Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Summer Reading is Almost Over: Upcoming Reads and Reviews

I just can't believe it's the middle of August.  In my part of the U.S., kids start back to school next week.  Then it's a short hop to Labor Day weekend, the gateway to all things pumpkin spice and bonfires galore.  

My summer reading is coming along, but I'm not getting to nearly all the books I'd hoped to--a change in jobs and a last moment vacation have thrown my routine into chaos.  September is going to be my reset button.  Now that my commute to work has shortened from 2 hours a day to less than 20 minutes a day, I will be rethinking my audio book choices. I'll miss listening to the audio books, but not the commute. 
Here's what I've got in my reading pipeline:

Life as Ma Ingalls from Caroline's point of view
A legendary creature in Victorian England
A thriller that mixes reality and fiction: who did what?
A young woman serves as a physician to supernatural creatures in London
I've heard rave reviews about this ! Something completely different for me.

While the weather is still warm I'll be sitting on my deck reading whenever I have a chance.  Can't wait to dig into these titles!  And, of course you know I'll have a few random reads thrown into the mix.  :)

Happy Reading!
The Bookalicious Babe

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

The only bad thing I have to say about reading this novel is that I couldn't sit down and read it all in one day.  Instead, I had to fit it in a little bit each day for over a week, and it was frustrating because I just wanted to sit and enjoy it in one big gulp. 

Stacey Ballis and Jenny Colgan fans have a new author to love--Veronica Henry.  She's got a pretty good backlist of novels, but they're not available in the U.S., which I hope changes soon.  

Emilia Nightingale returns to Peasebrook, a lovely little town in the English countryside, to take over her father's bookstore, Nightingale Books.  Emilia's father was a beloved figure in town, and his death leaves not only Emilia lost and grieving, but quite a few of the townspeople, as well.  Emilia plans on taking over the bookstore, but has a slimy businessman angling to buy the store so he can gain access to much needed parking space for an apartment building behind the shop.  She also finds out her father wasn't the best businessman, and the bookshop is in danger of closing.  

The cast of characters rounds out this novel and keeps it from being all focused on Emilia and the bookshop.  Ms. Henry cleverly weaves books, reading, and the bookshop into multiple storylines--from the local wealthy married woman who had a affair with Julius Nightingale; to Thomasina, the very shy yet talented chef who has a crush on the local cheesemonger; and Alice, engaged to a sophisticated city man, but not realizing her heart lies with someone else in Peasebrook. There are even more storylines; Emilia's got her own chance at love, too.  I was happy reading about all of the people and their situations, and felt completely at home in the English countryside. 

A HUGE thank you to Viking/Penguin Books for the opportunity to read this before publication.  I'm afraid I wouldn't have found this book otherwise, and that would have been such a shame.  

Rating:  5/6 for the perfect read to take me away from everyday life and into a bookshop that I hope exists somewhere in this world.  Wherever it is, I'd like to visit it sometime.  

Available on Tuesday, August 15th in hardcover and ebook in the U.S. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss

I have no idea where I first saw this book, but I knew it was something I just had to read.  It looked quirky, inventive, and a good way to stick my toe back into science fiction/fantasy.

Theodora Goss started her writing journey during her dissertation.  Her interest in monsters lead her to wonder why, in 19th century literature, the female creatures were always destroyed by their creators?  What if they survived?  

This is their story.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I ended up liking this story, even though there wasn't a lot of action.  I liked it so much that when the second novel comes out (which just has to happen!) I will pick it up and dive right into the story of Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

Yes, each of these young ladies is the result of monsters.  For Mary and Diana, they both have the same father, but one was the scientist, the other the madman.  Beatrice is a walking vision, but so poisonous she can't touch or breath on anyone or she'll kill them.  Catherine is the result of Dr. Moreau's attempt to change a puma into a woman; Justine is the original "Bride of Frankenstein".  

The story starts out with Mary Jekyll burying her mother, and facing the inevitable:  she's broke, her father is dead, and she is alone in the world.  Her mother's lawyer leads Mary to find out she has a sister: Diana, who has been raised in a poorly run and not very holy convent.  Diana is fourteen, fiesty, and able to climb up buildings with ease.  The two reluctantly become housemates, and for an extra kicker, they are pulled into the mysterious Whitechapel killings.  Young women are being murdered, and parts of them are being taken away:  arms, legs, hands, and even brains.  Who would do this madness?  In steps...Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Yes!  What a great addition to this tale.  Holmes & Watson help anchor the storyline and provide some good guidance and stability to the ladies.  

As time goes on, each young lady is introduced in the story line, their tale is told, and the web gets more and more tangled.  Each has a connection to a secret society through their creators, but they can't figure out what exactly goes on in this society, and who exactly belongs to it.  

The only thing I didn't like about this novel were the interruptions in the tale by the characters. Catherine was writing it all down, to be turned into a publication (which would provide some income)--most likely a penny dreadful.  Yes, these interruptions helped shape the present relationships between the ladies, but I found it a bit annoying.  And anyway, I knew they'd all get along, so I didn't need this extra bit to explain things.  My thought as I read this was that it would make a great movie in the same vein as the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies.   

This is an adult book, but I certainly could see teens reading it.  At times I felt like I was reading a teen novel, so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a teenager who likes a bit of Victorian England fantasy.  It stops short of steampunk, but with a few little adjustments, it could certainly be steampunk.  

Rating:  3/6 for a twist on the usual monster/creator story.  This was full of young women who lived on their own, were smart, capable, and unafraid to search for answers to their mysterious beginnings.  I will definitely read the second novel when (not if!) it comes out.  Also, I just adored the cover art.  That made me pick it up in the first place.  

Available in hardcover and ebook.  Paperback will be out in February, 2018.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Address by Fiona Davis

I just reviewed Ms. Davis' first novel, The Dollhouse a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to read and review her second novel, The Address.  Both novels are set in New York City, and I've realized I enjoy reading about historical NYC.  I think it's fascinating to explore the history of famous buildings with a fictional element added to what is solid fact.  

In The Address, we have a dual story line:  the start of the famous Dakota apartment building in 1884, and the Dakota in 1985, a few years after the death of John Lennon outside the front doors of his residence.  In 1884, Sara Smythe works as head housekeeper at a respectable hotel in London.  She's not happy with her boss, who is always looking to blame her when things go wrong.  Sara's very good at her job, and one day she crosses paths with Theodore Camden, an architect visiting from New York.  She saves his child from falling out a window, and he offers her a job at a new residence in New York City:  the Dakota.  It's a new concept:  an apartment building where the well-to-do own exclusive apartments, and the building has all the amenities:  a tailor, a dining service, servants for every floor (beyond the servants each family brings to live and work in their apartments).  It's a new kind of luxury for the wealthy of New York.  

Sara decides to take the leap and leaves London for New York City.  Upon arrival at the Dakota, she's a bit taken back by the location of the Dakota:  it's in an area that isn't developed, and a bit off the beaten path.  Sitting directly across from Central Park, eventually it will become a premiere spot, but in 1884, it looked like a big mistake.  

Sara's relationship with Theodore Camden evolves, and she finds herself falling in love with him, despite his marital status and the knowledge that there will be no happy ending.  Running the Dakota as the "managerette" is a challenge, but Sara is up to the task, and enjoys her life.  

Until she becomes pregnant.  Disaster.  Sara's life takes a turn for the worse and spirals out of control.  I really liked Sara, and hated to see her choices create havoc for herself. Her life was dictated by the morals of the times, society's rules, and the limitations of being a single woman with no family.  

1985 Dakota is still an exclusive apartment building, but it has lost a bit of luster, and has become infamous as the place where John Lennon was shot in 1980. Bailey Camden is fresh out of rehab; she has lost her job as an interior designer, and has nowhere to go.  She ends up at the Dakota, staying with her cousin Melinda Camden, who is the great granddaughter of Theodore Camden.  She lives in the same apartment that Theodore did in 1884, and it's also the place where Theodore was murdered in 1885.  Melinda is total 1980's excess:  lots of partying, drinking, and drugs.  Bailey struggles to stay sober, and her family's sad history is something she's struggling to overcome.  Her grandfather was raised as a Camden, but was actually a ward of Theodore and his wife.  He left the Dakota at 15 and became a mechanic in New Jersey, living his life in bitterness after not receiving any kind of inheritance while Melinda's grandfather and great aunt received everything. Melinda hires Bailey to completely redo the apartment into a horrible faux marble monstrosity, and Bailey takes the job in order to get back on her feet. 

While Bailey is going through old trunks in the basement of the Dakota, she finds clues to the Camden family history that creates more puzzles than answers.  Who was Sara Smythe, and who killed Theodore?  

Sara's story is so darn good.  I couldn't get enough of her.  It was kind of hard to get into 1985; maybe because for me, it's recent history--I was just out of high school in 1985!  But the early history of the Dakota, and the history of Blackwell's Island ( I can't tell you--you'll have to read the book!) is exactly the type of history I love to read about. 

Now that I've read both of Fiona Davis' novels, I am a firm fan.  What I like most, of course, is the history.  She's got an unlimited treasure trove of potential material just in NYC with so many wonderful buildings.  Her characters are strong, but flawed.  Life is messy, and a happy ending is not guaranteed. Her novels are also a history of women fighting to be seen and heard; to have the freedom to live life without societal strictures and rigid rules.  We forget sometimes today how tough it was for women to have such limited choices, and to be dependent on family and husbands to have a comfortable life. 

Both The Dollhouse and The Address are standalone novels, so you don't have to read one before the other.  I recommend both for anyone who likes to read about New York City, history, and strong female characters.  There is an element of reality in both novels that I found refreshing.  It's all well and good to read novels where everything always works to a happy conclusion, but sometimes I enjoy reading novels where the conclusion leaves me satisfied knowing everything ended as it should.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  

A huge thank you to Dutton (Penguin/Random House) for a review copy of this novel.  

Rating:  4/6 for a gripping read about the Dakota apartment building in NYC, both past and present.  Sara's story was hard to put down, and the links to Bailey's life in 1985 NYC helped create a "whodunnit" element that carried the story along. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Forbidden Garden by Ellen Herrick

I was looking over my post from 2015 on Ellen Herrick's first novel The Sparrow Sisters,  and saw that I ended my review with a wish that Sorrel's story was told in a future book.

My wish was granted.  I'll start out by saying you should read The Sparrow Sisters first before you read The Forbidden Garden.  Having Sorrel's background, and understanding where she comes from and the talents of the Sparrow sisters will give this novel more clarity.  Granted, you could read this without reading the first novel, but then I imagine you'd spend a lot of time wondering about Nettie and Patience, and just what the heck happened in The Sparrow Sisters. Save yourself some frustration!

So.  Sorrel Sparrow is asked to travel to England by Sir Graham Kirkwood to re-create a Shakespeare garden on his family's estate, Kirkwood Hall.  This garden has been lying dormant for hundreds of years, thanks to a curse placed on it by Graham's ancestor (and complete nasty creep!) Thomas Kirkwood. Sure enough, anyone who attempted to bring the garden back to life mysteriously became ill and died.  Sir Graham's wife had been determined to succeed, and became very ill.  Sir Graham has decided once and for all to break the curse, and Sorrel, known for her mysterious gifted ways with plants and gardens, was recommended to him.  

Sorrel is unaware of the curse when she arrives, but is soon given the story of the garden, as she is quickly drawn into the Kirkwood family.  They really are a wonderful group of people; warm, friendly, down to earth, and people who love and protect their legacy.  One part of their legacy are the legendary family tapestries, kept locked up in a room where they are left in quiet.  Why?  Because these tapestries tell a disturbing story of a chase, but the seventh tapestry is missing, and without that tapestry, the story remains inconclusive.  The tapestries are so disturbing that no one is allowed to view them.  But, as you find out, they are a big part of the reason why the Shakespeare garden is cursed.  

Will Sorrel's magic way with nature overcome the dark history of the garden?  Can she break the curse?  I have to say I was sucked into this story pretty quickly.  The Kirkwood family is so well drawn out that I was ready to sit down in their cozy kitchen and visit with them.  Sorrel's magical ability--which she doesn't see as magic at all, just the way she is--causes people to both admire, be astonished, and be doubtful of it all.  What is magic, and what is Godly?  Can something be both?  Sorrel's budding romance with Andrew, who is going through his own crisis of faith, leads you into some interesting thoughts on faith, having a calling, and how those can be based in reality.  

Gardens, luscious flowers, delicious foods, a cast of characters that are pretty fantastic, and an interesting family history--complete with a villain. It's a combo that I couldn't resist!

Rating:  4/6 for a lovely sequel to The Sparrow Sisters.  I hope there is more to come, as I love the world Ellen Herrick has built and want more!  For fans of Alice Hoffman, Sarah Addison Allen, M.J. Rose,  and Brunonia Barry.  

Available in paperback, e-book, audio, and hardcover. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

DNF's, Summer Reading Update, and a Couple Quick Fly-By Reviews

Oh July. The gateway to August, back to school, and that short skip into the holidays.  Yes. I said it.  👻💀

Another summer galloping by and my book stacks remain teetering with no inroads made.  Yes, I've been reading.  Library books and ARCs and not actually anything I own!  Funny how that happens.  

I thought I'd combine a whole bunch of book business into one post.  It's helping me clear my head and create some space for new reads. One glaring omission in my reading pattern lately: science fiction/fantasy.  I'm missing it terribly, so I hope to dip into a few titles in a few weeks to relax and reconnect to a genre I really do enjoy.

Onto business!  First, a couple of DNF's:

A novel about a young woman who sees the deceased, and an unsolved murder that puts her in danger?  Sign me up!  But I checked it out of the library, started reading it, and lost interest.  Subject matter is just a bit too dark for me right now.  Maybe I'll return to it again in the future. My duh moment was realizing the front cover shows a young woman...for some reason I kept seeing a tropical flower.  Call me clueless.  Not a good sign of my attention span for this book.  

This book.  Dang it.  I was so excited to read this, especially after visiting Italy last October.  I got about 100 pages in, and the overarching sense of doom finally got to me.  A slave known for his culinary skills becomes the secret weapon of Apicius, a wealthy Roman man determined to become the Emperor's favorite noble.  But lord, the schemes, murders, plotting, and complete disregard for life got a bit old!  I loved the culinary aspect (I can say I wouldn't have eaten most of what they put together--meat and fruit: argh!!) but the political machinations and cruelty just wore on me.  I'll try again in the future, because I'm fascinated by the idea of this novel.  

Now, onto a few quick reviews:

I've had this hardcover on my bookshelf at home for a year.  I've wanted to read it, but just didn't squeeze it in until I saw it was available as an audio book through my library.  Took me two weeks to listen to this incredible memoir of Mary Hamilton, a woman who lived from 1866-1936 and had an extraordinarily tough, tragic, and what many might see as a poor life.  But listening to Mary's memoir, I was awed by her grit, her determination to make a home wherever she was, and her efforts to raise her children as good, descent, and kind people.  She was a force to be reckoned with, and withstood more tragedy than any one person should ever be expected to live through.  I highly recommend this book--either the paperback, or the audio.  No pictures in the book, however.  Her memoirs were first printed in the 1930's.  Rating: 5/6 because pioneer women rock!!

On a completely different track, this book is unusual in its narrator.  You never know his name, but you get to know him very well.  He's an unborn baby (about 3 weeks shy of his due date) who hears, in utero, his mother and her lover plot to murder his father for his inheritance.  Yes, a baby.  One smart, scarily brilliant baby with a taste for wine (his mother drinks a lot of white wine) and podcasts. 

It sounds amusing, and on the surface it is, until you read this short tale and are disturbed by his helplessness in stopping what will happen to his father, and his pondering on living life in jail with his mother.  There are many philosophical moments, and Ian McEwan is a high-caliber writer. However, the little twists make this a very interesting read. It makes you wonder just what babies do hear, feel, and think inside the womb.  A friend recommended this novel, and I'm glad I plugged away at it.  It's not long at all in terms of pages, but can be a bit gloomy in the subject matter.  This made it a book to read in chunks, rather than in a rush.  Rating:  4/6 for a uniquely narrated thriller.  What harm do we do to the most innocent?  Available in hardcover and e-book. 

So, I've been busy. This summer most of my books haven't hit that sweet spot of satisfaction I was hoping for, but I haven't lost hope. I've got many more to go before September hits.  I've over halfway to my reading goal for 2017 and it helps keep me on track.  

What books are you reading this summer?  Anything out of the ordinary for you?

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

1952 New York City must have been a pretty cool place.  Certainly it was a lure to those who wanted to make it on their own, or make it big.  It was a place for young women to escape their hometowns and experience freedom, within the confines of 1950's ideals, of course.  

The Dollhouse was certainly a refreshing break from my usual historical fiction.  Yes, this is a dual-history novel; it takes place in 1952 and 2016.  I usually don't read much about mid-twentieth century history; it's just not a time that appeals to me.  But I was intrigued by the idea of a women's hotel in 1952, and I'm glad I read this novel. I had no idea where the story would take me, and it definitely surprised me.

Darby McLaughlin is a young woman from Ohio, sent to New York City by her mother to live at the Barbizon Hotel, a place where young women stayed while attending modeling school, secretarial school, or other suitable educational avenues for a young woman in 1952. Of course, it was understood that this was just a way to meet a man and get married.  Darcy, a shy young lady very conscious of her mother's disappointment in her, comes to NYC to attend the Katie Gibbs school for secretaries.  She hopes to return to Ohio after a year of school, find a secretary job, and quietly live her life.  Unfortunately for Darcy, her small room is on the same floor as the modeling school beauties, who make her feel less than welcome.  Esme, a young maid and elevator operator at the Barbizon, befriends Darcy, and this is where Darcy's life changes.

The other part of the story begins in 2016 with Rose Lewin, a woman who lives with her boyfriend in the Barbizon building, which is now expensive apartments.  A few women who lived at the Barbizon in the 1950's continue to live there in small rent-controlled apartments.  The mysterious woman who lives directly underneath Rose's apartment wears hats and veils that shield her face, and doesn't talk to anyone when she takes her dog outside every day.  Rose's life is in flux; her boyfriend decides to return to his wife, and kicks Rose out of his apartment.  Struggling to take care of her ailing father; with no place to live, and a job as a journalist at a questionable online news site, Rose is looking for something that will kick start her career again and give her some choices. 

Enter that mysterious woman.  It's Darcy; she's lived at the Barbizon since 1952, and a mystery surrounds her that Rose wants to solve.  Darcy was involved in the unfortunate death of a maid at the hotel, and Rose wants to write a story about it.  Only problem is that Darcy has left the city, and Rose has to wait her out.  Meanwhile, Rose interviews the other elderly women, and begins to get the real story of the Barbizon Hotel during its heyday.  It was not, as people thought, a place full of genteel, well behaved young women.  People are people, after all, no matter what the time period.  

Rose identifies with Darcy, and becomes entangled in her tale as she waits for Darcy to return to her apartment.  Rose's ethics are questionable; her unhappiness spurs her into doing things that she normally wouldn't do. Rose's ethical choices connect her to Darcy's story; otherwise the novel wouldn't work. As the story flips between 1952 and 2016, we see Darcy and Esme's friendship deepen, Darcy meeting the sweet young cook Sam, and Darcy frequenting the Flatted Fifth, a jazz club with some seedy undertones. The feeling that you're on a journey that isn't going to end well keeps growing. 

The story is compelling, and I couldn't stop reading it.  There are some twists that were unexpected; but I figured out that was because I was also lulled into the assumption that young ladies in the early 1950's were always well-behaved and proper.  My bad!  

Rose was a bit confusing to me.  On one hand, she seemed very mature and put together.  But being dumped by her boyfriend really seemed to reveal a heck of a lot of insecurities and unhappiness that must have been festering for a long time.  There wasn't any sense of female empowerment with her until the very end.  Darcy was definitely a complex character; New York City brought out her real personality, only to see it dampen after the dramatic events of 1952.  She was a mix of wanting to do the right thing and fulfill other people's expectations, and wanting to be herself and doing what made her happy.   

I think this would make a good book club selection.  There is certainly enough to discuss, just in the characters of Rose and Darcy.  The Barbizon is an actual building in NYC, now known at the Barbizon 63.  It's on the National Register of Historical Places and was home to many famous women over the years.  

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining dual-time period novel about 1950's NYC and the struggle of women to break free of expected societal roles.  The life of Darcy was certainly one that kept me reading late into the night.  A good book group choice--so many things to talk about, and a great historical background as well.  I'll read more from Fiona Davis!

Available in hardcover, paperback, audio, and e-book.

A big thank you to Penguin/Random House for a preview of this novel.