EpicFehlReader
Review
4 Stars
Emotions: Poems by Renee Gresock
Emotions - Renee' Gresock

 

 

Author Renee Gresock, inspired by the daily struggles that come with living with VonHippel-Undau Syndrome, offers up a collection of poems that tackle such themes as mental battles, hardening of the soul following heartbreak, and existential questions often stirred up in the midst of life struggles and subsequent emotional turmoil. She also touches upon some of the more stressful moments of motherhood, the tricky elements of co-parenting with an ex, the hurt of others making snap judgments without knowing your full story, broken marriage, and the exciting whirlwind of a fresh new love. 

 

 

Primarily set in rhyming verse, the writing itself is simple in form and flow, yet the messages still pack quite the punch. The tone of the various selections, led by the theme of many forms of heart hurts, alternates between hesitant optimism and borderline nihilism. It's a perfect collection to start with for readers new to the poetry genre.

 

 

My personal favorites from this collection:

 

✦ "I Should Be"

✦ "Gonna"

✦ "Echoes In The Breeze"

 "First Sight"

✦ "Life's Heartache"

✦ "Our Love"

 

 

Review
4 Stars
All In by L.K. Simonds
All In - L.K. Simonds

Twenty-nine-year-old novelist and blackjack dealer Cami Taylor seems to have it all—but just underneath her confident exterior and newfound celebrity is a young woman in trouble. Cami’s boyfriend, Joel, wants to get married, buy a house on Long Island, and raise a family—a life that’s a million miles from Cami’s idea of happiness. Her therapist suggests compromise and trust, but Cami would rather bolt like a deer. Breaking things off with Joel, Cami launches herself on a new quest for happiness. But her pursuit of pleasure only takes her further from herself—and toward a harrowing new reality unlike anything she’s faced before.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

In her debut novel, L.K. Simonds introduces us to main character Cami (Camille) Taylor, who, on the cusp of thirty in the late 90s, has found professional success over the years as a blackjack dealer and published author with one best seller already under her belt. Cami's Long Island boyfriend, Joel, is more than ready to marry her and settle into domestic bliss; his only frustration with her is the emotional wall she tends to have up, blocking them from ever reaching that deepest level of emotional intimacy.

 

Cami's not even sure she wants to go as far as marriage. She's always valued her independence far too much. But she does love Joel, so she makes an attempt to work on her emotional wall by going to therapy. In the beginning, she hopes the gesture will appease him, but it soon becomes clear that her heart isn't in the therapy process at this stage in her life. Joel and Cami come to accept they just want different things in life and the nearly two year union quietly dissolves.

 

While splitting up felt like the right move, it still hurts to lose someone whose presence you've gotten so used to. She tries to dip her toe back into the dating world but the pickins' ain't great out there. Even when she thinks she's scored a maybe, things turn sour one night when he mentions his girlfriend, followed by "You didn't ask." UGH. It'd be super cool if it could just be an understood rule all the way around that if you're already in a relationship YOU DON'T GO FISHING FOR ANOTHER.

 

This little talk does wonders for Cami's already fragile mental state and she gets to reflecting on her former life, working casinos back in New Mexico as Leona Lingo (her birth name). She thought she'd finished with that era of her life, but feeling herself heading towards a dark headspace in NYC, she figures a trip back to her hometown of Phoenix, Arizona might not be such a bad idea. But "going home" just ends up being a safe space to binge on vices. By this point in the story I was reminded a little of that Charlize Theron movie, Young Adult.

 

Note: the mention of casino life does not factor largely into this story except through some of Cami's referenced memories.

 

More of the same isn't going to be enough. I can see that now. When I think about it, I realize it isn't strange at all to need new goals after having reached all the old ones. I should've seen this coming. I'm doing okay, professionally, and now I need to concentrate on feeding my soul. Just as soon as I figure out what exactly my soul needs.

 

Eventually Cami works her way back to NYC, where she has an unexpected introduction to distant relative Kate Davis. After a day spent getting to know each other, Kate invites Cami to a family reunion being held in Texas. This ends up being the start of a legit growing family bond between the ladies that will serve Cami well later in the story when she'll need all the support she can get after receiving some life-altering news.

 

Cami's main motivation for going to new places or meeting new people often seems to fall to "well, it'll be great material for the next novel." Though she's rarely in it to make new friends or grab life by the horns, she still grudgingly puts herself out there time and again. By doing so, life shows her (and through her experiences, the reader) that if one is willing to embrace experiences even halfway openly, the takeaway can be so much more than ever imagined. It's no different when Cami takes on Texas (even if she's inwardly laughing to herself about just how out of her environment she truly is). I did find it a little weird, though, her being flirty with Jake. Yeah, he's a distant cousin... but, still. Should be a pretty standard rule: don't hit on people at a family reunion!

 

Throughout the entire story, it's alluded to that there might be something off with Cami's health, but she drags her feet getting herself checked out. Finally, after a bout of sickness that scares her enough to finally make an appointment... the diagnosis the doctor comes back with... wow, I was not expecting the story to go that direction at all! Virtually nothing hints at it, save for maybe one scene. The reality check leaves atheist Cami pondering on God, life, all the big questions.

 

Cami as a character, well, she can be a tough one to bond with because she often reads emotionally flat. It makes sense, that's part of the character flaw in her that sort of sets her on this whole path. Still, it can make for frustrating reading when she comes off as so emotionless. But I don't think it's a matter of her being devoid of feeling, but more her being afraid to feel. Life experiences, the world at large... it's all left her with a lot of disappointment. You go through enough of that for long enough, you get to where it seems like the easier path to just numb your heart to any more stabs. As far as other characters, it seemed like each one has a quality to them that'll have you saying YES! I know someone exactly like that! So, bravo to Simonds on wonderful attention to character detail!

 

There is an understated lyrical quality to Simond's writing style that I ended up quite liking. It took me a little time to really get into this plot... but I'll admit I wasn't in the best mood the day I decided to start this one. Initially, I wasn't sure I was going to like Cami, but, if I'm being honest, it might've been because I was seeing more of myself in her than I liked LOL, some of the sides of me I'm not so proud of. But like Cami, I'm working on them in my own time and I'll get there, eventually.

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: BookCrash.com & author L.K. Simonds kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 
 
Review
3.5 Stars
The Gilded Life of Matilda Duplaine by Alex Brunkhorst
The Gilded Life of Matilda Duplaine - Alex Brunkhorst

Family secrets. Forbidden love. And the true price of wealth.

The story begins with a dinner party invitation… When young journalist Thomas Cleary is sent to dig up quotes for the obituary of a legendary film producer, the man's eccentric daughter offers him access to the exclusive upper echelons of Hollywood society. As Thomas enters a world of private jets and sprawling mansions, his life and career take off beyond his wildest dreams.
Then he meets Matilda Duplaine.
Beautiful and mysterious, Matilda has spent her entire life within the walls of her powerful father's Bel-Air estate. Thomas is entranced, and the two begin a secret love affair. But the more he learns about the mysterious woman's identity, the more he realizes that privilege always comes with a price.
Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Thomas Cleary, a young Midwestern man with a Harvard degree under his belt, is now working as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, after losing his job (amidst scandal) at the Wall Street Journal. Thomas' boss assigns him the task of writing the obituary piece for recently passed legendary Hollywood producer Joel Goldman. After becoming acquainted with his daughter, Lily, she invites him to a party expected to have a roster full of entertainment industry heavy-hitters. Though he's working on a tight deadline, Thomas calls in to his boss to tell him of the offer. Without hesitation, his boss tells him to most definitely accept... and take mental notes for future stories!

 

 

The world of Lily Goldman was full of presents, and I couldn't help but wonder if there were strings attached to every last one of them.

 

At this party, Thomas meets studio executive David Duplaine, considered to be one of the most powerful men in the world, in general. Everyone finds Thomas' quiet, polite demeanor charming and refreshing in a town full of brown-nosing. Within a month of this party, Thomas is drowning in invites to parties and lunches all over town. Attending as many as he can manage, he's flattered and curious at all the sudden attention, but his journalist nose also begins to suspect and sniff out the secrets under the glittery facade of this world. At one such party, actress Carol Patridge gives him some advice, quietly disguising a warning:

 

"Be careful. I know all this can be very intoxicating, but everything has its price, Thomas. You'll get charged without knowing it, and you won't know the price until the bill comes in the mail."

"Are you saying I can't afford it?"

"I make twenty million a picture and I can't afford it."

 

Fate deals a hand on the day Thomas sets out to attend a party being hosted by David Duplaine. Upon arrival, Thomas is surprised to find no one on the property... or so he thinks. Climbing a tree to have a look around, he spots a young woman on David's tennis court. To Thomas' knowledge, David was living the life of a confirmed bachelor workaholic with no children... so who is this? It's not hard to guess, as by this point in the book the reader is nearly 100 pages in and the title character has yet to be introduced to Thomas. Yep, he's just had an unexpected run-in with the mysterious Matilda Duplaine.

Thomas is instantly charmed by her, but he must know the whole story --- Why is she not allowed to leave the Duplaine estate? Why does everything involving Matilda have to be arranged in such a clandestine fashion?What's this great misfortune she hints will befall them if they continue to see each other? Later on in the story, I was confused as to why Matilda runs so hot & cold with Thomas after he risks everything to try to get her her freedom. She does make an attempt to explain, but I don't know if I buy what basically amounts to "please excuse my daddy issues."

 

 

 

Though the story is set in modern times, there is still a noticeable Old Hollywood vibe to the whole thing. Touches of Great Gatsby inspo here and there (the feel / era, not necessarily the plot). The detail in the world building is rich to the point of the reader having no trouble imagining these antique-heavy mansions that Thomas finds himself rotating through. You can virtually feel the furniture, smell the luxury cigarettes, hear the clink of barware.... that aspect made sense once I saw that Brunkhorst's author bio mentions her day job as being a real estate agent specializing in multi-million dollar estates. She clearly knows this world!

 

There's also a brief interlude of sorts where a few of the characters temporarily move the setting to Hawaii.

 

The characters were all unique --- there was something about Lily I just loved, wanted to know more of the story there --- and the relationships between them made for fun reading, I'd just wish there was more oompf or tension to the mystery of the Duplaine backstory.

Review
3 Stars
Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Unhappiness) by Francoise Sagan, translated by Irene Ash
Bonjour Tristesse - Diane Johnson, Irene Ash, Françoise Sagan

The French Riviera: home to the Beautiful People. And none are more beautiful than Cécile, a precocious seventeen-year-old, and her father Raymond, a vivacious libertine. Charming, decadent and irresponsible, the golden-skinned duo are dedicated to a life of free love, fast cars and hedonistic pleasures. But then, one long, hot summer Raymond decides to marry, and Cécile and her lover Cyril feel compelled to take a hand in his amours, with tragic consequences. Bonjour Tristesse scandalized 1950s France with its portrayal of teenager terrible Cécile, a heroine who rejects conventional notions of love, marriage and responsibility to choose her own sexual freedom.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

 

Seventeen year old Cecile, having recently finished boarding school, celebrates by going on a two month long vacation to a Mediterranean villa with her playboy father, Raymond. Also in attendance is Raymond's favorite lady of the month, Elsa. Raymond is 40 years old, has been widowed for fifteen years, but doesn't let that keep his mood down --- he's changing out love interests every six months or so!

 

The trip also proves to be something of a sexual awakening for young Cecile. Six days into this vacation, she spots Cyril for the first time. Cyril is a young, gorgeous Latin man also in the area for vacation. Cecile admits he's not her usual type --- turns out he's a sensible, responsible, law student AND her own age --- but there's something about him that she just cannot resist. 

 

Later on, we see the arrival of Anna, a longtime family friend who has served as a sort of surrogate mother to Cecile over the years. At first Cecile assumes Anna is only there to join in on family time, but gradually realizes Anna may have a romantic eye set on Raymond. Raymond doesn't seem too bothered with having a little female competition over him to liven up the days! Nor does he seem troubled when Cecile points out the complication of having two women interested in you staying in the same house. If anything, Raymond is amused!

 

He laughed softly and rubbed the back of my neck. I turned to look at him. His dark eyes gleamed; funny little wrinkles marked their edges; his mouth was turned up slightly. He looked like a faun. I laughed with him as I always did when he created complications for himself.

 

"My little partner in crime," he said. "What would I do without you?"

 

His voice was so serious yet so tender that I knew he would really have been unhappy without me. Late into the night we talked of love, of its complications. In my father's eyes they were all imaginary. He refused categorically all ideas of fidelity or serious commitments. He explained that they were arbitrary and sterile. From anyone else such views would have shocked me, but I knew that in his case they did not exclude tenderness and devotion ---- feelings which came all the more easily to him since he was determined that they would be transient.

 

 

 

Cecile likely would've rolled with whatever happened in the house, had Anna not overstepped her bounds regarding Cecile's budding romance with Cyril. Once Anna begins to feel she has a pretty solid in (romatically) with Raymond, she jumps right into full-on new stepmom mode, insisting Cecile drop Cyril and focus more on her educational pursuits. Not impressed with Anna trying to lay down the law all of a sudden, Cecile, in grudge mode, decides to get her father's attention back on Elsa. Plots and ploys ensue and before long this love triangle implodes, leaving one major tragedy in the wake. Elsa's not the brightest bulb, as characters go, but it's hard not to feel a little sorry for her when reality of the situation finally dawns on her.

 

All the elements of a drama were to hand: a libertine, a demimondaine, and a strong-minded woman.

 

This was Sagan's debut novel, published in 1954, when Sagan was barely older than her main character, Cecile! (Sagan passed away in 2004, but google her life story, it's a pretty interesting & layered one!). I'd read that at the time of its release this book had France up in arms over the themes of sexual liberation, particularly involving that of a teenage girl. Reading it now, it must have had to do with the time period because I did not find it all that risque. Yes, sex is mentioned, but it's so gently suggested compared to some of the softcore novels that are out there now, I struggle to see how anyone could take offense to the way the topic of sex is handled in this book. What I did notice is the way Sagan puts her best emo foot forward right from the opening paragraph LOL:

 

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow.  The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed  of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everyone else.

 

While the writing style itself might have a little more finesse than what is commonly seen in YA literature today (especially with remembering that Sagan herself was a teenager when she wrote this novel), it appears the popular themes for the genre haven't changed too much over the decades. In Bonjour Tristesse, we see somewhat overbearing Anna always quietly trying to slip into that stepmom disciplinarian role, not approving of Cecile's choice of boyfriend, pushing for the girl to focus on her studies and future career options instead... Cecile feeling annoyed and stifled, ultimately choosing to rebel against authority, to the point of plotting payback, after her opinion of Anna switches from that of friend to "beautiful serpent" ---- all ideas that can be found in contemporary YA novels. Used to finding a bratty someone to loathe in YA novels of today? Cecile gives you that as well --- anytime anyone remotely tries to hold her accountable for her actions, she gets huffy and storms off like a bored, moody cat. 

 

While it is certainly impressive that Sagan could publish a debut novel at such an early age and find such raving success as a writer right out of the gate, I'm not entirely convinced this is deserving of the level of high praise it seems to have garnered over the years. It's an mildly entertaining story, perfect for a easy, breezy summer day, as the writing has that kind of lazy river flow to it... but in it's entirety, it fell a little flat for me. Seemed like Sagan wanted to go a little bit thriller-ish with the plot but there's just not enough tension built up there. Cecile's sexual awakening is hinted at, but again, she and those scenes are all presented in a "can't be bothered" kind of tone, so if our MCs can't care enough about the direction of their lives, why should we?

 

 

Review
3 Stars
Malcolm's Honor by Jillian Hart
Malcolm's Honor (Harlequin Historical, Vol. #519) - Jillian Hart

Malcolm le Farouche felt his blood race at the thought. Yet, was rage or passion the reason? He knew only that though Elinore of Evenbough would share his bed by royal command, the warrior-trained beauty was not to be trusted...with his life or his heart!


Le Farouche—"the Fierce." The epithet added luster to Sir Malcolm's dark reputation as the greatest knight in the land. But how would Elinore refute his deep suspicions of an alliance with her treacherous father? For her soul called out that this man was her true mate born!

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

In the year 1280, Sir Malcolm le Farouche ("the fierce") is the greatest knight in all the land. He is sent as a kind of bounty hunter to round up the Lord of Evenbough when the man is suspected of treason and murder. When Malcolm finds the lord's daughter, Lady Elinor also in attendance, he gathers her up as well, unsure if she is equally guilty as the father. Better safe than sorry, it's decided everyone shall go to see King Edward.

Though innocent of wrong doing, Elinor (who goes by Elin for most of the novel) fears her fate will be tarnished through guilt by association, possibly meaning an end by execution. With her lady's maid, Alma, in tow, Elinor decides to make an escape attempt. Making a meal for Malcolm and his men, Elin mixes in a low dose of oakwood, mildly poisoning everyone... not enough to kill them, just enough for them to have bad enough intestinal upset for her to have a window to get away without capture. That's the plan, anyway. But much to her surprise and dismay, Malcolm pushes through his discomfort and does successfully capture her not far outside the camp.

 

Once in front of King Edward, Elin's father is swiftly handed off for execution, but Edward decides there's not enough evidence against Elin to condemn her, and her father's lands remain quite valuable. Edward's skeevy nephew, Carodoc, tries to make a grab for Elin's hand but since Edward apparently doesn't entirely trust his own family, he puts forth his decision to marry Elin to Malcolm. Malcolm's initially not fully onboard with the idea but once told that if he declines he will be banished from court and Elin WILL be executed, seems like there is little choice in the matter. So after a quick ceremony, off our newlyweds go back to the newly dubbed Le Farouche homestead...where you'd think things would kinda chill out for a bit, but nah.

 

Within mere hours of these two uniting, there are NUMEROUS attacks on their lives and home, with even more to come in the following days. It just does not let up! There's even yet another guy showing up claiming he has marital dibs on Elin! But on the upside, conflict often tends to stir up heightened emotions in people, and it's no different here. Though he's still struggling with learning to trust his new wife, Malcolm does definitely feel a growing interest towards her in general. He's impressed with her training in combat and healing arts (though he sometimes suspects her of sorcery), he's amused by her feisty side, but he's also baffled by her --- the way she has a "fragile cut of face, lithe grace, and womanly curves" but also physical strength and self-confidence to rival any man's. Prior to meeting Elin, Malcolm had taught himself to be content with putting all his energy toward being the most dedicated knight to the king. But maybe, just maybe, there IS, in fact, more to life than that ol' "punching the clock" business. Maybe there's something to be said for a coming home to a quiet night at the house and a soft woman to curl up with!

 

Though they might have had an unconventional start, Malcolm and Elin grow to have an adorable, realistic "I'm calling you on your BS" banter between them that kept me laughing and nodding. Those who have been in long-term relationships will appreciate the style of playfulness these two have. True, they developed theirs rather quickly, but the way Hart lays it out still makes it somehow believable, like they were just one of those couples that would of course find each other when the timing was right.

Review
4 Stars
The Greatest Lover in All England by Christina Dodd
The Greatest Lover in All England - Christina Dodd

 

 

Since childhood, Rosie's life has been the stage—passing herself off as a boy playing women's roles in the somewhat disreputable theatrical troupe of actor Danny Plympton, Rosie's adoptive father. But when unanticipated danger confronts them, they must flee London, taking refuge at the estate of Sir Anthony Rycliffe. A handsome, devil-may-care rakehell, Tony quickly sees through Rosie's disguise. But a lush, womanly form and eminently kissable lips are not the ravishing young beauty's only secrets—and the burning attraction Tony feels for her does not lessen the peril she has brought to his doorstep. The dashing rogue is determined to strip the irresistible lady of her mysteries—and her masculine garb—using all of his fabled seductive powers. After all, Tony has a reputation to uphold, as . . .The Greatest Lover in All England

Amazon.com

 

 

Rosie (aka Rosencrantz) is no stranger to life on the streets of 17th century London. She travels around with a group of performers, led by her adoptive father, Sir Danny Plympton (he "knighted" himself), singing for food or dollars. Though illiterate, Rosie has one illustrious benefactor in her life, the one and only "Uncle Will" --- William Shakespeare.

 

*BTW --- each chapter in this book opens with a quote from one of Shakespeare's plays.

 

Our girl is rocking one secret on the cusp of having an unplanned reveal: only those closest to her know she is female, everyone else has always accepted Rosie's masculine presentation as the truth. Sir Danny took Rosie in as a little girl and made the choice to raise & present her as a boy for her own safety. Only now, with Rosie's introduction to Sir Anthony Rycliffe (legitimately knighted), is that coming into question.

When it's suggested that Rosie may possibly be the true, lost heir of the estate Sir Anthony calls home, Anthony proposes they settle the dispute by marrying and combining their lands and wealth. The long-term benefits of the arrangement take some convincing for Rosie, but eventually she agrees to Anthony's idea. Naturally, because this is a romance novel, what starts as a seemingly straightforward business arrangement shortly turns into something much more feelings-infused.

 

But if you think that's all there could be to this story, oh no no. Dodd throws some fun intrigue her readers' way! We got the Earl of Southampton, a patron of Shakespeare's theater, asking him to put on a production of Richard III (the Earls of Southampton and Essex harbor secret hopes that it will incite rioting against Queen Elizabeth I); Is Sir Danny looking at a chance at love?; Then there seems to be a secret assassin targeting either Anthony or Rosie... or both... but who wants them dead so badly? And then we have a friend of Rosie's sent to Newgate Prison and Anthony does his best to charm the proverbial pants off the queen to get the friend released. But oooh, the scene where Anthony takes things too far and his flirtatious words happen to contain a verbal knock on Earl of Essex, one of the queen's current favorites... so Anthony ends up getting his ears boxed, repeatedly! There's no shortage of entertainment in these pages!

 

For a romance novel, this ended up feeling quite literary. The writing is wonderfully clever, with all sorts of bookish references woven in. The dialogue is light and cheeky, such as the line, "... the cat who got the canary...I can almost see feathers protruding from your lips, what do you have planned?" Anthony and Rosie have an adorable, realistic "I'm calling you on your BS" banter between them that kept me laughing and nodding. Those who have been in long-term relationships will appreciate the style of playfulness these two have. You can just imagine the twinkle lights going off in the eyes of these characters --- Great fun!

Review
5 Stars
Eddie & Gardenia (Eddie #3) by Carolyn Haywood
Eddie and the Gardenia - Carolyn Haywood

Eddie has a pet goat named Gardenia who gets into too much trouble for Father to put up with, so Uncle Ed offers to have Gardenia on his ranch in Texas to live, and Eddie to stay with them for a few months.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

I found a 1960s copy of this on a recent thrift store trip and was initially curious about it because 1) I'm always a little curious about old books in shops and 2) gardenias are my favorite flower. So happy I took a gamble on it because this story is seriously adorable!

Eddie is a little boy who has a pet goat named Gardenia. As much as he loves her, she is a handful! Gardenia really does it one day when she chews up the cloth roof on Eddie's dad's new Buick. Fed up with all the recent damages, Eddie's dad lays down the law and says the goat has to go. He suggests that Eddie write to Uncle Ed in Texas and see if he'll let Gardenia live on his ranch there. Eddie writes this letter and waits. Not only does Uncle Ed agree to take on the goat but he also invites Eddie out for a few months to live on the ranch and visit with his cousin Georgie.

 

But the trip doesn't turn out to be as straightforward as you'd think. Eddie travels with Gardenia to Texas by train, but en route the goat manages to free a flock of chickens AND ends up getting moved to the wrong truck, nearly ending the story before it's begun. Luckily, Uncle Ed swoops in in time and sorts things out. But even at the ranch, getting Gardenia acclimated is more of a process than anyone anticipated.

 

It's a charming story full of humor and love of family and nature, just the sweet journeys of Gardenia trying to live her best goat life. There are some dramatic moments, but nothing too violent or scary. This story would also serve as a good primer for young readers as far as introducing them to ranching terminology and lifestyle customs.

Review
4 Stars
Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry
Becoming Mrs. Lewis - Patti Callahan Henry

 

In a most improbable friendship, she found love. In a world where women were silenced, she found her voice.  From New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan comes an exquisite novel of Joy Davidman, the woman C. S. Lewis called “my whole world.” When poet and writer Joy Davidman began writing letters to C. S. Lewis—known as Jack—she was looking for spiritual answers, not love. Love, after all, wasn’t holding together her crumbling marriage. Everything about New Yorker Joy seemed ill-matched for an Oxford don and the beloved writer of Narnia, yet their minds bonded over their letters. Embarking on the adventure of her life, Joy traveled from America to England and back again, facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, and against all odds, finding a love that even the threat of death couldn’t destroy. 
In this masterful exploration of one of the greatest love stories of modern times, we meet a brilliant writer, a fiercely independent mother, and a passionate woman who changed the life of this respected author and inspired books that still enchant us and change us. Joy lived at a time when women weren’t meant to have a voice—and yet her love for Jack gave them both voices they didn’t know they had.  At once a fascinating historical novel and a glimpse into a writer’s life, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is above all a love story—a love of literature and ideas and a love between a husband and wife that, in the end, was not impossible at all.
Amazon.com
 

 

 

As the title hints, Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a fictionalized look at the life of Joy Davidman, the woman who would eventually become the one and only wife of author C.S. Lewis, largely known for his beloved Chronicles of Narnia series. While the prologue briefly dips into Joy's childhood in the 1920s, the bulk of the story runs throughout the 1950s, finishing in 1960, the year of Joy's death. Her death would sadly inspire another classic work of Lewis', A Grief Observed, chronicling his mourning period. But let's focus more on how this unique bond came to be.

Callahan's story, as it pertains to C.S. Lewis (known as "Jack" by close friends), opens in 1950. At that time, Joy is Joy Davidman Gresham; her husband, Bill Gresham, also a writer (Lewis was Joy's second husband). The story informs the reader that for years Joy has been struggling with her husband's alcoholism and philandering ways. But she does her best to stick things out for her sons. She also admits that during this first marriage she considered herself an atheist, until one night when her husband wouldn't come home, called home hinting that he was having suicidal thoughts. In desperation, Joy falls to her knees in prayer, not entirely convinced it will do anything but just needing to latch onto some shred of hope. In a moment that spans less than a minute but also feels like ages, Joy is convinced she's having a connection with the Holy Spirit. For the next three years, she seeks out every book she can get her hands on to try to find answers to what she experienced. Her newfound passion for theology brings Lewis' works into her hands. Nothing gives her peace like his non-fiction essays on philosophy and religion. She particularly moved by The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

By this time, the Greshams are still struggling to regain a healthy marriage, so Joy decides to write to Lewis to ask his advice on some of the questions plaguing her. She's ecstatic when she receives a reply back! So starts a friendship in letters, because it turns out there's a comfort in Joy's letters that Lewis didn't realize he so strongly needed. Joy being a poet and novelist herself, as well as having some theological pieces of her own recently published... well,the two can't deny they might have stumbled upon kindred spirits within each other.

This correspondence carries on over the course of years, Lewis in England, Joy in The States. Lewis makes several offers for Joy to come visit him and his brother at The Kilns, their personal residence. Having struggled with health problems all her life --- low thyroid, lung and kidney infections, chronic fatigue --- her body eventually declines to the point where Joy feels an escape to England might be just the thing to turn her health right. With her physical troubles being worsened with her stressing over her books not selling as well as she'd like and the arrival of her cousin Renee, moving in with two more kids in tow, Joy increasingly feels more sure that England is the place to take a breather from everything, focus on her health and work on finishing some writing projects that will bring in some much needed money for the family. So England also becomes a quiet "research trip" for her WIP novel about King Charles II.

While Joy doesn't stay with Lewis on those early trips to The Kilns (she's still a married woman for most of the book, after all), she does visit with the Lewis brothers quite often. It becomes pretty evident, the longer one reads into the story, that the Gresham union is largely being held by a sense of duty and history rather than much remaining love and friendship. They might have pet names for each other, but Bill Gresham (in this story) often speaks to Joy with a thinly veiled demeaning, patronizing tone to his words. Though she's a published author with a number of professional accolades (Callahan's historical note at the end points out that the real Joy graduated college at 15!), he still insists on going about as if HER writing is a hobby, his work the real breadwinning stuff. When Joy and Jack first speak, right from the get-go she has an instant sense of being valued and acknowledged. Even just as friends, Lewis is constantly praising Joy's work and values her opinion as an industry colleague. When Lewis says to Joy, "Our friendship is big enough even for the sorrows." --- that's a HUGE statement!

The connection works great as long as it doesn't go beyond the boundaries of strictly friendship --- philia, as Lewis refers to it. That's not to say they both don't feel more. Both are definitely aware of intensified feelings as the years pass. But there's plenty working against them, in Lewis' mind. He doesn't love Joy's confession about her meeting and getting involved with Bill when he was still with his first wife, but Lewis can brush that off as a "I didn't know you then" moment. But even after Joy's divorce from Bill is finalized, Lewis still hesitates to have ANY bodily contact with Joy, not so much as a brush on the arm most days, because now she is a divorcee, which is frowned upon in Lewis' church. They eventually find a way through these confusing feelings, the turnaround largely brought about by Joy's cancer diagnosis shortly after she and Lewis decide to marry (the first time around, it was essentially a green card marriage, solidified later with a second ceremony).

This does seem to be one of those stories you have to dedicate some time to --- there's a lot of themes covered and it doesn't always move terribly fast, but I was never bored! The early chapters hit the heavy topics early on: the prologue briefly referencing child abuse, the first chapters past that bringing up alcoholism, PTSD, abuse, suicidal tendencies... spouses who have these things and the spouses caring for them. Early in Part 3 there is also a scene of spousal abuse when Joy confronts Bill once and for all about his infidelities and he attacks her for it.

While the topics of philosophy and religion, references to Lewis' nonfiction Christian essay collections, etc do get somewhat heavy at times, much of the story is more about the various roles and difficulties a woman has to navigate throughout the course of her life. Much of Joy's story seems to be a woman's 30+ year journey towards addressing "daddy issues", as some might call it these days. There's a father she works so hard to please, but who is so quick to backhand her over a B on a report card, of all things! In that moment, something breaks in her and her path from that point on becomes an obsessive drive to prove to everyone that she is worthy of love and admiration. Her story is also one of a woman's aggravating struggle to be taken seriously by the medical community. Every complaint she takes into a doctor's office --- nausea, fatigue, leg pains, heart palpitations --- is regularly dismissed as rheumatism, middle age, "lady troubles".... until the day she loses the ability to walk and a doctor says her body is riddled with cancer that's probably been growing in her for at least seven years!

Those of you drawn to this book for the sheer "bookish" aspect, Callahan delivers on that front as well. You'll see plenty of literary figures pop into the story, from Lewis's good buddy JRR Tolkien... he wrote something people are always raving on about, what was that.... :-P .... mention of Joy having lunch with P.L. Travers (author of Mary Poppins stories), has a doctor consultation with a doctor who happens to be Graham Greene's brother... there's even a funny discussion where Joy is having a chat with friend Dorothy Heyward, whose husband wrote the book Porgy & Bess that was later turned into the famous stage production. Dorothy mentions how she did much of the work on the stage adaptation but for a time her contributions went largely uncredited. The fact itself -- not exactly laughable --- but the ladies have a little commiserating chuckle about their similar circumstances when Joy is at a particularly low point.

In the end, Joy's story made me that much more grateful to be in a solid relationship these days, deeply rooted in honest friendship. Having been on the other end of the spectrum myself --- having experienced a previously unhealthy cohabitation like Joy did --- I can tell you it makes all the difference to one's soul to find a centered sense of being within a cozy, supportive relationship where your partner doesn't guilt trip you for health issues beyond your control or accuse you of being lazy or self-indulgent when you have days where the energy just isn't there no matter how hard you try, someone who encourages your passions and professional pursuits, rather than feel threatened by them.

I'll close on saying that Callahan was also successful in not only motivating me to pick up some of these still-unread copies of Lewis' essays parked on my shelves but also in checking out Joy's works, which I'll admit, I was largely unacquainted with prior to diving into this story.

* Discussion guide included in the hardback edition

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.
 

Review
3 Stars
A Stranger at Fellsworth (Treasures of Surrey #3) by Sarah E. Ladd
A Stranger at Fellsworth (A Treasures of Surrey Novel) - Sarah E. Ladd

In the fallout of her deceased father’s financial ruin, Annabelle’s prospects are looking bleak. Her fiancé has called off their betrothal, and now she remains at the mercy of her controlling and often cruel brother. Annabelle soon faces the fact that her only hope for a better life is to do the unthinkable and run away to Fellsworth, where her estranged uncle serves as the school’s superintendent. Upon arrival, Annabelle learns that she must shed her life of high society and work for her wages for the first time. Owen Locke is unswerving in his commitments. As a widower and father, he is fiercely protective of his only daughter. As an industrious gamekeeper, he is intent on keeping poachers at bay even though his ambition has always been to purchase land he can call his own. When a chance encounter introduces him to Annabelle Thorley, his steady life is shaken. For the first time since his wife’s death, Owen begins to consider a second chance at love. As Owen and Annabelle grow closer, ominous forces threaten the peace they thought they’d found.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Annabelle Thorley's once well-off family fell into financial ruin not long ago due to her father's involvement in an embezzling scheme. Shortly thereafter, Annabelle's father dies and her fiance breaks off their engagement. The fates of the Thorley estate and Annabelle's future now in the hands of her cold-hearted brother, our leading lady fears she'll soon face being muscled into an unsavory marital "understanding" with the odious, elderly (but wealthy) Cecil Bartwell. 

 

When an evening's festivities turn violent, a frightened Annabelle (after being struck in the face by her brother for refusing Bartwell's advances) makes the choice to flee to Fellsworth school where her uncle, long estranged from the family, serves as superintendent. Escorting her on her journey is widower father Owen Locke, a gamekeeper for the estate of Stephen Treadwell. Locke and Treadwell had attended the same party as the Thorleys that night. Having spoken with him earlier, Annabelle felt a certain level of safety and comfort around Owen, enough to request his assistance in ordering her a carriage to take her to Fellsworth. As it turns out, Locke is good friends with her uncle, so he decides to join her on her journey to ensure no more harm comes her way. Also in attendance is Annabelle's lady's maid, Margaret Crosley. 

 

Once at Fellsworth, Annabelle does a quick catch-up with this uncle she's only met one other time in her life (as a little girl) and then gives him a rundown of the events that led to her suddenly arriving on his doorstep. Thankfully, her uncle is kind and understanding, even offering her a teaching position at the school so she may have means to restart her life. He also offers Crosley a position in the school's kitchen (since, as a teacher now, Annabelle would have no need for someone to formally dress her). While grateful for the opportunity, Annabelle does struggle with the transition of a life of servants and luxury to being working class herself. But she dedicates herself to earnestly learning the ropes and soon has the admiration and respect of most anyone she meets (with the exception of a few sour characters). Meanwhile, Owen spends much of the story on or around the grounds of Fellsworth --- where his daughter attends school --- doing his gamekeeping work, made more challenging after being tasked to locate and break up a suspected poaching operation. Owen is looking to purchase Kirtley Meadow estate for himself and his daughter, and tracking down the criminals in this case could be the key to him finally nailing down ownership of the place. 

 

As with Dawn at Emberwilde (Treasures of Surrey #2), the plot in A Stranger at Fellsworth also involves suspected criminal activity going down under the cover of forest. Much of the novel proves to be a sweet if rather safe kind of story. It's pretty evident early on who the "bad guys" are going to be. It's also the standard, glowy Christian Fiction historical romance which means you can pretty much count on things ending on a HEA with MCs. Even so, the characterizations are done well for the most part, the relationships (and the history there) decently thought out and entertaining. Though, as you might expect with a novel of this type, there's only minimal interaction between our male and female MCs before the reader is struck, suddenly and unrealistically, with exchanged confessions of deep love right before story's close.

 

There was one point in the story where one character describes the details of a situation / relationship as "perfectly adequate", which is kind of the feeling I was left with after finishing this closing book to this series. Overall, it was, truthfully, "perfectly adequate".... it's just a shame that the mystery / tension portions of the plot came out so underdeveloped. 

 

** Discussion Questions guide provided in the paperback edition

 

 

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. 

Review
4 Stars
Dawn at Emberwilde (Treasures of Surrey #2) by Sarah E. Ladd
Dawn at Emberwilde (A Treasures of Surrey Novel) - Sarah E. Ladd

In Regency England, Isabel will discover that the key to unlocking the mystery of her past may also open the door to romance. But first she must find it—in the depths of Emberwilde Forest. For as long as she can remember, beautiful and free-spirited Isabel has strained against the rules and rigidity of the Fellsworth School in the rolling English countryside. No longer a student, Isabel set her sights on a steady role as a teacher at the school, a safe yet stifling establishment that would enable her to care for her younger sister Lizzie, who was left in her care after her father’s death. The unexpected arrival of a stranger with news of unknown relatives turns Isabel’s small, predictable world upside down, sweeping her and her young charge into a labyrinth of intrigue and hidden motives. At her new family’s invitation, Isabel and Lizzie relocate to Emberwilde, a sprawling estate adjacent to a vast, mysterious wood rife with rumors and ominous folklore—along with whispers of something far more sinister. Perhaps even more startling, two handsome men begin pursuing Isabel, forcing her to learn the delicate dance between attraction, the intricate rules of courtship, and the hopes of her heart. Isabel never dared to dream that love could be hers. Now, at the edge of a forest filled with dark secrets, she faces a fateful choice between love and duty.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Isabel, a former student at the Fellsworth School, now wants to set herself up for a long teaching career there so that she might comfortably provide for her half-sister, Lizzie (different mothers). With both their parents gone, Isabel is now Lizzie's appointed guardian. Just as Isabel is trying to recommend herself for a long-term teaching position, she receives a letter from a previously unknown aunt, inviting Isabel to come and live at Emberwilde, the family estate. 

 

This aunt, Margaret Ellison, does write in her letter that Isabel is welcome "whatever the circumstances" (of her present situation). Isabel presumes this means that Lizzie is also welcome. Though Aunt Margaret is noticeably taken aback by the surprise addition of Lizzie, she stays true to her word and lets both girls settle in to their new rooms at Emberwilde. Margaret's daughter, Constance, is actually thrilled to have the extra companionship!

 

Isabel quickly notices that the Ellisons -- Margaret and her husband, Charles --- appear to be the epitome of privileged; meanwhile Isabel and Lizzie arrived to the house with little more than the two dresses each Fellsworth school supplied them. The girls are expected to swiftly turn themselves into ladies of high standing, but they've been working the worker bee life so long it's difficult to shake the instinct to make oneself useful. 

 

While trying to find a sense of balance in this new world, Isabel attracts the eye of two potential suitors: First there's Mr. Bradford, one of the escorts on her trip to Emberwilde Hall and the superintendent of the orphanage sponsored by the Ellisons; his competition is lawman Colin Galloway. Serious in temperment, Galloway is also a respected land owner in his own right, being the owner of Darbenton Court. Due to a devastating fire years before that killed his parents and all his siblings, Galloway lives the low-profile life in a boarding house while he builds up the funds to renovate the family estate. For some time now, Charles Ellison has been urging Galloway to take a wife and reclaim the life and title he was destined to have. These pleas were largely falling on deaf ears until the day he first spots Isabel. Galloway and Bradford have actually known each other since boyhood and Galloway is quite familiar with some of the less impressive pieces of Bradford's character. Knowing what he knows pushes Colin to keep Isabel's whereabouts on his radar at all times. 

 

Lots of mystery, secrets and scandals worked into this plot!

 

*How long before word gets out that the Ellisons are living beyond their means and Charles is struggling to "keep the lights on" (in early 1800s terms, that is)?

 

*Emberwilde Forest --- legend has it that the woods behind the estate are swarming with the ghosts of gypsies killed in a skirmish when previous generations of Ellisons tried to drive them out.... but is the forest truly haunted or are the stories just a front criminals continue to perpetuate to keep a lid on their illegal activities going down out there?

 

* Galloway seems like a good dude, but MAN, does Mrs. Ellison have a beef with him! It seems she blames Colin for the death of her eldest son, when the guys went off to war together, Colin returning home but not the son. Now Mrs. Ellison uses this history and her bitterness to justify forbiding Isabel to associate with him.... will they ever get around this? (You know hearts will find a way!)

 

While maybe not ALWAYS the most exciting story, it is sweet and infused with enough innocent mystery to make this a lovely, easy read. Ladd builds enough doubt around Bradford's character to keep one wondering for most of the story and Galloway certainly has a degree of swoon-worthiness to his quiet, steady self. There's also throwback elements here and there to classic Gothic and Regency lit... a touch of Wuthering Heights, what with our MC finding a chance to rise above orphanage background. Also, in terms of the romance triangle --- there's flashes of Gaston vs The Beast or even Wickham vs Darcy (from Austen's Pride and Prejudice), one could argue.

 

While all the books in this series are set in Surrey. England in the early 1800s or so, there's not too much else linking the characters between the books (not so far as I can see, anyway), so these can easily be enjoyed as stand-alone novels.

 

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.

 

Review
4 Stars
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Letters from Skye - Jessica Brockmole

A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.
 
March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.
 
June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Elspeth Dunn is a 24 year old wife and published poet who, due to a phobia of boats and the sea, has never left the Isle of Skye (Scotland). She's surprised to receive fan mail from American university student David Graham. A friendship through letters soon develops. The tone of the correspondence, as you might guess, eventually takes on a more romantic tone. 

 

In any case, don't stop writing to me, no matter what. It may not be poetry to you, but I've never thought of your letters as anything less.

 

Waiting for the poetry.

David

November 1914

 

Soon after the start of WW1, David volunteers to serve as an ambulance driver for the French Army (Elspeth's husband, Iain, is also serving in the war). She's not happy with his decision, to put it mildly. Her feelings having intensified for him over time, she hates to think of him in danger. David obviously understands there are risks going into a war zone, but he explains to her that he needs to do this. He needs a sense of purpose. David begs Elspeth to meet up with him. More than once, she tries to push past her phobias and grant his request, but it doesn't go so well. Drama within the letters (this being an epistolary novel) unfolds.

 

Fast forward to World War 2 and Elspeth's grown daughter is in love with an RAF pilot. Elspeth goes missing after a bomb attack on the village. Margaret sets out to track down her mother's whereabouts with only clues from one old letter to help her in her search. Just prior to the bombing, Margaret and her mother had had a major argument after Margaret had announced her intention to marry Paul, her longtime friend, now love interest (the pilot). Now with her mother missing, Margaret decides to track down her estranged uncle Finlay for answers, hoping not only that he might have an idea where her mother might have gone, but also if he has any knowledge that might help answer the paternity question that has haunted her entire life. 

 

 

As much as I try to push the past aside so that I keep moving forward, nothing is holding you back that way. You have more questions than memories, more mystery than enlightenment. You have to look behind you. The present and the future are built on the past. I know that you want to find where you came from before you'll know where to go.

 

My lass, don't give up. Disagreeable uncles? They are no match for you.

 

Love,

Paul

August 1940

 

The plot is maybe not the most complex thing ever, but it remains a satisfying read. Maybe it's my love of epistolary novels in general speaking --- I like the easy flow of them --- but the format just makes for a cozy, immersive reading experience. There's a good friendship built up between Elspeth and David, though I will admit I was a little uncomfortable seeing this romance grow when it's made clear there's still a husband in the picture. Maybe that was part of the appeal --- the forbiddenness of it --- for these characters. At different times they could both be a little on the immature side, but somehow I STILL found myself rooting for them. Though, in the later part of the book, I did feel for the stress it causes daughter Margaret, not entirely knowing which love interest is her biological father. 

 

The initial connection between Elspeth and David that Brockmore works up did strike me as a little thin... Her books aren't even published in the US, he just happens to have a friend in Oxford who sends him stuff? I mean, yeah, possible...  but you gotta admit, the likelihood (considering the time period, especially), seems a little improbable. The whole book, does it run a little on the cliched side? Yes, But somehow I'm not mad about it. (Note: I've recently gone on to try a couple other of Brockmore's historical fiction works and have definitely been less impressed with those.... they're not in the epistolary format, so again, maybe my love of this style of book in general is allowing me to cut this one some slack for its possible flaws).

 

 

The funniest thing --- I was greeted in one bookstore by a display of my own books. I must've looked amused as I picked up a copy... as a salesclerk hurried up to me. "Twee little verse," she said, quite seriously. "The author lives up in the Highlands of Scotland. You get a lovely sense of their superstitions and almost primitive lifestyle." I nodded sagely, then took the book to the counter and signed the flyleaf with a very distinct "Elspeth Dunn." I handed the book back to the astonished salesclerk and said, with what I hope was an airy tone, "We're regular savages but don't always eat our own young."

 

For those interested in novels featuring feminism, the topic does make a healthy showing here. Plenty of the letters have life lessons in them as well as lectures in feminism. For book lovers there's also mention of Charing Cross road bookshops :-)

Review
3.5 Stars
Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War, various authors
Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War - Lauren Willig, Joshilyn Jackson;Hazel Gaynor;Mary McNear;Nadia Hashimi;Emmi Itäranta;CJ Hauser;Katherine Harbour;Rebecca Rotert;Holly Brown;M. P. Cooley;Carrie La Seur;Sarah Creech, Jennifer Robson, Marci Jefferson, Jessica Brockmole, Beatriz Williams, Evangeli

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month . . .

November 11, 1918. After four long, dark years of fighting, the Great War ends at last, and the world is forever changed. For soldiers, loved ones, and survivors, the years ahead stretch with new promise, even as their hearts are marked by all those who have been lost.

As families come back together, lovers reunite, and strangers take solace in each other, everyone has a story to tell.

In this moving, unforgettable collection, nine top historical fiction authors share stories of love, strength, and renewal as hope takes root in a fall of poppies.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

A collection of World War 1 era stories featuring writers such as Lauren Willig, Jessica Brockmore (Letters from Skye), Beatriz Williams and Kate Kerrigan (Ellis Island)

The standout stories, for me:

* "An American Airman in Paris" -- Beatriz Williams' story of the secret of Octavian's photograph of Sophie Faninal, whom he liked to think of as his "girl back home"

* "Hush" by Hazel Gaynor: Midwife Annie Rawlins watched two of her sons march off to war. One has already been killed, Annie waits for news of the other. Meanwhile, the story focuses on Annie's struggle to save the life of a baby she's just delivered.

"Is he dead, Mrs. Rawlins?"


Annie wipes the sweat from her forehead. "No, Beth. He isn't. He just hasn't figured out how to live yet."



The newborn is the son of Tom Miller, the village station master, who now has conflicting emotions around his stance as a conscientious objector. He worries that his new son's fight to breathe is somehow karma for Tom not going off to fight.

 

 

Most of the other stories just fell sort of middle of the road for me, but I really liked these two. 

Review
2 Stars
Restoring Christmas by Cynthia Ruchti
Restoring Christmas - Cynthia Ruchti

Alexis Blake has one chance to land her own show on the Home Project Network and nothing-not an uncooperative client, a job site without indoor plumbing, or a challenging videographer-is going to stand in her way. Elsie, at seventy-plus, is far from the ideal client, but she knows exactly what she wants her fieldstone house to look like, and no designer can tell her otherwise. Gabe Langley, the man with the camera, is caught in the middle and it is his wisdom and warmth that just may be the bridge that will bring these two women together. Can they restore more than just a house and bring about special, almost lost forever Christmas memories?

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

Interior designer Alexis Blake, based in Algoma, Wisconsin, is challenged to do a complete home remodel in just eight weeks, a project that could potentially put her name on the map in the home design industry. One other challenge -- the process is to be televised!

Alexis goes to meet with George Langely, a seasoned videographer she's hired to film the project. The surprise and dismay she's hit with when she discovers George has suffered a back injury that will have him out of service for a minimum of several weeks! George sends a Plan B in his stead: his grown son Gabe, also an experienced cameraman.

That's only the start of the hangups & hiccups of this reno. Alexis goes on to battle weather delays, crew disputes, and a myriad of stress sandwiches centered around a money pit of a farmhouse (the one Alexis is expected to turn around) and its cranky, elderly owner, Elsie Raymond. But let's not let Alexis off lightly. Nope, let's also add in her having to camp at the Langely residence when her hotel in town is hit by a skunk attack and no other rooms appear to be available anywhere else in town for the next eight weeks she needs to complete this challenge.

This little novel has a limited amount of space to present and then solve all these issues, but somehow our MC Alexis pulls through. Not well, mind you, not IMO... but she at least gets the job done on some level.

So how can I love the first Christmas story so much but leave this book with a 2 rating? Believe me, I'm as surprised and disappointed as you are! Not that this story didn't have its merits... there were just a lot of things that didn't work for me this time around. Let me break it down:

* Truth be told, Alexis is one seriously irritating MC most of the time. Nearly everything seems to annoy her on some level. Girl has zero chill. As charming as Gabe is, he deserves a better female counterpart.

* It also strikes me that Alexis is not all that great a designer if she's ONLY interested in foisting her own design plans on her client without listening --- really listening --- to any of their ideas, concerns, likes / dislikes, etc. She deems these kinds of clients as "uncooperative" and only seems concerned with advancing her career, not honestly taking into consideration that someone has to actually LIVE in the place after she leaves. Might want to incorporate at least a few things THEY might like. Just sayin'.

* I had a hard eyeroll when I read that Gabe and Alexis were inspired by real-life flippers Chip and JoAnna Gaines from HGTV's Fixer Upper. I know they have their fanbase, and if you're in that group -- here you go, this book's for you. I personally find them a bit cringe.

I loved Elsie, the prickly, elderly homeowner. She likes what she likes and is unapologetic about it. Her way of being endearing in a rough-around-the-edges way was adorable (if you've known those kinds of people in your life and know how to love them). I loved her reveal of where she goes when she takes off for days on end!

The jokes and dialogue ran somewhat corny. The Christmas holiday IS mentioned throughout this storyline, but the overall cozy vibes of the season were not as noticeable as in The Endless Christmas. That was my main issue with Restoring Christmas -- while I loved Elsie and the Langely men, much of the story was just so SLOW and DRY. For such a short book, I was struggling to just finish it already.

I also think it was a bad move on Ruchti's part to force readers to go online to find out the full ending to this book. Way to isolate and cheat some of your readership.

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

Review
4 Stars
Forged Through Fire (memoir) by Mark McDonough, MD
Forged Through Fire: A Reconstructive Surgeon's Story of Survival, Faith and Healing - Mark D. McDonough,  MD

When Mark McDonough was a teen, a catastrophic fire claimed the lives of his mother and younger brother. It also left Mark with burns on over 65 percent of his body. During a long and painful recovery, his faltering faith in God was strengthened by a remarkable near-death experience. Inspired to pursue a career as a plastic surgeon to help those who suffer as he has, McDonough has overcome numerous other adversities on his journey, including addiction and a stroke. Now he shares his incredible true story of survival and perseverance to bring hope and healing to those dealing with great physical and emotional pain. Anyone who has suffered or watched a loved one suffer from a personal trauma, disease, or loss that has tested or stolen their faith and exhausted their emotional resources will find real hope in this redemptive story.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

In 1976, author Mark McDonough, as a teen, survived a house fire that tragically took the lives of his mother and youngest brother while also leaving 65% of his own body covered in deep burns. McDonough uses Forged Through Fire to share with readers his story of painful healing --- both emotionally and physically --- and the life lessons learned along the way. 

 

Doctors roughly calculate the mortality or likelihood of burn death by adding the age of the victim to the percentage of burns relative to their total body surface area. Sixteen years of age plus burns to 60-70% of my nearly naked body indicated that I had roughly a 20% chance or less of surviving. 

 

In addition to surviving the house fire, McDonough also includes stories of other medical challenges he's survived that required similar therapy programs, from contracting Guillian-Barre Syndrome as a small boy (which led to him temporarily being placed in an iron lung) to being surprised by a stroke as a young married man. If that's not enough, he also has a tale of falling prey to but eventually overcoming a period of alcoholism --- something he always promised himself would never be part of his life, despite coming from two parents who also struggled with alcohol addiction. McDonough's experiences with addiction begin as a way to self-medicate the pain of his injuries. That particular pain management option begins to lose its allure for him, but once a habit develops, the process out is a tricky one, requiring much dedication and patience.

 

Many claim that when faith is strong enough, there is no cause for fear. But for me, it was within the context of fear that my quest for faith began. It seemed only natural that I should fear the potentially challenging obstacles ahead or the pain that I expected to confront along the way. Yet, I was learning that I could have those fears while remaining faithful that God would stay nearby if I asked him to, helping me meet the demands head-on.

 

 

WARNING, READERS: THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH! I have a pretty strong stomach for most things and even I was cringing and squirming through several of the medical procedure descriptions shared here. It's not ALL rough. I mean, there are passages describing some of his therapy including learning to speak and swallow again because his throat lining was so badly damaged in the fire. He mentions developing pressure sores from being kept supine for so long while waiting for his skin grafts to take. Description-wise, those parts aren't so bad, but the OTHER parts --- the cleaning of the wounds (when he talks of having the cleanings done with Betodine --- I had my own memory recall from that one! The brief but intense BURN of that stuff! *shudder* It is effective though!), the bandage dressing, anathesia not taking and him waking up during one of his surgeries.... yeah! 

 

Some of the therapists and doctors I met, like Dr. Fratianne, were among the most intelligent and admirable people I knew. I respected their character and their demonstrated ability to care. A few, however, had no idea about how to communicate or deal with people. They could tend to the body but overlooked the person, and they all but denied the spirit. I felt particularly sensitive to issues of pain and being dependently at the mercy of others; this was where I felt I could really make a difference and affect a positive change. I began to nurture that notion.

 

Keep in mind, this memoir is written by a doctor, so it naturally does run heavy with medical terminology, but to his credit McDonough does a pretty solid job of quickly following up with an explanation in layman's terms. He also shows incredible talent for getting his readers to truly feel the struggle and anguish of his painful journey to "being okay", you might say. McDonough doesn't hold back about keeping things real regarding his emotions, frustrations, the trying path of learning to overcome new physical limitations, and ultimately the joy in small victories during this arduous experience in healing. And healing wasn't just about his skin resealing or him regaining movement. McDonough also gets into the shift in the bonds between him, his father, and his surviving brothers, as well as the guilt associated with the amount of attention his outpatient recuperation period required of everyone. 

 

Contrary to the beliefs of many, nowhere in the Bible does it say that God won't give us more than we can handle. But much is written about how God will provide the strength we need to survive those things we fear handling.

 

 

After intensive physical and occupational therapy sessions (one story notes he was able to finish high school, in part, because the school accepted his hours of therapy as PE credits), McDonough is inspired to become a physical therapist himself. His experiences with patients in this field later encourage him to take it further, becoming a reconstructive surgeon. With his work in medicine, and now this memoir, McDonough hopes that his story can inspire others working to overcome various traumas to continue fighting the good fight.

 

 

Dr. Frat spoke about how some people get stuck harboring resentments, exhausting themselves over things of the past that they don't understand. Something started to stir inside me. I knew what it was like to have no energy left to do anything.  Why waste those precious resources on things that aren't going to change anything? Why not invest that limited energy or strength into something real, positive, and in the here and now, not in a past that cannot be changed?

 

 

In another part of this memoir, McDonough also mentions the guilt 

his father struggled with because of new smoke detectors

that he had purchased for the home but decided to delay installing

until he came back from his business trip. McDonough's father was

on this trip when the fateful fire broke out.

 

 

 

On a sidenote, kudos to him for closing his acknowledgements section with a shout-out to EMS workers. As a firefighter wife, I had to smile at this! :-)

 

I was also not expecting him to close the book with an eyewitness account of the murder of singer / Youtuber Christina Grimmie!

 

Honestly, I'm surprised this hasn't been optioned as a movie, but I won't be surprised if I see it is later. 

 

 

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

Review
3 Stars
The Melody of the Mulberries (Big Creek #2) by Tonya Jewel Blessing
The Melody of the Mulberries - Tonya Jewel Blessing

Where Emerald Ashby's story leaves us in the last pages of The Whispering of the Willows, sixteen-year-old Coral Ashby's story begins. Like the changing mulberries, Appalachian siblings Coral and Ernest Ashby, navigate life through the late 1920s. Coral is determined to visit the family nemesis, Charlie, who now stews in prison.

When Ernest's previous love interest, Mercy, returns to the holler of Big Creek, she discovers that his heart is now singing a melody for Charlotte, the older Ashby brother's widow. But Mercy has brought along her own spiritual tools and a special friend who guides her way.

Accompanied by friends and foes, matters of the heart complicate life for Coral and Ernest. Relationships must be journeyed carefully.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

In the first book of the Big Creek series, the plot centered around the troubles of Emerald Ashby, mainly the man who developed a dangerous obsession over her. That man, Charlie, now sits in prison for the kidnapping of Emerald's baby as well as the murder of her eldest brother, Lester. Now, at the beginning of The Melody of the Mulberries, the focus is more on Emerald's youngest sister, Coral. There's also a side story involving the complicated love life of their brother, Ernest.

 

So let's start with Ernest. Ernest had a previously relationship with pretty local Mercy, but Mercy left town after she decided she couldn't stand the scrutiny that came with being in a bi-racial relationship (Ernest is white, Mercy is black). Now, a few years later, Mercy is back in town and pregnant with a mystery man's child. She makes it clear she's hoping to lure Ernest into being the baby daddy, but Ernest's affections have since shifted over to Charlotte (aka Lottie), the widow of Lester. Rather than let that deter her, Mercy seems set on waiting things out until she gets her way. The longer she's around, the more complicated her presence makes things. Does Ernest base his choice on heart's desire or history?

 

Though Ernest does an inner wince whenever Charlotte calls him "brother" out of habit, Charlotte starts to notice her feelings for him have shifted and intensified as well. Just as they were trying to figure out the new boundary lines to their relationship, in walks Mercy. Charlotte, feeling a new kind of stress growing between herself and Ernest, chooses to leave the mountain for a time to let him have a chance to get his head & heart settled. She accompanies Coral to Charleston, SC where Charlie is serving his sentence. 

 

So what would compel young Coral to take the trip to the prison that holds her brother's murderer? Well, Coral tells the family that of late she's felt led by God to go and visit Charlie. Though she fears him, she has this compulsion to try to find the means to forgive him. The rest of the Ashby family struggles to entirely understand all this, but they can see she's set on seeing this through, so Charlotte tags along to at least make sure Coral is chaperoned and safe. The trip turns complicated when Coral falls victim to an influenza epidemic roaring through Charleston that year.

 

Just as with the first book, each chapter in this sequel starts with a bit of Appalachian folklore... a historical touch I quite like, though some of the saying may seem highly laughable to the modern reader. A few of my favorites:

 

* If you tell a bad dream before breakfast, it will come true. (So don't tell your spouse anything right when you're startled awake, I guess LOL)

 

 

* If you whistle before breakfast, you will cry before dusk (God help the person who wakes up in a good mood, eh!) 

* To get rid of warts, steal someone's dishcloth and bury it. The warts will go away. (Don't cut your eyes at me, Pamela. That was a medical emergency!) 

 

There are also cute tiny mulberry leaf prints scattered through out the pages, sometimes to signify a scene change, sometimes just because!

 

The plot here had a very meandering way about it, where some ideas for main conflicts were presented, but then put to the side to lay more emphasis on just getting to know the Big Creek community in general (For example, A LOT of story time dedicated to descriptions of bear watching!) Sometimes I didn't mind it, other times I would've liked the story to have more defined direction and better paced action. 

 

It took til near book's end for Coral's story to really come alive and get good, but I loved her bravery of spirit that shined through all her scenes, particularly this one with prison guard James, whom she had developed a bit of a crush on, until she became aware of his temper problem. When she decides to end their acquaintance later, this is the exchange that solidifies her decision:

 

She knocked on the door before entering. James rose to his feet but didn't move toward her or even extend a hand. 

 

'Charlotte told me you visited and sat by my bed. I'm wantin' to offer thanks.'

 

'I'm sure she told other things as well.' James answered.

 

'She did, but thanks is still in order.'

 

He stepped forward and took her hand. 'I have feelings for you, Coral. We can work this out. I've been dreamin' of you and your beauty. You're the girl for me. I know it, and I believe you know it too. Give me a chance. I'll do whatever it takes to win you over.' 

 

Coral drew back her hand and shook her head no. 

 

'It's the job. The men in this place are vile and violent. I've become like them. I can change.'

 

'I'm sure that guardin' criminals ain't easy, but don't be blamin' others for your struggles. Sheriff Robbins in Big Creek is tough as nails, but anger ain't part of his being.'

 

'Forgive me, Coral. It won't happen again. I promise. The Bible says you need to forgive me...'

 

'Don't be using God's word for manipulatin'.' She turned and walked away. 

 

'You forgave Charlie but won't forgive me. That ain't Christian, Coral.' 

 

She didn't answer. She kept walking and didn't look back. Lottie took her hand and, with heads held high, they entered the expansive front door.

 

Following that exchange, it was nice to see the growth in Coral as she begins to understand what a truly healthy, supportive relationship should look like, a realization helped by the growing tenderness between her and Kenneth, the doctor who attended her during her illness. If there are further books planned for this now duology, I'd love to see more of the story between those two!

 

It's interesting, given that this is a Christian Fiction series, that Blessing worked in supernatural themes such as spirit possession / contacting the spirit world via stick fortune divination. While it's not necessarily out of place historically, this story being set in 1920s Appalachia, and the supernatural element is light, I was just surprised to see the topic worked in at all as I don't recall it having much of a presence in the first book.

 

The Christian themes are much more prominent in this sequel than I remember them being in the first story. Again, while it historically makes sense to some extent, the way it was presented here came off overly preachy for my preference and frequently detracted from the overall story. Some of the conversations had an odd flow, almost as if they were crafted JUST to give a platform for biblical references. Unfortunately this gave the conversational flow between several characters an unnatural, forced feel.

 

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: Bookcrash.com & Capture Books kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

 

Review
3 Stars
Me & Jack by Danette Haworth
Me & Jack - Danette Haworth

Joshua Reed is used to moving around since his dad became an Army recruiter and the Vietnam War broke out. Their latest home, in the mountains of Pennsylvania, feels special somehow and Josh's new dog, Jack, is like no other dog he has ever seen. But when a local boy is killed overseas, the town turns on the new army recruiter. And when a few late-night disturbances all point to Jack, it will be up to Josh to save his best friend.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Joshua Reed is a military kid. His dad, Rich Reed, works as an Air Force recruiter during the Vietnam War, requiring the two to frequently move around the country (Joshua's mother is deceased). Their most recent move has them settling in to a small town in the mountains of Pennsylvania. While Rich does have a hired cook / housekeeper to help around the house while he's away, he's still concerned with his son being left alone too much, so he suggests to Josh that maybe they adopt a dog for protection as well as companionship.

 

Father and son take a tour of the local shelter, Rich being instantly drawn to a nice German Shepherd. Joshua's eyes, however, lock onto a unique looking dog with golden (almost to the point of glowing), slick fur. Feeling an immediate bond with this one, Joshua takes him home and names him Jack. Good thing too, since they come to find out they adopted "Jack" the day before he was scheduled to be euthanized!  

 

Joshua's first attempt at building new friendships in this town is with the neighboring family, The Praters. Ray Prater is around Josh's age and they hit it off easily, but Josh quickly comes to find out that Alan, Ray's cousin, happens to be one of the biggest bullies in school.... and he has a crippling fear of dogs (revealed by Alan's adorable little sister, CeeCee).

 

Because it is a time of war, and an unpopular one at that, Rich, as a recruiter, feels extra pressure to appear likeable to his neighbors. He wants to avoid stirring up any unnecessary tension or disputes whenever possible and encourages son Josh to do the same. Josh tries his best for the most part, even going to extra efforts to try to befriend Alan. While Josh tries to build a good friendship with Ray, he feels obligated to extend all invites he gives Ray to Alan as well. Ray likewise feels obligated to cut Alan some slack from time to time because they are cousins, but he's absolutely fully aware of Alan's abrasive personality. 

 

 

I stared after the crumpled figure of my father. What was happening to people? Why were they acting this way? It made me afraid of becoming an adult. They seemed so full of hate. I did not want to be a person like that....As I lay in bed that night, I imagined myself tracking down the people who threw rocks at my father. They said they didn't want war but then they opened fire on my dad. That sounded like war to me.

 

 

Though Josh really works at showing kindness to Alan, at least in the beginning of their acquaintance, it gets progressively more difficult, what with Alan taking everything Josh says or does as a potential challenge or argument. Tensions between them come to a head on the matter of Jack. When some mystery animal starts causing havoc to the personal property of several residents around town, Alan (*remember his dog phobia) takes the opportunity to place blame on Jack. Wanting answers and justice, Josh's neighbors are quick to jump on the hate-on-Jack bandwagon. Feeling the pressure to fit into his community, Rich warns Josh multiple times that "one more incident" and Jack is getting re-homed. But Josh suspects the real culprit is a coyote yet to be spotted. If he can catch the problematic critter on camera, hopefully all can be set to right once again. 

 

 

There are some bonds that are sacred. Like the bonds between soldiers. Between families. Between Jack and me. 

 

Only I could protect Jack. It came down to me. He was more loyal than any friend I'd ever had, and he trusted me. Prater, that policeman, even Dad --- they were all against Jack. But he was innocent and I knew it. I would capture that coyote on film and deliver the true enemy.

 

It's a mostly cute story about a boy and his dog, with some dramatic moments thrown in to keep the reader hooked. Will Jack get to stay with Joshua? Will Alan ever be able to mellow out his aggressive nature? The characterizations are really well done, the dialogue flows nice and natural, and there's just a touch of historical fiction element to the plot, with everything taking place during the Vietnam War era. Honestly, through most of the story I forgot about the time period, except for moments when Rich has some important talks about the short fuses of many during that time and how we're all just trying to figure it out the best we can, etc. As literary fathers go, Rich was a good, solid, respectable man just doing his best to take care of his son and instill good values in him during a tough time. There's also a nice humor to Joshua, and an impressively strong character, when you consider all he's had to shoulder at a young age!

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