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.