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review 2018-06-18 13:59
The Underground River
The Underground River: A Novel - Martha Conway
May Bedloe is the seamstress for her famous actress cousin, Comfort Vertue.  May has been with Comfort since her parents passed away and feels secure in her routine and Comfort's knowledge of May's irregularities.  May has always been very direct in her speech and has a hard time with anything that isn't exactly the truth.  May's life changes when the steamboat she and Comfort are travelling on explodes on the Ohio River in 1838.  May and Comfort lose everything.  Comfort is soon snapped up by benefactress and abolitionist Flora Howard who will have Comfort speak for her cause. May is not included in this plan; so she decides that she will find employment on her own.  May is hired on Hugo and Helena's Floating Theatre; but she needed to use the money Flora gave her to go home in order to get established.  May soon finds herself an integral part of the Floating Theatre and comes into her own.  When The Floating Theatre and Comfort's speaking tour cross paths, Flora uses May's place on a boat traveling from south to north for her own deed of transporting people to freedom, jeopardizing May's place in the Theatre.
 
The Underground River is a different look at how the Underground Railroad functioned and some of it's players.  Interesting characters and the unique setting pulled me in.  May's character has several quirks and might be on the autism spectrum if she lived in the present.  Her directfulness and untouched insight gave a very honest look at the people around her;  abolitionist Flora Howard is a bully using others to further her own cause, even Comfort kept May hidden and kept putting her down in order to raise herself up.  The true heroes, Leo, Donaldson and Hugo shine through May's eyes.  Though the book is about the Underground Railroad, the process and danger of the transport is really only half the story.  Most of the story revolves around life on the river and the theatre.  Through May's perspective, we get a good look at how the towns along the river in the North and South are all pretty similar except for the presence or absence of slavery and peoples attitudes about it.  There is also an intimate look into theatre life and the distinctiveness of a riverboat theatre.  The teamwork, diligence and creativeness of the entire crew is apparent.  I do wish May had been a willing player in the transport instead of being blackmailed, she had the compassion for the job and believed in the cause, but the fact that she is being forced marred my view a bit.  Overall, an exciting and insightful historical fiction read about the Underground Railroad and Theatre life.
 
This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
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review 2018-06-17 18:14
THE ROMANCE READER'S GUIDE TO LIFE by Sharon Pywell
The Romance Reader's Guide to Life: A Novel - Sharon Pywell

This was totally different from what I expected. It is part murder mystery, part magical realism, part contemporary romance, part historical romance, and some things I cannot name because I do not know how to name them.

From the beginning you know Lilly is dead. Neave, her sister, needs to know how. Much of the story is told through Neave's eyes but Lilly fills in her parts when it would clarify what is happening. Then you get Mr. Boppit's view. I liked Neave and Mr. Boppit (loved him actually) but Lilly should have been paddled and Neave would never have been put in danger.


As a young teen, Neave read for a neighbor lady and she "borrowed" a forbidden romance which is interspersed through the story. It parallels Neave's life and paves the way for her to grow into her life. She is stronger than she realizes and has talents she develops as they are needed.

I liked this book. It was different and fresh, not cliched.

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review 2018-06-17 11:07
An ultra-noir novel for lovers of beautiful writing and dark subjects that probe the human psyche
Return to Hiroshima - Bob van Laerhoven

Thanks to the author for providing me a paperback copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Baudelaire’s Revenge some time ago and I was fascinated and intrigued by it, so I did not think twice when the author told me he had published a new novel. Van Laerhoven’s work has won awards, been translated into several languages, and he has a unique voice that stays with the reader long after finishing the book. I don’t mean the stories and the plots of his books are not interesting (they are fascinating), but the way he writes about the historical period his stories are set in, and the characters he follows and analyses are distinct and unforgettable. His words are, at once, poetic and harsh, and they perfectly convey both, the utmost beauty and the extremes of cruelty and dejection that can be found in human beings.

When I reread my previous review, while I was preparing to write this one, I realised that much of what I had written there (apart from the specifics about the plot and the characters) applied also to this book. The author once more writes historical fiction, although this time it is closer to our era. The main action takes place in Japan in 1995, although, as the title might make us suspect, the story also goes back to 1945 (and even before) and towards the end of the book we have scenes set in that period, with all that involves.

The story is mostly narrated in the third person from the points of view of a variety of characters, a police inspector (who has to investigate the murder of a baby, a strange attack at a bank with a large number of casualties, and a bizarre assault on a tourist), a female photographer, a young man and a young woman members of a strange sect, a strange man/God/demon (who is more talked about than actually talking, although we get access to his memories at some point). There are also fragments narrated by a woman, who is in hiding when we first meet her, and whose identity and mental state will keep readers on tenterhooks.

Apart from the mystery elements and from the bizarre events, which at first seem disconnected but eventually end up by linking all the characters, I noticed some common themes. Families, family relationships, and in particular relationships between fathers and sons and daughters, take centre stage. The inspector’s search for his father and how that affects his life, the young woman’s relationship with her father, at the heart of the whole plot, the photographer’s relationship with her father, another famous photographer, and her attempts at finding her own identity as an artist… While some characters seem totally amoral (perhaps because they believe they are beyond usual morality), others are trying to deal with their guilt for things that they did or did not do. Some of the characters might feel too alien for readers to empathise with, but others experience emotions and feelings fully recognisable, and we feel sad for some of them at the end, but relieved for others. The claustrophobic and pressured atmosphere running against the background of the atomic bomb and its aftermath are perfectly rendered and help give the story an added layer of tension and depth.

This is a book of extremes and not an easy read. Although the language used is lyrical and breath-taking at times, there are harsh scenes and cruel behaviours described in detail (rape, drug use, torture, violence), so I would not recommend it to people who prefer to avoid such kinds of reading. I’ve seen it described as horror, and although it does not easily fit in that genre, in some ways it is far more unsettling and scarier than run-of-the-mill horror. This novel probes the depths of the human psyche and its darkest recesses, and you’ll follow the author there at your own peril.

I wanted to share some samples I highlighted that should not provide any spoilers for those thinking about reading it:

Books protected me from reality. I remember them as a choir of pale shapes, sometimes hysterical, other times comforting, vividly prophetic, or disquieting, like a piano being played in the dark. I’ve always been convinced that stories influence the mind: they haunt regions of the brain where reason has lost its way.

This one I find particularly relevant to this book (and I think most writers would know perfectly well what it’s getting at):

“Writers are like God. They love their characters, but take pleasure in the suffering they put them through. They torment themselves through the puppets they create and in the midst of the torment they discover a sort of rage, the rage you need to create. There’s a lot of sadomasochism in the universe and literature has its own fair share.”

Here, one of the characters talks about how she feels when she is depressed:

Her malady gave her the impression that the buildings and the people she saw were nothing more than pixels of energy bundled together by an insane artist who could shift around the worlds inside him like pieces of chess.

This ‘ultra-noir’ novel, as the blurb aptly describes it, is an extraordinary read, but is not a book for somebody looking for a typical genre thriller with slightly twisted characters. This is far darker than most of the thrillers I’ve read. But don’t let that put you off. As I said in my previous review of another one of the author’s novels, ‘if you’re looking for a complex and challenging historical novel and don´t shrink from dark subjects, this is a pretty unique book.’

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review 2018-06-16 09:36
Love Held Captive (Lone Star #3) by Shelley Shepard Gray
Love Held Captive (A Lone Star Hero’s Love Story) - Shelley Shepard Gray

Major Ethan Kelly has never been able to absolve himself of the guilt he feels for raiding a woman’s home shortly before he was taken prisoner during the Civil War. He is struggling to get through each day until he once again crosses paths with Lizbeth Barclay—the very woman he is trying to forget. Life after the war is not much different for former Captain Devin Monroe until he meets Julianne VanFleet. He knows she is the woman he’s been waiting for, but he struggles to come to terms with the sacrifices she made to survive the war. When Ethan and Devin discover that their former colonel, Adam Bushnell, is responsible for both Lizbeth’s and Julianne’s pain, they call on their former fellow soldiers to hunt him down. As the men band together to earn the trust of the women they love, Lizbeth and Julianne seek the justice they deserve in a country longing to heal.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel addresses the topic of rape. 

 

 

During the Civil War, Major Ethan Kelly and his men were pushed to do many things they weren't proud of, but did it they did in the name of survival. One regular unsavory task was raiding the homes of innocent people for supplies to help keep the troops alive. Lizbeth Barclay's home was one of the properties raided by Kelly and his men. Unbeknownst to him, prior to his arrival she had not only suffered the deaths of her family members but also a sexual attack and mutilation by another soldier. 

 

Years later, Kelly and Barclay cross paths once again --- he as a hotel guest, she one of the hotel housekeepers. Though they don't immediately remember their past interaction, Major Kelly's memory is jarred when he sees the long scar running down the side of Lizbeth's face, a scar he never forgot even if he and Lizbeth never got on a first name basis the first time around. 

 

Kelly's friend and military comrade, Captain Devin Monroe develops an acquaintance with Julianne Van Fleet that, on his end, quickly grows into an honest love for her. But when she reveals her own story of some of the unpopular methods she resorted to to survive the war and care for her ailing grandmother, Devin struggles to make peace with it all. He questions whether he can make a life with someone with such a past. Though he's tempted to walk away at first, with some time to consider he realizes Julianne's actions were no worse than any men he served with who were similarly driven to survive. Devin once again comes to Julianne wanting to offer her a chance at a life rich in love, respect, and fidelity. But before the couple's dreams can take flight, their plans are stalled with the threat of former Army acquaintance Colonel Adam Bushnell.

 

When Devin and Ethan and their ladies all come together to share their stories of struggle, they find one common denominator among all of them: Bushnell. At different times, Bushnell terrorized both Lizbeth and Julianne. Devin and Ethan further reveal that these ladies weren't his only victims, not by a longshot. His face scarred by smallpox and hard living, Bushnell likely got in the habit of assaulting women rather than wooing them because his low self-esteem convinced him women would never give him the time of day otherwise. Determined to put a stop to Bushnell's assaults, the men rally the troops (as in, calling in even more Army buddies) to hunt the man down.

 

In addition to the duel romance stories going on here, as well as the manhunt scenes, this novel, like its two predecessors within this series, includes chapters detailing the mens' experiences in a Civil War POW camp, giving the reader an idea of how those months & years of imprisonment reshaped their spirits, inevitably changing them forever. 

 

I'm just going to say it: This book had the worst title of the series. Get beyond the title though, and Love Held Captive (man, that title gives me hard cringe though -- just screams bodice-ripper) is actually the BEST story in the trilogy IMO.  While the previous two books were enjoyable but, if I'm being honest, a little on the forgettable side, this one came alive with much more real characters full of humor, honesty and depth. Julianne's story really inspires empathy in a reader, making one think on maybe not be so quick to judge someone living life in a way that doesn't line up with how we would do things. Take time to consider the limited options they might be forced to choose from.

 

Bushnell is just the right amount of despicable without becoming cartoonish and Major Kelly and Capt. Monroe are just good solid dudes. Especially Devin. Major Kelly, coming from a privileged background and well-to-do family, can come of as slightly snobbish from time to time, but Devin is quick to set him straight and Kelly is open to learn when he oversteps. Lizbeth was a bit overdramatic for me at times, and though she never became one of my favorite characters (I'm too busy shipping Devin & Julianne!), she did grow on me a little by story's end.

 

So there you go! If you, like me, found the first couple books in this series fun enough but maybe a litle flat, don't duck out just yet! Definitely get into this one because the Lone Star series, at least as I see it, is one where author Shelley Shepard Gray left the best for last! 

 

FTC DISCLAIMER:  TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2018-06-16 07:22
An Uncommon Protector (Lone Star #2) by Shelley Shephard Gray
An Uncommon Protector - Shelley Shepard Gray

The years following the war have been hard on Laurel Tracey. Both her brother and her father died in battle, and her mother passed away shortly after receiving word of their demise. Laurel has been trying to run her two hundred acre ranch as best she can. When she discovers that squatters have settled in her north pasture and have no intention of leaving, Laurel decides to use the last of her money to free a prisoner from the local jail. If she agrees to offer him room and board for one year, he will have to work for her to pay off his debt. Former soldier Thomas Baker knows he’s in trouble when he finds himself jailed because he couldn’t pay a few fines. Laurel’s offer might be his only ticket out. Though she’s everything he ever dreamed of in a woman—sweet and tender-hearted, yet strong—he’s determined to remain detached, work hard on her behalf, and count the days until he’s free again. But when cattle start dying and Laurel’s life is threatened, Thomas realizes more than just his freedom is on the line. Laurel needs someone to believe in her and protect her property. And it isn’t long before Laurel realizes that Thomas Baker is far more than just a former soldier. He’s a trustworthy hero, and he needs more than just his freedom—he needs her love and care too.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

After losing her brother and father in the Civil War, and then her mother to sickness, Laurel Tracey finds herself running the family's 200 acre ranch solo. Struggling to have some squatters evicted, Laurel makes the risky choice to hire former soldier and now convict Thomas Baker to hopefully scare them off. After she buys his freedom, Baker agrees to pay back the bond money by living and working on the ranch free for one year. His presence on the ranch moves into the role of the "uncommon protector" when he gets wind of an unidentified someone terrorizing Laurel, trying to scare her off the land. Laurel's cattle are being killed off, ominous notes are left, this mystery terrorist even resorts to arson to unnerve Laurel.

 

As with the first book in this series, this novel opens with a scene at a Civil War POW camp. These POW scenes reoccur periodically throughout the novel, providing the reader with backstory elements on our main male characters. Robert Truax, one of the primary characters from Book 1, makes a reappearance in this novel.

 

Thomas is the strong but with a good, kind heart type. The fact that he was a country boy scared of chickens I found sort of endearing. Still shocking to think that he's only supposed to be 22 though! The way he's written (dialogue and such) had me imagining him solidly in his 30s! 

 

The romantic element between Thomas & Laurel can get a little ridiculous sometimes. In one scene, when shots are fired, Thomas gets Laurel to the ground to protect her and her focus is not on fear but all about how hard his body is and how good he smells. The story as a whole has its cute moments but largely felt kind of flat to me. There's a confrontation scene near the end that I felt was well done, but the closing scene to the whole story was just too cheezy to end things on! 

 

As far as the Christian aspect in this one, it's on the lighter side. There are examples of people showing a strong belief in faith during hard times, saying prayers over meals, quick prayers for strength or to calm nerves during trying or anxious moments... but nothing out of the ordinary for characters raised in the countryside. Light spiritual, motivational sentiments: every so often a "thank the Lord" gets dropped... that, or "Trust in the Lord", "God is in control", or "The Lord takes care of his children".. but that's about the extent of the Christian aspect. 

 

Also something to note: the back cover synopsis is actually misleading in one detail. It describes Laurel's mother as passing away shortly after hearing of the demise of her husband and son. In fact, the book early on explains that Laurel's mother actually remarries a year after getting word of the deaths, lives a full 3 YEARS more before dying with her 2nd husband in an influenza epidemic. Not exactly "shortly after". A small point, as the mother is not a key character in the story, but thought I'd note it. 

 

FTC DISCLAIMER:  TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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