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Recommendation: The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries

by Nicola Kraus & Emma McLaughlin

“ ‘And he doesn’t care what you’re wearing or what you’ve brought him.

He just wants you there. Wanting him.

And time is running out. He won’t love you unconditionally that much longer.

And soon he won’t love you at all.’ ”

There are a few books in my expansive library that I deem “go-to’s,”

What I mean by that, is I can pick them up any time I need a break from life and quickly get lost in their world, if only for a few minutes. They are stories that I enjoy reading over and over and never really tire of; they have characters that I admire and can relate to, and they are easy to throw in my purse for those random moments of quiet that I experience while sitting at basketball practice or guitar lessons.

The Devil Wears Prada. Chances, by Jackie Collins. Pride and Prejudice.  Something Blue, by Emily Giffin.

And, The Nanny Diaries. All of these fit into my “go-to” category.

The Nanny Diaries chronicles a period of time in which Nanny, our main character, cares for the child of a rich and well-established upper class family in New York. With 4-year old Grayer almost  in her complete charge, Nanny certainly has her work cut out for her. Between a special diet that his mother deems appropriate (and one that does not include chicken nuggets or mac and cheese) and a social schedule that would leave the typical adult exhausted and overwhelmed, Nanny feels as if her feet never leave the ground. And the constant hustle and rigamarole of rules is only the tip of the iceberg; Grayer acts out and is a bit socially awkward, both as a result of his neglectful upbringing and his life of privilege.

It isn’t hard to see why the young boy behaves the way he does once the reader meets his parents; Mrs. X has no concept of compassion or affection and spends most of her days spending money or hibernating in her own space as she shuts out reality. Mr. X is a businessman who has no interest in his son or his wife, preferring the company of younger women, a fact that he does not try too hard to hide. In an effort to combat her lack of control in most areas of her life, Mrs. X is belittling and cruel to her staff, placing unrealistic expectations upon their overly laden shoulders and firing them on a whim. She chooses to focus on ways to quench her own need for personal power rather than trying to connect in any way with her son, unless of course, there is a photo-op involved. In fact, that only way that Mrs. X knows how to communicate with Grayer is with attempts at molding him into what she believes a perfect little boy should look and behave like. But instead of immersing herself in the grooming process herself, she simply delegates it all to an already flustered Nanny. It doesn’t take long for Nanny to feel as if she is in over her head, especially as the requests begin to get more extravagant and all the more strange.

” ‘I’m going to flick the light on, Grayer. Close your eyes.’ He turns his sweaty face into my neck. The light is blinding after being up for so long in the dark and I have to blink a few times before I can focus in on the gleaming silver of the faucet. I grip his body as I lean over to turn on the shower and then sit down, balancing on the edge of the tub with him on my lap. When the water hits our legs he really begins to cry.

‘I know, sweetie, I know. We are going to sit here until this wonderful steam makes your chest feel good. Do you want me to sing?’ He just leans against me and cries and coughs as the steam fills the bright tile around us.

‘ I . . . want . . . my mommmmmm.’

He shudders with the effort, seemingly unaware that I am here. My pajama pants soak in the warm water. I drop my head against his, rocking slowly. Tears of exhaustion and worry drip down my face and into his hair.

‘Oh, Grove, I know. I want my mom, too.’ 

Nanny takes the abuse from the Xes, especially as she needs the money and she sees how much Grayer needs her. A budding relationship with a hottie from Harvard who lives in the same building as the Xes helps to reinforce Nanny’s desire to keep her job. As the story progresses, Nanny begins to believe that she is the only true source of light and love in Grayer’s life, and this proves true; she is his only sense of stability in a world wrought with chaos. In crucial years where Grayer should be cuddled and adored, he is ignored and chastised, causing him to run to his Nanny more often than not. Eventually this circular pattern of abuse from his mother, perpetual distance from his father, and acute affection from his nanny leads Grayer to view Nanny as more than just a caretaker — he begins to see her as a true mother figure.

Unfortunately for Grayer, this bond does nothing but further enrage Mrs. X and makes her spin out of control, causing her to fire Nanny without allowing her to say goodbye to the young child, devastating them both and causing irreparable damage. As a final farewell, Nanny uses a Nanny-Cam to leave a message for the dysfunctional Xes.  Beseeching them on behalf of their son, she pleads a case for Grayer and his need for love and tenderness throughout the rest of his formative years. The effects of the tape and of Nanny’s sudden departure will have a lasting effect on all parties involved, although perhaps not as she had initially intended.

” ‘Frankly, Nanny, I just don’t feel that your heart’s in it anymore and I think Grayer can sense that, too. We need someone who can give Grayer their full commitment, don’t you agree? I mean, for the money we’re paying you, with the new baby coming, we should  really have someone more professional.’ She stands. ‘I’ll give you a hand, so you don’t wake Grayer.’

She follows me toward the stairs. I walk up ahead of her, frantically running through scenarios that might give me a chance to say good-bye to him. She comes behind me into the small room and stands between our beds with crossed arms, watching me carefully as I hastily stuff my things into my bag, awkwardly moving around her in the cramped space. 

Grayer moans in his sleep and rolls over. I ache to wake him. 

I finish collecting my things in her shadow and sling my bag up over my shoulder, mesmerized by the sight of Grover’s hand in a tight fist flopped over the side of the bed, the Batman Band-Aid sticking out beneath his pushed-up pajama sleeve. 

She gestures for me to walk past her to the door. Before I can help it, I reach out to smooth the damp hair off his forehead. She grabs my hand an inch from his face and whispers through clenched teeth, ‘Better not to wake him.’ She maneuvers me to the stairs. 

As I start down ahead of her my eyes fill with tears, causing the stairs to pitch beneath me and I have to grip the banister to steady myself. ‘

The Nanny Diaries is followed up by the sequel, Nanny Returns, which I did not like nearly as well as I liked this first installment. In fact, I do not recommend Nanny Returns at all, as I feel that it was a vanity book published solely to capitalize on the popularity of The Nanny Diaries. A movie was also made featuring Scarlett Johansson as Nanny, and it’s okay, but of course not nearly as good as the book.

I loved all of the little tidbits of humor in The Nanny Diaries and appreciated the behind-the-veil look at the life of a New York nanny to a wealthy family. Becoming attached to the child in your care is something that I’m sure is very easy to do considering the amount of time that full-time nannies spend with their charges, and when those children grow up or other circumstances change and the bond must be severed, I can only imagine how difficult it can be to move on to another family and begin the process all over again. As a mother myself I have no idea how to set boundaries on love for the children in my care, and I can see how attached Grayer must have gotten to Nanny, and how it must have truly injured his heart to have her ripped so thoughtlessly from him after all she provided for him.

I give The Nanny Diaries 4.5 out of 5 stars and while I understand that it is not critically acclaimed, I also appreciate that not all books have to be, to be considered good reads. While I definitely enjoy epic novels that take me weeks to get through, I also like fun and easy books that keep me turning the page; The Nanny Diaries is certainly a book that fits into that category. I recommend that a few tissues are kept handy for the ending.

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Review: Black Sand

Black Sand

by John Edgar Evans

It’s 1973 and in the sleepy, close-knit English community where Detective Chief Inspector Edgar Sparrow makes his living, he spends more time behind a desk smoking his pipe than he does on the beat. The small station that houses the handful of detectives that serve and protect the town isn’t used to too much activity, and although they would enjoy a mystery or two to solve every now and then, the policemen are grateful for the general sense of safety and security in their area.

After the turn of the New Year, things begin to change as a nefarious and sinister shape starts to take form, bringing with it a cloud of fear that takes root amongst the snow and drizzling rain January has to offer. An innocent young girl walking her dog discovers a man murdered and reports it to the police, and when Detective Sparrow and his unit arrive, they are baffled by the circumstances — the poor man has been murdered not once, not twice, but three times. Shot, stabbed, and strangled, the man has been left abandoned in his car for any unlucky passerby to find. Who on Earth would need to kill someone three times? And why were they left out in the open, as it were?

” ‘Huh, doesn’t look like a robbery — the wristwatch looks expensive and hi wallet is here. A couple of sovereigns, some half crowns, some pennies and photos, and ah, an envelope with a name and address.’

Holding the items carefully by their edges so as not to compromise any residual fingerprints, he handed the envelope and photos to Willis. In truth, Sparrow needed glasses for small print but was avoiding the issue, telling his wive, Eve, that at fifty two he wasn’t an old man yet and didn’t need glasses.

Willis held the items equally carefully. ‘They look like picture of his wife, and children. They’re only toddlers, too. The envelope is addressed to Gordon James, Ellingham’s, Buryfield.’

‘Ellingham’s The department store at the bottom of St. John’s Hill?’ Nichols asked.

‘Yeah, must be the place, perhaps he works there,’ Willis replied. 

‘Anything interesting inside?’ Nichols enquired. 

Willis pulled out a one-page piece of writing paper. ‘Well, well, this is interesting, take a look at this, boss.’ 

Sparrow left off from his car searching and turned to Willis and Nichols. Sparrow peered at the sheet of paper upon which letters cut from various magazines and newspapers had been pasted.

It read, ‘Talk and you die.’ “

Inside the smoke-filled offices of the police station, Detective Sparrow and his two inspectors, Willis and Nichols, begin the task of tackling a lengthy and convoluted puzzle. Trying to fit the mismatched pieces together is proving more and more difficult, especially when a second murder occurs not long after the first, perpetuating the fear around town and bringing more stress on the inspector’s shoulders. The two victims have a couple of things in common besides the strange manner of death — they both used to work for the prominent and high-end department store called Ellinghams, owned by an old aristocratic family tainted by a dark past. Both victims were also found with trace amounts of a strange black sand in their pockets and under their fingernails; sand that doesn’t come from anywhere near their part of England. Interviews with the shop’s staff are proving fruitless and the store manager Mrs. Scrivens is being more than a little difficult, forcing Detective Sparrow to send his newest recruit, young and eager Diana Evans, in undercover.

” Diana looked at the clock; it was coming up to four. The Ladies’ Wear department was empty, the appalling weather was affecting everything. People were staying indoors well out of it, and it was already winter dark outside. Unfortunately for Diana, Scrivens had been in her office virtually all day. Certainly not away from it long enough for her to get at the warehouse key. But Diana had been honing her plan and decided that getting the key from Scriven’s office would be difficult, getting it back equally so. If she did manage to get it out she wouldn’t be able to keep it for any length of time in case its loss was discovered. It was while she pondered the problem she had a flash of inspiration. “

Alice is the only daughter of Margery Ellingham, and they live together in a tidy and impressive home tucked snugly onto one of the town’s more prominent streets. Margery is one of the three siblings left in charge of the Ellingham shop and fortune since their parent’s deaths, and takes the concept of showing her money around seriously. Living with her cruel and cold mother has left Alice embittered and anxious, and with the detectives now sniffing around the property, Alice finds herself sharply intrigued and strangely happy that something has finally come to cut into the endless lengths of boredom her life has become since the end of her marriage. Her uncle Timothy is showing up around the house a lot more than he used to, and frequent phone calls coming in from her Uncle Ralph in Egypt are becoming the norm as well. Could her mother be involved in something so deviant as the murders of the shop’s staff, or is it all a terrible coincidence?

The detectives can’t seem to gain any ground in the murder case and as it happens, a string of burglaries are thrown onto their docket as well. Pressure from the media and the Superintendent to solve the string of mysterious crimes around the town is reaching an all-time high and Chief Inspector Sparrow is growing desperate. With only a few days left to solve the case, will he finally be able to crack it?

Black Sand is the first attempt at crime writing by John Edgar Evans.  I would have loved to have enjoyed it more, but the bouncing back and forth between perspectives proved a little confusing and I was dying for more character development, as I found each of the characters very interesting. My impression of Edgar Sparrow was one of a patriarchal mentor shaped in the images of an older Sherlock Holmes and Columbo. He was more of a mentor than a super sleuth, and I respected and admired his attempts at backing away from situations and allowing and encouraging his younger partners to jump in and try their hand. His three pups-in-training were all competent and interesting — I just wish there was more of them. I was intrigued by the character of Alice, cooped up as she was and virtually held prisoner by her mother, but there wasn’t enough character development for me to understand quite where her feelings for Sparrow were coming from. As the novel left off with a cliffhanger, I am assuming there is more to come featuring this cast of a motley crew, and I will be ready to read more when the time comes.

I believe the author had too many ideas and tried to shove them all into one book, leaving things a bit muddled. The pace was a tad slower than I am used to from American crime-writing authors such as Patricia Cornwell and James Patterson. Evans’ approach was a bit different and instead of moving quickly through solving the mystery, the team’s plans and strategies seemed a bit more realistic. They didn’t come across their information easily and at times, I felt as if I were sitting in the smoke-filled offices with them, struggling to figure things out and decide which avenue to take next. I was pleased with the writer’s take on words, but the sometimes very sharp back-and-forth took me some time to adjust to.

Black Sand is a slow-burning mystery that readers will be able to figure out sooner than the detectives will, but the characters will draw readers in and have them rooting for them. 3.5 out of 5 stars is my rating, and I recommend it to lovers of the residents at 221 Baker Street, or anyone looking for something to curl up with on a rainy day.

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Recommendation: The Carrie Diaries

The Carrie Diaries

by Candace Bushnell

“ In life, there are only four kinds of girls:
The girl who played with fire.
The girl who opened Pandora’s Box.
The girl who gave Adam the apple.
And the girl whose best friend stole her boyfriend. ”

As a diehard fan of the HBO series Sex and the City (btw, I’m a Charlotte!) I was skeptical when writer Candace Bushnell decided to grace Carrie aficionados with a prequel. If you’ve ever tried to sit down and read the Sex and the City novel that the television series was loosely (and I mean loosely) based upon, you may have found it difficult to navigate and a bit thick in the middle. I’ve never been able to make my way through it in its entirety. Bushnell, the blonde bombshell behind some of television’s most beloved women characters is a New Yorker herself; her columns at The New York Observer magazine paved the way for her creative footsteps to stomp all the way to the bank in Christian Louboutin stilettos as she transformed her column into a itinerary for piloting your way through the City’s dating scene. While the characters of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte, and of course, Mr. Big, are pure fiction, it’s not hard to see the similarities between the trendy literary protagonist and the smartly-clad woman who penned her.

I picked up The Carrie Diaries soon after it was first published, deciding to give it and the writer another try. Carrie Bradshaw is a woman that nearly every female in America can relate to — she’d rather store sweaters in her oven than ever actually cook, she will always find an excuse to have a cocktail with a girlfriend, and she can be terribly insecure when it comes to men and relationships. I’d always been curious as to how the Carrie that we saw in the Sex and the City series came to be, and so the prequel in print piqued my interest.

Fresh-faced highschooler Carrie Bradshaw only cares about a few things: her best friends (thick and thin, right?), writing (even though she just got rejected by the writing program she was dying to get into), and besting that insufferable “popular girl,” Donna LaDonna. But for Carrie, the perky little blonde in a sea full of Amazons, life is a balancing act. She is desperately trying to maintain her deep friendships with her besties as they muddle through life as teenagers, dealing with losses of virginity, glaring unpopularity, and sexuality confusion, and she’s attempting to set herself up with a writing career but can’t seem to get her footing under her. Things at home are strained and uneasy; she’s the oldest of three girls and all three are coping with the death of their mother, while her father can’t seem to sort out his own grief and provide the support Carrie so desperately needs. She feels as if she doesn’t end up fitting into the perfect box that everyone has set up for her, that she’ll be failing everyone. And the arrival of a boy from her past, the smart and perfect Sebastian Kydd, doesn’t help matters. Carrie finds that the crush she had on him at 12-years old is still going strong from the moment he first saunters into the high school cafeteria.

” I can barely breathe. Me — and Sebastian Kydd. It’s really happening. 

After a while, he raises his head and looks at me. He’s so close I can see the tiny flecks of dark green around his irises. He’s so close I could count them if I tried. 

‘Hey,’ he says. ‘You never asked why I didn’t call.’

‘Was I supposed to?’

‘Most girls would have.’

‘Maybe I’m not most girls.’ This sounds kind of arrogant but I’m certainly not going to tell him how I spent the last two weeks in an emotional panic, jumping every time the phone rang, giving him sidelong glances in class, promising myself I would never, ever do any bad thing ever again if he would only talk to me the way he had that night at the barn. . . and then hating myself for being so stupid and girlish about the whole thing.”

Her rivalry with popular princess Donna LaDonna is ongoing and obnoxious, and as Carrie and Sebastian grow closer, weird pranks keep happening and Carrie is sure Donna is behind them —  she’s sure Donna is wrought with typical high-school-girl jealousy and is trying to bring Carrie down. Despite warnings that all may not be as they seem with the attractive and alluring Sebastian, Carrie continues to plough on ahead with their relationship. She struggles to hold on to her virginity, wondering why she is practically the last of the people she knows to still be in possession of hers, and as the relationship between she and Sebastian heats up, it’s definitely hard to maintain her innocence. Putting herself first is not easy, but Carrie has goals and aspirations to get herself out of the little town she’s grown up in, and she can’t let a boy hold her back — no matter how good he looks in blue jeans.

Leaning on her friends has always been something Carrie has depended on, but unfortunately for her, she has to learn the hard way that sometimes even those who seem closest to you can deceive you. In fact, it’s those closest to your heart who can do the most damage. Carrie learns that Sebastian and one of her best friends, Lali, are having an affair behind her back, and Carrie takes her feelings of anger and heartache and pushes them into her writing, churning out anonymous articles for the school paper that reflect her emotions. The articles are well-received and afford Carrie the confidence to try again at getting into the writing program of her dreams. Twisting betrayal into a chance of a lifetime, Carrie teams up with someone unexpected and begins to walk into her new life. . . in high heels.

” I have this theory: If you forgive someone, they can’t hurt you anymore.

The rain rattles and shakes. We pass hollow buildings scrawled with graffiti, billboards advertising toothpaste and hemorrhoid cream and a smiling girl in a mermaid outfit pointing at the words, “CALL ME!” in capital letters. Then the scenery disappears and we’re going through a tunnel. 

‘New York City,’ the conductor calls out. ‘Penn Station.’

I close my journal and slip it into my suitcase. The lights inside the car flicker on and off, on and off, and then black out altogether. 

And like a newborn cild, I enter my future in darkness. “

The Carrie Diaries is a YA geared book that is best left for readers ages 15 and up, as it deals with teenage sex and sexual choices. I commend Bushnell for her addition of a sexually confused young man, Walt, who is one of Carrie’s inner circle. Walt is gay and uses his girlfriend to cover his true nature up, fearful of rejection from his parents and general society. The entire plot revolving around Walt and his choices is brave and truth-telling, and very relevant to the time period of the novel. Readers will get a surprise at the end of the book, as Carrie jets off to meet one of the women who will end up being a co-star in her future life in New York City, sharing pink cocktails on rooftops and gossiping about men. Fans of Carrie Bradshaw’s older character will appreciate her witty internal musings as a teenager in The Carrie Diaries, and will see how her core belief system about men and friendships began.

I give The Carrie Diaries 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it to any lover of Sex and the City. Readers can also enjoy the sequel, Summer in the City; things pick up directly after Carrie leaves home to begin her writing career in the Big Apple. Both of these are perfect for a summer day spent poolside or at the beach. And if readers are so inclined, they can find both seasons of The Carrie Diaries adapted television show on Netflix.

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Review: Brickbats And Tutus

Brickbats and Tutus

by John Plimmer

” To be born to dance is true. It’s a condition. It’s in the cells; the tissues and in the essence of who you are.

Selfishness then becomes selflessness. “

There are very few people who are born with the type of natural musicality and rhythm that ballet requires. Those that are born with the talent often cannot endure the rigorous rehearsal schedules, the unmitigated discipline, nor the forever battered and bloody feet that are all part of ballet’s territory. There are even fewer who are willing to sacrifice relationships, having children, and sometimes even their own health to devote themselves to this special craft of dance that only a select few can survive and thrive in.

For Julie Felix, she had the talent — and an abundance of it. She had the fervent want and intense desire. She had the heart and she could withstand the pain with nothing more than a quiet wince. Julie was quite all right not having romantic entanglements because, if she was being honest, no love of a man could compete with the love she had for the ballet. She had every characteristic required of a prima ballerina.

But while Julie possessed everything critical to the making of a principal dancer, she had one thing working against her that she had absolutely no control over — the color of her skin. Born to a black father and a white mother, Julie was of mixed race and a rarity in the world of classical ballet during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Schools shut their doors in her faces, companies refused to give her work, and teachers turned their backs on her. Unfairly and unjustly, it did not matter her talents or accolades within the small dancing world; all that mattered was that she could not be a black swan in a sea of white ones.

” Julie didn’t have to wait long after returning the necessary documents and an invitation for an audition quickly landed on the floor of her parents’ hallway. Of course she was pleased with the result of her plan thus far, but some of those earlier doubts were still there, hiding the black faceless carrion crows in the depths of her mind, armed with only bad news. She became convinced the photographs of the ballet poses she had sent to Rambert with her application form, had been responsible for getting her the audition, which they had. But Julie believed the reason they had made their mark was only because, in the colorless snaps, she had resembled a white girl. “

In 2015, the beautifully graceful and incredibly elegant and staggeringly beautiful Misty Copeland made headlines across the nation when she was named as American Ballet Theatre’s first African American principal dancer in their 75 year history. Since her promotion to the most coveted spot held in any reputable dance company, Copeland has gone to be named a “most influential person” by Time Magazine, has written two successful books of her own, and has been a part of a documentary entitled “A Ballerina’s Tale”, which chronicles the working lives of several prominent black ballet dancers. One of the dancers featured in the documentary, Arthur Mitchell, was not only the first African American ballet dancer in a major ballet company, he was also the first principal dancer of color (in 1956, via the New York City Ballet). Mitchell eventually opened his own company, the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem, where Julie Felix would eventually find her dancing home.

But before she danced to an audience of people like King of Pop Michael Jackson, 80’s icon Prince, or the President of the United States and his First Lady, Julie was a young girl living in meager means in Ealing, West London, in England. At the tender age of 7, Julie was introduced to dance and was told she possessed a rare talent; the kind words laced with promises of how far she could go on her pointed toes. But as Julie was turned down by dance schools and eventually having to turn down a few in turn due to the lack of funds her family had, she became discouraged. Fortunately for her, her skill on the dance floor paired with tenacity and a scholarship landed her a place in the Rambert Ballet School, where she would spend several years carefully honing her craft on tiptoe.

” ‘What do you think you’re doing, English girl, your legs are too low, not turning out enough,’ and so on. 

The criticisms never seemed to stop throughout her dance executions, but this was the new sustained Julie and she knew he was testing her, expecting her to evaporate beneath his throw away insults. Each time he spoke in the negative, Julie gave some more, she won every battle by showing Arthur Mitchell she did have what it takes and some more. This was a donkey ride at a seaside compared with what she’d been through. If only her father had been there to witness first-hand the level of resolve his youngest daughter possessed. The fire in those black eyes, thanks to Dame Beryl Gray, hadn’t left her, adding pulsating drama to the dancer’s story, leaving the other members of the company watching, flabbergasted and teased into the desire to see more.

The class finally came to an end and applause filled the studio, Julie never heard anything except her own frantic breathing, having given her all to that one performance, that one class. ” 

Her biggest and brightest dream was to dance onstage as part of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, where the masters of her chosen passion awed their audience and took their bows to sold-out seats. But for Julie, she wasn’t sure this would ever become a reality, as there had never before been a black dancer for the most revered company in England. After trying to apply for several jobs in her home country, Julie took a chance and a job with the famed Arthur Mitchell and his dance troupe, all the way across The Pond in the heart of Harlem, New York. She left behind her mother and father, a sister and a casual boyfriend, packing her life into a suitcase and struggling to make her way around a city larger than life. Julie saw things she never thought she’d ever witness — a man gunned down in the streets before her, a stranger holding on for dear life to a window ledge as their apartment was engulfed in flames before them, a blizzard that shut down a city, and a city-wide blackout that resulted in riots and theft.

But at Dance Theatre of Harlem, Julie “The English Girl” was taken under Arthur Mitchell’s cantankerous wing and pressed to push harder and work longer. He rewarded her passionate and tireless perseverance by allowing her to naturally progress within the company, and she did her best to never let him down. As a member of his team, Julie traveled the world and saw war zones in Israel with her own eyes, felt earthquakes in California with her own two feet, and felt the stab of a production being shut down by rallying KKK members with every facet of her heart. For Julie, DTH gave her a home away from home and allowed her to grow as a dancer, but her heart always remained in England. Luckily for Julie, she eventually had a chance to go back home and grace the very stage that captured her spirit as a young girl.

” She stood alone on one of the biggest stages in the world, her back as straight as a rod with her head held high, in a phoenix like posture Her shiny shoulder length black hair reflected the subdued light sprinkling down from the overheads, resembling moonlight serenading the black Caspian Sea. The house lights in the auditorium were up, but the silence strangely portrayed a void which can only be experienced in an empty theatre. At that moment, her only companions were those of tingling nerve ends, apprehension, hopes and dreams, most of which had followed her throughout her young career. The young lady’s large glistening black eyes feasted on the fascinating grandeur of the huge theatre’s layers of balconies, stretching from ceiling to floor, supporting red and gold trimmed cushioned seats. The whole scene reminded her of a large multi-tiered birthday cake and she wondered whether all of its four thousand seats would be filled for that night’s Gala Performance. “

Brickbats and Tutus is a very easy and engaging novel by British author, John Plimmer. A departure from his previous career in police investigations and security consultations, the multi-faceted writer captured a glimpse into what it was like for a young black dancer struggling to find her place among the white swans in an era that was racially unjust and complicated. Readers ages 13 and up will enjoy gliding and leaping through the years with Julie Felix as she makes a journey led by her heart and spirit.

I give the novel 4.5 out of 5 stars and encourage readers of all backgrounds to check this book out. I was fascinated by everything Julie saw and went through as she met goal after goal. She lived her professional life as a dancer in a time where things were certainly not easy, but there was always a shimmer of magic on the outskirts of things. Her persistence and determination is awe-inspiring and admirable, and my only regret about this novel is that it ended without telling us what became of Julie in her years after her dancing career ended. I would have loved to have learned more about the years after dance, with her husband Joe, and if she ever got that family of her own that she wanted.

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Recommendation: The Flame And The Flower

The Flame and the Flower

by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

“I have no intention of spending the night in a chair and leaving you the bed.”

Credited as being the first “bodice-ripping romance novel” and a modern historical romance, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower revolutionized a genre and in doing so, became an instant classic. Since it’s publication in 1972, the debut novel from a strong-minded military wife has sold millions of copies, declaring Woodiwiss as a true legend. The book was the first of its kind, featuring actual sex scenes between a helpless heroine in distress and her handsome hero, garnering interest in a time where the feminine movement was gaining speed and strength. Pushing through the censoring stigma of sex in print and bravely crossing boundaries, Woodiwiss presented a plot-driven novel that has sustained the test of time.

After murdering a deviant man intent upon raping her, Heather Simmons flees toward the docks and away from the scene of her crime. In her agitated and disheveled state, Heather is terribly mistaken for a prostitute and dragged onboard a ship where she is subsequently raped by its captain, Brandon Birmingham, who believes her to be a woman-of-the-night. When the act has reached its completion and he discovers her virtue to have previously been intact, Brandon inquires into the mysterious and beautiful lady’s story and learns of her situation. A bit dismayed by his actions, Brandon offers Heather a standing as his mistress in exchange for her silence, but ends up insulted when she refuses. Heather is able to escape from the ship soon afterwards and races back to her home, attempting to put the terrible incidents behind her.

But when Heather realizes that the act of rape has left her pregnant by the handsome but imposing Captain she ran away from, Heather is terrified. After her aunt discovers the secret buried in her womb, a plan is hatched against her will. Her uncle tracks the roguish Birmingham down and Heather’s cruel aunt insists upon a scheme to have the two married, much to Heather’s outrage. She wants nothing to do with the devil who hurt her, but the choice is not hers to make. Heather and Brandon are soon married and begin a sea journey to the colonies, where they are to make their new life together at Brandon’s home in North Carolina.

” The days grew into weeks and after making their turn at Grand Banks the weather began to warm as their sailed further south with the strong northerly breezes behind them hastening their journey. Under the ever warming sun the natural color returned to Heather’s cheeks and all signs of illness faded away. She bloomed more beautiful than any flower, and to look at her one could surmise motherhood definitely agreed with her. Whenever she was about on quarter-deck, close under Brandon’s hand, every man’s eyes were drawn to her at one time or another, and with the wind whipping her cloak about her and teasing a stray lock of hair she was something to behold. But never was there anything said nor done to suggest they thought of her as anything but the finest of ladies, and her delicate condition brought about many helping hands when she climbed to the quarter-deck. “

While the sins of their pasts begin to wreak havoc upon their newborn lives, Heather and Brandon become immersed in a dance of misunderstandings and simmering tension laced with passion and attraction. The women from Brandon’s former life as a single and eligible bachelor are ever present and their snide, simpering ways and remarks are a plague upon Heather’s attempts at carving out a home in a foreign land. As her belly grows with a healthy child, as do the feelings between the married couple, and a true romance between them eventually begins to play out.

” Though most of his time was consumed at the mill what spare moments he had he spent with his wife and son. He rose early in the mornings, yet found Heather up and tending the babe, either bathing him or giving him his morning nourishment. Enjoying both sights it became part of the rote for him to join her there before his day’s work began. A new, stronger yet unspoken bond began to build between them in those quiet morning moments they spent together with their son. “

Unfortunately for the couple,  their newfound amiability and amorous relationship is soon clouded by accusations of murder, revelations of immorality and dedicated character assassination. Heather and Brandon must fight together to protect their bond and their family, and in doing so, further strengthen the ties that bind them. . .a London girl to her brave Captain.

Readers who enjoy a classic and historical romance are sure to enjoy the trailblazer of this genre, and I give The Flame and the Flower a solid four out of five stars. It should not be compared to the steamy novels of today, but instead, appreciated for it’s bravery and honesty as a groundbreaking romance catering to subject matter that is otherwise not flattering. Woodiwiss went on to write 11 more bestselling romance novels, two of which are sequels to The Flame and the Flower and surround other characters (The Elusive Flame and A Season Beyond a Kiss). Readers can also find two novellas (The Kiss and Beyond the Kiss) to round out their Birmingham Saga series.

Kathleen Woodiwiss helped make the romance market what it is today and as such, should be celebrated and revered. In a genre where paperback romances can become nothing more than throwaways, The Flame and the Flower has survived and is still a valid and relevant novel for any romance reader to add to their collection.

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Review: The Endless Autumn

The Endless Autumn

by Annabelle Knight

” Either way, it didn’t matter to her anymore, she felt a new lease of life burn inside her; a thirst for excitement swelled within as she contemplated all the possibilities that lay before her. “

To the outside world Autumn has everything: she’s a cheerful little blonde with a stud of a boyfriend (who, after pounding of the pavement as an aspiring actor, is now enjoying the fruits of his labor as a regular on a popular television series), she has a cushy job as an administrator with a successful agency while working for an understanding boss, she can lay claim to several loyal and fabulous friends, and she has the most supportive parents in the world.

Except, that’s all on the outside. If truth be told, it’s all a facade. On the inside, Autumn is insecure and left wanting. She harbors dreams of becoming a respected journalist but can’t seem to make her way steadily through the intricate and difficult coursework required. She can’t afford to jet off on expensive and exciting holidays like her best friend David, nor is she impressively put-together and full of the flawless beauty of her other friend and colleague, Rosa. Her job is actually a combination of frightfully boring afternoons peppered with staggeringly overwhelming tasks, and her boss is a bit strange. And her boyfriend, while seriously good looking, never seems to have any time for her.

She’s in a rut and it’s beginning to take its toll. She’s becoming snappy and surly, projecting her insecurities upon everyone around her and acting out in childish ways. If you look for something hard enough, you can almost always find it; so when she finds a text on her boyfriend’s mobile phone. . . a succinct “Are you alone?” that comes through at an unGodly hour from a private number, she immediately is put on the defensive. Surprised to find that she can’t see any other correspondence because it appears Ben has put a lock on his phone, Autumn lets her imagination get the better of her. Troubled and off-put, Autumn tries to find solace in her friends and her normally supportive parents, but she finds brick walls instead.

After further and insistent investigation, Autumn puts together evidence that points not only to Ben cheating on her, but also that his salacious and underhanded extracurricular activities involve one of her closest friends, Rosa. She can’t believe they’ve been carrying on behind her back, all while she’s been confiding in Rosa and asking for advice. So while Ben and her friend are meeting in what they believe to be secret, Autumn takes the opportunity to pack her bags and head to her parents house, seeking solace and sympathy — and putting a firm end to the chapter of her life that included Ben.

” She had mourned the loss of her romantic relationship and the loss of her friend. But as the people she loved most in the world rallied around her offering her the unconditional love and support, she began to realise that her world neither bean nor ended with Ben Wood or Rosa Dawson. Her world as it stood now was only just beginning. This prospect excited Autumn, albeit with a little apprehension. She could do anything and she could go anywhere. She realised with relish that she could be anything she wanted to be and in any capacity. She still wanted to be a writer, but why stop at women’s magazines? Why not the only women’s magazine she cared about, Wow magazine, wasn’t a complete pipe dream, was it? Maybe she’d get a job on The Edge and write Ben a lovely, painful, long-winded death. She had chuckled at this thought, liking the idea immediately but knowing that in her heart of hearts scriptwriting was not what she wanted to do. She was no longer restricted by the cosy little lifestyle she had created with Ben, or what that just an illusion as well?  “

It doesn’t take long for Sarah and Richard to begin tiring of their daughter’s mopey and increasingly self-destructive ways.  After she’s fired from her job and becomes seriously tight-lipped about how she’s now making monetary ends meet, Autumn’s parents become even more concerned. They are alarmed with the amount of alcohol Autumn is imbibing, her lack of interest in anyone but herself, and her strange predilection for bizarre catastrophes (including, but not limited to, the sketchy circumstances surrounding her ex-friend’s fall down a flight of stairs). What they don’t know is that while she’s been staying out all night and sleeping all day, Autumn has become wrapped up in a membership club that caters to the sexual fantasies of the nauseatingly rich and famous, and that Autumn is not only working for the owner, but she’s also participating as one of the delectable “courses” that the clients can bid on to fulfill their carnal desires.

But again, Autumn is dismayed to find that the glamorous position she’s taken may look appealing to outsiders but that the reality is, she’s being taken advantage of and is in a situation that seems impossible to get herself out of. To make matters worse, she discovers that she may have blown up her perfectly happy life and irreparably severed relationships for nothing, and she is sinking deeper and deeper into a hole she’s not quite sure she will ever find her way out of. Can Autumn figure out a way to reclaim her life and do it on terms that won’t force her to further compromise her integrity, or will she be stuck in this miserable situation forever?

The Endless Autumn is the debut novel from relationship and sex expert,  the Bardot-esque Annabelle Knight. The British blonde bombshell has certainly called upon her competence in the complicated arena of lovemaking, connections, and body language, and the result is a racy novel full of imaginative encounters and a brutally honest account of the evolution of one young woman’s life. The character of Autumn is written with a fair amount of relatable and honest flaws and the stumbles (and falls) she experiences while trying to navigate through life are cringeworthy —  but real. Knight portrayed a girl that most women can find on the inside of themselves if they are completely honest — someone who is insecure almost to a fault, someone who doesn’t recognize their own self-worth, and someone who has no real idea how to achieve their goals without leaning on someone else. Autumn truly must be brought down to rock bottom before she can begin to build herself up and she learns one of life’s greatest lessons — not all that glitters is gold.

Several publications have compared The Endless Autumn to 50 Shades of Grey but I have to disagree; Knight’s creative take on sexual writing is much more put together and advanced than that of Grey, and far steamier. However, The Endless Autumn lacks the relationship aspect that Grey is known for, as Autumn has no real connections with anyone outside of herself. But as this is at it’s core a mature “coming-of-age” story, it makes sense that the most important relationship should be between the main character and herself.

I give The Endless Autumn 3.5. out of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good transitional character. Readers should be advised that the sex portrayed in this novel is quite graphic, and because it does not begin until well into the second half of the book, readers might not be expecting it.

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Recommendation: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

by Ransom Riggs

“I used to dream about escaping my ordinary life, but my life was never ordinary. I had simply failed to notice how extraordinary it was.”

Happy Summer!

We get lots of reading done in the hot and sticky months of June-July-August. Texas has unforgiving temperatures during the summertime and we avoid going outside until the sun goes down. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks plumping up my bookshelves with some great mid-grade and YA reads that vary from old to new, and as my children really loved this movie, I was excited to share the book.

Because you know, the book is always better. And you don’t have to wait long for the sequel, because it’s already in print!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a unique children’s novel in that it is told through a series of photographs paired with narrative, and that it is darker than the average mid-grade book. The author’s original intent was to showcase his collection of vintage and peculiar pictures via a photo album format, but decided to go another way and provide a storyline to accompany them. Inspiration can come from a variety of places for authors and Ransom Riggs‘ blend of creepy and cool is sure to capture the interest of many more children to come. The genre of mid-grade books has expanded in the last decade, providing a larger variety of subject matter and a lot less fluff for this particular age group, and I for one am very pleased. This type of book in particular allows the readers mind to become completely engaged, and the imagination can run free while trying to figure out what the monsters involved in the story look like and how the idea of a “time loop” really works.

Jacob has always had a strong bond with his grandfather. As the years went by spending time together was a priority for them both, and after a strange and grisly accident that results in his grandfather’s unexpected death, Jake finds himself confused and at a loss as to how to process his grief. Growing up, Jake’s grandfather regaled him with tales of the school he grew up in, carving images of the tumultuous era of World War 2, and of how young Abraham took refuge in a children’s group home near Wales. Abraham was surrounded by kids of a variety of ages and manner, but they all had one thing in common — they were peculiar.

One girl could make herself completely invisible. One young lady possessed a freak amount of enormous strength. A young child had not one, but two mouths — the second of which was settled at the back her skull. As one boy used his stomach as a vessel for protecting live bees, another teenager was able to resurrect the dead, all while at the same time appearing to be as heartless as the subjects with which he ran his curious experiments.

” I felt even more cheated when I realized that most of Grandpa Portman’s best stories couldn’t possibly be true. The tallest tales were always about his childhood, like how he was born in Poland but at twelve had been shipped off to a children’s home in Wales. When I would ask why he had to leave his parents, his answer was always the same : because the monsters were after him. Poland was simply rotten with them, he said. 

“What kind of monsters?” I’d ask, wide-eyed. It became a sort of routine. “Awful hunched over ones with rotting skin and black eyes,” he’d say. “And they walked like this!” And he’d shamble after me like an old-time movie monster until ran away laughing. “

Surely none of these stories were true? Jake had always chalked it up to idle bedtime tales and the ramblings of an old and lonely man. Except something is now haunting Jake. . . his grandfather’s last words to him were not that he loved him or that he would miss him, but — “find the bird in the loop on the other side of the old man’s grave on September 1940, and tell them what happened.” With the mystery of Abe’s death completely unsolved, Jake has a hard time finding any sort of closure or resolution. His parents refer him to a psychiatrist who suggests Jake visit and explore the place his grandfather always spoke of so fondly, and to see if he can hunt down some answers about this strange school so he can perhaps put some things to rest in his mind.

Unfortunately for Jake, once he arrives in England, he finds the orphanage of Abe’s childhood left in complete ruins and disrepair, apparently not having survived the brutalities of war. Not being able to garner much information from the townspeople is frustrating and leaves Jake to explore the small town primarily on his own. During one of his treks through the murky countryside he comes across a strange girl, and as it turns out, this meeting is not one of pure chance — it is this lovely, blonde young lady who leads him to the elusive Miss. Peregrine.

” ‘We peculiars are blessed with skills that common people lack, as infinite in combination and variety as others are in the pigmentation of their skin or the appearance of their facial features. That said, some skills are common, like reading thoughts, and others are rare, such as the way I can manipulate time.’

‘Time? I thought you turned into a bird.’

‘To be sure, and therein lies the key to my skill. Only birds can manipulate time. Therefore, all time manipulators must be able to take the form of a bird.’

She says this so seriously, so matter-of-factly, that it took me a moment to process. ‘Birds. . . are time travelers?’ I felt a goofy smile spread across my face. “

Jake feels as if he has entered another world completely and as he grapples with confusion and wonders if he has lost his mind, Jacob urges Miss Peregrine and the children at the home to explain to him what exactly is going on. The house he’d previously visited and found in ruins is now a beautiful and well-kept home, as if it’s part of some weird time warp. The children are dressed in clothes that seem to be from another time altogether. . . and all seem to have the same powers as those Abraham described in his elaborate stories. Miss. Peregrine explains that the house and its inhabitants are hidden in something called a “time loop” and that they all relive the same day over and over. The loops are set up by her particular kind all over the world for the protection of peculiar children and their rare gifts. Miss. Peregrine and other teachers like her are in charge of these special children and keeping them safe from a distorted race of monsters known as hollowgasts. The hollows and wights are the result of experiments gone wrong and use the children to expand upon their devious powers, hunting them down mercilessly and murdering them to absorb their energy.

Unbeknownst to the team of children and their leader, the hollows have been stealthily tracking them and are eager to engulf the children and receive special strength through their demise. Once Miss. Peregrine is kidnapped, it is up to Emma, Jacob, and a handful of other brave children to rescue her and try to restore the balance to the loop and their lives.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a novel that I give 4 out of 5 stars to, and while it is geared primarily for mid-grade readers, I enjoyed it as an adult. I know that some adults who have read this novel took issue with the (completely innocent) budding romance between Jacob and Emma, especially as Emma previously had a romantic link to Abraham. I think that falls into the category of nitpicking and has very little to do with the story, especially as nothing but a mild attraction comes of it. Emma is a girl stuck in the 1940’s and whether or not she has actually aged internally or not makes no difference, seeing as how she has lived the same day for the majority of her life, with no newcomers brought into it until Jake. The story is whimsical and innovative and should be taken at face value instead of trying to assign labels to it in a modern day setting. I think readers are happiest when they just let fantasy be fantasy, and that is exactly what this book is.

If you or your child enjoyed the film version, I recommend picking up the book. There are two sequels (Hollow City and Library of Souls) and a companion book (Tales of the Peculiar). Readers might also be interested to learn that Riggs is planning a second trilogy set in the Peculiar world, the likes of which will be played out in America.