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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades by S.M. Stevens

Source: Author
Paperback, 292 pgs.
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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades by S.M. Stevens is the story of women in the workforce in the 1980s, long before the #MeToo movement began and when women endured workplace harassment and abuse with little recourse other than to quit or change jobs. Shelby Stewart is an intern at a PR firm in Boston where Astrid Ericcson is an up-and-coming account executive who is looking to make it to the top soon. Astrid’s flirty personality is in stark contrast to her cold shoulder she gives her coworkers and is juxtaposed with Shelby’s practical attitude. Both women hail from humble beginnings, but they are both eager to make their own way in the PR world.

Shelby has some demons to work through, and as she ignores them, those memories begin to flit into her consciousness and affect her health. She struggles on the dating scene and can’t figure out why until she finally admits what happened in her past. Meanwhile, Ericcson realizes that her flirty nature may have been interpreted in a way she didn’t intend when her boss comes sniffing around, making innuendos and sexual quid pro quo statements.

These women cannot be in one another’s company, but eventually the ice melts between them and they become a trio with Shelby’s friend Tina — the most well adjusted of the bunch. I liked that these women soon focus on themselves and become a supportive group, but they rely far too heavily on alcohol and dance club, one-night stands until nearly the end.

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades by S.M. Stevens is a look at the effects of sexual harassment in the workplace during the 1980s and how women were stuck with few options — tough it out or move to another company. It also examines the lasting effects of sexual molestation and abuse that occurs too often in the home — forever shaping the worldview of the children it directly impacts. Stevens is a talented storyteller and the book is a page-turner.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

S.M. Stevens began writing fiction during back-to-back health crises. First, she broke her pelvis in three places in a horseback riding fall, and used the recuperation period to write Shannon’s Odyssey, a middle-grade novel for animal-lovers. Soon after, Stevens was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. During her five months of treatment and subsequent recovery spell, she wrote Bit Players, Has-Been Actors and Other Posers for musical theatre-loving teens. Two additional Bit Players novels followed. Horseshoes and Hand Grenades is her first adult book. After watching reactions to the #MeToo movement, she decided it was time for a novel that takes people into the minds of victims so they can understand why many women don’t speak up about their harassment or assault, and why some do. When not writing, she provides marketing and public relations services to solar energy companies. She is from Gorham, Maine, and now lives in Clinton, Mass., and Washington, N.H. She has also lived in Italy and in the U.K., where she was Group Public Affairs Director for National Grid. Visit her Website, Facebook, on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, GoodReads, and on Amazon.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Source: Publisher
Hardcover, 400 pgs.
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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a roller coaster of emotions, but provides a fictionalized look at the journey migrants endure to escape the horrors of their homes and the people that seek to murder, rape, conscript, or abuse them. Many migration stories speak to the economic conditions of the homeland or the volatile political world, but few take us into the emotional world of the migrants’ journey to the United States.

Lydia and Luca emerge from the most tragic day of their lives running for safety. Safety is not their home or another relative’s home in Mexico, but across the border into the United States where the cartel Los Jardineros cannot reach. These are the faces of migrants. Not drug dealers, not rapists, and not criminals, but honest people forced to flee their home because suddenly the cartel is at their door thirsting for blood.

Lydia and Sebastian would have been considered to be well off compared to others in Acapulco. She owned a bookstore, and her husband was a journalist. Although many of his articles were published anonymously, anonymity only works so far when your writing about the cartel Los Jardineros. Their son, Luca, is a typical 8-year-old who loves to play, but he’s also very smart about geography. But their relatively quiet life is obliterated in one moment.

In heart-stopping detail, Cummins endears Lydia and Luca to her audience. They are real people, fleeing real dangers. They just want to live beyond today. As citizens of the United States, it is hard for us to imagine leaving all we know behind and living elsewhere because we have no choice. This is precisely why these fictional migrants are so important. They provide us a window into the many individual stories and experiences of migrants who cross the U.S. border, and what we see will not only shock us awake, but force us to revisit our prejudices and malformed notions about immigrants and why they are in the United States instead of changing things in their own countries.

“In the road ahead, two young men, two teenage boys really, tote AR-15s. Perhaps it’s precisely because that make of gun isn’t quite as prolific or as sexy as the ubiquitous AK-47 here that Lydia finds it all the more terrifying. Ridiculous, she knows. One gun will make you as dead as another. But there’s something so utilitarian about the sleek, black AR-15, like it can’t be bothered to put on a show.” (pg. 82 ARC)

There is a deep sense of powerlessness but also a determination to retrieve some power over their own lives. As Lydia and Luca cross paths with other migrants, the picture becomes more detailed, more graphic, more upending. Even Lydia must come to terms with her own perceptions and pities she had for migrants…those views she had before she was forced to become a migrant herself. Her life as a bookstore owner, reader, middle-income mother blinded her in many ways to what was right in front of her until it is already too late. Much of her blindness is due to her inability to resist the charm of an educated reader, someone who clearly sees in her prey to be captured. The decisions she makes from the moment of tragedy until the end of the novel are governed by a her new perspective. Never take a mother’s love for granted; it is a powerful force.

Migrants from Mexico and Central America struggle to make it to the United States, many atop La Bestia. They face starvation, dehydration, robbery, rape, murder, human trafficking and so much more, as the cartels continue to carve up these countries and sell their people to the highest bidder. IS America the sanctuary that many migrants believe it to be? No. But Cummins highlights those moments too in the stories Lydia is told from migrants returning home and those returning to the United States even though they were kicked out. With American dirt in the title, readers must reconsider what “American” means. Not all of the dirt/borders are considered American in the United States, yet residents of North and South America are all American.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is the “IT” book for 2020 and without question all of the hype and praise is well deserved. This book has so many layers and would be a fantastic pick for book clubs everywhere. It is life changing; it is a book to open the eyes of the “America” we want to be to the eyes of the America we are. We are all American, regardless of the country in which we live or which country we came from.

RATING: Cinquain

***If you are in the Gaithersburg, Md., area, please join us for our first book club. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins was selected as the first book for Gaithersburg Reads, a community book club read.

***Our big, giant book discussion event with Jeanine Cummins will be on March 31st, 7pm, at Gaithersburg High School Performing Arts Center.

 

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Jeanine Cummins is the author of four books: the bestselling memoir A Rip in Heaven, and the novels The Outside BoyThe Crooked Branch, and American Dirt. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.

Yuletide edited by Christina Boyd

Source: Purchased by my Secret Santa
Paperback, 190 pgs.
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Yuletide edited by Christina Boyd includes short stories around Christmas time in Pride & Prejudice‘s Darcy and Bennet households in Regency and modern times from Amy D’Orazio, Caitlin Williams, Anngela Schroeder, J. Marie Croft, Elizabeth Adams, Joana Starnes, and Lona Manning. Each story holds true to the characters, but places them in different situations at Christmas time.

Caitlin Williams’ “The Forfeit” has Elizabeth Bennet acting as frivolous and giddy as her younger sisters as she gets ready for the local ball. Her little wager with Mr. Darcy is one that could leave her vulnerable at the hands of a wealthy man, but readers know that the wager is friendly and Mr. Darcy is a stand-up guy of character. “It was only when she was sunk deep into the iron tub that she realised she had spent the last two hours in much the same fashion as Lydia and Kitty, minus, thankfully, some very silly giggling.” (pg. 20).

Other stories in the collection find the married Darcy’s enjoying some old and new traditions, together. But one of my favorites is “The Wishing Ball” by Amy D’Orazio engages readers in a mystery where Darcy has made a wish without actually making a wish, causing some confusion to a lonely single man of great fortune. But it also provides some comedy when his sister learns about the wish inside. “‘So some other man…another man, with the initials FDG and a tendency to make the letter I like he went to prep school in England, bought this ball, wrote a wish, placed it inside, then sealed it up, and returned it. Then I, your sister, just happened to come along and buy it? That’s your hypothesis?'” (pg. 52)

All of the stories in the collection will provide readers with a glimpse of Christmas time festivities in the Darcy and Bennet houses, but they also offer a unique look at how the Christmas spirit can enable Darcy and Lizzy to rethink their behavior towards one another and learn to be more charitable and forgiving.

Yuletide edited by Christina Boyd is a delightful collection of short stories with some of our favorite Pride & Prejudice characters learning to be more patient, kind, and forgiving. It was the perfect read for the holiday season.

RATING: Cinquain

The Christmas Pact by Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 2+ hours
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The Christmas Pact by Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward, narrated by Andi Arndt and Sebastian York, is a short novella similar to a Hallmark movie in which a young professional finds a certain young man from another division at her company annoying. Riley Kennedy‘s emails keep being sent to Kennedy Riley, who works in another division at the same company. But rather than simply forward her replies, he has to offer his two-cents. Clearly, writing personal emails to an advice columnist is ill-advised from a work email account, but Riley’s really bummed about the holiday’s and her mother’s bragadocious Christmas letter to everyone in the family about her siblings.

Kennedy offers her an out — take him home for the holidays as her boyfriend.

Yes, Hallmark lane, here we come. Is it cheesy? predictable? Ultimately, yes. However, we all need that feel-good, hilarity once in a while, and this one fit the bill for me. It doesn’t hurt that my ears have a crush on Sebastian York’s sultry voice, either.

The Christmas Pact by Vi Keeland and Penelope Ward, narrated by Andi Arndt and Sebastian York, is fun, funny, and delightful. Complete with the white horse and city streets of New York.

RATING: Cinquain

Were We Awake: Stories by L.M. Brown

Source: the author
Paperback, 236 pgs.
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Were We Awake: Stories by L.M. Brown explores our own hidden lives and the lies we tell ourselves just to keep up appearances or bury the pain we feel. Funny thing about lies, they have a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Some lies come to light when we’re children and blow our idyllic lives to bits and change us for years, while others are of our own making and we only hurt ourselves when we refuse to acknowledge them.

Brown’s characters are every day people living sometimes hard lives and other times simple lives, but none of them are easy. Some have lost themselves since marriage or children, while others have never had the chance to find themselves before tragedy strikes. Set abroad in Ireland and other locations, as well as in Massachusetts, these families find that their own lives are not what they thought they were. Brown understands how to write the lives of ordinary people, those who work hard for a living and those who are house wives caring for children. Although these are modern families, in many ways they could be the families in small towns in any time period with a few detail changes.

One of the most harrowing is the tragic death of Nick Moody, and his story reverberates through the tiny community, the life of a young bar worker, Margaret, who runs to Australia, and through the lives of his wife and mistress. This is a death that is as yet unsolved by the police, but despite the speculation of what happened to Nick, the townspeople would be surprised by the hidden lives of his intimate circle, including Nick.

Were We Awake: Stories by L.M. Brown is a collection of stories that is engaging from page one to the end. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one day. I was riveted. Not all of these stories will be for everyone, as there is adultery and other hard topics to read, but there is nothing overly graphic here. Brown is a masterful writer of short stories; you’ll turn the last page and feel as if waking from a dream – a dream you’ll be happy to have left, but conscious of its lessons.

RATING: Cinquain

When Jane Got Angry by Victoria Kincaid (audio)

Source: the author
Audible, 3+ hours
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When Jane Got Angry by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, explores a “what if” scenario regarding Jane Bennet’s reaction to when she learns the Bingley’s have been in London and that Caroline has effectively kept Mr. Bingley in the dark about her presence in the city. This novella will have you on your toes for a bit, especially as Jane Bennet becomes a bit more daring like her sister, Lizzy, and seeks to “bump” into Mr. Bingley on the streets of London.

Kincaid’s Jane has a bit more backbone that Austen’s original, and I enjoyed her “light” scheming. She’s no where near the level of Caroline Bingley, but she does give her a run for her money. We also find a different Mr. Bingley in Kincaid’s work. He’s prone to being led about in Austen’s novel, but when he learns that people he loves have meddled with his happiness look out! Although there are breaks in social convention, there’s nothing overly outrageous — just a pushing of the boundary here and there.

Zimmerman is a fantastic narrator as always, and I never lost interest in the story with her narrative lead.

When Jane Got Angry by Victoria Kincaid, narrated by Stevie Zimmerman, is a wonderful addition to Jane Austen-related fan fiction. My one complaint would probably be I wanted to know more of what Lizzy would have thought of Jane acting more like her. Wonderfully written and no loss ends. Kincaid has a talent for these kinds of “what if” stories.

RATING: Quatrain

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 361 pgs.
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The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is the journey of Xiomara Batista, a young teen in Harlem who has secrets. She’s becoming a young woman aware of boys and a longing for acceptance — an acceptance of herself. She must come to terms with her religious mother and restricted upbringing and the reality that she does not fit the spiritual mold her mother had hoped for. The novel is told in verse.

The verse is reminiscent of childhood entries in a journal — rough and raw — full of emotion. Xiomara finds sanctuary in her words and her poems. She struggles with sexism and being a twin to a boy she feels disconnected from. Who is Poet X?

It is a journey of self-discovery. She finds strength from her pastor, despite her religious questions, and from her teacher who inspires her to read her words aloud. But all of this strength can be blown away by one woman who is also unclear about her life and her daughter and how things all went wrong.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is deliciously dramatic but it never loses its poetic center — the exploration of self and the journey toward a stronger self that can stand in the face of chaos.

RATING: Cinquain

The Guests on South Battery by Karen White

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 368 pgs.
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The Guests on South Battery (Tradd Street #5) by Karen White is another page turning mystery with Melanie and her husband, Jack Trenholm, on Tradd Street. Their twins are thriving and growing, but Melanie’s ability to communicate with the dead has been hibernating or intermittent at best. As a year has passed of maternity leave, Melanie is ready to return to her real estate work selling historic homes and more in Charleston.

A call in the middle of the night leaves Melanie questioning the quiet in her life and the possible return of ghosts. She and Jack seem to be on track as he works on a new book, but it is clear that they need more full-time help. A nanny just happens to fall into her lap when she returns to work.

Melanie reverts to her insecurities in this tale even as she strives to be a stronger woman and communicate with her husband. Jack also needs a bit of help in the communication department. While Melanie can be a frustrating character and this mystery is easy to resolve at least where the nanny is concerned, the tale is told in a sufficiently twisted way. The ghosts are malevolent and innocent here in a battle.

The Guests on South Battery (Tradd Street #5) by Karen White uncovers more family secrets that Melanie must deal with, and it is her maturity here that redeems Melanie a little bit. Readers will like the ghosts and mystery in this tale, but Melanie still has some growing up to do.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Karen White is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author and currently writes what she refers to as ‘grit lit’—Southern women’s fiction—and has also expanded her horizons into writing a mystery series set in Charleston, South Carolina. Karen hails from a long line of Southerners but spent most of her growing up years in London, England and is a graduate of the American School in London. When not writing, she spends her time reading, scrapbooking, playing piano, and avoiding cooking. She currently lives near Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and two children, and two spoiled Havanese dogs.

We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer

Source: Caitlin Hamilton Marketing
Paperback, 140 pgs.
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We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer, winner of the Hudson Prize, is a collection of short stories with quirky characters. Readers will be exposed to the unexpected, as the dead teach us that there is not a moment to waste and the mentally ill provide us with greater clarity than we expect about our lives.

Characters in these stories are frustrated and lost, but they find directions they never expected. With sly irony, Mayer has crafted a set of stories that will open readers’ minds to new points of view, forcing us to examine our own lives and how we perceive others, especially those living just outside the mainstream. Many of these characters are on the verge of irrevocable change in their lives, and there are moments that happen that can change it all.

While of the stories in We Will Tell You Otherwise are vastly different, at their heart, Beth Mayer takes her readers on a journey to explore human fragility and faults, while not losing their sense of hope. These characters have a lot to tell readers.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Beth Mayer’s fiction has appeared in The Threepenny ReviewThe Sun Magazine, and The Midway Review. Her stories have been anthologized in New Stories from the Midwest (Ohio University/Swallow Press) and American Fiction (New Rivers Press), and have been recognized by Best American Mystery Stories among “Other Distinguished Stories.” Beth’s collection was a finalist for the 2016 Orison Book Prize and the 2015 Many Voices Project. The Missouri Review’s 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in fiction named her a finalist and her work in Jet Fuel Review has been nominated for the 2017 Best of the Net. Beth holds an MFA from Hamline University, was a Loft Mentor Series Winner in Fiction for 2015-16, and coordinates the Creative Writing Certificate at Century College. She lives in Minneapolis/St. Paul with her family and impossibly loyal dog.

Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews

Source: St. Martin’s Press
Paperback, 448 pgs.
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Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews is slightly different from the lighter side of her other novels. Drue Campbell’s life is turned upside down with the death of her mother, the reappearance of her estranged father, an accident that takes away the one thing that eases her mind, and the loss of her job — a job she hated. Campbell hasn’t had an idyllic life, but with her mother she was at least grounded. Now, she’s adrift and wary of accepting her father’s help, especially after being estranged for so long.

When she arrives in St. Petersburg, Florida, she is given her inheritance from her father – her grandparents’ cottage on Sunset beach. But the gift is not without its own headaches — a leaky roof, nasty color scheme, and so much more. While clearing out the trash from the previous hoarder tenant and cleaning up the cottage, Drue uncovers a mystery in her own attic. When she heads to the office to work for her father, she also discovers his new wife is her former best friend and there’s a mystery at the law office that needs a second look.

Sunset Beach by Mary Kay Andrews is a complex read of a young woman finding her place in the world after losing so much, but it’s also chock full of murder mysteries that Drue Campbell and you can’t help but dig into.

RATING: Quatrain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Mary Kay Andrews graduated from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree in 1976.  She worked as a reporter at a number of papers, and spent 11 years as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution before leaving to write fiction full-time in 1991.  She published ten mystery novels under her own name between 1992 and 2000, and since 2002, she has authored a number of best-selling books as Mary Kay Andrews.

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