Excerpt from A Laughing Matter of Pain (Chapter 25)

 

harrykathy“Can you believe it? We’re married.” Her eyes dance in the low light from the bedside lamp.
I lean in and kiss her. “I’m the luckiest guy alive.”
The smile falters on her lips. Her eyes go glassy. A tear slips past, trailing down her left cheek.
“What’s wrong, doll?” I cup that cheek and kiss her again.
“I-I never thought this day would come.”
“What? Why not?” My heart hammers, afraid she’s having doubts.
A tiny, nervous laugh escapes. “Not because of you. You misunderstand. I mean, I didn’t think I’d ever get married, period. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting me.” Her gaze shifts to the mattress.
I wipe another tear away with my thumb, kiss the spot where it fled from her eye. “You remember what I said all those months ago? That you’re the most beautiful person I know?”
She lifts her gaze and tries to smile. “Yeah.”
“I meant that, Kath. Every word. I ain’t romantic. I mess up a lot. But you’re the one thing I know I got right. You deserve to be treated like a queen. To never hurt again.”
“I don’t deserve you, Harry.”
“Hush, now. None of that.” I pull her to me.
Our kisses deepen. Her hands caress the length of my exposed back. Our breathing heavy, we pull apart, resting our foreheads on each other’s.
“We don’t hafta do anything you ain’t ready for,” I whisper.
“No, Harry. I…I’m ready.” Her smile seems uncertain.
“You sure?” I run my hand through her curls.
“It’s you. It’s time we made our own memories.”
I kiss her again, then ease her down onto the mattress, with the deliberate care of handling something sacred. I close my eyes and let my heart and body show her my love.

A Laughing Matter of Pain
by Cynthia Hilston
(coming fall 2018)

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Review of The Other Half of Me by Jennifer Sivec

theotherhalfSummary: Maggie and Sam’s love was forever, until it wasn’t.

Is it ever too late to go back home?

Maggie Whitaker had always dreamed about the same boy even though she’d never met him.

A loner, with an overly critical mother and a head full of self-doubt, she has spent most of her life isolated. That is, until she meets Trip. He becomes her only friend until he cruelly betrays her, making her feel even more alone.

Sam has endured far more than anyone has ever realized. When he meets Maggie, he feels as though he knows her immediately. They fall for each other hard and fast and Maggie feels as though she’s been waiting for him her entire life.

Their life together is beautiful as they make plans for a future together, until Sam is in a horrible accident and suddenly everything changes.

When Maggie finds herself alone with no explanation, she does her best to move on with her life. She realizes that erasing Sam from her heart is close to impossible, until Dylan.

As she’s finally about to have her chance at love, the unexpected happens and Maggie must decide if love is ever just enough, or if she needs more to be complete.

Caution: This story contains themes of sexual assault, addiction, and mild sexual situations.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I am the first to admit that I am a sucker for a good romance and a big fan of damaged characters who are trying to rebuild their lives. Being an author myself, I write about these themes, so as I opened this book and knew that it was highly rated, I was looking forward to a great story.

What I came away with was a good story, not a great one. I didn’t feel the ground move beneath me the way I was expecting when going into this.

Maggie lacks self-confidence because of her critical mother. Her mother is passive-aggressive. I often wanted to smack her for the rude tone and underlying jabs in what she says to her own daughter, even if her words hold some good stuff. So when unpopular Maggie, at age 15, finally attracts the attention of a boy at school, she is completely taken in. Poor Maggie is ruined by Trip, a boy who wanted one thing and one thing only from her.

That type of encounter leaves a scar on a girl’s heart, making it hard to open up to another guy. I felt badly for her and wanted her to find real love.

A few years pass and she goes to college, where she meets Sam. Sam is a jock who doesn’t think he’s smart and asks her to tutor him. He is popular with the girls, so Maggie is cautious when she agrees to help him. Their relationship quickly grows deeper, and they express that they feel they have always known each other. Next thing you know, Sam and Maggie are engaged and a few more years have passed.

This is the point where I felt disappointed. I would have loved to have read more about their relationship over those years. As this is a novella and therefore not a long story, it would have benefited from being developed more and made into a novel. I just didn’t believe their feelings and claims of having always felt a connection. That was too cliche, cheapening the bond that could have been expanded through more storytelling. There was a lot of telling and not a lot of showing, making the pacing off during this part of the book.

Then Sam is in a terrible car accident and is laid up in bed, unconscious. Maggie is left wondering if he will ever wake up. This tragedy pulled at my heartstrings. Then Maggie goes through a dreamlike sequence of visiting different parts of Sam’s childhood and seeing how his father walked out on them when he was young and how is mother had drug problems. Sam never felt like he deserved Maggie.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but more years pass. Maggie loves again, but as before, the pacing was off. The author seems to rush to get to the part of the story she wants to tell the most and skips over years of Maggie’s life where she could have shown the reader how her heart healed (although not completely) and how she managed to fall in love again. I feel cheated by not being given these details.

However, the end does save a lot of my criticisms. There is some lovely dialogue between Maggie and Sam, some downright gut-wrenching, raw emotion. The story delivered in the end. This was a short, easy read, but I wanted more of a good thing. I wanted this love story to be something that tore my heart to pieces and then mended it back together again. What I got was some damage to my heart and an easy fix.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review of Dante’s Garden: Mystery and Magic in Bomarzo by Teresa Culter-Broyles

dantesgardenSummary: Dante’s Garden is the story of what happens when Frank Farnese, a book collector from 2017, falls through Hell’s Mouth, a strange sculpture in Bomarzo, Italy.

In 1570, Lucrezia Romano and famed antiquarian Pyrrho Ligorio welcome him when he awakens in a garden, from what he thinks is a dream but isn’t. Together they must figure out how to put the world right again.

The Inquisition, an extraordinary visit to Venice, and the dreams of Duke Francesco Orsini entwine to pull them all deeper into adventure, danger, love, and the hardest decisions of their lives.

Dante’s Garden weaves fact and fiction, history and imagination, to tell the story of Frank and Lucrezia, and the connection that, finally, may not be strong enough to hold them safe as time splits apart.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

As a lover of Italy and history, I was looking forward to reading this book. The moment I began reading, the author’s imagination and intense knowledge of Italian culture and heritage mingled to form a beautiful tapestry of a tale.

In current-day, book collector Frank Farnese boards a plane in New York and travels to Italy to meet Pasquale and Sandra Ciacionne, who have a 16th century Aldine Press copy of Dante’s La Commedia. The book is old but defective, due to two upside-down pages at the back, a burn mark, and a note left in the front…a note that seems like it was written to Frank.

In 16th century Italy, a young and beautiful, well-read lady named Lucrezia Romano has dreams of adventure. She meets the antiquarian Pyrrho Ligorio (based on the real Ligorio), and they become instant friends. He travels to the Duke Vicino Orsini’s palazzo to work on his garden of grotesques and stone monsters and invites Lucrezia and her parents along. Lucrezia will be Ligorio’s model for a statue of Ceres.

Meanwhile, in current-day Italy, Frank visits the Garden of Monsters (the Duke’s garden from the 16th century and a real place). He has the copy of Dante with him as he tours the garden alone and it grows dark. A thunderstorm ensues, and he takes cover in one of the sculptures, the Mouth of Hell, but not before seeing the statue of Ceres. He is drawn to the statue’s face in particular.

In the 16th century, the Duke has a ball. The party guests are in costume and are mingling in the gardens. Lucrezia is among them. A thunderstorm breaks out.

After the storm ends, Frank emerges from the Mouth of Hell, only to find himself surrounded by what he thinks are reenactors. He is imprisoned by the Duke for questioning, as it’s strange that a man just seemed to appear out of nowhere during the storm, while all the guests were taking cover.

Frank is confused and grows angry, as he thinks these reenactors are having him on. In time, however, he understands that he has traveled through time. Vicino, Ligorio, and Lucrezia are among the small group who believe that Frank (Francesco as they call him) is from the future.

Besides Frank’s sudden appearance, other strange things start happening in the garden. Statues seem to be moving. Glowing letters appear at the entrance of the Mouth of Hell at night, saying, “Abandon all thought, you who enter here,” echoing the warning in Dante’s writing.

A story of adventure and love ensues as Lucrezia, Frank, Ligorio, and Lucrezia’s father travel to Venice to visit the Aldine Press to procure another copy of the Dante, which they think is Frank’s ticket back to the future. There is also real concern that word of what’s going on in the garden will get back to the Church, and Vicino, Frank, and Ligorio will be questioned and possibility burn for it.

The relationship between Frank and Lucrezia develops as they travel together. One of my favorite parts of the story was when they were in Venice and were in love in what many consider is the most beautiful city in the world. There are some lovely descriptions of Venice, which echoes a couple torn by circumstance who is in love and just living in the moment. Having visited Venice, I can attest to the fact that you can’t take a bad picture there. I felt like I was right there with Frank and Lucrezia. While I longed for them to somehow find a way to stay together, the larger problem of the Church and the happenings in the garden tugged at my heart, knowing this would be a heart-wrenching decision.

Back at the palazzo, the Duke makes some startling discoveries about his late wife and blood magic. The Church begins to question him and others, and it’s a race to see how everything will pan out.

The more I read the book, the more the momentum grew. The climax is indeed a strong one. The ending made me cry, brought me right there with Frank and Lucrezia. More than the mystical and magical aspects of this wonderful tale is that it’s a love story at heart, and one that will stick with me for a long time to come.

5 out of 5 stars

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Excerpt from A Laughing Matter of Pain

December begins with a snowstorm. Business is bad for a whole week. The advantage to this? I spend more time with Kathy. In the small house, there’s not much room for privacy. Dawson and Betty are never more than a room away. The four of us play cards or listen to the evening radio programs. Betty never complains about jazz like Ma did, although Dawson usually nods off within ten minutes of the radio going on. Betty sits with a book in one of the armchairs near the window while her husband snores away in the other. Most evenings, Kathy and I sit on the couch, although sometimes we remain in the kitchen long after dinner, talking over coffee and one after another cigarette for me.

The second week of December, the weather breaks. Dawson and I work all day in the cold, my fingers numb by the time dinner comes. After another busy day, Kathy’s parents rest in their usual spots in the living room while Kathy and I sit at the kitchen table. The crackle of the fire and Dawson’s snores are the only sounds.

“Has your dad always slept like he could sleep through a war?” I ask.

Kathy giggles. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad sometimes. I don’t know how Mom sleeps in the same room as him. I don’t suppose you snore?”

I shrug. “I wouldn’t know. My brother and me shared a room growing up. He never said anything. Why? You afraid I’d keep you up?” Realizing what I’ve said, I blush.

“That would assume sleeping in the same bed as me.” Kathy half-smiles and wrinkles her nose at me.

“Well, maybe…one day? I mean, if we ever, you know, married.” My blush deepens, as I know I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Are you asking?”

“Just…dreaming. A guy can dream, can’t he?”

“Nothing wrong with dreams.” Kathy takes my hand across the table. “Dreams are what keep us going through the hard times…and hope.”

“I like the sound of that. I think so, too.” I stare into her eyes, imaging her beautiful soul. “Your eyes are the same color as mine.” If we ever had kids together, they’d be sure to have blue eyes.

“You have nice eyes, Harry. And a nice smile.”

“A crooked smile, more like. My brother, Erik, was graced with the good looks in my family.” I laugh.

“Hmm, well, I don’t know what your brother looks like, but I don’t mind looking at you.”

“I’d rather look at you if it’s all the same.” I grin.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post an excerpt every Saturday.

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Review of Cobwebs of Youth by Rose Auburn

cobswebsofyouthSummary: ‘Cobwebs of Youth’ is a contemporary, romantic novel set in the London suburbs. It tells the story of Lara Cassidy who realises her dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator like her father. Yet her happiness is short-lived and she is plunged into uncertainty as Robert Kennedy, the mysterious stranger she first encountered ten years earlier, comes back into her life. Will Lara finally be able to lay her Father’s ghost to rest and fully embrace what the future holds?

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Cobwebs of Youth is a lovely book, let me just say. Lovely is the first word that comes to mind and sticks with me as I recount my experience reading this novel.

I am quite familiar with British novels, having recently read The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10. I am also a fan of British shows, such as Doctor Who, Downton Abbey, and Sherlock. Being an American, I pick up on the differences in the English language when I step into a British novel. And it’s lovely.

The characters in this book are very realistic and relatable. Their dialogue reads so fluidly, so naturally. That is probably my favorite part of this story, and it’s a character-driven, dialogue-driven story told in third person-limited narrative, so what a pleasure to read Lara Cassidy’s journey of finding herself.

It may sound like another modern mundane romance story, like another journey of self-discovery. I admit, this arch is overdone these days, yet it works so well most of the time. When done right, as it is in Cobwebs of Youth (which is a great title, by the way), these types of stories can resonate with many people.

The book opens with an 18-year-old Lara visiting her father, against her mother’s wishes. Her parents are divorced. When she arrives at her dad’s house, she finds he is with a French woman. She feels betrayed, no longer the first woman in her dad’s life. She is at a vulnerable age. She and her best friend, Jen, go to a local pub to drink away their sorrows. While there, Lara meets an older biker man named Rob, who comforts her. She is both intrigued and put off by him.

A decade passes. Lara’s dad has died, and she moves into his house. She is in a relationship with attorney Ed, a guy who, according to Lara’s mum, has a good job and is a good match for Lara. Lara is an artist, an illustrator like her dad, and has a big project coming up to illustrate a children’s book called Puddle. It may be her big break where her career is concerned, but she finds herself severely unhappy. She attends one of Ed’s work parties, where everyone is only surface-level and rubbing noses. She has felt little affection for Ed for months, and he seems equally distant, more concerned with his job than their relationship. They finally end it.

Lara almost steps back in time by returning to the pub where she met Rob, unable to forget him all these years. As fate would have it, he is there again. They start talking and strike up a relationship. Rob is everything Ed isn’t. Jen and Lara’s mum don’t approve of her dating a biker, but she feels more alive with him than she has in her life. She rides a motorcycle for the first time and feels exhilarated. She meets new people. She is head-over-heels in love with this mysterious guy.

But life is never easy. As much as Lara wants to get away from the past, it’s still part of her. This story is a beautiful exploration of a young woman’s struggle to come into her own.

There are some grammatical errors in the book, but they don’t detract from the story or the great dialogue.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review of Off Script: A Monkey & Me Novel by Liv Bartlet

offscriptSummary: “I kissed Edward Wolverton once. It was everything it was supposed to be—and then some… maybe I’ll kiss him again.” TV Producer Bea Douglas’s last confession to her former business partner and ex-best friend wasn’t meant to tempt the fates. She’s eager to escape the hypocrisy of the television industry and years of hiding her faith for the convenience of other people. Edward Wolverton may be hot, smart, and funny—but he’s also two steps out of rehab with a self-proclaimed allergy to Christianity. But after a club night turns violent, Bea loses her sense of self while Eddie teeters on the edge of relapse. Their connection to each other is the only certainty. To be together, each will have to let go of past pain and have faith in a love that never fades. Off Script is an uncommon story of the power of love and resilience to bring people together in a society that does its best to tear them apart.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Off Script is the second in the Monkey & Me series by Liv Bartlet. I had the pleasure of reading the first novel, Production Values, last year. You can read my review here. I highly suggest you read the first book to receive the full benefit of the second book’s story, although Off Script can certainly be read independently and thoroughly enjoyed.

Off Script is a literary breath of fresh air in the indie author world. I read plenty of books by self-published authors, and like its forerunner, this second book in the series is smart, sassy, funny, has heart, and makes you actually think, all the while entertaining you. It’s rare to find a book that has all those qualities.

I am a writer, an author, and an avid reader. The more I read and write, the more persnickety I get. Liv Bartlet knows her stuff. Not only does she have excellent insight into the workings of the making of television shows and movies, but she understands human interactions with a depth that few writers can convey so believably in their dialogue.

Bea Douglas has spent years in the world of Hollywood and the like. She thrives on her work. She’s the sort of woman who needs to be doing something to feel useful. When she’s not producing a show or running PR, she’s a volunteer nurse. She’s sassy, witty, and quick. She shows a tough exterior to a world where she has to be tough for the sake of keeping her head above the water.

But behind all that glamor is a broken soul who longs for more. She wants to be a mother. She is in love with heart-throb actor Eddie Wolverton, who is the male lead in her TV show Void. She is also a woman a faith, a Mormon, who believes, against the conventions of society, in waiting until marriage to have sex.

Before you turn away at this point because of the mention of religion, let me just say that this book does not preach or try to throw religious dogma in the reader’s face. I admire Bea for sticking to her convictions in a world where many would snub her. Bea’s faith is a real part of her character, just as Eddie’s aversion to religion is a necessary and believable part of his character. As Bea loves Eddie, so he loves her. Their religious differences are one of the obstacles they must overcome to be together. People face these kinds of obstacles every day in relationships. Bea is open-minded and non-judgmental of those who are different, and Eddie loves Bea more for her conviction of knowing what she wants. This is admirable. They complement each other the way bacon and chocolate together works. They may seem strange at first glance, but look deeper, and you find that the complexities and layers are rich and meld together beautifully.

Eddie is a recovering alcoholic. Bea doesn’t drink, even though she spends time around crowds who do. This is yet another road block for their relationship, but no one just falls in love, and boom, it’s happily ever after. Even though Eddie has his vice of alcohol and his ex, Siena, he is a likeable guy. Having written a couple of male characters in my books who suffer from alcoholism and seeing it in my own extended family, I know the stumbling block it is. Alcoholics are not bad people. They are often quite charming and outgoing, but their outward smiles and living it up during the good times are a cover for the desperation of turning to the bottle.

Bea is trying to figure out her life after the partnership of Monkey & Me was destroyed when her best friend, Kat, decided to pursue her own dreams in the industry. She figures it’s finally time to walk away from the Hollywood life and settle down into her dream of a family life. When things turn disastrous for her at a club one night, she is left hollow and broken. She reaches out to Eddie. Although Eddie is very much in love with Bea, he has his own problems and is perhaps not the best support for Bea to lean on.

What ensues is a balancing act of Bea and Eddie each working independently and together to overcome their obstacles. Love is the starting point, but is it enough to break through their weakness and make them stronger as one? Bea is clear: she wants marriage if Eddie wants sex. She also wants a baby and is pregnant with another man’s child (it’s not what you think).

I appreciate Liv’s honesty with these characters. She doesn’t dance around the hard topics: like faith, family life, marriage, rape, drugs, alcohol, and more. In the messiness, a masterpiece painting is created.

I recently heard someone say that when God is creating a lovely tapestry, if you turn it around and look at the back, you will see all the messy threads, the pieces that had to go together to create this work of art. We often don’t understand why life plays out as it does, but trusting in God, as Bea tries to do, is better than trusting in ourselves alone.

Full disclosure: I am a Christian, so Liv’s story resonated with me. I understand Bea’s struggle with her faith. I also believe that anyone can read this story and enjoy its message of love being stronger than our weakness.

This is a beautifully rendered women’s fiction story.

5 of out 5 stars

Favorite quote: “Friendzone isn’t a terrible place to be. No drama, plenty of food, and someone who cares.”

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