4 Stars
Being Henry David by Cal Armistead
Being Henry David - Cal Armistead

Seventeen-year-old "Hank" has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything --who he is, where he came from, why he's running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David-or "Hank" and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of--Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead's remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.






A teen boy wakes up in Penn Station with absolutely no memory of who he is or how he came to be at the station. The only possible clue to his identity is a worn copy of Walden by Henry David Thoreau lying next to him when he awakes. Not long after coming to, mystery boy meets two homeless youths, Jack and Nessa, who give him some company while he tries to get his bearings. Not knowing what other moniker to give himself, and inspired by the copy of Walden he continues to keep with him, our narrator at first decides to go by Henry David but then shortens it to "Hank". 


Unfortunately for Hank, his new association with Jack unexpectedly gets him involved in a soured drug deal. Jack, Nessa and Hank realize they all need to split up for their own safety and survival. Hank's choice is to travel to Concord, Massachusetts, the location of the Walden Pond that inspired Thoreau's most famous work. Hank starts to suspect his memories are frozen because of something horrible he might have done, so while he half hopes to have his memory return, he also toys with the idea of just starting all over in Concord with a new identity altogether. 


As long as I have life, there is hope I can live better. 


It wasn't too long ago that I read Thoreau's Walden, so I was curious to see how a sort of YA mystery / thriller might be written around a piece of naturalist classic literature. For a debut novel, I found this to be an impressive entrance for Cal Armistead (threw me to later find out the author is female, I initially just assumed Cal was short for Calvin or something). There are quite a few mystery-thriller type stories starting amnesia patients on the market these days, and while this one doesn't always offer up the most tense plot -- there was a part there in the middle that got a little slow for me -- it made for a fun time reading how Hank put the pieces of his history together, little by little. As the memories trickle in, the people Hank interacts with -- whether it be his street friends Jack & Nessa; the HS janitor in Concord, Sophie; high school student Hailey; or the Harley-riding research librarian, Michael -- each one in their roles plays an important part in unlocking Hank's mind. 


I especially liked the almost father-like bond Hank develops with Michael. My one big gripe with the story is that the way Hank interacts with Hailey sometimes struck me as sounding much more middle-grade or jr high rather than someone in their late teens, on the cusp of adulthood, as Hank is described as being. 


So while the tension level of the plot might be more of the ebb & flow variety rather than more steady, the novel's end was definitely satisfying for me and, I thought, stayed true to the spirit of Thoreau, at least in terms of his writings. I found myself once again wanting to get out in my local woods! 



2.5 Stars
The Opposite of Love by Sarah Lynn Scheerger
The Opposite of Love - Sarah Lynn Scheerger

Rose is the wild girl nobody really knows. Chase is haunted by his past. Both are self-proclaimed "disappointments," attracted to each other enough to let down their defenses. When Rose's strict adoptive parents forbid the relationship it only makes things more intense. But Chase can't hide from his own personal demons, and Rose has secrets of her own. After they're wrenched apart, a cryptic email arrives in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, beginning a desperate pursuit and a look back over their tumultuous romance. Will they find each other before the night is over, or will they be torn apart forever?





Rose doesn't have many memories of her biological mother other than that last moment when a very young Rose witnessed the woman being arrested and hauled off for something. She always figured she would see her mother again soon, but after a short stint in the foster care system Rose is taken in the Parsimmons, or Mr and Mrs P. as Rose calls them. Now years later, Rose is a teen testing their patience on a daily basis. The Parsimmons are an older couple, very strict and conservative in their beliefs and parenting methods. So much so that with each infraction of the rules Rose has more and more freedoms taken away from her until she is basically under extreme house arrest, only being allowed to attend school and an after-school job without Mrs. P's supervision. Rose finds ways around the restrictions though and it's not long before she's befriended & soon dating troubled teen boy Chase. 


Chase has his own family struggles, what with his mother trying to rebuild her life with him and his younger sister after leaving an abusive marriage. But now said abusive father is trying to work his way back into Chase's life. Chase also struggles with his mother's questionable taste in equally disappointing new boyfriends. It takes all the teen's strength and mental focus to protect his baby sister while also keeping his own temper in check.


When Chase and Rose get together, it's not always smooth sailing between them but they do find comfort in sharing similar miseries. This budding relationship is put to the test though when Mrs. P discovers what's going on between them and puts Rose on an even stricter lockdown, one that silences Rose for 8 months straight, until Rose is finally compelled to send a cryptic message to Chase and her best friends that mysteriously reads, "I'm writing to say goodbye... please don't hate me for doing this..." Not knowing what to think, Rose's friends frantically search all over town trying to find her, scared to discover what she has in mind / what she meant exactly by that message. 


I hate to say it, but this was one of those books where the back cover blurb seemed to contain more mystery than the whole rest of the book. This is the second of Scheerger's books I've read and I'm not sure what it is exactly, but something about her writing style is just not quite hitting the mark with me. I get pulled in by the plot synopses because they sound like they'll be a bit thriller-ish, but the execution just falls flat. Both of the novels that I read were under 300 pages but it just felt like I had to really push myself to finish them. 


What irked me about this one in particular was the pointlessly heavy-handed profanity right from page one. It's constant and it's just crammed in there in awkward places in the dialogue. A trend I see in YA books that I just do not understand. Sure, teens like to curse, as do a lot of adults, but it's got to feel natural! Don't just shove it in there to try to spice up an otherwise slow, uneventful plot!


Also, what was with the persistent referencing to Chase's bulky size? Just say he's got a stocky build once when introducing him and I got it. But nope, instead I have to be reminded every other chapter or so of him being "a teddy bear on steroids", "his polar bear bulk", "he's not fat huge, just so totally solid". Ugh. 


Can't say I was Team Rose either. I could understand some of her anger and emotional distress over feeling some abandonment from her birth mom, and yeah, maybe Mrs. P did go a little extreme with the discipline at times, but I didn't see where the Parsimmons' behavior would warrant Rose's extreme hate of them. Like Mrs P pointed out: they spent money they didn't always have to get her nice clothes and the best medical care, they tried to stock up on certain foods they'd noticed she liked... heck, even Mr P. goes out and buys her a laptop even after they ground her. She takes it as them trying to buy her off but doesn't really go out of her way to explain her viewpoint, maybe tell them something along the lines of "hey, maybe we could go out and do something as a family." Nope, she prefers to take whatever they give her in the way of food, shelter, and niceties but continue to seethe at them from afar. Even her friends at times try to tell her, "maybe it's a little bit you!"


I liked the character of Chase individually -- him trying to be a good brother to his sister, give her a good male example and such -- but him with Rose didn't do anything for me and it bugged me that she was always calling him "idiot", "moron", etc and he never called her out on it, instead swooning over his "exotic Indian princess". 


I grew to like Mr. P. I wish there could have been more character growth written in for him before the story ended. Near the end of the story there he seemed like he really wanted to make things right with Rose. 


I gave Scheerger two attempts close together and they both fell kinda flat for me. Not sure I'll be in any big rush to check out any more of her stuff for awhile. 

3 Stars
Promise Me Something by Sara Kocek
Promise Me Something - Sara Kocek

As if starting high school weren't bad enough, Reyna Fey has to do so at a new school without her best friends. Reyna's plan is to keep her head down, help her father recover from the car accident that almost took his life, and maybe even make some friends. And then Olive Barton notices her. Olive is not exactly the kind of new friend Reyna has in mind. The boys make fun of her, the girls want to fight her, and Olive seems to welcome the challenge. There's something about Olive that Reyna can't help but like. But when Reyna learns Olive's secret, she must decide whether it's better to be good friends with an outcast or fake friends with the popular kids. . . .before she loses Olive forever.





Thanks to a zoning change in her town, Reyna Fey is forced to transfer from her beloved Ridgeway High where all her friends are, to the town's other, less popular high school, Belltown High. While her old buds only increase in popularity at Ridgeway, Reyna is now odd new girl at Belltown... at least until Olive Barton forcefully introduces herself. Olive is pretty low on the social totem pole, thanks to her somewhat abrasive way with people. After that first introduction, Reyna describes Olive as "blunt, headstrong, and unapologetically honest". Yet no matter how annoying Reyna might find Olive on a surface level, there's something deeper there to the odd girl that peaks Reyna's curiosity, so a tenuous friendship develops.


...It was nice to know she would never lie to me. Whereas I told a hundred lies every day, lies like I feel fine and I don't mind




Over the course of some months, Olive shares more and more secrets with Reyna. That sense of trust between them slowly starts to teach Reyna what true friendship is meant to be like, something she realizes she doesn't quite have with her old acquaintances back at Ridgeway. Reyna starts to see that while Belltown might not be the "cool" school to be in, the students there develop a level of strength not seen at Ridgeway because of what they are put through. For some, the biggest challenge is surviving a homophobic teacher who unabashedly gay-bashes any student he chooses, with seemingly no fear of job dismissal!


Reyna sees another instance of administration gone wrong during a Halloween parade at school where Olive is called out & disciplined for dressing as the man from the "American Gothic" painting. She's wielding a fake pitchfork so she's considered "armed" at school, yet nothing is done about the popular girl who decides to do "sexy cheerleader" with all her teen bits half hanging out. With the unpopular kids feeling like they're fighting a losing battle, there's a good deal of teen depression woven into the plot. It's not heavy-handed though, just enough to have plenty of readers out there nodding in relatable remembrances of their own experiences. 


Every heart on this planet holds a tiny bit of hate, like a bead of mercury, beautiful and dangerous. They were out to own mine.... Gretchen laughed, prompting Olive to give her the finger... Gretchen and I shared a look; then I felt my mouth open -- quick and lethal, with a mind of its own. "Lesbo," I said. Gretchen laughed again, louder than before. It didn't matter that lesbo was a word I hadn't heard anyone use since fifth grade. That wasn't the point. You didn't have to be funny to make Gretchen laugh. You just felt on the safe side when she did.... There was only one thing stopping me from turning into a complete monster, and that thing was Levi. 

(show spoiler)


Just when Reyna feels like she might be getting her footing in these new surroundings, Olive chooses the night of Reyna's first date / kiss to disappear, later leading everyone to suspect she had the intention of ending her life. The few clues the reader gets to Olive's inner thoughts are from short IM (instant messaging) conversations she has with a mystery person on the other end (the other person's identity is revealed a few IM's in, I just don't want to throw in unnecessary spoilers here). These IM's appear just before the start of each chapter. 


an excerpt from one of the IM messages... I couldn't help but have a dark laugh (given the heavy conversation) at the term "melodrama poisoning".. pretty sure I've been exposed to that a time or two!




The other major lesson Reyna learns from her time at Belltown is that EVERYONE, down to the most popular kid you know, has their own secrets they're trying to keep from surfacing. Working from that idea, Kocek does a nice job of illustrating a realistic high school experience, full of messy emotions that give the characters a sense of "humanness" about them. 


There were no posters on the walls, no books or magazines on the bookshelves, no stuffed animals on the bed -- no trace of Olive whatsoever. There was only one book on her bedside table: Anna Karenina.


Olive walked over to the bedside table and picked up her book. "Tolstoy says that all happy families are alike ... and yet every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Doesn't that suck?"




"Life is lonely enough already!" Olive burst out. "You shouldn't have to worry about being the only freak in the world with your particular problems."


"You're not the only freak with your particular problems," I said to Olive. "Someone out there is going through it too. Trust me."


I liked the themes this novel addressed and the honesty of the characters. There were moments where I honestly felt a little pity for Reyna but there was also something to her overall personality that I found slightly off-putting... though I couldn't quite place my finger on what it was exactly. I was also surprised at how long it seemed to take me to work through this short book. Not sure if that was because of the subject matter, the emotional ride around the themes, or due to the slower points in the plot, but yeah, just in general I didn't find myself flying through this one. But I did enjoy the ride.


Taking all that into consideration, I struggled with what kind of rating I would personally give this book. I normally keep it simple, either full stars or half stars. This is the first time I honestly felt like this was right around a 3.25... little bit better than a 3, not quite a 3.5 for me. I know the rating system is completely arbitrary and based on the personal emotional experience of each reader, but there you have it. That's what I have to leave this one with ... a 3.25. 

3.5 Stars
This Is How I Find Her by Sara Polsky
This Is How I Find Her - Sara Polsky

Sophie has always lived her life in the shadow of her mother's bipolar disorder: monitoring medication, making sure the rent is paid, rushing home after school instead of spending time with friends, and keeping secrets from everyone.  But when a suicide attempt lands Sophie's mother in the hospital, Sophie no longer has to watch over her. She moves in with her aunt, uncle, and cousin--a family she's been estranged from for the past five years. Rolling her suitcase across town to her family's house is easy. What's harder is figuring out how to rebuild her life. And as her mother's release approaches and the old obligations loom, Sophie finds herself torn between her responsibilities toward her mother and her desire to live her own life, Sophie must decide what to do next.





In her debut novel, Sara Polsky tells the story of Sophie, a teenage (high school junior) girl living with her mentally ill mother (struggling with a blend of manic depression and bipolar disorder). Over the years, Sophie has become accustomed to being her mother's caretaker, instead of the other way around. She's never had much time for a childhood because it's largely been left up to her to make dinner every night, tend to laundry and other household chores, and to stay on her mom about taking the prescribed medications. 


Then one day everything takes a horrible turn. Sophie comes home from school to find her mother on the floor, unresponsive and barely alive after a suicide attempt. Thankfully Sophie's mother is successfully revived at the hospital and prescribed Depakote to help try to balance her mind again. The attending physician suspects that Sophie's mother will require weeks of recovery, maybe even long-term care in a mental health facility, so in the meantime Sophie is sent to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin Leila.


Leila and Sophie were thick as thieves as small children but drifted apart around their 6th grade year....for reasons Sophie doesn't entirely understand. At first, Leila seems a little put out having her cousin around so much again but the constant close proximity to one another forces the girls to hash out their grievances and find common ground once again. There's also James, who used to hang with Leila and Sophie back in the old days but who also seemed to pull away from her over the years. James seems eager to rebuild the frayed friendship and help her through this tough time, but given what she's been put through recently, Sophie is reluctant to put her trust in anyone again. 


...There's still that rusty door in my mind, with its heavy padlock and no key. All of the words I'm thinking are hidden behind it. 


The time with Leila's family gives Sophie a chance to work out her own thoughts about everything that's gone down in recent years. Not only is she able to slowly repair her bonds with Leila and James, but she's also able to view her mother's mental illness from a new, more empathetic perspective. 


Though this story deals with heavy themes such as suicide and depression, I found that it didn't leave me with an oppressive feeling as similar books have in the past. Instead I found this novel to be more quiet and thoughtful. It can be sad and even heartbreaking, in parts, the way it looks at how trauma can influence or change one's way of looking at the world, but there is also an underlying sense of hope to the whole thing. I could relate to Sophie's struggles with that feeling of life getting in the way of life sometimes -- when something stressful or traumatic that you feel requires all your attention is going on, yet you still have to go to school or work and act like everything is a-okay even though there's a damn crisis going on out there people! Sophie's story also illustrates the value of a person being able to fearlessly communicate their wants and needs and how, in times of conflict, it's only natural to get nostalgic for what we perceive as simpler past times (when in reality those rosy-hued days more than likely had their share of conflict then too).


I'm amazed that we can talk about these two things... in the same conversation. That it doesn't have to be one or the other -- happy or sad, my mother or my life. Maybe it can be like the axis on a graph, right in the middle, everything at once. 


While I didn't always agree with some of the statements made in this novel -- like Uncle John saying "people wouldn't ask if they didn't really want to know", sorry I call BS, in the real world, people ask stuff merely out of politeness, and then tune out your response, all the time! -- I really enjoy this story for the food for thought it provides the reader on some tough topics that need more open and honest discussion. I found Polsky's novel to be an honest look at depression through the eyes of a teen without it being too heavy-handed, to the point where it might trigger MY depression! 


"The Guest House" by Rumi, referenced in This Is How I Find Her



2.5 Stars
The Secret To Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale
The Secret to Hummingbird Cake - Celeste Fletcher McHale

In the South you always say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.” You know everybody’s business. Football is a lifestyle not a pastime. Food—especially dessert— is almost a religious experience. And you protect your friends as fiercely as you protect your family— even if the threat is something you cannot see. In this spot-on Southern novel brimming with wit and authenticity, you’ll laugh alongside lifelong friends, navigate the sometimes rocky path of marriage, and roll through the outrageous curveballs that life sometimes throws . . . from devastating pain to absolute joy. And if you’re lucky, you just may discover the secret to hummingbird cake along the way.

~from back cover




First off, it's a little bookish peeve of mine: books that waste back cover space on rave review blurbs or a synopsis (such as the one on this book) that serve you a mountain of words but tell you absolutely nothing about the plot itself. I live in the South, I don't need generalizations about life here, what is THIS book ABOUT?! (That was my inner monologue on first perusal of this book... just thought I'd share :-P).


So let me help ya and tell you the ACTUAL, general plot here. Obviously it's Southern fiction, but specifically the reader is planted in the small town of Bon Dieu, Louisiana. Told in first person POV, our narrator is Carrigan Whitfield. When Carrigan was just 17 years old, she managed to catch the attention of local ladies' man / happy bachelor Jack Whitfield,10 years her senior and heir to his family's soybean fortune. Much to the surprise of everyone in town, Carrigan is the one Jack chooses for his wife. Since then, Carrigan has had the pleasure of living a pretty cushy life. Til now.

Present day, we're thirteen years into the Whitfield marriage. A lot of good years have passed between Carrigan and Jack, but here lately he's inexplicably started pulling away from her. Intimacy between them has all but stopped, as has much of their communication / conversations. Then the rumors start. All over town, Carrigan is hearing whispers that Jack is parking his boots at the bedsides of other ladies *wink, wink*. Rather than do the mature thing, push through the awkwardness that's been built up between them and just ASK Jack what really is going on, Carrigan goes off and has her own affair out of spite with a man she simply dubs "Cell Phone Romeo". Problem is, she doesn't even seem to like this guy very much at all. In fact, she's still very much in love with Jack, but for the longest time she sees no signs of him letting her in on his thoughts. Just when she's about to check out of her marriage completely though, Jack does have a turn around, suddenly bringing back waves of affection and soft words, only confusing her further. WHAT is going on?!


Luckily Carrigan has the support of her two best friends to carry her through this tough time. Directly across the street from her house is the home of one of her best friends, Laine. Not too far away is the other, Ella Rae. All of them now 30 years old, the three have been best buds since age 5. But this year will prove to be a test of strength & faith like the trio has never known before when tragedy strikes, forcing all of them to restructure their lives to accomodate the changing future. That's where the idea of the Hummingbird Cake comes in -- it's something that can bring people together and give them a smile, some small sense of comfort, when all else seems to be speeding out their control.


Okay, so why the low rating from me? Basically it came down to the writing. But there were what I'll call "savers" that kept me from hating it entirely. First though, what was problematic for me:


1) The whole cake idea. For a book that features a cake on the cover, even writes it into the title, I mean REALLY pushes the importance of this cake, once I read the actual story... the cake didn't seem all that prominent to me. It's mentioned maybe half a dozen times and always seems to be in passing -- "Hey Laine, you should make one of those cakes" "Yeah, maybe I will" "Hey guys I made one of those cakes." -- that kind of thing. For me, if a book really pushes the importance of food in its plot, I want it to be INFUSED with it --- books like JoAnne Harris' Chocolat, Erica Baumgartner's The School of Essential Ingredients,  Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate... that's what I'm looking for when it comes to foodie novels. 


2) I'll admit this one is entirely personal preference, but I just DID NOT LIKE Carrigan. It bugged me that she has this incredibly privileged life but she doesn't seem all that grateful for it and when it comes to friends, she seems to prefer "yes men" type friends rather than people who will give it to her straight. 


3) The character building, for Carrigan especially but also for some of the other characters, needs some work. In the case of Carrigan, her personality came off as confusing / wishy-washy. I audibly groaned at the conflicting character traits between pages 16 -17. Page 16, Carrigan states, "Not that I was a wild child, I was no child at all. But I was, well, busy." So I took that as meaning she didn't have much of a childhood, had to mature fast, etc. But then on the VERY NEXT PAGE, Page 17 Carrigan says, "I was a bit rebellious in my teenage years. Okay, I was a lot rebellious in my teenage years. I just liked to test my limits no matter what I was doing. With grades, ignoring curfews, ignoring expectations...Like the rules didn't apply to me..." Sooo you were crazy rebellious and the rules didn't apply to you but you weren't a wild child?? This is the kind of stuff that bugged me. 


4) There were virtually NO surprises in the plot for me. Seriously. Like, none. I did read to the end but basically closed the book feeling like the author was trying too hard to be the next Steel Magnolias


Okay, now those few "savers" I mentioned:


1) While much of the writing struck me as over-the-top, cartoonish representation of life in the South, there were a few good quips here and there that entertained me, such as the line, "Do you ever get altitude sickness from the moral high ground, Laine?" :-)


2) While I didn't much care for Carrigan, I did like Laine and Ella Rae. They were given fun personalities and I enjoyed their sense of humor! 


3) I liked the moments when Jack would show his sweet, soft side with Carrigan. 


4) The story between Mitch and Laine and the unfortunate timing with everything -- forget Carrigan and Jack, I found THIS story the most touching part of the entire book. 


5) My very favorite scene in the whole book though was the whole bit with the ladies talking over the coffin, just having a conversation with their heads on the lid, but the way they look everyone else in the chapel thinks they're beside themselves with grief. That whole convo between the ladies had me cracking up as I pictured it! 


So yeah, not the best Southern fiction I've read this year but as you can see, I found some saving moments in it for me. 


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

3.5 Stars
All Summer Long (Follow Your Heart #2) by Melody Carlson
All Summer Long: A San Francisco Romance (Follow Your Heart) - Melody Carlson

Tia D'Amico is thrilled to move to San Francisco to help her aunt transform an old luxury yacht into an upscale floating restaurant. What's not to love? Sunset dinner cruises, upscale wedding receptions--the possibilities are endless and far more appetizing than staying in a monotonous job in her Podunk hometown. Besides, some of her best memories are tied to San Francisco--especially the memory of Leo Parker, her crush from a long-ago sailing camp. When the self same Leo Parker turns out to be the yacht's captain, Tia is floating on air. But will it all come crashing down around her when she discovers his heart belongs to someone else?





Fresh out of culinary school, Tia D'amico is excited to be moving out to San Francisco, California to help her aunt turn a vintage luxury yacht into a floating restaurant. Tia's aunt has grand plans to turn the aging vessel into the best event cruise ship in the Bay Area! Sadly, right before Tia's arrival her uncle is rushed to the hospital with heart trouble. Turns out he's looking at a major blockage, requiring bypass surgery. That means Tia will largely be left on her own to manage the boat renovations while her aunt stays at the hospital. She's not completely alone though. Serving as the ship's captain is young Leo Parker, a guy Tia originally met at a sailing camp when they were teenagers. In fact, her last memory of him was when he gave her a brief kiss before walking out of her life for good (so it seemed then). 


Briefly emotionally sidelined at running into this blast from her past, Tia's emotions quickly turn to excitement at the possibility of getting to know Leo again as an adult. Until Leo says the dreaded line, "I'd like you to meet my fiancee." Bubble officially bursted. 


No surprise though, Leo's fiancee is the polar opposite of him and seems completely wrong for him. Everyone sees it except him (isn't that always the way). He can't figure out why he has to work so hard to make the relationship work and doesn't seem all that into the idea of being eternally bound to this woman. He admits feeling pressured to advance the relationship but now doesn't know how to bow out gracefully. In comes Tia as the shoulder to cry on... and it's not to hard to guess where the story goes from there. 


While the friendship between Leo and Tia was definitely cute, their growing flirtation didn't leave me all that swoony. I think I was largely distracted by being hung up on the idea that these are supposed to be college graduates but they still talk like they're 14-15 years old. Instead of feeling like grown-ups, these characters, to me, came off as playing at "adulting". And Tia, almost immediately out of the gate pining away for Leo. Seriously, girl? You're that emotionally broken up to the point of shedding tears over a guy who gave you one quick kiss way back when you were 16?! Seems a bit dramatic. Bummed, sure, I can understand that. But heartbroken?! Girl needs to get centered in life. 


So I wasn't too moved by the romance here, but the friendships and family dynamic was entertaining enough to keep me reading to the end (these books are pretty short anyway). I did like this addition to the Follow Your Heart series a good bit more than the first book, but I'm still not feeling quite enough heart in Carlson's characters (at least for this series). She crafts fun settings for them to work and live in -- an NYC boutique hotel in Book 1, a floating restaurant yacht in San Francisco Bay here -- but something about her characterizations remains too flat for me. That being said, this one showed strong potential for the series to increasingly improve with each book, however many that ends up being. The first one I only gave 2.5 stars, this one got a 3.5 out of me. Anything 3.5 or higher from me I consider solid recommended reading territory :-)


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

2.5 Stars
Once Upon A Summertime (Follow Your Heart #1) by Melody Carlson
Once Upon a Summertime: A New York City Romance (Follow Your Heart) - Melody Carlson

Managing the Value Lodge in her hometown was not what Anna Gordon had in mind when she set out in the hospitality industry. But it's a safe choice for a woman whose childhood was anything but stable. Out of the blue, she gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reinvent herself by moving to New York City, where she hopes for a management position at a stylish new boutique hotel. The big city is full of surprises--not the least of which is Sean O'Neil. Her childhood crush has applied for the very same position!





Anna Gordon graduated with a degree in hospitality management, stars swimming in her eyes with the dreams of managing a posh boutique hotel in some big city. But while her college classmates transitioned into enviable hotel / resort positions around the world, Anna was forced to return to her little podunk hometown to take care of her grandmother after the passing of her grandfather. Anna takes a position managing the local rundown motel, spends the next few years trying to pull the place out of its fleabag status and into something she could actually be proud of. Unfortunately, her staff at the motel is more about paychecks than pride, trying to coast by on the bare minimum of work that guarantees them their cut of payroll. One such member on the crew, Mickey, is actually the nephew of the owners of the property. When Anna confronts Mickey one day on his sloppy work in cleaning the pool area -- completely within her job duties as a manager -- Mickey complains to his aunt & uncle and manages to get Anna fired instead of the other way around!


As luck would have it though, just when Anna feels as if she's suddenly floundering with no job prospects, in walks an old friend back into her life with a job opportunity. A brand spankin' new boutique hotel in SoHo -- expected to become quite the trendy hotspot -- is set to open its doors soon but the owners are still looking to fill the management positions. Just the type of job Anna dreamt of having! Naturally she hightails it out to NYC and applies, only to mentally psyche herself out once there, blowing the interview. That is, until she bumps into a woman in the ladies room of the hotel who just happens to be co-owner of the whole place! After a short chat, the woman decides that although her husband dismissed Anna as not the right general manager, Anna is hired on as manager of the housekeeping staff. Feels a bit like a demotion at first, but Anna soon reasons it's a far sight better than any work she'd have back home, so she immediately accepts. Her excitement is quickly dampened though when she finds out the person hired on as general manager (aka her boss of sorts) is none other than Sean O'Neil, a childhood friend of hers recently back from managing a hotel in Ireland for some years. Another small knock to Anna's ego, she admits, but she quickly sees Sean is the perfect person for the job and they soon embracing working as a team to turn the hotel operations into a well-oiled machine. At first everything is all friendly business banter, but working so intimately with an old friend day to day, it's not hard to see those nostalgia-tinged feelings turning a little heart-shaped! But is going after what the heart seems to want worth risking the positions they both worked so hard to obtain?


This story definitely had potential. It had the reliably interesting backdrop of NYC, the fun behind-the-scenes kind of story of the hotel business, it had some interesting secondary characters to keep the flow of the plot nice. Where this one fell down for me is with our main character Anna. Lordy, that girl was BLAND! Poor girl got virtually no humor or personality from Carlson! Anna was just all straightforward business and social awkwardness, but not even in a cute way! It drove me crazy how Anna seemed to interpret every situation in an uber-literal way. Carlson tries to write in an explanation, saying that Anna was compensating / over compensating for the poor life choices of her parents, but I'm sorry, I still found no flavor to the girl. But of course, mysteriously our main guy character is drawn to her like she's some sort of sea siren. Nevermind the fact that she comes off as someone that wouldn't be much fun to hang out with lol. 


But like I said earlier, what pulled me through this story is the cast of secondary characters, and also some of the NYC history that Carlson weaves into sightseeing scenes with Anna. I did enjoy the passages describing Anna's walks through Ellis Island and St. Patrick's Cathedral and her ponderings on the immigrant experience. I also enjoyed the inclusion of the historical tidbit on Annie Moore, a 17 year old Irishwoman documented as the very first person to every pass through Ellis Island in 1892. 

2 Stars
Are You Still There? by Sarah Lynn Scheerger
Are You Still There - Sarah Lynn Scheerger

Gabriella Mallory, AP student and perfect-daughter-in-training, stands barefoot on a public toilet for three hours while her school is on lockdown. Someone has planted a bomb and she is hiding. The bomb is defused but the would-be-bomber is still at large. And everyone at Central High School is a suspect. The school starts a top-secret crisis help line and Gabi is invited to join. When she does, she is drawn into a suspenseful game of cat and mouse with the bomber, who has unfinished business. He leaves threatening notes on campus. He makes threatening calls to the help line. And then he begins targeting Gabi directly. Is it because her father is the lead police detective on the case? Is the bomber one of her new friends. Could it be her new boyfriend with his complicated past? As the story unfolds, Gabi knows she is somehow connected to the bomber. Even worse she is part of his plan. Can Gabi reach out and stop him? Or will she be too late?





Gabi Mallory is in the girls' bathroom of her high school the moment a bomb threat is called in. Police quickly arrive to assess the situation, DO find a bomb but no clues as to who the bomber might be. Since all the students are visibly emotionally shaken, school is let out early. Gabi returns home to talk to her parents, only to find her cop-father has already been assigned to the case (to determine who the mysterious bomber is).


As the weeks progress, Gabi returns to school, attempting to return to a normal routine all around actually. In the wake of the attempted bombing, the school decides to set up a crisis hotline where students can anonymously call in and discuss anything troubling them. Gabi is chosen as one of a crew of students brought together to man the phone lines. 


Small clues as to the bomber's identity start to surface here and there. First we learn that the mystery person wishes to go by the moniker Stranger, since how they identify themselves in the world, a quiet, ignored figure who's been made to feel like a nobody by their peers. Then the playing cards start popping up, cryptic messages written around the card edges. The majority of them being find their way into Gabi's locker, much to her unease! Why is she being targeted? Is the bomber someone she knows .... a friend feeling neglected? a boy she might have too harshly rejected? Or was she just chosen at random? Some clues even have her throwing suspicious glances at her new boyfriend... how much does she know about him really?


Angry (but still anonymous) calls full of venom and threats start flooding the hotline call center. Even when the kids close up shop each night and head home, right at 9 pm shift end, texts come on their personal phones, only ever saying "Are you still there?" Some of the messages written on the playing cards hint at the possibility that the bomber might have some connection to the recent suicide of a student from the high school. Readers of this novel are given extra glimpses at who the bomber might be via the brief one page "Stranger's Manifesto" entries, written in a sort of verse style, that precede each chapter. 


Admittedly, I went into this one with somewhat high expectations. Having been a high school student the year the Columbine shooting happened and having my own high school subsequently go on a kind of security lockdown, I remember well the fear that comes with being in this type of situation. It's a fear that I didn't feel was all that well conveyed in this novel. There is SOME suspense as the reader tries to piece together the identity of the bomber, trying to figure out Gabi's connection to it all. I sometimes felt nervous for her in scenes where I thought she might be possibly victimized, but truthfully for the subject matter I felt this book was played way too safe. 


For me, I think the trouble was the sense that not enough focus was being put on the bomber / the investigation. I felt like I spent sooo much time having to read about Gabi's budding dating life and social time with her friends. I was left thinking, "she really doesn't seem all that troubled for someone that could possibly be a target for some mentally unhinged bomber!" When I got to the end and the identity of the bomber was revealed, I was further annoyed because of the character Scheerger decided to pin the crime to. It just felt like a waste of my reading time (trying to dance around possible spoilers here, btw). 


What bothered me more than that though was just the character of Gabi. Not just her casualness in the situation, but I noticed in her dialogue she kept making these slightly judgemental, sometimes almost racist remarks about other kids in her school: images of Native American warriors instantly made her think of "war, violence, savagery"; the Hispanic kid who "was obviously an ESL student", the girl who half-buzzed / half dyed her hair "pretty sure she's a druggie" or the "fringe" students as she called them, the kids outside the popular crowds who "couldn't be honor kids" WTF? Most "fringe" kids I knew (me being one of them, even) WERE the honor roll kids usually tutoring the popular kids... what do you think put us on that fringe in the first place? :-P Even her thoughts on Buddha: "Buddha in his diaper and cute fat rolls." WOW.



By Chapter 23, Gabi's commentary turns a shade hypocritical. When a friend of Gabi's says something along the same lines as Gabi's thoughts above, and ends with "Gabi, you're hanging out with losers" Gabi comes back with, "What do you think gives you the right to pass judgement on all kinds of random people? Just 'cause they're not like you? That somehow makes them less worthy as human beings? What kind of holier-than-thou stuff is that? You're mean. And I'm mean for listening to you all these years and not telling you what I really think." 


You know, Gabi, a pot is still a pot no matter how many shelves higher they're placed above that kettle. ;-)


So yeah, after cringing so hard at / being so distracted by Gabi's run-away mouth, I pretty much forgot to be concerned about the whole other bomber storyline! 


Though I might not have been blown away with the story itself, I applaud Scheerger regardless for getting the topic out there regarding teenage depression and the dangers that can follow. I also appreciate that she includes a resource page at the back of the book which I will repost here for anyone that can maybe use this information. 





From Scheerger's author blurb at the back of the book: "Are You Still There was inspired by her time volunteering for a helpline in college, an experience that led to her career as a clinical social worker. Today, Sarah runs counseling groups for at-risk teens on middle and high school campuses."

3 Stars
The Forgotten Recipe (Amish Heirloom #1) by Amy Clipston
The Forgotten Recipe (An Amish Heirloom Novel) - Amy Clipston

After losing her fiancé in a tragic accident, Veronica Fisher finds solace in the old recipes stored in her mother’s hope chest—and in a special visitor who comes to her bake stand to purchase her old-fashioned raspberry pies. Veronica Fisher knows how lucky she is to be marrying her best friend. Seth Lapp is kind, hardworking, and handsome—but most importantly, he loves Veronica. When an accident on the job steals Seth away from her, a heartbroken Veronica is certain she will never love—or be loved—again. Yet when she discovers a batch of forgotten recipes and opens a bake stand to sell her Mammi’s raspberry pies, Veronica picks up a regular customer  who gives her heart pause. Jason Huyard was with Seth when he lost his life—a memory that haunts him still. So when he seeks out the grieving fiancée to convey his condolences, the last thing he expects—or wants—is to fall in love. Nonetheless, Jason soon finds himself visiting Veronica’s bake stand every week . . . and it’s for more than the raspberry pies. Now, as Veronica’s heart thaws, Jason can’t bring himself to tell her he was there when Seth died. Can he ever reveal where he was on the day her life derailed? Or will his secret rob them of the second chance at love they both want?





Veronica Fisher has recently lost her fiancee, Seth Lapp, in a tragic construction accident. She's just broken inside, as she'd been in love with Seth since the age of 10, and just when they seem like their life together is about to start, death steals him away from her. At first, she drowns her grief in cleaning projects, one such project taking her up to clean and organize the attic of the home she shares with her mother and sister. In the attic, Veronica comes across a box that contains various family heirlooms, one being her deceased grandmother's long lost recipe for raspberry pie. Veronica gets the idea to take up baking as her new way to work through her grief. She starts making pies from the recipe, handing them out to friends and family. Encouraged by her mother's prompting, she branches out to selling the pies to Englisch (non-Amish) tourists visiting the Amish community. Getting rave reviews for her baking skills, Veronica decides to start selling her pies at the Philadelphia Farmer's Market. 


One of Veronica's customers is Jason Huyard, who was with Seth just moments before the construction accident that took his life. Guilt-ridden, thinking that he could've possibly prevented the death, Jason seeks out Veronica hoping to get to know her and offer his condolences. He hopes for friendship, never expecting to find himself falling in love with her -- at least that's what the back cover says, but I think most readers can guess a romance is to be expected ;-)


Jason keeps his connection to Seth's death secret from Veronica at first. He has every intention of telling her, but in consideration for her grieving process he wants to wait for just the right time. And.... cue the subsequent misunderstandings! But before all that mess, a friendship does slowly build between Jason & Veronica. They find they're able to bond over their mutual families pushing them to "get back on that horse" -- Jason after a recent failed marital engagement, and Veronica only 3 months out from having lost Seth! Veronica slowly warms to Jason but is hesitant to allow herself anything beyond friendship, thinking that anything more would be dishonoring the memory of Seth.


If you've read the novella collection An Amish Market, this novel offers a deeper look at the main family --- and some of the other minor characters as well -- Clipston introduced in her novella "The Love Birds" (that story mainly focused on Ellie Lapp, Seth's sister). The Forgotten Recipe is a cute & clean romance overall that had some parts that I really enjoyed while other parts of the story were a little problematic for me.


The good: 1) I liked the simple, sweet romance that seemed to unfold at a believable pace. 2) I think my favorite element though was how Clipston illustrates Veronica's grieving process. This, I thought, was one of the strongest features of this novel. I think most any reader has experienced some level of grief in their lifetime and will easily relate to Veronica's struggles with getting used to not having a loved one around, bonding to items that still carry a loved one's scent. 3) I also enjoyed Veronica's bond with her mother and sister and the strong sense of family Clipston wove in here. 4) Though I didn't strongly connect with any of the characters here, I did think the banter / inside joke between Veronica and Jason regarding the weather reports was kind of adorable. :-)



That being said... 



The problematic: 1) Jason mentions to Veronica how Seth talked about her all the time, so much so that Jason felt he knew Veronica before he had actually ever met her. If that were the case, if Jason and Seth were that good of friends, I have a hard time believing that Seth wouldn't have likewise mentioned Jason to Veronica... but she doesn't seem to have any knowledge of him until the moment he introduces himself 2) Though Jason is supposed to be 23-24 years old, he sometimes seemed to have the emotional maturity of a 15 year old.


He gets all upset when Veronica turns down his advances, saying it's too soon and he needs his dad to remind him to honor a person's grieving process. Really, dude?

[/spoiler]  3) Veronica's reaction to Seth revealing his secret was a bit dramatic for me, but to be fair, I guess grieving can affect a person's sense of rational behavior. 4) The dialogue was too bland and safe for me. I understand this is meant to be a "clean" story, but at times it all felt a little too scripted for my liking. 


The book ends on a bit of an annoying cliffhanger... Well, it felt cliffhanger-esque anyway. There was a hint at a new secret from Veronica's family being possibly aired out. I can't imagine why Clipston would've wrote it in if she didn't plan to touch upon it in the next book, The Courtship Basket. Honestly though, given that I didn't get too attached to the characters here, I'm not sure if I'll be continuing on with this series. 


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



2 Stars
Unless by Carol Shields
Unless - Carol Shields

Reta Winters has many reasons to be happy, among them, her three almost grown daughters, her twenty-six year relationship with their father, her work translating the larger-than-life French intellectual and feminist Danielle Westerman, and the modest success she has had with her own novel. Then one day her eldest daughter, Norah, disappears and ends up mute and begging on a Toronto street corner. Around Norah's neck is a hand-lettered sign reading GOODNESS. And Reta, full of sudden anguished insight into the injustices of the gendered world, must tackle the mystery of her daughter's message. 

~from back cover



Retah (pronounced Reetah) is the wife of a doctor and mother of three pretty much grown daughters. Her own work has her translating French manuscripts, as well as working on her own writing. She has a modest amount of success / fame in her own right, professionally, and lives a pretty cush life thanks to her husband's income. Everything, from an outsider's perspective, seems to be going swimmingly for Retah. Solid marriage, emotionally well-balanced, happy daughters, professional success. That is, until her daughter Norah disappears from college, reappearing later as a homeless woman on the streets of downtown Toronto, holding a donation bowl and wearing a cardboard sign that only says GOODNESS. The back cover synopsis describes Norah as mute, but it's not actually full-on muteness, only being selective about who she speaks to and what she says. 


Through talking briefly with Norah and others who have had interactions with her, Retah learns that Norah's decision to become voluntarily homeless = part protest on the world, part trying to make sense of her convoluted emotions when it comes to human interaction and relationships. Retah also learns that through the donation bowl, Norah also divvies up 9/10ths of whatever she makes each day to other homeless people, keeping only enough to buy a small amount of food or necessary supplies. 


Through Retah's memories, the reader gets to know more about Norah and what happened in her life to get her to her current situation. How is a girl from a cushy, privileged life pushed to voluntarily commit herself to the streets of Toronto indefinitely? This was a character study I was curious to know more about! Norah's story is the sole reason I wanted to get into this book. Sadly, Shields makes her more of a background character. Something to prop up the day to day musings of mother Retah. Sure, we get Retah giving us little bits of Norah's story -- like how even as a child Norah was extremely empathetic to the stories of everyone around her, always drawn to wildlife -- but largely the focus seemed to be on Retah's life. Her musings on marriage and motherhood, her thoughts on her writing career, feminist rants on the struggles of female writers having their work shadowed by male writers.


I'm not saying Retah's rants don't touch on some good points -- they do. My frustration lay more in how long these monologues went on. For me, it started to veer a bit into "beating a dead horse" territory. There were even times when Retah would go on about things in her life leaving her disgruntled, that struck me as whining from a privileged place, making a mountain out of a first world problems molehill. Just one "for instance" here -- she seems to spend a good amount of time talking about all these dreams and plans she had for Norah, disappointed that Norah just walks away from college (essentially ruining Retah's master plan) but then comes back with "all I ever wanted was for Norah to be happy." WHY do parents SO like to end on that line after they tear into you about how you're f-in up your life because you're not taking the path they had in mind for you?!


So in short, I was bummed that there was not more of Norah to the plot. Left me wanting, because I think there could've been something powerful in delving more into that character. I was left pretty bored and annoyed with Retah as a whole. Also, those letters she writes to others periodically that are stuck between chapters -- those letters added nothing to the story for me. Just struck me as superfluous blatherings. 


But points to the best WTF sentence in the whole book that gave me a good, solid, confused laugh: "In France, it's thought that menstruating women are incapable of making a good mayonnaise."


I'm sorry, what?!

3 Stars
Chose The Wrong Guy, Gave Him The Wrong Finger by Beth Harbison
Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger - Beth Harbison

Ten years ago, Quinn Barton was on her way to the altar to marry Burke Morrison, her high school sweetheart, when something derailed her. Rather, someone derailed her the Best Man, who at the last minute--and with shocking revelations--begged her to reconsider the marriage. Quinn, stunned, hurt, and confused, struggled between ignoring what she was told or running away. She chose running. With the Best Man. Who happened to be Burke's brother, Frank. That relationship didn't work either. How could it, when Quinn had been engaged to, in love with, Frank's brother? Quinn opted for neither, and instead, spent the next seventeen years working in her Middleburg, Virginia, bridal shop, Talk of the Gown. But when the two brothers return to town for another wedding, old anger, hurt, and passion resurface. Just because you've traded the bad guy for the good guy for no guy doesn't mean you have to stay away from love for the rest of your life, does it?




Quinn has been dating Burke since she was 14 years old. Now 21, it's the day of their wedding. Moments before she sets out to walk down the aisle to her happily ever after, Burke's brother Frank comes forward, begging Quinn not to go through with the wedding. When pressed for his reasoning, Frank explains that Burke has actually been unfaithful to Quinn a number of times over the years. Frank had assumed that Quinn knew but just chose to ignore it. It was only in the days just prior to the wedding that he started to suspect she honestly knew nothing about Burke's infidelity.


Understandably, Quinn is quite overwhelmed by the news, especially given the time it's dropped on her. In a flurry of rage and hurt, she leaves Burke at the altar. Needing to work out those feelings of revenge, Quinn rounds up Frank for a whirlwind drunken road trip to Las Vegas, Nevada. After a few days, they come back to their hometown in Virginia. Quinn takes up her work in her family's bridal shop, never speaking of anything that's happened. For the next 10 years, she keeps up this emotional shell, staying in town while Burke and Frank go off to create their careers elsewhere. That is, until the guys' widowed grandmother announces her plans to remarry. Grandma hires Quinn to design her wedding dress, but also sneakily arranges ways for Quinn to reconnect with both Burke and Frank. Old unresolved feelings fly all around Quinn and the brothers, forcing her to really dig deep and think about what .. or who... she really wants in her life.


I have to agree with other reviewers who said the very best part of this book was the title. Admittedly, that's what made me gravitate toward it even though I'm not the biggest contemporary reader. That title just gave me the best laugh, because what girl can't relate in some way? ;-)


There were some cute moments of banter here and there. I did like the potential of Frank and Quinn but I felt like Frank wasn't quite developed enough as a character. Burke's reasoning for what he did all those years ago made me groan so much. Yes, you can excuse some bad behavior with that sort of dismissive "You make stupid choices when you're young" but it still mostly felt like a cop-out. Going back to Frank's story, I also felt like given the conclusion of the novel after nearly 400 pages, the history between him and Quinn needed to be more detailed for the curtain to come down where it did.


The characters fell a bit flat for me -- except the grandma, she was fun! It's a decent book for a chill beach-day read, but I didn't develop a deep enough interest in any of the characters to be all that invested in the outcome of any of their stories and it didn't feel like the type of book I would see myself revisiting anytime soon.

3 Stars
Down From The Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer
Down from the Mountain - Elizabeth Fixmer

Eva just wants to be a good disciple of Righteous Path. She grew up knowing that she's among the chosen few to be saved from Armageddon. Lately, though, being saved feels awfully treacherous. Ever since they moved to the compound in Colorado, their food supplies have dwindled even while their leader, Ezekiel, has stockpiled weapons. The only money comes from the jewelry Eva makes and sells down in Boulder--a purpose she'll serve until she becomes one of Ezekiel's wives. But a college student named Trevor and the other "heathens" she meets on her trips beyond the compound are far different from what she's been led to believe. Now Eva doesn't know which is more dangerous--the outside world, or Brother Ezekiel's plans…





From the age of five, Eva -- along with her birth mother -- has lived on the compound of the religious cult Righteous Path in Boulder, Colorado. Her childhood has been strict but not completely unpleasant overall.. but now as a teen Eva has started noticing things that leave her confused and concerned. The group's polygamist leader, Ezekiel, has fervently started stockpiling guns, insisting every Righteous Path member down to the young children has shooting lessons. Ezekiel himself begins to show increasingly elevated levels of paranoia. His generally calm, generous demeanor flips to much more of a trigger temper, beating the children members of RP with more frequency over the most minor infractions, things such as simply stumbling over reciting a bible passage. Stirring up his ire even more, Ezekiel gets word that a man has been spotted just outside the compound gates -- possibly a reporter -- asking questions about Righteous Path. Ezekiel immediately instates a 24 hour lockdown on the whole compound until further notice.


The group's largest source of income is from the selling of handmade jewelry to the "heathens" (non-RP members) at market stalls downtown. Eva gets special notice from Ezekiel for her jewelry making skills, even hears rumors that she might be slated to be his next wife. 


There's also been a noticeable shortage of food. For some time, Ezekiel has been disguising the shortage by calling for more and more religious fasts, but Eva learns the painful truth when she finds her mother becoming seriously undernourished during her pregnancy. Eva, under Ezekiel's rule, is not allowed to show special attention to her birth mother but instead must acknowledge all the women as RP as her mother. Still, Eva coverts finds ways around this rule and with the help of "heathen" Trevor, finds ways of stockpiling money and food supplies to help out not only her birth mother but also other members of RP who have shown signs of malnourishment from the food shortages (some of the women in the group even going months without any menstruation). 


To add to her new, confusing feelings, Eva begins to have memories of her life before becoming a member of Righteous Path, memories that included a biological father and a love for libraries, and specifically a love of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles Of Narnia. She once had a copy of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, but unfortunately, Ezekiel put a ban on the reading of any fiction, so she had to relinquish her copy. Still, she revisits the world of Narnia in her dreams and begins to see correlations between that novel and what's going on in her own life. These dreams help her slowly work out what she needs to do to save herself and those she loves. 


If you're a fan of the works of Ted Dekker, I found similarities between this book and Dekker's book Water Walker (Book 2 in the Outlaw series, if you don't count the prequel Outlaw), which also largely takes place on the compound of a cult. Some scenes are really similar, in fact. There wasn't quite as much suspense or mystery in Down From The Mountain as I was hoping... I was left feeling like this was a good start... but something about the characters felt a little underdeveloped. Still, the novel was far from being a disappointment. I liked seeing Eva grow as she gradually learned to tap into her inner strength. She discovers the power in learning to take control of her thoughts and memories. She also begins to see just how much more precious memories, experiences and education are than any amount of physical possessions could ever be. Just with that little bit of Eva's personal growth, combined with her friendship with "heathen" Trevor (who actually gives her a crash course in religious tolerance / friendship & acceptance without stipulations), I can comfortably recommend this as a worthwhile read. 




Note on the author: Author Elizabeth Fixmer is a psychotherapist who has worked with clients who have left or are attempting to break away from a cult. Her experiences with those cases, in part, inspired this novel. You can read more about it in an interview with Fixmer HERE

4 Stars
Lady, This Is Murder by Peter Chambers
Lady, This is Murder (Thorndike British Favorites) - Peter Chambers

Jeannie Benson was a sweet and lovely girl who suddenly disappeared from Vale City. Six months later she was found on a mortuary slab in Monkton City. But now she was Ruby Capone, a cheap bar pick-up. Boss of the rackets, Benito, gave Mark Preston five thousand dollars to find out what had happened to Jeannie. Preston soon discovered she'd made some odd friends. When the morgue had a sudden rush of business, Preston knew there was a slab waiting for him unless he got the killer quickly.





Originally written in 1963, Lady, This Is Murder is a classic hard-boiled style crime fiction piece that looks at the life of one woman who started out as sweet, quiet Jeannie Benson who goes missing, found six months later in a morgue as barfly / "lady of the night" Ruby Capone. It's up to private investigator Mark Preston to unravel the question mark in the middle of that story. 


It's a curious fact that the reactions of women who have a busted romance are as diverse as the sand-patterns on a seashore. It is also well-known that the more conventional their life has been up to that point, the more drastic their reactions seem to be.


Mark Preston gets a visit one day from Southern California crime boss Rudy Benito. Rudy tells him that this missing Jeannie Benson is actually his daughter, real name Gina Benito. She took up the name Jeannie Benson to distance herself from her father's questionable line of work. Seemed like she was making a good life for herself -- good job, steady boyfriend, a clean slate all around. Then she vanishes. No one can explain it. Rudy knows the heroin OD victim "Ruby Capone" is actually his Gina, but he wants Preston to investigate what happened to her without her true identity being revealed. Preston is basically given a blank check to find the truth. With expense a non-issue, he travels all over LA County interviewing "Ruby's" past friends and acquaintances, trying to uncover if it was a true accidental OD she suffered or if someone possibly wanted her dead for some reason. The deeper he gets into his investigation, the more he uncovers secrets that lead right back to LAPD and an investigation gone sour. 


Guns are so familiar to everybody these days, they think it hardly counts if someone merely points one at somebody else and doesn't shoot it off. That's not the way I feel about it. In my business a gun is a thing that kills people. It's not something you carry for kicks, or to point at people if you don't mean to use it. The kind of company I keep, anybody steers an iron in my direction it means the chances are at least even they're thinking of squeezing the trigger. It's bad enough in the ordinary line of work. To have some clown point one at me with no intention and for no reason except it makes him feel important, that gets to me fast. 


This quick crime read has many of the elements of your classic gumshoe fiction. You got your loner-ish detective full of sarcastic edge and street smarts. The dialogue is infused with a heavy dose of testosterone and Preston even strikes up an almost-friendship with a "hooker with the heart of gold" type. But what's the rule, class? That's right, snitches get stitches... so it's not long before her bad news bus arrives. And of course, wouldn't you know, there's even a bar named Sam's worked into the scenery! :-P Seems like nearly any sort of hard-boiled / crime noir story has some bar like that -- "Sam's", "Pete's", "Moe's".


The female characters here were kind of laughably written, but remember, this one dates back to the early 60s. Chambers seems to either make his women ooze with over-the-top sex appeal or he makes them the fragile damsel-in-distress type... or the ladies are given split-personalities that flitter between the two. Not really much of an Option D -- where a woman is just an intelligent, take-no-crap type with a good head on her shoulders. Nope, that's a unicorn in these parts lol. But like I said, I found it more laughable and entertaining than offensive. And even though there are some cliche elements to the story and there aren't too many surprises plot-wise, it's still a plenty fun read that has a nice quick pace. Though the honest surprises are few here, there are some twists with some of the character storylines near the end you can look forward to. I'd say this one is just the thing when you're looking for something well-written with just a touch of edge but not too heavy or deep. Just a good-time crime fic to escape into for an afternoon. :-)



5 Stars
Stronger Than You Know by Jolene Perry
Stronger Than You Know - Jolene Perry

After police intervention, fifteen-year-old Joy has finally escaped the trailer where she once lived with her mother and survived years of confinement and abuse. Now living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in a comfortable house, she's sure she'll never belong. Wracked by panic attacks, afraid to talk to anyone at her new school, Joy's got a whole list of reasons why she's crazy. Slowly Joy begins to find friends and grow closer to her new family. But just when hope takes hold, she learns she must testify in her mother's trial. Can she face her old life without losing her way in the new one?





After finally being pulled from a consistently traumatic living situation thanks to her mother and mother's live-in boyfriend, Joy Nielsons now lives with her aunt (mother's sister) and uncle. Though in a safer environment now, Joy seems to be showing signs of PTSD. She suffers from social anxiety, panic attacks, night terrors, and having any man -- ANY man -- anywhere near her immediately sets her on edge. That last one makes for challenging times for Joy, living in her uncle's house and trying to attempt public school for the first time, since previously her mom never let her leave the trailer they were living in. 


Perry throws the reader into all this pretty much instantly, leaving us to wonder what exactly DID happen to Joy to leave her so traumatized? As the story unfolds, we get the pieces little by little. Perry holds out giving the reader ALL the details til the very end, which I appreciated as it definitely kept me invested till the last page. The reader finds that Joy early on suffers a life of being underfed, under-educated, overworked, left virtually no opportunity to actually be a child. But it doesn't stop there. She also survives being burned, beaten, even possibly raped. Her world is limited to a 750 sq ft trailer and the yard around it... and before long even the yard is off-limits. Until one day when Joy's mother lets her check the mailbox. Serendipitiously, Joy happens to step outside just as a postal worker is putting the mail in the boxes, giving Joy the motivation to ask for help. The postal worker quickly notifies the police after seeing the marks on Joy's skin. Joy's mother and the live-in boyfriend are instantly rounded up and arrested. Meanwhile, Joy is sent to live with her aunt, offering her an opportunity at normalcy. 


This normalcy is anything but to Joy. Everything is a struggle. Especially when it comes to seemingly simple interactions with people around her. One morning as she's walking to school, Justin -- a boy in her grade -- approaches her, knowing nothing of her story. He simply wants to introduce himself to the new girl. Though she suspects there's no reason to fear him, old habits die hard. 


"I only just learned that my normal wasn't so normal after all... No matter what my surroundings are, I don't feel safe. Ever. It's even worse, because what I feel doesn't mix with logic." ~ Joy



Much to Joy's surprise and relief, Justin proves to be a cool and patient dude who doesn't write people off easily. He quietly and gently offers his friendship, going as slow with their interactions as she needs. Even when his feelings for her begin to grow, he's careful to respect her boundaries, which is always great to see in a male lead. Justin's patience and humor slowly raises Joy's comfort level not only with him but most people around her. Learning how to interact with Justin helps Joy learn how to be trusting enough with her uncle to get to know him. One especially poignant convo with her uncle shows that he might actually be one of her best allies in getting her footing back in the world. 



"On the nights when I know you've had a rough day, I can't sleep. It's like you're right here so I should be able to fix everything, but I can't. There's so little I can do because you have to do so much yourself. Each time you move forward, do something else... It gives me so much hope for you.... When you have a hard day or when I see you slipping backward, I'm desperate to stop it, to make you see how amazing you are, to help you know that you have so much to look forward to. The things that happened to you won't haunt you forever." (Joy's uncle)


"But I'll remember them forever." I know there's no forgetting and I'm still not sure what to do with that.


He sucks in a breath. "But they'll hurt less." 


I don't have to look at him to know there are tears on his face.


"There were a few times when I didn't care if I lived or died," I tell him. "But I'm happy now."


He sighs. Maybe I shouldn't have said it.


"Things are going to be okay for you, Joy. You're stronger than you know." His hand rests softly on my shoulder. "I promise."


I start to understand what it's like to have a dad. He cares about me. He thinks I'm strong. I hope I won't let him down...


I'm brave. I'm strong. I'm so going to do something I've never done.


As you might have gathered by now, this isn't the lightest read to delve into, but it's certainly an important one! Author Jolene Perry actually found inspiration for this novel from an actual court case that her husband served as prosecuting attorney on. Sadly, stories like Joy's actually do occur. In fact, some of Joy's experiences -- some, not all -- had echoes of my own childhood experiences, making this a bit of a trigger read for me. Though I had to take periodic breaks to get through it (even though it's not a long book at all), by the end I had been on such an emotional ride I felt I had to give this one 5 stars. Yep, it's one of those books where even though there were areas of the plot I would have liked to have seen better developed -- I was a little disappointed with the brevity of the courtroom scenes near the end, for instance -- I still consider it a solid 5 star read simply for all it made me FEEL for Joy.  I loved Joy's inner strength, always visible to the reader even when Joy didn't see it herself, and her determination to rise above her circumstances. I loved the way she dedicated herself to living up to her name.


I also got a kick out of the clever chapter headings such as "Sometimes there are no good answers", "Seriously, am I moving backwards?" or "Wait, Is this what it's like to do better?!" Oh, and I was tickled that Joy was given a slider phone as her first cellphone even though this book was only written 2 years ago... instantly made me think of all those people who lost it when Adele was seen using one in the "Hello" music video LOL



It's true what they say about joy. It's the kind of happiness that not only fills you up but spills over. Really, all you have to do is look for it, and then have the strength to let it in. And believe it or not, that's the hardest part. 

2 Stars
Mafia Girl by Deborah Blumenthal
Mafia Girl - Deborah Blumenthal

"What's in a name? Everything… if you have my name." At her exclusive Manhattan high school, half the guys lust after seventeen-year-old Gia. The other half are afraid to even walk near her. After all, everyone knows who she is. They know that her father doesn't have a boss. He is the boss--the capo di tutti, boss of all bosses. But they don't know the real Gia. She's dreaming of a different life--one where she can be more than her infamous name. And lately, she's thinking way too much about Michael, the green-eyed cop who's wrong for her for so many reasons. And yet being with him feels so right. Now the real Gia is keeping secrets of her own alongside her family's. And she's breaking all the rules to get what she wants.






Gia is the teenage daughter of a Mafia don who is accustomed to a life of luxury, status, and getting whatever she wants. One day she's riding shotgun in a car stolen by her friend Ro (Rosemarie). They get pulled over for speeding and once the arresting officer finds out both girls are underage and neither seem to be the legal owner of the car, he hauls them into the station. Gia's family connections get her free of charges in a hurry, but not before she develops a hardcore crush for that officer, Michael, whom she cringingly dubs "Officer Hottie". Gia then sets out to get him to fall for her, basically stalking him at all his hang-out places while he's off-duty. However, her lust-driven activities are quickly halted when her father finds himself in serious legal trouble, a mess his top-notch lawyer might actually be unable to get him out off. Suddenly, instead of enjoying a fun flirtation, Gia is watching her family and life as she knows it crumble before her eyes. 


Being quite the fan of mafia-themed fiction (one of my all-time favorite movies is GoodFellas!), I thought this would be right up my alley. I figured this would be a more light-hearted take on the theme... mafia girl going for young cop... could be cute, right?  But man, the writing here felt all over the place. Incredibly amateurish, just riddled with mediocrity. I was disappointed at how unlikeable Gia turned out to be. I honestly struggled to find anything that would firmly plant me on the Team Gia side. Her dialogue was made up of SO much unnecessary profanity and annoyingly abbreviated words. Sure, a lot of teens like to speak that way, but Gia's speech went far past what you'd hear from the average American teen. It struck me more as the type of thing where an adult was trying to take on that way of speaking but overreaching it, killing the believability. 


Then there was the whole what-are-they-exactly confusing relationship between Gia and Michael. Gia plays the sex-kitten image so hard it's actually embarrasing to read, because she's just going at it too hard. You want to scream for her to pull back and stop being a creeper! And Michael was just odd. She's in high school, he's on the police force. There should have been no question where his stance should be but he goes from "aww no I shouldn't" to "nope, I totally need to be all up in that". His "sexy" dialogue -- if anyone could even remotely call it that -- pulled as many grossed out groans from me as Gia's did, maybe more! I'm sorry, there was just something about the way he was written that came off as too To Catch A Predator to me. And Gia spends the majority of the story in a pretty consistent spoiled brat mode, so... hard to root for a guy who clearly just wants her because she's hot, regardless of how irritating she'd be long-term. 


The few things that I give a few redeeming points for: I liked the scenes between Gia and her father and the ones with Gia and her best friend Clive. Clive was actually my favorite character in the whole book and offered the one and only plot twist for me -- I did not expect his story to have such a dark vein in there. In fact, it was only after Clive reveals his secret, and Gia's response to it, that I started to see a glimmer of something admirable in her. There was also a scene shortly after that moment when Gia fights back against having her life uprooted yet again.... but just I was starting to think her character was having a turning point, she went back to her old bratty ways and the story was lost for me again.



I still think the concept for the story is a cute one, but my impression was that it might have worked a bit better for me if Gia had been even just a few years older. Giving her those few extra years to mentally mature could've made all the difference in this wannabe love story. 

4 Stars
Whispers In The Reading Room (Chicago World's Fair Mystery #3) by Shelley Gray
Whispers in the Reading Room  - Shelley Gray

Just months after the closure of the Chicago World’s Fair, librarian Lydia Bancroft finds herself fascinated by a mysterious dark-haired and dark-eyed patron. He has never given her his name; he actually never speaks to a single person. All she knows about him is that he loves books as much as she does. Only when he rescues her in the lobby of the Hartman Hotel does she discover that his name is Sebastian Marks. She also discovers that he lives at the top of the prestigious hotel and that most everyone in Chicago is intrigued by him. Lydia and Sebastian form a fragile friendship, but when she discovers that Mr. Marks isn’t merely a very wealthy gentleman, but also the proprietor of an infamous saloon and gambling club, she is shocked. Lydia insists on visiting the club one fateful night and suddenly is a suspect to a murder. She must determine who she can trust, who is innocent, and if Sebastian Marks—the man so many people fear—is actually everything her heart believes him to be.





In this conclusion of Shelley Gray's Chicago World Fair Mysteries trilogy, it's now some months after the close of the fair. Librarian Lydia Bancroft finds satisfaction running the local library's Reading Room. She finds herself drawn to one patron with an air of mystery about him. Dark haired, dark eyed, and a man of few words. 


This mystery man, soon introduced to the reader as Sebastian Marks, is the proprietor of a local saloon and popular gambling house located in a rather unsavory area of town. He finds solace away from the rowdiness and violence in Lydia's Reading Room but is concerned that if word of his love of books got out, it would damage his street cred, so he prefers to keep quiet about his favorite pastime (well... one of them anyway... ). Lydia desperately wants to know more about him but how to approach him without seeming intrusive? Luckily, an opportunity soon presents itself. 


Lydia and her mother have recently been left in a financial bind by Lydia's deceased father's poor money management. To try to pull them back in the black, Lydia enters into a marriage engagement with a man who presents himself as a man of wealth and status. Turns out he has a bit of a temper though. While having tea with her fiancee at the hotel where Sebastian just happens to live (the restaurant in the lobby there), Lydia finds her conversational comments unexpectedly get her man riled up, causing him to get physically abusive with her. Sebastian happens to be in the lobby and immediately comes to Lydia's aid. In just a few moments, Lydia's fiancee has called off their engagement, further disturbed that she seems to have an acquaintance with Sebastian. At this point, Lydia is unaware of Sebastian's line of work, but once the truth comes out she can't help but feel Sebastian is more than this work that pushes the boundaries of legal.  Sebastian, in turn, is overcome to find someone who honestly seems to have faith in him as a person, having never had that in his life before.  Lydia's friendship and loyalty to Sebastian will be put to the test as murder victims and suspicious cops continue to find their way to the doorstep of Sebastian's establishment. 


Having now completed the series, I think I'd say this was my favorite of the trilogy. Though it technically takes place after the close of the Chicago World's Fair, Gray still finds a way to work the fairgrounds into the plot here, which was nice since the fair felt nearly non-existent in Book 2. I found this book to have some of the best atmosphere, what with the split between the peace and coziness of the library scenes vs the moments in Chicago's urban underbelly of 1893. I liked the way the relationship between Sebastian and Lydia progressed, the pace of it. Likewise, I like how the "bad guys" were developed. Though it might have made me cringe to hear Lydia's fiancee's speeches on how she needed to give up her bookish silliness once they were married, that kind of jerk was needed to illuminate Sebastian's soft side when he talks of his love of Lydia's intelligence and love of literature. I'm a book blogger, how am I not going to swoon a bit over the tough guy who loves the bookish girl? ;-)


Note To Readers: I would strongly recommend reading this series in order! There are characters that are carried over from book to book. Eloise's story was introduced in the first book, then became the focus for book 2. In this third book, Sean Ryan, the detective who was assigned Eloise's case in the second book, is brought back to investigate the case involving Sebastian. It'll all just make way more sense if you take these in order.  Also, though this is technically considered Christian fiction, the mention of religious aspects is minimal in the first two books. I think there's little more than some characters briefly entering churches or, if a character shows conflicted emotion, another character might suggest to "pray on it". The religious aspect is slightly more noticeable in the third book, but still, only kept to one or two quoted bible passages and a "God Bless" or "God willing" here and there. 


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

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