Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Hidden Letters of Velta B. by Gina Ochsner

I haven't read anything quite like The Hidden Letters of Velta B. in a very long time. It reminded me that sometimes I can read the same type of novel over and over almost as if they are comforting meditations on people, places, and things. I get in a rut, and start to get restless with my reading choices.  Gina Ochsner stepped in at the right time and delivered a story that is full of folk tales, post-Soviet struggles, family secrets, and a young boy with ears that can hear the dead muttering in their graves.

At the heart of this story is Inara, her mother, father, brother Rudy and Uncle Maris.    Inara's father is a grave digger in the town's cemetery.  Inara's family lives in a small town in Latvia, which was part of the Soviet Union but has since become the country of Latvia.    Years of territorial fighting, violence, and borders changing countries has left the Latvians in town clinging to their beliefs that only true Latvians belong there.  Not the Ilmyen family across the way (Jews who play astoundingly good chess); not the German-Latvian couple Mr. and Mrs. Zetsche, who are buying up every property and land available in town. 

 Russian, German, and Latvian cultures all co-mingle in a town haunted by the horrors of World War 2, when they were at the mercy of so many warring countries. The years under Soviet rule also demanded the town lose its identity  as Latvian, and deny the history and culture that made its people unique.      

Inara's story is told by herself to her son Maris years later as she lays on her deathbed.  As a reader, you become invested in the lives of Inara and her family as they struggle to stay warm and fed through years of low employment, food shortages, and a town that seems to be dying.  Fairy tales, myths, legends, and family history are intertwined in letters Inara finds hidden in her grandparent's old estate home--now owned by the Zetsches.  Those folk tales provide the blanket on which the history of the town is woven, and the whispers of past horrors  are covered up by people who are desperately trying to hang onto their culture and forget what happened in the past.  

Can Maris, with his big ears that hear the regrets of the dead, the voices of the river, and the whispers of the earth be the salvation of his town and his family?

If you are a fan of novels set in post-Soviet Union Eastern Europe; of fairy tales and folk tales; of families, love, and regret, you will certainly want to read this wonderful novel.  It is at times both funny with a gentle humor, and so sad it creates a pang in your heart. I enjoyed the family dynamics, the struggle to keep cultural stories alive to pass down to the next generation, and most of all, I loved Inara.  She was a fully fleshed out character that kept me turning the pages.  My only struggle was remembering that Inara's story took place in the 1990's; the novel had a feel to it that kept tricking me into thinking it took place just after World War 2. 

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin for a review copy of this book.

Available in hardcover and e-book.  

Rating:  7/10 for a richly woven tale of a town, a family, and a country looking to heal from deep wounds with the help of their cultural identity and strength as Latvians. A very moving novel.  

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Enter to Win a Copy of Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon

Here's your chance to win your very own copy of Leaving Lucy Pear, by Anna Solomon.  

Early reviews are unanimous in their enthusiastic praise, calling the novel “truly new and fresh” (Good Housekeeping), “beautifully told” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune), and “fully-fleshed, compassionate, and satisfying” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review). Novelists Sue Monk Kidd, Celeste Ng, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Paula McLain are also early fans.
In 1917, Beatrice Haven—the unwed teenage daughter of wealthy Jewish industrialists in Boston—sneaks out of her uncle’s house on Cape Ann in the middle of the night, abandons her newborn baby at the foot of a pear tree, and watches as another mother claims the baby as her own. Ten years later, Prohibition is in full swing and Bea has again sought refuge from her troubles at her uncle’s house, but she discovers far more than she bargained for when the rum-running manager of the local quarry inadvertently reunites her with Emma Murphy, the headstrong Irish Catholic woman who has been raising Bea’s abandoned child—now a bright, bold, cross-dressing girl named Lucy Pear, with secrets of her own. As spring turns into summer, Emma and Bea begin to build a strained, strange friendship, ultimately confronting decisions whose consequences will forever change their lives—and Lucy’s.
Enter to win here:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Giveaway ends at midnight July 28th.  Winner will be announced on Friday, July 28th, along with my review of this novel.  

Woohoo!!  A free book to read in the dog days of August--enter now!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

5 Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Hurricane Katrina seems like it happened so long ago that it's easy to forget just how devastating it was to New Orleans, and how they are still recovering from the destruction and rebuilding communities. Reading this book was a powerful reminder of how complex and difficult decisions were made in extremely trying circumstances, and how horribly unprepared we are for disasters.  

August 28, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.  While there was a mass evacuation, hospitals and hospital workers had to stay; hospitals had to remain open to serve those who were ill, and anticipate more coming into the hospital for care during and after the storm.  Memorial Medical Center had weathered many hurricanes and storms before; it had been part of the community since 1926.  People would leave their homes and bunk down in the hospital for safety; medical staff brought their pets and family members to the hospital to stay while they worked through the storm.  There was plenty of food and water; a few uncomfortable days and it would all be over.   

Except the levees broke, and the streets were flooded.  Memorial quickly became an island.  Staff worked feverishly to evacuate patients, and some managed to get out.  Generators quit working early Wednesday morning; overwhelming heat, darkness, and exhaustion worked on everyone.  Missed and wrong communication, rumors of martial law, and hearing sounds of gunfire scared everyone.  They felt abandoned by the city, state, and the owners of the hospital, Tenant.  Decisions were made that would result in suspicious deaths and a doctor and two nurses being arrested for second degree murder. 

What happened at Memorial?  Why did people die, and why did it take so long for an evacuation to take place?  How could the hospital have been better prepared?  This is a compelling read, and what might seem like a fairly easy choice to make isn't so easy.  I don't think any of us can possibly understand the circumstances because we weren't there.  I read this book a few days ago and I still don't know how I feel about what happened.  It is a book that you will have to talk about with others.  I recently presented this book at work as part of my Lunch and a Book talks.  I had a great audience, and we had very interesting discussions on medical ethics, preparedness, and the complex issue of "do not resuscitate".  

Everyone should read this book.  Whether you're in health care, or someone who cares for elderly parents, or loved ones with health issues.  We all will end up in a hospital at one or more points in our lives.  

One thing I will say about this book, is that the author clearly believes homicide did happen.  She does a good job of trying to see all sides, but there are so many people, and incidences, and hearsay that it can get a bit confusing sometimes.  There is a list of people in the front of the book, and a map of the hospital, including the route from the second floor to the helicopter pad on the roof.  They do help visualize the place and give some organization to the players.  

Rating:  8/10 for a compelling look at a human disaster that could have been prevented.  Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster that couldn't be helped; but the lack of planning and action resulted in a terrible nightmare.  

Available in paperback, hardcover, audio, and e-book.     

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Luck, Love, and Lemon Pie by Amy E. Reichert

I read Amy E. Reichert's novel The Coincidence of Coconut Cake last year and enjoyed her tale involving cooking, Milwaukee, and the messy (but worth it) soap opera of love.  I expected to equally enjoy her second novel.  And I did, but for different reasons.  

Once again taking place in Milwaukee, this is the story of MJ and Chris Boudreaux, married for 20 years.  Two teenagers, a pretty good life, and not really too much to complain about for MJ.  Except her husband misses their anniversary lunch (he's 3 hours late), which forces MJ to drink too many cocktails, and eat the entire lemon pie she had the chef make from Chris' recipe.  The lemon pie is special; the night MJ and Chris met, back in college, he served her a piece of his lemon pie.  It's his special dish, and has a lot of meaning for the two of them.  

MJ is feeling a distance between her and Chris, so she decides to take up playing poker, in an attempt to spend time with Chris (who was playing poker, and missed their lunch).  She once spent time playing poker with the regulars  while working at her mom's bar as a teen, and vaguely remembers enjoying it.  

MJ's plan backfires, though, when she's seated at a different table then Chris.  How are they supposed to spend time together when they're not even at the same poker table?  But, MJ finds herself thoroughly enjoying playing poker; watching the players, figuring out their games, and learning when to bluff and when to fold.  She gets very good at it, and spends more and more time playing poker at the casino instead of running her home.  The distance between her and Chris widens.  

MJ wins a trip to Las Vegas, to play in a poker tournament.  She's hoping Chris will come along with her, but he turns her down.  She's crushed, so she takes her friend Lisa instead.  For the first time in her marriage, she's doing what she wants instead of what everyone else expects her to do.  

Once in Las Vegas, things take an unexpected turn for MJ, as she catches the eye of Doyle, the famous poker player who is there to give lessons to the tournament players.  His obvious flirting is making MJ a bit flustered, and getting attention from a handsome man can lead to disaster if she doesn't play her cards right (see what I did there?).  

This novel is about the growing pains of marriage; not the newly married and getting used to each other marriage, but the marriage that has been together for a long time.  That time when you look up, and realize years have gone by, and  you haven't taken care of your marriage.  How do you fix it?  Do you even try?  How do you recapture that spark that brought you and your partner together in the first place? MJ and Chris are at a crossroads they never saw coming.  

This is the first novel in a long time that I've read where an active marriage is at the heart of the plot.  It was refreshing to read about what happens after a couple has built a life together, and how that is sustained and nurtured--or not.  It is the little things that bond us, and make that relationship strong, and help us weather the not so pleasant times.  I also realized that I will never be a poker player.  Amy explains poker pretty well, and it's nice to see MJ go from a novice to someone who masters the game through practice and natural talent.  I can see the allure of it all.  But I'll stick to penny slots.  

Rating:  7/10 for a different take on examining a marriage; the addition of poker gives it an interesting, fun twist.  I didn't feel I got to know Chris as well as I'd liked; MJ was well developed and very likeable.  

Available in paperback and e-book. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

I've missed reading my sci-fi/fantasy books.  Somehow I got away from them this year, but I plan on making up for my horrible neglect. 

Science Fiction, like other genres, has many sub-categories. I tend to stick to contemporary fantasy, but also like good old magic tales.  I generally avoid techie science fiction. I love Mercedes Lackey's Elemental series, Kevin Hearne's Iron Druid Chronicles,  Simon Green's Ghostfinders series, and Kristen Britain's Green Rider tales.  And of course, I was a huge fan of Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels until she jumped the shark at about novel #9.  Ugh.  Same with Laurel K. Hamilton and the Anita Blake novels.  There are many, many more I will read and love as the years go by.  I've got Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series sitting on my bookshelves,unread.  I've got bits and pieces of other series also waiting patiently on my shelves.  I always love to peruse the science fiction/fantasy section at my local B&N.  You never know what will pop out.  

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is just one of those books that popped out at me.  I'd seen it on a recent visit to the bookstore, but didn't buy it.  Then I was somewhere, looking at something, and I saw it again.  I checked out some reviews, and decided to go back to B&N and buy it.  The idea of bartenders saving the world from monsters by mixing the ingesting certain cocktails that give them certain powers appealed to me on many levels.  For one, the creativity Paul Krueger had to come up with this story line.  For two, it takes place in Chicago--my "ancestral" home: place of my birth, where my parents grew up and married.  I'm a sucker for stories that take place in Chicago.  

So, Bailey Chen has returned to live with her parents after graduating from Penn State.  She's unemployed, but hoping to get a job--any job--soon.  Her childhood friend Zane gets her a temporary job at his Uncle's bar, the Nightshade Lounge.  Bailey and Zane have a friendship that is layered with all sorts of unresolved issues of the romantic kind.  When he was interested, she wasn't; now she's interested, and he has a girlfriend.  One night, Bailey is left to close up the bar.  She decides to mix a screw driver  to drink before leaving for the night.  The strange thing is, this drink Bailey makes gives her some super human strength.  And she doesn't realize it until she's walking home, by herself, and runs into something not so human: a tremen.  Tremens are demons that look like blobs of grossness, and they jump humans and literally suck the life out of them.  They especially like people who have been drinking.  Something about the mix of alcohol and human produces a life force that tremens love.  

Bailey quickly finds herself as a bartender-in-training of a different kind:  a monster-fighting bartender.  They patrol the streets at night, making sure humans are safe from tremens. Properly mixed cocktails produce magical effects on bartenders that usually last an hour, enough time to patrol, kill tremens, and get back to the bar.  Vodka gives tremendous strength, whiskey grants telekinesis, and rum will get you the ability to blast fire from your fingertips.  Pretty awesome stuff!  

But of course, things aren't so simple.  There are more and more tremens popping up, and in packs, which is highly unusual.  Something strange is going on, and it's got to do with one mystical drink:  the long island iced tea.  

I'm not telling you anymore.  This is a fun novel, and the first in what I hope will be at least a trilogy.  In between each chapter are bits of cocktail magical history from "The Devil's Water Dictionary", Bailey's guide to creating cocktails. Bailey is your usual out of college, don't know what to do with my life twenty-something.  She's pretty smart, but finds out that sometimes being book smart just isn't enough when it comes to fighting demons.  The characters that surround Bailey are all colorful and slightly quirky, and I can't wait to see how everyone evolves--if, hopefully, there are more adventures ahead for the magical bartenders.  

Rating:  7/10 for a quirky take on contemporary urban fantasy.  I'll never look at a cocktail quite the same again!  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

TBR Pile for July: A Bit of This, a Bit of That

I've had that awful realization many times in the past few weeks:  that one where I settle into bed at night and it dawns on me that I haven't read more than 2 pages in one of my many books all day.  No wonder I was getting crabby by the end of the day.  

This is unacceptable

So how do I fix it?  Do I stay up until all hours, trying to squeeze in more reading?  Of course this means I won't be awake during my work day.  Do I go to bed early, and get up earlier to read for a bit before I go to work?  Or do I just keep plugging along all week, trying to carve out time where I can read for more than five minutes before I fall asleep?  There isn't really a good solution.  Life is just crazy right now, and the one thing that keeps me calm is being squeezed out.  

I figure this is just a temporary issue, and sometime this summer I will be able to go for long periods of time reading and regaining my harmony with the world. I'm probably overly ambitious, but this is what I'm planning on reading and reviewing for the month of July:

A little bit of magic, a little bit of romance, a little bit of history.  And who could resist a novel about bartenders who keep the world safe from monsters by drinking the perfect cocktail?  Not me.  I'll never look at a screwdriver the same way again.  

Stay tuned for reviews! 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Review and Giveaway Winner: Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen

This was a book that wasn't on my radar at all until I received an opportunity to review it and sponsor a giveaway to a lucky reader.  So glad I accepted that review opportunity because this was a perfectly perfect novel to read in the depths of summer.  

Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen is an updated take on Enchanted April (which I must immediately rent and watch this month).  Four strangers rent a cottage on an island off the coast of Maine for the month of August, and the magic that is Little Lost Island and Hopewell Cottage begins to work on the troubles each have brought with them from home.  There's Rose, who is a mother to twins, a frustrated poet, and married to a successful author. Lottie, a mother of a small boy, married to a lawyer who works too much and has a wandering eye; Beverly, an elderly man who comes with his sorrow and grief; and finally, Caroline--a popular young actress famous for her  reaction to losing out on an Oscar who just wants some peace and quiet.  Robert is the owner of the cottage, and he rents it out each August to people who need a bit of a break in their lives, and a bit of magic to sort them all out.  

Little Lost Island is a beautiful island off the coast of Maine, home to many summer cottages (and by cottages I mean very large homes) that have been handed down through the generations.  No cell phone service, no TV's; it's all about nature, seafood, and the beauty of the ocean.  It is the perfect summer getaway from everything, and a place to heal and ponder life.  Four strangers in one house starts out a bit awkward for them, but as the days go by, little by little they get to know each other and their stories.  And Hopewell Cottage works its magic.  

Oh, I wish I could go to Little Lost Island for a month.  Brenda Bowen has built a wonderful setting and her characters are all just regular people with problems just like the rest of us.  Of course, Caroline being a famous actress is a bit out of the norm, but really all she wants is to be left alone and figure out what her next step is in her life.  In the end, that's what we're all trying to figure out.  

And without further ado, here's the winner of a copy of Enchanted August
Kristal, I know you'll love this book!  Enjoy.  

A HUGE thank you to Penguin/Random house for a review copy and sponsoring this giveaway.  

Rating:  7/10 for a summer read that hit all the right buttons: an enchanting setting  that makes me want to travel, likable characters, and a plot that moves along to a satisfying conclusion.  

Available in paperback and e-book.