2.5 Stars
Murder at the Flamingo (Van Buren & DeLuca Mysteries #1) by Rachel McMillan
Murder at the Flamingo - Rachel McMillan

Hamish DeLuca has spent most of his life trying to hide the anxiety that appears at the most inopportune times -- including during his first real court case as a new lawyer. Determined to rise above his father’s expectations, Hamish runs away to Boston where his cousin, Luca Valari, is opening a fashionable nightclub in Scollay Square.  When he meets his cousin's “right hand man,” Reggie, Hamish wonders if his dreams for a more normal life might be at hand. Regina “Reggie” Van Buren, heir to a New Haven fortune, has fled fine china, small talk, and the man her parents expect her to marry. Determined to make a life as the self-sufficient city girl she’s seen in her favorite Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn pictures, Reggie runs away to Boston, where she finds an easy secretarial job with the suave Luca Valari. But as she and Hamish work together in Luca’s glittering world, they discover a darker side to the smashing Flamingo nightclub. When a corpse is discovered at the Flamingo, Reggie and Hamish quickly learn there is a vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots in 1937 Boston—and that there’s an underworld that feeds on them both. As Hamish is forced to choose between his conscience and loyalty to his beloved cousin, the unlikely sleuthing duo work to expose a murder before the darkness destroys everything they’ve worked to build. 






Hamish DeLuca is a Canadian lawyer struggling with crippling anxiety in the 1930s. After discovering his job at the law firm was only made possible as a favor to his father, Hamish is "humiliated into adventure". He decides to take up his cousin Luca Valari's offer to come work for him in Boston. Entrepreneur Luca is opening up The Flamingo, a nightclub, and says he could use Hamish's legal skills on the business end of things. Newly situated in Boston, Hamish begins to develop an interest in Luca's new secretary, Regina "Reggie" Van Buren. Reggie and Hamish's friendship grows deeper as they try to work out all the mysteries surrounding Luca. Who are all these strangers showing up at odd hours asking about his whereabouts? Where does Luca really make his money? Is The Flamingo meant to be a front for more illicit business? Is his carefree personality a mask for a much darker, more devious man? Hamish and Reggie decide to investigate, (on the DL of course). When a murder does occur at the nightclub, our characters suddenly find themselves getting a crash introduction to Boston's criminal underworld scene.



The plot has a slow start as the reader is made to wait for all the key players to get in the same scenes to interact with each other ----- just getting Hamish and Reggie in the same room for the first time takes about 70 pages, nearly 200 before the murder happens. Much of the book is also bogged down with uninteresting details. It felt like there was a lot of repetitive material within the text.


Regarding the theme of debilitating anxiety: author Rachel McMillan writes at the end that she herself suffers from the condition and wanted to use this series, in part, to normalize rather than stigmatize the topic. While I can appreciate this, I have to say I didn't feel the presence of the subject all that much within Hamish's story. There's a great scene at the very start where the reader is immediately thrust into the reality of his symptoms. But for the bulk of the book, it's hardly given a mention until we get into the final chapters, where it almost feels as if McMillan caught herself while writing and was trying to bring the topic back around last minute. 


So why keep reading? For Luca's story, mostly. I mean, the characters in general are fun (it's just their world that fell a bit flat for me). I especially liked the interactions between Hamish & Luca (Luca nicknames him "Cicero")... that brotherly kind of bond that shows up in their banter... though at times, that too gets a tad stale & repetitive. What really drove the story for me was the mystery of Luca's true motives behind his actions. Was he really involved in organized crime or was there a perfectly innocent explanation to all the questions around him? Why are there already so many angry business calls for Reggie to field before the club is even officially open? Whenever questioned, Luca skillfully evades ever giving a straight answer... but why?


For Hollywood Silver Screen buffs, there are several classic film references incorporated into the plot. Not surprisingly, most of them being a  nod to the Nick & Nora / Thin Man detective series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. NOTE: There is SPOILER material for the film Platinum Blonde starring Jean Harlow and Loretta Young.


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William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick & Nora of the Thin Man series



The Van Buren & DeLuca detective agency is only just getting going by the end of this first book, so I'm curious to see how not only the business but the personal friendship develops between these two down the road. Book 2, Murder in the City of Liberty, is set to be released May 2019. 





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

5 Stars
You Will Not Have My Hate (memoir) by Antoine Leiris
You Will Not Have My Hate - Antoine Leiris

On November 13, 2015, Antoine Leiris’s wife, Hélène Muyal-Leiris, was killed by terrorists while attending a rock concert at the Bataclan Theater in Paris, in the deadliest attack on France since World War II. Three days later, Leiris wrote an open letter addressed directly to his wife’s killers, which he posted on Facebook. He refused to be cowed or to let his seventeen-month-old son’s life be defined by Hélène’s murder. He refused to let the killers have their way: “For as long as he lives, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.” Instantly, that short Facebook post caught fire, and was reported on by newspapers and television stations all over the world. In his determination to honor the memory of his wife, he became an international hero to everyone searching desperately for a way to deal with the horror of the Paris attacks and the grim shadow cast today by the threat of terrorism. Now Leiris tells the full story of his grief and struggle. You Will Not Have My Hate is a remarkable, heartbreaking, and, indeed, beautiful memoir of how he and his baby son, Melvil, endured in the days and weeks after Hélène’s murder. With absolute emotional courage and openness, he somehow finds a way to answer that impossible question: how can I go on? He visits Hélène’s body at the morgue, has to tell Melvil that Mommy will not be coming home, and buries the woman he had planned to spend the rest of his life with. Leiris’s grief is terrible, but his love for his family is indomitable. This is the rare and unforgettable testimony of a survivor, and a universal message of hope and resilience. Leiris confronts an incomprehensible pain with a humbling generosity and grandeur of spirit. He is a guiding star for us all in these perilous times. His message—hate will be vanquished by love—is eternal.






On November 13, 2015, French journalist Antoine Leiris stayed at home with his 17 month old son, Melvil, while wife Hélène attended a concert at the Bataclan Theater in Paris. Terrorists attacked the concert venue that night, making it the deadliest terrorist attack on France since WWII. Almost immediately after the attack, Leiris gets a text from a friend asking "Are you okay?". Confused by the message, something tells him to check the news. It is then he gets the first news of the attack. Leiris quickly calls his siblings who come over to help watch Melvil while Leiris heads out to try to find out what happened to his wife. Hours later, he gets the news. She's been identified among the casualties. 


Of course, having a culprit, someone to take the brunt of your anger, is an open door, an chance to temporarily escape your suffering. And the more odious the crime, the more ideal the culprit, the more legitimate your hatred. You think about him in order not to think about yourself. You hate him in order to not hate what's left of your life. You rejoice at his death in order not to have to smile at those who remain.


Three days later, Leiris in his grief pens an open letter to his wife's murderers and posts it to FB, where he tells them point blank that while they might have stolen his wife from him, he will not give them the satisfaction of his hate or fear. He promises to live for his son, dedicating himself to focusing on the joy, beauty and decency he still believes exists in the world. He will strive to live in a space of love, terrorism has not claimed his soul. 


There are only two of us -- my son and myself -- but we are stronger than all the armies of the world. Anyway, I don't have any more time to waste on you, as I must go see Melvil, who is just waking up from his nap. He is only seventeen months old. He will eat his snack as he does every day, then we will play as we do every day, and all his life this little boy will defy you by being happy and free. Because you will not have his hate either.

~ from the open letter posted on FB


That open letter (included in the book) soon becomes the inspiration for this brief memoir, which focuses on the first few days of Leiris's life after receiving the news of his wife's death. In fact, he mentions starting on the first few pages of this book just a day or two after posting the letter online.


Translated from the original French by Sam Taylor, You Will Not Have My Hate, is a quick read of a memoir that packs a wallop of an emotional cocktail! Grief, reluctant acceptance, determination, a slow peace... it's all here. It's horrible that such a memoir has to exist, but somehow... French journalist Leiris brings a painful beauty to each page. Not only does he adamantly deny victory to the terrorists, he gives an achingly lovely tribute to the lost piece of his heart. 


In search of another lover to torment, it goes on its way, abandoning me to its sad traveling companion. Mourning. 


I spot its mark, a gray stain that appears on my side. I have already seen it grow, in the same place, a few years ago, when I lost my mother. This one is darker. It spreads faster too. It is only a question of days, weeks now; I am besieged. It covers almost the whole of my stomach. I no longer feel like doing anything. Eating is torture....


Watching from a distance, you always have the impression that the person who survives a disaster is a hero. I know I am not. I was struck by the hand of fate, that's all. It did not ask me what I thought first. It didn't try to find out if I was ready. It came to take Hélène, and it forced me to wake up without her. Since then, I have been lost: I don't know where I am going, I don't know how to get there. You can't really count on me....from one day to the next, I might drown.


And suddenly, I am afraid. Afraid that I won't be able to meet people's expectations. Will I no longer have the right to lack courage? The right to feel angry. The right to feel overwhelmed. The right to be tired. The right to drink too much and start smoking again. The right to see another woman, or not see other women. The right not to love again, ever. Not to rebuild my life and not to want a new life. The right not to feel like playing, going to the park, telling a story. The right to make mistakes. The right to make bad decisions. The right to not have time. The right not to be present. The right not to be funny. The right to be cynical. The right to have bad days. The right to wake up late... The right to not talk about it anymore. The right to be ordinary. The right to be afraid. The right not to know. The right not to want. The right not to be capable.


~ Leiris describing his grief


Each chapter starts with a timestamp of how much time has passed since the attack. Even without the horrific backdrop of the Paris attacks, this is still one of the most honest grief memoirs I think I've ever picked up. Leiris writes of the brutal moment of having to officially identify his wife at the morgue, having to not only sort out and let go of her things but also find the strength to decide on a burial outfit. He describes meeting with a friend, only identified as N., who had attended the concert with his wife. N struggles with deep survivor's guilt, which Leiris tries his best to help his friend through.


Some of the most difficult passages to read, the ones that really made me feel for him, were the ones describing the moments of weakness when he would feel like he was failing as a father, desperately wishing for his wife to come in and save the day with some task he remembered her being more skilled in, or the painful reality of the actual window of time society expects grief to pass in, that the quickly offered "take all the time you need" is actually just a nicety used to get over the awkward, more often than not. But in reality, you hardly  have time to process the loss before the logistics come rushing in --- last wishes, insurance money, final expenses, etc. Though people feel for you, everyone seems to want an answer NOW. 


Leiris' straightforward approach gets right to the reader's heart and is bound to be appreciated by anyone feeling the need for a moving but not overly sentimental grief memoir.

1 Stars
Indivisible: A Screenplay Novelization by Travis Thrasher
Indivisible: A Novelization - Travis Thrasher

Inspired by true events, Indivisible is a story of love, service, and finding each other all over again. Darren and Heather Turner share a passion for serving God, family, and country. When Darren is deployed to Iraq as an army chaplain, Heather vows to serve military families back home as she cares for the couple’s three young children.

Darren knows he’s overseas to support the troops in their suffering as their chaplain. What he doesn’t know is how he will get through his own dark moments. And as communication from Darren dwindles, Heather wonders what is happening in her husband’s heart. Meanwhile, she’s growing weary in the day-to-day life of a military base—each child’s milestone Darren will never see, each month waiting for orders, each late-night knock on the door. When Darren returns, he is no longer the husband Heather once knew. She is no longer the woman Darren wed. And so it’s at home that the Turners face their biggest battle: to save their marriage. Based on the screen play by David Evans, Indivisible is a tribute to the beauty of serving our country, the courage of choosing love in the darkness, and the power of a God who never gives up hope.






Inspired by a true story, Indivisible tells the story of Army chaplain Darren Turner, whose deployment in Iraq ends up challenging the foundation of his marriage to wife Heather. Based on the original screenplay by David Evans, this book features a foreword from the real Darren & Heather Turner, where Darren says that while the film has taken creative license in parts (to be expected), much of what made it to screen is a pretty accurate portrayal of their story.


In May of 2007, Darren Turner is sent to Iraq to serve as chaplain to the troops there. While he does his best to provide comfort to soldiers emotionally struggling, he comes to find he has his own struggle with inner dark thoughts. It begins to wear him down as he tries to find balance between duty to his job and his family back home. 


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Back home, wife Heather notices a decrease in communications on Darren's end. She tries to be patient, but it's hard when she has her own tough and lonely journey as a military wife and really just wants a spouse she can have some bonding time with. When Darren does make it back home, his overall demeanor is noticeably different. Pretty quickly, life for the two becomes a fight to save their marriage.


On the surface, that sounds like a pretty touching story, as long as the reader can hope for a happy ending, right? Judging from the high praise of this work, it seems to have hit the mark just fine for many. Me, not so much. For reasons I'll get into in a minute, I came not to be all that impressed with Darren, at least how he comes off in this book. 



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Right from the foreword, I was a little bothered that it's titled as being from both Darren and Heather, but Heather is not given her own space to share her own perspective. We only get things from Darren's point of view. Read past that and into the novelization itself, and Darren still gets top billing. The story's actually not as much of a Team Turner production as it's advertised to be. In fact, this thing read like one big humble brag on Darren's end. Perhaps the onus of that lies on the shoulders of Travis Thrasher's fictionalization of Darren's story, but I have to think Darren had some say and must have okay'd how he was portrayed here.... and come to think of it, why wasn't this just done as a nonfiction account to begin with?! 


Darren's characterization in general here was a large part of the problem for me. The underlying sexism that was hinted at in the foreword ("I am the man, I speak for both of us" attitude) shows its face even in the novel, when Darren is shocked to find that Sergeant Peterson is A WOMAN?! *Insert Scooby-Doo noise* 


A few other scenes I found bothersome:


* Friends throw Darren a going away party after he shares news of his upcoming deployment. As party guests are leaving, he gives everyone a long letter, the contents of which are shared in the novel. This letter basically amounts to more humble brag, scattered with "don't grieve for me", "just what I was called to do" and other unnecessary martyr-ish nonsense sentiments that scream of fake humility. If you want to get that stuff off your chest, just say a little something at the party real quick. The whole letter thing was definitely an ego stroke for him. It just read too over the top to me. 


* There's another part of the story that describes the time when Darren is still overseas and his communications to his wife start to drop off. She's sending him multiple emails begging from a word from him. He's hanging out at the base, it would be easy enough to shoot her a quick line and say, "Hey, just really busy but yeah, I'm good. Miss you." It's even mentioned that one of his CO's sees his email page open and mentions that Darren should let his wife know he's okay. Darren's response is basically, "Yeah, I know but meh, I'm busy." IT'S YOUR WIFE. YOU ARE IN A WAR ZONE. If you have the time and the ability, TELL HER YOU'RE OKAY. OMG. He also ends up forgetting their anniversary. When he does finally call her, what does he say? "Oh hey babe, can you start putting together Christmas stockings for the troops here?" When she asks how many he's thinking exactly he casually says, "Give or take a thousand." A THOUSAND. For a woman already swamped with raising three kids by herself for over a year. Yeah, cool. Not insensitive or selfish to ask this of your depressed, stressed out wife at all. 


  • Now don't hate on me btw, I was all for the idea of sending gifts to the troops. My beef is just with the way he dropped that on her like that after all that radio silence and then forgetting her anniversary. I'm just saying it definitely read like a man who doesn't see that he is most definitely taking the blessing of a loyal spouse for granted. Which is a HUGE peeve of mine. Like a solid life partner can be found just any old place. No! You gotta honor that gold! On the other hand though, Heather is also insanely quick to forgive Darren's lousy treatment of her, which I was also bothered by... having a successful traditional marriage setup does not require that one person be an emotional doormat, but it seems to be a dang trend these days! 



*The portion of the story where Darren comes back home and he and Heather try to find their new normal and work out their differences... that all felt very rushed. Again, Heather is quick with forgiving Darren before he quite deserves it, and he has one unbelievably cruel scene where he dares to ask what her contribution was while he was out serving the country. That sealed it for me. After that, I was done with anything he had to say. 


*Darren didn't strike me as all that great a pastor. I can't get behind someone who, when faced with someone grieving, questioning the existence of a loving God in the face of such horrors as those that come out in times of war, responds with an attitude of Well, if you won't immediately accept what I'm saying as correct, then you clearly are not listening and I have nothing else to say to you right now.



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The problems continue. The dialogue between characters reads like a low budget tv movie. While I was reading, I could actually almost hear the sappy music drifting behind several of these scenes. The reader is also practically beaten over the head with the level of evangelism soaked into the text. Not really my cuppa. Then there was the subtle but definitely present biased military-themed propaganda, the whole "we're the good guys, THEY'RE evil". Yet again, here's a story making unfair blanket statements towards an entire group of people -- in this case, Muslims -- blaming the many not full of hate, just trying to quietly live their lives, for the sins of the minority group of extremists.


Darren's character is disturbingly flippant in his letters back home, "Things are going good, we are killing lots of bad guys!" I understand not wanting your family back home to worry, but maybe have a moment, a pause, of solemn acknowledgement for the tragic, horrible vacuum a war zone creates for families, on all sides of the equation. Maybe remind yourself that no one is really winning in this scenario. Maybe, just maybe don't go in with the attitude of a new age megachurch pastor on the first day of summer bible school. Reality hits Darren just pages after this scene, as he witnesses a young Iraqi girl struck by stray gunfire brought into the base for treatment. Watching her slowly die, he thinks of how close in age the girl is to one of his own daughters. Why does it so often take the death of someone for people to see others of a different race from your own are -- wild I know! -- in fact, people too. That the good guy / bad guy isn't always as clear as your narrow, sheltered viewpoint would have you believe. 



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I have not yet seen the film this novelization was based off of, but honestly... just reading this book, I'm disappointed this was published at all. 


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

2.5 Stars
Fires In The Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith
Fires in the Mirror - Anna Deavere Smith

Derived from interviews with a wide range of  people who experienced or observed New York's 1991  Crown Heights racial riots, Fires In The  Mirror is as distinguished a work of  commentary on black-white tensions as it is a  work of drama.  In August 1991 simmering tensions in the racially polarized Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood of Crown Heights exploded into riots after a black boy was killed by a car in a rabbi's motorcade and a Jewish student was slain by blacks in retaliation.  Fires in the Mirror is dramatist Anna Deavere Smith's stunning exploration of the events and emotions leading up to and following the Crown Heights conflict.  Through her portrayals of more than two dozen Crown eights adversaries, victims, and eyewitnesses, using verbatim excerpts from their observations derived from interviews she conducted, Smith provides a brilliant, Rashoman-like documentary portrait of contemporary ethnic turmoil.





On August 19th, 1991, the motorcade of a Lubavitcher Hassidic rebbe was traveling through Brooklyn. While driving through the Crown Heights neighborhood, at 8:20pm, one car in the motorcade drove up on the curb suddenly, the car striking and killing seven year old Gavin Cato and also leaving his older cousin with a broken arm. Word quickly spread that a black child had been killed by a Jewish motorist. Some witnesses even said the driver appeared to be intoxicated. Three hours later and five blocks away from the site of the crash, a visiting Hasidic history professor from Australia was stabbed, dying at the hospital some hours later.


The basic timeline of events:


* August 19th, 8:20pm -- Seven year old black child Gavin Cato killed by car that jumps a curb
* Same night, 11:30pm -- visiting Hasidic Jew professor Yankel Rosenbaum, with no connection to the death of Gavin Cato, is stabbed five blocks away from crash site.
* August 20th, 2am -- Rosenbaum dies at the hospital from his stab wounds; later that day, Trinidad-American teen Lemrick Nelson, Jr. is arrested in connection with the stabbing. By August 21st, he is charged with second degree murder (but by October 1992 is acquitted).
* August 21st -- funeral of Yankel Rosenbaum; that same day marks the start of days of rioting and looting throughout the Crown Heights community. That first day, 16 arrests and 20 police officers left injured.
* August 22nd -- the arrest count during the riots rises to 107, the police presence increased to over 1500 officers.
* August 24th -- 1500 protesters led by Rev. Al Sharpton and Alton Maddox march through the streets of Crown Heights.
*August 26th -- funeral of Gavin Cato; Rev. Al Sharpton delivers the eulogy.
* Violent acts and courtroom drama in connection with the deaths of Cato and Rosenbaum continue back and forth between the black and Jewish communities through 1992 and 1993, both sides wanting justice and vengeance.


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In 1993, Anna Deavere Smith crafted a one woman stage play depicting these events, compiled from the numerous interviews she did with more than two dozen Crown Heights community members, representing both sides of the story, as well as the impressions of high profile members of the black community such as Rev. Al Sharpton and writer Nzotake Shange. Smith pulls from the interview transcripts verbatim to create the monologues for the stage show, ending on the words of Carmel Cato, Gavin Cato's father.


The early portions of the play explore the political and emotional environment that existed prior to the events of August 1991, while the later monologues get more into the course of events on August 19th itself (I was surprised to see the text here included one of the actual crime scene photos under one of the passages). Smith, in her foreword, writes of how it was difficult to get a clear, unbiased look of the events at the time when there was media bias from nearly every angle. It was her hope and goal to use the interviews, and later the play, to give a more honest, balanced display of this tragic and emotionally charged time. Also, prior to the start of each monologue, Smith gives contextual history such as when / where each interview took place, even what the person was wearing. For example, in regards to the use of the interview with rapper Big Mo, Smith notes that the interview used in the text was actually one done in 1989. 


"Fires In The Mirror is part of a series of theater (or performance) pieces called On the Road: A Search for American Character, which I create by interviewing people and later performing them using their own words. My goal has been to find American character in the ways that people speak... my goal was to create an atmosphere in which the interviewee would experience his / her own authorship. Speaking teaches us what our natural "literature" is. In fact, everyone, in a given amount of time, will say something that is like poetry."


~ Anna Deavere Smith on her process



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While I appreciate Smith's unique approach to the subject matter, I'm not sure it entirely worked for me, personally. I was expecting for these passages to be more impactful. While some of them are quite good, there are others here where I was wondering about the relevance. The words themselves always didn't quite hit the mark for me, so I did a watch of the stage show itself. While better, even there something was falling short. Again, I can appreciate and acknowledge the work that clearly went into crafting this show, but the execution ... something was a little off for me. It didn't always strike me as unbiased a portrayal as Smith claimed she was aiming for and some of the acting did come off as at least a little bit too caricatur-ish. 


3.5 Stars
The Twelve Dates of Christmas by Susan Meier
The Twelve Dates of Christmas (Mills & Boon) - Susan Meier

The perfect business arrangement? 

When entrepreneur Ricky Langley offers Eloise Vaughn the help she needs, in exchange for her attending twelve Christmas parties as his date, she can't refuse. Yes, Ricky's handsome, and devastatingly charming, but this is about business. If only her racing heart would get the message! 

Ricky has his own reasons for hating Christmas. But with each date that passes Eloise opens his eyes to the spirit of the season…and opens his heart to a totally different future….






Super successful entrepreneur Ricky Langley bumps into Eloise Vaughn at a business function, gets to talking with her for awhile before offering her a ride home after she's had an upsetting day. Talking with her and hearing of her struggle to find decent job prospects, he sees something of his earlier less successful self and offers to help. He offers to use his business contacts to get her interviews with some of the best companies in the city. In return, Ricky asks Eloise to pose as his date for twelve parties / functions he's expected to be at over the course of the holiday season. 


Not long ago, Ricky suffered a tragedy. Since then, he's had to navigate the pity of friends and business associates, many who now want to see him get back in the game but hesitate to bring up the subject. He's hoping the presence of Eloise will shift the focus off of him. Eloise is hesitant to agree to the plan, not wanting to be perceived as a charity case... but being desperate for employment has a way of making the ego step aside. 


Once the "dates" start, each time proves an opportunity for Eloise to show off her secret fashion designer skills. She crafts amazing creations out of secondhand finds that secretly leave Ricky breathless (you'll notice the girl loves herself an open back look). Eloise has her hands full making their coupledom seem realistic during the holidays. Ricky has his reasons for hating the Christmas season. But the more time they spend together -- no surprise, this being a romance --- she has a way of turning his heart. 




Ricky is able to get Eloise to divulge her secrets but remains resolutely tight lipped about his own. The more he learns about who Eloise is, the real her, the more he comes to respect her. His resolve to not actually get involved with her emotionally begins to break down. Though Eloise has plenty of fun during her time with Ricky, tensions rise between them as it dawns on her that several dates have passed and Ricky has done virtually nothing to help her job prospects as he promised. Naturally, there's a calling-out scene where she brings this to his attention. He's defensive about it at first, but eventually acknowledges he's dropped the ball. When he does start to put focus on getting interviews lined up for her as promised, he hits a wall himself. He begins to understand her struggle. Ricky also sees how cold and short-tempered he's been with his own staff, dismissing his own unnecessarily harsh behavior as "professionalism".


It's a clean romance for the most part -- 200 pages to get to a first kiss, no sex whatsoever. It took a little time for the plot to really get going, most of the fun happening after the tequila shots scene (always the way, isn't it LOL). There's a surprising amount of honest self-reflection among these characters, set in realistic situations of struggle, which I appreciated. Definitely a fun one for the holidays without being overdosed on holiday sap. 

3 Stars
Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Anya's Ghost - Vera Brosgol

Anya could really use a friend. But her new BFF isn't kidding about the "Forever" part . . . 
Of all the things Anya expected to find at the bottom of an old well, a new friend was not one of them. Especially not a new friend who's been dead for a century. 
Falling down a well is bad enough, but Anya's normal life might actually be worse. She's embarrassed by her family, self-conscious about her body, and she's pretty much given up on fitting in at school. A new friend—even a ghost—is just what she needs. 
Or so she thinks. Spooky, sardonic, and secretly sincere, Anya's Ghost is a wonderfully entertaining debut from author/artist Vera Brosgol.





Anya Borzatovskaya is the daughter of a Russian immigrant mother now living in the US. She is self conscious about many aspects of herself, a little socially awkward, and she struggles to fit in, both in school and around her family. Overwhelmed with the teasing one day, she decides to take a walk through the woods. It's there that she unexpectedly falls into an uncovered abandoned well hole. At the bottom of the well Anya meets the spirit of Emily, a girl who went missing in the 1800s.




Anya and Emily hear someone walking by the hole. Calling out, they enlist the guy and his friends to help her out. While in the well, Emily informed Anya that she (Emily) must stay with her skeleton. When Emily is freed from the well, she doesn't realize that the bone of Emily's little finger got into her backpack, allowing Emily to travel with her. Spooked at first, Anya later sees some usefulness in Emily's spirit presence. Before long they become fast friends, Emily helping Anya climb up the social ranks of school. But is there some deception afoot regarding Emily? When Anya starts to suspect and goes to investigate Emily's story at the local library, she's shocked at the truths she uncovers.




This is another one (graphic novel, that is) where the story was good and fun, but largely driven by the artwork rather than plot. Though the plot does bring up some important topics -- school bullying, experiences of immigrant families, problematic friendships, etc - and the general tone of the story does shift to somewhat dark pretty dramatically, it's really the overall cute factor of Brosgol's art style, enhanced by the blue-grey tones, that really drove the story for me. 


*Note to parents: there is some profanity featured in the text, as well as imagery of kids smoking, so parental discretion advised regarding younger graphic novel readers. 

2.5 Stars
Ghetto Klown (Graphic Memoir) by John Leguizamo
Ghetto Klown - John Leguizamo, Shamus Beyale, Christa Cassano

In Ghetto Klown, celebrated performer John Leguizamo lays bare his early years in blue-collar Queens, his salvation through acting and writing, and his colorful career trajectory. He brings us onto the sets of his films opposite stars such as Al Pacino and Patrick Swayze and with directors such as Baz Luhrmann and Brian De Palma, while also opening up about his offstage life in love and marriage. In this candid graphic novel memoir, Leguizamo offers a strong message of moving beyond self-doubt—and beyond the doubters—to claim some happiness. Originally staged on Broadway in 2011, Ghetto Klown won Leguizamo Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards before being adapted into an HBO special. Now, teaming up with artists Christa Cassano and Shamus Beyale, Leguizamo shares his life story in this vibrant, funny, and moving adaptation.






John Leguizamo offers up a celebrity memoir using the graphic novel format. Here he lays out where much of the inspiration for four separate one-man shows came from, starting with the first, Mambo Mouth, all the way up to the award winning Ghetto Klown. This book is a graphic novel adaptation of the stage work. If you haven't seen the show, if you watch the trailer on YT after reading this book you instantly see the book's text is virtually verbatim from the stage show. 


Leguizamo shows you it's been a serious journey to get where he is now. Growing up in a disruptive home, he goes through some troubled kid years before being directed by a teacher to the home of an acting coach he nicknames "Tweety".





After working with him a bit and introducing him to the works of classic playwrights, Tweety connects John with Lee Strasburg, the legendary acting coach and mentor to James Dean, Marlon Brando and Al Pacino (just to name a few). From there, he is on his way! Before long, Leguizamo starts diving into the movie roles we know him for today. There's also discussion of his time bringing the Latin sketch show House of Buggin' to television, though the series was short lived and later replaced by another sketch show, MadTV. Through it all, Leguizamo is battling the disappointment of his parents. His father had kicked him out of the house for pursuing acting and the relationship remained fractured from then on. But he eventually finds peace with his costume designer love, "Teeny" (his now wife, Justine Maurer).



There's quite a bit of profanity and nudity within the illustrations, so this one's maybe not for the younger graphic novel readers. However, the inclusion of it does serve the purpose of setting up the kinds of environments Leguizamo has existed in throughout his life and career, and how such environments affected his work and personality. That said, this was not all that amazing for me. I haven't seen any of his stage shows (except for YT clips), but judging from this book... there's something that rings a little forced about the comedy style. Much of this book felt carried by the great black & white style artwork.






Also, Leguizamo comes of a little douche-y to me here. He talks about banging all the hot girls in his acting classes "and one really grateful chubby girl". By the time the story got to his experiences filming To Wong Foo, I couldn't help but cheer a bit reading about Patrick Swayze going a little Roadhouse on Leguizamo's cocky self behind the camera. Still, part of me did feel bad for the kind of dad Leguizamo got stuck with and how that must have affected his driving need for acceptance throughout his career and personal life. But as a whole, I found this to be kind of a boring read. 

3.5 Stars
The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian
The Double Bind - Chris Bohjalian

When Laurel Estabrook is attacked while riding her bicycle through Vermont’s back roads, her life is forever changed. Formerly outgoing, Laurel withdraws into her photography, spending all her free time at a homeless shelter. There she meets Bobbie Crocker, a man with a history of mental illness and a box of photographs that he won’t let anyone see. When Bobbie dies, Laurel discovers a deeply hidden secret–a story that leads her far from her old life, and into a cat-and-mouse game with pursuers who claim they want to save her.





Laurel Estabrook is just nineteen when she is attacked while riding her bike in a local park in Vermont. Her unidentified assailants jump out of a dark colored late model van, intent on causing her serious harm. Laurel fights for her life and manages to escape but not without scratches, bruises, one broken finger and plenty of emotional trauma. Somehow in the middle of the scuffle she also manages to memorize the van's license plate, so it's not long before her attackers are in custody. It turns out one guy has a job as a personal trainer and owns a gym marketed toward professional body builders. This guy also has been tied to other assault and rape cases, something his partner had no idea about. 


Laurel gradually comes back from her trauma, does her best to rejoin society but her experience unfortunately did scar her with PTSD and agorophobia. She decides to give up biking, taking up swimming instead. During one of her outings, Laurel meets Katherine Maguire, the founder / director of the local homeless shelter, decides to start volunteering there. Through her volunteer work she meets Bobbie Crocker, a former professional photographer, now homeless and schizophrenic, working to get into subsidized housing. When Laurel looks through some of his photography work, the novel's big mystery begins to kick in. She notices that of all the celebrity photos in his collection, not one seems to directly credit Crocker's name. Laurel starts working through this mystery to distract her from the days when her PTSD symptoms are at their worst. But then there is one surprising photo that shakes her to her core --- a photo of the house where Laurel grew up. She begins to develop a theory about Crocker, something that may surprise readers in the way it links him to a famous couple within classic literature (in a unique but confusing way). 


Note: "Double Bind", in simplistic terms, is a psychology reference that notes damaging effects of contradictory information / explanation / instruction. In the case of parenting, if bad enough, it's theorized that the child on the receiving end can potentially develop schizophrenia in such an environment. Double Bind the novel uses this idea to play with the idea of "nature vs. nuture".


It's not a perfect novel, but it got some things right enough to keep me reading. As far as the mystery end goes, much of Laurel's line of thinking I found to be pretty reaching. What captured me as a reader were the themes of mental illness / PTSD & the effect on normal life routines, and the topic of homelessness. Being someone who both battles mental illness of my own and has been on staff of homeless shelters, comparing my own experiences to those posed here at least held me to the story that much ... but in general, I was struggling to remain invested through the second half of the book. 


A couple of the things that did stand out to me, though:


* Having the character of Crocker be inspired by a real photographer and then incorporating the real photographer's work (photos) throughout the novel was a cool touch that brought a more personal level to the story. 


* I loved Marissa and Cindy, David's small daughters  -- can't help but cheer for young Marissa's already established pronounced empathy as well as her BS detector ... but David's quiet but pervasive, almost martyr-ish "she's lucky to have me" attitude toward his relationship with Laurel low-key bugged me. 


I keep trying with Bohjalian... and while I did certainly like this one at times... I've yet to be really wowed by one of his novels. 

4 Stars
I am Apache by Tanya Landman
I Am Apache - Tanya Landman

A young woman seeks to avenge her brother's death by becoming an Apache warrior — and learns a startling truth about her own identity. After watching helplessly as Mexican raiders brutally murder her little brother, fourteen-year-old Siki is filled with a desire for vengeance and chooses to turn away from a woman's path to become a warrior of her Apache tribe. Though some men, like envious Keste, wish to see Siki fail, she passes test after test, and her skills grow under the guidance of her tribe's greatest warrior, Golahka. But Keste begins to whisper about Siki's father's dishonorable death, and even as Siki earns her place among the warriors, she senses a dark secret in her past — one that will throw into doubt everything she knows. Taking readers on a sweeping and suspenseful journey through the nineteenth-century American Southwest, Tanya Landman draws on historical accounts to imagine the Black Mountain Apache as a tribe in a fight for survival against the devastating progress of nations.





Siki, a fourteen year old Apache girl, witnesses the murder (by decapitation) of her four year old brother during a Mexican raid. Set on avenging his death, she sets out to become an Apache warrior. Siki vows to use her brother's spear to kill his murderer. The tribe notes how unusual it is to allow women to train to be braves, but it is later decided to let her try. She will need to complete four missions to be eligible for warrior council. The fourth mission puts her between a rock and a hard place, as she is forced to choose between honoring wishes of the Chief or the loyalty of a true friend.


To become a warrior, first must one learn to observe and supply the needs of others. This is the way of the Apache.


Geared toward a YA audience, I Am Apache is a solidly entertaining introduction into YA Historical Fiction. Author Tanya Landman writes in clear, straightforward prose while also developing a strong sense of Siki's environment. We learn of beliefs, customs and maybe just a touch of Native American feminism, as Siki breaks through traditionally male ranks. It's fun to be in on Siki's thought process, not to mention her intelligence and dedication to training, as she outwits cocky warriors during her missions. I also loved the student - teacher banter between Siki and Golhaka (reminded me a bit of Mulan and Li Shang).



...warriors must know and understand all the tasks of the tribe lest they should ever need them: they must stitch and sew and cook as well as any woman, as indeed the women of our tribe must shoot a bow and use a knife as deftly as a man.


For such a short story, Landman successfully takes her readers through the gamut of emotions:


* Humor : Scenes discussing a love of coffee

* Strength: Siki's skills with hunting, Golhaka commenting, "I would not want her for an enemy."


* Tension: The darkness that surrounds the rivalry between Siki and star warrior Keste

* Romance: Siki's good friend Dahtet (female) hiding deeper feelings for her

* Sadness: Learning that survivors of raids were not allowed to bury their dead but instead expected to just walk away, never look back.


A strong read all around! It's actually inspired by the true story of Lozen, a female warrior who rode beside Geronimo as one of the last truly free Apache. Her mother had been killed in a raid similar to that of Siki, her brother just ten months old. Lozen's father was killed when an Apache party attempted a retaliation ambush on the Mexicans. 


Lozen was eventually captured by the US military, dying of TB while in confinement in 1889.

4 Stars
Freedom's Light by Colleen Coble
Freedom's Light - Colleen Coble

Hannah Thomas left the South and all that was familiar to marry her beloved John. But the fact that she’s never been quite accepted by his mother and sister and that she doesn’t quite fit the strict Massachusetts Puritan community only becomes more difficult when John is killed in one of the first battles in the war for freedom. Hannah is allowed to continue to serve as lightkeeper for the twin tower lighthouses on the lonely coastline, but it is grueling work for a woman alone. One of the first shipwrecks washes ashore a handsome captain she thinks is a Tory, but she soon finds out he’s working as a spy for Washington. Much stands in the way of their happiness including the need to protect his secret, pressure from John’s family to marry another, near-constant disapproval from the townspeople, and the appearance of Hannah’s wayward sister. Coupled with the strain of war, Hannah isn’t sure she’ll ever see the light of freedom.







Some time ago, young Hannah Thomas was being courted by Galen Wright, a man who seemed lovely and attentive enough at first but later proved to have a terrifying dark streak to his soul. His interest in her turned obsessive. To protect herself from further unwanted attentions from him, Hannah agrees to a marriage to the lighthouse keeper of Gurnet, Massachussetts, a man some 20 years her senior. Though it might have not been a traditional love match, over the course of their first year of marriage, the two did develop a comfortable companionship. 


Now Hannah is eighteen and has just received word that her husband, who had gone off to fight in the Revolutionary War, has been killed. Widowed, left without the protection of her husband's person or name, Hannah is fearful of what the future holds but continues to do her best to hold down the fort, both literally and figuratively. She has the slight misfortune of living just down the road from a difficult, nosy mother-in-law but does her best to keep relations there as civil as possible, though MIL makes it clear she does not like Hannah taking up her son's work at the lighthouse. She's also slyly made it know that she does not want Hannah to continue carrying the family name, though Hannah's brother-in-law has made an offer. Needing some distraction from all this family noise, not to mention some companionship, Hannah invites her younger sister, Lydia, to come stay with her. All is quite cozy and fun until Galen shows his face in town and Hannah is increasingly distressed with just how much interest Lydia is showing in him.


Then comes the pivotal night when Hannah fails to keep the lighthouse flame burning and a ship wrecks on Gurnet's shores. Much of the crew is lost, but Hannah manages to save the captain, Birch Meredith. Seeing his leg is severely damaged, she brings him into her home where he spends the next weeks & months recovering. During this time, a testy friendship develops. Though they amuse each other and Birch gets a kick out of Hannah's quietly fiesty nature, they struggle to bridge the political divide between them. Hannah, fiercely for the Revolution, cannot bring herself to accept that Birch is Team Loyalist (meaning he wishes for the United States to remain under British rule). Birch has reasons and secrets for his actions, but revealing them to anyone, even Hannah, is just too risky in these times.


image courtesy of SlidePlayer.com

"American Revolution: Treatment of Loyalists"




Covertly working for the US under the leadership of then General George Washington, Birch comes and goes from Hannah's life throughout the course of the novel, though she is never far from his thoughts. Birch is set on avenging the death of his brother, the killer being someone close to Hannah's circle (though she's unaware). General Washington reminds Birch not to let lust for revenge distract him from the mission of securing independence for the United States.



Guess I was unintentionally on Team Loyalist while reading!



Each time Birch reappears, Hannah finds her convictions shaken just a little more. Her friendship with Birch causes a growing fury within her Puritan community. More than once, she is brought before the elders to answer for her actions. At one of these tribunal sessions, in so many words the church elders basically say it's not so bad to throw yourself at a man as long as he's not a Loyalist! LOL But they later backtrack on this, saying Hannah really should answer "for the state of your soul", something they weren't AS concerned about a moment before, telling her "you and your God alone know the state of your heart."


There is a noticeable amount of inspiration pulled from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in this story, but I checked the author's note at the end and I don't see Colleen Coble fessin' up to it. Instead, she mentions that this is a story that's "languished in my virtual drawer for eighteen years...". She goes on to say that it wasn't previously published due to Revolutionary War era material being a tough sell. I'm assuming she meant within the Christian Fiction market, where she has since found her fame? I'd say it has a healthy enough fan base within other genres.


But back to the P & P similarities: First, there's Lydia. Not only does Hannah's sister share a name with Elizabeth Bennett's little sister, but she also gets into a similar fix. Both Lydias appear to have a weakness for a uniformed man.





Take out Galen Wright, insert George Wickham... OMG I just now realized they even have the same initials. But yeah, the guys are interchangeable with the same goal of getting their grubby, libidinous hands on a young innocent for the sake of getting closer to the older sister. Likewise, we have the arrival of Captain Birch Meredith mimicking the entrance of Fitzwilliam Darcy... in both instances, the ladies having an abrasive early introduction to the men which later turns into playful friendship and then love. Much in the way Darcy helps Elizabeth save & protect Lydia from Wickham, Captain Meredith from Freedom's Light sets out to take down Galen Wright and his cohorts and help get Lydia back to the safety of her sister, Hannah.


Though Coble first crafted this novel nearly twenty years ago, there are themes addressed here that not only make for an engaging historical read -- leading readers to think on experiences of our ancestors -- but still read relevant to today's times. Coble does a fair job tackling sexism of the 1700s. Take Hannah, our main character. Hannah, having served as her husband's assistant tending the lighthouse, she learns all about the care and maintenance of the light and how much the sailors rely on these towers for safety. She takes up her husband's post while he's away at war, and once she hears of his death she reasons that someone still must tend to the light. She has the training, so why not her? But nope, nope, nope.... the very idea unnerves the community. I mean, she's out there painting the tower in PANTS, people! The woman is just trying to do her best to live a right and good life, she has a defined moral code she guides herself by, but because the image of it all doesn't match the preferences of those in power, the community won't let up on her! 


Image result for revolutionary war life

by Baron Theodore Gudin (1848)


Then let's consider Birch. Though I liked Birch generally as a character and found him quite warm and funny for most of the story, his ageist side irked me. Perhaps I'm more sensitive to it as I creep along my 30s.... and from what I've read of history, his attitude was not uncommon... but UGH. There was a scene where Birch attends a party hosted by Molly Vicar. Birch is there to spy on Galen and his crew, but keeps making it a point to note how amazing it is that Molly Vicar can still capture attention and turn heads at her age of "around 40". Imagine that, a woman making it to that age and somehow avoiding the expected metamorphosis into a bridge troll! One line of this I likely would've laughed and overlooked, but Birch brings it up multiple times in this ONE scene! I was going to root for the character of Molly Vicar until she made the "any man that doesn't want me must be gay" (paraphrasing here) comment. Nevermind, a girl that smug can end up with whatever LOL. 


While I've not been the biggest fan of Coble's more modern novels -- while decently written, I find many of them bland and forgettable -- I was cheering for this one because it left me thinking Hallelujah, Coble finally showing some edge to her writing! Looking over the reviews of others though, seems many did NOT like this aspect of this novel. In Freedom's Light, Coble incorporates espionage, hangings, whippings, sexual assault / rape, hostage situations and babies born out of wedlock. I've seen many reviews criticize Coble for putting this out there, crying "How dare you?!" Well, here's the thing folks. History --- real history, not the sanitized Hallmark image you must have in your mind --- plays dirty. Since the dawn of civilization, people have made questionable choices for the sake of love, survival, money, power, what have you. That includes such things as murder, rape, illegitimate children, etc. Open a real, non-fiction history book and it's all in there. It's DANGEROUS to never acknowledge the darker side of human nature. So I say yes, put them in novels. Make people look at it. And then craft characters around it who show us how to overcome such situations! Give us a sense of hope in dark times! 


Consider Hannah and her interactions with Birch: Hannah has strong faith which in turn provides her with strength and belief in herself and her abilities to overcome any of life's difficulties. Birch, fueled by rage and a need for revenge over the murder of his younger brother, scoffs at any mention of religion. Hannah urges him to reconsider his feelings. As time passes and Birch's love for Hannah grows, he confesses that if he could just have her, he'd let go of everything else. She could save him! Hannah calmly and wisely explains something vitally important for him to understand: it is incredibly foolhardy for a person to pin all their hopes of faith, salvation or redemption on any one person. Sure, others can help you along the path but putting all your eggs in one basket (so to speak) only leads to a false sense of security. 



Image result for Shipwreck in Stormy Seas 1773, Claude-Joseph Vernet

"A Shipwreck In Stormy Seas" (1773)

by Claude-Joseph Vernet




Humans... humans are fallible by nature. Answers to questions regarding faith and life purpose can only be answered from inside one's soul. And typically those answers come about through surviving those most unpretty of life scenarios.


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

5 Stars
Tales of a Cosmic Possum by Sheila Ingle
Tales of a Cosmic Possum - Sheila Ingle

Sheila Ingle’s husband John was brought up in Ingle Holler in Union, South Carolina, with eight other Ingle families. They worked together in the mills, shared their gardens, attended church, and enjoyed the playing and singing of the songs from the Grand Ole Opry. When five of the brothers went off to war, those who couldn’t fight took care of their families. The Ingles stuck together, just like they were taught in the Appalachian hills of Erwin, Tennessee. Love of God, love of family, and love of country were modeled in each home. In fact, one year Make Ingle put his sons and grandsons together to build Hillside Baptist Church. Adults kept up with the newspapers and the radios; world happenings were important. Any type of sickness brought a barrage of soup and cornbread, because children still had to eat. On those twenty acres, the children played in the creek, cowboys and Indians, and hide-and-seek. They built their own wagons and sleds to race down the hill on the dry, hickory leaves. All the boys learned to shoot a .22 caliber, and John’s mother Lois could light a match with her shots. Living in Ingle Holler was home, where each one was accepted.





In Tales of Cosmic Possum, author Sheila Ingle writes a celebratory biography of the Ingle family, her husband's people. The branch of the family tree we as readers get to know originated in Erwin, Tennessee but later relocated to Union, South Carolina on a piece of land that came to be known as Ingle Holler. In this holler, family members could grow up expecting a true Appalachian upbringing. As the years pass over the course of the book, readers are introduced to generations of cotton mill workers -- many dropping out of school by the 3rd grade to join the rest of the family in the mills --  humble and hard-working folk dedicated to their families, regardless of how much or how little they had. Scattered throughout these tales are also neat little historical notes (ie. the reference to Peter Pan peanut butter being sold in tin cans in the 1930s -- I didn't know the brand even dated back that far!)



Sometimes it was difficult to remember back to those early years 37 years ago. The skinny auburn-haired girl, afraid of the dark and her own shadow, had matured into a woman who was a right good spinner and fit as a fiddle. Her third grade education had not held her back.


"Julie", chapter discussing the grandmother of Sheila Ingle's husband, John



Though considered one continuous non-fiction piece, the chapters are set up to showcase one particular member of the Ingle family (per chapter) and a story unique to them. But the stories are so moving, so richly infused with life & spirit, the reader quickly gets immersed in the lives of these people long gone. Sheila Ingle's writing is so inviting, offers such a sense of inclusion to readers, that this work of biography moves more like a collection of interconnected short stories. I guess, in a sense, they are! The very last chapter focuses on Sheila Ingle's mother-in-law.


Relevant black and white photos are included in some of the chapters to enhance the scenes described. There are also several pages of additional photos of family members at the back of the book. 


Collectively, the chapters span the years between early 1900s - 1950s, chapters full of heartwarming stories of neighbor helping neighbor, even when it seems like you have nothing to offer. Sheila Ingle, through the stories of her husband's family, illustrates that though one may have meager physical possessions on hand, you may be surprised to realize that, in fact, there is nearly always something within your ability or means that can be of use to someone in need. These are the types of books we need more of in this day and age! 


*Note to animal lovers though: Early on in the book, during Fannie's story, there is description of Fannie witnessing the hanging -- literal hanging -- execution of a circus elephant who trampled its handler to death after being startled. The imagery, as you can imagine, is pretty disturbing.


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

2.5 Stars
Coast Guard Sweetheart (Coast Guard #2) by Lisa Carter
Coast Guard Sweetheart (Love Inspired Large Print) - Lisa Carter

Second Chance Sailor: When coast guard officer Sawyer Kole is stationed again in Kiptohanock, Virginia, he's ready to prove to Honey Duer that he's a changed man and the right man for her. But it's not smooth sailing when a hurricane blows their way. To save the family inn she's restored to perfection, Honey will ride out the storm. But can she handle the turbulence of seeing Sawyer again? Years ago he walked away, taking her dreams of love. Now as Hurricane Zelda barrels down, Honey may have no choice but to trust Sawyer to save her life and just maybe her heart.





Picking up several years after where Lisa Carter's Coast Guard Courtship left off, Coast Guard Sweetheart revisits one of the side stories from the first book: that of Honey (sister of Amelia from Book 1, *Honey's real name is Beatrice, but picked up the nickname due to her hair color) and that fouled up romance Amelia's beau Braeden helped Honey push through. The troublemaker guy in that scenario, Coast Guard Petty Officer Sawyer Kole, is back in town (with Braeden as his boss) and wants to make things right between him and Honey.


Wouldn't you know, she doesn't want to hear it! Or so she's trying to convince herself. Wouldn't you want to hear what story was behind a former flame abandoning you three years earlier? Not the least bit curious, Honey? You KNOW she is! But she's in no rush to give him the satisfaction. Their re-acquaintance comes about via a pretty funny food fight (but SUCH a waste of donuts!). But the two have no choice but to put differences aside and work together when their town faces the arrival of Hurricane Zelda and Honey's newly restored inn sits right in the line of fire. 


Having thoroughly enjoyed Lisa Carter's first installment in this series, I was really looking forward to seeing where the characters ended up here. Though all the elements seemed to be in place for a strong follow-up, sadly this one just did not serve up the same magic as its predecessor. The humor, charming as all get out in Coast Guard Courtship, just fell flat here, felt a little on the canned side. Further, the plot wasn't nearly as much fun. While it seemed promising, opening a story with a food fight, things quickly fizzled out from there. Even with a hurricane in the mix --- you'd expect some great tension or amazing chats or something right? --- nope, even there it was about as interesting as bath water. 


Pretty quickly, Honey's relentless bickering grows tiresome. Not cute. She complains that Sawyer never explained his absence, then when he tries she shuts it down with an "I don't want to hear it"... but then encourages him to try again, but then hardly lets him finish a thought before she's verbally laying into him again. Her level of anger grows unreasonable but she continues to harp on with the "Why won't you talk to me?" Girl, have you only heard your side of things? This whole story has been set up for him to tell his side! UGH, even Max chimes in with a "Stop being a big baby, Aunt Honey." You tell her, kid! Another character takes it further with "Bitterness does not become you, Beatrice."


In terms of dialogue, the writing just gets progressively more cringey as the reader progresses. But if you're really into nighttime soaps, the overkill dramatics might not strike you as problematic. I will note a few highlights though. 1) This novel does touch upon the heartbreak of siblings split up within the foster system and later left unable to reunite with each other as adults because of sealed records. 2) The closing scene was undeniably sweet and romantic. Hard not to pull a grin out of me at the description of a modern couple slow dancing to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart". 3) MAX. It was so great to see Max again in this series. Max is doing great and he totally made it worthwhile to hang in there and keep reading! 

4 Stars
Coast Guard Courtship (Coast Guard #1) by Lisa Carter
Coast Guard Courtship (Love Inspired Large Print) - Lisa Carter

Coast Guard Officer Braeden Scott's life is all about freedom and adventure. Being assigned to a tiny Virginia coastal village is the last thing he wants. But thanks to a feisty redhead, he's soon discovering the charms of a small-town life. Amelia Duer is all about home and hearth. Taking care of others is her whole world. As Braeden spends more time with her and her nephew, his hopes for a family begin to resurface. Could Amelia prove to be the anchor this charming Coastie needs to stop wandering and create a home for good?




NC based writer Lisa Carter places her Coast Guard centered romance in the small town of Kiptohanock, Virginia, where CG officer Braeden Scott gets stationed and quickly finds himself tangled up with feisty redhead Amelia Duer. Being a redhead myself, I had to chuckle at one point in the story where a comment is made about redheaded women in general being "insidious" LOL 


He filled his lungs with the bracing sea air. Not so bad. Not the most exciting place he'd ever been quartered, but as long as he could hear the crash of the waves, he'd do fine...Braeden's first love, the sea, remained the only love in his life that hadn't let him down. Give Braeden his boat, the rhythm of the sea and, as one poet had phrased it, "a star to steer by," and he was good. Better than good. Women were trouble he didn't need in his life.


Amelia runs her father's charter fishing business since her father decided to take up part time work in a boat repair shop. Running the shop serves as a perfect excuse for Amelia to keep a close eye on her dad as he recovers from a recent heart attack. She grew up in the kind of family where her father never got the son he wanted, so he raised her as he would a boy, turning her into his "fishing buddy", as he liked to think of her. Developing that bond early on has served them well now as they move into the adult phase of parent-child friendship.


Braeden's first impression of her is that she's not terribly feminine but certainly admirably gutsy and "tough as a sea barnacle"... the type of compliment that wants to make you say, "Thanks.. I think...". When Braeden rents out a boat shed property without first informing Amelia, she ends up nearly taking him out with a harpoon! (A simple misunderstanding... you'll see.... )


Braeden loves a life full of adventure and wild experiences while Amelia is all about having stability and a home & community where she can firmly root. She has reasons for insisting on a firm home base: she lost her mother to cancer and her sister to a drunk driver, leading to Amelia becoming the guardian of her five year old nephew, Max, who is battling leukemia. Max's father is also in the Coast Guard... or at least was... his role in this story is sort of that of "deadbeat dad who abandoned the family".


Trying to do her best, Amelia is struggling with Max while he works this phase where he answers all her instructions with "you're not my real mom". There's added pressure on her since she took out loans against her father's business to cover the cost of Max's chemo treatments. Now finding herself unbelievably stressed out and deeply in debt, there's an added layer of tension since her remaining family members grow to see her as someone generally too salty to associate with. 


While the arrival of Braeden is an unexpected upset to the routine at first, he proves to be a nice distraction from all the heavier dealings in Amelia's days. There IS something about him that she can't help but be drawn to, but thanks to the whole situation with Max's father, Amelia also happens to have a bit of a chip on her shoulder when it comes to Coast Guard fellas. Then there's the difference in faith between them -- While Amelia finds great comfort in fellowship, Braeden isn't much of a church-goer (but he has his reasons for being so).


Braeden unknowingly finds the ways to her heart ... largely by just being himself. He shows willingness to spend so much quality time with Max (such as teaching him how to swim), helping Amelia's sister, Beatrice aka "Honey" navigate out of her own Coast Guard romance gone sour, AND encourages Amelia to pursue art as a career, at the very least as a side gig. While she does love creating paintings of local seascapes and townspeople, Amelia has strong fears of taking her work public... but perhaps with Braeden's support to bolster her, anything is possible! It's also tough not to fall for a guy who insists on teaching the generation coming up about respecting women:


"Yeah, Mimi. Leave us guys alone." Max propped his hand on his small hip and jutted it, Honey-style. "We don't need you. Braeden's got this. Go away."


She blinked. Braeden frowned. He locked eyes with Max. "Let's you and me get one thing straight, Candidate Duer. Women are to be respected, cherished, and protected." Braeden threw Amelia a glance before his gaze returned to Max. "If I ever hear you disrespect your aunt Mimi or any other woman ever again, you can forget swim lessons or anything else from this Coastie."


The starch went out of her carrot-topped nephew. He drew a circle in the water with his toe. "Sorry, Mimi."


This is one well-balanced romance! It's part of Harlequin's "Love Inspired" line, so there are Christian themes mildly discussed within the plot, while also incorporating plenty of humor and warm & cuddly courtship scenes. Sometimes titles within this line tend to run a bit heavy on the sap but this one got it just right. To balance out the sweet, there are more serious topics woven in. Max's story as he battles leukemia has its bittersweet notes, but not to Afterschool Special levels. Still, that scene with Max getting attached to a Black Lab only to be told maybe a dog isn't a great idea, and him snapping back with "I'm gonna die anyway"... Kid put a chip in this heart of mine! Then there's the tough moments that circle Coast Guard life itself  --- the blessings of ships ceremony where a bell is rung for each crew member lost to sea, and the intensity that builds around responding to mayday calls. It's all in here! 


By story's close, the reader is left waiting to hear the results of Max's latest tests... but since he makes an appearance in Book 2, it looks like the prognosis is good! 

4.5 Stars
Auschwitz Lullaby by Mario Escobar
Auschwitz Lullaby - Mario Escobar

Based on the true story of a brave German nurse tasked with caring for Auschwitz’s youngest prisoners. Auschwitz Lullaby brings to life the story of Helene Hannemann—a woman who sacrificed everything for family and fought furiously for the children she hoped to save. On an otherwise ordinary morning in 1943, Helene Hannemann is preparing her five children for the day when the German police arrive at her home. Helene’s worst fears come true when the police, under strict orders from the SS, demand that her children and husband, all of Romani heritage, be taken into custody. Though Helene is German and safe from the forces invading her home, she refuses to leave her family—sealing her fate in a way she never could have imagined. After a terrifying trek across the continent, Helene and her family arrive at Auschwitz and are thrown into the chaos of the camp. Her husband, Johann, is separated from them, but Helene remains fiercely protective of her children and those around her. When the powers-that-be discover that Helene is not only a German but also a trained nurse, she is forced into service at the camp hospital, which is overseen by the notorious Dr. Mengele himself. Helene is under no illusions in terms of Dr. Mengele’s intentions, but she agrees to cooperate when he asks her to organize a day care and school for the Romani children in the camp. Though physically and emotionally brutalized by the conditions at Auschwitz, Helene musters the strength to protect the children in her care at any cost. Through sheer force of will, Helene provides a haven for the children of Auschwitz—an act of kindness and selflessness so great that it illuminates the darkest night of human history. Based on a true story, Mario Escobar’s Auschwitz Lullaby demonstrates the power of sacrifice and the strength of human dignity—even when all hope seems lost.





In the year 1943, Helene Hannemann is getting her husband and five kids ready for the day one morning when SS officers burst in and demand that the husband and five children be taken into custody. Helene's husband is Romani (making the children half so) but Helene is German, so she is encouraged to leave them and start a new life elsewhere. What kind of self-respecting mother abandons her family though? To the officers' bafflement she stays put, insisting she goes wherever her family goes. 


I always wanted to believe that people would wake up and see what Hitler and his followers represented, but no one did. Everyone went right along with his fanatical insanity and turned the world into a starving, warring hell.


The entire family is put on a train headed to the concentration camps. Mother and children are sent to Auschwitz... or more specifically, Birkenau (aka Auschwitz 2), the Romani division of the imprisoned. Helene's husband, Johann, is sent elsewhere but where exactly takes some time for Helene to discover. In the absence of her husband, Helene's eldest son, Blaz, takes up the "man of the house" position, covertly eavesdropping / spying around camp for any intel that may help keep the family safe. The span of the novel covers Helene's time in the camp from May - December 1943. *Note: Chapter 15 jumps to 1944.*


He was still beautiful to me despite being battered by life... it was the beautiful face of the man I loved... it was incomprehensible to any but a woman in love who had just found her long-lost beloved.  When you find the one you love, everything is on fire. The half of you that was destroyed and abandoned fits together again, and the pain and suffering become ghosts from the long-distant past. 


When news gets out that Helene is a trained nurse, it reaches the ears of Dr. Josef Mengele. Helene is put to work in Mengele's hospital. She's heard stories of his evil side, but wants to do everything in her power to protect the innocent children in the camps.


Impressed by her skills, he offers her another position: he wants her to be the director of a school / nursery he is creating for the children of the camps. Though Helene has an inkling of suspicious regarding his motives, she remains optimistic that some good can come from such a project. For one, she's been promised that her children may be moved to a cleaner, safer housing area... so she hesitantly agrees. From then on it is a constant struggle for her, fighting for the welfare of the children while not angering Mengele too much to potentially hasten the end of her own life. 


The novel opens and closes with the thoughts of Mengele, his memories of Helene, but the bulk of it is Helene's tale to tell. And what a story this is! As this is based on a true story, many of the "characters" you'll get to know here were actually real, documented people experiencing this time in history. 


Sometimes the things we lack or the obstacles we face become allies that help us endure. I decided then and there I would not be beaten. I would fight to the last breath. With the world falling to pieces around me, I would stand firm.


Escobar's writing is concise yet quietly powerful, unshakeable, and moving. Parents and non-parents alike, Escobar has his readers thinking on how much we do and would sacrifice for our loved ones, the ends of the earth we would gladly travel across if it meant we could lighten their load even a little bit. Escobar gives Helene just the right blend of motherly warmth and inner heartbreak to instantly endear her and her struggle to nearly any reader. Nurses or nursing students will also empathize with her professional struggles, the situations she is forced to stomach. Particularly heartbreaking is the 5 day rule: any patient in the hospital still sick or injured after 5 days was recommended to the "elimination" list. Helene describes a child she'd grown attached to who was sickly but on the mend... but her bedrest had extended this 5 day rule. Imagine having to stomach this kind of scene!


This story is the quintessential lesson in familial loyalty, love and sacrifice. Helene's story as a whole burrowed into my mind long after I finished that last page. It's true what they say, not all heroes wear capes! 


This novel is a perfect candidate for potential book group picks. For those interested, a list of discussion questions is included in the back of the book. 


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



2 Stars
The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
The Woman in Cabin 10 - Ruth Ware

Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…






Travel writer Laura "Lo" Blacklock is struggling with overwhelming anxiety since a strange man broke into her apartment and assaulted her. When her boss is hospitalized, an opportunity arises for Lo to fill in for her on a travel assignment aboard the "luxury cruise liner" Aurora. Lo is to be a passenger on the ship's maiden voyage and write of the experience, the accommodations, and the finale event involving a viewing of the Northern Lights while exploring the Norwegian fjords.


It takes 5 chapters for Lo to even get anywhere near a dock, let alone ON the boat. Once on the boat, the reader is made to suffer through pages of boring dinner conversation that we really didn't need to be there for. The way the characters interact with each other in this novel brought to mind low-budget murder mystery dinner theater. Once that fizzles out, we go back with Lo to her cabin, where she drinks, mopes about her life, and passes out. She starts up in the middle of the night, nerves on edge. Unable to get back to sleep, she tries to read. From there, we are asked to believe that Lo was able to hear a sound described as "the scrape of paper against paper" over the hum of the ship's engine AND the roll of ocean waves. Lo looks up, sees a body go overboard. Once she reports what she saw, the novel turns into an actual whodunit, though it poses the question of whether an actual death occurred or are we dealing with the hallucinations of someone who chose to mix alcohol with antidepressants? (One line that gave me an honest LOL moment: Lo casually saying "I really need to stop drinking mid-week." Not sure why that tickled me so much, but it did!). Who knew so much would ride on one little pink and green tube of Maybelline Great Lash!



Image result for Maybelline Great Lash

The book is divided into eight parts, the end of each part offering a snippet of text messages, emails, social media posts, or newspaper articles, all indicating a break in communication somewhere. Gradually hints pile up that while Lo is on this trip, her communications are not reaching friends and family (and neither are theirs to her), leading them to believe she's gone MIA.


What a confusing mess this book turned out to be! It started out promising enough, but not enough time was spent on relevant character or plot development, too much placed on forgettable minutiae. I'm still a little confused as to what kind of boat the Aurora is supposed to be? It's first described as "a boutique super luxury cruise liner" with ten cabins ... okay, but what is that... like a yacht? Later in the book it says the Aurora is "more like a large yacht than a small cruise liner" WTH IS THE DIFFERENCE? Pardon me, I'm not in the boat world lol.



Though this was marketed as one of the must-read thrillers of its publication year, I felt no thrills, chills, suspense, nothing while reading this. Not a one. Flatline. There's a few little interesting revelations in the end, but even there, there is much that relies on already established techniques / ideas within this genre.


Lastly, let's talk about Lo. Lo was just too much. You want to give her credit in the beginning because she just went through a trauma, but man is she just all-around unlikeable. Though she seems to have a pretty low perception of herself, simultaneously she can also be wildly self absorbed. And WHINY. OMG, so whiny! Then she'll feel bad, so then comes the flood of apologetic behavior... followed by bursts of lashing out later. Then the cycle resets. Exhausting!



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As a journalist, she's lazy as all get-out. She even tells the reader herself, “For a travel journalist I’m worryingly bad at geography.” You know, that could be easily remedied if you gave a damn. Nope, instead we get her posing questions regarding this suspected murder to cruise guests and crew, only to follow up -- when they ask "why do you ask?" -- with a "doesn't matter". You get 'em, Poirot.


And is EVERY MAN in this story an enemy to Lo?! Those breathing exercises she keeps attempting clearly aren't doing much for her. I've suffered assaults worse that what happens to Lo here and even I'm able to very easily interact with the opposite sex on a daily basis without assuming every single one of them is a shady mofo out to ruin me. You don't condemn the entire group for the dishonorable actions of a despicable few!


My favorite part of this entire book was the raised texture on the watery cover! Fun trick I found, if you run your fingertips across it, it actually does kinda make a sound similar to the ocean! Reading experience saved! (You're welcome.)

2 Stars
The Orphan's Wish - Melanie Dickerson

Orphaned and alone, Aladdin travels from the streets of his Arab homeland to a strange, faraway place. Growing up in an orphanage, he meets young Lady Kirstyn, whose father is the powerful Duke of Hagenheim. Despite the difference in their stations, Aladdin quickly becomes Kirstyn’s favorite companion, and their childhood friendship grows into a bond that time and opposition cannot break. Even as a child, Aladdin works hard, learning all he can from his teachers. Through his integrity, intelligence, and sheer tenacity, he earns a position serving as the duke’s steward. But that isn’t enough to erase the shame of being forced to steal as a small child—or the fact that he’s an orphan with no status. If he ever wants to feel equal to his beautiful and generous friend Kirstyn, he must leave Hagenheim and seek his fortune. Yet once Aladdin departs, Lady Kirstyn becomes a pawn in a terrible plot. Now, Aladdin and Kirstyn must rely on their bond to save her from unexpected danger. But will saving Kirstyn cost Aladdin his newfound status and everything he’s worked so hard to obtain?






In this re-imagining of the classic tale Aladdin, Dickerson takes Aladdin out of his original setting and moves him to Hagenheim, Germany in the 1400s, where he finds a place of sorts with the Duke of Hagenheim's family. Aladdin, orphaned at a young age, is taken in by the priest of Hagenheim Cathedral. Through this connection, Aladdin meets Lady Kirstyn, the duke's daughter. Both little children at the time, Aladdin comes to her rescue one day during a game where he thinks she is being bullied. Moved by his attention to her, Kirstyn befriends him and the two fast become constant companions. 


Fast forward a few years, and Aladdin now works as the duke's steward while also being Kirstyn's best friend, indulging in her many privileged whims. While he cares for Kirstyn, Aladdin does find enough of a sense of fulfillment from his current life situation. He explains to Kirstyn that he does not wish to be seen merely as a lowly servant his entire life, but instead wants to make something of himself, find success (and hopefully wealth) on his own terms. He breaks it to her that he intends to leave town to find his fortune. Rather than being encouraging and understanding, Kirstyn falls into a whiny fit and makes it all about her, only focusing on how this change will affect HER and HER wants. (Trust me, you'll be begging for a Jasmine return during this ridiculous pout fest). As kindly as possible, in so many words Aladdin tells her she'll just have to get over it because his mind is made up.


He goes off, finds work apprenticing with a merchant in Lüneberg, a neighboring town. Aladdin moves in with the merchant's family and is soon doing quite well for himself. He proves to have quite the business & finance acumen, inspiring the merchant to suggest Aladdin one day being his successor. For years, Aladdin had silently been throwing around the dream of one day marrying Kirstyn but previously had felt that to be impossible, with their difference in class stations. But should he do well with this business, it may be an opportunity after all! The thought drives his dedication to only work harder.


All is going very nicely until Aladdin gets word that Kirstyn has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. From there, everything else is dropped, so beginning Aladdin's efforts to bring his maybe-one-day-wife back home to safety. 


Ohhh, the issues I had with this book. First off, the quiet but annoyingly present whitewashing of one of my favorite childhood fables. Good lord, could this have been made any more white-bread boring?! I've been working my way through Dickerson's Hagenheim series --- the whole series meant to be re-imaginings of classic stories --- and while some of them have been just okay, some have been really enjoyable. So while I had my doubts about this one, I gave her the benefit of the doubt since the one I read before this, about a landlocked Little Mermaid, was actually a lot of fun (even though, again, I had my doubts about that one, taking a mermaid out of the water... but Dickerson made that one work, surprisingly!).


Let me just say, I'm not hating on the German setting itself. I married into a German family, clearly I'm down with the culture :-) But Germany in the context of ALADDIN -- an ARABIAN fable --- nah, didn't work for me. All the magic, allure, sand, desert winds, mystical stories ... all gone here. Instead, Dickerson gives us a whiny, spoiled brat of a female lead, her family all-around serving a heaping helping of white saviour complex,  and pretty much all the non-white characters have been made servants or criminals. Aladdin falls in love with Kirstyn in all her blonde-haired, blue-eyed glory. Later on, when the merchant's daughter develops an interest in him, Dickerson writes of how Aladdin finds her "pretty" with her dark hair and small mouth, but not nearly as beautiful as Kirstyn with her "pale blond hair, full lips and large blue eyes". YAWN. Aladdin has had his traditionally Muslim beliefs canceled and is now preaching the importance of strict Christian morals. There is virtually NO trace of the original story except for the use of the names Aladdin and Abu (Abu here is a small homeless child Aladdin looks after). Maybe, if you really stretch, you could liken Kirstyn's kidnapping to the time Jafar tried to keep Jasmine captive... but that's about it.


Beyond that, let's talk about the writing itself:


* Historical "say what now?" moments:  IE. Dickerson writes, regarding Kirstyn, "She was only sixteen and marriage seemed like something far in the future." Marriage at 16 far-fetched in the 1400s? Where if you took good care of yourself, you MAYBE made it to 40?! LOL 


* The dialogue in general: UGH, SO MELODRAMATIC. Reminded me of silent film emoting. Not every moment of the day is that *OMG* *SWOON* *SCOWL* *GASP*


* All around boring or head-knock-into-wall inducing characters: IE. Anna to her violent boyfriend: "You promise not to hit me again?"... proceeds to believe him... *eyeroll*


* The same few sentiments are repeated over and over again to convince the reader that Kirstyn and Aladdin are totally headed for forever love: Mainly, 1) They love long walks in the woods and 2) They of course understand each other better than anyone else in the world. Problem is, they spend the majority of the book spending ZERO time together, sooo... 


Lastly, while I understand this book is published through a Christian publisher (so some religious elements are to be expected at some point), here the religious undertones were not well done (as to feel natural to the story's enviroment / set up), instead coming off much too forced. The ending scenes are especially heavy-handed.


I'll continue on with the series installments, but this one was a definite disappointment.



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

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