Small Stories: A Perfectly Absurd Novel by Rob Roy O’Keefe


Small Stories: A Perfectly Absurd Novel by Rob Roy O’Keefe
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Satire, Fiction
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

One town is just like another.

Except when it’s the focus of a wild experiment gone off the rails.

Duncan and Maya Small have just moved to an out-of-the-way town full of odd characters, quirky customs, and a power-obsessed local official who believes he should be declared emperor. Duncan is sharp enough to know something needs to change, and delusional enough to believe he’s the one to make it happen. The only thing standing in his way are feral ponies, radical seniors, common sense, and Duncan’s inability to do anything without a list. Oh, and an entire town that won’t take him seriously.

Small Stories: A Perfectly Absurd Novel, is a tale of power, bake sales, manipulation, the Welcome Wagon, deception, and yes, diabolical forces at work in the shadows, although the Smalls soon discover nothing is as it seems. One thing is certain – there’s something funny going on here.

Everything has a rational explanation, right?

My favorite scenes were the ones that dug into the unexpected results of small town politics. Sometimes conflicts with the lowest and pettiest stakes can be the most interesting because of how personally invested people can be in making sure that they receive recognition for their work or that someone they dislike is not chosen for a particular position or award. The author did an excellent job of portraying how frustrating and unintentionally hilarious these moments can be, especially to outsiders who are not yet aware of how seriously some folks take these matters.

I had trouble following the plot due to how often it veered off track to explain all sorts of random bits of information that were loosely related to what the characters were currently doing. This is something I’m saying as someone who generally enjoys these sorts of rabbit trails in stories. They can be a great deal of fun to read, but they happened too often here for this reader’s tastes.

The dialogue was funny and well written. All of the characters had natural speaking voices, and I could easily imagine their conversations happening in real life. This was true even for the zany ones that talked about things like how to keep pufferfish out of their community even though no pufferfish had yet been found there. People do sometimes talk about silly things like this, and the way they spoke in this book rang true to me.

Small Stories: A Perfectly Absurd Novel made me chuckle.

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker


A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
Publisher: Knopf Books
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Snowdrop

From the best-selling author of Longbourn, a remarkable imagining of Samuel Beckett’s wartime experiences. In 1939 Paris, the ground rumbles with the footfall of Nazi soldiers marching along the Champs-Élysées, and a young, unknown writer, recently arrived from Ireland to make his mark, smokes one last cigarette with his lover before the city they know is torn apart. Soon he will put them both in mortal danger by joining the Resistance.

Through the years that follow, we are witness to the workings of a uniquely brilliant mind struggling to create a language to express a shattered world. A story of survival and determination, of spies and artists, passion and danger, A Country Road, A Tree is a portrait of the extremes of human experience alchemized into one man’s timeless art.

Was this book rather academic? I have waffled back and forth about that question. It has been a topic of discussion many times. In my opinion, there are two ways to read this book. One is as merely a story, which is what I did. It is an interesting tale of a writer and his girlfriend leading a somewhat Bohemian lifestyle in Europe. Its setting in the European countries during the tough war years of WW2 describes the hardships many of the people in those countries lived with.

However, being the curious person that I am, seeing James Joyce as a character in the book made me do a little research. During that research, I found that this is really not just historical fiction as it is classified, but rather a sort of fictional biographical picture of Samuel Beckett’s life and his time in France during the occupation. This somehow made me feel differently about the book. Was I supposed to just enjoy it as a story or was I supposed to learn more about Beckett? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

It may be that my previous ramblings are what made this book read somewhat slow at the beginning for me. It sped up and flowed quite smoothly as I continued to read. In fact, it became that story I was talking about in the first paragraph. A well-written story of a young man with writer’s block and a young girl wanting very much to help him, both living with a couple trying to make it through the occupation. Jo Baker seems to be an author who is able to write so that the frightening times, the hunger, and the cold and uncertainty, are vividly felt.

Jo Baker has other publications, one has more than 3000 reviews on Amazon. I think everything she has written is worth checking out.

Sister Mother Warrior by Vanessa Riley


Sister Mother Warrior by Vanessa Riley
Publisher: William Morrow an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
Genre: Historical
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Gran Toya: Born in West Africa, Abdaraya Toya was one of the legendary minos—women called “Dahomeyan Amazons” by the Europeans—who were specially chosen female warriors consecrated to the King of Dahomey. Betrayed by an enemy, kidnapped, and sold into slavery, Toya wound up in the French colony of Saint Domingue, where she became a force to be reckoned with on its sugar plantations: a healer and an authority figure among the enslaved. Among the motherless children she helped raise was a man who would become the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines. When the enslaved people rose up, Toya, ever the warrior, was at the forefront of the rebellion that changed the course of history.

Marie-Claire: A free woman of color, Marie-Claire Bonheur was raised in an air of privilege and security because of her wealthy white grandfather. With a passion for charitable work, she grew up looking for ways to help those oppressed by a society steeped in racial and economic injustices. Falling in love with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, an enslaved man, was never the plan, yet their paths continued to cross and intertwine, and despite a marriage of convenience to a Frenchman, she and Dessalines had several children.

When war breaks out on Saint Domingue, pitting the French, Spanish, and enslaved people against one another in turn, Marie-Claire and Toya finally meet, and despite their deep differences, they both play pivotal roles in the revolution that will eventually lead to full independence for Haiti and its people.

Both an emotionally palpable love story and a detail-rich historical novel, Sister Mother Warrior tells the often-overlooked history of the most successful Black uprising in history. Riley celebrates the tremendous courage and resilience of the revolutionaries, and the formidable strength and intelligence of Toya, Marie-Claire, and the countless other women who fought for freedom.

This wonderful novel tells the story of a very successful slave uprising. History often tells us of how men changed the course of events. In a refreshing viewpoint, readers are treated to a life-changing situation through the eyes of two women.

Gran Toya, a West African woman, was a warrior. Sadly, she was sold and became a slave. Marie-Claire was a free woman of color who had a good life. They were involved with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Gran Toya as a mother figure, and Marie Claire as a wife. Dessalines was a former slave who became a general and led people to fight against slavery. Eventually the people of Haiti fought their colonizers and won, after decades.

The characters are layered and complex and often battle with difficult decisions. Their world is a challenge, and readers can see this through well-written words. Sights, scents, tastes, touch, and sounds come alive in this novel that depicts true events. The author fills in the blanks smoothly, making this an enjoyable story to read. The bonus is learning something about history. Readers will get much from reading this book.

Empty Vows by Mary Monroe


Empty Vows by Mary Monroe
The Wiggins Series, book 2
Publisher: Dafina
Genre: Historical, LGBTQ, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Ginger

Forty-something widow Jessie Tucker is beloved throughout Lexington, Alabama, for her kind heart and endless generosity. But she feels it’s past time she rewarded herself—especially when upstanding Hubert Wiggins tragically loses his wife and son. Making herself indispensable, yet discouraged by Hubert’s lack of romantic interest, Jessie cooks up a deception she knows will make pious Hubert do right by her…

Hoax or not, Hubert couldn’t be happier. The passionate self he’s long hidden from everyone has a new, much-riskier secret love. And the unsuspecting second Mrs. Wiggins will help him maintain his ever-so-devout image in the community…

But when Hubert is not the ardent lover Jessie always dreamed he was, she turns her desires to handsome younger man Conway. Suddenly the “good church wife” can’t resist temptation at all. And someone is watching: Conway’s new girlfriend—and Jessie’s longtime rival—Blondeen. Now Blondeen has the perfect opportunity to harass Jessie, destroy her reputation, drive her out of town—then become the real wife Hubert should have had all along…

In one shattering night, Jessie, Blondeen, and Hubert will each go too far. And when their web of deceit threatens to drag them under for good, they will have only one chance to erase the past and claim everything they’ve ever wanted. If their secrets don’t destroy them first…

What lengths would someone go to hide their secrets?

I was excited to return back to Lexington, Alabama! Empty Vows picks up where Mrs. Wiggins left off. You’ll need to read book one to get Maggie’s story. Book two is told from Jessie and Hubert’s view. True to her writing style the author includes colorful characters, an enthralling storyline and engaging dialogue.

Grief stricken Hubert Wiggins has lost his wife and son and soon finds himself an available widow in the small town of Lexington, Alabama. Jessie, Maggie’s best friend wasn’t interested in Hubert until her meddling sister Minnie put the thought in her head. In book two we get a different version of Jessie. In book one she was dominated by her now deceased husband and appeared helpless. Now readers see a calculating scheming side of Jessie.

If you’ve read book one you know Hubert has no interest in any of the women that are throwing themselves at him. He is only needing to find someone to cover suspicions of his secret lifestyle. With that premise I was drawn into the deceit and lies. But who is fooling who? As the saying goes be careful what you wish for and who you listen to. The characters make vows that were completely empty and based on selfish gain. Will the marriage turn out as they envisioned? This is the 1930’s and to cover a story with so many themes such as LGBTQ lifestyle, a strict religious family, segregation and the mention of a serial killer on the loose I couldn’t read fast enough. The author did an awesome job in pulling all this together to create an absolutely riveting drama.

I enjoyed the first book better, however this is a very entertaining read. In my opinion Jessie and Hubert are not on Maggie’s level. Maggie took action to help others and to defend herself while Jessie and Hubert are taking action for their own selfish reasons. Maggie’s upbringing wasn’t the best so that led me to have compassion for her and it made her actions more acceptable. For Jessie and Hubert, I don’t feel the same compassion.

I enjoy reading about the history during this era and learning about the culture in the Black community. I can picture the meddlesome neighbors and the humorous conversations. Living in the South the foods that are mentioned are staples in many households still today. I guess that’s why I enjoy the author’s stories so much, I can relate to living in a small town in the South and I can visualize people I know acting out the scenes in the book.

I am definitely looking forward to book three in this series to see how the author will conclude The Wiggins series. This is a good series that is sure to entertain many readers.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer


Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Publisher: Mariner Books
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Rating: 3 stars
Review by Snowdrop

With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man—also named Jonathan Safran Foer—sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis.

Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

As their adventure unfolds, Jonathan imagines the history of his grandfather’s village, conjuring a magical fable of startling symmetries that unite generations across time. As his search moves back in time, the fantastical history moves forward, until reality collides with fiction in a heart-stopping scene of extraordinary power.

This is a book about a young boy who finds an old, yellowed photo and is determined to find a lady in it who possibly saved his grandfather. It’s a look back upon a time of war and of the Nazis obliterating everything. It leads to many old memories, good, funny, and sad.

Everything is Illuminated has won many awards. It’s praised by the NY Times, Library Journal, the Washington Post, and many more. The author, Jonathan Safran Foer, was only 21 when he wrote it. In that view, it is amazing that such a work was written and published. It was even made into a movie. I found it difficult to read. Not because of its vulgarisms although there are many, but more so due to the broken English spoken by their translator who travels with them to the place where his grandfather lived. There are times it is hard to read because of the Holocaust and the treatment of the Jews, but that is not badly written, only hard to read because of the subject.

The author named the main character after himself. It caused me to wonder if the story was in its own way autobiographical as well as fictitious? There are some very poignant moments in Jonathan Safran’s journey. I wonder if the author has experienced the same feelings, the same sadness? It may be why although somewhat difficult to read, there can be no question the book is well-written. There are moments that come together and make you feel ashamed that you did not have to share the horror the Jews did during the war. Moments so well-written that you feel that you understand and yet know that you can never understand what the Jewish people experienced.

Is this a book you should read? I think it’s an experience many would gain from. It might be a story you shouldn’t pass by.

Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald


Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald
Publisher: Grove Press
Genre: Inspirational, Contemporary
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Snowdrop

Animals don’t exist in order to teach us things, but that is what they have always done, and most of what they teach us is what we think we know about ourselves.

In Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald brings together a collection of her best loved essays, along with new pieces on topics ranging from nostalgia for a vanishing countryside to the tribulations of farming ostriches to her own private vespers while trying to fall asleep.

Meditating on notions of captivity and freedom, immigration and flight, Helen invites us into her most intimate experiences: observing the massive migration of songbirds from the top of the Empire State Building, watching tens of thousands of cranes in Hungary, seeking the last golden orioles in Suffolk’s poplar forests. She writes with heart-tugging clarity about wild boar, swifts, mushroom hunting, migraines, the strangeness of birds’ nests, and the unexpected guidance and comfort we find when watching wildlife.

By one of this century’s most important and insightful nature writers, Vesper Flights is a captivating and foundational book about observation, fascination, time, memory, love and loss and how we make sense of the world around us.

This is a book of essays. People have a tendency to think it is about falcons because MacDonald is a falconer and also has written previous books about hawks and falcons. These essays are more than an observance of nature. They are also a description of one’s walk of life. Not all of the settings are out on the edge of a cliff. Some are experiences in our humdrum days of life, and some are very ethereal.

Vesper Flights did have trouble holding my attention but in looking back, I think this is a book one has to read at the right time. Sometimes essays can seem disjunct to me, like short stories in a sense. But I don’t think this book is meant to be looked upon as I did. It’s spiritual, it’s relaxing, and it’s calm. I am a very black and white thinker, so I don’t often look for meaning or inspiration as MacDonald does. I was brought up as a sort of “buck up” person, and this is not that kind of book. It’s a soul-searching, beautifully written book of essays about nature and about life.

Oblivion by Kira Stone


Oblivion by Kira Stone
Publisher: Razor’s Edge/Changeling Press
Genre: Contemporary, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, LGBTQ, Erotic
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Who said going to Hell didn’t have its rewards?

Killed in a dirty back alley by a street whore. Such an ugly way to die. But my lessons in death have only just begun.

Hell is filthy. And cold. And as soon as I fell, I found a demon waiting for me. My new Master. From spanking to whipping to painful abuse, each new lesson gives me hope — the hope of oblivion. Surely I can’t survive this long.

But the longer I’m here, the more I learn about myself and the life I wasted. And the more I crave Master’s touch. Each lesson strips away another layer of my mortal flesh. I am everyman. I am no one. I am what my Master wishes me to be. A Demon’s whore for all eternity…

Boy howdy, this one is a hot story!

I have to start this out by mentioning this is a Razor’s Edge story, which means it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s meant to be off-the-charts hot and not necessarily romance. If you’re looking for something that’s going to melt your reader, then this is the one for you.

He is killed in a dubious way and has to pay for his many indiscretions. I wasn’t looking for anything too sweet, so this story delivered. He is punished and there are moments of dubious consent, but the true thrust of this story is the journey. He goes on the journey of a lifetime – or would it be deathtime since he’s with his master in hell? He learns about himself and what he can handle. What he likes and needs. It’s crazy hot and may be a bit uncomfortable for some readers. It’s erotica and meant to be cutting edge.

If you’re looking for something hot and guaranteed to melt your screen, then this is it. Give Oblivion a try.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Publisher: Spiegel and Grau
Genre: Contemporary
Rating: 4 stars
Review by Snowdrop

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a widely published author and this book, Between the World and Me, is the first of his works I have read. One of those we are all familiar with that he wrote is the Black Panther series of Marvel comics. Between the World and Me is a letter to his son. A letter to try and prepare him for the world he will grow up in.

This book is well-written, almost poetic at times. It also has an angry tone or at least it did to me. I would never pretend I could understand the trials and tribulations that a Black man in our country has had to live through, still must endure. Some of this is powerful and hurtful. It was difficult for me to admit I live in a society that could be guilty of such things.

On the other hand, I’m a solutions person, a problem solver. While I know we can’t make racism disappear overnight, I guess I was hoping the letter would be a document of Coates instructing his son about how he had the opportunity to change things. This is not that. It does not have an uplifting tone. It is the story of a Black man and what he had to live through. While it might not have been what I was expecting or even what I wanted to hear, I know it was a valuable read.

The Boys by Ron Howard & Clint Howard


The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family by Ron Howard & Clint Howard
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Historical, Non-Fiction, Memoir
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

Happy Days, The Andy Griffith Show, Gentle Ben—these shows captivated millions of TV viewers in the ’60s and ’70s. Join award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard and audience-favorite actor Clint Howard as they frankly and fondly share their unusual family story of navigating and surviving life as sibling child actors.

“What was it like to grow up on TV?” Ron Howard has been asked this question throughout his adult life. in The Boys, he and his younger brother, Clint, examine their childhoods in detail for the first time. For Ron, playing Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Richie Cunningham on Happy Days offered fame, joy, and opportunity—but also invited stress and bullying. For Clint, a fast start on such programs as Gentle Ben and Star Trek petered out in adolescence, with some tough consequences and lessons.

With the perspective of time and success—Ron as a filmmaker, producer, and Hollywood A-lister, Clint as a busy character actor—the Howard brothers delve deep into an upbringing that seemed normal to them yet was anything but. Their Midwestern parents, Rance and Jean, moved to California to pursue their own showbiz dreams. But it was their young sons who found steady employment as actors. Rance put aside his ego and ambition to become Ron and Clint’s teacher, sage, and moral compass. Jean became their loving protector—sometimes over-protector—from the snares and traps of Hollywood.

By turns confessional, nostalgic, heartwarming, and harrowing, THE BOYS is a dual narrative that lifts the lid on the Howard brothers’ closely held lives. It’s the journey of a tight four-person family unit that held fast in an unforgiving business and of two brothers who survived “child-actor syndrome” to become fulfilled adults.

Two brothers, one journey few can understand and a lifetime of memories.

I love to read biographies and autobiographies. When I saw this one about little Ronny Howard, I had to read it. I’m glad I did. There’s a whole lot more to Ron Howard than you might think. First, he’s not only a gifted filmmaker, but also a gifted writer. This was like reading a conversation between friends. Truly. His brother, Clint, writes half of this book and he’s more complicated than I ever thought.

Ron Howard is more than just Opie from the Andy Griffith show. I had no idea how hard worked to get ready for that part and how he had to work to BE Opie. I had no idea he had no concept of how to sign autographs while playing the role of Opie. He didn’t have the easiest life and it’s interesting to read about his transition from Opie to Ritchie Cunningham on Happy Days, then his move to directing. I liked how he’s so honest in his retelling of this era and his tendency to wish his father had his success, rather than having it for himself. It shows his humbleness.

Then there’s Clint. I knew this was his brother, but I didn’t know much about him. This book obviously changed that. He didn’t have quite the same experiences as Ron, even though he grew up in the same household. That’s not to say he wasn’t treated well. He was, but he had different experiences. There’s the unfortunate incidence with the buzzard during the filming of The Red Pony. If you’re upset by indignities to animals, then this might be the portion to skip. I never realized he had such drug problems or had become such a character actor. I have a new respect for Clint Howard.

All in all, this is a wonderful Hollywood autobiography and one that shouldn’t be missed. Recommended.

Secrets of a River Swimmer by S.S. Turner


Secrets of a River Swimmer by S.S. Turner
Publisher: The Story Plant
Genre: Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Rated: 5 stars
Review by Rose

As Freddy gazes at the majestic river gushing past him in the depths of a Scottish winter, he’s ready to jump in and end his life. But what happens next is not what Freddy expects. From the moment he enters the river, Freddy starts a journey which is more beautiful, funny, and mysterious than he could have imagined. And through this journey Freddy’s story becomes interweaved with a cast of unforgettable characters who are equally lost and in search of answers. Eventually they all unite in their quest for an answer to the biggest question of them all: will the river take them where they want to go?

In the tradition of inspirational works of fiction like The Alchemist and Life of Pi, Secrets of a River Swimmer is at once a profound exploration into living with meaning and an affecting story of people on the cusp of change.

This is a beautifully written, almost lyrical, account of one man and how the river saved his life – quite literally. Freddy is tired of life – tired of modern living, tired of cell phones, tired of the rat race. He’s ready to give it all up and slips into a cold winter river – to let his life slip away.

And, in one sense, it does just that. It slips away and he is left with so much more at the end of the book than when he started. Between the beginning and the end, he learns about himself, about life, about death, and he makes friends along the way with a very wise fish who has wonderful comments and commentary on life.

This book not only held my attention throughout, wondering what would happen to Freddy next, but it also gave me things to wonder about and things to ponder. It’s magical at times, tragic at times, laugh out loud funny at times. It not only entertained me, it uplifted me. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s first book.

Kudos, Mr. Turner. I will definitely be on the lookout for you in the future. 5 stars.

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