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.