Girl in Ice

A gifted linguistic professor who is fascinated by such extinct languages as Old Norse and Old Danish, Val Chesterfield is so frightened of the world that she has immured herself at the university where she teaches and treats her overwhelming anxiety with pills and bottles of Amaretto and merlot.

Beyond that, she’s mourning the loss of her marriage and the death and possible suicide of Andy, her twin brother who died of exposure on Taaramiut Island off Greenland’s northwest coast.  

And so, when an email from Wyatt Speeks who is overseeing the scientific lab on Taaramiut, pops up in her inbox, Val’s first thought is to hit delete. But despite her own initial forebodings, she opens it instead.

So begins Girl in Ice (Simon & Schuster), the a fascinating thriller by Erica Ferencik who also authored Into the Jungle and The River at Night.

Wyatt is asking her to listen to the attached vocalizations of a girl they extracted from the ice and who has, amazingly and impossibly, thawed out alive. Playing the sounds over and over again, Chesterfield is intrigued. The girl is not speaking any of the Greenlandic dialects spoken in the frigid part of the world where Wyatt is located. Indeed, despite Val’s vast repertoire and knowledge, she cannot recognize the language at all.

Wyatt wants Val to fly out and study the girl’s language. But that entails she leave her office, her shelves of books, and her everyday routines. When Val visits her elderly father, a noted climate scientist who has always been disdainful of her, he dismisses that the girl could have been thawed out alive and that his daughter has the spunk to travel so far away.

“You’ve never been out of Massachusetts,” he tells Val. But he also wants her to go, to find out the truth about Andy’s death and delivers an ultimatum. If she doesn’t journey to Greenland, then he doesn’t want to ever see her again.

The winds blow over 50 miles an hour on Taaramiut across a landscape barren of anything but snow, glaciers, water pocked with ice floes, deep seemingly bottomless crevasses, and herds of caribou.  No native people live this far north so where did the girl come from and how long was she encased in ice?

Totally isolated, the small community consists only of Wyatt and his assistant Jeanne, Val and a young couple who have won a coveted spot to dive in the frigid waters for specimens. And, of course, the girl who once was frozen and is now strangely alive.

But it’s not just the isolation, the young girl who speaks a strange language, and being where her brother died outside, alone in the bitter cold, that is unnerving. Wyatt seems to have other hidden agendas and Jeanne may be too good with knives—and she has so many. Even the couple become uneasy, urging Val to just play along until the plane arrives to take them home.

With the disappearance of her anti-anxiety medication, Val is unable to sleep and maybe unable to reliably process what is happening around her. She takes risky chances and she also has become maternally attached to the young girl as she learns the meaning of her words. What is part of Val’s uneven emotional state and what is real become less defined. She believes Wyatt’s stated quest–to learn how to prevent a cataclysmic climate change, one where sudden outbursts of frozen winds are freezing people to death almost instantaneously around the world–parallel Andy’s own dedicated studies.

But Val also senses a scary undercurrent and the more she learns, the more she wonders if Andy really committed suicide by wandering off into the cold or whether someone locked him outside. To add to her distress, the young girl is ill and is trying to tell Val in her own language what she needs to survive.

What can she do to save her? And what can she do to save herself?

This review originally appeared in The New York Journal of Books.

Girl in Ice is also available as a Kindle, Audio CD, Audible and in paperback.

About the Author

Erica Ferencik is the award-winning author of the acclaimed thrillers The River at NightInto the Jungle, and Girl in Ice, which The New York Times Book Review declared “hauntingly beautiful.” Find out more on her website EricaFerencik.com and follow her on Twitter @EricaFerencik.

The Marsh Queen

Far from the marshland where her family grew up and that claimed her father’s life, Loni Mae Murrow has found a quiet niche where she creates intricate life-like drawings of birds for the Smithsonian. It’s a rare talent and a job that Murrow, who started drawing at an early age, loves. But there are undercurrents in her job and life starting with a new administrator talking of budget cuts and disdaining Murrow’s need to return home to deal with her aging mother. Making it all more complicated is that she also is confronted with her brother and his controlling, avaricious wife both of whom seem more intent on cashing in on what little money there is in their mother’s portfolio than in helping her. Murrow has just a short time to take care of family business and to sort out messy family entanglements. If she doesn’t return in time, she’ll no longer have a job.

But the pull of her mother’s needs, a compelling job offer from a good friend, veiled hints at mysteries unsolved along with her realization that her father’s death may be less straightforward than it seemed at the time jarringly jeopardize the peace and tranquility that Murrow has achieved. She finds herself deeper and deeper into the place of her youth and the marshes, both of which she thought—hopefully–she had left behind for good.

Author Virginia Hartman convincing portrays the beauty of the marshes, creating an atmosphere of serene beauty but also one full of surprises and ultimately danger in The Marsh Queen (Simon & Schuster). She also conveys how easily Murrow falls into the patterns of her father who knew the waterways so well he could navigate the countless channels and inlets without a map. Hartman’s love of this landscape, full of unexpected wonders, is inherent in her writing.

Individual Portrait

“Early morning steam rises from the water,” Hartman writes about one of Murrow’s forays into the marshland. “I paddle to a different part of the swamp today, where the Cypress trees grow, as my dad used to say, ‘keepin’ their feet in the water.’ The canopy is high, like a cathedral, and I glide through the landscape of light and shadow. Ferns cascade from the trunks and pink lichen like measle spots and the Cypress knees stick up from beneath the surface like the hats of submerged gnomes.”

This enchantment of the waterways with all its many unexpected scenes of flora and fauna is something Murrow finds she shares with Adlai, the seemingly gruff proprietor of the canoe shop where she rents her canoe and paddles when she goes in search of such birds to draw as the purple gallinule. Her mother had married down so to speak when she chose Murrow’s father. It is a choice that Murrow ultimately must make as well—to leave a dream job of working at one of the most prestigious museums in the country and life in a bustling cosmopolitan city to return to the backwaters of home.

But first she must follow, however unwillingly, all the clues that keep presenting themselves regarding the past. It’s a matter of connecting the dots to find out what really did happen to here father all those years ago. And if she doesn’t accomplish that soon enough, then there’s more at risk for Murrow than just losing her job. It may mean losing her life.

The Marsh Queen is also available in hardcover, on Kindle, Audible and as an Audio CD.

This review originally appeared in New York Journal of Books.

About the Author

Virginia Hartman has an MFA in creative writing from American University and is on the faculty at George Washington University. Her stories have been shortlisted for the New Letters Awards and the Dana Awards. The Marsh Queen is her first novel.

Virginia Hartman Events

At the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Virginia teaches Advanced Fiction Workshop (six weeks). For more information, please contact the Writer’s Center at 301-654-8664, www.writer.org.

  • SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23
  • THE BOOK GALLERY 12 noon
  • 7 N. Loudoun Street Winchester, VA 22601
  • FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 4
  • PALM BEACH BOOK STORE 6pm
  • 215 Royal Poinciana Way, Palm Beach, FL 33480
  • WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 9
  • BOOKSTORE ONE 2pm
  • 17 S Pineapple Ave, Sarasota, FL 34236
  • THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 10
  • MIDTOWN READER 7pm
  • 1123 Thomasville Rd, Tallahassee, FL, 32303
  • SATURDAY NOVEMBER 12
  • THE BOOKMARK 6pm
  • 220 First St, Neptune Beach, FL 32266

Haunted Lighthouses: Scary Tales of the Great Lakes

Michigan is home to more lighthouses than any other state and about 40 of those are rumored to be haunted by the spirits of former keepers, mariners and others with ties to these historic beacons.

Inside the pages of Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses, long-time researcher, writer and promoter of all things Michigan, Dianna Stampfler, shares stories of those who dedicated their lives — and afterlives — to protecting the Great Lakes’ shoreline. Her second book, Death & Lighthouse on the Great Lakes, Stampfler delves into the historic true crime cold case files that have baffled lighthouse lovers for as many as two centuries.

Throughout the fall season, Stampfler will be speaking at libraries around the state, sharing her lively and upbeat presentation about these lights. Copies of her books will be available for purchase and signing at every program.

Sun, Oct 9, 2022
2:00 PM – 3:30 PM
Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses
Elk Rapids District Library, Elk Rapids, MI
Tue, Oct 11, 2022
6:30 PM – 8:00 PM
Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses
Rauchholz Memorial Library, Hemlock, MI
Wed, Oct 12, 2022
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM
Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses
Northville District Library, Northville, MI
Wed, Oct 19, 2022
6:00 PM – 7:30 PM
Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses
Reese Unity District Library, Reese, MI
Thu, Oct 20, 2022
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM
Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses
Otsego District Library, Otsego, MI
Sun, Oct 23, 2022
3:00 PM – 4:30 PM
Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses
Sanilac County Historic Village & Museum, Port Sanilac, MI
Wed, Nov 2, 2022
6:00 PM – 7:30 PM
Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes
St. Clair County Library – Main Branch, Port Huron, MI

For the complete schedule of upcoming events (including other topics beyond lighthouses), visit the Promote Michigan Speaker’s Bureau online.

About Michigan’s Haunted Lighthouses

Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state, with more than 120 dotting its expansive Great Lakes shoreline. Many of these lighthouses lay claim to haunted happenings. Former keepers like the cigar-smoking Captain Townshend at Seul Choix Point and prankster John Herman at Waugoshance Shoal near Mackinaw City maintain their watch long after death ended their duties. At White River Light Station in Whitehall, Sarah Robinson still keeps a clean and tidy house, and a mysterious young girl at the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse seeks out other children and female companions. Countless spirits remain between Whitefish Point and Point Iroquois in an area well known for its many tragic shipwrecks.

About Death & Lighthouses on the Great Lakes

Losing one’s life while tending to a Great Lakes lighthouse — or any navigational beacon anywhere in the world for that matter — sadly wasn’t such an unusual occurrence. The likelihood of drowning while at sea or becoming injured while on the job ultimately leading to death were somewhat common back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Death by murder, suicide or other unnatural and tragic causes, while rare, are not unheard of. In fact, more than dozen lighthouse keepers around the Great Lakes met their maker at the hands of others – by fire, poisoning, bludgeoning and other unknown means. A handful of these keepers, either because of depression or sheer loneliness, took their own lives. A few we may never know the true story, as the deaths now 100 or more years ago, weren’t subjected to the forensic scrutiny that such crimes are given today.

In the pages of Death & Lighthouses of the Great Lakes: A History of Misfortune & Murder, you’ll find an amalgamation of true crime details, media coverage and historical research which brings the stories to life…despite the deaths of those featured.

Stampfler has been professionally writing and broadcasting since high school. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English with emphasis in Community Journalism and Communications with emphasis in radio broadcasting from Western Michigan University. She is a member of the Midwest Travel Journalists Association, Historical Society of Michigan, Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, Great Lakes Maritime Museum, Association for Great Lake Maritime History, Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, Michigan Maritime Museum, Friends of Pilot & Plum Island Lighthouse, National Museum of the Great Lakes and West Michigan Tourist Association.

Traveling Through Time and Around the Globe

The quote from Jean Batton, an early female aviator was the inspiration for Maggie Shipstead to write “Great Circle” about a female aviatrix who disappears in Antarctica in the last century and a modern day movie being made about her.

In 1914, Marian Graves and her twin brother, James, are among the last to be saved when the Josephina Eterna sinks in the North Atlantic. With their father in prison and their mother gone, the two babies are bundled off to live with their Uncle Wallace, an artist in Missoula, Montana. Wallace, preoccupied with his painting, lets the kids run wild, and while James is a sweet-natured child, Marian is a daredevil who revels in the freedom to do what she wants.

That helps explain her attraction to the lifestyle of barnstorming aviators and her decision at 14 to drop out of school to learn to fly.

Fast forward a century. Actress Hadley Baxter, whose Hollywood stardom is somewhat diminished, is starring in a movie about the disappearance of Marian Graves in Antarctica.

The story of these two women takes us back and forth from past to present and around the globe in Maggie Shipstead’s “Great Circle” (Vintage Books 2021; $24).

The disappearance of a woman aviator is familiar. After all, movies and articles are still being written about Amelia Earhart, whose plane vanished in the Pacific Ocean in 1937. But there are many other female pilots from the early and mid-1900s, though they’re exploits are mostly forgotten now. Writing “Great Circle” required Shipstead to research and travel to give the book its authenticity. She visited the Arctic five times and Antarctica twice.

Why so many times, I asked Shipstead.

“I’m drawn to those regions by some weird instinct,” she said. “I think a lot of people are. But I’ve also been lucky to keep getting opportunities to go. Polar travel has become a bit of my specialty, so I’ve been sent on assignment to Alaska, the New Zealand subantarctic, Antarctica, the Canadian high Arctic twice, Greenland twice. I did an artist residency on a ship in Svalbard. In a way, one thing kept leading to another, and I have no complaints.”

The inspiration for “Great Circle” came to her in New Zealand. She was between books and a story line for her next novel that she had thought looked promising, wasn’t. In the airport, she saw the statue of early aviator Jean Batton, its base inscribed with her quote “I was destined to be a wanderer.”

She knew she had her book.

Given how much she has traveled, I wondered if Shipstead was destined to be a wanderer.

“Destined is probably strong,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in travel, but my life could have taken lots of twists and turns that would have precluded traveling as much as I have. Really, this book turbocharged my traveling because, A, I was motivated to get to more and farther flung places in the name of research, and B, it took so long to write the book that I had the chance to start writing for travel magazines.”

I next asked if she ever considered becoming a pilot given her interest in the subject.

“Never,” was her response. “My brother used to fly C-130s in the Air Force and wanted to be a pilot from childhood, so that was always his territory.”

This article originally appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

National Book Lovers Day: Celebrate By Learning to Download Books for Free

August 9 is National Book Lovers Day, a celebration for book worms everywhere. And lucky for us, our public library has its own collection of ebooks and audiobooks that we can download for free.
Libby, the leading library reading app by OverDrive, lets users download ebooks, audiobooks, magazines, comics, and more at no cost. All you need to get started is a library card—and even if you don’t have one, an Instant Digital Card can be yours in 30 seconds with just a phone number. 

Besides being able to borrow digital titles, OverDrive launched a new monthly blog series this July showing June’s top ten most popular books that had been borrowed digitally from the public library on Libby. Now in August, they’re sharing July’s top ten. On the list, you’ll find frequent New York Times bestsellers including Daniel Silva and Danielle Steel. Also among the Top Ten is T.J. Newman with their stunning instant #1 bestselling debut title, Falling.

As a reminder, Professional Book Nerds podcast always previews the upcoming month’s buzziest new books as well, and you can listen to their August episode right here. You can find July’s most popular new releases in the list below.

The top ten new books from July

The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Falling by T.J. Newman


The Cellist by Daniel Silva


It’s Better This Way by Debbie Macomber

Nine Lives by Danielle Steel

While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory


The Therapist by B. A. Paris

The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel

The Bone Code by Kathy Reichs


Fallen by Linda Castillo

The Hollow Ones

               I didn’t intend to spend the last three days speed reading “The Hollow Ones” by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (Grand Central Publishing 2021; $28). Indeed, I had other things to do—deadlines to meet, a new workout program to keep up with, and my daughter’s wedding to help plan. But I didn’t do any of those. Instead I caromed around the universe, going back and forth in time, following this complicated by fascinating novel written by two greats in their field. del Toro is a prolific writer, producer, and director who wrote and director the four time Academy Award winning movie “The Shape of Water.” Hogan, an American novelist, screenwriter, and television producer, who co-authored, with del Toro,  The Strain trilogy. He also wrote the novel “Prince of Thieves” that was made into a movie “The Town” with Ben Affleck .

Guillermo del Toro. Photo by Lorenzo Agius.

               This is not a book for the faint of heart—and I typically fall into that category. But I just had to figure out what was going to happen next after the first chapter. That’s when  Odessa Hardwick, a young and inexperienced FBI agent arrives at the scene of a gruesome murder taking place along with Walter Leppo, her seasoned partner. Inside an upscale home, the two encounter the owner butchering his family. Odessa, believing her partner is under attack by the murderer, shoots and kills him. But then the unexpected occurs, Walter takes a knife to the only surviving family member and Odesssa is forced to kill him to save the child. She already is under a lot of stress when she had to question if that was a shadowy figure she saw fleeing from Walter’s body after his death?

               Most likely, given the supernatural forces that are in play here starting with why this prosperous home owner killing his family, why did Walter suddenly take over the job of butchering them, and what the heck is going on anyway? Odessa, distraught and doubting her actions and indeed, her own sanity, is  given the assignment while awaiting the results of the inquest into the killing of Leppo, to clear out the desk  of ailing FBI agent Earl Solomon who started his career investigating lynchings during the early 1960s in the American south.

               “Solomon puts her on the trail of a mysterious figure named Hugo Blackwood, with whom the dying Solomon has been professionally — but unofficially — aligned since his rookie days,” says Hogan, who describes his collaboration with del Toro as long talks over breakfast batting around ideas which they then expand until finally turning out chapters.

Hugo, an immortal has seen a lot through the centuries. To solve the mysteries of the moment, they must retrace what happened in 1582 when he was a young attorney and a portal to another world was accidentally opened allowing the evil and dangerous hollow ones to enter ours.

               Hogan, who describes the hollow ones as “nasty creatures who live to possess human victims, jumping from host to host” is vague about whether this is the first in a series focusing on Hugo and Odessa solving supernatural crimes. He does acknowledge though that Blackwood’s story which in this novel encompasses England 1582, the Jim Crow South of 1962, and New Jersey in 2019 is only 20% told.

               If they do have another book coming, I need to get all my chores done ahead of time so I can immerse myself once again.

The Women of Chateau Lafayette

               “It’s amazing how women get lost in history,” says Stephanie Dray, the New York Times bestselling author of The Women of Chateau Lafayette.     “I want to tell their stories.”

At first, the story she was going to tell was that of  Beatrice Chanler, a success London actress with a troubled marriage  who received the Legion of Honor for her philanthropic service during World War.  But then Dray discovered a packet of love letters that were not between Chanler and her husband and she knew she would have to start all over.

               Ultimately, Dray would write the stories of two more women whose connection through the centuries was the French country chateau of the Marquis de La Fayette, one of the heroes of the American Revolution.  And each time, she would set that book aside as more details emerged.

               “Chateau is set in three time periods–during the French Revolution, World War One, and World War Two,” says Dray whose previous books include “My Dear Hamilton,”

               In each period, there was an extraordinary woman who rose to the occasion. The first was Adrienne Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette. More than a spouse, she was her husband’s political partner and, like him, faced the danger of the guillotine during the  French Revolution. The third woman is Marthe Simone, a teacher and writer, who at first wanted to avoid any activities that could put her at risk from the Nazis during World War II but then becomes an active participant in helping hide Jewish children at the chateau.

            “She, like the other two women, deserved to have her own book,” says Dray. “But then I saw the importance of telling all their stories in one novel. I was a government major in college and then I went to law school, but I was really only a lawyer for ten minutes.  But I’ve always been interested in government as people, this story is about the rise of the republic and the continued survival of the public.”

            Writing about the Chateau Lafayette became so much a part of Dray’s every day living that when she saw the castle for the first time she was so nervous she had to have her husband hold the camera.

            “All the video I took is very shaky,” she says.

            Indeed, she becomes so immersed in her stories that when she was writing “America’s First Daughter,” she found herself speaking with a southern accent. That passion is evident in one of the take-aways she hopes readers get from reading The Women of Chateau Lafayette.

            “The Franco-American alliance saved this country three times over,” says Dray. “This book is relevant to those in powdered wigs and those today.”

Virtual event with Stephanie Dray.

When: April 3 at noon

What: Barbara’s Bookstore with Stephanie Dray in virtual conversation with Lauren Margolin “The Good Book Fairy” blogger.

To Register: https://barbarasbookstores.com/event/stephanie-dray/

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">FYI: The event is free. All registrants receive 10% off book purchase with code ‘EVENT’FYI: The event is free. All registrants receive 10% off book purchase with code ‘EVENT’

The Children’s Blizzard: A Historic Novel of the Nebraska Prairie

Melanie Benjamin

The week before, they’d been isolated when a snowstorm and cold temperatures forced everyone to stay inside. But that morning Gerta, the young teacher who boarded at the Pedersen’s house, and her student Annette, a waif who had been dropped off at the home by her mother who hadn’t even hugged her goodbye, ran across the Nebraska prairie to the schoolhouse enjoying the sunny warm weather.

It was like being free again, but it was only January, and the school children let out for recess because of the wonderful weather were suddenly confronted by a black wall of clouds that blocked the sun. Running back to the schoolhouse, they discovered there was little wood left to keep the big stove burning, and they all shivered as the temperature plummeted — oh, why had they only worn their shawls and not their heavy coats and boots? The sounds of the howling wind rushed through the schoolhouse, and through the windows they saw almost nothing but the occasional bright sparks of lightning, because the snow formed a curtain so thick it blocked everything else out.

In history books, this sudden and deadly snowstorm would be known as “The Children’s Blizzard” because, of the 250 to 500 known fatalities, many were children trying to find their way home.

Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of “The Aviator’s Wife,” “The Girls in the Picture” and “The Swans of Fifth Avenue,” has taken the incident and turned it into the page-turning novel “The Children’s Blizzard: A Novel” (Delacorte, $28).

It’s an obscure but fascinating aspect of America’s frontier history, but Benjamin, a voracious reader of history already, was somewhat familiar with the disaster when she and her editor decided that might be her next book. Benjamin, who grew up in Indianapolis with aspirations to become a New York actress, lived in Chicago until moving to Williamsburg, Virginia a few months ago. She began writing historical novels in 2010, and, amazingly, this is her seventh. She must, it seems after spending an hour chatting with her on the phone, write as fast as she talks.

The gist of our conversation: she’s a history junkie; she investigates a subject relentlessly, but if she can’t conjure up characters that really come to life, she’ll move on to the next project, as she doesn’t want to write a book that doesn’t seem real. That means she’s written entire novels and then just abandoned them. Even when she loves the personalities she creates, once she’s done with her novel, there are no second glances as she moves on to the next book. Oh, and though she’s a history buff and dwells in different pasts when writing, she doesn’t live in a stately old mansion, just a historic town.

Luckily, she discovered many captivating characters for “The Children’s Blizzard” and, though I know we’re talking Nebraska here, an equally compelling landscape and period of time.

Hard working immigrants, mainly Norwegians, Swedes and Germans were lured to Nebraska by dreams of lush crop producing farmland. It was easy as just packing up your belongings, the advertisements read, as coming by wagon or boarding a train to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities.

Only Nebraska really wasn’t all that. Don’t think “Little House in the Prairie” because it was so much more harsh, unyielding, and frustrating. There were blizzards, droughts where the soil cracked and the crops withered, prairie fires and vast hordes of insects devouring everything in their paths. We’re not talking fun here, not at all.

“Nebraska wasn’t a state at the time, it was a territory,” says Benjamin. “They were trying to get enough people to settle there because that’s one of the ways you became a state.”

Benjamin found that the story ignited her entire imagination, forming a connection to generations of her family.

“There was a personal epic quality to it, my mother’s family immigrated from Germany to an Illinois farm,” said Benjamin. “So the story was kind of in my DNA.”

Benjamin describes her imagination as her biggest strength, which is why she can put herself into the lives of people she’s created and who live in a time long before she was born.

“I was a serious child,” she said. “I was always imagining people’s lives and what they were like. Most authors are observers, we’re on the outside looking at the party, not at the party.”

This review was previously published in the Northwest Indiana Times.

‘True crime’ inspires fiction thriller

“I’m destined to disappear,” Rachael Bard tells the listeners of her true crime podcasts.

Eliza Jane Brazier

For Sera Fleece, whose life is tumbling down around her as she dwells upon each of her many perceived failures and seldom leaves her home, her time is totally focused on every episode — each one dedicated to a missing or murdered woman. She thinks in terms of the episodes and absorbs the details Rachel reveals about her personal life. Sera knows she lives on Fountain Creek Ranch in the yellow house somewhat distant from her parents’ home and the barns, stables and quarters for the campers who fill the ranch in the summer.

And then, one day it happens. There are no more podcasts and no more social media posts. Rachel has disappeared.

“I know, the first 48 hours are crucial,” Sera tells herself. (After all, she doesn’t talk to anyone else — not her ex-husband who still cares, or her parents, or even the clerks she interacts with when she finally is able to get herself out of the house to buy tea.) “And every hour you don’t update, I think, ‘Something is wrong.’ I think, ‘The case is going cold.’”

So begins “If I Disappear” (Berkley Hardcover 2021) by Eliza Jane Brazier, which follows Sera as she drives to northern California in search of Fountain Creek Ranch.

“I will use the things you told me,” she says to Rachel, promising to find her.

But it doesn’t look promising. Somehow she missed the turn for the ranch, and stopping in the little town where Rachel went to school and where her best friend disappeared when they were high school students, she finds that no one will even mention its existence.

Turning back, she finds the ranch’s entrance, noticeable because what is supposed to be a tourist attraction has signs reading “No Trespassing” and “Beware of Dog” posted on the drive.

“The setting came from a job I took in northern California that got weird at an isolated dude ranch. I won’t go into details, but the truth is very nearly stranger than fiction,” Brazier said when I ask about the eerie setting she created. “The emotion came from finding myself single again after my husband died. And the hook came from my love of true crime.”

Like Sera, Brazier says she was looking for answers but in a different way than most.

“After my husband died, I found that the grieving process really replicated true crime podcasts: you are searching for answers,” she said. “I found a lot of comfort in them and still do to this day. For me it’s about facing your fears, making order out of chaos and also about control. In true crime, you know the bad thing is coming. It can be a way to address trauma and feel less alone in it.”

Playing detective, Sera is hired by the Bards to work with the horses, a job that allows her to search for clues to Rachel’s disappearance. Her searching arouses suspicions but startlingly, she realizes that no one seems concerned about Rachel’s disappearance besides Sera. Rachel, she learns, has disappeared before and will do so again. At the ranch, Sera finds meaning not only in her investigation but in working with the horses and her developing romance with the ranch manager.

Yet that doesn’t stop her search for Rachel, or the overwhelming feelings that there are many dangerous unknowns surrounding her. Was Rachel involved with the ranch manager and what happened to his wife? Did she really go back to Texas like he says. Is it possible he’s a murderer?

Brazier, a screenwriter and journalist who lives in Los Angeles, is currently developing “If I Disappear” for television and writing another mystery.

“It’s a brutally funny thriller about very bad rich people,” she said.

Online events

This story previously appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times:

https://www.nwitimes.com/entertainment/books-and-literature/books-true-crime-inspires-fiction-thriller/article_acce7dc7-16c5-5e85-8824-7862f579cf62.html

Finding hope while studying penguins

I’ve always felt that the natural world can bring us healing in many ways, but I decided a story about healing through penguins would be extra-special.

A quirky adventure following an unusual heroine, “How the Penguins Saved Veronica” tells the story of wealthy 85-year-old Veronica McCreedy, who lives alone in a Scottish mansion. Feisty, stubborn and at times whimsical, McCreedy decided to use her large inheritance in funding a group of scientists who study penguins in Antarctica.

But all that money comes with one condition — she wants to meet the penguins.

“The main inspiration of my book was a friend of mine who’s obsessed with penguins,” author Hazel Prior said. “When her husband died, she found an extraordinary strategy of coping with her grief: she decided to travel round the world visiting penguins, her aim to get photos of every penguin species in its native habitat. She’s had such fun with her mission. I’ve always felt that the natural world can bring us healing in many ways, but I decided a story about healing through penguins would be extra-special.”

Prior said she decided to make Veronica older because she’s been incredibly inspired by people she knows who have started learning new things, from harp-playing to sky-diving, in their 80s and 90s.

“I love their ‘it’s-never-too-late’ attitude,” she said. “And they have experienced so many changes in their lives. Having an octogenarian as my main character gave me the chance to delve back into wartime history, which is another interest of mine.”

It’s also important for other reasons.

“Our society leads us to believe that it’s better in every way to be young,” Prior said. “It would have us think that at 30 the best part of your life is over, at 40 nobody notices you anymore and from 50 onwards you may as well not exist — particularly if you’re a woman. This is so wrong. I admire people who are hungry for life, who go out and seek new experiences regardless of their age. For example, a friend of mine started learning the harp at the age of 90. And my neighbor’s father took up skydiving in his 80s. These are extreme examples, but we never stop dreaming, learning or having new adventures. Every year that passes adds to our rich bank of experiences. The logical conclusion is that the older you are, the more interesting you are — so wouldn’t an octogenarian be the perfect heroine?”

Speaking of harps, when Prior was a student in Scotland, she found an old broken Celtic harp in a cupboard and decided to learn how to play it, which wasn’t quite as easy as it sounded.

“But the harp has always been a source of magic and wonder for me,” she says. “It’s an instrument with a sound that’s just so evocative and moving. The Celtic harp was the inspiration for my debut novel, ‘Ellie And the Harp Maker.’”

Asked if she has any special take-aways for readers, Prior answered that she would like to highlight the importance of caring for this planet that we share with so much amazing wildlife. Adélie penguins are just one of the many species threatened by climate change.

“But overall, ‘How the Penguins Saved Veronica’ is a fun book,” she said. “Penguins are not only sweet and charming; they also set us a wonderful example of determination, gusto and cheerfulness in the face of hard conditions — a lesson that’s very relevant in our current times. If I could sum up the message of the book in one word, that word would be ‘hope.’”

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