Thursday, February 11, 2016

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

It's unusual for me to read two books by the same author back to back, but I couldn't wait to see what else was in store for Polly in the little island town of Polbearne in this sequel to Little Beach Street Bakery.  I'm happy to say the continuing adventures of my favorite bread baker are just as entertaining as the first novel.  

Polly is looking forward to a summer of bread baking, the increased traffic into her bakery, and living in her lighthouse.  Her love life is pretty sweet, too.  She's the happiest she's ever been.  And you know what that means--cue the chaos.  

Mrs. Manse has left Polly in charge of both bakeries, but tragedy strikes with the sudden death of Mrs. Manse.  A visit from her sister and two adult nephews to Polbearne puts Polly's bakery in jeopardy.  Malcolm, a very unpleasant man with no business sense at all, is put in charge of the bakeries, and wants to change from Polly's wildly popular breads to white, thin, plastic-wrapped bread and biscuits that come in tins and have the shelf life of a rock. For Malcolm, it's all about saving money and making money, and Polly's dream of her little bakery is shattered.

Fast running out of money, and worrying about making her mortgage payments, Polly and Huckle decide the only thing to do is for him to return to America for a few months to make money on the family farm in Georgia.  It's only temporary, right? Meanwhile, will Polly keep baking or hang up her apron?

Poor Polly.  She befriends Selina, a young widow in town, and begins a friendship that unfortunately has a few secrets. Secrets that may end up costing Polly the only female friend she has in Polbearne.  This is a summer that's turning out to be rough!  Will Polly come out smiling at the end?

I sincerely hope Jenny Colgan continues to write about this lovely place off the coast of Cornwall.  I've got a firm picture in my head of just what it looks like, and I don't want to imagine that this place and these people don't exist.  Real life problems, big and small, people who are hard working, kind and solid to their core.  A romance that has growing pains, but worth it all.  Friendships that mature and grow.  And yes, a nagging itch to maybe, just maybe, try to make homemade bread myself.  

Rating:  7/10 for a solid sequel, with challenges to careers and relationships that aren't far fetched.  A small town that has all the best characteristics of small town life.  And yes, the bread!  I can smell it now.

Available March 22nd, 2016 in hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audio.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The View from Prince Street by Mary Ellen Taylor

Mary Ellen Taylor is another author I've discovered in the past few years that I have grown to enjoy.  Yes, she has entered the category of "immediately purchase" whenever she has a new book published. This is her fourth book, and I was happy to dive back into Alexandria, Virginia and all the characters from her past novels.  It's my humble opinion that in order to get the most out of this book, you should read all the previous books first:  The Union Street Bakery, Sweet Expectations,  and At the Corner of King Street.  I've reviewed them all, so click on the titles to see my reviews.  You don't have to read them, but I believe it makes for a better story when you know the history of the characters.  Mary Ellen Taylor has made a hybrid of sorts:  The Union Street Bakery  and Sweet Expectations are a duo, and then At the Corner of King Street  and The View from Prince Street are another duo.  Characters from the first three novels all appear in Prince Street.  These books are all perfect for a reader who enjoys early American history, relationships between sisters and friends, contemporary issues, and a hint of mystery and the paranormal.  Once again, my history geek jumps out.  I would love love love to visit Alexandria, Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area again.  I had a chance years ago to visit Washington, D.C. for a weekend and have never forgotten how much I enjoyed it.  Someday, I'll go back.  

Prince Street features Rae McDonald and Lisa Smyth, two women connected by the death years before of Rae's older sister Jennifer.  Lisa and Jennifer were best friends and Lisa survived the car accident that killed Jennifer.  Lisa is a recovering alcoholic who travels the country as a photographer, while Rae still lives in her family home in Alexandria and has a successful practice as a therapist.  Both women are a bit of a mess.  Rae is emotionally withdrawn, and Lisa has regular conversations in her head with Jennifer.  Neither has seen each other in years.  Lisa is forced to return to Alexandria to take care of her ailing Aunt Amelia, who has Alzheimer's disease and suddenly confesses she was adopted as a child--and has proof, but no explanation of why her mother never came back for her. 

Enter in Margaret and Addie from the Shire Architectural Salvage Company, who arrive at Rae's house to look over the boxes of letter and documents passed down through Rae's family.  Over 300 years of family history, and a mystery to be solved.  Three witch bottles, three families, and a dark secret that stretches back to the early days of Alexandria.  How are the families connected, and do the witch bottles carry curses that have doomed each descendant of the original settlers?   Can Rae and Lisa find a way to break out of their self-imposed prisons and move on with their lives?  And how do all the dots connect together?  

There is a lot going on in this novel.  Luckily, the author has family trees set up at the beginning of the book.  I found myself looking at them over and over, trying to keep everyone straight.  It is a tangled mix of history that is fascinating and makes for a good story.  Can't wait to see what Mary Ellen Taylor has in store for her next novel.  

Rating:  7/10 for a continuation of family and city history that keeps revealing secrets made hundreds of years ago.  Strong female characters faced with emotional issues that will make or break them.  I love how all the novels by Mary Ellen Taylor fit together, but are distinctly different.  

Available in paperback and  e-book.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Bossypants by Tina Fey: The Audio Book

I am a big fan of Tina Fey, but it's taken me a few years to finally get around to Bossypants.  I am glad I waited to listen to the audio (on a trip to Wisconsin a few weeks ago) because having Tina Fey tell her story, complete with music and quirky side comments made it all worth while.  I just wished it had been longer!

Tina is someone a lot of women can identify with:  she was an awkward kid, went through the horrible "shag" haircut phase (for me, it was 1975, immediately followed by a failed Dorothy Hamill hair phase after the 1976 Olympics), wasn't very popular in high school, and was a geek at a time when being a geek wasn't so cool.  There was a smart, hilarious, tough woman waiting to come out, and when it did we got to know and love her.  

Tina's book is about her life, from early days spending time at a theater camp, to working in a YMCA as a desk assistant in Chicago, and traveling around with the Second City troupe developing her improv skills and comedic timing.  What I like about Tina is that even though she had many intimidating experiences, she kept powering through and remained open to opportunities.  

Tina also speaks to the idea of a woman being "the boss", and how tough it can be to take on that role even while knowing how competent and kick-ass you will be as the bossypants. 

I wholeheartedly recommend Bossypants as an audio.  My drive to and from Wisconsin flew by listening to her, and she made me laugh out loud many times.  I now have to make time to watch 30 Rock.  Yes, I must confess I've never watched the show.  I think watching it now after listening to Bossypants will make me feel like I've got inside information on Tina Fey.  

Rating:  8/10 for an audio book that was a pleasure to listen to, thanks to Tina Fey and her wonderful narration.  So funny and talented.  

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio.  Listen to the audio if you can!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

I've returned to what's referred to as "chick lit" for a bit, and I'm loving it.  In my humble opinion, no one can write chick lit quite like the British.  Jenny Colgan is a very popular writer in England, and some of her books are available in the U.S.  The number keeps growing as her fan base increases.  You can add me to that list of fans.  

Once again, I grabbed this book off my bookshelves.  Still had the receipt in it dated April 1, 2015.  Almost a whole year!  I have looked at this book many times on my shelf, and even picked it up a few times.  But the time just wasn't right, and I wasn't in the mood to read it.  Jump to 2016 and I'm raring to go.  Part of the push was the fact that Jenny has a sequel to Little Beach Street Bakery coming out very soon, so I had to read the first so I can be ready to read the sequel.  Look for the review of Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery next week.  

Polly Waterford is at a bad spot in her life:  her relationship with her live-in boyfriend is on the rocks, the business they worked so hard at establishing has ended, and they're broke.  Her boyfriend is a pretty miserable person (trust me, I wanted to reach into the novel and throttle him), and Polly ends up practically penniless and with nowhere to live.  Seeking peace and a place to lick her wounds, she ends up in the little town of Mount Polbearne in Cornwall.  This is a town that's a bit down on its luck, and is a bit isolated by the tides that cover the causeway every day, making Polbearne an island each day when the tide comes in--in other words, perfect for Polly.  She rents a rough flat above a bakery that sits silent and dusty, and begins to rebuild her life.  

Polly has, of course, a gift for making bread.  She's gotten away from it, thanks to a boyfriend who wouldn't eat bread, but here in this little town, she begins to knead and fold her way into a new life.  What starts out at therapy quickly grows into making bread for the men who fish the waters off Cornwall, and word gets around that Polly makes the best bread anyone's ever had.  Of course, there is one particular person who isn't happy about this--Polly's landlord, Mrs.  Manse.  She runs the town's only bakery, and it is terrible.  Mass produced and trucked in bread and desserts that taste horrible.  Mrs. Manse's history with the town, and the fishing boats, is a sad one that shapes Polly's life and her future.  

And then there is Huckle, an American who lives off the 'island' and has a beekeeping business,  His bees produce the best honey around.  Is he a friend, or something more?  Will Polly stay in Mount Polbearne, or move back to Plymouth and pick up her old life?

This was a well written novel about starting over.  Sometimes we have to lose everything to find that kernel, that spark, that makes us happy.  Some people are lucky and know it from the start, without having to experience heartache, and others, well... it can take awhile.  Polly is a great character; just an average woman looking for her place in the world.  We can all connect with her. The people of Polbearne are a wonderful cast of characters who love their little town, warts and all.  

Rating:  8/10 for a setting that fired up my imagination, fantastic descriptions of bread that made my mouth water, and characters I can't wait to visit again in the sequel.  My only beef is the cover!  Polly bakes bread, not cupcakes.  

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

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

Brain on Fire is a pretty intense dive into Susannah Cahalan's personal trip to hell and back.  Sometimes it was hard to believe what I was reading was non-fiction and not just a really good medical thriller.  

Susannah was a healthy 24 year old, living in New York City in a tiny apartment, dating a great guy, and working as a journalist at the New York Post.  It was Spring, 2009 when Susannah started to feel a bit odd.  A bad headache, difficulty concentrating at work, and the concern of parents and friends sent her to doctors.  Diagnoses ranging from mono, to "being too stressed to live on her own", to yes, even schizophrenia kept coming.  All blood tests, MRI's, and other tests all kept coming back normal.  And Susannah's health kept deteriorating...

Needless to say, this book is about Susannah's journey into a mysterious illness that had only been discovered in 2007, two years before she somehow fell victim to it. The clock was ticking--would Susannah's doctors find a cure before it was too late?  

This all takes place over a month, and it's pretty intense. In order to write about her experience, Susannah spent time reading her father's journal, going over doctor reports and notes, and piecing together her lost month, when everyone thought she was going mad.  She doesn't remember much of it at all, just a few flashes of moments that continue to haunt her today.  This is a book about parents who did not give up on their child, and insisted on finding the cause of her illness.  It is the story of a woman who fights her way back from literally the brink of death.  It is about the journey after the illness, back to the real Susannah.  Could the real Susannah be found? 

I'm leaving out a lot on this review, because I want you to read this book.  It's a thriller, a medical mystery, and most importantly, a story of overcoming the odds, and simply being lucky and in the right place in the right time.

There are plenty of tv interviews and clips of Susannah on YouTube that you can check out if you'd like to hear her story.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book.

Rating:  7/10 for medical thriller that is all the more chilling because it is real.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

I Listened to an Audiobook: Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

I have avoided audio books for 20 years.  I tried one once, listening while I worked around the house.  It drove me nuts.  I half-listened, made mental lists in my head, and the narrator's voice annoyed me after so many hours. Having a commute that was literally 3 short right turns and 5 minutes meant I never was tempted to listen in my car.  It also helped that none of my vehicles had a tape or CD player.  

Now my commute is an hour each way, four days a week.  I have a CD player in my car.  I've got nothing to stare at but miles of road, corn and soybean fields.  So I thought I would give an audio book a try.  I shied away from my beloved historical fiction, and instead tried something that was peculiar, off-beat, and humorous.  

Welcome to Night Vale  by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is a very popular podcast.  I listened to a few of the podcasts on my commute and enjoyed the completely oddball-ness of it.  Night Vale is a strange town where secret police listen in on everything, creatures roam day and night, and time has a peculiar way of morphing.  There is a forbidden dog park, a woman named Josie who has angels following her around (they are all named Erica), and a radio announcer who makes sure everyone knows just what is going on in Night Vale. You do not have to listen to the podcast to enjoy this book.  As a matter of fact, you don't even have to start with episode one of the podcast to get into the swing of things.  Just jump in and go.  All the podcasts are free, and there are over 70 of them.  Enough to keep you amused for quiet some time.  

The audio book is narrated by Cecil Baldwin, who is the narrator of the podcast (and the radio announcer).  In the novel, Jackie is the owner of the pawnshop in town.  She's 19, and has been 19 for as long as she can remember.  Everything in the pawnshop costs $11, and you die for just a short time when you bring something in to pawn and agree on the price.  One day, a man in a tan jacket, with a deerskin briefcase, comes into the pawnshop.  He gives Jackie a piece of paper that says King City on it and flees, off into the desert.  

Diane works at a boring job, and is a single mom to her son Josh.  Josh is a shapeshifter, and at 15 is restless to know who his father is, and why he's not around.  Diane works with Evan, but notices Evan hasn't been at work for a while.  A mysterious phone call from Evan starts her off on a journey of complete strangeness.  She's the only person at work who remembers Evan even working there.  Is she crazy?  Or is it just the usual in Night Vale?

Jackie and Diane are on the trail of the man in the tan jacket, as well as the blonde man who keeps popping up all over town.  Is the blond man Troy, Josh's father?  Why does he keep avoiding Jackie and Diane?  What the heck is King City, and why can't Jackie get rid of the piece of paper that's permanently stuck to her hand?  How is it all connected?  And what do pink flamingos have to do with any of it?  Oh, and the library is not to be missed.  Hilarious!!

 I did enjoy listening to this audio book.  Having listened to some podcasts, I immediately enjoyed hearing Cecil Baldwin's voice again.  I will admit I had a few "tune out" moments, but I got on track again fairly quickly.  This novel is full of just plain silly stuff.  I chuckled quite a few times.  I envy the writing talent behind this crazy town of Night Vale.  Nothing is off limits, especially in your imagination. Makes you wonder if there is a Night Vale out there somewhere...

I would recommend listening to the audio of this book, because Cecil's voice is what makes this novel come alive.  If you've listened to the podcasts, you know what I'm talking about.  I don't think I would have enjoyed reading the novel as much as I liked listening to it on my commute. I sold on audio books?  Sorta.  I think for me, audio books will work if I listen to non-fiction or humorous fiction.  There are just some books that I prefer to hold in my hand and read instead of listen to someone tell me the story.  

Next audio will be Tina Fey.  I hope to incorporate audio books and maybe even some podcasts into my reviews every month.  Driving 400 miles a week will give me plenty of opportunity to listen!

Rating:  7/10 for my first audio book.  I enjoy the world of Night Vale--a perfect blend of paranormal, humor, and downright silliness backed by clever writing and the perfect voice of Cecil Baldwin.  

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


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

 I've read and enjoyed a few of Bill Bryson's travel adventures, and even recently watched the movie A Walk in the Woods (the book was much better).  So when I had a chance to read an advanced copy of his latest travel adventures, I jumped at the chance.  

Bill Bryson is originally an Iowa boy, born in Des Moines and ending up in England in his early 20's, falling in love, marrying, and settling in his new home.  He's been back to the United States, even lived in New Hampshire for a number of years, but now he's settled back in England, a curmudgeon that at once makes you laugh and ponder how the world changes as we age--or is it the same, and we just see it differently in our mature years? 

The Road to Little Dribbling is a sequel of sorts to his very popular book Notes from a Small Island, written 20 years ago.  He decided, after a bit of prodding, that he needed to revisit some of the places he first visited as a relative newbie living in England.  Now Bill is in his 60's, and that really does color his experiences as he wanders through England from top to bottom.  Visiting Cornwall, Wales, Dover, and many other places both big and small, Bill reminisces over how England has changed and stayed the same in some places; even improved greatly from when he last visited.  He rails against the increasing stupidity of people (don't we all, really?), their horrible grammar, and how England is in danger of losing what makes England such a wonderful place: the vast swaths of forests, parks, and stunning beauty that makes England like no other place in the world. 

Bill is clearly a man in love with his adopted homeland (and he recently became a dual citizen as well).  He is funny, biting, and sometimes just plain crabby and grumpy.  He does make the point that England has so many incredible National Heritage Sites, archeological sites, cathedrals, and oodles of historical "stuff" that it is easy for people to grow complacent, and figure all will always be there.  But, we are reminded that we are merely stewards, and we must take care of our treasures.  I thoroughly enjoyed Bill's snarkiness, bits of forgotten historical tidbits, and mostly his passion and love for Britain, warts and all.  We all sometimes need a reminder of why we love the places we call home, with all the quirkiness and quiet beauty that surrounds us that we often times forget to see.  

You don't need to read Notes from a Small Island to enjoy the "sequel". I didn't and don't feel I missed anything important.  Those who love Bill Bryson won't be disappointed, and those who don't know Bill Bryson should give his travel adventures a try.  

Rating:  7/10 for an enjoyable tromp through England with a man who enjoys a pint, appreciates the quirks of his country, and has just the right touch of humor and history to make his books a treat to read.