Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Survivors by Jane Harper


I'm absolutely thrilled I was able to actually read all of my February TBR books. It seems like a long time since I've been able to meet my monthly reading goal. The Survivors was my last read, and I powered through it the past few days. Once I got past the first hundred pages, it wasn't hard to stick with it until the very last shocking reveal.

You should know I've read three of Jane Harper's novels, and her first novel, The Dry, remains one of my favorite books to recommend to readers. I read it and realized I was reading something amazing. Jane Harper's ability to create a setting that becomes a character in her thrillers is something that sets her novels apart. Nature--whether it's a summer of drought and dust, or a forest where the rainy season keeps it wet and miserable for weeks--or, in the case of The Survivors--a small beach town in Tasmania where the ocean dictates every day life; nature is always big, present, and demanding. 

The Survivors takes place in the small beach town of Evelyn Bay. The tourist season is rapidly ending, and Kieran and his partner Mia, along with their baby Audrey, return to help Kieran's mom and dad pack up to move away from Evelyn Bay. His father, Brian, is suffering from dementia, and his parents can't live in the beach community as his condition grows worse. Kieran hasn't been back for years. Twelve years before, a horrible event took place that has haunted him, his family, and the community. Twelve years before, Kieran's brother Finn and his friend Toby were killed in a terrible boating accident during a freak storm. They were killed trying to rescue Kieran, who was in danger of being swept out to sea. Not only were they killed, but at the same time, young Gabby went missing, and was never found. The storm was a bizarre, once in a generation storm that took everyone by surprise, and in all of the chaos, a lot of questions went unanswered. Gabby's disappearance has always left a huge question mark hanging over Evelyn Bay. 

Now it's twelve years later, and the memory of that storm and the loss of life still haunts Evelyn Bay, and effects Kieran's relationship with his parents, who blame him for their son's death. Kieran's friends from childhood-Olivia and Ash, as well as other familiar faces, gather to reminisce and welcome Kieran back. 

Another horrible death soon happens. Bronte, a waitress at the local Surf and Turf restaurant, is found dead on the beach-drowned. She was living with Olivia, and working on an art project over the summer. Shaken by another death in the community, Bronte's murder evokes that horrible summer twelve years before, and everyone starts looking at each other, trying to figure out who did it and why. Does Bronte's death have any connection to Gabby's disappearance?

The atmosphere in this novel is definitely well drawn out. I could feel the freezing ocean water, the strong currents, and the lure of the water. Everything is tied to the ocean-it is a place that gives life, and also takes it away pretty swiftly. Kieran swims daily in order to be able to cope with his guilt over his brother's death; but always just under the surface is the knowledge that the water is capable of turning on anyone who enters its depths. As the investigation goes on, it seems like there is no way Bronte's murder will be solved--and certainly no way it is connected to the tragic events of years ago. Yet somehow the author weaves a story that will keep you guessing as memories, photos, and secrets are slowly exposed and dots are connected. I was surprised at the ending--the who and the why, for sure. 

If you like reading thrillers that build slowly, incorporate the whims of nature, and don't necessarily guarantee a  satisfactory happy ending, you will like The Survivors. The uneasiness, small-town tension, and grief thread throughout the story and make it really hard to put down. It would make a good book discussion. 

Rating: 4/6 for a thriller that keeps you guessing while the tension builds and you keep moving towards an ending that will not be what you expect. Harper's use of nature as a character is brilliant and adds an extra dimension to her plot. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell'Antonia


Another book I've had on my bookshelf for a bit and finally put it on my list for February. Even then, it took me a lot of stops and starts to finally jump into this tale of two chicken shops, a generational feud, and a food wars show with a big prize that could change everything. 

Sisters Amanda and Mae are pretty different: Mae is a home organizing rising star in New York City; she's got a popular book out, and is in the running for a co-hosting job on a popular home show. She's all about being organized; everything in its place and a place for everything. This is a direct reaction to her childhood and her mother, Barbara. Amanda still lives in Merinac, Kansas. She helps run her late husband's restaurant-Frannie's. Amanda and Mae's mother, Barbara, runs Mimi's-also a chicken restaurant. 

Way back in the 1880's, Mimi and Frannie were two sisters running their own chicken shack. Then a feud erupted between the sisters, and Frannie set up her own chicken shack and the two restaurants have been competing with each other ever since. Amanda caused another ripple in the family feud when she fell in love with Frank, and married the "enemy". She's not been allowed back into Mimi's since her marriage. She works with her mother-in-law, Nancy, to run Frannie's, and to raise her two children. 

Amanda decides to apply to Food Wars, a popular show that pits two restaurants against each other, with a winning prize of $100,000.  To her surprise, within days, there's a camera crew and Sabrina, the host of the show in Merinac. Mae decides to come out from NYC to help-but of course her motive isn't pure. She hasn't been back for years, either. 

It's definitely not a cut and dried experience, as the two sisters fight over everything and the cameras are there to capture all the drama. Two very different personalities, both at a turning point in their lives, but not quite sure what to do about it. This novel is full of a cast of characters that all add to the hometown feel and keep the plot moving with all sorts of side stories. 

It really is a tale that is retold over and over-the sibling that stays in the same place all their life--did they make the right choice to stay? And the sibling that leaves as soon as they can for brighter lights and a new life--can they return home again? 

What starts out as a competition over who has the best chicken morphs into a much bigger, complicated family situation. At times I thought the story slowed down and I got lost in the weeds a bit. But I stuck with it, and it had a very satisfying ending. I'd actually like to see a follow up to this novel--I'm curious to see the characters and their lives a year later. It really would make a good TV movie!

I think the biggest takeaway I got from this novel was this: choices you make in your youth aren't permanent. You can stop, examine your life, and make changes-big changes-if you realize what you're doing doesn't make you happy. There is nothing wrong in starting over-in fact, it's often where you find your happy place and your best self. Sometimes you have to leave a place in order to return with a peaceful and grateful heart, and realize it's where you belong. It's also about recognizing that sometimes, you have to leave home for a bit to find yourself. 

Rating: 3/6 for a novel about family dynamics and history, living in a small town, sisters, and healing old wounds. There were some spots where the story got bogged down, but otherwise if you stick with it, you will enjoy the outcome. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles


I eagerly awaited the publication date of this novel and quickly bought my own copy so I could enjoy it at my own pace and not worry about returning it to the library. It's a good thing I did, because it took me almost three weeks in February before I finally started reading it. I picked it up and started reading it last weekend after deciding the two books I was already reading just didn't fit my weekend reading vibe. 

This is my second World War 2 novel this month, which is definitely a record for me. Any novel that has a bookstore or a library in it is one I have to read, so I couldn't wait another month to dig into the story of Odile Souchet in Paris during World War 2, and young Lily living in Montana in 1985. How do the two of them have anything in common? Well, Odile lives right next door to Lily and her family in the small town of Froid. Odile is reserved, always dressed to the nines, and is still, after forty years, described as "the war bride". Her husband, a former solider, has died, leaving Odile living on her own in Froid. 

Fascinated by her next door neighbor, Lily approaches Odile under the guise of working on a writing assignment for school. Lily can't wait to escape Froid, even though she's terribly worried about her mother's health. She sees Odile as her gateway to her dreams of being a writer and traveling the world. 

Odile and Lily hit it off, and soon Odile is teaching Lily French. Their mutual love of books is another bond, and Lily finds out Odile was a librarian in Paris. 

That's where most of the story takes place-Paris, during World War 2. Odile gets a job at the American Library in Paris, and it is her dream job. She is thrilled to be a librarian, and nothing smells better to her than the odor of all those books when she steps in the doors of the library. However, war is coming quickly, and Odile's simple dreams of falling in love, marrying, and continuing to work at the library fall apart as Nazis take over Paris. 

Odile's life in Paris is hard, to be sure. She is determined to do her part to keep the library open and safe from Nazis destroying the collection, as they've done to other libraries around Europe. Her close friends at the library all fall into danger--most are not natives to France, and as the world is drawn into war, each one becomes a foreign enemy that could be arrested and sent away. Food becomes scarce, and restrictions keep tightening. Odile's twin brother Remy joined the French army right away, and is now in danger. Paul, Odile's sweetheart, is a police officer who struggles to remain true to his devotion to Odile while under increasing pressure to work with the Nazis to maintain order in Paris. 

Odile's story is compelling; more so than Lily's. Maybe it's because it's 1985 and heck, I remember the 80's fairly well-I was a teen for part of them! However, Lily's struggle in a small town, with big changes to her home life, definitely echo the increasing change in family dynamics that occurred in the 1980's. I can't say much because I don't want to give it away, so I'll leave it at that. 

There's really not much suspense or mystery to this novel. It's more of a slow unraveling of a story that hadn't been told for decades. Now it's time for Odile to share her life story and forgive herself for her actions so long ago. 

This was a quick read, and full of literary references and characters who loved the written word. Men and women who risked their lives to protect books, deliver them to prisoners of war, and to Jews hiding in Paris. They realized the importance of storytelling and even when faced with possible arrest, kept doing their jobs. It was also pretty interesting to read about library work before computers and the internet. 

Fans of World War 2 fiction, novels about libraries, and stories of friendship are sure to enjoy this read. And yes, there really is an American Library in Paris, open to this day; it was founded in 1920. It makes me very happy to know it survived the horrors of war and operated throughout the occupation of Paris. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel set in Paris during World War 2 that features the American Library. It's about the risks librarians took to protect not only the collection, but kept providing books and information to citizens under siege and in danger. It's also a novel about friendship, forgiveness, and making peace with the past. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Scorpion's Tail by Preston & Child


I'm late to the Preston & Child bandwagon and I'd like to kick myself for missing out on all of their books all these years. They were always books I meant to read, but never got to--now I'm making a conscious effort to add them to my reading list. 

The Scorpion's Tail is the second in the Nora Kelly series. The first, Old Bones, grabbed me and made me an instant fan. If you want to read my review from September, 2019, click here.

In The Scorpion's Tail, we find FBI agent Corrie Swanson back in Albuquerque, still learning the ropes as a junior agent. She's still trying to prove herself and feels like she's failing. Until an interesting find pops up, and she's assigned to investigate. It seems like a job that's just to get her out of the way, but it turns out to be much, much bigger than anyone could image. 

Corrie travels to the ghost town of High Lonesome with Sheriff Watts to investigate the finding of a mummified corpse in the basement of one of abandoned buildings. Sheriff Watts (who wears two six-shooters) surprised a looter a few days before, and after a quick gun battle, spotted the corpse and called the FBI. Looting ancient burial grounds and abandoned mining towns is big business in New Mexico; toss in tales of lost Spanish gold and it quickly becomes dangerous and deadly. 

Corrie calls in Nora Kelly, an archaeologist in Santa Fe, to excavate the area around the corpse and help figure out if this is a recent death or much older. Nora is reluctant to help, but she's quickly pulled into the case when the corpse and what they find on the corpse blows the case wide open. Corrie and Nora are plunged into a case that could get them killed. The players involved are BIG, and involves many layers of the history of New Mexico.

Oh gosh I wish I could say more, but it would give things away. It's so darn good, and the unraveling kept me glued to the pages late into the night. It also made me a bit homesick for New Mexico. I was lucky to visit New Mexico (Los Alamos, Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque) numerous times when my brother and sis-in-law lived there. It has a magical, haunting quality to it that it hard to describe. It is vividly stunning and truly is the "land of enchantment".  This novel brought it all back--the smell of piƱon, the bright colors, the outstanding views for miles and miles. Don't get me started on the food! 

I've read two Preston & Child novels, and loved both of them. I am a big fan of thrillers/mysteries that involve history and archaeology. Combine that with myths and legends, and I'm all in. I am also a big fan of novels that have intelligent, strong women as main characters. You don't have to read Old Bones to read The Scorpion's Tail, but I would heartily recommend you read both. If you're a fan of James Rollins, you will love Preston and Child. 

Rating: 5/6 for a fantastic novel that combines New Mexican history, myth, and Native American culture into one hard to put down thriller. I can't wait for the next in the Nora Kelly series! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Rural Diaries: Love, Livestock, and Big Life Lessons Down on Mischief Farm by Hilarie Burton Morgan


I cannot resist reading about women who move to the country and live a farming life. I guess it's because I think they're very brave. And they're so darn handy at creating something out of nothing, or using very little to create that something. Hilarie Burton Morgan joins my list of women I admire, who roll up their sleeves and jump in with a brave heart. 

The Rural Diaries is about Hilarie and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (you know, that heartthrob of a guy from Grey's Anatomy, and the nasty Negan from The Walking Dead), and their decision to move to Rhinebeck, New York and live on a farm.  After meeting in L.A. through mutual friends, their connection was pretty quick and deep. Driving through Rhinebeck, they immediately felt at home and wanted to put down roots away from the craziness of Hollywood. And so they did. 

But this story is not all fairy tale and happy ending; at least not for a few years. Hilarie recounts their beginnings, with their young son Gus, in a little cabin by the woods. Their happiness at finding home, and becoming part of the community. Hilarie is a whiz with power tools and gardening; she learned a lot of skills from her parents and had always longed for a special place to call home. Her attitude of just jumping in and doing the hard work, and the satisfaction of making a home are inspiring. 

Hilarie and Jeffrey find a farm with 70 acres nearby and move there after a few years. More hard work, with the addition of chickens, alpacas, donkeys, and dogs. Hilarie recounts her heartbreaking miscarriages, and the strain they put on her relationship with Jeffrey. Healing from that, and finding their way back to each other. Community is also huge in this memoir; the friends and family that surround the couple and their son Gus are amazing, and I'll admit to being a little bit envious of their little piece of heaven!

Hilarie is a breath of fresh air. Her openness at the ups and downs of her relationship with Jeffrey, her obsession with getting pregnant again and the strain it caused; her heartbreak at losing her pregnancies. Her willingness to get on with the work and not be afraid of failure (in gardening, especially), and her big heart make this a charming read. Her brief inside look at Hollywood and her experiences as an actress are certainly interesting, too. 

This read certainly brightened a dismal February for me. My partner's Mom passed away last week after a very long illness. It was crushing to see her slowly getting worse over the past few years, the past six months have been hard; the past few months were profoundly sad. I was blessed to spend the last few weeks with her, helping my partner to care for his Mom and spending the days with her. It was not easy, and boy oh boy I cried so many tears my face hurt and my eyes were a mess. I'm taking some time to just be home, support my partner in his grief, and yes, grieve myself. So this memoir actually reminded me that the sun will shine again, flowers will bloom, and Spring will arrive. Life keeps going, and we will keep moving forward. 

Rating: 4/6 for an utterly open and honest look at the ups and downs of creating a life together, taking a leap and deciding to live that dream. Anyone who loves farm life, homemaking, and the country life will enjoy this memoir. A reminder that family, friends, and home are most important. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan


I've been reading a lot of historical fiction this month. Maybe I'm trying to make up for the lack of it in my 2020 reading list? I have been ping-ponging between quite a few books, and not making a big dent in any of them. So, what I do when that happens is start another book. Ha! This was a quick read, and I enjoyed it very much. It was just what I needed to read.

The Kitchen Front is based on an actual World War 2 contest that was sponsored by the BBC. In this novel, four women in the small town of Finley Village enter the contest hoping to be the winner. For each of them, it means a chance to change their lives for the better. Audrey is a widow with three children, barely hanging onto her home by baking pies and scones for the locals. Lady Gwendoline is Audrey's estranged sister. She is all about appearance and making her stuffy, nasty husband proud. Nell is a servant for Lady Gwendoline, and a very talented young cook. She dreams of leaving her position for something better. And Zelda Dupont is a talented chef from London, forced to relocate to Finley Village to work at a factory. She's determined to win the contest so she may return to London and become head chef at a posh restaurant. 

Part of the charm of this novel is the progression from four women who are against each other to firm friends who help each other through difficult issues. Realizing friendship is most important. The ingenuity and talent each woman shows in creating recipes for each of the three courses shows just how gifted they all are--you'll find yourself cheering them all on--but of course, there can be only one winner. 

If you want a feel good historical novel, this is it. I find myself a little burned out of World War 2 fiction, and tend to avoid reading a lot of it. Years of bookselling and talking about World War 2 fiction--usually trends come and go in genres, yet this trend is still going strong. I made an exception for this novel, and I am glad I did. I loved the combination of history, women's struggles and friendships, and the cooking. It was a quick read and thoroughly enjoyable. 

The Kitchen Front will be released in the U.S. on February 23rd, 2021. A big thank you to Edelweiss for providing me with an advanced e-arc. 

Rating: 4/6 for a World War 2 novel that explores female friendship during difficult times. A fascinating look at how women coped with restrictive food rations, air raids, and keeping family and friendships together. 

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