“Campfire Confessions” by Kristine Ochu – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Annie, Sondra, and Jo were the best of childhood friends—but they haven’t seen each other in far too long. To the outside world, their lives are perfect. But appearances can be deceiving…

Goodreads


The story idea here is that three women reconnect on a canoeing trip. They were childhood friends, but two of them have moved away from the small Midwestern town where they grew up. All three are facing big life problems – depression, divorce, overwhelm, recovery from addiction, a sexless marriage, etc.

The first third of the book introduces us to the characters – Annie, Jo, and Sondra – and all the aforementioned issues (and then some). In 100 pages or so, we see multiple sex scenes (plus one with a vibrator), an overdose, and an attempt at blackmail. This all seemed a little too “soap opera-y” for my personal tastes, but I realized that it was just set-up.

The next section of the book has Jo and Sondra returning to their hometown to see Annie. They reconnect with family and old friends, and hatch a plot with Annie’s four sons.

Eventually, they get out onto the river, with two canoes, a tent, and some basic provisions. This part is where the action really picked up. But it also got to be a little too much at times. All three women end up hurt and/or sick before this excursion is out, and many of their encounters were dramatic.

There’s an interesting dichotomy here, in that the book kind of honors multiple spiritualities. For example, Annie is a preacher’s wife, and so the Christian perspective is represented. But Jo’s husband’s family – who live in the area, and interact with our characters a few times – are Indigenous. Especially out in nature, the women talk a lot of spirit animals and the like, so this perspective is also prevalent.

While I enjoyed that the book included multiple perspectives like this, all of them seemed a little too “in your face” at times. For example, when Annie falls and breaks her arm, she passes out and sees Jesus. They have a conversation, and she writes a song about it – while unconscious – that she remembers and sings after she wakes up. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, but it was a little over the top for my personal tastes.

This was a decent book – I didn’t love it, but didn’t dislike it, either. And it moved at a good pace, especially in the final two-thirds.

This book comes out today, March 8th, 2022. I was given an advanced copy from the author through the Books Forward program.


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“Champagne Widows” by Rebecca Rosenberg – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Champagne, France, 1800. Twenty-year-old Barbe-Nicole inherited Le Nez (an uncanny sense of smell) from her great-grandfather, a renowned champagne maker. She is determined to use Le Nez to make great champagne, but the Napoleon Code prohibits women from owning a business.

Goodreads


This is a fun bit of historical fiction, based on real people and events. I hadn’t read much about this era in a while, so it was also a good change of pace!

Our heroine, Barbe-Nicole, has a knack for blending wine, which was a business her grandfather was in. She can’t directly inherit the business, of course, because she’s a woman. But, she does talk her childhood sweetheart into going into business with her, as a married couple.

As the title implies, her wedded bliss only lasts a few years. With Napoleon trying to take over all of Europe, she now faces multiple challenges: how to keep her business in her own name as a widow, and how to sell her products. The French people are broke, but other countries have mostly outlawed French imports. There are blockades, even. And some of her seller’s journeys are so long and treacherous that the product is ruined by the time it gets to its destination!

Barbe-Nicole has to reinvent her business several times over during the long years of the Napoleonic wars. She takes on various partners and investors, but still wants to have the last word on her wines. This makes some of her (male) partners very frustrated, as they all think they know better than she does.

There are some lean years, often due to weather harming the crops. She also employs mostly women, many of them war widows. This is one of the reasons she keeps trying again every year – she doesn’t want to leave these women without jobs. She is stubborn, but it’s for a good cause!

She also faces a lot of personal heartbreak during these years, often from the loss of family members. She also feels the losses of her freedom to practice her religion, her family’s old way of life before the wars, and the loss of cultural norms she grew up with.

There is also a lot about winemaking in here! If you have any interest in wine, vineyards, etc. – that’s a fun aspect.

The year of the Great Comet brings the best harvest in years. Napoleon is finally facing defeat. But will the laws change in time for Barbe-Nicole to sell the fruits of that year’s labors?

This book comes out in paperback today, March 1st. I was given a copy by the author, Rebecca Rosenberg, who intends it to be the first in a series of novels about real-life women in the wine business.


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“The Paradox Hotel” by Rob Hart – Review

By: Angie Haddock


For someone with January Cole’s background, running security at a fancy hotel shouldn’t be much of a challenge. Except the Paradox is no ordinary hotel. Here, the ultra-wealthy guests are costumed for a dozen different time periods, all anxiously waiting to catch their “flights” to the past. And proximity to the timeport makes for an interesting stay. The clocks run backwards on occasion—and, rumor has it, ghosts stroll the halls.

A locked-room murder mystery set at a hotel for time travelers—in which a detective must solve an impossible crime even as her own sanity crumbles.

Goodreads


One of my (many) book email lists mentioned that the publisher of this one, Random House, was auto-approving all requests for it on NetGalley. Even though I had some other things on the docket, I thought I was due for some sci-fi – admittedly one of my favorite genres. So, on a lark, I added it to my list.

It was slow-going at first. Like with many books in this genre, it took a while for me to familiarize myself with the world that exists in The Paradox Hotel. But once I got going, I read huge chunks at a time, often needing to keep turning more pages!

The story takes place in our near-ish future, in the northern United States (seemingly upstate New York), in a time when time travel is a common vacation activity. The Paradox Hotel sits near Einstein, which is the machine/portal used for time travel. People who use time travel for recreation are often the ultra-rich, so that’s who the hotel mostly caters to.

Einstein, for obvious (don’t eff up the timeline) reasons, is controlled by the government. But, being in debt, they’re currently looking to privatize it. There are four billionaire-types coming to the hotel to bid for it, and a snowstorm raging outside. All the makings of a classic locked room scenario.

January Cole used to work at Einstein, as a sort of “time cop” who jumped into the timestream to stop people from doing crazy things (like killing Hitler, the usual). People who time travel too much, though, become “unstuck,” and start having episodes where they see things that happened in the past – or in the future. Having reached level one of being unstuck, Cole was reassigned to be the head of security at the nearby Parodox.

So, as the guests arrive, Cole is put on the spot to make sure things are all up to their high security standards. But there’s a dead body that only she can see – leading her to believe the murder hasn’t happened yet? – and problems with the internal security camera footage, in which large portions of data seem to have been erased.

The story, like so many involving time travel, gets twisty and weird. And sometimes philosophical. There is a lot of action, small incidents that add up to bigger issues, clues left along the way, and three dinosaurs on the loose inside the hotel. And all the while, Cole’s mental state is deteriorating, leading us to wonder how much of any of it is even real.

But aside from the actual story, the atmosphere of the hotel plays an important part in this book. There’s an element of “we’re all in this together” that seems relevant to the times we live in – the lower class hotel staff often being pushed around by their wealthy customers inspires them to stick up for one another on multiple occasions. The staff like to think of themselves as an extended family, and they are certainly a motley crew.

The colorful characters are part of the charm, I’d say. But I also did like the story, even though it was complicated at times. If you’re the type of person who could get through “Inception,” for example, I think you’d enjoy this story. If movies or books similar to that give you a headache, this one might not be for you.

This twisty sci-fi action adventure comes out today, February 22nd, 2022.


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“Wildcat: A Novel” by Amelia Morris – Review

By: Angie Haddock



New mother, aspiring writer, and former shopgirl Leanne has lost her way. As she struggles with both her grief and the haze of new motherhood, it also becomes clear that her best friend, the default queen of East Side Los Angeles, Regina Mark, might not actually be a friend at all.

-Goodreads


This is another book about a stay-at-home mom living near L.A. – so it was a little funny that I read it back-to-back with Adult Conversation. But the similarities pretty much end there.

This story follows Leanne, a new mom in her early thirties. She also has a book coming out, a lot of well-to-do friends in L.A., and some family baggage from back home in Pennsylvania. In fact, her dad died a week before she had her baby, and she couldn’t fly back for the funeral.

The book’s real drama comes from Leanne’s friends, though, and especially one named Regina. Leanne starts to realize how Regina’s world is so “curated,” every friend and party specifically picked to look good on social media, and/or to get her some publicity for her line of home goods.

Social media plays a big role in this book. I felt like this was a part of it I couldn’t really connect with – I’m on social media, but certainly don’t define my life by how many followers I have. Maybe it’s a generational thing? (Although I’m only a handful of years older than the main characters.) Even though this aspect of the drama didn’t ring true for me, I don’t doubt that it will for some people.

The idea that we compare ourselves to our friends – or maybe seek out friends who make us look good, or can introduce us to certain people we want to connect with – is pretty universal, though. (Even if some of us don’t live all of that out on Instagram alone.)

The initial rift between Leanne and Regina opens when Leanne realizes Regina is not vaccinating her baby. The story takes place pre-COVID, and uses a local measles outbreak to illustrate their stances on this topic. But of course, it’s coming out during COVID, so this aspect of the story could be seen as a “hot-button issue.” Not to say the book is overly political- but I feel like any reader who has strong feelings on that should know ahead of time that this issue plays a strong role in the book.

This book comes out on February 22nd. I won a copy from the publisher, Flatiron Books, in a Goodreads Giveaway.


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“Women Warriors From History” by H.G. Hicks – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Are you tired of the lack of female representation in history books and stories and wish your little lady had the example of some inspiring women to look up to?

In many areas, women can now achieve whatever their hearts desire for the first time in history… And yet not know how far they can go due to lack of historical example.

Women Warriors from History gives young, female readers the inspiration and motivation to fight for what they believe in.

Reedsy


The full title of this one is “Women Warriors From History: Badass Divas to Inspire Your Little Lady” – and already, I was left with more questions than answers! The use of “little lady” bothered me right from the start, as it sounds both antiquated and belittling. So is this book for… possessive men? Parents? It starts off talking about school textbooks, so I assume it’s actually aimed at young readers themselves. So, what’s up with this title?

The question of audience doesn’t stop there, as the author continuously uses the term “Badass Divas” to talk about the subjects of the book. Now, I am all for cussing, myself, but if the book is supposed to be for young readers I don’t know if this is a great tactic to use.

And, oh, get ready for a lot! of! exclamation! points!

I could go on about how terrible the writing is here, but an astute reader can probably already infer that it doesn’t get better.

I picked this book to read, though, because I do love the subject matter. Some good stories are in here – some I’d read about before, some I hadn’t – and the book does cover women from different time periods and cultures. A few of the topics include women Samurai, pirates, and queens. The author also covers healers (from when women could not officially become doctors), artists, and spiritual leaders.

One inclusion that I found odd was that of goddesses. As these women did not really live, and weren’t mortal humans, their inclusion felt unnecessary. However, if the point of talking about them was to show that some societies worshiped female deities, I guess I could see that as important?

There are some good and fun tidbits in here. If you are truly a young person, or someone who for whatever other reason has never read about women warriors or leaders, this might be a good intro to these topics. If you are an adult, and want to find detailed and well-written stories of women in history, I’m sure you could do better than this one.

I read this one through Reedsy Discovery, and my review also appears there.


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“The Book of Delights” by Ross Gay – Review

By: Angie Haddock


a genre-defying book of essays—some as short as a paragraph; some as long as five pages—that record the small joys that occurred in one year, from birthday to birthday, and that we often overlook in our busy lives. His is a meditation on delight that takes a clear-eyed view of the complexities, even the terrors, in his life, including living in America as a black man; the ecological and psychic violence of our consumer culture; the loss of those he loves.

Goodreads


This is another one off my TBR, and I honestly don’t remember how long it’s been there. But what a great one to be reading around New Year’s Eve! It even prompted my to start my own list – although mine is less eloquent than Ross Gay’s.

The idea is this: Ross set out to keep a chronicle of things that delighted him for one year, starting on his 42nd birthday (in August) and ending on his 43rd. It’s a little like a gratitude journal, but not quite. Also, since he is a poet by trade, his musings are wordy and worded in fun, unique ways. That is to say… reading his words are a delight in and of themselves, regardless of what delight he is talking about in any given chapter.

And the chapters are small, easy to read. Some are really just a paragraph.

His musings often center on plants, and other things found in nature (birds, bees); music; nostalgia and memories; and other people/people watching. And some of those are interconnected – music can bring up memories, often connected to other people, for example.

Many of the musings are really about connectedness, I think. His ones on people often describle how people greet one another, or whether or not he is acknowleged by people in his surrounding area (at the coffee shop, airport, etc.). One delight is about a stewardess calling him “baby!” So, while this is obviously a person who takes his gardening and plants seriously… he’s also very observant of the connections between humans.

A few fun quotes:

“And further, I wonder if this impulse suggests – and this is just a hypothesis, though, I suspect there is enough evidence to make it a theorem – that our delight grows as we share it.”

“It might be that the logics of delight interrupt the logics of capitalism.”

If you’re looking for a sweet little pick-me-up sometime, keep this one in mind.


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“Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead ” by Emily Austin – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Gilda, a twenty-something lesbian, cannot stop ruminating about death. Desperate for relief from her panicky mind and alienated from her repressive family, she responds to a flyer for free therapy at a local Catholic church, and finds herself being greeted by Father Jeff, who assumes she’s there for a job interview. Too embarrassed to correct him, Gilda is abruptly hired to replace the recently deceased receptionist Grace.

Goodreads


This one came out earlier this year, and immediately intrigued me. I’m not one to ruminate about death too much myself, but the idea of a lesbian atheist pretending to be Catholic was too funny for me to pass up.

Like with “The Midnight Library,” the only complaints I’d seen online about this one were about how depressing the lead character is. So, if you’re not in the mood for that, don’t pick this one as your next read.

Admittedly, Gilda is weird. And depressed. She goes for long periods of time without washing a single dish or cup in her apartment, until they’re stacked so high they end up toppling over. She sits on the edges of bridges while contemplating death. There are a lot of reasons to be worried about this character’s well-being.

But she’s a good person at heart, and I’d even say she’s probably an overly sensitive person who sees/feels everything going on around her. She is worried that her younger brother drinks too much, and angry that her parents don’t see it. She is worried about a neighborhood cat that has gone missing.

She takes a job at a Catholic church, replacing the old secretary who passed away – and is concerned for her friends who will miss her, even though Gilda herself never met the deceased.

But her time at the church was amusing to me, a practicing Catholic. She contemplates religion as a whole, and some of the specific practices she learns while at her job. Some quotes that made me laugh out loud:

“Organ music reminds me more of Halloween and demons that it does of heaven and cherubs.”

“I bet that baby would be absolutely baffled to hear why she’s enduring this. Imagine someone forced you to wear a miniature wedding gown, dunked you underwater in front of an audience of your loved ones, and then explained that their rationale for doing so was so that when you die your spirit would fly to the clouds. If I were this baby, my first words would be ‘fuck off.'”

So, yea, entertaining observations such as these are why I enjoyed this book, despite a lot of it being a bit morbid.


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“An Ocean of Minutes” by Thea Lim – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In this novel America is in the grip of a deadly flu pandemic. When Frank catches the virus, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him—even if it means risking everything. When she finds out there’s a company that has invented time travel, she agrees to a radical contract: if she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded laborer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.

-Goodreads


Amazingly enough, this book came out in 2018 – as in, before our current pandemic. And it was on some “books of the year” lists at the time, but I had not heard anything about it! (I wasn’t on bookstagram yet, so there’s that.) So I happened upon it by chance, but I was immediately taken in by the story, which is both mesmerizing and frustrating.

The story takes place during a pandemic. Time travel is invented, initially to try and stop the pandemic, but that doesn’t work. Instead, people in the beginning years of the pandemic are recruited to jump forward to the post-pandemic era, when there is a dire need for workers. One benefit offered is medical treatment for a loved one in the current era – including expensive, life-saving treatment from the disease ravaging the country.

Such is the situation with lovebirds Polly and Frank. They are in their twenties, and far from home when the outbreak happens. (They’re from Buffalo, but find themselves stuck in Texas now.) When Frank becomes ill, Polly agrees to leap forward 12 years. They agree to meet at an area landmark as soon as she “arrives.”

Unfortunately for Polly, she arrives to a world that is totally foreign to her. The country split into two – the United States and America. She is basically an indentured servant to the time travel company, or whoever they loan her out to, until she works off her expenses. She can’t travel north without a passport, as it’s now a different country. And the hotel she was to meet up with Frank at is now a port, with tight security.

The book bounces back and forth between Polly’s past and present. We learn of how she and Frank met, why they were in Texas, and the like. In the present/future, her situation goes from bad to worse several times, and she struggles with whether or not she should ever hope for more. There are a few turns that literally had me yelling, “No!”

The copy I have has an author Q&A in the back, in which Lim says she modeled Polly’s experiences after those of many illegal immigrants who constantly feel they have no choice but to do the crappiest jobs and live in the crappiest conditions. Sometimes their biggest barriers are not knowing the language or culture of the place they find themselves (or not understanding the rules).

Also of note is that the whole book takes place in our past. Polly and Frank meet in the late 1970s, and the world she finds herself thrust into is in the late 1990s. (Obviously, it is a very different 1990s than we knew!)

This is a very moving story. There’s a mild sci-fi aspect, in that time travel exists. And there is a moderate love story, although most of the book is spent with our leads being separated. But overall, it’s just a gripping tale of one woman trying to survive in a world she cannot understand.


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“Butterfly Awakens” by Meg Nocero – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Butterfly Awakens depicts the story of the extraordinary transformation of a forty-something Italian American attorney as she moves through unimaginable grief and sadness watching her beloved mother lose her battle to breast cancer. This tumultuous life experience shifts her world, causing her to question her life choices and opening her up to her soul’s calling. Nocero brings readers along on her journey through a dark night of the soul as she deals with the grieving process, a toxic work environment, and intense stress that results in depression, anxiety, and an acquired somatic nervous disorder called tinnitus. Through it all, she never gives up, instead looking for the help she needs to start to heal and find her light. In the end, like the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, this story is a beautiful love letter that honors Nocero’s mother’s legacy while detailing the awakening of her own.

Goodreads


This book came out in September, and I had heard of it around that time. I wasn’t sure I was up for a memoir on grief and loss, but I put it on my TBR for another reason: in her journey to find herself, one of the things the author tackles is El Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage, often taken people looking for religious or spiritual insight, has fascinated me for years!

Meg Nocero’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer while Meg was pregnant with her second child. The first 20 percent of the story tells of her mom’s diagnosis, battle, and death.

After that, Meg has some rough times. She eventually takes a brief leave from work, even, to try to get herself together. But still, she struggles. She starts having issues with stress-induced tinnitus – ringing in her ears – which also leads to insomnia. Going to work tired leads to more stress, so it’s a constant circle.

She eventually starts coming out of it by following advice from various friends and inspirational authors, speakers, etc. While this part of the book is often fun, it also feels a little muddled to me. She goes to big events and meets people like Oprah, Wayne Dyer, and Chris Martin (of Coldplay) – and these stories are definitely fun and inspiring! But she never really addresses whether or not she solved her tinnitus or insomnia problems. I assume they lessened eventually, as she found her new “groove” in life?

Meg even writes and self-publishes a book about finding your bliss! But all the while, she is still at her same day job, where she has been passed over for promotions for years. While she’s a lot happier than she was right after her mom’s passing, she is still kind of treating her own bliss as a hobby instead of a full time gig. And I get it to an extent – she has two kids to support, so there’s a financial aspect. But it does seem kind of ironic.

She eventually does quit, though, and plans a trip to hike El Camino in Northern Spain. The preparation and hike take up the last portion of the book. This part was fascinating to me – I loved hearing about the little towns they hiked through, the food, the old churches, and the history.

I enjoyed reading this book overall. There were definitely parts that were sad or frustrating, but there were also parts that were fun and uplifting. It was one in which I bookmarked a lot of the other inspirational things she read, so I can find them later!

I read this book through the Discovery platform, and my review will also appear there.


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“The Defiant Middle” by Kaya Oakes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Women are expected to be many things. They should be young enough, but not too young; old enough, but not too old; creative, but not crazy; passionate, but not angry. They should be fertile and feminine and self-reliant, not barren or butch or solitary. Women, in other words, are caught between social expectations and a much more complicated reality.

Goodreads


I had read one of Oakes’ books before (“Radical Reinvention”) and loved it, so I was excited to get on the advanced reader list for her newest book! The title refers to both being middle-aged, and also being caught in between society’s expectations of a woman and the life choices you want to make.

There are so many juicy bits in here, I found myself highlighting a LOT. But it’s bad form to quote an ARC directly, so this will be a challenge.

Each chapter examines an idea that society holds about women: they may be seen as too young, old, crazy, barren, butch, angry, or alone. She weaves in stories of her own life and ones from history. She examines how women of a certain ilk may have been treated in different times, religious sects, or in pop culture.

Also of note, Oakes writes with religion in mind – specifically Roman Catholicism. I think that the stories will appeal to anyone interested in women’s issues, though, even if they are not of this (or any) religion, because this is only one lens she uses to examine the issues at hand.

To offer one example that might appeal to my writer friends: in the chapter on women being labeled as crazy, Oakes laments that, as a student, most women authors she had to study in school carried that label (Dickinson, Plath, Shelley). She argues that some of them may have had other legitimate issues, but nevertheless, even as an MFA student in writing, she was told over and over again that women writers were all crazy.

She spends some time on trans women, and even offers a couple examples of trans women in history – women I definitely had not learned about before. (Like the Universal Friend.) She also discusses the idea that you do not have to have kids – or even the ability to carry them – to be a woman (as anyone with a hysterectomy can attest to).

I think this book would appeal to women of all stripes – women with or without kids, women in or not in relationships, women with or without an interest in religion. I have definitely already recommended it to multiple friends!

This book hits shelves today, November 30th. I was able to read in advance thanks to the author, Kaya Oakes.


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