Review: The Stars that Tremble by Kate McMurray


Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Stars That TrembleMike McPhee and his partner were young and in love with a bright, long future ahead of them.  So when Mike’s lover suggested that they adopt a child, Mike agreed, thinking it would be years before a child was found.  But a young girl gave them her baby to adopt and soon they were a family.  However, their happiness was short lived as a gun shot took Mike’s lover away from him and made him a single dad.  Now years later Mike is still grieving, his happiness and life centered around his remarkable daughter Emma.  Emma wants to be an opera singer and is incredibly gifted.  She wants to be admitted to the renown Giovanni Boca’s opera workshop at the Collective Olcott Music School, a prestigious institution in New York City.  And Mike wants to make that happen even if he has to go into debt to do it.

Giovanni Boca was already an opera legend when a vocal chord injury abruptly ended his career during his performance of Nessum Dorma.  And while he has continued on as a much sought after vocal teacher and consultant, he has continued to mourn the loss of his voice and his career as an opera singer.  When young Emma auditions for his workshop, Giovanni finds not only a once in a lifetime talent but an attraction to the child’s father as well.

Both Mike and Gio understand what it is to lose the most important thing in their life and find themselves drawn to each other.  But life has a way of throwing hurdles in the path of true love, and for Mike and Gio, that includes Mike’s insecurities about their differences in status, income, and way of life.  Gio has other obstacles that mar their way to happiness, including a stage mother that will stop at nothing to see that her daughter succeeds, even if that means hurting Emma in the process.

The Stars That Tremble has so many lovely elements to its story that it can be appreciated on multiple levels.  First element that drew me to this story is the inclusion of music.  I happen to love music and opera so to be given a story where that is a key element makes me almost giddy with happiness, especially when it contains references to many of my favorite operas. Whether Gio is talking about a recording of June Anderson singing from Die Zauberflöte or the author is using different musical movements to describe Gio and Mike’s lovemaking, it is clear that the author is not only familiar with the world of opera and musical schools but has a deep love for them as well.  Here is a small excerpt:

GIO talked while he plugged his MP3 player into the speakers. “I had a voice coach when I was living in Milan who thought the best way to inspire his singers was to scare the living hell out of them. So now I will do that to you.”

Twelve teenagers sat rapt on the studio floor, staring at Gio. He found “Der Hölle Rache” in the list of songs. “This is June Anderson singing from Die Zauberflöte.” He hit play. “It is famously referred to as the Queen of the Night’s aria, although she sings another earlier in the opera that is nearly as good. Here, she is singing, ‘Hell’s vengeance boils my heart.’ She is not having such a good time, eh? And Mozart is about to put her through hell vocally too. Listen.”

It was clear from their expressions that a few of the girls knew this aria. Emma McPhee certainly did. The girls who didn’t blanched when the singer got to the run pattern between the verses.

“This,” Gio said when the aria finished, “is coloratura. Literally, it means coloring, but in the context of an opera, it means to add these vocal flourishes. They are beautiful but extraordinarily difficult to sing.” He smiled, trying not to freak the kids out too much. “That is, coloratura was often added to songs in the bel canto tradition. Can any of you think of other examples?”

About half the class was with it. Emma cited Rossini, the obvious example. Marie pulled out an obscure Mozart piece, which allowed Gio to freak the class out more by pointing out that this particular part was written for a castrato. Most of the boys winced at that. Greg knew “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted” from Handel’s Messiah was a coloratura tenor aria.

“Good,” Gio said. “Now I will blow your minds some more. This one is from “Nixon in China.”

What a terrific example of teaching!  The wording is concise, his meaning clear.  Obviously Kate McMurray has been in that situation before and her memories ground her writing in reality.  I loved this, although I have to admit “Nixon in China” sent me running to Google.

I loved her characters too.  Mike McPhee is a wonderful blue collar man who lives outside the normal stereotype.  He is compassionate, steady, intelligent, and warmhearted.  A man clearly in love with his daughter while still mourning the love of his life.  Mike put his personal life on hold the day his partner died, making Emma’s happiness and well being his sole goal in life.   Just as easy to connect with is Giovanni Boca, a legendary opera singer who tragically can no  longer sing.   Passionate, throughly Italian, cultured, Gio too rises above the almost expected snobbery to come across as a lovely, open hearted non judgmental human being. Emma completes the triad of main characters as it should be as Mike pivots around her and her future while disregarding his own.

If you have been around children of this age and talent or have them yourself then Emma is easily recognizable as that terrific kid who is self centered (in that way of children everywhere), concerned with her hopes and dreams while leapfrogging over those of her father.  Kids of any age like their status quo no matter what they may say differently and Emma is that child.  She is young, talented and been the center of her dad’s life all her years, so having that change in many ways is difficult.  I understood her even when I didn’t like all her very human reactions to her father’s and Gio’s burgeoning relationship.

There were parts where the narrative slowed down a bit or a transition in pov was a little uneven, but this story sings.  It is full of love, and romance, and of course, some of the most memorable music you have ever heard.  Run, don’t walk to add this to your bookshelf!  Consider this lovely story recommended!

Cover art by Aaron Anderson.  I found the cover a little murky in color but the music in the background is lovely.

Book Details:

ebook, 200 pages
Published September 30th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press
ISBN13 9781627981361
edition language English

Review of Frog by Mary Calmes


Rating: 4.75 stars

At 44, Weber Yates realizes that his age, talent and physical condition makes his dream of becoming a rodeo champion a remote possibility at best.  When a job on a ranch becomes available, Web figures he ought to grab the only job he is fit for. But first he must make a phone call to the man he loves, Cyrus Benning, a neurosurgeon in San Francisco.  Weber met the handsome surgeon while Cyrus was on vacation at a dude ranch where Weber was a seasonal employee.  Sparks flew and a one-time hookup turned into 3 years of phone calls, meetings between rodeos, short hookups, and arguments over pride and a future together.  Weber has always felt like the frog in their fairy tale relationship, but Cyrus has always seen the prince that is Weber under the rough cowboy image he projects.

Shivering in a phone booth outside of San Francisco, Weber reaches out one last time to Cyrus before beginning his life on a ranch up north. They had parted after another argument over their future together, something Weber has always regretted. Can both men find their way back to each other through obstacles built of pride and mismatched backgrounds?  Or will Cyrus finally convince Weber that they belong to each other and accept his place as prince of his heart?

Mary Calmes strengths as a writer are front and center in this heartwarming story of love, acceptance, and family.  I really love the fact that this is a story of two men in their forties, finding love later in life.  Weber Yates has some of the same qualities Mary Calmes has given her other main characters.  He is charismatic, a person who by personality alone brings people closer and resolves conflict.  He is beloved by children and animals without feeling at ease in upper class social situations. But Weber Yates with greater depths and layers. He is also a man who has seen his dreams die a hard, dusty death in the rodeo arena and realizes the pursuit of that dream has left him penniless, physically broken and alone. Insecure, and aware that he lacks education, Weber feels that pride is all he has left.  Tall, skinny, with red hair and bruised ribs, he is hardly the golden boy of some of Calmes other novels.  Those physical attributes fall to Cyrus Benning, the neurosurgeon who chanced upon his soulmate during a vacation in Texas.  Cyrus Benning is also a character with his own insecurities and needs, the “golden boy” image hiding his frustration over his inability to profess his love and need for the itinerant cowboy passing in and out of his life and heart.  Two complex men who are given one last chance to make their relationship work amid a family crisis and a job offer waiting for Weber in Alaska.

With Weber and Cyrus as the heart, Mary Calmes pulls more wonderful characters into the story.  Enter Carolyn Easton, Cyrus’ sister and her three young boys, Tristan, Pip and Micah – the family in crisis.  Carolyn’s husband has walked out on the family and took the nanny with him. She needs her brother and the stability he offers just when Cyrus wants only to concentrate on Weber.  The dialog and action between the boys has the real flavor of someone who is familiar with adolescent boys and their behavior.  The way in which Weber relates to them seems so very authentic as did their reaction to him. Carolyn is a wonderful portrait of a woman whose world has fallen to pieces and is too stressed out to find a way to put it back together by herself.  Bit by bit, Weber is pulled into a family who needs him and is strengthened by it.  All of the author’s gift at characterizations are evident in the people she has created for Frog.  Each and every one memorable in their own right. To borrow an overused phrase, I “heart” them all.

I loved this heartwarming tale.  Perfect?  No, there are a few places that some will say stretch the boundaries of belief, especially when it comes to Micah, a child whose voice was frozen by past trauma.  Did I mind it?  No.  This book left me smiling and feeling great.  So perhaps we can leave it with an almost perfect.  How about practically perfect in every way!  And we all know who said that don’t we? And I am never one to argue with her.

Cover: Artist Reese Dante.  That confused me a little.  Reese Dante usually has these lush covers yet this is simplicity itself.  I thought the handclasp was nice but how does a cowboy and neurosurgeon figure into that?  It gives you no idea of the story within nor does it relate to the title.  It could be just two guys at the beach? See?   Call me Confused.