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.

The Changing Season by Steven Manchester

sEASON
The Changing Season by Steven Manchester
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (273 pgs)
Rating: 3.5 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

This was supposed to be a simple summer for Billy; one more lazy expanse of time before college began. He’d fill the hours playing with Jimmy – his canine best buddy – going camping and doing all the things he promised Jimmy they’d do before Billy left.

But that was before the accident that shook the entire town.

It was before the summer job that turned into something so much more than a way to get a paycheck.

And it was before Vicki.

This summer was destined to be many things to Billy, things he didn’t truly understand until now. But it was definitely not going to be simple.

A boy and his dog—always a good bet for a book.

I hadn’t read a book by Steven Manchester before I picked up A Changing Season. I wasn’t sure what I’d be getting into. Books with dogs tend to be bittersweet and while those are good books, I wanted something a little lighter. I got that with this book. Yes, there is tension and more than a few black moments, but all in all, it’s a good read.

I liked the bond between Billy and Jimmy, his dog. Being an animal person myself, I could relate to the way the two were together. Dogs can be the best of friends for a human—if the human lets the relationship happen. I liked how the author allowed Jimmy to be that silent voice of reason and comfort for Billy.

There were moments in the book that were a tad predictable. I won’t go into what so I don’t ruin the story, but honestly, the predictability didn’t take away from the enjoyment I had while reading.

I liked the book and if you’re looking for a coming-of-age book that has a lot of heart, then this might be the book for you.

Gooseberry Island by Steven Manchester

ISLAND
Gooseberry Island by Steven Manchester
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (300 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Camellia

They met at the worst possible moment…or maybe it was just in time. David McClain was about to go to war and Lindsey Wood was there at his going-away party, capturing his heart when falling for a woman was the last thing on his mind. While David was serving his country, he stayed in close contact with Lindsey. But war changes a person, and when he came home very little had the same meaning that it had before – including the romance that had sustained him. Was love truly unconquerable, or would it prove to be just another battlefield casualty?

Gooseberry Island is the most nuanced, dramatic, and romantic novel yet from a writer whose ability to plumb the depths of human emotion knows few peers.

It is amazing that Steven Manchester can take the same alphabet most of us use, create the same words most of us use, and arrange them so skillfully that they reach in and stir profound emotions in a reader. His ability to connect the reader with the characters’ deepest feelings, fears, hopes, dreams, and love is incredible.

GOOSEBERRY ISLAND is a tapestry of a tale that depicts the horrors of war—even one fought for a noble cause—and how faith, hope, and love struggle to overcome the memories that rise up like demons to rule men’s lives and the lives of those who love these men and have the courage to help them survive PTSD.

Army Ranger David McClain and Lindsey Wood, the daughter of an Operation Desert Storm veteran with PTSD, meet the day before David leaves for a year’s tour in Afghanistan. Their immediate connection has them on the beach talking all night where they can see the lighthouse. The symbolism of the lighthouse, that stands like a missionary determined to save, is memorable.

David and Lindsey’s courtship via email, Skye, snail mail, and care packages reveals the change in David as he follows orders and does with skill what he’s been trained to do. When he returns home, he is no longer the baby-faced young man with a sparkle in his eyes.

Lindsey’s life with her war-damaged father makes her wonderful if she has the strength to deal with David. No doubt love is there, but she’s not sure it can conquer the demons that replay the horrors of war in David’s mind, driving him to do things totally uncharacteristic of the young man she fell in love. The degrading actions of her father make her life a misery at times. She perseveres with him and clings to hope that David will find the help he needs before it is too late.

David’s Ranger brothers add another level of often heartbreaking emotion to the story as do the flashbacks of David’s life and his relationship with his parents. These show his motivation, fears, hopes, and will to persevere. The reader is also privy to the battle David fights to reconcile his soldier training with his innate decency.

GOOSEBERRY ISLAND is full of memorable expressions, of symbolism, and of how enduring faith and love settle themselves deep in the hearts and souls of David and Lindsey and never allow themselves to be evicted. EXCELLENT READING!

Flash and Dazzle by Lou Aronica

FLASH
Flash and Dazzle by Lou Aronica
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (292 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Camellia

What happens when everything you thought was true changes all at once? What happens when each relationship that means anything to you suddenly becomes far more real than you ever thought it would be? What happens when every moment becomes invaluable as all of them pass far too quickly?

Flash and Dazzle is the story of two friends who have known the best of times who develop a true taste for life during the worst of times. It is the story of the friends and lovers who enter their orbit, some for a long time and some only for a moment. It is the story of legacies, burdens, and the kinds of secrets that are only revealed when there’s nothing left to tell.

It is a funny, moving, deeply honest novel that will inspire you to call everyone you care about and thank everyone you know for what they’ve given you.

The talented Rich Flaster (Flash) and Eric Dazman (Dazzle) are successful in the highly competitive advertising business in Manhattan, N.Y. Material things, casual friends, fine dining, and entertainment are theirs in abundance. Their life style is truly full of flash and dazzle but there is an emptiness that they try to fill with partying, drinking, game playing, loud music, and frenzied work sessions. Not until they are faced with Eric’s terminal cancer condition do they realize the lack of substance in their lives.

Stories told from the first person point of view are not usually something I enjoy, but I soon felt as if I were reading a slice of an autobiography as Rich Flaster deals with the undeniable impending death of his best friend that he identifies himself with. They have been a unit since college. Rich and Eric are from very different backgrounds yet connect in a unique way that buoys each of them up and makes them better.

Even with all their connectedness, they have secrets that never surfaced until the real issue of how to live day by day when death has control of the number of days makes them look deeper into themselves. Eric’s sister Linda seems to be the catalyst that helps them find substance and value in life other than just the surface “keeping-busy” things that have filled their lives up to the time Eric is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Life goes on for Rich but it will never be the same nor will life be the same for many of Eric friends because, in his own way, he had influenced each and every one of their lives with his exuberance for life.

Lou Aronica is a master story teller and reaches right in and touches one’s heart with the humanness of his characters. He stirs emotions and senses that bring tears and laughter while sadness for the hurts in the human experience almost overwhelm at times. I would have loved being able to see some of the scenes from some of the other characters’ points of view. I didn’t feel that I got to know them as well as I would have had I been able to know their thoughts and inner feelings.

Flash and Dazzle is a poignant story that lingers in the memory and makes one hope the characters that Eric left behind will find a rewarding, happy life as they continue the human experience; while Eric is getting one of his remarkable parties ready for them to enjoy when they come to share with him the next experience after the human experience. This is a thought provoking novel.

The Rockin’ Chair by Steven Manchester

CHAIR
2nd place 2013 copy
The Rockin’ Chair by Steven Manchester
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (269 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: Best Book
Reviewed by Camellia

Memories are the ultimate contradiction. They can warm us on our coldest days or they can freeze a loved one out of our lives forever. The McCarthy family has a trove of warm memories. Of innocent first kisses. Of sumptuous family meals. Of wondrous lessons learned at the foot of a rocking chair. But they also have had their share of icy ones. Of words that can never be unsaid. Of choices that can never be unmade. Of actions that can never be undone.

Following the death of his beloved wife, John McCarthy Grandpa John calls his family back home. It is time for them to face the memories they have made, both warm and cold. Only then can they move beyond them and into the future.

The Rockin’ Chair reached in and touched my heart. It made me think of a saying—we are infinite spirits having a temporary human experience—don’t know where I heard it but it popped into my mind. Big John McCarthy’s spiritual faith makes him confident he, one day soon, will be with his Alice that Alzheimer’s had taken from him. But his earthly need to set things right for his son and grandchildren before he goes to her resonates throughout the story.

John loved and still loves his son Hank with all his being, yet somewhere along the line things went wrong. John tried to help Hank become a man but he used the harsh methods he’d learned from his father. John made Hank bitter. He alienated his son. Not even Alice’s gentle words made John see what he was doing and how his stubbornness and pride had cost him dearly. He suffers and works and works. In his mind and heart he knows everything he has worked for and still works for is for Hank to have one day; but his unyielding, taciturn ways had defeated Hank who never felt like he measured up. Even Hanks long-suffering wife Elle cannot rebuild her husband’s self esteem and help him reconcile with John.

Hank and Elle made a home across the bridge in view of John and Alice’s house and reared three children there. The children loved John and Alice and learned so much from them. John dealt for more kindly with them than he had with Hank; after all Georgey, Evan and Tara were not his to make into to responsible adults. Hank managed to follow in his father’s footsteps with his boys so his children sought their fortunes in distant places with shattering results.

Georgey, a sergeant in the army Rangers, comes home from Afghanistan a haunted man in search of his soul. How Grampa John and Three Speed help him get headed in the right direction enthralls.

Evan comes home with a broken heart and shattered dreams. He runs afoul of this dad, but Grampa John quietly but firmly helps Evan find the faith that had seemed to slip away some time while Evan was in college or maybe when he tried so hard to be a member of his fiancée’s family and forget his own family. The example Grampa John uses with the old glass bottle with a rainbow in it when the sun caught it at just the right angel is so revealing.

Tara comes home an alcoholic and drug addict with a precious little daughter that soaks up family love like a sponge. Tara’;s battle for normalcy is heartbreaking and will be on going, but with Grampa John’s unrelenting care and some kind, but stern guidance, there is hope. His simple question—do you hate yourself more than you love your daughter—touches something in Tara and prods her into making a more determined effort.

The hardest task John must tackle is making things right with Hank. Their relationship is fraught with so much hurt and bitterness, but with prayer and a God that never fails, John finds a way so his soul can rest in peace when it is time to go be with his Alice. Moreover, he learns it is so much better to be KIND than be RIGHT.

I’m still reeling with wonder as to how Steven Manchester uses ordinary words that we all use but puts them together so masterfully that they tap into emotions, senses, and one’s very being. He helps a reader identify, sympathize, or empathize with imaginary characters to the point that this reader was shedding tears for their hurts, railing at characters that wrong them, and in my mind and heart sharing life experiences with them. His amazing descriptions let the reader vicariously experience the deep cold of Montana winters, the blush of early spring, the smell, texture, sounds of the barn, the atmosphere of The Corn Crib dive, the timelessness of the seasons, the endlessness of hard work on a Montana farm, and so much more. Mr. Manchester’s exquisite writing style makes this poignant story memorable and joy to read.

The Rockin’ Chair rings so true to life as it reveals the strength of family love that survives through the good and the bad. It is a keeper.

Leaves by Michael Baron

Leaves by Michael Baron
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (330 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Camellia

Welcome to Oldham, CT, a small town rich in Colonial heritage while being utterly contemporary. Situated along the Connecticut River Valley, Oldham bursts with color every fall, as the leaves on its trees evolve into an unmatched palette of scarlet, orange, purple, yellow, and bronze. For more than three decades, the Gold family has been a central part of Oldham in the fall, its Sugar Maple Inn a destination for “leaf-peepers” from all over the country, and its annual Halloween party a stirring way to punctuate the town’s most active month.

But this year, more than just the leaves are changing. With the death of their parents, the Gold siblings, Maria, Maxwell, Deborah, Corrina, and Tyler, have decided to sell the Sugar Maple Inn, and this year’s Halloween party will be the last. As October begins, the Golds contend with the finality that faces them, and the implications it has for a family that has always been so close. For some, it means embracing new challenges and new love. For others, it means taking on unimagined roles. And for others, it means considering the inconceivable. Complicating it all is a series of “hauntings” that touch each of the Gold siblings, a series of benign interventions that will remain a mystery until October draws to a close.

“…they’d exchanged the sense of intimacy they always had between them for the assumption of intimacy.” This profound remark is a theme that resonates throughout the story.

Even though this is a remark made about one couple’s relationship, it is evident in many of the ‘so-human’ characters’ relationships. The change from one type of intimacy to the other happens so subtly that it is hardly noticeable until suddenly despair and discontent set in. The reader sees the people, once so in tune with each other, no longer share meaningful conversations. They let awareness of each others’ needs slip away. They stop feeling contented pleasure in doing things together or just ‘being’ together. They no longer feel that special jolt of joy in just seeing each other across the room and their lovemaking loses the all-consuming sharing that engages body, mind, and spirit and transports them as one to ecstasy. How they cope and overcome or succumb keeps one’s rapt attention.

While the Gold siblings are still grieving the death of their parents, life goes on and must be dealt with. The Sugar Maple Inn that seems a symbol of their lives with their parents is sold and a last hurrah—the traditional Halloween party—is to be organized and the community invited. The reader is pulled into the fray and sees personality traits emerge that intrigue.

Tyler, the youngest of the Gold siblings, not only grieves the loss of his parents; he also is adrift after Patrice, his love for the last five years, steps away from their relationship; added to that his photography business is alarmingly slow. His less than enthusiastic interest in being in charge of the decorations for the Halloween party is understandable. Even his relationship with the siblings he has been closest to through the years seems to be on shaky ground. The ups and downs of his coping process range from heart-breaking to humorous. Just when he needs it most a memory comes—in a most unusual way. He remembers his special relationship with his sister Deborah. It seems to bring peace and helps him get his act together.

Deborah, the head chef at the Inn, has lost her anchor. How does she move on? The near panic she feels at times and the “foodie” (so much like her) that she meets keeps her life on a rollercoaster through much of the story. Of course, dealing with Corrina, her bossy sister who feels compelled to order everybody around, often without the desired results, is one of the most complicated of the siblings. Her hurts that she keeps to herself are overwhelming. With a husband who begrudges her his time and a stepson that needs more help than she can or knows how to give, she is stressed to the max much of the time with no relief to come. Maybe in another book Mr. Baron will help her find a happy-ever-after.

Maria, though suffering from empty-nest syndrome, brings music and hope to the story. Her husband has lost touch with her as a person, but she perseveres and bridges some gaps while still reaching for her own dreams and connecting with their daughter Olivia in a special way. The music she brings to mind brings back great memories for this reader. Lots of good things ahead it seems.

Maxwell, the oldest sibling, and his wife Annie, a discontented soul that longs for more in life than to be Joey’s mom and Maxwell’s wife, weave a discordant note through the story that keeps the reader a little on edge. Maxwell’s political life absorbs his time. He seems not to see the seriousness of Annie’s need. He just takes care of little two-year-old, hyper Joey when she says she has to be away for awhile and makes plans for his future. His blindness to Annie’s need does not bode well for their future.

Michael Baron takes these complex characters, places them in a quiet little town in Connecticut among people they have known and have known them all their lives; sprinkles in a few newcomers; adds October the most colorful, beautiful month of their year; and invites the reader in for a enthralling vicarious experience. The special memory that each sibling has that helps them repair the frayed relationships with each other is a touch of supernatural that gives a haunting quality the story. The precious memories the reader gets to vicariously share with each of the Gold siblings and the “joint hallucination” they all share is heart-warming.

The charm of Michael Baron’s writing brings a special polish to a poignant story, making it sparkle and enchant like October leaves in New England.

Anything by Michael Baron

Anything by Michael Baron
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary
Length: Full Length (283 pages)
Heat Level: Sweet
Rating: 4.5 books
Reviewed by Camellia

Ken and Melissa are at the dawn of a magnificent life together. A passionate romance has led them to the doorstep of marriage. While searching for the perfect wedding present for Melissa, Ken stumbles into a mysterious shop. There, he is given an extraordinary opportunity – to look in on Melissa when she was a girl. Ken has always wished he could have known Melissa from the day she was born and this seems like an incredible blessing. Until he discovers a terrible secret in Melissa’s past, one so awful she has found it impossible to mention to him.

Now Ken has another extraordinary opportunity. He can go back in time and change the horrible event that has left an indelible mark on Melissa. He can free her of this burden – but doing so could change things so completely that they might never meet.

Ken has repeatedly told Melissa that he would do anything for her. But would he truly do anything?

A mix of magic and magnificent love makes Anything mesmerizing.

Ken Timian and Melissa Argent meld their lives together in a way only soul mates can manage. Even though their careers are not particularly compatible, they respect the efforts, abilities, and successes of each other. As their wedding day approaches, two fortune cookies prove to have significant messages—“A major change is coming” and “Your heart will show you the way.” This foreshadowing hints at the life-changing conflict that comes.

While Melissa is not materialistic, but she appreciates and enjoys beautiful things, and Ken loves to find unique pieces of jewelry for her. A mysterious little shop, Stephon’s, never fails to yield up just the perfect piece. The shop is like an archeological dig full of jewels, gold, and silver. As Ken searches for a gift to commemorate their cherished courtship and welcome their marriage, Stephon, the owner of the shop, asks Ken what his greatest fantasy is concerning Melissa.

When Ken reveals his fantasy, Stephon says he can make it happen. However, while it will be informative and amusing, it can also be disconcerting. Then Ken’s second request changes the dynamics of both his and Melissa’s lives. It threatens to be his undoing.

Anything becomes mysterious, suspenseful, and the anxiety builds as Ken tries to cope with the fallout of his momentous decision and the subsequent actions. He seems stymied. He cannot tolerate going backward to a lifestyle he once savored nor can he seem to move forward until he exhausts all avenues of getting to his soul mate.

Many of the secondary characters are interesting, but Stephon is unique. One wonders if there is not a story behind the moonstone he and Ken believe is perfect for Melissa. The mystical power of the moonstone is believed to protect women and babies. It is also said to balance yin and yang, bring good fortune, and is highly prized for lovers as it arouses tender passion. What fun it would be to know the mystery of Stephon—maybe he will show up again in a later Baron story.

By using first person POV, Michael Baron creates a close relationship between the reader and Ken Timian. Ken’s intimate hopes, dreams, fears, and resolve along with his desperation create an urgency that keeps one turning pages in an attempt to get Ken to the love he seems to be so deserving of.

Melissa is less closely connected, but her story is enthralling and breathtaking. She has a talent that “burns in her blood,” but because of a past traumatic experience, she denies it. Yet, she functions with compassion and dedication in the life she has chosen in lieu of the life she once dreamed of having. As the reader sees her a different way, after Ken’s life-changing deed, Melissa sparkles with vibrant life but with the same compassion and concern for others as before. She does not dismiss that spark of recognition as she sees Ken among the teeming crowd, but reaches out to him.

With poignant metaphors and magical imagery, the exquisite writing style of Michael Baron brings to life an enchanting love story that surpasses the usual and reveals a love willing to give all to assure a loved one gets to fulfill a deferred dream and innermost desire. Mr. Baron sprinkles Anything with humor, joy, social issues, exciting back story, and family relationships as he captivates with an incredible love story of soul mates finding their way to each other through a maze strewn with obstacles.