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

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

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 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 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.

No One Knew by Renee Olivier

This book review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

Renee Olivier’s memoir was painful to read, not because it was poorly written but because it is so detailed, forthcoming, raw and enlightening. I was swept away with Olivier’s story of her relationship with Joe, her husband and a sociopath. The author shares the experience of living with someone who would continuously transmogrify from a loving, charming man to a person she did not even know. Joe’s ability to deceive, manipulate and “gaslight” put her in a state of mind where she second-guessed her own sensibility and reactions to the vagaries of his behavior. Her children, Ryan and Emma, and the children she raised with Joe, Hannah and Callie, were her salvation. Breaking up the family was unimaginable, but then so was the torment they all endured.

The primary theme is antisocial personality disorder (ASPD); how it is shrouded, manifested and destructive. I wanted to reach into the book and forcibly yank her out of the situation. It is so easy to ask, why didn’t you leave? Understanding this is a natural reaction from the outside looking in, Olivier takes the reader through the mechanics of her thinking to try to answer this question. I can only imagine how arduous it must have been for her to dig so deeply into the past and replay these dark memories.

The timeline of the story encompasses decades, but it was an incredibly fast read. I could not put it down. It carried me through a rollercoaster of emotions; fear, hope, anger, confusion, shock, empathy and, finally, relief. Olivier demonstrates a talent for touching on all the important facets of her story, giving depth when needed but keeping the story moving at a rapid pace. I feel vested in the people in her story and am hoping for a sequel so I can find if they turned out okay. That speaks to Olivier’s ability to connect you to her characters.

I highly recommend this book to readers who love memoir, especially one that teaches a valuable lesson: “Reclaim your life by standing up against anyone who takes away from your happiness.”

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.