Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sisi: Empress on Her Own by Allison Pataki

I started reading this novel, and I must confess I was a bit confused.  It seemed to start right in the middle of Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary's life.  I quickly realized there is a book before Sisi that begins with Sisi's early life and marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph, and the difficulties she had adjusting to life as an Empress in the stifling Austrian court. I recommend you read  The Accidental Empress before you tackle Sisi so that you may get the complete story of Sisi's incredible life and tragic death.  

With that being said, after a quick history lesson on Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, I was ready to keep reading, and I was impressed at the research Allison Pataki put into this historical novel.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire of the mid 1800's was vast, and a powerhouse.  Sisi's husband, Franz Joseph, was born and raised to be an Emperor.  His mother, Archduchess Sophie ruled the court, and Sisi always felt like a failure, and was completely demoralized when her first two children, Rudy and Gisela were swiftly taken from her arms after birth and raised away from Sisi, with no input from her at all.  Her third child, Valerie (born many years later) stayed by Sisi's side.  She had grown enough backbone to refuse to send Valerie down the same path as her siblings. 

Sisi was known for her beauty and floor-length hair.  People refer to her as the Princess Diana of her day, and that may be so in that both women felt trapped by their lives, and searched for ways to escape.  For Sisi, she often traveled away from court--usually for weeks at a time.  Hungary was her favorite place, and there she enjoyed the peace of the countryside and the forbidden love she shared with Count Andrassy.  Sisi's husband Franz Joseph loved his wife, but so much of their relationship was damaged by the interference of his mother and the demands of rigid court life. She never felt that Franz was there for her.  What had started out as a marriage with high hopes and love had become distant and cold.  

This novel continues where The Accidental Empress left off in 1868 up through 1898, when Sisi was assassinated on a street in Geneva, Switzerland simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sisi's life really was a soap opera, full of forbidden love, political upheaval, and malicious court gossip. Sisi's frustration at being distant emotionally from her children, and her constant roaming around Europe cast her as a very lonely woman who was never able to be happy.  I really got invested in Sisi's life, and even though I knew it was coming, it was still hard to read about her death.  I'm certainly tempted to read more about Sisi, and if I ever get to Austria, I would love to visit Hofburg Palace, Sisi's home in Vienna.  

Thank you to Penguin/Random House for a review copy of this book.  I never knew anything about Empress Elisabeth, so I am very glad I had this opportunity to read about her life.  This is definitely a must read for fans of historical fiction.  

Rating:  5/6 for a well-researched and detailed novel about Princess Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary.  It was hard to put down!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Hive by Gill Hornby

I recently had the opportunity to talk to a class of graduate students in library science about my blog.  This class was discussing The Hive for that week's look at the chick lit genre, and so I took the opportunity to read the book so I could take part in the discussion.  I realized just how much I had missed reading British women's fiction that could be classified as chick lit, a genre that has evolved since the term was first coined.  

I am a big geek when it comes to British authors writing about contemporary British women.  I was surprised and charmed by this novel, which centered around a group of women who all had children attending St. Ambrose school in a town outside of London. The "queen bee" of the group was Beatrice.  She somehow managed to always get everyone else to do all the work, while she took credit for everything.  And somehow, the women in the group thought she was just fantastic.  Rachel is a children's book illustrator going through a divorce; she was one of Beatrice's favorites, but finds herself slowly being pushed out of the group.  Heather is a mother of one who desperately wishes she was a mother of more children and will do anything to fit in the group.  Georgie (my favorite) left a career in the city to marry a farmer and raise a large family and is content to fly under the radar.  She pretty much does as she pleases and it quite aware of the manipulations of the group.  Georgie is the most down to earth of the ladies and quite a hoot. Melissa is the new parent,  a mysteriously put together, makes everything okay kind of woman.  She is the calm in the middle of every potential disaster. 

The novel follows this group of women over the school year as they work to raise money for the school through car boot sales, lunches, and even a crazy ball that is quite the funny scene. As the year passes, there are ups and downs, and Beatrice keeps pulling the strings to keep her place as queen bee.  But can she be knocked off her perch?  

As I said earlier, I really enjoyed this novel.  I love British snarky humor, and there is plenty here.  I actually smirked and laughed out loud quite a bit.  Yes, there is some slang that you may puzzle at (what exactly is a lesbian tea?  Chamomile), but that is what makes it a fun read.  I envisioned a Jennifer Saunders series similar to Clatterford--oh, I so wish that was a reality!  But there is a serious side to this novel:  be true to yourself, don't try to fit into a mold that isn't you; your kids are watching how you treat other people; there is nothing better than good friends.  Life is too short to put up with manipulative people.  

Is this chick lit?  It's up to you to decide.  If it is, it's part of the evolution of the genre.  Doesn't matter to me, I thought it was a good read. 

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining look at the power struggle of a group of women in a small town in England, where appearances are everything, volunteering for school functions is a sign of good parenting, and friendships undergo struggles.  I had many a good laugh reading this novel. 

Available in paperback and e-book.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Kathy Griffin's Celebrity Run-Ins by Kathy Griffin (Audio Book)

First of all, I must state that I love Kathy Griffin.  As she says, she is a comedian 24/7 and doesn't know how to be anything else.  Not many people are truly their authentic selves, but Kathy is and makes no apologies about it.  It's refreshing to see a woman who has such a firm grasp on who she is and is able to laugh about herself.  

Second, if you do decide to read this book, you MUST listen to the audio.  It's just not going to be the same if you read it.  Kathy's 7 disc audio book made my commute this week something I actually looked forward to and kept me sitting in my car when I got to work, reluctant to stop the CD and step out of the car. 

Kathy Griffin has been part of the Hollywood scene for a long time--well over 20 years.  There is no wonder that her and Joan Rivers were very good friends. Listening to this audio made me realize that Kathy is one extremely hard working comedian; she jokes about taking every job she can; doing so has not only made her financially solid (and being smart about her money), but it's given her endless opportunities to meet people from every walk of life.  Kathy Griffin has met celebrities when they're just starting out, when they're at the height of stardom, and some, like Dick Van Dyke, when they are "legends" and just want to dance to a disco song before going onstage.  She discusses her first meeting with Ice-T on a radio show when she was just starting out, and how she gave him a hard time and he didn't care much for her.  Years later, when she was guest starring on Law and Order SVU, she met up with him again.  She was a bit anxious, remembering their last meeting, but Ice-T not only didn't remember the run in, but completely forgot how annoying she was on the radio show.  Phew.  

Two of her celebrity memories got me a little teary-eyed:  Joan Rivers and Gary Shandling.  Kathy talks about a once in a lifetime experience when Joan invited her to come to London to spend two days with Prince Charles and Camilla.  Who knew Joan Rivers was pals with Prince Charles and Camilla?  Yes she was.  Kathy's "holy cow I can't believe I'm here" attitude was certainly one pretty much everyone would have had--and that she got to spend it with her dear friend meant the world to her.  Gary Shandling, another of Kathy's friends, told Kathy how much it meant to him that she gave a bunch of crap to a fellow dinner guest at a private dinner party.  Kathy didn't realize the other guest was Gary's ex-talent agent, whom Gary had sued for a lot of money a few years before.  It was the first time Gary had seen this man since the case was settled, and he was very nervous about it.  Sitting next to Kathy, he marveled at her barrage of pesky one-liners towards this other guest.  Both comedians are gone now, and Kathy's wistfulness talking about them was touching.  

There are so many celebrities Kathy talks about, it's pretty amazing: Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, Barbara Streisand, Billy Crystal--and of course, Cher.  It's a fun trip into Hollywood, and Kathy's audio performance is spot on.  It's like having a good dish with your friend over a bottle of wine.  She doesn't hesitate to talk about the run-ins that don't go well, and the celebrities that don't like her, and even the celebrities that have become friends after rocky starts.  Kathy is still pretty grounded, and realizes she's had an amazing career and life.  Her mother is another fun character, and it's obvious Kathy adores her.  And how could I forget Anderson Cooper?  So. Much. Fun.

I'd say if you like Andy Cohen, Tina Fay, Amy Poehler, listen to this audio.  Comedians really do make it worth your while to listen to their books. I liked this so much, I'm off to the library to check out the audio of Kathy's book: Official Book Club Selection.  I can't wait to start my commute on Monday.

Rating:  5/6 for an audio that made me giggle, got me a bit teary-eyed, and made my commute fly by.  Kathy's narration makes this a fun peek behind Hollywood's curtain.

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Valentine's Day Post: Juliet's Answer by Glenn Dixon

I thought it was appropriate to review this book the night before Valentine's Day.  It's a sweet memoir about heartbreak, and the search for love--with a bit of Shakespeare thrown in to help illustrate the twisty road of love.

Glenn Dixon is a high school English teacher from Canada who travels to Verona one summer to become one of the small group of people who answer letters written to Juliet Capulet of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. People all around the world write thousands of letters to Juliet, asking for advice for their weary hearts. There is a staff of people who spend their days handwriting responses back to people and mailing them off.  They are known as the "secretaries of Juliet".  

Glenn teaches Romeo and Juliet to his high school students every year, so it's easy to see why he wants to travel to Verona to stay in the city where the epic play of dueling families, forbidden love, and tragedy took place centuries ago.  Or did it?  There are some clues that hint Romeo and Juliet may have actually existed hundreds of years ago; not enough to definitively say, but enough to deepen the intrigue and mystery of it all.  Glenn is hoping by writing letters to the lovelorn, he can figure out his own broken heart.  Glenn has been in love with Claire for years--since college, but she firmly sees him in the friend department, and he's at a loss to understand how he can either move on from her, or get her to see him as more than just a good friend.  She says she loves him, but just isn't "in love" with him.  Ouch. 

Glenn's story broadens a bit as he spends the summer in Verona, wandering the streets, writing letters, and figuring out what to do when he returns to Canada in the fall to teach.  He makes a major decision once he gets back home after a sudden and final discussion with Claire that leaves him shattered.  Can he find happily ever after with the help of Juliet?  

This was a quick read, and a thoughtful look at the many guises of love.  It can make us miserable, and make us weep for joy.  Glenn asks the question:  do we make choices in our life, or is it all up to fate?  How do we know who we're meant to be with and love?  Is it all a game of chance in which we have no control ?

I thought it was interesting to read about a man who was at a crossroads in his life, and trying to decide what to do to move on from a painful relationship.  I'm used to reading about women experiencing this, so it was an eye-opener to see heartbreak from a man's point of view.  Glenn is a nice guy--he's got a good job, is smart, well spoken, and a traveler. Never married, no kids.  Why is it so hard for him to find true love?  You'll find yourself nodding in agreement with Glenn as he ponders his situation and goes through the ups and downs of love. He gets it. 

A big thank you to Simon and Schuster/Gallery Books for a review copy of this memoir.  Fans of Shakespeare, travel memoirs, and those intrigued by love will enjoy this tale of one man's quest to heal his heart. 

Rating:  4/6 for a sweet look at the phenomenon of Juliet's letters, the bitterness of a broken heart, and the promise of new love.   

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

I recently read Brunonia Barry's first novel, The Lace Reader, and I have to admit, it wasn't what I expected from all the reviews I'd read.  I can say, however, that The Fifth Petal was a very satisfying read and everything I hoped it would be--yay!

First of all, the cover is pretty amazing.  Just absolutely beautiful, and certainly echoes the feel of the story.  Even if I hadn't been aware of this novel, if I'd been in a bookstore I would have picked it up just because of the cover.  

So, on with the review.  This story picks up in late 2014 in Salem, MA.  There had been a previous unsolved crime that had happened on Halloween night in 1989 that left three young women dead, a respected scholar crazy, and the young daughter of one of the victims traumatized.  Rose, the respected scholar of Salem's witch trials, wanders the streets of Salem, talking to trees and muttering about the banshee that she contains within her to keep it from killing other townspeople.  Callie, the young girl, is now a woman who is a musical therapist with a gift for using singing bowls to help heal people.  She remembers a bit of that night, but thinks Rose is dead (that's what the nuns told her) and has tried to put the trauma out of her life.  

Halloween, 2014 finds Rose near her beloved oak trees, listening to them speak.  Yes, she can hear the trees talking to her, and they are trying to tell her a story.  She is bullied by a group of teenagers, and one ends up dead.  Rose is taken to the local hospital, and it's all over the news.  Callie, who lives nearby, sees the news report and realizes the woman she considered her Aunt is actually alive.  She travels to Salem to visit Rose and try to get answers about that long ago night.  Was there really a banshee?  Did it kill her mother and her friends?  What were they doing out in the woods that night?

Brunonia Barry immerses you in the world of Salem.  She blends the historic and tourist aspects of Salem into a place that is a home to generations of families; a mysterious, spooky place that still hasn't forgiven itself for the past, and a place some only see as a gimmick and a tourist trap.  It is a complex city steeped in history.  Salem is just as much a character in this novel as Callie and Rose.  Rafferty and Towner are part of the story; Rafferty is investigating the 1989 cold case, and Towner's friendship with Rose makes things complicated for everyone.  Townsfolk begin again to start a witch hunt against Rose, and when they find out who Callie is, they start to whisper about her, too. 

There is a lot going on in this novel:  mythology, Salem history, family dynamics, and of course a good old murder mystery.  Toss in a bit of the paranormal and you've got a multi-layered story that keeps you guessing until the last few chapters.  I will say I did feel like I was missing something in the relationship between Towner and Rafferty; it seemed like I was the only one not in on the full story.  I think this may have been my inattention and unhappiness with The Lace Reader coming back to haunt me.  In any case, it didn't keep me from enjoying the obvious bond between the two.  After the hijinks of The Lace Reader I was happy to see them settled and in a good place. 

The Fifth Petal will certainly appeal to anyone who likes a bit of mystery, "witchiness", and mythology.  Reading about music therapy and singing bowls has peaked my interest, and I may delve into this subject on my own.  I'm all for alternative therapies that help heal the physically sick and those who have wounded souls.  Fans of Deborah Harkness and Paula Brackston should pick this novel up--you're sure to enjoy it.  

Rating:  4/6 for a fascinating look at Salem's history well blended into a modern day tale of murder and deep family issues.  Characters that are flawed and damaged, but not hopeless.  

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Husband's Wife by Jane Corry

I always start out a new year with a whole bunch of reading rules in my head.  I look at what I read the year before, see the patterns, and decide I have to pay attention to the genres that didn't get much reading from me.  Chick lit is still one of my favorite genres, but it certainly has gone through a bit of a change since I read Jemima J by Jane Green years ago. I still love my Jenny Colgan, my Jane Green, my Katie Fforde; my fun and frothy novels.

 But  I have to say, there's a new chick lit in town, and it's the woman/dysfunctional marriage/drama/maybe someone will die/oh there's a twist  sub-genre.  I think it's still chick lit, but a much darker side.  These novels are definitely written with a female audience in mind: Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, The Woman in Cabin Ten...you get the picture. 

My Husband's Wife by Jane Corry fits into that category, but it is different from the other novels I've mentioned above.  It sounded intriguing, so when I received a review copy, I dove right in without thinking too much about what to expect.  This was the perfect way to approach this story, because there's no way I would have been even close to guessing what would happen--and a lot happens.

The novel starts with someone's murder.  Just a short blip, but enough to tell you to hang on for an interesting ride.  Move back fifteen years, and we meet Lily and Ed, two newlyweds living in London.  They've just come back from an Italian honeymoon after a whirlwind courtship, and Lily has to go back to work as a lawyer.  Ed works in advertising, and desperately wants to be an artist.  Their relationship is very new, and very awkward.  It's pretty clear Lily and Ed have some work to do if they want this marriage to last.  Lily's boss has moved Lily to a different kind of law work:  she's been assigned the case of a prisoner in jail who's been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, but wants to appeal. Lily is in no way ready for this, but has no choice--she needs her job (Ed isn't a very good breadwinner).  She visits the jail, and meets the enigmatic Joe Thomas.  Mild mannered looking, he reminds Lily of her adopted brother Daniel, and that's where the fatal attraction begins.  Joe is not all he seems; Lily quickly becomes deeply entangled in his appeal and upcoming court case.  Meanwhile, Ed struggles to find his muse, and the tension between the two is painful!  

Enter little Carla and her mother Francesca.  They live in the same apartment building as Lily and Ed; Francesca is a sales clerk and Carla is a deeply unhappy little girl who's bullied at school for her dark Italian looks and her lapses into speaking Italian during the day.  Francesca's got a sugar daddy, and Carla figures out how to use his desire to keep certain things secret in order to transfer to another school, get a bike, and get her way in a lot of things.  

Ed and Lily's life intersects with Carla and you just know things are going to get bad.  And they do...but not for 15 years.  Move forward 15 years; Lily is a successful lawyer, Ed tries to be a successful artist.  He's actually just an alcoholic.  Marriage is still intact, but so dysfunctional it's no wonder Lily works all the time.  They have a son, Tom, who is such a challenge that he's another added stress.  Joe Thomas is still in the picture, lurking....why won't he leave Lily alone?  I know....but you're going to have to read the book.

Carla arrives back in their lives.  She's now 23, gorgeous, and has a giant grudge.  She wants what Lily has, and does her best to get it.  You know what they say about the grass is always greener?  Well, Carla gets to find out if that's true.  

There are so many twists in this story that you're never quite sure what's going to happen next.  Everyone has a secret; Lily has more than a few.  She's a good person trapped by a few little lies that turned into potentially life-destroying secrets.  No one here (besides Joe) is really a bad person. Circumstances and poor choices made them what they are; those choices keep propelling them all towards an inevitable nightmarish crash.  Yes, you are  on the roller coaster until the very last page.  What a ride. 

I was totally surprised by this book in a very good way.  All of the characters are flawed and every one of them have issues from their pasts that drive them to do destructive things.  It's a tale of revenge, opportunity, lust, frustration, and that sense of being trapped and feeling helpless to get out.  But there are ways to get out...

Thank you to Penguin/Viking for a review copy.  Wow!  This was a really good read, and refreshingly different in the female thriller/dark chick lit genre. You'll find yourself thinking about it long after you've turned the last page. It would make a really good book club choice!

Rating:  8/10 for a tangled weave of past and present, deadly secrets, destruction, and a marriage that struggles under the weight of two flawed people.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

Well, I kicked off February with a fantastic tale of love and marriage during the Civil War.   I confess I might have a little crush on Gryffth Hockaday.  This was one surprisingly good read, and will probably be one of my favorites of the year.  

Placidia is a young woman living on her father's plantation in South Carolina in 1863. A chance meeting with Major Hockaday, who has come to buy a horse, sparks an attraction between the two that they both seem utterly unable to resist.  Hockaday asks for Placidia's hand in marriage, and they are married a mere two days later.  Riding through the night to reach Hockaday's farm (Holland Creek), they begin their marriage tentatively. Before they can settle in, Hockaday is called away to battle, and Placidia is left to run the farm on her own, with just a few slaves to help with the crops.  Hockaday has also left his two year old son Charles to be raised by Placidia.  She's over her head, but struggles to carry on through a whole lot of bad luck.  Through it all, she writes Hockaday with news of the farm, yearns for him at night, and worries for his safety.  Hockaday himself manages to get a few letters to Placidia, pledging his love to her.  He's a pretty intense man, and at age 32, quite a bit older than Placidia.  Yet somehow they work, and the quick, intense love they share seems very believable.  They are meant to be.  

Coming home two years later, in 1865, Hockaday hears that his wife was pregnant, and the baby died.  Hockaday, scarred by the war, angry at the apparent faithlessness of his wife, wants nothing to do with her while she awaits trial in the murder of her child.  What the heck happened?

This novel is told through letters between Placidia and her Aunt while she awaits her fate; letters between Placidia and Hockaday during the war, and a diary Placidia keeps during her struggle to keep Holland Creek running by herself.  It jumps ahead 30 years about halfway through, so you know what happens, yet it circles back to Placidia and Hockaday as they tell their tale through their own words.  Oh!  Placidia just makes your heart break.  What a tough young woman, battling against the odds.  And Hockaday, seeing the horror of war, waiting to die, and wishing he was back with his love.  This would make one heck of a great movie.  

Susan Rivers writes the story of Placidia and Hockaday with beautiful language; it's not corny or overly dramatic but believable.  Two damaged people fighting to find their way back to each other and the promise of what their life together could be.  

Rating:  8/10 for a novel that has two remarkable main characters, a powerful love story, and plenty of family angst that echoes through the generations and asks the question:  what do we keep hidden from our family in order to protect them?

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book.