4 Stars
Snake by Kate Jennings
Snake - Kate Jennings

Praised for its mesmerizing intensity and taut, quick-witted prose, SNAKE tells the mesmerizing story of a mismatched couple -- Irene, ambitious and man-crazy, and her quiet, adoring, responsible husband, Rex -- who tumble into marriage and settle as newlyweds on a remote Australian farm. It is amid this unforgiving landscape that Irene and Rex raise their two children. It is here that, as Rex bears silent witness, Irene tends her garden and wrestles with what seems to be her fate. And it is here that their marriage unravels -- inexorably, bitterly, spectacularly.





*POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novella incorporates themes of abortion and suicide.



Australian housewife Irene has for some time grown to feel that she's become uncomfortably locked into a seriously stifled domestic existence. Though she can't deny her husband has proven to be a good and faithful man, she misses the more wild, carefree side of her spirit that got consumed somewhere along the path of marriage and motherhood.


Irene makes it clear she likes her son but seems to be easily annoyed by her daughter. "Boy" is often light-hearted about life, enamored with American country music, while "Girlie" has a very serious nature, a writer spirit who tends to interpret things in their most literal sense. She's not much appreciated by either adults or fellow children.


Irene and Rex have a pretty good bond in the early years, but begin to show signs of slowly drifting apart over time as the children grow up. Along with decreased affections, tensions steadily rise between them. Whispers of infidelity begin to surface. Irene's coldness towards her daughter also increases while parent-child boundaries between her and her son become uncomfortably blurred. (WHY are they having tub time together in his teenage years?!!)


"Like many women of her class, Irene's mother maintained a separate bedroom from her husband; he could make his own arrangements. On the rare occassions she thought about sex, it was to envisage the gully at the bottom of the hill near her house --- gloomy, vine-tangled, rank with the smell of still water and furtive animals."


Well, if that's the example Irene had to grow up with.... 


Finally hitting her limit with everything one day, Irene rather heartlessly decides to leave a letter confessional addressed to husband Rex out in the open --- where anyone might stumble upon it --- in which she admits that the son he helped raise all these years was actually fathered by her ex! The unraveling of the relationship from that point of confession continues to drive the narrative to its headshaker of an ending.


Snake is a quick novella read with alternating POVS: Part 1 is presented in second person voice, observing Rex; Parts 2 & 3 are in third person observing both Irene and Rex as a couple, while also offering perspective from Billie, an Army friend of Irene's who also served as one of her bridesmaids. Billie gives the reader details on Irene's pre-Rex promiscuous years, history that might play into why she was the way she was with Rex years later; Part 4 goes back to second person voice, but with the voice now focusing on Irene. 


I won't lie, this one was a weird little read. It's gritty and stark, the descriptions of bleak Australian landscape often serving as an extra character to enhance the dark mood between our human players. The plot is grim but the writing itself is fascinating, bringing the reader into full-on rubbernecker mode til the very end. I didn't always entirely understand how some scenes connected to the plot as a whole and in the later bits of the story there seemed to be a strange fixation on bugs and mice that also left me scratching my head a bit. 


In some ways, Snake reminds me of my reading of Nabokov's Lolita. Maybe not a story you'd return to often because it's so cozy and good... both books will undoubtedly induce a good skin crawl or two .... but you stay with the pages because THAT WRITING THO. Though an author might lead you down some dark, sketchy paths, a reader can't but be taken with a finely woven sentence (or hundreds of pages of them!). This is one such book. Take it for a spin at least once just for the sheer experience of quality "less is more" writing craft.

A Seat by the Hearth (Amish Homestead #3) by Amy Clipston
A Seat by the Hearth (Amish Homestead #3) - Amy Clipston

Priscilla Allgyer left the community to escape the expectations of Amish life. Now, years later, she is forced to return—along with her six-year-old son—to the place she thought she’d left behind forever. Though once estranged from her family, Priscilla is welcomed by her mother, but her father is cold and strict. He allows Priscilla to stay with them provided she dresses plainly, confesses her sins, and agrees to marry within the community. Once again, she feels suffocated, trapped, and alone. As Priscilla reluctantly completes her shunning, she catches the eye of Mark Riehl, a farmer with a playboy reputation. Wary of Mark, Priscilla barely gives him the time of day—while Mark, unused to being ignored by the women of Bird-in-Hand, won’t give up the pursuit of her friendship. Priscilla desperately needs a friend in Mark, even if she doesn’t realize it—and after Priscilla’s father and the bishop catch her and Mark in a compromising situation, their relationship becomes more complicated than ever. As affection quietly grows between them, Priscilla struggles to open her heart and reveal the painful secrets of her past. As Mark works to earn her good faith, can they both learn the hard lessons of love and trust? And can two friends discover a happiness that only God himself could have designed? The third book in the Amish Homestead series, A Seat by the Hearth invites us back to the Lancaster community where friendships are forged and love overcomes all.






Several years ago, Priscilla Allgyer, a childhood best friend of Laura Riehl (one of the main characters of Book 2 in this series) made the decision to leave her Amish community. Now she's back in town with young son Ethan in tow, a child born out of wedlock. Feeling limited in options, Priscilla puts aside her pride and returns to her parents' home, hoping they will be gracious enough to leave the past in the past and let her stay, at least until she can come up with another solution. 


Priscilla's mother is overjoyed to see her and gladly welcomes her in with open arms. Not quite the same story with her father. He agrees to let her and Ethan move in with them, but he's got some conditions: Priscilla is to 1) return to wearing Amish clothes 2) confess her sins and become a full fledged member of the church and 3) get herself an Amish husband ASAP. Hearing her father lay out his terms, Priscilla is quickly reminded of the restrictive aspects of Amish life that led her to flee town in the first place all those years ago, but for the sake of her son, she begrudgingly agrees to his rules. While she might have started out fleeing her Amish life, now she was escaping Ethan's alcoholic, abusive Englischer father, so returning to THAT life wasn't really an option... at least not one she even remotely wanted to consider.


While settling back into her old Amish ways, Priscilla becomes reacquainted with Laura's twin brother, Mark Riehl, the community's local ladies' man. While inwardly she can't deny how physically attractive she finds him, outwardly she keeps her distance. Being well aware of his reputation of fickle affections towards the ladies, that's the last thing she needs in her life right now. But Mark claims he's just here to be a good friend to her. He tries to be patient with her, sensing she's "going through some things right now"... but at times gets frustrated that she allows only minimal interaction between them, even on a platonic level.


While Mark might claim he only wants to be a good friend to Priscilla, everyone else in town immediately sees these two are clearly headed for a future romance. Or so Clipston wants the reader to believe. Much like the problem with the first book in this series, we're being TOLD these two have a growing romantic warmth between them, but the bulk of their actions / interactions barely revv up beyond good, solid friendship. In fact, the whole big drama that does end up forcefully pushing these two together comes about because Mark is honestly and innocently comforting Priscilla as she releases some pent up emotional pain. However, his nearness to her, when seen by outside eyes, is deemed inappropriate. To save face -- and potential expulsion from the church -- Priscilla and Mark are forced to come together to make a difficult choice about their respective -- and possibly combined -- futures.


Without any real heat between them developed, the will-they-won't-they element of the plot was a little dragged out, but the novel still has a worthwhile story in Priscilla's personal journey, navigating a life dictated by men who prove to be letdowns. Growing up with an verbally abusive father, she has little to no self esteem / respect cultivated in her, so out in the Englisch world it's no great surprise that she ends up being targeted by a similar kind of man. Tricked by initial kindness, she gets caught up in an unhealthy relationship she has no clue how to leave. The only idea she has is to come back home to the life she tried so hard to break free from.


A reader can't help but feel for her. It's almost like she has to pay triple-fold for her life path --- fleeing first the abusive father, then a physically abusive boyfriend, THEN having to regain her place within the Amish church... and she's not even accepted right away. She has to go through a process of taking classes, attending services, extra confessions and meetings, gradually working her way out of shunning status. She can't eat with her family or neighbors, can't use her own money at Amish stores until she's cleared of the shunning ... and for what "crime"? Wanting a little breathing room in her life? Wanting to seek out and experience deep-down soul contentment, in whatever form that took? The process breaks her heart time and again, yet she fights to stay strong for  her son, who needs this safe space away from his dangerous father.


Clipston gives a hint that a little over five years has passed between the first book in the Amish Homestead series to now, and there's one more to go. Several of the characters in the previous book hinted that they'd like to see flirty Mark maybe try to settle on one girl and here we are trying out that storyline! While the romance was flat for me, I cheered every time Mark stood up to Priscilla's verbally abusive father! 


Oh, and the running joke between Laura and Allen featured in Book 2 gets an extra little nod in this story as well. :-)


The final book in the series, due out this May, is set to feature Laura and Mark's baby sister, Cindy Riehl. 


NOTE TO READERS: Clipston does do a good job giving readers refresher information within these novels so you can catch up with characters between installments, but given that there ARE crossover characters, inside jokes, and a definable timeline moving along (within the Riehl family especially) throughout the stories, I would recommend reading the series sequentially.


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





3.5 Stars
Daughter of Neptune by Theresa Wisner
Daughter of Neptune: ...found at sea - Theresa Wisner

This powerful memoir touched the hearts of both readers and reviewers. Theresa Wisner follows in the wake of her fishing brothers to the far outposts of the world in an attempt to please her fishing father. With impeccable detail, Wisner paints a picture of life at sea from a young woman’s perspective. With courage and grit, she tells the story of addiction and recovery, and coming of age far later than most. Daughter of Neptune powerfully captures the beauty and the coarseness of a foreign world that creates the backdrop for healing.






Theresa Wisner has done extensive traveling all over the world. She has twenty years of experience in commercial fishing, served as a chief steward in the Merchant Marine, she's even the recipient of the Congressional Antarctic Service medal. Largely driven by a lifelong need to feel acceptance from an often emotionally distanced father, Wisner's travels and work experiences culminate in one impressive tale of a woman time and again pushing herself to succeed in a male-dominated industry. 


Daughter of Neptune documents not only her life at sea, but also land-based downtime during the fishing off-season, divided between part-time waitressing work and off-time hours spent at various dive bars around the world. Introduced to the fishing industry (through her father) at a mere nine years old, Wisner grows up learning the ins and outs of the business before eventually following the path of three of her four older brothers, who all joined fishing crews. Wisner's experiences are unique in that of the crews she's signed onto, she's often either THE only woman or one of only a couple on board, meaning her stories are seasoned with humorous, sometimes crass locker room style behavior from her shipmates, not to mention an intensive trial-by-fire approach to on-the-job training, whether serving on deck crew or in the kitchens.


Right from the opening lines, the reader is immediately thrust into Wisner's salt encrusted landscape, painting such an atmospheric scene as to make it clear to the reader why she's so drawn to this particular way  of life:


I smell the salt. It's carried on the breath of the earth here, and in the mist that hangs in the air. It clings to the inside of my nose and it tickles and is tangy, all at once. On my skin, a damp coating of fine crystals. I lick my lips and taste the sea.


Later on, she writes of being on a ship while sailing past Priest Rock, approaching the Bering Sea. I was not familiar with this point prior to reading this book, but her description had me immediately doing an image search for a visual and while having never been there myself, I can't help but feel her words must ring spot on truth. 



Wisner's unvarnished account of her experiences is admirable. While maybe not every little detail is divulged, she doesn't shy away from being upfront with the reader when it comes to discussing her struggles with depression, occasional suicidal thoughts, and addiction -- the fight, the recovery, relapse, and gradual journey back to recovery once again. It's also interesting to read an account of someone whose livelihood is dependent on a life at sea battling sea sickness the first few days of every new trip, even years into such a career! 


She's also real about the job itself. Point blank, Wisner lets readers know there's plenty about the work that is flat-out disgusting and sometimes even boring. She brings you in and lets you imagine: days or weeks aboard a ship with no shower facilities, your body and clothes covered in a hardened layer of salt, sweat, blood and fish guts. Wisner points out that many men she sailed with just got used to that state of... dishevelment, shall we call it... and just waited until they were back in port somewhere before considering a wash up. You can imagine how ripe they must have been by then! Not being about that life, Wisner devises a system of heating water and then transferring it to a garden watering can, pouring the water over her as a makeshift showerhead.


There's also some mention of the disappointing state of the trash filled oceans around the world, how it's hard to ignore when you're living in the middle of it.


Even if one manages to freshen up after a long day's work, Wisner explains that there's still the bouts of boredom one has to learn to navigate. But while she might feel disappointment at the monotony of weeks at sea, there's also a freedom in it. You can become comfortable in the reliability of routine. Still, it's the sea... a place where you definitely don't want to get too complacent.


The irony: when you're on land you itch to get back on the sea, when you're on the sea, you long for the conveniences and socialization of landlubber life. You're never guaranteed to mesh well with the crew you're hired on to. Early on, she talks of sailing experiences with old salt Phil, who seems alright at first, but turns out to have a violent side when it comes to processing shark meat. When he sees the looks she gives him, his response is "You'll understand when they eat $1000 of your fish." Umm, no, Phil. You fish shark territory, so technically, you're stealing THEIR food... Don't know that Phil and I would've gotten along so well, lol. 


Wisner admits to quite frequently feeling the temptation to quit, but it always comes back to the need to feel a connection with her father. Not only does he not like quitters, but this fishing life brings about a closeness between them that nothing else can. So she stays.


The writing at times lacks a bit of the finesse one might expect from an established professional writer --- some passages could be edited down, while others beg more detail --- but any technical shortcomings are certainly well made up for through Wisner's heart coming through, particularly through her honest account of the struggle of child-parent relationships when they move into the child's adulthood. 


My heart plunges with shame of not being good enough. Not being big enough. And especially not being boy enough.



Wisner, above anything, wants her father's approval. Every action, every life choice, on some level, is driven by this fact. She just happens to have the kind of parent who is reserved (to say the least) when doling out affection and evidence of pride in their offspring. I saw so much of my own father in Wisner's, I felt a sense of ... community, almost (maybe also because I was raised a "Navy brat" lol)... on a level I don't often reach with memoirs. I felt it most strongly with the passages where she gets into the hardships of such a relationship in adulthood.... where you have a parent you still seek approval from, even when reason tells you the bulk of their actions don't deserve or inspire respect... but as an adult, you can't help but acknowledge that that IS still your parent. If they gave you nothing else, they did give you life, so it's not unfathomable or even uncommon to feel responsible for them as they age, regardless of how they might have wronged you. Man, did I feel the truth in that. 


While this book has only been out a short time, I've already seen it drawing comparisons to Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I can see where similarities could be drawn between the two, but I personally wasn't all that impressed with Wild. While shorter in length, I found much more heart and realness to Daughter of Neptune. Though I will say: a little admission here, Below Deck is one of my "guilty pleasure" tv programs, and I could also see some similarities between that and this, so if you're a fan of that show, maybe check Wisner's book out! 


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








* If you want to add some ambiance to your reading experience with this one, I had OCEAN STORM SOUNDS playing in the background while I did my reading! 

!!! spoiler alert !!! Review
4 Stars
Room on the Porch Swing (Amish Homestead #2) by Amy Clipston
Room on the Porch Swing - Amy Clipston

Laura Riehl is no stranger to heartache. Less than a year after her mother’s death, Laura finds herself burying another loved one: her best friend, Savilla, who has died after a brief and sudden illness. Laura feels heartbroken and alone, but her pain is nothing compared to that of Allen, the husband Savilla has left behind. He now faces a life so different from the one he imagined—plus a baby to care for on his own. When Laura offers to help Allen with baby Mollie, he jumps at the opportunity until a permanent solution can be found. She’d do anything to lend a hand to Allen and to honor her best friend’s memory. Rudy, Laura’s boyfriend, is initially supportive of her plan, but the more time Laura spends with Allen, the more jealous and frustrated Rudy seems to become. As Laura and Allen face hardships together, their friendship takes a surprising yet comforting turn—and she discovers an attraction she’s never felt with Rudy. Would falling for Allen betray the people she cares about most, or would denying those feelings betray her heart? This latest installment in the Amish Homestead series returns us to Lancaster County, home of the beloved Riehls, where a family’s strength—and advice from a new friend—may help Laura find God’s direction.








In the first installment of Clipston's Amish Homestead series, readers witnessed the Riehl family navigating through the unexpected loss of their matriarch. While the first book focused on the life of Jamie Riehl, Room On The Porch Swing, the second book of the series, opens with Jamie's sister, Laura, suffering the unexpected death of her best friend, Savilla, only months after her mother's passing. 


Savilla leaves behind a husband, Allen, and a newborn, Mollie. Initially, Allen's mother-in-law comes in to help with Mollie, but when a fall leaves her with a broken leg AND hip, Laura steps in and offers to help Allen with childcare and other domestic needs. The more time Laura spends at Allen's house, the more suspicious her boyfriend, Rudy, becomes. It's all very innocent at first; Laura's focused on looking after Mollie, cooking meals and helping with the laundry and household cleaning / upkeep. But as the months pass, Laura begins to realize she is in fact developing feelings for Allen, feelings that go much deeper than anything she's ever felt for Rudy. But there's also a sense of guilt mixed into that... how can she possibly allow herself to fall for her best friend's widower, especially only months after Savilla's passing? Laura tries her very best to keep things professional and platonic, but regardless of her intent, little Mollie makes it clear to everyone that Laura is the one she prefers above anyone (except maybe dad and grandma). 


The chemistry between Laura and Allen --- even at the friendship stage --- was infinitely better than that of Jamie and Kayla from the first book (Jamie and Kayla do get a few brief appearances in this second one, btw, for those curious how their story progresses).  The pace and depth of the growing bond between Laura & Allen seemed much more believable than that of Jamie & Kayla. There's also an extra layer of interest provided in the form of Rudy's aggravation / jealousy. It keeps the reader invested, waiting to see in what way(s) his frustration will manifest itself once his patience does finally run out.


Another wonderful element to the story is the sweet, supportive relationship between Laura and her twin brother, Mark. Sure, he spends a bulk of the novel being the lighthearted jokester character who loves being the town ladies' man... but there's also some great scenes where he turns into the protective and concerned brother when he sees his sister hurting. Laura makes a mention in this book of how she'd love to see Mark settle down with a great girl, so that may be addressed in the remaining two books in the series. 


One of the best takeaways from this story is how Laura's experiences with men illustrate the differences between a relationship where you are truly valued, and missed when you are away, versus being involved with someone who is not so much invested in you specifically but merely uses you as a relationship placeholder or afterthought... a possession to have there because society tells the person SOMEONE should be in that spot... "might as well be this person here". It's a clever lesson in self respect and the importance of being truly appreciated Clipston leaves her readers with at the close of this book! 


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

4 Stars
Family Reminders by Julie Dannebery, illust. by John Shelley
Family Reminders - Julie Danneberg, John Shelley

Ten-year-old Mary McHugh’s world is shattered when her father is injured in a mining accident in the late 1800’s. After losing his leg, Mary’s father falls into a deep depression. He no longer plays the piano or has interest in carving the intricate wooden "Reminders" that he has always made to remind the family of the milestones they shared together. To make matters worse, the family may need to leave their home in Cripple Creek, Colorado in order to make ends meet. Mary’s love for her father and her desire to get life back to "normal" push her to take a chance that restores her father’s spirit and brings her family a new life, strengthened by the hardships they have endured.





Young Mary McHugh is growing up in the frontier town of Cripple Creek, Colorado in the late 1890s. She has a very loving home life full of jokes, laughter and her father's wood carvings he calls "reminders", since he tends to carve figures inspired by real life memories. 


Mary's father, a miner, experiences a work accident one day that costs him one of his legs. The transition into life as an amputee is not an easy one for Mary's father. Even once a large part of his initial physical healing has passed, he still struggles with the emotional turmoil brought about by this new life situation. Mary's father doesn't like to see his wife having to take up work as a laundress to pay the bills now that he is out of work... or Mary herself sneaking in babysitting jobs where she can to supplement the family income. Once a man who took pride in doing an honest day's work, Mary's father now battles a sense of uselessness. But when suggestions are made as to what he can contribute (work-wise), he goes back to moping. 



But Mary is determined to do whatever is necessary to raise her father's spirits and keep the family unit strong. It is through Mary's bold, optimistic spirit that an answer to the family's prayers comes about, guaranteeing the reader a happy ending to close on. Once he gets his groove back, Mary's mother can't help but lightheartedly comment, "Guess he got bored with his orneriness." 


Although Daddy didn't respond, I saw the corners of his mouth turn up. Just a tiny bit. And a new feeling, a spring feeling, lifted my spirits just a tiny bit too. After that, Daddy's hands were always busy. He made the bookshelf for the parlor. He worked on a new bench for the front porch, and he also began carving new Reminders. Mama didn't mind the mess...I didn't mind the mess either. I loved to sit beside Daddy at the kitchen table while he worked. It was like magic to watch him uncover the secret hidden in the wood. His hands were strong and sure as he held the carving knife. 




Family Reminders is a quick little read --- big print, lots of heartwarming illustrations --- but there's a fair amount of heart and inspiring, feel-good plot, even a little humor, woven into these few pages! Author Julie Danneberry writes that the storyline is loosely inspired by the childhood of her grandmother, who grew up in the real Cripple Creek, CO and who also had a father who lost a leg in a mining accident. I'd recommend for fans of the Little House on the Prairie books. 

3.5 Stars
His Lovely Wife by Elizabeth Dewberry
His Lovely Wife - Elizabeth Dewberry

When tall, blond, and beautiful Ellen Baxter enters the Paris Ritz the day before Princess Diana dies, she’s mistaken for Diana by the paparazzi. The next morning, as Ellen’s older, Nobel-laureate husband attends a physics conference, she goes to the site of the fatal crash and finds an uncharacteristic photograph of Diana. Surprised by how deeply the death has affected her, Ellen pockets the photo. As she hears Diana’s voice in her head and begins to understand the parallels between their lives, she tracks down the person who took the photograph, hoping that this man who deals in surfaces can penetrate her beauty, as he did Diana’s, and help her love the woman inside. Elizabeth Dewberry’s complex, surprising novel uses string theory to weave together two women’s lives and explore a culture that celebrates women for their beauty―then exacts a terrible toll.





American Ellen Baxter travels with her Nobel Laureate husband to Paris, where he is to attend a physics conference. As he socializes with colleagues at the hotel restaurant -- "the most interesting conversation I've had in months" --- nice of him to say to his wife *eye roll* --- she decides to take in the sights of the city.


Ellen's first day in Paris happens to be the day before the tragic death of Princess Diana. Papparazzi mistake Ellen for Diana. It confuses her, but after the crash Ellen feels compelled to visit the site of the wreck. There at the site, and after (back at the Paris Ritz Hotel), Ellen begins to hear the voice of Diana and gradually begins to see interesting parallels between their lives.


The cover of this book might lead you to believe you're going into a fluff read. At times it is, but largely the story ends up being much more layered than it lets on. Through the story of Diana's sad marriage, difficult divorce and untimely death, we also learn of similar hardships in Ellen's marriage (minus the death part, obviously). Put the two stories together, and the reader gets a compelling study of a woman's role as a wife in general terms --- the good and the bad, the struggle to get out from under the shadow of a spouse society deems the more successful one. But no worries, it's not all heavy. There's plenty of humor slid into the mix as well. This story had me thinking how entertaining it might have been to trade mother-in-law venting stories with Diana! 


A couple of things for readers to note:


* There are no chapter divisions in this book, only paragraph breaks to indicate scene change --- just a heads up if you're a stickler about format.


* Some of Ellen's inner thoughts are pretty sexually explicit or otherwise graphic... again, just a warning for readers who prefer to keep their stories tame.


If you're at all interested in anything to do with the Princess Diana story, this novel is a unique take on the events, while also bringing in thought provoking commentary on the concepts of domestic harmony and maintaining a strong sense of self-worth while in a partnership.






* When picking up this book, you may notice that it is dedicated to the novelist Robert Olen Butler. Elizabeth Dewberry was previously married to Butler, but the marriage crumbled after a rather public revealing of an affair with media mogul Ted Turner. 

2.5 Stars
A Place at Our Table (Amish Homestead #1) by Amy Clipston
A Place at Our Table (An Amish Homestead Novel) - Amy Clipston

Kayla Dienner has suffered her fair share of heartache, which is why she vows to protect her heart at all costs . . . until she meets Jamie Riehl. Along with his volunteer work at the local fire department, running his Amish farm keeps Jamie Riehl busy. He barely has time to eat at the family table, never mind find someone to date. But when he meets Kayla Dienner, he is smitten. Kayla tries hard to deny her attraction to Jamie. After all, she’s spent the last year discouraging her younger brother, Nathan, from becoming a firefighter. The death of their older brother in a fire a year ago is fresh in her mind—she can’t bear the idea of putting her heart on the line every time the sirens blare. Then tragedy strikes, and Jamie wants to extinguish any flame between him and Kayla. Can Kayla set aside her own fears to save the love she was determined to deny? The first book in the Amish Homestead series, A Place at Our Table invites us to a quiet community in Lancaster County where love burns brightly no matter the cost.





Jamie Riehl has his hands full trying to find balance between his work as a part-time volunteer firefighter and his duties at the family's dairy farm. Now, at twenty-five, his parents are heavily hinting that he should be looking to settle down with a nice girl, but where is he supposed to fit that in?


Meanwhile, Kayla Dienner is still mourning the loss of her eldest brother, also a firefighter, who lost his life during a call last year. This year, Jamie's crew is called out to the Dienner home (Kayla shares with her parents and fourteen year old brother, Nathan) after a lightning strike sets the barn on fire. Nathan had rushed out to the barn to try to get the animals out but got trapped inside when a beam fell. 


Jamie's crew are able to rescue Nathan. Full of gratitude, Nathan confesses to Jamie and Kayla his own desire to become a firefighter. Kayla is vehemently against the idea but Nathan is not one to give up easily, spending the rest of the novel getting the rest of the Dienner family to come around to his way of thinking. 


Jamie and Kayla begin to spend more and more time together, a moment here and there, mainly through the barn raising put together to replace the previous ruined structure. They butt heads from time to time but can't deny that they are drawn towards each other in some way, even if neither will admit these feelings go beyond friendship. Kayla gets a push towards love from an unexpected source: Eva, the widow of Kayla's deceased brother, Simeon. Eva, in so many words, urges Kayla to see that while it might be scary to risk one's heart, the experience, for better or worse, will be better than keeping the heart in a state of numbness. 


The story opens and (nearly) closes with a fire, there's a part about 9 1/2 chapters in where something mildly exciting happens, and then... well, that's about the most action you'll get out of the plot on this one. Everything else reads like a lot of filler, chapters and chapters full of little more than Do I / Don't I debates or "You like him /her!" "No, I don't!" back and forths. The plot just doesn't hold momentum well. 


Nathan was a well-written character EXCEPT the fact that his dialogue rarely sounded like the speech of a fourteen year old. More like he alternated between sounding about 9 or, suddenly, a 40 year old man LOL. I don't know, maybe that's not an uncommon trait for real Amish kids, but it read weird.


There was definitely a cute and heartwarming friendship between Jamie and Kayla, but IMO the romance there was FLAT. Flat, flat, flat. But of course you can expect to find an almost Insta-Love element here. While Kayla's character may read a little obnoxious to some, the way she wants Jamie to make her first priority over the fire department, there is an element of reality there. Being a fire wife myself, I can attest it is a very real concern in this type of relationship, one that takes years to come to terms with... the fact that no matter how much you love the man, you can never be top priority. You just can't. The nature of the fire department doesn't allow it. Until the day your spouse retires, you basically have them on loan from the department. Firefighters do the best they can, but if they made you top priority the way you want, every time you want, they'd likely be unemployed pretty quick. The structure of the job asks you to be available 24/7.


*Note: in her author's note, Amy Clipston mentioned that she did consult with the guys at Monroe, NC FD during the writing process, but no word if she also got some WIFE perspective on the job... because that definitely is a whole other animal with its own set of challenges that the firefighter would really only have an outsider perspective on.


And yes, on the wife's end, it IS aggravating. I still get mad about it some days, so I can understand Kayla's frustration. The demands she makes on Jamie are a little on the unreasonable side, but it's early on in their relationship when we meet them here. There are more books in the series where we may see Kayla mature into the position of dating / be married to a firefighter, where maybe she better understands the sacrifices that will be required of her to make the relationship work. Eva gives her some pointers on this as well, in this book. Jamie needs some time to mature some as well, at least mentally... it sounds odd at his age to have to ask "I'm sorry we fought, are you still my girlfriend?" Something I would expect a preschooler to ask! 


This first novel in the series does touch upon important themes of death, grief, and regret stemming from feeling like you didn't appreciate a loved one enough before their time came. I'm just hoping the storylines in the later books of the series prove a little more captivating. 


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
Exhiles by Ron Hansen
Exiles: A Novel - Ron Hansen

In December 1875 the steamship Deutschland left Bremen, Germany, bound for America. On board were five nuns, exiled by a ban on religious orders, bound to begin their lives anew in Missouri. Their journey would end when the Deutschland ran aground at the mouth of the Thames and all five drowned. Ron Hansen tells their harrowing story, but also that of the poet and seminarian Gerard Manly Hopkins, and how the shipwreck moved him to write a grand poem, a revelatory work read throughout the world today. Combining a thrilling tragedy at sea, with the seeming shipwreck of Hopkins's own life, "Hansen brilliantly, if soberly, weaves two interrelated story lines into a riveting novel" (Booklist on Exiles).





Inspired by a true story, Exhiles novelizes the tragic story of the steamship Deutschland, which set out in December of 1875, leaving its German port for the shores of America. It never reaches its destination. Onboard, among the passengers: a group of five nuns, ages ranging between 23-32, exhiled by a government ban on religious orders, with the goal of traveling to Missouri in hopes of starting up an American branch of their order: Sister Henrica, Sister Brigitta, Sister Barbara, Sister Aurea, and Sister Norbeta. Though the novel itself is quite a quick read, we still get a bit of a history on each of these women:


* Sister Henrica (previously known as Catharina): The reader / writer of the group. At only 15 years old, suffers the loss of her mother (died in childbirth). Grief develops into piousness, but she doesn't have the goal of taking vows right away. First, she takes up the mother role in the family, gets a job in a dress shop (her boss sees her as an "old soul" type). By the time of the trip to the Americas, Henrica is chosen to be Mother Superior of the new North American convent.


* Sister Brigitta: Born to tenant farmers, grew up shy and sensitive, often ill as a child. She grows into a pretty blonde-haired, blue eyed young woman. She's encouraged to find a suitor, which she tries to do but often gets bored with the process, often finding ways to slink off with a book somewhere. *I feel you, girl*


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"Girl with a Golden Wreath" by Leon Francois Comerre



Sister Barbara: ("Barbara" comes from the Latin "wild, rough, and savage", Saint Barbara was executed by her own father!); Sister Barbara grew up the tomboy daughter of a shoemaker. She was plain of face, didn't like dolls, and was known for having wide open energy and zero filter of the mouth LOL. She also grew up a mostly friendless, lonely girl who loved the woods, was good as sports, but couldn't muster enough focus for reading. Once she was at the marrying age, her mother tried to match her with single farmers in the area (because of the life of poverty common for most at that time, Barbara's man-like strength was appreciated in the farming community), the matches never really panned out. But she parlayed her toughness into work in midwifery and as a triage nurse during the Franco Prussian War. Barbara was famous for her stoic, no-nonsense approach to life. Her tough-as-nails demeanor often got her labeled as a "harridan" among adults, but around children she often became a complete marshmallow.


Sister Aurea (previously Josepha): We don't get to know too much about her other than she's the rebel and jokester in the group. She sends the others gasping at the announcement that she wants to check out the men's bathroom on the ship: "Wide enough to swing a goose in, but small enough the goose would object" LOL Prior to becoming Sister Aurea, little Josepha is a happy soul who loves to laugh and sees beauty in the church life, but feels guilty "having committed sins against chasity" with her first crush, Werner. The nuns saw her as "just a wild puppy that needed to be house-trained... and impossible to dislike."


Sister Norberta (previously Johanna): Norbetta, like sister Brigitta, was also born to tenant farmers but at birth she was so small she was not expected to live long. But because she did indeed survive, her parents vowed to dedicate her life to the Catholic Church. Her mother treated her as a literal gift from God, which caused Johanna to act a bit haughty and spoiled. By the age of 21, she was 5'10, heavy-set and plain-faced. Friendless and without any suitors, her father declares, "she's become impossible." When he dies a few weeks later, Johanna blames herself.


The sisters travel without a male escort, and insist on paying extra so they may travel in 2nd class rather than steerage. They are all in wonder of the lavishness of the accommodations, even if small. The ship hits an underwater sand dune and when the crew checks the weather situation, they realize they are sailing into a developing hurricane; 130 pages in, the reader is thrust into a scene of crashing items, glass bursting, people being knocked about. The reader is then made to witness the nuns die off, one by one. Makes for a bit of tough reading, once you come to know and like the personalities of these women, more so when you remember this all was based on a true story!


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There's also a bit of a secondary story incorporated into this brief novel: that of poet & Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was inspired to write an ode to the steamship Deutschland running aground at the mouth of the Thames River. Gerard, based in Wales, reads the newspaper reports of the downed ship and how the recovered bodies of the nuns have been laid out for viewing in Statford. Hopkins had previously been a published poet who destroyed his work as a religious act of stepping away from vanity. But when a fellow priest suggests the story might be poem-worthy, Gerard finds himself inspired to get to work crafting his ode.



Gerard Manley Hopkins



The first chapter is a little slow but once we get into the life stories of each of the nuns, and the way Hansen eases into the night of the tragedy, his classic way with words ultimately has the reader breezing through the pages of an incredible story. I admit, I didn't become fully invested until the closing chapters, but I enjoyed the journey just the same (as much as you can with this kind of story!).


Hansen includes Hopkins' ode in full at the back of this book. Personally, the rhythm / where Hopkins chooses to put the line breaks had an odd flow for me... but it's there for anyone curious.

3 Stars
Mariette In Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
Mariette In Ecstacy - Ron Hansen

The highly acclaimed and provocatively rendered story of a young postulant's claim to divine possession and religious ecstasy. In 1906, a beautiful seventeen year old postulant enters the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion in upstate New York. When she begins to bleed from her hands, feet, and side, the entire community is thrown into turmoil. Is Mariette a cunning sham, or sexually hysterical, or does God stalk her like a pitiless lover? Mariette in Ecstasy is a stunning immersion into the society of a small convent at the turn of the century, where a mysterious and ultimately harrowing world lies beneath the lovely, placid surface of everyday life. This is an intimate portrait of a fascinating young woman in the grip of an intractable fate, and it raises provocative questions about the complex nature of passionate faith. 






In 1906, seventeen year old Mariette decides to leave her life of wealth and privilege as the pampered daughter of a successful daughter to enter the Our Lady of Sorrows convent in Arcadia, New York. Serving as a postulant for the Sisters of the Crucifixion order, Mariette begins to show signs of stigmata. Mariette also confesses to having conversations with Christ that escalate into an all-consuming, nearly sexualized level of religious ecstasy. As Mariette's behavior and emotions become increasingly erratic, her explanation is that she desperately wants to experience the literal suffering of Christ. The nuns are beside themselves trying to figure out how to handle this. Once the story moves beyond the walls of the convent, a panel of church officials is pulled together to come in and interview the nuns to ascertain if Mariette is truly having a powerful religious experience or slipping into insanity. 


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Geraldine O'Rawe the 1996 film adaptation of Mariette in Ecstasy


From the childhoood of Mariette down to the nuns in the convent she joins, imagery of self persecution plays heavily into the whole novel. In fact, the novel opens with scenes of each nun starting her day and from the very first introduction to Mother Saint Raphael, we read of her practicing self penance through the wearing of thorned rosebush branches under her habit. There are also descriptions of nuns participating in flogging or various other forms of self-persecution or lying on beds of thorns to strengthen their commitment to the vow of chastity.


Mother Saint Raphael tugs her plain white nightgown up over her head. She is hugely overweight but her legs are slight as a goat's. Tightly sashed around her stomach just below the great green-veined bowls of her breasts are cuttings from the French garden's rosebushes, the dark thorns sticking into skin that is scarlet with infection. She gets into a grey habit, tying it with a sudden jerk. She winces and shuts her eyes. 


The entire novel spans the time period of a few months. Even for a brief story, there are some slower moments here, but the intensity certainly picks up the closer we come to the end! One incident and its aftermath are reminiscent of the stories of the Witch Trials era, as Mariette's life before and after entering the convent are investigated. The church panel wishes to determine: are her behaviors are a detailed hoax? Or is she being consumed by the Devil? Should she be kicked out of the convent? Committed to an asylum? 


I did feel for Mariette's father, the little we get to know about him. Being a doctor, he's a man of science who gravitates towards the tangibly provable. He struggles to understand Mariette's deep devotion to the religious world, he misses being able to have a normal, friendly father-daughter relationship without all the rules about contact, but he tries to be there for his daughter as much as convent protocol will allow. 


Mariette In Ecstasy does go to some WEIRD places at times, but what keeps it highly readable is Hansen's wonderful, slow-brew way with prose. And that last line! Love! 






* Author Ron Hansen himself is an ordained Deacon in the Catholic Church


* Ron Hansen wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his book. His characters were portrayed by quite a few notable names such as Rutger Hauer, John Mahoney, Mary McDonnell, and Eva Marie Saint.


The Reluctant Disciple by Jim O'Shea
The Reluctant Disciple - Jim   O'Shea

Ryan Kates is a paranormal expert, TV host, and skeptic. He hosts News4th, a nationally popular cable show focused on UFOs, ghosts, and everything that goes bump in the night. Ryan is used to dealing with the weird and unexplainable, but when bizarre paranormal phenomena rock the planet he finds himself questioning his long-held views. As these phenomena escalate, mass hysteria and political tensions begin to mount on a global scale. The world begins to spin out of control, and a former flame reenters Ryan’s life, bringing her family along for the ride. The pawns are moved into place, and Ryan must confront the ultimate evil on the world stage, culminating in a supernatural encounter far beyond his wildest dreams.





Ryan Kates is an expert on the paranormal with a top rated syndicated show, News4th. Funny thing is, he's secretly a skeptic. Yep, doesn't believe in any of the topics he delves into on News4th. That is, until recently, when news is flooded daily with stories of people suddenly going missing, UFOs (in the most literal definition of the word) seen in the skies around the world, growing mass hysteria that Ryan can't easily debunk. 


Looking to get some extra help on the investigation end of things, Ryan hires on ex-girlfriend from thirty years ago, Eleanor, who has recently been widowed and looking to restart her life. Eleanor is brought in to be the show's resident psychologist as well as a team researcher. Ryan wants her to look into all these cases of missing person reports and UFO sightings and see what's really behind them. Is the world looking at aliens? Politically motivated kidnappings? Or is it something closer to home, such as an enviromental anomaly or some sort of chemical warfare causing this global unraveling?


To bring extra interest to the plot, we the readers are also introduced to Eleanor's brother, Warren, whom she's been estranged from for a decade. Warren is a former priest who was excommunicated after performing two unauthorized exorcisms, the second costing him his eye and nearly his life. He now runs a private investigation firm but still has a friend of the cloth, Father Dimitri Chier, now holding a position at The Vatican. Warren is brought in not only to help with the research for Ryan's show, but also to try to help his niece, Eleanor's 22 year old daughter, Phoebe. Phoebe believes the ghost of her four year old daughter is haunting her apartment.


There's also an almost side character in "The White Whale", a cigarette Ryan keeps in a sealed glass tube. Ryan, a former smoker, keeps it on his person for most of the story to keep him on track and remind him of the thing that used to have such control over him. It also sort of serves as a kind of barometer for his stress level as the plot progresses. 


While this isn't a terribly long novel --- barely over 300 pages --- it's one I had to take my time with. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, there's just a lot of scenery to take in along the way! O'Shea has a little bit of everything here: UFOs, ghost stories, shadiness within the Catholic church, political intrigue.... it's one of those novels that can make your brain tired trying to keep it all straight if you take it too fast but O'Shea does an admirable job juggling the relevancy of all these different topics within one story! 


There's also a minimal amount of rekindled romance thrown in the mix, between Ryan and Eleanor, but it barely registers a blip of notice in the big picture. That end of things I found pretty flat, actually, but I didn't mind. Since I wasn't really here for a lovefest in this particular book, I was okay with it not being the focus. Actually kind of appreciated it to be honest.


It's a fun mix of paranormal & sci-fi, with a little bit of biblical prophecy / End Times speculative fiction mixed in. Aside from the End Times being used as a theme in the later end of the story, the religious aspect elsewhere is pretty light, so you need not worry if you're typically driven off by Christian Fiction publications. There's quite the ride waiting for you at the end of this one! It has a steady, not too slow build up to the final chapters which have some seriously WOW revelations and theories waiting for the reader. I'd recommend for fans of Dan Brown novels! 


FTC Disclaimer: BookCrash.com and Ambassador International 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
A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry | #BlackHistoryMonth
A Raisin in the Sun - Lorraine Hansberry

This groundbreaking play starred Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeill, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands in the Broadway production which opened in 1959. Set on Chicago's South Side, the plot revolves around the divergent dreams and conflicts within three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, his sister Beneatha, his son Travis and matriarch Lena, called Mama. When her deceased husband's insurance money comes through, Mama dreams of moving to a new home and a better neighborhood in Chicago. Walter Lee, a chauffeur, has other plans, however: buying a liquor store and being his own man. Beneatha dreams of medical school. The tensions and prejudice they face form this seminal American drama. Sacrifice, trust and love among the Younger family and their heroic struggle to retain dignity in a harsh and changing world is a searing and timeless document of hope and inspiration. Winner of the NY Drama Critic's Award as Best Play of the Year, it has been hailed as a "pivotal play in the history of the American Black theatre." by Newsweek and "a milestone in the American Theatre." by Ebony.






Pulling its title from the Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred", A Raisin in the Sun chronicles the lives of members of the Younger family, a black family living in Southside Chicago in the 1950s. All living together in one cramped, rundown apartment, each person in this family has their own dream of bettering their life.


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Matriarch Lena Younger, recipient of a sizable insurance check following the death of her husband, wants to buy a house out in the predominantly white suburbs and get her family out of the city altogether. Her son, Walter, urges his wife Ruth to coax his mom into giving up some of the insurance money so he can put it towards a business startup that he hopes will enable him to quit his job as a chauffeur to rich white families. Ruth knows her husband though. He's always full of dreams and schemes that never quite pan out. She'd rather just put her energy into providing the most stable environment possible for their son, Travis. Then there's Walter's younger sister, Beneatha, who also has a bit of the dreamer bug, prone to flights of fancy, but has recently set her heart on becoming a doctor. 


The bulk of the play comes from the discussions that come up as each character tries to make their goals realities, and the harsh life truths that sometimes come about in the process:


* Walter doesn't really have the support of his family behind his latest get-rich-quick scheme, but he carries it out on the sly anyway, only to once again come up on disastrous results. 


"Sometimes it's hard to let the future begin." 


~ Walter 


* Beneatha wants to be a doctor, hopefully somewhere where it will really make a big impact, but she also finds her heart being captured by her African friend and teacher, Joseph Asagai, even though he irritates her when he teases her about being an assimilationist because she straightens her hair. 


* Lena gets the house she wants, but soon after goes up against a representative from the Claybourne Park "Welcoming Committee" as he ever so careful tries to explain to her that the neighborhood prefers "people with common backgrounds" ... aka no black folks wanted. 


 "Son, I come from five generations of people who was slaves and sharecroppers  --- but ain't nobody in my family never let nobody pay 'em no money that was a way of telling us we wasn't fit to walk the earth. We ain't never been that poor. We ain't never been that --- dead inside."


~ Lena to Walter


Originally produced for the stage in 1959, this play beautifully illustrates the universal drive, the craving for something better in life than what you currently have. Though the play focuses on an African-American family, many of the themes Hansberry incorporates transcend race differences. True, some topics mentioned are unique to African-American culture, but the beauty in this play is how in such a simple yet moving story it brings everyone in the audience together to root for the Younger folks. EVERYONE. Everyone knows the feeling of wanting to live in a better place, to wish for more respect from your boss, to have your interests and choice of educational path taken seriously, the extent of the sacrifices our parents make for us to get us to a better place, that we sometimes forget or ignore. As Lena tells her son, Walter, "I never owned, wanted or asked for nothing that wasn't for you."


Beneatha: Be on my side for once! You saw what he just did, Mama! You saw him -- down on his knees. Wasn't it you who taught me to despise any man who would do that? Doing what he's going to do?


Mama: Yes -- I taught you that. Me and your daddy. But I thought I taught you something else too... I thought I taught you to love him.


Beneatha: Love him? There's nothing left to love.


Mama: There is always something left to love. And if you ain't learned that, you ain't learned nothing. Have you cried for that boy today? I don't mean for yourself and for the family 'cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain't through learning --- because that ain't the time at all. It's when he's at his lowest and can't believe in hisself 'cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.




And it's not all hardships either. Yes, this family yearns for better, but what gives this story so much of its heart is the love and warmth that exists within this clan, regardless of where they live. There's humor, hugs, a dose of tough love now and then, and a "no matter what, we got you" vibe just washing all over the Younger residence! 





* In 1959, author Lorraine Hansberry was just 29 years old when she became the youngest American, first black playwright and fifth woman in history to win Best Play of the Year Award from New York Drama Critics!


*Sadly, Hansberry passed away from cancer just a few years later in 1965 at the age of 34. 


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3 Stars
Fawkes by Nadine Brandes
Fawkes - Nadine Brandes

Thomas Fawkes is turning to stone, and the only cure to the Stone Plague is to join his father's plot to assassinate the king of England.

Silent wars leave the most carnage.The wars that are never declared but are carried out in dark alleys with masks and hidden knives. Wars where color power alters the natural rhythm of 17th-century London. And when the king calls for peace, no one listens until he finally calls for death.

But what if death finds him first?

Keepers think the Igniters caused the plague. Igniters think the Keepers did it. But all Thomas knows is that the Stone Plague infecting his eye is spreading. And if he doesn't do something soon, he'll be a lifeless statue. So when his Keeper father, Guy Fawkes, invites him to join the Gunpowder Plot--claiming it will put an end to the plague--Thomas is in.

The plan: use 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the Igniter King.

The problem: Doing so will destroy the family of the girl Thomas loves. But backing out of the plot will send his father and the other plotters to the gallows. To save one, Thomas will lose the other. No matter Thomas's choice, one thing is clear: once the decision is made and the color masks have been put on, there's no turning back.






Nadine Brandes' novel Fawkes puts a fantasy spin on the true story of The Gunpowder Plot, involving an assassination attempt on King James I of England in 1605. Our protagonist is Thomas, the teenage son of Guy Fawkes. The real Guy Fawkes served as explosives specialist during the plot, Thomas is an invention of Brandes' imagination, as is the story of the Stone Plague (obviously, lol). 


In 17th century London, a plague has been taking over the city. It works much like any other plague you've read of, as far as the speed in which it spreads, but in this instance victims literally turn to stone, little by little, until the infection reaches the airway, forcing them to suffocate and die. Thomas Fawkes is one of the infected. So far he has lost sight in one of his eyes due to the plague, but in his case it is moving slowly so he has a small window of time to seek a cure. 


Thomas hasn't seen his father in thirteen years, but now Guy is expected to make an appearance at Thomas' school to present his son with his color mask, a right of passage of utmost importance in this world. But on the night of the event, Thomas is given word that his father wrote a note refusing to attend. Additionally, Thomas is informed that he is now being expelled from the school; his only chance at saving his social standing relies on finding his father and getting that mask! If he doesn't find his father, he will be considered an orphan and cast out into lower society to fend for himself. So begins a journey across London to track down the whereabouts of legendary soldier Guy Fawkes. 


After some time of little food and nights exposed to the elements of chilly London nights, Thomas ends up bumping into his father purely by chance. Their initial meeting after so many years is nearly cut ridiculously short when Guy mistakes Thomas for a pitiful street urchin he wants to run a sword through!  But Thomas quickly screams out an introduction and the family reunion we're all here for follows shortly after. Within the hour, Thomas is being brought into the fold of the Gunpowder Plot team. After hearing the details of the plan, the poor kid has a tough choice to make: if he agrees to help Guy in the assassination plot, he potentially finds a cure to the plague that is slowly killing him but he could also likely ruin the bond between himself and the woman he's beginning to fall for. If he declines, the plague will likely kill him and his father will almost certainly face capture and execution. 


From a historical fiction aspect, this is not a bad YA novel. The key details are there, the general world building of 17th century London is well-done. I could easily imagine the characters as they traverse city streets, have whispered discussions in pubs or parlors, the descriptions of the masks themselves was vivid, the character bonds and conversations engaging for the most part. Where this novel fell apart a bit was on the magical end. Those elements could've been a little stronger or just better explained. But because that IS such a integral part of the story, it did cause the rest of the plot to be problematic for me. It's hard to root for characters if you, the reader, are not entirely sure what their motivations are, why these things are important, what makes them worth fighting for.



It's not that there's no explanation at all, it's just that man, Brandes makes you WORK for it. This novel is 400+ pages long and it's the chore of the reader to slog through a lot of slow bits to get little nuggets of information regarding this magic system. I finished the book and I'm still not entirely sure I fully grasp what Brandes was going for... and it's not that it's so complex a world, it's that her explanations were messy. 


But here's the gist of how I think the magic system is supposed to work:


>> At a certain age, and perhaps someone in a certain social standing, it is expected for a parent to publicly present a color mask to their child. It has to be a biological parent presenting the mask or the magic won't work. This mask, I believe, determines social rankings and natural abilities. Once the mask is presented, it seems to be up to personal choice whether the recipient wears it full time or not, most seem to prefer to keep theirs on as it somehow makes the magic within the mask stronger with prolonged wearing. (It's still a little unclear to me WHO qualifies for a mask  --- at the beginning it seemed like it was an upper society thing, since servants are described as maskless, but later in the story we're introduced to a lady selling flowers on the street who has one).


The color system, as far as I can decipher:


* White -- ultimate power, controls all other color abilities

* Brown -- earth / soil 

* Yellow -- fire

* Black -- night world (abilities in stealth)

* Green -- herbology / flora (natural healers)

* Blue -- water related 

* Grey -- metal  or stone?

* Red -- not 100% sure but I think combat skills, maybe?


Any other colors don't really get much of a mention.


>> Then there's the division between the Keepers and the Igniters. Keepers are given the ability to manage one color, while Igniters can simultaneously handle two or more. But Keepers guard the secrets of the White Light, the most powerful of all colors. Igniters (many royals in this story are Igniters) want that power.


Both sides believe the other is responsible for the Stone Plague. Keepers believe blame lies on the Igniters for trying to steal the secrets of the White Light and "breaking the laws of color speech", but Igniters say the plague was brought about because Keepers are hiding the secrets... well, that's what you do with secrets, soooo... LOL


Regardless, Keepers are being executed on a monthly basis, Igniters believing that each death of a Keeper will cure one person of the plague. It becomes so frequent that surviving Keepers begin to see their best chance at survival being in executing the king and getting a Keeper on the throne.


Thomas does agree to help in The Gunpowder Plot, partly out of a tugging sense of loyalty to his father despite their frayed relationship, partly because it might be his one last chance at survival. Not long after agreeing though, he begins to have second thoughts about being an accomplice to murder. Thomas finds he can hear the voice of the White Light in his mind, a voice he is told to ignore if he wishes to remain true to his Keeper heart. The voice is (IMO) not anything all that mystical like one might expect for a fantasy novel, but more that of an annoying middle grader. Still, this voice does serve a purpose in that when Thomas does listen to it, it does bring him closer to his love, Emma. But even there there is a struggle. While Thomas identifies as a Keeper, Emma is often secret about her Igniter heart. They have their arguments, but over time they start to see they want similar things, they're just coming at it from different angles.


Magic mess aside, there are some solid action sequences in this story, would've been nice if there was a little more of that. There's also some good analogy work in the confrontations between Keepers and Igniters, when you apply it to modern day struggles between warring factions -- political, religious, or otherwise. 


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
Chosen People by Robert Whitlow
Chosen People - Robert Whitlow

During a terrorist attack near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a courageous mother sacrifices her life to save her four-year-old daughter, leaving behind a grieving husband and a motherless child. Hana Abboud, a Christian Arab Israeli lawyer trained at Hebrew University, typically uses her language skills to represent international clients for an Atlanta law firm. When her boss is contacted by Jakob Brodsky, a young Jewish lawyer pursuing a lawsuit on behalf of the woman’s family under the US Anti-Terrorism laws, he calls on Hana’s expertise to take point on the case. After careful prayer, she joins forces with Jakob, and they quickly realize the need to bring in a third member for their team, an Arab investigator named Daud Hasan, based in Israel. To unravel the case, this team of investigators travels from the streets of Atlanta to the alleys of Jerusalem, a world where hidden motives thrive, the risk of death is real, and the search for truth has many faces. What they uncover will forever change their understanding of justice, heritage, and what it means to be chosen for a greater purpose.






During a terrorist attack near the Western Wall area of Jerusalem, Gloria Neumann sacrifices herself to save her four year old daughter. Though the daughter survives, she is left disfigured and requiring psychological therapy in the aftermath.


Later, in Atlanta, Georgia, lawyer Hana Abboud is contacted with an offer to possibly represent the family of Gloria Neumann. Under the US Anti-Terrorist laws, Gloria's husband would like to pursue a lawsuit. Hana teams up with Jewish lawyer Jakob Brodsky and Arab investigator Daud Hasan to find justice for the family. Though adult Hana identifies as Christian, she has a personal connection to this case because she had a Middle Eastern upbringing and studied law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.


If you're familiar with Robert Whitlow's novels, you likely know he's pretty much the John Grisham of the Christian Fiction genre. No surprise then when I tell you that there is a heaping helping of legalese in this story. The plot gets an extra layer of complexity as well with Whitlow incorporating discussion of international laws.


Personally, I struggle with Whitlow's writing style. His writing reads a little dry for my taste, so I often have a hard time connecting with characters. This books was no exception, though I will say that Sadie, the little girl, was a very cute character to get to know. The adults though.... a little stale. While the topic was a decent one to write a novel around, I felt the scenarios the characters were put in were often a little too contrived, their reactions to their environments or experiences even a little silly at times.


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
White as Silence, Red as Song by Alessandro D'Avenia
White as Silence, Red as Song - Alessandro D'Avenia

Sixteen-year-old Leo has a way with words, but he doesn’t know it yet. He spends his time texting, polishing soccer maneuvers, and killing time with Niko and Silvia. Until a new teacher arrives and challenges him to give voice to his dreams. And so Leo is inspired to win over the red-haired beauty Beatrice. She doesn’t know Leo exists, but he’s convinced that his dream will come true. When Leo lands in the hospital and learns that Beatrice has been admitted too, his mission to be there for her will send him on a thrilling but heartbreaking journey. He wants to help her but doesn’t know how—and his dream of love will force him to grow up fast. Having already sold over a million copies, Alessandro D’Avenia’s debut novel is considered Italy’s The Fault in Our Stars. Now available in English for the first time, this rich, funny, and heartwarming coming-of-age tale asks us to explore the meaning—and the cost—of friendship, and shows us what happens when suffering bursts into the world of teenagers and renders the world of adults speechless.






Sixteen year old Leo is mainly focused on soccer, texting, and hanging with friends until the day he meets beautiful redhead Beatrice. Suddenly he needs to know how to get her attention.


Hailed as the Italian Fault In Our Stars, this YA novel turned out to be a bit of a dud for me. I didn't see mention of an English translator, so I'm assuming Alessandro D'Avenia did his own English translation? The flow of the text had that jerky, awkward, staccatto note of someone writing in a language that is not their native tongue. Leo's voice (as narrator) veers somewhat into stream of consciousness ramblings. In fact, a lot of this story just went on and on, never really engaging me as the reader.


Honestly, I found this book largely unreadable. The English translation was just too much of a chore, it killed the potential greatness of the plot for me. I'll give it an extra point for lovely book design though --- the textured, minimalist artwork was quite nice.


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

2.5 Stars
Murder at the Flamingo (Van Buren & DeLuca Mysteries #1) by Rachel McMillan
Murder at the Flamingo - Rachel McMillan

Hamish DeLuca has spent most of his life trying to hide the anxiety that appears at the most inopportune times -- including during his first real court case as a new lawyer. Determined to rise above his father’s expectations, Hamish runs away to Boston where his cousin, Luca Valari, is opening a fashionable nightclub in Scollay Square.  When he meets his cousin's “right hand man,” Reggie, Hamish wonders if his dreams for a more normal life might be at hand. Regina “Reggie” Van Buren, heir to a New Haven fortune, has fled fine china, small talk, and the man her parents expect her to marry. Determined to make a life as the self-sufficient city girl she’s seen in her favorite Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn pictures, Reggie runs away to Boston, where she finds an easy secretarial job with the suave Luca Valari. But as she and Hamish work together in Luca’s glittering world, they discover a darker side to the smashing Flamingo nightclub. When a corpse is discovered at the Flamingo, Reggie and Hamish quickly learn there is a vast chasm between the haves and the have-nots in 1937 Boston—and that there’s an underworld that feeds on them both. As Hamish is forced to choose between his conscience and loyalty to his beloved cousin, the unlikely sleuthing duo work to expose a murder before the darkness destroys everything they’ve worked to build. 






Hamish DeLuca is a Canadian lawyer struggling with crippling anxiety in the 1930s. After discovering his job at the law firm was only made possible as a favor to his father, Hamish is "humiliated into adventure". He decides to take up his cousin Luca Valari's offer to come work for him in Boston. Entrepreneur Luca is opening up The Flamingo, a nightclub, and says he could use Hamish's legal skills on the business end of things. Newly situated in Boston, Hamish begins to develop an interest in Luca's new secretary, Regina "Reggie" Van Buren. Reggie and Hamish's friendship grows deeper as they try to work out all the mysteries surrounding Luca. Who are all these strangers showing up at odd hours asking about his whereabouts? Where does Luca really make his money? Is The Flamingo meant to be a front for more illicit business? Is his carefree personality a mask for a much darker, more devious man? Hamish and Reggie decide to investigate, (on the DL of course). When a murder does occur at the nightclub, our characters suddenly find themselves getting a crash introduction to Boston's criminal underworld scene.



The plot has a slow start as the reader is made to wait for all the key players to get in the same scenes to interact with each other ----- just getting Hamish and Reggie in the same room for the first time takes about 70 pages, nearly 200 before the murder happens. Much of the book is also bogged down with uninteresting details. It felt like there was a lot of repetitive material within the text.


Regarding the theme of debilitating anxiety: author Rachel McMillan writes at the end that she herself suffers from the condition and wanted to use this series, in part, to normalize rather than stigmatize the topic. While I can appreciate this, I have to say I didn't feel the presence of the subject all that much within Hamish's story. There's a great scene at the very start where the reader is immediately thrust into the reality of his symptoms. But for the bulk of the book, it's hardly given a mention until we get into the final chapters, where it almost feels as if McMillan caught herself while writing and was trying to bring the topic back around last minute. 


So why keep reading? For Luca's story, mostly. I mean, the characters in general are fun (it's just their world that fell a bit flat for me). I especially liked the interactions between Hamish & Luca (Luca nicknames him "Cicero")... that brotherly kind of bond that shows up in their banter... though at times, that too gets a tad stale & repetitive. What really drove the story for me was the mystery of Luca's true motives behind his actions. Was he really involved in organized crime or was there a perfectly innocent explanation to all the questions around him? Why are there already so many angry business calls for Reggie to field before the club is even officially open? Whenever questioned, Luca skillfully evades ever giving a straight answer... but why?


For Hollywood Silver Screen buffs, there are several classic film references incorporated into the plot. Not surprisingly, most of them being a  nod to the Nick & Nora / Thin Man detective series of films starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. NOTE: There is SPOILER material for the film Platinum Blonde starring Jean Harlow and Loretta Young.


Image result for the thin man movies

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick & Nora of the Thin Man series



The Van Buren & DeLuca detective agency is only just getting going by the end of this first book, so I'm curious to see how not only the business but the personal friendship develops between these two down the road. Book 2, Murder in the City of Liberty, is set to be released May 2019. 





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. 

5 Stars
You Will Not Have My Hate (memoir) by Antoine Leiris
You Will Not Have My Hate - Antoine Leiris

On November 13, 2015, Antoine Leiris’s wife, Hélène Muyal-Leiris, was killed by terrorists while attending a rock concert at the Bataclan Theater in Paris, in the deadliest attack on France since World War II. Three days later, Leiris wrote an open letter addressed directly to his wife’s killers, which he posted on Facebook. He refused to be cowed or to let his seventeen-month-old son’s life be defined by Hélène’s murder. He refused to let the killers have their way: “For as long as he lives, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.” Instantly, that short Facebook post caught fire, and was reported on by newspapers and television stations all over the world. In his determination to honor the memory of his wife, he became an international hero to everyone searching desperately for a way to deal with the horror of the Paris attacks and the grim shadow cast today by the threat of terrorism. Now Leiris tells the full story of his grief and struggle. You Will Not Have My Hate is a remarkable, heartbreaking, and, indeed, beautiful memoir of how he and his baby son, Melvil, endured in the days and weeks after Hélène’s murder. With absolute emotional courage and openness, he somehow finds a way to answer that impossible question: how can I go on? He visits Hélène’s body at the morgue, has to tell Melvil that Mommy will not be coming home, and buries the woman he had planned to spend the rest of his life with. Leiris’s grief is terrible, but his love for his family is indomitable. This is the rare and unforgettable testimony of a survivor, and a universal message of hope and resilience. Leiris confronts an incomprehensible pain with a humbling generosity and grandeur of spirit. He is a guiding star for us all in these perilous times. His message—hate will be vanquished by love—is eternal.






On November 13, 2015, French journalist Antoine Leiris stayed at home with his 17 month old son, Melvil, while wife Hélène attended a concert at the Bataclan Theater in Paris. Terrorists attacked the concert venue that night, making it the deadliest terrorist attack on France since WWII. Almost immediately after the attack, Leiris gets a text from a friend asking "Are you okay?". Confused by the message, something tells him to check the news. It is then he gets the first news of the attack. Leiris quickly calls his siblings who come over to help watch Melvil while Leiris heads out to try to find out what happened to his wife. Hours later, he gets the news. She's been identified among the casualties. 


Of course, having a culprit, someone to take the brunt of your anger, is an open door, an chance to temporarily escape your suffering. And the more odious the crime, the more ideal the culprit, the more legitimate your hatred. You think about him in order not to think about yourself. You hate him in order to not hate what's left of your life. You rejoice at his death in order not to have to smile at those who remain.


Three days later, Leiris in his grief pens an open letter to his wife's murderers and posts it to FB, where he tells them point blank that while they might have stolen his wife from him, he will not give them the satisfaction of his hate or fear. He promises to live for his son, dedicating himself to focusing on the joy, beauty and decency he still believes exists in the world. He will strive to live in a space of love, terrorism has not claimed his soul. 


There are only two of us -- my son and myself -- but we are stronger than all the armies of the world. Anyway, I don't have any more time to waste on you, as I must go see Melvil, who is just waking up from his nap. He is only seventeen months old. He will eat his snack as he does every day, then we will play as we do every day, and all his life this little boy will defy you by being happy and free. Because you will not have his hate either.

~ from the open letter posted on FB


That open letter (included in the book) soon becomes the inspiration for this brief memoir, which focuses on the first few days of Leiris's life after receiving the news of his wife's death. In fact, he mentions starting on the first few pages of this book just a day or two after posting the letter online.


Translated from the original French by Sam Taylor, You Will Not Have My Hate, is a quick read of a memoir that packs a wallop of an emotional cocktail! Grief, reluctant acceptance, determination, a slow peace... it's all here. It's horrible that such a memoir has to exist, but somehow... French journalist Leiris brings a painful beauty to each page. Not only does he adamantly deny victory to the terrorists, he gives an achingly lovely tribute to the lost piece of his heart. 


In search of another lover to torment, it goes on its way, abandoning me to its sad traveling companion. Mourning. 


I spot its mark, a gray stain that appears on my side. I have already seen it grow, in the same place, a few years ago, when I lost my mother. This one is darker. It spreads faster too. It is only a question of days, weeks now; I am besieged. It covers almost the whole of my stomach. I no longer feel like doing anything. Eating is torture....


Watching from a distance, you always have the impression that the person who survives a disaster is a hero. I know I am not. I was struck by the hand of fate, that's all. It did not ask me what I thought first. It didn't try to find out if I was ready. It came to take Hélène, and it forced me to wake up without her. Since then, I have been lost: I don't know where I am going, I don't know how to get there. You can't really count on me....from one day to the next, I might drown.


And suddenly, I am afraid. Afraid that I won't be able to meet people's expectations. Will I no longer have the right to lack courage? The right to feel angry. The right to feel overwhelmed. The right to be tired. The right to drink too much and start smoking again. The right to see another woman, or not see other women. The right not to love again, ever. Not to rebuild my life and not to want a new life. The right not to feel like playing, going to the park, telling a story. The right to make mistakes. The right to make bad decisions. The right to not have time. The right not to be present. The right not to be funny. The right to be cynical. The right to have bad days. The right to wake up late... The right to not talk about it anymore. The right to be ordinary. The right to be afraid. The right not to know. The right not to want. The right not to be capable.


~ Leiris describing his grief


Each chapter starts with a timestamp of how much time has passed since the attack. Even without the horrific backdrop of the Paris attacks, this is still one of the most honest grief memoirs I think I've ever picked up. Leiris writes of the brutal moment of having to officially identify his wife at the morgue, having to not only sort out and let go of her things but also find the strength to decide on a burial outfit. He describes meeting with a friend, only identified as N., who had attended the concert with his wife. N struggles with deep survivor's guilt, which Leiris tries his best to help his friend through.


Some of the most difficult passages to read, the ones that really made me feel for him, were the ones describing the moments of weakness when he would feel like he was failing as a father, desperately wishing for his wife to come in and save the day with some task he remembered her being more skilled in, or the painful reality of the actual window of time society expects grief to pass in, that the quickly offered "take all the time you need" is actually just a nicety used to get over the awkward, more often than not. But in reality, you hardly  have time to process the loss before the logistics come rushing in --- last wishes, insurance money, final expenses, etc. Though people feel for you, everyone seems to want an answer NOW. 


Leiris' straightforward approach gets right to the reader's heart and is bound to be appreciated by anyone feeling the need for a moving but not overly sentimental grief memoir.

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