A Girl’s Guide to Moving On, by Debbie Macomber

“Clean escapist romance.” That would be the best description of Debbie Macomber’s genre. Escapist lit is not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t challenge the reader. It’s familiar, comfortable, and predictable.

I experienced A Girl’s Guide to Moving On as an audio-book checked out from our local online library. Over a period of two weeks I would listen to it through headphones while walking around the neighborhood on clear afternoons, plugged into my car’s audio system while running errands, or while making dinner and folding laundry. It is perfect for such mundane activities.

The two audio-book narrators take on the roles of middle-aged Leanne and her 30-something daughter-in-law, Nichole. The plot follows their stories back and forth with an easy-going fluidity. Both are on the brink of divorce from their two-timing husbands (keep in mind that Nichole’s ex is Leanne’s son,) both are adjusting to a newly simplified lifestyle, both are looking to redefine themselves as someone other than “so-and-so’s” wife.

Of course as a light romance, that last point is doomed to failure. Personally, I take issue with “moving on” being characterized as finding a new romance so quickly after a divorce, but, as with most escapist literature, we have to be forgiving and suspend reality a bit.

Enter Rocco for Nichole and Nikolai for Leanne. Both story-lines have their “will they or won’t they” hiccups, bumps, and obstacles. Both men are supposed to be the antithesis of the ex-husbands. While Rocco is a “rough around the edges” gentleman, I found Nikolai to be demanding, jealous, and something of a bully. Perhaps others would disagree, but I was not rooting for that particular relationship.

As the story progressed I found myself staying with the characters more out of curiosity than actual emotional investment. By the end, there were no real surprises, no real lessons learned by anyone, just the satisfaction of having everything end exactly as I had predicted. If anything, it was a “placeholder” type of book–one you read until you find something better, which wouldn’t be difficult.

7/10 Stars

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The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom

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“There is a reason God limits our days.”

“Why?”

“To make each one precious.”

Once upon a time there was no time. At least, the concept of time was unknown to mankind until a man named Dor began trying to measure it. In doing so, he changed the world. The question is, was it changed for better or worse?

Dor became Father Time, but not by choice. Like “Mother Nature,” Father Time is one of those mythical figures who has no holiday for us to celebrate, except maybe our individual birthdays where we honor the passing of time until we want to forget that it’s happening. However we try to control time, either by cramming as many activities into a minute or an hour; or with healthy habits, medicines, or cosmetic surgery to slow it down, it marches on. With or without us, Time marches on.

In his solitude as Father Time, grieving for his lost love and his mortal life, Dor watches two people on earth. One is Victor Delamonte, a self-made millionaire who has been diagnosed with cancer. The other, a smart but solitary teenage girl named Sarah Lemon, whose high school crush is, well, a lemon. Time, and the ever-futile attempt to control it, is about to play a huge role in both their lives. When these seemingly random lives intersect…I can promise you will never look at a clock the same way again.

Confession: When I “read” The Time Keeper, by Mitch Albom, I didn’t actually read it. I did something unusual for me, which was listening to the audio book available through my local digital library. It was read by Dan Stevens, a very capable reader who convincingly acted out the characters’ voices, and who is also playing the Beast in the currently popular Disney movie.

The author uses some beautiful imagery and phrasing, many that I wish I could’ve underlined, so reading the book is certainly not a waste of time. (Pun intended.) Listening to it was simply an experiment of mine in using my library’s audio book feature.

The plot is unique, truly unlike any I’ve read before, and the book would make a terrific book club selection if you happen to be in one. It encourages thought, discussion, and makes one pause at how our own individual lives and time are being used. Without a doubt, the most interesting book I’ve read in quite a while. Highly recommended.

9.5/10 Stars

Comfort and Joy, by Kristin Hannah

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In Kristin Hannah’s novel, Comfort and Joy, high school librarian Joy Candelaro is a realist, but still a dreamer. Her beloved job is real. So is the fact that her ex-husband, Thom, and her sister, Stacey, are now a couple.

It is one thing to choose to change your life, but it is something else entirely to have change thrust upon you without your approval. This particular change has hit Joy like a ton of bricks. Being the result of betrayal by the two people she trusted most in the world has made it even more difficult. How does someone recover from something like this? How does someone regain a semblance of control when everything she knew has been tossed to the wind? All she has left to hold on to is her job, and it isn’t enough.

Joy’s answer is to give herself a spontaneous gift. A change of scenery should do it; the chance to leave dusty Bakersfield and board a plane to the lush Pacific Northwest.

Little does she know that this decision will take her on a journey of discovery. A journey of the heart and mind.

To tell more would spoil the plot.

This is a novel that requires some compromises from the reader. The reader must suspend reality a bit, which I was willing to do. The reader must also accept the fact that not all questions (there are many) will be answered by the book’s conclusion. That was harder for me. And, although I’m glad I stayed with it until the end, there were times I almost put it down permanently. The book is flawed, but still sweet and worth your time. Resist the urge to tell yourself “that would never happen.”  Just give yourself over to the events and let the plot envelop you.

This is most definitely in the category of “Women’s Fiction.” The book taps into many of our emotions: empathy, despair, hope, and love. It is escapist and it is enjoyable.

8/10 Stars

Happy Scoops, by Katie Coughran

hs-coverIn Happy Scoops, we are introduced to Chryssa Parker. Chryssa is the girl you love to hate. She’s privileged, beautiful and smart. She leads the school as both student body president and captain of the cheerleading squad. Despite attending Intellectual Elite High School, she still rises to the top in everything she does, including making everyone around her feel inferior.

All of Chryssa’s energy goes into maintaining her popularity status. She chooses friends who are similar but submissive. The idea of not judging a book by its cover is completely lost on her. Appearance in everything is everything to Chryssa.

How could a reader become emotionally invested in such a distasteful character?

Author Katie Coughran suddenly sends Chryssa Parker on a journey that strips away everything she knows and holds dear. After an ultimatum from her parents, she is forced to take a job where personal appearance means nothing. In an instant, Chryssa must reevaluate everything she thought was important.

Amidst clever dialogue and a very unique story, we follow this unpleasant young woman on her path to humility and actually begin to care about her. Her world is turned upside down as a domino effect of uncontrollable circumstances starts to take place.

Happy Scoops is a delightful page-turner. More than once I found myself chuckling out loud at some of the funny scenes, continually wanting to read more. What’s even better is that beneath the humor are serious reminders we can all benefit from, mainly that beauty can fade at any time and that real relationships are built on compassion and concern for others.

8.5/10 Stars

The Union Street Bakery, by Mary Ellen Taylor

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Abandonment issues can create a lot of confusion and conflict in a person’s life. They are often experienced by adopted children or children of divorced parents. They can continue long into adulthood. In Daisy McCrae’s situation, her abandonment issues go even deeper than most because she can actually recall the day it happened. She was three years old, sitting outside the Union Street Bakery with her mother. She was munching on a sugar cookie with red sprinkles. It was a day like any other. And then it wasn’t. Her mother was gone.

The Union Street Bakery, by Mary Ellen Taylor, catches up with Daisy 30 years later. Like that moment in her childhood, everything was fine until it wasn’t. Except that it wasn’t really fine, because that day her mother left became a heavy weight that remained shackled to Daisy ever since. She had tasted success, she knew the love of an adopted family, she even knew the love of a man, but the unanswered questions loomed like heavy clouds before a storm.

The story begins when Daisy’s professional life takes a U-turn, forcing her to return home to her family, the current generation of McCraes and owners of the Union Street Bakery. Part drama, part mystery, part romance, Daisy has plenty of choices to make. And, like with all of us, there are events she can control and those she cannot. And like all of us, there are emotions she can either indulge…or not.

This is a book that I’m still deciding how much I enjoyed. When an elderly, long-time customer leaves Daisy an old journal the plot takes some interesting, albeit confusing, twists. There are times when the author is trying to accomplish so much that I would’ve preferred a simpler story. Some Goodreads reviewers criticized the use of profanity. I agree on that point and will deduct one whole “star” because of it. If only Daisy had resorted to certain words I would’ve attributed it to her frustration, but that wasn’t the case and it was unnecessary.

Still, I’m curious to see what happens next and will probably read Sweet Expectations, the next book in the series. Daisy McCrae may not be the most likable protagonist, but she is compelling, and I still wish good things for her in the future.

7.5/10 Stars

 

Good Sam, by Dete Meserve

51D1qb1-T9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Good Sam, by Dete Meserve, is a book that has been patiently sitting in my Kindle Cloud for months. It has positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and, as a reader who does not like wasting my time on a book that shows little promise, I decided to give it a try.

“Good Sam,” stands for “Good Samaritan,” a modern-day version of the Biblical character who is charitable for charity’s sake. Or is he? (Or she.)

Someone has been anonymously leaving bags of one hundred thousand dollars on people’s doorsteps throughout Los Angeles. The recipients come from a variety of neighborhoods and socio-economic backgrounds, so why were they chosen? The question of who is behind these seemingly random acts is the novel’s backbone. Kate Bradley, a 20-something beat reporter for Channel 11 has been assigned to the story.

Unfortunately, what could’ve been an inspired plot about true kindness in a fast-paced, metropolitan setting, was actually a flimsy romance. Kate is a protagonist who fails to earn my sympathy or appreciation. Alternately strong and independent, she acts weak and distressed in the arms of the right man. She claims to be someone who pursues and respects truth, but she is very selective in whose lies she forgives. Essentially, a maddening character who I found myself rolling my eyes at again and again.

In addition, as someone who was born and raised in Los Angeles, I found the city’s portrayal ridiculous and full of stereotypes.

I wanted to enjoy this book, but its initial potential quickly waned. As I said, I don’t like to waste my time as a reader, so I will say that the main redeeming quality of Good Sam was how fast I was able to finish it.  (I started it last night.) The zigzag ending only confirmed what I figured out less than halfway into the novel, and even that was barely worth my time. Sadly, if you are a reader in search of substance, I advise you look elsewhere.

6.5/10 stars

 

Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

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Once again, I had spoken too freely. I seemed too dense witted to learn the simple lesson: silence was a woman’s sole safe harbor.

These are the profound words of Bethia Mayfield, the voice in Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. Profound, because they sum up the expectation imposed upon Puritan women in the 1600’s. Be seen, not heard. Be dutiful, modest, productive, obedient, submissive, and grateful.

And what of happiness? Happiness was a luxury. Life at that time was about attending to basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. Intellectual pursuits were reserved for males, and on “the island” described in the novel, a few males of the Wampanoag tribe as well. Caleb, for whom the novel is named, is one of them. Although a supporting character, some of the questions he asks and the identity he adopts makes the reader re-examine which people are savage and which are truly educated and dignified.

Hardship permeates throughout. The white men and native people try to coexist, but an undercurrent of determined hostility lingers. The word “sonquem” is used frequently. The best definition I could find of “sonquem” was “conquered.” In the novel’s context, the English buy or take land from the sonquem, the conquered people.

This is a novel which requires attention and commitment. The language is elevated, yet lyrical, and through Bethia’s eyes we come to understand that she is much more than what she shows others, and certainly much more than they acknowledge.

The characters experience great losses, disease, racism, indentured servitude, and public humiliation. At a time when most were endeavoring to be as Christian as possible, compassion and mercy were virtues rarely called upon. However, despite the bleak setting, we also see characters experience self-realization, regret, and love.

As the reader, I was motivated by Bethia’s fortitude and creativity during extreme trials of all varieties. At the end of the story, she calls Caleb a hero. In her eyes, perhaps he was. I think her modest nature and humble upbringing prevented her from realizing all that she accomplished, which you will see when you enter her world. I’m happy I did.

8.5/10 Stars

 

 

The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

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I may be different from other people, but I’m no unluckier. I believe that.  Or I’m unluckier but no unhappier. That is probably closer to the truth.

Sometimes I think I am unluckier than other people but much, much happier.

Being crippled on one side of his body is not the most unique thing about Aaron Woolcott. Neither is the fact that his wife, Dorothy, recently died. That she died when a tree fell on their house IS unique. Even more so is that she appears to him when he least expects it.

The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler, definitely has an unusual plot. In addition, while I cannot pinpoint any specific depth, it still exists in an abstract kind of way.

Throughout the book we are guided by Aaron’s thoughts and voice. We learn about his childhood illness, his helicopter mother and sister, his odd courtship with his future wife, her death and reappearance, and how these events affect him and those who know him.

There is a quietness to the storytelling. The pace is ambitious, but the volume is quiet. So much so that, if Aaron didn’t occasionally remind us of the modern technology he’s using and other time-period benchmarks, the reader would probably think that the story was set in the 1950’s. I appreciate this about the book. The “old-timey” feeling in a present-day setting. I also appreciate it when an author writes in the voice of the gender that is not their own, which Anne Tyler does successfully.

Surrounding Aaron is a bevy of secondary characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies and reactions to his grief. The contractor working to rebuild Aaron’s home, nosy neighbors, concerned co-workers, and his passive/aggressive sister Nandina who insists that she has only his best interests at heart. (Every time I arrived at her name I found myself saying it slowly…Nan-DI-na.)

Because everything is absorbed through Aaron’s personal filter, the reader is privy to his realizations as time goes by. His epiphany after many months as a widower is not grandiose, but sensible, and one that the reader can apply to his/her own relationships. If any philosophy is to be gleaned from the novel, this is it.

Refreshing, also, was the complete absence of blush-worthy words and scenes that seem so prevalent in today’s literature. This is the first Anne Tyler book I have read. She is a celebrated, prolific novelist. I look forward to reading more of her work. The Beginner’s Goodbye was an excellent introduction.

8.7/10 Stars

Love Finds You in Martha’s Vineyard, by Melody Carlson

91c1a3a986bba3f51ef601c2defb9651Anyone who has loved and lost and loved again will appreciate that second chances are rare and welcome. Whether or not first loves ended in death or divorce, that second chance gives you an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

I never thought I would be reading books in the Christian Romance genre, but Melody Carlson keeps churning out one delightful story after another. In Love Finds You in Martha’s Vineyard, we catch up with Waverly Brennen. Newly widowed, Waverly leaves behind her dead-end job in Chicago to take over “The Gallery,” newly acquired by her mother, Vivian, and Aunt Louise.

A recently divorced man named Blake moves in next door to Vivian and Louise. Grappling with his failed marriage and a daughter who is 9 going on 30, Blake has his hands full and is ready for some peace and quiet. When a pushy cousin of Waverly’s visits the island, everyone has choices to make about their futures.

Melody Carlson’s stories are predictable, but the journey is worthwhile. Relationships evolve with a fluidity that is both entertaining and natural. Best of all, the story is clean, with no gratuitous scenes to make the reader blush.

I find myself returning to this author’s works again and again. She is nothing if not consistent and prolific. Each of her books has been a pleasant read and this one is no exception.

8.5/10 Stars

All Things Bright And Beautiful, by James Herriot

{0EB76228-F8AF-4A23-847A-8EDB7B0E65F6}Img100I love books that I can put down for a while and then pick up again without guilt. James Herriot’s first book in his memoir series as a country vet in England is one such book. Each chapter is like a small short story in itself, chronicling his early years as a new veterinarian in a small farm town.

Because my husband and I have had some very busy months lately, it was nice to have a book at the ready that I could immerse myself in or, if necessary, abandon for weeks on end, without feel like I was leaving a juicy story behind.

Around the years surrounding WWII, James Herriot was new to his profession, sharing an office with his mentor, Sigfried. Sigfried’s younger brother, Tristan, a skilled veterinary student with a wicked sense of humor, also worked there. Having 3 people with different levels of experience approaching the interesting animal cases and eccentric cast of characters in the town make for some pretty interesting stories. Dog, cats, cows, pigs, horses, you will read about them all. Most stories ended happily, but some do not. All add to James’ hands-on education.

Parallel to his adventures in the office and visiting various local farms is James courting his future wife, Helen. The chapter about the large collection of books he buys at a flea market and must, somehow, get home in order to impress Helen is especially hilarious.

There is nothing controversial or offensive in any of his stories. Just interesting, colorful anecdotes of a simpler time when hard work and appreciating the land took precedent over technology and greed.

It isn’t difficult to see why James Herriot’s stories have made a lasting impression on readers for decades. They are truly delightful.

9 out of 10 stars