Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

I am a fan of Jojo Moyes. I've read most of her novels, which are usually contemporary. She's written a few historical novels, and I love them just as much as the contemporary novels. The Giver of Stars is an historical novel focusing on a group of ladies who created quite a stir during the 1930's, and all these decades later, their stories are popping up again. I'm talking about the horseback librarians of Kentucky. These were some badass women. 

There is another novel out, that I've reviewed--as a matter of fact, I said it was one of the best novels I'd read in 2019, and it still is--The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek. Click on the title and you can read my review from May. It is also about the horseback librarians of Kentucky, but this novel is quite different from Jojo Moyes' novel. There has been some kerfuffle about both authors writing about the same subject mere months apart, and how similar the novels appear to be. Well, I've read them both, and enjoyed them both, and I can say they are pretty different stories. 

The Giver of Stars has the delightful Alice, an Englishwoman who's been swept off her feet by Bennett Van Cleve, the handsome son of the local big-wig owner of the mines Mr. Van Cleve. She's married him and traveled to Kentucky to begin a new life far away from her old life--and she couldn't wait to escape the doldrums of her strict life in England. However, life in the small town of Baileyville is not at all what Alice expected, and she's just puzzled at Bennett's inability to seal the deal with her. She's pretty naive, but even Alice knows something is not right. People are expecting her to have a baby, and it's just not, er, happening.  Sitting in the big house, with nothing to do, Alice is becoming desperately unhappy. 

Until the day of the town meeting, when it's announced that a library service is coming to Baileyville, and volunteers are needed to deliver books to folks around town and up into the mountains of Kentucky, to those who live isolated, and often very poor lives in the harsh rural areas of Kentucky. Alice jumps up and volunteers, much to the anger of her father-in-law. She's bored, and has nothing to lose. 

Alice begins her journey from bored housewife to horseback librarian with the help of Margery O'Hare, a smart, self-sufficient, tough as nails woman who runs the library and knows the mountains of Kentucky like no one else. The two women soon become fast friends, and as other women join the library, it becomes a safe haven for Alice, who's home life is increasingly dire.

The cast of characters is outstanding. There are so many, yet it doesn't get confusing. Sven, Margery's steadfast partner, is a strong, solid man determined to wed Margery, even though she's completely against marriage. Fred, a gentle man who owns the property the library sits on, is quiet, loyal, and a shoulder for Alice to lean on in rough times. The other librarians: Izzy, Beth, Sophia, and Kathleen are all amazing ladies each in their own way, struggling to survive in a world that doesn't value education, strong women, or free thinking. Mr. Van Cleve is the bad guy--determined to shut down the library and bring Alice back around to behaving like a proper wife should. He's a real ass. 

The time frame of the novel is roughly a year; there is a lot that happens to the town, to Alice, Margery, and the other ladies. I enjoyed it all, and I loved the final chapter, which gave the reader a peak into the future. After spending time with Alice and the ladies, I was invested in their happiness, and I needed to know what happened after the story ended! 

So yes, read both novels. They are both very different; the only things they have in common are strong women and the pack horse librarian theme. I loved them both. 

Rating: 5/6 for a strong cast of characters that came to life swiftly and completely. A novel about the role of librarians in spreading literacy and changing lives during the Great Depression. Plenty of action. romance, and danger to keep you involved!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Reading Challenges, Goals, DNF's: Putting Unnecessary Pressure on Ourselves to Succeed

I've been writing about books for quite a few years. I've loved every single thing about having a blog. I started my blog because I loved to talk about books, and talking about them at work just didn't seem like enough for me. It also helped that I had a friend starting a blog, and she got me interested in the blog world. 

I've had years where I read like a fiend. It was effortless, and I devoured books. I've had years where school and family issues kept me from reading at my usual pace, and sometimes I didn't find solace in reading, when it usually always does comfort me and center me. Heck, sometimes you just have to stare at a wall and chill. Even though I read every day, without fail, some days it's only a chapter, while others I can really dive into a book. Some days I only get to read just before I shut the light off. Reading every day is the one habit I've firmly established and have kept at it without fail for at least 10 years. Now, if I could only remember to take my vitamins faithfully every day...

I've been a Goodreads member for many years, and I've participated in their Reading Challenge for some time, too. It's a fun way to set a goal at the beginning of the year and keep track of what you're reading. There are many, many reading challenges all over the web each year, so this isn't your only choice. A lot of people don't want to have a challenge. It's entirely up to you. For me, it helps me keep track of what I am reading, what I want to read, and what I've already read. 

All of these thoughts on reading challenges and goals came about this morning, as I was thinking about all the books I have stacked at home, all the books that I know are coming out soon, and just how I was going to read everything I wanted to read. I realized it just wasn't possible, and I was tired of feeling bad about it. I am genuinely sad when I don't get to read everything I want to read. Looking at my Goodreads Challenge of 100 books this year, I knew (and have known) for weeks that I wasn't going to get to 100 books by December 31st. A goal that has been easy to reach in previous years has been difficult this year, and I don't really know why. Maybe it's the length of the books I read; maybe life is just busier, or I don't have those little bits of time that I used to have where I could read for a few hours. Whatever the case, my reading is slower this year. 

So I've decided to stop putting pressure on myself to hit that goal. And I've decided to stop feeling bad when I say I'm going to read a book, and I either don't even get started, or I try and it just isn't clicking. I've had countless books that didn't resonate with me the first go round, and months or even years later, I pick them up, and they are wonderful. I've always believed the right books come along at the right time. I guess you could say bibliotherapy is something I believe in, wholeheartedly, and heck, being a bibliotherapist would probably be the penultimate life's work for me. I've also decided that I have to let go of other people's expectations of my reading life. And I can't feel bad about reading what I do read. I read for pleasure. Full stop. That doesn't mean I don't read "big books", or books with diversity or difficult themes. I do read them, but just not as much as I read for the sheer pleasure of a good story-whether it's a romance, or a cozy mystery, or a memoir from a favorite actor. And as I read, I'm always grateful for the amazing mind that created the gift I'm holding in my hand. I read to reduce the stress in my life, to take me away, help me calm down, and yes, give me a few hours of forgetting about my troubles, or my to do list, or my doubts about myself. 

Ah. Well there you have it. I really want you, as a reader, to enjoy reading just because it's bliss, and relaxing. The minute you start getting stressed about it, stop yourself. If you're in a book club that you don't enjoy, then stop. If you're reading a book that doesn't "spark joy" and is a slog, put it down and move onto something else. If you think others judge you for what you're reading, stop. Who wants friends like that anyway? Read whatever you want. Read that graphic novel, read that romance, read that 800 page science fiction novel. It's your brain food! 

I know I'll never read everything I want to read. It makes me anxious sometimes. It's something I'm working on. Reducing my reading challenge goal may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it's a first step in giving myself a big break. So if you're feeling a bit stressed about reading, and the pleasure is fading and it seems like a chore, stop and give yourself some grace. The books will wait for you. They're smart that way. They get us. 

Monday, October 21, 2019

Good Husbandry by Kristin Kimball

I was eager to revisit Kristin Kimball's life on her farm after reading her first memoir, The Dirty Life way back before I started this blog. I absolutely fell in love with her story about making the big leap from living in New York City as a writer, to owning a 500 acre farm near Lake Champlain, New York with her soon to be husband, Mark. How does one change their life so drastically? Well, falling in love had something to do with it. That, and recognizing what makes your heart happy, even through all of the ups and downs that farm life delivers. 

Now, 8 years later, Kristin is back with a follow up. Hey, guess what? Farming is still incredibly difficult work. Heck, i live in Iowa; farms are everywhere. My partner's cousins are all farmers. You can drive just a few miles out of town and yep, there's a farm. Even children who grow up in our few bigger cities know what a cow looks like; know what corn and soybeans look like from very early on. They're all around us. And yet, so many of us have no inkling just how damn hard it is, every day, to operate a farm. It truly does take every bit of you, wring you out, then keep you coming back for more. Kristin's second memoir illustrates that so well, I actually felt exhausted reading her experiences on her farm. 

Kristin and Mark are happily married, and have a daughter, Jane. Kristin is pregnant with their second child, and it's springtime on the farm. That means up and at 'em early, working all day out in the fields planting crops and vegetables, milking cows, and all the endless daily chores required to keep a farm operating. There are no days off; no candlelight dinners, no relaxing on the deck with a cocktail. It's backbreaking work, smelling like stink and sweat, tracking muck into the house. Taking a shower, falling into bed, only to get up the next day and do it all again. Kristin and Mark decided to run their farm and raise food for a large group of people, year round. Meat, vegetables, dairy; the whole nine yards. They even produce their own maple syrup. The farm has grown bit by bit, but they still do the majority of the field work with horses. They've got a crew of young farmers, eager to dig in, learn about farming, and gain experience. They raise all the food they eat. Kristin says there's something deeply satisfying about eating food that you grew, picked, and harvested; you know exactly where it came from, how long it took to grow, and who grew it. It makes the taste incredible.

 Mark is some kind of farming God; his boundless joy at doing what he absolutely loves every day shines brightly. This is his life's work, and he wholeheartedly embraces all of it. And he's a whiz at organizing, planning, and problem solving. Kristin continues to work incredibly hard, doing what needs to be done, all with a big belly making it a bit tough. After the birth of their second daughter, however, times get tough. Tons of rain put off planting crops, and endanger their ability to meet food commitments. Worn out with a toddler and an infant, feeling trapped in her gloomy farmhouse, cracks appear in her marriage. Which comes first? The family or the farm? Do they take the next leap, invest lots of money they don't have, and grow the farm, or stay small? How can they continue to sustain their way of life, and pay all the bills? How can Kristin be a mom, and continue to work the farm with Mark? What kind of a life have they decided for their daughters? Is it even fair? 

I'm so happy Kristin wrote this second memoir. I've always wondered about her life and the farm after all these years, and was so happy to see this memoir published. Her examination of a marriage seven years in, the difficulties, miscommunication (or none at all), the rearranging of priorities, and the hard look at "is this the life I really want?" are sobering, but so necessary. 

I affectionately call my partner "nature boy". He's someone who has always had a deep love of nature and animals, and spent most of his childhood working on his Uncle's farm, doing all the unpleasant stuff you could have a kid do. He learned to drive tractors, fix equipment, take care of animals, and all sorts of stuff--all from a very early age. He can figure out how to fix most anything, and will turn over problems in his mind endlessly until he figures out a solution. I'll confess, I'm not exactly a city girl, but I'm not a wholehearted country girl, either. Animals make me a bit nervous, I'm terrified to drive a tractor, and I am not one to cheerfully field dress a deer. And yet, these are things I will learn to do, at this middle age stage of my life, as our lives change towards a more rural life. There is a part of me that is happiest being outside, in the quiet, listening to the birds, feeling the breeze. It is peaceful. I only ask that I have indoor plumbing somewhere nearby. I'm a bit nervous about being up to the task of keeping up with my energetic man, learning so many new things and being a helpmate. It's going to require bravery on my part, and patience on his. 

So reading Kristin's memoir gave me a few moments of "holy heck!". She's such a good writer; I could feel the physicality of all that hard work, the frustration of being so darn tired, and the growing unhappiness with the state of her home. You can taste the food, smell the fresh air, feel the nip of those cold, cold mornings, and the swish-swish of the cows being milked. I gulped this memoir down in one day. 

Rating: 5/6 for an honest portrayal of a marriage, a farm, and what it takes to keep it all going. Teamwork is the dreamwork to this hardworking couple, and the food they produce year round. I would watch a reality show about this farm, this life, in a second! It's not necessary to read her first memoir before reading Good Husbandry, but I would recommend it, to get the full, evolving story. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Last Seance: Tales of the Supernatural by Agatha Christie

Well, if I've done anything in 2019, it was to finally read some Agatha Christie. Another author I've admired from afar, but never felt compelled to read. This new short story collection caught my eye, and I'm so glad it did. 

First, I'll say this book isn't a casual, read it in a few hours collection of stories. It's actually quite lengthy--over 350 pages. Just goes to show how prolific Agatha Christie was in her writing career. Only one of the stories had never been published in the U.S.: The Wife of the Kenite. All the other stories had been published multiple times in short story compilations and magazines over the years in both the U.K. and the U.S. The publishing reach of Agatha Christie was astounding. 

There are twenty short stories in The Last Seance, and each was gripping and smartly written. I quickly fell victim to Agatha Christie's style of writing, and I couldn't even begin to pick one of the stories as my favorite. Some were straight out murder mysteries; others had a paranormal bent. People murdered for money or spite, others were frightened to death. Clever killers were outdone by simple deductive reasoning from some of Agatha's prime characters: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Each story was fairly short, and that made it easy to read a few, take a break, then return for more. I don't read many short story collections, but when I do, I realize how much I enjoy the built in breaks between stories. 

This collection has it all: haunted houses, mysterious characters, marriages gone wrong, and sly con artists. It was a fantastic introduction to Agatha Christie's style of writing and her world of mysteries. She's got me hooked. 

Rating: 4/6 for a solid collection of short stories that keep you trying to figure out the whodunnit before the characters do. Short stories that dive right into the meat of the mystery, and keep you wanting more. I can't wait to read more Agatha Christie! 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Widow of Pale Harbor by Hester Fox

I was excited to finally dig into this novel, the second by Hester Fox. Her first novel, The Witch of Willow Hall, was published last year, and it was outstanding. So of course I expected her sophomore novel to be just as good. 

While I did enjoy reading The Widow of Pale Harbor, it didn't match my expectations. Gothic, yes, certainly. A small town--Pale Harbor, Maine is the backdrop for this tale of a woman who lives in a large mansion, alone with her companion Helen, who is reviled and treated poorly by the townspeople. Four years before, Sophronia's husband Nathan had died in a carriage accident, and the town blamed her for his death. The town didn't know Nathan was a cruel, vicious husband. 

It's 1846, and Edgar Allan Poe's short stories are wildly popular. Sophronia has taken over running her late husband's magazine, and deciding which stories will be published. So many Poe copy cats are out there, trying to make it into this popular magazine, and Sophronia fears she has angered someone by rejecting their stories. Strange things have been happening around town, and at her home, the Castle Carver. Dead ravens left on her doorstep, stuffed dolls left in trees...combine that with the endless fog, damp days and rain, and you've got a pretty atmospheric plot. Enter Gideon Stone, a man posing as a minister, who has traveled to Pale Harbor to open a new church. He's not a minister at all, but is doing this all out of guilt for letting his deceased wife down--and he's determined to be successful as a minister to somehow heal his guilt. Poor Gideon. He's no minister, that's for sure. He's a hard working man, large of stature, and he has no business trying to pass himself off as a minister. He knows he's hopeless at it, but struggles to carry on and find inspiration. 

Gideon meets Sophronia, and sparks fly. Both quickly succumb to their attraction, as all the while things are taking a darker turn in Pale Harbor. Now bodies are piling up, and the town blames it all on the Widow Carver. Some say she's a witch. The race is on to figure out who's behind the cruel notes, the mysterious deaths, and the clues that are straight out of Poe's famous stories.

I liked a lot about this novel, but I was a bit surprised at how much romance was center stage. Gideon and Sophie's romance burned pretty bright right from the start, and much of the storyline involved the two of them briefly fighting their feelings, then deciding to give in and admit they loved each other. It did help to have Gideon be the catalyst to understanding Sophronia's character; her background, her terrible marriage, and her complicated relationship with Helen, her companion. Helen is an interesting character, and a bit dark, too. However, I was a bit disappointed in finding out who was behind all the terrible things, and what their motive was--it seemed a bit far-fetched. I was hoping for something a bit more paranormal, I guess. This was definitely a gothic tale, but far more a historical romantic thriller than a spooky nail bitter. 

I'll read more of Hester Fox, for certain. A fun read for my cool and windy October nights.

Rating:  3/6 for a gothic romantic thriller that had an interesting idea in the plot, but fell short at the end. I was hoping for something more out of this world. You may, however, find yourself in a swoon over Gideon. He's pretty swoon-worthy. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

A friend loaned me her copy of this novel (months ago, I shamefully admit) and I decided now was the time to read it. Jennifer McMahon has had me curious for quite some time. I know her novel The Winter People received great reviews, but of course I didn't get a chance to read it. 

I've been tussling over what to read for my book group this next week. I'm supposed to read something that scares me, and I've got to tell you, not much scares me in the reading world. It's a rare book that unnerves me. I was hoping The Invited would at least make me slightly uneasy at night, but it didn't. However, it was an excellent tale and I couldn't put it down. 

Helen and Nate are two school teachers that decide to leave their jobs and move to Vermont to pursue their wish to start over. Using Helen's inheritance money, they purchase some land outside the small Vermont town of Hartsboro. Forty acres of mostly woods and bog, and one perfect spot to build their dream house. The realtor laughingly says the land is haunted, and Helen's ears perk up. She's a historian, and she longs to create a place that has some history attached to it. A haunted piece of land will certainly help. 

Helen and Nate begin building their home-yes, by themselves. Helens' father built houses, and Helen often helped him. Saving their money, doing most of the labor themselves, Helen and Nate should stretch their money to build the house and live off the land. Living in a crappy trailer on the land while they build their home, things start to get tense pretty quickly. It's a lousy trailer, and neither sleeps well at night. Tools begin to go missing, and money, too. The bog is very tempting, but dangerous. Nate begins getting into watching the wildlife (he's a science teacher), and Helen becomes intrigued in the story of Hattie Breckenridge, who lived on the land they now own, and was hung by the townspeople for witchcraft in 1924. Yes, I said 1924. Hung by a mob, next to the bog. They then burned her home down. Hattie was known by all to have a gift--she could see the future, and while everyone was afraid of her, they also came to her for help, too. But a tragic fire at the schoolhouse kills three children, and Hattie had warned the town that something tragic would happen. They blamed it on her, and killed her for it. Now everyone believes Hattie haunts the bog. And they believe Helen and Nate have invited her back with their purchase of the land and building their home. 

Olive lives not far from Helen and Nate's land, and she's also really mad they are there. Olive, a young girl, and her mother Lori heard the tales of buried treasure on Hattie's land, and were convinced they were meant to find it. However, Lori disappears (everyone says she ran away) and Olive is not only traumatized by her mother disappearing, but the gossip in town, and her father's constant renovating their home. He thinks if he keeps fixing it up, Lori will come home. Olive keeps searching for the treasure, and making mischief for Helen and Nate. 

However, Olive isn't all to blame. There is some weird stuff happening, and the more Helen uncovers the dark past of Hattie's murder, the more she's convinced Hattie is there, leading Helen to solve a mystery. 

This was a really good blend of mystery, history, and paranormal. The story of the Breckenridge women was the best part of the novel-and the most tragic, too. Olive is a spitfire, and one smart young lady. Helen is teetering on the edge-the deeper she digs, the more fascinated she gets, and it's putting a strain on her relationship with Nate. It seems that Hattie wants her help, but someone else doesn't want her around at all. She feels an increasing sense of urgency to put all the pieces together, before someone else ends up hurt. 

This had just the right amount of spooky moments without going overboard. The land itself played a big part in creating the atmosphere. The brief chapters that go back to Hattie and her descendants, and show what happened to each of them from their viewpoint are key to putting things together, and provide a good break from the present day plot. 

I'd recommend this novel to anyone who wants a slightly haunting tale of righting wrongs, familial love, and tenacious women. The past always remains with us, and restless souls need closure. 

Rating: 4/6 for a solid novel about ghosts, a dark town secret, the thin line between science and the unknown, and the restless dead. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Ghost Manuscript by Kris Frieswick

This was an excellent mix of thriller, history, antiquities, libraries, and action-adventure. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started this, after picking it up at the library on a whim. 

Carys Jones is a rare book authenticator who works for an auction house. She's worked on tracking down British Dark Age manuscripts for John Harper, a super rich man who has created a one of a kind library at his estate. 

Harper has been committed to an insane asylum because he's been hallucinating and insisting he's talking to a monk who was the personal holy man to the man known today at King Arthur.  Carys has been called in to look over the collection and to catalog it and prepare it for sale. Harper's son JJ is selling the library, along with the estate. 

Carys thinks she's just there to prepare the library for sale, but her meeting with Harper reveals something a bit too hard to believe: a rare manuscript written by a monk telling the true story of King Arthur, and his burial site. That site contains priceless treasures from the Dark Age, when Britain was under attack by Anglo Saxons and under constant siege. If this manuscript is the real deal, the world may finally know for sure that King Arthur was an actual person, not a myth. And it will contain treasures of a long lost age. 

Carys digs deeper and deeper, and soon finds herself being chased from Boston to Wales, where the manuscript leads her on a wild chase. There's so much to this story, I can't possibly tell you everything. It's pretty wild. Is Carys also falling prey to hallucinations, or is she really conversing with the long dead monk? Will the bad men chasing her, determined to kill to get the manuscript, succeed in tracking her down? Who can she trust? 

Oh, it's so good! I love novels that explore legends, ancient mysteries, and lost treasure. This novel is chock full of history and mystery, and I was enthralled. There were a few plot twists that gutted me, for sure. I was very invested in Carys' journey, and the supporting characters are such a part of the plot I had a few stressful moments in the thick of the action. Let's just say no one is safe in this adventure. The bad men are really bad, and will stop at nothing to succeed. 

I would highly recommend this novel for anyone who is a King Arthur fan or a  history buff. For sure I'd recommend it for fans of Clive Cussler, James Rollins, and Dan Brown. It's a solidly written tale that will keep you breathless. I hope hope hope there's a sequel, because there's room at the end for more adventures. 

Rating: 5/6 for a thrilling dive into the legend of King Arthur, set in contemporary Boston and Wales, where history could be rewritten if long lost secrets come to light. So good!  

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio book. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

No One's Home by D. M. Pulley

I finally sat down and finished this novel after having it checked out from the library for quite some time. Sometimes I get in trouble starting too many books and then have to finish them all in a big readathon. Part of my lagging on this novel was due to my hot and cold feelings about the plot. 

The plot switches back and forth between four families who have each lived in Rawlingswood, a rambling old mansion in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Moving from the early 1930's through 2018, each family has had plenty of bad experiences. The Rawlings family built the home, and Walter Rawlings overextends himself, and the failing stock market dooms his financial security. His wife and young son pay the ultimate price for his failings, setting the state for the dismal history of the home. The Klussman family also deals with tragedy. Frannie's marriage has ended with her husband leaving because he can't cope with their special needs child, Benny. Benny has to be locked in his room to protect himself from leaving the house and hurting himself. But Benny sees something outside that leads his mother to wrong conclusions, and disaster follows. Next up is the Martin family; Toby and Ava are foster children left alone with their foster father while their foster mother travels for work. Papa Martin is not a very nice man. No indeed. 

And finally, there are the new owners of Rawlingswood, the Spielman family. Myron and Margot, and their teenage son Hunter, arrive from Boston. Myron is a doctor with a new job, leaving a scandal behind in Boston. The house has undergone a lot of renovations and there is still the original, unsettling third floor attic, which were servants quarters decades before. There's something weird about the space...the bathroom light keeps turning on, footsteps are heard overhead, and the family keeps finding the attic door open. There's a sense of being watched...The tragic history of the home slowly unfolds, as we watch the Spielman family realize things just aren't quite right in the house. 

Well. I thought the family histories were interesting, and at first I was convinced this was going to spin out into a paranormal thriller. I think the author had great intentions, but I feel like there's just too much stuff in this plot. It seemed a bit cumbersome and bulky. Too many stories, background info, and characters make it seem like a slog sometimes to get through it. I had to keep reminding myself which family was what for every new chapter. The bones were good, but just too much plot. And the conclusion just seemed a bit far fetched and bizarre. 

So. I will give this author another chance. I almost would have preferred that this novel did take a good paranormal spin. It felt like it was moving in that direction, until the last moment, when it took a sharp turn and got a little too out there. Darn it. I'd hoped this would be a good spooky read for October, but it wasn't. 

Rating: 3/6 for a really long book about a whole lot of unhappy families living in one very troubled house. Dysfunction abounds, and what could have been a thriller about a house that is out of the ordinary instead became a laundry list of really messed up folks. 

Available in paperback.