Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen

My desire to devour a large quantity of books this summer hasn't worked out.  Life got in the way, which is hard for me to fathom.  Not much gets in the way of my reading.  And now I'm back to school; life is so full I don't think I'll get a break until after Christmas.  Those bits of time during the day when I can sit and read keep me sane and help me feel that I can keep managing my hectic schedule.  

In between getting ready for school, planning and executing a surprise birthday party for my boyfriend, and trying to keep my yard and house clean (not winning that battle), I've managed to start quite a few books, but only finished this one.  It was the perfect book to end my summer and begin a new season.  

The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen is sure to appeal to anyone who loves Sarah Addison Allen, Alice Hoffman, and anyone who loves a bit of magical realism tossed into a story.  I'm a firm believer in magic and the wonderful, quirky way things can manifest in our lives.  Sometimes there is no explanation, it just is. 

 Olivia Pennywort lives in New York state, in the wonderful Green Valley.  Her farm is known around those parts as a place where a person can go, wander the maze, and find the answer to life's most important question:  what do I do with my life?  Sometimes it can take time to receive the answer; for that reason Olivia provides a barn where women can stay, work the gardens, and await their answer.  They come and go every year and always leave at peace.  Olivia's magic touch with plants of any kind is legendary; she grows flowers and vegetables  when the whole valley is undergoing a horrible drought and heat wave.  

But Olivia has a secret:  she is poisonous to the touch.  Anyone who touches her (or whom she touches) breaks out into a horrible poison ivy rash.  She's kept to herself on Pennywort Farm, working every day on her gardens.  No one knows her secret, except for her father, Arthur.  He lives in a ravine on the farm, in a little shack.  He refuses to move back into the farmhouse, and Olivia visits him every day with food and conversation.  Both are not happy with life, but aware that what they have is all they can ever hope for and expect out of life.

Sam Van Winkle comes back to town, and stirs Olivia out of her prison.  Years before, Sam and Olivia were childhood friends who fell in love as teens.  Sam left town when Olivia broke off their relationship with no explanation.  He tried to find life away from Green Valley, but realized it called to him and was where he needed to be.  Now a police officer, he has to live up to the Van Winkle reputation of being a "hero".  He doesn't feel very hero-like.

Sam, Olivia, and Arthur are all damaged by the past.  Are they courageous enough to take the steps to be happy?  Can Sam and Olivia have a normal life together when physical touch is impossible?  And what of the secret garden locked up in the middle of the maze?  

Love is a powerful emotion, and can make anything possible.  Forgiveness, passion, loving someone wholeheartedly and without reservation; those are all themes in this novel.  Living in the midst of beauty while feeling empty and alone and unable to move forward into the richness of life.  It's all here, in The Night Garden.  

Rating:  7/10 for lush descriptions of gardens, flowers, and nature.  An unusual love story, and a main character who fights for love.  

Available in October in paperback and e-book.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Madeline is nine.  She wants to be a jazz singer.  And she's amazing.  

Madeline is the center of this wonderful little jewel, 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas.  It's the Eve of Christmas Eve in Philadelphia, and Madeline is heading to school.  She attends a catholic school, and before class, they have to go to church.  Claire, the prissy perfect girl in Madeline's class, is going to be singing a solo  hymn in church.  

Until she gets hits by a bicyclist on her way to school.  Oops.  Cue Madeline.  Her teacher, the wonderfully smart and sassy Sarina Greene, suggests Madeline sing in Claire's place.  It's a dream come true.  Madeline stands up front, opens her mouth, and just as her glorious singing is about to begin, Claire bursts through the church doors:  "I can sing!  I am here!"  

Dammit.  

And so begins Madeline's lousy Eve of Christmas Eve.  Her birthday is on Christmas Day, but her mother is dead, and her father sits in his bedroom, paralyzed by grief and listening to old jazz records.  Madeline is on her own.  The Cat's Pajamas is a jazz club in the neighborhood, and it is in trouble.  Citations mean if they're not paid, the club closes.  It's the last chance for Lorca to have a great time and maybe, just maybe pay the citations and keep his legendary club open.  But he's got problems of his own...

There are so many wonderful, quirky characters in this novel it's hard not to talk about them all.  You'll just have to discover them as you read.  I can assure you there are lines where you will laugh out loud.  Did I mention that Madeline has a mouth like a sailor?  Yes she does.  

This novel is about people all standing at a crossroads and deciding where and what to do.  Which path to take.  Do they put the past behind, and move forward?  

Anyone who read Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple will find themselves enjoying this tale of jazz, Christmas, and a little girl's dream.

Rating:  8/10 for a fantastic main character and a story that left me reluctant to turn the last page.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

I think it's pretty safe to say that the majority of adults in the U.S. have read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I myself read it in 9th grade for my first high school English class.  I also think it's pretty safe to say Mockingbird continues to be considered an American classic and a beloved treasure.  

So where is Harper Lee, and who is she?  Why did she never write another book?  Is she still alive?  All those questions are answered in Marja Mills' inside look at Harper Lee and her life in Monroeville, Alabama.  Harper, known by all her close friends as Nelle (Nelle Harper Lee is her full name), is notoriously reclusive.  We don't know much about her.  Marja Mills begins her extraordinary journey into the life of Harper Lee with a simple letter.  Marja is a journalist, writing about Chicago's One Book, One Chicago project: a city-wide reading of To Kill a Mockingbird.  She's assigned a story that requires her to travel to Monroeville, Nelle's hometown, to talk to townspeople about Harper Lee.  Everyone knows in the news industry that Harper will not grant interviews and her circle of friends won't speak about her. Marja doesn't expect much, but writes Nelle and her sister Alice a letter explaining why she's traveling to Monroeville.  A simple courtesy letter.  And it opens up an unforgettable period in Marja's life that leads to a friendship not only with Nelle's close friends, but Nelle and her sister Alice.  A friendship that includes travels to feed ducks, dinners at small diners, a road trip to New York City, and even renting the house next door to Nelle and Alice.  

Nelle and Alice are two extraordinary women.  At the time of this book, Alice was in her 90's, still practicing law every day in the law firm their father (the basis for Atticus Finch) began decades before.  Nelle, the younger sister, spends part of her time living with Alice in Monroeville, and part of her time in New York City, going unrecognized and remaining anonymous to all but her close New York friends.  They live simply; the royalties from Mockingbird have meant that Nelle doesn't ever have to work.  They are fiercely protective of Nelle's privacy and the legacy of her one epic novel.  

I did truly enjoy this look into Nelle Harper Lee's life.  You do come to know Nelle and Alice and enjoy spending time with them.  Both are incredibly brilliant, sharp, and so well read it puts the rest of us to shame.  And some questions are answered:  what was Nelle's relationship with Truman Capote like?  Why did she never write another book?  Will she ever write a memoir?  An intensely private woman who attempts every day to live a quiet life surrounded by her books, friends, and the legacy of Mockingbird.  I felt Marja's book was very respectful, and shows an obvious deep affection for  Nelle and Alice.  They are two walking repositories of the history of their town, the people who are no longer there, and a time that is long gone.  A gentle and poignant look at small town life, and what fame can do to someone who is gifted in so many ways, but finds the legacy they have created a difficult burden to bear, even after so many years.  

Thank you to Dani at Penguin Press for a review copy.  

Rating:  8/10 for a respectful and thoughtful look at the intensely private life of a beloved author.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.  

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I've had this book hidden in one of my floor stacks at home for months.  Wanted to read it, but couldn't find it.  Finally found it a few weeks ago.    Slowly transitioning into a new career made me want to see what Sheryl Sandberg had to say about women and the workforce.  It was very eye opening, and as a woman more than  half-way through my working life,  a lot of it rang true for me.

Sheryl works at Facebook.  She's a big kahuna there and has had an impressive work life.  She's a big advocate for women supporting women, and speaking up for yourself in order to be successful.  Most of what she has to say for women comes from personal experience.  We still have to fight for promotions, still have to fight against stupid sexism, and have to believe in ourselves.  One point Sheryl makes has rung so true to me that I keep it in mind all the time. She talks about men applying for positions at work that they don't necessarily qualify for; women will look over a job description and if they don't fit all the criteria they  won't apply.  More men get better paying jobs because they actually try for positions above and beyond where they are now.  Women need to apply a fashion rule to the whole job seeking thing:  don't be too matchy-matchy.  This is painful for me, since I have no fashion sense and don't like to take fashion risks--by golly my shoes and shirt had better fall in line with the rest of my color scheme.  Heck no.  Wear the yellow shoes; wear that bold shirt.  I've learned to have the courage to apply for positions at school that are outside my comfort boundaries.  I have to take a leap of faith that what knowledge I do have will be the springboard to learning something completely new.   After all, I know the answer will be "no" if I don't try at all.  Putting myself out there is my way of "leaning in ".  I'm learning to have the courage to send myself out there, even for opportunities that I may not be perfectly matched to--take a deep breath and jump!

This book has had many fans and many haters.  I am a fan.  I wish I had this book when I was much younger, but much of it still applies.  All women need to support each other and build a network.  And by doing this, that doesn't mean ignore the men.  Your network includes them, too.  Hopefully we can all work in a place where honesty, collaboration, and fairness are a normal, everyday practice.  Sometimes speaking up can be dangerous; I think we've all be in those situations.  Knowing how and when to pick your battles certainly is an art.   I enjoyed Sheryl's book.  It opened my eyes to things I've seen and heard for years in the workplace, and given me some tools for my professional work tool belt.  

I will say some of the book didn't apply to me, a single woman with no children past the age of having kids.  But whether or not you have a husband or kids, you still need to balance your work and home life.  We are all busy.  

I, for one, am a fan of Sheryl Sandberg.  Read the book, take from it what you want.  I certainly learned a lot!

Rating:  7/10 for a business book that gives sound advice for working women with personal stories told to illustrate key points.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop and Cafe by Mary Simses

Another book that kept staring at me from the bookcases at work while it was still in hardcover.  I finally gave in and bought it in paperback.  And while I did enjoy the novel, I do have a few issues with it.  

First of all, I must admit that I love blueberries.  I mean seriously love blueberries.  As in eating a bowlful of frozen blueberries on a regular basis  and keeping large bags of them in the freezer kind of love.  

So that may have swayed me when I saw the cover of this book.  But as I finished the book, I have to say the title and the cover really aren't much of a match for the story inside.  Yes, blueberries are mentioned throughout the story, but in a way that becomes annoying. Ellen mentions, quite frequently, how her grandmother made the best blueberry muffins EVER.  And how the town of Beacon needs better blueberry muffins than what the cafe offers.  Ok.  Got it.  

 Ellen travels to Beacon, Maine to deliver a letter from her late grandmother to a man she knew many years before.  Ellen is a lawyer in New York City, engaged to an up and coming politician, and happy as a clam.  Until she almost drowns and is rescued by Roy, a local contractor.  Ellen is so happy to be rescued and so caught up in the moment (and her instant attraction to Roy) that she plants a big one on him and it's caught on camera and put in the local newspaper.  She's then known around town as "The Swimmer".  What started out as a quick trip to Maine quickly becomes extended as Ellen begins to realize her grandmother had a past that was very different from what Ellen knew, and she must figure it all out before she can leave Maine.  And then there's Roy.  He just keeps popping up, and her attraction to him is causing her some inner turmoil.  

All in all, the story was entertaining.  It was what I expected, except for that darn cover.  I thought it would be more food related.  In this aspect, the cover is deceptive.  Yes, blueberries are mentioned, and so is the cafe. But they are not the main focus of this novel! The epilogue is really the only part of the book that ties completely into the cover.  I am one of those people who likes the cover to match the overall inner thread of a story, and I feel like that this one just didn't do that.  It is a story about forgiveness, making choices, and finding love in unexpected places.  It's about the fact that we never do know our parents and grandparents that well, and we certainly have no idea who they were and what their hopes and dreams were when they were very young.  Did they love someone else?  Did they have plans that suddenly changed?  Are there people and places they never talk about?  

Fans of contemporary female fiction will enjoy this novel.  There are no great surprises and no terrible secrets.  A good vacation read.  Just be sure there are blueberries within reach.

Rating:  6/10 for a well drawn town with quirky characters and a heroine who finds the courage to jump.  

Available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Prototype by M.D. Waters

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I was eager to begin reading this sequel to the fantastic Archetype,  which I reviewed earlier this year.  But you know how after reading an incredible book (I'm talking about The Book of Life) you feel a bit empty inside and nothing appeals to you?  Well, I felt a bit like that last week.  But I pulled myself out of my reading funk and I am so glad I did with this latest thriller by M.D Waters.

Prototype returns to the world of Emma Wade, a clone on the run from two worlds:  that of the resistance she worked for, and that of Delcan Burke, the man who will move heaven and earth to reclaim Emma as his wife.  The resistance is where Emma met and fell in love with Noah, but her capture by Declan's world meant a completely different life; one where she was to be the perfect wife and produce children in a world where so many women are infertile it has divided the country into two factions and created an industry devoted to cloning women.  Clones are fertile and will produce children and boost a dangerously declining population.  Women in the Eastern United States are seen as objects to own.  Emma, however, had managed to escape this situation as a youth, and ended up as a kick-ass resistance fighter in the Western United States.  Until she fell in to the hands of Declan Burke.  

Archetype was especially good because you didn't know anything more than Emma did, as she slowly realizes her life is not her own, and memories from the real Emma intrude into her dreams.  Archetype ends with a bang and I couldn't wait to see what happened to Emma in Prototype.   I wasn't disappointed!



Emma finds herself on the run, unable to hide from Declan.  He's taken to the airwaves to call for the return of Emma at any cost.  She's hunted by the entire world and has no recourse but to return to the resistance, where she will be safely hidden.  Her feelings for Noah are still incredibly strong--and now there's another person to care about.  What will she do?  Will she stay with the resistance and fight to expose Declan's unethical cloning practices?  Does she have a chance to reclaim her love with Noah?  And what is happening to the "successful" clones besides Emma?  Lots of action in this one, some seriously intense moments between Emma and Noah, and truly a race to the end.  

I completely enjoyed this ride.  It's well written; Emma's torment between what she longs for and what she needs to do is very evident and you can't help but feel for this poor woman--she doesn't belong anywhere.  I would certainly recommend both Archetype and its equally enjoyable conclusion, Prototype.  They do take place in the near future but the technology isn't so far-fetched that you can't imagine it taking place in the next 50 years.  Take a chance on something different and read these books.  Trust me.  You'll enjoy them.  

Rating:  8/10 for another thrilling ride into the future with issues  about the morality of cloning and how to treat a clone--as a human, or a non-human with no rights?  Emma is an incredibly strong female character who grows in confidence and strength through both novels.  

Available this week in the United States in hardcover, e-book, and audio.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Grand Central: An Anthology

  

I'm not one for anthologies.  I like to dive into a book and get a good long story out of it.   But I've discovered that short stories do have a benefit, and in an increasingly busy life they can give me a bit of relief when I want to read but just can't sit down for long and enjoy a 400 page novel.  And I've realized they are perfect when I'm reading in bed at night--my ability to stay awake and read more than a few pages has diminished over the past year.  I'm still hoping I'll find the magic solution to getting by on 5 hours a sleep each night, yet still have oodles of energy to cruise through the day.  

Grand Central is an anthology about the famous Grand Central Station in New York City, just after World War 2 has ended and servicemen and women are finding their way home.  Each author--and there are 10  in all--writes a story that centers around September 20-21, 1945.  Each is about the after effects of World War 2 on both civilians, survivors, and battle weary servicemen and women who just want to go home to their families.  Each story is poignant and moving; from the Jewish holocaust survivor who is paraded around at fund raising events, to the British war bride and her child waiting under the big clock to greeted by her American husband, to the female pilot who struggles through her painful grief.  Each story is remarkably different, but all have the same themes of love, forgiveness, and forging a new life in a very different world.  So many stories echo the sentiment "don't look back, just move forward".  I can't imagine how the world managed to move forward after such enormous upheaval; I guess that speaks to the courage and determination of those who lived through it all.  

I think all the authors did a remarkable job with very different takes on this theme.  And in the middle of it all, the Grand Central Station shines as a crossroad for so many different lives.  And it speaks to the talent of the writers that in every story there are reminders of the stories you've just read; a glimpse of a  previous character, an echo of a violin; the oyster bar that is a setting in many of the stories. 

A great book to take with you when you can't focus on a long story, but want something you can read for a bit then put down and pick up.  That is the beauty of an anthology.  And it does take talent to write a fully developed short story.  You'll find yourself picking this one up quite frequently!  

Rating:  7/10 for talented writers who all wrote a distinctly different short story on the same theme.  The characters will tug at your heart.  

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.