Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor

Here's what I love about historical fiction:  each novel is a mini-history lesson that leads me on a search to find out more about the subject.  Sometimes I read historical fiction already familiar with the historical background of the novel, other times it's a brand new bit of history I've never heard of before.  Such is the case of A Memory of Violets.  It is the story of the London flower girls during the late Victorian and Edwardian Eras.  The exact opposite life of Downton Abbey.  

This novel is told in two parts; one by diary, the other by Tilly Harper, who travels from her home in the Lake District to London in 1912 to become a housemother at one of Mr. Shaw's Training Homes for Watercress and Flower Girls.  It's quite a mouthful!  Mr. Shaw, a social activist of his time, rescues crippled and blind flower girls off the streets of London.  He has a row of homes in which the girls live, and a factory where they create silk flowers to sell.  Their skills are remarkable, and the flower girls have a reputation for quality and beauty in their work.  All of these young ladies have come from desperate situations, living in the most horrific and dangerous conditions.  This is their chance to have a happy, productive life. 

Tilly Harper has left her home and come to London because of a terrible accident that injured her younger sister and left Tilly full of blame and completely shunned by her mother.  She leaves hoping for a new life and some happiness.  Once at Violet House, she discovers a diary hidden in her room and soon becomes engrossed in the lives of Flora and Rose, two young flower girls from 1876.  Written by Flora, it reveals the heart wrenching details of Flora's search to find Rose, her younger sister.  Rose, only four at the time--and blind, was wrenched out of Flora's hands one day while they were out selling flowers.  Flora, crippled and unable to walk without a crutch, can't find Rose.  She never finds Rose.  Flora is rescued by Mr. Shaw, and becomes a housemother at Violet House.  She dies without ever knowing what happened to Rose. Can Tilly finish the search for Flora, and find out what happened to Rose? 

At the heart of this novel is the love of sisters and family, whether it's a family you're born into, or a family you create.  It is about being brave enough to look for answers in places that may cause pain, but ultimately are cathartic and healing.  It is about good people doing what they can to help others less fortunate, with no wish but to bring comfort, happiness, and hope.  

If you're interested in more information about the flowers seller of London, click on this link: .  It's a short bit of history on the flower girls.  

I enjoyed this novel.  I'd recommend it to fans of English history, flowers and gardening, and historical fiction. Hazel Gaynor is also the author of The Girl Who Came Home.  

Rating:  7/10 for a unique subject, a storyline that flows quickly, and characters that tug at your heart. 

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Need a Little Romance? Some of My Favorite Romantic Reads

Valentine's Day is here.  I myself prefer spending the day laying on my couch, covered in a blanket, and reading a good book. Today the wind is howling outside, which makes it a perfect "leave me alone I'm reading" kind of day.  

Here are a few of my favorite romantic reads.  There's historical fiction, contemporary, young love, heartbreak, and happy endings.  We all know the path of love is never smooth--especially when you finally find it!  Whether you're in the mood for something light or something with a bit more heft, I've got you covered.  In no particular order, here are some of the books that have made my heart go pitter patter:

One of my all time favorite pioneer novels.  All I can say is Jack!!

If you've never read this novel, please do.  It is delightful. 

Stuck on an island....older woman, younger man.  Good stuff.

Teen love done very very well.

Historical fiction with an excellent romantic tale.

Considered a classic romance--time travel and a knight!

The true story of Ree Drummond and her Marlboro Man.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen: A Sequel to Garden Spells

If you haven't read Garden Spells, go no further.  You must read it before you read First Frost.  Alright.  Now that I've got the warning out of the way, I'll tell you about First Frost.

The Waverly sisters are back:  Claire and Sydney.  It's been ten years since the end of Garden Spells, and a lot has happened.  Yes, they're still in Bascom, North Carolina.  And yes, the apple tree in the back yard still throws apples at people (most specifically men).  But I can't tell you anymore because that would spoil Garden Spells!

As you may have guessed from previous posts over the years, I love Sarah Addison Allen.  Her books sprinkle a bit of magical realism into my life, and
mixed into that is a heap of Southern charm that I can't resist.  Add in the complexities of sisterhood, and I'm hooked.  I wish Bascom really did exist, because I'd probably live there.  First Frost  is charming and delightful, and leaves me thinking maybe, just maybe, there could be third book featuring the Waverly sisters.  I was happy to leave Garden Spells where it ended; but clearly that was silly of me.  As soon as I found out about First Frost, I was counting down the days before I could grab a copy and dive back into Sarah Addison Allen's enchanting world. 

 My blog didn't exist when Garden Spells was published in 2007, so here's a quick rundown:  Claire Waverly lives in Bascom, North Carolina and runs a catering business.  Her sister Sydney arrives back in town with her young daughter, Bay, on the run from an abusive husband.  It's been years since Sydney left town, and there's a divide between the sisters.  Add to this the reputation in town of the Waverly women.  It's rumored (and true) that each Waverly woman has some kind of peculiar "gift".  For Claire, it's her ability to create dishes that use flowers.  Each flower's specific meaning results in a dish that will evoke certain feelings in anyone who eats it.  Sydney's gift is quirky:  she can give you the best hair cut and style you've ever had.  It will fill you with confidence, and have everyone give you a second glance.  It may change your life.

Can the sisters forgive and forget the past?  And what about love?  Garden Spells  was such a delightful read that it still remains one of my favorite books. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves cooking, flowers and gardens, whimsy, books about sisters, and contemporary novels with a touch of something special.  And when you're done reading it, dive into First Frost.  It doesn't have the same punch of Garden Spells, but it is a sweet novel that will answer questions and have you enjoy revisiting the Waverly sisters.  You probably won't want to leave, either. 

Rating:  7/10 for a welcome visit with the Waverly sisters.  Happily ever after takes work, and that's what I loved about this novel.  

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book.  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Love by the Book by Melissa Pimentel

I'm the midst of my last full semester of grad school, and while I fully embrace the knowledge that I will be stressed out, tired, and trying to finish all my assignments on time, I still have to accommodate my reading addiction.  

All of you out there who share my inability to get through a day without reading for at least an hour understand the absolute necessity of this! Luckily, I was asked to read and review a kicky book that will either make you never want to date again, or conduct your own experiment into the mysteries of dating and finding the love of your life.  

Love by the Book is a novel by Melissa Pimentel based on something she did while living in London in 2009:  buying dating how-to books and using their methods to actually meet and date men.  And that's just what Lauren Cunningham does, with a definite mixed result.  Lauren moves to London after a messy break-up (which you find out more about towards the end of the novel).  She finds a great roommate and a job at a museum.  She's just offered her stay-over sex dude Adrian some eggs for breakfast.  Because, as we all know, it's a nice thing to do and eggs are just eggs.  But Adrian freaks out, thinks she's asking for a commitment, and doesn't let the door hit him in the tushy on his way out.  

Lauren decides to read a dating guide each month for a year, and follow the rules in an attempt to discover A) just what works with men, and B) have lots of sex.  Lauren's escapades are sometimes partially successful, but most often leave her scratching her head and thinking twice about her "study".  And meanwhile, there's the  guy who runs the bookstore...who thinks she's an idiot for buying those books, and with whom she has great conversations about literature and life.  Could he be the one she's looking for?

Lauren is certainly a character, as well as her flatmate Lucy.  I will say this novel is Bridget Jones tossed in with Sex and the City.  There's plenty of booze, sexual encounters, and cigarettes.  It is a fun romp and an enjoyable read.  And what happens at the end of Lauren's journey?  Does she figure it out, or does she give up?  And what has she left behind at home?  

I will say the one thing that puzzled me about the book was her past relationship with Dylan.  It got a bit lost and I never really understood what exactly this relationship was until I was almost done with the novel.  It really could have been left out or explained pretty directly right up front.  I didn't think it had much to do with the novel as a whole but just provided a plot device for Lauren to move to London.   

Valentine's day is coming up!  For all those single ladies out there, spend February 14th pampering yourself, eating something good, and reading this book.  It's a fun look at love and dating in 2015.  

Rating:  7/10 for a clever use of dating "how-to" books put into practice.  Lauren's dating experiences go from so-so to disasters to not-so-bad, but all are fun to read about! 

Thanks to Penguin for a review copy!  

Available in paperback and ebook.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

This is the hot hot hot book of the new year!  It's a Barnes and Noble Discover title, and it's in every major magazine.  So without further ado, I'll tell you about it.

Rachel is an alcoholic.  She rides the train in London every morning and late afternoon, usually drinking cans of gin and tonic.  She lives in a bedroom she rents from a friend.  She's in her early 30's, divorced, and fired from her job months ago for being drunk and insulting a client.  Her friend doesn't know she's unemployed because Rachel always leaves the house every day to take the train.  

Rachel takes the train past her previous life--the one where she was married and living in a home with a garden that runs up to the tracks.  She passes her home every day, noticing her ex-husband's new wife and baby.  She also notices the house a few doors down, and the man and woman who live there--Jason and Jess, as she calls them.  Gee, they seem to have a perfect life. 

Rachel is a mess.  She has blackouts and can't remember anything that happened.  The drinking ended her marriage, and she can't get past the fact that her husband Tom had an affair and finally divorced her because of her drinking.  She just wants her old life back.

But then she sees something one day while on the train that changes her perception of Jason and Jess and their perfect life.  And she wakes up one morning with dirt on her hands, bruises on her arms, and a bloody wound on her head.  What happened the night before?  The last thing she remembers is getting on the train to go to Witney to talk to her ex-husband.  What happened afterwards?  How did she get home?  Just how drunk was she?

This is a roller coaster of a novel.  Do you trust such an unreliable narrator?  Is she really being honest with herself, and you?  Oh, it gets good, and it gets crazy.  All I will say is that you need to read it all in one sitting, if you can.  It's hard to put down, because Rachel is (pardon the expression) such a train wreck.  But you can't help it--you stick with her.  As well you should.  

That is all I will say.  Read it.  

Rating:  8/10 for an effectively messed up narrator, a chilling look at suburbia, and a twisty ending.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes has been popular in England for years, and we are finally getting to see her previous novels here in the United States.  The Ship of Brides was first published in England in 2005, but the story is still fresh in 2015.  Jojo's inspiration for this novel was her grandmother, who was a war bride that traveled to England to meet her soldier husband after World War 2.  

This novel has a cast of characters:  Margaret, a young woman leaving her father and brothers on their ranch in Australia; Jean, the youngest bride--a little too eager to party and a bit immature; Frances, a nurse who worked in the Pacific during the war, and Avice, the well-to-do young woman who imagines a picture perfect life in England.  All of these women have one thing in common:  they have married British soliders who were stationed in Australia, and they're finally traveling to England to meet their husbands.  They're on no ordinary cruise ship--they are traveling on the British aircraft carrier HMS Victoria, which has a full compliment of crew making their way home at war's end.  It has all the makings of a potential disaster.  How can anyone think all those men and all those brides will behave for six weeks at sea?

I did enjoy this book, but I felt it dragged on a bit.  There were times I felt like I was on a six week trip.  I did come to enjoy the women very much and felt for them when not-so-great stuff happened. The slow addition of the male characters (who have their own stories to tell) rounded out a picture of people returning home changed by war, and not quite sure what to do or what to expect once they return to civilian life.  

Can you imagine sailing into the unknown, hoping when you got to the other side your husband was waiting with open arms?  What if you got a "do not come" letter halfway into your journey?  The homesickness must have been unbearable.  What brave women.  

Fans of Jojo Moyes will read this, and don't think that I didn't enjoy it, because I did, and I was sad to say goodbye to the women.  I just felt some parts were a bit slow, and it could have been shortened up a bit.  And the mystery of Frances was very slow in being revealed.  This is historical fiction that will probably peak your interest in war brides.  It is a subject worth exploring.

Rating:  6/10 for a story that has a large cast of characters, but dragged a bit in places.  An interesting look at war brides.  

Available in paperback and e-book.
Thank you to Penguin for a review copy!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

I wish my brain was a big as Andy Weir's brain.  This man is brilliant.  How do you get non-science people to read a book about science?  Make it fiction, stick an astronaut on Mars, and then leave him there.  By himself.  With no communication and very little food.  

The Martian is a thrill ride from beginning to end, and even though I will freely admit to not knowing much about engineering, chemistry, and space, I couldn't put this down.  What makes it even more fun is that you really could see this happening.  Here's the premise:  Mark Watney is part of a team of astronauts who have landed on Mars to conduct an expedition.  They've got supplies, a place to live, and all the tools they need to get things done before they get into their MAV and blast off the surface of Mars and back into space and their spaceship, which is in orbit.  Then it's back to Earth.  Everything was working just fine, until a big storm hits Mars, and the mission is cut short.  They have to leave Mars now!  And while they're making their way towards their escape, Mark is hit by something, knocked out, and blown away.  All readings from his suit indicate he has no oxygen and is dead.  With time dwindling away, Commander Lewis has no choice but to leave him and keep the other astronauts alive by getting back to their spaceship.  Racked with guilt, they are all haunted by the knowledge that Mark Watney is dead on the surface of Mars.

Except Mark's not dead.  Miracles do happen, and his space suit is still functioning.  He wakes up, realizes he's alive, and soon also realizes he's going to be dead quickly if he doesn't fix his suit and get to safety.  

This begins Mark's quest to stay alive long enough to make it to the next Mars mission--IN FOUR YEARS.  He's a botanist, so he makes a plan to grow potatoes.  He's incredibly smart and MacGyver-like and has a wicked sense of humor.  Keeping a log of his time on Mars, he works day and night to stay alive, make plans for rescue, and is fully cognizant that he may not make it off Mars alive.  

Does he get rescued?  What the heck happens?!  I won't share anymore of the story, because you need the experience of living this adventure with Mark.  I will admit some of the science lingo had my brain shutting down, but keep moving through.  There's humor, poignancy, bravery, awe, and sheer moxy in this novel.  I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys adventure stories, science, and anything to do with space.  This is not science fiction as you would imagine.  It's been optioned for a movie, and I hope it happens because it will make a heck of a movie.  Men and women and teens will all enjoy this story.  

Available in paperback and e-book.

Rating:  8/10 for a thrilling adventure, a great main character full of humor and courage, and references to ABBA, Three's Company, and disco.