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.

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.

Fairly Familiar: A Collection of Short Stories by Dani J. Norwell

This review is published on Reedsy/Discovery.

Each of the eight short stories touch on the complexity of familial relationships. The main characters vary by age, gender and role within the family. The commonality is the emotional roller coaster they work through as they try to reconcile expectations with their own reality.

The third-person perspective challenges the reader to consider conflicts from varying viewpoints. It is an opportunity to hover over each character separately, and develop an understanding of their actions, motives and decisions. In “Missed Moments,” I felt sorry for Clara, a 9-year-old child with a single, hard-working mother, Kim. But my empathy shifted to Kim as I learned more about her.

“Sullen Eyes” was written in the first-person perspective. Karrie is a behavioral analyst, observing a father-daughter relationship, which Karrie interprets as a hindrance to the progress of Margot, a 5-year-old autistic child. For this story, writing in the first person makes sense because Karrie is outside the family, looking in. We want to see the dynamic from her vantage point.

The author has a talent for beginning a story with a captivating statement and then gradually revealing the landscape. “Bad Badhaus” begins with the statement, “Everyone else was grieving but Jeremy couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief.” I immediately wanted to know more. As the drama of each tale unfolded, I was drawn into every word, anticipating which of the potential pathways the characters would choose to embark. The endings surprised me but felt right.

The characters are multidimensional. There are no good guys and bad guys. They are all a product of their experiences. The reader is not served perfectly happy endings but rather food for thought. I enjoyed every one of the stories and highly recommend this book. The narration is relatable and reminds us to reserve judgment as there may be an underlying story yet to be told.