Love in a Carry-On Bag by Sadeqa Johnson

Erica excels as a publicist in NYC. Her love Warren is under contract in DC, while pursuing his true love of jazz whenever he can. They vow their weekends to each other in good faith, but family and work overspill their boundaries. Erica’s alcoholic mother is an emotional vampire, constantly requesting her time and money. Warren’s father is an emotionally inaccessible, strict disciplinarian, whose second marriage exposes a family secret that rips Warren out of time and space. As Erica tries to move up the ladder in her company, special projects snatch her away from her special time with Warren, who renews his contract in DC without discussing it with her. He breaks up with her, setting Erica on a downward spiral. She confronts her mother about her childhood, prompting her mother to reveal her own tragic background. She and Warren must come to terms with the families that they have and find their way back to each other.

This is so much more than a long-distance romance novel. Both main characters are well-developed, complex individuals placed in impossible situations with no clear resolutions. They learn more about their families than they wanted to know, but this helps them to evolve and move toward each other.

Perennials by Julie Cantrell

Lovey allows herself to be chased from her childhood home in Oxford, Mississipi by her older sister Bitsy’s inexplicable animosity. Though she calls foul on sibling rivalry, her parents don’t back her up, making Lovey feel damaged. When their mother’s garden shed burns to the ground after their friends Fisher and Finn barely make it out, Bitsy blames Lovey and no one protests, leaving her alone for years wallowing in the injustice. Bitsy uses Finn’s injuries to fuel Lovey’s guilt, prompting her move to another state, another life, away from his brother Fisher, who asked Lovey to marry him. Emotions run rampant through Lovey as she tries to balance her current life and the one she ran scared from decades ago. Her parents convince her to return home for their 50th wedding anniversary party. She complies, facing her lost love and antagonistic sister. When she’s called to return to work to resolve a hostile takeover by the boss of her ad campaign project, her father changes her mind when he confesses that her mother is terminally ill. She stays, determined to treasure every last moment with her mother, making a truce with her sister, and dealing haphazardly with Fisher’s current “it’s complicated” relationship status. Lovey continues to bond with her mother over their shared love of gardening, with life lessons inspired by gardening and favorite local writers Welty and Faulkner sprinkled throughout the book by both parents. Religious themes run a bit strong in this story and can be distracting, assuming that readers are Christian and accepting of religiosity as part of the lessons. Lovey makes a breakthrough with her father after a particularly hurtful encounter with Bitsy, which starts her healing process. She is home. This is her home. Everything comes together, albeit some of it a bit too easily, as there are decades of pent-up hurt to be worked through, especially for the sisters.

This novel lays a family bare across the lush backdrop of a Mississippi farm, with floral imagery cascading over it all, a tragic history made bigger by time, southern literary greats explored, and long ago loves who may not be lost.

Tranquility by Laurie Gardiner

Single mom Sarah starts day shift in the dementia ward of the healthcare facility Tranquilty, moving from nights in palliative care. Her new co-worker Tracey immediately befriends her, introducing her to the “cast of characters” for whom she will be caring: Sam, who randomly prefers nudity, gentle, inquisitive Rose, the bickering twins Lily and Beth, the wheelchair menace Mrs. W, who remembers a concentration camp more vividly than contemporary events, quiet Mrs. Sellers, Italian immigrant Mrs. Gallo, whose husband visits her daily, Alfred, who has a tendency to call for a once beloved cat named Hairball, and Mrs. Amaral, a sweet Portuguese immigrant. Gardiner’s work in such a facility inspired the story, and to ensure accuracy, her research included interviewing employees in all areas of the facility, from bathing to housekeeping. New residents to Tranquility bring a professional dilemma, a dangerous situation, and potential romance for Sarah. Edie, with her soft Scottish brogue, does not appear to be suffering from dementia, but when she fakes it to expose an abusive employee, Sarah keeps an eye on her. After two violent incidents, endangering staff and residents, John is quickly moved again, to the psych ward. With Georgia comes a big family, including her great-grandson Jay, who lights a fire in Sarah. Along with all this, Sarah’s own grandma suffers a second stroke, and her mother must deal with end of life choices, a struggle for a woman who hasn’t really gotten over her husband’s death a decade earlier. The brightest light in this story is Kayla, Sarah’s daughter, who gives her grandma life, and handles great-grandma’s struggle with surprising grace for a 4-year-old. Sarah and Tracey execute a not-quite-legal plan to prove the co-worker’s abuse, but it’s waylaid by Edie’s plan to do the same. Everything comes together in the end in a complicated, bittersweet resolution, just like in real life. Characters learn and grow, while others astonish, but most of all, the ones who need to find themselves do so.

This is a beautiful story of faith in humanity, dignity in aging, justice for the vulnerable, and finding strength in family and friends.

Laurie Gardiner – writer, mom, caregiver, Canadian

I met Laurie Gardiner in one of the most helpful online writing groups Fiction Writing. She and founder Brian Paone are fair and just administrators of a 30K+ group of supportive and sometimes raucous gang of writers. She published her first novel Tranquility through independent publisher Escargot Books and Music, and short stories in two of the group’s annual “Of Word” themed anthologies. You can find her on Facebook and her own website.

Tell me about your writing style.

I need silence and a long block of time in order to get into a good writing zone. Some days when the house is quiet I’ll write for hours; other days, life gets in the way, and I don’t write at all. My children are grown, but my house has become the family meeting place, the laundromat, and the neighbourhood diner, so quiet days without interruption are rare. And of course, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I do all my outlining longhand in a notebook, set up in sections with labeled tab dividers for setting, timeline, each character, etc. I may have a slightly compulsive grammar issue, so I’ve been training myself to stop editing as I go, because I know it’s a habit that slows down my first draft. The first thing I do when I sit down to write is to read over the last few paragraphs I wrote. This helps get my head back into the story before I continue. During this process, I often correct glaring errors or badly structured sentences, but I’m learning to leave the bulk of the editing and revising until the end. I often play scenes out in my head before I sit down to write them. My favourite time to do this is during a walk or a yoga class, or even while I do mindless, everyday chores like laundry and grocery shopping.”

Who gets to read your work first and why?

My kids are often the first to beta read a short story for me. They are all avid readers and two of them also write as a hobby. They aren’t afraid to be honest and will tell me if they think something doesn’t work. I also exchange critiques with a few fellow writers I’ve met through Fiction Writing, the Facebook group I co-administrate.”

What prompted you to write your book?

Tranquility was inspired by my work in the dementia unit of a long-term care facility. As a support worker, I spent the majority of my time providing hands-on care to residents. Because my duties were limited to resident care, I interviewed housekeeping and nursing staff in order to gain insight into their experiences and what their jobs entail.

It was also important to me that Tranquility reflect the reality of living and working in a long-term care facility in Canada. The characters represent a variety of ethnicities and I wanted to realistically depict these characters and avoid stereotypes. For instance, one character is an elderly Italian man. A close friend of mine, whose parents came to Canada from Italy, agreed to check the character’s dialogue for authenticity.

I didn’t last long working in facilities. Things are slowly changing for the better, but I didn’t enjoy my work there. It bothered me to make the residents do things even if they didn’t want to, for the sake of adhering to a routine. And I didn’t always agree with how facilities were run and how residents were treated. I found my niche working in homecare, where I could connect one-on-one with my clients and spend quality time with them. At times, it can be difficult caring for people who suffer from dementia, but it’s also very rewarding. Many of my clients were the inspiration for characters in Tranquility.”

Tranquility

Sometimes there’s a price to pay for doing the right thing.

Support worker Sarah Scott learns this the hard way when, soon after being transferred to Tranquility’s dementia unit, she uncovers a sinister secret. Doing the right thing could mean losing her job, and unemployment is not an option for the young, single mom.

Meanwhile, Sarah begins to question whether her newest resident, Edie, belongs in the nursing home’s locked unit. The feisty, Scottish woman certainly doesn’t act as though she has dementia. Sarah is determined to have her released, but her plans may be thwarted when Edie risks her own freedom to help uncover the secret.

Tranquility is a poignant story of the relationship between three generations of women as they struggle to reconcile past hurts and discover the healing power of love. It is an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes glimpse into life in a long-term care facility, and a fight for justice in the face of adversity.

Click here to purchase Tranquility on Amazon

Give a timeline for the publishing process.

Tranquility was published by Escargot Books and Music, an independent publisher out of California. The personal, collaborative publishing experience was exactly what I needed as a first-time author. The whole process of researching how to publish, searching for a publisher, writing a query letter and synopsis, and dealing with rejection, opened up a whole new world of knowledge for me.

As is the case with most independent publishers, the majority of the marketing was left to me. Months before Tranquility’s release, Escargot advised me to build my author platform. I set up a website and a Facebook page, and joined online writing communities where I could connect and network with readers and other writers.

After Tranquility’s release, the publisher set up a virtual blog tour. It was a great opportunity for me to interact with bloggers and readers, and it resulted in some much-needed book reviews.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to sell my books at a neighbourhood farmer’s market when they invited local artists to come and promote their works. I’ve also done book signings and readings at local libraries. Both were a fun way to connect with my neighbours while marketing myself and making sales.

Marketing is something I had no experience with before being published, so it has been a huge learning curve for me. I continue to research and learn more every day.”

How does your creative effort influence your daily life?

Writing is an outlet and a way of expressing myself. As a mother and a caregiver, I’ve spent the majority of my life caring for others. Writing is the one thing I do that is only for me, and I believe I am a more fulfilled, well-rounded person because of it.

I come from a family full of creative people. My mother was an artist, a writer, a singer, and a musician. She created lush gardens and laid the stone paths that wound through them. Our Christmas gifts were beautifully crafted sweaters and blankets she knit or crocheted. Many of us own one-of-a-kind rustic wood furniture pieces built by my father. They passed that creativity on to their children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, I have trouble drawing a decent stick figure, power tools scare me, and my singing voice could be a used as a form of torture. I did inherit my father’s athleticism, and I enjoy swimming, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, and yoga.”

You can connect with Laurie on her website, Facebook, and Fiction Writing.

Purchase Tranquility  at Amazon and the “Of Words” anthologies containing her stories at Scout Media.

Ghost Gifts (Ghost Gifts #1) (2016 Montlake Romance) by Laura Spinella

Aubrey Ellis grew up learning to control the physically ravaging and emotionally draining interactions with ghosts who insist upon her assistance, ghosts who always leave tangible evidence of the encounter. As an adult, she’s settled into a position as a real estate columnist that gives her the opportunity to connect with and aid those who have passed on to continue their journey without too much damage to herself. Then she’s sucked into a decades old unsolved murder after new evidence emerges. Her reluctant partnership with fellow journalist Levi St. John takes her in new and unexpected directions, personally and professionally, and she comes fully into herself.

Although Spinella is designated a romance writer, I found the romance to be an integral part of a paranormal story and not the focus. She spins a ghost story so enchanting that I looked forward to meeting the ghosts and cheered Aubrey on when she succeeded in convincing Levi of her gift / curse. I love when writers understand human emotions, building character integrity and deepening genre novels. Spinelli is brilliant at laying down the elements that came together later in the story, doing so without distracting from the current scene. The tension builds as the story veers from the apparent guilt of one character to another, and I did not guess the true culprit, even with the hints sprinkled about everywhere.

Readers who are intrigued by the possibility of the existence of ghosts and the ability to converse with them will like this story. If you liked the television series Ghost Whisperer, you will love Aubrey’s story.

Thank you, Laura Spinella, for gifting me the digital copy of the first Ghost Gifts. I love it!

Little Fires Everywhere (2017 Penguin Press)by Celeste Ng

Photography artist Mia Warren moves to Shaker Heights, OH, bringing a new element into the staunchly middle-class, by the rules neighborhood, changing dynamics of two families, her own as a single mom, and her landlady Elena Richardson’s properly planned one as third generation Shaker Heights. Into this volatile blend is thrown teenage hormones, a King Solomon dilemma, and outside the box thinkers, culminating in “something’s gotta give.” Wisdom comes from unlikely sources.

Throwing an artist into the mainstream never goes as planned. This is a brilliant expose of the bubbles in which we live, what happens when someone pops it and we must acknowledge that our life may not be what it seems. I love how Ng shows the reader the different perspectives of the characters, especially the Richardson’s youngest daughter’s idea that her mother likes her least, because she’s harder on her, when the reality is that her mother has feared for her life since she was born prematurely. Ng shows how easily failing to communicate feelings can lead to harsh presumptions. Her characters remain true to themselves throughout, and although there are lessons to be learned, there’s no “moral of the story” here, leaving a satisfying open ending.

Readers of Lian Moriarty may like this novel. If you love complex characters that build tension through miscommunication, strong feelings, and searching for themselves, you will like this book.

Most Wanted (2016 St. Martin’s Press) by Lisa Scottoline

Christine and Marcus want a baby so much that they use a sperm donor. Pregnant Christine sees their donor on the news being arrested for multiple murders. Against Marcus’ wishes, she visits him and helps him with his defense. She vacillates between thinking him innocent and guilty, believing he is her sperm donor and desperately wanting him to be a good person.

Scottoline’s standalone novels are as twisty and turny as her lawyer series. Her unique storylines are compelling and emotional. As in most of her books, Scottoline’s protagonist proceeds on her mission with confidence despite those she loves disagreeing with her. Christine relies on her best friend when her husband opposes her. She does what she believes is moral and ethical.

Readers who like John Grisham and / or David Baldacci would likely appreciate Scottoline. If you love a fast-moving thriller with complex characters and ambiguous situations, you’ll like this story.

The Husband’s Secret (2013 Berkley) by Liane Moriarty

While looking in the attic for something, Cecilia finds a letter from her husband to be opened upon his death. Her life becomes intertwined with the secretary of the school who lost her daughter to murder 30 years and a young mom who separated from her husband and came home to care for her mother with a broken ankle. Cecilia discovers the limits of her endurance and her loyalty to her family.

Moriarty intricately weaves stories and lives together with conscientious telling details. I love the different perspectives of all the characters, how much more complex they are then they seem. Though Cecilia is the main character, the other two women are just as relevant to the story, and even minor characters are developed enough to envision. The big secret is not held until the end from the reader, yet Moriarty continues building tension until the final revelation.

I suspect Agatha Christie fans would like Moriarty’s work. Readers who love mysteries, the complexity of small town relationships, and familial nuances will appreciate this story.

Prompt: an explorer with multiple personality disorder, a widow, a house in the woods

She looked at the ad for a long time.

Small house $1,000 / month. Follow the path into the woods at mile marker 72.

It had been up in front of Dale’s Grocery for a week. A jeep was needed to follow the path into the woods.

So she bought a jeep. A Wrangler, 13 years old, bright orange. Stan would have loved it. The ache balled up in the center of her chest. She lay down and kneaded the ache flat. It was easier to bear then. Nine months. All her friends had disappeared, as though Stan’s death might be contagious.

Mile marker 72 stood at the end of a dirt pathway into the forest. Without hesitation, she drove right in, until the path opened up into a small meadow of wildflowers in various hues. In the middle sat a small house with a scalloped roofline, like a tiny Victorian. A man sat in a rocking chair on the front porch. He approached her car when she drove up. They exchanged pleasantries and went inside. She exclaimed aloud her delight and signed the lease laid out on the table.

Though the house came furnished, she placed accessories throughout to make it her own. The second week in her new home, she woke to singing and followed it to the source, the guest bedroom. The owner of the house was dressing in her home. When she knocked on the door jamb, he startled.

He called her Evelyn and told her to get on with it then. She snake-eyed him, but decided to get dressed before resolving the situation. The front door slammed and his singing moved into the woods behind the house. When she finished, she followed his voice to him. And she helped him carry the firewood he was cutting for the fireplace.

“Winter’s a’comin’,” he said with a grin and a wink. Speechless, she carried her armful dutifully. At the back of the house, he stacked his and then hers meticulously. They finished before sunset, he cutting it up and her stacking as shown. Then he left with promises to return later, told her “no worries.”

I should probably get a dog, she thought as she sat in her front room staring at the empty fireplace that night after supper alone. After locking all the doors and windows, she slept with her bedroom door locked. Three days later, she ran into her landlord in town, acting like her landlord, not calling her Evelyn, but informing her that he would be out of town for the next month, exploring several islands south of Australia.

It was a quiet month. The woods grew chillier, the wind whistled, and she used the fireplace almost every night. Just before the month was up, she visited the animal shelter to pick out a ferocious canine. But the one who called to her was a Jack Russell terrier mix. She took him home. He roamed the woods with her. She mailed her check as usual, seeing nothing of the landlord after the month was up.

Until a few weeks later, in a pub in town, she looked across the table and saw him come in the door. She waved. He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes as though he couldn’t place her. He halfheartedly waved and moved away to the left. She finished her wine and told her friends goodnight, grabbed the terrier and drove home.

The next day, at the grocery store, she saw her landlord again, and he asked if he should know her when she said “good day” to him. She stammered that he should, that she was his tenant. He shook his head and backed away. She put chairs against the doors that night and let the terrier sleep with her.

He arrived on foot the next day from the woods at the rear of the house, called out “Evelyn, I’m home” before he reached the back door and knocked. She peered out the kitchen window and hollered at him to say his name. He gave her a different name than the landlord’s. He even acted in a manner dissimilar to the landlord, yet it was him. She let him in and gave him tea. He slept in her guest room. The terrier slept on her bed.

Over the years, he remained a good landlord, making repairs in good haste, maintaining the house and yard. “Evelyn’s” guest never overstayed his welcome, routinely going off to explore parts of the world. The stranger met her one day, but never took a liking to her as the other two had, but still, he seemed harmless, keeping to himself when he saw her, nodding a quick hello. He eventually said a “How ya doin’, Evelyn” each time he saw her.

Raising the Dad (pub date April 17, 2018 Thomas Dunne Books) by Tom Matthews

John Husted picks up his brother from prison with his mother, whose dementia charms her into thinking he’s coming home from vacation. The good son, John cared for his mom after his dad died, is now building his own family, continuing to monitor his mom in her home, and settles his ex-convict brother in with mom. It’s no surprise then that his father’s colleague, succumbing to a terminal illness, turns over his clandestine responsibility to John, who now must make a final, impossible decision.

This story started off with the hook of prisoners being released at the end of their term, the nitty gritty of getting out, which was interesting. When it came to the individual prisoner, the story slowed down a bit, until the family secret was revealed. Then it flowed. The reader spends a lot of time in John’s head, agonizing with him over the dreaded options that aren’t really options. Everyone else seems secondary to John, which makes sense for a man who took on a lot of obligation at a very young age.

This young age comes into play when John digs into his father’s past through old medical records stored in the original hospital behind the one Dr. Husted’s vision brought to fruition. He finds a chink in his father’s armor, an event that everyone else remembers and has chosen to forget, but is just like brand-new to him, because he was so young when his father died. He cannot resolve this news within himself, and it adds more angst to his awful final decision, so that he delays. His wife sees here some redemption for his nogoodnik brother – though Mike might believe that the world would be better if everybody smoked pot while listening to 80’s heavy metal, Robin understood that he could be the answer in this case. This leads John back to his family, as his mother becomes lucid long enough to share a story about herself regarding the incident that shows her altruism.

Matthews has a wicked sense of humor – John purchases hockey gear to tackle the rats nesting in the old medical records in the abandoned hospital, and the scene of the vermin ambush is so visceral the reader cringes, though John is sufficiently protected. Though he didn’t really expect to find his father in the meticulous medical notation, John is still disappointed – though he knew better, he did not find personal reports of his dad’s heroics by patients’ families or staff.

Readers who like shocking secrets, dark humor, and soul-searching conundrums will appreciate this story. Those who enjoy character evolution and complex family relationships will like this novel.

Thank you, St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley, for the opportunity to read this Uncorrected Digital Galley.