Sunday, August 7, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: West with Giraffes by Lynda Rutledge


This summer has flown by so fast my head is spinning. Now it's August, and I did finally manage to finish a book! I spent yesterday cleaning my house, which I haven't done in some time. That involved gathering all the piles of books I have sitting around and putting them all in one spot. Now instead of a lot of small piles, I have just one big pile by my living room bookcase. Cleaning felt good, and helped me reset a bit. It's been a very busy work summer, and I'm definitely feeling low energy. Finishing this book, which has been on my TBR list for a long time, also helped reset my mental "can do" attitude. 

I read this book now because I was invited to be on a podcast with a local library. They discuss books with librarians from area libraries each month, and I picked West with Giraffes. When I say I enjoyed this book so so much, I'm not understating it. I even decided to add it to our library collection as a book club kit because it is such a wonderful book, and must be shared. 

WWG takes place over a two week period in September, 1938. It also bounces to 2025, where the main character Woody Nickel (yes that's his name) is 105 years old and nearing the end of his life. Woody realizes he doesn't have much time left, and he still has a story to tell. It's a story he must tell, because he's the only one left to tell it, and he can't stand the thought of the story dying with him. So Woody starts writing in notebooks in his room at the care center; feverishly writing it all down. 

The story starts out with Woody surviving the Hurricane of 1938 that hit New Jersey and killed hundreds of people. Woody is there, and survives through sheer luck. He's traveled from Texas to work with the only remaining relative he has: a third cousin who doesn't survive the hurricane. Woody is seventeen, broke, and alone. And to his amazement, he sees two giraffes on a boat that have miracularly survived the hurricane. He finds out they are to travel across country to the San Diego Zoo, their new home. Woody wants to get to "Californy" to start over--after all, it's the land of milk and honey. 

Old man is tasked with hiring a driver to take the giraffes to California. Woody, through some sheer ingenuity and luck, gets to drive the truck. He's formed a connection with the two giraffes he calls Boy and Girl. And so the adventure begins, filled with bad men, good people, danger, and a whole lot of amazing moments. 

Woody, Old Man, and Red, the beautiful photographer who follows the truck across the U.S. capturing all the special moments of the journey, are three characters that grew on me so much so that it was painful to end the journey. Each has a back story that is slowly revealed as they connect over their love for the giraffes. 

I still find myself thinking about this novel and the characters days after I finished it. It was quite unlike anything I've read this year, and exactly what I needed to read this summer. I think it would make an excellent movie on any of the streaming services. It's definitely a hidden gem that I will be sharing with everyone who asks me "what should I read next?"

Rating: 5/6 for a sneaky novel: it begins interestingly enough, but somehow grabs you by the heartstrings and doesn't let go. Characters reveal themselves and their hidden secrets and form unbreakable bonds. And the giraffes are just unforgettable. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audio. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: Gilt by Jamie Brenner


I discovered Jamie Brenner last summer when a book came across my desk at the library that featured a family vineyard and Jackie Collins novels. So of course I had to read it, and Blush was an unexpected surprise. You can read my review from last year here.  

Jamie returns this summer with Gilt, and I enjoyed this just as much. Centered around a family jewelry store in Manhattan, this is the tale of three sisters, one niece, a pink diamond engagement ring, and a family curse. 

The Pavlin family has been in the jewelry business for over a hundred years, and their famous store in Manhattan was the first to market diamond rings as engagement rings. They've ridden that marketing high for decades, but now Elodie, the great granddaughter of the founder of the company, knows the store is in trouble. People don't want to shop for jewelry in a store; they can buy online. Jewelry isn't what it used to be, and the store is in the red. Elodie's only way out is to have a big splashy auction to sell famous family jewelry pieces.

Only problem is she needs the okay of her surviving sister Celeste and her niece Gemma. 

Celeste lives in Provincetown and left the family decades ago. She owns an antique shop and lives with her love, Jack. Gemma's mother, Paulina, was the famous "it" girl of the 1990's; her beauty and endless travels around the world kept the Pavlin family in the news, and business was good. Her tragic death, along with her handsome husband, left Gemma without parents and being raised by her other grandparents, the Maybrooks. She has always felt resentment for the Pavlin family because they seemingly ignored her existence. 

Now Gemma is an adult and aspiring jewelry designer. She wants the one thing she was promised: the infamous Electric Rose diamond engagement ring her mother promised to her. That ring caused a huge rift between the three sisters: Elodie, Celeste, and Paulina. 

Elodie has her work cut out for her, and heads to Provincetown to convince Celeste to sign the papers approving the auction. Gemma ends up in Provincetown to meet her Aunt Celeste and find out more about the whereabouts of the Electric Rose. 

It's a summer of complicated family issues; each woman has a lot to work through. It's a crossroads for them all; a chance to look at life and figure out where to go next. And in the center of it all is Gemma and her budding jewelry business. Her desire to have the Electric Rose ring is palpable. Not for money, but because it was the one thing she remembers her mother always wearing. But Elodie isn't saying where it is, and Gemma refuses to sign the auction papers until she has the ring. 

I dived into the novel pretty quickly, and got to know all the characters. Provincetown sounds like a pretty cool place to spend the summer. The tensions between the sisters and their niece are definitely well drawn out; the other side stories keep everything balanced and give some relief to the family drama. An  unexpected romance, another chance at a broken romance, and ooh--will Celeste finally marry Jack? 

This would, of course, make a really good Netflix movie. Perfect summer read. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel about a family broken apart, with a chance to heal old wounds. Moving from New York City to Cape Cod this tale of three women reuniting to become family was very entertaining. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: Other Birds by Sarah Addison Allen


I'm not overstating when I say knowing Sarah Addison Allen has a new book out this year brings me immense joy. I've read all of her books, and still to this day recommend Garden Spells to people.

I was being patient knowing I'd probably have to wait until Other Birds was published before I bought a copy and enjoyed it. However, a friend of mine was able to get me an ARC from Sarah Addison Allen herself (a signed one, at that!) when she made an appearance at the American Library Association Conference in June. My friend stood in line and even got there early and patiently waited. Can't thank him enough! 

You bet I set aside everything else I'm reading and dove into Other Birds and breathed a sigh of relief stepping back into SAA's magical words.

Other Birds takes place on Mallow Island, off the coast of South Carolina. Now a tourist destination, Mallow Island has a special building tucked away down an alley: the Dellawisp. Named after little blue birds that inhabit the trees around the building, it is home to some quirky residents, and the new home to Zoey. Zoey has come to the Dellawisp to live in the apartment left by her mother. She's finally left her toxic home in Oklahoma where her father and stepmother have made it clear she's not wanted. Only eighteen, Zoey is on her own, ready to start college, and trying to find a connection to her deceased mother. 

The Dellawisp is unusual, to be sure. There's magic in the air-the birds, a few ghosts, and the residents all combine to create an atmosphere of secrets, loss, love, and chances to create happiness. If only Zoey and Lucy, Charlotte, Frasier, and Mac can embrace the unknown and find the beginnings to their stories, while others (ghosts!) find the end of their stories. Each character has a chance to tell their story which I loved. There wasn't a character I didn't like, or feel sympathy for as they revealed their stories. The friendship that formed between Charlotte, Zoey, and Mac was delightful to see unfold. 

This was a much anticipated book for me, and I wasn't disappointed at all. I happily sunk into a world only SAA can create. I turned the last page with a big sigh of contentment, and a little bit of sadness that I'd finished. 

Rating: 6/6 for sheer enjoyment at reading SAA's newest novel. I adore her tales of every day people with every day problems, sprinkled in with a bit of magic. A reminder that there is still wonder in the small things; the world is a magical place if we take the time to look for it--it's right there in front of us! 

Available August 30th in the United States in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, July 3, 2022

A Dress of Violet Taffeta by Tessa Arlen


Followers of my blog know I'm a huge fan of historical fiction. I was asked to be part of the blog tour for A Dress of Violet Taffeta and jumped at the chance. You'll want to grab this novel when it is available on July 5th in the U.S. 

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon is a fascinating historical figure. She made this a hard-to-put down novel, about her rise from a scandalously divorced woman to one of the most respected and revered clothing designers of the early 20th century. Toss in surviving the Titanic, and you've got a life that seems as if it can't possibly be true-but it is.

Lucy's first husband was a loser who left her practically penniless, with a young daughter. She'd always been intrigued by clothing design, and had an uncanny ability to know exactly what colors and style of dresses would suit women the best. With nothing to lose, she begins designing dresses for the upper crust women of British society, all while making it look to all that it wasn't really "work", but a genteel woman gently giving advice to other women. She grew her business over the years, adding more staff and moving to bigger homes. 

Lucy is a remarkable woman, and her fictional tale is hard to put down. She moved women's fashion forward, and wow! she accomplished a lot. Her second married to Sir Duff-Gordon was beneficial to both, but their trip on the Titanic became a scandal. Surviving in a lifeboat that only held a few people, she was appalled at the terrible tragedy, and was one of the only passengers to testify at the hearings. Her husband became a central figure in the Titanic trials. 

I so enjoyed this novel. The fashion--oh my. Stunning descriptions of color, fabric, and style. A glimpse at a world long gone, and a way of life long gone, too. Lucy and her assistant Celia, along with Lucy's sister Elinor are three strong women, making successes in a society that frowned on strong, independent, smart women. 

Anyone interested in clothing design or fashion, the Titanic, and a woman who helped determine the fashion of the 1890's all the way into the early days of Hollywood will want to dive into this novel. It clips along quickly and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There's plenty online about Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon--photos of her and her clothing, as well as her life. 

A big thanks to Austin PR for inviting me along on this blog tour! Also thanks to Berkley (Penguin/Random House) for a copy of the book. 

Rating: 5/6 for a solid, well researched novel about one of the earlier fashion influencers with an amazing talent and eye for color and fabric. Strong women, independence, taking chances, and female friendship are all major themes in this novel. A truly remarkable trailblazer. Grab it on July 5th!

Available in trade paperback and ebook. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: The Cherry Robbers by Sarai Walker


This was one odd, haunting, dysfunctional family wallop of a novel. 

It's 1950, and we're introduced to the Chapel sisters: Aster, Rosalind, Calla, Daphne, Iris, and Hazel. The Chapel family is famous for gun and rifle manufacturing that has helped settle the West and win wars. Their father works every day, and they live in the town of Bellflower Village in an ornate Victorian home surrounded by acres of land. 

Their mother sees the ghosts of all of the victims of the Chapel firearms. She screams, like clockwork, every night. She hates her husband, but loves her daughters even though she's clearly got a lot of issues and can't be a very good mother. 

On their annual trek to the Atlantic Ocean, Aster meets a handsome young man, and after dating for a bit, they become engaged and plan a big wedding. Only problem is, the closer the wedding approaches, the more mother gets worked up, claiming if the wedding isn't postponed, something horrible will happen. Iris believes her mother, and does her part (as much as a small child can do) to try and disrupt and postpone the wedding. 

Well, it doesn't work, and Aster's wedding proceeds. It seems mother was wrong. 

Except the next morning, Aster's new husband returns with Aster, clad in a honeymoon nightgown, clearly not well. What follows is a horrible nightmare for the Chapel family, as Aster dies one day after her wedding day. To prevent a scandal, the doctor claims it was simply the flu, and Aster is buried less than a week after she walked down the aisle. 

Okay, weird. However, the pattern repeats itself...until it's very clear the Chapel sisters are cursed, somehow. There are possible explanations, of course, that go back through their mother's line; however, there's just enough fuzzy-wuzzy info to make you wonder if it's all real or just horrible bad luck. 

One daughter escapes this fate. The novel begins in 2017, when she receives a letter from someone claiming to know who she really is; her current name and fame as a well-known feminist artist are fake and she's actually a Chapel girl. It's been sixty years since those horrible days, and now she will be outed. Is it time to relive those memories, and spill the story of her bizarre family curse?

I was fascinated by this novel. The sisters were all definitely different characters and I felt they were well-drawn and strong women. The atmosphere of the entire novel was what really grabbed me: haunting, melancholy, and slightly off-kilter. Kind of gothic in flavor; I had to remind myself this took place in the 1950's. There's a lot to unpack in this novel and it would make a great book discussion novel. There's much to discuss about female sexuality, mental health, family issues, sisterhood, LGBTQ, and so. much. more. 

Rating: 5/6 for a novel that had me captivated and wondering just what the heck was going to happen next. The Chapel sisters are quite simply unforgettable, and this is one tale that will leave you pondering and thinking about it for days after you've turned the last page. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio book. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan


If you're looking for gentle World War 2 fiction, Jennifer Ryan is your person. I've read two of her novels and enjoyed them both for the very fact that they are just good historical novels that give a flavor of the time from the women on the home  front. 

This novel takes place in 1942 in the small village of Aldhurst, outside of London. England is deep in World War 2, and rationing is in full force. Not only food, but clothing is in short supply. 

A group of women in the village gather each week to sew and repurpose (the "make do and mend" program) second hand clothing, along with knitting socks for the troops. Violet is the daughter of the manor, and niece to famous clothing designer Cressida Westcott. She's only interested in finding a titled man to marry. 

Cressida's home and shop are bombed in London, and the only place for her to go is her family home in Aldhurst. Reluctant to return to her childhood home, she doesn't have much choice and can't wait to return to London. 

Grace is the vicar's daughter, and engaged to be married to another vicar. It's not a love match, and it's pretty clear her fiancé is looking for a helpmate and not necessarily a wife. She's vaguely unhappy, but believes this is her calling and a way to have a family of her own. 

These three women are the main characters in the novel. There are other players, of course, and it's pretty interesting how much each of the women change over the course of the novel. Violet is petulant and a bit of a brat; she's been conscripted to join the women's war effort and believes her upper class standing will make it a smooth ride for herself. She is wrong. 

Grace runs into Hugh, the lord of the manor (and Violet's brother). Childhood friends who haven't seen each other in years, both are dismayed to find the other completely different from their carefree days as children and best friends. There's more here to unpack, for sure. 

Cressida meets up with Grace's father, Vicar Ben. Cressida's fiancé was killed in World War I and was Ben's best friend. Cressida left Aldhurst to begin her career as a designer and never fell in love again. Ben married, had Grace, and lost his wife. They strike up a friendship again; could it be more than that after all these years?

Besides all the stories going on with these three women, the sewing circle has begun something pretty fantastic and unique: helping women who are getting married have a white wedding dress. Since clothes rations leave little room (as in none!) for special clothing, women are getting married in their uniforms and every day dresses. What starts with Grace's wedding dress blooms into a movement to have wedding dresses available for any woman in the country who is getting married. It's an amazing part of the novel, and brings home the willingness to work together, to share, and give selflessly so others may have even a tiny bit of happiness. There was no "me", it was all "us". 

I liked all the characters and especially the growth of each woman as the six months of the novel go by. A lot of self discovery, confidence building, and understanding of love and the precious time we all have in which to be happy and lead fulfilling lives. 

Kate Quinn's World War 2 novels are a bit more intense than Jennifer Ryan's novels, even though both take place at a dark time for the world. I've read both, and would say Jennifer Ryan's novels are more wholesome and less anxiety inducing! 

Rating: 4/6 for an entirely likable cast of characters, a unique movement in British home front activity, and the message of uniting together and doing what's right for all instead of being selfish. Another theme is discovering the life you want to live and going for it, even if it means leaving the familiar to forge into the unknown. And finally, loving someone for who they are, not what they have. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, June 6, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas


I took a few days of vacation to make a long weekend and was determined to finish a few books in my summer TBR list. This novel has been in my pile for a few months. I started it in May, got distracted, and put it down. Yesterday I picked it back up and got swept away pretty immediately. 

Beatriz needs to get married to escape the awful life her and her mother are in after her father is taken away in the night and murdered for plotting against the Mexican government. It's 1823 and women have limited choices. She married Rodolfo Solórzano, a wealthy man who takes her to his home, the Hacienda San Isidro. 

Beatriz isn't greeted with much enthusiasm by the servants at San Isidro, nor Rodolfo's sister Juana. She's the second Doña Solórzano, and yikes it's not the welcome she was hoping for. The first wife of Rodolfo was a horrible woman who treated the servants terribly and made everyone's life miserable. She died from typhoid a few years before. 

However, the moment Beatriz steps into the hacienda, she feels something is terribly, terribly wrong. The house seethes with bad energy; cold air sweeps through in waves; doors slam, and there are those terrible red eyes peeking through the darkness. Rodolfo leaves for business in the capitol, and Beatriz is terrified to live in the house alone. She hears voices, sees terrible visions, and is afraid to sleep. 

She attends church, and asks for a blessing. Snubbed by the older, crabby Padre, she meets Padre Andrés, a young priest who grew up at San Isidro and has returned to take care of the village outside of the hacienda. He agrees to bless the hacienda, and oh boy, what he feels and sees when he visits is exactly what Beatriz experiences: an unholy, terrible, evil force. 

Who's that force? Why, the first Doña, of course. Beatriz is frantic to fight the evil-she just isn't strong enough to do it herself. Andrés has a few surprises of his own that may just be enough to fight the evil that inhabits the hacienda. It may kill them first, though. 

There's a lot going on here with back story and the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence. Generations of people working on the same land; generations of the same land owners treating those people poorly and taking advantage of them. People who can't get away because of the class system that keeps them down. A priest who is also a witch, and must be careful to not be exposed. A woman who thought she was marrying a man who would give her a home, only to realize the home, and her husband, are awful. Cut off from any help, she only had Andrés to turn to. The folks around the hacienda know something dark is there, but are too afraid to do anything about it. 

This was a spooky story--I could feel that numbing cold rolling down the hallways. Author Isabel Cañas does an excellent job building tension and terror and ramping it up. This is evil that is vicious and nasty. Can you imagine what this woman was like when she was alive?! I raced through this horror novel, and was tense every time Beatriz had to be in the hacienda alone. 

A horror novel of a different kind, set in 1823 Mexico. The setting was well drawn and I could picture it all in my mind. Beatriz was smart, tough, and stalwart in her belief that there was something very wrong in the hacienda. Padre Andrés was a complex character torn by guilt as a priest and the power he was born to use for good. 

Rating: 5/6 for a tense, atmospheric horror novel with a historical setting. Once I got into it, I was hooked. 

A big thanks to Berkley for an ARC of the novel. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.