The Ladies’ Room, by Carolyn Brown

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I should’ve gone to the ladies’ room before the service began. But my four cups of coffee and the 32 ounce Coke I’d drunk on the way to church hadn’t made it to my bladder until the preacher cleared his throat and began a eulogy that sounded as if it would go on six days past eternity…

And so begins the saga of Trudy Williams, our protagonist of The Ladies’ Room, by Carolyn Brown.

When I first read the premise of the story–a woman’s life changed because of some gossip she overhears in the ladies’ room–I thought it sounded cute and unique.

When I actually began the book a few weeks later I was immediately turned off by Trudy’s two cousins, Marty and Betsy, the perpetuators of the gossip at their Aunt Gert’s funeral. The whole thing felt very immature.

The final straw was when all of them, including Trudy, referred to Trudy as a frumpy, middle-aged woman and I realized that Trudy is 5 years younger than me. Ahem!

But I stuck it out, grasping to my first instinct that this would be a book worth reading. It was.

Whatever her age, I picture Trudy as a sister of Kathy Bates’ character in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, a put‐upon housewife whose husband of twenty-plus years sees her more as a cook and laundress than a romantic partner.

Between the gossip she overhears and the result of Aunt Gert’s will, Trudy now has the motivation and means to start fresh. Her one friend is Billy Lee Tucker, a childhood acquaintance and the town misfit, who also happened to be Gert’s next door neighbor.

There is nothing deep, profound, or even unique about The Ladies’ Room, but it will still speak to many women who have found themselves in Trudy’s situation, or, at least part of it. Some aspects of it reminded me of Melody Carlson’s Dear Daphne series, with Trudy being a slightly older, married, version of Daphne.

This is not a book you read for great personal enlightenment. It is purely “escapist literature” at its. The Ladies’ Room is endearing, clean, light, and thoroughly enjoyable.

8.5/10 Stars

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All the Truth That’s In Me, by Julie Berry

All the truth that is in me

Silence is the method I’ve perfected, adaptable to almost any need. Silence and stillness. I wait.

In an undisclosed town during an undisclosed time lives a teenage girl maimed and muted by her former
captor.

These things we know:
• Society defines a girl by her virtue, or lack thereof.
• A girl defines herself by the way her mother treats her.
• A mother sometimes takes Society’s word over that of her daughter.

This is the tale of Judith Finch, our silent narrator and observer of all things around her.

Told in a present tense that forces the reader to shadow this wretched girl, we live Life alongside her, feeling her few joys and many sorrows.

There is great injustice in Judith’s story, the kind that only personal fortitude can overcome.
Judith’s test is to decide if that fortitude exists. Any opinions of her as a young woman before her abduction have long since evaporated. Gone for two years and returned for two, the town only knows her as the silent, probably simple, girl with the shamed and widowed mother.

Is it possible for such a person to have any allies? Happily, yes, but her greatest ally is surprising. He is the son of the man who took her and maimed her. Another is the son’s betrothed, who remembers Judith as a childhood friend.

With so much to overcome, both physically and within her broken family, the reader cannot help but root for such a protagonist. Being privy to her thoughts, elevated beyond what she can outwardly express, we know there is much more to this young woman than what the world admits.

Author Julie Berry has crafted a unique tale. Part Scarlet Letter, part Witch of Blackbird Pond,
part
Crucible. Clearly this is a Puritanical society. Church attendance is mandatory. The accused are guilty until proven innocent. Superstition and ignorance run high. Compassion is scarce, but can be found among a trusted few.

This is a book aimed at young adults, but appealing to anyone who understands the context and time period. The characters, feelings, and, especially, the injustices, resonate with the reader.

Do I recommend it? Yes.

10/10 Stars

Yellow Star, by Jennifer Roy

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The Holocaust.

It is one of the most grim events in recent world history. Families are still affected today by lives lost and relatives gone missing.

It is also an event with amazing stories. True stories. Stories that exemplify faith, determination, and strength.

In 2006, author Jennifer Roy endeavored to pen her Aunt Sylvia’s childhood experiences of living in a Polish ghetto during World War II. The “ghetto” was a crowded Jewish internment camp. A neighborhood with barbed wire around it as a way to contain the people Hitler saw as the “problem.” His “final solution” would come later, of course, in the form of concentration camps.

Miraculously, Sylvia (an American modernization of Syvia,) spent the entire war in a ghetto and was one of only 12 surviving children out of thousands. The others became sad, anonymous statistics.

Jennifer Roy is very truthful about her challenges in relating the story. How should she tell it? A narrative? In third person? After trying other methods unsuccessfully, she decides to tell it in Sylvia’s voice, a combination of an old woman’s memories and the simple, but profound, observations of a child.

What emerges are short chapters and efficient language that sound like young Syvia commenting on her changing world. She tries to make sense of things that are senseless.

Why a yellow star? Yellow is supposed to be a happy color.

Bright colors don’t exist in the ghetto, except for the yellow stars and puddles of red blood we carefully step around. “More shootings,” Papa says quietly. His face is gray.

What happened to my friend? She was here yesterday…

Hava is missing. She went for a short walk on the street and never came back. Gone, missing, vanished.

From the ages of 5 to 10, the ghetto, and all that went with it, was Syvia’s world.

It is a child’s honest interpretation of starvation, cold, fear, death, and the unknown. She is acutely aware of her surroundings and the sacrifices her parents make to ease her suffering and keep her safe. “Safe” equals “alive.”

This book would be an excellent teaching tool when discussing the Holocaust, a subject that is quickly disappearing from students’ knowledge of history. Parents should read it with their children. Teachers should read it to their pupils. It is clear in its statement of the times without being overtly frightening. The childhood version of Syvia is relatable and sincere, with that strong sense of fairness that exists in all young people.

Highly, highly recommended.

9.5/10 Stars

Maisie Dobbs: Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear

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In Birds of a Feather, the second installment of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, our heroine is much more introspective. Not only does she ponder her unsolved cases, but she also spends a fair amount of time pondering the direction of her own life. She notices her father, Frankie, getting older. She sees the satisfaction her assistant, Billy Beale, exhibits about his thriving family.

These musings, plus Maisie’s ever-present memories of her nursing experiences during World War I, affect her view while working on her newest case. She has been hired by prominent, rags-to-riches businessman, Joseph Waite, to locate his missing daughter, Charlotte.

What seems like an open-and-shut case becomes complicated when Charlotte’s three old friends turn up dead. Suicide? A serial killer? Will Charlotte be the next victim? Or is she responsible? These are the questions Maisie must answer during her quest to locate the missing woman. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s father is impatient and anxious for answers.

Despite the high-quality writing and engaging supporting characters, I found myself trudging through this book. Any time an author creates a series, they take on the enormous task of maintaining a certain momentum. The main character must be appealing, sympathetic, and hold the reader’s interest from one adventure to the next. This reader was distracted by a lack of momentum and, perhaps, too many supporting characters and peripheral story lines that did not contribute to the central plot.

The ending, while satisfactory, was only somewhat surprising and not especially dramatic compared to the one in the first book. Although, in all fairness, that ending was pretty spectacular and would be a tough act to follow for any author.

If you read the first book, the eponymous Maisie Dobbs, you are probably invested enough to want to see what happens to her. If you didn’t, Birds of a Feather still stands on its own two feet. Though slightly less impressive, I am willing to forgive the author and move on to Book 3. It will be my gauge in determining whether or not to pursue the rest of the series.

8/10 Stars

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

{9343A4B5-D99F-4C3C-9A7C-38EAE5CE2AEC}Img100(Recently I joined a newly-formed writers critique group called Writers Haven. This review was written on January 30, 2015, but I saved it for publishing so I could use it as a submission for my fellow group members.)

I finished Maisie Dobbs this morning—in my car outside the gym. After nearly completing it while walking briskly on the treadmill, I knew I had to give its ending just a few more quiet minutes.

Maisie Dobbs is a book with heart, from the first page to the last, even though the book’s beginning is not the true beginning of Maisie’s story. We are introduced to her as a young woman in the late 1920’s. She is quiet and independent, establishing herself as a lady detective in London.

Her first case, and the subject around which the rest of the story is centralized, involves a home for WWI veterans called The Retreat. While seemingly innocent–a place where soldiers with facial injuries and shell shock can live quietly without society’s judgement—it is up to Maisie to decipher if everything is as it appears.

Then suddenly, the story takes a sharp u-turn. The reader is hurled into the pre-war past. We learn about Maisie’s family, her early years in service, and the two people who saw her potential and took her under their wings. One is Lady Rowan, owner of the estate where 13 year old Maisie works as a maid. The other is Maurice Blanche—physician, criminologist, and Lady Rowan’s friend who becomes Maisie’s mentor. Their influence takes the reader though the years that shape Maisie into the woman to whom we are first introduced.

While initially perturbed at this abrupt time change, I forgave the author when events from the past and present began to weave together. As I mentioned, this is a book with heart, and you observe how people who fade in and out of Maisie’s life impact her as a person and a detective. Her chosen profession is not just about earning a living, but making positive changes in her clients’ lives and absorbing wisdom that will, hopefully, affect her next case.

First and foremost, that is what Maisie does. She absorbs. Under Maurice’s tutelage she has learned that the smallest nuances have meaning: a look, a touch, a word. Sometimes the most meaningful hint is the one that’s missing.

All of these plot points, including strong supporting characters and one of the best endings I have ever read, add up to a very enjoyable reading experience, one that stays with you. Fortunately, this is only the first in the Maisie Dobbs series. Jacqueline Winspear has definitely struck gold with her likable, highly observant protagonist.

9.5 out of 10 Stars

How to Eat a Cupcake, by Meg Donohue

12266205Meg Donohue must be a devoteé of Fannie Flagg, because she also names her chapters after the character whose narrative we will be hearing. In the case of How to Eat a Cupcake, each chapter is named either “Julia” or “Annie.”

Julia St. Claire is the privileged only child of Tad and Lolly St. Claire. She’s blond, beautiful, educated, and successful in everything she attempts. Her upscale upbringing in the tony San Francisco neighborhood of Pacific Heights has been a life most people can only dream about.

Annie Quintana is the illegitimate daughter of Ecuadorian immigrant, Lucia Quintana. Upon the announcement of her pregnancy, Lucia was disowned by her strict family. She made her way to the US, working a series of jobs until she became the housekeeper and nanny for the St. Claire family. Although Lucia and Annie lived in the estate’s carriage house, they were cherished by their employers. Lucia had the gift for putting everyone around her at ease and she could cook and bake like no else.

Through the years, Annie’s and Julia’s relationship changed as they got older and were forced to navigate the murky depths of the exclusive Devon Prep high school, the St. Claires paying both tuitions. Eventually the girls grew apart, their once sisterly bond fueled by competition and loathing–the kind of nagging dislike that people only experience when they actually care deeply for one another. The kind which only fades if both parties make amends.

Then one day, Annie’s mother, Lucia, died.

Trust me, I’m not giving anything away. This is the expository information generously given at the beginning of the novel. The main plot picks up 10 years later. The girls are now 28 year old women whose lives are about to intersect once again. Julia is now a talented businesswoman with all the right connections. Annie is a gifted baker living with a dash of cynicism after losing the only relative she ever knew. The following year for both of them will be a learning experience in trust, faith, and introspection.

Since we hear each of their inner voices, we see what is genuine and what is perceived.

Although, technically, a “light” read, the relationship between the women felt very real. That is what kept my attention to the end. Most lifelong friendships are complicated, as any relationship with a lot of history. I think of friends I have had since early childhood. There have been ups and downs, joys and sorrows, and lengthy periods with no contact at all. But when you know someone for most of your life there is a unique bond. Discovering which is stronger–Julia and Annie’s childhood bond or the events that later tore them apart–is what makes this novel worthwhile.

8.5 out of 10 stars

Once Upon A Winter’s Heart, by Melody Carlson

Once-Upon-a-Winters-HeartI suppose I’ve been in a “Melody Carlson” mood lately. Once Upon A Winter’s Heart was recommended to me through BookBub, a new site I discovered that emails me a daily list of discounted or free e-books on Amazon. This selection, by one of my favorite writers, was on the list. It was $1.99 and only 156 pages. (The price is back to $7 now.)  I read 2/3 of it on the treadmill this morning and the rest lying on the couch before making dinner this evening. Voila!

Some might find Carlson’s books cheesy or boring, but I’ll tell you what I like about them. For one thing, the female protagonist is usually someone who has given up on love and then finally finds it. As someone who got married at 39, I can very much relate to that. There is someone for everyone, truly, and these stories confirm it. I also appreciate the fact that as “romance” novels they are far from “blush worthy.” They are always about the meeting, the does-he-or-doesn’t-he, the friendship, and eventual getting together of two very decent people. If you’re a “Fifty Shades of Gray” person who needs the kinky stuff to entertain you, I recommend you look elsewhere.

In Once Upon A Winter’s Heart, Emma Burcelli has packed up her few belongings from her Seattle apartment and moved in with her recently widowed grandmother. Ready to start anew and willing to help out in her grandparents’ book shop, Emma reconnects with her parents, her nephew, and becomes slightly disillusioned while watching a supposed romance between her younger sister, Anne, and the charming Lane.

As usual, the characters are modeled after people the reader can recognize from their own life. The plot, although a bit rushed in this short novel, is, shall we say… “feasible.” It’s light, it’s possible, it’s fun, and it can be read in a day in between workouts and housework.

8/10 stars

The Would-Be Witch, by Ruth Chew

the-would-be-witchBefore there was J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series, there was prolific author Ruth Chew (1920-2010.) She was one of my favorite writers when I was a child and The Wishing Tree was a book I reread many times. Recently I came across another book she wrote called The Would-Be Witch and it is delightful.

Her style is much simpler than Rowling’s and her magical worlds are very innocent. Each book she wrote stands alone and offers a fun escape for its reader, showing unique glimpses of what this world would be like if witches and real magic existed.  Her protagonists are always ordinary children who stumble upon an enchanted object or meet an interesting woman who is a little “different.” The charming pencil sketches in her books are also hers. There is nothing dark or graphic about her books.

In The Would-Be Witch, siblings Robin and Andy Gates find a clumsy white cat who belongs to a shop owner named Zelda. While watching Zelda’s shop one afternoon, the children start speculating about the eccentric lady and her odd clothing. Meanwhile, their mother has just purchased some “magic” polish, said to work wonders on any surface from wood to plastic, and the adventure begins.

The time period is general, and could take place anytime from the early 1900’s to present day. The children mind their parents and are responsible young people. It is all told in an uncomplicated narrative with interesting twists and turns and a satisfying ending.

If the fantasy world of magic is something your young child is interested in, and the Harry Potter series is too advanced, I highly recommend The Would-Be Witch, The Wishing Tree, or anything by Ruth Chew. Her official page is HERE, and books that were out of print for years are now becoming available again in libraries and in digital form.

Dating, Dining, and Desperation, by Melody Carlson

1433679310In Melody Carlson’s second installment of her Dear Daphne series, “conditional heiress” Daphne Ballinger is making peace with her situation. Still living in her Aunt Dee’s house and using her vintage car–both left to her temporarily through her aunt’s estate–Daphne makes friends with neighbors of all ages and is set up on dates by those closest to her.

Like in the first book of the series, there is a lot of heart in an otherwise corny premise. But you know what? It works. It’s fast reading. It’s enjoyable. And it isn’t blush-worthy.

I’ve spent this busy week thoroughly enjoying the first two books of the series (either on the treadmill or before nodding off at night) and I’m eager to see what happens next. That level of expectation in a reader only happens through above-average writing with a decent plot and excellent character development.  There is warmth and comfort to the author’s style, making you want to revisit the small town life and its inhabitants again and again. Melody Carlson has a way of tapping into her readers’ emotions without exhausting them, making us care about the new friends we have discovered between the pages of her novels. It’s a rare gift. I for one, am hooked.

8.5 out of 10 stars

***At the end of this 2nd novel the author tells the reader that the next 2 books of the series will be out soon, but doesn’t give exact release dates. Both will be released as digital books first, as the publishing company is undergoing some changes.

Lock, Stock, and Over a Barrel, by Melody Carlson

9781433679308_p0_v1_s260x420Daphne Ballinger is stuck. Her job, living situation, and love life are going nowhere. Years ago she moved to New York in hopes of becoming a writer and living an exciting life, but, somewhere along the way, everything plateaued.

Back in her home town of Appleton, her dad’s older sister, the loving, eccentric Aunt Dee, has just died. Daphne is shocked to learn that she is the sole heir of Aunt Dee’s entire estate. The only problem? She must fall truly in love and get married within a year or she loses it all.

With this monumental condition hanging ominously over her head, Daphne decides to be a good sport and move back to Appleton for the year. Coming full circle from a life she was determined to leave, she learns that Aunt Dee left her a lot more than just her estate.

Lock, Stock, and Over a Barrel is the first in Melody Carlson’s Dear Daphne series. The second book, Dating, Dining, and Desperation, came out in March 2014. It’s next on my reading list.

If the premise seems a little hokey, well, maybe it is. Beyond that, however, is a delightful story full of well-rounded characters that enter and exit Daphne’s life. She is a protagonist that you root for and that women, especially, will identify with on her journey.

Carlson’s books are usually entertaining, light but not ridiculous, and this one is no different. For others like me who have no tolerance for racy fiction, her writing style is very satisfying. It is a fun novel for this busy holiday season, or to read on the treadmill, as I did.

8.5 out of 10 Stars