Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Top Five Favorite Reads of 2015 Are....

It's here!  The top five.  As I said in my previous post, I can't wait to dig into my stacks of 2016 reads.  And yes, I said stacks.  I will do my best to lower those stacks.  Without further ado...

5.  The Anatomist's Wife by Anna Lee Huber

First in a series about a young widow who finds herself struggling to move past the suspicions of her fellow house guests when a woman is found murdered on the property. Loved the atmosphere, the story, and the building romance between Lady Darby and Sebastian Gage. 

4.  The Silver Witch  by Paula Brackston

 A  mystical tale set in Wales about a modern day potter who keeps getting glimpses of a wise woman who lived in the area in 918 AD and was at the center of a devastating piece of Welsh history.  Pack your bags cause you'll want to travel to Wales.  

3.  The Martian by Andy Weir

This novel had me anxiously reading about astronaut Mark Watney and his struggle to survive after being left alone on Mars. What?  Yep.  It was made into a movie starring Matt Damon, but please read the book first!  It really is a great blend of science, humor, action, and an amazing adventure tale.  So good. 

2.  The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck

I didn't get to read too many non-fiction titles this year, but when I did, I read an excellent one by Rinker Buck.  I even had the pleasure of meeting him when he came to my Barnes & Noble for a reading and signing in July.  This tale of Rinker and his brother, who drive a wagon complete with mules along the Oregon Trail over the course of a summer, will make you laugh out loud and appreciate the gumption that made this country what it is today.

And my top read of 2015 is......

1.  The Great Christmas Knit-off by Alexandra Brown

  I know.  Crazy.  But sometimes a girl needs to read something fun, sweet, and utterly British.  I loved this tale of second chances, knitting, and a winter wonderland all tucked into the English countryside.  It came to me at the perfect time, and helped me relax during a particularly stressful Christmas time.  I can't wait to read more in this series.  You rock Alexandra Brown! 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

My Top Ten Reads of 2015: Part One

I can't believe it's that time of year already:  compiling my list of favorite reads and presenting them to the world.  Where did the time go?  There are so many books that I haven't read yet!  I'm already compiling my reads for January and I can say for certain there just aren't enough days in January for me to read everything I want to read.  I can't wait to share all those great books with you.  

So without further ado, I'll begin with the first five books that made my top ten:

10:  Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall

 Two sisters run away from home to fight against the North in the American Civil War.  One fights to avenge her husband, the other joins to protect her sister and get them both home.  Will they survive? 

9.  The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The story of Addie Baum, born in 1900 to an immigrant family.  Told by Addie to her granddaughter, you get to experience Addie's life as she grows up and lives a life that is a bit unconventional, but never dull.  One of my favorite characters from this year.

8.  The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick

Three sisters who have a gift for creating floral and herbal cures and gardens find their lives take an uncomfortable turn when scandal rocks their small town and gossip begins to turn people against them.  There's romance, too.  For fans of Sarah Addison Allen and all things magical and mystical.  

7.  The Blood Gospel by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell

First in a trilogy about vampires, biblical mysteries, and the Vatican's special team of priests that have promised their lives to protect the world against evil.  A thrill a minute and hard to put down.  

6.  The Marvels by Brian Selznick

A young adult novel by the master of the artistic novel.  The first half of the story is told in picture form. The second half continues the story of the Marvels, a family of actors who are legends in London theater, and a young boy who runs away from school to live with his uncle in his peculiar home in London.  A fantastic novel that will surprise you and touch your heart.  

That's the first five; what will be the top five reads for 2015?  Can you guess?  Stay tuned!  All will be revealed in a few days.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Hundred Gifts by Jennifer Scott

Two days before Christmas and I'm delivering my last Christmas themed review.  I've had a great time reading books that remind me of the excitement and anticipation that always comes in December.  There's a tradition many people have of getting new pajamas on Christmas Eve; my tradition has always been having a new book to read for Christmas.  I may not get much time to read on Christmas Day, but having that book is important.  I remember getting books for Christmas from Santa, and carving out my spot under the tree to lay and read after the chaos of Christmas morning.  It was the one time of year that I actually received books as presents, and even though now I buy the book, it still thrills me to have a new book "under the tree".  

The Hundred Gifts by Jennifer Scott is about a woman who is at a crossroads in her life:  her children have both left the nest, her husband Gary is careening towards a mid-life crisis, and her weight keeps creeping up the scale.  Bren is pretty unhappy, and doesn't know what to do about it.  Visiting a local donut shop, she runs into a woman who is opening a business next door--a cooking class business--and Bren agrees to be the teacher for upcoming classes about creating an interesting Thanksgiving dinner.  She is a pretty good cook, but feels completely inadequate.  She convinces her mother and Aunt Cathy to join, sure no one will sign up.  An odd ball group of ladies sign up for the classes, and Bren has her work cut out for her.  

And then disaster strikes.  Virginia Marsh is a grumpy old lady who lives above the cooking class space, and won't put up with smelling burnt food and noisy people.  She ruins every cooking class by stomping down the stairs and interrupts the class with threats of calling the police and kicking them out.  She gives Bren serious doubts as to her ability to teach a class.  In the midst of this, and her husband's attempts to start a band in the basement, Bren is deeply unhappy.  She decides that perhaps Virginia needs some kindness in her life, and together the ladies decide they will give 100 gifts to Virginia.  Killing that annoyance with kindness, sounds like a good plan, right?  

Except the ladies don't know Virginia's story, and it is a sad one to tell.  That story, told alongside Bren's attempts to turn her marriage around and find a new purpose in life, make up the bulk of this novel.  Sometimes Christmas is a reminder of all we have lost, and what we used to have.  It is a time for reflection, and a time to decide how to begin again.  

This novel was not as light-hearted as I had expected it to be, but that didn't diminish my reading experience.  It was about ordinary people, in an ordinary time, dealing with ordinary problems.  And mostly it was about finding friendship in extraordinary places.  

Rating:  7/10 for a novel that uses Christmas as a background to explore friendship, life changes, and the power of giving.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Great Christmas Knit-Off by Alexandra Brown

Christmas isn't Christmas to me without some deliciously fun novels where there's romance, holiday happenings, and quirky characters.  The Great Christmas Knit-Off by Alexandra Brown fits the bill perfectly, and I've found another author that I just can't get enough of--so much so that I'm going to dive into her backlist in January.  

This is a pretty simple story, set in a "too impossible to be real" village in England.  Sybil lives in London, and is still coping with her horrible fiasco of a wedding-that-didn't-happen months before.  A Star Wars themed wedding, Princess Leia buns, and no groom.  In fact, the groom ran off with Sybil's twin sister, Sasha.  Humiliated, Sybil is miserable and with Christmas coming, she's looking at a lonely day spent in her apartment with her dog, Basil.  

Sybil's friend Cher rings her and invites her to visit the little village of Tindledale for a long weekend.  Sybil takes Cher up on her offer, and through a series of mishaps, Sybil finds herself staying at the B&B in Tindledale with wine-stained clothing and stinky shoes.  But at her lowest, Sybil finds friends, and lucky for her, there's a haberdashery (knitting shop) nearby.  Sybil LOVES to knit, and is quite good at it.  It's what keeps her calm, and someday she wants to own her own shop and sell her knitted creations. 

Sybil falls in love with Tindledale and the people who come into her life.  Hettie owns the haberdashery, and she's in danger of being pushed out by her nephew, who wants the land to build ugly housing and ruin the quaintness of Tindledale. Can Hettie and Sybil find a way to work together and make both of their lives happier?  And can Sybil heal her broken heart?

Folks, I'm telling you this is the perfect Christmas story to read.  I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading it!  Pure fun and escapism, and lucky for me, the first in a series set in Tindledale.  I can't tell you how happy that makes me.  Fans of knitting and crafting will certainly want to read it--although you'll have to put down your knitting needles.  Perfect for friends, Moms, and Grandmas.  A light comedy filled with characters you get to know and enjoy.

Rating:  8/10 for the pure enjoyment I got from this novel.  Fun and quirky, featuring a not so perfect main character with a lovable sidekick.  The village of Tindledale is a character that will be hard to forget.

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Monday, December 14, 2015

Tower of Thorns (Blackthorn & Grim #2) by Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier writes fantasy that makes for a great transition from early teen fantasy into adult fantasy.  She combines an alternate Ireland and mythical tales with contemporary issues.  For this, her second Blackthorn and Grim novel, the theme of PTSD continues.  Blackthorn, a wise woman who survived the murders of her husband and child, then a cruel imprisonment by a sadistic King, and her companion Grim--also a victim of King Mathuin, find themselves in Dalriada, quietly tending to the community and trying to find some peace.  Blackthorn is still under the edict of the fey, and must help everyone who asks her for help for seven years.  Only then is she free to take revenge on Mathuin.  

Blackthorn and Grim reluctantly leave their home to travel with the Prince of Dalriada and his pregnant wife to another village, and there they meet Lady Geileis and hear her tale.  Lady Geileis has traveled from her village to ask for help in ending a curse that has taken a toll on the land and her people. A creature lives in a tower surrounded by impassable gnarled hedges of thorns, and every day this creature sends out howls that are driving everyone mad and slowly killing the land.  Just what or who is this creature, and how is it tied to Lady Geileis?  She's not telling the whole story.  And yet, Blackthorn must help end the curse.  

Meanwhile, a friend from the past reenters Blackthorn's life, and gives her an opportunity to exact revenge on King Mathuin.  Does she take the chance and leave Grim, who has only shown kindness and love towards Blackthorn?  Dare she defy the fey, give in to her desire for revenge, and run away?  

This is the second novel I've read of Juliet Marillier, and I am happy to say she's a definite go to author when I want to read some fantasy.  Her characters certainly grow and develop as the plot moves along, and her storytelling compels you to keep moving towards the end.  Her characters are not perfect, and most of the time are vulnerable to their worst human qualities:  revenge, anger, jealousy.  But each has so many good qualities that you keep hoping good will win out.  I would say this author is comparable to Kristin Britain in writing style and storytelling.  Both mingle ancient myths and legends, entertaining characters, and a plot line that will satisfy your fantasy sweet tooth.  

Thank you to Penguin/Random House for a review copy of this novel.  Can't wait to read more in this series, and read through Juliet's backlist titles.  If you'd like to check out Dreamer's Pool I wrote a review on it in September, 2014.  

Rating:  7/10 for a satisfactory second novel in a new series that explores love lost, curses, and betrayal.  And the cover is gorgeous!

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book.  

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lake Como By Anita Hughes

December is about pure escapism for me, drinking eggnog, and wrapping presents with a total lack of talent and lots of tape.  My sweetie wraps presents with a ruler and incredible precision; I'm lucky to cut the paper in a straight line.  

Lake Como is absolute pure fantasy.  Hallie Elliot lives a pretty sweet life in San Francisco:  she's an interior designer in a high-profile firm, her grandmother is one of the elite society members, and she's in love with Peter, a journalist who worships the ground she walks on and is perfect for her.  Only thing is, she's waiting for a ring.  

One night, Hallie sees Peter in a compromising position with her boss, and her world crumbles.  What was a certainty now seems unclear.  Peter insists nothing happened, and when he proposes, Hallie turns him down.  She just can't get past the mistrust.  Opportunity to escape arrives from her family in Italy.  Her half-sister Portia has left her cheating husband, and Portia's father and grandmother have asked Hallie to come to Lake Como and the family villa to help Portia get back together with her husband.  The Tesoro name is old, moneyed, and well-respected.  Portia can't cause a scandal.  

Hallie arrives in Lake Como, ready for a break from Peter and her life in San Francisco.  She soon finds herself hired to design an art space for the very rich and reclusive owner of a beautiful villa on Lake Como.  She meets Angus, the caretaker of the estate, and sparks fly (reluctantly on Hallie's part).  Will she stay in Italy for good?  What about Peter?  Just how many designer dresses can she wear in one season?  

Oh, there's more to the story, of course.  It's pretty easy to figure out the plot, and there are no surprises.  This novel is full of the high life, beautiful people, glamorous villas, and impeccable fashion.  It's a life that is very far from Iowa in December.  But that is what makes it fun--and I've discovered another author who will be perfect for summer vacations, long weekends during the chill of winter, and a great go-to for anyone who likes contemporary women's fiction with a dash of sophistication and romance. I will read more of Anita Hughes' books and will definitely pass them onto my friends.

Rating:  6/10 for a novel that provided a dose of escapism with a light plot, enjoyable characters, and a happy ending for all. 

Available in paperback and e-book.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

You're the Best: A Celebration of Friendship by The Satellite Sisters

Sometimes I have to take a break from my usual reads and pick up something fun and full of girl power.  You're the Best: A Celebration of Friendship is one of those books and was a sweet surprise for me.  

It's a small gift book, perfect for gift-giving to your wine  book club friends, sisters, women you lunch with, and those ladies we all have in our lives that keep us sane.  The Satellite Sisters was created by the five Dolan Sisters who have had a radio show on NPR and ABC Radio.  Now they have a blog and a podcast, along with books.  They are pretty gifted sisters, and each contributes to this book with some funny and sweet snippets of wisdom.  From essays that discuss dating tips from your satellite sisters, to staying friends with your actual  sisters (**big idea: be a grownup sister, not the childhood sister), to navigating the waters of being the only one in your group that doesn't have children, and won't ever have grandchildren (more time for travel and adventure!), this is a gift book that covers everything funny, sad, and wonderful that makes up life.  Your satellite sister is the one who will buy you a pint of ice cream, cry with you, then kick you in the tushy when you need a shove.  They are there for you no matter what.  

Some women have a lot of satellite sisters, some of us just have a few.  It doesn't really matter; what matters is that we all have them, and they are a precious and wonderful part of life.  

Rating:  6/10 for a lovely little gift book that has a bit of something for every woman in your life.  This may very well spur you into getting together with your Satellite Sisters!  

Available in hardcover and e-book.  

Thank you to Prospect Park Books for a review copy!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley

Readers of my blog know I enjoy the novels of Susanna Kearsley.  I am so glad Sourcebook brought many of her out of print titles back into print!  She's been compared to Barbara Erskine (Lady of Hay is one of my ultimate favorite novels) and Mary Stewart--full of brooding men, myths and legends, and the haunting backdrops of England, Scotland, and Wales.  Contemporary with a twist of other-worldliness.  You know, the backbone to my reading life. 

Named of the Dragon is one of Susanna's earliest novels; it was first published in 1998.  A new cover and format has brought it back from out-of-print-land and into a bookstore near you.  I believe it will appeal to people who want a solid contemporary novel with a bit of history, legend, and Merlin.  Not a romance, not a thriller, but just an interesting tale to take you to Wales.  

Lyn Ravenshaw is an editor who has been talked into spending the Christmas holiday in Wales with her client Bridget, a popular children's book author.  Bridget is a fast talker and has a large appetite for food and for the attention of men.  She's also involved with the famous James Shaw, a writer who would be a big cap in Lyn's feather if she could snatch him away from his current agent.  Her continued nightmares of a crying child have haunted her since the death of her baby Justin five years before.  She agrees to accompany Bridget to Wales to get away from London and break away from the constant grind of sorrow.  

Arriving in Wales, she quickly makes friends with James and his brother Christopher.  Brooding playwright Gareth immediately suspects her of trying to sign him and their relationship is off to a mutual dislike.  And poor Lyn--the young Elen lives at Castle Farm, along with her baby boy Stevie.  Elen is convinced "the dragon" is out to take her son.  Is Elen crazy from grief at the loss of her husband, or is something weird happening at Castle Farm? 

And Lyn.  Oops.  Those nightmares haven't gone away.  Instead, now she dreams of a woman in blue, standing with a small boy, begging Lyn to help protect him before it's too late.  

What do Merlin, Wales, and a small boy have in common?  Just a few impressive Welsh legends.  Love them!  

The pace of this novel is slow; not a whole lot happens, and that's fine with me.  I liked reading about local legends, and the slow pace suits the character of Lyn just fine.  She's a work in progress, and can't be rushed.  Lush descriptions of ruined castles, rustic farms, and Christmas in Wales all make you slow down and enjoy the tale. I started this novel not realizing it was set during December so it's perfect for a Christmas read.  

Rating:  7/10 for a slow paced novel based on Welsh mythology with the added bonus of a likeable main character and a Christmas atmosphere.  Stir up the fire, make a pot of tea, and dig into this book!

Available in paperback e-book, and audio.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christmas Read: The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett

We had our first snow last night, Thanksgiving is next week, so yes, I'm starting my Christmas reading pronto.  This was a delightfully told tale that really does resonate pretty strongly with today's news about refugees and so many people needing our assistance, in big and small ways.  Without further ado, here's Scrooge!

Charlie Lovett first wrote this story in 2003, and didn't have any success getting it published.  It sat quietly waiting until he successfully published  
 The Bookman's Tale and First Impressions.  A discussion with his editor about upcoming projects brought this one back into the light, and published just in time for Christmas.

It's been twenty years since Scrooge and his famous adventures with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  And guess what?  He's still incredibly happy go lucky, and full of Christmas cheer.  So much so that he spends every day walking the streets, shouting "Merry Christmas!" to everyone.  All year long.  Even in July.  He's given all of his money to help the needy, and his cheerfulness can't be defeated or dimmed.  Unfortunately, people see him coming and start to hide, because quite frankly they're tired of  being around someone who's always so darn cheerful.  

One night, his ghostly friend Marley pays him a visit.  Marley is in despair over the length of his ghostly chains.  He fears he will never be able to rest peacefully, and even though he did a good deed all those years ago with Scrooge, it hasn't done much to push him down the path to eternal rest.  He has to do more.  Scrooge has a brilliant idea:  Marley needs to call forth the spirits who visited Scrooge twenty years before, and Scrooge will visit three of his associates with each spirit:  Bob Cratchit, his nephew Freddie, and his creditors at the bank.  Each has the potential to turn themselves around and make positive, lasting changes to themselves and the unfortunates of London.  

This is a short but sweet tale that gives us a glimpse into Scrooge's life after A Christmas Carol.  Told in the spirit of Dickens, it is jolly and joyful and filled with fun illustrations that help frame the story.  It did put me in the Christmas spirit, and remind me that we can all make positive changes and help others, even if it's as simple as buying a meal for someone, or donating a book to a local charity for a child. We have no idea how such simple, loving gestures can change another person's life for the better.  Right now the world needs a whole lot of love and kindness!  

Thank you to Penguin Random House for a review copy of this book.  A great stocking stuffer for this holiday season. 

Rating:  7/10 for a Christmas tale that revisits Scrooge after A Christmas Carol.  It will remind you of Christmas Eve, watching late night holiday movies, and what it really means to be filled with the Christmas spirit all year round.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio. 


Friday, November 13, 2015

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Oh Brian Selznick.  I can't even imagine how to move beyond a stick figure when I draw, and you, with your wonderful illustrations just make magic happen.  Brian's previous two novels, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck were incredible stories mixed with his wonderful illustrations.  Both combine to tell stories that tug at your heart.  The Marvels is no different.

In this novel, Selznick puts over 400 pages of illustrations first.  The first part of the story is told through these illustrations. Here are a few examples of his extraordinary talent:

 In the first half of the novel, we start in 1766 aboard a ship, and we meet Billy Marvel, a young boy who has stowed away on his brother's ship.  Adventure is in store for Billy, as well as heartbreak.  He ends up in London, working at a theater, and starts a family that will soon be famous for their theatrical talents.  Generations of Marvels take to the theater, until one day....

 The second half of the novel is prose that builds on the first half of the novel.  It's 1990. We meet Joseph Jervis, a young boy who runs away from boarding school in England to find his uncle Albert Nightingale in London.  Joseph has never met his Uncle Albert, but is miserable in his boarding school (his mother and father "travel" all around the world without him) and Christmas is approaching.  Albert is not your average uncle, and his house is not your average house.  The house is pretty mysterious, and I was sucked into the story from the first page.  Yes, the two stories do tie together, and in a away that surprised me.  I never once figured it out.  

This novel is a true work of art.  It clocks in at over 600 pages, and yes, it is a young reader novel.  I loved the story and had the weepies at the end.  The story speaks about family, legacy, and living a life that makes each of us happy.  It speaks of memories, and the power of imagination.  I was not disappointed, and this novel was worth the wait.  Some reviews I read didn't like the LGBT angle in the novel, but it certainly didn't bother me and actually made the novel all the more poignant.  And remember--it's written for middle schoolers!  So it is age appropriate.  

If you haven't read a Brian Selznick novel, you need to make it a reading goal for 2016.  He usually bases his novels on true life, and will explain at the end of the novel where his inspiration came from, and how he used it to create a wonderful story.  

Rating:  8/10 for a beautifully illustrated novel that tells a powerful story about family.  It's got a permanent place on my bookshelf.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.  But trust me, spend the extra cash and get the hardcover.  So worth it.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini

I've left the spooky tales behind for now to focus on Christmas reads.  Yes, I know it's only November.  But there is something very satisfying about reading Christmas stories leading up to the holiday season.  They always put me in a good mood and are one of my most favorite things to do after Halloween--besides dream of Christmas baked goods.  

Jennifer Chiaverini is well  known for her quilting series, but in recent years she has begun to write historical fiction centered around the American Civil War.  This book once again features the Civil War, but has a few added bonuses:  a famous poet, a contemporary church choir, and a link between the two.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a famous poet, happily married and a father of five in the winter of 1860.  Abe Lincoln was just recently elected, and the rumblings of war were getting louder.  Living in Boston, Henry's life was full of good friends, a beloved wife, and his work.  Unfortunately, this would be one of the last supremely happy times of Henry's life.  

In contemporary Boston, on a cold December night, Sophia races to St. Margaret's church to teach her children's choir class.  She's a music teacher at a local school, and was just informed due to budget cuts her job will be eliminated at the end of the school year.  The children's choir is a source of great joy for her, and she's planning on having them sing "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", a carol based on Henry's poem Christmas Bells, written in 1863.  

At St. Margaret's church, a whole cast of characters round out the story:  a young mother struggling to remain upbeat for her two children while their father is in Afghanistan; a priest who gives service to others but is closed off from his brother; a widow who comes to listen to the children practice on the piano donated by her late husband, and a young man who is in love with Sophia but doesn't know how to move beyond the "friend" stage.  

You'd think Civil War Boston and contemporary Boston wouldn't mesh well in a story, but I found both stories equally compelling and wasn't bothered in the least by switching from one to the other.  The connection of family love, yearning, memories, and a wish for peace and harmony is a foundation that makes this novel a wonderful Christmas read.  I didn't know anything about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow before this novel, and I'm glad I've had a bit of an education about one of our beloved poets.  It does hold true that people are the same, no matter what century or circumstance.  We worry, we love, we mourn, we struggle to live a meaningful life.  And through all that, music makes our hearts sing.  

I think this would make a fantastic December read for anyone who likes a bit of history mixed in with a contemporary tale.  Fans of Jan Karon or Debbie Macomber would definitely like it.   

I'd like to thank Penguin Random House for a preview copy.  I'm happy to kick off my Christmas reading with this lovely, gentle story.  

Rating:  8/10 for a blending of two stories--one in the past, one contemporary, that makes sense.  Using a poem to connect the two stories is pretty clever.  All of the characters are likeable.  A novel with chock full of Christmas.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

I Gave Nora Roberts Another Chance: The Key Trilogy

If you're a regular reader to my blog, you know I recently read the Nora Roberts trilogy The Cousins O'Dwyer and I was completely underwhelmed.  And puzzled by the lack of spark that usually accompanies a Nora Roberts novel.  I haven't read oodles of her books, but enough to know she usually writes a pretty solid story that I'll enjoy.  So instead of never reading her again, I decided to read one of her older trilogies (2004).  And I'm glad I did!

The Key Trilogy is comprised of  Key of Light, Key of Knowledge, and the Key of Valor.  The novels take place in a Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania. Three women:  Malory, Dana, and Zoe receive requests to attend a dinner at the stunning mansion Warrior's Peak, located up the mountains from Pleasant Valley.  None of the women know each other, but with this dinner begin a solid friendship that will see them through a quest that will challenge them, frustrate them, and put their lives in danger. 

Basically, each woman has 30 days to solve a riddle, find a key, and help unlock three trapped souls.  If they fail, they each forfeit one year of their lives and an evil sorcerer will triumph.  Bad news for all.  I know, it sounds pretty silly, right?  But it was a pretty entertaining read!

Malory's story takes place in the Key of Light.  She's a frustrated artist who has turned her lack of artistic talent into a successful stint as the manager of a local art gallery.  Unfortunately, she's just been fired because the owner's new wife wants to be in charge.  Dana's story takes place in Key of Knowledge.  She's a librarian who has worked at the local library for years.  She also loses her job due to an unpleasant supervisor who wants Dana's job for her niece.  And Zoe's story is the final story told in Key of Valor.  She's a single mother to young Simon, and a talented hairdresser.  Too talented for the comfort of her boss, who resents Zoe's popularity with the clientele and fires her too.  

Sounds like each woman is ready to start anew.  And each is given $25,000 to take up the quest.  And did I mention each woman has a hottie linked to her story?  And that these men:  Flynn (newspaper editor), Jordan (a successful best selling author), and Brad (the local rich man from a family that runs a national home improvement store chain), are each linked not only through friendship, but through romantic relationships with the women?  All six are crucial to figuring out the clues and finding the keys.  

There's much more to the stories, and I don't want to give it all away.  I thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy, although I think Dana's story in Key of Knowledge was my favorite.  If you're looking for something that has a bit of romance, a bit of mythology, a bit of magic, and a bit of women's fiction all tossed in, you've got the complete package in this trilogy.  These are the kind of stories I like to read after a tough week as a way to unwind and simply enjoy a good tale.  

I forgive you Nora Roberts.  

Rating:  7/10 for an entertaining trilogy with likeable characters, just enough romance, and an interesting take on mythology.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book.  I found my copies at the local library.    

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween Reads: Books that Scared Me Silly

Well I didn't get through my whole list of Halloween reads, but I made a good dent.  My posts got me thinking about other books I've read over the years that creeped me out and left a lasting impression on me.  I can say each of the books I've listed below still resonate in my memory and send shivers down my spine.  What spooky books have you read and loved?

A serial killer travels through time in Chicago.  Seriously had me checking the locks on my doors and windows.  An excellent read!

I read this during my teen "Stephen King" years and  was completely scared out of my mind.  One of the first books I read where bad things happen to good people. 

A pilot is haunted by passengers who died during a plane crash.  Will they drive him to do the unthinkable?
This teen novel about zombies taking over the world is the first in a series.  Very well done --you'll read it  and be on the edge of your seat.  

I read this non-fiction book over 15 years ago and, along with my friends,  had the bejesus scared out of me!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Halloween Read: The Midnight Witch by Paula Brackston

My spooky reads for the month continues with one of my favorite authors, Paula Brackston.  

But, I'm sad to say, I wasn't bewitched by this novel.  Trying to let the disappointment go and move on, but it is hard when an author you enjoy doesn't hit it out of the park every single time.  

Paula Brackston still remains true to her theme of witchcraft in this, her third novel. I read The Silver Witch earlier this year and just gobbled it up (much like the Brach's pumpkin cremes I inhale every October).  The Midnight Witch was already sitting on my bookshelf, but was set aside while I was in the throes of grad school.  Now, finally, I had the chance to read it.  Fully expected to love it.  Didn't. 

This novel takes place before and after World War I.  In 1913, Lady Lilith Montgomery is mourning the death of her father.  Rich, beautiful, and engaged, Lilith seems to have it all, and then some:  her father was the head witch of the Lazarus Coven, and Lilith is the heir. The Lazarus Coven is very old, and very secret.  They exist to protect England from dark forces, especially the Sentinels, a group of nasty sorcerers  bent on reclaiming the "elixir" the Lazarus Coven keeps under wraps.  The Sentinels see an opportunity to strike with the death of Lilith's father and her ascent as head witch.  

Lilith has been trained since childhood in the arts of witchcraft, and she's pretty powerful and up to the task of head witch.  But the nasty spirit whispering in her ear, and the knowledge that there is a spy in the Lazarus Coven make her position tenuous. The gathering clouds of war are always in the background, making what should be a happy time in Lilith's life pretty stressful and gloomy.  

Oh, there's also that love interest:  not her fiance, but a poor starving artist.  He's talented, and drop dead gorgeous, but not a witch, and completely out of Lilith's social circle.  Not husband material for her at all.  Lilith must keep her other life--that of a witch--a secret to everyone who is not in the coven (her mother still doesn't know her husband was a witch and her daughter is as well).  How can she possibly find a way out of this mess?

I've been trying to figure out just what I didn't like about this novel.  I kept finding myself thinking it was set earlier than 1913-1914 and that was frustrating.  There wasn't a lack of social clues; the fashion was discussed quite frequently, as well as mentions of cars and women's attitudes.  And World War I was certainly a big part of it.  Somehow I kept getting lost even with all of those reference points to keep me straight.  I also didn't care for the romance between Lilith and Bram.  I didn't feel any chemistry between the two at all.  

The novel does jump ahead 5 years, to after the war.  I found this plot device hard to swallow.  Lilith has so much trouble in 1913-1914; I have a hard time believing the Sentinels wouldn't take advantage of England being in a major war to take control of the Lazarus Coven during such chaos.  They do try, but not very hard.  I felt like the author was very ambitious in the story she wanted to tell, but it fell short somehow.  Too much "stuff" going on that cluttered up the plot.  And I have to say I wasn't entirely crazy about Lilith either.  Something was missing from her personality that would have made me really invested in her issues and struggles.  

Arrgh!  So disappointed in this one.  I always applaud an author who stretches their usual storytelling in another direction.  This one just wasn't the best.  And my golly it seemed way too long.  

Rating:  4/10 for a plot that seemed clunky, a romance that didn't click, and a heroine that unfortunately fell short for me.  

Available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Halloween Read: The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

This novel originally came out in March of 2013, and I've had an advance reader's copy on my shelves since probably 2012.  Just goes to show eventually I do get to books on my bookcases!  

I haven't read a really creepy book in quite some time and I'm glad I chose this for a Halloween read.  It did creep me out.  I actually went down to my basement last night to toss clothes in the dryer and felt a little uneasy looking into the dark corners.  Thank you Andrew Pyper for that.  

This novel is about a man, Professor David Ullman, and his unbreakable bond with his daughter Tess.  David is an expert on Milton's Paradise Lost, and has built his career out of his scholarly work, but secretly doesn't believe in God or the devil.  His marriage is in shambles, his wife is having an affair, and his daughter seems to inherited what he calls the "melancholy" he himself struggles to keep at bay.  A visit from a strange woman inviting him to Venice (all expenses paid) to witness a phenomenon sets David on a journey that will test his beliefs, his courage, and his unshakable belief that he can save his daughter. 

What?! David's daughter disappears in Venice (everyone says she commits suicide), but David knows what happened:  a demon has her.  And he's going to keep her unless David becomes his disciple and shows the world the proof he has locked up in a bank vault:  that demons exist, and God is not good.  Demonic possession caught on video.  Proof positive that "they" are coming.  This sends David on a cross-country odyssey to find the clues that will lead him to his final destination and showdown with the demon.  And he's under a time constraint:  He only has a few days until his daughter is lost to him forever.  

This is a short novel, but the uneasiness is pretty big.  There are a few scenes that quite frankly creeped me out!  Imagine being scared witless, and moving forward anyway.  That's pretty much what David does.  A father's love for his daughter is supremely powerful.  You don't need to have read Paradise Lost or even have an inkling about it, because you get enough of it in the story to follow along.  Lots of dead people, demonic possession, and horrible visions keep up the horror factor in this story.  I found myself racing towards the end, as David races towards his fate.  

I actually really enjoyed this novel.  The tension is high, the anticipation builds, and it will make you turn on all the lights.  Something completely different from my usual read!

Rating:  7/10 for a well-executed horror novel that makes your heart race and a main character who struggles with his demons--both literally and figuratively in order to save his daughter.  Can love conquer supreme evil?

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Fun Friday Post: Books I'd Love to Have on My Bookcase

I was contacted by invaluable.com and asked if I would be interested in writing a blog post about books I'd love to have on my bookshelves. It got me thinking a bit about what I'd love to have, and here are a few that would put a smile on my face:

Beatrix Potter!  Amazing to realize these books are still issued in this size, with these illustrations.  I'd love editions from 1917.  

1917 Frederick Warne & Co., NY
Jane Austen.  Need I say more???

Description: All published in London by Richard Bentley & Son. *Pride and Prejudice (1885) New Edition. *A Memoir of Jane Austen by Her Nephew J. E. Austen Leigh (1883) Fifth Edition. *Mansfield Park, A Novel (1885) New Edition. *Emma, A Novel (1882) New Edition. *Sense and Sensibility, A Novel (1882) New Edition. *Northanger Abbey, A Novel (1885) New Edition. Uniformly bound in blind stamped dark green cloth. 
Description: R.M.S. TITANIC: "Story of the Wreck of the Titanic", first edition 1912.

I've always been obsessed with the Titanic, and this gem from 1912 would be pretty fantastic to have at home.  

Take a look at what invaluable.com has to offer in their books section--make your wish list, and keep checking for more enticing books.  Who knows?  You just may find that one you can't live without. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

The Courtesan is a first novel from author Alexandra Curry, and she doesn't hesitate to tackle a historical figure that has fascinated historians, filmmakers, and biographers for decades.  

Sai Jinhua was a pampered little girl in 1881 when her life changed dramatically following the public execution of her father for "telling the truth".  The daughter of a beloved concubine, Jinhua is despised by her father's first wife, and she's quickly sold to a brothel--at the tender age of 7.  Your heart aches for this little girl who doesn't understand why her father never returned home.  This is truly a tale of a young girl, and later a young woman, who is oftentimes at the mercy of everyone else, with little choice of her own.  
 This novel is based on an actual person--Sai Jinhua is legendary in China as a famous courtesan who traveled to Europe in the late 1800's and as mistress to a Chinese emissary to Europe, finds herself in the midst of the political issues of the time.  She's a pretty courageous woman, living in a time of great upheaval not only for China, but for the world.  How does a woman survive with no family, no education, and nothing but her own smarts?  

Alexandra Curry moves the reader through Jinhua's life and all of her successes and failures, as well as a deep friendship with Suyin, a maid she befriends who ultimately makes a huge sacrifice in the name of loyalty and love.  

If you're a fan of historical fiction, step out of your usual fare and read about a completely different character--one who has left many unanswered questions that continue to intrigue people to this day.  Alexandra Curry attempts to recreate what might have been and make sense of Jinhua's mysterious life as a famous courtesan and political character, as well as a woman seeking happiness and peace.  

Sai Jinhua in 1887
 Rating:  7/10 for a completely different historical fiction novel.  Alexandra Curry writes an intriguing novel about a woman concubine swept up in the upheaval of Chinese and European politics while struggling to escape the whims of those around her.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Thank you to Penguin Random House for a review copy!