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Review: The Teddy Bear Chronicles (Saved in Paris)

The Teddy Bear Chronicles (Saved in Paris)

by Donnalyn Vojta

When Kelly met the roughly handsome and intensely charming Mark, she was impressed with more than just his fancy education and the flashy job that came with a substantial paycheck. Mark Flannery was doting, seemed genuinely interested in her, and over the first few weeks of their whirlwind romance, thoroughly embedded himself into the very seams of her life. Coming from a broken home that involved an emotionally and verbally abusive mother and a sister who abandoned her, Kelly wasn’t mentally aware of how much she was searching for something to fill the holes of her life. She yearned for someone to care for her in every aspect, for someone to truly nurture her spirit and to encourage her along her goals and dreams.

Luckily for Kelly, Mark slipped right into that role like a good pair of shoes. But soon enough, for Kelly, the dream of a life with a gorgeous and successful man turned into a nightmare.

It began with an obsession over her email correspondence. Endless questions about her cell phone texts. Interrogations over who she was friends with and what they discussed. Queries over where she was going. And then it slowly transitioned into Mark controlling what she was going to do with her life, insisting that he would pay for the entirety of her education as long as she chose a profession that was “especially befitting a woman.” He told her who she could be friends with and how often she could speak to those friends each month. He demanded that she be home at a certain time each evening to prepare him a handmade meal, not even lessening his grip on her life when her father passed away. Feeling trapped but uneasy at the prospect of going it alone , Kelly eventually put her aspirations of becoming an entrepreneur and business owner to the side, accepting Mark’s offer of financial stability while desperately trying  to put the trepidation growing within about his controlling ways and instead, focusing on being  thankful for the good things that he was bringing into her life and their relationship.

But as time passed things only got worse. Mark infiltrated her life like a seasoned war general, directing and managing her every waking minute. As Mark’s controlling ways eventually began to wear heavily on her, Kelly began to try and fight back — but her rebukes were met with his fists. Slaps, shoves, and swift kicks became the repercussion any time Kelly dared to contradict Mark or speak her own mind. Feeling angry and sometimes hopeless, Kelly decided to formulate a secret plan of escape — but she knew she had to be incredibly careful and strategic. She’d known for a while that Mark had a professional private investigator tailing her every move and so every step she took towards freedom had to be precise and perfect. She also didn’t put it past Mark to take his physical abuse to the next level. . . Kelly had her suspicions about a previous relationship Mark had where the girlfriend ended up rotting in a ditch with her throat slashed.

Little did Kelly know, she had an ally watching over her the whole time, someone who was monitoring her every move just like Mark but with good intentions instead of deviance. There was someone in Kelly’s life who felt joy when Kelly succeeded and felt pain when Kelly was hurt. Like a ray of sunshine peeking through a stubborn cloud, there was a friend observing Kelly right underneath her nose.  A certain little teddy bear had been a constant companion to her since she met Mark, and unbeknownst to Kelly, the cute stuffed toy knew everything there was to know about her boyfriend — including the fact that he’s was only controlling, but also, that he was indeed a murderer.

Stowed lovingly in a carry-on bag, the toy accompanies Kelly as she spirits away in the dead of night all the way to Paris. Her teddy bear gives a honest account of Kelly’s palpable fear, intense relief, and also of bizarre coincidence and exalted reunion — all  in a fresh and true voice. As a friend who can only be seen and not heard, Kelly’s teddy bear spins a story for readers from a one-sided perspective, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions as to why Kelly is doing what she is doing and what shadows lurk in the background. Readers will also be privy to two other character’s corresponding story lines, also told from the viewpoint of their teddy bear companions. All of the characters reach their climax in the enigmatic and magical City of Lights, and all three bears will find an individual end to their exhilarating adventures.

The Teddy Bear Chronicles is the debut novel by Chicago based author Donnalyn Vojta. A former litigation attorney, the author is now fully immersed in the world of writing by way of a station as an academic tutor and professional writer. The concept of a thriller being written entirely by the perspective of a group of teddy bears is singularly unique, and while the mystery and pace of the story ramps up, readers will be thankful for the comedic relief provided by the furry companions of each character.

Giving the novel 3 out of 5 stars, I have to commend the author on being so bold in her somewhat peculiar and unexpected choice of perspective. I have read 1000’s of books and not one has been told by way of a teddy bear; especially not a novel that is certainly for adults due to the subject matters of abuse, mental illness, and murder. I was unclear as to several of the character’s intentions at many parts of the novel, and I also felt that the characters at times did not behave or react in a realistic manner. The dialogue between characters at times appeared forced, especially given the nature of the relationship. I really enjoyed the character of Richard and his progression in the romance department; he was written in such a way as to be found endearing and sweet.

Readers interested can find this book at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com.

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Recommendation: Say No To Joe?

Say No To Joe?

by Lori Foster

” ‘Yes, Joe.” Then she smiled. “Saying yes to Joe Winston — it has to be one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.’ “

About ten years ago I was living in a small town that was very outside of my norm. My husband at the time was given a wonderful job opportunity out of state and our family needed a change in a big way, so we made the move from big-city-living in Dallas to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Now, as a Texas girl through and through, I never EVER thought I’d come to live in Oklahoma. I enjoyed a Starbucks on every corner and a mall in all four sectors of my perimeter. Broken Arrow was sleepy and slow, and I had a hard time adjusting.

There wasn’t much to do in the part of Oklahoma that we moved to. I spent the first year feeling very much like an outsider. I had a different accent, I liked different sports teams, I didn’t go to church. I made a few friends along the way (hey there, Kristy!) and funnily enough, they were transplants too. . . so maybe that’s why we meshed so easily. The closest Barnes and Noble was half an hour away and there were none of my (much beloved) Half Price Books stores so I became a regular (and I mean regular) patron of the local library, which was surprisingly huge and stocked full of every book imaginable.

Both of my children were in school by that point, and for the first time in 7 years I actually had. . . time. I began devouring books as if there was no tomorrow, drowning myself in vampires creeping through sticky Southern nights and handsome cowboys saving damsels in distress before riding off to rob banks with their faces hidden behind dusty handkerchiefs. For the first time in my life, I picked up a romance novel. The Harlequins were out of fashion and paperback contemporary romance was all the rage, with Lori Foster leading the pack of numerous female authors who churned out spicy stories of hunky heroes and spunky heroines.

Say No To Joe? was one of those such books, and I grabbed a dog-eared copy off of a book carousel along with three or four others like it, knowing it would barely last me the week. I liked nothing better than sitting on my back porch with a glass of wine, a few chunks of cheese, some artisan crackers, and the symphony of cicadas and playing children as my companions.

I’d met Joe Winston before, in an anthology called Wildy Winston which showcased the Winston brothers in a series of four stories (all contemporary romance). Joe was a cousin of the wild four and made a cameo appearance. Lori Foster decided to give Joe his own story and The Visitation Series was born, becoming a collection of five books all set in and around the same town:

Joe Winston has asked Luna Clark out more than once, which isn’t something he makes a habit of. Usually all he has to do is flash his seductive eyes and bulging muscles at a woman and she’s ready to go wherever, whenever he chooses to take her. And if the lady in question doesn’t, well — he just moves on to bigger and better things.  But Luna — she’s different, and he hasn’t been able to get her out of his head since a kiss they shared at a relative’s wedding. She’s a little eccentric and wacky, but she’s also smart and feisty, not to mention curvaceous in all the right spots and sexy as hell. She doesn’t take his nonsense which is perhaps even more attractive than the body he so readily admires whenever in her presence. But every time he’s asked her out, she’s handed him a quick and resounding “no,” so he’s given up and has relegated her to a woman of his fantasies instead.

” Under normal circumstances, Joe kept a clear head at all times. But with Luna, nothing felt normal. In so many ways, she shot his perspective all to hell. On that particular day, she’d turned to set the meal on the checkout counter, presenting Joe with a perfect view of that delectable rear end, and without even thinking about it or the possible consequences, he’d . . . touched her. 

That is, if you could call a pat, followed by a full-palm squeeze, a mere touch. Soft, warm, resilient . . . He’d gotten one handful and immediately wanted more. A whole lot more. 

But Luna had gone rigid, and from one second to the next Joe found himself wearing his lunch instead of getting to eat it. She’d stormed out without given him a chance to apologize or explain or coax her into a better mood. 

It hadn’t been easy, but Luna had eventually forgiven him. After all, the chemistry was there, as undeniable to her as it was to him. At Zane’s wedding, Joe had finally managed to ease her into one long, wet, blistering kiss that had haunted his nights for three months now. 

After that, he’d tried repeatedly to get her alone. Hell, he’d even tried being on his best behavior. Not that his best was all that good. At thirty-six, he’d had a lot of time doing just as he damn well pleased. And the jobs he’d had — bodyguard, bounty hunter, private dick — had only made him meaner, a little nastier. It came with the territory and in some cases was outright necessary. 

But for Luna, he had tried and had been damn uncomfortable in the process. 

And still she’d turned him down. “

When Luna’s cousin dies and leaves behind two children, she feels responsible. While she didn’t know her cousin all that well, she does know that Chloe left behind a teenager and a younger son, both of whom are attempting to go at it on their own under the careless and unfriendly supervision of an aunt. The woman currently in charge of the two wants nothing to do with the responsibility of raising two unruly children and is ready to move on with her life, leaving the kids in a lurch. No one knows who fathered the kids and as a result, they are due to become wards of the state if Luna doesn’t step in. Not able to hold that thought on her conscious for long, Luna decides to step up to the plate. She can find work anywhere and is up for the challenge, with one problem — it seems someone has been causing trouble for the children in the small town they live in, blaming them for petty crimes and the like, and it almost resembles a plot to drive the kids out of town. But who would bother messing with a couple of orphaned children? Luna knows she needs backup and she knows who she can turn to — Joe Winston.

A bounty hunter among other things, Joe has the intimidating build and menacing stare required to act as Luna’s bodyguard and keep an eye on things while she gets settled, and that’s exactly what she’s looking for. Making it clear that nothing but a professional job is on her mind, Luna persuades Joe to accompany her to Visitation, the town out in the middle of nowhere where she is going to set up shop with kids her cousin left behind. Although he is a little taken aback at her can-do-attitude and willingness to step in and become a guardian to two kids she doesn’t know, Joe is all in. Little does Luna know, it actually took zero persuading on her part to get Joe to agree. She’s the one who got away as far as he’s concerned, and he is more than willing to re-open the door she previously slammed in his face and see where it takes them.

” Imagining how young kids must feel without any stability, Joe scowled. But to have Luna take over . . .

As a bona fide free spirit, Luna was too exotic, too bold and far too sexy to be a mother. Not only that, but she worked as a psychic, or rather a psychic’s assistant. There were plenty of times when Joe thought she had legitimate woo-woo ability. On several occasions, she’d seemed to know more than she should, especially about him. 

As if she’d read his mind, Luna flipped her hair and forged on. ‘I’ve already passed the background check, but I’ll have to do the home study once I’m settled there. I’m not overly concerned because while I might not be the ideal mother –‘

‘You said it, not me.’

With no interruption to her explanations, Luna pinched him on the arm, making him lurch. ‘–CPS is way overworked, and anytime kids can be placed with a relative, they tend to bend over backward to see it happen, or so the social worker told me. Even though I’m a distant, unknown relative, I’m still preferable.’

‘Yeah? Preferable to what?’

A golden fire lit her eyes, alerting Joe to the possibility if another pinch. He caught her hand to deter her. ” 

As the duo willingly fall into pseudo Mom and Dad roles for the young children, they are both surprised that the the threats keep coming, even with the hulking figure of Joe around. Someone definitely wants these kids out of town, but who — and for what purpose? It’s up to Luna and Joe to figure out the mystery, and perhaps, figure out what’s going on between them in the process.

Say No to Joe? is one of those books that you can read in a day or two, and there’s something about that that I really like. Not every book needs to be deep and meaningful; sometimes you need a little junk food thrown in with your filet mignon and if it’s spicy and hot — mores the better, right? I give Say No to Joe? a 4 out of 5 star rating. I enjoy Lori Foster’s novels and her nod to the relatable working man hero who has a tough exterior but a soft core. The right amount of romance and mystery is something to enjoy, and I’ve read this book more than a few times. The entire Visitation Series is fun, so readers like this first book, I recommend checking the others out as well (outside of Say No to Joe?Jamie is my favorite!)

 

 

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Review: Daisy Chains

Daisy Chains

by Anita Lounsbach

” ‘You need to love and be loved more as you get older, not less.’ “

What makes a family a family? Is it the dysfunction that all groups of blood-related people seem to have in common? The private jokes and tidy memories that only your clan shares? Is it the fact that you all have the same nose or the same color eyes, the same tilt to your head when you are deep in contemplation or the same laugh? Maybe it’s just a deep-rooted loyalty. Built-in friendships. A hard pass given to outsiders who threaten the well-being of any of your family members, even if you might be willing to cut them deeply yourself, relying on the forgiveness that is always given because you are . . . family.

Daisy is the matriarch of her family, a shining jewel atop a tree of sparkling ornamental women. She’s strong and hardworking and full of the silent blessings that a stringent routine gives someone of her age. Her best friend Maude is her partner in crime, albeit Daisy is usually the one actually committing the crimes . . . crimes of gossip and vicious bargain hunting, sins of vanity and self-absorption. As a woman well into her 80’s, she is on a constant run from reality when it comes to her age, believing instead that as long as she keeps going and keeps her priorities and routine in check, that she will always be there to look upon the women who share her blood and are part of her chain.

Ida is Daisy’s daughter and a tougher broad couldn’t be found if you searched high and low for a decade. Having loved and having lost, Ida now finds her fleeting comfort in the arms of strangers and single nights of passion, never feeling sorry for herself or for that matter – others. Ida lives practically and efficiently and in a world of black and white with very little color blurring the edges, and she has a hard time understanding her elderly mother. Daisy should give in to her age, in Ida’s opinion. She should accept the fact that she can no longer hit the streets and galavant around town drinking like a fish or flirting with men. Daisy should behave, for a better word. Life is not a jewel box full of diamonds and rubies, like Daisy treats it – it’s more a tin box full of rhinestones and chipped glass.

” Confronting point number four again along with others, Ida reckoned that her and Freda showed more signs of wear and tear in that area than Daisy if they were to bother to count their own lapses; the times they hadn’t quite managed to get to the lavatory in time, followed by the countless times they mislaid things, the times they forgot things, the times they repeated things, the times they forgot things, the times they repeated themselves. Where was the justice in that? She’d spent years going on and on trying to enforce in Daisy a smattering of reality; firstly to connect her up to the reality of facing up to where she as in the scheme of things. And secondly, being cruel to be kind, connect her to where her next stop was bound to be. And where had it got her? Nowhere, Daisy could never see the ghost train a comin’. And if she did, it was always on its way to pick up some other poor old sod, never herself. 

At each and every new confrontation or well-worn repeat, endeavoring to get Daisy to see herself as others saw her, Ida drew a blank. Daisy took everything for granted and defied all logic. Much in the same way as now: Refusing to listen to reason by refusing to listen. Nothing changed. “

To her two sisters and mother, Helen is the one of them who has it all. She’s the one who’s  made it, laying her head down for the night on silken sheets in a mansion properly set with a well-tended English garden and live-in help. She has a matched set of twin boys, Roger and Richard, and she devotes her days to making sure their well being is top notch with perfectly pressed identical sweater sets and crustless sandwiches. When Helen packs a suitcase and leaves it all behind – the rich husband, the massive home, the luxury car, and most importantly, the two boys – Ida can’t see straight for all of the red hot anger blazing in her eyes. Doesn’t Helen know how good she has it? What kind of a person just leaves their children? Most importantly, what kind of person leaves all that money?

Finding an awkward sanctuary at her grandmother’s home (a tiny apartment Daisy was pushed into by Ida when her daughter insisted that she could no longer live alone) Helen is struggling to pull herself out of a cumbersome and thick depression. Life with her husband is something that no one in her family could ever understand, their comprehension beginning and ending with the monetary gains and security Helen was privy to while being married. How could she ever explain the emotional abuse or the mental cruelty inflicted upon her every single day of life with her husband. . . the ticking, chipping,  and tearing away of her very soul in minute pieces by a man who had never found her worthy and only looked at her as a poor replacement to his previous wife? She’d had to get out and the only way was to simply rip the Band-Aid off and do it; but it’s not to say that her heart isn’t broken. Helen vows to get her life together one tiny baby step at a time, and then send for her boys.

” She stared at him suspiciously. How many times had she heard his voice breaking to order? Always breaking at precisely the right moment, the moment when she had gleaned, from out of nowhere, a modicum of strength. The knack he had of producing what he thought were perfect responses whenever the need arose, emotional shock treatment aimed to seduce, flawlessly executed and brilliantly timed, responses to suit all occasions, an ability she considered a gift, invariably used as a means to an end in the work place or in the home. All this she measured at a distance with a keenly programmed eye: if only there was an invisible video recording every detail: opening lines, theatrical entrance, the habit he had of craning his neck this way and that like a shuttle on a piece of elastic, eyes forever hunting missing nothing but the point: an action-packed production lacking authenticity, emotionally incapable of producing anything other than a blank screen. 

He looked well. He hadn’t missed her. He wasn’t capable. He didn’t want her back and if he did — whatever for?  

Jo is the brains of the family. The only one of the Connelly sisters to have any formal education, she is determined to make something of herself and do it the right way. Used as a sounding board and voice of reason by most members of her family, Jo wishes she could in turn actually confide in them. She’s been harboring a secret for ages and it’s beginning to take a toll on the most important relationship in her life – the one with her life partner, Sandra. Does family come first? Or does love?

Eve is the baby, and no one will ever let her forget it. She wonders what her sisters and insufferable mother would think if they knew she was forging her own future without their input or permission – and with her sister’s estranged husband, no less. How Helen could leave her wealthy lifestyle Eve will never know or understand, but she is determined to take her sister’s place and not let the bed get too cold in the process.

Daisy is the chain that holds them all together, for better or for worse. While she may not understand her daughter or her granddaughters most of the time, the real trouble is that they don’t seem to understand her at all. Taking for granted that she a little old lady who knows nothing of the world or their problems, they forget that in Daisy’s age she has seen and lived it all, and holds within her a grasp of understanding and wisdom that can only be found at her age.

Daisy Chains is the debut novel by Anita Lounsbach, a 77 year-old retired nurse who has pulled from her own life experiences to create a novel based around  the stages of women and the different issues each part of life possesses. From Eve who is in her early 20’s to Daisy who is in her mid-80’s and several decades between, Daisy Chains explores the roles each woman in a particular bracket of life is not only involved in, but also what is expected of them. While the body may age and betray oneself, the mind and heart and soul tends to remain young and ambitious, often viewing ourselves differently than reality would have it.

While the premise is fresh and the characters are richly drawn, I was disappointed with the lack of a clear plot in Daisy Chains. I believe that the author may have intended to show shades of each character in their particular facet of life, but in doing so, there was no real underlying guideline that pulled them all together. With the exception of Daisy, I could not believe that any of the women would ever turn to the other for much of anything, as they did not seem to like each other at all. The chapters were instead of an actual story, simply snapshots of each woman’s day and avenues of life, with no real objective.  With no real beginning, middle, climax, or end, things just began to run together at some point. The author has a simply beautiful way of describing places, people, actions, and emotions, but without a clear plot I was left feeling bored and uninvested. For this I have to give Daisy Chains a 3 out of 5 star rating.

The character of Daisy is one that I will carry with me for a long time. She wants so badly to be taken seriously and to be appreciated, but because of her age, she is often relegated to the background or treated as a mere ornament. Daisy is so tired of being told what to do and treated like a child, and it hurts her to feel as if she is more of a burden to her family than anything else. I just wanted to give Daisy a hug, take her to lunch, and show her some appreciation, and I was thankful that the author left some room for Daisy to grow with the closing of the book.

” Whether she looked up to the sky or down at the tubs of winter flowering pansies, or to the grass that was kept so neat surrounding the church, anything and everything that Daisy found to be noteworthy, pausing in her mind ready to be photographed, never quite reaching her inner spirit. Her spirit, she decided, as she sat in the square feeding the pigeons, blending in with the other elderly people, feeling half the woman she once ways, if that, was on ice. 

She was the one on ice: worrying about everything that had and was happening, on top of whether the part of her that was worth cherishing had silently passed away with her knowledge, blaming whatever was up there for the loss of her zest for life. Having given up on the heavens, doubly doubting whether the spark could ever be re-kindled. “

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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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Review: Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty

“Pirriwee Public School

. . . where we live and learn by the sea!

Pirriwee Public is a BULLY-FREE ZONE!

We do not bully.

We do not accept being bullied.

We never keep bullying a secret. 

We have the courage to speak up if we see our friends bullied. 

We say NO to bullies!”

I love it when I’m turned on to an author I have not previously read. The majority of the books I decide to read either come from a recommendation or from stellar cover art that catches my eye as I browse my local book store. As Big Little Lies premiered on HBO earlier in the year, I was bombarded with social media postings surrounding the new hit mystery-dramedy and asked many times – “Have you read this book?” My answer was sadly a resounding NO. Not only had I not read this book, but I had never read anything by it’s author, Liane Moriarty.

I have been a reader since I was a very young child, using books as an escape from a scarring childhood and bringing them on as lifelong companions into my teenage years and adulthood. I devour books like some devour cheesecake (not that I would know anything about devouring cheesecake. . .) but I also understand that many are not the same way. Reading can, for some, be an intimidating and daunting task. Most believe they don’t have the time to read or that reading is hard. One great thing about a good book is that it will sometimes be turned into a television show or a movie, and people always seem to have time for those. . .so it’s kind of like reading, only watching. I always hope that when someone sees a show that they really love, that they will go back and read the book. The book is always better. Always. Seriously, ALWAYS. The little nuances that you love about the characters are always magnified in books, and if you have seen the program before reading, then you have a wonderful visual image to prop up in your mind and help you move along. It’s like getting to know someone on a deeper level. It’s going on a second date. It’s just better.

I watched the HBO series before reading the book. I spent a weekend binging on the 7-hour miniseries after being hooked and intrigued after the first 15 minutes. I would have watched the show in it’s entirety regardless, but add in some Alexander Skarsgård? Even as a (really) bad guy? I’m all in. No questions asked. And I am happy to report that I enjoyed the series as much as I loved the book.

Big Little Lies chronicles the lives of 3 women over the span of a few months.

” ‘Oh, sure, sure. I’m not saying I didn’t have support. I had my parents to help me too. But my God, there were some nights, when Abigail was sick, or when I got sick, or worse, when we both got sick, and . . . Anyway.’ Madeline stopped and shrugged. ‘My ex is remarried now to someone else. They have a little girl about the same age as Chloe, and Nathan has become father of the year. Men often do when they get a second chance. Abigail things her dad is wonderful. I’m the only one left holding a grudge. They say it’s good to let your grudges go, but I don’t know, I’m quite fond of my grudge. I tend to it like a little pet.’ 

‘I’m not really into forgiveness either,’ said Jane. 

Madeline grinned and pointed her teaspoon at her. ‘Good for you. Never forgive. Never forget. That’s my motto.’ “

Madeline Mackenzie is my spirit animal is a 40-year old mother who doesn’t believe in talking on the phone in the car. She also doesn’t believe that anyone should have to put up with seeing their ex-husband and his (beautifully young) new wife on a regular basis, but unfortunately some things must be endured. With grace. Humility. And in designer footwear. She works part-time to save her sanity, but her life primarily revolves around her two young children with Husband #2 and her teenager with Husband #1. Madeline always tries to maintain an air of positivity and confidence, even when dealing with the minutia that dominates the schoolyard.  She never backs down from a squabble or a perceived injustice — in fact, a good catfight is what gets her blood flowing best.

” ‘Then, years later, I go to this barbecue for a friend’s thirtieth birthday. There’s a cricket game in the backyard, and who’s out there batting in her stilettos, all blinged up, exactly the same, but little Madeline from across the road. My heart just about stopped.’

‘That’s a very romantic story,” said Jane. 

‘I nearly didn’t go to that barbecue,’ said Ed. Jane saw that his eyes were shiny, even though he must have told this story a hundred times before. 

‘And I nearly didn’t go either,’ said Madeline. ‘I had to cancel a pedicure, and I would normally never cancel a pedicure.’

They smiled at each other. 

Jane looked away. She picked up her mug of tea and took a sip even though it was all gone. The doorbell rang. 

‘That will be Celeste,’ said Madeline. 

Great, thought Jane, continuing to pretend-sip her empty mug of tea. Now I’ll be in the presence of both great love and great beauty. 

All around her was color: rich, vibrant color. She as the only colorless thing in this whole house. “

Jane Chapman is a single mother to a beautiful and sweet little boy. She and Ziggy have moved around a lot but have finally settled on a charming seaside town that’s sure to chase all of her worries away. Jane is ready to begin her life with her son anew, but the demons of her past have followed her like a lingering fog. The darkness that shadows her begins to creep towards her son when he is accused of physically assaulting a little girl and fellow classmate on the first day of school. The girl’s mother, alpha-female Renata, makes it her mission to make things as difficult as possible for quiet and docile Jane. Madeline is quickly in her corner, taking up her cause as enthusiastically as she would if she were fighting over a pair of leather pants at a designer sample sale. The secrets that Jane carries are heavy burdens that sit right on her chest at all times . . . she will never be able to forget the abusive and humiliating circumstances surrounding the night Ziggy was conceived, and she is beginning to wonder if wicked behavior is genetic.

” Did she love him as much as she hated him? Did she hate him as much as she loved him? 

‘We should try another counselor,’ she’d said to him early this morning. 

‘You’re right,’ he’d said, as if it were an actual possibility. ‘When I get back. We’ll talk about it then.’

He was going away the next day. Vienna. It was a “summit” his firm was sponsoring. He would be delivering the keynote address on something terribly complex and global. There would be a lot of acronyms and incomprehensible jargon, and he’d stand there with a little pointer, making a red dot of light zip about on the PowerPoint presentation prepared by his executive assistant.

Perry was away often. He sometimes felt like an aberration in her life. A visitor. Her real life took place when he wasn’t there. What happened never mattered all that much because he was always about to leave, the next day or the next week.

How could they admit to a stranger what went on in their marriage? The shame of it. The ugliness of their behavior. They were a fine-looking couple. People had been telling them that for years. They were admired and envied. They had all the privileges in the world. Overseas travel. A beautiful home. It was ungracious and ungrateful of them to behave the way they did.

‘Just stop it,’ that nice eager woman would have surely said, disgusted and disapproving.

Celeste didn’t want to tell her either. She wanted her to guess. She wanted her to ask the right question.

But she never did. ” 

Celeste Wright has it all – stunningly good looks, a devoted husband with a limitless bank account, and two perfect twin boys. But while everything looks immaculate to the outside world, the people closest to her would be shocked if they could see what life is really like just underneath the surface. Celeste and her husband are participants in a very abusive relationship full of physical violence, nerve-wracking panic, and misguided guilt. Perry presents such a flawless picture to those around them that Celeste has to wonder if anyone would even believe her if she tried to genuinely seek help. She’s trapped in her glass house, wrapped in diamonds and furs that hide the bruises but don’t erase them.

All three of the women have children who are attending the picturesque and peppy Pirriwee Public School, and that is the common denominator that brings them together, but certainly not what keeps them them from drifting apart. Each of the women seems to take a piece of the other in an effort to complete themselves in some ramshackle way: Madeline craves the wealth and devotion Celeste is blessed with, Jane envies the confidence and general sparkle of Madeline’s loud life, and Celeste longs for a loving relationship and a quiet atmosphere much like the lives her friends lead. If the three women would truly be honest with each other, perhaps they would see that none of their lives are the faultless and exemplary facade perpetually on display.

The novel changes hands with point of view between the three women and is peppered with testimony from outsiders of their group within the community. Readers will soon discover that something nefariously criminal has occurred within the small confines of the elementary school crowd – a murder. But who has been murdered, by whom, and for what reason, remains a mystery until the end, shocking not only readers but also the town. The undercurrent of small lies turns into a tsunami of bigger ones, and no one is safe from the wreckage.

I give Big Little Lies 5 out of 5 stars, and I can honestly say that I loved this book. The humor was spot on – from the accurate descriptions of elementary school carpool and the ridiculous politics of the schoolyard, to the jealousy surrounding a young wife and an ex-husband, I was left chuckling more than once. I was particularly tickled by the exchanges between Madeline and her ex-husband; I could wholeheartedly relate. In complete balance to the humor, the darkness of the abusive relationship between Perry and Celeste was portrayed in a very interesting light; I truly felt as if the author did her research and due diligence. The voice of Celeste was as similar to a woman caught up in horribly abusive situation as it could be. Moriarty delved into not only the physical aspects of abuse but also the mental and emotional particulars, which are sometimes even more damaging than the bruises left behind. Readers might be interested in an interview given by Alexander Skarsgård, the actor who plays Perry, where he describes his take on the controversial character and his approach to the acting — found here.

The mystery and the way it was presented was unique and while I admit, I figured out who did what and to whom pretty early on,  that didn’t stop me from wanting to know the details. I also found that the show followed the book as closely as possible, with a few extra storylines that didn’t take away from the original manuscript. I am anxious to read more from the author and already have several of her books on my list, including My Husband’s Secret which comes highly recommended to me by several bookish friends.

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Review: All The Missing Girls

All The Missing Girls

by Megan Miranda

I couldn’t sleep in the house, worrying that there was something I was missing — someone who’d been in my house, possibly out there right now.

I came out to the back porch sometime after midnight for the cooler air, the clearer head. I sat on the back steps but kept the outside lights off — I felt too exposed otherwise, with nothing but my dad’s words echoing in my head:

The woods have eyes.

I stared off into the night — the shadows against the dark — drifting in and out of consciousness. The shadows shifting as clouds passed in front of the moon. The dark shapes in my peripheral vision, creeping like monsters. “

Nic left her hometown right after high school graduation, trying to put the past behind her. Trying not to look back.

Trying not to remember that her best friend went missing. And that they never found the body.

And desperately trying to forget the boy she was leaving in the rear view window.

But a decade later, Nicolette gets the phone call she’s spent years dreading – the one from her brother, asking her to come home for a while.

Daniel needs help preparing their childhood home to sell. The fixing up, the cleaning out, and the paperwork. He also needs her to convince their stubborn and confused father to sign the documents that will allow the sale to happen. Nic has been home very few times since she left a decade before. One of those times was to shuffle her father off to an assisted living facility, his dementia finally forcing his time of living alone to come to a close.

She hates coming home. It reminds her of everything bad that she left behind. And Tyler.

All the Missing Girls is a thriller that fans of perplexing Gone Girl and gritty The Girl on the Train will enjoy. In the spirit of what-the-hell-just-happened writing, the story is told mostly in reverse – something I had to get used to but quickly found riveting. Reading about the consequences of the events of the day before before reading about *today* kept me hooked; I anxiously turned page after page, trying to figure out what happened. And even better – I wasn’t able to figure it out, like I am with so many other mysteries.

The day that Nicolette returns home, another girl mysteriously goes missing. This time, it’s the beautiful and young blonde who lives behind Nic’s familial property. The dense but familiar woods between the houses is where the search begins, and what is found (and not found) spins a tale of deceit, blackmail, and the truly unexpected. The disappearances are related, as far as Nic can tell, but figuring out what they have in common is going to be a difficult and convoluted task.

 ” The cops were all from around here, had been here ten years ago when Corinne disappeared. Or the’d heard the stories through the years, over drinks at the bar. Now there were two girls, barely adults, disappearing without a trace from the same town. And the last-known words from Annaleise were about Corinne Prescott. 

It made perfect sense if you came from a place like Cooley Ridge. 

If the entirety of Corinne’s official investigation existed inside that single box I pictured at the police station, I’d imagine this was all the evidence you would see: one pregnancy test, stuffed into a box of candy and hidden at the bottom of the trash can one ring with remnants of blood pulled from the caverns; cassette tapes with hours of interview reports to sort through — facts and lies and half-truths, wound up in a spool; Corinne’s phone records; and names. Names scrawled on ripped-up pieces of paper, enough pieces to pad the entire box, like stuffing.

Until recently, I imagined that this box was taped up and hidden in a corner, behind other, newer boxes. But now there’s the feeling that all it would take is a simple nudge for it to topple over, and the lid to fall free, and the names to scatter across the dusty floor. The box is exactly like it is in Cooley Ridge. The past, boxed up and stacked out of sight. But never too far away.

Open the top because Annaleise mentioned Corinne’s name and disappeared. Close your yes and reach your hand inside. Pull out a name.

That’s how it works here.

That’s what’s happening.  ” 

Although Nic has made it perfectly clear that she now has a flawless and faithful. rich and handsome fiancee (the huge rock on her finger proof of his love for her and the money he has in the bank), her ex-boyfriend just can’t stay away. Tyler keeps showing up at the house and against her better judgement, she can feel the familiar spark shooting off in her belly. Back when she was a teenager, she and Tyler thought they could take on the world; and seeing him now transports her to that exact same headspace. Being around the easy and comfortable Tyler all while being bossed around by her big brother has her flashing back to  those clear and crisp nights when they were kids; running around in the woods, crashing parties, and generally getting into teenage mischief. Nic and her brother Daniel were left to their own devices as they grew up, and the mismatch motley crew of friends they collected along the way were in much the same boat.

Corinne was one of those friends. She was beautiful. She was enigmatic. She was someone who could draw you in and make you want to stay, even while she was being cruel and cutting you down to the bone. But she had secrets.

Were they secrets that got her killed? No one knows. Maybe she just ran away. Maybe it was all a bitter joke. Or maybe it was something else.

When the second girl, the blonde photography student Annaleise Carter, goes missing, it’s like deja vu. All of the old suspects from Corinne’s disappearance a decade earlier are reluctantly brought back into the limelight and questions start spreading around the town. Was it Jackson, Corinne’s old boyfriend? Daniel, the not-so-happily married neighbor? Tyler, the playboy around town? Everyone is on edge and uncomfortable, and it doesn’t help that Nic’s dad is starting to run his mouth about things that he surely knows nothing about.

As Nic begins to unravel the worn threads of what happened on the night she came home to rural Cooley Ridge, other things about the past begin to come to light. And as she gets closer to finding out what really happened to Corinne, she pushes herself deeper and deeper into the strangling arms of the town she fought so hard to get away from all those years ago.

” ‘Goodbye, Nic.’

‘Your daughter is beautiful,’ I said.

She started leaving, tossed her hair over her shoulder, gave me one last searing look. ‘I hope she isn’t like us.’

I heard the ride beside us, the gears shifting, metal on metal as the cars came to an abrupt stop and began spinning the pposite way. The squeals of delight from inside. I tried to focus on that, on every individual sound, so I wouldn’t think about me and Bailey and Corinne oat the top of the Ferris wheel. 

I must’ve seemed so pathetic to Bailey, standing here pretending not to know what she was talking about when that whispered word had become louder and louder over the years. So that sometimes when I thought of Corinne, it was the only thing I heard. 

Her cold hands at my elbows. Her breath in my ear. Bailey’s laughter, tight and nervous, in the background. The scent of Corinne’s spearmint gum. Her fingers dancing across my skin. Jump, she said. 

She told me to jump. “

While I found myself confused at times because of all of the backtracking, I really enjoyed this book. I’d love to read it again knowing what I know now because I bet I missed a lot. The author, Megan Miranda, did a beautiful job at holding the truth back from the readers until the very last second. What I loved most was that I really thought I had it figured out – that I’d solved the mystery – but it turned out I was only half correct. The twist thrown in wasn’t weird or wonky, like in some books I’ve read, but made complete sense once you really thought about it. Miranda has up until this point been a YA author, and this is listed as her first psychological thriller. I’m now pumped to read her second, The Perfect Stranger, that just came out on April 11.

I give All the Missing Girls 4.5 out of 5 stars. It’s an easy read that will keep you guessing all the way up to the end (or beginning, depending on how you want to look at it).

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Recommendation: Outlander

Outlander

by Diana Gabaldon

“ Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone,
I give ye my Body, that we Two might be One.
I give ye my Spirit, ’til our Life shall be Done. ”

 The Second World War is at an end and British Army nurse Claire Randall can finally pick things up where they left off with her husband, Frank. On a second-honeymoon spent in cozy Inverness, she spends her days gathering interesting herbs and flowers along the rich hills and lush valleys while Frank becomes immersed in the task of researching his family lineage. After hearing of an ancient ritual involving a secret cult of women around a set of standing stones on nearby Craigh na Dun, Claire decides to sneak down and have a look, finding herself mesmerized by the dancing and traditions of years long past. But when she backtracks to the area to recover something, she gets more than she intended, essentially falling through the stones into another era.

Dazed and confused, Claire rushes through the thick trees in a panic, trying to find some semblance of normal. She runs into a man who looks uncannily like her husband, putting her even more off balance. Claire can tell by his uniform that he is from no time period even close to the one she came from, and she begins to suspect that she is stuck in some crevice of history. Captain Jack Randall spends the few moments they are together showing Claire that he and her husband, while they may look the same, have absolutely nothing in common. How her gentle Frank could be related to this brute of a man, she has no idea. Before the Captain can arrest her, he is knocked out by what appears to be some sort of band of Scottish bandits, and while she is initially grateful for the help, she is unwillingly taken as a hostage anyway.

Upon arrival at a secluded shack in the woods, her nursing skills are put to the test. One of the bandits has an arm out of socket and various other injuries. Under the tough and intense scrutiny of the rest of the supposed outlaws, she mends the man as best she can, all while trying to ferret information out of her captors. But as they suspect her of being a British spy, she does not get far in her queries, and is spirited off instead to their Laird’s home, Castle Leoch, despite her pleas to the contrary.

” ‘You’re hurt!’ I exclaimed. ‘Have you broken open your shoulder would, or is it fresh? Sit down and let me see!’ I pushed him toward a pile of boulders, rapidly reviewing procedures for emergency field treatment. No supplies to hand, save what I was wearing. I was reaching for the remains of my slip, intending to use it to stanch the flow, when he laughed. 

Nay, pay it no mind, lass. This lot isna my blood. Not much of it, anyway,’ he added, plucking the soaked fabric gingerly away from his body. 

I swallowed, feeling a bit queasy. ‘Oh,’ I said weakly. 

‘Dougal and the others will be waiting by the road. Let’s go.’ He took me by the arm, less as a gallant gesture than a means of forcing me to accompany him. I decided to take a chance and dug in my heels. 

‘No! I’m not going with you!’

He stopped, surprised at my resistance. ‘Yes, you are.’ He didn’t seem upset by my refusal; in fact, he seemed slightly amused that I had any objection to being kidnapped again. 

‘And what if I won’t? Are you going to cut my throat?’ I demanded, forcing the issue. He considered the alternatives and answered calmly. 

‘Why, no. You don’t look heavy. If ye won’t walk, I shall pick you up and sling ye over my shoulder. Do ye want me to do that?’ He took a step toward me, and I hastily retreated. I hadn’t the slightest doubt he would do it, injury or no. 

‘No! You can’t do that; you’ll damage your shoulder again.’

His features were indistinct, but the moonlight caught the gleam of teeth as he grinned. 

‘Well then, since ye don’t want me to hurt myself, I suppose as you’re comin’ with me?’ “

While under house arrest, Claire can think of nothing but finding a way back to the standing stones that brought her here – back to Frank. She is able to ascertain that she is trapped in the year 1743, in a precipitous and politically-charged Scotland. But although getting back to Frank and the 1940’s is occupying the better part of her mind, Claire is drawn to the russet-haired man she helped back in the shack. His name is Jamie Fraser, and in addition to being a resident horse-breaker at the castle, he is also the Laird’s nephew, a fugitive from the Crown, and a bit of a ladies man.

Because of her skills as a nurse, she is ordered to accompany Dougal MacKenzie and his men to collect rents around the area. Although she thinks this will finally be her opportunity to escape back to the stones, Claire cannot deny there is a hold on her here in the past. The trip to collect rents is an arduous one and full of all sorts of interesting characters. But Claire is not a fool; she can see that on top of the rents collected, Mackenzie is also soliciting funds for a Jacobite rebellion against the Crown. His tactics are, in her opinion, barbaric, and again she is drawn towards the young and roughy handsome Jamie Fraser. Much to her digress, Captain Jack Randall floats back into her life and begins to try and cause trouble, insisting that she is a spy that needs to be dealt with accordingly. While it is again disarming how much his face resembles Frank’s, their demeanor and character could not be more different. Jack Randall is cruel and sadistic, and to escape his evil clutches,  Claire is forced into a position that she does not want – she must marry a man for protection. Namely, she must marry young Jamie Fraser.

” It was a ‘warm’ Scottish day, meaning that the mist wasn’t quite heavy enough to qualify as a drizzle, but not far off, either. Suddenly the inn door opened, and the sun came out, in the person of James. If I was a radiant bride, the groom was positively resplendent. My mouth fell open and stayed that way. 

A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight — any Highlander, no matter how old, ill-favored, or crabbed in appearance. A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored young Highlander at close range is breath-taking. 

The thick red-gold hair had been brushed to a smooth gleam that swept the collar of a fine lawn shirt with tucked front, belled sleeves, and lace-trimmed wrist frills that matched the cascade of the starched jabot at the throat, decorated with a ruby stickpin. 

His tartan was a brilliant crimson and black that blazed among the more sedate MacKenzies in their green and white. The flaming wool, fastened by a circular silver brooch, fell from his right shoulder in a graceful drape, caught by a silver-studded sword belt before continuing its sweep past neat calves clothed in woolen hose and stopping just short of the silver-buckled black leather boots. Sword, dirk, and badger-skin sporran completed the ensemble. 

Well over six feet tall, broad in proportion, and striking of feature, he was a far cry from the grubby horse-handler I was accustomed to — and he knew it. Making a leg in courtly fashion, he swept me a bow of impeccable grace, murmuring ‘Your servant, Ma’am,’ eyes glinting with mischief. 

‘Oh,’ I said faintly. “

Back at the castle as a newly married woman, Claire attracts not only new friends but also her share of enemies. While Jamie is keeping her occupied in most arenas, she finds time during her days to journey down into the village and make acquaintance with Geillis Duncan, a peculiar and somewhat eccentric woman, the two bond over their collected knowledge of herbs and natural remedies. There is more to Mrs. Duncan than meets the eye, and when the two women are accused of witchcraft, Claire learns something shocking about her red-haired friend.

After the unfortunate incident, Jamie and Claire flee to his childhood home of Lallybroch, and there stay under the care and judgmental eye of his older sister. Jenny is happy to have her little brother home for the time being, but she cannot help her suspicions about his new wife – Sassenach that she is. Jamie struggles with his desire to be man of the house and the ever-watchful eye of his stubborn older sister. He is eventually taken by British soldiers and in a reversal of roles – Claire must save him. . . from none other than Captain Jack Randall.

What comes next is a story not just of romance, but of deep-rooted love and genuine affection, of undeniable courage and the upmost honor, and of the understanding that using your wits and intellect is imperative. Claire finds herself thrust into an unknown and initially unwanted world, but she soon finds that the past can bring you to your future in more ways than one.

The Outlander Series is a set of novels that reach epic proportions, spanning 8 (and counting) novels and several companion books. They are not easy reads due mainly to their size (the debut novel clocks in at over 625 pages, in the large paperback version, with each novel growing larger and larger) and also to their somewhat elevated vocabulary. It is very obvious that the author, Diana Gabaldon, is an educated and intelligent woman, and the fact that she has spent many hours doing extensive research on each historical fact is extremely clear. Over the year that it took me to read all 8 of the novels and the Lord John Grey accompaniments, I did occasionally find myself groaning at all of the intricate detail. But my grumbling wasn’t enough to ever cause boredom or make me put the books down. It is very easy to fall under the spell of Claire and Jamie, and the rich history that surrounds them. It’s also very easy to stay trapped in that spell.

Outlander has been made into a popular television series by the Starz Network, and is currently filming it’s third season, on location. The first two seasons followed the path of the first two books closely, with few adjustments. The costumes are beautiful and the scenery is impressive, making it difficult for anyone to not want to book a plane ticket straight to Scotland in an attempt to fall through the stones.

The order of the Outlander books can be found on Diana Gabaldon’s website. Lord John Grey’s books are wonderful additions to the world that any fan will come to love, and I highly recommend them as part of the series proper. I also recommend the few novellas featuring other characters from the books, and they can be found separately or in compilation form on Amazon.

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Recommendation: Wicked

Wicked

The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

by Gregory Maguire

“ ‘I shall pray for your soul,’ promised Nessarose.

‘I shall wait for your shoes,’ Elphie answered. “

Most everyone has heard of the Tony Award-winning musical, Wicked. It is a world-renowned production that has been performed in both domestic and international theaters for over 16 years, to increased delight of audiences of all ages. However, what I am surprised to find, is that most of the patrons of the arts have no idea that their favorite musical is based upon a book – and not just loosely. The successful musical is the creation of a heavily adapted script born from the novel by Gregory Maguire. The author’s alternative telling of the much-beloved tale surrounding two witches in Oz and a curious brown-haired girl who comes for a visit, is captivating in both forms of art.

Each of Gregory Maguire’s books are unique. He is a master of taking a story that readers feel comfortable saying that they know inside and out, and then spinning it in a provocative manner, leaving the reader both bewildered and beautifully stunned. He has spun gold from confessions of ugly stepsisters and rewritten the perspectives of evil queens with sympathy and caring. Many authors have taken their turn at twisting a fairy tale or two, but none do it with the depth or finesse of Maguire.

Good and evil cannot always be taken at face value, and Wicked, the novel, proves that point. The story is centered around Elphaba, a girl with emerald skin and an untidy outlook on the world around her. The narrative begins with her unconventional conception and birth, and continues it’s chronicles of a hard childhood wrought with jealousy and insecurity. Elphaba is not what her parents had intended in a child and she reacts as such to their constant undercurrent of disappointment, becoming surly and almost savage in her growing years.

“ People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us. . .

It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.”

As a teenager growing up in “the good part of Oz,” Galinda had expectations for how her life would turn out. She’s pretty, she’s popular, and she has a knack for getting what she wants. To her horror she finds herself having to become roommates with a common green girl, but is surprised when a friendship slowly begins to blossom. Elphaba is a thinker and an activist, and she soon begins to bend the flighty Galinda to her ways. The girls become enraptured by the teachings and fierce cause of a specific professor, but when he is found murdered, both girls spin a bit out of control in their own individual ways. Galinda adopts a new name, Glinda, and throws herself into the studies of sorcery and magic. Elphaba secretly continues the professor’s research, attempting to gain new knowledge in the genetic similarities between animals and humans – which subsequently was the cause for which the professor was murdered.

As it so happens with teenage girls, a couple of boys are thrown into the mix. Boq is an addition to the small group from Elphaba’s hometown, and he hopes that his connections with the green girl will help him get closer to her attractive blonde counterpart. Fiyero is a boy who will have a lasting connection in the veins of Elphaba’s life (throughout the entire The Wicked Years Series, of which there are four novels), and play an important part in the intricately intertwined branches of her future.

Graduation nears and job prospects come to the friends and Elphaba’s younger sister. Nessarose. They are asked by the college’s mistress to travel to different corners of Oz as “ambassadors of peace.” But while something just doesn’t seem right to Elphaba and she begins to fight against the intimation of nefarious magic that seems to be twisting it’s way through her life, Glinda does just the opposite. After further disagreement, it is obvious that the once unlikely friends are closer than they ever thought possible, but also that they cannot agree on the very basic aspects of good and bad. They decide to choose their own paths and depart from one another’s lives.

“ And girls need cold anger.

They need the cold simmer, the ceaseless grudge, the talent to avoid forgiveness, the side stepping of compromise.

They need to know when they say something that they will never back down, ever, ever. ”

The story continues to follow Elphaba, who is five years older and fully immersed in an underground group trying to garner rights for animals and overthrow the corrupted Wizard of Oz. After a reconnection with a man from her past, the two become embroiled in a heated love affair, the fruits of which will not be fully revealed until many years later. But when the love of her life is kidnapped and murdered, Elphaba throws herself into sanctuary and is despondent, relying on the kindness of strangers to keep her going.

In a strange turn of events, Elphaba comes to live with her lover’s abandoned family, bringing with her a young boy. As time passes and the emerald-skinned woman grows in her powers and research, she battles with the internal struggles of being good while also having evil tendencies. She cannot navigate the waters of loving and being kind, and she has no idea how to show her true feelings. The scars of her unhappy childhood have stayed with her and she is unable to trust or believe in the good in people. Perhaps this is because almost everyone in her life has always had such a hard time believing that there is good in her – a green-skinned atrocity.

“ People always did like to talk, didn’t they?

That’s why I call myself a witch now: the Wicked Witch of the West, if you want the full glory of it.

As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it?

It liberates you from convention. ”

When Dorothy eventually makes her appearance, readers will find her nearly insufferable. She is but a pawn in the larger game of chess and as such, plays her part to a productive end. The Wizard pulls all of the strings, after all.

Wicked, the novel, is a richly woven tapestry of mystery, political drama and intrigue, complicated love, and the battle within one’s self between good and evil. It is truly Maguire’s masterpiece, and each book is as enjoyable as the one before it, pushing readers deeper and deeper into the strange recesses of Elphaba’s world and it’s spurs. The land of Oz is not as it seems, and the twists and turns throughout the land of Munchkins, witches of East and West, and talking animals is paved in yellow brick – only to be broken apart by a wayward tornado from Kansas.

I give Wicked 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone who has a love of Oz and it’s mysteries but I also forewarn fans of the movie and L. Frank Baum books to keep an open mind. This book takes some attention, so readers should be sure to have time and energy to devote to reading it. The story is wrought with new words, new characters, and new places to visit, and as such is a bit heavy at times.  I do not recommend this book for readers under the age of 18, as there are several sexually deviant situations and highly suggestive scenes.

” And there the wicked old Witch stayed for a good long time. 

And did she ever come out?

Not yet. “

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Review: The Heiresses

The Heiresses

by Sara Shepard

” The girls were the future of Saybrook’s Diamonds, and they had to act accordingly. They were to live their lives with the utmost decorum, smile for the cameras, speak several languages, hold many degrees, cultivate the art of conversation, and, most important, refrain from doing anything that might bring scandal upon the family. 

And yet they had. All of them. It had been a summer of secrets. Secrets that set them apart and made them tighten inside — secrets that they hadn’t even told one another. As they glanced around the sweeping cathedral, they each suddenly feared a bolt of lightening from above. They were the heiresses, all right, the sparkling princesses of a family that might or might not be doomed. But by Edith’s standards, they hadn’t been behaving like heiresses at all. 

And it was only a matter of time before the world found out.  “

It was a sultry and sticky summer night when Steven Barnett mysteriously died.

The waves lapped around his pale body and he was dressed all in white, as was befitting the annual end-of-summer bash at the Saybrook family mansion in Meriweather. The family compound off the coast of New York was full of anyone and everyone who wanted or needed to be seen, including the most famous of the Saybrook family legacy – the beautiful and glamorous heiresses.

However, that fateful summer changed the course of each of their lives. For some,  in more ways than one. And years later, when another mysterious death takes one of their own, the heiresses think back to that summer and have to wonder. . . is this the notorious Saybrook Family Curse at work, or is it something more sinister – like murder? Like. . . revenge?

Poppy Saybrook is the stylish and sophisticated President of Saybrook’s Diamonds, her sparkle and pedigree on par with the cut and clarity of the top-shelf diamonds her family’s company provides to the rich and famous. She has it all – the handsome husband, 1.5 children, a luxurious apartment overlooking Central Park, and the top spot at work. Even though her parents’ died in a plane crash and she is an only child, Poppy never feels lonely, not with her cousins and their troubles to keep her company. But things are beginning to feel frosty between the impossibly beautiful married couple, and Jason’s eyes are starting to wander.

” The kitchen was large and airy, with new marble countertops and Brazilian cherry cabinets. Poppy, dressed in a gauzy batik-print silk popover and skinny pants that made her legs look a million miles long, stood at the island, arranging the tray of chopped-up locally grown vegetables she’d bought at the Union Square farmer’s market, her twenty-month-old, Briony, balanced on her hip. “

Rowan Saybrook has known Jason for most of her adult life, meeting him during their mutual time at Yale. She’s a successful house attorney for the family business but goes home alone to an empty apartment, with only her duo of dogs to keep her company. Being single was never her plan, but the one man she wants is not available, and so she feels she has no other choice but to throw herself into work. . . until one evening, when she’s had too much to drink, and instead, throws herself into the arms of a forbidden man. When Rowan wakes up the next morning, she is horrified to find the much-married man she’s been pining over for years still in her apartment, especially when she finds out that the man’s wife has thrown herself off the balcony of her office onto the dirty and crowded streets of New York – to her death.

” Of course, in time those wee the girls who got steady boyfriends, while Rowan had just acquired a string of make-out buddies. She tried to change her ways, oping what she saw in the paired-up girls she knew, but becoming a softer, needier, whinier version of herself just didn’t work. And so she settled into the role of the quintessential guy’s girl. “

Corinne Saybrook is getting married.  She has the perfect, custom, Chantilly lace gown. She has the most impeccable location. She has just the right man to fit by her side. But when the catering company she’s had booked for months pulls out at the last minute and her fiancee brings in another chef, she is shocked to see a face from her past. A face she’s been trying to forget for more than five years, and a face that dredges up memories of a stolen summer, a broken heart, and a child given up for adoption. Corinne begins to watch as her flawless life garners crack after crack, and she is surprised to find that she doesn’t mind as much as she thought she would.

” Corinne pushed her dirty-blonde hair behind her ears. She’d been with Dixon since their sophomore year at Yale. Well, except for that one summer just after graduation — but Corinne had always liked a story with a happy ending, and she’d neatly trimmed that interlude from her personal history. “

Aster Saybrook couldn’t care less about her sister’s upcoming wedding. She has places to go and people to be seen with. She takes the job of socialite very seriously and makes it her purpose in life to spend as much of her family’s money as she can, her ostentatiousness rivaling that of fellow blonde heiress Paris Hilton.  When her father puts a stop to her incessant partying and forces her to get a job, she finds herself in the position of detective as much as a representative of Saybrook’s Diamonds. Aster becomes wrapped up in solving not one but two murders, and has to relive a summer she only looks back on with regrets.

” Aster teetered in on jet-black five-inch laser-cut booties. A hand-rolled cigarette dangled from her lips, the stench of tobacco overpowering the salon’s light floral scent. Her wet trench dripped puddles on the mahogany floor. Her fuchsia dress, also wet, clung high to her thighs. Though Aster would have still been striking even after a roll in a city Dumpster, there were circles under her large, luminous blue eyes, and her ice-blond hair was matted. She had a disoriented, used-up look about her. Corinne wondered if her younger sister had just emerged from a stranger’s bed after one of her typical all-night bacchanals. “

Natasha Saybrook renounced her title as heiress to the family fortune and struck out on her own, leaving her mark on the city in a very different way than her cousins. But why did she find herself so disgusted with the Saybrook’s Dimonds legacy? Too bad the cousins can’t ask her – Natasha is in a coma after a car violently and determinedly pushed hers off a bridge and she nearly drowned.

” But after Natasha disinherited herself from the family — never explaining why — she treated Rowan and the others like irritating pedestrians taking up the whole sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. “

With a nasty secret threatening to break the family and their illustrious business apart, the heiresses must get to the bottom of the mystery before it’s too late, bringing all of the skeletons out of the closet in the most public of ways. A nefarious website, The Blessed and the Cursed, is garnering heavy web traffic as the site chronicles every move the girls make, Gossip Girl style. The FBI agent in charge of the case is layered in lies and has a personal agenda. And a previously exiled red-head decides to reappear in the most powerful of ways, bringing the family together while simultaneously tearing it apart.

The Heiresses is an adult novel written by Sara Shepard, who is best known for her Pretty Little Liars Series for young adults; a series that has proven itself successful both in literary form and on the small screen, the latter of which is on its seventh and final season. I’ve never personally read any other of the other series by Shepard, but her bibliography is extensive, boasting four series and several other stand-alone books.

]I really enjoyed this novel, one that I picked up for $2 in the clearance section of my local Half Price Books. The story moved quick, and while I sometimes found it confusing as the point-of-view bounced back and forth between the heiresses in the beginning, they are all so vastly different that it didn’t take me long to catch up. The story was really fun and wild, reminding me a lot of Gossip Girl (the show, not the books. I’ve not read any of the novels).  This book would be great to read while on a road trip or vacation, as it moves along very quickly. It definitely falls into the chick-lit category, and I would save it for readers 18+ due to the sexual content.

I give The Heiresses 4.5 out of 5 stars – shaving off half a star only for the fact that I am seriously annoyed that the author has announced this is a stand-alone book and will not have a sequel – despite it being categorized as a “series” on the author’s website. It left off with one heck of a cliffhanger, and I am dying to know what happened! I can’t believe the author would leave her readers hanging like that – shame on you, Sara Shepard! I’m still going to hold out hope!