Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Last To See Me by M Dressler

I had to finish out the month of October with a ghost story.  Happy Halloween!  I spotted this novel while looking at upcoming releases, and when I saw the main character was a ghost, I just had to read it.  What I got was part supernatural, part history, part philosophical.  

The novel takes place in Benito, California; a small Northern California town previously known in the early 1900's for the timber industry.  Now it's a quaint tourist stop.  Hunters--ghost hunters--are bonded by law, and hired to clear spirits out of places, and they've done a pretty good job in Benito--except for one ghost.

Emma Rose Finnis died in 1915, and she continues to haunt the town of Benito, and the stately Lambry Mansion.  Alice, the last Lambry, has died, and directed the mansion to be sold and the profits to be divided up between her distant family.  A obnoxious rich couple want to buy the mansion, and completely gut it and change it from the beautiful home it is into a contemporary monstrosity.  Emma won't have it. 

Philip Pratt is hired to clear out whatever spirit is causing all the trouble at the Lambry Mansion.  He teams up with the realtor, Ellen DeWight, to figure out who the spirit is--once he knows their name, he has all the power.  Emma is pretty smart, however, and has had plenty of practice honing her skills, and keeping her anger from allowing her to be seen.  

The novel switches back and forth between the contemporary plot, and Emma's life as a chambermaid in Benito.  Her mother died in childbirth, and her father died from a horrible logging accident, leaving Emma to fend for herself as a teenager.  She was a good girl, and only wanted to have a simple life, and maybe find some peace.  But that wasn't to be. After attracting the attention of one of the Lambry sons, Mrs. Lambry offers her a position as housekeeper to a family hired to help at the lighthouse on a desolate piece of land.  She takes the job, but what should be a means for her to save money and eventually leave quickly turns into a nightmare--and leads to Emma's death.  

You feel for Emma.  She's at times angry, sorrowful, and lonely.  Pratt has a job to do, and sees all spirits as not human, but creatures that harm living people.  When he sends them away, he destroys them--and whatever bits of humanity were left disappear.  It's an interesting novel, in that you see both sides of the story.  It's hard not to sympathize with Emma, however.  

The ending is a bit of a surprise, for sure.  There is more going on that you realize, until the last bit of the book.  And as you move closer to learning about Emma's death, the tension does grow.  You'll start to think about what death really means, and why some souls move on, and others stay.  What is it about a life that keeps us here?  And do those souls deserve a place here to heal?

A different kind of ghost story, and a good one.  The writing is beautiful, and ethereal.  A perfect tale for a dark, spooky night. 

Rating:  4/6 for a ghost story unlike any other I've read, with a compelling spirit you'll be rooting for, even though you wish her peace.  

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Happy Halloween!!


Monday, October 23, 2017

The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

My interest in bees is fairly new. Up until about 3 years ago, my only reaction to bees was the painful memory of being stung in my ear by a bee as a kid, and how much it hurt! As I started to garden at my house, I would walk outside and notice the butterflies and bees flitting around my flowers, and I was happy--as long as they stayed away from me. 

That slight awareness of bees became an interest when I stumbled upon urban beekeeping articles as I was searching for a paper topic in grad school.  From then on, I was interested in bees, and horrified at the mysterious deaths that are sending our bee population into a nosedive.  All of that back history drove me to pick up this book at my library.  

This novel is told in three separate historical settings: William, a biologist in 1852 England,  George, a beekeeper in 2007 Ohio, and Tao, a human pollinator in 2098 China.  In Tao's world, the bees have disappeared; world population has plummeted due to food shortages (no bees=no food!), and she is part of a group of workers who climb fruit trees and hand pollinate in order to produce crops.  It's endless work; every day, back breaking work with little pay, and very little to eat.  Tao lives with her husband and young son, Wei-Wen in a little house near the fields.  She hopes for a better future for her son, but has no idea how to make that happen.  

William is in a deep depression.  A budding biologist, his hopes of studying and research ended when he married and had children.  His former mentor has dismissed William, and now he's spent months lying in bed, as the money runs out and his seed shop remains closed.  One day, his son visits him, and provides a spark for William.  He finally gets out of bed, determined to begin research again--and finds that bees and hives are his passion.  Can he create a new, man made beehive that will revolutionize beekeeping, and provide his family with wealth?  

George is the latest in his beekeeping family.  A successful farmer, he's always made his own beehives from a family plan handed down through the generations.  His son Tom is away at college, but George has plans to work along side his son and hand off the family beekeeping operation to the next generation.  Tom, however, returns from college a changed man--one who isn't all that interested in beekeeping.  It's 2007, and reports of whole bee hives mysteriously dying off has folks puzzled and afraid.  Will George manage to keep his farm going?

Well.  We know it doesn't go well for the bees, thanks to Tao's story.  By 2098 the world is decimated--all because of The Collapse.  If anything, this novel makes you aware of just how vitally important bees are to, well, EVERYTHING.    It's serious stuff, and not made up fiction. Tao's world can be avoided.  

While this could be a novel about hopelessness, it's actually the opposite.  Tao's story is the most interesting one, because it's through a horrible tragedy involving Wei-Wen that hope is once again born in the world. You may wonder how these three characters, decades apart, could possibly be connected.  Oh, they are--in such a wonderful way.  I myself just had to cheer for William at the end of Tao's story.  Yes, both William and George (and Tom) are vitally present in 2098 China.  A perfect example of how we are all connected, and how much bees have helped sustain life over and over, and will continue to do so--if we just be mindful of them and get out of their way. 

It took me a while to get through this book. I had some trouble sticking with it, but have to admit Tao's story kept pulling me back, and I'm so glad I finished the novel.  It is one of those reads that resonates after you've read it and have time to think about it.  I'm definitely going to do my part next Spring and plant plenty of bee-friendly flowers in my yard. This novel may just be the catalyst to your interest in bees, and how incredibly important they are to our survival. There are plenty of books and documentaries about The Collapse, the history of bees, and yes--even how to be an urban beekeeper.  Get busy!

Rating:  3/6 for a good novel, but one I had to work to get through, until it clicked about 3/4 of the way through and then I raced to finish it.  A fascinating look at history, how we all are connected, and the power of bees. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Scarred Woman by Jussi Adler-Olsen

I'm probably one of the last people to climb aboard the Scandinavian mystery/thriller train, but I've finally taken my seat, and I'm happy to say I get all the excitement.  

The Scarred Woman is the 7th novel in the Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen.  I usually don't like to start a series with the latest book, but I thought I'd give it a shot.  For the most part, it worked for me.  But, one of the major parts of the novel has a backstory that I wish I was more familiar with before jumping into this novel.  Adler-Olsen makes up for that by digging into the story of Rose, one of the investigators for Department Q and not only familiarizing the reader with her sad, troubled past, but actually solving a big puzzle that will help her heal and move forward.  Rose is an unforgettable character, and her mental scars from emotional and verbal abuse are so vivid that it's painful to read about her experiences.  

So.  The Scarred Woman is really good!  It is dark, for sure, but refreshingly so. Like a blast of cold air that wakes you up.  In this novel, there is the recent unsolved murder of Rigmor Zimmerman, an elderly woman found dead in a park with head trauma and a substantial amount of money on her person.  It resembles a old cold case involving a beautiful young teacher who was also found dead with head trauma over ten years before.  While it feels like there should be a connection, I kept thinking it was a far stretch and no way could they be connected.  I was wrong.  

Besides Roses' story, which is painful to read, there is the story of Anne-Line, a social worker who is fed up with her job, the unending revolving door of young capable women who live off of the government, and upset about a recent medical diagnosis.  Anne-Line is one of those folks who work the same job for years, live quietly alone, and one day wake up to realize they are fed up with the unfairness of life, and decide to do something about it.  Anne-Line decides these girls- these lazy, selfish, dregs on society, must die.  Her reasoning, her decision making, and her planning are unsettling.  So this is how people become unhinged, I thought.  How people who can be described as "quiet, hardworking, nice" become killers.  Her transformation was chilling. I have to say she was my favorite character in the novel.  

So it seems that Carl and Assad, two investigators in Department Q, have a lot of seemingly random cases to solve.  Jussi Adler-Olsen skillfully weaves them all together, and the end is quite good.  Wow.  So impressed!  I did feel a bit lost a few times, because there is an established history between Carl and Assad, and Rose.  I felt I walked in mid-conversation, but it wasn't enough to keep me from getting into this novel and watching it all unfold.  I may go back and read the first Department Q novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes.  I usually don't read a lot of gritty contemporary mysteries, but this has turned me onto them, and I will certainly read more-especially by Scandinavian authors.  There was something very appealing about a mystery set in Copenhagen.  

A huge thank you to Dutton/Penguin for a review copy of The Scarred Woman. Yet again another genre I probably would have never read, but for this review opportunity.  Now I've got another whole world of Scandinavian thrillers to explore.  

Rating:  5/6 for a very clever mystery set in modern Copenhagen.  Each plot point in itself is solid and interesting, but the path to solving each mystery and the final solution are fascinating and make for one excellent read.  If you're interested in the Department Q novels, I'd start with the first one and work your way up to The Scarred Woman.  Or, you can be like me and jump in--either way will work!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay: A Review and Winner of Giveaway Announced

As I said in my previous post about Picnic at Hanging Rock, this novel came out of nowhere for me, and after a quick search on the internet, I was intrigued not only by the novel, but by the author, Joan Lindsay. 

Joan Lindsay wrote this book in 1967, when she was 70 years old.  Her first novel.  It became an instant hit.  The tale is simple, but as any simple tales go, there's a lot going on underneath the surface.  It's February 14, 1900.  The young ladies at Appleyard College for Young Ladies in Australia are eager to take a day trip to Hanging Rock, a place ideal for picnics and taking in some fresh air and nature.  The group, with Miss McGraw, the mathematics teacher, and Mademoiselle De Poitiers, the popular French teacher as chaperones, take the three hour carriage ride out to Hanging Rock.  The plan is to eat lunch, rest, explore a bit (as much as you can in gloves and corsets), and return to Appleyard at 4 PM.  Other folks are also there picnicking: Michael Fitzhubert, visiting from England; Albert Crundall, the coachman for Michael's Aunt and Uncle; and Mr. Ben Hussey, the carriage driver.  

Miranda is a senior, and the most popular girl at Appleyard.  She decides to climb Hanging Rock, and takes along Irma, Marion, and Edith.  The girls are seen crossing a creek by Michael and Albert, and then simply disappear.  Edith appears later, screaming, hysterical.  She can't tell anyone what happened, and no one can find the three missing girls.  Oddly enough, Miss McGraw is missing, too.  Searches, questions, theories abound.  Michael is haunted, and decides to travel back to Hanging Rock to try and find something, anything to answer his questions.  Miraculously, he finds Irma weeks after the incident, but in mysterious circumstances and unconscious. The other two girls and Miss McGraw are never seen again; nor is any trace of them ever found.  They have simply disappeared into thin air. 

From this dark day, the story moves on to how the disappearances change everyone who is touched by them: the students at Appleyard, the Headmistress of Appleyard, the teachers, Michael and Albert.  It's a pretty interesting ending; a bit of a shock to me.  According to the foreword, Joan Lindsay had written an ending that explained exactly what happened to the girls, but it was so "out there" (my words) that the publisher had her cut it.  There are hints of strangeness, and it's left up to readers to decide for themselves what may have happened to the girls on that lovely summer day.  Joan Lindsay herself claimed that the story may or may not be true, and plenty of folks have searched for information over the decades, but have found nothing.  

I'm intrigued enough to have placed  a hold on the movie at my local library. I can't wait to watch it.  

A huge thank you to Penguin/Random House for providing a copy not only for my review, but a copy to give away to a lucky reader.  And the winner of the giveaway is...

Thank you to all who entered the contest.  I am very glad I had the opportunity to read this classic novel, and I think it would make a very good book club discussion--or even better, a classroom discussion.  Just goes to show, any book you haven't read (even one 50 years old!) is new if you haven't read it yet.

Rating:  4/6 for a novel that has  a lot to offer towards discussion.  What is it about this tale that has stood the test of time?  Fascinating!

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack

Fans of M.J. Rose, Kate Mosse, and Katherine Neville have, no doubt, already discovered Gwendolyn Womack with her first novel, The Memory Painter. If you haven't, you'd better get busy and start reading.

This was one of those novels that I bought, added to my stacks at home, and forgot about for a few months.  When I finally plucked it out of a stack to read for October, I spent plenty of time congratulating myself for being smart enough to buy it and finally read it. It's exactly the kind of historical/magical/thriller/toss-in-just-a-wee-bit-of-romance novel that I relish reading. 

Two stories in one that eventually blend together.  Semele Cavnow is an expert at appraising antiquities for a very exclusive auction house in New York City.  She's sent to Geneva to appraise a rare private collection of ancient texts and manuscripts, and finds one written in Greek that is hidden from the rest of the collection.  Slowly translating it, she is a bit startled when it appears to be a written by a famous seer who was the daughter of a librarian at the great library in Alexandria. Odder still, this seer addresses Semele by name, and proceeds to foretell many big world events that won't come to pass for thousands of years, long after the seer is gone.  Semele is warned that there are people who want the manuscript.  Returning to New York with the manuscript and a digital copy (smart lady digitizes the whole manuscript and saves it to her laptop), she's aware that a man is following her, and her boss decides she will be removed from the project and sent to Beijing instead--with no explanation. Furious, Semele keeps translating the text, and learning all about the long line of women who have shared the gift of foretelling, vision, and reading a tarot deck that if found, would fetch an extremely high price. She's in danger, and forces are beginning to draw a net around her. 

I quickly became fascinated by the story about the extraordinary women who each sacrificed themselves to keep the tarot deck in safe hands, and to pass it onto the next generation.  A long, unbroken line that travels from ancient Alexandria, to Iraq, Greece, England, France, Germany, and eventually America.  But how does Semele fit into all of this?  That's part of the story.  Not only has she found out recently that she's adopted, but she is having flashes of the future, and senses that something bigger than herself is at play. 

I loved this novel!  It was all I could do to be a productive member of society last week, because all I wanted to do was sit and read it.  The end was truly not at all what I expected, but I thought the author's ability to wrap it all up, bring all that storyline together into one place, was masterful.  It answered a lot of questions.  Not only did I love the references to the great library of Alexandria, but all the reverence given to libraries, librarians as protectors of knowledge, and the awareness that we have always valued books, libraries, and those who make seeking and protecting knowledge their life's work. Our ties to the past are many and sometimes we forget that.  

Oh, I hope you read this and let me know what you think of it.  I'm a huge fan of Ms. Womack and have added her to my list of new favorite authors.  

Rating:  4/6 for an inventive novel about ancestors, an ancient tarot deck, libraries, and finding out our connections to the past.  Just enough romance, but not too much; good to read about a smart, capable woman who is an expert in a field that is usually dominated by men. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Widow's House by Carol Goodman

It's been a few years since I read my last Carol Goodman novel.  I stumbled across her while I was shelving at my bookstore, thought I'd try out her writing, and I'm so glad I did. Her contemporary gothic thrillers are just the kind of novel I enjoy.

 I would compare her to Kate Morton and Simone St. James; if you're a big fan of novels set around the Hudson Valley, you should read not only The Widow's House, but some of her other novels. She's also written a series for teens: Blythewood, Ravencliffe, and Hawthorn. She hasn't forgotten young readers, either: The Metropolitans looks like a great little mystery, and I'm adding it to my TBR list.  

Onto The Widow's House.  Jess and Clare Martin are two writers who have hit rock bottom.  Jess' first and only novel, written just out of college, was a big hit, but he's failed miserably writing his second novel.  Clare has put aside her own desire to write (she's the better writer of the two) in order to work at a publishing house to makes ends meet.  A stressed marriage and no money combine to take the Martins out of New York City and back to Concord, a sleepy village in the Hudson Valley known for its apple orchards and Apple Blossom Queen Festival.  It is where Clare grew up, and met Jess at Bailey College.  Not a place Clare was eager to return to, as her memories of growing up in a harsh household, knowing she was adopted, has left her feeling a bit adrift.  

Jess and Clare end up at Riven House, a huge mansion out in the country, where Alden Montague--their former professor at Bailey College, resides in what was once a glorious estate.  Taking the caretaker's job means they have an affordable place to stay, and the quiet Jess needs to finish his novel.  

But of course things aren't that simple.  Clare sees a young woman standing outside; hears a baby cry in the night, and is haunted by the tale of the Mary Foley, her lover Bay Montague, and their tragic ending in 1929.  Is it Mary she sees at night near the river, holding her baby?  What story does Mary want Clare to tell?

As Clare digs into Mary's story, her own novel starts to take shape at a feverish pace, and her obsession with Mary's tragic life compels Clare to start exploring the house and the secrets it holds.  Does she just have a vivid imagination, or is there evil at Riven House?  

I've got to say, I enjoyed everything about this novel except the relationship between Jess and Clare. They are obviously an unhappy pair; his treatment of Clare just had me really annoyed and wanting to smack him upside the head. Clare's high school boyfriend is the sheriff in town, and from the first time they meet again, it's obvious he's the good guy, and the man she should be with--not Jess.  That was frustrating, waiting for the story to evolve.  Other than that, there's enough history, paranormal possibilities, and backstory to make this a novel that you will carry with you everywhere, waiting to read just a few pages.  
A perfect Halloween read.

Rating:  4/6 for the atmosphere; the story of the Apple Blossom Queen is solid, and Clare is someone to cheer on in her journey to unveil the mysteries of Riven House. 

Available in paperback and e-book.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

This book.  Seriously loved it.  It came at the right time. It's been sitting in a stack of books for a month or so, I can't believe I managed to hold off as long as I did before I grabbed it and settled in for a good read.  

Equal parts humor, sentiment, reflection, and whimsy, Michael Poore's novel about one man's 10,000 lifetimes was such an enjoyable reading experience. Milo is a character that will stay with you long after you've finished the book.

So Milo has lived 9,995 lives; in the life he has just recently departed, he's eaten by a shark, after having an otherwise pretty good day.  He's back on the other side, meeting Death--a woman named Suzie (she prefers that to "Death") and falling back into their love affair.  Yes, Milo and Suzie have been lovers for centuries.  Suzie isn't all that happy being Death, and tempts fate by quitting.  

Meanwhile, Milo has only 5 lives left to reach perfection/get it right/know all the answers in order to become one with the cosmic soul.  It's what every soul aims to do.  Milo has become well known on the other side because it's taken him so very, very long to reach this state--and if he doesn't get it right very quickly, he'll be shoved off the cosmic sidewalk into nothingness.  Every other soul has managed to figure it out long before their allotted 10,000 lives, but Milo just can't seem to get it right.  He's come close, but then blows it.  

Whether you believe in reincarnation or not, this is a refreshing and humorous look at just how hard it is to get life right.  Getting it right means many things to many people, but when we boil it down, it's all about being a good, kind, unselfish person, and putting others before ourselves.  Milo's adventures aren't just linear; he looks into a river, picks a life that will help him achieve perfection, and dives into that new life.  It can be in India thousands of years ago, or 1920's America.  It can be in the future, on another planet after Earth has been ruined by the human race. All lifetimes are happening at the same time. His lives are sometimes short, sometimes long; uneventful, or full of pain.  All his other previous lives, however, are a voice in his head, helping and nudging him to make the right choices.  Yes, he is wiser in the process, but his human qualities can take over, and ruin what was a pretty good life. Milo is funny, wise, curious, rueful, determined, and a bit of a lazy ass.  He reincarnates as men, women, animals, insects; black, white, red, yellow, other worldly.  Sometimes with wealth,sometimes very poor.  Sometimes healthy and strong, other times with physical limitations.  The universe is throwing everything at him and giving him every chance to get it right, but dang it all Milo!  He keeps ruining his chance.  

I absolutely loved this book.  Thinking about it, I realize it leaves me with hope. Hope that there is something bigger than all of us, and we are all working towards perfection--not in our physical world, but in our souls.  I don't plan on spending 10,000 lifetimes to find it!  

6/6 for a fantastic look at life, death, the great cosmic wheel, and how we can get it right.  Laugh out loud, poignant, and thoughtful.  Fans of Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore, and Terry Pratchett will enjoy this novel. I hope Michael Poore keeps writing!

Available in hardcover and ebook.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Book Giveaway: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

It never gets old:  the surprise I feel when books  I've been completely unaware of all my adult reading life pop up on my radar. This is one of those books.  And lucky for you, my blog fans, you get a chance to win a copy from Penguin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this classic.  

Here's what Penguin is saying about this newly released paperback edition:

A 50th-anniversary edition of the landmark novel about three “gone girls” that inspired the acclaimed 1975 film and an upcoming TV series starring Natalie Dormer

by Joan Lindsay
Foreword by Maile Meloy

“A sinister tale...laced with touches of other-worldliness” The Guardian

“Deliciously horrific.” The Observer

“The fact that most people believed that this palpable fiction was a record of a real event is not merely a tribute to the writer...but a testimony to the atavistic power of its theme.” The Spectator

“Beautifully haunting.” The Sun Herald (Australia)

Mysterious and subtly erotic, PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (Penguin Classics; On-sale: October 3, 2017; $16.00; ISBN: 9780143132059) was first published 50 years ago and inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir—as well as a six-episode TV series starring Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, scheduled to be released by Amazon next year. Widely considered one of the most important Australian novels of all time, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

On a cloudless summer day in the year 1900, everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared…. They never returned.

Over the course of four weeks in 1966, Joan Lindsay wrote PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, a debut literary novel that became a sensation. The intrigue surrounding it propelled it into Australia’s national folklore. This new Penguin Classics edition, featuring a foreword by Maile Meloy, author of the recent bestselling novel Do Not Become Alarmed, about the disappearance of four children on a family vacation, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the novel’s first publication.

As Maile Meloy recommends in her foreword, new readers are encouraged to delve into PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK with as little information as possible. For whether these accounts are fictional or true is entirely up to the reader to discern.

About the Author:
JOAN LINDSAY was born Joan à Beckett Weigall in Melbourne, Australia, in 1896. She attended Clyde Girls Grammar School, the model for Appleyard College in Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, where she studied painting. On Valentine’s Day 1922 she married Daryl Lindsay in London. She chose Valentine’s Day 1900 as the setting for Picnic at Hanging Rock, her best-known work, which was first published in 1967 and is the basis for the 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. She died in Melbourne in 1984.
MAILE MELOY (foreword) is the author of the novels Do Not Become Alarmed, Liars and Saints, and A Family Daughter; the story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review); and the Apothecary series, a middle-grade trilogy. She has received The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles.

Enter to win a copy!  Here's how:
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Contest ends at 12 AM on Sunday, October 15th.  Open to U.S. residents only.  

Review and winner will be announced Sunday, October 15th!