Going Home, At Your Age? A Better Late Romance by Jacqueline Diamond

Going Home, At Your Age? A Better Late Romance by Jacqueline Diamond
Sisters, Lovers & Second Chances Book 3
Publisher: K. Loren Wilson
Genre: Romance, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Her hidden past is about to explode!

Sara returns to her hometown for Christmas, to face her sisters—and the man she left behind—with a stunning secret. The baby she gave up for adoption years ago is having her own baby, and wants her to be the grandma.

Young, pregnant and feeling abandoned, Sara rebelled against everyone she knew, including the man she secretly loved. Now, about to celebrate her 50th birthday, can she finally claim the family that should have been hers, right old wrongs, and find the home she believed lost forever?

It’s never too late to fall in love.

I loved the realistic and nuanced way the narrator handled the adoption storyline. Adoption can be a complex topic even under the best circumstances. Some of the most interesting scenes to me were the ones that explored Sara’s memories of the past and the lifelong grief she felt at not being able to raise her daughter while still believing that choosing adoption was ultimately the right decision for both of them. It was also fascinating to see how Sara and Melina created their relationship once they were reunited. Of course sharing DNA with someone is part of what makes a family, but the emotional intimacy and deep bonds between a parent and child need to be slowly built up over time in cases such as these.

There were some times when I struggled to keep track of the large cast of characters even though I was already familiar with the majority of them. It would have been helpful for me as a reader to dive more deeply into the lives of a smaller number of characters instead of getting brief updates on everyone. In my opinion, there simply wasn’t enough space to show character development in most cases due to how many folks the narrator needed to reintroduce to the audience and explain what, if anything, had changed in their lives since she’d last seen them.

Just like in Don’t Be Silly! At My Age?, Ms. Diamond once again captured the essence of small-town life perfectly. Most of the characters had known each other for decades, and their shared histories popped up in all sorts of delightful ways. Sometimes old grudges resurfaced, while in other scenes they briefly remembered funny or touching moments from their youth that still affected how they interacted with each other in the present. I also appreciated the author’s willingness to explore the difficult portions of being surrounded by folks who have known each other since childhood. For example, it’s more difficult for people to reinvent themselves when they are constantly reminded of choices, they made many years ago. This is one of many reasons why I enjoy these characters so much, and I’m curious to see what might happen to them next if more is written about them.

This is the third instalment in a series. It can be read as a standalone work, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend going back and checking out the first two books if you enjoy this one and want to dig deeper into the backstory.

Going Home, At Your Age? was a heartwarming read.

Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl

Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest by Phoebe Wahl
Publisher: Tundra Books
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Little Witch Hazel is a tiny witch who lives in the forest, helping creatures big and small. She’s a midwife, an intrepid explorer, a hard worker and a kind friend.

In this four-season volume, Little Witch Hazel rescues an orphaned egg, goes sailing on a raft, solves the mystery of a haunted stump and makes house calls to fellow forest dwellers. But when Little Witch Hazel needs help herself, will she get it in time?

Little Witch Hazel is a beautiful ode to nature, friendship, wild things and the seasons that only Phoebe Wahl could create: an instant classic and a book that readers will pore over time and time again.

Everyone needs some kindness in their lives, including forest creatures!

In “Spring: The Orphaned Egg,” Little Witch Hazel found an abandoned egg in the forest and decided to try to hatch it herself even though it was bigger than she was! I chuckled as she figured out how to safely bring it home and keep it warm as the creature inside finished growing. This was my first glimpse of what a compassionate character Hazel was, and it made me want to get to know her better.

I was not so impressed with “Summer: The Lazy Day.” Hazel’s adventures began with her trying to run some errands and getting frustrated by her inability to finish any of them. As adorable as her day turned out to be, it bothered me a little to see a character not be able to gather berries for the winter, have her shoes repaired before autumn hit, or return library books so someone else could enjoy them next. It wasn’t like she was acting grumpy and expecting everyone else to be equally productive that day or anything like that! She simply wanted to plan ahead responsibly, and I think that’s something that should be encouraged even in lighthearted tales like this one.

There was just a little bit of spookiness in “Autumn: The Haunted Stump” when Hazel heard a scary noise and went to investigate who or what might be causing it. I enjoyed the Halloween themes of this one quite a bit, and the warm-hearted twist at the end made it all even better. As much as I want to go into more detail here, it really is best to read it without any hints about what she finds.

“Winter: The Blizzard” wrapped everything up beautifully. The themes of compassion and kindness repeated themselves for the fourth time, but now Hazel was the one who needed help after she was surprised by a terrible blizzard while walking home after a long day of doing home visits with various patients she was caring for in the forest. The plot was strong and fast-paced here, and I was eager to see how she’d get home safely when she was cold, tired, and still such a long walk away from her cozy fireplace and warm bed.

This seems like a good place to mention the fact that these stories are all connected to each other and should be read in the order they appear in this anthology.

Little Witch Hazel – A Year in the Forest was a magical read.

Real Sugar is Hard to Find by Sim Kern

Real Sugar is Hard to Find by Sim Kern
Publisher: Android Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

A collection of short stories by Sim Kern, Real Sugar is Hard to Find explores intersections of climate change, reproductive justice, queer identities, and family trauma. Whether fantasy, science fiction, or terrifyingly close-to-home, the worlds of these stories are inhabited by flawed characters whose lives are profoundly impacted by climate change and environmental degradation.

Arranged in a progression from dystopian to utopian worlds, the stories chart a path from climate despair towards resilience and revolutionary optimism. Even in the bleakest of futures, however, Kern offers reasons to hope, connect, and keep fighting for a better world.

Like Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners or Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Kern’s stories are unflinching, intimate explorations of trauma and our deepest fears, rendered irresistible through the infusion of fantastic speculative elements and a dark sense of humor.

What the world looks like generations from now depends on what we do today.

Jane developed the ability to hear the thoughts of trees in one of the first scenes of “The Listener,” and she was tormented by their suffering. The plot twists were clever and kept me guessing. At one point I literally had to suppress the urge to argue with Jane because of how shocked I was by one of her decisions. She had excellent reasons for her choices, though, and I enjoyed being surprised by them just as much as I did imagining what might happen to her and her family next.

While I deeply enjoyed this collection in general, there were some stories that I wished had been given more opportunities for development. “The End of the Nuclear Era” was one such example. It showed what happened when children were given the legal right to leave their biological families and live with other people if they so desired. I was intrigued by how such a system would work and yearned to learn more about the practicalities of it all. For example, how old would a kid need to be before they could make this choice? What made some of them stay home and others venture forth? How did they learn that such options existed in the first place? I would have happily gone with a full five-star rating if every tale was equally fleshed out.

In “What Can’t Be Undone,” a witch named Stitcher Lorra tried to fix herself and those around her who requested help with a crude form of magic that didn’t always work the way it was intended to. The world building was fascinating and made me yearn for more information about how magic worked in this universe and why so many people had unrealistic expectations of it. I also appreciated figuring out how Lorra’s deepest faults were related to her work and how far she was willing to go to correct her character. Those scenes were as thoughtful as they were realistic for her personality.

Real Sugar is Hard to Find gave me hope for the future.

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.

Little Pig Saves the Ship by David Hyde Costello

Little Pig Saves the Ship by David Hyde Costello
Publisher: Charlesbridge
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Little Pig is back in Little Pig Saves the Ship! When the sea-faring pigs go a-sailing! Intrepid Little Pig — still the littlest pig in the family — is too little to go to summer camp with his older brothers and sisters. He is left behind with Grandpa and Poppy. Little Pig and Poppy make and sail a toy ship all week, but on Saturday a gusty wind takes the ship into the current, and Little Pig has to use his newfound knot-tying skills to save the day.

A sweetly told intergenerational story about how even the littlest can make a big difference.

It’s never easy to be left behind.

Little Pig was such a sweet main character. I empathized with his dismay at not being old enough to join his siblings on their exciting trip. He wanted so badly to be included and would have done anything to go with them. Seeing how he chose to spend his time once they left made me smile. The adults in his life had clearly put some work into finding fun activities that he was currently big enough to do. These scenes made me wonder how he’d describe this part of his childhood when he grew up. He was having a wonderful time, but he was also in such a hurry to become big and independent like his sisters and brothers!

There are a lot of picture books out there about LGBTQ+ parents these days, but I haven’t seen as many about LGBTQ+ grandparents or other relatives. The subtle inclusion of Grandpa and Poppy made me smile. They clearly loved their grandchildren and had spent a lot of time developing a close relationship with them. I enjoyed watching them cheer Little Pig up with games and other diversions as he counted down the days until his older siblings would return home from summer camp.

As much as I enjoyed the beginning and middle of this tale, the ending was what convinced me that this was a five-star reading. It was exciting in some scenes and sentimental in others. I also appreciated the references it made to the first scene that described Little Pig’s disappointment. While I can’t say much else without giving away spoilers, seeing everything tied together so perfectly made this a must-read in my opinion.

Little Pig Saves the Ship was a heartwarming snapshot of family life in the summertime.

Making Your Mark, Leaving A Legacy, And Then . . . A Grand Exit That’ll Have Their Tongues Waggin’ by Peter Davidson

Making Your Mark, Leaving A Legacy, And Then . . . A Grand Exit That’ll Have Their Tongues Waggin’ by Peter Davidson
Publisher: Sweet Memories Publishing
Genre: Non-Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

If you want your life to amount to more than just anonymously passing through this world unnoticed, this book is for you. It describes how you can make your mark on your family, friends, and society and how you can create a legacy that will benefit future generations.

When the time comes for you to leave this world, you can go out with class, style, and pizzazz, just like you lived your life, There are many options, possibilities, and decisions involved in planning a final farewell as we will see as we watch the Grand Exit of Timothy A.B. Smythe. Timothy’s Grand Exit will have people’s tongues waggin’ for a long time and it can serve as an inspiration for your final farewell, when the time comes.

Much of the information in the book is presented in true stories, scenarios, and examples that are upbeat, often humorous, and fun to read.

Who says that the end of life has to be a somber affair?

Some of the most touching ideas were ones that talked about writing memoirs, autobiographies, or other works. I have several ancestors who wrote down the stories of their lives, and those memoirs have been cherished for multiple generations in our family. There are so many small but fascinating details about the lives of regular people that are generally not recorded in history textbooks. It’s incredibly important to preserve them for the future in my opinion.

I appreciated the wide variety of suggestions here in general. The author was careful not to make any assumptions about how much disposable income his readers had or what kind of legacy they’d want to leave. Plenty of his ideas didn’t require spending any money at all, and many others could be scaled up with repeated modest investments if needed. This was something I’d feel perfectly content to recommend to people from any background or social class. There truly was something here for everyone.

Mr. Davidson had a playful sense of humor that was woven into every chapter of this book. For example, some people might be remembered for the flamboyant clothing they wear or the funny quips they were known to make under all sorts of circumstances. The author even mentioned funny ways that someone can be remembered for their personal shortcomings like the guy who ate a burrito and then attempted to light his flatulence on fire. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone else attempted it, that was definitely the sort of story that would be passed down to future generations.

Making Your Mark, Leaving A Legacy, And Then . . . A Grand Exit That’ll Have Their Tongues Waggin’ was a thought-provoking read that I’d recommend to everyone.

Blowin’ My Mind Like a Summer Breeze by Benjamin Roech

Blowin’ My Mind Like a Summer Breeze by Benjamin Roech
Publisher: Deep Hearts YA
Genre: Young Adult (14 – 18 y.o.), Romance, LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

Fifteen-year-old Rainey Cobb never thought meeting someone could actually change her life. But, then again, she’s never met anyone like Juliet.

It’s 1995 and The Cobb Family Band, led by Rainey’s rock star parents, has arrived for a week-long gig at the Midwestern resort owned by Juliet’s family. Dazzled by Juliet’s carpe diem attitude, DIY tattoos, and passion for grunge, Rainey falls hard. And when Juliet gives Rainey a mixtape that unlocks her heart’s secret yearnings, Rainey starts seeing herself-and her vagabond, show-biz life-through new eyes.

If Rainey quits the band, her parents’ fading career might never recover. But if she doesn’t leap now, she might be stuck forever in a life she didn’t choose…and always wonder who she could have been.

One summer really can change everything.

Some of the most memorable scenes were the ones that addressed Rainey’s summer romance. She and her love interest were both so young and still unsure of where they might land on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. It was interesting to see how they addressed their feelings as they both explored their identities and tried to figure out what they wanted out of life. I don’t want to give away any spoilers here, but this was nicely written and felt very realistic for their ages and for the era they lived in.

I also enjoyed the subplots about Rainey’s complex relationships with her parents. She was beginning to grow up, and her mother, Tracy, wasn’t always ready for all of the changes that was going to bring to their band and to their lives in general. While there were a few times when I shook my head at how much effort Tracy was putting into preserving traditions that were not necessarily working so well as her children asserted their independence, even these moments were genuine and necessary for what was to come. Adjusting to change isn’t easy, especially for parents who have given their children such unconventional upbringings so far.

The character development was handled beautifully. Every member of the Cobb family was three dimensional and well written, and this was especially true for Rainey. I found myself wishing that she were a real person so we could talk about poetry and make mixtapes for each other all summer long. It was delightful to see how she, her brother, and their parents all grew as individuals over the year that this novel covered. If the author ever decides to write a sequel, I’d love to find out what happened to these characters next!

Blowin’ My Mind Like a Summer Breeze was utterly perfect.

Brutus Finds a Friend by Tif E. Boots

Brutus Finds a Friend by Tif E. Boots
Publisher: Sheltering Tree . Earth
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), Contemporary
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Brutus is a puppy in need of help. He can’t find his new ball.
Scrump is a bunny that was told to stay away from puppies.
Will Scrump help Brutus? Will Brutus find his ball? What adventure awaits?
Will a friendship be found? Open the book to discover what is waiting for Brutus and Scrump.

Friendship is a gift.

One of the most memorable scenes happened early on when a frightened Scrump ran away from Brutus. I’ll leave it up to other readers to discover why Scrump made this decision, but his reasoning made me curious to learn more. It was also interesting to see these characters get to know each other as Scrump calmed down and explained why he was scared. Talking things out is such an important skill for people of all ages, and I liked the way it was shown here.

I would have preferred to see more descriptions included in this book, especially when it came to the setting. Farms are filled with so many different things to experience. There was plenty of material for the author to dig into. I simply didn’t see quite enough development here for me to go with a full five-star review even though I enjoyed everything else about it.

The ending was perfect. It made me nod in appreciation as this is not always an easy accomplishment when writing for this age group. It left plenty of space for future stories about Scrump and Brutus if Ms. Boots decides to write one while also making it perfectly clear that this particular adventure was finished. That’s exactly the sort of clear writing I like to see for kids who are just beginning to read on their own and who are not quite ready yet for more subtle hints.

Brutus Finds a Friend was a heartwarming tale.

Redemption by David Baldacci

Redemption by David Baldacci
Publisher: Pan Books (Pan McMillan)
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery /Suspense/Thriller
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Fern

Decker is visiting his hometown of Burlington, Ohio, when he’s approached by a man named Meryl Hawkins. Hawkins is a convicted murderer. In fact, he’s the very first killer Decker ever put behind bars. But he’s innocent, he claims. Now suffering from terminal cancer, it’s his dying wish that Decker clear his name.

It’s unthinkable. The case was open and shut, with rock solid forensic evidence. But when Hawkins turns up dead with a bullet in his head, even Decker begins to have doubts. Is it possible that he really did get it wrong, all those years ago?

Decker’s determined to uncover the truth, no matter the personal cost. But solving a case this cold may be impossible, especially when it becomes clear that someone doesn’t want the old case reopened. Someone who is willing to kill to keep the truth buried, and hide a decades-old secret that may have devastating repercussions . . .

Amos Decker has returned to his hometown in Ohio to lay flowers on his daughter’s grave on what would have been her fourteenth birthday. When he is approached by a newly released prisoner who was his first arrest as a homicide detective Amos was not expecting the man to not only insist on his innocence, but for Amos to actually believe him. Drawn back into the old case, can Amos right the wrongs he unwittingly committed all those many years ago?

Even though this is the fifth book in the Amos Decker series I feel many readers should be able to pick this up and still thoroughly enjoy the complicated murder mystery. While this is absolutely the re-looking at a cold case, there is clearly still aspects of the original murder that continues into the present day as people who were peripherally involved continue to be involved and more murders are committed as Amos looks deeper into the issues.

Much of Amos’ past and his connection to the other primary characters – ie the FBI, Alex and Melvin etc – is well explained though it’s quite obvious there are previous books that delve far deeper into these friendships. Readers wanting a fast paced, movie-style action plotline might not find this suits their tastes. There is a wonderfully complicated plot with a number of twists and turns, but the pacing is a bit slower than an action-orientated storyline, and this means many of the items unfold at a slightly slower pace than some readers might prefer. Personally, I enjoyed this slower pace – it made me feel like I was understanding exactly what was happening and discovering things alongside Amos and not trailing behind or lost.

With an interesting plot and plenty of secondary characters in the cast who were part of the investigation this is a solid book and I feel it’s a well-woven plot. This isn’t a fast-paced ride, but I feel it’s more of a complex and inter-woven style of story where untangling everything is part of the pleasure and it’s always interesting to see how Amos’ brain works and all the myriad of smaller things his perfect memory can recall and turn for a new interpretation.

A strong book and a good series I really enjoy.

Neither by Airlie Anderson

Neither by Airlie Anderson
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre: Children’s (0 – 6 y.o.), LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In this colorful and touching story that celebrates what makes each of us unique, a little creature that’s not quite a bird and not quite a bunny–it’s “neither”–searches for a place to fit in.

In the Land of This and That, there are only two kinds: blue bunnies and yellow birds. But one day a funny green egg hatches, and a little creature that’s not quite a bird and not quite a bunny pops out. It’s neither!

Neither tries hard to fit in, but its bird legs aren’t good for jumping like the other bunnies, and its fluffy tail isn’t good for flapping like the other birds. It sets out to find a new home and discovers a very different place, one with endless colors and shapes and creatures of all kinds. But when a blue bunny and a yellow bird with some hidden differences of their own arrive, it’s up to Neither to decide if they are welcome in the Land of All.

This colorful, simple, and touching story promotes diversity and offers a valuable lesson to the youngest of audiences: it is our differences that unite us.

Some things in life need a little bit more explanation.

One of the biggest strengths of this picture book in my opinion was how open-ended the storyline was. While it was originally written to help explain people who are gender non-conforming to kids, the message in it could easily be used to talk about race, disability, or any other number of differences that little ones might notice in others. To paraphrase certain key elements in the plot, not everyone can be easily categorized into this box or that one.

From a storytelling perspective, I found my wishing that the narrator had spent more time explaining why the rabbits and birds had never thought to explore places beyond their homeland or even to wonder what they were like. There didn’t seem to be any barriers between their land and what lay beyond it, so I was a little surprised to learn that they knew nothing about the geography of the world they lived in other than the little piece of it they were born on. It would have been nice to be given some logical reason for them to be unaware of such things.

I loved the positive and hopeful ending. It fit the age group this tale was written for perfectly while still leaving space for more exploration for kids who had additional questions or who wanted to keep talking. It’s reassuring for little readers to know that there is a place in this world for everyone even if they feel out of place at the moment, so I was also pleased to see that idea included as well.

Neither was a good conversation starter.