Friday, February 7, 2020

The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare

Since his return from war, the Duke of Ashbury’s to-do list has been short and anything but sweet: brooding, glowering, menacing London ne’er-do-wells by night. Now there’s a new item on the list. He needs an heir—which means he needs a wife. When Emma Gladstone, a vicar’s daughter turned seamstress, appears in his library wearing a wedding gown, he decides on the spot that she’ll do.

His terms are simple:
- They will be husband and wife by night only.
- No lights, no kissing.
- No questions about his battle scars.
- Last, and most importantly… Once she’s pregnant with his heir, they need never share a bed again.

But Emma is no pushover. She has a few rules of her own:
- They will have dinner together every evening.
- With conversation.
- And unlimited teasing.
- Last, and most importantly… Once she’s seen the man beneath the scars, he can’t stop her from falling in love…

I loved the beginning of this book when Emma shows up in a wedding dress made for Ash's former fiance, demanding to get paid. Emma is feisty and proud and compassionate- all a person could want in a romance novel heroine. Ash is a wounded warrior with a wickedly dry sense of humor which makes him an excellent hero. They share a great chemistry and a great dynamic, and watching them fall in love and come to terms with a future together is delightful. All in all a great read!

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Whisper Network by Chandler Baker

Sloane, Ardie, Grace, and Rosalita have worked at Truviv, Inc. for years. The sudden death of Truviv’s CEO means their boss, Ames, will likely take over the entire company. Each of the women has a different relationship with Ames, who has always been surrounded by whispers about how he treats women. Those whispers have been ignored, swept under the rug, hidden away by those in charge.

But the world has changed, and the women are watching this promotion differently. This time, when they find out Ames is making an inappropriate move on a colleague, they aren’t willing to let it go. This time, they’ve decided enough is enough.

Sloane and her colleagues’ decision to take a stand sets in motion a catastrophic shift in the office. Lies will be uncovered. Secrets will be exposed. And not everyone will survive. All of their lives—as women, colleagues, mothers, wives, friends, even adversaries—will change dramatically as a result.

"If only you had listened to us,” they tell us on page one, “none of this would have happened."

Whisper Network was a timely and trenchant read. This story of women dealing with an abusive boss and with the aftermath of his death hits hard on themes that are relevant to so many women. The female characters are all flawed in their own ways which makes them highly realistic. The impact of their experiences with the abuser are so different and yet there are commonalities that they find bringing them together. An excellent read on a disturbingly common problem- highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn't heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the matter where it leads.

The Alice Network is a fictional account strongly rooted in history. This story of women and war is an eye-opening reminder of man's inhumanity to man, and the far-reaching impact of that violence. Both Charlie and Eve carry the scars of war, and finding out how those scars are connected is the central premise of the story. I enjoyed very much the interactions between these two generations of women, and found those the strongest part of the novel. I did feel that the knowledge of what exactly happened to Eve took so long to emerge that its impact was blunted by the rapidly approaching denouement. I found the final confrontation unsatisfying because I felt it wrapped things up rather abruptly. That said, I did appreciate the fast-forward at the end to see how Charlie and Eve were faring in the future. All in all, an enjoyable read. 4 stars.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Becoming by Michelle Obama

In a life filled with meaning and accomplishment, Michelle Obama has emerged as one of the most iconic and compelling women of our era. As First Lady of the United States of America—the first African American to serve in that role—she helped create the most welcoming and inclusive White House in history, while also establishing herself as a powerful advocate for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world, dramatically changing the ways that families pursue healthier and more active lives, and standing with her husband as he led America through some of its most harrowing moments. Along the way, she showed us a few dance moves, crushed Carpool Karaoke, and raised two down-to-earth daughters under an unforgiving media glare.

I don't usually read memoirs or autobiographies, but I made an exception for [Becoming] because I wanted to learn more about what it was like to be Michelle Obama, a woman with no love for politics and with a life and career of her own, thrust into the role of the First Lady in a truly historical presidency. I love the book focused less on her time in the White House and more on the life that led up to those years. learning more about her family, about the circumstances that formed her, were eye-opening and helped explain her later focus on family and children and health. Her voice is powerful and unapologetic, and throughout she never loses sight of herself as a person and not just a symbol or a spouse. Highly recommended!

Monday, February 3, 2020

Misfit Match by Sydney Ann Clary

He had rescued her. Now she would rescue him.

At the age of twenty, Catherine Carr was at the mercy of her aunt and her three cousins. Treated no better than a slave and threatened with an odious marriage, Catherine decided to escape.

As it would happen, she was rescued by Marcus, the Earl of Barrington, whom she had always secretly loved. Marcus, scarred in the war, had returned to London only to be cruelly rejected by his fiancee, Catherine's cousin.

Perceiving marriage would answer to both their needs, Marcus proposed and Catherine accepted. Knowing he did not love her did not change her determination to free him from his bonds of bitterness. She would gladly have paid any price, never suspecting how great the reward.

I picked up Misfit Match because I love another one of Clary's books (The Duchess and the Devil) and was hoping to find the same magic; sadly I did not. The book was a fine read with an interesting plot, but I just didn't find that same connection to the characters. I only finished it a couple of weeks ago, and already I have a hard time remembering much of anything about the specifics. Catherine's family was terrible but I thought Marcus could have done a much better job of rescuing her from them, and Catherine herself was too dithery for my taste. I also thought there was too much that went unsaid- this book would definitely have been longer to let us see Catherine and Marcus actually develop a relationship. An OK read but not one I'm likely to pick up again. 3 stars.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Obsession by Nora Roberts

“She stood in the deep, dark woods, breath shallow and cold prickling over her skin despite the hot, heavy air. She took a step back, then two, as the urge to run fell over her.”

Naomi Bowes lost her innocence the night she followed her father into the woods. In freeing the girl trapped in the root cellar, Naomi revealed the horrible extent of her father’s crimes and made him infamous. No matter how close she gets to happiness, she can’t outrun the sins of Thomas David Bowes.

Now a successful photographer living under the name Naomi Carson, she has found a place that calls to her, a rambling old house in need of repair, thousands of miles away from everything she’s ever known. Naomi wants to embrace the solitude, but the kindly residents of Sunrise Cove keep forcing her to open up—especially the determined Xander Keaton.

Naomi can feel her defenses failing, and knows that the connection her new life offers is something she’s always secretly craved. But the sins of her father can become an obsession, and, as she’s learned time and again, her past is never more than a nightmare away.

[The Obsession] is a wonderful romantic thriller- one of the most enjoyable of Nora Roberts offerings in my opinion. I loved that the story started so early in Naomi's life given how formative those experiences were. I felt great affection for Naomi, Mason, Seth and Harry (I would love to see Mason star in a later book) in ways that truly vested me in the story. Xander too is a great hero- strong, smart, and real in a way few romance heroes really are. Watching he and Naomi carve out a relationship while past and present crashed around them made for an extremely satisfying read. Add in the photography and home renovation elements, and this is basically my perfect romantic thriller. 5 stars!

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Echoes in Death by J.D. Robb

As NY Lt. Eve Dallas and her billionaire husband Roarke are driving home, a young woman—dazed, naked, and bloody—suddenly stumbles out in front of their car. Roarke slams on the brakes and Eve springs into action.

Daphne Strazza is rushed to the ER, but it’s too late for her husband Dr. Anthony Strazza. A brilliant orthopedic surgeon, he now lies dead amid the wreckage of his obsessively organized town house, his three safes opened and emptied. Daphne would be a valuable witness, but in her terror and shock the only description of the perp she can offer is repeatedly calling him “the devil”...

While it emerges that Dr. Strazza was cold, controlling, and widely disliked, this is one case where the evidence doesn’t point to the spouse. So Eve and her team must get started on the legwork, interviewing everyone from dinner-party guests to professional colleagues to caterers, in a desperate race to answer some crucial questions:
What does the devil look like? And where will he show up next?

Echoes in Death is yet another re-read from a series I very much enjoy. Sometimes the mystery isn't as important to me as where Eve and Roarke are going, but this offering is one where the mystery itself was extremely engaging. Watching Eve track the the killer was very satisfying, as was the twist that anchored the emotional heart of the book. Vintage J.D. Robb- a great entry into a great series!

Friday, January 31, 2020

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

It’s seven in the morning. The Bantrys wake to find the body of a young woman in their library. She is wearing an evening dress and heavy makeup, which is now smeared across her cheeks. But who is she? How did she get there? And what is the connection with another dead girl, whose charred remains are later discovered in an abandoned quarry?

The respectable Bantrys invite Miss Marple into their home to investigate. Amid rumors of scandal, she baits a clever trap to catch a ruthless killer.

[The Body in the Library] is one of my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries, one that truly reveals the genius of Miss Marple. The mystery itself is perfect- it has glamorous movie people and the village staples plus a healthy dose of suspicious characters. In addition, it has a deft psychological discussion of guilt and innocence and the power of gossip to ruin lives that would not be out of place in a modern conversation about crime. Highly recommended!

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood—where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him. In Colson Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor: engineers and conductors operate a secret network of actual tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora embarks on a harrowing flight from one state to the next, encountering, like Gulliver, strange yet familiar iterations of her own world at each stop. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the terrors of the antebellum era, he weaves in the saga of our nation, from the brutal abduction of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is both the gripping tale of one woman's will to escape the horrors of bondage—and a powerful meditation on the history we all share.

After reading The Underground Railroad I can see why it won so many accolades. This rich and layered narrative is truly a must-read. The unremitting pain of Cora's life was presented in such a deadpan way it underlined the stark horror of slavery. Envisioning the Underground Railroad as a real railroad gave the whole concept an air of fantasy and power for the reader that I think must echo the way reality of it at the time- spoken about only carefully, treasured for the sliver of hope for escape that it provided. The story is often violent and disturbing and it does not make for a comfortable read, but no story about slavery should. Once I started reading, I could not put it down, and I'm still thinking about it weeks after finishing it. 5 stars.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

A world at stake. A quest for the ultimate prize. Are you ready?

In the year 2045, reality is an ugly place. The only time Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the OASIS, a vast virtual world where most of humanity spends their days.

When the eccentric creator of the OASIS dies, he leaves behind a series of fiendish puzzles, based on his obsession with the pop culture of decades past. Whoever is first to solve them will inherit his vast fortune—and control of the OASIS itself.

Then Wade cracks the first clue. Suddenly he’s beset by rivals who’ll kill to take this prize. The race is on—and the only way to survive is to win.

I wasn't sure what to expect with Ready Player One but I'm so glad I gave this book a try. Though I myself don't play video games, I loved the treasure hunt element of this story, and couldn't help but embrace the 1980s memories that were so central to the plot. Though in some ones this is a terrifying vision of the future where people prefer to exist in the virtual world rather than the real world, still ultimately it celebrates the human connections as critical. It's also a rollickingly fun read. Highly recommended 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Nine people gather at a remote health resort. Some are here to lose weight, some are here to get a reboot on life, some are here for reasons they can’t even admit to themselves. Amidst all of the luxury and pampering, the mindfulness and meditation, they know these ten days might involve some real work. But none of them could imagine just how challenging the next ten days are going to be.

Frances Welty, the formerly best-selling romantic novelist, arrives at Tranquillum House nursing a bad back, a broken heart, and an exquisitely painful paper cut. She’s immediately intrigued by her fellow guests. Most of them don’t look to be in need of a health resort at all. But the person that intrigues her most is the strange and charismatic owner/director of Tranquillum House. Could this person really have the answers Frances didn’t even know she was seeking? Should Frances put aside her doubts and immerse herself in everything Tranquillum House has to offer – or should she run while she still can?

It’s not long before every guest at Tranquillum House is asking exactly the same question.

Nine Perfect Strangers was an interesting read. Learning more about why each of these nine characters found themselves at this spa/resort engaging in a wellness program was a lovely microcosm of society. The way these stories slowly unfolded was masterfully handled, and each seemed perfectly realistic despite the somewhat overdrawn nature of the problems they faced. This isn't really a thriller, it's more a coming of age story despite the fact that the majority of the characters are already adults. Oddly intriguing, this at times trenchant look at the self-help industry nevertheless delivers a series of happy endings that satisfy the reader. 4 stars.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Now That You Mention It by Kristan Higgins

One step forward. Two steps back. The Tufts scholarship that put Nora Stuart on the path to becoming a Boston medical specialist was a step forward. Being hit by a car and then overhearing her boyfriend hit on another doctor when she thought she was dying? Two major steps back.

Injured in more ways than one, Nora feels her carefully built life cracking at the edges. There’s only one place to land: home. But the tiny Maine community she left fifteen years ago doesn’t necessarily want her. At every turn, someone holds the prodigal daughter of Scupper Island responsible for small-town drama and big-time disappointments.

With a tough islander mother who’s always been distant, a wild-child sister in jail and a withdrawn teenage niece as eager to ditch the island as Nora once was, Nora has her work cut out for her if she’s going to take what might be her last chance to mend the family. Balancing loss and opportunity, dark events from her past with hope for the future, Nora will discover that tackling old pain makes room for promise…and the chance to begin again.

My sister recommended Now That You Mention It and I too found it to be a solid good read though not really what I expected from Kristan Higgins. It took a bit of time to feel invested in the main character who at first I found a bit cold. As Nora's backstory unfolded, however, I found myself cheering for her and so her troubled family. I did find it a bit unrealistic that everyone in town maintained such hostility toward her for winning that scholarship - since she went on to be a doctor while the so-called "golden boy" Luke wrecked his car days later while drunk and high (also causing a permanent disability in his brother), it seems like people should have figured out she was always the better candidate! Overall the storyline was much darker than I expected, and I found the final resolution with Luke to be over the top. Nevertheless, a decent read - 4 stars.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Sometimes, when you open the door to the past, what you confront is your destiny.

Reclusive author Vida Winter, famous for her collection of twelve enchanting stories, has spent the past six decades penning a series of alternate lives for herself. Now old and ailing, she is ready to reveal the truth about her extraordinary existence and the violent and tragic past she has kept secret for so long. Calling on Margaret Lea, a young biographer troubled by her own painful history, Vida disinters the life she meant to bury for good. Margaret is mesmerized by the author's tale of gothic strangeness—featuring the beautiful and willful Isabelle, the feral twins Adeline and Emmeline, a ghost, a governess, a topiary garden and a devastating fire. Together, Margaret and Vida confront the ghosts that have haunted them while becoming, finally, transformed by the truth themselves.

The Thirteenth Tale was another re-read for me, one I'm shocked to discover I never reviewed. I read this book years ago and fell in love, not just with the story, but with the way the narrator fell into the story and pulled the reader with her. The language, the pictures it paints, the wreck of Angelfield and the family- they pulled me in all those years ago, and they pulled me in again today even though I knew the twist that was coming. This is a book written for readers, one that recognizes the magnetic pull of a good tale and the need to stay up all night to finish it. I've read Bellman and Black and though well-written, it didn't resonate for me the way The Thirteenth Tale did. I was a little afraid that reading this book again would ruin it- that I wouldn't find the same magic and so would ruin the memory of how good it was. Instead I am again bewitched, again finding it hard to shake off the tendrils of the story. 5 stars.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

I enjoyed In Farleigh Field though not as much as Bowen's Her Royal Spyness series. This book lacks the humor that makes the series so enjoyable, though it does feature some great characters. I enjoyed the view of WWII on the home front, and thought the key characters were well drawn. The problem for me is the rather abrupt end that doesn't explore at all the motivations of the people who were in fact working against the state as I think that would have been the most interesting conclusion. Everything just wrapped up too quickly which was disappointing as I felt invested in the affairs of the family. 3.5 stars for me.

Friday, January 11, 2019

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

It's 1957, and the famed theater critic A. S. Crystal has come to the British seaside resort of Brighton with something other than the local production of A Shilling in the Meter on his mind. Sitting in the Brighton Royal Theater with Constable Twitten, Crystal intends to tell the detective the secret he knows about the still-unsolved Aldersgate Stick-Up case of 1945. And yet, just before Crystal names the criminal mastermind involved, he's shot dead in his seat.

With a new murder case on his hands and a lazy captain at the helm of the police department, the keen and clever Constable Twitten and his colleague Sargent Jim Brunswick set out to solve the decade-old mystery of the Aldersgate Stick-Up. As the partners venture deep into the criminal underworld that lies beneath Brighton's holiday-happy veneer, they begin to discover a criminal conspiracy that dates back decades. But will Brunswick and Twitten be able to foil the mastermind, or will Crystal's death become just another unsolved crime in this seemingly peaceful seaside city?

I loved this book right up until the end, but ultimately was disappointed with the finale (I won't say more because I don't want to be a spoiler!) Well-written and fast-moving, this book was a delight to read. I loved the tone, the vocabulary, and the interesting cast of characters populating this Brighton book, and will likely pick the next installment to see how things go for the brilliant yet unlucky Constable Twitten.