Letters to Nan by Matthew Wooding

Letters to Nan by Matthew Wooding
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (52 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

James has always had a special bond with his Nan, from their summers in the garden to their raspberry blowing at the television. When James is offered the opportunity to follow his boyhood dream in Europe, he can’t wait to tell her. But she has news for him as well – she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He’s hesitant to leave, but when she hands him a ticket to England, he knows he has to go. He promises to write her every week to help her keep him in her memory. She promises to never forget. Seven years later, James stands at the door of the nursing home, wondering if Nan will be anything like he woman he remembers, and if she’ll remember him…

What happens to the love shared by family members when the memories that created it are fading away?

James and Nan have such a close, loving relationship. My favorite scenes were the ones that explored all of the things they used to do together when James was younger and Nan was healthy. Discussing these common interests provided a lot of material for character development. They also helped me to connect with the characters deeply because I had so many opportunities to see parts of their personalities that probably otherwise wouldn’t have shown up.

The first section of this book focused on James’ career. I was a little surprised to see so much time being spent on discussing what it’s like to pursue that particular job given that this is a fairly short work. The author’s reasons for introducing the audience to the characters in this manner were eventually made clear, but it was still puzzling to wait so long to meet Nan. This was a minor bump in a story that I otherwise really enjoyed, though.

It’s heartbreaking to watch a loved one suffer the side effects of Alzheimer’s disease. This tale captured what it feels like to live through this with incredible accuracy. I was especially impressed with how Mr. Wooding included clues about the progression of Nan’s disease in the conversations she has with James. Their conversations were painfully beautiful and realistic given how much she had declined since last seeing her grandson.

Letters to Nan was wonderful. I’d especially recommend it to anyone who has personal experience with this disease.

A Fireproof Home for the Bride by Amy Scheibe

A Fireproof Home for the Bride by Amy Scheibe
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Historical
Length: Full Length (384 pgs)
Rated: 3 stars
Reviewed by Snapdragon

Emmaline Nelson and her sister Birdie grow up in the hard, cold rural Lutheran world of strict parents, strict milking times, and strict morals. Marriage is preordained, the groom practically predestined. Though it’s 1958, southern Minnesota did not see changing roles for women on the horizon. Caught in a time bubble between a world war and the ferment of the 1960’s, Emmy doesn’t see that she has any say in her life, any choices at all. Only when Emmy’s fiancé shows his true colors and forces himself on her does she find the courage to act—falling instead for a forbidden Catholic boy, a boy whose family seems warm and encouraging after the sere Nelson farm life. Not only moving to town and breaking free from her engagement but getting a job on the local newspaper begins to open Emmy’s eyes. She discovers that the KKK is not only active in the Midwest but that her family is involved, and her sense of the firm rules she grew up under—and their effect—changes completely.

Set in Minnesota mid twentieth century, A Fireproof Home for the Bride is a dark, reflective novel of one woman’s struggle to … evolve, I guess… past her upbringing. This isn’t so much coming of age as it is the escape from a lifestyle. The worst of it isn’t that there is rife racism and sexism, it is that it is so much the norm. Although hate-driven action is there, the everyday hate, seeing it simply as ‘the way it was,’ seems somehow very much worse.

Emmaline Nelson grows up in this world that makes the modern reader cringe, then very nearly squirm. We wonder if it could have been true, and how any person could even hope become a ‘someone else,’ a person with a different outlook, coming from such origins. The story does provoke thought, along with the unease. However, the writing is rather wordy, and if literary equals boring, then many a whole passage is very, very literary. However, characters are well-developed and incredibly diverse. There is hatred, expectations; a whole life planned and caged and the people around Emmy are all part of it. Yet, some of those people have a surprising side: a secret, or are simply more sympathetic side than we first suspect. The quality of characters, or of our main character’s development, is certainly excellent. The overall style of writing is top-notch as well.

A Fireproof Home for the Bride is certainly more reflective than gripping. Sadness pervades the story, and ultimately, it is disturbing. It is a valuable read, but I cannot say it was entirely enjoyable.

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester


Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
Publisher: John Murray
Genre: Mainstream Women’s Fiction
Length: Full Length (218 pages)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Camellia

This is the story of Lillian, a single woman reflecting on her choices and imagining her future. Born in the Midwest in the 1930s; Lillian lives, loves, and works in Europe in the fifties and early sixties; she settles in New York and pursues the great love of her life in the sixties and seventies. Now it’s the early nineties, and she’s taking stock. Throughout her life, walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern choices for women, Lillian grapples with parental disappointment and societal expectations, wins and loses in love, and develops her own brand of wisdom. Lillian on Life lifts the skin off the beautiful, stylish product of an era to reveal the confused, hot-blooded woman underneath.

Lillian’s life was not the ordinary for a woman in the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. Her observations, inner feelings, outer actions, indiscretions, and hard-won wisdom make compelling reading.

Lillian On Life is thought-provoking and best when read in short segments, with time between to think about what Lillian learned, and how she handled it in respect to what she wanted and what was expected of her. As a single woman making her way in the world from Missouri to Paris, London, and New York, she struggles with self-esteem issues, unresolved parental issues, and relationship issues.

She learns early that “male pride” is like an electric fence—not to be touched. Each man she has a relationship with reinforces this belief. As spinsterhood sets in, she makes peace with her place in the life of the man she is seeing—whether he is married or single.

Alison Jean Lester’s seemingly simple, understated writing style immerses the reader’s senses into the monotony of life, the glamour of life, the characters’ personal secrets, and the emotions or lack of emotions in relationships that may linger but never last.

The tangled webs woven in Lillian’s life and how she either lives with them or moves on reveals much about humanity and the defense mechanisms used to survive and find peace with decisions made, whether good or bad.

A memorable bit of wisdom offered in the book is: Speak for yourself. Don’t let anyone else speak for you, because they only see what you DO, not what you WANT TO DO.

Lillian On Life is unusual story and gives the reader pause for thought on how his or her own life is playing out.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Publisher: Pocket Books
Genre: Women’s Fiction, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (336 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Alice Howland is proud of the life she worked so hard to build. At fifty years old, she’s a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard and a world-renowned expert in linguistics with a successful husband and three grown children. When she becomes increasingly disoriented and forgetful, a tragic diagnosis changes her life–and her relationship with her family and the world–forever.

Talk about putting things in perspective…

I picked this book up at the urging of my book club. We decided to read this book before the movie came out and discuss what we’d read. The discussion hasn’t taken place yet, but I’m sure there will be a lot to talk about.

Having someone who is currently dealing with Alzheimer’s in my family, I doubly wanted to read this book. I’m both glad I did and very much haunted by it. Many people are in the same situation Alice finds herself in–losing her small memories, like where her keys are, where her Blackberry cord went…little things. But it’s the adding up of those little things and adding of some big things that signals the start of the scary part.

Ms Genova writes Alice in a flowing manner. She’s easy to follow. Soon I was swept up in her story and turning pages as fast as I could read. I was right there with her in the story and seeing through her eyes how it felt to have those mental pieces fall apart. My heart ached for her. My heart ached for her husband. The guy is trying to deal, but being a scientist and an extremely intelligent person, he struggles with how to handle the situation. There currently isn’t a cure and even if he wants to find one, he needs to be there for her. Talk about a tough situation.

I won’t reveal the ending, although I’m sure you can assume, but you will need tissues. If you want a book that will move you, make you look at others through a slightly softer filter and make you appreciate what you’ve got in your own life, then this might be the book for you. But seriously, don’t forget those tissues.

Detour Trail by Joy V. Smith

Detour Trail by Joy V. Smith
Publisher: Melange Books
Genre: Action/Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (138 pgs)
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Aloe

Westward bound on the Oregon Trail, Lorena Emerson is alone after her uncle is killed by a thief trying to steal his money belt. Ignoring the wagon master’s advice to go home, she rounds up others needing help, and they join a later wagon train and are soon slogging through dust and mud and steep mountain passes. It’s a long way to Oregon, and because another woman needs her help, Lorrie again goes her own way, leaving the wagon train and the Oregon Trail to travel onward—off the beaten path—with her small group of wagons. She’s helped by members of her wagon train, people she meets along the way, and the mule, Jake, an integral part of the story. You’ll meet them as they join in her travels and encounters with enemies she also meets as she searches for a new home and supplies as winter reaches out its icy hands…. Settling the frontier isn’t easy!

Her uncle, a lawyer, has taken her off to a new start. They’ll move west to Oregon and start a new life without the greedy relatives who want her inheritance. Things start to go wrong a lot sooner than expected. Thieves try to take her uncle’s money belt. Her uncle ends up dead and so do the two thieves. Now the wagon train master tells her to go back home. She can’t go on alone. Oh yeah? Lorena Emerson may never have been on her own before, but she’s determined to go west and make herself a new life. Now she just has to figure out how…

Ms. Smith writes a good western tale. She points out the hardships and the glories that are all part of life on the trail. She also has good and bad people populating her stories so there are challenges for her characters. I really liked Lorena. She started shy but she bucked up and defended herself. She’s a strong woman with a good head for planning and organization. The men in her life are mostly nice and good friends with her, but it takes a while for her to find love.

Wagon trips were hell. There were food shortages, wagon problems, sometimes illness, and no rest for anyone. When Lorena starts trying to get a group together to travel with her, she never realized she was developing a small, mixed family. She finds a young brother and sister and a Negro couple, and finds another wagon train that will let them join them. The problem is that there is a pregnant woman on the new train that is having problems from the travelling. When Lorena hatches another idea, the pregnant woman and her family joins Lorena’s little family and they look for a place to settle.

The characters are strong, work hard, defend themselves and offer each support. Lorena needs that since she never learned how to cook! Now she’s got free meals everywhere.

The pace is strong, there’s plenty of hard work and action to keep your interest and, while there are sad spots, for the most part this is a positive story about life in the west and how settlement changed it.

Tzimmes (and don’t forget the cheesecake and the strudel) by Arthur Marshall Fell

Tzimmes (and don’t forget the cheesecake and the strudel) by Arthur Marshall Fell
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Short Story (90 pgs)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Aloe

Tzimmes (and don’t forget the cheesecake and the strudel) is a humorous story about Dr. Sam Landover, an unpretentious high school mathematics teacher, grounded in Jewish tradition, who despite himself gets tangled up in the middle of choosing a rabbi for Shalom Center. Improvising his way through the confusing jumble, the story becomes a mixed-up stew, like the tasty Jewish dessert called tzimmes.

Want to learn a little bit about the Jewish religion, Jewish people, and how no matter what faith or none, all people can act a bit silly? This is the book for you.

Mr. Fell writes a tale about two rabbis who are looking for work. It’s a humorous look at life with Jewish touches. I know nothing about the Jewish faith, so his glossary at the back of the book was quite helpful. Most of it I understood without referencing that. I found the story amusing.

There are two shuls in the local area and both are looking for a rabbi. There are men and women on the boards of both, and the applicants are one male and one female. When the vote is tied, the decided voter abstains from voting. They need help!

I’ve never thought about feminism being a factor in a Jewish environment. I’m used to men holding all the positions of importance (even in the Catholic life I grew up in) and was surprised they had a female rabbi. It gets even more complicated when the two rabbis’ begin to develop a romantic interest in each other.

Mr. Fell’s main character, Sam, has to walk the tangled path between the two shuls and try to maintain peace in each. I like how he handles the problem and resolves it with the best results you could hope for. While they are busy eating cheesecake and talking religious differences, you begin to find yourself chuckling and turning the page to see what happens next.

This is a good humorous read with some Jewish terminology that can mean more than one thing and a fun result at the end.

The Christmas Journal by Kimberly B Jackson

The Christmas Journal by Kimberly B Jackson
Publisher: Prism Book Group
Genre: Holiday, Inspirational
Length: Short Story (54 pgs)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Sorrel

Ashley Moore’s life forever changed the day her mother died, and she was sent to live with relatives. Now, ten years later, Ashley returns home, hoping to connect with her estranged father. When she learns he’s decided to reopen the family’s Christmas lodge for the upcoming holiday season, Ashley volunteers to help. While cleaning, she discovers her mother’s journal detailing the last month of her life. Will the book hold the answer as to why her dad sent her away? Who is the mysterious Adam her mother keeps mentioning in the diary? Can the words of her mother reconcile father and daughter in time for Christmas?

After years of silence, the answers will bring a family together.

Ashley comes back home, after being away several years, to her family’s Christmas lodge. While cleaning the lodge she finds her mom’s diary and with it comes questions as well as answers that would shake her world.

The Christmas Journal is not from a genre that I normally read though I would say that whenever I do read any book like this it just touches my heart and this book did it again and again. Kimberly Jackson did a great job painting a picture of the different scenes. At the same time, I would have liked a little bit more descriptiveness in some.

I was with Ashley and her father from the start to the finish. In every step of the way there were parts of the journal which allowed the cleaning of lodge to come through and give a semblance of normality.

This was a refreshing change that touched my heart and gave me hope.  You get a slice of music, with a dash of hot British abs and touch of family and love with a heart touching emotions that will leave you wanting more and more. I can easily recommend it to anyone who loves a sweet story.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Publisher: St Martin’s Press
Genre: Historical, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (438 pages)
Heat Level: sweet
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Camellia

In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real–and deadly–consequences.

Kristin Hannah eases the reader into THE NIGHTINGALE with a present time, gentle, loving beginning before she changes time back to World War II in France. She weaves a spellbinding story that seems so real one feels as if it is an absolutely true story of two sisters plus all the events and people that impact their lives.

World War I that changed Viann and Isabelle Rossignol’s father, also did its part in making the sisters feel unloved and abandoned. Their need to feel loved colors much of their action. Each of the girls copes in her own way with low self-esteem and that unrelenting desire for love. As the horrors of World War II move into France and settles in like an insatiable monster, the truth of Ms. Hannah’s statement that “In love we find out who we want to be, in war we find out who we are” become very real.

The impetuous Isabelle seems to “rush in where angels fear to tread,” while the older Viann sees herself as weak and unable to cope alone. Yet, both rise above their flaws to survive in the desperate time of war when deprivation is almost unbearable, racial hatred runs amok, and unspeakable atrocities occur. Trust vanishes and the German occupation forces move in, seeking to totally dominate the French people.

Viann and Isabelle, one operating underground and the other operating in plain sight, go quietly about their secret doings. At times, the reader’s senses are reeling with descriptions of atrocities in the villages and towns, but a near sensory overload comes when conditions in the concentrations camps roars to life with the remarkable descriptions Ms. Hannah writes.

However, the daily living is also beautifully revealed that makes the reader smile at the happy times and cry when the devastation comes. How the people survive as the months and years bring more and more deprivation and persecution makes one aware of both the strength and the fragility in each human being.

THE NIGHTINGALE has a multitude of characters (so many that need special recognition), along with clandestine operations that all play important roles in how the French never really give up, but held on until the Allies arrived.

The story ends back in present time with a twist that made me cry, even though it reveals a love so precious.

This is a novel I highly recommend. It is rich with descriptions like: “Roses tumbled like laughter along the ancient stone wall.” “She wanted to bottle how safe she felt in this moment, so she could drink of it later when loneliness and fear left her parched.” “The street was a living breathing dragon of humanity.” It immerses the reader in the horrors of war and how ordinary people, even with their many flaws, become extraordinary. It is beautifully written and memorable!

The Unexpected Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell

The Unexpected Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell
Publisher: Sourcebooks-Landmark
Genre: Contemporary, Women’s Fiction
Length: Full Length (411 pgs)
Heat Level: Sensual
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

Sophie has no interest in finding love. But what happens when love finds her?

Sophie Wells is a successful photographer with a focus on putting the past firmly behind her. When Josh Strachan returns to the seaside town of Cornwall from the States to run his family’s hotel, he can’t understand why the fun, sexy girl has zero interest in letting him-or any man for that matter-into her life. He also can’t understand how he’s been duped into employing Sophie’s impulsive friend Tula, whose crush on him is decidedly unrequited. Both girls remain mum about the reasons behind Sophie’s indifference to love. But that doesn’t mean Josh is going to quit trying…

I always think the first and last book you read each year should be extra special so I’m glad I got to read this new one from Jill Mansell. I’ll admit I’ve never disliked any of her stories and this one was no exception.

If you’ve never read anything by the author let me start by saying if you love sometimes quirky and not your run of the mill characters, you’ll enjoy the author’s writing. This particular story is also filled with tears, laughter, and generally puts a smile on your face on a cold winter’s day.

I loved all the characters but have to say I did find myself longing for more scenes with the hero Josh. He’s kind and honest and you share his frustration when Sophie isn’t showing any interest in him. You feel yourself shouting at the pages, saying Sophie, this guy’s perfect for you.

However, part of the enjoyment of reading this story grows from the author’s clever plotting of having everyone else wanting someone they can’t have or someone who only has eyes for someone else. It has you turning the pages to find out if Ms. Mansell was kind enough to give everyone the happy ending you craved. Sometimes things didn’t work out but I found myself reading the last sentence of the book with a smile on my face.

One added bonus for me was the setting of Cornwall. It’s mostly mysteries or romantic suspense stories I see set there so this was a nice change of pace. The author did a great job describing it and the hotel that Josh runs. Despite its 400 plus pages, this story clips along at a steady pace and is sadly done before you realize it.

If like me you take extra time selecting that first or last book of any year, I’d recommend this one.

Starter Wife by Moriah Densley

Starter Wife by Moriah Densley
Publisher: EsKape Press
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (280 pgs)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Quince

Linnea King has it all, fabulous social life, adorable children, and her successful husband’s income… until he serves her with divorce papers. Her perfect life crumbles in a storm of police reports, cranky bus drivers, and burned dinners. The single life feels as foreign as a trendy haircut.

Just when Linnea fears she’ll lose everything, her new neighbor steps in to help. Not that she’s judging by appearances, but TJ Gates looks like trouble with a capital T. Tattoos, motorcycle, and sexy southern manners, TJ is the last person Linnea expects to be her hero.

A demolitions expert who takes prizefighting gigs to pay the bills, TJ has pretty much screwed up everything that matters, and rebuilding his life after a violent past is harder than it looks. He thinks the polished, expensive-looking Linnea King needs the same thing he wants: a second chance.

It is a universal truth that there are some stories that grab reader’s attention immediately, and there are some where it takes a while to warm up to them. Starter Wife falls within the second category. I even put it aside after the first half and returned to it after a week. Am I ever glad that I did return to reading it and did not gave up on the book because it turned out to be a really good story!

As the book opens the reader meets Linnea King at her lowest. She is taking the punches (figuratively speaking) from her ex-husband, who left her with three kids (one of them with Down’s Syndrome), no money and visitations from child protection services. At the beginning Linnea is a woman with no self-esteem because years of psychological abuse took its toll. Gradually as the story progresses, the heroine, with a little determination and help from her sexy neighbor and a few other friends, gets her confidence back. She becomes stronger, so she can have her revenge. In the process she also found the love of her life.

I find Starter Wife to be a very interesting and empowering story because there are many women out there who helped their husbands build their careers only to be left with kids and no job in the end. Linnea made it; she got her groove back and her life back on track, but it wasn’t easy. I found Linnea’s character amazing. At the beginning she wallows a bit in self-pity, but once she takes her life in her own hands, she turns out to be smart, funny and an interesting woman. Although she finds a new love (true one) and married him, she does not made same mistake twice and so, at the end she becomes economically independent as well. On the other hand, the hero, TJ Gates (sexy as hell) is a bit too much for me. He is a great character and he also grows through the story but he too much alpha for me.

Starter Wife is cross between women’s fiction and a romance novel. The story focuses on Linnea’s life – her trials and ordeals and on her relationship with TJ Gates; but really it’s a bit more focused on her getting her life back on track. Both storylines are well combined and the writing in general is great. The pace of the story is a bit slow at the beginning but it speeds up in the second half. Starter Wife is not an instant “falling in love” kind of story and it has only one lovemaking scene but it’s a book with a solid character driven plot.

All in all Starter Wife is worth reading, and it made me want to read other stories by Moriah Densley. It is a cozy read that made me feel good. I highly recommend it.