Reviewed for THC Reviews The Notebook is a poignant story of true and unending love in its purest form, and the power and magic of love to defy all odd...moreReviewed for THC Reviews The Notebook is a poignant story of true and unending love in its purest form, and the power and magic of love to defy all odds. It begins with an elderly man, sitting by his wife's bedside, reading her a story. From there, we travel back in time to when star-crossed lovers Noah and Allie met as teenagers in 1932 and spent one magical summer together. They were from opposite sides of the tracks. Allie was from a well-to-do family with political connections, and Noah was more or less a nobody. An aristocratic type system still prevailed in the South, so Allie's family didn't approve of a match with Noah and the two were separated for fourteen years. Noah moved to New Jersey where he worked for several years before joining the Army and heading for Europe to fight in WWII. Allie went to college, abandoned her artwork of which her parents did not approve, and eventually became engaged to an attorney of whom they did approve. Over the years, neither was able to forget the other. Noah has had no successful relationships since, because the ghost of the time he spent with Allie still haunts him, and deep down, Allie knows there is something missing in her relationship with her fiancé.
Neither really knows what became of the other until Allie sees a picture of Noah in a local newspaper just three weeks before her wedding. Seeing him again, stirs memories and emotions, and even though she doesn't really know why at the time, she is compelled to go see him in person one last time before getting married. She tells her family and fiancé that she needs to get away from the stress of wedding planning and heads for New Bern alone. Noah can hardly believe his eyes when the woman of his dreams pulls up in front of his house one day out of the blue. The longing and desire between Noah and Allie is extremely moving and palpable and hasn't dimmed one bit in fourteen long years. I love how they slip right back into a comfortable relationship as though they've never been apart. It's obvious that they're soul mates and perfect for each other, and in their heart of hearts, they know it too. After only one evening with Noah, Allie knows that what they share is something she's never had with her fiancé and never will.
At the point when Allie must make her fateful decision about which man she is going to choose, the story cuts back to the elderly man and his wife who we discover has Alzheimer's. This part of the book is so powerful and affecting, I read parts of it through a blur of tears. The lengths to which this man goes to help his wife remember the love they share is moving beyond words, an expression of a true and pure love. The way he romances her and gets her to fall in love with him over and over again and persists in doing it day after day, never giving up even when it doesn't always turn out the way he hopes is potent stuff, so much so that I'm sitting here crying my eyes out while writing this. It's the kind of love I think we all hope for, but so few seem to actually achieve.
Many readers seem to categorize The Notebook as romance, but I don't see it as such. For me, romance as a genre, usually only follows the couple through the falling in love stages of the relationship with the happily ever after implied. It taps into the fantasy of what we want love to be, while The Notebook takes that one step further. Not only do we get to see the beginnings of a relationship, we also get to see one very advanced in years, but no less passionate for the passage of time. It also takes a more realistic look at what it truly means to love someone. It's not just the gooey feeling we get when first falling in love or the sexual desire that soon follows. It's something that can last a lifetime when nurtured and a couple is fully committed to one another. Make no mistake, The Notebook is very romantic, but to me it is not merely a romance, but a love story.
The Notebook was my first read by Nicholas Sparks and certainly won't be my last. It was also his debut novel and very impressive for a first effort. The opening chapter and the latter part of the book with the elderly couple is written in first person, present tense which was beautifully rendered, giving these parts a deep sense of immediacy. Noah and Allie's story in the past is written in third person, past tense. This part was wonderful too, but I did have a small problem with the second chapter. When the author goes back to Noah and Allie's first meeting that summer, he tells it more like a narrator relating a story which made it a little difficult to get into at first. Because of the passive nature of this passage, I wasn't able to fully immerse myself on an emotional level like I wanted to and couldn't help wondering if it might have been better if written in a more active voice. Once the narrative got to Noah and Allie's reunion it was much better and only improved with every page I read. The ending was so utterly beautiful, I couldn't help giving the book the full five stars despite the early misstep.
Mr. Sparks definitely has a way with words, turning prose into pure poetry. There are so many quotable passages in this book, I almost feel like putting the whole thing in my memorable quotes file. For some reason, I was under the impression that Nicholas Sparks' books didn't have any love scenes in them, but apparently I was mistaken. I was very pleasantly surprised to find one, as well as other expressions of sexual desire, and even though that one love scene is only moderately descriptive, it was very sensual and emotional, unexpectedly well done for a male author. The Notebook is the first story in a duet about members of the Calhoun family, and I very much look forward to reading its sequel, The Wedding. This book has certainly found a spot on my keeper shelf. Reading it was a touching and emotional experience that has left a huge impression on me. It was an inspiring, thought-provoking, powerful and passionate love story that was absolutely unforgettable.(less)
THC Reviews "2.5 stars"Abide with Me continues the story of land developer, Parnell Pierce and pharmacist (not doctor as the cover blurb says), Brenda...moreTHC Reviews "2.5 stars"Abide with Me continues the story of land developer, Parnell Pierce and pharmacist (not doctor as the cover blurb says), Brenda Rafferty that began in Abiding Love. In spite of being a Christian myself, I have to say that there were certain aspects of Abiding Love which had bothered me and which I covered in my review of that book. Because of the likability of the hero and his son, a desire to give the author a second chance, and the fact that this is a short book that I needed for a reading challenge in which I am participating, I decided to press on with the series anyway. I went into reading Abide with Me with the suspicion that I still might have issues with it, but trying to be open-minded and hopeful that there would be more character and relationship development. Unfortunately, there was no new depth added to the protagonists, and I ended up liking it even less than Abiding Love in some ways. Abide with Me was marketed under the Heartsong Presents inspirational romance label, but I have a hard time even calling it a romance. In my opinion, it would be more aptly categorized as Christian women's fiction with a small amount of romance in it. The majority of the story is taken up by sermonizing on various issues, and what felt like public service announcements for conservative family values, particularly on the topics of abstinence, pro-life, and adoption. If I want to hear a sermon, I will go to church on Sunday (and still not get “preached” at as much as this book seemed to do) or read a non-fiction Bible-study book. I also prefer not to be inundated with heavy-handed rhetoric on hot-button topics while reading fiction books either. When I pick up a novel to read, especially a romance novel, I have certain expectations of being entertained and actually getting a love story which was not really the case here.
Abide with Me could have easily been written in first person perspective, because nearly the entire book was presented from the heroine's point of view. The hero's viewpoint is virtually non-existent. In fact, I've read first-person books that gave me better insights into the hero's mind than this book did. Having everything be in Brenda's voice made the story seem very self-centered, as though other people's feelings and opinions barely even mattered, especially Parnell's, and I'm sorry to say that Brenda ended up irritating me to no end. She doesn't seem to have learned a thing since the previous book and is merely continuing in her wishy-washy, judgmental ways. Brenda leaves me with the feeling that she thinks her viewpoint is always the right one and anyone who disagrees with her is utterly wrong and has to be the one to change to be fully accepted by her. Once again, she also seems to lack even a minute amount of intuition or compassion for the man she supposedly loves. Brenda's mother and friend seem to understand Parnell better than she does, which I find quite sad. Even though Brenda hurt Parnell by keeping a big secret, which in part, was what caused him to become so distant, it was Parnell who ended up doing most of the groveling at the end with Brenda only say a couple of trite “I'm sorries.” This just did not sit well with me at all.
Even though Brenda had annoyed me at times in Abiding Love, I had been able to find some things to like about her, but in this book, I really couldn't find much of anything about her to which I could relate. She seems to lack any kind of reasonable communication skills in her relationship with Parnell, and just like she did in the last book, she always tends to think the worst of him. When he becomes reticent after the revelation of her secret, she instantly assumes that he is ready to break off their engagement. When his brooding intensifies and he asks to postpone their wedding so he can have time to think, she practically throws her engagement ring back at him and calls it off herself. Then when Parnell tells his young son, Angelo, the truth about why they aren't spending Christmas with Brenda causing Angelo to get extremely upset, she has the gall to act indignantly about it as though he is the one at fault. After a talk with her mom, Brenda finally decides that her relationship with Parnell is worth fighting for, but her idea of fighting is poking around in Parnell's past by running off to visit his elderly, senile grandmother at a nursing home miles away in hopes that she'll somehow remember enough to spill the beans about what's bothering Parnell. Of course, Brenda miraculously gets the information she's seeking, and then starts praying for the ability to forgive Parnell as though it is going to be extremely difficult, when in my opinion, his actions and behavior made perfect sense and there was little or nothing to forgive. Honestly, I don't really know what Parnell sees in Brenda, because all this just served to make me want to jump into the story and smack some sense into her.
The only positive thing I can say about Brenda is that her characterization between the first and second books was consistent, but I would have preferred she show some emotional growth and personal change. The other characters remained congruous as well. Parnell is the same kind, gentle man that he was in Abiding Love. Although he was little more than a supporting character in what should have been his own story and I dearly would have loved to see more of him, there were enough little things to show what a sweet, romantic and giving man he is. I liked that he was so committed to using his position to help out in the community, but humbly resists any attention or fanfare for his efforts. Parnell just seems more human and mature in his emotions and the way he views life than Brenda does to me. Angelo is still the same cute little boy, and I can at least commend the author for writing him in an age-appropriate way. As it was in the first book, Brenda's mother continues to be the voice of reason, but in the beginning Brenda stubbornly refuses to listen to her which ends up being to her detriment.
Overall, Abide with Me was, like it's predecessor, incredibly predictable. I figured out what Brenda's secret was very quickly, and to be honest, it didn't seem all that bad to me. I don't know why she was so uptight about telling Parnell. It's something that I would think that she would have had to tell her first husband too, but of course, that little fact is overlooked. I also almost instantaneously figured out what was bothering Parnell after the revelation of Brenda's secret. Additionally, there were a few other elements of the story that I thought were either strange or just plain weak. First, there is a scene where Brenda and her assistant, Rita, are discussing Rita's love life. Rita is lamenting the fact that her boyfriend is pressuring her for sex and seems quite conflicted about it. Then Brenda suddenly made an abrupt and flying leap of logic to conclude that Rita was already sleeping with her boyfriend. In my opinion, that didn't make sense with the conversation up to that point, but of course, it conveniently turned out to be true. Next, there was a bit of courtroom action which I found to be rather laughable. I admittedly have no legal background, but some of the questions that were being asked and the antics of the attorneys just didn't ring true to me. There was also a scene where Angelo disappears and rather than frantically continuing to search for him, Brenda and Parnell strangely just stand there presumably waiting for the police while having their reunion moment. Lastly, I thought that a large number of the conversations between Brenda and Parnell were rather awkward and stilted, reminiscent of two people who are just getting to know one another instead of a couple who is engaged to be married in a mere two months. Sadly, the fact that they really don't know each other is played out loud and clear throughout the whole story. This coupled with Brenda's seeming inability to trust Parnell and their poor communication left me skeptical that these two could actually have a true HEA. In fact, the HEA that existed left something to be desired, with no return of the engagement ring, no acknowledgement that the wedding was still on as planned, and no real declaration of love.
In spite of the content and characters being frustrating to me, I can say that the book was more readable than some others I've tried, even if I did feel like throwing it against the wall several times. I love to read Christmas stories during the month of December and was pleasantly surprised to find that the story was set during the holiday season even though it isn't the main focus nor mentioned in the cover blurb. There were also a couple of mildly edifying spiritual messages that I managed to glean from the story even though I had to dig pretty deep to unearth them from the mounds of ideology that had been heaped on top of them. Abide with Me is the second book in the Abide Duet, the first being Abiding Love which Ms. McManus wrote as Elizabeth Murphy. Even though there were some positive aspects to both books, I can't say that it was enough to overcome the negative ones for me. This author's storytelling style quite simply seems to be based more on personal agenda than any genuine sense of love and romance. After two less than stellar reads in a row by her, I have decided that no matter what name she is writing under, Ms. McManus's works are just not for me, and unless I hear something spectacular, I probably won't be picking up another of her books again.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews Susannah, A Lawyer: From Tragedy to Triumph was a very interesting read even though it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I re...moreReviewed for THC Reviews Susannah, A Lawyer: From Tragedy to Triumph was a very interesting read even though it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I received a copy for review from the author's publicist, who had made a request for reviews on the GoodReads Historical Romance Discussion Group of which I am a member. I had volunteered, because the synopsis interested me, and I thought that it was either a historical romance or a historical novel in which romance was a strong element. In reality, the book is historical women's fiction with the romance (if it could even be called that) comprising probably less than ten percent of the story. I mention this only because I was about 1/3 of the way into the book before I finally realized this, and had experienced some disappointment up to that point. After my little epiphany, I was able to appreciate and generally enjoy the rest of the book for what it was, since I was no longer expecting things that I would likely not get.
Susannah is written in first-person perspective and focuses very narrowly on the main character of Susannah and her struggles in becoming a lawyer in an era when female attorneys were extremely few and those who did exist tended to encounter a great deal of prejudice and hostility from the public and their male counterparts. I've always had an interest in historical figures who were able to break gender (or other) barriers, so the subject matter was quite intriguing. Unlike some of my fellow readers, I am not anti-first-person and up to this point have never had a problem with reading that point-of-view. I also thought that first-person was appropriate for the topic of the book, but I admittedly had many moments when I really craved insights into the other character's thoughts and feelings. Susannah is very much the centerpiece of the narrative with the secondary characters merely orbiting on the periphery. Her relationships to them, whether it be her beau, family, friends, or colleagues are only touched upon very lightly, and in most cases briefly, which left me rather frustrated at times. One example is that Susannah's beau, Ted, is nothing but sweet and supportive throughout the entire story until one brief lapse at the very end where he becomes extremely upset and says some mean things to her that seemed completely out of character for him. Even though he later apologized and the author tries to explain his behavior, I really would have liked to know what Ted was thinking at that moment. I was also rather baffled by how Susannah and her siblings could have such ultra-conservative, ultra-religious parents, but be more liberal-minded themselves. Not that this is impossible, but I wanted to know more about that. Additionally, one of Susannah's colleagues at the firm had mentored her in a very congenial way, but then when she becomes a full-fledged attorney, he starts acting schizophrenic, skipping back and forth between saying and doing ugly things to her and being friendly. Again, his behavior is explained away by a serious illness that caused him to drink heavily to control the pain, and while I could buy that, I found myself wanting to know what he really thought of her. There were many moments like these throughout the narrative where I simply wanted to know more. There are also frequent moments when Susannah veers off into a quick present-tense commentary of the situation at hand, which I thought interrupted the flow of the narrative and seemed rather unnecessary since it's all from her perspective anyway.
Between blazing trails where few of her gender had gone before and surviving a brutal attack against her, Susannah was a strong woman who I could admire. She was very determined, never taking “no” for an answer; she found a way to effectively balance motherhood and her career; and she was an incredibly intelligent woman who proved herself to be as competent, if not more so, at law than her male colleagues. For these reasons alone, I couldn't help but like her. One complaint I have about her character though is that her reasons for becoming a lawyer seemed unfocused and dependent on the circumstances. The reader isn't really given much insight into what prompted the beginnings of her journey when she was still a young girl in boarding school. Sometimes she seemed to be a feminist who was looking to break the glass ceiling. Other times she asserted that she was so intelligent, she needed the intellectual stimulation and just couldn't bear the thought of the mundane life that most women of the era led. Still other times it was a desire to help people and make sure that justice was served, a view-point that was brought about in large part because of the attack. While all of these are certainly valid reasons, they just didn't quite come together for me in a cohesive way. Also, perhaps it is just the romantic in me, but I couldn't help but be a little frustrated with Susannah for the way she kept putting off Ted's marriage proposals. To me he seemed like an absolutely wonderful guy (except for that one lapse I mentioned earlier) and perfect for Susannah, since he didn't see her as a “ruined” woman because of the rape, was an attentive father-figure to her daughter, and out of all the men around her, was probably the most supportive of her career choice. Yet, Susannah often seemed impervious to his repeated proposals and declarations of love and admiration, and rather distrustful of him as well. I was pretty annoyed when she told him to find a solution to the issue of balancing a family with her career or she wouldn't even consider marriage. I just felt like if she truly cared for him, she would have communicated with him and tried to find a solution together instead of giving him an ultimatum. (In fact, it seemed like she had some personal communication issues in general, because even though she had known her first beau, Johnny, since childhood, she still didn't really know his true feelings about her studying law.) In the end, I couldn't help but wonder if Susannah ever would have accepted and married Ted if she hadn't accidentally found out about birth control from a client.
One other issue I had with Susannah and the characters in general was the lack of emotional development. If I had been in Susannah's shoes and been both physically and sexually assaulted to the point of near death, forced to marry my rapist and then found out I was carrying his child, I would have been utterly traumatized. While this was all certainly upsetting to her and I'm not advocating that she should have been a basket case, I just didn't feel like the whole experience carried the weight that it should have. Susannah spends the months following the attack dealing with all the repercussions in a fairly matter-of-fact way, and once she gets to Chicago and begins studying the law, it nearly seems to have been all but forgotten except for her waiting and hoping for an annulment, and one small bit later in the story where she is asked to defend a man accused of rape. The only thing that she ever truly seemed passionate about was the law. I could tell that she cared about, first Johnny, and then later, Ted, and that she was a good and loving mother to her daughter, Bertha, but I never sensed the deep level of feelings for them that she had for the law. Granted her passion for the law made her a great lawyer (I would certainly want to have her on my legal team if I were trouble), but in my opinion, she should have shown at least equal passion for her loved ones. Most of the time, I simply felt rather bereft of an emotional connection, not just to Susannah, but all the characters. A couple of small things that I think could have remedied this would have been more attention to the details of facial expressions and gestures and warming up the rather stilted, formal dialog. In my opinion, these simple changes would have added a great deal to the story.
As a kid, I used to be a big fan of courtroom dramas on TV, and really enjoyed shows like Perry Mason and Matlock. While some people dread being called for jury duty, I can honestly say that the one time I served on a jury, I found it to be an utterly fascinating experience that thoroughly engaged my intellect. This is the area where the author truly shines and shows her own passion and expertise as a law professional. I absolutely loved reading the courtroom scenes. They were very compelling and full of suspense, as Susannah figures out how best to defend her clients. She really throws herself into the fray as she cross-examines witnesses, combats the prosecutor's phony witnesses, makes closing arguments, and does all the things that a trial lawyer would do. It was in these moments that I was transported into another world and really felt like I was there witnessing everything as it happened. I can, without a doubt, say that these scenes warrant an A+ from me.
Susannah also has a very interesting dichotomy between feminism and religion. Depending on the reader's religious persuasion, it could be a little strange to think of the two in the same sphere. I personally believe that they can co-exist peacefully with the right balance, and in my opinion, Susannah did a pretty good job of attaining that balance. The feminist overtones in the story aren't completely overpowering, but they are very strong. I realize that the environment was pretty hostile for women who wanted to work in professional careers in the Victorian age, but there were a few moments where I felt that the author was grandstanding just a bit by engaging in some rather extreme stereotyping. While I do have some feminist sensibilities, I do not consider myself to be a true feminist. In fact, I have chosen to remain in the “women's sphere” even in this modern age, so there were certain parts that didn't really resonate with me on a personal level. As to the religious aspects, they seemed to hold almost equal weight. While I wouldn't necessarily call this an inspirational story (at least it isn't like any inspirational I've read before), it is obvious that Susannah is a woman of faith. She lives with her brother who is an Episcopal priest, attends church regularly and frequently prays to Jesus for help. Except for the way her father (who was also a priest) and mother behaved at the beginning of the story which I believe was meant to appall the reader anyway, there is no religious agenda, only gentle reminders that Susannah's faith is an important part of her day-to-day life. If not quite an inspirational, it is a “clean” book in my opinion. It has no sex, the only violence is either not particularly detailed or takes place off-canvas, and there are only a couple of objectionable words that are used a handful of times, so I feel it would be an appropriate book for teenagers and more sensitive readers.
While it may seems that I have had a number of criticisms of this book and there were admittedly some things I thought could have been better, I did for the most part enjoy reading Susannah in spite of any issues I might have had. It held my attention and kept me reading which of course are two of the most desirable traits of a novel. I also really liked the underlying message that even difficult circumstances like rape can turn into something wonderful, because without that tragic event in Susannah's life, she might never have moved to Chicago, realized her dream of practicing law and found the perfect mate. For a first effort, I thought it was well-done overall. Ms. Rymer shows definite potential as a novelist, and if she chooses to write more books in the future, I would welcome the opportunity to read them.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews Across Eternity is a bittersweet love story about star-crossed soul mates who have spent many lifetimes together. After our in...moreReviewed for THC Reviews Across Eternity is a bittersweet love story about star-crossed soul mates who have spent many lifetimes together. After our intrepid hero spends his entire thirty-seven years searching the globe for his one true love, they finally reunite only to have this lifetime cut short. I've never read a love story centering around the idea of reincarnation, and I found it to be a unique and interesting premise. I really enjoyed the deep connection that Logan and Amber share, and can very much relate to a relationship which transcends the physical, crossing over into the intellectual and spiritual. I feel that I have that in my own marriage, and believe those relationships are the best and most fulfilling that life has to offer. I couldn't help but love all the deeply romantic moments that the author created between this couple: Their first night together on the beach, their first kiss, lunch at the English Tea Room, watching the sunset at Logan's quiet spot, and Logan's proposal, to name a few. They were all brimming with sweetness and intimacy. I also love how Logan and Amber's conversations take on a teasing tone as they get to know each other. Everything simply came together to create a truly romantic atmosphere and give the sense that this couple was definitely connected in a way that cannot be explained through the natural world.
Logan is an absolute charmer and a persistent one at that. Without the reincarnation element, his initial pursuit of Amber might have seemed a bit stalkerish, and her willingness to go to his house after only knowing him for one day would have been weird too. However, Logan never behaved as anything other than a perfect and chivalrous gentleman. In fact, he held back his desires for a long time, out of consideration for her feelings and wanting her to remember their past lives together, even when Amber was making it abundantly clear that she wanted to take their relationship to the next level. I loved that Logan was an absolute genius, yet was extremely humble about his intelligence and accomplishments. I also adored that he was an avid reader, and the man's library was positively to die for. Logan was a great family man too. The scenes with him, his mother, sister and nephew were just brimming with love and humor. Logan was quite simply a sweet, gentle, loving, giving and all-around amazing man which is part of why this story broke my heart into a million pieces.
Amber is a waitress who is struggling both financially and with the meaning of life itself when Logan “rides to her rescue.” The only real family she had was her sister, Heather, who taught her a lot about both living and dying. I could really relate to Amber's fears and her admiration for Heather for her lack of it, as well as Amber's feelings of not quite knowing where she belongs in the world. I liked that Amber was open-minded enough to believe Logan when he told her that they had spent past lives together, even though she couldn't remember the way he did and initially only had a gut feeling that she'd met him before. She does go back and forth quite a bit between getting upset and getting over it. At first, this was a little troubling and I wished that the author had explained her feelings a bit more in depth. Later though, I fully understood that she was wrestling with a sense of denial and not wanting to let go of the love she had just found. Ultimately, Amber was every bit as loving and generous as Logan even though it tore her heart out to give him that part of herself.
Across Eternity was certainly a poignant love story, but as with many self-published works I've read, it tended to get bogged down by editing and technical issues. I found numerous small errors such as typos, misspelled/incorrect/missing words, run-on sentences, etc. In some places, the dialog was just about perfect for conveying the emotions and atmosphere of the scene, but in others, it seemed to drag, with a lot of words being spoken but not a lot being said. I also felt that the narrative in general could have benefited from a bit more detail, and the prose could have been much richer and more varied. As is, the composition had a rather amateurish feel to it, in my opinion. However, I have to give the author extra points for drawing me into this couple's journey and really taking me through all the emotional highs and lows that they experienced throughout the story. In the end, even knowing that they will eventually find each other again, I was still torn up inside, and although it didn't exactly feel good, it was still quite beautiful. I have to give Ms. Whittier credit for making me feel that way and for making me care so much about her characters. As long as the reader isn't bothered by a lot of composition errors, I would recommend Across Eternity to anyone who enjoys a good tear-jerker. Now, I have to go find an HEA romance to heal my poor, wounded heart.:-)
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews More than two years after its original release, The Help is still an incredibly popular book. I'm not usually quick to jump on...moreReviewed for THC Reviews More than two years after its original release, The Help is still an incredibly popular book. I'm not usually quick to jump on the bandwagon of the hot book of the moment, and I might not have even read The Help except that it was chosen as a book club read for the GoodReads Readers Against Prejudice and Racism group to which I belong. I'm so glad that it was, because it encouraged me to pick it up. Now that I've read it, I can say unequivocally that it lived up to the hype and is one of the best books that I've ever read. The Help is a very empowering story for women, for minorities, for anyone who has ever felt looked down upon for not being “good enough.” It also carries a strong message about standing up for what you believe in no matter the cost, and pursuing your dreams even when they may seem out of reach. The Help is quite simply a beautiful book that I know will linger in my memory for a long time to come.
Having been raised in the mid-west and now living in the west, I have to say that Southern culture, especially in the historical context, is something of a curiosity to me. I would expect the rich to have maids, but it's interesting that even middle class white families in the South employed black maids. In The Help, the dynamic between these black maids and their white ladies is a richly complex, multi-layered dichotomy of love and hate. Some white ladies, like Hilly, were so blinded to their own faults and prejudices that they never change. It angered me when Hilly started pushing her agenda of segregated bathrooms for the household help by acting like the blacks were ridden with diseases, because it was nothing short of ignorance and fear talking. Other white ladies loved their maids like a mother, sister, or best friend, and even if they couldn't overtly admit it due to the deeply seated racism in the South, they showed it through their loyalty. Some of the black maids understandably could hardly stand the white ladies they worked for, and even if they were treated fairly, had often been taught not to get personally involved with them. Still, many of these maids also developed a deep affection for their employers or at the very least their children. These beautiful, heartfelt relationships brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion while reading this book, and yet so could all the horrific, heartbreaking things that were happening in the black community because of hate.
Skeeter is a young woman who I could relate to. She thinks of herself as unattractive, because she's taller than most girls, rather plain and has frizzy hair that won't behave, but inside she is full of passion and spirit. Skeeter is very intelligent to the point that I could almost see the wheels turning in her head. Society has told her what she can and can't think, and be, as a woman. She feels like she doesn't have much of a choice in the matter, and yet she longs to break free from that mold to do something bold. Skeeter's family's old maid, Constantine, taught her some very valuable lessons about believing in herself that I think in part, fueled her dreams of becoming a writer. She's searching for that elusive, original idea, and when it comes to her, she tenaciously keeps trying even though it doesn't seem like it's going to work out. In spite of being white, she also faces some potential danger and must work on her project in secret. While she covertly writes what is on her heart, Skeeter experiences her first love. Even though her love interest, Stuart, realized that she wasn't like other women, I don't think he ever fully appreciated the precious jewel he had in his grasp.
Aibileen is a maid to one of Skeeter's best friends, Elizabeth, and she is the first to agree to help Skeeter with her book. Aibileen is a woman who has known hardship and heartbreak, but with the help of her best friend, Minny, she was able to overcome and keep going with life. She is a wonderful, inspiring woman who I'd be proud to have as a mother. In fact, she was more of a mother to many of the seventeen white babies she raised than their own mothers were. That includes Elizabeth's daughter, Mae Mobley, who Elizabeth largely ignores. It just warmed my heart how Aibileen encouraged Mae Mobley by telling her she was good, and smart, and important when her mother scolded and tore her down. I also loved the “secret stories” they shared. Aibileen was a very brave woman to not only take part in Skeeter's book but recruit others to help too. She was there every step of the way and became a true friend to Skeeter when her other “friends” abandoned her.
Minny is a lady with a hard exterior who can sometime seem abrasive. With five kids and an abusive husband, she has a lot on her plate, but she works hard to take care of her family. Minny has a bit of a temper and a smart mouth that has gotten her in trouble with her employers more then once. Minny was a character who frequently cracked me up. Through a large part of the book, she kept a big smile on my face, because I found her honesty quite refreshing. She certainly doesn't mince words. When she starts working for Celia, it's a whole new experience for her. Minny calls her “crazy lady,” and says she doesn't care about her, but her actions speak louder than words. It was funny how she played along, keeping Celia's secret about hiring her, and later it was very touching when she sat with her through a tragedy and kept an even bigger secret. I actually liked Celia and wish that her reasons for keeping so many secrets from a husband who obviously adored her were clearer. I think she just had a case of really low self-esteem, and was desperately in need of a friend, and ultimately, Minny became that friend even though she tried to act like she wasn't.
Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are three characters who I will not soon forget. Throughout the course of the story, they all, in their own way and time, came to the realization that they could take control of their lives and follow their dreams to a better place. These women have three very different personalities and yet I had no trouble relating to each one in turn as the author alternates between their first-person perspectives. These three ladies touched my heart in a very profound way, to the point that it's almost like they actually exist somewhere. Kathryn Stockett has an amazing talent for drawing me into the story and making me really care about each one of them. I truly became invested in what became of them and what life had in store for them. It was rather ingenious how the author sometimes ended a section with a mini-cliffhanger. It really kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next. The sense of fear surrounding Skeeter's project was palpable, as was the the general danger for blacks in the South during the peak of the civil rights era. The author's mention of several real-life events added to the sense of place and time to help make the story come to life.
The Help was an amazing book that I can't say enough good things about. In a sea of sameness, this books is a gem of originality. I'm astounded that this is Kathryn Stockett's first and only novel to date. I have no idea what she might have planned for the future, but I know for now, it will be hard saying goodbye to Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. If Ms. Stockett writes anything else for these ladies, or anything else at all, I'll be there to buy it, but in the meantime, it will be difficult to move on to another book after such a wonderful read. The Help is definitely a book that I would recommend to everyone, especially women, and it is a book that without a doubt will be going on my keeper shelf.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews I agreed to review P. O. Box Love because it was billed as a romance and the theme of reunited loves is a favorite of mine. It...moreReviewed for THC Reviews I agreed to review P. O. Box Love because it was billed as a romance and the theme of reunited loves is a favorite of mine. It definitely is a love story, however, I will caution my fellow romance readers that this is a literary romance rather than a genre romance. When I first started reading the book and realized this, I wasn't sure if I was going to like it or not, but in the end was very pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it was. P. O. Box Love is the story of two high-school sweethearts who serendipitously find one another again after thirty years apart. They then rekindle their relationship through writing letters to one another over a period of four years, punctuated by once a year romantic interludes in France. P. O. Box Love is primarily an epistolary novel comprised of the letters exchanged by the two main characters, but these missives are interspersed with the heroine's first-person narratives. This is another way in which the story is much different than most romances I read in that Emma and Frederico spend most of the novel apart. Their romance also takes on a somewhat melancholy tone, because it is a rather impossible one due to Frederico already being married and very reluctant to leave his wife. Normally, this thread of infidelity would be quite troublesome to me, but for some reason it didn't bother nearly as much as I thought it would. I think this was mainly owing to the fact that, much like Emma, the reader gets to know very little about Frederico's wife, and as a result, it almost seems like she doesn't exist.
Being every bit as passionate about books as Emma is, it would have been impossible for me not to like her. She is the owner of a bookstore in Milan called Dreams & Desires which specializes in books relating to love and romance. I think that Emma's store shows that she is something of a hopeless romantic, which is probably why her heart was open to the possibility of reigniting a long lost love when Frederico reappears in her life, and also why she continued the relationship in spite of several times being tempted to end it. Emma is rather old-fashioned as well. She refuses to use a computer or a cell phone, and has a general aversion to most forms of technology which is how she ended up writing letters to Frederico rather than e-mailing, texting or phoning. On some level, I agree with Emma's views, because technology has created a certain loss in the art of communication. Hardly anyone ever sits down to write a letter anymore, so this aspect gave the story a very quaint feeling that I adored. I also thought it was rather sweet and funny that Emma's friends and family seemed to subconsciously view her as some sort of expert on love and romance because her store was focused on those subjects, as they all bring their relationship woes to her.
Frederico is an architect who is working in New York City on the reconstruction of the Morgan Library. We really only get to know him through his letters to Emma and the tidbits of dialog they share when they are together. He is definitely a man who is conflicted. Emma had always thought that Frederico broke up with her due to a youthful indiscretion that led her to kiss another man, but in reality, he had given in to pressure from his family who didn't feel Emma was good enough for him. In the end, he married a woman befitting his station and who was good at being a wife, but whom he never loved in the same way as Emma. He didn't deliberately seek Emma out, but when he found her again, he couldn't resist starting over with her in spite of his marriage. I believe a part of him wanted to leave his wife and be fully with Emma, but his sense of responsibility toward her and their daughter wouldn't allow him to. While I don't condone his infidelity, I did understand it on some level. It was never just about the sex, but about the fact that he enjoyed a deep friendship and an intimacy with Emma that I don't believe he ever had with his wife.
I really enjoyed the progression of Emma and Frederico's relationship and the way that they communicate their emotions through the language of books and architecture. Throughout the story they influence each other a great deal. Through Frederico's passion for architecture, Emma learns to appreciate buildings and their design more, and through Emma's passion for books, Frederico learns to appreciate them more. Suddenly, his work on the Morgan library is much more than just building something as he begins to think more about the things that will be housed there. The language of books was such a lovely way for Emma and Frederico to express their emotions. Even though I have to admit that I've read virtually none of the books mentioned, I couldn't help but feel connected to them anyway, especially Emma. The titles of the books may have been different than the ones that I usually read, but I believe wholeheartedly that the language of books is a universal one to anyone who is passionate about them.
Paola Calvetti does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of time and place too. Emma's bookstore is almost a character unto itself. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it grow and change. It was kind of like watching a butterfly emerge from it's cocoon, as was Frederico's work on the Morgan. I loved all of Emma's window displays and shelf themes. Organizing by themes is something I can definitely relate to as I do that a lot myself. All the “peaceful oases” that Frederico finds within the bustling metropolis of New York City made it seems like a much more tranquil place than I'm sure it is. The Strand bookstore and the Morgan Library itself both sound like little slices of heaven on earth to a book lover like myself. Emma and Frederico's romantic hideaway in Brittany sounded absolutely wonderful as well, a secluded place that is almost outside of time and space.
The decidedly literary quality of P. O. Box Love in many ways puts me outside its target audience. This style made for a bit more dense reading than I'm used to, but I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to read it and take a step outside my comfort zone. The prose had a beautifully lyrical, almost poetic feel to it that I appreciated for its ability to draw me into the story and make me feel like I was there with the protagonists. There were only a couple of small trouble spots that I found. One was that there were occasional major jumps in time and/or thought processes with no warning such as a page break which could be a little jarring. The other is that sometimes in the dialog it was hard to figure out who was speaking, at least when those passages first begin. Otherwise, P. O. Box Love was a well-written story. Considering that it was originally penned in Italian and translated to English, I'd say that the translation process was handled very well too. The only reason I didn't mark it higher is that in spite of enjoying the story, I can't honestly say that it was difficult to put down which is the true mark of a keeper for me. However, it was a very pleasant read that was a solid four stars and a surprising winner which has left me open to reading more from Paola Calvetti if any of her other novels are translated to English.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publicist via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews A Special Blessing for Sara is a gentle inspirational romance that in some ways is more reminiscent of women's fiction with a...moreReviewed for THC Reviews A Special Blessing for Sara is a gentle inspirational romance that in some ways is more reminiscent of women's fiction with a strong romantic element. The entire story is told from the third-person POV of the heroine with no male perspective at all (this is pretty rare in romance, but oddly enough, the third one like this I've read in a month). There is also equal, if not more, attention given to Sara's career as a counselor, her volunteer work with her church, and her family life as there is to her love life. With the focus of the novel split there was already limited space for relationship development, but then the author has not one but three men vying for Sara's affections at the same time. I've never been much of a fan of love triangles, much less love quadrangles. They usually take too much space away from the main hero and heroine, and don't allow for enough time to really develop their love. Ultimately, I think Sara chose the right man, but that decision came relatively easily without much depth of thought. Because of this, the romantic content was sweet and tender but only partially satisfying. I think the story holds up better when classified as women's fiction, because it's more about Sara's journey through a short period of her life, in a variety of different aspects, spiritual, emotional, family revelations and romantic choices, more so than a single romantic relationship. Overall, when I think of it in this capacity, I can honestly say I enjoyed it.
Sara is a caring, compassionate young woman who is very good at her job as a counselor but is struggling a bit in her personal life. Jeremy, her long-time boyfriend, who she thought was going to marry her, walked out of her life four months earlier after she refused to become intimate with him, and she's having a hard time getting over him. Sara is attracted to her co-worker, Ken, and he seems to be interested in her as well, but there is also Darrel, the handsome new youth pastor at her church. Then out of the blue, Jeremy comes back, wanting to rekindle their relationship. Decisions... decisions! Sara is pretty much the epitome of a sweet heroine who is simply nice to everyone, perhaps a little too nice at times, but her clients seem to love her, as do the youth at her church and basically everyone else too. I can't say that I really understood Sara's attachment to Jeremy and her willingness to start dating him again when he returned. In my opinion, he was very disrespectful of Sara and her feelings, and without making some serious changes in his life, he was clearly the wrong choice. That said, Sara's decision to go out with Ken if he asked her (before Jeremy returned) seemed a bit abrupt, considering it was Darrel who appeared to be showing the most interest in her at that point. It was also a little odd that she welcomed Ken into her home to visit but didn't really want Darrel there. Additionally, even though Sara and Ken had known each other through work for quite a while, I still thought that some of the information they shared about themselves on their first two dates was a little too personal for a couple who was just getting to know one another. Overall though, I liked Sara and two out of three of her men, as well as where the romance ultimately led.
There were a couple of things in the story that lacked credibility for me. First was Sara giving out her personal cell phone number to her clients and allowing them to call her anytime they needed assistance, as well as acting in a friendship capacity to a client while actively counseling her. I've known a lot of counselors in my life and this type of behavior would definitely be crossing the counselor/client relationship line and could possibly even get the counselor in trouble with the licensing board. However, I realize that some of this was done to set up a plot twist (which I actually figured out really early in the story), so I suppose I can forgive the use of artistic license. The other thing was that for young 20-somethings, the main characters have interests that, in my opinion, are too “old” for their age group. They listen to oldies or easy-listening type music, only seem to watch old black and white movies, and don't watch anything on TV except the news. Not to say that there might not be a few amongst the younger generation who enjoy these things, but I certainly don't know any who do, at least not on a regular basis. Even a middle-aged, 40-something like myself rarely does these things, so I would have preferred to see the characters act a little closer to their age. Lastly, and this isn't really a credibility issue so much as a critique, I felt the author's word choices were sometimes a bit too formal and stilted, and especially stood out when used in dialog.
In spite of a few small criticisms, I did enjoy A Special Blessing for Sara. Sara's close-knit family is very heartwarming, just the kind of family almost anyone would love to have. The multiple romantic connections that occur for the other single characters in the book was cute, and at least left me with a good feeling about no one really getting left out in the cold. I especially loved the way the people of the church reached out to help those in the community who were without power during the storm, particularly ones who were the most vulnerable, like the elderly. Readers who are averse to religious themes may not care for this one, because the faith message is ever-present throughout the narrative. I found it to be a gentle, organic part of the story and therefore, not off-putting in any way, but others may feel differently. Overall, this was one of those really sweet, super-easy reads that makes you feel like you've wrapped up in a warm blanket with a hot cup of cocoa on a cold winter's day. I would recommend it for anyone looking for a simple, uncomplicated story to relax and unwind from the stresses of life.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.(less)
Reviewed for THC Reviews "3.5 stars" Hmmm... where to begin? I guess I'll start my review of Hot Coco by saying that I'm not really sure what genre it'...moreReviewed for THC Reviews "3.5 stars" Hmmm... where to begin? I guess I'll start my review of Hot Coco by saying that I'm not really sure what genre it's supposed to be. Some readers and book websites seem to have it categorized as Contemporary Romance, but it really isn't. While there's lots of lusting and relationship turmoils, the story doesn't focus on one main couple, following them through to their HEA. In fact, none of the characters who are pursuing relationships even get an HEA. By the end, the few couples who do end up together have more of an HFN vibe. Even though this book is definitely targeted more to a female audience, there's too much comedy for it to be a true women's fiction book, and yet it also isn't really chick lit either because of the lack of a single female character's perspective. So, what is Hot Coco? Well, to me it contained enough lust and drama to rival any soap opera, but at the same time, it has enough over-the-top slapstick moments to rival any romantic comedy. In the end, I decided it reminded me of Desperate Housewives in book form, except that instead of being set in American suburbia, it all takes place in the wonderful world of horse racing.
Based on the cover blurb, I got the mistaken impression that the story was going to be primarily about horse trainer, Mike West, and horse owner, Coco Beardmore, but these two characters ended up being just two players in a huge ensemble cast. To start, there is the West family: dad, Eric, sons, Mike and Shane, and daughter, Kate, who are owners of Westwood Farms, a horse training operation. Eric is a widower. He and Mike, who was the oldest and already grown when his mom died, raised the two younger sibling alone. Eric is thinking about getting back into the dating pool and is interested in Jen Fleming, the pretty nurse who runs medical services at the racetrack, Keystone Downs. Jen is equally interested in him if not more so. Eric was one of my favorite characters. I viewed him as an attractive middle-aged man who was very much a gentleman with a caring side. I loved how he patiently taught Margie how to read and write. Oldest son, Mike, divorced his ex-wife after she cheated on him, but he hasn't entirely gotten her out of his system. Still, that doesn't stop him from going after the sexy Coco when she brings her horses to his stable. Shane, the youngest, is a bit of a youthful player, while middle child and vet assistant, Kate, appears to be a good girl with a crush on local police detective, Carl Lugowski. I believe these two met in the first book of the series, Deadly.com (I don't know much about that though, since I haven't read it yet.), and will become more involved in the next book of the series, Dangerous Deception.
On the opposite side of the tracks, there are the O'Conners, who are essentially classic caricatures of hillbillies. Dad, Doug, is a crusty old codger, who views Eric as something of an enemy, although why that is, I'm not entirely sure. Doug's wife left him years ago, so he raised his daughter, Margie, alone. In a subconscious effort to keep Margie with him, he keeps a pretty tight reign on her life. As a result, she's illiterate and still unattached at 33. She spends her days taking care of their rundown shack of a house, and mucking out stalls at the stables. She's an excellent cook though, and a bit of a dreamer, who loves looking at her mom's old romance novels even if she can't read them. Margie was my other favorite character, probably because she's the underdog and because she grows and changes the most throughout the story. The only thing I didn't really like much was the way many of the other characters treated her because of her looks. I fully understood the first time the author described Margie that she wasn't particularly attractive, but to have several other characters, including Mike, Shane, Mike's ex, Ava, and others continually going on about how ugly Margie was seemed a little mean-spirited and over the top. The one person who truly seems to appreciate Margie is the O'Conner's stable hand, Scott, but then he went and did something outrageously stupid in an attempt to keep her. For a guy who was supposedly quite intelligent and simply stuck in his job due to generational poverty, his actions made no sense whatsoever and turned a nice, sweet character into a bit of a jerk, which was somewhat disappointing.
Last, but certainly not least, is Coco Beardmore, who epitomizes the phrase, “ditzy blonde.” She's rather short on brains and her father is a wealthy tycoon, which makes her something of a Paris Hilton wannabe. Coco appears to have a thing for older men, having already been married to one who was old enough to be her father. She's also accident prone in the extreme. She should have a hazard sign tied around her neck, because everywhere she goes and everything she does, she leaves complete disaster in her wake. However, we do eventually find out that perhaps some of her klutziness is tied to self-esteem issues, because when she finds the right man, who adores her crazy antics, she seems to calm down. Coco's horses are every bit as wacky as she is. One is a peppermint addict and mischievous escape artist who unlatches his stall every night and releases his buddies too. Then they proceed to “party” by trashing the barn and grounds. Another one sits down in the starting gate and refuses to race. All these guys were definitely good for some laughs.
There are several other characters too, but in general, we don't get to know any of the characters, main or otherwise, particularly well due to there not being any deep POV. The book is written in rapid-fire POV changes that were sometime difficult to follow. Occasionally, I couldn't figure out who was thinking or saying certain things, even after re-reading the passage. Every single character gets their own perspective, so it typically shifts every few paragraphs. I was also somewhat disappointed with the lust-crazed nature of several characters. Even when they were dating one person, they usually couldn't get another one out of their mind, so during the brief moments of introspection, it often seemed like the only thing they thought about was sex. Although I should point out that it was all thinking and no doing, as there were no explicit love scenes to speak of. The technical aspects of the writing could have been a bit better too. I found several typos and incorrect or awkward word choices, just enough to be a bit distracting.
On the upside, the author definitely knows the horse world, and really brought this aspect of the story to life. While I don't know much about horse racing, it has always seemed to me that there are some rather eccentric people in that world, so the bizarre, quirky characters of Hot Coco seemed tailor made for the setting. I also can't deny that this was a fast-paced, entertaining story, which aside from the POV issues, was an easy read. Anyone who has a taste for outlandish soap operas in book form should enjoy this one.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author's publicist in exchange for an honest review.(less)