Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

Wow. This book blew me away. I'm not sure what I was expecting when I requested it from the library; I have a vague recollection of knowing it was about an archaeologist and a neanderthal, and that was it.  It was so much more that I am declaring it to be one of my favorite books of 2017.  

Two stories, thousands of years apart, yet entwined together.  Rose is an archaeologist working in France in a cave where she has recently made a ground-breaking discovery: the skeletal remains of a Neanderthal and the remains of a "modern" human, buried together facing each other.  This find will turn the idea of Neanderthals going extinct through extermination by modern humans completely around.  Many will doubt the clear evidence, as they are happy to continue to believe Neanderthals were, well, neanderthal-ish in their lifestyle and behavior, and were incapable of intersecting and living with modern humans.  This will make Rose's career.

The other story is told by Girl.  She is the Neanderthal Rose finds in the cave centuries later.  Girl lives within a small family:  Big Mother, Brother, Bent, and Runt.  Runt has stayed with the family ever since he was discovered wandering around the forest.  He's very different looking than Girl and her family:  dark skinned, black hair, more finely boned.  Girl has bright red hair, and a body that is made to be muscular and incredibly strong. She is a warrior queen. Girl is so finely tuned into the world around her that she, along with her family, are able to sense warm blooded creatures just by feeling the air currents flow over their upper gums.  They are so much a part of the cycle of life that they can feel the trees' thoughts, sense bears hybernating, and move through their days completely a part of the world around them. Claire Cameron's prose is just beautiful.  Her descriptions of the reverence and honor Girl and her family have for the world around them is one of the best parts of this novel. 

I quickly became obsessed with Girl's story.  Tragedy upon tragedy quickly follows Girl, and soon she is completely alone. Or is she?  I was all in on her quest to survive, and her fight to not give up.  Girl is tenacious, quick thinking, warm, kind, and capable.  She's a survivor.  Life is pretty black and white in Girl's time, and there was no room or time for contemplating morals.  It was kill or be killed.  

Rose is also obsessed with uncovering the two skeletons.  She is prepared to fight for her vision of Neanderthals, knowing it will be an uphill battle against established beliefs in the scientific community.  Working against time (Rose discovers she is pregnant at the beginning of the novel) she feverishly works to uncover as much of Girl as she can before she's forced to leave and have her child.  Two women, from two very different worlds, fighting for survival in very different ways.  Rose is Girl's storyteller, and she fights hard to tell the true story.

This was such a good book.  I would love to see this as a movie.  When it comes down to it, the connection we share with our Neanderthal ancestors (yes, we do have Neanderthal in our DNA) is knowing that we are not alone in this world. I was sad to see my time with Girl come to an end. What a powerful character. What a powerful woman.  

Rating:  5/6 for a roller coaster ride through the life of the last Neanderthal, Girl.  Her connections to the land and nature are beautifully written by Claire Cameron.  Girl is an unforgettable character to me.  Rose is also equally strong, but Girl is the star of this novel. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard: Audio Book Review

My attempts to get the names down of people and places in this adventure tale pretty much failed. That's the downside of audio books! So, to give you a brief overview of this historical tale I turn to Kirkus Reviews:


The 26th U.S. president, failing re-election, has an adventure that nearly kills him.
In an admirable debut, historian Millard records Theodore Roosevelt’s exploration of a hitherto uncharted river in the heart of the Mato Grosso. A confluence of circumstances, including a South American speaking tour and the eagerness of others to investigate the Amazonian headwaters, brought Teddy, aged 55 and still bold and plucky, to Brazil, then largely unmapped and unknown. When the opportunity came to change a planned route to follow the uncharted course of the ominously named River of Doubt, the former chief executive seized it eagerly. And so, with devoted son Kermit and truly intrepid Brazilian co-commander C├óndido Rondon, along with a band of hardy recruits, the party plunged into the fierce, fecund jungle and its unknown dangers. (It’s an exploit that standard TR biographies generally treat lightly, if at all). With heavy, useless equipment and inappropriate provisions, the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition ventured into the luxuriant wilderness where every life form threatened. There were pit vipers, piranhas and tiny fish that attack where a man is most vulnerable. There were poisonous plants, malevolent insect swarms and native warriors, ever present and never seen. The beefy former president must have embodied some prime cuts for the cannibals as he sat in his canoe. Eventually Colonel Roosevelt was downed by injury and fever. He ended his journey emaciated at three-quarters of the weight he started with on the watercourse now found in atlases as the Roosevelt River. Millard tells the story wonderfully, marshaling ecology, geography, human and natural history to tell the tale of the jungle primeval, of bravery and privation, determination and murder in the ranks as cowboy Roosevelt survived the Indians of the Amazon.
So now, for my review of the audio book.  I really did want to actually read the book, and spend time looking at the photos included in the book.  But, I had a chance to listen to the audio and decided the 11 discs were worth two weeks of commuting time.  The narrator was great; his different voices for Teddy, his son Kermit, Rondon, and others on the trip were fine.  I did get a bit distracted on occasion, and it seemed to drag a bit from time to time.  But, overall, it is an interesting adventure story to read, especially if you're a fan of The Lost City of Z by David Gran.  I'm a big fan of Amazon adventure stories; mostly because I'd never have the guts to do it.  After listening to the litany of bugs, plants, animals, reptiles, trees, and natives that could kill you in an instant, well, I came close to having nightmares!  
I was very interested in learning about Teddy Roosevelt and his relationship with his son, Kermit.  I am still, a week after finishing this audio book, astounded that these men survived. It really did take immense skill, willpower, and sheer luck.  The number of times the group were faced with rapids that required hauling everything up from the river and portaging through the rainforest was just exhausting.  I don't know how they didn't just sit down and give up.  Poor food planning (who brings mustard and chutney on a rainforest trek?!) on the part of one of the early organizers (he was blinded by the fact that an ex-president was on the trek) left the crew with the very real possibility of starvation.  The rainforest may look lush, bountiful and fruitful, but is the farthest thing from it.  Injuries, exhaustion, fear of attack by natives; being reduced to wearing rags as clothes were ripped, torn, and worn out by the sheer physicality of every day survival. They survived it all. Amazing. 
This book has been out for a number of years, and is still stocked in bookstores and libraries for a reason. It's a tale of survival, a quest, relationships, the changing tides caused by empires and greed, and one man's desire to have one last great adventure. 
Read the book, listen to the audio.  I will probably buy the book just to have it on my bookcase and to look at the pictures.  I would recommend it to anyone; teen boys may find it interesting, and anyone who loves to be an armchair traveler.  
Rating:  5/6 for a spectacular adventure into the Amazon.  Teddy Roosevelt was a pretty cool man.  This tale is colorful, nail-biting, and astounding considering it took place in 1914.  
Available in paperback, audio, and ebook.  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Second Chance Season: A Grand Valley Novel by Liora Blake

It wouldn't be summer without a scorching hot romance, right?  This novel, the second in a series, caught me off guard, but in a "wow this is such a good story" way.  

First of all, you don't need to read the first Grand Valley novel First Step Forward in order to enjoy the romance between Garrett Strickland and Cara Cavanaugh.  I do, however, want to read the first novel because the second in the series is so darn good.  The third in the series, Ready for Wild, will be out in October, 2017.  I can't wait to read it!  You get hints of its beginnings throughout Second Chance Season, and you get an update on the couple from First Step Forward. I love it when characters in a trilogy pop into each other's story lines.  

So...Garrett meets Cara on the side of the road outside the small Colorado town of Hotchkiss.  She's smoking hot, and lost.  Garrett stops on his way to work after seeing her SUV pulled over on the side of the road, and being a decent man, he wants to make sure the driver is okay.  Cue the instant lust Garrett has when he sees Cara.  And, of course, Garrett's no slouch in the hot department himself, and Cara likes the looks of him, too.  She's traveled to Hotchkiss on a freelance assignment to write a series of articles about farmers who are creating successful businesses and changing the face of rural agriculture in America.  She could use Garrett's help, as she's new to the area and unsure of who to make contact with to get some great stories.  

Cara is also staying for the next 8 weeks in the home that Garrett grew up in, but lost after his father died and their farm went bust.  Garrett's future was radically changed, and now he works at the local co-op, which is way below what he could do, but there's nothing really spurring him on to pursue his dreams.  Until Cara, of course. 

Well.  The lust between these two is pretty intense.  I've got to hand it to Ms. Blake, she does a really good job at creating sexual tension and ramping up the heat.  Plus, she writes a darn good story, with characters that aren't shallow and have real issues.  Cara's wealthy background does become somewhat of an issue, but not because of her attitude about wealth.  After all, she could sit back and enjoy,but wants a career of her own and is willing to work hard to get it.  There's an minor age difference between Cara and Garrett, but it's only mentioned briefly, and is never an issue, which I found refreshing. The path to happiness doesn't run smoothly for these two, but it does eventually conclude in a satisfying way that has a little bit of an unusual twist.  

If you're a romance fan, or may even if you're not, I recommend this book and heck, I'll even encourage you to read the first in the series, and hang on until October to read the third.  I'll be reading them both.  Yes, romance is the main plot point, but there's so much more to this story that I would certainly recommend this to anyone who likes contemporary women's novels with a bit of steam.  Enjoy this one on the beach!

Rating:  4/6 for a novel that caught me off guard with a well written plot, fully shaped characters with real issues, and wowee some steamy sex!

Thank to to Pocket Books (Simon and Schuster) for a review copy.    

Available in paperback and ebook.  

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Cafe by the Sea by Jenny Colgan

I've come to the conclusion that anytime is a great time to read a new Jenny Colgan novel.  I've very quickly become a reader who dives right into her latest release, often stopping my progress on other books so I can greedily gulp down another lovely tale.  

Colgan's latest revolves around Flora MacKenzie, a young woman working as a paralegal in London, hopelessly crushing on her boss Joel.  Flora's definitely a small cog in a big law firm, and Joel certainly doesn't notice her.  Most people don't notice Flora, or if they do, wonder why she's so darn pale.  Tall, with milky white skin, blonde hair so blonde it looks white, and eyes that change from blue to green, to gray, Flora fades into the hustle and bustle of London.  She's from the island of Mure, way up north, off the coast of Scotland.  Rumor has it her mother, dead from cancer, was a Selkie, and Flora herself is one, too.  Flora fled to London with the encouragement of her mother, who married young and spent her life raising Flora and her three older brothers and working as a farm wife with no chance to spread her wings. Now with her mother gone, and unable to process her grief, Flora hasn't returned to Mure since her mother's funeral.  

Colton, an American billionaire, has come to the law firm with a case that takes place on Mure: someone wants to put wind turbines directly in the view of Colton's new place on Mure called the Rock. Hoping to create a beautiful resort, he's poured a lot of money in to the place, and this could ruin it. Mure is known for bird watching, whale watching, and hiking.  A paradise where the sun never sets in the summertime, and the winter nights are endless.  It's a peaceful, beautiful, and sometimes desolate island.  

 Flora is quickly dispatched back to Mure, as part of the legal team that will use her connections to the folks in Mure to help win the case for Colton. Reluctantly, she heads back to Mure, sure it will be a short visit.  Her father and brothers run the family farm, and have not taken care of themselves since their mother died.  Flora's not sure of her welcome, but quickly gets back into the swing of her rambunctious family, finding her mother's recipes and creating tasty meals for everyone.  

Colton turns out to be a pretty nice billionaire, who truly loves Mure. But Colton is unaware that he hasn't made any fans of the island folk because he doesn't support the community by hiring local workers and eating the bounty of the island.  With Flora's help, can he turn it around?

There's more, of course, to this tale.  Flora's unresolved grief over the death of her mother, her distance from her family, and her resolve to return to London as quickly as possible.  There's Joel, who is a whole story himself!  Will he ever notice Flora?  Is her crush just a silly crush, or something real?  Flora doesn't realize it, but the island is where she is most at home, and the happiest.  Can Colton's ideas for the island convince her to stay?  

This is probably one of my favorite Colgan novels.  Not only did I love the setting--so very different from the usual London setting, but I loved the complexity of Flora and Joel, both together and separately.  Flora's brothers were colorful characters, as well as the islanders and Colton, too.  I hope there are more novels set on Mure, because I'd love to visit the island again.

Rating:  4/6 for a perfect summer read set on a unique island, with a generous mix of unrequited love, local mythology, and a island and a family on the cusp of change.  

Available in paperback, audio, and ebook. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Last Days of Cafe Leila by Donia Bijan

This novel caught my eye a few months back for two reasons:  it is set in Iran, and it's about food.  It's also about coming home after a very long absence.  

Flipping between present day Iran and San Francisco, and Iran before and during the revolution in the late 1970's and early 1980's, The Last Days of Cafe Leila tells the story of the Yadegar family; Russian immigrants who moved to Iran in the mid-twentieth century to escape persecution and settled in Tehran, opening a popular cafe.  Yanik and Nina have three sons:  Davoud, Zod, and Morad.  Zod is the son who works alongside his parents, cooking delicious meals for friends and family.  The Cafe Leila becomes very well known, and a hotel is built to accomodate guests, along with nightly music, dances, and a beautiful garden full of delightul scents and exotic plants.  It's a happy life, until tragedy suddenly takes a family member.  Zod marries Pari, and they quickly fall in love, raising Noor and her brother Mehrdad with the help of Naneh Goli, Zod's childhood nanny.  

And then the revolution comes, and with it terror and uncertainty, and terrible, terrible heartbreak.  Zod decides to send his children to the United States to safety.  Noor and Mehrdad, speaking no English, find themselves in Oakland, struggling through college, unsure of their surroundings, and for Noor, experiencing culture shock.  They both know they can't go home. 

Interwoven with this story is present day Noor, now the mother of teenage Lily, and going through a divorce from Nelson, a cardiologist with a wandering eye.  Zod is dying, and he calls Noor home for the first time in decades. It's the perfect excuse to take Lily and escape the pain and humiliation of her husband's infidelity.  Lily, of course, is very angry and not at all interested in visiting Iran or the grandfather she's never met. But for Noor, it is a crucial turning point in her life, and how she sees herself. For so long a timid, gentle woman, she's forced to move out of her boundaries while at the same time physically covering herself with garments when she leaves Cafe Leila and the apartment upstairs.  Iran becomes for her a place of freedom.

This truly is a family saga with plenty of love, laughter, and loss. The food is the most magical part of this novel; pomegranates, lemons, kebabs, perogie, rose water, honey; it is so much a part of the culture of Iran, but also the history of the Yadegar family and their blending of Russian and Persian foods. There is a bit of a twist at the end, but I didn't think it was very surprising, and it was the best way to end the novel.  Who knows?  There may be more to Noor's story in a future novel. 

Rating:  3/6 for a novel about a woman traveling back home to rediscover herself, her family history, and her future.  The descriptions of food were mouthwatering and have me craving pomegranates and perogies.  It is an interesting look at how people can live life in a society that has undergone tremendous, painful change. 

Available in hardcover, audio, ebook, and large print.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Alex and Eliza: a Love Story by Melissa De La Cruz

My teen reading hasn't been the best this year, so when I found out there was a novel about Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler's courtship, I just had to read it. 

 I was curious to see how Melissa De La Cruz, who's known mostly for her Blue Bloods and the Witches of East End series, tackled history; especially a well known love story.  

I'm happy to say I was pleased with this retelling of a passionate love story that has become widely known due to the musical Hamilton.  While it isn't jam packed full of historical anecdotes or have the depth of an adult historical novel, it certainly fleshes out enough of the political climate to make a person curious to explore more.  Alex and Eliza lived in an extraordinary time, surrounded by giants in American history; even as Alex himself was becoming one of those very giants himself.  A new nation struggling to defeat the British under the constant stress of harsh weather conditions, lack of food and shelter, and never knowing exactly who was firmly on the American side or the British side.  Can you imagine being part of a time where the country you lived in was brand new?  What that must have been like?  The possibilities and the unknowns?  

Melissa De La Cruz smartly decided on writing about Alex and Eliza's early meetings and the years before they were married.  Alex was a red-headed, blue-eyed, strikingly handsome wunderkind who arrived in America as a young teen with no money and no family.  All he had were his brilliant mind and ambition.  He landed an extremely important job as aide de camp to General George Washington; writing all the General's correspondence and being his right hand man. He was so valued by George that even though Alexander wanted to fight in the Revolution, George refused to send him into battle. It was frustrating for Alexander, who felt he should be able to lead a regiment into battle and prove himself to those who felt he kept himself safe by quill and paper.  

Elizabeth Schuyler was the middle of three oldest daughters to the Schuylers, a powerful family who could trace their time in America back to the 1600's.  Her father was a general in the Revolution, and marrying into the Schuyler family was seen as a savvy political move to any man who had ambition.  

Elizabeth and Alexander met at a dinner in 1777; after that they didn't meet again until 1780, when Elizabeth traveled to Morristown, NJ to stay with her Aunt.  Alexander was there with General George Washington as they wintered in town and prepared for the Spring battles that were sure to come. Elizabeth and Alexander certainly had a spark, and fell deeply in love. This is where De La Cruz takes some fictional license and creates obstacles along the path to true love.  This had me thinking about the few choices women had in matters of marriage and living a life they wanted to live.  It reminded me of just how much freedom we do have now, in America, to choose our partners, have a career, have or not have children, and support ourselves financially without a partner. While Elizabeth can, at times, sound a bit more like a modern young lady, I can see this intelligent young lady thinking about life as a woman during the revolution and wondering about her choices.  

Overall, I enjoyed this teen novel.  Even knowing the history of their marriage, and the early death of Alexander by a fatal duel with Aaron Burr, the novel ends with hope and the love of two people who truly found their better halves.  

Rating:  3/6 for a teen historical novel that takes some liberties with the love story, but overall gives life to a long ago love that still fascinates us today. Plenty of historical figures in this novel; the background of the struggles to become a nation adds a sense of urgency and danger to an enduring love story. 

Available in hardcover, audio and ebook. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Ahhhhh!!  Alice Hoffman returns to the world we first discovered in Practical Magic, the first Alice Hoffman book I ever read. I was so excited to read this and it met my expectations in every way. 

This is a prequel to Practical Magic.  It begins in the 1960's, in New York with the Owens family:  mother Susanna, her husband, and their three children:  Frances, a beautiful young lady with red hair and fair skin; Bridget (Jet), stunningly beautiful with long black hair and grey eyes, and Vincent, the youngest and the first male child to be born to the Owens line. Owens is the name descended from their first ancestor, who arrived in America way back when.  She was  witch.

Susanna tried to run away from her gifts, and forbade her children to do anything that might be construed as magic.  They weren't quite sure why, but as they grew into their teens, it was impossible to deny they each had abilities.  Along with those abilities came a curse: no Owens could love anyone, for it would lead to disaster and death.   

Oh, so much happens in this novel!  Vincent is pulled to dark magic as he wander the streets of New York, playing guitar, hanging out in bars (at 14!), and having a hypnotic pull on pretty much every woman who sees him. He doesn't even have to try, and is pretty unhappy with his life, but doesn't really know why. Both Frances and Jet are slowly discovering a few magical talents they each have, as well.  All on the hush, so their parents don't know. 

 One summer, the three siblings are invited to spend the summer with their Great Aunt Isabelle in Massachusetts.  Actually, it's not an invitation, but a command.  All three end up discovering more about their magical powers and more of the family history--and meet their cousin April in the big old house on Magnolia Street.  The house where the porch light is always on, the gardens are full of mysterious plants, and townspeople come at night to get potions and charms.  

At the novel travels through the 1960's, all three teens struggle to understand the family curse about love; sometimes with disastrous consequences.  It seems they are all heading for unhappy, loveless lives.  Can the curse be broken?  

I so loved this novel.  It is classic Alice Hoffman, and that makes me so happy.  While I absolutely adored The Dovekeepers, my heart always goes back to her tales of magic.  This prequel brings you right up to the day Sally and Gillian, as little girls, come to live at the house on Magnolia Street with Franny and Jet. 

I'm leaving a lot of the details and story for you to discover and enjoy yourself.  There is plenty of heartbreak, love, and turmoil in the journey of the Owens siblings, but it is masterfully written.  It left me very reluctantly finishing the last page.  I may have to go back and reread Practical Magic again.  

I'm sorry to say, but The Rules of Magic won't be published in hardcover until October, 2017 in the United States.  You have a wonderful summer to build up the anticipation of reading this book so appropriately released in October.  A big thank you to Edelweiss for the chance to read this!  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to wait until October.  

Rating: 5/6 for a satisfying prequel to Practical Magic.  Getting to know Franny, Jet, and Vincent and all their trials and heartbreaks makes this one of my favorite reads of 2017.  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

It's been about 13 years since I visited Ireland, but I can still remember the stunning beauty:  the intense colors, the fresh air, and the small towns and villages. Someday I'll return for another visit, but in the meantime, I was lucky to read The Library at the Edge of the World and be reminded of that special time in Ireland.  

Hanna Casey has returned to live with her mother in a small home set just outside of Lissbeg. She's newly divorced, with a grown daughter (Jazz) who's off on her own as a flight attendant. Hanna's ex-husband had been carrying on a years-long affair with a family friend behind Hanna's back. Very angry, Hanna only wanted out, and left behind the chance to be compensated for supporting her husband's career during their long marriage. So broke, she's living with her mother, working as a librarian in the Lissbeg public library. Not where she expected to be; after all, her dreams were to work in one of the great libraries of  London, helping to preserve and showcase history. Hanna is a bit of a wet blanket; she doesn't allow her library to have much going on for the public. People go to the library to check out books and none of that nonsense about classes, programs, or groups meeting in the library. She's cranky, which doesn't quite jive with the description of her rather youthful appearance. Her relationship with her mother is combative, as well.  

Hanna decides to remodel a crumbling little stone cottage she inherited from a distant relative.  It's a huge mess, but Fury, a local colorful character, decides he is the one to tackle this rather large project.  He's a man unto himself; he won't answer his phone, makes decisions for Hanna, and has his own reasons for wanting to restore the cottage.  What starts out as a prickly relationship becomes one of friendship, and it was fun to read the scenes between Hanna and Fury.  

Meanwhile, the local council has decided to push forth a large project that will benefit part of the Finfarran Peninsula:  a larger port to welcome cruise ships, a bigger center for activities, and a huge push to welcome more tourists.  Only problem with this is that it leaves a huge portion of the peninsula (and Lissbeg) out in the cold, with no access to services and no chance to survive.  If the Lissbeg library and local businesses hope to survive, they've got to come up with a plan and fight the council.  Hanna finds herself smack dab in the middle of this project with the help of an elderly nun and Conor, her part-time library assistant.  They've got to pull the community together and showcase all the wonderful people, places, and services the whole Finfarran Peninsula has; but have they run out of time?

I have to say this novel started out slowly for me.  I had to keep reminding myself that it was contemporary, because I felt like I was reading a novel that took place in the 60's or 70's. Hanna took a bit to warm up to; she has a lot of emotional baggage to work through, and it took up much of the first half of the novel. I'm happy to say the second half of the novel was much more interesting and picked up speed as the fight for Lissbeg's survival took center stage.  It is through this that Hanna begins to find her strength and looks at her library position as something more, rather than a drudgery.  As her home nears completion, she's finding her place. There are sufficient loose ends to hope for a sequel. Hanna has a budding romance; her home isn't quite finished (but is thisclose), and where does Lissbeg go after the surprise Fury pulls off?  I want to see what happens next! 

This novel was published outside the U.S. in 2016; it will be out in paperback by HarperCollins in the U.S. in November, 2017.  I was lucky to have a chance to read an ARC through Edelweiss and it was a great way to kick off my summer reading list. Add it to your TBR list now!

Rating:  3/6 for an entertaining read about a small Irish village, a librarian, and how they need one another.  The first half is more angsty relationship stuff, but the second half was delightful and makes me want to read a sequel. I  enjoyed getting to know the people who surrounded Hanna; a great job in building an enjoyable cast of characters.