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review 2018-06-11 15:49
All The Lonely People by Jess Riley
All the Lonely People - Jess Riley

WANTED: a whole new family to share holidays with. Please have a good heart and be a thoughtful, polite person. No sociopaths, no pedophiles, no fans of the Kardashians. We're not weirdos, I promise. I love old Steve Martin movies, new Steve Martin banjo tunes, Indian food, and reruns of Bob Ross painting happy little trees. So if you're looking for something other than the typical family dysfunction this Christmas, drop us a line.

After losing her beloved mother to cancer, 37-year-old Jaime Collins must confront the ugly fact that she and her siblings don't actually like one another. At all. Fueled by grief and an epic argument at Thanksgiving dinner, Jaime decides to divorce her siblings and posts an ad on Craigslist for a new family with whom to share Christmas dinner.

What happens next is a heartwarming, funny, and surprising journey to forgiveness and healing. Is blood really thicker than water? What makes a family? And how far do we have to go to find our way back home again?

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel touches upon the topics of cutting, depression, abusive relationships and attempted suicide.

 

Thirty-seven year old Jaime Collins recently lost her mom to cancer. Now the holiday season is just around the corner and Jaime could not be less enthused. She has no interest in holiday shopping or putting on smiles around her insensitive brother and meddlesome sister-in-law. Things come to a head when she ends up having a blow-out fight with her siblings over Thanksgiving dinner. Riding the high emotions of that night, Jaime goes home and decides to place a Craigslist ad for a new family for Christmas. She requests responses from anyone else feeling alone or fed up with their own family situation. She crafts the ad while intoxicated, posts, and within 12 hours has 26 responses to sift through. The winners for her Christmas party include transgender Chris, daschund-loving Paul, welding artist Evelyn (who also happens to have a dander allergy) and Alyssa, a science major struggling through her own grieving process after recently losing her boyfriend in a car wreck.

 

 

All the Lonely People

re-release cover for this book

 

 

While this story certainly has its laughs, it may not be for the more sensitive readers out there because plenty of hard-hitting topics are addressed over the course of Jaime's story. There's also a fair bit of crude language and dark / off-color / risque humor (ie. jokes about strap-ons) implemented in the process. In addition to witnessing our main character work through the grieving process over the death of her mother, we (the readers) are also informed of Jaime's father-in-law battling Alzheimer's, Jaime herself struggling with fertility issues (her journey through IVF treatments), as well as the plot also bringing up the topics of cutting, depression, attempted suicide, abusive relationships and struggles with gender identity.

 

That night, I sleep on the couch for the first time in years... Erik finds me downstairs in the morning, a hurt look on his face. "We never sleep apart," he says, like a wounded little boy. I tell him he was snoring, that I couldn't sleep, that I didn't want to wake him with my tossing and turning. The real reason is this: I'd simply wanted to be alone with my sadness, giving it space to spread out, because there wasn't enough room for all three of us in the queen-sized bed...Part of it was that I felt like a broken shard from a smashed vase, and I only wanted to spend time with the other broken pieces because maybe we could glue ourselves together and hold water again. Erik wasn't a broken shard. He was a whole vase, forged from some space-age unbreakable polymer. He bounced when he fell. I shattered into sharp little pieces waiting to slice into the next person unfortunate enough to walk into the room barefoot. Or as Frankie would say, I'd cut a bitch. And then feel really bad about it.

 

Even though I can appreciate that important topics were brought to light in the unfolding of this story, and the story itself is solidly entertaining, it did go on a little long for me. By Chapter 17 I was feeling like the story could've been sufficiently wrapped up, all questions answered... a feeling that continued on right through Chapter 26... and even after that you get three more chapters! I also didn't always love Jaime. In fact, she struck me as a being a little petty with her dad near the end of the book.

 

In the acknowledgements, Jess Riley gives a shout-out to author friend Jen Lancaster.

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review 2018-05-10 12:51
Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons
Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English - Natasha Solomons

1937: Jack and Sadie Rosenblum and their one year old daughter, Elizabeth, are just one family in a crowd of Jewish refugees who emigrate to England. Jack wants to embrace British culture but runs into some roadblocks, one being that over the course of 15 years in England he never quite loses his accent. Jack ponders changing his surname to something more English, but Sadie, proud of their Jewish roots, is against the idea.

 

Being denied access to all the country clubs he applies to, Jack gets the idea to start his own. He becomes obsessed with perfecting all the details of the club and golf course. Meanwhile, wife Sadie suffers social ridicule as the family is deemed "crazy".

 

Jack also finds British humor lost on him. He tries to read Wodenhouse's Jeeves & Wooster series but it turns him off from trying any more English Lit. A strain grows between Jack and Sadie as she continues to mourn the death of her brother and the loss of her old life in Germany. She tries to cope with hobbies like gardening and baking, but it's pretty much just an emotional Band-Aid.

 

There were blips of interest for me within the plot, moments of humor or a powerful line here and there but largely it struck me as a lot more dry and "meh" than I was expecting. That said though, something about this story made me think that with the right director and screenwriter, this could be translated into a fun little film.

 

* Funny Edit: Just saw on the author's Amazon profile that her author blurb says she's a screenwriter LOL

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review 2018-05-07 16:11
Forgiveness In The First Degree (True Crime Account) by Rondol Hammer & Phillip Robinson, with Margot Starbuck
Forgiveness In The First Degree - Rondol Hammer,Phillip Robinson,Margot Starbuck

The gun was never supposed to go off. When a drug dealer assured twenty-nine-year-old Ron Hammer and his brother-in-law that they could make some quick easy money, they were intrigued. He promised them that when a local grocer delivered a bag of money to his store to cash Friday paychecks, they only needed to show him a gun and he d hand over the bag. But high on meth and dulled by liquor, they ended up in a scuffle with their target, and the gun accidentally fired. And when Phillip Robinson rushed from the shelves he d been stocking to investigate the commotion at the front of the store, he saw his father lying on the sidewalk, dying. The lives of Ron Hammer and Phillip Robinson, whose paths should only have ever crossed at the grocery checkout line, became inextricably linked by one foolish decision that would shatter a web of lives. Over three decades the two men came to discover not only that they both needed to be set free, but that in God s unlikely economy of redemption their liberation was bound up with one another. Like the famous prodigal son and his dutiful older brother, the moving story of Phillip Robinson and Rondol Hammer reveals how two men wrestling with law and grace discover unlikely redemption. 

~from back cover

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This book discusses the topics of attempted suicide, murder and otherwise extreme violence (mainly in the form of prison stories that describe scenes of eyes being gouged out and ears bitten off)

 

In 1986, twenty-seven year old auto mechanic & Vietnam veteran Ron Hammer, high on meth, carries out armed robbery at a local grocery store. In the process, Ron unintentionally kills the father of the store's assistant manager, Phillip Robinson. Hammer, along with his brother-in-law / robbery accomplice / fellow meth addict, flees the scene with the money. Though he evades escape for a time, Ron is eventually caught and sent to prison. The prison sentence forces him to quit meth cold turkey. It is also there in prison that he finds religion, leading him to the decision to approach the Robinson family with his honest apology for his irreversible actions. 

 

Though at the time of Ron's initial attempt at apology Phillip is a practicing Christian and aspiring pastor, the road to forgiving Ron proves to be a decades long journey. It is not until 1994 that Phillip finds himself ready to honestly hear Ron out on the topic of forgiveness. Once at that place, though, Phillip discovers the blessing that comes in the form of an emotional weight lifted he didn't even entirely realize he was carrying!

 

The format of this book alternates between Ron's point of view of the events, and then Phillip's. As far as the flow of the writing itself, I found Ron's portions of the story more compelling. When it came to Phillip's portions... him losing his father in such a violent way is undeniably tragic, but from a sheer matter of reading enjoyment, something about Phillip's portions came off as more boring and preachy. Not surprising, I suppose, as Phillip IS a preacher, but I'm just sharing the truth of my reading experience. 

 

Still, this story is an important one to be shared because look at the message it presents: a man finds it in his heart to bestow honest forgiveness on the man who murdered his father. If a person can do that, it makes any other seemingly "unforgiveable" dealbreaker-type situation easily traversable, doesn't it? There are also takeaways from the perspective of Ron: one can come back from a life thrown into a tailspin via drug addiction and go on to have a powerful testimony of a life bound to help others out of their emotional mires. The book definitely gives you material to think on. 

 

NOTE: This book does give spoilers for the film The Outlaw Josie Wales and Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables

 

FTC Disclaimer:  Blue Ridge CWC and FaithHappenings Publishers 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 2018-05-07 11:16
Love Him Anyway (memoir) by Abby Banks
Love Him Anyway - Abby Banks

One night can change everything. Abby Banks put her healthy, happy infant son to sleep, but when she awoke the next morning, she felt as though she was living a nightmare. Her son, Wyatt, was paralyzed. There was no fall, no accident, no warning. A rare autoimmune disease attacked his spinal cord, and there was no cure. In an instant, all her hopes and dreams for him were wiped away. The life she envisioned for her family was gone, and she was frozen by the fear of a future she never imagined. As she struggled to come to grips with her son's devastating diagnosis and difficult rehabilitation, she found true hope in making a simple choice, a choice to love anyway-to love her son, the life she did not plan, and the God of hope, who is faithful even when the healing does not come. In Love Him Anyway, Abby shares her family's journey from heartbreak to triumph and reminds us that hope and joy can be found in life's hardest places.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

In this Christian-based, medical themed memoir, author Abby Banks writes of the years she and her husband spent praying and pushing through infertility struggles, eventually having two children via invitro methods. So when pregnancy #3 came along by natural means, the couple felt both shocked and blessed. Some months after their son, Wyatt, was born, the Banks put him to bed one night only to find the shock of their lives the next morning. Overnight, Wyatt seemed to have developed noticeable, unnatural mobility issues. Rushing him to the hospital, the first doctor brushed off the child's condition as a matter of "simply fatigue and dehydration". 

 

Feeling unsettled with this diagnosis, the Bankses pursue a second opinion. In comes a veteran nurse who, with a quick visual examination, dismisses the "simply dehydration" opinion and calls for further tests. Good thing, because a second doctor brings the truth out: Wyatt (still an infant, remember) had developed paralysis due to a rare autoimmune disease attacking his spinal column. To add to the strain of this moment, Abby Banks was receiving this news during the time she herself was being treated for thyroid cancer!

 

Now, when I first looked at this book -- took in the synopsis, considered the title -- I was a little confused and disturbed. My mind was thinking, "well, YEAH, should be kind of a given that any decent human would love their child no matter what... so what's with the title? Is this one of those stories where I'm expected to applaud someone for them doing what they should do naturally?" I realize that may come off harsh, but I'm an honest reviewer, one that has to make note of whatever rings odd or confusing in my mind as I'm reading so that I can hopefully make sense of it further on in the book... so, yes, these kind of thoughts / questions run through my mind as I'm mentally making notes to later work into a review. Let me just state now then, that my confusion on this matter was quickly cleared up over a few different points.

 

Firstly, I gather that the idea for the title came from a moment shortly after Abby and her husband are given the news that Wyatt would likely only have about a 33% chance of recovery from his condition, so the odds were high that he would remain wheelchair-dependent for much, if not all, of his life. When Abby and Jason try to explain to Wyatt's siblings, their elder son, Jay, responds, "We're just going to love him anyway." Abby shares her own reflections on their new reality with these words:

 

"I could drown myself in a sea of anger because life hasn't turned out the way I planned, but I know that life is a gift, and I want to fight to make ours amazing, no matter what it looks like... I cried for Wyatt and for the innocence and wisdom in Jay's precious answer. He was right. When we don't know what to do next and are crippled by fear, we love. We love until the fear is gone. When we can find no answers and can't make sense of the situations in our life, we love. Love will always be the right answer. When our faith is weak and hope is hard to find, love will carry us through."

 

Banks emphasises throughout the whole book that throughout this challenging journey, she wants to always strive to find purpose in the pain. Optimism and humor are a noticeable constant within Abby & Jason's story, which you have to admire, considering the horrifically bad luck this family has been put through! But that pursuit of the joyful seems to have been been passed on to Wyatt, as numerous times throughout this memoir Abby notes her son wearing a beaming smile throughout a slew of procedures, treatments and grim diagnoses.

 

Our nurse told us that it looked like an episode of House. The doctors and residents were searching for answers in books and running through every possibility, but they couldn't find an answer. Nothing made sense. Why would a seven-month-old simply stop moving? He was healthy. There was no fever, and he was still smiling. 

 

One aspect of this book that didn't sit quite right with me: Abby's obsession with her social media appearance -- multiple references to her consuming disappointment (to the point of being driven to tears) of not being able to create Pinterest / Instagram worthy parties, posting video of Wyatt's physical therapy on a local news channel's FB page, hoping it will get the most likes so their story can be featured on the news broadcast on tv.... these sorts of things were distracting me from the main focus of this book. I also didn't entirely agree with her stance on teaching her children that "feelings are not truth and feelings would fail them." In some cases maybe, but it's hardly a universal truth. In some life situations, it proves beneficial to choose your wild spirit, instinctual heart over your logical mind. 

 

That bit said, let me close on a strong positive note. Banks does have some quite empowering lines throughout her story here, one being: "God may not have moved the mountain but he moved me." In the closing chapters especially, Banks leaves the reader with some great, inspiring words. One of my favorites came from the chapter "What God Has Joined" where she focuses on how her marriage has transformed over the years, particularly with the challenges of Wyatt's condition. At one point, she writes, "I don't like the fire, but I like what it turns me into." Empowering words to plant into the hearts of all readers! 

 

FTC Disclaimer:  Blue Ridge CWC and Ambassador International 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 2018-03-07 18:15
Mambo In Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Mambo in Chinatown: A Novel - Jean Kwok

Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher. But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

 

 

POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel briefly touches upon the themes of sexual assault and rape culture.

 

  

Cha Lan "Charlie" Wong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, has never been outside the city limits of Chinatown in New York City. Now 22, she's spent years keeping mostly to herself, working as a dishwasher in the same restaurant where her father is employed as a skilled noodle maker.

 

Life has been a constant struggle for Charlie. She did poorly in school and even now in adulthood is described as homely, uncoordinated, no domestic skills to speak of, not tech savvy in the least... in short, nobody expects much of her. Knowing this, Charlie is stunned when her younger sister Lian Hua ("Lisa") urges her to apply for a receptionist position that just opened up at a local ballroom dance studio. 

 

Charlie is awkward during the interview process but one of the co-owners sees something in her and decides to give her a chance. The reader is then given a front row seat to Charlie bumbling through this receptionist position. Still, she becomes fascinated with the world of dance -- the studio instructors, the different students and their backstories -- it undeniably leaves her feeling very much out of her element, yet she persists in making this job work so that she can keep her grasp on this new and beautiful world she's been brought into. 

 

When one instructor is suddenly unable to teach a beginner's class, Charlie is shocked to hear she's been recommended to pose as the teacher. Just for that one class... but still! As it turns out, the students in this class interpret her uncertainty in her abilities as Charlie actually being very down-to-earth and relatable. Suddenly, Charlie is approached with requests to teach more classes! Though she accepts, she quietly starts taking dance lessons between classes so she can move from imposter to legit instructor. This move turns out to be empowering and life-changing. For one, in the past whenever tomboyish Charlie would make attempts to get all girly and pretty, someone in the family would immediately shoot down her efforts, so she would quickly go back to her old routine. NOW, after getting a little rhythm and soul in her bones, she finds the boldness to snap back and inform people that such "primping" as some might call it, makes her feel good... and it's her right. So, there. 

 

Through Charlie's journey, author Jean Kwok explores not only the hard truth about the world of dance -- the discomfort that comes along with training your body to move a certain way; the surprisingly high cost of the proper shoes; ruined, blistered feet; certification exams, etc. -- but also family hardships. We see Charlie tackle emotions surrounding the process of emotionally letting go of familial or societal expectations (her family finds a multitude of ways to try to guilt her into staying the same rather than encouraging emotional growth or pursuing soul-fulfilling dreams), finding courage to forge her own path, discovering and embracing who she truly is. Kwok also weaves in themes not uncommon to many immigrant experience novels: she, through her characters, asks "How does one blend old and new? How do we move with the tide of modernism while still properly honoring one's heritage... can it be done?".  *Note: Though Charlie is American-born, much of the immigrant story is told through the experiences of her immediate & extended family, as well as Charlie's own observations of what comes along with being the child of immigrants. 

 

 

When a family member falls seriously ill with a mysterious illness that doctors can't seem to successfully diagnose, Charlie feels helpless as she watches her loved one fall victim to bouts of bed-wetting, nightmares, dizziness, and migraines. She wants to continue pursuing modern methods of medicine, even while fearing the expense. Conversely, her father prefers going to an old world style herbalist in Chinatown, simply known as The Vision. Charlie doesn't want to go against her father and leave him feeling disrespected, however due the seriousness of the symptoms of this illness, she (with a dash of guilt) admits that she's nervous to leave this matter to Eastern medicine. 

 

While maybe not every reader will relate to the immigrant experience aspect of this novel, the familial themes will likely ring relevant to most that pick up this book. Who hasn't had to face the struggle of making our family proud versus following our own heart's passion? While the story wasn't always particularly gripping, there was something to Charlie's world that I felt comfortably, breezily invested in. Recommended for those always on the hunt for underdog / ugly duckling type stories. 

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