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Birthday Suit by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 7+ hours
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Birthday Suit by Lauren Blakely — narrated by Andi Arndt, Sebastian York, and many others — is an audiobook I just had to listen to after listening to the short, Lucky Suit, which involves Lulu Diamond’s best friend Cameron. Blakely’s Leo Hennessy is smokin’ hot in a suit and for some reason, Lulu is just noticing this now, at a chocolate convention, after more than 10 years of friendship and a marriage to his best friend. But Lulu is a new woman who is laser-focused on the career she’s always wanted and felt held back from, and she’s not about to let romance get in the way of that again. Leo, on the other hand, has been ripe for romance with Lulu and his opportunity is now, but will guilt hold him back?

The main narrators — Arndt and York — have a believable chemistry and I loved that this audiobook has a full cast of narrators for a lot of characters. I would love to see this as a series of romance movies with all of these characters — Hallmark would definitely have to tone down the smut though.

Leo and Lulu solving riddles together is a delight — another case of witty repartee between characters. Blakely’s dialogue is lovely, and you can see how easily these two fall back into their friendship. There’s a comfort in how well they know each other, but they also are discovering so much more.

Leo and Lulu are endearing together, and I love that they are friends who find they cannot live without each other, but will self-imposed rules get in their way? Or can they learn to reach for the golden chalice? Birthday Suit by Lauren Blakely — narrated by Andi Arndt, Sebastian York, and many others — is like decadent chocolate that you can’t tear your eyes or mouth away from.

RATING: Cinquain

The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa

Source: TLC Book Tours
Hardcover, 320 pgs.
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The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa is a framed story in which Elise Duval must confront a past she has forgotten. A young woman and her daughter visit Duval and return to her items that were lost after the World War II. This is just the opening of the book of Duval’s journey from the present into the past.

“She knew well that no matter how the author fashions his characters, no matter which words he chooses, it is always the reader who holds the power of interpretation.” (pg. 12)

In 1939, Amanda and Julius Sternberg are a young family who find their home in Berlin is turning into something very ugly as the Nazi’s grow more powerful. Amanda owns a bookshop. Julius is a cardiac doctor but soon finds he’s no longer allowed to practice because he’s Jewish and when he is taken away from his family, Amanda is left to make decisions on here own for herself and her two daughters. Much of the WWII history is familiar in this story, but the connection between a mother and her daughters becomes a heavy theme throughout the book.

How do you decide what is best for yourself and your children when there is pressure not only from a government that has branded you an undesirable and from those willing to help you because they feel an obligation to your arrested husband. Correa’s novel is heartbreaking for more reasons than how many people are abused, murdered, thrown out of the only homes they have ever known, and separated from their families. Amanda has to make some tough choices and place her children’s safety above her own.

“We distance ourselves from the past far too quickly,” she told herself. (pg. 86)

Fleeing to southern France, her family finds a bit of peace. Living with Claire Duval, an old family friend, the Sternbergs fall into a rhythm of helping out at the farm and going to school. This lull is only a respite from the hunters conquering those around them. Amanda is again forced to make one of the biggest decisions to save her family.

It’s very easy to fall into this story and to feel the deep rip of these decisions and the far-reaching effects of these decisions not only on the mother, but also on the daughters. Mixed into this dynamic is Claire Duval and her own daughter, Danielle, and how they act and react to the Sternbergs and the struggles they face simply because they are offering them shelter. The bonds between these mothers and their daughters are like steel, even when memories begin to fade and details get a bit fuzzy for the children as the war continues and seems endless.

The Daughter’s Tale by Armando Lucas Correa is a beautiful tale of resilience and survival. My only complaint was that I wanted more about Viera, the eldest daughter, and I wanted more about Elise after the war. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works? I would love that! This was a wonderful story and stands as a testament to the families that faced death and horror during WWII and came out the other side more resilient than anyone would have expected.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Armando Lucas Correa is an award-winning journalist, editor, author, and the recipient of several awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the Society of Professional Journalism. He is the author of the international bestseller The German Girl, which is now being published in thirteen languages. He lives in New York City with his partner and their three children. Connect: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Killer by Nature by Jan Smith (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 4+ hrs.
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Are serial killers born or made? That’s one of the questions that emerges throughout the narrative of Killer by Nature by Jan Smith, narrated by Angela Griffin, Robert James-Collier, Katherine Kelly, Will Mellor, and Thomas Turgoose. This audible original drama reminded me of the old radio shows my dad and grandfather used to talk about. In this audio drama, Dr. Diane Buckley is a forensic psychologist sent to interview Alfred Dinklage, “The Playground Killer” when a series of similar murders occur while he’s behind bars. Can this killer walk through prison walls or is there a copycat striving to finish the serial killer’s work.

Dinklage is seriously creepy and can make you shiver with any nursery rhyme he utters. In her one-on-one sessions with Dinklage, Dr. Buckley must sift through the manipulations and lies to find the truth and help the police find their suspect before more murders are committed. Meanwhile, life at home is no picnic with a teenage daughter acting out at school and home, leaving little room for calm. Buckley has her hands full.

The killer is creepy throughout until the end when he appears more sympathetic, but in many ways, this is how psychologists can disarm psychotic killers — finding what button to push to either turn themselves in or do what the police want them to do. Dr. Buckley is very clinical until the end, and I fear there are layers of her character that are not addressed in this short episode. She clearly has things in her past that are not dealt with properly in this short production. It would be good to see her and her family in a longer production, even with Inspector Winterman, who also has some things in his past to deal with. These characters are too multilayered to be dealt with in such a short production, which is why the audio focuses on the search for the killer.

One complaint is that in the middle of chapters the narration repeats the title and author of the book, which can break up the narrative and take the reader out of the tense suspense. It was quite obnoxious. I’m not sure why Audible would go that route, but in future audiobooks of this nature, I hope they don’t repeat it.

Killer by Nature by Jan Smith, narrated by Angela Griffin, Robert James-Collier, Katherine Kelly, Will Mellor, and Thomas Turgoose, is suspenseful, but a bit predictable. However, the production is well rendered with music, sound effects, and splendid voice actors.

RATING: Quatrain

Treading the Uneven Road by L.M. Brown

Source: the author
Paperback, 190 pgs.
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Treading the Uneven Road by L.M. Brown is a collection of short stories set in Ireland with a cast of characters who are like little puzzles to solve. Their lives have not gone as planned and it is how they adapt (or don’t) to changes and bumps in the road that make them so puzzling. Brown also has adeptly created a collection of stories in which characters from one may be connected to those in another. Even as we follow these characters, readers come to realize that where they come from — a tiny village bypassed by progress — is slowly dying. This dying town weighs heavily on these stories and is a character who motivates Brown’s protagonists or forces them to take action.

From “The Lady on the Bridge”

“She felt the same keen nervousness reaching for her husband’s book as she did with the thought of the flooding.” (pg. 1)

“A dark cloud had spread in her chest but she didn’t know why.” (pg. 12)

Like “The Lady on the Bridge,” readers are swept away by the emotion of Brown’s stories — a woman whose husband has a gay lover, a man whose child dies, a brother who has become an anchor, a dyslexic man who seeks revenge on a former teacher, and so many more. Each character is larger than life, living big emotions and trying to bury them beneath the surface. These emotions can bubble to the surface at any time, and they often do. The narration lulls you into a trance as Brown navigates this small town and its cast of characters, but this trance is filled with tension, as she weaves her tales and surprises so seamlessly. The connections between the characters are not always obvious, and some are startling.

Much like the uneven gravel roads of small town Irish living, these characters must learn to cope with their loves, the bumps in the road, and the low hanging clouds obscuring their view. Readers will enjoy the different perspectives provided by some characters of the same person. It is true that you can never know everything about someone, even the ones you are most intimate with.

Masterfully crafted short stories with a multitude of perspectives about a dying town’s small-town life. Don’t miss out on Treading the Uneven Road by L.M. Brown.

RATING: Cinquain

A Mind of Her Own by Paula McLain (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 1+ hrs.
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A Mind of Her Own by Paula McLain, narrated by Hillary Huber, is a short introduction to Marie Skłodowska, who later marries Pierre Curie, and becomes one of the most famous physicists and chemists of our time. McLain introduces us to a young Marie, who has made it to France to study at the Sorbonne — one of the only women in the sciences. She faces a great deal of criticism from male students who feel she does not belong there, but she also finds that there are those who are willing to help her and believe in her education and work.

This story is relatively short, but it provides a sketch of Curie’s determination and persistence, but also how dealing with prejudice on a daily basis can skew our perceptions of other people’s intentions, particularly those people who actually support us. McLain delves lightly into the subject of overcoming these internal biases to see the good in front of us.

The narration was good, though I felt there was little emotion in the narration. Perhaps due to Curie’s character and her scientific manner, but I would have liked a bit more emotion.

A Mind of Her Own by Paula McLain should be its own novel. Curie is a fascinating woman of science who had to overcome a lot and who suffered a great deal for her discoveries. My one complaint is that it should have been a full-length novel.

Rating: Quatrain

Lucky Suit by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook, 2+ hrs.
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Lucky Suit by Lauren Blakely, narrated by Zachary Webber and Andi Arndt, is a quick listen high on humor and romance. Think Hallmark movie with witty dialogue and flirting. Kristen Leonard has had it with blind dates and looking for love in all the wrong places, but her gramma won’t hear it. She thinks there’s a guy out there for her scientific wiz grandkid and she won’t stop until he’s found. There’s just one kink in the chain, Kristen has decided to place her fate in the hands of internet algorithms and data.

Cameron whisks into town to his uncle’s car auction to visit while in Miami on business. Little does he know that a hot little lady is interested in him and the cars — the cars for herself and him for her granddaughter.

Lucky Suit by Lauren Blakely, narrated by Zachary Webber and Andi Arndt, is a hot little read with playful dialogue, flirtation, and a lightheartedness I needed.  It had me smiling every time Kristen and Cameron were chatting away.  Her grandmother is a fiery one too, and there is no end to the witticisms involving science. Looking for a fun read to relax with, this is for you. I was smitten with these characters and I might just check out Blakely’s longer works when I need another pick-me-up.

RATING: Cinquain

Mrs. Rossi’s Dream by Khanh Ha

Source: Premier Virtual Author Book Tours
Paperback, 312 pgs.
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Mrs. Rossi’s Dream by Khanh Ha is a tale of enduring love, nearly senseless sacrifice, and a war that not only divided a country and its people, but also cut a great number of lives short. Le Giang is a North Vietnamese man who defected during the Vietnam War, who works at an inn doing odd jobs, driving tourists, and more. His story is woven together with Catherine Rossi and her search for the resting place of her son Nicola. Rossi’s son, who served during the Vietnam War between 1966 and 1967, died in battle and all she has left of him is a young Vietnamese daughter she adopted and his letters. Ha carefully shifts from the current story in 1987 (20 years after Rossi died in the war and 10 years after Le was imprisoned for defecting) to the letters from Rossi’s son and the memories Le shares with Rossi’s adopted daughter and Rossi herself.

“You can’t tell a Vietnamese skull from an American skull.” (pg. 158)

Until Mrs. Rossi arrives, Le is content in the life he leads and the job he has at the inn, dealing very little with the life he had before. He is forced to look on that life and come to terms with not only his own sacrifices, but also the ultimate tragedy of war — no one is innocent and no one is not touched by its bloodshed.

Through the Mekong Delta and the U Minh forest, Ha’s characters travel inside, outside, and alongside the horrors of war — the most gruesome things imaginable, including the burning flesh after a napalm attack. These images stay with the reader throughout out Rossi and Le’s journey to the River of White Water Lilies. The river becomes a mythical piece in which the characters must cross over in order to make peace with the war and the role they played in it and on the outside of fit. The ghosts of lost soldiers, innocents, and others are within the ripples waiting for a moment to reach out and be heard.

Mrs. Rossi’s Dream by Khanh Ha is less atmospheric and dream-like as I’ve come to expect from Ha’s work. This does not detract from the ability of Ha to craft a multi-layered story that leaves a lasting impression. The Vietnam War was a complicated war tactically, politically, and socially not only for American soldiers (as many other books will attest) but also for those who live in Vietnam. Some families found themselves torn apart, others saw sons leave for war and never return, and many soldiers were conscripted against their desires or beliefs and had little to do but fight for their own survival (sometimes an endeavor in futility). Ha is one of the best writers in this genre and his novels always leave the reader with a great deal to think about — especially when it comes to American preconceptions about the Vietnam War. I never say “no” to reading Ha’s books, and this, his third, is the best yet.

RATING: Cinquain

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About the Author:

Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (Underground Voices). He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, twice a finalist of The William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, and the recipient of Sand Hills Prize for Best Fiction, and Greensboro Review’s Robert Watson Literary Prize in fiction. The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. Ha graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Have a Nice Day by Billy Crystal (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 1+ hours
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Have a Nice Day by Billy Crystal is another Audible original that will delight listeners. The comedy begins at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but the subject is at once unexpected and humorous. With Kevin Cline, Annette Benning, and so many others (including a star from Moana), the anonymous and unexpected nature of death is explored through humor and ridiculous situations in the public eye, as President David Murray appears to be losing his mind as he talks to himself in grocery stores, etc. Even as his conversations appear one-sided, he actually spends a great deal of time speaking to the anonymous grim reaper (Billy Crystal) and coaching him on how to be a good angel of death.

Even though there are twists in the story, which I found a bit predictable, I laughed a number of times while listening to this comedic story. It’s a tale of humor, but also demonstrates how we never know when death comes for us and we should live our lives with purpose and be sure things are in order before the angel of death does come. There are no second chances or do-overs for most of us.

Have a Nice Day by Billy Crystal was a delightful surprise. With the award winning cast, it should not have been. Aesop in comedic form.

RATING: Quatrain

These Dreams by Nicole Clarkston (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 26+ hours
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These Dreams by Nicole Clarkston, narrated by Leena Emsley, is a novel that catches Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in a ancestral dispute with ties to Colonel Fitzwilliam’s past in Portugal as an soldier. Clarkston’s supporting characters in Portugal and England will keep readers on their toes with suspense and a mystery to unravel. All the while, their hearts will be ringing out with pain for the anguish off Elizabeth Bennet who fears the man she loves will never know her true heart and for Mr. Darcy who languishes, imprisoned against his will with no inkling of why.

In the darkness, Mr. Darcy reaches for the Elizabeth he hopes can love him after he’s tried to right the wrongs to her family before his capture, and in turn, she spends many sleepless nights searching him out in the dark prison. She fears she’s losing her mind over these ghostly encounters, but she does not want them to stop because she aches for him to live. He believes his dreams to be just that as he fears she will find another before he can escape and return to her.

Meanwhile, Colonel Fitzwilliam takes center stage and has his hands full with manipulative relatives trying to wed him to a grieving niece and a mystery surrounding the death of his cousin. Clarkston has ramped up the tensions in her novel, creating a web of lies and mystery for readers and the Colonel to unravel together. Lest we forget about Wickham, he rears his ugly head as well, though he’s not as irredeemable as we think.

I was riveted the entire time, and though the audio seems longer than most, it was well worth every minute. I was never bored or wishing for the pace to pick up. Emsley does an admirable job in narrating each of the Portuguese characters and the English characters, making each on distinct, which was a tall order with this large cast. Her grasp of the Portuguese was pretty close to what I remember of my grandparents’ speech. It was wonderful to hear.

These Dreams by Nicole Clarkston, narrated by Leena Emsley, is angst inducing, will make you cry, will make you scream at the injustice, and will have you deliriously happy when it all ends. My only wish is that there is a sequel to explore Colonel Fitzwilliam’s days in Portugal before this saga even began.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Nicole Clarkston is a book lover and a happily married mom of three. Originally from Idaho, she now lives in Oregon with her own romantic hero, several horses, and one very fat dog. She has loved crafting alternate stories and sequels since she was a child watching Disney’s Robin Hood, and is never found sitting quietly without a book of some sort.

Nicole discovered Jane Austen rather by guilt in her early thirties- how does any book worm really live that long without a little P&P? She has never looked back. A year or so later, during a major house renovation project (undertaken when her husband unsuspectingly left town for a few days) she discovered Elizabeth Gaskell and fell completely in love. Nicole’s books are her pitiful homage to two authors who have so deeply inspired her.

The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman

Source: TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 352 pgs.
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The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman follows Eva Cassidy aboard the Lurline on its way to Hawaii where she will serve as an army nurse in Pearl Harbor. She has secrets, and she’s hoping that despite her new name and faked documents, she will be able to use her nursing skills and send money to her sister, Ruby, who was struck with polio, in Michigan. Aboard the ship, she is immediately drawn to Lieutenant Clark Spencer, a man with secrets of his own.

“He reminded Eva of her father, who was always requiring her to answer her own questions and solve her own problems.” (pg. 29)

Ackerman’s WWII setting is well rendered, and the scenes where the Zeroes attack and the harrowing chaos of the hospital are vivid and frightening, especially viewing it from the point of views of her characters. Whether with Spencer trying to save himself and the men around him as bullets shower down on them or with Eva running from a lecture hall to the hospital.

“With fewer new injuries coming in, the nurses busied themselves cleaning up the place in between surgeries and tending the wounded. You could hardly see the linoleum under mud, soot, and blood. Beds and sheets were soiled, and so were the men.” (pg. 250)

The love triangle between Eva, Clark, and Billy — her hometown boyfriend who helped her get her job and wants to marry her — is wrapped up a little too neatly in the end. There also is a government conspiracy that is a little too thin, given that one of the key players is not as high level as one would expect, as well as some other nuances. None of this detracted from Ackerman’s lovely story about a woman wronged and looking to still fulfill her dreams and build a new life in paradise. The attack on Pearl Harbor looms large but it is not the heart of this story.

The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman’s well-researched novel is a delight in terms of its heart. The resilience of humanity and its ability to pull together in times of crisis are its main themes. Eva Cassidy is a strong woman who lost her compass — her father — only to find she’s as strong as she was when he was alive. She just needed to tap into her strength for herself and those around her.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Sara is the bestselling author of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories. When she’s not writing or teaching, you’ll find her in the mountains or in the ocean. She currently lives on the Big Island with her boyfriend and a houseful of bossy animals. Find out more about Sara and her books at www.ackermanbooks.com. Connect with Sara: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Source: Berkley
Hardcover, 400 pgs
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The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a novel of lasting friendship — one that surpasses the bounds of culture and war, as well as separation. Elise Sontag, a German American, finds that life during WWII becomes increasingly complicated when her father is arrested by the FBI in Davenport, Iowa. When her father is gone for months, his bank accounts are frozen, and the family is left to fend for itself, Elise learns that her school chums can be less mean than the world around her. Although she’s shunned at school, the sneers of passersby and neighbors, as well as the distrust from her father’s co-workers, are far worse. Through it all, she must be strong for her mother.

“Months later, in the internment camp, Mariko would tell me she believed there were two kinds of mirrors. There was the kind you looked into to see what you looked like, and then there was the kind you looked into and saw what other people thought you looked like.” (pg. 28)

When the entire family is reunited in Crystal City, an internment camp, she learns that even among the perceived “sympathizers” there are more Americans like her. But camp politics can be hard to navigate as someone who doesn’t see how she is perceived by those in the camp. Her focus is on trying to return to a normal life at the Federal School in the camp and befriending Mariko Inoue, a Japanese American from Los Angeles, who also feels more American than Japanese.

Meissner tackles a lot of larger themes, but the theme running through Elise Sontag’s narrative is one of identity. When our home country considers us the enemy, how do we reconcile that with who we know ourselves to be? How can we retain the goodness of our souls without succumbing to the perceptions of others? Can we hold onto what we know about ourselves when others see us as the enemy and send us to a place we feel is hostile to us because they also see us as the enemy?

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a stunning novel about the last year of World War II from the untenable situation of a young American girl thrust behind enemy lines by her own nation. It is about the friendship that can blossom amidst terrible and heartbreaking conditions. This is a WWII novel that will grip your heart, squeeze it and leave readers wanting more. (I personally would want to read Mariko’s story!)

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction with more than half a million books in print in fifteen languages. She is an author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include As Bright as Heaven, starred review in Library Journal; Secrets of  Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University and is also a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.

Visit Susan at her website; on Twitter at @SusanMeissner or at Facebook.

Christmas at Darcy House by Victoria Kincaid (audio)

Source: the author
Audible, 5+ hrs.
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Christmas at Darcy House by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Julia Eve, is a variation that takes some liberty with Darcy’s reserved character when it places Elizabeth Bennet directly in the path of Mr. Wickham and a marriage proposal. Darcy unexpectedly finds Elizabeth to be in London, and his efforts to forget her after removing him and the Bingleys from Hertfordshire are for naught. Her fine eyes are there beckoning him to get closer, but for her part, she cannot understand why Darcy would want to dance with her at a Christmas ball or even be in her company after the things he’s said.

Darcy’s character is impulsive at just the wrong moment, but for the right reason, as he sees no other way to save Elizabeth from Wickham and his advances. Despite his uncharacteristic behavior, Elizabeth’s response is spot on in many ways. How can they resolve their differences and learn to meet in love when so much has been said and misunderstood?

Kincaid has pushed the envelope here with her Darcy character, but as the story evolves you can see how desperate he is at the prospect of losing Elizabeth to Wickham. The narrator was a bit odd when speaking male parts, as if she tried too hard to deepen her voice. Darcy’s narration came off less reserved and more harsh, but so too did Elizabeth’s narration at times.

Christmas at Darcy House by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Julia Eve, is a fun Yuletide variation that will keep readers on their toes. If you want something close to the original character of Mr. Darcy, this is not for you.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

The author of numerous best-selling Pride and Prejudice variations, historical romance writer Victoria Kincaid has a Ph.D. in English literature and runs a small business, er, household with two children, a hyperactive dog, an overly affectionate cat, and a husband who is not threatened by Mr. Darcy. They live near Washington DC, where the inhabitants occasionally stop talking about politics long enough to complain about the traffic.

On weekdays she is a freelance writer/editor who specializes in IT marketing (it’s more interesting than it sounds) and teaches business writing. A lifelong Austen fan, Victoria has read more Jane Austen variations and sequels than she can count – and confesses to an extreme partiality for the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice. Visit her website. View her blog, visit her on Facebook, GoodReads, and on Amazon.