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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-11-08 20:24
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
The Rules of Magic: A Novel - Alice Hoffman

Find your magic.

For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man. Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk. From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse. The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy. Thrilling and exquisite, real and fantastical, The Rules of Magic is a story about the power of love reminding us that the only remedy for being human is to be true to yourself.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

A prequel novel, The Rules of Magic explores the early years of Francis (redheaded "Franny") and Bridget (nicknamed "Jet" for her long black hair) Owens, eccentric aunts to Sally and Gillian whom we first met in Practical Magic. Here we read of Franny and Jet's experiences growing up in the 1950s - 60s. Along with their brother Vincent -- the youngest of the family -- the sisters are raised in New York by their mother, Susanna Owens (who tries her hardest to closet her magic roots) and psychiatrist father, Dr. Burke-Owens. You read that right, he took his wife's name! 

 

Having suffered a tragic loss thanks to the Owens curse, Susanna, the second time around, chooses a relationship of comfort and stability rather than love. She does her best to keep her children sheltered from their magical heritage, setting up a laundry list of rules and restrictions regarding their powers, but it's of no use. Curiosity gets the best of them, particularly in the case of Jet and Vincent once their powers begin to surface: Jet learns she can read minds while Vincent begins to get prophetic, though sometimes confusing or murky flashes of the future. Franny is gifted as well, but being the most logical, scientifically minded of the siblings, she is also the most hesitant to acknowledge the truth, instead focusing on trying to figure out how to rationally explain the magic out of her reality.

 

 

Image result for practical magic aunts

 

The year Franny turns seventeen, the siblings are invited for a summer stay at the Owens ancestral home in Massachusetts with Susanna's aunt Isabelle. This summer proves to be a monumental one for the Owens kids, as they learn lessons about life that will affect, maybe even alter, their personalities and life paths forever after. Themes / messages Hoffman weaves into these lessons include: embracing who you are at your core, pushing through fear and going for a chance at real love (regardless of consequences), finding yourself strongly nostalgic for home after a time of wanting so badly to leave it, dauntlessly pursuing what you truly want in life, and learning not to waste the finite time of your lifespan being petty or fearful. Instead, live in a space of love, joy and kindness.

 

 

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It is also during this important summer that the Owens siblings meet April. Not only do they later learn that she is a distant cousin, but it is during this summer that April conceives a child. That child is Regina Owens, the mother of Sally and Gillian, the stars of Practical Magic. If you remember from Practical Magic, it was also mentioned that in the story of Maria Owens, the originator of the curse, the father of her child was left unknown. Hoffman names the father in The Rules of Magic, and I gotta say, I was surprised to read that she chose a real life historical figure! Thinking about it though, WHO she chooses DOES play in well to the whole witch theme threaded throughout the two books. 

 

"Maria Owens did what she did for a reason. She was young and she thought damning anyone who loved us would protect us. But what she had with that terrible man wasn't love. She didn't understand that when you truly love someone and they love you in return, you ruin your lives together. That is not a curse, it's what life is, my girl. We all come to ruin, we turn to dust, but whom we love is the thing that lasts."

 

 

Image result for practical magic aunts

 

 

Wow, did I like this installment of the Owens Ladies ever so much more than Practical Magic! Just all around, the plot is richer, the characters more entertaining and more developed, secrets or elements from the other book revealed, better explained, or just tied together in an impressive way.... Loved it all! Honestly maybe even one of my favorite reads of the year!

 

Anyone else get at least a tinge of Branwell Bronte vibes from Vincent? At least in the early portions of the story? I just couldn't shake that image ... what with Vincent's moodiness, mysterious outings all night, the heavy drinking. Even something about Vincent's early interest in the occult and the Magus book gave me that imagery of what I've read of Branwell (he always struck me as the most emo of the Bronte siblings lol).

 

The girl was carrying a backpack. A blue journal peeking out caught Franny's attention. It was one of the notebooks she {Franny} had left in the library. "Are you writing?" she asked. 

 

"Trying to," the girl said. 

 

"Don't try, do." She realized she sounded exactly like Aunt Isabelle when she was irritated. She hadn't meant to be a wet blanket and had no wish to discourage this clever little girl, so she changed her tone. "But trying is a start. What is your story?"

 

"My life."

 

"Ah."

 

"If you write it down, it doesn't hurt as much."

 

"Yes, I can imagine."

 

The girl scampered onto the rocks to join her friends. She waved and Franny waved back.

 

As she walked home, Franny thought that the girl at the lake had been perfectly right. It helped to write things down. It ordered your thoughts and if you were lucky revealed feelings you didn't know you had. That same afternoon Franny wrote a long letter to Haylin. She had never told anyone what her aunt had whispered with her last breath. But now she wrote it down, and when she did she realized it was what she believed, despite the curse.

 

Love more, her aunt had said. Not less.

 

If you, like me, struggled with Practical Magic, I urge you to give this one a go. Maybe the time gap is just what Hoffman needed to get this family's story just right, considering Practical Magic came out in the mid 90s, while The Rules of Magic was released just last year. 

 

 

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review 2018-09-23 02:44
The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts
The Solace of Water - Elizabeth Byler Younts

After leaving her son’s grave behind in Montgomery, Alabama, Delilah Evans has little faith that moving to her husband’s hometown in Pennsylvania will bring a fresh start. Enveloped by grief and doubt, the last thing Delilah imagines is becoming friends with her reclusive Amish neighbor, Emma Mullet—yet the secrets that keep Emma isolated from her own community bond her to Delilah in delicate and unexpected ways. Delilah’s eldest daughter, Sparrow, bears the brunt of her mother’s pain, never allowed for a moment to forget she is responsible for her brother’s death. When tensions at home become unbearable for her, she seeks peace at Emma’s house and becomes the daughter Emma has always wanted. Sparrow, however, is hiding secrets of her own—secrets that could devastate them all.

With the white, black, and Amish communities of Sinking Creek at their most divided, there seems to be little hope for reconciliation. But long-buried hurts have their way of surfacing, and Delilah and Emma find themselves facing their own self-deceptions. Together they must learn how to face the future through the healing power of forgiveness. Eminently relevant to the beauty and struggle in America today, The Solace of Water offers a glimpse into the turbulent 1950s and reminds us that friendship rises above religion, race, and custom—and has the power to transform a broken heart.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel touches upon the topic of self harm.

 

 

After the death of their young son, Carver, African American couple Delilah Evans and her preacher husband, Malachi, decide to move the family from Montgomery, Alabama back to the small town community of Sinking Creek, PA near where Malachi grew up. Malachi gets to work settling in as the new preacher of a local church in the area, but he finds resistance in his congregation. When he sits down with a family member for perspective on the problem, it's explained to him that he's simply been gone from the community too long and people need their trust with him restored. 

 

Delilah blames Carver's death on her daughter, Sparrow, who was supposed to be watching Carver when tragedy struck. Right from the beginning of the story, it's obvious that Delilah takes out her grieving on Sparrow in cruel ways. Struggling with feelings of guilt and abandonment by her mother, Sparrow, over the course of the novel, turns to self harm to alleviate her inner pain, turning to things such as stinging nettles, glass, even a clothes wringer to leave marks on her physical body as a way to let off steam from inner turmoil. Sparrow comes to find comfort in the presence of Emma, a local Amish woman who knows a thing or two about loss herself.

 

She had this warm milk sort of way about her. A body just couldn't walk away from somebody like that. You just want to drink it in 'cause you don't know if you ever gonna meet anyone like that again.

>> Sparrow, on getting to know Emma

 

 

But once the interactions come to the attention of Delilah, both she and Malachi warn Sparrow that she should probably keep her distance. This novel is set in the racially tense times of the 1950s and interracial friendships (and relationships otherwise) play a big part in the novel's dramatic moments. Emma hears similar warnings from her Amish neighbors and even her husband, a head deacon within the Amish community. It doesn't concern them so much that their new neighbors are black, but simply that they are "Englishers", or non-Amish. In their own ways, both the African-American and Amish communities push on these characters the damaging idea that "we'll all do a lot better if we just stick to our own kind." But as we the readers know, the world doesn't really work like that. We either cultivate love, kindness and appreciation for a multi-cultural world, or our lives face potential implosion, just as the characters in The Solace of Water learn for themselves.

 

"Since when do you know them?" John asked (after he discovers Emma knows the Evans family)

 

"I met them when they moved in. They're a nice family."

 

"The bishop said to leave them all alone because there always seems to be trouble between them and the white Englishers. We aren't like either of them and need to keep to ourselves."

 

Within Emma, we see a vessel for change. She has a poet's soul, full of curiosity in the stories of others, a love of words and a desire for knowledge. But she struggles against the darker corners of her life that threaten to tamp out her light. Her husband's secret struggle with alcoholism, his dislike of her "fancy lines" (her habit of crafting her own bits of poetry) that he sees as a form of vanity, quite the sin in Amish culture. Emma is weighted down with heavy guilt from being an enabler for her husband's drinking. She knows it's not only wrong but dangerous as well. It's not addressed directly, but parts of Emma's story suggest that perhaps John turned to drinking as a way to cope with crippling social anxiety, but over the years his bouts of aggression seem to have escalated along with the amount of alcohol he needs to consume to feel able to function. 

 

Emma's teenage son, Johnny, has had years of spoiling from his father and is progressively drawing more and more toward English ways -- drinking, late night carousing, sneaking pornographic magazines, even befriending an out-and-out racist! What changes Johnny is the first sight of Sparrow, whom he describes as the prettiest, most interesting and different girl he's ever met. You can imagine the firestorm that develops for a man who simultaneously maintains a friendship with a racist AND secretly tries to court a black teenage girl!

 

**Sidenote: I wasn't all that impressed with Johnny as a character. I couldn't help but feel that he saw Sparrow as something exotic and interesting in his Amish life rather than someone he honestly wanted to have a deep loving friendship with... even if he does talk about running away together (I think that was more about "young man caught up in the moment" than anything) and tells his mother that "Sparrow taught me things I never knew before"... What? WHEN? Their interaction throughout the whole book added up to only a handful of rushed conversations in secret! I just didn't buy that his feelings ran as deep as he claimed.**

 

The novel is presented in alternating POVs, rotating between Delilah, daughter Sparrow, and Amish neighbor Emma. To date, the novel seems to have gotten solid 4-5 star ratings across the board but I just did not have the same reaction as so many others. To be honest, I actually struggled to get to the end of this book. I DID finish it but for a book this size (under 400 pages), it took me WEEKS to get there. Highly unusual for me, especially for a historical fiction novel -- one of my favorite genres! The pace felt molasses-slow... which is sometimes nice in a novel if the writer brings the right tone... but when you combine slow with a deeply depressing plot for most of the novel... that alone left me exhausted enough.

 

But then add in Delilah as a character. That woman had a personality that just came off as almost straight vinegar. Yes, it is explained later (through her conversations with Malachi and later, Emma) that much of her acidic demeanor is driven by a combination of fear and grieving, even fear that letting go of the grieving will somehow dishonor the memory of Carver. Full disclosure: I do not have children, have never personally experienced the loss of my own child. BUT, in my own circle of family and friends, there are a number of women who have had that experience in one form or another, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, or tragedy. With that, I can say that none of the women in my circle have ever come anywhere near the unpleasantness of Delilah. They've known the sadness for sure, but they went on to live the best lives they could, full of love and appreciation for the people they still had around them. Delilah was just EXHAUSTING in the way she never gave anyone or anything a chance, she just assumed everything was more misery in disguise ... at least for a large part of the story.

 

So what kept me reading? Well, this is one of those stories that does have its important, moving moments, even if they are few and far between for some readers. But as I said, I stuck with it, and the plot's pace FINALLY picked up for me around the 250 page mark. But remember, the entire book is less than 400 pages. That's a long wait to a payoff. But readers who choose to stay with it do witness revelatory conversations, where women ask the important questions such as "Is that what you want --- to be separate?" and we come to realize that though the details and the POVs may differ, one commonality bonds these women together: they are all desperate for unconditional love and affectionate touch, something to remind them they are still important to others... yet their actions show just how scared all of them are to voice that need.

 

Aaron believed his arrival was a surprise, but I knew better. John's forgetfulness was getting worse the more he drank. His gentleness toward me was diminishing like dampness whisked away in a May breeze. And anytime he was gentle, I was filled with my own regrets and in my guilt I pushed him away. 

>> Emma

 

Good concepts for a novel, the problem for me mainly fell on the characters not having enough dimension for me to have much emotional investment in them.

 

 

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 2018-09-12 02:26
A Love Made New (Amish of Birch Creek #3) by Kathleen Fuller
A Love Made New (An Amish of Birch Creek Novel) - Kathleen Fuller

It seems as if everyone is falling in love in Birch Creek, including Abigail Schrock. But when heartbreak descends on her already fragile world, she can’t help but feel that if she’d only been a little prettier, she could be on her way down the aisle. To make matters worse, Abigail’s two sisters have found love, and all Abigail can seem to find is the chocolate she has stashed away in the pantry. Asa Bontrager has never had trouble with the ladies in his Amish community—his good looks have always gotten him far. Which is why he’s baffled by the call he’s received from God to pursue Abigail, a woman who seems determined to turn him away. Can Abigail find the peace and joy she so desperately desires? Will she allow herself to stop running and melt into the embrace of unforeseen comfort? If she does, she may discover a love powerful enough to restore her hope in a promising future.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

This series has been following the emotional growth of three Amish sisters -- the Schrock ladies; Sadie, Joanna and Abigail -- after a personal tragedy. Abigail, the 22 year old less pretty middle sister is trying to heal from her own recent run-in with heartbreak. Though she gave her heart to Joel, he turned around and promptly dumped her for perky, petite Rebecca. 

 

Then in walks Asa Bontrager. Previously known as a bit of a ladies man (by Amish standards), the handsome charmer believes he is given a divine message one day to pursue lonely, hurting Abigail. But Miss Abigail is a little self-conscious about her recent weight gain from secret food binges and is not altogether certain she wants a new romance right now. Or so she says. But Asa has big plans on how to bring down her defenses and heal her wounded heart. His speech to help ease her fears about her weight gain were a good start, I have to admit:

 

"You need to stop cutting yerself down...I'm not going to judge you if you want donuts or a hamburger or a candy bar. It doesn't matter to me what you eat. It shouldn't matter to anyone else, either...You deserve someone who will treat you well and put you first in his life. Someone who will love you the way you are, for the rest of his life, who thinks you're perfect the way you look right now."

 

*Though part of me also thinks, it's sweet, but some of what he says to her toes the line between being supportive in a healthy way versus being an enabler to bad choices. 

 

Readers also get an update on Sol, who shows a noticeable temperament shift in this book.. is he becoming... likeable?! Thanks to a meddling mother with an itch for matchmaking, Irene Bailer is wrangled into working as Sol's assistant, painting his birdhouses. Irene proves to be a sweet influence on Sol, teaching him how to forgive himself for past indiscretions and struggles with alcoholism, loosen up and find his inner child again. 

 

As the reader, I sometimes struggled with how believable the romance between Asa and Abigail was --- nothing between them, I actually grew to like them together, but in the beginning it seemed like Asa's intensely deep feelings for Abigail came out of nowhere. I get that he got the idea to court her because he felt he was divinely inspired but guy had no chill at the start! Ease into things, son! Wouldn't a guy want to make sure he ACTUALLY had feelings for a woman and wasn't just doing something because God said so?! But as I said, he and Abigail do end up as a good match, IMO. I had a good laugh at Asa's utter SHOCK at Abigail's dislike for anything pickled. 

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ 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. 

 

___________

 

My reviews for the previous books in this series:

 

#1 A Reluctant Bride

#2 An Unbroken Heart

 

*Note: a fourth installment, The Teacher's Bride, is due to be released this December.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-08 18:21
When Mountains Move (Free #2) by Julie Cantrell
When Mountains Move - Julie Cantrell

In a few hours, Millie will say “I do” to Bump Anderson, a man who loves her through and through. But would he love her if he knew the secret she keeps? Millie’s mind is racing and there seems to be no clear line between right and wrong. Either path leads to pain, and she’ll do anything to protect the ones she loves. So she decides to bury the truth and begin again, helping Bump launch a ranch in the wilds of Colorado. But just when she thinks she’s left her old Mississippi life behind, the facts surface in the most challenging way. That’s when Millie’s grandmother, Oka, arrives to help. Relying on her age-old Choctaw traditions, Oka teaches Millie the power of second chances. Millie resists, believing redemption is about as likely as moving mountains. But Oka stands strong, modeling forgiveness as the only true path to freedom. Together, Bump, Millie, and Oka fight against all odds to create a sustainable ranch, all while learning that the important lessons of their pasts can be used to build a beautiful future.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

* WARNING: If you haven't read the first book in this duology, INTO THE FREE, there are spoilers below. 

 

 

So here we are in the second book and Millie has made a choice regarding a direction for her life. She remains unsure if it's the right choice, but it is a choice nonetheless. She knows she loves Bump, but does she love him enough to make it last forever? She's at least willing to give things a try. 

 

Moving forward as newlyweds, they relocate from Mississippi to Colorado, where Bump's Mississippi boss owns a ranch. Bump is hired as the ranch manager, his boss hoping that Bump's skills with  horses will turn the property into a thriving livestock business. In return, Bump hopes to set aside start up money for his own veterinary practice. The Andersons are getting the property to live on rent free, but the house on site is, to put it mildly, ROUGH.

 

While Millie is elbows deep in Suzy Homemaker mode, she struggles with a secret from her old life in Mississippi that she hesitates to reveal to Bump. Almost as if on cue, who makes a surprise arrival at the new homestead by Millie's Choctaw grandmother, Oka. Oka knows a thing or two about secrets and facing hardships head-on. Her presence becomes a much needed ballast for Millie while she gathers strength to face her fears and have that all-important but tough conversation with her husband.

 

To complicate things though, Bump seems to be a little too friendly (in Millie's opinion) with their new redheaded neighbor, Kat. Millie begins to wonder if Bump regrets his decision to start this new life with Millie, which once again leads her down the path of thoughts of whether she herself was too hasty in her own choices. 

 

Though this story is supposed to take place during the years of World War 2, it didn't have much of that feel for me. Minus the occasional mention of food rations, dreaded telegrams from the War Dept. or use of pickup trucks, this could easily be set a hundred years earlier. I was a little disappointed by this, as I'm a huge historical fiction junkie who looks forward to being immersed in the time period I'm promised as the reader, but in this case I could overlook it because of the good story and the important themes behind it.

 

Once again (as she did with Into The Free), Cantrell illustrates the power of having a good support system around you as you move through life, people who honestly believe in you and truly want to encourage you to pursue your dreams. With Bump and Millie, it's also a pretty honest look at the rougher edges of marriage. How do you hang in there when the rosy glow fades a bit and real life sets in? It's tough because Bump was pretty likeable in the first book, but here he gets progressively less so. When Kat comes on scene, Bump's actions get slyly more and more disrespectful toward Millie, the way he dismisses her hard work or knocks her cooking in front of others, just as an example. Meanwhile, Millie is silently showing / battling symptoms of PTSD... but when your husband gets to where he seems annoyed by your very presence, how do you talk about such things?

 

Millie hangs in there though and eventually finds the means to craft a moderately happy life for herself. Personally, I don't really buy what Bump has to say near the end of the book. I'd even go so far as to say she settled. And it irked me that Bump makes himself out to be so innocent and Millie ends up being the apologetic one... Sure, Millie has moments where she catches herself wondering about River, but looking at Bump... there are some scenes in this story that looked seriously shady from a wife's perspective. I do kind of get Millie's line of thought when she explains why she's made these choices, but I couldn't help but close the book feeling that there had to be something so much more fulfilling out there for her than what she ended up with.

 

* For book groups: the most recent edition of the paperback includes discussion guide and writing prompts. 

 

Something else to note -- while another of Cantrell's books, The Feathered Bone, has been packaged to match the new covers of Into The Free and its sequel When Mountains Move, I believe The Feathered Bone is actually not tied to Millie's story, but in fact its own separate story. 

 

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ 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. 

 

----------------

 

My reviews for Julie Cantrell's other books:

 

Into the Free (Free #1)

The Feathered Bone 

Perennials

 

 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-09-08 15:54
Into The Free (Free #1) by Julie Cantrell
Into the Free - Julie Cantrell

In Depression-era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds longs to escape the madness that marks her world. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she struggles to find a place where she really belongs. For answers, Millie turns to the Gypsies who caravan through town each spring. The travelers lead Millie to a key that unlocks generations of shocking family secrets. When tragedy strikes, the mysterious contents of the box give Millie the tools she needs to break her family’s longstanding cycle of madness and abuse. Through it all, Millie experiences the thrill of first love while fighting to trust the God she believes has abandoned her. With the power of forgiveness, can Millie finally make her way into the free?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel includes scenes of domestic abuse, rape, suicide and violence towards animals. 

 

 

In Depression Era Mississippi, Millie Reynolds is a young girl dreaming of the day when she can escape her oppressive life with an abusive, alcoholic father and and a mother who refuses to stand up to him. Millie is of mixed race, her father being Choctaw, her white mother disowned by her well-off family for marrying him. 

 

For six years straight, Millie watches a band of Travelers roll through town each spring, but one year she plucks up the courage to actually speak with them. She ends up befriending River, a young man within the group. Millie grows increasingly drawn to him, especially his deep love for nature and literature. One day, River suggests Millie go with the Traveler group (most referred to as gypsies in this story, but see the note at the bottom of this review) when they get ready to leave again. Just as she's about to take him up on the offer, tragedy strikes and within just a few short months, Millie (still under age, btw) finds herself orphaned. 

 

"She's not crazy. She's just sad. You would be too. How would you feel? If they hauled you off. In a straight jacket. Just because -- you needed -- to cry -- for a little while?"

 

Though tempted to stay, River makes the choice to carry on with his group. Millie can't bring herself to go but hopes opportunity will arise soon to bring River back her way. In the meantime, Millie agrees to move in with Diana Miller, the nurse who looked after Millie's mother in the hospital prior to her death. Shortly after moving in, Millie is stunned to find that this one small choice proves pivotal in her finally finding answers to long buried secrets within her own family. Here, of all places! As one of the characters in this duology likes to say, no such thing as coincidence (or so it would seem)!

 

I'm  certain I have never seen such a perfect house in all my life. Everything in its place. No dust on the floor. No broken hinges, hole-punched walls, or mildewed windowpanes. I am intimidated by the sudden lack of chaos. Knowing that life could be like this. That home could mean something secure and safe. 

 

As Millie works through these discoveries and mourns the absence of River, she meets another young man, Kenneth "Bump" Anderson, a skilled veterinarian and horse breaker who worked the same rodeo circuit as Millie's father. Almost immediately, Bump seems enamored with Millie, but of course wants to play it cool. Bump places himself in Millie's path as an honest, reliable, caring friend who gets her a job at the same rodeo. Not only does she get a chance to work with the horses she loves and gain some free therapy out of it, but Bump has an excuse to be around her that much more! While his feelings for her intensify, she's just a big ol' emotional mess inside, unsure of what she really wants out of life anymore. Millie sees and appreciates Bump's steadiness and kind heart, but is that enough when compared to the fire River used to bring out in her?

 

If only we didn't have to go to church. It's the only time Diana lets me leave the house, and she insists I join their family every Sunday morning. At nine o'clock sharp, we all pile into the third pew to the right... It's the longest hour of my week. Sitting on the cold, hard bench, all dressed up in a fancy new dress, acting a certain way to impress the churchgoers. I do as expected and play the part of a "fine young Christian girl".

 

But everything about the sermons, the customs, the tithing -- it all seems so hypocritical. Especially when the preacher talks about Indians and how they worship false gods. Says they will burn in hell for eternity, as their ancestors have done before them. Same goes for Mormons, Jews, Catholics. Of course, he also counts unwed mothers and those who have divorced. Negroes, even if they do go to a Christian church. From what I can tell, anyone not white-skinned, baptized, married and putting money into this very offering plate every Sunday is destined to infinite torture. "Heaven must not be a very big place," I whisper to Camille. She laughs and Diana gives us a look. 

 

Of course, suicide results in eternal damnation. And consuming alcohol too. Dancing. Swearing. Even thinking of sin is as bad as committing sin, according to this guy. So, the way I figure it, with Choctaw blood, an alcoholic father, and a mother who used a secret stash of morphine to take her own life, I have no choice but to burn in hell too. Pretty dresses and shiny shoes won't help me.

 

Despite all that, some folks still hold out hope to save my soul. My name is on the prayer list every week, which means families like Diana's are talking about me over supper, lifting me up to the heavens. The rodeo-trash half-breed. 

 

Though the plot is tinged in sadness and deals with some heavy topics, there is still a pervasive warmth and sense of comfort to the overall tone of the story. Maybe it's Millie's hopefulness that one day all this craziness will make sense. Maybe it's the idea that family doesn't necessarily have to be blood-related. One just finds themselves matching Millie's emotions as they read: you feel for her, struggle with her, yet you can't help but feel optimism for her because it's undeniable that she's got a good support crew around her, even if she doesn't always notice them in the darker moments.

 

I don't want to end up like Mama, weak and submissive. I also don't want to turn out like Diana, with a lack of trust due to secrets untold. I sure don't want to follow Jack's course, abusive and aggressive, fighting against love and loss even after the chance for a fresh new start. And I don't want to spin out of control like Bill Miller, bitter and vicious because I didn't get my way. Maybe there is another choice... I am here. I am here for a reason. For something more than to just breathe, blink, swallow. I am worthy of happiness and love. Worthy of a good life filled with good people who love me in return. And no one, no one has the right to rob me of that peace.

 

 

Our main girl is an admirably, honestly flawed character. Her emotions run hot, she second-guesses herself pretty regularly, she has struggles with faith and gets frustrated with God. But through it all her heart is in the right place. She honestly cares for everyone in her life, even those who wrong her. Millie's story is an illustration of learning to never let anyone tamp out your inner light, steal your smile, etc. Through Millie's experiences, author Julie Cantrell also lightly plays with the topic of afterlife and the thin veil between those we've lost and how they continue to help us on this plane. An additional reminder to readers that you're never quite as alone as you might sometimes feel. 

 

* Note on the term "gypsy": At the end of this book, author Julie Cantrell includes a note which explains that while the term "gypsy" is actually considered derogatory throughout most of Traveler or Romany culture, for historical accuracy she decided to keep it in the text. 

 

* For Book Groups: the most recently published paperback edition includes pages of in-depth discussion questions, an author interview, and a "Just For Book Groups" section where Cantrell encourages groups to reach out to her (via social media) with requests for video chats / interviews.

 

Something else to note -- while another of Cantrell's books, The Feathered Bone, has been packaged to match the new covers of Into The Free and its sequel When Mountains Move, I believe The Feathered Bone is actually not tied to Millie's story, but in fact its own separate story. 

 

 

 

FTC DisclaimerTNZ 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. 

 

_____________

 

My reviews for Julie Cantrell's other books:

 

When Mountains Move (Free #2)

The Feathered Bone 

Perennials

 

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