Friday, November 29, 2019

Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid

One last book for November. It's a sobering non-fiction look at the disturbing disappearances of thousands of Indigenous women along a stretch of highway in Canada. Called the Highway of Tears, this road travels through some pretty desolate places, in between very small communities and towns. 

These disappearances, some over fifty years old, are a national crisis that, hopefully with this book, will be getting some much needed attention and funding. Reading the stories of these young women--most of them teenagers, disappearing and never found, broke my heart, and made me pretty angry at the same time. Their families knew something was wrong, and when they would report their loved ones missing, the police often brushed off their claims, saying the girls ran off on their own, or were troublemakers--prostitutes. In reality, these were young girls who were ignored by law enforcement because they were Indigenous, and that meant they weren't important enough to look for them. 
All of them had dreams to attend college, become forest rangers, psychologists, mothers, artists. They had so much life ahead of them. 

Families spent years searching and begging for help, and often got nothing in return. A few learned of the fates of their daughters and sisters: their bodies were found; stabbed, beaten, left in ditches or off the side of a desolate road. Thrown away like garbage. No one has ever been arrested for these murders. So many unanswered questions. So much heartbreak, the kind that destroys families. Poverty, culture, prejudice, and hundreds of years of oppression certainly play a big part in this outrageous lack of justice. The madness of it all is that it continues on, in 2019. Young women continue to disappear on the Highway of Tears at a consistent pace. 

This was a fascinating, and disturbing look at a national crisis that highlights the continued dismissal of Indigenous people. The utter lack of respect for them as human beings with the same rights to safety and protection as the rest of us is maddening and absolutely shameful. 

Rating: 5/6 for a detailed look at the dangers of the Highway of Tears, the continued dismissal of Indigenous people's safety and concerns for missing loved ones, and the hope that their voices are finally being heard. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

If the beautiful cover art of this novel doesn't grab you, the story inside will certainly do the trick. I've had my ins and outs with this novel, but I've finally finished it, and it was worth the struggle. 

I know, and yet I do it probably every month: spend weeks reading a book that I really should read in a matter of days. Taking too long to read a novel ensures my interest will wane, even if it's a wonderful story. That's what happened with Ten Thousand Doors. Yet somehow, a Thanksgiving miracle happened at the last moment and turned it all around. 

I've been pecking at this novel since early November. I'd read glowing reviews, blurbs, and of course saw the cover, so I was prepared to be wowed from the get go and not be able to put it down. 

I was wrong-partly. I got about 100 pages in, and was stuck. Knowing it was my last book to read and review this month was weighing on me, and I knew I had to dive in and finish it. I dove back in the other night, and got a little farther. Okay, it was growing on me. Then last night, I had the chance to just lay on my couch and read for a few hours. So I did, but those few hours had me reading until after 11 PM, when I reluctantly put it down because my eyes were bugging out! I had a chance to read again today, on a gloomy Tuesday when I wasn't feeling so hot and was needing some distraction from a nagging headache. 

I'm happy to say I finished it today, and it was superbly written. Wow, Alix Harrow is a master storyteller, and this is one imaginative story. January Scaller is a young teenager, living with her guardian, Mr. Locke, in a mansion in Vermont filled with museum quality pieces from around the world. The man responsible for collecting those pieces is January's father, Julian. He travels the world, and January doesn't see him very much. She's awful alone, and her skin-tone--a dusky red/brown, ensures she's only treated kindly because she's under the care of Mr. Locke. She's pretty secluded, and all she wants to do is be with her father on her travels. 

One day, January finds a strange little book tucked away in a special spot. That book is the gateway to January's grandest adventures, full of dangers, death, far away worlds, and men who will stop at nothing to grab January and keep her under lock and key. January, you see, is unlike most other teenage girls. She's got some serious gifts, and as she reads the journal, she slowly begins to understand her yearning for other places and adventures. She begins to find her way home. 

I'm woefully inadequate telling you the plot of this book, but I don't want to give anything away. I did have a bit of trouble understanding what was going on and why this journal was plopped down in the middle of the story, but oh, after spending some time diving into the story, it all became clear. It's a story within a story for sure, just like there are doors within doors, and worlds within worlds. 

I thought of my sad attempt at NaNoWriMo this month (I happily stopped writing after 10 days and no inspiration), and was blown away by the talent Alix Harrow has for crafting such an imaginative and outstanding novel. Pure magic. I was reading in bed last night, and I actually stopped and said out loud "A ha! This is where it kicks into high gear!"

I'd gift this book to any YA readers; folks who like fantasy, or adventure novels; people who enjoy a well crafted story. It would make, in the best hands, an amazing movie. I don't want a sequel--this novel finishes as it should, and I'm content. 

Rating: 6/6 for an inventive, magical, outstanding novel about stories, worlds, families, love, and healing. Finding your place. Embracing your gifts. I highly recommend this novel!

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

I Couldn't Wait to Start Reading a Holiday Novel: Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Blame it on the time crunch for reading library books. When they're available, you just have to check them out and get them read. I've been waiting for this novel for a few months and my turn finally popped up. It was just what I needed this weekend before Thanksgiving. 

Jasmine Guillory has written a series of novels, and rapidly become quite popular. This is the fourth in the "series" ( I say that loosely because they all have characters that appear in each novel) which includes The Wedding Date, The Proposal, and The Wedding Party. I plan on reading all of them, too. 

This was a breath of fresh air for me, mostly because the two main characters are in their 50's. I know when I was much younger, I couldn't even think about romance and middle age. Yet here I am, firmly in middle age, and hot dang, guess what? Romance is alive and well, and not just for the younger crowd. I was delighted to read a romance about two people who have some history, have been there, done that, and are at a point in their lives where raising children isn't an issue. They know who they are, and having a relationship and finding love is all about the companionship and togetherness it brings. Yes, that is important and vital for younger relationships, but it really does become the most important thing when you're past the age of raising children and carving out a new career, and balancing all of it and growing together* (*my opinion based on my life!).

So. Vivian Forest and her daughter Maddie are going to England over the Christmas holiday. Maddie has been hired to help dress the Duchess over the holidays, and she's insisted that her mother come on the trip. Vivian, a social worker in San Francisco, is happy to go, since she always spends Christmas with her daughter, and didn't want to break the tradition. She does take a little convincing, however, because Christmas always includes her big family. But a much needed break is just what she needs to prepare herself for an upcoming possible big promotion, which will mean a lot more work for her. 

Vivian and Maddie arrive at the grounds of Sandringham Castle, and stay at the home of the Duke and Duchess. It's quite the lush life, and Vivian quickly makes friends with the staff. She also meets Malcolm Hudson, the Queen's Secretary, and he catches her attention pretty quickly. There are very few people of color on the Queen's staff, and Malcolm's position is a very important one. Malcolm and Vivian hit it off immediately, and he finds ways to spend some time with her for the few days she's staying on the estate. The two of them have great conversation, and I enjoyed watching their attraction grow. It's a short time frame, but it seems pretty natural that yes, this could certainly happen. 

The romance moves to London after Christmas, with Vivian extending her stay for a few days to be with Malcolm to see the New Year arrive. But the obvious issue is the fact that they live 5,000 miles apart. Will this just be a holiday fling, or does it mean more? Is it worth the hard work it will take to see what their future holds? 

It's a romance, so rest assured there is a happy ending, but how they get there is interesting. I enjoyed the conversations between Vivian and Malcolm, and how they worked through issues--sometimes not right away, and sometimes it took hurt feelings to bring issues forward. 

I've read some reviews of this novel, and some reviewers found it "boring" and the characters flat. I didn't feel that way at all. It was a quick read, and a fine kick off to my holiday reading binge. And I discovered a delightful author. A win-win for me. 

I don't believe you need to read the three other novels before you read this one, but if you like to read novels in order, have at it. I'll go back and start from the beginning, but I don't feel I missed anything starting at the end.

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that delivers on the holiday romance theme. I appreciated reading a romance between middle-aged characters who weren't perfect, and yes, even moody sometimes. I was cheering Vivian and Malcolm on the whole way. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller

This novel was like a little mental break for me in the midst of a busy month. I feel like I've been slogging through some of my reading choices, and not making much progress. However, I picked this up off my TBR pile Sunday morning and quickly became engrossed in it-and settled down to power read. I just finished it this morning before work. I was a bit annoyed at myself for being too sleepy last night to finish the last 30 pages before bed. So annoyed! 

I have to say, I was expecting a bit more of a ghost story similar to  Simone St. James (a favorite author of mine). While I had a very mild disappointment, it was more than made up by the romance between Alva Webster and Sam Moore, the two central characters. I wasn't expecting so much of the plot to be about their unfolding relationship, but it was, and the sparks between the two were the best part of the whole book. The ghost story had an interesting twist, for sure. Something I hadn't ever read about in any other ghost story I've come across. 

The basic plot: Alva Webster, widow and infamously known as a woman of *ahem* salacious appetites and oodles of gossip, returns to New York after living for years in Europe. Her husband was murdered, and she's come back to start over where she grew up, the only daughter of privileged parents who now have nothing to do with her. She's purchased Liefdehuis, an abandoned Hyde Park mansion that is rumored to be haunted. Her goal is to renovate the home and write a book about home decorating in the process. It's 1875; she's a widow with some money but not a lot, and has to find a way to make a living. Malicious gossip has followed her home, and even though none of it is true, she can't seem to escape it. 

Professor Sam Moore is in town, eager to test his paranormal equipment on the rumored ghostly hauntings in Liefdehuis. He's quite the genius--and hot, too. He's famous for his many inventions and his family is widely known as the "royalty" of the science world. Alva, however, is not impressed by Sam, and refuses to let him test out his scientific theories on her home. 

Unfortunately, Alva's past returns to create chaos, and she reluctantly agrees to let Sam study Liefdehuis in order to get her project moving along. Local contractors refuse to work in a haunted house, and it's costing her money she can't afford to lose. 

This is where the plot really turns to the relationship between Sam and Alva. Sam is quite appealing and he's impossible to resist. Alva finds herself falling for him hard and fast, even while fighting her despair that she's just not good enough for him, and permanently damaged from her horrible marriage. But those qualities in both Sam and Alva are what make the haunting take an interesting turn, and help them solve the puzzle of what drives people from Liefdehuis in complete fear and terror. 

This really is more of a romance than anything else, but I loved it. Sam is quite possibly the most fun character I've read in quite a while. I can see why Alva falls for him. Alva's journey from frightened, abused woman to one that is trusting and finds love again is a big part of the novel, and very satisfying. All in all, a fun novel that helped lift me out of the November doldrums. It reminded me of Amanda Quick novels, so if you like her, you will enjoy this first novel by Diana Biller. I'll be reading more, without a doubt. 

Rating: 4/6 for a delightful romance with a dash of science, a dash of mystery, and a happy ending. I wish there had been more about the haunted mansion, but I was satisfied and give a kudos to the author for the unique haunting. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

Wow. This was one weird book. And weird not in a bad way, but weird in holy buckets! This was not at all what I expected. However, I am so very happy I read it. Definitely something out of my comfort zone. 

I was prepared for a fairly straightforward thriller/murder mystery. But it really is more than that. Curious Toys is set in Chicago in the summer of 1915. Most of the action takes place at the Riverview Amusement Park. Thousands of folks come to the park every day to drink beer, try their luck at rigged games, see the titillating shows, and ride the roller coaster. Pin, a young fourteen year old, spends each day running around the park, looking for loose change, running errands, and trying to stay out of trouble. Pin is actually a young girl, but her mother has insisted Pin cut her hair and dress as a boy as a form of protection against the men and boys who would harass her and, quite honestly, probably sexually abuse her, given the rough crowds at the park. Most importantly, Pin's mother wants to protect Pin after her younger daughter wandered off and disappeared two years before, never to be seen again. No one at the park knows Pin is actually a girl, and she likes it that way just fine. 

There's something dark underlying the basic crumminess of the park, and that is a serial killer, preying on young girls. One has been found inside the Hell Gate ride by none other than Pin herself--who began nosing around when she spotted a man entering the ride with a young girl, and later, stepping out of the boat at the end of the ride all by himself. Where did the girl go? To Pin's horror, the girl was murdered and left inside the dark ride, carelessly tossed aside by the killer. 

The reader also gets a glimpse inside the killer's mind, as we follow him on his quest to keep adding to his count. He's one twisted man; obsessed with dolls and girls and oh geez--what a muddle of weirdness. The question, of course, is who is the killer? And while I thought I had it figured out, I didn't. There are all sorts of unstable male characters in this tale, and each of them is, in one way or another, interested in young girls. The young film industry that is flourishing in Chicago adds fuel to the flames; grown women were picked for film roles based solely on their ability to look like little girls--young tweens. 

Anyway, I found this story to be both unsettling and oddly compelling at the same time. I couldn't stop reading; Pin is one tough young lady, and smart as a whip. The author's skillful writing had me smelling all the smells of a hot summer day at an amusement park, where air conditioning didn't exist, and folks weren't as shower fresh. The struggle for people like Pin's mother to escape poverty is very real, and painful to read; even a nickel became the difference between eating for a day or two or not eating at all. 

There's much more to this story--including the tale of Henry Darger, one odd duck who became famous for his works of art (which are actually in the American Folk Art Museum). He befriends Pin in the novel, and the two of them work to solve the mystery of the murders. 

I'd recommend this novel for anyone who wants to read a thriller/historical mystery, and a novel with a character who is struggling to understand their sexuality and their place in the world. It was a really good read, and I'm glad I picked it up. 

Rating: 4/6 for one compelling novel that combines great historic detail, mystery, thrills, and commentary on a society where the poor just didn't have a chance to ever get out of poverty. You'll definitely feel like you're in 1915 Chicago. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Summer at the Garden Cafe by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Well, I finally finished a book this month! It's taken me a ridiculously long few weeks to complete a novel. Part of my problem is that I am reading four at once and making slow progress in each one of them. I started NaNoWriMo, and after a few weeks, I've had to throw in the towel. Just not feeling inspired enough to get past my 5100 words. I'd much rather read! 

Summer at the Garden Cafe snuck by me and I saw it by chance while picking up the next book in this delightful series, The Mistletoe Matchmaker.  So I had to buy it before I could read MM for December. I reviewed the first in the series, The Library at the Edge of the World  in 2017. Set in a small town in Ireland, I loved it and looking back at my review, I couldn't wait to read more. Well, it fell off my radar until I happened to see the holiday novel sitting on a table in my local bookstore. I'm happy to say Summer at the Garden Cafe had me settling back into the small town of Lissbeg and getting familiar with Hanna Casey, her daughter Jazz, and the many folks who make the town of Lissbeg come to life. Everyone's stories continue, after the library sees some exciting growth, and Hanna has settled into her cottage. She finds an old journal, buried near her cottage, written by her great aunt Maggie. Written in 1920, it hints at secrets and troubles that led Maggie to leave her beloved Mother and travel to London. Maggie does finally return, decades later, to settle back into the family cottage, but she is a changed person. Hanna, who inherited the cottage from Maggie, is intrigued by the journal, and it makes her wonder about her family dynamics, and how the woman she knew as Aunt Maggie became such a curmudgeon in her final years. 

Meanwhile, Jazz is working through some anger issues with her father, and figuring out just what she wants to do with her life. Conor, a young farmer from the first novel who works part-time at the library, is deeply involved with a local young woman and contemplating marriage. But oh gosh, they have some bumps in the road! 

I don't want to give too much away, because you do need to read the first in the series to understand the second. It's definitely not one to pick up and read on its own. It took me a good chunk of the novel to remember what had gone on in the first novel, but once I did figure it all out, I was sucked in all the way to the last page. I can't wait to read The Mistletoe Matchmaker in a few weeks.

If you are looking for a Debbie Macomber-type novel, or something that takes you away from home and whisks you to the beautiful hills of Ireland, oh, this is the series for you. The people who populate Lissbeg and the surrounding areas are just solid, down to earth folks, but so enjoyable to read about. Characters evolve at a nice pace, and it will all leave you with a thirst for a cup of tea and a cozy cottage. Yes, there is romance, but it's not overdone at all, and it is actually pretty realistic, too, as Hanna and Brian navigate how to begin a relationship after some bad luck at love. 

This novel was exactly what I needed these first few weeks of November. The three would make a lovely present for someone in your life--or you! 

Rating:  4/6 for a smooth continuation of a series that doesn't fall flat. Life continues at a steady pace in Lissbeg, and characters make some bold choices in their journey to happiness. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.

Friday, November 1, 2019

November...Wait! How Did We Get Here So Fast?!

I don't know about the rest of you, but here in Iowa we got about 4 inches of snow last night (Halloween Eve) and the kiddies are out and about tonight in temperatures that are dipping into the 20's. Yikes! Not the Halloween folks around here were hoping for--usually it's fairly moderate and lovely. We're prepared for snow and cold, just not in October. More like December. 

So, not only are my fellow Iowans confused, annoyed, and just plain ticked off, but oh golly, the poor trees! Still fully loaded with leaves, and I don't think we're going to get much of a chance to rake 'em up as they fall. Usually, I think you'll agree, we've got a little time to ease into thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I think it's safe to say we're all a bit perplexed as to how we should actually be feeling. I'm not ready to even think about turkey, gifts, or decorating. Nope. Not yet. 

I am, however, putting my December reading list together. I love, love, love to read holiday novels in December. It's my month of unapologetic fun reads. I've got a stack sitting out, and I was tempted to start, but this snow has killed it for me. I'm content to wait another month before I start. Definitely not ready for holiday reads just yet. 

So, November. What am I going to read? I've got a few novels that I've started in October, and hope to finish in November. And a few that I bought a few months ago and haven't managed to jump into just yet. Here's what's up for November:

 So I've got to read this novel so I can read the holiday themed novel that comes after it! I liked the first in the series--The Library at the End of the World. Ah, Ireland. Take me away. 

Oh, this one will stretch my comfort zone. A serial killer stalks his young victims at an amusement park in 1915 Chicago. Yikes! Getting rave reviews. 

Victorian gothic novel about a young widow who returns to New York to restore a dilapidated mansion, and uncovers a whole lot of secrets. 

I've started this, but haven't gotten very far. A young woman discovers doors into other worlds and goes on a grand adventure. Another novel getting rave reviews. 

I'm also reading Alice Hoffman's The World That We Knew. It's pretty wonderful, as Alice Hoffman's novels always are for me. I have to take it in bites, because it takes place during World War 2 in France, and I have a difficult time reading World War 2 novels. Hard on my soul, I guess.

I'm also going to attempt NaNoWriMo this month! That will cut into my reading time, but I'm hoping it will fire up my very rusty and dusty creative bone. I'll keep you posted on my progress! Honestly, my story idea is very thin, so I'm just going to sit down and start typing November 1st and see how it goes. 

So long, October! November...well, I can't believe you're here. Wasn't it just summer a little bit ago? 

Happy Reading!  
The Bookalicious Babe