The Laguna Shores Research Club by Laura Kelly Robb

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

The book begins with a life-changing event for Laila Harrow, a resident of Laguna Shores with a passion for the art world. It is a fictional mystery with many moving parts as the characters in her sphere all seem to have intersecting secrets.

Laila belongs to a research club where members individually delve into a topic of their choosing. Billie, a close friend of Laila’s, was helping the group’s members with their research, and the story opens with Billie’s murder. From that point, the book gets more interesting as you follow Laila in her quest to solve the murder while working through marital issues, never suspecting the connection later revealed.

The author’s talent for descriptive writing enabled me to visualize the scenes from Laila’s perspective with an artist’s eye. For example:

“The tall palms that flanked the portico were mirrored in the graceful double row across the street. They curtained the Laguna Shores lane from the busy arterial and made her think of dancers.”

“The wavering light created pastel tones. A lilac edge gilded one cloud, a smoky pink filtered through another. Over and under the clouds floated a creamy yellow, thickening here, diluting over there.”

In the beginning, I liked Laila. She was a good mom, and her missteps humanized her. She pursued a professional passion while combating the typical struggles of raising a teenager and trying to understand her husband’s erratic moods.

The three-star rating reflects my opinion that parts of the story drag on too long, particularly the detail of the art collection world. A section of the book also concentrates on Laila’s zeal to learn surfing, which I think detracts from the main story and is long-winded.

I found the conclusion of this book disturbing, with many diabolical characters. I wanted someone to root for, but the protagonist’s behavior became bizarre. I was looking for a hero that inspires and saves the day.


All We Hold Dear by Nick Nichols

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery

As Jack Adams returns to law practice following a six-month suspension, his close friend, Mike Mason, convinces him to take on a case involving a family’s death. The case is allegedly a straightforward estate claim. But when Jack is drawn into the double murder and suicide tragedy, complexities surface.

As Jack uncovers buried secrets, he adopts the role of an investigator as well as an attorney. At the same time, he reunites with Allie Bessette, stirring up feelings from their past relationship. The romance builds, and as Jack’s feelings for Allie grow, so does the gnawing feeling that her involvement in the case is more than she admits.

The story is written in the third person in an easy-to-read style. As the suspense escalates, the narrative moves swiftly. One mystery is resolved while another is revealed. Jack is astute in sensing ulterior motives of all parties, exercising patience as he maneuvers his way toward the truth.

The simplistic characters and dialogue keep this book a light read, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I recommend this book for fans of legal thrillers that focus on the stratagem surrounding mysteries and courtroom dramas rather than the graphic violence. The author has a breezy, engaging writing style that holds a reader’s attention from beginning to end.

One Day at a Time by A.K. Frailey

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

This book of short stories evokes smiles, tears and reflection. The author has a unique writing style that captures your attention from the first sentence. Simple activities and relationships become fodder for creative writing, even something as mundane as forgetting to bring something to the dinner table.

In “I Don’t Have to See Christmas,” Selma exclaims:

Oh, shoot, the butter! She twirled and shot off, a heat-seeking missile after a new target.

In “For Me,” Katherine remarked about the excitement she received upon her return home:

What was up with all the exclamation marks? Her whole body shivered with the delight of a pen smacking the paper with a dot at the end of an exclaim.

Some of the stories offered insights for lessons we all need to learn, like consoling the inconsolable. In “Ever My Intention,” Samantha appreciates her husband’s ability to comfort her without words:

Elliott took her hand and said nothing. Wonderful in the mystery of communal silence, he didn’t need to fix her grief. He simply shared it.

Some stories circled from beginning to end, giving the reader an aha moment. “Life’s Storms” is one example. The story began with Kiara, envious of the freedom birds enjoy, and ended with a new vision of home tied to freedom of the soul.

I recommend this book to short-story enthusiasts and readers interested in unique perspectives on everyday life.

Dreams of a Damselfly by Chris Morris

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

This is a moving story of two lives that intertwine. Paula Hamilton is a 27-year-old high school English teacher who discovers she has a brain tumor. Daniel Swift is a 15-year-old student in her class, bullied by boys and a stone-cold guidance counselor. Poignantly, Paula and Daniel are each other’s saviors.

The author’s distinctive style of telling two tales, each in the first person, is compelling. The stories unfold in parallel, from Paula as she copes with her diagnosis and Daniel in the form of a blog. Their individual sagas and how they overlap are captivating.

Paula’s bucket list includes travel to Africa and singing in a band. She has the good fortune to fulfill both objectives but not without discord. Through these stories, the author provides a deeper understanding of Paula’s core, which contributes to her innate ability to channel tragedy and conflict to discover the truth and enrich the lives of others.

Daniel’s plight touches Paula’s heart, and she becomes his lifeline. Her life-changing experience in Africa enables her to give him a perspective that helps him move forward. Daniel’s achievements deepen Paula’s understanding of how teaching is not just what she does but who she is.

There were times when the book seemed a bit long with some background events left unfinished, but the author’s handling of difficult subjects is uniquely fascinating. I highly recommend this book as a heartwarming tear-jerker that delivers eloquent messages of death, survival, love, fear and dignity.

Tongue of the Ocean by Len Vincenti

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

Nick Sanchez, a star attorney, finds himself entangled in crimes that put him, his girlfriend, Joulie Crane, and his close friend, Nate Briscoe, in danger. Nick is a likeable character. He is not trying to be a hero, but his sense of integrity drives him to find answers. You can’t help but root for him and get swept up in his pursuit of the truth behind the incongruous settlements involving his law firm.

The book is a legal thriller with underlying themes of romance and friendship. The dialogue is clever, and I enjoyed the dry humor. It is written in the first person, which adds to the character’s relatability. Following are examples of the author’s skilled expansive writing.

When asking Nate to do some “computer sleuthing,” Nick’s thought was:

“I knew it gave him great joy to ferret out arcane tidbits, foraged for, and then plucked from the abyss of cyberspace and onto the luminous slab on the desk in front of him.”

As a self-described loner who is socially adept as needed, Nick explains:

“I have always, though, been able to function well socially when the occasion calls for it, like a chameleon that takes on the color of whatever leaf it is on at the time.”

The one area that could be improved is proofreading. Some of the errors I noted detract from this otherwise fast-moving story. There are inconsistent pronouns: “I made his way down the hall” and “I could not shake his curiosity.” Also, when referring to Julio Vargas, the author flip-flopped his last name, calling him Julio Sanchez and then Vargas again.

Not being inclined toward boating and fishing, I found myself floundering in the parts of the book that contain excessive jargon, descriptive gulf scenes and craft architecture. But readers who appreciate this type of recreation are likely to relish how smoothly it is folded into the story.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this story and recommend it to all legal-thriller fans.

The Best Thing About Bennett by Irene Wittig

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

The story begins with Bennett (Bennie) Hall at midlife when her personal sense of self and view of the world in general was bleak. She had just been let go from her job of 27 years, returning to a house that never felt like home. As Bennett attempted to brighten her life, literally and figuratively, she experienced a transformation, partly from circumstance, mostly from her own longing for human connection.

Bennett found the inner strength to put closure on her lonely upbringing and the love that never materialized. But she continued to succumb to the inner voice of negativity. Hesitant at first, Bennett formed friendships and discovered the self who had been suppressed by the darkness of her past. She surrounded herself with people who gave her every reason to shine but was blind to the light within herself.

Irene Wittig does an outstanding job of character building, enabling you to find inspiration from a character’s growth and enlightenment. My favorite quote of the book:

Sometimes a tree needs to fall to make room for the sun to shine in.

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but suffice to say that it was perfect. The author’s technique of taking the reader directly from anticipation for what is to be to post-event spares you the mundane details without depriving you of buoyancy and cheer.

Themes include love, friendship and global travel. What I found most endearing and inspirational is the deep respect and joyous value for senescence and diversity. I recommend the book to anyone who perceives middle age as the beginning of the end. This story illustrates that your spirit of life is your vantage point, at any age.

A Distant Summer by Deborah Martin

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

The story begins in 2018 when Elizabeth is 64 years old, cleaning out the Indiana home in which she grew up. You find Elizabeth at a pivotal time in her life, preparing the family farm and home for auction. She had retired early to care for her ailing father. The confluence of her father’s passing and feelings of neglect by a husband who worked too many late nights left a void in her life. It was the perfect recipe for intense introspection and surging curiosity of how her life could have been had she followed a different path. Haven’t we all been there?

As Elizabeth dives into letters from a teenage pen pal, Henry, and remembers her best friend, Anna, another timeline emerges in a parallel story that begins 50 years earlier. Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was known in childhood, is the main character. I was captivated as Elizabeth delved into decades of memories, desperately longing for revelations to unanswered questions, and I was swept away with Lizzie’s journey from teenager to grandmother.

The story is written in the third person, allowing you to observe interactions and innuendos between the characters in an attempt to read between the lines of covert conversations. In real life, adults are characteristically elusive when discussing sensitive topics around children, and Deborah Martin skillfully uses this paternalistic prowess to set the stage for the mysteries that Elizabeth yearns to unravel.

The characters are well-developed, and the story is interspersed with relatable sentiments:

Remembering life as a young mother, Elizabeth recalled:

“She had craved release from the days of doldrums, but looking back, Elizabeth shuddered with the speed at which the intervening years had disappeared.

Browsing through catalogue brochures, she noted:

There were always so many promises that their products could clear your clutter or make your life easier. A better, more perfect life always seemed just out of reach.

There are no perfect people in this story. Elizabeth’s diffidence and vulnerability are endearing qualities. The ending brings closure for Elizabeth and leaves the reader satisfied as well. I recommend this book to contemporary fiction readers, especially women, since we are generally inclined to bring the past forward and fret about the future as we question our place in the present.

Justice Hill by John Macleod

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

The story opens with a letter from Sam Picken to her best friend, Jessie Spaulding, questioning Jessie’s professional behavior. As a judge, Jessie had recently presided over a disturbing murder case, deeply connected to her past as well as Sam’s. From there, John Macleod takes you back to the hardscrabble coal mining communities of West Virginia, deftly setting the stage for what is to follow.

The book is a legal thriller with underlying themes of ardent friendship, imperfect marriage and familial relationships woven into the fabric of coal mining culture and the legal profession. The story begins and ends with a grisly murder. In tandem are subplots and layered events. I raised my eyebrows in numerous aha moments as links between the scenes were adroitly revealed.

The author delineates the background of the main characters in the third person, building a foundation that helps readers understand how past events cascade to decisions of conscience in the future. Macleod paints a colorful portrait of Sam, Jessie, their parents and the corrupt industry tyrants that nearly took them down.

The ending is full of jaw-dropping surprises. Sam and Jessie are bedeviled by the conclusions they each draw about the brutal murder and those involved. Even after questions of guilt and innocence are resolved, the author refrains from tying up loose ends with a perfect bow, rightly so since that is not how life is.

As if the characters were real, I finished the book wondering if Sam and Jessie, who had never kept secrets from each other, would ever be able to fully share what they now hold close to the vest. That was how connected I felt to the characters. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys legal thrillers, mysteries, and stories of complex relationships that test your moral compass.

Utopia PR by Adam Bender

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

Blake Hamner, Crisis Communications Manager in the president’s circle, and Maria Worthington, a news media anchor, are married and struggling with many of the same issues most young couples face: demanding careers, conflicting schedules and family planning delays. Written in the first person, the reader gets inside Blake’s head, which is filled with ambivalence.

As Blake’s personal life and health takes a backseat to his role as point person for damage control, he has his hands full. Blake serves the president, referred to as “our leader,” a man whose character is the antithesis of presidential. The newly appointed Crisis Communications Director is demoniacal, and robotic dogs protecting “Our Leader’s Compound” are out of control.

While Blake spins the news and Maria reports it, Jetpack, a mysterious rebel superhero, tries to undermine the presidency. Throughout all this chaos, the author cleverly weaves in humor at just the right moments. As the mystery builds, curves and unravels, the sparring between the characters adds an element of levity that makes this book a fun read. I also like the diversity of characters inclusive of transgender and interracial marriage.

The book is well-edited, and Bender wraps up the ending nicely. I recommend this book to fans of dystopia who would appreciate a comedic writing style and the underlying themes of marital challenges, finding your purpose, diversity and manipulation through social media.

Perspective by Peter Manouselis

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

In this memoir, Peter Manouselis takes you through a spiritual journey of self-discovery, which unfolds in Greece. The story begins in the U.S. as Peter says his final goodbyes before embarking to Greece where his father, who lives there, registered Peter as a Greek citizen. Given the opportunity to build a life in Greece, Peter committed to learning Greek culture and language, reconnecting with his father and fully participating in the responsibilities of a Greek soldier. With these experiences, he yearned to frame his purpose in life.

Peter is forthcoming in his conflicted emotions about his relationship with his father as well as other frustrations, disappointments and revelations. Throughout the book, Peter shares his appreciation for the picturesque scenes of Greece, delineating panoramic views of nature’s bounty. With each trek, he describes his awe of the land, sea, olive trees and mountains.

“The sky was cloudless and the sea placid and creamy. As the sun rose, wonderful hues of orange and red and yellow spread across the sky. I watched, awestruck, as the colors deepened in shade and the sun bathed the earth in a powerful radiance and the sea grew clearer.”

Here are two examples of the many insightful gems embedded in the story:

“The moment one says, ‘You can’t,’ is the moment when greatness begins.”

“What if the cause of my utter confusion and rebellion was the fact I thought my only chance of success was to define myself.”

Male bonding and machismo were strong elements of the book in terms of the army experience and interactions with women. But also evident was a sensibility about the value of emotional connection and shared dreams. I recommend the book to readers who love memoir, travel and stories about making peace with your family, your heritage and yourself.