Review of California Girl Chronicles by Michelle Gamble-Risley

My impassioned love for literature encompasses a vast diversity of genres, however I have never deemed a work of contemporary romance to be worthy of my rapt attention until I discovered  California Girl Chronicles: Brea and The City of Plastic at the Miami Book Fair International. Not only is this infinitely entertaining escapade worthy of rapt attention, it is also worthy of tremendous praise. Michelle Gamble-Risley has revolutionized romantic literature and taken it to new heights with this compelling character study, which is destined to be a critically-acclaimed, bestselling hit garnering a massive following from readers of all backgrounds.

Michelle Gamble-Risley’s erotic and enticing prose will catalyze an indelible case of insomnia as she takes you on a rollercoaster rondezvous with Brea Harper, whose wild adventures – both romantically and professionally – will strum your heartstrings and cause you to scream with delight, cry with empathy, and laugh until you collapse.

In Book 1 of this captivating series, you will be introduced to our protagonist, whose beauty, brilliance, and scandalous addiction to sex catapults her into a myriad of complex relationships as she simultaneously strives to fulfill her dreams to become a screenwriter. Gamble-Risley proves to be not only masterful at character development but also in conveying the complexities of fervent, intense, and sometimes entirely dysfunctional relationships with clever dialogue and scenes of sex and intimacy that will make you blush.

Brea’s men are diverse yet altogether appealing. There’s the mediocre yet secure Lance, with whom she lives with in order to begin her fledging career as a screenwriter in LA. Then, there is the dreamboat movie producer, Kale, who sweeps her off her feet in ecstasy with nights of endless “lust-making.” Lastly, we have the torturous, seemingly intangible, “band boy” Drew, who proves to catalyze a tremendous amount of drama for the entire cast of characters involved in this frolicsome escapade.

Brea’s female friends include a feisty, beautiful, loyal, lesbian Latina, Maya, who provides support, protection, and advice to our adventurous protagonist. However, Maya proves to be astonished and abhorred over a choice our flawed heroine makes at the climax of California Girl Chronicles, leaving Brea in an existential crisis which shall hopefully be unraveled in Book 2.

Echoing the audacious eroticism of Anais Nin, the comedy of Tom Robbins, and the entertainment factor of Sex In the City, Gamble-Risley has put the Romance Writers of America honor roll to shame with this new novel destined for both a cult following and mainstream appeal.

Beware: you will lose sleep over this novel. Readers have complained ardently that they “simply could not put it down!” My best advice for reading this stunning novel is to strap in securely, open the book, and enjoy the ride!

Order your copy today at

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Review of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The towering tens are striped in white and black, no golds or crimsons to be seen. … Within hours everyone in town has heard about it.  … It is impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mysterious circus. People marvel at the staggering height of the tallest tents. They stare at the clock that sits just inside the gates that no one can properly describe.

Stretched across the top of the gates, hidden in curls of iron, firefly-like lights flicker to life. They pop as they brighten, some accompanied by a shower of glowing white sparks and a bit of smoke. …When the final bulb pops alight, and the smoke sparks dissipate, it is finally legible, this elaborate incandescent sign. … It reads: Le Cirque des Reves.”

Le Cirque des Reves is translated as “The Circus of Dreams,” which is an astounding feat of mechanical engineering for the Victorian era propelled and maintained by awe-inspiring magic. The illusionists who bring the fantastical to life are Celia and Marco, two souls who were bound since childhood to battle in a competition designed by their fathers with dangerously high stakes.  Predetermined destinies are questioned and defied through acts of free will, and of course, with magic.

One is tempted to categorize The Night Circus as faux Victorian literature (similar to Sarah Water’s novels, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, which are set in the same era), yet it is in actuality a masterful work of magic realism, in which magical elements seamlessly blend with the real world and the “real” and the “phantasmagorical” are in the same stream of thought.

 Richly described characters, compelling dialogue, decadent details, and poetic prose bring to life a compelling plot line making this novel one of the most remarkable and outstanding fictional debuts of 2011.

The novel’s  self-fulfilled prophecy of “bestsellerdom” began with a seven-figure advance and rights sold to more than 25 countries, grew louder with a film deal to the studio that brought us Twilight, and continued in mid-summer with lengthy pieces in The Wall Street Journal and USA Today on the debut novel’s advance hype. Booksellers – both of the independent and mainstream – have also rhapsodized over Morgenstern’s debut with seemingly unending praise.

Set in the late 19th and early 20th century, in and around major cities across the world, including New York, London, Paris, and Boston, Le Cirque des Reves appears (and disappears) suddenly much to the entire city’s excitement, amazing audiences with acrobats, contortionists, psychics, and elaborate tents (such as an intricate Ice Garden), a labyrinth made of clouds (“an excursion in dimension, a climb through the firmaments, there is no beginning, there is no end, enter where you please, leave when you wish, have no fear of falling”), a Stargazer ride which catapults you to the heavens where your fortune can be revealed by an intrepid character named Poppet, all revolving around a cauldron of fire and a surreal clock made of dreams that “expands and contracts, like pieces of a puzzle.”

“The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, it is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around the clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress…. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of tea that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. …An entire game of chess is played.”

Celia steals the show again and again with her gifts of illusion which rival her world-renowned father, Prospero the Enchanter. She stuns her audiences with telekinetic, psychic, transmogrifying, incredible feats that defy gravity and astonish even the most cynical and pragmatic as she transmutes objects into birds, metamorphoses her appearance in seconds, heals wounds instantaneously, and literally levitates her audience members several inches off the ground during her performances. Thus, although she deems the title of an “illusionist” her illusions are actually real transmutations that astound both her audience and the readers of The Night Circus who have been captured and seduced by Morgenstern’s breathtaking prose.

Her competitor, Marco Alisdair, a former guttersnipe who was adopted and rigorously trained by A.H. (the mysterious character repetitively referred to as “the man in the grey suit”). Marco performs his illusions for the circus clandestinely while simultaneously serving as the assistant of the cirus’s cantankerous proprietor, Chandresh Christopher Lefevbre. We discover that Marco’s magic is vastly different from Celia’s (yet equally powerful), as he can manifest entire worlds at will, inventing environments of impressive beauty simply by passing his hands over one’s eyes.

Underneath the glamour and glittering world of the performers and tent after tent of wonders, we discover that the circus is itself the chess board for the two illusionists, Marco and Celia, and the competition between them established by their avaricious fathers who have proclaimed that the loser of this game shall die. According to Prospero the Enchanter, the circus, as miraculous as it is, is only a venue and/or an exhibition. He says to Celia, “You push the bounds of what your skills can do using this circus as a showplace. You prove yourself better and strong. You do everything you can to outshine your opponent.”

Little does Prospero realize that the two opponents would fall madly and irrevocably in love.  Not bearing to see one another die, they concoct a plan – rather spontaneously – to both save each other and the circus from being destroyed by the dangers of the competition. We discover the most unexpected hero possible to salvage the circus as Celia and Marco strive to alter their previously determined fate.

Underneath the lush and beautiful world of her prose, Morgenstern well understands what makes The Night Circus tick: that Marco and Celia, whether in competition or in love, are part of a wider world they must engage with but also transcend. It’s a world whose mystique and enigma is intoxicating  and shall inevitably catalyze an eclectic array of long-term fans.

~ Victoria Andrew

The Book Goddess

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The Passage by Justin Cronin

If you are yearning for a novel to catalyze a week of incurable insomnia, trigger rushes of adrenalin, provoke tears of empathy, and cause overwhelming anguish in returning to reality, The Passage will deliver your wishes. A 766-page dystopian epic of speculative fiction, this first installment of Justin Cronin’s trilogy takes the vampire genre to new heights. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s The Stand, it’s a vast, sweeping odyssey of vivid characterizations, poetic prose, engaging dialogue, and brilliant plot conceptualizations unveiling a pre-apocalyptic, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic world with gripping detail and breathtaking passages of beauty in a time of death and destruction.

Dismantling the popular concept of vampires as romantic beings sparkling in the sun (such as in the Twilight series), Cronin transmogrifies the supernatural creatures into biogenetically engineered killing machines possessed by a virus manufactured by the military in a top secret experiment entitled Project NOAH. The human race is on the brink of extinction from the insatiable thirst and violent murders the vampires (referred to as virals, smokes, jumps, and dracs) commit upon their accidental release onto society.

The virals are a product of the clandestine research of a Harvard microbiologist commissioned by the military in the year 2018 when America is engaged in consistent warfare, a gallon of gas costs $13, and terrorism holds the world in a persistent state of panic. The military’s nefarious plot is more maniacal than any reader could presume when we discover that the virals were previous death-row inmates chosen to serve in the third-stage trials of the experimental drug therapy. The military’s intent is to manufacture a race of “superbeings” who can master any skill in seconds and whose wounds heal nearly instantaneously.

Cronin describes them with vivid detail: “Peter had gotten used to the virals’ appearance but still found it unnerving to see one close up. The way the facial features seemed to have been buffed away, smoothed into an almost infantile blandness; the curling expansion of the hands and feet, with their grasping digits and razor-sharp claws; the dense muscularity of the limbs and torso and the long, gimbaled neck; the slivered teeth crowding the mouth like spikes of steel.”

Cronin’s ability to manifest a brave new world of mortal combat, death, and destruction is as masterful as his brilliantly crafted psychological development of each character (however major or minor) conveyed through intricate, interwoven narratives making each player fully human and heroic in their own way for the reader.

Prior to the release of the virals, we are introduced to an eccentric and usually gifted girl (who pulls at your heartstrings throughout this apocalyptic odyssey) named Amy, whose tragic mother abandons her in desperation to an African-born nun named Lacey. We also meet Wolgast, an FBI agent assigned to steal away Amy for the military-bankrolled Project NOAH. Deep backgrounds of these characters are created in the flawless 250 pages prior to the post-apocalyptic world in the second section of the novel, which audaciously opens a century later in 92 AV (After Virus).

America has then been ameliorated by the virals, however Cronin conjures a new one out of its ashes – a “colony” of human survivors in California, which relies on gargantuan lights to protect the citizens from the 42.5 million photophobic creatures. When the community realizes that the power source perpetuating the dusk-to-dawn illumination will soon die, a renegade band intrepidly ventures out into a world they know very little about. For instance, not a single one of them has seen the stars or the ocean.

Their quest to save the colony’s power source is elevated to a hope to reclaim the world and find other survivors after they come across Amy (who has lived for a 100 years yet whose body has been frozen as a preteen throughout time due to being a subject of biogenetic engineering during Project NOAH) who can psychically communicate with the virals. Unlike the other products of the military experiment, she protects – instead of destroys – humans.

Cronin leaps back and forth in time and diversifies his narrative with diaries, email messages, newspaper articles, maps, and legal documents. Sustaining such an epic novel is a challenging endeavor, yet Cronin amazingly achieves the task and creatively unleashes the plot’s complexities while seemingly superfluous details eventually connect in surprising ways.

Quite obviously, the story is infused with biblical undertones with the title of the military experiment as Project NOAH, their intent to have the creations live for 950 years, and the original test subjects (the death row inmates) are 12 in number similar to Jesus’ apostles. The Passage, then, is fundamentally an investigation into the manifestation and annihilation of a flawed race. The characters stream-of-consciousness inquiries also have a sophisticated ambiguity as they question destiny and God (“Looking at the stars from the station roof, he’d felt something – a presence behind them, their vast immensity”) and debate the reasons for fighting to survive in a seemingly forsaken world.

Cronin’s sense of place, time, timelessness, and magnificent exploration of memories – memories folded and unfolded and twisted in time and of the self and Shadow self – are superior examples of Cronin’s bridges from genre to literature. He balances intellectual and action narrative with enough bravado to keep a diversity of audiences satisfied.

I could not recommend this masterpiece of a novel enough. Read it. It will deprive you of sleep yet shall ultimately inspire, challenge, enlighten, and amaze you.

~ Victoria Andrew

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One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde: A Book Review

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde. 362 pages. Viking. $25.95
ISBN: 978-0-670-02252-6

“The remaking was one of those moments when one felt a part of literature and not just carried along within it. In less than ten minutes, the entire fabric of the BookWorld was radically altered. The old system was swept away, and everything was changed forever. But the group of people to whom it was ultimately beneficial remained gloriously unaware: the readers. To most of them, books were merely books. If only it were that simple. …”

Jasper Fforde, a speculative fiction writer with a gift of fantastical innovation, is challenging, amazing, and entertaining us once again with his sixth installment of the Thursday Next series, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing. Throughout his decade-long journey of success with the series, Fforde has garnered a reputation as “wildly imaginative” and “mind-bending” in the creation of his unique narrative of “inspired insanity,” “absurd literary humor,” and “byzantine plots.” His Thursday Next series is Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth amplified a thousand percent complete with a myriad of puns, literary jokes, satirical jibes, time travel, and adrenalin-pumping chase scenes. Synergizing a plethora of genres including science fiction, classic literature, humor, steampunk, and fantasy, Fforde’s series successfully appeals to a diversity of readers.

Contrary to the opinions of other book reviewers, it is entirely possible to comprehend and even enjoy the complexities of One of Our Thursdays Is Missing without previously reading the other books in the series, as long as you fasten your seatbelt, suspend your belief, and be open to a bit of challenge instead of mere escapism. Yet, for those who require a brief introduction, the Thursday Next series is set in two worlds – Great Britain in the 1980’s (the RealWorld) and the universe inside books of all genres (the BookWorld).

In book one of the series, The Eyre Affair, Thursday Next is a Spec Ops Agent in the Literary Division, investigating a nefarious criminal (named Acheron Hades) who is kidnapping characters from books for ransom and threatening to re-write some of the world’s most preeminent works of literature. When he endeavors to take Jane Eyre hostage, Thursday Next saves the day by literally entering the book and halting him from his heinous crimes in the BookWorld.

In One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Fforde entirely diverges from his other books in two ways. First, the BookWorld is entirely reconstructed. The Council of Genres needs a clearer overview of how the individual novels are set within the BookWorld as a whole. Taking the RealWorld as inspiration, the Council of Genres decides to temporarily close down the imaginotransference engines in order to transform the Great Library BookWorld into a geographic landscape similar to our “reality.” Thus, genres like Crime and Conspiracy border each other (though less harmoniously) and instead of jumping from book to book, characters take TransGenre taxis, steered by reckless and “hastily trained” drivers.

Also, Fforde takes us deeper into the BookWorld than he has in the past, as very little of the story is set in the “RealWorld” where free will exists. Yet, “for all its boundless color, depth, boldness, passion, and humor, the RealWorld doesn’t appear to have any clearly discernable function.” When Thursday Next enters the RealWorld, she is overwhelmed by the multitudinous details which exist without order, narrative purpose, or meaning.

To make things more complicated, Fforde also diverges from his other series by making our protagonist not the real Thursday Next (who is a hero in the BookWorld) but actually the written version of Thursday Next who plays the star within her own novel in the novel. The plot of One of Our Thursdays Is Missing revolves around the disappearance of the real Thursday Next and the fictional version’s quests to discover and rescue her. Finding the real Thursday Next is a matter of urgent importance, as she is expected to negotiate peace talks between the genres of Racy Novel , Women’s Fiction, and Dogma. If peace and reconciliation between the genres are not accomplished, the entire BookWorld could descend into mass upheaval and even war.

As a master of developing multifarious plot lines, the book begins with the fictional Thursday Next acting in her own series (the novel within the novel) while also pursuing her side job with the Jurisfiction Accident Investigation Department (JAID) which oversees two thousand book movements a day, as the transportation of the novels across fictional skies is not without mishap. The fictional Thursday is assigned a case involving the destruction of a Vanity novel which has suffered an in-read breakup and left a narrative debris field halfway across the BookWorld. Someone has destroyed the ISBN numbers from the wreckage and all of a sudden the ruthless Men In Plaid are hunting her down. During her investigation, she befriends an ingenious, clockwork butler named Sprockett (reminiscent of C-3PO from Star Wars) who turns out to be a helpful, talented, and loyal partner. Together, they achieve what no one expects the fictional Thursday to do – solve the crime, pursue heroic, life-threatening adventures, outwit the dangerous Men In Plaid, and search and rescue the real Thursday Next.

Of course, Fforde would intertwine yet another plot line of mutiny within the Thursday Next series (the book within the book), from which she is outcast after hiring an understudy to act out the novel for readers while she is out wanderlusting and saving the BookWorld with Sprockett. This “backup” Thursday panics when more than seven readers pick up the book simultaneously and gains a lecherous reputation by engaging in a scandalous relationship with a goblin from a book next door.

Although the “RealWorld” is disorderly, chaotic, and disorienting to the fictional Thursday Next (and “eighty percent of chat is just meaningless drivel”), Fforde’s humorous descriptions of the RealWorld are truly some of the most enjoyable passages of the book. The fictional Thursday Next enters the “Alive Simulator” in order to appear human in the RealWorld on her quest to find the missing, real Thursday Next. In doing so, she enters a Large Textual Sieve Array with a howitzer cannon which is fired a .346 Absurd speed. She emerges as human for 48 hours with Agent Square, a two-dimensional being from Flatland as her guide through the RealWorld.

When delving into One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, you may enjoy the experience more if you keep track of the four different plot lines and various characters in a notebook nearby. Although many have yet to truly understand the world of Jasper Fforde (as his innovations are as bizarre as Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll), his series has generated somewhat of a cult following which has helped him achieve the status of a New York Times bestselling author. I highly recommend this new release for those who are looking for a bit of a challenge with entertaining lines which will have you both bellylaughing and enchanted throughout the entire story.

~ Victoria Andrew, The Book Goddess

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett: A Book Review

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. 451 pages. Amy Einhorn Books/G.P. Putnam’s Sons. $24.95

Skyrocketing to 50 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and achieving 1.9 million copies in print, Kathryn Stockett has launched an explosive fiction debut unveiling a heartbreaking yet inspiring portrait of African-American women during the nascent 1960’s civil rights movement in Jackson, Mississippi.

Juxtaposing narratives of three women in the deep south with lyrical dialect that would make Zora Neale Hurston proud, Stockett paints an eye-opening character study capturing unbreakable spirits of African-American maids whose limitations are great, yet whose strength, wisdom, and courage are limitless.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white girl from Mississippi, is home from college in 1962 proudly sporting a diploma. Her mother refers to her degree as a “pretty piece of paper” in an era where societal success for a woman is found through marriage and not a career. Rebelling against pressure to find a husband, Ms. Skeeter fulfills her burning ambition to become a writer. Witnessing inequities in her own hometown, she is inspired to risk everything to pursue a taboo quest of uncovering the truth behind the lives of black maids. Elitist white women of the Jackson country clubs depend upon their maids to run a household and raise their children. Yet, behind closed doors, their “invaluable” hired help are mistrusted, disrespected, and exploited. Fiesty Ms. Skeeter is outraged!

She joins forces with Minny, an outspoken, confident, unapologetic black maid who is often unemployed due to her shameless moments of “mouthing off” to her white employees and Aibileen, a regal, resilient black woman who raises over 17 white children with quiet grace and a dignified aura of wisdom. As different as these three characters may be, they unite in collecting the scathing and often shocking untold stories of black maids, and the humor, hope, and unwavering faith they emanate to survive.

Suffocating in the lines that define their town and their times 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Ms. Skeeter’s writing project stirs an uprising in a sleepy southern town about to be transformed with a movement to change the way women – of both races – view one another.

Although set in a turbulent time in history, Stockett’s compulsively readable novel instills hope and inspiration. Stirring up riveting discussions on issues of race, discrimination, and the dynamics between white and black women of the south, The Help is sure to remain as a bookseller and as a book club hot title for quite a long time.

Look for a future review comparing the novel to the movie adaptation, as DreamWorks Studios has recently slated Stockett’s firecracker of a first novel for production.

~ Victoria Andrew, The Book Goddess

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