EpicFehlReader
Review
4 Stars
Portrait of Vengeance (Gwen Marcey #4) by Carrie Stuart Parks
Portrait of Vengeance (A Gwen Marcey Novel) - Carrie Stuart Parks

Gwen Marcey has done a good job keeping the pain of her past boxed up. But as she investigates the case of a missing child in Lapwai, Idaho, details keep surfacing that are eerily similar to her childhood traumas. She doesn’t believe in coincidences. So what’s going on here? No one knows more about the impact of the past than the Nez Perce people of Lapwai. Gwen finds herself an unwelcome visitor to some, making her investigation even more difficult. The questions keep piling up, but answers are slow in coming—and the clock is ticking for a missing little girl. Meanwhile, Gwen’s ex-husband is threatening to take sole custody of their daughter. As Gwen’s past and present collide, she’s in a desperate race for the truth. Because only truth will ensure she still has a future.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Let me start off by saying that if you haven't read any of the previous Gwen Marcey stories, I'd recommend checking out the earlier books with this particular series. While the cases themselves could technically make for stand-alone works, there are characters and certain details of Gwen's life that are carried through all the books. 

 

In this fourth installment in the series, forensic artist Gwen Marcey is investigating the murders of a married couple within the Nez Perce tribe (Lapwai community) as well as the whereabouts of the victims' missing (presumed kidnapped) young daughter. Some of the particulars of the case, as far as clues at the scene and specifics regarding the profiling of the killer, appear to echo traumatic events from Gwen's own childhood. As the case / plot progresses, Gwen becomes more and more convinced that finding the answers within this present case will, in turn, answer questions about her own traumas that have plagued her for years.

 

The journey to the truth proves to be a solidly uphill battle, as Gwen finds that many of the key witnesses she is relying on for information have deep-seated prejudices against Caucasian people. In what's now become a signature mixture within this series as a whole, author Carrie Stuart Parks creates her characters and environments by bringing forth a compelling blend of historical fact, details / inspiration from actual true crime cases, and occasionally details from cases Parks herself worked during her own years as a forensic artist. While working within the Nez Perce tribal lands, our protagonist Gwen gets a crash course in the history of such traumatic events as Wounded Knee / Pine Ridge, as well as the development of AIM (the American Indian Movement). It takes little time for Gwen to see that she will need to tread lightly when working with the descendants of people involved in these painful moments within Native history. Though the years have passed, the hurt has hardly diminished. 

 

Having followed this series from the beginning, I couldn't help but laugh and shake my head to find 8 pages into this latest book that Gwen is STILL having fights & custody battles with her ex-husband. I couldn't help but think "it's been four books now, that kid can't have too much high school left for this argument to be relevant much longer.." I feel for Gwen there. On the happier side though, I'm loving that the stories within this series seem to be quietly steering toward a "Gwen & Beth Investigate" kind of trend. Beth has a bigger role in this book than in some of the previous ones. She's such a hoot, I love to see her getting more of the spotlight! Keep your dictionary nearby though. Beth loves her some "word of the day" usage and Parks works in some words that definitely had me feel like I was back in SAT prep days! 

 

The true star for me though has to be Winston, Gwen's Great Pyrenees dog. While Parks always gave him quite the humorously entertaining dog personality, he, like Beth, was more in the background in much of the previous books. In Portrait of Vengeance however, Winston gets solid book "screen" time, scenes that will make dog lovers cheer at the protectiveness of pups over their humans. Go ahead, hug your own pooch after this one. :-)

 

So far, the very first book in the series, A Cry In The Dust, still proves to be my very favorite. But this one is now in a close second. This book proved to be slightly more gruesome in parts than its predecessors -- in one scene, Gwen likens a crime scene to a Jackson Pollack painting. Yeaaah, I'll just let you art fans visualize that one. But if you're not scared off by a little edge, Parks yet again gives the reader one fun ride full of twists and turns that have you wondering who in this story is to be trusted! 

 

It was neat to read in Parks' acknowledgements that she wrote this story (at least in part) while participating in a writing retreat at author Colleen Coble's home. She further notes author Frank Peretti as a mentor in the process of developing this series as well. For fellow fans of Gwen's investigations: when asked whether a 5th book was in the works, Parks answered (via Goodreads):

 

"As of now, book 5 will be a stand-alone about an artist (caught up in a case) in Kodiak Island, Alaska. My publisher wanted me to take a break from Gwen. You'll be meeting Murphy."

 

 

I, for one, am looking forward to meeting this Murphy fella! 

 

 

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

 

------------------------

ICYMI -- My reviews for the previous books in the series:

 

#1 A Cry In The Dust

#2 The Bones Will Speak

#3 When Death Draws Near

 

* Gwen Marcey also makes a cross-over appearance in Colleen Coble's Mermaid Moon AND Twilight At Blueberry Barrens

Review
3 Stars
The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy
The Soldier's Wife - Margaret Leroy

As World War II draws closer and closer to Guernsey, Vivienne de la Mare knows that there will be sacrifices to be made. Not just for herself, but for her two young daughters and for her mother-in-law, for whom she cares while her husband is away fighting. What she does not expect is that she will fall in love with one of the enigmatic German soldiers who take up residence in the house next door to her home. As their relationship intensifies, so do the pressures on Vivienne. Food and resources grow scant, and the restrictions placed upon the residents of the island grow with each passing week. Though Vivienne knows the perils of her love affair with Gunther, she believes that she can keep their relationship--and her family--safe. But when she becomes aware of the full brutality of the Occupation, she must decide if she is willing to risk her personal happiness for the life of a stranger.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

This bit of WW2 fiction opens during the summer of 1940 on the island of Guernsey (Britian's Channel Islands). Vivienne is a mother of 2 girls: one still in her single digit years, one a teen. While Vivienne awaits the return of her soldier husband, she works through each day's hours holding down the homefront --- taking care of her girls, looking after her mother-in-law who seems to be showing early signs of approaching dementia, and squeezing in social visits with her neighbor, Angie. 

 

The reader learns that Vivienne's marriage is not the romantic image one might initially craft of the patient military wife. Though dutiful in her responsibilities, Vivienne's thoughts give the reader the impression that her marriage might have been one of convenience more than anything else. She admits to feeling little to no passion around her mister and may even have caught him in a moment of infidelity prior to his going off to war. 

 

Vivienne also reveals that she had opportunity to escape the island prior to the German occupation, but made the choice to ride the situation out, whatever may come. Though her choice doesn't put her in immediate danger, it definitely has its challenges. While it's not all bad -- the Germans bring chocolates and medical care readily available for everyone on the island via Dr. Max Richter, who comes in with the army -- pretty quickly there are new rules. The German army immediate sets up curfews for the Guernsey residents, a rule that proves to be quite a headache for Vivienne one night when one of her daughters goes missing.

 

Naturally our concerned momma bear shuns the curfew rule for the sake of her child's safety. Vivienne suffers a mild reprimand for her actions, but the whole incident leads to an introduction between her and Captain Gunther Lehmann of the German Army, a meeting which, over time, leads to a relationship (illicit though it may be) that offers Vivienne the kind of affectionate bond she deeply craves. 

 

Margaret Leroy's writing style itself is quite rich and beautiful here, it's just the plot itself I found a little on the bland side. There were certainly moments that had a strong pull on me -- particularly one moment near the end that's full of tension & sadness -- I just didn't experience that pull all the way through. Though I did finish the novel, I was hoping for some stronger intensity between some of the characters.  The major strength of The Soldier's Wife is its unique perspective on the challenges people of the era might have had to work around. The kitchen descriptions especially stuck with me: having to make meal after meal out of little more than parsnips (because, at times, that may be all that was available) or trying to brew coffee with a brass can oil lamp!

 

Another important takeaway that can resonate with today's readers is the transformation with the maturity level of some of the characters. The early chapters introduce us to certain British citizens soured by bad experiences involving a few German soldiers, which leads to a "one bad German = all Germans are bad" mindset already brewing at story's start. But time proves to these characters that such thinking is, in fact, toxic and that the poor choices of one should not unfairly condemn a race / nationality as a whole. 

 

 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3 Stars
Unraveling (#2 -- Unblemished Trilogy) by Sara Ella
Unraveling (The Unblemished Trilogy) - Sara Ella

Eliyana Ember doesn’t believe in true love. Not anymore. After defeating her grandfather and saving the Second Reflection, El only trusts what’s right in front of her. The tangible. The real. Not some unexplained Kiss of Infinity she once shared with the ghost of a boy she’s trying to forget. She has more important things to worry about—like becoming queen of the Second Reflection, a role she is so not prepared to fill. Now that the Verity is intertwined with her soul and Joshua’s finally by her side, El is ready to learn more about her mysterious birth land, the land she now rules. So why does she feel like something—or someone—is missing? When the thresholds begin to drain and the Callings, those powerful magical gifts, begin to fail, El wonders if her link to Ky Rhyen may have something to do with it. For light and darkness cannot coexist. She needs answers before the Callings disappear altogether. Can El find a way to sever her connection to Ky and save the Reflections—and keep herself from falling for him in the process?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

*NOTE: This is a continuation of a series, so we have some spoiler-y material down below. Click away now if you haven't read the first book and don't want spoilers!

 

 

 

But if you have read the first book, then you know that when we last visited this trio -- Eliyana, Joshua, and Ky -- Joshua was pushing to make things official with Eliyana ("El") and Ky took off to try to track down his missing sister, leaving a big question mark around the feelings that had been building between him and El throughout the first novel.

 

Now here we are in the second installment. Unraveling opens with Ky still gone, and Eliyana preparing to take the throne as the new ruler of the Second Reflection (modern day NYC serves as Third Reflection, with portals between the realms). Joshua is still around, attentive to Eliyana though there IS still something about his motives that feels questionable. El continually tries to convince herself that Joshua is the right man for her but in her quietest, most honest moments she can't deny that something between them feels off. She also can't shake off persistent thoughts of Ky, endlessly wondering of his welfare & whereabouts.  

 

If you, like me, were solidly Team Ky during the entirety of Book 1, no worries! Your guy is back! But it does take time for his story to come to the forefront. While the traditional chapter format is used to alternate between the voices of El and Josh, Ky's chapters (in his voice) are shorter and simply marked "Aside". But from them, we do learn what he's been up to since the close of Book 1 and that he's picked up the ability to read El's mind, even from a distance, which at first spooks her, then annoys her to no end until she ultimately accepts, even comes to appreciate it, seeing that it only goes to illustrate just how closely their souls are bound to each other. But what of that pesky Kiss of Infinity... was it Josh or Ky that got the TRUE binding kiss? That's El's big inner question for the first half of this second book. 

 

The other big mystery is the Callings. Something is making the various Callings (powers people of the Realms are either born with or come into) diminish or die off altogether. Also, the Thresholds (portals) between the Reflections (realms) are weakening, leaving people to fear that they will be trapped in one Reflection or another for all eternity if the Thresholds completely shut down. El journeys all over creation, desperately seeking the answer to this mystery, hoping she'll find the solution before it's too late. 

 

Finding myself such a big fan of the first book, this sequel immediately went on my mental anticipated releases list once I heard it was in the works! Once I finished Unraveling, I checked out online reviews out of curiosity. Seeing page after page of 4 and 5 star reviews, I just had to accept I was clearly going to have to be in the minority on this one. Let me be clear, I didn't hate this book, but MAN, was it a disappointment compared to the first book! 

 

It started off promising. The action was there early on -- we have someone dead by Chapter 2 already! -- but El, what happened to you, girl?! Unraveling, indeed! You went from being fun and quirky in Unblemished to whiny and obnoxious here! El just keeps re-hashing the same questions -- almost verbatim each time, I might add -- OVER. AND. OVER. AGAIN. El's inner monologue seems to be chock full of endless questions.  I found myself wishing El had a little bit more "warrior chick" to her personality in this story. She likes to TRY to assert herself from time to time -- "I am your queen!" -- but she doesn't have the presence to back it up. She seems to rely too much on everyone else to give her a direction to go in, her own mind too busy being too busy coming up with the next pop culture reference. 

 

That's likely what killed a lot of the story here for me. The strength of the novel as a whole gets ruined by what feels like author Sara Ella's insistence on pandering to the younger members of the millennial crowd -- for example, ending a sentence with " #nojoke ", or incorporating such cringe-inducing analogies as "shake it off Taylor Swift style." Blech. And the song references. THE SONG REFERENCES. Starts off a few here and there. Then suddenly it's EVERY FEW PAGES. Sara Ella tries to get away with it by writing in that Eliyana thinks in song lyrics but sorry, some of those references felt awfully forced. 

 

I get that everyone in our trio here fall between the ages of 17-23, so to some extent, writing in that style can be expected. My gripe is that it is most definitely overdone. Additionally, the plot in this second book suffers the double shot of having plot or character minutiae overly detailed while unfortunately being not nearly as entertaining and taut as the adventure readers were given in Unblemished. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll add that part of me (interest-wise) tapped out once the personal connection between Ky and Joshua was revealed. It struck me as a very soap-opera path to go down, which certainly didn't help my already floundering attention. 

 

There just weren't enough surprises for me in the plot as a whole. About the only things that caught me off guard were 1) the scene with the coral caves -- THAT was inventive! 2) the danger Khloe got into near the end of the book... but then, evil IS so often seeking the innocent, isn't it?

 

So if I had such problems with this plot how did it still get three stars outta me? Well, because there were things about it that I did, in fact, find myself enjoying a good bit. I do still like the character Ky, even if his love El grated on me during this part of their journey. {At one point Ky tells El, "You will always be enough for me," which is sweet... definitely something one always likes to hear out of a loved one... but as the reader, ol' El wasn't quite enough for me.}

 

I also quite enjoyed seeing the evolution of the sisterly bond between Eliyana and Ebony. Who doesn't love seeing progressive maturity in characters as a story unfolds over time, right? :-) For those elements, I am still invested in this series and will happily try out the conclusion due to come out next year. 

 

I noticed that in her author acknowledgements page, Sara Ella gave a shout-out to "author friend" Mary Weber, who penned the Storm Siren Trilogy. I wonder if Weber weighed in on plot brainstorming sessions at all. If so, this actually gives me hope in a way, because I had much the same issue with that trilogy -- absolutely adored the first book, was sorta meh about the second, came back once again really enjoying the 3rd and last book. I look forward to seeing if I have a similar result with the conclusion of the Unblemished series next year.

 

 

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

 

 

ICYMI: My review for Book 1, UNBLEMISHED

 

 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Concussion (nonfiction) by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Concussion - Jeanne Marie Laskas

Jeanne Marie Laskas first met the young forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu in 2009, while reporting a story for GQ that would go on to inspire the movie Concussion. Omalu told her about a day in September 2002, when, in a dingy morgue in downtown Pittsburgh, he picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he’d never intended. Omalu was new to America, chasing the dream, a deeply spiritual man escaping the wounds of civil war in Nigeria. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old named Mike Webster, aka “Iron Mike,” a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the greatest ever to play the game. After retiring in 1990, Webster had suffered a dizzyingly steep decline. Toward the end of his life, he was living out of his van, tasering himself to relieve his chronic pain, and fixing his rotting teeth with Super Glue. How did this happen?,Omalu asked himself. How did a young man like Mike Webster end up like this? The search for answers would change Omalu’s life forever and put him in the crosshairs of one of the most powerful corporations in America: the National Football League. What Omalu discovered in Webster’s brain—proof that Iron Mike’s mental deterioration was no accident but a disease caused by blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game—was the one truth the NFL wanted to ignore. Taut, gripping, and gorgeously told, Concussion is the stirring story of one unlikely man’s decision to stand up to a multibillion-dollar colossus, and to tell the world the truth.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Awhile back I picked up the book League of Denial, a nonfiction book by ESPN sportswriters (and brothers) Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. When I later went to watch the film Concussion starring Will Smith, it felt like almost a play by play of that book so I was guessing it was used as a reference. Admittedly, I wasn't watching the opening credits that closely where I would have likely seen that the movie was actually inspired by this book by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Well, technically this piece started as a 2009 article Laskas wrote for GQ magazine entitled "Game Brain", which she then expanded into this book. But once I did discover the Laskas credit, I figured why not go ahead and check out her book too. So here we are post-read. My thoughts? Hmm, a mixed bag, I think.

 

If you enjoyed the film but haven't picked up League of Denial, this will definitely give you an interesting background look at the key players in the history of the discovery of CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy). And it's a short read to boot, so there's that. But having now covered both books, my personal recommendation -- if your primary interest is on the topic of CTE itself -- would be to put your focus on the League of Denial book. Laskas even gives LOD a shout-out in her acknowledgements.

 

Laskas' book Concussion, while it can't help but hit upon some of the same material covered in League of Denial, felt more like a general biography of Dr. Bennett Omalu. Omalu's work with his mentor, Cyril Wecht, the discovery of CTE, all that ... Laskas doesn't really start to delve into that until about 90 pages in. So I found the title of Laskas' book to be a little misleading. You'll still learn the basic bulletpoint facts of CTE from her book, but you'll come away much more knowledgeable going with the Fainaru Bros. book. It feels a little odd saying that, as Laskas acknowledges spending quite a bit of time with Omalu himself, even having him write portions of this book himself, but that's my take-away.

 

That being said, I did enjoy the reading for the chance to get a little better background & insight into the man himself. Dr. Omalu is certified in four different areas of pathology: anatomic, clinical, forensic and neuropathology. He also holds SEVEN separate degrees including two doctorates, a masters in business administration and a masters in public health! It was interesting to learn the fitting history & meaning behind Omalu's name. Omalu is the shortened version of his original Igbo name Onyemalukwube, translating to "If you know, come forth and speak." His first name, Bennett, has a meaning of "blessed". Even his middle name, Ifeakandu (the name of the doctor who delivered him in Nnokwa, Africa in 1968 during the Igbo genocide), translates to "life is the greatest gift of all". Clearly, his parents envisioned glorious things for him, and it turns out they weren't wrong! 

 

Omalu started schooling at the age of three rather than the traditional starting age of five, mainly because he didn't want to be separated from his close-in-age older brother, Chizoba. But it didn't take long for teachers to see Omalu was quite gifted in intelligence. At age 12 he was awarded a scholarship to attend a school for gifted children, but since Chizoba didn't qualify, a separation of the boys was inevitable. Omalu did so well that he was able to START MEDICAL SCHOOL AT 16!! Omalu got into Enugu University in Nigeria, the same medical school where his older sister, Uche, got her medical degree. Seriously one impressive family in the brains department! (Sidenote: it's also where author Chinua Achebe was a professor).

 

Though things were going well for him academically, Omalu still felt the pressures of continuing conflict between Muslims and Christians in the area. After an episode involving a mental breakdown, it was thought maybe moving to the United States might help Omalu get a grasp on his mental health. His family pooled money together to get him on a flight to the East Coast of the US, but not before a somewhat laughable experience his brother set up: Omalu's brother arranged for a local prostitute to come by and de-flower him before he left Africa, but Omalu says the prostitute's "soulless eyes" spooked him so bad he chickened out. A neighborhood girl ends up getting the job done LOL

 

Once in the States, Omalu's struggles with depression continue. He also finds himself surprised by being faced with racism in the US, a land he had always pictured as a sort of paradise priding itself on equal opportunities for everyone. But he does find that professionally, putting his emphasis on labwork rather than patient interaction does give him some level of comfort in the matter. Omalu develops a fascination with the field of forensics because of death being "the great equalizer" (meaning that it sort of levels the playing field in that "all this, you can't take it with you" kind of way). He goes on to obtain a position as a coroner under the mentorship of Dr. Cyril Wecht (wonderfully played by Albert Brooks in the film).

 

Wecht's own career gained notoriety after he discovered JFK's brain went missing post-assassination autopsy. Wecht was asked to join a forensic panel to re-investigate the shooting of President Kennedy, and he was one of the first to come out and suggest the possibility of more than one gunman. Wecht went on to cover more high-profile cases: claiming that the death of Elvis Presley was likely a drug overdose, not a heart attack; Marilyn Monroe was possibly murdered; OJ Simpson did it but had help; JonBenet (in his opinion) was killed by her father during an act of molestation; he even weighed in on the cases of the Branch Davidians, Laci Peterson, Anna Nicole Smith, and the multiple murders instigated by Charles Manson. 

 

Omalu credits Wecht for giving him the freedom to research hunches regarding the possible existence of CTE in the cases of the football player autopsies. Wecht pushed Omalu to drop the meekness and become fearless, even ruthless if need be, about fighting cover ups by powerful corporations. At the age of 76 (the age where the film introduces him), Dr. Wecht was put on trial for mail and wire fraud, being accused of illegal use of government resources for his personal benefit. Wecht claimed it was just a ploy by people in power to get the attention off the discovery of CTE and the damage it could do to the all-powerful NFL (* Might sound crazy reading that, I know, but once you take in the books & film, his stance DOES make more sense... as Brooks' character says in the film, "Sunday used to belong to God, now it belongs to the NFL", in reference to the insane mountain of millions upon millions of dollars the NFL generates in revenue each year). Omalu, who loved Wecht like a father, was persistently pushed to testify against him. 

 

Because of Wecht's support of Omalu's desire to seek the truth, Omalu was able to pinpoint the specifics of CTE. Though Omalu left the brain of Mike Webster, his first professional football case, in storage for a month before studying it, once he dove in the findings were extraordinary. Dr. Omalu came to find that tau, a kind of lubricant, fluidy material in the brain, actually exists in ALL brains in small amounts. It's when TOO much builds up that you get problems. Persistent head traumas seem to up the production of tau, causing bundles of neurofibrillary tangles which then start to strangle out and kill off healthy brain cells. As more brains of football players found their way under Omalu's microscope, he furthered his investigation by interviewing survivors of the deceased players, building up case histories documenting evidence of speech and behavioral changes (for the worse) in the years prior to death, cognitive delays, financial struggles, scenes of domestic violence, marriage bust-ups, all the pitfalls of life you can imagine. He even went back and laid out the history of dementia pugilistica or "punch drunk syndrome", historically found in professional boxers... the symptoms? Nearly identical to those that Omalu's football playing cases complained of prior to their deaths. 

 

So all in all, a solid study into the life of Dr. Omalu himself, but when it comes to more specifically addressing the topic of CTE, this book comes off feeling like more of an overview. The writing style is entertaining to be sure, having much the feel of a sports documentary narration, but more "highlights reel" than anything.

_________________

 

EXTRAS:

 

>> The genocide of the Igbo people in the 1960s was later given the name Nigerian Civil War / Biafran War (1966-1970) after the tragic killings started receiving worldwide media coverage. Tens of thousands of Christian Igbo citizens of Nigeria, Africa were slaughtered by the Muslim Nigerian Army. Omalu's family was forced to flee their homeland just to survive. 

 

>> The book includes a several pages long glossy insert of photos covering Omalu's life. One photo shows the real Julian Bailes, played by Alec Baldwin in the film Concussion

 

>> Speaking of the film, the relationship between Omalu and his wife was MUCH more romanticized in the film (no surprise). No saying the marriage isn't good between them, just saying when you read the book, you find how the relationship unfolded wasn't quite how the movie laid it out. Also came to find out that the relationship between Wecht and Omalu was given a bit of a glossy finish as well... they actually didn't speak for seven years following the trial. 

Review
4.5 Stars
The Illusionist's Apprentice by Kristy Cambron
The Illusionist's Apprentice - Kristy Cambron

Wren Lockhart, apprentice to master illusionist Harry Houdini, uses life on a vaudeville stage to escape the pain of her past. She continues her career of illusion after her mentor’s death, intent on burying her true identity. But when a rival performer’s act goes tragically wrong, the newly formed FBI calls on Wren to speak the truth—and reveal her real name to the world. She transfers her skills for misdirection from the stage to the back halls of vaudeville, as she finds herself the unlikely partner in the FBI’s investigation. All the while Houdini’s words echo in her mind: Whatever occurs, the crowd must believe it’s what you meant to happen. She knows that if anyone digs too deep, secrets long kept hidden may find their way to the surface—and shatter her carefully controlled world. Set during one of the richest, most vibrant eras in American history, this Jazz Age novel of illusion, suspense, and forgotten pasts is perfect for fans of The Magician’s Lie, challenging all to find the underpinnings of faith on their own life’s stage.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Wren Lockhart rises from street swindler to apprentice to famed escape artist Harry Houdini. This novel opens in the months following Houdini's death in the 1920s. While focusing on the 20s, there are also chapters that periodically flash back to either Wren's childhood or her time working with Houdini (one such chapter involving their attending a seance performed by Margery Crandon, the Witch of Lime Street). 

 

Wren attends a demonstration being performed by a fellow illusionist. It is at this performance that a man dies. The death is investigated and once it's suspected that the deceased might have been murdered, the FBI gets involved. In walks in Agent Elliot Matthews, who approaches Wren in hopes that she might be able to provide valuable information, given her close proximity to the deceased at the time of their death. But Wren fears that the FBI's involvement, Matthews' questioning and prying specifically, could possibly uncover secrets within her own family she very much needs kept buried. Lives of family members are at stake. 

 

"Wren, you once told me you lost someone very dear to you."

She drew in a sharp breath, absorbing his swift change in subject. 

"Yes, I did lose someone once." She avoided revealing emotion with her quiet tone.

"The person you lost, what would you give to speak with them again? If only for a moment?"

"I'd give everything I own without a second thought."

"As would I, Wren."

 

After crafting quite the historical love story within The Ringmaster's Wife, author Kristy Cambron returns to the performance tent with The Illusionist's Apprenticea tale inspired by the true-life story of Dorothy Young, who was, in fact, brought on as an apprentice to Houdini in her teens! . Wren's impressive crowdwork is a delight to read, particularly during one scene when she and Agent Matthews team up on stage. Their banter is adorable and slyly cheeky! 

 

For those picking this up not realizing it falls under Christian fiction, have no fears of uncomfortable reading. The religious elements are actually quite light, not going much beyond light, passing mentions of "God's Light" or "King of Kings", that kind of thing. That and possibly Wren's repeated distinction between magic and illusion. She does not like being labeled a magician because she feels magic touches upon darkness. Illusion meanwhile (she reasons) is merely slight-of-hand work.  

 

Staring through the doorway to the glass house, Wren watched the melody of the birds' flight. Why hadn't they tried to escape? They never did. Not even in her stage show. They flew over balconies. Under theater ceilings. Turning endless circles in cages of glass... But the birds never found freedom. They floated from branch to branch, content in their caged world, when if they'd been brave but once, they could have flown out the next time they door had been opened....Why, when freedom was so close, did they cling to their chains?

 

Wren tore her gaze from the winged creatures, the fight to suppress emotion a losing battle. She let go for a rare moment, allowing herself to weep into her hands.

 

I came to find that I had guessed one of Wren's major secrets in the early chapters of the story, as well as pinning who the main "bad guy" would be at around the halfway point, though it is not actually revealed until pretty close to the end of the novel. So, somewhat of a predictablity factor there for me but still quite a fun read! I got a chuckle near the end, as characters are escaping a major fire, because the way Cambron describes the moment reminded me of the close of the first Die Hard film! 

 

*Bonus: If you're a fan of the Gwen Marcey series by Carrie Stuart Parks, Cambron gives a shout-out to her in the acknowledgements in this book, giving thanks for helping out with the toxicology elements of the plot here.

 

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

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3.5 Stars
The Hideaway by Lauren K. Denton
The Hideaway - Lauren K. Denton

After her last remaining family member dies, Sara Jenkins goes home to The Hideaway, her grandmother Mags’s ramshackle B&B in Sweet Bay, Alabama. She intends to quickly tie up loose ends then return to her busy life and thriving antique shop in New Orleans. Instead, she learns Mags has willed The Hideaway to her and charged her with renovating it—no small task considering her grandmother’s best friends, a motley crew of senior citizens, still live there. Rather than hurrying back to New Orleans, Sara stays in Sweet Bay and begins the biggest house-rehabbing project of her career. Amid drywall dust, old memories, and a charming contractor, she discovers that slipping back into life at The Hideaway is easier than she expected. Then she discovers a box Mags left in the attic with clues to a life Sara never imagined for her grandmother. With help from Mags’s friends, Sara begins to piece together the mysterious life of bravery, passion, and choices that changed her grandmother’s destiny in both marvelous and devastating ways. When an opportunistic land developer threatens to seize The Hideaway, Sara is forced to make a choice—stay in Sweet Bay and fight for the house and the people she’s grown to love or leave again and return to her successful but solitary life in New Orleans.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Sara Jenkins is an antiques dealer living in New Orleans, Louisiana when she gets word that her 72 year old grandmother, "Mags", (the last of Sara's immediate family, after being orphaned at the age of twelve) in Sweet Bay, Alabama has passed away. In addition to this news, Sara is told that she has been left her grandmother's home / business of sorts, The Hideaway Bed & Breakfast. Sara visits the property with the idea to immediately get the house listed so she can make a quick sale and truck it back to New Orleans to carry on with her life. Once on site however, Sara sees that what was affectionately being referred to as a bed & breakfast is actually more of a seniors' community made up of Mags' friends taking up residence in all the rooms. Quickly falling under the charms of these senior citizens, Sara decides to take on all the intensive, desperately needed renovations.

 

Whether she'll sell or stay, she's struggling to decide.... the choice becoming even more complicated once she meets the attractive contractor hired onto the job. While elbows deep in the work, Sara comes upon a box of letters & mementos belonging to Mags, items that tell of an entirely different woman than the one Sara thought she knew. The Mags in the letters is bold and wildly in love, far from the sweet, subdued nature of Sara's grandmother. As Sara tries to make sense of all this, she is simultaneously forced to fend of a greedy land developer interested in snatching up the property for a shopping area / apartment plan in the works. 

 

Told in alternating POVs -- between the story of Mags and that of her granddaughter, Sara -- this novel opens in modern times and spans back to the 1960s, when Mags' letters introduce the reader to her 22 year old newlywed self (albeit then known as Margaret Van Buren), already in a struggling marriage to a wealthy, respected, but emotionally neglectful (not to mention philandering!) man. It's largely through the letters that the reader is given insights into how the woman of status, "Margaret", became the artsy, go-with-the-flow, B & B owning- gypsy soul known as "Mags".

 

 

 

Well, I'll start off by saying that this is absolutely the perfect, easy-breezy, poolside kind of read. Perfect for fans of The Notebook! Not saying the plot is necessarily super-similar, just that the tone / feel one gets from this is similar to that Sparks novel. The Hideaway definitely has Hallmark summertime movie (adaptation, that is) all over it. While the plot itself is not terribly original --- person inheriting property, deciding what to do with it, going on a literal / emotional journey that leads to revelatory information about benefactor being brought to light in the process -- the characters themselves are what make this particular novel a solid good time. Each resident at The Hideaway is endearingly unique and heartwarming in character. 

 

That being said, there were just a few things that bothered me leading me to knock my rating down a bit:

 

*

Mags basically vilifies her philandering husband but kinda walks into a kettle-pot situation when she SO easily takes up with William. 

(show spoiler)

 

* And also this quote by Mags: "At 33, I'm long past the age of letting myself get swept up by a man, no matter how charming or handsome he may be." I just found that line depressing. One needs a lovely moment of getting "swept up" from time to time, regardless of age! 

 

* Sara's assistant in New Orleans, Allyn: I knew going in that this book was published through a Christian publishing house, so I don't know if that plays a role in this, but it bugged me that author Lauren Denton hinted at Allyn being gay in such a heavy-handed way but never actually uses the word. In an age where LGBTQ+ representation in fiction is so strongly requested and sought out, I thought Denton dropped the ball in this respect. 

 

Near the end of this novel, some of the "reveal" bits of the story, where issues are magically explained into sense, reminded me somewhat of some of the big plot reveals used in Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres. Personally, I wasn't entirely happy with the fate Denton wrote for The Hideaway property, as far as the specifics of how things were resolved. Still, I quite enjoyed the underlying inspiring theme of people finding a true sense of family and community with people who accept them just as they are... oh my, went a bit Bridget Jones' Diary there for a moment! 

 

Also, bonus points for throwing my own town into the mix of places used in this book! 

 

For those who might want to use this for a possible book group selection, a discussion questions guide is included in the back of the paperback edition. 

 

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

 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3 Stars
A Harvest Of Thorns by Corban Addison
A Harvest of Thorns - Corban Addison

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, a garment factory burns to the ground, claiming the lives of hundreds of workers, mostly young women. Amid the rubble, a bystander captures a heart-stopping photograph—a teenage girl lying in the dirt, her body broken by a multi-story fall, and over her mouth a mask of fabric bearing the label of one of America’s largest retailers, Presto Omnishops Corporation. Eight thousand miles away at Presto’s headquarters in Virginia, Cameron Alexander, the company’s long-time general counsel, watches the media coverage in horror, wondering if the damage can be contained. When the photo goes viral, fanning the flames of a decades-old controversy about sweatshops, labor rights, and the ethics of globalization, he launches an investigation into the disaster that will reach further than he could ever imagine—and threaten everything he has left in the world. A year later in Washington DC, Joshua Griswold, a disgraced former journalist from the Washington Post, receives an anonymous summons from a corporate whistleblower who offers him confidential information about Presto and the fire. For Griswold, the challenge of exposing Presto’s culpability is irresistible, as is the chance, however slight, at redemption. Deploying his old journalistic skills, he builds a historic case against Presto, setting the stage for a war in the courtroom and in the media that Griswold is determined to win—both to salvage his reputation and to provoke a revolution in Presto’s boardroom that could transform the fashion industry across the globe.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In the fall of November 2013, a garment factory in Dhaka, Banglaesh goes up in flames. The fire is so intense the entire building burns to the ground, killing hundreds of employees. One witness captures a photo of one of the victims, a young woman lying dead on the ground. Oddly, a piece of fabric bearing the logo of the company -- a major United States clothing retailer -- lays across her mouth. Once word of the fire hits worldwide media outlets, the news also finds its way back to the company's headquarters in Virginia. And boy is it news, because the company's CEO says he was under the impression that that particular factory had been officially closed for some time! Still, it's the company name on everyone's lips, thanks to the continuing media coverage, so a legal team is assembled to try to quickly, quietly, and hopefully successfully pull off a good bit of damage control. Head legal counsel, Cameron Alexander, soothes the concerns of CEO Vance Lawson, assuring him that people generally have short memories, so all they have to do is hire BP Oil's PR firm (you might remember that big ol spill of theirs?) and just wait for all this to blow over. 

 

Instead of the story quietly going away, news outlets continuing to air footage of the fire and all the sordid details of the company behind it only stirs up an even stronger hornet's nest of anger amongst those itching for a good reason to protest & picket. Soon, labor law wars ignite, inciting age-old arguments over work conditions & labor laws in general. 

 

Cameron took the pants in his hands and rubbed the spandex fabric between his thumb and forefinger, imagining mothers across America dressing their six-year-olds in them for Christmas. Of all the things to die for, he thought. 

 

The story then fast forwards years later, where the reader is introduced to Josh Griswold, a disgraced journalist who is given the opportunity to repair his professional reputation when he's offered up the chance to re-investigate the story around the fire and take down the corporate bigwigs behind it once and for all. 

 

So what new details does Griswold uncover after meeting up with labor activists in Bangladesh? A scandal of epic proportions! He's quickly schooled on the topic of "red listed" factories, locations officially closed down (usually over safety issues), which means they're obviously no longer backed by the corporations they previously produced inventory for... except .... well, it seems some locations are secretly kept open to cover the overflow of order requests when the "official" factory locations can't keep up with demand. The managers of the official factories quietly and very much under the table illegally subcontract the "closed" locations to help with those massive orders. The corporation itself (at least the big guys over at headquarters) are kept out of the loop. All they know is that their orders are getting filled. At least until PR disasters such as this hit. 

 

Griswold finds himself quite the human rights story to report. The company at fault were charged no fines and the survivors of the fire / surviving family members of the deceased victims were only provided a pittance of compensation money. Fire survivors couldn't even cover medical expenses with what they were given. Griswold digs even deeper and finds cases of outright exploitation, slave labor, even female employees being raped by site managers!

 

This novel will definitely raise the hackles of the socially minded reader. CEO Vance Lawson is a letdown. He outwardly presents himself as an innocent at first, almost likeable in the way he seems to honestly want to know how this tragedy happened and how future incidents can be prevented. He even relates to how the photographed victim appears to be the same age as his own daughter! But it's just sickening how stereotypically self-serving this guy turns out to be. The company's stance is to say that actions leading to the cause of the fire were "in violation of the code of conduct" but virtually no other action is taken beyond that. 

 

For history buffs out there, the prologue of this novel may bring to mind the similar (true life) story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. There are some commonalities as far as a sketchy, ultimately deadly work environment and CEOs that seriously dropped the ball when it came to protecting their hardworking employees. In fact, in both that real fire and this novel, we see examples of the senseless deaths of hundreds of people because financial greed was chosen over safety and respect for employees. A Harvest of Thorns itself is inspired by a factory fire that did indeed occur in Bangladesh in 2012. This novel is not an exact retelling of that tragedy, but the details of that day and the companies behind that real fire -- Sears, Walmart, Target, Gap... just to name a few -- certainly inspired the characters and settings of this novel, as author Corban Addison explains in his afterword. In 2015, Addison traveled to Bangladesh and interviewed survivors of that 2012 fire, which helped him craft the character and plot development you find in this novel. If you scan the acknowledgements, you might also spot that John Grisham served as a beta reader for A Harvest of Thorns. Though Addison himself is an attorney, it's likely that he also bounced ideas regarding the legal portions of the novel around with Grisham, a former attorney. 

 

Ugh. It's a tough read but a perfect one for getting meaty book club discussions going... just prepare yourself for the heat it might bring! While this reader didn't find the writing consistently riveting, it's a solidly important topic that needs to be looked at more often. This novel leaves one with an uncomfortable reminder of just how hard it is, as a consumer, to stay on the right & ethical side of things, no matter how much we may want to... even the seemingly trusty "Made In USA" tag can have its shady roots! 

 

Those interested in getting the conversation going will find helpful discussion questions provided within the hardcover edition (and possibly the paperback -- I say hardcover simply because that's the copy I was given). Additionally, you may want to check out the website truecostmovie.com

 

 

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

 

__________

 

Extras:

 

Corban Addison is also the author of The Tears Of Dark Water, another novel inspired by true events, which I reviewed last year (click to go to review).

Review
3.5 Stars
Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork | #AutismAwareness
Marcelo in the Real World - Francisco X. Stork

Marcelo Sandoval hears music that nobody else can hear --- part of an autism-like condition that no doctor has been able to identify. But his father has never fully believed in the music or Marcelo's unique perception of reality, and he challenges Marcelo to work in the mailroom of his law firm for the summer... to join "the real world". There Marcelo meets Jasmine, his beautiful and surprising coworker, and Wendell, the son of another partner in the firm. He learns about competition and jealousy, anger and desire. But it's a picture he finds in a file -- a picture of a girl with half a face --- that truly connects him with the real world: its suffering, its injustice, and what he can do to fight.

~from back cover

 

 

 

 

Seventeen year old Marcelo (pronounced "Marselo") is described as having an "autism-like" condition. That's as close as doctors can come to defining his unique gift of being able to hear music where no one else can. Unfortunately for Marcelo, his father doesn't see anything particularly rare or special about his son's gift. Instead, the father pushes Marcelo to take a job in the mailroom of his law firm --- dad's reasoning being that the position will teach Marcelo useful skills about "the real world"  and put him on the path to success, rather than let his mind run away with creative dreamer fancies. 

 

Once in the mailroom environment, Marcelo meets and befriends the lovely Jasmine and Wendell, the son of one of the partners at the law firm. As his father anticipated, the first days were an experience for Marcelo, to say the least, as another "autism-like" trait that Marcelo displays is a struggle with interpreting facial expressions. But thanks to classes Marcelo attends to help him learn tips & tricks to help him out with this (instruction in voice inflection, speech patterns, and the like), it actually doesn't take him too long to find his way. It's a tough time for the reader though. We have to watch Marcelo navigate around co-workers who assume he's mentally incompetent, or those who try to bully or take advantage of him because he can't immediate recognize that he is being tricked. This is the "real world" his father so desperately wanted him to be a part of... thanks, dad! 

 

 

"What's wrong with you, anyway? With the way you think. Your father said you had some kind of cognitive disorder."

 

"He said that." It surprises me to hear Arturo refer to me that way. He has always insisted that there's nothing wrong with me. The term "cognitive disorder" implies there is something wrong with the way I think or with the way I perceive reality. I perceive reality just fine. Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.

 

Marcelo develops a love for religious texts and often turns to reading or reciting scripture to himself to calm his nerves when the world starts to overwhelm him. At one point, he finds himself unexpectedly caught up in one of his father's most important legal cases, one that will push Marcelo to fight for what he believes in, regardless of what others around him might say. 

 

After being published in 2009, in 2010 this novel was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award for Teen Fiction, an award that recognizes fiction that focuses on characters with disabilities. 

 

I've come across pages of glowing reviews for this one, and while I did very much enjoy it, I can't comfortably join the 5 star crowd here. The story had some dents for me. I loved Marcelo, the way his mind worked and his unique style of interacting with others even if he didn't (admittedly) always understand all the unspoken social cues. Something in that I found myself relating to quite a bit. His friendship with Jasmine was undeniably sweet and I found myself wishing he and Wendell could get on a bit better. So the characters undeniably spoke to me on some level. My trouble was with the writing. Some of the characters came off just a little too weirdly staccato in their speech and mannerisms for my enjoyment. The flow of things just felt a shade off from natural. In Marcelo's case it's understandable and almost expected, given that he's been diagnosed with a "autism-like" condition, but that doesn't explain the other characters!

 

Also, if I'm being honest with my reading experience... there was just something a little... lackluster... with the plot as a whole. I was all about this story in the early pages! Those first few chapters definitely had me hooked. But this was one of those books where I could feel my love and interest of it slowly trickling down instead of racing up. Reading pages on end and then realizing later, "you know, that was actually a whole lotta nothing going on"... and the book's not even that long! Still, I did quite like Stork's message here -- the way Marcelo finds his own voice in a sea of so many others telling him what he needs or what he should do --- it made me curious to try out some of Stork's other works just to compare, so I now have a couple on order. Even with the elements I myself found problematic, I would still solidly recommend this to anyone looking for YA reads featuring the theme of autism and enhanced abilities. 

 

Review
5 Stars
Melting Down (graphic novel) by Jeff Krukar & Katie Gutierrez | #AutismAwareness
Melting Down: A Comic for Kids with Asperger's Disorder and Challenging Behavior (The ORP Library) - Jeff Krukar, Katie Gutierrez, James G. Balestrieri, Nathan Lueth

Based on dozens of intensive interviews with parents, clinical psychologists, teachers, and more, Melting Down is the illustrated fictional story of Benjamin, a boy diagnosed with Asperger's disorder and additional challenging behavior. From the time Benjamin is a toddler, he knows he is different: he doesn't understand social and emotional cues, does not know how to play with his sister or other children, and dislikes making eye contact. And his tantrums are not like normal tantrums; they're meltdowns that will eventually make regular schooling-and day-to-day life-impossible. Told from Benjamin's perspective, Melting Down gives a unique glimpse into the journey taken by children with Asperger's disorder and additional challenging behavior, demonstrating that the path toward hope isn't simple—but with the right tools and teammates, it's possible.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Benjamin spends his early school years struggling to make progress, not only in academics but also when it comes to social scenarios. He doesn't seem to understand the unspoken rules of the schoolyard. What is certain about Benjamin is that he does love learning! He loves all things involving history or trains, but becomes uncomfortable or even upset when asked to move away from those topics onto something else. Benjamin doesn't like interruption to his preferred daily routines and patterns and is prone to moments of intense anger, sometimes leading to physical altercations with teachers and / or students. At wit's end with the situation, his parents begin taking him to a revolving door of mental health professionals (not to mention the mountain of trial medications!), one doctor finally pinpointing Benjamin's behavior as Asperger's Syndrome. Through the doctor's recommendation, Benjamin is enrolled in Genesee Lake School, a school for students with special needs.

 

There, Benjamin learns proper coping skills on how to manage his feelings of anger and stress in a healthy manner, how to grade his moments of anxiety on a scale of 1 to 5 and take action accordingly, even how to do home skills such as cooking and laundry. The staff at Genesee teach Benjamin that he is not broken, he just requires a different approach to things in life. He is incredibly talented, he only needs to funnel that energy toward productive goals. Benjamin finds comfort in the new found order in his life. With the skills he learns at Genesee, he is able to finish school, take a job as a library aide, and even joins a tae kwon do class. 

 

Genesee Lake School is a real place in Wisconsin. The school not only provides education for autistic students, but also those with mood / anxiety disorders or victims of trauma. Dr. Jeff Krukar, one of the co-authors of this graphic novel, is Genesee's resident psychologist. He helps develop books for the ORP Library, a catalog of works that offer resource books for parents and teachers of students with mental disorders. The adult works are accompanied by graphic novels that can be provided to the students themselves, the idea being that between the two a dialogue between adults and children with said disorders might be more successfully reached. Melting Down is only one of many titles within the ORP Library. 

 

In simple, straightforward text and imagery, Melting Down gives children and adults alike a clear impression of what some of the often misdiagnosed or unaddressed challenges of Asperger's Syndrome are. The colorful artwork by Nathan Lueth keeps the reader's eyes entertained while also sucking you into the challenging life of Benjamin, a good kid who just wants to understand why life feels so hard. 

 

I much enjoyed experiencing the graphic novel portion of Melting Down and look forward to delving into its nonfiction companion book. In fact, I am most curious to get into the other titles within the ORP library which look at not only autism but also conditions / topics such as bullying, bipolar disorder, children with PTSD, and even the conflicting emotions that can come with being an adopted child. 

Review
3 Stars
A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin | #AutismAwareness
A Corner of the Universe - Ann M. Martin

Hattie Owen enjoys peaceful Millerton summertimes with "houses nodding in the heavy air," being in charge of Miss Hagerty's breakfast tray at her parents' boardinghouse, and drinking lemonade on the porch after supper. Yet this year, it's different -- Hattie's uncle Adam is coming home. Returning from a Chicago school that's just closed and whose existence is kept quiet by adult family members, Adam is a 21-year-old man with a child's mind, having a knack for talking quickly, a savant-like ability for remembering weekdays, and a passion for I Love Lucy. Hattie and Adam wind up spending precious time together -- including a visit to the recently arrived carnival with Hattie's new friend, Leila -- which makes her feel soulfully connected to her uncle, especially when he declares that she's "one of the people who can lift the corners of our universe." But when Hattie takes Adam on the ferris wheel one night, it sets off dramatic events that lead Hattie's family to strengthen its bonds and changes her life's outlook forever.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Young Hattie Owen has enjoyed the peaceful pace of life in her small Midwestern town of Millerton these past 11 years, helping her parents run the local boardinghouse. That pivotal summer in the 1960s, on the cusp of her 12th birthday, brings a new reality, one that will shake Hattie to her very core. That is the summer she is introduced to Adam.

 

Hattie grew up knowing her mother, Dorothy, to only have one brother, Hattie's Uncle Hayden. But quite suddenly one day, it is revealed that in fact she has another uncle, Adam, whose existence has been kept secret from her all these years. Adam, Dorothy's youngest sibling, has been away in Chicago, living at a special school for those with mental illnesses or disabilities. Though he was never given a certain diagnosis, it is believed Adam suffers from either schizophrenia or autism. Now that school is permanently closing, so Adam is sent home to stay with his parents until new living arrangements can be made.

 

Though initially startled by the news of Adam's existence, Hattie is undeniably curious about him. Before long, she finds they are actually something of kindred spirits, both knowing deep loneliness and a sense of not quite belonging in this world. It is also during this most important summer that a circus comes to Millerton, the biggest event to happen to the place in years! This circus brings Hattie a new friend, Leila, the niece of the circus owner and daughter of Pretzel Woman (a contortionist, I'm guessing). Leila's introduction into the story also fits in with the theme of not fitting into societal norms. In one conversation, Hattie asks Leila if it bothers her that people pay to stare at her mother who performs in a sideshow. Hattie's telling response, "It's better than them staring and not paying."

 

While Adam displays many traits commonly attributed to autism -- repetitive behaviors, fascination with / memorization of entire TV show episodes, emotional meltdowns over seemingly minor instances -- Hattie does lay out her confusion regarding his diagnosis (or lack of) and what it means in regards to the rest of her family:

 

I don't know exactly what is wrong with Adam, but maybe it is one of those diseases that runs in families. Maybe that is why Nana and Papa seemed ashamed of him. And maybe... is that why Mom and Dad never told me about Adam? To keep the knowledge of his illness from me? Do they maybe even think that I'm a little like Adam? Is that why Mom wants me to be like other kids -- so she can prove to herself that I won't turn out like Adam one day? I twist around and look at my family. I can't stop the questions from coming, And I can't ask a single one of them.

 

Though not overly complex in plot (but stayed tuned for the Ferris Wheel incident and all that follows up to the end!), A Corner of the Universe will definitely give young readers a small taste of the stigma that surrounded mental disorders during this era. Author Ann Martin does offer some impressive character studies within this story that will surely stir up healthy discussion. Most notably, there's Hattie's grandmother, one of the wealthiest women in Millerton. "Nana" had grand dreams of having that enviable family with the perfect husband and gorgeous & talented children. As life would have it, her youngest son required being placed in a group home and her daughter Nana pinned such hopes on, well... she "married beneath her", deciding to shack up with a "lowly" artist! Additionally, now her granddaughter has proven to be a bit of a social pariah, preferring to keep to her library books and inside her own mind. 

 

But it's not just Hattie's grandmother who causes her to wonder. When Hattie asks about why she is an only child, her mother responds with a pat answer of, "Well, you were just so perfect we didn't want to push our luck." After meeting Adam and observing how Dorothy acts around him, Hattie suspects she was kept an only child because her parents might have feared possibly having a child like Adam. 

 

Hattie doesn't see what the big deal is with Adam's condition. Though Adam is in his early 20s, his parents treat him almost like a toddler. Hattie witnesses his heartbreak when people stare, taunt him and call him things like "Freak Show". But she actually envies the way he views life. He is unabashedly happy in the small moments, endlessly entertained by the minutiae of one's day. Adam's love of soft & pretty things, not to mention is fascination with the lovely bank teller, Angel, boarding at the Owen home, brought to mind Lenny from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, who similarly had a childlike innocent love of the small things in life. But there is also a serious side to Adam that comes out when moments become especially trying for him, a side that shows he is all too aware of what is going on around him and how people see him. 

 

"No one knows," says Adam, "what it is like."

"No, I {Hattie} reply, although I think I might know more than most people.

"You are not an alien, Hattie. I am the only true alien."

But Adam is wrong. I am an alien too. 

 

This novel might strike some as a departure for Ann M. Martin, who is perhaps most well known for her Babysitter's Club series, but Martin also penned Rain Reign, which featured a young girl with Asperger's Syndrome who has a love of homonyms. Those curious about Martin's inspiration for A Corner of the Universe will find the Scholastic's After Words™️ section most helpful. It features an interview with Martin in which she explains that the idea for this particular novel was loosely inspired by events from her own life, namely an uncle she never met but was later told about who was deemed mentally ill. This section of supplemental material also includes historical overview blurbs of cultural topics Hattie references within her story. Also included is a neat reprint of a few pages from a 1960s era Junior Scholastic magazine!

 

above: "Baseball is a man's world! But girls are an important part of it. Why? Because almost every baseball is sewed by the nimble fingers of a girl. It has been that way since Civil War days, when baseball first became popular..."

 

 

 

For those curious about Adam's trick of being able to recall the day of week of any date in history, there is a page -- "The Amazing Day Finder" -- that teaches readers the math behind this trick so that they too can impress their friends! 

 

While there is some grit and sadness to the storyline, A Corner of the Universe does also show a love for small town life -- the way everyone knows you, the coziness of community coming together, small business owner pride, etc. While living in a small community can have its downside, readers who have experienced the good and have been distanced from it for a time will likely feel a little nostalgia for Hattie's particular little corner of the universe. 

 

A note to parents: this novel does describe a suicide near the end of the story. If you're particular about what images or information your child is exposed to during the younger years, maybe give this one a pre-read through. Though this book does include some sensitive material in that sense, A Corner of the Universe plays an important role in taking the first step towards educating youth on the importance of advocating acceptance and kindness to those who may be struggling with mental disorders / challenges. 

Review
4 Stars
Drawing Autism, an art book compiled by Jill Mullin | #AutismAwarenessMonth
Drawing Autism - Jill Mullin, Temple Grandin

Over the last decade autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has become an international topic of conversation, knowing no racial, ethnic, or social barriers. Behavior analyst and educator Jill Mullin has assembled a staggering array of work from established artists like Gregory Blackstock and Jessica Park to the unknown but no less talented. Their creations, coupled with artist interviews, comprise a fascinating and compelling book that serves to educate and inspire anyone who knows someone diagnosed with ASD. Mullin's introduction and the foreword by best-selling author Temple Grandin provide an overview of autism and advocate for nurturing the talents, artistic and otherwise, of autistic individuals.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Now in its second edition, Drawing Autism is a collection of artwork compiled by NYC-based behavioral analyst Jill Mullin. Mullin explains in her introductory essay how one year her work had her cross paths with an autistic artist living in a group home who showed extraordinary joy and talent through his artwork. Her acquaintance with this artist inspired her to seek out other talented artists with autism across the world. Mullin lays out her end goal with this project:

 

"Commonly in the media, individuals with autism have been shown to have great talents in certain areas such as science and math. The intention of this book is to display another area where individuals with autism can have great abilities."

 

Within this opening essay, Mullin also reveals that this project ended up being so successful that it helped greatly propel the featured artists into global notoriety, many of them being asked to do art showings all over the world. Mullin's essay is preceded by a foreword written by none other than Temple Grandin, one of today's most famous faces when it comes to autism awareness! Also included in the art collection are a few of Grandin's diagrams of her inventions (designs for more humane deaths for cattle in meat processing facilities).

 

Mullin wrote up a list of interview questions that she submitted to each artist she asked to be featured in this collection. From those questions, she pulls some of the most interesting or revealing answers, placing them alongside the artwork, giving the viewer / reader an eye-opening look into the world of an autistic mind. The collection as a whole is broken up into themed sections that illustrate common characteristics of the autism spectrum as a whole. For example, "Getting From Here To There" collects art pieces that focus on fascination with various modes of transportation; "Interaction, Individual and Societal" gives artists a space to express how they perceive themselves from a societal point of view. Many pieces in this section illustrate feelings of isolation, not being fully understood or accepted, frustration with miscommunications, etc; "Art For Art's Sake" is a place for the artists to just create for the sake of joy and fun. There's no particular deep meaning to the works in this section necessarily, just pieces that have made the artists happy or at peace in their souls. 

 

 

Personally, "Art For Art's Sake" and "Bird's Eye View" (pieces focusing on nature themes) were my favorite sections. I especially loved the works of Shawn Belanger -- his autism leaves him predominately non-verbal -- whose work is featured on several pages of Drawing Autism. The colors and movement of his pieces shouted a joy of life to me!

 

 

 

 

My very favorite piece though, I think I'd give that to "The Death of Love #373" by Charles D. Topping. I could not stop looking at it!

 

 

Some of the images, several actually, have definite grit and darkness to them. Some perusers of this book might be shocked at certain pieces if the paintings are only taken on their own. I would urge that you read the accompanying interview answers explaining many of the pieces. There you will see that while perhaps initially a shock to the eye, there is a purpose and / or a story of hurt behind the inspiration that you should hear. 

Review
4 Stars
The Dog Who Was There by Ron Marasco
The Dog Who Was There - Ron Marasco

No one expected Barley to have an encounter with the Messiah. He was homeless, hungry, and struggling to survive in first century Jerusalem. Most surprisingly, he was a dog. But through Barley’s eyes, the story of a teacher from Galilee comes alive in a way we’ve never experienced before. Barley’s story begins in the home of a compassionate woodcarver and his wife who find Barley as an abandoned, nearly-drowned pup. Tales of a special teacher from Galilee are reaching their tiny village, but when life suddenly changes again for Barley, he carries the lessons of forgiveness and love out of the woodcarver’s home and through the dangerous roads of Roman-occupied Judea. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, Barley meets a homeless man and petty criminal named Samid. Together, Barley and his unlikely new master experience fresh struggles and new revelations. Soon Barley is swept up into the current of history, culminating in an unforgettable encounter with the truest master of all as he bears witness to the greatest story ever told.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In 1st century Jerusalem, a pregnant stray dog gives birth to a litter of pups in a wooded area near the river. The runt of the litter is spotted by Micah, the young son of a wealthy landowner. Micah sneaks away from chores each day to play with the pup, until the day he is found out by his father. The father tries to have the whole litter killed but thanks to the efforts of Duv, a woodcarver, and his wife, Adah, the young pup is saved and named Barley. 

 

It is in the home of the woodcarver that Barley first starts to hear stories of an already near-mythic man from the land of Galilee. That's right, none other than than big man himself, Jesus! For seven years, Barley has a cozy home life full of love and treats. But one regular work day in town leads to tragedy for the woodcarver and his wife, a turn of events that once again puts Barley out on the streets. The scared canine is soon spotted by Samid, a homeless man / petty criminal, and his lady friend Prisca. Though the accomodations are significantly more humble than his previous pad, Barley takes what he can get and soon settles into a moderately comfortable routine with new pal Samid. Barley's life with Samid puts him in close proximity to Jesus, now in Jerusalem, so Barley is there to witness the final days leading up to the Passion of Christ

 

For dogs, no less than for people, firsts matter. They echo long past their point in time, especially in dreams. It's true of the good firsts, and very true of the bad ones. That's why when a dog cries in a dream -- even a full-grown dog, even an old dog -- the cry it cries is the cry of a pup, because that's what it is doing when it sleeps -- reliving a first. 

 

Well, right off, I will say that this is a unique way to breathe fresh new perspective into a tale that's been told a million times over! The writing sometimes struck me as somewhat simplistic but that could just be a natural by-product of the author choosing to tell the story from the inner thoughts of a dog. Perhaps the simplicity is intentional? Regardless, the benefit of a simple voice is that it makes this story perfect for sharing with readers within a wide age range.

 

Note that I was careful not to say "of all ages", because there is material within this novel that may be a little traumatic for the littlest ones in your life, whether they read independently or have you read to them. Barley witnesses (and describes) seeing the bodies of people executed by hanging, there are moments of extreme violence within Barley's own life, moments where he is injured, not to mention Barley relaying the sights of the Crucifixion itself near the end of the novel. The fate of Duv & Adah (the woodcarver and his wife) show just how rough and sometimes lawless this time period could be. So when it comes to the smallest of your story lovers, I'd recommend maybe first doing a read-through to see what you need to gloss over for them. 

 

Much of the story, as far as plot, while solidly enjoyable, lacked that little something extra for me. For the majority of the book, I kept waiting for that extra oomph to kick in. That said, I did enjoy the "voice" of our dog narrator and one of my favorite bits of the whole story was Samid and his friendship / something more? with Prisca. There was a good dose of humor and lively banter between them. I agree with Prisca, Samid outwardly appears rough around the edges, but you get the sense there's a good guy there deep down.

 

"Despair."

 

Samid said the word before she could. Which made them smile at each other, sweetly but sadly. 

 

"Why is our despair such a difficult thing for us to give up?" asked Samid.

 

Prisca replied, "I think despair is so difficult to let go of because it helps us to justify teh worst things inside of us. We think: I lack, so I can steal. I hurt, so I can injure. I failed at one thing, so now watch me destroy my whole life ... But when the despair is gone, we cannot help but change. We simply must."

 

The two were silent for a few moments. 

 

 

What ended up bumping this up to a four star read for me was simply Barley's observations during the Crucifixion. The way author Ron Marasco painted these scenes gave me a whole new visual of this event I've heard told in stories SO many times over. Yet something in the way Marasco illustrates it (in words) made it more real for me than nearly any other piece on the Crucifixion I've ever read. Ever. I physically flinched at what Barley describes himself seeing as the walk up to the cross is taking place. The attention to detail Marasco provides when describing the whippings Jesus is taking from soldiers, the way Barley winces and whimpers and thinks of him (Jesus) as Kind Man. It all just knocks you right in the heart! Beyond the Crucifixion scene, there is a further twist to the ending that I did not entirely see coming! 

 

 

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

 

 

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EXTRAS

 

Author Ron Marasco has a PhD in theater history and is a professor at Loyola University. He also has some acting credits to his name on shows you've likely watched! 

 

 

 

 

A note on promo blurbs & cover design:

 

First off, thumbs up for getting a blurb from Kristin Chenoweth on there. Love her!

 

But regarding the cover, I was one of a select group of bloggers who were asked to give their opinion on the few different design options designed for this title. Still bummed that my pick was not chosen, as I voted strongly AGAINST having to have a cover featuring a dog anus front and center. Particularly when there was one design (the one I voted for) that featured an ADORABLE dog's profile giving a little glance to the reader. I'll let it go though, because this cover dog does look similar to my mother in law's sweet pup. :-)

 

But props to Thomas Nelson Pub. for at least darkening that area to a little less off-putting level lol Also funny to read in the book the dog's coat being described as "off-white fur". I know it's a little hard to tell with the lighting but that cover dog looks as if it'd be pretty distinctly brown with maybe some black highlight areas. A little reading peeve of mine, when it seems like the cover designer didn't read the book they were designing for! 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Sunny Side Up (graphic novel) by Jennifer & Matthew Holm
Sunny Side Up - Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm

Sunny Lewin has been packed off to Florida to live with her grandfather for the summer.  At first she thought Florida might be fun -- it is  the home of Disney World, after all.  But the place where Gramps lives is no amusement park.  It’s full of . . . old people.  Really old people. Luckily, Sunny isn’t the only kid around.  She meets Buzz, a boy who is completely obsessed with comic books, and soon they’re having adventures of their own: facing off against golfball-eating alligators, runaway cats, and mysteriously disappearing neighbors.  But the question remains -- why is Sunny down in Florida in the first place?  The answer lies in a family secret that won’t be secret to Sunny much longer. . .

Amazon.com

 

 

 

It's the year of America's Bicentennial celebration (1976) and Pennsylvania preteen Sunny Lewin cannot be more excited for the family's summer trip to their beach house! But when her older brother's demons end up ruining family time at the fireworks show, Sunny's parents quickly decide it would be better for her to spend the summer visiting her grandfather in West Palm Beach, Florida. 

 

Not only is Sunny still reeling from the family drama brought on by her brother's struggle with alcoholism, but she's also not sure what to do with herself while trying to acclimate to her grandfather's retirement community, Pine Palms. Pine Palms has strict rules limiting the number of pets or children allowed on the property, so it's not so easy for young Sunny to find her place. Not to mention everyone is old and the place itself is about 2 hours away from Disney World! What's a kid to do?!

 

Luckily, it's not long before she does run into another child her age, Buzz. Buzz and Sunny are soon sharing a love of comic book stories as well as developing a little side business of tracking down "secret" (aka not technically allowed) pet cats of Pine Palms. Just as Sunny starts to settle into a "bloom where you are planted" mentality about the retirement community, she's struck by yet another struggle within the family -- her grandfather trying to hide his smoking habit from her. This is the last straw for Sunny. She is tired of trying to shoulder everyone's secrets and addictions on her small shoulders! Sunny gives the adults in her life a wake-up call that she is a child and needs to be allowed to experience these fleeting moments of innocence before it's too late. 

 

Adults that grew up in the 70s and 80s will have great nostalgic fun with this one! I myself was more of the 80s-90s era, but I could still spot plenty of pop culture references worked into the artwork: the unmistakeable 70s stylin' of the characters' clothing, Donny Osmond posters on the wall, loading up the station wagon to go to Sears to do school shopping, Sunny browsing lunchboxes with a Holly Hobby design faintly noticeable among the selections... it was just fun to make a sort of "I Spy" game of it all! 

 

 

The artwork style itself also brought to mind similar lines and colors seen in Sunday cartoons like For Better Or Worse and LuAnn, maybe even Zits. The coloring in Sunny Side Up is done by none other than Lark Pien, who also did the coloring for the Printz Award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang as well as Yang's follow-up work, the duology Boxers & Saints.

 

Even if the timeframe isn't your childhood era, there are some universal topics addressed within Sunny's story. I got a particular kick out of her starting school and getting a teacher her older brother had, and having to get the scowl when the teacher makes the connection between her and the troublemaker brother. O.M.G., do I ever remember going through that myself! LOL.

 

 

No doubt, Sunny Side Up touches upon some tough themes for young readers: a grandfather's secret cigarette habit, a brother's struggle with alcoholism, certain residents of Pine Palms showing signs of the early stages of dementia, even talk of the Cuban Revolution / immigration issues of the 1970s gets thrown into the mix.

 

 

Possibly uncomfortable reading for the young ones, but there is a point to it all, and an important one at that! In a brief author's note at the end, brother / sister author team Jennifer and Matthew Holm reveal that the idea for this graphic novel stemmed from their own tough childhood experiences. They figured there were likely other kids out there who have had or are having similar struggles that need to find stories they can relate to, stories that will possibly help direct them toward the help they need to get through these kinds of challenges. While some moments within this story are undoubtedly hard-hitting, the Holm siblings leave readers with a sense of optimism for the future and a reassurance that there is help and hope out there if you just stay the course and, as Sunny's grandpa reminds her, "keep your sunny side up!"

 

 

Fans of YA literature, note the shout-out to David Levithan in the acknowledgments section at the end! 

Review
3.5 Stars
The Angels' Share by James Markert
The Angels' Share - James Markert

Now that Prohibition has ended, what the townspeople of Twisted Tree, Kentucky, need most is the revival of the Old Sam Bourbon distillery. But William McFee knows it’ll take a miracle to convince his father, Barley, to once more fill his family’s aging house with barrels full of bourbon. When a drifter recently buried near the distillery begins to draw crowds of pilgrims, the McFees are dubious. Yet miracles seem to come to those who once interacted with the deceased and to those now praying at his grave. As people descend on the town to visit the “Potter’s Field Christ,” William seeks to find the connection between the tragic death of his younger brother and the mysterious drifter. But as news spreads about the miracles at the potter’s field, the publicity threatens to bring the depth of Barley’s secret past to light and put the entire McFee family in jeopardy. The Angels’ Share is a story of fathers and sons, of young romance, of revenge and redemption, and of the mystery of miracles.

 

 

 

 

It's post-Prohibition in Twisted Tree, Kentucky. William McFee, an aspiring journalist, is feeling a little stagnant with his writing lately and is just itching to get to work rebooting the McFee family's distillery business. William's father, Barley, doesn't exactly share his eldest son's level of enthusiasm, but still allows William to go forward with the reboot to see what might come of it. All William is certain of is that the family desperately needs a new, healthier direction to move toward. 

 

Barley is tough on William, referring to him as "a daisy" (a sentiment echoed by William's brother, Johnny) -- weak-natured, prone to panic attacks, preferring to read in the woods rather than hunt. But William doesn't exactly see his father as a role model. Quite the opposite, though he still holds out hope for his father to come around. Already emotionally strained with the difficulties that come along with raising William's physically disabled younger sister, Annie, Barley was left a shell of a man after the death of his son, Henry, from a car crash. Barley was driving the car with Henry as a passenger. Since that day, Barley has largely formed himself into a severely emotionally damaged alcoholic, hesitant to pull himself away from the safe space of his living room recliner. William is forced to watch as over time his parents slowly grow apart and his bonds with his siblings suffer cracks. It's not the life he wants for his family. Before long, just one seemingly insignificant act brings proves to be the impetus that brings about the new life William so desperately craves. 

 

Behind the family's distillery lies what's known as a "potter's field", a place where poor or homeless deceased with little or no family to claim them can be laid to rest. One such soul is brought to the McFee place. Shortly after the burial is completed, a band of twelve indigent people show up and set up nightly vigils around the plot, even squatting in a portion of the McFee's bourbon rackhouse. These travellers claim that they were followers of the man buried in that grave, a man known as Asher Keating, whom they believed may have actually been the second coming of Christ. William is skeptical. That is, until he sees that his sister Annie's legs seem to naturally free themselves of their crippled state with no immediate explanation. He then starts to suspect that this Asher Keating might have had a connection to the death of William's brother, Henry. 

 

Soon word travels of the site, bringing more and more people wanting to pray over the grave, needing a miracle. Keating gets dubbed the "Potter's Field Christ". One priest who visits the location even later claims he experienced stigmata upon returning to his church. Once the newspapers start writing of the wonders going on out at the McFee place, patriarch Barley starts to fear the media coverage will begin to swing light on the less noble, long buried secrets of the family's past. When Barley and William decide to team up and travel around to discover what the real story behind Asher Keating was, they discover that even he might have had secrets of his own. They hear plenty tales of Asher using only the laying of his hands on someone to heal depression, consumption (tuberculosis), even blindness. But then there are also accounts of Asher himself battling drug addiction, or even possibly being mentally unhinged or delusional. The McFee men aren't sure what to think, but they can't deny that the lives of so many seem to be changing for the better. It leaves the reader to ponder on the idea that it's not one's past that has to define a soul, only what their heart's true, pure intent is in the here and now. Mistakes of youth or demons of the mind don't have to add up to a life sentence of misery. Every new day presents an opportunity for a clean slate! A realization that comes to Barley almost too late in life, but even he makes his final moments count. 

 

Personally, I was so pumped to dive into this story. My fella and I travel around the South visiting distilleries as a mutual hobby of ours and I'm well acquainted with the area where this story takes place. Though the town of Twisted Tree itself is ficitonal, there is a brief shout-out given to the very real, very charming town of Bardstown, KY! A beautiful, quaint place to walk around, if you're ever in the area. So yes, right out the gate I would recommend this as a fun read for all the bourbon / whiskey connoisseurs out there.

 

If you do not consider yourself such, your enjoyment of this story may depend on your sensitivity level as a reader. Though some scenes of violence are depicted, I didn't find much in the way of overtly graphic material in the novel. However, it does touch upon some sensitive topics such as alcoholism, rum-running (bootlegging booze), racism and the KKK, and dealings with the Irish Mob. If this kind of material is of concern to you, you may want to tread carefully and see how you do. Otherwise, The Angels' Share is a quite enjoyable piece of historical fiction with a unique theme that doesn't come up in a ton of novels -- the inner workings of the business of distilling spirits, even the buildings themselves! {I can tell you from experience, standing inside a rackroom, taking in that dusty quiet while you look up at towers of barrels brewing is truly an experience of wonder!} Author James Markert infuses a healthy dose of slang from the era, which gives the whole work a fun, authentic feel that helps immerse the reader into that post-Prohibition time period. 

 

I also highly recommend reading the author's historical note provided after the close of the novel. Seeing as how the novel is entitled The Angels' Share, I was curious if Markert would likewise mention the flip side of that, what is known as the Devil's Cut. While "angel's share" is explained within the story of the McFees, "devil's cut" is not worked into the novel itself, at least not in the traditional sense. Markert explains that there is a scene within the story that is inspired by the idea of the "devil's cut", but he puts his own unique spin on it. For readers interested in the true history behind the terms, he does provide that in this historical note, along with some notes on "The Golden Age" when, as he says, "there were more bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky than people." :-)

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: In the case of this title, both TNZ Fiction Guild and BookLookBloggers kindly provided me with complimentary copies of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

-------------------

 

EXTRAS

 

"Angels' Share" : The amount of whiskey / bourbon that naturally evaporates from the barrels during the aging process. A portion of the brew evaporates & rises towards the heavens, hence, "angels' share".

 

"Devil's Cut": The portion of whiskey / bourbon that seeps into the wood of the barrels. Distilleries (namely, Jim Beam) now offer a "devil's cut" strain of their spirits, where they claim they are able to now extract the alcohol that was once considered just a small brewing loss. 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
God's Easter Miracles (Sea Kids #6) by Lee Ann Mancini
God's Easter Miracles: Adventures Of The Sea Kids - Lee Ann Mancini

In God's Easter Miracles, the sea kids learn that Easter isn't just about the Easter bunny or candy. It's about Jesus Christ giving up His life for all of us, and how we are to sacrifice ourselves for others. Paul, who is autistic, struggles with relationships. Jimmy doesn't want to share and Lenny clings to life due to a terrible boat accident. 

~from back cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's Easter Sunday, the day that celebrates Jesus Christ rising from his mortal death, and all the kids in the coralhood (rather than neighborhood) are coming together for celebration and fellowship. Sunday school brings the kids a lesson on that most important day for Christians, but it also leads to your standard Easter celebrations such as Easter egg hunting. Sunday school teacher Miss Linda has made this hunt extra special. She has told the children that anyone who finds one of the special eggs with a cross on it gets to pick a special gift from the classroom treasure chest as an extra treat! Naturally, all the kids are over-the-moon, excited! 

 

When the kids get back to the classroom with the baskets brimming with candy-filled eggs, autistic student Paul finds he does not have one of the cross eggs in his basket, causing him to have an emotional meltdown. Miss Linda discovers another student, Jimmy, has found two of the cross eggs and suggests Jimmy should give one to Paul. Jimmy is not immediately down with this idea but the whole scene is temporarily forgotten when manatee Brian gets word that his brother, Lenny, has been most seriously injured by a boat propeller. While Lenny's life hangs in the balance, everyone in the coralhood is quickly called together to begin a prayer vigil in hopes that Lenny will make a speedy recovery.  Though Jimmy attends the prayer vigil with everyone else, he still has an inner struggle with what the right course of action to take is, regarding Paul and the egg. Along with healing for Lenny, Jimmy also prays for guidance with his own struggles. 

 

 

 

I've adored this series from the very first book (and I've written up reviews for them all), but this one I struggled with a bit more than the others. The illustrations are still top-notch, but the plot left me with mixed feelings, at least until I got to the end. The ending brought everything together nicely and made it all make sense, as an ending should, but even so, I still had that thin vein of "I dunno, man.." continuing to linger. 

 

I applaud Mancini for incorporating a character with autism into the series but I'm not sure I entirely agree with how the teacher, Miss Linda, worked with Paul. First with the egg, I thought it unfair to put the responsibility of calming Paul's meltdown on his classmate, Jimmy. Jimmy was right, he found his eggs fairly, and it should be his natural choice whether to share or not. Though Miss Linda outwardly makes it sound like a choice, she is very heavy-handed with pressuring Jimmy to make the "right" decision. This causes Jimmy to have his own day of emotional upset thinking he is in the wrong for even debating giving up his honestly won prize. In my mind, I felt the responsibility of calming Paul should have been the teacher's alone, perhaps keeping extra cross eggs or a different kind of prize for such situations. I felt bad for Jimmy having to carry the weight of that situation on his shoulders. But I liked that Jimmy's father later comes in with the voice of reason that heals Jimmy's heart, basically telling him that if you want to do a kindness for someone, make sure it is truly a calling from your own heart, not because you're guilted into it. 

 

(Also, check out the wall art behind Jimmy's dad -- it's the cover from Sea Kids #3, I'm Not Afraid!)

 

 

Then there was the scene where Paul is struggling to write a get well card for Lenny. Miss Linda suggests she just write it for him. Again, not sure I like the message of just doing things for those with disabilities rather than teaching them how to best work with their physical or mental challenges. But as I said earlier, the book closes on a strong message: that generally speaking, giving ultimately provides the giver with a much richer and more satisfying experience than receiving a gift. 

 

I also liked the introduction (I don't recall seeing him in previous books, anyway) of Mayor Hammerhead. Hope to see more of him in future installments! 

 

 

And can we just talk about this illustration of Paul praying -- I can't get over how adorable it is! 

 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: GLM Publishing and ebook tour coordinator Susan Barton both kindly provided me with complimentary copies of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

___________

 

My reviews for the previous books in this series:

 

#1 Fast Freddy

 

#2 What A Bragger

 

#3 I'm Not Afraid! 

 

#4 A Servant Like Jesus

 

#5 God's Gift

 

Update

Hey Everyone!

 

I've been a little quiet here lately, figured I'd give a little update for those wondering what's going on. I had a flood of heartbreaks hit me all at once, it feels like. Mid-Feb. my mother in law landed back in the hospital for problems due to complications from the cancer she's been battling for years. She's doing better now, back at home, but shortly after that was when my husband was petting our black lab and noticed an odd looking lumpy spot on her rib cage. Took her to the vet, turned out to be cancerous. Thankfully, it also turned out to be what they call "low-grade", so they were able to surgically remove it but the recovery hasn't been super-easy on her, so that kills me to watch, but she is coming around to herself again. 

 

Shortly after that, I took some time for myself and went to the doctor to discuss some things that had been troubling me.... chronic fatigue that no amount of sleep seemed to shake, brain fog, stomach / gut problems, increased depression... a thorough blood panel was done and the doctor found my Vitamin D levels were in the single digits (on average, a healthy person's sits around 30).  Dr. explained that every problem I described falls under list of issues low Vit D can cause. Everything else came back completely normal (thankfully) but they're not quite sure what's causing such a low dip. I didn't eat terrible before -- I'm one of those weirdos that loves veggies and fish, lol -- but I'm just amping up the fish and veg that are Vit D heavy for a bit and then I have to go in for a re-test to see if that changed anything.

 

Then, the worst, on the 11th of this month, my mother unexpectedly, quietly passed away in her sleep (heart attack, we suspect). Understandably, that, more than anything has changed / affected me. I've been swamped with trying to get her final affairs in order. As far as my blogging and reviewing work, I've struggled. On some level, I want to write because it's what I know, it's my comfort zone... but I also can't find too much joy in anything right now. My motivation is mostly shot but I'm also not good at just laying around wallowing in pain. I was raised to be a person of action, of work / productiveness. That, too, is ingrained in me. 

 

I'm still struggling, but in the end work won out. I have deadlines coming up -- one today, in fact. Thinking about it though, work might be best for me right now. Not all at once, obvs, but it gives my otherwise wandering mind a focus right now. I guess when you don't know what else to do, go back to what you know? 

 

Anyway, that's what's been up with me. I'll be easing back into doing work as my energy allows. I've been doing this Vit D boost for a few weeks now and haven't really noticed a marked improvement in my symptoms but my mister pointed out to factor in everything else that has been going on... so I'm still fighting against the fatigue for awhile, it looks like. 

 

As a tribute to my mom, I am continuing on with working through the Outlander series. It was her all-time favorite series and sadly I never got around to reading them while she was here. I feel terrible about that. I had intended for this to be the year when I finally tackle those books and we'd discuss but mean ol' life had other plans. Still, for her, I am continuing on with that project.

 

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