Saturday, February 27, 2016

Louisiana Saves the Library by Emily Beck Cogburn

We all have memories of visiting libraries as children; for some it was a weekly visit, for others, like me, a rare occasion--and mostly the school library and not the public library.  Libraries are so much a part of our landscape that sometimes we don't even pay attention to them anymore, and that's a shame.  This sweet and entertaining novel reminds us to use our libraries, support them, and recognize them as the heart of our communities.

The novel's main character, Louisiana (Louise for short), is a professor of library sciences at Louisana A&M, a single mom of two small children, and overwhelmed by life.  Her university is cutting the budget, and that means Louise and her friend Sylvia are going to lose their jobs.  Frustrated by a lack of jobs, both end up working for a small public library in Alligator Bayou Parish.  It is a sad library; Mr. Foley, the library director sits in his office all day, grumps around, and refuses to move the library into the 21st century.  Louise and Sylvia roll up their sleeves, and with the help of the other librarians, begin implementing new programs, ordering movies and audio books, and even starting a Zumba class.  Their choices are very popular and the library goes from a forgotten bit of town to a popular, well attended place.  Mr. Foley, furious at this disregard for his wishes, works with the horrible Mrs. Gunderson to shut the library down for good. Some people hate the library and all it represents. 

Louise is the champion for this library.  It's not where she wanted to be--after all, she was a professor at a university, and always thought that's where she would continue her career.  Cataloging books at a small public library was not her dream, but she needs a job, and finds that she actually loves working at the library.  Her ex-husband has done a number on Louise's self-confidence, and quite frankly this library saves her--and she saves the library.  Sal, a local farmer, is smitten with Louise from the start, and gives her even more reason to make Alligator Bayou Parish her home.  As opposition to the library grows, Louise shifts from overwhelmed Mom to a fighter with moxie.  

Such a fun book to read.  Yes, I am a librarian (I've come late to the profession!).  I completely get the need for libraries to stay current, keep growing, and stay established as a community center.  My library is a bit different, but it is important in the community where I work:  a hospital.  I face the same challenges:  keeping up to date on materials, creating programs, keeping a budget, having that elevator speech at the ready to defend having a library.  Librarians take that library with them wherever they go, and defend it fiercely.  I loved how the characters in this novel took action and kept moving through challenges and resistance to the library.  In doing all of that, Louise not only became part of the community, but saved the library.  The flavor of the South is embedded in this novel as well:  sweltering heat, good home cooking, small town networking, and "Yes, Ma'am".  

Rating:  7/10 for a well-built cast of characters, a library that morphs into a powerhouse, and enough real-life to make it all believable.  

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Introducing Aunt Dimity, Paranormal Detective by Nancy Atherton

This is what I love about books:  you can circle around, look at, and think about reading a book, and it patiently waits until that magical day when you decide to pick it up and read it.  When I worked at my bookstore, I shelved so many copies of Aunt Dimity novels in the mystery section that I've lost count.  I was always curious why there was a rabbit on the front of something about an Aunt being a paranormal detective.  But I never went any farther in my curiosity, and kept shelving those novels.  

I finally decided to give Aunt Dimity a try, and checked this out of the library.  It is the first two Aunt Dimity novels together:  Aunt Dimity's Death, and Aunt Dimity and the Duke.  We are introduced to major characters in the world of Aunt Dimity, and introduced to Aunt Dimity herself--but only through letters, stories, and photographs.  Aunt Dimity remains a bit of a mystery herself, and I believe all 20 or so novels keep her that way.  It's an interesting concept, but it works.  Aunt Dimity is a bit of a magical characters, always putting the right people together, working in mysterious ways, and lends a bit of the paranormal to her stories.  The mysteries are barely there; I read somewhere that the Aunt Dimity mysteries are "the coziest of the cozies" and I have to agree.  These stories beg to be read with a cup of tea, a roaring fire, and a hand knitted blanket.  

Aunt Dimity's Death does begin with Lori, a down on her luck woman living in Boston.  Her mother recently died, and Lori is alone in the world.  She's broke, and at the end of her rope.  A letter from a legal firm in Boston requests her presence pronto, and she discovers that all the stories her mom told her when she was a child about Aunt Dimity were actually based on a real Aunt Dimity.  She was the best and closest friend of Lori's mom, and Aunt Dimity has died.  She's left a request for Lori: travel to England, stay at a cottage in the tiny village of Finch, and write an introduction for a soon to be published compilation of Aunt Dimity stories.  

But, there is a bit of a mystery:  Aunt Dimity and Lori's mom wrote heaps of letters over the years, and they are all together, waiting for Lori to read through them.  Her mom leaves her a personal letter, asking her to solve a mystery concerning Aunt Dimity and a photo taken in the 1940's from an unknown place that was dear to Aunt Dimity.  With the help of Bill, a partner in the law firm, she travels to England and begins her tasks.  And there she finds some odd things...could Aunt Dimity's spirit haunt the cottage?  

Aunt Dimity and the Duke is the second in the series, but is told before we meet Lori and Bill.  It is the story of Emma and Derek, who become good friends with Lori and Bill in the first story.  This story involves a castle, a local legend, gardening, and the death of a rock star.  I enjoyed it just as much as the first story.

What can I say?  I'm hooked on this series.  I'm happy to say there are around 20 novels, and Nancy Atherton keeps writing more.  These are enjoyable, cozy, British, and undeniably gentle mysteries.  There is no horrible violence, swearing, or grizzly murders.  Perfect for those who just want something fun to read, and full of characters that become friends.  I'm going to read every one of these books and that makes me very happy.  

Rating:  7/10 for a mystery series that doesn't have much mystery, but enchanted me nonetheless.  Lovely cozy British mysteries to take on vacation or read in front of the fire.  You'll get the rabbit symbol when you read the first in the series.  

This version is available in trade paperback and e book.  All of the mysteries are available in mass market paperback, and e book.  They are available at your local bookstore and library.  

Friday, February 19, 2016

Giveaway! The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons

Woohoo!!  Penguin Random House is giving away copies of  The Song of Hartgrove Hall  by Natasha Solomon, and you could win one here.  A story that spans 50 years, family angst and the power of music.  Love historical fiction?  This one is for you.  Join the author on Goodreads for a Q&A that runs through February 24th: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/183475-q-a-with-bestselling-novelist-natasha-solomons .  

This contest is open to US and Canadian residents.  To enter, click on the Rafflecopter entry below:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

I'm still listening to audio books on my commute, and I grabbed this at the library in a quick rush a few weeks ago.  It was interesting, and I learned a few things about habits and why it can be difficult for me to create a habit and stick to it.  

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, and this woman is one organized person.  I can see that establishing a foundation of good habits would make your life less stressful and happier.  It's sticking to those habits, and the tools we use to do so, that is the emphasis of this book.

Gretchen says there are 4 types of personalities:  the upholder, the questioner, the obliger, and the rebel.  I can see that my man Bud is an upholder (someone who creates, plans, and carries out a habit to the nth degree), and I am an obliger.  I am someone who will stick to a habit if there is someone I need to be accountable to (and being accountable to myself isn't as important as this outside person) because I don't want to let them down. That was an eye-opener for me.  I thought, duh!  It's so obvious that I'm an obliger; that answers so many questions I've had about my failure to cultivate good habits that will benefit me and only me.  A questioner will create a habit only after questioning everything about it; a rebel will do what they want to do--if you tell them to do something, they won't.  

Gretchen also talks about all the ways we work around keeping habits; the tips and techniques that can fail, depending on which personality you are in the habit world.  The "power hour" is a great tip:  take one hour, and tackle that one thing you keep putting off.  Use only that hour to do it.  Another tip is to schedule, another is to recognize if having a "goal", or stopping point, is a good thing for you to have when forming a habit.  This was also an "aha" moment for me.  I've had goals on starting a running habit to train for races, and sure enough, after each big race, I decrease my running, until I've stopped completely.  So having a goal which creates a stop sign in my head is bad for me.  I have to figure out instead how I can continue my habit even after hitting those races.  

I have to say, this audio was an interesting way to pass my commuting time.  I did get a bit tired of Gretchen, though.  She's an upholder, and sticks to habits pretty darn well.  I felt sometimes that I could never form and stick to habits as well as Gretchen does.  I would have rather read this book so I could take notes.  Listening to it was interesting, but I think I missed out on being able to stop and make notes and underline parts of the book for reference.  

This is no hard science book, but more a book for the everyday person looking to work on cultivating a better life through habits.  It is true for me that having a schedule and forming habits that are life-long are good for me.  It gave me some food for thought.  

Rating:  6/10 for an interesting look at habits and how we succeed or fail at them.  I did tune out every once in a while, and I would have preferred a print copy to take notes.  I found myself getting impatient for the end of the audio because it seemed a bit repetitive after awhile. 

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

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

This was a delightfully funny, tender, and dare I say sweet novel that I was sad to finish.  When I read a book that completely engulfs me, I have a hard time letting it go.  That's how I feel about this book, and I can tell you that this novel has one of the most memorable characters I have met in all my reading years.   

Alice works for Isaac Vargas at a publishing company in New York City.  Mr. Vargas' star client, M. M. Banning, hasn't written a word since her blockbuster bestseller in the late 1970's.  Now it's 2009, and M.M. Banning (Mimi) has lost all her money to a bad ponzi scheme, and has to write again in order to support her son and herself.  Alice is sent to California to stay with Mimi and her son Frank and keep distractions away from Mimi so she can finish her second novel.  Sounds pretty simple, right?

Frank is one of my most favorite characters.  He captured my heart within a few pages of meeting him.  He's nine years old, moving into the fourth grade, and is not a typical child.  Frank is a treasure trove of old Hollywood movie trivia, and he wears clothes that belong to the 30's and 40's.  Yes, this is a child who wears top hats, monocles, and zoot suits to school, at home, and everywhere else.  No t-shirts and jeans for this child.  Alice may not touch any of his things, and she cannot touch him without his permission.  He may at any time hold her hand, or hug her, but never the other way around.  

His mother, Mimi, is equally eccentric, and while a devoted mother, has issues of her own.  She locks herself away in her room, and won't allow any disruptions as she types her novel on an old fashioned typewriter  that belonged to her dead brother.   And there is Xander, who pops in and out, has a magical way of keeping Frank from having meltdowns, and fascinates Alice with his piano playing.  

It sounds like an interesting cast of characters, and it is.  Frank is an endearing little boy; a genius misfit who hates going to school because he has no friends and doesn't fit in.  His dialogue is spot on:  brilliant, witty, and so funny.  Mature beyond his years, yet a boy who only wants to spend time with his Mom.  
Mimi is a bit hard to know; she spends most of the novel locked in her office, typing away.  She's sharp and unfriendly to Alice, but you can tell there's more to Mimi and she's developed a protective armor to keep hurt at bay.  Xander is just a mess, yet at the same time provides the backbone to this oddball little family.  

There have been many comparisons to Where'd You Go, Bernadette;  this novel is similar to it and The Rosie Project in that the main character is not your average person with average problems.  Frank really is the central character in this story, told from Alice's perspective.  It is a great mix of funny, laugh out loud, teary-eyed moments that make this one of the most interesting reads this year.  For sure it will be in my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

Rating:  8/10 for introducing me to Frank, a young man who captured my heart.  

Thank you so much to Harper Collins for the advanced copy.  
This book is available in hardcover, e-book, large-print, and audio.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

It's unusual for me to read two books by the same author back to back, but I couldn't wait to see what else was in store for Polly in the little island town of Polbearne in this sequel to Little Beach Street Bakery.  I'm happy to say the continuing adventures of my favorite bread baker are just as entertaining as the first novel.  

Polly is looking forward to a summer of bread baking, the increased traffic into her bakery, and living in her lighthouse.  Her love life is pretty sweet, too.  She's the happiest she's ever been.  And you know what that means--cue the chaos.  

Mrs. Manse has left Polly in charge of both bakeries, but tragedy strikes with the sudden death of Mrs. Manse.  A visit from her sister and two adult nephews to Polbearne puts Polly's bakery in jeopardy.  Malcolm, a very unpleasant man with no business sense at all, is put in charge of the bakeries, and wants to change from Polly's wildly popular breads to white, thin, plastic-wrapped bread and biscuits that come in tins and have the shelf life of a rock. For Malcolm, it's all about saving money and making money, and Polly's dream of her little bakery is shattered.

Fast running out of money, and worrying about making her mortgage payments, Polly and Huckle decide the only thing to do is for him to return to America for a few months to make money on the family farm in Georgia.  It's only temporary, right? Meanwhile, will Polly keep baking or hang up her apron?

Poor Polly.  She befriends Selina, a young widow in town, and begins a friendship that unfortunately has a few secrets. Secrets that may end up costing Polly the only female friend she has in Polbearne.  This is a summer that's turning out to be rough!  Will Polly come out smiling at the end?

I sincerely hope Jenny Colgan continues to write about this lovely place off the coast of Cornwall.  I've got a firm picture in my head of just what it looks like, and I don't want to imagine that this place and these people don't exist.  Real life problems, big and small, people who are hard working, kind and solid to their core.  A romance that has growing pains, but worth it all.  Friendships that mature and grow.  And yes, a nagging itch to maybe, just maybe, try to make homemade bread myself.  

Rating:  7/10 for a solid sequel, with challenges to careers and relationships that aren't far fetched.  A small town that has all the best characteristics of small town life.  And yes, the bread!  I can smell it now.

Available March 22nd, 2016 in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audio.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The View from Prince Street by Mary Ellen Taylor

Mary Ellen Taylor is another author I've discovered in the past few years that I have grown to enjoy.  Yes, she has entered the category of "immediately purchase" whenever she has a new book published. This is her fourth book, and I was happy to dive back into Alexandria, Virginia and all the characters from her past novels.  It's my humble opinion that in order to get the most out of this book, you should read all the previous books first:  The Union Street Bakery, Sweet Expectations,  and At the Corner of King Street.  I've reviewed them all, so click on the titles to see my reviews.  You don't have to read them, but I believe it makes for a better story when you know the history of the characters.  Mary Ellen Taylor has made a hybrid of sorts:  The Union Street Bakery  and Sweet Expectations are a duo, and then At the Corner of King Street  and The View from Prince Street are another duo.  Characters from the first three novels all appear in Prince Street.  These books are all perfect for a reader who enjoys early American history, relationships between sisters and friends, contemporary issues, and a hint of mystery and the paranormal.  Once again, my history geek jumps out.  I would love love love to visit Alexandria, Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area again.  I had a chance years ago to visit Washington, D.C. for a weekend and have never forgotten how much I enjoyed it.  Someday, I'll go back.  

Prince Street features Rae McDonald and Lisa Smyth, two women connected by the death years before of Rae's older sister Jennifer.  Lisa and Jennifer were best friends and Lisa survived the car accident that killed Jennifer.  Lisa is a recovering alcoholic who travels the country as a photographer, while Rae still lives in her family home in Alexandria and has a successful practice as a therapist.  Both women are a bit of a mess.  Rae is emotionally withdrawn, and Lisa has regular conversations in her head with Jennifer.  Neither has seen each other in years.  Lisa is forced to return to Alexandria to take care of her ailing Aunt Amelia, who has Alzheimer's disease and suddenly confesses she was adopted as a child--and has proof, but no explanation of why her mother never came back for her. 

Enter in Margaret and Addie from the Shire Architectural Salvage Company, who arrive at Rae's house to look over the boxes of letter and documents passed down through Rae's family.  Over 300 years of family history, and a mystery to be solved.  Three witch bottles, three families, and a dark secret that stretches back to the early days of Alexandria.  How are the families connected, and do the witch bottles carry curses that have doomed each descendant of the original settlers?   Can Rae and Lisa find a way to break out of their self-imposed prisons and move on with their lives?  And how do all the dots connect together?  

There is a lot going on in this novel.  Luckily, the author has family trees set up at the beginning of the book.  I found myself looking at them over and over, trying to keep everyone straight.  It is a tangled mix of history that is fascinating and makes for a good story.  Can't wait to see what Mary Ellen Taylor has in store for her next novel.  

Rating:  7/10 for a continuation of family and city history that keeps revealing secrets made hundreds of years ago.  Strong female characters faced with emotional issues that will make or break them.  I love how all the novels by Mary Ellen Taylor fit together, but are distinctly different.  

Available in paperback and  e-book.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Bossypants by Tina Fey: The Audio Book

I am a big fan of Tina Fey, but it's taken me a few years to finally get around to Bossypants.  I am glad I waited to listen to the audio (on a trip to Wisconsin a few weeks ago) because having Tina Fey tell her story, complete with music and quirky side comments made it all worth while.  I just wished it had been longer!

Tina is someone a lot of women can identify with:  she was an awkward kid, went through the horrible "shag" haircut phase (for me, it was 1975, immediately followed by a failed Dorothy Hamill hair phase after the 1976 Olympics), wasn't very popular in high school, and was a geek at a time when being a geek wasn't so cool.  There was a smart, hilarious, tough woman waiting to come out, and when it did we got to know and love her.  

Tina's book is about her life, from early days spending time at a theater camp, to working in a YMCA as a desk assistant in Chicago, and traveling around with the Second City troupe developing her improv skills and comedic timing.  What I like about Tina is that even though she had many intimidating experiences, she kept powering through and remained open to opportunities.  

Tina also speaks to the idea of a woman being "the boss", and how tough it can be to take on that role even while knowing how competent and kick-ass you will be as the bossypants. 

I wholeheartedly recommend Bossypants as an audio.  My drive to and from Wisconsin flew by listening to her, and she made me laugh out loud many times.  I now have to make time to watch 30 Rock.  Yes, I must confess I've never watched the show.  I think watching it now after listening to Bossypants will make me feel like I've got inside information on Tina Fey.  

Rating:  8/10 for an audio book that was a pleasure to listen to, thanks to Tina Fey and her wonderful narration.  So funny and talented.  

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.  Listen to the audio if you can!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

I've returned to what's referred to as "chick lit" for a bit, and I'm loving it.  In my humble opinion, no one can write chick lit quite like the British.  Jenny Colgan is a very popular writer in England, and some of her books are available in the U.S.  The number keeps growing as her fan base increases.  You can add me to that list of fans.  

Once again, I grabbed this book off my bookshelves.  Still had the receipt in it dated April 1, 2015.  Almost a whole year!  I have looked at this book many times on my shelf, and even picked it up a few times.  But the time just wasn't right, and I wasn't in the mood to read it.  Jump to 2016 and I'm raring to go.  Part of the push was the fact that Jenny has a sequel to Little Beach Street Bakery coming out very soon, so I had to read the first so I can be ready to read the sequel.  Look for the review of Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery next week.  

Polly Waterford is at a bad spot in her life:  her relationship with her live-in boyfriend is on the rocks, the business they worked so hard at establishing has ended, and they're broke.  Her boyfriend is a pretty miserable person (trust me, I wanted to reach into the novel and throttle him), and Polly ends up practically penniless and with nowhere to live.  Seeking peace and a place to lick her wounds, she ends up in the little town of Mount Polbearne in Cornwall.  This is a town that's a bit down on its luck, and is a bit isolated by the tides that cover the causeway every day, making Polbearne an island each day when the tide comes in--in other words, perfect for Polly.  She rents a rough flat above a bakery that sits silent and dusty, and begins to rebuild her life.  

Polly has, of course, a gift for making bread.  She's gotten away from it, thanks to a boyfriend who wouldn't eat bread, but here in this little town, she begins to knead and fold her way into a new life.  What starts out at therapy quickly grows into making bread for the men who fish the waters off Cornwall, and word gets around that Polly makes the best bread anyone's ever had.  Of course, there is one particular person who isn't happy about this--Polly's landlord, Mrs.  Manse.  She runs the town's only bakery, and it is terrible.  Mass produced and trucked in bread and desserts that taste horrible.  Mrs. Manse's history with the town, and the fishing boats, is a sad one that shapes Polly's life and her future.  

And then there is Huckle, an American who lives off the 'island' and has a beekeeping business,  His bees produce the best honey around.  Is he a friend, or something more?  Will Polly stay in Mount Polbearne, or move back to Plymouth and pick up her old life?

This was a well written novel about starting over.  Sometimes we have to lose everything to find that kernel, that spark, that makes us happy.  Some people are lucky and know it from the start, without having to experience heartache, and others, well... it can take awhile.  Polly is a great character; just an average woman looking for her place in the world.  We can all connect with her. The people of Polbearne are a wonderful cast of characters who love their little town, warts and all.  

Rating:  8/10 for a setting that fired up my imagination, fantastic descriptions of bread that made my mouth water, and characters I can't wait to visit again in the sequel.  My only beef is the cover!  Polly bakes bread, not cupcakes.  

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