Tuesday, January 31, 2023

January Read: The Villa by Rachel Hawkins


I don't know why this cover sucked me in, but it may be because of my love of lemons. 

However, once I started the book, I quickly left the lemons behind and dove into this tale of two best friends, two different eras, and a villa that holds a few dark secrets.

Villa Aestas in Orvieto, Italy is a beautiful, isolated place where the sun shines and nothing could possibly go wrong. Emily and Chess are two friends who grew up together. Both are authors; Emily writes cozy mysteries, and Chess is a self-help superstar. Careers and time have kept them apart over the years, until a quick get together in their hometown over coffee. Next thing Emily knows, Chess is inviting her to a six-week vacation at Villa Aestas to give Emily time to finish her latest mystery (already past deadline). Hard to say no to that, so Emily travels to Italy and soon falls under the spell of the Villa and the rekindling of her friendship with Chess. 

The Villa is infamous for what happened there in the summer of 1974, when a group of people stayed, and one person ended up murdered. Out of that summer at the Villa, a classic horror novel was produced, and one of the top bestselling albums of all time was written. Stepsisters and best friends Lara and Mari have traveled to the Villa with Mari's boyfriend Pierce at the invite of famous rockstar Noel Gordon. Mari is hopeful this will be the breakthrough Pierce has been waiting for, and their money problems will be over. Lara hopes to be more than just a fling for Noel. Johnny is there, too, providing Noel with whatever drugs he needs. It's the seventies; sex and drugs and living day to day were a way of life for this group. 

But over the course of the summer, things start to change. Mari begins writing a story she can't get out of her head. It's pretty dark. Dynamics change; tensions rise, and one stormy night a murder takes place that leaves a wake of destruction for years to come. 

Present day; Chess and Emily relax, drink wine, and soak in the sun. Emily finds a copy of Lilith Rising, Mari's one novel that became a gigantic hit. As she reads it, she begins to become inspired to look into that summer of 1974, and the murder. Emily's passion for writing is reinvigorated, and she's writing again, but not her cozy mystery. And Chess wants in on the potential of this new book. Should Emily trust Chess?

There are twists and turns all throughout the novel, but the one big twist is at the end. It took me a hot minute to realize what I had just read, then to unravel it all in my mind. Pretty darn clever. 

I read the author was inspired by the summer Percy and Mary Shelley spent with Lord Byron that birthed her famous novel Frankenstein. It's quite a mix of music, literature, love, entangled relationships, and terrible choices. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this suspenseful novel. Read this first, then go back and read about Mary and Percy Shelley. Talk about a soap opera of a relationship! But you can definitely see where Rachel Hawkins was inspired to write this novel. 

Rating: 4/6 for a suspenseful novel that has two compelling stories-although the 1974 story of Mari, Lara, Noel, and Pierce is the better of the two. I did like the connections made between the two time periods at the Villa, and the twists, all the way up to the end. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

January Read: The Matchmaker's Gift by Lynda Cohen Loigman


I bought this book when it first came out in September 2022 and off it went into my stack of TBR titles. I pulled it out a few days ago and just spent my Saturday reading it. It's a gloomy day, so it was perfect to read with a pot of coffee and a comfy blanket.  

I love the cover; it definitely grabbed my attention. I'm a sucker for a feel-good novel about a bit of magic and when it's combined with people finding love, I couldn't resist. 

This novel is told in two time periods: the early 1900's and 1994. I was thrown for a loop reading about the 1990's as if it were decades ago until it sank in that IT WAS DECADES AGO. Had a moment of feeling old!

Sara Glickman is traveling to America in 1910 with her family to start a new life in New York City. She makes a romantic match between her older sister and a man on the ship, and even at ten years old, Sara's gift is apparent. She can see true love matches/soulmates. It ruffles the feathers of the shadchanteh, the Jewish matchmakers that broker deals between families. She's young, female, and unmarried. She's also taking money away from this group of men. The difference is that Sara matches soulmates, and the matchmakers match purely on "suitability" and money. Sara has to keep her matchmaking quiet through her teen years, so her family doesn't get into trouble. One match, between the Pickle King's daughter and a dentist, changes Sara's life, as well as her family's fortunes. But it causes some trouble, too. 

Forward to 1994, and Sara has sadly just passed away peacefully at the age of 95. Her granddaughter Abby is a young divorce lawyer in New York City, and she's devastated at her beloved grandmother's passing. She inherits Sara's journals, and begins reading through them. What she finds are the notes Sara made on each of her matches over the years, and Abby begins to believe, finally, that her grandmother was telling the truth all those years about her matchmaking skills. 

Abby and Sara's stories move back and forth, with the journals the bridge between what Abby reads and the real story from Sara's perspective. Abby may have inherited her grandmother's gift, and it may be causing some problems at Abby's job...

I found this to be a quick read, and so very interesting. I had no idea the job of matchmaking was taken so seriously by the Jewish community and culture. It's fascinating. The clash of old world traditions and fitting into the new world are illustrated throughout Sara's story, and the ties between her matches in the early 20th century and Abby's 1994 world are pretty interesting and make the whole story come full circle. 

Anyone who enjoys fiction with a bit of romance (but not necessarily a romance novel), and the history of matchmaking in New York City will enjoy this novel. It was lighthearted, interesting, and full of likable characters. I especially enjoyed Sara's character--full of spunk and smart as a whip. 

Rating: 4/6 for a novel about finding your right person; knowing the path of happiness isn't always smooth, but worth all the trouble in the end. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

January Read: Shutter by Ramona Emerson


Dipping into my TBR pile and this one I've had since last summer. I grabbed it Friday on my way to spend the weekend with my boyfriend and I'm happy to say I made a great choice in reading material. It grabbed me and I couldn't put it down. 

Shutter is a mix of mystery, police procedure, and a bit of paranormal thriller. Rita Todacheene is a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque police department. Her Navajo background is at odds with her ability to see and talk to the ghosts she sees everywhere. Especially ghosts of the bodies she photographs at crime scenes, car accidents, and pretty much everywhere. 

Rita is called to a pretty gruesome scene: a woman has supposedly jumped off an overpass into highway traffic and she's got to take all the scene photos. I'll tell you this is the first bit of the book, and it is really gruesome, so if you have issues, this may not be for you. 

Erma, the victim, quickly makes her presence known to Rita. Rita tries to ignore Erma, but Erma is determined to stay loud and in Rita's face until she figures out what happened. No way Erma killed herself. 

Rita's story weaves between the present and her struggles to take photos on scene and ignore the ghosts, and her past, growing up with her Grandma on the Navajo reservation. Rita's ability to see ghosts is not a good thing, according to Navajo culture. Many call her a witch, and evil. Her grandmother tries to protect her, and Rita works hard at hiding her talents from the people she loves most. 

Now Rita's job is on the line, as her ghostly companion won't let her sleep or rest until her case is solved. As Rita digs deeper into Erma's case, she finds a whole lot of corruption and drug cartel business--stuff that could get Rita killed. 

Ooh, this was a good story. First of all, I love New Mexico, so that was a big draw for me. This side of New Mexico, and Albuquerque in particular, is not the pretty side. Rita's Grandmother has a safe home that sounds absolutely lovely, even as poor as she is--it's filled with love and protection. The ghosts that Rita encounter aren't  the cheery, happy go lucky folks who have gone to the light and return to say hi. These are ghosts of people who have died violently, or just alone. Anyone who isn't at peace. Rita doesn't know how to shut off access, and once these ghosts figure out Rita can see and hear them, they are drawn to her and demand she help them. 

That was my only frustration with Rita-she never worked on trying to contain her gift and preserve herself by protecting herself from all the ghosts. Her "light" was always on. And unfortunately for Rita, her Navajo culture and just everyday people wouldn't allow her to be truthful and open about her ability. 

The bad guys are pretty obvious so there's no surprises in the plot. But I did enjoy this novel very much, and I hope there's more in store for Rita. If this was a series, I'd definitely read more. 

Rating: 5/6 for a different kind of police procedure novel. A mix of Navajo culture, paranormal thrills, and the art of photography, this was a unique novel that kept my interest. I'm hopeful there are more stories with Rita in the future. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

January Read: Spare by Prince Harry


I hadn't planned on reading this book. But I was at the bookstore the day it came out, and they had a stack of it; I thought heck why not? It would be interesting to read from his own words.

I'm old enough to remember all the way back, when Diana and Charles were first dating. I was a few years younger than Diana, so it was all a fairy tale, and the first time I'd really ever been aware of the British Royal Family. I was invested in a way I think a lot of women my age were through the years, and utterly devastated when Diana died. Completely, shockingly upset. 

I've cheered Harry on when he met Meghan, and was so obviously happy and in love. Finally, a happy ending. And yes, a happy ending, but not without sacrifice and a lot of sorrow. 

I don't care whether you think ill of H & M or are big fans. I'm not here for a debate. I will say I found the memoir engaging, a quick read, and a glimpse into a life none of us can imagine. A memoir about a young boy, and a man, traumatized over losing his mom, and unable to cope for many, many years. Someone searching for a meaningful life, and struggling to find it in the confines of the family he was born into. Yes, privilege, but it came with a lot of shackles. And who wants that? 

Harry's story, told from his viewpoint, is compelling and interesting. His love and frustration for his brother and family are evident. It is possible to love someone and also be heartbroken by them, and angry with them. Disappointed. Hopeful somehow it will all eventually work out. 

I have heard, as most have, the "excerpts" the press have taken from this book. It was good to actually read the book, and realize most of it was taken out of context for shock value. I think it's also important to realize this young man is a person, and  he has experiences we can all relate to. His anxiety is relatable; his belief his mom was still alive somewhere, understandable. Anyone who has lost a loved one goes through that stage where you think somehow they are still alive, somewhere. For Harry, that lasted for years. I still find myself reaching to call my sister, or thinking what my Dad would say about such and such. Both have been gone for years, but I still have those moments where I forget, and then that crushing realization that no, they are gone. 

I can't imagine having my photo taken anytime I am anywhere; thousands of photos. I shudder at the snaps my boyfriend takes of me at home, doing everyday stuff. Ugh. Please delete those photos! At least he's the only one who sees them, not thousands of folks all over. How do you stand that?

Anyway. I enjoyed reading this memoir. Some spots are harsh, but honest. There is definitely a terrible relationship between the Institution and the press. The press is voracious and has an unquenchable thirst. No ethics at all. 

Rating: 5/6 for a memoir from someone who has lead a unique life. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio (I recommend listening to the audio, as Prince Harry himself narrates it.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

January Read: Fatty Fatty Boom Boom by Rabia Chaudry


One of my reading goals for 2023 is to read more non-fiction. I had to wait a few weeks on the holds list at my library for this book but it was worth the wait. 

Rabia Chaudry is someone I wasn't aware of until I read a few reviews of this book and of course a food memoir always grabs my interest. Rabia is a Pakistani-American lawyer who is famous for her work in overturning the conviction of Adnan Syed. She's pretty impressive--but this memoir looks at her struggles with her absolute love of food (some would say a food addiction) and the battle to try to lose weight and fit in the traditional Pakistani ideal of a young woman who should make a great marriage. Looks have much to do with securing the right spouse. 

Rabia's family moved to the U.S. in the 1970's when she was a small child. Her father was a veterinarian who got a job with the U.S. Government, and her mom worked various jobs to make ends meet. They didn't have much money, and even though her mom was a gifted cook (she didn't like to cook, though), the pressures of money, working, and trying to care for two children quickly changed their eating habits to that delicious nemesis, American junk food. Prepackaged food also entered the household, and don't we all know the lure of chips, fries, burgers, frozen pizzas, and snack cakes? Rabia's appetite was off the charts. She loved food so much it was all she though about. She was also deeply enamored of her Pakistani food, and my gosh the descriptions of the spices, crunch, steam, and everything are pretty irresistible. 

Rubia grew from a chubby child to an overweight teen, to an obese adult. She tried exercising, cutting calories, but to no avail. Her food journey is fascinating, and her frustrations with it are heartbreaking. For a long time, she didn't see any problem with her eating habits and love of food, despite her family always telling her she was overweight and would never find a man to marry. 

In parts a love letter to her Pakistani heritage and food and a memoir about a young woman struggling to listen to her body and find peace with it, this was at times funny, sad, and  painfully truthful. Rabia is someone who has finally found her peace, happiness, and truth after one heck of a battle with herself. 

Rating: 4/6 for a memoir chock full of family love, squabbles, brutal truth, and generations of recipes. The food is amazing (some recipes are in the back of the book) and I could almost taste it. Rabia's memoir is one to read. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Thursday, January 5, 2023

January Read: The Mitford Affair by Marie Benedict


First book of the new year, and it was my favorite genre, historical fiction. It was also a fascinating dive into the world of the Mitford Sisters. 

You may, like myself, have heard the Mitford name. Nancy Mitford is most famous for her two novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. She's also famous for being one of six of the Mitford Sisters, who were young, beautiful, and part of the "young bright things" group of the 1930's. So many books have been written about the Mitford Sisters because they were big and bold, and that fascination continues nearly 100 years later. 

The sisters: Nancy, Diana, Jessica, Unity, Deborah, and Pamela, were brought up in English society by parents Muv and Farve. Financial problems plagued the family and they had to keep downsizing, all the while maintaining ties to the movers and shakers of the time--Winston Churchill's wife Clemmie was their cousin. 

What's fascinating about the sisters during the 1930's and into the 1940's are the ardent belief in fascism and friendship with Hitler by Unity and Diana. Unity's obsession with Hitler led her to move to Munich, learn fluent German, and work to become his closest friend. Diana followed suit in her determination to keep her lover Mosley's British branch of fascism the BUF growing and gaining power. It's well documented the two sisters were thick as thieves with Hitler and the Nazi party. 

That relationship is the biggest part of this novel. Nancy is another large part of the plot, as she struggles in her marriage to an alcoholic, writes her novels, and sees her sisters (and eventually her mother and father) fall further into the Nazi fold, and the slow descent into war with England. Should Nancy do something to stop all of this?

This is fiction, but based on a lot of historical fact. What was frustrating for me was Nancy's inability to act on what she saw and heard in her family. Eventually she does put her feelings for her sisters aside when the enormity of what is happening in England makes it clear she must act. But holy heck! One of the quotes in the novel is "How personal is the political in the end". For Nancy and her sisters, they were so intertwined it became impossible to separate the two. 

The novel also focuses on Unity and Diana. Diana is beautiful, cold, brilliant, and obsessed with her lover Mosley. She'll do anything for him. Unity is obsessed with the Nazi ideal and Hitler. So much to that she goes to great lengths to get into the inner circle of Hitler and become his friend. 

Before reading this novel, I knew very little about the Mitford Sisters, and even less about their close connections to Hitler and the Nazi system. Wow. I'll say this novel got a bit heavy at times, especially the scenes where people dismissed the rise of Hitler's power and scoffed at what was being reported in Germany. 

This was a very good novel, and kept me turning the pages. I had to do a quick dive into the internet to look at photos of the Mitford sisters, and there is plenty of material out there if you decide you want to read more about them. One of the more popular books about the Mitford Sisters:

Honestly, the Mitford sisters are endlessly fascinating. You won't be able to resist exploring the wealth of articles, photos, and books written about them. 

Rating: 4/6 for a well researched historical novel about one of the most interesting families in England, at one of the most fascinating times. 

A big thank you to Sourcebooks for an advanced copy. This novel will be out in the U.S. on January 17th in hardcover, audio, and ebook.