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Book Review: Free Cyntoia: My Search for Redemption in the American Prison System by Cyntoia Brown-Long and Bethany Mauger

book coverSummary:
Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at the age of sixteen. Her case became national news when celebrities and activists made the hashtag #FreeCyntoia go viral in 2017. She was granted full clemency after having served fifteen years, walking out a free woman on August 7, 2019.

This is her story, in her own words.

Review:
I think how people will respond to this memoir will depend a lot on what they believe justice to be. Do certain levels of crime deserve never-ending punishment? Can people change or be redeemed? Then there’s another level of do teenagers, people who are still growing and whose brains have not fully developed (brains do not complete developing until approximately age 25), deserve to spend the rest of their lives being punished for an act committed at this age? This memoir aims to be proof that people can be redeemed and, indeed, if we want people to change, they need to have hope that an end could be in sight for them.

The fact of the matter is that no one but Cyntoia, God, and Johnny Michael Allen know what truly happened that night. Cyntoia has never denied killing Johnny but has maintained it was in self-defense. The only facts that we know are that she, a sixteen-year-old who had been being sold for sex by her pimp, was picked up by Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old, and brought home with him, and they were alone in his bedroom together. Both potential stories told by each side are possible. It’s possible he brought her home for sex, like Cyntoia says. It’s possible he brought her home in an attempt to take care of a teenager he found living on the street, like Johnny Allen’s family says. Regardless, Cyntoia ended up killing him. The memoir dances around exactly what happened, with Cyntoia describing him picking her up and bringing her home but then describing the night as a red haze with no details. Was that to protect a guilty conscience or to protect details that would hurt Johnny Allens’ family that no one really needs to know? It’s very hard to say. But in a way I think this is appropriate because Cyntoia admits that she killed him, and the true point of the story is first, how did this girl end up here and second, can she be redeemed?

How she got here contains two of the more interesting aspects of the memoir. First, the school to prison pipeline is painfully obvious in Cyntoia’s story. She originally was placed in a gifted class, acted up some (didn’t get along with the teacher) and was downgraded. She started to be told over and over again she was bad. It was all downhill from there with her hanging out with the crowd of kids who were always in trouble and being constantly told she was bad and not listened to. The police were even called on her at school for her not wanting to give the teacher her purse in detention. If we want our children to rise to their potential, having school tied to prison in the way that it is is not the solution, and treating children like they’re “bad” when they’re just children who mess up sometimes is sending them a clear message that many children will just accept or fail to.

The other issue that came up during one of Cyntoia’s trials is that her birth mother admits to drinking alcohol while she was pregnant, and some doctors have diagnosed her as having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. This is relevant, because fetal alcohol spectrum disorder can cause poor judgment, hyperactivity, poor reasoning, and problems in school. It seems, given both doctors’ testimonies her birth mother’s admission, and Cyntoia’s own perspective that this sad tale is likely, therefore, partially entwined with alcohol abuse. Cyntoia herself states multiple times that she doesn’t know why she has tended to act so impulsively. This could partially help explain it and be another of the many tentacles of how alcohol impacts our society with poor outcomes and violence.

Cyntoia ultimately chooses to have faith that she could possibly be redeemed and decides, even if she can’t be, she doesn’t want to waste her life. She goes to a unique program available in her prison that allows her to go to college. She pursues self-improvement and mentorship of others, and she works to help young girls who have also been trafficked like she was. (It is not a question that Cyntoia was trafficked as she was underage and had a pimp). Cyntoia attests much of her self-improvement to her new-found faith that she solidified after meeting her now-husband via letters in jail. (He felt called to write to her). A spiritual practice is important for anyone to have a well-rounded recovery, and I think it is also significant that the school that offered the college program inside the prison was also a religious school. I am glad for her that she has found comfort and faith, but I also hope it’s not too entwined with her husband and is her own source of strength. While healthy relationships are important, and it’s nice to share a faith, it’s also important for that strength to come from oneself and not from relying upon another fallible human being.

Overall, I think this shows a personal look at the school to prison pipeline, the potential impact of alcohol on a child’s life, and how redemption could look. It’s important to come into this book with an open mind and a willingness to not crave more than Cyntoia is willing to share, nor to think that this book will reveal all the truth or all the answers.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Book cover depicting a Black woman's face set against a starry sky.Summary:
Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

Review:
I went into this book hearing it was a space opera take on the American antebellum south with queer characters, written by a Black American author. That was an apt description, but what I didn’t know was that Aster is neurodiverse, and that was the finishing touch that really sent me over the moon about this book. So let’s talk about Aster first.

Aster is clearly autistic. (I am using this language, rather than person-first based on the wishes of the overall autistic community). Being autistic is just a part of who she is at her core of her being. It’s not perceived as something to be overcome or a superpower. There are parts of her autism that are strengths and parts that are weaknesses. Her ability to learn in-depth about plants and their healing powers is a strength and her tendency to take people literally and miss the point is a weakness, but only in situations where others aren’t considerate of how she perceives the world. When they are considerate and think about how to frame what they say in a way Aster will understand, it is totally fine. I loved everything about Aster. I want more books starring people like her with the representation handles so smoothly.

Other representations that exist in the book in beautiful ways include, but are not limited to: asexual, bisexual, trans*, lesbian, and a wide variety of abilities and disabilities.

The intermingling of spaceship and Antebellum American south was heartbreaking. Imagine everything about how Starship Enterprise is largely a utopia and turn that on its head, and you have the MatildaIt’s not that systemic inequality is not already clear to me, but I do think depicting it on the confines of a spaceship heightens the awareness of it seeps throughout everything.

The mourning of a child’s murder is not one of my moods, so please do not dismiss it thus.
[location 71%]

Although I think it should be obvious from the fact this is telling a story of the Antebellum south in outerspace, I do want to give trigger warnings for rape, abuse, violence, executions, and torture (all things that of course happened in the Antebellum south and anyplace with systemic inequality).

Everything about this was simultaneously richly imagined and depicting the diverse world we really do live in. I thought this was gorgeous and hope to meet Aster again (or someone like her) in future worlds by Rivers Solomon.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: White Ivy by Susie Yang

Book cover for White Ivy, featuring a Chinese woman from the nose down.Summary:
Ivy Lin isn’t sure of much of what she wants and never has been except for one thing – she wants Gideon Speyer. She fondly remembers his birthday party when she was 14 that she sneaked out to attend. Her parents pulled her away, sent her to China to visit relatives, and had moved to New Jersey by the time she got back. As an adult first grade teacher in Boston, Ivy runs into Gideon’s sister once again, and while she’s uncertain about what she wants most of the time, she immediately begins the work to get to be around and date Gideon. But does she really want only Gideon?

Review:
I went into this thinking it was a thriller based on the blurb that I saw – I wrote a different one for you that I think more accurately reflects the book. I would call it a contemporary story of the dark directions life can go when facing systemic and internalized issues. I would call it most comparable to Valley of the Dolls only featuring only one main character instead of many.

This is a strong own voices book. The issues Ivy faces as someone who immigrated at a very young age (and also spent some time being raised by her Grandmother in China waiting for her parents to send for her) were touching and felt real. The representation of systemic racism Ivy faced was subtle but woven throughout her life in such a way its insidiousness came across.

The author is also unafraid of pointing to the issues in the Chinese immigrant culture as well, particularly at the negative response to mental illness. This of course is not an issue limited to Chinese immigrant culture – I struggle to think of a culture that handles it well. However, I mention it as a way to say that the author did not present Ivy’s Chinese immigrant family as perfect. Rather, the problems in that family and in the broader culture as a whole twisted together to lead her down her path.

I don’t think this book is getting as much buzz as it should be. It’s a fun, different take that also brings diversity to the genre of contemporary women’s fiction. (I dislike calling it that but also there’s not a better term I’m aware of the communicates the genre I mean).

If you like reading contemporary women’s fiction with a twist of thrills (but not too many thrills), give this a chance. Especially if you’re looking to diversify your reading list or simply to find a Chinese-American leading character.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

17339177Summary:
Corrie Ten Boom and her family of watchmakers (she was the first licensed woman watchmaker in the Netherlands) are known for their work in the Dutch underground, both hiding Jewish people and doing organizing work for the underground. She and her sister Betsie did this work with their father. She and Betsie were in their 50s during this work. All three of them were ultimately arrested, and Corrie and Betsie were ultimately sent to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp. Corrie survived and started a home to help people refind their footing after the War.

Review:
This was one of my favorite books as a little girl. I had a fascination with WWII (still do) and was utterly enamored with Corrie. I distinctly remember that the paperback book I read was borrowed, but am uncertain if I borrowed it from my grandmother or from the church library. In any case, I decided it was high time I re-read this favored book as an adult and see if it withstood my now adult sensibilities. It certainly did.

The Ten Boom’s family commitment to not only do what is right but also to discern what that right thing might be is incredible. Corrie’s ability to be peaceful and not embittered after the War and everything she went through is also amazing. She is honest about who it was more difficult to forgive than others, and how she found the ability to. I believe any reader will be fascinated by the beginning of the book, which details how her family lived as watchmakers in Amsterdam, how they began hiding Jewish people, and how they came to largely run parts of the underground in Amsterdam. The sections about her capture and imprisonment are remarkable for their combination of honesty about the suffering combined with clear forgiveness and lack of bitterness for her captors.

When He [God] tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. (86% into the digital edition”

Corrie also demonstrates a viewpoint of both the body and soul needing to be cared for in order for the human being to be completely well and whole. She notes both when a German captor is clearly well cared-for but wanting in soul care and when a prisoner is happy in the soul but wretched in the body, noting neither is as God intended.

Corrie’s commitment to peace is also seen following the war when she establishes and runs a home to help all people (no matter which side they were on) find their way again after the war. Truly an inspiration in peace work. It’s also inspiring that she didn’t find this labor until she was in her 50s. An indicator that our calling may not fully come until later in life.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

April 18, 2020 1 comment

colorpurpleSummary:
Alice Walker’s classic about Celie and her life in the deep American South between WWI and WWII. The simplest plot summary is the survivor of both rape by her father and a forced loveless marriage who then finds love with her husband’s mistress, Shug Avery. But it’s so much more than that.

Review:
For Black History Month in February I thought it was high time I got around to reading The Color Purple, which is also hailed by many of my friends and fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community as a classic for us as well. When I saw Audible had the audiobook version read by Alice Walker herself, well, it was a sign, and it was time.

I had always hesitated to read it because the plot summary made me not sure the book would work for me. Rape and incest are plots that I struggle with as is cheating in a marriage. But this book surprised me. It told what needed to be told about Celie’s childhood without dwelling on it too much or in a sensational way. And by the time Celie and Shug were getting together, I was rooting for them. Because how much of a real marriage is it when neither partner wants it?

There are many strengths to The Color Purple, but three things really stood out to me. First, it helped me to see the gray areas of people’s lives and experiences and how not everything is as clearcut as it might at first seem.

Second, the way Celie’s voice in the writing grows and changes as she grows and changes and then how the letters from her sister come in midway making it partially an epistolary novel – it’s incredible.

Finally how it explored the American “justice” system and its real impact on people’s lives and how often responses to crimes are racially motivated. It wasn’t preachy but it was very moving.

The only reason I’m not rating it at 5 stars is because, for me, it was not a life-changing book. I enjoyed it, and I respect it. However, I know for many others it is a life-changing book, and if you have been on the fence about reading it, I encourage you to do so.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Shape of Night by Tess Gerritsen

March 29, 2020 3 comments

First, a note….

I hope all of my readers are as safe and well as possible in these difficult times we are living in. A few people have asked me what I recommend reading to get through things. My advice is what my advice always is – read what most entertains you. Read what distracts you. Feel no guilt for what you enjoy reading. Read whatever it is you most enjoy. I think now more than ever it’s important for all of us to get a respite from the world around us and visit another world, whether that’s fiction or nonfiction, romance or thrills. In the spirit of this, I’m just going to keep reviewing the books I’ve most enjoyed recently.

43808355Summary:
Ava is writing a cookbook of what Maine fisherman communities ate during the 1800s. She’s hit a bit of a writer’s block, so she rents a summer home on the coast of Maine for inspiration – and maybe to run away from the tragedy that is haunting her. But when she arrives at the home in Maine she starts to think it might actually be haunted. She also discovers the previous renter mysteriously disappeared.

Review:
I love house-sitting or house-renting thrillers. There is something decidedly spooky about short-term rentals, and I love how this type of thriller just goes there. It reminded me of the Victoria Holt books I would borrow from my grandmother in middle school only set in modern day Maine.

What I wasn’t expecting from this book or its summary was its deft handling of alcohol addiction. Ava’s alcohol addiction isn’t her entire personality – far from it. She is very well-rounded. We get to know her incredible talent at both cooking and researching then recreating historic recipes. She is intelligent and caring. She loves her sister. But she has definitely made a giant mistake that is haunting her, and I would argue it’s a mistake that was rooted in her alcohol problem although before it became as serious as it is in Maine.

There are no easy answers in this book – not for the “ghost” of Captain Brodie. Not for the disappearances. Not for how small towns handle things. Not for Ava straightening her life back up. The lack of neat ends makes it all feel more real which really works for a book with a creepy ghost.

There were many aspects of this book that kept me staying up too late reading it: the mystery, Ava’s addiction, the ambience, is there really a ghost, what happened in Ava’s past. I also just liked visiting the house and waterfront, which was well described and realistic. It had just the right amount of twists and turns and well-rounded characters.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

February 21, 2020 Leave a comment

First, a note….

If you’ve subscribed to this blog, bless you for still being around. I hadn’t posted since July 2018! I’ve still been actively discussing books but mostly on my Instagram where I’ve been enjoying the bookstagram community. However, I have missed having a more permanent, long-form place to talk about books. I wasn’t enjoying the monthly round-ups I was doing but I also simply cannot devote the time to blog post about every book I read. So I’ve decided to aim for reviewing one book a month – the book I found most meaningful to read in some way in the month prior. Maybe sometimes I’ll review more, maybe less, but no longer take this blog to be a record of every single book I read. Moving right along.

Book cover of The FiveSummary:
You’ve heard of Jack the Ripper – the serial killer who murdered five women in London in 1888. Most people know the name Jack the Ripper but what about the names of his victims? Here, meet the women whose lives were cut short by Jack the Ripper – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary. Get to know their world, their personal struggles, and come to see them as people rather than simply victims.

Review:
I learned so much reading this book, and none of it was dry. It was entirely fascinating. I liked the structure very much – Rubenhold goes through the intricacies of the lives of each of the women in the order they were murdered. She also doesn’t just stop at the moment they died – she follows through with who identified the body, who grieved for them (and every single one had someone grieving for them).

A large misconception is that all five of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper were homeless prostitutes. Of course even if that were the case it wouldn’t make the murders less tragic. However, it is simply not true of these women. Four of the five were not prostitutes but rather were simply sleeping on the street because they were homeless. The fifth (Mary Jane) was a prostitute but had a home and was murdered in it.

I found it very interesting how different all of their lives began and yet how most of them ended up on the street regardless. In a way this is really the story of how society failed these women long before it failed to find their killer by allowing them to end up living on the streets to begin with.

I personally found Annie’s story to be the most meaningful, but I think everyone will connect with a different woman in a different way. Annie ended up on the street due to a failed battle with alcoholism. She had a loving family, had climbed up to the middle class, and even did a stint in rehab. But she still lost the battle with her addiction.

Interestingly, her sisters chose the sobriety movement and prospered from it. I found this to be a meaningful passage:

The complete rejection of alcohol resonated with those who found themselves balanced precariously on the edge of middle-class life. By eschewing drink, a hardworking man or woman could save money and build a better life for themself and their family. Annie’s sisters not only adhered to this creed but prospered by it financially. (27% location)

Although her sisters were able to give up the drink, Annie was not. Her brother also still drank alcohol at the time of her murder. Even though she was on the street, he would still see her sometimes and imbibe with her. After her murder, he left the UK for Texas and achieved sobriety.

This hit me hard:

What her murderer claimed on that night was simply all that remained of what drink had left behind. (33% location)

To me, Annie’s full life story was sorrowful, although some beauty did come out of it in that her brother’s life was saved by observing her downfall. I still reflect on her story sometimes. I hope through Rubenhold’s work, Annie’s unfortunate downfall will come to affect change in more people than solely Annie’s brother’s.

I’ve spoken at length about the woman’s story I found the most personally moving and meaningful, but there is also a story of an immigrant, a woman scorned by her husband, a prostitute and the man she loved, and a working class woman who worked in a tin factory and ran from an abusive husband. I am sure you will find one that connects with you and that you will find meaningful.

Those who are disturbed by the gruesome will be pleased to note that there are not gruesome details in this book. The focus is on the women’s lives, not their deaths.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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March 2018 Book Review – Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (#nonfiction)

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Hello my lovely readers! Notice how that says book review and not books reviews? Well that’s because I somehow managed to only finish one book in the entire month of March. :-O

I know the reason for this. It’s because my print book I was reading was a real chunkster. So while I read religiously throughout the month, I just didn’t quite finish the print book within the month of March. But I’m actually ok with this book getting to take center stage, because it’s a cool one.

John Henry is an American folk song that I thought was famous until I was reading this book and had to keep explaining it to people. (I couldn’t find the version I grew up listening to on YouTube but here it is on Spotify – John Henry as sung by Wee Sing on the album America). Essentially the lyrics tell the story of John Henry, a black man who worked on the railroad and beat the steam drill at going through a mountain but died doing so. There are many different versions of the lyrics, but this is the closest to the version I grew up listening to. What’s the point of singing this song to and with children? Well, that depends on who you ask and what version you sang. The gospel version focuses on John Henry’s rewards in Heaven. The blues version focuses on the unfairness of the job and the fear (warranted or not) of machines replacing blue collar labor.

(I did find it comforting that the book indicates that this is an extremely popular folk song in the United States – with the librarians at the Library of Congress telling the author it’s the most researched folk song in the US.)

In Steel Drivin Man, Scott Reynolds Nelson seeks to find the origins of this folk tale and see if there was a real man behind it. Fascinatingly, he successfully found who most likely was the real John Henry. Perhaps not surprisingly, John Henry was a free black man who in the immediately post Civil War era (Reconstruction) Virgina was arrested on what may have been fair charges of shoplifting (no one can really say if a crime actually occurred or not) that was then escalated to a higher charge (most likely falsely). In spite of the North attempts at forcing the South to treat black men and women equally to white, some districts in the South pulled off the Jim Crow laws, which led to unequal punishment for equal crimes, which meant John Henry got put away in prison for a very long time for a very small crime. Unfortunately for him, this was about the time that people got it into their heads that they could use prison labor in the form of chain gangs much like they used to use slave labor. John Henry was sent out to work on the railroad and died there, as working on the railroad was essentially a death sentence.

Some prisoners escaped, and some were killed by guards for what the railroad labeled “mutiny,” but the remainder entered tunnels where tiny bits of microscopic rock floated in the air, entered their lungs, and over a period of six months to three years, strangled them. These prisoners died gasping for air. (location 34%)

I for one after reading that passage couldn’t help but think of Eric Garner and was saddened by how little some things have changed.

Many American folk songs, including this one, were actually originally work songs. I learned through this book that rock and roll refers to these work songs, as the two man crew who drilled had one man to shake the stake and another to hit it, which was called rocking and rolling. Songs were sung to a particular beat both to pass the time and to help ensure no one’s fingers got smashed.

The original blues version of John Henry as opposed to praising his work ethic actually was memorializing his strength and the unfair situation. His status as a prisoner wasn’t so much rewritten as not mentioned (because it didn’t matter), and his strength of character was symbolized by being a man of large stature, even though the real John Henry was actually quite short (under 5’4″). The gospel version focuses more on his strong Protestant work ethic and the rewards he’ll see in Heaven.

The author speaks some about the song and the groups that attached themselves to it over time. I found it interesting that Communist groups in America liked it because of its demonstration of an unfair use of labor. Also interesting was that he found that schools in historically black neighborhoods would devote entire music classes to the song and its history. He also traces John Henry in everything from comic books to Disney shows. I admit that I found the beginning of the book about the real John Henry and the early versions of the song to be the most interesting.

I would have given this book 5 stars but the ending let me down, particularly when the author postulates what message John Henry’s bones might tell us, and I thought that message was very far off the mark, speaking about working less when in fact John Henry was mistreated due to racism, not out of any workaholicism of his own!

Overall, though, I’m not sad this was the only book I read in the month of March. I learned so much, and I really did enjoy it.
(4 out of 5 stars, buy it)
(source: Amazon)

My total for the month of March 2018:

  • 1 book
    • 0 fiction; 1 nonfiction
    • 0 female authors; 1 male author
    • 1 ebooks; 0 print books; 0 audiobooks

A trio of #nonfiction Reviewed in #Haiku

August 5, 2017 2 comments

anne frank

We All Wore Stars: Memories of Anne Frank from Her Classmates
By: Theo Coster

Summary:
Theo Coster was one of 28 Jewish Dutch students segregated into their own classroom by the Nazis. Another one of these students was Anne Frank. Theo gathers stories from other surviving students and himself both of their experiences of the Holocaust and their memories of Anne.

Haiku Review:
All together yet
Each experience unique
Grounding reminder.

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Gift
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crazyenough.jpg

Crazy Enough: A Memoir
By: Storm Large

Summary:
Storm knew growing up her mother was crazy so it was pretty scary when a doctor responded to her inquiry if she was crazy like her mother that she wasn’t yet but was going to be. Follow Storm through her journey of multiple diagnoses and a search to be more than just crazy.

Haiku Review:
A one-woman show
Reflects in the narrative
Left with some questions

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Publisher
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tidying up

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By: Marie Kondo

Summary:
Japanese cleaning consultant vows she’s never had a client relapse after following her sort everything once by category not by room and then organize it method. You may have heard jokes in social media about her sorting method being based on “does this spark joy?”

Haiku Review:
Some good tips mixed with
Animism but take it
With a grain of salt

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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A Trio of #chicklit Reviewed in #Haiku

July 16, 2017 2 comments

581811

Valley of the Dolls
By: Jacqueline Susann

Summary:
The 1960s classic about four women and how fame and drugs destroyed them.

Haiku Review:
My dolls! My dolls! But
Hard to compete with modern
Opioid crisis.

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Gift
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13547080.jpg

The Runaway Princess
By: Hester Browne

Summary:
Amy Wilde’s new boyfriend has a secret….he’s a prince! Can she fit into his world without losing herself in the process?

Haiku Review:
The Prince and Me but
British with saving the bees
Left me wanting more

4 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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129645

Cocktails for Three
By: Madeleine Wickham

Summary:
Three friends meet for cocktails every month but life events and secrets start to pull them apart.

Haiku Review:
If you can manage
To laugh at alcoholism
Then you might like it

3 out of 5 stars
Source: Library
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