Book Review: Chasing Butterflies in the Magical Garden by Jorja DuPont Oliva

chasing butterfliesMagic in the Power of Friendship

Chasing Butterflies in the Magical Garden, by Jorja DuPont Oliva is a narrative about life’s disappointments and losses, and about the power of friendship and love to heal. It is a unique and at times enchanting look at the friendship between two women that alternates between realism and a kind of fairytale/magical realism that some readers may have difficulty getting used to. This is not a plot filled with twists and turns and surprises – but it is a charming look at a small town in the south and about how a heartbroken young woman named Lizzie learns to recover her strength through connections with others and with the world around her.

Ms. Oliva’s writing style is deceptively simple but contains a great deal of wisdom, especially about the expectations placed upon young women and about the healing power of connection. You will not find in-depth character studies or intellectual musings in Chasing Butterflies in the Magical Garden but readers willing to be taken on a slightly magical and ultimately moving journey will find the trip worth it.

From the Book Description:

Chasing Butterflies in the Magical Garden, is a story of enchanting friendships and magical bonds. After following her first love to the foothills of the Carolina’s, Lizzy returns to her small southern town to start a life without her childhood sweetheart. Everything she imagined her life would be, now veered off in a different direction. The biggest fear of it all, the unknown, the anticipation of a life not yet imagined. Lizzy goes in search of her identity and finds the lasting power of friendship. Lizzy’s childhood friend Ripley, reunites her with a former high school classmate Dee, who had been rumored to talk to the dead. Dee and her magical garden take Lizzy for the ride of a lifetime. She opens Lizzy’s eyes to the existence of everyday magic. Dee teaches Lizzy that life is not solely about living, it is also about surviving. Lizzy and Dee are both in search of butterflies in the magical garden–we call life. To each girl, the butterflies mean something different. They learn along the way, if we look beyond the things we cannot see, we may find what we are looking for.

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About the Author

book-two-author-picture_editedJorja Dupont Oliva is a small business owner, wife, mother and animal lover. Love of reading and writing. Believes in hope and all good things life has to offer. She says that family, food and friends keep her motivated.find me on facebookAuthor Website

Book Review – Sister Maple Syrup Eyes by Ian Brennan

The Reverberations of Sexual Assault in the Story of One Man

THIS BOOK CONTAINS GRAPHIC SCENES OF SEXUAL ASSAULT.

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In the preface to Sister Maple Syrup Eyes, which will be released in September, 2015, author Ian Brennan briefly shares his experiences as the partner of a woman who was raped. He goes on to explain that the purpose of his book is to examine the toll sexual assault takes on the partner of a woman who was raped, and he clearly states that he does not mean to equate the impact of sexual assault on the primary victim with the impact sexual assault has on the people who love the primary victim. Those caveats aside, Mr. Brennan should be applauded for taking on a topic this controversial.

Told in short snippets of scenes – almost short poems, we learn the story of Kristian and Dawn. They’re both damaged in their own ways – in fact, they first meet at a hospital after Dawn has been beaten by her boyfriend and Kristian is the nurse who cares for her. Kristian cares for her as a nurse and then as a person and winds up taking her home with him. The first third of the story is a poetic, haunting description of falling in love, devotion,  and what it feels like to find the person you think you’re meant to be with. As the relationship progresses, they have a child, Jo.

The scenes gradually change – the couple’s child is terminally ill, there is addiction. Ruptures appear in what seemed like the perfect relationship.

When Dawn is sexually assaulted by someone both she and Kristian know, by someone that Kristian has introduced her to, the relationship begins to fall apart. How does a couple deal with a sexual assault and a daughter dying of leukemia simultaneously? Brennan writes:

syrup 1

Kristian becomes adrift, especially after his daughter dies. Dawn has moved on from the relationship, be he cannot. He flees from the emotional by trying to understand the rape intellectually, and his preoccupation grows. He recounts a series of incidents involving rape – the rape of other women he’s known, the reactions of strangers to rape scenes in movie theaters, the prevalence of rape generally. It is clear that sexual assault preoccupies him and has become both the greatest heartbreak in his life and his reason for existing. He is consumed and obsessed both with the loss of his relationship with Dawn and with the violence that he blames for it.  The novella ends with another brief scene in which he seems adrift and no longer able to find his place in the world.

In one of the last references to Dawn, Kristian contemplates her loss:

syrup 2

This is a deeply affecting work that expresses love and loss powerfully and with an almost unbearable sadness. There are no answers here – merely passing scenes of a man’s life falling apart as he longs for what he had and lost. Issues of caretaking, codependency, and responsibility are not explored. They are perhaps implied, but this is a work more concerned with description than with introspection. It is uncommonly good at that- the short chapters are momentary glimpses into the lives of two people, and yet the images Brennan conjures are haunting and stay with the reader long after the reading is done. Sister Maple Syrup Eyes is a beautiful book. Achingly beautiful. What it tells us about the facts and figures of sexual assault rape is slight and what it has to say about the inner life of the rape victim is almost non-existent. And yet, in the story of one man’s reaction to sexual assault, Sister Maple Syrup Eyes may say volumes about the profound impact that sexual violence has on all of us, even those who have never experienced it first hand.

About Ian Brennan

ian brennanIan Brennan is a GRAMMY-winning producer with three GRAMMY-nominated records (Best World Music- 2011, Best Traditional Folk-2006 and 2007).

In the studio, he has worked with the likes of Kyp Malone & Tunde Adebimpe (TV on the Radio), Flea, Tinariwen, Lucinda Williams, David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Nels Cline (Wilco), DJ Bonebrake & John Doe (X, the Knitters), Jovanotti, Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney), Bill Frisell, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jonathan Richman, Richard Thompson, and more. He has produced live-shows of up to 15,000 people in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington (DC), Portland (OR), Tucson, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Boston with artists as diverse as Green Day, Fugazi, Merle Haggard, film-maker John Waters, Kris Kristofferson, Tammy Faye, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Vic Chesnutt, Peaches, and the Vienna Boys Choir.

His benefit concerts have raised over $100,000 for local charities and political causes. Additionally, he created the “Live Nude Bands” benefit game-show, hosted a weekly free performance in a San Francisco laundromat for five straight years that resulted in three “Unscrubbed” CD compilations, wrote a local-music column for ZERO magazine from 1998-2001, directed the weekly cable-access show “Squawk” documenting the Bay Area arts community, created the first “Boxing Bush” online video-game, spearheaded the “MIllion Band March” (protesting misuse of artist’s living-spaces by developers), booked the music for “Food Not Bombs” 20th anniversary free-show in Dolores Park, was instrumental in pioneering the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur as a music-venue by bringing the first national touring acts there in 2001 (Loudon Wainwright III, Jello Biafra, et al), and had a recurring monthly guest-appearance for years on Derk Richardson’s “Here and Now” program on public-radio giant, KPFA. Also, he released nine solo albums, beginning in the pre-historic, vinyl-only days of 1987. A published poet (the “Fineline Thunder” anthology and Agape Magazine), he is the author of the books “Anger Antidotes: How Not to Lose Your S#&!” (2011) and Hate-less: How to make friends with a f&#!ed up world (2014).

He was born in Oakland, CA and raised in the far east-bay.

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Book Review – The Garden of Unfortunate Souls

Literary Fiction The Garden of Unfortunate Souls

Tragic Tale of Two Families Probes the Impact of Class and Violence

The Garden of Unfortunate Souls, by Eddie Mark

Loretta Ford and her pre-teen son, Shadrack, live in the fruit belt, a neighborhood that was once the home of Buffalo’s thriving middle class African American community but has long since been transformed by neglect and poverty into a shell of its former self. When the mayor’s son smashes his car into Loretta’s home one rainy night, events are set into motion that force her out of the world she has constructed for herself – a parochial world of fantasy, religion and control.  The collision, both literal and figurative, with a powerful family turns the eccentric single mother’s world upside down and shows her just how powerless she is.

Mark, who is an award-winning writer of short stories, is an expert storyteller whose prose, subject matter, and characters are reminiscent of John Steinbeck. The Garden of Unfortunate Souls is an impressive debut whose characters are multi-layered and, above all real in the sense that they are neither heroes nor villains. Rather, they are heroes AND villains. Every protagonist here is guilty of abuse of some kind, yet Mark writes them with compassion and with a thoughtfulness that gently leads the reader to examine the root causes of the abuse and then to an examination of abuse and violence on a larger scale: the abuse of power, the violence of poverty and the pernicious effects of inequality.

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About the Author

Eddie MarkEddie Mark is a writer, researcher, educator, and former city chess champion of Buffalo, New York. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Educational Administration at the University of Toronto. His prize-winning short stories have appeared in the Hart House Review and the anthology Bloodlines: Tales from the African Diaspora. The Garden of Unfortunate Souls is his first published novel.

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Featured Book: Growth, A Novel

growth treePersonal Growth Through Loss

Growth, by Troy S. Gamble is a novel about the rise and fall and rise of one Peter Copeland, middle-aged insurance case reviewer. Convinced by a love interest that he can become a great poet, Peter throws away his old life and takes a chance on literary fame and fortune. His road to poetic success turns out to be a rocky one.

Burdened with debt and on the verge of giving up, Peter’s fortunes take a turn for the better when the world economy’s fortunes are failing. Through a circuitous set of circumstances and chances, he finds that his dreams are beginning to come true. Though not, perhaps, in the way he expected.

Growth is a story about chances taken and chances lost and about the wisdom that can be gained through hardship. A sweeping work of philosophical fiction, it is a thought provoking and often poetic look at the illusory nature of success.

From Inside the Book

Family, house, job – everything went to the dogs when a student girlfriend convinced Peter Copeland, an ageing insurance case reviewer, that he, in his very late forties, still had a chance to become someone else, namely a great poet.

Three years later Peter is alone, penniless, paralysed with anguish and apathy and bombarded with unpaid bills and eviction notes. Against all odds he continues with his pursuits and very soon, to his complete surprise, finds himself on the other side of his life among people bizarre, dazzling and dangerous, in the middle of a huge financial turmoil which threatens the very foundations of the modern economy.

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About the Author

Troy S. GambleTroy S. Gamble was born out of a bet. His uncle, also Troy and also Gamble but G., made a bet with his brother Draymond that Draymond couldn’t get Troy’s mother (that is, the mother of yet unborn Troy S. Gamble and not the mother of Troy G. Gamble, Draymond G. Gamble and Minnie Furshow, née Gamble as well) into bed in a week. Later Troy S. Gamble worked as a shop assistant, a salesman for a plastic surgery supplies company and a representative of the Raymond Roussel’s literary estate in Canada. He also owned his own microbrewery, briefly. He was entirely self-educated. He started writing late in life and to date produced a novel and several blog posts of various length.

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Book Review – We Could Fall

We Could Fall Literary Romance

A Literary Romance About Mid-Life Choices

We Could Fall, by Kate Moschandreas

Emmy is a 42-year old psychotherapist. Married. A mom. We Could Fall is the story of one pivotal month in her life. A month in which she learns that her husband doesn’t want the divorce Emmy thought they had agreed to, the famous actor who is her psychotherapy client is in love with her, and, surprisingly, she may be in love with him. Yet this is not a romance novel in the traditional sense.  Though the story line follows the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, throughout the novel,  author Kate Moschandreas is as concerned with portraying Emmy’s inner life as she is with the romantic details. On one level, the tension in the story comes from the choice between two men that Emmy must make, but on another, more satisfying level, it is about the heroine’s choice between the life she is leading and the one she thinks she may be able to have. Will Emmy allow her self-doubt and fears about the consequences of her actions paralyze her into staying in an unhappy but familiar situation or will she take a leap of faith into the Emmy that could be?

The creation of three-dimensional, complex characters who remain real in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished is one of the more mysterious aspects of writing fiction. Author Cory Doctorow has said, about creating his characters, “they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up.” Moschandreas is a first-time author who, in her biography, relates the story of a snippet of dialogue that popped into her head one day and eventually morphed into an entire story and then a novel, almost as though the characters already existed and just needed their story told. That is how the characters here feel – engaging, relatable and real. We Could Fall shows Kate Moschandreas’ remarkable ability to tell the stories of her characters’ complex emotions imaginatively and beautifully.

We Could Fall by Kate Moschandreas

Book Review – The Earthquake Doll

Tradition and Change in the Story of a Young Girl in Post-War Japan

The Earthquake Doll Literary FictionThe Earthquake Doll, by Candace Williams

Miyoko is a 16 year old girl in 1950s Japan. Both she and the country she lives in are on the verge of a new era: Miyoko is about to become a woman and Japan is about to take the leap into modernity. But first, both will have to face the traditions and mores of their pasts. This is a truly extraordinary story, told very simply but with grace and a great deal of empathy, about how the past shapes all of our futures.earthquake doll

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Miyoko must work for an American family in order to help her own family survive. The United States’ occupation of Japan lasted from 1945 until 1952 and, under General Douglas Macarthur, broad political and social reforms that shook the island kingdom to its core were enacted. As Miyoko comes into contact with Western ideas and culture, so too does her entire country. Both are experiencing seismic changes that are hard to internalize and grapple with. For Miyoko, these “earthquakes” mean that she is learning to feel her own agency for the first time. She begins to question traditional gender roles and the arranged marriage that she was never consulted about, and to question whether the shame that will be brought to her family if she refuses to marry is truly her responsibility.

“The Earthquake Doll” is a sensitive, lovely portrait of the effects of world events on one person. Through the story of Miyoko we feel the pain of Japan’s transformation. And through the story of Japan’s transformation, we understand the shift and growth and ultimate flowering of one young woman.

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About the Author

candace williams Candace Williams is a first time author who wrote “The Earthquake Doll” because she had always wondered about the lives of the two young women who worked for her family on a military base in Hokkaido, Japan, in the early 1950’s. About the women the novel is based on, Williams says, “I have no way of knowing what happened to them, but my novel explores likely scenarios. Theirs was the first generation of women to suddenly have individual rights. It’s a fascinating historical period.”

Candace Williams lives in Texas, with her husband and two rescued Italian Greyhounds. She is working on her next novel, a contemporary mystery. For more information, visit her website.


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Book Review – The Pool Boy’s Beatitude

 The Inner Life of an Outer Mess

 The word “compelling” is, perhaps, the most overused in the book reviewer’s arsenal. But it is hard to think of a better one to describe D.J. Swykert’s novel “The Pool Boy’s Beatitude.” Captivating, hard to stop reading, and intense, this is the story of a classic underachiever. Jack Joseph is the poster child for the phrase “too smart for his own good.” He has an advanced degree in physics and no shortage of intricate thoughts and conversations with himself about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life. What Jack doesn’t have is a clue as to how to actually live life.  His marriage is failing due, in large part, to his unwillingness to confront his problematic drinking. He is involved in several sexual relationships with women who are married, his boss, or both. And his work, as a pool cleaner, is less than satisfying. He is, in short, out of control.

Juxtaposed with Jack’s careening around in his outer life, his inner life is full of complicated musings about everything from particle physics to religion to sex. The bulk of the book, in fact, takes place inside of Jack’s head. But before that scares you off (if the physics hasn’t already) the inside of Jack’s head is a fascinating place to be. On the outside, he is the classic charmer but on the inside, there is a great deal of depth, and author Swykert does a masterful job of imbuing his character with an inner life that keeps the reader involved and liking him.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Jack uses his complicated inner thoughts as just another way to avoid life. They are not so very different from the alcohol he drinks too much of: they are an escape, albeit a much more entertaining one for the reader. What Jack needs is something or someone to pull him out of his head. And, indeed, just such a someone appears, in the form of a married woman who is embroiled in her own life complications. Will she save Jack? Well, no. Will she help Jack figure out how to save himself? Well, maybe. Rather than a happy ending, “The Pool Boy’s Beatitude” presents hints of a hopeful ending.  In what is, from start to finish, a very clever book, perhaps the most clever and provocative word is in the title. Beatitude can have many meanings. Does it refer to the mystical, proverb-like meandering sin Jack’s mind that are reminiscent of the beatitudes of Jesus? Or does Beatitude, in this context, refer to a state of being blessed and the grace that seems to find Jack near the end of the novel?  That is one of the many things you will be thinking about long after you finish this uncommonly worthwhile novel.

Book Review – Three Seasons

Three Stories of England in the Eighties

Three Seasons by Mike Robbins HeaderMike Robbins’ “Three Seasons” is a collection of three novellas whose main connection is the place and time in which they are set: England in the 1980’s, a decade of particular flux and instability. Ushered in with the election of conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (in 1979) the 80’s in England were a time of enormous social and political change. Think race riots, the death of punk and rise of New Wave, massive strikes and union struggles, and high unemployment.

“Three Seasons,” however, is not about politics nor is it directly about social upheaval. It contains the stories of three men whose only connection is that they are living in England at the same time. Each short novel offers a snapshot into their lives and each does something that many longer novels attempt but do not achieve:  tell the stories of individuals while capturing the ethos of a particular time. Indeed, that ethos is integral to the stories here, though it is never directly referenced.

“Spring” is about a middle aged man who feels as though he’s at the end of life or at least that life no longer has much to offer him.  “Summer” sees a young man trying to make his fortune in real estate and “Autumn” is about a professor forced to look at his past by the events of his present. In that way, the novellas, as a whole, are able to evoke what a turning point the 1980’s were in England. A character who is stuck, a character moving forward without a thought for how his actions impact others and a character ruminating on what things were like years before are stand-ins for the climate and mood of the time.

That the three novellas are so evocative is due in large part to Robbins’ ability to craft characters who are dimensional, complicated and engaging. These three men from are, in some ways, reminiscent George Babbitt, the Sinclair Lewis protagonist who came to symbolize a particular type of American man in the 1920’s. Not in terms of the when and where – Robbins’ characters have very little in common with Babbitt – but in their ability to embody the particular spirit and atmosphere of a time and place. Reading “Three Seasons” allows the reader to experience a moment when England was embarking on enormous change through the stories of three ordinary English men.  It is not overstating to say that the ability to write absorbing stories with multi-dimensional characters while simultaneously creating such a strong sense of an era is the sign of a great deal of talent.

Three Seasons by Mike Robbins

About Mike Robbins

Mike RobbinsMike Robbins is a former journalist and development worker who, in addition to “Three Seasons,” has written 2 travel memoirs, a novel and a scientific book on climate change. He has lived and volunteered all over the world: from Sudan to Bhutan to Syria, Belgium and Italy. He was born and grew up in England and currently lives in New York, NY.

Other Books by Mike Robbins

even the dead are coming the nine horizons The Lost Baggage of Sylvia Guzman

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The Big Wide Calm, by Rich Marcello

The Big Wide Calm by Rich Marcello Talented young musician Paige Plant is on a quest to create the perfect album of 12 songs that will save the world, make people cry and make her famous.  She has everything in place…everything she needs for her album except a big break.  That break seems to have landed on her doorstep when former singer/songwriter John Bustin offers to let her live in his recording studio and cut her album. But there’s a hitch: John hates her songs.  He think she has huge potential but tells her the songs have to go. Despite the gap in their ages, life experiences and points of view, the two team up romantically as well as creatively and Paige is forced to confront her true feelings…the feelings beneath the songs…in order to craft new songs for her album. Bustin is her guide through the process that he calls tapping into the Big Wide Calm.  But as their relationship develops, Paige learns about John’s past and helps him confront his dark secrets from long ago, secrets that could destroy their partnership.

The Big Wide Calm is the middle novel of a planned  trilogy about the many forms and types of love. The first was The Color of Home, about a long-term romantic relationship’s trials and tribulations. The last of the three, The Beauty of the Fall, will be published in 2015. In his sophomore novel, Marcello has created a fascinating and complicated heroine and that many, if not most, readers will empathize with.  This is a coming of age tale hard copy The Big Wide Calm hard copy The Color of Homeabout growth and self awareness  and it is also a real world love story about the messier sides of romantic attachment.  In the end, it’s a novel about the power of human connection and trust.

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Rich_Marcello (1)Author Rich Marcello

Rich Marcello says that if he could choose only one creative mentor it would be Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers. Not only because he currently resides in New England, where Richmond also started, but because of his life as a
contemporary fiction author, poet and songwriter, whose literary inspiration often stems from songs he’s written. Rich grew up in New Jersey and as involved with music from an early age.  His love for technology, however, took him down a differen road and he became an executive in the tech sector.  His artistic side never left him and he continued to write and create music even when working in another field. Finally, his love of the arts compelled him to make writing a full-time job. As for creating such a vibrant female character in The Big Wide Calm, Marcello says, “I spent a great deal of time getting Paige’s voice to the point where I felt like she was real. Once I had her voice, then I just wrote the story the way Paige would have experienced it.”

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The Bright Fish by J.J. Ward

the bright fishHaunted by The Bright Fish

Can a book be scary/creepy, haunting, disturbing, poetic and romantic all at the same time?  Apparently so. Like the fish in its title, there is something about The Bright Fish…starting with the cover…that is hard to resist, even when you want to.  There were times while reading it when I was almost overwhelmed with the eeriness of it all, but curiosity about where the story would go next combined with a real affection for the 2 main characters (as well as some of the eccentric minor ones) made me stay and keep reading.

The book is about many things – romantic love, connection, life, and death, told through the voice of Hugo, a 20-year-old who has won a cruise on The Aurora and has brought his girlfriend, with whom he is very much in love, along with him.  Their innocence and attachment to each other is set in stark contrast to the unnerving and disturbing events that are about to unfold about The Aurora.

The sense of foreboding that underpins this book begins on the very first page, when we find the couple confined to their cabin by order of the ship’s captain because of the sudden death of a fellow passenger.  Whether this passenger is actually alive, dead or somewhere in between later becomes a very real question as the couple become immersed in the disturbing atmosphere aboard the Aurora.  I will not give away any plot details, except to say that throughout the voyage, the young lovers and their shipmates are followed by a group of brightly colored fish that will not leave the waters beside the Aurora.  There is something both ominous and hypnotic about the fish. As they continue to shadow the ship, the events on board become darker and darker, and the bright fish come to have a greater meaning.

One of the descriptions I read of this book classified it as “paranormal” and while that is technically true, this is not a ghost story or thriller in the vein of a traditional paranormal thriller, like “The Amityville Horror”.   The paranormal is used here, I think, more symbolically, not as a device to move the plot forward.  That said, you cannot help but have a sense of foreboding and lingering sadness while reading it.  This is a beautifully written, lyrical novel and highly recommended.

About the Author

J.J. WardJ.J. Ward writes espionage thrillers, romantic fiction, philosophy and poetry. He believes that commercial genres have warped people’s thinking about fiction generally. “I think they exist so readers can be easily manipulated and milked, and they also – in some of their forms – perpetuate sexism. Any good story has elements of most, if not all, genres.” He hopes men & women will read, and enjoy, what he has written in equal numbers.

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the bright fish