Queen’s Innocence

Today, we’re going to be exploring a book with a much darker theme than most we share. But often, the books with the harshest look at reality are the ones most important to read. After all, is there anything more frightening in the world than the things that we, as humans, do to one another?

I was recently approached by author D. Odell Benson concerning her novel Queen’s Innocence, a realistic look at the practice and aftermath of human trafficking in the life of one girl. While this book holds subject matter that may be difficult to read, perhaps after learning a bit about its author and how she created Aaliyah in Queen’s Innocence, you’ll add it to your reading list.

Aaliyah was born into a loving family with two parents, a full toy box, and the carefree innocence that children inherently have. But when her father crosses the line and assaults her, Aaliyah’s life if turned upside down and the once promising trajectory veers sharply off course.

She rapidly slips through the cracks, the police and foster care failing her at every turn. She passes through the hands of doctors and case workers, warehoused and ignored. When it does come time for freedom, she leaves the system only to be forced into a new type of system, one where women are a commodity to be bought, sold, and abused.

But as Aaliyah grows and is faced with the ability to retake her power, there are those who don’t wish to lose out on the money she can earn them. Can she break free of years of bondage, or will Aaliyah become yet another statistic?

I’m sorry to leave the description on such a cliffhanger, but Aaliyah’s journey is the book. Unless you can walk beside her and really take in all the trials of her teens and adult life, you can hardly appreciate the work Benson has created. Still, Aaliyah’s story isn’t just words on a page, it’s the end result of months of research and true stories that are reflected on the pages.

Human trafficking isn’t just something that exists on the fringes of society in seedy motels and back alleyways. It happens in the penthouses in New York City, the farmlands of Iowa, the split level home next door, and the streets of your own town. This includes my own area, no matter how quiet my middle class, suburban streets now are.

I was born in Atlantic City, which hasn’t had the best reputation. If you’re out on Pacific Avenue at night, you might see “the girls” strolling the sidewalk, trying to make eye contact with the bachelor parties as they walk to yet another strip club. You might see a man parked down one darkened street, watching “his girls” and ensuring they don’t leave the fold, collecting his cut after ever job. For people born in my area, that’s just part of casino life, but many of those women don’t choose to be there. Drug addiction, mental illness, abusive relationships, and even poverty brings the human traffickers. And once you’ve been taken into that life, it’s often difficult, if not dangerous, to leave.

Now that we’ve discussed the book and why I found this novel particularly engaging, let’s get to know D. Odell Benson and find out what brought her to write Queen’s Innocence.

1. Tell us a little about yourself and your journey toward becoming a published author.

I am an introvert that is generally the life of the party/event. I believe that being nice to people will cost me nothing, so I make sure I offer a smile when I can. Considering life has not expiration date, I live with my heart on my sleeve, even towards strangers, loving unconditionally. That’s the most important thing about me, well that’s what I would like to believe.

My journey truly started in 2013. I was working full-time on my Master’s Degree coupled with full-time employment; but still felt that I could do more, which doesn’t happen often. See, I have ADD (attention deficit disorder) so focusing on one thing has always been a challenge for me; but, for some reason I was able to write in pure tunnel vision. The joy and adrenaline that came from the first five chapters gave me a lease on life that I have never felt before and one I refuse to live without. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve written thousands of short stories and poems throughout the years, but writing a novel is a total different beast and I love it.

2. What inspired you to write Queen’s Innocence?

The inspiration to write Queen’s Innocence came from my own daughter. A toddler doesn’t see or understand the dangers around them. Everything is fun, bright, and peaceful. These are innocent souls that we as adults are supposed to care for and keep safe; but how do you keep your child or the children around you safe when no one speaks of the dangers. I want people to speak on these dangers. I feel that Society as a whole has gotten into this “mind your business” phase and it’s more damaging to the younger children that didn’t ask to be here.

3. What was the inspiration behind the character of Aaliyah?

Aaliyah is you or me or even the girl next door. The things she did during the day, playing with dolls and sitting in front of the television waiting for her favorite show. This is typical child behavior. I thought about myself as a child, and incorporated my two oldest nieces and was able to see the innocence even at that age. I want people to see that Aaliyah can be any child, male or female. In a single parent home or a home with two parents. A happy thriving child can be a victim too. It’s not just “bad” or low poverty areas, Aaliyah is in every household, good, bad, or indifferent.

4. Your biography states that you were born in Philadelphia (this makes us almost neighbors!) did the city of your birth lend any inspiration to your work?

Yes, a lot of my work either starts here, ends up here, or crosses path with the City of Brotherly Love in some way. The inspiration for Queen’s Innocence and Philadelphia conjoins by the hopefulness of neighbors. Abuelo is anyone’s father or grandfather. I grew up on Bellevue Street in North Philadelphia where there was always a man somewhere telling you not to do something or will provide us with something we needed in order to keep our game going. Older men generally are essential to urban communities.

5. Aaliyah seems to “bounce back” from things fairly quickly for having been through so much, including the assault and drug addiction, so much so that her wit is sharper than one might expect for a young, abused teen. Why did you decide to make her such a resilient character?

Growing up in the City you see at a young age that things can go horribly wrong. You can either allow it to consume you or you can consume it and move forward. Not all “victims” remain victims, more times than not they become victorious; because in them, is something stronger, deeper, something that they were given at birth. The ability to recognize the World’s truths but the understanding that you and only you  can show someone else that it’s okay to hurt, to cry, to lash out, but time waits for no one; not even the victim. Aaliyah saw first hand what giving up looks like. Most women forced into human trafficking can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes the drugs forced on them is the one thing keeping them. Being resilient comes with seeing the “what if”. Aaliyah’s thought is that of a person that sees the bigger picture, help someone else to move on. See, she has her rock, she has the person that showed her even through her own doubt that he would be there, he would protect her. Not all victims will get that, Aaliyah knew this much because if it weren’t for Elijah, King (aka Lee) would have sold her back into what he rescued her from.

6. Much of the content of the book was fairly graphic. Did you find that difficult to write and research?

It was hard, it made me cry at points, completely breakdown in others, and wanted to throw the entire storyline out. That’s when it hit me, if I can have these feelings, if I can go through the thoughts and visuals of being sold off, raped, and drugged; why not show others that this is real. That this really happens to people and it’s not all flowers and unicorns. Life is hard, it’s breathtaking, unbearable, scary, the thought itself is scary and deep down I hurt. I hurt in a place that I want others to feel. I want others to feel as hopeless as I did when I was writing, rewriting, and reading. I want others to get into this fight and help because the hurt deep down is too much to bear for one person.

7. How much research did you do into the topics of human trafficking, foster care, mental health, childbirth, and drug addiction before beginning your project?

I started research on prostitution, that’s when my eyes were wide open for the first time. It took me a few months to do the research needed for human trafficking and about a month to speak to some people that are in the field of prostitution, and how they got to where they are today.

8. In your opinion, how can the public work to end human trafficking?

Speak up, stop minding your business, be observant of people and vehicles that are not normally there. Our biggest issue in society is that we moved away from the term, “it takes a village to raise a child.” If you’re not willing to be that voice, I understand. There’s a website www.wearethorn.org it’s ran by a group of individuals that are passionate about helping those abused. If fighting against human trafficking is too much, donate to the organization above. I am not affiliated with this organization in any way, but a portion of my earnings from Queen’s Innocence will be donated to help them in their quest to make the World a tad bit better.

9. How long did it take you to write Queen’s Innocence?

With research and mental breakdowns, it took about ten months. I actually started this book and a few others on Facebook. I thought it was something different and wanted to pull people together by offering parts of my books for free.

10. What do you want readers to take away from this book?

That human trafficking is real. It can take place in the hood, the suburbs, and even those places where millions are spent just on lawn care. There’s no monetary gauge on where and who can be taken. I don’t want to put fear into people and make them not want to do things, I just want people to be more mindful of their surroundings, mindful of the children that may yell out for help. Don’t mind your business, let your voice be heard, and possibly save a life.

11. Do you have any plans to continue Aaliyah’s story?

As of right now, I don’t plan to continue Aaliyah’s story. I want to leave her off as being an inspiration to others, a victorious survivor.

12. Readers might think that Aaliyah has allowed the negative parts of her life to take over the rest, for example when she recounted the rape and subsequent abuses at her wedding speech. What are your thoughts?

We grow by our mistakes, by our journey no matter how bumpy it is or terrifying the truth is, we grow. When there’s something to this magnitude, talking it out is the best way. Others wouldn’t be able to know they aren’t alone if Aaliyah doesn’t speak on it. Her pain can be someone else’s salvation.

13. What books, if any, do you have planned to tackle next?

I am looking to release Married Assassin on June 2nd during Bookcon. I will be at the event for a workshop and a few panels but I will not be on display this year.

Overall, I found this book to be engaging and raw. It was difficult to read at times, due to the harsh subject matter, but I find that that’s what makes it an important work. While parts were dramatized in a “Lifetime Movie” way that made them almost unbelievable, the themes were universally understandable across the board. I recommend this book to any reader over the age of 18 who wants to learn more about clawing your way back to the light.

To keep up to date with all D. Odell Benson’s work, order one of her books and learn more about her, please visit her at any of her platforms:

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Irresistibly Yours

Just found a new series that I am in love with after the first installment. Sure, it’s a little unbelievable at times, but what good romance novel doesn’t stretch the truth? Introducing book one of the Oxford series, Irresistibly Yours by Lauren Lane.

Heat Level:❤️❤️❤️❤️

Genre:Contemporary Romance

Overall Rating:6/6 Glass Slippers

Cole Sharpe has been a freelance writer for Oxford Magazine for years, so when a head sports editor spot is up for grabs, he thinks he has the job in the bag. Not only does he want the position, he needs it, as he alone is supporting his brother. But one day, while working on a baseball piece, a girl catches his eye. She’s not the blonde bombshell he usually goes for, in fact, she’s the exact opposite. Between the hotdog in her hand, her interest in the game, and unveiled interest in who takes the field, Cole thinks he might be in love with the mystery woman in the stands.

Enter Penelope Pope. Penelope leaves her old life behind to start fresh in a new city, and hopefully with a new job. While she’s perfect on paper, she worries that the “good old boys club” might be hard to crack at Oxford Magazine. Cole has an in, is extremely likable, and even she has to admit it’s difficult to find fault in her competition.

Tom boy Penelope and cocky Cole have their work cut out for them as they find they have more in common than just a talent for sports writing. But as things heat up on the field for baseball season, things get even hotter between the two writers as they try to fight their growing feelings without fighting each other in the process.

Ugh, this book was adorable. Penelope was sweet and Cole was likable, but both were human. Their budding “relationship” seemed real enough to be believable and it was easy to commiserate with both Cole’s difficult family life and Penelope’s weakness for a certain ex-fling. I was rooting for them the whole way though, even when I thought Cole was being too harsh or Penelope too dramatic.

I highly recommend Irresistibly Yours to all lovers of real romance.

Secrets and Charades-An Audiobook

I love audiobooks and listen to them all the time. They’re great for when I’m in the car, cleaning, or laying out in the summer. So when a big time narrator named Meghan Kelly released another historical romance, I jumped at the chance to give it a listen. But before we get into Secrets and Charades, written by Cindy Ervin Huff, let’s get to know Meghan. Meghan is a natural performer. She made her rounds through the high school drama and choir scene and went to college to hone her craft. While it wasn’t what she expected, she couldn’t leave the entertainment world completely behind.

After working with a talent agency in New York City, she moved to the Detroit area, where she became a talent agent and worked her craft for six years. While it was rewarding, it was often difficult and she found her true passion in voiceovers, which later led her back onto the stage as a singer.

Now she is no stranger to the world of voiceovers and began her audiobook narration career five years ago. She looked into ACX, or Audiobook Creation Exchange, and booked her first gig, now boasting over two hundred audiobooks on her resume. Although that might sound like a piece of cake, think about your average audiobook. Think about the thirteen hours of flawless narration you’ve been enjoying, the character voices, the polished tone that brings a story to life…all that takes hours to create.

She begins by searching the ACX platform, looking for a good fit for her talents. Once she’s found one, she retires to the custom home studio her husband built for her work. Then begins the difficult part of her job, getting a perfect read. Each hour of narration takes about six hours of work. This includes the pre-reading, voice prep, recording, proofing, and mastering. Not only is she the voice of the audiobook, but she is the editor and main promoter as well.There is still joy in what she does, as she adores historical romance and fiction. A love passed on to her from her mother, it is what ultimately led her to Secrets and Charades, a sweet historical, western romance with more than one hidden agenda and man in disguise in its pages. Download Secrets and CharadesHEREShop her audiobooks HEREVisit her website HERE

Genre: Historical Christian Western Romance/Mystery

Heat Level:❤️

Story Rating: 5/6 Glass Slippers

Narration Rating: 6/6 Glass Slippers

Jake is a cowboy in every sense of the word. He works hard on his piece of land, tending to the cattle and raising his wild niece Juliet. Between keeping his ranch hands in line, turning a profit on his herd, and the limited number of eligible women in his corner of the desert, he’s out of luck when it comes to love…until a letter answering his matrimonial ad changes everything. Evangeline is a no-nonsense doctor In Missouri that is far less interested in marriage than most women her age. She’s content to tend to her patients and recover from a small scandal that hit her medical practice. But her niece Maggie has other ideas. Maggie, pretending to be Evangeline, answered an ad for a wife in the matrimonial times and had been corresponding with a man named Jake for quite some time before coming clean to her aunt. Initially scandalized, Evangeline soon thinks that maybe a marriage of convenience and a fresh start is just what she needs to shake off her past. Besides, she believes the Lord works in mysterious ways and perhaps marrying Jake is all in the plan.

Her new home is desolate, warm, but far from the conveniences she has grown up with, and armed with her hefty dowry, she settles into life at the ranch. But when it comes to Jake, she’s not entirely ready to begin her widely duties and puts the fate of the marriage into God’s hands. But aside from the physical aspects, Evangeline is hiding many secrets from her new husband and isn’t sure if he will even want to keep her when she finally does come clean.

While they sort out their life together, cattle’s thieves roam the area, taking not only their livelihood, but sense of security. Bandits are not unheard of and two-faced ranch hands complicate matters when secrets become unraveled. As time goes on and her feelings for Jake deepen, Evangeline must both come clean about her past and keep her new home from falling into ruin. Okay, so I’ll start with the story first. Overall, I enjoyed the book. Because there was no physicality or overt romance scenes, the plot had to carry the book completely. In that, it did not disappoint. It had everything you would expect in a western, and more. There was the fallout from the civil war, cattle thieves, racist shop owners in a dusty town, men on the run, and the ramifications of women’s rights and breaking the glass ceiling of what is expected of a woman and a wife. As a historian, the story was vastly believable as well and I didn’t find any inaccuracies that might ruin it for another history buff.

The bulk of the book relied on Christian values, from the themes of forgiveness and grace to the cornerstones of Evangeline and Jake’s marriage. While I normally do not read Christian books, it’s nice to have a clean read that one can share with Grandma without feeling the need to skip Sunday dinner out of shame.

As for the narration, I was pleased as punch (whatever that means!) at how Meghan handled things. Her voice was clear and sharp and she gave life to each character as she spoke. You could always tell when Jake was calling out from the barn or Juliet was speaking about her beloved dog, even without using “he said/she said” after every sentence. You would never know she was a one woman show, recording and editing herself. Overall, I highly recommend Secrets and Charades in audiobook and highly highly recommend Meghan Kelly as a narrator. Remember to visit her website HERE and see what’s next on your Audible list.

Here to Stay

Smell that? It’s the scent of hay, horses, leather, the mark of a well-done western historical. For the first time in a while, we’re actually getting a historical to review! Breaking the contemporary streak is Kristine Raymond with Here to Stay, Hidden Springs Book 1.

Genre: Western Historical Romance

Heat Level: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Overall Rating: 5/6 Glass Slippers

When Sam Mackenzie takes a job putting up fences at Kate Ryan’s farm, it’s not just the pay and promise of a hot meal that makes him want to work her land, it’s her. Strong willed, determined, and not too hard on the eyes, she’s not afraid to work alongside the men and show them she’s not just some little lady. She’s unlike anyone he’s ever met and before long, he finds himself wanting to blur the line between business and pleasure.

Kate is a woman in a man’s world and she can certainly hold her own. But not everyone in town is convinced she’s as nice as she comes off. She has money, but not a husband, and everyone thinks she has more than a few secrets hidden up at her ranch. Little do they know, they’re right, and Sam’s about to find out if her hidden past is too much for him to carry…especially when it resurfaces in the worst way possible.

As you know, I’m a historian with a degree and everything. I struggle to enjoy a historical book when timelines don’t add up and there are things like lightbulbs decades before their invention. But I didn’t have that big of a problem with Raymond’s novel. Some parts were “modern” in the sense that their conversations contained phrases that weren’t part of the American dialogue before the 1950’s, and Kate’s complete independence was sometimes a little too much for that time period, but things like that are easy to overlook when you’re enjoying the book. It had the feel of the late 1800s, and to me, that’s more than enough.

I liked Kate and Sam together. Their romance was strained at times, but is there such a thing as a bump-free road to love? Some might say there is, but a drama free read is hardly interesting. You want them to talk things out, to come clean, to share the parts of themselves that no one else can touch. They’re flawed, but it makes them human, and the same can be said of the side characters that added levity at some points and drama in the next. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this and recommend it to fans who like a little history and a lot of sex with their cowboys.

As a rule, I always warn when there is rape in a book, and this one does have a nonconsensual scene and is a plot point that is discussed multiple times. Still, justice is eventually served and the assailant does get what he deserves.

Bet Me

Jennifer Cruise is a big name in the romance world. It’s almost weird that I haven’t read anything by her before. So on a whim, I picked up Bet Me, a contemporary romance stand-alone that promised a good time.

Genre: Contemporary Romance

Heat Level:❤️❤️❤️❤️

Overall Rating: 5/6 Glass Slippers

Min Dobbs is a woman who lives by the rules. Her job as an actuary means that she’s a pro at breaking down what can and will go wrong, something that seeps into her love life. She’s recently been dumped by David, a man who was perfect on paper, but behind the scenes, he was a little too interested in having her lose weight and getting her into bed than he was getting to know the real her. While a breakup is never fun, Min has the extra pain of being dateless to her perfect sister’s wedding, something her judgmental mother will never let her live down. She never expects to be picked up by the handsome Cal Morrisey one night at the local bar, especially as she thinks she’s a little too “fat” for a guy like him.

Cal has a reputation as a bad boy, a guy that leaves a girl when she decides she loves him. He’s not a mean person, just emotionally stunted, which is why he’s intrigued when a guy he knows named David makes him a bet. David gives Cal one month to get prim and proper Min into bed. The number on this bet? Ten thousand dollars. There’s a bit of a communication breakdown between the guys, but Cal finds that he’s drawn to the self-proclaimed chubby girl in the flashy shoes. He finds himself shedding his tough facade around her and figuring out for himself what in the world would really make him happy.

The pair bonds over chicken Marsala, he bugs her to not dress like she hates her body, and she makes him think about why he’s so against opening up. The push and pull sparks a friendship that bothers David and Cal’s most recent exgirlfriend, who in turn bond over splitting them up, dispose the fact that Min and Cal make it clear to everyone that their relationship is strictly platonic. As the end date of the bet draws near, the cast of characters is drawn into a tangle of secrets, sexual tension, lies, malice, and the sinful Krispy Kreme donuts that may throw an entire wedding off its tracks.

Overall, I liked the book. Min was cute and sassy and Cal was a meathead with a heart of gold. I thought his obsession with her shoes and toes was a little weird, but foot fetishes aren’t my thing, so I can’t exactly hold that against anyone. They had a nice back and forth that was pretty realistic. But the most realistic thing about this book was Min’s feelings about her body and what she should look like. We’re not given an exact number on how much she weighs, but her concern over fitting into her bridesmaid gown and never cooking with butter is relatable. There have been times in basically every woman’s life where she felt less than, and it was nice to see Min’s growth throughout the book.

Parts were funny, some were sad, others were straight out of everyone’s life story, down to the one friend who believes in fairy tails and the other who has no interest in being tied down. Sure, the whole book could have been sorted by a good chat between the MCs, but what’s the fun of a romance without a little drama?