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!!! 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.

 

 

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

 

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.

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Losing The Light by Andrea Dunlop
Losing the Light: A Novel - Andrea Dunlop

When thirty-year-old Brooke Thompson unexpectedly runs into a man from her past, she’s plunged headlong into memories she’s long tried to forget about the year she spent in France following a disastrous affair with a professor. As a newly arrived exchange student in the picturesque city of Nantes, young Brooke develops a deep and complicated friendship with Sophie, a fellow American and stunning blonde, whose golden girl façade hides a precarious emotional fragility. Sophie and Brooke soon become inseparable and find themselves intoxicated by their new surroundings—and each other. But their lives are forever changed when they meet a sly, stylish French student, Veronique, and her impossibly sexy older cousin, Alex. The cousins draw Sophie and Brooke into an irresistible world of art, money, decadence, and ultimately, a disastrous love triangle that consumes them both. And of the two of them, only one will make it home.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Brooke Thompson is a copy editor living in NYC when a friend invites her to attend an event which brings Brooke's past rushing back to her in an instant. It turns out another attendee at this party is none other than Alex, a Frenchman with whom Brooke once had a heady but fleeting romance. A romance it's taken her years to let go of.

 

While the novel starts out in present day, the bulk of Losing The Light lays out what happens that fateful year when college-aged Brooke was encouraged to take a study-abroad course in Nantes, France. The final chapters bring us back to present day as Brooke tries to bring closure to the most painful story of her life. 

 

In her debut novel, author Andrea Dunlop gives readers a complex story of friendship, lust and luxury that ultimately runs off the rails. While Brooke is in college, she, along with one of her professors, gets caught up in a school scandal. While the professor chooses to resign his position, the college dean encourages Brooke to take a study abroad course in France temporarily, while everyone waits for the heat of the situation to die down. Brooke agrees and soon even has schoolmate Sophie tagging along on her trip. Shortly after starting up classes in Nantes, Sophie and Brooke meet local Veronique, who invites them to a gathering at her apartment to meet the other local 20-somethings. It's at this party that Sophie and Brooke first meet Veronique's gorgeous cousin, Alex -- the man who will prove to be their ruination. Having fallen under the spell of Veronique and Alex (and the whole de Persaud family for that matter, what with their proverbial closets seemingly chock full of mysteries and skeletons!), Brooke and Sophie get caught up in a whirlwind of culture, money, love and decadence. Only too late do they realize they are in a tailspin towards a painful reality! 

 

Brooke is written as the more shy one, while Sophie is your fun-loving, social butterfly... at least on the outside. Little hints here and there suggest that Sophie is struggling with some sort of mental disorder or hardship -- manic depression, perhaps? -- which she has had to be temporarily committed for, as well as being on medications which she is reluctant to take / stay on. The scenes where Brooke and Sophie first arrive in Nantes reminded me a bit of the scenes in the first Taken movie, where the girls first arrive in Paris (I think it was Paris, been a minute since I watched those films...). This novel, once you know the synopsis, gives you that same sort of unease as that film. You know things are going to start out nice and lovely but you're just waiting for the fake backdrop to fall to expose what's really in store for the girls. 

 

As far as the setting of the novel, I was all set to settle into a story with heavy doses of -- what would you call it... "French-ness"? -- I didn't want things to go full-bore Pepe LePew obviously, but with any novel set in a place you know to be steeped in culture, you want to have that armchair traveling vibe firmly established. I can't say I completely felt that in the Nantes portions of the story (though there is a little bit with moments of shopping, cafe lunches and meeting with Alex / Veronique's grandmother at her grand estate... otherwise, it often seemed like the Nantes portions of the story really could have been set anywhere) but the feel I was hoping for does kick in when the ladies go on excursions to Paris and the French Rivera. 

 

Paris didn't feel like a place you could just go to the way you could move to any American city. Its money and glamour were ancient and inherited, as inaccessible as the stars. 

 

This novel had a bit of a slow burn for me. It didn't seem like too much was going on for the first 100 pages or so. But I was curious to stick with it. The author herself contacted me after having read my review for Abroad by Katie Crouch, which has a somewhat similar storyline to this book (Crouch even provides a blurb on the cover of Losing the Light). I had read enough into the novel to find I had developed solid interest in the characters and was definitely invested enough to see how everyone's story panned out. 

 

Alex gave me mixed feelings. Sometimes he comes off as the stereotypical, overly suave Frenchman. He'll push boundaries, sometimes get a little too handsy without permission from the ladies, sometimes say a truly cringe-worthy line (that you would probably fall for, at least once, if it was directed at you, let's be honest)... other times you gotta give it to the guy, he can be damn smooth with his technique. But then when you're almost ready to like him, he'll go and say / do something to perfectly ruin every good impression you almost had. I know this guy. I ashamedly admit I dated this guy -- more than once! -- during my early college years, so I felt for Brooke. Just a part of life ladies have to do the walk of shame through and ride out so they know what the deal breakers are on their way to the true Mr. Right. ;-)

 

I'd say my favorite character was Sophie. I liked her complicated blend of "social butterfly with the perfect life" exterior + dumpster fire of emotions on the inside. Yes, she could be selfish and bratty at times, but other moments you see her vulnerable, her insights on the world around her offering important social commentary on the struggle so many have with the "us vs them" mentality that bounces between "the beautiful people" who seem to have it all and the blue collar folk who feel like they have to endlessly struggle to hold on to even a few crumbs of good fortune. Sophie ponders on the lengths people go to aspire to BE the beautiful people while never understanding that problems -- serious, dark problems --  exist on that side too, problems that are never taken seriously because of the shiny glow around all that reside in that world. The only trouble I had with Sophie was that I didn't feel that her character was developed quite enough to have the full, high-intensity impact needed to really make that ending knock the wind out of the reader. While I wanted to gasp, I was left more with a quiet "well, that's a shame..." followed by a "wait, what now?!" (but again, not in a jaw-dropping shock kind of way, but more like a hazy confusion).

 

Note to sensitive readers: This novel does use some crude language at times within the dialogue of the characters, and some characters do have some sexy-times scenes that do include descriptions of fellacio / cunnilingus. Just a heads up if you prefer to avoid such subject matter in your reading. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Author Andrea Dunlop 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.

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Nutshell: A Novel - Ian McEwan

Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home—a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse—but John's not there. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy's womb. Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world’s master storytellers.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Ian McEwan brings readers a murder mystery told from the unique perspective of an unborn child. Trudy is nearing the end of her pregnancy but is currently estranged from her husband... because she threw him out. Not for infidelity or anything like that... no, she'd just grown a little bored and dissatisfied with the man. Trudy gently opens up the "maybe it would be good for us to have some time apart" conversation which ends in husband John moving out and shortly thereafter John's brother Claude secretly taking his place.

 

A night of heavy drinking gives Claude and Trudy the inspiration to end John's life. At this point, our unborn narrator expresses his concern over what kind of situation he's being born into... he explains having a natural desire to love his mother as one tends to feel towards someone keeping you alive and all... but all this talk of murder weapons and methods leaves him unsettled! Listening in on conversations through the stretched skin of his mother's womb, baby-narrator doesn't get the impression that John is all that horrid, despite what Trudy's wine-loosened lips might say. A 6'3 teddy bear of a guy, John seems to be a people-pleaser, which annoys Trudy. She finds him weak and kind and considerate to a fault (aka total doormat of a guy). But baby-narrator reasons that there are definitely worse traits to find in someone -- just look at John's brother, Claude! Dumb as a bag of rocks, obsessed with having sex multiple times a day, making lewd comments or gestures when not in the actual act, table manners of a Neanderthal. What is Trudy thinking?!

 

All in all, I had mixed feelings about this short novel (less than 200 pages). For much of it I was thinking plot-wise this thing was about a 2. Just not enough tension for me. But then I realized I was actually having some fun reading these characters, just them as people. Claude grossed me out most of the time, and I was stumped trying to make sense of Trudy's thought process, but she does make a little more sense when you get closer to the end. I actually ended up feeling a bit sad for her. Still not cool that you were throwing back so much wine though, girl. Seriously. 

 

What truly carried the story for me was the thin vein of dark comedy McEwan weaves into everyone's narratives. The surprise visit from John and Trudy's casual:

 

"Claude, darling, kindly put the glycol bottle away." 

 

LOL, I may be a little twisted but I love that kind of humor. 

 

The unnamed, unborn narrator -- at first I was a little troubled thinking,"This is an unborn child, how would he have such a developed intelligence about him?!" but an acceptable explanation for that is later provided. But that intelligence gives him an already-done-with-it-all edge to his voice that I enjoyed. 

 

 

I also grew to like John, in the few scenes he appears. He struck me as a good dude, if maybe a little neglectful, a little oblivious of Trudy's growing discontent before she booted him. The doormat impression is strong with him until one scene where he gives a quiet speech, subtle in tone yet darkly funny which is directed at Trudy and has an unspoken "I'm on to you" kind of message. Trudy and I were similarly left speechless! But then he snaps out of it, they get to talking about the good ol' days, John reminiscing about when he and Trudy met, back when he enjoyed reciting poetry and was a javelin thrower on the track & field team. This leads into my favorite exchange in the whole book:

 

Trudy: "I never want to hear another poem again."

John (pointing to his brother, Claude): "Well, you certainly won't get any out of that guy."

 

BOOM. And then he just leaves. Yep, I liked that John.

 

The inspiration for the title of this book comes from a line in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, which McEwan references before the story begins. While this little novel of his is not a direct retelling, I could definitely see inspiration and likenesses between the two throughout. 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Doubleday 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.

Review
3 Stars
The High Divide by Lin Enger
The High Divide: A Novel - Lin Enger

In 1886, Gretta Pope wakes up one morning to discover that her husband is gone. Ulysses Pope has left his family behind on the far edge of Minnesota’s western prairie, with only the briefest of notes and no explanation for why he left or where he’s heading. It doesn’t take long for Gretta’s young sons, Eli and Danny, to set off after him, leaving Gretta no choice but to search for the boys and their father in hopes of bringing them all home. Enger’s breathtaking portrait of the vast plains landscape is matched by the rich expanse of his characters’ emotional terrain, as pivotal historical events--the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians--blend seamlessly with the intimate story of a family’s sacrifice and devotion.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

1886 Minnesota. Gretta Pope wakes one morning to see her husband, Ulysses, off on a trip. Naturally, she expects him to return from this trip but he does not... instead, she finds she is only left with a mysterious and vague note from him. The note shows that he had intentions to leave like this for some time but Ulysses doesn't explain why. So now Mrs. Pope finds she's basically stranded out on the western prairie with two young sons and no ideas for income -- a stressful position to be left in, as the Popes were struggling financially, already in the dodging-the-landlord phase of things. Gretta's oldest son, Elijah, takes it upon himself to travel across the wild western territory to try to track down his dad. He's silently watched his father for years, noticing a brooding restlessness to Ulysses' spirit, always fearing that one day the man might try something like this disappearing act, perhaps never to come back.

 

Elijah doesn't tell his mother of his plan to sniff out his father's whereabouts, deciding instead to sneak out alone early one morning with the intention of hobo-ing it alone. But wouldn't you know his curious little brother, Danny, finds a way to shadow him until they reach the train tracks, where Elijah discovers him. Danny doesn't make his presence known until the train is moving, so Elijah has no choice to let little brother tag along. It does make Elijah nervous, traveling with Danny, as Danny has a mysterious illness that leaves him with crippling or otherwise debilitating headaches, nausea, sometimes even periods of black-out (It's not directly named in the book, but much of what IS described of Danny's condition made me think of possible epilepsy).

 

Gretta is understandably pretty distraught when she discovers what her sons have done. She tries to go on her own mission to find them but her efforts quickly prove futile, so she decides it's maybe just best to hold down the home front until all her men get back. Unfortunately, that decision means she has to fight off the unsavory, suggestively salacious offers on how she can pay off her debts from her somewhat skeevy landlord, Mead Fogarty. 

 

While her guys are trekking all over the territory at different points, Gretta is left with little else for company than her own inner thoughts on motherhood and her marriage, which she admits had been showing signs of strain of late. She wonders if this flight of Ulysses is partly her doing. She also has to field gossip floating around town about her, thanks to meddling Mead. Meanwhile, her sons are on a great adventure that has them not only uncovering never-before-known facts about their father's life before his family man days, but they also get quite the education on the plight of the Plains Indians and the decimation of wild buffalo herds, via their introduction to real life historical figure William Hornaday.

 

Historical fiction aside, when you break it down there are basically three main storylines woven together here -- that of Gretta as a wife and mother, that of Ulysses as a husband, father and Civil War veteran, and that of the two brothers trying to figure out what the heck is up with their parents lately. Personally, it took me about 100 pages or so to get honestly invested in the plot. While I did enjoy the descriptions of the time period and the details of individual characters, there was still something somewhat lacking to really get me sucked into the pages. Much of what was moving my reading along was a simple mild curiosity as to how Ulysses's disappearance would be explained. That, and I really enjoyed the story of strengthening brotherhood between Elijah and Danny. 

 

I am glad I stuck with it! The closing scenes of the novel offer a nice pay-off for time invested. When the explanation for the father's disappearance is ultimately revealed, it involves touching upon some pretty heavy topics. I had to chuckle and nod knowingly at Elijah's reaction to the reveal, which amounted to a kind of ticked off, "UGH! This could've been handled so much better!" Haha, been there, kid! 

 

I also recommend reading the afterword essay by Lin Enger that gets into some of the true history behind the novel's inspiration. The story behind the buffalo nickle was a fascinating bit I never knew before! 

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Made for Goodness (And Why This Makes All The Difference) by Desmond Tutu & Mpho Tutu
Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference - Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu

In Made for Goodness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and international icon of peace and reconciliation, shares his vision on why we can find hope and joy in the world’s darkest moments by realizing that we were made for goodness, that we are wired so that goodness will win in the end. Archbishop Tutu is a spiritual leader and symbol of love and forgiveness on the level of Gandi, Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Made for Goodness, written with his daughter Mpho, is one of the most personal and inspirational books he's ever written.

Amazon.com

 

 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Prize winner (1984) and a survivor of not only an abusive childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father, but also of the apartheid era in Africa. In this book, which he writes with his daughter Mpho (pronounced mm-POH, btw) who is also an archbishop, finally addresses the topic he's been asked about most over the years --- how does he manage to stay happy, given what he's been through? How does he continue to see good in the world and not lose faith in humanity? In under 300 pages of illustrative stories of hope and faith, he gives you your answer. 

 

Desmond's path has not been an easy one. Remember the alcoholic, abusive father I mentioned? He was actually principal of Desmond's elementary school in Johannesburg, South Africa when Desmond was a child. No escape for the poor kid! But he endured, survived and went on to become educated and highly respected within a career of service. By the time apartheid in Africa reared its ugly head, Desmond was a father himself. One of the quietest actions to signal the fight to come was when the lunch program was canceled for all black children in South African schools, though white students were still served. Then Prime Minster Hendrik Verwoerd's official statement on the decision? "We can't provide for all the children, so we won't provide for any." That moment was cruel enough but ohh if only the fight had stopped there! If you've read up on your history regarding this time, you're aware of the bloodshed that was to follow all across the country. 

 

Desmond takes up the position of archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. During apartheid, he serves as president of All Africa Conference of Churches. In the apartheid's aftermath, he becomes chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, dedicated to helping shattered families emotionally and physically rebuild their lives. His daughter Mpho worked alongside Desmond as a counselor to emotionally, physically or sexually abused women & children, rape victims and / or drug addicts. So you can guess, they were in the thick of it, seeing humans at their darkest, lowest emotional states. There must have been days where Desmond and Mpho had to have lost heart! This whole book is Desmond describing how they were able to stay strong in a world full of cruelty and depravity, dedicating themselves anew each day to building up rather than tearing down. 

 

Your whole life is holy ground.

~ Desmond Tutu

 

Desmond's work in South Africa, as well as time spent working in a refugee camp in Darfur, drove him to develop the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Tutu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

 

Archbishop Tutu ends each chapter of the book with a prayer poem, giving the reader something to contemplate on, regarding struggles within their own life. If you wish to pray on something troubling you but don't know how to go about wording it, these can be a useful tool to help guide your mind to a peaceful place. Tutu hits upon some solid truths on the subjects of truth, faith and general perseverance through life. While his message did get a little repetitive in parts for me, I can't argue with the message itself. The man's been put through the fire and came out the other side an intact happy man. His words have been field-tested, you could say! 

 

One thing that Tutu stresses in these chapters that did really resonate with me is the need to be realistic with oneself. We should all be striving for everyday kindness for humanity, but also keep in mind you don't have to be a perfect saint. You will have days where you get angry, where you break down, where you feel like you're not doing enough or that your efforts are pointless because the world is just too damaged. To this line of thinking he gives the reader this in return:

 

There is a relief worker who resides in our soul. In each of us, there is a dignified Darfuri, one who can find occasion for gratitude and joyful laughter in almost any circumstance. To whatever extent we recognize and act on those traits, they are there and want to be expressed. We can always aspire to be more compassionate and more generous, not out of some dogged need to be good or to be lovable, but because to give love is our greatest joy.

 

I was also moved by Tutu's words on "ubuntu", the South African way of describing everything and everyone in the world being interconnected. 

 

Some of the hardest truth to take (though the guy is right!) is when he breaks down the idea of freedom of choice. Admittedly, an amazing gift, but as he points out... it comes with a caveat. Freedom of choice also means potential for people to choose wrongly or poorly, which will likely affect a great many people. Could be you, could be someone else. So then he says, if your life has been negatively affected by the poor choices of others, you THEN have the choice to CHOOSE to forgive them or carry the weight of that anger / sadness / disappointment etc within yourself for however long you choose. Freedom of choice doesn't always mean everyone wins, but it gives you the freedom to choose how you react to the options provided.

 

I did really love Mpho's stone exercise for releasing hurt feelings, so I thought I would share it here: Mpho says to take a small stone that can fit in a pocket (but some with noticeable weight to it), put it in your pocket and throughout the day tell the rock what is troubling you. Whenever you feel that hurt or anger bubbling back up, voice it to the rock. At the end of the day, find someplace to set the rock down and mentally set down your weighted mind with it. Then walk away. Leave the rock there and walk away with a lightened spirit. 

 

Worth a shot! 

Review
4 Stars
Your Next 24 Hours by Hal Donaldson
Your Next 24 Hours: One Day of Kindness Can Change Everything - Hal Donaldson, Kirk Noonan, Candace Payne

If asked, who among us wouldn't say we were kind people? But kindness is often manifested in feelings of pity or sympathy--especially when others are watching--rather than in deeds. And when it comes down to it, what good does mere feeling do for the world? Your Next 24 Hours is about something much bigger--a lifestyle of kindness, without thought of reciprocation, extended toward every person in our lives, both friend and foe. Through powerful true stories of kindness lived out, this book shows readers the enormous difference they can make through small, doable acts of kindness in their families, communities, workplaces, schools, and churches. It shows how every encounter with another person is an opportunity to be kind--and a chance to change our world. Readers of Your Next 24 Hours will find deep satisfaction and joy as they discover how they can be part of a revolution of kindness that starts with them and reaches out through every person their lives touch.

Amazon.com

 

 

Hal Donaldson, with the help of Kirk Noonan, put together this inspiring little bit of nonfiction to get readers thinking about how they can make their little corners of the world just a little bit better. Pretty apt timing on this book's release, I must say! 

 

"Happiness is a result of who you are, not just what you do. Your acts of kindness are an outward expression of the love and happiness in your heart."

 

Hal Donaldson is the co-founder and president of Convoy of Hope, a non-profit organization which strives to provide services to those in need around the world, whether that be through nutritional programs in school, shelter & job training for abused mothers looking to start over, or even disaster relief services. Your Next 24 Hours pools together what Donaldson has learned not only from his work with Convoy of Hope, but also his own life experiences from having survived a childhood in a painfully broken home, the relationship between his parents irrevocably shattered. 

 

This book starts with a foreword from Candace Payne, aka "Chewbacca Mom" of Youtube fame, who recently got signed to a multi-book deal herself through Zondervan Publishing. I noticed the outside of the book also features some interesting choices for promotional blurbs, one being from Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne's Pretzels and another from Curt and Nancy Richardson, inventors of Otterbox tech protective cases. The one blurb I really loved though was from San Francisco 49ers tight end Vance McDonald:

 

 

It's easy to love the lovable, to be kind to the kind, and reciprocate to those who have first done something nice for us. Ours is a world built around the bold and the beautiful, the pretty and the eloquent. But what about those who are seemingly unlovable, shy, unnoticed, less fortunate? Such people are all around us, and we often take them for granted. But just as Jesus modeled, perhaps we could lift up their spirits if -- through kindness -- we simply noticed them. Your Next 24 Hours encourages us to do just that!

 

 

 

Once you get into the meat of this book, you'll see that each chapter starts with an inspirational quote from a celebrity name you know. Just to name a few: Princess Diana, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa, Marilyn Monroe, Matthew McConaughey, Audrey Hepburn, Walt Disney, Nelson Mandela, Denzel Washington, Magic Johnson, Ellen DeGeneres, Natalie Portman, and Jane Goodall. Many more are included. Also referenced are inspirational stories of generosity involving celebrities such as Paul Walker, Kate Winslet, Adam Levine, Jake Gyllenhal, Zendaya, and Amy Adams. Each chapter ends with a "Kind Ways" list, suggestions for little ways you can incorporate good deeds into your daily life, either through acts that benefit others or steps you can take to improve your own mental / physical wellness. 

 

So how do you heal a strained relationship so the stress doesn't interfere with your sleep? First, realize that some disputes can be healed in one conversation while others may take months or years. Despite your apology or attempts to make amends, some people are bent on taking grudges to their grave. Second, call for a truce -- even if there's nothing more you can say or do to turn an adversary into an ally. Third, make every effort to return aggression with love -- and repay disrespect with honor. Your enemy may not respond with grace, but at least you can know you tried. When conflicts arise -- and they will -- take immediate action. Try to reach a quick resolution or compromise. Don't allow days or weeks to pass before endeavoring to heal wounds caused by the dispute. Otherwise, minor bumps and bruises can become long-term injuries to the relationship. Seek to reconcile through respectful conversation and acts of kindness. If voices begin to escalate into a heated exchange, don't try to match decibels. Remain calm and composed. Mother Teresa said, "I have found the paradox, if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love."

 

 

In among all these celebrity anecdotes (as well as his own) and tips to motivate the reader to action, Donaldson also offers up some solid lines to ponder on. Just a few of the little life truths he wants you to remember:

 

  • "Fulfillment doesn't come from exceeding others, but elevating them."
  • "No home is perfect; every family faces its share of ups and downs. But a home founded on love and kindness can weather any storm. When crises arise, you can stand with confidence and say, 'We are family, and no matter what, we're going to make it through these challenges together.'"
  • "Listening is kindness. It tells people you cherish their words and value their opinions. It says, 'You matter.' Kindness means seeing the unseen, hearing the unheard, and touching the unloved. Relentless kindness is contagious."
  • "Listening also means hearing what people are not saying. Some are wounded, alone and afraid. Their jobs may be tenuous and their family fractured, and you'd never know it. They suffer in silence because they really don't know whom they can trust. It will take someone like you, who hears what's not being said, to reach out to them and offer encouragement."
  • Also, "Forgiveness is kindness."
  • "Don't try to settle disputes through emails or texts. Meet face-to-face whenever possible. Don't allow a friendship or business relationship to suffer because you didn't take the extra step of connecting in person. Whether you're negotiating a cease-fire in your family  or circle of friends -- or mending fences in a business relationship -- your acts of kindness are never wasted. With a little good fortune and a dose of understanding, your adversary could one day become your most-trusted ally."
  • Donaldson also gets into the science behind kindness: Acts of kindness increase levels of oxytocin in the brain, which decreases depression and strengthens the immune system. Your body gets a natural high from the oxytocin boost, so your brain continues to encourage you to look for more opportunities to do good. Win-Win: your health improves while you do your part to improve the lives of others! Added bonus: surveys say happy people, on average, live about 35% longer. 
  • Donaldson reminds readers of a few of the hard truths behind acts of kindness as well: sometimes those acts mean something of a sacrifice on your part. The key thing to remember is that your sacrifice demonstrates that you are aspiring to live a life that rises above solely benefiting yourself. Your sacrifice benefits others in need, and that's no small thing! That being said, he also stresses the importance of knowing how far to go with generosity / charity. Sometimes an impulsive act is good, other times it pays to do your research... sad truth is there ARE some sketchy people and companies out there who will take advantage of your kind heart if you're not careful. Donaldson gives you some tips on how to go about being simultaneously smart and sweet at heart. 

 

Once you're inspired to carry out these small acts of kindness on your little patch of Planet Earth, Donaldson then explains how your little acts positively will positively affect the world on a global scale. Along with this, he also stresses the importance of being kind to the planet itself, being environmentally conscious, and ways you can go about doing that if you are unsure of where to start. Though this entire book is under 200 pages, there is a bounty of inspiration and information to be harvested from its pages! If you find yourself discontent with the state of the world right now and want to make a change but don't know where to start or if you are skeptical about how much difference little ol' you could make in the grand scheme of things, I urge you to try this book out and see for yourself that every little act helps! If you are on Twitter, Hal Donaldson encourages you to share your stories of progress with him (@ConvoyOfHope) under the hashtag #YourNext24

 

FTC Disclaimer: Baker Books 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.

Review
5 Stars
Wish by Melina Gerosa Bellows
Wish - Melina Gerosa Bellows

When your entire life has been one long search for that mysterious "something" that will finally make you happy and complete, what you want changes faster than the fashions in Vogue. But that doesn't mean you stop wishing, does it?  This is Bella Grandelli's heartbreaking, hilarious, and seemingly hopeless quest-from her days as a pudgy, insecure eight-year-old in the seventies, to a Madonna-worshipping Notre Dame co-ed in the eighties, where she tries on boyfriends as if they're leg-warmers, to a martini-sipping entertainment journalist in the nineties. The only constant through her love-life chaos is her twin brother, Bobby, whose mysterious illness has been a source of both triumph and tragedy-no matter how hard Bella tries to wish him well. But it's only when her family faces a devastating crisis that she finally realizes the painful truth about herself and her life. And no one is more surprised than Bella herself when that journey leads her to the only person in the world who holds the key to her heart.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Bella is searching for that special little something that will finally make her feel happy and complete... that one thing that so many of us feel like we can't quite name but we just know is out there waiting for us. Bella's trouble is that her definition of happy seems to keep changing. Especially when she considers how her autistic twin brother Bobby plays into that idea. Bobby, most days anyway, has a "joy in the little things" way about him. He has a sunny disposition, a love of patterns, and a unique way of speaking, relying almost entirely on dialogue from tv shows he watches -- Star Trek / Yosemite Sam / Batman when he's happy, Bugs Bunny quotes means bad news. 

 

Bobby's upbeat nature often puts Bella's troubles into perspective, even when she'd prefer to, you know, kinda just enjoy wallowing in those indulgent moments of self-pity. She's also always felt a sense of responsibility to Bobby, sometimes more of a parent to him than their actual parents, teaching him things like how to do acceptable eye contact (2 seconds = too short, 5 seconds = too long). All of this factors into how she defines happy, what she wants for herself, what goals she thinks she can accomplish guilt-free. She also contemplates what she needs for her own soul's happiness, regardless of what the world might say it requires of her. 

 

Spanning from an introduction to 8 year old Bella in the 1970s to Bella as a grown female journalist in the 1990s, the format of Wish is set up in a way similar to that of Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary (author Melina Bellows even notes the similarity in her author interview at the back of this book) . At each chapter's beginning, the reader is given a rundown of what year it is, Bella's age that year, her favorite song and celebrity idol of the moment, and a noting of her best pair of shoes and prized possession for that year. The plot itself though reminded me a bit of a grown up version of Rules by Cynthia Lord.

 

When Wish was first released back in 2005, I remember seeing it here and there on a few recommended reading lists in magazines I would casually peruse. Since then, I've heard a fair share of less than stellar reviews about it, so it quietly got pushed further and further down on my own mental "to get to one day" reading list. So glad I decided to finally take it home after finding it in a local used bookstore recently! I went into it hesitantly (those reviews in the back of my mind) but came out completely moved by this little story. I saw SO many parallels to my own life in Bella's journey it floored me.

 

Some of those neggy reviews mentioned how cliche it all is and how predictable the romances play out but real life does play out that way too sometimes. Sometimes it IS the most obvious answer once you get out of your own way! But it wasn't even the romances that resonated with me (though I was very much entertained seeing the various situations Bella gets herself into!). For me, it was Bella's inner monologues and overall thought processes that bonded me to her, faulty though they may be sometimes! I loved watching her go through the process of figuring out the reasoning behind ideas like taking care of yourself so you can be better for others, or as Bella's therapist puts it at one point, "Inside every rescuer there is a victim." Bella realizes she doesn't really know how to define herself outside of various levels of caretaker roles within her own family. That's something I struggle with myself to this day so I was definitely rooting for her on her journey and cringing when I knew how badly some of her choices would end up (having been there myself). 

 

 

If you've ever felt overwhelmed with being "the responsible one" in your family (who is then maybe unfairly and harshly judged when you just try to freakin' live a little) then Bella's story may be for you. Hers is a reminder that we're ALL here just trying to figure it all out the best we can and yes, every one of us is going to get the proverbial pie in the face now and then, but we push through and keep going anyway, don't we? :-) I'd also recommend this for anyone gearing up for Autism Awareness Month in April! 

 

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