I really like a good mystery. The Lethal Legacy by JL Phelan was just that. I was flipping through pages as fast as I could. That is always my highest praise. The book opens with the discovery of a death on a beach in Costa Rica in 1914. The dead woman is an heir to the Mariani Cacao Company. Her name is Briana Mariani Delaney.
The story then jumps to present day to the interactions between Dr. Samantha Delaney and Karina Mariani Ortiz. They are the current heirs to the Mariani fortune. They do not know each other, but that is about to change as they try to unravel the mysteries surrounding the Mariani family. What starts as a simple curiosity to know more about family history soon becomes something else altogether.
One of the main draws for this book is its varied setting. It goes back and forth between New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, Costa Rica, Geneva, Caracas, Colombia, Paris, and Bordeaux. I found the descriptions of these cities very evocative. The action also moves seamlessly between time periods from 1881 to the present. Because of the skill with which the author moves between time period and characters, the reader never gets a chance to be bored.
Briana is at the heart of the book. She marries John Delaney and has 4 children. Despite the fact that she is a woman in a time when women did not take charge, she ends up largely running the Mariani family empire. As the Mariani family goes through many trials, Briana manages to keep them mostly on track.
Somehow, along the way, the family loses the company. This is the mystery that Samantha and Karina end up trying to solve. Along with the help of Samantha’s husband, Brett, Karina’s husband, Martin, and Karina’s father, Richard, they all become immersed in trying to find out what really happened on that beach so long ago. Nothing is what it seems though. Adding to the intrigue, they find themselves being anonymously threatened as well. Cryptic notes telling them to quit digging are left for them. They find themselves facing very real dangers along the way.
The book is very well written. It flows in a smooth and logical fashion, especially for a book with so many different time periods and locations. The author does an amazing job of keeping it all lively and interesting.
The only negative thing about the book is that, very occasionally, some of the dialogue felt stilted. At times, it seemed a little too formal. That was very rare though. It was very good. Any negatives were far outweighed by the positives. The fact that I could not wait to turn the page to see what was going to happen made this book a very quick read.
The book is also the third book in a series. I had not read the first two before reading this one. Reading The Lethal Legacy had me quickly adding the first two books to my “to read” list. That said, the book reads well on its own and didn’t require reading the first two to enjoy the story.
Pages: 296 | ASIN: B07C2973M1
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STAINER follows Ben Steiner, a Jewish Columbia undergrad who is a decent person but wishes to be “in” with the “in crowd.” What was the initial idea behind this story and how did that transform as you were writing the novel?
Since I wrote the book forty years ago, I must confess that I cannot precisely recollect what the initial idea was. I just sat down and started scribbling (longhand, on legal yellow sheets) and eventually the novel emerged. However, as I explain in my Author’s Preface, the manuscript was an overwritten mess. I was a complete amateur, and made every mistake in the book… (okay, that was a truly cringe-worthy pun.) But now that I think of it, I did have a vague notion that I wanted to somehow skewer an acquaintance of mine, and decided that the cleverest way to accomplish that would be to turn them into a rotten character in a book. Which I did… and no, I won’t tell you which character, but suffice it to say that nowadays my intended skeweree is rich, fulfilled, aging much better than I am, and utterly unaware of my –or my novel’s– existence. Which, all things considered, is exactly as it should be.
Of course, at a distance of four decades, I am now able to perceive things in the novel that weren’t apparent to me at the time I wrote it; by which I mean that there’s more than a trace of autobiographical heartbreak in the story. And I think we’ll leave it at that.
Ben goes through some strikingly personal conflicts throughout the book and his character is meticulously developed. How did you capture the thoughts and emotions of a 70’s Jewish teen?
Easy… I was a 70’s Jewish teen. Well, not technically… even though I was already in my mid-twenties when I wrote STAINER, my mindset remained that of an irresponsible teenage scamp, and I simply wrote prose in the same the way I spoke/ thought/lived; in other words, from the viewpoint of extremely arrested adolescence (ahem.) Luckily for me, it turned out that I had a knack for accurately capturing the mood and lingo of the times in my writing… who knew?
Ben meets P.T. Deighland, a wiseass from Princeton, who is clearly up to no good. What were the driving ideals behind the characters relationship throughout the story?
“Driving ideals”? Hmm… I have no clue, other than to suspect that the relationship between ‘bad-boy’ P.T. and ‘good-boy’ Ben somewhat reflected the two sides of my own slightly schizophrenic persona; which, in those days, remained more-or-less in a constant state of conflict. To all outward appearances I was definitely a good boy, but like many such young fellows, secretly wished that I had the nerve and coolness to behave like one of the bad boys. Because, after all, the bad boys always got the girls… didn’t they? But, like Ben, my efforts to attain bad-boy status were ultimately doomed to failure, and came at a heavy cost.
What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?
I have a new novel under way, and it’s as different from STAINER as STAINER is from SHE’S MY DAD. I can only write stand-alone novels; the mere thought of doing sequels or a series is a stupefying bore. For me, once a story is wrapped up, that’s the end of it, and then I’m off to build a new world, with new characters, new problems, new everything. It’s the only way I can stay interested enough to keep going.
As to when the new book will be available, who knows? All I can say is, stay tuned… I do believe it’s a pretty good yarn.
New York City, 1975: Decent-hearted but spoiled Jewish college kid Ben Steiner is naively possessed by an overwhelming desire to be cool. At a springtime party on the night of his twenty-first birthday, he meets two people: Rebecca Glaser, the longed-for sweet girl of his dreams, and P.T. Deighland, a beguilingly knavish wiseacre from Princeton. Seduced by Deighland’s bold irreverence while simultaneously succumbing to his own temptations, Ben makes a cascading series of unfortunate choices which not only threaten his budding relationship with Rebecca, but expose him to ruin at the hands of a ravishing but ruthless fashion model named Anthea Montague.
Against the background of a vanished period in American history, STAINER offers a bittersweet nostalgic trip back to a less complex world, during a time of incautious excesses that, while deceptively fun and carefree, in due course forced many unwary youngsters like Benjamin Steiner to learn some necessary –albeit painful– lessons about growing up.
Posted in Interviews
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Charlotte is a woman of mysterious origins who is seeking revenge on the one who locked her away. How did you decide what the starting point was for you in Charlotte’s Soul?
In truth I was working on another story, dealing with a healer in a magical realm when my mind drifted off. The stories of the witch hunts in Salem came up. I’d seen many documentaries concerning that time period, thus I began to wonder. What would a true witch do. Could I write an interesting story? I considered starting points in that time period but nothing clicked for me. It wasn’t until I considered modern times that I felt a connection. Still, something was missing. I began asking what if? What if? That’s when Charlotte began to come alive. As for a starting point, I like to start off with my characters having to deal with situations that reveals something about the person.
The novel is filled with subtle yet powerful descriptions of voodoo and witchcraft. What research did you undertake to ensure you got all the details right?
From early on as a child Witchcraft has been talked-about, written about and made in to tv shows. In my mind they all held the same theme, the ability to alter reality by understanding nature is a force which can be tapped. Thus using this knowledge I built up Charlotte’s abilities. Voodoo on the other hand has not been a part of my world, yet I’d heard stories about it. Being unsure of any true facts, I began searching the Internet to understand it’s origins. The more sites I came across the more I learned voodoo is not a bunch of hocus-pocus, it’s a respected religion in many cultures.
I found that Charlotte was a balance between femininity, passion and a strong will. What obstacles did you feel were important in the story for Charlotte’s character development?
To develop Charlotte, I considered how she must feel being a 17th century woman thrust into our society. To give her balance to cope, I paired her off with detective Matt Huston, a modern man with his own demons. I felt with the two butting heads, she would have a foundation to build a life in our time period.
Will Charlotte’s Soul be part of a series? If so, where does the next story go? If not, where do you imagine it could go?
I did leave room to write another story with her and in fact, I’ve the making for a beginning to book 2. Presently however, she has been delegated to remain on hold as another story has caught my interest. In time I’m hopeful she’ll get dusted off and put back in action.
Charlotte Goodfield, a witch imprisoned since the 17th century, escapes in modern times and enlists the help of a New York City detective and an ATF agent to find her half-brother. He stole the magic amulet that holds half her soul—and she wants it back. Charlotte wades through NYC’s underbelly, searching for answers and discovering other horrors.
While her amulet has been with her brother, that half of her soul became drenched in evil; contacting it strengthens her magic but doing so raises a daemon within her that doesn’t care about playing by the rules.
Bad men are fair game. And she’s met a lot of bad men.
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Stainer by Iolanthe Woulff truly lives up to being a novel of the “Me Decade”. Set in 1975, we follow Ben Steiner, a Jewish Columbia undergrad who at his core is a decent person but wishes to be “in” with the “in crowd.” On the night of his twenty-first birthday he attends a party that will change his life forever. He meets P.T. Deighland, a wiseass from Princeton, who is clearly up to no good, and Rebecca Glaser who he falls for immediately. His new-found friendship with Deighland and his own youthful temptations lead him to make escalating bad choices that may not only harm his budding romance with Rebecca, but expose this alternate life to the rest of the Jewish community. It is a classic journey of self-discovery, but one with a lightness of humor that keeps it from becoming too dismal.
Woulff does a wonderful job with blending the scenery of 70’s New York City with the strikingly personal conflict of Ben Steiner. The cultural tropes of the Jewish community come into full play and provide the initial conflict of the individual strikes out away from the old traditions of his culture. The fact that Ben lives in a converted residence hall with other Jewish scholars from Columbia. He thirsts for the experience outside of his roots that has been denied to him all these years, and turning twenty-one he feels that he is empowered to do so.
In some ways, this novel is very much the spiritual successor of Catcher in the Rye, but considering it is about the 1970s, it feels much more relevant to our present age. I found the pacing to be a bit of a slow burn, since it weaves this inner journey that Ben must make in order to reach the final beats of the narrative. Woulff provides a story with rich character development, which is impressive for a book that is trying to tackle not only personal conflict, but societal conflict and the social statements at large. Ben suffers from the divide his life takes after the party, where he hides pieces of his life from his Jewish friends.
The book is particularly polished, which is enjoyable and Woulff’s attention to detail and the interiority of her characters to be particularly good. It is also such a wonderful tale of how we can sometimes self-sabotage ourselves and not be able to see the “good” that is often right in front of us.
Stainer presents itself as a coming of age work and one that I think all ages should be able to enjoy. YA readers may take a particular pleasure in reading this novel.
Pages: 345 | ASIN: B071G8KFX1
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The Perfect Teresa follows a 43 year old woman that has hit rock bottom and is given a 2nd chance at high school by an ancient Aztec deity. What was the inspiration for the setup to this imaginative story?
I think we all have those moments we wish we could go back and re-do for whatever reason, whether it be an embarrassing childhood experience or something you wish you’d done differently as an adult. Of course, none of us can go back and do anything over, at least not without something completely absurd and fantastical happening. That’s really how this story came about. The “what if” question was, “What if there was some way, some kind of cosmic intervention that would allow someone to go back in time and re-do an experience?” And, yes, I’ve thought of what I’d do in a situation like that! So little by little, the pieces began to fall into place, and authors like Christopher Moore and Jenny Lawson really helped me to see that sometimes the most absurd things made the most sense. So, yes, an unemployed Aztec deity sending a woman back in time to do a talent show over again? Makes perfect sense to me!
Authors can often fudge the details in time traveling stories, but I felt that the 80’s was captured perfectly in The Perfect Teresa. What kind of research did you do to get it right or did you pull from experience?
So I guess I’ll date myself and say that a lot of the stuff in this novel is from experience and memory because I did attend high school in the late 80s! It was a fun process to re-discover 1988 New York City, and it involved everything from getting back in touch with childhood friends through Facebook, to doing lots of searches on Google Images and Google Maps. My old buddies really helped me piece together our old neighborhood (like remembering the Susan Terry store on the corner of Ditmars and 31st Street), while Google Maps helped me walk through some old haunts and rediscover old landmarks. The other big part of this process was music. I love music, and in 1988 I was really big into the underground metal scene. So just being able to put these playlists together and listen to these old metal and 80s pop songs really helped me situate the story. You can find a YouTube link to this unofficial soundtrack for the story on my website!
Teresa’s character is intriguing and well developed. She can’t move forward and is trapped in this sad, drunken life where happiness eludes her. What was your inspiration for her character?
Thank you! In some ways, Teresa embodies a lot of the self doubt and self sabotage that I’ve had to overcome throughout my life. But in many ways, her character was inspired by Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, which I think is the one of the great stories about personal redemption through service to others. Like his character, Teresa starts off very unlikeable, very self-centered, and, as you said in your review, unwilling to take accountability for her actions. She’s got a long history of dumb, self-destructive tendencies, and she never wants to acknowledge that this is why her life is in ruins. But I wanted her story to be about self-discovery, and about realizing that her selfish actions have real consequences for others. So like Murray’s character, she has to learn through this new experience that there are things more important than a silly talent show, and that there’s real happiness in providing help and happiness to others. I hope that by the story’s end, we find her journey plausible and redeeming.
What is the next book that you are working on and when will it be available?
I’m working on two projects. One is a new time-travel sci-fi series tentatively called Quality Jones and the Time Keepers. But I’ve also started work on the sequel to The Perfect Teresa, titled The Perfect Vicente. I’m hoping to publish one of the other by the end of the year!
Lucky for her, an unemployed Aztec deity applying for Quetzalcoatl’s Trickster Department offers to grant Teresa her wish. He’ll send her back to 1988 to re-do the talent show! Catch? There’s no catch! After all, he’s a fully licensed deity with a Masters in Temporal Displacement Theory and a bachelors in Trickster Sciences and Cosmic Mischief. Besides, a talking coyote can be trusted, right?
For Teresa, it seems like the chance of a lifetime. But she soon finds that changing the past won’t be as easy as she thought, especially without Wikipedia. And that in a desperate effort to make her life better, she might end up making things much, much worse.
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