Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Top Ten Reads of 2017: I Even Surprised Myself

I never have an easy time picking my top ten.  I usually have a few in mind that I know without a doubt will be on the list. Others sneak up on me when I'm looking at my list and remembering how I felt about the books after I'd read them.  So even books that got a better rating than others may not show up on the list, merely because I'm contrary and might pick something with a lower rating that had a greater impact on me in the long run.  

This year I'm including a short list of honorable mentions.  Books that I really enjoyed, but didn't quite make the top ten because it's a top ten and not a top fifteen or twenty.  I have to stop myself somewhere!

Here are the honorable mentions, in no particular order:

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert.  Great historical fiction about leprosy and Hawaii.

The Lies She Told by Cate Holohan.  A story within a story, with plenty of plot twists to keep you turning the pages. 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan.  A novel told from the perspective of an unborn baby who hears his mother and her lover plotting the murder of his father.  Brilliant.  

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston.  A non-fiction adventure into the jungles of Honduras looking for a legendary lost city.  

Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village by Louis de Bernieres.  Each chapter is a story about the folks who live in an English village.  Funny, moving, and hard to put down. 

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall.  An elderly mother raises her daughter by herself, whipping up margaritas and being sassy.  A look at mother-daughter relationships.  You'll get a kick out of Polly.

The Last to See Me by M. Dressler.  An unusual ghost story.  

Caroline:  Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller. A retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Caroline's point of view.  It was refreshing to be inside Ma's head.  At first I had trouble getting into it, but by the end I was tearing up as they left their little house in Kansas Territory. She was one tough lady!

And Now...The Top Ten of 2017

This was hard!  Although I think it's a very good thing when there are too many fantastic books to pick from each year.  There are books that would have surely made my list (and made my choices more difficult) if I'd gotten to them this year; so I guess that means I'll face the same difficult decisions next December. Here we go:

10.  Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
I listened to this on audio and wow, it really hit home. I'm in a time of my life where opportunities still abound, changes can be made, and there's plenty of life left to conquer.  I bought the paperback to keep in my home library.  

9.  The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

I read this novel early in the year, and I just loved it. I'm a big fan of Civil War novels, and this was one of my favorites.  It's short, but powerful. 

8.  A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

I still haven't read World Without End, the second in his series of Kingsbridge, but that didn't stop me (and it shouldn't stop you) from diving into this big book set during Elizabeth I's reign.  Follett explains history in a readable way that will send you searching for more information at your local library or bookstore.  He's such a good writer.  

7.  Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I read this for a book group, and I am so glad I did. A very good novel about immigrants in modern day New York City; their desire for a better life, and the choices they must make to create that better life.  Is it better to be an immigrant in America, or to go home and change the life you left?

6.  The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack

This novel was a total impulse buy at the bookstore, then sat in my TBR stack for a while.  When I did finally read it, I was enthralled.  Ancient history, the great Library of Alexandria, magic, and a bit of a thriller.  All ingredients for a novel I will enjoy.  

5.  See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Oh, Lizzie Borden.  How you fascinate me.  This novel was high on the creep factor, but so damn good.  Just read it.  

4.  The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

I'm a fan of Charlie Lovett.  His novels reflect his love of books, libraries, and the knowledge they protect and pass down.  A novel set in England and about the Holy Grail?  Count me in.  This made me yearn to travel to England again.  

3.  The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

Oh, this book was one that I hadn't planned on reading, but I decided to push myself to try something different and I am so glad I did!  I still get teary-eyed thinking about Girl, and her struggle to survive.  What an amazing character.  What an amazing tale. 

2.  The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

It's no secret that Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite authors.  I pretty much dropped everything to read an advanced copy of this novel, which is a prequel to Practical Magic.  I adored everything about it, and if you haven't read Alice Hoffman, get to it.  She's amazing.  

And My Number One Book of 2017 is...

1. Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

This novel had me eagerly anticipating its release for months, and I gladly bought the hardcover as soon as it was available.  The tale of Milo, a soul that has lived 9,995 lives is nothing less than amazing. I loved it. Maybe that's because of where I am in life, or my philosophy on souls and life purpose. But whatever the reason, Milo's quest to get it right with his remaining 5 lives--before he ends up in the nothingness, takes you on a journey through some of the lives Milo has lived over the centuries, and even on other planets and as various life forms.  An imaginative and interesting look at what it means to live with purpose, and what happens when we die. As soon as I turned the last page I knew it would be my favorite read of 2017.  

So there it is.  My life in books for the year of 2017.  I can look at these titles, and remember where I was in my life this year.  That always shapes what I read, and when I read it.  I can't wait to see where my reading life takes me in 2018.  What were your favorite reads this year?  Let me know!  I'm always fascinated by what other folks read, and why.  

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!

The Bookalicious Babe 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas at Two Love Lane by Kieran Kramer and I'm Done With Christmas Reads!

I've made a pretty good dent in my month of Christmas reads, but I decided today that I just can't read anymore holiday themed novels.  I'm ready to get back to my regular reading.  So much so that I've already put so many books on my mental January reads list that it's impossible for me to read them all.  I'm afraid to sit and actually write down what I'm planning on reading for January. The bone chilling cold that has visited Iowa in the past few days (and not leaving any time soon) has me yearning (and yes, I do mean yearning) to plant my tush on the couch and read for days.  Those are my plans for this coming weekend, so I hope they become reality.

I bought this novel last month while perusing the holiday reads at B&N.  I hadn't read a holiday romance since last year, and when I read the back cover, I had to buy it. Anything that is set in Charleston has me won over.  I've never been to Charleston, but it's on my travel list as a must see. I'm halfway in serious like with a city I've never been to, but someday I'll get there.

After my unhappy reading experience with Christmas in London, I was ready for a romance with some heat, and Deacon Banks, hailing from New York City, was just the ticket.  He's in Charleston for the month of December to help his Aunt Fran settle into her winter condo and make her entrance into Charleston society.  A famous talk show host, she's retired and wanted to make a change, so Charleston was her change.  She wants Deacon to settle down, so he's reluctantly promised her he'll date a few women while he's in Charleston, just to make his Aunt happy.  Enter Two Love Lane, where Macy Frost and her two friends run a matchmaking service.  They've got the magic touch, and are well known as matchmakers who help folks find their true love.  Deacon just wants a few dates with no strings attached, but the first time he lays eyes on Macy, it's lust.  Macy tries to keep it professional, but she feels the pull of attraction, too.  

Macy is a matchmaker who believes in love, but not for herself.  That, and Deacon's unwillingness to admit that it's more than lust with Macy make the road to happily ever after a bit bumpy. As they spend the December social scene  together, and get to know one another, it's clear this is a love match.  Clear to everyone but the two of them.  I got a little lost in some of the finer details as to why they just couldn't admit to their deeper feelings; it seemed to take way too long, even after they did sleep together.  I think the story could have been shortened by about 50 pages by cutting out some of that dragging plot.  But, that was about all I had to complain about.  The sparks between Macy and Deacon were hot, they were cute and funny together, and the secondary characters were delightful.  I can't imagine that Charleston is as small town as it appears to be in this novel--everyone knows everyone, and everything is in walking distance--but that is part of the charm of the setting. I'm willing to overlook it. 

There is a sequel coming out next week, called Wedding at Two Love Lane.  It is the story of one of Macy's partners, and it looks like fun, too.  I'll probably be reading it just to see how things turn out.  I suspect there will be a third, to round out the trio of ladies who own Two Love Lane.  

So, I am ending my Christmas reads with this novel.  I have a few that I didn't get to, or gave up on, and I'll have a roundup of those in a later post. I'll say goodbye until next year to my holiday reads.  I'll be ready to tackle another pile of them come December 1, 2018.  

Rating:  3/6 for an entertaining romance set in Charleston in December.  The chemistry between the two main characters is palpable, and the secondary characters are pretty fantastic. Available in mass market, and ebook. I'll read the sequel coming out next week.   

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas in London by Anita Hughes

I got up early this morning to write my review and get moving on my to do list for Christmas Eve.  Mostly, I plan on "to-doing" this morning, so I can spend the afternoon blissfully relaxing on my couch with a book and a fake fire crackling on my TV.  Christmas and books are linked together for me, and I can't imagine anything else making me happier today than reading for a bit and taking a deep breath.  

My boyfriend told me I've been a bit crabby this month, and he's right.  I haven't been able to spend much time relaxing and reading, which is always the one thing that chills me out and brings me back to a happy mood! A very sore muscle strain in my shoulder has made me very uncomfortable, and is slow to heal. So yes, I've been crabby. I did, however, manage to finish Christmas in London late last night!

This is how I feel about Anita Hughes novels:  I like them, but they annoy me.  Why then, do I read them?  They are pure escapism; the characters in her novels are so perfect even in their moments of unhappiness that I can't feel bad for them at all.  In this novel, Louisa Graham is an up and coming baker in New York City.  She's working hard to have enough money to open her own bakery in the next year.  She's famous for her cinnamon rolls, and those rolls give her a random, out of the ordinary chance to travel to London and be on a show called Christmas Dinner at Claridge's.  She's being flown to London, staying at the glamorous Claridge's hotel, and will be making a croquembouche for the show. It's a once in a lifetime chance to put her face out there for the world to see.  Noah, the production assistant to producer Kate, is attractive and a bit bossy, and at first Louisa's attraction isn't super strong.  She's too dazzled by London at Christmas, the elegance of the hotel, and all the running around she's required to do for the show.  And, she's meeting handsome and famous super chef Digby Bunting.  

Kate's story was unexpected and quite honestly, more interesting than Louisa's. She runs into a friend from college-Trevor, a brilliant mathematician who is in a failing marriage to a minor royal family member.  Their story is interesting, until the bump at the end, where Trevor decides he can't take the chance at being hurt again by Kate, just as she's ready to finally take a chance with him.  Ugh.  

So, this novel is pure make believe, never could happen in real life stuff.  Louisa is beautiful, but isn't aware of it; Kate is stunning, classy, and ambitious--but with a heart of gold.  Noah, I felt, was not very well developed and I didn't feel any spark between him and Louisa, even though their romance is a big part of the novel.  Trevor, while an interesting character, seemed a bit weak at times.  And Digby is just a one dimensional dufus.  The star of the novel is, of course, London.  It's pretty dazzling at Christmas time. I would consider this a foodie novel, since there's much made of the food, drinks, and atmosphere at Claridge's, and most of the characters are involved in the high-end food industry.  

I wasn't terribly impressed with this novel; it just didn't have that magic I was looking for, and the problems the characters face are very minor and easily solved.  Louisa made some dumb choices and seemed very immature to me.  

I will read more of Anita Hughes, if only for the armchair travel.  She writes of glamorous places and people with minor blimps along the way towards love and happiness.  

Rating:  3/6 for the setting in London, and the food.  I thought the characters were one dimensional and the plot kind of lame.  A novel to read for pure enjoyment and escape from reality. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!  


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

I took a break from my lighter holiday reads to read Seven Days of Us. I'm on the fence about this novel; not sure just how much I liked the novel, even after finishing it and letting it sit with me for a bit. 

The Birch family is gathering for Christmas, and it's a Christmas with a little twist.  Olivia, oldest of two daughters, is returning home from Liberia after spending weeks there treating patients of a horrible epidemic-the Haag, with a fatality rate of 80%.  Due to her return from Liberia, and possible exposure to the Haag, Olivia will require a quarantine for seven days.  This means Olivia and her family: parents and younger sister Phoebe will be in isolation over Christmas. Spending the holiday at their country home, Weyfield Hall, is something none of them are really super excited about--but it's tradition!

There's a whole lot going on in this small family.  Father Andrew is a restaurant critic who is bored with his career and increasingly fond of his days as a correspondent in Lebanon, before his growing family required he give it up. Mother Emma has just been diagnosed with cancer, and has decided to keep it a secret until after the holidays.  Phoebe, the spoiled younger sister, is newly engaged to George, and busy thinking about her wedding, but not really much about her marriage.  There's also Jesse, a young man from California who is in England searching for his biological father.  Guess who that is?

The novel covers the seven days of the quarantine, which run to just before Christmas, to December 29th.  Olivia's got a secret of her own:  she was intimately involved with another doctor in Liberia, which was forbidden.  If they are found out, it could mean a lot of trouble.  While she waits with her family, taking her temperature everyday, hoping she wasn't infected with the virus, all sorts of things are happening.  Jesse is nearby, trying to gather the courage to try one more time to meet Andrew; Andrew is trying to figure out how to respond to Jesse's emails, and explain his unfaithfulness to Emma in 1980, when they were first together.  Emma is trying to keep the whole family together by cooking a lot and forcing herself to be jolly.  Phoebe and Olivia have a less than happy relationship, and aren't very interested in getting along this Christmas, either.  But things happen, secrets are exposed, and people finally start to have conversations that help to create a lot of change not only in each person, but in the family dynamics.  I'm leaving out a big piece of the puzzle, because I  don't want to give the whole plot away.  

I read most of the novel not liking any of the characters. All, even Olivia, were self-absorbed, annoying, and one dimensional.  There is no neat conclusion, as you would expect.  Things improve, and people are changing, but the novel doesn't end with a lovely red bow.  That, I realize I like the most about the novel.  It also had me thinking about traditions, and why we keep plugging away at them, even when they just don't fit anymore, and it's time for an update.  I think traditions, like every other part of our lives, are meant to guide us, but should be able to change with the times and the people. The Birch family are trapped in their traditions.  It takes some pretty significant events to shake them up, but all for the better. 

Rating:  3/6 for a novel about family, traditions, change, and recognizing nothing stays the same.  I didn't connect with any of the characters, but I enjoyed the novel.

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

In this, the third and final novel of the Little Beach Street Bakery, Christmas is coming to the village of Mount Polbearne.  Mount Polbearne is an unusual village set on the coast of Cornwall; when the tide comes in, the only road leading to and from the village is covered by the sea, and it becomes a little island.  Windy, cold, and oftentimes isolated, it's a village where generations of fishing families have lived, and tourists visit during the summer.  Polly's bakery is still in full swing, and as popular as ever.  She's living with Huckle, her beekeeping boyfriend in the lighthouse she bought earlier in the year.  They're engaged.  Life is good. 

But we all know that when life seems at its most stable, we're often thrown a curve, and that's just what happens to Polly.  Huckle wants to get married and have kids; Polly's fatherless childhood preys on her mind, and makes her hesitate.  Her best friend Kerensa, married to the mogul Reuben, finds out she's pregnant, but instead of being happy about it, she's terrified it will expose a secret only she and Polly know about.  Forbidden to tell Huckle the secret, the added stress on Polly creates even more tension between Polly and Huckle.  

While Polly's life in Mount Polbearne is the happiest she's ever been, it certainly has a few bumps in the road.  Can she find a way to make everyone happy, and keep herself from going crazy?  Add to that Reuben's request for Polly to cater his whole Christmas celebration (which is multiple parties), when all she wants is to spend Christmas Day lounging around with Huckle and not baking one thing.  But the money Reuben is offering is more than Polly can even comprehend, and would go a long way towards making life easier.  What's a baker to do?

This was a good conclusion to the Little Beach Street Bakery trilogy, although it did seem a bit gloomy at times.  I'll certainly miss the people I've come to know reading these books, and I'll always be hoping Jenny Colgan sends out an unexpected, yet very welcome, update on Polly, Huckle, Kerensa, and Reuben.  Polly's journey to happiness comes to a satisfactory conclusion, and the ending is sweet and perfect.  

If you haven't read the first two books in this trilogy: Little Beach Street Bakery, and Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery,  please do before you read this--you'll understand the dynamics of the characters much better, and  Polly's journey to happiness as the beloved baker of Mount Polbearne is worth the read.  

Rating:  4/6 for a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.  Polly and Huckle, while happy, still have growing pains (as do all relationships).  I appreciate the author's understanding that happily ever after takes constant work!

Available in paperback and ebook.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale by G. Neri

 It's very true I haven't read much children's fiction this year. I saw this book and, knowing a little bit about Truman Capote and Harper Lee's childhood friendship, I thought this would be a good read to include in my Christmas picks for December.  It is the continuation of Tru and Nelle, but you don't need to read that in order to enjoy this tale.  

I read the author's note after finishing the book, and learned that most of the people in this novel were actual real-life folks in Truman and Nelle's lives. Set in 1935, just a few days before Christmas, Tru is a runaway, hitching a ride on a train from his military school in New York to Monroeville, Alabama.  He had moved to New York with his mother and step-father, preferring the bright lights of New York City.  But once his mother was granted full custody after a bitter divorce, Truman finds out he's in the way, and shipped off to a military school where he doesn't fit in at all.  He decides he can't take it anymore and hops a train, getting back to his friend Nelle and his family:  Jenny, Big Boy, and Sookie.  He's welcomed back with open arms, but isn't there very long before bad things start to happen around Tru.  Suddenly homeless, his family ends up staying with Big Boy's family on their farm for Christmas.  A mysterious murder happens, and Nelle--trying to be helpful for her father, A.C., ends up creating a disaster when she notices two black men hanging around near the murder scene.  

While Christmas is approaching quickly, Tru and Nelle are struggling to find the meaning of Christmas, and the hope for justice to be served after it becomes quite clear the two men are not guilty of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But the South in 1935 is no place for justice when it comes to race, and A.C. has his one and only criminal case in Monroeville, defending the two men.  

Through all of this turmoil, Tru and Nelle are rediscovering their friendship, evolving in their love of storytelling, and struggling with their identities--neither one is a typical tween and they don't fit in anywhere.  But Christmas has a special pull, and the love of family and friends means a lot in a time of despair and racial injustice.  

I really did enjoy this novel.  I thought it was a good balance between what the climate was like for 1935 Southern America--so many people with nothing, the KKK, racial tensions; but still that important pull of family and sticking together. Of being a good neighbor, of taking that one extra step to help, be kind, and understanding.  Tru and Nelle's struggle to move their relationship from a childhood friendship to a young adult friendship is something most of us have had to go through with dear friends we've know for a long time.  And justice.  As A.C. tells Nelle, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to be a witness to events, even when we can't do anything to prevent the outcome.  

This is a young reader novel, but very suitable for adults and teens, too.  Truman Capote's memoir A Christmas Memory is still available in bookstores and libraries.  

Rating:  4/6 for a novel about Truman Capote and Harper Lee's childhood friendship, and one special Christmas.  

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa De La Cruz

I can't say Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is my most favorite book ever, but I definitely have a soft spot for it, and of course I love the BBC series version with Colin Firth.  So much so, that I bought it on VHS tape years and years ago.  And, Colin Firth remains the only Darcy in my heart.  

I thought this would be a fun read-a modern version of P&P with the roles reversed:  Darcy is a 29 year old super smart woman who has risen to partnership in her hedge fund financial corporation in New York City.  From the town of Pemberly, OH, she's avoided going home for eight years after a falling out with her father over her refusal to marry Carl, who looked good on paper, but whom Darcy just didn't love.  Instead, she left for New York City and became a very rich woman working on Wall Street.  Her life is fairly empty except for work; she can buy anything she wants, but just isn't very happy.  A family health crisis sends her flying home just before Christmas.  She's uncomfortable in her family's very plush home (Dad is a very successful businessman) and running into old family friends-namely, the Bennets, a family of men who Darcy's known all her life.  There's Jim, who makes an immediate connection with Darcy's actor friend Bingley, and there's Luke.  He's annoyed Darcy all through high school, and their drunken make out session under the mistletoe at her family's Christmas party is a shock to Darcy.  A shock, you say?  Yes, because she realizes she's got feelings for Luke.  

There are all sorts of complications, and the path to true love for Darcy and Luke isn't smooth.  I got tired of trying to compare P&P to this story, and I wish De La Cruz hadn't even tried to make this a modern version.  It would have been a perfectly good story without trying to force it into the P&P mold.  It strayed enough away that I just got annoyed, and the flimsy pivot in the plot (two Bennet boys are juvenile delinquents, and Darcy basically pays off the high school principal to let them stay in school) was lame-o.  This novel would have been heaps better if it was just about two people who discover they don't dislike each other, but actually quite like each other-without all the extra junk that mucked up the story.  I also found the nonchalant way Darcy talked about money a bit off-putting.  It was a Hallmark movie gone wrong, I'm afraid. 

Oh well.  It's a quick read, and enjoyable enough, just disappointing for me. 

Rating:  2/6 for a plot that tries to force itself into a clever, modern twist of Pride and Prejudice, but fell short for me.  I didn't much like Darcy, either.  

Available in hardcover, and ebook.