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

Monday, March 6, 2017

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?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

PUSHING UP DAISIES (M.C. Beaton)

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

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

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

SMILE AND BE A VILLAIN (Jeanne Dams)

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

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR (Herman Wouk)

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

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

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

ISLE OF PALMS (Dorothea Benton Frank)

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE GIRL ON LEGARE STREET (Karen White)

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

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

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

MURDER IN CHELSEA (Victoria Thompson)

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

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

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

Sunday, July 31, 2016

SO BIG (Edna Ferber)

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

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

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

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

TRULY MADLY GUILTY (Liane Moriarty)

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

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

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

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


Saturday, July 23, 2016

SEA CHANGE (Karen White)

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

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

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

FULL OF GRACE (Dorothea Benton Frank)

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

AN UNQUIET MIND (Kay Redfield Jamison)

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

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

BELLOWS FALLS (Archer Mayor)

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

FIRST COMES LOVE (Emily Giffin)

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

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

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

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


Monday, June 27, 2016

ALL THE SINGLE LADIES (Dorothea Benton Frank)

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

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

THE ISLAND HOUSE (Nancy Thayer)

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

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

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

Monday, June 20, 2016

THE SOUND OF GLASS (Karen White)

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

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

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

SPLINTERS OF LIGHT (Rachel Herron)

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

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

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

Friday, June 10, 2016

ALL SUMMER LONG (Dorothea Benton Frank)

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (Betty Smith)

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

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

WEEKENDERS (Mary Kay Andrews)

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

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

TUMBLEDOWN MANOR (Helen Brown)

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

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

Thursday, May 19, 2016

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

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

WHEN IN DOUBT, ADD BUTTER (Beth Harbison)

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

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

A FATAL GRACE (Louise Penny)

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

Monday, May 2, 2016

THE LITTLE SHOP OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER (Jenny Colgan)

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

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

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

THE MOVING FINGER (Agatha Christie)

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

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

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


SUMMER AT THE LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY (Jenny Colgan)

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

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

Sunday, April 24, 2016

FALLING HOME (Karen White)

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

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

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


A WEE DOSE OF DEATH (Fran Stewart)

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

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

DEATH IN LACQUER RED (Jeanne Dams)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

ALL OF US & EVERYTHING (Bridget Asher)

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

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

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

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

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

THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (Agatha Christie)

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

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

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

Monday, March 21, 2016

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON (Elizabeth Strout)

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

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

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