The Impossible Fortress

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The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak (General Fiction)

Although this is classified as Adult General Fiction by the publisher, it is a coming-of-age story that could easily be Young Adult. The narrator is a fourteen-year-old boy in 1987, and his “impossible fortress” is both his homemade computer game and a fourteen-year-old girl.

Billy loves computer programming and he also loves TV’s Vanna White. When the latter appears on the cover of a Playboy magazine, Billy and his fellow underage buddies will go to extremes to get their own copies.Their elaborate plan is to break into the local typewriter repair shop that also sells magazines and newfangled home computers, which means they will need the security code. Billy makes friends with the owner’s daughter, Mary, in order to learn the code, not realizing that she’s a whiz at computer programming and a kindred spirit. As the attraction between them grows, he’s faced with a moral dilemma amidst increasing pressure from his friends to deliver the code. However, the story is more than the question of will he risk his budding romance for a magazine, and that makes it hard to discuss here without giving away too much.

For those who remember the 80s, Commodore 64s, or the “olden days” of early computer games, the author provides lots of authentic forays into popular music of the time and the awkwardness of early home computer technology. I thought it was over the top that the boys would undertake such a complicated plan to break and enter just for a magazine, but maybe fourteen-year-old boys are that desperate and that dumb or maybe it was more about the challenge of pulling it off. I also thought that Mary’s flirty programming notes to Billy seemed out of character once we learned her real situation. And, by telling us early on that Billy’s Impossible Fortress game didn’t win the competition, the author took away the tension of waiting to find out. Still, the book was enjoyable because Billy is a fun and believable narrator who made me laugh and the information about old-time computers was interesting.

Bella gives The Impossible Fortress four stars. 4 stars

Potty-mouth index: Clean

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Impossible Fortress will be released on February 7, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

 

A Bridge Across the Ocean

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A Bridge Across the Ocean by Susan Meissner (Historical Fiction)

During World War II, the luxury oceanliner Queen Mary was commandeered for transporting troops, and in 1946 it became the vessel carrying European war brides across the ocean to their American G. I. husbands in the U.S. Among those brides are Annaliese Kurtz and Simone Robinson. One is a German ballerina traveling under an assumed identity and one is the daughter and sister of French Résistance fighters. Each seeks to leave the horrors of the war years behind and start a new life.

In present time, Brette Caslake is a young woman struggling with the effects of having “the Sight,” an inherited ability to see and communicate with the ghosts of people caught between this world and the next. It’s a gift she prefers to downplay and ignore but cannot always control. When prevailed upon by an old friend to help his young daughter cope with the recent death of her mother, Brette visits the Queen Mary, now docked in Los Angeles as a floating hotel and tourist attraction. The oceanliner has a history of ghost sightings, and the child felt her mother’s presence there. But when Brette visits, the presence she feels is that of another who connects with her and wants her to solve the decades-old death of a war bride while traveling on the Queen Mary in 1946.

This fascinating tale is told from the points of view of four entities: Brette, Annaliese, Simone, and the unnamed presence on the ship that communicates with Brette. The result is a story that kept me reading when I should have been doing other things, like sleeping. The fate of each character became important to me, including that of the unknown on the ship. The very intense stories of Annaliese and Simone during World War II were vividly portrayed, providing a level of depth and understanding that made the conclusion completely believable. Brette’s fears and concerns and how they are resolved send a strong message about our need to do something meaningful with what life gives us rather than striving to control that which we cannot.

As happens with the best of historical fiction, Susan Meissner’s rich portrayal of disparate characters living in very different environments and times was an education as well as entertainment, leaving me with the satisfying sense of having spent my time wisely, even if I lost sleep.

Grandma gives A Bridge Across the Ocean five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

This book will be released by Penguin Group (USA) in March, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

Sinful Deception

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Sinful Deception by M.A. Comley and Linda Prather (Deception Series Book Two) (Crime/Suspense/Thriller)

Sinful Deception brings back Alexandra Fox, the British police detective we met in Clever Deception and Tragic Deception. She continues to work for the New York City Police Department while she pursues the Escape Artist, a serial killer who tortured and murdered Alex’s sister in England and then fled to the U.S. The Escape Artist has taken a personal interest in Alex and taunts her, telling her he will punish her if she displeases him, thereby putting her friends, co-workers, and even her beloved pets in danger. Meanwhile, a number of badly mutilated dead bodies are turning up, three of them young girls, sending Alex and her partners investigating a complicated web of crime that reaches into a number of unexpected places. Little by little, however, she’s getting closer to the Escape Artist as he becomes bolder and more dangerous.

The story is told from multiple points of view, keeping the reader involved in what’s going on in the minds of all of the major characters and moving things along at a steady pace. Comley and Prather have created believable people we care about, and this book is hard to put down. The plot has many interesting twists and turns and is clever and complex without being confusing or overwhelming.

My one concern is that I believe a reader should be able to pick up any book in a series and understand what’s going on without knowledge of what happened previously. A good example of this is David Morrell’s Ruler of the Night, a book I thoroughly enjoyed without realizing it was number three in a series. With a few months and several other books intervening since I read Tragic Deception, it took me a while to remember who was who and what their relationships were, because explanations were minimal. I was quickly absorbed by the action and moved right into the story, and the characters sorted themselves out over time, but I still don’t know what Blake Morgan did previously that landed him in prison or why he and Alex seem to be mutually interested in each other but are doing nothing about it.

Grandma gives Sinful Deception four and a half stars. 4.5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Brazilian Husband

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The Brazilian Husband by Rebecca Powell (Women’s Fiction)

The Brazilian Husband is classified as a “Romance” on Amazon, but to me this incredible book was everything but. It is a fascinating story full of secrets, suspense, and surprising revelations set against the backdrop of heartbreaking shantytowns, terrifying urban crime, natural beauty, and the resilient, exuberant people of Brazil. It kept me reading from page one, and I never wanted to put it down.

Judith is a Londoner whose husband of fifteen years has committed suicide. Together with their daughter, Rosa, she is fulfilling his request to take his ashes home to his native Brazil, a place they never managed to visit together.

Judith knew Edson was gay when she married him; it was an arranged marriage paid for by his lover, Gavin, in order to hide the men’s relationship while keeping Edson in Great Britain. What she hadn’t bargained for was the baby girl he brought with him, whom she would raise as their daughter, nor did she expect to fall in love with Edson himself.

Rosa, about to turn sixteen, blames Judith for Edson’s suicide; she doesn’t know her father was gay, nor does she know that Judith is not her natural mother. All of that changes in Brazil as they search for Edson’s family. Nothing is as he said it was, including the circumstances of Rosa’s birth.

While I don’t normally review Romance novels, I was willing to accept this book from the author because she lived and worked in a woman’s shelter in Brazil, which promised authenticity for the setting. I am so glad I did. Rebecca Powell is an extremely talented writer who knows how to keep a story moving while creating a strong sense of place and vibrant characters whose lives and fates I cared about. There is romance, but nothing formulaic about it. Rather, it’s a stirring story with believable people seeking to understand, accept, and love one another under extreme circumstances.

Grandma gives The Brazilian Husband a rousing five stars.   5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Heartborn

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Heartborn by Terry Maggert (Young Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy)

I’d like to start by saying that I really enjoyed this book. I especially loved the fantasy world that Terry Maggert creates. The imagination and creativity of authors who write these types of books always fascinates me. He has brought to life a whole society living in the clouds, with Skywatchers, Scholars, Watershapers, Blightwings (my favorite), Flyers, and the Factors of the nasty Crescent Council, as well as Windbeasts, Airdancers, elementals, and, of course, Heartborn — the rarities born with a need to care for others.

The story fluctuates between the angels in House Windhook, a powerful family looking to overthrow the oppressive Crescent Council, and a seventeen-year-old on Earth named Livvy. Livvy is waiting for a heart transplant, but we know early on that she is very important to members of House Windhook. Keiron, the youngest son, has plunged to Earth in an effort to find her and save her, while the entire family prepares to do battle with the Crescent Council and its supporters in order to change the future of their society.

I enjoyed the style of writing. I was in the moment with the characters and felt like I knew them pretty well. Where it fell apart for me was the ending when I just became confused. I had to go back and reread parts to make sure I didn’t miss something, and when I finished I still wasn’t sure where Livvy was – on earth or up in the clouds? Were her parents really her parents after all, or was she adopted like she said? All of the people who seemed to exist in two worlds – were they watching and taking care of her the whole time? Were they really angels? There were too many unanswered questions for me.  I know it’s the first in a series, and that’s not the problem. I’m just not sure what happened in the last chapter or two. I will definitely be interested in reading the next book, but there are some things I felt should have been more clear in the closing to the first.

Bella gives Heartborn four stars. 4 stars

Potty-mouth Index: CLEAN

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Fifteen Words

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Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas

At a time when World War II-era novels abound, this one is unusual in that it is set in Nazi Germany and follows the lives of a young German couple —Max and Erika – who fall in love, marry, and are then separated by war and its aftermath. Max is a religious man who hates Hitler and his regime, while Erika is a Nazi supporter, having grown up as an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. They attend medical school together and after graduation, Max joins the army as a medic for the purpose of helping the soldiers, not furthering the Nazi cause. He is stationed in the city of Breslau, running a field hospital set up in a former monastery, when the Soviet army takes control of the city and sends him to a labor camp in Siberia.

Erika, meanwhile, is six months pregnant and is traveling with her father-in-law to the home of Max’s parents where she plans to live and give birth to their baby. She has no idea what has become of Max, but assumes he will be coming home soon, since the war is ending. Neither of them realizes that they will not see each other for four more years.

The title refers to the fact that letters sent home by Soviet prisoners were not allowed to contain more than fifteen words, thereby limiting their ability to tell their loved ones about their living conditions. As readers, however, we are privy to all of the deprivation, horrors, and mistreatment that Max and his fellow prisoners must endure at the hands of the Soviets. In alternate chapters, we observe Erika as she makes a life for herself and her daughter in occupied Germany while Max is gone.

After following their individual lives during four years of separation, it was clear that their reunion as a couple would not be an easy one, and I was particularly interested in how that reunion would ultimately play out. How long would it take them to get used to one another again? Was it even possible? Max isn’t the person he once was and no longer feels a bond with “home.” Erika has her misgivings and her secrets, and their daughter is less than welcoming to her father. Does he ever connect with his daughter, recapture a loving relationship with his wife, and at least come close to feeling as though he might fit in again? Unfortunately, the book stops abruptly upon his return home and leaves all of those questions unanswered.

Overall, this book is well written and well researched. While the story is fiction, the book is inspired by actual events in the lives of the author and her family (see our guest post from author Monika Jephcott Thomas). I just wish I knew more about Max’s fate, as I had become invested in his welfare (Erika’s not so much).

Grandma gives Fifteen Words four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books was given a free copy of the book by the author in return for an honest review and participation in the blog tour accompanying its release.

A Story of Hope, Love, and Faith: Guest Post by Author Monika Jephcott Thomas

It’s the eighth of May, 1945, and Word War Two has come to an end. The doorbell rings. Two American  army officers carrying riding crops step up to the door and one of them speaks, his manner and his tone both extremely commanding, ‘Within the next few hours, you must clear out your flat.’ Just like that. There is absolutely no opportunity for discussion or question. I am heavily pregnant and expecting the birth of my first child within a matter of days. I hurriedly gather up all of our possessions, and pack them into boxes, which we then stack at the front of the house. Now, I am literally sitting on the street with my in-laws.

This is an extract from my mother’s diary. I was born in Germany in 1945 a few days after this entry was written. My father was a POW in Siberia, so I didn’t meet him until I was four. The first years of my life were spent in occupied Germany. We lived in Mengede, Dortmund, in the North-West of the country. Allied troops wandering around the streets of my hometown were a familiar sight. The bitterness and resentment they had for the German people was palpable. The ransacking of homes and the rape of German women was rife. Germany in the months after the end of the war was a dangerous place. But it was all I knew. To me it was normality.

Then he was coming home. My papa, the man I had heard about and had seen in photos but had never met, was coming home. Mum seemed to be very busy getting things ready, with banners for his welcome and decorating the house with flowers. The local press were informed that this war hero was coming back, and then the morning arrived. We all went together to Mengede Station – Oma and Opa, Tante Änne, my Mum and myself. We were not allowed to go on to the platform so we stayed at the entrance where we were expecting him to emerge. I stood beside my Mum, waiting for him to appear, holding the little bunch of flowers I was going to give him. And suddenly, there he was! This man in his army uniform, looking very pale and thin, walking towards us. He stopped in front of us and nobody quite seemed to know what to do. So my Mum whispered to me “Give him the flowers and say hello.” I did, and I expected him to scoop me up in his arms and hug me, kiss me and tell me how much he loved me and how he had missed me… but he didn’t. Instead, he took a round brown Bakelite container out of his rucksack and gave it to me, saying “This is for you.” I opened it and it was full of sweets, such as I had never had before and I was sure my Mum would not allow me to have. However, it made me forget that he had not done all the things I had expected him to do, including not hugging my Mum or his parents.

We all walked back to my grandparents’ house and I held hands with them while Dad and Mum walked together, arm in arm. Once we were inside, after he had been shown around and we all had some ‘Kaffee und Kuchen,’ my grandparents suggested I went out to play with my friends so I took the brown container with me. However, as soon as I was out of sight of our house, I opened the container and stuffed myself with sweets. Then I went to meet my friends and, because I felt guilty for having eaten so many, I handed the sweets round to everyone, obediently doing what I had been taught – to share – keeping the empty box to play with later and to take home as evidence of my generosity. When I got home for supper, my Papa asked me where the sweets were. I held the empty box and opened the lid, showing him proudly that I had none left because I had shared them with my friends. I thought he would praise me but, instead, he became very angry with me for giving them away.

Of course, there was no way I could possibly understand then how many sacrifices he had made in order to give me that present, for how long he had deprived himself of even the horrible food they had to eat in the labour camp, how many people he had bribed to give this ‘treasure’ to me.

This first meeting between me and my father inspired a central moment in the last chapter of my novel Fifteen Words. How two young lovers, such as my mother and father were during World War Two, can be ripped apart by war, separated for such long and debilitating times, and then how they begin to repair the inevitable rifts that have formed between them, is the subject of the novel – one which, despite the bleak backdrop of war, is a story about hope, love and faith in all its forms.

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Monika Jephcott Thomas grew up in Dortmund Mengede, northwest Germany. She moved to the UK in 1966, enjoying a thirty-year career in education before retraining as a therapist. Along with her partner, Jeff, she established the Academy of Play & child Psychotherapy in order to support the twenty percent of children who have emotional, behavioral, social, and mental health problems, by using play and the creative Arts. A founder member of Play Therapy UK, Jephcott Thomas was elected President of Play Therapy International in 2002.

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Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.

But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realized; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain fifteen words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?

Fifteen Words is a vivid and intimate portrayal of human love and perseverance, one which illuminates the German experience of the war, which has often been overshadowed by history.

Available on Amazon.

For Grandma’s review of Fifteen Words, go here.