Friday, August 14, 2020

Book Review: Until I Find You

By Jami Deise

Even though my son is 26, I can still clearly remember his early days of babyhood and how terrified I was that something would happen to him. In my mind’s eye, I could see myself falling down the stairs while holding him, accidentally dropping him during bath or changing time, or accidentally choking him during a feeding. If I woke up without him in my arms or my sight, I was terrified: Where was he?

As hard as those early days were, at least I had a husband to help and all five senses to rely on. In Rea Frey’s latest domestic suspense thriller, Until I Find You, new mom Rebecca Gray is a widow who has lost most of her sight to a degenerative eye disease. She moved into her childhood home so her mother could help her care for Jackson, but her mother has just died as well. Now with few close friends and determined not to ask for help, Bec suddenly feels like she’s being followed. Things in her house are not where she left them. Then, after a fainting spell, she goes to pick up Jackson from his crib… and she knows this isn’t her baby. The problem is, no one else believes her. How can she find her baby when nobody thinks he’s really missing?

Frey offers a compelling plot that makes the book hard to put down. With all her losses, Bec is an easy heroine to root for, and she rarely feels sorry for herself. Still, Frey leaves just enough room in her first-person narration to allow readers to wonder if Bec really has had the mental break that her friends suspect.

With a small cast of characters, Frey provides an easy list of possible suspects in the baby switch—as well as compelling back stories that offer further clues into what might have happened to Jackson. My only quibble was that Frey alternated Bec’s point-of-view with the third-person narration of her friend Crystal, whom Bec met at a grief group (both women are widows). Crystal’s issues with her ten-year-old daughter and her daughter’s nanny pale in comparison to the high stakes in Bec’s story, and chapters from her point of view feel like unnecessary diversions.

The emotional journey of the domestic thriller lets readers experience their worst nightmares about what could happen to their families. Frey ups the ante with her blind heroine. Always authentic and never exploitative, Frey makes it clear that no one knows her child like a mother does… and that mothers will overcome every obstacle when their child’s safety is at stake.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Rea Frey:

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A dose of Roselle Lim's magic...plus a book giveaway

Photo by Shelley Smith
We're pleased to have Roselle Lim here today to celebrate the recent publication of her sophomore novel, Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop. Melissa enjoyed it as much as her debut, Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune and has a review to share. We enjoyed learning more about Roselle today and she sounds as interesting as her books! Thanks to Berkley, we have one e-book (via NetGalley) for a lucky reader!

Roselle Lim was born in the Philippines and immigrated to Canada as a child. She lived in north Scarborough in a diverse, Asian neighbourhood.

She found her love of writing by listening to her lola (paternal grandmother's) stories about Filipino folktales. Growing up in a household where Chinese superstition mingled with Filipino Catholicism, she devoured books about mythology, which shaped the fantasies in her novels.

An artist by nature, she considers writing as "painting with words."

When she isn't writing, she is sewing, sketching, or pursuing the next craft project. (Bio courtesy of Roselle's website.)

Visit Roselle online:
Website * Facebook * Twitter * Instagram

Synopsis:
Vanessa Yu never wanted to see people's fortunes—or misfortunes—in tea leaves.

Ever since she can remember, Vanessa has been able to see people's fortunes at the bottom of their teacups. To avoid blurting out their fortunes, she converts to coffee, but somehow fortunes escape and find a way to complicate her life and the ones of those around her. To add to this plight, her romance life is so nonexistent that her parents enlist the services of a matchmaking expert from Shanghai.

After her matchmaking appointment, Vanessa sees death for the first time. She decides that she can't truly live until she can find a way to get rid of her uncanny abilities. When her eccentric Aunt Evelyn shows up with a tempting offer to whisk her away, Vanessa says au revoir to California and bonjour to Paris. There, Vanessa learns more about herself and the root of her gifts and realizes one thing to be true: knowing one's destiny isn't a curse, but being unable to change it is.
(Courtesy of Amazon.)

What is a favorite compliment you have received on your writing?
It's a tossup between readers who claimed the book had made them hungry versus those who praised the book for its cinematic and sensory quality.

What is something you learned from writing Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune that you applied to Vanessa Yu's Magical Paris Tea Shop?
I focused on improving my writing skills before I dove into Vanessa: To plot better, to write tighter prose, to track the tension and release, and to create more satisfying emotional arcs. My goal is to find one thing to improve upon with each subsequent manuscript.

If Vanessa Yu was made into a movie, who would you cast in the leading roles?
Vanessa Yu - Elizabeth Ho or Jamie Chung
Marc Santos - Sam Milby or Manny Jacinto
Aunt Evelyn - Michelle Yeoh
Girard - Pierce Brosnan or Antonio Banderas
Uncle Michael - Will Yun Lee
Auntie Faye - Ming Na Wen
Ines - Aissa Maiga

You use magical realism in your books. What is something so beautiful to you in real life that it almost seems magical?
There's a lavender farm and vineyard outside town where, pre-pandemic, they held a summer festival with live music at the gazebo and hayrides through the fields and into the vineyard.

Walking through a field of lavender transports me to another reality.

As the perfume of French and English lavender hangs in the summer air and bumble bees and butterflies flit from plant to plant, nothing else brings me closer to magic on earth. I could stand amidst that undulating sea of violet and white flowers, the sun bathing everything, forever.

What is the last movie you saw that you would recommend?
Old Guard on Netflix. It's a high energy, fast-paced, action movie starring a diverse cast led by Charlize Theron. It's a great summer blockbuster movie.

What is your Zodiac sign and how similar is it to your personality?
My sign is Aries and, yes, I do have the infamous Aries temper!

Fortunately, my birth date lies closer to Taurus. I’m thankful for its grounding influence as it tends to soften my more volcanic outbursts.

Thanks to Roselle for visiting with us and to Berkley for sharing her book with our readers.

How to win: Use Rafflecopter to enter the giveaway. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. If you have trouble using Rafflecopter on our blog, enter the giveaway here

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Giveaway ends August 18th at midnight EST.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Sara and Melissa talk about...Vacations

We've been running a column series to get more personal with our readers. This month, we're talking about vacations! 

We're always open to topic suggestions, so please don't hesitate to share those in the comments. We'd also love to know if you can relate to anything we've said or hear your own thoughts on the topic. So don't be shy. :) We look forward to getting to know you as much as we're letting you get to know us. You can find our previous columns here, in case you missed them.

Sara Steven: 

So much of what I’ve wanted to do this year in terms of vacation plans has been completely eroded. We planned a family vacation to Oregon this summer, yet we had to cancel due to Covid. I wanted to attend a friend’s wedding this month, but I had to cancel due to Covid. There are talks of a possible vacation later this year to make up for the missed trip to Oregon, provided it’s safe. But I know there are no guarantees and we really can’t plan ahead right now. Nothing is concrete.

In order to find some way to escape the humdrum of the same stucco walls we’ve been encased in since March, a plan was put into place for a staycation, of sorts. A decision was made to head up north to Sedona, Arizona, a town known for its beautiful red-rock buttes and nicknamed “the most beautiful place on Earth.”

The drive there felt like a much safer option than taking a plane with my two sons. I’d checked in with the owner of the rental I’d reserved through Vrbo.com, confirming that additional measures had been taken to ensure the home was clean and safe, but I still stepped it up when we arrived by airing out the house, wiping down hot spots with disinfectant wipes and airing out the blankets on the beds in the warm Arizona sunshine. It sounds like a lot, but it really didn’t take much time, and with my younger son’s asthma, it at least provided me with peace of mind.



Other than the trip to the local Bashas’, masks included, we spent the rest of our time outdoors. We brought our bikes and went for an amazing bike ride through the Sunrise trail by Posse Grounds Park, hiked the Sugar Loaf trailhead and went swimming in Oak Creek. We went for a run and made sure our end point would be the Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park, a quiet and peaceful experience. We went sightseeing through town, driving through one end of Sedona to the other, and spent time at Crescent Moon next to Red Rock State Park. Along the way we found wildlife that we never get to see out by our Phoenix suburb, like baby toads and crawdads, javelina that resided behind our rental home, and the fastest lizards that my sons tried desperately hard to catch.


For the most part, we steered clear of large groups of people. When a lot of people showed up to the swimming hole we’d found, we moved on to another spot. That was the only time we had to do that. If we met up with someone on the trail or on the road, it was met with friendly smiles and hellos, providing one another a wide berth in order to respect social distancing.

I fell in love with Sedona this summer. I want to move there someday. Its nature, the views, the outdoor activities, even the smell of the cypress trees- this will definitely be a welcome respite for my family from here on out!





Melissa Amster:

We haven't been on a family vacation since last August, thanks to Covid and a few other situations that occurred in the past year. So I would like to talk about our trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, from August 2019. I never blogged about this at my personal blog, so it seems fitting for this column.

We arrived in Rehoboth on a Sunday afternoon, hoping to have a pleasant picnic on the beach. That wasn't meant to be, as it was so windy out that the sand was whipping all over the place and the ocean was spraying foam near where we were sitting. My husband and younger son were more tolerant of these conditions than the rest of us were and they were having all sorts of fun trying to build a sandcastle. We eventually gave up on the beach and went swimming in the hotel pool. Later, we played mini golf, even though it was still a bit windy and chilly out.

The next day, we planned around not going to the beach at all. Instead, we first went Go-Karting. It was fun overall, except my daughter almost lost one of her cochlear implants. Thankfully, my husband was able to grab it before someone ran over it. She was a speed demon too!



After a wild morning on the race tracks, we then went to this science place called The Great STEMporium. It looks like a restaurant, but you order science activities off a menu instead. The server brings them to your table and you can play with them for as long as you want. This definitely was up my younger son's alley, as he loves all things science.

When we finished at the STEMporium, we went to the boardwalk area of Rehoboth, where they have shops, ice cream parlors, candy stores, and arcades. The best thing there was Funland! It's set up like a carnival, but the tickets are super cheap compared to a traveling carnival or state fair. We went on rides and played games for a while and had a blast! My daughter wouldn't stop playing Skee-Ball until she won a stuffed animal. Afterward, we went to Kilwin's for ice cream because we love it there. It's so hard to choose from so many great flavors though! We also walked around some of the souvenir shops. 


The rest of the day was just resting and dinner. The following day, before heading back, we went back to the boardwalk to look at more shops, play at the arcade, and stop at Kilwin's again. They had a Zoltar machine on the boardwalk, so we just had to take a picture of it, being fans of Big and all.


Overall, it was a short and sweet trip. Aside from the beach issue, we had a great time together as a family. I look forward to the next time we can travel again. Maybe we'll do a day trip someplace in the meantime...

Please share your vacation stories with us!

Spotlight: Shooting Stars

Tess Lee is a novelist. Her inspirational books explore people’s innermost struggles and the human need to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Despite her extraordinary success, she’s been unable to find personal happiness. Jack Miller is a federal agent. After spending decades immersed in a violent world, a residue remains. He’s dedicated everything to his job, leaving nothing for himself. The night Tess and Jack meet, their connection is palpable. She examines the scars on his body and says, “I’ve never seen anyone whose outsides match my insides.” 

The two embark on an epic love story that asks the questions: What happens when people truly see each other? Can unconditional love change the way we see ourselves? Their friends are along for the ride: Omar, Tess’s sarcastic best friend who mysteriously calls her Butterfly; Joe, Jack’s friend from the Bureau who understands the sacrifices he’s made; and Bobby, Jack’s younger friend who never fails to lighten the mood. Shooting Stars is a novel about walking through our past traumas, moving from darkness to light, and the ways in which love – from lovers, friends, or the art we experience – heals us. Written as unfolding action, Shooting Stars is a poignant novel that moves fluidly between melancholy, humor, and joy.

Patricia Leavy, PhD is an independent scholar, novelist, and public speaker (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She holds a PhD in sociology from Boston College (2002). A champion of arts-based research and public scholarship, she has published more than 30 books including the best-seller Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (first, second, and third editions), Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies and Fiction as Research Practice: Short Stories, Novellas and Novels and the best-selling novels Spark, Film, Blue, Low-Fat Love, and American Circumstance.

She is the editor for ten book series with Oxford University Press, Guilford Press, and Brill/Sense. Frequently called on by the media, she has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger. She makes presentations and keynote addresses at universities as well as national and international conferences. She has received numerous national and international book awards. She has also received career awards from the New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and the National Art Education Association. In 2016 Mogul, a global women's empowerment network, named her an "Influencer." In 2018, she was honored by the National Women's Hall of Fame and the State University of New York at New Paltz established the "Patricia Leavy Award for Art and Social Justice." (Bio courtesy of Amazon.)

Visit Patricia online:
Website * Facebook * Twitter * Instagram

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Phoebe Fox is full of grace...plus a book giveaway

Today we're thrilled to have Phoebe Fox here to celebrate the publication of her latest novel, A Little Bit of Grace. Melissa loved it and gave it a five-star review earlier this summer. Being Schitt's Creek fans, Phoebe enjoyed Melissa's casting suggestion for Grace. We've been waiting all summer to share this novel with you and are so glad that we finally can. Phoebe has THREE copies for some lucky readers!

Author Phoebe Fox has been a contributor and regular columnist for a number of national, regional, and local publications, including the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, and She Knows. A former actor on stage and screen, Phoebe has been suspended from wires as a mall fairy; was accidentally concussed by a blank gun; and hosted a short-lived game show. She has been a relationship columnist; a movie, theater, and book reviewer; and a radio personality, and is a close observer of relationships in the wild. She currently lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two excellent dogs. (Bio courtesy of Phoebe's website.)

Visit Phoebe online:
Website * Facebook * Twitter * Instagram * Pinterest

Synopsis:
Family is everything—Grace Adams McHale's mom must have said it to her a thousand times before she died. Before Grace's dad ran off with an aspiring actress half his age. Before only-child Grace found out she was unable to have children of her own. Before Brian—her childhood best friend, business partner, and finally her husband—dropped a "bombshell" on her in the form of her stunning new replacement.

Which means Grace now has...nothing.

Until she receives a letter from a woman claiming to be a relative Grace never knew she had, sending her on a journey from the childhood home she had to move back into, to a Florida island to meet a total stranger who embraces her as family. There, Grace starts to uncover answers about the eccentric woman her family never mentioned: a larger-than-life octogenarian who is the keeper of a secret held for more than fifty years, and the ultimate inspiration to always be true to yourself. As Grace gets to know this woman and picks up the pieces of her own shattered life, she is forced to question whether she can find forgiveness for the unforgivable.
(Courtesy of Amazon.)

What is a favorite compliment you have received on your writing?
A woman once told me that my Breakup Doctor series got her through chemo. I don’t think I’m ever going to top that—it made me teary. There’s no higher calling for art than to have an impact in someone’s life—to help them or comfort them or offer insight or a new perspective. A creation—any art form—is only half-alive until it reaches an audience and takes on full life; this astonishing symbiosis is the magic and wonder of creating, to me.

How is Grace similar to or different from you?
Grace feels a strong call to duty and responsibility, which I do as well, but I think she struggles much harder with balancing that against pursuing her own passions than I do these days—I’ve learned to give myself permission to honor my own goals. And she finds a wellspring of rage in her she never would have imagined she had—and that resonates with me a lot. For years I told people, “I just don’t really get angry.” Which was ridiculous, of course—I was battening it all down, compartmentalizing those emotions because in my mind they weren’t “okay.” And like Grace, I’ve learned to allow those feelings and coexist with them. It’s infinitely more authentic—and so much more peaceful, counterintuitively.

If A Little Bit of Grace were made into a movie, what are some songs would you include on the soundtrack?
Jack Johnson “Sitting Waiting Wishing” (or anything by Jack Johnson, who always captures the feel of the wonderful centered relaxation I find near the ocean). This song to me encapsulates such a key part of Grace’s journey, that feeling of finally realizing you’ve been longing for someone who isn’t longing for you (with a catchy beat!) and letting go of that.

For similar reasons Hoobastank’s “The Reason”—I love the way it peacefully reflects on recognizing in hindsight how a failed love has led you to become a better person. How every person who comes into our lives teaches us something and gets us where we’re going, even if they aren’t “the one” for us, even if it’s not a healthy relationship.

Donna the Buffalo—again, anything by them, but when I wrote the beach-bonfire party scene I was hearing “Funky Side” and “Conscious Evolution” on a marvelously joyful loop in my head. I dare you not to dance with abandon.

“This Is Me,” Keala Settle and cast’s tour de force from The Greatest Showman soundtrack. This is a rockin’ good song, period—but also the kind of “hell, yeah!” anthem that makes you just rise up and claim your own fierce fabulousness, and damn what anyone else thinks of you. That’s everything Millie is in this story, everything Grace learns to be. “I make no apologies—this is me.” Damn skippy, y’all.

What is something you've learned about yourself during the pandemic quarantine?
There’s so much that’s hard and awful about this pandemic that’s hurting so many of our most vulnerable. But despite that, I’ve found that it has also connected me to people in ways I’m not sure would have happened otherwise. I am much more mindful of how tangibly dependent on one another we all are—I have the profound privilege of staying home and being safe because of those who are out there risking their health and well-being so I have food and necessities—from the very root of the food supply, for instance, with those planting and harvesting and processing it, all the way to my grocery store and those shopping and bringing it to my car. I think we’re all realizing that people doing these infrastructure jobs are the absolute engine of society, and how dependent we are on them—and I hope we learn from that and start taking better care of one another.

I’ve also been grateful for the unexpected side effect of this isolation from one another expanding and deepening my more intimate connections. While I miss seeing my loved ones in person, I “see” them much more often via video now, in a format where I’m not multitasking like I would on the phone, or having my attention split at a restaurant or an event, but just sitting and really deeply connecting with these folks—and even making some wonderful new friends this way, from all over the world, with a depth I’m not sure would have happened otherwise.

Which TV series are you currently binge watching?
We are churning through them in quarantine. Recent favorites have been the British shows Lovesick and Sex Education, Amazon Prime’s Upload and Netflix's Never Have I Ever, I Am Not Okay with This, Ozark, and Schitt’s Creek, of course. And we’re currently loving Canada’s Workin’ Moms and Kim’s Convenience, and a Spanish show called Money Heist that’s really great.

What is something that made you laugh a lot recently?
This (for fellow Schitt’s Creek fans):

The horrific and scary things going on in the world can easily subsume our spirit right now, but humor—including dark humor—is saving me. I think this time is stripping us all down to who we are at the core, and I’m heartened to see how many people are connecting and reassuring and comforting one another through sharing the absurdities and hilarity of the situation we’re in. That’s the spirit and resilience that will get us through this dark time in our history.

Thanks to Phoebe for visiting with us and for sharing her book with our readers.

How to win: Use Rafflecopter to enter the giveaway. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. If you have trouble using Rafflecopter on our blog, enter the giveaway here

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Giveaway ends August 16th at midnight EST.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Book Review: Shadow Garden

By Jami Deise

"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" Queen’s Freddie Mercury isn’t the only one to have asked this question. It’s a game that I think most people—or at least most writers—entertain themselves with at some time or another: Am I making all this up in my head, while I’m really in a hospital or mental institution somewhere? And for the past few years, it’s been an interesting subgenre in mystery fiction. The unreliable narrator doesn’t know how she (and it’s almost always a she) got to where she is. She can’t remember. She was drunk. She was in an accident. She’s bi-polar.

Alexandra Burt’s Shadow Garden is not the writer’s first foray into this sub-genre; her Remember Mia is not as well known as A.J Finn’s The Woman in the Window or Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient, but all four books have a similar feel. The “Shadow Garden” in Shadow Garden is the upscale condo development where Donna Pryor is waited on hand and foot. She wants for nothing, except for a phone call from her adult daughter, Penelope, or her ex-husband, Edward. But not everything is as it seems at Shadow Garden, and as mementoes of her previous life as the lady of the manor start popping up, Donna tries to remember what happened to bring her to this place.

Burt’s voice is extremely gothic, and the deliberate pacing and small plot points add to the old-fashioned feel of the book. Even when Burt writes in Penelope or Edward’s point of view (she uses third person for them, while first person for Donna), the dreamy, almost underwater feeling remains.

In truth, it took me a while to get into Shadow Garden. It’s much more mystery than suspense, and without the urgent need to know what was going to happen next, the voice wasn’t enough to keep me completely engaged. There’s a broad rule among fiction writers that if the central conflict of the story can be cleared up in a conversation, the conflict isn’t enough to carry the book, and for much of the first part of Shadow Garden, that rule seemed to be in effect. But I was intrigued enough to want to find out what happened, and that kept me going to finish the book.

My yardstick for this subgenre is the question of whether the ultimate reveal is so substantial, it doesn’t matter whether the story was told by an unreliable narrator or not. In the case of Shadow Garden, I honestly think the book might have been better had it been told in a linear fashion. It happens early enough in the book that it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Penelope was troubled from a very young age (she stabs another child with a fork at a birthday party), and the reader figures out very quickly that Donna’s memory lapse has something to do with Penelope’s fate. Rather than choosing the trendy unreliable narrator to ask the question of what happened, I wonder about the book that would have resulted if Burt had decided to ask the question of how far is too far for parents to go to protect their child. That’s a conundrum that can resonate so much further than the trendy “What did I do” crisis.

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Alexandra Burt:

Friday, August 7, 2020

What's in the mail

Melissa:
Never Say No by Elizabeth Neep from Bookouture (e-book via NetGalley)
The Cookbook Club by Beth Harbison from William Morrow (e-book via NetGalley)
The Lost Love Song by Minnie Darke from Ballantine (e-book via NetGalley)
A Palm Beach Scandal by Susannah Marren from St. Martin's Press (e-book via NetGalley)
Dictatorship of the Dress by/from Jessica Topper (won from Write On Cindy)
Good Will by Tiffany W. Killoren from Amphorae Publishing (e-book via NetGalley)
Pretending by Holly Bourne from Harlequin  (e-book via NetGalley)
The Flipside of Perfect by Liz Reinhardt from Inkyard Press  (e-book via NetGalley)
Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson from Harlequin (e-book via NetGalley)

Jami:
Summer at My Sister's by Emily Harvale from Rachel's Random Resources (e-book)
The Twins by J.S. Lark from Rachel's Random Resources (e-book via NetGalley)
The Heatwave by Kate Riordan from Grand Central Publishing  (e-book via NetGalley)
The Nesting by C.J. Cooke from Berkley (e-book via NetGalley)
Shiver by Allie Reynolds from Putnam (e-book via NetGalley)
Sara:
Stuck on You by Portia MacIntosh from Rachel's Random Resources (e-book via NetGalley)
Dating Mr. Darcy by/from Kate O'Keeffe (e-book)
The Contest by/from Nora Katzir (e-book)