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

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

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

his father struggled with because of new smoke detectors

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

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

on this trip when the fateful fire broke out.

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Coral drew back her hand and shook her head no. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

Amazon.com

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

Review
3 Stars
Dusters and Dreams (Rebecca Stubbs #2) by Hannah Buckland
Dusters and Dreams - Hannah Buckland
One small village, three intertwined lives . . .
 
Rebecca has recently married vicar Jack Hayworth, but she must prove herself a capable wife to the village matriarchs. With her duties, events, and responsibilities, Rebecca is happy enough, but she secretly longs for a family. Must she stoically hide her heartbreak? Is it wrong for a Christian woman to struggle so much with unanswered prayers?
 
Edward owns a country estate, has a beautiful wife, and a profitable farm, yet he still feels dissatisfied. The world is changing outside of Biggenden Manor’s walls, and monotonous, high society life now leaves him empty. Can Edward find what he’s searching for in a differing world?
 
Violet is an outspoken, vivacious housemaid with a knack for getting into trouble with handsome men. She finds small village life oppressive and longs to spread her wings. Will Violet find the adventure and romance her heart craves?
Amazon.com
 
 

 

 

In The Vicar's Daughter, we got to know Rebecca as a seventeen year old housekeeper at Barton Manor. As we get into the meat of the story there, we are introduced to Reverend Jack Hayworth, though the bond between he and Rebecca remains a mostly minor one until near the end of Book 1. 
 
Now here we are in the sequel, Dusters and Dreams. The plot has fast-forwarded a bit from where the first book left off. We're led to believe some extra bonding time occurred between Jack and Rebecca, because at the start of Book 2 she's already five months into her marriage to Jack. 
 
Related image
 
The early portions of this book deal with Rebecca settling in and adjusting to her new role as a reverend's wife: the duties, unexpected challenges, and sometimes unfair expectations that come along with the position. 
 
After three years of being a domestic servant, subject to the will and whim of her employers, Rebecca was now the mistress of her own home and delighted in her new role. Baking, cooking, ironing, and cleaning for one's own husband --- and an appreciative husband at that --- was a privilege, not a chore. After years of loneliness, Rebecca blossomed in the sunshine of Jack's love, laughter and company. 
 
The Hayworths' window of newlywed bliss is interrupted with the news that Jack is being given a promotion that is pretty much in name (title) only, but it still requires him to move from the cozy little cottage he and the missus have grown to quite like .... into the dark and dreary vicarage house of his predecessor.  Rebecca does her best to roll with the changes, but overwhelmed with the change in size of her residence, she submits to the idea of bringing on a housekeeper to help her out with some of the daily chores. In walks lively housemaid Violet. Violet and Rebecca were already a little acquainted with each other, as Violet also worked at Biggenden Manor, as a kitchen maid --- I'm not sure what happened to Barton Manor, all the history mentions this Biggenden place now, but the text reads as if it's the same place from the first book? Bit confused about that lol. 
 
Violet was recently scandalously dismissed from her post after she was discovered making out with one of her boss's houseguests. When the job in the Hayworth home is mentioned to her, she's skeptical, worried that "Spinster Stubbs", now the new Mrs. Hayworth, will be uppity. But need for money overrides all else, so Violet accepts. 
 
While all this is going on, the reader is also informed of Rebecca's struggles to conceive, and the pressure she feels when months --- and then years --- pass and the looks of pity and speculation increase among the congregation. After two years of trying everything, the couple decides to consult a fertility specialist...and let me tell you, this doctor was INFURIATING. Not only was his advice laughable and painfully backward (though probably not uncommon for the time) but even he even goes so far as to send Rebecca out of the room so he can suggest to Jack that she be institutionalized for even daring to question his medical advice! 
 
Thankfully, Jack is a man of sound mind and reason who was only to happy to tell this guy where to go! Even so, Rebecca is so desperate to have a child, she actually does go home and attempt some of the doctor's wacky suggestions, partly just to say she did indeed try everything.
 

 

 
 
The relationship between Jack and Rebecca is a large part of what brings such charm to this story. They are a lovely example of what true teamwork in a marriage should look like: They laugh easily together, bounce problem-solving ideas off one another, and are always seeking ways to make their partner's life easier. 
 
Sadly, things aren't so easy-breezy for Violet in the romance department. Violet is just young and craves romance and excitement to break up the monotony of life in the small town of Capford, but poor girl just keeps getting caught up with all the wrong kinds of men. At one point Violet even toys with the idea of joining a convent, but in due time both the stories of Violet and Rebecca come to reveal that sometimes in life the things you want most in life are right under your nose... if you can just stop searching the horizon so hard. 
 
Speaking of family, going after what you really want, etc... there's a side story involving the current owners of Biggenden Manor, Edward and his new bride, Sophia. While they look forward to starting a family, Edward also struggles with feelings of increasing dissatisfaction with high society life, not to mention the presence of an overbearing, opinionated mother-in-law. When Sophia does discover she's pregnant and the news reaches Rebecca, she's happy for the couple, but secretly it stings her as a crushing reminder of her own struggles. 
 
The doorbell rang and a maid attended to it, and it happened many times again. Safely closeted in his study, Edward listened to the cheerful hubbub of female voices and remembered that today the village charity knitting group was meeting in his parlour. How Rebecca had managed to persuade Sophia to open her doors to the gathering he could not imagine! Mrs Hayworth was turning into a real little vicar's wife, delegating here and twisting arms there in such a charming manner that one ended up agreeing to things without knowing it. Imagine if the country was run by women like Rebecca --- so much more would be accomplished in a far quieter and more reasonable way. A parliament full of determined women would be quite formidable --- but this was fanciful thinking! The only women in Parliament were the tea-ladies and the cleaners. Fancy the knit and natter group, as he called them, sitting in his parlour! They were probably putting the world, or at least the parish, to rights over a cup of tea, in a manner not unlike the House of Commons --- plus knitting needles. 



Image result for girl knitting
A Girl Knitting by Philippe Mercier (1689-1760)
 
 
While the Christian tones may read as heavy-handed to some who pick up this book, author Hannah Buckland's talents as a wordsmith prevent the sermonizing bits from being obnoxious or overtly preachy. All in all, the duology remains a cozy, sweet story of honest people going through real, everyday struggles that are timelessly relatable. 
 
There's also a bit of an education in just how much work goes into keeping a flock of sheep healthy!
 
FTC DISCLAIMER: Ambassador International Publishers kindly provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 

 

Review
4 Stars
Mirror Image by Michael Scott & Melanie Ruth Rose
Mirror Image: A Novel - Michael Scott
 
A mirror that feeds on human souls wreaks destruction on those around it in Mirror Image, the new novel from internationally bestselling author Michael Scott and Melanie Ruth Rose. In an auction house in London, there is a mirror no one will buy. Standing seven feet tall and reaching four feet across, its size makes it unusual. Its horrific powers make it extraordinary. For centuries, the mirror has fed off of the lives of humans, giving them agonizing deaths and sucking their souls into its hellish world. When Jonathan Frazer, the wealthy owner of a furniture and antiques shop in Los Angeles, buys the mirror at an auction, he believes he is getting the bargain of a lifetime. With its age and size, it is easily worth eight times what he paid for it. At this point, the mirror has sat dormant for years. But within days of Jonathan's purchase, the deaths begin again. One employee is crushed when the mirror falls on top of him. A few days later, the corpse of another is found in front of the mirror, brutally stabbed. A third is burned beyond all recognition. All the while, an enormous man with a scarred face is following Jonathan, demanding that he give him the mirror and killing any police officer that gets in his way.
The police are becoming desperate. As the death toll rises, Jonathan himself becomes a suspect. He knows there is something wrong with the mirror. He knows it's dangerous. But he cannot bring himself to get rid of it. Everyday he becomes more captivated by the mirror. For the mirror is awakening, and its powers are resurfacing.
Amazon.com
 
 
 
 
 
 
Los Angeles antiques dealer Jonathan Frazer attends an auction in London, England where he ends up seeing this giant standing mirror he suspects is several centuries old. The mirror is not particularly pretty, but is eye-catching in its sheer size, not to mention Jonathan feeling a strange, strong pull toward the piece. Figuring he can make a decent profit on it back home, he buys it for a song and has it shipped back to California. 
 
Though the mirror gave no hint of its evil secrets back in London, once the piece is in Frazer's workshop things start to turn weird almost instantly. In less than 10 chapters, we already have what... three deaths, I think it was? And not normal, sad but understandable freak accident kind of deaths... oh no, this story is full of total Final Destination-style candle snuffings. 
 
 
Image result for final destination gif
 
 
 
*Note to animal lovers: one of the deaths sadly involves the gruesome execution of a K-9 dog. I'm still bothered by that part. Yep, I'm one of those people who can watch / read horror and be disturbed but also quickly okay again with human characters being killed off... for some reason, my mind can say "it's just a story" in that scenario... but when the author does something to an innocent animal in the name of plot points... ugh, that messes me up for ages after I finish the story. 
 
 
Image result for crying reading gif
 
 
 
After the first death, that of Jonathan's close friend and antiques restorer, Tony Farren, a tall, noticeably disfigured man starts making visits to Jonathan, insisting that the mirror belongs to him, but Jonathan absolutely refuses to sell. The story later explains that this disfigured man is Edmund Talbott, a descendant of the family who has been guarding the mirror, keeping it out of the public eye, for centuries. Edmund is positive the evil power trapped within the mirror is responsible for the deaths of his wife and young son. Though he doesn't understand how the mirror came to fall out of the family's possession, he just wants to get it back under lock and key before any more people have to suffer. Tired of the death and destruction the mirror seems to incite, Edmund is hoping he can convince Jonathan to hand it back over before the pull becomes too strong for Frazer himself to resist.  Edmund's arrival may be too little too late. Jonathan has already spotted the face of a beautiful woman behind the glass. Once he catches this glimpse, he begins to slowly go mad with the need to free her. The night he discovers the mirror's response to blood sacrifices is the moment the plot truly takes a spiraling dive into dark, dark places of paranormal fiction. 
 
Image result for creepy mirror
 
 
Though paranormal fiction is one of my favorite genres, I'll admit I've not spent a lot of time with the horror genre in quite awhile, so my brain was a little unprepared for where this story was headed. To say the story gets weird doesn't even begin to cover it, but man, it was a fun ride! I found myself doing all the book version reactions of classic horror movie viewing: gasping, cringing, OMG-ing, covering my mouth but still frantically reading... the works! 
 
The writing style reminded me of classic Stephen King seasoned with a little CSI / Law & Order. Periodically, the plot will do a throwback chapter to a piece of the mirror's Elizabethan-era origin story, presented in the form of Jonathan's fevered dreams (the reader is typically informed that it was a dream in the following chapter). Essentially these dreams tell us that the mirror is old even in the Elizabethan era. John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, comes into possession of the mirror. Though he's not fully informed regarding its provenance, he does learn that the mirror has the means to foretell futures --- either possible or definitive --- through the use of intense human emotions experienced in its presence or bodily fluids rubbed over the glass surface. In short: intense anger, sadness, orgasms, blood, sperm, sweat... any of these will cause the mirror to share its secrets. But the offerings are brief and it quickly becomes evident the mirror needs constant "feedings" if one is to get any information from it. 
 
In addition to the paranormal elements, this story also incorporates the topics of remote viewing, scrying, and astral projection. The author's note at the end mentions that the novel was inspired by a bizarre true story involving Queen Elizabeth, John Dee, and a mirror she refused to look at unless he agreed to have it moved to his garden. 
 
 
 
 
 
Because of the legend developed around the mirror that it --- whatever "it" is that was put inside the mirror --- feeds off high human emotion and bodily fluid, yes, sex is mentioned in this story. OFTEN. And it's often in weird scenarios... sometimes a tad rapey, sometimes ending in murder as some of our MCs get further off the deep end under the influence of the mirror. I'm warning you now, it gets especially graphic and gruesome in the later chapters.... but even so, the writing itself is very well-written, gripping, creepy, and just plain GOOD. 
 
I don't know that I loved the ending though... and the very last line left me confused and with questions... but wow, it certainly made me interested to get into more of Michael Scott's work in the future!
 
 
Review
3 Stars
Haunted: Ghost Stories To Chill Your Blood --- an Andersen Press anthology
Haunted - Susan Cooper, Joseph Delaney, Berlie Doherty, Jamila Gavin, Matt Haig, Robin Jarvis, Derek Landy, Sam Llewellyn, Mal Peet, Philip Reeve, Eleanor Updale

A fantastic collection of ghost stories from leading children's authors

Derek Landy (Scepter of the Ancients), Philip Reeve (Mortal Engines), Joseph Delaney (Revenge of the Witch), Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising), Eleanor Updale (Montmorency), Jamila Gavin (Coram Boy), Mal Peet (Keeper), Matt Haig (Samuel Blink and the Forbidden Forest), Berlie Doherty (The Goblin Baby), Robin Jarvis (The Dark Portal), and Sam Llewellyn (Little Darlings) have come together to offer 11 ghost stories. The stories include a drowned boy who is determined to find someone to play with; a lost child trapped in a mirror, ready to pull you in; devilish creatures, waiting with bated breath for their next young victim; and an ancient woodland reawakened. Some will make you scream, some will make you shiver, but all will haunt you gently long after you've put the book down.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Cute ghost stories in that they are only spooky in the most mild way, seems like most of them are geared toward the middle grade audience. Definitely reminds me of the kind of anthologies I'd burn through when I was in about 4th-5th grade. Fun collection for campfire story sessions! My favorites were "Ghost In The Machine" by Eleanor Updale, "Ghost Walk" by Matt Haig, and The Little Ship's Boy by Bernie Doherty. (Truthfully, seeing Matt Haig's name listed on the cover is what prompted me to get into this book in the first place, being a fan of his writing).

 

It was interesting to see in the author bio blurbs at the back of this book that most of the authors featured here don't actually believe in ghosts themselves, only that that topic makes for fun "what if" writing material. I love that in Haig's blurb it's written that he thought he saw a ghost once when he was a child, "but it might have been a dream...he HAD eaten a lot of cheese that night..." LOL

Review
3.5 Stars
Glory Road by Lauren K. Denton
Glory Road - Lauren K. Denton

In one summer, everything will change. But for these three strong Southern women, the roots they’ve planted on Glory Road will give life to the adventures waiting just around the curve. Nearly a decade after her husband’s affair drove her back home to South Alabama, Jessie McBride has the stable life she wants—operating her garden shop, Twig, next door to her house on Glory Road, and keeping up with her teenage daughter and spunky mother. But the unexpected arrival of two men makes Jessie question whether she’s really happy with the status quo. When handsome, wealthy businessman Sumner Tate asks her to arrange flowers for his daughter’s lavish wedding, Jessie finds herself drawn to his continued attention. Then Ben Bradley, her lingering what-could-have-been from high school, moves back to the red dirt road, and she feels her heart pulled in directions she never expected. Meanwhile, Jessie’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Evan, is approaching the start of high school and navigating a new world of emotions—particularly as they relate to the cute new guy who’s moved in just down the road. At the same time, Jessie’s mother, Gus, is suffering increasingly frequent memory lapses and faces a frightening, uncertain future. The only thing certain is change—even in a place as steady as Perry, Alabama, on a street as old as Glory Road.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

For the past decade, Jessie McBride has been operating Twig, a garden shop next to her home on Glory Road in the small town of Perry, South Alabama. Having moved back to her hometown to rebuild her life after a failed marriage, all these years later Jessie suddenly finds herself juggling two potential love matches: Ben Bradley, that "one that got away" love from high school, who also recently moved back to town, and suave, successful, and wildly rich golf course engineer Sumner Tate... who stumbles into Jessie's shop when his grumbly belly directs him towards the sign advertising "free pie with purchase" at her shop. Impressed with her horticulture skills, Sumner wants to hire Jessie to do the flower arrangements for his daughter's upcoming nuptials.

 

While Jessie works out which way to take her heart, her daughter, Evan, is not only stepping into her first year of high school but also feeling her way through her first teenage crush... which just happens to be directed at Ben Bradley's son, just a few years older than Evan. Also in the mix is Jessie's mother, Gus (Augusta), who is sensing that she might be starting the early stages of dementia that previously took her own mother and grandmother. With all of these ladies, it's anyone's guess what the future will hold! 

 

This is a slow-burn style story, so if you're one for wild action and fast plot, you may need to sit this one out. Presented in chapters with rotating POVs between Jessie, Evan, and Gus, Glory Road is all about relationships --- whether it be the familial, friendship, or romantic-based variety --- all wrapped up in the cozy Southern setting of summer thunderstorms, porch swings, peach cobbler, and long night talks outside. Author Lauren Denton also makes the cute choice to start each chapter with a little snippet from various gardening manuals. The gardening tips are presented in a philosophical way, meant to subtly foreshadow the events of that chapter. Just out of curiosity, I looked up some of the titles to see if they were from actual manuals, but having no hits on those titles, I can only assume the manual excerpts were purely a figment of Denton's imagination --- I'm impressed! The tone sounded legit! 

 

 

 

 

 

The story itself sometimes went on a little long for me. It often felt like I was reading the same conversations multiple times over, just worded differently. 

 

The romance elements were also a little flat. I didn't find myself all that invested in the outcome of Jessie's love life either way. Sweet guys in general, but it was pretty clear where this story was headed from the very beginning, so the journey in that regard almost felt pointless. And Sumner got on my nerves a little bit. Sure, he was outwardly charming, but I didn't love how he seemed to like to lowkey flex his wealth around Jessie. The way he spoke to her also felt a little like he saw her as a novelty in a way, almost like he was getting a kick out of "slumming" it with someone beneath his tax bracket. That said, I loved seeing the growing relationship between Harvis and Gus --- now THAT got my heartstrings!

 

 

"I think you marry the one who, when everything else is stripped away --- money, job, arguments, disagreements, --- he's still the one you'd want to sit on the porch and .... just... do nothing. Or do anything. Pick the one who matters more than all the stuff of life."

 

Be ready to be at least a little frustrated with the story, as it ends up being one of those ones where a good majority of the problems could have been easily avoided if the main characters would've just been brave enough to say what they mean early on, and be clear about what they want. On one hand, it's a lesson in how fear can sometimes paralyze a person in the midst of their life path... but in the case of Jessie and Ben, they both end up having children with other people, and while the relationships don't work out, they both admit the choices they made were worth it to end up with their children. So, in a way, the story poses the question, is it really a life mistake just because the end result got messy, or merely an instance of unintentionally taking the long way 'round to where you were meant to be anyway?

 

For interested book groups, this paperback edition does include a discussion question guide at the back. 

 

 

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. 

 

 

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

 

EXTRAS

 

*A feature on Glory Road in Deep South magazine

 

 

Review
3 Stars
The Mermaid's Secret by Katie Schickel
The Mermaid's Secret - Katie Schickel

Life on land is suffocating for Jess Creary, who wastes her summers flipping burgers for tourists on a fishing boat off her quaint resort island home off the coast of Maine. After all, her older sister Kay died in a boating accident two years ago, her mother has disappeared, and her father isn't exactly dealing with things so well. Surfing and the handsome Captain Matthew are about the only bright spots in her life. Then, on her twenty-third birthday, Jess catches the perfect wave--a wave that transforms her into a mermaid. Under the sea, a startlingly beautiful, dark place, Jess is reborn into a confident, powerful predator with superhuman strength --finally she is someone to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, back on land, Jess's relationship with Captain Matthew heats up, and so does her search for justice for Kay. Jess has thirty days to choose between land and sea; legs and fins; her humanity and her freedom. Who could ignore the freedom of the sea? Yet, the ocean is a dark, wild, lonely place. Is this a gift or a curse? Will Jess choose family and love, forgiveness and truth, or will she be seduced by the wild call of the sparkling sea forever? 

Goodreads.com

 

 

 

 

Jess Creary tragically loses her older sister, Kay, in a boating accident. It's suspected that Kay's boyfriend, Tripp Sinclair, may have had something to do with the death. Not long after, her mother disappears. Now two years have passed and Jess and her father are still trying to find their footing in life again. Jess has been distracting herself with surfing, working as galley staff on charter fishing boats, and quietly crushing on young, hot Captain Matthew.

 

On her 23rd birthday, Jess's father gifts her a necklace charm that she later discovers helps her morph into a mermaid with superhuman strength. While unsure of herself on land, in the sea Jess becomes a strong predator to be feared and respected. For the time being, Jess has the ability to move between both worlds, but she's soon informed that she'll have to choose one world or the other within the next 30 days.

 

Though the characters are all supposed to be in their 20s or older, this read more like a YA novel. Much of the plot emphasis seemed to be more centered around navigating difficulties within family or friendships or summer jobs / romances rather than the paranormal aspect. I would've liked to have seen the story go deeper with the Native American mythology... until you get closer to the end of the book, the references are kinda minimal. Even the passages discussing Jess's experiences as a mermaid are brief.

 

A good light summer read, entertaining for what it is, I was just hoping for a little more depth and atmosphere overall.

Review
3 Stars
The Curiosity Keeper (Treasures of Surrey #1) by Sarah E. Ladd
The Curiosity Keeper (A Treasures of Surrey Novel) - Sarah E. Ladd

Camille Iverness can take care of herself. She’s done so since the day her mother abandoned the family and left Camille to run their shabby curiosity shop. But when a violent betrayal leaves her injured with no place to hide, Camille must allow a mysterious stranger to come to her aid. Jonathan Gilchrist never wanted to inherit Kettering Hall. As a second son, he was content to work as the village apothecary. But when his brother’s death made him heir just as his father’s foolish decisions put the estate at risk, only the sale of a priceless possession—a ruby called the Bevoy—can save the family from ruin. But the gem has disappeared. And all trails lead to Iverness Curiosity Shop—and the beautiful shop girl who may be the answer to his many questions. Caught at the intersection of blessings and curses, greed and deceit, these two determined souls must unite to protect what they hold dear. But when a passion that shines far brighter than any gem is ignited, they will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for their future, love, and happiness.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In 1812 London, Camille Iverness runs her father's curiosity shop. Jonathan Gilchrist is in London working as an apothecary when he is called back home to the family estate, Kettering Hall. His father, once a wealthy lord, is now in financial dire straits and has recently discovered that a prized item in his oddities collection, the Bevoy Ruby, has been stolen.  Gilchrist Sr. makes it clear he does not want the police involved. Though the relationship between Jonathan and his father is strained to say the least, it's put upon him to find the ruby and return it to Kettering Hall if there is to be any chance of saving the family fortune. Jonathan has no desire to help his father, but he understands that not trying to restore the family fortune could mean a life of financial strife and social ruination for his sister.

 

Jonathan travels back to London to call upon his late brother's best friend, Henry Darbin, now a private investigator. Darbin's initial investigating leads the two to suspect the Bevoy Ruby may be an item in the Iverness curiosity shop, Camille's father having a reputation around town for being a bit of a shady businessman. Camille and Jonathan meet when he comes to her aid after a cloaked man attacks and stabs Camille. Convinced that it's not safe for her to stay the night at her home, Jonathan convinces Camille to come to the London residence he shares with his sister, Penelope. 

 

At first, Camille only means to stay the night, but when a threat to her very life is revealed, it is decided that she will travel with Jonathan and Penelope back to Kettering Hall. P.I. Darbin doesn't like how close Jonathan is keeping Camille, but Jon reasons that she is the closest link they have to discovering the location of the ruby --- though she repeatedly insists up and down that she has absolutely no information about this gem. Jon also notes that, having recently been attacked, she is a woman in distress, so he is compelled, as a gentleman and a medical professional, to be of assistance where and when he can. 

 

 

"I admit that I threw quite a knot into our investigator's plan with my actions, but I would not act differently if I had the  chance. The Bevoy is merely a thing.  A trinket. Hardly worth the safety of a person. Besides, I am confident we will find it in time."

 

She knew better. Once gone, once in the underground markets and out of respectable hands, such a rarity was unlikely to reappear.

 

"I fear your father may not share your sentiment that the ruby is merely a trinket."

 

He smiled. "My father does not share a great number of my sentiments, Miss Iverness."

 

 

 

Jonathan and Camille get to know each other a little better once she sets up residence in his childhood home. On his suggestion, Camille applies for work at a nearby school. The Gilchrist family have long been patrons of the school, and Jonathan hopes to use his influence to nab her some sort of position on the staff there, even though she has minimal experience in that environment. Jon comes to see Camille --- at least in some small way --- as a kind of kindred spirit, mostly in the fact that they've both struggled with strained relationships with their respective fathers, a fact made undeniably evident when Jonathan witnesses James Iverness throw his daughter out  on the streets the day after her attack. 

 

Aside from the attack near the beginning of the story and some intrigue near the end, when certain characters reveal a secret side to their personalities (as well as secrets surrounding the Bevoy itself being revealed), very little in the way of action happens in this story. It's pretty much kept to a scene change or two punctuated by numerous slow, quiet conversations.

 

The dialogue has an odd flow at times. It was particularly noticeable with Penelope. Though, yes, she is a woman of "high breeding", as they say, her words from time to time came off a little stiff and overly formal for the company she was addressing, especially since her character is a young woman, not an elderly, stuffy dame type.

 

Jonathan is an admirably stand-up kind of guy, with a good moral code, despite his family's objections to him working in a "lowly" profession. The proposed romance between him and Camille was certainly under-developed. It was a good friendship at best, considering they hardly spent any "alone time" together, and the time they did spend in each other's company was strongly platonic in nature, hardly any signs of flirtation ever.... beyond the occasional slight grin across a room. There's some opportunity for them to grow close at one point when Camille works as Jonathan's assistant during a scarlet fever outbreak, but even then we see only the faintest roots developed for the bond one might expect to lead to forever love.

 

All in all, a mystery set up to be potentially captivating... and while entertaining, the plot ultimately suffered from being built on several underdeveloped points that never quite hit satisfactory fruition. 

 

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
2.5 Stars
The Warrior Maiden (Hagenheim #9) by Melanie Dickerson
The Warrior Maiden - Melanie Dickerson

When Mulan takes her father’s place in battle against the besieging Teutonic Knights, she realizes she has been preparing for this journey her whole life—and that her life, and her mother’s, depends on her success. As the adopted daughter of poor parents, Mulan has little power in the world. If she can’t prove herself on the battlefield, she could face death—or, perhaps worse, marriage to the village butcher.Disguised as a young man, Mulan meets the German duke’s son, Wolfgang, who is determined to save his people even if it means fighting against his own brother. Wolfgang is exasperated by the new soldier who seems to be one step away from disaster at all times—or showing him up in embarrassing ways.

From rivals to reluctant friends, Mulan and Wolfgang begin to share secrets. But war is an uncertain time and dreams can die as quickly as they are born. When Mulan receives word of danger back home, she must make the ultimate choice. Can she be the son her bitter father never had? Or will she become the strong young woman she was created to be?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In Dickerson's take on the Chinese legend, Mulan has been adopted into a European family in 15th century Lithuania. When war comes to the area, teenage Mulan decides to disguise herself as a man to take the place of her father, who had passed away. Mulan has numerous reasons for taking on this dangerous mission of sorts --- not only does she herself crave the chance to find adventure and a sense of purpose, but she also doesn't want to see her mother have to face possible homelessness!

 

Her family's well-being now reliant on her success as a soldier, Mulan goes into battle against the Teutonic Knights. Should she fail to bring honor and victory to her family and community, the alternatives could be either death or being married off to the local butcher, Algirdas, a union likely to lead to a lifetime of soul-crushing hard labor for Mulan. Also along for the journey is Mulan's childhood friend, Andrei, who poses as her body servant. He's in on her secret, naturally, but does his part to keep the truth under wraps... in more ways than one.

 

Disguised as a man, going by her father's name, Mikolai, Mulan meets Wolfgang, the son of the duke of the German town of Hagenheim. Wolfgang was pushed to join the army after his brother, Steffan, went against their father's wishes and chose to join ranks with the enemy, the ruthless Teutonic Knights. Now odds are good that the two will have to face each other on the battlefield. (Note: If you read the earlier Aladdin installment in this series ---- The Orphan's Wish ---- Wolfgang and Steffan are the brothers of Kirstyn, the love interest of Aladdin from that book. Another of Wolfgang's sisters are also featured in Hagenheim #6: The Golden Braid, the Rapunzel retelling).

 

Wolfgang initially sees Mulan as just a fumbling embarrassment of a soldier, but over time a slow friendship develops. He also notices that while Mulan's sword skills could use some work, she's actually an impressive archer and solid equestrian. 

 

I've seen quite a few high reviews of this book from reviewers who admit they know nothing of the origins of the story of Mulan, either through the Disney version or the original story the movie is based on. Being pretty familiar with both myself, I felt like Dickerson's Mulan was only a tepid nod to the fierceness and bravery of the original figure. It only lightly touches on the elements of honor and strength within the original Mulan's character that made her such a force to be reckoned with in the stories.

 

 

I also struggled with a number of things within the plot itself:

 

* While the friendship between Mulan and Wolfgang is sweet and builds naturally, the romance is largely one dimensional. Not to mention how her decision to call him "Wolfie" brought out serious cringe in me. 

 

* The pace of the story ran pretty slow for what you might expect in this kind of story, but I give extra points for the bit of excitement brought in near the end when it's decided that the fate of Mulan's mother will hinge on the outcome of a jousting tournament.

 

* This series in general... though I've only read from #6 on and am working on backtracking to the earlier ones .... but man, in these latest installments, there is so much white savior complex written into these retellings, it kinda ruins the spirit of the original legends for me. 

 

* The Warrior Maiden, with the Christian undertones that are worked into the entire series, came out much more preachy than previous books. For me, it didn't flow all that naturally in this environment, but more awkward... the way it was pushed into the dialogue at times read clunky to me.

 

I'm curious to backtrack into the earlier installments of this series and see how some of these characters had originally started out and where they go from here; to date, my favorite has been The Silent Songbird, the Little Mermaid re-imagining, 

 

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
Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams
The Summer Wives - Beatriz Williams

In the summer of 1951, Miranda Schuyler arrives on elite, secretive Winthrop Island as a schoolgirl from the margins of high society, still reeling from the loss of her father in the Second World War. When her beautiful mother marries Hugh Fisher, whose summer house on Winthrop overlooks the famous lighthouse, Miranda’s catapulted into a heady new world of pedigrees and cocktails, status and swimming pools. Isobel Fisher, Miranda’s new stepsister—all long legs and world-weary bravado, engaged to a wealthy Island scion—is eager to draw Miranda into the arcane customs of Winthrop society.

But beneath the island’s patrician surface, there are really two clans: the summer families with their steadfast ways and quiet obsessions, and the working class of Portuguese fishermen and domestic workers who earn their living on the water and in the laundries of the summer houses. Uneasy among Isobel’s privileged friends, Miranda finds herself drawn to Joseph Vargas, whose father keeps the lighthouse with his mysterious wife. In summer, Joseph helps his father in the lobster boats, but in the autumn he returns to Brown University, where he’s determined to make something of himself. Since childhood, Joseph’s enjoyed an intense, complex friendship with Isobel Fisher, and as the summer winds to its end, Miranda’s caught in a catastrophe that will shatter Winthrop’s hard-won tranquility and banish Miranda from the island for nearly two decades.

Now, in the landmark summer of 1969, Miranda returns at last, as a renowned Shakespearean actress hiding a terrible heartbreak. On its surface, the Island remains the same—determined to keep the outside world from its shores, fiercely loyal to those who belong. But the formerly powerful Fisher family is a shadow of itself, and Joseph Vargas has recently escaped the prison where he was incarcerated for the murder of Miranda’s stepfather eighteen years earlier. What’s more, Miranda herself is no longer a naïve teenager, and she begins a fierce, inexorable quest for justice for the man she once loved . . . even if it means uncovering every last one of the secrets that bind together the families of Winthrop Island.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

In the summer of 1951, Miranda Schulyer comes to Winthrop Island. Having lost her father in the war, Miranda and her mother have now relocated to the island where her mother has recently become engaged to wealthy Hugh Fisher. Miranda is immediately thrown into a whole new heady world of money and spoiled socialites, one being her new stepsister, Isobel Fisher. While finding her footing in this new arena of privilege, Miranda also becomes acquainted with the other side, the island's working class, made up mostly of immigrant families. Befriending Joseph Vargas, the lighthouse keeper's son, Miranda gets to see all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into keeping the world of the elite running smoothly.

 

Isobel, having grown up around Joseph, is already deeply attached to him. The more time Miranda spends around him, the stronger her interest grows as well. Is that a flirtation she senses between Isobel and Joseph, or is Miranda misreading the cues? It looks like it's not just her with suspicions --- Isobel happens to be engaged, and one night her fiance pulls Miranda aside to specifically ask her to keep Isobel away from Joseph. 

 

The Vargas family line is a little tricky to keep straight, especially once Hugh Fisher gets thrown in the mix, but I think it's something like this (the story the reader is given through flashback scenes): In the 1930s, Hugh falls in love with Francisca, who is engaged to Pascoal Vargas, the lighthouse keeper. Bianca Medeiro, a cousin of Francisca's, works in the local convenience store and is secretly in love with Hugh. Hugh begins to pay attention to Bianca, flirt with her (maybe as a consolation prize?). Bianca envisions a real future between them as husband and wife, but he warns her right off the bat that he's "a drunkard and a cad"... but she only sees "an artist, a dreamer". To complicate matters further, Hugh himself is engaged to socialite Abigail Dumont while he's continuing this dalliance with Bianca. When Bianca finally sees the truth that her fairytale life is not to be, she goes and cheats Francisca out of HER potential HEA. And so implodes the Vargas family line with drama and subsequent tragedies.

 

By 1951, when Miranda's part of the story starts, Abigail and Hugh have long been divorced, allowing for Hugh and Miranda's mother to marry. 

 

The story fast-forwards to 1969. Miranda is now well into adulthood, an internationally beloved movie star married to a highly respected director. But something seems to have happened between them because out of the blue, Miranda decides to return to Winthrop Island for a family visit, her first in quite some time. Islanders are suspicious that her arrival is connected to the news that Joseph Vargas, who has been incarcerated for many years for the murder of Hugh Fisher, has recently escaped prison. Readers are only given a few details here and there regarding the night that forever changed Joseph Vargas' life, some of those details casting doubt as to if he was really to blame or merely took the fall to protect someone else.

 

Though Miranda might be curious to know what's really going on with Joseph, her summer is frenzied enough between helping her mother do renovations to the Fisher mansion, catching up with old acquaintances, and getting to know her teenage half-brother she hadn't met before this trip back home. 

 

" I know it's not the Winthrop way. We don't ask questions. We pretend everything is just fine and then drink ourselves to death. Or get murdered by the lighthouse keeper, for some reason nobody on this damned island is ever going to talk about."

 ~ Hugh Fisher, Jr. 

 

During Miranda's flashback memories, enlightening the reader as to why she so suddenly decided to return to Winthrop Island, we learn of this mildly Svengali-esque relationship she's had over the years with her director husband, Carroll, an older man. Over time, this union has gradually become more and more abusive. Miranda feels pulled to return to the island as she tries to come to terms with a recent tragedy of her own. When comparing these various flashback scenes looking back over several decades, there are similarities between the way Carroll treats Miranda in the 1950s-60s and how Hugh is with Bianca in the 1930s.

 

Fans of light historical fiction will likely eat this one up. The family dramas over the multiple generations and eras of history are entertaining, though a bit slow in pace for me at times. I have to say, my favorite scene was the Moon Landing party where Miranda makes a note of the crescent moon that night, and another girl at the party comments, "You'd think they'd wait for a full moon to do this." The way it's described as everyone slowly turning to look at her... honest LOL moment for me!

 

The last portion of the book veered a little too far into soap opera territory for me, and the big reveal moment wasn't too hard to guess, long before the scene actually came. 

 

** NOTE: There is some mildly sexually explicit material scattered throughout the novel.

 

 

FTC DISCLAIMER: William Morrow (HarperCollins) Publishing 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
Overseas by Beatriz Williams
Overseas - Beatriz Williams

A passionate, sweeping novel of a love that transcends time.

When twenty-something Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson attracts the notice of the legendary Julian Laurence at a business meeting, no one’s more surprised than she is. Julian’s relentless energy and his extraordinary intellect electrify her, but she’s baffled by his sudden interest. Why would this handsome British billionaire "Manhattan’s most eligible bachelor” pursue a pretty but bookish young banker who hasn’t had a boyfriend since college?


The answer is beyond imagining . . . at least at first. Kate and Julian’s story may have begun not in the moneyed world of twenty-first-century Manhattan but in France during World War I, when a mysterious American woman emerged from the shadows of the Western Front to save the life of Captain Julian Laurence Ashford, a celebrated war poet and infantry officer.

Now, in modern-day New York, Kate and Julian must protect themselves from the secrets of the past, and trust in a true love that transcends time and space.
Amazon.com
 
 
 
 
In 2007, twenty-five year old Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson gets friendly with British hedge fund CEO / billionaire Julian Laurence at a work meeting. While she's drawn to him, she's actually surprised by his level of reciprocated interest in her. She's more of a bookish sort than a seductress, so what would someone like him see in her?
 
Spending more time with Julian, she comes to find out that their connection may actually date back to 1916, when WW1 infantry officer JL Ashford was saved by a mystery woman on the Western Front. Once this premise is laid out, the storyline can get a little complicated to keep straight. It seems Kate knows Julian during the World War 1 era of the story, recollecting her "past" in the future, trying to explain it to him. Julian goes through something similar in modern times when his memories are retained by Kate's are not.... I think?
 
The concept is not bad, but the characters themselves are collectively cringey.
 
** Charlie, a friend / co-worker of Kate's has this Pauley Shore-like way of talking that grew increasingly grating to read. 
 
** I was not impressed with Julian unnecesarily causing potential traffic accidents (while already navigating a Maserati through NYC traffic with difficulty!) just to kiss Kate. Yes, romance is great... but needless manslaughter kinda kills the mood... at least for me.
 
"A guy's gotta have a little fun once in awhile," so says Julian. 
 
** Kate could be ridiculously dramatic at times. She falls into a fountain of tears in his driveway over a job loss like someone just died. She gets into a spot of trouble but goes off on Julian for wanting to spend money to keep her safe. He lets her stay at his house, but tries to be a gentleman, setting her up in the guest room. Again, explosion of emotions because he didn't assume they should just bed together. Poor guy can't win a lot of the time with her.... but at the same time, Julian does have moments where he can come off a little presumptuous in his actions.
 
For much of the book I just wasn't buying these two as the perfect fit, but I did like the time traveling adventure. My favorite scene was Julian figuring out how to cross time periods to pull Kate away from boarding an ill-fated ship. She likewise had a similar journey to save his 1916 self from a painful fate. So that aspect of the story was pretty cool to think on, imagining an enduring love like that. I just struggled at times to really feel the spark between these two. The plot itself can get slow at times as well, but if you stay committed, the interesting stuff picks back up about twelve chapters in when Julian's big secret slowly starts to be revealed.
 
And for sticking with this whirlwind til the very end, Williams rewards her readers with a pretty romantically staged HEA. 
Review
3 Stars
Beating Heart: A Ghost Story by A.M. Jenkins
Beating Heart: A Ghost Story - A.M. Jenkins

This house

is mine

and

I am

its beating heart.

 

She is a ghost: a figure glimpsed from the corner of your eye, a momentary chill, and a memory of secret kisses and hidden passion. He is 17 years old: Evan Calhoun, warm and alive, and ever since moving to this big abandoned house, he has dreamt of her. Ghost and boy fascinate each other–until her memories and his desire collide in a moment that changes them both.

Combining verse fragments with chiseled prose, A. M. Jenkins captures the compelling voice of a long–dead ghost and the perspective of a modern teen, twining mystery and romance in this evocative, sensual, and unrelentingly engrossing novel.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

Evan Calhoun's parents have recently split up. Seventeen year old Evan, his mom, and little sister, all move into this previously long-abandoned mansion his mother is gung-ho about renovating as she pursues a writing career. Also inhabiting the house is the ghost of Cora Royce, who was accidentally murdered in the house at the age of sixteen many, many years ago. Something about Evan reminds Cora of her former (and only) love. Cora comes to Evan in his dreams, giving him sexual experiences that his very much living girlfriend can't compete with. 

 

 

 

Evan's mom finds a dusty, old lock box during some of the renovations. She doesn't find much inside that interests her, so she gives it to Evan. Evan digs into the papers and photos inside. While he finds it interesting, he's also left exasperated that it only offers a few wispy details regarding the life of Cora. There is a photo of her though, which he finds himself quite drawn to, though he also acknowledges how odd it feels to lust after a face long since dead. Evan becomes so consumed and distracted with thoughts of Cora that he begins to forget to pay attention to his girlfriend, Carrie. When they do spend time together, either Evan just seems to want to get right to having sex at the start of each visit, or he's annoyed with Carrie because he feels she's developed this habit of nit-picking every aspect of their relationship. From time to time, there are scenes between Evan and Carrie that Cora shows the reader mirror the more difficult aspects of the brief relationship Cora had with her love interest.

 

 

 

Evan tells his story in classic novel form (and very short chapters) while Cora's voice comes through in verse novel form. 

 

There was potential here for a pretty neat paranormal story, but the main faultline in the writing is that for such a short book, so many ideas were started but never fully developed. The flow felt clogged with a jumble of plot scenarios the author presented but never entirely followed through on... almost like listening to someone share a pretty good story but then switch topics entirely abruptly, never returning to the main thought. It makes for an aggravating reading experience, for sure. 

 

Weirdly, the main emphasis is put on sex. SO much time is spent illustrating raging teenage hormones. Things become complicated when Evan feels torn between conflicting emotions he's having for both his living girlfriend, Carrie, and the spirit of Cora. Evan decides to have a serious sit-down chat with Carrie (not bringing up Cora, just a "where we stand" kind of talk), and not surprisingly does not handle the situation all that well. 

 

 

 

For most of the story, I wasn't connecting with any of these characters. The writing overall is good, and Evan's little sister, Libby, is very cute in her innocence about the world... and I did feel sad for her, the way she often so desperately wanted just a little attention from anyone.... but the story didn't really tap into my feels until the sit-down scene with Carrie. Evan's growing emotional distance from her means she's forced to experience some pretty tough emotional territory. These are emotions and experiences that are difficult for anyone at any age in a committed relationship, but wow, especially hard at sixteen when most don't yet have the luxury of developed emotional maturity to fall back on to help get them through such hurdles. Everything feels so much more immense at sixteen. But considering the bombshell she's given, I thought Carrie handled it all with admirable grace & dignity. 

 

If you're a GAC fan and remember the Valentine's Day special years ago (one of my all time favorite episodes), this story kinda gave me Zak & Jerusha vibes ... but in YA form LOL

 

Review
4 Stars
One Kiss From You (Switching Places duology #2) by Christina Dodd
One Kiss From You - Christina Dodd

A bold woman known as the "duchess of Magnus" was wagered—and won—in a card game. But the woman who arrived was her shy, quiet cousin Eleanor.

Eleanor de Lacy must have been mad to agree to exchange identities with her stronger-willed cousin. She would never convince Remington Knight of the folly of this union—especially since the man seemed so determined for it to take place. Worse still, she finds Remington dazzlingly attractive—and she's charmed by his attempts to seduce her, even though he believes she is already his. But if he ever learns of Eleanor's deception, this daring rogue will wreak havoc . . . upon her reputation and her heart.

Remington had expected a haughty, unbending aristocrat who would ensure his entrance into good society. But this "duchess" is a most pleasant surprise—modest, warm-hearted, endearingly awkward, and a delight to the eye. In short, she is exactly the sort of bride Remington could fall passionately, completely in love with . . .

. . . if he weren't so intent on his revenge.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

In this sequel to Dodd's Scandalous Again, we get a follow-up episode regarding what happened to Madeline de Lacy's meek cousin Eleanor after she was foisted (in a way) onto Madeline's intended, Remington Knight.

 

So if you missed or forgot Book 1, here's the deal. Madeline de Lacy, duchess of Magnus, was promised in marriage to American businessman Remington Knight, after Madeline's father lost a card game to Knight. She goes on the trip to meet up with Knight, her cousin Eleanor in tow as an escort, but en route, Madeline comes up with this plan where Eleanor is to go on ahead and present herself as Madeline, while the real Madeline goes in disguise to another high stakes poker tournament to try to find a way to win back the family fortune her father lost. It's explained in the first book how the two look enough alike to often pass as siblings and often enough have been mistaken for each other, so she figures it's a solid plan. Madeline has every intention of Eleanor only being in this position temporarily, but as it often goes with these kinds of things, the plan in reality turns a lot more complicated than it went in Madeline's mind. 

 

Unbeknownst to either Madeline or Eleanor, Remington is seeking revenge against the de Lacy family, so he knew exactly what he was doing going after Madeline. It is Remington's belief that Madeline's father is responsible for the demise of Knight's family; now Remington is set on taking down every de Lacy one at a time. He hears rumors that Madeline is bold and outspoken in nature, so he's looking forward to the challenge of "breaking" her. Imagine his surprise when "Madeline" arrives but instead of the expected strong-willed, spoiled snob he's looking to train down, he meets with Eleanor's (posing as Madeline) humble, kind, demure way of moving through the world. Remington is also thrown by her bookish tendencies... not something previously attributed to Madeline, as he understood. Regardless, he admits he's looking forward to seducing his beautiful bride-to-be... while also carrying out his revenge plot, of course. 

 

 

"I thought you would object. I find it easier to ask forgiveness than beg permission."

 

~ Remington's reasoning on why he bought Eleanor a whole new wardrobe without consulting her on anything

 

 

Eleanor likewise comes into this meeting with preconceived notions of Mr. Knight. She's heard this Boston native described as an "American barbarian from the colonies"... but on first sight, her initial impression decides he is "hewn from rugged granite and adolescent dreams". Someone catch this girl, she's falling! LOL Still, she must keep her cool and ride this charade out just long enough for Madeline to arrive and come clean to Knight about all this. Until then.... she'll just have to dodge his questions about her repeatedly speaking in third person. 

 

Madeline's aunt is called in as a chaperone for Eleanor until the wedding date. Knight might throw some sly looks his fiancee's way, maybe a naughty hand once in awhile, but for the most part he wants to keep things above board until the wedding night. But as you'll see, easier said than done with these two. Madeline's aunt naturally realizes it's really Eleanor from the start but for her own reasons she'll later explain, decides to keep mum about it. It's mentioned that Eleanor and Madeline's aunt are not related, so I'm guessing that means Eleanor is a cousin on the father's side? 

 

Eleanor's anxiety doesn't end there. This poor girl spends the majority of the story in fear of having the secret revealed. During one ball, she figures her cover is blown for sure when she runs into a best friend of Madeline but soon realizes the girl won't stop talking long enough to notice it's not really Madeline she's speaking with! In several other moments, Eleanor has the repeated occurrence of people saying "so nice to meet you again", believing they are speaking with Madeline. Eleanor wonders if maybe she might actually pull this off! And then she comes face-to-face with her own evil stepmother. But here again is a relative who seems to have their own motives for going along with the ruse, at least for awhile.

 

The story in this sequel takes longer to get off the ground than its predecessor, but once again Dodd crafts a truly interesting and cute coupling. There's just the right amount of early dislike, mystery around Knight's background --- Dodd initially writes him as a bit of a thug type, but is he really? --- and there's good character development all around to boot! While Eleanor starts out as the meek, skittish push-over type, it is wonderful to see her find her backbone later in the story. Everyone has their "enough is enough!" line and I inwardly cheered to see a liberated Eleanor find hers. And funny thing, her bold, confident side ends up being a huge turn-on to Remington, much to his surprise! He spends all this time thinking he's going to love training his wife into this broken, submissive thing but sure enough having a woman call him out and say NO from time to time ends up being the unexpected aphrodisiac for him! 

 

The ending was a bit sappy-sappy for my taste, but overall it was a nice wrap-up to the adventures of the de Lacy ladies. Fun, lighthearted escapism... no complaints here! 

 

 

Review
4 Stars
Scandalous Again (Switching Places duology #1) by Christina Dodd
Scandalous Again - Christina Dodd

Madeline de Lacy, the duchess of Magnus, prides herself on being one of the most sensible young women in England, which is why she can't believe that, in a turn of the cards, her noble father has lost his entire estate -- and her! -- to a stranger. On a mission to salvage her family fortune, she changes places with her cousin and companion, sending the meeker Eleanor to confront the man who had won Madeline's hand. Now, Madeline is free to enter the home of a notorious gambler, and pretends to be meek, humble, and competent with an iron. She is, of course, none of those things; she simply is resolved to win her family's fortune back. Just when she thinks matters can't get worse, she meets Gabriel Ansell, the earl of Campion, and they do. Horribly worse. Four years ago, Madeline was engaged to Gabriel, and worshiped his arrogant kisses. Now, being forced to marry a man she doesn't know pales in comparison to the ordeal of facing Gabriel again, the man who betrayed her -- Gabriel, the only man she ever loved.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Suffolk, England, 1806: Madeline de Lacy, duchess of Magnus, is handed over to a stranger via her father's lost poker wager. Madeline's hand in marriage --- and, in turn, the family estate itself --- is given to newly wealthy American businessman Remington Knight. Having no intention of giving everything up so easily, Madeline makes the appearance of traveling to meet with Remington, her meek cousin Eleanor along as escort.... but en-route puts forth her plan that Eleanor present herself, posing as Madeline, to Knight --- just temporarily, she assures Eleanor!  Meanwhile, the real Madeline intends to crash another high stakes poker game in hopes of finding a way to win back her family's fortune. 

 

Her plan isn't as easily executed as she'd hoped. Madeline finds a way into the poker game while maintaining her disguise, but it means she has to pose as the companion to Lady Thomasin, stepdaughter of Lady Tabard. Tabard is trying to get Thomasin married off to Thurston Rumbelow, the host of the poker tournament. (Sidenote: there is a proposal scene involving Thomasin and another man, that the way it's set up, the dialogue... it almost definitely pulled inspiration from the ick-laden proposal scene between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Collins in Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. Just sayin'.)

 

Madeline nearly blows her cover quite a few times, being that she is actually a woman of noble birth, and accustomed to being catered to; her tendency to be strong-willed and outspoken tends not to mesh well with the expected decorum of a servant.

 

Madeline's plotting also brings an unexpected reunion with her ex-fiance, Gabriel Ansell, Earl of Campion. He recognizes her immediately, but intrigued by what she's up to with the disguise, chooses not to let on to anyone else. He also still has a bit of a flame for her, so the environment proves advantageous for him possibly winning her back. It'll be tough going for him though, since things didn't end great between them and Madeline is still sore about it. 

 

Gabriel also has his own secret plot he's working on. It's believed that Rumbelow is actually a thief / spy hoping to win the favor of Napoleon, and that he has some connection to the suspicious death of Gabriel's younger brother. Gabriel intends to both win Madeline again AND avenge the loss of his brother. Oh, and yeah, win the poker game of course!

 

Scandalous Again has a nice blend of everything you want in a good light-hearted romance. Madeline and Gabriel's interactions are a hoot to read, very reminiscent of Rhett and Scarlett from Gone With The Wind. And as far as chemistry, they are perfectly suited to each other. There's also extra comedy brought in the form of Gabriel's opinionated, grumbly valet, MacAllister. MacAllister and Madeline aren't on the best footing most of the story, but it's fun to see their bond progress once they iron out their differences. 

 

There's also a healthy dose of action and suspense near the end!

 

If you get to the end of this one and wonder how things fared for Cousin Eleanor, her story is addressed in the follow-up novel, One Kiss From You.

 

 

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* My review for One Kiss From You found HERE.

 

 

 

Review
2 Stars
The Secrets of Paper & Ink by Lindsay Harrel
The Secrets of Paper and Ink  - Lindsay Harrel

Brought together by a charming bookstore in England, three women fight to defy expectations, dream new dreams, and welcome love into their lives. 

As a counselor, Sophia Barrett is trained to help people cope with their burdens. But when she meets a new patient whose troubles mirror her own, she realizes she hasn’t dealt with the pain of her recent past. After making a snap decision to get away for the summer, Sophia moves overseas to an apartment above a charming bookstore in Cornwall, England. She is hopeful she will find peace there surrounded by her favorite thing: great literature. Bookstore owner Ginny Rose is desperate to save her business without asking for help from a husband who’s decided to take a break from their marriage. Ginny never imagined she’d be solely responsible for keeping afloat her husband’s dream, but the unexpected friendship with her new renter has her feeling more optimistic. Between the two of them—and Ginny’s brother-in-law, William—the bookstore might stand a chance. Then Sophia finds a notebook in the bookstore that contains journal entries from Emily Fairfax, a governess who lived in Cornwall more than 150 years ago. Sophia learns that Emily harbored a secret passion for becoming an authoress—as well as a deep love for her childhood friend, Edward, whose station she dared not dream to touch. Eager to know more of Emily’s story, Sophia goes on a quest—dragging Ginny and William with her—to discover the heart of the woman behind the beautiful entries. Soon Ginny’s need to save the bookstore becomes more than a way to save her marriage, and Sophia finds new purpose of her own. Together they find that sometimes both heartache and hope can reach across the centuries.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

As a counselor to victimized women, Sophia Barrett is quite skilled at offering solutions and guiding her clients to a place of healing. When it comes to her own hurts? Not so much. Sophia recently suffered an emotional breakdown following the one year anniversary of the death of her fiance, David. Her feelings around the death are complicated, as it is revealed to readers that, to some degree, the relationship was beginning to take an abusive turn just prior to David's passing.

 

Wanting to finally face and resolve the long avoided issues and emotions within herself, Sophia makes a spur of the moment decision to rent a flat above a bookshop in Cornwall, England. The property owner, Ginny Rose, has her own struggles and soon enough both ladies come to lean on each other, bonded through their mutual hard-luck experiences. In Ginny's case, it's a combination of the bookshop struggling to make a profit and the state of her marriage growing increasingly rocky. Even though the shop started as the dream of Ginny's husband, he's largely checked out of both the business and the relationship. Having given up everything for him, Ginny is determined to throw everything she's got into keeping the shop financially afloat because it's the only home she feels she has left. 

 

Though the bond between Sophia and Ginny might have started on a tenant - landlord footing, they're soon unbreakable best friends. Sophia starts helping Ginny revamp the shop to draw in more customers. During one lengthy book sorting process, Sophia comes across what looks like a reprinting of a journal belonging to one Miss Emily Fairfax, a Cornwall governess from over 150 years ago (The Secrets of Paper and Ink actually opens with a bit of Emily's story). Intrigued by the story of star-crossed love she finds in the journal pages, Sophia dedicates herself to unearthing more on the life of Ms. Fairfax. In the process, she finds a new romance herself, with none other than Ginny's brother-in-law.

 

This book will likely have plenty of high praise simply for the fact that it is a story set around a bookshop. As far as the specific plot here itself.... everything was just much too convenient for me: Ginny needs a new website for the shop but can't really afford a top tier web designer, but husband Garrett's good friend just happens to be a web designer who likes Ginny so much he'll happily do it for free... Boom. Suddenly she has mad business to the shop with very little work necessary on her end. Sophia wants to research the life of Emily Fairfax, but overwhelmed with where to start. No worries, her new crush just happens to have a professor friend who has just the right connections for Sophia to find every answer she seeks in only 2-3 steps. Everything, even down to the "twist" at the end is just SO PREDICTABLE IT'S BORING.

 

The dialogue is silly and cringey a good part of the time. With the exception of the Emily / Edward passages, nearly every character in this story feels way too 2-D.

 

Christian themes are not all that present until the closing chapters, where Harrel chooses to douse readers with it all at once right before they go. 

 

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. 

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