Friday, March 29, 2013

The Fate of Mercy Alban by Wendy Webb-Gothic Spookiness!

I know I sometimes think Gothic only belongs in Victorian England.  But not this time-it also belongs on the shores of Lake Superior in a big old home belonging to the Alban family--in 2012.  

Gothic is one of my favorite genres.  I especially love it when an author brings it into today's world.  It is a reminder that things around us are still a mystery, and we, as humans, still don't know everything.  

Grace Alban returns to the family home after 20 years because her mother has suddenly died and she's the last family member--the last true Alban.  Her father and two brothers have been dead for years, and she must take over the home and take care of the people who are employed there--most specifically Jane, the housekeeper; her husband Mr. Jameson (the grounds keeper); and Carter, the chauffeur.  All have been with the family for decades, and consider the Alban family and the house their home.  

But it's a creepy home.  Mysterious passages, lots of rooms, and a third floor that Grace doesn't like at all.  Her teen daughter Amity is with her, and she's worried for Amity's safety.  Weird things are going on.  Like what, you may ask?  Whispers, break-ins, and creepy dreams.  Toss in a reporter that was going to meet Adele, Grace's mom on the day of her death, and the layers get deeper.  What are the family secrets that are haunting the house?  What happened during the summer solstice party of 1956 that resulted in a suicide and the disappearance of Fate Alban, Grace's Aunt?  Grace  has to dig, dig, dig.  And she's got the help of the local Reverend, Matthew Parker.  He's a great addition to the mix as the steady, logical rock Grace turns to whenever something bizarre happens.  

Ghosts, witchcraft, family secrets, money and power, and pure evil run through this book.  I certainly enjoyed it!  A fun read and sure to keep you turning the pages.  And you just have to keep reading to find out who the heck Mercy Alban is--you'll be fascinated by the story this author weaves.  

Rating:  7/10 for atmosphere, setting, story

This book is available in paperback and as an e-book.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Paris in Love by Eloisa James

This was a quick read, which is a good thing.  Something about Paris, baguettes, cheese, and wine always makes me hungry, so I've been hungry all day reading this lovely biography by romance author Eloisa James.  

Some people may be a bit put off by the short paragraphs in this book.  Eloisa James collected all the Facebook postings she sent out to family and friends encompassing the year her family spent living in Paris. I enjoyed the little tidbits.

 Yes, they sold their home in New Jersey, took sabbaticals from their teaching jobs (both Eloisa and her Italian husband, Alessandro, are professors), packed up their teen son Luca and 10 year old daughter Anna, and moved to Paris.  Why?  Because.  A weary Eloisa had recovered from breast cancer, her mother had died, and she realized they were just existing in New Jersey, and not really living.  Experiencing such life altering events in your life makes you look at things a bit different, and for Eloisa, it meant spreading her wings and exploring a new place.

I enjoyed this meander through Paris--all the seasons, the people, the smells, the bridges, the glorious feel of a city that's been around for centuries.  And the food.  It really does make you stop and think about how you treat food.  Do you enjoy cooking?  Do you take the time to pay attention to what you put in your mouth?  Is eating just something to get through, so you can rush to the next item on your to-do list?  Paris makes Eloisa stop and slow down, which is really what so many of us need to do.  So we can't drop it all and live in Paris for a year.  But, we can take time in our daily lives to slow down, enjoy our food, and enjoy making it for ourselves and our families.  

Funny, tender, full of oops! mistakes and bad hair color, this memoir of a special year makes for a break from your usual ho-hum day. After reading this, I am reminded once again to try something new, don't be afraid to explore, and live life to the fullest every day.  

Rating:  6/10.  Easy read with plenty of places to mark on your map for your next visit to Paris.  

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book format.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

I have usually avoided mystery reading in my adult life; I hate waiting to the end to find out what happened.  But, this year I've decided that I really do need to try reading a few mysteries, so a friend recommended this series.  I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it and have discovered the kind of mysteries I do like--historical.

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch takes place in London around 1866.  The main character is Charles Lenox, a comfortably wealthy bachelor in his early 40's.  He has a deep interest in maps, ancient history, and travel.  Unfortunately, he keeps getting entangled in solving crimes in London and has to keep postponing his trips abroad.  

His next door neighbor is the delightful Lady Jane, a widower who grew up with Charles at their country estates; they share a very warm and friendly relationship.  You know they share strong feelings for each other, but are completely unaware of what exactly they are feeling.  Instead, they rely on their life-long friendship and daily teas to chat and enjoy each other's company.  

This first mystery revolves around the apparent suicide of a maid--Pru Smith.  It appears that she has poisoned herself, but it quite quickly becomes obvious that someone else poisoned her.  But why?  Lenox becomes involved in this because Pru used to work for Lady Jane, and she is so upset at this turn of events that she asks Lennox to investigate.  

So who did it, and why?  Pru worked for George Bernard, who is in charge of the Mint.  Strange break-ins have taken place at the Mint, so Bernard moves all the gold to a safe place in his home.  Hmmm.  And, he has lots of house guests--two nephews, a few members of Parliament, and many servants.  Lenox and his butler, the charming Graham, and his friend, Dr. McConnell, all work together to put together the pieces of a puzzle that is more complicated than any of them realize.  

I enjoy any book where the main characters return home to a roaring fire, hot tea, and a plate of sandwiches after a hard day of detecting and fighting the forces of darkness.  This is a perfect read for anyone who wants to try mysteries, but likes a bit of history thrown in--and it isn't full of gore, either.  The relationships between Lenox, Lady Jane, and Graham are the main driving force in this mystery, and it brings you back for more.  And there is more!  There are currently 7 Lenox mysteries in print--the next one up is The September Society.  If you're looking for a new mystery series, I suggest this one--perfect for Mom and Grandma, Dad, and you.  

Rating:  8/10 for character development, historical setting, and a mystery that will satisfy the reader.

Available in paperback and e-book format.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ten Years Later by Hoda Kotb

I've been struggling to find some non-fiction that peaks my interest.  Nothing sounds good to me!  But last night, I was working and picked up this book.  I have seen it countless times at my bookstore, even handed it to people when it first came out and there was a lot of press for it.  But my belief that certain books find their way into my life when the time is right was confirmed when I decided last night I needed to read it.

Wow.  People can be so amazing.  People from so many walks of life, who somehow pull a strength, force of life, willingness to fail--whatever you want to call it--out from the depths of darkness and make their lives incredible journeys.  Hoda Kotb gives us the stories of six people who fought through adversity and not only overcame it, but thrived in the struggle.  She visits them ten years after their battles and discusses how their lives have changed.  These amazing people range from an overweight abused woman who is trapped in a horrible relationship; a man who succumbs to drug addiction at the height of his professional success, a young college graduate who finds herself in a battle for her life with cancer; and a few other extraordinary people.  It is a testament to how strongly we have the will to keep getting up and not quitting; it is a testament to not being afraid to fail.  In failing, we always learn so much more than if we had easy successes.  

This book is definitely one that will cause you to reflect on your own life.  All of the people in this book have full and amazing lives because they refused to give up.  It reminds us that we can all do better, and should try.  Fear is not something that should stop us from every trying anything new, asking a question, or exploring "what if?".

Hoda ends her book with a wonderful piece of advice:

"May you be inspired to embrace the what-ifs in your life, to trade your fears for faith.  Take a chance, push through indecision, celebrate the unknown, and always believe in a bright future.  It's possible, no matter how impossible it may seem at any given moment."

I'm glad I found this book at this time.  Its profound message will resonate with me for a long time, and remind me to keep trying.  This is a great book to gift anyone who needs a lift, someone who's trying something new in life, or even high school kids who maybe need a reminder that things aren't always perfect and easy.  It's also a great book to give someone who has experienced loss, as many of these six people did during their journey to overcome adversity.  

Rating:  9/10 for sheer inspiration and an uplifting message.

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Inquiry into Love and Death by Simone St. James

Oh, I so enjoy Simone St. James.  This is her second novel; her first release came out last year and was equally as enjoyable as her second.  

An Inquiry into Love and Death takes place in the early 1920's in England.  The heroine of this novel is Jillian Leigh, a young woman who's attending Oxford and is pretty darn smart.  She's one the new wave of women who are entering schools of higher learning, drives a car, and lives away from her parents.  Her father is a famous chemist, and her mother travels the world with him as he lectures.  

Jillian receives notice at Oxford that her Uncle Toby has died in a fall off a cliff and she is the only relative that can go identify his body and collect his things.  He had been staying in a small house on the coast of England in the small village of Rothewell.  Her parents can't possibly leave Paris for this, so she reluctantly goes to Rothewell to take care of business.

Toby was a ghost hunter, and he was in Rothewell to tackle the famous local ghost, Walking John.  He had been a smuggler 200 years before, and walked the local woods and kept people away from Blood Moon Bay.  Toby had been found at the bottom of the cliffs that run along the coast.  It appears he fell.  Appears, I said.  

Jillian quickly realizes that not only does Walking John exist--and creeps around the little cottage at night--but that something else is in the cottage, leaving clues for her.  Enter dashing Scotland Yard investigator Drew Merriken--an World War I pilot with secrets of his own.  He's there to investigate Toby's death.  But there's way more to this story, and Jillian is slowly realizing not only are the dead haunting her, but someone else wants her dead, too.  Can she figure it all out before it's too late?

I so enjoyed this book.  I'm always happy when I come upon a good ghost story.  This author does an excellent job of creeping you out--the tension, the chills, the feeling of something is there--right behind you keeps you turning the pages.  You want to shout at Jillian--Turn around! Also, Simone St. James brings the after effects of World War I into the story, reminding us that those who survived and came home often did so with emotional wounds that could not be healed.  

Her first book, The Haunting of Maddy Clare is just as good, with the right amount of creepy.  Her heroines are young women struggling to make it on their own in a rapidly changing world that still thinks women should be married and having children.  You can read either book in any order as the characters are not connected and the stories are stand alone.  

Rating:  7/10; clever storyline that unfolds slowly; tension builds very well, and a great ghost story!  

Available in paperback or as an e-book.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley

In my quest this year to read more books that are out of my usual genre, I found an ARC of this book in one of the growing piles of books around my house.  It was just released in paperback, and I recognized the cover from seeing it on our new paperback table in my bookstore.  

And...I am giving a book talk to a new book club next Tuesday, and they didn't seem too terribly interested in historical fiction.  Cue my slight panic as I perused my lists of books I've read.  Not too much contemporary fiction.  This remedies a few things all in one shot:  contemporary fiction, a controversial subject, and something I usually wouldn't read.

Matt and Elle are in their mid-30's and loving life.  Matt is a neurosurgeon, and Elle is a professor/ex NASA expert.  Oh, and she also flew into space on a space shuttle to repair the Hubble telescope.  They have a long and complex relationship, full of intense love, unbearable pain, and a never ending admiration for each other.  They've lived next door to each other as kids, and the bond stayed firm even through heart break, distance, and other relationships.

But they want children, and Elle has an auto-immune disease that keeps her miscarrying her babies.  She wants to try again, and Matt is very reluctant.

And then the unthinkable happens.  Elle falls, hits her head, and suffers severe and irreversible brain damage.  She is brain dead.  As Matt prepares to shut off her life support system, it's discovered through routine tests that Elle is 8 weeks pregnant.  Now Matt wants the baby, and is willing to keep Elle alive long enough to give the baby a chance to survive.  

But other family members do not want this, and point to Elle's traumatic experience seeing her mother die an agonizing death from breast cancer.   She has told people time and again, and even left the legal paperwork, that she does not want to be kept alive if something happens to her.  This begins the legal wrangling, the overwhelming grief, the anger, and the stress of two families, a husband, and a lawyer to do what is right for Elle and for the baby.  

I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that much.  It's on the back of the book, and it happens in the first 20 pages of the novel.  It moves quickly, then takes a day at a time, each chapter, to tell you the story of Matt's fight.  It also dips back into Matt and Elle's past, and what has happened to them since they were teens, and first fell in love.  Let's just say a heck of a lot of things happened to shape them both into the people they become.  

This is certainly one of those books that will cause a great deal of discussion between those who read it--perfect, really, for a book club.  It's the kind of book that immediately makes you give a gut reaction to what you would do in this situation.  And it makes you think about life, death, love, and grief.  And how politics and the law can try and wipe that all away, and make something very human and emotional a case and a catalyst for opposite sides to argue over people they don't know at all.  

I'm glad I read it.  It's sad, so sad.  But definitely worth reading.  

Rating:  8/10 for a controversial topic that shows both sides, with a very well drawn husband--Matt.  Elle comes alive beautifully through flashbacks, letters, and journals.  

Available in paperback and as a e-book.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Anyone who read Between Shades of Gray in the last few years has eagerly been awaiting Ruta Sepetys' latest teen novel.  This woman is such a good writer and teller of stories that I predict she will continue to take the teen world by storm.  I hope she branches out into adult fiction sometime soon.  But don't let the "teen" in this novel scare you away.  

Josie Moraine lives in New Orleans in 1950.  She's 17, and her only family is Willie, a madam who owns a whorehouse and keeps an eye on Josie.  Josie's mother is absolutely horrid and cannot stand her daughter.  I mean she really hates her own child.  She's a drunk, a whore, and runs with the very wrong crowd.  She will steal from anyone and everyone--including her daughter.  Josie is smart, kind, and determined to go to college.  She just doesn't know how to do it.  Until she meets Charlotte, who comes into the bookshop Josie works at, and befriends Josie.  Charlotte goes to Smith College, and she encourages Josie to apply.  This begins Josie's quest to apply to Smith College--her way out of New Orleans and into a better life.  But the road is very bumpy, and she has many obstacles to overcome.  

What I most enjoyed about this novel was the cast of characters that surround Josie.  What she lacks in blood relations is made up by all of the people around her who love her, guide her, and take care of her:  Willie; Cokie, Willie's driver; Jesse, a young mechanic who has feelings for Josie; Patrick, a young man who's father owns the bookshop Josie work at; and Charlie--the owner of the bookshop who gives Josie a place to live on her own at age 12.  Even the prostitutes at Willie's love Josie and take care of her as best they can.  She needs all their help, as her mother is tangled up with gangsters and the murder of a rich gentleman from Tennessee.  Josie is involved in this murder also, but only because he visits the bookshop and buys books from her the day he dies.  There's so much more to the story than that, but I can't give anymore away!

I think Ruta Sepetys has a wonderful writing gift.  The characters are well drawn, Josie's world is easy to picture, and even though you want her path to be easy, it's not.  And that's the way life is--not always wonderful; full of obstacles, and sometimes lots of pain and disappointment.  It's also full of caring people, love, and hope. It's about looking for your path, and taking those steps even when it's tough and looks like you won't make it.  That's Josie's life.  You will quickly become absorbed in her story, and won't put this book down until the very last page.  

Rating:  9/10  I love Ruta Sepetys.  I love New Orleans.  I love this story.
Available in hardcover, and e-book.   

Saturday, March 2, 2013

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

I've had this book for months sitting in a stack and never meant to take so long to read it.  But once I did start, I kept reading on a day off until I finished it in one big gulp.

This novel has many elements that I love in a good story that combines a bit of magic, an age-old mystery, and a quirky heroine.  Toss in the city of Prague in all its beauty and deep, dark secrets, and you've got a great mix for a story that will keep you turning the pages.

Except for the sex parts.  These completely annoyed the hell out of me.  I am no prude by any means, but I really didn't think it added to the story in any way that Sarah Weston (our heroine) landed in Prague and was so immediately horny that she let another scholar have his way with her whilst sitting at the dinner table, then followed by a quick bonk in a bathroom with someone she didn't-ahem-turn around to see while doing said bonking.  It all seemed so completely unnecessary to me in the scheme of the book, and didn't endear Sarah to me at all as a carefree, fun loving scholar spending the summer in Prague working at a museum.

That is really my only beef with this novel.  It almost ruined the whole darn book, and that just irritates the crap out of me.  What I did enjoy was the story of Beethoven--which is Sarah's specialty and why she's in Prague.  She's determined to find out who his Immortal Beloved is and quickly figures out Prince Max is looking for something in Prague Castle, and someone else is out to stop anyone from finding anything.  Toss in a dwarf who pops up here, there, and everywhere, a mysterious symbol, and secrets that involve a high ranking American politician, and it's an entertaining read that just gets better and better as you follow Sarah's quest to keep digging a little deeper into Prague Castle. She's also trying to find out why her mentor, Professor Sherbatsky took a dive out a window at Prague Castle.  She's convinced he did not commit suicide, and that he brought Sarah to Prague Castle to solve a mystery involving Beethoven, the Castle, and the Lobkowicz family owners of the castle and its treasures for hundreds of years. 

And, I am quite happy that it appears--hopefully--that there will be a sequel on the horizon.  It is certainly left open for that, and I would not hesitate to buy it.

Rating:  7/10.  Enjoyed the mystery and the clever way music, history, and contemporary politics all mixed together. Felt the addition of sex scenes were unnecessary and took the story off track. Overall, a good read!

Available in paperback and in e-book format.