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Recommendation: The Princess, The Scoundrel, And The Farm Boy

The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy

by Alexandra Bracken

If your son is anything like mine, it is almost impossible to get him to read outside of his allotted “required reading” for school. The summer has always been a struggle for me as a Mom — trying to maintain some sense of a schedule and mental stimulation while also trying to allow my children to rest. Their academic calendar years always seem so jam-packed and I sometimes wonder if on some instinctual and base physical level, they need the months of summer to recuperate and catch up on all of the sleep and rest they have lost.  Between the rigorous training that attaining his black belt involved, a basketball season with late games and extra practices, pushing through his first year of middle school like a champ — it all left my 11-year old son feeling mentally drained, but I pushed on, determined to get some reading in this summer.

My son did not learn to read until the summer right before he entered the 4th grade. He was identified as having a learning disability at age 4 and was formally diagnosed with a “short term memory” disability when he was in the 3rd grade. To give you an idea as to how his disability works: just imagine reading a paragraph of text. Then imagine moving to the next paragraph, but having completely forgotten the first paragraph you read. Because of this disability, we have had to find countless ways to work around things. In most areas we were successful early on — memorization was our friend. Math was always easy because while “write” and “right” sound exactly the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings, 1 + 1 is ALWAYS 2. Our final struggle and most arduous battle was reading. How can you teach a child to read when the task is so daunting and to be honest, at times so humiliating that they feel absolutely defeated? Well, I’ll tell you. You find a story that they know. A story that they know inside and out and all they have to do is put words on paper to the story in their head — this was our recipe for success.

Star Wars: The Princess, the Scoundrel, and the Farm Boy is essentially the retelling of the movie Star Wars: A New Hope (or Episode 4, if you’d prefer). Lovers of the iconic series set in a fantasy land of space and time, with rebels and empires and one memorable villain, know the story inside and out. A princess leading a rebellion against an evil empire hooks up with a handsome rogue who provides her with a sturdy ship. A once immature and naive boy begins to learn the secrets of The Force from an old and wizened Jedi Master in disguise. But the novel, the first of three, digs deeper into the lives of the three central characters. Each section is focused on one of the players, allowing members of this particular fandom to delve right into the very heart and core of what makes these people tick. While there isn’t a ton of extra or new information, the story is told in a fluid manner (something not easy to accomplish, given the focus of each character) and is fresh and crisp. Author Alexandra Bracken has a way of retelling a story that most people already know in a way that makes it appear new, and the writing style is extremely friendly to readers of all ages — including those 10-year old boys who lament over not ever being able to find something worthwhile to read.

I give this book a 5 out of 5 star rating, and I recommend it to any lover of Star Wars, of fantasy, and of lands far, far away. I recommend it to any boy or girl who wants to lose themselves in richly drawn characters that they can look up to — a princess who is smart and capable and no one’s snowflake, a scoundrel who is more than he appears and carries with him a sly sense of humor and a heart of gold, and a farm boy who will find within himself something that brews strong and ancient and a lineage to write home about.

Readers will enjoy the other two tales in this three-part series:

On Amazon.com, readers can find all three of the books in a bundle for under $35 — which is a steal. They are hardcover and gorgeous. I love the clever designs and colors. Disney and Lucasfilm Press did an amazing job putting these together. Not only are all three incredibly well written, but the illustrations are unique and flawless.

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Recommendation: The Help

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

Some books are worth reading even if you see the movie — and Kathryn Stockett’s raw and real telling of The Help is one of them.

In it’s essence, The Help is a honest portrayal of race during the heated 1960’s, and threaded together with stories of women and their roles in society portrays a real and sometimes humorous account of life leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Set in the South and in a time when segregation was not only alive and well, but also in an era when women were treated as a lower species, three women give their personal accounts from three very different perspectives. Their lives are woven together with the ties that bind most females – motherhood, friendship, insecurity, and love.

Aibileen Clark is a black woman who works for a prominent white family in town. She does all of the cleaning, a lot of the cooking, and is the primary caretaker for the family’s toddler – the sweet (if somewhat slow) little blonde Mae Mobley. Aibileen and her inherent kindness cannot help but treat Mae Mobley as if she were her very own child, nor can she help  finding a bit of a reprieve in the chubby little child for the empty hole in her heart that used to house her own son. Treelore died following an accident while on the job, and a part of Aibileen died right along with him. Raising the little girl can be an arduous task, especially in the face of the child’s mother and the challenges she brings with her. Miss Leefolt is as clueless as she is disengaged from the child, only tending to Mae Mobley when it suits her and spending more time scolding the child than loving her. Aibileen does her best to reinforce positive feelings with Mae Mobley, and the little girl clings to the black housekeeper as she would a mother, finding solace in her ever-faithful and forgiving arms. As discontent breeds between the white mother and her black maid, things in the household gain tension.

” ‘What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I stop it?’

It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation. 

So I took that pink, screaming baby in my arms. Bounced her on my hip to get the gas moving and it didn’t take two minutes before Baby Girl stopped her crying, got to smiling up at me like she do. But Miss Leefolt, she don’t pick up her own baby for the rest a the day. I seen plenty a womens get the baby blues after they done birthing. I reckon I thought that’s what it was.

Here’s something about Miss Leefolt: she not just frowning all the time, she skinny. Her legs is so spindly, she look like she done growed em last week. Twenty-three years old and she lanky as a fourteen-year-old boy. Even her hair is thin, brown, see-through. She try to tease it up, but it only make it look thinner. Her face be the same shape as that red devil on the redhot candy box, pointy chin and all. Fact, her whole body be so full a sharp knobs and corners, it’s no wonder she can’t soothe that baby. Babies like fat. Like to bury they face up in you armpit and go to sleep. They like big fat legs too. That I know. 

By the time she a year old, Mae Mobley following me around everwhere I go. Five o’clock would come round and she’d be hanging on my Dr. Scholl shoe, dragging over the floor, crying like I weren’t never coming back. Miss Leefolt, she’d narrow up her eyes at me like I done something wrong, unhitch that crying baby off my food. I reckon that’s the risk you run, letting somebody else raise you chilluns. 

Mae Mobley two years old now. She got big brown eyes and honey-color curls. But the bald spot in the back of her hair kind a throw things off. She get the same wrinkle between her eyebrows when she worried, like her mama. They kind a favor except Mae Mobley so fat. She ain’t gone be no beauty queen. I think it bother Miss Leefolt, but Mae Mobley my special baby. “

But one thing Aibileen can always depend on is the outright sass and tell-it-like-it-is attitude from her best friend. Minny Jackson is a woman who was born and bred for tending a white woman’s house, but although Minny is as adept at her job as Aibileen, Minny just can’t seem to hold one down. Her lack of professional stability is mostly due to Minny not knowing how to keep her mouth shut; and she has said some things to her latest employer that not even one of her famous pies could fix. A chance phone call lands her on the doorstep of the beautiful Miss. Celia, a blonde bombshell who is looking for more than just a housekeeper . . . it seems the poor woman is looking for a friend. Celia is an outcast in the small society of the Mississippi town they live in and spends her days moping around the huge house her husband has so thoughtfully provided for her. No matter how hard Celia tries to break into the cut-glass world of her peers, the ladies who call all of the shots can’t help but be threatened by her devastating good looks, not to mention the fact that she married the old beau of the Queen Bee herself – Miss. Hilly Holbrook – and as such, made an enemy for life. Celia leans on Minny in ways that make Minny uncomfortable; she’s not used to being treated as a near equal to any white woman, but she has as growing soft spot for Miss. Celia. If it wasn’t for her sassy mouth, maybe she’d have a more solid position. . . but if it wasn’t for that sassy mouth, she wouldn’t have found Miss. Celia.

” Standing on that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in, Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind too. Look like a maid who does what she’s told. Truth is, I’m so nervous right now, I’d never backtalk again if it meant I’d get this job. 

I yank my stockings up from sagging around my feet – the trouble of all fat, short women around the world. Then I rehearse what to say, what to keep to myself. I go ahead and punch the bell. 

The doorbell rings a long bing-bong, fine and fancy for this big mansion out in the country. It looks like a castle, gray brick rising high in the sky and left and right too. Woods surround the lawn on every side. If this place was in the storybook, there’d be witches in those woods. The kind that eat kids. 

The back door opens and there stands Miss Marilyn Monroe. Or something kin to her. 

‘Hey there, you’re right on time. I’m Celia. Celia Rae Foote.’

The white lady sticks her hand out to me and I study her. She might be built like Marilyn, but she ain’t ready for no screen test. She’s got flour in her yellow hairdo. Flour in her glue-on eyelashes. And flour all over that tacky pink pantsuit. Her standing in a cloud of dust and that pantsuit being so tight, I wonder how she can breathe. “

Skeeter is a white woman of privilege, having grown up the daughter of a family in the cotton business and never wanting for anything. Having lived her childhood in the direct care of a black maid who treated her with unconditional love and affection, Skeeter’s stance on employer/employee relationships are a lot different than that of her friends. As she grew up under the expert tutelage of Constantine, Skeeter knew no boundaries with black maids. She could always find a safe place wrapped up into the bosom of the woman who raised her, whereas all she could find from her actual mother was a dismissive hand.  She can’t understand the logic behind Hilly’s quest to “ensure the emotional and physical safety of her family” by putting a separate bathroom in her home for the black help, and she can’t seem to grasp why her friends treat their maids wish such hushed disdain. As Hilly proceeds forward in a task of enlisting all white families with black help to install special bathrooms with an almost bulldozer-esque fervor, Skeeter begins to question the friendships she’d carried with her from childhood into adulthood. Intrigued by the dynamics and sensing a story to be found, Skeeter embarks on a quest of her own – to give the black maids, cooks, and caretakers of these white women’s homes and children a voice on a public platform.

” The first time I was ever called ugly, I was thirteen. It was a rich friend of my brother Carlton’s, over to shoot guns in the field. 

‘Why you crying, girl?’ Constantine asked me in the kitchen. 

I told her what the boy had called me, tears streaming down my face. 

‘Well? Is you?’

I blinked, paused my crying. ‘Is I what?’

‘Now you look here, Eugenia’ — because Constantine was the only one who’d occasionally follow Mama’s rule. ‘Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person. Is you one a them peoples?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so,’ I sobbed. 

Constantine sat down next to me, at the kitchen table. I heard the cracking of her swollen joints. She pressed her thumb hard in the palm of my hand, something we both knew meant Listen. Listen to me. 

‘Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision.’ Constantine was so close, I could see the blackness of her gums. ‘You gone have to ask yourself, Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?’

She kept her thumb pressed hard in my hand. I nodded that I understood. I was just smart enough to realize she meant white people. And even though I still felt miserable, and knew that I was, most likely, ugly, it was the first time she ever talked to me like I was something besides my mother’s white child. All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe. “

The writer in Skeeter begins to mold her interviews of the black maids into something substantial .While initially her requests to speak with the black women was met with scorn and a lot of slammed doors, Skeeter begins to gain traction when she is able to secure the support of Aibileen, a woman very respected in her station. Skeeter’s subsequential book entitled The Help, sends a rising wave straight through the heart of her little Mississippi town, gaining speed with every story read and every bit of gossip as to who the stories are about. Aibileen and Minny are not the only contributors to the book everyone is reading and talking about; nearly every maid in town has lent her story. Putting the cold, hard truths on display for everyone to see is one way to shake things up a bit in her sleepy town, and Skeeter’s hands are all over it. Both Aibileen and Minny are surprised as to what comes out of their confessions, and of what they learn about themselves in the process.

The Help is a book that I give 4 out of 5 stars to and recommend to anyone who enjoyed the movie or is looking for a great and easy read. While the film adaptation of the book was well-done, the book dives deeper into the characters and their emotional journeys as they confront the things in their lives that perhaps they didn’t even realize were problems. Minny’s humor lends such relief to the sometimes heartbreaking accounts and reminiscences of Aibileen, and Skeeter’s transition into independent womanhood is a pleasure to witness.

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Review: Watch Me Disappear

Watch Me Disappear

by Janelle Brown

” Leave, and they’ll hate you. 

Die, and they’ll love you forever. “

At a cursory glance, the Flanagan family is a typical Californian unit: a techie Dad with cool hair, a beautiful and athletic mother, and a mature teenaged daughter who cares about the environment. The trio share their existence in a cozy Craftsman set on a suburban street in Berkeley, passing their days grabbing lunch in vegan cafes full of lounging hipsters and on beaches with the crashing waves and sandy-haired surfers as their companions.

On the surface, Billie is a great mom. She creates Pinterest-worthy delights for the bake sales hosted at daughter Olive’s expensive private school. She stays perfectly fit by spending her weekends hiking the extensive trails in their area or finding the hottest new yoga class. Her interior is as impressive as her exterior, and Billie never fails to have something interesting to bring to the table when discussing human rights or animal activism. She left behind a checkered past wrought with rumors of a salacious father and a jailed boyfriend, all to fashion a comfortable little life in a sweet little town with a picture-perfect little family.

But, is it enough?

When Billie leaves for yet another of her weekend trips, expressing the need to – yet again – gather clarity and revel in some much-needed alone time, Jonathan doesn’t worry. The Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness is nothing she can’t handle, and although he would prefer she not trek out on her own, he doesn’t dare say it out loud. Bille gave up her independence a long time ago in a gesture of devotion and love to their daughter, and he feels that he owes it to her to not question her need to regain a bit of what she’s lost now that Olive is getting older and doesn’t need her as much. He can’t lie and say that he doesn’t miss Billie when she’s gone, but he also doesn’t entirely mind the break from her constant barrage of perfection and soft spoken elitism. Part of him has always felt “less than” in her effervescent presence; he’s never quite managed to break into the coolness that she embodies, no matter how long they’ve been together.

But this trip proved to be a different kind of getaway. Billie never returned and was never found, not even after countless searches among the crags and caverns along the trail. The only thing left behind was a well-worn hiking boot, the object mocking the painful hole left behind in Jonathan and Olive’s life. Now, nearly a year later, they are both still struggling in vain to put their lives back together. . . to somehow glue the fragments of their shattered world into some semblance of normal. The measure of difficulty is beyond any degree they could have ever comprehended, especially as there was never a body to bury.

Missing, presumed dead. This phrase drives him insane, the way it insists on inserting doubt where there is none The facts are simple: Billie went backpacking by herself along the Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness. She never came back down the mountain. No one was sure exactly what had happened, but the official verdict was that Billie had probably gone off-trail (this would have been so very Billie of her) and fallen into a ravine, hurt herself, and couldn’t hike out. Or maybe she was attacked by a wild animal, or just got lost and died of hunger and thirst. 

Even now, a year later, Jonathan is plagued by the question of how long it had taken his wife to die. What if she had lain there for days, somewhere under the ponderosa pines, hurt and helpless, hearing the search helicopters overhead but incapable of summoning them? He lies awake at night, imagining the horror of it all; her waning hope that someone might find her, wherever she was, before it was too late. The dawning awareness that death was approaching as she measured out drops of water and the last crumbs of her granola bars. Then nothing but her fading breath and the scuttling of pikas and yellow-bellied marmots across the granite slopes. It’s unbearable to think about. Instead, he prays that death was instantaneous: that she fell, broke her neck, and didn’t have to suffer such a lonely ending. “

Nothing is working, and in fact, things are only getting worse as the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death looms in the near future. For Olive, the hardest part of losing Billie has been her attempts at figuring out who she is outside of her mom. Billie led her, encouraged her, and kept her on a path of righteousness while lending a free spirit to Olive’s otherwise naturally structured mindset. Without that guiding light in her life, Olive is lost. She knows her dad is doing his best but . . .

And then one day the unimaginable happens —  Olive sees her mother. Actually sees her! Standing in the middle of the school hallway, Olive has a clear and concise vision of her mother standing before her, long hair billowing in the wind and toes sunken into the white sands of the beach. Billie looks right at her and asks Olive why she isn’t looking for her, her face a mixture of amusement and the slightest tinge of regret. But as Olive reaches for her mom she connects with the hard part of a wall, jolting her back into the here and now and leaving a huge knot on her forehead for good measure.

The visions and images don’t go away and although Olive desperately struggles to find a connection between her realistic daydreams and the tangible world around her, she can’t seem to gain purchase. She spends days and nights in an attempt to decipher the visions or consciously bring them on, and her weekends out searching for her mother in the places her mind has shown her. Clues run into dead ends and mysteries remain mysteries. . . and to make matters worse, her father doesn’t take her seriously and instead, drags her to a doctor who prescribes medication with the sole intent to kill the emerging clairvoyant side of her.

” ‘I believe it.’ Olive plants a palm in the center of her chest. ‘Dad. She told me to look for her.’

Jonathan is suddenly furious. ‘Stop it, Olive. This isn’t healthy. Your mother is gone. Dead,’ he snaps before he can stop himself. Immediately, he is stricken with remorse. He puts his hand to the hair at his temples and tugs on it, hard enough that it makes his eyes water. ‘Look, I’m sorry –‘ he begins. 

But it’s too late, Olive has already shut down. ‘I shouldn’t have said anything,’ she mutters to the floor. 

‘No, I’m glad you did,’ Jonathan says, not feeling glad at all. ‘I’m just trying to figure out what to say.’ 

GOD, Dad, don’t you get it?’ Olive throws up her hands. ‘It’s not about saying anything. It’s about doing something. I want to do something real for once. Can’t you open your mind just this one time? Mom would have tried to look for you.’

‘Hey –‘ he begins, taken aback. But Olive is already marching out of the room, her stride stiff and off-balance. “

What Olive doesn’t know is that her dad takes her more seriously than she thought. Jonathan has been doing some digging of his own, and is finding himself more and more baffled and unhappy by what he’s finding. Looking through the couple’s finances over the last year shows that Billie successfully siphoned off nearly $20,000 between their savings and checking accounts. And after a search through Billie’s laptop uncovers a hidden and locked file as well as some strange photos of a house he’s never seen and a bookmark to a private investigator’s office, Jonathan is left in a state of utter dismay. Did Billie really die that weekend, a year ago? Or did she disappear in another way entirely?

Both Olive and Jonathan begin to spiral out of control, their tandem paths peppered with insecurities, meddling friends, enigmatic strangers, and the question that haunts them both — is Billie still alive? 

Watch Me Disappear is the third book by noted journalist and novelist Janelle Brown.  A novel that has no qualms with delving into the complexities and flaws of each character allows readers to appreciate Brown’s raw and honest portrayal of the burdens Billie, Jonathan, and Olive all carry — each unique and solely theirs to shoulder. The people that we love are not always who or what we imagined and expected them to be, and Brown’s weaving of lives and story lines reminds readers that the human way of doing things is more often than not to see what we want to see. Billie, at her core, was not a good person. . . and it was fascinating to see how she infected lives with her selfishness while at the same time ingratiating herself.

Giving this novel a solid 4.5 out of 5 star rating, I am eager to pick up the other two novels Brown has penned. Her distinct descriptions of each character was a pleasure to read; at each turn of perspective I felt that Brown slipped into the character’s skin with ease and exceptional depth. While I did feel that a couple of the side story lines were a little contrived, I appreciated Brown’s attempts at creating even more ways for readers to connect with the realness of the characters. Several times I was sure that I had this novel and its mystery figured out, only to be given a twisting turn onto another avenue.

Watch Me Disappear is a clean and easy read for lovers of a good mystery, and is recommended for readers aged 15 and up. This book is available on all platforms on July 11, 2017.

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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 Count Of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas

“ All human wisdom is contained in these two words –

Wait and Hope ”

For a lot of aspiring readers, picking up one of the numerous tomes deemed “classic” can be a daunting task. From school reading lists peppered with titles like War and Peace, Moby Dick, or A Tale of Two Cities to friends who insist that you “aren’t cultured until” you’ve read The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Odyssey, classic novels are easy to find intimidating — and not just because of their overwhelmingly large size. The language styles, anecdotal phrases, and wordings are different from those of today, the subject matters and environmental circumstances are often unfamiliar to modern-day readers, and the plots are often slower moving than the quickly cranked out novels of today. And lest we forget, while writers and authors of today can pull book out of book from their minds and put to press within months, the literary geniuses of days past wrote their masterpieces entirely by hand, by candlelight or oil lamp — if they were lucky enough to be able to afford it.

But, classics are classics for a reason. Books such as Treasure Island and The Time Machine have intrigued and entertained readers for over 100 years with their swashbuckling heroes, treacherous villains, adoring and beautiful damsels in distress, and time traveling adventures. It’s amazing to me that some literature can not only last that long, but continue to bring about new readers and lovers. The magic of the written world never fails to inspire me and push me onward, eager to add another tome to my ever-growing library.

You can ask nearly anyone if they’ve heard of The Three Musketeers and their answer will be a resounding YES. From the older generations who are young at heart to the millennial attached to their cell phone, all the way down to the toddler who has seen the images of three fencing artists protecting good from evil depicted by the precocious Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy,  everyone has heard of them. A book that is set into a series of three, circling the life of a young and ambitious nobleman named d’Artagnan who aspires to become wrapped up in the exciting service of musketeers, The Three Musketeers is a true classic, and penned by an interesting and aristocratic French author named Alexandre Dumas.

But while Dumas was pleasantly settled into the adventurous and scintillating life of the roguish d’Artagnan, he was also fully immersed in the creation of another story,  tenderly chronicling the life and times of a man falsely accused of the high crime of treason before being sent away live out his final days in a dark and dank prison by the sea. The Count of Monte Cristo would become a tale for the ages, celebrated for decades to come, the classic telling of revenge and pirate’s treasure.

Edmond Dantès is a man with his entire life set before him. After a tour set at sea, he is finally home and preparing to marry the love of his life, the lovely Mercédès. Due to the death of his captain, Dantès is also now set with the task of a new seafaring position and is anxious to tell his fiancee the news. He can now support her financially, allowing her all of the things in life that she truly deserves. But upon his deathbed, his captain and friend begged a final favor —  to successfully deliver a letter and a package. Naively Edmond accepts his challenge, hoping that this will help ease the mind of a dying man and fulfill his last wishes, allowing him to pass in peace. Unbeknownst to Dantès, the parcels are part of a conspiracy of which he has been made a pawn of, and when the items are found to be objects of a larger Bonapartist crime,Dantès is sentenced without a fair trial, found to be a willing criminal and sent to prison. The victim of an elaborate cover-up set forth by three men, one of which truly meant to do Edmond harm because of the love he carried for Mercédès, Dantès is banished without ever being able to say goodbye.

After spending years on the dreary island trapped inside his small and depressing cell,Dantès is on the literally on the verge of suicide when he encounters a surprise visitor. Abbé Faria is a prisoner neatly residing in a cell nearby to Edmond’s and is hell-bent on the act of escape. He has managed to  ferret an escape route via complicated underground tunnels during his extended stay in the less than worthy accommodations, and Faria quickly befriends Dantès when he realizes the state that the hopeless young man is in. During the next eight years, Edmond is transformed from an ignorant and provincial sailor who’d all but given up hope, into an accomplished and worldly man. Under the direct tutelage of Faria,Dantès spends his days learning languages, cultures, arts, and sciences.

Dantès holds onto his new lease on life with renewed and furious hands, but Faria’s time on earth is rapidly coming to a close. Much like the old captain who died on Edmond’s watch nearly 20 years ago, this particular old man also has a final request of Dantès. During an emotional meeting of the minds, Faria weaves for Dantès the tale of a massive buried treasure, the acts of a shipwreck and a roguish band of pirates, hidden deep in the coves and caverns around the mysterious island of Monte Cristo. He beseeches Edmond to hunt and find this treasure, by way of a legacy, and to use it to his own benefits. When the old man and beloved friend dies, the apprentice stows away in the body bag being pushed out to sea as a final farewell and escapes. He honors his friend’s request and to his surprise finds the buried treasure exactly where he was told it would be. Dantès begins making plans to use the endless amount of jewels, coin, and artifacts to enact a very specific revenge upon those who have disgraced him and essentially stolen his life.

“ The friends we have lost do not repose under the ground. . .they are buried deep in our hearts.

It has been thus ordained that they may always accompany us. . .”

Reinventing himself as the darkly mystifying and elusive Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond begins to unravel a complicated web of deceit and vengeance, this time of his own making. His every move becomes a calculated exercise in patience and futility as he endeavors to put back the pieces of his life. Searching for the three men whose nefarious plans landed him in his predicament in the first place,Dantès uses the strong arm of his immense newfound wealth to dazzle and amaze them, a show of cloak and dagger, a presentation of smoke and mirrors. Edmond uses the men’s pretentiousness and ego against them,  all while brilliantly bringing them to their knees both financially and lawfully. Some things the Count has not intended, such as the fate of his beloved Mercédès, and he must make the decision of whether to bring her down with his enemies or lift her up into virtue.

But can authentic peace be found in the cool arms of retribution? Readers will simply have to wait. . . and hope.

“ ‘How did I escape?

With difficulty.

How did I plan this moment?

With pleasure.’ ”

The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic novel that I give a solid 5 stars to, and not just for the wonderful tale that is spun. It is a book that anyone can pick up and dive into, as it is as relatable today as it was a century ago when it was first published. The plot is daring, adventurous, and slipping into the mind of Dantès as he is transformed from pauper to prince is thrilling. The way that Dumas is able to formulate the complicated plan of revenge is uncanny and at times, simply awe-inspiring. It is a book that should not be missed out on by anyone, for it is a true telling of good versus evil, and a story that transcends time.

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Review: Azarias Tor – The History Maker

Azarias Tor: The History Maker

by Richard Abbott-Brailey

” Remember, whatever you do now, in the past, and in the future —

timing is everything. “

What if there really is more to life?

What if your life truly has a higher purpose? Most members of the human race are locked into two categories: those who like to believe that they are creators of their own destinies and that they also have some profound impact on their own slice of the world, all by their own design, or, they believe in higher powers; in a God or a vision thereof that sets the path for them and from which they cannot remove themselves , no matter how hard they try, as all is predestined by their chosen God. One thing that both classes have in common is that most humans are inherently self-absorbed, believing that they are special. Their offspring are always the “smartest” or the “most advanced for their age.” Their choices are frequently right, and finding a wrong is not common. Or so, we believe.

But what if, you truly were special?

In Azarias Tor: The History Maker, the debut novel by Richard Abbott-Brailey, timelines and purposes are explored and identified with a wonderful flair for the dramatic and a keen sense of imagination. With a nod to science fiction icon Dr. Who and a crime-fighting twist reminiscent of Minority Report, Abbott-Brailey twists and bends the subplot of time travel into something rather unique, allowing endless avenues for the story to continue on while featuring strong characters with curious backstories.

Azarias Tor is a man living his life with one foot planted firmly in the past and another tenuously placed in the present. After the tragic losses of his mother and his  police partner, he was then dealt a final devastating blow when his beloved wife Theresa was killed in a car accident. The lone survivor of his previous life as a content officer-of-the-law and husband, Azarias has chosen a path of education and routine. As a mentor and teacher to a group of young adults that have been seemingly given up on by previous educators, Azarias is attempting to settle into his life as a single man.

But old habits die hard and adjusting himself to fit onto this new path is not easy. He cannot forget or move past the softness that Theresa brought into his life, and the memories that they shared together continue to haunt him, years later. He sends her text messages on a regular basis and frequently tricks his mind into believing she is simply on vacation or at the store picking up groceries, while juggling the realization and reality that while vanity is prevailing, she really is gone. Trying to manipulate his grief into something more manageable, Azarias relies on routine and a solitary lifestyle to get him through. But despite his attempts at a quiet existence, something keeps poking through the canvas, needling him like a  perpetual thorn in his side — he keeps having these dreams where he’s caught up in some other part of history. . . and they feel so real. And why does this strangely beautiful green-eyed woman keep popping into his life, seemingly caught on the periphery of both his dream life and his awake one?

” ‘Of course, that goes without saying. Client confidentiality is guaranteed. Professional courtesy,’ the man in the rumpled suit concurred. ‘Drawing up a contract regarding the work, conditions, expectations, and so on, would be part of the first session. And, is there anything particular you want to discuss at the first session?’ he added. 

‘Dreams, to start with,’ Azarias said. 

Alan stood up, and began walking around the room, as if the activity aided his thought processes, before speaking again. 

‘Okay. Here’s what I am going to ask you to do. Write down anything about dreams you want to talk about. Keep a record of any dreams you have between now and your first session,’ Alan proposed, before finishing with, ‘And think about anything else you might wish to discuss related to this topic.’ 

Azarias pressed his hands down on the desk, pushing the whole of his weight upwards. He moved away from the chair, placing his hands behind his back, walking towards the windows. A pause, before turning, looking directly at Alan, and clasping his hands under his chin, and then said, ‘That’s easy. Any other discussion? Easy.

There are times when I cannot tell the difference between reality and dreams.’ “

In another facet of history, Saluki has risen up the ranks of the company her father manages rather smoothly, and she’s a more than capable Commandant. As per her duty under the careful watch of the Superus Gabriel Damarov, she has come across something rather bizarre — a person who should not be. Azarias Tor should technically not exist, not according to the laws that govern time traveling. It would appear that someone has broken one of the commandments and procreated with a person in the past to produce a child born to travel through time, and it is her job to ascertain the required measures and steps to bring Tor up to date with his new purpose. The Emergent has no clue that the emerald-eyed Saluki has been walking through his dreams with him, or that in fact what he perceives to be dreams are actually leaps through time, and that she is responsible for his current well-being. Bringing Azarias from the place of Emergent to Established is Saluki’s mission, and one that she readily accepts, eager to continue proving herself to the powers-that-be.

Raphael Antinori also has a mission, albeit a private and self-assumed one. He has had his suspicions about the Gabriel Damarov for more time than he would like to admit, and things are finally coming to a head.  In his role as Vice-Superus, he’s aware that making any hasty moves might allude to the fact that he is simply after the top job, so he must tread lightly, building evidence and playing by the rules. But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t taken private measures to protect himself, should the need arise. He has his own thoughts on how Azarias Tor has come to be created, but what he doesn’t realize is that he is more involved than he could ever imagine.

” ‘Soon,’ he muttered into the air. ‘Soon.’

He studied the horizon, to the south, as if searching for something, and then stood for another five minutes, staring into the distance. IT was if he was waiting for something, and he had waited this way every afternoon for four weeks — waiting for something, or someone. At 17:31 the waiting was over. 

Behind him the air crackled, audibly — a bubble-wrap orchestra — and static electricity caused his hair to rise slightly, and his sense of smell picked up a hint of ozone in the air. And when the brief flurry of activity ceased the Vice-Superus turned away from his view. 

‘I’ve been expecting you,’ he said, eyeing the white-clad figure standing before him. ‘Yes, I have been expecting you.’ “

When Azarias is confronted with his ability to time travel, he cannot help but yearn for more time with his beloved Theresa. As intriguing as his newfound teacher Saluki is, she cannot deter his mind from the comforts of his past. Throwing the rules out of the window, Azarias begins to create spurs and breaks in time, unknowingly causing ripples and new paths that will take years to sort out. Winding through the new histories that are spawning for all involved is proving tricky, especially with the nefarious dealings of the Superus and his hired assassin running as a tandem undercurrent to the plans of the heroes. Saluki and Azarius must band together with an unlikely partner and try to change the course of history in a way that will prevent certain disaster from occurring, while saving lives in the process. Can it be done? Will good prevail over evil? Or have the histories already been mapped out by a higher power?

In the sprit of H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut, Azarias Tor is a grand attempt at time travel, and very nearly succeeds. I am hoping that this novel is a beginning instead of an end, as I was anxious for the main character and his female worthy advisor to strike out on more detailed and structured adventures. While the author is very well-versed in the areas of detail and picture painting, I felt that the descriptions of places and actions at times took over the plot and bogged down the adventure; I would have appreciated a heavier hand at editing. I yearned for more plot because I found the baseline story to be so interesting and a fresh take on time travel, and I really found the characters to be strong and complimentary of one another.  Each and every character was different from the other and had their own personalities and nuances. I am always a fan of a sound and spirited female character, and Saluki certainly fit the bill; she is no damsel in distress. The character of Azarias was written with such a sensitive and thoughtful hand that I could feel the sadness and loss that he experienced in an acute manner. I appreciated that the author made Azarias so vulnerable, as that is something hard to come across with strong male leads. In fact, the romance of Azarias holding to his marriage vows even through his wife’s death was a humbling act of romance. The subjects of Superus and Vice-Superus were also distinct and interesting characters, but I was not thoroughly convinced of the reasoning behind the deviant dealings of Gabriel Damarov. His views on power and his intent were not made fully clear, in my opinion, and seemed a bit all over the place as the story grew to its close. I felt that the author went down several avenues of subplot and did not finish them as he seemed to be caught up on further descriptions, which left me wanting for resolutions that I hope will come with future serial novels.

Azarias Tor: The History Maker is a book that I feel quite comfortable giving a solid 4 out of 5 stars. Due to the cliffhanger ending, I am hopeful for a sequel and for further input on the complex personal histories of the other characters and of where Azarias will ultimately end up — will he use his newfound power for good, or for his own personal gain? I’m sure we will find out.

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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.