romance

Mercer Street by John A. Heldt

by Casee Marie on March 17, 2016

in Fiction, Reviews

“Then she remembered that love was blind. It was Helen Keller, hooded, in a dark room. It was a condition that rendered people incapable of seeing more than they wanted to see.”
John A. Heldt, Mercer Street

The second book in John Heldt’s American Journey series finds three generations of twenty-first century women on an adventure to pre-WWII New Jersey in a search for closure, clarity, and childhood innocence. Novelist Susan Peterson is still trying to find calm amid the chaos following her husband’s unexpected death, grappling with the reality of his infidelity while trying to hold the world together for her daughter, Amanda. When Susan’s mother, Elizabeth, accompanies the Peterson women on a California adventure, none of them expect that Elizabeth’s curiosity over time-travel lecturer Professor Geoffrey Bell will grant them all the chance of a lifetime. With nothing to lose, the trio embark from 2016 California to 1939 California, and from there across the country to Princeton, New Jersey and a rented house on Mercer Street where Elizabeth comes face-to-face with her immigrant parents and their infant daughter Lizzie. With the world’s best hindsight to her advantage, an elderly Elizabeth relishes the chance to spend more time with her parents and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a meaningful connection with her younger self. Meanwhile, Susan finds love and fulfillment in working with a handsome naval admiral as Amanda finds herself crossed in love – and maybe danger – with a dashing German whose family is keeping a secret.

Wonderfully capturing the calm before the storm of World War II, Mercer Street is another beautiful novel from author John Heldt, whose remarkable talent allows him to transform time-travel from a plot device into the foundation of a substantial and unforgettable story. With terrific pacing and comfortable narratives, Heldt takes his novels outside the bounds of genre fiction and into uncharted territory as he combines romance, suspense, and observations on human nature. Mercer Street is not unlike previous novels from Heldt in its ability to carry profound insight in even its more lighthearted passages, making for an experience that will please both escapist fiction lovers and more contemplative readers alike. The era and the characters in Mercer Street suit this scheme well. Through Amanda’s love interest, Kurt, Heldt explores the vulnerability of a young German as he clings to his powerful sense of morality in the shadow of Nazi Germany’s uprising; through Elizabeth, the grace of an elderly woman’s reconnection to her younger self as she literally relives moments of her life too old to be remembered; and through Susan, a woman’s search for her own strength as one love life takes shape even as another is still to be mourned. While each character and their personal experiences manage to take root for the reader, perhaps the most arresting is that of Elizabeth as she seems to get to the very heart of the human experience. It’s hard not to be affected by the imagery Heldt creates through Elizabeth’s first meeting her younger self, and then the fostering of an undeniable connection that grows so strongly between one’s present and past selves.

One of the other great strengths of Mercer Street, as with so many of Heldt’s novels, is the intrepid research that goes into the groundwork of its story. The energy of the time, when so much was unforeseeable, is captured in detail while unexpected figures from history take their turns gracing the pages in a series of cameos that will delight enthusiasts of the era. For his first novel set on the east coast Heldt has chosen a place as unforgettable as the time, with Princeton coming to life in both the simplest narrative illustrations and in Elizabeth’s poetic recollections of the world she once knew. It all comes together as the story whirls through its many manageable layers, at once comfortable to read and quite steeped in meaning, as it works up to its unexpected ending. With all the charisma, humor, and wisdom of the author’s previous novels – and with perhaps an even richer cinematic quality – Mercer Street is another winning and unmissable read from a truly well-skilled writer.

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The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford

by Casee Marie on November 11, 2015

in Fiction, Reviews

“What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
Our neck of the woods. Like she and Joe alone owned New Jersey.
“Just visiting,” I said lightly, smiling, but for all I knew I had the squiggly-lined mouth of nervous Charlie Brown. Lucy – ha! Lucy – would pull the football from me at any minute, landing me flat on my back.
Jennifer Handford, The Light of Hidden Flowers

Jennifer Hanford’s newest novel is a tapestry of emotion woven together through multiple stories on themes of acceptance, bravery, and overcoming. At the center of The Light of Hidden Flowers is quiet Missy Fletcher, a whip-smart introvert who has lived a comfortable life safely in the shadow of her larger-than-life father. Financial planner by day, couch-bound Jeopardy! genius by night, Missy lives out her adventures online, planning glamorous trips across the world before her fear of flying makes her once again choose hometown normalcy. On the other end of the Internet is Joe Santelli, the high school sweetheart and love of her life whose picture-perfect marriage plays out in photos posted to social media. As reconnecting with Joe begins to remind her of how brave she once was – brave in love – Missy finds her world turned upside down when her indomitable father falls victim to Alzheimer’s. Thrown into a whirlwind sparked by a bequeathed letter, Missy faces her fears and travels to Italy, where an unexpected meeting with a new friend challenges her to step further into her own hero’s journey: namely India, and a life of saving lives. As Missy’s every fear is tested, she finds the courage to step outside her comfort zone both in life and in love.

Being Frank Fletcher’s daughter made me something, gave me value, validated my existence, but without him, I was just a girl too frightened to leave Virginia, too nervous to fire her father’s indolent nurse, too scared to stick her tongue out and catch a drop of rain on the tip of it. I was Frank Fletcher’s daughter, and without him, I was nothing.
Jennifer Handford, The Light of Hidden Flowers

The Light of Hidden Flowers is a special book in the realm of self-discovery fiction. Handford has a wonderful set of skills put to use in the novel form, from smart pacing to a delightful knack for metaphors and a great capacity for warmth. None of her characters feel contrived, most especially – and importantly – our protagonist. Missy is a relatable and deeply genuine character, flawed and humble and human in a particularly endearing way. In a culture that praises its extroverts and admonishes its introverts to “put themselves out there more”, Missy is a reminder of the admirable bravery it takes to be quiet in a loud world, to be openly scared and vulnerable and to still persevere. One of my favorite things about her is that while she does, of course, find herself transformed by her journey, she is not ultimately and radically changed. That’s to say, Missy’s introversion remains intact throughout her experiences – in her careful handling of her anxieties, in her devotion to paying attention, in her studiousness and her quietness. Her happy ending is not necessarily found in magically becoming an extrovert, but in learning to live her fullest life as an introvert. In this way, Missy’s personality doesn’t undergo the monumental Cinderella-style transformation of many introverts in literature – rather, her perspective does. In Missy, Handford illustrates the wisdom that our personal signature runs deep – but we will always have a chance to surprise ourselves.

Adding more richness to the novel are the layered stories of Joe, a war-worn vet whose marriage is ending, and his brilliant daughter Kate who’s fighting her own battle as the social scene of middle school threatens her fragile self-esteem. Each character comes alive with the realness of their struggles, and their inherent goodness has the reader cheering them on without fail. Handford explores the emotionality of each person’s unique inner-journey with a poignancy that simultaneously warms and opens the reader’s heart. We feel the ache of Missy’s heartbroken confusion and hurt at her father’s final wish that she “be brave”, as she reconciles her choices, craves her father’s approval and pride, and ultimately struggles to understand what bravery looks like through her own eyes. Likewise, Joe’s exploration of his feelings toward his ex-wife, toward his history and himself are all resonate as Handford turns several chapters over to his point of view. Equally heart-rending are the experiences Kate goes through as she struggles to find a glimmer of acceptance for herself in a society that rejects her if it pays her any attention at all.

Healing was proving to be a sneaky, power-hungry control freak who could have made my life easier all at once, but instead doled out my therapy like a close-fisted welfare worker in charge of food stamps. Here’s just enough to get you by, she’d say, handing me my first voucher: Anger. And when I was finished with Anger, I sold it for a loss and bought high on Love – a poor strategy for a seasoned stock picker like me, except for the fact that I knew sometimes you had to sell your losers and buy high to join the winners. I would profit from having Dad and his love on my side.
Jennifer Handford, The Light of Hidden Flowers

The Light of Hidden Flowers reaches wonderful heights and invites readers on a rare, special journey to understand the power of compassion and the grace of hope. With lovely prose and no shortage of charm, this is a novel fit for compulsive reading, one that wraps the reader in a warm hug even as it encourages them to reach for seemingly impossible stars.

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The Denim Blue Sea by Joanne DeMaio

by Casee Marie on April 28, 2015

in Fiction, Reviews

In her new novel, bestselling author Joane DeMaio returns to the idyllic beach town of Stony Point where friends come together for a wedding celebration that brings old wounds to the surface.

While Joanne DeMaio has written five consistently wonderful books, perhaps her most memorable characters first appeared in her 2013 novel, Blue Jeans and Coffee Beans. It was the story of beach friends Maris, Jason, Eva, Matt, Kyle, and Lauren as they reunited years after a tragic accident killed Jason’s brother, Neil, the pillar of their collective friendship. Each suffered Neil’s loss in varying ways; Jason harbored a relentless guilt over his own survival of the accident, while for Lauren the memory of her love for Neil clouded her relationship with her husband Kyle. In The Denim Blue Sea, DeMaio revisits her characters from Stony Point as the friends gather together for Jason and Maris’s wedding day. It’s a time of celebration as Maris and Eva settle into their newly-realized sisterhood, as Jason and Maris prepare to make a lifelong commitment to each other, and as Kyle and Lauren return to the beach with their marriage stronger than ever. But as the sea breeze changes without warning, so too does the peaceful summer when their old beach town once again brings back difficult memories and the ghosts of wounds left unhealed.

The Denim Blue Sea is filled with all the hallmarks of DeMaio’s work, from the poetic narrative to the lush descriptions of seaside life that bewitch a scent of salty sea air right into the reader’s world. The many characters from her former novel are brought back to the pages with all their original charisma, each stepping back into the reader’s mind with instant familiarity. There’s a running theme throughout the novel, of matrimonial bliss and hardship alike; but the strongest thread that ties the stories of DeMaio’s characters together is the commitments we make to those we love, and how love itself can sometimes find a way to challenge those commitments. It’s the novel’s one character to never fully appear – Neil – whose memory tests each friend’s commitment in unexpected ways. For Jason, it’s the arrival of an unwelcome figure from his past, and the soul-searching journey of how this unforeseen reconnection might help him come to terms with the loss that’s still so painful; for Maris, it’s the discovery of a much-loved journal and the secrets it contains, which could turn past wounds into entirely new challenges; and for Kyle and Lauren, it’s a burning truth that lies unresolved between them and, when exposed once again to the memories waiting for them at the beach, could ultimately tear them apart.

The emotional complications that arise from each character’s struggle are unfolded before the reader in DeMaio’s ever-luminous prose, which finds no shortage of inspiration from the sea, itself an extraordinary life form that teaches us about patience and acceptance, about how to slow down, how to pay attention, and especially how to endure through any storm. As Maris designs her new denim collection, inspired by Neil’s teachings on the sea’s majesty, the nuances of a dreamy beach life become vivid; but as the characters of the novel face their struggles, through arguments and heart-opening conversations alike, DeMaio reminds her reader that life and the sea have a lot in common: they may not be peaceful all the time, but the beauty is always there to be seen. With the author’s familiar blend of poignant drama, heart-warming romance, and idyllic seaside charm, The Denim Blue Sea brings Stony Point to life in a way that will make its readers feel as though they never left.

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Thank-you to Mary DeMaio for providing a copy of The Denim Blue Sea for me to read!

September Sky by John A. Heldt

by Casee Marie on March 27, 2015

in Fiction, Reviews

John Heldt, author of the Northwest Passage stories, is back with the first in a new time-travel series that touches on love, mystery, and family dynamics.

September Sky chronicles the story of a father and son trying to recover their common ground, one a man on a path to redemption and the other a lost soul on a journey to rediscover his passion. When recent unemployed journalist Chuck Townsend convinces his son, recent college dropout Justin, to join him on a much-needed cruise holiday, Mexico is the only exotic destination they expects to visit. Instead, Chuck and Justin find their paths crossing with Professor Bell, a veritable Willy Wonka whose chocolate factory of choice is, in fact, a time-travel portal in one of Los Angeles’ remaining Painted Ladies. In cahoots with the professor, Chuck and Justin arm themselves with history and return to 1900 Galvaston, Texas, where a distant relative is about to be sent to the gallows for a murder he didn’t commit and an monumental hurricane is about to devastate an unsuspecting island. While working to clear the name of their ancestor and change the history of a history-making storm, Chuck and Justin will both find love, sorrow, and plenty of surprises in Victorian Texas.

With a well-loved series of five books under his belt, author John Heldt is a near veteran of time-travel fiction in the vein of Back to the Future, and he brings his learnings from the Northwest Passage series to his newest endeavor, the American Journey series. September Sky is a worthy beginning, bringing together Heldt’s comprehensive research and smart storytelling chops alike. While his books maintain a similar undercurrent – one that spotlights strong moral characters, timeless romance, and smart, entertaining history thrills – Heldt has a way of rendering each story in a slightly different color, allowing his work to appeal as a veritable rainbow of all the great things we look for in novels. September Sky is no exception; the characters, from classic heroes and villains to unexpected allies and adversaries, harbor an essence of familiarity within the layers of complexity that make them so interesting. Charlotte and Emily, the Victorian-era librarians who catch the eyes of the world weary time-travelers, are both wonderful examples of the timeless female spirit that has existed throughout history. Charlotte, a sensitive widow, finds courage in her love for Chuck while Emily, fiercely independent and ahead-of-her-time, discovers new depth of feeling in handsome young Justin. The dual love stories, along with the touching relationship between father and son, fill the pages with passion and heart.

Heldt turns his attention from the Pacific Northwest to the south of Texas with aplomb, utilizing the monumental hurricane of Galvaston in September 1900 as both a storytelling arc and a tribute to the history his stories bring to life. The devastating storm retains its devastation across the pages, but the hurricane becomes one of many facets of Victorian Texas that come to life for the reader. As Chuck and Justin work to uncover the real murderer and clear their ancestor’s name, they find themselves met with some of the civil – not to mention technological – injustices of the time, coming face-to-face with the sort of personalities who both helped and hindered the progression of turn-of-the-century America. Through the scenery of the era, whether the style of dress or the manner of speaking or the pastimes enjoyed, September Sky takes the reader back with its two charming protagonists to a time both inherently simpler and surprisingly more complex than we can imagine.

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Thank-you to John Heldt for providing a copy of September Sky for me to read!

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott

March 6, 2015

In her new novel, Kate Alcott takes readers back in time to Hollywood in 1939 and the tumultuous filming of Gone with the Wind. A Touch of Stardust blends fact and fiction, combining newly imagined original characters with unforgettable icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, as Kate Alcott explores the topsy-turvy world of cinematic glamour and […]

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A Thousand Tombs by Molly Greene

November 12, 2014

Molly Greene’s latest story, A Thousand Tombs, is the fourth mystery involving sassy private investigator Gen Delacourt, and this time Gen is up to her eyebrows in intrigue when she and her boyfriend, San Francisco cop Mack Hackett, quite literally stumble upon a teenage boy on the run for his life. Young Luca barrels into […]

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Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

October 29, 2014

My review is part of the Fireship Press Hand of Fire book tour. You can find links to all the stops (including reviews, interviews, guest posts, and excerpts) at FireshipPress.com. Judith Starkston’s debut takes the reader deep into the history and mythology of ancient Greece to tell a story of love and war, mortality and […]

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Crane (Legends Saga #1) by Stacey Rourke

October 23, 2014

In the first book of her Legends saga, Crane, Stacey Rourke takes on Washington Irving’s unforgettable tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s a story we’ve all seen retold many times – through animation, on the silver screen, and, most recently, for television . It would be easy for anyone handling the story to fall […]

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