Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I've joined the thousands of other readers who have jumped on the crawdad wagon (or boat). I've been reading recently that Delia Owens has the distinct honor of having the one fiction book that in the past few years  has sold over 1 million copies in hardcover. The novel in second place comes in at around 750,000 copies sold in hardcover. That's a heck of a lot of books sent out in the world, and that doesn't even count the ebooks and audio books purchased!  Pretty impressive for a first novel, wouldn't you say?

So what is it about Where the Crawdads Sing that resonates so deeply with so many people? I think it's a few things, at least that was the case for me. Kya, oh Lord, she broke my heart. It took me quite a while to be able to come to terms with the fact that her entire family abandoned a little girl and left her alone to fend for herself. And the townsfolk of Barkley Cove did nothing to help this little girl. How she survived and thrived are the magic of the story. Nature-the marsh and all the wonders it held nurtured and protected her. The marsh was her mother, her provider, her teacher, her friend. Kya loved it as she would her family, and the relationship between Kya and the marsh are the foundation of this amazing story. 

Delia Owens' writing makes you wish for a secluded cabin, a boat, and time alone. Kya's life is rough--nearly penniless, she survives on grits and what she can gather from the marsh. Uneducated, until Tate comes along, and teaches her to read. Jumping' and Mabel were the closest folks she had to family, and their relationship sustained her through some rough times. Tate, the boy who loved the Marsh Girl with all he had, but still hurt her. And there is the mystery of Chase Andrew's death on that October night in 1969. The story bounces back and forth between the early 1950's and 1970, as Kya's story unfolds.  

Kya is one of those unforgettable characters that you don't often meet in fiction. How this little girl grew to be a brilliant naturalist, purely because she so loved the marsh and everything in it, is an unforgettable story. The writing is effortless, and simply stunning. It makes you itch to grab a sketch pad and sit somewhere and observe nature. It reminded me of my fascination with the children's book Pagoo by Holling C. Holling when I was a child. I actually spent time attempting to recreate the illustrations about Pagoo, the hermit crab and his life in the tide pool. I still have that book, and love to look at it. 

But this novel isn't just about a young girl surviving in the marsh. It's about family, abandonment, stereotypes, shunning others who we see as different, prejudice, conforming to society's expectations, and most of all, love and trust. And oh, by golly, strength to get through the worst life can hand you and come out the other side and into a new day. 

So yes, if you haven't read this, please do. It will give you a new appreciation for nature, and the beauty around us that we seem to cavalierly destroy just for the sake of progress. And read it because it's a damn good story. 

Rating: 6/6 for a multi-layered novel about a young girl raising herself in the marshes of North Carolina during the 1950's and 1960's. You will smell the water, squish the mud between your toes, and feel the breeze on your face. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

I was pretty excited to read one of my favorite genres of books: magical realism, with a dash of foodie thrown into the mix. This delightful novel didn't disappoint and I loved everything about it. 

Natalie returns to her mother's apartment in San Francisco's Chinatown after learning her mother has died. Guilt-ridden at leaving home in anger years before, she's grieving over her lost relationship with her agoraphobic mother and isn't sure what her next move will be. A failure at cooking school, her desire is to open a restaurant just like her grandmother, Qiao. Her grandmother's restaurant was a pillar of the community, and when she died, Natalie's mother refused to keep the restaurant going. Over the years, a part of the Chinatown community started to die off, and now a greedy real estate agent wants to buy out the remaining families and turn it into a new hipster community. 

Natalie learns that she has inherited the apartment and restaurant below; her task: to reopen the restaurant using her Qiao's recipe book. But before she can do that, she has to cook for three members of the community in order for the restaurant to be successful and in doing that, revitalize the people and businesses around her. Not a small task! If she fails, the neighborhood is doomed. 

Qiao's recipes aren't just recipes, of course. They all mean something, whether it's giving courage, opening up hearts, or helping someone find their luck. After carefully visiting folks around the community, she creates her three recipes and invites them each for a meal. But what seems easy isn't so easy, and disaster soon strikes. 

How can Natalie save her dream of reopening the restaurant, make peace with the neighbors, and understand why her mother left Natalie's father a big secret?It seems like a lot, but it all comes together nicely--even a potential romance with Daniel. What I really enjoyed, besides the recipes, was the glimpse into Chinese culture. Natalie is throughly American, but she honors the traditions of her family and culture by respecting her elders, being humble, and seeing the signs all around her that most of us would usually ignore. Those traditions and Chinese mythology made what could have been just a regular ho-hum contemporary story into a very enjoyable, thoroughly charming, novel. I can't wait to read more from Roselle Lim. 

Rating: 5/6 for novel with a dash of magic, mythology, romance, food, and tradition. A young woman struggles to understand and make peace with her mother's passing, and in doing so, discovers more about herself than she could have ever imagined. It's all about dreams, love, hope, and determination.

Available in paperback, audio, and ebook.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan

Summer is Jenny Colgan time for me. Well, summer, fall, winter, spring, actually. I'm always ready to read one of her novels. Serious, but not too serious, gorgeous settings, and down to earth women who just want to live life, fall in love, and find what makes them feel complete.

This novel features a few characters from The Bookshop on the Corner, but it's not necessary to read that first. If you have read it, you'll enjoy seeing what Lennox and Nina are up to. And what they've been up to brings Zoe, a single mother, to the shores of Loch Ness. Zoe is on her last dime living in London with her four year old son Hari. Hari's got a bit of a speech problem: he is mute-by choice, as Zoe has learned from doctors. For some reason, he chooses not to speak. Hari's father is a wanderer, and not any financial help to Zoe. On the verge of losing her flat, a friend recommends her for not one, but two jobs in Scotland: as part-time help for Nina's book van, and as the nanny of three children at an estate on the shores of the Loch. She readily accepts the positions, packs up what little she has, and heads to Scotland. 

Zoe is a single mother, penniless, and tougher than she realizes. Arriving at The Beeches, she's not prepared for the three terrors who live there: Shackleton, Mary, and Patrick. There's the part-time housekeepers Mrs. MacGlone who lets the children run wild, as she gamely tries to keep the very large home neat. Ramsey, the children's father, is often absent, traveling around as an antiquarian book seller. Zoe has her hands full, is homesick, and terrified she's made a dreadful mistake. 

What I really enjoyed about this novel was Zoe's growing confidence. All of the things she learned to do because she didn't have money are exactly what she needs to whip The Beeches into shape, along with the children and Ramsey. She makes a lot of blunders, but her determination--and the knowledge that she doesn't have anywhere else to go, so this has to work out--made her shine. She faces every obstacle with grit-and of course some fear, but she keeps moving ahead. 

It took me a little bit to get into the story, but once I was in it zipped along, and I couldn't wait to see what would happen next. There are themes of abandonment, parental failures, parental love, sacrifice, and the whims of Mother Nature. Scotland and the Loch Ness really are part of this novel in the best way, as are the town folk who start out as strangers but come to Zoe's aid when she needs them the most. 

It was wonderful to return to Scotland, even if only for a few days. What I like about Jenny's novels is that there is a happy ending, but one that is actually realistic, and not a fairy tale. 

Rating: 5/6 for a charming tale of a woman's chance to begin again in the last place she'd ever though to find herself. Books, children, family, and love are all a big part of this tale set on the shores of the Loch Ness. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge

When I wasn't doing laundry, dishes, and some errand running on Sunday, I spent most of it inside gulping down this mystery. I came across it at the library and thought it would be a good switch from the two contemporary women's novels I'm reading now-kind of like the salty snack in between my sweets. 

A quick plot rundown: In 1983, a group of teenagers decide to camp out in the woods overnight. Plenty of booze, food, and drugs are involved. The seven teens range in age from 18 to 14. Aurora, the youngest, is tagging along with her sister Topaz, a beautiful teen who has her eye on Brett. At 18, Brett is the oldest, and a star athlete. Also in the mix: JoJo, Connor (who has a massive crush on Topaz), Coralie, and Daniel. Aurora is definitely out of her element with this group of popular kids, and Topaz is really annoyed her sister is there with the group. 

A night of drinking, drugs, dancing, and yes, some sex is a big blur for the teens. And when morning comes, Aurora is missing. Hungover from booze and drugs, memory is fragmented and confused for the remaining six. An investigation leads nowhere.

Aurora remains missing for 30 years, until a young girl camping with her family discovers a bone, and Aurora is finally found, not far from the original camp site. How could she have been missed all those years ago, when she was so close?

In steps DCI Jonah Sheens, who was a new police officer the night Aurora Jackson disappeared 30 years before. He went to school with the group, but didn't know them very well. Aurora's disappearance has haunted the community, and Jonah, too. Now her remains are found, and it's going to take some smart investigating to figure out how she died, and who did it: which of the six is the killer?

The build up to Aurora's murder was the best part of this mystery. Told from Aurora's viewpoint, her last day and night in the woods tick down, and your anxiety ratchets up. It was clever of the author to add the hour to each of Aurora's chapters, to enhance that anxiety. Aurora is the character we come to know best, even though she's only with us for a short time. 

Jonah and his team definitely are a good, solid group of people. Their individual background stories are slowly revealed, but since this is probably the start of a series, you just get a taste and quite a bit is left unanswered. Most especially Hansen, the new female investigator, and her abusive ex-boyfriend who continues to stalk her throughout the investigation.  

You may figure out who did it pretty quickly; I had my suspicions, but couldn't quite figure out the why. The investigation moves pretty quickly after a slow start, and there are some red herrings thrown in to keep you guessing. The last 75 pages move pretty swiftly towards the reveal of the killer and the motive. It was who I suspected; however what was more disturbing than the murder of Aurora was the life lived by the killer, and the manipulations that kept taking place for the next 30 years. Clever only goes so far before it all falls apart. 

This was a satisfying contemporary murder mystery/police procedural. Some of the characters remained a bit underdeveloped, and I think a bit more of that would have made the book longer, but more fleshed out and complete. I would probably read the second of the Jonah Sheens investigative novels.

Rating:  4/6 for a mystery that sets a hard task: how do you solve a murder that took place 30 years before? My big takeaway from this novel was sadness for the murder of an innocent 14 year old girl who had all of life ahead of her, but was caught up in a situation out of her control. The unanswered questions of her disappearance 30 years before still haunt the community, her family, and the six teens-now adults-who last saw her alive. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Dead Set by Richard Kadrey

I needed to read a Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel for my book group on Tuesday, and what is usually a super easy pick for me turned out to be not so easy! I tried a couple of different novels before I picked this up at my library on Friday. It turned out to be a pretty darn good read, and my introduction to author Richard Kadrey. 

Kadrey writes the Sandman Slim series, which are urban fantasy and very popular. I've looked at that series many times over the past few years, but never actually picked one up. Now I'm more inclined to do so, after reading Dead Set. It is not part of the Sandman Slim series, and is a stand alone fantasy novel--something that's getting harder and harder to find. If you're a reader of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, you know that the majority of writers craft a trilogy or a series instead of single novels, and that can be frustrating. Sometimes you just want to read a story that ends with the last page, and leaves you satisfied with the conclusion. I'm bad about series, anyway. I usually read about half the series before I lose interest. I'm not opposed to series; I've been sucked into a few and entranced by the plot and the characters so much that I'm glad there are more novels. But, I do get a bit restless and always feel that eventually, the series jumps the shark and isn't quite as good as it was in the beginning.

Back to Dead Set. It was a quick read, and definitely one you can zip through in a day or two. I stayed up late last night and got up early this morning to finish it. I couldn't wait to see what happened. Zoe is a teenager, in a new crummy apartment with her mother in San Francisco. Her father died suddenly, and until the insurance money comes in, they are really broke. Her mother is searching for a job, but she's been out of the workforce for years and is just not having any luck. Depressed, grieving, and angry, Zoe starts at a new high school. Bored with her teachers and her classes, she skips school one day and finds a really weird record shop. She's in familiar territory, since her father used to work with punk rock bands and famous rockers, and her mother used to design the artwork for album covers. 

This is, of course, not a usual record shop. And Emmett, the creepy dude who runs it, is a little outside of normal. Dusty, musty, and crammed with hundreds of albums, Zoe wanders around, until she sees another room and just has to look. Inside are more albums, but they're very different. These albums contain the lives and souls of people. 

Oh, and Emmett gleefully shares with Zoe the news that he has her father's album there, and she can listen to it-for a price. 

Zoe's a pretty smart kid, and a tough one, too. But she's a kid missing her Dad, and of course she's going to pay whatever price is required so she can see her Dad one more time. 

And from there, the story takes off! Zoe's recurring dreams of her friend Valentine, the treehouse they occupy, the scary black dogs roaming around, and the beautiful woman she sees in quick glimpses are all part of the adventure Zoe is about to take. Egyptian mythology marries with a startling look at what happens when we die. Modern concepts of what lies beyond are always fascinating, and this novel explores that--with a twist, of course. Zoe has to keep all her wits about her in order to survive and return home; but her grief and sense of duty may doom her. 

I'm so glad I spotted this book at the library and took a chance. It was a great introduction to a new author (new for me), and it was just the kind of fantasy novel I was looking for the past week. It is suitable for young adults, too. Some folks think it's firmly a YA novel, but I think it's an adult novel that YA would enjoy, too. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel with big themes: death, the other side, grief, coping, love, loyalty, and oh heck yes-being stronger than you ever though you could be. A quick read the ramps up in action that will have you biting your nails and rooting Zoe on to victory. And ICK! SNAKES. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell

I always enjoy a good historical novel in the summertime, and this paperback arrived on my doorstep last month from HarperCollins, as if by magic. Actually the U.S. Post Office, but it felt like magic. If I had come across this at a bookstore, or saw it in a magazine, i would have immediately picked it up or read reviews online--the cover grabbed me pretty quickly. Give me covers with gardens, flowers, food, wine...well, I'm a sucker for them. 

The cover drew me in, but the story itself kept me in that "Peacock Summer". Two women-Lillian and Maggie-grandmother and granddaughter tell two stories that are 50 years apart, but ultimately twist together. Lillian is frail and ill, living in the slowly crumbling former glorious estate named Cloudesley, in the English countryside. Maggie, having left Cloudesley the year before after an unhappy relationship, is forced to return to take care of Lillian. When she arrives, she realizes Cloudesley is in danger of falling apart. Overdue bills, unkempt gardens, and a lot of repairs are needed-but there is no money, and only a skeleton staff to run the place.  

Lillian married Charles Oberon as a young woman, hoping for a loving marriage and happy to take on the task of raising Charles' young son Albie. Charles was charismatic, and the proud owner of Cloudesley. What Lillian realized very quickly was that Charles was a deeply troubled man with a horrible temper and a desire to own and possess beautiful things, but not love them. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, unable to have children after a miscarriage, Lillian is pretty miserable. It's 1955, and she has no family to fall back on; besides, Albie needs her. Enter Jack Finch, an artist attending one of Charles' summer parties. He's handsome, smart, and a gifted artist. Charles hires him to turn the now empty nursery into a fantastic work of art--at once creating a spectacular, one of a kind room, and also to punish Lillian for being barren. As I said, Charles is one mean and cruel man. 

Lillian's memories of that summer make up a large part of the novel. Her growing feelings for Jack, her desire to break free from Charles, her love for Albie. You also see Maggie, in present day, getting bits and pieces of information from Lillian as she grows increasingly more frail. Enough information for Maggie to begin to suspect that what she saw as devotion between Lillian and Charles as a child was not quite the truth of the matter. 

Meanwhile, Maggie is coping with her own troubled relationship, and the scandal she created when she left suddenly the year before. She's a bit of a mess, but thankfully her relationship with her grandmother is her saving grace. 

This novel is all about love, and the many ways we love people, and how sometimes loving someone means giving up something else that you love, too. It's a novel about choice, breaking free from expectations, and the difference between love and duty. It's a family drama that starts in 1955, and ends fifty years later. That summer of 1955 was a life changer for Lillian, and what comes from that summer is what may ultimately save Cloudesley. 

It took me a few pages to get into this novel, but then it all clicked, I hit fifth gear, and I couldn't put it down. You know Lillian and Charles stay together, but knowing the marriage is deeply unhappy, how the heck does that actually happen? What happens with Lillian and Jack? And there's Maggie. Will she get it together, and figure out what life she wants to lead? I'll confess, Lillian's story is so much more interesting than Maggie's, but it is satisfying to see how Maggie matures through her trials. I was so happy when she finally pieced everything together, and figured out her grandmother's story. 

This is a solid story, and I liked that it didn't necessarily have a fairy-tale ending for either Lillian or Maggie. The ending felt appropriate, and I wasn't disappointed in the end--I was hopeful for Maggie, for Cloudesley, and for Lillian's legacy. 

A big thank you to HarperCollins for a copy of this novel to read and review. It's just recently been released in the U.S., and is available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Rating:  4/6 for an historical novel about family, duty, art, love, choices, and one  summer in the English countryside that reverberates though two generations of a troubled family. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Death and Other Happy Endings by Melanie Cantor

What would you do if you only had 90 days to live? How would you handle it? Denial? Rage? Give up? Or, as Jennifer Cole does, refuse to take the medicines the doctor prescribes, and decide to mark the days off the calendar? 

Well, Jennifer does more than that. She realizes this is her one final chance to let three people who shaped her life know exactly what they did to her. Those people are: her older sister Isabelle, her ex-husband Andy, and her ex-boyfriend, Harry. 

Isabelle --the pretty one (Jennifer is the smart one) who cruelly snatched Jennifer's college boyfriend away from her, and lives a happily married life with two perfect daughters, and never has anything nice to say to Jennifer. 

Andy, her ex-husband, who left her for another woman (the horrid Elizabeth) after Jennifer's third miscarriage, is a complete toad. Jennifer thought they had a happy marriage, and his announcement that he had been having an affair and was leaving her were low blows. Even years later, it leaves a bitter taste in her mouth, and has her wondering how she could have been so wrong about someone--and why he had to treat her so badly. 

Harry--he's the one that got away, into the arms of Melissa. Handsome, sophisticated, and charming, Jennifer thought he was the shit. And yes, he was a shit--just not a good one. Their breakup was so painful for Jennifer that she never quite got over it. 

So, Jennifer writes each a letter, telling them she has a terminal blood disorder, a short time to live, and then tells each of them exactly what they did to her, and how it made her feel. She hopes, of course, that there will be some kind of response, and in the short time she has left, some resolution. Does she find it?

This was a charming novel. It may seem terribly sad, and that may keep you from picking it up, but please do--you'll be surprised at Jennifer's journey. Things are not at all what they seem, and Jennifer's one moment of spontaneity early on in the novel reverberates throughout the story. It wasn't hard to figure out what was going on, but I didn't care--I enjoyed Jennifer's story. She's a charming, warm, intelligent woman who has a few regrets--and those regrets are failed relationships. It was interesting to delve into Jennifer's thought process as she grapples with the news of her terminal disease. You will think about yourself, and how you would cope, and what would be the most important things for you to set to rights before the end comes. 

A huge thank you to Penguin/Viking and Pamela Dorman Books for an advanced copy of this book. If you want to smile, cheer, sigh, and laugh, this is the book for you. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that crept up on me and suddenly, I didn't want it to end. Full of humor, wit, love, warmth, and some blazing good moments of telling the brutal truth. 

This novel is released in the U.S. on July 9th, 2019 in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

July! In the Thick of Summer Reading

Going through the pile of books I want to read this month...well, I have to whittle it down. Darn it! I can certainly say if our weather continues to be super hot and super humid (the dew point was a balmy 77 today) I'll be spending a lot of time inside reading. A/C is definitely my friend. 

So, it looks like I'm traveling around the world this July in my reading choices. And actually, completely outside this world, too. Here's what's on my plate this month:

The first in the Discworld series from the master Terry Pratchett. My book group has picked Sci-fi/Fantasy as our theme for July. I bought it four years ago, so it's time to read it!

So many of my co-workers have read and loved this novel. I've had it in a pile for about 6 months. This was the push I needed to read it. I can't wait to read the story of Marsh Girl.

I mentioned this novel in my video last week. Food, family, and a San Francisco setting. OOOH I can't wait!

Oh Jenny Colgan. Thank you for writing a novel I can read this summer. Loch Ness, a bookstore, and friendship. What more could a reader want?

A publisher review. I started it and love the dual timeline. Easy to get sucked into this one! A granddaughter returns to the crumbling family estate to take care of her grandmother, who has a whole lot of family secrets waiting to be discovered. 

Another publisher review. A woman is given 3 months to live, so she chooses to finally be upfront and honest with the three people who have most effected her life (not for the better!) and the results are unexpected. Sounds grim, but actually uplifting and full of surprises. 

So there it is. I'm reading a few other books, too. I'm ready to settle in and read away the month of July. If only I could get up just a wee bit earlier to grab more reading time...

Happy July 4th! Enjoy the holiday with your family and friends, and your perfect summer read.