Contemporary Fiction Spotlight: Afraid of the Light

Guest post written by Barbara Anne Waite

Afraid of the Light

Paperback, 352 pages

Published June 16th 2020 by Kregel Publications

Written by Cynthia Ruchti

Buy Afraid of the Light at Bookshop.org and support indie bookstores and authors

Afraid of the Light is a contemporary novel that taught me some interesting, yet disturbing, facts about a serious subject.

Often when I read, I wince at parts of a story that seem unnecessary or too much fluff. This story fell into the wonderful category of perfect – no wincing, no disappointment, no fluff. I liked that there were not too many characters; and those main people became disclosed layer by layer, making it a bit like a mystery.

My all-time favorite books are Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, which some might call romance novels. But they are character driven, observations of behavior. That’s why Cynthia Ruchti’s character-driven novel was a perfect book for me. It is the story of a troubled clinical psychologist and some of her clients who are hoarders. Her rescue comes from a man driving a garbage truck. Yes, a character-driven contemporary mystery/romance that satisfied. It contains touches of humor and valuable truth woven throughout. It was an out-of-the-ballpark 5-star read for me, a totally satisfying novel.

This guest review was reposted from Goodreads with permission. Barbara Anne Waite is a nonfiction and historical fiction author. You can follow her reviews on Goodreads and learn about his books on her website. Waite’s most recent book is the historical novel, The Colour Box, about sisters Anne and Elizabeth Hart and their struggle against the injustice of slavery on the British island of Antigua in the eighteenth century.

Historical Fiction Spotlight: When I Last Saw You

Guest review written by Lynne Spreen

When I Last Saw You

Paperback, 358 pages

Published May 4th 2021 by Bent Pine Publishing Corp

Written by Bette Lee Crosby

Buy When I Last Saw You at Bookshop.org and support indie bookstores and authors.

Margaret, in her late 60s, is recently widowed. When going through her husband’s files, she finds a receipt from a private detective. She calls him and finds out that he did some work for her late husband, years ago, trying to uncover the truth of Margaret’s childhood. Margaret hires Tom to get back on the case, because she wants to know the truth, finally. Why did her large family break up? Why did their mother send the children away?

Although Tom is retired, he’s intrigued. After a bitter divorce, he doesn’t have that much going on in his life, so agrees to investigate, spending many hours talking with Margaret about her family, trying to get leads. He sets out on the road, but after his initial foray, asks her to fly in and join him. She agrees, and they begin their search together. As they drive around the South, investigating (it’s set in 1968, so there’s no Google), they grow close.

As they return to Margaret’s roots, another story begins to unfold in parallel: that of Eliza, Margaret’s mother, and the early years of the family, before all the children were sent to live away from their mother. Dirt poor, living in a shack in West Virginia coal country, Eliza is married to the brutal, selfish Martin. He gets a job in town, leaving her to raise their ever-growing brood in desperate poverty while he lives well and has other women to entertain him. Eliza is a good woman, and the children are loved. Martin visits occasionally, keeping Eliza pregnant and the children frightened.

As Margaret travels with Tom and begins to learn what happened to her family, she is also learning about herself, coming to understand the cost of the life-changing concessions she made to her late husband. Will she finally, now, prioritize herself and seize happiness? Is it too late?

When I Last Saw You is a beautiful story, richly detailed, with characters who stayed with me after I finished the book. Highly recommended.

Review reposted from Goodreads with permission. Lynne Spreen writes midlife fiction and romance, because she believes life after 50 is a rich, untapped literary vein of human drama.  You can follow her reviews on Goodreads and learn about her Dakota Blues book series on her website.


Newsletter about Reading, Writing and Life

I’ve launched an email newsletter and monthly giveaway to shine a spotlight on reading, writing and life. It will feature content that isn’t on my website (so be sure to subscribe even if you follow my blog), highlighting interesting books and articles, writing tips and inspiration, motivational quotes and ideas, and more. Plus, every month one newsletter subscriber name will be drawn to win something fun and bookish (like a bookstore gift card, signed paperback, audiobook, journal, etc.).

Go to the newsletter sign-up page and enter giveaway by clicking here!

(You can also earn bonus entries for the monthly giveaway by using the Rafflecopter form on the sign up page to share this with others.)


Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Elephant of Belfast

Guest review written by Annette:

The Elephant of Belfast

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published April 6th 2021 by Counterpoint Press

Written by S. Kirk Walsh.

Buy at Bookshop.org and support indie bookstores and authors.

Inspired by the true story of Denise Weston Austin, the “elephant angel.”

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1940. An orphaned elephant leaves an island of Ceylon to make a new home at Bellevue Zoo. At the docks, Hettie Quin, zookeeper, meets a three-year-old elephant named Violet. Violet becomes Hattie’s favorite charge. They bond. Hattie cares for Violet. And Violet trusts Hettie. When bombs fall on Belfast and the city becomes an inferno, people rush to shelters and Hettie runs to the zoo where animals are scared and agitated. Hattie calms Violet.

What is special about this story is the warmness created from the very first pages between Hattie and Violet. But there is much more to the story. I’d say majority of the story is character development of Hettie, her family, friends and others. It makes the story very dynamic and interesting.

I warmed up to the main character right away. After losing her sister and the abandonment of her father, Hettie finds solace in caring for the young elephant. She feels more comfortable with the animals than people. She works hard to be the first female zookeeper.

It was interesting to get a glimpse into people’s minds. How some Irish viewed Nazi. They wanted to be rid of Brits for good from Northern Ireland, thus they’d welcome Germans with open arms. Also, the rationing of food affected not only humans, but also the animals at the zoo, which further affected some decisions in handling the animals.

When the city is bombed, you can see the massive destruction as buildings are turned to rubble. You can feel the helplessness when trying to find someone who is missing. And the heart-wrenching effects on animals at the zoo. The rescue efforts of Violet kept me on edge.

Richly imagined and vividly presented. There is so much deepness and liveliness in descriptions. Thus, resulting in a very vibrant story with characters you deeply care for and prose you greatly enjoy.

P.S. This brief article gives a bit of history about the true story that inspired this work of fiction.

This review was reposted with permission. You can follow Annette’s reviews on her blog and Instagram (@AnnetteBReviews)


Book Recommendation: Travels with Charley in Search of America

Steinbeck’s ability to create a sense of place and tell an entertaining story has always impressed me. This nonfiction account of his cross-country road trip in 1960 did not disappoint in that respect. It also gave me a new perspective of Steinbeck as a man and of the era during which he lived. 

He was 58 when he and his dog, Charley, set out in a modern, fully-stocked camper truck for a months’ long journey. Steinbeck’s goal was to rediscover the America and the people he’d spent decades portraying in his novels. He took the trip in late fall and early winter, specifically to avoid tourists and engage in conversation with the average woman and man. His description of driving isolated back-roads and eating in small-town diners, of laundering clothes on the road and cooking beans on a camp stove were transporting and evocative. It alternated between poignant and funny.

Like many of Steinbeck’s works, Travels with Charley in Search of America, provided an intimate view and insightful interpretation of human nature.

Here’s one example. Midway through their travels, Charley became ill and Steinbeck took him to the nearest veterinarian. The author quickly assessed the doctor was likely an alcoholic with a serious hangover. When the vet touched the dog with “his unsteady, inept hand,” Steinbeck wrote, “I saw the look of veiled contempt in Charley’s eyes. He knew about the man, I thought, and perhaps the doctor knew he knew. And maybe that was the man’s trouble. It would be very painful to know that your patients had no faith in you.”

Though Steinbeck was unhappy with the doctor’s gruff bedside manner in the moment, he later reflected on the experience with some empathy, even a touch of compassion. “It wasn’t that this veterinary didn’t like animals. I think he didn’t like himself, and when that is so the subject usually must find an area for dislike outside himself. Else he would have to admit his self-contempt.”

This travelogue also gave me insight about Steinbeck himself and of the era during which he lived. Critical reviewers of the time lauded his searing interpretation of our nation’s shortcomings in “political apathy, environmental degradation, and strident racism.” Yet, reading many passages through today’s lens, I was struck by the irony of such praise and by a renewed sense of pride in how far we have come the past 50 years.

Steinbeck believed in racial equality. He railed against segregation. His words sang with a sincerity I believed. At the same time, some of his expressions made me wince when measuring them against today’s standards of racism.

With regard to the environment, Steinbeck’s prose reflected a man who loved nature and wild places, who championed the preservation of forests and wildlife. Indeed, he was. On the other hand, he viewed those places through the narrow view of a mid-20th century outdoorsman. He didn’t see them as ecosystems vital to mankind’s survival, but rather as playgrounds vital to man’s amusement.

In one passage, he extolled “modern designs for easy living” that made his forays into nature more convenient and enjoyable. “On my boat I had discovered aluminum, disposable cooking utensils, frying pans and deep dishes. You fry a fish and throw the pan overboard.” In another passage, he described camping in the Mohave Desert and setting two coyotes in his rifle sights. “Coyotes are vermin. They steal chickens. They must be killed. They are the enemy,” he wrote. It broke my heart, even though I know that was common, accepted belief in his day.

This memoir smashed the rose-colored glasses through which I viewed my literary hero. That doesn’t mean I no longer admire Steinbeck’s writing and storytelling talents. In fact, it may have deepened my appreciation of his work now that I have a deeper understanding for the real-life man behind the author persona. If you’re a fan of Steinbeck, or if you’re interested in learning more about life in 1960s America, this is a worthwhile and entertaining read.

* If you decide to purchase Travels with Charley using the button above, a portion of the sale will support indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Nonfiction Book for a Nervous Planet

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is a fabulous read for anyone feeling unsettled, stressed out or anxious. In other words, pretty much everyone. It’s a small book packed with wisdom in bite-sized pieces – some sections are a few pages, others are a few paragraphs, or a poem, or a short list of things like “5 reasons to be happy you are human and not a sentient robot.”

Haig experiences anxiety, panic attacks and depression. His books – both fiction and nonfiction – tackle issues of mental health with the humility and insight of someone who has been there. In Notes, he applies research, wit and a touch of humor in exploring the complexities and ironies of modern-day life.

He waxes both poetic and philosophic on topics like “the big picture” and “internet anxieties,” as well as the “shock of the news” and “phone fears.” He offers thoughts on sleep, wanting, despair, happiness, self-image and transcendence. Haig doesn’t tell you what to do or that everything is OK. He does offer ways to help you get a handle on your life, to take control in small ways, to make things less-bad. He also offers hope that life can be OK, maybe even be better than OK.

Some reviewers lamented the repetitive nature of the book. It’s true, Haig does repeat certain points and ideas multiple times. That’s part of the book’s beauty.  He keeps reminding you (gently, prudently, clearly) of important things that are so easy to forget.

I marked dozens of passages and pages so that I can return to them later. One section in particular hit me right between the eyes: Algorithms Eat Empathy. In two succinct pages, Haig explains how algorithms can make our lives easier and, seemingly, make us happier. When we shop online, we are shown things we may like, things “people like us” buy. Easy-peasy. On social media, we’re shown lists of people who are like the people we already follow. More people like us. Great.

“We are encouraged to stay in our zone and play it safe,” Haig writes, “because the internet companies know that on average most people generally like to listen and read and watch and eat and wear the kind of stuff they have already listened to and read and watched and eaten and worn.”

This new ease of getting and doing stuff has only been possible in the past two decades or so. Think about that. For thousands of years before, Haig explains, “We had to go out and compromise and deal with people who weren’t like us. With things that weren’t like the things we liked. And it was horrid. But now it might be even worse. Now we might end up utterly hating anyone who doesn’t think like us…. People with similar views end up falling out, unable to stomach even the slightest difference of opinion, until they are trapped in a little echo chamber of one, reading a million versions of the same book, listening to the same song, and retweeting their own opinions until the end of time.”

No wonder we’re all so stressed out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is still so new. We still have time to take control of it. Haig reminds us that we are humans (which, per the list referenced previously, is something to be happy about). We can resist being confined. The internet can be our ally. It can be what we want it to be. “We just have to make sure that we – not the technology, not the designers and engineers able to manipulate our every mood – are the ones doing the choosing.”

Well said.

Here are few more sections and lines from the book that spoke to me:

  • Future Tense details out how we are not encouraged to live in the present. Starting with Kindergarten, we’re taught “to think of the future, of a time different to the time we are in. Exam time. Job time. When-we-are-grown-up time. To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. The act of learning… is an end in itself. It is a way to love living right now.”
  • In a one-paragraph entry about happiness, titled Maybe, Haig proposes several ideas. Among them…

“Maybe happiness is not about us, as individuals. Maybe it is not something that arrives into us. Maybe happiness is about what we already have. Maybe happiness is about what we can give…” ~@matthaig1 #NotesOnANervousPlanet #bookreview

  • Finally, I leave you with this. A section under the heading Fiction is Freedom. “Reading isn’t important because it helps you get a job. It’s important because it give you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.”

* If you decide to purchase Matt Haig’s book, consider using the Bookshop.org link below. A portion of sales at the site helps support indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Book Recommendation – Simon the Fiddler

Paulette Jiles has secured her place among my list of favorite authors with her latest novel, Simon the Fiddler. Set in Texas, 1865, the book paints an evocative picture of life in the young, rough-edged state at the conclusion of the Civil War. It tells the tale of 23-year-old Simon Boudlin, an ambitious Kentucky fiddle player, and “the ragtag band of musicians with whom he travels ,” as well as the lovely Irish immigrant who captures his heart.

I loved Jiles’ novel News of the World for its economy; it’s similar to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (one of my all-time favorites) in the way it delivers richly-drawn multi-dimensional characters and a dramatic story with so few words. Both are slim novels – at roughly 200 pages each in their first edition hardcover formats – that pack a powerful punch.

Simon the Fiddler captivated me for different reasons. It could have been equally potent at 200 pages. Yet, Jiles flexed her descriptive muscles, filling another 150 pages with details of time and place, poverty and longing, music and love. While some readers may be put off by her lyrical and often lengthy description, I was transported. It was an unhurried deeply-satisfying read packed with fully-realized, endearing characters.

In describing Galveston immediately following the Civil War, Jiles wrote, “The lamps in the saloons burned coal oil or whale oil, the beams overhead creaked in the wind of the Gulf, the streets were incandescent under the gas lamps. Sometimes bats streaked through the white light, moths danced in a city of seagulls and scarred buildings.”

Simon loved music and hated cities. He dreamed of owning land near a river.

“There would be a spring of clear water and around it great pecan trees, deer would bed down in the post-oak mottes at night. Wild horses would tread the smoking earth in dimly seen caravans, the breath of the great brown buffalo drifting white in the winter air.”

These are just two examples from a book brimming with evocative description and a strong sense of place, which secured its 5-star rating from me. If you enjoy historical fiction that immerses you in expressive, detail-packed passages that make you slow down and go back to reread them, pick up a copy of Simon the Fiddler. If you prefer a faster-paced read that stirs emotion, News of the World is a fabulous choice.

* If you decide to purchase either of Jiles’ novels, check out Bookshop.org at the links below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.


Literary Novel Portrays Life with Huntington’s Disease

Reading novels enables us to understand and feel the thoughts and experiences of another person. Fiction, if it is done well, transports the reader to the fictional character’s world and life. Author Malorie Blackman puts it this way, “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

An excellent example of this is Anne Pete’s new novel, The Speed of Life, about a woman coping with the fallout of her Huntington’s Disease (HD) diagnosis. HD is a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities – usually striking in one’s 30s or 40s – and has no cure. May is National HD Awareness Month, the perfect time to read this heartrending, insightful and, ultimately, inspiring novel.

There currently are about 41,000 symptomatic Americans living with HD, according to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA). More than 200,000 are at-risk of inheriting it. HD manifests as a triad of motor, cognitive and psychiatric symptoms, which progressively get worse over time. Its symptoms are often described as having ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases simultaneously. It’s hard to imagine the impact that can have on the lives of people with the disease and of the people who love and care for them.

Pete’s novel sheds transcendent light on those lives with sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace. The story enables you to walk in the shoes of a women coming to terms with a past she tried to ignore and a future she never anticipated.  Please read my full review of The Speed of Life, and consider downloading the ebook at Amazon or your favorite ebook retailer.

May is #HuntingtonsDisease Awareness Month. @AnnePeteAuthor’s novel, THE SPEED OF LIFE, brings sensitivity, authenticity and literary grace to the realities of living with HD. #LetsTalkAboutHD #ReadingFostersEmpathy

If you read The Speed of Life, please share your thoughts about it in the comments below.

To learn more about Huntington’s Disease, visit www.HDSA.org online and follow #LetsTalkAboutHD and #HDSAfamily on social media.


Historical Fiction Makes Us Feel

Novelist Susan Vreeland said, “Historical fiction makes us feel. It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.” Wise words. In the spirit of that statement, the following historical novels show the human side of history exceedingly well. They make us feel.

  • The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
  • Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
  • The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman
  • Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez