The Upside of Down: The Sky Above and The Mud Below by Joel Bernard

I have to admit that I’m somewhat of a fanatic of post-apocalyptic survival books. I can’t say precisely what it is about the genre that appeals to me, perhaps the promise of a new beginning, but whatever it is, The Upside of Down: The Sky Above and The Mud Below by Joel Bernard fit the bill. 

The story is written from the perspective of the characters in a somewhat futuristic but not too distant future when climate change has caused a global catastrophe. Wildfires, storm surges, flooding, drought, superstorms, tornadoes, and the like were catalysts to a vast migration. People from the southern US were moving North, and those from the coasts were moving inland. 

Although I enjoyed the book, there were some issues. The first drawback I found was that the sheer number of characters was overwhelming. Constantly switching back and forth between characters, perspectives, and even storylines, made it difficult to form an attachment to some individuals. Then some of the characters were dead, and we only hear from them after they are dead, which does very little to advance the plot since all they can talk about is being dead. 

There seemed to be some vagueness about what happened to Moses, a likable character that lived in a church and could “get things.” It appeared that he had become an integral part of one of the wandering groups but then was killed, and there was a ceremony of some sort to mark his passing. However, none of these events are presented to the reader directly. I’m not sure if the chapters were edited out or the author didn’t smooth the plot development out quite right, but Moses got lost in the story. 

I believe the author meant this novel to be a morality tale. The situations presented and the scientific information presented in hindsight musings told the story of a civilization that did not heed scientific warnings. The result was this calamitous new world humans struggled to survive in. Unfortunately, the story lacked immediacy. There was a lot of cloud gathering and navel-gazing by the characters, who realistically would be more focused on adapting to their harsh surroundings as they exhaustingly traveled hundreds of miles on foot to their hoped-for destinations. 

So although I enjoyed the book, the meandering storyline in The Upside of Down: The Sky Above and The Mud Below by Joel Bernard might not be something everyone would enjoy.

I received an ARC from Reedsy Discovery. You can see my review here.

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

Looking for a feel-good book to read this spring? Then check out The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman.

Lili’s husband was killed in a car accident in front of her house three years ago leaving her with two small daughters. Her sister stepped in to help when Lili had a breakdown. The company that Lili does illustrations for sends Lili to a weekly gardening class as part of the requirements for her next project. The class revolves around turning an empty lot into a flourishing vegetable garden. This is a story of grief, new beginnings, growth, and hope. 

Lili’s efforts at creating a life for her family are a bit irreverent, completely honest, and blessedly hysterical. The chapters are divided by short commentaries about gardening that had me in stitches. Lili finds that life, just as with gardening, provides us with no guarantees of a happy outcome and that’s ok. 

I don’t believe this novel will appeal to everyone, however, being a middle-aged woman who loves gardening and has experienced grief, The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman was right up my alley.

The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World’s Rarest Type by Lauren Sapala

First, I need to preface that according to the Meyer-Briggs assessment, I’m an INFP-A so I’m not exactly the target audience this book was aiming at. However, it was a recommendation from the Introvert Writer Summit I enjoyed at the beginning of March and being introverted, I hoped that there would be something useful for me in it.

And there was! I felt validated as both an introvert and writer as I read it. Some of the weird stuff that I thought just made me nuts was addressed. For example, the children’s book series that I’m currently working on–well, the main character Lupita is a fully formed, slightly awkward, 5-year old clamoring in my head for me to tell her story. She just appeared to me one day and here we are, taking dictation for book 3. This phenomenon was addressed in Chapter 4, INFJ Psychic Ability and Character Development. Apparently, this happens to other writers too! WHOOP!

The book also talked about how introverts prefer to work intensely for large blocks of time, don’t like meetings, and lead interesting lives which will make fabulous memoirs. (So me!) In addition, there are discussions about what it means to be a Sensitive Intuitive writer and how hangups with financial success hold them back from making a killing with writing. (Certainly true!) And why INFJs, INFPs, and Sensitive Intuitives might not find it in their best interests to try and become a full-time writer. Fascinating stuff!

So I highly recommend The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World’s Rarest Type by Lauren Sapala if you are an INFJ writer. You’ll also find it helpful if you are an INFP or Sensitive Intuitive. After all, knowing ourselves is the first step in truthful writing. 

If you’d like to get an idea of what type of writer personality you have, here’s a link to a free online personality test.

50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life by Maria Leonard Olsen

In her inspirational book 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life, Maria Leonard Olsen bravely chronicles her less-than-ideal childhood and struggles with sobriety. Part one centers on why she made a list of 50 activities she wanted to experience after the age of 50. Part two goes through the list, one by one, grouped by category. Part three includes two other lists created by daring senior women, a list of recommended reading, and book club discussion questions.

Rapidly approaching the big five-oh myself, I was fascinated to read about the author’s adventures and accomplishments. Her list included international travel, further education, social daring, physical challenges, spiritual quests, lifestyle changes, and some thrill-seeking behaviors.

The first section dealt with the author’s journey through rehab and the AA community. Some who have not experienced addiction, whether of a loved one or themselves, might not be able to identify as much with the author’s struggle. However, the information is relevant to the story since it was the catalyst for the author to create a new life and experience new things.

While extremely motivating, not all the activities on the list are within reach of the average 50-something woman. The author had the advantage of living in the D.C. area and access to the upper crust social circle, which made some of her accomplishments less challenging. She admits to that in the book’s conclusion. Also, not all of the things the author chose will appeal to every woman, but that’s not to say that other women won’t enjoy reading about them.

With the premise of “challenge yourself,” the author presented her after-50 list. I especially appreciated the self-reflection question at the end of each list item. It made me pause and think about where I stood concerning this aspect of things, such as travel or spirituality. The quotes introducing each list item were also apropos and thought-provoking.

While I appreciated categorizing the items, it might have been interesting to have them ordered chronologically instead as the author moved toward her own self-actualization. I’m positive her list choices correlated with self-discovery. I imagine the trekking through the mountainous regions of Nepal was early on while random acts of kindness occurred when she was more settled with herself, but with no timeline, that’s pure speculation on my part.

There was a lot for me to ponder in 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life by Maria Leonard Olsen as I, too, approach my fifth decade. If you are in a similar position, I heartily recommend a little armchair adventuring with Ms. Olsen.

I received an ARC from Reedsy Discovery. You can read my review here.

Fit Femme After 50: A Busy Woman’s Guide to a Strong, Attractive, Pain-Free-Body by Doug Setter

Rapidly approaching 50 myself, I picked up Fit Femme After 50: A Busy Woman’s Guide to a Strong, Attractive, Pain-Free-Body by Doug Setter with the idea that I could incorporate some suggestions into what I have determined will be my healthier lifestyle going forward. I hoped for some inspirational stories of women firming up in later years and several practical exercises for my routines. My expectations were partially fulfilled, which is saying something.

The author highlighted the stories of several women who were successfully fit and, more accurately, tough broads, like Iris Davis, body-building champion at 76, and Monika Kriedmann-Bleckenwegner, over 50, who completed the Austria Iron Man competition the day after having a tooth pulled. These women were definitely inspirational! 

Following that, the author gave several suggestions on how to motivate yourself, what to each, which vitamins to take, and some solid exercises to do, complete with clear pictures on how to do them. Honestly, it was great stuff. 

However, large sections of the book were irrelevant to me as a nearing 50 woman. The author included his personal experiences, including his time in the military, that, as a male, weren’t be experiences I could relate to. Statistically, only a little of 14 percent of the U.S. military are women anyway. While Canada, the author’s native country, has a higher percentage ranging between 13 to 19 percent depending on the service branch. 

Although there was a chapter on hormones, one of the most significant issues women at 50 face, the author failed to convince me that his suggestions were designed for women in that age group. The examples and personal experiences cited were, more often than not, male, like Abe Vigoda, Dan Brown, Louis L’Amour, the author himself. A quick google search turns up Susan Shapiro, Joan Wolf, Edie Meidav as women writers over 50 who incorporate exercise into their lives. As for performers, we have Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Sharon Stone, Elle Macpherson, Sandra Bullock, Halle Berry as steller examples of fit and healthy women over 50.

Then, the English teacher in me cringed at each dash used instead of proper punctuation. Although I didn’t find any spelling or grammatical errors, this constant misuse detracted from my reading experience.

Despite the fallacies mentioned above, Fit Femme After 50: A Busy Woman’s Guide to a Strong, Attractive, Pain-Free-Body by Doug Setter contains solid fitness advice for anyone, male or female, to improve their physical and mental well-being.

I received an ARC from Reedsy Discovery. You can see my review here.

Immigrant Secrets: The Search for my Grandparents by John Mancini

Immigrant Secrets: The Search for my Grandparents by John Mancini is a lovely tale of one man’s family history quest. The factual research done, including long-lost pictures, medical files, and official documents, is interspersed with imaginative scenes of what might have happened.

After the author’s father’s death, the author and his siblings began looking into the past. With nothing more than some tentative dates and names, the search started and what they found shocked them. The story of two struggling Italian immigrants and their disappearance was, sadly, a common one.

This story resonated with me, being the great-grandchild of immigrants myself. In fact, not only did my ancestors arrive through Ellis Island more or less the same time as the author’s grandparents, but they also settled near New York City, in Hunktown, Connecticut. The places named were therefore familiar to me. My mother did extensive research about my father’s immigrant origins, but the farthest back she could go was the ship manifest for Jan and Maria, who became John and Mary. 

The author’s writing style draws the reader in as each clue to the past is discovered, researched, and analyzed. Unfortunately, not everything was made clear. However, there was enough for the author to recreate plausible scenarios and well-researched commentary. The pictures of relevant buildings and documents made the story come alive. Immigrants Secrets is not the first story origin memoir I’ve read, but it was one of the most enjoyable.

There were a few instances where the information seemed redundant since the fictional sections and actual research process ran parallel, but nothing detracted from the story. There was also some allusion to a family friend who knew about his father’s family and married his father’s widow, the author’s mother, but the reader is never given more on that tangled story and the mystery is set aside.

On the whole, Immigrant Secrets: The Search for my Grandparents by John Mancini was a captivating read about the discovery of one family origin that anyone who has ever found a clue to themselves in the faces of the past will enjoy.

I received an ARC from Reedsy Discovery. You can read my review here.

Calamity by Sam Winter

SWAT Officer Derrick Hart and his brother-in-arms Army Ranger Brandon Armstrong have taken on quite a task, keeping their wives and some stray tag-a-longs alive. The southern United States has been overrun by teeth-gnashing, super-fast, rabid zombies (or some such creature). Along the way, they meet up with the vice-president’s pregnant daughter and her bodyguards. They also come across Sharon, a mother separated from her family in the mad dash to safety, subject of government medical testing, and kidnapped by the radical Prepper group Sons of Liberty. How this ends is anyone’s guess!

Honestly, this book was so intense that I had to stop reading for short periods. I mean, constantly running from the zombie horde, evading military capture, and beating back the desperate masses, well, there’s only so much of that a girl can take at once. But, on the other hand, the intertwining plots made for exciting reading. You couldn’t help but put yourself in their dire situations and wonder what actions you’d take to keep body and soul together. 

Typically, my post-apocalyptic reading preference is for stories that begin after the calamity (pun intended), so this book was a new experience for me. It was maybe a little testosterone-heavy for me. I mean, Derrick and Brandon were the Rambos that would get the ordinary, unfit-for survival rag-tag band through to the promised land, right? So it was only natural there was some grunting, fist-fights, and shoot-em-ups. However, as a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat, this one takes the cake.

So if you are looking for post-apocalyptic science fiction non-stop action this holiday season, then Calamity by Sam Winter is the book for you!

The author provided an ARC for this review.

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore

One of my 2020 readings goals that I didn’t meet was to read a book published in the decade that I was born in. It’s not that I didn’t do research on books that came out in the 70s, nor that I hadn’t read any of the books on that list, I just wasn’t drawn to any of them.

So since it was my list, I decided to bend the rules a bit. I choose Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore which was published in 2020 but had a storyline that traveled through all the decades I’d been alive. 

Oona Lockhart leaps from year to year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve beginning in 1982. Each leap lasts a year, either forward or backward through the decads of Oona’s life. She tries to prevent her future selves from mistakes and heartache, but in the end, finds that “everything has its time” even if lived out of order.

Although this story seems like a mash-up of The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald with a bit of modern-day The Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, it was surprisingly thought-provoking and refreshing.

If you are looking for a fun read this holiday season that entertains but reminds you to cherish the moment, then Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore is perfect for you!

Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir by Michael Anthony

I found Civilianized: A Young Veteran’s Memoir by Michael Anthony to be a sad commentary on the reality that confronts returning vets in the United States. Without appropriate support systems, suffering from trauma, many discharged soldiers struggle to find meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, Michael’s story is far from unique. 

This memoir chronicles Michael’s life from shortly after his return to “civilization” from an active war zone in Iraq until the point when he takes up the pen in the name of justice. His experiences are pretty standard, drugs, alcohol, thoughts of suicide, difficulty with interpersonal relationships, and aimlessness. 

The writing is coherent with excellent attention to detail, although the subject at times, I’m sure was difficult for Michael to record. It’s not a feel-good book but rather grounded in a reality that shows what a disservice is done to veterans in their home country, no matter which war they were involved in. 

The topic of a returning soldier’s life may be too tough for many readers. However, if your life has been touched by a vet, Michael Anthony’s memoir Civilianized will resonate with you. 

I received an ARC from the author.