In Search of the Animalcule by Steven L. Berk, M.D.

In Search of the Animalcule by Steven L. Berk, M.D.
Publisher: iUniverse
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

When he is born in 1847 Vienna, Jacob Pfleger shares just two days with his mother, a female obstetrician who dies, like thousands of other women around the world, of the mysterious childbed fever. Because his birth father wants nothing to do with him, Jacob is placed in an orphanage. His mother’s dying wish is that he will grow up with resilience and independence.

As Jacob matures into a precocious twelve-year-old, he is told about the legacy of his mother by her colleague, Ignaz Semmelweis, and learns that his father is a winemaker in Lille, France. Determined to find his father and his destiny, Jacob embarks on a quest to locate him. When he arrives in France, Jacob is introduced to Louis Pasteur who is working with is father to determine why the wines of France are spoiling. As he is led on an intense scientific journey, Jacob eventually also works with Joseph Lister and Robert Koch, participating in the great discoveries of the era that uncover the animalcules, the bacteria, that have caused global disease and death. Later Jacob studies to become a doctor under the mentorship of Sir William Osler at Johns Hopkins.

In this amazing story that captures the real lives and work of the great scientists of the time, an orphan assists in shocking discoveries that change the worlds understanding of disease and uncovers the field of infectious disease.

To read an entertaining and engaging account of what is probably the most important medical breakthrough of the nineteenth century—germ theory—this book should not be missed! It is seen through the eyes of the highly likeable orphan boy, Jacob, whose mother died birthing him at the hands of doctors who didn’t wash their hands. Jacob’s mother was a doctor who believed that germs, or rather, animalcules, were responsible for many deaths. This sets young Jacob on a life-long course to discover more and save lives, but first, he must find the father he never met.

Jacob starts off on an adventure and runs away from the orphan home in a quest from Vienna to France to find his father, a vineyard worker. What comes next is a tale of danger, showing what a brave boy Jacob is. He heads out on foot with little food.

Over the course of the story, he runs into interesting people, both fictional and real. The characterization is done with excellence, and readers are treated to wonderful inside views of doctors and scientists who made history: Pasteur, Lister, and others. The author of this story is not only a doctor who understands the medical aspects involved but knows how to write these concepts in a way that laypeople can understand and enjoy.

Jacob’s interaction as he lives and works with those who have dedicated their lives to unfolding the mysteries of germ theory is not only charming but also enlightening. Readers will learn things, which is a bonus to being entertained. They will see what it was like to be a researcher in an era without modern equipment.

The author doesn’t forget the women who were involved and includes their important contributions. Jacob’s relationships are at times motivating and at others heartbreaking.

Setting in this story is done in a way to bring in even more realism and put readers there with a sense of time and place.

This is a fascinating account that is sure to touch readers’ hearts and inspire their minds. It is worth the read!

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
Publisher: Forge Books
Genre: Contemporary, Light Paranormal, Women’s Fiction
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Nestled in the mountain shadows of Alabama lies the little town of Wicklow. It is here that Anna Kate has returned to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café.

It was supposed to be a quick trip to close the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but despite her best intentions to avoid forming ties or even getting to know her father’s side of the family, Anna Kate finds herself inexplicably drawn to the quirky Southern town her mother ran away from so many years ago, and the mysterious blackbird pie everybody can’t stop talking about.

As the truth about her past slowly becomes clear, Anna Kate will need to decide if this lone blackbird will finally be able to take her broken wings and fly.

Two women, lots of misunderstanding and hurt, plus pie.

I picked this book up because it was recommended to me. I’m glad I read it, as it was something out of my normal wheelhouse. The book moved along fine, and the writing was good. It’s a family saga, women’s fiction type of book and it was good.

I have a few niggles with the book, though. There are a lot of characters and at times, it was hard to keep track of them. Natalie and Anna Kate are good characters, but the cast around them is almost too much. I get that this is a homey feel type of book, but there could’ve been more depth to the characters to make them stand apart better. Also, I got confused as to whether this was a paranormal book or straight realism. The cat was a fascinating character, but it seemed like the thread was left loose. There are the starts of romances in the book, but nothing really seemed wrapped up.

I do have to say this did read well like a family saga and a slice of life story. I did feel like I was there with Anna Kate and Natalie. I think some of the dimensions of their characters could’ve been explored more, but they were relatable and that worked. I liked how it was like reading about friends.

If you’re looking for a book that’s warm, cozy, takes a while to develop and will make you want to eat pie, then this is the book for you. Check it out.

How to Teach Your Cat Tricks (In Five Easy Steps) by Nicola Winstanley

How to Teach Your Cat Tricks (In Five Easy Steps) by Nicola Winstanley
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Humor, Childrens (Ages 3-7 years), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

In this hilarious and clever follow-up to How to Give Your Cat a Bath, a boy, a dog and a know-it-all narrator are thwarted by a cat who refuses to learn a trick. The perfect read-aloud for fans of Interrupting Chicken.

Step one: Decide on a trick
Step two: Get some treats ready
Step three: Hold the treat in your hand and ask your cat to do the trick
Step four: Watch your cat do exactly what you asked him to do
Step five: Reward your cat for doing the trick

Simple, right?

This spoof on an instruction manual features an increasingly bewildered human, a nonchalant cat, a very good dog and a know-it-all narrator . . . who really doesn’t know it all. How DO you teach a cat a trick? Read on to find out!

Trying to teach a cat to do much of anything is well…like herding cats.

I picked up this book because it looked cute, and it was. The little boy is trying to teach his cat to do tricks. Anyone who has cats know they can’t be taught (not much). Cats will do what they will. Then again, children will do what they will and if they think they can train their cat, then this is a funny way to show that not everything will work out the way you want and you have to make the best of what does happen.

This book is written in a cute manner and the story moved right along. I do have to say that I felt sorry for the dog because Einstein (the cat) was being a cat–he caused trouble, chased birds and didn’t take to any of the training. But the dog did. Noodles (the dog) is in the background cleaning up after the mess and following the little boy’s directions. What stood out was that sometimes the one you want to teach isn’t listening, but there are those you can. Kids may not get that, and kids might not be offended by the dog doing the grunt work in the background while the cat did nothing.

Still, it’s a funny story with animals being what they are, and kids should enjoy it. I know I did.

Big Wig by Jonathan Hillman and Levi Hastings

Big Wig by Jonathan Hillman and Levi Hastings
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQ, Childrens (Ages 7-10)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

In the spirit of Julián Is a Mermaid, this irrepressible picture book celebrates drag kids, individuality, and self-confidence from the perspective of a fabulous wig!

When a child dresses in drag to compete in a neighborhood costume competition, he becomes B. B. Bedazzle! A key part of B.B. Bedazzle’s ensemble is a wig called Wig. Together they are an unstoppable drag queen team! But Wig feels inadequate compared to the other, bigger wigs. When Wig flies off B. B.’s head, she goes from kid to kid instilling confidence and inspiring dreams in those who wear her:

Wig remembers what wigs can do.
Wig brushes the world,
Wig hears whispered wishes…
and turns them into
something true.
The bigger their dreams,
the bigger Wig seems.

This wonderful read aloud celebrates the universal childhood experience of dressing up and the confidence that comes with putting on a costume. And it goes further than that, acknowledging that sometimes dressing differently from what might be expected is how we become our truest and best selves.

A wig that’s got some magical powers that aren’t so magical, but they’re just as dynamic after all.

Everyone has that one garment that makes them feel bigger or bolder. That special sweater that makes them feel like a million bucks or a dress that’s THE dress. In the case of BB Bedazzle, it’s their wig. The writing in this story is good and it’s easy to understand. It’s cute and the illustrations are colorful, which should bring children right in. The story shows the very important need for children to understand that being different isn’t bad and it’s wonderful.

Some will read this book and say it’s not for children because the little boy is dressing in drag. The thing I took away from the story wasn’t so much that the boy dressed in drag, but that the boy was able to explore different ways of dressing. He could use the wig and his clothes for his imagination and to explore who he is. Every child needs the chance to figure out for themselves who they are and if they can do it, like this little boy, in a place that’s safe and where they are loved, then that’s what matters.

If you’re looking for a children’s book that shows being different isn’t bad, but rather fabulous and that being true to yourself is important, then this book is for you.

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

The young postman’s days are numbered. Estranged from his family and living alone with only his cat, Cabbage, to keep him company, he was unprepared for the doctor’s diagnosis that he has only months to live. But before he can tackle his bucket list, the devil shows up to make him an offer: In exchange for making one thing in the world disappear, the postman will be granted one extra day of life. And so begins a very strange week that brings the young postman and his beloved cat to the brink of existence.

With each object that disappears, the postman reflects on the life he’s lived, his joys and regrets, and the people he’s loved and lost.

This timeless tale from Genki Kawamura (producer of the Japanese blockbuster animated movie Your Name) is a moving story of loss and reconciliation, and of one man’s journey to discover what really matters most in life.

A young postman is facing his early death, and the devil visits him with an intriguing proposition. The young man will die within 24 hours unless… He will get one more day on earth is he agrees to the disappearance of one thing worldwide. This can go on indefinitely.

As the man makes one thing disappear after another, he sees the results of the world and people’s lives without that item. He does a lot of reflection on society and his life. Realizations hit him such as the truth about his relationships.

Some things are easy to make disappear, and then the idea of making cats disappear comes up. This young postman has a loyal feline companion named Cabbage. Cabbage adds some humor to this situation.

Now things have become a bit too tricky for the protagonist.

This is a thoughtful book, one with an interesting premise. It is not a fast mover, but readers will be curious to see what happens along the way and in the end.

A Reservoir Man by L.J. Ambrosio

A Reservoir Man by L.J. Ambrosio
Publisher: Film Valor
Genre: Coming of Age, Literary Fiction
Rated: 4 stars
Review by Rose

A Reservoir Man, critics have hailed this explosive and timely work as “a must-read coming-of-age story of 2022.” Twists and turns further pull the reader in to Michael’s action-packed tale, with powerful themes, from betrayal and family to secrets and identity. “Be sure not to blink because you just might miss a pivotal moment in Michael’s rousing, larger-than-life story.” –R.C. Gibson, “This book is a dream, a gamble, a utopia, even.” — Kalyan Panja, Bookmarkks.

This story spans the years from 1947 – the current time. Part coming-of-age, part an insightful look at one man’s journey through life in a very intense time of history, especially for a gay man.

It makes me think of an autobiographical memoir instead of fiction. The character of Micahel truly expresses the confusion he goes through trying to figure his life out and the pain he feels as he begins losing friends to AIDS.

Michael’s desire is to not be a reservoir man – not to be the kind of person who only does what’s expected of him instead of who he truly is. Michael’s sole aim in life is to find his own truth…and to help others find theirs. He does this throughout his life, and he finds he does some of his best thinking on a bench, watching the sunset. I really admired this character – in all his decisions, his main goal was to do the right thing.

The book was easy to read, and the dates at the beginning of each chapter helps ground the reader. There are some heartbreaking parts, especially the last chapter. But, even with that, the book ends on a hopeful note with the author stating “Non, je ne regrette rien.” (No, I do not regret anything)

Thank you, Mr. Ambrosio, for giving me the opportunity to find out a part of life I did not previously know much about.

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In The Shadow of The Apennines by Kimberly Sullivan

In The Shadow of The Apennines by Kimberly Sullivan
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Contemporary, Historical, Womens Fiction
Rated: 5 stars
Review by Rose

An American divorcée. An Italian shepherdess.
Separated by a century, united by common dreams

The sleepy little Abruzzo mountain town of Marsicano seems about as far as Samantha can flee from her failed marriage and disastrous university career. Eager for a fresh start, Samantha begins to set down roots in her Italian mountain hideaway.

At first, the mountain retreat appears idyllic, but an outsider’s clumsy attempts at breaking into the closed mountain community are quickly thwarted when the residents discover Samantha’s snarky blog ridiculing the town and its inhabitants.

Increasingly isolated in her mountain cottage, Samantha discovers the letters and diaries of Elena, a past tenant and a survivor of the 1915 Pescina earthquake. Despite the century that separates the two women, Samantha feels increasingly drawn into Elena’s life, and discovers startling parallels with her own.

What a beautifully written story! I absolutely love both the main characters – Samantha in the present and Elena in the past via the journals Samantha discovers in her new home.

I love the fact that Samantha takes back control of her life after her husband divorces her by completely moving away and trying to create a new life near the Apennines. What a beautiful area! The author’s descriptions make me want to go there myself.

Samantha, although wanting to fit in to the close-knit community, sabotages herself through her writing and finds herself completely isolated during the harsh winter- with only the journals of Elena for company.

The juxtaposition of Samantha and Elena’s lives make for fascinating reading. And I think this book would make a wonderful movie as well. Kudos, Ms. Sullivan! I’ll be on the lookout for more books by this author.

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The Sound Of It by Alison Jean Lester

The Sound Of It by Alison Jean Lester
Publisher: Bench Press
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When Su, a divorced mother of one daughter, falls in love with Jeremy, a widowed father of two sons, they want to build a life together, but neither of their houses in Worcester is big enough for a family of five. They decide to build a dream house in farmland outside the city, in which to live happily ever after. For sound designer Su, it’s an opportunity to create an embracing home and heal past wounds of betrayal and loss, while failed entrepreneur Jeremy sees a chance to impress his overbearing father.

But what happens when hidden financial misjudgments cloud the horizon? What happens when some family ties grow strong and others don’t grow at all?

The Sound of It looks at parenting and at step-parenting, when expectations are high, dreams are big, and the Internet is very dangerous.

Dreaming is easier than making a dream come true.

The subplots about social media and Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response videos made this feel like a modern and fresh read. I’ve never read a book that included a character who knew about ASMR before, and was curious to see how it would be covered here. Their reaction to social media and ASMR told me a lot about that individual’s personality and added an additional layer of conflict that kept me reading.

Su and Jeremy repeatedly made rash decisions that left me shaking my head. They struggled to predict logical consequences for their actions or to verify things they were told that sounded too good to be true. I found myself wishing that these character flaws had been explained better. Did both of them have mental or physical health conditions that affected their cognitive abilities and short-term memories? Was there some other explanation for their illogical behavior? How did the author expect her readers to react to these scenes? These would have all been excellent themes to explore in depth and I would have happily gone with a higher rating if that had happened. As it was, though, I found myself shaking my head at their poor decision-making skills even though I otherwise liked them as individuals.

I enjoyed seeing how the relationships in this novel evolved in general. It takes work to blend two families together, and the process won’t always necessarily be a smooth one. The relationships between Su, Jeremy, her daughter, and his sons were probed from every possible angle. It was interesting to compare how the relationships between individual stepparents, stepchildren, biological parents, and biological siblings varied not only between individuals but also over time as they all got to know each other better.

The Sound Of It was a thought-provoking read.

Running Scared by Elizabeth Lowell

Running Scared by Elizabeth Lowell
Publisher: Avon Books
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Risa Sheridan knows everything there is to know about gold-its history, its secrets, its allure, its perils. Her boss, Shane Tannahill, is addicted to the stuff, having already made the precious metal the theme of his ultrasuccessful Las Vegas gambling establishment, the Golden Fleece. Now an ancient Celtic piece is being offered to Shane for his collection, and the casino owner is hooked. But though she shares Shane’s enthusiasm, Risa is wary — because something about this particular artifact is troubling; something about it says “stay away.”

It is a voice that should be heeded but is not. And the artifact is placing them at the center of an insidious plot in the mad whirl and blinding glitter of Las Vegas.

A whole lot of heat and gold.

I had never read anything by Elizabeth Lowell before this book and I’m glad this was recommended to me. This was a fantastic book. I’m not really into romantic suspense, but this one was a big hit. Lowell writes a spellbinding story and kept me riveted to my seat throughout the story.

Risa is a smart woman, but she’s had hard knocks in life. She knows what she needs to do–she’s the person you turn to when you want a rare piece of jewelry handled. Is it real, is it fake? How old is it? She’s your girl. Shane Tannahill is her boss and is obsessed with having the best gold collection at his hotel in Vegas. It doesn’t hurt that he’s handsome, too.

I liked that there are a lot of threads running through this story. There’s the sort of romance between Risa and Shane, the gold that shows up, the show Shane wants to put on and Risa’s past. Keeping the threads separate and straightened out could be confusing at times, but it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the story.

If you’re looking for a story that’s a bit breathless, a lot mysterious and even a little romantic, then this might be the one for you. I’m on the lookout for more by this author.

A School of Daughters by Kate René MacKenzie

A School of Daughters by Kate René MacKenzie
Publisher: Red Lace Books
Genre: Contemporary, Women’s Fiction
Rated: 5 stars
Reviewed by Rose

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

It’s funny how things sneak up on you…

Kate Willoughby is a champion for throwaways—discarded dogs and cats, abandoned horses bound for slaughter, and all creatures great and small. But now it’s Kate who’s alone in a hostile world like a dog dumped by the side of a road. Is there a champion for Kate?

After 22 years of marriage, Kate loves her husband, Brian, with an even greater passion than when she spoke her vows. “My world spins on his axis,” she often says. But when Kate finds a love letter to Brian from Micky, she’s torn between proving Brian’s innocence and nailing him to the wall with his guilt.

Throughout her marriage, Kate has been trusting and trustworthy —to a fault, friends have said. Now, she steals into Brian’s emails and accesses his credit card accounts, phone records, bank statements, friends and activities, discovering the metaphoric iceberg beneath Brian’s affair.

Turning to the one constant in her life, Kate is guided by her family of animals: shelter dog Molly; Premarin horse Quinn; packrat Winston; owls Albert & Victoria; Stubby, the chipmunk; rattlesnake Cassandra; and Phineas, the determined grosbeak. These wise and wonderful teachers, along with a wild menagerie on her Arizona ranch, deliver lessons on life, love, and letting go. But it’s Molly, in a heartbreaking act of courage, who leads Kate back to her true self, before she became lost in love with Brian.

Shining a light on the childhood events and adult choices that, like steppingstones, brought her to this moment, Kate illuminates a familiar and well-worn path. Narrating her story with equal doses of heartache and humor, Kate comes to understand that nothing sneaks up on you that isn’t already here. Learning from Phineas, the determined grosbeak, Kate realizes that even after a devastating injury, you can soar again.

A School of Daughters is a beautifully written, lyrical book that delves into the heart of the main character, highlighting how her current life is rooted in her past, from childhood abuse to the desperate desire for stability at nearly any cost. There is truth here that shines through, and I admire the author for taking her life and sharing it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

This story hit me hard, in a good way. I was completely engrossed in the story and could see myself and friends in similar situations. Even after finishing the book, I could not stop thinking about Kate, what she was going through, and how her friends and, especially, the animals in her life not only helped her through the pain, but also taught her important life lessons.

The book skips back and forth from present day to situations in her past with not only her husband, but her childhood, other romantic relationships, and with different animals in her life. It is a revealing look on how a person can be strong and yet still give up parts of herself without even realizing it.

Her journey was heartrending, yet the reader is, in the end, left with a sense of hope that Kate will make it through to the other side. Kudos, Ms. MacKenzie. I will definitely be on the lookout for other books by this author.

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