The Patron Saint of Second Chances

is village sadly slipping away, self-appointed mayor and radiator repairman Signor Speranza listens in horror as a water commission official tells him that the water pipes must be replaced or the commission will shut the village’s water supply off — making Prometto uninhabitable.

The cost to fix it? Seventy thousand euros — an exorbitant sum for a village of 212 residents, most of whom are just barely getting by.

But Speranza has a plan — not a good plan or even a mediocre one, but at least it’s something. He decides to start a rumor that famed movie star Dante Rinaldi is filming his next mega hit in Prometto. If tourists think that Rinaldi will be readily available, Speranza believes that tourists will descend upon Prometto. After all, when there was a rumor that George Clooney would be filming in a neighboring town, it was a madhouse. And it looks like it will be so once again.

Soon tourists arrive with plenty of money to spend. But it isn’t just tourists. The locals go crazy with the idea of being in a film, almost any film. The butcher wants Speranza to find roles for all 15 of his overlarge sons, offering Speranza money if he makes it happen. Even Speranza’s daughter gets movie fever.

“The plan works a little too well, however, and he soon finds that in order to keep up the ruse, he will have to make the movie for real,” said Christine Simon, the author of “The Patron Saint of Second Chances” (Atria 2022; $23.70 on Amazon).

Simon says her plot was inspired by news articles she ran across that talked about how shrinking Italian villages were offering homes for a dollar.

“These stories usually have at their core some enterprising mayor trying to drag their village back from the brink of extinction,” she said. “This flash of inspiration was, therefore, triply rewarding for me, because it gave me my setting, my main character, and my main character’s mission, all in one fell swoop. Everyone should be so lucky.”

It also has origins in the Italian village where Simon’s grandparents grew up.

“My grandparents came to the United States via Canada in the early 1950s, trading their tiny village of Ferruzzano for Cliffside Park, New Jersey,” she said. “I grew up going to parties in their backyard — sprawling gatherings with dozens of people, many of them also from the village, sitting at long tables in lawn chairs and eating, eating, eating. When I began working on this story, at first I felt intimidated because I’ve never been to Ferruzzano in real life, but as I was researching the setting, and looking at family photos and even Google map images of the village, I was startled to find that the two places — my grandparents’ backyard in Cliffside, and their mountain village of Ferruzzano — looked astonishingly similar. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to bring their village with them when they came here, and that’s the flavor that I hope I’ve incorporated into the fictional village of Prometto.”

Simon loved authoring this book, which she did just after the quarantine started.

“It was wonderful escaping reality each day to see what Signor Speranza and his zany crew would get up to next,” she said.

Now Simon says she’s devoted to comedy and small-town antics.

“I guess you can say we know what to expect from my next book,” she said.

First Born by Will Dean

Two identical twins as different as can be. Molly, anxious and reserved, lives a quiet, contained life in London. Katie, gregarious and fun-loving, is now attending school in New York where she has a great apartment, lots of friends and a handsome, athletic boyfriend.

Molly feels betrayed and jealous — until she gets a call from her parents who are visiting in New York. Katie is dead.

And so, Molly, forced to leave the safe confines of the cocoon she has enveloped herself in, flies to New York to comfort her parents and to take on the task of discovering her sister’s killer. But this isn’t a simple story of a twin forced to grow beyond the safe confines of her life. In “First Born,” author Will Dean takes us on a twisting path of family secrets, dark deceits and the slow recognition that even those we love aren’t who we think they are.

Katie, Molly discovers, has earned her admission to the prestigious school program not just because of her academic successes but also because of her relationship with a rich playboy philanthropist who jets around the world with an entourage of pretty young women.

“Molly soon realizes she never knew her twin as well as she thought she did,” said Dean, who was born in England, studied law at the London School of Economics and now lives in a remote area of Sweden. “Molly grows in confidence in New York. She starts to piece together the puzzle of Katie’s life. She finds those who wronged her. And then she goes about seeking revenge.”

Remember, we said it wasn’t simple, and as Molly attends Katie’s cremation ceremony with her parents, we learn of her own involvement in Katie’s death. And yet she still seeks vengeance for all those who wronged Katie.

Dean says the inspiration for his book came to him one night a few years ago.

“I imagined identical twins who had been treated differently from early childhood,” he said. “I was curious how being labeled ‘the fun one’ and ‘the serious one’ might manifest in later life. I’m also intrigued how we all think we know our partners, siblings, parents, children, etc well. But we never know them quite as well as we think we do.”

This article originally appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

The Verifiers by Jane Pek

Her brother is on the fast track to a successful career in finance and has plans for his sister to follow along. But in Jane Pek’s debut novel, “The Verifiers,” Claudia Lin secretly drops out of the corporate rat race without telling her siblings or mother and takes a job at Veracity, a new start-up that uses algorithms along with good old detective techniques to determine whether online suitors are real or not.

Claudia, a queer Asian American, really isn’t a computer geek. The reason she was chosen for the job by the company’s founder is her passion for reading, particularly the works about a fictitious crime solver named Detective Yuan.

Once she is hired, the firm becomes a three-person endeavor, with Claudia spending her time cyberstalking (the modern way to dig up dirt) and real life stalking, like they do in the crime novels Claudia consumes.

When Iris Lettriste comes in wanting them to investigate the men she’s met online, it at first seems like a simple case. But, of course, they never are. Lettriste is a no-show for her last appointment, and later is found dead of what looks like an accidental overdose of a prescription drug she’s taking.

Claudia’s bosses want to move on from Iris, but she thinks there’s more, particularly after all the online accounts belonging to Iris disappear and the real Iris shows up, saying that her sister has been impersonating her.

That’s enough for Claudia to start sleuthing on her own. Soon she’s fired from her job and almost involved in a fatal bicycle accident because someone has rigged her bike. On the home front, her gorgeous older sister is having relationship problems, and Claudia takes it upon herself to do some detecting to see what’s he’s up to.

Her brother is appalled and disappointed in her when he finds out she has quit the stellar and potentially very lucrative job he arranged for her.

Pek, who has an undergraduate degree from Yale, a law degree from New York University and an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College and works as an attorney in New York for an international investment company, says she began the book by asking herself what if there was an online dating detective service, and from there began assembling the story line.

“I liked that Claudia would actually draw her detective rules from this obviously silly murder mystery series,” said Pek who is working on a sequel, “but that every now and then it would actually work out for her.”

The article originally appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

Breathless: A Mountaineering Thriller by Amy McCulloch

Breathless, Amy McCulloch’s debut adult thriller, is set on the world’s eighth highest mountain in Nepal. Cecily Wong, is a struggling journalist given the opportunity to interview legendary mountaineer Charles McVeigh but with one catch: she has to summit the mountain as part of his team first.

I had a chance to ask McCulloch, a Chinese-White author, born in the UK, raised in Ottawa, Canada, now based in London, UK. questions about her book including how much she and Cecily are similar. But first a little more about McCulloch, the  youngest Canadian woman to climb Mt Manaslu in Nepal – the world’s eighth highest mountain at 26,781ft, is the co-author of the #1 YA bestselling novel THE MAGPIE SOCIETY: One for Sorrow, and has written seven solo novels for children and young adults. She’s made bestseller lists in several countries around globe and her books have been published in fifteen different languages. 

Now the interview.

JA: Tell us how much the character Cecily is like and unlike you?

AM: While Cecily and I share some similarities (we are both mixed race, Chinese and White, and both writers), I wanted Cecily to be more of a novice to the world of mountaineering than I was when I went to Manaslu, so she could be a window into the high altitude world for readers who might be unfamiliar with the sport. Yet I also drew on many of the challenges I faced to create her character: imposter syndrome – in the mountains and in my career, and a struggle to belong.

You mention being, like Cecily, at a nadir in your career and life when you first embarked first on walking and then on climbing. Can you tell us about that? Has physical exertion always been restorative for you?

Actually, turning to physical exertion as a means of healing was a surprise to me! Before my divorce, I was not a particularly active person, although I always loved travel and adventure. However, when my husband left, for the first time I felt truly lost – like my entire future was crumbling in front of me. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so while I processed these big emotions I decided to do something good for my body. I flew out to the Kerry Way – Ireland’s longest way-marked trail – and walked over 250km. I was amazed by what my body was capable of, so I ventured next to Nepal to trek the Annapurna Circuit. It was there that I fell in love with the big mountains, sparking a curiosity in me to see where my feet could take me.

How did you go about preparing to climb an 8,000 high peak?

When I said “yes” to climbing Manaslu with Nims Dai (as part of his 14 Peaks, Project Possible mission – later a Netflix series), I knew I was about to embark on the most difficult challenge of my life. I already knew I could handle high altitudes and difficult weather conditions, having successfully summited Aconcagua (the highest mountain the Americas) a few months before. But this was next level. I embarked on an intense training regime at home in London, tackling multiple ascents of the only hill in the area (London is a remarkably flat place!) and I headed up to North Wales several times to take 1:1 mountaineering lessons with British mountaineering guide Jon Gupta. It also took a while to get all the necessary gear together. I was particularly surprised how difficult it was to find extreme high altitude mountaineering gear designed for women.

How did you come up with the concept of your book and the characters? You mention that you always intended to write a book about your climb but what inspired you to make it a mystery/thriller? And did that occur when you were actually climbing?

I had been a full time author for a few years before I started on my mountaineering journey, writing science fiction and fantasy for young adults. The mountains are such an inspirational place that I knew that there would be a story in there somewhere, but I had no idea what shape that story would take. At first, I toyed with a scifi idea – maybe the first expedition to Olympus Mons, the highest mountain on Mars. It wasn’t until I was actually living at base camp in Manaslu that I realized the novel should be a thriller. It struck me that the mountain was the perfect setting: the isolation, the lack of authority figures, the risks of the environment like avalanches, crevasses and serac falls, but you’re also living amongst total strangers – people whose backstories and motivations are a mystery, and yet you need to trust them with your life. Fatal accidents are considered part of the accepted risk of climbing in these high places – what better place to get away with murder than somewhere already known as the death zone? I knew then that I could use my own personal experience as research, hoping create a unique, compelling, page-turning and yet authentic thriller in Breathless.

Tell us about Manaslu. I know it is the eighth-highest peak but had never heard of it before. Yet it sounds both beautiful and daunting.

Manaslu was the first eight thousand metre peak I’d ever laid eyes on, long before I ever believed I’d be able to climb it. It stands apart from a lot of the other 8,000m peaks, so it dominates the skyline – with a distinctive fishtail peak. It is stunningly beautiful and it is also considered one of the most ‘achievable’ of the 8000m peaks. Many people use it as a training ground for Everest, so it seemed like the right level of challenge as a next step for me in my mountaineering journey. Although ‘achievable’ is a funny word – it was also known as the ‘killer mountain’ for a long time as it had one of the highest death rates of any mountain in the world. There is no safe place to camp on the mountain – everywhere is prone to avalanche danger. It is definitely not to be underestimated.

Cecily is one of just a few women mountaineers in the book. Was that similar to your real life climb? Do you think that it’s harder for women to be accepted into the climbing world?

When I climbed Manaslu in September 2019, I held the record for the youngest Canadian woman, but even more surprising to me was that I was one of only eight Canadian women to have ever reached the summit in history, according to the Himalayan Database. That really showed me just how few women partake in this sport. For so long, I think there have been a lot of barriers to women being fully accepted into the climbing world – there’s the issue of equipment (as I mentioned above) not being designed with women’s bodies and needs in mind, and also the stigma that women in particular face when they participate in high risk sports while leaving their families at home. I think though the tide is changing – with more women than ever breaking ground in this sport, including my good friend and tentmate Stefi Trouget, who became the youngest woman to climb K2 without O2. I found the camaraderie I felt with other women on the mountain to be truly inspirational, and helped me find confidence on the mountain itself.

I loved your description of the teas and the foods you ate both in the town and in the camps. Do you miss that? Or did you take recipes home with you? To me, it seems like a real immersion into the culture of the people who live on the mountain. I’d never run into that in other books about climbing.

Thank you so much! I miss Nepal (and Nepali food) every day! It was important to me when I chose to climb in Nepal, that I used local operators and guides to support their economy as much as possible. What I didn’t realize is how those guides – Nims Dai, Mingma David and my Sherpa Tensing Kasang – would become more like family to me over the years. I have been invited back to their homes and even had the honour of being blessed by Nims’ mother during their Dashain festival. For me, it’s the people who make these climbing trips so memorable and impactful – and getting to immerse myself and learn more about Nepali culture is always the highlight.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my next adventure thriller, set in Antarctica – a place I was lucky enough to visit back in 2016. I was intrigued to write about the “white night” – because when the sun never sets, there are very few places to hide. My hope is to continue to write books that transport readers to incredible places – with some page-turning thrills along the way.

Is there anything we didn’t cover you’d like readers to know?

I don’t think so!

Follow Amy at:

Twitter: @amymcculloch

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/amymccullochbooks/

Instagram: @amymccullochbooks

Karen White’s New Orleans Spooky Tale: The Shop on Royal Street

With a step-mother who can’t help but hear and see ghosts no matter how many Alba songs she sings, no longer Nola Trenholm ends up buying a haunted home in New Orleans in Karen White’s latest book.

Author Karen White has added another page-turner to her repertoire of haunted houses and ghosts who won’t stay put in her latest book, “The Shop on Royal Street.”

White, who has written more 30 books, including the very successful haunted home Tradd Street Series, now has moved her spooky action from Charleston to New Orleans as we follow Nola Trenholm, who buys a Creole cottage that needs extensive work only to discover that some of the previous occupants are still living there — if living is the right term to apply to people who are dead.

But you can’t say Nola wasn’t warned. Her stepmother, who hears and sees ghosts like the rest of us see cars on the streets, tours the house with her before she signs the paperwork and suggests that it would be better to burn it down than then to move in.

As if that wasn’t enough of a warning, while they’re looking around there’s a sudden scream and an explosion of antique blue bottles — a seemingly spontaneous event with no possible explanation as to why it happened.

It turns out that the home was the scene of an unsolved murder, and to help her figure out what to do, Nola has to rely upon Beau Ryan, who can communicate with the spirits, something Nola unfortunately is unable to do. But Beau’s past is mysterious. His sister and parents disappeared during Hurricane Katrina and he is also connected to the murder that took place in Nola’s new home.

Nola has her own issues as well. A recent college graduate, like her parents she has addiction issues. Her father, Jack Trenholm, a best-selling novelist, has been able to overcome his demons, but her mother, a drug addict, didn’t.

White, who says she definitely believes in ghosts, has never seen one herself.

“And I’ve definitely put myself in places that are haunted,” she said.

Her grown son has and he is definitely not happy about it.

Is it hard to write about ghosts if you’ve never seen one, I ask White when we chat on the phone?

It turns out it is, since White never plans or plots her books, so what the characters say and do, whether they’re still alive or not, just flows as she writes.

Her human characters can be difficult and so can the spirits.

”I don’t use the ghosts to be scary, I use them as characters — it’s like having a neighbor,” she said. “I love how they tie in the past and the present and I love how they can be useful. Don’t we all wish we could ask for help from the other side?”

But, of course, she continues, ghosts can’t always express themselves any better than their human counterparts.

This article originally appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

The Book of Cold Cases

When she was nine, Shea Collins managed to outwit and escape a child predator, hiding as he searched for her before moving on to his next victim. Still traumatized two decades later, Shea keeps to herself, working as a medical receptionist during the day and at night holing up in her apartment, heating up single serve frozen lasagna in her microwave while researching unsolved true crimes for her blog, “The Book of Cold Cases.”

This self-imposed isolation is about to change when Shea recognizes Beth Greer in the doctor’s office one day. Decades ago, the beautiful, beguiling and rich Greer went to trial, accused of killing two men. She was found innocent, but like Shea, she has locked herself away from the world, albeit in a mansion in the wealthiest section of Lake Clare where she lived with her parents before their deaths.

Surprisingly, Greer agrees to let Shea interview her and invites her to the house. Located on a cliff overlooking the water, it should be a pleasant place, but instead, almost from the beginning, Shea can feel the odd vibes and happenings that are part of the home’s atmosphere. Looking out the window, she catches a glimpse of a young girl staring at the house. Who is she? And what about Greer? Is she a murderer? Or is she a woman somehow trapped in a supernatural nightmare?

Author Simone St. James went from scheduling and spreadsheets — mostly for live sports, making sure that camera crews showed up on time and that everyone got paid — to writing supernatural thrillers, including her latest, “The Book of Cold Cases.”

“I loved what I was doing, but as time went on I loved writing even more,” said St. James, who has written five novels, including bestseller “The Sun Down Motel.”

St. James says the cases in her book are entirely imaginary.

“But the germ of the idea came from the Zodiac case, in which a man killed random people in the San Francisco area in the late 60s and early 70s,” said St. James, noting that Stephen King was the first writer to influence her and that she read and re-read her copy of “Firestarter” so much that it fell apart.

“The killer in the Zodiac case was never caught,” St. James said. “And I wondered, what if you had a Zodiac-type case, but the suspect was a woman? It changes everything about the story — who the suspect is, why they do what they do, how it’s investigated, how it’s written about in the media. Literally everything about it is different. So I made up a fictional case and went down that rabbit hole because I thought it was interesting.”

Though her books have an eerie ambiance, St. James said she’s never encountered the supernatural herself.

“But I believe it’s possible. I think most things are possible,” she said. “In my books I’m more interested in the human side of the supernatural, if that makes sense. Why one person would refuse to leave, and how the remaining people react. Haunting stories are all about grief and fear and trauma and letting go or refusing to. Those themes are fascinating to me and I always go back to them.”

This story originally appeared in the Northwest Indiana Times.

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Harlan Coben’s “Hold Tight” Now a Netflix Movie

From the Book Jacket

How well do you really know your child?

Tia and Mike Baye never imagined they’d spy on their kids. But their sixteen-year-old son Adam has been unusually distant lately, and after the suicide of his best friend Spencer Hill, they can’t help but worry. Within days of installing a sophisticated spy program on Adam’s computer they are jolted by a cryptic message from an unknown correspondent that shakes them to their core: “Just stay quiet and all safe.”

As if Mike Baye isn’t dealing with enough, he also learns that Lucas Loriman, the sweet kid who grew up next door, is in urgent need of a kidney transplant. As the boy’s doctor, Mike suddenly finds himself in possession of an explosive secret that threatens to rip the Loriman family apart at the seams.

Nearby, while browsing through an online memorial for Spencer, Betsy Hill discovers a surprising detail about the night of her son’s death. Before she can find out more, Adam disappears, taking the truth with him and sending shockwaves through the neighborhood.

As the lives of these families collide in tragic, unexpected, and violent ways, long-hidden connections in their small suburb begin to work their way to the surface. And when an unidentified Jane Doe is beaten to death not far away, those connections threaten to turn this quiet community upside down—and force these desperate parents to decide whether there is any line they won’t cross to protect those they love most in the world.

About Harlan Coben:

With over 75 million books in print worldwide, Harlan Coben is the #1 New York Times author of thirty three novels including WINTHE BOY FROM THE WOODSRUN AWAYFOOL ME ONCETELL NO ONE and the renowned Myron Bolitar series. His books are published in 45 languages around the globe.

Harlan is the creator and executive producer of several Netflix television dramas including STAY CLOSE, THE STRANGER, SAFE, THE FIVE, THE INNOCENT and THE WOODS. Harlan was also showrunner and executive producer for two French TV mini-series, UNE CHANCE DE TROP (NO SECOND CHANCE) and JUST UN REGARD (JUST ONE LOOK). KEINE ZWEIT CHANCE, also based on Harlan’s novel, aired in Germany on Sat1.

Spooky and Scary: Beneath the Stairs

An abandoned octangular home hidden away from the main road, a mysterious door leading to a dark and haunted basement. What is beneath the stairs?

              A mysterious and abandoned octangular house, hidden in the woods, a mysterious disappearance, and tales of hauntings. A scary and spooky place indeed and one that attracts—no make that lures—Clare and Abby, two young friends, into taking a peek inside.

              Or rewind even further, into the memories of author Jennifer Fawcett, a playwright who worked with a theater company in Canada before moving to upstate New York to teach at Skidmore College. Fawcett, the author of the just released Beneath the Stairs, accepted a dare from a friend to participate in NaNoWriMo about a decade ago. Short for National Novel Writing Month, it’s a way for writers to jumpstart the process by setting a goal of completing a 50,000=page book within a month.

              Make that a decade for Fawcett. That’s how long it took her to complete Beneath the Stairs as there were plays to write, a baby that came along, a move to upstate New York,  and classes to teach. But what emerged was a story based upon her own experience when she was 13 of riding bikes with three friends to explore an old decrepit octangular home.

              “We didn’t stay inside for long,” says Fawcett, who has an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. “I remember it being very cold.”

              Decades later, that short visit and the feelings of cold and creepiness flowed into Fawcett’s story about the aftermath of Clare and Abby’s visits. Long estranged from her childhood friend,  Clare is living in Chicago when she receives a call that Abby is hospitalized after attempting to commit suicide in the basement of the octangular house. Clare, who has had a miscarriage and is seeing her relationship dissolve, reluctantly returns home. There are all sorts of  reasons why she wants to avoid the place where she grew up and one of them is Abby’s older handsome brother.

              Trying to understand what happened to Abby leads Clare back to the octangular house. As she remembers from all those years ago, there is an icy chill to the house and a feeling of unseen beings. Almost irresistibly, she’s drawn to the basement where the distilled evil of the house seems centered. The door to the basement is an animate object, opening on its own, and more frightening, occasionally locking in someone who has walked down the stairs into the basement.

              In the book, Fawcett added a widow’s walk to the top though there wasn’t one when she and her friends visited when they were 13. She recently found out that home originally had one. She also came to discover, after the book was published, that the names she used for characters were the actual names of people associated with the home. It was almost as if the house was channeling its history through Fawcett when she was writing. Spooky stuff indeed.

              Fawcett isn’t necessarily a believer in the supernatural but we both get a slight shiver when I ask her if she would  go into the house, which is located in Canada, now if she had the chance.

              “I can’t,” she says. “It burned down a few years ago. On Halloween.”

This book story previous ran in the Northwest Indiana Times.

This Might Hurt

         

          While her sister Nat is successfully climbing the corporate ladder in Boston, Kit has embraced life on a remote Maine island where she enjoys the structure imposed by the leaders of Wisewood. For most, Wisewood is a temporary respite from the world—a place for self-improvement and a total immersion into life totally off the grid as they work at maximizing themselves. One of the requirements for anyone staying  there is having no contact with friends and family for the length of their stay and not using their computers and cell phones. Not that they easily could. As Nat quickly discovers, cell service on the island is practically non-existent.

           None of this daunts Kit who is fully committed to Wisewood. Still reeling from the death of her mother, she’s excited when she is asked to join the staff even though it means undergoing a ritualistic—and painful—hazing. And she’s less than happy when Nat shows up to check on her.

           For her part, Natalie senses the hostility of the staff from the beginning when she shows up to take the boat to the island. It only gets worse when she arrives. The rooms have no curtains and she constantly feels as though she’s being watched, her cell phone disappears, and she sees her sister seemingly controlled by Wisewood’s leader, a woman known as the Teacher.

          In her first novel, the USA Today bestseller Darling Rose Gold author Stephanie Wrobel explored the relationship between a mother and the daughter that she had systematically made ill for the attention and praise it got her.

          “For this book I wanted to take a deeper look at cults and what makes them so appealing,” says Wrobel about her second novel, the aptly named This Might Hurt. “If you dive deep enough, you find the shades, it’s not all black and white. I think the major commonality when it comes to cults is that people are searching.”

          Told from three different points of view—Kit, Nat, and an unidentified woman who was psychologically and physically abused by a demanding sadistic father—Wrobel, who is from Chicago but is now living in England, shows us how each character developed and what led them to the island. And, what, ultimately happens to all three when the time comes to make choices.

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