Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann

If you've got a young woman in your life--or even someone a bit older who's at a crossroads--you should give them this book to read.  It may only entertain them, but it just might make them take a look at their life and perhaps choose to live differently.

Amanda Rosenbloom owns a small shop that sells vintage clothing in New York.  On a routine call to an elderly woman to purchase some vintage clothing, she finds a diary sewn into a fur muff.  And she quickly puts the diary in her purse and doesn't tell the woman she has it.  

Amanda quickly dives into the diary, which starts in 1907 and belonged to a young woman named Olive Westcott.  Newly arrived in Manhattan with her father, a manager of a Woolworth's store, Olive wants one thing:  to be a buyer at a department store.  She's a modern young lady in a time when women worked for pennies, hardly ever advanced in the work place, and couldn't even rent a hotel room by themselves.  

As she reads the diary, Amanda finds her life mirroring Olive's in unlikely ways:  both are alone in New York, both struggle to make a living doing what they love, and both struggle between wanting a career and questioning whether they want marriage and family.  Amanda is having a long term affair with her married childhood sweetheart; it's full of broken promises and lots of broken dates.  She's 39 and realizes she's wasted years on this man, and now her opportunity to have children may be over.  What does she do? Does she have the courage to finally break it off for good?  

And Olive--what a strong woman!  She's faced tragedy, adversity, poverty, and the struggle to stay in New York.  She may admit defeat and return home to marriage and family and a dull existence, but her desire to live her dream is overpowering and gives her the strength to face whatever comes her way.  

You will quickly become caught up in Olive's life as Amanda reads her diary.  You will love Olive!  And you'll find out how her diary ends up in that fur muff.  Amanda's life doesn't compare in drama like Olive's life.  And Amanda's choices seem pretty obvious to me--ditch the affair and learn to be happy with yourself.  

Olive and Amanda both face choices and have to muster the courage to leap into the unknown in order to find happiness and success.  It is true that women today have many conveniences and rights women 100 years ago didn't have, but we still face some of the challenges and barriers they did--and there is still the question of career or family.  

Rating:  7/10  Olive is a character that comes alive through her diary, and the glimpse into 1907 New York City is amazing.  It does make you want to explore Old New York in books and photos.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley: A Retro Read

I first came upon this novel while buying another Judith Merkle Riley book; The Oracle Glass.  Heck yes!  This book looked to be right up my reading alley, and I am happy to say I made a brilliant decision buying it and the two novels that follow it.

Margaret of Ashbury is a very young woman who decides she wants someone to write her memoirs.  This sounds odd, until you understand that Margaret lives in 1355, is illiterate, married to a rich merchant, and only in her late teens.  She also has a gift from God, and God is an insistent voice pushing her to write her memoirs.  Margaret is a healer; she lays her hands on people and can heal them with light.  The whole room becomes brighter, and Margaret's face is illuminated.  

Margaret finds Brother Gregory, a pretty destitute monk in the making who reluctantly agrees to write her memoirs for money--and most importantly, food.  He doesn't think much of women, and especially is prickly towards Margaret.  But her bread making skills soon find Gregory looking forward to his daily meetings with Margaret--he knows he'll be fed well.  The discussions between Margaret and Gregory are funny and they clash over so many things--especially his disdain over women and knowledge.  He does, however, agree to help Margaret learn to read and write.  Her husband, Roger Kendall, is a modern man stuck in medieval times.  He fully supports his wife and is willing to pay Gregory to teach her to read and write.  

As the story moves along, you learn about Margaret's life up to that point in time.  She hasn't had an easy one; as a matter of fact, it's been fraught with danger, a horrible first husband, sorrow, and misery.  That Margaret is able to remain upbeat, cheerful, and full of compassion for people is amazing.  

I will say that you must continue reading Margaret's incredible story with her next two novels:

She's definitely a heroine you will love and cheer her on as she finds herself at the mercy of her times--being a woman in 1355 is no easy task.  I have already started The Pursuit of the Green Lion and I can say it starts immediately after the end of A Vision of Light.  

These books were first published in 1989, so they've been around awhile.  I'm just glad I finally discovered them!  

Available in paperback and ebook.  

Rating:  8/10 for historical accuracy, an excellent heroine, and a story that is never dull.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I'll Be Seeing You: A Novel In Letters by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan

Two women become pen pals during World War 2 and their friendship sustains them through all of life's defining moments.

Glory lives in Rockport, Massachusetts.  Rita lives in Iowa City, Iowa.  Glory is a young mother--a young son named Robbie, and a newborn baby girl named Corrine.  Her husband is off fighting the war in Europe.  

Rita lies in Iowa City, Iowa.  She's in her early 40's has one son--Toby, and her husband, Sal.  Both Toby and Sal are off fighting the war.  

Each woman finds herself writing a total stranger, in order to connect with someone else who has a loved one overseas.  As you read through the letters, they quickly become fast friends, and share details of their lives with each other.  Their deepening friendship gives them both an opportunity to confess to emotions they don't dare express to anyone else.  Once you get into this story, it's hard to put down.  You become as much a part of the friendship as Glory and Rita.  

It's refreshing to remember that people did rely on letters as a major means of communication.  Neither of these women know each other any other way but through their letters.  No phone calls, no emails, no facebook.  It's a reminder that sometimes a letter can be better than anything else.  Their excitement at receiving a letter in the mail from each other is such a sweet part of the novel. What begins as a simple pen pal idea quickly forms into a strong and life-long friendship.  Oh, stuff happens.  I won't tell you what, cause you need to read this novel.  You'll laugh, and shed a few tears.  The cast of characters surrounding both women add to the sense of family--those who aren't related, but become family through circumstance, heartbreak, and happiness.

This is a great summer read!  And it will have you buying stationery (if you don't have some already) and penning a letter to a far away friend.  

Rating:  7/10.  The authors do a wonderful job of creating memorable characters who are funny, flawed, and tough women.  The letter format makes this novel--it wouldn't have been the same any other way.  

Available in paperback and ebook.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Inferno by Dan Brown

Inferno by Dan Brown is the hottest adult fiction book of the summer.  It's been years since Dan Brown published his last novel, The Lost Symbol and now he's returned with a thriller set in Italy.

This novel returns with our hero, the Harvard professor of symbology Robert Langdon.  And it starts off with a bang.  Robert wakes up in a hospital, and he doesn't remember where he is or what's happened to him.  He thinks he's in Massachusetts, but quickly discovers he's in Italy--Florence, to be exact.  It appears someone tried to kill him, and he's got the stitches from a near miss with a bullet in the back of his head.  

Ok.  As a reader, you have absolutely no clue what is going on--you know as much as Robert does, which isn't much.  

And then all hell breaks loose.  This novel is one long chase through Florence, Venice, and eventually another country (I won't tell you!).  And it all takes place over a few days.  It's an exhausting journey that Robert begins, aided by Dr. Sienna Brooks--a young English doctor who was working at the hospital the night Robert was brought in unconscious.  Robert is desperately trying to remember why he's in Florence, and who the heck is trying to kill him.  All he remembers is a woman with silvery hair begging him to "Seek and ye shall find", surrounded by dead bodies.  What the  kind of hallucination/bad dream is this?  And he's also seeing images of this is his mind:

This creepy mask is called a plague mask.  Doctors wore it in Venice when the Black Death was killing thousands of people a day in the 1300's.  They thought the long beak would keep them from being exposed to the plague.  

All this connects to Dante's Inferno.  And Robert Langdon is under a time crunch to put all the pieces together.  And he's being chased by a heck of a lot of people.  Who is the enemy, and who is trying to help him?

I enjoyed this novel.  You get a tour of Florence and Venice and all the important buildings, art, and symbols around both cities.  It can be a bit dizzying and distracting, and it makes you want to stop reading and look up photos on the internet.  I think for me, the only answer is to actually go to Florence and Venice.  You don't have to read Dante's Divine Comedy to understand this novel; it is all explained as you move through the story.  The incredible beauty man has created is overshadowed by the incredible evil man has also created; it's up to Robert to stop it before it's unleashed.  Can he do it?

Oh, the ending was not what I was expecting.  I thought it was pretty darn clever, and left me saying "holy crap!".  The ideas Dan Brown brings forth in this novel are certainly relevant in today's world and will have you thinking about population growth and the earth's ability to sustain it. Major themes are nature, science, and evolution--do we ethically use science to progress humanity?  And what is the evolution of humanity, anyway?  It will be interesting to see if Dan Brown continues his next novel on this theme.  I will certainly be reading it!

Rating:  8/10 for a good old thriller based on Dante's Inferno.  The descriptions of places and art around Florence and Venice can be a bit dizzying sometimes, but certainly immerses you in the world of this novel.  A perfect read for a summer vacation.

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

My Cup (Or Bookshelves) Runneth Over...

This is what happens when you have Employee Appreciation Week at work and you get an even bigger discount than normal.  Don't ask me when I'm going to read these books, cause I just don't know!  Sometime this year, for sure.  

Now, about that 2 week vacation where all I do is read on my front porch....

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

This is not my usual read.  Readers of my blog know I usually read lots of historical fiction, but I do have a deep and unending curiosity for true crime, forensics, and most of all, historical unsolved mysteries.  

Paul French takes us to 1937 Peking to uncover the mysterious and horrific murder of Pamela Werner in his non-fiction tale Midnight in Peking.  This book is a featured title at my bookstore, and of course my curiosity peaked when I read the back blurb.  I haven't read much on China or it's history.  Mix together the encroaching Japanese forces into China, the foreign elements who live in Peking, and a young girl's bizarre murder and it's just something I have to read!  How does it all come together?  This real murder is truly stranger than fiction.

Pamela Werner was just 20 years old on January 7, 1937 when her body is found lying in a ditch in front of the Fox Tower, a landmark in Peking which is known by locals as a place haunted by fox spirits.  Pamela had not come home from an ice skating date with friends the night before, and her father, E.T.C. Werner had spent the night combing the neighborhoods looking for her.  A local traveling by the Fox Tower that morning sees something strange in the ditch, and stops to look.  It's Pamela, and she's been horribly murdered.  It's quite clear this is a "white" woman, and this is big news in Peking.  Soon her father arrives and recognizes his daughter by the clothes she's wearing and her grey eyes.  What happened to Pamela?

Peking in 1937 was a seething mass of foreigners living in compounds, poor emigrants living in hovels, and the Chinese working to make a living however they could.  French, American, British, and Russians made up a large enclave of people taking advantage of the wealth they could make in Peking. The Badlands was a stretch of whorehouses, opium dens, slums, and bars that the rich visited for kicks, and the rest of Peking either ignored or somehow used to make money.  It was a place of secrets, lost hopes, and for most, the last stop.

 The Japanese were on the march through China, slowly making their way towards Peking.  People knew when the Japanese did arrive, hell on earth would come with them.  Yet the foreigners felt they were untouchable, and carried on with their parties, drinking, and living the high life.  Pamela's father was a well known British scholar who had lived in China for most of his adult life.  He could speak more Chinese dialects that the Chinese who lived in Peking.  He preferred to spend his time alone writing papers; he often left Pamela alone at home with the servants while he traveled around China doing research.  He was not part of the party crowd, and many people didn't care for him.  He was also much older; in his 70's at the time of Pamela's murder.  

This book is about the first official investigation into Pamela's death, and the bureaucracy that bungled it so badly it was quickly shelved after 6 months.  The Chinese and British investigators were blocked from questioning certain suspects, barred from talking to Werner, and quickly gave up.  But Werner himself would not rest, and spent his life savings finding out what happened to Pamela.  This is the part of the book that really gets interesting.  It's amazing how money makes people talk, especially in times of great political upheaval.  

I enjoyed this book because it gave me a peak into a time in Chinese history that I wasn't familiar with--the beginnings of Japanese might and what would lead to World War II.  The foreigners in Peking were fascinating; so many people from so many places, all congregating in one city with secrets that continued to haunt them.  I had no idea Russians had fled the revolution of 1917 and come to China.  Many were without official papers, and had no where to go.  Many lived in poverty, and became addicts or prostitutes.  

All this seething underbelly played a part in Pamela's death, but I won't tell you how or why.  That's for you to find out when you read this book.  I would recommend this for anyone who is a history buff, enjoys true crime, and just wants a good old mystery.  It is a bit gory in a few spots--Pamela was viciously murdered.  But why?  Thanks to Werner, his endless quest to uncover who killed his daughter, and the author, we find out. The story of a young British woman in Peking in 1937, long forgotten, has come back to life.  

Rating:  7/10.  The author gives great detail about Peking, the people, the political climate, and the police investigation.  There is plenty of historical background to help the reader understand the whole picture.  Photos of major places in the story are included, as well as photos of Pamela and key players.

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

Monday, June 3, 2013

Zen Goddess, Where Are You?

Zen Goddess, where are you?  You won a copy of Shadow of Night.  Please email me with your mailing address so we can send out your book!