Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: The Cherry Robbers by Sarai Walker


This was one odd, haunting, dysfunctional family wallop of a novel. 

It's 1950, and we're introduced to the Chapel sisters: Aster, Rosalind, Calla, Daphne, Iris, and Hazel. The Chapel family is famous for gun and rifle manufacturing that has helped settle the West and win wars. Their father works every day, and they live in the town of Bellflower Village in an ornate Victorian home surrounded by acres of land. 

Their mother sees the ghosts of all of the victims of the Chapel firearms. She screams, like clockwork, every night. She hates her husband, but loves her daughters even though she's clearly got a lot of issues and can't be a very good mother. 

On their annual trek to the Atlantic Ocean, Aster meets a handsome young man, and after dating for a bit, they become engaged and plan a big wedding. Only problem is, the closer the wedding approaches, the more mother gets worked up, claiming if the wedding isn't postponed, something horrible will happen. Iris believes her mother, and does her part (as much as a small child can do) to try and disrupt and postpone the wedding. 

Well, it doesn't work, and Aster's wedding proceeds. It seems mother was wrong. 

Except the next morning, Aster's new husband returns with Aster, clad in a honeymoon nightgown, clearly not well. What follows is a horrible nightmare for the Chapel family, as Aster dies one day after her wedding day. To prevent a scandal, the doctor claims it was simply the flu, and Aster is buried less than a week after she walked down the aisle. 

Okay, weird. However, the pattern repeats itself...until it's very clear the Chapel sisters are cursed, somehow. There are possible explanations, of course, that go back through their mother's line; however, there's just enough fuzzy-wuzzy info to make you wonder if it's all real or just horrible bad luck. 

One daughter escapes this fate. The novel begins in 2017, when she receives a letter from someone claiming to know who she really is; her current name and fame as a well-known feminist artist are fake and she's actually a Chapel girl. It's been sixty years since those horrible days, and now she will be outed. Is it time to relive those memories, and spill the story of her bizarre family curse?

I was fascinated by this novel. The sisters were all definitely different characters and I felt they were well-drawn and strong women. The atmosphere of the entire novel was what really grabbed me: haunting, melancholy, and slightly off-kilter. Kind of gothic in flavor; I had to remind myself this took place in the 1950's. There's a lot to unpack in this novel and it would make a great book discussion novel. There's much to discuss about female sexuality, mental health, family issues, sisterhood, LGBTQ, and so. much. more. 

Rating: 5/6 for a novel that had me captivated and wondering just what the heck was going to happen next. The Chapel sisters are quite simply unforgettable, and this is one tale that will leave you pondering and thinking about it for days after you've turned the last page. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio book. 

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle by Jennifer Ryan


If you're looking for gentle World War 2 fiction, Jennifer Ryan is your person. I've read two of her novels and enjoyed them both for the very fact that they are just good historical novels that give a flavor of the time from the women on the home  front. 

This novel takes place in 1942 in the small village of Aldhurst, outside of London. England is deep in World War 2, and rationing is in full force. Not only food, but clothing is in short supply. 

A group of women in the village gather each week to sew and repurpose (the "make do and mend" program) second hand clothing, along with knitting socks for the troops. Violet is the daughter of the manor, and niece to famous clothing designer Cressida Westcott. She's only interested in finding a titled man to marry. 

Cressida's home and shop are bombed in London, and the only place for her to go is her family home in Aldhurst. Reluctant to return to her childhood home, she doesn't have much choice and can't wait to return to London. 

Grace is the vicar's daughter, and engaged to be married to another vicar. It's not a love match, and it's pretty clear her fiancé is looking for a helpmate and not necessarily a wife. She's vaguely unhappy, but believes this is her calling and a way to have a family of her own. 

These three women are the main characters in the novel. There are other players, of course, and it's pretty interesting how much each of the women change over the course of the novel. Violet is petulant and a bit of a brat; she's been conscripted to join the women's war effort and believes her upper class standing will make it a smooth ride for herself. She is wrong. 

Grace runs into Hugh, the lord of the manor (and Violet's brother). Childhood friends who haven't seen each other in years, both are dismayed to find the other completely different from their carefree days as children and best friends. There's more here to unpack, for sure. 

Cressida meets up with Grace's father, Vicar Ben. Cressida's fiancé was killed in World War I and was Ben's best friend. Cressida left Aldhurst to begin her career as a designer and never fell in love again. Ben married, had Grace, and lost his wife. They strike up a friendship again; could it be more than that after all these years?

Besides all the stories going on with these three women, the sewing circle has begun something pretty fantastic and unique: helping women who are getting married have a white wedding dress. Since clothes rations leave little room (as in none!) for special clothing, women are getting married in their uniforms and every day dresses. What starts with Grace's wedding dress blooms into a movement to have wedding dresses available for any woman in the country who is getting married. It's an amazing part of the novel, and brings home the willingness to work together, to share, and give selflessly so others may have even a tiny bit of happiness. There was no "me", it was all "us". 

I liked all the characters and especially the growth of each woman as the six months of the novel go by. A lot of self discovery, confidence building, and understanding of love and the precious time we all have in which to be happy and lead fulfilling lives. 

Kate Quinn's World War 2 novels are a bit more intense than Jennifer Ryan's novels, even though both take place at a dark time for the world. I've read both, and would say Jennifer Ryan's novels are more wholesome and less anxiety inducing! 

Rating: 4/6 for an entirely likable cast of characters, a unique movement in British home front activity, and the message of uniting together and doing what's right for all instead of being selfish. Another theme is discovering the life you want to live and going for it, even if it means leaving the familiar to forge into the unknown. And finally, loving someone for who they are, not what they have. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, June 6, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: The Hacienda by Isabel Cañas


I took a few days of vacation to make a long weekend and was determined to finish a few books in my summer TBR list. This novel has been in my pile for a few months. I started it in May, got distracted, and put it down. Yesterday I picked it back up and got swept away pretty immediately. 

Beatriz needs to get married to escape the awful life her and her mother are in after her father is taken away in the night and murdered for plotting against the Mexican government. It's 1823 and women have limited choices. She married Rodolfo Solórzano, a wealthy man who takes her to his home, the Hacienda San Isidro. 

Beatriz isn't greeted with much enthusiasm by the servants at San Isidro, nor Rodolfo's sister Juana. She's the second Doña Solórzano, and yikes it's not the welcome she was hoping for. The first wife of Rodolfo was a horrible woman who treated the servants terribly and made everyone's life miserable. She died from typhoid a few years before. 

However, the moment Beatriz steps into the hacienda, she feels something is terribly, terribly wrong. The house seethes with bad energy; cold air sweeps through in waves; doors slam, and there are those terrible red eyes peeking through the darkness. Rodolfo leaves for business in the capitol, and Beatriz is terrified to live in the house alone. She hears voices, sees terrible visions, and is afraid to sleep. 

She attends church, and asks for a blessing. Snubbed by the older, crabby Padre, she meets Padre Andrés, a young priest who grew up at San Isidro and has returned to take care of the village outside of the hacienda. He agrees to bless the hacienda, and oh boy, what he feels and sees when he visits is exactly what Beatriz experiences: an unholy, terrible, evil force. 

Who's that force? Why, the first Doña, of course. Beatriz is frantic to fight the evil-she just isn't strong enough to do it herself. Andrés has a few surprises of his own that may just be enough to fight the evil that inhabits the hacienda. It may kill them first, though. 

There's a lot going on here with back story and the aftermath of the Mexican War of Independence. Generations of people working on the same land; generations of the same land owners treating those people poorly and taking advantage of them. People who can't get away because of the class system that keeps them down. A priest who is also a witch, and must be careful to not be exposed. A woman who thought she was marrying a man who would give her a home, only to realize the home, and her husband, are awful. Cut off from any help, she only had Andrés to turn to. The folks around the hacienda know something dark is there, but are too afraid to do anything about it. 

This was a spooky story--I could feel that numbing cold rolling down the hallways. Author Isabel Cañas does an excellent job building tension and terror and ramping it up. This is evil that is vicious and nasty. Can you imagine what this woman was like when she was alive?! I raced through this horror novel, and was tense every time Beatriz had to be in the hacienda alone. 

A horror novel of a different kind, set in 1823 Mexico. The setting was well drawn and I could picture it all in my mind. Beatriz was smart, tough, and stalwart in her belief that there was something very wrong in the hacienda. Padre Andrés was a complex character torn by guilt as a priest and the power he was born to use for good. 

Rating: 5/6 for a tense, atmospheric horror novel with a historical setting. Once I got into it, I was hooked. 

A big thanks to Berkley for an ARC of the novel. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, June 3, 2022

Summer Reading 2022: Book Lovers by Emily Henry


I'm chipping away at my summer reading pile, and I just finished Book Lovers by Emily Henry. I wanted to give her another chance after I read Beach Read a few years ago and had mixed feelings about that novel. Enough mixed feelings that I didn't read People We Meet on Vacation, her follow up. 

I'm happy to say I had a different experience with this novel. It could be I liked the characters much more in Book Lovers.  Nora and Charlie both live in New York City. Nora is a literary agent, and Charlie is an editor. They meet briefly to discuss one of Nora's clients. Charlie doesn't like the book, and Nora doesn't much like Charlie. Neither makes a good impression on the other.  

Fast forward two years later, and Nora is taking a month long vacation to the town of Sunshine Falls, North Carolina with her pregnant sister Libby. They are extremely close, but Nora has felt some distance in their relationship. Libby isn't happy with Nora's career taking all of her time; Nora is afraid their relationship may be damaged because of it. 

Nora runs into Charlie in Sunshine Falls. Oh--did I mention Sunshine Falls is the setting for the novel Charlie dissed two years before? And that novel was a HUGE hit? Surprise, surprise. Charlie actually is from Sunshine Falls. He's there taking care of his parent's bookshop and helping his father recover from a stroke. Charlie hates Sunshine Falls. They run into each other, and it's clear their short meeting two years before was just the start of something big. 

Nora and Charlie begin working on editing a novel that has the potential to be a blockbuster. They both know it and are completely in sync with each other about the work it will take to shape the manuscript and get it ready to sell. 

Nora and Charlie also are irresistibly attracted to each other, and their chemistry is off the charts! I'll say Emily Henry hit the nail on the head as Nora finds the little things about Charlie so darn hot. That's exactly how it works. I'm partial to my dude's dimples. They get me every time. I love his chin. Weird, I know, but darn it all he's got a great chin. Anyway...Nora and Charlie just are so good together. I loved reading their texts; they just get each other. Smart, snappy, sharp conversations that make their relationship very believable. 

Charlie's attraction to Nora is also so. well. done. I loved the evolution of their relationship. A great match; great dialogue. 

Nora's relationship with her sister Libby is a bit complicated, and Nora's quirks and issues get a deep dive into her past. Charlie brings out the best in her. 

A big theme in this novel is the idea of happily ever after, and how sometimes it doesn't always happen the way we want it to happen. Life is not a Hallmark movie; tough choices have to be made. Sometimes your happy is not the same happy for others you love, and you have to make a choice. It's also about loving someone enough to let them go so they can be happy. 

I'm not saying how this novel ends, because the journey is important. It's a good journey, however, and while this is a romance, it's also a story about family, sacrifice, personal happiness, and healing. 

Okay. So I'm onboard the Emily Henry train. Book Lovers was a great read, a solid romance, and an examination of being happy in your life versus just being okay in order to make someone else happy. 

Rating: 5/6 for two engaging characters: Nora and Charlie. Darn it all, Charlie sure is appealing! The story moves along at a good pace; all of the strands of this plot come together neatly. A good novel to take on vacation. 

Available in paperback, hardcover, ebook, and audio.