Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review and Giveaway! The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

I have to say, this book is unlike anything else I've read for awhile--a bit of magic, a bit of Alice in Wonderland, and a bit of the modern world clashing with a medieval world.  It was a fun read and ended with me thinking "how can I possibly wait for the sequel?"  Because yes, there will be a sequel.  There has to be.

In a nutshell:  Nora is a grad student who's not doing so well in her research, and is on the edge of not being a grad student. She's at a crossroads in her life:  her ex-boyfriend is engaged, she's unhappy with school, and every one else seems to know what they're doing--except her.  

After a late night of partying with friends for an upcoming wedding, Nora decides to take an early morning stroll in the mountains near Asheville before attending a wedding.  Nora gets herself into a bit of a situation when she spies a small graveyard in the woods on the mountain, and finds herself literally in another world after reading one of the headstones.

This world is full of Faitorens; a group of incredibly beautiful people who party all the time and live a glamorous life.  Nora is taken in by Ilissa, the queen of the group, and has no idea she's been enchanted.  She's quickly forgetting her old life, and soon is involved  with Raclin, Ilissa's son.  Oh Nora.  You are in such a pickle.  The Faitorens do not have her best interests at heart.

I don't want to tell you much more about this novel because it really does take a turn.  I'll just say Nora's story becomes entangled with Arundiel, a magician who's quite old, but in doing magic he stays young.  He has quite a back story, which Nora slowly learns about as the days go by.  Nora's life as a young, independent woman is tested by the world she finds herself in--where women marry for protection, do not read or write, and certainly very very rarely do magic.  

But Nora's about to change all that.  

I'm giving away a copy of this novel, which is out August 1st.  Anyone who loves fantasy/magic mixed in with a heroine from today's world will certainly enjoy this novel.  It has a great mix of old school magic and fairy tales along with a contemporary woman trying to fit in without giving up what she knows.  And of course there is a romance, too.  

Want to win a copy?  Here's how:  Simply leave a comment about this post.  The contest runs through Friday, August 2nd.  I will announce the winner on Saturday, August 3rd on this blog.  **US residents only**

Rating:  7/10 for originality and Arundiel, a very complex character that I can't wait to read more about in the sequel.

The author's website:  http://emilycroybarker.com/the-thinking-womans-guide-to-real-magic/

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Two Reviews in One: Letters from Skye and Map of Lost Memories

I've been busy reading all week and I've decided to give a combined review of two historical novels I read on my Nook.  Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole takes place from 1912-1917 and also during 1940 in Scotland and England and is written all in letters.  It's the story of Elspeth, a young married woman who writes poetry, and David, a young American living in Urbana, Illinois.  It starts out innocently enough, with David writing a fan letter to Elspeth.  She's had a few books of poetry published, and one found its way into David's hands during a hospital stay.  

This is the beginning of years of correspondence between the two; they fall in love while writing about their lives, the impending war, and desperately wanting to meet each other face to face.  The other letters from 1940 are written by Margaret, Elspeth's daughter, and her fiancĂ© as she copes with her mother leaving home to travel to London in search of her past.  Do Elspeth and David make it?  Can their love survive war and distance, with only a few meetings to sustain their passion for one another?  

I did enjoy this novel, but felt that they fell in love a bit too quickly.  It didn't seem like a smooth transition from friendship to deep love.  Otherwise, I did like the novel and anyone who wants a bit of historical fiction tossed in with a novel written in letter form should pick it up.  Perfect for a quick vacation read.

Rating:  6/10; letter form is always an interesting way to write a novel.  David's journey through France during WW1 as an ambulance driver will keep you flipping the pages.

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

I have to say I was disappointed in this novel.  I had high hopes for an adventure in 1920's Cambodia, and I felt a bit let down that the adventure didn't occur until well into the story.  

Irene is a young woman who's lived all her life at the Brooke Museum; her father was the night watchman there and she spent all of her time learning about the mysteries of Cambodia and the Khmer people.  She's been a huge asset to the museum, and expects to be head curator.  Unfortunately, she is passed over because she's a woman and she doesn't have the "education" needed for the position.  Completely disillusioned, she quits and is hired by long time family friend Mr. Simms to go to Cambodia to find a lost temple.  This temple holds 10 copper scrolls that have the complete history of the Khmer people engraved on them--they are priceless, both to museum collectors and to the people of Cambodia, who are under French rule and are slowly being erased from history.

Irene enlists the help of Simone, a french woman who is well known in the area for her communist leanings and her knowledge of Cambodia and it's people.  Irene also meets Marc, a man who knows everyone and everything about the area--but is he on her side?  What secrets does he have?  Some will surprise you.

Most of the novel is about the political unease in this area during the 1920's and how the natives are being treated by the French and English.  It's also about the shameless pillaging of native treasures by collectors around the world.  It leads to the question:  do we leave these priceless items with their people, in a dangerous unstable environment, or take them away to preserve them?  This is an ongoing battle even today with museums and countries fighting to keep what they consider their property.  

It took me a long time to get through this novel; I was a bit bogged down by the constant back and forth of who was a good guy and who was a bad guy.  The political issues dragged on, and I just wanted Irene and her gang to get into the jungle already!  I don't even know if I liked Irene all that much.  She too was driven by her own agenda and not so much about the land she was traveling through.  Yes, she does change by the end of the novel, but it felt a bit too late.  The descriptions of the cities, the absolute dripping humidity, and the languid life the Europeans lead were all wonderful and the best part of this story.

Rating:  6/10; wonderful descriptions of 1920's Shanghai and Cambodia and the lost temples of the Khmer people.  Story was bogged down by politics and people's agendas.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Spring Fever by Mary Kay Andrews

I remember reading my first Mary Kay Andrews novel years ago--Savannah Blues.  Loved it, but fell off the wagon and didn't pick up her novels for years.  This is the second Mary Kay Andrews novel I've read in the past year, and I remembered why I liked her writing that very first time I read Savannah Blues.

Spring Fever is kinda like chick-lit for women who have loved and lost, are out of their 20's, and have lived a little.  There is a good balance between romance, comedy, and a strong woman figuring out what she wants in life.  

Annajane is in her mid-30's, divorced, and living in a small apartment in the tiny town of Passcoe.  She works for the biggest employer in town, the Quixie beverage company--makers of a cherry cola that's been popular in the South for decades.  It's one of the last small family owned beverage companies around, and it's fallen on some hard times. 

Annajane's "spring fever" begins with her attending the wedding of her ex-husband Mason to Celia, a beautiful, poised, smart, and manipulating woman.  Annajane's marriage to Mason ended 5 years before--she even still works for him at Quixie!  But feelings are never far from the surface, and before Annajane can make a fool out of herself, Mason's young daughter Sophie throws up all over herself just before the bride walks down the aisle.  

The wedding is postponed as Sophie has emergency surgery for appendicitis; Mason and Annajane have time to realize maybe, just maybe their feelings for one another are too large to ignore.  

And Celia.  A nasty bit of work.  She's got an agenda, and she's determined to marry Mason.  She's got a few tricks up her sleeve...

This novel has a great cast of characters.  Not only Annajane, but little Sophie with her pink glasses and big heart; Pokey, Annajane's best friend and Mason's sister, and Sallie, Mason's mother and a thorn in Annajane's side.  Poor Mason has a mess on his hands--dealing with Celia, his mother, his feelings for Annajane, and trying to keep Quixie from being sold to a larger company.  

How will it all work out?  Can't tell you!  But I will say it was an enjoyable summer novel--just enough drama and humor, and lovely characters you get to know and enjoy.  

Rating:  7/10 for a solid story, great characters, and a satisfying conclusion.

Availabie in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

Monday, July 22, 2013

This Week: Finishing Half-Finished Books Week; AKA Cleaning Up The Shelves

I am one of those people who starts and stops books all the time.  I will have 3-4 books kinda started, half-way finished, or just stopped reading 3/4 of the way through.  I have no reason for this beyond knowing I have so many books waiting in the wings; it keeps me roving around the house picking up another book and starting a new story.  Oooooh, pretty shiny cover!

So this week I've given myself an assignment:  finish the half-finished books on my Nook and those that are lying by my bed.  I'll be reading and reviewing these titles:

***Giveaway coming soon!!****

What books are you stalled on?  Is it time to pick them up and try again?  I told myself I couldn't start anything new until I completed this assignment.  It may very well kill me!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman

This is one of those novels that has you looking at your life, turning and twisting it; examining where you are and who you are now.

Brett Bohlinger is a 34 year old woman who has just lost her mother to cancer.  Her mother owned a cosmetics company that went from zero to a big business over the years, and Brett expected to take over as CEO when her mother died.  

But her mother has left a few surprises for Brett, and that is what this novel is about.  Elizabeth Bohlinger leaves a will that gives her two sons plenty of money, and her daughter-in-law the position of CEO in the company.  Stunned, Brett learns from Brad, her mother's lawyer, that she has one year to accomplish her "life list" in order to receive her inheritance.  Brett composed this life list when she was 14 years old.  Her mother rescued it from the garbage, and kept it all these years.  Now it will define and change Brett's life.  Her mother was a clever one; leaving a pink envelop for each thing Brett accomplishes.  Her mother is determined to wake Brett up to a life she should be living, not the one she currently occupies.  

Some of the life list items that  Brett has to accomplish:  fall in love (really really in love), have a dog, help the less fortunate, become a teacher, have a relationship with her father, and be friends with Shelley forever.  Written from a 14 year old's perspective, it sounds pretty simple.  But for a 34 year old woman, it's not so easy:  her father is dead, and she let down her friend Shelley years ago and hasn't heard from her since.  Her one foray into teaching ended in disaster and made her leave teaching.

Brett struggles through all of this with the help of Brad, her mother's lawyer.  He seems like quite a catch, but he's already in a relationship.  Will sparks fly?  Just who is Brett supposed to fall in love with, when she's already in a relationship with Andrew?  And why does her mother instruct her sister-in-law (the CEO) to fire her from her job at the cosmetics company?  Her life is crumbling around her and she's forced to rebuild from the ground up.  Can she make the deadline, find happiness, and move past her grief?  

I did enjoy this novel.  Brett takes a while to realize just how unhappy she is; her life is not at all going in the right direction and she's changed into a scared, second guessing woman.  She's not the person she used to be, and that's the point of her mother's strange request.  

I did think sometimes things fell into place a bit too neatly for Brett, but it was a minor glitch in reading this novel.  Yes, she was without a job, and no income.  But she did have some resources to get her through until she did get a job, and really was never in any danger of becoming homeless or completely broke.  It can be easier to change your life when you're not penny pinching and just getting by every week.  

All in all, this was a quick read and perfect for any woman of any age to read.  It does make you think about your dreams and aspirations, and if you're living the life you want to live.  And it may give you the courage to make some changes.  

Rating:  6/10 for a clever plot and engaging characters

Available in paperback or e-book

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fallen Woman By Sandra Dallas

If you've read my blog before, you know I am a huge fan of Sandra Dallas; I've had the pleasure of meeting her in my hometown for book signings and every book she writes I immediately sit and savor.

Fallen Women is Sandra's latest and it is a bit different from her usual novels.  I like it when an author stretches their writing skills and I feel Sandra did just that with this novel about a murder, sisters, and Denver in 1885.

Beret Odmundsen lives in New York City, a wealthy young woman who runs a mission for women who have fallen on hard times.  Her sister, Lillie, has traveled to Denver to live with their aunt and uncle---two of the new rich aristocracy that is flooding Denver in 1885.  Beret and Lillie have had a falling out, and Beret assumes Lillie is safe and living with their relatives until she discovers a telegram.  That telegram devastates Beret; Lillie has died suddenly.  Not until Beret reads a gossipy story in the local newspaper does she realize her sister was murdered. 

Beret immediately travels to Denver to stay with her aunt and uncle, and to unravel the mystery of her sister's death.  She joins Detective Mick McCauley in the investigation and uncovers a lot of unanswered questions about her sister's life and death.  Who would stab her sister 8 times with sewing scissors?  And why was she in a brothel?  

Beret is the main character in this novel, and she is smart, brave, and prepared to go the distance to find her sister's killer.  She is not quite equipped to understand just how little she really knew her sister.  That is part of the journey of this novel, a lot like the journey of grief:  denial, anger, then acceptance.  

Beret's relationship with Detective McCauley slowly unfolds as the investigations takes twists and turns.  Both have pasts that are revealed little by little, as they learn to trust each other and start to have feelings for each other.  Is there a future between them?  

The cast of characters is part of what makes this novel a well-rounded story.  Besides Beret and McCauley, there's her Aunt Varina and Uncle, Judge Stanton.  He's in the running for a senate seat, and having a niece who was found murdered in a brothel could jeopardize his next career and standing in the community.  Varina's household is run by William, who knows more than Beret realizes.  And Jonas, the very odd coach driver taken in by Varina.  He is always hanging around, watching the house, watching Beret.  Is he a good guy or someone to be wary of at all times?  And Edward Staarman is a link to the past that forces Beret to face some unwanted truths about herself and her sister.  

Sandra Dallas wrote a novel about a mysterious death, but it really much more than than.  It is about the relationship between sisters, and the grief that engulfs a sister when the other is suddenly gone.  It is the realization that what you thought you knew may not be the actual truth.  How much do we really see in a person?  The ending may surprise some readers; if you follow Beret's uneasiness, you may figure out the killer before it is revealed--or maybe not.  

Historically, I loved the descriptions of Denver on the cusp of huge growth from a little mining town to a large city with all the "modern" conveniences of 1885.  The sights, sounds, smells, and hierarchy of society all add to the story and make this an enjoyable novel.  Fans of Sandra Dallas will love it, and those who haven't read her will be introduced to a favorite author of mine.  This novel is fiction, but readers of historical mysteries will also enjoy it.

Rating:  8/10 for historical accuracy, a strong female lead, and an intriguing look at the life of prostitutes in 1885.

Available in October in hardcover and e-book.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan

I have discovered that reading about cupcakes keeps me from dashing out and buying cupcakes to eat at home.  This is a source of absolute amazement to me, as I am one who will eagerly eat cake at any given moment (except vanilla--it must be chocolate).

Reading Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe by Jenny Colgan was great escape into the world of small business, cupcakes, friendships, and romance.  Issy grew up in her grandfather's bakery, and has inherited his gift of baking desserts.  She's stuck in a lousy job at a real estate agency, involved with a handsome co-worker who refuses to let her sleep over or be seen in public with him, and recent had to put her grandfather into a home.  She's feeling rather discontented with her life, but not enough to actually do anything about it.

Until her boyfriend sends her an email informing her that her position at the company has been eliminated and she's out of a job.  

Dithering and depressed for a few months--and Graeme, her lousy boyfriend--hasn't called her since the day she was fired, Issy decides to open a bakery that specializes in cupcakes.  It's her dream opportunity, and there's a perfect little shop just begging to become a friendly neighborhood gathering place.

Issy has a great support team of friends, and her bank manager, Austin, does all he can to steer her through the obstacle course that is starting a small business.  It doesn't hurt that he's cute and actually a good guy!  

The novel is mostly about Issy starting her cupcake business, the bumps she hits along the way, and the struggle to stay away from Graeme, who is a weakness Issy can do without in her life.  I found her inability to stay away from Graeme very irritating; perhaps because of my own personal feelings about women getting back together with ex-boyfriends who treat them like crap  over and over again.  Issy is so darn smart about everything but Graeme!  That is one weak spot in the novel that really bugged me.  I also thought it was a bit long; I felt it could have moved along a bit quicker and that it took a long time to tell the story.  I think cutting 100 pages from the story would have still left the story intact and still enjoyable.  Other than those few things, I did enjoy this novel very much.  Some people roll their eyes at "chick lit" but I find it is a great escape from everyday stresses and other books I'm reading that are darker and don't always promise a happy ending.  

In life, we all want a good cupcake and a happy ending.  This novel delivers both of those very important things. 

Rating:  6/10 for a story that has a great cast of characters, shows women struggling to make it on their own, and lovely cupcake recipes.  I did think it was a bit too long and didn't care for Issy always going back to Graeme.

Available in paperback and e-book.

Thanks to Net Galley for this review copy.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

This novel may not be long, but what it contains will keep you glued to your seat until the very last page.

The narrator is a middle aged man who has returned to his childhood home for a funeral.  After the funeral he finds himself driving down a lane to a farmhouse the evokes memories of what happened to him the year he turned seven. He walks past the farmhouse, down to a pond, and sits on a bench.  From there the story unfolds back to that year he met Lettie Hempstock and she told him the ocean was in the pond.  It was also the year he became a pawn between good and evil, with only Lettie and her mother and Old Mrs. Hempstock protecting him from the "flea".

Ursula Monkton is a major character in this novel, and is the stuff of nightmares.  Neil Gaiman evokes that feeling of being small and the world being so large and full of the unknown quite easily.  You will find yourself remembering what it was like to be young and know when something is not quite right, but helpless to fix it.  

I enjoyed this novel because it was pure magic.  You just have to immerse yourself in the story and float along, knowing Lettie will be holding your hand.  

I would recommend this for teens and adults.  It's almost but not quite appropriate for young readers as there are adult situations portrayed that may be too much for a young person.

Rating:  7/10 for a story that is imaginative and evokes your childhood fears and belief in the good that surrounds us all.

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Retro Read: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I quickly became a huge fan of Kate Atkinson earlier this year when I read the amazing Life After Life. This means I have to go back and read all of her previous works, and the first stop is this wonderful quirky novel about Ruby Lennox and her family--both present and past.

Ruby's story starts with the moment she is conceived, and from there goes back and forth between Ruby's young life with a very angry mother (angry about her crappy marriage and life), a cheating father, and two older sisters to the past with her grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts and uncles.  

The story moves all over the place, but it's not hard to follow at all.  Kate Atkinson is a master at combining humor and heartache and delving into the life of a family where everyone is unhappy but still stuck together.  So much happens to Ruby's family as she's born in 1952; her parents have the most dysfunctional marriage and struggle to keep their pet shop open while living above the shop.  Generations are woven into the story--and you think "what is the point?"  Oh, but there is a point.  Bunty's behavior (Ruby's mother) is explained by her experiences as a child.  Nell, Ruby's Grandmother, has a heartbreaking childhood that in turn influences her adult life.  And Alice, Ruby's Great-Grandmother makes a crucial choice that echoes down through the generations.  

I so enjoyed this novel.  I can understand why it won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 1995.  I am still in awe of Kate Atkinson's giant brain and incredible talent.  This novel is for those who like to read family histories with a British background; novels about dysfunctional families in the 20th century, and novels with a background of world events that, as always, become so personal and life changing at a family level.  

Rating:  8/10  for an entertaining story about Ruby--who you will love, and what makes a family.

Available in paperback and e-book.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes: My Wow Book of the Year

Just so you know, I will be using profanity in this review because this novel was so disturbing on so many levels that Holy Shit! it is unforgettable.

Here's the gist of the novel:  a man, Harper, is a serial killer.  But let's not stop there.  Harper will pretty much kill anyone who looks at him wrong.  He keeps his special knife skills for the "shining girls", women who somehow have a life force that is so strong he has to kill them to make himself feel better.  Oh--and he gets excited killing them, too.

This story isn't your typical serial killer novel.  Oh no.  What kicks it up into another realm is the added bonus of time travel.  Yep.  Harper is a grown man in 1932 Chicago; one night he's fleeing a mob (cause of course he killed a man) and finds himself entering a derelict home in a dicey Chicago neighborhood.  On the outside, it looks abandoned.  But on the inside, it's a lovely, cozy home complete with a burning fireplace and a decanter of whiskey waiting on a side table.  He also finds out that in an upstairs bedroom someone has collected little "trinkets" from victims--all whom are listed in chalk on the wall.  He knows the house wants him to kill these women, and he has no problem doing just that.  When he leaves the house, he enters another time--up to 60 years in the future.  And Harper can kill without worry, since he simply slips back into the house and into another time.  All of his victims are heartbreaking parts of the story.  

Except Kirby.  She's the only one who survived.  She was attacked in 1989 and survived--barely.  I can't tell you her experience, since a lot revolves around it. Move forward to 1993, and she is a college journalism student determined to find out who attacked her and why.  She knows this man is a serial killer, but lacks the evidence to prove it.  And of course she has no idea he travels through time, and has been killing women for the past 60 years.  Freaky, right?  

Reading this novel is disturbing on many levels, but the writing is so good you can't help but keep reading it.  And then you love Kirby, cause she is a kick-ass survivor and she's pissed.  Harper is possibly the most horrible character I've read about in years and he has no redeeming characteristics.  He kills because he likes to.  No other reason.  

So how can this end?  You think I'll tell you here?  Hell no!  You must read this novel.  There are some graphic parts that will make you uncomfortable and so angry at Harper that this will fuel you through the novel.  You want Kirby to find him and punish him for all the women he's murdered through time.  Jackass. 

Read it!  It really is very very good.  I've had a friend read it, and when I talked about it in my reading group he jumped up and down and couldn't wait to share his feelings on this novel.  It will certainly move you--there's no way you can remain unemotional about this story.

Rating:  9/10 for superb story telling, a completely horrible character who makes Jack the Ripper look friendly, and a twist on the usual serial killer story.

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  So you have no excuse not to read it!