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Book Review: Spirit of the Rabbit Place (Choestoe Book 3) by J.R. Collins

The Choestoe Valley, known by the Cherokee as the “ ‘land where the rabbits dance,’ ” is paradise to fourteen-year-old Jebidiah Collins. When his grandfather settled in the valley after  immigrating from Ireland, he quickly learned the benefits of befriending the Native Americans living in the area, and the Collins now consider Dancing Bear, a Cherokee elder, and his family as relatives, sharing with and helping each other in good times and bad. Jeb’s father, Thompie, gives freely of his farm’s bounty to the Cherokee, who help work the land and teach Thompie and his children how to survive in this beautiful but deadly landscape. Cain, Jeb’s older brother, is even allowed to marry Rose, Dancing Bear’s daughter, and has become a full-fledged Cherokee warrior in his own right. Their bonds are so strong, Dancing Bear symbolically adopts Jeb, who is the same age as his own son, Wolf.  Jebidiah and Wolf become blood brothers, learning to be Cherokee warriors together and taking on any and every adventure that comes their way. They often find themselves in dangerous situations since the arrival of gold miners to their sacred valley. These unscrupulous men threaten their very way of life, and when these ruthless miners capture Wolf and force him into slavery, Jeb knows he may be his friend’s only chance at rescue. 

A poignant theme of this third novel in the Choestoe series is that of unity. Jeb’s family and nearly all of the settlers in the valley honor and respect the Cherokee who inhabited this area long before the settlers arrived. This beautiful, symbiotic-style relationship benefits both the settlers and the Native Americans. Jeb repeatedly praises the wisdom of trusting each other and working together. From plowing fields to hunting game, the Collins family and Dancing Bear’s clan work seamlessly, easily with each other. Under the age-old adage, “treat folks how you want to be treated,” Jeb understands that what he does, what he says will be returned to him tenfold, and though his mountain home is changing with the white man’s greed, he would never make an enemy of a people so much better equipped and knowledgeable than his own. His trust is implicit and unquestioning, and with that, comes the need to protect and love each other. Again and again, the idea of caring for and looking out for your family (both blood and chosen) prevails. In each episode Jeb describes, first and foremost is the idea of responsibility for each other. It is never an every-man-for-himself scenario. Their hearts beat as one; their minds think as one. When any neighbor needs help, neither the settlers nor their Cherokee brethren forsake those needs, chasing down murderous outlaws and helping free slaves. It isn’t just Jeb’s family who shows this amazing generosity of spirit, though. Throughout the valley, families return in kind the goodness shown to them. Mrs. England, for example, takes in orphaned children, even those with disabilities and special needs. Every family gives; every family receives. Each of them is willing to fight for and die for this place they’ve worked together to make a true home. The settlers not only want to fight for their way of life, but also for the ancient ways of their Cherokee neighbors, who are being treated more and more cruelly each day with the coming of gold seekers as well as the US government. This is the kind of community just about every person wishes could exist, and for the brief but precious time described in the novel, it does. 

Another prevalent idea is the value of spiritualism. The plot is an interesting mixture of Cherokee and Christian beliefs, with a deep respect for each. Jeb’s faith often brings him comfort and strength, and many times, the Cherokee turn to pray for direction and guidance on huge decisions. Jeb knows that the Holy Spirit has brought him and his family to the valley and continues to bless and guide them. Though he fears evil when he literally comes face-to-face with it, he knows the Great Creator protects him and finds solace in the idea that no evil can hurt someone who is protected by the Peace of Jesus. All of the Cherokee warriors repeatedly assure Jeb, whose Cherokee name is Spirit Filled One, that he should trust in and heed the voice of the Spirit that comes to him, and that very faith not only saves him and George Black Oak, Wolf’s blood uncle, but also shows them some much-needed information that ends an emotional struggle of another important character. This faith shines through in Jeb’s loving nature and brings light to all those around him.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Plague by C.C. Humphreys

Captain William Coke is a thief with a conscience. Never loading his pistol with anything more than powder, he carefully selects his victims from the wealthy and often the pompous. He and Dickon, a rescued street urchin, never expected to find their marks slaughtered on the road to London, but this killing is like nothing he has ever seen, not even on the battlefield fighting to restore his king to the throne in the English Civil War. Thief-taker, Pitman, is likewise shocked by the brutality of the murders from the highwayman he has come to see as a gentleman bandit. Now, Pitman will stop at nothing to find Coke, who has become known as the Monstrous Cock after the notorious murder, but the murders continue, and as the victims pile up, Pitman and Coke begin to realize this is a different kind of criminal, one who kills with religious symbolism. The two eventually team up to find the murderer. When the killer brutalizes and murders an actor, his wife and fellow actress, Sarah, is pulled into the path of the murderer and becomes an ally of the men who are chasing him. However, the would-be detectives face yet another obstacle when the Black Plague breaks out across the poverty-stricken parts of London. The three unlikely heroes must now dodge not only the law, but a serial killer, a deadly illness, and a heretical cult  in a search that will take them from the gutters to the palace.

The three protagonists of this novel are such contrasting, well-developed characters. Captain Coke, a man who robs for a living, has a heart of gold. He first meets Sarah when he is fulfilling a pledge by visiting and checking on Lucy, the sister of his closest friend Quentin, a fellow soldier who was killed nearly twenty years prior. Even when Lucy finds herself unmarried and pregnant, Coke doesn’t hesitate to help her though it means putting himself in harm’s way. He has also taken in Dickon, a boy with both physical and mental disabilities, and is willing to kill if need be to protect him. Coke is a criminal, but he is a kind and gentle man. Pitman, who has remarkable abilities, is ahead of his time with his crime scene investigations, and no one catches more thieves than him.  As a constable, he is responsible for shutting up the homes of plague victims with their families inside–infected or not. This causes great distress to the big-hearted Pitman. It is this kindness that can see the impossibility of Coke committing such terrible crimes, and though the two fought on opposing sides in the war and are now on either side of the law, the two develop an easy friendship, trusting each other with their very lives. Sarah Chalker owes much of her success as an actress to the protection of her husband, John. As childhood sweethearts, she and John have fought their way from the gutters of St. Giles to a place in the Duke’s Company, a theatre group frequented by Charles II himself. So when John is killed, the shear brutality of his murder makes Sarah more determined to find the vicious killer. She doesn’t hesitate to join with Coke and Pitman even though the search will put her in danger without the advantage of her male counterparts. 

Religion plays a huge role in the novel. On the heels of the English Civil War and the Restoration, London in 1665 was a place of great unrest. With the Act of Uniformity and the Act of Conventicles keeping dissenters from practicing anything other than the “accepted” Church of England within the city, all who choose to worship differently must do so in secret. This need for clandestineness provokes many to violence, including the Fifth Monarchists, who believe it their responsibility to bring about the Apocalypse and the coming of Jesus. With the year 1666 fast approaching, they see the end times in every facet of the city. From its sprawling corruption to its massive poverty, the city is prime for their brand of justice and a crescendo to what they see as the devil’s time.  It is among these “Saints” that the serial killer hides, committing his atrocities in the name of his religion. The religious symbolism connected to verses in Revelation is an interesting part of this thriller and truly takes the crime into the realm of the sinister. Chapters from the murderer’s point of view show this obsession for Apocalyptic cleansing for the sinful falseness of London. This obsession contrasts sharply with Pitman’s own religiousness. Pitman, a Quaker and therefore a dissenter himself, uses his religion for personal betterment. His beliefs create a stronger, kinder person rather than an evil killer, and the near-complete lack of religion in the other characters is another keen example of the duality present within the novel.

Plague is a thrilling ride through the gritty parts of seventeenth-century London, and readers of history and mystery alike will enjoy its shocking twist ending. 

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Waking Up Lost by David Fitz-Gerald

Seventeen-year-old Noah Munch craves acceptance. As a biracial boy growing up in a small village in upper New York, he doesn’t feel that he belongs to either part of his heritage. Having lost his Native American father before he was born, Noah has spent his short life trying to connect with the part of himself that many in his hometown of Wilmington shun while placating and often avoiding the villagers who find his native side offensive. Noah also has a family secret to protect. His mother, Mehitable, speaks with spirits and his brother, Moses, has an uncanny ability to predict disaster and show up with inhuman speed to prevent it. As a result of his complex homelife, Noah spends a great deal of time alone and dreams of someday being a mountain man, living off his wits and the nature around him. However, Noah can’t stop himself from admiring Arminda, the prettiest girl in town. He doubts he will ever have a chance to court the blonde beauty, especially considering the meanest young man in town, Erastus Moss, has spoken for her. Erastus, whose grandparents were killed by Native Americans on a journey out West, begins to harass Noah when he notices Noah’s interest in Arminda. Though he doesn’t like it, Noah endures taunts, feeling the burden of prejudice and simultaneously the inadequacy of being the only “normal” member of his family–until the night he wakes up on top of a mountain. Noah begins to experience strange episodes which he believes are sleepwalking fits and one night finds himself inside the home of his beloved Arminda. Once the town discovers his odd behavior, suspicion and fear turn even more people against him, and Erastus uses it as an excuse to escalate his torture, and Noah knows he will have to stop the crazed man and find a way to control his abilities before it’s too late.

So much of this fourth installment of the Adirondack Spirit Series revolves around Noah’s coming of age. In true bildungsroman style, Noah is on both a physical and spiritual journey. He feels the difference between himself and other boys, including his twenty-year-old brother, keenly. Noah is small and by his own admission “scrawny.” He doesn’t have the physical presence that he knows others expect of a boy his age, and though often the most handsome boy in the town, Noah’s dark hair and olive skin also set him apart in a way that he finds unacceptable. However, Noah has never known his father’s people since his father was estranged from his tribe and died before Noah’s birth, so he has no opportunity to see or socialize with people he thinks might accept him more than his white neighbors. He can’t see himself as anything other than a clumsy daydreamer who will never fit in, thus giving him a plausible reason to live alone in the mountains as his father had done years ago. He believes this will also connect him to the father he resembles; however, when he attempts to isolate himself, nature and man conspire to bring him right back to the town he hates, and he finds no solace in his mother and brother’s assurances that he possess a power that will someday be his greatest strength. Doubling his feelings of deficiency is the notion that he shouldn’t be so normal. With a mother who guides spirits to the afterlife and brother with inhuman speed, Noah can’t accept that he is so ordinary. He believes that the prejudice caused by his race might be somehow more tolerable if he knew he had a secret talent, but when he does develop an unexplainable ability, it proves nightmarish and deadly since he never knows when it will happen or, more importantly, where it will take him. Ironically, this strange power that Noah typically finds deplorable becomes paramount in discovering the very purpose he longs to find. 

Faith and trust in God are also important aspects within Noah’s life and, therefore, within the novel. Noah often relies on his faith to carry him through the unbelievably difficult situations in his life. Whenever he is physically or mentally hurt, he turns to prayer for comfort and reassurance, and later when he commits a crime (albeit justified), he doesn’t feel free of the burden until he seeks absolution from God. Though his episodes sometimes prove horrific, Noah realizes so much of what he is able to do is miraculous. He searches for God’s plan for his life even while questioning how he will know the plan when he sees it. When Noah is at his lowest and fearful he’ll not survive, he feels the “warmth” of God in a physical way and hears His message that Noah isn’t alone. Noah is God’s servant, and he begins to understand that he must become what God expects, not what he wants. 

The supernatural elements in the novel set it apart from the typical novel of this genre, making it feel like a hybrid between historical and paranormal. Giving the family members such unusual abilities heightens their outsider status. Mehitable has been a single mother for seventeen years, raising her biracial sons among a town of hate and prejudice, and though she does have a few staunch supporters, these people can’t always keep the wolves at bay. She and her sons suffer from the racism so prolific during the 1800s in America. Compounding her pariah-like treatment, she speaks to spirits and must keep her gifts secret for fear of further mistreatment. Though Moses’s abilities are more vague, he, too, has otherworldly talents which cannot be openly acknowledged. Noah most of all suffers for his gift. Though he has no power over its occurrence, he is practically run out of town. These additions to the plot create more tension and conflict, enhancing the tragic treatment of this family.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Mischief and Mayhem (Whiskey Sister Book 2) by L.E. Rico

Jameson O’Halloran never asked for her life to be so complicated and unpredictable. She never asked for a cheating husband, never asked to be in charge of her father-in-law’s life, and certainly never asked for her brother-in-law to show up looking so irresistible. Since her recent divorce, Jameson has focused on rebuilding her life without the dream family she always wanted. Her toddler, Jackson, takes up most of her time, and when she isn’t caring for him, she is helping her sisters run the family pub in Mayhem, Minnesota, after the death of their father. She is NOT looking for love, not now, maybe not ever again, but when her ex-father-in-law suffers a stroke, she is forced into the very delicate position of health proxy for the seriously ill man she still considers family. However, she isn’t alone. Big Win Clarke named a co-proxy, his estranged second son, Scott. Scott, a Project Peace employee, has spent the last ten years abroad, running from his father and from himself, but when he is called to his unconscious father’s bedside, he knows those years spent abroad were a mistake, one he may never get to correct if his father doesn’t recover. When he lays eyes on his beautiful ex-sister-in-law, he can’t deny the attraction drawing him to her. Together they must uncover the truth behind the mystery that sent him running years earlier and hopefully find themselves along the way.

Family bonds is a strong theme within this novel. The contrast between the close knit O’Hallaron sisters and the volatile Clarke brothers is significant to every part of the plot. The “Whiskey sisters,” Hennessy, Jameson, Walker, and Bailey, function as a solid unit. Named by their pub-owning father, these girls share more than their unique names; they have a solidarity which is touching and profound. Even when they argue, they know the immense love they have for each other will never fade. Pulling together to run the family business after their father’s death, these women willingly sacrifice for the legacy left them by their parents. Having lost their mother many years before their father, the girls have been both mother and sister to each other. They celebrate triumphs and mourn loss as one, filling in the gaps in their lives with sibling unity. Jameson can’t fathom going days, much less years, without seeing her sisters, holding them, confiding in them. On the other hand, Scott and Win Clarke (junior) have never had and likely never will have that bond. The brothers have spent their lives at odds with other, keeping secrets and driving a wedge in what could be the most enduring relationship of their lives. For Win, jealousy pushes him to exploit Scott’s weaknesses, and Scott’s need to escape keeps him from discovering the truth behind his family history and from forging a bond with his ill father. Just like the Whiskey sisters, the Clarke brothers have also lost their mother, but where that draws the women closer, it only serves as the catalyst for pushing the men apart. It isn’t until Scott begins to lean on Jameson that he finally sees what family should be. The Whiskey sisters show Scott the strength behind sibling loyalty and help him face the revelation that changes his life.

Like most novels of this genre, this second installment of this series is chocked-full of romance but with a refreshing burst of humor that will leave the reader LOLing! Scott Clarke is sigh-worthy on every level, and like most male protagonists in a romance novel, he struggles with the notion of settling down and committing to any woman. He’s unsure he can give up his nomadic life while feeling drawn to the notion of a home of his own, a family to come home to every night. Jameson has been hurt in a way only adultery can hurt. She feels unworthy of love and bitter that her picket-fence dream has been shattered by the only man she’s ever loved. In many respects, the plot is traditional for the genre but the light-hearted nature of Scott and Jameson’s budding relationship is the true gem. In scene after scene, these two–and many of the other characters as well–will leave the reader in stitches. One of the best parts of the novel is Scott’s interaction with Siri, a novelty he has just discovered since his return to civilization after years in remote locations with Project Peace. Numerous chapters end with Scott’s philosophical discussions with his voice-activated assistant, and his first experience with Facetime is priceless! With scenes that will leave you swooning mixed in, the reader will not be disappointed with this clean, wholesome romance. 

Character building, not just for the protagonist but with the entire cast of Mayhem, is a strength of the entire Whiskey Sisters series. From psychic baker to gossipy priest to celebrity cat sweater maker, the characters shine. Each of the O’Hallaron women has her own distinct personality, offering a promising glimpse of what is to come in the series. The reader will love her visit to this picturesque, town and long for the cozy comfort of O’Halloran’s pub. The entire town is a unique tapestry with love woven into every scene. 

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Dared to Return by J.J. Clarke

Kate Anderson has an exciting new life in Tampa Bay, Florida. An aspiring writer with a new book recently released, she’s left behind her old life as a court investigator in Kingseat, Missouri, but when she receives a frantic call from her ninety-two-year-old grandfather, she hops on a plane home. Just five weeks earlier, Kate’s step-grandmother, Helen, died, and not long after Helen’s death, Kate’s grandfather, Theodore, was thrown out of his home and sent to the Squaw Valley Nursing Home, a place where old people go to die. Unbeknownst to Kate, most of Helen’s two-million dollar estate has been left in a trust, not to her husband of twenty-five years. The trustee is a corrupt secret society known as HOGG, a group of important town officials who con elderly citizens out of their money, distribute it to charities, and take a huge percentage for themselves. Despite receiving a piece of Helen’s property, a gift Kate considers hush money to keep her from suing, Kate refuses to sit idly by while this group fleeces unsuspecting old people who think they are donating to the betterment of the community. She teams up with her spunky publicist, Susie Jones, and former US Marshall and newly appointed Kingseat Police Chief Reese Matthews to get her revenge and try to bring down this ring of corruption. With a family feud, a suspicious trust, and a fiery sleuth, what could possibly go wrong?

Kate is a protagonist to be reckoned with. She is the epitome of a survivor from a young age since her parents died in a plane crash when she was only four years old. Raised by her biological grandfather and step-grandmother, she has never had an ordinary life considering her grandfather believed his job was to make her tough. With a degree in law enforcement, she spent five years working as a bond investigator until she became the prime suspect in a murder investigation. Using her law knowledge, she gives US Marshall’s a merry chase as she works to clear her name. With two deaths tied to her, Kate is a tough nut to crack, and she isn’t about to let the evil forces at work in Kingseat get away with stealing from her grandfather. Her tenacity even causes her to punch a lawyer in court (and get away with it), and her endless costume closet presents unlimited chances to catch her prey red-handed initially in some humorous–and oddly satisfying–ways. She and Susie make a modern-day, irreverent superhero duo, righting the wrongs done by the evil, dominating force of HOGG.

Kate’s fight for justice goes beyond the boundaries of the novel. Preying on the old is a despicable act that, unfortunately, occurs often. Her need for satisfaction is likely a need numerous families have felt in reality. This “beautiful little town with an underbelly of evil” hits close to home in many ways for some, and Kate’s fight for her grandfather is a fight for every man.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Grace in the Wings by Kari Bovee

Grace Michelle never asked for stardom or fame. Content to sew costumes with her mentor Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, Grace doesn’t need adoration from anyone, but when her sister Sophia, a rising starlet in the Ziegfeld Follies, begins a rapid downhill spiral and then ends up dead, Grace is thrust into the spotlight by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Flo was her savior, rescuing Grace and Sophia from a life on the streets when they were mere children, and now Grace feels obligated to take up the reins and save his floundering Follies, but Grace knows her sister’s death was no accident and definitely not the suicide those around her believe. However, the only place to find the truth is California where her sister was last seen alive with her new husband, Jack Pickford, brother to the famous actress Mary Pickford. When Flo sends her from New York to Hollywood on a promotional tour, Grace reluctantly agrees even though it means traveling with Chet Riker, a private investigator indebted to mobster Joe Marciano with whom Flo has made a shady deal to finance his new show. Haunted by Sophia’s death and overwhelmed by the pressure to bring Flo success, Grace doesn’t need to fall for the handsome stranger, but neither can deny the longing they feel. As Grace gets closer to the truth, she realizes everyone is keeping secrets, even Chet, and the only person she can rely on is herself. But will she be enough? 

A significant issue raised within the novel is that of female independence. At twenty years old, Grace is just beginning to understand who she is and what she wants from life. Having moved from seamstress to junior designer, she is finally on the path she most desires, one spent in the shadows of the stage, not in the gleaming gel lights. Grace has no desire to become a stage sensation and is content to let Sophia have that honor though both have spent the last seven years taking dance, voice, and acting lessons thrust upon them by their benefactor, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. However, Sophia succumbs to the lure of alcohol, drugs, and the attention of powerful men, leaving Grace to pick up the pieces with a forced sense of obligation. She cannot comprehend why her sister would give up the power she has gained through her career to follow a frivolous, unstable man (Jack Pickford) across the country. She is also completely flabbergasted to learn that Sophia had carried on an illicit affair with more than one man, including and most especially, Flo. Grace is disgusted and shocked and quickly comes to the realization that Sophia’s feelings for these men in no small part come from fear for her future, falling victim to promises of marriage that are never going to find fulfillment. Sophia and Grace have had to claw for survival, especially Sophia, who always took care of her younger sister. As Grace finds her voice literally and figuratively, she knows she cannot follow in her sister’s footsteps, neither on stage nor in life. As she investigates Sophia’s death, she becomes emboldened and more sure of herself. She learns to challenge those in power, people to whom she normally would have cowed, and the more strength she finds, the more righteous anger develops–mostly for Flo for having taken advantage of first Sophia with their physical relationship and then Grace by forcing her into a career she doesn’t want. Though she will fulfill her obligatory role in his new scheme, she vows to fight for freedom once she has finished, to never again allow a man to take care of her but to put her own feet on the ground when and where she chooses. 

Chet Riker is more than just a pretty face. Tall, dark, and handsome, he fits the mold of most romance heroes; however, Chet’s story adds another layer to this period thriller. Chet is haunted by his memories of World War I, a man with a complicated past, but not in the expected “brooding hunk” way.  Chet was given up by his mother when he was a boy. Old enough to remember her, he spent his life wanting to find her again someday, but when he does, he discovers she is dying and in need of an expensive operation. His need for money drives him to borrow and gamble and leaves him in the debt of a vicious mobster. That debt takes him to Flo, who then attempts to use him in an illegal scheme, and eventually sets him up as an unwitting conspirator in his machinations to use Grace. He knows he must pay off his debts or risk his PI career–and possibly his life. Torn between his anger at being used by these two men and his newfound love of Grace Michelle, Chet will have to decide between honor and honesty or ruthlessness and reputation. His story, much like Grace’s, will force him to fight for independence or to remain a captured pawn in a game of titans. 

Set against the glamorous stage of the Roaring Twenties, this star-studded whodunnit will not disappoint fans of mystery and history.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Evil Under The Stars: The Agatha Christie Book Club 3 by C.A. Larmer

Who commits a murder in a crowd of a hundred people relaxing in a park, and how did the Agatha Christie Book Club miss the entire thing from only a few feet away? In the trendy Sydney suburb of Balmain, Kat Mumford, social media interior design star, has been murdered during the inaugural Cinema Under the Stars. Her distraught husband, Eliot, is clearly the prime suspect, but at the time of Kat’s strangulation, he is nowhere near her. In fact, no one was sitting near Kat, and the crowd seems to have been so absorbed by the movie, Agatha Christie’s Evil Under Sun, that no one saw a thing out of the ordinary. When Alicia Finlay and her book club realize the murder occurred right under their noses, there is no way they can just let the police handle it, and when Alicia’s boyfriend, Detective Inspector Liam Jackson acutally calls her for information, she and her club decide to do a little investigating of their own. Despite being told to butt out, Alicia, Lynette, Claire, Missy, and Perry go undercover to find the killer, but the twists in this case will lead them down a strange path to find a crafty killer. The club must sift through the suspects: a smarmy barman, a detestable reverend, a pregnant domestic abuse victim, a mystery mustached man, a dead junky, and a hipster hubby. With few clues but a number of deadends, the club will meet their most challenging mystery yet!

This mystery is one crazy ride. Anyone who loves a good whodunnit will adore this novel. Despite being the third novel in the series, it isn’t hard to learn the who’s who of the Agatha Christie Book Club. Claire, the vintage clothing shop owner; Missy, the pink-haired librarian; Perry, museum PR organizer; Lynette, self-trained food blogger; Alicia, online journalist; and even the reluctant Anders, the doctor who pronounces Kat dead on the scene, create a fantastic cast of characters who truly engage the readers from the first page. Like Christie’s beloved Miss Marple, the book club are only amatuer slueths, who must rely on a stealthy approach to crime solving, going undercover unbeknownst to DI Indira Singh, the no-nonsense, by-the-book detective in charge of the case, facing her wrath on more than one occasion. The ease with which the author introduces this cooky crew of curious minds will make it simple to jump in headfirst and enjoy this fast-paced roller coaster complete with plenty of red herrings and deadends, eventually leading to a crafty killer who manages a daring, deadly crime in the middle of hundreds of witnesses. 

An unexpected plus in the plot is the romance between Alicia and Liam. Having just previously broken up with fellow club member Anders (creating a tension among the book club), Alicia’s fledgling relationship with hunky Liam experiences some bumps when she interferes with his case, but the respect he has in her abilities–and that of club–adds depth to what appears to be solely a mystery novel on the surface. Liam seeks out Alicia’s help, valuing her abilities, and not attempting to control her. Being the less attractive of the Finlay sisters, Alicia is often “eclipsed” by the beautiful blonde Lynette, but she never feels anything less with Liam. He makes it “crystal clear which sister he prefer[s] in his orbit.” Liam even takes Alicia “on the beat” to track down would-be suspects and leads, partly because he needs her and partly because he knows she will love it. This symbiotic-style relationship is sweet in a mature way that romance readers will appreciate.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: But Not Forever by Jan Von Schleh

Like most fifteen-year-olds, Sonnet McKay loves a good adventure, but when she, her siblings, and cousins discover a deserted Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods outside a deserted town near Seattle, they get much more than they bargained for. In an upstairs bedroom, Sonnet inadvertently steps inside a time travel portal and is whisked away to 1895. In her place stands Emma Sweetwine, an identical doppelganger for Sonnet. Emma’s family was a prominent family when Monte Cristo was a booming mine town, but life is not what it seems for the oldest of the Sweetwine children. With a mother who seems to despise her and a secret engagement, Emma’s life is oppressive and controlled–a sharp contrast to the spirited, independent Sonnet. With no idea how or why they were switched, Sonnet and Emma must quickly adjust to their new environments and rely only on their closest friends and family, but time is running out for the girls as both of their lives rush headlong in opposite directions. They must find a way back to their own times before their chance is gone forever. 

Family, both those of birth and those of choice, is a major theme of this novel. Sonnet has a close familial support system in her twin brother Evan, older sister Jules, cousin Niki, and best friend and cousin Lia. She has been surrounded by a loving family her entire life and spends part of each summer with her Aunt Kate, her father’s sister. Without doubt or hesitation, Evan, Jules, Niki, and Lia spring into action to both cover Sonnet’s absence and find the impossible path back to 1895. Rapp, a boy who has only known Sonnet for a day before her disappearance, is also a seamless part of the rescue brigade. The closeness of the teens is endearing and perhaps will inspire a nostalgia for that tight-knit feeling only present in adolescent friendship. This group instantly takes Emma into their embrace and makes her feel safe and loved, a first in her life. Though Sonnet has little help from Emma’s family, she quickly builds that friendship network she enjoys in her modern life. It is only with the support of Kerry, the sixteen-year-old Sweetwine family nanny; Maxwell, the teenage family driver; and Tor, Emma’s secret betrothed; that Sonnet will hatch an escape plan. Both groups vow to take care of each girl respectively and help them keep the faith to make all things possible. 

The difference between Sonnet and Emma will highlight the struggle and growth of women in the world. Sonnet isn’t burdened by the many stifling rules, both spoken and unspoken, that Emma must endure. Emma is forced to hide her true self, her true feelings, none so much as those she has for Tor. As an immigrant tasked with a life of menial labor, Tor should never be a part of Emma’s social circle much less her fiance. She has no close female friends and must remain docile and meek even when her mother demeans and abuses her. She is stifled by all who should love and support her. Sonnet, with her modern mind and outspoken nature, fights all of those restrictions and leaves Emma’s life better. Sonnet makes Emma stronger, and Emma teaches Sonnet how to appreciate the love in her life. In the very oppression, Sonnet finds the enjoyment of her freedom, and Emma’s liberation will create a connection to Sonnet that she can’t even imagine. Sonnet and Emma are not the only female characters who highlight the advancement of women in society. Kerry, the teenage nanny of the Sweetwine family, has an extraordinary story as well. After journeying alone from Ireland at the age of twelve, Kerry has created her own place. As a trusted servant, she cares for Emma’s younger brothers, Jacob and Miles, as well as Emma on occasion even though they are only one year apart in age. Kerry has the courage to secretly help Sonnet though, if discovered, she could lose her position. She gains Sonnet’s admiration and quickly reveals herself as a capable confidante in Sonnet’s escape back to 2015. Kerry also has the courage to dream of a better life and the ingenuity to make it happen. She, too, will later become a vital part of Sonnet’s future as well as an inspiration for her. 

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Estelle: A Novel by Linda Stewart Henley

Twenty-two-year-old museum intern and unknown artist, Anne Gautier, has undertaken a major project, restoring “an elegant house on one of the finest streets in New Orleans.” The grand old Creole home has been in her family for “five generations,” and when her grandfather died, he left her the home on Esplanade Avenue “ ‘where all the best French Creole families’ ” once lived, with the stipulation that she must “restore the property, [or] ownership will revert to the city.” Even though the house is not in “a good part of town,”Anne is determined to celebrate the historical home not only because of her own family but also because the home was an integral part of New Orleans’s history during the visit of Edgar Degas in 1872. In fact, Degas’s notebook, found in Anne’s attic, gives Anne the money she needs to begin the restoration, but her plans go sideways when someone breaks in and vandalizes the home, leaving  behind a threatening note and a mystery to solve. On top of this shocking discovery, Anne is trying to reconcile her feelings about Stella, the half-sister Anne recently met, and whether she might have something to do with the vandalism since she was left out of their grandfather’s will. Anne tries to rely on her new boyfriend, Sam, for advice, but he has begun acting strangely, sneaking around behind her back and hedging her questions. With no one to lean on, a demanding job, and her own artistic-inspiration waning, Anne may never see her beautiful home and its important history revived. 

The duel settings of New Orleans in 1870 and 1970 gives this novel an interesting perspective. The juxtaposition of the issues of the Musson and De Gas families to the modern trials of Anne and her own family provides perspective as well as education for the reader. Though on the surface their struggles seem completely unalike, in reality, the parallel stories are paradoxically similar. Estelle De Gas, sister-in-law and cousin of Edgar Degas, is a strong woman trying desperately to hold together her marriage to a cheating husband and maintain the expected appearance of a well-to-do proud Creole family all the while knowing the family’s fortunes have fallen, and she will soon be blinded by a hereditary disease. Anne is struggling to find her place in the world and to hold together what family she has left while dealing with her own untrustworthy partner, Sam. Though Sam admonishes her for “refusing to look at the practical realities of life,” she seeks “to make things beautiful,” just as Estelle does in encouraging Degas to find his inspiration in Nouvelle-Orleans. Anne wants desperately “to work things out for herself and make her own way in the world,” and though Estelle isn’t an unmarried young woman, she understands the integral role she plays within her own sphere of familial influence, her “abiding concern for the welfare of those she loved despite her many challenges.” The more Anne learns about Estelle, the more she realizes she needs “to take a leaf from Estelle’s book and find her own source of strength.”

Art plays a huge role within this novel. Edgar and Anne share the similar notion that “the life of an artist is not one easily shared with another.” Both are suffering from a lack of inspiration and direction. During the time Degas spent in America, he “had achieved little recognition,”and his brothers hope he will take an interest (and make an investment) in the family cotton business. Anne has given up her art for her busy internship and her flailing love life. Though the museum job isn’t her dream, she understands art is “ ‘not an easy way to make a living.’ ” She’s “avoided facing the truth” that she can’t live the “dreamer” life just as Degas begins to feel he must help his family by selling his work and sending them much-needed money. Eventually, New Orleans offers both a “new subject matter for [their] art,” Anne with her new-found sympathy for the poor of the city and Edgar with his own family’s business.

The growth of Anne’s relationship with her half-sister, Stella, in conjunction with Anne’s realization about the struggles of poverty-stricken New Orleanians is an interesting subplot. Anne has only recently learned of her sister’s existence because Stella, the product of a teenage dalliance, was given up for adoption immediately after her birth because of their grandfather’s racism since Stella was biracial. Anne’s overwhelming “guilt” over her “half-sister’s lost inheritance haunted her day and night,” and though she wants to share her inheritance, “she didn’t favor the idea of giving up part of her own share” to the “half-sister she barely knew.” Stella is also soon facing eviction because she lives in Section C, a “slum” where the houses are “more like shacks.” Anne could offer Stella a home in their grandfather’s former house, but she doesn’t really know her, and their fledgling relationship is awkward at best. In learning about her sister’s life, Anne begins to understand and sympathize with the vandals who destroyed part of her house “when a short distance away homes were being demolished” in a part of the city with as much historical importance as the area where rich Creoles once lived. Anne’s dynamic character growth is both inspirational and realistic. 

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.

Book Review: Manufactured Witches by Michelle Rene

Sixteen-year-old Nat is a boxcar kid. Since losing his grandmother and family home to the ravages of the Dust Bowl, he has been on his own, hopping trains across Texas in search of a place for himself amid so much loss. Outside of Amarillo, Nat feels a peculiar sensation, a tug from destiny, that pulls him toward the small town of Tanglewood. However, instead of finding a job and some much-needed food, he discovers Polly Jones, a teenager like himself, chained to a post with a sign above her reading, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch.” Nat can’t bring himself to abandon her to the small-minded, fearful townsfolk and immediately becomes her protector until the arrival of Camille Renoir Lavendou, a local woman who operates Miss Camille’s Home for Wayward Children. No one dares stop Camille from releasing Polly and taking both teens with her because Camille is reputed to be in the “witchin’ business” herself. Nat’s excitement at the prospect of food and a place to stay quickly turns to disbelief and wariness when he steps inside Camille’s sanctuary. What he thought was a ploy on Camille’s part to keep the nosey townsfolk at bay doesn’t seem to be a trick at all when he sees Nan, an ancient, glove-wearing woman who paints the ghosts who visit her; Jacob, a clairvoyant, non-verbal child who uses a chess board to plot different realities; Crow, an ageless boy who transforms into a bird at will; and Buck, a pompous taxidermied deer with very high standards. When Polly, too, begins to exhibit extraordinary abilities, Nat begins to feel like an outsider. Despite his limitations, Nat’s intense loyalty quickly leads him into a much more dangerous situation, where his very life may lay in the balance. 

For lovers of the paranormal, this novel will be a special treat! Miss Camille’s Home for Wayward Children is a delight in every room. From books that magically fill for the specific reader to rooms with waterfalls and koi ponds, this realm of possibilities will leave the reader clambering for more and wanting to explore right along with Nat. The delight of discovery and fantastic description within the novel will make readers feel like a kid again, but while the surface of the plot is innocent and childlike, the theme beneath will satisfy the adult need for real substance.

Nat’s story is one of belonging. Throughout his journey, he has the innate, human need for acceptance and home, not just a physical place to lay his head, but the real need for family and kinship. The Dust Bowl setting plays such an intricate role in this theme because so many Americans were searching for what nature and man took from them, their place in the universe. Nat’s story, though fictional, was played out in real-time for millions of people. He has lost everything, his family, his home, his identity. His search and subsequent finding of his place leads to a finding of himself. Though he often feels like he doesn’t belong anywhere–not the boxcar, tramp world, nor Camille’s menagerie of unique people–he comes to see exactly who he is and of what he is capable. Although facing the potential of great danger, Camille, an African American, creates a home for any and all. She is warned multiple times that she cannot take in white children. Her love and that of all her “children” is colorblind. Her home is a haven and a place to discover their true identity. Acceptance takes centerstage in this novel and leaves the reader wrapped in a cozy hug of belonging.

Another major idea within the novel is defending those you love. Nat is the proverbial knight in shining armor. In fact, Nat’s moniker of “Galahad” (given to him by Camille) fits perfectly. Nat defends the weak though he himself is seen by most as a candidate for this category. He immediately jumps to Polly’s aid and continues that behavior throughout the story. Once he is taken in by Camille, he stalwartly defends both her and the other occupants of the house with his very life. He is a true champion, and though he seems to have no supernatural abilities, his courage is more than enough to make him extraordinary.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.