Friday, February 26, 2021

The Vineyard at Painted Moon

  The Vineyard at Painted Moon
Author:  Susan Mallery
Publication Information:  HQN. 2021. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1335912797 / 978-1335912794

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "'Not that what you're wearing isn't great, but the party starts in an hour."

Favorite Quote:  "'I'm asking the question.' ... 'It's a scary question.' ... 'All the good ones are.'"

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Bel Apres and Painted Moon are the fictional vineyards of this story. However, although I might expect them to be in the Napa Valley, these vineyards are in the state of Washington. My knowledge of wine is nonexistent. So, the fact that the state of Washington is home to many wineries is new to me. I learn something new from a book that I expect to entertain not teach.

The book has embedded in it romance because that is consistent with the genre. Although romance is not my usual genre of choice, this story works because more than the romance, this book is about family - the one we are born with and the one we create for ourselves. It is about friendship and friends who become family. It is about marriage. It is about what happens when someone you think is family no longer chooses to be. It is about women - some who know themselves and live life according to their principles and some who are still on that journey of self-discovery.

What makes this family drama even more dramatic is the fact that there is indeed a villain in this story. Barbara, the founder and owner of Bel Apres, goes from treating MacKenzie as her favorite to treating her as the enemy. Her actions are extreme and dramatic and including pushing away those closest to her. Her behavior is vindictive and self-defeating. Occasional references are made to her backstory and what it took for her to establish Bel Apres and succeed. However, the book never does explain the severity of reactions and emotions. Understandably, this is not her story. Yet, she has the potential to develop into a multifaceted character. I want to know her "why" and feel like I don't. I could see an entire story being written about her.

The same lack of development extends to the character of Rhys. His reaction and behavior during the divorce is also extreme. However, his primary role in the book is that one dimensional ex-husband so I am less curious about his motivations.

My favorite character in the book is actually not MacKenzie even though the book is her story. Rhys has two sisters - Four and Stephanie - who end up more central to the story than he does. Four, as the name might suggest is the wise free spirit who lives on her mother's estate but somewhat on her own terms. Stephanie's story interestingly has as much depth to it as MacKenzie's and is actually more the more interesting one. Hers is the story of the girl who has always been told she does not measure up or amount to who grows up into the woman who believes that to be true who finally finds that there is a different path and a different choice. Her story is likely more common in our society than we would like to think, and as such, perhaps more real and relatable than MacKenzie's.

All in all, some expected romance and one dimensional characters, lots of family drama, and some more compelling stories draw me and provide the escape that this book is ended to be.

About the Author

#1 NYT bestselling author Susan Mallery writes heartwarming, humorous novels about the relationships that define our lives―family, friendship, romance. She's known for putting nuanced characters in emotional situations that surprise readers to laughter. Beloved by millions, her books have been translated into 28 languages. Susan lives in Washington with her husband, two cats, and a small poodle with delusions of grandeur. Visit her at

About the Book

MacKenzie Dienes's life isn't perfect, but it's as close as she could ever hope to get. Her marriage to Rhys, her best friend's brother, is more friendship than true love. But passion is highly overrated, right? And she loves her job as the winemaker at Bel Apres, her in-laws' vineyard. So what if it's a family business and, even after decades of marriage and incredible professional success, she's still barred from the family business meetings? It's all enough...until one last night spent together leads to an incredibly honest—and painful—conversation. Rhys suggests that they divorce. They haven't had a marriage in a long time and, while he wants her to keep her job at Bel Apres, he doesn't think they should be married any longer. Shocked, MacKenzie reels at the prospect of losing the only family she's ever really known...even though she knows deep in her heart that Rhys is right.

But when MacKenzie discovers she's pregnant, walking away to begin a new life isn't so easy. She never could have anticipated the changes it would bring to the relationships she cherishes most: her relationship with Barbara, her mother-in-law and partner at Bel Apres, Stephanie, her sister-in-law and best friend, and Bel Apres, the company she's worked so hard to put on the map.

MacKenzie has always dreamed of creating a vineyard of her own, a chance to leave a legacy for her unborn child. So when the opportunity arises, she jumps at it and builds the Vineyard at Painted Moon. But following her dreams will come at a high price—one that MacKenzie isn't so sure she's willing to pay…

Q and A with Susan Mallery

Where did inspiration for the book come from?
The Vineyard at Painted Moon was really inspired by the gorgeous wine country of Washington State. My readers have told me that they love when my books have wish-you-were-there settings, like the tulip farms in Secrets of the Tulip Sisters and the monastery-turned-mansion of The Summer of Sunshine and Margot. So I knew I wanted to set my next hardcover somewhere that would give readers a beautiful, scenic escape—and this was well before I knew the book would come out during a pandemic, when we’re all trapped at home a lot more than usual.

So I started daydreaming about beautiful settings, and I landed on Washington wine country. Breathtaking. Seriously, look it up.

Every evening before dinner, Mr. Mallery and I have a glass of wine together and tell one another about our day. This daily ritual makes us feel close and connected even when life gets hectic, and it has led us to learn more about how wine is made. I thought it could be really interesting to write about a female winemaker, because this is still very much a male-dominated field. I asked myself, “What is the worst thing that could happen to a winemaker?”

“What if,” I thought, “she lost the land she loved?”

And not because of fire or natural disaster, but because of an emotional earthquake—Mackenzie Dienes is the winemaker at a family winery. But it’s her husband’s family. . . and their marriage is in trouble. She could stay if she’s willing to be nothing more than an employee for the rest of her life. But if she wants something more, something of her own, she’ll have to be brave.

The Vineyard at Painted Moon is the story of Mackenzie’s search for happiness and self-fulfillment after divorce. With some pretty spectacular scenery thrown in. Oh, and wine. Lots and lots of wine.

What are your favorite scenes? Why?
This is a tricky question for me to answer without spoilers, because my favorite scenes are the emotional turning points of the story. I don’t really want to reveal them here, as I think readers will want to experience them on their own. I will answer, but it’s going to be vague and somewhat frustrating. Teasers, rather than spoilers.

I love the scene where Mackenzie and Rhys realize that their marriage is over. (That doesn’t count as a spoiler, since it’s revealed on the back cover of the book.) The way they come to the realization and move through the scene is completely unexpected and unlike any breakup scene I’ve ever written—or read, for that matter. It’s heartbreaking and poignant and beautiful and even a little funny. If you have a heart, it’ll make you cry. I think readers are going to fall in love with Rhys even as Mackenzie is accepting that she’s not in love with him anymore.

One of my other favorite scenes is one that I’m not sure will stand out as much in readers’ minds. It’s a scene in which Mackenzie finds out just how highly she is esteemed by her colleagues in the wine world. She never knew. She never thought of working anywhere but the family winery—she was just so grateful to have a family through her husband, since she had none of her own. In this scene, nothing really changes but her perception—of herself, and of how people perceive her—but perception is reality. Suddenly, Mackenzie realizes that she has options. She can dare to dream.

And that changes everything.

What was the hardest scene to write and why?
At the risk of repeating myself, that scene in which Mackenzie and Rhys finally acknowledge that their marriage is over was certainly one of the hardest to write. The emotional intricacies of the situation were incredibly nuanced. I had to get it exactly right. Rhys is not a point-of-view character, so the whole scene is told from Mackenzie’s perspective, but I wanted the reader to understand and empathize with Rhys, as well. It’s a deeply emotional scene, and I’m very curious to see how readers will respond to it.

Do you have advice for me wanting to write in the same genre?
Never give up. There are a lot of very talented writers who will never be published simply because they gave up trying. You never know if the next book will be the one. You have to want it enough to keep going.

Where did the idea for the title come from? It’s so original.
Thank you! I almost never come up with the titles for my own books. My file names are just the first name of the main character, so the working title on this book was Mackenzie. When it’s time to title the book, the whole team makes suggestions—my editor, agent, assistant, the marketing department. It’s trickier now than it’s ever been because I’ve written a lot of books, and we don’t want the titles to be too similar. And yet they have to appeal to the same audience.

All that said, I was the one to suggest The Vineyard at Painted Moon. I thought it would be appropriate to feature the beautiful setting in the title, since it plays such an important role in the book. I’m glad you like it!

Who is your favorite character and why?
I love Stephanie and Four, Rhys’s sisters and Mackenzie’s best friends. They’re the kind of friend that every woman should have—and that every woman should be. Close female friendships are a hallmark of my books. In The Vineyard at Painted Moon, the friendships were especially complex because they were also sisters-in-law. . . soon to be exes. But at the end of the day, this truly is Mackenzie's story, so she would be the favorite.

What is your favorite book genre to read?
For the most part, I read what I write—women’s fiction and romance. I’m not into thrillers or anything that involves violence and murder. I’m much more interested in emotional drama, in the inherent conflict between people who want different things.

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Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Last Garden in England

  The Last Garden in England
Author:  Julia Kelly
Publication Information:  Gallery Books. 2021. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1982107820 / 978-1982107826

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Her steps in sturdy walking boots are steady on the stone path despite the ice that crunches underfoot."

Favorite Quote:  "Over the painful autumn months, she has learned to collect perfect moments of hope and joy to hold close."

Warwickshire, England.

1907:  Venetia Smith comes to Warwickshire to design a garden for Highbury House. She does that and finds joy and loss. Her story is that of the have and the have nots, the upstairs and downstairs, the aristocracy and the peasants and all other such divisions that people in society create. It is about love that crosses those boundaries and the repercussions it has.

1944:  The war brings Beth Pedley as a "land girl" to a farm in Warwickshire. Hers is a story of war. A "land girl" or the Women's Land Army was a civilian organization during World War II, created to meet the need for agricultural workers. She wants a home and a place to belong to. Her work brings her to Highbury House. The house has been requisitioned as a hospital.

Beth's is also the time period that includes the story of Diana Symonds, the lady of the manor and Stella, the cook who dreams of so much more. Given the number of characters and stories and the background of the war, this is the most complex of the time periods. Diana's story is perhaps the most interesting of all as hers is the story of a woman, a wife, a mother, and an individual charting a new path in life. Hers is the story of loss and strength.

Present day:  Emma Lovett lives as a nomad, traveling from job to job. A contract to restore the gardens at Highbury House bring Emma to Warwickshire. Hers is a story of a woman attempting to succeed on her own terms.

This book follows a tried and true approach of telling a story through different timelines and different characters with one unifying theme that carries through. All three stories are interesting and compelling in their own way as each focuses on a different central issue. However, as is often the case in these books, one story usually pulls more than the other. In this case, for me, it is the Beth's story. That time period provides the strongest historical context and incorporates more of the story of other characters, adding substance and depth.

What pulls the three stories and time periods together is the garden or what is really a set of themed gardens surrounding the estate. As someone interested in plants and gardens, I find the descriptions fascinating, and I wish there were illustrations. The changes between the time periods, the reasons behind the design, the choice of plants, and the safe haven people find within the garden all appeal to me. I am not sure if my reaction would be quite so positive if I was not a gardener.

Like this book, the first book I read by Julia Kelly was a book of multiple time periods with one being set during World War II. Is there pattern developing? It is a time period that evidently works for her books. According to her website, her book due out in December 2021 is set in the 1950s but hints are secrets of the past. Will the secrets lead back to the war? I look forward to reading the book to find out.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Miss Benson's Beetle

  Miss Benson's Beetle
Author:  Rachel Joyce
Publication Information:  The Dial Press. 2020. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0593230957 / 978-0593230954

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When Margery was ten, she fell in love with a beetle."

Favorite Quote:  "It was so easy to find yourself doing the things in life you weren't passionate about, to stick with them even when you didn't want them and they hurt. But now the time for dreaming and wishing was over, and she was going."

The description of this book sounds like one of many that have been written about a character of a certain age who makes a decision to dramatically change his or her life. The change is either forced upon them, or at least triggered by something. The quirky and more often than not likable characters live their own almost "coming of age" story, finding new meaning and a new path.

The opening chapter provides the Margery Benson's history. One day, when Margery is ten, her world is altered forever. The book begins with four deaths and a suicide as seen through the eyes of a ten year old who does not quite process what has just happened.

Fast forward to the present. An incident at the school where Margery teaches causes her to seek out her childhood dream - to catch and identify the golden beetle of New Caledonia. That beetle holds the promise of her childhood and the memory of her father. She decides to travel there on her quest. She advertises for an assistant. The assistant she ends up with, Enid Pretty, has a story and a quest all her own.

The journey begins.

Despite the dark beginning, the story still has the possibility of being a journey of friendship and self-discovery for both these women. "You might travel to the other side of the world, but in the end it made no difference:  whatever devastating unhappiness was inside you would come too." Both of their back stories are slowly revealed, and both are tragic. Yet, somehow, the characters never quite become real. They seem more caricatures. The story of the journey also does not ring true. The entire things seems unbelievable. Yes, it's fiction. However, to invest in a story, it takes the possibility of something about it ringing true and resonating. Unfortunately, for me, I cannot find that in this story.

In addition, this book differs immensely from other in this genre in that it introduces villains, including a stalker willing to follow his prey across the globe. Unfortunately, the book does not crossover and become a thriller either. I am not sure why this story line is included at all. It does not seem to add anything to the overarching theme of the book. It may have made sense if this character ended up on his own journey of self-discovery and somehow the lives and journeys of these three individuals intersect.

They do intersect, but not at all like I imagine for a book such as this one. To say that the climax is shocking and unexpected is an understatement. Why? Just why? This character is depicted as a soldier, a former prisoner of war, and someone who suffers from what appears to be mental health challenges. The depiction and the role this character plays in this book is a disservice to the members of our armed forces for whom this suffering is their reality. Again, I ask. Why?

Unfortunately, I cannot find my way to the point or message of this story. I am clearly not the right reader for this book even though I have enjoyed other books by Rachel Joyce.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Magic Lessons

  Magic Lessons
Author:  Alice Hoffman
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2020. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1982108843 / 978-1982108847

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "She was found on a January day in a field where the junipers grew, wound in a blue blanket with her name carefully stitched along the border with silk thread."

Favorite Quote:  "What gifts you had, you were meant to share. What you set out into the world came back to you threefold."

A disclaimer to start with. I have read several books by Alice Hoffman. Each of them has been completely different, and each has been a delightful read in its own way. That includes The Rules of Magic, which is a story of the Owens family as this one is. However, enough time as passed such that it really does not impact my reading of this book. Magic Lessons is the origin story of the Owens clan. The Rules of Magic is about a curse that surrounds the Owens family. Magic Lessons includes the story of how and why that curse comes to be.

That being said, each book stands completely on its own. No doubt the experience is a different one if you have not read the other books. However, I feel engaged enough with the characters in this book and the book tells a complete story.

The story travels from England to Curacao to Boston to Salem to Manhattan and back again. The book incorporates into it the history of the witch hunts of Salem. It does so all in the context of the life of Maria Owens. Maria is a bloodline witch. In other words, she is born of a witch, and her talents are part of her.

Although witchcraft is a huge part of this book, it is at the same time a relatable story. Maria begins life a a baby abandoned. She finds love in an adoptive home only to lose that to violence. She find courage to begin again. She uses her courage and fortitude to survive many challenges including indentured servitude. She finds the courage once again to chase a dream. When the dreams turns out to be a nightmare, she begins again, this time with her daughter. Prejudice, hatred, and fear turns her life upside down again. She survives a loss no parent should ever face. Along the way, she also finds helpers and friends.

Throughout it all, the lesson that Maria is taught as child is the refrain of this book. It repeats throughout. "Do as you will, but harm no one. What you give will be returned to you threefold." Part of the story also demonstrates the consequences of not following that lesson. "There were sinister aspects o magic, and what you brought into this world was your responsibility, to deal with forever more." The other repeating refrain of this book is to own who you are and to make your own path. "Fate is what you make of it ... You can make the best of it, or you can let it make the best of you." All important lessons. The lessons may be depicted in terms of magic, but they apply to everyday life.

The character of Maria and the lessons of the book keep me reading until the very last page. This book truly brings to life its world and creates characters that feel so real. The fictional world is not an easy ones and at times not even a pleasant one. Yet, at the same time, it is one in which I want to stay immersed for a  little while. Perhaps, I will reread The Rules of Magic or actually read Practical Magic, which is still on my "to read" list. Either way, I look forward to what Alice Hoffman will write next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, February 15, 2021

A Single Swallow

Title:  A Single Swallow
Author:  Zhang Ling (author). Shelly Bryant (translator).
Publication Information:  Amazon Crossing. 2020. 304 pages.
ISBN:  0761456953 / 978-0761456957

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I have many names."

Favorite Quote:  "Time is a miraculous thing. It can wear down the thorns of emotion, gradually eroding them to dust, and from this dust, a new sprout grows. That sprout is the power of life."

A Single Swallow is the story of one woman - Ah Yan - told through the perspective of three men in her life - Liu Zhaohu, William E. Macmillan aka Pastor Billy, and Ian Ferguson. Liu Zhaohu is the boy Ah Yan grows up with; they share a history and perhaps more. Pastor Billy is the man who saves Ah Yan many times and protects her. Ian Ferguson is an American soldier.

In Ian's words... "For her, we were three very different men. Liu Zhaohu, you were her past. When I met her, she had already turned that page. And Pastor Billy, through you lived alongside her, you were always concerned about her future. It was only me who ignored both her past and future, capturing her present. I was the only one of us who knew how to sit in the moment, admiring her blooming youth, not allowing either her past or future to destroy her perfection at the moment."

The perspective of the story and the manner in which it is told is unique. These three men meet during the war. The connection to Ah Yan occurs in different way. Each purports to love her in his own way. At the end of the war, the three men make a pact that after their deaths, each year of the anniversary of the end of the ware, their souls will meeting in the village in which they met. Of course, some die earlier than others. So, at the beginning, only some meet. In their reminiscing is the story of Ah Yan.

The other unique aspect of the story is that it never shares the perspective of Ah Yan herself. The reader hears about the atrocities she suffers, her courage, and her survival in context as told by these men. They even call her by different names - Ah Yan, Stella, and Wende. All of this, at times, proves frustrating because I want to know her "real" story. The horrors she endures and their impact on the men or their revelation through the eyes of the men creates a distance from her emotion. That remains elusive throughout the book.

For that reason, the ending becomes challenging to understand because the reader never sees or understand why she makes the choice she does. The ending is also frustrating because of all the extreme situations and drama in the book, Ah Yan's fate hinges on a clerical issue. Does that happen? Of course, it does. It just seems out of context in this book.

For these reason, also, the tone of the book is a lot of "telling" rather than living the events with the characters. The narrators are reminiscing so the story is through the lens of memory. The story is about Ah Yan, but her perspective is missing. So, things are told as happening to her, but she herself is somewhat missing.

All of this is even more frustrating in a time and place where so much focus is needed on helping women find and have a voice on a personal, professional, and global stage. Ah Yan and her story could have had an impact on that conversation if only the character had a voice in her own story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Girlhood: Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices

  Girlhood:  Teens Around the World in Their Own Voices
Author:  Masuma Ahuja
Publication Information:  Algonquin Young Readers. 2021. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1643750119 / 978-1643750118

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Chen Xi stays up all night studying for a test."

Favorite Quote:  "In putting together this book, I found echoes the emotions and types of experiences of my own teenage years. While the species of each life are different - and make for colorful and rich stories - many of the themes that teenage girls experience and explore are similar:  a longing for the adventures ahead, dreams burning big and bright, and the angst and growing pains of figuring out their own place in the world."

***** BLOG TOUR ****

This book grew out of a series the author composed for The Washington Post's The Lily, and it begins with disclaimers about its own limitations:
  • "Because I asked for written entries, I could only include girls who have learned how to write and are comfortable with words."
  • "...these pages only feature girls who were able to share and who felt safe sharing their stories."
  • "The book could not be comprehensive ... but I hope it is representative of a vase range of girls' experiences."
Now, on to what this book is:
  • It is a collection of about 30 portraits, each focusing on one girl.
  • The ages of the girls are the teen years - 13 to 19.
  • The regions they represent are:  Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Mongolia, Nigeria, Panama, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Syria, Vanatu, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Each portrait covers a few pages and is laid out like a scrapbook with text and images, including pictures of the girl. The text includes dairy entries by the girl. "While the diary entries have been lightly edited for length and clarity, and some have been translated from their original language, the are all the works of the girls I interviewed." The other portion of the text is written by the author and provides context - "her community, her circumstances, the themes she explores, or the country in which she lives" - for the girl's story.

Given the parameters of the book, it does not bring to light the story of the girls whose lives are perhaps most marginalized and most at risk. Their voices unfortunately do not yet have a way out of their environment.

What this book does so beautifully is explore the world, celebrate our diversity, and at the same time, draw us closer in the myriad ways in which these girls share similar experiences and hopes and dreams. In a world that seems focused so often on division, any attempt to unite is cause for celebration. When that unification comes in the hands of young people, it is all the more powerful for that will build the future. That is my hope, and this book certainly fosters that sense of universality.

What this book also does so beautifully is give voice to the teen years. Perhaps, for a reader, one girl's diary will strike a particular note and give voice to the reader's world and remind them that they are not alone in their experience. Any support that can be found for an age often fraught with insecurity and anxiety is a welcome offering.

The author's notes on each girl and her circumstances educates also. The reader travels around the world and receives a brief introduction to world history and politics. That education comes in a compact, easily read package rather than a textbook lecture, making it approachable.

Finally, it is the girls' diaries themselves that resonate. The pictures and the words paint a picture of each young woman and their joys and heartbreaks. For all these reasons, I see myself sharing this book with the young women and men in my life.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

The Girl from the Channel Islands

  The Girl from the Channel Islands
Author:  Jenny Lecoat
Publication Information:  Graydon House. 2021. 304 pages.
ISBN:  978-1525811494

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Winter 2021 historical fiction blog tour from Harlequin Trade Publishing free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The sun's heat had begun to mellow, and the gulls were cruising for their final catch of the day when the siren sounded."

Favorite Quote:  "If she was the only one of her family left, she considered, she carried a responsibility now. She needed to stand up straight again, get a grip on herself."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


The most important thing to know about this book is stated before the book even begins. "This novel is based on true events. In 1940, young Hedwig Bercu, a Jewish girl who had recently escaped the Anschluss, found herself trapped on the tiny island of Jersey when Nazi Germany invaded the Channel Islands. The extraordinary story of Hedy's struggle for survival, including the role played by a serving officer of the occupying forces, was first documented almost sixty years later and is the foundation for this fictionalized account."

At times, this book reads like a romance, physical descriptions and all. At times, this book reads slow for nothing much seems to happen. At times, the book moves at a frantic pace only to end abruptly. All of this makes sense given that the book is based on facts. I could still do without the physical descriptions, but nevertheless. The fact that love is found between two unlikely people - a Jewish girl and a German soldier was a reality of the war. The fact that much of Hedy's time on the island was spent hiding and waiting and hoping not to be found out was a reality of war; life slowed down and focused on survival. The fact that the searches, the attacks, and even the end of the war seemed to arrive suddenly is also part of that same reality.

The fact that stories of the war remain untold and undiscovered does not surprise me; it emphasizes the enormity of devastation and impact. Every statistic, every numbers is a story and a life interrupted and destroyed.

For all that, I love this book. The fact that it takes me to the was in the Channel Island introduces a new history that I have not read about since reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society several years ago.

That being said, I enjoyed the "telling" of this story a little bit less. The story has only a few main characters - Hedy, Kurt the German officer, Hedy's friend Anton, and Dorothea. Other German officers and the other Channel Island residents form the background of the story. Somehow, the characters stop short of coming to life in this story. I vest in the story and the outcome because it represents history, but I walk away feeling like I do not really know any of the characters.

Hedy is separated from her entire family and finds her way to the island. The book narrates that as her past but does not delve deeper. Kurt is a soldier who does not believe in the war he is fighting; his conflict is narrated rather than felt. Anton has suffered his own losses and more devastation is to come; yet, his life and loss is not developed. Dorothea is the key to Hedy's survival, but I never quite grasp what leads her to Anton and the life she chooses or how she deals with the disapproval of her family.

At the end, I love the book for the history I learn. The telling of the story leaves me wanting more. 

About the Author

Jenny Lecoat was born in Jersey, Channel Islands, where her parents were raised under German Occupation and were involved in resistance activity. Lecoat moved to England at 18, where, after earning a drama degree, she spent a decade on the alternative comedy circuit as a feminist stand-up. She also wrote for newspapers and women's magazines (Cosmopolitan, Observer), worked as a TV and radio presenter, before focusing on screenwriting from sitcom to sketch shows. A love of history and factual stories and a return to her island roots brought about her feature film Another Mother's Son (2017). She is married to television writer Gary Lawson and now lives in East Sussex. The Girl from the Channel Islands is her first novel.

About the Book

An extraordinary story of human triumph against impossible odds.

The year is 1940, and the world is torn apart by war. In June of that year, Hitler's army captures the Channel Islands--the only part of Great Britain to be occupied by German forces. Abandoned by Mr. Churchill, forgotten by the Allies, and cut off from all help, the Islands' situation is increasingly desperate.

Hedy Bercu is a young Jewish girl who fled Vienna for the island of Jersey two years earlier during the Anschluss, only to find herself trapped by the Nazis once more--this time with no escape. Her only hope is to make herself invaluable to the Germans by working as a translator, hiding in plain sight with the help of her friends and community--and a sympathetic German officer. But as the war intensifies, rations dwindle, neighbors turn on neighbors, and Hedy's life is in greater danger every day. It will take a definitive, daring act to save her from certain deportation to the concentration camps.

A sweeping tale of bravery and love under impossible circumstances, Hedy's remarkable story reminds us that it's often up to ordinary people to be quiet heroes in the face of injustice.

Social Links

Author Website
Twitter: @JennyLecoat
Facebook: @JennyLecoat

Buy Links

Barnes & Noble

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Skylark's Secret

  The Skylark's Secret
Author:  Fiona Valpy
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2020. 319 pages.
ISBN:  1542005159 / 978-1542005159

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It's one of those days, on the cusp of early summer, when the sky and the sea alike are awash with sunlight."

Favorite Quote:  "Even though it's so painful, grief is something we have to go through sooner or later. There's no way round it, no way to avoid it. That something we all learned in the war. You go through it. But if you have a friend or two to walk along that path beside you, it helps you to bear it."

Loch Ewe is located in the northwest Scottish highlands. It is a region of small villages, the most well known of which is Aultbea. Due to its location and terrain, Loch Ewe was a long a gathering point for maritime trade. The same characteristics led to its becoming a temporary naval base during World War II. Primarily, it was used as a gathering and departure point for the Arctic Convoys. These convoys of the British, Canadian, and United States navies were a supply line for the northern Soviet destinations and the Allies fighting there. Remains of the military buildings and barracks can still be seen in and around Aultbea.

This is the location and history behind The Skylark's Secret. The book is a story of two women - mother and daughter. Flora Gordon lived in Aultbea during World War II; her story covers 1939 to about 1944. We also see Flora as a mother through Lexie's eyes years later. Lexie Gordon is a young woman who left Aultbea for the sights an sounds of London and a career and a musician. An illness and the end of that career unwillingly brings Lexie back to Aultbea with her own young daughter.

Flora's story is that of war and of love and friendship found even in trying times. It is also the story of the economic divisions of the town and the social gaps that some think can never be bridged. Lexie story is that of finding your way home again and discovering that home is a good place to be. Lexie's story is also about trying the resolve the unanswered questions about her birth. The story of the village is that of any small town. Everyone knows everyone's business, and the town takes care of its own.

The "secret" of the the book is not such a big secret. The conflict of Flora's love story is not surprising or unique. The secret is about sacrifices made in the name of love and about an entire town that comes together to protect one individual. For Lexie, the secret is about coming to terms with her mother's past and about understanding her own past.

As is the case in books with parallel stories, one usually takes precedence. In this case, it is definitely Flora's story that is the stronger in terms of plot and events and also in terms of emotions. Although the secret pertains to Lexie, it is really part of Flora's story. Lexie's own story is much simpler and entirely predictable. It seems there to provide context for Flora's story.

The history associated with Flora's story also gives it depth. The Scottish role in the World War II is not one I have read about often, and it provides yet another facet to that complicated history. I do wish the book has a bit more of that history, but that is clearly not the purpose of the book.

In summary, the book is quickly and easily read. The story is not all that unique, but the history is one I am glad I learned.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

We Could Be Heroes

  We Could Be Heroes
Author:  Mike Chen
Publication Information:  MIRA. 2021. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0778331393 / 978-0778331391

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The way the bank teller shrunk back in fear captured everything."

Favorite Quote:  "If you're the one everyone relies on, if you take on people's burdens, sometimes there's just not that much left of you."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Jamie is a bank robber, the self-proclaimed Mind Robber. Why? He is attempting to finance his escape to a simpler life far away from San Delgado. He logics his robberies by the fact that banks are insured. So, individuals will not be hurt by what he does. The insurance will pay, and only a corporate entity will suffer. That somehow makes it okay.

Zoe is a self-appointed vigilante protect of the city. She is food-delivery person for appearances, and Throwing Star in secret.

The Mind Robber and Throwing Star cross paths because one is a criminal and the other wants to stop him. Jamie and Zoe meet because they both attend the same meeting of a memory-loss support group at a local YMCA.

Much to their surprise, they learn of the other's secret identity. They also learn that they have more in common than they thought. Both have no memories of a time before waking up in an apartment with a note and a paid for lease. Both have extraordinary abilities. Jamie had the ability to read and alter memories. Zoe has incredible speed and strength.

They identify a connection, and so begins their search for their own past. So beings also a race against time to stop a bigger threat.

From that point on, the book is action packed with sci-fi adventures, superheroes, villains, and the two heroes. The story is also one of an unlikely friendship. That being said, the key to this book is investing in these two imperfect heroes. I do, up to a point. However, I do wish the characters evolved more. Their backstories are hinted at and briefly described, but in a book about at least one character wanting to resolve the past. the past is not developed. The connection between these two individuals over time and sci-fi iterations is also briefly mentioned. In a story of friendship, that history and the evolution of of that friendship over time is not explored.

On the flip side, the villain's reason for their villainy is love. It is briefly mentioned, but greater exploration would add more to the story. I want to know more, particularly to make the ending believable.

My favorite character of the entire book is Normal the Cat. I love the name because very little else in this book is "normal." The cat at times exhibits more emotion than the human characters. The point is made several times about how the cat reacts favorably or unfavorably to characters, how it shows love, and how it communicates. 

Overall, the story is quickly read and entertaining, but it seems to stop short of the depth that was possible. In some ways, it reads more like a middle grade or young adult book that simplifies emotions and relationships to be age appropriate. However, the book is marketed as adult genre fiction so that is not the case.

The book lives up to the originality of Mike Chen's other books. The development of the idea leaves me looking for more.

About the Book

An emotional adventure about two misfits who have extraordinary powers, but have forgotten who they were before. The vigilante and the villain must team up to stop a mad scientist who threatens the city, while trying to figure out who they really are.

Jamie woke up two years ago in an empty apartment with no memory and only a few clues to who he might be, and also with the power to read other people's memories. In the meantime, he's become the Mind Robber, holding up banks for quick cash. Similarly, Zoe is searching for her past, and using her new extraordinary abilities of speed and deliver fast food. And occasionally beat up bad guys, if she feels like it.

When the two meet in a memory-loss support group, they realize they are each other's best chance at discovering what happened to them. The quest will take them deep into a medical conspiracy that is threatening to spill out and wreak havoc on their city, and maybe the country. As the two get past their respective barriers, they'll realize that their friendship is the thing that gives them the greatest power.

About the Author

Mike Chen is a lifelong writer, from crafting fan fiction as a child to somehow getting paid for words as an adult. He has contributed to major geek websites (The Mary Sue, The Portalist, Tor) and covered the NHL for mainstream media outlets. A member of SFWA and Codex Writers, Mike lives in the Bay Area, where he can be found playing video games and watching Doctor Who with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @mikechenwriter.

Q&A with Mike Chen

Q: What super power did young Mike hope to wake up with one day?
A: Completely serious -- when I was young, I would walk around and sometimes clench my fist, then imagine Wolverine claws coming out from between my knuckles. I suppose that means that I hoped to have Wolverine’s accelerated healing power that allows him to pop the claws (depending on which version you’re looking at). As someone in his early 40s, I would really appreciate that accelerated healing right now.

Q: What super-characters influenced Zoe and Jamie's development? Are there parallels you're hoping the audience will draw?
A: I wanted to riff off of the basic tropes of someone with mental powers (Professor X) and someone with physical powers (Superman). A lot of this book is based on existing comic book/superhero tropes and turning them sideways, so it felt appropriate to have these two common types of powers as ways to ground reader expectations. That way, when you start to really get to know Zoe and Jamie, you realize that beneath the traditional superhero/supervillain facade, there’s much more going on to their characters.

I should also note that the name “Mind Robber” is not my own. When I name characters in a book, I usually pick a theme to riff on, because I am terrible about coming up with my own names. Zoe and Jamie are from classic Doctor Who -- specifically, companions of the 2nd Doctor (Patrick Troughton). And “The Mind Robber” is the name of an episode from that era, though the eponymous villain has completely different abilities than Jamie.

Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: This book was originally based on a short story called “Anonymous”, which I’d published in the summer of 2017 in Storyteller Magazine (which is now defunct). In that story, it was a version of this book’s fifth chapter: Jamie and Zoe are arch-rivals similar to the book, but it’s an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting rather than a memory loss support group. The same themes inspired that story, which is essentially nature vs. nurture and the roles society assigns us. When those are stripped away who are we? Can people who were supposed to be enemies actually be friends?

When I expanded this to a full book, I decided that I wanted to write a friendship story -- not romance. Zoe is straight, Jamie is pansexual, so the potential is there. But there is a very conscious internal moment for both of them where they each consider that friendship is more fitting for them. I think as a culture, we don’t get enough emphasis on the importance of friendship in stories, or the importance of trust to maintain those friendships. I wanted to dive deep into that, but just with superpowers!

Q: Describe your main characters in 3 words.
A: Jamie: Careful, fearful, untrusting.
Zoe: Careless, impulsive, untrusting.

This is why they’re such good fodder for each other!

Q: What was the most challenging part when you wrote this book?
A: Even though all sorts of superhero shenanigans happen throughout the story, the heart of it lies in the chemistry between Jamie and Zoe. As soon as they’re forced to work together, their banter develops and it’s a very natural thing to write. I hit a certain stride in drafting where their banter became completely natural and I could basically put them in any situation and hear exactly how they’d interact. Because of that, I actually wrote too much banter and I had to do an editing pass to specifically cut dialogue. This is most significant in the second half of the book where Jamie and Zoe are waiting high up in a tree for someone, there was a whole beat where they’re just bantering about how ridiculous their situation is. But it didn’t move the story along, so it had to go, regardless of how fun it was.

Q: What was your most favorite part and why?
A: It’s hard to pick a favorite, because it really comes down to the moments where Jamie and Zoe are bantering with each other. If I have to pick a specific one, I think it’s probably a quiet moment where Zoe and Jamie are planning on infiltrating a building after a night of investigating. Jamie shows up with his plans ready to go and Zoe arrives while completely ignoring their plans. It’s very representative of who they are and how they work and just thinking about it makes me laugh even now.

Q: What's a typical writing day for you?
A: Before the pandemic, I’d write before my daughter got up, take a break at my day job at some point to do some light editing, then a little in the evening as well. When my daughter had a gym class or playdate, I’d use that time as well, in addition to spurts using Google Docs on my phone. Now, it’s a little more chaotic as we have to do home kindergarten, so it’s basically anywhere I can, whenever I can. I’ve started doing writing sprints of 15-30 minutes to try and work around fatigue and schedule. So there’s no typical writing day anymore, and I imagine the next six months will be this way.

There are a few silver linings, though. The sprint method has actually really been a great new tool, and I’ve found that in the stressors of 2020 and early 2021, writing is a wonderful escape for my mind. So even though it’s chaotic, writing is one of the things that’s keeping me going.

Q: Where do you like writing and why? Favorite snacks and/or beverages? Music?
A: I like writing anywhere quiet. Which can be anywhere, as I write on my phone regularly. But it’s often chaotic with a 6-year-old around all day, every day. Two things that have helped with this: 1) noise-cancelling headphones, which is a must-use with my daughter around when I need to think creatively 2) going for walks with my phone available. I find the natural rhythm of walking is very helpful, and when with Google Docs on my phone, I can make a quick outline of notes when it comes to me. I need all of this with quiet, or possibly soft instrumental music that I’m not too familiar with (generic zen spa music). If I’m familiar with it, it takes my train of thought, especially with lyrics despite being a huge indie rock nerd.

However, there is one essential and that is coffee. In WE COULD BE HEROES, Jamie’s obsession with coffee is modeled after my own.

Q: What was your last 5-star read and why?
A: Since the pandemic, I haven’t been able to read nearly as much as I want to (or watch movies or play video games or work out). But I did squeeze in HENCH by Natalie Zina Walschots, which is the other superhero book of the season. It’s a really clever take on the sub-genre -- unique but completely different from my own. Natalie looks at the destructive cost of superheroes through hard data, which is just a hilarious concept and she executes it with brilliant characters. We’ve jokingly discussed a crossover between our characters.

Q: How would your main character fare with a stay-at-home order?
A: I actually think Jamie would be totally fine with it. He’s a homebody anyways, so he’ll be staying at home with his stack of books, his cat, and his cup of gourmet coffee. If he does rob a bank during that time, it’d actually be easier because there will probably be fewer people involved, and thus his goal of keeping people safe will be easier.

Zoe, I love her but she’s not exactly the most careful type. I think she’d try, she’d really try to stay at home but she’d probably get stir crazy. She would, however, be really busy with her food delivery gigs, so she might be earning enough money to get a Netflix subscription rather than just watching free public domain movies.

Q: What author or story inspired you growing up or inspired you in some ways?
A: I read a lot of genre fiction growing up, particularly space opera, gothic horror, and of course superhero comic books. But I also read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I always found myself drawn to books that highlighted interpersonal relationships with a strong voice. That probably explains why Nick Hornby’s HIGH FIDELITY and ABOUT A BOY were the first books that made me think “I’d like to try this.” In fact, I signed my agent for my first book HERE AND NOW AND THEN with the pitch of “THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE as written by Nick Hornby.”

Q: Is there anything you can tell us about the book that is not a spoiler and not on the blurb? Something you'd like to share with us?
A: Through a special program, some book clubs were able to get advance copies of WE COULD BE HEROES. I was invited to chat with a library’s book club in early January, and they admitted that they typically read literary fiction and historical fiction. So this was out of their comfort zone, but they universally enjoyed it and said they would be recommending it to friends and family that don’t normally read science fiction. So I think that even though this is a superhero book that riffs on some comic book tropes, at its core it’s a story of unlikely friends that can appeal to readers of any genre.

Social Links

Twitter: @mikechenwriter
Instagram: @mikechenwriter

Buy Links
Barnes & Noble
Google Books

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.