Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost by Lucy Banks

I came across this book while shelving in the library. Actually, I came across the second in the series, The Case of the Deadly Doppleganger and was ready to check it out before I discovered it was actually the second in the Dr. Ribero's Agency of the Supernatural series. I'm happy to say I've discovered a series that I thoroughly enjoy.

Kester Lanner has recently lost his mother, and she has left instructions for him to travel to Exeter, in England, to a rather run-down building, to meet Dr. Ribero. Kester finds out Dr. Ribero is actually his father, and he runs a very odd company, with a small crew of argumentative people: Ms. Wellbeloved, Pamela, Mike, and Serena. And by argumentative, I mean they're all continually squabbling. Sheesh, talk about a toxic work environment! But underneath it all lies a firm foundation of togetherness. Dr. Ribero and crew run a supernatural agency. 

Kester, an overweight, pale, delicate sort of young man, relies on facts and reality, and he's thrown a curve meeting his father and the crew. In fact, he's actually dreadfully frightened of the unknown. But, he's inherited a skill from his mother: his ability to open a door to the spirit world that spirits just can't resist. It's a rare gift, and one that Kester hasn't mastered at all. The agency has a bit of an unusual job: a haunted portrait that enchants men and terrorizes their wives. If they don't solve this haunting, and capture the spirit, they will have to close the doors of the agency for good. Will Kester help them, or be the end of them?

So aside from the constant bickering between Serena (geez, she's got an attitude) and Mike, I liked the small crew at the agency. Pamela and Ms. Wellbeloved were the anchors, and quite lovely women, with their own particular talents. Serena is the one who can capture spirits in water bottles, and Mike is the techno guy who is constantly trying to fix, improve, and create technology to help them with their jobs. Dr. Ribero is a quirky, mysterious leader, and a father Kester never imagined. Kester is the most interesting. He's a sad sack, barely ever leaving home, loves to read, is great at research, but hasn't lived a life at all--until he meets the crew. Waffling between being terrified and interested in capturing spirits, he's a man-child on the cusp of potential great change, if only he can get up the courage to jump. 

I read reviews of this novel on Goodreads, and I'd say roughly half the folks either gave up, or complained about the argumentative cast of characters. I loved it, and it reminded me a bit of Simon Green's Ghost Finders series. I am heading to work today, hopeful the second in the series in still on a shelf waiting for me to check it out. Anyone who enjoys series with a supernatural twist will enjoy this one. I can't wait to see what trouble the crew get into, and see Kester mature. It's a contemporary novel, but the feel to it kept me thinking it was not contemporary; but that didn't really bother me. I thought the ghost story was pretty clever, and I can tell the author put some thought/research into the legend of that particular spirit while developing the novel. 

Yay! Another series I like. I'm continually surprised that I keep happening upon new series. I can't promise I'll always read every book in the series-sometimes they just go on for too long--(Laurel K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, Patricia Cornwell, Jim Butcher). But for now, I'll continue to enjoy Dr. Ribero and his unique agency. 

Here's the second in the series, out now:

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining start to a new supernatural series. I am looking forward to reading more! 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

I consider myself more of a solitary person than one who has to be in the midst of people all of the time, but I certainly can't imagine living by myself in the woods for 27 years and avoiding any human contact. That's just what Christopher Knight did when, at age 20, he parked his car, left his keys on the console, and with little more than the clothes on his back and a tent, walked into the Maine woods. 

He never contacted his family, and until he was caught stealing from a camp in 2013, he lived a solitary life in a camp secluded enough that no one ever found it, but only a few miles away from popular lakes and cabins that had plenty of people around during the Maine summer months. He survived by breaking into cabins and stealing food, clothing, supplies, and propane tanks to melt snow for water. He took books and spent all of his time sitting still in his camp, reading and listening to the radio with headphones. His desire to be alone wasn't caused by mental issues; Christopher found himself most happy and alive living a solitary existence in nature. Some call him a hermit; others a thief. Some question his mental stability; others recognize in Christopher his deep introversion and inability to live in a world full of chaos and noise. We all seek those times of solitude in order to think, clear our brains, and recharge our batteries. Studies have shown spending even a short time outside in the woods can calm our blood pressure, relax our minds, and infuse us with a sense of wellbeing and peace. For Christopher, it was essential to his survival; even the hardest of times during the winter contributed to his sense of satisfaction and contentment. 

I found this a fascinating tale, written by a man who visited Christopher in jail and before he was taken to court. Michael Finkel's attempt at understanding Christopher's life in the woods was pretty satisfying to me; surrounding his tale with some of the history of hermits, anchorites, and others who chose to live a solitary existence throughout history. It helped frame the extraordinary tale of Christopher. And it is extraordinary, that this man walked away from one life and created another by sheer hard work and determination.

 Reading this book reminded me of the importance of solitude. I certainly feel after a day of being surrounded by people: the noise, the personalities, the emotions; that coming home to a quiet house becomes increasingly necessary for me to balance myself. Luckily, my partner feels the same way, and is a man who finds his sense of self and extreme peace in the quiet of the woods, away from people. It literally recharges his mental batteries; I've seen the change in him time and again after a day spent by himself in nature. I think for me, reading quietly at home is my own escape that refreshes me and is a balm to my soul. It helps prepare me to put on my "game face" and walk back into my everyday busy world. 

This is a short book, and quick to read. I had to check online to make sure Christopher is still alive and well, and he is, but I have to wonder if he is happy living again around people. I can only imagine his grief at losing that solitary existence. 

Rating:  5/6 for a intriguing look at one man's desire to live a life of solitude, and an author's attempt to understand the driving force behind that desire. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Late Bloomers' Club by Louise Miller

I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of The Late Bloomers' Club in the mail last week. I absolutely loved Louise Miller's first novel, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living.  Set in the little town of Guthrie, Vermont, this novel has the same warmth and delicious baking that made CBGTCL one of my favorite reads of 2016. 

Nora Huckleberry owns and runs the town's beloved Miss Guthrie Diner; first started by her parents, and inherited by Nora after her mother dies of cancer and her father falls apart. Taking care of her younger sister Kit as a teenager, Nora has always done what she should do, rather than what she wants. The diner is popular, but always has something that needs fixing, and takes up so much of Nora's time she has little for her real passion: creating art. When a local cake baker, Peggy Johnson suddenly dies and leaves her house and land to Nora and Kit, it starts a whole new chance for the town, and Nora, to begin a new life. 

Elliot, a representative from HG Corporation, had been in talks with Peggy before her death on purchasing her land for a new big box store. Nora and Kit could sell the land, pay all their bills, and have some extra cash. It would help Kit with her struggling film career, and help Nora get ahead of diner bills. But Peggy's home includes an old growth orchard and some surprises in the woods. As Nora discovers what Peggy kept hidden from the town, she falls in love with the comfort, quiet, and sense of home Peggy's place provides. And darn it all, Elliot is a cutie, too. Nora has to not only think about what would benefit her, but what a big box store would mean to the town of Guthrie and all the small shop owners who make their living from tourists. It would change the makeup of Guthrie permanently, and while there are benefits, are they worth it?

There's so much more to this novel; I don't want to give any of it away. Cakes are a big part of it all, and like a great cake, you should savor every bite. Peggy's life may have seemed quiet, but she had a lot going on behind the scenes, and those secrets effect Nora and Kit's choices. 

This was such a lovely book to read, especially after The Hunger. The town of Guthrie must surely exist somewhere, and all the wonderful folks who make Guthrie a special place are out there, too. Characters from The City Baker's Guide to Country Living populate this novel, and it felt like a continuing story, with hardly any time gone by. 

A big thank you to Pamela Dorman/Viking for an advanced review copy. Just what this gal needed in the dog days of summer. 

Rating:  5/6 for a delightful return to the small Vermont town of Guthrie. It's never too late to realize your dreams.  And the cakes! Oh, the cakes. Yum. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

I've posted a video review of The Hunger on my Facebook page @bookaliciousbabe.  

I'll just say this was an unexpected find during a visit to Barnes & Noble; I went to work the next day and it came across my desk; that meant I had to read it! 

A real thriller/chiller retelling of the Donner Party Tragedy of 1846-47 with a supernatural twist. I consider this a horror novel.  I even go so far as to say it would make a good book club discussion book.  

American pioneers were an extraordinarily brave group of people, traveling across unknown territory hundreds of miles with only a hope that the end resulted in a place they could settle, raise a family, and create a new life. That's tough enough, but imagine if on the way (which you started months too late to safely get through before the snow starts flying), something is stalking you. Something that is not natural; something that looks human but isn't quite--was it ever human? Imagine that there's more than one of these creatures, and as you become more desperate as food runs low, tempers flare, hope begins to fade, you realize something horrible is out there, waiting to strike. 

The tension ramps up in this novel, and Alma Katsu masterfully blends the past with the present situation for each of the main characters. Everyone has secrets they are running from, and this wagon train to California forces those secrets out. Just how far will people go to survive?

Take a look at my video review; hope you enjoy it. I tend to just start recording and whatever falls out of my mouth, well, that's it. That's how I review books. 

Rating:  5/6 for a thriller that kept me on the edge. Even knowing what the actual outcome of the Donner Party was, I still kept hoping something would change. Throw in a horrible supernatural slant, and the story takes on an even darker edge. It's been optioned for a film, and I hope it happens--I'll go see it!

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Other Woman by Sandie Jones

The Other Woman joins the genre of relationship thrillers that started with Gone Girl. This one has a twist, however:the dread of every woman who meets her boyfriend's parents: a mother who doesn't like you.  

Emily meets Adam in the bar of a London hotel after attending a work conference. She's  reluctantly attracted to the tall, dark, handsome Adam after he rudely jumps in line ahead of her for drinks. He charms her, and soon they are dating. Emily quickly falls for Adam, and a few months go by before he agrees that it's time to meet his mother. Emily is really looking forward to it, but oh boy, she is in for a surprise. 

Pammie (this name just drove me nuts!) certainly seems like a lovely woman, and her sons Adam and James fuss over her. But she's not very welcoming to Emily-and only Emily sees it. Criticism masquerading as compliments, deliberate miscommunication, "accidental" texts sent to Emily that are critical. Emily feels like she can't win, and Adam won't hear anything bad about his mother. As their relationship moves along, Emily starts getting pissed, and determined to defeat Pammie. But oh, Pammie is pretty good at throwing chaos into Emily's big moments: passing out at Adam's birthday party as he proposes to Emily; making a dramatic announcement at Emily and Adam's rehearsal dinner the night before their wedding. You can't help but wonder what the heck Pammie is doing, and why she dislikes Emily so much. 

Of course, Adam is a bit of a jerk, and the whole time I'm reading this, I'm thinking Emily is a bit of a ding-dong for putting up with his crap. At what point does a woman let go of the dream and face the reality that the man she's with just isn't quite the one?

It wasn't hard to figure out what Pammie was up to, but the end was still a bit unexpected, and really good. I have to say I was annoyed at Emily during most of the novel. I felt that she was ignoring pretty big signs that maybe this wasn't the best relationship, and her desire to win the game over Pammie took over common sense and blinded her to everything else. 

The Other Woman  will be available on August 21, 2018 in hardcover, audio, and ebook. Perfect vacation read!

Rating:  4/6 for a different kind of thriller. Pammie has no shame doing her best to keep Emily and Adam apart. 

Thank you to Minotaur/St. Martin's Press for the review copy. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Summer Reading Halfway Through: What I Read, What I Still Want to Read

Well as usual, once we hit July, the summer seems to be moving at lightning speed towards September. It's been so muggy and hot in Iowa this summer I've got my A/C on permanently. But, there have been some glorious mornings where I can sit out on my deck and read for a few hours in my peaceful, bird chirping back yard. It's my favorite new reading spot. 

Books are coming at me left and right, and I'm reading whatever appeals to me at the moment. I've managed to get back to my usual reading style of 4-5 books at a time. I start one, get about 50-75 pages in, then pick up another one, and so on, and so on. I much prefer this than reading one book at a time. Keeps me from getting impatient or bored when I hit a spot in a story that seems to slow me down. I've read a few graphic novels--the Lumberjanes, which are wonderful middle school/young adult stories about a girl's camp surrounded by some supernatural shenanigans. They're all about friendship, girl power, and working together. I can see why they're so popular!

I just started The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel last night. It's the non-fiction story of Michael Knight, who lived in the woods by himself with no human contact for 27 years. The Other Woman by Sandie Jones is a publisher review read, and I've got to really dig into it. A woman's budding relationship with a new man is complicated by his mother. I can't decide if it's supposed to be campy or a serious thriller. I like the heroine.  

Another book I'm halfway through is The Hunger by Alma Katsu. I saw it at Barnes and Noble, but didn't buy it in hardcover. The next week, I was working at the library and it came across my desk. Bingo! It's a supernatural take on the Donner Tragedy. Holy heck. It's creepy, for sure. Knowing what eventually happens to the Donner Party gives it an extra dreadful feel. I'll be reviewing it soon. 

I've still got plenty of reads waiting in the wings: Jenny Colgan, Michelle Noble, Charles Frazier, and that big tome about Leonardo DaVinci. As it is, I'm enjoying my summer of reading.  I'll post some quick videos to my Facebook page about some of the other books and I'm reading, and you can also find me on Instagram under @Supersue66. 

Happy reading!  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder by Sarah J. Harris

This was one of the most unusual mysteries I've read, and a definite stand out in my reading list this year. 

The Color of Bee Larkham's Murder is centered around Jasper Wishart, a thirteen year old  autistic boy who also has synesthesia: he sees sounds--voices, birds chirping, cars, you name it--as colors. Each sound and person has their own particular color. Jasper's world is an amazing rainbow of never ending colors, and the only way he can cope is by painting what he sees. His big issue is his inability to recognize and remember faces-this is where remembering the color of a voice helps him recognize people. His mother is dead, and he lives with his father, who struggles to understand his complex child, and navigate raising a special needs son on his own. 

Jasper believe's he's murdered the next door neighbor, Bee Larkham, and that his Dad is involved. The police have been looking for Bee, and she never answers her door. Jasper's beloved parakeets, who like to stop at the feeders in Bee's yard, are not coming around much since Jasper has run out of bird seed to feed them. He spends hours with his binoculars watching the birds, making notes. He also has watched Bee and the people coming to her house when she plays very loud music late into the night. Their friendship evolves into something dangerous for Jasper, until the night he believes he stabs her in her kitchen. His father has cautioned Jasper not to say anything--to stick to the story they've rehearsed, but Jasper is ready to burst and wants to confess.

This was really a great thriller, as you slowly unravel Jasper's tangled thoughts and colorful memories of the days leading up to Bee's death. Everything--and I mean everything--is awash in so many vivid colors it is hard to imagine living everyday with this gift. Author Sarah Harris does an amazing job describing just what difficulties Jasper encounters trying to live his life in a world where no one seems to understand what he sees or feels. Jasper copes by routines, counting, painting, and sometimes, screaming and vomiting out his feelings. He's so darn smart, but no one sees that; they just see he's different. His grief over losing his mother, and his feeling that his father doesn't love him both play a part in his guilt over Bee's death. Can you imagine only being able to remember people by the color of their voice? What if the color changed?

So the questions are: did Jasper kill Bee? Is she really dead? Will we ever know what happened? Yes. Yes you will. And it's pretty darn good, too. Twists galore!

Rating: 5/6 for a thriller told through the eyes of a young boy gifted with synesthesia. His world makes the mystery that much more interesting, and difficult to tell who did what and when. Do you trust what Jasper sees, or is there more? A pretty good plot, and just when you think you've got all the answers, more comes out of left field. You will need to slow your pace on this one, as reading what happens from Jasper's point of view requires patience and attention. 

Available in hardcover, audio, and ebook. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Revisiting Childhood Favorites: Author John Bellairs

A recent challenge on Facebook had me posting my favorite reads, and that got me thinking about John Bellairs. I didn't have very many books as a child, but I remember very clearly having the first two Lewis Barnavelt stories in paperback. I have no idea where they are now; I'm hoping in a box somewhere in my basement. I was lucky enough to find Barnes and Noble had put together the first three in one hardcover volume for the incredible price of $9.95 years ago and snagged it, along with another volume of his Johnny Dixon mysteries. They've sat on my bookshelf for years. Friday night, I decided I needed to re-read John Bellairs. I managed to read the first two of the three this weekend. 

There is a movie coming out in September for TheHouse with a Clock in its Walls starring Jack Black as Uncle Jonathan, and Cate Blanchett as Mrs.           Zimmerman. I watched the trailer, and it's of course 
vastly different than the book--a whole lot more magic fantastical stuff.  I think kids will love it! I will certainly see it in the theater. 

I read the first two novels of the Lewis Barnavelt series. I believe there are at least 10 of them; some finished after John Bellairs died in his early fifties in 1991. I'm still crushed he didn't have more time to write more novels for young kids. They are wonderful. 

So a quick recap: Lewis Barnavelt has lost his parents in a car accident, and he's sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan in New Zebedee, Michigan.  Set in 1948, life was a bit simpler, of course, but no less full of magic, both good and bad. Uncle Johnathan is a magician of sorts, and a wizard, who lives in a mansion on a hill. His next door neighbor, Mrs. Zimmerman, is a witch, who makes the best chocolate chip cookies and hot cocoa, and waffles for breakfast.  Lewis realizes his first night at Uncle Jonathan's home that he's in a wonderful place, where stained glass windows change scenes, and the mirror near the front door shows scenes from history-or sometimes just shows your reflection. He's got a fireplace in his room, and plays poker with his Uncle and Mrs. Zimmerman on a regular basis. While all seems well, Lewis faces bullying at school because of his size and his inability to play any kind of sport. He cries easily, and dreads lunchtime at school. I really felt for Lewis; seems bullying has been around for generations. He's called fatty, fatso, lardo; picked last for the baseball games, then told to go home because they don't want him to play. Thankfully, he's got a wonderful place to go home to-but a home with a strange clock ticking in the walls. 

The mansion was the home of the evil Isaac Izard and his wife, both into dark magic. Now both dead and resting in a mausoleum in the local cemetery, they started something in the house that could mean doomsday for everyone if Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman don't figure it out. Lewis' desire to keep a friendship with a popular boy has him casting a spell on Halloween night to raise the dead (he has no idea what he's doing, but is desperate to impress his friend)--and boy howdy, does he succeed. Who does he raise, and what does it mean for the house, the ticking clock, and the town of New Zebedee? 

In the second novel, The Figure in the Shadows, Lewis is still being bullied at school, and has just lost his beloved Sherlock Holmes hat to the biggest bully in class. He's made a new friend: Rose Rita, a tomboy who is tough and prefers jeans to skirts. Hoping to cheer Lewis up, Uncle Jonathan opens up Grandpa Barnavelt's old trunk, and inside Lewis finds an old amulet his Grandpa won on a bet the night before a big Civil War battle. Mrs. Zimmerman says there's no magic to it, but Lewis thinks otherwise. He wears it on a chain around his neck, and suddenly has all sorts of vivid dreams about battles, fighting, and revenge. And then there's the mysterious postcard that arrives at midnight, with one word: Venio. "I come." Gulp. Lewis is too afraid to confess to Uncle Jonathan he's been messing with magic again, so what is he going to do? 

The first novel was illustrated by Edward Gorey, and I have always had a soft spot for his illustrations. They are perfect for John Bellairs novels. The second novel is illustrated by Mercer Mayer, and while it is charming, it doesn't hold a candle to Edward Gorey. I believe most of Bellairs' early novels were graced with Edward Gorey illustrations, so I'm not sure why Mercer Mayer illustrated the second Lewis Barnavelt novel. Maybe a later edition?

There is something completely engaging about John Bellairs' writing, and I was just as thrilled to read them today as I was decades ago. I think they stand the test of time, certainly. They are a perfect example of good vs. evil, the many ways we create families, and the effect bullying can have on us as children. I'm craving some chocolate chip cookies, thanks to Mrs. Zimmerman! 

I'd recommend these books to any young reader who likes magic, ghosts, the unknown, and suspense. I'm hoping more will return to print with the release of the movie in September. As for now, it looks like most are available as ebooks. 

I'll keep reading more as I find them, and smile the whole time. 

Rating for both novels: 5/6 for delightful writing, lovable characters, and oooh, the evil-doers! Just the kind of novels I would have loved to write myself. 

Used copies, paperbacks, and ebooks are available. Get to it! 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern

I continue my quest to read novels set in libraries and bookstores with Summer Hours at the Robbers Library by Sue Halpern. I've worked hard this week to dive into this novel, and I'm kind of "meh" on it, which is a big surprise to me; but then again, the novel wasn't what I expected, either. This seems to be my theme this summer-reading books that surprise me. 

The novel starts off with Kit talking about how she met her husband, Cal in college. This completely threw me for a loop, and I kept putting the book down, not really very interested in her relationship with Cal. What does this have to do with a library, I wondered? But I kept going. Mostly Kit's backstory explains why she is a librarian in little Riverton, NH--a place far from where she comes from. 

Aha! The library. Set in the small dying industrial town of Riverton, NH, the Carnegie library is one of the few places left in town that is actually open. There is a core group of faithful patrons, a pitiful budget, and a need for more of everything in the library. Kit is the reference librarian, and she's very good at her job. Sunny, a 14 year old, is caught stealing a dictionary from a bookstore. She's sentenced to work 40 hours a week at the library for the summer. Probably the best thing that's happened to her. Her parents, Willow and Steve, are the type of parents who provide no structure to their child-they "no school" her (not even homeschool, just let her figure stuff out on her own), are perpetually broke, and move around a lot. They live off the grid and do a great job avoiding authority. 

Rusty, who is a minor character for part of the book, takes a bigger role about half-way through. He's an ex-Wall Street executive, broke, homeless, and using the only computer the library has for public use every day, all day. He's a mystery until Sunny and Kit get to know him. 

The library in Riverton is a refuge for all who are wounded by life, frustrated by life, or just weary. It has a gently worn feeling; comfy and cozy, but still needing a lot of attention. Kit's love of books reminded me of myself in a weird way. It took her a few library jobs in science and academic libraries before she realized it wasn't the library life that she loved, but the books that she loved--libraries were the place where she could be surrounded by what she loved. 

Back to the story! I liked the characters: Kit, Sunny, and Rusty. I was not fond of the marriage back story, which took up a large chunk of the book, and spun out too slowly. When I finally got to the point of finding out just what had happened in Kit's marriage to Cal, I thought it was kind of ridiculous and over the top. Sunny didn't have much choice in her life; but growing into her teen years she's becoming more adamant about living a normal life: going to school, staying in one place, eating candy. In their attempts to show Sunny a life of freedom, they've actually closed her off to so much of life. 

Rusty was a good shot in the arm for the novel. He was necessary; just having the unfolding friendship between Sunny and Kit would have led to nowhere. Adding Rusty into the mix--with his honesty and cheerfulness, was one of the better aspects of the novel. 

I guess I thought there would be more of a big plot point in this novel about a library in a small town. But instead it was a quiet unfolding of three lives, their growing friendship, and healing from past wounds. My feeling still stands as a "meh". 

Rating:  3/6 for a novel about people starting over, or just beginning--depends on how you look at it. I'd love to know what happens to Sunny, Kit, and Rusty after the final page. Not a bad read--character driven and not a whole lot of action. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.