4 Stars
Corporate Affair by Stephanie James (aka Jayne Ann Krentz)
Corporate Affair (Silhouette Desire, #1) - Stephanie James, Jayne Ann Krentz

Under Kalinda Brady's cool silk surface was a smoldering heart waiting to be set afire. But she hadn't expected the sparks to fly with Rand Alastair, artist and fisherman, the stranger whose caresses left her yearning for more. Kalinda had come to Colorado determined to avenge a lost love. She had arranged the set up, and her ex-fiance had taken the bait. But she was shaken by Rand's powerful embrace, torn between her passion for revenge and hunger for this lover who conquered her heart, stole into her world and proceeded to make it his own.





Two years ago, Kalinda Brady's father died, leaving her CEO of his data processing firm. Engaged to be married, her fiancee dumps her when he finds out the company is heavily in debt and possibly in danger of being liquidated. Not long after the split, Kalinda gets word her ex-fella has run off and married another business woman with quite a bit more wealth than Kalinda's family ever had. Kalinda then spends the next two years working her tail off to get the company back in the black.


Now that the company is doing quite well again, Kalinda has a chance to carry out her revenge plot. She reaches out to her ex, luring him into agreeing to a romantic mountain getaway weekend. Only, romance is the furthest thing from what she's after. She knows this guy hates to be humilated so that's exactly what she sets out to do. But until that meetup time, she's got a couple extra days in the small resort town outside of Denver where they agreed to meet up. It's there that she meets Rand Alaistair --- potter, art gallery owner, fisherman, maybe local lothario?


He's certainly handsome enough to be a nice distraction but the last thing Kalinda is looking for is to be someone's weekend fling. But once Rand sets eyes on something he wants, his determination is unwavering. He gets Kalinda to agree to dinner with him one night, which --- no surprise --- turns rather hands on once the plates are cleared. The deal isn't entirely sealed though. Kalinda, though she might feel a "passionate curiosity" towards Rand, isn't interested in casual, easily dismissed hookups, so she distances herself for the rest of the evening. But Rand won't be deterred. He gets her to agree to a picnic the next day, where she tells him of her revenge plans against her ex. Rand quickly calls the idea stupid and dangerous and does everything in his power to stop her from following through. She eventually agrees with his logic, decides not to go through with the plan. But when she gets back to town, who's ready with news of a merger attempt on her company ... but her ex!


Just when she's at her wit's end, fearing she's about to lose her father's company and there's nothing she can do to stop it, good ol' Mr. Persistent, Rand, shows up at her door with a plan to save the day. Turns out he's no country bumpkin fisherman but actually a cutthroat businessman well versed in company takeovers, and he's pretty sure he knows exactly how to save the company and win Kalinda's heart for good.


This story isn't going to be the most popular read with much of today's female audience, I'd wager. Rand is pretty persistent, borderline too forceful in his attentions toward Kalinda. Even though she herself admits behaving in a "my mind says no, my body says YES" manner, she vocalizes no a lot, which Rand tends to push through til she says yes... which these days could spark quite the discussion on date rape / rape culture... but let me clarify here and now that Rand never takes it that far. When it seems like Kalinda is being coy, he continues to push. When she without hesitation firmly says no, he backs off and calmly gives her a ride home... which I think makes all the difference in whether one can like this character or not. 


There's still the dated, sometimes cringe-inducing dialogue / interaction between these two (this story was originally published in the 1980s) but honestly, I find that's part of the fun of reading these more vintage stories... being able to step back and laugh and praise the advancements we've made. 

3.5 Stars
High Heaven by Quinn Wilder
High Heaven - Quinn Wilder

It was a chance for a fresh start. And in her new job as a helicopter pilot at a skiing lodge in the Canadian Rockies, Charlie felt she could put the past behind her. Too bad, though, that her employer, Gallagher Cole, didn't seem to share her view.  "I'm not quitting before I've started," Charlie told him stubbornly. "If you don't want me here, you should have the guts to fire me!" Nevertheless, Charlie gradually found herself drawn to this complex man. Only what hope could there be for her when they each had commitments to somebody else...?






Charlie James gets hired on as a helicopter pilot for the High Heaven Heli-Ski Company, a flight transport service for the local ski resort in the small town of Revelstoke, just outside Calgary, Canada. Her boss, Gallagher Cole, signs her on sight unseen after numerous rave recommendations from friends and colleagues, not knowing Charlie is a female. In retrospect, he realizes that in all his conversations regarding Charlie's skill, somehow pronouns got left off. 


Cole is not a pilot himself, he just owns the helicopter and the business. When he meets her in person, he's not too comfortable having a woman on staff holding a position that carries so much inherent risk. But Charlie, though still young, is all too familiar with facing challenges head on and conquering them. Not only does she brave flights through the Canadian Rockies, when not in the air she is the guardian / caretaker for her 22 year old mentally handicapped cousin, Kenny.


When Charlie asks Gallagher to sit in on one of her flights and see her skill for himself, he can't deny it --- she is undoubtedly qualified for the position. Still, it takes time for Charlie to break Gallagher of his inherent sexist thinking. But once she does, she finds there is actually a kind, solidly good guy who feels compelled to keep her safe. 


"What else does my face tell you?"

"That you carry bitter burdens, and that you often question the path of your life. You see the lives of others unfolding without the tragedy and the troubles you have seen, and it angers you that life is so easy for some, but not for you. And life has made you incredibly strong. Strong enough that one day you will quit complaining that life's lessons are too hard, and instead you will ask, 'What am I to learn from this?' And you will find that all along you learned. That you grew stronger. By stronger, I mean you learned to love, to be gentle, accepting, compassionate. When you are old, and you will grow very old, you will have that look in your eyes --- that wondrous look of laughter and wisdom. That look that means you have seen the worst of life, and reckoned with it, allowed it to teach instead of destroy. You think your suffering has been without reason? No, Charlie, no. You were chosen because you are one of the few. The very few."


"The very few who what?"


"One of the very few who will know heaven on this earth."


The plot here has a nice, breezy entertainment value to it, even when the writing structure itself suffers in places (ex. there's a few jerky scene transitions where mid-paragraph a scene can switch from office to car with little to no indication that characters have moved). If you're intrigued by the helicopter pilot premise, let me just warn you now, Charlie doesn't actually get a lot of flight time in this short story. Most of her work hours seem to be spent in the hangar bickering with Gallagher. It would've been nice if more of the resort scene element could have been incorporated.


The romance is fun and light, nothing amazing, but the friendship that builds between Charlie and Gallagher is charming, particularly when Gallagher goes the extra mile to bond with Kenny. There's also the topic of sexual discrimination that comes up quite a bit. While the early scenes with Gallagher can be grating to read (with his chauvinism in full force), Charlie does slowly soften him and the discussions his behavior stirs up are actually more thought provoking than one might expect from a book like this, not to mention some of the comedy it inspires when things slam back in Gallagher's face! 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
Timekeeper (Timeless #2) by Alexandra Monir
Timekeeper - Alexandra Monir

When Philip Walker appears as a new student in Michele Windsor's high school class, she is floored. He is the love she thought she lost forever when they said goodbye during her time travels last century. Overjoyed that they can resume the relationship they had a lifetime ago, Michele eagerly approaches him and discovers the unthinkable: he doesn't remember her. In fact, he doesn't seem to remember anything about the Philip Walker of 1910. Michele then finds her father's journals, which tell stories of his time-traveling past. As she digs deeper, she learns about his entanglement with a mysterious and powerful organization called the Time Society and his dealings with a vengeful Windsor ancestor. Michele soon finds herself at the center of a rift over 120 years in the making, one whose resolution will have life-or-death consequences.




Just when Michele thought it impossible for she and Philip to exist in the same era long term, in walks this new Philip Walker registering as a new student at her high school. He not only shares a name with Michele's love, but he also looks identical to the Edwardian PW and even wears the family signet ring, the very ring Philip gave Michele (which she later lost somewhere during her time travels). Problem is, he has zero recollection of who Michele is, or this other Philip she keeps talking about, or even their past history together, here or in any other time.


As heartbreaking as this is for Michele, she's got bigger problems. Rebecca Windsor, long thought dead, shows up at the Windsor mansion in her former teenage body, threatening a startled Walter and Dorothy with a dark ultimatum: Either they kill their granddaughter in seven days or she will. 


Walter and Dorothy aren't psychopaths. Naturally, they have no intention of killing Michele. They want to take her back to LA to hide her til things blow over, but Michele feels she's better off just facing Rebecca straight on. While waiting for her doomsday to come, Michele comes across journals belonging to her father, documenting his own time traveling adventures and his involvement with the Time Society. Taking in the information from these notebooks, and continuing to work on Philip (trying to restore his memory), she eventually makes progress and begins to formulate a plan on how to bring down revenge-fueled Rebecca once and for all. Michele also meets with Elizabeth, a childhood friend of her mother's, now working as a psychic medium. Elizabeth offers to use hypnosis on Michele to see if they can unlock anything in her mind in terms of past life regression.


"Any traveler who leaves his or her present lives like a ghost, only seen by Timekeepers and those few humans with the Gift of Sight, until they've been in another time for seven days.... Timekeepers weren't meant to stay in a different time long enough to impact it. Even the smallest actions from an outsider resulted in serious consequences. A well-meaning Timekeeper who attempted to reverse a loved one's death or ill fortune found an even ghastlier outcome... the time traveler's role was only to observe, learn, and protect the natural Timeline. 


 The Gift of Sight is the ability for ordinary human beings, those with no powers, to see and interact with spirits and time travelers. Sometimes known as mediums, many of the people who posess the Gift, believe they are seeing ghosts. In actuality, the appararitions they see are not ghosts but time travelers who have not yet reached Visibility or their full physical form in the alternate time.


 We have found that the Gift of Sight runs in families. As of this entry in 1880, our experiments show that 5% of families in the US carry the Gift. This means we Timekeepers must always be on alert. Our actions in the past and future can be seen.


Before you proceed, it is crucial to know and understand your gift --- a gift that, depending on how it is used, can lead to either great fortune or terrible tragedy. "


 * The Handbook of the Time Society




Everything in Timekeeper is just all around BETTER than the earlier books... just as a sequel should be! The historical environment is every bit as details as earlier in the series, the romance better developed, the specifics of the Time Society well plotted out. The relationship between Philip and Michele has more developed angst, yet there is a really cool friendship between them now that wasn't as rich in the first book. It's especially noticeable in the scenes where Michele (always in her current age) has talks with an aging Philip as they reunite through various points in time. I confess, I like the older installment of Philip more than either of the eighteen year old editions. But while it's great to see one side of the equation work out, it is still a little sad to have it drift away on the other end. 

4 Stars
Secrets of the Time Society (Timeless #1.5) by Alexandra Monir
Secrets of the Time Society - Alexandra Monir


There exists a secret society where one's ability to travel through time is "gifted" to members only by blood. Those who try to enter the society quickly come to realize that time is a force not to be reckoned with.  Alexandra Monir's short story exclusive ebook, Secrets of the Time Society, sheds light upon the world created in her novel Timeless and forecasts the fate that lies ahead for its protagonist, Michele Windsor. Now that Michele is gifted, there are some who will do anything to take that power away.





Winter 1888, NYC: Seventeen year old Rebecca Windsor receives a visit from the mysterious Millicent August, who hands Rebecca a book titled Handbook of the Time Society, insisting she read it. Millicent goes on to explain that she is the founder and president of the Time Society, an organization dedicated to bringing together individuals born with genes that gift them the ability to time travel. Millicent also has a team of Detectors, those who can spot out of place time travelers, who identified Rebecca in NYC in 1918. 


Rebecca came by her time traveling abilities through mildly criminal means. Coming clean about it could affect a certain relationship of hers she hopes to steer in a romantic direction. Though she doesn't want to lose the guy, she also becomes power hungry to "have it all". 


Fast-forwarding from 1888 to 1910, the pivotal year of TIMELESS, Rebecca is now a spinster, nearly 40 years of age, aunt to Violet (the girl Philip is engaged to when he first meets Michele). Rebecca actually witnesses that initial meeting of TIMELESS's two main characters, unbeknownst to them. She puts facts together and realizes the likely secret of Michele's lineage. Once it's made clear, Rebecca becomes consumed with reversing history, regardless of consequences.


"Behaving out of line with the time you are in has had disastrous consequences for several Timekeepers, so it's important to assimilate."


So yes, we learn a little extra of Michele's lineage, namely the secrets surrounding the father she's never known and what might be the real story behind his disappearance. But mostly it's a rundown of Time Society framework: how the all-important necklace came to have its time jumping properties, the setup, hierarchy, and ground rules for membership in the Time Society, as well as an introduction to Time Society HQ, based in San Diego, CA. Being born and raised in San Diego myself, reading the hotel described as a building disguised as a seaside hotel, "a beautiful porcelain castle with its gleaming white lattice work and turreted red roofs", I can't help but think author Alexandra Monir was inspired by the Hotel Del Coronado (technically on Coronado Island, off the coast of San Diego, but still pretty much considered to be part of the area). I also have to wonder if she perhaps read Richard Matheson's Somewhere In Time (or at least watched the film adaptation) --- another time traveling novel also based at Hotel Del. It was interesting to read that all time leaps within the Time Society have to fall between 1492 - 1991.


 Hotel Del Coronado, image © Rick Avena Photography


This 23 page short story serves as a little bridge between Timeless and Timekeeper.  It was originally offered as an ebook exclusive, but I've since read that a short story was included in the paperback edition of Timekeeper... I'm assuming it is the print version of this ebook (I read from the hardback edition, which does not have it). If that is indeed what the publisher did, I'm happy with that. For how short this book is, to previously make it available only through e-format felt like something of a cheap money grab. But the story itself is good and definitely entices readers to jump right into TIMEKEEPER.


3.5 Stars
Timeless (Timeless #1) by Alexandra Monir
Timeless - Alexandra Monir

When tragedy strikes Michele Windsor’s world, she is forced to uproot her life and move across the country to New York City, to live with the wealthy, aristocratic grandparents she’s never met. In their old Fifth Avenue mansion filled with a century’s worth of family secrets, Michele discovers a diary that hurtles her back in time to the year 1910. There, in the midst of the glamorous Gilded Age, Michele meets the young man with striking blue eyes who has haunted her dreams all her life – a man she always wished was real, but never imagined could actually exist. And she finds herself falling for him, into an otherworldly, time-crossed romance. Michele is soon leading a double life, struggling to balance her contemporary high school world with her escapes into the past. But when she stumbles upon a terrible discovery, she is propelled on a race through history to save the boy she loves – a quest that will determine the fate of both of their lives.





After tragically losing her mother in a car accident, LA teen Michele Windsor is sent to live with her uber-wealthy grandparents, Walter and Dorothy Windsor, in NYC. Michele has never met them before, her mother being estranged from them since the disappearance of Michele's father prior to Michele's birth. The assumption is that Walter and Dorothy, having never approved of the relationship, paid Michele's father a large sum of money to disappear. Since Michele was raised with this version of events, she can't help but be a little icy during the initial meeting. It doesn't help that her grandparents seem to have an emotional wall up themselves. How is she ever going to make this new life work? 

After settling into the 5th Avenue mansion she now calls home, Michele finds a journal in her room dating back to 1910. She gets the shock of her life once she discovers that this journal, combined with a necklace her mother left her, has the power to transport her back in time. One such trip takes her back to the Windsor Halloween Ball of 1910. It's there that she meets Philip Walker, a gorgeous young man with striking blue eyes whom she's stunned to discover is the very same face who has been haunting her dreams all her life! Though this Walker is engaged to Violet Windsor when he and Michele first meet, the Walker family later ends up being society rivals of the Windsor family. 

Philip and Clara, Michele's great great aunt (during her teen years) are the only ones who seem to be able to see Michele. After bonding over a love of music, it doesn't take long for a romance to blossom between Philip and Michele. While he breaks off his engagement to Violet, turning his home life upside down, Michele struggles to maintain a balance between her contemporary high school life and this new and unexpected Edwardian romance she finds herself immersed in. Her one confidante in modern times is Caissie, classmate, friend and daughter of the Windsor residence housekeeper. 

Which life should she commit to? The choice may ultimately be made for her when she discovers the danger her amour faces in his future. When Michele attends a class trip to Newport, RI to see the summer homes of the legendary wealthy families (ie. Vanderbilt, Duke, etc.), she visits the Walker's summer "cottage" and discovers a tragedy that occurred, tied to her relationship with Philip. She travels back to 1910 to warn Philip, deciding that the one way to save him is to break things off and beg him to move on with his life without her. 

Timeless is nice historical fiction on the lite end. There's a bit of a Time Traveler's Wife vibe to it, if you picture that story, but gender-swapped. If you're curious to jump into the genre but are maybe also a little spooked by overwhelming heavy detail, this is a good toe-dipping point. For newbies to historical fiction, the story is still plenty entertaining, without the facts end being too overwhelming. That said, for historical fiction junkies... well, this first entry into this series is a mixed bag. Fun story? check. Solid work on the historical research? Check. Romance? Barely gets lift-off here... and then when it does, it advances way too fast to be reasonable. A little disappointing at first, but I will say the romance being a little flat may actually serve a purpose when you read how this book closes. Additionally, while the respectable (but manageable) amount of historical detail certainly creates an immersive environment for these characters, it did at times feel like character development withered in the shadow of it. The plot's pace runs a little slow, but does pick up momentum after Michele's Newport trip (though this puts the reader only a few chapters from the end of the book). 

History nerds can enjoy brief appearances by author Thomas Wolfe and musicians Louis Armstrong and the Andrews Sisters. After the story closes, Monir also offers readers an extensive, pages-long resource guide on the books and other materials she referred to to create this time traveling experience.


3.5 Stars
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larson
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet - Reif Larsen

When twelve-year-old genius cartographer T. S. Spivet receives an unexpected phone call from the Smithsonian announcing he has won the prestigious Baird Award, life as normal—if you consider mapping dinner table conversations normal—is interrupted and a wild cross-country adventure begins, taking T. S. from his family home just north of Divide, Montana, to the museum’s hallowed halls.There are some answers here on the road from Divide and some new questions, too. How does one map the delicate lessons learned about family or communicate the ebbs and flows of heartbreak, loneliness, and love?





Twelve year old genius T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow) Spivet comes from a rather unique family, living in the small town of Divide, Montana.



Our ranch house was located just north of Divide, Montana, a tiny town you could miss from the highway if you happened to adjust your radio at the wrong moment. Surrounded by the Pioneer Mountains, Divide was nestled in a flat-backed valley sprinkled with sagebrush and half-burnt two-by-fours, a reminder of when people actually used to live here.



His mother is a coleopterist, a scientist specializing in the study of beetles, while his father is a hard working rancher. While it might appear that they come from wildly different worlds, somehow it works. But the family has been mourning the loss of T.S.'s brother, Layton, who died by accidental gunshot at the young age of ten. Since then, T.S. has struggled to bond with his father. His mother also tends to bury her grief in work, so much of the time T.S. is left to fend for himself in many areas. 





"Phosphorus is like a woman who is never satisfied with what she already has in her clutches."


~ Mr. Englethorpe


T.S. finds comfort in his appreciation for trains as well as an obsession with cartography --- creating maps / schematics for nearly anything that catches his interest. At one point he even tries to work out maps for the entirety of Herman Melville's Moby Dick --- can you imagine! Some of his work, through a friend of his mother, gets sent over to the Smithsonian museum for review. Some time later, T.S. gets a surprise call from the museum notifying him that he's been chosen to receive the Baird Award. 


The folks over at the Smithsonian are under the impression that T.S. is a grown man. Naturally there's going to be some quick explanation required on his part, should he accept the award in person... but after some debate he decides to take the chance and so sets out on a cross country trip from Montana to Washington, D.C. --- hobo-ing it across state lines via numerous trains --- learning numerous coming-of-age type life lessons along the way. He also has what's dubbed an "eccentric challenge" where he has conversations with a Winnebago he hides in during a portion of his travels, then claiming the Winnebago says it wishes to go by the name "Valero". 



This "unique format" style book can come off as a bit of a project read. The page count comes in at just shy of 400 pages, with illustrations & sidebar text (aka marginalia) on nearly every page. Almost like stories on stories on stories. The plot is divided into three parts --- Part 1: The West; Part 2: The Crossing; Part 3: The East. There's some mild cursing within some of the dialogue, so parents or educators may want to give a pre-read through before handing off to younger readers. 




While he may not always be the most socially warm character to spend time with, T.S. has an admirable straightforwardness and lust for knowledge that makes it easy to root for him. He's so dedicated to his craft and his family, you want good things for him! That said, the story does suffer through periods of monotony and boring content, sometimes worsened by T.S.'s insistence on conducting an internalized survey on the inner workings of HIS boredom. The action picks up in Chapter 10, around the 250 page mark, during a scene where T.S. arrives at a Chicago train yard. Those dedicated enough to this format to make it to the end, there's a pretty impressive speech little Spivet gives at the Smithsonian. He settles in and gets all heavy and deep with the crowd, sharing thoughts on life, death and one's purpose.... remember he's only supposed to be twelve! 


Booknerds can also have a moment to geek out with the fictionalized brief appearances of Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, in connection with T.S.'s ancestors Elizabeth and Emma Osterville.



Image result for young and prodigious t.s. spivet





Yes! A movie was eventually made of this unique and creative story! A script was put together and passed through multiple directors who all claimed it was impossible to adapt for the screen. Then in 2013, the project was passed to French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who reworked the script and brought the book to life on screen under the name The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. Though a beautiful, imaginative film finally came out of the long process, even Jeunet came away saying this movie "was a bear to make."


Notable casting:


* Helena Bonham Carter as T.S. Spivet's scientist mom

* Judy Davis as Ms. Ibsen, rep for The Smithsonian's Baird Award

* Kyle Catlett, cast as T.S., first auditioned at age 7, when he could already speak 7 languages!

* author Reif Larsen is in the crowd during the speech scene! 


The movie follows the novel well enough for the story to be recognizable, but the ending has been altered a bit in the film. 




3.5 Stars
Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel by James Markert
Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel - James Markert

For years, guests of the Tuscany Hotel could leave their pasts behind and live among fellow artists. Now guests of a different sort fill the rooms, searching for their memories—no matter the cost. Run by renowned sculptor Robert Gandy and his wife and muse, Magdalena, the Tuscany Hotel hosted guests of a certain kind—artists, actors, scientists, and engineers who left their worries behind so that they could create their latest masterpieces. Surrounded by lore, the hotel was rumored to free the mind and inspire artists’ gifts. But tragic circumstances force Robert and his family to move.

After thirteen months at war, Vittorio Gandy is haunted by memories, and his former life is unrecognizable. Once a gifted painter, now he can’t bear the vivid, bleeding colors on a canvas. His young son doesn’t remember him, and his wife, Valerie, is scared of him. But the most disconcerting change is in Vitto’s father, Robert Gandy, who has fallen from being a larger-than-life sculptor to a man whose mind has been taken by Alzheimer’s. 

When Robert steals away in the night, Valerie, Vitto, and his new acquaintance and fellow veteran John go to the only place Robert might remember—the now-abandoned Tuscany Hotel. When they find him there, Robert’s mind is sound and his memories are intact. Before long, word gets out that drinking from the fountain at the hotel can restore the memories of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. The rooms once again fill up with guests—not artists this time, but people seeking control over their memories and lives. Vitto desperately wants to clear his own mind, but as he learns more about his mother’s life and her tragic death, he begins to wonder whether drinking the water comes at a price. A story of father and son, memories lost and found, artists and their muses, Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel explores the mysteries of the mind, the truth behind lore, and the miracle of inspiration.






At just twenty four years old, Vittorio Gandy has already established himself as a talented painter, but with the start of World War II he is shipped overseas to fight. While over there, he receives letters from wife Valerie gently explaining that the family fortune has all but dried up and she's had to take up miscellaneous work to make ends meet --- everything from selling war bonds to growing a victory garden and even taking a part time job at a local factory. 


Vittorio's father, Robert, grows up an only child and heir to an oil fortune as well as a rock quarry. As a young man, Robert travels to Italy to study and practice his work as a sculptor. It is there he meets the beautiful Magdalena. Immediately smitten, he convinces her to come away with him and start a life together. Magdalena, not only having fallen in love with Robert but also needing to flee an abusive guardian, travels with Robert to California, settling in an area that would soon become the town of Gandy. There Robert uses his fortune to buy the land the town is built on and gets to work building the Tuscany Hotel. The Tuscany will honor his wife's heritage and encourage a modern day Renaissance where artists, writers, actors, and painters can come and feel inspired. 


It's years later now when we meet son Vittorio as a young enlisted man. The hotel has long been shuddered up and abandoned and Robert is battling Alzheimer's. Vittorio returns home but keeps the day of his arrival a surprise. Naturally his family is delighted to see him at first, but it's not long before Vitto's PTSD begins to rear its head. Thanks to the horrific images he brought back from war and stored in his mind, he can't bring himself to paint anymore. He's a stranger to his young son and Valerie grows increasingly more uncomfortable in his presence. She begins to pull away as Vitto's behavior becomes more and more combative, the last straw being the night when he becomes confused during a hallucination and nearly strangles her to death. 




Vitto checks himself into an in-patient therapy program for veterans at the hospital, but when Robert goes missing one night after an earthquake, Vitto goes back home to help track him down...though everyone can guess where Robert went. Sure enough, Valerie and Vitto find him at the abandoned Tuscany Hotel. The courtyard fountain is running again, Robert is sculpting like no time has passed at all, and his mind seems to have been restored! 


"Time can be a tenuous dancing partner, Mr. Gandy. And memory the devil. Sometimes the wounds we can't see leave the worst scars, unless they're tended to."


By the next day, Vitto's discovered that his father has plans to re-open the Tuscany and already has an ad in the newspapers. John, a fellow veteran Vitto met in the therapy program -- cheery, tender-hearted, and perpetually curious -- signs on as the hotel's new chef. Before long, word spreads of the hotel fountain's healing powers against mind crippling conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's and people come from far and wide desperately hoping to help their loved ones. 


New life is breathed back into the property and even Valerie finds herself gravitating back towards her husband rather than away. Even so, Vitto has his hesitations about all these new developments. For one, he's always been plagued by the death of his mother and whether there was any truth to the rumors about it possibly being a suicide. Will all this new attention to the hotel stir up those old stories as well as feelings he may not be ready to face? Then there's the fountain itself. Even though people praise the restorative properties the fountain water seems to have on them, Vitto begins to fear there may be a dark price to pay for the remedy.  He resists drinking the water himself until the day his son asks him to drink, hoping that drinking the water in front of his son will be just the act of trust they need to restore the father-son bond. 


Don't drink it, Vitto wanted to say, unsure why. Because every day has its night. Because what goes up must come down. Because memories can cut as much as they cure. And because he'd learned through the war that life too often was fool's gold. Rays of a beautiful sunrise led to rivers of blood. Under lush canopies of evergreen forest, combat stained the silent snow cherry red. Craters and limbs pocked fields and countryside. Last words traveled on breezes choked with smoke and death. 


Periodically, there are chapters where we get snippets of the mysterious life story of Magdalena, who has no long term memory of her own but seems to possess the memories of famous artists throughout history, such as da Vinci or Mozart. There's also a few throwbacks to how Valerie and Vitto met as children, growing up together as best friends before eventually becoming romantically involved. 


I've read all but two of Markert's books at this point and I'd say this is one of his grittiest to date, in terms of subject matter. Readers are not only presented themes of depression (sometimes to the point of suicidal thought) and PTSD, but also graphic imagery of war, namely in-depth, uncomfortable descriptions of executed Jews. The setting is post-Depression era, like several of Markert's stories, and the writing is lyrical as ever... yet, something didn't fully click with this reader to make it a homerun read. Some passages moved a bit slow, others ran on a little long. While I liked the setting and characters well enough --- I especially loved the conversations between John and Vitto, their banter reminded me a bit of Teddy and Bob from Bob's Burgers --- there were times when my interest waned and the reading began to feel a bit like a chore. The light touch of magical realism Markert tends to weave in his novels was pretty faint here as well, compared to the earlier works. But it's also one of those books where if you push through during the down periods, there is payoff later on. 



"Your mother.... the horrors she lived through... it wasn't that much different from what you... what your army doctor called battle fatigue? Combat exhaustion? Hell doesn't always require a war, Vittorio."


Discussion questions guide available at the back of the book for reading groups interested in making this a possible book club pick.


FTC DISCLAIMER: BookLookBloggers and Thomas Nelson Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

3 Stars
What Blooms From Dust by James Markert
What Blooms From Dust - James Markert

Just as Jeremiah Goodbye is set to meet his fate in the electric chair, he is given a second chance at life. With the flip of a coin, he decides to return to his home town of Nowhere, Oklahoma, to settle the score with his twin brother Josiah. But upon his escape, he enters a world he doesn’t recognize—one that has been overtaken by the Dust Bowl. And the gift he once relied on to guide him is as unrecognizable as the path back to Nowhere. On his journey home, he accidentally rescues a young boy, and the pair arrive at their destination where they are greeted by darkened skies and fearful townspeople who have finally begun to let the past few years of hardship bury them under the weight of all that dust. Unlikely heroes, Jeremiah and his new companion, Peter Cotton, try to protect the residents of Nowhere from themselves, but Jeremiah must face his nightmares and free himself from the guilt of his past and the secrets that destroyed his family. Filled with mystery and magic, this exquisite novel from award-winning author James Markert is a story of finding hope in the midst of darkness and discovering the beauty of unexpected kindness.





POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel's plot has a brief mention of cutting as well as descriptions of animals being clubbed to death.



Death Row inmate Jeremiah Goodbye, dubbed the "Coin Flip Killer" by the newspapers, had just been placed in the electric chair, receiving the first few seconds of execution, when a twister rips through town, taking out one wall of the execution room. Seeing that the prison staff around him has been killed, Jeremiah flees the scene and heads back to his hometown of Nowhere, Oklahoma with plans to confront twin brother Josiah.


On his way to Nowhere, Jeremiah comes across a family and stops what he realizes is the sale of a child, Peter Cotton. Peter decides he's going to accompany Jeremiah on his journey to Nowhere. Jeremiah initially resists, but once he sees how determined Peter is to stay, he figures there's not much to be done but let the kid tag along. Peter struggles with speech, mainly just parroting back anything said to him. Successful communication looks to be incredibly challenging until Jeremiah realizes they can build a system around pointing, head nods, and supplying paper for the typewriter Peter always has with him. 


When the duo arrive in Nowhere, it's evident just how severely the area has been affected by the Dust Bowl. Where once there were green landscapes and clean creeks, the landscape is now smothered in ever growing mounds of dust and debris (at times, the descriptions of Nowhere brought to mind images of Radiator Springs from Pixar's Cars). Jeremiah reunites with father Wilmington (who carries a bullet in his head courtesy of a ricochet from Jeremiah's firing during a shootout years before), brother Josiah, and Josiah's wife, Ellen. Though married to his brother now, Ellen has a history with Jeremiah, a brief secret romance that resulted in a miscarried child.


Not many people in Nowhere seem all that excited about Jeremiah's return. The majority of the town still see him as a stone cold killer, even though he's always proclaimed his innocence on the murder charges, claiming it was merely a "wrong place, wrong time" kind of misunderstanding. Josiah doesn't think too highly of his brother but Wilmington and Ellen try to give the man the benefit of a doubt. Either way, the reality is he remains an escaped convict pushed to face his personal demons and rectify past wrongs.


What Blooms From Dust offers a believable depiction of what the Dust Bowl era must have been like -- the clogged air, the constant struggle to breathe, the illnesses that came from breathing in grit on a daily basis --- the dust itself almost reads like one of the story's antagonists. Characters comment on how it "seems alive", intent on breaking one's spirit (plus all the shudder inducing talk of tarantulas!). As the frequency and intensity of the storms increases, it saps peoples' will to live... but quiet Peter Cotton has an idea on how to bring the town back around. 


As always, Markert incorporates a sprinkle of otherworldly seasoning into the plot, developing a mysterious link between Peter Cotton and the miscarried child. Peter also plays a pivotal role in pulling the citizens of Nowhere out of their various funks, helping them finally air old grievances. I found myself cracking up at the "magic" that falls over Nowhere. A tourism package could be crafted just around the idea of giving people a place to come, stay, and hash out all long-standing feuds with friends, family, or co-workers without judgement! Slam dunk financial windfall for the place! 


POTENTIAL TRIGGER NOTE TO READERS: Not only does the plot make a brief mention of one character's experiences with cutting, but there's also one scene that describes Nowhere's town "rabbit drive", where every so often the citizens come out, herd up jackrabbits, and club them to death. Animal lovers, consider yourselves warned! I will say though, I read similar descriptions of the rabbit clubbing in Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, so it's perhaps a historically accurate detail. 


Though the environment development is nicely crafted, the plot itself was much slower than Markert's previous novels. Markert makes a mention in the acknowledgements that this book had a rushed deadline "but luckily it practically wrote itself". However, in my opinion it's one of his weaker novels, plot-wise. The pace is slower, but things do pick up some after the arrival of reporter Rose Buchanan. Still, I sometimes found myself struggling to maintain interest, which is not a problem I typically have with this author's works. 


That said, this novel does offer a nice overall message in the way it illustrates how powerful a tool kindness can be in combating evil.



"You're a special kind of child, Jeremiah. We thought you'd never come out, and when you did, well, perhaps one day I'll let your father tell you about that. But I'll go to my grave knowing that those night scares you have, they all stem from what happened after you were delivered. I'm telling you, only the strongest of the strong could overcome what you did. You know what I think? I think life and death were wrestling over you, Jeremiah. Or maybe it was good and evil. Yes, that's how I look upon it now. And you were just too darn stubborn to give in without a fight."



Discussion questions are made available at the back of the book for those interested in this one as a possible book club pick. 


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

3.5 Stars
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Out of the Dust - Karen Hesse

A terrible accident has transformed Billie Jo's life, scarring her inside and out. Her mother is gone. Her father can't talk about it. And the one thing that might make her feel better -- playing the piano -- is impossible with her wounded hands. To make matters worse, dust storms are devastating the family farm and all the farms nearby. While others flee from the dust bowl, Billie Jo is left to find peace in the bleak landscape of Oklahoma -- and in the surprising landscape of her own heart.

~ from back cover





In this verse novel set in the Oklahoma Panhandle during the Dust Bowl years, we meet Billie Jo Kelby.  Billie's parents had always hoped for a boy, but her mother, Pol, struggled to get pregnant again after Billie's birth. 


Daddy named me Billie Jo.

He wanted a boy. 

Instead, he got a long-legged girl

with a wide mouth

and cheekbones like bicycle handles.

He got a red-headed, freckle-faced, narrow-hipped girl

with a fondness for apples

and a hunger for playing fierce piano.



Billie Jo's father, Bayard, is a World War 1 veteran turned wheat farmer, but the last few years the crop has been a lean one, to say the least. This year has been especially poor. Pol offers a number of solutions -- everything from digging a well to trying a different type of crop --- but Bayard stubbornly wants to stick to what he knows. 


The winter of 1934 Billie is thirteen and her mother is pregnant once again. Billie's well aware how tight money is, so she can't help but worry about how her parents will find the means to care for the baby. When Billie is offered a job playing piano at the Palace Theater, she mainly wants it because she just loves playing so much, but the promise of even a few extra coins in the house is certainly a nice bonus! 


Then comes the day of the fateful accident. The day Bayard decides to set a full bucket of kerosene next to the stove. Pol, mistaking it for water, pours it in a container over the stove when she goes to make coffee one morning. You can guess what happens next. Yep, a wall of flame. Pol catches on fire, Billie tries to put out the flames. The flames are extinguished, Pol survives. At least that day. She is sent into early labor, which ends up taking not only her life but the baby's as well.


Billie's hands are destroyed from trying to put out the flames on her mother. She's heartbroken at the loss of her mother and she assumes she'll never play piano again. All at once, virtually everything that brought Billie any little bit of joy has been snatched away from her in an instant. To make matters worse, the night before Pol died, Bayard ended up bailing on her in her time of need. While she cries for water, he takes the little bit of household money Pol had saved up and takes off to go get drunk. At this point in the story, it's hard not to see Bayard as a pretty trash husband.


After her mother's death, Billie and her father pretty much stop speaking with each other, beyond the essential phrases. Though at first Billie had figured her piano playing days were behind her, she eventually convinces herself to start practicing again, working through the pain and stiffness, retraining her fingers to feel the keys the way they used to. Over time, Billie and her father learn to communicate again, acknowledging that despite this horrific loss, they're still a family and still very much need each other. 



I have a hunger, 

for more than food.

I have a hunger

bigger than Joyce City.

I want tongues to tie, and

eyes to shine at me

like they do at Mad Dog Craddock.

Course they never will,

not with my hands all scarred up,

looking like the earth itself,

all parched and cracking,

but if I played right enough,

maybe they would see past my hands. 

Maybe they could feel at ease with me again,

and maybe then,

I could feel at ease with myself.


First reading the accident scene, it seemed natural to be angry with the father at his carelessness. This completely avoidable moment irrevocably forever altered all these lives! To my surprise, Hesse in her afterword writes that that scene was not from her imagination but instead pulled from actual news reports she came across in a 1934 edition of the Boise City newspaper!


Not only does this little verse novel effectively bring forth the historical elements of the Dust Bowl years for the intended middle grade audience (and beyond) but also incorporates the powerful lesson that running away from disappointments or hardships won't necessarily make them go away. Sometimes you have to stay put and tackle the unpleasant environment to get to the other side. But once on that other side, you might find that everything you were longing for actually already exists right where you are, if you just shift to a different perspective.



3 Stars
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie's house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief. Bridge to Terabithia was also named an ALA Notable Children’s Book and has become a touchstone of children’s literature, as have many of Katherine Paterson’s other novels, including The Great Gilly Hopkins and Jacob Have I Loved.





Jess Aarons is starting his 5th grade year training to become the fastest runner in his school. Running and sketching are Jess's outlets in a life where his parents seem hyper critical of his every move. Jess's parents come off as pretty moody for much of the novel, but it could be argued that a lot of that could stem from them struggling to make ends meet on the family farm. Whatever the reason, it makes for a consistently uncomfortable home life.


Leslie Burke's family moves into the farmhouse next to the Aaron's farm but the two don't really get to know each other until the day Jess agrees to race Leslie in a timed track event. Jess can't deny that he's impressed with Leslie's skills, and from that day on a close bond steadily develops between them. Leslie's parents are successful writers -- her mother a novelist, her father a political writer. But Leslie explains that the choice to move the farmhouse was the result of them "reassessing their value structure." The Burkes were stepping away from their privileged lifestyle to try their hand at homesteading. One wouldn't think it would necessarily be a bad thing... a family learning to live more in alignment with the natural world... until the day Leslie has to admit in front of the class that her home does not have a tv, so she wouldn't be able to watch a program for a homework assignment as the teacher had requested of everyone. From then on, Leslie is on the radar of bully Janice and Jess feels compelled to step up and guard his new friend the best he can, introverted though he may be.


Leslie is a tomboy with a passion for books, a love of reading that soon begins to rub off on Jess. During one of their excursions to the nearby woods, Leslie shares her wish for a land they could escape to when they wanted to get away from life's cruel moments. The kids come across a spot near a creek that Leslie decides to name Terabithia. To the outside observer, it might look like just a crudely constructed child's fort next to a creek out in the woods, but for them it was that metaphorical life preserver.







It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength. 


Leslie immediately has Jess read the entire Chronicles of Narnia series so they can get an idea of how to structure their own kingdom. She is the one who crafts all the legends and ceremonies of Terabithia, and Jess is in awe of her limitless imagination.





With certain scenes, Bridge to Terabithia painfully illustrates how cruel school years can sometimes be, not only for those bullied but also within the secret lives of the bullies themselves. Case in point: Leslie finds bully Janice crying in the bathroom one day. Once Leslie gets her calm enough to start talking, Janice explains that she confided in two close friends, revealing that her father frequently and severely beat her. Instead of comforting or otherwise helping her, the "friends" decided to spread gossip around the school, sharing Janice's secret with anyone who cared to hear. Even teachers began to look at Janice differently.



That was the rule that you never mixed up troubles at home with life at school. When parents were poor or ignorant or mean, or even just didn't believe in having a TV set, it was up to their kids to protect them. By tomorrow every kid and teacher at Lark Creek Elementary would be talking in half snickers about Janice Avery's daddy.  It didn't matter if their own fathers were in the state hospital or the federal prison, they hadn't betrayed theirs, and Janice had.  


I watched the movie adaptation of this several years ago. I don't remember a ton about it now but recalled enough to keep me interested in trying the book one day. So here we are, and while there's certainly a good story here, I'm in the camp of "why is this hyped up so much?" I mean, it even won a Newbery Medal. I was thinking it had a slow start, but the book as a whole is not terribly long.... I found I was nearly done and still having that sensation of "it's good but I'm just a tad bored, if I'm being honest". The big tragedy this story is known for actually doesn't start to unfold until the last few chapters of the book. I was also expecting more rich detail with the conceptualization of Terabithia. For some reason I had always had the impression this book had a much stronger sci-fi / fantasy vibe than what I actually found here. For the most part it's pretty much just kids crafting make believe stories out in the woods like so many of us did growing up. I would've love a little more magical realism woven in. In this case, I think the movie did it better.


In her author afterword, Paterson reveals that this novel was inspired by her son, whose childhood best friend was struck and killed by lightning; also, the character of Janice was inspired by Paterson's own 7th grade experiences with a female bully. She also notes that some literary inspiration came from The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.




*Illustrations by Donna Diamond

4 Stars
The Truth of Me by Patricia MacLachlan
The Truth of Me - Patricia MacLachlan

The Truth of Me tells the story of Robbie, who loves spending time with his grandmother Maddy. Robbie loves the stories Maddy tells, and also how wild animals trust her enough to come right up to her. But Robbie has always felt as if something is missing in his life--his parents don’t always act like they love him. Maddy helps him understand that an experience his mother had long ago is at the heart of the problem in his family. With this knowledge, Robbie finds the courage to try to make things right. This poignant story celebrates how our unique “small truths” make each of us magical and brave in our own ways.





Robbie and his dog, Ellie, are spending the summer at Grandmother Maddy's house. He's been having a tough time of things lately, struggling with self-confidence as well as feeling neglected by his parents. He feels they are too distracted with their careers, causing both to be rather dismissive with him. Robbie has always found comfort in Maddy's stories and easy-going nature, so this could be just the thing his mind needs.


Maddy's friend (and Robbie's doctor), Henry, also makes several appearances over the course of the story. Even if Robbie is not all that chatty about what's going on, Henry can still sense the hard time the poor kid is going through. Maddy and Henry team up and find ways to work with Robbie over the summer, patiently teaching him important, emotionally anchoring lessons about life, the most transformational being when Henry encourages Robbie to discover what his "small truths" about himself are.


My heart broke for Robbie, reading of how desperate he was to hear "I miss you", "thinking of you", anything from his parents. There are some sad conversations in the story but MacLachlan balances it nicely with a cozy, quiet feel to the rest of the scenes. There's just the right touch of fun and subtle humor to make this quick little read a comforting story to curl up with on the porch one lazy afternoon. There's also a sweet little Bridget Jones-esque moment when Robbie mentions to Maddy that Henry said he liked her just as she is and Maddy gets misty-eyed hearing this.

4 Stars
Dragon's Keep (Wilde Island Chronicles #1) by Janet Lee Carey
Dragon's Keep - Janet Lee Carey
Far away on Wilde Island, Princess Rosalind is born with a dragon claw where her ring finger should be. To hide the secret, the Queen forces her to wear gloves at all times until a cure can be found, so Rosalind can fulfill the prophecy to restore the family to their rightful throne. But Rosalind’s flaw cannot be separated from her fate. When she is carried off by the dragon, everything she thought she knew falls apart. The dragon sees beauty in her talon where her mother saw only shame, and Rosalind finally understands what her mother has truly denied her.
Princess Rosalind, daughter of Queen Gweneth of Wilde Island, is born with a dragon's claw on one finger.  The curse comes courtesy of the witch Demetra, whom the queen visited years before in desperation, seeking a cure for her infertility. Queen Gweneth dedicates her life to keeping this a secret from everyone, including her husband. Rosalind's life is a privileged but lonely one. Her mother denies her any opportunity to develop friendships with girls her own age, for fear of the secret talon being revealed and shame being brought to the family, or even worse, Rosalind being hauled off by a mob and killed. Rosalind's main interactions outside of those with her parents end up being with a few vetted servants and her childhood nanny, Marn. Marn does her very best to keep Rosalind safe and sheltered, but for more general reasons. For the longest time, she knows nothing of the existence of the claw.
"Ah, Rosie," said Marn. "Never steal away again. Promise your old Marn. There's a deal of evil in the world you have no knowing of, and I would not have you touched by it."
The queen also insists Rosalind wear golden gloves around the clock and brings in various healers, physicians, even witches, from all over the land, making up mysterious ailments to cover up the real reason they were summoned. Nothing works. The claw remains. So once a week, the queen herself resorts to coming to Rosalind's chambers to carve down the talon down to the nub to at least ensure the glove will fit. If anyone gets too close to discovering the secret, they mysterious disappear shortly after. 
This royal family of Wilde Island are actually desecendants of King Arthur, through his sister, Evaine. Evaine was banished to the island centuries before after it was discovered she had plans to run away and marry the outlaw Kaydon Mallory. Before Evaine leaves for Wilde Island, the sorcerer Merlin gives her a prophecy: the 21st queen of Wilde Island was destined to restore the Pendragon name to high honor, end war, and bring glory to the island.
Rosalind is set to become that 21st queen. But there are a few hiccups on the way to fulfilling the prophecy. Her claw happens to take up residence on her wedding finger... a tough sell for potential suitors. During the time she's trying to work out a match, she gets nabbed by a dragon who goes by the name Lord Faul, who tells Queen Gweneth that Rosalind is his "by rights". He takes the princess to his lair (den?) at Dragon's Keep, renames her Briar, and forces her into servitude. The princess's mind pretty quickly moves to a place of sheer survival until she can re-unite with her heart's interest --- a dragonslayer named Kye -- but her time at Dragon's Keep also provides her with some serious bombshells regarding her true lineage. 
"Believe what you like. Your race has been deaf ever since it learned to speak."
~ the dragon Lord Faul
I didn't go into this one with any grand expectations, and I don't mean that in a bad way! More like, I ended up being quite pleasantly surprised by how much I ended up getting pulled into this story! There's some seriously rich world building here. Carey's research of the era is certainly evident. The flow and imagery she creates almost gives the feel of watching a series of medieval tapestry panels coming to life. Additionally, the further along you go, particularly when the story moves to the land of Dragon's Keep, the writing turns elemental in the best and most literal of way --- everywhere Rosalind goes, you can practically feel the earth, fire and water on your skin as well... almost like something from Never Ending Story LOL 
The way the princess interacts with the dragon Lord Faul and his offspring, the legends they share from a dragon's perspective... this story could almost, in parts, serve as an allegory to the strained relationship between nations of native people and European usurpers throughout history. I had hoped for more development in the bond between Faul and Rosalind; it seems it was only barely becoming established near story's end. But this is only the first book in a series, so there's likely to be more interactions with the Faul line in the subsequent stories. 
3.5 Stars
Ballad of a Broken Nose by Arne Svingen, translated by Kari Dickson
The Ballad of a Broken Nose - Arne Svingen, Kari Dickson

Bart is an eternal optimist. At thirteen years old, he’s had a hard life. But Bart knows that things won’t get any better if you have a negative attitude. His mother has pushed him into boxing lessons so that Bart can protect himself, but Bart already has defense mechanisms: he is relentlessly positive…and he loves opera. Listening to—and singing—opera is Bart’s greatest escape, but he’s too shy to share this with anyone. Then popular Ada befriends him and encourages him to perform at the school talent show. Ada can’t keep a secret to save her life, but Bart bonds with her anyway, and her openness helps him realize that his troubles are not burdens that he must bear alone. The Ballad of a Broken Nose is a sweet story about bravery, fear, bullying, sports, and music. But most of all it is about the important days of your life, days when everything seems to happen at once and nothing will ever be the same again.






Thirteen year old Bart has had the kind of childhood that forces one to grow up quick. In addition to managing his school work, he also juggles boxing lessons, assisting the apartment building super, and taking care of his mother who is obese, a bit of a hoarder, only sporadically employed, and unsuccessfully hiding a growing drinking problem. Though her mothering leaves something to be desired --- Bart's often stuck eating crackers or other snack foods in place of balanced meals --- she is a kind soul who does honestly care for her son. She's just got some stuff she needs to work out in her head.

Bart's main passion in life is opera music. He dreams of one day being a famous opera singer himself, and secretly has the talent, but his stage fright is so bad the only place he can sing is in the bathroom with the door locked. He takes boxing lessons because he gets the impression that his mother would prefer to have a "tough guy" kind of son. She even named him after Bart Simpson because she said the cartoon boy seemed like someone who could easily take care of themselves in life. (Bart doesn't tell his mom he has pretty much zero natural talent at the sport).

Making an impulse decision one day, Bart decides to share his secret love of opera with friend Ada, in the strictest confidence, of course. Well, not surprisingly, the secret "mysteriously" gets out. Now Bart is simultaneously trying to fend off bullies and dodge requests to be in the upcoming school talent show! 

Poor kid is just emotionally exhausted all the time, but he's trying to make the best of the lemons life has handed him. Growing up in Norway, Bart's never known his American dad, only having stories to go by... so, with the help of a trusty search engine, he sets out to finally track him down. He also pushes his neighbors to work toward a building clean up. Sure, it's pretty squalid low income housing with people shooting up in the hallways and stairwells, but Bart convinces them that collectively their little community can do better! 

After Ada's initial blabbing of the opera secret, Bart sees that pursuing his dream may be his main ticket out of the depressing life situation he's currently stuck in. 

It all sounds a bit heavy for a middle-grade / YA read, I know... and at times it can have that undeniable feel of "well this just got real, didn't it!", but what keeps things on the light end is Bart's sweet soul and his sense of humor, the two combining to create an inspiring sense of optimism for readers! Bart's not unaware of his hardships, he just accepts them as reality and tries to roll with it all the best he can. Who can knock that message! Though I wasn't 100% content with the ending here, I did quite enjoy getting to know Bart and his social circle and I love that the story leaves you with this reminder to unashamedly love what you love and make the most of your life. 



5 Stars
Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain
Lady of the Butterflies - Fiona Mountain

"They say I'm mad and perhaps it's true. It is well known that lust brings madness and desperation and ruin. But upon my oath, I never meant any harm. All I wanted was to be happy, to love and to be loved in return, and for my life to count for something. That is not madness, is it?" So begins the story of Eleanor Glanville, the beautiful daughter of a seventeenth-century Puritan nobleman whose unconventional passions scandalized society. When butterflies were believed to be the souls of the dead, Eleanor's scientific study of them made her little better than a witch. But her life-set against a backdrop of war, betrayal, and sexual obsession-was that of a woman far ahead of her time.






NOTE TO ANIMAL LOVERS: Be aware, near the end of this novel, there is a scene where kittens are murdered. 


Spanning late 17th century - early 18th century, Lady of the Butterflies is a novelization of the life of entomologist Lady Eleanor Glanville. Though she had an interest in studying the natural sciences in general, her specialty was in butterflies. A woman making a career in the sciences was virtually unheard of in Glanville's time, a fact that serves as a driving plot point in the novel --- Glanville trying to push beyond societal limitations for women.



I remember what Mary Burges said about people being afraid and aggressive toward what they did not understand, and I had a sense then that I might make life very difficult for myself if I did not curb this passion I had for discovery and observation. And yet I did not want to curb it, did not think it was even possible. Nor, in truth, did I see why I should.


Eleanor has a very strict Puritanical upbringing. Though her father is a successful businessman / landowner, his religious beliefs allow for no excess in the home. He even goes so far as to ban Christmas celebrations. But he does allow Eleanor a level of education typically reserved for boys (botany, geography, astronomy, etc). However, when her interests veer toward the subject of butterflies, Eleanor does raise the hackles on some people in her circle, as there was a 17th century belief that butterflies carried the souls of the dead, and that the process of metamorphosis was equal to shapeshifting which equated to satanic to many of this superstitious era, so having such a degree of fascination in them read as almost occult-ish to many.


Eleanor first hears of Richard Glanville, her future love, at the young age of eleven. Her father seems to detest even the name of Glanville being brought up in conversation, claiming that the man was living a life just seeped in debauchery: "I know of his family, I know the type." Even at her age at this time, Eleanor already realizes that it's unlikely she will ever be the docile, delicate lady type, so the sordid tales of Richard Glanville certainly stir her curiosity!


After the death of Eleanor's father, a Mr. Merrick comes to Eleanor and explains that he is to be the executor of the family estate in general, but mainly the overseer of the family home, Tickenham Court, until she becomes of age. It's encouraged that she seek a husband. She eventually settles on longtime friend Edmund Ashfield. While for the most part it seems like a good match, she does struggle with some of the structural elements of marriage and later motherhood, namely the law of coverture, in which any land or other possessions a woman might inherit is immediately relinquished to her husband upon marriage (a woman was allowed to keep her property if she remained single).


"You will continue these absurd studies no more. From now on you will receive instruction only in dancing and music and drawing and housewifery, like a proper young lady...Your father made the gravest mistake teaching you to take an interest in masculine concerns. The weaker sex may have fruitful wombs but they've barren brains. Learning makes them impertinent and vain and cunning as foxes. I fear I shall never get you off my hands, even if you do come with a fine manor and a good income. I caution you to mind your tongue when you meet Mr. Ashfield again... no man wants to marry an educated girl."


 ~~ So says Mr. Merrick *eyeroll*




Eleanor does honestly care for Edmund, but she also has deep emotional ties to her ancestral lands, so she's always fearful of what he might decide to do to the property without consulting her. This is another big point in the plot, the discussion of ecology: Tickenham Court sits on marshland that is home to swallowtail butterflies, an important area of study for Eleanor, but not so much for the men in her life looking for business (building) opportunities on the property. They are more concerned with moving forward on a proposed drainage project. But the project suffers delays as a mystery person keeps leaving messages of terrorism and sabotage --- livestock being butchered and left out to be found, property destroyed, barns set afire, even eels placed in beds! Incorporated into this darker portion of the story is Thomas Knight, a bully from Eleanor's childhood who doesn't mature into anything nicer as an adult. But is he the one to blame for these attacks on Tickenham Court? Either way, there are complicated ties between him and Eleanor (beyond the story of bullying) that wait til the last part of the book to be fully revealed.


Eleanor's story covers the various stages of a woman's life -- girlhood, romantic infatuations, marriage, motherhood. Through it all, whenever there are times of strife, she uses the study of butterflies to center herself and feed her spirit.... an important reminder for all readers: the value of self care! It's also important in that Eleanor struggles to stay on that line between self doubt and self assurance. Sometimes she listens to those around her and tries to be content with a simple home life as a subservient wife, but other days her inner voice screams NO! IT'S NOT ENOUGH! She knows she has research of great value to contribute to the world of science and her gender should not matter one whit! One person in her corner, though: her lady's maid, Bess. Bess adorably considers herself "worldly" in various life matters (particularly sex) and often encourages Eleanor to never accept disappointment or the idea of having to settle as the norm. Much of Eleanor's fiery nature seems to be stirred by the strain of having to constantly push against feckless men who will either not fight for her or those who would do anything possible to remind her of her place. 


Years later, opportunity to pursue her dreams presents itself in the form of a growing friendship (largely through correspondence) with apothecary / herbologist James Petiver, who also collected and studied butterfly specimens. This friendship and later work partnership would become the basis for the start of the British Natural History Museum. 


From Fiona Mountain's "Historical Note" Afterword:


"During the course of my writing this novel, Britain was hit by repeated and devastating floods, caused in part, according to leading environmentalists, by the loss of wetland floodplains. In 2007, the study of butterflies was formally accepted by the government as an important environmental barometer."


Fiona Mountain does a fine job offering readers an immersive historical fiction reading experience! Many reviewers have knocked this for being more along the lines of historical romance than historical fiction. Yes, this fictionalized Eleanor liked her men. Yes, there are plenty of scenes focusing on flirtations and build up to anticipated sex (and yes, the sex itself). But this one also runs deeper than that. We also get discussions on the science world, feminism, gender roles, societal expectations. We get solid world building that keeps the pages of this doorstopper moving, and dialogue that's witty and even breathtaking at times. As someone who reads plenty of both genres, I would put my vote in the historical fiction hat. It's not like we have a mountain of information to pull from on the real Eleanor Glanville -- there's actually quite a bit of mystery as to how the life story of the real Eleanor ended -- so a little creative license is to be expected. There's a bit of heartbreak at the end, of Fiona Mountain's imagining, that left me feeling a little guilty for some of my reader emotions! 



3 Stars
Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes
Olive's Ocean - Kevin Henkes

Martha Boyle and Olive Barstow could have been friends. But they weren't -- and now all that is left are eerie connections between two girls who were in the same grade at school and who both kept the same secret without knowing it. Now Martha can't stop thinking about Olive. A family summer on Cape Cod should help banish those thoughts; instead, they seep in everywhere. And this year Martha's routine at her beloved grandmother's beachside house is complicated by the Manning boys. Jimmy, Tate, Todd, Luke, and Leo. But especially Jimmy. What if, what if, what if, what if? The world can change in a minute.






Martha's classmate Olive is killed in a traffic accident. Though they weren't close, Martha can't stop thinking about her. Olive was a quiet loner type. After her death, Olive's mother makes a visit to Martha's house to share some surprising news. A page from Olive's journal was found where she revealed her biggest wish was to become good friends with Martha Boyle, "the nicest person in my whole class." She also mentions hopes of becoming a successful writer, something Martha also hopes to become one day (likely inspired by her father, a former lawyer turned aspiring novelist).


Martha ruminates on the little she knew of Olive, the quiet girl who joined her class as a new student in February, by June she was gone. Martha feels guilty that she wasn't kinder to Olive.... not that she was mean to her, but she acknowledges she could've made more of an effort to get to know her. Plagued by these thoughts, Martha hopes her annual summer trip to Grandmother Godbee's house in Cape Cod will help ease her mind a little. 


Olive's Ocean ends up being a bit of a coming of age story. Martha, just approaching her teen years, reconnects with her Cape Cod friends, the Manning brothers: Jimmy, Tate, Todd, Luke and Leo. Martha realizes she's looking at Jimmy differently now, her thoughts beginning to become more romantically minded. Unfortunately, this summer proves to be a tough one for Martha. Not only does she fixate on the finite window of one's lifetime, but she also has a painful lesson in the shady side of human behavior, where a person's outward words or actions don't always reflect their true motives.


Its got it's sad moments but it's not as heavy in tone as maybe I'm making it sound here. The pace of the plot and the short chapters make for a good quick read and Martha's story will have you thinking on a pivotal season in your own life where tough lessons came uninvited, leaving you a changed person from there on.

3 Stars
OyMG by Amy Fellner Dominy
OyMG - Amy Fellner Dominy

Ellie Taylor loves nothing better than a good argument. So when she gets accepted to the Christian Society Speech and Performing Arts summer camp, she's sure that if she wins the final tournament, it'll be her ticket to a scholarship to the best speech school in the country. Unfortunately, the competition at CSSPA is hot-literally. His name is Devon and, whether she likes it or not, being near him makes her sizzle. Luckily she's confident enough to take on the challenge-until she begins to suspect that the private scholarship's benefactor has negative feelings toward Jews. Will hiding her true identity and heritage be worth a shot at her dream? Debut author Amy Fellner Dominy mixes sweet romance, surprising secrets, and even some matzo ball soup to cook up a funny yet heartfelt story about an outspoken girl who must learn to speak out for herself.






Ellie Taylor, a Jewish teen with a passion for speech and debate, is working hard to win a scholarship to Benedict's Conservatory of Arts and Academics, a high school with one of the best debate programs in the country. This summer, she's been offered a spot in a Christian summer camp for Performing Arts. She feels this will be the big ticket to getting the attention of Benedict's admissions committee.


Problem is, she begins to hear rumors that the scholarship benefactor may be ant-Semitic. To make things worse, she begins to develop an interest in Devon, her main competition at the camp. When Ellie discovers he has ties to the benefactor, part of her worries he might share these anti-Semitic views. Ellie begins to wonder if maybe she should start to hide her Jewish heritage to have a better shot at her dreams. 


I'd seen Devon smile politely at Mrs. Lee. I'd seen him smile with other kids during lunch. I'd seen him smile on stage. But there was something about this smile. Something so warm... I felt like a chocolate bar left on the dashboard. If he kept smiling at me like that, I'd melt into a gooey mess. 


Decent read. The plot was pretty good for the most part... some weak points, some slow bits, but plenty of cute moments. One might think that the story is going to end up pretty serious with such a topic as anti-Semitism, but Dominy keeps it pretty light (without being flippant). Basically, it boils down to Ellie coming to realize that people such as the benefactor are going to exist in life, but the best course is to just go move forward, regardless of their views on you, and just focus on living your best life.


"Each of us is unique, Ellie. That is God's greatest gift to us --- and his greatest challenge. You must find the courage to speak with your own unique voice. Otherwise, someone else will speak for you. You'll be amazed how many want the job. Your parents, your friends, your enemies, politicians, and teachers -- all these voices will try to speak for you. Sometimes, it  seems easier to let them. But then, you've lost more than your voice. You've lost yourself."


I peeled back strands of hair from my wet cheeks. "What if I don't hear my own voice?"


"You'll hear it. You just may not want to listen." 


~ Ellie talking with her grandfather


The characterizations are where things fell apart a bit for me. They weren't done terribly, it was just that so many of them felt very middle of the road. There wasn't always a clear understanding of what some of the characters' motivations or goals were, what really makes them tick. The banter between several of the characters could also get annoying at times. That said, I did really like Grandpa Zeydak, Devon and Megan. Also, I think there was a Doris (?) character in there that stood out to me. Everyone else left me kinda meh. 



But overall, I think it serves as a great and empowering read, particularly for its intended YA audience, which serves to illustrate the importance of unashamedly embracing who you are and reveling in what makes you different. There's also a lot of fun church humor, such as the visit to the Lutheran church, "Me and Jesus are the only two Jews in this place." LOL 

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