Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Scarred Woman by Jussi Adler-Olsen

I'm probably one of the last people to climb aboard the Scandinavian mystery/thriller train, but I've finally taken my seat, and I'm happy to say I get all the excitement.  

The Scarred Woman is the 7th novel in the Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen.  I usually don't like to start a series with the latest book, but I thought I'd give it a shot.  For the most part, it worked for me.  But, one of the major parts of the novel has a backstory that I wish I was more familiar with before jumping into this novel.  Adler-Olsen makes up for that by digging into the story of Rose, one of the investigators for Department Q and not only familiarizing the reader with her sad, troubled past, but actually solving a big puzzle that will help her heal and move forward.  Rose is an unforgettable character, and her mental scars from emotional and verbal abuse are so vivid that it's painful to read about her experiences.  

So.  The Scarred Woman is really good!  It is dark, for sure, but refreshingly so. Like a blast of cold air that wakes you up.  In this novel, there is the recent unsolved murder of Rigmor Zimmerman, an elderly woman found dead in a park with head trauma and a substantial amount of money on her person.  It resembles a old cold case involving a beautiful young teacher who was also found dead with head trauma over ten years before.  While it feels like there should be a connection, I kept thinking it was a far stretch and no way could they be connected.  I was wrong.  

Besides Roses' story, which is painful to read, there is the story of Anne-Line, a social worker who is fed up with her job, the unending revolving door of young capable women who live off of the government, and upset about a recent medical diagnosis.  Anne-Line is one of those folks who work the same job for years, live quietly alone, and one day wake up to realize they are fed up with the unfairness of life, and decide to do something about it.  Anne-Line decides these girls- these lazy, selfish, dregs on society, must die.  Her reasoning, her decision making, and her planning are unsettling.  So this is how people become unhinged, I thought.  How people who can be described as "quiet, hardworking, nice" become killers.  Her transformation was chilling. I have to say she was my favorite character in the novel.  

So it seems that Carl and Assad, two investigators in Department Q, have a lot of seemingly random cases to solve.  Jussi Adler-Olsen skillfully weaves them all together, and the end is quite good.  Wow.  So impressed!  I did feel a bit lost a few times, because there is an established history between Carl and Assad, and Rose.  I felt I walked in mid-conversation, but it wasn't enough to keep me from getting into this novel and watching it all unfold.  I may go back and read the first Department Q novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes.  I usually don't read a lot of gritty contemporary mysteries, but this has turned me onto them, and I will certainly read more-especially by Scandinavian authors.  There was something very appealing about a mystery set in Copenhagen.  

A huge thank you to Dutton/Penguin for a review copy of The Scarred Woman. Yet again another genre I probably would have never read, but for this review opportunity.  Now I've got another whole world of Scandinavian thrillers to explore.  

Rating:  5/6 for a very clever mystery set in modern Copenhagen.  Each plot point in itself is solid and interesting, but the path to solving each mystery and the final solution are fascinating and make for one excellent read.  If you're interested in the Department Q novels, I'd start with the first one and work your way up to The Scarred Woman.  Or, you can be like me and jump in--either way will work!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: A Review and Winner of Giveaway Announced

As I said in my previous post about Picnic at Hanging Rock, this novel came out of nowhere for me, and after a quick search on the internet, I was intrigued not only by the novel, but by the author, Joan Lindsay. 

Joan Lindsay wrote this book in 1967, when she was 70 years old.  Her first novel.  It became an instant hit.  The tale is simple, but as any simple tales go, there's a lot going on underneath the surface.  It's February 14, 1900.  The young ladies at Appleyard College for Young Ladies in Australia are eager to take a day trip to Hanging Rock, a place ideal for picnics and taking in some fresh air and nature.  The group, with Miss McGraw, the mathematics teacher, and Mademoiselle De Poitiers, the popular French teacher as chaperones, take the three hour carriage ride out to Hanging Rock.  The plan is to eat lunch, rest, explore a bit (as much as you can in gloves and corsets), and return to Appleyard at 4 PM.  Other folks are also there picnicking: Michael Fitzhubert, visiting from England; Albert Crundall, the coachman for Michael's Aunt and Uncle; and Mr. Ben Hussey, the carriage driver.  

Miranda is a senior, and the most popular girl at Appleyard.  She decides to climb Hanging Rock, and takes along Irma, Marion, and Edith.  The girls are seen crossing a creek by Michael and Albert, and then simply disappear.  Edith appears later, screaming, hysterical.  She can't tell anyone what happened, and no one can find the three missing girls.  Oddly enough, Miss McGraw is missing, too.  Searches, questions, theories abound.  Michael is haunted, and decides to travel back to Hanging Rock to try and find something, anything to answer his questions.  Miraculously, he finds Irma weeks after the incident, but in mysterious circumstances and unconscious. The other two girls and Miss McGraw are never seen again; nor is any trace of them ever found.  They have simply disappeared into thin air. 

From this dark day, the story moves on to how the disappearances change everyone who is touched by them: the students at Appleyard, the Headmistress of Appleyard, the teachers, Michael and Albert.  It's a pretty interesting ending; a bit of a shock to me.  According to the foreword, Joan Lindsay had written an ending that explained exactly what happened to the girls, but it was so "out there" (my words) that the publisher had her cut it.  There are hints of strangeness, and it's left up to readers to decide for themselves what may have happened to the girls on that lovely summer day.  Joan Lindsay herself claimed that the story may or may not be true, and plenty of folks have searched for information over the decades, but have found nothing.  

I'm intrigued enough to have placed  a hold on the movie at my local library. I can't wait to watch it.  

A huge thank you to Penguin/Random House for providing a copy not only for my review, but a copy to give away to a lucky reader.  And the winner of the giveaway is...

Thank you to all who entered the contest.  I am very glad I had the opportunity to read this classic novel, and I think it would make a very good book club discussion--or even better, a classroom discussion.  Just goes to show, any book you haven't read (even one 50 years old!) is new if you haven't read it yet.

Rating:  4/6 for a novel that has  a lot to offer towards discussion.  What is it about this tale that has stood the test of time?  Fascinating!

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack

Fans of M.J. Rose, Kate Mosse, and Katherine Neville have, no doubt, already discovered Gwendolyn Womack with her first novel, The Memory Painter. If you haven't, you'd better get busy and start reading.

This was one of those novels that I bought, added to my stacks at home, and forgot about for a few months.  When I finally plucked it out of a stack to read for October, I spent plenty of time congratulating myself for being smart enough to buy it and finally read it. It's exactly the kind of historical/magical/thriller/toss-in-just-a-wee-bit-of-romance novel that I relish reading. 

Two stories in one that eventually blend together.  Semele Cavnow is an expert at appraising antiquities for a very exclusive auction house in New York City.  She's sent to Geneva to appraise a rare private collection of ancient texts and manuscripts, and finds one written in Greek that is hidden from the rest of the collection.  Slowly translating it, she is a bit startled when it appears to be a written by a famous seer who was the daughter of a librarian at the great library in Alexandria. Odder still, this seer addresses Semele by name, and proceeds to foretell many big world events that won't come to pass for thousands of years, long after the seer is gone.  Semele is warned that there are people who want the manuscript.  Returning to New York with the manuscript and a digital copy (smart lady digitizes the whole manuscript and saves it to her laptop), she's aware that a man is following her, and her boss decides she will be removed from the project and sent to Beijing instead--with no explanation. Furious, Semele keeps translating the text, and learning all about the long line of women who have shared the gift of foretelling, vision, and reading a tarot deck that if found, would fetch an extremely high price. She's in danger, and forces are beginning to draw a net around her. 

I quickly became fascinated by the story about the extraordinary women who each sacrificed themselves to keep the tarot deck in safe hands, and to pass it onto the next generation.  A long, unbroken line that travels from ancient Alexandria, to Iraq, Greece, England, France, Germany, and eventually America.  But how does Semele fit into all of this?  That's part of the story.  Not only has she found out recently that she's adopted, but she is having flashes of the future, and senses that something bigger than herself is at play. 

I loved this novel!  It was all I could do to be a productive member of society last week, because all I wanted to do was sit and read it.  The end was truly not at all what I expected, but I thought the author's ability to wrap it all up, bring all that storyline together into one place, was masterful.  It answered a lot of questions.  Not only did I love the references to the great library of Alexandria, but all the reverence given to libraries, librarians as protectors of knowledge, and the awareness that we have always valued books, libraries, and those who make seeking and protecting knowledge their life's work. Our ties to the past are many and sometimes we forget that.  

Oh, I hope you read this and let me know what you think of it.  I'm a huge fan of Ms. Womack and have added her to my list of new favorite authors.  

Rating:  4/6 for an inventive novel about ancestors, an ancient tarot deck, libraries, and finding out our connections to the past.  Just enough romance, but not too much; good to read about a smart, capable woman who is an expert in a field that is usually dominated by men. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Widow's House by Carol Goodman

It's been a few years since I read my last Carol Goodman novel.  I stumbled across her while I was shelving at my bookstore, thought I'd try out her writing, and I'm so glad I did. Her contemporary gothic thrillers are just the kind of novel I enjoy.

 I would compare her to Kate Morton and Simone St. James; if you're a big fan of novels set around the Hudson Valley, you should read not only The Widow's House, but some of her other novels. She's also written a series for teens: Blythewood, Ravencliffe, and Hawthorn. She hasn't forgotten young readers, either: The Metropolitans looks like a great little mystery, and I'm adding it to my TBR list.  

Onto The Widow's House.  Jess and Clare Martin are two writers who have hit rock bottom.  Jess' first and only novel, written just out of college, was a big hit, but he's failed miserably writing his second novel.  Clare has put aside her own desire to write (she's the better writer of the two) in order to work at a publishing house to makes ends meet.  A stressed marriage and no money combine to take the Martins out of New York City and back to Concord, a sleepy village in the Hudson Valley known for its apple orchards and Apple Blossom Queen Festival.  It is where Clare grew up, and met Jess at Bailey College.  Not a place Clare was eager to return to, as her memories of growing up in a harsh household, knowing she was adopted, has left her feeling a bit adrift.  

Jess and Clare end up at Riven House, a huge mansion out in the country, where Alden Montague--their former professor at Bailey College, resides in what was once a glorious estate.  Taking the caretaker's job means they have an affordable place to stay, and the quiet Jess needs to finish his novel.  

But of course things aren't that simple.  Clare sees a young woman standing outside; hears a baby cry in the night, and is haunted by the tale of the Mary Foley, her lover Bay Montague, and their tragic ending in 1929.  Is it Mary she sees at night near the river, holding her baby?  What story does Mary want Clare to tell?

As Clare digs into Mary's story, her own novel starts to take shape at a feverish pace, and her obsession with Mary's tragic life compels Clare to start exploring the house and the secrets it holds.  Does she just have a vivid imagination, or is there evil at Riven House?  

I've got to say, I enjoyed everything about this novel except the relationship between Jess and Clare. They are obviously an unhappy pair; his treatment of Clare just had me really annoyed and wanting to smack him upside the head. Clare's high school boyfriend is the sheriff in town, and from the first time they meet again, it's obvious he's the good guy, and the man she should be with--not Jess.  That was frustrating, waiting for the story to evolve.  Other than that, there's enough history, paranormal possibilities, and backstory to make this a novel that you will carry with you everywhere, waiting to read just a few pages.  
A perfect Halloween read.

Rating:  4/6 for the atmosphere; the story of the Apple Blossom Queen is solid, and Clare is someone to cheer on in her journey to unveil the mysteries of Riven House. 

Available in paperback and e-book.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

This book.  Seriously loved it.  It came at the right time. It's been sitting in a stack of books for a month or so, I can't believe I managed to hold off as long as I did before I grabbed it and settled in for a good read.  

Equal parts humor, sentiment, reflection, and whimsy, Michael Poore's novel about one man's 10,000 lifetimes was such an enjoyable reading experience. Milo is a character that will stay with you long after you've finished the book.

So Milo has lived 9,995 lives; in the life he has just recently departed, he's eaten by a shark, after having an otherwise pretty good day.  He's back on the other side, meeting Death--a woman named Suzie (she prefers that to "Death") and falling back into their love affair.  Yes, Milo and Suzie have been lovers for centuries.  Suzie isn't all that happy being Death, and tempts fate by quitting.  

Meanwhile, Milo has only 5 lives left to reach perfection/get it right/know all the answers in order to become one with the cosmic soul.  It's what every soul aims to do.  Milo has become well known on the other side because it's taken him so very, very long to reach this state--and if he doesn't get it right very quickly, he'll be shoved off the cosmic sidewalk into nothingness.  Every other soul has managed to figure it out long before their allotted 10,000 lives, but Milo just can't seem to get it right.  He's come close, but then blows it.  

Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, this is a refreshing and humorous look at just how hard it is to get life right.  Getting it right means many things to many people, but when we boil it down, it's all about being a good, kind, unselfish person, and putting others before ourselves.  Milo's adventures aren't just linear; he looks into a river, picks a life that will help him achieve perfection, and dives into that new life.  It can be in India thousands of years ago, or 1920's America.  It can be in the future, on another planet after Earth has been ruined by the human race. All lifetimes are happening at the same time. His lives are sometimes short, sometimes long; uneventful, or full of pain.  All his other previous lives, however, are a voice in his head, helping and nudging him to make the right choices.  Yes, he is wiser in the process, but his human qualities can take over, and ruin what was a pretty good life. Milo is funny, wise, curious, rueful, determined, and a bit of a lazy ass.  He reincarnates as men, women, animals, insects; black, white, red, yellow, other worldly.  Sometimes with wealth,sometimes very poor.  Sometimes healthy and strong, other times with physical limitations.  The universe is throwing everything at him and giving him every chance to get it right, but dang it all Milo!  He keeps ruining his chance.  

I absolutely loved this book.  Thinking about it, I realize it leaves me with hope. Hope that there is something bigger than all of us, and we are all working towards perfection--not in our physical world, but in our souls.  I don't plan on spending 10,000 lifetimes to find it!  

6/6 for a fantastic look at life, death, the great cosmic wheel, and how we can get it right.  Laugh out loud, poignant, and thoughtful.  Fans of Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore, and Terry Pratchett will enjoy this novel. I hope Michael Poore keeps writing!

Available in hardcover and ebook.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Giveaway: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

It never gets old:  the surprise I feel when books  I've been completely unaware of all my adult reading life pop up on my radar. This is one of those books.  And lucky for you, my blog fans, you get a chance to win a copy from Penguin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this classic.  

Here's what Penguin is saying about this newly released paperback edition:

A 50th-anniversary edition of the landmark novel about three “gone girls” that inspired the acclaimed 1975 film and an upcoming TV series starring Natalie Dormer

by Joan Lindsay
Foreword by Maile Meloy

“A sinister tale...laced with touches of other-worldliness” The Guardian

“Deliciously horrific.” The Observer

“The fact that most people believed that this palpable fiction was a record of a real event is not merely a tribute to the writer...but a testimony to the atavistic power of its theme.” The Spectator

“Beautifully haunting.” The Sun Herald (Australia)

Mysterious and subtly erotic, PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Penguin Classics; On-sale: October 3, 2017; $16.00; ISBN: 9780143132059) was first published 50 years ago and inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir—as well as a six-episode TV series starring Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, scheduled to be released by Amazon next year. Widely considered one of the most important Australian novels of all time, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

On a cloudless summer day in the year 1900, everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared…. They never returned.

Over the course of four weeks in 1966, Joan Lindsay wrote PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, a debut literary novel that became a sensation. The intrigue surrounding it propelled it into Australia’s national folklore. This new Penguin Classics edition, featuring a foreword by Maile Meloy, author of the recent bestselling novel Do Not Become Alarmed, about the disappearance of four children on a family vacation, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the novel’s first publication.

As Maile Meloy recommends in her foreword, new readers are encouraged to delve into PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK with as little information as possible. For whether these accounts are fictional or true is entirely up to the reader to discern.

About the Author:
JOAN LINDSAY was born Joan à Beckett Weigall in Melbourne, Australia, in 1896. She attended Clyde Girls Grammar School, the model for Appleyard College in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, where she studied painting. On Valentine’s Day 1922 she married Daryl Lindsay in London. She chose Valentine’s Day 1900 as the setting for Picnic at Hanging Rock, her best-known work, which was first published in 1967 and is the basis for the 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. She died in Melbourne in 1984.
MAILE MELOY (foreword) is the author of the novels Do Not Become Alarmed, Liars and Saints, and A Family Daughter; the story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review); and the Apothecary series, a middle-grade trilogy. She has received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles.

Enter to win a copy!  Here's how:
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Contest ends at 12 AM on Sunday, October 15th.  Open to U.S. residents only.  

Review and winner will be announced Sunday, October 15th!  

Thursday, September 28, 2017

That Month Where I'll Be Reading When I'm Not Working or Sleeping: October Reads and Those Pesky DNF'S

I'm still a bit far from my goal of 100 books this year.  It seems like a pretty easy thing to achieve; after all, I read every day for an hour minimum.  If I'm lucky, I get in a chunk of 4 hours.  I had a glorious streak about 5 years ago, where my reading capacity was amazing, and I not only met my reading goal, but blew past it. All I can say now is that life is even busier when I thought it would slow down, and my chances of having chunks of time to read have become less and less.  Still, I'm trying a Hail Mary to get closer to my goal before December 31st.  

Part of that goal is to read some of the books I've bought over the past few years that are still sitting on my bookcases.  I am definitely someone who gets easily distracted by new books and pretty covers.  My discipline goes out the window! Before I talk about my reads for October (which is the gateway to my favorite reading months--cool days and chilly nights), I have to discuss my Did Not Finish books.  Dang it. 

 I tried really hard to get into this book, but I found myself not very interested.  I enjoyed The Little Paris Bookshop quite a bit, so I was disappointed I couldn't find my groove with this one.  I'll probably try again next year.  
 Ah, Strange Practice.  Sure to be a series, or at least have a sequel or two.  I've enjoyed reading this book very much--I started it on vacation in July.  However, I lost my reading mojo and now am stuck 3/4 of the way through.  It's still lying next to my bed, waiting for me to pick it back up.  I'll probably finish it before the end of the year, but for now, it's not going to be picked up again anytime soon. A doctor in London who takes care of supernatural creatures, with a vampire as a bestie?  A great concept, and I like all the characters.  Oh, how I wish I'd finished it on the plane ride home.  Dang it. 
Another novel I read great reviews on that had me checking it out of the library as soon as it was available.  A Viking historical saga full of pillaging, raping, and the struggle to avenge an attempted murder all make it fascinating.  I just didn't have the time to really sit down and concentrate, which is what this novel deserves.  I'll probably try again when it's in paperback.  Sometimes reading a hardcover book is tough for me, knowing I'll have a second chance and probably buy the paperback--then I'll read it.  Even though I didn't finish it, I would say it would make an excellent Christmas gift for fans of historical sagas, and those curious about the Viking way of life.  

Now, without further ado, I present my October reads.  I like to read novels that are on the dark side in order to get my Halloween groove on--when I'm not watching paranormal shows on TV.  And because too much of the dark stuff drags me down, I've tossed in a few other reads that will lighten me up.  

Bookshelf read that has waited too long!

I'm a fan of Carol Goodman and love her Gothic tales

Saw this on the web and it looks like an excellent  combination of history, antiques, and ancient prophecies

I've had many friends read this and tell me it's fantastic.  A novel about what's going on in our world today.  

I love bees!  Three stories told in past, present and future.  

This caught my eye; not sure what to expect. 

I'm reading this now, and LOVING IT.  Similar to Christopher Moore.
A favorite author--can't wait to read it!

New to this author; publisher review request.  It's a hefty hardcover, but I'm eager to dip into the Nordic  crime  genre.  Better late than never!

I've got a few other titles that will sprinkle in throughout the month.  Watch for an upcoming book giveaway.  Happy Fall reading!  The Bookalicious Babe

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

I usually do a bit of pre-reading work before I read most of my books.  By pre-reading work, I mean that I read a synopsis, some reviews...get the lay of the land, so to speak.  
I did not do that for this novel; instead I was captivated by the title, and decided I had to read it without having much of any idea of the plot.  

It took me about halfway through the novel to finally rid myself of the idea that somewhere in the Bright Ideas Bookstore there was a mystical, magical, fantasy storyline just waiting to pop out.  Nope.  Nothing like that at all. Add in a Gas N' Donuts place, and I thought: okay, maybe I'm wrong about the fantasy part, but I bet it's quirky. Yep. A quirky bookstore novel.  

Wrong again. It's actually a crime novel, with a bookstore as a significant setting. Here's a short summary, because I don't want to give anything away:  Lydia works at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, in a part of Denver that's seeing a revitalization.  She's befriended Joey, a young man who has no one and no where to go.  He spends hours at the bookstore, reading and watching people.

One night, as Lydia is closing up the bookstore, she realizes Joey hasn't come down from the third floor.  Irritated, she goes up to the third floor, only to find Joey hanging in the history section.  Curiously, a photo of Lydia as a small child is found sticking out of his jeans pocket. Devastated by Joey's suicide, Lydia scrambles to figure out why, why?! She's been asked to clean out Joey's apartment, and while she does, she finds a box of books that are meant for her. Inside the books, Joey's cut out bit of sentences, leaving little bits of the books missing. Through some smart observation, Lydia starts putting the pieces of the book mystery together, and instead of making things clearer, it only pulls her deeper into the mystery of Joey's life, and death. And they are, somehow, linked to Lydia's past.

Lydia is an interesting character.  At age ten, she was the only survivor to a horrible murder that remains unsolved.  Her father, a librarian, moves them away from Denver, and he himself slowly changes from the loving father Lydia knows to a withdrawn, sad man who slowly closes out his daughter.  Leaving home after high school graduation, Lydia returns to Denver, and becomes a bookseller--the one place where she feels at home.  Her past remains past, as she strives to escape the "Little Lydia" nickname the newspapers gave her, all those years ago.  She doesn't talk about her past, and doesn't have anything to do with her father. 

Joey's suicide stirs things up in Lydia's life; I have to say it was a pretty good storyline that brought Joey's random, sad life and Lydia's dysfunctional adult life together.  I kept wondering just how the two would come together, and that kept me reading.  It wasn't surprising to find out who was the murderer, but it was interesting to find out why this person committed the crime. Most poignant of all was the short life of Joey.  A young man who never had a family, felt completely alone, abandoned, and lost.  A struggle for a meaningful life that ended with a final blow that he just couldn't overcome.  Joey's character is pretty powerful, even though he's dead for the majority of the novel.  

I did come around after a bit and did enjoy the novel, even though I still have a faint disappointment that it wasn't what I had hoped for.  You know how you think the cookie is chocolate chip, but instead it's oatmeal raisin?  You'll eat it anyway, and enjoy it, but darn it all, it should have been chocolate chip.  That's how I feel about this novel. Matthew Sullivan is a gifted writer, and his descriptions of Denver and the bookstore anchor you in the story.  It's a quick read, and you'll keep reading, because you want to find out what the heck is going on, and how Lydia and Joey are connected.  It all connects back to Lydia's childhood and that horrible murder.  Read it and see what you think.  

Rating:  3/6 for a well crafted crime novel that also addresses the plight of the homeless, the abandoned, and the foster care system in our country.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

A friend of mine talked about this book in last month's book group, and I gladly accepted his offer to read the book this month.  It had been on my radar for a few months, and after Kirk's review of it, I couldn't wait to dig in--and this was the perfect introduction to my favorite holiday, Halloween.  

Lizzie Borden, as we know, is infamous for the murders of her father, Andrew Borden, and her step-mother, Abby Borden, on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts.  They were both bludgeoned to death by an ax in their home:  Abby upstairs in the guest bedroom; Andrew lying on the couch in a downstairs parlor.  Lizzie was charged with their murders, brought to trial, and found not guilty.  She lived the rest of her life in Fall River, a bit of a pariah, and died in 1927 of pneumonia.  She never married.  

Lizzie Borden

These are the basic facts.  What Sarah Schmidt has done is to recreate the days leading up to the murders, and the few days after the murders, as told through the eyes of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and a very unsettling young man named Benjamin.  Moving back and forth between these characters, we learn bits and pieces of events surrounding the murders, and a little bit about each person.  It quickly becomes apparent that each had a motive for murder, and at least two of them are completely unhinged.  

The brilliance of this novel is the unbalanced feeling you have while reading it.  The best analogy I can use is to imagine yourself on the deck of a ship in the middle of a storm, trying to constantly keep your balance; shifting your weight, wondering when the next roll of the deck will come.  That's how I felt, especially while reading from Lizzie's viewpoint.  Her behavior and thoughts are, at times, downright repulsive.  Her tangled relationship with Emma, her love/hate for her father, and her disdain for her stepmother all are constantly changing as her mind wanders between the brutal present and the past.  Bridget is the only really normal character.  Stuck as a maid for the Bordens, she's been saving her money in a tin box underneath her bed, so she can leave and go back home to Ireland.  When Mrs. Borden finds out she wants to leave, she takes away Bridget's tin full of money.  Bridget's resentment of Mrs. Borden, her feelings of helplessness, and her awareness that "this family just isn't right" (my words, not hers) seems like the only normal part of the story.  Everyone else's views are subject to half-truths, truths, and lies. 

Benjamin is one awful man.  He's sent by Lizzie and Emma's Uncle John to take care of Andrew Borden.  Take care of how, it's not quite clear, but would involve violence.  He's really angry when he arrives and things aren't what Uncle John promised.  Don't even get me started on the high creep factor Uncle John brings to the story.  His treatment of Lizzie made my flesh crawl; sexual predator came to my mind more than once.  Emma's a whole lot more aware of Uncle John's creepiness and keeps well away from him. 

There are two points in the story where you realize who committed the murders, and when two other characters realize who committed the murders.  One of the turning points is fairly quiet, but made me say "Holy Crap!" out loud.  The other involves the murder weapon, and what becomes of it.  

Sara Schmidt is a gifted writer.  Her ability to set you squarely in the Borden home on those hot, humid, awful days creates a the illusion in your mind that you're kind of a peeper, standing in the corners, watching it all unfold.The smells, the textures, the descriptions of food may leave you queasy. I can say the word 'mutton' makes me feel a bit ill.  

I recommend this novel for book groups, folks who love true crime, and anyone who likes a good psychological thriller.  The big theme is the powerlessness women felt while under the thumb of their father; their inability to create a life on their own without the approval of parents, and the frustration that created.  Power is a very big theme--it can bring wealth, but it can also bring resentment, chaos, and violence.  While the murders to this day remain unsolved, Sarah Schmidt has her own idea of who was guilty of the crimes.  

Just in case you're interested, the Borden house is now run as a Bed and Breakfast, and you can stay in the room where Abby Borden was murdered.  It's also known to be haunted by Andrew Borden.  

Rating:  5/6 for a fantastic imaging of the Borden murders.  Highly recommend. A writer who brings all of your senses into play.

Available in hardcover, and e-book. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Once in a Blue Moon Lodge by Lorna Landvik

Finding this book in the library was a very happy surprise.  I immediately checked it out and was able to zip through it in a few days.  I read Lorna Landvik's Patty Jane's House of Curl years ago and had enjoyed it but it has been so many years I didn't remember much of the story. I can only remember that it took place in Minnesota and I liked it very much.  Plus, I needed a bit of space after reading A Column of Fire.

In Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, we return to Minnesota,1988.  Patty Jane has decided it's time to close down her House of Curl, etc.  What began as a hair salon morphed into not only a place where you could get a color and a cut, but a salon where the neighbors attended salsa dancing, author visits, music recitals, and all sorts of classes and events.  It was truly an unusual place, and quite popular.  But Patty Jane is ready to travel and enjoy time with her live in partner, Clyde.  Patty's husband, Thor, also lives in the same house.  What I didn't remember from PJHOC was that Patty's husband Thor had left her while she was pregnant with their daughter Nora. Missing for years, he eventually is found and welcomed back into Patty Jane's family. Still legally married to Thor, Patty Jane has an unusual life, for sure--but it all makes sense, and you'll quickly be pulled into the loving, funny, and entertaining Rolvaag family.  

The story moves forward from 1988, with Nora making some life choices that have huge consequences for the whole family.  One of those choices--purchasing a lodge on a lake renamed Ocean by the local townspeople, sets up the rest of the novel. That lodge is named for the blue moon that shines on a significant night in Nora's life.  And I'd like to live at that lodge! 

 As the years go by, you feel like you're part of the Rolvaag family, and it's a pretty sweet family.  The stories of Patty Jane and Clyde, her mother-in-law Ione and her husband Edon (who remind us all that it's never too late for love), and Nora and Thomas are all, at heart, love stories.  All a bit unusual, but steadfast and enduring. As life moves on, and the years go by, the Rolvaag family creates all those precious moments that make up a unique family history.  

While this is a sequel to PJHOC, it can be read as a stand alone.  Lorna Landvik lays enough back story for you to catch up on the family history and not feel like you've missed anything.  But, I can say with certainty that you'll want to read PJHOC because you'll love the writing, the community, and the warmth.  I'd say this reminded me of an American version of a Jenny Colgan novel. Toss in a whole lot of Norwegian culture, Midwest charm, and some delicious baking, and I think you'll find this read as irresistible as I did. Both novels would make an excellent Christmas gift .

Rating:  4/6 for a welcome return to Minnesota.  Landvik's characters are well crafted, charming, and memorable--especially Ione and Edon.   

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge, #3) by Ken Follett

What does one do when given the opportunity to read Ken Follett's latest novel a few weeks before it is released by the publisher--and it's 928 pages?  

READ EVERY CHANCE YOU GET.  That's what I did, and managed to read this in a week on my Nook.  I even snuck in a few short reading breaks for a few other books I'm reading, too.  I finished last night, and had to take some time to absorb the spectacle of Ken Follett and Elizabethan England. This was an emotional journey all wrapped up in a wonderfully written novel.  

If you've ever read Mr. Follett's Pillars of the Earth, or World Without End, you know they are set in Kingsbridge, a fictional town in England that has a spectacular cathedral at the center of town.  The cool bit about the books is that they take place hundreds of years apart, so you can read each one without reading the others.  Each stands alone.  While you might be a bit apprehensive of the size (this book clocks in at 928 pages), I assure you it is well worth the effort.  It's the perfect book for a chilly evening because it's so weighty you quite happily sit for hours with it propped up on your lap. And, of course, a glass of wine at your side. 

Ken Follett's gift is his ability to make history come alive, and in such a way that you don't even realize how big his books are--pages speed by, and you'll find yourself reading 100-200 pages every evening; sometimes more if you've got the time.  His characters, both actual historical figures and fictional figures, are so well drawn that you'll become attached and your heart will leap when they're in danger, and cheer when things go right for them. The tale begins in 1558 and ends in 1620.  Who survives to the end?

So let's talk about the plot.  It begins in 1558, with a young Ned Willard sailing home to Kingsbridge after a year abroad.  He's eager to meet Margery Fitzgerald, a lovely young woman from a wealthy Catholic family in Kingsbridge. He hopes she hasn't forgotten him, because he's madly in love with her and hopes to marry her.  It would be a very good match--Ned's family is a prosperous one that has known the Fitzgerald family for years.  

Ned and Margery's hope for a future together is destroyed by her father and brother Rollo's ambitions: to be linked to the Viscount Shiring family through Margery's marriage to young Bart. Ambition and ruthlessness rule their world.  

The Fitzgeralds are a conniving family, and fervent Catholics.  Queen Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) is a staunch Catholic and has been arresting and burning Protestants in England.  This is just the beginning of the decades long bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants, not only in England, but in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.  The major players:  Queen Mary, Princess Elizabeth, and Mary, Queen of Scots (and eventual Queen of France); the Pope and King Philip of Spain are just part of the multiple story lines that weave themselves into one big glorious tale that begins in 1558 and ends in 1620.  

There are some devious, evil men that keep the story moving along across England, France, and Spain.  Pierre, a French man determined to rise through the ranks of the French monarchy is one of the biggest creeps around!  At first he's kind of charming, if smarmy, but he quickly progresses into a Catholic spy for the powerful Catholics, using his charm to gather information on Protestants who are worshipping in secret.  He's truly loathsome.  Rollo is another nasty man; his world eventually collides with Pierre's as they join forces to topple the fragile religious tolerance Queen Elizabeth has forged in England.  They won't rest until Mary, Queen of Scots is on the throne of England as the true and rightful heir.  

Oh, it's a mess.  Spies, treachery, murder, forbidden passion, betrayal...machinations every which way.  While I didn't know a lot about the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, I certainly got an education reading this novel.  Religious intolerance is a huge theme throughout the novel. That, and the belief by some people that Elizabeth was not the true heir to the English throne propel the plot through decades of bloodshed and political unrest.  

Argh!  I could go on and on.  I haven't even told you about some of the other characters that populate this epic tale.  Sylvie, for one--this woman is tough as nails and willing to risk her life every day for her beliefs.  She's one of my favorite characters in the novel.  Margery is also a tough cookie; she takes the cards she's dealt and makes a life that works for her.  "Nevertheless, she persisted" is so applicable to these two women--as well as the other strong women who make their mark in so many big and small ways.  You will root for the good guys, and be really pissed at the bad guys.  If anything, you'll have a better understanding of the complexities that fueled the upheavals of the sixteenth century.  Toss in the thrilling battle between the English Navy and the Spanish Armada, and you've got a fantastic read for September.  

A HUGE thank you to Viking Books for the opportunity to read and review A Column of Fire.  This made my year.  

Available September 12th in the United States in hardcover, ebook, and audio book.  

Rating:  6/6 for one amazing read.  Wow. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

For those of us who still keep our childhood copies of the Little House books on our bookshelves, this soon to be published novel about Caroline Ingalls is like a long lost friend returning for a brief visit.  

"Ma", as we all know and love her, was the gentle, firm, yet loving mother to Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace.  In many ways she has always been a bit one dimensional; seen through the eyes of her daughter, Laura, we only see Ma as the wise mother, always deferring to her husband. Well, hold your hat, because we see Ma as Caroline, pioneer woman, loving mother, and lover (yes, I said lover) in this retelling of Little House on the Prairie. Wonder where Laura got her moxie? Yes, some of it from her father, but pretty much 90% from her mother. 

The novel begins in Wisconsin, as Charles' wanderlust leads him and his family to pack their worldly goods into a wagon and head to Kansas.  Caroline is newly pregnant with Carrie, and doesn't want to leave everything and everyone she holds dear.  Yet, she must follow her husband; she knows Charles will be unhappy if he stays in an increasingly crowded Big Woods.  The scene where the Ingalls family say farewell to family and their beloved little cabin is really heartbreaking.  Caroline holds it together, but just barely.  Full of fear of the unknown, yet excitement to be starting new in Kansas, she is strong and mindful of the examples she must set for her two young daughters, who see everything.  

Charles' and Caroline's journey to Kansas in modern times would be so many hours in one day if they traveled by car.  But for them, it took weeks.  Dangerous creek crossings, horrible storms, loneliness, food rations and the dangers of one family traveling alone keep the tension up.  Caroline's growing fears for her unborn child set her on edge: when will the baby move; how will she give birth by herself out on the prairie? 

Caroline and Charles' relationship is one of mutual love and respect.  They know each other so well that just a look or a certain phrase signals how each other feels.  It's clear they adore each other, and support each other in every way.  Yes, I have to admit my 10 year old self cringed a bit reading the few love scenes, but they were appropriate and tasteful, and brought home again that Charles and Caroline are not just Pa and Ma, but two people who have come together to create a family and a future together. If you have ever shared hopes and dreams with a partner, you will completely understand this marriage.  

Once the Ingalls family arrives in Kansas, they quickly work to build a cabin and settle in before winter.  We meet Mr. Edwards, and Mrs. Scott, a neighbor who meets Caroline on the day she arrives to help deliver Carrie.  Caroline longs for her family during labor, but realizes the gift of Mrs. Scott.  Such an intimate time to meet someone for the first time, but a bond develops between the two women because of where they are--women need to stick together.  It reinforces the hardships pioneer women endured settling the American West.  Brave, brave women.  Hardworking women.  Women who endured so much sorrow, but kept on; so much to admire as I sit sipping my tea in my comfortable home.  I've got it good, because they did all the hard work.  

This novel follows Little House on the Prairie fairly closely, but told instead from the perspective of an adult woman. While the story may have been familiar, it was refreshingly different from Caroline's point of view.  Perhaps reading this as an adult with some life experience also gave it some weight.  In any case, this was a welcome return to childhood, with a bit of poignancy attached to it.  It was also a chance to get to know Caroline: a strong woman who constantly thought about how she could understand and adapt to her changing world. She faced fear and instead of bowing to it, she met it head on with courage.

Rating:  5/6 for a well written return to the Little House books.  The writing immediately reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing style; I expect fans will embrace this novel and add it to their collections.  Since it does focus heavily on Charles and Caroline (two young married folks who, quite frankly, have a healthy lust for each other), I would recommend reading it first before passing it onto young readers.  It also shows racial tensions between white and Indians, and the prejudices and misinformation that were common at the time.  

Available September 19th, 2017 in the United States in hardcover, large print, ebook, and audio.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

Lies She Told is a novel that blurs reality and fiction and adds in two unreliable narrators.  What you get is a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the curtain to whoosh open, revealing the truth.  

Liza Cole is an author who's had a respectable run publishing novels, but now she's stuck, and under a deadline to produce another novel in quick time, or she will probably lose her contract.  She's struggling with infertility; taking hormones and trying desperately to engage her husband in this latest round of treatments.  He's grown distant, and it's no wonder:  his best friend and law partner Nick is missing, and no one has a clue what's happened to him.  

Liza's novel begins to take shape in the form of Beth, a new mother who is also riding the hormone train, and feeling a bit insecure regarding her husband's affections.  As a reader, it took me awhile to get it in my head that Beth was the creation of Liza, and not another character living in Liza's New York reality.  I guess that means Liza has a possible hit novel on her hands, if only she can stick with it! 

 Blurred lines play a big part in the storyline:  headaches, hormones, shady memories--or no memories at all.  Liza's experimental hormone therapy has some seriously bad side effects but she's unwilling to give up what may be her last chance to conceive. She also likes to drink, and that just adds to the uncertainty of Liza's view of the world.  

Beth and Liza's worlds are similar, and as you read you realize they're not only similar, but may be more horribly connected than you thought.  You get bits and pieces of Liza's past colliding with the present, and you can feel her desperation to gain her husband's attention not only through her thoughts, but as reflected in Beth's story.  It's the best writing Liza's done in years, but how far is it from reality?  

I don't want to give anything away, but holy cow even if you figure it out, you just haven't really figured it out.  There's a big twist at the end, and it will keep you thinking about this book long after you're finished.  You'll want to discuss it with others, so make sure you either read it in a book group, or have a friend or two read it.   I haven't read Cate Holahan's first novel, The Widower's Wife, but I'm certainly adding it to my list.  

A big thank you to Crooked Lane for a review copy of this novel.  I would have passed it by in the library or bookstore, but now I've got a great book to recommend.  

Rating:  5/6 for a twisty plot that blurs reality and fiction.  Marital relationships, that "perfect couple", those secrets that sometimes lie down deep, just waiting to pounce.  A thriller folks will gulp down. 

Available in hardcover September 12 in the U.S. Also will be available as an e-book and audio book.  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It can be a good thing when you check out a library book that has other people waiting for it: it makes you read really fast because you can't renew it and extend your time. I fear if I'd had more time to read The Essex Serpent I may have called it quits and never finished it. As it was, I stayed up late last night and am happy to say I turned the last page and now know the story of the Essex Serpent. 

I have to say this wasn't the novel I expected; I blame myself for not paying too much attention to other people's reviews.  My curiosity was taken by the story of a woman in search of a mythical creature that may or may not exist. There is so much more to Sarah Perry's novel; it took me in a very different direction. Why do we believe in mythical creatures? What does it do to test our belief systems, and our faith in God?  Why would such creatures exist, except to punish us for our transgressions? People are quick to blame every bad accident, death, or crop failure on that unknown thing. We are being punished because we're bad, somehow.  

In Victorian England, Cora Seaborne is newly widowed, and leaves London to travel to Essex with her companion Martha and her young son Francis.  Fascinated by fossils, nature, and geology, Cora is finally free to pursue her interests with wild abandon. Rumors of a sea serpent in Blackwater have begun to make the people of Aldwinter, the village near Blackwater, very uncomfortable.  They turn to William Ransome, the village rector, to provide comfort and explanations.  Through friends, William and Cora connect, and she's invited down to Aldwinter to visit William and his wife and children.  Here begins the real story:  William and Cora.  Fast friends, they find a shared interest in nature, and enjoy arguing with each other.  It's pretty obvious they fall in love, but neither is fully aware.  Williams' wife, Stella, is a lovely woman suffering from tuberculosis.  Cora loves Stella, and does her utmost to ignore her growing feelings for William.  It's an interesting love triangle; Stella sees the closeness of her husband and friend, and is happy he has someone to share his interests with; Cora dresses as mannish as possible to keep any femininity at bay.  William loves his wife and only understands he loves Cora in one lightning moment, months into their friendship.  

Meanwhile, Martha is involved in solving housing issues for the poor in London, and has convinced a wealthy doctor to become part of the solution.  There's also Luke Garrett, another London surgeon madly in love with Cora, but those feelings aren't returned.  His story starts out slow, but towards the end of the novel, he becomes more of a focus.  

I spent a lot of time trying to pull all of the pieces of this plot together.  I'm sure I'm missing something because I don't have anyone to help me pick apart the storyline.  What I did see was the evolution of England and its people from a place of old beliefs and superstitions to an industrialized nation focused on money and the "machine".  It is the background to this story; and I felt a bit melancholy reading this--it felt like an ode to a way of life that will never be again.  William is the anchor to the old way of life for the people of Aldwinter, and he can't explain why the creature exists, and what it wants.  He grapples with spirit versus nature.  

So is there actually an Essex serpent?  You do get this answer, and it's pretty fantastic.  I won't spoil it, but I loved it.  And I won't tell you what happens to the multiple love triangles, because that's for you to discover.  Yes, there is more than one love triangle!  Sarah Perry's writing is so so good.  I could smell the salt air, the mud and clay; I could see the forests and feel the damp breeze. You feel a bit of a naturalist yourself reading Cora's adventure.  

Rating:  4/6 for a very different Victorian tale about faith, belief, the unknown, love, freedom, the astonishing natural world around us, and our struggle to balance what we know with the unknown. 

Available in hardcover, e-book, audio book, and large print.  

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Night the Lights Went Out by Karen White

I'm a HUGE fan of Karen White, so there wasn't much arm twisting to read her latest.  I am absolutely in love with the cover art.  

I bought this book, because I couldn't wait to read it...

And then proceeded to not get to it for almost FIVE MONTHS. When I finally did pick it up this week, I power read it in a few days, in between work and an out of town family visit. It was just the palate cleanser I needed.

The two main characters, Merilee Dunlap and Sugar Prescott meet when Merilee rents the cottage that sits behind Sugar's farmhouse outside the small town of Sweet Apple, Georgia.  Sugar is 93 years old, and still full of piss and vinegar.  She's a force to be reckoned with, and commands the respect of everyone in town.  Her family once owned most of the land around Sweet Apple, and she's resisting developers who want to buy the rest of her land to build more housing developments.

Merilee is freshly divorced; her two children are attending a new school, and she's dealing with the fall out of her husband's lover (a local elementary school math teacher) being pregnant.  Small town gossip is running at an all time high. Merilee is struggling to adjust to life as a single parent, and balance the demands of society expectations--school committees, sports, and making appearances at all the right places.  Sugar recognizes a kindred spirit, but her past sorrows and heartbreak have left Sugar reluctant to open her heart to anyone.  

Here's what I enjoyed about this novel:  as a reader, you see both Sugar and Merilee through each other's eyes, and through their own thoughts and memories.  Sugar begins to tell Merilee about her past in small stories; I found Sugar's life in the 30's and 40's to be one of the best parts of the novel.  Makes what we consider difficult today seem like child's play.  These stories are a bridge between Sugar and Marilee as they slowly (very slowly) become friends.  

Merilee, I have to say, was much more complicated than I expected. I was, however, highly annoyed at her absent-mindedness and inability to create a safe password for her phone.  It sounds like a silly thing to point out, but it was a major plot point, and you could see what was going to happen coming long before it did.  Merilee's friendship with Heather Blackford, the wealthy, beautiful, and powerful wife of a popular doctor is bad from the get go.  That plot, I thought, was pretty weak.  Anyone with some life experience knows that people don't befriend you and go out of their way to be overly generous with time, money, and resources unless they want something from you.  Or want to hurt you.  It's not hard to see what's going to happen in this case, but I did get wrapped up in the action steaming along to the big turning point.  

One part of the story I found unnecessary was the "blog" that was put out by an anonymous source in Sweet Apple.  Full of local gossip, it spotlighted the nasty rumors and the people spreading them.  It was basically a way to shame people into behaving instead of spreading malicious gossip and half-truths.  Wasn't hard to figure out who the author of the blog was, but it is finally revealed at the end.  

The big point of this novel is that we all put on public faces, but they are rarely our real faces.  We keep a lot of our lives hidden from everyone else. Past heartbreaks, tragedies, and bad behavior can keep us up at night; but come morning, we stride into our daily lives with none of it showing.  Sometimes the ugliest people hide behind pretty faces, and sometimes a bad person is just a bad person with no redeeming qualities.  

Even though there were parts of the novel I didn't care for, overall I did very much enjoy this book.  I found myself talking out loud when I figured something out before Merilee did; I found myself reading this in big gulps because it kept pulling me along (and I didn't resist that pull).  I spent a whole morning before work lying on my couch reading, and anxiously waiting until I could come home again to finish the last few pages.  

Rating:  4/6 for a novel that explores the choices women make in their youth that can haunt them; the good and bad of living in a small town, and strong friendships between women that become the backbone to overcoming the hard parts of life.  There's a bit of potential romance in here, too--but not so much that it gets in the way.  

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