The Best Thing About Bennett by Irene Wittig

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 book review was 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 was 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 was 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 blog review was 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.

From My Balcony to Yours by Nino Gugunishvili

From My Balcony to Yours by Nino Gugunishvili

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a charming memoir about the author’s experience during the pandemic from March to September 2020. It starts out a bit slow, but stick with it because Nino’s comments are insightful, humorous and frank. You have to give her credit for her admirable efforts at optimism:

“I guess what we come to understand is that ruined plans are not a catastrophe. That we can’t and don’t have to control everything around us and worry. That right now, we can be happy just because we’re alive. The future can wait.”

But after a while, the bedeviled social media and the pretense that we have adjusted well gets old. Nino refers to the “unwritten rule that you have to scrupulously follow unless you want to be left out from this world inhabited by love, where everyone is welcome.” Nino captured the social media experience so well:

“If you want to be a part of this vanity party, play by the rules. Play, and remember to say I love you as many times as possible. That’s your secret to virtual world domination and to endless, eternal happiness!”

Shunning the superficial dialogue we have succumbed to during the pandemic, she grew weary of Zoom and Facebook, and longed to reach out for a more meaningful connection:

“How can we be only profoundly concerned with nail trimming, hair coloring, and facials? There must be more existential dilemmas to be solved, in-depth revelations of what worries us, what makes us wake up at six o’clock in the morning, what we fear.”

Nino is forthcoming and says what many of us are thinking. The book is a quick and enjoyable read. I would have given it five stars but found it could benefit from some editing and proofreading.

I recommend this book to anyone, women in particular, interested in a straightforward perspective of the lockdown that is lighthearted but also gets to the heart of the matter.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy with a request to review.
My Rating: 4 stars.

View all my reviews

Overcome: Memoirs of a Suicide by Kimberly Tocco

This book review has been published on Reedsy/Discovery.

When memoir writers limn tragic stories, you get the sense or perhaps hope that transforming thoughts into words is therapeutic and that it provides them some level of comfort. What is distinctive about Kimberly Tocco’s memoir is that her story is a pursuit to help others and how, almost as a by-product, this helps her too.

The story begins with the normalcy of a typical family on the frenzied morning of a school day with a mom, Kimberly, trying to get the kids to eat breakfast before school as dad, Pete, needs to rush off to work. The children are Brian, 14, Jason, 13, and two-year-old twins, Joey and Petey. This was the morning Jason shot himself.

The stages-of-grief model are evident in her writing, but the author describes it in a unique way:

Denial and isolation come first, then anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I felt them all, or sometimes just one, and certainly not in this order. Yet they do show up in these stages and circulate, coming back, fading in and out, until you deal with them and find a way to work through them.

Kimberly opens her wounds to share the aftermath. Some people disconnected because of the stigma of suicide. Close friends inhibited her from airing her feelings when she desperately needed to talk about Jason. At the same time, strangers probed for details. Hurtful rumors spread. Pete was a rock for the family, but at what expense? The children seemed resilient; however, that did not stop Kimberly from feeling guilty about her inability to fully function for them. Honoring Jason’s memory was a recurring theme throughout the book, and in the end, that pursuit led to her survival, success and this book.

The author writes in a relatable style, and the book is well-edited. I read it quickly, feeling her pain and rooting for her as she began to jettison discouraging words, financial roadblocks, and the baggage filled with remnants of a painful personal history. When I finished the book, I felt like anything is possible and that you can create good from bad.

I recommend this book to people who have suffered a personal loss, want to understand how life is possible after that and need to know they are not alone.

The Bushido Way / a Sam Phillips Mystery by M. Anthony Phillips

This book review was published on Reedsy Discovery.

Sam Phillips is a private investigator in Los Angeles, and the year is 1976. The story begins after his return from active duty in Vietnam as he tries to leverage his military background to launch his own PI agency with his loyal secretary, Constance Turner. Sam is taunted by his landlord for past-due rent when his first client appears.

Michelle Yamada introduces her brother, Ken, and hires Sam to protect Ken from a dangerous Japanese gang known as Yokohama Black Rebels. Sam’s second client is Lauren Tolliver, a wealthy has-been actress who asks Sam to find an emerald stone necklace valued at $1.5 million. In both cases, Sam suspects his clients of withholding information but remains committed to do what he has been paid to do. He solicits the help of his friend, Armstrong Jones, an ex-convict who has PI aspirations of his own. The danger centers around Bushido, the Samurai’s code, which is “to exact revenge without hesitation.”

As a story of mystery and crime, it kept me intrigued and held my interest with surprises at several points in the story. It is written in the first person from Sam’s point of view. Sam takes the reader through his nightmares from the war, love interests, and the bonds he holds dearly with family and friends.

I found more than one part of the story out of sequence. For example: “I follow Ken and Michelle back to their place so he could pack up his belongings to bring back with me.” Following that statement is “I instruct Ken to sit low in the back seat as to not be recognized.” If Sam followed them in his car, how did Ken end up in his back seat? There are also events that seem to come out of nowhere, such as a marriage proposal that did not follow any surge of passion relatable to the reader. During the series of fatalities, I wanted to feel empathy for Sam, but the writing lacked the intensity of emotion.

I enjoyed the way the mysteries overlapped and unraveled. The side stories within the larger story kept it interesting. I prefer a writing style with more fervor so I could hold a strong connection to the characters, but as a mystery & crime book, the story line kept my attention.

Drawing a Line by William S. Hubbartt

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

Gina Girardi, a private investigator and former patrol officer in Chicago, is hired to find a killer. She accepts the assignment and temporarily puts her other work on the back burner to dedicate time to her new client, James O’Rielly. Mr. O’Rielly is the CEO of a successful American corporation. His two sons, Patrick and Sean, manage the finance and marketing/sales areas, respectively. The genre is mystery and crime, but as a possible motive for murder, the theme is sexual harassment in the workplace; where, when, why and how it happens, and the corporate culture that perpetuates it.

The story is written mostly in the first person from Gina’s perspective. At times, it switched to the third person. Considering the theme of sexual harassment, I can see where this made sense. Accusations of exploitation are often met with the defense that there are two sides to every story. Sean is the perpetrator in this book, proud of his ability to use women and get away with it. His extreme vanity obscured his view during those times when women were actually using him. In those instances, it was particularly enjoyable to peer into the thoughts of women who had leverage; just desserts for Sean’s untenable behavior. But the main theme was about the tragedy that falls to the victims and the devastating consequences that cascade to every aspect of their lives. The courtroom drama took on the nature of a legal thriller with captivating maneuvers and discoveries.

The book has all the elements of a fast-moving crime drama. I did come across many typos, including the name of the company. In some instances, it was spelled O’Rielly; in others, O’Reilly.

The primary reason I gave this book two stars is that I thought the writing style disrupted the flow. An example is the part where Gina attends a sexual harassment presentation, and her thoughts preceding and following the event. It seems like the author is using the book as a platform to inform the reader about the subject. Of course, awareness of sexual harassment is critically important. However, the ubiquity of this topic across media, academia, religious institutions and the corporate world makes the educational form of narrative seem dated and detracts from the mystery to be solved. It seems like Hubbartt is attempting to educate and entertain simultaneously, and I am not sure if the formula worked.

There were many times throughout the book where the author presented a recap of events as though the book was a television series where the viewer needed to be refreshed on the previous episode. Several times, the author defined vernacular that most people would know. Examples include “Facebook website, this so-called social media,” and “I set the phone into a dash-mounted holder. Now I could pay attention to driving with one touch.” These reminders and explanations seemed superfluous and caused the mystery at the center of the story to lose momentum.

The ending wonderfully closed up loose ends and left the reader curious about Gina’s next assignment. She is a likeable character and one I would want to follow.

A Saint and a Sinner by Stephen H. Donnelly with Diane O’Bryan

This review is published on Goodreads.

I have to admit my initial trepidation to read this book. Knowing it was the memoir of a priest, my thinking was that the narrative would not be relatable because I follow a different faith. I am glad I did not allow my concerns to stop me. The underlying themes are not only relatable but integral to our everyday lives on a conscious or subconscious level; mortal imperfection, remorse and forgiveness woven into the folds of the inescapable truth that our childhood experiences leave their mark on our core through adulthood.

Donnelly’s story is set against the backdrop of far-reaching historical events, including 9/11, rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s, disclosure of child abuse by clergy, and the tragedy of opioid addiction. The journey begins in the 1950s and ends in 2018. The setting is primarily Long Island, New York. In vivid detail, Donnelly describes his family trauma and winding road through priesthood, duplicity, infidelity, addiction, recovery, regression, reverence and enlightenment.

A hint of the inevitable is in the author’s reflection in the beginning, “As a young child, I realized that if I presented myself as perfect – caring, generous, understanding and compliant – then I could control how people felt about me. At all costs, I wanted to be loved!” In later years, a psychologist put this in perspective when she said, “your father’s rejection of you and your family at such an impressionable age imprinted the fear of rejection and the need to be seen as perfect in everyone else’s eyes.” I felt the exigency at each turn of events, internalizing his pain, seeing the red flags up ahead and wanting to magically transmit a warning through the pages: Beware!

Donnelly overcame gargantuan hurdles and evolved into a reverend priest and friend that deeply touched countless lives. When parishioners, friends and family outwardly acknowledged and celebrated his accomplishments, I wondered why the book did not end there. The fact that there was more to unravel took me by surprise. This book does not have a fairy-tale ending. My impression is that this memoir is meant to be thought provoking, daring readers to consider what haunts us, what we are capable of and, albeit some sins are untenable for some, why we should withhold judgment. I think most readers would agree the author has accomplished that.