"The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it." (James Bryce)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

THE BOOK THAT MATTERS MOST (Ann Hood)

I wouldn't say that The Book That Matters Most would qualify as a life-changing novel, but it certainly is one that will stay in your mind for days after you finish reading it.  It's the kind of novel that you wish were longer.  (to be continued)

AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES (Kerry Greenwood)

Review coming soon...

ONE OF OURS (Willa Cather)

Willa Cather's novels always reflect her fierce passion for the midwestern plains, where she moved with her parents at age 9, but she uses the land not as a character, but as a backdrop for her characters and their search for meaning in life.

Claude Wheeler is a college-age man unable to find his place in life in the 1910's.  He is intelligent, strong, and very competent, but he feels unfulfilled by his life as a farmer and searches for meaning or a cause to which he can devote his life.  After marrying Enid, a long-time friend, he realizes that life is still unsatisfying and that marriage has provided none of the contentment and sense of purpose that he had expected.

Claude finally discovers his passion when he enlists in the army in World War I.  Enid has left him (supposedly temporarily, although she is never heard from again in the novel) to nurse her ailing missionary sister in China and when war is declared Claude enlists and is sent to France.  It is during this time, despite being surrounded by influenza, battles, and loss,  that he seems to discover his true self and finally become an independent man devoted to what he sees as a noble cause.  Claude is a young man born after the vanishing of the American frontier, seeking a solution to his restlessness and his own frontier to tame.  In WWI he finds the inspiration and purpose that eluded him in Nebraska.

We discussed One of Ours at our Vintage Book Club in November.  This novel provided a great opportunity for conversation and an interesting array of characters (most of whom I have not mentioned in this review).  Overall, I think we would all recommend it as a thought=provoking character study.

Monday, October 31, 2016

SHEM CREEK (Dorothea Benton Frank)

Review coming soon...

THE CHRISTMAS PEARL (Dorothea Benton Frank)

If you are looking for a sweet, but a little different, Christmas story, try this one!

Theodora is 93-years-old and disappointed in how her family has turned out.  As has been the family tradition, her daughter Barbara and son-in-law Cleland live with her in her ancestral home in South Carolina.  Theodora remembers fondly her happy marriage to Fred and her comfortable growing up years with Pearl, the family's wise and nurturing black housekeeper.  As Christmas approaches she worries about Barbara and Cleland (she tends to be a doormat and he tends to be a bully) and their 3 grown children and prays that somehow the bickering, dissatisfied crew that is her family might experience some of the love and goodwill that she remembers from her family holidays in the 1920's.

Somehow, Theodora's prayers are magically answered with the sudden appearance of Pearl, who takes charge of the family's Christmas celebration despite the fact that she has been deceased for many years.  Under Pearl's able direction, Christmas traditions and recipes are resurrected and little by little Theodora's family learns the true meaning of Christmas and family.  If you're ready to get into that holiday spirit, this whimsical and funny tale will definitely help!

SULLIVAN'S ISLAND (Dorothea Benton Frank)

Sullivan's Island, Frank's debut novel, is the story of Susan Hayes, a betrayed wife who returns to the home of her youth to try to put her life back together.  Written in alternating chapters, the novel explores both Susan's evolution as a single mother and budding writer and her difficult childhood with an abusive father and depressed mother.  (to be continued)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS (Catriona McPherson)

This is the kind of series that you either love or are neutral on.  Set in the 1920's in the UK, it features Dandelion (Dandy) Gilver, a married aristocrat whose children are away at boarding school and whose husband apparently accepts detective work as a suitable outlet for his intelligent wife.

In this novel, Dandy is called upon by a Lollie Balfour, a young wife in Edinburgh, Scotland, who reports that her wealthy husband, Pip, is both abusive and threatening.  She fears for her life, despite the fact that she still loves Pip deeply, and asks Dandy to pose as a ladies' maid so she can infiltrate the house and get to the bottom of Pip's threats.  Dandy learns most of what she needs to know to pose as Miss Fanny Rossiter, ladies' maid, from her own ladies' maid.  When Pip is found murdered, new suspects seem to appear on every page, but things just don't add up neatly for Dandy and she brings her friend Alec in on the investigation.  Watching Dandy attempt to convincingly move "downstairs" is entertaining in itself, but it can't compare to the slow, intriguing  unraveling of the multiple clues and relationships that gradually lead to a very surprising ending.  This historical mystery gets a thumbs up from me.  The ending may seem a bit far-fetched, but I think it works!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (Lloyd C. Douglas)

One of the reasons that I chose this selection for the Vintage Book Club is that I had read Douglas's The Robe (published 1942) three times in my younger years and absolutely loved it.  I enjoyed Magnificent Obsession, which was published in 1929, but I can see a distinct development of writing style between the novels.  This one is intriguing, but written in a note-like style that reminds one of a series of thoughts and comments rather than a continuous narrative.  In fact, Douglas uses "..." heavily in this  novel.

Lloyd C. Douglas was an American minister whose novels focus heavily on themes of morality and redemption.  In each one a man who is essentially godless and thoughtless has his eyes opened to the existence of a higher power and the value of compassion and caring.  Magnificent Obsession was made into a film twice (I've seen them both) and each time the central theme was minimized in favor of melodrama.  In the novel, Bobby Merrick is a dissolute playboy, a drunken party boy whose life is saved after a boating accident by a piece of equipment that could have instead saved the life of the selfless and much beloved Dr. Hudson, who needed it at the same time.  Bobby is slowly made aware of the immense loss felt by the hospital and community after Dr. Hudson's death and comes eventually to realize that his irresponsible lifestyle  has consequences.  After learning a bit about Dr. Hudson's hidden acts of philanthropy and delving further into his philosophy of life, revealed bit by bit in an encoded journal, Bobby slowly embraces a new way of life to make amends to the doctor's family.

Douglas's style is a bit off-putting, but in our era of greed and self-involvement, it's a treat to read a story that focuses on a person becoming better and striving to contribute positively.  The concept of "pay-it-forward' must certainly have been developed as a result of stories like this.  If you want to watch the movie, go ahead, but read the novel first.  It's so much richer and detailed and tells the full story of a man with a mission.

A BEAUTIFUL BLUE DEATH (Charles Finch)

Armchair traveler Charles Lenox is everything a Victoria gentleman should be.  He is kind to his servants, courtly to his beloved childhood friend and neighbor Lady Jane, a loving uncle and brother, and an excellent detective.  This is the first in this great series and it will leave you clamoring for more.  In our current election turmoil, you will be especially amused by the workings of the British government and charmed by the manners and customs of the 1860's.

Lady Jane's former maid has taken a new position, in the home of the man who runs the mint, to be closer to her fiance.  When she is found dead in her room it is assumed to be suicide.  Typical of the class divisions of the time, no one above stairs is particularly concerned about the possibility of a crime being committed, especially since an apparent suicide note was found.  Sir Charles, who is visiting the home, thinks differently, and he and his doctor friend decide to investigate.

One of the things I enjoyed most about A Beautiful Blue Death was the process of investigation, especially against the backdrop of political and family intrigue. Sir Charles is methodical and intelligent, yet 100% a man of his time in terms of social convention. If you've ever watched Downton Abbey or Gosford Park, you'll recognize the generally callous attitude toward the lives of servants and it's a credit to Sir Charles that he cares enough to find out why the young woman died.  His methods are thorough and his intuition is excellent.  I would highly recommend this series!  My mother, who is 91 years old, LOVES it!

THRICE THE BRINDED CAT HATH MEW'D (Alan Bradley)

Flavia de Luce strikes again!  Upon her return from the Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Canada, 12-year-old Flavia is dismayed by the news that her beloved, but distant, father is hospitalized with pneumonia and not well enough for visitors.  Looking to avoid both the sad atmosphere of the house and the unwelcome company of her older sisters and annoying cousin, Undine, Flavia takes her trusty bicycle, Gladys, and heads out in the snow to explore her familiar Bishop's Lacey and surrounding areas.  When the vicar's wife asks her to deliver a message to a local craftsman, Flavia jumps at the chance.  She is both horrified and thrilled to discover the body of  the man she is seeking dead, hanging upside-down from the back of a door in his bedroom.  Intrigued, Flavia explores the room where she has made the gruesome discovery, noting details and carefully avoiding any contamination of the crime scene before returning to the vicarage with the news.  And we are launched into another fantastic Flavia de Luce investigation!

Falvia is a cool-headed, analytical, and objective scientist encased in the body and exhibiting (but trying to suppress) the emotions of a 12-year-old girl.  I still cannot imagine how Alan Bradley manages to do it.  Having been a 12-year-old girl myself years ago I understand how Flavia's mind works to a certain extent, but I could never have imagined a male adult successfully portraying her as Bradley does.  The quality of this series never falters and I think that this one (book 8) is just as good and unique as the first.  You can read it for the mystery, or for the setting, or for the wonderful characters.  Whichever you favor, you will not fail to be pleased and will soon be looking forward to #9!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

AFTER THE RAIN (Karen White)

Well, this time I actually read the original before the sequel, but I was about halfway through this novel before I realized why some of the characters and mentions of past events sounded familiar!

Suzanne arrives in Walton, Georgia, obviously on the run from something.  She wears a necklace, given to her by her mother and made in Walton, engraved with the sentence, "A life without rain is like the sun without shade," a sentiment that shows up over and over again throughout the novel.  Suzanne meets a man, Joe Warner,  the mayor of Walton, teacher, widower, and father of 6.  If you've read Falling Home you you might remember that Joe's wife, Harriet, died of cancer just days after giving birth to her sixth child.  It is now 3 years later.

The plot of After the Rain is predictable.  Vulnerable, very attractive young woman, trying to escape her past, is accepted and embraced by a community in a way that changes her life.  Along the way she falls in love, but fights it because she doesn't want the new man in her life to be hurt by her past actions.  She needs to move on, but something holds her in Walton.  Could it be true love?

This novel was a little too romancey for me.  There was a little too much of Joe carrying Suzanne around (literally) due to illness, accidents, and passion.  I did enjoy the characters, especially 17-year-old Maddie, Joe's oldest daughter, but I'm not  a big fan of love at first sight and overwhelming male compassion, sensitivity, and understanding.  If you like romance mixed with some intrigue and some very likable characters, you will love this book.  It won't be to everyone's taste. but what novel is?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

PUSHING UP DAISIES (M.C. Beaton)

Agatha will always be Agatha (this is book 27 in the series).  Of course a handsome retired detective comes to the village of Carsley, just in time to help Agatha solve the murder of Lord Bellington, the owner of a popular community garden that he feels is ripe for development.  Bellington's strange son and heir, Damien, hires Agatha to investigate, and in the process her unearths several likely suspects and another murder.

In this story dowdy Mrs. Bloxby develops a crush on Gerald the retired detective, which results in her sprucing up her wardrobe and coloring her hair, much to Agatha's concern.  Sir Charles is Agatha's main investigative partner and it seems like he is becoming very much the voice of reason in her life.  I vote for this couple to tie the know and live happily ever after.  Perhaps in book #40?

By the way, the BBC series of Agatha Raisin mysteries is set to air on PBS starting January.  I've already watched them on Acorn TV and I will admit that I was perturbed by the choice of blonde, Scottish actress Ashley Jensen to play Agatha, but it turns out that she is perfect in the role.  casting of James Lacey and Bill Wong were also perfect, but the jury is still out on Charles Fraith.  If you love Agatha, try to catch the series.  Very entertaining!

SMILE AND BE A VILLAIN (Jeanne Dams)

What I like most about this series (and have probably mentioned before), is that Dorothy Martin and Alan Nesbitt are so REAL, so comfortable in their own skins and in their relationship, suffering the aches and pains of advanced age, getting hungry, and caring so much about each other.  It's refreshing!

Week are now at book 18 of Dorothy and Alan's adventure, and I wish they could continue on forever.  Vacationing in Alderney in the Channel Islands (check out http://www.visitalderney.com/ if you are interested in more information), Dorothy and Alan naturally discover a body while out walking the hills of the island and become involved into the investigation into the death.  One of things I liked most about this novel, aside from Dorothy and Alan, was the details on Alderney.  If you look at the website above you'll discover that Dams did her research!  Most of the restaurants, hotels, and other places really exist and are integral to the story.  This is probably the best tourism campaign that Alderney could ever have.  I want to go there.  I just wish Dorothy and Alan were still there, too!

Monday, September 12, 2016

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR (Herman Wouk)

I feel guilty that I chose this novel as the September selection for the Vintage Book Club.  It is a daunting 565 pages and I do feel that Wouk could have cut out some of the detail somewhere, but I can't figure out exactly where!

Marjorie Morgenstern is an aspiring actress, a Jewish princess whose hope is to become famous as "Marjorie Morningstar."  In the 1930's, young women were called upon to be chaste and to become good wives to suitable men, and in the Jewish community, those men should be Jewish and successful.  Despite Marjorie's ambitions, her parents are loving and supportive (in as much as they know what she is actually doing).  Marjorie, throughout the novel, is always the prettiest girl in the room, with men falling at her feet and worshipping her from afar.  All men, that is, except for cool, collected Noel Airman (formerly Saul Erdmann), the handsome, creative rebel who becomes her obsession.

Herman Wouk (now 101 years old) is an avid student of the Jewish faith and culture and this novel is a insider's view of the family dynamics, guilt, and cultural angst of being Jewish in a changing world.  Written in the 1950's, but set in the mid-to-late 1930's, the reader follows Marjorie's evolution from girl to woman, where she is called upon to make moral and religious choices that take her out of her comfort zone.  It is a fascinating study, but the ending is a bit disappointing.  I would recommend it because, despite Wouk's tendency to prolong some of the story lines, it's though provoking and leaves you feeling like you have learned.  Wouk manages to weave solid insight and knowledge throughout his somewhat melodramatic story.  I just wish he stayed true to Marjorie's character and ambition right through thr end.

ISLE OF PALMS (Dorothea Benton Frank)

Anna Lutz Abbot, divorced mother, hair stylist, and sassy as all get out, grew up at the mercy of her distant father and her hellacious, fire-and-brimstone-spouting grandmother.  Her mother died when Anna was 10 years old, scandalously in bed with another man.  After becoming pregnant at 17 (the result of a date-rape by a boy her horrible grandmother considered a highly suitable date), Anna married her gay best friend, Jim Abbot, who joyously accepted Anna's daughter Emily as his own.  Long divorced but still best friends with Jim, Anna's ambition is to move back to her childhood home of Isle of Palms, SC and open her own beauty salon.  She has finally saved up enough money to live her dreams, but she worries that her pediatrician father, with whom she has lived for years, will be upset.  Who will get his meals and do his laundry?  Now that daughter Emily is in college, can she really provide a home for her that is truly theirs alone?

Isle of Palms is one of those novels that leaves you feeling as if you've been through a whirlwind.  The quickly evolving friendships, the sometimes riotous antics, and the deep, loyal relationships can leave the reader a little breathless.  This didn't start out to be one of my favorite Dorothea Benton Frank novels.  In fact, I wasn't really sure I was going to like it at first.  It definitely grows on you, though, once you get used to the folksy tone, and I ended up liking it immensely.  Ms. Frank never lets her readers down!

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE GIRL ON LEGARE STREET (Karen White)

First of all, "Legare" is pronounced le-gree, according to several seemingly reputable Internet sources.  I wish I had looked this up BEFORE I read this novel, because I like to pronounce things correctly in my mind, especially after inwardly saying DE-bacle for years instead of de-BAH-cle!

If you like a little bit if paranormal activity in your reading, you'll enjoy every minute of this story.  Mother and daughter, Ginnette and Melanie Middleton, have been estranged for 33 years, ever since Ginnette deserted young Melanie and her father without explanation.  Now Ginnette has returned and wants to buy back and restore her ancestral home on Legare Street with Melanie's help.  Melanie, a real estate agent, had inherited a historic home on Tradd Street and has developed quite an eye for historic preservation, but is wary of forming any kind of relationship with the mother who stepped out of her life and forged a successful career in opera, seemingly without a second glance back.  There is also the question of both the menacing and protective spirits who inhabit the Legare Street.  As psychics, Melanie (referred to as Mellie by her friend Jack Trenholm in deliciously Gone With the Wind style) and Ginnette have both dealt with unsettled, long-deceased inhabitants of the house.  When a sunken ship is raised and the remains of a body discovered in a trunk on board, things suddenly become dangerous.  Melanie and Jack set out to discover the origins of the locket discovered with the body, eerily similar to lockets in 2 portraits of women who bear a close resemblance to Melanie and her mother.  An overly nosy local reporter from Jack's past also involves herself in the search for answers.

My best advice to you, the reader, would be to read  The House on Tradd Street first.  I didn't realize that this was a sequel, and if I had I would have started with the right book.  I don't think it will make a difference either way with your enjoyment of this series.  Karen White just keeps thrilling me!

MURDER IN CHELSEA (Victoria Thompson)

Murder in Chelsea is Victoria Thompson's 15th gaslight mystery, the first one that I've read.  My mother is a BIG fan, though, and I can see why.

Sarah Brandt, the "star" of these mysteries, is a young widowed midwife from an upper-class family.  Her parents disapprove of their socially non-conformist daughter and her profession but love both Sarah and Catherine, the abandoned child that Sarah informally adopted as her own daughter a year ago.  Because she is not married, Sarah cannot legally adopt 4-year-old Catherine, who was left at the Hope's Daughters Mission with no indication that anyone would ever come back for her.  Sarah is devastated when she hears that a woman claiming to be Catherine's nursemaid has been inquiring about her, so her beau, policeman Frank Malloy sets off to investigate, only to find that the woman has been murdered in her tenement.

Thompson has created an intriguing, well-paced mystery filled with period details and customs.  There is just enough romance and familial love to satisfy those who like a slightly softer edge to their murders.  Even though there were 14 previous books that I haven't read in this series, I had no trouble deciphering the characters and their relationships and quickly felt that I knew them all well.  This is a winner!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

SO BIG (Edna Ferber)

Edna Ferber's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel left me with mixed feelings. I love historical fiction.  What better way is there to learn about our ancestors, our country, and our customs than well-researched fiction?

I really enjoyed Ferber's descriptions of Selina's life at various stages.  After the death of her father, a gambler who provided erratically for his motherless daughter, Selina is eventually forced to make her own way in life, choosing to become a teacher in the poor farming community of High Plains, just outside Chicago.  Despite her intention to gain credentials and eventually move into a more prestigious teaching position, she ends up marrying a farmer (she fell in love with his hands) and embarking on a bone-wearying, spirit-crushing existence as wife to a man who does not share her enlightened ideas or ambitions for his business.  The real love of her life is Dirk, also know as So Big, her only child with Pervus DeJong.  While it is obvious that Selina loves and supports her husband, she has sacrificed her dreams for him and this hardscrabble life, placing all of her hopes for the future with So Big.  When Pervus dies unexpectedly, Selina takes on running the farm by herself, meeting obstacle after obstacle because of her gender, but trying to make a life in a turn-of-the -century world that does not take kindly to a woman trying to do a man's work.

What bothered me about the novel were four things. (1) Why would Selina, in marrying Pervus, give up dreams, her love of art, beauty, and knowledge, so quickly and thoughtlessly, immersing herself in a life completely foreign to any of her previous aspirations?  (2) Why has Ferber written what seem to be two entirely different books, moving swiftly from a story focused primarily on Selina, a strong and creative woman who single-handedly defies society and becomes a successful business woman, to the story of Dirk, whose life choices leave something to be desired (think wimp), leaving Selina as a minor background character?  (3)  Publisher William Allen White campaigned vigorously for So Big to be chosen for the Pulitzer Prize and, despite the fact that the other two judges preferred other novels, she won. (4)  I wonder why Ferber called the novel So Big?  It should have been called Selina!

Despite my many questions and issues with what has been described as Ferber's most important novel, it is well worth reading for the historical value alone.

TRULY MADLY GUILTY (Liane Moriarty)

The thing about Liane Moriarty is that her earliest books were her best.  Her last two novels were enjoyable and both hit the best-seller list fairly quickly, but I feel that they lack something, some quirkiness or uniqueness,  when compared to The Hypnotist's Love Story or What Alice Forgot.  Maybe it's just me, or maybe I should be judging them on their own merit instead of comparing them to her previous books!  I always feel bad when I'm disappointed, but I'm not THAT disappointed.  I liked this novel, the story of three couples enjoying a barbecue when an "incident" changes everything, but something was frustrating me throughout.

Sam and Clementine Hart are a couple with issues and two adorable little girls, Holly, age 6, and toddler Ruby.  Sam has recently landed his dream job, but finds himself bored and floundering, wondering when his new employer will realize that he is producing nothing and fire him.  Clementine is a cellist, nervously preparing for the audition that could change her whole career.  Sam and Clementine, devoted and loving parents, are as different from each other in temperment and habit as two people could be, yet they make their marriage work, or do they?

Erika is Clementine's best friend, or at least that's what they call themselves after years of being forced together by Clementine's overbearing mother, Pam.  Erika's mother is a hoarder whose out of control collecting left little room or energy to provide a clean, flea-free home or decent clothes for Erika, who is now a very uptight, OCD adult married to Oliver, an equally rigid but loving man who grew up with alcoholic parents.  Erica and Oliver live next door to boisterous Vid and his breathtakingly attractive (and also very nice and generous) 2nd wife, Tiffany, and their 10-year-old daughter, Dakota.  When Vid decides to throw a spur-of-the-moment barbecue at his over-the-top home, he invites Erika and Oliver and asks them to bring the Hart family, who have been invited for tea at Erika and Oliver's house so they can discuss something "important."

Moriarty leads up to the "incident" through short chapters defining the couples, their marriages, and their friendship interspersed with other chapters titled "The Day of the Barbecue"  This might be what bothered me.  As with another novel I read recently, I kind of wish this one had been laid out differently.  Maybe the reveal of the "incident" was a little bit too slow.  I can say, though, that the characters and their relationships were interesting and well-defined, the story overall was good, and the ending was satisfying.  I will always recommend Liane Moriary's novels.  Just because it wasn't my favorite doesn't mean it won't be yours.  The potential is definitely there!


Saturday, July 23, 2016

SEA CHANGE (Karen White)

Ava disappoints her family when she elopes with child psychologist Matthew Frazier and moves to his ancestral home on Saint Simon's Island, off the coast of Georgia.  Despite their love-at-first sight, fairy-tale relationship, Ava is shocked to learn after their honeymoon that Matthew is a widower and that his first wife's family believes that he is responsible for Adrienna's untimely death.  As Ava works to make the house her own, she is bothered by the secrets that seem to surround the Frazier family.

Ava has always felt incomplete and slightly like an outsider in her own family.  The youngest child by many years, she is the only daughter of a devoted, but unaffectionate, mother who always seemed to keep her at arms length emotionally, and in fact refused to see her off to her new life after Matthew and she announced their marriage.  Ava has always been hurt that photographs from her infancy seem to have disappeared and bothered by how disconnected she feels from her older brothers.  Her high hopes for her new marriage are tempered by her worries about Matthew's past and the many mysteries lurking in his family tree.  She joins family friend (and strangely, her brother's ex-wife) in the local historical society, investigating the local cemeteries and unearthing more questions than answers.

I love the connection between Ava and Matthew, their complete trust (with a few glitches) and devotion to each other.  I would describe this as part romance, part historical fiction, part mystery, maybe with a little bit of ghost story and possible reincarnation thrown in.  It was also completely enjoyable.  I'm so glad that I discovered Karen White!

FULL OF GRACE (Dorothea Benton Frank)

Maria Gaziella Russo (Grace), age 32 and the daughter of old world, traditional Catholics, is living in sin (strike 1) with her true love, Michael, a young doctor involved with stem cell research (strike 2).  Both have fallen away from their Catholic faith (strike 3) and, although she speaks about Michael frequently, Grace has never introduced him to her conservative Italian family nor have they invited him to any family functions. Since Michael's mother suffers from advanced Alzheimer's, requiring  his frequent attention, and Grace travels frequently as a high-end trip organizer and tour guide, this lack of extended family togetherness has never been a big problem.  Then one day, Michael unexpectedly suffers a seizure after a short bout with a flu-like illness.

Grace and Michael are deeply in love and very committed despite Michael's assertion that he isn't quite ready for marriage and family.  Grace suspects that Michael may be an atheist, but with her own shaky faith issues, this doesn't really bother her.  With the possibility of losing Michael to a devastating illness now in the picture, Grace's family and her boss rush to their support and she is given a serendipitous assignment, to take a local church group to a famous shrine, reputed to be a place of miracles.  While planning the group's free tour (won in a raffle and which her boss is trying to provide at zero-cost to himself) with the wise and practical  pastor of the parish, she and the priest form a sort of friendship/counselor bond that causes Grace to look at her life and faith  from a different perspective.

Don't get the impression that this is a "religious" novel.  It is a story of many different aspects of faith, love, and commitment, with splashes of comedy and over-the-top family relationships thrown in.  Catholics WILL enjoy it, though!  You'll love Grace and Michael and you'll warm up to the Russos with no problem.  Dorothea Benton Frank has done it yet again!  Highly recommended!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

AN UNQUIET MIND (Kay Redfield Jamison)

I think that most of us, no matter how compassionate or empathetic, have a tendency sometimes to want to view mental illness as some sort of character flaw.  I don't think this is deliberate, but rather a subconscious effort to convince ourselves that it won't happen to us or to ours if we are aware enough, strong enough, determined enough.  Unfortunately, this isn't the case.  In this powerful memoir, which, in my opinion, should be required reading for evertone, Jamison relates in painful detail her lifelong battle with bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.

I always wondered why people who are bipolar often seem to have problems with taking medication. Do you remember on the TV show ER, when Abby's mother, played by Sally Field, showed up for a visit?  That character, who suffered severely from bipolar disorder, preferred not to medicate herself and the consequences were devastating to herself and her daughter?  She missed the highs, the creativity, the soaring mood, the intense happiness, and hated the flat sameness of her life while on medication.  What ER didn't tell us (being an entertainment show, albeit a medical one), is that bipolar will worsen over time, the manias becoming higher and  the depressions deeper, unless controlled by medications.  Jamison's struggle with the disorder is both heartbreaking and inspiring.  She exhibits incredible bravery in sharing the story of her life, including her difficulties with adjusting to lithium, her attempt to commit suicide by overdosing on the drug that ultimately saved her life, the breakdown of her first marriage, the death of a man with whom she expected to spend her life, and her quandary over the ethics of possibly having bipolar children.  Jamison exposes both the ugliness and beauty of being bipolar through her first-person account.  After reading this I feel that I understand much more than I ever did about living with mental illness.  It's scary to see it from the inside out, and family and friend support is essential to survival in many cases. If you know someone who is struggling to live with bipolar disorder, please read this book.

BELLOWS FALLS (Archer Mayor)

If you are looking for a good, old-fashioned police procedural, look no further.  Mayor is brilliant at drawing the reader right into the inside world of crime, corruption, and small-town politics in Vermont.  His main character, Joe Gunther, is an older, somewhat world-weary cop with razor-sharp instincts and the persistence of a champion athlete.  In Bellows Falls, Mayor explores the underworld of small-town drug dealing, complete with murders, spousal abuse, potentially bad cops, chases on land and on and in water, and general controlled mayhem.  Mayor is an expert in the inner workings of Vermont crime, having long served in law enforcement there in varied capacities.  If you love a carefully crafted crime novel, rip-roaring action, and Vermont, you'll love this series.

FIRST COMES LOVE (Emily Giffin)

Those of you who have siblings know that life would be unthinkable without them, despite the lifelong conflicts and competitions.  If you have ever lost a sibling, you also know that the memories can unite you or tear you apart, but that life will never be defined in the same way again.

The Garland family faces tragedy when son Daniel, a brilliant medical student, is killed in a senseless automobile accident while out running a simple errand.  Daniel was a shining star, full of promise and newly in love, and his death has ramifications that splinter the family and affect decisions and relationships for years to come: father's drinking increases, parents divorce, and sisters Josie and Meredith grow further apart.

Fifteen years later, Josie is a first grade teacher, single, free-spirited, and longing for a family of her own.  Her most serious relationship was destroyed by her own guilt over the suspicions she has been nursing for years about her own possible role in Daniel's death.  Meredith, seeming living a perfect life married to Daniel's best friend, Nolan, is a successful lawyer and harried mother barely coping with her marriage and motherhood.  Meredith considers Josie to be irresponsible, self-involved, and inconsiderate while she herself is a martyr.  When Josie, who adores her niece Harper, decides that the time is right to have a child of her own, family secrets and guilt come to the surface, threatening relationships and raising questions that have been beneath the surface for years.

If you've ever lost a sibling, or even if you haven't, this story might open up some wounds, but it might also inspire some growth and healing.  Giffin knows how to get to the heart of family dynamics and the family love that can never truly be eradicated by tragedy.


Monday, June 27, 2016

ALL THE SINGLE LADIES (Dorothea Benton Frank)

When I started reading this novel I wasn't sure that I was going to like it.  I kind of felt like the "ladies" featured were a little bit too sassy and a little bit too willing to open up to each other despite the fact that two of them were virtually strangers to Lisa, the central character.  Lisa is divorced, estranged from her beloved daughter, and working part time as a nurse at a local nursing home, Palmetto House.  She meets Suzanne and Carrie through Kathy Harper, one of her favorite patients, who also happens to be terminally ill.  After Kathy's death the three form a bond and become involved in solving the mystery of Kathy's life and settling her estate, which is complicated by Kathy's dishonest landlady, Wendy.

Once I got into the book, I fell in love with all of the main characters.  The three ladies are caring, honest, funny, and generous, and the addition of Suzanne's great aunt, Trudie, to the mix is delightful.  Their common bond is that they have all been or are being badly hurt by people that they love and trust, yet they soldiered on to make satisfying lives for themselves.  They demonstrate that there is strength in numbers and power in common goals and determination, and together they form a strong friendship and a bond that extends to the new men in their lives.  While All the Single Ladies is not "realistic," it is an homage to women who deal with problems head on and with humor and determination.  I'm really liking Doroathea Benton Frank!

THE ISLAND HOUSE (Nancy Thayer)

This was a bit more involved than Nancy Thayer's usual Nantucket novels, which always explore human emotions but usually seem more linear in terms of storyline.  I found the excerpts from the past a bit confusing, although they did accomplish what Thayer set out to do: explaining the background of the many complicated and evolving relationships among and connected with the Vickery family and all of the people who summer at their home on Nantucket.  I was a little puzzled at the list of characters in the front of the book, but as I read I realized that it was a good idea!  There are many complicated people and relationships involved here and it really helped me to keep them straight.

The intelligent, turbulent Vickery family is headed by Dr. Alistair Vickery, a brilliant but socially awkward surgeon, and his wife Susanna, an unbelievably patient and generous earth mother who welcomes her "summer children" with open arms every year.  Their own children are Henry, the oldest (and bi-polar) son, also a brilliant surgeon; Robin, the daughter with a secret; James, the dynamic younger son, now a successful entrepreneur;, and Iris, the youngest.  Courtney Hendricks is one of the "summer children," traveling to Nantucket to work every summer since freshman year of college with her roommate and best friend Robin.  Summers are complicated on Nantucket, with various unrequited loves, romantic complications, and family dramas, especially involving Henry's bipolar disorder and James' escapades over the years.

I kind of wish this novel had been written sequentially rather than using the flashback technique.  I think I would have enjoyed it more.  As it is, though, I think it was definitely worth my time and I would recommend it.  Just don't expect a simple, easy read!

Monday, June 20, 2016

THE SOUND OF GLASS (Karen White)

I am becoming quite the Karen White fan.  Who knew?  This is, in some respects a difficult book to read given that the main theme is multi-generational spousal abuse, but things work out to a satisfactory ending for both the main characters and the reader.

Merritt Heyward has lived in Maine all of her life and has been widowed for 2 years.  Her husband, Cal, died while fighting a fire and Merritt feels that comments she made during an argument (one of many that they had during their marriage) may have directly contributed to Cal's death.  When Merritt receives the news that Cal's grandmother has passed away and that she, as Cal's widow, is now heir to the family home in Beaufort, NC, she decides to move south and start a new life.  Nondescript, modest, and shy, Merritt, who hides her physical beauty with nondescript, ill-fitting clothes and no make-up, seems like a typical victim of spousal abuse.  She is shocked and horrified when she meets Cal's brother, Gibbes, and initially mistakes him for her late husband.  Soon after her arrival Merritt's widowed stepmother, Loralee, arrives unexpectedly with her son, Merritt's half-brother, 10-year-old Owen.  Merritt believes Loralee to be a bimbo and has never accepted her as her widowed father's wife, but as she gets to know Loralee she begins to regret never taking the time to get to know her late father's second wife  (Merritt's mother died when Merritt was twelve) or her half-brother.

White unravels a long and complicated history of not one, but two troubled families, revealing surprising interconnections and patterns of abuse that span generations.  The added mystery of Grandmother Edith's seemingly bizarre hobby in the attic (in addition to making sea-glass wind chimes) is fascinating.  I have to admit that I sometimes found Merritt's reserve and Loralee's incredible wisdom and fortitude a bit too much, but I ended up loving them both.  This is kind of a combination tear-jerker, redemption, and romance.  I want to read more of Karen White!

SPLINTERS OF LIGHT (Rachel Herron)

Maybe writing novels about Early Onset Alzheimer's is the latest trend.  It certainly seems to be.  I think that people are both fascinated and terrified when confronted with an insider's view of this devastating disease, kind of like seeing a horrible accident and not being able to look away while simultaneously being grateful that it wasn't you.

Herron's protagonist is Nora Glass, a successful 44-year-old writer who believes that she is most likely experiencing early signs of menopause: forgetfulness, the inability to find certain words, fatigue.  When she goes through extensive testing and finally receives a diagnosis of EOAD, she seeks a second opinion, a third, and even a fourth, all confirming that she does have the disease.  As a successful newspaper columnist for the past 10 years, Nora has been offering insightful advice on living and surviving life as a single mother to Ellie, now a rebellious 16-year-old, but she now finds herself at a loss as to how to deal with the news that she won't live to see her daughter graduate from college, marry, and have children of her own.  Telling her twin sister, Mariana, her neighbor/lover, Harrison, and her daughter about what the future holds feels like an impossible burden to unload on her loved ones, but as her episodes of "getting stuck" and her forgetfulness get worse she is finally forced to share the news with her loved ones.

The relationships in this novel are volatile, yet intensely loving.  As we have seen in many other novels, tragedy can bring people together or tear them apart, depending on their commitment to each other.  At first, I was a little bit worried about reading this, especially since I've read two other novels about EOAD fairly recently and I tend to develop moods based on what I'm currently reading.  I shouldn't have worried, though.  Herron, if you believe this is possible, manages to present the reader with the positive side of a terminal illness, although it takes a lot of angst to get there.  I would wholeheartedly recommend Splinters of Light.  It was a wonderful experience.

Friday, June 10, 2016

ALL SUMMER LONG (Dorothea Benton Frank)

I have seen Dorothea Benton Frank's novels, of course.  I've ordered them for our library!  I have never read one until now, though, and I am excited to read more.  There is enough depth to her characters and their relationships to keep you interested, and it is, quite frankly, refreshing to read about people who are truly and realistically in love with each other.

Olivia is a high-end interior designer who has agreed to move from new York City to South Carolina's Low Country with her retired history professor husband, Nick.  Moving back to the South of his childhood has been a longtime dream of Nick's, but what he doesn't know is that with the move Olivia's client base is drying up and their finances have become precarious.

All Summer Long is filled with exotic locales, a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous, a lovely sense of place, and several interesting story lines.  Some of the characters are ridiculous, but the central theme revolves around commitment to marriage, communication, and loyalty.  I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it as a great vacation read.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (Betty Smith)

This book is the selection for the second meeting of the Vintage Book Club. There is so much to say about this brilliant that I will never be able to do it justice.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a partially autobiographical novel.  Smith grew up poor in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and many of Francie's experiences were based on Smith's own life. (to be continued)

Monday, May 23, 2016

WEEKENDERS (Mary Kay Andrews)

Mary Kay Andrews never fails to produce a great story full of interesting characters and beautiful settings where you can almost smell the air and feel the breeze in your hair.  Here, Riley Griggs and her daughter, Maggy, who suffers from juvenile diabetes, are waiting for the ferry to take them to their summer home on Belle Isle, NC.  Husband Wade (I have to go back and check on this name.  I apologize if it is incorrect.) is late and fails to answer his cell phone, so they travel to the island with Riley's best friend Parrish to await Wade's arrival, discovering on arrival that their home is locked and in foreclosure.  Eventually Wade's body is discovered, leading to more and more discoveries about Riley's marriage, the family business, which Wade controlled, and some insidious family secrets.  Riley grew up summering on Belle Island as part of a wealthy and respected family, so she has a large support system, including her family and longtime friends on the island.

This is a great book for summer, with just the right blend of intrigue, local color, angst, and romance.  I enjoyed it very much.  It's interesting that Ms. Andrews returned to her mystery roots in this novel.

TUMBLEDOWN MANOR (Helen Brown)

If you like Hallmark movies or are a fan of HGTV, you'll enjoy Tumbledown Manor.  Lisa Trumperton has left her chic life in New York and her philandering husband behind to move back to her native Australia to stay with her sister Maxine.  When she discovers that her great-grandfather's dilapidated manor house is for sale, she decides to consolidate her resources and restore Trumperton Manor to some semblance of it's former glory.  Alternately hilarious and heartwarming (and sometimes both at once), Lisa's journey to independence is a delightful story.  With the aid of quirky local handymen (the Gray Army) and various new friends, including hunky Scott Green, the landscape designer, Lisa is able to transform the rundown house into a home despite various catastrophes (flood, fire, skepticism) she encounters along the way.

Lisa is a writer and a breast cancer survivor and her two grown children who have their own issues.  Daughter Portia, who lives in California, seems to be anorexic, and son Ted, who lives in Australia, is gay.  Ex-husband Jake, whose affair was discovered when Lisa accidentally discovers that her beautiful birthday flowers were actually purchased for Jake's mistress, is just a jerk.  Will Lisa accept Jake's apology?  Will her children find their own paths to happiness?  Will Lisa and Scott forma  lasting bond?  Read it and find out!  I enjoyed it from start to finish.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

MASTERS OF DECEPTION: ESCHER, DALI & THE ARTISTS OF OPTICAL ILLUSION (Al Seckel)

I have to admit that I didn't actually READ this book.  I mostly looked at the pictures, and I enjoyed every minute if it! I won't really "review" this book, but I will say that if you enjoy optical illusions or are a fan of M.C. Escher or Rob Gonsalves you should definitely consider taking a look.  Seckel has provided commentary and a wonderful selection of works by each of these astounding artists.  It's mind-boggling!

WHEN IN DOUBT, ADD BUTTER (Beth Harbison)

Gemma is a private chef and caterer, loving her career but struggling to make ends meet.  Her clients range from the bizarre to the mysterious, with demanding and utterly charming thrown in. When she starts losing clients and discovers that one of her former clients is sabatoging her catering career, Gemma is naturally worried about being able to continue her work and pay her bills. Lex, one of her favorite clients, suggests that she take on a new client and work cooking healthy food for his cousin Willa, an independently wealthy,  but grossly overweight young woman who prefers not to leave her home.  One of Gemma's most mysterious clients (there are several) turns out to be in a profession that provides Gemma with some encouragement and some much needed insight into possibilities for the future.

This is not deep reading.  You probably won't be inspired to change your life or gain new insight into business or your love life, but you will enjoy the progression of Gemma's career and relationships.  If you like good chick-lit and women's fiction, try this one.

A FATAL GRACE (Louise Penny)

C.C. de Poitiers is one of those characters that you hope will be the victim of foul play.  Recently moved to Three Pines, the beautiful Quebec village featured in Still Life, the first Armand Gamache novel, CC is a narcissistic, abusive, amoral businesswoman.  She is disliked by everyone, including her own wimpy husband, her overweight, somewhat pathetic daughter, and her photographer/lover.  CC fancies herself a guru whose reworking of a supposedly ancient philosophy called Le Bien will make her wildly successful and famous worldwide despite her abusive personality and complete lack of empathy or background.  When CC is electrocuted at a curling match, Armande Gamache is called in to investigate.  Three Pines is brimming with suspects, one of whom may actually be CC's unknown mother.  Could her husband have killed her?  What about her business rival, her lover, or any of the people that have been the target of her vindictiveness?  How, exactly, was the crime committed with no witnesses?  Louise Penny keeps her readers on their toes and on the edge of their seats.  This is a great series!

Monday, May 2, 2016

THE LITTLE SHOP OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER (Jenny Colgan)

Sigh!  I can't believe that I just finished another Jenny Colgan novel and I think I may be running out.  This one hasn't even been published in the US yet!  According to Amazon, that won't happen until September 20, 2016, but look for the American title, The Bookshop on the Corner.  I really love Amazon used books!

What do I love about this particular novel?  To start with, it's set in a lovely area of Scotland.  The heroine is a librarian, like me.  There are a lot of really nice characters.  The main character, Nina, despite her kind of mousy "librarian" personality, turns out to be a spunky, creative woman who takes a chance on not just a whole new career, but a great concept, a bookstore in a van that travels around the area meeting the reading needs of the little village of Kirrinffief and beyond.  Nina Redmond is a genius at matching readers to books and discovers that the people of rural Scotland are starved for good books.  She stocks her van with books from libraries that are closing, estate sales, and remainders, and overstocks and soon has a thriving business.  Of course, the little guest house where she is living just happens to have a hunky, brooding landlord who has been hurt in the past and is reluctant to get involved with anyone new.

This novel, like all of Jenny Colgan's, is a wonderful escape.  It's a romance, it's women's fiction, it's a great story for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the social culture of rural Scotland.  Highly recommended!

THE MOVING FINGER (Agatha Christie)

I recently realized that I have done much more watching of Agatha Christie movies than reading of her books, so one of my goals this summer to remedy that situation.  As a librarian and co-facilitator of a large mystery book club, it makes sense, doesn't it?  One thing that has surprised me is how little Poirot and Miss Marple actually appear in Christie's novels!

Jerry Burton, a pilot, has been recovering form a bad crash for months.  His doctor suggests a sojourn in the country to help complete his recovery, so he and his sister, Joanna, rent a house in Lymstock from a Emily Barton, a maiden lady overburdened by taxes and other debts.  Their relaxing vacation takes a dark turn when Jerry receives an anonymous letter composed of cut and pasted words, accusing him and his sister of lying about their sibling status.  Jerry disposes of the letter but eventually discovers that others in the seemingly quiet village have received them as well.  When Mrs. Symmington, the wife of the local lawyer is found dead, the verdict is suicide prompted by a similar anonymous letter accusing her of infidelity.  When a maid in the house is murdered a week later, the whole community is on edge, pointing fingers first to this suspect and then to that, the only agreement among the authorities being that the letter writer must be a woman and must also be responsible for the deaths of Mrs. Symmington and the maid. Could it be sweet Emily Barton, or Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the vicar's wife, or Miss Ginch, Mr. Symmington's (possibly lovesick) secretary, or perhaps Aimee Griffiths, the doctor's sister?  Could it be the Symmington's nanny, the beautiful Elsie Holland, or even neighbor Mr. Pye, the "middle aged spinster?"  What about Megan, Mrs. Symmington's directionless daughter from her first marriage?

Fortunately, Miss Marple comes to visit her old friend Mrs. Dane Calthrop at the vicarage and quickly puts together the clues with the help of Jerry's observations.  All in all, a satisfying mystery!  But what else would you expect of Agatha Christie?


SUMMER AT THE LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY (Jenny Colgan)

(Sequel to The Little Beach Street Bakery)
Poor Polly!  She is an incredibly hard worker, getting up at the crack of dawn every day to make bread in her bake shop in Polbearne, just off the coast of Cornwall.  She is also kind, honest, well-liked, and madly in love with an American honey expert and bee-keeper called Huckle.  When her landlord and bakery owner, Mrs. Manse, dies, misguided and somewhat evil nephew Malcolm decides that it would be more profitable to fire Polly and bring in packaged baked goods, so Polly is out of a job.  Burdened with the mortgage on the lighthouse where she and Huckle live, Polly desperately needs income.  She has already started over once after the failure of her graphics design business, the breakup of a 7-year relationship, and bankruptcy.  She knows she can start yet again, but her love of the little bakery that she built up from nothing and for the people of Polbearne make it difficult to consider moving. Huckle comes up with a solution that will involve much sacrifice and finger-crossing, but it could be a success.

Polly has an indomitable spirit, plus a vulnerability that makes her SO appealing. One of Colgan's greatest talents as a writer is making the reader care about her characters.  No matter how outlandish the situation (and there are some outlandish things happening here), you can't help but root for Polly.  She doesn't have a unlikable bone in her fictional body and her strength of character and devotion to her friends is unshakable.  You will laugh and you will cry, but mostly you'll just enjoy.  This is a wonderful novel for a rainy weekend, especially when you need a little reaffirmation that life and relationships really can work out over insurmountable odds.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

FALLING HOME (Karen White)

Some of my friends reads Karen White, so I thought I'd take a chance and find out why.  This was actually Ms. White's first book, reworked years later and republished.  The author herself points to the difference all of those years of writing experience have made in the quality of her novel!

The story seemed a little bit familiar when I started the book and I remember thinking, Sweet Home Alabama!  A southern girl runs away to New York City when events in the small town of her youth threaten to overwhelm her.  She reinvents herself, achieves success, becomes engaged to a sophisticated successful man, and loses her accent.  When she returns home after years away she is resistant to being drawn in to the bucolic, unsophisticated life she left behind, but strangely drawn to the past she has worked relentlessly to erase.

This isn't Sweet Home Alabama, although it is definitely romantic and a tear-jerker, just what we look for in women's fiction.  I found Sam's undying love for Cassie a bit too predictable (duh, what is the inevitable ending?) and Harriet to be just a bit too saintly (does the woman EVER get angry at anything or anyone?), and the town was just a bit too supportive and respectful of pretty much everyone and everything.  But, you know what?  This is fiction.  Most of us want to escape into a book, to experience vicariously emotions and situations that we might fear, avoid, or long for in our real lives.  Who wouldn't want to return to their hometown to discover that people from the past are still willing to embrace and forgive?  Who wouldn't want to discover that the nerdy yet compassionate boy that they barely noticed has grown into a successful, hunky man with the patience of a saint and relentless devotion to his first love?  Who wouldn't want to be able to look at their life through a different lens and see it for what it really is?  I think that White has given most readers exactly what they want, a story about overcoming the worst that life can dish out and still being able to enjoy a happy ending.  This is a great book for a rainy day.  Just be sure to have a few tissues handy for the second half!


A WEE DOSE OF DEATH (Fran Stewart)

I'm not really sure why I love these Peggy Winn ScotShop mysteries, but I do!  I can't wait for the next one!  Maybe it's Ms. Stewart's crisp writing style, the Scottish theme, the friendships, or the ghost (who wouldn't want someone like MacBeath (a.k.a Dirk) in their lives?), but it all comes together into a delightfully funny mystery series.  I have to admit that I thought the end of this one was a bit abrupt and I'm still not sure why Emily Wantstring seemed so neurotic and unable to communicate normally with her children, but the sheer enjoyment of the reading makes up for that.  Let me put it this way: if characters and setting are of prime importance to you, you will adore the ScotShop mysteries, but if you are one of those mystery readers that needs to follow the clues and try to solve the crime before the end or who needs to trace back the clues to justify the conclusion, you might feel that there is a bit lacking.  This is not meant as criticism, just an observation.

This series has everything a cozy series needs: close friends, an interesting business/profession (one of my favorite things in any novel), a not-quite-there-yet budding romance, and a heroine who's not a wimp.  The addition of a 14th century Scottish ghost intent on learning all he can about 21st century life add a wonderful twist.  Read this!

DEATH IN LACQUER RED (Jeanne Dams)

This book was the April selection for the Christie Capers.  For those of you aren't familiar with Jeanne Dams, she writes the wonderful Dorothy Martin series, contemporary mysteries set in England and featuring an 60-something American ex-pat and her retired policeman husband.

This series is historical, set in South Bend, Indiana around 1900, and it portrays very vividly the life of a servant at that time.  Hilda Johansson works as a maid in the Studebaker mansion for the fictionalized real-life Studebaker family of automobile fame.  She, along with her two sisters, has been in America for several years, toiling in the homes of the very wealthy with the goal of bringing the rest of their family over from Sweden.  Hilda has a gentleman friend, Patrick, an Irish Catholic fireman, an equally hard-working immigrant who is obviously head-over-heels in love with her.

When Hilda discovers a body in the hedge behind the Studebaker house she is, naturally shocked, even more so when it is discovered that the victim is the newly returned missionary sister of the the judge next door.  Despite her minimal free time (as we know from Downton Abbey, servants had little opportunity for personal lives back in those days), Hilda feels compelled to investigate the crime, especially after someone else is murdered. Hilda is relentless in her pursuit of justice and takes quite a few chances that, quite frankly, seem a little over-the-top considering the era and her station in life.  She does, however, remain appropriately modest and moral throughout!

While I like the Dorothy Martin series better, Hilda is an enjoyable character to get to know. She is headstrong and impulsive, yet respectful and socially correct in all ways.  There are, I think, 6 books in this series and the last I heard ms. dams was looking for a new publisher.  Hopefully, she'll find one and continue on with the adventures of Hilda Johansson.  If you have read and enjoyed any of Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy mysteries, you will definite enjoy this series as well.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

ALL OF US & EVERYTHING (Bridget Asher)

If your family is on the dysfunctional side, take heart!  The Rockwells will make you feel like you grew up in a 60's sitcom.  Eccentric Augusta Rockwell raised her daughters, Esme, Liv, and Ru, in her ancestral home on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City, New Jersey during the 1980's.  All  she has told her daughters (presumably facetiously) about their absent father is that he was a spy.  The rest was left up to their imaginations until the grown sisters return to their childhood home on Asbury Avenue after Hurricane Sandy.

Oldest daughter Esme married Doug Toomey and eventually they had a daughter, Atty (Atticus), who is a bullied teenager.  Doug, a teacher, was on a class field trip to Paris when Esme received the news (via a school official) that he had left her for his dentist.  Esme had mostly married Doug because he seemed safe after the mysterious disappearance of her college love, Darwin Webber.

Liv has suffered a breakdown after the demise of her third marriage.  Liv is a cherry-picker, targeting rich men in the New York Times engagement page and marrying them, but over the course of the years this strategy has proven less than successful as a means to finding lasting love and Liv has turned increasingly to medication to help herself cope, eventually landing in an expensive rehab facility.  As a girl Liv had fallen in love with a young man named Teddy Whistler and their story seems suspiciously like the plot of younger sister's Ru's best-selling novel, Trust Teddy Wilmer.  When Liv sees Ru's surprise engagement announcement in the Times, her first thought is that her sister's fiance, Cliff, is a perfect cherry-picking target.

Meanwhile, baby sister Ru (short for Ruby) is in Vietnam, living in a tent with a large local family in order to avoid (1) acknowledging her recent engagement and (2) writing the second novel that the world eagerly awaits.

As for Augusta, Hurricane Sandy has reminded her that life is short, so she begins to wonder about whether it's time to tell the girls the truth about their father and perhaps bring some closure to her own love story.  Thus begins an entertaining journey through the lives of the Rockwells, a family badly in need of therapy.  Will family secrets finally revealed destroy the family or create new connections?  Read it and find out!

THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (Agatha Christie)

This wonderful novel has been called one of Agatha Christie's best, criticized by some for too many twists and turns and dead ends and hailed by others for the same thing.  The British Crime Writers' Association named it the best mystery of all time in 2012.

Hercule Poirot has retired to the little village of King's Abbot, settling in next door to Dr. James Sheppard and his overly inquisitive, but surprisingly perceptive, older sister, Caroline.  When Dr. Sheppard's good friend, Roger Ackroyd, is found dead in his study, suspects and motives abound.  The prime suspect is Roger's mysteriously absent step-son, Ralph Paton, a good-looking dilettante who has recently become engaged to Flora Ackroyd, Roger's niece, and stands to inherit the Ackroyd fortune.  But, could the nervous butler, Parker, have had reason to dispose of his employer?  What about efficient secretary (and lover of horse races), Geoffrey Raymond, or Miss Russell, the older, but still attractive, housekeeper who asks Dr. Sheppard about various poisons?  Someone was being blackmailed, but is there a connection to the murder?

Dr. Sheppard becomes Hercule's right-hand man as they investigate the crime, following the clues to the surprising conclusion.  Mystery lovers will find the twists and turns, dead ends, and puzzling clues an intriguing experience.  This is Agatha Christie at her best. No wonder her work remains so popular today!

Monday, March 21, 2016

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON (Elizabeth Strout)

Narrator Lucy Barton grew up in rural Amgash, IL, isolated, abused, and yearning to become a writer.  But what would someone who was raised without television, friends, or love write about?  When we talk about people "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps" or escaping poverty to make something of themselves, sometimes we forget to consider the social foundation that many of us take for granted, that allows is to "fit in" and pursue our goals.  Lucy is fortunate that she has talent and has built a family and a life in Manhattan, far from her childhood environment.  She has a supportive spouse (with German roots that Lucy's war-scarred father cannot abide) to help her realize her dreams and to help her put her "one story" into words.

Lucy is hospitalized for 9 weeks with an unexplained post-surgical infection.  Missing her husband and two girls, she is shocked to awaken one day to find her mother sitting in a chair in her hospital room.  For 5 days her mother, who has never said "I love you" or shown any interest in Lucy's dreams and aspirations, talks with Lucy about random people from their past and about her family, but never about her own feelings or the reasons for Lucy's emotionally confused childhood. But it is the sound of her mother's voice rather than what she says that brings joy to Lucy's heart, easing her isolation and connecting her again with the family that she has left behind.

Lucy's story is told in retrospect, and we learn much more about her during the course of the novel, about the deficiencies of her childhood, the important relationships that have formed her character and her writing career, and of the strength of her marriage.  Strout's novel is simple, yet powerful.  I am not really sure I understood the true theme of My Name Is Lucy Barton, but I believe it is about family and connections and the fact that all of us are the sum of our experiences and relationships.  We are never truly alone.

A WINDOW OPENS (Elisabeth Egan)

We've all faced difficult times.  For suburban mother and part-time magazine editor Alice Pearse, everything seems to be falling apart at once.  He attorney husband decides to leave his prestigious law firm and strike out on his own, burning his bridges behind him and soothing himself with alcohol.  Her beloved father suffers a recurrence of the throat cancer that robbed him of his voice ten years before.  Alice accepts what sounds like a dream job to shore up the family finances while her husband builds his new law practice, but her dream gradually turns into a nightmare of juggling family obligations, work responsibilities, and some questionable ethical issues.  Soon Alice is exhausted and missing her role as hands-on mother.

This isn't traditional "chick lit."  There are no shopping emergencies or blossoming romances.  A Window Opens is about a woman in danger of losing sight of what's really important in life while she struggles to be everything to everyone.  I don't mean to sound like this novel is depressing, either.  It's a wonderful story about human beings dealing with what life dishes out, supporting each other in good times and bad, maintaining friendships, doing what's right, and recognizing that love is the most important component in a life well lived.

Just one more note:  I'm wondering if the name of the main character, Alice Pearse, is a subtle homage to Allison Pearson, the author of I Don't Know How She Does It, another excellent novel about the problems and pitfalls of working motherhood?

Friday, March 11, 2016

A SUMMER AT SEA (Katie Fforde)

Katie Fforde always makes me smile.  She transports her readers to a different world (unless you live in the UK, in which case things might not be so different!) in each novel and subtly introduces us to an insider's view of a variety of professions.  In A Summer at Sea (which, by the way, is not yet available in the U.S. as far as I know - hooray for Amazon.com used books!) we learn about both midwifery and running summer cruises in Scotland and, of course, there is a happily ever after for all (which makes this a romance).  The thing about Fforde's romances is that they don't involve any bodice-ripping or sinking into each other's eyes.  The characters, especially the women, are always involved in interesting pursuits and tend to be quite practical and self-sufficient.

Emily Bailey is a nurse-midwife in need of a short break.  Conflicts with doctors and husbands who believe that germ-filled hospitals are the best alternative for giving birth have exhausted her, so when her friend Rebecca calls for a favor, Emily requests a leave, packs up, and commits herself to spending the summer in the islands west of Scotland, cooking for guests on a "puffer" steamboat owned by Rebecca and her husband, James.  Rebecca, who usually does the cooking on the boat, is in the last trimester of pregnancy (so we suspect what's going to happen here!).  Emily comes to love both Scotland and James' taciturn brother Alasdair, the local GP, but when an almost-too-good-to-be-true offer to run the new birthing center at the hospital back home comes up, what will she decide to do?  Will Emily stay in England pursuing her new career, or will her heart take her back to Scotland and the people she has come to love?

As soon as this book is available in the US we will be adding it to our library collection.  If you're a Katie Fforde fan who just can't wait, check out Amazon for a used copy.  You'll be glad you read it!

Friday, February 26, 2016

DEATH OF A NURSE (M.C. Beaton)

What do I need to say?  Hamish is discontented and wishes he had someone to love, as always.  When a beautiful nurse is found murdered on the beach, red herrings abound, Blair interferes, and Hamish ultimately solves the case.  If you love Hamish and you love the antics of the strange people of Lochdubh (lock-doo) and the Scottish Highlands, you'll thoroughly enjoy this latest (32nd!) addition to the series.  It's a great weekend read!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

THE THINGS WE KEEP (Sally Hepworth)

This is a scary book.  It will remind you of Lisa Genova's Still Alice, which is also about a woman with early onset Alzheimer's.  Like Alice, Anna has family support, to an extent, and the reader experiences the progression of the disease through Anna's eyes and mind.  Anna is just 38 years old when the story begins and has recently moved to a nursing home.

Unlike Still Alice, The Things We Keep is written from the point of view of several other characters, Eve and her daughter, Clementine, as well as Anna's.  Eve is a recent widow whose husband, Richard, was a financial manager convicted of cheating his clients out of millions of dollars with a Ponzi scheme.  After his suicide Eve and their daughter, Clementine, were left penniless and disgraced to face the contempt and hatred of Richard's victims, most of whom are convinced that Eve herself shares responsibility for Richard's crimes.  Eve meets Anna when she is hired as cook and cleaner at a private nursing home in her daughter's school district, where Clem can continue to attend the same school.  From Clem's narration we see the stress and anguish of a 7-year-old child missing her father, outcast and bullied by her classmates, and desperately trying to hang on to memories of her past life with both of her parents.

This novel raises a lot of questions about what is "right" for victims of Alzheimer's.  Should they be allowed, as adults, to engage in adult relationships (even if they do need to be reintroduced to people every day)?  Can people with Alzheimer's fall in love?  Where should the line be drawn between physical safety and emotional well-being? Anna's story is one that we all hope that neither we nor a loved one will ever have to live.  Hepworth presents us with 2 women of similar age and intelligence.  Each suffers a devastating setback in life.  One has the means and opportunity to fight her way back to some semblance of a normal life, always defined by her past, while the other faces the reality that her past is disappearing and her future is nonexistent.  I'm still thinking about this book.  I would highly recommend it.  I may add more to this review later on!

A WEE MURDER IN MY SHOP (Fran Stewart)

Delightful and endearing are two of the words that come to mind when trying to describe Stewart's first ScotShop mystery.  I am a lover of all things Scottish (well, except for maybe the food) and I embrace my Scottish ancestry wholeheartedly, so I reveled wholeheartedly in the talk of tartans, bagpipes, and sporrans and Peggy's treks around the Scottish countryside.

Peggy Winn (of Welsh, not Scottish descent) owns the ScotShop, a store devoted to all things Scottish in the tiny Vermont tourist town of Hamelin.  each year she travels to a village in the highlands of Scotland to purchase stock and make connections for her shop.  This year she discovers a small shop on a dark side street, where purchases a beautiful antique tartan shawl that comes with something extra.  When she unfolds the shawl and places it on her shoulders a handsome, 14th century ghost appears!  On her return to Vermont she discovers that not only has the ghost, "Dirk," traveled back with her, but that the dead body of her unfaithful ex-boyfriend, Mason, is under a fallen bookcase in her shop.  Since her cousin Shoe's baseball bat was used in the attack on Mason, Shoe is accused of the crime and jailed, prompting Peggy to investigate with the aid of handsome police detective harper.

While the mystery is fine, the best part of this novel is the series on verbal exchanges between Peggy and Dirk, who turns out to be a very intelligent and curious ghost, asking constant questions about language, customs, and technology.  This is fun read!

Monday, February 15, 2016

THE CHRISTMAS SURPRISE (Jenny Colgan)

Jenny Colgan just has a way of making you fall in love with her characters.  Rosie Hopkins and Stephen Lakeman are back and it's just after Christmas time in the village of Lipton.  Stephen's mother is still horrible and Aunt Lilian is still the voice of reason and love.  If you read the previous Rosie novels (Rosie Hopkins' Sweet Shop of Dreams and Christmas at Rosie Hopkins' Sweet Shop) you'll know that Rosie and Stephen have recently gotten engaged.  They are, however, in no hurry to get married, mainly because Stephen's aristocratic mother, Henrietta, will inevitably demand a "society" wedding rather than the simple, joyful ceremony the couple would prefer.  After a tragic personal turn of events, the couple decides to take a trip to Africa to visit the village where Stephen had taught and been injured by a land mine that killed two young boys.  Now the boys' sister is pregnant and Stephen and Rosie travel for days by plane and jeep to see the family and offer support to the new mother and baby.  When they return to England they bring back a joyous surprise (I won't tell you what), but complications ensue.

While Rosie's friend and sweet shop coworker Tina is planning her wedding, Stephen's sister Pamela breezes into town from America and decides to settle in Peak House, a dwelling on the Lipton estate where Stephen and Rosie had been tentatively planning to live because they needed more room.  Chaos ensues, of course, with Pamela's Peak House renovations, a fire in Tina's planned wedding venue, and dealings with nasty dentist Roy Blaine.  Of course, it all comes out fine in the end, but throughout the novel you will worry about Rosie and Stephen, two of the nicest and most adaptable people you would ever want to meet.  Don't confuse "nice" with boring, though.  These two have their struggles, but they always love and support each other and pitch in to help and nurture anyone else in need.  There's just something about Jenny Colgan.  It's not rocket science, but her stories have such a warm, appealing quality.  You want her characters to be happy because they make you happy.  That's the best thing about her novels.  I want to read more!

SUMMER SECRETS (Jane Green)

I read Summer Secrets on my Kindle, which is not my favorite way to read.  I like being able to go back and check previous details, like dates and names, and reading an e-book makes that difficult.  Still, it's free and easy with our library's OneClickDigital database!

Main character Cat, a divorced mother, is an alcoholic.  The novel mainly covers 1998 through the present, starting in 2014 and then going back to earlier times in Cat's life and to the early years of her parents' marriage.  Cat started drinking young and her dependence on alcohol spiraled out of control until she has evolved into a full-blown alcoholic by her early 20's.  Typical of some alcoholics, Cat doesn't really believe that she has a "problem,", but tries to sober up when she meets the recovering alcoholic who will turn out to be the love of her life.

The story here is not unique:  Girl grows up in dysfunctional family, becomes dysfunctional herself, discovers secrets in her past, falls in love, tries to get her act together, fails and tries again.  While there is much family drama here, it is basically a novel about a woman's struggle with alcoholism. My impression is that Jane Green must be close to someone who has struggled with a drinking problem, or that she is a great researcher, because she gets right to the heart of alcoholism, bringing us into the inner world of an alcoholic.  Don't look to be uplifted.  I found the book kind of depressing, but insightful and informative.  I have to admit that I picked it because it was by Jane Green without really paying attention to the subject matter.  I am glad that I read it and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in a look at the inside world of an alcoholic.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A SUPERIOR DEATH (Nevada Barr)

Nevada Barr is an expert at creating a strong sense of place.  In A Superior Death readers can almost feel the icy water of lake Superior closing in over their head and experience a sense of panic at diving far beneath the surface of the lake with a precise amount of time to return to the surface.

Barr's Anna Pigeon, a ranger with the U.S. National Park Service, has been reassigned from the Texas desert to remote Isle Royal in Lake Superior, where the waters are deep and mosquitoes in amply supply.  Hidden in the frigid waters are the wrecks of several sunken boats, including Kamloops, where the bodies of six crew members have been partially preserved for almost 70 years. Divers discover a 7th body, that of Denny Castle, a newlywed and expert diver, floating inside Kamloops dressed in old fashioned sailor's garb.  So the investigation begins.  Barr has managed to include possible cannibalism, domestic abuse, pedophilia, a federal agent obsessed with the idea of drug smuggling, grief, betrayal, incest, a missing person, teen angst, assault. and the bends into this action-packed (yet a bit slow-moving) story.  Unbelievably, it all fits successfully.  Barr, who has worked as a ranger herself, presents her readers with incredible detail, leaving us feeling as if we have just returned from a trip to Isle Royal, and grateful that we have escaped with our lives.

Nevada Barr is not for the reader who wants to breeze through an unrealistic techno-thriller.  She is for the reader who wants to immerse themselves in another life and another place, being drawn into the setting so far that sometimes the feeling of being in Isle Royal stays with you long after you've put the book down and gone about other business in your life.  This is a book that you can sink into.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

FETA ATTRACTION (Susannah Hardy)

For some reason I haven't gotten around to reading this book until now, but I can't wait to get hold of the second in the series, Olive and Let Die.  This author has a long and very successful career ahead of her with both of her cozy mystery series (She is also Sadie Hartwell, author of the Tangled Web series).

Georgie Nikolopatos manages Bonaparte House, a Greek restaurant located in a historic octagonal house in upstate New York.  Bonaparte House, which is also the family home, is owned by her mother-in-law, Sophie, and Georgie's gay husband, Spiro, neither of whom seem all that interested in actually WORKING in the restaurant.  That falls primarily on Sophie.  The historic location of the restaurant is based on a real house supposedly built by Joseph Bonaparte for his brother, Napoleon.  Unfortunately, the original house is now gone, but it has been recreated in glorious detail by Hardy.

Spiro is missing, which is not unusual given that outside relationships with men seem to have become more frequent for him.  This time something is different, though.  Spiro had arranged for people from the popular TV series Ghost Squad to investigate the legend that Bonaparte House is haunted. yet he has not been seen or heard from for days.  When Georgie hitches a boat ride with old friend (and possible romantic interest) Keith to her friend Liza's spa, they make a gruesome discovery, the body of rival restaurateur Dom DiTomasso floating in the river.  Of course, Georgie is a suspect.

Hardy's wonderful novel is part mystery, part zany comedy.  Georgie is one of those practical yet headstrong heroines (think Perils of Pauline), often taking action without thinking through the consequences or danger.  When handsome Coast Guard Captain Jack comes into the picture she can't quite decide if he is friend or foe, and her determination to deliver the demanded ransom (the identity or location of which she is completely in the dark about) to Spiro's kidnappers creates some really hilarious scenes.

Very likable characters (Georgie doesn't seem to have a mean bone in her body), an interesting mystery with a lot of twists, a great sense of place, and the historical aspects of the setting all combine into a great book.  I would highly recommend it!

Friday, January 22, 2016

THE BLESSING WAY (Tony Hillerman)

I have very mixed feelings about this novel.  Friends in my book club who have read Tony Hillerman extensively say this is not representative of his work and that the others are much better.  The Blessing Way is poorly titled, since there is little connection to the story aside from one or two mentions in the book.  Apparently the publisher (erroneously) thought this was a better title than the one suggested by the author!

Here are the bad points:  The first half of the book is very confusing, full of multiple Native American names, brief mentions of customs and traditions, and uncertainty about who the main characters actually are and how they are related to one another.  because of the incredible number of names and references it is almost impossible for the reader to keep track of the action, location, or whereabouts of the characters.

Here are the good points:  The second half of the novel is a great, action-packed thriller and would make a terrific movie.  It seems as if Hillerman cleaned out the dust and milling hoards of people somewhere in the middle of the book.  Once he focused on a few people and stopped focusing on minute details it became very enjoyable to read.  While I think that the Native American background information is valuable, it should have been presented in a different, more organized way.

The good news is that this, Hillerman's first in the Joe Leaphorn series, was apparently the jumping off point for an excellent and well-written series.  It might not hurt to skip this one, but if you do read it keep in mind that it DOES get better!


BLOOD WILL TELL (Jeanne Dams)

This is a bit unusual for a Dorothy Martin  & Alan Nesbitt mystery because there is no murder!  After Dorothy discovers a pool of blood on a laboratory floor during a conference at St. Stephen's College at Cambridge University, she and Alan set out to discover from whom or what it came, how it got there, and, most importantly, who cleaned it up so thoroughly and so quickly!  Was it a student prank?  Is there a murder victim whose body has not yet been discovered?  Who pushed Dorothy down a flight of stairs?  Enlisting the aid of a local police Superintendent Elaine Barker (a woman with secrets of her own) and her nephew, Tom, Dorothy and Alan stir up unrest on campus and with the local police as their questions lead to yet more questions. When Tom disappears, finding out where the blood originated becomes urgent.

Widowed American ex-pat Dorothy is, as always, wonderfully refreshing and real.  She is an older woman, cautious about her balance and her knees, happy in her adopted country, and comfortably in love with her second husband, a retired police official.  It's amazing that author Dams is American, because to me she seems to capture the essence of England - the weather, then customs, the rules - beautifully.  If you look at her website you's discover that she loves hats as much as Dorothy does!

As always, anything Jeanne Dams writes is highly recommended!

Monday, January 4, 2016

THE HOUSE AT RIVERTON (Kate Morton)

After having read Morton's 4th novel, The Lake House, I couldn't wait to read more!  I think that if I had read The House at Riverton first I would still have been interested in more, but not quite so anxiously.  It is obvious that Morton has developed as a writer since this, her first novel.

What bothered me about The House at Riverton was not the story.  I am always game for an aristocratic family saga and one thing that I really LIKED about reading this was that it was set during the same time period (WWI through the mid-1920's) as Downton Abbey, one of my absolute favorite TV shows.  What I DIDN'T like was the way the story evolved in the novel.  The story is told from the point of view of 98-year-old Grace Bradley, an esteemed academic who worked as a maid at Riverton while the events of the story unfolded. We learn early on that a young poet died at the lake on the family property and that the 2 daughters of the family, Hannah and Emmeline, were present when the tragedy occurred.  I don't think that author gives the reader enough information at the beginning about the fatal event.  I felt frustrated throughout because I couldn't fit what was going to happen (and what was the focus of the book) into the context of what was being related to us by Grace.  Does that make sense?  Probably not!  I guess what I am trying to say is that I think the telling should have been rearranged.  At one point I realized that both daughters were dead in Grace's reminiscing and that the main event of the story had not been addressed.

I know that this review is confusing, but I guess it reflects my own confusion as I was reading.  Now that I'm finished I like the story.  Following it from beginning to end in my mind, having all of the facts and characters in their proper places, I can appreciate the historical details and sense of place. I just wish I could have read it with enough knowledge to anticipate the ending.  Don't count it out, though.  The details of the time period alone make Morton's first book worthwhile reading.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A CHRISTMAS FEAST AND OTHER STORIES (Katie Fforde)

If you love Katie Fforde you will enjoy this book of short stories, especially if you are in a Christmas mood when you read it.  The only negative comment I have is that I wished that many of the stories were full-length novels instead!  Die-hard Katie Fforde fans should definitely look for this one (you can get it used on Amazon).  The stories are typical (that's not a negative quality!) Katie Fforde, romantic and positive, and will definitely brighten up your day.  Picture reading one with a nice cup of tea or chocolate (and perhaps a scone?) in front of a crackling fire.  It almost makes the winter cold worth it!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

THE CINDERELLA MURDER (Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke)

I KNEW that I had read something else that I forgot to post!  I simply have to try and keep up with this blog even if I feel like I'm buried under family issues, holiday baking, and Christmas shopping and wrapping!

I haven't read any of Alafair Burke's books (not because I'm not interested, but because there are SO many books out there, and as a librarian I have a "to read" list with about 1000 titles on it!), but this one seemed to me to be very much Mary Higgins Clark.  It would be interesting to see who contributed what, or if their styles are already similar.

Television producer Laurie Morgan, whose first true crime special, Under Suspicion, was a popular success, wants to open the investigation on another cold case, the 20-year-old murder of college student Susan Dempsey.  With a large number of suspects, the case of the aspiring actress is an intriguing challenge for Laurie and her crew.  Susan, a brilliant budding scientist, was found strangled in a park near the estate of a famous movie producer who had invited her to audition.  One of Susan's roommates ended up getting the part (her big break), her boyfriend belonged to a mega-church supposedly devoted to helping the poor (while the head of the organization becomes increasingly rich), her other roommate drops out and disappears, eventually changing her name, and the boy who loved Susan from afar quit school to start a phenomenally successful tech company with the handsome professor rumored to be dallying with several attractive female students.  So many suspects!

This novel reminds me of why Clark has remained popular for so many years.  It is well-paced and the characters, although involved in some pretty out-of-the-ordinary adventures, are believable and, in many cases, even likable.  It's a good novel with which to pass a quiet weekend.

Friday, December 18, 2015

CHRISTMAS AT ROSIE'S SWEET SHOP OF DREAMS (Jenny Colgan)

I downloaded this onto my Kindle Fire from OneClickDigital (via Windsorlockslibrary.org).  All you need is a Windsor Locks library card and a PC, Mac, or eReader.  OneClick Digital provides simple-to-use downloadable apps for different devices.  This is the first time I tried it, and although I prefer paper books (easier for reading a page or 2 whenever you have a chance), this worked really well.  I'm going to download more!

As for the book, it was sweet and charming.  Jenny Colgan's characters are very much like Katie FForde's (one of my favorite authors).  They are usually women embarking on new careers, often by chance.  They are just a little bit insecure, very generous and sincere, never model-perfect, and have often been unlucky in love.

In this sequel to Rosie Hopkin's Sweetshop of Dreams, Rosie is still running her Aunt Lilian's candy store and loving the little village of Lipton,  She loves Stephen even more, but wonders a bit what his long-term plans might be.  When Rosie's mother, Angie, announces that she, along with Rosie's brother, Pip, his wife, and 3 rambunctious children, are coming from Australia to visit Rosie and Stephen for the holidays, Rose does what any red-blooded woman would do - she puts off telling Stephen that their tiny cottage will soon be overrun with Rosie's family.  When an accident throws the whole village and Stephen and Rosie's lives into chaos, life gets even more complicated.

Colgan has a way with developing her characters that makes the reader feel invested in their lives.  We worry about Lilian and Rosie and are rooting for happy endings for all.  Colgan throws an interesting twist of fate into the mix this time.  This novel is a wonderful way to spend a weekend.  It's not available in any library in our system yet, so check out OneClickDigital soon!

HAUNTED SEASON (G.M. Malliet)

Like Susan Wittig Albert, G.M. Malliet is a master of character and sense of place.  Her characters in the Max Tudor series are a bit less "believable" in the sense that they are exaggerated versions of what we might imagine English villagers to be.  It's a bit like walking into the village of Dibley (Vicar of Dibley is a British comedy featuring some very strange locals and a female vicar who  tries to be the voice a reasonin the village).

Max Tudor is an Anglican priest who found his vocation after years as an MI5 operative who witnessed his partner being blown up by a car bomb meant for Max.  Max is everything you'd ever want in a leading man / detective: handsome, compassionate, intelligent, and worldly.  He is now married to Awena, a pagan and owner of the local new age shop, and their different spiritual outlooks add a special sense of depth to their marriage and role as new parents, especially considering Max's profession.

The murder in this outing was a bit gruesome.  A local landowner, father of 2 rather obnoxious college age children, married to a much younger and very attractive women, is decapitated when someone sets up a wire across the riding path just at his neck level.  Max discovers the body and becomes involved in the investigation, which features several likely suspects.

I read a few reviews of this novel on Amazon and they were mixed.  Negative reviews cited ease of figuring out the murderer, the author losing interest part of the way through the book, etc.  I think it really depends on what you are looking for in a mystery.   I am not one of those people that NEEDS to try and solve the mystery as I read, although I do enjoy attempting to figure it out.  I am much more entranced by the setting, especially English villages, and the relationships among the characters.  I would definitely give this one a thumbs-up, although I can understand why more hard core mystery readers might not.  personally, I couldn't put it down!

MISTLETOE MAN (Susan Wittig Albert)

Susan Wittig Albert has another winner in this older China Bayles mystery.  She successfully and seamlessly weaves together several plots, including China's new marriage to retired police detective Mike McQuaid and her new role as step-mother, her friend Ruby's sudden disappearing act, the quirky, flower-growing Fletcher sisters and their senile aunt, and, of course, the hit and run murder of Carl Swenson, her mistletoe supplier.  For those of you who are not familiar with China Bayles, she is a 40-something herbalist and teashop owner in Pecan Springs, Texas who also helps solve mysteries on the side.

This is the 9th of 23 China Bayles mysteries and I would recommend that you read the series.  The characters could be your own friends and neighbors and the relationships are always realistic.  Best of all, Wittig is a consistently fabulous writer and you'll never go wrong with one of her novels.

Monday, November 30, 2015

GO SET A WATCHMAN (Harper Lee)

I vacillated quite a bit about reading this novel.  The reviews were mediocre, the book was described as badly in need of editing, and people were disappointed in how Lee's characters, especially Atticus Finch, seemed to have "evolved."  Then a very intelligent and articulate friend of mine shared her thoughts on the book and suddenly it became a priority to read it.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know that Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was suggested to Lee that she take her original characters into their pasts and write a novel set 20 years earlier, in the 1930's, which she successfully accomplished.  This, her first manuscript, was recently rediscovered and Lee agreed to its publication provided that no edits were made.  Well. she is apparently a pretty good writer!  Yes, there were areas that obviously needed work, where the language needed sprucing up and the flow didn't work, just as there were pages that glowed with the same light and life as To Kill a Mockingbird.  The difficulty for the reader is to successfully separate the 2 works.  This was not intended as a sequel; the characters here have not developed nor evolved.  They were here first!

One of the things that struck me about this novel (in my apparently simple minded prioritization of what's important to note), was that the Atticus Finch described here looks JUST like an older Gregory Peck.  How strange is that?

I have heard that people were disappointed in the story because Jem was dead and because Atticus seemed to be a racist.  I didn't see the character of Atticus as racist in this novel, but rather as an intellectually curious product of his time, a time when civil rights for people of color were still in the formative stages and society as a whole had still not accepted racial equality after being brainwashed about the intelligence and abilities of black people for 150 years. Atticus didn't join the KKK or work against the NAACP because he hated black people, but because he wanted to be sure that they were NOT treated in a hateful and bigoted way.  Perhaps he was misguided in some of his thinking about the black race, but he definitely was not a racist.

As for Scout, I can imagine her growing up to be just as she was portrayed in this novel.  She reveres her father and is distraught and disappointed when she discovers that Atticus and Henry are consorting with racists.  She is a modern young woman in a changing world, having trouble deciding between the lure of her tradtional southen family and hometown and the culture of New York City.
I think that anyone who enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird should consider reading Go Set a Watchman. It will be well worth the few hours you devote to it and you'll still be thinking about it days after you reach the last page.