Wednesday, September 30, 2015

After You by Jojo Moyes

I must confess:  I didn't read Me Before You.  Actually, I read about the last 20 pages and that had me in such a slobbering mess that I knew there was no way I could ever read the whole dang book.  So here I am, reviewing the book Jojo Moyes never planned to write:  a sequel to Me Before You.  I'll try to not give much away for those who haven't read the story of Louisa and Will, but for the sake of this review, I'll have to give something away in order to write a good review. 

I have to say I really do enjoy Jojo Moyes' writing.  She always sneaks an emotional punch or two in her stories that take me by surprise.  And perhaps this touched me a bit more than most because I have gone through the depths of complete and utter heartbroken grief.  And you get a bit lost in that time, and it takes a long time to find your way out.  For me, it's  two years.  Two years of lots of tears, fake smiles, and going through the motions of life. People don't want to be around grief, so you go out of your way to pretend that you're fine when you're not.  But it is a process that you have to go through in order to see the sunshine at the end.  And the sunshine is there, trust me. 

That's what After You is about.  18 months after Me Before You, Louisa is not a happy person.  She lives in London and works a crap job at an airport bar.  One night she's on the rooftop of her flat, and walking on the ledge of the building.  She's done it before, many times, and doesn't do it with any intention of harming herself.  She just enjoys it.  But this one night, someone spooks her, and she falls off the building.  And with that, she is jolted into a new life.  She meets Sam, the EMT who arrives at the scene and slowly becomes part of her life in all the best ways; she connects with her family in new ways and watches her mother break out of her comfort zone (much to the chagrin of her father).  She finds a big surprise that is connected to her past with Will Gaynor, the man she loved and lost in Me Before You.  Her life is definitely messy, and full of damaged people, and it forces Louisa to wake up, start living, and make some choices to move forward and embrace life and love.  

Have no doubt this book had me in some serious tears towards the end.  A stuffy nose and blotchy face came free with this story.  Yes, you probably should read Me Before You before you read the sequel.  But I didn't, and I had no problems getting completely involved in Louisa's life and those around her.  I didn't feel lost at all.  Some people feel Jojo shouldn't have written a sequel, and I disagree.  It is a satisfying conclusion to Louisa's story, and I really did enjoy this story--even if I did have an ugly cry.  

Rating:  9/10 for a touching novel about grief and the struggle to move on and embrace life.  Louisa makes you want to hug and yell at her sometimes, but in the end she is a pretty cool character.  And Sam?  Swoon!  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio. A big thank you to Rebecca at Penguin Random House for a copy of the book for review. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick

Fall's here and for me that means Halloween is just around the corner. Pumpkin bread, paranormal shows on TV, and books with an element of magic are on tap for this gal. The Sparrow Sisters fits neatly into my Fall reading frame of mind, and makes a great new addition to book club lists that may have gotten a bit stale over the summer. 

The Sparrow sisters:  Sorrel, Nettie, and Patience, are as much a part of their hometown Granite Point as the sea and the seasons.  Their family goes back generations, to the beginning.  The three sisters own and operate a nursery that is famed for producing the most enticing flowers, fruits, and vegetables year round, and out of season.  They each have a gift, but Patience is the most gifted as the town healer.  She's been the unofficial caretaker of ills and issues for townsfolk who still paid lip service to the medical doctor in town.   But now he's gone, and a new doctor has taken his place:  Dr. Henry Carlyle, a handsome man who walks with a limp and carries an air of sadness and compassion with him.  He's fleeing from the memories of combat and what he feels was his most devastating failure as a doctor.  He's not one to believe much in potions and tinctures, but he's heard about the Sparrow sisters and is intrigued.  

As you can imagine, Henry and Patience meet, and it's instant attraction on both sides--and neither is much happy about it.  Their relationship is a pretty big part of the story, but the biggest story involves Patience and her friendship with a local young boy.  What happens causes a major upheaval in Granite Point.  There's finger pointing, a whirlwind of gossip, accusations of witchcraft, and a town in danger of repeating history it would rather forget.  

Loved this book.  Right up my alley as far as magic, romance, gardening, and interesting characters.  It also addresses the issue of gossip and how damaging it can be to a community.  People taking ignorance and turning it into fear and hate.  This would make an excellent book club book; so many topics to dig into and discuss.  Anyone who likes contemporary women's fiction with a dab of natural magic and an interest in natural cures and remedies should add this to your reading list.  

Rating:  7/10 for a first novel that is well written with lush images of gardens, fruits, and flowers. Multi-layered story-lines all come together quite well.   Interesting characters with the hope for a sequel to tell Sorrel's story.   

Available in paperback and e-book.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

London from My Windows by Mary Carter

I first read a Mary Carter novel way back in 2011 and liked her writing and even wrote a review for The Pub Across the PondNow Mary's novels are popping up all over my bookstore, and I grabbed this one because it's about Iowa and London.  That pretty much never happens in one story.  This novel has a different twist that will appeal to readers of contemporary women's fiction.

Ava lives in small town Iowa, is a gifted sketch artist, and has one major problem:  she's severely agoraphobic.  She hasn't left her home in years.  Everything she does either by computer, phone, or delivery service.  As a young child, Ava was pretty typical and happy-go-lucky.  Until the night her father dies from a massive heart attack as he's dancing with her outside their house.  Her mother utters one horrible sentence that changes Ava's world:  "What did you do?".  Ava decides in her young child's mind that she is being punished for dancing outside with her father; she believes she could have saved him somehow if they'd been inside the house.  Pair that with a grieving mother who is completely out of tune with the rapidly troubling thoughts of her daughter, and Ava withdraws from life and school until we meet her as a young woman in her 20's living the life of an agoraphobic.  

Ava receives a phone call from a lawyer in London telling her that her Aunt Bev (her father's only sibling) has died, and left Ava her flat.  She must come to London and live in the flat for a year in order to inherit it.  Ava has come to a crossroads:  either continue to live in isolation and loneliness in Iowa, or take a tremendous leap and leave for London.  Heavily sedated, she gets on a plane and flies to London.  Ava's agoraphobia is in full bloom and her experiences on the plane and getting to her flat are both sad and funny.  This is what makes Ava's story enjoyable:  her sense of humor runs throughout the novel.  Ava is smart, cute, and wickedly funny.  Jasper, the lawyer who contacts her, and was one of Bev's dear friends, is pretty hot and immediately attracted to Ava, agoraphobia and all.  Ava is also burning with lust for Jasper, but doesn't want to even try to saddle Jasper with her issues. 

Life in London isn't all that simple for Ava.  Bev also left a list of places that Ava must visit within 90 days in order to continue living in the flat, besides living there for one year.  And oh yes, Bev's long time friend drag queen Queenie believes Bev promised him the flat, and he won't move out.  So you've got an agoraphobic who likes to self-medicate, a drag queen, and a hot lawyer all in the mix.  It makes for an entertaining novel that doesn't dismiss Ava's anxiety at all, but rather shows just how hard it is for someone with an "invisible illness" to live a normal life, especially when everyone around them doesn't believe they're ill.  It's quite painful to read Ava's struggle with simply opening the door to the outside and stepping out onto a sidewalk.  

But, Ava's character is such a great personality that you can't help but cheer her on and smile at each victory she has, big and small.  I like Mary Carter's modern tales of women and love.  They're fun, but not silly, have strong female central characters, and while they do tend to have happy endings, they're not sappy, but rather a welcome reward for a hard-fought battle.  

Rating:  7/10 for a very different heroine.  Ava brings an awareness to invisible illness and how it can limit a life.  The cast of characters are fun and fabulous, and keep the plot moving.  

Available in paperback, and e-book.  

Friday, September 11, 2015

Reading Off The Bookshelves: The Cousins O'Dwyer Trilogy by Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts pretty much takes up a huge area in the romance section of my bookstore.  This is a woman who has written so many books that all her new titles have to have a "NR" on the front to indicate the first time they've been in print.  Years ago, I would have customers complain that they'd purchased a book, only to find they'd already read it before.  Publishers like to re-issue titles when an author gets popular, and pretty much always change the format from mass market to trade paperback and of course change the cover art.  If you're ever unsure, just read the publication information and you'll see the original publication date.  That has saved me from re-reading many books over the years.  If it's a favorite author, and I've read most everything they've written, looking at the publisher date assures me that yes, I probably did read it ten years ago, and eventually I'll remember the plot--but move on to a new book!

Sorry for the digression--let's get to the meat of this review.  I asked for this trilogy for Christmas and am pretty proud of myself for actually reading it within a year of receiving it.  Plucking books off my bookcase is a lot of fun and helps me not only make space for new books, but helps me rediscover books I've completely forgotten about.  I've read a few Nora Roberts books over the years; enough to know they're enjoyable and have a pretty good story line.  I've never had any qualms recommending her to customers looking for a contemporary romance that is enjoyable, well written, and satisfying.  

 Ireland, magick, romance.  Not a bad combination, in my mind.  Good vs. evil, the power of light over dark.  Sign me up.  

I was disappointed, dang it!  What the heck, Nora Roberts?  What happened to you?  

This trilogy wasn't horrible, and there were elements that I did enjoy.  The three O'Dwyer Cousins:  Iona, Connor, and Branna, as well as their love interests:  Boyle, Meara, and Finbar are lovely people.  Connor and Branna are brother and sister; Iona comes from America in search of her cousins and her roots.  Her grandmother has told her that she is a witch, and must join forces with her cousins in order to defeat Cabhan, an evil witch who has stalked the O'Dwyer family for centuries. Iona has a connection with horses, Connor's gift is with hawks, and Branna shares a gift with her dog.  These three are all descended from the Dark Witch, Sorcha.  In this trilogy, the dark witch isn't evil but a witch that uses the power of light to help others.  Sorcha and her three children live in 1263 in the same place as the modern day O'Dwyers.  Each battles Cabhan, who wants all of their magick in order to create havoc and bring darkness to the world.  Quite frankly, Cabhan is a pain in the ass.  Now the time has come for the three to finally come together to defeat him once and for all.  But they will need the help of the other three.  Oh, and did I mention that Finbar is also a witch, and has the blood of Cabhan running through him? 

So what didn't I like about these stories?  They seemed to go around and around with the same lines; I got tired of reading about how much they all loved each other, and how defeating Cabhan depended on all of them staying strong together.  And Branna cooks a lot.  And isn't happy about it, either.  Each of them are ridiculously beautiful and handsome, and I found the dialogue written as such to be stilted and irksome:   "Sure like Branna and me, for they're as close as brother and sister and never been otherwise."  Usually this stuff I can overlook, but that, as well as repeated references to Iona's "shining cap of hair" had me annoyed at fictional people.  I get that I'm in Ireland, and I appreciate Nora Roberts not sprinkling the writing with "Americanisms", but golly I got tired of the awkward dialogue.  

I have to say there isn't much romance.  Enough to satisfy, but mostly these are light on what a typical romance has loads off:  hot and heavy love scenes.  I've read some other reviews that say this whole trilogy feels like a repeat of another Nora Roberts trilogy (the Three Sisters Island Trilogy), but since I haven't read them, I can't verify that at all.  Somehow the Cousins O'Dwyer lead a perfectly perfect life, with the exception of the evil Cabhan.  And I guess I got weary of that.  

Rating:  6/10 for characters that keep you reading all three stories, but too much awkward dialogue and what felt like too many repeated reassurances of the power of magick between the three witches and the power of family and friends.  A bit of a yawn fest for me.  Too picture perfect. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

By now most of you have heard about this book.  It's been on the bestseller lists for close to a year and doesn't look like it's losing any steam.  I bought it last October and sent a copy to a friend.  I then promptly put my copy on my bookcase and didn't read it until a few weeks ago.  

Finishing school and taking stock of my house (which I've horribly neglected the past two years) had me thinking about clutter and how it makes me feel.  It makes me feel pretty lousy.  It clogs me up, slows me down, and makes my mental space cloudy.  Living in a small house makes buying and storing things pretty tricky.  While it can be a blessing by eliminating a lot of temptation to buy "stuff", it can be frustrating when you're a book lover and don't want to let go of your books.  Add in living in the same house for 14 years, and I've got a lot of accumulated "stuff".  

So I thought I'd read through this book and try to apply Marie Kondo's ideas to my place.  Known as the "KonMari" method, Marie Kondo's book is pretty genius.  But you have to be willing to spend some time, energy, and bouts of emotional angst to get the job done.  I'm still a work in progress, but I want to share what I think about this method and how I'm doing so far in the process.

The KonMari method leads you through items in your house one by one, rather than tackling rooms.  Rooms tend to bog you down and you don't make much progress.  By spending one day on clothes, you work through and think about each item, and whether it gives you joy.  If it doesn't --donate it, recycle,  or put it in the trash.  By sitting and spending time with each item, it makes you focus on one thing at a time and makes you pause to really give each item the time it deserves.  Sounds crazy, but it does work.  By looking at each item and deciding if it gives you joy, you eliminate the guilt of getting rid of something and instead send it on to people who could use it and perhaps find joy in it.  The KonMari method focuses on clothes, books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items), and finally, sentimental items.  It's important to work through your items in this order. 

So how have I done?  I've made some progress.  I'm guilty of not following this to the letter.  I have taken drastic steps and reduced my books.  I'm still wrestling with reducing more.  I see the piles of books I haven't read, and it's quite frankly causing me stress.  This is the one final straw that had me reaching for this book.  I've cleaned out clothes and donated bags of clothing to Goodwill.  That felt pretty good, and it was easy to do.  I cleaned out my underwear drawer and actually folded everything according to a KonMari video (there are lots online!) and I have to say I love to see the colorful rainbow of undies I have neatly folded and easy to access.  Now I don't have to search but can see it all in one fell swoop.  I've also cleaned out my dresser and folded my clothes and placed them vertically in the drawer.  It makes it so much easier to see everything.  I've found clothes I forgot about, and can now wear.  I've eliminated so much clothing that I never wore.  It will make me more thoughtful about how I spend money on clothing.  

Books, well, they are my heart.  I decided in one fell swoop to eliminate any book I had that was missing a cover.  That was probably about 50 books.  They went into the recycling bin.  Then I went through and pulled off books I have already read and took a hard look at others I've bought but still haven't touched.  Painful as it was, because I feel like I've wasted money, I made some decisions and eliminated those books as well.  I've started to check out more books from the library--those books that I want to read, but don't necessarily want to keep.  I've checked out more books in the past two months than I've checked out my whole life!  This makes me happy, saves me money, and saves me space.  

I've started on getting rid of paper, too.  Went through all my files from school and either recycled or shredded most everything.  Kept a few papers, but with every paper I wrote for school saved on the computer and accessible from anywhere, there's really no need to have a paper copy.  Shredded heaps of old bills, receipts, and junk.  

I still have a long way to go, but I've made progress.  Reading The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up has been an eye-opening experience for me.  It gave me the motivation to start making my home once again into a clean, clutter-free, happy place.  I feel less burdened by clutter and find it is easy to let things go.  I use the same few things over and over, so why have so much other stuff that I'll never use?  A better use of my money is to use it to travel, spend time with friends, and buy only what I really need.  I can see what I have, and what I don't need to buy.  This does also work for groceries!  Kitchen cupboards are next up on the list sometime this month.  It may seem crazy to look at a can of beans and ask if they spark joy, but it does work.  And while I'm not following the KonMari method to the letter, I am not focusing on one room at a time, but one thing at a time.  It does make more of a dent and I feel like I've accomplished something big each time I take bags to Goodwill or I fill up my recycling bin.  

Take some time to read the book.  You may follow it to the letter, or pick out pieces that work for you.  Either way, it is a motivator and gets an A+ in my fight to eliminate clutter.  

Rating:  9/10 for a new way of looking at the things we have, why we have them, and how to live life clutter-free and joyfully.  Practical advice that will work for anyone who has the desire and the will to work on eliminating clutter.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  There are also many videos on YouTube demonstrating some of the methods in this book.  It took me a few tries to fold my undies a new way, but now I've got it down!  


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

I love to read a historical novel that is written with careful attention to detail and doesn't fudge facts.  I also love to read about forgotten people, places, and events that were big headlines in the newspapers, but today, no one knows about them.  Just goes to show that even incredibly famous people can fade away from the public consciousness eventually. And of course anytime a woman steps out and stands up I'm ready to cheer!

Girl Waits With Gun is about the Kopp Sisters of Paterson, New Jersey:  Constance, Norma, and Fleurette.  It's 1914, and they live on a farm outside of town.  Constance is the eldest, and a very striking woman:  she stands at 6 ft and can't be missed.  Norma keeps pigeons as a hobby, and Fleurette at seventeen, is the youngest, prettiest, and most naive of the sisters.  One day while driving into town with their buggy, they are hit by a car.  Their buggy is damaged, and Constance wants it fixed.  Unfortunately for the Kopp sisters, their buggy was hit by local silk factory owner Henry Kaufman.  Loud, angry, and used to getting his way, he refuses to pay for damages.  Henry and his gang of bullies then proceed to harass and intimidate the Kopp sisters.  

Constance won't stand for it.  She goes to the local sheriff, and begins her quest to bring Henry to justice.  What starts out as a simple request for $50 to fix her buggy begins a year long test of bravery for Constance.  Henry has no problem sending intimidating letters, threatening to kidnap Fleurette and sell her into white slavery (Fleurette thinks it's all very thrilling), and attempting to drive the sisters into silence. 

The title comes from an actual newspaper article that was written about the Kopp sisters in 1914.  Constance and her sisters became newspaper worthy when they decided to bring their plight to the public in hopes of stopping the harassment.  Her growing friendship with Sheriff Heath is one of the best parts of this novel, as we see his respect for her grow and a true partnership begin to form as they not only work to bring Henry to justice, but find the child of a factory worker that disappeared during a strike at the silk factory.  We learn that Henry Kaufman had his fingers in everything, and wasn't above using money and fists to keep people in line.  This really is the ultimate "besting the bully" story.  

Constance really did exist.  She became the first female deputy sheriff in the United States.  I'd love to read more about her.  Author Amy Stewart has a website that has photos of Constance and some of the actual newspaper headlines of 1914 regarding the Kopp sisters.   I got a real kick out of this story, and if you're a fan of historical fiction with feisty females and a dash of humor, this is the book for you.  It would make a good book club selection with plenty to discuss.  

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin for providing an advanced copy to read and review.  

Rating:  7/10 for well-drawn characters, a story that shifts from seriousness to humor gracefully, and a glimpse into 1914 New Jersey.

Available September 1st in hardcover, e-book, and audio.