Monday, May 29, 2023

May Read: The Collected Regrets of Clover by Mikki Bramm

 I've heard buzz about this novel for a few months and had the chance to grab a copy at the library just before my long weekend. Oh, I loved this one. It's definitely in my top ten favorite reads for 2023. And yes, I did get weepy. 

Clover Brooks is a death doula. What, you may ask, is that? It's someone who sits with those who are in their last weeks; usually someone who has no one else. They help guide them through some of their last requests, talk about memories, and hold their hand. Clover is really good as a death doula. 

Clover is also very alone. She lost her parents at a very early age, and moved to New York City to live with her Grandfather. Now thirty-six, Clover's Grandfather has been gone for over ten years, and Clover misses him so much she hasn't changed anything in the apartment they shared for so long. She's introverted, only playing mahjong with her elderly neighbor Leo and otherwise living quietly with her dog and cats. Life is passing her by, but the universe intervenes and begins pushing Clover towards a more meaningful, happy life. 

A new neighbor moves in, and Sylvie is vivacious and super friendly. She charms Clover and slowly starts becoming friends. Sebastian meets Clover at a death cafe--yes, a place where people gather to talk about death. Even though Clover isn't interested at all in a friendship with Sebastian, he keeps popping up and being friendly. His grandmother, Claudia, is dying, and Sebastian wants Clover to be her death doula. Clover reluctantly agrees, and soon begins a firm friendship with Claudia--and so much happens because of this relationship. 

It was wonderful to see Clover change as her interactions with Sylvie, Sebastian, and Claudia prove to be catalysts towards Clover living a life of purpose and joy. She's got a lot of unprocessed grief over her grandfather to work through, and the difficulty that comes with leaving her comfort zone for the unknown. All of the characters who populate Clover's world are the kind of people you'd want to have in your life. 

This was a quick read, with many poignant moments. It will have you reflecting on the life you live, and how important it is to live so you have no regrets at the end of your life. As one character says, "The secret to a beautiful death is to live a beautiful life". 

Rating: 6/6 for a fantastic novel that made me smile, cry, and reflect. Just a joyful novel that will stick with me for a long time. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

May Read: Happy Place by Emily Henry


I finished the latest from Emily Henry a few days ago and I've given myself a few days to mull it over. There will definitely be those who absolutely love and adore this novel, and some, like me, who are "meh" about it. 

Happy Place takes place over a week's time in Knott's Harbor, Maine. A group of six friends gather for their yearly vacation at a beach cottage in this tourist-friendly town. The six friends: Sabrina, Cleo, Kimmy, Harriet, Wyn, and Parth have made this a tradition, but this year is a bit different: the cottage is being sold by Sabrina's wealthy father, and this will be their last year to relive their college and post-college memories of summers in Maine. 

The kicker here: Harriet and Wyn. They've been together for seven years, and madly in love. Only problem is they broke up six months ago, and didn't tell anyone. Sabrina surprises Harriet by inviting Wyn for the week, and then surprises the whole group with the news that her and Parth are getting married. That week. In Maine. With only their closest friends. So Harriet and Wyn decide they've got to pretend they're still together. Which may very well destroy both of them before the week's out. 

The novel bounces back and forth between "Real Life" during the week, and the past-starting with Wyn and Harriet meeting, and the evolution of their relationship. Let's be clear here--these two LOVE each other. Passionately. Their chemistry is pretty darn apparent, and well written. Wyn can't keep his hands off Harriet, even after all this time. So why did they break up? You never quite get the answer until well into the novel, and it's kind of a blah reason. I expected something more because these two are clearly devastated they are no longer together, but don't know how to communicate to each other to fix it. Mental health is one of the themes of the novel, and I do appreciate that it is brought up and discussed. 

Harriet explores her memories of their relationship, and her desire to please her parents by continuing her focus on becoming a brain surgeon. But is it really what she wants? Is it keeping her and Wyn apart? And Wyn--he's pretty quiet so it's hard to figure out just why he broke things off with Harriet. He needs to be a bit more open and communicate. UGH! Communication!! 

This novel is also about people growing up. Stepping away from college years and into adulthood and all that it demands. It can find all of us making choices and sometimes growing apart as life takes us in different directions. It can be painful and, yes, sometimes hurtful to friends who aren't quite ready to move on. 

I did feel like an intrusive guest sometimes reading this novel-like the extra body that doesn't quite fit in with the close group of friends. I was frustrated with Wyn and Harriet. A couple of good conversations would have cleared up their mess pretty quickly, but instead they mooned over each other and made each other miserable. The other friends all have their own dynamics and issues, too. I was pleased with the ending, though, so I'm glad I stuck it out. 

Rating: 3/6 for a summer read about a painful breakup and how to get back to each other. Harriet's a strong character, but heck woman, speak up! And Wyn? you're a gorgeous man, but dang it all, make an effort for the woman you love! Sheesh. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, May 22, 2023

Summer Reads! What's on My TBR

 It's almost June. Wow. May flew by! I've been digging into reading, per usual, 4-5 books at a time. I'm closing in on finishing a few, and reviews will be coming soon. 

I can't wait to get my deck ready for summer reading. Comfy chairs, umbrella, and of course pots of flowers. Here's a few of what I'm currently reading and what I hope to read in the next few months:

Some titles are already out and making readers happy happy! Others will be out in the coming months. Stay tuned for reviews! 

Thursday, May 18, 2023

May Read: Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal


I can't properly explain my fascination with supper clubs, especially Midwest supper clubs. I recently told my partner I'd love to drive to Wisconsin and Minnesota just to eat at a few classic supper clubs. Woodsy decor, a menu that hasn't changed in years, and a classic cocktail. Sounds perfect to me. 

I grabbed this novel by J. Ryan Stradal and devoured it over the weekend. His first novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest gave me a taste of his writing, so I had an idea of what to expect. I wasn't disappointed. 

Mariel Prager is the third generation of a supper club owning family. Located near Bear Jaw Lake Minnesota, the Lakeside Supper Club was a popular destination for families all year round. Her grandparents have kept it going through hard work and dedication, and now Mariel is going to inherit the supper club. Her mother Florence hates the supper club and wants nothing to do with it. 

Mariel falls in love with Ned, who is the heir to his family's chain of restaurants. Ned's got the dream of making customers happy, but not the drive or desire to run a chain of restaurants and build the business.  Both are at a crossroads in their lives. 

This novel moves back and forth between Florence's younger years (the 1930's) up through Mariel's early years and marriage to Ned in the 1980's. It finishes in present day, but I'm not going to tell you with who!

Lakeside is about generational guilt, expectations, and breaking free of past hurts. Florence is one heck of a character--you see her from early childhood to an elderly woman, and she's by far the most compelling character in the novel. You can't help but love Florence, even when she's at her worst. Mariel is the heart of the novel, with her dedication to the supper club and her love of tradition and Ned. Ned is someone on a journey to realize his own worth, and to become the man he wants to be, not the man he is expected to be. There's tragedy, comedy, and that perfect vibe of the wilds of Minnesota captured perfectly.

This novel took me back to childhood memories of traveling to Minnesota and Wisconsin for summer vacations. I loved those vacations, even if they were full of chaos. We never did visit supper clubs, but spent time boating, fishing, swimming, and staying in cabins. Perfect vacation for kiddos. 

Rating: 4/6 for a family saga that unfolds through the years. Decisions made ripple through each generation, but the supper club stands as a beacon for all. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Thursday, May 11, 2023

May Read: Mastering the Art of French Murder by Colleen Cambridge


I recently returned from vacation and decided to try an e-book on my iPad while I was traveling. I had this book on my TBR and was delighted to see it was available on Hoopla. 

Loved this mystery! It takes place in 1949, Paris. American Tabitha has traveled to Paris to visit her Grandfather and honorary Uncle. They are two eccentric, wealthy elderly men who are delighted to have Tabitha visit. Tabitha, who speaks French fluently, is absolutely in love with Paris and has been there for eight months, with no intention of leaving anytime soon.

And best of all, across the street live Julia and Paul Child. Julia has taken Tabitha under her wing, helping her shop at the market and teaching Tabitha to cook. Julia is famous in the neighborhood for her cooking, but her worldwide fame is years away. 

Julia's sister Dot is also living in the same apartment as Julia and Paul, and she's involved in an American theater. Her friends gather at the apartment late at night for drinks, smokes, and a good time. After one such night, a horrible discovery is made: Therese, a young woman who was at the party the night before, is found dead near the garbage area in the apartment building basement. She's been brutally stabbed to death. Tabitha recognizes her, and thus begins her foray into figuring out who killed Therese, and why. 

I was charmed by the setting, the characters, and as the plot unfolded, the mystery. It never lagged or slowed down, but kept a steady pace forward. Tabitha--loved her! Just curious and smart enough to figure things out, but not one to bumble her way forward. Julia's character is big, joyful, and full of life. While the pool of suspects is small, it is not easy to figure out just who was the murderer. Putting the clues together with Tabitha was part of the fun--you don't know any more than she does. 

I absolutely enjoyed the heck out of this mystery, and can't wait for another in this series. Anyone who loves Julia Child will want to grab this one. I liked that she is not the main character who solves the mystery, but is a prominent character who brings a zest to the story. And the food! A great way to travel to post-World War 2 Paris. 

Rating: 5/6 for a mystery that unfolds amongst wine, great food, and the streets of Paris. A mystery that kept me intrigued until the very end. 

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Hang the Moon by Jeannette Walls


I finally finished one of the 6 or 7 books I've started in April. Life kept me busy and distracted this month. That didn't keep me from buying more books, though. And checking out books from the library. Here's to May coming at us fast, and a pile of books I'm eager to read. Focus, Sue, focus!

Hang the Moon is the latest novel from Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle. I'll admit right here I have never read The Glass Castle (overexposure during my bookselling years), but I thought this novel, set in early 1920's Virginia would be interesting. And boy howdy, it was!

It took me half-way through before the lightbulb popped on in my head. And it does help if you have some historical knowledge of the world. 

Keep reading, and I'll clue you in....

So, this is the story of Sallie Kincaid and her father, Duke Kincaid. Duke runs their small town, and the surrounding area in the backwoods of Virginia. He is the law; it's his little kingdom. The Kincaids have always taken care of the people and in return expect loyalty. Duke runs the Emporium (grocery store) in town; he sells bootleg whiskey, and he lives in the Big House with Sallie, his third wife Jane, and their small son Eddie. What Duke says and does is the final word. He's a big man and his reach is far.

The novel starts out with a young Sallie trying to teach Eddie how to run her wagon down the hill and over the bridge. She's perfected it, and it's time for Eddie to go for a ride with her. Unfortunately, there's an accident, and Sallie is sent away as punishment. Off she goes to live with her Aunt Faye in a dingy shack miles away, until Jane isn't so angry anymore. 

Eight years pass, and Sallie is called to return to her home. Here's where this novel takes off and it's a rollercoaster of highs and lows, tragedy and violence. Alliances made, enemies all around, and a fight for Sallie's survival. She's only eighteen! But she's the Duke's daughter, and she will do whatever it takes to keep the Kincaid family intact. 

Okay, I'll spill it--this novel is a retelling of Henry the 8th and the reign of Elizabeth I. And it is glorious. Once the lightbulb went off, I began placing characters into the Tudor family tree. It wasn't hard to do. But, if you don't know much about Henry and his daughter, Elizabeth I, you may not get that part, and just enjoy the novel as it is. And that is absolutely fine! But wowza the plot takes on a much deeper meaning when you plug the Tudor family into it. Sallie's deep mourning for her mother, the erasure of her mother's footprint in the Kincaid family; her elder sister Mary and her determination to destroy the bootlegging going on in the community (Catholic Queen Mary and her purges). Heck, the author even managed to fit the Spanish Armada showdown into this--you'll know it when you read it. 

Ooh, Jeannette Walls, what an excellent novel. It got me out of my reading rut, and I'll read anything that reimagines the Tudor soap opera in a new setting. Sallie is such a force, and you can't help but admire her tenacity and grit. Her determination to take care of her community and the people she loves. She doesn't blink. She can't. She's just got to keep moving. 

I can't recommend this novel enough. Book clubs, add it to your list. If you're planning a vacation, add it to your vacation reading list. 

Rating: 5/6 for a clever turn of the Tudor saga, set in bootlegging 1920's Virginia. Strong female characters, plot twists galore, and a main character you'll root for until the final page. A great read! 

Sunday, March 19, 2023

March Read: The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes


Have you ever heard of the Armed Services Editions? They were paperbacks of novels that were shipped overseas to U.S. troops during World War 2. Many novels we consider classics were part of this giant effort to combat Nazi book burning and censorship. The books also provided soldiers with reading material to give them some relief from the constant stress of battle. 

Author Brianna Labuskes uses the ASE as a large part of her novel. Vivian Childs is living in New York City in 1944. Her husband has been killed in battle, and while mourning his loss, she's been working as the publicity director for the Council on Books in Wartime. She's working hard to keep books flowing into the hands of soldiers overseas, but has one Senator who is using his personal dislike of President Roosevelt to cripple the program. Senator Taft wants to censor the books, and if the amendment goes through, it means thousands of books will be banned from the program. 

The plot of the story also involves two women: Althea James and Hannah Brecht. Althea is a young American author who has been invited by Joseph Goebbels to Germany in a cultural exchange program in 1933. It's a thinly disguised attempt for the growing Nazi power to influence American minds. Althea is pretty naive and is excited to leave her small town in Maine. She's living in Berlin, is escorted around by a handsome young man, and has been exposed to Nazi idealism. 

Hannah Brecht is a Jewish woman living in Paris in 1936. The Nazis have not yet invaded France, but it's expected they will. Hannah has fled from Germany after a devastating event, and now works at a library that collects copies of the banned books students gleefully burned one night in May, 1933. She's haunted by the events of 1933 that left her feeling betrayed by those closest to her. 

All three stories connect together in New York, 1944 as Viv works to create a last ditch effort to bring awareness to Senator Taft's amendment.  The novel switches back and forth between 1933, 1936, and 1944. I didn't have any trouble following along, and each of the women were strong characters. I can't say I liked any one of them better than the other two. It was interesting to read about the same war from three different places and eleven years apart. I was especially interested in the ASE history and what it did to boost morale for soldiers. 

It took me a bit to get into this novel. Part of that was, as always, my reluctance to read about the rise of Nazi power and all of the horrible, horrible things that happened. What was interesting is the idea of book banning and censorship occurring here, in the U.S.  In light of what is currently going on in our schools and public libraries, this really hit home and because of that, this was a powerful, timely read for me. 

As someone who has worked their entire adult life selling books, talking about books, recommending books, reviewing books, selecting books for a library--I find censorship horrific. Banning books? Hell no. I speak from personal experience as a young reader who had books taken away from me because my mom didn't think they were appropriate. Over 40 years later, I remember every book and every time they were taken away from me. I remember being so angry about that, and telling myself I would never, ever do that to my future children. I still, deep down, carry that resentment. I am one of those kids who wasn't allowed to read what they wanted. It didn't stop me, instead it fired me up. Read with your child! Talk to them about why they're interested in reading a particular book. Don't ban a book because you don't like it. Don't keep your children from reading something that interests them.  As Hannah says in this novel

    I can tell you that banning books, burning books, blocking books is often used as a way to erase a people, a belief system, a culture. To say those voices don't belong here even when those writers represent the very best of a country.

Okay. I'll get off my soapbox. 

This novel has some interesting historical background, and if you're interested in learning more about the American Service Edition program, read  When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning. 

This would be a great book club selection with plenty to discuss. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel about love, betrayal, censorship, apathy, and friendship. Historical fiction fans will be intrigued by the ASE program and the events of May, 1933 in Berlin. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.