Thursday, November 30, 2017

Brimstone by Cherie Priest and My November Fails

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  I love Cherie Priest novels. She's a fantasy writer with a touch of paranormal creepiness that is just right for someone like me.  I don't care much for horror novels, and her writing comes right up to the edge but doesn't tip over.  I think she's hitting her stride, and more readers are discovering her novels in the science fiction/fantasy sections of their libraries and bookstores. 

In Brimstone, Cherie takes us to 1920 Cassadaga, Florida.  There are two main characters:  Alice Dartle, a young woman from Virginia who has come to Cassadaga to share her clairvoyant talents, and Tomas Cordero, a World War I vet who lives in Ybor City, Florida.  He is haunted by the task he was given as a solider:  to be part of a small force of men who used a flamethrower to kill enemy soldiers.  He returns home to find his wife has died of influenza while he was gone, and he's a broken man. He is desperate to communicate with her. But something strange is happening:  small fires are appearing out of nowhere, and the local police are suspicious that Tomas is setting them himself.  But he's not.  

Cassadaga is a small community built to welcome people who have a variety of talents: mediums, clairvoyants, tarot readers; anyone who has a legitimate talent to see to the other side.  Folks travel to Cassadaga from all over the United States and the world to stay at the hotel, attend lectures, and have readings.  It's one place people like Alice can come to live and feel welcome and develop their talents with like minded people.  At her first outing to conduct live readings, she zeros in on something dark, hulking, and evil.  It calls itself The Hammer.  Not understanding what it is, and overwhelmed by the ferocity of this malignant "thing", Alice is shaken and takes awhile to recover.  She's also dreaming about a solider wearing a strange mask, and surrounded by flames and a battlefield. 

Tomas, meanwhile, has increasingly frightening episodes of fires erupting at his home, but also tragically elsewhere in his neighborhood and business.  People are starting to die in these fires, which are horribly fierce and leave nothing standing.  He has written to Alice (after seeing her profiled in a newspaper) and decides after the worst fire to flee Ybor City and travel to Cassadaga for help. 

Alice and Tomas finally meet in Cassadaga, but Tomas has brought something terribly dark, evil, and bent on destruction with him.  Now the evil has set its sights on Cassadaga and all who live there.  Will Alice be able to figure out what The Hammer is, and stop it before it destroys Cassadaga?

It took me awhile to get through this novel; not because it wasn't interesting, but just because I was easily distracted this month.  When I finally dialed in and focused, I was sucked in and soon I could smell the smoke, feel the heat, and taste the soot.  I could feel myself becoming a little paranoid about smelling fire, too.  As the tension ramped up, I felt myself urging Alice and Tomas to figure it out, quickly!  When the identity of The Hammer is revealed; well, I thought heck, that was a pretty cool plot twist.  Cherie Priest also explores grief, and how sometimes we so desperately want to hear from our loved ones that we'll accept anything as a sign they are near, even if it is so clearly not a good sign-and perhaps even a deadly sign.  Maybe it's not your loved one, but something dark from the other side...

If you haven't tried a Cherie Priest novel, give her a try.  She's written a few stand alone, but also a few series and they are all very different.  There is sure to be something there to interest you! Here's a link to her list of books on her blog: http://www.cheriepriest.com .  

Rating:  4/6 for an unusual plot and a fascinating look at Cassadaga (which does exist!), grief, and what haunts us.  Available in paperback and ebook. 

My November fails.  There were a few, I'm sad to say.  Time got away from me, and I didn't get to read nearly enough of what I'd planned.  Tomorrow is December 1st, and I've already started on my pile of Christmas reads.  I'm ready for the comfort and entertainment they will bring me.  Here's what I started, but didn't finish in November:

I thought I would be able to read this YA novel based on the amazing life of Dita Kraus, and her time spent at Auschwitz as a teenager.  I was wrong.  I made it to about 100 pages, and then just couldn't read anymore.  It was a fascinating story, but the horrible, palpable evil of Auschwitz and the suffering that occurred there is still too much for me to read.  Maybe someday I'll try again.  The evil people are capable of inflicting on other people is something I will never be able to understand. 

Dang it, I was so excited about this novel!  I'll be frank:  it is a big, hefty tome.  It is full of all sorts of bits of journals, history lessons, and other interesting tidbits.  It deserves a lot of time and energy, and those were lacking this month.  It's not a straightforward tale.  I'll have to return it to the library, but I will try again.  I think there's something very interesting here. 

 I have heard so much buzz about this, that I finally decided to try it and checked it out of the library.  I started it late, but within the first few pages, I was hooked.  Unfortunately, I ran out of time, and it's due back to the library for the next person on the holds list--darn it!  I may end up buying this one, because I really, really want to read it.  

One reason I was less than my usual reading self this month was because I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month.  It runs from midnight of November 1 through midnight of November 30th.  Your goal: write a 50,000 word novel in that time.  If you stick to a plan and write every day, you'll easily achieve your goal before the deadline.  No editing, no rewriting: just get your idea down on paper.  The rewriting and editing comes in January, or in my case, never.  For me it's all about getting the creative juices flowing, and trying something just to see if I can do it.  So, I started out doing well, and keeping up with the pace.  But then life happened, and there were a few days where I wrote nothing at all.  Yikes.  I fell behind, and thought I'd catch up over Thanksgiving weekend.  Well, plans changed, and I ended up not being home for most of the four days of the holiday weekend.  No writing done. I did some fancy early morning and late evening work, drinking lots of coffee and listening to classical music to help my brain work.  And I'm happy to say, I did finish two days before the deadline.  I got my 50,000 words (and 89 pages) in and verified on Tuesday night.  Now I won't be looking at what I wrote for a very long time, if ever.  I'm just happy I set a goal and achieved it.  

So now, onto December.  Yay!  Baking cookies and breads, decorating the house, and spending my evenings reading holiday books.  I can't wait.  Egg nog is on the grocery list for this weekend. 

What are you reading in December to combat holiday stress? Share it in the comments!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This was a powerful novel, and if not for folks around me talking about it, I probably would have passed it by.  However, fate intervened, and I'm happy to have spent the time reading about Jende and Neni Jonga's experience as immigrants in America.  There is so much to talk about, it is definitely a novel you'll want to discuss with friends. 

Jende is a native of Cameroon, and is living in New York City with his wife Neni and their young son, Liomi.  Jende had arrived in New York City alone, and spent a few years working hard, scraping up enough money to marry Neni and bring her to America.  His dream was to leave Cameroon, where opportunities to succeed were slim to none.  Jende is extremely hard working, of noble character, and polite to a fault.  He's also living in the U.S. without a green card, and an expired visa.  

Jende's chance to make a huge leap in providing for his family comes when he's offered a job as the chauffeur to Clark Edwards, an executive with Lehman Brothers.  It's 2007; Barak Obama is running for President, and the financial crisis that rocks Wall Street is looming. Neni attends school, with the dream to be a pharmacist.  Jende and Neni are two hard working people who save every penny they can, live very modestly on very little, and dream of providing a future for their son that wouldn't be possible in Limbe, their hometown.  America is their dream, if only Jende could receive a green card.  

Jende's employment with the Edwards family extends to Clark's wife Cindy and their sons, Vince and Mighty.  As he chauffeurs them around New York City, he learns that money cannot buy happiness.  Cindy is a closet alcoholic, deeply unhappy with life, and haunted by a terrible childhood.  Clark is desperately working to keep Lehman Brothers from falling apart; Vince loathes everything about America and longs to run away to India.  Mighty, Clark and Cindy's young son, is watching everything he knows crumble and fall apart. 

Jende's life is also hanging in the balance; he has an upcoming court date with Immigration, and chances are good he may be deported. What will he do if this happens?  How will it change his life, and that of his family, if he's forced to return to Cameroon, a place that is at once home, but also a place of failed opportunities?  Jende's anxiety and desperate hope that he will stay in America is palpable throughout the novel, and I kept getting anxious every time his looming immigration court date was mentioned.  As the Edwards' life implodes with the Lehman Brothers scandal, Jende's life is also affected in ways that are startling and for me, unexpected.  Neni's anger at the prospect of leaving America is so powerful; as a woman I could understand her desire to make a better life for herself;  and her willingness to work very hard to do so. Neni's fierceness in protecting her family is a welcome part of her character development.  For most of the novel, she's quiet, hard working, and supports Jende in everything he does. But as their life takes a sudden turn, she finally opens up and demands to be heard, not only by Jende, but by everyone in her life. 

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the idea of home and where we come from.  How it can be both the most wonderful place, and the one place we never want to return to because we see it as a sense of failure and giving up.  We see it in both Jende and Neni, and the Edwards family.  Success can be measured in so many ways, and it changes depending on where we are in life.  But it doesn't matter if you're black, white, an immigrant, or a citizen. 

This book was very good, and I'm hopeful Imbolo Mbue writes more.  This was an extraordinary first novel.  Random House has helpfully provided reading group discussion questions, as well as an interview with Imbolo Mbue in the latest paperback edition of the book.  Both sections are worth reading.  A timely novel that will generate many discussions on immigration policy, and the plight of immigrants not only in America, but throughout the world. 

Rating:  6/6 for a novel that explores immigration, race, dreams, family,  and the meaning of success. 

Available in paperback, audio, and ebook.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

I Can't Wait to Tell You What I'm Reading in December: Bring on the Holiday Novels!

As I'm making my way through two three novels this week, and hitting a dip in my NaNoWriMo project, I have been longingly thinking of the holiday books I've got lined up for December.  

I started reading fun, holiday themed books in December while I worked in retail. Working extra hours, literally running back and forth in the bookstore for hours each day, left me completely spent and fried. My solace was to dive into books that helped remind me that the holiday season was about family, friends, and that wonderful anticipation of Christmas morning.  I'm out of retail, but I still find myself feeling a bit overwhelmed at the holidays and needing that reminder to slow down and enjoy the season.  So, starting shortly after Thanksgiving--I've made myself wait until then--I've got a load of new holiday titles to read.  Maybe there's something in my list that you'll love, too:

As you can see, there are plenty of new titles out this holiday season.  Meanwhile, I'll be working away on my title list for November.  Reviews coming soon!  What holiday books are you reading in December?  Let me know!  

Monday, November 13, 2017

Give a Girl a Knife by Amy Thielen

This memoir had been on my TBR list for quite some time, but I had to be patient and wait my turn at the library.  I had watched Amy's cooking show, Heartland Table on the Food Network years ago, and was intrigued by her kitchen. It looked small, rustic, and not fancy at all.  No high end, shiny, expensive kitchen gadgets; no gleaming countertops. I liked the way she talked about food, and how she used her garden and what she could find at her local grocery store to make amazing meals.  Her Midwest nature appealed to this Midwest woman.  

So with that in mind, I started to read her memoir.  It took me many days (okay, weeks) to get through this memoir, and I'm puzzled as to why.  Amy writes beautifully; if she hadn't made it as a cook, she would find her niche in writing.  Her descriptions of food make your mouth water; her fondness for the food of her Minnesota youth spars with her awakened palate for fine food.  

Amy's story begins in Minnesota, and ends there.  But in between, Amy and her boyfriend, artist Aaron Spangler move to Brooklyn and live there off and on for years.  Aaron is working on his art and Amy attends cooking school, then bounces around some of the most famous restaurants in New York City, learning from the best.  What I found refreshing about Amy is that she was not interested in moving up the ranks to someday be top chef, or even run her own restaurant in New York City.  For her, it was all about learning the skills, and exploring flavors.  Amy and Aaron would sometimes leave Brooklyn and return to Minnesota to spend the summer in Aaron's rustic (no running water, no electricity) little home out in the wilds of Minnesota.  There they would plant a huge vegetable garden, harvest wild rice out of their front yard, and puzzle over their yearning to be home, yet at the same time resenting the pull of home. Two people who never thought they would return to Park Rapids, Minnesota, yet find themselves homesick for the flavors, the quiet, and the freedom from busy city life.  

Amy and Aaron get married, and continue to live in Brooklyn.  Her work as a cook demands 80 plus hours a week, and she's not making much money at all.  Aaron finally gets some well deserved attention for his art, and it looks like Brooklyn is finally paying off.  Until Aaron tells Amy he wants to move back to Minnesota and build a studio next to their rustic little home. Amy, who has been questioning her passion for the high stress world of New York haute cuisine, realizes that what she really wants is to be a home cook.  Armed with her skills and her new palate, she returns to Minnesota with Aaron and creates a life that happily continues to fulfill them both.

Amy's book is a bit different from other cooking memoirs I've read, mostly because of her attitude towards the cooking industry.  She started cooking school after college, and knew her strengths and weaknesses going into her various tenures at restaurants in New York City.  For her it wasn't about rising to the top, or making the big bucks.  She became obsessed with creating flavors, and it almost consumed her.  Her passion for cooking was overwhelming to read; sometimes I had to put the book down and take a break.  Part of me kept thinking, the customer doesn't care about all the heart and soul you put into that one dish! They just want something good to eat, and something worth the money they're spending. I almost felt bad for all the effort she put into dishes, knowing the recipients had no idea, and probably wouldn't have cared to know.  

I did enjoy this book, but it was a bit of an effort to read it.  It made me very aware of just how much food is a part of our memories, our childhood; how it alters the way we look at the world.  I recently had a birthday, and my boyfriend wanted to take me out to dinner.  I didn't want to go to a restaurant.  Instead, I made my favorite birthday dinner.  One that my Mom made for me almost every birthday I had in my youth:  scalloped potatoes and ham, followed by a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting.  I made it a little different than my Mom's recipe, but that special flavor was there, and it made me very happy to dive into a plate of creamy potatoes dotted with bits of ham and cheese.  For just a few minutes, I was back at home with Mom and Dad and my siblings, eating my favorite meal on a cold November night.  These memories are all the more precious now that my parents are gone. Food, more than anything else, keeps me connected to my very best memories of childhood. 

Rating:  4/6 for a savory, finger licking good memoir about food, home, and memories. Amy reminded me that food is more than just fuel for the body.  

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

November Reads: My Library Cup Overfloweth

I looked up, and it's already November 7th.  Thanksgiving is a few short weeks away, and I'm still startled to see Christmas in every retail store.  You also know Christmas season is around when the Hallmark Channel starts playing their holiday movies at the end of October.  And as I pointed out to my boyfriend's mother, there are 21 new Hallmark holiday movies this season.  What?!  My DVR will get a workout this month.  

Much as I'd like to A) watch Hallmark movies and B) dive into my TBR piles at home, the library elves have decided that now is the time to have all of the books I've placed on hold become available.  So while I may sneak in a few books off my shelves at home, most of what I'm reading this month will be courtesy of my library.  I've had some dangerous moments, wandering the aisles.  So many books I want to read!  I have to turn my back, or I'd be checking out books almost every day.  The life of a bookworm is just not that easy.  

So, while I'm gamely working on my novel for NaNoWriMo (the tug of war between reading and writing is fierce every day), I'm also working on my stack of library books.  Here's what I'm reading this month:

A favorite author has another paranormal novel out!

A YA novel based on a true story

I watched her cooking show on Food Network, had to read the book!

Scotland.  Enough said. 

A timely novel about dreams, immigration, and reality.

A little bit of everything tossed together.  Next month I'll be reading a gaggle of holiday novels, and I can't wait!  Bring on the early nights, bring on the chilly weather.  I'm ready to stay home and read. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Two Reviews in One: The House Between Tides & How to Change a Life, Plus Other Book Stuff

The march to the end of 2017 is picking up speed, and while this is probably the first upcoming holiday season where I don't have a zillion things to do, I expect I will be busy with last minute baking, get togethers, and *ahem* creating my homemade limoncello.  

And, my beloved books will always be at the forefront of everything I do.  I haven't read nearly everything I wanted to this year: Lincoln at the Bardo, The Hate U Give, Origin, The Underground Railroad...just to name a few.  Sometimes I wish I was more disciplined with my reading--spreadsheets, mapping out what to read when; but then I realize some of the best reads I've stumbled on purely by accident and because they weren't planned.  So I'll stick with my purely organic, absolutely no spreadsheet approach to reading and reviewing. I always believe the books I'm meant to read will find their way to me.  

With a time crunch, I'm reviewing two books I've read in the past few weeks.  Both were on my October To Be Read list.  Reviews are short mainly because I was a bit disappointed with both novels.  

How to Change a Life by Stacey Ballis. I have read some of her previous novels, and would readily recommend her to anyone who loves Chicago, foodie novels, and novels about women past the first bloom of youth, but not quite into middle age.  That part of life where you start to look at the choices you've made, and wonder if they were the right ones, or if you have to reset and do something different.  Normally I gobble up her tales--they always have a happy ending, but not the soppy ending you find in a standard romance.  For some reason, this one just didn't click with me.  Eloise is a private chef in Chicago; the death of a beloved high school teacher brings her back in touch with her two best friends from high school, and they decide to revive their lists of things to accomplish before 40--as they are all 39.  Some of the items on Eloise's list:  go out on dates, and put together a cookbook proposal. 

 I will say, the romance that comes into Eloise's life was really pretty good, but I felt like it was just a little too perfect. Eloise meets a man at a Halloween party, and things click from there.  One twist is that she's white, and he's African American.  It was refreshing that this wasn't belabored over at all, but for a few conversations that Eloise and Shawn have concerning meeting each other's parents. They have a very mature relationship (with plenty of sparks!), and an obvious drama pops up from Shawn's past that I felt didn't provide enough of a conflict to make a big difference in the storyline. I felt that if Eloise was so ready for changes in her life, it didn't take much for her to do them, and left me wondering why she didn't do them earlier.  There didn't seem to be much of a change in her besides meeting a wonderful partner and entering a serious relationship.  Not much drama between the friends, and not really any big conflicts between Eloise and Shawn.  So while it was an enjoyable read, I just wasn't terribly impressed with Stacey Ballis' latest. 
I give this novel a 2/6.
It is available in paperback and ebook. 

The House Between the Tides by Sarah Maine was another book that fell a bit short for me.  Darn it all, I was really ready for a gothic tale set in Scotland.  At first, I was completely into the novel.  Hetty Deveraux travels to Muirlan, a home she's inherited in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.  What's unusual about this home is that it sits on an island and is only accessible by foot and car when the tide is out. Muirlan's history revolves around artist Theo Blake, who lived there until his death by drowning in the 1940's.  Theo had brought his new bride, Beatrice, to Muirlan in 1910, and things didn't go well for the couple.  Theo was broody, sullen, and had lost his way artistically.  Hoping to recover that passion, he pinned his hopes on being back at his beloved home.  A failed romance from the past leaves him haunted, and Beatrice finds out the man she married isn't quite who she thought he was--now what should she do?

In present day, Hetty wants to turn the home into a hotel.  James, a local architect, has been hired to look over the house. It's in pretty bad shape, and while looking around inside, he finds disturbed floorboards, and a skeleton placed in the hollow underneath.  Who is it, and who placed the body there, so long ago?  

The novel moves back and forth between Hetty's struggle to solve the mystery, and 1910, when Theo and Beatrice arrive at the island and spend one summer there before Beatrice disappears from the scene.  I did find Theo and Beatrice's story much more interesting, but the story dragged and I lost interest, but kept plodding through.  I didn't much care for Hetty.  She seemed completely unaware that her plan was not feasible, and distrusted James to the point that it felt more reactionary than because she had a good reason.  The romance between Hetty and James was not a surprise, and I was happy about that; it certainly didn't come as a surprise.  Beatrice's story is sad, so darn sad; you do get all the answers, eventually, in the last chapter.  While this had all the promise of a good gothic mystery, it petered out and felt too long.  Nuts.  
I give this novel a 3/6 for atmosphere and setting. It is available in paperback and ebook. 

Now, book business.  Heading into November, I've got a pretty good list of books to read, and I'll have an upcoming reviews post in a few days.  December I traditionally read holiday novels--it's my way of enjoying Christmas and so far I've gathered quite a few new titles for December.  I'll be sharing those with you at the end of November.  Meanwhile, I am also taking part in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which runs from November 1-November 30.  It's a way to nudge your inner writer into action, and requires you to write a 50,000 word novel.  No editing, no polishing--just get those words down on paper (or Word).  It is a challenge to keep writing every day; it's easy to fall behind.  I've managed to complete it once, years ago, and am trying again.  Wish me luck!  

Sue A/K/A
The Bookalicious Babe