Friday, April 28, 2017

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

Black Rabbit Hall was a spur of the moment reading choice for me, and I buzzed through it in a few days (even though I've had it checked out of the library for almost 3 weeks).  My "due back" notification had everything to do with my rush to read this, but I'm so glad I didn't just return it unread to the library.  It was just what I needed to read this week.  

This is a novel told in two voices:  Amber Alton, a fifteen year old girl in 1968; and Lorna Dunaway, over thirty years later. Amber's family owns Black Rabbit Hall in Cornwall, and the family spends holidays there.  Amber's parents are madly in love, and she has a twin brother Toby, a younger brother Barney, and a little sister named Kitty.  They are a very happy family, and the heart of the family is Amber's mother, Nancy.  
 There's something about Black Rabbit Hall that speaks to Amber and her whole family.  It's wild, it's crumbling; it's full of creaks and groans and sits near the sea, surrounded by woods and the mystery of Cornwall.  It is a world away from their life in London, where they go to school and have a perfectly beautiful home.  

All that changes the summer of 1968, when a horrible tragedy takes place one dark, stormy night.  It changes the family dynamics, and drapes Black Rabbit Hall in sadness.  What happens to the family in the following year will tear them apart.  And for you, the reader, it will leave a heck of a lot of unanswered questions that will keep you reading!

Lorna is traveling to Black Rabbit Hall to check it out as a possible wedding venue.  She remembers visiting the place with her mother as a child (vaguely) and feels drawn to it the moment they drive up the lane.  It's still crumbling, and badly needs renovations.  Her fiance Jon isn't thrilled with the place, but Lorna meets Caroline Alton, the lone resident.  She's old, cranky, and desperate to have the income generated by hosting weddings.  She asks Lorna to return and stay for a weekend to get a feel for the place. Lorna returns without Jon, and finds a whole lot more about the history of the house, the Alton children, and Caroline.  Where does Lorna fit into the story of Black Rabbit Hall?

I haven't read a book in a while that had me sitting for chunks of time turning the pages.  This book did that for me, which is a sign that the characters, plot, and writing are running on all cylinders at full tilt.  You may think the cover evokes a chilling, gothic type tale.  I got that feeling more from the scenes with Caroline than I did anywhere else.  Instead, it's a story about a happy family that is torn apart and never heals back into itself.  It's the story of one woman's desire to know her history in order to move forward with her life.  Mostly, it's the story of how we can experience tragedy and still step away from it to live happy lives. The past can haunt us, or it can simply be a part of us. 

There may be a few surprises for the reader; I didn't really have any as I was just patient and let the story unfold instead of trying to guess what was going to happen next.  I'll be reading Eve's next novel, The Wilding Sisters.  

Rating:  4/6 for a satisfying story that incorporates the wilds of Cornwall, a family tragedy, and interesting characters that keep you engaged until the satisfying ending.  

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.  The paperback will be out in the U.S. in July, 2017.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Curse of La Fontaine: A Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery

I'm continuing my quest to read more mysteries, and thanks to Penguin Books, I was able to try a mystery series that took me to Aix-en-Provence, France.  

There are five previous mysteries in this series, but I didn't have any problems starting this far into the series.  I may go back and read from the beginning, if only to see the backdrop to Verlaque and Bonnet's romance.  

Antoine Verlaque is a French judge; Marine Bonnet is a law professor.  They are enjoying life as newlyweds and have the pressing problem of deciding what to do with two apartments.  An appreciation of good food and wine adds a lot of charm to these characters and I felt immediately at ease with them.  

In this mystery, a new restaurant has opened in town called La Fontaine, run by Siegbert "Bear" Valets.  It's a hit, but Bear has created a stir by getting approval to have outdoor seating that nestles up against a private courtyard shared by the surrounding apartment buildings.  In that courtyard is a lovely fountain with a dark historical background.  The story goes that in times of trouble the fountain stops flowing.  The local historical society doesn't want Bear to disturb the courtyard, and a fight is brewing. 

Bear starts preparing for his outdoor seating by planning an herb garden.  Things come to a halt when his employees find a skeleton near the fountain.  Verlaque, as judge is required to do all the questioning and footwork to gather evidence to help solve the mystery of the skeleton.  Who could it be, and how old is the skeleton?  Why was no one ever reported missing in Aix-en-Provence?  As Verlaque delves deeper into the mystery, local issues with the aristocracy begin to surface, along with a case from Verlaque's past that may have sent the wrong man to prison.  

I was glad to discover this mystery series.  I was very charmed by Verlaque and Bonnet.  They work very well as a team and enjoy the simple pleasures in life.  I would say this is a lovely series with a bit of sophistication.  You certainly want to reach for a glass of wine while reading it. M.L. Longworth sets the scene of a small town in France--I certainly wouldn't mind visiting.  Once again, even the most beautiful and seemingly peaceful places can harbor secrets that lead to murder. 

Thank you Penguin Books for a review copy of this mystery.  Anyone who has a soft spot for France, likes a mystery with a bit of history thrown in, and appreciates a good meal, good wine, and a small group of friends will want to read this series.  

Rating:  4/6 for a delightful introduction to a mystery series set in France.  This is the sixth book in the series, and it is not necessary to start at the beginning to be able to capture the ebb and flow of the relationship of Verlaque and Bonnet. Charming. 

Available in  hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

Friday, April 21, 2017

My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

It took me ages to read this book.  I had to renew it from the library three times.  Why? 

I like Sophie Kinsella's novels; well, most of them.  The Shopaholic novels are the exception.  I read the first one years ago, and found the idea of a chick lit novel that centers around a woman who has a spending addiction not very entertaining.  Especially when she gets the guy and the happy ending.  What does that say about being responsible?!  But I have read some of her other novels, and I have enjoyed them very much.  

I did end up liking this novel, too.  I had a very hard time getting into Katie's story.  It is, after all, very much like other British chick lit plots:  country girl yearns to be a London ad agency superstar; falls for the handsome director, has a perfectly perfect sophisticated boss with a seemingly enchanted life.  But of course life hands Katie some setbacks and she has to find her real, authentic self.  I just didn't connect with Katie's character at all, and I struggled through the first half of the novel. I kept putting it down and reading something else, picking it up, half-heartedly reading a few chapters, putting it down again.  This went on for about a month.  The other day I decided to buckle down and finish it!

Katie struggles to find the perfect (in her mind) life in London, but it's not easy.  Her job doesn't pay much, so she shares an apartment and has to commute quite a ways to get to work.  She's often broke and to convince herself and others that life is grand, she posts pictures to Instagram showing all the fabulous things she does in London.  Except all those things don't really exist; Katie's pictures don't tell the whole story.  Her boss, Demeter, is someone Katie really wants to emulate and learn from; if only Katie can get Demeter alone for a few minutes she could pitch some of her ideas and Demeter would see just how talented Katie is and promote her.  Katie is very talented, and her gifts shine when, through unfortunate circumstances, she's fired and has to flee home to her father's farm in Somerset.  She's too broke to stay in London.  

But, she doesn't tell her Dad she lost her job, and instead tells him and her step-mother that she's on a break from her very demanding job.  She uses her talents to help her father start a glamping business on the farm, and it's a huge success.  Homemade cooking, yurts, campfires; everything sophisticated city folk want in outdoor entertainment.  Katie still yearns to get back to the city, but is having no luck finding a job. She loves the farm, but it's just not where she wants to be in life. 

And then, Demeter and her family show up at Ansters Farm for a glamping week.  Katie has a chance to get some revenge on Demeter for firing her.  But will it be enough?  

There's a whole lot more to the plot, but I won't give more away.  There's Alex, Katie's love interest, and Demeter's seemingly bizarre habit of losing emails and miscommunication that is creating tension with prospective clients.  There's Katie's relationship with her father; he doesn't understand why she wants to live in London when she could be in Somerset.  What exactly will make Katie happy?  
This novel is all about finding your happiness, and the pressure of social media to portray a perfect life with no worries.  But we all know everyone has plenty of stormy days along with the sunny, blissful days.  Katie's assumptions about others not only create misunderstandings, but make her feel her life isn't sparkly enough, when it is just fine.  

So yes, this was a fun read.  I just wasn't in the right frame of mind to dive in and read it all at once. Most certainly it would make an entertaining vacation read; I think if I'd read it in the summer I would have enjoyed it more sitting on my front porch with a cool drink. 

Rating:  3/6 for a novel about a young woman's desire to have a life that is picture perfect.  Katie is a smart young lady who's just trying to figure it all out.  Lesson:  don't believe everything you see on social media.  No one's life is perfect.  

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

This was a book that I'd looked at a few times--purely due to the cover, which I just love.  I finally got it from the library and jumped into an English version of magical realism that was perfect for the Easter weekend.

Anthony Peardew is a elderly gentlemen of secure financial means who lives in a wonderful home called Padua with a glorious flower garden and a quiet housekeeper named Laura who keeps everything in tip top shape.  Laura has grown to love Padua as much as Anthony has, and finds refuge from a horrible marriage and divorce within its peaceful environment.  

Anthony has a study that is full of objects he's found on his daily walks.  He takes them home, labels them with the date and where he found them, and keeps them all locked up in his study.  He is the "keeper of lost things" and writes stories imagining the people and the stories behind the objects.  They range from a puzzle piece, to a single blue glove, to a child's umbrella.  Hundreds of objects, just waiting to be reunited with their owners. 

 But Anthony has a sorrowful past, and his time is drawing near to be reunited with his beloved Therese.  Once engaged and living happily in Padua, Therese was killed by a car just before they were to be married.  She continues to be a presence in the house, and Anthony is tired of living without her. On the day she died, Anthony lost the precious St. Therese medal Therese had given him, and he's never forgiven himself for it.  

Anthony passes away, and leaves his home and all his earthly possessions to Laura.  He also leaves her a letter, detailing his hope that she will be able to reunite people with their lost things.  He hopes she can heal even just one broken heart.  Laura's a bit overwhelmed, and with the help of Freddy the gardener (a someone who has Laura's interest), and Sunshine, a teenager across the street who has a few special gifts of her own, Laura begins to heal from her past and look forward to the future with hope and happiness.

Another story weaves itself through Laura's modern story.  It is the story of Bomber and Eunice, and it's a pretty grand love story.  It's an unusual one, too. You may wonder how the two stories are connected--I certainly did for a large part of the novel.  But it all makes sense in the end, and everything comes full circle.  Each of the love stories (Anthony and Therese, Bomber and Eunice, and Laura and Freddy) add so much to this novel.  It has a timeless feel to it, even though it is contemporary.  And it certainly has a magical feel to it.  

Fans of Sarah Addison Allen, Alice Hoffman, and Lisa Van Allen will enjoy reading this lovely, very sweet tale of love lost, love found, and the many shapes and guises love comes to us.  

Rating:  4/6 for a delightful story that examines the oftentimes big stories behind simple lost objects.  It will make you look at lost and founds a bit differently from now on. 

Available in hardcover and ebook.  

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

I've been a fan of Charlie Lovett since reading his first novel The Bookman's Tale a few years ago, and I just couldn't wait to read his latest. I'm happy to say it did not disappoint.

I'm a fan of ancient manuscripts, King Arthur and tales of the holy grail, and, of course, glorious old libraries.  All of Lovett's novels are love letters to books and their magical powers, and also to the people who both today and in centuries past have been stewards to the written word. In The Lost Book of the Grail, not only do we see the history of one cathedral's library, but we see all the people who have (in some instances, given their lives) committed their lives to protect precious manuscripts and the secrets they hold. 

Arthur Prescott lives and works in Barchester, England as an English professor at Barchester University. He's not terribly fond of his job, but is in complete and total rapture over Barchester Cathedral's library, where he spends most of his off time looking through ancient manuscripts and trying to solve the mystery of Barchester's connection to the Holy Grail. Yes. The Holy Grail. Arthur would spend summers at his grandfather's house in Barchester, learning about King Arthur and the Holy Grail from his grandfather. Little hints and winks from his grandfather lead Arthur to believe that somehow a connection exists between Barchester and the grail. There is the fascinating tale of Saint Ewolda, a martyred Saxon saint who was the founder of the cathedral 1500 years before, and who's Book of Ewolda has gone missing from the cathedral's library after a German bombing during World War 2. Arthur's been hired to write a new guide book for the cathedral, and he's been dragging his feet because he doesn't know the whole story of Ewolda, and doesn't feel he can properly write the guide without her story framing it.  

Bethany Davis appears, and she's trouble for Arthur. She is an American there to digitize the ancient manuscripts in the library, much to Arthur's horror. He's very much old school and doesn't know much at all about computers, digitizing, or social media. His feelings of irritation towards Bethany are soon replaced with much warmer feelings as he discovers she is much more than a modern librarian and archivist. Together with Arthur's friends David and Oscar, the four set out to solve the mystery of Barchester, Ewolda, and the Holy Grail before time runs out and the ancient manuscripts are sold to fund much needed repairs to the cathedral.  

This novel moves between the ancient life of the cathedral and the guardians of the Barchester secrets through the past 1500 years of history and Arthur's contemporary Barchester. It's a fascinating background to the modern puzzle Arthur and Bethany are trying to solve and makes for a much more interesting story. There's a whole bunch of English religious history thrown in, but it's easily digestible and makes an impact on just how long and entangled religion, books, and libraries have been in England. The modern movement to digitize fragile and valuable books and manuscripts is seen by some as horrible, but by others (such as myself) as a way to preserve for future generations precious works that could be lost to the elements of time.  It is a way to share freely with the world some of the greatest treasures we have, but are now only accessible through expensive travel and appointments.

Arthur's a bit of a poop, but he is charming and hard to resist with his love of libraries, books, and the magic of religious traditions that, combined with ancient hymns, give him a sense of peace that nothing else ever has or will. He is so aware of the majesty of it all, and I found this part of Arthur very charming and sweet. 

I just loved this book. It made me long to travel to England and experience the great cathedrals, smell the incense, feel the weight of history, and sense all those who have lived, loved, and protected the treasures (great and small) of their most holy places. 

Rating:  5/6 for an enchanting tale, delightful characters, and a very clever story. Do they find the grail? Read it and find out. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Reads: Green Covers are the Theme

Fresh off my fairly successful TBR pile from March, I'm looking at April with Spring in my head, and it's reflected in the color green.  Pretty much every book I'm going to read and review this month has some shade of green in the cover.  This wasn't deliberate at all, but just a happy accident.  And I just realized I'm wearing a green t-shirt as I compose this post.  Hmm.  I guess I have Spring fever!

It may look like I'm unambitious this month, but there are other books I'm waiting on from the library.  If they come in April, I'll try to make room for them.  But for now, I'm sticking with a few that will hopefully keep me entertained and turning the pages in April:

Academia, libraries, and the Holy Grail!

A bit of British fun

Publisher review; new author for me

Recommended by a friend

 Here's to April, warmer weather, spring flowers, and a chance to keep the windows open wide.  I'm already dreaming of my cozy summer reading spot on my front porch.  Can't wait!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson

It has been a race to the end of March to try and get all of my March reads in, and I'm just one shy.  I can't find the energy to finish that book, so I'll talk about that DNF in my next post. 

I was picking up a book at the library earlier this month, when I happened to see this in the new releases.  Curiosity had me flipping it open, and just a few minutes later I was adding it to my check out pile.  I'm so glad I saw this, because it was such a tremendously satisfying memoir.  And I finally learned something about Vita Sackville-West.  

Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson, who was a well respected British politician, lecturer, author, and guardian of Sissinghurst, his mother's beautiful country home famous for its gardens.  You can visit and tour the buildings, extensive gardens, and spend the day wandering in a stunning bit of English countryside.  I've heard of Sissinghurst, and saw books on the gardens, but never really knew what it was, who owned it, and especially, who Vita Sackville-West was and why she was so scandalous.  Juliet explains it all, and explains the women in her family, starting with her great-great grandmother Pepita,  a famous Spanish flamenco dancer during the mid-19th century.  Pepita was beautiful, mysterious, and doing quite well financially touring Europe when she met and fell madly in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a British politician.  Only problem was, Pepita was married, and in 19th century Spain, divorce was pretty much impossible for women.  That didn't stop Pepita and Lionel; they ended up having five children together, with Pepita living in France with her children, and Lionel visiting.  She suffered the scorn of her neighbors, and when she died in childbirth, she left her children orphans in France; left to be raised away from their father. Years later,  Lionel and Pepita's eldest daughter Victoria eventually became his shining star in Washington, D.C.; organizing dinners and social events for her political father, and becoming so famous for her charm and beauty that proposals for marriage came fast and furious.  But Victoria was afraid of marriage; after all, she'd seen how loving a man not only made a pariah out of her mother, but ended up killing her in childbirth.  No thanks. 

But, Victoria eventually became smitten with Lionel Sackville-West, her first cousin.  He pursued her relentlessly.  She finally agreed to marriage because Lionel was the heir to her father's country estate Knoles, and Victoria loved that home with all her being.  Her marriage crumbled, though, after Victoria gave birth to Vita.  The whole ordeal of childbirth terrified her so that she forbade her husband to ever have sex with her again, and that began the slow decline of their marriage, and another bit of dysfunction to add to the Sackville-West family.

Oh, there is so much more to tell you!  I found this all fascinating.  So many strong women, but each was also so fragile in their own ways; there is a definite pattern of neglect/smothering love/frustration in each generation.  It was sad to see how damaging it was to everyone, especially the children.  Juliet also suffered from an unhappy mother; her mother married into the Sackville-West family through Juliet's father Nigel, the son of Vita Sackville-West and Henry Nicolson.  Both were famous in their time; mostly because Vita was a gifted author, and notorious for her affairs with women.  Henry also fooled around with men, but somehow their marriage lasted until Vita's death; quietly devoted to each other.  

What this memoir struck in me was the realization that I don't have the luxury of talking to my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.  They're all gone, and I have no way of knowing what they were like, what they went through as young women.  They didn't keep diaries; there are only pictures to help piece together what life was like for them all those years ago.  Juliet is incredibly lucky; lucky that she is a gifted writer; lucky that she has the family papers,  Sissinghurst and Knoles to visit and discover little bits of history tucked into attics and drawers.  But Juliet understands all of that, and has crafted a memoir that is a love letter to all the women who came before her, and to her daughters and granddaughter who follow.  

Rating: 5/6 for a memoir that reads like a novel, about the generations of women in one family and how they shaped each generation to follow. This was so good! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I've been a fan of mythology stories since high school, when I read Mythology by Edith Hamilton.  Rick Riordan's novels for young readers have opened up a whole new fan base for mythology stories from Greek, Egyptian, and Norse cultures.  I can say I would have inhaled his books if they'd been around when I was a child.  

But adults have Neil Gaiman, and that's a good thing.  I picked up Norse Mythology on a sweet deal from Barnes and Noble and spent a few nights this past week immersing myself in the world of Odin, Thor, Loki, and their home in Asgard. Giants, dwarfs, sea creatures; it's all in this book.  It does read a bit like a novel in that the myths are arranged with the creation of the gods and goddesses, and ends with Ragnarok, an epic battle where the reign of the gods ends, and a new world begins. There is a sense of  order that does make it easier to follow the antics and stories of the Norse gods.  Let's just say the gods are crazy!

Nothing surprising in this book at all, just an enjoyable read on a subject that I didn't know much about-Norse mythology.  It's suitable for teens and even tweens. There is some violence, but nothing horribly graphic, and I don't recall reading any adult sexual content. I would recommend it for reluctant readers; there's plenty of action, hijinks, and lessons to be learned on bravery and loyalty. Loki is the personification of making bad choices over and over again. As always, there is the balance of good and evil, and the necessity of the dark in order for the light to exist.  

Rating:  4/6 for a good introduction to Norse mythology.  Fans of Neil Gaiman will enjoy it, and perhaps turn to American Gods as their next read (or watch the upcoming TV show).  It has made me curious to finally pick up my copy (it's been on my bookcase for, um...years. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Death at Breakfast by Beth Gutcheon

I've read a few of Beth Gutcheon's novels, and loved her writing. This mystery is a bit of a departure from her usual style, and I thought I would give it a try. 

Two life-long friends, retired school head Maggie Detweiler and her friend socialite Hope Babbin take a trip to Maine for a cooking course at a resort. Hope's son Buster is a deputy sheriff in the area and they also plan on visiting with him while they're staying at the resort. 

Everything is going along well, until the Antippas family shows up at the resort, loud, annoying and crass. Alexander Antippas is a famous Hollywood mover and shaker, and the father of a young teen singer Artemis.  His wife Lisa and her sister Glory are less annoying and just want to have some peace and quiet. 

All that ends swiftly when a fire breaks out at the resort late one night.  Alexander is found dead in the ashes. There are so many people around that could have murdered him, it's going to take some time to figure out just who disliked him so much that they wanted him dead.  

Maggie and Hope, along with the other guests, are stuck at the resort for a few days until everyone is investigated. Cherry, the front desk clerk, is quickly arrested and charged with arson and murder. She's an unlucky young lady who argued with the owner of the resort, and was on the receiving end of Alexander's rudeness the night he came to the resort. She's got motive and, unfortunately, a detective who's quick to accuse and solve the murder. 

But, of course, there is more to the mystery. Maggie and Hope decide to do a little detective work on their own, with the reluctant help of Buster. It's just too pat that Cherry did it.  So who did do it? And was Alexander alive at the time of the fire, or did the murderer try to cover it up and make it look like an accident?

There were interesting parts to this mystery; the actual how and why are good.  But, I felt like this just dragged on and on; it took me weeks to read this, and it should have only taken me a few days. I was disappointed.  I did like Maggie and Hope; I'm sure there will be more mysteries with these two intelligent, connected, and delightful women. Somehow this mystery missed the mark with me.  

Rating:  2/6 for a mystery that had some interesting potential, but I felt it dragged on too long and had me going in too many distracting directions.  

Available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

After reading this book, I know I wouldn't last more than a day in the jungle. Mosquitoes just love me, and I can't even survive a few hours in my back yard during the summer when they come out in droves. I'd be a giant mess in the jungles of Honduras. Couple that with an absolute terror of snakes, and I'm done. Douglas Preston is a much braver soul than I ever will be, and thanks to him, I got to read about this archaeological adventure in the comfort of my home.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is an adventure that takes you into the vast, dense jungles of Honduras to look for the famous "White City" or "Lost City of the Monkey God". For centuries, rumors have told of a famous city, lost for years in one of the most remote places on earth:  the jungles of Honduras. Hard to get to; once you do, the time spent hacking through the jungle just to walk a few feet keeps most people out. It is one of the last places on earth that still remained a mystery; untouched by humans for centuries. It's been so long since humans have lived in the area that animals are not afraid and are merely curious at the new arrivals.  

As I read this book, I thought of Bill Bryson's funny take on Australia, where he says that pretty much everything there can kill you. That's just what Mosquita, the vast, impenetrable jungle in Honduras presents.  Mosquitoes, snakes of all shapes and sizes (and all horribly lethal), sand flies, and a host of other creatures that require constant vigilance and constant spraying of DEET. Yet Douglas Preston (yes, the co-author of the Preston and Child novels) gets a chance to go along on a trip to finally find out if the rumors are true: is there a lost city in the jungle? When National Geographic calls, you go!

Using LiDAR, which is, from what I can understand, a very expensive scanning machine (this is a much simplified description), archaeologists discovered not one, but two potential sites in 2012. Known as T1 and T3, the LiDAR scans proved for the first time definitively that there were man-made structures in the jungle.  Not only man-made, but huge, and spanning miles.  Were they vast cities?  And who built them?  

Preston and crew returned to the jungle in 2015 to finally start exploring what their scans had found, and what they discovered was beyond their biggest dreams.  Untouched, intact proof of a sophisticated civilization that disappeared hundreds of years ago. They simply walked away from their cities. Why? The jungle doesn't leave very many clues. The high acidity in the soil means that anything organic is quickly broken down. Any hope of finding tombs with remains were swiftly dashed. What they did find opened up a huge debate over the culture that existed, how to protect the sites from looters, and how Honduran cultural identity would be formed. It also brought up a huge debate regarding what exactly archaeology is, and how advanced scanning technology is both at once a huge gift to the field, and damaging to the practice of actually going into a site and excavating.  

There's much more to this tale, and I'll leave it to you to discover. Preston and crew didn't leave the jungle alone; they were exposed to a dangerous illness that in itself is fascinating to read about. Preston talks about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and I think it's probably a book I should read sometime soon. The whole Old World bringing disease to the New World issue plays a big part in this story, and even carries over into Preston's life after he returns home.

I highly recommend this adventure to anyone who enjoys travel memoirs, archaeology, history, and science. Those who have devoured The Lost City of Z must read this--it's full of rascals who claimed to have found treasure and the lost city, and the excitement their travels created in newspapers in the early and mid-20th century.  

Rating: 4/6 for a really interesting read on something that was never on my radar; the archaeology geek in me was hooked. How do you begin to understand a civilization that was lost to time?  

Available in hardcover and ebook.     

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall

I'm always up for reading an author who decides to take a chance and write a novel that's quite different from their previous works. Kathy Hepinstall wrote two previous books that I loved:  Blue Asylum and Sisters of Shiloh. Both revolved around the Civil War and took place in the South.  The Book of Polly does have a distinctly Southern flavor, but it's contemporary and utterly wonderful.

Told through the voice of Polly's young daughter Willow, the story unfolds with an unusual twist:  Polly became pregnant with Willow at age 58, and found out she was pregnant just after the sudden death of the Captain, Polly's husband. Willow's mother is much older than her schoolmate's mothers, and Willow is obsessed with her mother dying. Her obsession leads her to spin wild tales about her mother, and Willow becomes a very colorful liar.  
Polly is a pretty unusual mother, and not just because of her age. She's a real pistol; witty, sassy, and not above borrowing a falcon to perch on her shoulder as she goes to visit the counselor at Willow's school to discuss Willow's out of control lies. Yes, Willow told the children her mother has hunted with a falcon. And Polly isn't going to make Willow look bad at school. As she says to the counselor about Willow's tall tales, "It's not my fault that the gray of everyone else's stories makes the color stand out." 

Willow's obsessed with her mother dying (Polly smokes Virginia Slims and drinks margaritas) and the life her mother lived before she was married and had Willow's older brother Shel and sister Lisa, both grown and on their own. Polly is from a small town in Louisiana, and refuses to talk about her life, the town, and the people she knew. Of course Willow's obsession never ends, and as she becomes a teenager and the Bear (cancer) strikes home, she becomes determined to know her mother's whole life.  

I loved Polly. A larger than life character, she is so darn funny I kept chuckling over some of her witty lines. Seventy-two years old and raising a teenager, she is at her wit's end:  

"Jesus isn't gonna help me with a teenager, Lisa. He was good with lepers and whores and blind people, but he can't cure the smart-ass years and you know it." 

At times a strong woman raising a child on her own, to a vulnerable woman struggling to weather life's ups and downs, Polly is an unforgettable character. Willow is just as complex and funny. I can understand her terror at her mother dying and leaving her alone so early in life. There comes a time in all our lives when we realize our parents will someday pass on, and thinking of life without their presence is terrifying. For Willow, this fear is part of her life very early on, and most of this novel is about her struggle to cope with her fears. The mystery of Polly's early life in Louisiana (the story is set in Texas) is always a part of the background, and her refusal to tell Willow any of it just drives Willow to do some detective work and figure it out on her own. Will Polly ever tell Willow her story--which, in turn, is part of Willow's family history? 

I am so glad I discovered the story of Willow and Polly Havens. I didn't want to finish their story and say goodbye. The rest of the cast of characters: Shel and Lisa, Willow's older brother and sister; Phoenix, a childhood friend of Shel who worships Polly; and battling next door neighbors who drive Polly nuts made me feel a part of the family.  

A big thank you to Viking/Penguin (Pamela Dorman Books) for a review copy of this novel.  I would have missed it otherwise, and that would have been a shame. 

Rating:  5/6 for endearing characters, a complicated yet loving mother-daughter relationship, and that Southern flair I love so much.  Fans of Fannie Flagg would enjoy this novel. Full of humor and heartfelt moments. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Always by Sarah Jio

I faithfully read every new Sarah Jio novel and I haven't been disappointed.  Until now, darn it.  I don't like to give unfavorable reviews, but this one just didn't do it for me at all. 

Sarah returns to Seattle, which is the setting for most of her novels.  This time, the story bounces between 1996-1998 and 2008, as Kailey Crain is caught between her past and her future.  As a new resident of Seattle in 1996, Kailey meets Cade McAllister one night.  He's a successful music label owner who has a sixth sense about new artists, and Seattle in the 1990's was full of grunge rockers (Nirvana anyone?) trying to break out.  Kailey's love for Cade is shattered in 1998 when things go bad, and Cade leaves Kailey's life.  Heartbroken, she moves away, only to come back to Seattle years later, and fall in love with Ryan, a successful businessman.  They're engaged, and ready to begin life together.  But one night, leaving a restaurant, Kailey spots a homeless man standing outside the restaurant.  It's Cade.  He doesn't recognize Kailey, but she recognizes him, and, well, you know where this is going. 

What follows is Kailey's growing involvement in finding Cade, getting him help, and understanding what happened to leave him homeless, broken, and apparently without any memories of his previous life.  Kailey's job as a reporter covering a potential business deal that could detrimentally effect the homeless of Seattle keeps her in moving in Cade's world of homeless people who wander the streets and take up valuable real estate (according to Ryan's business connections).  What's she going to do?  And how long can she keep this secret from Ryan?  And why would she keep Cade a secret?  

This story just didn't live up to Sarah's previous novels.  It was maudlin, and this comes from someone who can take a lot of saccharine.  Kailey's life just seemed absolutely fantastical, and the tossing around of famous music names and songs just got old.  I have no desire to revisit the 1990's music scene in Seattle.  None of it felt very authentic to me.  At the end, I felt that there was never going to be a complete contentment from Kailey with the choices she made--and they were big choices.  

Drats.  I was disappointed in this one.  If you're a fan, by all means don't let this review stop you from reading Sarah.  I'll keep reading her; I just think this one missed the mark.  It felt like a very cheesy movie.

Rating:  1/6 for a story that just was too hard to believe, a heroine who didn't feel authentic to me, and ugh-an ode to 90's grunge music. 

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

One thing I miss about working in a bookstore is being near the kid's books.  I always enjoyed walking into that space and looking at all of the great stories on the shelves.  I'm pretty sure if I'd had the opportunity to see so many kid's  books when I was a youngster I'd probably have danced around and twirled a bit through sheer excitement.  

I realized as I started reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon that I had read Kelly Barnhill's earlier novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack years ago when it first came out in 2011.  I loved that book; it took place in Iowa, and was very unusual and magical.  What an imagination Kelly Barnhill has--what a gift!

I picked up this novel because it had just recently won the Newbery Award and I was curious.  Whenever I read a teen or young reader novel, I have to constantly check my inner voice and basically tell it to shut up.  I have to remember who the intended audience is, and that they are reading from a much more innocent, non-adult place.  I think it will do me a lot of good to read more young reader and teen books!

So, to the novel.  The Protectorate is a town that is filled with sorrow.  It's always gloomy, the sun never shines, and the people live very poorly.  The Elders and the Sisters run the show, and they have a yearly tradition that feeds more sorrow into the atmosphere (and keeps people under control):  once a year, they take the youngest baby in the village, and leave it in the forest as a sacrifice to the witch that lives there.  This keeps the witch from coming to the village and wreaking havoc on everyone.  It keeps them safe.  This year, a mother fights to keep her child, and is deemed crazy and taken to the Tower, where she is imprisoned by the Sisters.  The child is taken to the forest and left there.  

Here's the kicker:  The Elders have made it all up.  They leave the baby in the forest to die from exposure or, worse yet, animals.  There's no witch, as far as they're concerned.  It's just a way to keep control of the village.  Very teen dystopian!  

Here's the other kicker:  there really is a witch, Xan, who lives in the forest with her friends Glerk, the swamp monster, and Fyrian, the little dragon.  She finds the babies every year, and takes them to the other side of the forest, into the towns and villages there, and gives them to loving families.  She has no idea why they leave the babies in the forest, but she takes care of them and saves them from certain death.  This time, when a baby girl is left, Xan hesitates to take her to the villages for adoption.  Feeding her moon magic, she gives the baby too much, and the baby becomes magical.  Xan decides to keep the baby for herself, names her Luna, and raises her as her grandmother in the forest. Xan knows when Luna turns thirteen her magic will really kick in, and it will be time for Xan to give all her magic and die.  After all, Xan is 500 years old, and ready to be done.  

Of course, this plan doesn't work out that well.  Luna is a powerful little girl, and the magic is leaking out of her constantly. She has no way to control it, so Xan puts a spell on her that will keep the magic tamped down, and make it impossible for Luna to learn about magic or use it until she's thirteen.  

But that's not all that's going on in this story.  There's a young man in the village who struggles with the yearly tradition, and seeks a way to reconcile his feelings and find a solution.  He's got hope, a tiny spark of hope, that things will change.  But the change is not something that the Elders or Sisters want.  

I wondered if a child reading this novel would understand the undertone of powerful people doing bad things, and the oppression of people.  That the face some people put on in public is not who they really are, and it can hide some bad stuff.  That those people you think are bad just by hearing stories or seeing their physical self, actually are very kind and loving people who got a bad rap through stories and gossip.  They are the true healers and good people. 

I did enjoy this novel; I do wonder at the length for young readers.  I'd say advanced readers would swallow it up pretty quickly, but younger kids would struggle a bit.  The writing is fantastic, and the plot is pretty clever.  You can almost feel the magic oozing off the pages.  I enjoyed how the story unfolded and concluded.  Worthy of the Newbery.  Hope to read more of Kelly Barnhill; if she ever wrote an adult novel I'd grab it without hesitation. 

Rating:  4/6 for a beautifully written young reader novel about family, love, magic, sacrifice, and the evil that lurks behind those who are supposed to be looking out for all of us.  

Available in hardcover and e-reader.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Matchmakers of Minnow Bay by Kelly Harms

Yes, I know this wasn't on the list for March. But, I finished it at the end of February and didn't have a chance to review it before March rolled around, so here is a bonus review for you.  

Kelly Harms writes a novel that is what I call, to borrow a term from the foodie world, a "palate cleanser".  By this I mean after reading something heavy duty, like Sisi, I needed something fun, light, and entertaining to shake off the really sad story of Empress Elisabeth.  Something that would reset me for more good books in March. 

Matchmakers is chick-lit set in Chicago and Wisconsin.  Lily Stewart is in her early 30's, and still lives in the lousy apartment she first rented 10 years before after graduating from art school with her best friend, Renee.  Her dream was to make her living from her painting, and live a wonderful, carefree life in Chicago.  Now ten years later, she's broke, her paintings aren't supporting her, and she's just been evicted from her apartment.  With only one place left to stay for a few days (her step-brother's place), she's packing up when she finds an envelope hidden in her kitchen drawer.  Oops.  It's the annulment papers she was supposed to sign 10 years ago after a quickie Vegas wedding to a stranger.  

Except she forgot to sign them.  She's been married to this man for 10 years.  Lily, with the help of Renee, her college bestie now turned lawyer and married to Lily's ex-college boyfriend, tracks him down to Minnow Bay, WI.  Ben Hutchinson is a computer science high school teacher and no longer the rich computer guru Lily met on that night in Vegas.  She decides the only decent thing to to is to travel to Minnow Bay, find Ben, and apologize in person and hand him the signed papers. 

Of course not all goes as planned.  Lily ends up prolonging her stay in Minnow Bay, meets some great people along the way, and struggles to figure out her life and her awakened attraction to Ben.  Minnow Bay is not Chicago, and Lily's gallery owning boyfriend (who's a creep) is expecting her back in Chicago.  But whatever kept Lily blocked from painting with her heart in Chicago is gone in Minnow Bay, and she finds herself getting inspired by everything around her.  Does she stay or does she go back to Chicago?  Are the people in Minnow Bay as kind and friendly as they appear to be?  What about Ben?  

Lily's got a lot to figure out.  She's not a bad character, but there were certainly  times when I wanted to shake her.  She's pretty naive about money, people's motives, and the art world.  It's time for her to grow up.  Heck, I'd move to Minnow Bay in a second if it actually existed.  Sounds like a wonderful place. 

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining mix of chick lit, romance, a bit of the art world, and small town friendships.  I really enjoyed the folks of Minnow Bay. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. It will be out in paperback in August, 2017. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

March Reads: That Time I Went to the Bookstore and the Library and Got in Trouble

Somewhere along the way in the past week, I lost my book loving mind.  I had a handle on things; was making my list of books to read and review for March; had it all figured out. 

Then I met my friends at B&N for our book group, and I went to the library-twice.  Then I had a late night conversation with my brother Dan, and this conversation had me pulling a book out of the stack for "later" and moving it up to "now!".  I can't decide what to put back for April, so guess what:  this month I'm being very ambitious and a little crazy and having a read and review bonanza!  

What's coming up in March:

Newberry winner!

Publisher review

If you've followed my blog, you know I love Sarah Jio.  Can't wait!

Uh...Neil Gaiman.  Enough Said.  Had to buy this one. 

Saw this at the library and was intrigued.  

My brother told me my sis-in-law is reading this right now and is freaked out.  I immediately moved it to my March reading pile.  Bought last week at B&N with a great deal!

A book I'm positive I've bought, but can't find.  Checked it out from the library.  Originally came out as a teen novel, now the rest of the series is considered adult Sci-Fi.  Hmmm.

I've read Beth Gutcheon before and loved her writing.  Saw this at the bookstore and then found it at the library.  

I'm overly ambitious, I know.  I'm going to enjoy this month's reading binge!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sisi: Empress on Her Own by Allison Pataki

I started reading this novel, and I must confess I was a bit confused.  It seemed to start right in the middle of Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary's life.  I quickly realized there is a book before Sisi that begins with Sisi's early life and marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph, and the difficulties she had adjusting to life as an Empress in the stifling Austrian court. I recommend you read  The Accidental Empress before you tackle Sisi so that you may get the complete story of Sisi's incredible life and tragic death.  

With that being said, after a quick history lesson on Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, I was ready to keep reading, and I was impressed at the research Allison Pataki put into this historical novel.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire of the mid 1800's was vast, and a powerhouse.  Sisi's husband, Franz Joseph, was born and raised to be an Emperor.  His mother, Archduchess Sophie ruled the court, and Sisi always felt like a failure, and was completely demoralized when her first two children, Rudy and Gisela were swiftly taken from her arms after birth and raised away from Sisi, with no input from her at all.  Her third child, Valerie (born many years later) stayed by Sisi's side.  She had grown enough backbone to refuse to send Valerie down the same path as her siblings. 

Sisi was known for her beauty and floor-length hair.  People refer to her as the Princess Diana of her day, and that may be so in that both women felt trapped by their lives, and searched for ways to escape.  For Sisi, she often traveled away from court--usually for weeks at a time.  Hungary was her favorite place, and there she enjoyed the peace of the countryside and the forbidden love she shared with Count Andrassy.  Sisi's husband Franz Joseph loved his wife, but so much of their relationship was damaged by the interference of his mother and the demands of rigid court life. She never felt that Franz was there for her.  What had started out as a marriage with high hopes and love had become distant and cold.  

This novel continues where The Accidental Empress left off in 1868 up through 1898, when Sisi was assassinated on a street in Geneva, Switzerland simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sisi's life really was a soap opera, full of forbidden love, political upheaval, and malicious court gossip. Sisi's frustration at being distant emotionally from her children, and her constant roaming around Europe cast her as a very lonely woman who was never able to be happy.  I really got invested in Sisi's life, and even though I knew it was coming, it was still hard to read about her death.  I'm certainly tempted to read more about Sisi, and if I ever get to Austria, I would love to visit Hofburg Palace, Sisi's home in Vienna.  

Thank you to Penguin/Random House for a review copy of this book.  I never knew anything about Empress Elisabeth, so I am very glad I had this opportunity to read about her life.  This is definitely a must read for fans of historical fiction.  

Rating:  5/6 for a well-researched and detailed novel about Princess Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary.  It was hard to put down!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Hive by Gill Hornby

I recently had the opportunity to talk to a class of graduate students in library science about my blog.  This class was discussing The Hive for that week's look at the chick lit genre, and so I took the opportunity to read the book so I could take part in the discussion.  I realized just how much I had missed reading British women's fiction that could be classified as chick lit, a genre that has evolved since the term was first coined.  

I am a big geek when it comes to British authors writing about contemporary British women.  I was surprised and charmed by this novel, which centered around a group of women who all had children attending St. Ambrose school in a town outside of London. The "queen bee" of the group was Beatrice.  She somehow managed to always get everyone else to do all the work, while she took credit for everything.  And somehow, the women in the group thought she was just fantastic.  Rachel is a children's book illustrator going through a divorce; she was one of Beatrice's favorites, but finds herself slowly being pushed out of the group.  Heather is a mother of one who desperately wishes she was a mother of more children and will do anything to fit in the group.  Georgie (my favorite) left a career in the city to marry a farmer and raise a large family and is content to fly under the radar.  She pretty much does as she pleases and it quite aware of the manipulations of the group.  Georgie is the most down to earth of the ladies and quite a hoot. Melissa is the new parent,  a mysteriously put together, makes everything okay kind of woman.  She is the calm in the middle of every potential disaster. 

The novel follows this group of women over the school year as they work to raise money for the school through car boot sales, lunches, and even a crazy ball that is quite the funny scene. As the year passes, there are ups and downs, and Beatrice keeps pulling the strings to keep her place as queen bee.  But can she be knocked off her perch?  

As I said earlier, I really enjoyed this novel.  I love British snarky humor, and there is plenty here.  I actually smirked and laughed out loud quite a bit.  Yes, there is some slang that you may puzzle at (what exactly is a lesbian tea?  Chamomile), but that is what makes it a fun read.  I envisioned a Jennifer Saunders series similar to Clatterford--oh, I so wish that was a reality!  But there is a serious side to this novel:  be true to yourself, don't try to fit into a mold that isn't you; your kids are watching how you treat other people; there is nothing better than good friends.  Life is too short to put up with manipulative people.  

Is this chick lit?  It's up to you to decide.  If it is, it's part of the evolution of the genre.  Doesn't matter to me, I thought it was a good read. 

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining look at the power struggle of a group of women in a small town in England, where appearances are everything, volunteering for school functions is a sign of good parenting, and friendships undergo struggles.  I had many a good laugh reading this novel. 

Available in paperback and e-book.