The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf hit shelves earlier this week! If my feelings after reading a preview copy (courtesy of the publisher) are any indication – it’s going to be a huge success! Set in three timelines or narratives, this suspenseful novel twines threads of suspense together into a novel that kept me guessing and that I couldn’t put down. The present is set in the midst of an isolated farmhouse in a snowstorm and shines the spotlight on a true crime author who is on a quest for truth and stumbles upon more than she expected when trouble arises right outside her very own doorstep. Please note, this novel does deal with some heavy themes and darker elements – the kidnapping of a young teenager and a family that is murdered. Be warned – it’s not your knitting club’s warm and cozy mystery read.
In a snowstorm, the safest place is home. Or is it?
True crime writer Wylie Lark doesn’t mind being snowed in at the isolated farmhouse where she’s retreated to write her new book. A cozy fire, complete silence. It would be perfect, if not for the fact that decades earlier, at this very house, two people were murdered in cold blood and a girl disappeared without a trace.
As the storm worsens, Wylie finds herself trapped inside the house, haunted by the secrets contained within its walls—haunted by secrets of her own. Then she discovers a small child in the snow just outside. How long had the child been there? Where did he come from? Bringing the child inside for warmth and safety, she begins to search for answers. But soon it becomes clear that the farmhouse isn’t as isolated as she thought, and someone is willing to do anything to find them.
THE OVERNIGHT GUEST Author: Heather Gudenkauf ISBN: 9780778311935 Publication Date: January 25, 2022 Publisher: Park Row Books
Another title I’ve recently had the chance to read compliments of the publisher is the recent release, Her Christmas Dilemma by Brenda Minton. It’s just one of the books featured in the Harlequin Winter Believers Blog Tour. It’s a part of the Love Inspired imprint of Harlequin, featuring inspirational romance. I had a few mixed feelings during this one – it still felt a little “judgy” to me. I don’t want to give away any major spoilers but think the main female lead didn’t need redemption in the classic sense – she needed love and support and a really good therapist. Regardless, my overall impression was that this was a sweet, heartfelt read with a leaning towards faith over religion,
“I’ll take the job,” she said, as if they’d been discussing the job.
“Have you hired someone?” She glanced at her watch. “In the past fifteen minutes?”
“No, I haven’t. I…” He didn’t know what to say. This woman had secrets. She had a brokenness that scared the daylights out of him.
But she made his niece smile. For that matter, she made him smile.
“If you’d rather find someone else, I understand. I’m obviously not experienced. I’ve already admitted that I can’t cook and I’m also only here temporarily, but I could fill the spot until you find someone more suitable.”
“What made you change your mind?” he asked, glad that his niece had wandered ahead to talk to a friend.
She shrugged a shoulder and glanced around. “A lot of reasons. Shay needs someone who understands what she’s going through. I do know how much it hurts to feel abandoned by the people who should care the most. Also, I feel the need to do more than sit by myself in Nan’s boat shop. Plus, Nan fired me this morning.”
“She fired you?” He couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Yeah, she did.” Her eyes briefly twinkled. “She said I’m in her way. She likes her solitary time. She doesn’t mind my help, but she doesn’t want me to become a fixture in her shop.”
“Shay is a challenge,” he warned.
If she worked for him, could he remain impartial, not getting involved, not caring what her story might be? He doubted it. But he had to do what Shay’s parents hadn’t done: he had to put his niece first. For some reason, he thought this woman might be the right thing for Shay. For the time being.
“I need a challenge.” She smiled.
“I get weekly calls from the school. I think she thinks if she’s bad enough, her parents will ride to the rescue. They won’t.”
“I’m sorry about that. Parents aren’t always what we need them to be. Sometimes they can’t be, sometimes they choose not to be.”
It made him angry to think about his sister and brother-in-law, the choices they’d made putting them first and Shay last. Could this woman put Shay first? “She needs people who will support her but not allow her to get away with the trouble she’s causing.”
“I can be that person,” she assured him with a subtle lift of her chin. “Give me a week. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to boats.”
He grinned. “I guess we can give it a one-week trial. Can you be at the house tomorrow at six?”
“Second thoughts?” he asked.
“Only for a moment,” she admitted. Then they were next in line to get plates, so they spoke no more on the subject.
Tucker was generally an optimistic person, but he knew that letting Clara into his home—and his life—was going to bring an array of problems.
First and foremost, he liked her. He liked her a lot. And that was a big problem.
A year has come and passed without any big changes to behold. There is a part of me that appreciates the same old and other parts of me just want some excitement to shake things up. One-way trip to somewhere warm with beachfront views? Anyone? One thing that remains the same is my forever overcommitment and forever under-performance. I always grossly overestimate what I can commit to and underestimate my need for simple times of nothingness. This applies to many areas of my life, but I’m specifically finding myself backlogged on some of my ARCs (advanced readers copies). I had a whole list of must-read Christmas novels… and well, as you know, Christmas has come and gone.
I’ve posted about Colleen Coble before. I would dare say she is my go-to Christian romantic suspense author. Judging by the number of awards she’s won or been nominated for, I’m not the only one who feels this way.
A Stranger’s Game is Coble’s latest release and I was able to get a copy for review through NetGalley.
A wealthy hotel heiress.
Even though Torie Bergstrom hasn’t been back to Georgia since she was ten, she’s happy to arrange a job for her best friend at one of the family properties on Jekyll Island.
A suspicious death.
But when Torie learns that her best friend has drowned, she knows it is more than a tragic accident: Lisbeth was terrified of water and wouldn’t have gone swimming by choice.
A fight for the truth.
Torie goes to the hotel under an alias, desperate to find answers. When she meets Joe Abbott and his daughter rescuing baby turtles, she finds a tentative ally.
The more Torie and Joe dig, the more elusive the truth seems. One thing is clear: someone will risk anything—even more murder—to keep their secrets buried.
It was excellent! There is a thrumming hum of danger and intrigue throughout with lots of plotting and drama. It was fast-paced – a whole lot happened between the pages. I read it quickly – in less than a day – and one of the things I love about Coble’s writing is that by the end of the book, I’m curious enough to find information relevant to the plot of the novel – in this case, man-made artificial reefs featuring old transit cars. Who knew?!?
I received a complimentary copy of this title via NetGalley. Opinions expressed are my own.
Title: A Stranger’s Game Author: Colleen Coble Publisher: Thomas Nelson ISBN: 0785228578 Published: January 4, 2022
Here is a story about success in small doses and listening to our bodies. I’ve been heading to my personal training sessions for 14 weeks or so. One hour. Once a week. Workouts at home. Lots of strength training and low impact stuff – a plan molded for me and my goals and my personality and my headspace and my fitness level. I love my trainer and the environment at the studio and the whole community, but I don’t like working out.
In addition to the once a week private sessions I’ve also been to a few classes and fallen in love with strength and stretch. I have been striving for better functional movement and general muscle and joint improvements. My first 6 week assessment was an ego booster of accomplishment.
…and then I stepped on the scale. Which hasn’t moved. And last week I had to modify all my exercises because I hurt my back sliding across a slippery deck. I was feeling frustrated. Down. Wondering what was wrong with me.
But today was a day of refreshed hope. Of achievement. Of a better outlook on life. I finished up my session and wanted to commit homicide. HA. I love my trainer but she worked me hard and I had to stop talking by the last set of exercises because it took every ounce of strength to push through. I am sore. It hurts to get out Of a chair. And in front of a full wall of mirrors it can be easy to pick apart the flaws you perceive in yourself.
But then I remembered when I started 3 months ago I couldn’t:
– do a pushup.
They’re still a struggle but I did 30 modified ones today. (3 sets of 10 reps.)
– Do a weightless hinge without back pain (nevermind a deadlift.)
Today I did 30 deadlifts with a 45 lb trap bar.
– Make it through a full circuit of exercise.
Today my PT snuck 4 extra exercises into my circuit without me realizing and we made it through all 3 sets of everything. (I still think pushup are evil.)
This may not sound like a huge accomplishment for some, but for me they are small measures of success. I didn’t have the strength or energy to do this two years ago. I’ve struggled to get to this place. These are small but huge ways to acknowledge that I am worth investing in. That my health matters.
One, our bodies are amazing and even if they don’t do what we want they’re intricate and beautiful and worthy of care, whatever that may look like for you. Two, it’s okay to listen and slow down and rest. (If I hadn’t been smart about that last week I don’t think I would have made it through this week.) Three, the scale is nothing more than a source of information. It hasn’t moved for me… but I’m feeling amazing and sore and proud of myself and seeing physical improvements in the mirror and in my movement. (Also, I rescued two pairs of pants from my too tight pile last week – not an end goal but a measure of the changes happening as a result of my efforts.)
So… don’t give up! Set your goals. Look to the future. Whether it’s lifting weights or trying to prepare more home-cooked meals or or sticking to a budget or making it through math class… don’t give up! You are worth the investment, too, my friend. You want someone to cheer you on because you passed an exam? I’m your girl. I think it’s important to celebrate the small successes along the way and to celebrate those successes with one another!
Confession Time: I enjoy a good thriller – nothing too scary, but something with enough stakes and edge to creep me out just a little. It doesn’t have to be action-movie intense, or slasher-film gory, I just want that “what did I just read factor?” by the time I close the book. Strangely enough, I’m also the girl who doesn’t like walking through the woods at night, who wakes up to every little creak in the house, and thinks that everyone has a closet full of skeletons (perhaps I just have an active imagination?) Hoping to find a bit of a rush that doesn’t involve heights or jump scares, I thought a domestic suspense might be the cure. Enter “Nanncy Dearest” by Flora Collins – a digital copy was provided for me to read in exchange for my thoughts as a stop on the HTP Books Fall 2021 Mystery & Thriller Blog Tour. (Second confession: sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t post anything in a long time and then you get content I’m “obligated” to schedule. Hang in there for personal stuff again one day. I’ll have some deep thoughts and wisdom to impart eventually…)
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Compulsively readable domestic suspense, perfect for fans of THE TURN OF THE KEY and THE PERFECT NANNY, about a woman who takes comfort in reconnecting with her childhood nanny after her father’s death, until she starts to uncover dark secrets the nanny has been holding for twenty years.
Set in New York city and upstate New York, NANNY DEAREST is the story of twenty-five year-old Sue Keller, a young woman reeling from the recent death of her father, a particularly painful loss given that Sue’s mother died of cancer when she was only three. At just this moment of vulnerability comes Anneliese Whitaker, Sue’s former nanny from her childhood days in upstate New York.
Sue, craving connection and mothering, is only too eager to welcome Annie back into her life; but as they become inseparable once again, Sue begins to uncover the truth about Annie’s unsettling time in the Keller house all those years ago, particularly the manner of her departure – or dismissal. At the same time, she begins to grow increasingly alarmed for the safety of the two new charges currently in Annie’s care.
Told in alternating points of views, switching between Annie in the mid-90s and Sue in the present day, this is a taut novel of suspense with a shocking ending.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Flora Collins was born and raised in New York City and has never left, except for a four-year stint at Vassar College. When she’s not writing, she can be found watching reality shows that were canceled after one season or attempting to eat soft-serve ice cream in bed (sometimes simultaneously). Nanny Dearest is her first novel, and draws upon personal experiences from her own family history.
First, this book has some content warnings for a number of things. If you want them, let me know. Secondly, it is definitely a slow burn. It took a while to get going and through that time, the characters were both sympathetic, pathetic, and utterly detestable. I didn’t like them, but I felt sorry for both the protagonist and antagonist in turns. It wasn’t particularly thrilled or suspenseful – I guess I like a bit more speed at times – but I was left questioning what was wrong with people by the end and I didn’t see every twist coming my way. It was entertaining in its own right despite the slow pacing, and let’s just say I’m glad I don’t have a nanny to come haunt my future and play on my frailties, thank you very much.
Nanny Dearest : A Novel Flora Collins On Sale Date: November 30, 2021 9780778311614 Trade Paperback 336 pages
Fan Club by Erin Mayer published earlier this week. I got my hands on a digital Advanced Readers Copy from the publisher, Mira Books, and am lucky enough to share the first chapter excerpt with you. It was interesting – a weirdly twisted rat’s nest of obesssive behaviour and the drawbacks of living in the spotlight of a digitally-reliant, social media driven society, heavy with a crafted “facade of intimacy.”
ABOUT THE BOOK:
In this raucous psychological thriller, a disillusioned millennial joins a cliquey fan club, only to discover that the group is bound together by something darker than devotion.
CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT:
I’m outside for a cumulative ten minutes each day before work. Five to walk from my apartment building to the subway, another five to go from the subway to the anemic obelisk that houses my office. I try to breathe as deeply as I can in those minutes, because I never know how long it will be until I take fresh air into my lungs again. Not that the city air is all that fresh, tinged with the sharp stench of old garbage, pollution’s metallic swirl. But it beats the stale oxygen of the office, already filtered through distant respiratory systems. Sometimes, during slow moments at my desk, I inhale and try to imagine those other nostrils and lungs that have already processed this same air. I’m not sure how it works in reality, any knowledge I once had of the intricacies of breathing having been long ago discarded by more useful information, but the image comforts me. Usually, I picture a middle-aged man with greying temples, a fringe of visible nose hair, and a coffee stain on the collar of his baby blue button-down. He looks nothing and everything like my father. An every-father, if you will.
My office is populated by dyed-blonde or pierced brunette women in their mid-to-late twenties and early thirties. The occasional man, just a touch older than most of the women, but still young enough to give off the faint impression that he DJs at Meatpacking nightclubs for extra cash on the weekends.
We are the new corporate Americans, the offspring of the grey-templed men. We wear tastefully ripped jeans and cozy sweaters to the office instead of blazers and trousers. Display a tattoo here and there—our supervisors don’t mind; in fact, they have the most ink. We eat yogurt for breakfast, work through lunch, leave the office at six if we’re lucky, arriving home with just enough time to order dinner from an app and watch two or three hours of Netflix before collapsing into bed from exhaustion we haven’t earned. Exhaustion that lives in the brain, not the body, and cannot be relieved by a mere eight hours of sleep.
Nobody understands exactly what it is we do here, and neither do we. I push through revolving glass door, run my wallet over the card reader, which beeps as my ID scans through the stiff leather, and half-wave in the direction of the uniformed security guard behind the desk, whose face my eyes never quite reach so I can’t tell you what he looks like. He’s just one of the many set-pieces staging the scene of my days.
The elevator ride to the eleventh floor is long enough to skim one-third of a longform article on my phone. I barely register what it’s about, something loosely political, or who is standing next to me in the cramped elevator.
When the doors slide open on eleven, we both get off.
In the dim eleventh-floor lobby, a humming neon light shaping the company logo assaults my sleep-swollen eyes like the prick of a dozen tiny needles. Today, a small section has burned out, creating a skip in the letter w. Below the logo is a tufted cerulean velvet couch where guests wait to be welcomed. To the left there’s a mirrored wall reflecting the vestibule; people sometimes pause there to take photos on the way to and from the office, usually on the Friday afternoon before a long weekend. I see the photos later while scrolling through my various feeds at home in bed. They hit me one after another like shots of tequila: See ya Tuesday! *margarita emoji* Peace out for the long weekend! *palm tree emoji* Byeeeeee! *peace sign emoji.*
She steps in front of me, my elevator companion. Black Rag & Bone ankle boots gleaming, blade-tipped pixie cut grazing her ears. Her neck piercing taunts me, those winking silver balls on either side of her spine. She’s Lexi O’ Connell, the website’s senior editor. She walks ahead with her head angled down, thumb working her phone’s keyboard, and doesn’t look up as she shoves the interior door open, palm to the glass.
I trip over the back of one clunky winter boot with the other as I speed up, considering whether to call out for her attention. It’s what a good web producer, one who is eager to move on from the endless drudgery of copy-pasting and resizing and into the slightly more thrilling drudgery of writing and rewriting, would do.
By the time I regain my footing, I come face-to-face with the smear of her handprint as the door glides shut in front of me.
I work at a website.
It’s like most other websites; we publish content, mostly articles: news stories, essays, interviews, glossed over with the polished opalescent sheen of commercialized feminism. The occasional quiz, video, or photoshoot rounds out our offerings. This is how websites work in the age of ad revenue: Each provides a slightly varied selection of mindless entertainment, news updates, and watered-down hot takes about everything from climate change to plus size fashion, hawking their wares on the digital marketplace, leaving The Reader to wander drunkenly through the bazaar, wielding her cursor like an Amex. You can find everything you’d want to read in one place online, dozens of times over. The algorithms have erased choice. Search engines and social media platforms, they know what you want before you do.
As a web producer, my job is to input article text into the website’s proprietary content management system, or CMS. I’m a digitized high school janitor; I clean up the small messes, the litter that misses the rim of the garbage can. I make sure the links are working and the images are high resolution. When anything bigger comes up, it goes to an editor or IT. I’m an expert in nothing, a master of the miniscule fixes.
There are five of us who produce for the entire website, each handling about 20 articles a day. We sit at a long grey table on display at the very center of the open office, surrounded on all sides by editors and writers.
The web producers’ bullpen, Lexi calls it.
The light fixture above the table buzzes loudly like a nest of bees is trapped inside the fluorescent tubing. I drop my bag on the floor and take a seat, shedding my coat like a layer of skin. My chair faces the beauty editor’s desk, the cruelest seat in the house. All day long, I watch Charlotte Miller receive package after package stuffed with pastel tissue paper. Inside those packages: lipstick, foundation, perfume, happiness. A thousand simulacrums of Christmas morning spread across the two-hundred and sixty-one workdays of the year. She has piled the trappings of Brooklyn hipsterdom on top of her blonde, big-toothed, prettiness. Wire-frame glasses, a tattoo of a constellation on her inner left forearm, a rose gold nose ring. She seems Texan, but she’s actually from some wholesome upper Midwestern state, I can never remember which one. Right now, she applies red lipstick from a warm golden tube in the flat gleam of the golden mirror next to her monitor. Everything about her is color-coordinated.
I open my laptop. The screen blinks twice and prompts me for my password. I type it in, and the CMS appears, open to where I left it when I signed off the previous evening. Our CMS is called LIZZIE. There’s a rumor that it was named after Lizzie Borden, christened during the pre-launch party when the tech team pounded too many shots after they finished coding. As in, “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks.” Lizzie Borden rebranded in the 21st century as a symbol of righteous feminine anger. LIZZIE, my best friend, my closest confidant. She’s an equally comforting and infuriating presence, constant in her bland attention. She gazes at me, always emotionless, saying nothing as she watches me teeter on the edge, fighting tears or trying not to doze at my desk or simply staring, in search of answers she cannot provide.
My eyes droop in their sockets as I scan the articles that were submitted before I arrived this morning. The whites threaten to turn liquid and splash onto my keyboard, pool between the keys and jiggle like eggs minus the yolks. Thinking of this causes a tiny laugh to slip out from between my clenched lips. Charlotte slides the cap onto her lipstick, glares at me over the lip of the mirror.
That’s Tom, the only male web producer, who sits across and slightly left of me, keeping my view of Charlotte’s towering wonderland of boxes and bags clear. He’s four years older than me, twenty-eight, but the plush chipmunk curve of his cheeks makes him appear much younger, like he’s about to graduate high school. He’s cute, though, in the way of a movie star who always gets cast as the geek in teen comedies. Definitely hot but dress him down in an argyle sweater and glasses and he could be a Hollywood nerd. I’ve always wanted to ask him why he works here, doing this. There isn’t really a web producer archetype. We’re all different, a true island of misfit toys.
But if there is a type, Tom doesn’t fit it. He seems smart and driven. He’s consistently the only person who attends company book club meetings having read that month’s selection from cover to cover. I’ve never asked him why he works here because we don’t talk much. No one in our office talks much. Not out loud, anyway. We communicate through a private Morse code, fingers dancing on keys, expressions scanned and evaluated from a distance.
Sometimes I think about flirting with Tom, for something to do, but he wears a wedding ring. Not that I care about his wife; it’s more the fear of rebuff and rejection, of hearing the low-voiced Sorry, I’m married, that stops me. He usually sails in a few minutes after I do, smelling like his bodega coffee and the egg sandwich he carefully unwraps and eats at his desk. He nods in my direction. Morning is the only word we’ve exchanged the entire time I’ve worked here, which is coming up on a year in January. It’s not even a greeting, merely a statement of fact. It is morning and we’re both here. Again.
Three hundred and sixty-five days lost to the hum and twitch and click. I can’t seem to remember how I got here. It all feels like a dream. The mundane kind, full of banal details, but something slightly off about it all. I don’t remember applying for the job, or interviewing. One day, an offer letter appeared in my inbox and I signed.
And here I am. Day after day, I wait for someone to need me. I open articles. I tweak the formatting, check the links, correct the occasional typo that catches my eye. It isn’t really my job to copy edit, or even to read closely, but sometimes I notice things, grammatical errors or awkward phrasing, and I then can’t not notice them; I have to put them right or else they nag like a papercut on the soft webbing connecting two fingers. The brain wants to be useful. It craves activity, even after almost three hundred and sixty-five days of operating at its lowest frequency.
I open emails. I download attachments. I insert numbers into spreadsheets. I email those spreadsheets to Lexi and my direct boss, Ashley, who manages the homepage.
It’s not often that an ARC I’m lucky enough to read via NetGalley becomes an all time favourite book deserving a permanent place in my library collection, but Patti Callhan’s Once Upon A Wardrobe is just that good. Now that it’s on sale to the public (released today), I’ll be adding it to my bookshelves. It will be a classic to be read throughout the years.
When asked what I loved in particular about this story by a fellow booklover, I had a difficult time putting it into words. It is about CS Lewis and his inspiration for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe but it told his story through a bigger story. It was heartbreaking, but Callahan also did a remarkable job of blending fact and fiction and making you want to celebrate imagination.
There is so much warmth and love in this book, like being wrapped in a hug made of words. It’s a delightful celebration of worlds beyond our imagination and a tribute to wonder and whimsy. It’s Magical. Poignant. Immersive. Beautiful!
There are heartbreaking moments, lovable characters, rich backdrops, and the plot intricately weaves this fictional emotional tale of reason vs. imagination with these historical anecdotes and crafting of a real life person. I particularly enjoyed the afterword from C.S. Lewis’ stepson. I’d recommend for those who have read Becoming Mrs. Lewis, of course, but also for fans of historical women’s fiction.
My thanks to the publisher, Harper Muse, for my complimentary copy. Opinions are entirely my own.
Happy Thanksgiving to all my Canadian friends. I believe that even in the imperfect chaos of life, even in big messes, if we dig deep enough we can truly always find something to be thankful for. I often need to remind myself of this because I can tend to lean towards pessimism and not always seeing the bright side of things. Here’s a bit of an eye rolling funny tale that stemmed from my disappointment this weekend.
In a series of unfortunate events and miscommunication with our local public health department, we erred on the side of caution and our Thanksgiving plans were disrupted. We missed the no stops big family feast today. On one hand, I had some disappointed teenagers here but I also had a valid excuse to chill a little bit. I am not a fan of the big turkey dinner but I love turkey leftovers. That desire for hot turkey sandwiches tomorrow and in an determined effort to still make the weekend special for my crew, I opted to buy some turkey on Friday.
I didn’t need a huge bird – it’s just four of us. I also don’t have a lot of experience with turkey! I opted for bone-in turkey breasts thinking shorter roasting times would be a win. Everything I read lead me to believe this would be the best solution to a low fuss meal that would still get me those yearned for turkey leftovers.
I started my feast prep after we got home from church. Potatoes in the crockpot for creamy scalloped potatoes. A delicious paprika and lemon prep for the turkey. Caesar salad, steamed broccoli, and cheater crescent rolls on the side. Gravy from drippings freshly made. By 6 p.m. the house smelled amazing and my turkey breasts – chef’s kiss. Then I found out my company (expected tomorrow) was going to stop by in an hour. (Anyone who knows me knows that alone would send me into a tizzy!)
Kevin was asked to carve the breasts. He’s feeling really perplexed by the task while I realize my potatoes overcooked, the broccoli oversteamed, my gravy congealed, and the bottoms of my crescent rolls had burnt. We’re off to a good start but that turkey – it’s going to salvage a meal….
Except there was no meat on those breasts that I paid a small fortune for. The breasts, my father in law informed me, were in fact turkey backs… bones best for broth and not much else. I mean the little bits of meat Kevin managed to pull off were delicious, but my wonderful turkey dinner? It was a disaster!!! And worst of all, no leftovers.
So where do I find gratitude in a weekend that didn’t go to plan? I’ve got a really nice turkey broth simmering on the stove. Not a single person complained about dinner (I think they were scared.) My in-laws had a good laugh at my expense. I still enjoyed a slice of pumpkin pie. And we’ll never forget the Thanksgiving that “Mom tried” and you know what? At least I didn’t set the kitchen on fire.
We’re half-way into September, and while life hasn’t returned to normal, our days in the Brown household are fairly normalish. The last few months have had some hurdles, milestones, and adjustments – we’ve celebrated (a 14th birthday, 17 years of marriage, a 40th birthday, and a birthday we’ve stopped counting) and we’ve grieved (our good boy, Diesel, passed away suddenly this summer.) We’ve had to adjust to changes – both boys in high school, different/more work responsibilities, later school hours, decisions for the future (trades vs. university track) and life in general.
I, myself, have made the decision to invest in me. I had my second personal training session today and I was frustrated and embarrassed to the point of tears. Thankfully, the woman I’m working with is safe and patient and reminded me that I showed up and I pushed through. I may not be able to move tomorrow, but these little steps will make for a healthier, happier me and u can’t wait to see my core strength, respiratory & cardiovascular systems, and range of motion inprove. Aside from my physical health, I continue to try to maintain boundaries, protect my heart, and work on healthy habits – spirit, soul, and body.
I’ve been big into books as always. Unfortunately, August felt like a bit of a blah reading month, but gratefully, September has been ripe with good book pics. Some misses, but overall I’ve found thought-provoking, attention-grabbing, or just downright entertaining novels.
Here are 5 titles I’m recommending but reader discretion is advised for various content warnings. Some of them had some difficult scenes.
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, originally a complimentary ARC courtesy of NetGalley, this has been out for a while. One of Hannah’s best, in my opinion, it was both captivating and heartbreaking.
Frying Plaintain by Zalika Reid-Benta, familiar due to it’s setting and Jamaican Canadian references. While I obviously couldn’t relate to many of the issues, I felt connected in this coming-of-age collection of short stories that explores the tenuous mother-daughter relationship and cross-cultural experiences.
What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy, just released in Canada, is a poignant look at the lives of 10 fictional interconnected individuals in the time leading up to and immediately following the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in 2010. Told in distinctive voices, it goes beyond the grief and loss of the catastrophe and provides deep introspection and a commentary on some issues with foreign aid. It wasn’t always pretty or easy to read – it needed digesting – but it was spectacular in its own right.
The Santa Suit by Mary Kay Andrews, another complimentary digital ARC via NetGalley, publishes September 28. This was a novella, short and sweet but with that magical cozy feel you want in a Christmas story.
Daughter of Black Lake by Cathy Marie Buchanan, a find in a local Little Free Library. I enjoyed this from an educational and historical aspect. Set in early Roman Britain, tge author explores life and love in a pagan community, the influence of the Druids, and changes that came with the Roman invasion, it was an immersive book rich in historical detail. Published in 2020.
I am a sucker for a dual-timeline novel involving family and WWII legacies. I’m so lucky to have a digital review copy of JoAnn Ross’ latest work, The Inheritance, to add to my must-reads this month. I absolutely love the cover and have an excerpt to share with you below as part of the HTP Books Fall 2021 Women’s Fiction Blog Tour.
Conflict photographer Jackson Swann had traveled to dark and deadly places in the world most people would never see. Nor want to. Along with dodging bullets and mortars, he’d survived a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, gotten shot mere inches from his heart in Niger and been stung by a death-stalker scorpion while embedded with the French Foreign Legion in Mali.
Some of those who’d worked with him over the decades had called him reckless. Rash. Dangerous. Over late-night beers or whatever else passed as liquor in whatever country they’d all swarmed to, other photographers and foreign journalists would argue about whether that bastard Jackson Swann had a death wish or merely considered himself invincible.
He did, after all, rush into high-octane situations no sane person would ever consider, and even when the shit hit the fan, somehow, he’d come out alive and be on the move again. Chasing the next war or crisis like a drug addict chased a high. The truth was that Jack had never believed himself to be immortal. Still, as he looked out over the peaceful view of rolling hills, the cherry trees wearing their spring profusion of pink blossoms, and acres of vineyards, he found it ironic that after having evaded the Grim Reaper so many times over so many decades, it was an aggressive and rapidly spreading lung cancer that was going to kill him.
Which was why he was here, sitting on the terraced patio of Chateau de Madeleine, the towering gray stone house that his father, Robert Swann, had built for his beloved war bride, Madeleine, to ease her homesickness. Oregon’s Willamette Valley was a beautiful place. But it was not Madeleine’s child-hood home in France’s Burgundy region where much of her family still lived.
Family. Jack understood that to many, the American dream featured a cookie-cutter suburban house, a green lawn you had to mow every weekend, a white picket fence, happy, well-fed kids and a mutt who’d greet him with unrestrained canine glee whenever he returned home from work. It wasn’t a bad dream. But it wasn’t, and never would be, his dream.
How could it be with the survivor’s guilt that shadowed him like a tribe of moaning ghosts? Although he’d never been all that introspective, Jack realized that the moral dilemma he’d experienced every time he’d had to force himself to re-main emotionally removed from the bloody scenes of chaos and death he was viewing through the lens of his camera had left him too broken to feel, or even behave like a normal human being.
Ten years ago, after his strong, robust father died of a sudden heart attack while fly-fishing, Jack had inherited the winery with his mother, who’d professed no interest in the day-to-day running of the family business. After signing over control of the winery to him, and declaring the rambling house too large for one woman, Madeleine Swann had moved into the guesthouse next to the garden she’d begun her first year in Oregon. A garden that supplied the vegetables and herbs she used for cooking many of the French meals she’d grown up with.
His father’s death had left Jack in charge of two hundred and sixty acres of vineyards and twenty acres of orchards. Not wanting, nor able, to give up his wanderlust ways to settle down and become a farmer of grapes and cherries, Jack had hired Gideon Byrne, a recent widower with a five-year-old daughter, away from a Napa winery to serve as both manager and vintner.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to call them?” Gideon, walking toward him, carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses, asked not for the first time over the past weeks.
“The only reason that Tess would want to see me would be to wave me off to hell.” In the same way he’d never softened the impact of his photos, Jack never minced words nor romanticized his life. There would be no dramatic scenes with his three daughters—all now grown women with lives of their own—hovering over his deathbed.
“Have you considered that she might want to have an opportunity to talk with you? If for no other reason to ask—”
“Why I deserted her before her second birthday and never looked back? I’m sure her mother’s told her own version of the story, and the truth is that the answers are too damn complicated and the time too long past for that discussion.” It was also too late for redemption.
Jack doubted his eldest daughter would give a damn even if he could’ve tried to explain. She’d have no way of knowing that he’d kept track of her all these years, blaming himself when she’d spiraled out of control so publicly during her late teens and early twenties. Perhaps, if she’d had a father who came home every night for dinner, she would have had a more normal, stable life than the Hollywood hurricane her mother had thrown her into before her third birthday.
Bygones, he reminded himself. Anything he might say to his firstborn would be too little, too late. Tess had no reason to travel to Oregon for his sake, but hopefully, once he was gone, curiosity would get the better of her. His girls should know each other. It was long past time.
“Charlotte, then,” Gideon pressed. “You and Blanche are still technically married.”
“Technically being the operative word.” The decades-long separation from his Southern socialite wife had always suited them both just fine. According to their prenuptial agreement, Blanche would continue to live her privileged life in Charleston, without being saddled with a full-time live-in husband, who’d seldom be around at any rate. Divorce, she’d informed him, was not an option. And if she had discreet affairs from time to time, who would blame her? Certainly not him.
“That’s no reason not to give Charlotte an opportunity to say goodbye. How many times have you seen her since she went to college? Maybe twice a year?”
“You’re pushing again,” Jack shot back. Hell, you’d think a guy would be allowed to die in peace without Jiminy Cricket sitting on his shoulder. “Though of the three of them, Char-lotte will probably be the most hurt,” he allowed.
His middle daughter had always been a sweet girl, running into his arms, hair flying behind her like a bright gold flag to give her daddy some “sugar”—big wet kisses on those rare occasions he’d wind his way back to Charleston. Or drop by Savannah to take her out to dinner while she’d been attending The Savannah School of Art and Design.
“The girl doesn’t possess Blanche’s steel magnolia strength.”
Having grown up with a mother who could find fault in the smallest of things, Charlotte was a people pleaser, and that part of her personality would kick into high gear whenever he rolled into the city. “And, call me a coward, but I’d just as soon not be around when her pretty, delusional world comes crashing down around her.” He suspected there were those in his daughter’s rarified social circle who knew the secret that the Charleston PI he’d kept on retainer hadn’t had any trouble uncovering.
“How about Natalie?” Gideon continued to press. “She doesn’t have any reason to be pissed at you. But I’ll bet she will be if you die without a word of warning. Especially after losing her mother last year.”
“Which is exactly why I don’t want to put her through this.”
He’d met Josette Seurat, the ebony-haired, dark-eyed French Jamaican mother of his youngest daughter, when she’d been singing in a club in the spirited Oberkampf district of Paris’s eleventh arrondissement. He’d fallen instantly, and by the next morning Jack knew that not only was the woman he’d spent the night having hot sex with his first true love, she was also the only woman he’d ever love. Although they’d never married, they’d become a couple, while still allowing space for each other to maintain their own individual lives, for twenty-six years. And for all those years, despite temptation from beautiful women all over the globe, Jack had remained faithful. He’d never had a single doubt that Josette had, as well.
With Josette having been so full of life, her sudden death from a brain embolism had hit hard. Although Jack had im-mediately flown to Paris from Syria to attend the funeral at a church built during the reign of Napoleon III, he’d been too deep in his own grief, and suffering fatigue—which, rather than jet lag, as he’d assumed, had turned out to be cancer—to provide the emotional support and comfort his third daughter had deserved.
“Josette’s death is the main reason I’m not going to drag Natalie here to watch me die. And you might as well quit playing all the guilt cards because I’m as sure of my decision as I was yesterday. And the day before that. And every other time over the past weeks you’ve brought it up. Bad enough you coerced me into making those damn videos. Like I’m some documentary maker.”
To Jack’s mind, documentary filmmakers were storytellers who hadn’t bothered to learn to edit. How hard was it to spend anywhere from two to ten hours telling a story he could capture in one single, perfectly timed photograph?
“The total length of all three of them is only twenty minutes,” Gideon said equably.
There were times when Jack considered that the man had the patience of a saint. Which was probably necessary when you’d chosen to spend your life watching grapes grow, then waiting years before the wine you’d made from those grapes was ready to drink. Without Gideon Byrne to run this place, Jack probably would have sold it off to one of the neighboring vineyards years ago, with the caveat that his mother would be free to keep the guesthouse, along with the larger, showier one that carried her name. Had he done that he would have ended up regretting not having a thriving legacy to pass on to his daughters.
“The total time works out to less than ten minutes a daughter. Which doesn’t exactly come close to a Ken Burns series,” Gideon pointed out.
“I liked Burns’s baseball one,” Jack admitted reluctantly. “And the one on country music. But hell, it should’ve been good, given that he took eight years to make it.”
Jack’s first Pulitzer had admittedly been a stroke of luck, being in the right place at the right time. More care had gone into achieving the perfect photos for other awards, but while he admired Burns’s work, he’d never have the patience to spend that much time on a project. His French mother had claimed he’d been born a pierre roulante—rolling stone—al-ways needing to be on the move. Which wasn’t conducive to family life, which is why both his first and second marriages had failed. Because he could never be the husband either of his very different wives had expected.
“Do you believe in life after death?” he asked.
Gideon took his time to answer, looking out over the vine-yards. “I like to think so. Having lost Becky too soon, it’d be nice to believe we’ll connect again, somewhere, somehow.” He shrugged. “On the other hand, there are days that I think this might be our only shot.”
“Josette came again last night.” “You must have enjoyed that.” “I always do.”
If The Inheritance piques your interest, it published on September 7th and should be available for purchase at all your local booksellers and major book retailers. Be sure to look for it on shelves close to you! If you’d like to read and discuss, I’m always interested in hearing thoughts from other booklovers.
My thanks to HTP Books for the complimentary copy of this much anticipated novel.