Thursday, April 29, 2021

Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P. Manansala


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I love cozy mysteries. Never thought I would, but they are my go to when I want a comfort read, or something light. That goes against the fact that there is a murder or two in each mystery, I know. But if you read cozy mysteries, you know what I mean! It's the small communities, the cast of characters, and in this case--the food. 

I haven't had the pleasure of trying Filipino food, but I'm pretty sure I would love it if given a chance to try it. Food is a big part of Arsenic and Adobo, the first in the Tita Rosie's Kitchen Mysteries. Lila Macapagal has returned to her hometown of Shady Palms, Illinois to help out at her Tita Rosie's restaurant. She's really not happy to be back, but is escaping a just ended relationship in Chicago. 

Her high school ex-boyfriend, Derek, arrives in the restaurant and is obnoxious and a jerk. He's been visiting the restaurant every day, ordering lots of food, and then writes terrible reviews in the newspaper. He's been doing this to all the restaurants in town, causing some to close permanently. This day, however, he drops dead at the table after eating some of Tita Rosie's dishes--served by Lila. She quickly becomes the number one suspect, and the restaurant is closed down until the case is resolved. 

Lila decides she's got to figure out who killed Derek, and why. There are plenty of suspects: Derek's stepfather, and all of the restaurant owners he's angered. Can she figure it out before she's charged with murder?

I've been waiting for this book to be published for months, and I enjoyed it so much. The Filipino-American culture, the FOOD!, the family dynamics are all big players in this mystery. Lila's definitely torn between wanting to do what makes her happy, and staying to help her family. Toss in a few potential romances, and you will gobble this up! 

Available in trade paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Rating: 5/6 for a new culinary cozy mystery that is centered on the Filipino-American culture of the Midwest. Chock full of tasty food, characters you'd like to know, and a mystery that does take a bit to figure out-you'll love this mystery. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Portrait by Ilaria Bernardini


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It's taken me a bit to finish this novel, but that's okay because it's not a novel to rush through. The Portrait a character driven story about two women, one man, and a lifetime of love. 

Valeria Costa is a famous writer who has had a decades-long affair with Martin Acla. Now Martin has had a stroke and is in a coma in his London home. His wife, Isla, is a famous portrait artist, and she, along with their three children, are at their home in London with Martin as his days wind down. 

Valeria is bereft and is desperate to see Martin again. She writes Isla, asking to have her portrait painted. This way, she can get into the house, and hopefully see Martin. Isla agrees, and Valeria temporarily moves to London to have her portrait painted. 

Valeria goes to a lot of trouble to see Martin! But he is her love, and their relationship goes back decades; they've been secret lovers almost as long as Martin and Isla have been married. Flying around the world, meeting each other for nights and weekends, Valeria and Martin had a deep connection and love for each other. Valeria knows everything about Isla's life with Martin. 

As Valeria visits the home, and sits for her portrait, she's drawn deeper into the lives of Isla and her children. Martin is only a few floors up, on a ventilator, being monitored by nurses; completely unaware his two lives have now come together. 

I kept looking at the cover; intrigued by the portrait. It's haunting, to be sure. Valeria is one complex character, as is Isla. The novel moves back and forth between the portrait sitting, Valeria's youth and her troubled relationship with her mother, to her times with Martin. She is constantly framing her life and observations into short stories (which she is famous for)-which, if you look closely, tell the tale of her love affair with Martin. 

Throughout the novel, I kept asking myself if Isla knew who Valeria was-did she know about the affair? You don't know for sure until the end, and oh my, that's a pretty good ending. It takes a bit to digest and understand how the story all comes together. You will spend time thinking about these two complex women.

A big thank you to Pegasus Books for a review copy. This is not my typical novel, but I'm so glad I had the chance to read something so character driven and complex. Author Ilaria Bernardini is a well-known Italian author, this is her first American debut. 

Rating: 4/6 for a character driven novel about grief, love, death, art, aging, life, and forgiveness. A slow build that grips you and doesn't let go. An ending that takes your breath away. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Restoration of Celia Fairchild by Marie Bostwick


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This was another book I saw at B&N and the cover grabbed me right away. It didn't look like a romantic comedy (it isn't), and when I read the blurb on the back cover, well, seeing it was set in Charleston had me adding it to my stack of books. I left B&N that day with a hefty bag of books and zero regret. Which, to be honest, is how I always leave B&N. 

I'll be honest again and say I started reading it and thought, uh oh, I don't think I'm prepared to read a novel about a woman who is seeking to adopt a baby. It just wasn't what I was looking to read about. However, I kept reading (it was a welcome break from The Sanatorium!) and sure enough I got past the first 50 pages and settled into a charming novel about creating a family and finding a new beginning when it seems that all is lost. 

Celia Fairchild is newly divorced and working in New York City as the popular newspaper advice columnist Dear Calpurnia. She's decided the only way to have the family she desires is to adopt a baby on her own. Marching into her boss' office, she's prepared to ask for a raise in order to help finance a new place to live-a place to raise a baby. 

However, Celia finds herself unemployed and devastated by the sudden turn of events. Soon after, she receives a phone call from a lawyer in Charleston, telling her she is the sole heir to her Aunt Calpurnia's home and she must come down to take care of it. Celia hadn't spoken to her Aunt in years, and feels horrible Calpurnia died without Celia making her peace. With no job on the horizon, she heads to Charleston.

What Celia finds is a big surprise, and the beginning of a brand new life-one that Celia isn't sure she wants. However, she's a potential match for a baby, and has twelve weeks to get the house in shape for a visit by the birth mother. And the house is a DISASTER. A host of characters enter the picture-neighbors, an ex-con contractor, a delightfully sunny young man who works at a local coffee shop; even an old high school friend. And yes, the lawyer who wears ill-fitting suits even shows up to help Celia. Little does Celia know it, but her family is taking shape and changing her life. 

As I said before, this was a charming novel. I am always up for a novel where people are starting over, changing their life in big and small ways, and discovering what makes them truly happy. Time and time again, what we think we want and what we actually need are usually two different things-and it can take big changes to recognize the difference. For Celia, it's a big change in both her attitude and her idea of a picture perfect life that generate her happily ever after. 

There are some interesting issues throughout this book: most importantly, the issues of loneliness and isolation. Family, forgiveness, doing what's right versus doing what society thinks is proper. Understanding we have a family we are born into, and a family we create from those around us who support, nurture, and love us through all the crap. 

If you're looking for a gentle read, this is it. Marie Bostwick has written many other novels, and I suspect they are also gentle reads, too. There is a letter from the author in the back, as well as reading group questions. This is the kind of novel you finish at night before you go to bed, smile, then get a good night's sleep. 

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel that surprised me with the many lively characters and their back stories, the evolution of Celia's life plans, and the happily ever after that was not a big blow out, but a soft, gentle, satisfying conclusion. Oh-there is knitting, too! 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

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This was definitely a novel that hooked me from the beginning. I know I'm really into a book when I get annoyed at everyday life getting in the way of me sitting and reading! I had to wait an extra day this weekend to focus on the last hundred pages   this morning and woke up early just to finish. 

I'll warn folks right now that there are some gruesome parts in the story. So if you have a queasy stomach you are forewarned. 

This novel takes place in the Swiss Alps at a new resort called Le Sommet. This resort is unusual in that it was a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients back in the 1920-30's.  Not a place I'd want to stay at, for sure. But  it's been redone at great expense and is upscale luxury for those who want to ski or be pampered in the spa. 

Elin Warner has arrived with her boyfriend Will for an engagement part for her brother Isaac and his fiancĂ© Laure. Elin is a mess. She's a police officer from England who was injured on the job trying to catch a killer. The episode caused Elin to take extended time off the force and she's now got to decide if she's going to go back or leave for good. Flashbacks from her fight with the killer have pretty much paralyzed her ability to do much of anything. Add to that her unanswered questions about her brother Sam's tragic death when they were children (is Isaac to blame?) and she's got a lot of mental anguish keeping her from moving on in life. This is her chance to see Isaac after many years, and hopefully get answers about Sam's death. 

Le Sommet sounds, to me, like a perfectly terrible place to stay for any length of time. A winding mountain road, avalanches, and sudden snow storms make the trip something you're committed to once you get on a launch to take you up the mountain. The sanatorium has been completely redone with a lot of wide windows, cold marble, and minimalist features. It's a perfect setting for what happens there.

As a huge snowstorm pummels the resort, a young resort worker is found dead in an outdoor pool, horribly murdered. Police can't get to the resort, so Elin forces herself to use her police chops to start an investigation. As more people disappear, it's clear something horrible is happening. But why? And who is behind it? Elin's trauma is not helping her think clearly, but she keeps trying to see her way through the investigation. It's definitely one where anyone could be the perpetrator, so who can she trust? Will she reveal the murderer in time to stop them?

The isolation, the intense snowstorm, the avalanches, and oh, the cold! It all is written so well that you can't help but shiver a bit. Elin, oh Elin. I wanted to shake her. I do give her props for forcing herself to continue on, even in the midst of paralyzing fear. The back story of the sanatorium was fascinating, and horrible all at the same time. You truly aren't sure who to trust throughout the story, and revelations just keep popping up as you race towards the ending. The past and the present are like a spider web-so many connections. 

I enjoyed this novel very much and can see why it's a big hit. Definitely a summer vacation read. If you like thrillers with a bit of history and mystery, this will be a sure bet for you. I am hoping that there is another book with Elin in the future. The ending leaves me to certainly want one-I'd like to see her back on the force, and dealing with unresolved issues. 

Thank you to Pamela Dorman/Viking Books for an ebook version to read and review. If you're interested in an interview with author Sarah Pearse, just click on this link to read-it's pretty interesting! 

Rating: 4/6 for a thriller that gave me all the creepy and anxious feels I expect from a great read-I couldn't put it down and raced to the end. Beware of some unpleasant murders but otherwise a darn good read. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Address Book by Deirdre Mask

This book was a holdover from my March list and I'm so glad I finished it tonight. It's a fascinating look at addresses around the world.  Author Deirdre Mask first became interested in addresses and the meanings behind them when she simply mailed a birthday card from Ireland to her father in the U.S. It arrived just four days later, and she wondered how something that traveled such a distance could cost so little to mail, and get there so fast. 

So, she did some digging, and in doing so, became fascinated with addresses and their meaning. By meaning, I don't necessarily mean why they were named a certain name, but what really lies behind that street name, and how not having an address (or having a certain address) can mean a chance at improving your life, or a chance to brag about living in a wealthy area. An address means people can find you, and some people are just fine living "two miles past that gravel road, across from the Mills Family and right by the old gas station". 

Ms. Mask explores ancient Roman addresses--actually, the lack of addresses; how Nazis began a campaign of changing addresses in Jewish towns and cities as another way to wipe Jews out of existence. She looks at William Penn and his desire to create a system of addresses that were neat and orderly (very unlike England, which has a hodgepodge of streets every where--but that is the charm of England!); how the battle of apartheid still rages in South Africa over changing street names. 

There are more interesting people and places to explore in The Address Book.  What I find extremely interesting is how much we tie our identity into our addresses. And really, how much of a disservice we do to homeless people by demanding they have a permanent address in order to qualify for services they desperately need. As Ms. Mask rightly points out, we no longer have land lines--we don't call a place, we call a person-so why should we require a home address on an application for a job, or an application for assistance? People are contacted by phone or email the vast majority of the time, not by mail to a street address. 

Luckily, there are a lot of folks around the world who have made it their mission to solve the address problems that keep so many people helpless in their desire to escape poverty. I found this book so interesting! It will definitely make you stop and think. 

In my city of Cedar Rapids, we have NE, NW, SE, SW attached to most of our addresses. It immediately tells people generally where you live--upper class, middle class, in the flood zone, in the poorer areas of the city--in a new development--which side of the Cedar River. If you live over by Brucemore, most people know you live in what used to be the wealthiest part of town--and still is quite impressive, if you look at the large early 20th century stately homes and the boulevards. They're just not new homes--those are on another side of town now, and they're just as big. 

It's interesting to think about addresses--I'll admit after reading this book I have thought about my address, and what it says about where I live. I think about how Cedar Rapids grew over the decades and engulfed smaller communities and the only way they're remembered are by street names. 

I so enjoyed this book. It definitely would make an excellent book club discussion, or a great gift for history buffs or folks who love maps and urban development. 

Rating: 4/6 for a study on the emotional ties we have to place names; how history has shaped our cultural ties to street names, city designs, and what it all means in the digital age. 

Available in paperback, hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Windhall by Ava Barry

This novel was definitely one that surprised me. What I mean by that is how I quickly became involved in the plot and couldn't put it down. Honestly, I expected it to take a bit for me to get into the story, but happily that was not the case at all. 

Max Hailey works as an investigative journalist for a digital magazine based in Los Angeles. The Lens doesn't have much time left, and Max is the kind of guy who pisses everyone off, and his boss is no exception. Recently there has been a murder of a young woman near the infamous abandoned mansion of Hollywood director Theodore Langley. It's been over sixty years since Theo's home was the scene of the unsolved murder of a young Hollywood starlet, Eleanor Hayes. Now someone, decades later, has left a copy-cat murder. Could Theo, now in his nineties, be back?

Max has been obsessed with Theo and Eleanor since he was a teenager. He's convinced Theo did kill Eleanor that infamous night at Windhall, his estate in Los Angeles. Yet Theo was never convicted, and disappeared in the 1950's. His estate lay empty all that time. Max has studied everything about Windhall, Theo, and Eleanor, and he is convinced Theo is back for one last murder. So how does he go about proving it?

Max is a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. A real smart ass who gets in trouble all the time. He grew up in Hollywood, and knows his way around town. Yet this one unsolved murder grabbed his imagination and he's never been able to let it go. As Max makes deals, runs down clues, and goes a bit rogue, he uncovers enough evidence to make him question everything he's believed in about Windhall and Theo. It's not a simple open and shut murder case, and with every little twist and turn, I became fully invested in seeing this mystery solved. 

I'm a big fan of old Hollywood, too, and this book really does a great job of infusing that into the storyline. Oh, I wish I could have seen Los Angeles with the orange groves, farms, ranches, and the old Hollywood mansions. It was pretty seedy, too, and that makes it all so very interesting. Big film studios had a lot of power and could make or break careers in the blink of an eye. 
I found Max likable, even when he was being a jerk. But I've got to hand it to him, he kept digging and didn't give up. Clues are slowly revealed, and just when you think you may have it figured out, another surprise pops up. This isn't a mystery as much as a thriller with some good old fashioned investigative work. 

A big thanks to Pegasus books (Simon & Schuster) for providing a copy of this book to read and review. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it reminded me again of my interest in old Hollywood. A solid read that I honestly couldn't put down. 

Rating: 5/6 for a clever thriller about Old Hollywood and an unsolved murder that sends a contemporary investigative reporter on a quest to uncover the truth. Will he uncover what others have worked so hard to hide?

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Did I Make My March Madness Reading Goal? And April Reads are Here!

 Did I make my goal and read everything I planned in March? In a word:


Dang it! I started both The Conductors by Nicole Glover and Kristin Hannah's The Four Winds but haven't made enough headway to finish in March. I may end up buying The Conductors so I can finish it later-it's due back at the library. I'll finish both books in April (sometime!) and get those reviews out. 

I thought I'd be able to relax a little bit in April, but then I made a few trips to Barnes and Noble and blew it. I've got three books to read and review for publishers, and I'm trying really hard not to buy anything else for a few weeks so I can catch up. It's a heck of a mishmash of different genres but that's what makes reading so interesting every month. 

Here's what's on tap for April:

I've got a lot to read, for sure. Quite a few different books that I normally wouldn't jump at, so this will be an interesting month of discovery. 

Happy April and welcome Spring! My daffodils are mere days away from blooming!

(Click on the blurbs beneath each title to order).