The Axe by Linda Griffin

The Axe by Linda Griffin
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Sweethearts Eric Leidheldt and Desiree Chauveau are spending a weekend at his uncle’s cabin when they encounter two strangers cutting wood. Eric is knocked unconscious, and Desi is viciously attacked. The following day two police officers come to their apartment to arrest Desi. Her assailants are dead, murdered with an axe, and her fingerprints are on it. She confesses—but is she really guilty? Eric is determined to stand by her, but the physical and emotional effects of the attack severely challenge their relationship.

Senseless violence must be punished…right?

The criminal investigation scenes kept my attention from the beginning. It was interesting to see how the officers gathered facts and how they kept coming back to the main characters to verify their testimonies and try to get more information out of them. What a painstaking and difficult process that was at times, and yet every bit of it was necessary if the truth were to be revealed.

I would have liked to see more time developing the mystery elements of the plot. There were some clues that never quite added up for me, especially when it came to what Desiree remembered about the axe and when she touched it. Her story shifted around so often that I wasn’t sure which version of it I should believe. There was space here to investigate the facts more deeply, and I would have gone with a higher rating if that had happened.

Ms. Griffin did a good job of showing how a violent and traumatic event affects people who experience them. I liked the way she explored the many different ways that Eric and Desiree were changed by the unprovoked attack against them. Since everything from trying to eat a raisin to explaining what they remembered about that horrible day was extremely difficult, I wondered what their healing journeys would look like and if justice would be served in the end. It was nice to have as much focus on the victims’ perspectives as there was, and this only became more important once the grimmer aspects of the attack had been revealed.

The Axe kept me guessing.

Carnival Songs by S.V. Brown

Carnival Songs by S.V. Brown
Publisher: Golden Storyline Books
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Historical, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A small city in Indiana nestled along the banks of the Ohio River, Torrenceburg is a place holding onto archaic beliefs that shroud long-kept secrets. Beginning with the eradication of the native populations in the early 19th century, Carnival Songs explores the influence of the city’s founding family upon the next two centuries of politics, religion, and its transition into the new millennia. Told from the perspective of the last heir to the family wealth and privilege, fueled by his dying mother’s confessions, the narrator searches for the truth about his parents and ancestors but discovers events far too difficult to reconcile with his love of southeastern Indiana and pride in his family history.

Nuance is the name of the game here.

Is personal experience living in a small town that is grappling with a horrifically racist past strictly necessary to enjoy this tale? No, but there are some gems in here for readers who do know what that’s like. There’s something to be said for authors who know how to speak to multiple audiences at the same time, especially for a topic as sensitive as racism and rural life. I appreciated how much time was spent exploring how racism is expressed in both subtle and explicit ways.

This book included nearly four dozen characters, some of whom were occasionally referred to by nicknames that were not always clearly linked to the person in question by that portion of the storyline. At times I struggled to remember who everyone was and how they were related or connected to everyone else. Having such a large cast also meant that there wasn’t much space for character development in the vast majority of cases. As much as I wanted to give this a higher rating, my confusion over the often complex ties between so many characters prevented me from doing so.

Adjusting to change can be difficult for everyone sometimes. The mystery elements of the plot included this fact of life, and I was intrigued by how the various characters reacted to the idea of welcoming gaming boats to their city dock as a way to improve their economy. I’ll leave it up to other readers to discover what the positive and negative consequences of this decision were, but I thought it was interesting to see how inevitable change is in even the sleepiest villages that at first glance seem most immune to it.

Carnival Songs captured the complexities of small towns nicely.

Witch & Wombat by Ashley Belote

Witch & Wombat by Ashley Belote
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Holiday, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Every witch will want a wombat after reading this humorous picture book perfect for little readers who want a new pet!

Wilma, a young witch, cannot wait to get her very first cat! But when the pet store is fresh out of kittens, Wilma brings home. . . a wombat?! What a CAT-astrophe! A wombat is nothing like a cat, but maybe if Wilma puts cat ears on the little critter, no one will notice. . . . (Spoiler alert: they do.)

This bright and fun picture book teaches young witches that our differences can be our strengths when we have an open mind!

Witches know exactly what they need…right?

This tale had a playful sense of humor that worked well for the surprises that sometimes come up during the spookiest time of year. I chuckled as I peered closer at certain funny illustrations and read other lines a second time for the sheer joy of it. Wilma was delightful, and her silly attempts to make her new pet act more like a cat couldn’t have been better. Halloween and humor aren’t mixed together very often, so it was heartwarming to see them included in the same storyline here.

I found myself wishing that the storekeeper had explained to Wilma why he thought a wombat was an acceptable substitute for the cat she had ordered. Did he make a mistake with the order form from his supplier? Were wombats a common pet to order from his store? Why didn’t he ask her in advance what she thought of this solution? The logic there never made sense to me, and it detracted from an otherwise enjoyable story.

With that being said, I did appreciate the messages about making the best of things, respecting differences, having a good sense of humor, and being flexible about your plans. These are lessons that many adults often need to learn just as much as kids do, so this is something that can appeal to readers of all ages. Life may not always turn out the way we like, but the plot twists in it might end up being even better than what we originally hoped for!

Witch & Wombat was a cute Halloween read.

River’s Reach – Coming of Age Amid the Fish War by David Scott Richardson

River’s Reach – Coming of Age Amid the Fish War by David Scott Richardson
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

ADVENTURE. HISTORY. AWAKENING. Life is good for high school senior Alex Haugen. He has a group of buddies to fish the Nisqually River with, his membership on the football team guarantees status with his peers, and he’s recently set his sights on Amanda Schneider – an engaging blend of brains, beauty, and personality. He’s beginning to think that the lead cheerleader and star lineman go together like burgers and fries.

Learning that his dad participated in the latest fishing raid at Frank’s Landing, Alex’s curiosity is piqued. The more he reads, the more he realizes how little he knows about the deep-rooted conflict between the Washington State Game Department and local tribes. The state claims the right to enforce conservation measures and the tribes claim that their treaty rights supersede state regulations.

Alex has strong convictions about conservation but wonders if there’s more to the story. Indian netting can’t be the only reason fish are in decline. Strident and entrenched certainties dominate both sides of the fishing controversy, and Alex begins to resent that a side may have been chosen for him at birth.

Chancing conflict with his dad – an officer with the game department – Alex’s quest for understanding rouses discovery of his own voice and the courage to stand apart from his parents and peers. Along the way, he befriends Charlie McCallister, a Nisqually Indian his dad arrested in a raid.

Amanda, whose mom does pro bono work for the tribe, is a social justice warrior at heart. As the fish war heats up, her readiness to support the tribe clashes with Alex’s reluctance to rock the boat with his father and threatens to drive a wedge in their blossoming romance.

Charlie, Amanda, and the Nisqually River form the key catalysts for Alex’s awakening as the story unfolds against the backdrop of a nation gripped by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the seismic tunes of rock ‘n roll.

Sometimes change is painfully slow.

The last year or two of high school can be such an exciting and restless time in life. Soon classes will end and everyone will go their separate ways in life. This was a quieter portion of the storyline in the beginning, but it grew more and more enjoyable and meaningful as Alex and his friends inched closer towards graduation and the many different paths they all would take. Mr. Richardson captured this stage in life nicely, and it has made me curious to see what else he may write in the future.

I struggled with the slow pacing of this novel. Most of the plot and character development was released gradually and between scenes that didn’t always seem to push anything forward. As interesting as the descriptions of nature and the small town setting were, there were so many of them that they were distracting for me as a reader as well. In my opinion, this would have been a stronger story if some of those scenes were trimmed down to either shorten the length of this in general or to provide more space for action scenes.

Racism is a complex topic, especially for teens like Alex who hadn’t spent much time thinking about how race can impact everything from how a student is treated by his or her peers to what sorts of jobs someone might be encouraged or discouraged to apply for. The historical setting amplified these themes as well given that societal expectations of what should and shouldn’t be said about race can shift a lot from one decade to the next. I appreciated how much effort the author put into developing this portion of the plot and showing how even a kind and sensitive kid like Alex can still have misconceptions about race and culture.

River’s Reach – Coming of Age Amid the Fish War was a thought-provoking read.

Jazzed Up by Laura M. Baird

Jazzed Up by Laura M. Baird
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Jaz Reynolds needs a new lead for his band. One note, one look is all it takes for him to know Cheryl Mathers is the one. Now to convince the sultry jazz singer to make the leap to a different genre and tour with him. When their chemistry rockets off the charts, can he convince himself this is business only? Or will he take a chance to find his own love of a lifetime?

Cheryl Mathers has always wanted music to be center stage in her life. The offer to tour with world-renowned pop-rock band, Jazzed Up, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. With each day in Jaz’s presence, she falls more and more for his charm and allure. But she’s been burned by love in the past and is hesitant to risk her heart.

As the two find their rhythm and embrace their attraction, a life-altering revelation rocks their world. Will the power of promising of love be enough to bring them back into harmony?

Musicians need love, too.

There was a plot twist close to the end that I thought was handled nicely. It involved both Jaz and Cheryl’s pasts and them having more in common than they already knew they did. Ms. Baird did a good job of keeping this under wraps until it was time to reveal it. Not everything needs a lot of foreshadowing in order to be effective, and this was a good example of how to keep an audience guessing and interested about what might happen next until the final sentence.

I was surprised and confused by how quickly certain business decisions were made in this novella. The main characters were willing to make huge changes in their lives based on limited information, and most of the people around them didn’t seem concerned about how fast things were changing. It would have been helpful for me as a reader to have more information about why everyone was okay with this as it isn’t something that happens too often in real life in my experience.

With that being said, the whirlwind romance made much more sense. Sometimes two people meet and instantly click. It’s rare, but it can be truly beautiful when it happens. I also liked the way the author dove into the difference between clicking with someone and actually taking the time to figure out if there is as much compatibility with them as there seemed to be at first glance. That was a mature and sensible expansion to this theme that only made me enjoy it more.

Jazzed Up was a fluffy and uplifting romance novel.

Badger’s Perfect Garden by Marsha Diane Arnold

Badger’s Perfect Garden by Marsha Diane Arnold
Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

It’s springtime and Badger is ready to plant the perfect garden. He has spent months gathering and sorting seeds. It’s been a lot of work but it’s worth it. His friends Red Squirrel, Dormouse, and Weasel come to help. They weed. They rake. And finally they plant. Afterward, everyone celebrates, and Badger can already imagine the perfect rows of flowers and vegetables. But then a rainstorm comes and washes away the beautiful seeds. Badger’s perfect garden is ruined. Or is it? Author Marsha Diane Arnold’s gentle story will encourage young readers to think beyond plans and expectations and imagine the wonderful possibilities that may occur when life and nature have other ideas.

Life is full of surprises.

I loved this picture book’s messages about being open to change and making the best of hard situations. Planning ahead and working hard are important, but they can’t guarantee that anything will turn out the way you hope it will. Sometimes all a badger, or a person, can do is go along with a sudden turn of events and see what happens next. That sort of flexibility is important for everyone, and I enjoyed the author’s take on one way to do it.

It would have been helpful to have a better flow to the storyline. The message of it was clear, but there wasn’t a lot of time to develop the characters or give the plot a chance to flourish. It had good bones, but there was so much more the author could have done with this piece. I would have happily chosen a higher rating if she’d added a few more layers to the writing to give the characters and plot some more depth.

Badger’s relationships with his friends were another highlight for me. They all cared about each other quite a bit, and it was heartwarming to see how they supported and encouraged Badger after his garden was washed away in a heavy thunderstorm. That’s exactly the sort of friend everyone should have when they’re struggling! Not every problem has an easy solution, but sticking with someone who is having a hard time can make that experience a better one for them.

Badger’s Perfect Garden made me smile.

All Up in Your Bizness by Julianna Newland

All Up in Your Bizness by Julianna Newland
Publisher: Fulton Books
Genre: Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

All up in Your Bizness is my first book (not counting my diary). Although I have written dozens of speeches, testimonials, newsletters, and talking points, they do not contain the wit and whimsy of this book. I have been employed for more than thirty years in several jobs, where I have seen hilarious shenanigans of the men and women who worked with me and the processes and programs that often befuddled us.

A labor of love and giggles, this book is to be enjoyed as a tongue-in-cheek look at many business circumstances, such as the interview, office kiss-ups, performance reviews, working from home, and working in the open office. Practical and useful advice is also provided.

Unspoken rules can be the hardest ones of all to follow.

As soon as the blurb mentioned this was going to be a tongue-in-cheek book, I knew I had to read it. The author had a fabulous sense of humor, and I chuckled my way through her various anecdotes about what Human Resources may claim a business is like versus what it’s actually like to work there. This is a fun choice for anyone who has ever silently wished they could add a few pages to their employee handbook about what it’s actually like to work for their company.

I loved Ms. Newland’s observations about how life has improved for women in the workplace over the past few decades. It would have been wonderful to also have sections on how things have evolved for people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, disabled workers, and other minority groups over time. I was surprised that none of these topics were covered and would have happily gone for a full five-star rating if they were.

With that being said, I was pleased to see the comparisons between various generations in the workplace. Not everyone from the same generation will behave the same way, of course, but there have been some cultural shifts over time when it comes to things like what an appropriate outfit for work looks like or how much overtime a worker is or isn’t willing to do on a regular basis. Bringing these assumptions out into the open is an important part of making sure everyone is on the same page, and it can also add extra humor to the mix if finding common ground is harder than expected.

All Up in Your Bizness made me smile.

The Savage Moor by Robert Fael

The Savage Moor by Robert Fael
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The Exmoor Beast is a creature of myth and mystery. Some think it’s a phantom. Others that it’s actually a big cat that escaped from a private collection. The bloody carcasses of deer and sheep found on the moor are often quoted as proof of its existence.

Now for the first time the Beast has taken human prey, and attacks seem to be intensifying. Ex MI5 agent Hollis is called in to investigate.

What he uncovers is more than just moorland myth. It’s a clash between a quiet farming community, and big city gangsters. Things are becoming increasingly violent, and the bodies they find have been pulverized with incredible force. Shotguns may be no match for AK47s, but it seems the people of Exmoor have a surprisingly fearsome ally.

Would you stake your life on local gossip?

The complexities of small town life made this such an interesting read. Some authors and readers assume that life is slower and safer in rural communities, but Mr. Fael knew better than that. Just because everyone knows everyone else doesn’t mean that terribly dangerous things can’t happen in isolated corners of the community late at night. If anything, that false sense of security can help to cover up certain crimes if people are willing to give old friends and neighbors the benefit of the doubt no matter what oddities they might witness. I enjoyed the depth the author brought to this setting and thought he did a good job of exploring both the benefits and the drawbacks of living in such a place.

This novella included a large cast of characters that I struggled to keep up with. There simply wasn’t enough space to get to know any of them well, including the protagonist. As much as I wanted to give this a higher rating, I didn’t feel comfortable doing so due to the limited amount of character development and how confused I was by who certain individuals were.

The mystery was well-paced and exciting. I had my suspicions about the possible identity of the Exmoor Beast, especially after reading a brief, bloody scene of it attacking someone, but the author still managed to surprise me in the end. As much as I’d love to go into detail about the differences between my theory and what was really going on, that’s hard to do without giving away spoilers. What I can say is that this kept me guessing and made me nod with understanding when certain clues were revealed close to the end.

The Savage Moor kept me guessing.

Discarded – A Canadian Historical Mystery by Nancy M Bell

Discarded – A Canadian Historical Mystery by Nancy M Bell
Publisher: BWL Publishing Inc.
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, Romance, Historical
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

When the British arrived in Winnipeg in the 1800s it was convenient for the men to take Metis wives. They were called a la vacon du pays – according to the custom of the country. These women bore the brunt of ensuring survival in the harsh environment. Without them the British army and fur traders would not have survived the brutal winters.

However, as society evolved it became accepted that wives must be white, schooled in British ways, fashionable in the European sense and married by the Anglican church. The Metis wives and their ‘country born’ offspring were thrown out and forced to fend for themselves. The unrepentant husbands continued to live comfortably with their ‘new’ wives.

It was inevitable that some discarded wives did not accept their fate quietly and hard feelings on both sides were unavoidable. When the bodies of two discarded Metis wives, Marguerite and Marie-Anne, are found floating in the Red River, Guilliame Mousseau, sets out to get to the bottom of his sister Margueite’s murder.

Not everyone is always equal under the eyes of the law.

Racism has many faces. Some of the best scenes in my opinion were the ones that showed how deeply ingrained racism was into every facet of society in the 1800s. Even characters who were otherwise fairly sympathetic were negatively influenced by it at times. I found it refreshing that this wasn’t something coded as a problem only for the antagonists. People are complex, after all, and few of us are ever completely virtuous or evil.

This book had a large cast of characters, most of whom I would struggle to describe if someone asked me what their personalities were like. It would have been helpful to have more character development as this was something that was a barrier to me connecting with the storyline and wanting to keep reading. Had this been given space to develop, I would have happily gone with a higher rating as I was quite intrigued by the murder mystery itself.

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the plot. They worked equally well for readers who know about this chapter of Canadian history and those who know nothing about a la vacon du pays and how they were mistreated by their British husbands and the government at all. That can be a tricky balance to maintain, so it was nice to see Ms. Bell make it look so effortless. I will be curious to see where she goes with these characters next if she writes the sequel that was hinted at in the final scene.

Discarded – A Canadian Historical Mystery made me curious to read more from this author.

The Red Tin Box by Matthew Burgess

The Red Tin Box by Matthew Burgess
Publisher: Chronicle Books LLC
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Like modern-day Miss Rumphius and her promise to make the world a more beautiful place, this luminous story brings the scope of a lifetime into focus for a young reader and fills it with the magic of gifts given and received.

This moving and radiant story of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter, and the joy and promise passed down between them, begins one quiet dawn . . .
On the morning of her eighth birthday,
Maude buries a secret
at the foot of a flowering dogwood—
and inside it,
a tiny toy elephant,
a marble like a tiger’s eye,
a bird’s nest with purple string woven through the twigs,
and more.

A special box.
A gift, waiting for the right moment to be opened again.

At once lyrical and profound, this enchantingly illustrated book is a joyful celebration of intergenerational relationships and of the secret treasures of childhood. Young readers and adults will delight in the memories and magic tucked away in the red tin box.

REASSURING AND MAGICAL: In these unpredictable times, gentle stories have the power to reassure little ones that the most important things in life are still right in our hands. This beautiful book celebrates the enduring themes of family love, connection, and the power of memory with poignancy and care.

CELEBRATES INTERGENERATIONAL SHARING: The warmth between a grandmother and her granddaughter that this luminous picture book depicts serves as a beautiful model of the little moments that form fond memories and build lasting intergenerational relationships.

EVERYONE HAS A TREASURE: The collection of special objects in this story give a grandmother’s memories and connection to her granddaughter a physicality that even the youngest readers can use their own senses to understand, reinforcing the deeper meaning and mystery each one contains.

A MEANINGFUL GIFT: With gorgeous, color-drenched illustrations and lyrical text that illuminates a message of enduring love, this picture book makes a wonderful gift for any occasion, from birthdays to holidays, and every day of the year.

Perfect for:
Anyone seeking storytime books that celebrate family connection
Fans of beautiful and heartfelt picture books like The Giving Tree, One Morning in Maine, and Last Stop on Market Street
Gift book for new grandmothers, as part of a wishing well basket for baby shower, a birthday gift to a grandchild, or a classroom resource for diverse kids’ books
Any occasion that calls for distinctive books that will become treasured keepsakes

Childhood doesn’t last forever, but what if you could preserve a piece of it?

The relationship between Maude and her granddaughter was sweet and beautiful. I loved getting a taste of the sorts of quiet adventures they went on together, especially once the storyline explained what they hoped to accomplish on this trip. It’s always nice to have more stories about loving and involved grandparents, especially when they remember what it’s like to be a kid as clearly and fondly as this one did.

I was disappointed by how little time was spent explaining the contents of the red tin box. After all of the scenes that hyped up what Maude might have buried so many years before and why they were so meaningful to her, it felt odd to skim over these details so quickly in the last few scenes. If more attention had been paid to this, I would have happily gone for a much higher rating.

It was interesting to see how much the landscape stayed the same between when Maude buried her box and when she went back again to dig it up. There are a few places I know that are like that, and visiting them can feel like stepping back in the past in a soothing and wholesome way. This isn’t a feeling or a setting that’s easy to capture in a picture book, so I tip my cap to the author for pulling it off.

The Red Tin Box was a peaceful tale.