4.5 Stars
Auschwitz Lullaby by Mario Escobar
Auschwitz Lullaby - Mario Escobar

Based on the true story of a brave German nurse tasked with caring for Auschwitz’s youngest prisoners. Auschwitz Lullaby brings to life the story of Helene Hannemann—a woman who sacrificed everything for family and fought furiously for the children she hoped to save. On an otherwise ordinary morning in 1943, Helene Hannemann is preparing her five children for the day when the German police arrive at her home. Helene’s worst fears come true when the police, under strict orders from the SS, demand that her children and husband, all of Romani heritage, be taken into custody. Though Helene is German and safe from the forces invading her home, she refuses to leave her family—sealing her fate in a way she never could have imagined. After a terrifying trek across the continent, Helene and her family arrive at Auschwitz and are thrown into the chaos of the camp. Her husband, Johann, is separated from them, but Helene remains fiercely protective of her children and those around her. When the powers-that-be discover that Helene is not only a German but also a trained nurse, she is forced into service at the camp hospital, which is overseen by the notorious Dr. Mengele himself. Helene is under no illusions in terms of Dr. Mengele’s intentions, but she agrees to cooperate when he asks her to organize a day care and school for the Romani children in the camp. Though physically and emotionally brutalized by the conditions at Auschwitz, Helene musters the strength to protect the children in her care at any cost. Through sheer force of will, Helene provides a haven for the children of Auschwitz—an act of kindness and selflessness so great that it illuminates the darkest night of human history. Based on a true story, Mario Escobar’s Auschwitz Lullaby demonstrates the power of sacrifice and the strength of human dignity—even when all hope seems lost.





In the year 1943, Helene Hannemann is getting her husband and five kids ready for the day one morning when SS officers burst in and demand that the husband and five children be taken into custody. Helene's husband is Romani (making the children half so) but Helene is German, so she is encouraged to leave them and start a new life elsewhere. What kind of self-respecting mother abandons her family though? To the officers' bafflement she stays put, insisting she goes wherever her family goes. 


I always wanted to believe that people would wake up and see what Hitler and his followers represented, but no one did. Everyone went right along with his fanatical insanity and turned the world into a starving, warring hell.


The entire family is put on a train headed to the concentration camps. Mother and children are sent to Auschwitz... or more specifically, Birkenau (aka Auschwitz 2), the Romani division of the imprisoned. Helene's husband, Johann, is sent elsewhere but where exactly takes some time for Helene to discover. In the absence of her husband, Helene's eldest son, Blaz, takes up the "man of the house" position, covertly eavesdropping / spying around camp for any intel that may help keep the family safe. The span of the novel covers Helene's time in the camp from May - December 1943. *Note: Chapter 15 jumps to 1944.*


He was still beautiful to me despite being battered by life... it was the beautiful face of the man I loved... it was incomprehensible to any but a woman in love who had just found her long-lost beloved.  When you find the one you love, everything is on fire. The half of you that was destroyed and abandoned fits together again, and the pain and suffering become ghosts from the long-distant past. 


When news gets out that Helene is a trained nurse, it reaches the ears of Dr. Josef Mengele. Helene is put to work in Mengele's hospital. She's heard stories of his evil side, but wants to do everything in her power to protect the innocent children in the camps.


Impressed by her skills, he offers her another position: he wants her to be the director of a school / nursery he is creating for the children of the camps. Though Helene has an inkling of suspicious regarding his motives, she remains optimistic that some good can come from such a project. For one, she's been promised that her children may be moved to a cleaner, safer housing area... so she hesitantly agrees. From then on it is a constant struggle for her, fighting for the welfare of the children while not angering Mengele too much to potentially hasten the end of her own life. 


The novel opens and closes with the thoughts of Mengele, his memories of Helene, but the bulk of it is Helene's tale to tell. And what a story this is! As this is based on a true story, many of the "characters" you'll get to know here were actually real, documented people experiencing this time in history. 


Sometimes the things we lack or the obstacles we face become allies that help us endure. I decided then and there I would not be beaten. I would fight to the last breath. With the world falling to pieces around me, I would stand firm.


Escobar's writing is concise yet quietly powerful, unshakeable, and moving. Parents and non-parents alike, Escobar has his readers thinking on how much we do and would sacrifice for our loved ones, the ends of the earth we would gladly travel across if it meant we could lighten their load even a little bit. Escobar gives Helene just the right blend of motherly warmth and inner heartbreak to instantly endear her and her struggle to nearly any reader. Nurses or nursing students will also empathize with her professional struggles, the situations she is forced to stomach. Particularly heartbreaking is the 5 day rule: any patient in the hospital still sick or injured after 5 days was recommended to the "elimination" list. Helene describes a child she'd grown attached to who was sickly but on the mend... but her bedrest had extended this 5 day rule. Imagine having to stomach this kind of scene!


This story is the quintessential lesson in familial loyalty, love and sacrifice. Helene's story as a whole burrowed into my mind long after I finished that last page. It's true what they say, not all heroes wear capes! 


This novel is a perfect candidate for potential book group picks. For those interested, a list of discussion questions is included in the back of the book. 


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. 



2 Stars
The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
The Woman in Cabin 10 - Ruth Ware

Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…






Travel writer Laura "Lo" Blacklock is struggling with overwhelming anxiety since a strange man broke into her apartment and assaulted her. When her boss is hospitalized, an opportunity arises for Lo to fill in for her on a travel assignment aboard the "luxury cruise liner" Aurora. Lo is to be a passenger on the ship's maiden voyage and write of the experience, the accommodations, and the finale event involving a viewing of the Northern Lights while exploring the Norwegian fjords.


It takes 5 chapters for Lo to even get anywhere near a dock, let alone ON the boat. Once on the boat, the reader is made to suffer through pages of boring dinner conversation that we really didn't need to be there for. The way the characters interact with each other in this novel brought to mind low-budget murder mystery dinner theater. Once that fizzles out, we go back with Lo to her cabin, where she drinks, mopes about her life, and passes out. She starts up in the middle of the night, nerves on edge. Unable to get back to sleep, she tries to read. From there, we are asked to believe that Lo was able to hear a sound described as "the scrape of paper against paper" over the hum of the ship's engine AND the roll of ocean waves. Lo looks up, sees a body go overboard. Once she reports what she saw, the novel turns into an actual whodunit, though it poses the question of whether an actual death occurred or are we dealing with the hallucinations of someone who chose to mix alcohol with antidepressants? (One line that gave me an honest LOL moment: Lo casually saying "I really need to stop drinking mid-week." Not sure why that tickled me so much, but it did!). Who knew so much would ride on one little pink and green tube of Maybelline Great Lash!



Image result for Maybelline Great Lash

The book is divided into eight parts, the end of each part offering a snippet of text messages, emails, social media posts, or newspaper articles, all indicating a break in communication somewhere. Gradually hints pile up that while Lo is on this trip, her communications are not reaching friends and family (and neither are theirs to her), leading them to believe she's gone MIA.


What a confusing mess this book turned out to be! It started out promising enough, but not enough time was spent on relevant character or plot development, too much placed on forgettable minutiae. I'm still a little confused as to what kind of boat the Aurora is supposed to be? It's first described as "a boutique super luxury cruise liner" with ten cabins ... okay, but what is that... like a yacht? Later in the book it says the Aurora is "more like a large yacht than a small cruise liner" WTH IS THE DIFFERENCE? Pardon me, I'm not in the boat world lol.



Though this was marketed as one of the must-read thrillers of its publication year, I felt no thrills, chills, suspense, nothing while reading this. Not a one. Flatline. There's a few little interesting revelations in the end, but even there, there is much that relies on already established techniques / ideas within this genre.


Lastly, let's talk about Lo. Lo was just too much. You want to give her credit in the beginning because she just went through a trauma, but man is she just all-around unlikeable. Though she seems to have a pretty low perception of herself, simultaneously she can also be wildly self absorbed. And WHINY. OMG, so whiny! Then she'll feel bad, so then comes the flood of apologetic behavior... followed by bursts of lashing out later. Then the cycle resets. Exhausting!



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As a journalist, she's lazy as all get-out. She even tells the reader herself, “For a travel journalist I’m worryingly bad at geography.” You know, that could be easily remedied if you gave a damn. Nope, instead we get her posing questions regarding this suspected murder to cruise guests and crew, only to follow up -- when they ask "why do you ask?" -- with a "doesn't matter". You get 'em, Poirot.


And is EVERY MAN in this story an enemy to Lo?! Those breathing exercises she keeps attempting clearly aren't doing much for her. I've suffered assaults worse that what happens to Lo here and even I'm able to very easily interact with the opposite sex on a daily basis without assuming every single one of them is a shady mofo out to ruin me. You don't condemn the entire group for the dishonorable actions of a despicable few!


My favorite part of this entire book was the raised texture on the watery cover! Fun trick I found, if you run your fingertips across it, it actually does kinda make a sound similar to the ocean! Reading experience saved! (You're welcome.)

2 Stars
The Orphan's Wish - Melanie Dickerson

Orphaned and alone, Aladdin travels from the streets of his Arab homeland to a strange, faraway place. Growing up in an orphanage, he meets young Lady Kirstyn, whose father is the powerful Duke of Hagenheim. Despite the difference in their stations, Aladdin quickly becomes Kirstyn’s favorite companion, and their childhood friendship grows into a bond that time and opposition cannot break. Even as a child, Aladdin works hard, learning all he can from his teachers. Through his integrity, intelligence, and sheer tenacity, he earns a position serving as the duke’s steward. But that isn’t enough to erase the shame of being forced to steal as a small child—or the fact that he’s an orphan with no status. If he ever wants to feel equal to his beautiful and generous friend Kirstyn, he must leave Hagenheim and seek his fortune. Yet once Aladdin departs, Lady Kirstyn becomes a pawn in a terrible plot. Now, Aladdin and Kirstyn must rely on their bond to save her from unexpected danger. But will saving Kirstyn cost Aladdin his newfound status and everything he’s worked so hard to obtain?






In this re-imagining of the classic tale Aladdin, Dickerson takes Aladdin out of his original setting and moves him to Hagenheim, Germany in the 1400s, where he finds a place of sorts with the Duke of Hagenheim's family. Aladdin, orphaned at a young age, is taken in by the priest of Hagenheim Cathedral. Through this connection, Aladdin meets Lady Kirstyn, the duke's daughter. Both little children at the time, Aladdin comes to her rescue one day during a game where he thinks she is being bullied. Moved by his attention to her, Kirstyn befriends him and the two fast become constant companions. 


Fast forward a few years, and Aladdin now works as the duke's steward while also being Kirstyn's best friend, indulging in her many privileged whims. While he cares for Kirstyn, Aladdin does find enough of a sense of fulfillment from his current life situation. He explains to Kirstyn that he does not wish to be seen merely as a lowly servant his entire life, but instead wants to make something of himself, find success (and hopefully wealth) on his own terms. He breaks it to her that he intends to leave town to find his fortune. Rather than being encouraging and understanding, Kirstyn falls into a whiny fit and makes it all about her, only focusing on how this change will affect HER and HER wants. (Trust me, you'll be begging for a Jasmine return during this ridiculous pout fest). As kindly as possible, in so many words Aladdin tells her she'll just have to get over it because his mind is made up.


He goes off, finds work apprenticing with a merchant in Lüneberg, a neighboring town. Aladdin moves in with the merchant's family and is soon doing quite well for himself. He proves to have quite the business & finance acumen, inspiring the merchant to suggest Aladdin one day being his successor. For years, Aladdin had silently been throwing around the dream of one day marrying Kirstyn but previously had felt that to be impossible, with their difference in class stations. But should he do well with this business, it may be an opportunity after all! The thought drives his dedication to only work harder.


All is going very nicely until Aladdin gets word that Kirstyn has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. From there, everything else is dropped, so beginning Aladdin's efforts to bring his maybe-one-day-wife back home to safety. 


Ohhh, the issues I had with this book. First off, the quiet but annoyingly present whitewashing of one of my favorite childhood fables. Good lord, could this have been made any more white-bread boring?! I've been working my way through Dickerson's Hagenheim series --- the whole series meant to be re-imaginings of classic stories --- and while some of them have been just okay, some have been really enjoyable. So while I had my doubts about this one, I gave her the benefit of the doubt since the one I read before this, about a landlocked Little Mermaid, was actually a lot of fun (even though, again, I had my doubts about that one, taking a mermaid out of the water... but Dickerson made that one work, surprisingly!).


Let me just say, I'm not hating on the German setting itself. I married into a German family, clearly I'm down with the culture :-) But Germany in the context of ALADDIN -- an ARABIAN fable --- nah, didn't work for me. All the magic, allure, sand, desert winds, mystical stories ... all gone here. Instead, Dickerson gives us a whiny, spoiled brat of a female lead, her family all-around serving a heaping helping of white saviour complex,  and pretty much all the non-white characters have been made servants or criminals. Aladdin falls in love with Kirstyn in all her blonde-haired, blue-eyed glory. Later on, when the merchant's daughter develops an interest in him, Dickerson writes of how Aladdin finds her "pretty" with her dark hair and small mouth, but not nearly as beautiful as Kirstyn with her "pale blond hair, full lips and large blue eyes". YAWN. Aladdin has had his traditionally Muslim beliefs canceled and is now preaching the importance of strict Christian morals. There is virtually NO trace of the original story except for the use of the names Aladdin and Abu (Abu here is a small homeless child Aladdin looks after). Maybe, if you really stretch, you could liken Kirstyn's kidnapping to the time Jafar tried to keep Jasmine captive... but that's about it.


Beyond that, let's talk about the writing itself:


* Historical "say what now?" moments:  IE. Dickerson writes, regarding Kirstyn, "She was only sixteen and marriage seemed like something far in the future." Marriage at 16 far-fetched in the 1400s? Where if you took good care of yourself, you MAYBE made it to 40?! LOL 


* The dialogue in general: UGH, SO MELODRAMATIC. Reminded me of silent film emoting. Not every moment of the day is that *OMG* *SWOON* *SCOWL* *GASP*


* All around boring or head-knock-into-wall inducing characters: IE. Anna to her violent boyfriend: "You promise not to hit me again?"... proceeds to believe him... *eyeroll*


* The same few sentiments are repeated over and over again to convince the reader that Kirstyn and Aladdin are totally headed for forever love: Mainly, 1) They love long walks in the woods and 2) They of course understand each other better than anyone else in the world. Problem is, they spend the majority of the book spending ZERO time together, sooo... 


Lastly, while I understand this book is published through a Christian publisher (so some religious elements are to be expected at some point), here the religious undertones were not well done (as to feel natural to the story's enviroment / set up), instead coming off much too forced. The ending scenes are especially heavy-handed.


I'll continue on with the series installments, but this one was a definite disappointment.



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 Stars
Cricket Winter by Felice Holman
The Cricket Winter - Felice Holman


Simms Silvanus is nine years old and enormously wise. He knows more about volcanoes than his father knows about business, and more about electromagnetic fields than anyone in his class. His ideas to improve things are amazing! Yet nobody -- not even his parents -- will listen to him. A cricket is living a solitary life beneath the floorboards in Simms' room. His bride-to-be has left him after a fight, and in his loneliness he turns for companionship to the other creatures who live underground. Soon he finds himself involved in their struggle for survival.  Everything changes one winter day when Simms and Cricket discover they can communicate with each other. Through Morse code, the two tell of their troubles, listen to each other's ideas and together learn that it's sometimes difficult to do the right thing.






Simms Silvanus is a 9 year old genius who often feels overlooked by his parents. Meanwhile, in the crawlspace of Simms' home lives a cricket and his new bride. The newlyweds get in a heated debate one night when the topic of how to raise their future children comes up. The cricket's wife runs back to her parents' house (all the way up in the attic LOL). Hurting and lonely, the cricket gets the idea to explore the crawlspace further. There he discovers other critters -- mice, spiders, ants -- who also habitate part of the Silvanus home. Around this time, Cricket also finds that he and Simms have a way to communicate, using the system of Morse code. 



"Hello," he tapped, because he could do that very fast by now.

"Hello," chirped Cricket.

"How are things?" tapped Simms.

"What things?" asked the cricket.

Simms considered this. Then he tapped, "The things that have to do with your life. How are they?" 

"That will take a lot of thought to answer precisely and fully, but I will think about it," chirped the cricket. "How are your things?"

Not only do the two begin to converse in Morse regarding their unique emotional stressors, but Cricket realizes he can also enlist Simms' help with a problem plaguing his new crawlspace friends --- the rat, Hostis, who also lives under the house who keeps raiding the winter food supplies of the others!




"But what can they do?" asked Simms. "What can a mole, and some ants, and a spider and some mice do?"


"Just the best they can," chirped Cricket. "That's all they can do."





The story itself is cute -- the animals have some funny convos -- but in the end just kind of okay. This is one you check out mainly for the adorable illustrations done by Robyn Thomas. On that note though, if you are reading this with really little ones about, the illustrations could possibly be minorly disturbing if your wee one is especially sensitive to images / sketches of rodents or creepy-crawlies.



But, just once in awhile, a boy may do a fine thing and get no recognition at all, and it's all right. It's enough. Indeed, he feels, for the moment,

quite perfect.


3 Stars
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys's reputation was made upon publication of this passionate and heartbreaking novel, in which she brings into light one of fiction's most mysterious characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. A sensual and protected young woman, Antoinette Cosway grows up in the lush, natural world of the Caribbean. She is sold into marriage to the coldhearted and prideful Rochester, who succumbs to his need for money and his lust. Yet he will make her pay for her ancestors' sins of slaveholding, excessive drinking and nihilistic despair by enslaving her as a prisoner in his bleak British home. In this bestselling novel, Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind. 

~ back cover 1982 Norton paperback edition





So you've recently read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and you think to yourself, "I really want to know more about the story behind Rochester's first missus!" Well, aren't you in luck! Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea takes a stab at what that story might have been. Taking the reader away from all they know & remember at Thornfield Hall, Rhys has us visit 1830s Jamaica (Dominica), introducing us to pre-Mrs. Rochester Antoinette Cosway (aka "madwoman in the attic"). 


Young Antoinette grows up loving the lush climate of her native land, the warmth, the abundance of creature comforts... but some years into her youth, things turn ugly. There is much tension around the family, what with Antoinette's parents being slaveholders. The time of Emancipation rolls around, bringing several riots and all-around domestic upheavals to the area. In one instance, even one of Antoinette's own friends attacks her! Fearful that the employees will turn on the family, Antoinette's mother, Annette, makes the choice to burn the house down. Annette becomes mentally unstable after the fire and Antoinette is enrolled in a convent school. This pretty much makes up Part 1 of the novel.


"I am not used to happiness... it makes me afraid." 

~ Antoinette Cosway


Part 2 is where we first meet Rochester and hear of how Antoinette came to be sold into marriage to him.  (Part 3 of the novel is basically her life as the first Mrs. Rochester, though the novel periodically rotates between these three periods of her life as the story progresses). Rochester and his new Mrs. seem to get along pretty well in the beginning but the choice to return to the Cosway family estate as their first residence after marriage proves problematic. The whole place seems to make Rochester increasingly restless, but it doesn't seem to be the sole source of his unease. Any number of things appear to trigger his dark moods. Still, outwardly Rochester admits to liking the natural environment of Jamaica (even if he is giving off that "great place to visit but wouldn't want to live there" attitude). Meanwhile, there are momentary glimpses into Antoinette's character that suggest a true genetic struggle with mental illness of some sort, but there's a sadness to it, as behind her words and mannerisms, she gives off something of a sad, confused, scared little girl trying to figure out what happened to her life. Where did her sunlight go?


Antoinette's half-brother, Daniel (same dad, different moms), writes a discreet letter to Rochester warning him of the "mad" family he's so casually shackled himself to. Rochester shrugs the dark warning off at first, but as the story moves along, we start to see that that letter actually did quite successfully leave its mark on his mind, gradually driving him into his own unique madness. He becomes consumed with anger and righteousness until he comes to the decision to imprison Antoinette as punishment for her family's history with slave trading.


I'd say Rhys does a respectable job staying true to Eyre's Rochester, at least to a point. He still carries a certain level of charm, still somewhat child-like with his petulant moods. But this story takes him to an even darker place. Rhys forces the air of mystique around Antoinette a little too hard at times, making the reading experience annoying at times with the over-reliance on cryptic behavior or speech.


The few pages that make up Part 3 take the reader back to Eyre's setting, first getting impressions from Grace Poole, attendant to Antoinette all that time she was locked up in the tower. The very last pages are given over to Antoinette once again to offer her final say before we bring things back to Eyre's scene of the fire.


It's a decent prequel to a beloved classic. Not earth-shattering, but entertaining in the ideas it presents. I noticed in the list of discussion questions at the very end, one opens with "In Jane Eyre, the madwoman in the attic is a very unsympathetic character...". I can't help but disagree with that. Sure, she comes off as insane when we first meet her in Bronte's book, but even so, I myself wouldn't go so far as to say I found her unsympathetic. Isn't that why we are compelled to pick up Rhys's book in the first place, because we were left wondering what drove Rochester to have her secreted away all those years? He gives Jane a much sanitized version of events, or so we readers suspect... which is why so many classic lit. lovers can't help but have this on their TBRs at some point in their reading lives.


As humans, it unnerves us to think that criminal behavior is entirely senseless, without root. There is a small measure of comfort in being able to say, "Yes, this person was undoubtedly mad, but look at what they were driven to... they just snapped... it's tragic!" That need to have everything compartmentalized, explained, rationalized... Even in the worst of stories, we don't want to think of souls coming into this life with a purely demonic makeup... sometimes we can't help but feel the need to understand, rehabilitate, counsel. Even in Eyre's story, there was something to "the madwoman" that left me thinking some earlier version of her had been deeply wronged to have ended up so... seeing how Rhys wrote a whole novel on this premise, looks like I wasn't the only one feeling a sad question mark around such an "unsympathetic" character! 



3 Stars
Good Riddance (Graphic Memoir) by Cythnia Copeland
Good Riddance: An Illustrated Memoir of Divorce - Cynthia Copeland

When you think you live in a Norman Rockwell painting—married 18 years, three kids, beautiful old house in the country, successful career as a writer—you don’t expect there’s another side to the canvas. Until you read a lovesick e-mail to your husband . . . that didn’t come from you! Good Riddance is an honest and funny graphic memoir about suffering through and surviving divorce. New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Copeland chronicles the deep pain, confusion, awkwardness, and breakthroughs she experiences in the “new normal” as a wife who’s been deceived, a mom who’s now single, a divorcée who’s dating, and a woman who’s on her own figuring out what she truly wants from her life. Copeland tells her story with an emotional candor and spot-on humor that makes Good Riddance poignant, painful, and hilarious all at once.





Using the graphic novel / memoir format, Cynthia Copeland unveils the story of her marriage of 18 years, and the subsequent divorce after discovering her husband had been unfaithful. Copeland shares her story with readers a decade after things first went down, but some of the emotions that are wrapped up in such an event prove universal and timelessly relatable. 


Copeland explains the guilt she had to learn to work through, coming from a family where no one had divorced before, as well as the secret stress and anxiety she shouldered while trying to protect her young children from the truth of why mom and dad weren't going to live together anymore. 



This story is no different from other divorce memoirs you've read in the way it conveys that there are no real winners in this kind of life upheaval. Copeland paints her husband as a selfish, immature man possibly suffering a mid-life crisis. Trying to recapture his youth yet still keep close to his wife, his actions were that of someone trying to have their cake and eat it too. He seemed more concerned with being "cool dad" than responsible grown up. Copeland makes it clear she wasn't having it, but at the same time some of her actions towards him struck me as tiptoeing into control freak territory. or such a tough topic, the choice of cool blue-grey tones on the art were strangely calming. Don't know if that was intentional or not... regardless, it was kinda nice, diffused the tougher moments a bit. The blue tones combined with the art style itself ... something about it brought to mind vintage hospital pamphlets! 



3 Stars
A Bound Heart by Laura Frantz
A Bound Heart  - Laura Frantz

Though Magnus MacLeish and Lark MacDougall grew up on the same castle grounds, Magnus is now laird of the great house and the Isle of Kerrera. Lark is but the keeper of his bees and the woman he is hoping will provide a tincture that might help his ailing wife conceive and bear him an heir. But when his wife dies suddenly, Magnus and Lark find themselves caught up in a whirlwind of accusations, expelled from their beloved island, and sold as indentured servants across the Atlantic. Yet even when all hope seems dashed against the rocky coastline of the Virginia colony, it may be that in this New World the two of them could make a new beginning--together. Laura Frantz's prose sparkles with authenticity and deep feeling as she digs into her own family history to share this breathless tale of love, exile, and courage in Colonial America.






Magnus MacLeish and Lark MacDougall grew up together on the Isle of Kerrera, Scotland. Now it's the year of 1752 and Magnus is laird of Kerrera Castle while Lark is the castle beekeeper, herbalist and manager of the castle stillroom. When Magnus's young wife, Isla, suffers her 6th miscarriage, he goes to Lark requesting something that will not only bring his wife physical comfort while her body mends but also something to help her successfully bring a child to term. Lark certainly has elixirs for pain management, but getting a pregnancy to stick? That's trickier. She seeks counsel from her grandmother, who trained her in the ways of medicinal plants. Lark's grandmother vaguely remembers something that may work, but she's struggling to recall the full recipe. 


When Lark's cousin goes into labor (this is a baby-making lovin' place, people!) Lark rushes to assist. Upon her return to Kerrera Castle, she finds the place in an uproar. Castle staff tell a wild story about Lady Isla apparently going mad from something, running off, her body later discovered at the bottom of a cliff. To Lark's shock and horror, fingers point to her as the culprit, even though several voices come to her defense, noting that she wasn't even in the area when all this went down!


It's for naught though... she's the herbalist, and it's suspected that Isla's sudden burst of madness was due to an overdose... but Lark hadn't given her anything yet, so how can that be? At least, nothing that would cause that kind of reaction in a person. What really went down? Lark's guess: Isla, having previously showed signs of depression, turned suicidal. Her parents, not wanting to deal with any social stigma attached to suicide, looked to have a scapegoat to save face for the family name. Lark was the easiest target. 


After a short joke of a trial, Isla is found guilty of manslaughter. Rather than the death penalty, she is sold into indentured servitude in the American Colonies (Virginia, specifically) for the duration of 3 years. Placed on a womens' transport ship, she gets word that two Kerrera locals are on the mens' transport: Laird Magnus (charged with wearing a kilt, of all things) and Lark's pirate friend, Rory MacPherson (charged with smuggling goods).


Magnus uses his connections to pull some strings and have Lark moved to the mens' ship, so that she may serve as the ship's herbalist / botanist. Immediately, Lark's beauty grabs the attention of every man on board, though Rory finds himself unable to shake the sailor's superstition of women on a ship being bad luck. {Considering the events that later unfold, he may have been onto something!}


Magnus has his work cut out for him, protecting Lark from the ship's lust-filled men, the main one to watch being Surgeon Alick Blackburn. Magnus and Lark now both being convicted criminals -- guilty or not -- brings them back more on equal footing, as far as societal ranking goes. Lark's family name, MacDougall, was once one of great prestige but later fell out of favor and "time and misfortune turned them common". In recent years, Magnus's family line had taken hard hits as well -- father killed in battle, mother and sister dead from pox, Magnus's wife's struggles with pregnacy... and now she's gone... with Magnus headed to the New World, people may give an impressed nod to his former titled self, but it'll mean little else beyond that outside his homeland. Besides, Magnus hears rumors that he may be sent to a Jamaican estate to serve out his sentence, not Virginia with Lark. Can he manage to find a way to stay with her? If not, can he convince her to wait for his return?


Though I have a few other of Frantz's books on my TBR shelf, this is the first of hers I've now read. Inspired by the story of some of Frantz's own ancestors, A Bound Heart lacked a lot of heart IMO. It's not a bad story by any means, but all the 5 star ratings I'm already seeing for it (being offically released just a few days ago) strike me as awfully generous. Frantz has a solidly enjoyable writing style, the novel definitely shows the woman is dedicated to research! The novel is detail-rich, but almost to a fault, as the plot is very slow-going. 


Now typically I don't hate a slow-burn novel if a steady increase or layering in plot complications or character histories can be seen. I'm all about being invested in fictional worlds! Unfortunately, this one fell a tad short for me in that department and I found myself not only not attached to the characters but I think at one point I believe I literally fell asleep mid-read. There are little bursts of action here and there but they are SUPER brief. The rest of the story seems to be just general conversing, lots and lots of conversations going down while characters (and readers) wait for their lives to turn eventful. That said, I will say the pace of things noticeably picks up once our primary characters board the transport ships. 


The romances -- or the suggestion of pairings, anyway -- tickled me about as much as flat soda. The only character that really struck my interest was Lark's smuggler friend, Captain Rory. He appeared pretty personable in the beginning of the novel, but boy, did he end up showing his true colors towards the end! Trevor grew on me a bit, but he seemed like the type who'd want to pin down Lark's strong, independent nature. As far as Magnus and Lark, there's a sweet friendship there to be admired but the reader isn't really given enough of a backstory between them to really feel much for them beyond that. 


The glossary for Scottish terminology provided at the beginning of the book was helpful. While I was already familiar with some of the terms, there were a few in there that I'd never heard used before. Also a nice touch, the quotes from famous poets, novelists and philosophers that Frantz uses to foreshadow each chapter's events. She found some particularly great quotes to reference! 


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



4 Stars
Gingersnap by Patricia Reilly Giff
Gingersnap - Patricia Reilly Giff

It's 1944, W.W. II is raging. Jayna's big brother Rob is her only family. When Rob is called to duty on a destroyer, Jayna is left in their small town in upstate New York with their cranky landlady. But right before he leaves, Rob tells Jayna a secret: they may have a grandmother in Brooklyn. Rob found a little blue recipe book with her name and an address for a bakery. When Jayna learns that Rob is missing in action, she's devastated. Along with her turtle Theresa, the recipe book, and an encouraging, ghostly voice as her guide, Jayna sets out for Brooklyn in hopes of finding the family she so desperately needs.







After years of moving through a number of foster homes, orphaned Jayna finally gets the chance to live with her older brother, Rob, now old enough to become her legal guardian. While it might not always be the most financially comfortable situation in their home in upstate New York, they are happy to have each other. Then everything changes with the arrival of World War 2. Rob gets drafted, leaving his sister in the care of their landlady, Celine. Before he leaves, Rob mentions a recipe book he came across belonging to their French mother. Inside the recipe book, Rob had found a Brooklyn address, possibly that of their grandmother neither of them have met, Elise Martin.


After Rob's departure, Elise doesn't have much interest in sticking around with the landlady she believes doesn't like her much. She decides to set out on a journey to uncover the story behind the recipe book and who this Elise Martin really is, maybe even uncover some answers about Elise's parents, who were killed in a car crash when she was very young. Throughout the course of the story, Elise is surprised to receive guidance from an unnamed female ghost (the ghost doesn't remember her own identity either). One thing though, the ghost appears to have the ability to read Jayna's thoughts. This spirit also seems to like rifling through Jayna's clothes and using her nail polish without asking. Manners these days, I tell ya! So, added to the answers she wants to find for her own questions, Elise is also curious to find out the identity behind this disembodied voice. The ghost doesn't play a huge role in the story, at least not until near the end, but it was an enjoyable element of mystery for Giff to weave in. 


In between the chapters are a few of Jayna's pseudo-soup recipes, ones she creates to distract her from life's disappointments. (If you're trying to figure out the significance of the title btw, "Gingersnap" is Jayna's nickname).




Celine, the landlady, gets a bit of a bad rap thanks to Jayna's perspective. I found Celine to have a bit of a hard exterior, true, but we later get little bits about her that suggest she feels deeply but struggles to be comfortable sharing what she feels with others... so it can come off as her being a little abrasive. Being the same way myself, I sort of understood her. That line when she sighs, "someday I'll get my life back..." Man, have I felt that on so many levels at various times throughout my life! Plus, I found her funny with her "almost genuine" Ming vase. 


But it's also easy to feel for Jayna in this situation. Who wouldn't want to know the answers to the story of where they came from? Jayna can have her difficult moments too, but in the end, all these characters want the same thing: a cohesive, supportive, caring family unit... in whatever form that takes. This is another one of those great stories that illustrates how family can be made up of anyone you choose, blood or not. Sure, you can't choose who your blood relatives are, obviously, but outside of that, you can call whomever you like "family". It's an empowering thing, that realization! 



3 Stars
R My Name Is Rachel by Patricia Reilly Giff
R My Name Is Rachel - Patricia Reilly Giff

Rachel, Cassie, and Joey live in the city with their Pop, until Pop's search for work lands the family on a run down farm. Dreamy Rachel loves to read, and doesn't know much about the country. Times are hard there, too—the school and library are closed.  When Pop gets work near Canada, he has to leave the children on the farm alone. For two months! But Rachel's the oldest, and she'll make sure they're all right. Somehow.





Rachel's family is struggling to survive the Great Depression. Her mother deceased, Rachel lives with her father, brother, and sister in the city, but the cost of things is getting to be too much of a struggle. Her father hears of a possible job offer at a bank in the country, so the family packs up their meager belongings and takes up residence in a run-down farmhouse. Unfortunately that also means leaving behind good family friend Miss Mitzi, who runs a flower shop in the city, a woman who has served as a kind of surrogate mother to Rachel since her biological mother's death. 


The transition from urban to rural life is tough on the kids, even more so when Rachel is left to look after her siblings when that bank job offer falls through and their father has to set out to find work even farther away. With no other adults regularly around, the children find themselves having to be resourceful in finding means to feed and care for themselves. Rachel's sister, Cassie, grows into a bit of an infuriatingly selfish princess (but does have growth in a more positive direction later on). As a way to vent, Rachel writes to Miss Mitzi of all the things giving her anxiety. 


"Sometimes when I remember happy things, it makes me sad." 

~ Rachel


As another form of escapism from daily stress, Rachel also enjoys reading and learning as much as she can, but with the Great Depression came the closure of most schools and libraries (not enough money to go around to pay for salaries). The one book Rachel has to make due with is a copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a going-away gift from a former teacher. She means to space out the reading of it, only intending to read 3 pages a day to make the story last, but thanks to a snowstorm Rachel burns through 53 pages in the first day! All of us bookworms have been there!


... it's so late and I need to sleep. Almost dreaming, I remember that old self of mine, writing letters, reading...


"She's not gone," I whisper, "not gone...."


Just as in Winter Sky, Giff writes of a girl struggling to grow up without a mother. Also like Winter Sky, our main character finds herself caring for a stray animal who naturally becomes the family pet. The story here is stronger, more compelling than Winter Sky. While this novel may be historical fiction, the themes are universal... the struggles of life situations unfortunately forcing you to grow up quick, the complicated beauty of family bonds, those important, moving times --- even in a family that chronically argues --- where differences are set aside and you come together for the good of the whole group rather than the individual. The bookish aspects of Rachel's personality are an extra fun element that keeps the story moving along nicely and instantly warms you to her. 


3 Stars
Saving Grace by Jane Green
Saving Grace - Jane Green

Grace and Ted Chapman are widely regarded as the perfect literary power couple. Ted is a successful novelist and Grace, his wife of twenty years, is beautiful, stylish, carefree, and a wonderful homemaker. But what no one sees, what is churning under the surface, is Ted's rages. His mood swings. And the precarious house of cards that their lifestyle is built upon. When Ted's longtime assistant and mainstay leaves, the house of cards begins to crumble and Grace, with dark secrets in her past, is most vulnerable. She finds herself in need of help but with no one to turn to…until the perfect new assistant shows up out of the blue. To the rescue comes Beth, a competent young woman who can handle Ted and has the calm efficiency to weather the storms that threaten to engulf the Chapman household. Soon, though, it's clear to Grace that Beth might be too good to be true. This new interloper might be the biggest threat of all, one that could cost Grace her marriage, her reputation, and even her sanity. With everything at stake and no one to confide in, Grace must find a way to save herself before it is too late.





Grace Chapman has been married 20 years now to Ted, a once wildly popular crime novelist whose career now seems to be on the wane. Conversely, Grace's career as a chef has been on quite the climb locally.  An impressive feat, managing to building a career for herself while also serving as her husband's career manager since Ellen, Ted's assistant of 15 years had to leave the position to become the caretaker for her mother battling Alzheimer's. Along with stepping into the roll of Ted's manager comes the added stress of how to get his popularity back on the rise.


Starting to feel the pressure just a little too much, Grace reluctantly decides to interview for an assistant to her husband. In walks Beth, whose credentials and work ethic seem too good to be true... and you know how that saying goes. Eager to get some relief and extra help around the Chapman homestead, Grace doesn't hesitate much in hiring Beth. All seems wonderful and glowy at first. Grace even finds herself starting to consider Beth a friend. But then there's that quiet shift, where things begin to turn odd.


The change is almost imperceptible at first, but grows in steady intensity along with Grace's suspicions, as the story progresses. Things go missing or get damaged. Little changes in Beth's demeanor start to show. Though she arrived as a shy and mousy type, she begins to grow more bold in speech and dress. Beth even begins to mimic Grace's fashion, right down to Grace's hairstyle... Grace finds it all flattering at first, but once her clothes start to go missing, she starts to get the first inklings of something problematic. Little by little, behind the scenes, Beth carries out little details and schemes that leave Grace questioning her own sanity... to the point where Beth actually convinces Ted to have Grace committed. From there, the story becomes Grace fighting her way back out of this hell to prove to everyone she's not insane and she means to have her life back!


One thing this novel does well is convey the adult fears of someone who had been raised by a bipolar / manic depressive parent. Having been through it myself, I can attest that that fear of "will I be like them when I grow up?" does follow you and plague you all through your adult years, having noticeable affect on your relationships down the road. Grace's therapist, at least his form of care, I found deeply disturbing yet not uncommon in the mental health field these days, I suspect. The whole idea of "This is what you have, take this pill, don't research it just take my word for it that you need it."


The mountain of pills Grace gets buried under! The therapist starts her on Depakote, later moves her to Nuvigil, then adds on Metformin. At this point, the meds are causing her to have insatiable food cravings for carbs / junk food. After developing BED (binge eating disorder), Grace's therapist suggests incorporating Topamax, Lexapro, maybe even Provigil into her pill cycle. No surprise that despite anything she thought she was sure of about herself, Grace begins to question if, in fact, everyone was onto something and she is possibly losing her mind.


Grace, unfamiliar with doctors at every level, finds herself regressing back to a child, where doctors were akin to God, where when they told you they knew better than you, you believed them. Who is she, wife, mother, friend, who is she to tell the psychiatrist he might be wrong? He does, after all, do this for a living. If he says this is so, then what else can she do but let it be so....


She examines the bottle, turning it over and over, preparing herself to set foot on a journey she does not want to start... 


But think, she tells herself, of what you having been feeling of late. Think of the anger, the tears, the way you sometimes feel as if your head will explode with all the chaos it contains. What if he is right, and my resistance, my lack of willingness to believe in the diagnosis, is part of the disease? What if these pills do indeed turn out to be magic, and I am restored back to my old self? Then it would be worth it. She doesn't have to stay on them for long. Right now she doesn't have much fight left in her. The easiest thing to do is to take them to make everyone happy. And if they don't work, she'll simply stop. 


Speaking of her binge eating.... while I sympathize with Grace's struggle during the ridiculous flood of medications, one of the struggles I HAD with this book is having to listen to the amount of moaning she did about her clothing size going up just a few sizes. At the start of the novel, I think she's somewhere around a 4-6 size, a number of passages describing how much Grace loves her tiny body in all these fashionable designer threads. Over the course of the novel, as there is more and more binge eating, naturally her size creeps up, and she has a good cry at each number increase. While I understood the frustration of this to a point, what bugged me is that by the end of the story, it sounds like Grace only climbs to maybe a 12-14 size --- I'm guessing because I don't remember actual sizes being mentioned, I'm only going by how Grace describes her body and the fact that I don't recall her ever crying over having to break down and go shopping for plus sized clothes. Seems like she always had an easy enough time finding clothes off the rack, even with the weight gain.


Yes, going from a 4 to a 12 is a noticeable change in the body -- again, a path I've been on myself --- but good lord, the sheer amount of crying and self hate she unleashes, she acts like she's going to be cast for My 600 Lb Life any day now! Even when an old friend from her past comes back into her life full of compliments and affirmations, telling her he finds her more full figure gorgeous, she initially casts his love away like "he clearly must have some weird fat fetish". I felt for the guy, the amount of convincing he had to do that he was not some kind of feeder type! Meanwhile, as the reader, I'm over here internally screaming, "You're not event that big! WTF!" Horror of horrors, your tops temporarily had to go from a small to a large... I swear, first world problems LOL. And it's not just that, there are also pity parties she throws herself over having to use drugstore makeup instead of her beloved Chanel. *eyeroll* Welcome to the peasantry, Grace. Let me show you around my hometown. I wanted to be invested in Grace's mental health journey but her all around personality ended up ruining things for me a bit. 


Considering the premise, I expected this story to be much more gripping than what it actually turned out to be. I went in expecting a kind of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle feel. In actuality? Such a slooooow build followed by an (IMO) unsatisfying finish. It takes nearly 160 pages before any real hint of mystery or suspense kicks in ... and then that ending. The way Jane Green sets it up, I could kind of see it working in a film format, but here it felt too rushed. The dramatic "takedown" that's planned for dirty schemer Beth ends up feeling anticlimactic and, ummm --- did I miss it? --- It seemed like there was no follow up whatsoever on what happened with Ted? We hear about where Grace ends up after all this, but where'd Ted go?!


The recipes were a nice touch, kind of a fun side project for creative readers. There are Grace-inspired recipes at the end of nearly every chapter, either something she crafted in that particular chapter, or a dish that was mentioned or made for her. 

3 Stars
Winter Sky by Patricia Reilly Giff
Winter Sky - Patricia Reilly Giff

Sirens! A scary sound, especially to Siria, whose brave pop is a firefighter. Siria loves everyone at Pop's city firehouse. She also loves to study the stars. Her mother named her after the brightest start in the winter sky. When Siria hears sirens, she sneaks out to chase the trucks, to bring Pop and the other firefighters luck. She'd be in big trouble if she ever got caught. Good thing her best friend, Douglas, is always by her side. As Christmas approaches, Siria suspects that someone in the neighborhood is setting fires. She has to find out who's doing it. When clues point to a surprising suspect, she realizes that solving this mystery will take all kinds of courage. Patricia Reilly Giff, the author of many beloved and award-winning books, is at her best in this action-packed story. In Winter Sky, friends, family, and a very special dog help Siria see how brave she really is.







Siria has a love of astronomy she inherited from her late mother, her name itself inspired by the stars. Now being raised by her firefighter father and the neighbor down the hall, Siria spends much of her time bonding with her friends and worrying over her father's dangerous job. She's developed a habit of sneaking out of their apartment late at night (when she's left with the neighbor-babysitter) to follow sirens and make sure her dad is okay. 


This Christmas season, there has been a rash of fires close together cropping up in Siria's neighborhood. She begins to suspect arson. She also wants to find out the story of the mysterious stray dog who seems to keep following her around. With her friends Douglas and Laila, she sets out to find the truth. Answers are revealed, but the truth hits uncomfortably close to home.


Each chapter starts with a short legend regarding the constellations. It takes the form of an astronomy book that once belonged to Siria's mother. These legends serve as a sort of foreshadowing to events that are about to unfold in Siria's life in the chapter ahead. 


The story itself is not all that complex. Giff could've gone a little deeper with it to really get that emotional punch. But what is here is still enough to pull at the heartstrings a bit. Siria learns tough lessons in the dangers of jumping to conclusions and the strength that can come from placing unshakable faith and trust in family and friends.

4 Stars
Disney Magic: The Launching of a Dream by John Hemingway
Disney Magic: The Launching of a Dream - John Hemingway

The dreammakers of Disney have done it again! Disney Magiccelebrates the creation of a cruise ship different from all others. This keepsake volume reveals how the Disney Cruise Line creative team turned a dream, long held by Walt Disney, into reality. It documents the care, innovation and originality that led to the birth of a remarkable ship. Discover why the Walt Disney Company decided to enter the cruise industry, what prompted the decision to design a fanciful, modern classic, and how the ship's storyline sets it apart from all others in the water today. Richly illustrated with more than 180 never-before-seen images, Disney Magic includes preliminary exterior design sketches, photographs of the ship's bow being towed up the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Italy for the "Float Together" and a vintage shot of Walt Disney himself aboard the Italian luxury liner The Rex. The images provide a taste of the ship's evolution, examining what went into designing and building not only its body, but the highly distinctive interiors. Be dazzled by insights into little known details of the Disney Magic.





Published in 1998, this keepsake book focuses on the development of the Disney Cruise Line, with special focus on the ship Disney Magic. This ship's build began in 1997 in the port of Marghera, Italy. Disney CEO Michael Eisner was inspired to create a cruise line exclusive to the company after touring various popular cruise lines and noticing too much of what he saw as "glassed over floating hotels".




...most suffered from self-imposed industrial constraints, that they all appeared to be built around a framework that was, at best, utilitarian. There seemed little romance, "little sense of Hollywood in contemporary cruise ship design." Yes, they were stylistically fleet, even elegant at times, but structurally they had been driven by a simple formula of compressing the maximum number of cabins into a hull. Where was the fantasy?


Eisner wanted the Disney ships to have a more classic look, something that harkened back to the halcyon days of luxury sea travel. He also wanted to offer a more magical and cozy experience to families. Following an initial billion dollar investment, the dream gradually became a reality.









"We are excessive," observes Michael Eisner. "I must have attended 5 meetings about every room on the ship. I went to see life-size mock-ups of the ship's staterooms in Italy before we committed to any design detail. We change everything 3 or 4 times at least."


"Creativity is an open process," concludes Judson Green, President of Walt Disney Attractions. "The technique that led to the perfection of the ship design is typical of Disney. I always say I'll never accept the first 'take' on anything --- no matter how brilliant. At Disney we have no shortage of ideas. Just turn on the spigots. We let ideas nurture. In the end, they always turn out better..."


Disney Magic, the flagship, was built with inspiration primarily being pulled from two sources: the Queen Mary and a general incorporation of Scandinavian ship design. This book gives readers not only text detailing the project but also a step-by-step visual of the ship (and thus the Disney Cruise Line itself) slowly coming to fruition. Looking at the pictures of the interior now, many will see the chosen fabrics seem pretty dated now (they read VERY 90s, lol) but still, there's something about the nostalgia it now brings forth. Along with the photos of the project itself, also incorporated around the text are vintage photographs of the days of sailing that inspired the vision for the Disney Cruise Line, sketches of the ship design (preliminary suggestions for styling, cabin set up, etc) as well as some rarely seen photographs of the man Walt Disney himself.



just partly built, already immense!



It's an interesting and easy read if you have interest in Disney history or shipbuilding techniques (or both!). The bonus of the photographs is extra fun! 

3 Stars
Mr. Maybe by Jane Green
Mr. Maybe - Jane Green

To Libby Mason, Mr. Right has always meant Mr. Rich. A twenty-seven-year-old publicist, she’s barely able to afford her fashionable and fabulous lifestyle, and often has to foot the bill for dates with Struggling Writer Nick, a sexy but perpetually strapped-for-cash guy she’s dating (no commitments–really). So when Ed, Britain’s wealthiest but stodgiest bachelor, enters the picture, her idea of the fairy-tale romance is turned on its head. Libby soon finds herself weighing the advantages of Nick’s sexual prowess and tender heart against Ed’s luxurious lifestyle and unlimited retail therapy. But when the diamond shopping commences, Libby is forced to realize that the time for “maybe” is up. 







Londoner Libby Mason has busted her tail all her life to make a little notch for herself in the world. Now a successful publicist to the stars, Libby has carved out a relatively comfortable, mostly financially stable situation for herself as a single gal, but she comes to the realization that she's not really interested in working THIS hard for it for the rest of her life. Feeling her 30s quietly encroaching on her little by little, Libby sets out to nab a rich husband willing to foot the tab for the rest of her life. In her ultimate fantasy, not only will the mystery guy set her up for life financially, but he'll also be insanely good-looking and wildly in love with her til the end of their days. Rich, hot, romantic AND with a crazy generous sex drive --- that's right, Libby's taking us on the hunt for that relationship unicorn! 


Just a little hiccup along the way: Nick. Introduced through mutual friends one night, Nick and Libby click instantly. Going through Libby's mental checklist, Nick is undeniably  gorgeous, charismatic, funny, attentive... and as it soon turns out, tons of fun in the sheets! Only one problem for our main girl --- charming as the guy is, Nick is POOR. Gasp! Horror!  Ahh, poor Libby -- so close! But yeah, charmer Nick is a currently unemployed (living on unemployment checks for the time being) aspiring novelist. One other hitch: he says from the beginning that he's not in the market for a serious relationship, just some fun. Raise your hand if you've had a Nick in your past. *waves* 


Unable to give up the good time that this guy is, Libby decides to put the rich husband search on hold and revel in this "have some fun" period with Nick. But what pretty much always inevitably happens in that FWB scenario? Yep, someone here caught a case of the feelings, despite their best efforts. In this instance, it was both of them, though a good bulk of this story is both of them adamantly denying it. In a bit of a panic, Nick decides to end things with Libby, claiming that he can see SHE is the one who is falling too hard for him, and he just likes her too much to hurt her further. 


Heart and ego bruised, Libby scuffles around in a mope fest for awhile before deciding to dive into her rebound fella, investment banker Ed McMahon (*Note: this is a UK publication, so obvs not the same Ed McMahon known in the States, but still, I had a hard time shaking that image... but it sort of helped with the gag-factor Libby tends to describe around outings with her Ed LOL... wonder how many stars he gave her... ). Again, introduced through mutual friends, Libby and Ed have a decent chat one night while the group is out on the town, but she's not really feeling anything spark-wise on her end. She also doesn't find him terribly attractive (for one, he rocks a mustache -- just the 'stache -- which grosses her out). Ed does ask her out to dinner though, an offer Libby puts off accepting UNTIL she discovers he's a bit of a small time celebrity about town as a highly desired eligible bachelor. Libby doesn't entirely understand his celebrity status, as she finds him kind of ugly and socially awkward, but she likes the idea of being seen with him and having the envy of others, so after a few dates, she agrees to let a relationship develop between them. 


Before long, Libby finds herself engaged to a man whose touch still seems to induce her gag reflex no matter what she tries. But his bank account does fulfill some most excellent shopping sprees at all the poshest stores around town! She secretly pines after Nick, but figures that door is solidly shut. Little does she know, Nick hasn't been able to shake his case of the feels either. Libby's best friend, Jules, becomes concerned that, in the case of Ed, Libby's "falling for how he treats you rather than the man himself." Libby's immediate response to her friend's comment, naturally, is "I really don't think that's the case..." even though throughout the rest of the story she goes on and on about how Ed spoils her like no one else before in her life... mmmhmmm.


What's a girl to do? Go for the guy who honestly makes her heart flutter but may be ages away from a place of financial security ... or settle in with the one who can fulfill all her materialistic needs right off (but all fumbly thumbs in bed) ? The choice might seem obvious, but then we wouldn't have a much of a novel, would we? ;-) 


Told in first person perspective, with Libby talking right at the reader like a close friend, this ultimately ends up being about how Libby narrows down what she really truly wants in her heart of hearts, sorting out what would be nice versus what does she honestly need to feed her soul. A journey all of us have to set out on one time or another. Granted, Libby's here is a little more superficial and entertaining than most, but still. Libby starts out as pretty relatable but becomes progressively more obnoxious and shallow the more she becomes involved with Ed. At least she admits the personality shift near the end of the book though, I'll give her credit there.


Being based in London, there is some Tony Blair-era political discussion amongst the characters, as well as some debates regarding the Labour Party. This could possibly leave US readers feeling a bit isolated (or bore them) if they're unfamiliar with international government history but if this might be an issue for you, these passages only crop up momentarily so you could easily skim and not lose the meat of the novel. I'll also note for more sensitive readers that there are a few passages in this story that are mildly sexually explicit, but again, it's only a paragraph or two here and there. The bulk of the novel is pretty tame. Don't expect a lot of depth here, just one of those ones that's fun for what it is.

4 Stars
Maude March on the Run (Maude March #2) by Audrey Couloumbis
Maude March on the Run! - Audrey Couloumbis

The papers call Maude notorious. But 12-year-old Sallie knows her big sister didn't do the things the stories say . . . not on purpose anyway. In fact, she and Maude have made a fresh start and are trying to live on the up-and-up. But just when the girls are settling into their new life, Maude is arrested—and before you can say "jailbreak," the orphaned sisters are back on the run! In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Misadventures of Maude March, Newbery Honor winner Audrey Couloumbis once again takes on a dizzingly fast, delightfully rowdy, and altogether heartwarming ride through the old west—proving that half the fun of any journey is the getting there.






The saga of the March girls continues! Maude is now sixteen while little sister Sallie is twelve. They're still technically in hiding, and keeping their true identities on the DL proves to be a continuous struggle. Maude started insisting on taking back her womanly way of dressing while tomboy Sallie prefers to keep on with the menswear look they've been rocking. Maude potentially blowing their cover stresses Sallie out but she tries to keep her calm by keeping her nose buried in her beloved dime store novels (though now she reads them from a different perspective, having now lived the "novel" life herself).


My heart went out to him. I'd learned there was more to being a hero than the glory parts. The glory parts wore a little tarnish if you looked real close. It didn't make the hero any less of one.


To make matters even more complicated, local outlaw the Black Hankie Bandit has recently been apprehended and brought to trial in the girls' new town of residence. All the lawmen suddenly in the area has the March girls sweating a bit! At one point, Maude IS recognized at the diner where she works. She's arrested but Sallie and friends bust her out, forcing the sisters back on the run yet again. 



Speaking of these adventures, this book includes a much more detailed map of the March sisters' travels than the last book offered. While I found the first book's actual adventure elements more entertaining than in this sequel, I feel this sequel offers more humor and as readers we get deeper into the emotional bond between Maude and Sallie. But seriously though, there are some really great one liners in this one:


Re: a gunfight: "The earlobe is a surprisingly messy place to get shot."


"Reputations are easier to pick up than put down."


"Things happen in this world that cannot be properly understood unless you were there in the midst of them."


"If the story won't make you cry, the spelling will."(Maude)



The feminist undertones are slightly stronger in Maude March on the Run than its predecessor. The novel as a whole spotlights Maude wanting to be her own boss while Sallie pushes to get the same level of respect as the boys around her. She points out how people only use the term "you girls" when someone wants to silence the girls' opinions or objections. Certainly important themes young female readers will benefit from experiencing! Hopefully these stories, historical fiction though they may be, will serve as a source of empowerment for the young female audience they draw in. 


Plus, super cute telegram style dedication at the start of the book -- I've never seen anyone else do this before!




My review for Bk 1: Misadventures of Maude March

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
5 Stars
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
The Rules of Magic: A Novel - Alice Hoffman

Find your magic.

For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man. Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk. From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse. The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy. Thrilling and exquisite, real and fantastical, The Rules of Magic is a story about the power of love reminding us that the only remedy for being human is to be true to yourself.






A prequel novel, The Rules of Magic explores the early years of Francis (redheaded "Franny") and Bridget (nicknamed "Jet" for her long black hair) Owens, eccentric aunts to Sally and Gillian whom we first met in Practical Magic. Here we read of Franny and Jet's experiences growing up in the 1950s - 60s. Along with their brother Vincent -- the youngest of the family -- the sisters are raised in New York by their mother, Susanna Owens (who tries her hardest to closet her magic roots) and psychiatrist father, Dr. Burke-Owens. You read that right, he took his wife's name! 


Having suffered a tragic loss thanks to the Owens curse, Susanna, the second time around, chooses a relationship of comfort and stability rather than love. She does her best to keep her children sheltered from their magical heritage, setting up a laundry list of rules and restrictions regarding their powers, but it's of no use. Curiosity gets the best of them, particularly in the case of Jet and Vincent once their powers begin to surface: Jet learns she can read minds while Vincent begins to get prophetic, though sometimes confusing or murky flashes of the future. Franny is gifted as well, but being the most logical, scientifically minded of the siblings, she is also the most hesitant to acknowledge the truth, instead focusing on trying to figure out how to rationally explain the magic out of her reality.



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The year Franny turns seventeen, the siblings are invited for a summer stay at the Owens ancestral home in Massachusetts with Susanna's aunt Isabelle. This summer proves to be a monumental one for the Owens kids, as they learn lessons about life that will affect, maybe even alter, their personalities and life paths forever after. Themes / messages Hoffman weaves into these lessons include: embracing who you are at your core, pushing through fear and going for a chance at real love (regardless of consequences), finding yourself strongly nostalgic for home after a time of wanting so badly to leave it, dauntlessly pursuing what you truly want in life, and learning not to waste the finite time of your lifespan being petty or fearful. Instead, live in a space of love, joy and kindness.



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It is also during this important summer that the Owens siblings meet April. Not only do they later learn that she is a distant cousin, but it is during this summer that April conceives a child. That child is Regina Owens, the mother of Sally and Gillian, the stars of Practical Magic. If you remember from Practical Magic, it was also mentioned that in the story of Maria Owens, the originator of the curse, the father of her child was left unknown. Hoffman names the father in The Rules of Magic, and I gotta say, I was surprised to read that she chose a real life historical figure! Thinking about it though, WHO she chooses DOES play in well to the whole witch theme threaded throughout the two books. 


"Maria Owens did what she did for a reason. She was young and she thought damning anyone who loved us would protect us. But what she had with that terrible man wasn't love. She didn't understand that when you truly love someone and they love you in return, you ruin your lives together. That is not a curse, it's what life is, my girl. We all come to ruin, we turn to dust, but whom we love is the thing that lasts."



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Wow, did I like this installment of the Owens Ladies ever so much more than Practical Magic! Just all around, the plot is richer, the characters more entertaining and more developed, secrets or elements from the other book revealed, better explained, or just tied together in an impressive way.... Loved it all! Honestly maybe even one of my favorite reads of the year!


Anyone else get at least a tinge of Branwell Bronte vibes from Vincent? At least in the early portions of the story? I just couldn't shake that image ... what with Vincent's moodiness, mysterious outings all night, the heavy drinking. Even something about Vincent's early interest in the occult and the Magus book gave me that imagery of what I've read of Branwell (he always struck me as the most emo of the Bronte siblings lol).


The girl was carrying a backpack. A blue journal peeking out caught Franny's attention. It was one of the notebooks she {Franny} had left in the library. "Are you writing?" she asked. 


"Trying to," the girl said. 


"Don't try, do." She realized she sounded exactly like Aunt Isabelle when she was irritated. She hadn't meant to be a wet blanket and had no wish to discourage this clever little girl, so she changed her tone. "But trying is a start. What is your story?"


"My life."




"If you write it down, it doesn't hurt as much."


"Yes, I can imagine."


The girl scampered onto the rocks to join her friends. She waved and Franny waved back.


As she walked home, Franny thought that the girl at the lake had been perfectly right. It helped to write things down. It ordered your thoughts and if you were lucky revealed feelings you didn't know you had. That same afternoon Franny wrote a long letter to Haylin. She had never told anyone what her aunt had whispered with her last breath. But now she wrote it down, and when she did she realized it was what she believed, despite the curse.


Love more, her aunt had said. Not less.


If you, like me, struggled with Practical Magic, I urge you to give this one a go. Maybe the time gap is just what Hoffman needed to get this family's story just right, considering Practical Magic came out in the mid 90s, while The Rules of Magic was released just last year. 



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!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
3 Stars
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
Practical Magic - Alice Hoffman

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape. One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic...





For over two hundred years, the Owens ladies have been one cursed family! Orphaned sisters Gillian and Sally Owens are brought to live with their eccentric aunts, Francis and Bridget. Introducing the girls to their magical roots, the aunts quickly see Sally as the more natural witch, while younger Gillian is more taken with her inner bohemian spirit consumed with falling in love... repeatedly. 


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Because the town has never let up on its gossiping and trading witch stories regarding the Owens women, young Gillian and Sally grow up fielding a mountain of ridicule. By the time they are grown and ready to start their own lives, the sisters are ready to do just about anything to escape the Owens curse --- the one that kills any man who falls for them --- Sally marries for comfort rather than love while Gillian literally runs away from her East Coast upbringing, escaping into the western regions of the US.


If you're coming to this book because you love the movie (as I did), let me warn you now, the similarities between the two are few and FAR between... for real! Plus, the first chapter is going to be a tough one to get through for animal lovers. 


Alice Hoffman has become one of my very favorite authors in recent years and I'm only now just getting to this one, perhaps her most famous book because of the movie. The movie being a favorite of mine for years already, I figured this one would be a sure favorite as well.... but honestly, I struggled with it. I still liked it, but it was a struggle. There's a certain magic to Hoffman's writing that, despite this novel's title, was seriously lacking. Sure, magic was mentioned, and there were moments here and there where I felt Hoffman's classic writing style coming through, but it wasn't start to finish lovely whimsy as some of her other books have been for me. Maybe because the movie was just so cozy and amazing, I set the bar too high going in?


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Case in point: (movie vs book)


* Movie Sally owns a natural beauty care store where it's rumored witchery goes into her recipes... while book Sally works as... a high school administrator?! Not saying the job isn't important but hard to work magic into such a comparatively dull environment! 


     -- Also different: 1) The way she meets husband Michael is portrayed a little differently in the book. Again, the aunts have no magic involved in the union like they did in the movie... it just comes about by "right place and time" kind of thing, like anyone. 2) We get to know Sally's girls as teens -- Antonia a stunning redhead, little sister Kylie a 5'11 "awkward giantess" --  rather than just small children where the movie stops. Sally and her girls also spend much of the book living in NYC, which I found confusing during this book, but it's actually explained nicely in the prequel, The Rules of Magic.  3) Book Sally actually DOES get to the top of the phone tree... without Gillian's help! In fact, she's a regular there. 3) The whole relationship with Officer Gary Hallet -- memorably portrayed by Aidan Quinn in the film -- is way more lowkey (almost boring) in the book. It's actually Gillian that has the way more interesting romance (and I'm not talking about Jimmy)... but more on that later. 


* Movie Gillian and her relationship with Jimmy: There's one section of the novel where Gillian is thinking back on the time she spent with him (this is after it comes to an end) and within her thoughts are NSFW kind of descriptions of Jimmy being rough during sex, getting off on the violence, and how she would let it go on because the violence during sex was less painful than the beatings he would give her if he didn't get his way. Yeah, this was lightly glossed over in the film but the book gets heavy with this reality at times. Between book and movie there's also a bit of a switch with Jimmy's final resting place: instead of under roses in Massachusetts, his spot is under lilacs in NYC. But what remains in both book and movie is the presence of toads (even the one who spits the ring!).


    ---- Gillian takes up with Sally's co-worker Ben, who proves to be a solidly decent guy. Aptly, he's also a neat mix of scientist and part-time magician.



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The aunts were looking out the window, watching what avarice and stupidity could do to a person. They shook their heads sadly.... Some people cannot be warned away from disaster. You can try, you can put up every alert, but they'll still go their own way.



Another area where there are some differences is with the legend of Maria Owens, the originator of the curse. Some of the details there were altered a bit by film's development. Just in general, the "magic" element felt pretty underdeveloped until Part 3, "Clairvoyance", where the story gets into the battle between Jimmy and the Owens sisters. Prior to that, it felt more like a general domestic drama regarding family tensions, sisterly bond, etc. The book really didn't come alive for me until the relationship between Gillian and Ben was introduced. Really wish this element HAD been incorporated into the film, and I'd certain be happy to read a spin-off book focusing on these two and where they ended up. 


It doesn't matter what people tell you. It doesn't matter what they might say. Sometimes you have to leave home. Sometimes, running away means you're headed in the exact right direction.


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While it was cool to see the origin of characters I came to love on screen, the novel needs better transitions. There are people regularly introduced or scenes changed mid-paragraph, which made for a choppy "quick, backtrack!" kind of reading experience. Still, I do love that the heartwarming closing words of the book were incorporated into the film. 



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