Monday, December 26, 2011

I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

Book description:
It’s Christmastime, and the precocious Flavia de Luce—an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry and a penchant for crime-solving—is tucked away in her laboratory, whipping up a concoction to ensnare Saint Nick. But she is soon distracted when a film crew arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luces’ decaying English estate, to shoot a movie starring the famed Phyllis Wyvern. Amid a raging blizzard, the entire village of Bishop’s Lacey gathers at Buckshaw to watch Wyvern perform, yet nobody is prepared for the evening’s shocking conclusion: a body found, past midnight, strangled to death with a length of film. But who among the assembled guests would stage such a chilling scene? As the storm worsens and the list of suspects grows, Flavia must use every ounce of sly wit at her disposal to ferret out a killer hidden in plain sight.

This fourth novel featuring aspiring chemist-cum-sleuth Flavia De Luce is a wonderful addition to the canon with more focus on Flavia than on the murder mystery. Though the mystery of a world-famous actress cruelly killed while prepping to film a movie at cold and crumbling Buskshaw over the Christmas holiday is never really that engaging, it was the insights into Flavia and her relationships with her friends and family that are revealed which kept me reading late into the night. Flavia, determined to use science to capture Father Christmas, is a charming blend of naivete and experience, a mini-adult in some ways still struggling to come to terms with her childhood in others. Flavia is growing up and asking questions, revealing in the process a compelling vulnerability and emotional depth that was less evident in the earlier books. Heck, she didn't even try to poison anyone this time around!

All in all a great addition to any library; certainly a wonderful idea for a gift this holiday season!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massey

Book description:
Born into a minor German noble family, Catherine transformed herself into Empress of Russia by sheer determination. Possessing a brilliant mind and an insatiable curiosity as a young woman, she devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers and, when she reached the throne, attempted to use their principles to guide her rule of the vast and backward Russian empire. She knew or corresponded with the preeminent historical figures of her time: Voltaire, Diderot, Frederick the Great, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette, and, surprisingly, the American naval hero, John Paul Jones.

Reaching the throne fired by Enlightenment philosophy and determined to become the embodiment of the “benevolent despot” idealized by Montesquieu, she found herself always contending with the deeply ingrained realities of Russian life, including serfdom. She persevered, and for thirty-four years the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution that swept across Europe. Her reputation depended entirely on the perspective of the speaker. She was praised by Voltaire as the equal of the greatest of classical philosophers; she was condemned by her enemies, mostly foreign, as “the Messalina of the north.”

Though the heft of this book is daunting when you first pick it up, persevere. It only takes a few pages before you lose track of time and find yourself transported into the past. I read almost half the book in one sitting without even realizing it because the narrative was just so engaging. This is an excellently researched and well-drawn portrait of a truly fascinating woman who transformed herself from a pawn to the Empress of Russia. Massie's writing style is accessible and the characters he reveals through his prose create a deep well of interest and empathy. I knew very little about Catherine the Great before picking up this book, and was stunned by how she seized control of her own destiny to save herself and her adopted country.

Highly recommended, 5 stars.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews

Book description:
Nineteen-year-old Irma lives in a rural Mennonite community in Mexico. She has already been cast out of her family for marrying a young Mexican ne’er-do-well she barely knows, although she remains close to her rebellious younger sister and yearns for the lost intimacy with her mother. With a husband who proves elusive and often absent, a punishing father, and a faith in God damaged beyond repair, Irma appears trapped in an untenable and desperate situation. When a celebrated Mexican filmmaker and his crew arrive from Mexico City to make a movie about the insular community in which she was raised, Irma is immediately drawn to the outsiders and is soon hired as a translator on the set. But her father, intractable and domineering, is determined to destroy the film and get rid of the interlopers. His action sets Irma on an irrevocable path toward something that feels like freedom.

It only took a few pages for me to be completely hooked by this compelling novel- the spare prose and complicated characters make for a wonderful read. The story is told from the point of view of Irma, a 19 year old Mennonite girl in Mexico haunted by family secrets and the decisions she has made in life. When a strange film crew shows up to make a movie about her community, Irma is catapaulted into a new reality, one where she has new choices to make which have far-reaching consequences.

Watching Irma's torment as she tries to come to terms with her relationships with family and with God, I was unable to put this book down. The writing is bare bones which is disconcerting at first but quickly come to highlight the spare lifestyle Irma lives within the confines of her community. As the story of her past unfolds, it is impossible not to feel for Irma as she tries to correct her mistakes.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book Description:
What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last.

The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

This book is young adult fiction at its best- a serious message presented as an incredibly engaging story. Sam is one of the queen bees of her high school- pretty, popular and seemingly perfect. And then she dies and she can't figure out why. As she relives the last day of her life over and over, trying different tactics to change the ultimate outcome, she reveals an astonishing depth of character and understanding for both her family, friends and those outsiders whose lives have touched on hers. It is difficult to go into much detail without spoiling this wonderful story, but trust me that once you start this book, you won't be able to put it down.

Samantha has an incredibly authentic voice, one capable of speaking to adults and teens alike. Her revelations about bullying, eating disorders, sex, and peer pressure are sure to strike a chord with any reader. This engaging novel also shares some powerful insights into the sometimes heartbreaking realities of teen life. Highly recommended- the best young adult book I read all year!

Monday, December 5, 2011

How the Mistakes Were Made by Tyler McMahon

Book description:
Laura Loss came of age in the hardcore punk scene of the early 1980s. The jailbait bass player in her brother Anthony’s band, she grew up traveling the country, playing her heart out in a tight network of show venues to crowds soaked in blood and sweat. The band became notorious, the stars of a shadow music industry. But when Laura was 18, it all fell apart. Anthony’s own fans destroyed him, something which Laura never forgot.

Ten years later, Laura finds her true fame with the formation of The Mistakes, a gifted rock band that bursts out of ‘90s Seattle to god-like celebrity. When she discovered Nathan and Sean, the two flannel-clad misfits who, along with her, composed the band, she instantly understood that Sean’s synesthesia—a blending of the senses that allows him to “see” the music— infused his playing with an edge that would take them to the top. And it did. But it, along with his love for Laura, would also be their downfall.

At the moment of their greatest fame, the volatile bonds between the three explode in a mushroom cloud of betrayal, deceit, and untimely endings. The world blames Laura for destroying its rock heroes. Hated by the fans she’s spent her life serving, she finally tells her side of the story, the “true” story, of the rise and fall of The Mistakes.

This wonderful book tells the tale of Laura Loss who grew up in the punk rock scene in the 1980s then lost it all when that scene turned on her brother and their band. Now working in a coffee shop in Seattle and still playing music, she meets two young musicians in Montana and sees a spark. When they turn up at her door and fall into a gig, they accidentally become the hottest new indie band in the country. When the band implodes, torn apart by drugs, sex, and rock & roll, Laura finds herself blamed by the world- this book is her story of how the Mistakes were made.

Told in spare prose from Laura's perspective, this novel is raw and moving. As the band spirals out of control, Laura is forced to look at her life and her history and her music. Caught between the fans, the record companies, and her feelings for her bandmates, Laura has to confront the reality that success is fleeting and that sometimes the music itself just isn't enough. Well-written and ultimately heartbreaking, this novel is an excellent look at the music industry and life and love. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Sound Among the Trees by Susan Meissner

Book Description:
A house shrouded in time.
A line of women with a heritage of loss.

As a young bride, Susannah Page was rumored to be a Civil War spy for the North, a traitor to her Virginian roots. Her great-granddaughter Adelaide, the current matriarch of Holly Oak, doesn’t believe that Susannah’s ghost haunts the antebellum mansion looking for a pardon, but rather the house itself bears a grudge toward its tragic past.

When Marielle Bishop marries into the family and is transplanted from the arid west to her husband’s home, it isn’t long before she is led to believe that the house she just settled into brings misfortune to the women who live there. With Adelaide’s richly peppered superstitions and deep family roots at stake, Marielle must sort out the truth about Susannah Page and Holly Oak— and make peace with the sacrifices she has made for love.

Marielle Bishop met Carson online and married him, moving across the country and into Holly Oak, the historic home he and his children shared with her grandmother Adelaide. Adelaide thinks the house is stuck, her friends insist the house is haunted- the bottom line is this house has a history that dates back to the Civil War and the battles fought in Fredricksburg, VA. The book tells the tale of Marielle's efforts to cope with the house, her new family, and the shadow of the past.

This book was very hard to get into, and never really captured my interest. The narrative improved dramatically halfway through the books when Susannah's Civil War correspondence came to light, allowing her story to be told. I certainly felt more emotional connection to Susannah than to any of the modern-day characters. Marielle was too undeveloped, Adelaide too cryptic, Pearl too annoying, Carson too absent- the most interesting modern character was Caroline and she didn't enter until halfway through the novel. Susannah and her war-time experiences would have made an excellent stand-alone story freed from the unsatisfying frame of Marielle's story. The historical part was 4 stars but the contemporary portion barely hit 2 stars so 3 overall for this promising but frustrating novel.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres

Book description:
“I love socialism, and I’m willing to die to bring it about, but if I did, I’d take a thousand with me.” —Jim Jones, September 6, 1975

In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. After Jones moved his church to Northern California in 1965, he became a major player in Northern California politics; he provided vital support in electing friendly political candidates to office, and they in turn offered him a protective shield that kept stories of abuse and fraud out of the papers. Even as Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church. By the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple a final time to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.

A Thousand Lives follows the experiences of five Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown: a middle-class English teacher from Colorado, an elderly African American woman raised in Jim Crow Alabama, a troubled young black man from Oakland, and a working-class father and his teenage son. These people joined Jones’s church for vastly different reasons. Some, such as eighteen-year-old Stanley Clayton, appreciated Jones’s message of racial equality and empowering the dispossessed. Others, like Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah, were dazzled by his claims of being a faith healer—Hyacinth believed Jones had healed a cancerous tumor in her breast. Edith Roller, a well-educated white progressive, joined Peoples Temple because she wanted to help the less fortunate. Tommy Bogue, a teen, hated Jones’s church, but was forced to attend services—and move to Jonestown—because his parents were members.

The people who built Jonestown wanted to forge a better life for themselves and their children. They sought to create a truly egalitarian society. In South America, however, they found themselves trapped in Jonestown and cut off from the outside world as their leader goaded them toward committing “revolutionary suicide” and deprived them of food, sleep, and hope. Yet even as Jones resorted to lies and psychological warfare, Jonestown residents fought for their community, struggling to maintain their gardens, their school, their families, and their grip on reality.

Working from recently released documents and tapes seized in Guyana after the mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Scheeres has created a moving account of the People's Temple by focusing on several individuals who followed Jim Jones (some to their deaths). Scheeres treats this tragedy with acute sensitivity and a remarkable lack of judgmental rhetoric. She clearly spells out how Jim Jones initially drew people to his church and how his message shifted over the years from one of openness and integration to one of megalomania and paranoia. Scheeres also reveals a disturbing lack of action on the part of both the US and Guyanese governments whose dismissive attitude towards Jones' public threats of "revolutionary suicide" helped set the scene for his final solution.

As the narrative wound toward its tragic conclusion, Scheeres did a wonderful job of showing how Jones worked his followers, using drugs, violence, and starvation to keep them compliant and apathetic to his discussions of mass suicide. Scheeres' research makes it clear that Jones had a long range plan to kill all his followers and that he used drugs, threats, and both physical and psychological torture (beatings, sensory deprivation boxes, sleep deprivation, and a constant barrage of Jones' rantings broadcast day and night) to desensitize his followers to that danger. Ultimately, Scheeres did a wonderful job of placing the blame on Jones and on the upper levels of the People's Temple leadership, those who saw Jones unraveling and yet either did nothing or actively abetted his insanity. Using their own words (from interviews with survivors and from journals recovered from Guyana), Scheeres portrays the hundreds who dies in Jonestown as victims, horribly betrayed by a man who, through deception on every level, had gradually taken over every aspect of their lives.

Highly recommended!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Very Picture of You by Isabel Wolff

Book description:
At thirty-five, Gabriella Graham—“Ella” to her family and friends—has already made a name for herself as a successful portrait artist in London. She can capture the essential truth in each of her subjects’ faces—a tilt of the chin, a glint in the eye—and immortalize it on canvas. This gift has earned Ella commissions from royals and regular folks alike.

But closer to home, Ella finds the truth more elusive. Her father abandoned the family when she was five, and her mother has remained silent on the subject ever since. Ella’s sister, Chloe, is engaged to Nate, an American working in London, but Ella suspects that he may not be so committed. Then, at Chloe’s behest, Ella agrees to paint Nate’s portrait.

From session to session, Ella begins to see Nate in a different light, which gives rise to conflicted feelings. In fact, through the various people she paints—an elderly client reflecting on her life, another woman dreading the prospect of turning forty, a young cyclist (from a photograph) who met a tragic end—Ella realizes that there is so much more to a person’s life than what is seen on the surface, a notion made even clearer when an unexpected email arrives from the other side of the world. And as her portraits of Nate and the others progress, they begin to reveal less about their subjects than the artist herself.

This story of a portrait painter working on three portraits that ultimately change her life had all the ingredients of a great read but unfortunately never really came together. Though Ella was a sympathetic character, she was also woefully incapable of seeing things that were right before her eyes. As a reader, I was frustrated that the twists that so shocked Ella were things I had figured out ages before. I also thought that the plot devices of visits and stories from clients were too similar to that of Wolff's enjoyable A Vintage Affair.

Given how much I loved A Vintage Affair, I really wanted to like this book but my overall impression after finishing was "meh". Because there were no real surprises, it was hard to share Ella's sense of surprise at every turn. It was also hard to believe Ella was able to see deeply into her clients in order to paint their portraits given her general inability to see the truth about those close to her.

Friday, September 23, 2011

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

Book description:
When teenager Allison Glenn is sent to prison for a heinous crime, she leaves behind her reputation as Linden Falls' golden girl forever. Her parents deny the existence of their once-perfect child. Her former friends exult her downfall. Her sister, Brynn, faces whispered rumors every day in the hallways of their small Iowa high school. It's Brynn—shy, quiet Brynn—who carries the burden of what really happened that night. All she wants is to forget Allison and the past that haunts her.

But then Allison is released to a halfway house, and is more determined than ever to speak with her estranged sister.

Now their legacy of secrets is focused on one little boy. And if the truth is revealed, the consequences will be unimaginable for the adoptive mother who loves him, the girl who tried to protect him and the two sisters who hold the key to all that is hidden.

This wonderful novel that traces the life of young Allison after she is released from prison for an unspeakable crime. As she tried to rebuild a life, she is desperate to reconnect with her parents (who have no desire to let her back into their lives) and her younger sister (who steadfastly refuses to speak to her). As this former golden girl gets a job and starts to find her footing, she unexpectedly finds herself on a collision course with the past, one that will have shocking consequences. The characters are well-drawn and the raw emotions had a ring of truth. A wonderful story which unfolds layer by layer, this book builds to an impressively powerful ending. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The End of Everything by Megan E. Abbott

Book description:
Thirteen-year old Lizzie Hood and her next door neighbor Evie Verver are inseparable. They are best friends who swap bathing suits and field-hockey sticks, and share everything that's happened to them. Together they live in the shadow of Evie's glamorous older sister Dusty, who provides a window on the exotic, intoxicating possibilities of their own teenage horizons. To Lizzie, the Verver household, presided over by Evie's big-hearted father, is the world's most perfect place.

And then, one afternoon, Evie disappears. The only clue: a maroon sedan Lizzie spotted driving past the two girls earlier in the day. As a rabid, giddy panic spreads through the Midwestern suburban community, everyone looks to Lizzie for answers. Was Evie unhappy, troubled, upset? Had she mentioned being followed? Would she have gotten into the car of a stranger?

Lizzie takes up her own furtive pursuit of the truth, prowling nights through backyards, peering through windows, pushing herself to the dark center of Evie's world. Haunted by dreams of her lost friend and titillated by her own new power at the center of the disappearance, Lizzie uncovers secrets and lies that make her wonder if she knew her best friend at all.

This novel is a well-written look at the girls transitioning into young women, trying for the first time to understand what it means to be growing up. Lizzie and Evie are best friend who share everything until one day they don't, one day when Evie goes missing and Lizzie is the last person to see her. As Lizzie tries to understand what she knows, she delves deeper and deeper into Evie's family and Evie's disappearance, and slowly comes to realize that everything is not as it seems even in Evie's perfect family. An excellent look at a time of transition, a time when innocence is lost (one way or another), a time when childhood is finally left behind. This book captures those delicately posed moments and every one of the characters rings true.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright

Book description:
In a world still uneasy after the financial turmoil of 2008, Justin Cartwright puts a human face on the dishonesties and misdeeds of the bankers who imperiled us. Tubal and Co. is a small, privately owned bank in England. As the company's longtime leader, Sir Harry Tubal, slips into senility, his son Julian takes over the reins-and not all is well. The company's hedge fund now owns innumerable toxic assets, and Julian fears what will happen when their real value is discovered.

Artair Macleod, an actor manager whose ex-wife, Fleur, was all but stolen by Sir Harry, discovers that his company's monthly grant has not been paid by Tubal. Getting no answers from Julian, he goes to the local press, and an eager young reporter begins asking questions. Bit by bit, the reporter discovers that the grant money is in fact a payoff from Fleur, written off by the bank as a charitable donation, and a scandal breaks. Julian's temperament and judgment prove a bad fit for the economic forces of the era, and the family business plunges into chaos as he tries to hide the losses and massage the balance sheet.

This novel tells the tale of a family, a banking family, caught in the web of a pending financial collapse. At heart this is a family drama rather than a deep look at the ills that helped cause the recent financial crisis. An incapacitated father, a son trying to stave off the collapse, a stepmother trying to rediscover her lost youth, a young journalist trying to make her mark, an aging editor desperate for one last story- all make this character-driven story a delight to read. The writing is magnificent, the characters finely drawn, and the situation realistic; this novel is a tuly excellent read. Highly recommended work of literary fiction.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres

Book Description:
In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. After Jones moved his church to Northern California in 1965, he became a major player in Northern California politics; he provided vital support in electing friendly political candidates to office, and they in turn offered him a protective shield that kept stories of abuse and fraud out of the papers. Even as Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church. By the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple a final time to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.

A Thousand Lives follows the experiences of five Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown: a middle-class English teacher from Colorado, an elderly African American woman raised in Jim Crow Alabama, a troubled young black man from Oakland, and a working-class father and his teenage son. These people joined Jones’s church for vastly different reasons. Some, such as eighteen-year-old Stanley Clayton, appreciated Jones’s message of racial equality and empowering the dispossessed. Others, like Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah, were dazzled by his claims of being a faith healer—Hyacinth believed Jones had healed a cancerous tumor in her breast. Edith Roller, a well-educated white progressive, joined Peoples Temple because she wanted to help the less fortunate. Tommy Bogue, a teen, hated Jones’s church, but was forced to attend services—and move to Jonestown—because his parents were members.

Working from recently released documents and tapes seized in Guyana after the mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Scheeres has created a moving account of the People's Temple by focusing on several individuals who followed Jim Jones (some to their deaths). Scheeres treats this tragedy with acute sensitivity and a remarkable lack of judgmental rhetoric. She clearly spells out how Jim Jones initially drew people to his church and how his message shifted over the years from one of openness and integration to one of megalomania and paranoia. Scheeres also reveals a disturbing lack of action on the part of both the US and Guyanese governments whose dismissive attitude towards Jones' public threats of "revolutionary suicide" helped set the scene for his final solution.

As the narrative wound toward its tragic conclusion, Scheeres did a wonderful job of showing how Jones worked his followers, using drugs, violence, and starvation to keep them compliant and apathetic to his discussions of mass suicide. Scheeres' research makes it clear that Jones had a long range plan to kill all his followers and that he used drugs, threats, and both physical and psychological torture (beatings, sensory deprivation boxes, sleep deprivation, and a constant barrage of Jones' rantings broadcast day and night) to desensitize his followers to that danger. Ultimately, Scheeres did a wonderful job of placing the blame on Jones and on the upper levels of the People's Temple leadership, those who saw Jones unraveling and yet either did nothing or actively abetted his insanity. Using their own words (from interviews with survivors and from journals recovered from Guyana), Scheeres portrays the hundreds who dies in Jonestown as victims, horribly betrayed by a man who, through deception on every level, had gradually taken over every aspect of their lives.

Highly recommended!

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

Book Description:
Rachel, the daughter of a danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.

Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.

This well-written novel tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a black US serviceman and a white Danish mother. Growing up in Europe, Rachel and her family had a very different experience with race than they encountered on their return to the US. As the story of how Rachel came to live with her grandmother and aunt unfolds, the terrible central tragedy of Rachel's life is revealed. As Rachel grows up trying to reconcile what she knows about herself and her family with the life her grandmother wants her to lead, she is torn by conflicting demands and the pressures of developing her own self identity. A powerful and moving narrative.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Summer Rental by Mary Kay Andrews

Book Description:
Sometimes, when you need a change in your life, the tide just happens to pull you in the right direction….

Ellis, Julia, and Dorie. Best friends since Catholic grade school, they now find themselves, in their mid-thirties, at the crossroads of life and love. Ellis, recently fired from a job she gave everything to, is rudderless and now beginning to question the choices she's made over the past decade of her life. Julia—whose caustic wit covers up her wounds--has a man who loves her and is offering her the world, but she can't hide from how deeply insecure she feels about her looks, her brains, her life. And Dorie has just been shockingly betrayed by the man she loved and trusted the most in the world…though this is just the tip of the iceberg of her problems and secrets. A month in North Carolina's Outer Banks is just what they each of them needs.

Ty Bazemore is their landlord, though he's hanging on to the rambling old beach house by a thin thread. After an inauspicious first meeting with Ellis, the two find themselves disturbingly attracted to one another, even as Ty is about to lose everything he's ever cared about.

Maryn Shackleford is a stranger, and a woman on the run. Maryn needs just a few things in life: no questions, a good hiding place, and a new identity. Show More Ellis, Julia, and Dorie can provide what Maryn wants; can they also provide what she needs?

Five people questioning everything they ever thought they knew about life. Five people on a journey that will uncover their secrets and point them on the path to forgiveness. Five people who each need a sea change, and one month in a summer rental that might just give it to them.

This story of three best friends and a summer rental is a wonderful beach read. Nothing here is a surprise, but despite the formulaic plot, the writing elevates this otherwise predictable beach read. The sub-plot with the woman on the run felt like a bit of an add-on and was certainly wrapped up a little too easily. All in all though, a decent addition to the Andrews canon and certainly a great book to help wrap up your summer vacation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Foxy's Tale: The Reluctant Vampire by Karen Fraunfelder Cantwell & L B Gschwandtner

Book Description:
A comic, chick lit tale wherein former beauty queen Foxy Anders, who's fallen on hard times, rents an apartment to mysterious, bumbling Myron Standlish who’s arrived in the city looking for a long lost trunk containing who knows what. When Foxy’s teenage daughter, Amanda hooks up with Nick, a cute guy at school, while getting cooking lessons from Foxy's new assistant Knot, they’re all in for some romance with a dash of suspense and a sprinkle of supernatural.

I wasn't sure what to expect with this book- after all, the whole vampire thing is getting to be a bit much. At its heart though, this is a story about families and relationships not about blood sucking creatuers of the night. Foxy is a former beauty queen recently dumped by her former NFL-star husband and struggling to parent her daughter when she is barely a real grownup herself. She's a shopaholic who worries constantly about her daughter Amanda's goth style and only has a decent business because of the work of Knot Knudsen, a guy who basically wandered in off the street to rent a room only to become her antique store's savior. Add in a third boarder, weird Myron who keeps blood in the fridge, and Amanda's wish that her Mom was more like June Cleaver, and you have an amusing cast of quirky characters that are surprisingly compelling.

The book is well-written and funny, and I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The book resonates because it has heart, and the oddball characters all have a pathos that make their stories compelling. All in all an excellent summer read; I look forward to the next installment in this unusual series. 4 stars.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Book Description:
“Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it.”

She was only two-foot eight-inches tall, but her legend reaches out to us more than a century later. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and transformed into the world’s most unexpected celebrity.

Here, in Vinnie’s singular and spirited voice, is her amazing adventure—from a showboat “freak” revue where she endured jeering mobs to her fateful meeting with the two men who would change her life: P. T. Barnum and Charles Stratton, AKA Tom Thumb. Their wedding would captivate the nation, preempt coverage of the Civil War, and usher them into the White House and the company of presidents and queens. Show More But Vinnie’s fame would also endanger the person she prized most: her similarly-sized sister, Minnie, a gentle soul unable to escape the glare of Vinnie’s spotlight.

Before reading this book, I knew very little about Lavinia Warren other than the fact that she was married to General Tom Thumb. In this well-imagined look at her life, Melanie Benjamin recreates a unique time in American history populated by larger-than-life characters (no matter what their size). Once I started this engaging book, I simply couldn't put it down. Combining historical fact with well-researched creative license, Benjamin crafted a highly enjoyable work of historical fiction. This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed Alice I Have Been or who enjoys the early history of the circus.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Herb 'n' Lorna by Eric Kraft

Book Description:
Herb Piper lives with his clever and vivacious wife Lorna in the tranquil, seaside Long Island town of Babbington. Herb sells Studebakers, putters in his basement, fancies himself an inventor, and struggles against his habit of making bad investments. Bright afternoons and well-tended lawns fill the couple’s quiet, unassuming life, the very picture of Norman Rockwell’s America. But Herb and Lorna have concealed from each other a pair of curious secrets, deceptions at the heart of a marriage that register the delightful, universal mystique of human sexuality.

Presented as the biography of the grandparents of a well-known fictional character, this lovely novel is a strangely engaging read. Though the book starts off slow and is a little difficult to really sink into, once the story takes off, it is difficult to put down. Well-written, sweet, funny, and a little naughty, this novel was an unexpectedly enjoyable offering. Herb and Lorna are wonderful characters that I found myself totally invested in- the grandparents any of us would love to have. This story of an ordinary family, its place in history, and its quirky secrets offers hours of enjoyment that you will want to share with your friends and family. 4 stars (would have been 5 if I hadn't started and stopped a couple of times before I finally got hooked).

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

Book description:
It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World’s Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows, which he hopes will honor his family business and earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women’s division. Publicly unrecognized by Tiffany, Clara conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which he is long remembered.

Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman, which ultimately force her to protest against the company she has worked so hard to cultivate. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces to a strict policy: he does not hire married women, and any who do marry while under his employ must resign immediately. Eventually, like many women, Clara must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.

This is a tough review for me because despite the fact that I really wanted to love this book, I just couldn't. I found Clara a strangely flat character despite the interesting times in which she lived; it was hard for me to feel an emotional connection to her. I always felt that Clara was remote and found myself more interested in the other women and the glassware than in Clara herself.

The writing was wonderful and I love that the story was inspired by true events, but I guess I think Vreeland tried too hard to tread the fine line between fact and fiction and so missed the mark on both. 3.5 stars even though I feel bad saying that...

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls

Book Description:
What sane woman would consider becoming any man's ninth wife?

Bess Gray is a thirty-five-year-old folklorist and amateur martial artist living in Washington, DC. Just as she's about to give up all hope of marriage, she meets Rory, a charming Irish musician, and they fall in love. But Rory is a man with a secret, which he confesses to Bess when he asks for her hand: He's been married eight times before. Shocked, Bess embarks on a quest she feels she must undertake before she can give him an answer. With her bickering grandparents (married sixty-five years), her gay neighbor (himself a mystery), a shar-pei named Stella, and a mannequin named Peace, Bess sets out on a cross-country journey—unbeknownst to Rory—to seek out and question the wives who came before. What she discovers about her own past is far more than she bargained for.

When Bess finally finds that special someone who wants to share his life with her, Rory has just one small surprise- he has been married 8 times before! As she tried to work through her feelings about his past and theor future, she embarks on a cross country road trip from DC to take her grandparents to their new home in AZ, stopping along the way to meet as many of Rory's former wives as she can find.

From the description and flap copy, I expected a standard chick-lit book, full of humor and froth. What I got instead was a well-crafted family drama that explores love in all its different incarnations. The backstories here are poignant and complicated, giving the book a depth that I did not expect. Bess and Rory are great characters, as are Bess' friends and grandparents (who sounds quirky in the flap copy but are actually quite tragic in their way). I found it hard to put this excellent novel down and highly recommend it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Grave Surprise by Charlaine Harris

Book Description:
While in Memphis, psychic Harper Connelly senses-and finds-two bodies in a grave. One of a man centuries-dead. The other, a girl, recently deceased. Harper's investigation yields another surprise: the next morning, a third body is found-in the very same grave.

An outstanding follow-up to the series opener, this offering continues the story of Harper (the lightning-struck girl who can see dead people) and Tolliver (the step-brother that manages the business they built on her skills). Once again the murderer isn't hard to figure out early on in the story, but once again it doesn't really matter- the gradual sharing of information about Harper and Tolliver's lives and their past is more than enough to capture reader interest. I can't wait to read the next book in the series!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Book Description:
Harper Connelly has what you might call a strange job: she finds dead people. The way Harper sees it, she's providing a service to the dead while bringing some closure to the living-but she's used to most people treating her like a blood-sucking leech. Traveling with her stepbrother Tolliver as her manager and sometime-bodyguard, she's become an expert at getting in, getting paid, and getting out fast. Because for the living it's always urgent-even if the dead can wait forever.

The start of a new series, this paranormal mystery about a young woman struck by lighting who can now locate the dead and see the moment of their passing is surprisingly good. Though it doesn't take long for the reader to figure out the mystery, it really doesn't matter- it is the characters that carry this book along amd make it impossible to put down. I've read other books by Harris and enjoyed them, but this is head and shoulders above The Southern Vampire Series or the Aurora Teagarden mysteries. Highly recommended even if you don't normally enjoy Charlaine Harris.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Book Description:
Every day Christine wakes up not knowing where she is. Her memories disappear every time she falls asleep. Her husband, Ben, is a stranger to her, and he's obligated to explain their life together on a daily basis--all the result of a mysterious accident that made Christine an amnesiac. With the encouragement of her doctor, Christine starts a journal to help jog her memory every day. One morning, she opens it and sees that she's written three unexpected and terrifying words: "Don't trust Ben." Suddenly everything her husband has told her falls under suspicion. What kind of accident caused her condition? Who can she trust? Why is Ben lying to her? And, for the reader: Can Christine’s story be trusted?

In this well-written "thriller", Christine wakes up every day unsure of who she is, unable to believe she is the middle-aged woman in the mirror. She can't remember her husband or the life they led together. She can't remember anything. Eventually she finds a journal and learns she has been seeking answers and then the book builds to an interesting climax that I won't reveal here.

This story is solid and engaging, but I just never got the spine-tingling thrill I had expected. It was an interesting read, and I did enjoy it, buthe lack of real tension as the book moved towarded the big denouement made it easy to put down when interrupted. I was left feeling vaguely let down and dissatisfied which is why I'm only giving it 3.5 stars.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Book Description:
Be careful what you wish for. Traveling abroad with her mother at the turn of the twentieth century to seek a titled husband, beautiful, vivacious Cora Cash, whose family mansion in Newport dwarfs the Vanderbilts’, suddenly finds herself Duchess of Wareham, married to Ivo, the most eligible bachelor in England. Nothing is quite as it seems, however: Ivo is withdrawn and secretive, and the English social scene is full of traps and betrayals. Money, Cora soon learns, cannot buy everything, as she must decide what is truly worth the price in her life and her marriage.

Though I found this book slow going for the first 50 or so pages, I eventually found myself pulled into the story. The improbably named American heiress Cora Cash is wealthy enough to be the prime catch of the season, and her mother is determined to use that status to marry into a titled English family. Cora is determined to get married to escape from her overbearing mother, especially after her first love turns down her proposal to dedicate himself to art.

Though there was nothing unexpected about the plot, I did find the characters engaging, and welcomed the few glances into the life and views of the servants involved in all these family machinations. Cora's naivete can be annoying at times, and she certainly isn't the brightest heroine, but she is nevertheless a well-meaning girl who does attract the reader's sympathy as the story develops.

A good summer read once you sink into the story.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Tassy Morgan's Bluff by Jim Stinson

Book Description:
San Andreas, California. It may be a quaint town, but its residents have high hopes for its future as a tourist destination. There's Bill the Fixer, the handyman who sidelines in chain-saw sculpted redwood totem poles; real estate agent Margaret Nam, who plans to make a mint rehabbing beach shacks; and Jimi, the well-to-do hairstylist whose chair is the epicenter of town gossip. Amid their town's growing pains, widower Lincoln Ellis and Tassy Morgan, a recently divorced painter, meet and-much to their surprise-sparks begin to fly.

This light read filled with quirky characters thrown together by improbable circumstances was a delightful summer read. The setting is great, the small town politics accurate, and the cast of characters is truly original. Tassy and Linc make a great couple and I loved reading about their efforts to maintain Tassy's dilapidated cottage in the face of machinations by the town council.

My only quibble is that the end of the book seems rather sudden and doesn't tie up all the lose ends for the characters other than Tassy and Linc. If this is the start of a series with more books to follow that flesh out the rest of the oddballs introduced here, then I would bump it up to 5 stars.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Book description:
Seventy-seven-year-old Marylou Ahearn is going to kill Dr. Wilson Spriggs come hell or high water. In 1953, he gave her a radioactive cocktail without her consent as part of a secret government study that had horrible consequences.

Marylou has been plotting her revenge for fifty years. When she accidentally discovers his whereabouts in Florida, her plans finally snap into action. She high tails it to hot and humid Tallahassee, moves in down the block from where a now senile Spriggs lives with his daughter’s family, and begins the tricky work of insinuating herself into their lives. But she has no idea what a nest of yellow jackets she is stum­bling into.

Before the novel is through, someone will be kidnapped, an unlikely couple will get engaged, someone will nearly die from eating a pineapple upside-down cake laced with anti-freeze, and that’s not all...

Despite a wonderful title, entertaining premise, and funny opening, this book ultimately fell flat for me. Billed as a comedy, this book takes too many dark turns for me to find it amusing. Plotting and maybe even carrying out revenge on the doctor that tricked you into participating in secret government research- perfectly fine and potentially funny. Turning your attentions to ruining the lives of his already fragile grandchildren when you discover he is afflicted with Alzheimers- not OK and not at all funny.

This read like two separate stories to me- one a serious and interesting look at family disfunction, one an amusing tale of revenge. When combined into one book though, neither story as allowed to live up to its potential. 3 stars.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Book description:
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters—the father, the two mothers, the grandmother, and the uncle—she also reveals the joy, as well as the destruction, they brought to one another’s lives.

This book was not what I expected when I picked it up- but in the end the story delivered more than I anticipated. This story, told from the points of view of the two daughters of a man with two families (one open, one secret) was dark and rather heartbreaking. I was appalled by the actions of the adults in this story, especially the father, who had no redeeming qualities that I could see. The life of secret daughter Dana was so sad that I found it hard to relate to Chaurisse when her turn came even though she had no idea how much impact her wants and needs had on the life of her secret sister.

The writing was excellent, and I suppose if the story had a different ending I would likely have gone for five stars, but the epilogue made me sad and cast a pall over the story for me (though other readers may disagree).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus by Sonya Sones

Book description:
My name is Holly.
This story is about me—
a writer who's way behind
on her deadline.

But, honestly,
how can I concentrate on my work
when my fiftieth birthday's
rushing at me like a freight train,

my hormones are making me feel
like a Szechuan flambÉ,
and my eighty-year-old mother's
biting her nurses?

Not to mention the fact that my daughter's
just begun applying to colleges
(none of which are within
a thousand-mile radius of home),

and lately my husband's been
such an irritating, finger-pointing stinker
that I've found myself dreaming of ways
to spend his insurance money . . .

My name is Holly.
This book
tells my story—
a coming-of-middle-age story.

I was both intrigued and frightened when I discovered this entire novel is actually written in verse. Though at first it was strange to read, I quickly found myself immersed in the story and unable to put the book down. It is truly remarkable how vibrant and packed with detail this story is despite the spare poems that convey the meaning in dramatically fewer words than a normal prose novel. I can't say anything else except that this book is a definite must-read that I am recommending to all my family and friends.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mothers and Other Liars by Amy Bourret

Book description:
How far will a mother go to save her child?

Ten years ago, Ruby Leander was a drifting nineteen-year-old who made a split-second decision at an Oklahoma rest stop. Fast forward nine years: Ruby and her daughter Lark live in New Mexico. Lark is a precocious, animal loving imp, and Ruby has built a family for them with a wonderful community of friends and her boyfriend of three years. Life is good. Until the day Ruby reads a magazine article about parents searching for an infant kidnapped by car-jackers. Then Ruby faces a choice no mother should have to make. A choice that will change both her and Lark's lives forever.

This is the latest in a series of books I've read about abducted children, but one that certainly dealt with the problem of a child torn between two families in a unique way. When orphaned 19-year old Ruby finds a baby in the trash at a rest stop, she makes the impulsive decision to take the baby with her on a cross country adventure. Years later, Ruby and Lark are a happy family of two, about to become four thanks to Ruby's boyfriend Chaz and their baby onboard. That happiness is shattered when Ruby sees a newspaper article that reveals that baby Taylor (now Lark) was stolen and dumped all those years ago, and has parents still searching for her.

Without revealing too much of the twist, I will say that though it was a surprise at the time, the actaul outcome quickly became predictable, and the ending itself was very disappointing in the way it negated so much of the story that came before.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

Book description:
When sixteen-year-old Nouf goes missing, her prominent family calls on Nayir al-Sharqi, a pious desert guide, to lead the search party. Ten days later, just as Nayir is about to give up in frustration, her body is discovered by anonymous desert travelers. But when the coroner’s office determines that Nouf died not of dehydration but from drowning, and her family seems suspiciously uninterested in getting at the truth, Nayir takes it upon himself to find out what really happened.

He quickly realizes that if he wants to gain access to the hidden world of women, he will have to join forces with Katya Hijazi, a lab worker at the coroner’s office who is bold enough to bare her face and to work in public. Their partnership challenges Nayir, as he confronts his desire for female companionship and the limitations imposed by his beliefs.

I picked up this mystery based in Jeddah because I am currently living in Dhahran KSA and was intrigued. The author lived in Saudi Arabia and certainly has an understanding of the complexities of life here.

The mystery itself wasn't that mysterious especially if you are familiar with the culture here, but the book itself was nevertheless engaging with its focus on a conservative male desert guide and a fairly liberal female employee of the morgue. It is these two characters and their growing understanding of each other that forms the backbone of the story; the search for the missing daughter of a wealthy family is simply the mechanism that brings them together. 4 stars for quality writing and an interesting & unusual theme.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Girl, Stolen by April Henry

Book description:
Sixteen year-old Cheyenne Wilder is sleeping in the back of a car while her mom fills her prescription at the pharmacy. Before Cheyenne realizes what's happening, their car is being stolen--with her inside! Griffin hadn’t meant to kidnap Cheyenne, all he needed to do was steal a car for the others. But once Griffin's dad finds out that Cheyenne’s father is the president of a powerful corporation, everything changes—now there’s a reason to keep her. What Griffin doesn’t know is that Cheyenne is not only sick with pneumonia, she is blind. How will Cheyenne survive this nightmare, and if she does, at what price?

It could be this book suffered in my estimation because I read it immediately after Miles From Ordinary which was just exceptional, but I also thought it compared unfavorably to What Happened to Cass McBride? Though there are compelling elements to the story of the accidental kidnapping of a blind teenager who turns out to be the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, there are too many elements toward the end that do not pass the smell test. The book has a strong opening, and Henry does a great job portraying Cheyenne's experiences as a newly blind teen. Griffin is a strong character, though less compelling than Cheyenne, and the big revelation about his family history was no surprise to this reader. The first two-thirds of this novel made for a great read, but the last third was disappointing in its treatment of the characters.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Miles From Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams

Book Description:
Thirteen-year-old Lacey wakes to a beautiful summer morning excited to begin her new job at the library, just as her mother is supposed to start work at the grocery store. Lacey hopes that her mother's ghosts have finally been laid to rest; after all, she seems so much better these days, and they really do need the money. But as the hours tick by and memories come flooding back, a day full of hope spins terrifyingly out of control...

I chose this book because I read Carol Lynch Williams' The Chosen One a couple of years ago and thought it was wonderful. If anything, Miles from Ordinary surpasses that earlier work with its tender and haunting look at one daughter's effort to care for a mother spiralling into madness. 13 year old Lacey has simple desires for her summer- jobs for her and her mother, and the chance to make a friend. The book traces one day in Lacey's life, one day that starts out hopeful only to fall apart in every way when her mother goes missing. William's has a unique ability to convey the pain of adolescence and Lacey is a powerful character who is much harder on herself than any reader will ever be. Highly recommended for both YA and older readers.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Book description:
In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village.

Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?

This book has been on my wishlist for months, and I finally got a paperback copy as a Christmas gift, and then of course I was reluctant to start the book because I was afraid it woudn't live up to the build-up. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded as this gem of a book more than lived up to the hype.

This beautiful story about finding love a second time around amid the complications of grown children, family businesses, and busybody neighbors also explores themes of racism, greed, loss and redemption. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the writing is flawless. Once I started reading, I simply couldn't put it down, and when the book ended, I was sorry to no longer be a part of that world. 5 stars for this wonderful book!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman

Book description:
In the third trimester of her pregnancy, Baltimore private investigator Tess Monaghan is under doctor's orders to remain immobile. Bored and restless, reduced to watching the world go by outside her window, she takes small comfort in the mundane events she observes . . . like the young woman in a green raincoat who walks her dog at the same time every day.

Then one day the dog is running free and its owner is nowhere to be seen. Certain that something is terribly wrong, and incapable of leaving well enough alone, Tess is determined to get to the bottom of the dog walker's abrupt disappearance, even if she must do so from her own bedroom. But her inquisitiveness is about to fling open a dangerous Pandora's box of past crimes and troubling deaths . . . and she's not only putting her own life in jeopardy but also her unborn child's.

This light mystery novella is a far cry from Lippman's wonderful What the Dead Know which is truly unfortunate. Though the parallels with Rear Window are immediately obvious, this book had none of the suspense or thrill of the original. The plot could easily have been worked into a full length novel which would have given Lippman a chance to flesh out these characters enough to pull in the reader; as it was, I couldn't share Tess' obsession with the missing woman nor understand how or why Lloyd and May fit into things. The book was just too short in my opinion to pull me in; I finished it in just under two hours with no sense of satisfaction. 3 stars because the writing as always was good, there just wasn't enough of it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Helen of Pasadena by Lian Dolan

Book description:
Helen Fairchild is leading a privileged Pasadena existence: married to a pillar of the community; raising a water polo-playing son destined for the most select high school; volunteering her time on the most fashionable committees. It only bothers Helen a tiny bit the she has never quite fit in with the proper Pasadena crowd, never finished that graduate degree in Classics, and never had that second baby. But the rigid rules of society in Pasadena appeal to Helen, the daughter of Oregon "fiber artists," even if she'll never be on the inside. And then along comes a Rose Parade float, killing her philandering husband and leaving Helen broke, out of her "forever' house and scrambling to salvage her once-rarefied existence.

Enter Dr. Patrick O'Neill, noted archaeologist, excavator of Troy and wearer of nubby sweaters. A job as Dr. O'Neill's research assistant is the lifeline Helen needs to reinvent herself, both personally and professionally. Ancient mysteries to solve! Charity events to plan! School admissions advisors to charm! If Helen wasn't so distracted by her incredibly attractive boss, she might be able to pull off this new life.

Helen's world widens to include a Hollywood star, a local gossip columnist, an old college nemesis, a high-powered Neutron Mom, an unforgiving school headmistress , the best Armenian real state agent in the biz, and, of course, the intriguing Patrick O'Neill. While uncovering secrets about ancient Troy alongside her archaeologist boss, Helen discovers something much more: a new sense of self and a new love.

When Helen's husband is killed in a run-in with a parade float, she faces a new reality as a single mother forced to sell her home and look for a job, all the while trying to cope with the loss of everything she thought she knew about her life and her marriage.

Though the plot sounds like a standard chicklit offering, this book manages to steer a course as straight fiction. Helen is a wonderful character- well written and easy to relate to as a reader. She manages her situation as best she can and her evolving feelings seem to be reasonable developments rather than just plot points to move the story forward. The relationships in the book between friends and family are well drawn; for example, what appear to be stereotypical relationships between Helen and her in-laws actually unfold in unexpected and delightful ways. The romatic relationship was the weakest in the book in my opinion- hence the 4.5 stars rather than 5.

All in all a great read likely to appeal to a wide range of readers because of the quality of the prose. A great book to fill a few winter afternoons.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard

Book description:
Sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell is missing. And the neighborhood boys she's left behind are caught forever in the heady current of her absence.

As the days and years pile up, the mystery of her disappearance grows kaleidoscopically. A collection of rumors, divergent suspicions, and tantalizing what-ifs, Nora Lindell's story is a shadowy projection of teenage lust, friendship, reverence, and regret, captured magically in the disembodied plural voice of the boys who still long for her.

Hannah Pittard's novel tracks the emotional progress of the sister Nora left behind, the other families in their leafy suburban enclave, and the individual fates of the boys in her thrall. Far more eager to imagine Nora's fate than to scrutinize their own, the boys sleepwalk into an adulthood of jobs, marriages, families, homes, and daughters of their own, all the while pining for a girl–and a life–that no longer exists, except in the imagination.

The central figure in this book, 16 year old Nora Liddell, never actually appears other than in the memories and speculations of the boys who were her friends. As they grow up and marry and have children of their own, they are always haunted by the memory of perfect Nora- she looms large over their psyches despite her long absence. As they debate whether or not she ran away or was abducted, whether she hopped a plane to AZ or was buried in a shallow grave it the woods, some part of them is always stuck in childhood in that focus on Nora and her family.

This is a wonderfully written book- truly original and an excellent read. Though at the beginning, I kept hoping to get some clarity on what actually happened to Nora, by the end it was clear that knowledge was unnecessary. Though Nora and her sister are in many ways the central chracters in this drama, it is the reactions of the boys around them that are the focus of this engaging novel. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Saving Max by Antoinette van Heugten

Book description:
Max Parkman—autistic and whip-smart, emotionally fragile and aggressive—is perfect in his mother's eyes. Until he's accused of murder.

Attorney Danielle Parkman knows her teenage son Max's behavior has been getting worse—using drugs and lashing out. But she can't accept the diagnosis she receives at a top-notch adolescent psychiatric facility that her son is deeply disturbed. Dangerous.

Until she finds Max, unconscious and bloodied, beside a patient who has been brutally stabbed to death.

Trapped in a world of doubt and fear, barred from contacting Max, Danielle clings to the belief that her son is innocent. But has she, too, lost touch with reality? Is her son really a killer?

With the justice system bearing down on them, Danielle steels herself to discover the truth, no matter what it is. She'll do whatever it takes to find the killer and to save her son from being destroyed by a system that's all too eager to convict him.

This novel about one mother's battle to save her son starts off like a typical family drama, but quickly (and unexpectedly) spirals into a taut thriller. When Dana's son Max requires hospitalization because his depression is taking over, Dana travels across the country to get him the best help possible. What starts out as a difficult family experience rapidly becomes a nightmare as Max becomes increasingly violent and is eventually charged with murdering another patient at the mental hospital. Dana's quest to find the truth nearly destroys them both as she finds herself at odds with the legal system she has sworn to uphold.

Well-written and engaging, this book was unexpectedly enjoyable. Though I did figure out the where the book was going fairly early on, the journey to completion was still well worth the effort.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Finishing Touches by Hester Browne

Book description:
A fading English finishing school gets a twenty-first-century makeover in this modern-day fairy tale. Twenty-seven years ago, an infant turned up on the doorstep of London’s esteemed Phillimore Academy for Young Ladies. Now, Betsy Phillimore returns to the place where she was lovingly raised by Lord and Lady Phillimore, only to find the Academy in disrepair and Lord P. desperate to save his legacy. Enter Betsy with a savvy business plan to replace dusty protocol with the essentials girls need today: cell phone etiquette, eating sushi properly, handling credit cards, choosing the perfect little black dress, negotiating a pre-nup, and other lessons in independent living. But returning to London also means crossing paths with her sexy girlhood crush . . . and stirring up the mystery of who her parents are and why they abandoned her. Will the puzzle pieces of her past fall into place while Betsy races to save the only home she’s ever known?

This story about a finishing school on its last legs and foundling determined to bring it back to glory was light and enjoyable, but could have been so much more. The underlying story was perfect for a British chick-lit book but had elements that could have been developed into a deeper more literary novel. The characters were likeable and well-written though some could have used more backstory and development. I was also disappointed that some promising plot twists (possible embezzlement for example) were raised then simply allowed to die.

All in all, this was an enjoyable book but I couldn't help shake the feeling that it was missing some spark.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Other Family by Joanna Trollope

Book description:
When Richie Rossiter, once a famous pianist, dies unexpectedly, Chrissie knows that she must now tell the truth to their three daughters: their parents were never married. Yet there is one more shock to come when Richie’s will is read. It seems he never forgot the wife and son he left behind years ago—Margaret, who lives a quiet life of routine and work, and Scott, who never knew his famous father. Now two families are left to confront their losses and each other, and none of them will ever be the same.

This novel is another stellar work by Trollope, who does so well delving into the heart of love and family. This book opens with a family returning home from the hospital incomplete, the head of the household now nothing but a memory. As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about him and his actions in the past and the impact those actions continue to have on his two separate families. As both his abandoned widow and the woman he left her for try to cope with his death, his four children are left struggling to understand what his loss means to them.

Wonderfully drawn characters and exquisite emotional tension make this book impossible to put down. An excellent winter read- 5 strong stars!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey

Book description:
The Island of Lost Maps tells the story of a curious crime spree: the theft of scores of valuable centuries-old maps from some of the most prominent research libraries in the United States and Canada. The perpetrator was Gilbert Joseph Bland, Jr., an enigmatic antiques dealer from South Florida, whose cross-country slash-and-dash operation had gone virtually undetected until he was caught in 1995–and was unmasked as the most prolific American map thief in history. As Miles Harvey unravels the mystery of Bland’s life, he maps out the world of cartography and cartographic crime, weaving together a fascinating story of exploration, craftsmanship, villainy, and the lure of the unknown.

It is hard to know what to say about this book which rather defies description. It purports to be about the prolifigate map thief Gilbert Bland, but really Bland's crimes are just the jumping off point for a book about maps, those who made them, and those who covet them. I thought this book would be more similar to The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, but because Bland remained but a shadowy presence, the feel of the two books is completely different. That said, I still found myself pulled into this book and unable to put it down. I can't really explain why I enjoyed it so much, I just did, to the tune of five stars. If you love maps then you are likely to love this book, but if you are looking for a true crime caper, this might not be your cup of tea.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Convent by Panos Karnezis

Book description:
The crumbling convent of Our Lady of Mercy stands alone in an uninhabited part of the Spanish sierra, hidden on a hill among dense forest. Its inhabitants are devoted to God, to solitude and silence—six women cut off from a world they've chosen to leave behind. This all changes on the day that Mother Superior Maria Ines discovers a suitcase punctured with air holes at the entrance to the retreat: a baby, abandoned to its fate. Is it a miracle? Soon she will find that the baby's arrival has consequences beyond her imagining, and that even in her carefully protected sanctuary she is unable to keep the world, or her past, at bay.

This story about a foundling baby boy left on the doorstep of an isolated Spanish convent is a compelling and atmospheric read. The book is really more of a series of character studies that highlights the underlying tensions in a community of cloistered women. The reader will have no trouble figuring out the "miracle" of the the child's birth, but since this isn't really a plot-driven novel, the lack of mystery is less relevant than the author's ability to paint a vivid picture of the isolated life in the convent.

Not really an enjoyable read, at only 200 pages it is nevertheless a quick one. Wonderful use of language and a lyric style made this a four star read for me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Bikini Car Wash by Pamela Morsi

Book description:
After Andrea Wolkowicz abandons corporate life to help care for her sister, she quickly wears out the want ads in their rust-belt hometown. Time to be her own boss.
Every mogul knows the best idea is an old idea with a new twist. So Andi proudly revives her father's business: an old-fashioned car wash…staffed entirely by bikini-clad women. That ought to get traffic—and blood—flowing on Grosvenor Street!

This gutsy gimmick soon has the whole town in a lather, and not necessarily in a good way. Scandalized citizens are howling, neighboring businesses are worried. But straitlaced grocery-store owner Pete Guthrie is definitely intrigued. He knows it's hard to run a small business in a big-box world. To him, Andi's brains and bravery are as alluring as the bikini she calls business attire.

The blurb for this book paints a picture of a light-hearted chick-lit book, but the book is surprisingly less amusing than expected. Though there were many strong elements of the book, ultimately the lackluster romance undermined the story, and i just never felt a real connection with Andi or Pete. They seemingly ended up together because neither had a better option in their small town which doesn't make for riveting fiction. Not a bad summer read but not as captivating as I had hoped. 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

Book description:
Rosie Ferguson is seventeen and ready to enjoy the summer before her senior year of high school. She's intelligent-she aced AP physics; athletic-a former state-ranked tennis doubles champion; and beautiful. She is, in short, everything her mother, Elizabeth, hoped she could be. The family's move to Landsdale, with stepfather James in tow, hadn't been as bumpy as Elizabeth feared.

But as the school year draws to a close, there are disturbing signs that the life Rosie claims to be leading is a sham, and that Elizabeth's hopes for her daughter to remain immune from the pull of the darker impulses of drugs and alcohol are dashed. Slowly and against their will, Elizabeth and James are forced to confront the fact that Rosie has been lying to them-and that her deceptions will have profound consequences.

Though this book starts out slow and is rather hard to sink into, eventually the story captured me and carried me along. Watching as Rosie slowly devolves in front of her parents' eyes is poignant and disturbing, and Lamott tells the story in lyrical prose. I did enjoy this book for its treatment of the mother-daughter relationship and the peek inside the mind of an addict. A good read once it grips you but definitely a slow starter.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fragile by Lisa Unger

Book description:
Everybody knows everybody in The Hollows, a quaint, charming town outside of New York City. It’s a place where neighbors keep an eye on one another’s kids, where people say hello in the grocery store, and where high school cliques and antics are never quite forgotten. As a child, Maggie found living under the microscope of small-town life stifling. But as a wife and mother, she has happily returned to The Hollows’s insular embrace. As a psychologist, her knowledge of family histories provides powerful insights into her patients’ lives. So when the girlfriend of her teenage son, Rick, disappears, Maggie’s intuitive gift proves useful to the case—and also dangerous.

Eerie parallels soon emerge between Charlene’s disappearance and the abduction of another local girl that shook the community years ago when Maggie was a teenager. The investigation has her husband, Jones, the lead detective on the case, acting strangely. Rick, already a brooding teenager, becomes even more withdrawn. In a town where the past is always present, nobody is above suspicion, not even a son in the eyes of his father.

“I know how a moment can spiral out of control,” Jones says to a shocked Maggie as he searches Rick’s room for incriminating evidence. “How the consequences of one careless action can cost you everything.”

As she tries to reassure him that Rick embodies his father in all of the important ways, Maggie realizes this might be exactly what Jones fears most. Determined to uncover the truth, Maggie pursues her own leads into Charlene’s disappearance and exposes a long-buried town secret—one that could destroy everything she holds dear.

This is a hard book to review without giving away to many of the details that make teh story so good. When the police start asking guestions about Char and her troubled life, the town is forced to relive and reassess the facts of the disappearance 20 years ago of another high school girl, a disappearance that ended with the discovery of a body. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the ripples from Sarah's death 20 years ago continue to impact the entire town today.

This novel explores the ties that bind people to each other and to a place, and reveals how strong yet fragile those ties can be when people are living with secrets. Excellent read!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman

Book description:
So often viewed in her relationships with men, the Virgin Queen is portrayed here as the product of women—the mother she lost so tragically, the female subjects who worshipped her, and the peers and intimates who loved, raised, challenged, and sometimes opposed her.

Borman presents Elizabeth’s bewitching mother, Anne Boleyn, eager to nurture her new child, only to see her taken away and her own life destroyed by damning allegations—which taught Elizabeth never to mix politics and love. Kat Astley, the governess who attended and taught Elizabeth for almost thirty years, invited disaster by encouraging her charge into a dangerous liaison after Henry VIII’s death. Mary Tudor—“Bloody Mary”—envied her younger sister’s popularity and threatened to destroy her altogether. And animosity drove Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots into an intense thirty-year rivalry that could end only in death.

Elizabeth’s Women contains more than an indelible cast of characters. It is an unprecedented account of how the public posture of femininity figured into the English court, the meaning of costume and display, the power of fecundity and flirtation, and how Elizabeth herself—long viewed as the embodiment of feminism—shared popular views of female inferiority and scorned and schemed against her underlings’ marriages and pregnancies.

This is the second Tudor history book I've read this month, and this was by far the more enjoyable. I've read a lot of books (fiction and non-fiction) about Elizabeth but never one like this that focused on the women who surrounded the Virgin Queen and helped shape her views on life and leadership. Though the cast of characters is huge, and many of them share names, Borman did a good job of helping the reader keep track and differentiating between the Janes and Katherines that populated Elizabeth's world. One weakness that I see is that Borman assumes a level of knowledge about the history of the time that makes it clear this book is not for the uninitiated. That said, anyone who has read a couple of books about Elizabeth will have no problem following the action. All in all, an interesting and innovative treatment of a much analyzed figure in history.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Naked Gardener by L.B. Gschwandtner

Book description:
In a remote forest of northern Vermont, Katelyn Cross takes five women on a wilderness canoe trip where they hope to come up with ideas for saving their dying town. Although the river is not always what it seems and the women have not left their problems behind, a painting ritual creates a new way to look at the world - and themselves.

Artist Katelyn Cross loves Greg Mazur and he loves her. He wants to be married but a previous relationship that went sour has made Katelyn overly cautious about any permanent commitment. And what about Greg's first wife? He lost her to cancer and Katelyn worries that he's only looking for a replacement. What's a girl to do? Canoe down a river with five gal pals, camp out, catch fish, talk about life and men. The problem is, a river can be as unpredictable as any relationship and just as hard to manage. On their last day, when the river turns wild, the women face the challenge of a lifetime and find that staying alive means saving themselves first while being open to help from a most unlikely source. As Katelyn navigates the raging water, she learns how to overcome her fear of change in a world where nothing stays the same. When Katelyn returns to her garden, she'll face one more obstacle and the naked gardener will meet the real Greg Mazur.

This is an interesting tale about life and love and women and relationships, an unexpectedly appealing story with great characters. The story revolves around Katelyn, an artist trying hard to maintain her distance from her live-in lover Maze. As she works through the reasons why she feels the way she feels, she finds herself leading a group of inexperienced paddlers on a canoe trip through the wilderness. Each of these women has a problem and of course the trip becomes a bonding experience that helps them work through these problems.

Despite what seems like a hackneyed plot, this book is actually quite enjoyable. The characters are appealing, both as individuals and as a group, and I was quickly pulled into their story. My initial dislike of Maze was eventually tempered as more of his character is revealed, and the sub-plot about their Vermont town was equally engaging. The ending makes it clear a sequel is in the works, but the author does an admirable job of wrapping up the story, providing enough of a conclusion to satisfy readers while introducing a hook to help sell the sequel. 4 strong stars- a great way to ring in the new year!