Friday, March 28, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

                                                This is the story of a crabby bookstore owner who finds there's life left to be lived after all.  

A.J. Fikry lives on Alice Island, and owns the only bookshop in this tourist spot.  He's in his early 40's lives, above the bookstore, and is disgusted at life, people, and the garbage they read.  One night, his life is changed for ever, and we find out A.J. is not the curmudgeon he so wants to be.  

This is a novel that will appeal to anyone who loves books, works in bookstores or works in the book business.  It makes you think about what you love to read and why, and how it shapes your world.  It reminds us that some books become part of us and in some ways become a playbook for how we think and live.  

If you haven't read Gabrielle Zevin, I highly recommend her first novel Elsewhere, which is so wonderful it made me a fan of hers for life.  A.J.'s story will make you smile, get a little teary, and sigh at the end.  And he sums up life quite nicely with this quote:

                                  "We are not quite novels.  
                                   We are not quite short stories.
                                   In the end, we are collected stories."

Rating:  7/10 for quirky characters, a memorable bookstore, and a short but sweet story.

Available in hardcover and e-book.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Vanishing by Wendy Webb

Wendy Webb writes gothicky-ghosty-tales  that are thoroughly enjoyable fun reads for late nights when it's quiet outside and no one but you is awake.   All those little night noises will make you think twice about what's making the noise when you read this novel.

The Vanishing takes place in Minnesota's deep, dark woods.  Julia Bishop finds herself at Havenwood, an immense estate that sits on thousands of acres of woods and is quite isolated.  The original owner, Andrew McCullough built the estate after making his riches in the fur trade in the 1800's.  Julia's been asked to take care of the current owner, Amaris Sinclair--a famous horror writer who's presumed dead.  

Sounds complicated, right?  There's a lot going on in this novel.  Julia is recovering from a horrible scandal in Chicago.  Her husband, known as the Midwest Bernie Madoff, has killed himself and left her to deal with the anger and unending financial mess of his ex-clients.  She's losing everything when Adrian Sinclair knocks on her front door and invites her to leave it all behind and take the job of caretaker to his mother.  Julia takes him up on the offer and quickly finds herself feeling strangely at home at Havenwood.  Something, however, is not right.  In the darkened hallways and library, Julia hears a little girl singing, sees paintings move, and feels something evil in the air.

There is a big mystery here, and you have to read til the very end to find out what it is.  It all involves mediums, seances, and a horrible night 100 years before that changed Havenwood forever.  

Fans of Simone St. James and novels that feature an otherworldly plot will love this!  I've read all three of Wendy Webb's novels and have loved them all.  

Rating:  7/10 for a just-creepy-enough story with elements of local lore and a great gothic feel.  

Available in paperback and ebook.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The All You Can Dream Buffet by Barbara O'Neal

I've discovered I like Barbara O'Neal.  I've seen her books on the shelves at work for years, but never picked one up.  Now I have, and I'm trying to figure out how I can read the rest of her titles sometime in the next few months.  I think every time I finish a paper for school I'll reward myself with one of her novels.  The key is to buy the book after I've finished the paper and not before.  

The All You Can Dream Buffet is Barbara's latest novel, and it combines two things I love:  lavender and food.  It takes place on Lavender Honey Farms, run by Lavender Wills.  She's become friends with three other women who blog:  Ginny, a cake blogger, Ruby, who's blog revolves around organic eating; and Val, who has a popular wine blog.  
It's time to celebrate Lavender's 85th birthday and she's invited the three women to her farm to celebrate.  

There's more to Lavender's invitation, however.  She wants to leave her farm and its successful business of honey, lavender, and organic produce to one of the women.  She's afraid her nephews will sell the land to a developer and can't bear for that to happen.  Who will be the lucky woman?  

Each woman bring her own backstory to the novel.  Ruby is a young pregnant woman trying to figure out her life.  Ginny is traveling from Kansas for the first time in her life, running away from an unhappy marriage.  Val is struggling to connect with her daughter after a family tragedy.  

The author includes "pages" of blogs as the women post, which adds to the feel of the novel.  The food, the descriptions of the farm and the lavender all combine to make this a novel I just loved--and put me in the mood for Spring.  

My only issue with this novel is the cover.  It doesn't match the story at all!  I think it should be a farm scene, or lavender fields.  But ignore the cover, and enjoy the story.  

Rating:  8/10 for wonderful descriptions of an organic farm, the workings of a lavender business, and the food!  And characters that are warm and wonderful.

Available in paperback and ebook.  

Side note:  I've worked really hard in the past few years to stay out of the "where to buy this book" discussion due to my personal feelings about bookstores and their vital importance to communities.  But I understand that making my blog a friendlier place means making it possible for my readers to quickly find and order the books I review.  So with that in mind, I've added an Amazon link, and I am working on putting in a Barnes & Noble link.  I've also begun linking my reviews on my "Books I've Read" page for 2014.  I'll be adding links to older reviews throughout the year.  Thanks for all your input!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Savage Girl by Jean Zimmerman

Jean Zimmerman writes historical fiction that demands you pay attention and weave your way through incredible detail.  All  while attempting to figure out just what is going on and why.  

That's what happens in Savage Girl, a fascinating look at late 19th century New York high society and the attempts of the Delegate family to "rescue" and refine a young woman thought to be brought up in the wild.  

The Delegate family are filthy rich.  As in hard-to-imagine-rich.  Hugo is the spoiled son, attending Harvard as an anatomical student, obsessed with drawing anything anatomical. He has a weird obsession with the human body.   The story is told through his eyes, and they are a bit unreliable.  Hugo is sickly, and has blackouts where he doesn't remember what happened or what he did during those times.  His life is altered when his family, traveling on a private train to Virginia City, come upon a dingy side-show down a dark alley.  That side show is savage girl, a young women who runs on all fours and seems pretty vicious, yet incredibly intelligent.  Hugo's father decides he needs to rescue her and  bring her back to New York City.  Here Hugo's parents will educate and refine savage girl and introduce her to society.  She's a big experiment.  

But this experiment has some dark baggage, and that baggage is murder.  Men are being found dead and mutilated wherever savage girl goes.  As savage girl slowly transforms into a young lady,  and begins speaking (her name is Bronwyn), she's even more mysterious.  Where did she come from, and what does she know?  Is she the killer?  Is it Hugo, who hallucinates from drink and blacks out whenever there's a murder? This mystery keeps you on your toes.  

Nature vs nuture is a big theme in this novel.  It's a fascinating look at people and motives with a mystery added to the mix.  

Rating:  8/10 for the writing, descriptions of 19th century New York City, and a clever plot.  

Available in hardcover, audio, and ebook.  

Thanks to Viking/Penguin for a review copy.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

I am a pioneer freak.  Have been since I first read Little House in the Big Woods at the age of 9 under the christmas tree that first year my family lived in Iowa. 

 Now, as an adult, I am continually amazed and in awe of those women who left all they knew and loved behind and traveled with their husbands and fathers into the unknown West.  The heartbreak, hard work, and isolation is something I can't even fathom in today's age, where we are surrounded by communication, easy shopping, and easy transportation.  Can you imagine sitting in  a sod house--dirt floor, maybe one window, bugs, smell, and the endless wind as your only company?  Not to even mention having children and standing by helpless when they got sick and died.  We've all  had a winter that has tested our tempers and our abilities to keep shoveling snow.  How would we feel sitting out on the prairie, with blizzards and howling winds week after week--and no cozy home, endless coffee, or books to keep us company?  

It would probably drive us nuts.  And that is the focus of this novel, which was first published in 1988 and republished this year because it's going to be a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hillary Swank.  I cannot wait to see it.  But first, you need to read this novel.  Mary Bee Cuddy is a spinster, living in Oklahoma Territory in the 1850's.  She's a homesteader/former teacher who lives alone, grows crops, and is tough as nails.  She's the neighbor who always helps out anyone in need.  And after an extremely difficult winter, four women have quite simply lost their minds.  Each of their stories is heartbreaking; they must leave the prairie and go back to Iowa, and from there to the families they left behind when they went West.  But who will take them to Iowa?  No one wants to; it falls to Mary Bee to volunteer to take on the difficult, weeks-long journey by wagon.  

I don't want to say anymore about this novel, which is pretty short, but packs a punch emotionally.  It is a tale of doing for others, heartbreak, making choices, and understanding that those who went before us and settled the West were extraordinary, brave people--especially the women.  This is an excellent novel for book clubs; so much to talk about!  

Rating:  9/10 for Mary Bee Cuddy and George (you'll just have to read it to find out about him); amazing writing that grips your heart and doesn't let go.

Available in paperback and e-book format.