, and Drama; 3rd Place Literary & Contemporary Fiction; Honorable Mention Best Couple
■ 2022 Hollywood Book Festival Honorable Mention General Fiction

Book Release: Hannah and Ariela by Johnnie Bernhard

As it appears in The New York Journal of Books

Hannah and Ariela

Image of Hannah and Ariela

Johnnie Bernhard

Publisher/Imprint: Texas Christian University Press

Pages: 176

Buy on Amazon

Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton

“In this tensely wired, swiftly paced, starkly realistic story of human trafficking set beautifully among nuanced clashing cultures, author Johnnie Bernhard defines each character’s motivation to portray the collision of opposing sides while casting a wide lens on a human atrocity.”

The human heart is fearless in author Johnnie Bernhard’s Hannah and Ariela. It’s a vividly drawn, timely story shedding light on an unspeakable crime against humanity.  

Hannah Durand takes the coat her husband left by the door, wraps his scarf around her, and pushes against the winter’s howling blue norther to open the front door. Casting her teary eyes upon the 640-acre Texas working ranch that she and her husband ran for 48 years, the newly widowed, 73-year-old Hannah speaks aloud: “August Durand. I know you’re here. I can feel you in the wind and in the breaking of cedar branches covered in ice. Hold me just one more time and tell me what you think I should do with the rest of my life, my life without you.”

An unconventional, self-sufficient woman born to Anglo prosperity and the great Texas outdoors, Hannah’s life is centered on the Durand Ranch, in the town of Rocksprings, between central and West Texas, “where the land was just as hard and mean as the predators lurking in the shadows waiting for the next easy kill.” It is modern day, and facing an uncertain future, Hannah fears she might not have the stamina to stay on the land alone. Hannah thinks, “I’ve loved this land . . . I feel like I’d lose a part of myself if I sold it.”

Ariela Morales is born to Zaragoza, Mexico, where “life is hard because it was too close to the Texas border.” In a town with little opportunities, the dutiful Ariela helps her family, babysits her siblings for her mother, and squeezes in time to spend with her friend Katia. In telling of that friendship, Ariela says, “Some people in Zaragoza had a harder life than me and my family. My best friend, Katia was one of them.” Together, the teenage friends go to mass “to get our mamas off our backs,” paint their nails, read magazines, and mostly dream “about getting out of Zaragoza.” When Katia flirts with danger by consorting with two cartel members, it leads to perilous, unforeseen consequences drastically changing the trajectory of both girls’ lives.

A dog barking on a lonesome stretch of highway connects the fates of Hannah and Ariela, and wheels are set in motion affecting a cast of characters on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Bernhard portrays the landscape with laser-precision and layers the harrowing story in multiple, first-person points of view covering all angles of what spins into the urgency of safeguarding the traumatized Ariela from further ramifications having to do with the cartel’s sinister, illegal plans.

When Rocksprings’ sheriff discovers Hannah is harboring Ariela, he jumps to conclusions and wants to get border patrol involved, without knowing Ariela has just survived a terrible backstory. Taking Hannah aside, he says, “Now Hannah, I’m going to remind you of this very specific law. When someone enters the US without following immigration laws, it’s a crime.”

Joseph Gonzales is the bilingual, longtime trusted employee of the Durand Ranch, whose involvement Hannah solicits to serve as Ariela’s interpreter. When Hannah weighs the law of the land against doing the decent thing, Joseph joins Hannah in an attempt to get around punitive issues of immigration, while the cartel and law enforcement from either side of the border try to intuit their covert maneuvers, in a do-or-die dynamic begging the issue of right versus wrong.

In this tensely wired, swiftly paced, starkly realistic story of human trafficking set beautifully among nuanced clashing cultures, author Johnnie Bernhard defines each character’s motivation to portray the collision of opposing sides while casting a wide lens on a human atrocity. Hannah and Ariela is the story of one woman’s bravery in rescuing another, only to rise phoenix-like into a newly defined, far-reaching life purpose.

About Johnnie Bernhard

A former teacher and journalist, Johnnie Bernhard’s passion is reading and writing. Her work(s) have appeared in anthologies and in national and international publications, including Southern Literary Review, Houston Style Magazine, The Mississippi Press, the international Word Among Us, and the Cowbird-NPR production on small town America.

Johnnie Bernhard is a multiple, award-winning author and sought-after speaker.

Hannah and Ariela is Johnnie Bernhard’s 4th novel.

For more about Johnnie Bernhard, please visit the author’s web site at http://www.johnniebernhardauthor.com/

The Teacher of Warsaw

The Teacher of Warsaw by Mario Escobar

Image of The Teacher of Warsaw

Author(s): 

Mario Escobar

Release Date: June 7, 2022

Publisher/Imprint: Harper Muse

Pages: 368

Buy on Amazon

Reviewed by: 

Claire Fullerton

An important, sensitive look at the triumph of the human spirit over evil, The Teacher of Warsaw is based on a true story and epitomizes the very best of poignant historical fiction.”

A nostalgic tone sets the stage of Mario Escobar’s The Teacher of Warsaw. In the prologue, an editor is in receipt of a hidden diary now typed as a manuscript from a woman named Agnieszka Ignaciuk, who survived the WWII, German occupation of Warsaw, Poland. The editor says, “That small, lovely woman with the wise eagle eyes placed into my hands Janusz Korczak’s typed manuscript. She acted like she was passing along a forbidden fruit that would eternally expel me from the semblance of paradise my life had recently become.” Taking the manuscript, the editor reflects upon its author, “I remembered the Teacher. Everyone I know called him the Old Doctor . . . I heard his voice. . . . It was just he and I in the middle of a ruined world.”

It is September 1939, and 60-year-old Janusz Korczak is the director of Dom Sierot, a Warsaw home for 200 orphaned children. He’s a man of deep integrity, a beloved and devoted teacher who views his job as a calling and structures the home with no differentiation based on age or rank, where tutors and students equally cohabitate as a family. When one of the orphans asks why he’d never had his own children, the unmarried Dr. Korczak reveals what he has told few others. “The truth is, my father went insane, and I’ve always been afraid that the same thing will happen to me. I thought that if I had children, they might inherit that disease.” It is this reason that makes Korczak all the more committed to the children.

Dom Sierot’s building, which houses Jewish orphans, has been in a Christian neighborhood for 27 years. Korczak shares, “We were there on purpose so that Jewish and Christian children could live together. Long ago I had learned that the only way to knock down the walls of prejudice and hatred toward difference was coexisting and building friendship that allowed the children to fight and the be reconciled again.”

It is November of 1940, and a shock to Korcsak’s system comes when the Germans relocate Dom Sierot from the working-class neighborhood outside the city to a squalid area in Warsaw’s walled Jewish ghetto, consisting of “400,000 within an area no larger than 1.3 miles.” In preparing for the change, the sensitive Korczak softens the blow to the children, “We’ll probably long to be back here in our wonderful house. But the walls that you see around us are not our real home. The real refuge of each one of us is inside our hearts. As long as we’re together, we will keep being happy and belonging to our big family.” When one little boy cries at the sight of the new living quarters, Korczak hands him the treasure map he’d prepared the night before, and says, “Treasure hunts always occur in exotic, remote places. No one’s ever done anything amazing without leaving home first.”

As winter wears upon the ghetto, living conditions become more desperate in the orphanage’s unheated, dilapidated home, where water is scarce in the midst of a food shortage, leaving Korczak to solicit and rely upon the help of charitable donors. When the Gestapo confiscates a cart of food and supplies belonging to the orphanage, Korczak bravely holds his ground and says to the German officer, “This food is for the children and under no circumstances can I allow you to take it from them.” When told to take his complaint to the Gestapo headquarters, the optimistic Korczak goes to plead his case at the German administration offices, only to be thrown in jail for not being in compliance with wearing the requisite Star of David on his arm, intended to signify those who are Jewish.

Upon being unceremoniously grabbed by a German soldier and transported to jail, Korczak says, “For them, life was a useless sketch through which to imprint their senseless brutality and show the world that they were the bosses. For me, life was a perfect beautifully framed painting full of meaning and hope. For them, life was prosaic and frivolous, ever so light, whereas for me it was so heavy I could hardly take a step without feeling the mud stuck to my feet.”

A year on since the Nazis came to Poland, nothing improves in the ghetto. Korczak writes, “Typhus had run its course around the city in recent months, given the deplorable hygienic conditions and insufficient nutrition of the population. It seemed the Germans preferred to kill us off slowly. Their program was designed to weaken our spirits and erode our morale.” Korczak, in the habit of calling assembly whenever a new problem arises, and always serving as inspirational motivator, poses the question to the orphans, “What does it mean to be happy?” “Life in and of itself is an act of happiness . . . Happiness is not about things. We look for it outside of ourselves, but it’s something that’s in our own minds. The work of our hearts is to give pure love.”

As time wears on and conditions worsen, Korczak delivers a speech intended to inspire the orphanages’ dispirited teachers and caretakers. “We sleep and dream of better days but wake to find ourselves here. Yet here, where we serve, we are doing all we can to make better days for the children. We’re in this world to serve one another, to give our very last breaths for our neighbors.”

With a supporting cast of characters in various official positions who are incrementally ready to help Dr. Korczak escape the ill-fated ghetto, the doctor refuses each offer. “Leave me be,” he says to a sympathetic German captain who knows things are nearing an end. “I will go with my children and will not leave them alone.”    

In hindsight, after the worst has happened, trusted companion and co-worker of Korczak’s, Agnieszka Ignaciuk—the deliverer of  Korczak’s left behind diary chronicling the personal tragedies of war—remembers the good doctor and says, “Janusz Korczak had lit up a country swathed in darkness. All of Poland had to know his story and admire his example. I vowed to make that happen.”

In The Teacher of Warsaw, Escobar’s intimate, first-person delivery is flawlessly researched. Its historic timeline unfurls with heightening drama from the vantage point of one selfless man dedicated to the wellbeing of Polish children in harrowing wartime conditions against all odds and costs. It’s a sobering, memorable story taking the reader through tragic events in occupied Warsaw, from September 1939 to May of 1943. An important, sensitive look at the triumph of the human spirit over evil, The Teacher of Warsaw is based on a true story and epitomizes the very best of poignant historical fiction.    

Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.

Oliver: A Novella by Mandy Haynes

Description:

Even though eleven-year old Olivia is raised in a southern Baptist church she likes to cover all her bases when asking for a favor. Unlike her brother Oliver, she struggles with keeping her temper and staying out of trouble. But Oliver is special in more ways than one, and in the summer of ’72 he shows Olivia that there’s magic all around us. It’s up to us to see it.

On author, Mandy Haynes:

Author Mandy Haynes has a wide reputation for being one of the most authentic voices of modern-day America’s Deep South. Set in the complex rural South, her stories are alive with spot-on vernacular, her character’s are self-assured and quirky, and the predicaments they find themselves in are quintessentially Southern experiences. Reading Mandy Haynes work is an education in all that goes into the cultural hotbed of the romantic South. Her work takes you down long country roads where anything can and does happen.

My Endorsement of the delightful novella, Oliver !

“A small-town story of childhood innocence, sibling admiration, blind optimism, and plenty of shenanigans, author Mandy Haynes has penned an incomparable narrator in Sissy, who tells a multifaceted story highlighting the altruistic plans of her remarkable brother, Oliver. The Southern jargon in this charming novella is character defining, the precocious mood insightful. Oliver is about bringing out the goodness in people, even if it takes a bit of magic.”

Claire Fullerton, Author.

Other Praise for Oliver:

“Mandy Haynes takes me on a memory journey to the last great childhood of the South, a time when bicycles were a magic carpet that could take a child wherever she wanted to go. The joy of this novella is how easily I slip between the pages and live the adventures with Oliver and Olivia. Sibling love. Kindness. Good intentions gone awry and good deeds fraught with danger. This story echos with my past, and the past of many now homeless Southerners. Once you start reading, you won’t be able to put it down.”

Carolyn Haines, USA Today bestseller, is the author of over 80 books in multiple genres

“Mandy Haynes effortlessly and brilliantly writes children, a feat at which many writers struggle and fail. In Oliver, her uniquely, lyrical voice sings the reader smack dab into this heartwarming story inhabited by Oliver and Olivia, a brother and sister whose special bond is symbiotically balanced upon the other’s abilities and perspectives. I dare you to not fall immediately in love with these characters, and fret over them as I did as they make their journey through this poignant summer from long ago.”

Robert Gwaltney, author of The Cicada Tree

Author Mandy Haynes

Mandy Haynes is also the Editor of Reading Nation Magazine: (https://mandyhaynes.com/reading-nation-magazine/,) which highlights established and up-and-coming authors and their work.

Mandy Haynes writes of her career:

I decided to self-publish mainly because I am too impatient to do all the things you need to do to sell yourself to an agent, and three different indie publishers I’d corresponded with weren’t the right fit. Then it hit me – I could publish them myself. I’d already spent the money on editors. I’d had the book critiqued by one of my heroes, Suzanne Hudson, and I had a group of readers asking, “When can I get your book?” So, I started a publishing company, titled, Three Dogs Write Press and got busy. It’s been a great learning experience.

I have two collections of short stories published now, one novel in the first draft stages, and a second novel in its rough draft stage.  

I do write about some heavy subjects. But to me, those stories are important. I hope that I give the reader a satisfying ending and if they’ve struggled with some of the issues my characters face, I hope I give them closure. At least a feeling of hope and the knowledge that they aren’t alone.

Mandy Haynes Website: https://mandyhaynes.com/my-books/

Oliver is available online and at http://www.threedogswritepress.

The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare by Kimberly Brock

As my review appears in The New York Journal of Books:

The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare is historical fiction based on a true story with legendary status having to do with a mystery beginning in 1585 concerning the Lost Colony of Roanoke, whose citizens vanished without a trace during the perilous times of America’s early settlement. It’s a multigenerational story haunting Alice Merely Young, a WWII widow in her late thirties, and mother to 13-year-old daughter, Pennilyn.

It is the spring of 1945 when Alice’s small-business owning father dies in Helen, Georgia, and Alice returns to the deep roots she tried to outrun on her family’s neglected, vast acreage farm, six miles from Savannah. On riverside grounds sits a dilapidated mansion named Evertell, which Alice inherited. The house has suffered since she’s last seen it, and in Alice’s absence the secrets of her lineage once whispered by forebears, from one generation of women to the next are now silent.

Across the river by the family graveyard, in the small chapel on Bell Island, a treasured commonplace book is housed, which the mother of Alice’s ancestor, Eleanor Dare, began in England, and which Eleanor safeguarded as a Roanoke colonist with an eye

toward passing down to future generations. In the commonplace book, Eleanor Dare scratched a secret: “Every woman in Eleanor’s mother’s line waited for the day when her heart would be ready and she would have a vision, her Evertell, a sign she’d come of age and with it the gift of guidance from her forebears. . . . This is what passed from mother to daughter—a book of women’s wisdom and mysteries.”

 It is now 15 generations down Eleanor Dare’s line, and Alice knows the commonplace book rightly belongs in the hands of her daughter, yet the bravery required to confess her role in one tragic night holds Alice back as she summons the memory of the last time she saw her troubled mother. Alice thinks, “My mother taught me that a story matters, not because it is true, but because it’s been told.”

Alice carries the burden of guilt over a failed familial rite of passage involving her mother and the legacy of a stone now lying sacrosanct deep in Evertell’s woods, thought to be inscribed by Eleanor Dare’s own hand. The memory of that night haunts Alice, who stands before the Evertell woods and thinks, “Until now, I’d tried to forget what happened. I’d never planned to go back to that place. But that was before I had a daughter of my own. Now she looks at me with the question all daughters are bound to ask their mothers: Who are you?”  

Sonder Holloway has kept Evertell’s grounds for 23 years, ever since Alice and her father fled to the town of Helen after the death of Alice’s mother. Taciturn, reliable, and four years Alice’s elder, he’s a devoted man who has Alice’s best interest at heart, but the unreconciled shame Alice carries makes the reunion of the childhood friends awkward, and when Alice reports her intention of selling Evertell to finance Penn’s education, Sonder is sensitive to Alice’s past and patient.

He, and a handful of other wonderfully drawn local characters know well of Evertell’s secrets, for the tightly woven threads of Evertell’s storied fabric include many in the nearby village. All know the legend of the Dare stone connecting Alice’s family with a dark history, and though it’s of historical significance, Alice suspects that stone is the source of a family curse.

The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare is an intriguing, dreamy story about the impact of one unhealed woman who has yet to reconcile her past in such a way that lends itself to transparency with her young daughter, who, by birthright, wants to know and deserves to know about her own lineage. Author Kimberly Brock delicately balances mystery, family lore, and honoring one’s forebears in sonorous language throughout a sweeping story with three points of view, two timeframes, and remarkably steady pacing. Weaving myth and legend with historical fact pertaining to an age-old American mystery, The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare is a spellbinding, beautiful story written by a graceful hand with just the right amount of mysticism.  

Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.

Buy on Amazon

Kimberly Brock is the award-winning author of The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare and The River Witch.

Her debut was an Amazon bestseller featured by both national and international book clubs and included in multiple reading lists. Praised by RT Reviews and Huffington Post as a “solemn journey of redemption, enlightenment and love,” and evocative of “the stories of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers,” Kimberly’s debut novel was honored with the prestigious Georgia Author of the Year Award in 2013, by the Georgia Writer’s Association.

A former actor and special needs educator, Kimberly received her bachelor’s degree from the University of West Georgia in 1996. In 2014, Kimberly founded Tinderbox Writer’s Workshop, a transformative creative experience for women in the arts. Kimberly has served as a guest lecturer for many regional and national groups, including The Women’s Fiction Writer’s annual conference and The Pat Conroy Literary Center. She lives near Atlanta with her husband and three children.

Book Release: Untethered by Laura Whitfield

In immediate, accessible writing, author Laura Whitfield’s starkly confessional memoir, Untethered, begins when tragedy strikes the heart of her tightly knit, Southern family. At fourteen years old, the author’s world is shattered by the death of her beloved older brother, leaving Laura to find her way in the world without the brother she relied upon as a compass.

Throughout the mid-1970’s and into the 1980’s, Laura embarks on a promising modeling career in New York city, and the reader is taken into NYC’s inner sanctum, where the sky is the limit for this young, and beautiful woman from North Carolina. But a series of disastrous love affairs cause the author an overwhelming sense of disillusionment, and, after fleeing back home for safety, it is many years before she realizes the mistakes she made were an unconscious attempt at filling the void over the significant loss of her brother.

Untethered reads as an unfiltered testimony to coming of age concerns during the simple times of the 1970’s and 80’s. Issues of familial and societal expectations collide with a world newly accommodating to women in the work place, and all the while the author tries to reconcile a past riddled with wrong choices and blind mistakes.

With an unstoppable spirit and belief in herself and better days, Laura Whitfield navigates the minefield of adulthood as she returns to school, becomes employed, and assists her parents in their declining years. With one failed marriage behind her, she finds her way to God, a love that endures, and, wiser now, sets out on a path to a bright future.

An engaging, confessional memoir both heart wrenching and inspirational, Laura Whitfield’s Untethered is fascinating reading sure to delight readers who enjoy a multilevel, thoroughly realized memoir.

About the Author:

Laura grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughter of a journalist and a teacher. She has been an advertising copywriter, newspaper columnist, staff writer for an international relief agency, travel writer, blogger, teacher, communications director for several nonprofits, and personal assistant to a New York Times bestselling author. 

Her coming-of-age memoir, Untethered: Faith, Failure, and Finding Solid Ground (She Writes Press) is now available from your favorite independent bookstore or wherever books are sold. 

Laura is passionate about her faith, books, travel, nature (especially the beach), social justice, and her family. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with her husband, Stephen. 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/21993777.Laura_Whitfield

https://www.instagram.com/laurawhitfieldwriter/