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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Bones and Silence (Reginald Hill)

Currently reading...

A SECRET GARDEN (Katie Fforde)

I would describe this a homage to Jane Austen with a modern twist.  (more soon!)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

THE SUMMER GIRLS (Mary Alice Monroe)

I'm not sure what it is about the Low Country that makes for such a plethora of family saga / romance novels, but they are all good!  The "Summer Girls" are half-sisters invited to spend the summer at their grandmother's home on Sullivan Island, South Carolina.  Marietta Muir will be selling Sea Breeze, her ancestral home, soon in order to move to a senior community and she wants one last summer there with her granddaughters, all the children of her late son Parker.  Dora, the oldest and daughter of Parker's first wife, is watching her life and marriage collapse while she tries to care for her autistic son, Nathan.  Carson, daughter of the beautiful nanny, the second wife who died when Carson was just 4 years old, was raised for most of her childhood at Sea Breeze under Marietta's care.  Harper, the product of Parker's last marriage to a woman who mistakenly thought he was a promising author, is the youngest and lives primarily to do her mother's bidding.

It was Carson who took care of his father and watched him slowly drink himself to death at age 47.  After several years of moderate success as a photographer in California, her job has ended and her drinking has made it difficult for her to find a new one, so the summons from her grandmother comes at a perfect time in her life.

Through the course of the summer, the girls discover family secrets and come to terms with their own relationships.  One thing that makes this novel stand out is the inclusion of Delphine, a dolphin that figures prominently in the story.  I always enjoy a novel that leaves me feeling like I've gained some interesting knowledge about the world, and this one did.  It was a perfect summer read.

Monday, September 4, 2017

TO THE LIGHTHOUSE (Virginia Woolf)

This is both a difficult and fascinating novel to read.  It has been described as one of the best novels of the 20th century.  I'm not sure if I would describe it as such (being neither a writer or critic myself), but it definitely leaves an impression.

The Ramsay family plan to sail the next day to a nearby lighthouse from their summer home on the coast of Scotland, somewhere around 1910. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay have 8 children and several guests staying at the house with them, each of them engaged in their own interests and pursuits.  The novel is written from multiple points of view, meaning that the reader is privy to the inner thoughts, opinions, and observations of each and every character.  To be frank, it's confusing until you get into the rhythm of the story.  Most of the "action,"  more accurately described as "thoughts," takes place in one day, where young James hopes to be able to sail to the lighthouse, his beautiful mother tends to her children and guests, and volatile Mr. Ramsay predicts rain, making the trip unlikely, and suffers mood swings.

I know that I am vastly simplifying this novel.  It is the kind of thing where you rally need to go back and read it again, and perhaps again, before you can absorb the complexity of the psychological and emotional relationships flowing throughout.  If you are looking for an interesting challenge, here it is!

Friday, August 25, 2017

THE MISSING MASTERPIECE (Jeanne M. Dams)

Dorothy Martin and her husband, retired Chief Inspector Alan Nesbitt, never fail to charm.  Their relationship is tender, respectful, and playful (not to mention realistic), their intelligence and curiosity appealing, and their travels always seem to lead them to murder and intrigue.  I just realized that I should have included a Dorothy Martin mystery in this year's upcoming lineup of Detecting Duos mysteries for Christie Capers!

This time Dorothy and Alan have plans to travel to France to attend an exhibit of art by a good friend.  When Alan breaks his ankle, Dorothy travels alone with the intention that the almost-recovered Alan will follow as soon as he gets to go-ahead from his doctor.  Most of the action takes place at Mont Saint-Michel, a wondrous former monastery in Normandy.
A young man supposedly searching for lost manuscripts, a mysterious American who claims to be researching a novel, a near drowning, and several unexplained accidents all blend together under Dams's deft hand into an entertaining and appealing mystery.  Try the whole series.  You'll love this gentle series and never be bored!

THE COTTINGLEY SECRET (Hazel Gaynor)

Back in 1917 two girls in Cottingley, Yorkshire, England allegedly took a photograph of local fairies that eventually caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose great interest in magic and mysticism led him to write an article about the event.  Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright inadvertently convince the world of the existence of fairies despite the fact that most of their "authentic" photographs are faked.

When Olivia Kavanagh inherits her Grandfather's bookshop in Ireland 100 year later, she discovers a manuscript detailing the incident and it's aftermath and realizes that there is a family connection between the girls and her grandmother, now suffering from Alzheimer's.  In the midst of planning a wedding to man whom she is not sure she loves, Olivia embarks on a new life, cleaning and renovating the shop, talking to her grandmother about the manuscript, and trying to figure out where she herself belongs.

Based on a true story, Gaynor's novel is unique in its narrative and compelling in its possibilities.  You will leave it wondering if fairies actually do exist and, perhaps, hoping that they do.  This is a novel about human relationships, grief, and hope, with the extra added suggestion of magic.  Enjoy it!

CAFE BY THE SEA (Jenny Colgan)

I know I've said it before, but I'll say it again...I love Jenny Colgan's novels!  This one is set on the fictional island of Muir, off the northern coast of Scotland.  Flora left the island after her mother's death, feeling that there was nothing left there for her.  In London, where she works as a paralegal, she "enjoys" a life of cramped quarters, noise, near poverty, and grime.  She also has a hopeless crush on her womanizing boss.  When she is assigned to travel back to Muir to convince the natives that the giant resort being planned by a multi-millionaire at the tip of the island is actually a GOOD thing, she reluctantly revisits her past and gets reacquainted with her father and brothers, whom she hasn't seen for 3 years.

Being back on the island brings back memories, bitter and good, and also reawakens Flora's passion for baking.  When she is asked to refurbish and open a cafe in the center of town, she is drawn even more deeply into the life and culture she thought she had escaped, but is this really a bad thing?

In true Colgan style, the reader is treated to whimsical, quirky characters, a heroine who manages to find herself, and a setting so breath-taking that you will want to catch the next plane to Scotland to check out its real-life counterparts.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (Oscar Wilde)

Most of you know the story of Dorian Gray, an absolutely beautiful young man whose portrait becomes the means by which he is able to live a life of sin and debauchery while maintaining an eternally youthful countenance.  The novel does differ from the movie, as is usual.

If you are familiar with Wilde, you know that he was famously homosexual, extremely erudite, and scathingly clever.  He was an aesthete, believing that art and beauty were of greater importance than practicality.  His works remain popular to this day, especially in film, but I don't know how many people actually read them.

Today's literary gothic and horror offerings owe much to Wilde and his talent.

HER ROYAL SPYNESS (Rhys Bowen)

Amateur sleuth Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter to the Duke of Atholt and Rannoch, is known to her friends as Georgiana.  She is 34th in line to the British throne and broke.  This very humorous and entertaining historical series (this is the first of eleven) is set in the 1930's and features many real royal personages, slapstick comedy reminiscent of Lucille Ball, and a pretty good mystery.  Bowen writes 3 separate historical mystery series and they're all excellent.  I'm looking forward to reading more of this one though.  It was truly enjoyable from cover to cover!

Monday, July 31, 2017

SAINTS FOR ALL OCCASIONS (J. Courtney Sullivan)

Today I vow to keep up on writing this blog in a timely manner!  I've been so busy with family weddings and illnesses, an upcoming grandchild, and work obligations that I have simply forgotten that the purpose of a blog is to be written on!

As for this novel, I had to look it up to remind myself of what it is about because all I remember is that I enjoyed it very much.  It is the story of two sisters, Nora and Theresa Flynn, who travel from Ireland to the US to start new lives, Nora with her betrothed and Theresa with a teaching career.  Nora begins to question her commitment to and love for Will, her fiance, while Theresa falls madly in love with a mysterious man and "gets into trouble."  Nora puts aside her doubts and marries Will so they can adopt Theresa's child and Theresa eventually realizes that she has a vocation and joins a cloistered convent while Nora and Will raise her son, Patrick.  As the novel begins, Patrick has died at age 50.  Despite his aimlessness, he has always been Nora's favorite and she grieves at his loss.  She calls Theresa to let her know, despite that fact that they have not seen each other for many years, bringing to the forefront issues that have been buried for years.

Every family has secrets.  Every family has resentments.  Sullivan is a master at pulling together all of the threads of human relationships into a compelling and readable story.  I still have a couple of her novels that I haven't read.  I'll have to read them!

ONCE IN A BLUE MOON LODGE (Lorna Landvik)

Lorna Landvick is a wonderful author with an outlook and imagination that is slightly off-kilter.  This sequel to Patty Jane's House of Curl is, I think, just as wonderful a the original.  Patty Jane is packing up shop, closing the House of Curl and moving on with her life with both her brain-damaged husband and her lover in tow.  When her daughter, Nora, becomes pregnant (with twins) just before meeting the man of her dreams, life presents new challenges.  After a chance encounter with a free-spirited old woman, Nora decides to buy and renovate the Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, which becomes the new gathering place for family and new and old friends.  Landvik takes us on a years-long journey through the adventures of Patty Jane and Nora's family, including births, marriages, and tragic losses.  If you love Landvik (or even if you've never read her imaginative novels, this is a must read.  You'll be swept away into the Minnesota countryside and find yourself very reluctant to return to reality at the end!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

REBECCA (Daphne Du Maurier)

Nearly everyone is familiar with Mrs. Danvers.  She's the obsessed housekeeper at Manderley, the de Winter estate on the Cornish coast, and was creepily played by Dame Judith Anderson in the Hitchcock adaptation of this novel.  When widower Maxim de Winter returns to Manderley with his young bride (nameless throughout the novel), Mrs. Danvers sets out to destroy her already shaky confidence.  The young Mrs. de Winter is surrounded by memories of Maxim's first wife Rebecca - her stationary, her clothing, the memories cherished by everyone, even, apparently, her husband.  Rebecca was the perfect wife, the perfect lady, a woman of such charm and taste that everyone still mourns her loss in a boating accident the year before.  The new wife could never hope to live up to the memory of Rebecca.

This is, perhaps, the finest gothic novel of the 20th century.  Du Maurier is a master of atmosphere, peeling away layer after layer of secrets while interspersing dramatic incidents and menacing situations throughout.  It is, when you boil it all down, a novel about the importance of communication and honesty within a marriage.  There are several quite twisted personalities here.  Maxim is tortured, but not, as his new wife and the readers assume, by regrets about lost love.  Mrs. Danvers is the one tortured by lost love for Rebecca, whom she worshipped and revered.

Many of you have probably seen the movie, but the book is so much better and the events leading up to the ending may surprise you.  Revisit a vintage novel that will never grow old or boring.  It has stood the test of time and will, I think, always be in demand.

THE DISTANT HOURS (Kate Morton)

An old crumbling castle, 3 elderly sisters, a mysterious letter, a lost love, and a mother who refuses to talk about her past all help to lead Edie Birchell to Milderhurst Castle, the country estate to which her mother was evacuated during World War II.  The Distant Hours is a story of madness, murder, and family secrets.  It is long, but it will hold your interest.  Kate Morton tends to be a little bit long-winded in some of her novels, but this one will be worth the extra time it takes to read!  If you're looking for a good gothic novel, look no further.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

THE END OF TEMPERANCE DARE (Wendy Webb)

I have been waiting for a new Wendy Webb novel for a few years now, so I was thrilled to see this one.  In a word, it's scary!  A young woman, Norrie Harper, after being let go from her job as a reporter due to PTSD, is hired as the director of Cliffside Manor, a former TB sanatorium that is now an acclaimed artist's retreat.  She had visited the manor as a reporter twenty years before, investigating the death of 2 of the dare family members.  On the day of her arrival, her predecessor, the former director and last living member of the Dare family, is discovered dead, an apparent suicide, and things just get scarier and more mysterious from there.

This novel has a wonderful haunting atmosphere that will keep you feeling slightly uneasy.  One of my friends, another Webb fan, stopped me and told me that she was SCARED reading this book.  I would advise against picking it up on a dark night when you are home alone, but definitely read it!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

DARK ROAD TO DARJEELING (Deanna Raybourn)

This is my first Lady Julia Grey mystery, and I have to say that it would make a great movie!  Lady Jane's husband, detective Nicholas Brisbane, are still honeymooning in the Mediterranean when they are summoned, along with  Julia's sister Portia, to the Cavendish tea plantation by Portia's former lover, Jane, whose husband Freddy has recently been murdered.  Jane fears for her life and that of her unborn child and hopes that Julia and Brisbane will discover the killer before she herself becomes a victim.

This novel has a strong sense of place and is filled with local color and descriptions of the Himalayas and India that make the reader feel as if they are traveling along with this eccentric group. As for the mystery?  Intriguing!  If you are looking for mostly likable and varied characters, a great plot, and a lot of authentic-seeming atmosphere, try this series.

Monday, June 12, 2017

THE SUNSHINE SISTERS (Jane Green)

As the story opens, we are introduced to Ronni Sunshine, an aging actress on a mission to end her own life.  She is obviously ill, done with all of the drama and angst, ready for peace, but concerned about her 3 daughters, the Sunshine sisters, Nell, Meredith, and Lizzy.  Nell, a single mother, lives on a farm near Ronni but seldom sees her.  Nell is confused by her inability to fall in love with a man who seems perfect but is lacking something unidentified but important.  Meredith, bearing the brunt of her mother's criticism growing up, fled to the UK, became an accountant, and is engaged to a man who is "good enough" because she doesn't believe that she is thin or pretty enough to deserve someone who thinks she is wonderful.  Lizzy, the youngest, is most like Ronni in looks and temperament.  She is a celebrity chef with a young son and a husband who feels marginalized by her career.  Lizzie has also been unfaithful to her husband.

Ronni's summons gives each of her daughters the opportunity to reconnect with her and each other and to explore sides of themselves that they have been denying for years.  Does the novel end happily?  I suppose it depends on how you look at it.  Ronni is unable to convince her daughters to do her bidding, but achieves her own goal in the end.  Each of the girls finds a better perspective on life and happiness.  Best of all, though, they form a loving family again.  This is a wonderful summer read, light enough for the beach but involved enough to keep a discriminating reader interested.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS ( Booth Tarkington)

Years ago I enjoyed Tarkington's Penrod books and this is my second reading of The Magnificent Ambersons.  Tarkington gives the reader stunning insight into the mindset of a young man who refuses to let go of his privileged roots as the industrial revolution begins to break down the rigid class structure of the American midwest in the early 20th century.  This novel has everything you could ask for: a fawning mother blind to her son's faults, a quiet father whose death barely makes a ripple in the family dynamics, the dashing, successful man that was the mother's second choice and is now back in town, the beautiful love interest who realizes that she will always be second choice to pride, and, most importantly, the misguided young man who believes that family and entitlement are the most important things in life, even if it means that he contributes nothing of import to his world.

There's a reason that Orson Welles chose to film this important novel.  It's a great social commentary and demonstrates how people need to embrace change in order to survive and thrive.  Well worth reading!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN (Kate Morton)

I thought I owned this novel, but couldn't find it, so I borrowed it from the library.  The other day I noticed it in my 92-year-old mother's bookcase among the books I had brought for her (she reads 5-6 books a week!).

Anyway, be prepared for a truly great and intriguing story.  It is interesting to me that the same techniques (multiple narrators, jumping back and forth in time) that really annoyed me in Morton's The House at Riverton somehow delighted me here.  The story is basically a woman's search for her own identity, continued for her after her death by her granddaughter.

When "Nell" was 3 or 4 years old she was discovered sitting alone on a dock in 1913 Australia with a small white suitcase and no clue who she was or how she came to travel from England all alone except for the memory of "the authoress" who boarded the great ship with her and then disappeared.  The Dockmaster, Hugh, takes her home and he and his wife raise her as their own after failing to discover her identity.  On her 21st birthday her father reveals that she is actually not their daughter, but a foundling of sorts, well-loved but not of their blood.  This throws Nell's world into chaos, prompting her to break her engagement and rethink her whole life and identity.

Morton does a wonderful job creating doubts and revealing the details of Nell's past bit by bit, moving back and forth between 1900, 1913, 1975, and 2005.  The novel begins with Nell's death in 2005, with many questions about her origins still unanswered.  When her granddaughter, Cassandra, learns that she has inherited a mysterious cottage in Cornwall, purchased in 1975 by Nell, she travels to England to investigate this possible clue to Nell's past.

I need to warn you that the transitions from one era to another can be confusing and I found myself several times thinking, "Who is Linus?" and "Who was Hugh again?"  The novel was well-worth a little confusion, though.  It is rich is fairy tales, historical details, mystery, adventure, and characters ranging from diabolical to romantic to delightfully eccentric.  I would recommend it highly.

HURRICANE SISTERS (Dorothea Benton Frank)

Families are complicated.  I think we can all agree on that!  The Hurricane Sisters are actually 3 generations of women:  Maisie Pringle, the controlling matriarch with a much younger man in her life, Liz Waters, the frustrated wife trying to juggle career, marriage, and motherhood, and headstrong daughter Ashley, the ambitious artist who envisions herself as the next Jackie Kennedy.  Liz's husband Clayton is a focused businessman who has difficulty accepting that their son, Ivy, is gay, in a committed relationship, and a success in his own right. He is also involved in an affair with a man-eater, a former rival of Liz's in New York.

Liz is committed to her work for a nonprofit that is dedicated to helping victims of abuse to recover and start new lives, but she fails to see that her own daughter is on the brink of a dangerous and inappropriate relationship with an up-and-coming politician with control issues.  Ashley and her friend Mary Beth, who live in Liz and Clayton's summer property, launch a secret (from her parents) money-making scheme that is not quite legal, but very lucrative.  When things start to unravel and relationships seem on the brink of imploding, what will happen to the Waters family?  If you read Dorothea Benton Frank, you know that you can expect drama, warm hearts, and a satisfying resolution.  This is definitely a great few hours of reading!

THE BEST OF FRIENDS (Joanna Trollope)

Joanna Trollope is different.  What I mean by that is that her novels don't whisk you away to another world like those of many contemporary women's authors do.  She creates "everyday," but with different people.  I can't think of another writer who is able to so expertly capture life and human foibles the way she does, without much hoopla and definitely no car chases!

Gina and Laurrence have always loved each other, but never been "in love."  Gina is married to antiques dealer Fergus and has a daughter, Sophy, and a mother, VI, who lives nearby.  Laurence and Hilary run the Bee House, a historic estate inherited by Laurence, which they have turned into a successful hotel and restaurant where they also live with their 3 sons.  When Fergus decides to leave Gina and Sophy and move to London, Gina initially turns to Laurence and Hilary for comfort, but Sophy is somehow left to work out her own life with the help of Vi, who has finally found her own true love.

I know this doesn't sound to exciting, but, then, Joanna Trollope never does.  She is, however, insightful and sympathetic to the predicaments in which ordinary people tend to find themselves.  I always enjoy her books, but I;m never completely sure why, or at least I can't articulate it!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

SAME BEACH, NEXT YEAR (Dorothea Benton Frank)

Same Time Next Year (Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn) is one of my favorite movies.  Well, maybe it's the song that runs through, but I defnitely liked it a lot.  It's the story of a couple who meet for a weekend (she's on retreat and he's on business), have a brief affair, and then continue to meet every year on the same weekend for years and years.  I wonder if that movie inspired this title?

Actually there is some similarity here, but this story involves 2 couples, Adam and Eliza Stanley and Carl and Eve Landers, who meet at one summer during their vacations with their children at a South Carolina condo community.  It turns out that Adam and Eve were serious sweethearts back in the day, which ignites some jealousy in Eliza and Carl (although he appearing to be the type that believes every woman is fair game).  Despite this, the families form a strong friendship and continue to vacation together for twenty years until relationship issues finally come to head, threatening both marriages.

In typical DBF fashion, this novel draws you into the life of the Lowcountry.  You can almost feel the humidity!  This is a just-can't-put-it-down novel, perfect for summer or, really, anytime.  You will enjoy it!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

SECRETS IN SUMMER (Nancy Thayer)

Maybe it's just me, but Nancy Thayer seems to be getting a lot more "romancey" than she used to be and I'm not a big fan of novels that focus too much on lust.  That's NOT to say that it wasn't a good book.  Thayer always comes through with her wonderful descriptions of the Nantucket weather and lifestyle.  She makes you feel the sea breezes and smell the salt air.

Darcy Cotterill, the main character, is a divorced librarian living in her Grandmother's old house on Nantucket.  She has friends, a man in her life, and a job she loves.  During the summer the population of Nantucket swells and Darcy meets and develops some unlikely friendships with her summer neighbors, a harried mother and her philandering husband, an elderly woman and her devastating handsome (and single) grandson, and Darcy's own ex-husband, staying with his new wife (the one he left Darcy for) and adopted daughter, Willow, a 14-year-old who turns to Darcy for the guidance her parents are not providing.

This is not my favorite Nancy Thayer novel.  Darcy spends a little bit too much time considering potential romantic partners (who assumes that when one is in an intimate 3-month relationship, but no one has mentioned that it is "exclusive," that it might be OK to consider sleeping with someone else?), but the relationship that develops between Darcy, Willow, her elderly neighbor, and the harried mother of 3 during the summer is one that is worth reading about.  I give this 3 1/2 stars, but I'd go higher if I was more interested in the romance part!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

SUMMER AT THE CORNISH CAFE (Phillipa Ashley)

What a great way to spend a weekend, especially if you are counting the days until Poldark shows up again on Public Television!  I admit that I was initially oblivious to the plotline of this novel.  I thought it was billed as being for fans of Poldark because it was set in Cornwall!

Demi (short for Demelza), self-sufficient and resourceful, is estranged from her family and living rough aside from her job at a local cafe.  Cal Penwith has been long away from and out-of-touch with his Cornwall family.  In fact, he left to do humanitarian work in the Middle East after his father's death instead of tending to the family estate, a campground that his father nearly mismanaged into bankruptcy.  Sitting in the cafe, he witnesses the unfair firing of waitress Demi by Mawgan Cade, the ruthless owner of the building that houses the cafe, after an accidental spill.  As Cal makes his way home, he decides to first stop in at his Uncle Rory's home where he discovers a party in progress.  The occasion?  The engagement of his cousin Luke to Isla, the love of Cal's life.  Is this all starting to sound a little familiar?  It certainly will to fans of Poldark.

This is a fun little book.  We all know from the start that Demi and Cal will end up together despite that fact that he still harbors feelings for Isla.  There are several references to Winston Groome, the author of the Poldark series, and it's obvious to anyone who has watched the current version of the series that Cal looks suspiciously like Aidan Turner.  Someone even remarks on it later in the book and his response is that he has never heard of the guy!

You will find this light, interesting, and entertaining.  For fans of Jenny Colgan and Katie Fforde, it will feel like coming home.  I'm planning to read the sequel, Christmas at the Cornish Cafe.  I already have it downloaded to my Kindle!

AGE OF INNOCENCE (Edith Wharton)

We read this for our Vintage Book Club.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and Wharton's was the first female to win achieve this honor.  Set in the 1870's, The Age of Innocence is an attempt by Wharton to reconcile new and old, male and female, rich and poor.

Newland Archer, a young man from a distinguished upper-class family, is madly in love with May Welland, a beautiful young woman who represents Newland's ideal female.  They are betrothed and he believes that she will be the perfect wife, supporting his career and running a household of which he will be proud.  When May's cousin Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Poland in disgrace, having left her abusive husband, Newland becomes obsessed with her, but since she is still married and unsuitable as a wife, he follows through with his marriage to May.  All of Ellen's relatives encourage her to return to her terrible marriage, to not seek a divorce because appearances are so much more important than personal happiness or even safety.  Throughout the novel Newland pines away for Ellen, alternately denying his feelings and deciding to leave May for his true love.  May is not stupid, though, and continually manipulates circumstances to ensure that Newland remains where he belongs, with his family.  When May dies after years of marriage, Newland considers finally reuniting with Ellen in Paris, but discovers that the woman he has been longing for throughout the years may not really be the one for him.

I found this novel to be an interesting commentary on life and social values in the gilded age.  Thank God things have changed since then, especially for women!

THE CHRISTIE CAPER (Carolyn Hart)

Annie and Max Darling are hosting a week-long conference in honor of Agatha Christie's 100th birthday.  Attendees include authors, agents, publishers, Christie fans, and at least one murderer.  Hart weaves together an intriguing group of characters immersed in secrets, vendettas, and hero-worship.  One thing I will say about The Christie Caper is that it is designed primarily for readers who LOVE Agatha Christie.  Anyone who has read Christie extensively will revel in the huge number of clues and references that Hart includes.  My advice is to definitely read this.  It's a great mystery with many twists and turns and a lot of those instances when you think, "Of course!" and 5 pages later you realize, "Oh, no, I guess not!"  And if you're a Christie expert, you'll be in Heaven!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

FAT CHANCE (Rhonda Pollero)

Do you love Janet Evanovich's Stepanie Plum?  Then chances are you'll also love Finley Anderson Tanner!  Pollero's series is delightful and you will enjoy this novel from start to finish.  Finley (named for the 2 men that her mother was keeping company with when she was conceived) is a paralegal who can't seem to avoid stumbling over dead bodies.  This time the murder scene is the cottage that Finley's mother has just sold to her, a legacy from her beloved step-father.  Finley and her friends meet at the Palm beach cottage, formerly occupied by her step-father's personal assistant turned foster mother, to celebrate Finley's good fortune.  While there they stumble upon a long-dead body clutching a medallion given by Finley to her step-father many years ago.  Who is it and how did they end up in the closet? Is there a connection to Nancy, the previous tenant?  Will Finley and the irresistibly handsome Liam ever get together?

I loved every page of this fun novel.  The characters are likable, the plot is intriguing, and you'll find yourself fully invested in Finley's life before you're done.  Highly recommended!

CITY OF FRIENDS (Joanna Trollope)

Stacey, Beth, Melissa and Gaby have been friends since university.  All of them focused on finance and through the years they have remained friends as they climbed the ladder of success.  When Stacey Grant, married and childless by choice, asks for flexible time on her demanding job to better care for her mother, who suffers from dementia, she is made redundant from her London equity firm.
This unexpected event throws Stacey into the depths of depression.  Without her work to help take her mind off of her mother's declining health she questions her choices and her friendships.  One friend, Melissa, a single mother, runs her own business and is content to raise her son Tom alone until Tom's father is suddenly back in the picture, complete with a new family for Tom to share in.  Gaby, very successful and happily married with 3 children, is lucky to have a supportive husband but has no room in her organization for Stacey because she has hired the woman in Tom's father's life, keeping that fact a secret from the rest of the group.  Beth is busy remolding her dream home with Claire, the love of her life, until Claire decides that there may be something better out there for her.

Joanna Trollope is an expert at examining the everyday lives of real people.  There are no terrifying car chases, no dramatic murders, no wild sex scenes.  These could be people who live next door.  I think you have to have a particular mindset to enjoy Trollope's work because it's not so much escapism as ultra-reality.  I like it so much that I just picked up another of her novels that I've never read.  If you haven't read Trollope you might want to give her a try!

Monday, May 1, 2017

NOT WORKING (Lisa Owens)

I picked this book up because it looked easy and we were counting down to my daughter's wedding so I didn't want to be bogged down by anything too involved.  In retrospect, though, I think I would have preferred to be MORE involved.  Instead of wondering what happened to the characters AFTER I finished to book, I realize that I'm still wondering what happened DURING the book.  I feel like it wasn't quite finished.

The novel was fairly well-written and the premise was interesting.  Presented in short vignettes from the point of view of Claire, the title character, it is about a young woman who resigns from her job in hopes of finding a new career that inspires passion.  As weeks stretch into months, Claire drives a wedge into her relationship with her critical mother by inadvertently suggesting that her late grandfather (her mother's father) was a pervert.  She tests the patience of her longtime and devoted boyfriend, Luke, a brain surgeon.  She drinks too much.  She makes wry observations about people on the tube and in coffee shops.  In fact, she does quite a few things, but little in the way of finding here true calling.  I like her boyfriend, Luke, who is faithful, loving, patient, and supportive.  Claire?  I'm not so sure. She never quite works her way into my imagination and her family is not especially likable.  I think it was a good idea, but I need a bit more.

Friday, April 14, 2017

THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT (Karen White)

What a great book!  OK, in retrospect I DID suspect the outcome, but it isn't supposed to be a mystery. What made this a great book is that I kept thinking about it and wanting to get back to reading it AND I actually remember the names of all of the main characters even though I've already started reading another novel. To me, this means that it was good!

I haven't read all of Karen White's novels, but this one seems like a bit of a departure from the ones I have read.  There is no history (although there are flashbacks to the earlier years of one of the characters) and no paranormal element, just good old-fashioned Lifetime Movie thrills.  Who doesn't enjoy a good story about a sad divorcee who moves to a new home with her children, meets an intriguing man, a wise old woman with secrets, and a too-good-to-be-true new friend?

Recent divorcee Merilee Dunlap and her two children, Lily and Colin, rent a cottage on the property of 93-year-old Sugar Bates, a widowed Sweet Apple native with some deep, dark secrets.  Since Merilee herself has a past that she has been trying to run from for years, she and Sugar discover a surprising sense of kinship.  Heather Blackford, a wealthy and attractive local woman who chairs numerous events at the children's school, recruits Merilee to help, taking her under her wing and making her a part of the school's social in-crowd.  Heather and Merilee become fast friends, but Sugar distrusts Heather's motives, especially since seemingly happily married Heather was once engaged to Wade, the grandson of Sugar's best friend, who has exhibited an interest in getting to know Heather better.  A series of mix-ups with meetings, weekend getaways, and supposedly misunderstood directions eventually lead to tragedy.  I can't say anymore with giving away the whole plot, but I will say that I loved every twist and turn.  In terms of thrillers, this isn't on par with some of the big names.  There are a few things that could have been resolved but weren't, and a few spots in the story where you might find yourself saying, "Is she really that stupid?".  However, White does such a great job of making us care about and empathize with Merilee and Sugar that you just won't care about the little flaws.  I still want to find out what happens next, but the book ended.  Darn!

THE SECRETS OF MIDWIVES (Sally Hepworth)

This is an earlier novel by the author of The Things We Keep and The Mother's Promise.  I will admit that a couple of my friends and I seem to have formed a Sally Hepworth cult.  We can't get enough of her excellent novels!

This one was published in 2015 and alternates between 3 generations of midwives - a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter, all of whom are harboring personal secrets.  Floss, 83, is retired and in a relationship with another woman.  She fled from England years ago with her newborn daughter, Grace, then finished her midwifery training and settled into life as a single mother in Rhode Island, presenting only vague details of her late husband to her family.  Grace, Floss's daughter, is going through a difficult time, personally and professionally.  He husband, Robert, an accountant, is on the verge of being downsized and spends most of his time worrying about finances, while Grace's dedication to home births and hatred of doctors may create problems with her career.  Neva, Grace's single daughter, works in a hospital birthing center as a certified nurse-midwife and has been hiding important news from everyone: she is 30 weeks pregnant.  When her condition is discovered she refuses to name the father.

While there is a bit of melodrama here, it is a wonderful book.  The details about midwifery are fascinating, the characters are actually believable and appealing, and the ending will leave you with warm feeling about human nature and acceptance.  I would not rate it quite as highly as The Things We Keep, but I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys women's fiction.  I loved it!

THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (Muriel Spark)

First of all, I don't like Jean Brodie.  She is manipulative, immoral, narcissistic, and callous.  She uses people, especially her students, to satisfy some unidentifiable lack in her own life.  Perhaps she is unable to love, or perhaps she feels that she needs to justify her own sense of superiority by minimizing the abilities of others. She is a rebel dedicated to her own cause, a standard of behavior and accomplishment that fails to take into account the talents and aspirations of others.  Instead of nurturing her students, she manipulates them.

Miss Brodie teaches at a Scottish girl's school.  Her students are 10-year-old girls, the perfect age at which to prey on their insecurities and influence their values.  The "Brodie Set" is a disparate group, including the beautiful, the brilliant, the awkward, and the clueless.  They worship Miss Brodie, each in their own way, and aspire to meet her unbendable standards of behavior and intellectual accomplishment.  She is, by her own admission, in her prime, and in her narcissistic mind this meas that she is superior (apparently no one else in her life has ever or will ever enjoy a "prime").  She also admires Mussolini and Hitler. I have to admit that I am not sure what author Spark meant to convey in this novel other than to present a character study of the ultimate narcissist.  I do know that Miss Brodie is based in part on a teacher that encouraged Spark to write, but I can't imagine that she would have been a favorite teacher!  The novel includes a great deal of flash forwards, so the reader knows what will eventually happen to each of the girls and to Miss Brodie.

Would I recommend it?  On the basis of the long-time literary merit it has enjoyed, I would.  It will keep you thinking long after you finish reading.  If you are looking for a novel to relax with and enjoy, however, I would not.  It's hard to love a novel where you thoroughly dislike the main character!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

QUIET NEIGHBORS (Catriona McPherson)

This is very different from the novels that I usually read. Jude flees London for obscure reasons (a broken marriage? a crime?  grief?) and ends up returning to a messy bookstore in Scotland that she and her then-husband had visited on an earlier holiday.  She ends up taking a job at the bookstore and forming a sort of family with the shop's owner, Lowland (Lowell) Glen, and his newly discovered daughter.

This is a novel about identity.  Who is Jude and why is she so fearful about her past being discovered?  Is Lowell's daughter really his daughter with one-night-stand Miranda, now deceased, and is she really pregnant with Lowell's grandchild?  Who are the quiet neighbors and what is the long-deceased neighbor whose books are buried in Lowell's shop trying to communicate with the obscure notes/reviews he left in so many of the volumes he owned?  What the heck is going on with Mrs. Hewitt, old Dr. Glen's nurse, who lives in a cottage on Lowell's property?

I found the story to be somewhat confusing, to tell you the truth.  I would have liked a bit more revelation about Jude's past earlier on because it was difficult to even like her when you had no idea if she was a criminal, a grief-stricken daughter, or just irresponsible.  I DID, however, enjoy the atmosphere tremendously.  You could almost smell the dusty books and feel the grottiness of the bookshop.  I loved the cottage in the cemetery, though, and wish I could visit it or live there myself!  I noticed that some people on Amazon described this as a cozy, which it certainly is not.  It is atmospheric, mysterious, annoying, and sometimes downright scary, but it is definitely not cozy.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

DON'T BELIEVE A WORD (Patricia MacDonald)

Wow!  I don't know why Patricia MacDonald isn't up there on the best-seller lists with James Patterson and Janet Evanovich.  I don't think I've ever read one of her thrillers and not liked it, and this one is certainly intriguing.  Eden Radley, a New York book editor, is shocked to hear on the news that her mother, who left Eden and her father years ago to marry a much younger man, has committed murder-suicide.  Tara Darby, the mother, apparently taped up windows and doors in her Cincinnati home while her husband, Flynn, was at a writers' conference, then left the car running in order to kill herself and her severely disabled son.  Eden is guilt-ridden about ignoring a message from her mother on the night she died, wondering if she could have prevented the tragedy.  Eden travels to Cincinnati and is appalled at the attitude and appearance of her step-father, Flynn Darby, and eventually becomes convinced that he was instrumental in the deaths of his wife and child.

MacDonald creates layers and layers of doubts, intrigue, and motives, never allowing the reader to feel that a comfortable and logical solution has been found.  She constantly surprises us, along with Eden, as new information comes to light in each chapter.  When Eden is put in the impossible position of editing Flynn's new book about his life, she has to return to Cleveland, a trip that opens up more doubts about what happened to her mother.

There are a few typical minor plotlines in this novel, including a budding love interest, and there is a woman-in-jeopardy scene that you can see coming from a mile away.  They belong in the book, though, and just add to the excitement of the story.  This novel actually touches on a wide range of issues, including mental illness, genetic disorders, infidelity, family relationships, Muslim culture, and the devastation of dealing with hopeless diagnoses.  You'll be as shocked as Eden was at the outcome, and you'll be sorry that it had to end.

Monday, March 27, 2017

MURDER MUST ADVERTIZE (Dorothy Sayers)

Whew!  Dorothy Sayers uses a lot of words and a writing technique that makes it difficult to follow the story if your mind wanders for just a second.  I know that I enjoyed Peter Wimsey novels when I was young and my mind was sharp, but apparently the old brain has slowed down a bit!

That being said, Sayers certainly does know how to put together a story.  Murder Must Advertize is a wonderful depiction of life in 1930's England, from the social and  financial lives of the average working class to the antics of the idle, non-working rich.  Wimsey belongs to the latter, but his intelligence, wit, and ability to see beyond the trappings of money (or lack thereof) endow him with universal appeal.  Yes, he goes about his business with a sort of daredevil attitude and his connection with the aristocracy is apparent in his attitudes and appearance, but his ability to blend in is uncanny.

After a worker at Pym's advertising agency is killed in a freak fall down a spiral staircase, Mr. Pym hires Lord Peter Winsey, posing as Death Bredon (who is surprisingly inexperienced in the field), to pose as a copywriter and investigate the incident.  Mr. Bredon is inquistive and a quick learner, soon insinuating himself into the lives of people who work for a living.  He manages to convince people that the monocled dandy they they spotted one evening is his look-alike cousin, Wimsey, and that they despise each other.  At Pym's Wimsey quickly begins to suspect that there was more to Victor Dean's death than meets the eye and he is soon embroiled in the world of cocaine smuggling and possible blackmail.  When suspects begin dying under mysterious circumstances, solving the puzzle and connecting the evidence becomes more urgent.

Sayers's depictions of Wimsey as the harlequin are priceless and, to the modern reader, the underground cocaine trade and dissolute behavior of the rich of 1930's (remember, the USA was in the great depression at this time) are a fascinating contrast to how we see the drug world today.  This is a great, complicated mystery with an intricate plot and a fascinating sleuth.  Don't expect it to be a quick read, though, or a novel that you can absorb without focus.  It takes some work, but it's worth it.

THE MOTHER'S PROMISE (Sally Hepworth)

Books about cancer are scary, especially when they involve single mothers with children who have issues, and this one is no exception.  Alice Stanhope and her teen daughter Zoe have always been a team of two.  Zoe's father has never been in the picture, so when Alice is diagnosed with ovarian cancer she has few people to depend on.  Zoe suffers from crippling anxiety, and as a result has few friends.  She has been the victim of bullying all of her life and depends on Alice for support and advocacy.  What would happen to her if Alice were no linger here to guide and protect her?

During the course of her cancer treatments Alice reaches out to Sonya, a social worker, and Kate, a nurse, to help her deal with Zoe and the possibility that Alice may die.  Kate and Sonya both have issues of their own.  Kate is unable to have the child that she longs for, which has created tremendous tension in her marriage, while Sonja secretly deals with a sexually abusive husband.  After a shaky start, the four women form a bond that enables each of them to confront their fears and to build a a solid bond of trust among themselves.  Beautifully written and infused with the power of love, Hepworths' novel is a must read.  There was only one sour note, the revelation of Zoe's paternity.  It just seemed a bit too trite and convenient.  I wouldn't let that stop you from reading it, though!

SHADOWS OF THE MOON (Karen White)

I had a very funny experience with this novel.  After I posted it to Goodreads I discovered that apparently the paperback version has a rather lurid picture on the cover of a shirtless and very attractive man being caressed by a beautiful woman, definitely bodice-ripper oriented and definitely posted on my Facebook page for all my friends to see.  It was embarrassing, to say the least, especially because, although romance drove some of the plot-line, this was primarily a time-travel / historical fiction story.  Yes, it definitely included romance, because why on earth would someone be compelled to settle, even temporarily, in to a completely different historical era (1863, to be exact) unless there was love involved?  There was also a child who had mysteriously disappeared 5 years before, driving protagonist Laura Truitt's need to investigate the family who lived in her current home 150 years before she did.

What I found especially compelling about this novel is the incredible sense of place.  I have grown very fond of time travel (but only into the past), especially when the author researches well and seems to be presenting a true picture of life in the past.  Here White brings in concerns about childhood immunizations, personal hygiene, costume, and communications and how they differ from 1863 to modern times.  She also endows Laura with a strong sense of responsibility to preserving the past, not changing history if that is even possible.  One of the delightful things about the story is Laura's recognition of several civil war officers from her own modern history books and her discovery that sometimes the stories that have been handed down are not quite accurate.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Shadows of the Moon.  In fact,  it has taken some time for the sensation that I had actually visited the past to wear off!  This novel has a bit of everything: romance, tragedy, historical context, intrigue, and family drama.  I would highly recommend it for a great weekend read, vacation book, or escape experience.

Monday, March 6, 2017

THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR (Allegra Goodman)

Naturally I was attracted to this book because I love cookbooks (not to be mistaken with actually BEING a good cook) and assumed that they would be an integral part of the story. Plus, the cover was very pretty!

Jessamine and Emily Bach seem as different as sisters can be.  Jessamine is a dreamer, a doctoral student in philosophy who moves from romance to romance and hasn't quite figured out what she wants to do with her life.  Older sister Emily graduated from MIT and is the CEO of Veritech, a very successful California-based Internet data storage company about to go public.  Emily is in a long-distance relationship with Jonathan, who has his own Internet start-up on the east coast.

Jessamine works part-time for George Friedman in his bookstore, a business that Jess suggests is more of a personal collection than a business.  George, 39, is a retired Microsoft millionaire who is still seeking the perfect woman to cook for and nurture.  Of course, you can seewhere this is all going.  Will Emily and Jonathan work out how to combine their lives and businesses and live happily ever after?  Will jessamine and george ultimate come to the realiztion that they were made for each other?

The Cookbook Collector includes many literary references juxtaposed against the culture and ambition of the dot com boom.  It is, interestingly, set just before (and after) 9/11.  Family heritage, values, and business figure prominently into the novel, as does its historic context and a bit of Jewish culture.  While beautifully written, this is a novel that seems even better in retrospect.  My only criticism is that I had a hard time figuring out all of the connections among the stories (a little distracting), but maybe that was just me.  I would definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A WEE HOMICIDE IN THE HOTEL (Fran Stewart)

I am officially in love with Fran Stewart's ScotShop mysteries!  I will admit that I have a great love for all things Scottish (except for the food, especially haggis) because it's literally in my blood, but it's more than that.  These would be ordinary, charming cozy mysteries were it not for Dirk, a 700-year-old ghost that attached himself to Peggy Winn when she purchased an antique shawl that belonged to his long lost love.  We learn a little more about Dirk and Peggy's connection in each novel (it won't hurt for me to reveal that it seems like Dirk is Peggy's many-times-great-grandfather) as their relationship develops.

This one, the third in the series, focuses on Hamlin, Vermont's annual highland games, where one of the leading competitors is found murdered in his hotel room before he has a chance to compete.  There is also the mystery of the missing necklace, apparently shoplifted from Peggy's shop by a mysterious couple. Is there s connection? The details of the shop and its business, the customs of the town, the complicated relationships among the characters, and, most importantly, the interplay between Peggy and her ghost, Dirk (he constantly asks her questions about modern day developments and figures of speech and reads books when she turns the pages for him) are wonderful.  I can't wait for the next one!

DEATH OF A GHOST (M.C. Beaton)

Comstable Hamish MacBeth never changes.  He longs for true love, but always ends up with a controlling woman who wants to change him and encourage his ambition.  His keen mind and intuition allow him to excel at crime solving, but his inherent laziness cause him to give away the credit nearly every time, except when it serves his purpose to be acknowledged as the hero.

Hamish and his current assistant, Charlie, decide to spend the night in a "haunted" castle near Drim to help dispel rumors of a haunting.  When Charlie falls through some rotted floor boards they discover a dead body, identity unknown, in the cellar, a body which promptly disappears when they take a break to enjoy their favorite bacon baps for breakfast.  Obviously, something is amiss at the castle, and suspects abound.  The lovesick minister and his wife, the older man with the trophy wife, the castle's owner, smugglers...all are soon under investigation.  When more murders turn up, Hamish moves into high gear, albeit at his usual leisurely pace.

All of Beaton's usual characters from this series are here:  Priscilla, the love of Hamish's life, reporter Elspeth, the colonel, Nessie and Essie, the wimpy Daviot and the insufferable Blair.  If you have some weekend time and just want to relax in the Scottish Highlands, this is the book for you!

MY NOT SO PERFECT LIFE (Sophie Kinsella)

I feel like Sophie Kinsella is growing and maturing and her writing just keeps getting better.  Although "chick-lit" has seen its day, she continues to delight her readers with fresh and enjoyable stories and characters.

How many people have a dream that just won't seem to pan out no matter how hard they work?  Sometimes talent, hard work, sacrifice, and ambition are just not enough despite what all of the inspirational posters and self-help webinars tell us.  Katie (Cat) Brenner's dream is to live in London, far away from her Somerset roots, and to have a successful career in advertising.  She is in on the ground floor at a prestigious agency, but living in near poverty and commuting for hours a day because she can't afford to live near her inadequately-paying job.  She records all of the elements of her perfect life (except that it's not actually the life she LIVES) on Instagram and has managed to convince her father and stepmother that she is living the dream.  Katie's boss, Demeter, is both a nightmare and a dream, a successful, talented phenomenon who focuses solely on getting things done, no matter who she has to trample in the process.  Unfortunately, Katie, or Cat, as she is known in London, is one of the people on whose life Demeter tramples, but somehow the table end up turning and everything will turn out as it should.

As is usual with Kinsella's heroines, Katie is intelligent, resourceful, and extremely capable, just needing someone to recognize the talent behind the disorganization and give her a chance.  I like these heroines who can create incredible things out of impossible situations, whose vulnerability and generosity make them irresistibly appealing.  Katie Fforde and Jenny Colgan come to mind as creating similar characters in their novels.  Hmm.  I wonder why these authors are all favorites of mine?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A LANTERN IN HER HAND (Bess Streeter Aldrich)

Bess Streeter Aldrich, one of Nebraska' most beloved authors, wrote about her mother in this novel, the classic and well-loved story of pioneer woman Abbie Deal.  Abbie is based on Aldrich's own mother, a strong pioneer woman who traveled by covered wagon to the midwest as child and then, after marrying, goes with her husband and a small group of settlers in 1865 to the Nebraska territory to settle a new frontier.

One of the loveliest things about Abbie, in my opinion, is that she allowed her children to live out their dreams while continuously postponing her own.  Living in a sod house and raising a family there for years, never seeing her own mother again after her marriage, losing her husband at a relatively young age...all these hardships made Abby Deal strong and resilient.  Her love for her children and joy in their accomplishments is inspiring.  She is all that we would expect a pioneer woman to be.  Beginning in 1854, the reader sees Abby transition from child to woman to wife and pioneer, then to mother, widow, and grandmother.  All the while the world is changing around her: wooden houses replace sod, the railroad comes through, cities are growing, schools are built, and automobiles appear.  Culture and industry take over the country, WWI changes lives, and the radio becomes essential to every home.  A Lantern in her Hand is like a quick snapshot of how the industrial revolution changed America and how one woman saw it through with grace, patience, and the strength to move with the times.

I can see why A Lantern in her Hand has stood the test of time.   Although it's not read as much now as it was years ago, it has endured for almost 90 years for good reason.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

THE RAGE OF PLUM BLOSSOMS (Christine M. Whitehead)

Phenomenal!  Sometimes you see a novel or read a review and you think that it looks interesting enough, that you might read it somewhere along the line  I confess that this is the way I felt when I heard about this novel, but when I arranged for the author to come and meet with our mystery book discussion group I decided that the best time to read it was now.  I really liked it.

Protagonist Quinn Jones Chang, an attorney, is grief-stricken and mystified when her beloved husband and soul mate, Jordan, is found dead outside their apartment dressed in strange clothing that she is sure he didn't own.  When his death is ruled suicide, Quinn, who absolutely believes that her husband was the victim of foul play, begins the long and painful process of discovering the truth about the death of the man she loved and expected to grow old with.  Whitehead leads the reader expertly through a maze of intrigue, suspicion, and danger, all the while maintaining a realistic feel and a balance that many "thrillers" lack.  Quinn is an attractive character, a perfume devotee (that's her funny quirk), faithful wife and loyal friend who never doubts that her husband was murdered or that she will eventually learn why he died.  Along the way, she discovers that Jordan had wealth that he never disclosed to her, an unexplained gap in his work history, and a surprise in his background that will change Quinn's future.  As the story progresses Quinn acquires a somewhat motley crew of helpers, including a fellow aficionado of scents, a graduate student, and a retired cop, all of whom are devoted to her safety and success in her mission.

I don't want to give too much away about this novel.  Whitehead has managed to write a story with just the right combination of elements.  It will appeal to most readers, I think.  It certainly appealed to me!

Friday, February 3, 2017

ECLAIR AND PRESENT DANGER (Laura Bradford)

Laura, if you happen to be reading this, I want to apologize for taking so long to read the first in your Emergency Dessert Squad series. Book clubs, new books with enticing premises and a time limit for reading them, and life got in the way, but it was worth the wait!  As someone who loves to bake (but could never make a living at it), I really enjoyed the premise, the dessert names (OK, I know I helped you a little with that, but they were all so clever!), and Winnie.

Winnie Johnson had fulfilled her lifelong dream of opening her own successful bakery, that is until her landlord decided that their small town was an up-and-coming tourist destination and raised her rent.  Her only hope of keeping the bakery open is the inheritance that her neighbor has left her, but that turns out to be an old ambulance and a cat, Lovey, who seems to hate her, so her business is down the tubes, but a new one is born - the Emergency Dessert Squad. Winnie's new business focuses on delivering desserts designed (and named) to help people deal with those everyday accomplishments and disappointments that tend to pop up on a regular basis.   Ordering up a "One Smart Cookie" or a "Can't Lose a Pound Cake" could just be the solution, and having it delivered by ambulance, complete with stretcher and an IV pole, makes it really special!

In addition to being a fantastic baker and entrepreneur, Winnie is also forced into the role of amateur sleuth when the body of her curmudgeonly neighbor, Bart, a recent widower is discovered.  Could the killer it be their annoying neighbor, Bart's seemingly devoted step-son, or someone else?  Winnie starts finding and discarding suspects with the help of a couple of elderly neighbors and her new love interest, a college professor.

The Emergency Dessert Squad series is imaginative and, may I say, mouth-watering, full of likable characters and enough of a mystery to keep the reader engaged.  I'm looking forward to the next one!

Friday, January 27, 2017

THE ELIFER CHRONICLES: EPIDEMIC (Julie Boglisch)

It is amazing that this excellent young adult novel was written by a woman in her early 20's!  Part mystery, part magical realism, and part dystopian, this engaging novel will hold your interest from start to finish.  Fast-paced and exciting, the novel is very appropriate for almost any age.  It is the story of 14-year-old twins, Karina and Maxwell, living in a decidedly unsettling version of America and searching beyond their apparently comfortable small town for their recently gone-missing mother.  Along the way they encounter a variety of menacing adversaries and some wonderful friends while trying to figure out the secrets of this unfamiliar larger world.  Politically savvy readers will find some thought provoking and scary ideas here.  I recommend it!

FLIGHT PATTERNS (Karen White)

I have found most of Karen White's novel enjoyable, but this one is special because it involved Haviland china.  I'm a china and porcelain junkie, and to have a whole novel revolve around a mysterious china pattern is a wonderful thing.

Georgia Chambers is a china and porcelain expert living in New Orleans.  She hasn't returned home to Apalachicola, Florida in more than 10 years after an incident that resulted in an estrangement from her sister, Maisie. Georgia's mother, Birdie, who has struggled with mental illness for years, hasn't spoken to anyone for 10 years, but Georgia has kept in touch with her beloved grandfather, Ned, a beekeeper.  When Georgia is asked to identify the pattern on a set of china inherited by James Graf, who inherited from his grandmother, she realizes that it is a close match to a piece that her mother owns and heads to Florida with James to compare.

White has penned a novel that is equal parts family drama, mystery, beekeeping lore, and romance, with a good dollop of WWII and Haviland Limoges china history.  This is one of those novels that you will find hard to put down once you get started, especially if you are interested in bees or china.  It is full of intrigue and well-researched information.  It actually inspired me to order some books on Haviland Limoges, Johnson Brothers, Lefton, and other china and porcelains!  

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY (John Steinbeck)

John Steinbeck was diagnosed with heart disease and, knowing that he might not have much time left, he decided at age 60 to reconnect with America.  After transforming an ordinary pickup truck (called Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse) into a traveling home to his precise specifications, Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, started their long journey across the USA and back.  This fictionalized memoir was the result.

Readers have been led to believe that Travels with Charley is a personal journal of Steinbeck's travel adventures, and in some respects it is.  Researchers have since realized that postcards, timelines, and historical evidence show that the author's descriptions of various encounters could not be entirely truthful.  Despite that fact, the memoir is delightful.  From Long Island to Maine, across to Chicago, back to his hometown of Salinas California, through Texas and by New Orleans, Steinbeck invites his readers to feast with potato farmers, camp out in seedy motels and by sparkling rivers, and witness the growth of the civil rights movement.  It doesn't really matter that his wife was actually along for the ride (and unacknowledged) much of the time or that some of the things that he described could never have happened.  It was still a great adventure and it's fun to be able to be along for the ride.

THE BLUE BEDROOM AND OTHER STORIES (Rosamund Pilcher)

This is one of those books that you can read over and over again (and I have) and wish that each story could be a full-blown novel.  Pilcher is long-retired from writing, but if you are a fan and haven't read this wonderful collection in a while, pick up a copy soon.  I love the one about the husband who works from home one day and expects his wife to make him a hot lunch, share a cup of, tea, etc., not realizing that she actually has a busy life during her time at home.  I always remembered the one about the empty nester who befriends a local author and ends up starting her own business making slipcovers.  It has always amazed me how Pilcher can take regular people going about their ordinary days and transform them into something special and memorable.

BRIDGET JONES'S BABY (Helen Fielding)

Helen Fielding started the whole chick-lit phenomenon when she published Bridget Jones's Diary in 2001.  That genre has since faded in popularity in favor of paranormal thrillers and Amish romances, but Fielding hasn't lost her touch.  Bridget Jones is still the same endearing klutz of a character, now single and out of touch with Mark Darcy (how did THAT happen?!) and on her own.  Chance "meetings" with Mark, who left her as a result of a misunderstanding involving, of course, his arch-nemesis Daniel, and with Daniel result in pregnancy for Bridget, who has no idea wich one of the men is the father.

If this sounds like typical Bridget, it is.  I thoroughly enjoy revisiting Bridget, Mark, and Daniel (they have just made a movie out of this book, but, since Hugh Grant was not available for the role of Daniel, Patrick Dempsey filled in as "the other man").  If you are a fan of Bridget Jones (the books, not necessarily the movies), this is a must.  Settle in for a winter weekend with Fielding's latest!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

CHRISTMAS AT THE LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY (Jenny Colgan)

If you've ever read this blog before, you know that I love Jenny Colgan.  There is something about her writing that is fresh, refreshing, and endearing.  The premise is strange and pretty unbelievable, as usual.  Polly lives in a freezing lighthouse on an island in Cornwall with her American fiance, Huckle, and their pet puffin, Neil.  Polly runs a very successful bakery (she is an extremely talented and hard-working baker) and is popular and very practical.  She and Huckle are in no rush to get married and Polly feels that they are already committed for life.  When Polly's best friend, Kerensa, reveals that she is 8 months pregnant (Polly hasn't seen her in a while) and that she is not sure that her husband of one year, Reuben, is the father, Polly is shocked but supportive.  And so it begins!

Writing ABOUT Colgan's books can't do them justice.  You need to read them.  You will either love them or hate them, or you may just not enjoy novels that tip toward chick-lit.  All I can say is that you should definitely try one.  Somehow they make you feel like all obstacles can be overcome, that life is an adventure, and that a sense of humor is the best way to handle most situations.  Most of all, they make you feel like life is hopeful if you are open to all it has to offer.

THE OBITUARY WRITER (Ann Hood)

Ann Hood is a lovely writer, perhaps even masterful.  The obituary writer is Vivian Lowe, a woman driven by grief after her lover is reported killed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  She never gives up hope that he somehow survived the disaster, perhaps suffering from amnesia or a grave injury.  Vivian becomes somewhat of a phenomenon, sought after by grieving relatives and friends to write obituaries that reflect the essence of their subjects rather than listing the facts of their lives.

Vivian's story alternates with that of Clair, a housewife in the 1960's.  Claire is obsessed with the beauty and lifestyle of First Lady Jackie Kennedy (strangely referred to at times as Jackie O) and unhappy in her own unfulfilling marriage.  When Claire finds love with another man and falls pregnant she is unsure of whose baby she carries and debates leaving her somewhat cold husband, Peter.  Their story culminates with a long trip in a snowstorm to visit Peter's grandmother, Birdy, to celebrate her 80th birthday.

Ann Hood, despite the fact that many of her novels are based on the process of grieving, is a writer who celebrates life and future.  I have enjoyed each of her novels in a different way and would recommend them all.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT (Maria Semple)

Maria Semple seems to specialize in women who are "a mess,"  and her main character, Eleanor Flood, certainly falls into this category.  I was surprised reading reviews on Amazon, which averaged just 3 stars.  I think I may have given it 4 on Goodreads!

Eleanor is forty-something, disorganized, disheveled, inattentive, and generally ineffective at life.  Formerly a successful animator, she is now years behind in publishing her graphic memoir.  She is the wife of Joe, hand surgeon to the stars, and the mother of Timby, a precocious elementary school student.  The story covers one improbable day in the life of Eleanor and involved Timby claiming to be sick at school, a meeting with an old colleague, and the discovery that her husband is supposedly "on vacation" from her job without her knowledge.  Semple somehow manages to combine, stress, humor, slapstick, sadness, discord, and mystery into one reasonably entertaining novel.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

SNOBBERY WITH VIOLENCE (Marion Chesney)

This is a cute series, written by Marion Chesney, a.k.a. M.C. Beaton, author of the Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin mysteries.  Beautiful, intelligent  Lady Rose has failed to snag a husband during her "season" and her parents are extremely vexed by her tendency to speak out for causes, like women's suffrage, which they consider unladylike.  Lady Rose is in love and expecting to become engaged as the novel opens, but her father, hearing unsavory rumors about the man in Rose's life, hires impoverished gentleman Harry Cathcart to investigate and he discovers that seduction, ratrher than a wedding, are on the agenda.  Lady Rose's reputation (but not her suitor's) is ruined when she reveals his intent and her parents decide to send her to a country estate party where she is likely to meet some eligible men.  When people start dying under mysterious circumstances Harry Cathcart, who by now is developing a successful private investigating business, is called in, since the police are lower class and the estate's owner need to preserve his reputation.  Of course Rose, being the smart, curious young woman that she is, joins in the investigation.  Is this the beginning of a beautiful partnership?  I guess we'll see over the next 3 books in this series.  Pick it up if' you're looking for a pleasant, entertaining novel for a relaxing weekend.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF MAINE (Ann Hood)

This is Ann Hood's first novel and was originally a set of connected short stories.  I think that this shows a bit, to tell you the truth, but I'm not a critic!  I did enjoy this story of three friends, Rebecca, Claudia, and Suzanne, who attended college together in Maine in the late 1960's.  Rebecca and Claudia are true children of the era, embracing all of the lifestyle choices that parents feared during that era - pot smoking, free love, rebelliousness.  Suzanne, the most traditional of the three, is a reluctant participant until she falls in love with a handsome poet named Abel and moves in with him, keeping the relationship a secret from her straight-laced parents.

Rebecca is truly in love with Howard, her soul-mate, and eventually gives birth to Rebekah, a difficult, moody child.  Claudia seems more to be in love with the idea of love and family rather than besotted with Peter, who doesn't really seem sure of where he fits into Claudia's scheme for her life. Peter doesn't really believe that he is baby Simon's father until he is born, and the couple goes on to have 2 more sons.  Claudia envisions spending her life raising her 3 handsome and exceptional sons, Simon, Henry, and Johnathon, until tragedy intervenes and she and her life begin to unravel  Suzanne eventually finds herself pregnant, only to discover that Abel, whom she considers the love of her life, is not interested in marriage, security, or a baby, and would like to continue on as they have been.  Suzanne refuses to get rid of the baby and returns home in disgrace to raise her daughter on her own.

While Suzanne's daughter, Sparrow, and her quest to find her father seems to be the focus of this novel, it's really about the three women, their choices and eventual consequences.  Most of the action takes place in the 60's and early 70's. then in the early 80's when Sparrow is in her teens and desperate to connect with the man who fathered her.  All of the women are struggling in one way or another, with physical and mental illness, grief, or the need to prove that they have made the right decisions for their lives.  This is an interesting little novel that raises a lot of questions about choices and their ramifications.  I didn't like it as much as Hood's The Book That Matters Most, but it was definitely worth the time.

THE FIFTH AVENUE ARTISTS SOCIETY (Joy Calloway)

The gilded age in New York City was a time of intellectual and artistic awakening set against a backdrop of old-fashioned social mores and class distinction.  The Loftin family is living in what we would call genteel poverty, each of the 5 adult children working to keep their home and maintain a reasonable lifestyle after the death of their father.  The 4 sisters, all artists in their own way, are expected to seek advantageous marriages while brother Franklin, twin to Virginia tries to support the family with his sales position.  Bess is a talented milliner, frequently sought after to create fantastic hats for society's elite, like the Astors and Vanderbilts.  Alevia is a wonderful pianist, rejected time and again from the local symphony because of her gender, but in great demand to play for various social gatherings at the homes of the best families.  Mae, the youngest, is an aspiring teacher like their mother, and Virginia, the main protagonist of the story, is a writer.  Virgina has been in love with Charlie, the boy next door, since she was a young girl, and she is shocked and devastated when he proposes marriage to another, wealthier, young woman right in front of her at a party.

Franklin eventually introduces Virginia to John Hopper, who frequently hosts artists' salons at his beautiful home on Fifth Avenue, welcoming writers and artist of both genders to work and critique each other.  Having been rejected from other salons because she is a woman, Virginia is thrilled to be welcomed and develops close relationships with several of the people she meets there, including John Hopper, with whom she forms a special bond.  Calloway includes Oscar Wilde and Edith Wharton as guests at the salon, which adds a special touch of authenticity to the story.

This isn't just a sweet story about a young woman trying to find success as a writer and rediscover love.  As the novel progresses, Calloway weaves in several intriguing plot lines involving Franklin's work and a couple of mysterious deaths that will keep every reader wondering and waiting for the next development.  This is Calloway's first novel and I hope it isn't her last!


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.

Ava Tucker's 25-year marriage ends when her husband reconnects with Delia, an old girlfriend, now a yarn bomber.  With both of her children living overseas, Ava is desperate for companionship, so when a spot opens up in her librarian friend's book club, Ava is thrilled to join.  Although she doesn't seem particularly interested in actually reading the books at first, she is getting out and meeting new people, being a part of something.  Each year the book club chooses a theme and this year each of the members is asked to choose for discussion the book that has mattered most in their lives, made a significant difference or changed their way of thinking, helped them deal with a situation. Most in the group make expected choices like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a  Mockingbird, or Pride and Prejudice.  Ava chooses an obscure book that helped her to cope with the death of her younger sister years ago and to deal with the subsequent suicide of her mother.  She also promises the group that she has contacted the author and that she has agreed to meet with the group.

As a young girl, Ava witnessed her young sister, Lily, falling to her death form a tree while Ava sat in the shade reading a book.  Their mother, guilty because of the extra-marital affair in which she was engaging when her beloved daughter died, finally abandons her lover and her family, leaving her car at a local bridge and disappearing forever.  Although her body is never found, she is presumed to have committed suicide, and Ava and her father are left to grieve as a family of two.  Ava finds comfort in a novel given to her by her neighbor, reading it over and over again after the loss of her other,.  This is the same novel that she suggests for the book group.

While Ava is adjusting to being part of the book group, her daughter Maggie, supposedly studying art in Italy, follows a boy to France and ends up alone and vulnerable, finally meeting and falling in love with an older, manipulative man who introduces her to heroin.  Maggie is not a nice girl nor a particularly likable character.  She is promiscuous and pretty wanton, experienced far beyond her years with sex and various drugs.  I found it a little unbelievable that her mother, especially one whose daughter has caused so many problems and made so many bad choices in the past, could spend such a long period of time without any substantial communication with Maggie, whose harrowing story is told in chapters alternating with Ava's.

Despite the need to suspend belief a bit (but, really, isn't real life often unbelievable?), I loved this novel.  Perhaps it's because I'm a book lover, or maybe it was the interesting cast of characters.  Ann  Hood is now officially on my list of favorite authors!

AWAY WITH THE FAIRIES (Kerry Greenwood)

Phryne Fisher is an Australian aristocrat with a flair for solving murders.  If you get a chance, check out the TV series featuring this sophisticated sleuth.  It doesn't follow the novels exactly, of course (what TV series does?), but you'll enjoy seeing Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) in action.

In this novel, a famous author and illustrator of books featuring fairies has been discovered dead, along with her pet bird, in her office at a popular magazine.  Phryne joins the staff to investigate the woman's sudden death, which doesn't appear to be a natural one.  In the process of her investigation she is introduced to a large number of quirky magazine employees, most of whom live in the same apartment complex as the deceased, so naturally suspects abound.  In the meantime, Phryne's Asian lover, a successful businessman, has disappeared and she takes on the task of finding him with the help of 2 somewhat unsavory but totally loyal henchmen.   This is a fun series with a very likable heroine.  I plan to read more!

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)

Dorothea Benton Frank is a master of creating a sense of place.  In her novels you can almost smell the salt air and feel the humidity of South Carolina's Low Country.

Shem Creek is the story of Linda Breland, a New Jersey housewife and mother of 2 teenage girls.  Fed up by her ex-husband, who is set to marry a successful woman 10 years younger than Linda, and her younger daughter Gracie's penchant for choosing badly in almost every arena of her life, Linda decides to move back home to South Carolina and  stay with her divorced sister Mimi while she looks for work, a place to live, and a new life.  Linda finds not only a new career, but a man as well (surprise), in the person of restaurant owner Brad Jackson, who has issues of his own.  Brad  has been cheated by both his father-in-law and his almost ex-wife, Loretta, who lives in Atlanta with their only son.  Both Brad and Linda have "issues," but both are strong and determined and, really, likable.


I won't go on too much about this novel.  The characters are endearing, the story will hold your interest, and Frank skillfully weaves the creek and the Low country throughout the story.  As usual, you end up feeling like you were actually there AND you look forward to returning again very 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.  After discovering that her husband has been cheating on her with a bimbo in her twenties, Susan flees with her daughter, Beth, to her old family home on Sullivan's Island, SC, the home where her sister Maggie has been raising her family.  While Susan grieves for her broken marriage, she meets the local newspaper editor, who offers her a job writing a household hints column for the paper.  With the help of her writing and her fierce love for her daughter, Susan begins to regain her sense of self-worth with humor and determination.

Frank manages to combine two sadly common stories, set during two different eras in Susan's life, into a wonderful story full of interesting characters and a wonderful sense of place.  No wonder this first novel led to so many other excellent ones!

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?