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.