EpicFehlReader
Review
3 Stars
Morning Girl by Michael Dorris
Morning Girl - Michael Dorris

Morning Girl, who loves the day, and her younger brother Star Boy, who loves the night, take turns describing their life on an island in pre-Columbian America; in Morning Girl's last narrative, she witnesses the arrival of the first Europeans to her world.Tells the story of Morning Girl and her brother, Star Boy, two Native Americans of the Taino tribe, their family, and their community, as they grow up together in the Bahamas in the fateful year of 1492.

Amazon.com

 

 

Morning Girl is a 12 year old Taino child living with her parents and younger brother, Star Boy, on a island in the Bahamas in the 15th century. As you might expect, Morning Girl is a natural early riser, a go-getter always full of ideas, while Star Boy loves the night and tends to move through the world with a slower, more easy-going nature.

 

The story's narration alternates between the siblings. There's not really a direct, clear-cut kind of plot here, but more like interconnected scenes showing readers what life might have looked like for indigenous families of this era. Family --- both living and not --- plays an important role in this little story. One special scene depicts Star Boy, having been caught in hurricane weather, waiting for someone to rescue him, passing the time by talking with the ghost of his grandfather.

 

 

 

When I had nothing else to think of, I simply let the air wash over me. I became the darkness. I listened to my breath as it ran in and out of my mouth like tides on the beach. I put my hands flat on the sand and felt the smoothness against my palms. I sniffed the air, got to know this great, wide house, because I didn't know how long I would have to live in it. And, without my ever noticing the change, I stopped being mad. I became myself....my mother had come to sit beside me. She was quiet, waiting, her body a dim shape settled so naturally into itself that until she spoke I couldn't be sure that she was not just my wish. 

 

"Tell me what you have learned," she asked, her words low and like a dream. 

 

"At night," I answered in that same whispering tone, "at night you must be your own friend."

 

My mother took a short breath, and I knew she understood me.

 

 

It's a sweet story in the way it shows how even if family member fight with each other, they can also still love each other fiercely... even if the deeper emotions are largely displayed in secret. The ending of the story also serves as a good example of why Columbus Day really should be dropped as a national holiday in the States.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Little French Bistro by Nina George
The Little French Bistro - Nina George

Marianne is stuck in a loveless, unhappy marriage.  After forty-one years, she has reached her limit, and one evening in Paris she decides to take action. Following a dramatic moment on the banks of the Seine, Marianne leaves her life behind and sets out for the coast of Brittany, also known as “the end of the world.” Here she meets a cast of colorful and unforgettable locals who surprise her with their warm welcome, and the natural ease they all seem to have, taking pleasure in life’s small moments. And, as the parts of herself she had long forgotten return to her in this new world, Marianne learns it’s never too late to begin the search for what life should have been all along.

Amazon.com

 

 

**NOTE: This novel has also been published under the title The Little Breton Bistro

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: Themes of depression, suicidal thought, abusive relationships

 

Marianne has spent too long in a loveless marriage. At the end of her rope, she takes a walk one night to the banks of the Seine River, where she makes the decision to end her life. Though she goes so far as to throw herself into the river, she is unexpectedly rescued and taken to the hospital to recover from the suicide attempt. Once out of the hospital, she makes the choice to relocate and rebuild her life in a new town, eventually settling on the seaside town of Kerdruc, in the Brittany area of France. 

 

In Kerdruc, Marianne quickly comes to know a new definition of family among the staff of Ar Mor Restaurant, becoming especially close friends with the owner of Ar Mor, Genevieve, as well as Jean-Remy, the head chef nursing a bad case of unrequited love. Jean-Remy's pining away all the time has begun to affect his cooking for the worse. Lucky for him, Marianne's arrival means she can share her tips and tricks (from years of housewifery) for turning around any seemingly ruined meal. Immensely grateful for the help, Genevieve brings Marianne on as Jean-Remy's sous-chef. In return for helping him get his cooking back on track, he offers to help her improve her French. {Marianne, a German military wife who had transferred to France some time ago with her husband's job, had never gotten around to grasping much French, pretty much only learning enough to say "I am German."} Along with the crew at Ar Mor, Marianne also becomes acquainted with the sculptor Pascale and Pascale's longtime friend, the painter Yann.

 

 

"Get down from your cross, we need the timber." 

~ Pascale to Yann one day when he is moaning about his life

(one of my favorite lines in the book!)

 

 

It is in this seaside community that Marianne really works to restructure her life after years of being stifled in a neglectful marriage, largely devoid of affection, with selfish, philandering husband Lothar. Occasionally the reader is given glimpses into Lothar's tightwad ways: always making Marianne get her shoes re-soled rather than ever allowing her new ones; always making her go through the irregular / clearance bins for her clothes; never getting gifts for anniversaries; taking himself on holiday but not her, etc. Marianne even shares details of her hospital stay after the suicide attempt: her skipping out on meeting Lothar at a restaurant that night; him showing up at the hospital rocking a Rolex and yachting clothes, whining about the money he wasted on a meal at that restaurant and a cab to the hospital to come check on her. When she asks for a hug, he quickly denies her. Imagine being in a hospital bed, feeling emotionally eviscerated over so many things, and you can't even get a hug from your LIFE PARTNER, of all people! Gives you an idea of what a softie this guy is. She also hints at examples of emotional abuse throughout the years of marriage that she often forced herself to shrug off... until she just couldn't anymore. So you can understand the need (or at least temptation) to slough it all off and start anew somewhere far away from your usual. 

 

 

Shortly afterward, Lothar's lover Sybille had woken her from the wonderful illusion that a marriage, a house at the end of a turning bay and an indoor fountain were all a woman needed. Lothar had been determined to return to their normal daily routine as soon as possible after his affair with Sybille. "I've told you I'm sorry, What more am I supposed to do?" And with that the matter was closed. After a few years, her pain had subsided. Time had brought solace to Marianne, as had Lothar's secrecy about his other affairs, at least until it became too hard for him to keep lying. He started to leave a trail of clues in the hope that Marianne would make a scene and deliver him, but she had refused to do him that favor. 

 

Quiet Marianne is consumed by fear. She fears death, but also sometimes welcomes it. With the realization that she's maybe moved through a life largely un-lived, she fears that she might not know how to change, or that perhaps the opportunity for change (of any kind) has passed altogether. But with the help of her new friends, she hangs in there... and in time, comes to experience her first crush since meeting her husband. This new love she finds herself dipping her toe in... the two of them are just adorable together and I found myself so excited for her. Yes, technically she is still married to Lothar, and normally I'm not down with adultery --- not in novels, not in real life --- but it's hard to blame Ms. Marianne for craving some heart tingles after going so long trying to make it work in a relationship that very clearly flatlined ages ago. Though I gotta say, a funeral might be an odd way to go for a first date. 

 

I loved your grandfather, and after him, no one else. It is a rare form of happiness when a man makes your life so rich that you need no one else after him.

 

"Was he a magician?"

 

Any man who loves a woman as she deserves to be loved is a magician.

 

Just as Marianne is becoming reacquainted with the stronger, more fiery side of herself, a little something of her recent past makes a reappearance (as often happens in these kind of novels).  The quaint, light-hearted cover art of The Little French Bistro belies the darker themes of this story. In multiple scenes throughout the novel, Marianne continues to toy with the idea of making another suicide attempt. Though she always finds a way to talk herself away from it (or her friends do), Nina George writes a stark truth -- the underlying struggle that can go on in the mind of someone whose exterior seems to be doing well enough. 

 

She suddenly felt an incredible fear of dying prematurely and not having had her fill when her final day came --- her fill of life, up to the top and over the rim. She'd never felt such a lust for life: the pain of having missed out on so much was threatening to blow her heart asunder. Never had the act she had considered committing struck her as more egregious: she had tried to put herself to death long before her time....Yann put his hand on Marianne's back, and her heart was pumping and beating, as if to say: it's far from over. Every second can mark a new beginning. Open your eyes and see: the world is out there and it wants you.

 

The writing here gets a little flowery in parts, but I ended up liking this one more than Little Paris Bookshop and it certainly left me curious to try out George's most recent novel, The Book of Dreams. 

 

Review
3.5 Stars
Armageddon Summer by Jane Yolen & Bruce Coville
Armageddon Summer - Jane Yolen

 

 

The world will end on Thursday, July 27, 2000. At least, that's what Reverend Beelson has told his congregation. Marina's mom believes him. So does Jed's dad. That's why they drag Marina and Jed to join the reverend's flock at a mountain retreat. From the mountaintop they will all watch the Righteous Conflagration that will end this world--and then they will descend and begin the world anew. But this world has only just begun for Jed and Marina, two teenagers with more attitude than faith. Why should the world end now, when they've just fallen in love? Told in alternating chapters from both Jed's and Marina's points of view, this first-ever collaboration between two masters of children's literature is a story about faith and friendship, love and loss . . . and the things that matter most at the End of the World.

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

Reverend Beelson tells his congregation that the world will end on July 27, 2000. He explains that 144 people will be "the chosen", the ones spared to rebuild the world, everyone else will die. Two members of the church --- Marina's mom and Jed's dad --- believe this so strongly that they are happy to relocate their families to the secret mountain retreat Beelson has set up for his followers. The reverend has everyone follow him up to a portion of state park that sits above their city in Massachusetts. They dub the area "Armageddon City". Beelson orders that the all educating will be done through monitored homeschooling and there will be no tolerance of drinking, drugs, caffeine or TV viewing. Not even consumption of chocolate is allowed.

 

Pure coincidence, I'm sure, *smirk*...the end of the world date just happens to be the same day Beelson's two week camping permit expires!

 

With all the violence, epidemics, and natural disasters running through the world, it's easy for the children to calmly follow their parents' lead at first. Marina wants to remain optimistic --- she can see some truth in her mother's beliefs -- but questions begin to flood her mind when she sees that the Beelsonite Believers mountain community actually ends up being a compound surrounded with barbed wire and electrified fencing, flanked by armed guards. Why does a "retreat" need a full patrol armed with automatic rifles?

 

JED >> You wouldn't think having a two-day lead would be that big a deal. But it was enough to give the people in the First Wave --- the Ten Families, they called themselves --- a major case of Attitude. Those of us in the Third Wave did get to look down on the people who came the next day, but by that time the major ego points had already been distributed. Besides, it was hardly worth the bother, since only eight people showed up on Day Four. Those eight meant there were 121 of us in all. I know because the Believers had put up a signboard where they kept track of how many people were on the mountain. I wasn't quite clear, yet, on whether we were worried about actually being able to get the full 144, or nervous about exceeding the limit. I also wondered what it would do to their math if I told them I didn't really believe. Would I only count as a fraction? Or even a minus number?

 

Marina and Jed eventually come together in mutual concern and skepticism over the whole situation, though many of their meet-ups have to be done somewhat in secret, since Marina's mother, Myrna, seems suspicious of any males hanging around her daughter, but especially has a sharp eagle eye on Jed. He gets a severe tongue-lashing one day when the two teens are seen just having a quiet, perfectly civil and platonic conversation!

 

But at the same time, Myrna herself becomes increasingly consumed with trying to catch the eye of the reverend. Over time, Myrna becomes a mother Marina doesn't recognize. When Marina's baby brother, Leo, comes down with a sickness that leaves him with feverish skin and diarrhea, it progresses enough for Beelson to give permission for a doctor "down mountain" to be brought in. Even after the doctor examines Leo and determines the kid has a severe case of dehydration requiring hospitalization, Beelson insists the boy cannot leave, treatment will have to come to him.

 

Jed, who has taken to calling the compound "Wicky Wacky LastChance, headed up by Rev. Beetlebutt", 100% believes his father has gone off the deep end, but agrees to move with him to Armageddon City only to ensure that his father remains safe until sanity is restored within the community. Even other children in the community take to giving silly names to things to show they are not entirely on board with Beelson's beliefs, but being dependents of their parents, they have no choice but to ride this craziness out. Chapters featuring alternating voices show kids describing the emotional shifts & rifts that begin to develop in these individual families as little by little more and more of the congregation begin to doubt the truth of Beelson's prophecy.

 

Yolen teamed up with Bruce Coville back in 1998 to write this piece of apocalyptic fiction. Being this many years out from Y2K, it may be a little quaint reading this type of story now. But time period aside, it still has power in the fact that there are still groups like the Beelsonites out there in the world today. Small though they may be, these groups and this type of mentality are still very much alive in pockets of the world. As violence, depression and a general sense of being lost in this world continue to be on the rise, there are still those Beelson-types out there who will happily swoop in and feed on the fears of the easily impressionable to create communities similar to the one described in this novel. Unsettling as that is, Yolen and Coville graciously incorporate humor here and there to infuse the heavier themes with a little levity now and then. They also do the reader the service of ending on a high note, with the idea that it's never too late to turn things around and rebuild.

Review
3 Stars
Snow In Summer by Jane Yolen
Snow in Summer - Jane Yolen

 

With her black hair, red lips, and lily-white skin, Summer is as beautiful as her father's garden. And her life in the mountains of West Virginia seems like a fairy tale; her parents sing and dance with her, Cousin Nancy dotes on her, and she is about to get a new baby brother. But when the baby dies soon after he's born, taking Summer's mama with him, Summer's fairy-tale life turns grim. Things get even worse when her father marries a woman who brings poisons and magical mirrors into Summer's world. Stepmama puts up a pretty face, but Summer suspects she's up to no good - and is afraid she's powerless to stop her.
This Snow White tale filled with magic and intrigue during the early twentieth century in Appalachia will be hard to forget.

Goodreads.com

 

 

In this Appalachian re-imagining of the classic tale of Snow White, Jane Yolen introduces us to young West Virginia native Snow-in-Summer, named for the flowers that grow in front of her house. The story opens with Summer sharing the memory of attending her mother's funeral. Summer's biological mother, Ada-Mae died in childbirth, along with Summer's baby brother.

 

I'd been born on July 1, 1937, ten pounds of squalling baby, with a full head of black hair. It was a hard birth that nearly killed Mama. Though the next baby, being even bigger, actually did.

 

Cousin Nancy, who'd been there to help with my birthing, told me all about it later, after Mama died. "White caul, black hair, and all that blood," she said. I shuddered at the blood part, but Cousin Nancy explained it was good blood, not bad. "Not like later," I said, meaning when Mama died, and Cousin Nancy just nodded because nothing more needed to be added.

 

She put her arm around me, adding, "Poor man was so scared he might lose her. And when he came back inside, called by the midwife, he was so relieved that Mama hadn't died, he let her name you."

 

"Snow in Summer," I said.

 

Then she gave me a hug. "Your daddy laughed and said 'We gonna call her all that?' 'We gonna call her Summer,' your mama said. 'It's warm and pretty, just as warm and pretty as she is."

 

"I am," I said. "Warm."

 

"And pretty," Cousin Nancy said, drawing me closer. "Just like your mama." That made me smile, of course. Everyone needs someone to tell them they look pretty. Especially at nine.

 

 

Summer's father, Lemuel Morton, falls into a deep depression following the death of his wife and son. After four years, he just seems to snap out of it, virtually overnight. Shortly after, he remarries a pretty and mysterious woman no one in town has ever met before, only seeing that Lemuel appears obsessively enamored with her. Sure, people have questions, but at the end of the day most are just glad to see Lemuel's spark back again.

 

Summer does her best to be a good stepdaughter --- even when this new wife insists on calling her Snow rather than Summer, and her father never bothers to correct or object --- but inwardly she begins to have suspicions that there is a great deal of darkness within this woman. She knows a secret about this enchantress who has captured her father's heart, but decides to keep the truth to herself for at least a little while, while she sees what else she can learn. The more time she spends around her new stepmother, the more Summer begins to feel herself becoming enchanted, though initially she confuses it for true happiness.

 

But then there's the shift. Suddenly Summer is only allowed limited visitation with her cousin Nancy -- who also suspects there's something shady about Lemuel's new wife --- until Summer's stepmother forbids them from communicating altogether. Nancy is the widow of Lemuel's favorite cousin, Jack, and has served as a sort of surrogate mother to Summer all these years. She's also secretly been in love with Lemuel this whole time.

(I loved the character of Nancy, btw.)

 

Note: The majority of this novel is told from Summer's perspective, but occasionally there are chapters switched to Nancy's view of events. From time to time, the stepmother is also given a brief platform, trying to sell the "I'm not evil, not wicked" line, but knowing the origin story as we do, readers know to be on their guard with her.

 

Lemuel's own behavior begins to turn odd: he grows his beard out all long and grizzly, stops virtually all forms of personal hygiene (he begins to emit a persistent odor of urine), and more and more frequently goes into nonsensical rambling. Shortly after Summer's 12th birthday, her stepmother's abuse begins to turn physical, breaking the child's spirit to the point of convincing Summer she deserves this treatment. Cousin Nancy teaches Summer some white magic to try to combat the stepmother's dark variety. For added protection, Nancy also gives Summer a small bag containing the preserved caul Summer was born with (there's an Appalachian belief that those born with a caul over the head, or "of the veil", will hold the ability to talk with the dead). While the suggestions help, the white magic still proves too weak to overturn the enchantment consuming Lemuel's soul. Summer's salvation --- and that of her family --- will come with Summer learning to have faith in her own strength and abilities, turning this story into the classic theme of a kind, strong heart prevailing over evil.

 

So how does this retelling stack up to its source material? The likenesses are there, but this is definitely a unique story in its own right. But where are the recognizable markers, you wonder?

 

* Summer is a lover of fairytales and is familiar with the story of Snow White, but doesn't make strong connections between that tale and her life, at least not until she stumbles upon the magic mirror.

* The magic mirror does make a few appearances, though not really one of the key powerful elements of the story.

* The "hunter" character here is actually a country boy who has intentions of committing statutory rape (and maybe also murder) under the guise of "courting" Summer... as a favor to the stepmother.

* Yolen also brings back the 7 Dwarves, sort of --- Summer, while trying to flee "the hunter" guy, meets 6 brothers with dwarfism, German immigrant gem miners, with 1 brother away at college.

* Bonus note: Summer's fictional town of Addison is actually inspired by Webster Springs, WV, the real-life hometown of Yolen's late husband.


Snow in Summer is an extended version of a short story (under the same name) Yolen originally had published in the anthology Black Hearts, Ivory Bones. Much like the original fairytale, this novel starts with establishing what a joyous home life Summer and her parents shared prior to her mother's death. With the appearance of the stepmother, Summer's story illustrates the "necessary evil" of evil itself. Sometimes the presence of evil --- or at least hardship --- is just the thing we need to push us out of a stagnant, complacent state, driving us to rise up to our best selves.

 

Though this novel is published through Penguin's Young Readers Group division, parents may want to do a discretionary read prior to handing off to your children, depending on where your personal family guidelines are set. This retelling hits upon some darker themes: illegal moonshining; serpent-handling forms of religion / speaking in tongues; sexual assault / attempted rape, (at least touches upon or alludes to the subject); water sources laced with strychnine. Yolen works in some ecological discussions as well, in the topics of clear-cutting forests and the practice of strip-mining.

 

There are also spoilers for the novel Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

 

If you get your hands on a hardcover copy, take a minute to take in the cover art --- there's a lot of cool somewhat hidden details throughout the whole piece!

Review
4 Stars
Wesley James Ruined My Life by Jennifer Honeybourn
Wesley James Ruined My Life - Jennifer Honeybourn

 

Quinn is having a rough summer. Her beloved grandmother has been put into a nursing home, her dad’s gambling addiction has flared back up, and now her worst enemy is back in town: Wesley James, former childhood friend and life ruiner. So when Wesley is hired to work with her at Tudor Tymes, a medieval England-themed restaurant, the last thing Quinn’s going to do is forgive and forget. She’s determined to remove him from her life and even the score for once and for all―by getting him fired. But getting rid of Wesley isn’t as easy as she’d hoped. When Quinn finds herself falling for him, she has to decide what she wants more: to get even, or to get the boy.

Amazon.com

 

 

Quinn's not having her best year. Grandma's Alzheimer's is advancing so she recently had to be moved to a nursing home; dad's fallen off the wagon again with his gambling addiction (Quinn's parents ended up divorcing over this years earlier); and her once-friend-now-nemesis Wesley James has recently moved back into town. To make things more difficult, Wesley gets hired on at Quinn's place of employment, the themed restaurant Tudor Tymes. While Quinn's role is that of a serving wench, Wesley curiously gets cast as a pirate come to King Henry VIII's court.

 

Quinn is still holding a grudge against Wesley for how their friendship imploded a few years earlier when these kids were 6th graders. She never really hashed out her beef with him, but Quinn is convinced that a comment Wesley made back then directly led to her parents deciding to split up, hence the Wesley James Ruined My Life proclamation.

When a reader is told that the main character, nearly grown, is holding onto a grudge from 6th grade, it's hard not to expect some aspects of this character to be disappointing and problematic. Sure enough, Quinn has her faults. On one hand, you want to say if she'd just acted a little grown and hashed out her feelings with Wesley, a lot of this silliness could've been avoided, but then you reason: if we did that, we'd be out of a story, so here we are. Rather than talk things out with him in a mature fashion, Quinn decides the much better route is for her to covertly try to get him fired... but life can be funny the way it sometimes takes you down the path least expected.... can Wesley successfully smooth things over between them and turn a grudge into goosebumps?

 

To a point, I can understand Quinn's general unhappiness with her life. This story does get a little heavier than the cover might lead you to believe, especially getting into her father's struggles with gambling addiction and how that directly affects Quinn's dream to see England (a dream she is actively working towards, putting large chunks of her Tudor Tymes paycheck into savings for it). I myself had a father who for years struggled with a gambling addiction, so I know first hand how stressful that can make home life. There are also heartbreaking scenes of Quinn visiting her dementia-ravaged grandmother --- a woman whose main loves were books and family now can't recognize most of her loved ones anymore, and can't focus long enough to enjoy a book. Tragic! All that said, though, it was incredibly immature --- not to mention dangerous --- for Quinn to tamper with the food of unsuspecting customers just so she could put the fall on Wesley.

 

And then I see Gran. She's sitting in a recliner, her feet propped up. She's wearing hand-knitted slippers with little pom-poms on the toes and the fuzzy blue cardigan I got her for Christmas a few years ago. Her sparkling ruby hairpin is pinned in her white hair, right above her ear. This, at least, is familiar. My grandfather gave it to her when they were first married. It makes me happy / sad to see her wearing it. Like even though she can't remember him with her mind, maybe she still does with her heart.

 

And speaking of Tudor Tymes, what kind of place would get around being allowed to leave staff members in the stocks (yes, like medieval stocks) for hours on end? You'd think there'd be some sort of OSHA realm employee protection against that sort of thing... but then again, how often does that particular scenario come up? LOL

 

If you can overlook the slight overuse of the word "heinous" in the text AND forgive some of these characters some of their more disappointing quirks and flaws, there's actually a pretty cute story here with a good amount of heart. It felt like we, the readers, didn't get to know Wesley as well as we could have, but Honeybourn delivers enough of his charming and kind side to see that there's a good friend to be had there for anyone that gets on his good side. So don't let your mind dismiss this one as simply a silly fluff piece, there's actually a surprising amount of depth to be found in this plot!

 

If you participate in a YA book club, the paperback edition of this novel includes a list of discussion question prompts.

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 :-)