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Review
2 Stars
Loving My Actual Neighbor by Alexandra Kuykendall
Loving My Actual Neighbor - Alexandra Kuykendall

As Christians, we know we are called to love our neighbor. We may even grasp that "neighbor" encompasses more than just the people living next door or down the street. But what we too often don't know is how to begin. How do we love our neighbor? Where do we start? What does this look like in our increasingly isolated world? Following practices outlined in the first chapter of 2 Peter, Alexandra Kuykendall lays out the framework for where to begin. From practicing humility to listening with understanding to being generous in our relationships, Loving My Actual Neighbor offers practical, start-now steps readers can take to love their neighbors. With her approachable, friendly tone and down-to-earth advice, Kuykendall has carved out for herself a place in the hearts of readers, who will be thrilled to extend her commonsense approach into this sphere of their lives.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

In this latest installment of her Loving My Actual ______ series, Kuykendall ponders on the question: In an increasingly socially isolating world, how does one go about showing love for one's neighbor. Her use of the word "neighbor", she clarifies, isn't limited to one's literal next door neighbor, but really anyone we come in close proximity to throughout the course of our lives. 

 

The inspiration for this newest book came to Alexandra through her realization that she knew little to nothing of the woman living across the street from her for several years --- even though they had spoken briefly a number of times. Alexandra knew they had common ground between them, both being mothers of young children, but for the life of her, she could never remember her neighbor's name! Kuykendall compiles stories of not only her own journey to be a better neighbor, but also those of her friends and acquaintances who'd had a similar epiphany and also put themselves on a path toward change. 

 

Considering all these accounts she gathers together, Kuykendall comes up with a seven step plan on how to better appreciate our fellow humans. Using biblical text, primarily pulling from 2 Peter, Kuykendall's system brings it all back to the basics of just being a good-hearted human being. She encourages readers to pursue strong, nurturing relationships with others on a foundation of humility, empathy, and, ideally, unconditional generosity.  Each chapter closes on prompts for reflection: "Scripture to Digest" (relevant bible passage to think on); "Questions for Reflection"; "Practicing the Practice", which offers Pay It Forward type ideas to engage with others, making extra effort to speak to the lonely or isolated, etc; and "A Call To Saturday Living", a sort of meditative prayer focusing on how to best implement the themes of that chapter. 

 

KUYKENDALL'S 7 STEP PLAN

 

1. Holding a posture of humility

2. Asking questions to learn

3. Being quiet to listen

4. Standing in the awkward

5. Accepting what is

6. Lightening up

7. Giving freely

 

Once you have that foundation down, Kuykendall branches out into more specific suggestions of bonding with your neighbor: 

 

* Re: Conversations: Use open-ended questions, followed by clarification questions to show you are truly listening to the speaker, as well as follow-up questions for a later meet-up, to show you've been thinking of them. She points out: you never know when you might be the one person who bothered to check in on them when they needed it most! She also reminds readers to be prepared for an honest response to your questions and be empathetic enough to hear the person out! Additionally, take non-verbal cues into consideration (body language, facial expressions) and consider the setting of the conversation. Is the subject matter something that requires privacy? Is the setting generally hospitable?

 

* Cultural Filters: When interacting with others, consider specifics of the situation that may make their reaction different from what you might expect. Are they in mourning? Otherwise suffered a trauma? Are there cultural differences to take into account --- something that seems fine to you but might be considered offensive to them?

 

* Disputes: how to best give or receive forgiveness

 

* Food / Humor: useful in diffusing difficult situations

 

* Teamwork: tips on how to successfully partner with neighbors on projects

 

 

At the end of the book, Kuykendall offers a supplement, several pages long, entitled "More Ways To Connect With Your Neighbor". Within are a few different segments: "Additional Ideas for Practicing the Practice", "10 Ways to Connect with Families Throughout the Year" "10 Ways to Love Your Homebound Neighbor", and "10 Reasons to Have a Block Party".

 

When taking all this information in, Kuykendall frequently reminds her readers, practice makes perfect. This is not meant to be a one and done process, but an entire reboot in one's social interaction, intended to be carried out (hopefully) for the rest of your days. One of the portions I found most helpful was questions to ask when checking your motives for doing something:

 

* Am I investing in the outcome or the process?

* Am I expecting something in return?

* What am I willing to give up in order to love my neighbors well? 

* Would I do it anonymously?

* Will there be unintended consequences?

 

My honest response to this book, having read the previous two? This was my least favorite of the bunch. I got a lot out of the first two, and while there were still some good tips in this third one, and while I love that Kuykendall terms herself a "kitchen anthropologist", this third offering in the series had a few areas I found disturbingly problematic, given the theme of the work.

 

Yes, it has helpful pointers, but largely the message is one of common sense human decency. I don't know if she ran short on ideas and had to hit word count, but like many a self-help book out there, she establishes a few key points early on and then pretty much just repackages those ideas in numerous different ways throughout the following chapters. 

 

Beyond the repetitive nature of the text, there was an underlying element to this book that just SCREAMED privilege and bias. She swears she's not a judgmental person, yet some of her actions involving those of a lower income bracket than her family would (at least in part) indicate otherwise. There's even a line where she says (verbatim),"I have relationships with people who live in poverty." Wow. Okay. Way to put yourself out there?

 

Then there's the weird and frequent focus on the race of her various neighbors, usually closing with a pat on the back for herself for interacting with a minority without making it too awkward. In fact, there's a healthy dose of quiet humble brag throughout the whole book. But at least she does acknowledge that she does see needing to consistently work on her prideful nature. 

 

It's a worthwhile topic for discussion --- being better people to our fellow man --- and Kuykendall brings up fair suggestions.... but really, it's stuff we should know anyway, if we've been raised right.  Sadly, now, my once happy opinion of her work has been somewhat tainted over the privileged, disconnected tone that came through this latest work. 

 

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

 

____

My reviews for the previous two books in this series:

 

LOVING MY ACTUAL LIFE

LOVING MY ACTUAL CHRISTMAS

 

_____

 

EXTRAS

 

LOVING MY ACTUAL NEIGHBOR BOOK TRAILER LINK

(Scroll down to bottom of page to see video)

 

INTERVIEW WITH KUYKENDALL RE: LOVING MY ACTUAL NEIGHBOR

Review
3.5 Stars
Glory Bishop by Deborah L. King
Glory Bishop - Deborah L. King

Glory Bishop lives her life in pieces. At work and with her friends, she reads novels, speaks her mind, and enjoys slow dances and stolen kisses with her boyfriend, JT. But at home, Glory follows strict rules and second-guesses every step. Though she dreams of going to college and living like a normal teenage girl, her abusive mother has other ideas. When JT leaves to join the navy, Glory is left alone and heartsick. The preacher's son, Malcolm Porter, begins to shower her with lavish gifts, and her mother pushes Glory to accept his advances. Glory is torn between waiting for true love with JT or giving in to the overzealous Malcolm. When a stranger attacks Glory on the street, Malcolm steps in to rescue her, and her interest in him deepens. But the closer she gets to him, the more controlling he becomes. Glory must eventually decide whether to rely on others or to be her own savior.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This story addresses the topic of domestic abuse / abusive relationships (both emotional and physical abuse).

 

 

Glory Bishop, our title character, starts out her story a pretty typical teen for the most part, her life revolving around school, church, her job at the beauty parlor, and getting in as much time with boyfriend J.T. as possible. The one major hardship she downplays is the abuse she suffers at the hands of her mother. Glory's mother excuses her own inexcusable behavior under the guise of religious fervor. In her mind, it's not abuse, it's her battling to save the soul of Glory.

 

Growing up in Chicago in the 1980s, Glory is a romantic at heart. She loves books and dreams of going to college, but also wouldn't mind a nice, cozy life with J.T. But plans change once J.T. announces he's enlisted in the Navy and will be away for the better part of three years. He asks her to wait for him, she agrees... but Glory is just a teen, and soon temptation of other opportunities comes knocking at her door, namely in the form of the pastor's son, Malcolm. 

 

It's a struggle: Glory can't shake her love for J.T., whom she's had an intense bond with since elementary school. J.T. used to do his best to protect Glory from the worst of her mother's wrath, but with him gone, now there's Malcolm on the scene flattering her with attention, subtlety offering the opportunity for the same kind of protection. Then one night Glory is attacked in the streets and Malcolm is there to stop an attempted rape. Now she feels indebted to him, and maybe he uses that to his advantage. Shortly after that night, Malcolm is calling on Glory at her house, requesting dates, lavishing gifts on her and her mother. While Glory isn't immune to this new man's attentions, part of her can't help but feel things are moving a little too fast. Additionally, there's the 10 year age gap between Glory and Malcolm that at times feels powerful, other times wrong. What does a nearly thirty year old man want with an underage teen?

 

"I saved you from a monster and you saved me from a monster. God put us together. You don't get to question that. Glory Bishop, you are my lady. That is not a request."

 

~ Malcolm

 

It doesn't seem to bother Glory's mother though! She loves Malcolm's "godly" background as an up and coming youth minister on the fast track to having his own church one day soon. Glory's mother pushes the poor girl to pursue this relationship full-force and be obedient to every one of Malcolm's requests or demands. Glory tries... and things might have been alright... if it weren't for that darn independent streak of hers! That, and Malcolm's own behavioral shift. While he was quite the gentleman early on, the more time they spend together the more controlling he becomes. First it's a harsh word here, a painful wrist grab there. Then it's flat-out smacks across the face... and we see Glory move into the classic defensive pose of someone who starts to suspect they're in an abusive relationship but isn't ready to outwardly admit it. When others start to question mood changes in her and hard-to-hide facial bruising, she's quick to give dismissals like "he's going through a lot right now", "it was a misunderstanding", "it's not as bad as it looks."

 

The irony of the situation is how Malcolm starts acting like a mob boss, insisting Glory have 24 hour security detail whenever he's not available, yet he progressively becomes her biggest threat. Still, she can't shake the feeling that she's indebted to him for saving her from her attacker that night, and for all the financial help he's provided her and her mother since. It doesn't help that Glory's mother tries to sell her the idea that if a man provides well for you financially that it's your DUTY to do whatever he wants, no arguments. Eeesh, with a mom like that.... 

 

Thankfully, the one big HEALTHY adult presence in Glory's life is her boss from the beauty parlor, Herschel, who has acted as a kind of surrogate father in her life since her biological one passed. His heart-to-hearts with her really help Glory to pinpoint what she herself wants out of life, regardless of demands anyone else tries to make on her time. His wisdom also helps her see someone doing a kindness for you is just that, a kindness, something they CHOOSE to do for you... by all means, thank them, but also realize that it's not an obligation for you to hand over to them an entire lifetime of freedoms in return.

 

This was one consistently tough read to get through, for the sheer heartbreak around Glory's story. I mean, you have to admire her tenacity to push through all these various forms of oppression, but it's not easy to move through pages of scenes with this young teenage girl having men left and right trying to command ownership over her body and soul. And then to boot, there's this mother who seems so at ease victim-blaming her own child. In one scene, with the sight of one side of Mercy's face beaten as a result of Malcolm's temper flare, does the mother show concern? Or even rage at a man who dared to lay hands on her baby?? Nah, she comes back with a comment basically calling out Mercy for being too mouthy: "I almost took a cord to you myself." This reaction then has Mercy thinking, "My mother not only approves but thinks I deserve worse." What a crushing realization for one to have about their own parent! By that point in the story, man, I was rooting for Glory and her impromptu night of flirtations with comic book guy! After all that, she deserved someone sweet like that...and, ahem, HER OWN AGE.

 

With all this in mind, let me mention that this text has a fair amount of profanity within the story. Just a note for anyone who is sensitive to foul language or just prefers to avoid it in general. 

 

King provides an impressive amount of attention to environmental detail, so we really get a solid picture of what Glory's world looks like. While I found myself wishing for the character development to go a little deeper with all our primary characters, I will say Glory Bishop --- the novel as a whole --- is an honest, realistic portrayal of an abusive relationship and the confused blend of feelings that runs through the victim's mind at that point when they're either not aware or only just starting to come to realization that that is the reality of their "love" life. We see Malcolm and the mother dish out abuses on Glory, followed by moments of sweetness and affection... classic tool of abusers to leave victims all mind-muddled. It's easy to understand why Glory struggles to decide a path in life, because the good moments have her feeling guilty about bringing attention to the bad. 

 

While I enjoyed the story for the most part, I was disappointed with the closing scene. I felt a bit short-changed with the abruptness of it after all the emotional investment asked of the reader. I wouldn't mind a follow-up story to see where Glory eventually landed. 

 

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

Review
4 Stars
Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman
Night of the Twisters - Ivy Ruckman

When a tornado watch is issued one Tuesday evening in June, twelve-year-old Dan Hatch and his best friend, Arthur, don't think much of it. After all, tornado warnings are a way of life during the summer in Grand Island, Nebraska. But soon enough, the wind begins to howl, and the lights and telephone stop working. Then the emergency siren starts to wail. Dan, his baby brother, and Arthur have only seconds to get to the basement before the monstrous twister is on top of them. Little do they know that even if they do survive the storm, their ordeal will have only just begun..

Amazon.com

 

 

 

When a tornado warning goes into effect for the small town of Grand Island, Nebraska, twelve year old Dan Hatch and his best friend, Arthur, don't take it all that seriously... at least, not at first. They figure tornado warnings are not uncommon for the area and usually little to nothing scary comes of it, so all they'd have to do is plunk down to a movie and calmly wait it all out. Little did they know, this particular night would be one for the record books. In just a matter of hours, the citizens of Grand Island find themselves center stage in one scary story of survival against the elements.

 

The story opens retrospectively, with Dan recounting the events of that traumatic day that ended up killing four people and injuring nearly 140 more in the span of just three hours. Looking back, Dan remembers all the little things can could now be viewed as precursors to the coming disaster: the day turning nearly pitch black early on in the afternoon, phone lines beginning to malfunction, lights flickering. Arthur and Dan are hanging out at Dan's house, being typical young boys enjoying time away from school, when they are both soon separated from their families. With Dan's parents away checking on neighbors and other nearby family members, Dan and Arthur are left alone in the house with Dan's baby brother, Ryan. Once Dan realizes the storm is undeniably headed their way, he grabs his brother and everyone heads to the basement bathroom to huddle in the shower, hoping they survive the tornado passing over the house. 

 

The boys survive, climb out of the house rubble to discover virtually the entire town has been leveled and they have no clue where any of the rest of their family members may be. They head out walking, hoping to run into someone. Before long, they run into Arthur's sister, Stacey. With one more in their group, the kids set out to try to locate their parents.

 

Set during the Carter administration era, this middle grade novel offers a steady amount of action for young readers, as well as plenty of heart. With the trauma of natural disaster now in their memory banks, these kids get a tough lesson in what really has true, deep, non-monetary value in life. The plot itself also provides a minimal, entry-level education on what hardships one can possibly expect after surviving a natural disaster.

 

I figured then that nothing else mattered. You can do without all kinds of things --- your house, your bike, your room, a whole city of people --- if you have the ones you love.

 

This story sounded vaguely familiar once I started reading it. A quick internet search reminded me that this had been given a film adaptation (by the same name) in the 90s and the story itself was loosely inspired by an actual event, also dubbed Night of the Twisters, when seven tornados actually did touch down in the town of Grand Island, Nebraska one night in the 1980s.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena
The Taste of Apple Seeds - Katharina Hagena

When Iris unexpectedly inherits her grandmother's house in the country, she also inherits the painful memories that live there. Iris gives herself a one-week stay at the old house, after which she'll make a decision: keep it, or sell it. The choice is not so simple, though, for her grandmother's cottage is an enchanting place where currant jam tastes of tears, sparks fly from fingertips, love's embrace makes apple trees blossom, and the darkest family secrets never stay buried, but instead pulsate in the house's nooks and shadows. As Iris moves in and out of the flicker between remembrance and forgetting, she chances upon a forgotten childhood friend who could become more.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

Iris is informed she's been left the family home in Bootshaven, Germany, after the death of her grandmother, Bertha. Iris decides to give herself one week to live in the house and decide whether to keep or sell the place. Not an easy decision for our Iris... while she remembers a certain enchantment about the place during her childhood years, she acknowledges that the land also holds plenty of painful memories for the family. 

 

What I particularly loved about my job was rooting out forgotten books, books that had been sitting in the same spot for hundreds of years, probably never read, covered with a thick layer of dust, and yet which had outlived the millions of people who hadn't read them.

 

Iris, now a librarian (there are a number of Shakespeare references woven into the story), thinks on how the house has been minimally maintained all these years as Bertha slowly wilted away in a nursing home under the weight of progressing dementia. During her stay this time around, Iris learns long-hidden stories about the family, one being that of Aunt Inga. Inga, almost from birth, seemed to have the ability to shoot currents of electricity from her fingertips... but it wasn't really much of a gift for her, as it ended up hurting anyone who touched her. She also couldn't ride bicycles because of the metal and couldn't listen to radios because they'd only produce static noise around her. 

 

 

Later, I moved on to collecting words and mining the crystalline realms of hermetic poetry. But behind all this collecting was the same craving for magical, animated worlds in sleeping things. When I was a child I had a vocabulary book where I kept special words... they were listed under the following categories: "beautiful words", "ugly words", "false words", "contorted words", and "secret words". Under "beautiful words" I had written: rosy, fragrant, pitter-patter, banana, mellifluous, foxglove, lullaby. The "ugly words" were: scrotum, gurnard, moist, crabby. "False words" angered me because they pretended to be harmless but in fact they were nasty or dangerous, like "aftershock" and "growth". Or they pretended to be magical, like "marigold" and "kingpin," but were disappointingly normal. Or they described something that wasn't clear to anybody: no two people would picture the same color if they heard the word "crimson."

 

The "contorted words" were a sort of hobby of mine --- or perhaps an illness. Maybe it amounted to the same thing. My favorite animals included the "hippotatomus", the "rhinosheros" and the "woodspeckler". I found it funny to "hoover over the abyss" and loved the line from Richard III that went "now is the discount of our winter tents." I knew what "antidisestablishmentarianism" was, but what was "pantyfishersentscaryrhythm"? I fancied it could be a menacing drumbeat to which one might retrieve one's knickers from the lake.

 

The "secret words" were the hardest to find, but that was not surprising. They were words that behaved as if they were entirely normal but in fact harbored something quite different, something wonderful. So the opposite of the "false words." I was comforted by the fact that the sports stadium at our school was home to a sweet-sounding holy man. His name was St. Adium and he was the patron saint of word games.

 

Iris also revisits various family legends and secrets and the stories of how her grandparents got together (the convoluted love story there... something of a ... what? quadrangle? lol), how her parents fell in love (the uniquely introverted way two shy people formed a bond), even her own love life. Iris has to work through some somewhat messy emotions of her own when she finds that a childhood friend, Max Ohmstedt, is now one of the lawyers involving in the estate settling process. Max has a certain boyish charm to his character, even in the way he professes horniness! 

 

Translated from the original German by Jamie Bulloch, this little story is STUFFED with characters! Just trying to keep track of the aunts is chore enough! If I have this right: We start with sisters Bertha and Anna. From there, a generation later, we meet Bertha's kids -- Harriet, Inga, and Christa. Christa is mother to main character Iris, Harriet becomes mother of Rosmarie, a cousin of Iris' who dies, leading Harriet to join a religious order, don beads and change her name to Mohani. 

 

A shared process of forgetting was just as strong a tie as a shared process of remembering. Perhaps even stronger... and I realized that not only was forgetting a form of remembering, but remembering was a form of forgetting too.

 

How true were the stories people told me, and how true were those that I stitched together myself from memories, guesswork, fantasies, and eavesdropping? Sometimes fabricated stories became true in hindsight, and some stories fabricated the truth. Truth is closely related to forgetting; I knew this because I still read dictionaries, encylopedias, catalogs, and other reference books. In the Greek word for truth, aletheia, the underworld river Lethe flows covertly. Whoever drank from this river discarded their memories as they already had their mortal coil, in preparation for the realm of shadows. And so the truth was what was not forgotten. But did it make sense to look for the truth where there was no forgetting? Didn't truth prefer to hide in the cracks and holes of memory? I couldn't get any further with words.

 

The Taste of Apple Seeds is a rich story with lots of slow-moving detail, giving the reader the sense of going through a memory chest. It's mostly enjoyable but at times can leave one feeling a bit tired out by it all. What mainly keeps the reader invested are all the questions the plot raises, namely the breadcrumbs of clues and details regarding the story of Rosmarie and her mysterious, traumatic death in the house. 

 

The wounds came with the house; they were part of my inheritance. And I had to take at least one look at them before I could stick the plaster of time back over them.

 

While a touch of magical realism is woven into the plot, the kind of magic discussed isn't so much that of witches, fairies and such... but more in the lyricism of Hagena's wordplay itself, the way she describes a kitchen scene or a night at the lake... the magic of nature itself, human or environmental. Ultimately, the story ends up being more about family bonds and secrets... how a house can be the vessel of generations of secrets and scandals, but does the strength of those secrets --- the consuming, sometimes detrimental need to keep them locked away --- come from the moment of perceived offense itself OR how much stock we ourselves invest in them over the years, maybe in connection to other unpleasant history within a family? Is that skeleton in the closet really as bad as we've made it out to be, all these generations later?

 

 

opening quote from The Taste of Apples

Review
3 Stars
Just Who Will You Be? by Maria Shriver
Just Who Will You Be? - Maria Shriver

Just Who Will You Be is a candid, heartfelt, and inspirational book for seekers of all ages. Inspired by a speech she gave, Maria Shriver's message is that what you do in your life isn't what matters. It's who you are. It's an important lesson that will appeal to anyone of any age looking for a life of meaning. In her own life, Shriver always walked straight down her own distinctive path, achieving her childhood goal of becoming "award-winning network newswoman Maria Shriver". But when her husband was elected California's Governor and she suddenly had to leave her job at NBC News, Maria was thrown for a loop. Right about then, her nephew asked her to speak at his high school graduation. She resisted, wondering how she could possibly give advice to kids, when she was feeling so lost herself. But in the end she relented and decided to dig down and dig deep, and the result is this little jewel. Just Who Will You Be reminds us that the answer to many of life's question lie within -- and that we're all works in progress. That means it's never too late to become the person you want to be.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Published in 2008, this book form of Just Who Will You Be? serves as an extension of the commencement speech Maria Shriver gave at her nephew's high school graduation. 

 

 Traveling with her father as he ran for Vice President in 1972, the media coverage of that year inspired young Maria towards the goal of becoming an award-winning journalist / news anchor. Starting as a coffee runner, Shriver eventually does work her way up to a position at NBC News... a job she was asked to resign ("conflict of interest") once husband Arnold Schwarzeneger became Governor of California. Shriver also touches a bit on her famous family; being a part of the Kennedys, the niece of John, Robert and Ted; how her father, Sargent, founded the Peace Corps while mother Eunice created the Special Olympics.

 

The structure of the book is set up as 1) Intro 2) Main Speech 3) Thoughts after giving speech. At the back of the book Shriver also includes a "Pledge List", a list of ten affirmations she uses to keep herself motivated and includes blank lines for readers to write in their own favorite affirmations. My favorites of the ones Shriver shares are "I pledge to use my voice to empower myself and others" and "I pledge to avoid using the word 'just' to describe myself (ie, 'just a mother)."

 

Shriver encourages her audience to determine what their core values and beliefs are and use those as a foundation for working toward future successes. If you want to go for fame, ask yourself what you want to be famous FOR. She also incorporates reminders that it's okay, even healthy, to change and adjust your beliefs as you go along. Basically, her message boils down to the often used, if sometimes vague, "be yourself".

 

There's also an original Shriver poem included, though she does pull some inspiration from Dr Seuss's Oh, The Places You Will Go!. The poem itself is a little cringey, the rhythm a little off. There's a definite "pep talk from mom" feel to it, but the sentiment is nice.

Review
3.5 Stars
Carol for Another Christmas by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Carol for Another Christmas - Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

The spirit of Ebeneezer Scrooge returns to the 20th century to teach a lonely woman the meaning of Christmas in this delightful holiday fable from Nebula Award-winning author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough.  A workaholic with no room in her life for home, family, or love, Monica Banks finds her life dramatically transformed by the arrival of a special spirit from Christmas past, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who takes her on a journey that teaches her about the joy of Christmas.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this more modern (published in 1996), gender-swapped conceptualization of the Charles Dickens classic, our Scrooge this time 'round is Monica Banks, a former tax auditor, now CEO of Databanks, a Seattle-based software company that develops Siri-like technology. Secretly addressed as "Dragonlady" by her employees, Monica's staff sometimes joke that she must have had a past life as a member of the Third Reich. Yeah, THAT bad.

 

As the holidays approach, Monica gets a visit from the OG Ebenezer one night to give her the heads up on the visitations coming her way. Obviously the skeptic in her disregards the message. But sure enough, the visitors come bearing reminders of painful memories and an even more unpleasant future, should Monica not turn her behavior around. Through these scenes, just as in the original story, we learn what has happened over the course of her life to have turned her into the witchy woman people now see her as. A few of the main deviations from Dickens' original:

 

1) Monica inheriting Databanks from brother Doug after his untimely death. Doug ran the company much like Google headquarters -- colorful art in offices, fun environments with toys, inflatable furniture, aquariums.... Once Monica takes over, she does away with all that, starting her on the path of becoming the battle-ax boss.

 

 

"You wouldn't know it was the same place," Sheryl said with a woeful shake of her head," Would you, Harald?" she asked another fellow, this one thin, dark, and bespectacled and perhaps a bit older than the others.

 

He shook his head sadly and held up a slice of pie with what appeared to be cheese melted on it. "Nope. Look at this. Cold pizza. On Christmas Eve, no less. Dragonlady closed all the cafeterias after 5 P.M. and charges more than a five-star restaurant to eat there, plus we only get half an hour."

 

Phillip chimed in, "When Doug was alive, they were always open and FREE, so if you were working on a problem at 2 A.M., you could still get a noshie."

 

"She brought in time clocks," Melody said with a delicate shudder.

 

"Sold the art collection too," Sheryl added forlornly. "I could tell which building I was in by that art collection. Now all the interiors look the same. I was lost for three days once trying to get back from the restroom."

 

"Pay toilets," a red-haired woman interjected.

 

"I used to be able to tell where I was from Matt-in-development's inflatable shark hanging from his ceiling, Karen-the-coder's aquarium, tester Bob's stuffed gorilla, and the different Doonesbury, Far Side and Peanuts cartoons on people's windows, but they're all gone now, " Curtis said, shaking his head, grieving for what had gone before. "All gone."

 

2) Dickens' original "Tiny Tim" character is represented here by eight year old redheaded Tina Timmons, who loves reading and making origami animals. But instead of Tim's faulty legs, Tina's health issue is a problematic heart. Tina's grandfather is the janitor at Databanks. Tina's grandmother and father are both deceased. Tina lives with her grandfather, mother and her teenage aunt and uncle in a slum apartment building where they joke, "cats and dogs not allowed, only rats, mice and cockroaches."

 

3) The spirit of OG Scrooge also seems to be able to interact with Monica's employees, even though they explain away his presence as some freak computer glitch (this is after he first makes his presence known by speaking through a computer and they can't figure out how to make him stop). Eventually they just accept him as some sort of avatar full of wisdom and mysterious powers of prophecy. It was a little confusing to work out at times but it also seems the employees are sometimes able to witness Monica's visitations as a distanced, detached (not in the room with her, I mean) audience?

 

Scrooge is able to travel through computer games, virtual reality programs, emails, etc to gather information and communicate with others. This process, the way it's laid out in the book, is sometimes a little difficult to visualize, but the concept is fun and later proves a nice vehicle for Scrooge seeing this modern world and being shocked by the rampant materialism of the day. As he puts it when Monica's employees show him a mall for the first time, "A small pile of these gifts could fund the Cratchetts for several years!".

 

The prologue to this book almost serves as an epilogue to Dickens' original work, Scrooge giving readers a rundown of what happened after the final scene of that classic story, up to the last five years of Scrooge's life. While the sci-fi / fantasy element introduced into Dickens' original concept makes for good reading fun (especially when reading it now and seeing how dated the 90s ideas already seem), there's also some heavier topics addressed here. Along with talks on unhealthy levels of consumerism, author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough also addresses the important discussion of mental health dips during the holidays. Holiday depression, work fatigue, it all gets hashed out between characters. Even a talk on slave labor comes up. I don't know about Scrooge's comment on overworked employees though, "Surely a Christmas so hard won must be all the sweeter..." LOL 

 

Certainly a unique twist on a holiday favorite! 

Review
3 Stars
The Weather Girl by Amy Vastine
The Weather Girl - Amy Vastine

Summer Raines knows when it's going to rain. She can feel it. That's why the local weather girl's so good at her job. Too bad she couldn't have foreseen the tumultuous arrival of Travis Lockwood, everybody's favorite star NFL quarterback. Make that former star NFL quarterback. Sidelined back to Texas after an injury, the golden boy is trying to steal her precious on-air time. Summer is reduced to reporting from… football games. It's enough to make her quit and become a storm-chaser like her parents. She's stuck with a career that's going nowhere and a man who delights in her refusal to be charmed. Falling in love isn't nearly as easy as predicting the weather.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Summer Raines, a meteorologist for a small news channel in Texas, has her work environment turned upside down with the arrival of former NFL quarterback Travis Lockwood. Recently suffering a career-ending shoulder injury, Travis has been hired on as the station's new sportscaster, even though he has zero experience in this position. Tensions at the station rise between him and Summer when her boss tells her he's shaving 30 seconds off her weather segments and giving them to Travis so he can bond with his new audience. Summer points out that the sports segment is already one minute longer than weather, but her boss is unmoved. Summer is forced to shelve her new idea for "This Day In Weather History". 

 

Feeling bad about his part in the scheduling upset, Travis does his best to reach out to Summer to develop a friendship. Acknowledging that the change is not directly his doing, Summer is open to the idea. Additionally, Travis tries to go to the station boss to try to get Summer her 30 seconds back. Observing their off-camera banter around the office, their boss decides he has a better idea. He'll send them out as a duo, Travis reporting sports from the field, Summer following with the weather. 

 

Spending all this extra time with Summer, both on and off camera, Travis begins to see the unique quirks that make her special. What many find irritating, Travis finds adorable: Summer's ability to accurately predict rain 100% of the time, just off her gut intuition, regardless of what weather technology says; her tendency to deflect uncomfortable moments by blurting weather trivial; her trick of calming her mind by picturing enemies being sucked up into an F5 tornado.

 

At the same time, Summer sees things she likes about Travis. Discovering his talent for nature photography, she encourages him to push through fear and take risks to go for what he truly loves, regardless of pressure his family puts on him. Advice she doesn't really follow herself... but she still puts it out there LOL. She has her dream job of traveling the world reporting on weather dangled in front of her multiple times, but she keeps putting it off for fear of leaving her grandparents... even though they're basically screaming at her to go for her dreams already!

 

I had a laugh at the passage that describes Travis's love of photography: "Travis photographed things he thought were cool to look at when he traveled... It was his way of remembering the places he'd been."

 

Umm, yeah... isn't that kinda the case for everyone? LOL

 

When the duo of Summer & Travis brings record high ratings for the station, their boss decides to make them the face of the weather team. Senior weatherman, Richard, is not happy. Neither is newscaster Rachel, who has eyes for Travis. Suddenly, technical glitches and mishaps start to happen with unusual frequency, all focused around Summer... green screen errors, teleprompter errors, her public appearances mysteriously canceled, even set lights crashing down, nearly taking out Summer. But is the blame on Rachel or Richard? Are they working together? 

 

It's a cute, clean romance with a dash of mystery. Only 2-3 kisses and a smidge of hand-holding in the whole story. The plot moves a little slow at times but the friendship that grows between Summer and Travis is sweet enough and has enough entertaining light conflict / butting-heads moments to make the read worthwhile.

 

Plus, who's not down for a story that includes a cat fight on a parade float! 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Stormy Serenade by Suzanne Michelle
Stormy Serenade - Suzanne Michelle

How could she feel so involved with a man she'd known only twenty four hours? Top photographer Kiki Andrews and returned to Texas to photograph country singing sensation Stoney Blue for Lifestyle Magazine, never imagining the chemistry that would draw them into each other's arms. It was an impossible mix - two careers on a collision course, and a younger man who was her ideal mate. She was a worldly professional, not a teenage groupie chasing a star. She had a job to do; nothing would get in her way. Except the perfect man and the moment she couldn't allow to escape.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

Hotshot NYC-based photographer Catherine "Kiki" Andrews's most recent assignment gives her the opportunity to return to her hometown of Houston, TX. Her mission: photograph 24 year old rising country music star Stonewall "Stoney" Blue while he's on tour and submit the photos for a feature in Lifestyle Magazine. Stoney's success story --- an honor graduate of MIT who worked a civil engineering job by day and played bars and nightclubs at night until one of his singles caught fire on the music charts, encouraging him to make his music gig full time. 

 

Right from the first meeting, the chemistry between Stoney and 29 year old Kiki is undeniable. While Stoney is quite open with his flirtations, Kiki struggles with her feelings battling her sense of professionalism. She has other hang-ups as well: For one, she's not a fan of country music, and she's a little uncomfortable with the fact that Stoney is younger than her. 

 

A few hours with Stoney wears down her defenses. Less than 24 hours in, they're making out. Less than 48 hours... there's topless action. Stoney is one smooth country boy! Or so you might think. But as the story goes on and more of these interactions go down, it becomes clear that Stoney may be 24 but he has the seduction style of a 15 year old: make out, boob grab, repeat.... was it good for you? LOL 

 

Kiki's work quality starts to suffer as her personal interest in Stoney increases, so for the sake of her employment she has to think fast and get back on track. But in romance novel magic, the plot creates opportunity for her to do that by spending even more time with her crooner. 

 

The relationship is cute enough by fling standards but long-term? Nah, not believable. Stoney has A LOT of growing up to do. A solid relationship built on teamwork doesn't mean your lady just does whatever you want without having interests of their own. But of course our two main characters, stars in their eyes, are fully confident they can overcome anything. It'll be a cute enough read for country music fans, but nothing all that swoon worthy here for me. 

Review
4 Stars
Corporate Affair by Stephanie James (aka Jayne Ann Krentz)
Corporate Affair (Silhouette Desire, #1) - Stephanie James, Jayne Ann Krentz

Under Kalinda Brady's cool silk surface was a smoldering heart waiting to be set afire. But she hadn't expected the sparks to fly with Rand Alastair, artist and fisherman, the stranger whose caresses left her yearning for more. Kalinda had come to Colorado determined to avenge a lost love. She had arranged the set up, and her ex-fiance had taken the bait. But she was shaken by Rand's powerful embrace, torn between her passion for revenge and hunger for this lover who conquered her heart, stole into her world and proceeded to make it his own.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

Two years ago, Kalinda Brady's father died, leaving her CEO of his data processing firm. Engaged to be married, her fiancee dumps her when he finds out the company is heavily in debt and possibly in danger of being liquidated. Not long after the split, Kalinda gets word her ex-fella has run off and married another business woman with quite a bit more wealth than Kalinda's family ever had. Kalinda then spends the next two years working her tail off to get the company back in the black.

 

Now that the company is doing quite well again, Kalinda has a chance to carry out her revenge plot. She reaches out to her ex, luring him into agreeing to a romantic mountain getaway weekend. Only, romance is the furthest thing from what she's after. She knows this guy hates to be humilated so that's exactly what she sets out to do. But until that meetup time, she's got a couple extra days in the small resort town outside of Denver where they agreed to meet up. It's there that she meets Rand Alaistair --- potter, art gallery owner, fisherman, maybe local lothario?

 

He's certainly handsome enough to be a nice distraction but the last thing Kalinda is looking for is to be someone's weekend fling. But once Rand sets eyes on something he wants, his determination is unwavering. He gets Kalinda to agree to dinner with him one night, which --- no surprise --- turns rather hands on once the plates are cleared. The deal isn't entirely sealed though. Kalinda, though she might feel a "passionate curiosity" towards Rand, isn't interested in casual, easily dismissed hookups, so she distances herself for the rest of the evening. But Rand won't be deterred. He gets her to agree to a picnic the next day, where she tells him of her revenge plans against her ex. Rand quickly calls the idea stupid and dangerous and does everything in his power to stop her from following through. She eventually agrees with his logic, decides not to go through with the plan. But when she gets back to town, who's ready with news of a merger attempt on her company ... but her ex!

 

Just when she's at her wit's end, fearing she's about to lose her father's company and there's nothing she can do to stop it, good ol' Mr. Persistent, Rand, shows up at her door with a plan to save the day. Turns out he's no country bumpkin fisherman but actually a cutthroat businessman well versed in company takeovers, and he's pretty sure he knows exactly how to save the company and win Kalinda's heart for good.

 

This story isn't going to be the most popular read with much of today's female audience, I'd wager. Rand is pretty persistent, borderline too forceful in his attentions toward Kalinda. Even though she herself admits behaving in a "my mind says no, my body says YES" manner, she vocalizes no a lot, which Rand tends to push through til she says yes... which these days could spark quite the discussion on date rape / rape culture... but let me clarify here and now that Rand never takes it that far. When it seems like Kalinda is being coy, he continues to push. When she without hesitation firmly says no, he backs off and calmly gives her a ride home... which I think makes all the difference in whether one can like this character or not. 

 

There's still the dated, sometimes cringe-inducing dialogue / interaction between these two (this story was originally published in the 1980s) but honestly, I find that's part of the fun of reading these more vintage stories... being able to step back and laugh and praise the advancements we've made. 

Review
3.5 Stars
High Heaven by Quinn Wilder
High Heaven - Quinn Wilder

It was a chance for a fresh start. And in her new job as a helicopter pilot at a skiing lodge in the Canadian Rockies, Charlie felt she could put the past behind her. Too bad, though, that her employer, Gallagher Cole, didn't seem to share her view.  "I'm not quitting before I've started," Charlie told him stubbornly. "If you don't want me here, you should have the guts to fire me!" Nevertheless, Charlie gradually found herself drawn to this complex man. Only what hope could there be for her when they each had commitments to somebody else...?

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

Charlie James gets hired on as a helicopter pilot for the High Heaven Heli-Ski Company, a flight transport service for the local ski resort in the small town of Revelstoke, just outside Calgary, Canada. Her boss, Gallagher Cole, signs her on sight unseen after numerous rave recommendations from friends and colleagues, not knowing Charlie is a female. In retrospect, he realizes that in all his conversations regarding Charlie's skill, somehow pronouns got left off. 

 

Cole is not a pilot himself, he just owns the helicopter and the business. When he meets her in person, he's not too comfortable having a woman on staff holding a position that carries so much inherent risk. But Charlie, though still young, is all too familiar with facing challenges head on and conquering them. Not only does she brave flights through the Canadian Rockies, when not in the air she is the guardian / caretaker for her 22 year old mentally handicapped cousin, Kenny.

 

When Charlie asks Gallagher to sit in on one of her flights and see her skill for himself, he can't deny it --- she is undoubtedly qualified for the position. Still, it takes time for Charlie to break Gallagher of his inherent sexist thinking. But once she does, she finds there is actually a kind, solidly good guy who feels compelled to keep her safe. 

 

"What else does my face tell you?"


"That you carry bitter burdens, and that you often question the path of your life. You see the lives of others unfolding without the tragedy and the troubles you have seen, and it angers you that life is so easy for some, but not for you. And life has made you incredibly strong. Strong enough that one day you will quit complaining that life's lessons are too hard, and instead you will ask, 'What am I to learn from this?' And you will find that all along you learned. That you grew stronger. By stronger, I mean you learned to love, to be gentle, accepting, compassionate. When you are old, and you will grow very old, you will have that look in your eyes --- that wondrous look of laughter and wisdom. That look that means you have seen the worst of life, and reckoned with it, allowed it to teach instead of destroy. You think your suffering has been without reason? No, Charlie, no. You were chosen because you are one of the few. The very few."

 

"The very few who what?"

 

"One of the very few who will know heaven on this earth."

 

The plot here has a nice, breezy entertainment value to it, even when the writing structure itself suffers in places (ex. there's a few jerky scene transitions where mid-paragraph a scene can switch from office to car with little to no indication that characters have moved). If you're intrigued by the helicopter pilot premise, let me just warn you now, Charlie doesn't actually get a lot of flight time in this short story. Most of her work hours seem to be spent in the hangar bickering with Gallagher. It would've been nice if more of the resort scene element could have been incorporated.

 

The romance is fun and light, nothing amazing, but the friendship that builds between Charlie and Gallagher is charming, particularly when Gallagher goes the extra mile to bond with Kenny. There's also the topic of sexual discrimination that comes up quite a bit. While the early scenes with Gallagher can be grating to read (with his chauvinism in full force), Charlie does slowly soften him and the discussions his behavior stirs up are actually more thought provoking than one might expect from a book like this, not to mention some of the comedy it inspires when things slam back in Gallagher's face! 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
Timekeeper (Timeless #2) by Alexandra Monir
Timekeeper - Alexandra Monir

When Philip Walker appears as a new student in Michele Windsor's high school class, she is floored. He is the love she thought she lost forever when they said goodbye during her time travels last century. Overjoyed that they can resume the relationship they had a lifetime ago, Michele eagerly approaches him and discovers the unthinkable: he doesn't remember her. In fact, he doesn't seem to remember anything about the Philip Walker of 1910. Michele then finds her father's journals, which tell stories of his time-traveling past. As she digs deeper, she learns about his entanglement with a mysterious and powerful organization called the Time Society and his dealings with a vengeful Windsor ancestor. Michele soon finds herself at the center of a rift over 120 years in the making, one whose resolution will have life-or-death consequences.

Amazon.com

 

 

Just when Michele thought it impossible for she and Philip to exist in the same era long term, in walks this new Philip Walker registering as a new student at her high school. He not only shares a name with Michele's love, but he also looks identical to the Edwardian PW and even wears the family signet ring, the very ring Philip gave Michele (which she later lost somewhere during her time travels). Problem is, he has zero recollection of who Michele is, or this other Philip she keeps talking about, or even their past history together, here or in any other time.

 

As heartbreaking as this is for Michele, she's got bigger problems. Rebecca Windsor, long thought dead, shows up at the Windsor mansion in her former teenage body, threatening a startled Walter and Dorothy with a dark ultimatum: Either they kill their granddaughter in seven days or she will. 

 

Walter and Dorothy aren't psychopaths. Naturally, they have no intention of killing Michele. They want to take her back to LA to hide her til things blow over, but Michele feels she's better off just facing Rebecca straight on. While waiting for her doomsday to come, Michele comes across journals belonging to her father, documenting his own time traveling adventures and his involvement with the Time Society. Taking in the information from these notebooks, and continuing to work on Philip (trying to restore his memory), she eventually makes progress and begins to formulate a plan on how to bring down revenge-fueled Rebecca once and for all. Michele also meets with Elizabeth, a childhood friend of her mother's, now working as a psychic medium. Elizabeth offers to use hypnosis on Michele to see if they can unlock anything in her mind in terms of past life regression.

 

"Any traveler who leaves his or her present lives like a ghost, only seen by Timekeepers and those few humans with the Gift of Sight, until they've been in another time for seven days.... Timekeepers weren't meant to stay in a different time long enough to impact it. Even the smallest actions from an outsider resulted in serious consequences. A well-meaning Timekeeper who attempted to reverse a loved one's death or ill fortune found an even ghastlier outcome... the time traveler's role was only to observe, learn, and protect the natural Timeline. 

 

 The Gift of Sight is the ability for ordinary human beings, those with no powers, to see and interact with spirits and time travelers. Sometimes known as mediums, many of the people who posess the Gift, believe they are seeing ghosts. In actuality, the appararitions they see are not ghosts but time travelers who have not yet reached Visibility or their full physical form in the alternate time.

 

 We have found that the Gift of Sight runs in families. As of this entry in 1880, our experiments show that 5% of families in the US carry the Gift. This means we Timekeepers must always be on alert. Our actions in the past and future can be seen.

 

Before you proceed, it is crucial to know and understand your gift --- a gift that, depending on how it is used, can lead to either great fortune or terrible tragedy. "

 

 * The Handbook of the Time Society

 

 

 

Everything in Timekeeper is just all around BETTER than the earlier books... just as a sequel should be! The historical environment is every bit as details as earlier in the series, the romance better developed, the specifics of the Time Society well plotted out. The relationship between Philip and Michele has more developed angst, yet there is a really cool friendship between them now that wasn't as rich in the first book. It's especially noticeable in the scenes where Michele (always in her current age) has talks with an aging Philip as they reunite through various points in time. I confess, I like the older installment of Philip more than either of the eighteen year old editions. But while it's great to see one side of the equation work out, it is still a little sad to have it drift away on the other end. 

Review
4 Stars
Secrets of the Time Society (Timeless #1.5) by Alexandra Monir
Secrets of the Time Society - Alexandra Monir

 

There exists a secret society where one's ability to travel through time is "gifted" to members only by blood. Those who try to enter the society quickly come to realize that time is a force not to be reckoned with.  Alexandra Monir's short story exclusive ebook, Secrets of the Time Society, sheds light upon the world created in her novel Timeless and forecasts the fate that lies ahead for its protagonist, Michele Windsor. Now that Michele is gifted, there are some who will do anything to take that power away.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Winter 1888, NYC: Seventeen year old Rebecca Windsor receives a visit from the mysterious Millicent August, who hands Rebecca a book titled Handbook of the Time Society, insisting she read it. Millicent goes on to explain that she is the founder and president of the Time Society, an organization dedicated to bringing together individuals born with genes that gift them the ability to time travel. Millicent also has a team of Detectors, those who can spot out of place time travelers, who identified Rebecca in NYC in 1918. 

 

Rebecca came by her time traveling abilities through mildly criminal means. Coming clean about it could affect a certain relationship of hers she hopes to steer in a romantic direction. Though she doesn't want to lose the guy, she also becomes power hungry to "have it all". 

 

Fast-forwarding from 1888 to 1910, the pivotal year of TIMELESS, Rebecca is now a spinster, nearly 40 years of age, aunt to Violet (the girl Philip is engaged to when he first meets Michele). Rebecca actually witnesses that initial meeting of TIMELESS's two main characters, unbeknownst to them. She puts facts together and realizes the likely secret of Michele's lineage. Once it's made clear, Rebecca becomes consumed with reversing history, regardless of consequences.

 

"Behaving out of line with the time you are in has had disastrous consequences for several Timekeepers, so it's important to assimilate."

 

So yes, we learn a little extra of Michele's lineage, namely the secrets surrounding the father she's never known and what might be the real story behind his disappearance. But mostly it's a rundown of Time Society framework: how the all-important necklace came to have its time jumping properties, the setup, hierarchy, and ground rules for membership in the Time Society, as well as an introduction to Time Society HQ, based in San Diego, CA. Being born and raised in San Diego myself, reading the hotel described as a building disguised as a seaside hotel, "a beautiful porcelain castle with its gleaming white lattice work and turreted red roofs", I can't help but think author Alexandra Monir was inspired by the Hotel Del Coronado (technically on Coronado Island, off the coast of San Diego, but still pretty much considered to be part of the area). I also have to wonder if she perhaps read Richard Matheson's Somewhere In Time (or at least watched the film adaptation) --- another time traveling novel also based at Hotel Del. It was interesting to read that all time leaps within the Time Society have to fall between 1492 - 1991.

 

 Hotel Del Coronado, image © Rick Avena Photography

 

This 23 page short story serves as a little bridge between Timeless and Timekeeper.  It was originally offered as an ebook exclusive, but I've since read that a short story was included in the paperback edition of Timekeeper... I'm assuming it is the print version of this ebook (I read from the hardback edition, which does not have it). If that is indeed what the publisher did, I'm happy with that. For how short this book is, to previously make it available only through e-format felt like something of a cheap money grab. But the story itself is good and definitely entices readers to jump right into TIMEKEEPER.

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Timeless (Timeless #1) by Alexandra Monir
Timeless - Alexandra Monir

When tragedy strikes Michele Windsor’s world, she is forced to uproot her life and move across the country to New York City, to live with the wealthy, aristocratic grandparents she’s never met. In their old Fifth Avenue mansion filled with a century’s worth of family secrets, Michele discovers a diary that hurtles her back in time to the year 1910. There, in the midst of the glamorous Gilded Age, Michele meets the young man with striking blue eyes who has haunted her dreams all her life – a man she always wished was real, but never imagined could actually exist. And she finds herself falling for him, into an otherworldly, time-crossed romance. Michele is soon leading a double life, struggling to balance her contemporary high school world with her escapes into the past. But when she stumbles upon a terrible discovery, she is propelled on a race through history to save the boy she loves – a quest that will determine the fate of both of their lives.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

After tragically losing her mother in a car accident, LA teen Michele Windsor is sent to live with her uber-wealthy grandparents, Walter and Dorothy Windsor, in NYC. Michele has never met them before, her mother being estranged from them since the disappearance of Michele's father prior to Michele's birth. The assumption is that Walter and Dorothy, having never approved of the relationship, paid Michele's father a large sum of money to disappear. Since Michele was raised with this version of events, she can't help but be a little icy during the initial meeting. It doesn't help that her grandparents seem to have an emotional wall up themselves. How is she ever going to make this new life work? 

After settling into the 5th Avenue mansion she now calls home, Michele finds a journal in her room dating back to 1910. She gets the shock of her life once she discovers that this journal, combined with a necklace her mother left her, has the power to transport her back in time. One such trip takes her back to the Windsor Halloween Ball of 1910. It's there that she meets Philip Walker, a gorgeous young man with striking blue eyes whom she's stunned to discover is the very same face who has been haunting her dreams all her life! Though this Walker is engaged to Violet Windsor when he and Michele first meet, the Walker family later ends up being society rivals of the Windsor family. 

Philip and Clara, Michele's great great aunt (during her teen years) are the only ones who seem to be able to see Michele. After bonding over a love of music, it doesn't take long for a romance to blossom between Philip and Michele. While he breaks off his engagement to Violet, turning his home life upside down, Michele struggles to maintain a balance between her contemporary high school life and this new and unexpected Edwardian romance she finds herself immersed in. Her one confidante in modern times is Caissie, classmate, friend and daughter of the Windsor residence housekeeper. 

Which life should she commit to? The choice may ultimately be made for her when she discovers the danger her amour faces in his future. When Michele attends a class trip to Newport, RI to see the summer homes of the legendary wealthy families (ie. Vanderbilt, Duke, etc.), she visits the Walker's summer "cottage" and discovers a tragedy that occurred, tied to her relationship with Philip. She travels back to 1910 to warn Philip, deciding that the one way to save him is to break things off and beg him to move on with his life without her. 

Timeless is nice historical fiction on the lite end. There's a bit of a Time Traveler's Wife vibe to it, if you picture that story, but gender-swapped. If you're curious to jump into the genre but are maybe also a little spooked by overwhelming heavy detail, this is a good toe-dipping point. For newbies to historical fiction, the story is still plenty entertaining, without the facts end being too overwhelming. That said, for historical fiction junkies... well, this first entry into this series is a mixed bag. Fun story? check. Solid work on the historical research? Check. Romance? Barely gets lift-off here... and then when it does, it advances way too fast to be reasonable. A little disappointing at first, but I will say the romance being a little flat may actually serve a purpose when you read how this book closes. Additionally, while the respectable (but manageable) amount of historical detail certainly creates an immersive environment for these characters, it did at times feel like character development withered in the shadow of it. The plot's pace runs a little slow, but does pick up momentum after Michele's Newport trip (though this puts the reader only a few chapters from the end of the book). 

History nerds can enjoy brief appearances by author Thomas Wolfe and musicians Louis Armstrong and the Andrews Sisters. After the story closes, Monir also offers readers an extensive, pages-long resource guide on the books and other materials she referred to to create this time traveling experience.
 
 
 

 

Review
3.5 Stars
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larson
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet - Reif Larsen

When twelve-year-old genius cartographer T. S. Spivet receives an unexpected phone call from the Smithsonian announcing he has won the prestigious Baird Award, life as normal—if you consider mapping dinner table conversations normal—is interrupted and a wild cross-country adventure begins, taking T. S. from his family home just north of Divide, Montana, to the museum’s hallowed halls.There are some answers here on the road from Divide and some new questions, too. How does one map the delicate lessons learned about family or communicate the ebbs and flows of heartbreak, loneliness, and love?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Twelve year old genius T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow) Spivet comes from a rather unique family, living in the small town of Divide, Montana.

 

 

Our ranch house was located just north of Divide, Montana, a tiny town you could miss from the highway if you happened to adjust your radio at the wrong moment. Surrounded by the Pioneer Mountains, Divide was nestled in a flat-backed valley sprinkled with sagebrush and half-burnt two-by-fours, a reminder of when people actually used to live here.

 

 

His mother is a coleopterist, a scientist specializing in the study of beetles, while his father is a hard working rancher. While it might appear that they come from wildly different worlds, somehow it works. But the family has been mourning the loss of T.S.'s brother, Layton, who died by accidental gunshot at the young age of ten. Since then, T.S. has struggled to bond with his father. His mother also tends to bury her grief in work, so much of the time T.S. is left to fend for himself in many areas. 

 

 

 

 

"Phosphorus is like a woman who is never satisfied with what she already has in her clutches."

 

~ Mr. Englethorpe

 

T.S. finds comfort in his appreciation for trains as well as an obsession with cartography --- creating maps / schematics for nearly anything that catches his interest. At one point he even tries to work out maps for the entirety of Herman Melville's Moby Dick --- can you imagine! Some of his work, through a friend of his mother, gets sent over to the Smithsonian museum for review. Some time later, T.S. gets a surprise call from the museum notifying him that he's been chosen to receive the Baird Award. 

 

The folks over at the Smithsonian are under the impression that T.S. is a grown man. Naturally there's going to be some quick explanation required on his part, should he accept the award in person... but after some debate he decides to take the chance and so sets out on a cross country trip from Montana to Washington, D.C. --- hobo-ing it across state lines via numerous trains --- learning numerous coming-of-age type life lessons along the way. He also has what's dubbed an "eccentric challenge" where he has conversations with a Winnebago he hides in during a portion of his travels, then claiming the Winnebago says it wishes to go by the name "Valero". 

 

 

This "unique format" style book can come off as a bit of a project read. The page count comes in at just shy of 400 pages, with illustrations & sidebar text (aka marginalia) on nearly every page. Almost like stories on stories on stories. The plot is divided into three parts --- Part 1: The West; Part 2: The Crossing; Part 3: The East. There's some mild cursing within some of the dialogue, so parents or educators may want to give a pre-read through before handing off to younger readers. 

 

 

 

While he may not always be the most socially warm character to spend time with, T.S. has an admirable straightforwardness and lust for knowledge that makes it easy to root for him. He's so dedicated to his craft and his family, you want good things for him! That said, the story does suffer through periods of monotony and boring content, sometimes worsened by T.S.'s insistence on conducting an internalized survey on the inner workings of HIS boredom. The action picks up in Chapter 10, around the 250 page mark, during a scene where T.S. arrives at a Chicago train yard. Those dedicated enough to this format to make it to the end, there's a pretty impressive speech little Spivet gives at the Smithsonian. He settles in and gets all heavy and deep with the crowd, sharing thoughts on life, death and one's purpose.... remember he's only supposed to be twelve! 

 

Booknerds can also have a moment to geek out with the fictionalized brief appearances of Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in connection with T.S.'s ancestors Elizabeth and Emma Osterville.

 

 

Image result for young and prodigious t.s. spivet

 

 

MOVIE NOTES

 

Yes! A movie was eventually made of this unique and creative story! A script was put together and passed through multiple directors who all claimed it was impossible to adapt for the screen. Then in 2013, the project was passed to French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who reworked the script and brought the book to life on screen under the name The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Though a beautiful, imaginative film finally came out of the long process, even Jeunet came away saying this movie "was a bear to make."

 

Notable casting:

 

* Helena Bonham Carter as T.S. Spivet's scientist mom

* Judy Davis as Ms. Ibsen, rep for The Smithsonian's Baird Award

* Kyle Catlett, cast as T.S., first auditioned at age 7, when he could already speak 7 languages!

* author Reif Larsen is in the crowd during the speech scene! 

 

The movie follows the novel well enough for the story to be recognizable, but the ending has been altered a bit in the film. 

 

 

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel by James Markert
Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel - James Markert

For years, guests of the Tuscany Hotel could leave their pasts behind and live among fellow artists. Now guests of a different sort fill the rooms, searching for their memories—no matter the cost. Run by renowned sculptor Robert Gandy and his wife and muse, Magdalena, the Tuscany Hotel hosted guests of a certain kind—artists, actors, scientists, and engineers who left their worries behind so that they could create their latest masterpieces. Surrounded by lore, the hotel was rumored to free the mind and inspire artists’ gifts. But tragic circumstances force Robert and his family to move.

After thirteen months at war, Vittorio Gandy is haunted by memories, and his former life is unrecognizable. Once a gifted painter, now he can’t bear the vivid, bleeding colors on a canvas. His young son doesn’t remember him, and his wife, Valerie, is scared of him. But the most disconcerting change is in Vitto’s father, Robert Gandy, who has fallen from being a larger-than-life sculptor to a man whose mind has been taken by Alzheimer’s. 

When Robert steals away in the night, Valerie, Vitto, and his new acquaintance and fellow veteran John go to the only place Robert might remember—the now-abandoned Tuscany Hotel. When they find him there, Robert’s mind is sound and his memories are intact. Before long, word gets out that drinking from the fountain at the hotel can restore the memories of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. The rooms once again fill up with guests—not artists this time, but people seeking control over their memories and lives. Vitto desperately wants to clear his own mind, but as he learns more about his mother’s life and her tragic death, he begins to wonder whether drinking the water comes at a price. A story of father and son, memories lost and found, artists and their muses, Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel explores the mysteries of the mind, the truth behind lore, and the miracle of inspiration.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

At just twenty four years old, Vittorio Gandy has already established himself as a talented painter, but with the start of World War II he is shipped overseas to fight. While over there, he receives letters from wife Valerie gently explaining that the family fortune has all but dried up and she's had to take up miscellaneous work to make ends meet --- everything from selling war bonds to growing a victory garden and even taking a part time job at a local factory. 

 

Vittorio's father, Robert, grows up an only child and heir to an oil fortune as well as a rock quarry. As a young man, Robert travels to Italy to study and practice his work as a sculptor. It is there he meets the beautiful Magdalena. Immediately smitten, he convinces her to come away with him and start a life together. Magdalena, not only having fallen in love with Robert but also needing to flee an abusive guardian, travels with Robert to California, settling in an area that would soon become the town of Gandy. There Robert uses his fortune to buy the land the town is built on and gets to work building the Tuscany Hotel. The Tuscany will honor his wife's heritage and encourage a modern day Renaissance where artists, writers, actors, and painters can come and feel inspired. 

 

It's years later now when we meet son Vittorio as a young enlisted man. The hotel has long been shuddered up and abandoned and Robert is battling Alzheimer's. Vittorio returns home but keeps the day of his arrival a surprise. Naturally his family is delighted to see him at first, but it's not long before Vitto's PTSD begins to rear its head. Thanks to the horrific images he brought back from war and stored in his mind, he can't bring himself to paint anymore. He's a stranger to his young son and Valerie grows increasingly more uncomfortable in his presence. She begins to pull away as Vitto's behavior becomes more and more combative, the last straw being the night when he becomes confused during a hallucination and nearly strangles her to death. 

 

 

 

Vitto checks himself into an in-patient therapy program for veterans at the hospital, but when Robert goes missing one night after an earthquake, Vitto goes back home to help track him down...though everyone can guess where Robert went. Sure enough, Valerie and Vitto find him at the abandoned Tuscany Hotel. The courtyard fountain is running again, Robert is sculpting like no time has passed at all, and his mind seems to have been restored! 

 

"Time can be a tenuous dancing partner, Mr. Gandy. And memory the devil. Sometimes the wounds we can't see leave the worst scars, unless they're tended to."

 

By the next day, Vitto's discovered that his father has plans to re-open the Tuscany and already has an ad in the newspapers. John, a fellow veteran Vitto met in the therapy program -- cheery, tender-hearted, and perpetually curious -- signs on as the hotel's new chef. Before long, word spreads of the hotel fountain's healing powers against mind crippling conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's and people come from far and wide desperately hoping to help their loved ones. 

 

New life is breathed back into the property and even Valerie finds herself gravitating back towards her husband rather than away. Even so, Vitto has his hesitations about all these new developments. For one, he's always been plagued by the death of his mother and whether there was any truth to the rumors about it possibly being a suicide. Will all this new attention to the hotel stir up those old stories as well as feelings he may not be ready to face? Then there's the fountain itself. Even though people praise the restorative properties the fountain water seems to have on them, Vitto begins to fear there may be a dark price to pay for the remedy.  He resists drinking the water himself until the day his son asks him to drink, hoping that drinking the water in front of his son will be just the act of trust they need to restore the father-son bond. 

 

Don't drink it, Vitto wanted to say, unsure why. Because every day has its night. Because what goes up must come down. Because memories can cut as much as they cure. And because he'd learned through the war that life too often was fool's gold. Rays of a beautiful sunrise led to rivers of blood. Under lush canopies of evergreen forest, combat stained the silent snow cherry red. Craters and limbs pocked fields and countryside. Last words traveled on breezes choked with smoke and death. 

 

Periodically, there are chapters where we get snippets of the mysterious life story of Magdalena, who has no long term memory of her own but seems to possess the memories of famous artists throughout history, such as da Vinci or Mozart. There's also a few throwbacks to how Valerie and Vitto met as children, growing up together as best friends before eventually becoming romantically involved. 

 

I've read all but two of Markert's books at this point and I'd say this is one of his grittiest to date, in terms of subject matter. Readers are not only presented themes of depression (sometimes to the point of suicidal thought) and PTSD, but also graphic imagery of war, namely in-depth, uncomfortable descriptions of executed Jews. The setting is post-Depression era, like several of Markert's stories, and the writing is lyrical as ever... yet, something didn't fully click with this reader to make it a homerun read. Some passages moved a bit slow, others ran on a little long. While I liked the setting and characters well enough --- I especially loved the conversations between John and Vitto, their banter reminded me a bit of Teddy and Bob from Bob's Burgers --- there were times when my interest waned and the reading began to feel a bit like a chore. The light touch of magical realism Markert tends to weave in his novels was pretty faint here as well, compared to the earlier works. But it's also one of those books where if you push through during the down periods, there is payoff later on. 

 

 

"Your mother.... the horrors she lived through... it wasn't that much different from what you... what your army doctor called battle fatigue? Combat exhaustion? Hell doesn't always require a war, Vittorio."

 

Discussion questions guide available at the back of the book for reading groups interested in making this a possible book club pick.

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: BookLookBloggers and Thomas Nelson Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

Review
3 Stars
What Blooms From Dust by James Markert
What Blooms From Dust - James Markert

Just as Jeremiah Goodbye is set to meet his fate in the electric chair, he is given a second chance at life. With the flip of a coin, he decides to return to his home town of Nowhere, Oklahoma, to settle the score with his twin brother Josiah. But upon his escape, he enters a world he doesn’t recognize—one that has been overtaken by the Dust Bowl. And the gift he once relied on to guide him is as unrecognizable as the path back to Nowhere. On his journey home, he accidentally rescues a young boy, and the pair arrive at their destination where they are greeted by darkened skies and fearful townspeople who have finally begun to let the past few years of hardship bury them under the weight of all that dust. Unlikely heroes, Jeremiah and his new companion, Peter Cotton, try to protect the residents of Nowhere from themselves, but Jeremiah must face his nightmares and free himself from the guilt of his past and the secrets that destroyed his family. Filled with mystery and magic, this exquisite novel from award-winning author James Markert is a story of finding hope in the midst of darkness and discovering the beauty of unexpected kindness.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel's plot has a brief mention of cutting as well as descriptions of animals being clubbed to death.

 

 

Death Row inmate Jeremiah Goodbye, dubbed the "Coin Flip Killer" by the newspapers, had just been placed in the electric chair, receiving the first few seconds of execution, when a twister rips through town, taking out one wall of the execution room. Seeing that the prison staff around him has been killed, Jeremiah flees the scene and heads back to his hometown of Nowhere, Oklahoma with plans to confront twin brother Josiah.

 

On his way to Nowhere, Jeremiah comes across a family and stops what he realizes is the sale of a child, Peter Cotton. Peter decides he's going to accompany Jeremiah on his journey to Nowhere. Jeremiah initially resists, but once he sees how determined Peter is to stay, he figures there's not much to be done but let the kid tag along. Peter struggles with speech, mainly just parroting back anything said to him. Successful communication looks to be incredibly challenging until Jeremiah realizes they can build a system around pointing, head nods, and supplying paper for the typewriter Peter always has with him. 

 

When the duo arrive in Nowhere, it's evident just how severely the area has been affected by the Dust Bowl. Where once there were green landscapes and clean creeks, the landscape is now smothered in ever growing mounds of dust and debris (at times, the descriptions of Nowhere brought to mind images of Radiator Springs from Pixar's Cars). Jeremiah reunites with father Wilmington (who carries a bullet in his head courtesy of a ricochet from Jeremiah's firing during a shootout years before), brother Josiah, and Josiah's wife, Ellen. Though married to his brother now, Ellen has a history with Jeremiah, a brief secret romance that resulted in a miscarried child.

 

Not many people in Nowhere seem all that excited about Jeremiah's return. The majority of the town still see him as a stone cold killer, even though he's always proclaimed his innocence on the murder charges, claiming it was merely a "wrong place, wrong time" kind of misunderstanding. Josiah doesn't think too highly of his brother but Wilmington and Ellen try to give the man the benefit of a doubt. Either way, the reality is he remains an escaped convict pushed to face his personal demons and rectify past wrongs.

 

What Blooms From Dust offers a believable depiction of what the Dust Bowl era must have been like -- the clogged air, the constant struggle to breathe, the illnesses that came from breathing in grit on a daily basis --- the dust itself almost reads like one of the story's antagonists. Characters comment on how it "seems alive", intent on breaking one's spirit (plus all the shudder inducing talk of tarantulas!). As the frequency and intensity of the storms increases, it saps peoples' will to live... but quiet Peter Cotton has an idea on how to bring the town back around. 

 

As always, Markert incorporates a sprinkle of otherworldly seasoning into the plot, developing a mysterious link between Peter Cotton and the miscarried child. Peter also plays a pivotal role in pulling the citizens of Nowhere out of their various funks, helping them finally air old grievances. I found myself cracking up at the "magic" that falls over Nowhere. A tourism package could be crafted just around the idea of giving people a place to come, stay, and hash out all long-standing feuds with friends, family, or co-workers without judgement! Slam dunk financial windfall for the place! 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER NOTE TO READERS: Not only does the plot make a brief mention of one character's experiences with cutting, but there's also one scene that describes Nowhere's town "rabbit drive", where every so often the citizens come out, herd up jackrabbits, and club them to death. Animal lovers, consider yourselves warned! I will say though, I read similar descriptions of the rabbit clubbing in Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, so it's perhaps a historically accurate detail. 

 

Though the environment development is nicely crafted, the plot itself was much slower than Markert's previous novels. Markert makes a mention in the acknowledgements that this book had a rushed deadline "but luckily it practically wrote itself". However, in my opinion it's one of his weaker novels, plot-wise. The pace is slower, but things do pick up some after the arrival of reporter Rose Buchanan. Still, I sometimes found myself struggling to maintain interest, which is not a problem I typically have with this author's works. 

 

That said, this novel does offer a nice overall message in the way it illustrates how powerful a tool kindness can be in combating evil.

 

 

"You're a special kind of child, Jeremiah. We thought you'd never come out, and when you did, well, perhaps one day I'll let your father tell you about that. But I'll go to my grave knowing that those night scares you have, they all stem from what happened after you were delivered. I'm telling you, only the strongest of the strong could overcome what you did. You know what I think? I think life and death were wrestling over you, Jeremiah. Or maybe it was good and evil. Yes, that's how I look upon it now. And you were just too darn stubborn to give in without a fight."

 

 

Discussion questions are made available at the back of the book for those interested in this one as a possible book club pick. 

 

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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