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.


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Summer Reading is Almost Over: Upcoming Reads and Reviews

I just can't believe it's the middle of August.  In my part of the U.S., kids start back to school next week.  Then it's a short hop to Labor Day weekend, the gateway to all things pumpkin spice and bonfires galore.  

My summer reading is coming along, but I'm not getting to nearly all the books I'd hoped to--a change in jobs and a last moment vacation have thrown my routine into chaos.  September is going to be my reset button.  Now that my commute to work has shortened from 2 hours a day to less than 20 minutes a day, I will be rethinking my audio book choices. I'll miss listening to the audio books, but not the commute. 
Here's what I've got in my reading pipeline:

Life as Ma Ingalls from Caroline's point of view
A legendary creature in Victorian England
A thriller that mixes reality and fiction: who did what?
A young woman serves as a physician to supernatural creatures in London
I've heard rave reviews about this ! Something completely different for me.

While the weather is still warm I'll be sitting on my deck reading whenever I have a chance.  Can't wait to dig into these titles!  And, of course you know I'll have a few random reads thrown into the mix.  :)

Happy Reading!
The Bookalicious Babe

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

The only bad thing I have to say about reading this novel is that I couldn't sit down and read it all in one day.  Instead, I had to fit it in a little bit each day for over a week, and it was frustrating because I just wanted to sit and enjoy it in one big gulp. 

Stacey Ballis and Jenny Colgan fans have a new author to love--Veronica Henry.  She's got a pretty good backlist of novels, but they're not available in the U.S., which I hope changes soon.  

Emilia Nightingale returns to Peasebrook, a lovely little town in the English countryside, to take over her father's bookstore, Nightingale Books.  Emilia's father was a beloved figure in town, and his death leaves not only Emilia lost and grieving, but quite a few of the townspeople, as well.  Emilia plans on taking over the bookstore, but has a slimy businessman angling to buy the store so he can gain access to much needed parking space for an apartment building behind the shop.  She also finds out her father wasn't the best businessman, and the bookshop is in danger of closing.  

The cast of characters rounds out this novel and keeps it from being all focused on Emilia and the bookshop.  Ms. Henry cleverly weaves books, reading, and the bookshop into multiple storylines--from the local wealthy married woman who had a affair with Julius Nightingale; to Thomasina, the very shy yet talented chef who has a crush on the local cheesemonger; and Alice, engaged to a sophisticated city man, but not realizing her heart lies with someone else in Peasebrook. There are even more storylines; Emilia's got her own chance at love, too.  I was happy reading about all of the people and their situations, and felt completely at home in the English countryside. 

A HUGE thank you to Viking/Penguin Books for the opportunity to read this before publication.  I'm afraid I wouldn't have found this book otherwise, and that would have been such a shame.  

Rating:  5/6 for the perfect read to take me away from everyday life and into a bookshop that I hope exists somewhere in this world.  Wherever it is, I'd like to visit it sometime.  

Available on Tuesday, August 15th in hardcover and ebook in the U.S. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss

I have no idea where I first saw this book, but I knew it was something I just had to read.  It looked quirky, inventive, and a good way to stick my toe back into science fiction/fantasy.

Theodora Goss started her writing journey during her dissertation.  Her interest in monsters lead her to wonder why, in 19th century literature, the female creatures were always destroyed by their creators?  What if they survived?  

This is their story.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I ended up liking this story, even though there wasn't a lot of action.  I liked it so much that when the second novel comes out (which just has to happen!) I will pick it up and dive right into the story of Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

Yes, each of these young ladies is the result of monsters.  For Mary and Diana, they both have the same father, but one was the scientist, the other the madman.  Beatrice is a walking vision, but so poisonous she can't touch or breath on anyone or she'll kill them.  Catherine is the result of Dr. Moreau's attempt to change a puma into a woman; Justine is the original "Bride of Frankenstein".  

The story starts out with Mary Jekyll burying her mother, and facing the inevitable:  she's broke, her father is dead, and she is alone in the world.  Her mother's lawyer leads Mary to find out she has a sister: Diana, who has been raised in a poorly run and not very holy convent.  Diana is fourteen, fiesty, and able to climb up buildings with ease.  The two reluctantly become housemates, and for an extra kicker, they are pulled into the mysterious Whitechapel killings.  Young women are being murdered, and parts of them are being taken away:  arms, legs, hands, and even brains.  Who would do this madness?  In steps...Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Yes!  What a great addition to this tale.  Holmes & Watson help anchor the storyline and provide some good guidance and stability to the ladies.  

As time goes on, each young lady is introduced in the story line, their tale is told, and the web gets more and more tangled.  Each has a connection to a secret society through their creators, but they can't figure out what exactly goes on in this society, and who exactly belongs to it.  

The only thing I didn't like about this novel were the interruptions in the tale by the characters. Catherine was writing it all down, to be turned into a publication (which would provide some income)--most likely a penny dreadful.  Yes, these interruptions helped shape the present relationships between the ladies, but I found it a bit annoying.  And anyway, I knew they'd all get along, so I didn't need this extra bit to explain things.  My thought as I read this was that it would make a great movie in the same vein as the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies.   

This is an adult book, but I certainly could see teens reading it.  At times I felt like I was reading a teen novel, so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a teenager who likes a bit of Victorian England fantasy.  It stops short of steampunk, but with a few little adjustments, it could certainly be steampunk.  

Rating:  3/6 for a twist on the usual monster/creator story.  This was full of young women who lived on their own, were smart, capable, and unafraid to search for answers to their mysterious beginnings.  I will definitely read the second novel when (not if!) it comes out.  Also, I just adored the cover art.  That made me pick it up in the first place.  

Available in hardcover and ebook.  Paperback will be out in February, 2018.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Address by Fiona Davis

I just reviewed Ms. Davis' first novel, The Dollhouse a few weeks ago and had the opportunity to read and review her second novel, The Address.  Both novels are set in New York City, and I've realized I enjoy reading about historical NYC.  I think it's fascinating to explore the history of famous buildings with a fictional element added to what is solid fact.  

In The Address, we have a dual story line:  the start of the famous Dakota apartment building in 1884, and the Dakota in 1985, a few years after the death of John Lennon outside the front doors of his residence.  In 1884, Sara Smythe works as head housekeeper at a respectable hotel in London.  She's not happy with her boss, who is always looking to blame her when things go wrong.  Sara's very good at her job, and one day she crosses paths with Theodore Camden, an architect visiting from New York.  She saves his child from falling out a window, and he offers her a job at a new residence in New York City:  the Dakota.  It's a new concept:  an apartment building where the well-to-do own exclusive apartments, and the building has all the amenities:  a tailor, a dining service, servants for every floor (beyond the servants each family brings to live and work in their apartments).  It's a new kind of luxury for the wealthy of New York.  

Sara decides to take the leap and leaves London for New York City.  Upon arrival at the Dakota, she's a bit taken back by the location of the Dakota:  it's in an area that isn't developed, and a bit off the beaten path.  Sitting directly across from Central Park, eventually it will become a premiere spot, but in 1884, it looked like a big mistake.  

Sara's relationship with Theodore Camden evolves, and she finds herself falling in love with him, despite his marital status and the knowledge that there will be no happy ending.  Running the Dakota as the "managerette" is a challenge, but Sara is up to the task, and enjoys her life.  

Until she becomes pregnant.  Disaster.  Sara's life takes a turn for the worse and spirals out of control.  I really liked Sara, and hated to see her choices create havoc for herself. Her life was dictated by the morals of the times, society's rules, and the limitations of being a single woman with no family.  

1985 Dakota is still an exclusive apartment building, but it has lost a bit of luster, and has become infamous as the place where John Lennon was shot in 1980. Bailey Camden is fresh out of rehab; she has lost her job as an interior designer, and has nowhere to go.  She ends up at the Dakota, staying with her cousin Melinda Camden, who is the great granddaughter of Theodore Camden.  She lives in the same apartment that Theodore did in 1884, and it's also the place where Theodore was murdered in 1885.  Melinda is total 1980's excess:  lots of partying, drinking, and drugs.  Bailey struggles to stay sober, and her family's sad history is something she's struggling to overcome.  Her grandfather was raised as a Camden, but was actually a ward of Theodore and his wife.  He left the Dakota at 15 and became a mechanic in New Jersey, living his life in bitterness after not receiving any kind of inheritance while Melinda's grandfather and great aunt received everything. Melinda hires Bailey to completely redo the apartment into a horrible faux marble monstrosity, and Bailey takes the job in order to get back on her feet. 

While Bailey is going through old trunks in the basement of the Dakota, she finds clues to the Camden family history that creates more puzzles than answers.  Who was Sara Smythe, and who killed Theodore?  

Sara's story is so darn good.  I couldn't get enough of her.  It was kind of hard to get into 1985; maybe because for me, it's recent history--I was just out of high school in 1985!  But the early history of the Dakota, and the history of Blackwell's Island ( I can't tell you--you'll have to read the book!) is exactly the type of history I love to read about. 

Now that I've read both of Fiona Davis' novels, I am a firm fan.  What I like most, of course, is the history.  She's got an unlimited treasure trove of potential material just in NYC with so many wonderful buildings.  Her characters are strong, but flawed.  Life is messy, and a happy ending is not guaranteed. Her novels are also a history of women fighting to be seen and heard; to have the freedom to live life without societal strictures and rigid rules.  We forget sometimes today how tough it was for women to have such limited choices, and to be dependent on family and husbands to have a comfortable life. 

Both The Dollhouse and The Address are standalone novels, so you don't have to read one before the other.  I recommend both for anyone who likes to read about New York City, history, and strong female characters.  There is an element of reality in both novels that I found refreshing.  It's all well and good to read novels where everything always works to a happy conclusion, but sometimes I enjoy reading novels where the conclusion leaves me satisfied knowing everything ended as it should.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  

A huge thank you to Dutton (Penguin/Random House) for a review copy of this novel.  

Rating:  4/6 for a gripping read about the Dakota apartment building in NYC, both past and present.  Sara's story was hard to put down, and the links to Bailey's life in 1985 NYC helped create a "whodunnit" element that carried the story along.