Thursday, March 30, 2017

A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson

It has been a race to the end of March to try and get all of my March reads in, and I'm just one shy.  I can't find the energy to finish that book, so I'll talk about that DNF in my next post. 

I was picking up a book at the library earlier this month, when I happened to see this in the new releases.  Curiosity had me flipping it open, and just a few minutes later I was adding it to my check out pile.  I'm so glad I saw this, because it was such a tremendously satisfying memoir.  And I finally learned something about Vita Sackville-West.  

Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson, who was a well respected British politician, lecturer, author, and guardian of Sissinghurst, his mother's beautiful country home famous for its gardens.  You can visit and tour the buildings, extensive gardens, and spend the day wandering in a stunning bit of English countryside.  I've heard of Sissinghurst, and saw books on the gardens, but never really knew what it was, who owned it, and especially, who Vita Sackville-West was and why she was so scandalous.  Juliet explains it all, and explains the women in her family, starting with her great-great grandmother Pepita,  a famous Spanish flamenco dancer during the mid-19th century.  Pepita was beautiful, mysterious, and doing quite well financially touring Europe when she met and fell madly in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a British politician.  Only problem was, Pepita was married, and in 19th century Spain, divorce was pretty much impossible for women.  That didn't stop Pepita and Lionel; they ended up having five children together, with Pepita living in France with her children, and Lionel visiting.  She suffered the scorn of her neighbors, and when she died in childbirth, she left her children orphans in France; left to be raised away from their father. Years later,  Lionel and Pepita's eldest daughter Victoria eventually became his shining star in Washington, D.C.; organizing dinners and social events for her political father, and becoming so famous for her charm and beauty that proposals for marriage came fast and furious.  But Victoria was afraid of marriage; after all, she'd seen how loving a man not only made a pariah out of her mother, but ended up killing her in childbirth.  No thanks. 

But, Victoria eventually became smitten with Lionel Sackville-West, her first cousin.  He pursued her relentlessly.  She finally agreed to marriage because Lionel was the heir to her father's country estate Knoles, and Victoria loved that home with all her being.  Her marriage crumbled, though, after Victoria gave birth to Vita.  The whole ordeal of childbirth terrified her so that she forbade her husband to ever have sex with her again, and that began the slow decline of their marriage, and another bit of dysfunction to add to the Sackville-West family.

Oh, there is so much more to tell you!  I found this all fascinating.  So many strong women, but each was also so fragile in their own ways; there is a definite pattern of neglect/smothering love/frustration in each generation.  It was sad to see how damaging it was to everyone, especially the children.  Juliet also suffered from an unhappy mother; her mother married into the Sackville-West family through Juliet's father Nigel, the son of Vita Sackville-West and Henry Nicolson.  Both were famous in their time; mostly because Vita was a gifted author, and notorious for her affairs with women.  Henry also fooled around with men, but somehow their marriage lasted until Vita's death; quietly devoted to each other.  

What this memoir struck in me was the realization that I don't have the luxury of talking to my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.  They're all gone, and I have no way of knowing what they were like, what they went through as young women.  They didn't keep diaries; there are only pictures to help piece together what life was like for them all those years ago.  Juliet is incredibly lucky; lucky that she is a gifted writer; lucky that she has the family papers,  Sissinghurst and Knoles to visit and discover little bits of history tucked into attics and drawers.  But Juliet understands all of that, and has crafted a memoir that is a love letter to all the women who came before her, and to her daughters and granddaughter who follow.  

Rating: 5/6 for a memoir that reads like a novel, about the generations of women in one family and how they shaped each generation to follow. This was so good! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I've been a fan of mythology stories since high school, when I read Mythology by Edith Hamilton.  Rick Riordan's novels for young readers have opened up a whole new fan base for mythology stories from Greek, Egyptian, and Norse cultures.  I can say I would have inhaled his books if they'd been around when I was a child.  

But adults have Neil Gaiman, and that's a good thing.  I picked up Norse Mythology on a sweet deal from Barnes and Noble and spent a few nights this past week immersing myself in the world of Odin, Thor, Loki, and their home in Asgard. Giants, dwarfs, sea creatures; it's all in this book.  It does read a bit like a novel in that the myths are arranged with the creation of the gods and goddesses, and ends with Ragnarok, an epic battle where the reign of the gods ends, and a new world begins. There is a sense of  order that does make it easier to follow the antics and stories of the Norse gods.  Let's just say the gods are crazy!

Nothing surprising in this book at all, just an enjoyable read on a subject that I didn't know much about-Norse mythology.  It's suitable for teens and even tweens. There is some violence, but nothing horribly graphic, and I don't recall reading any adult sexual content. I would recommend it for reluctant readers; there's plenty of action, hijinks, and lessons to be learned on bravery and loyalty. Loki is the personification of making bad choices over and over again. As always, there is the balance of good and evil, and the necessity of the dark in order for the light to exist.  

Rating:  4/6 for a good introduction to Norse mythology.  Fans of Neil Gaiman will enjoy it, and perhaps turn to American Gods as their next read (or watch the upcoming TV show).  It has made me curious to finally pick up my copy (it's been on my bookcase for, um...years. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Death at Breakfast by Beth Gutcheon

I've read a few of Beth Gutcheon's novels, and loved her writing. This mystery is a bit of a departure from her usual style, and I thought I would give it a try. 

Two life-long friends, retired school head Maggie Detweiler and her friend socialite Hope Babbin take a trip to Maine for a cooking course at a resort. Hope's son Buster is a deputy sheriff in the area and they also plan on visiting with him while they're staying at the resort. 

Everything is going along well, until the Antippas family shows up at the resort, loud, annoying and crass. Alexander Antippas is a famous Hollywood mover and shaker, and the father of a young teen singer Artemis.  His wife Lisa and her sister Glory are less annoying and just want to have some peace and quiet. 

All that ends swiftly when a fire breaks out at the resort late one night.  Alexander is found dead in the ashes. There are so many people around that could have murdered him, it's going to take some time to figure out just who disliked him so much that they wanted him dead.  

Maggie and Hope, along with the other guests, are stuck at the resort for a few days until everyone is investigated. Cherry, the front desk clerk, is quickly arrested and charged with arson and murder. She's an unlucky young lady who argued with the owner of the resort, and was on the receiving end of Alexander's rudeness the night he came to the resort. She's got motive and, unfortunately, a detective who's quick to accuse and solve the murder. 

But, of course, there is more to the mystery. Maggie and Hope decide to do a little detective work on their own, with the reluctant help of Buster. It's just too pat that Cherry did it.  So who did do it? And was Alexander alive at the time of the fire, or did the murderer try to cover it up and make it look like an accident?

There were interesting parts to this mystery; the actual how and why are good.  But, I felt like this just dragged on and on; it took me weeks to read this, and it should have only taken me a few days. I was disappointed.  I did like Maggie and Hope; I'm sure there will be more mysteries with these two intelligent, connected, and delightful women. Somehow this mystery missed the mark with me.  

Rating:  2/6 for a mystery that had some interesting potential, but I felt it dragged on too long and had me going in too many distracting directions.  

Available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook. 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

After reading this book, I know I wouldn't last more than a day in the jungle. Mosquitoes just love me, and I can't even survive a few hours in my back yard during the summer when they come out in droves. I'd be a giant mess in the jungles of Honduras. Couple that with an absolute terror of snakes, and I'm done. Douglas Preston is a much braver soul than I ever will be, and thanks to him, I got to read about this archaeological adventure in the comfort of my home.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is an adventure that takes you into the vast, dense jungles of Honduras to look for the famous "White City" or "Lost City of the Monkey God". For centuries, rumors have told of a famous city, lost for years in one of the most remote places on earth:  the jungles of Honduras. Hard to get to; once you do, the time spent hacking through the jungle just to walk a few feet keeps most people out. It is one of the last places on earth that still remained a mystery; untouched by humans for centuries. It's been so long since humans have lived in the area that animals are not afraid and are merely curious at the new arrivals.  

As I read this book, I thought of Bill Bryson's funny take on Australia, where he says that pretty much everything there can kill you. That's just what Mosquita, the vast, impenetrable jungle in Honduras presents.  Mosquitoes, snakes of all shapes and sizes (and all horribly lethal), sand flies, and a host of other creatures that require constant vigilance and constant spraying of DEET. Yet Douglas Preston (yes, the co-author of the Preston and Child novels) gets a chance to go along on a trip to finally find out if the rumors are true: is there a lost city in the jungle? When National Geographic calls, you go!

Using LiDAR, which is, from what I can understand, a very expensive scanning machine (this is a much simplified description), archaeologists discovered not one, but two potential sites in 2012. Known as T1 and T3, the LiDAR scans proved for the first time definitively that there were man-made structures in the jungle.  Not only man-made, but huge, and spanning miles.  Were they vast cities?  And who built them?  

Preston and crew returned to the jungle in 2015 to finally start exploring what their scans had found, and what they discovered was beyond their biggest dreams.  Untouched, intact proof of a sophisticated civilization that disappeared hundreds of years ago. They simply walked away from their cities. Why? The jungle doesn't leave very many clues. The high acidity in the soil means that anything organic is quickly broken down. Any hope of finding tombs with remains were swiftly dashed. What they did find opened up a huge debate over the culture that existed, how to protect the sites from looters, and how Honduran cultural identity would be formed. It also brought up a huge debate regarding what exactly archaeology is, and how advanced scanning technology is both at once a huge gift to the field, and damaging to the practice of actually going into a site and excavating.  

There's much more to this tale, and I'll leave it to you to discover. Preston and crew didn't leave the jungle alone; they were exposed to a dangerous illness that in itself is fascinating to read about. Preston talks about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and I think it's probably a book I should read sometime soon. The whole Old World bringing disease to the New World issue plays a big part in this story, and even carries over into Preston's life after he returns home.

I highly recommend this adventure to anyone who enjoys travel memoirs, archaeology, history, and science. Those who have devoured The Lost City of Z must read this--it's full of rascals who claimed to have found treasure and the lost city, and the excitement their travels created in newspapers in the early and mid-20th century.  

Rating: 4/6 for a really interesting read on something that was never on my radar; the archaeology geek in me was hooked. How do you begin to understand a civilization that was lost to time?  

Available in hardcover and ebook.     

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall

I'm always up for reading an author who decides to take a chance and write a novel that's quite different from their previous works. Kathy Hepinstall wrote two previous books that I loved:  Blue Asylum and Sisters of Shiloh. Both revolved around the Civil War and took place in the South.  The Book of Polly does have a distinctly Southern flavor, but it's contemporary and utterly wonderful.

Told through the voice of Polly's young daughter Willow, the story unfolds with an unusual twist:  Polly became pregnant with Willow at age 58, and found out she was pregnant just after the sudden death of the Captain, Polly's husband. Willow's mother is much older than her schoolmate's mothers, and Willow is obsessed with her mother dying. Her obsession leads her to spin wild tales about her mother, and Willow becomes a very colorful liar.  
Polly is a pretty unusual mother, and not just because of her age. She's a real pistol; witty, sassy, and not above borrowing a falcon to perch on her shoulder as she goes to visit the counselor at Willow's school to discuss Willow's out of control lies. Yes, Willow told the children her mother has hunted with a falcon. And Polly isn't going to make Willow look bad at school. As she says to the counselor about Willow's tall tales, "It's not my fault that the gray of everyone else's stories makes the color stand out." 

Willow's obsessed with her mother dying (Polly smokes Virginia Slims and drinks margaritas) and the life her mother lived before she was married and had Willow's older brother Shel and sister Lisa, both grown and on their own. Polly is from a small town in Louisiana, and refuses to talk about her life, the town, and the people she knew. Of course Willow's obsession never ends, and as she becomes a teenager and the Bear (cancer) strikes home, she becomes determined to know her mother's whole life.  

I loved Polly. A larger than life character, she is so darn funny I kept chuckling over some of her witty lines. Seventy-two years old and raising a teenager, she is at her wit's end:  

"Jesus isn't gonna help me with a teenager, Lisa. He was good with lepers and whores and blind people, but he can't cure the smart-ass years and you know it." 

At times a strong woman raising a child on her own, to a vulnerable woman struggling to weather life's ups and downs, Polly is an unforgettable character. Willow is just as complex and funny. I can understand her terror at her mother dying and leaving her alone so early in life. There comes a time in all our lives when we realize our parents will someday pass on, and thinking of life without their presence is terrifying. For Willow, this fear is part of her life very early on, and most of this novel is about her struggle to cope with her fears. The mystery of Polly's early life in Louisiana (the story is set in Texas) is always a part of the background, and her refusal to tell Willow any of it just drives Willow to do some detective work and figure it out on her own. Will Polly ever tell Willow her story--which, in turn, is part of Willow's family history? 

I am so glad I discovered the story of Willow and Polly Havens. I didn't want to finish their story and say goodbye. The rest of the cast of characters: Shel and Lisa, Willow's older brother and sister; Phoenix, a childhood friend of Shel who worships Polly; and battling next door neighbors who drive Polly nuts made me feel a part of the family.  

A big thank you to Viking/Penguin (Pamela Dorman Books) for a review copy of this novel.  I would have missed it otherwise, and that would have been a shame. 

Rating:  5/6 for endearing characters, a complicated yet loving mother-daughter relationship, and that Southern flair I love so much.  Fans of Fannie Flagg would enjoy this novel. Full of humor and heartfelt moments. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Always by Sarah Jio

I faithfully read every new Sarah Jio novel and I haven't been disappointed.  Until now, darn it.  I don't like to give unfavorable reviews, but this one just didn't do it for me at all. 

Sarah returns to Seattle, which is the setting for most of her novels.  This time, the story bounces between 1996-1998 and 2008, as Kailey Crain is caught between her past and her future.  As a new resident of Seattle in 1996, Kailey meets Cade McAllister one night.  He's a successful music label owner who has a sixth sense about new artists, and Seattle in the 1990's was full of grunge rockers (Nirvana anyone?) trying to break out.  Kailey's love for Cade is shattered in 1998 when things go bad, and Cade leaves Kailey's life.  Heartbroken, she moves away, only to come back to Seattle years later, and fall in love with Ryan, a successful businessman.  They're engaged, and ready to begin life together.  But one night, leaving a restaurant, Kailey spots a homeless man standing outside the restaurant.  It's Cade.  He doesn't recognize Kailey, but she recognizes him, and, well, you know where this is going. 

What follows is Kailey's growing involvement in finding Cade, getting him help, and understanding what happened to leave him homeless, broken, and apparently without any memories of his previous life.  Kailey's job as a reporter covering a potential business deal that could detrimentally effect the homeless of Seattle keeps her in moving in Cade's world of homeless people who wander the streets and take up valuable real estate (according to Ryan's business connections).  What's she going to do?  And how long can she keep this secret from Ryan?  And why would she keep Cade a secret?  

This story just didn't live up to Sarah's previous novels.  It was maudlin, and this comes from someone who can take a lot of saccharine.  Kailey's life just seemed absolutely fantastical, and the tossing around of famous music names and songs just got old.  I have no desire to revisit the 1990's music scene in Seattle.  None of it felt very authentic to me.  At the end, I felt that there was never going to be a complete contentment from Kailey with the choices she made--and they were big choices.  

Drats.  I was disappointed in this one.  If you're a fan, by all means don't let this review stop you from reading Sarah.  I'll keep reading her; I just think this one missed the mark.  It felt like a very cheesy movie.

Rating:  1/6 for a story that just was too hard to believe, a heroine who didn't feel authentic to me, and ugh-an ode to 90's grunge music. 

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

One thing I miss about working in a bookstore is being near the kid's books.  I always enjoyed walking into that space and looking at all of the great stories on the shelves.  I'm pretty sure if I'd had the opportunity to see so many kid's  books when I was a youngster I'd probably have danced around and twirled a bit through sheer excitement.  

I realized as I started reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon that I had read Kelly Barnhill's earlier novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack years ago when it first came out in 2011.  I loved that book; it took place in Iowa, and was very unusual and magical.  What an imagination Kelly Barnhill has--what a gift!

I picked up this novel because it had just recently won the Newbery Award and I was curious.  Whenever I read a teen or young reader novel, I have to constantly check my inner voice and basically tell it to shut up.  I have to remember who the intended audience is, and that they are reading from a much more innocent, non-adult place.  I think it will do me a lot of good to read more young reader and teen books!

So, to the novel.  The Protectorate is a town that is filled with sorrow.  It's always gloomy, the sun never shines, and the people live very poorly.  The Elders and the Sisters run the show, and they have a yearly tradition that feeds more sorrow into the atmosphere (and keeps people under control):  once a year, they take the youngest baby in the village, and leave it in the forest as a sacrifice to the witch that lives there.  This keeps the witch from coming to the village and wreaking havoc on everyone.  It keeps them safe.  This year, a mother fights to keep her child, and is deemed crazy and taken to the Tower, where she is imprisoned by the Sisters.  The child is taken to the forest and left there.  

Here's the kicker:  The Elders have made it all up.  They leave the baby in the forest to die from exposure or, worse yet, animals.  There's no witch, as far as they're concerned.  It's just a way to keep control of the village.  Very teen dystopian!  

Here's the other kicker:  there really is a witch, Xan, who lives in the forest with her friends Glerk, the swamp monster, and Fyrian, the little dragon.  She finds the babies every year, and takes them to the other side of the forest, into the towns and villages there, and gives them to loving families.  She has no idea why they leave the babies in the forest, but she takes care of them and saves them from certain death.  This time, when a baby girl is left, Xan hesitates to take her to the villages for adoption.  Feeding her moon magic, she gives the baby too much, and the baby becomes magical.  Xan decides to keep the baby for herself, names her Luna, and raises her as her grandmother in the forest. Xan knows when Luna turns thirteen her magic will really kick in, and it will be time for Xan to give all her magic and die.  After all, Xan is 500 years old, and ready to be done.  

Of course, this plan doesn't work out that well.  Luna is a powerful little girl, and the magic is leaking out of her constantly. She has no way to control it, so Xan puts a spell on her that will keep the magic tamped down, and make it impossible for Luna to learn about magic or use it until she's thirteen.  

But that's not all that's going on in this story.  There's a young man in the village who struggles with the yearly tradition, and seeks a way to reconcile his feelings and find a solution.  He's got hope, a tiny spark of hope, that things will change.  But the change is not something that the Elders or Sisters want.  

I wondered if a child reading this novel would understand the undertone of powerful people doing bad things, and the oppression of people.  That the face some people put on in public is not who they really are, and it can hide some bad stuff.  That those people you think are bad just by hearing stories or seeing their physical self, actually are very kind and loving people who got a bad rap through stories and gossip.  They are the true healers and good people. 

I did enjoy this novel; I do wonder at the length for young readers.  I'd say advanced readers would swallow it up pretty quickly, but younger kids would struggle a bit.  The writing is fantastic, and the plot is pretty clever.  You can almost feel the magic oozing off the pages.  I enjoyed how the story unfolded and concluded.  Worthy of the Newbery.  Hope to read more of Kelly Barnhill; if she ever wrote an adult novel I'd grab it without hesitation. 

Rating:  4/6 for a beautifully written young reader novel about family, love, magic, sacrifice, and the evil that lurks behind those who are supposed to be looking out for all of us.  

Available in hardcover and e-reader.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Matchmakers of Minnow Bay by Kelly Harms

Yes, I know this wasn't on the list for March. But, I finished it at the end of February and didn't have a chance to review it before March rolled around, so here is a bonus review for you.  

Kelly Harms writes a novel that is what I call, to borrow a term from the foodie world, a "palate cleanser".  By this I mean after reading something heavy duty, like Sisi, I needed something fun, light, and entertaining to shake off the really sad story of Empress Elisabeth.  Something that would reset me for more good books in March. 

Matchmakers is chick-lit set in Chicago and Wisconsin.  Lily Stewart is in her early 30's, and still lives in the lousy apartment she first rented 10 years before after graduating from art school with her best friend, Renee.  Her dream was to make her living from her painting, and live a wonderful, carefree life in Chicago.  Now ten years later, she's broke, her paintings aren't supporting her, and she's just been evicted from her apartment.  With only one place left to stay for a few days (her step-brother's place), she's packing up when she finds an envelope hidden in her kitchen drawer.  Oops.  It's the annulment papers she was supposed to sign 10 years ago after a quickie Vegas wedding to a stranger.  

Except she forgot to sign them.  She's been married to this man for 10 years.  Lily, with the help of Renee, her college bestie now turned lawyer and married to Lily's ex-college boyfriend, tracks him down to Minnow Bay, WI.  Ben Hutchinson is a computer science high school teacher and no longer the rich computer guru Lily met on that night in Vegas.  She decides the only decent thing to to is to travel to Minnow Bay, find Ben, and apologize in person and hand him the signed papers. 

Of course not all goes as planned.  Lily ends up prolonging her stay in Minnow Bay, meets some great people along the way, and struggles to figure out her life and her awakened attraction to Ben.  Minnow Bay is not Chicago, and Lily's gallery owning boyfriend (who's a creep) is expecting her back in Chicago.  But whatever kept Lily blocked from painting with her heart in Chicago is gone in Minnow Bay, and she finds herself getting inspired by everything around her.  Does she stay or does she go back to Chicago?  Are the people in Minnow Bay as kind and friendly as they appear to be?  What about Ben?  

Lily's got a lot to figure out.  She's not a bad character, but there were certainly  times when I wanted to shake her.  She's pretty naive about money, people's motives, and the art world.  It's time for her to grow up.  Heck, I'd move to Minnow Bay in a second if it actually existed.  Sounds like a wonderful place. 

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining mix of chick lit, romance, a bit of the art world, and small town friendships.  I really enjoyed the folks of Minnow Bay. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. It will be out in paperback in August, 2017. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

March Reads: That Time I Went to the Bookstore and the Library and Got in Trouble

Somewhere along the way in the past week, I lost my book loving mind.  I had a handle on things; was making my list of books to read and review for March; had it all figured out. 

Then I met my friends at B&N for our book group, and I went to the library-twice.  Then I had a late night conversation with my brother Dan, and this conversation had me pulling a book out of the stack for "later" and moving it up to "now!".  I can't decide what to put back for April, so guess what:  this month I'm being very ambitious and a little crazy and having a read and review bonanza!  

What's coming up in March:

Newberry winner!

Publisher review

If you've followed my blog, you know I love Sarah Jio.  Can't wait!

Uh...Neil Gaiman.  Enough Said.  Had to buy this one. 

Saw this at the library and was intrigued.  

My brother told me my sis-in-law is reading this right now and is freaked out.  I immediately moved it to my March reading pile.  Bought last week at B&N with a great deal!

A book I'm positive I've bought, but can't find.  Checked it out from the library.  Originally came out as a teen novel, now the rest of the series is considered adult Sci-Fi.  Hmmm.

I've read Beth Gutcheon before and loved her writing.  Saw this at the bookstore and then found it at the library.  

I'm overly ambitious, I know.  I'm going to enjoy this month's reading binge!