Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Life on the Leash by Victoria Schade

It seems like forever since I've read something a bit lighter with a touch of romance. Gallery/Simon & Schuster sent me an ARC of this novel, and I'm so glad they knew I needed a novel about dogs, friendship, and romance before I realized it myself. 

Cora Bellamy is an ex-corporate woman who has taken her passion and natural talent for dog training and created a full-time business in the Washington, D.C. area. Her main squeeze, Fritz, is adorable, as are all the dogs she trains for well-to-do clients. Cora's world is filled with some lovely people: her roommate Maggie, their friend Darnell, and Cora's client Fran. Then there's the delicious Charlie, boyfriend of one of Cora's clients, and owner of Oliver, a dog in need of training. 

Charlie's a hottie, and he knows it. Cora is attracted, but obviously he's taken! Is he flirting with her, or is she reading him wrong? Meanwhile, Eli, a charming, quirky gentleman, is crushing on Cora, but she's got him in the friend zone. Will her hormones choose Charlie, who's clearly wrong for her, or will Eli win the day? 

Cora's chance at fame comes with the chance to audition for a new dog training show. It's her life passion, and she's damn good at it. But being on national tv is something she's not so sure about. Will what comes naturally to her--that effortless bond with dogs, translate onto film? 

I liked Cora, just hated that she let her hormones override common sense and her douche-meter. The many dogs she trains are a big part of the novel, and they are all delightful and distinctly different in personality. Cora's got a pretty great life, no doubt. But as always, change comes when it's least expected, and that's exactly what happens to Cora. I don't know much about dog training, and even though it's a big part of this novel, it's not dry and boring. There is clearly some author experience (Victoria is a dog trainer) shining through, and that made Cora a credible character. 

Love dogs? I do. I can't wait for the day when I have the space and time to have a dog again. I grew up with dogs, and haven't lived with one since my early 20's. Someday...

Rating:  4/6 for a novel full of dogs, delightful supporting characters (with a cad and an evil dog owner for contrast), a strong and charming central character, and a romance that doesn't happen quickly, but takes some time. You don't have to be a dog lover to enjoy this refreshing read. 

Available in paperback and ebook.  Thank you Gallery/Simon & Schuster for the ARC! 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Time's Convert by Deborah Harkness

I finally finished Time's Convert yesterday afternoon, after two weeks of reading a little bit, setting it down, then coming back to it. I wanted to take my time, and enjoy it, since I've been waiting some time to get back to the world of Diana and Matthew de Clermont.  

So I'll just blurt it all out: I enjoyed it, but wasn't blown away by it. 

There. I said it. 

Settling into this novel felt a bit like revisiting old friends, and I was pretty happy to be back with Diana and Matthew, and Ysabeau, and the whole world of the de Clermont vampire family. It was pretty great to see how Diana and Matthew are fairing as parents to Becca and Philip, their adorable twins--who are a mix of witch and vampire. Where their talents will lie, no one knows. And the rarity of these two little people (witches and vampires have never been able to have offspring, and normally avoid each other) means that there will come a day of reckoning for their parents and for both of them. That is an underlying tension in the novel, but I kept saying to myself "They're just babies, so there's plenty of time."  I suspect, and I hope, Deborah Harkness crafts a compelling tale of adult Becca and Philip.  

But, the big part of this story concerns Phoebe Taylor, a warmblood, and Marcus MacNeil, a vampire. They're in love, and were featured in the first three novels that make up the All Souls Trilogy. Now Phoebe has decided to become a vampire, so she can wed Marcus and live with him for, well, a very long time. It's not just a matter of biting someone, draining their blood, and bingo! vampire presto. There's a protocol to follow, and Phoebe and Marcus aren't allowed to see each other for 90 days after Phoebe has turned. After the 90 days, they reunite, and she officially claims Marcus as her mate. But within those 90 days, she has to learn how to move through the world as a vampire. There's a lot to learn, and it's not easy. 

Marcus stays with Diana and Matthew, who is his maker, and in vampire families, that makes Matthew Marcus' father, and Diana his step-mother. Another big chunk of the novel is about Marcus; who he was as a human, how he was turned by Matthew, and what he's done until present day. It's an interesting tale that centers on the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the horrible childhood Marcus had at the hands of an abusive and alcoholic father. You get to know Marcus very well, and follow him on his journey as a young vampire. He makes plenty of mistakes, and gets in trouble with his family over and over again. Much of what he does haunts him, and he is concerned when Phoebe does drink from him, she will be disgusted at his deep secrets. Cause when you're a vampire, when you drink blood, you see everything about that person--no secret is hidden. 

There really wasn't much tension in this novel, and that was good and bad. The trilogy was so damn good, in part because Diana and Matthew as a couple were so forbidden, and Diana was struggling to accept her family history as witches, and come into her own immense power. There was none of that in this story, which I kind of missed. But seeing Diana and Matthew as parents, and happily living their lives (as well as they can as de Clermont) was sweet. It was all enough to keep me turning pages, and enjoying what I read. But it wasn't OMG THIS IS SO GOOD I CAN'T STAND IT!

Thank you, Deborah Harkness for another peek into the wonderful world you created. I am ready for more!

Rating:  4/6 for the continuing tale of the de Clermont family, and their fascinating experiences living through some of history's most dramatic and legendary moments. 

Available in hardcover, audio, and ebook. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

I had not heard of Rachel Hollis before this book was published, and I began to see other women reading it and connecting to Rachel's message. I decided to buy it, and I'm glad I did because I underlined and starred passages that particularly resonated with me. 

Rachel talks about the many lies we tell ourselves, and how they can damage our self-worth. We spend so much time comparing ourselves to other women, and think everyone has it all together in a perfect life. Rachel is here to tell us what we already know: it's just not so. We know this, she knows we know this, but sometimes we have to be reminded over and over again until it sticks. Rachel is pretty brave in telling her story; from a young girl who finds her brother after he commits suicide, to a woman struggling through her early relationship with her now husband; to her missteps and feelings of being a walking disaster. She frames each chapter with her own experience, and every "aha" moment that lead her farther down the path of self-acceptance and ultimate badass. 

Rachel believes we all need to be our own heroes. We have lived through difficult times, and yes, some really great times. All of those create who we are, but how we use those building blocks matters. Don't let anyone else determine your journey: you determine your journey, and your story. You determine how to rise above the setbacks, the tragedies. You write your own story--you are your own hero. No, this isn't easy, and yes, it can take months or sometimes years--but start now. Set goals, create a vision board that you see every day to remind yourself of your dreams. Keep that focus. Learn from mistakes. Believe deep in your soul that you are strong enough, smart enough, capable enough. And dammit, if you don't feel that, take the steps to get to it. Have your moments of crying into your coffee cup, but then get your ass in motion and make the changes. 

I usually don't read many books that would be labeled as self-improvement. Rachel's book is more of a confessional and a "this is what I've learned" approach. It wouldn't have felt as genuine if she hadn't revealed some pretty private parts of herself and her experiences. In making herself vulnerable, she turned what could have been an ordinary "you can do it!" book into something that spoke to me. Parts of it, of course, don't apply to me: I'm not a mom, and I'm not a wife, so I don't have those joys and struggles. But I do have the struggle of being a single woman, building a career, and feeling at times that I am not smart enough, not strong enough, and not knowing what I want-or knowing and struggling to find my way to it. But I will continue to savor every small victory I achieve, knowing I did that-I dreamed it, I worked hard, and I achieved it. Whatever it may be, big or small, it matters. 

I think every woman, no matter what age, should read this. You may recognize yourself in some of Rachel's chapters, and realize you've been rocking your best life for years. Or you may realize the heaviness on your shoulders isn't necessary, and you have the power to change it. Instead of looking at what keeps you down, look at how to get up and dump that crap. 

Rating:  5/6 for an empowering read that will have you reflecting on choices you've made, goals and dreams, and how you feel about yourself. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Anyone who scoffs at the notion of reading a graphic novel simply hasn't read one. They are just as powerful and impactful as a book that's full of words, page after page. Roz Chast had me reliving some painful parental moments in her graphic novel, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

We all hope our parents live long lives, and that we have time to get to know them as people when we grow up and become adults ourselves. But as our parents age, and live longer than their parents and grandparents did, we're faced with increasing angst as parents who always were strong, independent, sharp, and ruled the household become frail and forgetful. 

Roz Chast outlines that very situation. For her, it's even more difficult, as she's an only child who doesn't live near her parents. And her parents are a handful. Elizabeth and George have been married for decades; her mother is a force, while her father is quiet. They do everything together. They've lived in the same apartment in Brooklyn since Roz was a baby. And neither of them want to talk about death, wills, money, or future care. Their routine is set in stone and they don't like change. 

There were times when I felt like I was reliving some of the same conversations I had with my Mom when I was reading this memoir. And it's always one significant medical issue that is the start of the end, and you know it when it happens. The end can be years away, but you're aware of that one specific moment when you realize it's the beginning of the end. Roz's memoir is full of that tug of war between parent and child as their mental acuity declines, and is replaced with anger and bewilderment. Faced with cleaning out her parents' apartment, Roz is just overwhelmed, and realizes that most of it is just junk. What her parents refused to throw away, and what they thought valuable, was only valuable to them, and now they don't need it or even remember they have it. I can say going through your parent's lifetime (and your family's lifetime) of things is both frustrating and heartbreaking. It adds a permanent bit of sadness to your soul. 

Roz's relationship with her mother is a strained one, and there is one moment where she says:

I left her room. Walked through the tasteful lobby of the Place as if everything was fine. Walked to my car. When I got in, I cried. The bellowing quality of the sobbing and the depth of the sadness I felt surprised me. I was angry, too. Why hadn't she tried harder to know me? 
But I knew: if there had ever been a time in my relationship with my mother for us to get to know one another--and that's a very big "if"--that time had long passed.

**Cue the ugly cry**

I found this graphic novel to be powerful and poignant. Roz mixes in photos of her parents, along with some of her mother's poems. I'd recommend it to anyone who has aging parents, or has already gone through this process and feels they were all alone and feeling the frustrations and sadness that no one else would understand. There are plenty out there who do understand. 

Rating: 5/6 for an accurate portrayal of caring for aging parents, and the struggles both emotionally and financially that adult children face--without the guidance of those we look to the most-our parents. Don't be put off because it's a graphic novel. That's what makes it a powerful memoir. Read it. 

Available in hardcover and paperback. This was a National Book Award Finalist. That's a pretty amazing accomplishment. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman

I had this novel on my TBR list because I've got a reading group meeting Tuesday to discuss it for our September read. It's a novel I've seen many times on the shelves at my local B&N; I even stocked it on paperback tables, but never wanted to read it. This was my opportunity to do so--and wow, this is not a novel for the faint of heart. 

Told in two voices: Clara, a young upper class woman in 1929, and Izzy, a young teen  in contemporary times living with her foster parents. Clara Cartwright is in love with Bruno, a handsome immigrant who came to America to start a new life. Her father, a total asshole (sorry, but he is just horrible!) and her unfeeling mother insist she marry someone that matches her station. When she says no, her father has the police take her to an insane asylum, saying she's crazy. And from there, Clara's life takes just one horrible spiral down after another. At first, she's in a somewhat nice place, but still held against her will and not allowed any communication with Bruno. The stock market crash of 1929 creates a money shortage for her father, who writes her to tell her she has to go to another place: The Willard Asylum, which is state run. He can't afford to keep her at her current place and keep his home. Like I said, a complete unfeeling asshole. Her mother isn't any better, letting her only daughter be carted away under the claim that she's unstable. No one will believe Clara that she's perfectly sane, and her father is just mad at her for not marrying who he wants her to marry. Her pleas fall on deaf ears, and she's seen as willful and yes, mentally unstable. 

Izzy's foster parents are involved in a museum project that is collecting and studying patient suitcases found in the basement of the now defunct Willard Asylum. Izzy isn't interested in stepping foot on the grounds of the asylum; her mother is in jail for killing her father, and is considered "insane". It hits a bit too close to home for Izzy, who still doesn't understand why her mother shot her father ten years before. 

One of the trunks that they open is Clara's, and it's immediate that this is not the typical patient at Willard. Expensive dresses, postcards from Paris, a photograph of a young woman and man, both gorgeous. A journal that abruptly stops after a passage stating that Clara is going to Willard. Izzy becomes fascinated with Clara, and wants to know what happens to her. 

As the novel moves back and forth between Clara and Izzy, we experience all the horrible pain Clara goes through as time goes by and she can't get out of Willard. So much happens to her, such cruelty, that it was sometimes hard to read. And to make matters worse, it was happening to hundreds of people at Willard, too. The treatment of the mentally insane was just horrific and inhumane. So many people put in asylums who were perfectly normal, but either angered their spouse/parent, or were depressed, or fell on hard times. Nowadays they would be given counseling and medicine; and those women who spoke up? They'd be running companies and changing the world. 

I don't want to give more of the story away, because a lot happens to Clara--big things--and it's important that you find them out as you read, and as Izzy discovers bits of Clara's life. Izzy's situation involves self-harm and bullying from fellow students, but I found her and Clara both to be incredibly tough young ladies who fought to be heard and understood. Would Izzy be the one who would finally free Clara's voice?

It's a pretty good novel, but some of it may make you uncomfortable.The brutal treatment of patients considered insane, and especially the women, is hard to take. The feelings of despair and hopelessness Clara experience are just heartbreaking.You just wish so much for her to have a happy ending. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that will keep you up at night reading. Clara is a character you won't soon forget. Izzy is a strong young woman who, while trying to figure out her own life, decides she must uncover Clara's story and deliver justice denied to Clara sixty years before. 

Available in paperback ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Bellewether by Susanna Kearsley

I was thinking about how to start this review, and immediately I thought I'd say "Susanna Kearsley is one of my favorite authors"-but I stopped myself, because it seems like I have an awful lot of favorite authors! But it's true, and I am always happy to add to the list of authors that I will read without question. Jane Harper joined earlier this summer, after I read Dry. My love of Susanna's novels goes much farther back; years, actually. It's not often that I find historical novels that have an element of the supernatural tied into them; not only that key (and favorite) element, but that they end up being darn good reads, too. 

Susanna Kearsley is one of those authors who digs deep into history, then spins a tale that never fails to grab me. I've read most of her novels, and was excited to see Bellewether on Sourcebook's upcoming new releases list earlier this year. I've been patient, and have been reading this on and off in between other books. I was immediately taken by the contemporary story of Charley as the new curator of the Wilde House, a historic home on Long Island; the family home of one Benjamin Wilde, a famous Revolutionary War figure. Charley's family history is also based nearby; her father rather infamously refused to fight in the Vietnam War, and fled to Canada. Her grandparents, pillars in the community, disowned him and Charley has never met or talked to her grandparents. Her brother lived in the community with his daughter Rachel, but he recently died, and Charley took the job at the Wilde House in part to help her niece navigate life without her father. 

Wilde House, near a secluded cove and surrounded by a forest, is reportedly haunted by a figure that some say is a French soldier, wandering the forest with a lantern, lighting the way safely to the cove. Other rumors of murder, and a love story that ends tragically, add to the mystery of the Wilde House. Charley is there to oversee renovations, dig into the history of the house, and improve on the story of Benjamin Wilde. She is, of course, interested in finding out more about the Wilde family, and what life was like for them during the Seven Years War. The war pitted the French and the British against each other, and saw prisoners of war housed in local family homes while waiting for prisoner trades to occur between the French and the British. This was in the decade before the Revolutionary War, when Americans were still Colonists, and had loyalty to England. 

The other part of the novel centers on Lydia, sister to Benjamin Wilde, and Jean-Philippe, a French solider who has been brought to the Wilde house as a prisoner of war to await trade negotiations with the British. Jean-Philippe speaks no English, and Lydia speaks no French. He's definitely seen as the enemy, and yet Lydia and Jean-Philippe can't help but develop feelings for each other. What will happen when he's finally taken away? Will he end up back in Quebec to fight again? How would Lydia's family feel if they found out about the growing attraction between the two? 

The two stories, separated by centuries, but tied together by the Wilde House, work well together. The complex issues of the Seven Years War are explained well enough to be clear, but not so much that you're dragged down by a history lesson. All the little pieces of information Charley finds, along with help from an unknown spirit in the house, slowly bridge the gap between what happened in Lydia's time, and what Charley knows in today's world. But oh gosh, you just don't know until the end if Lydia and Jean-Philippe have a happy ending, or if it ends in tragedy. 

I think part of what made this novel so enjoyable for me is my deep desire to actually be a curator at a historical home. That's another career that appeals to me, but I'll just have to be content to visit historical places and enjoy what others have uncovered. Lydia and Charley are both strong female characters, and both have strong counterparts in Jean-Philippe and Sam, the expert at historical reconstruction who catches Charley's eye. Overall, a good, solid historical fiction tale with a dash of romance, a bit of the supernatural, and a whole lot of history, and how we try to create truthful stories based on what's left behind. 

Rating:  5/6 for a very good historical novel with dual storylines: one set in the 1760's, another set in contemporary Long Island-and both set at Wilde House. This novel is interesting in that it delves into the Seven Years War, which I hadn't read about before. It also speaks to the importance of historic preservation, and the stories our ancestors have left behind for us to discover. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Rapahelle Giordano

I saw this little paperback at B&N a month or so ago and thought it looked like a fun little book to read. And it was! It took me longer to read it, even thought it's just over 200 pages. I finally picked it back up a few days ago and spent some time finishing it. Silly as it may sound, I think I needed to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the message.

Camille is 38, a married woman with a young son, living and working in Paris. She's unhappy with her career, her relationships with her husband and son are strained, and she's at the end of her rope. A broken down car during a rainstorm changes her life in ways she just could never imagine. 

Camille takes shelter in a nearby home, and while waiting for help, begins talking to Claude, who tells her he's a routinologist and if she agrees to follow his instructions, he can help her change her life for the better. With nothing to lose, Camille agrees, and begins her journey to happiness by following Claude's directions. 

Camille's journey to self-awareness and making positive changes is a bit bumpy, but as she follows Claude's advice, she begins to realize that everything she's working on is starting to have positive impacts on her life. Clearing all the clutter from her home is one step to being able to think clearly and breathe deeply. Working on her relationships with her husband and son are others. Building her self confidence by focusing on the great things about herself, and not "feeding the rats" of self-doubt, fear, and the part of her that likes to complain. Being confident in her own skin. Claude's approach to each lesson is little bit different each time, but each lesson is valuable and helps Camille move along her path towards enlightenment, happiness, and success in her work and home environments. 

This is a feel-good self-help book wrapped up in a novel, and it's perfect for anyone who needs a little boost in self-confidence, or someone who is stuck and needs a little kick in the butt to get moving. The author even has a little dictionary at the back of the book with all the routinologist terms and definitions handy for you to use in your life. This novel is translated from French, and is a huge hit in Europe. Buy it, read it, and gift it to your sisters, your Mom, and your friends. 

Rating: 4/6 for an empowering, fun novel about making positive changes and the magic that will flow from them. It's true: the more good vibes you put out, the more you get back. The Universe is pretty cool that way. 

Available in paperback and ebook.