Monday, April 30, 2018

May Reads: Revisiting a DNF and a Favorite Author

May brings me a lot of difficult choices in my reading. I've certainly got a lot of choices, and I'm having a hard time making a decision. But there are certainly a few books I'm determined to read this month, one way or another. May is kicking off a busy summer season, and May brings a graduation party, an out of town baptism, work, and scrambling to work on yard projects. Without further ado, here's what's on tap for May:

I'm reading this novel based on an actual horrific murder in 1959 Kansas. I've started it, become fascinated by the Cutter family, and want to know more. It is not an easy read, however, and I've got a few weeks to finish it before my book club meets.  Our group's theme this month was to read a book that was published the year we were born. One of those books I've always wanted to read, but never did. Until now. 

 Saw this at the bookstore and thought it looked like fun. Three women open a bookshop in Scotland and murder soon follows. I've read a lot of mixed reviews on this, so it will be interesting to see what I think of it. 

Bought this months ago, and finally plucked it off the bookshelf. A YA novel of mystery, magic, and adventure. 

While I await Sandra Dallas' next adult novel, I will read her children's book about a young girl and her family's struggle to homestead in 1910 Colorado. I absolutely love the cover art, and Sandra is a favorite author of mine. 

Oh, Homegoing. I tried and failed to read you before, and I'm giving it another go because I assigned it to a book group for May. Yes, I assigned this novel to make myself finish it this time. And I will. I look forward to discussing it with my group in a few weeks. 

I will probably read something fun and frothy, or at least lighter than what I've picked for May. Two are required for book groups; the others are my choice. I hope I enjoy them all--we'll just have to wait and see. 

Here's to sipping iced tea on the deck, enjoying the sun, and relaxed reading in warm weather. Cheers!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

It took me a few weeks, but I finally finished Children of Blood and Bone this morning. I  don't read a lot of YA novels and shame on me for missing some pretty good stuff in the past few years. The buzz around Tomi Adeyemi has been high, and I couldn't ignore it.  I bought a special edition at Barnes & Noble on the day it was released; it has an annotated chapter and a fold out map. It's always fun to read author notes and see what they were thinking as they wrote scenes, so if you have a chance, check it out. 

Adeyemi is a gifted writer, and she doesn't shy away from unpleasant situations. There are torture, death, and oppression in this tale of a people who were once magical, but have been murdered for their gifts out of fear and anger by King Saran, who rules Orisha.  Their children were spared, and without magic, they are the downtrodden; "maggots" taxed beyond their means, and treated like dirt. They are known by their snow white hair, which sets them apart from the rest of the people. 

Out of this, two sets of siblings meet and start on a journey to bring magic back.  Prince Inan and Princess Amari are the children of King Saran.  He's a nasty father, and regularly pits his children against each other in battle training. Zelie and Tzain are brother and sister, living in Ilorin, secretly being schooled in fighting, in the hope that one day the Maji and diviners will have a chance to rise up and regain their magic. When Amari is shattered by a close friend's brutal death, she  steals a scroll from her father that, with a few other tools, can bring magic back to Orisha. Running away from the palace, she runs into Zelie, who is selling fish to raise tax money. When the two meet, the story unfolds, and it's an adventure from that moment on to the final sentence on the last page. 

I don't want to give much away, because you should experience this novel on your own in your own way, without any input from me.  I will tell you that it does break down what looks to be a simple good vs. evil into something that reminds us nothing is ever that simple, and that easy to decide. Family loyalty? Vengeance? If magic comes back, how to keep those who would use it for harm from doing so, and creating another potential war? How do you balance the magic with a peaceful kingdom and those who do not have magic in their blood?  I won't even get started on the horrible parenting that Saran uses on his children. Abused kids for sure, yet Inan fights what he knows he should do with his sense of loyalty towards his father, who has never treated him well. It's a classic abuse issue. Amari is seen as a helpless young lady, but she's the one who grows the most in the novel. It's hard to keep remembering that all four characters, and most of the supporting cast, are teens. Yes, Adeyemi does a masterful job wiping that out of your head. That's why this novel is a great read for teens and adults, and anyone who loves mythology and magic. 

It's an adventure, and the characters grow on you. I will have to read the next novel, and I'm sure it will be just as excellent as the first. It's already been optioned for a movie.  In light of all the race issues we have in the United States right now, the immigration issues, the seeing people (we are all part of the human race!) as less than; well, those are all the bedrock of this tale. It has a lot to say. Definitely a book club selection, and I hope high school English classes read it, too.  

Rating:  6/6 for an incredible tale of rising up, fighting for what's right, even if it means you may lose. This tale of magic, adventure, love, and dreams was fantastic. I think of it, and I see so many colors-you'll find yourself smelling, hearing, and seeing the vibrant world of Zelie, Tzain, Inan, and Amari. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Summer Reading: Make a List or Just Wing it?

Let's face it: every season is a good time to read. I must confess, I read lighter, "happy" reads during the summer. Fall brings out the darker, creepier reads for me, followed by Christmas, when I like to read holiday stories. Spring, so far, has been a catch-all. Three book groups have upped my must-read book list each month. 

 It's finally warming up in Iowa--65 today! and everyone is busy running around outside trying to get in the yard work we usually accomplish in late March. Now I've got to figure out just how I can work in the yard, run, and still have time to relax and read on the back deck. It's my first year with a lovely deck to sit and chill, and I can't wait to sit outside in the early summer mornings, read and relax. When the sun moves around, and it gets too hot, I'll move myself to my front porch. I'm pretty lucky to have both.  

As always, I'm faced with a pile of books that I've accumulated over the months, and haven't read, and I'm struggling with the idea of making a list for the summer, or just diving in and grabbing what sounds good at any given moment.  I'm leaning towards making a list, if only so I may tick them off as the summer progresses.  I've got a few ambitious titles to read:  Leonardo Da Vinci's biography by Walter Isaacson, a Kurt Vonnegut novel (I've never read anything of his), Prairie Fires (a 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner), and a few favorite authors that I've neglected: Kevin Hearne, Sandra Dallas, Paula Brackston, and many more.  It may be time to break out the Excel spreadsheet!

Do you read longer books during the summer, or lighter, quick reads?  What do you take on vacation? Do you have a book you absolutely must read this summer? 

I'll be posting my May reads list this week; I consider May the start of summer reading, so I'll be curious to see what books I've chosen from my bookshelves at home, library, and the bookstore. Lots to choose from, and three book group selections to include in that mix. 

Cheers and happy reading!


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

I first read Paulette Jiles years ago, when I stumbled on Enemy Women at my bookstore.  I was gobsmacked by that novel, and it remains one of my favorite Civil War novels. 

I've had an advanced reader's copy of this book for a few years.  I was excited to read it, but somehow lost my enthusiasm about 30 pages into it, put it down, and didn't pick it up again until last week. I deliberately picked it for my book group this month so I would finally read it.  It's only a few hundred pages; easy enough, right? Read it in one sitting.  

Yet it still took me the better part of a week to read, and my only thought about that is because I liked Captain Kidd and Johanna so much I didn't want anything to happen to them on their journey.  I just couldn't bear to read a passage that would endanger, injure, or tear Johanna away from the Captain.  So that very reason kept me from reading it a few years ago, and had me taking a week to read a book I could have read in a day. 

It's a simple enough story.  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a man in his early 70's who travels the West reading newspapers to audiences. It is, indeed, news of the world. His eloquent, commanding voice, and his choices of which articles to read make him a popular man in his travels.  The Civil War is over, yet fallout remains.  Texas, where this novel is set, is torn apart by political factions, hideouts from the war, and Native Americans attacking pioneers, cowboys, and pretty much everyone. Kiowa Indians are in a fight for survival that sadly they won't win. Captain is asked to deliver ten year old Johanna to her Aunt and Uncle, after being rescued from the Kiowa tribe that killed her parents and sister four years earlier.  Johanna has completely lost any identity as a white child, and is scared, angry, and speaks only Kiowa. She wants to go back to the tribe, which she considers family.  

As Captain and Johanna travel from Wichita Falls through Texas on a 400 mile journey, they slowly get to know each other. Their developing relationship is the heart of the novel, and for me that was the best part, and the most surprising part.  I kept waiting for disaster to strike, and it did, but Captain and Johanna came together and saved themselves in a pretty ingenious way.  My fears of a journey plagued by fire, floods, and attacks were unrealized, and that made me very relieved.  Instead, this novel is about a child who is suffering from PTSD, an elderly gentlemen who has been around (and also suffers from PTSD), fought wars, lived, loved, raised children, and is now continuing to spread the "news of the world" to folks who have little contact with the world outside their towns.

A bigger conversation could be had about the effects of tragedy on small children, and what family means, especially when children are forcibly returned to family that neither cares nor wants them. It's stirred my interest in historical figures Cynthia Parker and Olive Oatman, two women who were returned to white society after living with Native Americans.  Their stories are available in books and films, and are fascinating.  

Rating: 4/6. I'm glad I had the chance to go back and finish News of the World. I love Paulette Jiles' writing style; she says a lot with few words, and her characters  become quite endearing very quickly. You'll not soon forget the Captain and Johanna. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. A National Book Award Finalist. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover: Stories by Michael Andreasen

Short stories are something I haven't read much of over the years, so when I had the opportunity to read this collection, I decided to explore the world of short stories again. I realized it is always much easier to stop and start in a collection of short stories than to do so in a larger work; being able to read 25 pages and finish a story makes it easier to reset the next day and start a new one. I've come to enjoy short story collections and hope to read more this year.

I'll say this is not a collection that will appeal to everyone. It is full of oddball characters, strange situations, and a hefty dose of imagination. In Our Fathers at Sea, the issue of taking care of our elderly parents is solved in a neat and utterly horrible way that is completely approved of by society. Heck, the children of elderly parents think about that day in the future when they, too, will step into that capsule, sit in a cushy chair, and be dropped into the sea (along with a few other people). I think my emotions went from mildly amused to dawning horror pretty quickly. It was a very powerful tale about how we treat the elderly in today's world--we literally drop them out of sight. 

The title tale The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is a quirky tale about a ship that is slowly being crushed and dragged into the depths of the sea by a lovesick sea beast.  The men on board are running out of food, slowly going crazy, and have no hope of survival. It's very odd!

Other tales involve a man who's one time cheating on his wife ends up as an alien abduction; a middle school boy who glows with a radioactive light; a group of kids taken on a tour of a time travel museum, and a bear and a young boy who can hear each other's thoughts as they travel with an odd bunch through closed down amusement parks.  Every tale is uniquely different, wildly imaginative and tinged with a bit of melancholy and sadness. They are all, at their core, about love, connections, and the desire of any creature-human or not, to be acknowledged and cared for by someone or something. It is a universal yearning not limited to humans. 

If you like quirky short stories, a bit of magical realism, or are, like me, just beginning to read short story collections, think about trying this one out.  It's definitely different, and would make some great discussions with friends. A big thanks to Penguin Random House for providing a copy for review.  Again, another book I wouldn't have read on my own, but enjoyed it very much. 

Rating:  4/6 for a very unique collection of stories that will spin you around, make you smile, and think about what drives us all to survive. You will be amazed at the imagination of Michael Andreasen. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

I've Been Thinking...Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life by Maria Shriver

I've always admired Maria Shriver; always felt she was a smart, sharp woman, on top of her game, fearless, and always able to speak with kindness and compassion. This little gem of a book, chock full of wisdom from Maria, is just what I needed at this time in my life. I can't wait to gift it to my sisters. 

The chapters are short, and each focuses on so many topics we as women have overlooked or felt guilty about dwelling on for years. The power of being a woman; the power of forgiveness, and how it can heal us when we let go. The power of letting go of old beliefs and embracing new ones. The power to be okay with taking a break; to rest and recharge. Most importantly, the power of loving ourselves even in those times when we are less than we know we can be. 

At the end of each chapter Maria offers a simple prayer for each topic. I found myself pausing over each prayer, and thinking about each chapter. It's a small book; easy to tuck into a bag and carry around. Even though this book is short, it took me a few weeks of reading a few chapters, putting it down, ruminating on it, and then picking it up. It was, for me, a bit of a meditation. I sometimes feel less than, because I'm not a wife, or a mother. I have a great job, but I feel less than, trying to learn everything to be my best, and wondering if I've just left it too late to begin again. Maria's book gave me some peace, and let me know I'm not alone feeling these things. Perfectionism is overrated, and no one is perfect. Being cheerful and encouraging to others is a good thing, but if we're not loving to ourselves, and encouraging to ourselves, we're missing the big picture. 

Most of all, what I felt after reading this book was hope for myself; to keep trying everyday, and to have courage, but also to love myself when I don't feel particularly lovable. Meditation in any way we can get it, and in any way that feels good to ourselves is important. Whether it's listening to music, or going for a walk; running and listening to podcasts, or puttering around the kitchen. Reading a book in a quiet space, or driving in silence. They all count, and help us refocus. Prayer to whomever you pray to is also important. Just a simple ask for a good day helps set a positive tone and a positive frame of mind.

So I have to say thank you to Maria Shriver, and to Pamela Dorman/Viking Books for the opportunity to read and review this wonderful little book. It's something I would have skipped over in my hurriedness to read other books, exercise, and get through the week of work and obligations. And I can't wait to share it with my sisters. 

Rating:  5/6 for a book full of a woman's wisdom about life and how to live it. Maria points out that everyday is a new beginning, and paying attention and living in the here and now, loving ourselves and helping others is the way to living our best lives. 

Available in hardcover, large print paperback, and ebook--this would make a great birthday, Mother's Day, graduation gift! Or just a great "Hey I was thinking of you" gift.  

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

I've been waiting for the latest Simone St. James to be released for MONTHS.  I've read all of her books, and in my opinion, this is her best book.  One of the main reasons I love Simone's novels so much is because they're ghost stories. I have been a fan of ghosty stories since I was a little kid.  These are like Mary Downing Hahn books for adults.  

What makes Broken Girls different than her previous novels is the modern setting. Set in the small town of Barrons, Vermont, the narrative moves between 1950 and 2014. In 2014, 37 year old Fiona Sheridan still struggles to move past her older sister's brutal murder in 1994.  Found on the playing fields near Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for girls, her sister Deb's boyfriend was convicted and has spent the last 20 years in jail. Fiona saw the destruction of her parent's marriage, and the unraveling of her famous journalist father's career as a result of that dark November night.  She herself, a journalist writing "fluff" pieces for a local magazine, is dating a police officer, and is wary of pretty much everyone and everything. Something about her sister's death has never settled with Fiona.  

In 1950, we learn the story of Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for troublesome girls.  These days, these girls would be perfectly normal teens, but in the conservative 1950's they were seen as embarrassments and shipped off and out of sight.  Katie, CeCe, Roberta, and Sonia all room together and form a deep friendship in a place that is so creepy even the teachers hate being there.  Yes, there is something very unsettling about Idlewild Hall, and generations of girls have written notes to each other in textbooks about Mary Hand, the ghostly presence that scares the hell out of everyone.  She is a substantial part of the plot, and so eerie that even I, sitting on my couch, was a little bit creeped out. 
 No one knows who she is, but she roams the school buildings and land.  Students even have a little rhyme about Mary:

"Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under the land...
Faster, faster. Don't let her catch you. 
She'll say she wants to be your friend...
Do not let her in again!"

The ghost of Mary Hand makes you look at the worst part of your life.  She writes on windows, stands next to you and sends chills down your spine.  One of the best ghostly characters I've come across in a long time.

The plot revolves around something terrible that happens to the four girls in the 1950's, and Fiona's journalistic curiosity in 2014 as Idlewild is purchased and is being prepared for renovation, to become a boarding school for girls again. Will this renovation stir up old spirits? Does Mary Hand still roam Idlewild?

I have to say, the plot was on point. The stories of the four friends: Katie, CeCe, Roberta, and Sonia continue into 2014, and wow, the twist is pretty clever.  This plot went where I never would have expected it to go. Fiona's story is also interesting, as her digging into the history of Idlewild raises more questions that must be answered, and help her find out just what really happened to her sister in 1994. I'm not going to tell you anymore, because I don't want to give anything away. I say, just read the book!  It really is a page turner. I couldn't wait to read at night, read at lunch, and read early in the morning. I was frustrated I couldn't devote hours at a time to read it. Yes, for me, it was that good. 

Rating:  6/6.  Yes, perhaps I am biased because I love Simone St. James' novels so much, and a good chilling ghost story is hard to find.  But darn it all, this was a really great read.  One of my favorites for 2018.

Available in hardcover and ebook.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Still Life by Louise Penny

I've had a few disappointing reads lately, but thankfully Louise Penny put a stop to that.  My library has started a new book group, called Another Round Book Group, which meets in a local lovely bar once a month, and we pick books to read based on a monthly theme.  For our first inaugural "read" we had to pick a debut fiction book from an author.  Aha!  I thought. This is my chance to read one of the many new books I've got at home.   Instead, I jumped at the chance to read Still Life.

 I did a little investigating and found that Still Life is Louise Penny's first book. Yahoo!  I've had countless people tell me to read this series, and for years I've nodded, said yes, and then just not read it. Now I had a legitimate reason to start the series. I am so glad I did. 

Also known as the Inspector Gamache series, this novel takes place in the small village of Three Pines, located over the border of the U.S. near Montreal. I have to tell you, I want to live in Three Pines.  Full of small, quaint houses, a B&B run by two partners who know how to cook and entertain, and full of talented artists, it's a hidden gem in the Canadian countryside. It also is home to a murderer.  

Jane Neal, a beloved retired school teacher and secret artist living in Three Pines is found murdered in the woods early one morning. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, an elegant, thoughtful, and intelligent middle-aged man, is called in to investigate, along with his team of investigators. What at first looks like it might be an accident quickly becomes a murder investigation. Jane Neal was killed by someone with a bow and arrow. While the woods are full of hunters during this Thanksgiving weekend, the clues lead to a few dead ends and everyone in the village starts getting worried--who would have wanted to kill Jane?  

As Gamache and his team dig deep, you get to know the residents of Three Pines, and they are all interesting, fully developed characters. As Gamache discovers, the residents of Three Pines aren't to be dismissed as country bumpkins. Intelligent and yes, worldly, those who have settled in Three Pines all have backgrounds that I suspect will be examined more closely in the continuing series. Gamache falls under the spell of this village, and I did, too.  As I've stated before, I'm not a huge mystery reader, but I'm slowly becoming one.  I think for me it's just a matter of finding the type of mystery I enjoy.  I can say without a doubt Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series is already a favorite after just reading one! I've already bought the next in the series, A Fatal Grace; I'm happy to say there are over ten books in this series.  I'll have plenty of delightful reading time this summer to make my way through each mystery that visits Three Pines. 

All I can say is, why isn't this a TV series on Acorn?! I also have to say thank you to everyone over the years who has told me to read Louise Penny. Friends, customers, library patrons have all said how good her mysteries are, and they hit the bullseye.  Now I'll have to tell others to read them, too. I'd say anyone who is looking to try mysteries, this is a good place to start.  Also, if you're looking for something to get Mom or Grandma, this is a great introduction to mysteries or even just the entertaining writing of Louise Penny. Anyone who loves art will also like Still Life.

Ah...thank you April!  This is no April Fool's joke.  I seriously loved Still Life.  I'm so happy I finally "discovered" Louise Penny. 

Rating:  5/6 for a delightful murder mystery.  Yes, that sounds odd, I know. But Louise Penny masterfully brings a small village to life  with three dimensional characters, a puzzling murder, and a pretty clever whodunit. When I read the passage that gave this mystery its title, well, I was just blown away. I can't wait to return to Three Pines, and get to know Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.  

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.