Ashes by Steven Manchester


Ashes by Steven Manchester
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary, Mainstream Fiction
Length: Full Length (257 pgs)
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Middle-aged brothers Jason and Tom Prendergast thought they were completely done with each other. Perceived betrayal had burned the bridge between them, tossing them into the icy river of estrangement. But life and death has a robust sense of irony, and when they learn that their cruel father has died and made his final request that they travel together across the country to spread his ashes, they have no choice but to spend a long, long car trip in each other s company. It’s either that or lose out on the contents of the envelope he’s left with his lawyer. The trip will be as gut-wrenching as each expects it to be . . . and revealing in ways neither of them is prepared for.

Get ready for a gritty, true-to-life feel when you crack open the pages of Ashes. Mr. Manchester brings his two characters to life in all their fallible glory with convincing dialogue, introspection and hard truths. This novel explores how Jason and Tom’s childhood made them enemies and through a quirk of their abusive father’s whims, his last weird request gives the brothers a chance to reconcile before it’s too late. The journey is not as dark as one would expect because there is this glimmer of hope that gets brighter and brighter as the story progresses until it’s realized in an extremely unexpected way. There is so much within in each of us to be found in the personalities of both Jason and Tom that this novel has the capacity of reaching each reader differently from a variety of backgrounds. Ashes is an amazing piece of literary art.

There is humor, but it’s dark and self-effacing at times, other times self-derogatory, and as the journey unfolds, true delightful humor surfaces as the brothers discover how more alike they are in ways they never dreamed. Eventually the smiles and laughter come from someplace honest, healthy and full of promise. Seeing their relationship evolve in a positive manner was a true delight. Bear in mind that they’re guys and some of their words, jokes and references are a little coarse and blunt, but that is one of the charms of the book – I could believe they were real people.

The author was quite detailed in description so a reader could get a true feel of their surroundings, their experiences and the atmosphere. Every word seems chosen with precision to provide a reader with the best reading experience. I was 100% engaged.

It might even be hard for readers to learn just how nasty and scary Jason and Tom’s home life was like as children. It certainly was for me, but it’s integral to the plot conflict and resolution. If not for visiting the past, I’d never know how truly miraculous the eventual ending was. And what a wonderful ending it turned out to be. However, the author had a couple of surprises for readers and main characters alike. I didn’t have a clue what was coming and I think that’s why it was so powerful. Talk about jarring the heartstrings!

Ashes is a compelling read. It just is. It’s character driven, emotionally fulfilling and Jason and Tom are characters a reader can sympathize with. It explores the domino effect of a harsh upbringing and how it can manifest in adulthood – pros and cons. You wouldn’t think that getting beat up by a parent could have any positive aspects, but Mr. Manchester produces a believable and intriguing possibility and it astounded me. The one thing that beastly father did was produce two survivors who became more than the failures that they were labeled as, repeatedly. Jason and Tom, for all their tribulations, are heroic in living their lives successfully, and finding that being a brother to each other is the most heroic thing of all.

If a reader enjoys a story that explores sibling relationships in all their tumultuous roller coaster glory then Ashes is the perfect novel to add to your reading experience.

In the Shadow of Lakecrest by Elizabeth Blackwell


In the Shadow of Lakecrest by Elizabeth Blackwell
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Historical
Length: Full Length (284 pgs)
Rated: 4 stars
Reviewed by Snapdragon

The year is 1928. Kate Moore is looking for a way out of the poverty and violence of her childhood. When a chance encounter on a transatlantic ocean liner brings her face-to-face with the handsome heir to a Chicago fortune, she thinks she may have found her escape—as long as she can keep her past concealed.

After exchanging wedding vows, Kate quickly discovers that something isn’t quite right with her husband—or her new family. As Mrs. Matthew Lemont, she must contend with her husband’s disturbing past, his domineering mother, and his overly close sister. Isolated at Lakecrest, the sprawling, secluded Lemont estate, she searches desperately for clues to Matthew’s terrors, which she suspects stem from the mysterious disappearance of his aunt years before. As Kate stumbles deeper into a maze of family secrets, she begins to question everyone’s sanity—especially her own. But just how far will she go to break free of this family’s twisted past?

Katherine Moore makes no bones about letting us know what she is after: a better life than she had. She’s quick to take on whatever role (and name) will get her there. She’s frank and genuine though, and readers will find they understand her initial choices. In those first couple chapters, she’s someone who seizes the day, takes a risk…

Yet, for all she’s decisive and headstrong, she suddenly gives in and lands at ‘Lakecrest.’ Its one of those moves where we spectators are shouting ‘don’t do that!’ Katherine/Katie seizes us too you see, right from the start.

Author Elizabeth Blackwell has created incredible, dynamic characters, and will hold readers enthralled. Even those of us who do not like our heroine’s choices…even though this story does not seem to lead us (or her) to a better life. America in the 40s- fashion, culture, and news of the day all become backdrop for Katie’s story.

Impeccably written, In the Shadow of Lakecrest is unpredictable and not entirely pleasant. It is worth reading but its story is…disconcerting. Do put this on your reading list, but don’t look for it to lift your spirits.

Sisters One, Two, Three by Nancy Star

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Sisters One, Two, Three by Nancy Star
Publisher: Lake Union Press
Genre: Contemporary, Women’s Fiction
Length: Full Length (352 pgs)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

After a tragic accident on Martha’s Vineyard, keeping secrets becomes a way of life for the Tangle family. With memories locked away, the sisters take divergent paths. Callie disappears, Mimi keeps so busy she has no time to think, and Ginger develops a lifelong aversion to risk that threatens the relationships she holds most dear.

When a whispered comment overheard by her rebellious teenage daughter forces Ginger to reveal a long-held family secret, the Tangles’ carefully constructed web of lies begins to unravel. Upon the death of Glory, the family’s colorful matriarch, and the return of long-estranged Callie, Ginger resolves to return to Martha’s Vineyard and piece together what really happened on that calamitous day when a shadow fell over four sun-kissed siblings playing at the shore. Along with Ginger’s newfound understanding come the keys to reconciliation: with her mother, with her sisters, and with her daughter.

At turns heartbreaking, humorous, and hopeful, Sisters One, Two, Three explores not only the consequences of secrets—even secrets kept out of love—but also the courage it takes to speak the truth, to forgive, and to let go.

Catharsis, thy name is Sisters One, Two, Three.

Everyone has those moments they’ve gone through that have galvanized them. Kids growing up, getting older, mistakes made…we learn to live with them or at least get past them. That’s a lot of what this book is about. There’s a wide mix in a family. Yes, it takes all types and the Tangle family has them in spades.

The writing flowed well and I didn’t want to put the book down. That said, I did look away many times and had to redirect my interest. Makes no sense? While I wanted to know more, I got a tad bored on occasion. There was so much angst, I had to step away. I liked the book, but I had a hard time connecting the entire time. It wasn’t a bad story…but maybe it wasn’t the right read for me right now. That doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to others. I’m sure it will.

Readers, like me, should find a bit of themselves in each sister. The tragedy does mark them. Grief, numbness, sadness… we’ve all been there. It was like reading about my friends and going through the whole summer together. I don’t regret it. There’s the sister with control issues, the one who wants to control nothing, and the damaged one. There’s the mother with more issues than can be counted and everyone trying to come together to deal.

If you like a book high on angst and characterization, then this is the book for you. You’ll laugh, cry and look at your own life a little differently.

In The Light of The Garden by Heather Burch

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In The Light of The Garden by Heather Burch
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Length: Full Length (352 pgs)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

In the Light of the Garden is a novel about unearthed family secrets, the enchantment of past loves, and the indelible power of forgiveness.

Inheriting her grandparents’ island estate on Florida’s Gulf coast is a special kind of homecoming for thirty-one-year-old Charity Baxter. Raised by a narcissistic single mother, Charity’s only sense of a loving home comes from childhood summers spent with Gramps and Grandma. But piercing her fondest memories is her sharpest grief—the death of her beloved grandmother, when Charity stopped believing in the magical healing power of the weeping willow that still casts a shadow on their property.

Now that Charity has returned, she’s full of longing and regret, until she befriends her neighbor Dalton Reynolds, who has come to Gaslamp Island carrying his own heartache. As other exiles arrive—a great uncle harboring secrets, a teenage runaway—Charity begins to reconsider what makes a family. When her own estranged mother shows up in crisis, Charity is challenged to search her heart for forgiveness. But forgiving herself may require a little magic from the last place she’d expect to find it.

Lately I’ve been discovering all these wonderful new to me authors, and Heather Burch is another one of them.

I really enjoyed reading this story. The main character Charity Baxter is someone who you both like and can relate to. She’s shaken by the death of her grandpa who along with her grandma played a huge part in her early life. The book starts almost at the point where she inherits her grandparent’s house and it’s there Ms. Burch does a wonderful job revealing bit by bit Charity’s childhood and her relationship with her estranged mother.

This story has everything, childhood dreams about fantasy and magic, the baggage we carry with us into adulthood, finding yourself, and stumbling upon a new love. And best of all, finding somewhere in your heart to forgive someone who hurt you in the past. I think Charity finds that it’s part of the process of growing up and it was great taking that journey with her as the story unfolded.

I also liked her love interest, Dalton, who’s got some hurt of his own. I felt like these two were made for one another.

If you love stories with a realistic setting, dialogue and theme, and a fan of books that focus on the meaning of family, I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Nights in Rodanthe by Nicholas Sparks

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Nights in Rodanthe by Nicholas Sparks
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (212 pgs)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Nicholas Sparks comes a tender story of hope and joy; of sacrifice and forgiveness — a moving reminder that love is possible at any age, at any time, and often comes when we least expect it. At forty-five, Adrienne Willis must rethink her entire life when her husband abandons her for a younger woman. Reeling with heartache and in search of a respite, she flees to the small coastal town of Rodanthe, North Carolina to tend to a friend’s inn for the weekend. But when a major storm starts moving in, it appears that Adrienne’s perfect getaway will be ruined — until a guest named Paul Flanner arrives. At fifty-four, Paul has just sold his medical practice and come to Rodanthe to escape his own shattered past. Now, with the storm closing in, two wounded people will turn to each other for comfort — and in one weekend set in motion feelings that will resonate throughout the rest of their lives.

I don’t think I’ve read a Nicholas Sparks novel that’s not packed with emotion and this one was no exception.

This story focuses on two middle aged people whose once perfect lives have seemed to unravel. They’re both divorced and meet by chance at an inn in the seaside town of Rodanthe in North Carolina. There’s a storm brewing and Paul who is a surgeon is there to meet with the husband of a patient who died and who’s holding Paul responsible. Adrienne is just looking after the inn while her friend’s away and soon Paul checks in. What starts out as a casual get to you know you encounter turns into a passionate relationship. But then, Paul’s off to Ecuador to be with his estranged son and Adrienne goes home to her three children and ailing father.

I always say be prepared with a box of tissues when you read one of the author’s works because you’re going to shed a tear at some point in the story. I won’t give away the plot and ruin this story but while you do feel some sadness, I felt the story’s main focus was about taking chances and living for the moment, and holding onto those memories.

If you like a romance with a slightly older than normal couple and a book with a good emotional pull, I’d say definitely don’t miss this one.

Say Goodbye For Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde

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Say Goodbye For Now by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: Full Length (376 pgs)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

SOME FAMILIES YOU’RE BORN INTO. OTHERS YOU CHOOSE.

On an isolated Texas ranch, Dr. Lucy cares for abandoned animals. The solitude allows her to avoid the people and places that remind her of the past. Not that any of the townsfolk care. In 1959, no one is interested in a woman doctor. Nor are they welcoming Calvin and Justin Bell, a newly arrived African American father and son.

When Pete Solomon, a neglected twelve-year-old boy, and Justin bring a wounded wolf-dog hybrid to Dr. Lucy, the outcasts soon find refuge in one another. Lucy never thought she’d make connections again, never mind fall in love. Pete never imagined he’d find friends as loyal as Justin and the dog. But these four people aren’t allowed to be friends, much less a family, when the whole town turns violently against them.

With heavy hearts, Dr. Lucy and Pete say goodbye to Calvin and Justin. But through the years they keep hope alive…waiting for the world to catch up with them.

Disclaimer of sorts…I’ve had a couple of Catherine Ryan Hyde books stored on my Kindle for a few months but I have to admit I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. So when the opportunity came to review another one of her books, I thought this would be a perfect way to introduce myself to a new author who so many have recommended to me. When I finished reading this title I knew I’d found a new favorite author and now I can’t wait to read the other two books.

This is a heartwarming story…can I call it historical? The story starts in 1959 and moves forward through the Sixties. Its setting is Texas and the time of racial tensions. All the characters in this book are so well crafted, I felt like I knew them. The story is told through the viewpoint of two of those characters Pete and Dr. Lucy. The two come together when Pete finds what he thinks is a dog, injured by the side of the road.

Dr. Lucy is somewhat of a recluse and although she’s a medical doctor, it’s animals who are now her patients. She’s a complex character but when a racial attack leaves Pete’s new young friend, Justin, needing emergency care, she meets with his father Calvin and soon the story reveals more about her.

Although this book is over 300 pages, I found myself compelled to keep reading just to find out what happens to these four people who you soon find yourself empathizing with and hoping that all is well.

It’s a beautiful story illustrating how friendship can rise about hatred and ignorance and heal those who sometimes seem broken by their past.

This is a book I recommend you put on your fall reading list.

Secret Crush: The House of Morgan by Victoria Pinder

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Secret Crush: The House of Morgan by Victoria Pinder
Publisher: Love in a Book
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full length (254 pages)
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Camellia

For some, joining the FBI is a long-term goal. For billionaire John Morgan, joining the Bureau is a stepping stone to proving his father is culpable for his sister’s death. After his estranged father dies, John is forced to return home and face the ghosts of his past. That proves to be more difficult than he could have ever imagined.

Alice Collins lives a peaceful life. As a farmer’s daughter, she knows what it’s like to work hard for what you want. After losing her best friend under inexplicable circumstances, her world viewpoint shifted until her small town sensibilities convinced her to attend Mr. Morgan’s funeral.

Soon, the past and the present collide and Alice is caught in the crosshairs. John comes to her aid, complicating matters for both of them.

Can a handsome billionaire on a vendetta truly fall for a small town girl or does he have something else in mind? Can a small town girl, if she gives her heart to him, ever fit in the House of Morgan?

John Morgan, the rebellious son of the House of Morgan, loses his motivation when his father dies—John can’t bring a corpse to justice. He returns home seeking answers but soon finds himself struggling to protect the rather naïve Alice Collins whose life is in danger because of him. The problems of his dysfunctional family take a back seat as he concentrates on security for Alice who has a longtime connect with the Morgan family.

Secret Crush is a clean, easy-to-read manuscript that allows the reader to cruise right along with reading. The plotting is meticulously done and the characters all have distinct roles to play. However, even with lots of dialogue, much of the action and emotion is told to the reader rather than shown. Consequently, I never became involved like I usually do in a story of suspense, mystery, and love.

I did feel the need to finish the story to find answers for the many mysteries. As I continued, I found a real surprise about who was willing to do murder for money. But here again I felt I wasn’t allowed to know what changed that character from defending the law to being willing to break the law—there just had to be more than money for such a drastic change.

The love story had the conflict and the undeniable attraction that shepherded John and Alice through these conflicts in attention-keeping ways, taking them to their happy-ever-after. However, the story, even for a book in a series, ended with too many unanswered questions. I felt as if I had not finished reading the book.

I imagine these questions will be answered in future books in this series.

Olivier The Cat Who Saved Christmas by Sheila Norton

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Olivier The Cat Who Saved Christmas by Sheila Norton
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Genre: Contemporary fiction, Holiday
Length: Full Length (315 pgs)
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Stephanotis

A friend who brings light at the darkest of times…

Oliver the cat is a timid little thing, and rarely ventures from his home in the Foresters’ Arms.

Then his life changes dramatically when a fire breaks out in the pub kitchen and he is left homeless and afraid. But, with the kindness of the humans around him, he soon learns to trust again. And, in his own special way, he helps to heal those around him.

However, it isn’t until he meets a little girl in desperate need of a friend that he realises this village needs a Christmas miracle…

Who doesn’t love a story with a main character who’s an animal? In this story, it’s a ginger tabby named Oliver and he’s the narrator of the tale, too. As a cat owner, I was completely won over from page one and things only got better as the story progressed.

This story has something of everything, humor, some sadness, a wonderful setting that compliments the Christmas theme so well, and some down on their luck inhabitants whose lives are to be quickly transformed.

As all Christmas stories should be, this one is about finding joy and miracles when you least expect it. The sick child grows strong; the young couple without enough money to heat their home find dream jobs, and even kittens find perfect homes. All things are possible in this story but it’s not without the help of Oliver who seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

I loved the way Oliver interacted with his fellow cats and his frustration as he struggled to get humans to understand what he was showing them. I ended up reading this story in two sittings and I think it’s perfect for all ages, young and old. Also, the perfect book to read aloud on Christmas Eve or give as a gift.

Don’t miss this fun Christmas story that will have you believing in miracles.

The Lullaby Sky by Carolyn Brown

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The Lullaby Sky by Carolyn Brown
Publisher: Montlake Romance
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full (321 pgs)
Heat: Spicy
Rated: 4 stars
Review by Poppy

After seven years of misery and abuse, it’s all over—Hannah O’Malley is officially divorced. Hallelujah. It’s like every Christmas in her life all rolled up into one glorious day. Not only does Hannah get to keep her grandmother’s spacious old house, but she has full custody of her sparky five-year-old daughter. All Hannah has to do now is put the past behind her.

And now that she’s free, she wants to make a difference. With the help of her warm, close-knit circle of friends—including her high school crush, Travis Wilson—Hannah begins turning her home into a safe house for other women who’ve endured the pain she’s known. But even as life and laughter return to Hannah’s home, she’s haunted by the memory of her dangerously unstable ex. With a second chance at love on the horizon, Hannah must face down her past in order to let the sunshine back into her life.

Not what I expected from the blurb, but still a satisfying novel.

Honestly, from the blurb I expected something a little more Sleeping With the Enemy, but the focus of this novel isn’t the heroine trying to remain safe from her abusive husband. He’s really just not a threat at all to her. What this novel is about is the journey Hannah takes to become a strong, secure woman and how she helps others to become the same.

She has a solid set of friends and family to support her, and the strength of this novel is their interactions. While there are certainly strong romantic elements in this story between her and Travis, I don’t feel that it’s a romance at the heart of it. It’s more women’s fiction in that it’s about Hannah, and her growth and development, and not about the romance. I absolutely feel as if Travis could have been no more than a good friend and the story itself would still stand.

That’s not a complaint at all. Once I shifted my head from “romantic suspense” to simply enjoying the story, I really had a wonderful time. I loved Aunt Birdie, Rosie, Liz and Darcy as well as Travis. They were interesting, believable and unique. And the relationship between Hannah and Travis grew organically and was also believable, considering Hannah’s background of abuse.

If you enjoy books with a small town feel, populated with fun primary and secondary characters and writing that feels so easy and flows without any bumps, I’d recommend The Lullaby Sky. It’s the first book I’ve read by Carolyn Brown, but it won’t be my last.

Room by Emma Donoghue

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Room by Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: Full Length (321 pages)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Strap in…it’s going to be an interesting and gut-wrenching ride.

Room isn’t a book I would’ve picked up normally. This story is told from the perspective of the child and that’s not generally my cuppa. That said, once I started the book I couldn’t stop. The situation Ma and Jack find themselves in isn’t anything anyone would want to be in. Ma – her name is never mentioned – is kidnapped at the age of 19 by Old Nick. While I had moments I wanted to know more about him and his motivations, mostly I just hated Old Nick. The author did a good job of making me ill from reading about him. Yeah, he’s bad.

I can’t imagine being a kidnapping victim or the things Ma and Jack had to go through to survive. To be locked in an 11×11 room… the very thought makes me shudder. I have to say I was emotionally invested in the story. I had to know what would happen to the characters, even Old Nick. I wasn’t disappointed. While it’s not a feel-good read, there were moments I simply couldn’t put the kindle down.

That said, there were trigger moments for me. Jack, although five years old and smart as a whip, is emotionally behind. How can he not be? He hasn’t ever experienced the outside world and has no idea how to interact with other people beyond Ma. One of the things she does to keep him close is she still nurses him. This was a trigger for me in that it put me off of the story. I get it. She nursed him to ensure he’d get the proper nourishment and to keep that bond. She had to be sure he’d grow up right. But the nursing made me uncomfortable. Then there was the incident with the tooth. Ma has bad teeth and some fall out. One in particular does and Jack nabs it. It’s his connection to Ma. What made me uncomfortable about Tooth – as he calls it – is something kids do. He sticks it in his mouth. He sucks on it, carries it around and puts it in his sock…then sticks it back in his mouth. The germ factor was more than I could handle. If you’re not wild about kids who stick things in their mouth or the older child nursing issue…then this might not be the book for you.

But honestly, while this wasn’t something I’d have picked on my own, I’m glad I read it. Anyone could be that girl who is kidnapped. She thinks she’s helping someone. Who hasn’t done that? It’s a plausible story. Interesting, intriguing and fascinating since the story is told from Jack’s point of view, Room might be just the book for your reading list.