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Review
3 Stars
After The Cheering Stops (memoir) by Cyndy Feasel
After the Cheering Stops: An NFL Wife's Story of Concussions, Loss, and the Faith that Saw Her Through - Cyndy Feasel, Mike Yorkey

Former NFL wife Cyndy Feasel tells the tragic story of her family’s journey into chaos and darkness resulting from the damage her husband suffered due to football-related concussions and head trauma—and the faith that saved her. 

Grant Feasel spent ten years in the NFL, playing 117 games as a center and a long snapper mostly for the Seattle Seahawks. The skull-battering, jaw-shaking collisions he absorbed during those years ultimately destroyed his marriage and fractured his family. Grant died on July 15, 2012, at the age of 52, the victim of alcohol abuse and a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Cyndy Feasel watched their life together become a living hell as alcohol became Grant’s medication for a disease rooted in the scores of concussions he suffered on the football field. Helmet-to-helmet collisions opened the door to CTE and transformed him from a sunny, strong, and loving man into a dark shadow of his former self. In this raw and emotional memoir that takes a closer look at the destruction wrought by a game millions love, Cyndy describes in painful and excruciating detail what can happen to an NFL player and his family when the stadium empties and the lights go down.

Amazon.com

 

 

Grant Feasel was a 6' 7" lineman for the Seattle Seahawks throughout the 1980s-early 1990s, playing center and long snapper positions. In this memoir, Grant's ex-wife, Cyndy Feasel, recounts all the years of football trauma she witnessed her husband take and how deeply that affected him and their family up until the day he died.

 

 

Cyndy and Grant met while students at Abilene Christian College, where Grant played on the school's football team while studying to be a dentist. Even in those early days, Cyndy would attend his games, watching him get hit or knocked flat out at nearly every game. But coaches would simply wave some smelling salts under his nose and send him back onto the field. Things didn't get any easier when the NFL came calling in 1984. After being offered a position with the Baltimore Colts (who became the Indianapolis Colts shortly after Feasel signed on), Feasel jumped at the opportunity, figuring he could take up his medical degree again later on if the football gig didn't work out. He only got to play for them a short time before the coaches decided he was one of the expendables on the roster. Much to his relief, he was quickly picked up by the Minnesota Vikings. 

 

Minnesota was where I heard, for the first time, Grant saying things like "I got my bell rung" after a game or "I suffered a stinger" in practice. His body took a lot more abuse and I noticed that he was staying longer after practice to get iced and sit in whirlpool baths...Muscles were bruised, and ligaments were stretched and sometimes torn. 

 

Keep in mind that Grant played much of his career on unforgiving artificial surfaces that were like patio carpet rolled onto a concrete slab. The first generation of artificial turf wasn't very sophisticated and lacked the "give" of a traditional dirt-and-grass playing field or today's softer FieldTurf...Grant often complained of "stingers" on Sunday nights. A stinger was an injury to a nerve in the upper arm, either at the neck or shoulder. A stinging or burning pain spread from his neck to one of his hands and felt like an electric shock down the arm. Many times I heard him say, "My neck is on fire."

 

I'm sure he was hurting. He'd always say to me, "I can barely turn my head," and I believed him every time I watched him drive and switch lanes; his neck barely swiveled. 

 

During the 1985 Vikings training camp, Grant suffered a major collision with a teammate from the defensive line. That hit caused Grant's left knee to have a major blowout -- his ACL, MCL and meniscus all shredded, immediately bumping him to the team's IR (injured reserve) roster. That is, until around Thanksgiving 1986, when he was dropped yet again. But again, luck was on his side -- the Seattle Seahawks snatched him up for their 1987 season and he stayed with them until his retirement in the early 1990s. The Seahawks coaches were aware of his injury record but were also impressed by his formidable size, his hard-working blue collar mentality and his high intelligence that allowed him to quickly and easily learn plays. By this time, Grant and Cyndy had children to support. Fearing that he could lose his spot on the team and thus his income, Grant dedicated himself to finding any means to bulk up, hoping it would prevent or at least soften further injury... even if that meant turning to steroid usage. 

 

The detrimental hits didn't stop though, no matter what measures Feasel chased. Instead, the norm became him being sent home with first one baggie full of prescription grade pain killers, then multiple baggies. He also turned to his own remedies, mainly a Sunday & Monday night ritual of downing an entire 6 pack of Coors Light with a Vicodin chaser. As Grant approached his last years in the NFL and then retirement, Cyndy saw the gentle, hard-working family man she fell in love with transition into a man of barely bottled rage. Grant's moods spiraled into a dangerous blend of anger, paranoia, and uncharacteristic profane behavior / language. Though he would seek the help of psychiatrists, more often than not he'd simply be sent home with yet more prescriptions for pain killers or mood enhancers / suppressants. In time, Cyndy discovered her husband's secret: abuse of prescription medications. An alarmed and terrified Cyndy watched her once happy marriage descend into a living nightmare of emotional (and later, physical) abuse. 

 

Though Grant's official cause of death was listed as ESLD or End Stage Liver Disease (aka cirrhosis of the liver), Cyndy lays out why she believes her husband essentially committed suicide slowly over the course of nearly 20 years, thanks to his then-undiagnosed CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) disease. Grant's brain was donated for study to the "Brain Bank" at Boston University, where the brain matter of numerous deceased NFL players have been sent to be tested for CTE. To date, CTE is a condition that can only be determined postmortem (after death). 

 

CTE can only be tested for postmortem, when scientists study the brain's tissues for a buildup of an abnormal protein known as tau, which was becoming associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and progressive dementia...concussions and "dings" on the football field that aren't allowed to heal thoroughly activate the tau protein, which then moves throughout healthy brain cells. When the frontal lobe -- the seat of socialization, emotional intelligence, and rational thinking -- become affected, the brain deteriorates over time. Memory loss and confusion become more prevalent. 

 

Having recently read the non-fiction work League of Denial, which takes a lengthy look at the topic of the NFL and the CTE epidemic in general, I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to read Cyndy Feasel's personal account of trying to live with someone who battled the condition (though they weren't aware of it at the time). Reading the two works together really cemented in my mind the truth that though the NFL has made progress in better caring for their players, the scourge of CTE is still very much a topic that requires persistent discussion. Near the end of Cyndy Feasel's book, there is a definite lean towards pushing parents to keep their kids away from team sports. While I understand the stance, I personally find it a drastic one.

 

While I am sympathetic of Cyndy's struggles, I was a little put off by how watered down and somewhat bland the writing is here. Though the story is Cyndy's, the writing is actually done by Mike Yorkey. His author blurb gives him credit for writing or co-writing some 100 books to date. Why then was the writing so simplistic? That's what stumped me. For example, did the reader really need an explanation of what Advil is... seriously?! I was also surprised that while Feasel talks of immersively educating herself on the topic of CTE after Grant's death, I didn't see one mention of Dr. Bennett Omalu, though he was instrumental in the discovery of the disease in the first place! (Will Smith portrayed Omalu in the film Concussion).

 

Again, I would recommend checking out League of Denial for an in-depth look at the topic of CTE, but I appreciate Feasel's memoir as a personalized, supplemental offering on the subject. 

 

 

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

Review
2 Stars
Time Is A River by Mary Alice Monroe
Time Is a River - Mary Alice Monroe

Recovering from breast cancer and reeling from her husband's infidelity, Mia Landan flees her Charleston home to heal in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. She seeks refuge in a neglected fishing cabin belonging to her fly-fishing instructor, Belle Carson. Belle recently inherited the cabin, which once belonged to a grandmother she never knew -- the legendary fly fisher and journalist of the 1920s, Kate Watkins, whose life fell into ruins after she was accused of murdering her lover. Her fortune lost in the stock market crash and her reputation destroyed, Kate slipped into seclusion in the remote cabin. After her death the fishing cabin remained locked and abandoned for decades. Little does Belle know that by opening the cabin doors to Mia for a summer's sanctuary, she will open again the scandal that plagued Belle's family for generations. From her first step inside the dusty cabin, Mia is fascinated by the traces of Kate's mysterious story left behind in the eccentric furnishings of the cabin. And though Belle, ashamed of the tabloid scandal that tortured her mother, warns Mia not to stir the mud, Mia is compelled to find out more about Kate...especially when she discovers Kate's journal. The inspiring words of the remarkable woman echo across the years. Mia has been learning to fly-fish, and Kate's wise words comparing life to a river resonate deeply. She begins a quest to uncover the truth behind the lies. As she searches newspaper archives and listens to the colorful memories of the local small-town residents, the story of a proud, fiercely independent woman emerges. Mia feels a strange kinship with the woman who, like her, suffered fears, betrayal, the death of loved ones, and a fall from grace -- yet found strength, compassion and, ultimately, forgiveness in her isolation. A story timeless in its appeal emerges, with a power that reopens old wounds, but also brings a transforming healing for Mia, for Kate's descendants, and for all those in Mia's new community.

Amazon.com

 

 

Mia Landan, recovering from breast cancer treatments and an unfaithful husband, decides to retreat to the mountains of WNC, specifically Asheville area. There she takes up residence in a cabin owned by her fly-fishing instructor and friend, Belle. Belle lets her live there rent free for the summer under the one condition that she doesn't go digging into the family story behind the cabin (a scandal involving Belle's grandmother). But we need a novel length story here so of course Belle goes digging. She uncovers the tale of Belle's grandmother, Kate Watkins, a 1920s journalist and fly-fishing enthusiast herself who got involved with a married man and was then implicated in his mysterious disappearance.

 

I've lived in & around the Asheville area since 2002 and actually found a copy of this book in a local thrift shop. Always curious of books that involve my city, I immediately took this one home, figuring that the historical fiction element would also greatly appeal to me. Unfortunately this one didn't quite gel with me as I'd hoped.

 

As far as the environment itself, I thoroughly enjoyed that bit. Monroe definitely does justice to the area, offering rich descriptions of the nature around here... though at times I think she painted it a little more rustic than it actually is these days. Some passages had it sounding like Belle was leaving Mia in the wilds of Alaska or something when much of Asheville now is hardly THAT remote lol. I did like Mia in the early parts of the book but some of her decisions later on in the story chipped away at that, so by the end I was just left more with "She's alright, I guess..."

 

What really fell short was the plot. I was hoping for a truly immersive mystery around the story of Kate Watkins, especially for the time period she was living in.... who doesn't want to imagine their town back in the Roarin' Twenties?! But there wasn't too much in the way of that. The "mystery" was pretty straight forward and, to me, unfolded at a slow, bland pace.

Review
4 Stars
Creating A Life You'll Love: Notable Achievers Offer Their Secrets For Happiness Edited by Mark Chimsky-Lustig
Creating a Life You'll Love: Notable Achievers Offer Their Secrets for Happiness - Mark Chimsky-Lustig

This inspiring collection, drawn from the best commencement speeches of recent years, is the perfect gift for anyone venturing out on their own for the first time or making a new life transition. Such notable contributors as Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas J. Friedman, Anna Quindlen, and Molly Ivins reveal important life lessons about navigating successfully through life and being true to oneself. Their advice is illuminating, surprising, thought-provoking, and funny. Creating a Life You'll Love is essential reading for everyone who is seeking the secret to living life wisely and well.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Formerly an editor for publishing houses Harper and Little, Brown & MacMillian, Mark Chimsky-Lustig is now an award winning poet and regular contributor to Huffington Post. In this first volume (of a series of themed essay collections he's compiled), Chimsky-Lustig brings together the commencement speeches of numerous successful people in the arts and sciences -- Barbara Kingsolver, Tom Hanks, Anna Quindlen, David McCullough, Ken Burns, Tess Gerritsen... just to name a few. Within their speeches, the reader is given words of inspiration and encouragement to go out and grasp the life of their dreams. Though originally geared at college students, readers of any age can likely find something uplifting within these pages. 

 

A rundown of the essay highlights:

 

* Barbara Kingsolver encourages you to find and develop a sense of community, wherever you plant yourself. 

David McCollough urges you to not only learn facts, but to honestly comprehend them.Take them in, use them to teach you empathy for others. Make learning a passion central to your life. Do work that you believe in, work that energizes you. And always work on expanding your vocabulary. 

* Molly Ivins says to raise a ruckus, have fun, and express gratitude to those who have helped you along the way to your successes. 

* Anna Deavere Smith reminds you that live requires stamina, perseverance and flexibility. She, like Quindlen, encourages you to find a community to bolster you while you're on your life's journey. She also reminds you that life is rarely clear cut, black and white... so don't fear those grey areas. 

* Tom Friedman, like many others in this collection, urges you to find work you love, pay attention, be a good listener, and "learn how to learn" -- learn to love the process of learning, don't get caught up in the instant gratification that gadgetry brings, but learn to enjoy more manual processes simply for the experience it offers. He also points out that healthy skepticism is good, but not when it veers into deep cynicism, so watch for that. Oh, and call your parents once in awhile, yeah?

* Genevieve Bell says to live in the present. Allow yourself to be vulnerable once in awhile and also keep yourself open to the opportunity to be surprised by life from time to time! Be honest, be brave, and don't be afraid to admit that you don't know everything. :-)

* Karen Tse inspires by reminding that "chaos precedes creation", so don't lose hope when things get messy. Embrace doing small things with great love. Approach your hardships with courage and the determination to overcome. 

 

It's one thing to be happy and joyful when things are going right, but when things are going wrong, that is the most important time for you to step forward with courage and realize that courage is also the ability to have radical self-affirmation in light of whatever else is going on in your life, to believe that you'll get through to the next level. 

 

~ Karen Tse

 

 

* Ken Burns, legendary historian / documentary filmmaker -- no surprise here -- wants you to learn your history to prepare for your future (not just your personal family history but history at large, that is). He also recommends that you NOT pigeonhole yourself into too specific a skill set, keep things flexible to broaden your potential opportunities and experiences. Pursue quality over quantity, overall excellence over momentary successes. Have your heroes but also strive to be one for someone else. Write hand-written letters of love and thanks. Journal your thoughts. Always practice communication! Live a life of service. Develop and maintain an unwavering enthusiasm for life. He also echoes Friedman's thoughts on skeptics vs. cynics. 

* Ray Kurzweil echoes the others, urging you to find work that honestly challenges and inspires you. Learn knowledge, but also create it. Don't give up. Don't give in. 

* Dana Goia's speech focuses on the importance of having a love of the arts in your life. Not just for the individual, but also for the human race as a whole. 

* Muhammad Yunus points out that rather than following crowds, you should define and follow your own path, embrace your own uniqueness. Become socially / globally aware and pursue global action towards making the world better through small, manageable everyday actions. 

* Harold Prince wants you to pursue social activism. Make your mark immersive, be active out in the world rather than just blogging or tweeting about something. Pursue art for art's sake. 

* Wendell Berry urges you to be a fearless, self-determined, self-starting, consciously aware being who embraces individual thought. Pursue constant education of the self, but also remember not to make work all-consuming in your life, make room for play and silliness as well. 

* Anna Quindlen says to be fearless and to welcome differences between yourself and others. Celebrate variety in life! 

* David Levering Lewis encourages you to pursue constant self-education. Always be on the pursuit of knowledge in not only arts but also science, technology, and democracy. Don't just blindly follow someone or something for the sake of going with the crowd! 

* Tess Gerritsen gives you the solid advice to surround yourself with good, honest people. Don't muck up your workplace with bitterness or petty gossip. Read constantly. Educate yourself on current world affairs. Take yourself out of your comfort zone from time to time. Experiment with things completely foreign to you (because you just never know what might be your next favorite thing!). Don't be afraid of failing or changing your mind career-wise because it's not unlikely that you could have at least 2-3 career changes within your lifetime. 

 

Be critical about what you consume from the media. Because what you put in your brain is as important as what you put in your mouth. Whether food or information, insist on the truth. Don't swallow propaganda, even though it is quick and easy to digest, the equivalent of those fast-food outlets we see on the highways. The truth is often a lot more complicated, but like real food, worthwhile food, in the end, it's a lot more satisfying.  

 

~ Tess Gerritsen

 

* Tom Hanks -- his whole speech is amazing but the overall message is to just live a life of service, to make yourself helpful where you can and to be kind. 

 

 

Okay, Hanks' speech flat out put a knot in my throat. But also among my favorites were the ones by David McCullough, Anna Quindlen, Barbara Kingsolver (my second favorite in this collection, I'd say) and Ken Burns. There were a few that personally struck me as a tad bit on the phoned in side -- Molly Ivins' speech had a good message but something about it felt a little too over the top for my tastes. Overall though, an incredibly heartwarming collection! So much so that after finishing this book, I immediately got online and ordered all the others in the series. Perfect gift book for any graduate or anyone, really, who is needing a boost in spirit or motivation! 

 

Something to note about this series -- with each book in the collection, all profits from the book are given to a different charity. With Creating a Life You'll Love, all proceeds were sent to organizations dedicated to HIV / AIDS research & education. 

 

It was also neat to learn that Barbara Kingsolver was the creator of the Bellweather Prize for fiction. Had no idea! 

Review
3.5 Stars
A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay
A Portrait of Emily Price - Katherine Reay

Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. But when Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family is another matter . . . Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—dreams of having a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love. But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccollo. Soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart. Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. But instead of allowing the land, culture, and people of Monterello to transform her, Emily interferes with everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?

Amazon.com

 

 

Art restorer Emily Price is sent on a business trip to Atlanta, Georgia to help an Italian family revive some of their family heirlooms. It's there that she meets Benito (Ben) Vassallo, the nephew of her clients, newly arrived from Italy. He's temporarily staying with his aunt and uncle while he helps them try to breathe life back into their restaurant, which has quietly but steadily losing business of late. As their respective areas of work have them frequently running into each other, they find themselves caught up in a whirlwind romance with each other. Ben spontaneously proposes to Emily, she agrees with equal spontaneity, and within hours they're on a patch of grass getting married by the nearest justice of the peace they could find!

 

The newlyweds fly off to Benito's hometown of Montevello, Italy (back cover synopsis mistakenly has it as "Monterello") where it doesn't take long for some of the luster to fall off the rose.  Sure, Emily found almost immediate love & friendship in the arms of Ben, but it won't be so easy when it comes to his family. She quickly starts to feel very much out of her element. Though Emily tries to make herself as amiable and helpful as possible at every turn, it just seems like anything she attempts she royally ruins. Ben feels bad for her, things are not unfolding quite as he envisioned either... but he has his own special blend of stress, being caught in between a sense of loyalty to his family as well as to his new wife. Even outside of the shock of Ben coming back married, the family has additional sources of stress and strife they're all trying to work through. It's a rocky homecoming all around!

 

Emily becomes concerned with her developing feelings of alienation from the rest of the family. That is, until she finds herself surprisingly bonding with Ben's quiet father, Lucio. But is having one ally other than her husband enough to make forever work?

 

This is only the second of Katherine Reay's works that I've picked up. I was surprised to find how deep some of the themes in this one got, as I remember the first book I tried -- The Bronte Plot -- was cute but as far as meat in the story, didn't really get too deep past surface level coziness & fluff.

 

Ben was quite the charmer and will likely have the "hopeless romantic" type readers of all ages swooning, even if just a little bit. :-) I liked that Ben had layers to his character. He could be a charming flirt one minute but the next could just as easily show some serious emotional turmoil, trying to hold the family together. It was also nice to see that his love for Emily was not rash or merely physical, he was honestly always about her well-being, making her as comfortable and appreciated as possible at all times. Who's not going to want to get to know a character like that! I also awwed over the relationship between Ben's parents, Lucio and Donata. Donata could be a fiesty one, a bit of a prickly exterior, but around Lucio? A big ol' bowl of melted butter. And Lucio always seemed to know just how to round off her sharp edges when Donata had her claws out. The sense of warmth, patience and love that radiated between them was a real joy to experience. 

 

The symbolism of the sunflowers was the standout take-away for me. I love the idea of the field of girasoli (Italian for sunflower), where Ben explains to Emily that one has to allow them to turn to the light on their own. If you force it, you snap the stem and potentially kill the flower. 

 

"Girasoli - Piovene Rocchette, Vicenza" by Renzo Pietribiasi

 image from Trek Earth

 

 

All in all, I'd deem this a fun read for lovers of Italian food, culture or landscape. Author Katherine Reay does a nice job having her characters make connections between the layering of art and the layering of culinary flavors, as well as the overall importance of always coming back to that strong family bond. You're bound to have a good time getting to know Ben's clan! :-)

 

 

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.

Review
4.5 Stars
The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe
The Confessions of X - Suzanne M. Wolfe

Before he became a father of the Christian Church, Augustine of Hippo loved a woman whose name has been lost to history. This is her story. She met Augustine in Carthage when she was seventeen. She was the poor daughter of a mosaic-layer; he was a promising student and heir to a fortune. His brilliance and passion intoxicated her, but his social class would be forever beyond her reach. She became his concubine, and by the time he was forced to leave her, she was thirty years old and the mother of his son. And his Confessions show us that he never forgot her. She was the only woman he ever loved. In a society in which classes rarely mingle on equal terms, and an unwed mother can lose her son to the burgeoning career of her ambitious lover, this anonymous woman was a first-hand witness to Augustine’s anguished spiritual journey from secretive religious cultist to the celebrated Bishop of Hippo. Giving voice to one of history’s most mysterious women, The Confessions of X tells the story of Augustine of Hippo’s nameless lover, their relationship before his famous conversion, and her life after his rise to fame. A tale of womanhood, faith, and class at the end of antiquity, The Confessions of X is more than historical fiction . . . it is a timeless story of love and loss in the shadow of a theological giant.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Between the years 397 - 400 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo released his multi-volume memoir Confessions. Within the pages of the early passages, he makes mention of a woman who was quite important to him prior to his church life, but the woman remains unnamed except for when he calls her "Una" -- The One. In The Confessions of X, Suzanne Wolfe imagines who that woman might have been, what she might have been like, and what might have transpired to have this mystery female part ways with Augustine.  

 

In this novel, the woman remains officially unnamed though she is given nicknames by some, such as her best friend Nebridius. Their first meeting was at the town creek when they were small children, so he gives her the nickname Naiad (Greek for "spirit of the river") while she calls him Nereus (jokingly meaning "wet one" but also name of a Greek god of the sea).

 

Augustine and his special lady meet when they are 17, both being friends of Nebridius. They have a whirlwind romance but their relationship faces a major roadblock. Augustine is from a privileged family and heir to a great fortune while X is the daughter of a humble mosaic artist. In fact, X's father has her living with his sister since he struggles with drinking and gambling addictions. Tough sell for a man in Augustine's position, but he feels true love for X so he presents her with the best situation he can offer her -- no official marriage, but instead a position as his concubine.

 

It had cost me nothing; it was to cost me all.

 

In that era, the role of concubine was a little different than what we imagine when that word comes up now; back then it was more like vowing yourself into a common-law marriage via commitment ceremony... spiritually powerful but not as legally binding. In fact, under the concubine arrangement, in the case of a break up, the man would automatically get full custody of any children he sired, while the woman would basically be out on her rear. 

 

X bears Augustine a son and they have many content years together. Neighbors seem stunned at just how cozy & lovey-dovey the couple remains as the years continue to pass. But there is a restlessness to Augustine's spirit that X cannot seem to calm. X packs up their home and moves the family from Carthage, Africa to the bustling city of Rome, hoping Augustine's heels would cool once he got settled into a more academically satisfying community. Hard as she tried though, nothing seemed to answer his need quite enough. When she overhears one of his colleagues whispering that X may be playing a part in Augustine being held back professionally, she makes the choice to exit out of his life at the age of 30, returning to Carthage so that he might make a advantageous and official marriage with someone within his class. But as history buffs know, Augustine goes on to choose the church over another woman. 

 

I'm new to the writing of author Suzanne Wolfe, though she's had a few books out prior to this one. This novel though... WOW. Her descriptions of this world are so palpable! This is one of those books you have to be willing to take slow because there is A LOT of detail to take in and while you might feel a little worn out in the process taking it all in, it's all worth it. There's one heck of a story here! I can't imagine processing the kind of painful decisions X was pushed to make multiple times over the course of her life. I just picture this woman with a shattered heart that never found a way to entirely heal but somehow she pushes through and carries on.

 

Although the roots may be in darkness the flower grows toward the light. Root and flower are one, not separate.

 

The story isn't all heartbreak though! There are some loving scenes between Augustine and X that are alternately beautifully deep and sometimes tragic but also sweet, adorable, even hilarious in parts. I had a good laugh over one scene where X is talking with her friend Neith, the mother of a large herd of children. X just has her one son. Neith hypothesizes that X's love of books is just a band-aid for her pain, an odd side effect from struggling to conceive again, shrugs it off with "you'll soon be cured." The reader is then given a glimpse into X's inner thoughts, the memory of how the birth of her son very nearly killed her, making her think that maybe she doesn't WANT to be cured of reading! X-D

 

This gorgeous bit of historical fiction gave me a glimpse into a time & place I've admittedly read very little about -- the Romans in Carthage, Africa. Weird how it's hard to think of Romans outside of Rome but this novel reminded me of the true scope of the Roman Empire. History aside, I also fell in love with all these unique characters -- not just Augustine and X but also all their friends, neighbors and colleague who had small but important influences on their day to day life decisions. These characters were wonderfully alive and I eagerly look forward to exploring more of Wolfe's work! 

 

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

 

A couple of new-to-me vocab words I took away from this novel:

 

 

Anchorite = a religious recluse

 

Suborn = to subhorn is to bribe someone to commit a crime

 

"The Latin word that gave us suborn in the early part of the 16th century is subornare, which translates literally as "to secretly furnish or equip."

~ from merriam-webster.com

 

 

 

Review
3 Stars
White Lilacs by Carolyn Meyer
White Lilacs - Carolyn Meyer

'Back then ~~ and this was in 1921 ~~ Freedom, as we called it, was our part of Dillon. There was everything you could want in a town -- our colored school and two churches and a grocery store and cafe... It just happened that Freedom was right in the middle of Dillon, white people on every side of us.' When Dillon's white residents announce plans to raze Freedomtown, relocate its residents and build in its place a park, things change. Young Rose Lee Jefferson finds herself at the heart of the debate about how to respond. Can the families of Freedomtown fight the city's plans? Must they leave their homes and neighbors?

~ From back cover

 

 

 

Though the white residents of Dillon, Texas look down upon the more impoverished black community of Freedomtown, young Rose Lee Jefferson finds she's had a pretty content life for the most part, thank you very much. Freedomtown was built during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. It sits on a flood plain so the walkways might get a bit messy now and then, but as Rose points out, the community has pretty much everything a person could want: a school, church, general store & cafe, boarding house, mortuary, even a Masonic Lodge. Her father runs Freedom's barbershop, while Rose and all the rest of her family (on her mother's side, that is) are employed within various positions at the estate of the wealthy & white Thomas and Eunice Bell.  

 

Everything changes for Rose and the community of Freedom one night in 1921. Though she normally helps her grandfather in the Bell's garden, Rose is called into the dining room to cover for her pregnant cousin Cora, who suddenly takes ill that night. Eunice Bell is having a dinner party with some of her gal pals and there's some pretty comedic scenes at this point in the story as Rose tries her best to navigate new terrain among the fine serving dishes and the whole "be seen but not heard" requirement. She gets flustered at the process of when to bring out what dish, but her aunt just shrugs and replies, "White folks use a lot of dishes. You get used to it." 

 

But the air in the room changes once Rose overhears the ladies talking about the plan to raze Freedomtown to the ground and put a community park in its place. Thomas Bell holds a position on Dillon City Council, so he would be in the know, but this is the first anyone from Freedom has heard of these plans! When one of Eunice's friends, Emily Firth visiting from Philadelphia, pipes up to voice her opposition to this news, Eunice responds with the unbelievably demeaning comment, "Our negroes here are childlike." She continues on to say they should be positively delighted to have something new and shiny in their lives, giving the impression that Eunice has no concept of the idea of attachment to community. That sense of "it might be rough around the edges, but it's mine!"

 

Rose carries the news home to the other residents of Freedomtown. She's then reluctantly thrust into the center of the drama once it's decided that she will continue to cover for her cousin, Cora, as maid / dining room staff. Rose's father explains that this will put her in the perfect position to spy and gather more and more information as the project progresses, hopefully giving the residents of Freedomtown an idea of how to fight back. Rose's older brother Henry also gets caught up in the fight, professing that as a World War 1 veteran, he's fought for this country and deserves better than this kind of treatment. He goes so far as to promise that if Freedomtown is destroyed, he will give up this country altogether and move to Africa. While some residents echo his sentiments, others feel it would be useless to fight, that the wealthy, white residents of Dillon just have too much power and will inevitably get whatever they want. 

 

Those that are hesitant to fight admit that they'd likely be willing to move if given fair dollar for their properties within Freedomtown. But further doubts arise on this front when rumors begin that the spot the mayor of Dillon is looking at for relocation seems to be The Flats, a swampy, marsh-like area of town that no one in their right mind would want to populate. 

 

Tensions hit a boiling point the night of the Juneteenth celebration. Henry is caught, tarred and feathered. There's a KKK march through the streets of Freedomtown, ending in a burning cross being left on the lawn of Freedom's church. Later on, when Emily Firth continues to stand up for the mistreatment of this community, she is essentially run out of town.

 

This book's recommended age says 10-14 years, but the reader is presented with some graphic scenarios -- aside from Henry's tar & feathering and the KKK marches, a school is also set on fire to send a message. So there is some disturbing imagery for young readers, but the message and the history behind this novel is very valid and important. Author Carolyn Meyer includes a note at the end explaining that while this story is fictional, as far as the characters and plot, it IS inspired by the very real history of Quakertown, a black community within the town of Denton, Texas (where Meyer herself previously resided) that suffered a similar fate as that of the fictional Freedomtown. Note though, once you read the history of Quakertown, you'll likely recognize quite a bit of the real history illustrated here and there throughout the story of Freedomtown and its residents! 

 

As far as the actual plot and its pacing, honestly this is not the most riveting read out there ... but Rose is a very sweet, honest character and slow though the story might seem, Meyer does pull you in enough to want to hear Rose's story and meet her family and neighbors in Freedomtown. The importance of this book is the history it exposes you to -- though ficitionally presented, it is based in truth you need to read. The past can be painful at times, but we can't be afraid to look it in the eye if we ever hope to improve our future. 

Review
2 Stars
Twilight at Blueberry Barrens (Sunset Cove #3) by Colleen Coble
Twilight at Blueberry Barrens (A Sunset Cove Novel) - Colleen Coble

Kate Mason has devoted herself to caring for her family’s blueberry barrens. But after her fields stop producing fruit, she’s forced to come up with alternative ways to make a living.

Renting out the small cottage on her property seems an obvious choice, but it won’t be enough. When entrepreneur Drake Newham shows up looking not only for a place to rent but also for a nanny for his two nieces, it’s almost too good to be true. And maybe it is—because Drake brings with him dangerous questions about who might be out to kill his family. The more time Kate spends with Drake and the girls, the more difficult it becomes to hide her attraction to him. But a family crisis isn’t exactly the ideal time to pursue a romance. Meanwhile, Kate learns that her uncle—in prison for murder—has escaped. Add to that a local stalker who won’t leave her alone, and Kate is looking over her shoulder at every turn. With threats swirling from multiple directions, she wonders if her blueberry fields will ever flourish again . . . or if this twilight is her last. Set on the beautiful coast of Maine, Twilight at Blueberry Barrens brings together suspense, romance, and the hope that one day new life will come again.

Amazon.com

 

 

For years now, Kate Mason has grown accustomed to running her family's blueberry farm in Maine but recently the farm just hasn't been producing a profitable amount of fruit. As finances become increasingly tight, Kate is forced to look to other means of income. She gets the idea to renovate a small cottage on her family's property and make it available for summer rentals. During this renovation process, in walks Drake Newham. Drake, with his two nieces in tow, is a visitor to Sunset Cove, looking for a place to stay for awhile. What he doesn't reveal is that he fears there's someone trying to hunt him down, set on hurting him and / or his nieces, so the casual "place to stay" inquiry is really a desperate need for a spot to lay low until he figures out what's going on. 

 

Needing someone to look after his nieces while he investigates, Drake also asks about available nannies. Kate, seeing a potential (much needed) double dose of income, volunteers herself for the job. Over the course of the story, Drake and Kate have a lot of page time together so they reveal quite a bit about their respective backstories. Drake explains that he is the legal guardian of the girls now, as his brother and sister-in-law are dead, a suspected murder-suicide. With the constant sense of being hunted down himself, Drake has his doubts about that. Kate meanwhile has been in recovery from chemo treatments after a diagnosis of aplastic anemia. To make matters even more stressful, her convicted murder uncle has escaped from prison, there's a Peeping Tom / possible stalker of Kate's roaming the island creeping everyone out, and bodies are washing up on the beach just a little too regularly for Kate and her sister Claire, who have already been put through the ringer throughout the course of this series. 

 

I struggle with this series. I am drawn to the setting --- who doesn't love a good mystery set along a New England coastline, right? And the plot ideas are not bad, they definitely stir my curiosity each time, but each time so far whenever I dig into the story, there's something that always seems to land just off the mark for me. In this installment, I think the biggest culprit was the way the plot unfolded --- Drake's brother has ties to a Chinese drug lord?! Kate's uncle in prison because he killed the mother of Claire's (Kate's sister) fiancee ... strenuous tie there btw... because said mother saw him moving a body?! That scene where Kate and Claire are talking out in the yard and Claire just gets nailed by a crossbow bolt outta the blue ... and all this before you're even 85 pages in! -- A lot of ideas flying around, but a noticeable lack of cohesiveness to bring it all together. There was also a sense of a good idea being taken too far (see examples mentioned above) or not fleshed out enough. 

 

The writing here was not Coble's best, IMO. I personally found the characters and the mystery from Sunset Cove #2 a little more engaging. Here, the dialogue often came off a little too scripted, especially with Kate's, making her feel a bit wooden at times to me. But we gotta work in a romance so of course Drake looks past what seems like a pretty cardboard personality to me and comes at her with "no woman has ever intrigued me like this." Poor guy. Kate's tendency to overstep her bounds when it came to caring for the girls got on my nerves as well. I get you're the nanny but you shouldn't get to basically tell the legal guardian "you should shut it and do it my way" multiple times. In real life, you'd likely be fired, not have your employer fall in love with you! But I guess Drake likes himself a dominant kind of lady friend. 

 

As far as the writing itself, I struggled with a few passages that apparently escaped an editing eye (check out pages 71, 111) where the wording / grammar was off juuuust enough to make for a harsh silent reading experience. There were also way too many people involved in that ending.

 

Nice to see another cross-over appearance of Gwen Marcey, the investigator from Carrie Stuart Parks' Gwen Marcey mystery series!

 

Note: This is the third installment of Coble's Sunset Cove series. I have not read the first in the series (Inn at Ocean's Edge), but have read / reviewed the second book. This third book brings back some of the characters from the first book (I checked the synopsis of the first book) -- Claire, Luke (Claire's now fiancee) and Kate -- but can easily be read as an independent story.

 

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.

Review
4 Stars
Siren's Song (Siren Trilogy - #3) by Mary Weber
Siren's Song (The Storm Siren Trilogy) - Mary Weber

After a fierce battle with Draewulf, Nym barely escaped with her life. Now, fleeing the scorched landscape of Tulla, her storm-summoning abilities are returning; only . . . the dark power is still inside her. Broken and bloodied, Nym needs time to recover, but when the full scope of the shapeshifter’s horrific plot is revealed, the strong-willed Elemental must race across the Hidden Lands and warn the other kingdoms before Draewulf’s final attack. From the crystalline palaces of Cashlin to the legendary Valley of Origin, Nym scrambles to gather an army. But even if she can, will she be able to uncover the secret to defeating Draewulf that has eluded her people for generations? With a legion of monsters approaching, and the Hidden Lands standing on the brink of destruction, the stage is set for a battle that will decide the fate of the world. This time, will the Siren’s Song have the power to save it?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

**** WARNING: DISCUSSING BK 3 OF A TRILOGY... SPOILERS AHEAD *********

 

 

 

So here we are in the third installment of Mary Weber’s Storm Siren Trilogy and our protagonist Nym is still trying to defeat that evil Draewulf. Siren’s Song picks up pretty much right where Siren’s Fury left off. Nym is en route to rescue the captured Princess Rasha. Nym and her posse try to warn Rasha’s mother, Queen Laiha, of the dangers headed her way but the meeting doesn’t go as well as hoped. 

 

If you’ve worked your way through the first two books, you might remember Nym losing her Elemental powers. To compensate, she made a visit to a witch and picked up some powers more dark in nature. It proved to be a decent quick fix to get her Eogan back but now she has to figure out how to keep those dark powers from overtaking the good, light part of her soul. It was always funny to see how the bouts of foul weather would give away Nym’s rough mood days. X-D

 

“Never destroy what simply needs taming, Nymia. Mercy grows hearts more than bitterness.”

 

And how did I not pick up til now that Eogan is only 22?! Seemed so much older! And the “Skinny Love” reference... did Mary Weber slip in a Bon Iver reference in there?! :-)

 

Much of the same drama you’ve seen from earlier in the series continues here, only with the ramped up intensity that you’d expect of a series closer book. Some of my interest in the plot waned here and there whenever the battle scenes declined -- there are some wonderfully LARPy battles near the end! -- and talk of court politics increased. A little intrigue here and there I’m all for but some of it went on a little long. I do really enjoy this cast of characters though, so the humorous banter often pulled me through the drier parts. I also liked the tension that was built around the character Myles as his powers grew. It was fun to keep guessing if he would turn good or bad in the end. There’s also the adorable little boy Kel who brings some sweet levity to otherwise intense scenes. 

 

I remember noticing that Weber got a little heavy-handed with the fake swearing in the second book -- this book is put out by a Christian publishing house so when characters needed to swear, she had them using made up curses like “litches”, “hulls”, “bolcrane” (bolcrane doubles, also the name of a feared, deadly lizard-like creature within the Storm Siren world). Though the presence of that pseudo-swearing felt rather ever-present in Siren’s Fury, here in the third book it seems to fall off to nearly non-existent. 

I would’ve loved to see a few more scenes within the Valley Of Origin, but otherwise I thought this was a strong finish to this whirlwind nature-inspired fantasy series. Definitely an improvement from the somewhat lackluster plot of Siren’s Fury. This closing book features a strong ending with one pretty epic final battle. Those scenes in the final pages are seriously LOL adorable! 

 

YA fans, check out the shout-out to author Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why) in the acknowledgements! It was neat to learn that he helped write the few chapters written from Eogan’s POV. 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: Because Nym using cutting as a way to process her internal pain throughout part of this series, author Mary Weber recommends that readers who might be triggered visit the website To Write Love On Her Arms (twloha.com) for information and help. 

 

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. 

Review
4 Stars
You Carried Me (memoir) by Melissa Ohden
You Carried Me: A Daughter's Memoir - Melissa Ohden

Melissa Ohden is fourteen when she learns she is the survivor of a botched abortion. In this intimate memoir she details for the first time her search for her biological parents, and her own journey from anger and shame to faith and empowerment. After a decade-long search Melissa finally locates her birth father and writes to extend forgiveness, only to learn soon thereafter that he has died―without answering her burning questions. Then her birth mother’s parents say they are unable to pass along Melissa’s letter. Years later, when she finally hears from the woman who carried her and gave her life, she finds out why. But the shocking truth is more than she can bear. Yet even the most startling family secrets are eclipsed by the triumphant moment when Melissa becomes a mother herself in the very hospital where she was aborted. And she reveals how―through the miscarriage of her only son, the birth of a second daughter with complex health issues, and her own birth mother’s story―she gained a deep empathy for every woman who has had an abortion. Like none other, this intensely personal story of love and redemption cuts through the debates surrounding a divisive contemporary issue to touch our common humanity.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this certainly unique memoir, author Melissa Ohden tells the story of how she came to be... the kind of story one just doesn't hear every day! In 1977, Ohden's teenage mother became pregnant with her. An appointment for an abortion procedure is made, the appointment is kept, but the procedure itself doesn't really go as planned. Against all odds, after 5 DAYS worth of being pumped full of toxic saline solution Baby Melissa (or Katie Rose as the nurses called her, Melissa was the name her adoptive parents ending up choosing) survives. She is born prematurely, weighing in at just two pounds. After one nurse hears a faint noise coming from the child, a flurry of nurses rush to save her life.

 

{Sidenote: Ohden explains how the saline is made toxic for a fetus in her book -- she notes that a standard abortion procedure from start to finish is typically completed within 48 hours so that gives you an idea of just how much extra solution her little body had to take, making her story all the more miraculous.}

 

Once the newborn is deemed stable, the search for prospective adoptive parents begins. Doesn't take long for a suitable and interested couple to be found but the decision is made to keep Melissa at the hospital until her weight is at least five pounds. When the time comes, Melissa's new parents take her to a farm 100 miles away from where she was born. There she is raised in a loving, nurturing environment out in the farmlands of Iowa. At the age of seven, when her adoptive parents welcome a biological son, it sets off the first sparks of curiosity in Melissa about her own biological parents. But her search for the truth doesn't really begin until a few short years later when during a fight with her sister (also adopted), her sister makes the remark, "At least my mom wanted me." When Melissa presses for an explanation, she's simply told to ask their adoptive mother.

 

Having avoiding talking much about the day of Melissa's birth previously, her adoptive mother comes clean and lays out all the details. Melissa then launches into what will be a decade long search for any information about her birth family. In that time, Ohden battles depression, anorexia, bulimia, as well as a bout of teenage alcoholism and promiscuity, mostly with older men in town. She explains that with the sensation of everything else in her life feeling as if it were running completely off the rails, the eating disorders, drinking and sexual exploration -- though admittedly unhealthy and dangerous -- did seem to be one aspect she could control.

 

Bulimia, alcohol, sex -- these were my unholy trinity of coping mechanisms. They dulled, but didn’t deaden, my torment. That all this suffering was hidden from everyone who knew me seemed to be the point -- I was singularly chosen for misery; I was different, broken, unworthy. Alone.

 

As Melissa embarked on her college journey, she started seeing more and more eerie ties between her own life choices thus far and the little bit she had been able to learn about her birth mother. First off, the college she chooses to attend: shortly after she starts classes, Melissa discovers her school is the very same her birth mother attended (and her maternal grandmother taught at as well!) -- what are the odds, considering she was raised 100 miles away and could've just as easily chosen a school closer to home! The link ends up being too much for her. That, combined with other stressors -- a large part of that being her constantly being silenced whenever she tries to share her abortion-birth story, being shushed part way in or being called a liar later on -- pushes Melissa to make the choice to drop out and re-enroll in courses closer to her hometown. Her college experiences (after the school switch) lead her to take up social work, mostly with domestic violence support groups. A second powerful tie to her birth mother comes during Melissa's own experiences with pregnancy. Ohden has her first delivery in the very same hospital where her mother tried to have her aborted! After having a stillborn son and a daughter with developmental disabilities, Ohden's search for her birth mother begins to feel all the more important. She needs to hear her mother's story, needs to know the why of it all and attempt to make sense of her traumatic origins once and for all. 

 

Melissa's story is a powerful one, no question there. In all honesty though, while I found this book incredibly moving and well-written from start to finish, I struggled with the second half (approx). I will say here and now my issues with this book are for the most part tied up in the fact that Ohden and I do not see entirely eye to eye on the topic of abortion. While this book did help me to understand why she feels the way she feels -- and I can respect her views -- I struggle to put a full stamp of agreement on her opinions. About halfway through this book, it went from being a memoir on her personal journey to a full-on, hardcore pro-life soapbox fest. I myself am very pro-choice but never try to shut down pro-lifers who want their voice heard. I'll hear them out... I think we're on the same page... up to a point. 

 

Here's my thing: I say I am pro-choice because while I could never see myself choosing abortion, I can't speak on the life situations of anyone but myself. I figure the people who choose that path could very well have quite valid reasons for deciding that's the way for them. Ohden here goes on a pretty hard attack of Planned Parenthood. She talks of how she went once for a general check up because they offered services she would've otherwise struggled to afford. But there were abortion protestors out and about one day as she was leaving who got her thinking. She then seemed to feel dirty being anywhere near a PP office. In fact, later on in the book she states that one of the biggest honors of her life was being asked to testify on Capitol Hill in a hearing to consider ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood programs. Again, my stance: I figure there will always be a least a small number of women who will feel the need to choose abortion. If so, at least PP is there to have it done in a clinical setting with medically trained staff, rather than some back alley sitch. Furthermore, so many people these days act like PP is ONLY for abortions when, in fact, I myself have gotten literally life-saving help from the doctors at my local office back when I was too poor to go anywhere else. It was at a PP office that a serious medical condition was found within my heart that is now being regulated... thanks to a PP doctor. So it bugs me when protestors want to so quickly say everything about PP should be shut down. 

 

It's not just the PP story. Throughout the whole second half of the book she keeps bringing up instances where she continues to almost vilify anyone who does chooses "the evil of abortion" as she repeatedly describes it. Near the very end of her story though, she does admit that being the mother of a special needs child did teach her to have more empathy towards those who feel the need to choose abortion (so she says). Being a woman who is unable to have children myself, I also cringed at lines like (describing her first experiences with motherhood), "We were no longer JUST a couple, we were a family." I truly struggle with books that perpetuate this idea that without children a woman's existence is not complete. It just brings out the involuntary eye roll in me. 

 

So that's it. That's why I'm torn. I struggle with my own personal beliefs clashing with Ohden's. Enough to where it makes me uncomfortable as the reader, enough to where I may even feel her views are naive or misguided at times (hey, I'm allowed to have my opinions too -- I AM a blogger after all), but not so much that I shut my ears / mind off to her. In fact, I quite enjoyed hearing her story. As I said, the writing style is impressive, the flow is nice, and while I might not always be on same page with her, I do think she handles a tricky subject with impressive grace, bringing a conversational tone to a topic that very much needs regular discussion. I was even surprised to learn that Ohden and I share a very similar recurring nightmare -- Wild! 

 

I'd recommend this read for anyone interested in the topics of medical education (specifically abortion, obviously), feminism, women's health, women's issues or adoption stories. Differing beliefs or opinions aside, there's always an education to be had in hearing someone else's story. 

 

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

Review
4 Stars
Unblemished (Unblemished Trilogy - #1) by Sara Ella
Unblemished - Sara Ella

Eliyana is used to the shadows. With a birthmark covering half her face, she just hopes to graduate high school unscathed. That is, until Joshua hops a fence and changes her perspective. No one, aside from her mother, has ever treated her like he does: normal. Maybe even beautiful. Because of Joshua, Eliyana finally begins to believe she could be loved. But one night her mother doesn’t come home, and that’s when everything gets weird. Now Joshua is her new, and rather reluctant, legal Guardian. Add a hooded stalker and a Central Park battle to the mix and you’ve gone from weird to otherworldly. Eliyana soon finds herself in a world much larger and more complicated than she’s ever known. A world enslaved by a powerful and vile man. And Eliyana holds the answer to defeating him. How can an ordinary girl, a blemished girl, become a savior when she can’t even save herself?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Eliyana is just a couple weeks away from her eighteenth birthday when she tragically loses her mother, Elizabeth, in a structure fire. Not quite of age, her welfare is strangely left in the hands of best friend and next door neighbor, Joshua, who is only 21 himself. Eliyana has always struggled with fitting in, mostly because of a noticeable facial birthmark covering an entire half of her face. When Joshua came into her life he was the first person (aside from her mother) to treat her normally, dare we say even considered her pretty? But how is he supposed to be the legal guardian to someone so close to his own age? In just a matter of hours, El learns that that question is the least of her worries. 

 

A couple nights after her mother's funeral, El is persuaded to indulge in a night out with a friend. That night turns dangerous when a potential stalking turns into a definite kidnapping. In an attempt to escape, El is caught up in a mess of confusing, questionable sights, one being that of her mother! Turns out that whole death scene was a ruse to protect El. Just as Eliyana is trying to comprehend her mother NOT being dead, Elizabeth is kidnapped. Joshua pops up to explain to El and the reader just what all is going on.

 

Long story short: Josh is a member of the League of Guardians for one of seven Reflections or alternate realities accessible through Thresholds (think: portal). He was specifically assigned to protect Eliyana as she has something special about her that His Sovereignty, Jasyn Crowe, very much wants. Crowe is a servant of The Void, essence of all evil within The Reflections (something like Star Wars' "The Dark Side"). The Guardians are collectively trying to battle this by recruiting dedicated servants of The Verity (all that is truth, light and goodness). In this battle of good vs. evil, or Era of Shadows as Joshua calls it, Eliyana's birthmark indicates that she may have a most powerful role at the heart of it all. What turns out to be one of the biggest challenges for El is Joshua himself. He acts like a completely different person within this alternate reality El is thrust into... a man that is inexplicably cold and distant. In fact, he transfers the duty of protecting El to a fellow Guardian, Kyaphus (Ky). Multiple times, Ky tries to break it to El that maybe Joshua's "friendship" was just him doing his job but El can't let herself believe that. She's convinced there's more there, just ... for some reason Joshua is forcing himself to deny it. One way or another, she'll have to choose who honestly has her best interests in mind before it's too late to turn back. 

 

There were some things I noticed at the beginning of this novel that had me saying "uh oh, not another one..." Most noticeably, I spotted A LOT of elements that I've seen in various fantasy movies, tv shows and novels in recent years. Sprinkles of Once Upon A Time here and there... at times it felt like I could almost imagine Sara Ella's DVR line up. I'm not saying anything was directly lifted, I'm just saying if you're a fan of the genre, there is a ton of stuff here that you're likely to quickly recognize. First off was the similarities to The Never Ending Story: 1) mother dies 2) teased kid in this world becomes hero in alternate world 3) The Void = The Nothing >>> El has to find vessel of Verity to save world from The Void = Atreyu & Bastian have to stop the spread of the Nothing. Step away from Never Ending Story and you still see likenesses to Star Wars (especially when it came to that almost awkward link between Ky and El... Clueless-esque awkward). El transporting from NYC to the Reflection where she thinks her mother was taken = very 10th Kingdom. Even the tense triangle between Joshua, El and Ky was reminiscent of the Edward, Bella, Jacob business from Twilight -- there's even a blink-and-you-might-miss-it reference to one of the Twilight films. Oh and btw, I myself am totally team Ky throughout this whole book.

 

A jagged surface doesn't always allude to what truly lies beneath.

 

 

So, given that I was spotting all these similarities, I was concerned that this was just going to be a sloppy rehashing of popular fantasy plots from the past. Good news though! This one is a little shaky in the early portions but gets REALLY good after Act III! All the characters here are dynamic with great personalities (healthy doses of snark included) that keep the story moving at a fun pace. While the plot itself can get a little muddled and murky at times, I do think Sara Ella developed her characters admirably well, giving them all noticeable yet reasonable amounts of individual growth... some towards the light, others going dark... as it should be if you want your reader to get heavily invested! ;-)

 

Peer beyond the surface; you may find there a rose...

 

As for our protagonist, El, I liked her personality for the majority of the story. My one gripe with her is how she would persistently knock any meat-eater she came across yet she proudly rocked UGG boots. Weirdly though, her harping on this topic seemed to stop halfway through the book... guess everyone just got so caught up in the battle of good and evil there was no longer any time for meal breaks! 

 

So if you're all about any of those stories I mentioned above: Never Ending Story, Star Wars, Twilight, The 10th Kingdom, etc... or if you want to just dip a reading toe into the fantasy genre pool, definitely try out this one. I'm all set to jump into the second book of this series -- I need to know what all's gonna go down if / when Ky returns! -- but sadly Amazon says it won't be available for release until this summer :-(

 

 

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

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3 Stars
Siren's Fury (Siren Trilogy - #2) by Mary Weber
Siren's Fury (The Storm Siren Trilogy) - Mary Weber

Nym risked her life to save Faelen, her homeland, from a losing war, only to discover that the shapeshifter Draewulf has stolen everything she holds dear. But when the repulsive monster robs Nym of her storm-summoning abilities as well, the beautiful Elemental realizes her war is only just beginning. Now powerless to control the elements that once emboldened her, Nym stows away on an airship traveling to the metallic kingdom of Bron. She must stop Draewulf. But the horrors he’s brought to life and the secrets of Bron are more than Nym bargained for. Then the disturbing Lord Myles tempts her with new powers that could destroy the monster, and Nym must decide whether she can compromise in the name of good even if it costs her very soul. As she navigates the stark industrial cityscape of Bron, Nym is faced with an impossible choice: change the future with one slice of a blade . . . or sacrifice the entire kingdom for the one thing her heart just can’t let go.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

*** Warning: We're discussing Book 2 of a series here, so heads up there's likely to be some spoilers below

 

 

Going into Siren's Fury, we find that Nym has lost much of her Elemental powers just as she was beginning to make them work in her favor. Now the people of Faelen are counting on her to defeat the evil Draewolf that caused so much trouble in the first book, but she's not sure how she's supposed to pull that off without her powers to guide her. Still, she doesn't want to cause any further fear or unrest, so she's choosing to hide the fact that her powers are gone until she can figure out how to either get them back or defeat Draewolf without them. Her search for answers will take her down one seriously dark path of choices.

Though Nym put a significant dent in Draewolf's army at the close of Book 1, he's now hard at work building his forces back up, all while having commandeered the body of Eogan (in the form of possession).

 

(show spoiler)

 

Even though her newly learned battlefield strategies went a long way to bring the war to a close, the Five Kingdoms are still struggling to maintain peace when it comes to border and trade agreements. Though Nym has been freed from the bonds of slavery, she is still being used as a pawn in a power struggle between the kingdoms of Bron and Faelen. Bron suffered a great loss in the last battle and now the people of Bron have built up quite a bit of bitterness against Nym. 

 

Nym's sort-of adversary, Myles, returns in this second installment. Here he offers her a way to save Eogan but Nym's friend, the Luminescent Rasha, warns that it's probably best if Nym doesn't trust him too far. Sure he has moments of being personable, but he also still puts off that air of maybe having ulterior motives to any gift or offer of help. But has Nym proven herself to be stellar at following directions or heeding warnings so far? Nah, not so much. 

 

Siren's Fury was something of a letdown after how much I became invested in Storm Siren. Not that it was terrible. Not at all. I'm still having fun with the series to be sure, something just fell flat here. If I'm being completely honest, a lot of the time I found myself just waiting for Eogan to get some scene time again! 

 

Nym's powers didn't seem as well-described -- it was tough for me to get a clear picture of what all happened with the "vortex" -- the plot felt less intense, just a lot of cold stares and threats thrown around. There was this sense of a lot of build up for virtually nothing happening (when compared to the first book)... other than a lot of sneaking around on airships and then getting caught. Multiple times. Seriously, why was everyone so bad at sneaking around in this book?

 

Characters are talking about how terrifying Lady Isobel (Draewolf's daughter) is but honestly I found Lady Adora from the first book way more chillingly evil than Isobel ever was. Isobel just sounded like a bratty kid trying to sound scary but never getting much steam beyond "Just wait til my dad gets here!". But I was caught off guard by her blip of a moment where she let down her guard and was what? Almost helpful to Nym?!

 

Weber continues to weave inspirational / motivational themes into her fantasy, which I love. Through her characters readers are delivered the message to not let their inner demons control them; no matter how dire the situation, there is always a choice to turn away from or fight against the darkness. Weber's characters also learn to fight evil with compassion and empathy... a lesson all the world could currently benefit from! 

 

Check out the acknowledgements page of this book and you'll spot some familiar names: Jay Asher, CJ Redwine, Marissa Meyer, Colleen Coble.

 

Have to say though, Mary Weber... not sure this arachnophobe can entirely forgive you for those two SUPER creepy spider scenes! Yes, I get that the spider was the symbol for the center of dark power but dang, you described those creepy crawlies TOO well! Blech. 

Review
3 Stars
The Loyal Heart (Lone Star Heroes #1) by Shelley Shepard Gray
The Loyal Heart (A Lone Star Hero's Love Story) - Shelley Shepard Gray

Robert Truax, former Second Lieutenant and Confederate officer in the Civil War, made a promise to his comrade Phillip Markham. If anything happened to Phillip, Robert would look after his beloved wife, Miranda. She was his life, his world, his everything. After the war, Robert is left to pick up the pieces and fulfill his pact. When he arrives at Miranda’s home in Galveston, Texas, things are worse than he imagined. Phillip’s name has been dragged through the mud, everyone in town believes him to be a traitor, and his widow is treated as an outcast. Even more disturbing is her emotional well-being. Miranda seems hopeless, lost, and so very alone. Robert had thought his duty would be simple. He would help Miranda as quickly as possible in order to honor a promise. But the moment Robert laid eyes on her, his plans changed. He’s mesmerized by her beauty and yearns to help her in any way he can. He makes it his duty to protect Miranda, turn her reputation around, and to find some way to help her smile again. But it doesn’t prove to be an easy task—Robert knows something about Phillip that could shake Miranda to the core and alter her view of the man she thought she knew so well.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Three years after the close of the Civil War, widow Miranda Markham is still trying to adjust to life as an independent woman in Galveston, Texas, continuing to mourn the husband she lost in a prison camp. Struggling to make ends meet, she decides to turn her home into a boarding house, renaming it the Iron Rail. However, it seems no amount of hard work and up & up business practices will be able to repair her tarnished reputation. Shortly after her husband Phillip's death, gossip spread that Phillip was a traitor, spilling valuable information to the enemy while he was imprisoned.

 

Captain Monroe exhaled. "Don't forget...no matter what, we need to continue to stress that Phillip Markham was nothing more than one of my lieutenants who happened to have a very good seat on a horse."

 

"Yes, sir. And, uh, let us not forget he was a gentleman who really loved his wife."

 

Captain Monroe smiled. "That will probably be the truest thing we've ever said during our time here. Phillip seems to be fairly sure that the sun rises and falls on his Miranda. The man is still smitten after several years of marriage."

 

"Do you think any woman can be that wonderful?"

 

Monroe looked at him sadly. "I would like to think there is at least one woman who is. If Miranda Markham loves Phillip even half as much as he loves her, I shudder to think how she is going to receive the news of his death."

 

 

 

Guilty by association, Phillip's wife got her own share of whispers, most suggesting that her business was a front for illicit activity. Miranda's employee, Belle, suspects most of the gossip is coming from those wanting to keep fingers pointed away from their activities. Additionally, Miranda continues to periodically receive anonymous letters, threatening that she needs to leave town "or else".

 

Just about the time Miranda is stressed and scared to her limit, in to town walks former Second Lieutenant of the Confederate Army Robert Truax. What Miranda doesn't know is that Robert was imprisoned with her husband and in fact made a vow to the dying Phillip that he would look after Miranda... just took him a few years to get around to keeping that promise! All Miranda knows is she has a customer in front of her and she definitely needs the business. While Robert's initial intention may have only been to keep a vow, it doesn't take long for him to be pulled in by Miranda's beauty and her blend of quiet strength and vulnerability. Robert then makes a renewed promise to stay by her side and protect her until her good name has been rightfully restored. But about that reputation... well, turns out there might in fact really be a secret lurking within Phillip's story. 

 

"Jesus, why?" she whispered. "I thought you suffered so much so I wouldn't have to. Why do I have to keep being reminded of how hard life is and how fleeting the feeling of security is?"

 

When I first started reading this novel, I somehow missed the connection that the author is the same Shelley Shepard Gray who wrote the Chicago World Fair series I reviewed in mid-2016. As it turns out though, even though we're talking about completely different time periods, there were some notable similarities between this book and that series! The initial scene between Belle and Sheriff Kern in this novel I found strangely echoed (almost movement for movement at times) that of the first conversation in the police station between Katie Ryan and Detective Owen Ryan in Deception On Sable Hill (Chicago World's Fair Mystery #2). Likewise, the parlor scene involving Viola & Ruth Markham (Miranda's sister in law and mother in law), Robert Truax and Captain Monroe -- the way it was staged, the dialogue, everything -- reminded me of the "big reveal" scene between the police and the Sloane family at the end of Secrets of Sloane House (Chicago World's Fair Mystery #1). Thirdly, there was the scene with Miranda being nabbed and taken to the abandoned fishery, similar to that of Rosalind being held against her will in one of the abandoned fair buildings, also in Secrets of Sloane House. I don't mean these observations as knocks against the writing of Shelley Gray at all, simply stating similarities I noticed. 

 

While the general premise of this story -- friend looks after pal's grieving widow, falls in love with the girl -- has been done dozens of times over, Gray does bring her own unique touches to the idea. First off, you don't often get to see characters killed off by gangrene!  But then again, we are talking Civil War era. Then there was the overall tone... this novel got waaay darker in parts than I was expecting! Both Miranda and Robert admit to battling bouts of deep, dark depression... to the point of actually attempting suicide. Again, given the time period this story is written around, you expect some post-war emotional trauma but I honestly wasn't expecting the topic of suicide to come up within a Christian-based historical novel. But I appreciate the layer of realness it brought to the characters and the overall story. I was also touched at Miranda's rememberances of her last moments with Phillip before he went off to war. Gray writes those scenes with a respectable, unvarnished honesty. 

 

At story's end, I didn't necessarily find myself strongly, deeply moved or disturbed by the lives of these characters -- as I said earlier, this story idea has been played out a bit by previous authors -- but there was enough here that left me curious to see how the next installment of this series turns out. 

 

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

Storm Siren (Siren Trilogy - #1) by Mary Weber

In a world at war, a slave girl's lethal curse could become one kingdom's weapon of salvation. If the curse - and the girl - can be controlled. As a slave in the war-weary kingdom of Faelen, seventeen-year-old Nym isn't merely devoid of rights, her Elemental kind are only born male and always killed at birth - meaning, she shouldn't even exist. Standing on the auction block beneath smoke-drenched mountains, Nym faces her fifteenth sell. But when her hood is removed and her storm-summoning killing curse revealed, Nym is snatched up by a court advisor and given a choice: be trained as the weapon Faelen needs to win the war, or be killed. Choosing the former, Nym is unleashed into a world of politics, bizarre parties, and rumors of an evil more sinister than she's being prepared to fight . . . not to mention the handsome trainer whose dark secrets lie behind a mysterious ability to calm every lightning strike she summons. But what if she doesn't want to be the weapon they've all been waiting for? Set in a beautifully eclectic world of suspicion, super abilities, and monsters, Storm Siren is a story of power. And whoever controls that power will win.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Nym is an Elemental, a supernatural being with the outward appearance of being human but with the inner ability to control Earth's elements and summon storms. Nym's very existence is considered a freak of nature. Before her birth, it was said that only male children could be born with Elemental powers and typically they were killed at birth. Nym's parents are able to hide her for a time, but once her secret is discovered, Nym is sold into slavery. In a span of 11 years, she is sold and sold again fourteen times, each time getting a circular brand on her arm to mark each time she changes owners. After an incident in which Nym's powers were said to have caused the death of multiple innocents, she is grabbed up by a court advisor for the war-torn Kingdom of Faelen and given a choice: either be trained to fight for the Kingdom of Faelen or be executed. Nym agrees to undergo training and finds herself placed in the bonds of slavery once more. Not only that, but she is also immediately thrust into a world of war and court intrigue. 

 

Nym's battlefield training is overseen by Eogan, a court favorite of Lady Adora, the tyrannical ruler of Faelen. Eogan teaches Nym the extensive history of her people: how over 100 years ago, a war raged between a powerful shape-shifting wizard and the then king of Faelen. To end the war, a treaty was drawn up stating that all Elementals would be killed at birth, those born before the treaty's creation would be sent to camps to die. To this day, people of the Five Kingdoms (Faelen being only one of the five) are divided -- some say the treaty saved the kingdom because the Elementals were growing too powerful, too arrogant, too great in number... while others argue that the treaty turned the kingdom into a wasteland of debauchery. Now the area is at war again, hence the need for Nym's training, even though her Elemental blood is still kept a secret from most. 

 

But it's not just Nym with fantastical blood. There's also her training partner, Colin, a Terrene with the ability to manipulate topography, and his sister Breck. Breck is one of Lady Adora's house servants and is someone Nym quickly befriends. Nym also learns of another race, the Luminescents, who are capable of seeing into the souls of people, reading their true intentions. Leading the Luminescents is Rasha, heir to one of the other Five Kingdoms. Rasha explains how the power works: the stronger one's dreams and intentions are, the more easily a Luminescent can read you.

 

"Don't let him take you, Nym. Don't let him take who you are. Make him... " His head jerks, his lips forming and reforming the words he's trying to get out. "Make him fear who you'll become."

 

Nym, having spent so many years pretty much just trying to stay alive, is surprised to see how quickly she becomes attached to these characters around her, especially trainer Eogan. As their bond grows, Lady Adora begins to take notice, becoming quite jealous. Her inner green monster grows so large that she pulls Nym aside and gives it to her straight: either keep interactions with Eogan strictly to the training grounds and speak only of training matters, or fear disfigurement... or injury to her friends. As the feudal tension throughout Faelen grows, Nym must make incredibly tough choices about who to trust and who to protect. If she's to save those she's come to know and love, save the kingdom she's come to call home, she realizes she must also find it within herself to embrace her powers rather than fight against them. 

 

Was I born to destroy life, or to defend Faelen?

Colin bumps into my shoulder. Then does it again. Until I look up and that bald-boy smirk emerges. " I think some have to fight harder to choose good over evil because the evil 's got it out for them. And maybe it's because those're the ones evil knows will become the strongest warriors, recognizing true wickedness when it rears its head."

Something, a wave, a feeling, a force, tingles up through my feet as if the earth is agreeing with his words. 

He slips his arm around mine. "Maybe the ones who've struggled with true evil are the ones meant to make the greatest difference against it, you know?"

 

Man, did I get sucked into this one in a hurry! At surface level, Storm Siren is quite the enjoyable fantasy novel; the plot proves just layered enough to stay interesting to story's end yet the world building, while rich and detailed, is explained straightforward enough to be enjoyed by newbies to the fantasy genre. I also liked the variety within the characters themselves.

 

Nym is no damsel in distress! She is strong, yet she rages like a wildcat when triggered. She also has great capacity for love, though those around her sometimes have their work cut out for them getting through those emotional walls she's put up. Then there's solid but smirky Eogan, perhaps one of the sexiest men I've met in fantasy in a long while. And for those who are always on the hunt for fantasy with a diverse cast -- male lead Eogan is described as a beautiful, dark black man! Eogan does a nice job of balancing pep talks to get Nym to believe in herself (and trust that she's not a monster unworthy of love or respect) with "I have no time for your nonsense tantrums, pull yourself together" shutdowns. Loved it! 

 

 

Eogan sighs and asks me to clear the skies. 

I'm almost finished after half an hour of him telling me to steady my breathing and center the storm inside of me in order to calm the one above. I want to tell him that it's harder than it looks when you've got an infuriating man touching your skin who ignites your senses in their own little messed-up storm. 

 

I also got a kick out of Myles, even though I was sometimes frustrated with him, as most of the time I was conflicted with what to make of him! For large chunks of the story he seems to be an adversary to Nym but then he'd turn around and offer help but then have the reader wondering about his motives. He has powers of his own, as well as a stutter that gets in the way of his trying to build up that presence of possible wickedness. Hard to truly hate someone when you just end up feeling bad for them! 

 

Underneath the fun fantasy adventure though, what I truly appreciated was the powerful, motivational message at the heart of the novel: that what you think might be a flaw within you might actually end up being your greatest strength, if you only learn to harness it rather than fight it. Nym spends so many years fighting this guilty feeling that she's this monstrous thing that doesn't deserve to live... until she is brought to that moment in life when she's placed in this reality where only her exact talents can save a nation of people. That's such an inspiring idea to bring to a reader -- that the thing you've spent so much time trying to stifle could end up being the one thing down the road that people will need to get them through... you just never know! So now where will Nym's new-found truth take her next? Wherever it is, you can bet she'll be more likely to have her eyes on the horizon rather than her feet! 

 

 

Freakin ridiculous. Seriously.

No joke, I've had this site open ALL DAY waiting for it to work properly. I was cautiously optimistic when we all got that "we're going to get this place back on track" post from admin but now today it's back to taking 15-20 mins AT LEAST for book pages to load and I've been trying all day to write up some book reviews. All day I've gotten a virtually blank page -- the whole keybar (with bold, italic, underline, spoiler etc options) has been missing that whole time. Only just now did it finally start loading.

 

I have Tumblr as a back up but since I do reviews for publishing houses, I'd rather not direct them to a tumblr page. Everyone I've worked with so far has been totally fine with my blog here but it's getting to where I'm constantly stressing whether it'll load properly when I need it to. I signed up for an account with ThirdScribe today but am still trying to figure out how that site works. I still feel that fear of needing to have backups for this place :-(

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
The Greatest Gift by Phillip Van Doren Stern
The Greatest Gift: The Original Story That Inspired the Christmas Classic It's a Wonderful Life - Philip Van Doren Stern

For almost seventy years, people the world over have fallen in love with Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But few of those fans know that Capra’s film was based on a short story by author Philip Van Doren Stern, which came to Stern in a dream one night.  Unable at first to find a publisher for his evocative tale about a man named George Pratt who ponders suicide until he receives an opportunity to see what the world would be like without him, Stern ultimately published the story in a small pamphlet and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas card. One of those 200 cards found its way into the hands of Frank Capra, who shared it with Jimmy Stewart, and the film that resulted became the holiday tradition we cherish today.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

It's likely that most of us by now have seen the Christmas classic film It's A Wonderful Life at least once by now... but honestly probably multiple times thanks to that copyright loophole that had television stations running it on an almost constant loop for years during the holiday season (that's since been fixed, which is why you don't really see it on tv much anymore). Being a big fan of classic film in general, I remember watching a documentary years ago where the director of the film, Frank Capra, mentioned that the idea came from a Christmas card. Well, I thought he meant someone sent him a Christmas card, and a regular one at that -- you know, the typical snowy scene with a nice 1-2 line sentiment inside. Wrong on both counts it turns, but more on that in a bit.

 

If by chance you're not familiar with this story, it's a short little tale about a one Mr. George Pratt (changed to Bailey in Capra's film version). George is a good-hearted guy, very selfless nature, always doing everything he can for friends and family even if it means him going without... but during one particularly hard Christmas season where money is unbelievably tight and George feels like he's being crushed by the stress of it all, he in his darkest moment considers what the world would've been like without him altogether. From a place of momentary pain and hopelessness, he makes the wish for this to be so, a wish granted by the angel Clarence. Immediately, George is able to see all the things that would've never come to be had he not been in the world. Through these sights, George is taught the lesson that every soul is important, every soul has a purpose, even if we don't see it right off or if it seems too inconsequential an existence to matter... believe that it does.

 

That's the basic gist of the story. Now how this story came to be: Well, Van Doren Stern, an editor for a publishing house that printed travel-size books for armed service members, first wrote up the story in 1938 after being inspired by a particularly vivid dream. He tried to sell it for publication, but it seemed at the time no magazine or newspaper offices had any interest in buying it. Van Doren Stern already had some 40 or so books published to his name but they were primarily non-fiction topics. He suspected that maybe he wasn't fluid enough in fiction writing for the story to flow quite the way he intended. His agent theorized that the idea of the story -- an angel temporarily making someone non-existent -- was too fantastical for most markets at that time. Saturday Evening Post rejected it, heck -- Van Doren Stern said he couldn't even sell it to any of the farming magazines! So he stuck the piece away, taking it out every so often to make little revisions here and there. Finally, in 1943, Van Doren Stern decided to pay to have 200 copies of the 24 page printed up. He then sent these out to friends and family as a unique kind of Christmas card that year!

 

A studio exec at RKO Pictures got ahold of a copy. By March 1944 RKO bought the movie rights to the story. The studio soon ran into trouble though... they found that even with the most skilled writers they had, no one there could quite figure out how to successfully translate the story to screen. Legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra had just gotten back from serving in World War 2, got wind of the story and soon agreed to direct the picture, even taking on the rewriting of the script himself (much to the relief of those RKO execs!). Capra got in touch with old friend Jimmy Stewart (who had been in a few Capra films previously and also newly back from serving in WW2) and quickly got him signed on to play George Bailey. The film was released December 1946 and a classic was born! Eventually.... because the film wasn't a huge box office smash right out of the gate. It took years (and that copyright glitch mentioned above) to build up the audience of beloved fans the film now has today. People became so in love with the film, the original short story has since largely fallen into obscurity! In their later years, Stewart with 70+ movie credits to his name, Capra having written / directed over 50 films himself, both said It's A Wonderful Life was their very favorite film of their careers, Capra even went on to say it was the best film he ever made. 

 

So how to the film & book compare? Well, there might be a reason the film is more well remembered. I personally found that while the original short story is sweet, I think I am pulled in more by the nostalgia and yearning for simpler times it stirs up rather than the writing itself. It's tough to read that the story went through multiple revisions because even now it's good, but not epic. It's the type of story you might find in an anthology of holiday stories, enjoy in the moment, but then largely forget about. I'd say Capra's interpretation of Van Doren Stern's idea helped keep both versions circulating in the minds of generations of people since the film's release.

 

While you'll find much of Van Doren Stern's original dialogue worked into the film script and the opening sequence of George saving his drowning brother was kept in the film, there were some notable changes. For one thing, Clarence the angel was much more delightfully memorable in the film. In the book he poses as a random brush salesman, which I found a little odd but as some say, "It was a different time back then." :-P So instead of Zuzu's bell at the end of the film, book Clarence leaves the family one of his brushes... yaaaay. :-S Also changed: the idea of "spinster librarian Mary" from the film was actually "Mary marries one of George's oldest & dearest friends" in the book :-P Mean Old Man Potter, the nasty, manipulative banker that runs Bedford Falls? Not even mean in the book! Nope, he's just a simple photographer in town! Fun fact though: After the movie's release, there were whispers that the film could be interpreted as Communist propaganda because Old Man Potter made bankers look like such an evil sort! 

 

I'd still recommend checking out the original story if you come across a copy. It's a short little thing so you could probably even read it online for free somewhere. I may not have liked it quite as much as the film but hey, I still gave it four stars for the warm fuzzy holiday factor, that element is definitely there! But this is another one where you're really just doubling up on enjoyment if you experience the story and the film together. 

 

We may go through some seriously tough times now and then, but as Capra himself said once in an interview shortly before his passing, "It really IS a wonderful life..."

 

Happy Holidays, everyone! 

Review
3 Stars
A Month & A Day: A Detention Diary (memoir) by Ken Saro-Wiwa
A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary - Ken Saro-Wiwa

In May 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa, together with eight others, was arrested in Nigeria for the murder of four men who had been killed during a riot following a political rally. Though there was overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned for eighteen months. He and his co-defendants were eventually found guilty in a show trial and sentenced to be hanged. Despite massive international publicity and outcries against the mockery of justice these acts represented, on November 10, 1995, the executions were carried out. A Month & A Day is the moving last memoir of the man who gave voice to the campaign for the basic rights of the Ogoni people of Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa was an outspoken critic of the despotic Nigerian military regime and of the international oil companies, notably Shell, which he held responsible for the destruction of his homeland. Yet, despite the brutal government campaign against the Ogoni, he always advocated peaceful and non-violent protest. The book is framed by Saro-Wiwa's account of an earlier effort to silence him, when he was arrested in mid-1993. He lays out both the experience of detention and the story of his involvement with the Ogoni cause. He was eventually released as a result of intense international pressure, only to be arrested again the next year, shortly after finishing this book; he remained in prison until his death.

~from back cover

 

 

 

Ken Saro-Wiwa, a member himself of the Ogoni community he dedicated his life to defending, was a Nigerian activist, author, college professor, successful tv writer / producer. Additionally, he held various Nigerian government positions at one time or another, such as Commissioner of the Land / Transport / Education Departments. He turned to writing professionally in the 1980s.

 

Regarding his activism, Saro-Wiwa was outspoken critic of the Nigerian military (at least of those in charge of it anyway). He also protested the foreign oil companies, primarily Shell, whose search for oil across Ogoni lands ended up ruining the lush landscape that once was -- waterways polluted, acid rain polluted crops, oil spills not being cleaned up. Saro-Wiwa states that since 1958, when the first oil companies started drilling on Ogoni lands, an estimated 30 BILLION dollars in oil has been pulled from the ground, yet Ogoni people were given NOTHING in return. At the time of Saro-Wiwa writing this, much of the area was still without electricity or modern plumbing. The Ogoni people were given no representation in Nigerian government, little to no job opportunities or government assistance, no educational opportunities or health coverage, and even Shell was declining to hire locals! The Ogoni people were suffering food and land shortages because the oil companies were snatching it all up for oil drilling, so the community struggled to find ways to keep their families fed. Desperate for help, the Ogoni people attempted to get outside assistance. The response? Greenpeace flat out told them no, basically saying that what they needed didn't fall under Greenpeace's wheelhouse...  and Amnesty International said they could only help if someone was in prison or citizens were being massacred. 

 

Wiwa served as president of the organization MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People). When four men were killed during a political rally Saro-Wiwa was known to be against, he along with eight others were charged with the crime. Though there was a mountain of evidence proclaiming his innocence, he was still sentenced to death and hanged in 1995. 


Saro-Wiwa mentions in his foreword, dated July 1994 (he would be executed the following November), that he had completed the manuscript for this book shortly before being arrested the final time (he later points out in the diary's pages that between 1993-94, he was arrested a total of four times in three months). He had someone sneak the manuscript into him while he was imprisoned, working feverishly to complete the final edit. In these pages you read what his activism work entailed and why he believed he was being targeted. Describing the arrest he opens his story with, he mentions that it didn't take him long to suspect that something fishy was going on, but he feared that if he attempted an escape his actions might bring down more unnecessary violence onto the Ogoni people, what it might mean for the people who relied on his protection... so for their safety, he chose to go along with it all and allow himself to be placed in prison. 

 

I have to put my hat in with the other reviews I've read that say the strength in this book lies in the message / topic, not so much in the writing style itself. While I feel like I learned a lot about this time period and at times definitely felt incensed over what the Ogoni people were put through, Saro-Wiwa's writing itself left something to be desired. Admittedly, he was under some hardcore duress, so I don't want to rate him too harshly... yet I'm not going to pad my rating simply due to circumstance. I'm sticking with my honest opinion here -- his story is an important one but the writing itself is just okay. The early pages of the diary read like a police incident report more than anything, but I will say as the story goes on, I noticed the tone got a little more relaxed and I started to get a bit better sense of Saro-Wiwa as an individual and the passion for his work began to shine through a bit better. 

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