A Curse That Bites Deep

You all will recall my reviews of The Fever and The Mossback Cafe Cookbook by Thomas Fenske. SO good! Well, I finally finished his latest, A Curse That Bites Deep, and now I can’t wait for book 3!!!

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Much like when I read The Fever, I thought the beginning of the book was nice and steady – I was happy to read a chapter or two in a sitting and come back when I had more time. This, unfortunately, coincided with the birth of my now nine-month-old baby, and I took a looooooong break from reading it. So, in the mood for fiction, I picked it up again a week or so ago. Again, like The Fever, but better(!), the story picks up partway through. I binge-read the rest of the book over two nights, staying up way too late to finish. The kids get up at 6… I get up with the baby lots of times in the night…sleep is crucial. And I sacrificed sleep to read this book! I DON’T do that anymore.

I loved in The Fever how the characters and story were so real. That same authenticity carries through in A Curse That Bites Deep. The story is rounded out and made believable by the nuances of the characters, and the author presents so much life wisdom through them. In one scene, for instance, Sam reflects on his life as he washes dishes at The Mossback, noting that “his life was a tradeoff” in which he balanced pursuing the mine and his relationship with Smidgeon (15). Isn’t life full of tradeoffs for all of us? Life requires constant assessment and reassessment of priorities and how well our actions align with those priorities. Sometimes we do well, and sometimes we don’t. Sam experiences this same reality throughout the book.

Another “real” moment that I love, probably because I’m Catholic, is Fenske’s portrayal of Smidgeon’s relationship with the Catholic faith she was brought up in. Through Smidgeon and her respect for the Church and its sacraments, Fenske very powerfully conveys the loving reality the Church teaches. Due to life choices at odds with Church teaching, Smidgeon is unable to participate in the sacraments, particularly the reception of Holy Communion. She tells Sam, “I can’t fully participate but…well, you know, it doesn’t mean I can’t be a part of the church family” (45). This is so beautiful and powerful – it speaks a truth that is often misunderstood by those inside and outside the Church, and it felt nice to read it so simply put in an otherwise-nonreligious book.

So these are the kind of things I enjoyed in the “slower” part of the book.

And THEN. Oh my. The action starts! I don’t want to give away too much of the story, so I won’t get into details. I will say this, though – I was surprised a LOT, which was fun. I mean, I knew there had to be bad stuff going on — it’s about a curse, after all — but there was so much I didn’t see coming and I really enjoyed that. I’d have these moments of shock and just have to keep reading. Accidental deaths, murders, arson, ghosts! All revolving around a gold mine in west Texas, of course. I figured out the identity of the villain well in advance of when it was definitively revealed, but even that didn’t keep me from being surprised by the action.

All-in-all, it was a fun read – surprising and compelling and yet also reflective of so many realities.

Five stars!

Munchkin Monday Book Review, a day late: Oliver and Jumpy, Stories 43-45, by Werner Stejskal

Product Details

Is this your first encounter with Oliver and Jumpy? Yes? Then let me tell you about them. Oliver is an elegant tomcat, and Jumpy is his best friend. They are always on the lookout for new adventures together. Oliver lives in a treehouse on the mighty oak tree. He is the most famous cat in the country. Oliver and Jumpy have already been in many illustrated stories and new ones are being published all the time. (Author’s introduction to the series)

Author Werner Stejskal has written nearly 50 children’s stories about Oliver the tomcat and his best friend, Jumpy, all published as e-books. The book containing stories 43-45 was my first encounter with his work. As always with kids’ books, I read them aloud to my kids (2.5 and 5 next week!) because I feel like an adult-only review of a children’s book is just silly – of course, it matters what I think as a mother, but it’s essential to see a kid’s reaction to a book in order to really judge its worth. So, one day I sat down on my bed with my kids and my Kindle and we read the stories. Here’s a brief synopsis of each story:

Story #43, Flying Carpet: Oliver and Jumpy travel to Africa (probably Egypt, given the references to the pyramids and the sphinx) to rescue a princess in trouble. When they get there, they’re given a magic, flying carpet that takes them exactly where they need to go to help the princess meet her prince.

Story #44, Birthday Party: Oliver’s friends throw him a surprise birthday party, with paid singers, elephant rides, and a mud-ball fight. He thinks it’s the best birthday ever!

Story #45, Magic Berries: Jumpy eats magic berries that change his size. In order to change back to normal, he has to complete a quest without succumbing to any of the temptations along the way: free ice cream, hot dogs, and soft drinks.

All in all, I was underwhelmed by the books. They were fine – they’re short, and engaging enough, but I feel like (except for maybe #45) they generally lack a message. I like to learn from what I read, and I like the same for my kids. I also don’t particularly care for how often Oliver points out how well-known he is… sort of a “look how great I am!” attitude that I don’t particularly want my kids to adopt. On the plus side, the illustrations pair really well with the stories, which is really nice, and the stories are generally harmless entertainment.

What did the kids think? It’s hard to tell. Honestly, I think they were much more interested in getting to “turn the page” on my Kindle than they were in the stories. I’m not sure if that’s just because they’d never used a Kindle before (I never let them touch it!), but they also have never asked me about the stories again (not even to have a chance to touch the Kindle again). So, I’d say their verdict is pretty similar to mine.

So, three stars. Generally fine, nothing to rave about but not bad, either. That said, I don’t think I’m a fan of e-books for young kids. Maybe I’ll change my mind as my five-year-old gets older and reads more on her own, but for now…we’ll stick to paper.

*This book is currently available on Amazon for free. I obtained my free copy of the book for the purpose of reviewing, at the request of the author.

Book Review: Cape May by Holly Caster

Cape May by [Caster, Holly]

Spoiler Alert – This review includes some spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read past the second paragraph.

When author Holly Caster contacted me and asked me to review her novel Cape May, I was interested mostly because I’m from New Jersey and I welcomed the opportunity to read a little about Cape May, even fiction. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever been there (maybe I’ve passed through once?), but my parents and my sister and her husband enjoy spending time there, usually staying at a small bed and breakfast. So, that made the premise of the story even more interesting: the main character, 60-year-old Joanna, seeks a change, planning to move from New York City to Cape May to open her own bed and breakfast. Perfect, right? I thought so. I was less sure about the rest of the premise: in the process of pursuing her dream, she falls in love with a man who is not her husband, whom she had married on a whim—and not for love—twenty years earlier. The specter of infidelity made me slightly less interested in reading the book, but the book jacket’s description ends thus: “How will her late awakening affect the future and her three-decade relationship with [her husband] Brian?” I figured the story could go either way – Joanna could choose rightly or wrongly; the idea that she would remain faithful to her husband seemed just as plausible as her choosing infidelity. So, I said yes and agreed to read the book.

The result? Mixed. On the first count, regarding reading about Cape May, I definitely enjoyed the description of the town, the old houses and bed-and-breakfasts, and just generally reading about being in a “Seaside Resort,” as the author terms it on the book jacket. It made me miss living by the beach, and I could practically hear, smell, and taste the ocean while I read about Michael showing Joanna around Cape May.

BUT.

My lingering overall impression of the book is just sadness. No, heartache. The novel’s central characters experience such profound heartache, most of it inflicted by those close to them, that I just felt—and still feel—so sad. I feel sad for Joanna that she wound up unhappy in her marriage, but more sad for Brian that he wound up with a selfish, unfaithful spouse. I can find no room in my heart to be happy for Joanna and Michael as they embark on a life together, living Joanna’s dream of running her own bed and breakfast. None. Instead I just feel disgust for them.

It’s unfortunate that I wound up disliking the story so much, because the writing is great. The story is engaging and emotional – I literally had tears rolling down my cheeks when I read it (and I don’t think it’s because I was newly pregnant…though it could be). I cried for all of the characters as they navigate their unfortunate circumstances: Joanna, for her adolescent mistakes, for her decision to settle with Brian, for her indecision and heartache when she becomes involved with Michael. For Brian, and for Michael, as Joanna’s indecision drags each of their hearts through the ringer. And for much more. It’s just so, so sad what people do to one another, intentionally or not, as they navigate life and love. I also just have a really hard time reading (especially fictional) accounts of people making such bad choices…

In any case, this book gets 3 stars. Usually 3 stars means “it was good enough/it taught me something.” My rationale in this case is basically that while I didn’t particularly care for the story, I really do think it’s an excellent piece of writing and the author deserves credit for crafting a well-written and emotionally compelling story.

**Many thanks to Holly Caster for providing a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.