Thursday, January 31, 2019

How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O'Neal

Iowa has been dead center in the middle of this horrible "polar vortex" the past few days. It's been so cold that pretty much everything was shut down, and people stayed home. Crazy, crazy cold--the kind that hurts your face the second you step out. Add to that a lovely snow storm today (it was only supposed to be an inch, but we're at about 4 with horrible roads and many, many accidents), and we're all ready for a balmy 32 degrees (coming in a few days). January has certainly been an interesting month.

I was doing a great job on reading lots of books, and then hit a wall. I've got all sorts of books started, but can't seem to get through any of them. I decided to reach for a book I've had sitting on my bookcase for a few years and get a head start on reading for a book group later in February. I also needed to read something a bit lighter. 

How to Bake a Perfect Life is a mixed bag of chick lit, family drama, and bread. Oh, I loved the bread! I've never made my own bread, but this certainly has me thinking I should try.  At the heart of this plot is Ramona Gallagher, a forty-year old woman who owns her own bakery in Colorado Springs, CO. Her daughter Sophia is married to a solider who's been severely injured while on active duty, and is in Germany at a hospital. Sophia must go, but Sophia is currently 8 months pregnant, and her stepdaughter Katie comes to stay with Ramona in her rambling Victorian home/bakery. Katie's mother is a drug addict in rehab, and Katie has nowhere to go. 

There are a lot of moving parts to this story, and they unfold little by little, so you get to know Ramona, Sophia and Katie as the story moves along. Ramona was a young mother-fifteen--and her accidental pregnancy created tension within her family--a prosperous large family that owns and operates many restaurants in the area. She inherited her grandmother's home, and decided to finally take her talent for baking bread and turn it into her own bakery, with no ties to her family's businesses. This also has created tension. But of course her money and her plan have gone awry with unexpected building issues that are keeping Ramona close to ruin. Can she keep going and make the bakery a success? 

There's a whole lot to this novel, and I can't possibly tell you all of it, and I wouldn't want to anyway! The bread is a big part of it, and there are recipes included throughout. There are many themes, too: mother-daughter relationships, forgiveness, veteran issues, drug addiction, home, and second chances. There's also a delightful dog named Merlin who is a very wise old soul, and an elderly woman who sits in the back garden and talks to Katie about the family. Multiple points of view help you understand what each character is thinking, and gives the plot a lot more depth. I was expecting a fun, lighthearted novel, but got more than that--and I happily dove right in and couldn't put it down. 

This novel helped me get back on track with some reading to finish out January. I'll post my February reads list this weekend--there are so many I want to read, I'm not sure what to start with first. 

Rating: 4/6 for a read-off-the-shelf novel that has me yearning for a warm crusty loaf of sourdough bread, guitar music, and a beautiful garden to soothe my soul.   Lots of characters have me hoping there are more novels ahead with the Gallagher family. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Letting Go Wasn't as Painful as I Expected...

I've accumulated a whole lot of books over the years; probably to make up for my early years when I didn't have money to buy books and I didn't have easy access to a library. When I got my first job at a bookstore (Farley's Bookshop in New Hope, PA), I was like a kid in a candy store. I could buy whatever I wanted, and I didn't waste any time. Then I worked at B&N for 21 years, and having my own place and the freedom to spend my money however I wanted to; well, I bought a lot of books. I loved life then; I spent a lot of time talking to friends about books, bought books for family and friends, and had a bunch of young nieces and nephews that I could introduce to the magic and complete awesomeness of books and reading. I kept all of my textbooks from college, and just kept adding to boxes and piles. I had no intention of ever letting any of my books go. I just couldn't imagine it. 

I've been in the same house for 18 years (OMG I just realized that), and we all know that means adding boxes and boxes to the basement--out of sight, out of mind. But life has certainly changed over the years, and thinking of what are sure to be lots of big life changes coming up in the next few years, I've got to let go. And it's just not letting go of a bunch of books, but letting go of a part of my life where books kept me sane, kept me from being overwhelmed by loneliness, and kept me exploring all of the subjects I so loved: ancient history, American Civil War, all things paranormal, and odd, quirky books. All of those books helped me be better at my job as a bookseller; they gave me an education that was priceless, and helped me make connections with people. Those books made me realize just how much I loved reading and books, and how central it was to my life and my happiness. They helped me understand that whatever I did for a career, it had to include books and connecting them to people. I've gone through boxes of books before, and taken books to donate and for resale at Half-Price books. But I didn't let go of much. Today was different. I let go of a lot. 

So this morning, instead of reading, I decided to go through the boxes I had in my basement. I had 10, which doesn't sound like much. I didn't look at anything on my bookcases, but focused on those 10 boxes. Hundreds of books. Probably not as many as others have, but a lot for my little house to hold. I can't even think about the hundreds I have everywhere else in my house. This was a big first step. 

It's taken me about 4 hours, but I've sorted my books, and out of ten boxes, I've managed to whittle what I'm keeping down to 2 1/2 boxes. I've got books to give to Goodwill, books to donate to the Friends of the Library, books to go to the recycling bin, and books to give to friends. I discovered a few books I forgot about, but really want to read (more John Bellairs novels!) and realized it wasn't hard to let go. I kept a steady pace and didn't waver in putting books in the donate piles. My little house is a bit of a mess, but I've made a big dent in clearing out a lot of "stuff". Looking at my college books, and thinking about that part of my life...it seems life a lifetime ago. So much has changed since then: I've gone back to school, changed careers, lost both parents and a sister; found the love of my life and have made plans for a life together that will see us into our retirement years. For me, books make a house a home. I will always have too many books, but I've found that letting go gets easier the older I get. Not having kids to pass my stuff onto also makes it easier to let go. My mind feels a bit more calm, knowing I've made a start clearing the clutter and getting organized. 

Now I've got to haul everything out to my car and send all of these books off into the world, for someone else to enjoy. So yes, I pulled a KonMari today. It was good. My heart is happy. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I hadn't read any of Liane Moriarty's novels before I decided to try out Nine Perfect Strangers. I've joined the Book of the Month Club, and this was my choice for December. A very snowy and cold weekend kept me on the couch (in between cooking and laundry) reading this novel. I have to say I was a bit disappointed, and also at the same time, interested enough to keep reading. 

Nine Perfect Strangers is about a group of people who travel to Tranquillum House- a  remote health resort in Australia-for a ten day rest and relaxation session. Owned and run  by the glamorous and mysterious Masha, along with her assistants Yao and Delilah, it's a stunning resort guaranteed to reset your life. Electronics and cell phones are forbidden; any junk food or alcohol are confiscated from luggage. 

The nine strangers come from all walks of life: Frances, a romance author with a career on the skids; Tony, a grumpy ex-soccer star; Jessica and Ben, a young married couple who won the lottery (which promptly ruined their lives), Carmel, a mother of four girls feeling fat and rejected since her husband left her for a younger model; Lars, a handsome lawyer who faces a big life decision; and the Marconi family: Napoleon, Heather, and their daughter Zoe, who are together to endure the painful anniversary of Zach's (their son and Zoe's twin) death. Normal, every day people with the usual issues. They are just want some peace and quiet, good meals, relaxation, and hey-if they lose weight, even better. 

However, they are all in for a highly unusual stay at Tranquillum House. It's bizarre, and just gets even stranger as the story moves along. Masha is, quite frankly, batshit crazy. She's decided this group will be the first group of guests to take part in a new program, one that will change their lives profoundly. The guests, however, have no clue what's in store for them. As a reader, I didn't, either. The plot takes some very odd turns. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was a bit underwhelmed. I liked Frances very much, and the Marconi family dynamics are interesting. I felt some characters had more development than others. I wasn't quite sure what the purpose of this tale was; if it was a tongue-in-cheek look at spa resorts, or if it was about strangers coming together and finding out they have a lot more in common than they think. Or if it was about being in a quiet place where you're forced to examine your life, what's worked, and what hasn't, and how you got to the place you are today. Masha as a character was just odd, and her decisions later in the novel are just bizarre. 

I've read reviews online and people are either hot or cold on this novel. I'm somewhere in the middle. It was interesting, but vaguely dissatisfying at the same time. It was longer than I thought was necessary; extra plot could have been condensed. Short chapters made it move quickly; multiple viewpoints from characters kept me turning the pages. If the chapters had been long I probably would have given up before the end. I was, however, interested in what came of everyone after they left Tranquillum House, so I'm glad the author helped close out the story with those chapters. 

Have I left you confused? Well, join the club. It was an okay novel, with elements I enjoyed, but overall, just kind of an odd plot. 

Rating: 2/6 for an uneven novel. Some characters were developed much more than others, leaving me feeling like I was missing something. An extremely strange turn of events at the resort seemed like it was just tossed in for effect, and made the whole novel one that left me scratching my head. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Freefall by Jessica Barry

A big thanks to Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this novel. I probably wouldn't have read it otherwise. Sometimes being presented with a book is a good thing; it's nice to have someone else say "Here! Read this!" instead of me always deciding what to read next. 

Freefall is a fast paced novel about a plane crash, a woman's struggle to survive the wilderness, and a mother's struggle to understand the reasons her daughter was on a small plane with her fiancĂ© that crashed in the mountains of Colorado. Told in the voices of Allison and her mother Maggie, the novel has short chapters that lend to the increasing urgency of uncovering the mysteries of Allison's life in San Diego. Back in her hometown of Owl's Creek, Maine, Maggie is grieving over the loss of her daughter and having a hard time believing she's dead, since her body has not been found in the plane wreckage. 

You, as the reader, know Allison survived the crash, and although injured, is moving through the Colorado wilderness in search of safety. She knows someone is after her and wants to kill her. 

The plot unfolds over a few weeks, and I have to give a shout out to the author for making Maggie's former career as a librarian an important part of the plot. Feeling restless and needing answers, Maggie returns to her former library to do some investigating online. As she slowly uncovers bits of Allison's life in San Diego, she has more questions than answers, and her feeling that Allison was involved in something dangerous keeps growing stronger. But was Allison involved in something that puts her mother in danger, too?

There's more to the story, of course. Maggie and Allison haven't spoken to each other for over two years, after Maggie's husband and Allison's father died of colon cancer. Maggie has no idea what Allison's been doing with her life, and while we are on Allison's journey with her, we learn what's happened to her, and the downward spiral her life took after her father died. How did Allison go from a bright, ambitious magazine writer to the brittle, controlled finance of a pharmaceutical genius? Her journey is pretty fascinating, and it's also fascinating to see what Maggie uncovers in her quest to understand her daughter's life. 

This is a pretty good thriller, with plenty of moments of high tension. You'll find yourself cheering Allison on as she doesn't give up, but keeps moving forward. Her reflections on her life, her growing terror that her mother is also in danger, and her transformation from a fragile controlled woman to one of independence and strength are all strong elements of the plot. The bad guys in this novel are definitely bad and ruthless. 

Rating: 5/6 for a thriller that grabs you from the first page and keeps you engaged and rooting for both women. As the plot unfolds, danger creeps closer, and you won't be able to put it down. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke is not a new novel; it was first published in 2011. But, as I've said before, a book is new to you if you haven't read it yet, no matter when it was published. I've seen this book around for years; knew a general sketchy outline of what it was about, and didn't have any interest in reading it. Anything that involves a futuristic America that has women's rights severely diminished is an immediate "no thanks" for me. There is something in me that reacts in a very visceral way. But, I chose this for a book group, and that forced me to read it. It's taken me a few weeks, when it should have taken me a few days. I had to read it in chunks, and I promised myself I wouldn't read it before I went to bed. I wasn't looking forward to reading it at all. 

That being said, I am glad I read it, but I will confess I now have to read something fun and light, because the subject matter was not easy for me to swallow and left me a bit broody and down. A quick rundown of the plot:

It's a future America where religion and government are no longer separate, and a bizarre plague rendered many women infertile until a cure was found. Unfortunately for a lot of women, it was too late and they didn't regain their fertility. It created a crisis, and abortions were outlawed and considered a felon. Too much money for prisons and criminal care drove the government to the brink of ruin, so instead of locking criminals up, they are now "chromed"--they are literally turned a color according to their crime: red for murder, yellow for misdemeanors, blue for child molesters and rapists. They spend 30 days in a cell, TV cameras live feeding their every move to the world, where people can watch from the comfort of their homes. Once released, they are on their own, to survive until their sentence is up and they are no longer chromed. If they do not visit the authorities to be "rechromed" every so many months, they slowly start to go crazy and usually end up dead. Sounds like fun, right?

Hannah Payne is a red; her crime is murder of her unborn child. She had a secret abortion, because she was having an affair with Aiden Dale, who is the new Secretary of Faith for the U.S. government. A married man, deeply faithful, he falls in love with Hannah and they secretly meet for two years before she discovers her pregnancy. Knowing she can never name the baby's father (which would be demanded of her once her pregnancy became known), she secretly aborts the child and gets caught, tried, and convicted to 15 years as a chromed person. Reds are particularly harshly treated by the public; women are seen as easy prey and are often raped and murdered. 

Hannah at first seems to be someone who can't cope with the loss of her family, her friends, and her life as she knew it. Her love for Aiden is still strong, but she knows he is lost to her. She undergoes some pretty harsh treatment, and instead of breaking her, she begins to find her inner strength and begins to question her whole life before her sentence. Did her parents do the right thing, raising her the way they did? What would she do if she was free, in Canada, where they don't chrome people? Can she leave everything behind in Texas and make it to Canada and freedom?

I've read a lot of reviews about this novel, and many people thought the book sputtered out a bit at the end after a strong beginning. I didn't really feel that way; I was focused on Hannah growing and finding herself and her purpose. It will be interesting to have a discussion with my group about this. The story is told through Hannah's experiences, so you don't exactly know what anyone else is feeling or their motives. It's a definite take on The Scarlett Letter, but enough differences to make it interesting. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel about women's choices over their bodies, one women's journey from shame and public humiliation into a fierce strength and the courage to survive on her terms. 

Available in paperback, large print, audio, and ebook. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

The Gown has been on my TBR list for a few months. Instead of trying hard to find an ARC  and read it before the release date, I stayed patient and waited for my order to come through B&N; lucky for me it arrived earlier than I expected and I had some extra time to read. I say that because once I started reading, it was hard to put down and I stopped reading everything else to finish The Gown. 

I freely confess to being a big English Royal Family fan. Yes, I remember Princess Diana getting married--we were on vacation in Missouri at a cabin with bad TV reception, and my Mom Was. Not. Pleased. that her daughters wanted to watch TV super early in the morning. I was 14 and deep in the throes of Diana obsessing, like most teens and young women in the U.S. in 1981. And yes, I did get up at a ridiculous hour of the morning to meet friends as a local British pub to drink champagne and eat breakfast while watching Prince William and Kate get hitched in 2011. I even took the day off to do it. And again last year, I DVR'd the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, but still got up to watch it anyway. 

So, I was excited to read this historical novel, and it really was a good dip back into my favorite genre, historical fiction. The Gown centers on two women in 1947 London: Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin. They both work for famed dress designer Norman Hartnell, embroidering dresses for the royal family and other famous, wealthy clients. World War 2 is over, but Britain is still suffering from food, clothing, and pretty much everything shortages, and the country still requires ration coupons for everything. Miriam has come to London to start over, after living through the German occupation of France, keeping herself hidden in plain sight by working for Maison Rebe, a famous embroidery house that worked with Christian Dior. Traumatized by her experiences during the war, she hopes to start over in London. Ann and Miriam become quick friends at Hartnell's, and soon are put together for a spectacular project: embroidering the gown and veil for Princess Elizabeth's wedding in November, 1947. 

The other part of this novel takes place in 2016 Canada, and with Ann's granddaughter Heather Mackenzie. Ann has recently passed away, and left Heather a box with embroidery bits that match the embroidery on Princess Elizabeth's wedding gown. The gown is in the news again as the 70th anniversary of her wedding to Prince Philip is nearing, and there's renewed interest in the royal wedding. Heather is mystified: why does her grandmother have this embroidery? What connection does she have to the wedding gown from 1947? Heather enjoyed a very close relationship with her grandmother, but her grandmother never spoke of her life in England before emigrating to Canada. Heather decides to travel to London to find out more about her grandmother's life, and what she finds there will surprise her, and change her life. 

The novel goes back and forth between 1947 and 2016, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the excitement of the upcoming wedding, the renewed spirit and energy it gave the people of England in a time where rebuilding their country was a struggle, and it seemed like life would never again be the way it was before World War 2. The details about Hartnell's, the work that went into creating the wedding gown and veil by all of those talented women was fascinating. Ann and Miriam's stories kept me reading; I couldn't wait to see what was next for them. 

This was a good mix of historical fact and fiction, and had me searching online for photos of Princess Elizabeth's gown and reading more about it. I would recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, novels about World War 2, fashion, and female relationships. Author Jennifer Robson has also written a few other novels: Goodnight from London, and the Great War series if you like The Gown and want to read more Jennifer Robson. 

Rating:  5/6 for a solid historical fiction novel that centers around the creation of Princess Elizabeth's wedding gown in 1947 London. Likable characters, strong female friendships, and a granddaughter's discovery of her grandmother's extraordinary life as a young woman in London kept me up late at night reading.  As always, a reminder that the elderly members of our families have stories to tell, and were young and brave in times of hardship. Sit down and discover your family history--talk to your grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Flowers and Foul Play: A Magic Garden Mystery by Amanda Flower

The theme for January's book club is Mystery.  We can read any mystery we want, and when you think about it, there's an overwhelming amount of mysteries to choose from, and it can be hard to decide. Do you go classic, with Agatha Christie, or Sherlock Holmes? Do you go with historical, or contemporary? Cozy, noir, or police procedural? What if you just want to read a stand alone mystery? Do they even exist anymore, in a genre that is mostly built on series? 

Phew. A lot to think about. I started reading the second in Louise Penny's series, after reading Still Life last year and falling in deep like with everything about her writing and storyline. Then I was perusing through my stacks of books, and found a few cozy mysteries that I had received from a publisher last year and hadn't read yet. So I read Bad Neighbors by Maia Chance and it got me on the cozy mystery bandwagon. I've read them before, but mysteries have never been a huge part of my reading life. I've attempted over the years to dig in, and I always get distracted. 

I have discovered that I do love a good cozy mystery. And yes, it is weird to think of a novel that involves someone being murdered as cozy, but essentially they are pretty cozy. They usually involve a main character who isn't a detective; but generally a female who runs a cafe, a bakery, a quilting shop, a bookstore, an antique shop...you get the picture. They're usually set in a small town or village, and there isn't any graphic violence; there's just a dead body that appears to throw a wrench into the everyday happenings of the main character. I find myself gravitating towards cozy mysteries that involve a bit of magic, and that's how I picked up Flowers and Foul Play. I was checking in returned books at the library one day, and thought it looked intriguing AND it met my mystery requirement for January. 

So, a quick synopsis: Fiona Knox has come to Scotland to claim her inheritance from her godfather, who was killed in an overseas military battle. Duncreigan is a little stone cottage and one interesting garden, a few miles from the village of Bellewick, near the coast of Scotland. Running from a failed flower shop, and an ex-fiancee who ditched her for another woman, Fiona is heartbroken at her Uncle Ian's death, but welcomes the chance to get away from Tennessee for awhile. She's only arrived at Duncreigan and greeted Hamish, the elderly groundskeeper, when she stumbles upon a dead body in the garden. Not the welcome she was expecting!

What follows is a mystery revolving around Alastair Croft, the village lawyer who  was murdered by someone in Bellewick, but who? Chief Inspector Neil Craig has everyone on the suspect list, including Hamish. Can Fiona clear Hamish's name, and find out who killed Alastair and left him in her garden?

Oh--the garden is magical, by the way. As soon as Fiona arrives, what was a garden full of dead plants, trees, and ivy begins to transform into a beautiful, blooming wonder. Fiona is confused, and a letter explaining all sent by her Uncle Ian never arrived, so she's clueless about the magical garden. What's in that letter?

Aside from a few editing boo-boos, this was an entertaining read over the weekend. I will definitely read the second in the series, Death and Daisies. 

I can't wait to see what else unfolds for Fiona at Duncreigan. I've found a delightful series that will keep me exploring cozy mysteries all year long. 

Rating:  4/6 for a fun cozy that was a quick read. The setting, the potential romance between Fiona and  Chief Inspector Neil Craig, and the characters who populate the village of Bellewick all make this a series I'll continue to enjoy. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I had heard buzz about this novel and decided to place a hold at my library, then promptly forgot about it during the holidays. A handy email reminder from my library that it was being held for me jolted my memory--another book I've managed to start since January 1st. 

I have, however, finished this one; it's a pretty quick read and you can read it in an afternoon. It's also pretty darn good, in a serial killer kind of way. 

Korede is a nurse at a local hospital, and she's been in love with Tade, a handsome doctor she works with, for months. Korede is the elder sister to Ayoola, who is physically the exact opposite of Korede: small, trim, and stunning. Her looks make men stare, and she's used her power over men to get her way in practically everything. She's even gotten away with murder. 

Korede knows her sister is a serial killer; after all, she's "accidentally" stabbed three boyfriends, and left Korede to clean up the messes. She's an expert at cleaning up bloodstains and making sure all evidence is wiped away. Ayoola is simply amazing in her ability to remain unaffected, spending time on social media, and quickly finding a replacement for the boyfriend who is now dead. 

Things change when Tade meets Ayoola at the hospital, and quickly falls for her. Korede is heartbroken, and worried he'll end up dead. What can she do to prevent it?

The relationship between the two sisters is the crux of this novel. Anyone who has a sister knows what it's like-you can fight one minute, and then defend each other the minute someone else tries to harm them. Korede is horrified, pissed, and disgusted at her sister's behavior and lack of remorse, yet at the same time, she keeps covering Ayoola's tracks. Some insight into the girls' behavior comes from flashbacks to their father, and the horrible man he was--did he somehow influence Ayoola's murdering mind? There's a nice twist at the end. 

This wasn't the novel I thought I'd kick 2019 off with, but I'm glad I did--I think it would make a great movie, if the dark comedy was done right. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, the food, clothing, and customs were fascinating to read. It's also an examination on how society treats women based solely on looks, and how familial loyalty is universal and, when it comes down to it, always wins out--especially between sisters. 

Rating: 4/6 for a quirky, dare I say darkly humorous look at two sisters: one a serial killer, the other the cleaner-upper.

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.