Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ana of California by Andi Teran

This novel is presented as a contemporary retelling of Anne of Green Gables.  While I have never read the novel, I adored the series on public television.  It's been long enough that I don't remember quite everything, but I do remember a very precocious orphan Anne, who wins the hearts of everyone around her.  I'm glad I don't remember much of Anne of Green Gables, because I wanted to read this novel on its own, with no echoes of its inspiration.  

Ana Cortez is fifteen, an orphan living in Los Angeles and being moved around the foster care system.  She's just been kicked out of her latest foster home, and has only one chance left before she is put into a group home: to become a farm trainee in Northern California for the summer.  Ana jumps at the chance to get out of L.A. and lands at the Garber farm run by Abbie and Emmett Garber.  Abbie is a whiz at cooking and has a pretty good business selling Garber produce, jams, pickles, preserves, and even hard cider to folks around the small town of Hadley.  Emmett runs the farm, and he's a bit taciturn and all business.  Ana is completely hopeless when it comes to working on the farm, but hopes to make it to her sixteenth birthday, so she can become emancipated.  Afraid to get too comfortable, she's a bit stand-offish with Abbie, who hopes time, good food, and a place to call home will help Ana find a sense of peace.  

Ana's character is pretty interesting.  She's a brilliant artist, and is never far from her sketchbook.  She's well spoken, smart, and very conscious that the wrong word will send her back to a group home in L.A.  She's hard on herself, and afraid to hope for a permanent home at the Garber farm.  Ana meets Rye, a local teen girl who can't wait to get out of Hadley and into the big world.  A quick bond forms, and both girls get into a bit of trouble as the summer progresses and Ana stays on the farm to finish school and help the Garbers.  And then there's the mysterious Cole, a popular kid who keeps trying to talk to Ana. His connection to the Garber family creates tension and jeopardizes Ana's chance of having a permanent home with Abbie and Emmett. 

This was a different book for me to read.  I thought it felt like a teen novel, even though it is packaged as an adult novel.  Themes of abandonment, family, standing up for yourself, and recognizing love it all of its manifestations run through from beginning to end.  If there are more sequels to Ana's story, I'd probably pick them up.  I'd love to see her progress from a fifteen year old orphan finding a new family to a poised, confident young woman ready to experience what the world has to offer her.  

Enjoyable, quick read.  If you're a fan of Anne of Green Gables, by all means read this nod to a classic.  If you're unfamiliar with Anne, don't worry.  It's not necessary to know Anne's story in order to quickly get into Ana's world and cheer her on.  

Rating:  7/10 for a contemporary story about the difficulty of the foster care system in the U.S., as well as warm, not perfect-but flawed characters, and plenty of love and devotion to the small American farmer.   

Available in paperback and e book.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Anatomist's Wife (A Lady Darby Mystery) by Anna Lee Huber

 A friend of mine has talked about this series over the past year.  When I had the hankering to read a mystery last weekend I was happy to remember I'd purchased a copy of The Anatomist's Wife. I could dive right into 1830's Scotland during a nasty Iowa heatwave complete with unbearable humidity.  Who says you can't travel the world sitting on your comfy couch? 

The Anatomist's Wife is the first in the Lady Darby Mystery series featuring Lady Kiera Darby.  Kiera has been widowed for a few years, and is staying with her sister and brother-in-law at his castle in Scotland.  Her late husband was an anatomist who married Kiera purely for her artistic talents.  Trusting her father's judgement, Kiera married her husband not realizing he would force her to draw anatomical pictures as he dissected bodies.  After he dies suddenly, his friends label Kiera as "unnatural" and attempt to have her arrested for criminal acts. She's escaped all of that, but her reputation is in shreds.  She's continued to paint and sell her paintings under an assumed name.  Hiding out in Scotland has given her a measure of peace, but society doesn't want to forget what they assume is her deviant behavior.  

A house party at her sister's castle goes awry when Lady Godwin is found murdered in the maze.  Sebastian Gage is part of the house party, and he's an inquiry agent.  He's also pretty handsome and asks Kiera to help him since she's had some experience with anatomy.  Who killed Lady Godwin, and why?  The killer is at the castle, and could possibly be a member of the upper class.  Whomever it is, they don't want Kiera to investigate.  Will Kiera and Gage solve the mystery before someone else is murdered?  

I liked this mystery enough that I have already started on the second in the series and have the third on hold at the library.  In 1830's Scotland and England a woman's reputation is everything.  Gossip can destroy a woman, and it's hard to change public opinion.  Kiera is emotionally damaged by a horrible marriage and what she's witnessed, and struggles to trust Gage and stand up for herself.  
The mystery itself is pretty good, and keeps you guessing.  Lady Godwin was no saint.  I don't read a lot of mysteries; when I do read them, I prefer historical mysteries.  Not having the technology to solve a murder as we do now adds to the story for me.  Using interview skills, observation, and old fashioned detective work appeals to me and keeps me reaching for these mysteries.  

Here are the rest of the Lady Darby mysteries:

Rating:  7/10 for a solid mystery with a heroine who is smart, talented, and partnered with a potential love interest.  

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

The cover of this novel gives you an idea of what's in store for you as you begin the delightful journey into Eva Thorvald's beginnings.  Eva is the  daughter of Lars Thorvald, a Midwestern chef, and his wife, Cynthia, a waitress who longs to run away to the vineyards of California and become a sommelier.  I won't tell you more about the cover, except that you'll be flipping this book back and forth every time you begin a new chapter to see how the cover ties into it.  

Eva Thorvald is the center of this book, but it's not told from her point of view.  Rather, each chapter is told by someone in Eva's life as she grows from a  four month old baby with a desire to eat fresh tomatoes at a farmer's market, to an 11 year old growing peppers in her bedroom closet (using her brother's grow light equipment after he ends his weed growing business), to a young woman poised to become a famous chef with an impeccable palate.  Eva's life is filled with tragedy, and adults that just don't know what to do with her.  She's statuesque, smart as a whip, and obsessed with food.  Someone who is destined to make their mark and nothing will stand in their way--the stars will align, connections will be made, and yet another step will be taken on the path to celebrity.  

It took me a few chapters to settle into this novel, but I absolutely loved it.  At first I was laughing over Lars and his desire to feed his baby food she just wasn't old enough to eat; yet as I read along, the pitfalls that liter Eva's life sobered me up a bit.  I guess what I would say about this novel is that it is endearing, as only a Midwesterner can say and understand.  Travels in Minnesota, Chicago, and Iowa all form the backbone to what I consider a love letter to potlucks, lutefisk, small towns, and most importantly, bar desserts.  Cause really, you haven't lived until you've eaten a pan of bar desserts--doesn't matter which kind, just that they are made with real butter and sugar.  

I read a lot of "foodie" books, and I enjoy them all.  Most of them are either about homemade goodness, or new movements in food and how it is presented, processed, and treated as a trend.  This is probably the first book I've read where there's a blend of the two movements.  I believe this is a good thing, because we all crave something new and different, but those small town church recipe potlucks dishes are what remain in our souls, and remind us of where we come from and all those gentle people we loved who just aren't around anymore.  They live on in those jello molds, cream cheese concoctions, and the ever dreadful but required at holidays lutefisk. 

 My family has a recipe that we simply call "the green beans", as well as "the cheese ball".  We all know what these are, and they're only made one way.  They are required at every family Christmas and Thanksgiving.  There are no shortcuts, and there are no healthy versions.  They are simply what keep us connected generation after generation.   

Penguin/Random House generously sent me a copy of this book for review, as well as a wonderful book club guide.   This is the book you need to read for your next book club, and make it a festive occasion by having everyone bring a covered dish to help soak up the wine you'll be serving.  I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of one woman's journey to become the  super star of the pop-up supper club.   It's an interesting way of looking at the main character of a novel--seeing her through everyone else's eyes is a treat and a great discussion for your book club!  The people in this book loop around, pop in and out of each others stories, and it all finally comes together in a wonderful, once in a lifetime memorable feast at the end. 

This book is available in hardcover, audio, and ebook the week of July 28th.  

Rating:  8/10 for a batch of characters that are funny, tragic, sad, and very memorable.  A great treat for anyone from the Midwest.  It will make you homesick even if you still live in the Midwest; it may soon have you in the kitchen to create a family favorite from years gone by. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Post Where I Finally Review: The Blood Gospel by James Rollins

 My tale of The Blood Gospel started well over a year ago (and maybe two!) at the Whatcha Reading Book Club we have at my B&N once a month.  If you long to be part of a book club, but dread reading stuff you just don't want to read, try forming a book club like this one.  It's genius!  We meet once a month and take turns talking about what each of us have read the previous month.  You can talk as much or as little as you want.  NO PRESSURE.  YOU GET TO READ WHAT YOU WANT.  AWESOME.  It's probably the most enjoyable book group I've ever been a part of, and we have such a good time.  The only problem is we all leave with a bigger "to read" list. 

The Blood Gospel  by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell is one book that made the rounds of our book club.  So far four other members have read this first in the trilogy, and actually all three books.  I've been under the gun to read it for what seems like ages, so I finally did and it was a heck of a ride.  

The Blood Gospel is a mix of archaeology, supernatural, the divine, end-of-the-world threats, and pretty cool ancient history set on its ear.  Also toss in a group of vampiric priests who work to rid the world of a horrible threat--super bad vampires working with powerful humans bent on controlling all of mankind.  Three main characters:  archaeologist Dr. Erin Granger, military man Sergeant Jordan Stone, and Father Rhun Korza come together at Masada--heck yes, I said Masada--after a horrific earthquake reveals a tomb hidden deep in the mountain.  This tomb is very old, very ancient, and within it is the power to create chaos or reveal the ultimate power of Jesus Christ.  Yep--it's a gospel written in Christ's own blood by the Son of God himself.  And the desire to possess it brings out every horrible creature between heaven and hell.  

But the gospel is missing.  And those pesky Nazis seem to have had a hand in its disappearance during World War 2.  Who has it and where is it?

This is a thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  The biblical references, the archaeology, the downright nasty vampires and creatures that race after Erin, Rhun, and Jordan are the stuff of nightmares.  No one is safe.  Pretty much everything is thrown into this first novel--it clocks in at almost 700 pages.  Well worth it.  I've already got the second in the trilogy here at home, ready to pick it up and read it within the next few weeks.  And yes, I will read that third and epic conclusion to this trilogy.  If you're curious, the first two are in paperback, and the third is still in hardcover.  I'm guessing it will be out in paperback around Christmas.  This, my friends, is your beach read, your front porch read, your stuck in the back seat of the car on a family vacation read.  It's also your get creeped out all alone at night read.  Dive right in!  A winning combination of history, action, thrills, and chills.  

Here are the next two titles in this trilogy:

 Rating:  7/10 for action that is non-stop, a clever mix of biblical history and archaeology, and some of the nastiest vampires I've ever come across--in a book, that is :)

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

At the Corner of King Street by Mary Ellen Taylor

I love Mary Ellen Taylor's books.  She's previously written a series (right now it's at 3 and I hope it's not done!) that featured the Union Street Bakery.  Now she's started another series, centered on the Shire Salvage Company, just a short scoot away from the Union Street Bakery set in Alexandria, Virginia.  At the Corner of King Street is another winner, combining local history, family drama, and a bit of romance mixed in with just a touch of paranormal.  

Addie Morgan had left her troubled sister behind years ago to begin a new life as the marketing director at a vineyard.  In love with the owner, happily planning the launch of a new wine, Addie does not want to be reminded of her past, her sad childhood, and the mental illness that has claimed her mother and sister.  It made her life hell as the one who had to take care of everything and make it all right.  A phone call from her Aunt Grace lands like a bomb in Addie's life.  Janet, her sister, has just given birth to a daughter, and Addie needs to come home.  Janet has been roaming the country, not taking her medicine, and is in serious trouble.  Addie reluctantly comes back to Alexandria for what she hopes is a very short trip to arrange for her nieces' placement in a foster home.  Addie has no intention of staying, nor of raising Carrie.  

But life is funny, and Addie's reluctance to face the past, and deal with Janet, comes to a head.  Also adding to the mix is her Aunt Grace's decline in health, which has led to the potential closing of the family business, Shire Salvage.  In between Addie's drama, we also get the back story of the roots of what Addie has always called the family curse:  the mental illness that plagues at least one sister in each generation of the Shire family.  How does an accused witch banished to Virginia in the 1740's and a doctor's wife living in Colonial Alexandria at the same time haunt the Shire women today?  

This is a book that has many levels:  the frustration and destruction mental illness puts on a family, the needs of an infant that can't be raised by her mother, a woman's desire to have a "normal" life, and for a bit of lightness, the fascinating history of a city that has many secrets to keep.  Characters from the Union Street Bakery novels are part of this one, too.  Mary Ellen Taylor has the potential to create a series of novels that bring to mind the world building of Debbie Macomber and her Rose Harbor and Blossom Street series of novels.  

Definitely for fans of Karen White!  If you loved the Union Street Bakery novels, you'll be thrilled to have another treat.  The next novel in the Shire Salvage  series comes out in January:

 Rating:  7/10 for a tale of a family curse, a woman's search for happiness, and compelling characters.  Makes you want to pack your bags for Alexandria.  

Available in paperback and ebook.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Wild Oats Project by Robin Rinaldi

A visit to my local library found me staring at this book thinking it looked like "fun".  So I was wrong about that.  Instead, it was a somewhat painful look at a woman's choice to live an open marriage for a year in order to explore her sexuality after her husband gets a vasectomy, thus firmly shutting the door on having a child at 44.  Robin's husband agrees that they can have an open marriage for a year.  Robin rents an apartment during the week, meeting men through a dating site and having a three date limit (with sex) for each man.  Weekends she spent with her husband at home.  A few ground rules:  no one who was in their circle of friends, use protection, and no discussion at home about who each of them were sleeping with during the week.

Robin and her husband had been together for 17 years and were still very much in love, but as anyone knows, any relationship has bumps in the road.  Robin felt that since she was not going to have a child (and she only wanted one with her husband, and not any other way) and had a total of 4 lovers in her life, that she needed to live a bit more wildly in order to have some satisfaction in her life.  Most of us take up a hobby, but not Robin.  And in doing this one year experiment, she took a chance that her marriage wouldn't survive it, that she wouldn't be satisfied, and come out the other side still unhappy and feeling empty.  Can a year of new lovers and new sexual experiences take the place of having a child?

My thoughts while reading this memoir were pretty clear:  it was hard to connect with Robin's choice and her sex-capades.  I would sooner get a divorce than spend a year sleeping with other men (and women), all the while knowing my husband was also sleeping with other women.  The pain of doing that to someone I loved would preclude any feelings I may have of wanting to connect with myself as a woman--and as a powerful, confident woman at that.  Owning up to a marriage that wasn't working any longer; a marriage that I had outgrown--no matter how painful that would have been to admit, the pain would have been less destructive that canoodling with others while still married.  It just doesn't seem very respectful to the other person in the marriage.  

Some women may read Rinaldi's memoir and find it empowering, and I have nothing against that; after all, we must all find our own path to enlightenment and happiness.  It's always interesting to read non-fiction that presents a view of a situation that is different than my own; this is how I can see other sides of complex issues.  I guess I'm someone who doesn't believe quantity of lovers is necessary; it's the  quality of lovers that matter.  Monogamy is such a hot button issue nowadays; for some like me, it's a non-issue.  To each her own, but I'll stick with one man, and a loving, caring relationship that isn't perfect, but suits me just fine.  

Rating:  5/10 for a memoir that explores a woman's year of lovers and the surprising results.  There are frank sexual scenes and discussions, so if you're not comfortable with that, you've been warned! Not a book to my taste, but you may find it a perfect summer read. 

Available in hardcover and ebook 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Hummingbird's Cage by Tamara Dietrich

Wow.  This book was not what I expected.  I first picked it up at work because it took place in New Mexico.  I've visited New Mexico many times over the past 20 years to see my brother and sis-in-law, and it has a magical quality that is hard to define.  You can feel it, but you can't explain it. 

The Hummingbird's Cage was, I thought, going to be about a woman who finds herself in a new small town, rebuilding her life.  A sprinkling of magical realism, a new resolve on life, end of story.  Once I began to read about Joanna's life as an abused wife of a deputy, sheltering her young daughter Laurel from the horrible abuse Jim rains down on her pretty much every day; well, this whole book changed.  My expectation of a fun and frothy novel evolved to one in which grace, belief in a higher power, and the chance to change the course of a life became the dominant themes.  I was truly surprised and touched by this novel as it unfolded.  

I'm not going to say much about this book, because that would give all of it away.  I'll just say that Joanna's abuse is pretty horrible, and a bit shocking.  Tamara Dietrich paints a portrait of a woman trapped in hell, with no way out.  The first part of the story may be hard for some people to read, but it's not overly descriptive and once you get past that, it becomes another wholly different story.  It is beautiful, mysterious, and leaves you as the reader to decide what you think the town of Morro really is and where it may be.  There is no wrong answer.  

The Hummingbird's Cage is probably the most surprising read I've had all year.  Loved it.  Won't forget it.  

Rating:  8/10 for a touching novel about a woman who must choose to fight or give in, and the otherworldly place that gives her shelter to heal and find peace.  
Available in paperback and ebook.