Sunday, April 28, 2019

May Reads: Making Time to Read When I Really Should be Mowing the Yard

One positive about winter is that I don't have any yard work to do for months. Now that Spring has sprung, my yard is looking pretty ragged, and is going to require some time to fertilize, pull weeds, plant bulbs, and add grass in spots that used to be garden spaces. The days of spending all afternoon outside puttering in my yard are, sadly, gone. Now it's all about cultivating a few lovely spaces that don't take an enormous amount of time for upkeep. And most importantly, spaces I can view from my deck. 

And the deck, well, that's my summer reading spot. I can't wait to pull out my pillows, umbrella, comfy chairs, and put some tropical foliage around to create my perfect place of peaceful reading. 

My April reads were slightly better than my March choices, and I know May will be even better. I'm way behind in my reading goal, and that's all down to what I'm reading, and how much time I have to read. Too many nights I've come home from work and just sat on my couch, zoned out. Fresh air, warmer days, and that energy Spring brings will help me focus on reading more. 

Here's the mix of some of the reads I have planned for May:

 The first in a series about a Native American woman who hunts monsters in a post-apocalyptic America. Reading for a May book group. 

 Currently half-way through this meticulously researched book about the five women who were the victims of Jack the Ripper. The author focuses on their lives-who they were, where they came from, and the circumstances that brought them to Whitechapel. Fascinating and long overdue.

 Just ordered this from B&N! A novel about a woman who rode horses to deliver library books in Appalachia. Can't wait to read this. 

Received this from the publisher to review. A woman claims her children have been switched with "somethings" that aren't right. No one believes her. A novel about changelings. Eek!

Reading this for another book group. I've been warned there's lots of hot sex, but so far I'm finding this to be a romance that is a step above the usual hot and heavy modern love stories. So far, so good. 

I'm already deep into two of these titles, so I hope that leaves me with a little wiggle room to read more in May. I'll be posting my most anticipated summer releases in a few weeks, so stay tuned!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl saved me this month. She got me out of a reading funk. When my life is a bit hectic, and I'm feeling stressed and just blah, I like to read something light and fun. If it includes food, even better. 

Ruth's memoir centers on her time as Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine for ten years, up until the day it suddenly folded. Known as the New York Times food critic, she ate out 14 times a week, was rarely home at night, and conscious that her son was growing up and she wasn't spending time at home with her family. Approached to take the job at Gourmet, she was a bit flabbergasted. She had no experience with magazines; she'd been a journalist, writer, and food critic for years-but no magazine experience. Gourmet magazine held a special place in Ruth's heart. She had begun reading the magazine as a young girl and yes, even tried some of the recipes for her family. Now she had the chance to be the editor of the magazine! Still uncertain, she finally listened to her friends, who all said "Of course you can do this job. What are you waiting for?!"

Ten years at Gourmet magazine taught Ruth a lot about the magazine business, and how to play the game. She turned Gourmet from a stuffy, out of touch food magazine to one that reached out to every day people who loved to cook, and embraced the changing American food landscape. Hiring the best people, giving her staff a chance to run with their creativity, she made bold choices that could have ended in disaster. Gourmet, unfortunately, ended suddenly-Ruth and her staff were given one day's notice it would be shuttered. The declining economy, the disaster of Wall Street, people losing jobs...Gourmet was one of the victims of the economic downturn of 2009. 

I love the way Ruth writes. She certainly has a gift; her descriptions of food are scrumptious. What I got the most out of this memoir was Ruth's willingness to take chances, her enjoyment of the small moments, and the pleasure in eating out for the sheer joy of it instead of as a career and a job requirement. Her faith in her staff was refreshing to read. Most of all, her ability to stay true to herself in a world where so many people played the game spoke volumes about the person she was-and that's what made this such an interesting memoir. 

I can't wait to read more Ruth Reichl. You don't have to be a foodie to enjoy this memoir. It is about a talented woman who took chances, was vulnerable, loved her staff, and never forgot the wonder of reading Gourmet as a little girl. That wonder kick-started her love of food writing at a very young age. 

There are also a few recipes in the memoir that are some of Ruth's favorites. 

Rating: 4/6 for an inside look at how a magazine works, the beautiful and talented writing of Ruth Reichl, and of course, all the food. The rise and fall of Gourmet magazine, which published for 60 years, is, quite frankly, sad. 

Available in hardcover audio, and ebook. 

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

I read this novel a week ago and discussed it with my book group last Tuesday. Even time away from it, and our group discussion, doesn't help my "meh" opinion about this thriller. 

Some readers absolutely do not like to read novels where they can't find a character likable, and that certainly was the case for a few of my fellow book group members. I prefer to like characters; but I've also found that disliking one or more (or in this case, all) of the characters can make for an interesting read. Or not. I was really hoping this would be a good thriller, but it was full of holes, characters that didn't learn a darn thing from previous screw ups, and left a very unsatisfying ending. 

Four women are brought together after many years apart when a body is unearthed on a beach near the English seaside village of Salten. Seventeen years before, the women, then young teens, had become fast friends while attending boarding school. Kate, Thea, Fatima, and Freya had a game-the 'lying game' they played on their fellow classmates, villagers, and anyone they could fool. They had rules, too: tell a lie, stick to your story, don't get caught, never lie to each other, and know when to stop lying. Some lies were pretty innocent, but others were damaging. The girls quickly gained a reputation around school that they were distrustful and mean. Kate's father, Ambrose, was a beloved art teacher at the school, and her stepbrother Luc attended a school for boys in a nearby village. Living at the Mill, a rundown building next to the water, Kate often had the girls sneak out of school at night and come to the Mill to hang out, swim, and spend time. Her father, Ambrose, was delighted to have Kate's friends there, and they in turn adored him. Freya, who narrates the story, is deeply in crush with Luc. All seems well...

Until one night Kate insists the girls come to the Mill. Ambrose is dead; a suicide note is left behind. What to do? Kate is only fifteen, and she can't take the risk of being sent to a foster home. She'll be sixteen in just a few months...

Well. The actions the girls take that night come back to haunt them, and as the reader, you're pulled along while they try to figure out just what to do all these years later. Do they keep lying? And who knows what they've lied about?

So. Sounds good, right? Well, as I said before, with the exception of Fatima, the main characters aren't very likable. Even Freya, who is a new mom, is unlikeable. They're all kind of pathetic. Fatima is the only one who has actually moved on the best-she's a happily married mother and doctor, and has returned to her faith. She's the most solid of the ladies. Kate is a mess; still living in the Mill--which is slowly falling into the sea and seems to be held together by spit and a wish. Thea is a drunk, never eats and smokes like a chimney. None of them have learned their lesson regarding lying and the toll it takes. 

I'll not tell you more of the plot. Even though it's pretty thin, it does have a few twists (you'll figure out the major twist all on your own) that will have you hoping maybe, just maybe, there is a chance the women will learn something from this whole disaster! I was disappointed in the end...Freya...ugh. 

I've read two Ruth Ware novels, and been disappointed by both. Thin plots, not so surprising thrillers. I feel that with some effort, they could have been good, meaty reads, but fell short. Do I expect too much? I don't think so. I have another Ruth Ware novel at home, and I'm going to give it a try sometime this year. We'll have to see if it breaks free of the ho-hum thrillers I've already read. 

Rating: 3/6 for a thriller that wasn't much of one at all. Some plot devices just fell flat, the characters weren't memorable, and the only interesting thing about the whole dang story was the decrepit Mill that was slowly falling into the sea. 

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

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

I've never read a Kurt Vonnegut novel before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I bought Galapagos on the recommendation of my brother. Uh...I bought it a few years ago, and it's been sitting on my bookcase. But once again, a book group spurred me on to pick it up and finally dive into a truly odd tale.

Published in 1985, Galapagos is told from the viewpoint of a ghost. Yes, a ghost. He's connected to the story through a ship that becomes, in a weird way, a modern Noah's Ark. Oh, and the story is told from a million years in the future.

It's A.D. 1986, and an apocalypse is brewing all over the world. A group of guests have gathered at the El Dorado Hotel in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. These guests are all bound for a trip to the Galapagos Islands for a spectacular cruise aboard the Bahia de Darwin. Little do they all know that in the space of a few short hours, two will be dead, one will be dying, and a new human race will come down to one man, a high school science teacher, and six indigenous young girls. Oh--and there's a woman who will give birth to a furry baby girl on the island that becomes ground zero for the new human race. 

It sounds pretty goofy, and it is-but there is a point to all of it. Vonnegut talks about the "big brains" that humans have in 1986, and how much trouble they are; humans are only concerned with food, shelter, and money. If they are successful, their brains keep them from ever thinking about life without food, money, and shelter. Being oblivious to need, they don't realize there are people in the world who don't have one, two, or all three of those things. Blinded by money and a full stomach, they just don't see the signs of impending doom as economies collapse, people riot, and those with happy trigger fingers declare war on each other and start unloading nuclear bombs. 

The story travels back and forth between 1986 and a million years into the future, when humans aren't really human anymore--rather, they've evolved back into fishy-type things that have smaller brains, fins, and hit their peak at age six. Utter nonsense, right? It was actually quite fun to read. Timing, slight adjustments in plans, and plain old dumb luck (or not) all play a part in the survival of the human race. Adapt, adjust, survive, until a shark eats you and you go into the blue wiggly after-life tube that everyone enters when they die. Is the human race even human a million years from now? What does it mean to be a human, after all?

This was definitely not at all what I usually read, but I'm glad I finally dipped my toe into the writing of Kurt Vonnegut. I will be interested in reading more of his novels. He's funny, thoughtful, pointed, and writes a story that kept me involved-even when I knew the ending (because he keeps telling it to you all throughout the book!). 

I don't think I'll ever think of Darwin quite the same again. 

Rating: 4/6 for an odd novel, for sure. But it's funny, in a very pointed way, about the obsessions we have that are really not worth much, and usually keep us from paying attention to what's really going on. I would love to discuss this novel with one of my reading friends, so I'll be nagging someone to read it soon! Interesting characters, a truly imaginative plot and plenty of moments where I laughed out loud. 

Available in paperback, audio, and ebook. 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Trial of Lizzie Borden: A True Story by Cara Robertson

I'm always interested in reading about Lizzie Borden, her life, and of course the infamous murders of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts on August 4, 1892. Not only was she found not guilty of their murders, but Lizzie and her sister Emma inherited their father's modest fortune, and she never left Fall River. Instead, she bought a large house, named it Maplecroft, and lived the life of a shunned citizen until her death in 1927.  

The Trial of Lizzie Borden is an examination of the murder, inquest, and trial that took place in 1892-93. What I like about Cara Robertson's approach is that she doesn't try to solve the mystery--did Lizzie do it? If not who did? Instead, she presents all the evidence, the trial transcripts, and all of the newspaper headlines and articles of the day. You decide, at the end, whether you believe she committed the murders-and if she did, if she acted alone, or was in cahoots with her sister. 

What I find fascinating about this book are the parallels to today's social media and how we treat people in the news, especially those accused of a crime. Poor Lizzie--newspaper reporters (both male and female) have no problem describing her as plain, unattractive, short, dumpy...you name it, they went out of their way to comment on her looks. The only compliment she got was for her thick hair. At times portrayed as cold and unfeeling, she was  also a delicate female who had unimaginable courage in the face of such a horrible accusation. The papers definitely had no problem deciding her fate before the jury did--the majority of people felt she was not guilty. Of course, they had no explanation for who could have killed Mr. and Mrs. Borden. The evidence shoddily gathered, and testimonies that changed resulted in just a botched mess. People couldn't remember who was where, which door, if any, was unlocked, where Lizzie was while her stepmother lay dead upstairs and her father was being killed in the sitting room. The stereotypes of women-especially educated, upper-middle class women- as creatures ruled by their menstrual cycles, delicate constitutions, and inability to kill in such a brutal fashion made me want to vomit. 

Seriously! A bucket of bloody clothes/cloths were in the cellar. When asked about them, Lizzie said she was on her cycle, and the detective and policemen quickly avoided looking in the freaking bucket. WTH! A bunch of bumbling idiots.   Lizzie was, to some, unjustly accused, and the crowds who came to watch the trial were very large-and often were made up of many women (the newspapers were quick to point out they weren't very attractive women, too). 

Yet after all was said and done, Fall River quickly disowned Lizzie, and she spent the rest of her days isolated in the town where she decided to stay. Some wonder why she stayed, but others think it was simply because she had no where else to go, or because she felt guilty that she'd gotten away with murder. 

It's all pretty fascinating, and this was my first real look at the trial and the circus it created. Photos of the main players, sketches from the actual trial, and detailed accounts of lawyers questioning witnesses on the stand make it all fascinating. And it leaves you to decide for yourself--did she do it?

I think she did. 

If you want to go a step further, watch the show Seeking Spirits on the Travel Channel. They just had a fascinating show about Maplecroft, and the current owner's desire to open it up to tours. Someone is not happy about it...could it be Lizzie? I'll say, it's a pretty fabulous and compelling hour of paranormal investigation. 

Rating:  4/6 for an in-depth look at the Borden murders, Lizzie Borden's trial, and the fascination people found in all of it. It may change your mind about Lizzie, or reinforce your belief in her guilt or innocence. True crime fans will enjoy this one!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick

I was pretty excited to get my hands on this novel. I'm always geared up to read about libraries, bookstores...anything to do with books. This was a gentle novel that I'm glad I read before I dip into The Trial of Lizzie Borden. I needed a little light before I hit the heavy. 

Martha is a middle-aged librarian in a small English town near the sea. She lives alone after caring for her aging parents for years. In caring for them, she lost her chance at marriage and having a family of her own. She's always saying yes to people who ask her for favors. So much so that her home is filled with all sorts of projects she's taken on  and never seems to complete: hemming pants, fixing a paper mache dragon; and yes, even doing someone's laundry. Add to that all the boxes of her parent's belongings that she still needs to sort through. All that clutter has cluttered her mind. The man who runs her library (from an office in a neighboring town) has turned her down multiple times for a full-time position at the library, saying she just doesn't have the drive and skills a younger person could bring to the library. No matter that she's passionate about the people, the library, and it's her absolute love. She's got oodles of ideas to make improvements, but she never gets the chance. 

Martha thinks her Nana died in 1982, but she finds a book on the steps of the library that changes her entire life. It's a book of fairy tales-her fairy tales. She wrote most of them (others were stories her Mother told her) as a young girl, yet here they are in a book, with a note to her from her Nana dated 1985. How can that be, if her Nana died in 1982? And why does her sister Lilly tell her to leave it alone and forget about it?

Martha digs a bit deeper, and in doing so, her life changes dramatically. There are some big growing pains, some truths to absorb, and some anger to work through. All of this forces Martha to take a look at her life, and decide she needs to focus on herself, and what she wants. No more saying yes to everyone else. 

I don't want to give any of the story away, so you can discover for yourself the secrets Martha uncovers. It was a pleasure to watch Martha's character grow a spine, get pissed, and take some action. It is never too late to change your life, live for yourself, and do what makes you happy. And if you're a person who feels like you have to say yes to everyone, STOP IT. 

Rating: 4/6 for an entertaining novel about a woman who finally stops putting others before herself, discovers a few truths that change her perspective, and redefines what family means. Anyone who loves stories that focus on books, libraries, and the absolute joy of reading will connect with this sweet tale. 

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