2.5 Stars
The Witnesses by Robert Whitlow
The Witnesses - Robert Whitlow

Young lawyer Parker House is on the rise—until his grandfather’s mysterious past puts both of their lives in danger. Parker House’s secret inheritance is either his greatest blessing . . . or his deadliest curse. The fresh-faced North Carolina attorney shares his German grandfather’s uncanny ability to see future events in his mind’s eye—a gift that has haunted 82-year-old Frank House through decades of trying to erase a murderous wartime past. While Parker navigates the intrigue and politics of small-town courtroom law, Frank is forced to face his darkest regrets. Then, a big career break for Parker collides with a new love he longs to nurture and the nightmares his grandfather can no longer escape. Sudden peril threatens to shatter not only Parker’s legal prospects but also his life and the lives of those dearest to him. Two witnesses, two paths, an uncertain future.







Parker House is a North Carolina lawyer whose career seems to be on a steady climb to the top. Living nearby is Parker's German grandfather, 82 year old Frank House, previously Franz Haus.  Frank served as an officer with the German Army during World War 2. During those years, Frank's superiors discover he has quite the talent for having accurate visions of the future. So accurate that he earns the nickname "The Aryan Eagle".  The general Frank answers to keeps him nearby, adjusting the army's battle strategies accordingly. When Frank gets word that his parents and sibling have all been killed in a random bombing in Dresden, he makes the choice to desert his position and flee to Switzerland, spending some months there before making his way to the United States to settle in North Carolina's Outer Banks area. 


Decades pass, Frank is married and widowed, watches his children and grandchildren grow up, thinking all these years that maybe just maybe he's managed to live a life of relative peace. But as life sometimes goes, just as he lets a little bit of that guard down, in walks in that blast from the past. A man by the name of Mr. Mueller appears at the office of Parker, looking for a "Hauptmann Haus". Reluctantly, Frank agrees to a meeting with Mueller who comes to tell Frank a story about how "Hauptmann Haus" gave him some advice that ended up saving his life. Pretty early on, it's made clear that Frank struggles with a mountain of guilt regarding his involvement in war crimes. After hearing Mueller's story, Frank gives a terse kind of "well, you're welcome" to try to wrap up the topic and send the guy on his way but the reader will soon see the business between Mueller and Haus / House is far from done.  


Along with Frank's struggle with guilt, the reader also gets the sense that he may cling to some sense of comfort or familiarity in that pain, for years choosing to nurse the guilt rather than pursue any sort of forgiveness. Given time though, and with a little helpful nudge from his best friend Lenny, Frank does gradually find his way to a path of emotional peace & salvation. Meanwhile, grandson Parker also has his own experiences with the past revisiting him. As a child, Parker lost both his parents in a car crash when their car was struck by a drunk driver. Now, adult Parker finds himself brought in on two DUI / wrongful death cases that lead him to revisit those buried emotions. To complicate matters, in one case he is asked to defend a woman, a friend of one of the firm's partners, who was charged with a DUI with her 8 year old daughter in the backseat; in another case, Parker finds himself drawn to an attractive blonde woman who turns out to be none other than the daughter of a local bigwig trial lawyer that happens to be super protective of his girl.


Frank's portion of the novel is largely made up of pretty grim historical fiction (we're talking about WW2 after all). In his elderly years, when he begins to look into the idea of allowing self-forgiveness, his story turns much more heavily biblically influenced. Parker's portion does have some religious themes as well but to a much lesser degree. 


I felt myself most drawn to Frank's parts of the story. While Parker and his lady friend Layla were entertaining enough, Frank's tale kept me the most engaged throughout the novel. Though his part gets a bit heavy, I couldn't help but be pulled into that World War 2 timeframe. As for being a courtroom drama though, I didn't find this novel terribly exciting. If you're hoping to go into this story for high intensity courtroom brawls, I found this one lacking on that front. Most of the "action" is made up of pre-trial interviews and discussions about filing paperwork. I don't work in law but I suspect that in reality much of a day's work is made up of the mundane, but when it comes to fictionalizing it, a reader tends to want the nitty gritty heated courtroom battles.  


Also, those two storylines -- the present mixed with the WW2 flashbacks -- for me, until I got to the closing chapters of the novel I felt like the ties between Parker's past and struggles and Frank's were pretty tenuous. I was also a bit confused with the premonition "gift", as it was often referred to... I didn't see it in Parker as much. The back cover synopsis says that Parker seems to have gotten his gift passed down from Frank but with both of them I felt like Whitlow didn't quite go far enough with the idea. Rather than something mystical, magical, etc. ... to me, it really just felt like people working off of a basic gut instinct. Umm, pretty much everyone has that "gift" if they're just even remotely in tune with their mind / body connection. No big mystery, really. So I thought that aspect could've been played up a lot more. 


Final verdict -- courtroom / legal drama just so-so for me. What kept me reading was Frank's history as well as the friendship and banter between him and his fishing buddy, Lenny. I thought Lenny seemed like a pretty cool guy. The front cover of this book claims this is great for fans of John Grisham novels. Fair enough. I can back that, but I still find this one secondary to any Grisham I've delved into ... so maybe check it out when you've gone through all of Grisham's catalogue and need something more of the genre. 



FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

3.5 Stars
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love - Dava Sobel

Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether." It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo's daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me." Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. During that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, Galileo sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Filled with human drama and scientific adventure, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story.





Likely you're already pretty familiar with the name Galileo Galilei, but if not, here's a rundown for you. Galileo is now known as being one of the most famous (possibly THE most famous?) astronomers and mathematicians of the 17th century. His work and studies also earned him the titles of physicist, inventor, and professor (teaching courses in mathematics and military architecture at various Italian universities, even teaching some of the Medici children for a time).



What Galileo might be more well known for now is him being placed under indefinite house arrest after being so bold as to come out and proclaim that the universe might, in fact, NOT revolve around Earth. He goes on to say that not only Earth but all the other planets rotate around the sun! GASP! We can laugh now, having centuries to benefit from being privy to astounding advancements in the field of astronomy, but back in Galileo's day, his statement was considered full on heresy. Funny thing though, he wasn't even the first guy to put forth the idea! In the year 1600, just a year before Galileo's first daughter, Virginia (the daughter referenced in Sobel's title), was born, Friar Giordano Bruno posed the same idea. Know what happened to him? BURNED AT THE STAKE. Church was not having your new fangled scientific theories back then.


In Galileo's case, he was a deeply devout Catholic, but he was also a firm supporter of the ideas of Copernicus, one example being when Galileo took on Monsignor Francesco Ignoli, Secretary of the Congregation of Propogation Of The Faith (imagine trying to order letterhead for that office!). In a letter addressed to Galileo, Ignoli relentlessly bashed all of Copernicus' major points. At first Galileo chose to not respond. Not wanting to "feed the trolls" as us in the online crowd commonly like to call it, he initially didn't see much point in offering a comeback. But when he started to notice that his silence was being interpreted as acceptance of Ignoli's views, THEN Galileo felt compelled to set the record straight. 


from Galileo's response letter to Monsignor Ignoli


Galileo sent off his 50 page "Reply to Ignoli" to friends and family in Rome in October of 1624. Curiously, because of lengthy delays caused by changes Prince Cesi and other Roman colleagues wished to insert for prudence's sake, the "Reply to Ignoli" never reached Ignoli himself. A few manuscript copies circulated cautiously around Rome, however, and the pope was treated to at least a partial private reading in December. No explosion erupted from Urban in reaction to the "Reply". Indeed, His Holiness remarked on the aptness of its examples and experiments. And therefore, no apparent obstacle stood in the way of Galileo's expressing the same ideas in a book, which he now envisioned as a playlike discussion among a group of fictional friends, with the working title "Dialogue on the Tides"

~ from Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel


By June 1630, Dialogue on the Tides was approved for publication, but with stipulations. Galileo was informed that the pope disliked the working title, and the preface and ending must be altered to reflect the pope's philosophy on science which meant that Galileo's text needed to have a more obvious lean toward "the mysterious omnipotence of God", as Sobel phrases it. Didn't matter what Galileo was proving or disproving with scientific fact. The back and forth on the stipulations caused the actual publication of Galileo's book to be delayed until February 1632. Nearly 2 years of haggling! Even with negotiations, being approved for publication, all of that... the Vatican was not pleased with the final product. In fact, they were so upset, by September of 1632 an order was sent out for the book to cease being sold and Galileo got summons from his local Inquisition panel. Galileo's health was extremely frail during this time, his doctors even advising that he not be moved from his home, but the Vatican's response to the news was that either Galileo show his face willingly or prepare to come in in shackles. Seeing no other choice but to submit, Galileo made his travel arrangements but not without first making sure his will was up to date!


During his Inquisition interviews, Galileo admitted that he went back and read over the text after publication and found holes in some of his reasonings, areas that lacked sufficient scientific proof. (BTW, Sobel's book here includes a transcript of Galileo's actual testimony during those interviews). Even so, the then 70 year old and sickly Galileo was still charged with heresy and given indefinite house arrest. Interestingly though, even with this verdict, there were three men on the deciding panel who REFUSED to sign their names to the written verdict! It is rumored that Galileo muttered "but it still moves" under his breath after signing his own name to the affidavit, but Sobel argues that Galileo wouldn't have been so stupid as to say such a thing in front of a group of men who held such power over his life at that moment (though I have to admit, if it DID happen, that would've been pretty badass of the guy!).


As for the book itself, Dialogue of the Tides (the "working" title stayed put through all this) was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1664 and remained there for nearly 200 years. Still, copies of the work traveled through various black markets across Europe (an English translation was even printed up in 1661). Though under house arrest, Galileo continued to offer tutoring / mentorship services within his home and went on to write more books on theories of motion and mechanics. The Two New Sciences was published in 1638. It was weeks before he was sent his own copy but by then his struggles with cataracts & glaucoma had become too much of a problem for him to be able to read much of anything. It's been speculated by some historians (going by the scientist's surviving correspondence where he describes struggles with constant pain) that in his later years he may also struggled with gout, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney stones, hernia issues, chronic eye infections and insomnia (probably as a result from all the physical pain!) before finally succumbing to death in January 1642.


All this on Galileo, why haven't I mentioned the daughter yet? Well, truthfully I have a bit of an issue with this book having the title Galileo's Daughter because in actuality much of what I read was just about the man himself; scenes of the daughter being interjected here and there but not as strongly as one might presume judging from this title. In fact, Sobel barely references the daughter in this title  -- except to mention her birth and taking her convent vows -- until about 100 pages in. We get to know her a bit and then she frequently pops back out of the spotlight except through excerpts of her letters to her father from time to time. But here is what I gathered about this woman largely lost to history (but less so than her siblings!): Galileo's eldest daughter, born Virginia, was the eldest of three illegitimate children Galileo fathered. Because Galileo never married Virginia's mother, Virginia herself was deemed "unmarriageable", so it was decided she would join convent life. Thanks dad!




It's all good though. Virginia actually took quite well to the nunnery, being placed with the Florentine order of the Poor Clares at the age of 13; the Poor Clares being a sisterhood of voluntary extreme poverty. Extreme even by "took an oath of poverty" standards. Not only were their habits made of the roughest material, but their meager pantries were kept to only what was absolutely necessary for survival. It was not uncommon for sisters to be bordering on starvation in order to feel closer to God. In the days of Sister Clare herself, the Vatican actually feared the woman WOULD starve herself to death!


Virginia took the name Sister Celeste as a nod to her father's work and general love of stars, which she greatly admired. The strong bond between Galileo and his eldest was largely due to Celeste being the most curious and intelligent (in his opinion) of his children. Another of Galileo's daughters, Livia, also joined the same convent shortly after her sister, taking the wickedly cool name Sister Arcangela, but had much more of a struggle acclimating to the environment. Many of Celeste's letters in this book make brief mention of Livia's somewhat morose attitude most days, one letter plainly stating "Livia is already displaying a morbid tendency to melancholy and withdrawal that would shade her adult personality." Livia's struggles made me feel for her and also made me more curious about her in general but sadly Sobel doesn't go into much detail about this daughter, perhaps just because there's even less about her than Celeste.


While I found Celeste's letters interesting, I was surprised at how few were actually included in this book, seeing as how the synopsis references how Sobel "crafts a narrative from 124 surviving letters between father and daughter." Sister Celeste seemed like a woman with a good bit of depth too her but I also felt like she was sometimes WAY too hard on herself, in some letters referring to herself as someone of "meager intelligence" or writing to her father to profusely apologize for things that struck me as insubstantial errors or wrongdoings. Humility is admirable, but not when it starts to border on self abuse. 


Overall, for the amount of information Sobel covers in this dual biography of sorts, while I didn't find the writing style itself consistently, 100% engaging, the approach I would say is definitely accessible to the average reader. It's a solidly entertaining and educational read for those interested in Galileo or the time in which he lived. There is also an element to Galileo's life story that can inspire thinkers and dreamers of today's world. Think about it -- the guy was willing to challenge not only his own religious upbringing and beliefs that went against his research, but also fellow scientists who were comfortably stuck in their ways, in order to unlock the mysteries of the natural world. His life's work is proof that the naysaying of "haters" as we label them today is based in fear and discomfort with the unknown. Was he always in the right? No, not always, but at least he was brave enough to branch out and challenge himself and others! 

5 Stars
The Ringmaster's Wife by Kristy Cambron
The Ringmaster's Wife - Kristy Cambron

In turn-of-the-century America, a young girl dreams of a world that stretches beyond the confines of a quiet life on the family farm. With little more than her wit and a cigar box of treasures, Mable steps away from all she knows, seeking the limitless marvels of the Chicago World’s Fair. There, a chance encounter triggers her destiny—a life with a famed showman by the name of John Ringling. A quarter of a century later, Lady Rosamund Easling boards a ship to America as a last adventure before her arranged marriage. There, the twenties are roaring, and the rich and famous gather at opulent, Gatsby-esque parties. The Jazz Age has arrived, and with it, the golden era of the American circus, whose queen is none other than the enigmatic Mable Ringling. When Rosamund’s path crosses with Mable’s and the Ringlings’ glittering world, she makes the life-altering decision to leave behind a comfortable future of estates and propriety, choosing instead the nomadic life of a trick rider in the Ringling Brothers’ circus.





After meeting a professional pianist while attending a tea party with her mother in Cincinnati, 19th century Ohio farmgirl Armilda Burton has stars in her eyes about the big wide world out there. She finds herself unable to be content with the same quiet life of a farmer's wife her mother chose. Instead, Armilda decides to change her name to Mable and head for the big city of Chicago to try to make her own way. While working as a restaurant hostess on the grounds of the 1893 World's Fair, Mable meets famed circus organizer John Ringling. Though their meeting is brief, there is a definite connection between them. Unfortunately, John has an internal panic over his growing bond with Mable leading him to break off their acquaintance. She doesn't see him again until 1905 (coincidentally at the World's Fair being held in Atlantic City, New Jersey) but the moment they reconnect it's like no time has passed at all. In record time, Mable finds herself with the new title of Mrs. Ringling, though she quickly makes it known that she has no intention of interfering with her husband's business, instead choosing to focus on maintaining their palatial home. 


This novel then alternates between the progression of Mable's life in the late 1800s-early 1900s and that of Lady Rosamund Easling in the 1920s. Rosamund is the daughter of an earl but feels too restricted within the social rules and expectations that come with her titled life of privilege. An accomplished equestrian and stunt rider, Rosamund is spotted performing (in secret from her family) at a show by Colin Keary, manager of John Ringling's traveling circus. Colin, through much persuading, convinces Rosamund to travel to America to help acclimate and train her horse which has just been sold to the circus. What he doesn't tell her is that he intends to make her the circus' next stunt performer, if he can convince her to take the position. 


Not long after her arrival in America, Colin snags Rosamund an invitation to Ca d'Zan (aka House of John), that dreamy residence of John and Mabel.


Fun fact: Some interior shots of Ca d'Zan were actually used

as scenes for Mrs. Havisham's house in the 1990s movie adaptation

of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations


Mable is instantly taken with Rosamund, and over time and many meaningful conversations proves to be quite the calming force for Rosamund whenever she starts to doubt what she really wants for her own life. Within this novel, the two develop a touching bond which lasts until Mable's dying day. 


"I had dreams. And my rose garden makes me think on them. Often."


Rosamund pictured a young Mable Ringling with stars glimmering in her eyes and smiled. The vision suited her.


"What were your dreams?"

"Oh, same as yours. Love. Freedom. Something up in lights -- didn't have to be my name. Just something to make the journey sparkle a little." She leaned in, winking on the words. "And if you can look past the exterior of a dream, what's buried deepest is always the most rewarding. My Ca d'Zan has a grand exterior. It's playful -- the way I wanted it. But if you look past the house, you'll find that the rose garden has been tended with far more care. By my own hands, for a much longer time. So you see, it's the journey we're all after -- not the reward."


"I don't know what my dreams are anymore," Rosamund said. "I thought I did, but then I came here and ... everything changed."


"Bravo then," Mable countered. "This building up of what we want doesn't have to be a tearing down of who we are. It's the worst kind of extravagance to think we're above adversity. Isn't that what God calls of us, to acknowledge that we are moving with this undercurrent of something that is always at work around us? Something bigger than we could ever be just as one person? Rosamund, we only see what we want to see -- in people, in love, and in life. It's a choice, my dear. That's the point of all this. You choose the face you offer the world. And it's only behind the costumes and the masks that we can be who we truly are."


It doesn't take much for me to get invested in a circus story, as long as it has plenty of backstage scenes, because that's where my interest tends to focus. I always want to know more about the backstories and relationships around performers and this novel is no disappointment in that aspect. Not only are we taken backstage as the performers set up their routines but we are also brought in to witness gossipy gabfests and rivalries brewing. We get to know and love the animals that work with their human counterparts and Cambron works magic bringing the scents and ambiance of a good crowd to life. There's also a good bit of fun general history worked into the plot, from Prohibition era struggles to even a blink-and-you'd-miss-it reference to animator Walt Disney! 


The relationships are all so well done here. The romantic connections are written with great warmth and respect and I love that all the key male parts were men of strong character who loved and acknowledged the inner strength of the women they loved. I also liked that the storyline wasn't all sap. Cambron mixes in enough grim and tragic elements -- from alcoholism to characters battling TB or diabetes; Sally's story especially broke my heart!  --  to keep the reading emotionally interesting. Highly recommend any lovers of circus stories give this one a go, just to experience the way Mable is written here, if nothing else. Man, by the end I wanted pep talks from Mable!! 



Note To Readers: Just a heads up, there is a spoiler in this story for Shakespeare's Othello... in case you haven't read it yet. 



FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

3 Stars
Kit Kat & Lucy: The Country Cats Who Changed A City Girl's World (memoir) by Lonnie Hull DuPont
Kit Kat and Lucy: The Country Cats Who Changed a City Girl's World - Lonnie Hull DuPont

The True Story of How Two Quirky Stray Cats Changed Their Adopted Human Forever. After years of loving the vibrant city life in San Francisco, Lonnie Hull DuPont reluctantly trades her three-room apartment on foggy, lively Telegraph Hill for a farmhouse on a quiet plain in Michigan. She immediately misses the rhythm and the pace of the city, and the isolation country living brings has her longing for something more. Enter Kit Kat and Lucy--stray cats who arrive at the farmhouse a year apart and each ask to move in. The antics and oddities of these two strong personalities wrapped in fur bring a new light to the farmhouse and DuPont's life. Kit Kat, an obsessive-compulsive tortoiseshell, can purr her new human into a happier state of mind. Lucy, the playful, leaping Russian Blue who can nail a bat right out of the air, makes her laugh. From the hysterical process of getting two strange cats to like each other, to the exciting years of watching those cats thrive--and inspire DuPont in the process--this book is an energetic tale of cat and human foibles. Animals enrich our lives, and the heartwarming story of how Kit Kat and Lucy changed one woman's world will leave readers enchanted.






Author Lonnie Hull Dupont's memoir opens with a rewind back to her days as a poet living in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, California. She tells of her solidly established and still growing reputation as a neighborhood favorite among the San Fran poetry scene. She loved her apartment, her city... life in general was just good, you know? To top it off, she has herself one of those when-you-least-expect-it movie magic moments of bumping into the man who would become her husband, just blocks from her front door! After years of domestic and career bliss, DuPont is surprised to find herself taken in by a comment made by a coworker one day (DuPont also worked as an editor at a publishing house) about how people have lost touch with the land. In the days following this comment being uttered, as well as being further encouraged by the reality that the cost of maintaining a Telegraph Hill address was steadily increasing, DuPont finds herself compelled to leave city life behind and take up residence in a more rural setting. Soon purchased: one 1835 farmhouse in Michigan. 


It isn't long before Lonnie and her husband, Joe, move into their new digs that a little furry something comes knocking at their door. Enter Kit Kat (the name coming from the kitschy cat shaped wall clocks that became all the rage in the 1940s-50s), a tortoiseshell stray kitten the couple are compelled to take in, even though Lonnie's husband is highly allergic. The couple initially care for the cat, though they remain unsure if a pet is really what they need right now. They decide one day to take the cat over to Lonnie's sister nearby, who owns a cattle ranch and would have plenty of space for the cat to happily roam around to her heart's content. While they think they've made the best choice, it doesn't take long for the tortoiseshell to arrive at their door once again. They figure if the cat is that intent to live with them, they have to keep her! Lonnie's husband goes on allergy meds but surprisingly quickly finds that his allergy seems to go away on its own. 


Just when things are getting settled with Kit Kat, another feline makes its presence known... a little Russian Blue full of life and wiliness, so they decide to name the girl Lucy, after comedic actress Lucille Ball. Lucy shows up one freezing Thanksgiving night. Though Lonnie and Joe are hesitant to have this new kitten around territorial Kit Kat, they know they can't leave the poor thing out in the freezing cold. Luckily an unused upstairs space of their home proves perfect for giving the little one a place for shelter while Lonnie and Joe figure out how to acclimate the two cats to each other. 


Through some trial by fire, a solution is eventually found and over time the cats grow to be pretty much inseparable. Through caring for these two felines, DuPont learns to process unresolved emotions of her own she sometimes doesn't even realize she's sitting on --- feelings surrounding topics such as her being given up for adoption and always wondering about her birth mother; adult Lonnie having to watch her adoptive mother battle cancer; the emotional rollercoaster that came with Kit Kat's FIP diagnosis...and then possible misdiagnosis. DuPont also shares her moments of self doubt as a writer, her struggles with anxiety and periods of derealization, and how animals (not just the cats but throughout her entire life) have helped her combat the darkest periods. 


Scattered throughout her tales of the adventures of Kit Kat & Lucy, DuPont also shares stories of childhood pets as well as being the brief guardian of a banty hen named Alberta. Taken as a whole, this collection of memories was cute but altogether I didn't find it a flat-out laugh riot or non-stop insanely, wildly interesting. Reading it, I had a definite "guess you had to be there" feeling in my mind. I still enjoyed the stories and the reading experience as a whole but likened said experience to that little life truth of mothers generally finding their kids way more interesting than anyone else will. Dang, that sounds harsh when I say it like that but still, that's the feeling I got from a lot of this. But let me close that little criticism with a high note and say that I got a kick out of some of DuPont's pun-tastic work... such as naming Chapter 13 "My Catalyst". Thumbs up from me there! 


What I did particularly appreciate from DuPont's stories of her feline friends was that their combined tale does reiterate the idea that though animals can sometimes seem neurotic, requiring pet parents to get creative with our problem solving, the attention and love our critters give us make every moment of stress so worth it in the end. :-)


While there are some sad scenes near the end of this memoir -- we are covering the span of many, many years here -- DuPont kindly closes on a warm scene, so while you may need a few tissues for a few pages, you can safely save the rest of the box.


FTC DISCLAIMER: Revell Publishing kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

3.5 Stars
The Lion Is In by Delia Ephron
The Lion is In - Delia Ephron

Tracee is a runaway bride and kleptomaniac. Lana’s an audacious beauty, a recovering alcoholic. Rita is a holy-roller minister’s wife, desperate to escape her marriage. One warm summer’s night, these three women go on the lam together. Their car breaks down on a rural highway in North Carolina and they’re forced to seek shelter in a seemingly abandoned nightclub. Which is where they meet Marcel. And soon everything changes. Marcel, you see, is a lion.  Written with the deftness, humor, and sparkling wit that mark her books, plays, and movies, Delia Ephron’s The Lion Is In is an unforgettable story of friendship, courage, love—and learning to salsa with the king of the jungle.





Tracee and Lana are on the run. Lana is a runaway bride still rocking her gown while Tracee is battling kleptomania and alcoholism. On their way to a new life path they're not sure of just yet, they come across Rita on the side of the road. Rita turns out to be a minister's wife desperately trying to escape her husband's stifling ways. Rita helps the ladies with a flat tire so Tracee and Lana offer to give her a lift to the next town, which Rita accepts. Unfortunately, not long after pulling back onto the road the car has engine trouble so the ladies are forced to pull over once again. Miles away from anything but a shuttered up building, the trio decides to investigate, hoping to find shelter for the night. 


The closed up building turns out to be a bar called The Lion. Imagine their surprise on taking a walk-through and discovering Marcel, an actual lion! They find some relief in seeing this feline is in a cage but Rita's curiosity leads her to be the first to bond with him. The following morning, the ladies discover that what they thought was an abandoned place is actually still a bar with regular clientele. The owner, Clayton, is not happy to discover he has temporary squatters in his place of business but once he hears their tale of woe he agrees to let the ladies work for him (as waitresses / kitchen help) long enough to get the funds to repair their car. 


So starts the first step in these ladies starting their new life paths. Lana gets herself into a bit of a pickle, having a drunken night out with an off-duty cop that leads to a humorous internal debate the next morning about whether to "borrow" his squad car to get herself back home! Rita's bond with the lion Marcel continues to grow. Her discovery that the two of them seem to love the music of Julio Iglesias (particularly the song "Bambelo") gives her an idea of how to bring more business to Clayton's little watering hole. Her gentle ways also begin to attract the interest of Clayton himself.


This story gave me a little of a Boys On The Side vibe, with the different stories unfolding between Tracee, Lana and Rita. Tracee and Tim's budding romance was adorable; I loved how Tim had a bit of old world gentleman style to his way about him. When we get introduced to Rita's estranged husband later in the later parts of the story -- ugh, I just found him disgusting and could completely see why Rita had reached her limit with him!



"Do you know the Theory of One?"




The Theory of One, he explains, means that all you need in life is one person to make a difference in your life. "You can have the world's most awful life," says Tim, "but if one person believes in you, you'll be okay....I would like to be your one."


"Isn't it too late?"


"Hell, no. I'm your one."


I also got a kick out of Delia Ephron's acknowledgement page. Not only does she give a shout-out to my hometown, San Diego (specifically the Wild Animal Park where she observed the lions to get a feel for Marcel's mannerisms) but she also gives nods to not only her late sister, director / screenwriter Nora Ephron (famous for movies like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and Julie & Julia) but also actress Natasha Lyonne (who appeared in the play Love, Loss and What I Wore, written by the Ephron sisters). Apparently these two women served also served as readers for early drafts of The Lion Is In




Note on the author: Delia Ephron, along with being a novelist, is also a successful film producer and screenwriter. She wrote the screenplays for movies Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants, You've Got Mail, and Bewitched (the big screen adaptation of the tv show). She also served as producer on You've Got Mail and her sister's film (both films starring Tom Hanks), Sleepless in Seattle.

3 Stars
Elvis Takes A Backseat by Leanna Ellis
Elvis Takes a Back Seat - Leanna Ellis

Elvis Takes a Back Seat by award-winning novelist Leanna Ellis is the endearing story of Claudia, a young widow determined to fulfill her husband’s last request by hauling a three-foot bust of Elvis Presley in the backseat of a vintage Cadillac from Dallas to Memphis to return it to its rightful owner. The road trip—taken with an eccentric aunt who actually knew the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” and a temperamental teen with a suspicious mind of her own—hits some royal roadblocks and detours as these women uncover pieces of their past along with the bust’s mysterious history. What they find along the way changes their lives forever, inspiring readers to also step out in faith.






Recently widowed Claudia McIntosh, after some internal debating, decides to fulfill her husband's last request to return his 3 ft tall ceramic Elvis bust back to its original owner. She's confused as to what he means by "original owner" because she thought it had always been his. To make things even more fun, he doesn't tell her who this original owner was or is!  Still, she sets out to drive from Dallas, TX to Memphis, TN, hoping that a trip to Graceland will give her some answers. Joining her on this road trip are her aunt Rae (who claims to have hung with the real Elvis) and Ivy, the moody teen daughter of Claudia's longtime friend and boss, Ben.


Ivy has been emotionally closed off since her mother walked out on the family years ago. It is Ben's hope that Ivy going on this trip with fun-loving Claudia and Rhea will give Ivy the comfort and confidence to start opening up again. Little does he know that Ivy's interest in this trip has to do with her learning that her birth mother may be living in Tennessee.


Readers can expect to find your standard road trip novel where each character involved moves along happy-go-lucky until being thrust into various situations that have them having some sort of A-HA moment. Claudia, feeling bereft of the mothering aspect of her life, finds another way to get her mothering on through watching over Ivy. Watching Ivy work through her conflicted emotions regarding her mother, Claudia finally faces her own emotions surrounding HER mother's abandonment. Rae uses her life stories as lessons on how not to run from pain but through the course of the story has to learn how to actually live by her own message.


Some lessons come hard. I watch her face change, petulant one minute, angry, shamed, and sad the next. Why did it seem a rite of passage for young women to be treated poorly by men?


Probably no surprise, but each chapter features a title that references an Elvis song that also gives hints to what's ahead in that chapter. Sometimes the Elvis references throughout the story itself feel a bit unnatural, forced into the story just to get the Elvis theme in there enough, but at other times it's as entertaining as EP fans might hope for. The dialogue, at times, seemed like it relied too much on platitude-heavy conversations that just didn't sound like how the average person would converse and the humor, though it had its good moments, also had parts where the joke didn't quite land. The ending was largely predictable but there was one small surprising twist in the story's closing. The ending did turn more preachy than I was expecting. Having religion mentioned is not necessarily out of place in this kind of story, as Elvis Presley himself was a deeply religious man, but even so it got a bit heavy-handed there near the end, I have to say... to the point of making the closing scenes somewhat cringey and laughable. It felt as if Ellis was really reaching to tie in the godly aspect.. but it ended up coming off clunky and unnatural. 


All in all, it wasn't a bad little trip to take with these ladies but something about it in general felt a wee bit flat for me. And maybe part of my minor dissatisfaction comes from how tiresome I sometimes found Claudia and Ivy (for different reasons). I appreciated that some tougher topics were addressed along with the light-hearted, comical moments but in the end felt the more serious bits were still played a bit too safe for me.

3 Stars
Running The Rift by Naomi Benaron
Running the Rift - Naomi Benaron

Running the Rift follows the progress of Jean Patrick Nkuba from the day he knows that running will be his life to the moment he must run to save his life. A naturally gifted athlete, he sprints over the thousand hills of Rwanda and dreams of becoming his country’s first Olympic medal winner in track. But Jean Patrick is a Tutsi in a world that has become increasingly restrictive and violent for his people. As tensions mount between the Hutu and Tutsi, he holds fast to his dream that running might deliver him, and his people, from the brutality around them.






Jean Patrick Nkuba is a Rwandan boy who loves the sensation of running and dreams of one day becoming an Olympic track medalist in the Atlanta Games. Jean's love of running is initiated by his older brother, Roger. While Roger ran as part of his training for the local football team, Jean ran with him; initially for the sake of companionship, but soon it became clear that Jean Patrick had a true gift for speed. 


After Jean Patrick's father, a local teacher, is murdered, Jean's mother feels unprotected. There is much to fear, as this Tutsi family tries their best to survive in an increasingly Hutu world. The family (Jean Patrick, his mother and sibilings) move in with Jean Patrick's aunt and uncle, hoping to find safety in numbers. 


When an Olympic track runner visits Jean Patrick's school, an inspired Jean redoubles his motivation to make his goal. Soon enough, he's earned a running scholarship to a nearby boarding school, but once there is told he should try out for football as there's little to no real future in pursuing running. Undeterred, Jean Patrick sticks to his dream. As he grows up, there's still threat to his life for being Tutsi -- at one point he even has his foot broken and face badly beaten in a scuffle -- but that dream of those multi-colored rings just never entirely dies out. Not even when brother Roger reveals he's decided to join the Rebels, a sort of "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality behind the decision, inspired by the murder of his fiance and her family.


As time passes, it becomes more and more evident to Jean Patrick that regardless of the love he has for his family, he must strive for a bigger and better future than what his hometown has to offer. He feels driven to be a voice of hope and inspiration for his country. Jean's coach offers him an opportunity to attend the National University of Rwanda, but under the guise of being a card carrying Hutu student. Tempted by the opportunity but concerned at what acceptance will mean for his family, Jean Patrick nervously hashes it out with his uncle. Much to Jean's surprise, his uncle is super supportive, telling him that if it opens doors for him down the road he should definitely go for it. 


During his college years, Jean meets a young Hutu woman, Bea, who teaches him that even the Hutu people have much to fear, that everyone could use a good hero, a nice heartwarming story in these times. The more time Jean Patrick spends around Bea, the more he seems to draw strength from her quiet, steady support of him and his dreams.


With a twinge of guilt, Jean Patrick realized he had not given a thought to his family. His mind was too much taken up by a woman with a pagne of planets and suns and the scent of sweet tea

on her skin.



As the political climate in Rwanda escalates -- politicians getting caught up in shady deals to protect US oil rights on foreign soil, mostly -- Jean Patrick finally gets the call he's been waiting for but at the price of having to once again make a tough choice. Countries that once offered support to Rwanda are now backing away, stating that unless the country shows more progress in honoring human rights, they will pull their endorsements / financial support. As a sort of damage control to the situation, Jean Patrick is asked to run in the games as a Tutsi, the Rwandan government's way of saying, "See? No hard feelings, right?!"



Through Jean Patrick's journey, this novel quietly has the reader consider, how far would you be willing to go to achieve your dreams? What would you be willing to risk? Could you stare down death? Risk the respect or even the lives of family? How badly do you want that dream? It also illustrates that on the way to accomplishing those dreams and goals, sometimes the most unlikely candidates will be in your corner to help carry you over the toughest hills. 


"I will tell you a secret. Sometimes it is all I can do to go from one footstep to the next, but for each such moment, I make myself remember how it feels to win."

~ track medalist Telesphore Dusabe giving a pep talk

to young Jean Patrick


It's a tough but important story to take in. The reader is pulled into Jean's reality of riots, protests, lynchings, murders, and government corruption. In one such instance of corruption I particularly liked the line of one character saying,"You're asking a lion to investigate a calf-killing." The American characters are not portrayed in the best light, which was a tough pill to swallow as the reader, being that I am NOT like the stereotypical loud, uneducated, foot-in-mouth variety worked into this novel, but I do know that kind of American most definitely exists and sadly gets overseas to embarrass the rest of us, so until the day I can get over there and start fixing the misconceptions, I just have to grin and bear it I guess. I still say there are important lessons to be found in Jean Patrick's journey and it was a trip I was happy to take this Olympic season. :-)

3 Stars
Review | Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky by Chris Greenhalgh
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky - Chris Greenhalgh

Coco Chanel and Composer Igor Stravinsky.
Their love affair inspired their art.
Their art defined an era.

In 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the young couturiere Coco Chanel witnesses the birth of a musical revolution- one that, like her designs, rips down the artifice of the old regime and ushers in something profoundly modern. Seven years later, she invites Stravinsky and his family, now exiled from their Russian homeland, for a summer at her villa, and the powerful charge between them ignites into a deep love affair. As Stravinsky enjoys a new burst of creativity and Chanel brings forth her own revolutionary creation-the perfume Chanel No. 5-their love threatens to overtake work, family and life.






First off, just have to say I wish the title was something more enticing. Even just shortening it to Coco & Igor would have been cool. Just seems like having nothing but their full names makes it kinda feel like a high school essay. That's just my two cents. Movin' on...


Greenhalgh's novel is a fictional take on the relationship between iconic French clothing designer Coco Chanel and the (married) composer Igor Stravinksy. Coco Chanel, in this story, is a young woman who seems to catch the eye of nearly every man in town. Deciding to attend one of Stravinsky's concerts one night, Coco is instantly, deeply moved by his music. She is briefly introduced to him but after that night doesn't see him again for another 7 years. The storyline takes some time to explain what goes on in these lives separately before they are to be reunited. Igor's story mainly focuses on him, along with his wife and children, being driven out of their home in Russia after the assassination of the ruling Romanov family. The Stravinskys retreat to a cramped apartment in Brittany, France and try to set up a new life there, though Igor's missus isn't really feeling the new surroundings. Her discomfort and unhappiness slowly starts to drive a wedge between them. Igor, frustrated with the tense home life, craves finding happiness again... somehow. Home life becomes even more strained when his wife develops a life-threatening illness, throwing her even further into depression. 


Igor, being an established composer by this point, is invited to a dinner party in Paris where Miss Chanel just happens to be another guest. The reunion is a little rocky, she initially finds him to be short, balding, with bad teeth and, as she says in the story, "an air of trying too hard to appear bohemian" but later realizes "his dandyism is an act... It masks a deep sense of insecurity and a profound sense of loss. Loss of state and selfhood. The man is clinging on, she thinks." Her curiosity about him reengaged, their friendship grows over the coming months, becoming something of a flirtation even though Coco never really got over the death of her love, Arthur "Boy" Capel. 


I found it a little laughable in this story that the character of Coco talks about how she likes Igor but doesn't love that he's still married. Additionally, Coco is plagued by a reputation of men categorizing her as "not being the kind of girl you marry", so is often dissatisfied with having to settle for being side piece. But her friends are pretty much like "ehhh, go for it anyway", their reasoning being that there's a shortage of men after World War I so one should grab what she can get... LOL, great friends there.


As far as the romance between Igor & Coco portrayed here, it was just okay for me. Honestly, their banter got on my nerves at times and Igor often struck me as seriously needing to find his backbone in so many of the situations. What kept my interest more was the little side stories of Coco's life, the fictionalized portrayals of bits of Chanel's life that I've read in bios. Her romances with not only Capel but also Etienne Balsan (this novel opens with Chanel as an elderly woman on the last day of her life, looking back on on the most memorable moments of years past). There's also mention of a 5 year affair with Churchill's bestie (one of them anyway), Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster. 


My favorite sections were the descriptions of Chanel in her own little world when she was designing, the moments she was most proud of. She reminisces about designing costumes for Hollywood, notably Tonight or Never with Gloria Swanson and Last Year at Marienbad with Alain Resnais.


just one of the looks Chanel created for 

Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never


one of the Chanel designed looks in Last Year At Marienbad (1961)

It's been said that much of the fashion in this film directly

inspired the look of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. 



My favorite part in the story, though it was a very minor portion, was the description of Chanel working up to the design of her iconic scent, Chanel No. 5. I cracked up at the line "better than the stench of resin from an orchestra pit". Well, that does sound like a nice selling point! Slap that on the label! X-D


They regard her, these women, with disapproval, without quite knowing why. It's not as if she's more decorative. Quite the opposite. If anything, the cut of her clothes is austere. The simplicity of her gown, its restrained elegance, makes them seem almost gaudy by comparison. And her silhouette is intimidatingly slim. It is this quality of understatement, this nonchalance de luxe, they find disrespectful. The impression she gives is that she's not even trying. It seems so effortless, they feel undermined. 


To Coco, conscious of the disdainful glances she's attracting, these others seem ridiculous in their plumes and feathers, their taffeta gowns and heavy velvet dresses. If they want to look like chocolate boxes, that's their affair, she reasons.  As for her, she prefers to look like a woman.


So yeah, as a stand-alone historical fiction, IMO it's not bad but not great. I think my attention would be better retained with just sticking with Chanel biographies. If you've read anything about the real woman herself, you can't deny she got a lot of living in while she was on this big blue rock! 


I saw the movie adaptation of this some years ago but have forgotten a lot of it. I'll be doing a re-watch shortly and will tag an update on here with some of my thoughts on the film. 



Update after film re-watch: 


The movie, released in 2009 and directed by Jan Kounen, is presented in French with English subtitles. Coco Chanel is played by French actress Anna Mouglalis while composer Igor Stravinsky is played by Danish actor Madds Mikkelsen.


The adaptation is nicely done, but it does take some patience on the part of the viewer. It opens with what in the book would've been Chanel attending her first Stravinsky concert but while the book leaves pretty much as "attended a concert, had a nice time, we should do it again sometime", the film decided to pull out a weird interpretive dance scene... one that ran over 15 mins with almost no dialogue! 


Now, if you can get through that (maybe fast forward through that bit if it's not your thing), the movie gets really good and stays pretty true to the novel for the most part. I didn't love how the director chose to do the ending, but otherwise I thought the film nailed the time period, the feel of Chanel's world, all of that. When you watch this film, you can't deny the Frenchness of it! 


I enjoyed how they were also able to incorporate actual World War 1 footage into some of the scenes and would highly recommend viewers watch the behind the scenes documentary offered on the DVD. Very cool info and stories there, and the actor who played Stravinsky, while I was impressed his seriousness to approaching the role of Stravinsky, also had quite the sense of humor!


Also worth watching, the short film (under 20 mins):  Once Upon A Time by Karl Lagerfeld, starring Keira Knightly as a young CoCo Chanel. I'm actually not a huge fan of Lagerfeld myself, but I did think this film was beautifully shot. 

4.5 Stars
Counted With The Stars (Out Of Egypt #1) by Connilyn Cossette
Counted With the Stars (Out From Egypt) - Connilyn Cossette

Sold into slavery by her father and forsaken by the man she was supposed to marry, young Egyptian Kiya must serve a mistress who takes pleasure in her humiliation. When terrifying plagues strike Egypt, Kiya is in the middle of it all. To save her older brother and escape the bonds of slavery, Kiya flees with the Hebrews during the Great Exodus. She finds herself utterly dependent on a fearsome God she's only just beginning to learn about, and in love with a man who despises her people. With everything she's ever known swept away, will Kiya turn back toward Egypt or surrender her life and her future to Yahweh?






Many of us are pretty familiar with the biblical stories of plagues that rained down upon the people of Egypt (we're talking BC days) -- locusts, frogs, rivers with water that turned to blood. livestock and crops decimated, Egyptians overcome with boils! Author Connilyn Cossette takes those familiar tales and infuses them with some relatability for her readers. 


Our story opens in 1448 BC where we are introduced to Kiya, the privileged daughter of Jofare, a successful ship merchant / trader. At least he was successful for a time. Shortly after the reader meets Kiya, doing some frivolous shopping in the marketplace, she is urgently summoned home. Once there, she enters her father's office to find him with his back turned to her, his business partner, Shefu, also in the room. After some hesitation, the news is broken to Kiya that she has been sold into slavery to Shefu to pay off the debt of a massive loan Shefu gave Jofare. Tragically, five of Jofare's ships were sunk, the loss sinking his business in turn. Selling Kiya to Shefu was the only way to spare Jofare's wife and son. So Kiya is forced to relinquish all aspects of the life she knew and take up the clothes and position of servant to Shefu's cold-hearted wife, Tekurah. 



Through lowered lashes, I surveyed the room for people I knew -- and there were many. Old business partners, friends, even some distant relatives of my mother and father were in attendance. None looked my way. Either they refused to acknowledge a common slave, or they mercifully ignored my existence as they reveled in the privileges that I was now denied. 


I was at Tekurah's mercy because of such decadence -- the food, the dresses, the jewels. My father had always hosted the most extravagant of parties, our villa packed with people arrayed in their finest. And when the time came to repay his debts, he sold my freedom, not his own. Though I'd once delighted in the parties, the wigs, the cosmetics, the gold and silver, now the abundance made me ill. All the vapid people who had once filled my world, seemed to hang on my every word, now refused to meet my eye.... I dug my nails deeper and deeper into my palms. Cowards.


The novel spends some chapters giving the reader a feel for what life for a slave in that time might have been like -- being a breath away from all the riches in the world, yet unable to partake except to tidy up the mess the entitled might leave behind. If a slave was lucky, there might be some scraps to partake of, but no promises. Cossette is quite adept at bringing Kiya's new world to life: the sound of sandals down the hall, early mornings gathering water at the river, standing in the shadows of banquets, observing. Insane attention to detail in the early parts of this novel, almost to the point of distraction. I started off enjoying it but then found myself wondering when we'd get to the meat of the story. Stick with it readers! Those early chapters are largely world-building set up. The pay-off comes when Kiya survives all the various plagues.


The Egyptians blame the Hebrews, who appear virtually untouched by all that has befallen Egypt, for bringing this blight on their nation. A decree is announced that the firstborn son of every family will be murdered. The Hebrew people, encouraged by their leader Moses, decide to trek across the desert in hopes of reaching a place they can start new lives as "the chosen people". Kiya, who also appears untouched though she's Egyptian, is freed by Shefu when he feels the end is near. After reuniting with her mother and brother, Jumo, Kiya begins her journey across the desert with her new Hebrew friend (and former fellow slave) Shira, along with Shira's family and other members of the Hebrew community. Kiya is not driven by any religious conviction though; she simply wants to save the life of Jumo. Not only is he a first born son, but he is also physically and mentally handicapped. 


The journey across the desert is long and arduous. Not only do the Hebrews fear being found and attacked by the Pharoah's men but they must also struggle through various wild animal predators, violent thunderstorms (which often cause raging floods whenever the travelers are around a wadi), food or water shortages. No one knows where they are going exactly, only that they feel compelled to follow a bluish-purple cloudy beam of light that lights the sky day and night. Kiya even calls the beam "blue fire".



We were imprisoned by our escape route. Pharaoh behind us; the threat of flood all around.



During the months of travel, Kiya gets more acquainted with two men, specifically -- Eben, Shira's older brother, and Sayaad, a fellow Egyptian who later joins the traveling party. The acquaintance between Kiya and Eben is a strained one at first, as Eben lays the blame for his father's death at the feet of ALL Egyptians. Still, he develops a bond with Jumo and cannot deny his interest in Kiya, much as it confuses him. When he sees her getting close with Sayaad, Eben tries to warn Kiya that Sayaad is not entirely the good guy he seems. Sayaad tries to win Kiya over with his big plans to sneak them back into Egypt but one fateful night reveals his true motive. 


Not only does this novel feature stunning world building, but the reader is also taken in by the topsy-turvy way about the characters. Nothing and no one is what they seem! While this can be frustrating at times for a reader, when you feel duped for falling in like with "one of the bad ones", it makes the ride so much more fun! It's impressive how much life Cossette breathes into stories you've likely heard a million times in Sunday school. She also incorporates touching themes -- the idea of loving one's family regardless of the strife they bring to your life; the beauty of children with spirits unaffected by bias or prejudice; learning that the softest hearts can lie under the most stern faces. It was also nice to see Kiya struggle with her ideas of faith and a higher power, her working through those feelings that because she's not getting the answers she wants then it must mean she is unacknowledged and unimportant to that higher being. But then of course she learns the lesson that the right answer is not always one in the same with the wanted answer. 


This series is perfect for fans of biblical fiction with epic scope. Even if you don't normally do this genre but like evocative environments, try this one out! 



FTC Disclaimer: Bethany House Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

4 Stars
A Magician Among The Spirits by Harry Houdini
A Magician among the Spirits (Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge) Reissue edition by Houdini, Harry (2011) Paperback - Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini and his exposure of the fraud spiritualist, spirit photography, spirit slate writing, ectoplasm, clairvoyance, and other quakery and cons perpetrated on the gullible, by the likes of the Boston Medium Margery, the Davenport Brothers, Annie Eva Fay, the Fox Sisters, Daniel Dunglas Home, Eusapia Pallandino, and other con artists of their ilk.The whole country got excited by Houdini's campaign against faking spiritualists. He careened through the country, offering money for spirit contacts he couldn't duplicate by admitted magical chicanery. It was a heyday not only for Houdini but for the spirit-callers and there was an equally famous protagonist who thought the spirits could indeed be contacted, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A photo at the front records a meeting between Houdini and Doyle and Houdini gives Doyle his own chapter. There's an earlier chapter on Daniel Dunglas Home, the English engineer of spectacular paranormal effects. Houdini raises hell with spiritualists who were giving their (usually paying) clients a vision of heavens to come, and shares the methods used to practice "fake" and sensational spiritualism. Houdini was nothing if not unrelenting. As a taste of things to come, he ends his introduction with the words: "Up to the present time everything that I have investigated has been the result of deluded brains."






After reading the nonfiction work The Witch of Lime Street by David Jafer, I was curious to know more about that story, particularly the details behind the strain in the friendship between magician Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was surprised to discover that they were even friends, let alone had a bit of a falling out over the topic of Spiritualism! Recently I came across a copy of A Magician Among The Spirits, written by Houdini himself in which he not only gives his own version of what went down between him and Doyle but also how Houdini came to be such a force in bringing down the Spiritualism movement as a whole. 


As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should have ever been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime. 


Houdini is quick to affirm that he most definitely believed in a higher power and an afterlife. His issue was with the lengths supposed mediums went to dupe grieving people into believing that their loved ones were trying to reach them. Houdini admits that if he could have found anything, anything at all, that would've struck him as irrefutably paranormal then he would've enthusiastically become the movement's greatest supporter / advocate. In this book, originally published in 1924, Houdini discusses the project he carried out, spending the year of 1919 sitting in on over 100 seances, hoping for anything definitely otherworldly. Instead, he says, he realized he was able to explain virtually everything he saw in terms of distraction and slight of hand tricks magicians employ all the time. It infuriated him that these so-called spiritual mediums were making quite comfortable livings off the grief of people desperate for any connection with their lost loved ones. 


Houdini points out that the popularity of Spiritualism cannot be dismissed as just something uneducated suckers fell into. In fact, quite a few of the era's great scientific and literary minds fell prey to the hope that these mediums could put them in contact with friends and family who had passed over. Houidini says he himself had arrangements with 14 different people, including his wife and his personal secretary, to give the agreed upon sign (handshake or code word) if any of them should pass. Fourteen people and not one of them (of the ones that had passed away by then, that is,) came through any of the 100+ seances Houdini attended. Houdini also points to his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, clearly a man of great intellect but swayed by the deaths of a son, brother and brother-in-law during WW1, making him desperate for contact.  There's also the story of poet couple Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning -- Elizabeth initially became quite taken with the movement, but after one particularly off reading came away feeling very much duped and dismayed.


" I heard of your remarkable feat in Bristol. My dear chap, why do you go around the world seeking a demonstration of the occult when you are giving one all the time? "


~ from a letter Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Harry Houdini


Houdini also notes that it was also highly suspect how these mediums often lived the lives of celebrities, winning themselves the patronage of members of society's elite. They would be draped in the finest clothes and jewels, put up in lavish residences, enjoying the benefits of a nicely padded bank account. If the day came that their popularity was showing signs of waning, these mediums would often quietly announce their retirement before the truth behind their act was sniffed out. In the instances where mediums were taken to court on charges of fraud, oftentimes there would be only light penalties put upon them even when it was PROVEN they had duped clients out of money. 


In the end, Houdini chalks the whole thing up to largely being a case of what he calls mal-observation. In essence, it's not that people are kidding themselves necessarily, or willfully in denial. Houdini is saying "I believe you believe what you saw, but what you saw is not what you think." Clients of these mediums were just not versed enough in carnival-like showmanship to recognize telltale signs of trickery. They can't explain it, so they see no other explanation other than paranormal. One pretty funny example he gives is a reprint of an article someone wrote about one of his performances, claiming that Houdini couldn't possibly be human to pull off the feats he did. After the article, Houdini responds with a verbal "this is what was really going on" peek behind the curtain of his shows. 


While I didn't always fully agree with Houdini's personal thoughts on the topic, this was one highly fascinating read. I think it is important to keep in mind the time in which he was writing this, take into account that he's saying that in his time he had yet to see anything he could not explain. These are the days before EVP, spirit voice box technology, all that stuff that we commonly see paranormal investigators use now. I honestly do believe there are things we (or at least I, I guess I should say lol) have experienced that don't easily have scientific explanation. Then again, I (like Houdini) remain skeptical of 99% of the professed psychic mediums out there today. 


One thing I did particularly like about this book were all the photographs of Houdini with the mediums and other Spiritualists he got to know during this project. He also includes interesting diagrams where he lays out the "okay, this is how the medium did that" behind such things as spirit knockings, rappings, slate writings, etc that were commonplace in seances of the time. Some sections, such as some of the stuff on slate writing, rappings, and spiritual photography, did run a bit long for me but there are so many other worthwhile historical tidbits Houdini offers up that I would definitely recommend this to any fans of paranormal or even sideshow history. 




!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
2 Stars
The Eye Of The Lion by Lael Tucker Wertenbaker
The Eye of the Lion; a Novel Based on the Life of Mata Hari - lael wertenbaker

"Of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle McCleod --- Mata Hari --- three facts are known and not disputed: she was born, she danced, she died. Otherwise truth is obscured by fancy to make her heroine of a 20th century legend, her name accepted as a synonym for the glamorous spy and femme fatale. Today it takes a skilled novelist with a deep knowledge of the times to recreate Mata Hari and justify her elusive immortality. Lael Tucker Wertenbaker gives back her reality and human meaning. To weave the threads of passion, betrayal, obloquy and terror into a full-bodied, sweeping story, compassionately told and tragic, she uses three narrators. The first, Gerschy Zelle, was born in Leeuwarden, Holland, and grows up there. She might have been as prosy as her neighbors, but fate involves the artless girl in drama, high doom, and often savage farce. The second narrator is Louis Lasbogue, Parisian dilettante, fascinated by Gerschy, whose radiance has survived all that life has done to her. Together they create Mata Hari, who dances to the Hindu god of war, delighting audiences in Paris, Monte Carlo, Vienna and Berlin. Franz van Weel, the third narrator, is a Dutch officer and diplomat who entangles Mata Hari in a web of intrigue. The insouciant years end in the inferno of the great war and she is its victim. Louis and Franz must stand by as witnesses on October 15, 1917, when Mata Hari, their "creation", is shot at dawn."

~ from dustjacket of 1964 Hardcover edition





First let me start with a sidenote... is it not crazy difficult to look at this title and not instantly think of the song "Eye of the Tiger"?! No? Just me? Okay, moving on... :-)


As the description above says, this story rotates between three narrators, the first being Mata Hari herself, on the eve of her execution by firing squad. These opening moments introduce the reader to Mata Hari just hours before she is about to leave this world, her mind filled with memories of her life... how it came to this moment when you, as the reader, come in. Once Mata Hari leaves the mortal plane, her story is picked up by the alternating voices of two important men from her life. Their testimonies are largely fictional, obviously, as this is a novel based on the real person, but they still give the reader a sense of what the woman might have been like. Mata Hari is one of those historical figures that one is largely forced to speculate on, since so little solid fact is known of her... actually kind of perfect for a historical fiction novelist! 


"Mata Hari" (her stage name when she danced) was actually born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (later McCleod when she married) in Holland to a father who sold hats for a living. In his shop he had a map of Holland and Belgium on the wall, the area shaped somewhat like a lion. Margaretha's father would tell her that she was born in "the eye of the lion." Margaretha's father was Dutch while her mother was Javanese, lending believability to the exotic mystique of "Mata Hari". That stage name by the way -- author Wertenbaker imagines a scene during Margaretha's boarding school days when her friend Marie might have given her inspiration for the name:


"You've such a sharp eye, I herewith baptize you --- Mata Hari -- Eye of the Morning, the Sun, the Yellow Eye, Eye of the Lion. There!" Marie dumped a glass of water over my head.


"That's lovely!" I shook my wet head. "Mata Hari I am." I hugged her and the gesture was full of love and gratitude.... So I became "Mata" or "Mata Hari" to everyone except the teachers, who scolded me for becoming less studious. I learned to make a mirror of my eyes to hide my inattention while I thought fresh, new, warm thoughts. My examinations betrayed me and I might have flunked out in the spring except for my grades in French and German. And because Dr. Veth, who taught Dutch history, gave me a undeserved A. 


"Pasha's got a pash for Mata," Marie declared.


"I'm not his type," I remonstrated. "He likes pretties and smalls. I'm big and ugly."


"No, you're not," said another girl. "You're just odd-looking."


"Mysterious," contributed a third.


My head lifted from my turtleshell and I began to feel attractive.




I've read such ideas in other books about Mata Hari, but it never fails to impress me about her legend. She was known as perhaps one of the quintessential femme fatales in history, yet in actuality it was said that she wasn't extraordinarily pretty (usually more often described with a vague "unique looking") and when it came to dance, she had no technical skill. Her famous veil dance was basically just a mash-up of moves she made up herself to make it look like she was a professional. The training might not have been there, but her enthusiasm and focus sold each performance enough to sell it to virtually any spectator! 


With this novel, Wertenbaker does a decent job in crafting the myth of Mata Hari back into someone the reader could imagine as a living, breathing person. The author does well crafting mystery and confusion around Mata Hari's involvement in spy work. Did she honestly know what she was getting into or did she innocently stumble into a world of intrigue she didn't know how to backpedal out of? It's left up to the reader to decide for themself. I'm still not entirely sure what I think. 


My trouble with this novel is that while it opened strong, the further I got into it the drier the writing seemed to get. I loved the portions in Mata Hari's own voice and the scenes that imagine her early girlhood. I also enjoyed the travel scenes with her husband and felt for her when she suffered the loss of a child. But a large chunk of the novel after that just got really slow. Intriguing topic but this novel does suffer a bit from a stiff, dated writing style. There was a nice scene near the end though where there was a reunion with an old friend... that was a touching moment... and I did like where the novel closed. But yeah, that dry bit that took up a good 60% of the book or so killed a lot of the interest for me. 




Note on the author: Born in 1909, Lael Tucker Wertenbaker was a foreign war correspondent for TIME magazine in the 1930s through to the 1950s, prior to becoming a novelist. Through her work overseas, her and her husband met and befriended author Ernest Hemingway. She also wrote articles for magazines Fortune, Life, and US News & World Report as well as a few program scripts for CBS.


Wertenbaker went on to write a memoir, Death of a Man, in which she talks about helping her husband with his assisted suicide in 1955 after his terminal colon cancer diagnosis. A stage play was later made of this memoir, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia DeHavilland. Wertenbaker herself died of lung cancer in 1997 at the age of 87.


In researching Wertenbaker's life, I stumbled upon this interesting clip where she is being interviewed by none other than Orson Welles! Pretty funny that this interview was filmed back in the 1950s and even then they were discussing the dangers of children having too much access to technology :-P

5 Stars
Bad Girls by Jan Stradling
Bad Girls - Jan Stradling

The most powerful, shocking, amazing, thrilling & dangerous women of all time. Breathtaking, at times inspiring and always riveting, this book takes the reader into the lives and times of 32 of history's most ruthless and ambitious women.

~from back cover




This lovely little history book, decked out in french flapped-goodness, gives readers a little glimpse into the lives of 32 women throughout history who, in one way or another, have been deemed infamous "bad girls". Stradling covers the classic tales such as those of Elizabeth Bathory, Madame Mao, Mary I, Messalina, Typhoid Mary ... but she also throws in a few lesser well-known names such as the pirate Shi Xianggu, New Zealand's cross-dressing conwoman Amy Bock, Phoolan Devi or Leila Khaled. Not all the women here have tales that are clear-cut evil, some are more a matter of making poor choices based on circumstances, or some were just consumed by a desperate need for attention and respect. Then again, some are most definitely, mind-boggling disturbing. Makes one shake their head in disbelief, but also makes for fun reading! Just some of the topics covered:


* Boudica --- Celtic warrior queen who was beaten, left widowed and forced to watch her daughters being raped... can't blame a mama for snapping a bit, right?


* Mary I aka "Bloody Mary" -- first daughter of Henry VIII, mostly ignored and desperate for attention... so she went to desperate lengths to get what she wanted...


* Empress Catherine of Russia -- stuck with an incompetent, insensitive dolt for a husband. Compelled her to snag his throne for herself, sometimes by whatever means necessary, "for the good of the country"


* Belle Starr -- known as a female Jesse James, married twice to two different outlaw men, got arrested with 2nd husband. Both sentenced to 1 year but both out by 9 months. She also had a tendency to choose Cherokee men for lovers; even if the relationship went bust, she was always desperate to keep a portion of their lands for herself.


* Imelda Marcos -- First Lady of the Philippines, attitude similar to that of Marie Antoinette, believed she was "giving the poor something nice to look at" while ignoring the fact that she and her husband were running the country's finances into the ground.



There were a couple stories in here that I didn't know much about but after reading about them here I am definitely curious to know more! I couldn't believe the story about Roman Empress Messalina and the prostitute Scylla allegedly bedding 25 men in one night! Dang, ladies!


There was also the story about Ranavalona, who started as a servant to the king of Madagascar. Ranavalona's father once tipped off the king to rumor of an assassination attempt. As a thank you, the king adopted Ranavalona, had her richly educated and trained in court life. When she reached the age of 22, the king had her married off to his favorite son. The son had 12 wives but Ranavalona was immediately bumped to #1 position. When her husband came to power, Ranavalona turned out to be quite the traditionalist, ordering the execution of anyone who was for Westernized ideas or Christianity. She ended up wiping out 1/3 of Madagascar's population! 


I found this book most helpful with the information it provided about Mata Hari, as I was reading a number of books about her and appreciated the supplemental info this particular one offered up. It talks of how, as a child growing up in the Netherlands (when she went by her birthname Margaretha Zelle), she had a naturally olive complexion and dark eyes in a land of blonde-haired, blue-eyed folks. Her father called her "an orchid among the buttercups". Sadly, her beloved father later abandoned the family. Once grown, she tried to attend college for a teaching degree but after taking up with the college director she was forced to leave. Scandalous! :-P She later met Captain Rudolph MacLeod (or Mcleod, depending on what book you read about her), 40 years old to her 18.


After they marry and she becomes pregnant, she discovers her man is an alcoholic but reasons that as a military wife she does get traveling perks, so she decides to stick it out. Through her travels she reaches the land of Java and immediately becomes enamored... so starts the first tricklings of the legendary "Mata Hari". Strangely though, while she was living there, both children fell victim to poisonings. Her daughter survived, her son did not. After the family moves back to Europe, Margaretha suffers beatings from her husband. She applies for and is granted a divorce and awarded custody of her daughter. Sadly, her ex refuses to pay child support so Margaretha is forced to leave her daughter with him until she can come back rich. It's shortly after this custody battle that she gets the inspiration to take up life as a dancer, officially taking the stage name Mata Hari or "Eye of the Dawn" in Malay language.  She tours Europe for 10 years as a dancer / striptease artist, making that money but depressed because her lifestyle is not suitable to have her small daughter around. But she can't give up the life because the money is good and she loves the fame. 


By the start of World War 1, she is nearly 40 years old. It's harder for her body to keep up with the dancing so she decides to become a courtesan to high class clientele, one such being a high ranking German official. This liaison is rumored to be her start in the spy game. Mata Hari later gets an offer from the French govt. to spy for them, which she accepts, but she is later caught by MI5 in England (who believe she's still working for the Germans). She tries to schmooze her way out of trouble by attempting to seduce another German official but he seems to see through it right away, giving her false info which gets her in trouble yet again when she passes it on. 


Mata Hari ends up being executed in 1917 but in 1999 her case was reopened and MI5 decided there wasn't enough evidence to warrant a death penalty (lotta good it did her at that point!).


This history book is great fun for new and established history buffs alike. If you're just now getting an appreciation for history books, this is a perfect book for beginners since the sections are short and are written in an engaging and easy to understand style. Not overwhelming yet enough to peak one's curiosity to read even more on these ladies. Longtime history buffs (like myself) can also have fun with this as you are reminded of stories you may have forgotten over the years. The book also features a ton of gorgeous photos and illustrations throughout. 




2.5 Stars
More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss
More Than It Hurts You: A Novel - Darin Strauss

Josh Goldin's happy yet unexamined existence is shattered one morning when his wife, Dori, rushes their eight-month- old son to the emergency room in severe distress. Dr. Darlene Stokes, an African-American physician and single mother, suspects Munchausen by proxy, a rarely diagnosed and controversial phenomenon where a mother intentionally harms her baby. As each of them is forced to confront a reality that has become a nightmare, Darlene, Dori, and Josh are pushed to their breaking points. Darin Strauss's extraordinary novel is set in a world turned upside down-where doctors try to save babies from their parents, police use the law to tear families apart, and the people you think you know best end up surprising you the most.





Dori Goldin is at home with her infant son, Zack, when the baby starts spewing blood and vomit. She rushes him to the nearest emergency room where the child is immediately thrown into a number of tests to try to discover the source of his illness. Meanwhile, Dori's tv advertising executive husband, Josh, gets word of his son's condition and immediately rushes from work to meet his wife at the hospital. Once there, he finds himself startled to discover that Zack's attending physician is Dr. Darlene Stokes, head of the pediatrics unit. She also happens to be black. Weirdly, Josh immediately starts to fear that Dr. Stokes will assume Josh is racist and take it out on his son during his testing and treatment, but Josh tries to assure himself that because Dori is of Turkish blood, no one could call him racist. Even worse, Josh follows up this line of thinking with a comment to his wife later that evening, when he admits that he "didn't trust a thing about that doctor's looks."


While at the hospital, Zack's vitals takes a sudden nosedive. He starts to code. ER staff is able to stabilize him again but the incident sets up the story for all the drama that's about to unfold. While looking into Zack's short medical history thus far, Dr. Stokes starts to suspect Dori Goldin of having Munchhausen by Proxy, a controversial medical condition in which a mother is suspected of intentionally injuring -- whether through physical abuse or internal (ie. intentionally poisoning, but not enough to kill) her child and then presenting the injuries as just mysteriously cropping up. Sometimes this is for the sake of seeking attention, other times the reasoning is more difficult to determine. But once Dr. Stokes vocalizes her concerns with other colleagues, a media and legal firestorm ensues. The hospital fears being held liable for Zack coding while Dori Goldin is outwardly outraged over what she perceives as a kind of defamation of character. Inwardly though, the Goldins fear the hospital coming after them as unfit parents.


A news story breaks that tries to discredit Dr. Stokes' diagnosis. This story latches onto the fact that while in college, Dr. Stokes was involved in a campus group that some could possibly perceive as an anti-white / Black Power kind of party. They also harp on the fact that she was raised fatherless (her father was incarcerated during those childhood years) as well as being once married to a Jewish white man who ended up leaving her. Of course the story leaves out a lot of pertinent details, instead being swayed to vilify Dr. Stokes, but when she tries to talk out her reasoning behind the diagnosis with a colleague, Dr. Weiss (who was actually the doctor on call the night Zack coded), Stokes is surprised to find Weiss skeptical. Weiss points out that most doctors are hesitant to even mutter the words Munchausen by Proxy simply because there's not enough definitive research out there to back up their suspicions. Weiss himself admits to being unsure if he believes it to be an actual disorder or just an unfortunate misreading of patients. Stokes starts to doubt herself somewhat, wondering if maybe she did misread Dori Goldin, even though Stokes reminds herself that she has seen the condition listed in the DSM under "pathology". Still, she can't help but ask herself if she did indeed miss something crucial? Is the hospital actually at fault on this one?


Strauss' novel definitely brings up a subject to ponder on, but I question how well it was done. In some ways this story felt deeply complex and detailed, but in other ways it had a feel of being all over the place. I periodically felt myself wondering if Strauss struggled to decide what story he wanted to tell, because there's more than one major one here -- outside of the drama around the MBP diagnosis, More Than It Hurts You also gets into the struggles surrounding race inequality and how absentee parents during a child's pivotal years can affect that child's personality and sense of who they are right up into adulthood. While all valid and interesting topics for dramatic fiction, I didn't feel like they were always seamlessly woven together here. Dr. Stokes' struggle with racial prejudice was well done and actually did mesh well with the MBP storyline, but I thought the portions with her being reacquainted with her father ran on a bit long, maybe could have been quick interludes, rather than whole large chunks of chapters dedicated to such a small part of the overall plot. 


While the MBP storyline was the major reason my curiosity begged me to pick this book up (that and I had read and liked Strauss' novel Chang & Eng), I felt like Strauss struggled to stay on topic when it came to this portion of the novel. The words Munchhausen by Proxy, though hinted at, are not officially said until about 140 pages into this 400 page novel. The suspense around Dori Goldin (you know, the whole "did she or didn't she?") could've been built up so much more. But after a few brief mentions of MBP at that 140pg mark, the story doesn't really focus a spotlight of suspicion on her until another 40+ pages. In the novel's entirety, there are actually only a small handful of scenes that give the reader a glimpse into what might be going on in the Goldin home, which I found pretty frustrating.


As for the Goldins themselves, I personally found them incredibly unlikeable, MBP story aside. Dori comes off as sometimes overly dramatic, very hyper, bull-in-a-china-shop reaction to relatively low key situations (ie, just someone calmly talking / stating facts). Josh seems a little intimidated by his wife when she gets like this, but he's not without fault either. While Dori has moments where she gets upset and goes off on manic, homophobic / racist sounding tirades, the reader is given insight into some pretty disturbing self-realizations of Josh's .... such as him admitting that he actually did not love his son until weeks after the birth ... or how if his son ends up dying, that he "could get over it." 


I won't put all the blame on the Goldins though. Honestly, I think Dr. Stokes was about the only character in this whole thing that I DID like... unless you count baby Zack, but since he doesn't actually have any lines... Anyway, this one ended up not being as much of a winner for me as I was hoping. If you're looking to get into Strauss' work, my recommendation would be to start with his historical fiction novel Chang and Eng


4 Stars
The Misadventures of Maude March by Audrey Couloumbis
The Misadventures of Maude March - Audrey Couloumbis

Eleven-year-old Sallie March is a whip-smart tomboy and voracious reader of Western adventure novels. When she and her sister Maude escape their self-serving guardians for the wilds of the frontier, they begin an adventure the likes of which Sallie has only read about. This time however, the "wanted woman" isn't a dime-novel villian, it's Sallie's very own sister! What follows is not the lies the papers printed, but the honest-to-goodness truth of how two sisters went from being orphans to being outlaws—and lived to tell the tale!






Sallie March, our narrator, is an 11 year old tomboy living in what we know think of as "the Old West days". Her parents are both dead, victims of yellow fever, so she and her teen sister, Maude, have since been living with their matronly aunt, Ruthie. While running errands with Ruthie one day, the girls become innocent, victimized bystanders in a shootout. Aunt Ruthie is killed instantly by a stray bullet. {I loved that on that fateful day, Aunt Ruthie, having quite the day already, speaks the unfortunate line: "Some days it isn't even a good idea to get out of bed."}


Now really orphaned, the girls spend some time living under the roof of Reverend Peasley and his wife. Stifled by too many rules and Mrs. Peasley's tendency to overwork Maude and her sister for selfish gain, Maude reaches the end of her rope. The last straw is when Mrs. Peasley tries to push Maude into a marriage with a much older man.


The March girls decide to make a break for it. Their journey requires them to pose as boys as to not arouse suspicion (you know, two young ladies traveling alone, can't be up to any good...) but hope their travels will soon take them to a new town where they can start over. It's no easy road though. Because Maude sorta borrows a couple of the Peasley's horses to aid her getaway, she gets labeled a wanted horse thief. Through a few other misunderstandings, she also wracks up the charges of bank robber and murderer and boom! -- the March girls are suddenly starring in one of Sallie's beloved dime novels! Every time they get their hands on a newspaper, Maude's legend seems to grow! But it's not just the stains on their reputations they're fighting. Additionally, these sisters face up against blizzards, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, food shortages, finding themselves having to evade police, even being taken hostage by REAL criminals!


What starts as a sort of comedy of errors grows into a heartwarming story of sisterhood and taking care of family, no matter what. This story is full of honest chuckles, especially from the wit of young Sallie March, who has sass for days!


Ben Chaplin broke some snow going around the cabin, huffing and puffing as he told us he dreaded a winter that snowed him in as early as December. "I don't mind being snowed in, but there's still January and February still ahead of us. By then I start talking to myself."


"My aunt Ruthie used to talk to herself all the time," I said. "So long as she thought no one was around to hear."


"What did she talk about?" Ben Chaplin asked.


"The shortcomings of other people, mostly," I said. It surprised me that he found this funny.


For readers who are fans of novels which include maps, this book features a pretty adorable one! Definitely recommend this fast, fun adventure for any and all lovers of Western comedy!


If you end up enjoying this book as much as I did, the adventures continue in Maude March On The Run! 


Note To Parents: Though this novel is geared toward middle-grade readers, there is some mild violence to be aware of: some scenes mention a toe being shot off and one character being stabbed through the hand. The criminals in this book are of a bumbling, comical sort though, so even the more violent scenes are lightened with humor. Still, heads up on that in case you want to monitor what your child is reading and prefer to do a pre-read yourself. 

3 Stars
The Babel Conspiracy by Sylvia Bambola
The Babel Conspiracy - Sylvia Bambola

Two women engineers struggle to develop the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft amid ever intensifying global terrorism and muddled personal lives. Trisha Callahan has an abiding faith in God, and “those roots of middy blouses and pleated skirts, prayer books and incense-filled churches went deep.” This faith is tested when she finds herself in love with a married man. Audra Shields sees herself as a modern Lady Chatterley, “liberated but not forsaking breeding, intellect, or femininity.” When she becomes involved with a dangerous stranger, she begins to question her lifestyle. Both women try sorting out their personal problems while racing the clock to finish a project fraught with sabotage and murder. And who’s behind it all? When the Department of Homeland Security and the Mossad finally figure it out, the answer surprises everyone.





Trisha Callahan and Audra Shields are two female engineers employed by Patterson Aviation. Their current project is to develop the world's first nuclear powered aircraft, work that could not be more aptly timed as the world falls victim to chaos fueled by ever-growing threats of global terrorism. In this novel, the United States has been almost entirely taken over by multiple Islamic extremist groups, the largest one going so far as to address the US as now being ISA or the Islamic State of America. In this world, the US is still technically governed by a president, President Thaddeus Baker, but our president in this story seems to have become little more than a political figurehead. In fact, those who vocally oppose the political changes taking over the US, citizens deemed "subversives", suspect that President Baker is actually working with the extremists for his own personal gains. But now Baker's term is coming to a close, meaning it's time for the election of a new president -- will the US win a candidate who can fight back against the extremists and get our country back on track or will the citizens be stuck with yet another four years of a sycophantic puppet to ISA leaders?


Trisha and Audra work to keep their focus on this vitally important technology. It occurs to them that if they can get the nuclear technology to work on the plane, there are actually numerous other applications that could greatly benefit from this project, namely their plans to develop nuclear power from the use of seawater, potentially allowing the US to no longer dependent on foreign oil. Once word of this technology starts to leak to outside ears, Trisha and Audra quickly find not only their work but their lives threatened. There's evidence of sabotage to the building site and people tied to the project start turning up dead under mysterious circumstances. 


While all this is going on, there's also a secondary story that unfolds with Joshua Chapman. Joshua is an Israeli Jew with dual citizenship and the brother of Daniel, one of Trisha's best friends. He also happens to be a member of the Mossad, a Middle Eastern intelligence agency (a sort of Secret Service, you might say) quietly trying to assist members of the US government wanting to bring down the terrorist groups. He poses as a computer security specialist with the company Global Icon and is hired by Cassy, the niece of presidential candidate Senator Merrill to monitor any technologically based threats sent his way. While working together, Joshua and Cassy uncover some shady information regarding the other major presidential candidate Senator Garby whose dealings with the current president might not be all that much on the up & up. Just as Joshua and Cassy become privy to these details, President Baker comes out and declares the US under a state of martial law while also throwing around a bit of eminent domain. Scary, scary times for our characters! 


Bambola definitely gets you thinking with some of these passages!



It doesn't stop there though, this is one layered plot! While all that business with political murkiness is going on there is an additional side story written around the personal / romantic lives of Trisha and Audra. Trisha is a woman of deep faith and religious convictions, but even so finds herself in love with her married boss, Mike Patterson, now the owner of his father's company, Patterson Aviation. Due to her moral code though, Trisha forces herself to keep silent about her feelings. Meanwhile, Audra is living the complete opposite lifestyle. Audra feels like the world is going into the proverbial toilet, so she's all about living in the moment, having casual, fun hookups with men without developing any strong attachments to anyone. This YOLO type thinking lands her in a number of less than enjoyable circumstances, one such being her dalliance with bar fly Bubba Hanagan. It's her dealings with Bubba that finally wake Audra up and get her thinking that just maybe she DOES want more out of life than what she's been bringing home lately. 



Author Sylvia Bambola provides the reader with a note on the text before you even get into the novel, notifying you that this book is a bit of an updated, expanded version of her now out of print novel, Vessel of Honor, a story she wrote three years prior to the 9/11 attacks. Though she is upfront with that information, she is also quick to point out that it's not a straight up repackaging, but more like she used the previous novel as a starting point for some other plot ideas she wanted to work into a story... just so happens the ideas that came to her more recently worked in nicely with that older work.


I never read Vessel of Honor, so I can't give you a comparison here. I will say that I did enjoy this story and could appreciate the amount of work that went into making this such a layered, complex work. I found myself impressed at how well the little details of the plot were laid out, how all the characters seemed to have these faint connections to one another, the kind that would almost go unnoticed but if the connection wasn't there the story as a whole would lose some of its impact in the pivotal moments. One example being how Mike's wife, Renee, gets involved in campaigning for Senator Garby... or even how Joshua, the brother of Trisha's friend Daniel, ends up playing such an important role in protecting her down the road. In the grand scheme of things, their connections / interactions to more major characters is quite small, but their contributions to the story prove to be essential by novel's end. That's some serious writer skill right there!


That being said, in all honesty it was not my favorite of Bambola's works to date. What was lacking for me was what I've come to love from her other books, her seemingly effortless ability to make characters come alive. What's stood out to me as a reader is her way of getting through to this admittedly maybe slightly jaded reader. I go through A TON of books each year, I read some great stuff but let's be real, there's a mountain of mediocre out there. I sometimes go through stretches where I read several books that, while well written, I realize didn't profoundly move me. Bambola's books have given me that sensation of deeply caring that I so missed, but I don't know what happened with this one. It falls under that category of definitely being well-written but I didn't really fall in love with any one character here. The closest I could maybe say was reading the closing of Audra's story. I was saddened at how her exit plays out, and though Bambola provides an afterword explaining why she gave Audra the ending she did, I still didn't love it. 


Note To Readers: Sylvia Bambola is an author of Christian Fiction. While I've noted in past reviews that much of her historical fiction (of what I've personally read anyway) is pretty light on the religious aspect and thus friendly to readers of any and all faiths, be aware that this one is much heavier on the Christian themes. Just wanted to make note of that for any readers who prefer to steer away from that. 



FTC Disclaimer: BookCrash.com and Heritage Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

3 Stars
Silas Marner by George Eliot
Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe - George Eliot

A gentle linen weaver named Silas Marner is wrongly accused of theft actually committed by his best friend. Exiling himself to the rustic village of Raveloe, he becomes a lonely recluse. Ultimately, Marner finds spiritual rebirth through his unselfish love of an abandoned child who mysteriously appears one day in his isolated cottage.





Silas Marner, weaver by trade, is living in the community of Lantern Yard when he finds himself wrongly accused of a crime. Prior to the crime, he had a quiet role in the neighborhood. The neighbors might have found him a bit socially repellant, maybe a little unattractive and generally weird, but as a whole most people still found something in him to admire, such as his devout faith and strong work ethic. Many just shrugged and figured he was made a tad quirky for a reason.


Even though he is cleared of any actual charges, he can't escape the still-judging eyes of his neighbors. The relentless gossip eventually ends up ruining his life in Lantern Yard, even causing his fiance to break off their engagement. Fed up with it all, Silas makes the decision to pack up the ol' loom and relocate to the town of Raveloe. 


Silas spends the next 15 years in Raveloe dedicating himself to his work. The neighbors see little of him except for when he steps out to gather water each day. Sure, Silas's life develops a sort of monotony to it, pretty much just spending all day at his loom, counting his coins and stashing them away before bed each night, but he finds a certain amount of comfort in the predictability. That predictability is shattered one night when Silas' hidden savings are stolen. The subsequent investigation uncovers ties that lead back to the wealthiest family in Raveloe, some of the members of that family secretly having quite the financial issues. 


Silas himself goes years without resolution but makes peace with the loss, in large part due to the arrival of a small child, whose mother died outside one winter night, not far from Silas's residence. The child happened to wander into his home and once he hears the little girl is left without parents to claim her, he takes her in as his own. This unexpected fatherhood gives Silas a daily lesson in what truly matters in a life. 


I've seen a number of reviews where people talk about how they were assigned this in school but remembered hating it so in fairness they were compelled to do a re-read in adulthood. As for me, I do remember this one being on assigned reading list for one of my classes in school but *sssh* this Honors kid never read it! I know, I know! And it's one of the shorter classics out there! But, well, I guess I had better things going on at the time. Like naps and TRL marathons. I don't know. But it's all been rectified now and my vote is it's a solid 3 star classic for me. Wasn't gawd-awful, but also not a jaw-dropper. 


I liked the themes Eliot brought up in the story -- mainly the idea of valuing people and life experiences over material posessions -- but in the end I was craving a little more conflict to drive those points home. Silas struck me as the kind of guy that was too quick to let life beat him down. Where was his fight, his backbone? He just seemed to be this Eeyore kind of spirit that went about assuming that it was his lot in life for most days to generally suck. I did start to cheer for him though once the story got around to talking about what a dedicated father he became to Eppie. I admit, I am a sucker for stories about great dads :-)


Speaking of Eppie, it was tough to read that whole scene with that guy coming in saying he "had rights to" Eppie, how he "owns her". Talking about the girl like she wasn't even present, right there in front of him. That is one thing about classics that is sometimes tough to bear, those characters trying to keep others in their place -- "I own you" "you owe me" -- makes me so thankful to live in a time when it's ever so much easier to make one's voice heard. There are still limitations, but not nearly to the extent they used to be!


I was also amused at Eliot having the character Godfrey actually converse with his anxiety as if it were another person in the room. Eliot even capitalizes it as Anxiety, and I cracked up at the line, "Anxiety went on... refusing to be silenced even by much drinking." Being a sufferer of anxiety myself, I could appreciate the tinge of dark humor there ;-)


The writing can be a little stiff at times, the plot a bit plodding here and there, and Eliot seems to like to end each chapter on a bit of a moral lesson. Not uncommon for her era. A decent classic but if you're brand spanking new to trying the genre, this one might not be the one to win you over to picking up future oldies. If you're just out to tackle as many classics as possible in your reading life, this is a quick one to get off the TBR that has a sweet (but somewhat sad) story to boot. Also, if you'd like a little extra help understanding the plot, this book was giving a modern (at the time, anyway) retelling in the Steve Martin film A Simple Twist Of Fate




Note on the author: George Eliot was born Mary Ann (or sometimes listed as Marian) Evans in the winter of 1819. She was the daughter of a respected mill owner / estate manager and spent much of her childhood reading constantly. She taught herself several languages, publishing her first book -- a translation of The Life Of Jesus by German theologian David Friedrich Strauss -- by the age of 22. She didn't begin novel writing until the age of 37. Though women of her era were known to publish under their real names, she chose to publish under the pseudonym George Eliot to escape the stigma that female authors were only capable of writing fluff works.

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