Meet Me in the Margins by Melissa Ferguson – a Book Review

After a few heavy books, I decided it was time to pick up something light, so I specifically sought out an audiobook to slide into my “Cozy Feel Good Read” category for my 2022 reading challenge. The winning selection was this sweet tale about Savannah Cade, a junior assistant editor at Pennington Publishing, a publishing house in Nashville that specializes in only the most highbrow literature and frowns on anything commercial. Savannah, however, harbors a secret dream of becoming a romance novelist. Her hopes are a bit dashed when her dream publisher tells her that her manuscript is simply not good. It’s promising, but it’s certainly not good. With one more chance to redeem her manuscript and a little more than a month to completely redo it, help comes from an unlikely place. After leaving her disheveled manuscript in a hidden room nestled behind the ARC room at Pennington Publishing, she comes back to find it neatly stacked with notes from a mysterious editor scribbled in the margins.

Over the next few weeks, Savannah and the mystery editor correspond back and forth and she finds herself falling for him. To complicate matters, she also finds herself developing a connection with someone else, her enigmatic and more than slightly intimidating new boss, William Pennington. And there’s even a third guy who we will discuss a bit later who should have been left out, but he’s still there to complicate matters as well. Who will she choose? And will Savannah’s dream of becoming a romance novelist finally come true?

Listen, I didn’t start this book expecting it to set off literary fireworks. I wasn’t in the mood for something complex, and complex it is not. It is the gooey saccharine sweet of a Hallmark movie, which is often why I stray away from the romance genre in general. Savannah is a pretty delightful but also frustratingly obtuse central character. The plot is so predictable I thought Savannah was quite the idiot for not really seeing through it in the first few chapters. William Pennington is the modern-day version of Fitzwilliam Darcy. He’s dashingly handsome but fiercely serious, and Savannah can’t quite stop herself from making a fool of herself in his presence. She finds him simultaneously infuriating and intriguing. In spite of it all, there is a connection there that Savannah can’t deny. I’m not sure how well I saw that connection. It seemed like they mostly talked about work, and I can’t say that would get my loins tingling. To each their own.

Savannah is quirky and naive. She has a dreadful family, especially her sister, Olivia. The two sisters live together in an apartment where they both get to cozy up to Olivia’s fiance who just happens to be Savannah’s ex-boyfriend of eight years. Let me say that again. SAVANNAH’S EX BOYFRIEND LEFT HER FOR HER SISTER AND SAVANNAH NOT ONLY DID NOT MURDER THEM BOTH BUT SHE MOVED IN WITH HER.

I’m sorry, but agreeing to that arrangement makes me want to punch Savannah to wake her the hell up. To make matters worse, Ferris, the ex, continues to bring Savannah flowers and coffee and periodically say sweet things and act possessive when other men are around.

No one is as good-natured and forgiving as Savannah. Nor should they be. Those people we call doormats, and that’s not a compliment. I celebrated when another character delivered her a harsh reality check about just how screwed up the whole situation was. And her hideous parents had reacted as if Savannah should just move on and stand by her sister because the Cades always put family first. Then why wasn’t Olivia expected to put family first and tell Ferris to bugger off??? Instead they give her a tissue and a pat on the back and tell her she has to welcome Ferris back into her life as her future brother-in-law. What a double standard!! How could Savannah ever have a successful and fulfilling relationship if these are the models of behavior she has been given?

That being said, I like a heroine who struggles with confidence. After all, we are all heroines in our own stories, and most of us feel so average as to be mundane. I know I do. Savannah always did next to her perfect sister and her perfect parents, each of which had pages of accomplishments to their name. Thankfully, a lot of modern romance novels of the quirkier variety tend to feature a heroine that resonates with the typical woman. My biggest quibble was with the predictability of the plot. It was so obvious where everything was heading. There was one minor twist at the end, but it was utterly inconsequential and was only thrown in to explain the red herrings that were supposed to convince us we didn’t know what we knew. But oh my, did we know! The mystery editor was basically the toddler playing hide and seek who “hides” behind a 3-inch wide pole in plain sight and thinks if he doesn’t move no one will notice him, going so far as to yell “you can’t see me!” when you stop counting. Yeah, there was literally no mystery to anyone except Savannah, and that just made her look foolish and even more naive than she already looked.

Overall, it was an enjoyable read. There were some legitimately funny and clever moments and some quirky side characters that were occasionally over the top, but they did keep things interesting. I can’t help but hate Savannah’s chosen pen name. You have a name like Savannah Cade, which sounds like it was made for romance novels, and you publish under something mundane like Holly Ray? That’s a very petty quibble, but so be it. I will also note, this book is classified as Christian fiction, which I didn’t even realize until after I’d read it, and I really see no reason for that designation beyond the fact that it’s as devoid of sex and language as the public perception of a nunnery. If you like your romance clean, this is the book for you, but you don’t have to worry about the appearance of Jesus with the keys to the chastity belt and a lecture about piety, which is quite a relief to this reader. My rating: 3 stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published February 15, 2022 by Thomas Nelson. ISBN 0785231072. Audiobook. Runtime 7 hrs. 51 mins. Narrated by Talon David.

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Hell’s Half-Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America’s First Serial Killer Family by Susan Jonusas

Not for the faint of heart, this true crime book recounts the tale of the “Bloody Benders,” a family that quietly terrorized the people of Labette County, Kansas in the late 1800’s. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the Bender family, and that’s the main reason people are still utterly fascinated by their story. Their crimes were brutal, devastating, and went unnoticed by almost everyone due to the transient nature of many people during this time period of expansion out West. The fact that to most townspeople the Benders seemed to be odd but respectable members of the community while the bodies piled up beneath the dirt on their homestead is a haunting truth.

This book wasn’t my first introduction to the Benders, but Ms. Jonusas has delivered an extremely detailed account based upon intense research. She makes sure to fill in a lot of gaps and, even where there is no truth to be known, delivers some very compelling theories as to the eventual whereabouts and fate of the Benders. People shouldn’t really expect this to be a true crime book that deeply explores each crime in gory detail. There is some of that, and the murders were obviously quite gruesome. However, blood and gore isn’t really the point of the book, and honestly we really have no idea of knowing just how each murder unfolded or even which members of the Bender family really participated in the actual killing. Frankly, it seemed like Ma Bender was your typical old granny (though creepy) who sat around sleeping in her armchair with her teeth falling out.

The book mostly details the investigation surrounding the murders after the Benders fled as well as witness accounts of people who were familiar with the family while they were residents of Labette County, even some who claimed to have escaped their clutches at the last moment. Overall, I would say this book is quite well-researched and extremely well written. I don’t read a lot of non fiction, and sometimes it can be difficult for non fiction titles to hold my interest. In the case of this one, I pretty much tore through the audiobook at record pace, so that is saying something. I would venture to say that Susan Jonusas has managed to deep dive into a story of which most authors and researchers have generally just scratched the surface. It’s well worth the read if you can handle the information about some seriously disturbing crimes. Also, as a footnote, how creepy and absolutely perfect is that cover?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The Boy in the Suitcase by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis – a Book Review

This is an older book and the first in a series that follows Nina Borg, a Red Cross nurse and a compulsive do-gooder who can’t say no when asked for help. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of this series, as this isn’t a frequent genre for me, but when I pass a book with the title The Boy in the Suitcase, I need to know two things: is he still alive and why the hell did they put him in a suitcase? Well done, ladies. You baited the hook and caught me. I think we all know at least one Nina, the person with the heart of gold who tends to get in over their heads because they just can’t walk away from something they shouldn’t have to contend with alone. As with Nina, this can often result in problems at home and at work, because they set aside their own life in the name of making a difference.

I would do a synopsis at this point in a review, but it’s really quite simple: Someone puts a boy in a suitcase and Nina finds him.

Ok, so it’s not much of a spoiler to say the kid is actually still alive. He’s naked, drugged and doesn’t speak the same language as Nina, but he is still alive. He’s also just three years old, and there’s a horribly aggressive man who is angry that Nina took the “package” he was supposed to intercept and he wants it back. He will stop at nothing to get it back, including murder. Not knowing who she can trust, Nina goes on the run desperately trying to figure out who the boy is and where he’s from so she can deliver him to safety before he once again falls into the wrong hands and she winds up dead. It actually really bothered me that Nina didn’t just go to the police. It’s the equivalent to the girl who runs upstairs in a horror movie instead of going out the backdoor to the neighbor’s house for help. I mean, there was really no logical reason to do what she did. As Nina gets closer to the heart of the story, she will uncover truths long buried about the boy, his mother, who is hunting him and why they seek him.

Trigger warning, there are some really disturbing aspects of this book. Human trafficking and abuse are very prevalent themes. I have a bit of an iron constitution when it comes to difficult themes, so it takes an awful lot to disturb me, but it’s certainly worth noting here in case readers avoid certain topics. There’s so much human depravity in the world, and I choose to face it head on instead of closing my eyes, though I don’t blame people for doing so. Life is hard enough as it is without opening yourself up to the rest of the world’s suffering.

If you can stomach the difficult stuff, there’s a lot to like with this book. It’s very exciting and well paced. I really enjoyed the character of Nina, and I thought it was quite sweet the way her relationship with the boy develops. I think that could have been explored a bit more, to be honest. There are multiple threads to the story. One follows the boy’s mother after the abduction, so there’s really no mystery as to the boy’s origin for the reader. We are merely following Nina through her journey in search of the truth. But don’t worry, there are plenty of other surprises along the way to keep the reader guessing. A third thread follows the man we know hired the goon to kidnap the boy. We just don’t know why he did it. We even get the perspective of the man hunting them, which really is quite interesting, though I’m not sure it was entirely necessary. At first I think it helped to humanize him but as the story spiraled downward toward the conclusion, he became less human and more monstrous. Ultimately, I don’t think it really helped our understanding of the story or his character at all. It was a pretty typical “bad guys bad” and “good guys good” single layered approach to reality. This was made a bit better by the big reveal at the end which gave a slight challenge to this notion.

Overall, this is an enjoyable read that only left me with a few minor quibbles. 3 stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published November 8, 2011 by Soho Crime. ISBN 156947981X. Hardcover. 313 pages.

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The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell – a Book Review

In the past couple of years, I think I’ve read more Lisa Jewell books than any other single author. Each of her books is unique, plots and characters independent and easily distinguishable from one another. There are always plenty of twists and turns and mysteries to keep you reading. This particular book is no exception. There is a followup to this book to be released on August 9, 2022, so you can bet I’ll be reading it ASAP. I’ve already jotted it into my 2022 Most Anticipated New Release slot for my reading challenge.

Synopsis

From Goodreads: Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

The can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

Review

The Family Upstairs is told in alternating points of view and follows Libby, Lucy, one of the surviving four children who lived at Cheyne Walk 25 years prior, and first person correspondence from Lucy’s brother, Henry. As Libby attempts to unravel the mysteries held by the house, she’s unaware that her long-lost siblings are closing in. The three separate stories unfold slowly with Lucy and Libby providing details of the present and Henry providing details of the past to fill in the gaps. The result is superb and methodical story-telling. There’s no chance of getting bored or losing interest when there are so many questions to answer! The fact that it’s so well written and the characters are rich and compelling is just icing on the cake.

Part of this appeal and excitement of this book is the ambience. I just love stories about dark and drafty houses full of haunting secrets. For centuries now authors have been delighting audiences with the tingling sensations brought by the creepy and weird. We still show up for it for a reason. It works. Jewell does an amazing job incorporating these classic Gothic elements into the more modern family drama. There’s something to appreciate here for readers with differing tastes. Overall, I give this one 4 stars. Highly enjoyable and infinitely twisty.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published November 5, 2019 (first published August 6, 2019) by Atria Books. ISBN 1501190105. Hardcover. 340 pages.

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Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey – a Book Review

I had been hearing a lot of buzz about this memoir, and after reading it I can see what all the fuss is about. There is a brilliance to Matthew McConaughey that isn’t often conveyed in his films. Later films, yes. Earlier ones with the pretty and often brainless leading man? Not so much. The thing is, he knew this. He purposely almost tanked his career in order to break free from his typecasting as the romcom leading man, something he does outline in his memoir. This is an excessively difficult thing to do in Hollywood, especially for someone so handsome. Let’s be real, there are prejudices against everyone, including beautiful people. The world looks at them and thinks there’s not much more to them than that: a pretty face and rockin’ bod. Everyone should be allowed their complexities and unique ability to shine as a human. In Matthew McConaughey’s case, he took it whether it was offered or not.

In this memoir, Mr. McConaughey is up front, honest, and visceral in the details of his life. He brings the ugly, the perfect, the funny, the shameful, and the unbelievable of his life in vivid detail. He is a natural storyteller. I listened to this on audio, and I really feel like there’s no other way to read this book. He narrates it himself, so it’s basically like sitting with him while he narrates the story of his life. I was stricken by what a philosopher he is. He really has things to say and lessons to teach that have come from a long and full life of self discovery. We should all be so open and curious and brave in our pursuit of our true self. And we should be unapologetic about not really fitting into boxes.

In today’s world, we are so polarized. It feels as if no one makes actual judgments based on instinct or logic anymore. We don’t close our eyes and ask ourselves “what do I really believe?” We allow the world and pushed social norms to dictate our choices, actions and beliefs. We don’t strip off our clothes and play bongos naked in our living rooms because that would be weird, right? Well who the fuck cares?! And you know what? None of us are happy! We aren’t authentic. I see a lot of reviews that assert this book makes Matthew look smug and self absorbed, that he thinks too highly of himself. That’s fair, but I actually didn’t get that at all. He’s content. He’s confident wearing his own skin. He’s earned it. This is a memoir, and you shouldn’t expect someone to sugar coat or withhold honesty about their successes. Frankly, I feel it’s a reader’s own prejudices that shine through when they only see the good a writer shares about themselves without noticing that they also showed their vulnerabilities at the risk of making themselves look bad. He admits to his failures. He just didn’t let them stop or define him, and he has a right to be proud of the successes.

Maybe happiness isn’t as simple as stripping down and playing the bongos in your living room. That works for Matthew McConaughey but it wouldn’t work for me. And maybe you’re reading this saying, “you’re wrong! I’m living my authentic self!” And that’s great. Keep doing what you’re doing. But some of us need to take a page from Matthew McConaughey’s book (not literally, that’s unconscionable book abuse) and start looking for greenlights, moments that present themselves and give us permission to forge ahead and make our own path. Greenlights is so worth it. This book is surprisingly eloquent, funny, and sometimes surreal. Very well done, Mr. McConaughey. 4 stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published October 20, 2020 by Random House Audio. ISBN 9780593416952. Runtime 6 hrs 42 mins. Read by the Author.

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The Master by Colm Toibin – a Book Review

This novel is one I’ve had sitting on my shelf for many years. I picked it up at a used bookstore years ago because I liked the cover. I honestly didn’t have a clue what it was about. As with many books I own, it languished on my shelf until I gave myself a reason to pick it up. Once I figured out it was a novel about the life of Henry James, I began looking forward to reading it very much. I’ve admired James ever since reading The Turn of the Screw in high school. To this day, it remains one of my favorite books. I love the psychological nature of James’s work, and Toibin has done an excellent job delving into the aspect of his personality and interests that led him to have an interest in exploring the psychological nature of his characters.

If you don’t like the work of James, you probably won’t like this one. But really, if you don’t like his work why would you read it in the first place? Toibin does a fabulous job writing in a voice that pays homage to the tone and timbre of a Henry James novel. James wasn’t exactly a figure in literary history who participated in the more salacious aspects of high society. He was more of a silent and watchful presence, a solitary figure who kept to himself and didn’t kick up a fuss. He was liked and respected by many but had few very close confidantes.

Born in New York and not feeling as if he fit properly in American society, James would immigrate to Europe following the Civil War, eventually settling in England where he would remain until 1916, eventually renouncing his U.S. citizenship. He remained single, and to this day there is speculation as to his sexuality, which Toibin does touch on to a certain extent. The prevailing thought seems to be that he was a closeted gay man who chose chronic bachelorhood over a sham marriage to a woman and stolen indiscretions in dark corners with men. As he was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, it’s no surprise that he would desire to keep such a truth secret after seeing the complete character assassination and vilification of someone in his same industry.

Like its subject, this novel is introspective and holds a much more quiet power. It details how his experiences of loss, friendship, and travel shaped his views of the world and inspired his various works. It’s certainly not thrilling, but it is illuminating for those with an interest in James, his work, and the time period. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner, because sometimes you have to take some breaks from the inane 19th century conversations between the well-to-do members of British society. I do feel it’s ultimately worth the effort. Toibin writes skillfully, and I think he’s crafted a fitting tribute to a legendary figure in literary history.

Interestingly enough, as a footnote, Henry’s brother, William, is a pretty important feature in this book. Though I feel The Master really glosses over him, William James was a formidable and wildly interesting person in American history, deemed the “Father of American Psychology.” Here’s a fabulous resource on him from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Dr. Wayne P. Pomerleau from Gonzaga University. Honestly, from what I’ve read, I feel like a book about him would be far more interesting than one about Henry. Sorry, Henry. I still love you.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Published April 19, 2005 by Simon & Schuster. Original publication May 25, 2004. ISBN 064178421X. Paperback. 338 pages.

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The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – a Book Review

I have a lot of respect for this book. It’s wildly inventive, a truly unique blend of magical realism, historical fiction, and coming of age drama. The coming of age part is in a pretty roundabout way but I still think it’s highly applicable. There are multiple layers to the appeal of this book. Lovers of historical fiction will adore the meticulous research and the dedication to authenticity that accompanies the characters and setting. They will also marvel at the way Wecker seamlessly incorporates real folklore and legend from multiple cultures into the fantasy elements of the story. And obviously, fantasy lovers will love the more unique elements and the captivating way Wecker blends fantasy and reality.

The Golem and the Jinni follows two central characters: Chava, a golem, a creature made of clay created by a black magic dabbling rabbi to become the wife of a European immigrant who dies at sea, and Ahmad, a centuries old Jinni from the Syrian desert who finds himself accidentally released from the copper flask in which he was trapped. Both find themselves alone in an unfamiliar world in New York City at the end of the 19th century at the height of the immigration boom. As both struggle to fade into the multi-hued tapestry that has become New York City, they encounter one another and develop an unlikely but impenetrable bond that comes from their shared experience and sense of danger as something not human that would be rejected and vilified if exposed. Their stories converge in a way that is believable and natural, helping to bring their vulnerabilities and complexities to life.

Though Chava is in possession of superhuman strength and an ability to read the thoughts and desires of people she meets, she’s not without vulnerabilities. In fact, from a historical perspective both the stories of Chava and Ahmed pay homage to all immigrants who found themselves struggling in a foreign land during this period of great change. People from all over the world brought skills and knowledge that paved the way for progress and survival. Communities grew from a combination of shared struggles and triumphs. While their abilities may be of a supernatural nature unlike those of their fellow immigrants, Chava and Ahmad learn to hone their skills to ensure their respective communities see their value while not giving away the true nature of their gifts. Wecker presents a fascinating and illuminating view of New York City at the turn of the Century. As people began sinking into the melting pot that would become the United States as we know today, this book highlights the cultural divides and prejudices rampant at the time. Mistrust and superstition caused clashes between people of different beliefs and backgrounds, and the city was harsh and unforgiving.

This book is a truly unique experience, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel to continue the saga of Chava and Ahmad. I also think this would make a fabulous film, so I hope one day this comes to light. 4 1/2 stars.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published April 23, 2013 by Harper. ISBN 0062110837. Hardcover. 486 pages.

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid – a Book Review

Well, I will be completely up front with you. With my next several reviews, I’m going to have to be very concise. I’m desperately behind. My era of distraction and disillusionment has not yet abated, and I’m going to have to do something about it unless I want to just abandon all hope of completing my goals for this year. I’m not yet ready to do that. Perhaps you will be grateful with me for not being quite so long winded.

Synopsis

Journalist Monique Grant isn’t exactly at the top of the journalistic food chain when she gets an odd request to appear at the home of aging Hollywood icon, Evelyn Hugo. Ms. Hugo is adamant that it will be Monique and only Monique who will hear her life story, and Monique will be the one to write her official biography in full detail. Evelyn is finally ready to share the truth, even if some of it will be shocking to her adoring fans. Monique isn’t stupid enough to believe Evelyn doesn’t have some kind of scheme. As someone who is only vaguely familiar with the famous actress with no known professional or personal ties, she understands fully that Evelyn has a reason for choosing her, a reason she refuses to share until the precise right moment. A reason she promises will be life altering for the both of them.

Review

This book is wildly exciting at the beginning. Not only does Reid do an excellent job of building suspense and intrigue right from the start, but she manages to keep the suspense and intrigue going. Evelyn is an extremely compelling character. You will love to hate her and hate that you love her. More important than anything else about this book, though, is the fact that Reid hasn’t presented a cookie cutter idea of what life in Hollywood is like, she’s portrayed a realistic picture behind the facade of glamour and perfection. This is the beautiful and the ugly. It’s re-humanizing the people we’ve stripped of their humanity by giving them god-like status. The price of fame is extremely steep, and there are no returns or exchanges.

I can tell Reid did her research into this book. It’s a deep-dive into the golden age of Hollywood. It will be especially compelling for someone with a fascination with this era. While central characters are entirely fictional, one can glean some similarities between characters and real celebrities. I mean, the string of husbands is a pretty obvious nod to Elizabeth Taylor even if the details surrounding those relationships were fictional. I got a little bit weary of the actual love story. The constant on again off again nature and the drama of it all was initially touching and heartbreaking, but the longer it went on the power of it faded and I just wanted to be done with it. Overall, I really enjoyed the book and it held my attention even if I found the characters and their motivations extremely frustrating. I mean, that’s true to life, right? People and their motivations really suck. This book, however, did not.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published June 13, 2017 by Atria Books. ISBN 1501139231. Hardcover. 389 pages.

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City of Ghosts (Cassidy Blake #1) by Victoria Schwab – a Book Review

Victoria Schwab is really quite versatile. She is a prolific writer with more than 20 distinct titles to her name just at the age of 34. That’s quite the breakneck pace of authorship. Admittedly, I’m rather skeptical of authors who crank novels out so quickly. What I often notice is that a superb debut is often followed by a string of lackluster disappointments. I realize much of this is due in part to pressure put on authors by publishers and die-hard fans salivating over what could be the next big obsession. I sympathize, because that must be a dreadful feeling. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all claiming Schwab is guilty of this. Frankly, I haven’t read enough of her work to make up my mind, because I’m still relatively new to the Schwab library. If you’ve read quite a lot of her work, please feel free to weigh in in the comments.

Of the ones I have read, I’m impressed by how well she can write for both adults and for young adults. While this series and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue are both delightfully atmospheric, they are still quite unique in overall tone. LarRue has a much more overtly cerebral tone while the Cassidy Blake series is geared toward young adults with fewer complex themes and a more straightforward story line. The lines between good and evil are pretty clearly drawn and there’s little left to wonder about.

Synopsis

Cassidy Blake is unlike other kids her age. For starters, she had an almost complete brush with death and lived to tell about it. Second, and very related to the first thing, she can see ghosts and can travel to a place she calls “The Veil,” a type of in-between place separating the lands of the living and the dead. Her parents, oddly enough, are ghost-hunters who can not actually see the dead, and they have no idea that their teenage daughter can. When her parents announce that they will be piloting a television show that will take their family around the world to the most haunted cities on planet Earth, Cassidy knows her life is about to get even more complicated than before. This first novel in the Cassidy Blake series takes the family to haunted Edinburgh in Scotland, a city rich in history and teeming with ghosts with unfinished tales. While Cassidy is prepared to encounter ghosts, she is not prepared for the Red Raven, a ghost local legends claim is responsible for the disappearances of numerous children spanning across decades. When the Red Raven turns her gaze to Cassidy, she begins to wonder if her gift is more like a curse.

Review

I was definitely in the mood for this book at the time. I needed something a little lighter, if you can call a spooky story about dead children and the evil woman who lured them to their doom light…

Lighter than a Stephen King book but drowning a Beverly Cleary book with the utter weight of despair. It’s an extremely quick read and it doesn’t tend to drag. As a matter of fact, I got through this one and the second book in the series within one week of listening on the Hoopla app through the library. Also, I love creepy stories. I get positively giddy about Edgar Allan Poe, so a quick story like this is like a breath of fresh air from the complexities and monotony of adult life.

There are also a host of quirky characters. Sometimes Cassidy got on my nerves, but I’m not sure there has been a teenage character who was ever 100% completely charming unless it came from a John Green novel. And even then it’s definitely not a guarantee. Probably because I am the parent, I actually found Cassidy’s parents quite charming. It’s funny that they are off desperately seeking evidence of ghostly activity when their daughter is just around the corner having a full-on conversation with an actual ghost. As usual in a YA novel, the parents are completely oblivious to pretty much everything. Always the last to enter a room stating “what did I miss?” Cassidy is joined in her quest to defeat evil by two others, her best friend, Jacob, and new friend Lara. Lara shares Cassidy’s gift of seeing the dead and Jacob is a ghost. Since Lara spends her time busting ghosts, she does not look kindly on Jacob and feels Cassidy should do her job and send him to the hereafter. Secondary conflict adequately achieved.

Overall, this was an enjoyable book that provided plenty of excitement and entertainment. I was willing to go straight to volume two, which is a good sign. I did take a break before picking up the third one, simply because I was in the mood for something different, but I will return and finish the series one day. I give this one 4 stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published August 28, 2018 by Scholastic Audio. ISBN 1338310801. Runtime 5 hrs, 2 mins. Read by Reba Buhr.

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Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black – a Book Review

Let me preface this review by stating that as a white heterosexual female, I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but I still found it to be quite possibly the most powerful and illuminating read of the year. Every letter of this epistolary novel made me deeply contemplate some aspect of humanity or it broke my heart, sometimes both in equal measure. The only reason pain destroys us a little at a time is we don’t give ourselves time to contemplate it. We suppress and deny until what remains is a shell of who we once were. Empathy doesn’t flee the human heart overnight. This can be on a more personal level or on a grand scale that alters human history. As people, we can stop ourselves from thinking, but we can’t stop ourselves from feeling. What happens when one allows emotions to overtake without the benefit of thought? People get hurt. That’s why I’ll never stop arguing that proper education is the solution to our societal problems. And a proper education includes fiction. In fact, literature is essential to a proper understanding of history. I am fascinated by history. I love history. But the history I love is not facts and figures.

The history I love is not the date a slave ship landed on the shore. It’s the feeling of the sand beneath the feet of a woman who is grappling with grief from being ripped from her family. It is fear. It is thirst. It is hunger. It’s the confusion she feels and the weight of loss, both the loss of her freedom and of any future legacy she will be able to have because even her name was stolen. It’s the sadness of the young man who will sit in front of a computer one day wanting to know where he came from but knowing he’ll never know. How can you find a person whose sheer existence was erased simply because those in power decided her value didn’t extend beyond the work forced out of her tired and broken hands? Knowing the date asks you to think. Contemplating her existence demands that you feel.

Daniel Black, in his discussion of Don’t Cry For Me, (extremely worthwhile and inspiring watch) said “books transform the heart.” They show us the real history. Even if it’s imagined, it is still the truth, because the truth of any time period lies in the human stories. The real root of the argument surrounding critical race theory is that some people don’t want you to contemplate what that woman and all those like her felt. They want you to keep forgetting she existed at all, because admitting to her existence would force them to admit to the existence of the people who still live with the burdens placed upon them by such an ugly era in our country’s history. Do we really want a whole generation of adults who have only been taught to think about the convenient truths but have never been challenged to feel the complete depth of all truth? Empathy does not grow from apathy.

This is a deeply personal book for Daniel Black. Black is a vibrant and eloquent human who explores difficult realities that have plagued the black community for years. Historically black men in America have been tasked with providing fierce protection, of ensuring the survival of those he loves. The love of a black father can only take one form, his masculinity must be hard edged and focused solely on providing the necessities of survival. The necessities of the heart are for the women and girls. A man doesn’t cry, and a man raises boys who don’t cry. In Don’t Cry For Me, Black introduces us to Jacob, a dying man who is grappling with regrets never spoken aloud. Before he dies, death grants him one last gift of time to seek absolution. With the time he has left, he writes letters to his son, Isaac. Jacob and Isaac haven’t seen each other in more than a decade. The letters are the olive branch gifted from father to son, recognizing and apologizing for his wrongs, for the mental and emotional bruises he inflicted upon the person he was supposed to love without fail and without the burden of expectation.

In literature, the exploration of systemic racism and prejudice is extremely common. There are numerous powerful reads that examine the relationship between the white and black communities and the historical context that’s laid the foundation for the modern issues that are still rampant. Those issues are still explored in Black’s text, but there’s much more focus on the familial relationships and the festering ills that exist within the black community. It’s really easy to look from the inside out and highlight the pains inflicted on your community by another, but it takes a special kind of bravery to look within your own community and tell the world that there are still ways you could be better. That your ancestors and their ancestors had a lot to learn, and you’re still learning. We can recognize they did the best they could with what they had but they could have been better. They could have said I’m Sorry. And they could have said I Love You.

Healing comes with being able to ask for forgiveness just as much as it comes from being able to forgive. While Black focuses the text specifically on the black community, this argument applies to all. There are men and women of every race, religion, and affiliation walking around with scars and resentments inflicted on them by their parents. Black is showing us that judgment must be set aside to make way for enlightenment, for the ideas of masculinity and femininity that have been presented to us to no longer be given weight. It’s ok to love and honor without expectation, control, or cruelty. The world would be a better place if we didn’t have to reach our deathbeds before we faced and spoke aloud the sheer depth of our regrets.

I realize I haven’t given you a whole lot of information about this novel, but what I hope I have done is told you how it impacted me and how it changed me. How perfect is a book that makes you both think and feel in equal measure? This character of Jacob is so real. He’s so vivid. His letters to his son are visceral and unflinching in their honesty. Sure, this book’s message is primarily for a father, but there’s something important for all parents, including mothers. The character I most identified with was Isaac’s mother. If we are being honest, until Jacob’s letters I don’t think Isaac truly knew the depth of his mother’s pain. Her verbalization of that pain and Isaac’s understanding of that would have offered freedom and comfort to both. I’m not sure at this point in my life I could be so completely open about my history to my children. I don’t know that I could bear the ugly parts of my soul to them as a way to help them understand who I am or how I came to be that way. Not just yet, anyway. But what I can do is always say I’m sorry when I screw up and always be willing to tell them how much I love them.

Do the whole world a favor and read this book and let Daniel Black transform your heart. Then read another book. And another. And another. If more people picked up books like this and allowed themselves to truly feel the power of loss and regret and the beauty of a heart transformed just before it’s too late, we could transform the world before it’s too late. 5 Stars for Dr. Daniel Black.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Published Feb 1, 2022 by Harlequin Audio. ISBN 1488213178. Runtime 7 hrs 28 mins. Read by the author.

Posted in General fiction, Literary Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments