Scary Mommy’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays by Jill Smokler

Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hanukkah, this fun little book will keep you laughing through the holidays. Even if your kids are grown, you can relate to the little vignettes told by the author and a host of other writers as they share their experiences in a humorous and quirky way. Scary Mommy’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays by Jill Smokler includes suggestions, recipes, lists of dos and don’ts, as well as funny little stories and anecdotes. We can vicariously experience the holidays as seen through the authors’ shared secrets of past events.

Perhaps the reason I find this little tome so amusing is that too many of their lamentations ring true. Some of my favorite moments in the book include:

I take all the labels off my mother-in-laws gifts and say they are from Santa.

Make sure you have a wingman on speed dial to get you the shit you forgot.

While we want the meal to be memorable we don’t want it to be that kind of memory.

If I mix more than three ingredients, that’s fresh.

Glitter, commonly known as the herpes of the art world.

Apple flavored lollipop seems a sensible fruit choice.

I plan on playing the Dysfunction Family Drinking Game at the next holiday meal (I’ll need an extra bottle of wine), trying the Macaroni and Cheese recipe and eating it all myself (ditto for the Kahlua Dip), and selecting some presents from the Best Gifts to Buy for the Parents You Hate list (you don’t even need to wait until Christmas, birthdays will do just as well).

It’s a win win, where we get an affirmation of our own messed up holidays, a chuckle or two, plus the knowledge that the proceeds from book sales go towards The Thanksgiving Project, part of The Scary Mommy Nation, which ensures that all families will be able to experience their own Thanksgiving meal. Just think of it as an inexpensive therapy session. Four stars.

I would like to thank Pocket Star Books and Netgalley for allowing me to download a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Undertakers Daughter by Kate Mayfield

Reading a memoir is always a risky business. Sometimes the succession of words resembles a leaky faucet with a slow drip, but other times you get lucky. Consider The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield a work which is a steady stream of gold consisting of a touching story which reads like a novel, reflecting small town southern life in the sixties and seventies.

Kate Mayfield looks back on her childhood living in Jubilee, Kentucky. What makes her life exceptional is the fact that her father is an undertaker and her home is above the funeral parlor. Ms Mayfield creates a portrait of a family who must be quiet and respectful around the constant flow of dead and the words “We’ve got a body!” Yet, her life is not steeped in the morbid. Kate adores her dapper father Frank, tolerates her Victorian mother Lily Tate, relies on her solid brother Thomas, fears her crazy older sister Evelyn, and watches over her sweet little sister Jemima. Colorful characters surround the family, such as the family maid Belle, who makes Kate lunch every day and walks her to school, and eccentric, wealthy Miss Agnes Davis who only wears red. Kate has a special bond with her dad, and he often takes her on little excursions around town, such as to the counter by the Spring Farms Dairy where Paulette serves her lemon meringue pie. Kate boldly explores the world of her childhood, exposing the skeletons surrounding the undertaking business, including some of the unusual antics the “customers” exhibit.

Each chapter introduces us to more of the people who have influenced Kate’s life. And as Kate grows up, we can understand her rebellious nature based on the constant need for silence, both physically, mentally, and verbally.

Interspersed throughout the book are special “In Memoriam” gems which give vignettes of the life and death of various town people who have compelling stories to tell. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the descriptions from Kate’s early years, I must admit that the book gets a little bogged down in the middle where she explores the seedier side of her world, exposing not only her father’s flaws but also the ugliness of racism and the pettiness of small town life. However, as a memoir, we expect Kate Mayfield to give some feedback on her experiences, which become more focused as she grows older. This is her story to tell and a book dealing with death is the perfect vehicle to explore some of the realities of life. “Mostly what the dead take with them are their secrets.” Despite this quote from her father, in the Epilogue Kate tries to answer some of the childhood questions she poses about her father, as well as wrap up some other loose ends.

The author shares some interesting revelations and it was fun revisiting the era when I, too, was a child.

I would like to thank Gallery Books and Netgalley for allowing me to download this book in exchange for an honest review.

I give this book four stars.

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen is set at a country estate, Iyntwood, located outside London, a few years prior to the outbreak of WWI (1913) during the Edwardian period of British history.

Our story starts with Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Montfort, overseeing the finishing touches for her annual costume ball with the help of her competent housekeeper, Edith Jackson. First to arrive is her son, home for the summer, shortly followed by her wayward nephew, Teddy Mallory, the dishonorable gentleman referred to in the title. After that, a progression of house guests arrive who plan to spend the night at the lavish estate. Part of the problem with this novel is the numerous characters thrown at the readers in a short space of time. Perhaps a flow chart of guests and servants names would help us keep them all straight. Even by the end of the story, I had only a vague idea of who was who. However, it appears that this book is the first in a series of mysteries involving the same individuals, so perhaps it is worth the effort to get to know the “players”. Teddy is a nasty young man, involved in all sorts of nefarious activities. It’s difficult to comprehend the depths of his depravity, so when he is brutally murdered, the whole incident is more of an inconvenience where nobody truly mourns his loss.

In order to discover who killed Teddy, the mistress of the house decides to work with her housekeeper over riding the usual 20th century class distinctions. Whereas the authorities question the guests and the staff separately, the truth requires the cohesiveness of both. Even though it is an uncomfortable alliance, without the clues garnered and shared by Lady Montfort and Mrs Jackson, the solution would never be obtained. In the end, it is Lord Montfort who calls the constable and confronts the culprit, after his wife shares what they have discerned. He cannot approve of his wife’s actions, even if it brought a successful conclusion to the case. The aristocrats must keep their distance from the house staff at ALL costs. Although he loves his wife and admires her intelligence, his views reflect those of the times, and he prefers her to keep her talents focused on hearth and home.

And this attitude is pervasive throughout the novel. The times play a role, especially with the suffragette movement as a backstory, where one of the couples’ daughter goes missing and turns up on the front page news after causing a disturbance. There is an immediate disapproval since the gentlemen, and even some of their wives, vehemently oppose the idea of Women’s Rights. (Ironically, even today – 100 years later, too many men still hold this belief). Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman reflects a curious time period where the aristocracy is trying to maintain their stronghold on the old ways while the new order keeps moving forward. This is reflected in the mannerisms of the Scotland Yard investigator who is brash and shows a disdain for their station in life. In fact, he takes offense at their peerage and treats them with a total disrespect. In sharp contrast is the behavior of the gentrified local constable who is mindful of the proper deference due the nobility. So, although the main plot is about a murder, the subplot is the battle between the classes. The advance of the future, including cars, trains, escalators, subways, telephones, electricity, and even the advent of the airplane, is a backdrop to aristocratic parents trying to maintain the old traditions, while their children look forward to breaking down the barriers.

Although the story is well written, I felt the plot meandered a little trying to keep the reader from discovering the guilty party. Also, the portrayed attitude and behaviors of the indulgent rich led to some antipathy on my part. Perhaps if the characters had been more endearing, I would have liked the book better. Hopefully the sequels will provide some depth to the household members, both the gentry and the servants, so I am more sympathetic to their plight. I give this book three and a half stars.

I would like to thank Minotaur Books and Netgalley for allowing me a free preview of this book in exchange for an unbiased evaluation.

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

Before I submit my review for Before I Go by Colleen Oakley, I have a dislaimer. I probably shouldn’t be reading this book right now. I just found out a dear friend has esophogeal cancer and she starts her radiation treatments today. She beat breast cancer thirty years ago, and lived to see her children graduate from college, her main bucket list item at the time. Grandchildren have been a bonus. The future is uncertain.

That’s why I’m not sure if I want to face a story featuring the trauma of a young couple dealing with a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Yet, this book is beautifully written. From the first page we are vested in the lives of brave, loving, overly-neat Daisy and tall, handsome, but oh-so-sloppy Jack Richmond. They become our instant friends. We also admire the loyalty of quirky best friend Kayleigh and wish that all doctors were like kindly Dr Saunders. Unfortunately, sometimes bad things happen to good people. Terrible things beyond our control. Things such as cancer.

Daisy is a joiner, but she doesn’t want to be a part of this “cancer club”, not again. Unfortunately, cancer is not a choice and Daisy must find a way to accept the reality of her situation. Colleen Oakley covers this topic sensitively with a bit of humor injected into a taboo subject. How does one deal with an expiration date on one’s life? Colleen takes us on Daisy’s path through the various stages of grief including numerous incidents where she understandably loses control over her emotions and behaviors. Over the years I have known several women in similar situations. Daisy’s final days are believable and touching. Her courage and humility shine through the bad moments. Yet, this book isn’t about death, it’s about the journey. Daisy has one last goal to complete. Out of her love for Jack, she sets out to locate the perfect second wife to take over when she is gone. Someone to make sure his socks don’t pile up on the floor. Someone to keep him from being lonely. Finding a replacement, though, is not easy and provides some necessary comic relief from a naturally intense subject. Daisy’s stumbling attempts eventually lead to an enlightenment between the young couple. In the final chapter, told by Jack, we catch a glimpse of hope for the future and the reader is grateful to have been allowed to tag along for the ride.

A great first novel and I look forward to reading more books by this author. Next time I hope my purchase doesn’t require an entire box of tissues. Four stars!

I’d like to thank Gallery Books and Netgalley for allowing me a free download of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Since You’ve Been Gone by Mary Jennifer Payne

In a YA book, the expectations for great literature are not very high. Teens tend to want a fast paced story with some action, a bit of conflict, a touch of romance, and a dose of angst thrown in for good measure. Mary Jennifer Payne has tossed all this into the mix in her novel, Since You’ve Been Gone, with a varying degree of success.

Edie and her mom are constantly on the run from an abusive father who has a tendency towards violence whenever conflicts arise, which is fairly often. The day he placed a hand on Edie was the day her mother packed their bags and left home, successfully eluding her husband for five years by constantly switching from one locale to the next. Although Toronto was their original home, this latest move finds the two in London, England, where Sydney Fraser spent her youth.

Edie is sick of the constant upheaval and now she’s in a new country with different customs. Her first day at school she meets (and rejects) the school nerd, is accosted by the school bully, and settles in with some potential friends. The teachers are not overly welcoming and she is reprimanded for being late. While striving to keep a low profile, she needs to find a solution to a major catastrophe in her life – the sudden, prolonged disappearance of her mom. After stealing the fundraising jar of money meant to help build a school for girls in Afghanistan, she is able to fund a weekend to search for her missing parent. Unfortunately, a fellow classmate, Jermaine, is the one accused of theft. Even though he knows that Edie is the culprit, he remains mum in exchange for the truth. Together the two set out on a manhunt to discover the whereabouts of Sydney Fraser.

As an American, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the various landmarks in London. Common names, such as Tim Horton’s (a popular coffee shop throughout Canada started by a famous hockey player), Starbucks, and Burger King are relatable to those of us living in North America. Other customs may be a little alien, such as double decker buses and the metro system. They add a little spice to the story. Also of interest are the racial dynamics facing a black teen born and raised in England. Jermaine seems to face some prejudice, with teachers dismissing his intelligence and punks threatening to knife him in full view of a crowd, but it doesn’t extend to the developing friendship/romance between the two protagonists and, in spite of his questionable treatment, Jermaine remains one of the good guys.

Unfortunately, the plot line has a potential which is never reached. One of my criticisms is that the story takes place within about a week’s time. The idea that all the events unfold this quickly defies logic. And even though it is a relatively short novel (the perfect length for a YA story) there are sections which drag. While the premise is interesting, the specific events leading up to the climax are dull, in spite of some “erroneous events” popping up along the way that at times enhance and at other times detract from the story. There are also a lot of random characters who make brief appearances but aren’t worth noticing. In addition, Edie’s thoughts are too often like a broken record. The most complex and interesting character is Jermaine. I would have liked to have heard more of his story. The romance between these two was gentle and appropriate for fifteen or sixteen year olds, with more of an emphasis on friendship then on passion.

Just because a book is meant for Young Adults, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve well developed characters with interesting motivations. Ms Payne needs to know when to spend more time on a topic, and when to eliminate unnecessary elements to the story, in order to create a more cohesive whole. Hopefully her next novel will reflect these recommendations. I give this book three stars.

I would like to thank Dundurn Press from Ontario, Canada and Netgalley for allowing me to download a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Viscount of Vice by Shana Galen

In the Regency Romance,The Viscount of Vice by Shana Galen, Henry Flynn, the new Earl of Chesham, also aptly known as the Viscount of Vice, finds himself in Bath, instead of London, at the urgent request of Sir Brook Derring who has accidentally found Flynn’s long lost, presumed dead brother. With the help of Lady Emma Talbot, Flynn finds, not just his brother, but true love, in this satisfying novella, an introduction to the new Covent Garden Cub series.

Galen takes us on a merry ride as Flynn fights his past transgressions and pulls out his gentlemanly manners to protect the innocent Emma from both the outside world as well as from the rising passion which threatens to overwhelm them both. It takes all his will power to keep from ruining Emma, although circumstances allow him to give her the pleasure he feels she deserves. The romance is titilating, the action satisfying, and the ending fulfilling, yet leaving us wanting more. In addition, Galen makes the characters come alive and provides understandable motivations for their actions. Flynn suffers from guilt for his part in his little brother’s supposed death which results in his bad-boy-devil-may-care behavior and his inability to develop any meaningful relationships, even with his own mother. Lady Emma has her own issues since her brother, the Duke of Ravenscroft, is forcing her to marry his choice for a husband, after her rejection of too many acceptable suitors. It is not her fault that she is secretly in love with the unacceptable Flynn and all others seem just plain boring in comparison. It is the motivations of ruthless kidnapper, Satin, which leave us wondering, so it is lucky for the reader that there is an upcoming novel, Earls Just Want to Have Fun, which further delves into this evil doers misdeeds through the quest of Bow Street Runner, Sir Brook Derring, who searches to track down another one of Satin’s victims and bring this devil to justice.

I thank Sourcebooks Casablanca for allowing me to download this preview in exchange for an honest review. I heartily recommend this short story/novella to all lovers of a good romance and I give it four stars.

Earls Just Want to Have Fun by Shana Galen

Earls Just Want to Have Fun is Book 1 in the Covent Garden Cub series by Shana Galen. A prequel, a novella named The Viscount Of Vice, introduced us to Bow Street Runner, Sir Brook Derring who, in this novel, has been hired to locate a young lady kidnapped as a child by the evil Satan, the head of a local gang living in the notorious Seven Dials district.

Filthy Marlowe is the only girl in the Covent Garden Cubs and she must work twice as hard as the boys to maintain her place within the group. She is one of Satan’s favorites as she is a skilled pickpocket and can dress as either lad or lass as the need dictates. Her ability to speak in more cultured tones also leads to more convincing scams and thus more earnings. However, mostly Marlowe speaks the cant of her surroundings and Galen intersperses numerous colorful language into her conversations, sometimes only decipherable from context clues. Perhaps a glossary would be helpful to the reader, although we get the gist of the meanings.

When one of the cons goes bad, Marlowe is taken away by Sir Brook. Well actually, it is Sir Brook’s brother, Maxwell Derring, Earl of Dane, who ends up unintentionally doing the kidnapping, since he has unwittingly loaned his coach for this caper and suddenly finds himself involved in the rescue attempt. It seems that Brook believes that Marlowe is really Lady Elizabeth, kidnapped by Satin at the age of five. She, however, believes that Satin had rescued her from starving in the streets and that her loyalty lies with her cronies and her boss, especially since nobody leaves the group and lives to tell about it. Either way, Dane looks down upon the filthy Marlowe who fights dirty and speaks an indistinguishable English, and feels his brother has gone mad. To make matters worse, Sir Brook is called away and Lord Dane must deal with the hellcat alone, making her somewhat presentable since there is no place safe for her to stay, except their home. And, to top matters off, the safest spot to watch over her is tied up to a chair in his own bedchamber. With the assistance of the capable, discreet butler, Crawford, Marlowe is cleaned up enough to join the family for breakfast where she is welcomed by Dane’s sweet sister Lady Susanna who quickly befriends the hapless house guest. Unfortunately, Maxwell’s mother isn’t so understanding and refuses to spend one second longer than she has to under the same roof as this undesirable riff raff. Of course, nothing runs smoothly and Lord Dane must continually put out the fires that inevitably blaze up in Marlowe’s wake, cursing his absentee brother for leaving the bulk of the work on his shoulders.

To make matters worse, the Earl has an inherent distaste for those living in poverty who continually steal and cheat those in the upper class. His own father died from pneumonia after the trauma from their home being burglarized. This results in a mistrust of Marlowe and all she represents until he sees how the other half lives and begins to understand what drives such actions for survival. As the resistant Marlowe comes to accept the charming Maxwell and he begins to understand her past way of life, a love between the two starts to develop, although there are all sorts of misadventures along the way.

While there are quite a few convoluted plot flaws, including the continued disappearance of Sir Brook, for the most part, this novel is a delight with quite a few laughs as well as some unexpected plot twists which help keep the reader’s interest throughout the story. I heartily recommend this book with a four star rating.

I would like to thank Sourcebooks Casablanca for allowing me a free download of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

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