On a rare visit to Magic City Bookstore in downtown Tulsa, I discovered The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes by David Handler. It is a Stewart Hoag mystery and is the ninth book in the series. I generally like to start with the first book in a series, but I decided to take a chance on The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes after reading Harlen Coben’s blurb on the back cover: “David Handler is so good at writing one smart, funny page-turner after another that he makes it look easy.” I enjoy reading Harlen Coben’s mysteries, so trusted his comment and purchased the book.
I wanted very much to like the characters and the story. Sadly, I had difficulty finishing the book. I put it aside for weeks at a time and would return to it only to be disappointed once again and stop reading. Mysteries don’t work well being read in that manner. I forgot important points and had to reread pages to remind myself of the plot.
In the end, I finished The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes, but I did not like the story or the characters. Perhaps I missed the humor.
Usually, I begin my reviews with explaining my take on the book itself. Today, I am beginning with Abbi Waxman, the author. On Waxman’s website, https://www.abbiwaxman.com/, readers will get a glimpse of Waxman’s signature humor even in the description of her own life as well as the books she has written. Abbi Waxman’s mom is herself a successful author of crime fiction. Abbi Waxman first worked in advertising and then moved into writing fiction, screenplays, and scripts for TV shows.
Some time ago, I read The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Waxman and enjoyed the story immensely. I am drawn to stories set in bookstores and libraries. Wonder why that is? As I have been searching for books on the theme of friendships between women, I discovered The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. I knew I had enjoyed The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, so that was a good start.
The Garden of Small Beginnings features Lilian Girvan, a young widow. Other important characters we meet quickly in the story include Annabel and Clare, her young daughters, and Rachel, Lilian’s sister. A host of other characters will wander into the story when Lilian takes a Saturday morning gardening class at her employer’s behest. Lili is an illustrator at a publishing house and she will be illustrating a garden book.
The gardening class meets on Saturday mornings at a botanical garden; the teacher is Edward Bloem. Rachel joins the class, mostly, at first anyway, to watch Annabel and Clare. As it turns out, children are welcome and they get to choose their own plants to grow in the garden. As a result, Rachel, Annabel, and Clare are all part of the class along with Lili and strangers who quickly become friends.
Part of the charm of the story is getting to know the other members of the gardening class and learning why each one has chosen to sign up for the class. Working together on a planned vegetable and flower garden has brought together a diverse group of people who bond over digging in the dirt and learning about worm tea, of all things. Whatever brings people together creates interest.
Lili has been widowed for four years and has no plans to date anyone, much less start a relationship. Rachel nags Lili to get out and find a new partner. The two sisters are close and confide in each other; still, Lili is reluctant to get out of her rut of working and taking care of her children.
The gardening class opens up new avenues for all the people in the class. Readers may expect a happy ending in which Lili falls in love with a member of the class, or even the teacher. However, they will have to read the book to discover if that is true. Or does Lili simply enjoy learning about plants and keeping her children occupied?
A bonus in the book includes gardening tips between each chapter. The tips start with the most basic information such as preparing the garden by digging up the soil and adding compost. The tips progress to more help on growing specific vegetables and when to plant them.
Here’s what I like about The Garden of Small Beginnings: strangers become friends; they develop a garden together; they help one another by having pizza parties at each other’s homes while they work on home gardens; and they create something they can share. Read The Garden of Small Beginnings as a treat for yourself.
Recently, I went into the South Broken Arrow Library seeking some guidance on middle grade, tween, and young adult books. I was looking for titles to recommend to a group to which I belong. Librarian Melody steered me in the right direction, starting with Refugee by Alan Gratz. I will be writing about other books Melody recommended in future blogs.
Gratz has written a hard-hitting book about three young people all escaping horror and atrocities in their own countries and seeking a safe haven in other places. With their families and sometimes other friends, the three suffer hardships and extreme difficulties in order to find freedom and safety.
Josef is almost thirteen, a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. His father is taken from the home and sent to a concentration camp. Josef, his mother, and Ruth, his younger sister hope the father will be returned. When they learn the father has been released and that the family can leave Germany, they think they will be safe. They all board The St. Louis, a ship that will take them to Cuba; from there, they hope to get to the US eventually. While this story may be fictional, it is based on true events.
Isabel lives in Cuba in 1994, a Cuba controlled by Castro. Families are starving in Cuba and threatened. Isabel discovers her close neighbors are building a boat to take their family to the US. Isabel provides the gas for the boat so that she and her parents and grandfather can go along. Obviously, the dangers are great for the two families as they navigate high waters, sharks, and the US Coast Guard.
Mahmoud lives in Syria in 2015. He sees violence and devastation all around him. Then one day, a bomb tears all the side of his apartment building. Luckily, Mahmoud, his younger brother, mother, and infant sister escape unharmed. Their father rushes home and the family makes plans to escape Syria, hoping to go to Greece and then to freedom in Germany.
Graf tells the story in short chapters, following Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud in regular order. The difficulties they face are unimaginable. Terror is a constant companion. Threats come from nature and soldiers as well as unscrupulous people looking to take advantage of refugees by extorting money or making empty promises.
Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by time and place, but readers will thrill to the way the stories come together. In all three cases, the children and their families seek only to live a life safe from harm and opportunities to live freely.
Kirkus Reviews sums up the book with perfection: “Gratz accomplishes a feat that is nothing short of brilliant, offering a skillfully wrought narrative laced with global and intergenerational reverberations that signal hope for the future. . . . Poignant, respectful, and historically accurate while pulsating with emotional turmoil, adventure, and suspense.” Readers will leave the stories catching their breaths and recognizing that Gratz has created a timeless story. Gratz may have aimed Refugee at readers ages 9 – 12, but adults can certainly benefit from reading the book.
Alan Gratz has published seventeen novels for young readers. At the back of Refugees, Graf adds a note called “What You Can Do.” In it, he explains that both UNICEF and Save the Children At the end of the book, Gratz describes efforts to help children around the world. Two of the organizations which make the most impact are UNICEF and Save the Children. He reminds readers that “both UNICEF and Save the Children spend 90 percent of every dollar they raise on services and resources that directly help children.” He goes further to say that he is donating a portion of the sale of Refugee to UNICEF. Discover more about Gratz and his work at this website: http://www.alangratz.com.
When I have an opportunity, I enter to win books—single books and books for a whole book club. I am sometimes lucky. Recently, I won a copy of Miss Austen: A Novel of the Austen Sisters by Gill Hornby from BookBrowse. In exchange for receiving the book, I will participate in a discussion on BookBrowse along with other avid readers. The book was originally published in hardback in April 2020; the paperback version will be available in April 2021.
Miss Austen, the main character of the story, is Cassandra, Cassy, Austen, Jane’s sister. Jane died twenty-three years before this story takes place in 1840. We find Cassy in the village of Kintbury, home to family friends the Fowles. Fulwar Craven Fowle, vicar of Kintbury, has just died. The connections between the Austens and the Fowles run deep. Cassandra had been engaged to marry Tom Fowle, Fulwar’s brother. Sadly, Tom died of yellow fever on an expedition with a wealthy lord. He, also planning to be a vicar, had gone on the expedition to earn enough money so he and Cassandra could marry.
Cassy has made the journey from her home in Chawton with a distinct purpose in mind. She hopes to retrieve letters from Jane to Eliza Fowle, Fulwar’s wife, also deceased. Cassy must decide whether to share those letters should she find them or destroy them to protect her sister and the family name.
Hornby has captured the style of the time in her depiction of Cassy and the other characters involved in the story. Those who love Jane Austen will find characteristics similar to Jane’s own writings.
Before he leaves on the expedition, Tom tells Cassy that if he should not return that she should marry someone else. Cassy adamantly proclaims she will marry no one if she cannot marry Tom. That promise made in a church is sacred to Cassy and she remains single the rest of her life, serving her family in a variety of ways.
Besides the current story of 1840, Hornby takes us back to the time when Jane and her parents are still living. Cassy remembers fondly the times they spent together. She also recounts the ups and downs of their fortunes. By taking readers back in time, Hornby gives readers a more complete picture of the family and its ties with the Fowles.
Hornby also provides a map of the village of Kintbury and a family tree at the beginning of the book. Both of those additions are invaluable in keeping members of the family and long-time friends clearly in mind. Too, readers should remember that Edward Austen was adopted by wealthy distant relatives who had no children. They changed his name to Edward Knight because he would inherit the estates of his adoptive father.
In the backstory and the current story, Hornby goes into the fate of unmarried women and the real need for them to marry and marry well. As I read, I could not help but think of The Glass Menagerie and an exchange between Amanda Wingfield and her daughter Laura. Amanda chastises Laura: “What is there left but dependency all our lives? I know so well what becomes of unmarried women who aren’t prepared to occupy a position. I’ve seen such pitiful cases in the South – barely tolerated spinsters living upon the grudging patronage of sister’s husband or brother’s wife – stuck away in some little mousetrap of a room — encouraged by one in-law to visit another — little birdlike women without any nest – eating the crust of humility all their life.”
In fact, that is Cassy’s plight in life, helping other family members, particularly her brother Edward and his wife Elizabeth when their children, eleven in all, were born. Still, Cassy feels satisfied with her life and has benefited from her longevity by inheriting sums of money upon the deaths of other family members. She lives comfortably in Chawton.
Readers will find Mary Austen, widow of James Austen, a caricature of a person who downplays Jane Austen’s worth as a novelist and touts her late husband’s poetry, calling him the real genius in the family. Readers quickly see she is given to exaggerating stories and, in some cases, flatly making them up. James’s poetry cannot hold a candle to Jane’s delightful work. The humor in Mary’s character is also repeated in Caroline’s nature; she is James and Mary’s daughter.
Cassy goes to Kintbury to find Jane’s letters and she is successful. She also does some meddling in the life of Isabella, the daughter of Fulwar and Eliza Fowle. Isabella is almost forty and unmarried. She must vacate the vicarage so that the new vicar can move in and start to minister to his flock. Cassy thinks Isabella should move in with one of her sisters, both of whom live in the village. Elizabeth and Mary-Jane Fowle are odd creatures, both unmarried and set on their own courses. As a reader, I could not see Isabella being happy with either sister or the sisters with her, for that matter. Luckily, through some machinations, Dinah, the servant, engineers a new path for Isabella, and Cassy sees the error of her ways in trying to impose her will.
Readers will find Miss Austen a satisfying read. Those who love Jane Austen will enjoy the backstory of Jane and Cassy when they were young ladies. Throughout the story, readers will delight in the letters Cassy reads from Jane to Eliza Fowle. Hornby points out at the end of the book that she made up the letters, but they do fit nicely into the scheme of the book and sound as if Jane Austen herself wrote them.
Gill Hornby, a journalist, published her first book, The Hive, in 2013. It created quite a stir when Little, Brown UK purchased the book in an auction. Her second novel was All Together Now in 2015. Miss Austen is Hornby’s first historical novel. The novels reveal Hornby’s diversity of talents.
In Jump and Other Stories, Nadine Gordimer depicts the gamut of life, injustices, beauty, and tragedy found in South Africa. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She published a large body of work, starting in her early twenties.
The sixteen stories found in Jump and Other Stories will make readers cringe, angry, and sad. The stories delve deeply into racial inequality, causing readers to feel the injustice. Other stories depict married couples and their lives. They are all thought-provoking stories. They also remind us that although these stories were published in 2012, some things have changed, but many have not.
I finished listening to Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera several days ago. The story left me not with just tears in my eyes, but big tears streaming down my face. I had to spend some time considering the story and the characters before attempting this review. I have a copy of the book my friend Monte loaned me; her recommendations have always been spot on. Then my friend Theresa who has never steered me wrong suggested that I listen to the audio version because three narrators take on the main characters of Gertrude, Retta, and Annie. At times, I listened and read along at the same time.
The story takes place in 1924 in Branchville, SC. Times are hard for many people. Gertrude, especially, faces difficulties making sure her four daughters are fed and trying to keep them safe from their abusive father. As a result, Gertrude takes the brunt of her husband’s meanness.
Retta, a first-generation freed slave, faces her own problems—particularly of racial discrimination. She works for Miss Annie who married into the land-owning Coles family. Retta began working for Miss Annie when Miss Annie’s first child was born and Retta herself was a child of thirteen.
Miss Annie while she is privileged suffers from her own demons. She has two daughters whom she has not seen in fifteen years. Buck, her son, committed suicide when he was twelve and that loss haunts her because she cannot understand what motivated him to kill himself, especially at such a tender age. Of her other two sons, Eddie works with his father on the farm while Lonnie helps Miss Annie run a sewing factory which the two of them founded.
Gertrude, Retta, and Annie find themselves intertwined as their stories unfold. From quite different circumstances, the three develop a story that readers will find hard to put down.
Told in the voices of the three women, Call Your Daughter Home is a mesmerizing story which will haunt readers long after they finish the last page. It is a story of abusive men, secrets, racism, and ultimate triumph.
Call Your Daughter Home is Spera’s debut novel. I look forward more from her. Spera has published stories in a number of magazines. She owns her own TV production company, One-Two Punch Productions. Her website is at this link: https://debspera.com/deb-spera-bio.
I have subscribed to Taste of Home magazine off and on for a period of time. Recently, I also received a copy of Taste of Home Test Kitchen Favorites. The book is touted as having “over 300 of the dishes our staff loves most.” Sarah Farmer, Taste of Home Executive Culinary Director, opens the cookbook with a note to cooks/readers.
Farmer and her staff chose recipes that “made their list of all-time favorites.” This means the recipes are for dishes the staff members often make at home for their families and friends.
The full-color pictures certainly will entice cooks. The recipes are clear and to the point. At the beginning of each recipe, cooks will find a note about the dish. For example, one of my favorites is Comforting Chicken Noodle Soup. Joanna Sargent, Sandy, UT, writes of the soup: “A good friend made us this rich, comforting soup after the birth of our son. It was such a help to have dinner taken care of until I was back on my feet. It’s so simple to fix, I know give a pot of it (along with the recipe) to other new mothers.”
A group of friends and I meet regularly on Zoom. Recently, we added a monthly recipe contest to our Zoom calls. We choose an ingredient and then everyone finds recipes using that ingredient. We display the finished dish and share the recipe. Our ingredient for March was cabbage. Inside-Out Stuffed Cabbage in the Taste of Home Test Kitchen Favorites fit the bill nicely.
I enjoy cooking, but I particularly like to bake. In the section “Cookies, Brownies, & Bars,” I quickly found several enticing recipes to try. Fudgy Brownies With Peanut Butter Pudding Frosting caught my eye first; Chewy Chocolate-Cherry Bars quickly followed.
The section titled “Odds & Ends” intrigued me. The editor explains, “At Taste of Home, we believe it’s the little things that put meals and menus over the top. Take everything from special-occasion buffets to after-school snacks to new heights with these easy ideas.” This section includes and eclectic list of recipes: Lemonade Iced Tea, Caramel-Pecan Monkey Bread, and Marina’s Golden Corn Fritters, for example.
Overall, cooks cannot go wrong with Taste of Home Test Kitchen Favorites.
For book clubs seeking a memoir about childhood difficulties and deprivation that lead an adult to considerable success, On the Road Less Traveled: An Unlikely Journey from the Orphanage to the Boardroom by Ed Hajim will fit the requirements. While fiction is my go-to reading, I do enjoy dipping into memoirs and selected other types of nonfiction. BookTrib has nudged me in those directions along with my favorite fiction reading. Broadening one’s reading horizons is an admirable thing and can lead to learning and pleasure too.
Edmund A. Hajim, financier and philanthropist, spent a childhood in difficult circumstances. Readers will be appalled to learn that Hajim’s father kidnapped Ed when he was only three and told Ed that his mother was dead. Then just as mean, his father leaves Ed in one foster home or orphanage after another. This kind of neglect certainly would take its toll on anyone, particularly a young child.
Hajim, a Syrian immigrant, has worked on Wall Street as an executive in investments. He worked for E.F. Hutton, Lehman Brothers and other major American companies. His website provides additional background information: https://www.edhajim.com/.
As readers learn more about Hajim and his difficult early life, he provides useful explanations for his adult success. See some of those accounts below.
“My childhood disadvantages became advantages in later life.”
“By living in 15 to 20 different locations, I learned how to adjust to different circumstances, became good at it, and almost looked forward to it; I was not afraid to change.”
“Tough situations, hostile and abusive, taught me how to appreciate good times and handle difficult situations with less anxiety.”
“My lack of a present family forced me to seek out external mentors and better understand the need for partners/people who cared.”
Clearly, readers will see the self-reliance in Hajim and his own determination to rise above the difficult upbringing his father forced upon him. Hajim does not brag about his accomplishments; rather, he uses the adversity he experienced to show how to develop skills in order to cope with whatever was thrown his way. Readers will come away from the book with inspiration and advice which they can apply to their own lives.
On the Road Less Traveled will provide book clubs with a thoughtful discussion. The first points may be about the childhood difficulties, but the members will soon move on to the inspiration offered. The epilogue offers additional insight. Titled “The Four P’s – Passion, Principles, Partners, and Plans,” the epilogue contains clear explanations of each of the four words. In addition, Hajim has included questions to ask one’s self and suggestions for taking one’s life in new directions. Some of the lines that struck a chord with me follows here: “Read passion cannot be found outside yourself. And it can’t be given to you by somebody else. It’s cultivated through the books you read as a kid, the movies that inspired you, the teachers who helped you along the way, the friends you had, the jobs you loved – even the messy childhood you might have experienced.” In those lines, Hajim touches on an important message, particularly about books, friends, and teachers.
Her Mother’s Grave by Lisa Regan is the third book I’ve read, all courtesy of BookTrib. It is also the third Josie Quinn mystery; however, the book can be read as a standalone mystery. Unlike some people, I enjoy books in a series because a series allows authors to develop characters fully and I turn to a new book in a series as if meeting with an old friend.
Josie Quinn finds herself on the case of a body buried in woods where she used to play as a child. Readers discover that Belinda Rose, Josie’s mother, is not a kind mother. In fact, Josie sought refuge in the woods to get away from her mother; there, she could find some respite from the abuse.
Not only do the woods hold memories for Quinn, the confirmation of the body discovered also makes Quinn recall connections to the girl murdered thirty years ago. Oddly, the murdered girl is also named Belinda Rose. What connection does this long-dead girl have to Quinn’s own mother?
Quinn will have to find her mother, a woman with whom she has deliberately lost contact, in order to solve the murder from years ago. Then another body is discovered. Who is the second victim? And is that person connected to the first death? And to Quinn’s mother? Questions abound as readers turn pages quickly to discover the truth.
Sometimes mysteries do not make good book club choices because they are often cut and dried. Readers discover “whodunit” and the mystery is solved. However, with Her Mother’s Grave, readers will find discussion topics: motives, mother/daughter relationships, child abuse, loss, and suffering.
Lisa Regan majored in English and then received a master’s degree in education. Readers who have enjoyed getting to know Josie Quinn should know the tenth book in the series, Breathe Your Last went on sale in December 2020. Discover more about Regan at her website: https://lisaregan.com/.
As I’ve written in this blog before, stepping out of one’s comfort zone into books that one might not ordinarily is an important step. Amora by Grant J. Hallstrom fits that bill quite well. It is a Christian historical novel; however, it crosses over to a more universal appeal. I received a copy from BookTrib in exchange for my unbiased review.
One of the reasons I chose to read the book came from a comment by Kendra Campbell who wrote, “With all the anger in our world today, [Amora] is a good read to inspire your soul.” I thought to myself that’s reason enough to give the story a try. Other reviewers have commented upon Hallstrom’s ability to examine faith, forgiveness, and spirituality.
Grant Hallstrom has written a number of articles about theology in one’s life. His background is in business law which might be surprising to some readers given the topic of Amora. Hallstrom begins by dedicating the book to Calvin, his younger brother. The murderer was Calvin’s own son. Hallstrom explains that Calvin’s “example of forgiveness is one worth emulating and helped inspire the message of this book.”
Hallstrom bases Amora on a true story. Leo, a wealthy patrician, denounces his wife because she is a Christian. The result of that denouncement means not only Amora’s death, but also the death of her slave girl. Leo watches as Amora inches closer to death and cries for mercy, but it is too late.
The story then reverts to an earlier time to give readers the full story. Starting with Amora’s wedding to Leo, readers will discover love between the two. Hallstrom takes readers through a sweeping story evoking the times well in his descriptions.
At the end of the book readers find historical notes that enhance the reading of the fiction. Hallstrom also includes a glossary which helps readers further understand terms that might not be familiar to them. Book club members will find much to discuss in the fictional story because it is based on history.