January

Fixin' Tyrone (Indigo)Fixin’ Tyrone by Keith Walker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Fixin’ Tyrone’ was the first book I’ve read by Keith Thomas Walker though I have a few of them on my Kindle. I’ve been missing out! This one, I thought I was least likely to want to read because the cover seemed to hold the promise of beefcakey action that I’m not too much of a fan of. But never judge a book by its cover!

‘Fixin’ Tyrone chronicles the struggles of Mia, the everywoman-in-search-of-a-good-man that many African American women can relate to. After a spell during her youth where she fell victim to what I call a ‘thug addiction’ Mia is left with two kids, TC and Mica, both of whom have absent fathers. TC’s father, Tyrone is in prison on a drug conviction and Mica’s, also a casualty of the streets, is dead. After a bad (and very humorous) break-up with her most recent boyfriend, Eric, involving a late-night phone call, an ex-girlfriend, BMW and a brick (I’ll say no more) Mia has had it up to here. All she wants is a good, uncomplicated relationship with a guy who’s about something.

It’s around this time that Mia gets a letter from Tyrone. He’s getting out, and he wants to do right by her and her kids, even the one he didn’t father. He wants to “be a family.” Mia is justifiably skeptical — guys getting out of the pen always come home with good intentions, and nine times out of ten, the lure of old friends, old habits and the frustration from confronting the barriers presented by a felony conviction cause many to return to their old tricks, and ultimately to prison. Mia knows this, and her instinct is confirmed by her ‘kitchen cabinet’ of advisers at Claire’s Beauty Shop from whence she emerges “a fresh, confident and vibrant woman” every single week.

But over time, faced with a series of setbacks and disappointments involving the “good men” she encounters, and despite Mia’s best attempts to keep him at arms’ length, Tyrone begins to prove himself. He’s a consistent presence in Mia’s kids’ lives and a pleasant one in her own as well. Not only is Tyrone really easy on the eyes after a long stint of prison workouts, he’s funny, playful and steadfast in the conviction that he and Mia are fated to be together. But steadfast, and funny aren’t everything–there’s a lot about Tyrone, and the imbalance in their status in life that needs to be ‘fixed’. Mia is a professional woman making nearly one hundred grand a year, and Tyrone is an ex-con who may be slipping back into old habits. Can a sistah work with that? No, I’m not going to answer! Read the book!

So here’s what I LOVED: this author has a serious talent for dialogue. It was ALL authentic. The rhythm, the cadence, the choice of words, the humor . . . whenever the characters had anything to say, it rang true. All of that was top-notch. Mia’s struggles as a woman who is facing down parenthood, past mistakes and a handful of a younger sibling also rang true. Her thoughts, her emotions, and all of her reactions were relatable and common-sensical. You want her to ‘get it right’ with some man, just as she is getting it incredibly right with her kids, despite being without someone to help her co-parent. And we definitely relate to her reliance on the glib advice of other women, sometimes to her detriment.

Keith Thomas Walker also writes with incredible humor, and more than a few flashes of verbal genius. The description of Tyrone’s hooptie (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define…) as being as incongruous in Mia’s driveway as a “hippo squatting in the middle of a football field” had me laughing out loud. I mean, who thinks of something like that? A damn good writer, that’s who.

Tyrone was engaging as well. I liked him and I wanted him to succeed, just as Mia wants him to succeed. And I was excited when The Plan to “fix” him was put in effect. But what stopped this book from being a five-star read for me were two things. I felt like while we “understood” Mia, Tyrone was more of a mystery. We don’t hear his point of view so his love for Mia, his new resolve, his prison experience, his missteps once he’s out, are all seen from Mia’s eyes, so Tyrone at times felt one-dimensional, as did Eric and Mr. Manitou, two of Mia’s other suitors. Each of them at times felt like ‘types’ of men, rather than living breathing people. This is the first time I can recall reading a male author who I thought wrote the women more fully than the men.

My second issue was with the pacing. The first three-quarters of the book covers a period of roughly six weeks, and the remainder goes through a period of three years in almost summary fashion, covering some milestones but very quickly. The ending was snappy and satisfying, and very conclusive and I wondered whether the rush through the ‘fixin” period was just so readers could get that very final conclusive, leaves-nothing-ambiguous ending. I don’t mind ambiguity in an ending so I would have liked to see more of Tyrone’s journey, even if the end was less pat. But all in all, I loved this read, and recommend it highly.

Nia Forrester

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February

This Man (This Man, #1)This Man by Jodi Ellen Malpas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

** Contains MILD spoilers**
I so wanted to like this book. I bought all three in the series sight unseen because the prose in the sample of the first one was clever and witty and I’m always curious about what’s “trending” in popular fiction. The writing was generally funny and clever. That remained true throughout, and that’s basically the only reason I could muster up two stars.

The characters were thinly-drawn, the female protagonist a little infantile and somewhat embarrassingly weak-willed, the constant references to one of her friend’s “gayness” (as though that was his singular defining characteristic as a human being) a little troubling and the male protagonist’s Alpha-ness a little more like someone with an obsessive personality disorder. I also found it perplexing that the calls 10 times a day, the dragging her physically out of places, monitoring of her birth control and constant efforts to control where she went, who she saw, what she wore and how she spoke were less objectionable to her than the fact that he ran a business that gave consenting adults an outlet for their sexual fantasies.

The message underlying this was also a problem for me–awesome sex cures all, and you know just how much he loves you by just how difficult it is for him to simply leave you alone occasionally. I won’t go on further, because I don’t want to cross the line into bashing, but suffice it to say, this was not my cup of tea. I love Alpha males, but this dude was something else entirely. I would have left the city to get away from This Man.

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Strictly ProfessionalStrictly Professional by Christina C. Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Strictly Professional was a great read for me. I finished it quickly because the writing was smooth and effortless, and the characters immediately engaging and likable. This was not a shock-and-awe romance, it was a slice of two lives, intersecting–the right man, the right woman, at the right time.

Gabi’s got a problem. She has an ambition to pursue a career as a lawyer and her parents and ex-boyfriend believe she should instead become a trophy wife. Desperate to escape them, she moves to Atlanta, determined to become independent and self-determining. On one of her first nights in her new home, she goes out with her roommate and meets Terrence. Their attraction is instantaneous and intense, and but for said roommate, that first meeting would have more likely than not resulted in more than one interrupted kiss.

Terrence is, like Gabi, very career-focused and not at all interested in a relationship and though he finds this new woman he met during a night out with his best friend interesting, he’s not on the market for anything smelling like permanence. And so he doesn’t call.But as Fate would have it, Terrence and Gabi are destined not only to meet again, but to be forced to work closely together. Very, very closely.

I loved this writer’s attention to the slow progression of a relationship from attraction, to admiration and respect, to friendship and finally to love. She detailed the little moments that make a couple a couple so well that I found myself yelling, “Kiss her, dammit!” or “Tell him you like him!” even as I delighted in the fact that their inability to do so was exactly like real life. The stories, moments and experiences that Gabi and Terrence shared were spot-on for how relationships happen, and I LOVED every moment. You could tell as you read their story that this writer was more interested in the “relationship” than the ‘sparks’ or ‘passion’. No gratuitous sex, no raunchy encounters, just a man and woman, drawing ever closer to each other, fighting it every inch of the way.

What made this a four-star rather than five-star read for me was the portrayal of Gabi’s parents and ex-boyfriend, Michael. These were three people who among them did not have ONE SINGLE redeeming quality. All of them were very plainly bad people. And my problem was that I don’t believe there are any people who are that completely irredeemable. Particularly Gabi’s parents who seemed willing to trade their daughter’s happiness and even personal safety for status and appearances. I would have liked to see some indication that they were all more than a means to provide the obstacle to Gabi and Terrence’s relationship. Where this author was incredibly successful with the two main characters, she lost steam with some of the secondaries.

I say some, because Gabi and Terrence’s friends were all very well-defined and had distinct personalities that make you want to know them better. Only the villains were thinly-drawn. Clearly this writer has the talent to pull off multi-dimensional characters, so I would have loved to see it in the people we don’t root for as much as we saw it in the people we did root for.

At the end of the day, however, I did enjoy this book and was intrigued by the teaser at the end for the follow-up to Strictly Professional, which offers tantalizing clues about where Terrence and Gabi end up. I’ll be looking out for it for sure, and you should too, but first, read this one.

Nia Forrester

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Loving Mr. Darcy: Journeys Beyond Pemberley (Pride & Prejudice Continues)Loving Mr. Darcy: Journeys Beyond Pemberley by Sharon Lathan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow. What can I say? Loving Mr. Darcy stands for the proposition that Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy find the physical aspects of their marriage to be extremely pleasurable, and so they indulge again, and again. And again. And again. So delighted are they by sex, that they do it three times a day on average, in various rooms of their immense estate, in the bath, in the morning, afternoon, evening and late at night. They frequently and effusively declare their love and passion for the other again and again. And again. And again.

And in between, there are balls and picnics and festivals and parlor games. Occasionally, there are upsets that precipitate another round of declarations of love and eternal devotion, William’s worry about Elizabeth; and Elizabeth’s cleaving to William. He plays the hero, she assures him she’s no damsel in distress and there are little spats between the couple that lead to, you guessed it, more sex.

I liked the period details, which other reviewers have said are not historically correct but honestly, I don’t care about that. The writer portrayed them with rich, visual language that placed me in each room, meadow and on the busy thoroughfares of Regency London. It’s fun to read about the customs and mores and lifestyle of another place and time, so that’s where my 3 stars came from. And as for the sex? Never would have guessed in a million years I would say this, but it was waaaaay too much.

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The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Rosie Project was an amazing surprise.

Don Tillman is a geneticist who’s “socially-challenged”. It’s never said explicitly, but appears that Don may have Asperger’s. Despite his many fauxs pas dealing with the rest of the world, Don has two good friends, a fellow professor, Gene, at the university where he works and his wife, Claudia. Don used to have another friend, Daphne, an obese elderly neighbor who has now lives in a nursing home because she has Alzheimer’s. But before she went to the home Daphne told Don that he would make some woman a wonderful husband. This inspires Don to launch ‘The Wife Project’.

As a purely rational matter–because that’s the only lens through which Don can see the world–he designs a questionnaire to find the perfect woman for him. Since his condition inhibits his ability to experience the world the way most people do, interaction is difficult and uncomfortable and Don thinks the questionnaire will do the job for him. But he didn’t count on Rosie, the spirited, quirky and wholly unsuitable young woman who comes barging into his life with a project of her own.

Spurred by Rosie and the unfamiliar feelings she inspires in him, Don throws rationality out the window and begins, for the first time to experience a life not guided by routine, predictability, formulas and deductive reasoning. Rosie is completely wrong for him, at least according to the perfectly logical criteria he’s established for his mate, and yet he’s inexplicably drawn to her. How does a man who thinks there’s a rationale for everything begin to explain that?

Through Don’s unique voice and view, we get a chance to look at the world in a fresh new way. This book screamed with cinematic possibilities, so I was unsurprised to see that it will be made into movie. I’ll probably go see it, but I have no expectation that it could possibly be as funny, as moving, as poignant and just plain fun as this book was. Five enthusiastic stars. I recommend it highly.

Nia Forrester

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The LetterThe Letter by Sandra Owens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since I’m on a Regency kick lately, I decided to give this book, which I’ve had for over a year a try.

The Earl of Daventry is contemplating marriage to his lady-friend of the moment because he needs an heir when he receives a letter from his cousin, Leo who has been dead for a year. In the letter, which Leo penned with instructions for delivery a year after his death, Leo tells Daventry that he has betrayed him, and has done so with malice.

Eleven years earlier on the eve of his wedding, Daventry stumbled upon his bride-to-be and love of his life Diana Cavanaugh in bed with Leo. Heartbroken, Daventry calls off the wedding and Diana is forced to marry Leo to avoid a scandal. Leo’s letter reveals that Diana was drugged, and not at all a consenting party in the scene Daventry witnessed. And further, Leo gleefully recounts in the letter that he has spent the last decade abusing Diana so that she “can no longer bear the touch of a man”. As if this is not bad enough, Leo’s letter says, Diana has a son, and he may in fact be Daventry’s.

It is with this shocking revelation that The Letter begins. Daventry, armed with the knowledge that not only may he already have a son, but the woman he thought betrayed him is in fact a victim sets out to find Diana and her son and bring them to his country estate. Finding Diana and her son in a state of destitution, Daventry takes charge of them both. Before long, and despite his best efforts, he begins to feel more for the boy who might be his son, and for the woman who once held his heart.

The characters were interesting and sympathetic, the interpersonal challenges they faced realistic and the period details okay, though minimal compared to other books of this genre that I’ve read. I particularly loved the slow growth of Diana’s character from a woman scarred (emotionally and physically) from years of abuse to someone who wants to take charge of her life. And though I’m a huge fan of well-placed scenes of intimacy, I found many of the ones in this book to be a little odd given the characters’ insecurity about each other. For instance, Daventry at one point masturbates in Diana’s presence and begins to make frequent sexual overtures toward her even though he believes her to have been sexually terrorized by his cousin, her now-dead husband.

There was also some intrigue involving his former lady-friend, a mysterious American and a friend of Daventry’s with a dangerous past that seemed to be blatant set-ups for future books, but which added little to this particular story. Without those additions, I would have been content to see the interpersonal relationship between Daventry and Diana unfold, and would not have enjoyed the book any less. Still, this book was a fun diversion and if asked, I would recommend it as a light read.

Nia Forrester

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Love And Other ThingsLove And Other Things by Christina C. Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christina C. Jones is an author to watch.

Her female characters are like good friends, women you recognize immediately, and love right away, flaws and all. The men are regular guys, trying to figure out this crazy thing called love. In this book, with three shorts about three best friends, she manages to develop her characters fully, and avoid all of the romance cliches that sometimes make you feel like you’re reading the same book over and over again, albeit by different authors.

Jones’ voice is relaxed and conversational, witty and fun. And she’s not seduced by the gimmick of lots of graphic sex either, a gutsy move for a romance writer in this day and age. But her writing is strong, so she doesn’t need it. I’m pretty sure I’ll read all her stuff from now on.

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The Engagement Season (Wilkersons in Love)The Engagement Season by Tia Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

**WARNING–CONTAINS SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T READ ‘PLAYING FOR LOVE’**

I needed this sequel to Tia Kelly’s book Playing for Love. The protagonists in The Engagement Season, Paige and Kenneth are engaged and planning a wedding. Or at least they should be. But life intervenes in the form of a health issue for Paige and Kenneth’s persistent concerns about his career and Paige’s relationship with their mutual best friend Carlos. Add to that Paige’s continuing insecurity about why a ‘good guy’ like Kenneth would even want her, and wedding planning very quickly takes second fiddle to working out their interpersonal issues.

In her past, when men wanted Paige, it was often for reasons that had more to do with what she represented, than who she was. Two previous ill-considered marriages later, and a scandal-ridden past have her convinced that emotional intimacy is risky, particularly when, this time, her heart is very much on the line.

I loved that this author revisited and put to rest some of the doubts about how suited Kenneth and Paige were for each other at the end of Playing for Love, and also gave us more scenes showing the couple in love, not just in conflict. I also appreciated that Paige and Carlos’ relationship was explained a little more, so that I no longer worried that Carlos may in fact have been the right choice for Paige. The chemistry between them in this novella was much more muted, giving way for me to fall in love with Kenneth and Paige as a couple.

And as always with Tia Kelly, I like that the drama is largely emotional and interpersonal, rather than external. It’s about people figuring out who they are and whether (and how) to be together, rather than some contrived intrigue. Much of this novella occurs inside Paige and Kenneth’s heads, exploring their thoughts and feelings, and for some that may not be appealing but for me it was perfect, because it filled in some of the emotional blanks from the previous book.

For me this was a four rather than five-star read mostly because of the end, where it felt as though the reader was denied some of the detail about HOW Paige worked through her issues. It felt like we were simply told that she had. Kenneth on the other hand was pitch-perfect for me. I understood him better after this book, and liked him way more than I had after the first.

I recommend this for those who have read ‘Playing for Love’, and for those who haven’t, I recommend both books.
Nia Forrester

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Schooling CarmenSchooling Carmen by Kathleen Cross

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Carmen DuPre, the main character in ‘Schooling Carmen’ defines herself almost entirely by how physically attractive she is. She’s beautiful and knows that she is, and uses that beauty like a weapon against the entire world. Men who find her attractive she despises, and women who dare acknowledge her attractiveness, she belittles. She is, at the beginning of this book, a truly despicable human being.

She was so despicable that I would have had a hard time reading on had Kathleen Cross not given us something more. The something more is Carmen’s persistent grief at the death of her father, her fear that she is about to lose her looks, her pain at not being loved by her mother in the way she needs to be loved, and her regret at the loss of her one true love, Randall and shortly after that, her best friend Yvette. Were it not for those things, which humanize Carmen, she would have been a caricature. But she was not.

Kathleen Cross made me begin to pity Carmen before I was even one-third of the way through the book, even while she did and said the most hateful things, insulted people around her, and thought nothing of dismissing the men who tried to woo her. What Cross did was show us the world through Carmen’s eyes, but at the same time showed us how flawed her view was. Somehow, she made us understand that Carmen is at her heart someone who feels truly and deeply alone. And one scene where Carmen realizes that ‘alone-ness’ darn near broke my heart.

Through personal adversity, Carmen finally has to face who she is, and the untruth she has told herself: that her looks are all she has to offer. Many of the core messages of the book could have come across as corny: ‘there is triumph after adversity’, ‘you had to go through that to get where you are now’ ‘true friends are those who stick around when you need them, even if you don’t want them’, and ‘you never know what the person next to you is going through’. All of those messages were reinforced in this story, but not in an overly sentimental way, so they were easy to receive.

And Carmen’s ‘schooling’–the process of her learning these lessons–was delivered by this writer with such color and humor and emotion that I managed to laugh, get teary-eyed and a little pissed-off all in one book. At the end, when Carmen arrived at the place where she was meant to be, I was glad to have taken the journey with her.

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March

The Realest EverThe Realest Ever by Keith Thomas Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read The Realest Ever in one day. That doesn’t often happen for me because I like to savor words. But this book pulled me in, held on tight and would not let go until I was done. This is my second read by Keith Thomas Walker and I’m officially sold. I’ll just buy his stuff automatically from now on.

Kyra Reynolds is starting over. Like from-the-ground-up starting over. Moving from Little Rock, Arkansas to Texas with her two kids, she is sleeping in one room provided by her Aunt Ruth, a less-than-benevolent figure from her extended (and very dysfunctional) family. With no money, no job and no prospects, Kyra has returned to her hometown and is in the local library looking for jobs on the internet when she decides to look up her childhood best friend Donovan Mitchell on Facebook. Being in her hometown makes Kyra remember even more vividly how close they were, and how much of a protector and savior Donovan was during some of the most difficult times in her life. So she ‘friends’ him.

Donovan Mitchell is a football coach at the local high school and somewhat of a hometown hero who made good. He’s close to his mother and in a fairly serious relationship with a beautiful woman. But he’s never forgotten Kyra, his closest childhood friend who disappeared from his life when they were teenagers. Every once in awhile, Donovan goes searching for her on Facebook, and so when he gets Kyra’s message, he is elated to the point of tears.

What I loved about this book was that it wasn’t your average mawkishly sentimental romance novel. It had depth and grit and realism, and a very flawed heroine with problems that most romance novel heroes would never be able to overlook. Kyra has made some poor choices and has two kids by two men who were beyond incapable of being adequate, let alone good parents. She’s never held a job of any consequence, never fully taken care of herself and sometimes done a piss-poor job taking care of her kids. And yet, knowing all that, I somehow loved her immediately and wanted to see her life get better. The obstacles she faced as a kid broke my heart, and the way she got in her own way as an adult frustrated me, but I loved her nonetheless, and understood why Donovan did as well.

Which brings me to the ‘hero’ in this book. And he was. A caretaker in every sense, Donovan is a walking illustration of co-dependency. He humors and spoils his sometimes sharp-tongued mother, and his insecure and volatile girlfriend and he easily falls back into a pattern of taking care of Kyra as well. He is wholly and completely invested in the idea that he is her rescuer and she is a victim of circumstances, like a fallen angel. This image of her later threatens their relationship when Donovan learns that Kyra was sometimes not quite so angelic and not always the victim he believed her to be. But underneath it all, he is just at his core a good guy and so you want to see him happy.

Apart from the real world problems and real-life characters, I loved that this book was not about the same ol’ chase-and-catch, and that the conflict did not center around whether the main characters loved each other, but instead was about whether despite that love–based on a shared past–they should and could build a shared future. And it should go without saying that the author’s voice is strong and solid and authentic, but I’ll say it anyway–this writer has a solid, strong and authentic voice that is easily distinguishable from the chorus of other voices in this genre.

As romances go, this is not the flowery stuff, this book fits the title, it’s the realest ever. I very highly recommend it.

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Life AfterLife After by Keith Thomas Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m new to this author’s work, having read him for the first time at the beginning of this year. I love his realistic situations and characters, and the fact that he doesn’t resort to the gimmick of writing about super-wealthy people leading charmed lives. His protagonists are regular Janes and Joes, who struggle with basic issues like bills, jobs, and family. And beyond that, he goes even deeper, and looks at addiction, infidelity, abuse, and incarceration.

In Life After, the issues are big ones. Donna and Marcel are two people who have been deeply hurt. (I won’t say how, because I want you to read it for yourself!) But while Donna is getting along in her healing process, Marcel is still in the thick of the struggle. And given the nature of his pain, its completely understandable. When they meet, the two have an immediate connection that is mostly physical, but has hints of the possibility of something deeper. And though neither of them is in a place to have a relationship, they embark on one anyway. Donna is more cautious, but Marcel is pretty much all in right away, though he knows that there is a significant obstacle up ahead of they’re to get serious.

Keith Thomas Walker took me on the ups and downs of figuring out a relationship while figuring yourself out, and it was a heartrending journey. Once I learned the nature of Marcel’s loss, I understood why he was where he was. And as for Donna, I admired her ability to ever take a chance at love after what she went through. As always, the dialogue was realistic, the characters endearing and relatable and the situations completely within the realm of the possible.

What made this book a four-star rather than a five-star read for me was that while I fell in love with the main characters, I wasn’t entirely convinced that they had fallen in love with each other. Donna in particular remained ambivalent about Marcel almost the entire way, and when he

***SPOILER AHEAD***

proposed to her, I was actually surprised that she said ‘yes’ even though I knew I was reading a romance, and it probably contained an HEA. The latter part of their journey together felt like it should have been a beginning of a new journey. Because of the secret that Marcel concealed from her, I thought that they were only TRULY beginning to get to know each other around the time they decided to get married. THAT, at least for me, was when the love story had the potential to really BEGIN rather than end. I would have been happier, strangely enough, if there had been no wedding but a commitment to begin to help each other heal and learn about each other with their truths finally out in the open.

But this might be just a minor quibble for most readers, and as always, I highly recommend this author. Sometime this year, I’m quite sure I will have read everything he’s ever written.
Nia Forrester

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September

Anybody's Daughter (Angela Evans #2)Anybody’s Daughter by Pamela Samuels Young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Anybody’s Daughter, the winner of the 2014 NAACP Image Award for Fiction is not the kind of book you look forward to reading. Even if you’re a fan of suspense novels (which I generally speaking am not), the themes are difficult ones, the plot challenging. And that’s just from reading the synopsis. But I decided to dive in anyway, because of the accolades it received. I’m glad I did. I thought I knew about child sex trafficking, having worked on the issue in my other non-writing life. But this book, through the author’s clever placement of fact and detail managed to educate me a great deal more than I otherwise would have been. The plot centers around the harrowing several-days-long ordeal of a young girl and her family after she is lured away from her life and home by the promise of what she believes will be a new romance with a handsome young man she met on Facebook. In fact, she is being trapped and will be forced into a life of what is essentially sex slavery. But this is not just any young girl, this is the niece of Dre Thomas, an ex-con determined to use his knowledge of the code of the streets to get her back.

Pamela Samuels Young managed to keep the sense of urgency alive throughout the entire book, as Dre races against time to locate his niece, and along the way learns about a trade much more diabolical than the drug trade that resulted in his incarceration. Along with Dre, his former flame, an attorney, Angela Evans, navigate the seedy underworld of child sex trafficking and encounter the varied characters who populate it, from Loretha, once herself a trafficker and prostitute, now reformed, to The Shepherd, the sociopath who makes millions peddling the flesh of young girls.

What I liked most about the plotting of this book is that the author managed to preserve the grit and realism without giving us squeamishly uncomfortable details. If, like me, you might have avoided this book entirely because of the difficult subject matter, be assured that Pamela Samuels Young managed it as sensitively as was possible.

Characterization
The hero of this book is, undoubtedly, Dre Thomas, the man with the checkered past who is so determined to retrieve his kidnapped niece that he will stop at nothing, and I mean nothing. Kind of. Though there is the ever-present implication that Dre would kill to get his niece Brianna back, the author manages again to toe the line, making Dre do things that are questionable without morally compromising him. Though he wants to get Brianna back and will, in the heat of the moment, stop at nothing to accomplish that, in retrospect, Dre’s basic nature as a “good man who’s done some wrong” is preserved. He is strong, principled, loyal and determined. All of that comes through loud in clear both in his actions and dialogue. I was left wanting to know and read more about him, and even before completing this book, was browsing others by this author that would tell me more of Dre Thomas’ story.

Less of a solid presence–though that may have been intentional–was Angela Evans, Dre’s love interest and the lawyer who will do her best to help him bring his niece home. While Dre is exacting a little street justice, Angela is educating herself about the mainstream justice system’s failings when dealing with victims of trafficking. As an attorney representing trafficked girls, she thought she knew some of what they faced, but it is through Dre’s ordeal that she learns her most important lessons. I found Angela a sympathetic character and a likable one, but was not particularly attached to her. My assumption was that this was a result of it not being ‘her book’. Pamela Samuels Young has others in which she is the main protagonist, so I was not troubled by the more superficial characterization of Angela. I am sure that occurs elsewhere.

The other stand-out character in the book was Brianna herself. The girl who is ripped from her family and thrown into a world she never imagined existed could well have come across as generic, or just, well, “anybody’s daughter”. But Pamela Samuels Young conveyed well Brianna’s spirit, determination and will to escape her circumstances. And though they had few scenes together (and only at the end of the novel), she also managed to convey the closeness of the relationship between Dre and his niece in her firm belief that no matter what, her uncle would be coming to get her.

Evocative Appeal
Three words: child. sex. trafficking.  If that doesn’t evoke emotion, then you’re dead. Apart from a sense of dismay at the extent of the scourge of this trade, Anybody’s Daughter also managed to keep me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. Almost every chapter ended with a sense of urgency to get to the next one, so that I felt, like Dre, that I was racing against time. The pace was effective, the brevity of the chapters added to the sense of things moving quickly, and showed the author’s understanding of structure as well as content and how that can enhance a reading experience.

Worth a Re-read
The first read of Anybody’s Daughter is likely to similar to watching a horror film through your fingers. You want to see what happens next, but are terrified to experience the full effect. I think the second read will be worth it, if only to pick up on more nuance of characters and details about a poorly-understood crime. I would go so far as to say that this book is educational and so, worth many reads.

The Bottom Line:
Anybody’s Daughter is well worth the read. Books that entertain, convey information you might not otherwise have learned, and make you think about and see the world differently are always a good thing. Most books manage only to do one of those things at a time. This one does all three. I recommend it. It will make a great book club read because the plot alone is rich with issues that I can see a group of readers spending long hours debating and discussing.

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October

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to think I’ve read it all. That no plot will actually surprise me anymore. Well, I was wrong. I’d heard a lot about
‘Gone Girl’
 by Gillian Flynn when it was just a book, and planned to read it when it was released. And then I heard that it was being made into a movie, with remarkable haste. That made me resurrect it from my very lengthy ‘to be read’ list on my e-reader, and get to work.

‘Gone Girl’ opens with Nick Dunne ruminating about his wife’s head. Correction, her “skull”. The shape of it, the distinctiveness of it. Not a thought-process that’s conventional when reflecting on the physical aspects of the woman you love. Nick’s wife, Amy Elliot Dunne has “gone missing” under suspicious circumstances and their small town gradually becomes the focus of national interest because of Amy’s pedigree. She is ‘Amazing Amy’, the subject of a series of children’s books that her parents, a pair of psychologists wrote as she was growing up. The royalties from the books made Amy a very rich young woman. At least she was when Nick met her. Now, they are not quite as rich. In fact they are just making do, and have moved back to Nick’s hometown after both losing their jobs in New York, and because Nick wanted to help his sister care for their dying mother, and father who has Alzheimer’s.

The strain of their circumstances–the move to a small town by the cosmopolitan Amy, the diminution of Amy’s fortune, and the possibility that they are just fundamentally incompatible–has had a toll on Nick and Amy’s marriage and by the time he comes home to find her gone, they are not in a good place. Through Nick’s alternating first person account, and Amy’s journal entries, you believe you’re reading about the disintegration of a marriage. You believe that Nick Dunne, while affable is not really as good a guy as he seems. And you begin to believe that poor Amy, despite Nick’s firsthand account of their relationship, may very well have become a victim of a one of the oldest of all crimes–murder by a spouse. I won’t tell you whether any or all of those things are true.

As you read on, Gillian Flynn hits you right between the eyes with a twist, and then another, and then another. Have you ever heard of the writing device, ‘the unreliable narrator’? Well, if you’re a reader, you don’t much care about writing devices just how well they’re executed, so take my word for it, it was soooo well executed in this book. And if you’re a writer, you may or may not know about it, but again, it was so well done in ‘Gone Girl’ that it’s no wonder the book was a hit. Without spoiling it for you–whether you’re a writer or reader–let me just say this: no one is to be completely believed in ‘Gone Girl’. Not the likable Nick, nor the enigmatic Amy. By the time the story is over, it’s transformed twice, from domestic drama, to mystery, to psychological thriller.

Amy Elliot Dunne is a character unlike any I’ve read about in a very long time, and Nick, by virtue of being in her sphere changes over the course of the book from someone who watches his life happen to him to someone who begins to try to direct the course of his life. Both the unique nature of Amy, and Nick’s evolution make for great reading if you like character-driven work. And the mystery of who Amy is, and what happened to her will also keep lovers of mystery-thrillers turning the page.

Some of the turns were a little melodramatic for my taste, but riveting nonetheless, and at no point was it an option to simply stop reading. Once Gillian Flynn established that nothing was as it seemed, I had to keep reading to see what came next. And further, I wanted to see the movie. Often, when a book is good (as this one undoubtedly was) you’re a little leery of watching the movie for fear that it will be ruined in your imagination. This book, however, had all the makings of a great movie as well and I’m now VERY eager to see how it turned out. And of course, I’m scanning Amazon for other books by Gillian Flynn.

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November

Into the Darkest CornerInto the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In honor of the intrepid writers who hope to crank out a novel in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month, I thought it fitting that I review the work of an author whose career began in 2006 with NaNoWriMo. In fairness, I should say I didn’t know this when I began reading ‘Into the Darkest Corner’. My motives were purely selfish. I want to write suspense dramas at some point, and this book seemed like as good a place as any to start.

The plot sounded interesting enough–young woman meets intriguing stranger, who seems like the man of her dreams, but he becomes instead the stuff of nightmares. As a fellow writer recently pointed out, the plot of ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ bears some similarities to the popular movie, ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’. But once you read it, no, not really.

‘Into the Darkest Corner’ is a psychological thriller. Told in alternating chapters of past and present, we see Catherine coping with the aftermath of her relationship with Lee, a man who when she first met him seemed to be an incredible stroke of luck. You see, Catherine was a bit of a party-girl, and all her relationships are of the casual, one-night variety. She goes out drinking with friends and she picks men up, who she takes back to her apartment for a night or a few hours. She has no awareness that something better or deeper might be out there for her.

Then she meets Lee. He’s working as a bouncer at a local nightclub and is impossibly handsome, incredibly charming and a passionate lover. In almost record time, Lee’s most heartfelt passion becomes Catherine herself. And before Catherine can even begin to process all this, Lee has woven himself into her life, has a key to her apartment, has ingratiated himself with her friends and is dictating what Catherine can wear, who she can see, and when. And to make matters worse, he is a man of many secrets, all of which–once revealed–make Catherine’s reluctance to end the relationship not only understandable, but in some weird way, sensible.

Catherine survives Lee. But only barely. And now he is coming out of prison and she must face him, and more to the point, face the person she has become as a result of their relationship.

Catherine’s struggle to cope with her past, the stark nature of her present, and her desire for a future, perhaps with her sympathetic neighbor, the handsome Stuart are the real core of this book. I liked the psychological thriller elements but especially liked that I so thoroughly identified with Catherine (who is so unlike me that my identifying with her defied explanation) that I was scared when she was, frustrated when she was, and most of all began to feel her sense of empowerment as it grew.

I want to say more, but won’t, because I want you to read it. Especially you Na NoWriMo-ers. If this is what’s possible in 30 days of dedicated and disciplined writing, then I can’t wait to see what you produce. Write on!

N.

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Reconstructing Amelia

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I generally don’t read books just because someone tags it ‘if you liked ____, you’ll love___’. But in this case, having fallen under the spell of ‘Gone Girl’, I decided to ignore that rule, and read ‘Reconstructing Amelia’ anyway. Though the themes are similar–inviting the reader to question whether you ever really know someone, even those who’re supposed to be closest to you–that is about where the similarities between the two books begin and end.

‘Reconstructing Amelia’ is in many ways a much more compelling read.

Imagine for a minute that you’re the single mother of a fifteen-year old girl. You and your daughter are close because you have been studious about ensuring that you give her “quality time”. Despite those best efforts, you sometimes fall short because you have a challenging career. But all in all, you believe you’re doing a good job because she is an exemplary student, a good athlete and has many interests. Although not popular, your daughter seems well-adjusted. And then one day, out of the blue, she is accused of doing something that is completely out of character which causes her to be suspended from her exclusive private school. The school calls and asks you to come get her. You go; but by the time you arrive, your daughter is dead, having done the unthinkable and jumped to her death from the roof of her school’s main building.

Imagine further that just as you are trying to understand her suicide and come to terms with it, a mysterious text message tells you it wasn’t suicide after all, something you are desperate to believe, and so set out to prove. That is the intriguing premise of this book. But that synopsis makes it sound like a mystery novel, and it is, but not entirely in the way we traditionally understand that genre. As much as we want to learn what happened to Amelia and why, Kimberly McCreight also makes us want to understand who she is; and that’s the real mystery–who was Amelia really? ‘Reconstructing Amelia’ takes us on her mother’s journey as she learns that her daughter was so much more than she imagined, in some ways completely average and in others, exceptional. As a reader, that’s my sweet spot. Not just action, but motive and depth and emotion. There is plenty of all those things in this book.

Kimberly McCreight gave us a book that was about so much more than a possible murder-mystery; it is about the complex secret lives of teenagers, and how the way we parent can shape who they become. It is about not only the secrets they keep from us, but the ones we keep from them. It is about how the anonymous nature of social media has in some ways created more barriers between us when it should and could be used to break them down. It is about the strange world of privilege and how teenagers who grow up in that world can sometimes be the most deprived of all. And finally, it is about reconciling ourselves to loss. I felt Amelia’s mother’s loss on every page, and since we get to know Amelia intimately (through alternating first and third person narrative–Amelia’s in first, her mother’s in third) by the time the story is over, we mourn her as well.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that ‘Reconstructing Amelia’ is in development by HBO. It is definitely one of those stories that lends itself to visual drama–the characters that populate it are all multi-dimensional and memorable (a must-have for me), the back stories all independently fascinating with or without the central storyline of Amelia and what happened to her, and the pacing spot-on. Kimberly McCreight wasted not a single page; not a single word. Everything was significant, and the surprises begin early and keep coming to the absolute end. It’s going to make a hell of a movie, assuming its done well.

But hey, I’m partial to the written word, so highly recommend that you read it before Nicole Kidman does her magic onscreen.

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December

Hidden BlessingsHidden Blessings by Kim Cash Tate

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Christian fiction is generally not among the genres I routinely read. And my prejudices are the ones that many people probably can relate to:

I don’t want to be preached at.

I am spiritual but not religious.

And, honestly, I like a little realistic premarital sex in my fiction.

You know, the usual objections.But this time, the blurb reached out and grabbed me. It begins:

Diagnosis: breast cancer.

Prognosis: terminal.

Life: only beginning.

Now, as an author myself, I wanted to see how this writer would pull this off (that’s often my motivation for choosing books–seeing whether an author who has set out a tall order can actually deliver on it). After all, a story about a woman with a terminal illness should be, by its very nature depressing. And this book is supposed to be inspirational. So, I went in completely skeptical. And let me say up front, that Kim Cash Tate delivered. Not only did she deliver, she helped me reconsider my prejudice against Christian fiction entirely.

In ‘Hidden Blessings’, we meet Kendra Woods, a woman who by almost any measure has a full and successful life. She is a well-respected attorney and is engaged to Derek, also an attorney. They are mere weeks away from the wedding when she notices an anomaly on her breast. Having lost a mother to cancer, Kendra immediately gets it checked out, and receives the most devastating diagnosis possible. Chemotherapy, her doctor tells her, is not a cure in her case, just a means to prolong her life expectancy, which in the most optimistic of scenarios, will be only three years. Before starting chemo, however, Kendra wants to have her dream wedding and honeymoon, fearing that the chemo will make her too ill.

And then Derek drops a bomb. A terminally-ill wife is not in his life plan.

Smarting from this blow, Kendra returns to her hometown to lick her wounds, and to start treatment with the doctor who helped her mother. It is once she goes home that we see beneath the facade of Kendra’s well-ordered life. Her family is in disarray–her father in exile after a scandal, her younger brother careening out of control in his life, her family home a mess …

But there is Divine intervention on the way, in the person of Lance Alexander, a youth pastor who Kendra knew in high school. Lance, after a rough spell, has turned his life around. And his journey is about to intersect with Kendra’s in unexpected ways.

‘Hidden Blessings’ surprised me. I expected a love story, and got that, but not quite the kind of love story I’m accustomed to. This was a story of selfless love, unconditional and uncommon love, guided not only by personal desires but by faith and a strong belief in the ultimate wisdom of a compassionate God. If you are an atheist (I am not) or a cynic (I am) this is a challenging concept, especially since we may not see very much of this kind of love. But Kim Cash Tate made the possibility of such a love believable, reasonable, poignant and thought-provoking in this book.

Lance wasn’t perfect. He had self-doubt, he had pride, he had desires … all the things that a living, breathing man falling in love with a woman might have. But he also had faith, and Kim Cash Tate did a masterful job of showing how his faith guided the path he chose with Kendra and later with her family. When Kendra is despondent and bemoans the fact that she will die in a few years, Lance reminds her that she can look at that time differently. Since none of us know the time of our passing, she can use her time to ‘live’ rather than to die.

Even as Kendra accepts that, she is reluctant to embrace the love Lance offers, because after all, she can offer so little back. This conflict is one that rises above the more conventional romance-novel conflicts. Selflessness is what might keep the two apart rather than the standard romance challenges caused by selfishness, jealousy or pride.

I grew to care about Lance (and wish I knew him!) and Kendra; and more than that, I cared about all of the secondary characters as well. Each and every one of them had struggles that needed to be overcome, and the author was able to use them as lessons about the power of faith without the preachy tone that would have turned me immediately off. Only on one issue was I a little dissatisfied, but I recognize this as my issue. The author’s treatment of same-sex attraction was consistent with Christian doctrine so it was not unexpected, but like Christian doctrine, it offers little by way of answers on homosexuality, but a lot of platitudes.

While Lance talked about his faith and about God, the more compelling parts of the book showed him living his faith, struggling with his faith and even once questioning it. This made him real to me. I also loved, loved, loved Kendra’s rediscovery of her faith even in the face of the worst adversity; and her ability to give thanks in the face of loss was beyond moving. I actually found myself wishing I had her strength, but beyond that, every single one of her emotions, I empathized with. Without being overly sentimental or sappy, Kim Cash Tate made me want for Kendra all the things she wanted for herself.

Finally, I will say that I had a pretty strong notion of how ‘Hidden Blessings’ might end. Wrong again. But rest assured, it ended as it should.

For all of you who are reluctant to wade into the waters of Christian fiction, I strongly encourage you to do it with this book.

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