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Review
3.5 Stars
Losing The Light by Andrea Dunlop
Losing the Light: A Novel - Andrea Dunlop

When thirty-year-old Brooke Thompson unexpectedly runs into a man from her past, she’s plunged headlong into memories she’s long tried to forget about the year she spent in France following a disastrous affair with a professor. As a newly arrived exchange student in the picturesque city of Nantes, young Brooke develops a deep and complicated friendship with Sophie, a fellow American and stunning blonde, whose golden girl façade hides a precarious emotional fragility. Sophie and Brooke soon become inseparable and find themselves intoxicated by their new surroundings—and each other. But their lives are forever changed when they meet a sly, stylish French student, Veronique, and her impossibly sexy older cousin, Alex. The cousins draw Sophie and Brooke into an irresistible world of art, money, decadence, and ultimately, a disastrous love triangle that consumes them both. And of the two of them, only one will make it home.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Brooke Thompson is a copy editor living in NYC when a friend invites her to attend an event which brings Brooke's past rushing back to her in an instant. It turns out another attendee at this party is none other than Alex, a Frenchman with whom Brooke once had a heady but fleeting romance. A romance it's taken her years to let go of.

 

While the novel starts out in present day, the bulk of Losing The Light lays out what happens that fateful year when college-aged Brooke was encouraged to take a study-abroad course in Nantes, France. The final chapters bring us back to present day as Brooke tries to bring closure to the most painful story of her life. 

 

In her debut novel, author Andrea Dunlop gives readers a complex story of friendship, lust and luxury that ultimately runs off the rails. While Brooke is in college, she, along with one of her professors, gets caught up in a school scandal. While the professor chooses to resign his position, the college dean encourages Brooke to take a study abroad course in France temporarily, while everyone waits for the heat of the situation to die down. Brooke agrees and soon even has schoolmate Sophie tagging along on her trip. Shortly after starting up classes in Nantes, Sophie and Brooke meet local Veronique, who invites them to a gathering at her apartment to meet the other local 20-somethings. It's at this party that Sophie and Brooke first meet Veronique's gorgeous cousin, Alex -- the man who will prove to be their ruination. Having fallen under the spell of Veronique and Alex (and the whole de Persaud family for that matter, what with their proverbial closets seemingly chock full of mysteries and skeletons!), Brooke and Sophie get caught up in a whirlwind of culture, money, love and decadence. Only too late do they realize they are in a tailspin towards a painful reality! 

 

Brooke is written as the more shy one, while Sophie is your fun-loving, social butterfly... at least on the outside. Little hints here and there suggest that Sophie is struggling with some sort of mental disorder or hardship -- manic depression, perhaps? -- which she has had to be temporarily committed for, as well as being on medications which she is reluctant to take / stay on. The scenes where Brooke and Sophie first arrive in Nantes reminded me a bit of the scenes in the first Taken movie, where the girls first arrive in Paris (I think it was Paris, been a minute since I watched those films...). This novel, once you know the synopsis, gives you that same sort of unease as that film. You know things are going to start out nice and lovely but you're just waiting for the fake backdrop to fall to expose what's really in store for the girls. 

 

As far as the setting of the novel, I was all set to settle into a story with heavy doses of -- what would you call it... "French-ness"? -- I didn't want things to go full-bore Pepe LePew obviously, but with any novel set in a place you know to be steeped in culture, you want to have that armchair traveling vibe firmly established. I can't say I completely felt that in the Nantes portions of the story (though there is a little bit with moments of shopping, cafe lunches and meeting with Alex / Veronique's grandmother at her grand estate... otherwise, it often seemed like the Nantes portions of the story really could have been set anywhere) but the feel I was hoping for does kick in when the ladies go on excursions to Paris and the French Rivera. 

 

Paris didn't feel like a place you could just go to the way you could move to any American city. Its money and glamour were ancient and inherited, as inaccessible as the stars. 

 

This novel had a bit of a slow burn for me. It didn't seem like too much was going on for the first 100 pages or so. But I was curious to stick with it. The author herself contacted me after having read my review for Abroad by Katie Crouch, which has a somewhat similar storyline to this book (Crouch even provides a blurb on the cover of Losing the Light). I had read enough into the novel to find I had developed solid interest in the characters and was definitely invested enough to see how everyone's story panned out. 

 

Alex gave me mixed feelings. Sometimes he comes off as the stereotypical, overly suave Frenchman. He'll push boundaries, sometimes get a little too handsy without permission from the ladies, sometimes say a truly cringe-worthy line (that you would probably fall for, at least once, if it was directed at you, let's be honest)... other times you gotta give it to the guy, he can be damn smooth with his technique. But then when you're almost ready to like him, he'll go and say / do something to perfectly ruin every good impression you almost had. I know this guy. I ashamedly admit I dated this guy -- more than once! -- during my early college years, so I felt for Brooke. Just a part of life ladies have to do the walk of shame through and ride out so they know what the deal breakers are on their way to the true Mr. Right. ;-)

 

I'd say my favorite character was Sophie. I liked her complicated blend of "social butterfly with the perfect life" exterior + dumpster fire of emotions on the inside. Yes, she could be selfish and bratty at times, but other moments you see her vulnerable, her insights on the world around her offering important social commentary on the struggle so many have with the "us vs them" mentality that bounces between "the beautiful people" who seem to have it all and the blue collar folk who feel like they have to endlessly struggle to hold on to even a few crumbs of good fortune. Sophie ponders on the lengths people go to aspire to BE the beautiful people while never understanding that problems -- serious, dark problems --  exist on that side too, problems that are never taken seriously because of the shiny glow around all that reside in that world. The only trouble I had with Sophie was that I didn't feel that her character was developed quite enough to have the full, high-intensity impact needed to really make that ending knock the wind out of the reader. While I wanted to gasp, I was left more with a quiet "well, that's a shame..." followed by a "wait, what now?!" (but again, not in a jaw-dropping shock kind of way, but more like a hazy confusion).

 

Note to sensitive readers: This novel does use some crude language at times within the dialogue of the characters, and some characters do have some sexy-times scenes that do include descriptions of fellacio / cunnilingus. Just a heads up if you prefer to avoid such subject matter in your reading. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Author Andrea Dunlop kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Nutshell: A Novel - Ian McEwan

Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home—a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse—but John's not there. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy's womb. Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world’s master storytellers.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Ian McEwan brings readers a murder mystery told from the unique perspective of an unborn child. Trudy is nearing the end of her pregnancy but is currently estranged from her husband... because she threw him out. Not for infidelity or anything like that... no, she'd just grown a little bored and dissatisfied with the man. Trudy gently opens up the "maybe it would be good for us to have some time apart" conversation which ends in husband John moving out and shortly thereafter John's brother Claude secretly taking his place.

 

A night of heavy drinking gives Claude and Trudy the inspiration to end John's life. At this point, our unborn narrator expresses his concern over what kind of situation he's being born into... he explains having a natural desire to love his mother as one tends to feel towards someone keeping you alive and all... but all this talk of murder weapons and methods leaves him unsettled! Listening in on conversations through the stretched skin of his mother's womb, baby-narrator doesn't get the impression that John is all that horrid, despite what Trudy's wine-loosened lips might say. A 6'3 teddy bear of a guy, John seems to be a people-pleaser, which annoys Trudy. She finds him weak and kind and considerate to a fault (aka total doormat of a guy). But baby-narrator reasons that there are definitely worse traits to find in someone -- just look at John's brother, Claude! Dumb as a bag of rocks, obsessed with having sex multiple times a day, making lewd comments or gestures when not in the actual act, table manners of a Neanderthal. What is Trudy thinking?!

 

All in all, I had mixed feelings about this short novel (less than 200 pages). For much of it I was thinking plot-wise this thing was about a 2. Just not enough tension for me. But then I realized I was actually having some fun reading these characters, just them as people. Claude grossed me out most of the time, and I was stumped trying to make sense of Trudy's thought process, but she does make a little more sense when you get closer to the end. I actually ended up feeling a bit sad for her. Still not cool that you were throwing back so much wine though, girl. Seriously. 

 

What truly carried the story for me was the thin vein of dark comedy McEwan weaves into everyone's narratives. The surprise visit from John and Trudy's casual:

 

"Claude, darling, kindly put the glycol bottle away." 

 

LOL, I may be a little twisted but I love that kind of humor. 

 

The unnamed, unborn narrator -- at first I was a little troubled thinking,"This is an unborn child, how would he have such a developed intelligence about him?!" but an acceptable explanation for that is later provided. But that intelligence gives him an already-done-with-it-all edge to his voice that I enjoyed. 

 

 

I also grew to like John, in the few scenes he appears. He struck me as a good dude, if maybe a little neglectful, a little oblivious of Trudy's growing discontent before she booted him. The doormat impression is strong with him until one scene where he gives a quiet speech, subtle in tone yet darkly funny which is directed at Trudy and has an unspoken "I'm on to you" kind of message. Trudy and I were similarly left speechless! But then he snaps out of it, they get to talking about the good ol' days, John reminiscing about when he and Trudy met, back when he enjoyed reciting poetry and was a javelin thrower on the track & field team. This leads into my favorite exchange in the whole book:

 

Trudy: "I never want to hear another poem again."

John (pointing to his brother, Claude): "Well, you certainly won't get any out of that guy."

 

BOOM. And then he just leaves. Yep, I liked that John.

 

The inspiration for the title of this book comes from a line in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, which McEwan references before the story begins. While this little novel of his is not a direct retelling, I could definitely see inspiration and likenesses between the two throughout. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Doubleday Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
3 Stars
The High Divide by Lin Enger
The High Divide: A Novel - Lin Enger

In 1886, Gretta Pope wakes up one morning to discover that her husband is gone. Ulysses Pope has left his family behind on the far edge of Minnesota’s western prairie, with only the briefest of notes and no explanation for why he left or where he’s heading. It doesn’t take long for Gretta’s young sons, Eli and Danny, to set off after him, leaving Gretta no choice but to search for the boys and their father in hopes of bringing them all home. Enger’s breathtaking portrait of the vast plains landscape is matched by the rich expanse of his characters’ emotional terrain, as pivotal historical events--the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians--blend seamlessly with the intimate story of a family’s sacrifice and devotion.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

1886 Minnesota. Gretta Pope wakes one morning to see her husband, Ulysses, off on a trip. Naturally, she expects him to return from this trip but he does not... instead, she finds she is only left with a mysterious and vague note from him. The note shows that he had intentions to leave like this for some time but Ulysses doesn't explain why. So now Mrs. Pope finds she's basically stranded out on the western prairie with two young sons and no ideas for income -- a stressful position to be left in, as the Popes were struggling financially, already in the dodging-the-landlord phase of things. Gretta's oldest son, Elijah, takes it upon himself to travel across the wild western territory to try to track down his dad. He's silently watched his father for years, noticing a brooding restlessness to Ulysses' spirit, always fearing that one day the man might try something like this disappearing act, perhaps never to come back.

 

Elijah doesn't tell his mother of his plan to sniff out his father's whereabouts, deciding instead to sneak out alone early one morning with the intention of hobo-ing it alone. But wouldn't you know his curious little brother, Danny, finds a way to shadow him until they reach the train tracks, where Elijah discovers him. Danny doesn't make his presence known until the train is moving, so Elijah has no choice to let little brother tag along. It does make Elijah nervous, traveling with Danny, as Danny has a mysterious illness that leaves him with crippling or otherwise debilitating headaches, nausea, sometimes even periods of black-out (It's not directly named in the book, but much of what IS described of Danny's condition made me think of possible epilepsy).

 

Gretta is understandably pretty distraught when she discovers what her sons have done. She tries to go on her own mission to find them but her efforts quickly prove futile, so she decides it's maybe just best to hold down the home front until all her men get back. Unfortunately, that decision means she has to fight off the unsavory, suggestively salacious offers on how she can pay off her debts from her somewhat skeevy landlord, Mead Fogarty. 

 

While her guys are trekking all over the territory at different points, Gretta is left with little else for company than her own inner thoughts on motherhood and her marriage, which she admits had been showing signs of strain of late. She wonders if this flight of Ulysses is partly her doing. She also has to field gossip floating around town about her, thanks to meddling Mead. Meanwhile, her sons are on a great adventure that has them not only uncovering never-before-known facts about their father's life before his family man days, but they also get quite the education on the plight of the Plains Indians and the decimation of wild buffalo herds, via their introduction to real life historical figure William Hornaday.

 

Historical fiction aside, when you break it down there are basically three main storylines woven together here -- that of Gretta as a wife and mother, that of Ulysses as a husband, father and Civil War veteran, and that of the two brothers trying to figure out what the heck is up with their parents lately. Personally, it took me about 100 pages or so to get honestly invested in the plot. While I did enjoy the descriptions of the time period and the details of individual characters, there was still something somewhat lacking to really get me sucked into the pages. Much of what was moving my reading along was a simple mild curiosity as to how Ulysses's disappearance would be explained. That, and I really enjoyed the story of strengthening brotherhood between Elijah and Danny. 

 

I am glad I stuck with it! The closing scenes of the novel offer a nice pay-off for time invested. When the explanation for the father's disappearance is ultimately revealed, it involves touching upon some pretty heavy topics. I had to chuckle and nod knowingly at Elijah's reaction to the reveal, which amounted to a kind of ticked off, "UGH! This could've been handled so much better!" Haha, been there, kid! 

 

I also recommend reading the afterword essay by Lin Enger that gets into some of the true history behind the novel's inspiration. The story behind the buffalo nickle was a fascinating bit I never knew before! 

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Made for Goodness (And Why This Makes All The Difference) by Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu
Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference - Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu

In Made for Goodness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and international icon of peace and reconciliation, shares his vision on why we can find hope and joy in the world’s darkest moments by realizing that we were made for goodness, that we are wired so that goodness will win in the end. Archbishop Tutu is a spiritual leader and symbol of love and forgiveness on the level of Gandi, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Made for Goodness, written with his daughter Mpho, is one of the most personal and inspirational books he's ever written.

Amazon.com

 

 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Prize winner (1984) and a survivor of not only an abusive childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father, but also of the apartheid era in Africa. In this book, which he writes with his daughter Mpho (pronounced mm-POH, btw) who is also an archbishop, finally addresses the topic he's been asked about most over the years --- how does he manage to stay happy, given what he's been through? How does he continue to see good in the world and not lose faith in humanity? In under 300 pages of illustrative stories of hope and faith, he gives you your answer. 

 

Desmond's path has not been an easy one. Remember the alcoholic, abusive father I mentioned? He was actually principal of Desmond's elementary school in Johannesburg, South Africa when Desmond was a child. No escape for the poor kid! But he endured, survived and went on to become educated and highly respected within a career of service. By the time apartheid in Africa reared its ugly head, Desmond was a father himself. One of the quietest actions to signal the fight to come was when the lunch program was canceled for all black children in South African schools, though white students were still served. Then Prime Minster Hendrik Verwoerd's official statement on the decision? "We can't provide for all the children, so we won't provide for any." That moment was cruel enough but ohh if only the fight had stopped there! If you've read up on your history regarding this time, you're aware of the bloodshed that was to follow all across the country. 

 

Desmond takes up the position of archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. During apartheid, he serves as president of All Africa Conference of Churches. In the apartheid's aftermath, he becomes chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, dedicated to helping shattered families emotionally and physically rebuild their lives. His daughter Mpho worked alongside Desmond as a counselor to emotionally, physically or sexually abused women & children, rape victims and / or drug addicts. So you can guess, they were in the thick of it, seeing humans at their darkest, lowest emotional states. There must have been days where Desmond and Mpho had to have lost heart! This whole book is Desmond describing how they were able to stay strong in a world full of cruelty and depravity, dedicating themselves anew each day to building up rather than tearing down. 

 

Your whole life is holy ground.

~ Desmond Tutu

 

Desmond's work in South Africa, as well as time spent working in a refugee camp in Darfur, drove him to develop the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Tutu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

 

Archbishop Tutu ends each chapter of the book with a prayer poem, giving the reader something to contemplate on, regarding struggles within their own life. If you wish to pray on something troubling you but don't know how to go about wording it, these can be a useful tool to help guide your mind to a peaceful place. Tutu hits upon some solid truths on the subjects of truth, faith and general perseverance through life. While his message did get a little repetitive in parts for me, I can't argue with the message itself. The man's been put through the fire and came out the other side an intact happy man. His words have been field-tested, you could say! 

 

One thing that Tutu stresses in these chapters that did really resonate with me is the need to be realistic with oneself. We should all be striving for everyday kindness for humanity, but also keep in mind you don't have to be a perfect saint. You will have days where you get angry, where you break down, where you feel like you're not doing enough or that your efforts are pointless because the world is just too damaged. To this line of thinking he gives the reader this in return:

 

There is a relief worker who resides in our soul. In each of us, there is a dignified Darfuri, one who can find occasion for gratitude and joyful laughter in almost any circumstance. To whatever extent we recognize and act on those traits, they are there and want to be expressed. We can always aspire to be more compassionate and more generous, not out of some dogged need to be good or to be lovable, but because to give love is our greatest joy.

 

I was also moved by Tutu's words on "ubuntu", the South African way of describing everything and everyone in the world being interconnected. 

 

Some of the hardest truth to take (though the guy is right!) is when he breaks down the idea of freedom of choice. Admittedly, an amazing gift, but as he points out... it comes with a caveat. Freedom of choice also means potential for people to choose wrongly or poorly, which will likely affect a great many people. Could be you, could be someone else. So then he says, if your life has been negatively affected by the poor choices of others, you THEN have the choice to CHOOSE to forgive them or carry the weight of that anger / sadness / disappointment etc within yourself for however long you choose. Freedom of choice doesn't always mean everyone wins, but it gives you the freedom to choose how you react to the options provided.

 

I did really love Mpho's stone exercise for releasing hurt feelings, so I thought I would share it here: Mpho says to take a small stone that can fit in a pocket (but some with noticeable weight to it), put it in your pocket and throughout the day tell the rock what is troubling you. Whenever you feel that hurt or anger bubbling back up, voice it to the rock. At the end of the day, find someplace to set the rock down and mentally set down your weighted mind with it. Then walk away. Leave the rock there and walk away with a lightened spirit. 

 

Worth a shot! 

Review
4 Stars
Your Next 24 Hours by Hal Donaldson
Your Next 24 Hours: One Day of Kindness Can Change Everything - Hal Donaldson, Kirk Noonan, Candace Payne

If asked, who among us wouldn't say we were kind people? But kindness is often manifested in feelings of pity or sympathy--especially when others are watching--rather than in deeds. And when it comes down to it, what good does mere feeling do for the world? Your Next 24 Hours is about something much bigger--a lifestyle of kindness, without thought of reciprocation, extended toward every person in our lives, both friend and foe. Through powerful true stories of kindness lived out, this book shows readers the enormous difference they can make through small, doable acts of kindness in their families, communities, workplaces, schools, and churches. It shows how every encounter with another person is an opportunity to be kind--and a chance to change our world. Readers of Your Next 24 Hours will find deep satisfaction and joy as they discover how they can be part of a revolution of kindness that starts with them and reaches out through every person their lives touch.

Amazon.com

 

 

Hal Donaldson, with the help of Kirk Noonan, put together this inspiring little bit of nonfiction to get readers thinking about how they can make their little corners of the world just a little bit better. Pretty apt timing on this book's release, I must say! 

 

"Happiness is a result of who you are, not just what you do. Your acts of kindness are an outward expression of the love and happiness in your heart."

 

Hal Donaldson is the co-founder and president of Convoy of Hope, a non-profit organization which strives to provide services to those in need around the world, whether that be through nutritional programs in school, shelter & job training for abused mothers looking to start over, or even disaster relief services. Your Next 24 Hours pools together what Donaldson has learned not only from his work with Convoy of Hope, but also his own life experiences from having survived a childhood in a painfully broken home, the relationship between his parents irrevocably shattered. 

 

This book starts with a foreword from Candace Payne, aka "Chewbacca Mom" of Youtube fame, who recently got signed to a multi-book deal herself through Zondervan Publishing. I noticed the outside of the book also features some interesting choices for promotional blurbs, one being from Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne's Pretzels and another from Curt and Nancy Richardson, inventors of Otterbox tech protective cases. The one blurb I really loved though was from San Francisco 49ers tight end Vance McDonald:

 

 

It's easy to love the lovable, to be kind to the kind, and reciprocate to those who have first done something nice for us. Ours is a world built around the bold and the beautiful, the pretty and the eloquent. But what about those who are seemingly unlovable, shy, unnoticed, less fortunate? Such people are all around us, and we often take them for granted. But just as Jesus modeled, perhaps we could lift up their spirits if -- through kindness -- we simply noticed them. Your Next 24 Hours encourages us to do just that!

 

 

 

Once you get into the meat of this book, you'll see that each chapter starts with an inspirational quote from a celebrity name you know. Just to name a few: Princess Diana, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa, Marilyn Monroe, Matthew McConaughey, Audrey Hepburn, Walt Disney, Nelson Mandela, Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson, Ellen DeGeneres, Natalie Portman, and Jane Goodall. Many more are included. Also referenced are inspirational stories of generosity involving celebrities such as Paul Walker, Kate Winslet, Adam Levine, Jake Gyllenhal, Zendaya, and Amy Adams. Each chapter ends with a "Kind Ways" list, suggestions for little ways you can incorporate good deeds into your daily life, either through acts that benefit others or steps you can take to improve your own mental / physical wellness. 

 

So how do you heal a strained relationship so the stress doesn't interfere with your sleep? First, realize that some disputes can be healed in one conversation while others may take months or years. Despite your apology or attempts to make amends, some people are bent on taking grudges to their grave. Second, call for a truce -- even if there's nothing more you can say or do to turn an adversary into an ally. Third, make every effort to return aggression with love -- and repay disrespect with honor. Your enemy may not respond with grace, but at least you can know you tried. When conflicts arise -- and they will -- take immediate action. Try to reach a quick resolution or compromise. Don't allow days or weeks to pass before endeavoring to heal wounds caused by the dispute. Otherwise, minor bumps and bruises can become long-term injuries to the relationship. Seek to reconcile through respectful conversation and acts of kindness. If voices begin to escalate into a heated exchange, don't try to match decibels. Remain calm and composed. Mother Teresa said, "I have found the paradox, if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love."

 

 

In among all these celebrity anecdotes (as well as his own) and tips to motivate the reader to action, Donaldson also offers up some solid lines to ponder on. Just a few of the little life truths he wants you to remember:

 

  • "Fulfillment doesn't come from exceeding others, but elevating them."
  • "No home is perfect; every family faces its share of ups and downs. But a home founded on love and kindness can weather any storm. When crises arise, you can stand with confidence and say, 'We are family, and no matter what, we're going to make it through these challenges together.'"
  • "Listening is kindness. It tells people you cherish their words and value their opinions. It says, 'You matter.' Kindness means seeing the unseen, hearing the unheard, and touching the unloved. Relentless kindness is contagious."
  • "Listening also means hearing what people are not saying. Some are wounded, alone and afraid. Their jobs may be tenuous and their family fractured, and you'd never know it. They suffer in silence because they really don't know whom they can trust. It will take someone like you, who hears what's not being said, to reach out to them and offer encouragement."
  • Also, "Forgiveness is kindness."
  • "Don't try to settle disputes through emails or texts. Meet face-to-face whenever possible. Don't allow a friendship or business relationship to suffer because you didn't take the extra step of connecting in person. Whether you're negotiating a cease-fire in your family  or circle of friends -- or mending fences in a business relationship -- your acts of kindness are never wasted. With a little good fortune and a dose of understanding, your adversary could one day become your most-trusted ally."
  • Donaldson also gets into the science behind kindness: Acts of kindness increase levels of oxytocin in the brain, which decreases depression and strengthens the immune system. Your body gets a natural high from the oxytocin boost, so your brain continues to encourage you to look for more opportunities to do good. Win-Win: your health improves while you do your part to improve the lives of others! Added bonus: surveys say happy people, on average, live about 35% longer. 
  • Donaldson reminds readers of a few of the hard truths behind acts of kindness as well: sometimes those acts mean something of a sacrifice on your part. The key thing to remember is that your sacrifice demonstrates that you are aspiring to live a life that rises above solely benefiting yourself. Your sacrifice benefits others in need, and that's no small thing! That being said, he also stresses the importance of knowing how far to go with generosity / charity. Sometimes an impulsive act is good, other times it pays to do your research... sad truth is there ARE some sketchy people and companies out there who will take advantage of your kind heart if you're not careful. Donaldson gives you some tips on how to go about being simultaneously smart and sweet at heart. 

 

Once you're inspired to carry out these small acts of kindness on your little patch of Planet Earth, Donaldson then explains how your little acts positively will positively affect the world on a global scale. Along with this, he also stresses the importance of being kind to the planet itself, being environmentally conscious, and ways you can go about doing that if you are unsure of where to start. Though this entire book is under 200 pages, there is a bounty of inspiration and information to be harvested from its pages! If you find yourself discontent with the state of the world right now and want to make a change but don't know where to start or if you are skeptical about how much difference little ol' you could make in the grand scheme of things, I urge you to try this book out and see for yourself that every little act helps! If you are on Twitter, Hal Donaldson encourages you to share your stories of progress with him (@ConvoyOfHope) under the hashtag #YourNext24

 

FTC Disclaimer: Baker Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
5 Stars
Wish by Melina Gerosa Bellows
Wish - Melina Gerosa Bellows

When your entire life has been one long search for that mysterious "something" that will finally make you happy and complete, what you want changes faster than the fashions in Vogue. But that doesn't mean you stop wishing, does it?  This is Bella Grandelli's heartbreaking, hilarious, and seemingly hopeless quest-from her days as a pudgy, insecure eight-year-old in the seventies, to a Madonna-worshipping Notre Dame co-ed in the eighties, where she tries on boyfriends as if they're leg-warmers, to a martini-sipping entertainment journalist in the nineties. The only constant through her love-life chaos is her twin brother, Bobby, whose mysterious illness has been a source of both triumph and tragedy-no matter how hard Bella tries to wish him well. But it's only when her family faces a devastating crisis that she finally realizes the painful truth about herself and her life. And no one is more surprised than Bella herself when that journey leads her to the only person in the world who holds the key to her heart.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Bella is searching for that special little something that will finally make her feel happy and complete... that one thing that so many of us feel like we can't quite name but we just know is out there waiting for us. Bella's trouble is that her definition of happy seems to keep changing. Especially when she considers how her autistic twin brother Bobby plays into that idea. Bobby, most days anyway, has a "joy in the little things" way about him. He has a sunny disposition, a love of patterns, and a unique way of speaking, relying almost entirely on dialogue from tv shows he watches -- Star Trek / Yosemite Sam / Batman when he's happy, Bugs Bunny quotes means bad news. 

 

Bobby's upbeat nature often puts Bella's troubles into perspective, even when she'd prefer to, you know, kinda just enjoy wallowing in those indulgent moments of self-pity. She's also always felt a sense of responsibility to Bobby, sometimes more of a parent to him than their actual parents, teaching him things like how to do acceptable eye contact (2 seconds = too short, 5 seconds = too long). All of this factors into how she defines happy, what she wants for herself, what goals she thinks she can accomplish guilt-free. She also contemplates what she needs for her own soul's happiness, regardless of what the world might say it requires of her. 

 

Spanning from an introduction to 8 year old Bella in the 1970s to Bella as a grown female journalist in the 1990s, the format of Wish is set up in a way similar to that of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary (author Melina Bellows even notes the similarity in her author interview at the back of this book) . At each chapter's beginning, the reader is given a rundown of what year it is, Bella's age that year, her favorite song and celebrity idol of the moment, and a noting of her best pair of shoes and prized possession for that year. The plot itself though reminded me a bit of a grown up version of Rules by Cynthia Lord.

 

When Wish was first released back in 2005, I remember seeing it here and there on a few recommended reading lists in magazines I would casually peruse. Since then, I've heard a fair share of less than stellar reviews about it, so it quietly got pushed further and further down on my own mental "to get to one day" reading list. So glad I decided to finally take it home after finding it in a local used bookstore recently! I went into it hesitantly (those reviews in the back of my mind) but came out completely moved by this little story. I saw SO many parallels to my own life in Bella's journey it floored me.

 

Some of those neggy reviews mentioned how cliche it all is and how predictable the romances play out but real life does play out that way too sometimes. Sometimes it IS the most obvious answer once you get out of your own way! But it wasn't even the romances that resonated with me (though I was very much entertained seeing the various situations Bella gets herself into!). For me, it was Bella's inner monologues and overall thought processes that bonded me to her, faulty though they may be sometimes! I loved watching her go through the process of figuring out the reasoning behind ideas like taking care of yourself so you can be better for others, or as Bella's therapist puts it at one point, "Inside every rescuer there is a victim." Bella realizes she doesn't really know how to define herself outside of various levels of caretaker roles within her own family. That's something I struggle with myself to this day so I was definitely rooting for her on her journey and cringing when I knew how badly some of her choices would end up (having been there myself). 

 

 

If you've ever felt overwhelmed with being "the responsible one" in your family (who is then maybe unfairly and harshly judged when you just try to freakin' live a little) then Bella's story may be for you. Hers is a reminder that we're ALL here just trying to figure it all out the best we can and yes, every one of us is going to get the proverbial pie in the face now and then, but we push through and keep going anyway, don't we? :-) I'd also recommend this for anyone gearing up for Autism Awareness Month in April! 

 

Review
4 Stars
League Of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada & Steve Fainaru
League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth - Steve Fainaru, Mark Fainaru-Wada

“PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYERS DO NOT SUSTAIN FREQUENT REPETITIVE BLOWS TO THE BRAIN ON A REGULAR BASIS.”
So concluded the National Football League in a December 2005 scientific paper on concussions in America’s most popular sport. That judgment, implausible even to a casual fan, also contradicted the opinion of a growing cadre of neuroscientists who worked in vain to convince the NFL that it was facing a deadly new scourge: A chronic brain disease that was driving an alarming number of players -- including some of the all-time greats -- to madness. League of Denial reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage. Comprehensively, and for the first time, award-winning ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru tell the story of a public health crisis that emerged from the playing fields of our 21st century pastime. Everyone knew that football is violent and dangerous. But what the players who built the NFL into a $10 billion industry didn’t know – and what the league sought to shield from them – is that no amount of padding could protect the human brain from the force generated by modern football; that the very essence of the game could be exposing these players to brain damage. In a fast-paced narrative that moves between the NFL trenches, America’s research labs and the boardrooms where the NFL went to war against science, League of Denial examines how the league used its power and resources to attack independent scientists and elevate its own flawed research.

Amazon.com

 

 

The Fainaru Bros. team up to deliver this in-depth investigation into the NFL's persistent denial that head traumas are a serious epidemic within the game of football, particularly on the professional level. With a whole team of journalists pitching in on this project to uncover the truth, investigating survivors of now-deceased victims, the Fainaru Bros. (ESPN journalists themselves) lay it out for even the most casual sports fan -- brain trauma is most definitely a thing in this industry and it needs to be more seriously addressed and managed. 

 

League of Denial focuses on the careers of some of the most high-profile NFL players, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, to be fatally affected by repeatedly unchecked incidents of brain trauma. The specifics of this brain trauma were first identified by neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu after he found himself baffled by the odd results of the autopsy he did on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike "Iron Mike" Webster. The Nigerian born Omalu admitted that he didn't follow American football, so he had no idea of Webster's celebrity status when assigned to do his autopsy. He was simply fascinated and perplexed by the case from a medical standpoint. 

 

Mike Webster played for the Steelers during the 1970s-80s. At the end of his rookie year, the Steelers won their first Superbowl. Throughout his career, Webster would take a number of hard hits to the body, mostly to the head. He regularly complained to his wife of debilitating migraines, describing it as an "icepick" kind of pain, but his official NFL medical records only show two instances where the team doctor noted Webster having a head injury. TWO. In a career that spanned nearly 18 years. And those two were largely written off as simply mild dizziness and a bit of low blood sugar. There was one record of Webster suffering a neck injury and being given an injected painkiller, but he soon had an allergic reaction to the medication and had to be rushed to the hospital. Fearful of losing his place on the team, Webster checked himself out of the hospital and played in a Steelers game the very next day. 

 

After Webster's death at age 50, Omalu and some of his medical colleagues looked into Webster's medical history beyond what the NFL had documented. Conversing with Webster's widow and still-living former teammates, it didn't take long for Omalu and his team to start documenting history of Webster struggling with depression, OCD, and paranoia, not to mention marital and financial strife. All key commonalities that would pop up in the life stories of future autopsy investigations of NFL players who had likewise died under mysterious circumstances. Further investigation aired stories of past and current players who admitted to playing through serious injury because they didn't want to let down teammates or they feared losing their NFL positions (which would threaten the financial stability those incomes provided for players' family members). 

 

Dr. Omalu put together all his findings and named the condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Prior to that, the condition was most commonly known as "punch drunk syndrome" and was most widely known to be found in professional boxers. 

 

But it's not just Webster that this book focuses on. The Fainaru Bros. also look at the cases of other players who have now been determined to have died as a result of CTE, a condition that, to date, can only be diagnosed after death. These cases include detailed histories of the lives & deaths of NFL players Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, Andre Waters, Merrill Hoge, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau (You can read details on these and additional cases by looking at this CBS slideshow). If you're concerned about not being versed enough in professional football to enjoy this book, don't be. I'd recommend you to try it if the topic at all interests you. Though I enjoy watching football, I would not describe myself as a fanatic by any means. Yet I had no trouble keeping up with the topic at all. There are a few parts that got a little more on the technical / dry side than I enjoy, but for the most part I found this to have a nice pace for a non-fiction piece. I was also surprised at the gamut of emotions it pulled from me -- at times I felt that sensation of reading an action novel, other times I was enraged at the lax attitude of the NFL, even with clear evidence shoved in front of their faces, or sometimes moved to tears at the pain these families were put through. With Mike Webster's story in particular, it broke my heart to read how he was pretty much abandoned by the NFL after he stopped being financially valuable to them. 

 

After you check out this book, I would also highly recommend watching the film Concussion which covers much of the same information this book looks at, and stars Will Smith, who portrays Dr. Omalu. 

 

I still watched & enjoyed this year's Superbowl after reading this book, but I definitely viewed the game through new eyes, having this book in my mind the whole time! 

 

 

----------

 

Extras:

 

PBS Frontline did an episode which accompanies the book League of Denial, which I have linked below for anyone interested:

 

League of Denial documentary

 

 

Also, while I was going over my notes for this write-up, I came across a news article on SI.com that gives a surprising (or not) little update on the work of Dr. Omalu that you might be interested in... looks like he's still struggling with the professional sports industry accepting the seriousness of his findings, this time with professional wrestling:

 

Boston University rescinds award to Concussion doctor Bennet Omalu

Review
3.5 Stars
Paul The Apostle: A Graphic Novel by Ben Avery, Illust. by Mark Harmon
Paul the Apostle: A Graphic Novel - Ben Avery, Mario DeMatteo, Mark Harmon

Experience the biblically based account of Paul the Apostle in COMIC BOOK format! Paul's life story, told to us in the Book of Acts, is filled with bravery, adventure, miracles, faith, and salvation, yet many people are not aware of Paul's amazing life. In Paul the Apostle: A Graphic Novel, the action packed Bible story of Paul is more accessible for kids of all ages, using a visual language they love and understand: science fiction comic books! This 144-page full color graphic novel uses awesome looking cartoon creatures, set in an action packed futuristic science-fiction universe.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

While you may have been told the story of Paul the Apostle in church, you probably haven't heard it approached this way before! In this clever and artistic re-imagining, readers meet Paul shortly after he has been captured and imprisoned, awaiting execution. Coming to terms with his time on this mortal coil possibly coming to an end very shortly, Paul recounts the unfolding of his life's work, beginning with revealing that he began life as Saul, a guard dedicated to thwarting the message of the very people he would later count himself amongst -- proud and vocal followers of Jesus Christ. His work as Saul meant he would often arrest, imprison, beat, stone, even in some instances kill those who would try to spread the message of Christianity.

 

 

While on a road trip to Damascus, Saul is involves in a very serious motor vehicle accident. In fact, it sends him into a near-death experience that puts him face to face with big man Jesus himself. Saul comes back to life from this experience a changed man. Remembering his conversation with Jesus, Saul decides to change his name to Paul and start anew, spreading a message of love and kindness rather than animosity and intimidation through physical violence. 

 

 

above: I found the artwork in the dream sequences especially impressive!

 

This version of Saul / Paul the Apostle travels across many of the familiar locations described in the original biblical tale, and still incorporates many familiar historical / biblical figures (such as Emperor Nero), but in a futuristic, sci-fi like era. This is a little difficult to describe, and (if I may be honest) was even sometimes difficult to completely wrap my mind around while reading, but not so much that you can't keep up. It's a different approach, that's for sure, but I think that was kind of what Beartruth Collective (the publisher) was going for -- parents want their kids to learn their Bible stories but the stock version can sometimes come off as a bit dry and stuffy to young eyes & ears, so here's this fresh, innovative approach. Take a medium kids typically eat up -- graphic novels -- and tell the stories that way. 

 

 

 

My impressions

 

The Good: The overall quality of the book design in physical form is seriously top notch. Nice sturdy hardcover exterior, thick glossy pages inside that seem to really enhance the vivid color choices for the artwork. And that artwork! Holy cow, Mark Harmon (not THAT Mark Harmon, btw... sorry NCIS fans), you go! I freakin' LOVED the detailing in all the unique character illustrations here! As far as overall aestethic, I thought the design work was gorgeous! 

 

The Meh: While I like the unique concept of the book, the actual dialogue for the characters fell a little flat for me at times. Overall decent, I still had a good time reading Paul's story, but there were parts in there where it rang a bit corny, a bit trying too hard to be cool for the kids. There were also a few pages / panels where the text bubble layout got a little all over the place, so at times it took me a minute to figure out which way the conversation was meant to flow. 

 

I also noticed that the further along I got into Paul's story, the less it got to be about this sci-fi world and the adventures Paul went on... instead the dialogue turned more scripture heavy. Now, on one hand I can understand this because the point is for kids to learn Paul's story... but the point is ALSO to get kids interested... so as I was reading, I couldn't help but imagine some kids tuning out and closing the book once the story got pretty sermon-like and started to lose the storytelling aspect. Just my two cents. 

 

 

 

If your child has expressed interest in trying out graphic novels, but you are concerned about the potentially high levels of violence or sexuality in mainstream titles, this may be an alternative for your family. Beartruth Collective, at the back of this book, mentions plans to continue on with more adventures of other biblical figures in this graphic novel format, so I look forward to seeing what their future projects look like (once available)! 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Bookcrash.com & Beartruth Collective kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
3 Stars
After The Cheering Stops (memoir) by Cyndy Feasel
After the Cheering Stops: An NFL Wife's Story of Concussions, Loss, and the Faith that Saw Her Through - Cyndy Feasel, Mike Yorkey

Former NFL wife Cyndy Feasel tells the tragic story of her family’s journey into chaos and darkness resulting from the damage her husband suffered due to football-related concussions and head trauma—and the faith that saved her. 

Grant Feasel spent ten years in the NFL, playing 117 games as a center and a long snapper mostly for the Seattle Seahawks. The skull-battering, jaw-shaking collisions he absorbed during those years ultimately destroyed his marriage and fractured his family. Grant died on July 15, 2012, at the age of 52, the victim of alcohol abuse and a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Cyndy Feasel watched their life together become a living hell as alcohol became Grant’s medication for a disease rooted in the scores of concussions he suffered on the football field. Helmet-to-helmet collisions opened the door to CTE and transformed him from a sunny, strong, and loving man into a dark shadow of his former self. In this raw and emotional memoir that takes a closer look at the destruction wrought by a game millions love, Cyndy describes in painful and excruciating detail what can happen to an NFL player and his family when the stadium empties and the lights go down.

Amazon.com

 

 

Grant Feasel was a 6' 7" lineman for the Seattle Seahawks throughout the 1980s-early 1990s, playing center and long snapper positions. In this memoir, Grant's ex-wife, Cyndy Feasel, recounts all the years of football trauma she witnessed her husband take and how deeply that affected him and their family up until the day he died.

 

 

Cyndy and Grant met while students at Abilene Christian College, where Grant played on the school's football team while studying to be a dentist. Even in those early days, Cyndy would attend his games, watching him get hit or knocked flat out at nearly every game. But coaches would simply wave some smelling salts under his nose and send him back onto the field. Things didn't get any easier when the NFL came calling in 1984. After being offered a position with the Baltimore Colts (who became the Indianapolis Colts shortly after Feasel signed on), Feasel jumped at the opportunity, figuring he could take up his medical degree again later on if the football gig didn't work out. He only got to play for them a short time before the coaches decided he was one of the expendables on the roster. Much to his relief, he was quickly picked up by the Minnesota Vikings. 

 

Minnesota was where I heard, for the first time, Grant saying things like "I got my bell rung" after a game or "I suffered a stinger" in practice. His body took a lot more abuse and I noticed that he was staying longer after practice to get iced and sit in whirlpool baths...Muscles were bruised, and ligaments were stretched and sometimes torn. 

 

Keep in mind that Grant played much of his career on unforgiving artificial surfaces that were like patio carpet rolled onto a concrete slab. The first generation of artificial turf wasn't very sophisticated and lacked the "give" of a traditional dirt-and-grass playing field or today's softer FieldTurf...Grant often complained of "stingers" on Sunday nights. A stinger was an injury to a nerve in the upper arm, either at the neck or shoulder. A stinging or burning pain spread from his neck to one of his hands and felt like an electric shock down the arm. Many times I heard him say, "My neck is on fire."

 

I'm sure he was hurting. He'd always say to me, "I can barely turn my head," and I believed him every time I watched him drive and switch lanes; his neck barely swiveled. 

 

During the 1985 Vikings training camp, Grant suffered a major collision with a teammate from the defensive line. That hit caused Grant's left knee to have a major blowout -- his ACL, MCL and meniscus all shredded, immediately bumping him to the team's IR (injured reserve) roster. That is, until around Thanksgiving 1986, when he was dropped yet again. But again, luck was on his side -- the Seattle Seahawks snatched him up for their 1987 season and he stayed with them until his retirement in the early 1990s. The Seahawks coaches were aware of his injury record but were also impressed by his formidable size, his hard-working blue collar mentality and his high intelligence that allowed him to quickly and easily learn plays. By this time, Grant and Cyndy had children to support. Fearing that he could lose his spot on the team and thus his income, Grant dedicated himself to finding any means to bulk up, hoping it would prevent or at least soften further injury... even if that meant turning to steroid usage. 

 

The detrimental hits didn't stop though, no matter what measures Feasel chased. Instead, the norm became him being sent home with first one baggie full of prescription grade pain killers, then multiple baggies. He also turned to his own remedies, mainly a Sunday & Monday night ritual of downing an entire 6 pack of Coors Light with a Vicodin chaser. As Grant approached his last years in the NFL and then retirement, Cyndy saw the gentle, hard-working family man she fell in love with transition into a man of barely bottled rage. Grant's moods spiraled into a dangerous blend of anger, paranoia, and uncharacteristic profane behavior / language. Though he would seek the help of psychiatrists, more often than not he'd simply be sent home with yet more prescriptions for pain killers or mood enhancers / suppressants. In time, Cyndy discovered her husband's secret: abuse of prescription medications. An alarmed and terrified Cyndy watched her once happy marriage descend into a living nightmare of emotional (and later, physical) abuse. 

 

Though Grant's official cause of death was listed as ESLD or End Stage Liver Disease (aka cirrhosis of the liver), Cyndy lays out why she believes her husband essentially committed suicide slowly over the course of nearly 20 years, thanks to his then-undiagnosed CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) disease. Grant's brain was donated for study to the "Brain Bank" at Boston University, where the brain matter of numerous deceased NFL players have been sent to be tested for CTE. To date, CTE is a condition that can only be determined postmortem (after death). 

 

CTE can only be tested for postmortem, when scientists study the brain's tissues for a buildup of an abnormal protein known as tau, which was becoming associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and progressive dementia...concussions and "dings" on the football field that aren't allowed to heal thoroughly activate the tau protein, which then moves throughout healthy brain cells. When the frontal lobe -- the seat of socialization, emotional intelligence, and rational thinking -- become affected, the brain deteriorates over time. Memory loss and confusion become more prevalent. 

 

Having recently read the non-fiction work League of Denial, which takes a lengthy look at the topic of the NFL and the CTE epidemic in general, I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to read Cyndy Feasel's personal account of trying to live with someone who battled the condition (though they weren't aware of it at the time). Reading the two works together really cemented in my mind the truth that though the NFL has made progress in better caring for their players, the scourge of CTE is still very much a topic that requires persistent discussion. Near the end of Cyndy Feasel's book, there is a definite lean towards pushing parents to keep their kids away from team sports. While I understand the stance, I personally find it a drastic one.

 

While I am sympathetic of Cyndy's struggles, I was a little put off by how watered down and somewhat bland the writing is here. Though the story is Cyndy's, the writing is actually done by Mike Yorkey. His author blurb gives him credit for writing or co-writing some 100 books to date. Why then was the writing so simplistic? That's what stumped me. For example, did the reader really need an explanation of what Advil is... seriously?! I was also surprised that while Feasel talks of immersively educating herself on the topic of CTE after Grant's death, I didn't see one mention of Dr. Bennett Omalu, though he was instrumental in the discovery of the disease in the first place! (Will Smith portrayed Omalu in the film Concussion).

 

Again, I would recommend checking out League of Denial for an in-depth look at the topic of CTE, but I appreciate Feasel's memoir as a personalized, supplemental offering on the subject. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: BookLookBloggers & Thomas Nelson Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
2 Stars
Time Is A River by Mary Alice Monroe
Time Is a River - Mary Alice Monroe

Recovering from breast cancer and reeling from her husband's infidelity, Mia Landan flees her Charleston home to heal in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. She seeks refuge in a neglected fishing cabin belonging to her fly-fishing instructor, Belle Carson. Belle recently inherited the cabin, which once belonged to a grandmother she never knew -- the legendary fly fisher and journalist of the 1920s, Kate Watkins, whose life fell into ruins after she was accused of murdering her lover. Her fortune lost in the stock market crash and her reputation destroyed, Kate slipped into seclusion in the remote cabin. After her death the fishing cabin remained locked and abandoned for decades. Little does Belle know that by opening the cabin doors to Mia for a summer's sanctuary, she will open again the scandal that plagued Belle's family for generations. From her first step inside the dusty cabin, Mia is fascinated by the traces of Kate's mysterious story left behind in the eccentric furnishings of the cabin. And though Belle, ashamed of the tabloid scandal that tortured her mother, warns Mia not to stir the mud, Mia is compelled to find out more about Kate...especially when she discovers Kate's journal. The inspiring words of the remarkable woman echo across the years. Mia has been learning to fly-fish, and Kate's wise words comparing life to a river resonate deeply. She begins a quest to uncover the truth behind the lies. As she searches newspaper archives and listens to the colorful memories of the local small-town residents, the story of a proud, fiercely independent woman emerges. Mia feels a strange kinship with the woman who, like her, suffered fears, betrayal, the death of loved ones, and a fall from grace -- yet found strength, compassion and, ultimately, forgiveness in her isolation. A story timeless in its appeal emerges, with a power that reopens old wounds, but also brings a transforming healing for Mia, for Kate's descendants, and for all those in Mia's new community.

Amazon.com

 

 

Mia Landan, recovering from breast cancer treatments and an unfaithful husband, decides to retreat to the mountains of WNC, specifically Asheville area. There she takes up residence in a cabin owned by her fly-fishing instructor and friend, Belle. Belle lets her live there rent free for the summer under the one condition that she doesn't go digging into the family story behind the cabin (a scandal involving Belle's grandmother). But we need a novel length story here so of course Belle goes digging. She uncovers the tale of Belle's grandmother, Kate Watkins, a 1920s journalist and fly-fishing enthusiast herself who got involved with a married man and was then implicated in his mysterious disappearance.

 

I've lived in & around the Asheville area since 2002 and actually found a copy of this book in a local thrift shop. Always curious of books that involve my city, I immediately took this one home, figuring that the historical fiction element would also greatly appeal to me. Unfortunately this one didn't quite gel with me as I'd hoped.

 

As far as the environment itself, I thoroughly enjoyed that bit. Monroe definitely does justice to the area, offering rich descriptions of the nature around here... though at times I think she painted it a little more rustic than it actually is these days. Some passages had it sounding like Belle was leaving Mia in the wilds of Alaska or something when much of Asheville now is hardly THAT remote lol. I did like Mia in the early parts of the book but some of her decisions later on in the story chipped away at that, so by the end I was just left more with "She's alright, I guess..."

 

What really fell short was the plot. I was hoping for a truly immersive mystery around the story of Kate Watkins, especially for the time period she was living in.... who doesn't want to imagine their town back in the Roarin' Twenties?! But there wasn't too much in the way of that. The "mystery" was pretty straight forward and, to me, unfolded at a slow, bland pace.

Review
4 Stars
Creating A Life You'll Love: Notable Achievers Offer Their Secrets For Happiness Edited by Mark Chimsky-Lustig
Creating a Life You'll Love: Notable Achievers Offer Their Secrets for Happiness - Mark Chimsky-Lustig

This inspiring collection, drawn from the best commencement speeches of recent years, is the perfect gift for anyone venturing out on their own for the first time or making a new life transition. Such notable contributors as Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas J. Friedman, Anna Quindlen, and Molly Ivins reveal important life lessons about navigating successfully through life and being true to oneself. Their advice is illuminating, surprising, thought-provoking, and funny. Creating a Life You'll Love is essential reading for everyone who is seeking the secret to living life wisely and well.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Formerly an editor for publishing houses Harper and Little, Brown & MacMillian, Mark Chimsky-Lustig is now an award winning poet and regular contributor to Huffington Post. In this first volume (of a series of themed essay collections he's compiled), Chimsky-Lustig brings together the commencement speeches of numerous successful people in the arts and sciences -- Barbara Kingsolver, Tom Hanks, Anna Quindlen, David McCullough, Ken Burns, Tess Gerritsen... just to name a few. Within their speeches, the reader is given words of inspiration and encouragement to go out and grasp the life of their dreams. Though originally geared at college students, readers of any age can likely find something uplifting within these pages. 

 

A rundown of the essay highlights:

 

* Barbara Kingsolver encourages you to find and develop a sense of community, wherever you plant yourself. 

David McCollough urges you to not only learn facts, but to honestly comprehend them.Take them in, use them to teach you empathy for others. Make learning a passion central to your life. Do work that you believe in, work that energizes you. And always work on expanding your vocabulary. 

* Molly Ivins says to raise a ruckus, have fun, and express gratitude to those who have helped you along the way to your successes. 

* Anna Deavere Smith reminds you that live requires stamina, perseverance and flexibility. She, like Quindlen, encourages you to find a community to bolster you while you're on your life's journey. She also reminds you that life is rarely clear cut, black and white... so don't fear those grey areas. 

* Tom Friedman, like many others in this collection, urges you to find work you love, pay attention, be a good listener, and "learn how to learn" -- learn to love the process of learning, don't get caught up in the instant gratification that gadgetry brings, but learn to enjoy more manual processes simply for the experience it offers. He also points out that healthy skepticism is good, but not when it veers into deep cynicism, so watch for that. Oh, and call your parents once in awhile, yeah?

* Genevieve Bell says to live in the present. Allow yourself to be vulnerable once in awhile and also keep yourself open to the opportunity to be surprised by life from time to time! Be honest, be brave, and don't be afraid to admit that you don't know everything. :-)

* Karen Tse inspires by reminding that "chaos precedes creation", so don't lose hope when things get messy. Embrace doing small things with great love. Approach your hardships with courage and the determination to overcome. 

 

It's one thing to be happy and joyful when things are going right, but when things are going wrong, that is the most important time for you to step forward with courage and realize that courage is also the ability to have radical self-affirmation in light of whatever else is going on in your life, to believe that you'll get through to the next level. 

 

~ Karen Tse

 

 

* Ken Burns, legendary historian / documentary filmmaker -- no surprise here -- wants you to learn your history to prepare for your future (not just your personal family history but history at large, that is). He also recommends that you NOT pigeonhole yourself into too specific a skill set, keep things flexible to broaden your potential opportunities and experiences. Pursue quality over quantity, overall excellence over momentary successes. Have your heroes but also strive to be one for someone else. Write hand-written letters of love and thanks. Journal your thoughts. Always practice communication! Live a life of service. Develop and maintain an unwavering enthusiasm for life. He also echoes Friedman's thoughts on skeptics vs. cynics. 

* Ray Kurzweil echoes the others, urging you to find work that honestly challenges and inspires you. Learn knowledge, but also create it. Don't give up. Don't give in. 

* Dana Goia's speech focuses on the importance of having a love of the arts in your life. Not just for the individual, but also for the human race as a whole. 

* Muhammad Yunus points out that rather than following crowds, you should define and follow your own path, embrace your own uniqueness. Become socially / globally aware and pursue global action towards making the world better through small, manageable everyday actions. 

* Harold Prince wants you to pursue social activism. Make your mark immersive, be active out in the world rather than just blogging or tweeting about something. Pursue art for art's sake. 

* Wendell Berry urges you to be a fearless, self-determined, self-starting, consciously aware being who embraces individual thought. Pursue constant education of the self, but also remember not to make work all-consuming in your life, make room for play and silliness as well. 

* Anna Quindlen says to be fearless and to welcome differences between yourself and others. Celebrate variety in life! 

* David Levering Lewis encourages you to pursue constant self-education. Always be on the pursuit of knowledge in not only arts but also science, technology, and democracy. Don't just blindly follow someone or something for the sake of going with the crowd! 

* Tess Gerritsen gives you the solid advice to surround yourself with good, honest people. Don't muck up your workplace with bitterness or petty gossip. Read constantly. Educate yourself on current world affairs. Take yourself out of your comfort zone from time to time. Experiment with things completely foreign to you (because you just never know what might be your next favorite thing!). Don't be afraid of failing or changing your mind career-wise because it's not unlikely that you could have at least 2-3 career changes within your lifetime. 

 

Be critical about what you consume from the media. Because what you put in your brain is as important as what you put in your mouth. Whether food or information, insist on the truth. Don't swallow propaganda, even though it is quick and easy to digest, the equivalent of those fast-food outlets we see on the highways. The truth is often a lot more complicated, but like real food, worthwhile food, in the end, it's a lot more satisfying.  

 

~ Tess Gerritsen

 

* Tom Hanks -- his whole speech is amazing but the overall message is to just live a life of service, to make yourself helpful where you can and to be kind. 

 

 

Okay, Hanks' speech flat out put a knot in my throat. But also among my favorites were the ones by David McCullough, Anna Quindlen, Barbara Kingsolver (my second favorite in this collection, I'd say) and Ken Burns. There were a few that personally struck me as a tad bit on the phoned in side -- Molly Ivins' speech had a good message but something about it felt a little too over the top for my tastes. Overall though, an incredibly heartwarming collection! So much so that after finishing this book, I immediately got online and ordered all the others in the series. Perfect gift book for any graduate or anyone, really, who is needing a boost in spirit or motivation! 

 

Something to note about this series -- with each book in the collection, all profits from the book are given to a different charity. With Creating a Life You'll Love, all proceeds were sent to organizations dedicated to HIV / AIDS research & education. 

 

It was also neat to learn that Barbara Kingsolver was the creator of the Bellweather Prize for fiction. Had no idea! 

Review
3.5 Stars
A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay
A Portrait of Emily Price - Katherine Reay

Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. But when Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family is another matter . . . Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—dreams of having a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love. But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccollo. Soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart. Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. But instead of allowing the land, culture, and people of Monterello to transform her, Emily interferes with everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?

Amazon.com

 

 

Art restorer Emily Price is sent on a business trip to Atlanta, Georgia to help an Italian family revive some of their family heirlooms. It's there that she meets Benito (Ben) Vassallo, the nephew of her clients, newly arrived from Italy. He's temporarily staying with his aunt and uncle while he helps them try to breathe life back into their restaurant, which has quietly but steadily losing business of late. As their respective areas of work have them frequently running into each other, they find themselves caught up in a whirlwind romance with each other. Ben spontaneously proposes to Emily, she agrees with equal spontaneity, and within hours they're on a patch of grass getting married by the nearest justice of the peace they could find!

 

The newlyweds fly off to Benito's hometown of Montevello, Italy (back cover synopsis mistakenly has it as "Monterello") where it doesn't take long for some of the luster to fall off the rose.  Sure, Emily found almost immediate love & friendship in the arms of Ben, but it won't be so easy when it comes to his family. She quickly starts to feel very much out of her element. Though Emily tries to make herself as amiable and helpful as possible at every turn, it just seems like anything she attempts she royally ruins. Ben feels bad for her, things are not unfolding quite as he envisioned either... but he has his own special blend of stress, being caught in between a sense of loyalty to his family as well as to his new wife. Even outside of the shock of Ben coming back married, the family has additional sources of stress and strife they're all trying to work through. It's a rocky homecoming all around!

 

Emily becomes concerned with her developing feelings of alienation from the rest of the family. That is, until she finds herself surprisingly bonding with Ben's quiet father, Lucio. But is having one ally other than her husband enough to make forever work?

 

This is only the second of Katherine Reay's works that I've picked up. I was surprised to find how deep some of the themes in this one got, as I remember the first book I tried -- The Bronte Plot -- was cute but as far as meat in the story, didn't really get too deep past surface level coziness & fluff.

 

Ben was quite the charmer and will likely have the "hopeless romantic" type readers of all ages swooning, even if just a little bit. :-) I liked that Ben had layers to his character. He could be a charming flirt one minute but the next could just as easily show some serious emotional turmoil, trying to hold the family together. It was also nice to see that his love for Emily was not rash or merely physical, he was honestly always about her well-being, making her as comfortable and appreciated as possible at all times. Who's not going to want to get to know a character like that! I also awwed over the relationship between Ben's parents, Lucio and Donata. Donata could be a fiesty one, a bit of a prickly exterior, but around Lucio? A big ol' bowl of melted butter. And Lucio always seemed to know just how to round off her sharp edges when Donata had her claws out. The sense of warmth, patience and love that radiated between them was a real joy to experience. 

 

The symbolism of the sunflowers was the standout take-away for me. I love the idea of the field of girasoli (Italian for sunflower), where Ben explains to Emily that one has to allow them to turn to the light on their own. If you force it, you snap the stem and potentially kill the flower. 

 

"Girasoli - Piovene Rocchette, Vicenza" by Renzo Pietribiasi

 image from Trek Earth

 

 

All in all, I'd deem this a fun read for lovers of Italian food, culture or landscape. Author Katherine Reay does a nice job having her characters make connections between the layering of art and the layering of culinary flavors, as well as the overall importance of always coming back to that strong family bond. You're bound to have a good time getting to know Ben's clan! :-)

 

 

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

Review
4.5 Stars
The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe
The Confessions of X - Suzanne M. Wolfe

Before he became a father of the Christian Church, Augustine of Hippo loved a woman whose name has been lost to history. This is her story. She met Augustine in Carthage when she was seventeen. She was the poor daughter of a mosaic-layer; he was a promising student and heir to a fortune. His brilliance and passion intoxicated her, but his social class would be forever beyond her reach. She became his concubine, and by the time he was forced to leave her, she was thirty years old and the mother of his son. And his Confessions show us that he never forgot her. She was the only woman he ever loved. In a society in which classes rarely mingle on equal terms, and an unwed mother can lose her son to the burgeoning career of her ambitious lover, this anonymous woman was a first-hand witness to Augustine’s anguished spiritual journey from secretive religious cultist to the celebrated Bishop of Hippo. Giving voice to one of history’s most mysterious women, The Confessions of X tells the story of Augustine of Hippo’s nameless lover, their relationship before his famous conversion, and her life after his rise to fame. A tale of womanhood, faith, and class at the end of antiquity, The Confessions of X is more than historical fiction . . . it is a timeless story of love and loss in the shadow of a theological giant.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Between the years 397 - 400 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo released his multi-volume memoir Confessions. Within the pages of the early passages, he makes mention of a woman who was quite important to him prior to his church life, but the woman remains unnamed except for when he calls her "Una" -- The One. In The Confessions of X, Suzanne Wolfe imagines who that woman might have been, what she might have been like, and what might have transpired to have this mystery female part ways with Augustine.  

 

In this novel, the woman remains officially unnamed though she is given nicknames by some, such as her best friend Nebridius. Their first meeting was at the town creek when they were small children, so he gives her the nickname Naiad (Greek for "spirit of the river") while she calls him Nereus (jokingly meaning "wet one" but also name of a Greek god of the sea).

 

Augustine and his special lady meet when they are 17, both being friends of Nebridius. They have a whirlwind romance but their relationship faces a major roadblock. Augustine is from a privileged family and heir to a great fortune while X is the daughter of a humble mosaic artist. In fact, X's father has her living with his sister since he struggles with drinking and gambling addictions. Tough sell for a man in Augustine's position, but he feels true love for X so he presents her with the best situation he can offer her -- no official marriage, but instead a position as his concubine.

 

It had cost me nothing; it was to cost me all.

 

In that era, the role of concubine was a little different than what we imagine when that word comes up now; back then it was more like vowing yourself into a common-law marriage via commitment ceremony... spiritually powerful but not as legally binding. In fact, under the concubine arrangement, in the case of a break up, the man would automatically get full custody of any children he sired, while the woman would basically be out on her rear. 

 

X bears Augustine a son and they have many content years together. Neighbors seem stunned at just how cozy & lovey-dovey the couple remains as the years continue to pass. But there is a restlessness to Augustine's spirit that X cannot seem to calm. X packs up their home and moves the family from Carthage, Africa to the bustling city of Rome, hoping Augustine's heels would cool once he got settled into a more academically satisfying community. Hard as she tried though, nothing seemed to answer his need quite enough. When she overhears one of his colleagues whispering that X may be playing a part in Augustine being held back professionally, she makes the choice to exit out of his life at the age of 30, returning to Carthage so that he might make a advantageous and official marriage with someone within his class. But as history buffs know, Augustine goes on to choose the church over another woman. 

 

I'm new to the writing of author Suzanne Wolfe, though she's had a few books out prior to this one. This novel though... WOW. Her descriptions of this world are so palpable! This is one of those books you have to be willing to take slow because there is A LOT of detail to take in and while you might feel a little worn out in the process taking it all in, it's all worth it. There's one heck of a story here! I can't imagine processing the kind of painful decisions X was pushed to make multiple times over the course of her life. I just picture this woman with a shattered heart that never found a way to entirely heal but somehow she pushes through and carries on.

 

Although the roots may be in darkness the flower grows toward the light. Root and flower are one, not separate.

 

The story isn't all heartbreak though! There are some loving scenes between Augustine and X that are alternately beautifully deep and sometimes tragic but also sweet, adorable, even hilarious in parts. I had a good laugh over one scene where X is talking with her friend Neith, the mother of a large herd of children. X just has her one son. Neith hypothesizes that X's love of books is just a band-aid for her pain, an odd side effect from struggling to conceive again, shrugs it off with "you'll soon be cured." The reader is then given a glimpse into X's inner thoughts, the memory of how the birth of her son very nearly killed her, making her think that maybe she doesn't WANT to be cured of reading! X-D

 

This gorgeous bit of historical fiction gave me a glimpse into a time & place I've admittedly read very little about -- the Romans in Carthage, Africa. Weird how it's hard to think of Romans outside of Rome but this novel reminded me of the true scope of the Roman Empire. History aside, I also fell in love with all these unique characters -- not just Augustine and X but also all their friends, neighbors and colleague who had small but important influences on their day to day life decisions. These characters were wonderfully alive and I eagerly look forward to exploring more of Wolfe's work! 

 

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

 

_____

 

Extras

 

A couple of new-to-me vocab words I took away from this novel:

 

 

Anchorite = a religious recluse

 

Suborn = to subhorn is to bribe someone to commit a crime

 

"The Latin word that gave us suborn in the early part of the 16th century is subornare, which translates literally as "to secretly furnish or equip."

~ from merriam-webster.com

 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
White Lilacs by Carolyn Meyer
White Lilacs - Carolyn Meyer

'Back then ~~ and this was in 1921 ~~ Freedom, as we called it, was our part of Dillon. There was everything you could want in a town -- our colored school and two churches and a grocery store and cafe... It just happened that Freedom was right in the middle of Dillon, white people on every side of us.' When Dillon's white residents announce plans to raze Freedomtown, relocate its residents and build in its place a park, things change. Young Rose Lee Jefferson finds herself at the heart of the debate about how to respond. Can the families of Freedomtown fight the city's plans? Must they leave their homes and neighbors?

~ From back cover

 

 

 

Though the white residents of Dillon, Texas look down upon the more impoverished black community of Freedomtown, young Rose Lee Jefferson finds she's had a pretty content life for the most part, thank you very much. Freedomtown was built during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. It sits on a flood plain so the walkways might get a bit messy now and then, but as Rose points out, the community has pretty much everything a person could want: a school, church, general store & cafe, boarding house, mortuary, even a Masonic Lodge. Her father runs Freedom's barbershop, while Rose and all the rest of her family (on her mother's side, that is) are employed within various positions at the estate of the wealthy & white Thomas and Eunice Bell.  

 

Everything changes for Rose and the community of Freedom one night in 1921. Though she normally helps her grandfather in the Bell's garden, Rose is called into the dining room to cover for her pregnant cousin Cora, who suddenly takes ill that night. Eunice Bell is having a dinner party with some of her gal pals and there's some pretty comedic scenes at this point in the story as Rose tries her best to navigate new terrain among the fine serving dishes and the whole "be seen but not heard" requirement. She gets flustered at the process of when to bring out what dish, but her aunt just shrugs and replies, "White folks use a lot of dishes. You get used to it." 

 

But the air in the room changes once Rose overhears the ladies talking about the plan to raze Freedomtown to the ground and put a community park in its place. Thomas Bell holds a position on Dillon City Council, so he would be in the know, but this is the first anyone from Freedom has heard of these plans! When one of Eunice's friends, Emily Firth visiting from Philadelphia, pipes up to voice her opposition to this news, Eunice responds with the unbelievably demeaning comment, "Our negroes here are childlike." She continues on to say they should be positively delighted to have something new and shiny in their lives, giving the impression that Eunice has no concept of the idea of attachment to community. That sense of "it might be rough around the edges, but it's mine!"

 

Rose carries the news home to the other residents of Freedomtown. She's then reluctantly thrust into the center of the drama once it's decided that she will continue to cover for her cousin, Cora, as maid / dining room staff. Rose's father explains that this will put her in the perfect position to spy and gather more and more information as the project progresses, hopefully giving the residents of Freedomtown an idea of how to fight back. Rose's older brother Henry also gets caught up in the fight, professing that as a World War 1 veteran, he's fought for this country and deserves better than this kind of treatment. He goes so far as to promise that if Freedomtown is destroyed, he will give up this country altogether and move to Africa. While some residents echo his sentiments, others feel it would be useless to fight, that the wealthy, white residents of Dillon just have too much power and will inevitably get whatever they want. 

 

Those that are hesitant to fight admit that they'd likely be willing to move if given fair dollar for their properties within Freedomtown. But further doubts arise on this front when rumors begin that the spot the mayor of Dillon is looking at for relocation seems to be The Flats, a swampy, marsh-like area of town that no one in their right mind would want to populate. 

 

Tensions hit a boiling point the night of the Juneteenth celebration. Henry is caught, tarred and feathered. There's a KKK march through the streets of Freedomtown, ending in a burning cross being left on the lawn of Freedom's church. Later on, when Emily Firth continues to stand up for the mistreatment of this community, she is essentially run out of town.

 

This book's recommended age says 10-14 years, but the reader is presented with some graphic scenarios -- aside from Henry's tar & feathering and the KKK marches, a school is also set on fire to send a message. So there is some disturbing imagery for young readers, but the message and the history behind this novel is very valid and important. Author Carolyn Meyer includes a note at the end explaining that while this story is fictional, as far as the characters and plot, it IS inspired by the very real history of Quakertown, a black community within the town of Denton, Texas (where Meyer herself previously resided) that suffered a similar fate as that of the fictional Freedomtown. Note though, once you read the history of Quakertown, you'll likely recognize quite a bit of the real history illustrated here and there throughout the story of Freedomtown and its residents! 

 

As far as the actual plot and its pacing, honestly this is not the most riveting read out there ... but Rose is a very sweet, honest character and slow though the story might seem, Meyer does pull you in enough to want to hear Rose's story and meet her family and neighbors in Freedomtown. The importance of this book is the history it exposes you to -- though ficitionally presented, it is based in truth you need to read. The past can be painful at times, but we can't be afraid to look it in the eye if we ever hope to improve our future. 

Review
2 Stars
Twilight at Blueberry Barrens (Sunset Cove #3) by Colleen Coble
Twilight at Blueberry Barrens (A Sunset Cove Novel) - Colleen Coble

Kate Mason has devoted herself to caring for her family’s blueberry barrens. But after her fields stop producing fruit, she’s forced to come up with alternative ways to make a living.

Renting out the small cottage on her property seems an obvious choice, but it won’t be enough. When entrepreneur Drake Newham shows up looking not only for a place to rent but also for a nanny for his two nieces, it’s almost too good to be true. And maybe it is—because Drake brings with him dangerous questions about who might be out to kill his family. The more time Kate spends with Drake and the girls, the more difficult it becomes to hide her attraction to him. But a family crisis isn’t exactly the ideal time to pursue a romance. Meanwhile, Kate learns that her uncle—in prison for murder—has escaped. Add to that a local stalker who won’t leave her alone, and Kate is looking over her shoulder at every turn. With threats swirling from multiple directions, she wonders if her blueberry fields will ever flourish again . . . or if this twilight is her last. Set on the beautiful coast of Maine, Twilight at Blueberry Barrens brings together suspense, romance, and the hope that one day new life will come again.

Amazon.com

 

 

For years now, Kate Mason has grown accustomed to running her family's blueberry farm in Maine but recently the farm just hasn't been producing a profitable amount of fruit. As finances become increasingly tight, Kate is forced to look to other means of income. She gets the idea to renovate a small cottage on her family's property and make it available for summer rentals. During this renovation process, in walks Drake Newham. Drake, with his two nieces in tow, is a visitor to Sunset Cove, looking for a place to stay for awhile. What he doesn't reveal is that he fears there's someone trying to hunt him down, set on hurting him and / or his nieces, so the casual "place to stay" inquiry is really a desperate need for a spot to lay low until he figures out what's going on. 

 

Needing someone to look after his nieces while he investigates, Drake also asks about available nannies. Kate, seeing a potential (much needed) double dose of income, volunteers herself for the job. Over the course of the story, Drake and Kate have a lot of page time together so they reveal quite a bit about their respective backstories. Drake explains that he is the legal guardian of the girls now, as his brother and sister-in-law are dead, a suspected murder-suicide. With the constant sense of being hunted down himself, Drake has his doubts about that. Kate meanwhile has been in recovery from chemo treatments after a diagnosis of aplastic anemia. To make matters even more stressful, her convicted murder uncle has escaped from prison, there's a Peeping Tom / possible stalker of Kate's roaming the island creeping everyone out, and bodies are washing up on the beach just a little too regularly for Kate and her sister Claire, who have already been put through the ringer throughout the course of this series. 

 

I struggle with this series. I am drawn to the setting --- who doesn't love a good mystery set along a New England coastline, right? And the plot ideas are not bad, they definitely stir my curiosity each time, but each time so far whenever I dig into the story, there's something that always seems to land just off the mark for me. In this installment, I think the biggest culprit was the way the plot unfolded --- Drake's brother has ties to a Chinese drug lord?! Kate's uncle in prison because he killed the mother of Claire's (Kate's sister) fiancee ... strenuous tie there btw... because said mother saw him moving a body?! That scene where Kate and Claire are talking out in the yard and Claire just gets nailed by a crossbow bolt outta the blue ... and all this before you're even 85 pages in! -- A lot of ideas flying around, but a noticeable lack of cohesiveness to bring it all together. There was also a sense of a good idea being taken too far (see examples mentioned above) or not fleshed out enough. 

 

The writing here was not Coble's best, IMO. I personally found the characters and the mystery from Sunset Cove #2 a little more engaging. Here, the dialogue often came off a little too scripted, especially with Kate's, making her feel a bit wooden at times to me. But we gotta work in a romance so of course Drake looks past what seems like a pretty cardboard personality to me and comes at her with "no woman has ever intrigued me like this." Poor guy. Kate's tendency to overstep her bounds when it came to caring for the girls got on my nerves as well. I get you're the nanny but you shouldn't get to basically tell the legal guardian "you should shut it and do it my way" multiple times. In real life, you'd likely be fired, not have your employer fall in love with you! But I guess Drake likes himself a dominant kind of lady friend. 

 

As far as the writing itself, I struggled with a few passages that apparently escaped an editing eye (check out pages 71, 111) where the wording / grammar was off juuuust enough to make for a harsh silent reading experience. There were also way too many people involved in that ending.

 

Nice to see another cross-over appearance of Gwen Marcey, the investigator from Carrie Stuart Parks' Gwen Marcey mystery series!

 

Note: This is the third installment of Coble's Sunset Cove series. I have not read the first in the series (Inn at Ocean's Edge), but have read / reviewed the second book. This third book brings back some of the characters from the first book (I checked the synopsis of the first book) -- Claire, Luke (Claire's now fiancee) and Kate -- but can easily be read as an independent story.

 

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

Review
4 Stars
Siren's Song (Siren Trilogy - #3) by Mary Weber
Siren's Song (The Storm Siren Trilogy) - Mary Weber

After a fierce battle with Draewulf, Nym barely escaped with her life. Now, fleeing the scorched landscape of Tulla, her storm-summoning abilities are returning; only . . . the dark power is still inside her. Broken and bloodied, Nym needs time to recover, but when the full scope of the shapeshifter’s horrific plot is revealed, the strong-willed Elemental must race across the Hidden Lands and warn the other kingdoms before Draewulf’s final attack. From the crystalline palaces of Cashlin to the legendary Valley of Origin, Nym scrambles to gather an army. But even if she can, will she be able to uncover the secret to defeating Draewulf that has eluded her people for generations? With a legion of monsters approaching, and the Hidden Lands standing on the brink of destruction, the stage is set for a battle that will decide the fate of the world. This time, will the Siren’s Song have the power to save it?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

**** WARNING: DISCUSSING BK 3 OF A TRILOGY... SPOILERS AHEAD *********

 

 

 

So here we are in the third installment of Mary Weber’s Storm Siren Trilogy and our protagonist Nym is still trying to defeat that evil Draewulf. Siren’s Song picks up pretty much right where Siren’s Fury left off. Nym is en route to rescue the captured Princess Rasha. Nym and her posse try to warn Rasha’s mother, Queen Laiha, of the dangers headed her way but the meeting doesn’t go as well as hoped. 

 

If you’ve worked your way through the first two books, you might remember Nym losing her Elemental powers. To compensate, she made a visit to a witch and picked up some powers more dark in nature. It proved to be a decent quick fix to get her Eogan back but now she has to figure out how to keep those dark powers from overtaking the good, light part of her soul. It was always funny to see how the bouts of foul weather would give away Nym’s rough mood days. X-D

 

“Never destroy what simply needs taming, Nymia. Mercy grows hearts more than bitterness.”

 

And how did I not pick up til now that Eogan is only 22?! Seemed so much older! And the “Skinny Love” reference... did Mary Weber slip in a Bon Iver reference in there?! :-)

 

Much of the same drama you’ve seen from earlier in the series continues here, only with the ramped up intensity that you’d expect of a series closer book. Some of my interest in the plot waned here and there whenever the battle scenes declined -- there are some wonderfully LARPy battles near the end! -- and talk of court politics increased. A little intrigue here and there I’m all for but some of it went on a little long. I do really enjoy this cast of characters though, so the humorous banter often pulled me through the drier parts. I also liked the tension that was built around the character Myles as his powers grew. It was fun to keep guessing if he would turn good or bad in the end. There’s also the adorable little boy Kel who brings some sweet levity to otherwise intense scenes. 

 

I remember noticing that Weber got a little heavy-handed with the fake swearing in the second book -- this book is put out by a Christian publishing house so when characters needed to swear, she had them using made up curses like “litches”, “hulls”, “bolcrane” (bolcrane doubles, also the name of a feared, deadly lizard-like creature within the Storm Siren world). Though the presence of that pseudo-swearing felt rather ever-present in Siren’s Fury, here in the third book it seems to fall off to nearly non-existent. 

I would’ve loved to see a few more scenes within the Valley Of Origin, but otherwise I thought this was a strong finish to this whirlwind nature-inspired fantasy series. Definitely an improvement from the somewhat lackluster plot of Siren’s Fury. This closing book features a strong ending with one pretty epic final battle. Those scenes in the final pages are seriously LOL adorable! 

 

YA fans, check out the shout-out to author Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) in the acknowledgements! It was neat to learn that he helped write the few chapters written from Eogan’s POV. 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: Because Nym using cutting as a way to process her internal pain throughout part of this series, author Mary Weber recommends that readers who might be triggered visit the website To Write Love On Her Arms (twloha.com) for information and help. 

 

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

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