Saturday, November 21, 2015

Christmas Read: The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett

We had our first snow last night, Thanksgiving is next week, so yes, I'm starting my Christmas reading pronto.  This was a delightfully told tale that really does resonate pretty strongly with today's news about refugees and so many people needing our assistance, in big and small ways.  Without further ado, here's Scrooge!

Charlie Lovett first wrote this story in 2003, and didn't have any success getting it published.  It sat quietly waiting until he successfully published  
 The Bookman's Tale and First Impressions.  A discussion with his editor about upcoming projects brought this one back into the light, and published just in time for Christmas.

It's been twenty years since Scrooge and his famous adventures with the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  And guess what?  He's still incredibly happy go lucky, and full of Christmas cheer.  So much so that he spends every day walking the streets, shouting "Merry Christmas!" to everyone.  All year long.  Even in July.  He's given all of his money to help the needy, and his cheerfulness can't be defeated or dimmed.  Unfortunately, people see him coming and start to hide, because quite frankly they're tired of  being around someone who's always so darn cheerful.  

One night, his ghostly friend Marley pays him a visit.  Marley is in despair over the length of his ghostly chains.  He fears he will never be able to rest peacefully, and even though he did a good deed all those years ago with Scrooge, it hasn't done much to push him down the path to eternal rest.  He has to do more.  Scrooge has a brilliant idea:  Marley needs to call forth the spirits who visited Scrooge twenty years before, and Scrooge will visit three of his associates with each spirit:  Bob Cratchit, his nephew Freddie, and his creditors at the bank.  Each has the potential to turn themselves around and make positive, lasting changes to themselves and the unfortunates of London.  

This is a short but sweet tale that gives us a glimpse into Scrooge's life after A Christmas Carol.  Told in the spirit of Dickens, it is jolly and joyful and filled with fun illustrations that help frame the story.  It did put me in the Christmas spirit, and remind me that we can all make positive changes and help others, even if it's as simple as buying a meal for someone, or donating a book to a local charity for a child. We have no idea how such simple, loving gestures can change another person's life for the better.  Right now the world needs a whole lot of love and kindness!  

Thank you to Penguin Random House for a review copy of this book.  A great stocking stuffer for this holiday season. 

Rating:  7/10 for a Christmas tale that revisits Scrooge after A Christmas Carol.  It will remind you of Christmas Eve, watching late night holiday movies, and what it really means to be filled with the Christmas spirit all year round.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio. 


Friday, November 13, 2015

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

Oh Brian Selznick.  I can't even imagine how to move beyond a stick figure when I draw, and you, with your wonderful illustrations just make magic happen.  Brian's previous two novels, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck were incredible stories mixed with his wonderful illustrations.  Both combine to tell stories that tug at your heart.  The Marvels is no different.

In this novel, Selznick puts over 400 pages of illustrations first.  The first part of the story is told through these illustrations. Here are a few examples of his extraordinary talent:

 In the first half of the novel, we start in 1766 aboard a ship, and we meet Billy Marvel, a young boy who has stowed away on his brother's ship.  Adventure is in store for Billy, as well as heartbreak.  He ends up in London, working at a theater, and starts a family that will soon be famous for their theatrical talents.  Generations of Marvels take to the theater, until one day....

 The second half of the novel is prose that builds on the first half of the novel.  It's 1990. We meet Joseph Jervis, a young boy who runs away from boarding school in England to find his uncle Albert Nightingale in London.  Joseph has never met his Uncle Albert, but is miserable in his boarding school (his mother and father "travel" all around the world without him) and Christmas is approaching.  Albert is not your average uncle, and his house is not your average house.  The house is pretty mysterious, and I was sucked into the story from the first page.  Yes, the two stories do tie together, and in a away that surprised me.  I never once figured it out.  

This novel is a true work of art.  It clocks in at over 600 pages, and yes, it is a young reader novel.  I loved the story and had the weepies at the end.  The story speaks about family, legacy, and living a life that makes each of us happy.  It speaks of memories, and the power of imagination.  I was not disappointed, and this novel was worth the wait.  Some reviews I read didn't like the LGBT angle in the novel, but it certainly didn't bother me and actually made the novel all the more poignant.  And remember--it's written for middle schoolers!  So it is age appropriate.  

If you haven't read a Brian Selznick novel, you need to make it a reading goal for 2016.  He usually bases his novels on true life, and will explain at the end of the novel where his inspiration came from, and how he used it to create a wonderful story.  

Rating:  8/10 for a beautifully illustrated novel that tells a powerful story about family.  It's got a permanent place on my bookshelf.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.  But trust me, spend the extra cash and get the hardcover.  So worth it.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini

I've left the spooky tales behind for now to focus on Christmas reads.  Yes, I know it's only November.  But there is something very satisfying about reading Christmas stories leading up to the holiday season.  They always put me in a good mood and are one of my most favorite things to do after Halloween--besides dream of Christmas baked goods.  

Jennifer Chiaverini is well  known for her quilting series, but in recent years she has begun to write historical fiction centered around the American Civil War.  This book once again features the Civil War, but has a few added bonuses:  a famous poet, a contemporary church choir, and a link between the two.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a famous poet, happily married and a father of five in the winter of 1860.  Abe Lincoln was just recently elected, and the rumblings of war were getting louder.  Living in Boston, Henry's life was full of good friends, a beloved wife, and his work.  Unfortunately, this would be one of the last supremely happy times of Henry's life.  

In contemporary Boston, on a cold December night, Sophia races to St. Margaret's church to teach her children's choir class.  She's a music teacher at a local school, and was just informed due to budget cuts her job will be eliminated at the end of the school year.  The children's choir is a source of great joy for her, and she's planning on having them sing "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", a carol based on Henry's poem Christmas Bells, written in 1863.  

At St. Margaret's church, a whole cast of characters round out the story:  a young mother struggling to remain upbeat for her two children while their father is in Afghanistan; a priest who gives service to others but is closed off from his brother; a widow who comes to listen to the children practice on the piano donated by her late husband, and a young man who is in love with Sophia but doesn't know how to move beyond the "friend" stage.  

You'd think Civil War Boston and contemporary Boston wouldn't mesh well in a story, but I found both stories equally compelling and wasn't bothered in the least by switching from one to the other.  The connection of family love, yearning, memories, and a wish for peace and harmony is a foundation that makes this novel a wonderful Christmas read.  I didn't know anything about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow before this novel, and I'm glad I've had a bit of an education about one of our beloved poets.  It does hold true that people are the same, no matter what century or circumstance.  We worry, we love, we mourn, we struggle to live a meaningful life.  And through all that, music makes our hearts sing.  

I think this would make a fantastic December read for anyone who likes a bit of history mixed in with a contemporary tale.  Fans of Jan Karon or Debbie Macomber would definitely like it.   

I'd like to thank Penguin Random House for a preview copy.  I'm happy to kick off my Christmas reading with this lovely, gentle story.  

Rating:  8/10 for a blending of two stories--one in the past, one contemporary, that makes sense.  Using a poem to connect the two stories is pretty clever.  All of the characters are likeable.  A novel with chock full of Christmas.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

I Gave Nora Roberts Another Chance: The Key Trilogy

If you're a regular reader to my blog, you know I recently read the Nora Roberts trilogy The Cousins O'Dwyer and I was completely underwhelmed.  And puzzled by the lack of spark that usually accompanies a Nora Roberts novel.  I haven't read oodles of her books, but enough to know she usually writes a pretty solid story that I'll enjoy.  So instead of never reading her again, I decided to read one of her older trilogies (2004).  And I'm glad I did!

The Key Trilogy is comprised of  Key of Light, Key of Knowledge, and the Key of Valor.  The novels take place in a Pleasant Valley, Pennsylvania. Three women:  Malory, Dana, and Zoe receive requests to attend a dinner at the stunning mansion Warrior's Peak, located up the mountains from Pleasant Valley.  None of the women know each other, but with this dinner begin a solid friendship that will see them through a quest that will challenge them, frustrate them, and put their lives in danger. 

Basically, each woman has 30 days to solve a riddle, find a key, and help unlock three trapped souls.  If they fail, they each forfeit one year of their lives and an evil sorcerer will triumph.  Bad news for all.  I know, it sounds pretty silly, right?  But it was a pretty entertaining read!

Malory's story takes place in the Key of Light.  She's a frustrated artist who has turned her lack of artistic talent into a successful stint as the manager of a local art gallery.  Unfortunately, she's just been fired because the owner's new wife wants to be in charge.  Dana's story takes place in Key of Knowledge.  She's a librarian who has worked at the local library for years.  She also loses her job due to an unpleasant supervisor who wants Dana's job for her niece.  And Zoe's story is the final story told in Key of Valor.  She's a single mother to young Simon, and a talented hairdresser.  Too talented for the comfort of her boss, who resents Zoe's popularity with the clientele and fires her too.  

Sounds like each woman is ready to start anew.  And each is given $25,000 to take up the quest.  And did I mention each woman has a hottie linked to her story?  And that these men:  Flynn (newspaper editor), Jordan (a successful best selling author), and Brad (the local rich man from a family that runs a national home improvement store chain), are each linked not only through friendship, but through romantic relationships with the women?  All six are crucial to figuring out the clues and finding the keys.  

There's much more to the stories, and I don't want to give it all away.  I thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy, although I think Dana's story in Key of Knowledge was my favorite.  If you're looking for something that has a bit of romance, a bit of mythology, a bit of magic, and a bit of women's fiction all tossed in, you've got the complete package in this trilogy.  These are the kind of stories I like to read after a tough week as a way to unwind and simply enjoy a good tale.  

I forgive you Nora Roberts.  

Rating:  7/10 for an entertaining trilogy with likeable characters, just enough romance, and an interesting take on mythology.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book.  I found my copies at the local library.    

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Halloween Reads: Books that Scared Me Silly

Well I didn't get through my whole list of Halloween reads, but I made a good dent.  My posts got me thinking about other books I've read over the years that creeped me out and left a lasting impression on me.  I can say each of the books I've listed below still resonate in my memory and send shivers down my spine.  What spooky books have you read and loved?

A serial killer travels through time in Chicago.  Seriously had me checking the locks on my doors and windows.  An excellent read!

I read this during my teen "Stephen King" years and  was completely scared out of my mind.  One of the first books I read where bad things happen to good people. 

A pilot is haunted by passengers who died during a plane crash.  Will they drive him to do the unthinkable?
This teen novel about zombies taking over the world is the first in a series.  Very well done --you'll read it  and be on the edge of your seat.  

I read this non-fiction book over 15 years ago and, along with my friends,  had the bejesus scared out of me!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Halloween Read: The Midnight Witch by Paula Brackston

My spooky reads for the month continues with one of my favorite authors, Paula Brackston.  

But, I'm sad to say, I wasn't bewitched by this novel.  Trying to let the disappointment go and move on, but it is hard when an author you enjoy doesn't hit it out of the park every single time.  

Paula Brackston still remains true to her theme of witchcraft in this, her third novel. I read The Silver Witch earlier this year and just gobbled it up (much like the Brach's pumpkin cremes I inhale every October).  The Midnight Witch was already sitting on my bookshelf, but was set aside while I was in the throes of grad school.  Now, finally, I had the chance to read it.  Fully expected to love it.  Didn't. 

This novel takes place before and after World War I.  In 1913, Lady Lilith Montgomery is mourning the death of her father.  Rich, beautiful, and engaged, Lilith seems to have it all, and then some:  her father was the head witch of the Lazarus Coven, and Lilith is the heir. The Lazarus Coven is very old, and very secret.  They exist to protect England from dark forces, especially the Sentinels, a group of nasty sorcerers  bent on reclaiming the "elixir" the Lazarus Coven keeps under wraps.  The Sentinels see an opportunity to strike with the death of Lilith's father and her ascent as head witch.  

Lilith has been trained since childhood in the arts of witchcraft, and she's pretty powerful and up to the task of head witch.  But the nasty spirit whispering in her ear, and the knowledge that there is a spy in the Lazarus Coven make her position tenuous. The gathering clouds of war are always in the background, making what should be a happy time in Lilith's life pretty stressful and gloomy.  

Oh, there's also that love interest:  not her fiance, but a poor starving artist.  He's talented, and drop dead gorgeous, but not a witch, and completely out of Lilith's social circle.  Not husband material for her at all.  Lilith must keep her other life--that of a witch--a secret to everyone who is not in the coven (her mother still doesn't know her husband was a witch and her daughter is as well).  How can she possibly find a way out of this mess?

I've been trying to figure out just what I didn't like about this novel.  I kept finding myself thinking it was set earlier than 1913-1914 and that was frustrating.  There wasn't a lack of social clues; the fashion was discussed quite frequently, as well as mentions of cars and women's attitudes.  And World War I was certainly a big part of it.  Somehow I kept getting lost even with all of those reference points to keep me straight.  I also didn't care for the romance between Lilith and Bram.  I didn't feel any chemistry between the two at all.  

The novel does jump ahead 5 years, to after the war.  I found this plot device hard to swallow.  Lilith has so much trouble in 1913-1914; I have a hard time believing the Sentinels wouldn't take advantage of England being in a major war to take control of the Lazarus Coven during such chaos.  They do try, but not very hard.  I felt like the author was very ambitious in the story she wanted to tell, but it fell short somehow.  Too much "stuff" going on that cluttered up the plot.  And I have to say I wasn't entirely crazy about Lilith either.  Something was missing from her personality that would have made me really invested in her issues and struggles.  

Arrgh!  So disappointed in this one.  I always applaud an author who stretches their usual storytelling in another direction.  This one just wasn't the best.  And my golly it seemed way too long.  

Rating:  4/10 for a plot that seemed clunky, a romance that didn't click, and a heroine that unfortunately fell short for me.  

Available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book.


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Halloween Read: The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

This novel originally came out in March of 2013, and I've had an advance reader's copy on my shelves since probably 2012.  Just goes to show eventually I do get to books on my bookcases!  

I haven't read a really creepy book in quite some time and I'm glad I chose this for a Halloween read.  It did creep me out.  I actually went down to my basement last night to toss clothes in the dryer and felt a little uneasy looking into the dark corners.  Thank you Andrew Pyper for that.  

This novel is about a man, Professor David Ullman, and his unbreakable bond with his daughter Tess.  David is an expert on Milton's Paradise Lost, and has built his career out of his scholarly work, but secretly doesn't believe in God or the devil.  His marriage is in shambles, his wife is having an affair, and his daughter seems to inherited what he calls the "melancholy" he himself struggles to keep at bay.  A visit from a strange woman inviting him to Venice (all expenses paid) to witness a phenomenon sets David on a journey that will test his beliefs, his courage, and his unshakable belief that he can save his daughter. 

What?! David's daughter disappears in Venice (everyone says she commits suicide), but David knows what happened:  a demon has her.  And he's going to keep her unless David becomes his disciple and shows the world the proof he has locked up in a bank vault:  that demons exist, and God is not good.  Demonic possession caught on video.  Proof positive that "they" are coming.  This sends David on a cross-country odyssey to find the clues that will lead him to his final destination and showdown with the demon.  And he's under a time constraint:  He only has a few days until his daughter is lost to him forever.  

This is a short novel, but the uneasiness is pretty big.  There are a few scenes that quite frankly creeped me out!  Imagine being scared witless, and moving forward anyway.  That's pretty much what David does.  A father's love for his daughter is supremely powerful.  You don't need to have read Paradise Lost or even have an inkling about it, because you get enough of it in the story to follow along.  Lots of dead people, demonic possession, and horrible visions keep up the horror factor in this story.  I found myself racing towards the end, as David races towards his fate.  

I actually really enjoyed this novel.  The tension is high, the anticipation builds, and it will make you turn on all the lights.  Something completely different from my usual read!

Rating:  7/10 for a well-executed horror novel that makes your heart race and a main character who struggles with his demons--both literally and figuratively in order to save his daughter.  Can love conquer supreme evil?

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