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Book Review: Wrapped in the Stars by Elena Mikalsen

Maya Radelis has spent the last seven months running from herself. After the death of a patient, she leaves her pediatric residency in New York City for the jungles of Guatemala and the Family Health Volunteers Mission, but even after she exhausted her six-month leave, she still cannot bring herself to return and ends up in Edinburgh, Scotland, where fate intervenes. Maya stumbles across a ring in an antique shop, a ring with a German inscription that somehow “calls” to her. After purchasing the ring, Maya decides to trace the history of it and its owner with the brief seven days before she must return to her university and face the consequences of her absence as well as the investigation of her patient’s death. Fearing she will no longer be allowed to continue in her medical career and dreading the meeting where she’ll learn her fate, she wants to make the most of her search for the ring’s previous owner, especially after she begins to have strange dreams and memory-like episodes of the woman she thinks owned the ring. Enlisting the help of Pauline, her French friend, she traces an odd, twisting path through Paris then Bern, Switzerland. The more she discovers, the more she begins to question her destiny.

With its alternating narration, this novel shows two women worlds (and times) apart but with so many similarities. Maya Radelis, the modern American medical student, is shown in parallel with Rebecca Miller, a Swiss medical student in the years leading up to World War I, and though the obstacles for Rebecca are vastly different than for Maya, their feelings of uncertainty and their love of medicine are very much the same. Rebecca’s desire to become a doctor comes from a family heritage of medicine and, in some part, from the death of her brother, Karl. Maya is also following a family legacy while hoping to somehow erase the guilt she feels for the childhood death of her twin sister, Ella. Both of these accomplished women have this need to “[e]arn [their] right to be alive” and somehow validate their own existence through medicine. Both women share a Jewish ancestry, and neither woman sees the need to marry, desiring instead their independence, a world they have built instead of one handed to them through family ties and marriage bonds, while fearing the lonely paths before them. Maya and Rebecca doubt their abilities and often wonder if their sacrifices are truly worth the pain of disappointing others, but both women have strong supporters in the form of their grandmothers with their constant message of self-worth and strength, and though there are so many similarities, the difference in Rebecca’s time is significant. Rebecca must pave the way for modern women with her studies and her determination to be respected as a female doctor. She sees value in women beyond being wives, mothers, or punching bags for husbands and fathers. Rebecca begins a women’s clinic and leaves her home to travel to America. Maya gains strength from Rebecca’s story and learns to stand up for herself and her dreams. She can feel Rebecca’s “resolve and pride,” her “determination,” and leans on these when she cannot find her own strength. 

“Synchronicity,” or “meaningful coincidences” plays an enormously important role in the novel. The reader will enjoy following Maya’s story, the twists and detours that create such an interesting plot as her history and future entwine. Many of these coincidences will seemingly play out through Rebecca’s story as well, and seeing how the author meshes timelines gives the reader those “epiphany” moments when the stories come together from the robin that leads Maya to the antique shop to the letter she finds in a hundred-year-old book. It also will make you wonder just how much we choose for ourselves and how much the universe chooses for us.

Eternal love is the most touching aspect of Maya and Rebecca’s stories. The German inscription Maya finds in Rebecca’s ring says it best with its message of living within the heart of another and being forever “therein.” The love of Rebecca and Mark seemingly transcends time and lives again through Maya and David. It’s a beautiful message, a love strong enough to defy death and reclaim the lovers a century later. There is something reassuring and peaceful in believing love cannot die. What lovers wouldn’t want such a legacy?

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: A Venomous Love by Chris Karlsen

Detective Ruddy Bloodstone is facing the most bizarre crime spree of his career as a copper on the Victorian streets of London. Someone is using a poisonous Cape cobra as a weapon. At first, simple robbery seems to be the only motivation, but when the suspect suddenly kills wealthy businessman Isaiah Underhill, these crimes go from strange to deadly. Ruddy and his partner, Archie Holcomb, have few clues and no idea what would cause such a change in the criminal’s behavior. Ruddy suspects this isn’t just an unlucky break for Underhill but a targeted killing, and when the criminal returns to attack Honoria Underhill, the victim’s daughter, he knows he has to find the man before he succeeds in killing Honoria as well. With Jack the Ripper still fresh on the minds of every citizen, Ruddy and Archie have to locate this criminal quickly or risk not only the ire of their supervisor but also the shame of losing the case to Scotland Yard. But with no clear connection to the Underhills, no idea of the killer’s identity other than his scarred appearance, and a weapon capable of killing with a single bite, Ruddy is facing one of his toughest, deadliest mysteries.

The strong characterization of numerous characters shines bright within this fourth edition to The Bloodstone Series. Ruddy Bloodstone, a Holmes-esque protagonist, has an intuitive “ability to read people and [an] acuity at measuring their nature.” A talented sketch artist and survivor of the Zulu wars, he is more than a talented detective. This no-nonsense former soldier isn’t “in the habit of apologizing for doing his job,” regardless of the social rank and attitude of the Londoners who fail to respect him. However, Ruddy is more than that. He is also very forward-thinking for the time period. This trait is most obvious in his relationship with Honeysuckle, his girlfriend. He often turns to her when he needs advice or simply to talk through the particulars of his case, but the most endearing quality is his respect for her honesty and the “rightness” of her choices. Ruddy appreciates and loves her “self-assured attitude” and “belief in her choices” and would never presume to tell her who she should be. The relationship between these two is more modern than Victorian, but this type of respect and love aren’t limited to Ruddy and Honeysuckle. Though not appearing as often, Archie Holcomb’s relationship with his wife, Meg, mirrors much the same qualities. Their love is touching, and the strength he finds within her quiet confidence is clearly portrayed. Archie’s calming influence and “extraordinary way of easing people’s pain”seems directly tied to his steady familial bonds with Meg and his twin daughters. Though not a major character, a similar strength can be found in Will, Ruddy’s brother. A former officer stationed in India, Will has recently been dismissed from the service that has defined him for twenty years due to a permanent injury. He refuses to take advantage of a possible relationship with a wealthy female character on principle though it could make his life much easier. He is solid and forthright, and his addition adds to this cast of male solidity. 

Kip Idrizi, the thief-turned-murderer, provides an interesting issue within the novel. Though he commits two murders and is clearly an antagonist, his story and reasons for committing the crimes will give the reader pause. Kip, an orphan and smallpox-scarred member of the lower class, wants a better life. With no education and no prospects, he resorts to his life of crime after saving and befriending a Cape cobra, Delilah. He hopes to “earn” enough money from “a toff with a fat wallet” to go to America and begin a life of obscurity in a “dirty” town in the West where he wants desperately to be overlooked for his scars. His feelings of inadequacy, though leading to heinous acts, are directly related to society’s treatment of him. In this vicious cycle, he cannot escape the jibes and hatred because of his appearance and poverty, so he, in essence, falls prey to an unscrupulous member of that upper-class group. This situation creates a duality in the reader’s feelings for Kip, where his vicious crimes war with his kindness toward a near-dead reptile and desire for a simple life of obscurity. 

Class discrimination presents a major dilemma for a number of the novel’s characters. Most obviously, this difference in societal treatment affects Kip; however, it extends to the protagonist as well. The distance between the haves and have nots leads to a lack of respect for Ruddy and Archie and blocks the progression of their case at times. The victims of Kip’s crimes often treat the two detectives with disdain because of their peerage and self-proclaimed importance. Will also suffers from this disparity. Though he is a veteran injured abroad on behalf of his queen, he doesn’t receive the respect he deserves for his service.  The class division not only leads to the crimes but also shows a stark contrast between the wealthy and the “every man” in Victorian England.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Blazing Bullets in Deadwood Gulch by Jacquie Rogers

Honey Beaulieu is going to get her man–no matter how many tries it takes. Determined to capture the elusive Boyce McNitt, Honey is off to Deadwood Gulch despite the warnings that the dangerous road is plagued by thieves and natives.  But before she can pursue the $500 bounty, she needs to take care of issues at home, including finding a shop for a pregnant seamstress, sixteen-year-old Emma, a home for eight-year-old Myles Cavanaugh, his two younger sisters, and their pregnant mother. Between her do-gooding, denying her blossoming feelings for Deputy US Marshal Sam Lancaster, and a run-in with a herd of escaped pigs determined to destroy Fry Pan Gulch, Honey barely has time to get out of town before she gets trapped by winter. Once on the road, she comes face-to-face with Sean Chaney, the Badger Claw Kid, a bounty worth $400, and is intent on capturing him, as well. With a little otherworldly, albeit not entirely helpful, advice from her ghost guide Roscoe, Honey will have to take down two dangerous fugitives. But, when she runs into a fireball-throwing ghost bent on revenge, her real adventure begins.

This third installment of the Honey Beaulieu – Man Hunter series reunites the reader with the unique cast from Honey’s previous adventures as well as introducing some new characters sure to return. This quirky cast shares in the ultimate theme of the novel, good old-fashioned “help your fellow man.” Only with the help of Agnes, Honey’s mother, the madam of the Tasty Chicken Emporium; her thoroughbred racing mule, Pickles; and Roscoe, the mind-reading ghost, is Honey able to rid the Wyoming Territory of bad guys. This theme permeates every aspect of the plot. Most of the citizens of Fry Pan Gulch perform some act of kindness for another character. From gifting poor children with small treats to hiring criminals to keep them out of trouble, the townspeople’s pay-it-forward attitude embodies the spirit of what most readers associate with a simpler, kinder time in American history. These tiny acts of humanity remind the reader that caring for people, not things, can make the most significant difference in someone’s life.

Warm and kind-hearted while remaining fiercely independent and tough, Honey is a woman ahead of her time. Much like her bonnet-wearing mule, Sassy, she refuses to be led blindly along but forges a path of her own, not allowing herself to worry about finding a husband and assume her womanly role as a homemaker but choosing instead to follow her “papa’s roving blood.” She has seen too much of what happens to weak women in her mother’s brothel, and she knows she could never allow herself the weakness she sees in most women. This poker-playing bounty hunter purses a life of freedom unheard of for 1879 and trades in the homestead for the dusty trail and freedom. She is more than sassy enough to hold the reader’s interest, surprising everyone except herself with what she can accomplish. But Honey isn’t the only strong woman in the novel. Agnes, Honey’s mother, owns and operates one of the most successful whorehouses in the Territory and manages to do it as “ethically” as possible. She cares about her employees and providing a safe environment where they choose to remain rather than to be enslaved by impossible contracts and cruel pimps. Even Emma and Myles’s mother show strong women. Emma is only a child herself, but she still manages to make a life for her and her unborn child by starting a sewing business. Myles’s mother, Ivy Mae, has been abandoned by her husband (stepfather to her children) and is also expecting a child. She is willing to sacrifice herself to feed her children. In this world where husbands are killed, and boyfriends shirk responsibilities, the women manage to survive – and sometimes flourish – in true female fashion!

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Campari Crimson by Traci Andrighetti

Texas transplant Franki Amato has only lived in New Orleans for only a year and a half, but she has already seen some pretty strange things. As a private investigator for Private Chicks, she has had her share of oddball cases and clients, but this one is blood-curdling–a vampire serial killer is stalking The Big Easy. With Halloween only days away, the initial robberies of local blood banks by a caped figure seem more prank-like than serious until a fraternity member of Delta Upsilon Delta is found drained of blood in one of the city’s above-ground crypts with the message “Campari Crimson” scrawled on the wall in his own blood. Franki wants nothing to do with the cryptic case, but when a psychic gives Franki a chilling impromptu reading from a restless spirit who claims someone drained and drank his blood and then warns her the same thing is going to happen to her brother Anthony, Franki fears she will be drawn in anyway. Her fears are confirmed when Josh Santo, a multi-millionaire millennial, hires Franki to find the real culprit after he is accused of the thefts. Josh’s bizarre behavior of dressing up as infamous self-proclaimed NOLA vamp Compte Jacques de Saint Germain-all while living in the house belonging to the bloodsucker-attracts the attention of Detective Wesley Sullivan and Franki thinks Josh may be more guilty than innocent. As the case escalates with yet another killing, Franki faces danger at every turn and finding the killer becomes entirely too personal. The Crescent City on the eve of a blood moon Halloween, what could possibly go wrong?

Real terror meets comedy that forces the reader to hang on with both hands in this fast-paced romp through one of America’s most enigmatic cities. From the sixty-something ex-stripper and nudist Glenda to Pam the hippie with her sweater-wearing Dachshund, this novel is one fun ride. Around every corner, it is sure to surprise like a Gothic cabaret funhouse. The vividly drawn characters are a genuine joy, and the city is celebrated in fine fashion. Anyone who has ever visited and loved this famously irreverent place will appreciate how NOLA becomes a living, breathing entity. Set against the backdrop of voodoo, cities of the dead, and history ripe with vampire lore, New Orleans is intricately woven into every aspect of the plot. One aspect of the city that comes through loud and clear is the idea of “live and let live.” First appearing on a necklace worn by one of the characters, this theme extends throughout the plot from a priest’s “judge not” advice to Raven the vampire’s philosophy of only feeding on willing donors. A feeling of acceptance for all permeates the atmosphere of N’Awlins and thus the novel. “Let the good times roll” is more than a motto; it’s a way of life for the New Orleanians.

What do you get when you cross a meddling nonna with a slacker brother? For Franki, you get family. When Franki is bulldozed by her mother into taking in her grandmother and brother (despite the fact that she has only a one-bedroom apartment), she doesn’t send the two packing back to Texas. Although an unwilling participant in this new “get Anthony a life” scheme, Franki still agrees to take them and even gives up her bed for her nonna, a force of nature in black weighing in at less than a hundred pounds. Nonna’s constant meddling in Franki’s love life, or lack thereof, and her case are both an annoyance and a sweet reminder of an Italian grandmother’s love. Regardless of the problems they cause, both Nonna and Anthony are family, “[a]nd among Italian-Americans, family [is] everything.” It’s an endearing part of the story that will make the reader love Franki Amato even more.

Campari Crimson: Franki Amato Mysteries, Book 4 by Traci Andrighetti won First Place in the CIBA 2018 M&M Awards for Mystery and Mayhem novels.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: The Muse of Fire by Carol M. Cram

Grace Johnson dreams of a life bigger than the one expected of a woman in the early nineteenth century. At twenty-two, she should be hoping for marriage and a home of her own. Instead after a childhood spent privately acting for her mother, she quietly longs for life in the spotlight, a place on a London stage, embracing the roles of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines, but she fears her dream will never come true. Not only is she overly tall, clumsy, and plain, but her father, a harsh man with a grudge against his own daughter whom he blames for her mother’s death, will not allow Grace to speak of it. When his temper and drunkenness cause him to beat Claire, she finds herself alone on the dark streets of London’s theatre district where she is rescued by a young man named Ned Platagenet. Ned, a stage manager at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, gives Grace a place to stay, and as their friendship grows, he takes her to a play, a rare event for the woman who has only seen one other play years ago. When she fills in for an absent chorus girl one night, she knows this is where she belongs and defies her father by begging her estranged aunt for a place to stay. However, the more time she spends with her newfound theater family, the more she realizes her own mother and aunt have a strange connection to some of the cast and crew and the less she trusts her own family and even the memories of her mother. In this world where the dreams of women are throttled at every turn, Grace must decide just how far she is willing to go to build a new life for herself. 

Perhaps the most striking trait of Grace Johnson is her willingness to accept the stigma associated with acting in the early 1800s. Though better than in centuries past, the theatre atmosphere was considered morally corrupt for women even married ones. This world of impassioned men playing daring roles sure to seduce even the most hard-hearted of women often led to unwanted pregnancies and homeless girls, and Grace isn’t immune to the charms of one such rogue. Grace is well aware of what society might say about her, but she doesn’t allow that to stop her. She makes her way on her own terms, doing what she must to continue acting even following her father’s disownment and her somewhat forced marriage. When her first acting performance flops, she licks her wounds then forges ahead. 

This optimistic-survivor attitude isn’t particular to Grace alone, though. Both Mr. John Kemble and Ned exhibit the same trait. Mr. Kemble, renowned actor and owner of the Theatre Royal, knows he must “ ‘find a way forward’ ” when fire destroys his precious theatre. He begs and borrows to finance this new building, larger than any other theatre in England and later stands firm against the raging crowds rioting in very theatre. Ned understands that he “ ‘can’t change what [he] can’t change’ ” and refuses to bemoan his lowly birth in the Foundling Hospital. This broad-shouldered, gentle giant rose from an orphanage to become the right-hand man of Kemble, a staple in the wings of this successful company. He is like everyone’s big brother, protective and watchful, a “white knight” showing his bravery during the OP Riots and his pure heart caring for Grace in her hour of need. 

This sprawling historical fiction takes the reader spinning through time with a cast of real-life stars of the London theatre in the early nineteenth century. The fictional characters are interwoven through the true story of two significant fires in the theatre district and the “Old Price” Riots which disrupted theatregoers and actors for months. Readers will see what life was like for the actors of the day as well as the average patron.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Blame it on the Bet by L.E. Rico

Twenty-six-year-old Hennessy O’Halloran should have it all. She should be enjoying her overpriced apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, her successful legal career, and her “friends with benefits” neighbor, but in the month since her father’s sudden death, all of those things have become unimportant. She thought she and her sisters had some time to figure out what to do with Jack’s legacy, an Irish pub he and their deceased mother built from scratch, but when they discover a substantial loan agreement secreted away in Jack’s belongings, they realize they only have six weeks to come up with over $100,000, money he borrowed against the business to help finance various expenses on his daughters’ behalves. She finds herself back home in Mayhem, Minnesota, living above the pub and trying desperately to find the funds to save the business when Bryan Truitt, land developer and business “matchmaker,” sweeps in from Los Angeles with his letter of intent to purchase the pub sans Jack’s signature. Even though Jack had planned to sell the bar and settle his debt, his daughters can’t bring themselves to sell to the slick, fast-talking Bryan, no matter how hot he looks in his ridiculously overpriced suit and Italian loafers. Bryan, despite his initial desire to arrive, conquer, and depart this Midwest winterland, finds himself drawn not only to small-town life but also to the confident, courageous Hennessy. When Bryan wagers against Hennessy’s ability to raise the money to save the business, neither realizes the stakes are much higher than just the pub. Will they risk their hearts to win a future together?

Blame it on the Bet is chock full of vivid characters. From Bryan’s hard-nosed assistant Helen to the matchmaking Father Romance, the novel overflows with realistic, lovable characters, right down to Jackson, a curse-word-loving toddler whose speciality is his spectacular aim with flung food. These folks feel so human, readers will easily fall for them and their quirky town of Mayhem, where a psychic baker who reads fortunes in pies and everyone owns at least one rescue cat and all of them–the cats not the owners–wear sweaters. The humor is a welcome addition to a genre that sometimes takes itself much too seriously, and good ole Midwestern honesty means there isn’t the elaborate game playing plaguing many romances. The O’Halloran sisters lend themselves to a major theme within the novel. Known as the “whiskey sisters,” Hennessy, Jameson, Walker, and Bailey are as varied as the alcohol for which they are named, but together, they create a tight knit unit deadset on saving their father’s legacy. That legacy, that sense of belonging to something worth more than the individual, permeates every aspect of the plot. The sisters drop everything to pull together and face the challenge head on to hold onto their father’s dream, a dream which built the very foundation of each of them. Family pride drives not only the girls but in a way the entire town as they pull together to save O’Halloran’s with chili cook offs and quiz nights. The fight for the town favorite becomes one of pride. Even Bryan becomes embroiled in his own fight for and against legacy when he battles his familial demons in the form of his father’s past and his unintentional tie to it. He must acknowledge his own past before he may create a new future with Hennessy, becoming a member of the family he has chosen in a home he never expected to find.

Lovers of romance will fall for this couple and this town. It will wrap you up in a cozy blanket and keep you warm as a cup of hot cocoa on a cold Minnesota day.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Readers’ Choice Rates Something New 5-Star

“It had all started with my blood and this necklace, and now I would end it.” In Something New by Andrea Murray, 17-year-old Miriam ‘Ria’ Gabriel receives a pendant from a mysterious old woman at an estate sale. From that point on, her normal, orderly and studious life changes. Strange things start to happen; her old music box starts working again and the family dog, Cain, seems to be agitated with her. Worst, Ria dreams about a girl with haunting blue eyes and a painful past, begging to be set free. But is the girl truly a tormented, lost soul? As Ria gradually loses control, her health and grades suffer, and her relationships with her best friend and her family are affected. What will she do? 

Andrea Murray’s Something New is highly engaging from start to finish. The prose and characterization are solid. Ria is easy to root for as her strange predicament begins from the moment the mysterious pendant is clasped around her neck. Her confusion, fear, and anger easily resonate through the pages. The teen’s determination to take back control of her life and solve the problem herself is admirable although unwise and dangerous. Luckily, she literally comes to her senses and accepts help from her friend Rachel and big brother Jake. The messages of family, trust, friendship, bravery, persistence, and faith are deftly incorporated and readers can easily identify with these. Even though there’s no obvious hint, the epilogue shows that the story could continue. This a great paranormal tale from Murray and I look forward to reading more of her work in this genre. 

Review: Reviewed by Lit Amri for Readers’ Favorite 

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Book Review: The Bookminder by M.K. Wisman

More than anything, Liara just wants to belong. As an orphan “fey” child in the seventeenth-century, she has been a ward of the Church for ten of her sixteen years, taken in and cared for by Father Phenlick, Rome’s designated protector of Dvigard, a city in the Limska Draga Valley, but most of the villagers want her gone. The product of rape by a magical creature, she is imbued with magic and in many ways IS magic itself. Her progenaurae, the wizard who created the creatures who attacked her mother during their destruction of the valley, knows nothing of her existance because Father Phenlick enlisted the help of Nagareth, the wizard of the woods, to shield Liara and the village from further attacks all while outlawing the very power he is secretly trusting. At St. Sophia, Liara is safe until she steals from the village busybody. When Liara’s extensive hidden stash is discovered  in a “magicked” hollow tree, the Venetian soldiers who protect the valley force Father Phenlick to ostracize Liara. Abandoned by even her friend Kresimir, Liara is taken in by Nagareth, who promises Phenlick that he will not teacher Liara his craft, and even though Liara begs Nagareth for instruction, he only allows her to care for his extensive magical library. Gradually, Nagareth sees great potential in his new ward, but when everyone in Dvigard is killed by a mysterious plague, he begins to fear that he can’t protect her from her powerful creator who will want her powers for his own. Liara cannot see the danger around her, and as her own magical knowledge grows through her maintenance of Nagareth’s books, she can only see her own need for revenge against her father. As her abilities grow so does her anger and confusion at the only person standing between her and distruction. 

Liara is a complex, dynamic character. Her history gives her more than the normal teenage problems. Liara’s mother was driven crazy by her rape and was never able to truly care for and love Liara, eventually dying and leaving Liara to the cruelty of the villagers. Without Father Phenlick, Liara would never have survived, and though he tries to give her a home, he isn’t able to fill the emptiness of her life. Liara desparately needs something and somewhere of her own, which is why she steals–to fill her life with things that are her own. In creating her hollow-tree hiding place, she creates that place where she isn’t afraid to be herself. Though she is unaware of her own magic, it is as much a part of her as her history. In the beginning, all Liara wants is to grow that power. She desires the very thing others accuse her of having to give her what she has never had, but it’s a double-edged sword. She is hated for her supposed abilities even before she shows evidence of magic, but when she finds the magic she wants so badly, it will define her. That is all she will be, not a real person. She wants others to see she has feelings and dreams, but in the very thing she wants most, this undeniable power, people will ONLY see that. She limits herself to this magical creature, and that drive quickly becomes an obsession. Only too late does she see Nagarath’s minimal use of magic isn’t a waste. She almost allows her prejudiced idea that magic should be grandios to cloud the important lesson she learns about living simply, living for love and not power. As she grows through her relationship with Nagareth, she learns what magic should truly be.

The evolving bond between Liara and Nagareth is a beautiful story. Only nine years Liara’s senior, Nagareth sees Liara as child in the beginning, but over the novel’s development, he begins to see Liara as a true companion. The joy she brings to his life, the peace she makes him feel, even the annoying insistence that she teach him become invaluable to the lonely wizard.

He wants to make sure she has a life of stability, not fear. As he opens himself up more and more, he becomes her friend. He realizes she has given him more than he has returned and relents in his promise not to teach her. Nagareth grows as much as his precious ward.

The magic of this fantastical history will charm the reader and leave them wanting more.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: The House at Ladywell by Nicola Slade

A surprise bequest, a cryptic benediction, and a box of letters–Freya Gibson is in the middle of a life-changing mystery. As the personal assistant to successful novelist Patrick Underwood, Freya never takes a vacation. She believes herself content to be surrounded by the hustle and bustle of London, keeping Patrick on track and reigning in her newly discovered and completely uncertain feelings for her boss. When Freya is given a house by a distant relative she has never met, she isn’t sure how to handle it, and with a clause preventing her from immediately selling the relic, Freya has no choice but to visit the home, still fairly certain she will rid herself of the property-that is until she sets foot in the ancient home in Ramalley. With Patrick gone on a business trip to the US, Freya decides to spend a week getting to know her new home and the village nearby. She quickly decides she wants to keep the enigmatic house with the enormous stone mantle, former church windows, and hand-carved hares, but as she falls in love with the house, she uncovers evidence that Violet, her cousin and the former owner, knew a great deal more about Freya than Freya knows about herself. With each step closer to her truth, the house seems to draw her closer in a protective grip and maybe give her a chance at a new future. 

In this frame story, the real gem is the historical background for the house and well. Lovers of history will relish the retelling of so many stories from various time periods that all shaped and were shaped by the area. From an adolescent Roman deserter to a broken-hearted WWI soldier, the stories not only show the residents of the area but also the tapestry of England at each telling. Through centuries of time, the well at Ladywell drew the sick, the needy, and those looking to begin again, and just like the modern protagonist, each time it brought renewal and hope. Freya’s story usually shadows the scattered historical episodes that often explain some aspect of the house or village. Through the historical details and period dialogue, the short excerpts are just as rich as the main plot. 

Reinvention and rebuilding are major components of both Freya’s and the house’s story. Damaged by an abusive relationship and the death of both of her parents, Freya discovers as much about herself as she does about Ladywell through her investigation of her new home. While searching through her cousin’s belongings, she finds more questions than answers, and she must search deep within herself to find the strength to pursue the truth of her parentage as well as the means by which her birth was arranged. As she muddles through her sense of wonder and disbelief, she learns to lean more on the support of Patrick, who needs Freya as much as she needs him. Just like the house, their love is both new and comfortably worn. She comes to grip with the need to reconcile her past, embracing the stony parts, and learning from it, just like the history of all those at Ladywell. She finds solace and strength in the worn floors and crumbling ceilings and allows the healing “waters” of the well to wash her clean. In restoring “the balance” of her home, she restores the balance in her own life.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Wissahickon Souls by PJ Devlin

Claire Penniman, a free black living near Philadelphia in the early 1800s,  is only six years old when she is indentured to Raymond and Anna Williams, white landowners who have known her family for many years. Elizabeth and Moses, Claire’s parents, have already indentured their older son Samuel to the Williams in hopes that both of their children will learn invaluable life skills as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic in exchange for working the land and tending the animals. Wissahickon Farm quickly becomes a part of who Claire is, and she easily befriends five-year-old Lawrence, the youngest son of Anna and Raymond. As Claire and Lawrence grow so does their bond, creating an uneasy relationship between Claire and Anna who sees the danger with her son becoming too attached to a black girl. Near the end of her twelve-year indenture, Claire and Lawrence run away to Haiti to begin a life together in a country where they believe their races won’t matter, but they quickly learn they can’t escape prejudice, and their love may not be stronger than fear. 

Set in time when trains are new and steamboats rule, Wissahickon Souls spans thirty years in the life of Claire Penniman. She grows from an impetuous, daring little girl to a strong, independent woman. Claire’s journey, both physically and mentally, showcases the trials of African Americans in the 1800s. Though Claire’s family has a long history as free blacks living in a Northern city, they are far from free. Prejudice lurks around every bend and dark alley in Germantown and Philadelphia, and the Penniman family keeps a dangerous secret–the family “business.” For decades, the family has helped runaway slaves seeking asylum and has delivered hundreds of “packages” farther north, even giving permanent refuge to some. This episodic tale shows numerous examples of the risks this family endures, and though the Penniman’s are fictional characters, it is not hard to see the real dangers evident in their exploits and to appreciate the courage of those who did provide safe havens for all those runaways.
A theme of monumental importance within the novel revolves around sewing. Claire’s sewing literally becomes the tie that binds. Claire is taught her craft by her mother and grandmother, just as she learns the skill of helping slaves to freedom. She uses her ability to both heal the injured and protect her family from the harsh world. As an adult, her needlework becomes a means of feeding her children and bonding her to strangers who become vitally important within the novel’s tight fabric. Repeatedly, she is called upon for her talent and earns hardwon respect for it. 

The idea of love’s boundaries is clear in this Romeo and Juliet tragedy. From vicious white men to a raging flash flood, Lawrence repeatedly saves Claire but is unable for years to stand beside her in public. As children, Lawrence doesn’t see Claire’s race until others force him to see it then he is unable to reconcile himself to the difficulty of their life together. Even after running to Haiti, the land of free blacks, the couple is torn apart by race. They seemingly can’t completely love each other anywhere, often not even in their own hearts, and though the doomed couple is most obviously an example of this theme, it is perhaps more poignant between Claire and Anna. 

Anna, Lawrence’s mother, fears Claire’s influence from the beginning. She has seen how the world treats race and, to a certain extent, does nothing to change it until it is almost too late. She wastes many years believing Claire unworthy of her white son and nearly loses everything before learning that character is built upon more substance than color.

Claire’s sprawling, twisting journey from rescuer to runaway to redeemer will transport the reader on an intense trip through history.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.