Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Radical Element: 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes, and Other Dauntless Girls edited by Jessica Spotswood

The diversity in these stories is impressive, from girls facing internal and external religious challenges, to girls pretending to be something they’re not to make their way in a man’s world. These are tales of young women refusing to be a product of their time, yearning to be free of society’s mores. The authors refrain from a black and white picture, with a young Mormon girl questioning her religion, yet continuing to fight her community’s detractors. Secrets abound, as an orphaned girl lives life as a boy to take care of herself, and a young boy trades his secret of being a transgender with a Hispanic girl putting in tremendous effort to pass as white for Hollywood. One story had magical elements that didn’t seem to contribute to the plot, but as a whole, this book offers up a dozen girls as unintentional heroines who fought against patriarchy, misogyny, and other obstacles they intended to overcome.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful book through NetGalley.

A Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin

Anna “Bencke” Grieve’s life changed after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination. In fear for their lives as Jews, her mother, a privileged servant, asked her employers Count and Countess Chernovski to take Bencke and her older sister Esther with them to Canada. The Chernovski’s later adopt them, believing their parents to be dead. Bencke does her best to care for Esther, who suffers episodes from traumatic memories that incapacitate her at times, as she herself tries to fit her eccentric personality into Countess Chernovski’s picture perfect household. Decades later, Anna receives a phone call from the Winnipeg police informing her that her sister has committed suicide by stepping in front of a train. She heads to Canada seeking the truth. The story alternates between this investigation and a backstory of a life fully lived, from Anna’s forced relocation to NYC, to circumstances causing her to be deported to Russia during WWI. In the investigation, Anna learns her sister’s secrets and must live with them now.

Chisvin brings history to life in Anna’s story, as dear reader sees her torn from her family as a child after her country’s leader is killed and Jews are blamed, and as an activist for women’s rights alongside Margaret Sanger. She becomes a part of the melting pot that is NYC, falls into the fear of Americans who deport her in the war, and witnesses the disorder of Russia as essentially an outsider. Chisvin brings closure to Anna in her mixed emotions of finally being free of her sister as it breaks her heart. The last line of the book is brilliant in its imagery of this closure.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this beautiful story from the publisher through NetGalley.

Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

Karina’s musical talent surpasses her boyfriend Richard’s, but she sacrifices her dream to their marriage and child, and then falls in love with jazz, a genre abhorrent to Richard. He builds his career as an international classical pianist, his inflating ego one of many factors in their divorce. He attempts to hide the onset of ALS from his fans, his agent, and Karina. Due to circumstances and finances, Richard moves back in with Karina, who takes over his care with the help of home health aides. In the year that robs Richard of his body, he at last opens up emotionally to his estranged daughter, and eventually he and Karina find a kind of peace.

Beyond being a graphic, heart-wrenching depiction of a man succumbing to a fatal disease, this story shows how women accommodate men and lose themselves, accepting a smaller life. It’s also a homily to home health aides who make the effort to maintain the dignity of their clients. The rolling flow of the writing is interrupted only by the excessive use of analogies, whole paragraphs at times. In Author Notes, Genova offers a peek into her research and sources for an accurate representation of living with ALS. The details are so vivid, if she’d written in first person, this novel would have read like a memoir.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful story from the publisher through NetGalley.

Birds of Wonder by Cynthia Robinson

Detective Jesca Ashton has always had a challenging relationship with her mother Beatrice, which does not improve after Beatrice finds her star actress dead on the property of a local lawyer, with whom Jes had a “drive-by.” Jes has held close a secret about her father since her teens that tarnished the memories of her ornithology professor father, who had buffered her childhood from her picture perfect mother. Now she must investigate for murder someone she has known intimately through an adulterous one night stand. The case comes too close to home and Jes makes life-altering decsions.

Robinson fully explores those implicated in the young girl’s death before their questioning by Jes and her colleagues, so they come to life as individuals and not mere suspects. The girl’s friends, twins Connor and Megan, are shown from various perspectives in all the complexities of children in foster care. Unfortunately, Connor’s story abruptly stops on his way to California—even a quick summary of his introduction to this next stage of his life would have sufficed to satisfy a reader invested in his character. Also left unexplored is the beloved father fallen, as Jes jumps to conclusions on circumstantial evidence, with hints that not all was as it seemed. Even with these minor frustrations, this story ends on a note of hope.

I was fortunate to receive a digital copy of this wonderful story through NetGalley.

Whisper Me This by Kerry Anne King—pub date August 1, 2018

In her childhood, Marley talked Maisey into adventures for which she abandoned Maisey to take the blame. Maisey’s mother told her that Marley wasn’t real, even though she was as real as her mother to Maisey. In her third decade, raising her daughter Elle by herself, Maisey continues to be scatterbrained and unfocused, and has never been normal according to Elle, who wants her to stay that way. Elle is 12 when Maisey receives a phone call that her mother is dying, circumstantial evidence pointing to her father, a man she has always known as a gentle buffer between her mother and herself, as the cause. She must go home and untangle the ugly mess, uncovering a mystery in the process. This sets her off on an adventure to uncover her mother’s secret, revealing much about herself and their relationship in the process. The love interest has his own secrets, and Maisey is the catalyst for his family recognizing his trauma and helping him to move past it. As the EMT / firefighter responding to her family’s emergencies, he is woven into her story as an eventuality.

King brilliantly sets up family dynamics that clearly show the repressed fear of the mother and the compensating kindness of the father, and how secrets create chaos and confusion in relationships. There are a couple of slight distractions from the story: Maisey throws up or feels like it a LOT; Whenever the love interest appears, he’s described in Harlequin Romance hunky terms. Despite this, the story moves along at a brisk pace, with the mom’s backstory presented through her journal, an intimate medium that elicits sympathy. It’s a very human story full of complex emotions and motivations, a must-read!

I was fortunate to receive an ARC through NetGalley of this wonderful book.

Click here to go to Kerry Anne King’s website.

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center—pub date May 15, 2018

Click on picture to order!

This book starts off with a bang, specifically a plane crash. Despite Margaret’s fear of flying, her fiance coerces her into a flight in his Cessna before his certification test. An unexpected storm causes the plane to flip, trapping her inside as it explodes. The story reads like a memoir, such is the detail of her learning process about the extent of her injuries and medical procedures. The shocking revelations don’t end with her body and its new needs, as Margaret / Maggie spends more time with her family than she would have expected, or chosen. She discovers the true nature of her beloveds: suddenly absentee fiancee Chris, estranged sister Kitty, and distant mother—secrets bursting bubbles right and left. Some of those bubbles are burst by her recalcitrant physical therapist, whose already wobbly professionalism crashes at the charm of Maggie. Center brilliantly leads the reader through a labyrinth of complex emotions and clashing dynamics on two continents to a hilarious and painful climactic scene, where Maggie cannot escape a situation more awkward than she could imagine. Then the story goes a bit over the top, ala Harlequin romance style, with the love interest taking a dangerous leap literally, and gushing about his feelings for her as though the rest of the world stopped for this moment. It’s difficult to see what is happening around them as they open up to each other in a completely inappropriate place and time.

That life constantly takes Maggie by surprise is an endearing trait that makes her relateable and encourages readers to cheer her on through her physical and emotional struggles. There was a cringe-worthy scene early on where her professor tells her to “act like a man” for her interview, and she promises to do so. It’s very much her character, though, and Center maintains the integrity of all characters as they face secrets exposed and emotions unleashed. The denouement ends up being summarized, a bit of a disappointment in such a captivating tale, but leaves the reader with a sense of humanity restored as life exceeds Maggie’s expectations. This is a novel that reminds readers fiction often has much truth, in showing unspoken, understandable motives behind seemingly hurtful actions and how communication can resolve even long-held conflicts.

I was fortunate to receive an ARC from St. Martin’s Press of this beautiful story by Katherine Center.

The High Tide Club by Mary Kay Andrews—pub date May 8, 2018

Brooke Trapnell, the runaway bride in Save the Date, continues her story, having moved back to little town, Georgia, with her son, Henry. The resident wealthy socialite philanthropist of nearby Sea Island, Josephine Bettendorf Warrick, contacts Brooke to represent her against the state of Georgia, who wants her land for a state park. The secrets of nonagenarian Josephine slowly seep out as she lays out her plans to atone for her sins and defend her estate by passing it on to descendants of her long ago best friends. Brooke discovers a related family secret she would have never thought to guess.

Andrews’ description of friendships in the 50s deep South feels less like crossing a color line and more like pushing into an invisible, flexible barrier that they can’t quite break through. The re-emergence of The High Tide Club through the descendants of the original members is meant to be poignant, yet it’s hard to imagine the remaining original member at 95 walking naked into the ocean in chilly October. Though Andrews’ writing continues to be fully engaging, this novel seemed to go long, and it felt as though the author decided at one point to simply wrap up all the loose ends, with revelations coming fast and furious after the typical length of a novel, around 300 pages. There’s a contemporary would-be killer paralleling the murder mystery from decades past, and neither seems credible, nor true to character, even given the circumstances. Despite this, it’s an interesting story and worth it for a sandy good beach read.

I was fortunate to receive a pre-release copy from the publisher of one of my favorite authors.

Sand: A Collection of Short Stories by Steve Carr

Steve Carr’s first collection of short stories is fantastic. His work is intense, reaching into the reader’s head and twisting emotions, shattering logic and reason. The first story Tenderloin is—pun intended—a punch in the gut, as the reader sees the grittiness of the setting and feels the coiled tension in the main character, a veteran of the Iraq War. With journalistic expertise, Carr displays monstrous humanity in a brevity of words, as in The Saguaro Two Step, in which the woman wins the loot in the end, and exposes desperation, as in The Festival of The Cull, wherein Shamina can no longer vote on who is to be terminated. Reality bends as one ventures further into the book, as in the self-explanatory The Girl in a Mason Jar, gets fishy in Strange Water, and disappears in When Wizards Sing, where animals and men blend. The stories are diverse, with main characters of various genders, sexual orientations, ages, cultures, and even species. The book ends with stories of the afterlife on a never-ending train ride for incorrigibles, a man’s struggle for gravity, and the misplaced hope of a senior citizen. Definitely a must-read! Follow Steve on Facebook and Twitter. Purchase Sand at Lulu.com or Amazon.com.

Echo Moon (Ghost Gifts #3) by my favorite ghost writer Laura Spinella

Echo Moon finishes the Ghost Gifts trilogy, beginning with Aubrey and her souvenirs from ghosts she helps that she calls “ghost gifts,” through her marriage to journalist Levi St. John, to their son’s story of his past life, wherein he envisions shooting his true love Esmerelda Moon—Esme. Spinella pulls the reader into an early 20th-century culture of supper clubs and amusement parks, showcasing Luna Park of Coney Island, with its rides, performers and customers. We even witness the shadier “rides,” “performers,” and “customers” of the Elephant Hotel, a brothel set on the edge of the park. The hotel is real, but turned brothel after the heyday of the family-oriented park, and pulls Spinella’s story into the historical fiction genre as she carefully blends it into her novel.

In Ghost Gifts, Aubrey solves the mystery of Missy Flannigan’s decades old, cold-case murder with a recalcitrant Levi St. John, and they reluctantly fall for each other. In Foretold (Ghost Gifts #2), Aubrey and Levi are raising their son Pete, who suffers nightmares that are actually visions of his previous life as a photojournalist in WWI. The investigation of a John Doe (who turns out to be Aubrey’s friend Zeke) murder in which Levi is assisting culminates in the kidnapping of Pete, who is of course rescued by his parents. In Echo Moon, Pete finally solves the murder of Esme, with the help of Zeke’s niece Emerald—Em. Spinella spins coincidences into relevant evidence and drops the solution out of nowhere, but it all makes perfect sense. She has a way of surprising the reader without making the reader feel dumb for missing clues, and her characters are colorful and complex.

I received an early copy of Echo Moon from the publisher in a giveaway. Thank you, Laura! I love it! Visit her website to follow her on social media and purchase her books. Tell me a personal experience with the paranormal in the comments, and I’ll choose a random winner to send my ARC of Echo Moon!

The Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

Secrets are Held Closely in the Mountains

Click on cover to go to Taylor Brown’s website, where you can purchase this book and his others.

Granny May Docherty lost her daughter Bonni to Dix Hill 30 years ago when nightriders killed her boyfriend, the mill owner’s son Conner, silencing her voice. Her grandson Rory lost his leg to Korea, limiting his employment opportunities on his return home, leaving him little choice but to become a whiskey runner for Eustace Uptree, his best friend’s uncle and Granny May’s lover. Brown takes readers through the rabbit hole away from Mad Men and the American dream of a white picket fence to the colorful and dangerous world of Appalachia, where reigned illegal whiskey and wannabe drivers for the newly founded NASCAR.

A middle-aged wood witch and former prostitute, Granny May longs to know who hurt her girl, but fear of consequences prevents her from pursuing it with Rory. Brown’s subtle backstory of Bonni and Conner’s romance contrasts with the rawness and graphic depiction of mountain life in the 50s. Flooding of mountain valleys for “progress” disrupted Appalachian culture and forced a reluctant relationship with those living in towns and cities. Amy Greene’s “Long Man” shows the resistance of one woman against such flooding by the government. In Brown’s story, the event is long-reaching, since the main road literally heads straight into the man-made lake. As in Amy Greene’s debut novel “Bloodroot,” a body part is used as symbolism of a South yet alive with Pagan ways while tightly holding its secrets.

Taylor Brown digs out niches in his historical fiction—last vestiges of whiskey runners and nascent NASCAR, river kings, the lawlessness at the end of the civil war—getting down to the nitty-gritty of hard-living, developing complex characters who maintain their integrity in impossible situations. He gets a bit too “real” sometimes; for instance, there’s a lot of spitting in this book, some of it from Granny May—so much spitting. In one scene, Eustace flicks his nephew in the nuts. Graphic details can overwhelm the reader, such as when Rory’s rival purposely hits a deer and Brown describes the specifics of the deer’s physical suffering. Having said that, the reader leaves the novel with a sense of having learned history not found in textbooks, such as exactly what someone who drives illegal booze through the mountains does to his car to outrun the revenuers. It’s a definite must-read.