3.5 Stars
Ballad of a Broken Nose by Arne Svingen, translated by Kari Dickson
The Ballad of a Broken Nose - Arne Svingen, Kari Dickson

Bart is an eternal optimist. At thirteen years old, he’s had a hard life. But Bart knows that things won’t get any better if you have a negative attitude. His mother has pushed him into boxing lessons so that Bart can protect himself, but Bart already has defense mechanisms: he is relentlessly positive…and he loves opera. Listening to—and singing—opera is Bart’s greatest escape, but he’s too shy to share this with anyone. Then popular Ada befriends him and encourages him to perform at the school talent show. Ada can’t keep a secret to save her life, but Bart bonds with her anyway, and her openness helps him realize that his troubles are not burdens that he must bear alone. The Ballad of a Broken Nose is a sweet story about bravery, fear, bullying, sports, and music. But most of all it is about the important days of your life, days when everything seems to happen at once and nothing will ever be the same again.






Thirteen year old Bart has had the kind of childhood that forces one to grow up quick. In addition to managing his school work, he also juggles boxing lessons, assisting the apartment building super, and taking care of his mother who is obese, a bit of a hoarder, only sporadically employed, and unsuccessfully hiding a growing drinking problem. Though her mothering leaves something to be desired --- Bart's often stuck eating crackers or other snack foods in place of balanced meals --- she is a kind soul who does honestly care for her son. She's just got some stuff she needs to work out in her head.

Bart's main passion in life is opera music. He dreams of one day being a famous opera singer himself, and secretly has the talent, but his stage fright is so bad the only place he can sing is in the bathroom with the door locked. He takes boxing lessons because he gets the impression that his mother would prefer to have a "tough guy" kind of son. She even named him after Bart Simpson because she said the cartoon boy seemed like someone who could easily take care of themselves in life. (Bart doesn't tell his mom he has pretty much zero natural talent at the sport).

Making an impulse decision one day, Bart decides to share his secret love of opera with friend Ada, in the strictest confidence, of course. Well, not surprisingly, the secret "mysteriously" gets out. Now Bart is simultaneously trying to fend off bullies and dodge requests to be in the upcoming school talent show! 

Poor kid is just emotionally exhausted all the time, but he's trying to make the best of the lemons life has handed him. Growing up in Norway, Bart's never known his American dad, only having stories to go by... so, with the help of a trusty search engine, he sets out to finally track him down. He also pushes his neighbors to work toward a building clean up. Sure, it's pretty squalid low income housing with people shooting up in the hallways and stairwells, but Bart convinces them that collectively their little community can do better! 

After Ada's initial blabbing of the opera secret, Bart sees that pursuing his dream may be his main ticket out of the depressing life situation he's currently stuck in. 

It all sounds a bit heavy for a middle-grade / YA read, I know... and at times it can have that undeniable feel of "well this just got real, didn't it!", but what keeps things on the light end is Bart's sweet soul and his sense of humor, the two combining to create an inspiring sense of optimism for readers! Bart's not unaware of his hardships, he just accepts them as reality and tries to roll with it all the best he can. Who can knock that message! Though I wasn't 100% content with the ending here, I did quite enjoy getting to know Bart and his social circle and I love that the story leaves you with this reminder to unashamedly love what you love and make the most of your life. 



5 Stars
Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain
Lady of the Butterflies - Fiona Mountain

"They say I'm mad and perhaps it's true. It is well known that lust brings madness and desperation and ruin. But upon my oath, I never meant any harm. All I wanted was to be happy, to love and to be loved in return, and for my life to count for something. That is not madness, is it?" So begins the story of Eleanor Glanville, the beautiful daughter of a seventeenth-century Puritan nobleman whose unconventional passions scandalized society. When butterflies were believed to be the souls of the dead, Eleanor's scientific study of them made her little better than a witch. But her life-set against a backdrop of war, betrayal, and sexual obsession-was that of a woman far ahead of her time.






NOTE TO ANIMAL LOVERS: Be aware, near the end of this novel, there is a scene where kittens are murdered. 


Spanning late 17th century - early 18th century, Lady of the Butterflies is a novelization of the life of entomologist Lady Eleanor Glanville. Though she had an interest in studying the natural sciences in general, her specialty was in butterflies. A woman making a career in the sciences was virtually unheard of in Glanville's time, a fact that serves as a driving plot point in the novel --- Glanville trying to push beyond societal limitations for women.



I remember what Mary Burges said about people being afraid and aggressive toward what they did not understand, and I had a sense then that I might make life very difficult for myself if I did not curb this passion I had for discovery and observation. And yet I did not want to curb it, did not think it was even possible. Nor, in truth, did I see why I should.


Eleanor has a very strict Puritanical upbringing. Though her father is a successful businessman / landowner, his religious beliefs allow for no excess in the home. He even goes so far as to ban Christmas celebrations. But he does allow Eleanor a level of education typically reserved for boys (botany, geography, astronomy, etc). However, when her interests veer toward the subject of butterflies, Eleanor does raise the hackles on some people in her circle, as there was a 17th century belief that butterflies carried the souls of the dead, and that the process of metamorphosis was equal to shapeshifting which equated to satanic to many of this superstitious era, so having such a degree of fascination in them read as almost occult-ish to many.


Eleanor first hears of Richard Glanville, her future love, at the young age of eleven. Her father seems to detest even the name of Glanville being brought up in conversation, claiming that the man was living a life just seeped in debauchery: "I know of his family, I know the type." Even at her age at this time, Eleanor already realizes that it's unlikely she will ever be the docile, delicate lady type, so the sordid tales of Richard Glanville certainly stir her curiosity!


After the death of Eleanor's father, a Mr. Merrick comes to Eleanor and explains that he is to be the executor of the family estate in general, but mainly the overseer of the family home, Tickenham Court, until she becomes of age. It's encouraged that she seek a husband. She eventually settles on longtime friend Edmund Ashfield. While for the most part it seems like a good match, she does struggle with some of the structural elements of marriage and later motherhood, namely the law of coverture, in which any land or other possessions a woman might inherit is immediately relinquished to her husband upon marriage (a woman was allowed to keep her property if she remained single).


"You will continue these absurd studies no more. From now on you will receive instruction only in dancing and music and drawing and housewifery, like a proper young lady...Your father made the gravest mistake teaching you to take an interest in masculine concerns. The weaker sex may have fruitful wombs but they've barren brains. Learning makes them impertinent and vain and cunning as foxes. I fear I shall never get you off my hands, even if you do come with a fine manor and a good income. I caution you to mind your tongue when you meet Mr. Ashfield again... no man wants to marry an educated girl."


 ~~ So says Mr. Merrick *eyeroll*




Eleanor does honestly care for Edmund, but she also has deep emotional ties to her ancestral lands, so she's always fearful of what he might decide to do to the property without consulting her. This is another big point in the plot, the discussion of ecology: Tickenham Court sits on marshland that is home to swallowtail butterflies, an important area of study for Eleanor, but not so much for the men in her life looking for business (building) opportunities on the property. They are more concerned with moving forward on a proposed drainage project. But the project suffers delays as a mystery person keeps leaving messages of terrorism and sabotage --- livestock being butchered and left out to be found, property destroyed, barns set afire, even eels placed in beds! Incorporated into this darker portion of the story is Thomas Knight, a bully from Eleanor's childhood who doesn't mature into anything nicer as an adult. But is he the one to blame for these attacks on Tickenham Court? Either way, there are complicated ties between him and Eleanor (beyond the story of bullying) that wait til the last part of the book to be fully revealed.


Eleanor's story covers the various stages of a woman's life -- girlhood, romantic infatuations, marriage, motherhood. Through it all, whenever there are times of strife, she uses the study of butterflies to center herself and feed her spirit.... an important reminder for all readers: the value of self care! It's also important in that Eleanor struggles to stay on that line between self doubt and self assurance. Sometimes she listens to those around her and tries to be content with a simple home life as a subservient wife, but other days her inner voice screams NO! IT'S NOT ENOUGH! She knows she has research of great value to contribute to the world of science and her gender should not matter one whit! One person in her corner, though: her lady's maid, Bess. Bess adorably considers herself "worldly" in various life matters (particularly sex) and often encourages Eleanor to never accept disappointment or the idea of having to settle as the norm. Much of Eleanor's fiery nature seems to be stirred by the strain of having to constantly push against feckless men who will either not fight for her or those who would do anything possible to remind her of her place. 


Years later, opportunity to pursue her dreams presents itself in the form of a growing friendship (largely through correspondence) with apothecary / herbologist James Petiver, who also collected and studied butterfly specimens. This friendship and later work partnership would become the basis for the start of the British Natural History Museum. 


From Fiona Mountain's "Historical Note" Afterword:


"During the course of my writing this novel, Britain was hit by repeated and devastating floods, caused in part, according to leading environmentalists, by the loss of wetland floodplains. In 2007, the study of butterflies was formally accepted by the government as an important environmental barometer."


Fiona Mountain does a fine job offering readers an immersive historical fiction reading experience! Many reviewers have knocked this for being more along the lines of historical romance than historical fiction. Yes, this fictionalized Eleanor liked her men. Yes, there are plenty of scenes focusing on flirtations and build up to anticipated sex (and yes, the sex itself). But this one also runs deeper than that. We also get discussions on the science world, feminism, gender roles, societal expectations. We get solid world building that keeps the pages of this doorstopper moving, and dialogue that's witty and even breathtaking at times. As someone who reads plenty of both genres, I would put my vote in the historical fiction hat. It's not like we have a mountain of information to pull from on the real Eleanor Glanville -- there's actually quite a bit of mystery as to how the life story of the real Eleanor ended -- so a little creative license is to be expected. There's a bit of heartbreak at the end, of Fiona Mountain's imagining, that left me feeling a little guilty for some of my reader emotions! 



3 Stars
Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes
Olive's Ocean - Kevin Henkes

Martha Boyle and Olive Barstow could have been friends. But they weren't -- and now all that is left are eerie connections between two girls who were in the same grade at school and who both kept the same secret without knowing it. Now Martha can't stop thinking about Olive. A family summer on Cape Cod should help banish those thoughts; instead, they seep in everywhere. And this year Martha's routine at her beloved grandmother's beachside house is complicated by the Manning boys. Jimmy, Tate, Todd, Luke, and Leo. But especially Jimmy. What if, what if, what if, what if? The world can change in a minute.






Martha's classmate Olive is killed in a traffic accident. Though they weren't close, Martha can't stop thinking about her. Olive was a quiet loner type. After her death, Olive's mother makes a visit to Martha's house to share some surprising news. A page from Olive's journal was found where she revealed her biggest wish was to become good friends with Martha Boyle, "the nicest person in my whole class." She also mentions hopes of becoming a successful writer, something Martha also hopes to become one day (likely inspired by her father, a former lawyer turned aspiring novelist).


Martha ruminates on the little she knew of Olive, the quiet girl who joined her class as a new student in February, by June she was gone. Martha feels guilty that she wasn't kinder to Olive.... not that she was mean to her, but she acknowledges she could've made more of an effort to get to know her. Plagued by these thoughts, Martha hopes her annual summer trip to Grandmother Godbee's house in Cape Cod will help ease her mind a little. 


Olive's Ocean ends up being a bit of a coming of age story. Martha, just approaching her teen years, reconnects with her Cape Cod friends, the Manning brothers: Jimmy, Tate, Todd, Luke and Leo. Martha realizes she's looking at Jimmy differently now, her thoughts beginning to become more romantically minded. Unfortunately, this summer proves to be a tough one for Martha. Not only does she fixate on the finite window of one's lifetime, but she also has a painful lesson in the shady side of human behavior, where a person's outward words or actions don't always reflect their true motives.


Its got it's sad moments but it's not as heavy in tone as maybe I'm making it sound here. The pace of the plot and the short chapters make for a good quick read and Martha's story will have you thinking on a pivotal season in your own life where tough lessons came uninvited, leaving you a changed person from there on.

3 Stars
OyMG by Amy Fellner Dominy
OyMG - Amy Fellner Dominy

Ellie Taylor loves nothing better than a good argument. So when she gets accepted to the Christian Society Speech and Performing Arts summer camp, she's sure that if she wins the final tournament, it'll be her ticket to a scholarship to the best speech school in the country. Unfortunately, the competition at CSSPA is hot-literally. His name is Devon and, whether she likes it or not, being near him makes her sizzle. Luckily she's confident enough to take on the challenge-until she begins to suspect that the private scholarship's benefactor has negative feelings toward Jews. Will hiding her true identity and heritage be worth a shot at her dream? Debut author Amy Fellner Dominy mixes sweet romance, surprising secrets, and even some matzo ball soup to cook up a funny yet heartfelt story about an outspoken girl who must learn to speak out for herself.






Ellie Taylor, a Jewish teen with a passion for speech and debate, is working hard to win a scholarship to Benedict's Conservatory of Arts and Academics, a high school with one of the best debate programs in the country. This summer, she's been offered a spot in a Christian summer camp for Performing Arts. She feels this will be the big ticket to getting the attention of Benedict's admissions committee.


Problem is, she begins to hear rumors that the scholarship benefactor may be ant-Semitic. To make things worse, she begins to develop an interest in Devon, her main competition at the camp. When Ellie discovers he has ties to the benefactor, part of her worries he might share these anti-Semitic views. Ellie begins to wonder if maybe she should start to hide her Jewish heritage to have a better shot at her dreams. 


I'd seen Devon smile politely at Mrs. Lee. I'd seen him smile with other kids during lunch. I'd seen him smile on stage. But there was something about this smile. Something so warm... I felt like a chocolate bar left on the dashboard. If he kept smiling at me like that, I'd melt into a gooey mess. 


Decent read. The plot was pretty good for the most part... some weak points, some slow bits, but plenty of cute moments. One might think that the story is going to end up pretty serious with such a topic as anti-Semitism, but Dominy keeps it pretty light (without being flippant). Basically, it boils down to Ellie coming to realize that people such as the benefactor are going to exist in life, but the best course is to just go move forward, regardless of their views on you, and just focus on living your best life.


"Each of us is unique, Ellie. That is God's greatest gift to us --- and his greatest challenge. You must find the courage to speak with your own unique voice. Otherwise, someone else will speak for you. You'll be amazed how many want the job. Your parents, your friends, your enemies, politicians, and teachers -- all these voices will try to speak for you. Sometimes, it  seems easier to let them. But then, you've lost more than your voice. You've lost yourself."


I peeled back strands of hair from my wet cheeks. "What if I don't hear my own voice?"


"You'll hear it. You just may not want to listen." 


~ Ellie talking with her grandfather


The characterizations are where things fell apart a bit for me. They weren't done terribly, it was just that so many of them felt very middle of the road. There wasn't always a clear understanding of what some of the characters' motivations or goals were, what really makes them tick. The banter between several of the characters could also get annoying at times. That said, I did really like Grandpa Zeydak, Devon and Megan. Also, I think there was a Doris (?) character in there that stood out to me. Everyone else left me kinda meh. 



But overall, I think it serves as a great and empowering read, particularly for its intended YA audience, which serves to illustrate the importance of unashamedly embracing who you are and reveling in what makes you different. There's also a lot of fun church humor, such as the visit to the Lutheran church, "Me and Jesus are the only two Jews in this place." LOL 

3 Stars
One More Sleepless Night by Lucy King
One More Sleepless Night (Mills & Boon Modern Tempted) - Lucy King

She's going to take her life back... one sizzling night at a time! It used to be Nicky Sinclair's nightmares which kept her up all night; those 3 am silences were her worst enemy. So now she's following doctor's orders – rest, relaxation and plenty of therapeutic Spanish sunshine. Only she hasn't counted on sharing her tranquil retreat with her best friend's brother Rafael, whose presence is anything but peaceful! With his beguiling eyes and smoldering smile, he quickly becomes a very welcome distraction. After all, if she's struggling to sleep, why not find something else to do with her time..?! 





On doctor's orders, 29 year old Nicky Sinclair, photojournalist and creative, adventurous, globetrotter type, takes a trip to Spain to try to relax and hopefully experience a break from her insomnia troubles of late. With help from her best friend, she lands a nice place to stay. Just as she's getting comfy though, there appears to be a second, unexpected tenant ... Rafael, the brother of Nicky's best friend!


After a misunderstanding involving a pan swung at Rafael's head and some expected arguing back and forth about who has rights to the vacation spot, they settle on a way to share the place. No surprise, Rafael has a flirty side to him that he just can't help but shift into. He has a corporate job he takes very seriously, but having casual hookups with pretty ladies is how he lets off steam on his off-time.


Nicky admits she appreciates the look of him, but claims her sex drive has puttered out. Rafael claims he sees her as a sexy siren but she snaps back she's "about as attractive as a sack of potatoes". If that doesn't dissuade him, she has her grandmotherly way of speaking that ought to seal the deal ... "Heavens!" "My goodness, me!" When she really lets her true emotions fly, Nicky admits she did "ogle his bottom". The minx! LOL


There's a period where Rafael seems confused with what to think of her or how to act, claiming "should've realized there was something not quite right with her", even going so far at one point as to call his lust for her an "aberration".


Odd pairing, these two, for sure. But not in a cutesy, "isn't it great when opposites attract" way... this reader just did not click with this pairing. They had the ideal setting, just not that great a story or character development between them. The dialogue was also pretty cliche for much of the book, which distracted from the plot's potential momentum. It had its fun moments, but Rafael came on pretty strong and Nicky flip flops on what she thinks she wants.... that dynamic sometimes works in romance stories but here the balance felt constantly off just a hair... enough to make the whole thing a bit of a flop.


It's decent for a light and breezy poolside read, but don't expect too much more from this one.

4 Stars
'Til We Meet Again by Kimberly Raye
'Til We Meet Again (The Circle) (Silhouette Shadows, No 60) - Kimberly Raye

Her dreams had warned Mishella Kirkland of his coming, and those same dreams had driven her far from home. But the handsome man who claimed she needed protection was hardly the terrifying creature Mishella had conjured up in her anguished night thoughts. In fact, the man who stood before her was dangerously alluring… Raphael Dalton spoke of an unbreakable bond between them, a centuries-old love that had drawn him to protect Mishella from an unspeakable fate. Mishella’s very soul cried out to believe this captivating stranger. But was he truly her guardian, come to watch over her, or was he her greatest threat?





Portrait artist Mishella (Shelly) Kirkland has been having a recurring dream starring a certain mystery man. Now this very man, Raphael Dalton, stands before her, claiming she is in danger. He also reveals to her that they have a centuries-old bond between them -- dating back to the Spanish Inquisition -- that compels him to protect her.


Mishella is unsure whether to trust him or not, but her defenses weaken some when she discovers they both share the power to heal with touch. Raphael theorizes that they both came into it accidentally, the power originating from a demon who hated to see it used for good. Mishella is tempted to use her healing touch to hopefully cure her step-sister, Stacey, who is battling multiple myeloma, but Mishella's prophetic dreams have warned her that using her power will bring evil to her door. Is Raphael this source of evil, or is he honestly there to help?


So let's just get this out of the way: This book was originally published back in 1995. Raphael, the perceived "hero" in this story (though Raye leaves enough doubt about his intentions to keep the reader curious til the end) is HILARIOUSLY 90s. I encourage readers to embrace that -- for sheer entertainment value -- rather than knock it. Half the fun in this story is snickering at the image of this long-haired guy, clad in jean-on-jean (bottoms and jacket) combo complete with white tee, telling Shelly things like "if you need me, you can reach me on my car phone".... I know, brace yourself for the heart flutters! LOL. So yes, incredibly dated by today's standards.... but if you can get around that / have fun with it, there's actually a decently entertaining paranormal style romance here ---- good vs evil, demons vs mortal, all that.


Raye's writing here is consistently compelling, even with the cheeze factor, you want to know how these two turn out. The dialogue is fun, if at times momentarily a tad silly. Plus, every so often the story flicks over to 15th century Spain to give little clues as to the origin of the gift of healing these two share... so we get historical fiction to boot! As far as how the sexy times scenes go, the first one I found pretty laughable (I kept picturing something like a Whitesnake video), even for a paranormal romance (or especially for a paranormal romance?)... I guess we're all a little awkward the first go round LOL... but after that, the few next times were respectably written.

4 Stars
Snake by Kate Jennings
Snake - Kate Jennings

Praised for its mesmerizing intensity and taut, quick-witted prose, SNAKE tells the mesmerizing story of a mismatched couple -- Irene, ambitious and man-crazy, and her quiet, adoring, responsible husband, Rex -- who tumble into marriage and settle as newlyweds on a remote Australian farm. It is amid this unforgiving landscape that Irene and Rex raise their two children. It is here that, as Rex bears silent witness, Irene tends her garden and wrestles with what seems to be her fate. And it is here that their marriage unravels -- inexorably, bitterly, spectacularly.





*POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novella incorporates themes of abortion and suicide.



Australian housewife Irene has for some time grown to feel that she's become uncomfortably locked into a seriously stifled domestic existence. Though she can't deny her husband has proven to be a good and faithful man, she misses the more wild, carefree side of her spirit that got consumed somewhere along the path of marriage and motherhood.


Irene makes it clear she likes her son but seems to be easily annoyed by her daughter. "Boy" is often light-hearted about life, enamored with American country music, while "Girlie" has a very serious nature, a writer spirit who tends to interpret things in their most literal sense. She's not much appreciated by either adults or fellow children.


Irene and Rex have a pretty good bond in the early years, but begin to show signs of slowly drifting apart over time as the children grow up. Along with decreased affections, tensions steadily rise between them. Whispers of infidelity begin to surface. Irene's coldness towards her daughter also increases while parent-child boundaries between her and her son become uncomfortably blurred. (WHY are they having tub time together in his teenage years?!!)


"Like many women of her class, Irene's mother maintained a separate bedroom from her husband; he could make his own arrangements. On the rare occassions she thought about sex, it was to envisage the gully at the bottom of the hill near her house --- gloomy, vine-tangled, rank with the smell of still water and furtive animals."


Well, if that's the example Irene had to grow up with.... 


Finally hitting her limit with everything one day, Irene rather heartlessly decides to leave a letter confessional addressed to husband Rex out in the open --- where anyone might stumble upon it --- in which she admits that the son he helped raise all these years was actually fathered by her ex! The unraveling of the relationship from that point of confession continues to drive the narrative to its headshaker of an ending.


Snake is a quick novella read with alternating POVS: Part 1 is presented in second person voice, observing Rex; Parts 2 & 3 are in third person observing both Irene and Rex as a couple, while also offering perspective from Billie, an Army friend of Irene's who also served as one of her bridesmaids. Billie gives the reader details on Irene's pre-Rex promiscuous years, history that might play into why she was the way she was with Rex years later; Part 4 goes back to second person voice, but with the voice now focusing on Irene. 


I won't lie, this one was a weird little read. It's gritty and stark, the descriptions of bleak Australian landscape often serving as an extra character to enhance the dark mood between our human players. The plot is grim but the writing itself is fascinating, bringing the reader into full-on rubbernecker mode til the very end. I didn't always entirely understand how some scenes connected to the plot as a whole and in the later bits of the story there seemed to be a strange fixation on bugs and mice that also left me scratching my head a bit. 


In some ways, Snake reminds me of my reading of Nabokov's Lolita. Maybe not a story you'd return to often because it's so cozy and good... both books will undoubtedly induce a good skin crawl or two .... but you stay with the pages because THAT WRITING THO. Though an author might lead you down some dark, sketchy paths, a reader can't but be taken with a finely woven sentence (or hundreds of pages of them!). This is one such book. Take it for a spin at least once just for the sheer experience of quality "less is more" writing craft.

A Seat by the Hearth (Amish Homestead #3) by Amy Clipston
A Seat by the Hearth (Amish Homestead #3) - Amy Clipston

Priscilla Allgyer left the community to escape the expectations of Amish life. Now, years later, she is forced to return—along with her six-year-old son—to the place she thought she’d left behind forever. Though once estranged from her family, Priscilla is welcomed by her mother, but her father is cold and strict. He allows Priscilla to stay with them provided she dresses plainly, confesses her sins, and agrees to marry within the community. Once again, she feels suffocated, trapped, and alone. As Priscilla reluctantly completes her shunning, she catches the eye of Mark Riehl, a farmer with a playboy reputation. Wary of Mark, Priscilla barely gives him the time of day—while Mark, unused to being ignored by the women of Bird-in-Hand, won’t give up the pursuit of her friendship. Priscilla desperately needs a friend in Mark, even if she doesn’t realize it—and after Priscilla’s father and the bishop catch her and Mark in a compromising situation, their relationship becomes more complicated than ever. As affection quietly grows between them, Priscilla struggles to open her heart and reveal the painful secrets of her past. As Mark works to earn her good faith, can they both learn the hard lessons of love and trust? And can two friends discover a happiness that only God himself could have designed? The third book in the Amish Homestead series, A Seat by the Hearth invites us back to the Lancaster community where friendships are forged and love overcomes all.






Several years ago, Priscilla Allgyer, a childhood best friend of Laura Riehl (one of the main characters of Book 2 in this series) made the decision to leave her Amish community. Now she's back in town with young son Ethan in tow, a child born out of wedlock. Feeling limited in options, Priscilla puts aside her pride and returns to her parents' home, hoping they will be gracious enough to leave the past in the past and let her stay, at least until she can come up with another solution. 


Priscilla's mother is overjoyed to see her and gladly welcomes her in with open arms. Not quite the same story with her father. He agrees to let her and Ethan move in with them, but he's got some conditions: Priscilla is to 1) return to wearing Amish clothes 2) confess her sins and become a full fledged member of the church and 3) get herself an Amish husband ASAP. Hearing her father lay out his terms, Priscilla is quickly reminded of the restrictive aspects of Amish life that led her to flee town in the first place all those years ago, but for the sake of her son, she begrudgingly agrees to his rules. While she might have started out fleeing her Amish life, now she was escaping Ethan's alcoholic, abusive Englischer father, so returning to THAT life wasn't really an option... at least not one she even remotely wanted to consider.


While settling back into her old Amish ways, Priscilla becomes reacquainted with Laura's twin brother, Mark Riehl, the community's local ladies' man. While inwardly she can't deny how physically attractive she finds him, outwardly she keeps her distance. Being well aware of his reputation of fickle affections towards the ladies, that's the last thing she needs in her life right now. But Mark claims he's just here to be a good friend to her. He tries to be patient with her, sensing she's "going through some things right now"... but at times gets frustrated that she allows only minimal interaction between them, even on a platonic level.


While Mark might claim he only wants to be a good friend to Priscilla, everyone else in town immediately sees these two are clearly headed for a future romance. Or so Clipston wants the reader to believe. Much like the problem with the first book in this series, we're being TOLD these two have a growing romantic warmth between them, but the bulk of their actions / interactions barely revv up beyond good, solid friendship. In fact, the whole big drama that does end up forcefully pushing these two together comes about because Mark is honestly and innocently comforting Priscilla as she releases some pent up emotional pain. However, his nearness to her, when seen by outside eyes, is deemed inappropriate. To save face -- and potential expulsion from the church -- Priscilla and Mark are forced to come together to make a difficult choice about their respective -- and possibly combined -- futures.


Without any real heat between them developed, the will-they-won't-they element of the plot was a little dragged out, but the novel still has a worthwhile story in Priscilla's personal journey, navigating a life dictated by men who prove to be letdowns. Growing up with an verbally abusive father, she has little to no self esteem / respect cultivated in her, so out in the Englisch world it's no great surprise that she ends up being targeted by a similar kind of man. Tricked by initial kindness, she gets caught up in an unhealthy relationship she has no clue how to leave. The only idea she has is to come back home to the life she tried so hard to break free from.


A reader can't help but feel for her. It's almost like she has to pay triple-fold for her life path --- fleeing first the abusive father, then a physically abusive boyfriend, THEN having to regain her place within the Amish church... and she's not even accepted right away. She has to go through a process of taking classes, attending services, extra confessions and meetings, gradually working her way out of shunning status. She can't eat with her family or neighbors, can't use her own money at Amish stores until she's cleared of the shunning ... and for what "crime"? Wanting a little breathing room in her life? Wanting to seek out and experience deep-down soul contentment, in whatever form that took? The process breaks her heart time and again, yet she fights to stay strong for  her son, who needs this safe space away from his dangerous father.


Clipston gives a hint that a little over five years has passed between the first book in the Amish Homestead series to now, and there's one more to go. Several of the characters in the previous book hinted that they'd like to see flirty Mark maybe try to settle on one girl and here we are trying out that storyline! While the romance was flat for me, I cheered every time Mark stood up to Priscilla's verbally abusive father! 


Oh, and the running joke between Laura and Allen featured in Book 2 gets an extra little nod in this story as well. :-)


The final book in the series, due out this May, is set to feature Laura and Mark's baby sister, Cindy Riehl. 


NOTE TO READERS: Clipston does do a good job giving readers refresher information within these novels so you can catch up with characters between installments, but given that there ARE crossover characters, inside jokes, and a definable timeline moving along (within the Riehl family especially) throughout the stories, I would recommend reading the series sequentially.


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





3.5 Stars
Daughter of Neptune by Theresa Wisner
Daughter of Neptune: ...found at sea - Theresa Wisner

This powerful memoir touched the hearts of both readers and reviewers. Theresa Wisner follows in the wake of her fishing brothers to the far outposts of the world in an attempt to please her fishing father. With impeccable detail, Wisner paints a picture of life at sea from a young woman’s perspective. With courage and grit, she tells the story of addiction and recovery, and coming of age far later than most. Daughter of Neptune powerfully captures the beauty and the coarseness of a foreign world that creates the backdrop for healing.






Theresa Wisner has done extensive traveling all over the world. She has twenty years of experience in commercial fishing, served as a chief steward in the Merchant Marine, she's even the recipient of the Congressional Antarctic Service medal. Largely driven by a lifelong need to feel acceptance from an often emotionally distanced father, Wisner's travels and work experiences culminate in one impressive tale of a woman time and again pushing herself to succeed in a male-dominated industry. 


Daughter of Neptune documents not only her life at sea, but also land-based downtime during the fishing off-season, divided between part-time waitressing work and off-time hours spent at various dive bars around the world. Introduced to the fishing industry (through her father) at a mere nine years old, Wisner grows up learning the ins and outs of the business before eventually following the path of three of her four older brothers, who all joined fishing crews. Wisner's experiences are unique in that of the crews she's signed onto, she's often either THE only woman or one of only a couple on board, meaning her stories are seasoned with humorous, sometimes crass locker room style behavior from her shipmates, not to mention an intensive trial-by-fire approach to on-the-job training, whether serving on deck crew or in the kitchens.


Right from the opening lines, the reader is immediately thrust into Wisner's salt encrusted landscape, painting such an atmospheric scene as to make it clear to the reader why she's so drawn to this particular way  of life:


I smell the salt. It's carried on the breath of the earth here, and in the mist that hangs in the air. It clings to the inside of my nose and it tickles and is tangy, all at once. On my skin, a damp coating of fine crystals. I lick my lips and taste the sea.


Later on, she writes of being on a ship while sailing past Priest Rock, approaching the Bering Sea. I was not familiar with this point prior to reading this book, but her description had me immediately doing an image search for a visual and while having never been there myself, I can't help but feel her words must ring spot on truth. 



Wisner's unvarnished account of her experiences is admirable. While maybe not every little detail is divulged, she doesn't shy away from being upfront with the reader when it comes to discussing her struggles with depression, occasional suicidal thoughts, and addiction -- the fight, the recovery, relapse, and gradual journey back to recovery once again. It's also interesting to read an account of someone whose livelihood is dependent on a life at sea battling sea sickness the first few days of every new trip, even years into such a career! 


She's also real about the job itself. Point blank, Wisner lets readers know there's plenty about the work that is flat-out disgusting and sometimes even boring. She brings you in and lets you imagine: days or weeks aboard a ship with no shower facilities, your body and clothes covered in a hardened layer of salt, sweat, blood and fish guts. Wisner points out that many men she sailed with just got used to that state of... dishevelment, shall we call it... and just waited until they were back in port somewhere before considering a wash up. You can imagine how ripe they must have been by then! Not being about that life, Wisner devises a system of heating water and then transferring it to a garden watering can, pouring the water over her as a makeshift showerhead.


There's also some mention of the disappointing state of the trash filled oceans around the world, how it's hard to ignore when you're living in the middle of it.


Even if one manages to freshen up after a long day's work, Wisner explains that there's still the bouts of boredom one has to learn to navigate. But while she might feel disappointment at the monotony of weeks at sea, there's also a freedom in it. You can become comfortable in the reliability of routine. Still, it's the sea... a place where you definitely don't want to get too complacent.


The irony: when you're on land you itch to get back on the sea, when you're on the sea, you long for the conveniences and socialization of landlubber life. You're never guaranteed to mesh well with the crew you're hired on to. Early on, she talks of sailing experiences with old salt Phil, who seems alright at first, but turns out to have a violent side when it comes to processing shark meat. When he sees the looks she gives him, his response is "You'll understand when they eat $1000 of your fish." Umm, no, Phil. You fish shark territory, so technically, you're stealing THEIR food... Don't know that Phil and I would've gotten along so well, lol. 


Wisner admits to quite frequently feeling the temptation to quit, but it always comes back to the need to feel a connection with her father. Not only does he not like quitters, but this fishing life brings about a closeness between them that nothing else can. So she stays.


The writing at times lacks a bit of the finesse one might expect from an established professional writer --- some passages could be edited down, while others beg more detail --- but any technical shortcomings are certainly well made up for through Wisner's heart coming through, particularly through her honest account of the struggle of child-parent relationships when they move into the child's adulthood. 


My heart plunges with shame of not being good enough. Not being big enough. And especially not being boy enough.



Wisner, above anything, wants her father's approval. Every action, every life choice, on some level, is driven by this fact. She just happens to have the kind of parent who is reserved (to say the least) when doling out affection and evidence of pride in their offspring. I saw so much of my own father in Wisner's, I felt a sense of ... community, almost (maybe also because I was raised a "Navy brat" lol)... on a level I don't often reach with memoirs. I felt it most strongly with the passages where she gets into the hardships of such a relationship in adulthood.... where you have a parent you still seek approval from, even when reason tells you the bulk of their actions don't deserve or inspire respect... but as an adult, you can't help but acknowledge that that IS still your parent. If they gave you nothing else, they did give you life, so it's not unfathomable or even uncommon to feel responsible for them as they age, regardless of how they might have wronged you. Man, did I feel the truth in that. 


While this book has only been out a short time, I've already seen it drawing comparisons to Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I can see where similarities could be drawn between the two, but I personally wasn't all that impressed with Wild. While shorter in length, I found much more heart and realness to Daughter of Neptune. Though I will say: a little admission here, Below Deck is one of my "guilty pleasure" tv programs, and I could also see some similarities between that and this, so if you're a fan of that show, maybe check Wisner's book out! 


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








* If you want to add some ambiance to your reading experience with this one, I had OCEAN STORM SOUNDS playing in the background while I did my reading! 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
Room on the Porch Swing (Amish Homestead #2) by Amy Clipston
Room on the Porch Swing - Amy Clipston

Laura Riehl is no stranger to heartache. Less than a year after her mother’s death, Laura finds herself burying another loved one: her best friend, Savilla, who has died after a brief and sudden illness. Laura feels heartbroken and alone, but her pain is nothing compared to that of Allen, the husband Savilla has left behind. He now faces a life so different from the one he imagined—plus a baby to care for on his own. When Laura offers to help Allen with baby Mollie, he jumps at the opportunity until a permanent solution can be found. She’d do anything to lend a hand to Allen and to honor her best friend’s memory. Rudy, Laura’s boyfriend, is initially supportive of her plan, but the more time Laura spends with Allen, the more jealous and frustrated Rudy seems to become. As Laura and Allen face hardships together, their friendship takes a surprising yet comforting turn—and she discovers an attraction she’s never felt with Rudy. Would falling for Allen betray the people she cares about most, or would denying those feelings betray her heart? This latest installment in the Amish Homestead series returns us to Lancaster County, home of the beloved Riehls, where a family’s strength—and advice from a new friend—may help Laura find God’s direction.








In the first installment of Clipston's Amish Homestead series, readers witnessed the Riehl family navigating through the unexpected loss of their matriarch. While the first book focused on the life of Jamie Riehl, Room On The Porch Swing, the second book of the series, opens with Jamie's sister, Laura, suffering the unexpected death of her best friend, Savilla, only months after her mother's passing. 


Savilla leaves behind a husband, Allen, and a newborn, Mollie. Initially, Allen's mother-in-law comes in to help with Mollie, but when a fall leaves her with a broken leg AND hip, Laura steps in and offers to help Allen with childcare and other domestic needs. The more time Laura spends at Allen's house, the more suspicious her boyfriend, Rudy, becomes. It's all very innocent at first; Laura's focused on looking after Mollie, cooking meals and helping with the laundry and household cleaning / upkeep. But as the months pass, Laura begins to realize she is in fact developing feelings for Allen, feelings that go much deeper than anything she's ever felt for Rudy. But there's also a sense of guilt mixed into that... how can she possibly allow herself to fall for her best friend's widower, especially only months after Savilla's passing? Laura tries her very best to keep things professional and platonic, but regardless of her intent, little Mollie makes it clear to everyone that Laura is the one she prefers above anyone (except maybe dad and grandma). 


The chemistry between Laura and Allen --- even at the friendship stage --- was infinitely better than that of Jamie and Kayla from the first book (Jamie and Kayla do get a few brief appearances in this second one, btw, for those curious how their story progresses).  The pace and depth of the growing bond between Laura & Allen seemed much more believable than that of Jamie & Kayla. There's also an extra layer of interest provided in the form of Rudy's aggravation / jealousy. It keeps the reader invested, waiting to see in what way(s) his frustration will manifest itself once his patience does finally run out.


Another wonderful element to the story is the sweet, supportive relationship between Laura and her twin brother, Mark. Sure, he spends a bulk of the novel being the lighthearted jokester character who loves being the town ladies' man... but there's also some great scenes where he turns into the protective and concerned brother when he sees his sister hurting. Laura makes a mention in this book of how she'd love to see Mark settle down with a great girl, so that may be addressed in the remaining two books in the series. 


One of the best takeaways from this story is how Laura's experiences with men illustrate the differences between a relationship where you are truly valued, and missed when you are away, versus being involved with someone who is not so much invested in you specifically but merely uses you as a relationship placeholder or afterthought... a possession to have there because society tells the person SOMEONE should be in that spot... "might as well be this person here". It's a clever lesson in self respect and the importance of being truly appreciated Clipston leaves her readers with at the close of this book! 


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

4 Stars
Family Reminders by Julie Dannebery, illust. by John Shelley
Family Reminders - Julie Danneberg, John Shelley

Ten-year-old Mary McHugh’s world is shattered when her father is injured in a mining accident in the late 1800’s. After losing his leg, Mary’s father falls into a deep depression. He no longer plays the piano or has interest in carving the intricate wooden "Reminders" that he has always made to remind the family of the milestones they shared together. To make matters worse, the family may need to leave their home in Cripple Creek, Colorado in order to make ends meet. Mary’s love for her father and her desire to get life back to "normal" push her to take a chance that restores her father’s spirit and brings her family a new life, strengthened by the hardships they have endured.





Young Mary McHugh is growing up in the frontier town of Cripple Creek, Colorado in the late 1890s. She has a very loving home life full of jokes, laughter and her father's wood carvings he calls "reminders", since he tends to carve figures inspired by real life memories. 


Mary's father, a miner, experiences a work accident one day that costs him one of his legs. The transition into life as an amputee is not an easy one for Mary's father. Even once a large part of his initial physical healing has passed, he still struggles with the emotional turmoil brought about by this new life situation. Mary's father doesn't like to see his wife having to take up work as a laundress to pay the bills now that he is out of work... or Mary herself sneaking in babysitting jobs where she can to supplement the family income. Once a man who took pride in doing an honest day's work, Mary's father now battles a sense of uselessness. But when suggestions are made as to what he can contribute (work-wise), he goes back to moping. 



But Mary is determined to do whatever is necessary to raise her father's spirits and keep the family unit strong. It is through Mary's bold, optimistic spirit that an answer to the family's prayers comes about, guaranteeing the reader a happy ending to close on. Once he gets his groove back, Mary's mother can't help but lightheartedly comment, "Guess he got bored with his orneriness." 


Although Daddy didn't respond, I saw the corners of his mouth turn up. Just a tiny bit. And a new feeling, a spring feeling, lifted my spirits just a tiny bit too. After that, Daddy's hands were always busy. He made the bookshelf for the parlor. He worked on a new bench for the front porch, and he also began carving new Reminders. Mama didn't mind the mess...I didn't mind the mess either. I loved to sit beside Daddy at the kitchen table while he worked. It was like magic to watch him uncover the secret hidden in the wood. His hands were strong and sure as he held the carving knife. 




Family Reminders is a quick little read --- big print, lots of heartwarming illustrations --- but there's a fair amount of heart and inspiring, feel-good plot, even a little humor, woven into these few pages! Author Julie Danneberry writes that the storyline is loosely inspired by the childhood of her grandmother, who grew up in the real Cripple Creek, CO and who also had a father who lost a leg in a mining accident. I'd recommend for fans of the Little House on the Prairie books. 

3.5 Stars
His Lovely Wife by Elizabeth Dewberry
His Lovely Wife - Elizabeth Dewberry

When tall, blond, and beautiful Ellen Baxter enters the Paris Ritz the day before Princess Diana dies, she’s mistaken for Diana by the paparazzi. The next morning, as Ellen’s older, Nobel-laureate husband attends a physics conference, she goes to the site of the fatal crash and finds an uncharacteristic photograph of Diana. Surprised by how deeply the death has affected her, Ellen pockets the photo. As she hears Diana’s voice in her head and begins to understand the parallels between their lives, she tracks down the person who took the photograph, hoping that this man who deals in surfaces can penetrate her beauty, as he did Diana’s, and help her love the woman inside. Elizabeth Dewberry’s complex, surprising novel uses string theory to weave together two women’s lives and explore a culture that celebrates women for their beauty―then exacts a terrible toll.





American Ellen Baxter travels with her Nobel Laureate husband to Paris, where he is to attend a physics conference. As he socializes with colleagues at the hotel restaurant -- "the most interesting conversation I've had in months" --- nice of him to say to his wife *eye roll* --- she decides to take in the sights of the city.


Ellen's first day in Paris happens to be the day before the tragic death of Princess Diana. Papparazzi mistake Ellen for Diana. It confuses her, but after the crash Ellen feels compelled to visit the site of the wreck. There at the site, and after (back at the Paris Ritz Hotel), Ellen begins to hear the voice of Diana and gradually begins to see interesting parallels between their lives.


The cover of this book might lead you to believe you're going into a fluff read. At times it is, but largely the story ends up being much more layered than it lets on. Through the story of Diana's sad marriage, difficult divorce and untimely death, we also learn of similar hardships in Ellen's marriage (minus the death part, obviously). Put the two stories together, and the reader gets a compelling study of a woman's role as a wife in general terms --- the good and the bad, the struggle to get out from under the shadow of a spouse society deems the more successful one. But no worries, it's not all heavy. There's plenty of humor slid into the mix as well. This story had me thinking how entertaining it might have been to trade mother-in-law venting stories with Diana! 


A couple of things for readers to note:


* There are no chapter divisions in this book, only paragraph breaks to indicate scene change --- just a heads up if you're a stickler about format.


* Some of Ellen's inner thoughts are pretty sexually explicit or otherwise graphic... again, just a warning for readers who prefer to keep their stories tame.


If you're at all interested in anything to do with the Princess Diana story, this novel is a unique take on the events, while also bringing in thought provoking commentary on the concepts of domestic harmony and maintaining a strong sense of self-worth while in a partnership.






* When picking up this book, you may notice that it is dedicated to the novelist Robert Olen Butler. Elizabeth Dewberry was previously married to Butler, but the marriage crumbled after a rather public revealing of an affair with media mogul Ted Turner. 

2.5 Stars
A Place at Our Table (Amish Homestead #1) by Amy Clipston
A Place at Our Table (An Amish Homestead Novel) - Amy Clipston

Kayla Dienner has suffered her fair share of heartache, which is why she vows to protect her heart at all costs . . . until she meets Jamie Riehl. Along with his volunteer work at the local fire department, running his Amish farm keeps Jamie Riehl busy. He barely has time to eat at the family table, never mind find someone to date. But when he meets Kayla Dienner, he is smitten. Kayla tries hard to deny her attraction to Jamie. After all, she’s spent the last year discouraging her younger brother, Nathan, from becoming a firefighter. The death of their older brother in a fire a year ago is fresh in her mind—she can’t bear the idea of putting her heart on the line every time the sirens blare. Then tragedy strikes, and Jamie wants to extinguish any flame between him and Kayla. Can Kayla set aside her own fears to save the love she was determined to deny? The first book in the Amish Homestead series, A Place at Our Table invites us to a quiet community in Lancaster County where love burns brightly no matter the cost.





Jamie Riehl has his hands full trying to find balance between his work as a part-time volunteer firefighter and his duties at the family's dairy farm. Now, at twenty-five, his parents are heavily hinting that he should be looking to settle down with a nice girl, but where is he supposed to fit that in?


Meanwhile, Kayla Dienner is still mourning the loss of her eldest brother, also a firefighter, who lost his life during a call last year. This year, Jamie's crew is called out to the Dienner home (Kayla shares with her parents and fourteen year old brother, Nathan) after a lightning strike sets the barn on fire. Nathan had rushed out to the barn to try to get the animals out but got trapped inside when a beam fell. 


Jamie's crew are able to rescue Nathan. Full of gratitude, Nathan confesses to Jamie and Kayla his own desire to become a firefighter. Kayla is vehemently against the idea but Nathan is not one to give up easily, spending the rest of the novel getting the rest of the Dienner family to come around to his way of thinking. 


Jamie and Kayla begin to spend more and more time together, a moment here and there, mainly through the barn raising put together to replace the previous ruined structure. They butt heads from time to time but can't deny that they are drawn towards each other in some way, even if neither will admit these feelings go beyond friendship. Kayla gets a push towards love from an unexpected source: Eva, the widow of Kayla's deceased brother, Simeon. Eva, in so many words, urges Kayla to see that while it might be scary to risk one's heart, the experience, for better or worse, will be better than keeping the heart in a state of numbness. 


The story opens and (nearly) closes with a fire, there's a part about 9 1/2 chapters in where something mildly exciting happens, and then... well, that's about the most action you'll get out of the plot on this one. Everything else reads like a lot of filler, chapters and chapters full of little more than Do I / Don't I debates or "You like him /her!" "No, I don't!" back and forths. The plot just doesn't hold momentum well. 


Nathan was a well-written character EXCEPT the fact that his dialogue rarely sounded like the speech of a fourteen year old. More like he alternated between sounding about 9 or, suddenly, a 40 year old man LOL. I don't know, maybe that's not an uncommon trait for real Amish kids, but it read weird.


There was definitely a cute and heartwarming friendship between Jamie and Kayla, but IMO the romance there was FLAT. Flat, flat, flat. But of course you can expect to find an almost Insta-Love element here. While Kayla's character may read a little obnoxious to some, the way she wants Jamie to make her first priority over the fire department, there is an element of reality there. Being a fire wife myself, I can attest it is a very real concern in this type of relationship, one that takes years to come to terms with... the fact that no matter how much you love the man, you can never be top priority. You just can't. The nature of the fire department doesn't allow it. Until the day your spouse retires, you basically have them on loan from the department. Firefighters do the best they can, but if they made you top priority the way you want, every time you want, they'd likely be unemployed pretty quick. The structure of the job asks you to be available 24/7.


*Note: in her author's note, Amy Clipston mentioned that she did consult with the guys at Monroe, NC FD during the writing process, but no word if she also got some WIFE perspective on the job... because that definitely is a whole other animal with its own set of challenges that the firefighter would really only have an outsider perspective on.


And yes, on the wife's end, it IS aggravating. I still get mad about it some days, so I can understand Kayla's frustration. The demands she makes on Jamie are a little on the unreasonable side, but it's early on in their relationship when we meet them here. There are more books in the series where we may see Kayla mature into the position of dating / be married to a firefighter, where maybe she better understands the sacrifices that will be required of her to make the relationship work. Eva gives her some pointers on this as well, in this book. Jamie needs some time to mature some as well, at least mentally... it sounds odd at his age to have to ask "I'm sorry we fought, are you still my girlfriend?" Something I would expect a preschooler to ask! 


This first novel in the series does touch upon important themes of death, grief, and regret stemming from feeling like you didn't appreciate a loved one enough before their time came. I'm just hoping the storylines in the later books of the series prove a little more captivating. 


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.


3 Stars
Exhiles by Ron Hansen
Exiles: A Novel - Ron Hansen

In December 1875 the steamship Deutschland left Bremen, Germany, bound for America. On board were five nuns, exiled by a ban on religious orders, bound to begin their lives anew in Missouri. Their journey would end when the Deutschland ran aground at the mouth of the Thames and all five drowned. Ron Hansen tells their harrowing story, but also that of the poet and seminarian Gerard Manly Hopkins, and how the shipwreck moved him to write a grand poem, a revelatory work read throughout the world today. Combining a thrilling tragedy at sea, with the seeming shipwreck of Hopkins's own life, "Hansen brilliantly, if soberly, weaves two interrelated story lines into a riveting novel" (Booklist on Exiles).





Inspired by a true story, Exhiles novelizes the tragic story of the steamship Deutschland, which set out in December of 1875, leaving its German port for the shores of America. It never reaches its destination. Onboard, among the passengers: a group of five nuns, ages ranging between 23-32, exhiled by a government ban on religious orders, with the goal of traveling to Missouri in hopes of starting up an American branch of their order: Sister Henrica, Sister Brigitta, Sister Barbara, Sister Aurea, and Sister Norbeta. Though the novel itself is quite a quick read, we still get a bit of a history on each of these women:


* Sister Henrica (previously known as Catharina): The reader / writer of the group. At only 15 years old, suffers the loss of her mother (died in childbirth). Grief develops into piousness, but she doesn't have the goal of taking vows right away. First, she takes up the mother role in the family, gets a job in a dress shop (her boss sees her as an "old soul" type). By the time of the trip to the Americas, Henrica is chosen to be Mother Superior of the new North American convent.


* Sister Brigitta: Born to tenant farmers, grew up shy and sensitive, often ill as a child. She grows into a pretty blonde-haired, blue eyed young woman. She's encouraged to find a suitor, which she tries to do but often gets bored with the process, often finding ways to slink off with a book somewhere. *I feel you, girl*


Image result for vintage reader art

"Girl with a Golden Wreath" by Leon Francois Comerre



Sister Barbara: ("Barbara" comes from the Latin "wild, rough, and savage", Saint Barbara was executed by her own father!); Sister Barbara grew up the tomboy daughter of a shoemaker. She was plain of face, didn't like dolls, and was known for having wide open energy and zero filter of the mouth LOL. She also grew up a mostly friendless, lonely girl who loved the woods, was good as sports, but couldn't muster enough focus for reading. Once she was at the marrying age, her mother tried to match her with single farmers in the area (because of the life of poverty common for most at that time, Barbara's man-like strength was appreciated in the farming community), the matches never really panned out. But she parlayed her toughness into work in midwifery and as a triage nurse during the Franco Prussian War. Barbara was famous for her stoic, no-nonsense approach to life. Her tough-as-nails demeanor often got her labeled as a "harridan" among adults, but around children she often became a complete marshmallow.


Sister Aurea (previously Josepha): We don't get to know too much about her other than she's the rebel and jokester in the group. She sends the others gasping at the announcement that she wants to check out the men's bathroom on the ship: "Wide enough to swing a goose in, but small enough the goose would object" LOL Prior to becoming Sister Aurea, little Josepha is a happy soul who loves to laugh and sees beauty in the church life, but feels guilty "having committed sins against chasity" with her first crush, Werner. The nuns saw her as "just a wild puppy that needed to be house-trained... and impossible to dislike."


Sister Norberta (previously Johanna): Norbetta, like sister Brigitta, was also born to tenant farmers but at birth she was so small she was not expected to live long. But because she did indeed survive, her parents vowed to dedicate her life to the Catholic Church. Her mother treated her as a literal gift from God, which caused Johanna to act a bit haughty and spoiled. By the age of 21, she was 5'10, heavy-set and plain-faced. Friendless and without any suitors, her father declares, "she's become impossible." When he dies a few weeks later, Johanna blames herself.


The sisters travel without a male escort, and insist on paying extra so they may travel in 2nd class rather than steerage. They are all in wonder of the lavishness of the accommodations, even if small. The ship hits an underwater sand dune and when the crew checks the weather situation, they realize they are sailing into a developing hurricane; 130 pages in, the reader is thrust into a scene of crashing items, glass bursting, people being knocked about. The reader is then made to witness the nuns die off, one by one. Makes for a bit of tough reading, once you come to know and like the personalities of these women, more so when you remember this all was based on a true story!


Image result for german nuns 1800s


There's also a bit of a secondary story incorporated into this brief novel: that of poet & Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was inspired to write an ode to the steamship Deutschland running aground at the mouth of the Thames River. Gerard, based in Wales, reads the newspaper reports of the downed ship and how the recovered bodies of the nuns have been laid out for viewing in Statford. Hopkins had previously been a published poet who destroyed his work as a religious act of stepping away from vanity. But when a fellow priest suggests the story might be poem-worthy, Gerard finds himself inspired to get to work crafting his ode.



Gerard Manley Hopkins



The first chapter is a little slow but once we get into the life stories of each of the nuns, and the way Hansen eases into the night of the tragedy, his classic way with words ultimately has the reader breezing through the pages of an incredible story. I admit, I didn't become fully invested until the closing chapters, but I enjoyed the journey just the same (as much as you can with this kind of story!).


Hansen includes Hopkins' ode in full at the back of this book. Personally, the rhythm / where Hopkins chooses to put the line breaks had an odd flow for me... but it's there for anyone curious.

3 Stars
Mariette In Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Mariette In Ecstacy - Ron Hansen

The highly acclaimed and provocatively rendered story of a young postulant's claim to divine possession and religious ecstasy. In 1906, a beautiful seventeen year old postulant enters the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion in upstate New York. When she begins to bleed from her hands, feet, and side, the entire community is thrown into turmoil. Is Mariette a cunning sham, or sexually hysterical, or does God stalk her like a pitiless lover? Mariette in Ecstasy is a stunning immersion into the society of a small convent at the turn of the century, where a mysterious and ultimately harrowing world lies beneath the lovely, placid surface of everyday life. This is an intimate portrait of a fascinating young woman in the grip of an intractable fate, and it raises provocative questions about the complex nature of passionate faith. 






In 1906, seventeen year old Mariette decides to leave her life of wealth and privilege as the pampered daughter of a successful daughter to enter the Our Lady of Sorrows convent in Arcadia, New York. Serving as a postulant for the Sisters of the Crucifixion order, Mariette begins to show signs of stigmata. Mariette also confesses to having conversations with Christ that escalate into an all-consuming, nearly sexualized level of religious ecstasy. As Mariette's behavior and emotions become increasingly erratic, her explanation is that she desperately wants to experience the literal suffering of Christ. The nuns are beside themselves trying to figure out how to handle this. Once the story moves beyond the walls of the convent, a panel of church officials is pulled together to come in and interview the nuns to ascertain if Mariette is truly having a powerful religious experience or slipping into insanity. 


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Geraldine O'Rawe the 1996 film adaptation of Mariette in Ecstasy


From the childhoood of Mariette down to the nuns in the convent she joins, imagery of self persecution plays heavily into the whole novel. In fact, the novel opens with scenes of each nun starting her day and from the very first introduction to Mother Saint Raphael, we read of her practicing self penance through the wearing of thorned rosebush branches under her habit. There are also descriptions of nuns participating in flogging or various other forms of self-persecution or lying on beds of thorns to strengthen their commitment to the vow of chastity.


Mother Saint Raphael tugs her plain white nightgown up over her head. She is hugely overweight but her legs are slight as a goat's. Tightly sashed around her stomach just below the great green-veined bowls of her breasts are cuttings from the French garden's rosebushes, the dark thorns sticking into skin that is scarlet with infection. She gets into a grey habit, tying it with a sudden jerk. She winces and shuts her eyes. 


The entire novel spans the time period of a few months. Even for a brief story, there are some slower moments here, but the intensity certainly picks up the closer we come to the end! One incident and its aftermath are reminiscent of the stories of the Witch Trials era, as Mariette's life before and after entering the convent are investigated. The church panel wishes to determine: are her behaviors are a detailed hoax? Or is she being consumed by the Devil? Should she be kicked out of the convent? Committed to an asylum? 


I did feel for Mariette's father, the little we get to know about him. Being a doctor, he's a man of science who gravitates towards the tangibly provable. He struggles to understand Mariette's deep devotion to the religious world, he misses being able to have a normal, friendly father-daughter relationship without all the rules about contact, but he tries to be there for his daughter as much as convent protocol will allow. 


Mariette In Ecstasy does go to some WEIRD places at times, but what keeps it highly readable is Hansen's wonderful, slow-brew way with prose. And that last line! Love! 






* Author Ron Hansen himself is an ordained Deacon in the Catholic Church


* Ron Hansen wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his book. His characters were portrayed by quite a few notable names such as Rutger Hauer, John Mahoney, Mary McDonnell, and Eva Marie Saint.


The Reluctant Disciple by Jim O'Shea
The Reluctant Disciple - Jim   O'Shea

Ryan Kates is a paranormal expert, TV host, and skeptic. He hosts News4th, a nationally popular cable show focused on UFOs, ghosts, and everything that goes bump in the night. Ryan is used to dealing with the weird and unexplainable, but when bizarre paranormal phenomena rock the planet he finds himself questioning his long-held views. As these phenomena escalate, mass hysteria and political tensions begin to mount on a global scale. The world begins to spin out of control, and a former flame reenters Ryan’s life, bringing her family along for the ride. The pawns are moved into place, and Ryan must confront the ultimate evil on the world stage, culminating in a supernatural encounter far beyond his wildest dreams.





Ryan Kates is an expert on the paranormal with a top rated syndicated show, News4th. Funny thing is, he's secretly a skeptic. Yep, doesn't believe in any of the topics he delves into on News4th. That is, until recently, when news is flooded daily with stories of people suddenly going missing, UFOs (in the most literal definition of the word) seen in the skies around the world, growing mass hysteria that Ryan can't easily debunk. 


Looking to get some extra help on the investigation end of things, Ryan hires on ex-girlfriend from thirty years ago, Eleanor, who has recently been widowed and looking to restart her life. Eleanor is brought in to be the show's resident psychologist as well as a team researcher. Ryan wants her to look into all these cases of missing person reports and UFO sightings and see what's really behind them. Is the world looking at aliens? Politically motivated kidnappings? Or is it something closer to home, such as an enviromental anomaly or some sort of chemical warfare causing this global unraveling?


To bring extra interest to the plot, we the readers are also introduced to Eleanor's brother, Warren, whom she's been estranged from for a decade. Warren is a former priest who was excommunicated after performing two unauthorized exorcisms, the second costing him his eye and nearly his life. He now runs a private investigation firm but still has a friend of the cloth, Father Dimitri Chier, now holding a position at The Vatican. Warren is brought in not only to help with the research for Ryan's show, but also to try to help his niece, Eleanor's 22 year old daughter, Phoebe. Phoebe believes the ghost of her four year old daughter is haunting her apartment.


There's also an almost side character in "The White Whale", a cigarette Ryan keeps in a sealed glass tube. Ryan, a former smoker, keeps it on his person for most of the story to keep him on track and remind him of the thing that used to have such control over him. It also sort of serves as a kind of barometer for his stress level as the plot progresses. 


While this isn't a terribly long novel --- barely over 300 pages --- it's one I had to take my time with. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, there's just a lot of scenery to take in along the way! O'Shea has a little bit of everything here: UFOs, ghost stories, shadiness within the Catholic church, political intrigue.... it's one of those novels that can make your brain tired trying to keep it all straight if you take it too fast but O'Shea does an admirable job juggling the relevancy of all these different topics within one story! 


There's also a minimal amount of rekindled romance thrown in the mix, between Ryan and Eleanor, but it barely registers a blip of notice in the big picture. That end of things I found pretty flat, actually, but I didn't mind. Since I wasn't really here for a lovefest in this particular book, I was okay with it not being the focus. Actually kind of appreciated it to be honest.


It's a fun mix of paranormal & sci-fi, with a little bit of biblical prophecy / End Times speculative fiction mixed in. Aside from the End Times being used as a theme in the later end of the story, the religious aspect elsewhere is pretty light, so you need not worry if you're typically driven off by Christian Fiction publications. There's quite the ride waiting for you at the end of this one! It has a steady, not too slow build up to the final chapters which have some seriously WOW revelations and theories waiting for the reader. I'd recommend for fans of Dan Brown novels! 


FTC Disclaimer: BookCrash.com and 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.

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