Review: Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein

Below is my latest review from firsttoread.com of an ARC I feel, yet again, blessed to have been given the chance to read and review.

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Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein

Review by Tori Harned

My love for nonfiction is passionate and recent, opening my eyes to a whole new genre I never anticipated having a desire to explore. Just four or five months ago, I wouldn’t have been interested in reading and reviewing nonfiction work no matter how beautiful the description on the back of the book, but a course I took in the spring nudged me out of my comfort zone and straight into the creative nonfiction world, where I feel I’ve been thriving ever since.

This book kept that passion ignited with every word, and, remarkably, has taught me a lot about the kind of writer I hope to be, no matter the genre. Leigh Stein is a storyteller like no other, and her words feel natural as they move you and instill in you deeper thoughts. The story of a young, abused woman hooked on a man she knows is bad for her, and the long, psychological journey of getting out and moving on would be an inspiring and touching story for anyone to tell, but Stein will make you feel something others won’t: that you know exactly what it’s like because now you’ve lived it.

Several strategies go into making this story the best it can be, but one of the most obviously successful ones is Stein’s ability to self-implicate. A story such as this can be easy to write when the abused paints themselves off as innocent and the clear hero, while bombarding the reader with scenes packed with the devilish tendencies of the abuser. Stein, however, is much better than this, and instead reveals the good and the bad in both her and her boyfriend, Jason, and never states outright who the audience should feel more for. In this way, the reader can feel comfortable to make their own decisions about the characters because they’ve been given a reliable and complete depiction of who both of these people truly are; the hero has not been glorified and the villain has not been demonized (or mythologized, for that matter, because of his passing away).

This book has absolutely set my world on fire (in a good way, of course) and my love for this genre grows every day because of stories and authors like this one. Stein’s ability to boldly take on her own story and making a point to always say the hardest things as opposed to taking the easy way out, is the mark of a genuine person all readers will be pleased to feel they know personally. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, and I know that it will lead me to read more of her work.

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Review: The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

The following is a review I’ve just completed for a phenomenal book that I got the opportunity to receive an ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) of through FirsttoRead.com. I’d be so blessed if you took some time out of your day to read it, and absolutely pleased if you added this book to your TBR (To Be Read) pile when it comes out on February 23rd!

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The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan Book Cover

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan

Review by Tori Harned

Phenomenal. If I had to choose one word to describe this book, that’s what it’d be. I want to start off by saying that if I hadn’t been gifted the opportunity to read and review this book, I probably never would have known this story. This is not a book that I would know to seek out in a bookstore or pick up off the shelf right away, which is just too unfortunate. But, being lucky enough to be chosen to review it, I was beyond excited to try something new, and I am so pleased with the result.

I was hooked from the very beginning of this book. Amadou is a truly amazing character, and has one of the most believable voices I’ve ever read. Honestly, I struggled to figure out how old he was at first, feeling that he was almost too mature, but as the story went on, I felt more reassured that, no matter what his age, he’d grown to be wise beyond his years. His little brother, Seydou was equally as fascinating, and I feel that he worked very well as a strong supporting character beside Amadou because of his gentle heart and youthful innocence. Their story is a beautifully tragic one.

Tricked into working for a cacao farm, they end up slaves to a system of cruel and minimal regulations, working all day, everyday, for no pay, education, or freedom, which holds them hostage each night and treats them brutally for any mistake.

Then comes the first girl, a girl with a fiery passion and unrelenting will to escape and make it home again, who consequently drags Amadou and Seydou into her problems. At first, the boys are wary of associating themselves with her, but over time they develop an unbreakable bond with Khadija and are able to escape together.

One of the best things about this book was the escape. I was immediately wary of the situation when it came up, knowing that they must escape and rooting for them to, but also worried that their escape would come too easily and unbelievably. Luckily, the author, Tara Sullivan was gifted when it comes to keeping you on the edge of your seat. The escape was a terrifying experience, filled with many twists and turns, good and bad, and at so many different points I was sure something would go wrong and that they’d never make it out, which, in the end, made an incredibly believable situation out of something that could have become quite cheesy and ridiculous easily.

In an effort not to give too much else away about what happens to the trio after their escape, in hopes that this will motivate people to go out and read the book when it comes out, I will say little more about the plot. I will say, however, that many more instances come up that could have easily gone wrong and come across too unbelievable, but Sullivan found a way to balance these things out with equally brilliant characters who are convincingly smart and tough, and willing to fight for what they believe in. This, I’m convinced is what kept me hooked to their story through every chapter.

The ending, without revealing too much about it, was quite intriguing. “The Epilogue” made me cry happy tears and it was probably my favorite part of the entire book. Once again, Amadou is a brilliant storyteller. As an aspiring writer, I’d be pleased if I could ever create a character half as engaging and interesting as he.

Another great part about the book is the truth behind it. Though Amadou, Seydou, and Khadija are a fictitious bunch, they speak for a very real group of children that are trafficked everyday into slavery for the cacao business. This book truly serves as a calling to readers to be more aware of where their food comes from, and I hope it opens up their eyes like it did mine.

Again, phenomenal book, and thank you to the person (or people) at First to Read for giving me this opportunity, and Tara Sullivan for writing such a phenomenal story and choosing to share it with the world. If you have the chance, please go out and get this book when it comes out. It’s really worth the read.

Short STORI: Words on a Screen

Is it supposed to be like this when someone close to you just disappears from your life?

You have to just keep going on like nothing happened when, in reality, something did?

And then, if by chance you see them, you pretend like it’s nothing and tell them it’s no big deal?

You turn around, you walk away, you leave them with lies, your face full of tears?

When did we become like this, thinking that the distance is just too far, the time just too much?

Why did we decide we should focus on any and everything else but the relationship we had?

What caused us to throw away all that we’d built and decide never to start fresh again?

Why, all of the sudden, have we quit acknowledging the other’s existence?

When did we let ourselves become numb to how we felt, preferring what is meaningless?

Will it now, forever be this way or will you come to your senses and come back again?

Will I ever be able to say to you exactly what I mean in my heart for you to know?

Do you hear me through my questions, or is it all just words on a screen to you?

A Poem: Blossoming

rae's artwork

In my Creative Writing class we’re finishing off our poetry unit by writing what’s called “ekphrastic poetry.” An ekphrastic poem is a poem based off of a painting, whether it’s a reaction to the painting, a story about the painting, or an explanation of the painting. Today, I wrote mine, and I decided to share it with you guys because I was genuinely pleased by how well it turned out.

My poem is based off of a painting done by my amazingly talented cousin, Rae. It’s so gorgeous and as soon as my teacher said I was free to pick any painting I liked I knew this one was perfect. I am by no means a poetry person, so I hope I’ve at least done this painting justice.

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A vibrant, painted sky holds morning sunshine in its hands.

Seasons have shifted, and now the trees are waking,

Showing off their vivid dress as they dance with the breeze.

Petite, blossoming leaves fall into a frozen moment

Between a happy couple.

Around them life continues in a motion they do not know.

The choir of birds and giggling children seem to dissolve.

All she can feel is the velvety, woolen blanket under her fingertips.

All he can feel is a love for her that cannot be conveyed in one kiss,

But he will try anyway.

Short STORI: It Goes Like This

Okay. I dug deep. Here’s a little autobiographical (to a certain extent) piece for ya. This has made me reconsider my belief that people cannot understand depression unless they’ve been through it. I think that maybe, just maybe, if those of us going through depression, no matter what stage we’re in or symptoms we project, wrote more about our experiences with the disease, we might be able to give others a better understanding. Maybe. I have hope in that “maybe.”

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It goes like this:

One day you’re fine. Things are okay, maybe even better than okay. And you look around and smile at how lovely your surroundings are.

It goes like this:

You’re busy in a good way and enjoying everything you do. You do kind things for strangers with a genuine smile on your face. You have a wonderful time out with your friends.

It goes like this:

Those feelings never last more than a month. And that’s being generous.

It goes like this:

F*** life. F*** it all.

It goes like this:

Why me?

It goes like this:

You cry yourself to sleep every night. Sometimes so hard that your face hurts from it. You wake up the next day unrested.

It goes like this:

You dread having to try to make it through everyday acting like you’re fine. Or maybe you don’t act like you’re fine at all. Maybe you just take out the pain on everyone else.

It goes like this:

Your head hurts all day because emotional pain is physically painful.

It goes like this:

Everything you do sucks. And you hate everything you do. You have no motivation anymore.

It goes like this:

No one notices.

It goes like this:

You get worse.

It goes like this:

No one notices.

It goes like this:

You hate yourself.

It goes like this:

No one notices.

It goes like this:

You think a lot about death.

It goes like this:

No one notices.

It goes like this:

Forever. It feels like forever.

It goes like this:

No one notices.

It goes like this:

Maybe the pain goes away, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it takes time, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe happiness finds you again, maybe it doesn’t.

It goes like this:

You’re better. For now.

It goes like this:

When you say you’re doing okay you mean it.

It goes like this:

Something big, or small, happens.

It goes like this:

You just want the pain to stop. How do you make it stop? Please make it stop.

It goes like this:

Tears.

It goes like this:

No one notices.

It goes like this:

….

It goes like this:

Everyone notices.

Short STORI: You

And now, for the last story of the two-week blog kick-off.

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You: are the reason I get up each and every day. You: are the reason I’ve managed to hold on to life for this long. You: are the reason I can still smile. You: are the reason I know who I am and I’m proud of her. You: are the reason I look for the good in everything. You: are the reason I have great hopes for the future. You: are the reason I can remember that God cares for me more than I’ll ever comprehend. You: are the reason I know what it’s like to love and be loved.

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Oh, did I mention there’s a picture to go with this one?

ejrhappinessquote

Short STORI: Waiting for a Fairytale

Things have changed between us. Things that I never wanted to change. Feelings that I never wanted to change. I’m at this point where every second I’m around him I just crave the one thing I already know he’ll never give me. His love.

I mean, I know he loves me. I know that I can comfortably call him my best friend and that if I ever needed help or support he’d be there for me. I know that when he asks “what’s up” he is genuinely concerned. I know that I can tell him everything and never have to wonder if he’ll keep my secrets, understand my troubles, or listen to what I’m telling him. I know that when he signs “I love you” at the end of a message he means every letter. Those are things I don’t have to question, I just know. The only thing I question is: will it ever change?

Because I’m tired of being in “the friends stage.” I’m tired of the simple: “what’s up?” I’m tired of keeping my feelings inside because I’m worried he won’t understand or want to listen if I get too intense. I’m tired of seeing “I love you” and never hearing it. I’m tired of the way that he loves me, because I’m old enough now to know that I need so much more than that.

How do I ask for that? How do I ask for that again? How do I ask for that when I already know his answer?

I’ve come to realize that this whole time I’ve been thinking I could change his mind. I thought that maybe enjoying being friends and being happy, he would develop different feelings. Or maybe he’s just been hiding away those feelings. Or maybe he just hasn’t figured out he’s harboring a whole bunch of romantic thoughts and feelings for me yet. That maybe he wants to be sure and get to know me first. That maybe he’s waiting for the right moment. That maybe fairytales do exist and he’ll become my knight in shining armor.

Yeah, that’s what I was waiting for. A fairytale. A story. Something that just isn’t real. But I thought if I wanted it badly enough, it might just happen. Newsflash…real life is a story of nonfiction events.

Dang, that revelation kind of hurts.

Short STORI: What I’ve Learned About Love

The first thing I learned about love was that it should be synonymous with happiness. I learned this from my grandparents who never stopped smiling when they were together. Teachers asked: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I told them I wanted to be like my grandparents. Then they’d ask me what kind of jobs my grandparents had and I told them, “just loving each other.” Sometimes they laughed and told me that wasn’t the kind of work they were talking about, but I think the way they loved each other must have been due to some pretty hard work.

The second thing I learned about love was that is doesn’t always last forever. This is something I got from my parents, who divorced when I was twelve. If I’d known what divorce was and understood the concept, maybe this wouldn’t have surprised me. I wondered if they just missed the class in college that teaches you about being married but apparently there’s no such thing. But that’s okay, because they moved on to love other people now like the way that my grandparents love each other.

The third thing I learned about love was that sometimes you don’t receive it in return. I found this out the first time I told a boy “I love you” and he just looked at me funny and said: “I’m not ready for that. Let’s just be friends,” which are basically the two worst rejections you can get. That weekend my best friends threw me a surprise “Heartbreak Rehab” that mostly consisted of consuming ridiculous amounts of potato chips and ice cream, and watching cheesy romance movies solely for the purpose of yelling rude things at the male lead.

The last thing I learned about love is that it defies everything, all logic, reason, odds, and expectations. Which basically makes up for all the loops it throws you when you’re younger. Because then love comes along and guides you on a journey you never imagined. Then you meet the right person for you and love means more to you than it ever has. And then all you can think about is how everything that brought you here was worth it.

Short STORI: Just Married 2

I thought the day that I met her was the best day of my life, but I was wrong. Today is so much better. As she walks slowly towards me everything feels right with the world. She is my joy, my light, my “other half” as people say. If you’d asked me three years ago where I saw myself in that time, I never would have said married. But she came along, picked me, said yes, and now all I want is to make her mine forever. So I stand here at the end of the aisle ready and willing.

Short STORI: Just Married

I thought the day that I met him was the best day of my life, but I was wrong. Today is so much better. Walking down the aisle to him, well, I’ll admit I have worries, but absolutely no doubts. I know that he is the best thing for me, “the one” as people like to call it. I just hope that I can live everyday being the best thing for him for the rest of our lives. Wow. I can feel the pressure but I smile through it. The look on his face tells me he’d love me anyway.