Welcome to the summer session of the Relaxed & Groovy Book Club. We’re having one each quarter and instead of revisiting a favorite read from the past, I’m reading a book for the first time right along with you.
This selection is from an author I’ve never read before – always exciting! I met the beguiling Ms. Brockenbrough at the SCBWI LA conference last summer and have been looking forward to reading her book ever since. It’s a book well worth reading.
Current Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:
THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH by Martha Brockenbrough
Published by: Arthur A Levine Books
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Genres: YA, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. HELEN OF TROY AND PARIS. ROMEO AND JULIET. AND NOW . . . HENRY AND FLORA.
For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.
Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?
Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.
The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
Achingly romantic and brilliantly imagined, The Game of Love and Death is a love story you will never forget. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Martha Brockenbrough here.
Follow Martha on Twitter here.
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It’s hard enough being in love without immortal forces interfering or outright plotting against you, especially when you have no idea it’s even happening. Their subtle moves shape your life views and change small steps that might have made big changes in your life you’ll never know about. Such a fascinating premise for this story.
Here’s a look at the first chapter:
Friday, February 13, 1920
The figure in the fine gray suit materialized in the nursery and stood over the sleeping infant, inhaling the sweet, milky night air. He could have taken any form, really; a sparrow, a snowy owl, even a common housefly. Although, he often traveled the world on wings, for this work he always preferred a human guise.
Standing beneath a leaded glass window, the visitor, who was known as Love, removed a small, pearl-headed pin from his tie and pricked his his finger. A bead of blood rose and caught the reflection of the slice of moon that hung low in the late winter sky. He bent over the cradle and slid his bleeding fingertip into the child’s mouth. The baby, a boy, tried to suckle, his forehead wrinkling, his small hands curling into fists.
After a time, Love slipped his finger out of the boy’s mouth, satisfied that the blood had given the boy a steady heart. He replaced his pin and regarded the child. He removed a book from his pocket, scribbled a few lines, and tucked it away again. When he could stay no longer, he uttered two words, as softly as a prayer: “Have courage.”
The next night, in a small green house across town, his opponent made her choice. In this house, there was no leaded glass in the windows. No gracious nursery, no wrought-iron crib. The child was a girl. A girl who slept in an apple crate – happily so, for she did not yet know of anything else.
In the house’s other bedroom, the child’s grandmother slept lightly, listening from some ever-alert corner of her mind for the sounds that would indicate the child’s parents had returned home: the creak of a door, the whisper of voices, the careful pad of tiptoeing feet.
The old woman would wait forever to hear those sounds again.
Wearing a pair of soft leather gloves, Love’s opponent, known as Death, reached for the child, who woke and blinked sleepily at the unfamiliar face overhead. To Death’s relief, the baby did not cry. Instead, she looked at her with wonder. Death held a candle near so the child might have a better view. The baby blinked twice, smiled, and reached for the flame.
Pleased, Death set the candle down, held the baby close to her chest, and walked to the uncovered window, which revealed a whitened world glowing beneath a silver flannel sky. She and the baby watched the snow fall together. At last, the child fell asleep in her arms.
Death concentrated on her essential task, relieved when she at last felt the telltale pressure behind her eyes. After much effort, a single black tear gathered in her lashes. Death removed her glove with her teeth. It made hardly any noise as it hit the floor. With her index finger, Death lifted the tear.
She held her fingertip over the baby’s clean, warm forehead. Slowly, carefully, she wrote directly on the child’s flesh a word that would be invisible. But this word would have power over the child, and later the woman she would become. It would teach her, shape her. Its letters, seven of them, gleamed in the candlelight.
She whispered this into the baby’s ear:
Someday, everyone you love will die. Everything you love will crumble to ruin. This is the price of life. This is the price of love. It is the only ending for every true story.
The letters sank into the infant’s dusky skin and vanished as if they’d never been there at all.
Death put the baby down, removed her other glove, and left the pair of them on the floor, where they would be discovered by the baby’s grandmother and mistaken for something else. The gloves would be the only things she would give the girl, though there was much she had taken already, and more she would take in the years to come.
For the next seventeen years, Love and Death watched their players. Watched and waited for the Game to begin.
I was hooked from the opening. And I found myself rooting for the two wee babes, who grew up to be very intriguing, complex characters, hoping they’d find a way to beat the odds and defy the influence of Love and Death and forge their own path.
How about you? Did this opening grab you from the start or did you need more to get invested in the story?
Flora and Henry, our “players”, both have really big dreams that they are very determined to achieve. Flora wants to be the next Amelia Earhart, and even though she’d rather earn a living flying, without serious sponsorship money – rarely given to women, yet alone a colored woman – she must spend her evenings singing at Domino’s. Henry loves the connection, the rhythm, of baseball and is good enough that he received a full scholarship to the all-boys preparatory academy, which could lead to a college scholarship and a bright future. If only he could keep his focus on his studies and off of music, his real love.
Things really get interesting when their worlds collide, and then Henry hears Flora sing for the first time.
Here’s the scene where Henry has convinced Ethan, his foster brother, to go with him to Flora’s nightclub, The Domino, on the pretext of writing a story for Ethan’s father’s newspaper, about Flora, the girl pilot they met earlier that day:
On the far side rose a stage flanked by red velvet curtains and pearly lights. Everything had seen better days, to be sure. But it was the biggest, brightest thing Henry could remember since before the Crash, and for a moment, he almost felt as if he were back in that old world, the one he’d lived in with his family before the influenza took his mother and sister, before his father…Henry stopped the thought in its tracks. Now wasn’t the time.
A group of musicians stood on one side of the stage, and the drummer kicked off a new song. Center stage, stepping down a wide white staircase and curving handrails, was Flora, looking paradoxically the same and yet so different from the way she looked on the airstrip. She smiled as she walked, but it was clear she couldn’t care less about the audience clapping and hooting on the floor below. A spotlight pinned her in front of a nickel-plated microphone.
“Something wrong?” Ethan said. “Don’t tell me you’ve come to your senses.”
“It’s not that. I just -” Henry shook his head. “The singer.”
“Not that it matters, but she’s not bad-looking out of that canvas getup,” Ethan said. “I’ll grant you that. Even if her dress looks like something that was in style twenty years ago.”
Henry didn’t care about the dress. It looked fine to him. More than fine.
Flora opened her mouth to sing and Henry swallowed hard. He’d never heard anything like her voice, which made him wish he had his bass in his hands, just so he could return the sounds, a mix of chocolate and cream, something he wanted to drink through his skin.
Once upon a time I dreamed
Of how my life would go…
He recognized the song: “Walk Beside Me.” But her voice nailed him to the floor. It made him feel as though something had slipped under his skin and was easing everything nonessential straight from his bones.
“Cigarette?” A blonde wearing a short red dress and a tray of Viceroys slung from a strap around her neck leaned in toward them, blocking Henry’s view.
On that day I saw you
It wasn’t love at first sight
But slowly, like a sunrise
You revealed your light
Henry craned around her as Ethan waved the cigarette girl away. “Your kind always says no to mine,” she muttered as she left. The maître d’ approached holding menus.
“Follow me, gentlemen,” he said. “It’s your lucky night, We have a table right up front by the dance floor.”
Henry had heard “Walk Beside Me” many times on the wireless. But he had never heard it like this, slow and tender. And the accompanying music was nothing like the orderly, upright way the Ozzie Nelson Band played it. This was something unsettling here, something unpredictable, as if some set of rules, both written and unwritten, was being shattered like glass. The awareness of it dampened his forehead and made his blood sing, raising all the tiny hairs on his arms and the back of his neck.
Flora moved on to the chorus.
I may have dreamed before you
Of how my life should be
The only thing I want now
Is for you to walk beside me
Beneath her voice, a skinny young bass player plucked a steady rhythm, holding her on a sturdy web of notes. For some reason, Henry immediately hated the man, his mustache, his pompadour, his trim tuxedo, the way he looked at Flora as though she were a thing he owned. The music picked up a notch, taking Henry’s pulse with it as the song traveled back to the main melody, now with the full band. It was a conversation with a piano, a guitar, a saxophone, two trombones, and a pair of twins playing trumpets that turned the reflection of the chandeliers overhead into movable stars.
So Love’s player is on the hook, but will Death’s player forsake her goals and ambition for Henry?
As Henry visits the Domino almost every night, getting closer to Flora, neglecting his responsibilities and letting his grades suffer, putting his future college scholarships in jeopardy, we begin to see the effect the actions Love and Death have on each of the “players”. One side isn’t above shoving obstacles in the way to move the players in the direction that suits their outcome of the game even if that means causing them a great loss.
This is a beautiful story that will have you rooting for Henry and Flora (and maybe even against Love and Death) and have you thinking about the balance between love and self-sacrifice.
What wouldn’t you give up for love? Heavy question.
What did you think of the story?
Fall Relaxed & Groovy Book Club selection:
RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy
Published by: Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins
Release Date: May 9, 2017
Genres: YA, Contemporary
Ramona was only five years old when Hurricane Katrina changed her life forever.
Since then, it’s been Ramona and her family against the world. Standing over six feet tall with unmistakable blue hair, Ramona is sure of three things: she likes girls, she’s fiercely devoted to her family, and she knows she’s destined for something bigger than the trailer she calls home in Eulogy, Mississippi. But juggling multiple jobs, her flaky mom, and her well-meaning but ineffectual dad forces her to be the adult of the family.
Now, with her sister, Hattie, pregnant, responsibility weighs more heavily than ever.
The return of her childhood friend Freddie brings a welcome distraction. Ramona’s friendship with the former competitive swimmer picks up exactly where it left off, and soon he’s talked her into joining him for laps at the pool. But as Ramona falls in love with swimming, her feelings for Freddie begin to shift too, which is the last thing she expected.
With her growing affection for Freddie making her question her sexual identity, Ramona begins to wonder if perhaps she likes girls and guys or if this new attraction is just a fluke. Either way, Ramona will discover that, for her, life and love are more fluid than they seem. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
Learn more about Julie Murphy here.
Follow Julie on Twitter here.
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Follow Julie on Instagram here.
Follow Julie on YouTube here.
I’ve interviewed Ms. Murphy right here on this blog a few years ago and finally got to meet her in person during her Epic Reads tour for this book. Such a delightful person! While I’ve enjoyed reading her other books, like SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY and DUMPLIN’, she said this one took her the longest, and it’s because it’s a reflection of her inner self as much as DUMPLIN’ was a reflection of her outer self. Wow! Does that make me want to read it all the more!
We’ll reconvene this most relaxed and groovy of book clubs in the fall. (Tie-dyed tees and funky shoes optional, as always!)