Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This book has been on my "gotta read" list for over a year.  I finally got the chance to read it, thanks to Rebecca at Penguin-Random House books.  I'll admit I had a vague idea of what this book was about, and that drove me to read it.  But what I thought it was about and what is actually was about ended up being different, and much more than I expected.

This novel is based on two women who had the guts to stand up against slavery and the lack of rights for women in the 1820's.  A hundred years before women got the right to vote.  Sometimes a loud roar starts off with a quiet growl.  Sarah and Nina Grimke form two parts of an amazing trio of women; the third woman, Handful, was Sarah's slave.  Sarah's mother gives Handful to Sarah on her 11th birthday.  Sarah is a pretty smart kid.  She reads books from her father's library (he's a judge, wealthy, slave owner, and lives in Charleston) and dreams of one day becoming a lawyer.  She is horrified at the gift her mother gives her, and refuses to become the owner of Handful.  She even writes out a statement freeing Handful and leaves it for her father, sure he'll abide by her wishes.  Instead, the statement is ripped up and left outside her bedroom door.  She is Handful's mistress whether she likes it or not.  Thus begins a 30 year journey between two woman: one black, one white, one free, one enslaved. 

We come to know Handful and her mother, Charlotte, the family's seamstress.  Charlotte is feisty and determined to one day be free.  She quilts her family's history and sneaks out to make extra money to one day buy her and Handful's freedom.  And yes, you guessed it--things don't go so well.  The brutality and downright wrongness of slavery makes blatant appearances to Handful and Charlotte, as well as Nina  and Sarah.  The relationship between Sarah and Handful was a complex one; I expected more of a novel about a close relationship between the women, but that didn't happen.  Sarah is haunted by Charlotte's demand that one day Sarah free Handful.  Sarah finds it much harder to do this than she ever imagines; can she ever grant this wish and free Handful?   Sarah's life as a privileged upper-class white woman in Charleston has left her in a prison created by society's rigid rules and regulations regarding women.  While Nina became the more famous of the Grimke sisters, it is Sarah's story that is the focus of this novel.

The novel is told in alternating chapters between Sarah and Handful.  It took me a bit to get into the story, and I think this was because I kept getting distracted from the book.  The ending is one that made me tear up.  It comes full circle.  Knowing some background of the Grimke sisters certainly helped me have a good framework before I got too deep into the story, and I would certainly read the author's notes in the back of the book before you begin the novel.  

A powerful novel about the horror of slavery, friendship in all of it's complications, and amazing women who were afraid but stepped forward and fought anyway.  

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

Thank you to Rebecca from Penguin/Random House for a copy of the book!  

Rating:  8/10 for a novel about women who saw wrong and fought hard to change it, sometimes at great cost to themselves.  


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

News and Stuff from the Bookalicious Babe

Summer is here!  Yay!!  This is the first chance I've had to sit down and take a breather.  Life has been very busy:

 I finally made it through two years of grad school to achieve my MA.  It went so quickly, but at the same time it seemed like I would never finish.  I met so many great people and mentors at the University of Iowa and will continue those friendships.  I have to say I miss school, but I don't miss the homework!  

With the summer ahead of me, and back to "just working" full-time, I've been thinking about how I will tackle the heaps of books I've got at home.  At work we've actually started an employee "Reading Challenge" for the year.  It's a fantastic way to focus on reading many different types of books, and moving out of my comfort zone.  My ability to read anything other than non-stressful, fun stuff had been put on the shelf during school, but now I've got the opportunity to stretch my reading into new areas.  So you'll see different book reviews in the coming months, on books I've deliberately picked to push myself and complete my reading challenge.  If you'd like to start a reading challenge yourself and aren't sure what to do, email me and I'd be happy to give you some tips.  

Reviews will begin again 2-3 times a week!  And I'm working on getting back into my podcast for the Bookalicious Babe.  It's been a few years, but I'm ready to put new content on iTunes.  If you haven't heard my podcasts, just go to iTunes and under podcasts search for "bookalicious babe".  It's me rambling about books.  Loved to do it and can't wait to get back into the groove.  

I'm looking forward to an exciting summer wading through my piles (and boxes, and stacks, and bookshelves) of books.  You'll see a mix of brand new books, older books, and books that are fairly recent, but not brand-spanking new.  I am a firm believer in "A book is new if you haven't read it".  It's easy to forget about books you want to read because the tidal wave of new releases can be a bit overwhelming.  So I'm here to help you along, and remind you about books you may have wanted to read, but forgot about.  I am guilty of the "Oooh, look at the new shiny pretty thing" mentality when it comes to books, so I can get forgetful too. 

Reviews coming upThe Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright; The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, The Harvest Man by Alex Grecian, and many more!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Traveling Tea Shop by Belinda Jones

Not only do I love to watch cooking shows, I love to read books where food is a main plot device.  Warning:  this book is not one to read when you're hungry.  

The Traveling Tea Shop by Belinda Jones is a delightful novel about a famous British baker, a travel agent, and a red double decker bus.  It takes places on the East Coast of the United States, and is at parts a delicious food novel, a travel guide, a romance, and a family drama.  It all combines to be an excellent read about how life can change for the better even when it doesn't seem like such a good idea at the time.

Laurie Davis is a Brit living in New York City, running a travel/tour-guide business with her partner.  She's given the opportunity to work for Pamela Lambert-Leigh, a famous British baker (and Laurie's idol).  Pamela is traveling around the East Coast visiting places known for their famous desserts, learning how to make them, and "exchanging" those recipes for a British dessert recipe.  It's all part of an idea her publisher has for a new cookbook.  Along for the ride is Pamela's fun-loving mother Gracie and her sullen and sulky 20 year old daughter Ravenna.  There's clearly tension between Pamela and her daughter, and Gracie and her granddaughter.  All get together on a red double decker bus fitted out with a kitchen and driven by Gracie as they travel from New York City to Newport, Rhode Island, Maine, Boston, and other ports of call.  Along the way all sorts of stuff happens.  Potential love matches, accidents, revelations, and evolving relationships.  I loved all the characters and they made a great group dynamic.  I have decided I really, really need to visit Newport, Rhode Island.  It sounds like a spectacularly beautiful place.   

Kick off your summer vacation reading with this novel.  You'll love it as much as I did.  A refreshing breath of air after finishing school and graduating last week.  
Available in paperback and e-book.  

Rating:  7/10 for a great group dynamic between the characters, a unique plot and OH THE FOOD.  

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James

Simone St. James has quickly become one of "those" authors:  I eagerly await her latest book, and will buy it without hesitation.  I've got to wait until April 2016 for her next one!  I'll try to be patient. 

The Other Side of Midnight follows a similar plot found in Ms. St. James' previous novels:  a single young woman in 1920's England finds herself tangled up in a paranormal mystery that she must solve.  The themes running through these novels are the effects of World War I on those who survived it, and the changing world of women in the 1920's.  

Ellie Winter is a young woman who spends her days using her psychic skills helping clients find things they have lost.  What Ellie knows and what eveyone else doesn't know is that she is the real deal:  someone who can see and communicate with the dead.  She can read people and freak them out with her accuracy.  But she takes great pains to hide that part of herself because of the disastrous "outing" of her mother years ago, which ended her mother's career as the Fantastique.  Now Ellie is all alone in London, and bitter about losing her mother in the scandal that James Hawley and the New Society for the Furtherance of Psychical Research created by testing her mother's skills.  

But one day Ellie gets a visitor, who tells Ellie his sister, the infamous psychic and party girl Gloria Sutter, has been murdered.  Gloria, a former friend of Ellie, left her brother a note, telling him that Ellie would find out what happened.  Ellie wants no part of it, but becomes reluctantly drawn into the mystery of Gloria's murder as she struggles to put all the pieces together.  It's a pretty interesting murder mystery, and actually a pretty clever twist.  

Meanwhile, James and Ellie are thrown together to figure out who killed Gloria and who's made Ellie their next target.  Ellie will be forced to use her abilities to solve the mystery.  Will a romance with James that had potential all those years before come to fruition?  

I like St. James' atmospheric novels.  They have just the right touch of paranormal, and a heroine who is afraid but keeps moving towards a resolution. London in the 1920's is always fascinating as well, and the specter of World War I looms over all of it.  You can read all of St. James' novels in any order; each are a standalone.  A great blend of history, mystery, and the unknown.  

Rating:  7/10 for an interesting twist to a whodunnit.  

Available in paperback and e-book. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Mrs. Lee's Rose Garden: The True Story of the Founding of Arlington by Carlo DeVito

I got the chance to visit Arlington National Cemetery about 24 years ago when I was in Washington, D.C. for a short weekend trip. I still remember being in awe of the story of how the cemetery came to be and the connection to Robert E. Lee's family.  Mrs. Lee's Rose Garden is a snapshot of three people:  Robert E. Lee, Mary Custis Lee, and Montgomery Meigs, taken at a time when our nation was divided in war. What at first became a means of revenge is now one of our nation's most revered monuments to bravery and sacrifice.

Arlington was the long held and loved home of the Custis family.  Mary Custis Lee, wife of Robert,  was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington; her father was a custodian of much of the family treasures of George Washington himself.  Arlington was a jewel of a place, surrounded by rose gardens, acres of land, and sitting on a hill that overlooked a young Washington, D.C.  It was known as one of the most beautiful places around.  It was also the home of Robert E. Lee and his family.  Robert E. Lee was a well-known engineer with the United States Army in the years preceding the Civil War.  He, along with Montgomery Meigs, helped engineer the  flow of the Mississippi River near St. Louis, allowing the city to continue to grow and prosper.  The two were working comrades and friends.  Until the Civil War began.

Robert E. Lee made the incredibly hard decision to resign from the U.S. Army and take command of the Confederate Army.  He knew it would mean his family would have to leave their beloved home, Arlington--now in enemy territory.  His decision was not a light one, and made with a grave heart.  He chose his love of Virginia and his belief in state's rights over what would have been a comfortable, easy move:  to take command of the Union Army.  

Lee was immediately labeled a traitor, and the loudest voice in the mix was Montgomery Meigs.  Mrs. Lee, reluctant to leave her family home, finally packed up some of the precious family heirlooms and left just before her home was taken over by the Union Army.  She believed she would be back within weeks; no one thought the Civil War would last four years.  She left many family pieces in the attic and in the cellar of Arlington.  What she didn't realize was that she would never live at Arlington again.  

Meigs, really pissed at Lee, was the driving force behind the transformation of Arlington from a graceful family home to a cemetery for thousands.  I will leave the rest of the story for you to read, because it is a fascinating one.  

If you're interested in reading more on Arlington, here's a few titles you may like:


 On Hallowed Ground by Robert Poole is on my bookshelf, and I'll be reading it this summer.  Not only does it cover the early history of Arlington, it also discusses the burial of President Kennedy and other notables in U.S. history.  

This is a great book for history buffs, anyone thinking of traveling to Washington D.C. on vacation, or of course those with a fascination with all things Civil War.  It's a true tale of one family's sacrifice and how it broke their hearts. I can't wait to return to Arlington again someday and spend much more time exploring the home itself, as well as the cemetery.  What a beautiful, peaceful place.  If you're planning a trip to Washington D.C.,  make this a part of your visit.  You won't soon forget it.  

Rating:  7/10 for a brief, yet poignant look at the founding of Arlington National Cemetery.  A personal story of love and loss on many levels.

Available in hardcover and e-book.


Monday, April 13, 2015

The Cake Therapist by Judith Fertig

After the turmoil of Hausfrau, I decided I needed to either eat cake or read about it.  I decided to go the hip-friendly route and read The Cake Therapist by Judith Fertig.  I'll preface my review with two warnings:  this book will make you drool, and it doesn't come out til June. 

Neely O'Neil flees her crumbling marriage to a pro football player in New York to her hometown of Millcreek Valley, Ohio.  She comes ready to open her bakery, Rainbow Cake.  Neely is an experienced professional baker, and she's got an added bonus:  she can "read" people and match flavors to their moods.  She's a psychic with a dash of cake.  She usually blocks it out, but uses it to create a successful reputation as a delicious baker, capable of delivering just the right cake.  If you didn't know Judith Fertig has a career as a cookbook writer, you figure it out pretty quickly reading this book.  Only someone with a background in all things baking would be able to write so well about buttercream, chocolate, and flavor pairings.  I'm drooling now just thinking about chocolate and coffee entwined together in a rich swirl of frosting.  Yum.

Neely's move back to her hometown hasn't stopped her estranged husband from trying to get her back, however.  He continually bombards her with gifts, phones messages with songs, and rag magazine stories.  But Neely has too much going on at Rainbow Cake, and she's surrounded by people who all have desires and secrets of their own.  Including Mrs. Amici, the grumpiest, most sour lady walking a dog you'll ever meet.  Surprisingly, Mrs. Amici's past plays a big part in this book, and the storyline flips between present day and the mid 20th century.  You'll have to read to find the connection!

What Neely really wants is a home, a safe place to land, and someone she can trust with her heart.  Can she find it in Millcreek Valley?

This novel was just plain fun.  Perfect for what ails you.  I have to apologize for the big time gaps between reviews in the past 5 months.  I'm finishing up grad school, and I'm in my last few weeks.  It has been an intense and very crazy 2 years of my life, and it has made a huge dent in my reading time.  I never thought I'd say it, but it's true:  there aren't enough hours in the day for me to read whatever I want whenever I want.  That will change in about 30 days, and then look out!  I'll be returning to a much richer review schedule.  So until then, thank you all for following, leaving comments, and being patient.  I've got piles of books to read and review; this summer promises to be a big book summer!

Rating:  7/10 for a fun, magical story about love, cakes, and memories. 

Available in June in paperback and e-book.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

It's hard to read a book when the main character is unlikeable and unsympathetic.  Hausfrau is one of those books that sucks you in even as you wonder aloud "Why am I reading this book?!"  

Anna Benz is an American living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband Bruno and her three children:  Victor, Charlie, and baby Polly Jean.  She's lived there for 9 years, and still doesn't drive and struggles with the language.  

Anna also has lots of affairs with pretty much every man she meets, and is extremely unhappy in her life.  It's a head scratcher, to be sure.  She's got a husband who loves her, three great kids, and a pretty sweet life.  But she's not happy, and Anna really has never been happy her whole life.  A past affair looms large in her mind as her perfect love.  But was it, or is she projecting too much on a brief affair that ended years ago?  And what exactly is she so darn unhappy about?

I can tell you Anna is not someone you really care about.  She acts without thinking about the consequences, and wanders through her days in a fog.  She sees a therapist, who struggles with Anna to find a breakthrough.  And Anna plays her part, pasting a smile on her face, and going through her life unable to share any of her secrets with anyone around her.  Not even her therapist knows what Anna's been up to in her life.  

It's inevitable that Anna is on a collision course, but as the reader, you have no idea what or when.  You just know it's coming, and you can't put down the book until you find it.  And it's a doozy.  Maybe, at the end, you shut the book and think, "Well, I saw that coming from the beginning."  And maybe you won't.  I'll say the last half of the book is particularly sad as Anna deals with the inevitable crumbling of herself and her life.  I was surprised at how much the last part of Anna's story affected me emotionally.  It was, quite simply, painfully heartbreaking.  

Be prepared for an emotional roller coaster ride.  Love Anna, hate Anna, understand or not, Anna's journey as a hausfrau is one you will want to discuss with others.  It would make an excellent reading group pick.  

Rating:  8/10 for a main character that will force you to engage in her life whether you care for her or not.  Some graphic sexual language, but it fits into the scheme of this novel.  The end will haunt you.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.