The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas

Source: William Morrow, HarperCollins
Paperback, 384 pages
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The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas is more than a debut World War II novel; it’s a novel about perseverance, passion, and the transcendent love of music that can overcome prejudice and hatred.  Simon Horowitz is a young violinist in Berlin in 1935 before the Nazi’s took full control.  His father is a prominent banker and his family enjoys special privileges, until one day they don’t.  Thomas weaves an age-old story of Nazi hatred and prejudice that takes everything from a single boy — his father, his mother, his siblings, and yes, his beloved 1742 Guarneri del Gesù violin.  Fast forward to 2008 and another young virtuoso, Daniel, who at fourteen wins a prestigious award for young violinists and catches the eye of a famed conductor.

“For a long second he blinked vigorously to adjust his eyes and steady his nerves.  All he could see were rows of mysterious shapes in the darkness, but somewhere out there his father sat, his heart beating as fast as Daniel’s.  A bead of sweat ran down his face, and he brushed it away with the cuff of his shirt as he took a few deep breaths to control the butterflies in the pit of his stomach.”  (page 9 ARC)

There are secrets kept in Daniel’s family, but he continues to have a deep loyalty to his family.  Rewind to the Nazi occupation of Berlin, and Simon is thrust into a camp — a camp he never knew existed but will never forget.  Even in the most dire situation, Simon remains tied to his music and the passion it raises within his bones and his heart.  Through this, he strives to survive and keep those he loves alive, even as the Nazis arbitrarily kill those around him.  As expected the images and horrors of Dachau will be seared into readers brains, but Thomas also hones the hope — the light — that shines on Simon in the camp.  He’s given the chance to reconnect with music in the most unexpected ways, and his reconnection ensures that the hope infiltrates the most unlikely of places.

“Routine only becomes dull when it’s safe; routine punctuated by terror remains as sharp as the first time you experience it.”  (page 159 ARC)

The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas is a heart-wrenching debut novel, with a satisfying conclusion that will leave readers breathless.  Daniel, Simon, and their families’ experiences will weigh as heavily as the melancholy sounds underlying the music they play, but beyond that the music they play continues to touch the lives of even their most hated enemies and competition.

About the Author:

Julie Thomas is the New Zealand based author of The Keeper of Secrets published by William Morrow for HarperCollins USA.



This is my 82nd book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Christmas at the Beach by Wendy Wax

Source: Purchased for Amazon Kindle
E-Novella, 92 pages
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Christmas at the Beach by Wendy Wax is an e-novella that follows the talented women of Ten Beach Road and Ocean Beach (click for my reviews) — Madeline, Nicole, and Avery — told from the point of view of Madeline’s daughter, Kyra.  Kyra and her now one-year-old son Dustin are arriving at Ten Beach Road and Bella Flora under the close scrutiny of paparazzi.  She has little choice but to don a disguise to keep the photographers on their toes and protect her son as much as she can from Daniel Deranian’s fame and infidelity.

“The celebrity bar has dropped so low that if it were being set for a game of Limbo, that bar would be ankle-height.”

“A couple of weeks ago a crazed Daniel Deranian fan stole one of Dustin’s dirty diapers out of the trash and tried to sell it on eBay.”

Her time at Bella Flora was healing for her and her mother, as well as their new found friends who all found out they owned a piece of the rundown historic site.  Kyra is still struggling with her quasi-fame as the mother of an illegitimate Deranian child, but she still wants her own family to remain the same.  It’s unfortunate that her life plans have a way of changing on her, but she’s clearly poised to learn and grow from those changes.  Wax has created a cast of lovable characters with their own flaws, but these women are tough and ready to take on anything thrown in their way.

“What I really want is something built like a tank and with darkened windows, so that if I mow down a few photographers no one will see the satisfaction on my face,…”

Christmas at the Beach by Wendy Wax is a great novella to catch up with these women and a great set up for the next novel in the series, The House on Mermaid Point.  Kyra’s definitely got her plate full already, but when she learns what’s going on with her own family, she’s bound to feel overwhelmed.  Wax has set up readers for an eventful new novel that comes out in July 2014.

About the Author:

Award-winning author Wendy Wax has written eight novels, including Ocean Beach, Ten Beach Road, Magnolia Wednesdays, the Romance Writers of America RITA Award finalist The Accidental Bestseller, Leave It to Cleavage, Single in Suburbia and 7 Days and 7 Nights, which was honored with the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion Award. Her work has sold to publishers in ten countries and to the Rhapsody Book Club, and her novel, Hostile Makeover, was excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine.

A St. Pete Beach, Florida native, Wendy has lived in Atlanta for fifteen years. A voracious reader, her enjoyment of language and storytelling led her to study journalism at the University of Georgia. She also studied in Italy through Florida State University, is a graduate of the University of South Florida, and worked at WEDU-TV and WDAE-Radio in Tampa.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Source: Borrowed from Diary of an Eccentric
Paperback, 460 pages
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Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is a memoir about his young life and his coming of age.  The memoir does not gloss over the hardships he and his family face, nor does it leave out the bad things McCourt did as a child to survive.  It’s heartbreaking to see how a father can shun his responsibilities in favor of alcohol, while leaving his wife little recourse but to beg for charity on a weekly and daily basis just to feed her young children.  Angela, his mother, becomes a shadow of herself with the trials they face, especially as some of their youngest children perish from starvation and disease in America and even at home in Ireland.  Beginning in America, Angela meets a young man and falls in love, but he’s not the man she thinks he is and soon discovers that he is plagued by the need for drink.  Their hardships continue even as they are sent back to Ireland by relatives in the New World.

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all.  It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”  (page 9)

Living in a time when women were not allowed to work and when men were not expected to hand over their wages to their wives or to have their wives with them when they got paid — because his father takes the wages when he’s paid and eventually comes home with nothing — becomes a heavy burden on the family.  This leaves his wife to beg the grocer for credit so she can buy necessities for her family, and in Ireland it is worse because with a husband from the North, he’s unable to get a job in the first place.  Even when he does get a job, he often loses it by drinking late into the night and then sleeping in the next day.  These circumstances make it difficult for her and the family to stay healthy and even survive.

Although readers will be surprised at how long this family is able to survive in spite of the deaths and the starvation, they’ll also be surprised at the depth of their own loyalty and love for their father.  Rarely is anything said by the children about their father, though the mother surely speaks her mind about his penchant for the pint and his irresponsibility — to no avail.  McCourt pulls no punches about telling the darkest moments of his early life, including the beatings he took from teachers and family members.  There is still a sense of hope in him even in the most dire of circumstances.

Whether all of the things that happened in the memoir are fact or just his remembrances, there is clearly an atmosphere of struggle that has driven him to make the most of the circumstances he’s given.  He strives to do his best in school, to care for his family as best he can in the absence of his father, and to make something of himself in spite of all he must battle against.  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is dark and hopeless at times, but there is the light of humor and hope between the lines.  This is a memoir that reads more like a novel.

About the Author:

Frank McCourt (1930-2009) was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught in New York City high schools. His first book, “Angela’s Ashes,” won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Award. In 2006, he won the prestigious Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for Exemplary Service in the Field of the Arts and the United Federation of Teachers John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education.

This is my 4th and final book for the Ireland Reading Challenge 2013.

Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos

Source: Publisher Berkley Trade
Paperback, 368 pages
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Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos is a contemporary novel steeped heavily in the Austenite world, with Vanessa Roberts’ Aunt Ella one of the leaders of an American chapter of the Jane Austen society.  Vanessa is a social media genius and public relations expert, and as a favor to her aunt — with a bit of matchmaking in the background — she takes on the book tour and American media blitz tour of Mr. Darcy.  The man has stepped out of the pages of Pride & Prejudice, including the breeches and cravat, and he oozes British charm and politeness that’s hard to read, but Vanessa can’t help falling for the storybook fairytale.

“A fortune-teller with heavy makeup lasered in on Vanessa from across the lobby and came right up to her.  ‘I see foreign travel in your future.  It’s what you need, darling.'” (page 29)

Doornebos sets the scene of Vanessa’s world well, from her attachment to the virtual world as a safety blanket to protect her from the real world to the real-world life that comes crashing down around her.  While her relationship with her aunt is tight and endearing, her fallout with Lexi — her former best friend and business partner — is a bit mysterious, but once revealed seems like a deal-breaker for good until the friendship chemistry between the two becomes overpowering, even for the reader.  It’s clear that these two women are strong and will butt heads, but that they sincerely have their friend’s interests at heart.

Mixing the modern world with Austen’s world creates clashes and moments of nostalgia for written letters and face-to-face meetings. While the first half of the book is quick and engaging, once Vanessa hits the streets of Bath and London, the pace slows down as she takes in the sights of Austen’s home and goes on a scavenger hunt for the man of her dreams. Doornebos has created a commentary on the modern pace of life, while at the same time holding true to Austen’s outlook on matchmaking and romance. Things are not always as they seem in this world or in Austen’s.

Undressing Mr. Darcy by Karen Doornebos is full of romance, misdirection, secrets, and sexy men.  Doornebos surely knows what most women want these days in a love story — hot men with substance.  Vanessa is a strong woman who needs to learn how to be vulnerable, and she also needs to learn that being vulnerable doesn’t have to translate into being a lapdog or doormat.

About the Author:

Karen Doornebos is the author of UNDRESSING MR. DARCY published by Berkley, Penguin. Her first novel, DEFINITELY NOT MR. DARCY, has been published in three countries.

She lived and worked in London for a short time, but is now happy just being a lifelong member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and living in the Chicagoland area with her husband, two teenagers and various pets, including a bird.

A fun moment in the book for me is imagining the lecture Dr. Cornel West would give at a Jane Austen Society gathering.  If you think it’s an odd pairing, check out this video:

This is my 81st book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Charles M. Schulz

Source: It Books, Harper Collins
Hardcover, 192 pages
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A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Charles M. Schulz is an in-depth look at how the television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was conceived and made.  With the collaborative efforts of Charles M. Schulz, Lee Mendelson, and Bill Melendez, the cartoon special was put together in under four months from the green light to make it to the actual production film was screened.  It finally aired in December 1965, and for nearly 50 years, the special has been an American tradition in households across the United States.

“‘We realized that Charlie Brown’s voice had to be “blah”; Lucy’s had to be assertive and even crabby; Linus’s would have to combine intelligence with childlike simplicity, as he was someone who cherished his thumb and blanker,'” said Lee Mendelson. (Page 19)

Readers will love learning about what Schulz wanted to include in the special, and how he insisted that his characters be brought to life by children rather than adult actors acting like children.  Despite having felt that they’d accomplished what they set out to do with the special, they began to get nervous when the executives were less than enthusiastic about the final product and when the screening was met with silence and a handshake.  But once the review from the screener appeared in the newspaper, the team realized the special was more successful than expected.

“This sense of alienation, personified in Charlie Brown, is one of the deeply personal yet universally shared feelings that Charles Schulz infused into each of the Peanuts characters.  With simplicity and wit he pioneered new ground in comics with characters that reflect all the insecurity, anxiety, and joy of being human.” (page 37)

A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition by Charles M. Schulz is a unique look at the behind the scenes making of not only the special, but also of how Schulz created his characters and worked with others.  The book not only includes reflections from his partners on the project, but also some of the storyboards, the music sheets, and production notes, as well as the complete script for the special.

About the Cartoonist:

Charles M. Schulz, nicknamed Sparky, was an American cartoonist, best known for the comic strip Peanuts. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential cartoonists of all time, cited as a major influence by many later cartoonists.

Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees

Sources: It Books, HarperCollins
Hardcover, 368 pages
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Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees is an unauthorized biography of one of Led Zeppelin‘s front men — the one some called a golden god.  Beginning with his early years in grade school, Plant was not destined to be the straight arrow his father wanted him to be.  His antics started as a young adolescent stealing small instruments from well-known musicians that visited local clubs.  He was initially influenced by the sway of Elvis, miming his records on the sofa with a hairbrush for a microphone.  But Rees also provides a background on the region and its hardships, which shaped his father and his older family members.  The hardships the family faced also shaped their attitudes toward a young man finding his love of music and barreling headlong into it.

Rees prose is engaging, like an old friends talking to one another, and the smattering of quotes from friends and family about the events that shaped not only Plant, but also the band, make readers feel like their watching a documentary unfold.  And like most documentaries with producers close to the subject, some of the more sordid details of drug use and sex are muted — though a salacious tale about the band and its members has likely been done before and does not need to be repeated.  Rees has a greater focus on the music Plant created in a series of defunct bands, his poor luck with bands when he started out, and his wild success as the lead singer of Led Zeppelin.

“He had felt fear gnawing away at him.  The dread of how he might appear to all the thousands out there in the dark.  Here he was, a man in his sixtieth year, desiring to roll back time and recapture all the wonders of youth.  Did that, would that, make him seem a fool? In those long minutes with himself he had looking in the mirror and asked over and over if he really could be all that he had once been; if it were truly possible for him to take his voice back up to the peaks it had once scaled.  He had so many questions but no answers.” (page 1)

As a young husband, he’d made a pact with his bride that if he had not made it by his twentieth birthday in a successful band, he’d give it up to support his family.  It was just before he was set to find a real job that he was asked to join Jimmy Page to create Led Zeppelin.  Plant soon finds himself separating his personalities in two directions — the devoted family man and the consummate rock star.  Several tragedies and the weight of drugs and violence lead to the band’s demise and Plant’s moving onward — creating more music.

Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees leaves analysis of the personalities behind and merely relies on outside sources, interviews, and other insights from those who were there to give shape to a tumultuous time of a rock star.  But beyond that, the biography offers up a human look at a rock god, though one with a limited view.  Readers will feel like its rehashed and glosses over the real man in favor of critiquing the music.  It seems like his early beginnings in music, Plant’s career after Zeppelin was up and down, but he never seemed to lose his love of music.  Just wish there was more fresh research.

About the Author:

Paul Rees has written about music for more than twenty years. In that time he has interviewed everyone from Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna to Bono, Take That, and AC/DC. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Sunday Times Culture, the Telegraph, the Independent, and the Evening Standard. He was also editor of two of the UK’s most successful and long-standing music publications, Q and Kerrang!, for a total of twelve years.

This is my 80th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle

Source: William Morrow and TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 240 pages
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The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle is what could be considered a sequel Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but rather than focus on Elizabeth and Jane Bennet as the heroines, Mingle chooses the more pious and somewhat ridiculous sister Mary.  Mary Bennet has been the butt of the family’s jokes and jibes for much of her childhood, and for the most part Lydia and Kitty Bennet treat her in much the same way even though she is in her early twenties and has clearly changed.  Rather than sing to the detriment of society’s ears, she’s content with refining her pianoforte playing, leaving singing to others who are more gifted.  She once sat idly by and took the criticisms of her siblings and parents and held those resentments inside, but now she’s more inclined to speak her mind, while not being overly rude.  She’s a more matured woman, though still unsure of her feelings and her place in the family.

“I’d always believed I would remain a spinster.  I would disappoint as a wife.  I had not the easy compliance, the ability to defer to a husband, and worst of all, I lacked beauty, conduct, and, at times, even common sense.  But Jane said I had changed.  Truly, I valued her opinion above that of anyone else.”  (page 85)

Told from Mary’s point of view, readers are given an inside look into her growth as a young woman and a sister.  Rather than admonishing her sisters for their poor behavior aloud and in public, she’s taken to more tactful advice.  She’s a more well-rounded woman, though still naive when it comes to marriage, romance, and the bond between men and women.  While readers will enjoy this more evolved Mary and getting a glimpse into the lives of their favorite Bennets — Jane and Lizzy — the parallels between Lizzy and Darcy’s love story is reflected in Mary’s romance.  The close parallels from the quick prejudices and anger over easily explained moments lack an imagination one would expect, especially in this tale.  However, given Mary’s limited contact with men at Longbourn, it does stand to reason she would be unsure how to respond to male attentions.  Readers may have wanted a more inventive romance with trials different from those of Darcy and Lizzy.

The Pursuit of Mary Bennet by Pamela Mingle is a solid novel in the same vein as Austen’s work, and breathing life into the stern and bookish Mary is tough to pull off, but Mingle’s Mary is believable.  She’s a young woman of principle, and given her sisters’ love matches, it is no wonder that she would want to settle for nothing less.

About the Author:

Pamela Mingle is the author of Kissing Shakespeare, a time-travel romance for young adults set in Elizabethan England. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Pikes Peak Writers, Romance Writers of America, and the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Find out more about Pamela at her website, connect with her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter.

This is my 79th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 235 pages
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The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway is a truncated look at the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s that lasted about three years, though in this novel, it is reduced to about 30 days.  While the cellist is a real individual, Galloway has crafted him into a larger-than-life character, who signifies the hope that the people of Sarajevo cling to even in the face of dead bodies left to rot in the streets.  In addition to the cellist, who is more of an abstraction than a character with his own perspective, there is Arrow, a young, female sniper, Kenan, who has a wife and three children to care for, and Dragan, an older man who works at the local bakery.  Through alternating chapters, the fear and angst felt by these characters becomes heightened for the reader as they watch people fall to their knees after snipers shoot them or as the shelling begins and their own lives are at the mercy of chance.  The novel has a heavy atmosphere, a gray smoldering that permeates through the pages, weighing down the characters, slumping their shoulders and pushing them into darker places.

“If this city is to die, it won’t be because of the men on the hills, it will be because of the people in the valley.” (page 213)

Arrow has joined the resistance to fight against those that wish to destroy her people and the city, but while she’s been given free rein to choose her own military targets, things are about to change for her, and the hatred she feels for “them” — who are never clearly defined — becomes a motivator and a detriment to her.  Her character is pushed to the limit and she’s forced to make a decision that could be detrimental — a move that was rather dramatic and a bit predictable.  Kenan, meanwhile, is merely striving to keep his family alive, running to the brewery with his water containers to ensure they have enough to get through the next couple of weeks.  He makes these trips trembling in fear, but the fear only momentarily paralyzes him as he remembers the life before the siege and what life would be like without it.  He holds onto his daydreams of a family engrossed in its daily chores and entertainments, and keeps moving.  Dragan has been traveling to the bakery in solitude, rarely speaking to strangers and nearly always avoiding conversation with those he knew before the siege, cutting himself off.  Readers spend a great deal of time with him at an intersection where people are forced to take chances with their lives when they cross — some running, some sauntering, and some zigzagging across.

“‘Give Raza my love,’ she says, leaning in and hugging him.  She feels warm and substantial, much larger than when he hugged her only a short time ago.  She has become real to him again.” (page 115-6)

Galloway’s novel is about what it means to be in the midst of war, without understanding the reasons behind it, and yet, still facing the violence on a daily basis.  Readers will be required to ask themselves what is important, and to draw their own conclusions about why the cellist sits at 4 p.m. for 22 days to play Albinoni’s Adagio — the site of a mortar shelling where 22 people were killed while waiting in line for bread. Although lacking actual political/sociological motivations and the time line of the siege, Galloway seems to have a handle on the range of emotions and reactions people can have in war — whether it be a focus on hatred and revenge or the dissociation people can feel from their own country men in the face of uncertainty and death. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a novel in simple prose that belies the complexity of the moral and emotional issues it addresses.

About the Author:

Steven Galloway was born in Vancouver, and raised in Kamloops, British Columbia. He attended the University College of the Cariboo and the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Finnie Walsh, was nominated for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His second novel, Ascension, was nominated for the BC Book Prizes’ Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and has been translated into numerous languages. His third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, was published in spring of 2008. It was heralded as “the work of an expert” by the Guardian, and has become an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. Galloway has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

What the Book Club Thought:

Even though three members were unable to make the meeting, those that were able to attend seemed to like the novel, with one member saying that it was an easy and short read. Two members liked the POV of Arrow best, while one seemed to like both Arrow and Dragan and another preferred Kenan. One member believed that Kenan was the most human of the characters because of his interactions with other people throughout his travels to get water, while another thought that Dragan was more realistic in his detachment from others because of the harshness of war and the constant fear the residents endured. Arrow’s POV was more active, and one member enjoyed the use of strategy she employed in her efforts to protect the cellist. It seems as though this book was well received among the members in attendance.

This is my 78th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy

Source: Purchased Hooray for Books
Hardcover, 352 pages
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Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy is young adult novel that never speaks down to its reader as it asks questions about what it means to be a friend and what it means to be a neighbor and community member.  When tragedy strikes the fictional community of Franklin Grove in Meigs County, outside Washington, D.C., teen babysitter Danielle Snyder must cope with feelings of guilt and responsibility.  Her fear of speaking in public has haunted her long before the tragedy, but it is the loss of her friend, Humphrey, that causes her to speak out, to advocate on his behalf.  An unlikely friendship between a sophomore babysitter and a five-year-old boy blooms in the summer, but when it’s cut short, how does Danielle reconcile their unlikely connection and what has happened under her watch, especially when the small community is looking for someone to blame.

“I eat; the talk shifts to nothing in particular, which is good.  It’s as though we’re strangers sitting at the same table in one of those family-style restaurants.  We feel the need to make conversation, because that is what polite people do, but we are careful to keep the conversation safe.  Nothing to ignite sparks between Adrian and Mom.  Nothing to upset me.”  (page 4)

Her family life is not necessarily dysfunctional, but its not exactly serene when her brother Adrian is visiting after moving out.  And despite their inability to relate and emote without raising one another’s dander, the tragedy somehow brings them closer to reconciliation.  Shifting between the present after the tragedy and the past before the tragedy, Levy unfolds her story in an intricate way, allowing readers to see the whole complicated picture, even as Danielle begins to see it for the first time.  While her family dynamics play a role in the background, the real focus is on her relationship with Humphrey and the blame she lays at her own door for the tragedy.

“I rapped.  I crooned.  I rocked out.  Somehow dancing outdoors felt easier than in a school gym or hotel party room.  Plenty of space for my arms and legs.  I let myself lose control, and danced like crazy on the planet of Thrumble-Boo.

‘You look like a beautiful daddy longlegs!’ Humphrey said.”  (page 195)

Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy is about relationships that surprise us, about the illogical arguments of grief and assigning blame, but more than that, it’s about finding our way out of that grief to recognize the beauty in knowing and experiencing those relationships we may lose sooner than expected.  Levy’s characters are real, they’re the kids down the street searching for a sense of belonging, and they are burdened by the same emotions we all feel as adults.  It’s a highly emotional read that will leave a lasting impression.

About the Author:

Debbie Levy writes books — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — for people of all different ages, and especially for young people. Before starting her writing career, she was a newspaper editor; before that, she was a lawyer with a Washington, D.C. law firm.  She has a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan.  She lives in Maryland and spends as much time as she can kayaking and otherwise messing around in the Chesapeake Bay region.  Visit her Website, Facebook, and Twitter.

The Queen of Bad Decisions by Janel Gradowski

Source: Author Janel Gradowski
Kindle eBook, 43 pages
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The Queen of Bad Decisions by Janel Gradowski is a “cupcake” novellette, volume 2 in the Bartonville series.  Daisy is the protagonist in this prequel, which takes place before Must Love Sandwiches (volume 1 in the Bartonville series).  She’s just realized that her relationship with Gary is not and will never be what she expects it to be, especially when she’s paying half the rent, for all the food, and he stays out drinking all night.  Although her life is less than perfect, she still loves her bookstore job and her life is not as pathetic as her drunk brother’s.  Moving — even temporarily — back in with her parents, she realizes that her life is not as bad compared to some others.  But it takes a swift kick in the pants for her to change her own life.

“All of the useless utensils were in the kitchen drawer when she moved in with Gary.  Everything needed to be replaced.”

“She hadn’t just lowered her standards when she started dating Gary, she sucker punched her morals and left them to wallow in the mud.”

Daisy is an insecure young woman, still looking for her place and looking for the right man.  While her mother is supportive, her father is more of a go-getter — meaning get the kids out of the house ASAP.  Her boss, meanwhile, has kept her mouth shut, but once the floodgates open, there’s no stopping her helpful advice from flowing.  Gradowski creates characters that are three-dimensional, and her dialogue is always punchy and comical, without a single wasted word.  The Queen of Bad Decisions by Janel Gradowski is a short satisfying treat, and the only complaint from readers could be that they want more.  In case of Gradowski’s series, there will be more in store.

This series also includes bonus stories and recipes.

Check out my other reviews:

About the Author:

Janel Gradowski grew up, and still lives, in the mitten of Michigan. She is a wife and mother whose writing companion is a crazy Golden Retriever named Cooper. In the past she has worked many jobs. Renting apartments, scorekeeping for a stock car racetrack and selling newspaper classified advertisements are some of the experiences that continue to provide inspiration for her stories. Now she writes fiction and is also a beadwork designer and teacher. She enjoys cooking and is fueled by copious amounts of coffee.

Her work has appeared in many publications, both online and in print. She is the author of two series. Her first women’s fiction series is The Bartonville Series. Each volume contains stories ranging from flash to novella length. All of the stories are set in Michigan every volume contains accompanying recipes. The 6:1 Series features themed collections of her stories that are based on the title’s theme.  Connect with her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

Check out another part in the series, Ready or Not, published in serial format at JukePop.

Must Love Sandwiches by Janel Gradowski

Source: the author Janel Gradowski
Kindle ebook, 85 pages
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Must Love Sandwiches by Janel Gradowski is a “cake” sized novella and volume one in her Bartonville Series, which also includes not only recipes, but a couple of bonus stories.  Emma and Daisy live at the artist’s colony creating crafts sold in the gallery store, but their worlds are shaken by the presence of food trucks in the park, where most workers end up taking their lunch.  Emma, who makes fairy doors and jewelry, is shaken by a recent break up with a fellow artist, Max, and she decides that rather than follow the path of her mother, she’s swearing off men.  Wouldn’t you know it, that once she makes that decision, she meets Brad of The Sandwich Emporium.  Meanwhile, Daisy is wondering where to go with her creations that are selling at a slower rate, enlisting the innovative thoughts of her good friend, Emma.  She’s also crushing on another food truck foodie, Marshall of the Vegan Valhala, even though she loves bacon!

“Often her mind wandered as she created the miniature art, inventing a world inhabited by delicate fairies.  In that world everybody was happy and relationships never fell apart.”

To say that these women have commitment issues outside of their artistic passions is an understatement, but while Emma was shaped by her family history of dysfunction, it is unclear where Daisy’s self-esteem issues stem from, though it is clear she does not see herself as a beauty.  Gradowski has created not only realistic characters in these two women, but characters that feel like friends who need a shoulder to cry on and a kick in the pants sometimes.  Her situations are never far-fetched, and the only complaint could be that the story ends too soon, even though the ending is satisfactory.

“Chuck’s hair was always a crazy mess, whether he had just woken up or was going on a date.  His full beard was a thicket of ginger-kissed facial hair.  Emma wrinkled her nose.  ‘He kind of looks like a bear when he’s naked, too.’

‘Thanks for that visual.  I’m going to need a lot more alcohol to erase that image from my mind.'”

Must Love Sandwiches by Janel Gradowski is a mouth-watering tale that will have readers salivating for the recipes in these pages, but also for more romance.  There are some great twists in this novella, and readers will be eager to learn more about the craftiness of these women and their evolution into strong women in search of love.  The author is a fresh new voice in fiction worth reading.

***Having met Janel long ago on the Internet at Janel’s Jumble, her own craftiness — particularly with beads — shines through in this novel, and if you follow her blog, you’ll see that she often shares some of her flash fiction and recipes.

Check out my other reviews:

About the Author:

Janel Gradowski grew up, and still lives, in the mitten of Michigan. She is a wife and mother whose writing companion is a crazy Golden Retriever named Cooper. In the past she has worked many jobs. Renting apartments, scorekeeping for a stock car racetrack and selling newspaper classified advertisements are some of the experiences that continue to provide inspiration for her stories. Now she writes fiction and is also a beadwork designer and teacher. She enjoys cooking and is fueled by copious amounts of coffee.

Her work has appeared in many publications, both online and in print. She is the author of two series. Her first women’s fiction series is The Bartonville Series. Each volume contains stories ranging from flash to novella length. All of the stories are set in Michigan every volume contains accompanying recipes. The 6:1 Series features themed collections of her stories that are based on the title’s theme.

Always Watching by Chevy Stevens

Source: Novel Books
Paperback, 352 pages
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Always Watching by Chevy Stevens is well-paced, building the suspense and tension to a boil at the same time that it builds the characters, creating three-dimensional people — who in some cases are utterly terrifying.  Dr. Nadine Lavoie, whose appeared in Stevens’ Still Missing and Never Knowning as a therapist, is the protagonist, and as she searches the streets of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, for her drug-addicted daughter, finds memories of her childhood are even more frightening than she first thought.  For those who have read the previous books and were intrigued by the therapist, this has been a long-awaited novel.  In true form, Stevens has built a believable world from which the current Dr. Nadine Lavoie has come, and although she cannot remember her most defining moments from childhood, it is clear they have helped shaped her into the woman and doctor she is.

“At first, the pain of the cold and the humiliation is excruciating.  I think I’m going to scream from it, but then I focus on the sound of the river, a bead of rain dripping off a leaf, chanting my mantra in my mind, until I’m able to separate from the pain, aware of it, but distantly.” (page 231 ARC)

Heather Simeon, Lavoie’s suicidal patient at the hospital, is not just depressed about being unable to make her parents proud, but she’s also devastated by the loss of her miscarriage and terrified by the commune people who are harassing her and her husband, Daniel, and who always seem to be watching.  Her interactions with the good doctor stir up something in Lavoie that she’s suppressed for most of her adult life — a childhood spent in a 1960s commune with her mother and brother.  As the memories resurface, she has little choice but to seek out former members to confirm events and look for clues about her past.  But what she stirs up is a relative hornet’s nest that not only swarms her and her family, but also those around her.

Stevens’ novel is finely crafted, full of twists and turns.  And while there is some predictability in what happens, she maintains her focus on the psychological impact of those events, detailing gripping breakdowns and triumphant rebounds of strength.  Always Watching is a book that’s hard to put down, and what happens in those pages will not stay there — the events will likely haunt readers for some time afterward.

About the Author:

Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Vancouver Island and still calls the island home. For most of her adult life she worked in sales, first as a rep for a giftware company and then as a Realtor. At open houses, waiting between potential buyers, she spent hours scaring herself with thoughts of horrible things that could happen to her. Her most terrifying scenario, which began with being abducted, was the inspiration for STILL MISSING. After six months Chevy sold her house and left real estate so she could finish the book.

Chevy enjoys writing thrillers that allow her to blend her interest in family dynamics with her love of the west coast lifestyle. When she’s not working on her next book, she’s camping and canoeing with her husband and daughter in the local mountains.  Photo Credit: Poppy Photography