The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

I’ll confess I’ve wanted to visit Key West for many years, and I’ve yet to get there. When I saw this novel set in Key West in the 1930’s, I had to pick it up. Add to the plot a devastating hurricane over Labor Day Weekend, 1935, and I grabbed a copy to read on my last few days of a short staycation. 

The plot revolves around three women who are in Key West and the surrounding area over the Labor Day Weekend. It’s 1935, and the southern most tip of Florida is a pretty rough place–not the tourist destination it is today. The Florida East Coast Railway had finally been built to bring passengers all the way to Key West. World War One vets were living in pretty miserable camps while they worked on building and extending the railroad. No one wanted to deal with vets returning from the Great War that had left them damaged with PTSD; it was easy to ship them down to Florida and forget about them. Wow. Do we never learn from past mistakes?! 

Anyhow. Three women: Helen, Elizabeth, and Mirta are all in the Keys this fateful weekend. Helen lives there; she’s 9 months pregnant, living with an abusive husband, and working as a waitress in the only cafe around. Elizabeth has fled New York City and come to Florida looking for her brother, who may be at one of the veteran camps. She’s got a secret or two. And Mirta has arrived from Cuba with her new husband, handsome Anthony. Mirta married Anthony so her family would be safe in Cuba from the changing leadership. They are on their honeymoon before traveling to Anthony’s home in New York City. 

The paths of all three women criss-cross over the fateful few days they are trapped in Key West as the hurricane comes barreling down. The weather officials claim it will miss them; the locals, who know better, are getting nervous seeing the ominous signs that the terrible storm is advancing. Who will survive? Will each woman find the answers they are seeking? 

The plot moved along fairly quickly. I didn’t have trouble following each woman’s story; chapters have each woman’s name, so you know which one you’re following. Each story is compelling; I found Helen’s tale of matrimonial abuse and her desire to escape the most interesting. The hurricane left death and destruction that was horrible. I looked at a few stories on the actual hurricane of 1935 and yes, it was as bad as it is portrayed in the novel. While the hurricane literally wiped clean the islands that make up the Keys, it also wiped clean the lives of these three women, and created new chances for each. I don’t want to give much away, so I’ll stop there. There aren’t any huge surprises, but the puzzle pieces all fit together in an interesting way, and each woman is connected to each other by more than geography. 

There are book club discussion questions in the back of the book for those who want to read and discuss. I would definitely like to read Chanel Cleeton’s two other books: 

40265670 - The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton34374628. SY475  - The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
I’m always intrigued by books set in the 1920’s and 1930’s–in between the two world wars. 

Definitely a book I’d recommend if you’re traveling to Florida (maybe in 2021?). I didn’t see any non-fiction books about the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 but I’d love to know more about it beyond newspaper articles revisiting the event. 

Rating: 4/6 for a historical novel about three women at definitive crossroads in their lives; a deadly hurricane that forces them each to make choices, and the ever present and unresolved issue of returning veterans and failure of our government to honor and protect them as they return home. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 
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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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