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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 and Barnes and

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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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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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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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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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Review: Brickbats And Tutus

Brickbats and Tutus

by John Plimmer

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

Selfishness then becomes selflessness. “

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: Small Great Things

Small Great Things

by Jodi Picoult

” I fold my arms and stare down at the newborn. 

Babies are such blank slates. they don’t come into this world with the assumptions their parents have made, or the promises their church will give, or the ability to sort people into groups they like and don’t like. They don’t come into this world with anything, really, except the need for comfort. And they will take it from anyone, without judging the giver. 

I wonder how long it takes before the polish given by nature gets worn off by nurture. “

Growing up in the South, I am no stranger to racism. I spent the first ten years of my life living in a poor part of Louisiana, and from then, moved on to a less-than-affluent part of a small suburb of Dallas. In Louisiana, I was the only white kid on my street. I was one of the only white kids at my school. The majority of my teachers were black. All of my friends, except one, were black. And as a child, I didn’t really notice. Sure, we had different colors to our skin. Our hair was different. But we all played with dolls and rode our bikes, and we all ran around after dark without shoes on and tried to catch fireflies so we could smash their bodies onto our skin and watch it glow in the moonlight.

But as I grew older, the veil of childhood and all of it’s quiet innocence faded and fell. “Nigger” was a word that was frequently used around the dining table, and it was a word used by my father, my grandfather, and their friends to describe every black person. To them, every black person was the same – they were inferior. And every white person was the same – they were superior. But I think what shocked me the most was how my father and grandfather treated black people to their faces. They treated them as if they never said those terrible words about their entire race behind closed doors. They were fake. And I think that is what outraged me more than anything as a child and teenager growing up in the South.

As an adult, I cannot say that I am a racist. I also cannot say that I am not. I don’t think it’s truly for me to decide. . . those dirty labels that we throw upon one another like so much filth and rags, they are not for me to put onto myself. I can say I have black friends, and I’ve heard that that is one “the most racist things a white person can say.” I don’t know why, but that’s probably because I’m not black. I can say that I feel more comfortable with people outside of my own race than I do with my own. Perhaps it’s because of those years I grew up running around the neighborhood with black kids, flagging down the ice cream truck and pooling our pennies together to get one ice cream to share. Perhaps it is because during my elementary school years, it was my black teachers — and not my white ones — who would kneel down to embrace me in a warm and all-encompassing hug when I was upset. My first kiss was from a Mexican boy. My second, a black one. I never thought to worry about differences. They were just boys.

I wonder what it was that has made me the way I am, considering all of the vile things I heard around dinner table as I grew up. My brother and I would silently stare at one another as our father and grandfather went on another tangent about black people, not daring to speak up and say that our own best friends were black and Mexican for fear of being yelled at and berated. Some strange current ran through my brother and I and consequently, did the opposite of what I believe our father intended — instead of hating those of other races, we were drawn to them. When my mother left our family, it was a Mexican family that took me in and finished raising me. I always had a hot meal there, and clean bed to lay my head down in. My brother was the guest and subsequent “adopted son” of a black family, and I wonder what my father thought of that. The family that took my brother in was at my brother’s wedding, the son of that family standing as my brother’s Best Man. And I bet my father kept his racist remarks to himself that day. Because you know, it just doesn’t do to be a racist in public.

But the truth is, although I grew up hearing those words and seeing those judgments, I have no idea what it is like to grow up with real prejudice. I am a white woman and as such, I don’t experience what black women experience. I don’t know what they go through. I can read about it and they can tell me, but I don’t know how they feel. I am married to a brown Muslim man and I experience my own brand of prejudices from others, and I worry for my son who is not only half white and half brown — but does not have a declared religion. But it’s funny, I don’t worry about my other two children — the white ones. I don’t worry that they could be shot just for being out late and wearing a hoodie. And I don’t think I ever even thought about not worrying about those things until I read Jodi Picoult’s book, Small Great Things. The reality is — I never thought about those things until I, myself, gave birth to a child of color.

I will tell you, I am not a cryer. Emotion does not bubble in me while watching movies or reading books. That is not to say that I don’t feel things, because I feel them deeply, but I am adept at categorizing reality and fiction in my mind and plowing through things subjectively. But the problem with this book was that the fiction WAS fact, and as a result, I was sobbing within the first ten pages. And I sobbed many other times: as the author slipped into the skin of a black woman targeted for the color of her skin, as a man lost his son, as an attorney struggled to navigate the murky waters of nature versus nurture. This was not an easy book to get through.

” At Dalton, there was one table at lunch where all the Black kids sat, except me. Once, another scholarship student of color invited me to join them for lunch. I said thanks, but I usually spent that time tutoring a white friend who didn’t understand trig. This was not the truth. The truth was that the Black table made my white friends nervous, because even if they’d sat down there with me, they would have been tolerated but not welcomed. In a world where they always fit in, the one place they didn’t chafed hard. 

The other truth was that if I sat with the other kids of color, I couldn’t pretend I was different from them. When Mr. Adamson, my history teacher, started talking about Martin Luther King and kept looking at me, my white friends shrugged it off: He didn’t mean it that way. At the Black table, if one student talked about Mr. Adamson staring at her during that same lesson, another African American student would validate the experience: That totally happened to me, too. 

I so badly wanted to blend in in high school that I surrounded myself with people who could convince me that if I felt like I was being singled out because of the color of my skin, I was making things up, overthinking, being ridiculous. 

There was no Black table in the cafeteria at the hospital. There were a handful of janitors of color, and one or two doctors, and me.  “

Ruth Jefferson is damn good at her job. As a labor and delivery nurse for twenty years and counting, she has seen and coached mothers through just about everything. The hospital she works at revolves around a near skeleton crew with only a handful of nurses on duty at any given time and if she’s being honest, anyone would be hard-pressed to find another nurse on that crew who knows more than Ruth does about birth.

While routinely checking in on a new mom and her baby, Ruth precedes with the exam  like it’s just another day. She tries to ignore the strange vibe in the room and focus solely on the new life that’s in her arms — checking his breathing, his skin, the swirls in his hair. When she listens to his heart she can hear a slight murmur and while that is not especially uncommon, she makes a note to have the pediatrician look the little one over. But when she goes to place the baby back into his mother’s waiting arms in hopes of helping the little one to nurse, she is met with something unexpected — the father wants to see her supervisor, immediately.

Turk is a new father. He’s also a white supremacist. The shock that stole his voice the moment the black nurse walked in and took his baby from his wife Brit’s arms has now worn away and he is ready to take a stance. How dare this woman touch his baby? After speaking harshly with her supervisor, he is pleased to have the black nurse removed from baby Davis’s care, and settles in for the night with his wife and beautiful baby boy.

The next time Turk sees this black nurse, she is standing over his dead son, her hands pressing down so hard onto his chest that she will leave bruises.

The Post-It note glared at Ruth when she read it. “No African American Personnel To Care For This Patient.” Left alone with baby Davis while the other two nurses on call rush off to assist with an emergency C-section, Ruth gazes down into the little one’s face. It’s then that she realizes he is turning an alarming shade of blue, but she. . . hesitates. She’s been told not to touch this baby, and doing so may cause her to lose her job. Her job is the only way that her household is supported; her husband died in Afghanistan when their son was a young boy, and she has her son’s looming college tuition upon her. But at the end of the day, Ruth is a nurse, and be damned some Post-It note. She tries to revive the boy but when she hears someone coming, she wraps him back up and stands there as still as stone. Doing. . . nothing. Per the explicit instructions her supervisor gave her.

It doesn’t matter that moments later, the room is full of staff all trying their best to save this newborn. It doesn’t matter that Ruth’s supervisor ordered her to act and she is now performing compressions to try and coax the baby’s heart into filling with blood and pumping new life into his veins. Baby Davis is gone, flown away to Heaven, and Turk knows exactly who to blame — the black nurse who murdered his son in cold blood.

” I start making a list in my head, of all the things I will never get to do with my son: see him smile for the first time. Celebrate his first Christmas. Get him a BB gun. Give him advice to ask a girl out. Milestones. But the road of parenthood, for me, has been wiped clean of landmarks. 

Suddenly Francis is standing in front of me with the shovel. I swallow hard, take it, and become the first person to start to bury my child. After pushing a scoop of dirt into the rip in the ground, I jam the shovel into the earth again. Tom Metzger helps Brit lift it, her hands shaking, and do her part. 

I know I’m supposed to stand vigil while everyone else here helps to put Davis underground. But I’m too busy fighting the urge to dive into that tiny pit. To shovel the dirt out with my bare hands. To lift the casket, to pry it open, to save my baby. I’m holding myself in check so hard that my body is vibrating with effort. “

The letter that comes in the mail tells Ruth that she is officially suspended from her job, but the sting of showing up the morning before and being told by her supervisor that she is about to be escorted from the premises was what bit the sharpest. She didn’t kill that baby. And she didn’t wish him dead. But maybe she did think that the baby was better off in Heaven than being raised by the terrible people he would have called Mom and Dad. It doesn’t take long for the law to come calling — and at 3 a.m., after they break down her door and put her Honor Student son in handcuffs, she is dragged away to jail in her nightgown. It is in that nightgown that she will face a judge and a room full of people at her arraignment. This is where she will literally be spit on and demoralized. And it is where Kennedy McQuarrie will feel a bond with Ruth deep within her gut.

She didn’t become an attorney for the money, and there certainly isn’t any to be found in the public defender’s office. Kennedy is lucky that her hotshot doctor of a husband pays the bills and encourages her to follow what her heart tells her is right. She’s a mother to a quirky little girl who covets Cinderella and Princess Tiana. She is the daughter of a supportive mother. Her world is pretty normal, by most people’s standards. Until Ruth shows up, that is, and forces Kennedy into asking herself the hard questions — the ones about race.

But the case can’t be about race. Playing the race card makes the case a veritable suicide mission. As Kennedy explains this to Ruth, the suspended and humiliated nurse can feel the snakes of anger writhing and shaking in the bowels of her stomach. Not about race? How could this case not — at it’s very core — be about race? But with no money coming in to pay for an attorney of her choosing and the prospect of serious jail time for the serious charge of murder against her, Ruth feels she has no choice but to follow the lines Kennedy is drawing for her in the fickle grains of sand they are both standing on. Not equal, but both standing. Ruth must choose to allow trust to grow between herself and Kennedy, as her very life of freedom hangs in the balance.

” I am wide awake now, being dragged in my nightgown and slippers down my porch steps so that I stumble and scrape my knee on the pavement before I am pushed headfirst into the back of a police car. I pray to God that someone will remember to cut my son’s hands loose. I pray to God that my neighbors, who have been awakened by the hullaballoo in our sleepy neighborhood at 3:00 A.M., and who stand in their doorways with their white faces reflecting in the moon, will ask themselves one day why they remained dead silent, not a single one asking if there was anything they could to to help. “

Small Great Things is a book that I give a rare 5 out of 5 stars to. I was deeply moved by this book as the author led us down three parallel paths, slipping into the skin of each character as if it were her very own : the black nurse Ruth, the white supremacist Turk, and the white defensive attorney Kennedy. Each player had a clear voice and believe it or not, readers will find themselves being both angered by and feeling sympathy for all three. I was wrapped up in this story by the end of the first chapter and although it was difficult to get through at times, especially when Ruth describes certain deliveries she has been involved with, I am so glad that I finished it out to the end. Martin Luther King once said that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way,” and this is the underlying mantra of the book.

I recommend this book to any lovers of a storyline you can sink your teeth into or readers who enjoy meaty characters that they can grow with. I guarantee you will not put this book down at it’s completion and not feel as if you have learned something from it.  With a rich set of detained backstories for each character and a truthful light shown on their day-to-day lives, readers will become attached and feel what they feel. This book is not for the faint of heart — so have some tissues handy.

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Review: Alice – The Wanderland Chronicles

Alice : The Wanderland Chronicles

by J.M. Sullivan

” ‘Rule number one: Always protect your queen.’ “

Alice Carroll is desperate.

A plague has been sweeping her city for an incalculable amount of time and although she and her sister have been able to avoid it up until now, death has now come knocking on their door. Trapped in a town that was once the flourishing and active site of a suburb set outside of Phoenix,  Alice has spent months watching as the people around her have fallen into complete complacency about the impending doom lurking right outside the walls that surround their metropolis. The population of her sector has fooled themselves into believing that the plague cannot darken their doorsteps, and that becoming one of the dreaded “momeraths” could not possibly happen to them.

” Like Dinah says, ‘We can only play the cards we’ve been dealt. It doesn’t do any good to wish about things you can’t change.’ “

After a scouting expedition leads Alice and her older sister Dinah outside of the confines of the sector, Alice is forced to helplessly watch as her sister falls victim to the fearful sickness that has been claiming lives all over the state. The MR-V virus attacks every system inside of their host, turning them into bloodthirsty violent killers who cannot be contained or satisfied. When Dinah begins to exhibit the signs of being a carrier for the fatal virus, Alice knows she has to do something. She’s heard whispers of a doctor miles away who is working towards a cure, and her mission is clear – she must find this man and beg for his help. Dinah is all she has left in this world and she refuses to lose her.

Leaving her precious Dinah in the care of a friend inside the sector, Alice sets out for the place that was once the thriving city of Phoenix, determined to find answers. Soon after arrival she is accosted by one of the terrible monsters that give her nightmares – a momerath set on tasting her blood and claiming her life in the process. Lucky for her, a chance encounter with a handsome (if somewhat erratic) young man named Chess leads her to temporary safety where she can formulate the next phase of her plan. But once she eventually finds the doctor she is looking for, Alice is dismayed to discover that he is scatterbrained and in a near constant state of confusion — and he insists that there is no cure for the disease that her sister is suffering from.

” ‘How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tale, and pour the waters of the Nile on every golden scale.’ His eyes flicked meaningfully from the book to Alice before he continued. ‘How cheerfully he seems to grin, how neatly spreads his claws, and welcomes little fishes in , with gently smiling jaws.’ Bug set the journal on his desk and gazed at Alice intently. Unable to decipher anything, she felt dumb. Clearly, it wasn’t the reaction Bug was hoping for. He sighed, then stood to pat her on the shoulder. ‘You’ll figure it out. but remember to be vigilant. Momerath can show up at any moment, and they’ll be hunting you.’ “

Alice finds herself wrapped up in the curious mystery surrounding Borogove Industries, a scientific research lab that sanctioned the creation of the drug that was eventually turned into the virus and subsequent plague. Her hunt leads her to the threshold of a woman thought to be sponsoring the creation of an antidote,  a woman reverently named The Red Queen. But while Alice hopes to find help and guidance from the woman in charge, she instead faces yet another challenge — mostly in controlling her temper. Alice doesn’t agree with the atrocities she experiences while under the Red Queen’s care, and fights to escape the false safety of the camp. After proving her worth and striking a bargain, Alice sets out once again, this time with the assistance of a team of elite soldiers that work under the tyrannical and deviant Queen’s employ. Alice storms the lab of Borogove in search of answers and a cure and as she unravels the convoluted riddle of the momerath disease, Alice finds herself plunging deeper into the heart of the matter than she ever intended. The path to salvation is wrought with puzzles and horrors, including an enlightening meeting with Dr. Matthew Hatta, creator of the drug, and Alice is forced to make some difficult decisions that will cling to the edges of her nightmares for years to come.

” ‘What about family?’ she asked. ‘And love?’

A wistful look flitted across Hatta’s features before he carefully arranged them back in place. ‘People get too invested in emotions,’ he said briskly. ‘It hinders them from processing information objectively and responding accordingly.’ 

‘But without emotions, what’s the point?’ she asked. Though she rarely got caught up in emotion, it didn’t mean she didn’t recognize their   value.  “

When the truth comes out, Alice is more confused than ever but stays the course — her eyes on the prize. She must get back to Dinah as soon as she can. Her sister’s life and Alice’s future depends on it. But sometimes going down the rabbit hole leads to more twists and turns than one may expect, and finding your way out of the darkness can prove to be nearly impossible.

Alice: The Wanderland Chronicles is the debut novel from American author, J.M. Sullivan. As far as debuts go, Sullivan has gotten off to a great start in a series that is sure to be a curious addition to any mid-grade to YA reader’s library. Twisted tales are all the rage and while Sullivan could stand to push the envelope more with cleverness and parallels, the story was fresh and inspired. With the exception of a few out-of-place curse words, this novel is appropriate for those ages 10+. I give the book 3 out of 5 stars; I was hoping for a bit more expansion on the characters and there were more than a few plot holes. It is my understanding that this is set to be a series of books (if the cliffhanger is any indication) and am hoping for a bit more depth in the next installment. Readers who enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles are encouraged to give this novel a try.

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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.