Sunday, September 17, 2017

Once in a Blue Moon Lodge by Lorna Landvik

Finding this book in the library was a very happy surprise.  I immediately checked it out and was able to zip through it in a few days.  I read Lorna Landvik's Patty Jane's House of Curl years ago and had enjoyed it but it has been so many years I didn't remember much of the story. I can only remember that it took place in Minnesota and I liked it very much.  Plus, I needed a bit of space after reading A Column of Fire.

In Once in a Blue Moon Lodge, we return to Minnesota,1988.  Patty Jane has decided it's time to close down her House of Curl, etc.  What began as a hair salon morphed into not only a place where you could get a color and a cut, but a salon where the neighbors attended salsa dancing, author visits, music recitals, and all sorts of classes and events.  It was truly an unusual place, and quite popular.  But Patty Jane is ready to travel and enjoy time with her live in partner, Clyde.  Patty's husband, Thor, also lives in the same house.  What I didn't remember from PJHOC was that Patty's husband Thor had left her while she was pregnant with their daughter Nora. Missing for years, he eventually is found and welcomed back into Patty Jane's family. Still legally married to Thor, Patty Jane has an unusual life, for sure--but it all makes sense, and you'll quickly be pulled into the loving, funny, and entertaining Rolvaag family.  

The story moves forward from 1988, with Nora making some life choices that have huge consequences for the whole family.  One of those choices--purchasing a lodge on a lake renamed Ocean by the local townspeople, sets up the rest of the novel. That lodge is named for the blue moon that shines on a significant night in Nora's life.  And I'd like to live at that lodge! 

 As the years go by, you feel like you're part of the Rolvaag family, and it's a pretty sweet family.  The stories of Patty Jane and Clyde, her mother-in-law Ione and her husband Edon (who remind us all that it's never too late for love), and Nora and Thomas are all, at heart, love stories.  All a bit unusual, but steadfast and enduring. As life moves on, and the years go by, the Rolvaag family creates all those precious moments that make up a unique family history.  

While this is a sequel to PJHOC, it can be read as a stand alone.  Lorna Landvik lays enough back story for you to catch up on the family history and not feel like you've missed anything.  But, I can say with certainty that you'll want to read PJHOC because you'll love the writing, the community, and the warmth.  I'd say this reminded me of an American version of a Jenny Colgan novel. Toss in a whole lot of Norwegian culture, Midwest charm, and some delicious baking, and I think you'll find this read as irresistible as I did. Both novels would make an excellent Christmas gift .

Rating:  4/6 for a welcome return to Minnesota.  Landvik's characters are well crafted, charming, and memorable--especially Ione and Edon.   

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge, #3) by Ken Follett

What does one do when given the opportunity to read Ken Follett's latest novel a few weeks before it is released by the publisher--and it's 928 pages?  

READ EVERY CHANCE YOU GET.  That's what I did, and managed to read this in a week on my Nook.  I even snuck in a few short reading breaks for a few other books I'm reading, too.  I finished last night, and had to take some time to absorb the spectacle of Ken Follett and Elizabethan England. This was an emotional journey all wrapped up in a wonderfully written novel.  

If you've ever read Mr. Follett's Pillars of the Earth, or World Without End, you know they are set in Kingsbridge, a fictional town in England that has a spectacular cathedral at the center of town.  The cool bit about the books is that they take place hundreds of years apart, so you can read each one without reading the others.  Each stands alone.  While you might be a bit apprehensive of the size (this book clocks in at 928 pages), I assure you it is well worth the effort.  It's the perfect book for a chilly evening because it's so weighty you quite happily sit for hours with it propped up on your lap. And, of course, a glass of wine at your side. 

Ken Follett's gift is his ability to make history come alive, and in such a way that you don't even realize how big his books are--pages speed by, and you'll find yourself reading 100-200 pages every evening; sometimes more if you've got the time.  His characters, both actual historical figures and fictional figures, are so well drawn that you'll become attached and your heart will leap when they're in danger, and cheer when things go right for them. The tale begins in 1558 and ends in 1620.  Who survives to the end?

So let's talk about the plot.  It begins in 1558, with a young Ned Willard sailing home to Kingsbridge after a year abroad.  He's eager to meet Margery Fitzgerald, a lovely young woman from a wealthy Catholic family in Kingsbridge. He hopes she hasn't forgotten him, because he's madly in love with her and hopes to marry her.  It would be a very good match--Ned's family is a prosperous one that has known the Fitzgerald family for years.  

Ned and Margery's hope for a future together is destroyed by her father and brother Rollo's ambitions: to be linked to the Viscount Shiring family through Margery's marriage to young Bart. Ambition and ruthlessness rule their world.  

The Fitzgeralds are a conniving family, and fervent Catholics.  Queen Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) is a staunch Catholic and has been arresting and burning Protestants in England.  This is just the beginning of the decades long bloody struggle between Catholics and Protestants, not only in England, but in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.  The major players:  Queen Mary, Princess Elizabeth, and Mary, Queen of Scots (and eventual Queen of France); the Pope and King Philip of Spain are just part of the multiple story lines that weave themselves into one big glorious tale that begins in 1558 and ends in 1620.  

There are some devious, evil men that keep the story moving along across England, France, and Spain.  Pierre, a French man determined to rise through the ranks of the French monarchy is one of the biggest creeps around!  At first he's kind of charming, if smarmy, but he quickly progresses into a Catholic spy for the powerful Catholics, using his charm to gather information on Protestants who are worshipping in secret.  He's truly loathsome.  Rollo is another nasty man; his world eventually collides with Pierre's as they join forces to topple the fragile religious tolerance Queen Elizabeth has forged in England.  They won't rest until Mary, Queen of Scots is on the throne of England as the true and rightful heir.  

Oh, it's a mess.  Spies, treachery, murder, forbidden passion, betrayal...machinations every which way.  While I didn't know a lot about the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, I certainly got an education reading this novel.  Religious intolerance is a huge theme throughout the novel. That, and the belief by some people that Elizabeth was not the true heir to the English throne propel the plot through decades of bloodshed and political unrest.  

Argh!  I could go on and on.  I haven't even told you about some of the other characters that populate this epic tale.  Sylvie, for one--this woman is tough as nails and willing to risk her life every day for her beliefs.  She's one of my favorite characters in the novel.  Margery is also a tough cookie; she takes the cards she's dealt and makes a life that works for her.  "Nevertheless, she persisted" is so applicable to these two women--as well as the other strong women who make their mark in so many big and small ways.  You will root for the good guys, and be really pissed at the bad guys.  If anything, you'll have a better understanding of the complexities that fueled the upheavals of the sixteenth century.  Toss in the thrilling battle between the English Navy and the Spanish Armada, and you've got a fantastic read for September.  

A HUGE thank you to Viking Books for the opportunity to read and review A Column of Fire.  This made my year.  

Available September 12th in the United States in hardcover, ebook, and audio book.  

Rating:  6/6 for one amazing read.  Wow. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

For those of us who still keep our childhood copies of the Little House books on our bookshelves, this soon to be published novel about Caroline Ingalls is like a long lost friend returning for a brief visit.  

"Ma", as we all know and love her, was the gentle, firm, yet loving mother to Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace.  In many ways she has always been a bit one dimensional; seen through the eyes of her daughter, Laura, we only see Ma as the wise mother, always deferring to her husband. Well, hold your hat, because we see Ma as Caroline, pioneer woman, loving mother, and lover (yes, I said lover) in this retelling of Little House on the Prairie. Wonder where Laura got her moxie? Yes, some of it from her father, but pretty much 90% from her mother. 

The novel begins in Wisconsin, as Charles' wanderlust leads him and his family to pack their worldly goods into a wagon and head to Kansas.  Caroline is newly pregnant with Carrie, and doesn't want to leave everything and everyone she holds dear.  Yet, she must follow her husband; she knows Charles will be unhappy if he stays in an increasingly crowded Big Woods.  The scene where the Ingalls family say farewell to family and their beloved little cabin is really heartbreaking.  Caroline holds it together, but just barely.  Full of fear of the unknown, yet excitement to be starting new in Kansas, she is strong and mindful of the examples she must set for her two young daughters, who see everything.  

Charles' and Caroline's journey to Kansas in modern times would be so many hours in one day if they traveled by car.  But for them, it took weeks.  Dangerous creek crossings, horrible storms, loneliness, food rations and the dangers of one family traveling alone keep the tension up.  Caroline's growing fears for her unborn child set her on edge: when will the baby move; how will she give birth by herself out on the prairie? 

Caroline and Charles' relationship is one of mutual love and respect.  They know each other so well that just a look or a certain phrase signals how each other feels.  It's clear they adore each other, and support each other in every way.  Yes, I have to admit my 10 year old self cringed a bit reading the few love scenes, but they were appropriate and tasteful, and brought home again that Charles and Caroline are not just Pa and Ma, but two people who have come together to create a family and a future together. If you have ever shared hopes and dreams with a partner, you will completely understand this marriage.  

Once the Ingalls family arrives in Kansas, they quickly work to build a cabin and settle in before winter.  We meet Mr. Edwards, and Mrs. Scott, a neighbor who meets Caroline on the day she arrives to help deliver Carrie.  Caroline longs for her family during labor, but realizes the gift of Mrs. Scott.  Such an intimate time to meet someone for the first time, but a bond develops between the two women because of where they are--women need to stick together.  It reinforces the hardships pioneer women endured settling the American West.  Brave, brave women.  Hardworking women.  Women who endured so much sorrow, but kept on; so much to admire as I sit sipping my tea in my comfortable home.  I've got it good, because they did all the hard work.  

This novel follows Little House on the Prairie fairly closely, but told instead from the perspective of an adult woman. While the story may have been familiar, it was refreshingly different from Caroline's point of view.  Perhaps reading this as an adult with some life experience also gave it some weight.  In any case, this was a welcome return to childhood, with a bit of poignancy attached to it.  It was also a chance to get to know Caroline: a strong woman who constantly thought about how she could understand and adapt to her changing world. She faced fear and instead of bowing to it, she met it head on with courage.

Rating:  5/6 for a well written return to the Little House books.  The writing immediately reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing style; I expect fans will embrace this novel and add it to their collections.  Since it does focus heavily on Charles and Caroline (two young married folks who, quite frankly, have a healthy lust for each other), I would recommend reading it first before passing it onto young readers.  It also shows racial tensions between white and Indians, and the prejudices and misinformation that were common at the time.  

Available September 19th, 2017 in the United States in hardcover, large print, ebook, and audio.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

Lies She Told is a novel that blurs reality and fiction and adds in two unreliable narrators.  What you get is a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, waiting for the curtain to whoosh open, revealing the truth.  

Liza Cole is an author who's had a respectable run publishing novels, but now she's stuck, and under a deadline to produce another novel in quick time, or she will probably lose her contract.  She's struggling with infertility; taking hormones and trying desperately to engage her husband in this latest round of treatments.  He's grown distant, and it's no wonder:  his best friend and law partner Nick is missing, and no one has a clue what's happened to him.  

Liza's novel begins to take shape in the form of Beth, a new mother who is also riding the hormone train, and feeling a bit insecure regarding her husband's affections.  As a reader, it took me awhile to get it in my head that Beth was the creation of Liza, and not another character living in Liza's New York reality.  I guess that means Liza has a possible hit novel on her hands, if only she can stick with it! 

 Blurred lines play a big part in the storyline:  headaches, hormones, shady memories--or no memories at all.  Liza's experimental hormone therapy has some seriously bad side effects but she's unwilling to give up what may be her last chance to conceive. She also likes to drink, and that just adds to the uncertainty of Liza's view of the world.  

Beth and Liza's worlds are similar, and as you read you realize they're not only similar, but may be more horribly connected than you thought.  You get bits and pieces of Liza's past colliding with the present, and you can feel her desperation to gain her husband's attention not only through her thoughts, but as reflected in Beth's story.  It's the best writing Liza's done in years, but how far is it from reality?  

I don't want to give anything away, but holy cow even if you figure it out, you just haven't really figured it out.  There's a big twist at the end, and it will keep you thinking about this book long after you're finished.  You'll want to discuss it with others, so make sure you either read it in a book group, or have a friend or two read it.   I haven't read Cate Holahan's first novel, The Widower's Wife, but I'm certainly adding it to my list.  

A big thank you to Crooked Lane for a review copy of this novel.  I would have passed it by in the library or bookstore, but now I've got a great book to recommend.  

Rating:  5/6 for a twisty plot that blurs reality and fiction.  Marital relationships, that "perfect couple", those secrets that sometimes lie down deep, just waiting to pounce.  A thriller folks will gulp down. 

Available in hardcover September 12 in the U.S. Also will be available as an e-book and audio book.  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It can be a good thing when you check out a library book that has other people waiting for it: it makes you read really fast because you can't renew it and extend your time. I fear if I'd had more time to read The Essex Serpent I may have called it quits and never finished it. As it was, I stayed up late last night and am happy to say I turned the last page and now know the story of the Essex Serpent. 

I have to say this wasn't the novel I expected; I blame myself for not paying too much attention to other people's reviews.  My curiosity was taken by the story of a woman in search of a mythical creature that may or may not exist. There is so much more to Sarah Perry's novel; it took me in a very different direction. Why do we believe in mythical creatures? What does it do to test our belief systems, and our faith in God?  Why would such creatures exist, except to punish us for our transgressions? People are quick to blame every bad accident, death, or crop failure on that unknown thing. We are being punished because we're bad, somehow.  

In Victorian England, Cora Seaborne is newly widowed, and leaves London to travel to Essex with her companion Martha and her young son Francis.  Fascinated by fossils, nature, and geology, Cora is finally free to pursue her interests with wild abandon. Rumors of a sea serpent in Blackwater have begun to make the people of Aldwinter, the village near Blackwater, very uncomfortable.  They turn to William Ransome, the village rector, to provide comfort and explanations.  Through friends, William and Cora connect, and she's invited down to Aldwinter to visit William and his wife and children.  Here begins the real story:  William and Cora.  Fast friends, they find a shared interest in nature, and enjoy arguing with each other.  It's pretty obvious they fall in love, but neither is fully aware.  Williams' wife, Stella, is a lovely woman suffering from tuberculosis.  Cora loves Stella, and does her utmost to ignore her growing feelings for William.  It's an interesting love triangle; Stella sees the closeness of her husband and friend, and is happy he has someone to share his interests with; Cora dresses as mannish as possible to keep any femininity at bay.  William loves his wife and only understands he loves Cora in one lightning moment, months into their friendship.  

Meanwhile, Martha is involved in solving housing issues for the poor in London, and has convinced a wealthy doctor to become part of the solution.  There's also Luke Garrett, another London surgeon madly in love with Cora, but those feelings aren't returned.  His story starts out slow, but towards the end of the novel, he becomes more of a focus.  

I spent a lot of time trying to pull all of the pieces of this plot together.  I'm sure I'm missing something because I don't have anyone to help me pick apart the storyline.  What I did see was the evolution of England and its people from a place of old beliefs and superstitions to an industrialized nation focused on money and the "machine".  It is the background to this story; and I felt a bit melancholy reading this--it felt like an ode to a way of life that will never be again.  William is the anchor to the old way of life for the people of Aldwinter, and he can't explain why the creature exists, and what it wants.  He grapples with spirit versus nature.  

So is there actually an Essex serpent?  You do get this answer, and it's pretty fantastic.  I won't spoil it, but I loved it.  And I won't tell you what happens to the multiple love triangles, because that's for you to discover.  Yes, there is more than one love triangle!  Sarah Perry's writing is so so good.  I could smell the salt air, the mud and clay; I could see the forests and feel the damp breeze. You feel a bit of a naturalist yourself reading Cora's adventure.  

Rating:  4/6 for a very different Victorian tale about faith, belief, the unknown, love, freedom, the astonishing natural world around us, and our struggle to balance what we know with the unknown. 

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Night the Lights Went Out by Karen White

I'm a HUGE fan of Karen White, so there wasn't much arm twisting to read her latest.  I am absolutely in love with the cover art.  

I bought this book, because I couldn't wait to read it...

And then proceeded to not get to it for almost FIVE MONTHS. When I finally did pick it up this week, I power read it in a few days, in between work and an out of town family visit. It was just the palate cleanser I needed.

The two main characters, Merilee Dunlap and Sugar Prescott meet when Merilee rents the cottage that sits behind Sugar's farmhouse outside the small town of Sweet Apple, Georgia.  Sugar is 93 years old, and still full of piss and vinegar.  She's a force to be reckoned with, and commands the respect of everyone in town.  Her family once owned most of the land around Sweet Apple, and she's resisting developers who want to buy the rest of her land to build more housing developments.

Merilee is freshly divorced; her two children are attending a new school, and she's dealing with the fall out of her husband's lover (a local elementary school math teacher) being pregnant.  Small town gossip is running at an all time high. Merilee is struggling to adjust to life as a single parent, and balance the demands of society expectations--school committees, sports, and making appearances at all the right places.  Sugar recognizes a kindred spirit, but her past sorrows and heartbreak have left Sugar reluctant to open her heart to anyone.  

Here's what I enjoyed about this novel:  as a reader, you see both Sugar and Merilee through each other's eyes, and through their own thoughts and memories.  Sugar begins to tell Merilee about her past in small stories; I found Sugar's life in the 30's and 40's to be one of the best parts of the novel.  Makes what we consider difficult today seem like child's play.  These stories are a bridge between Sugar and Marilee as they slowly (very slowly) become friends.  

Merilee, I have to say, was much more complicated than I expected. I was, however, highly annoyed at her absent-mindedness and inability to create a safe password for her phone.  It sounds like a silly thing to point out, but it was a major plot point, and you could see what was going to happen coming long before it did.  Merilee's friendship with Heather Blackford, the wealthy, beautiful, and powerful wife of a popular doctor is bad from the get go.  That plot, I thought, was pretty weak.  Anyone with some life experience knows that people don't befriend you and go out of their way to be overly generous with time, money, and resources unless they want something from you.  Or want to hurt you.  It's not hard to see what's going to happen in this case, but I did get wrapped up in the action steaming along to the big turning point.  

One part of the story I found unnecessary was the "blog" that was put out by an anonymous source in Sweet Apple.  Full of local gossip, it spotlighted the nasty rumors and the people spreading them.  It was basically a way to shame people into behaving instead of spreading malicious gossip and half-truths.  Wasn't hard to figure out who the author of the blog was, but it is finally revealed at the end.  

The big point of this novel is that we all put on public faces, but they are rarely our real faces.  We keep a lot of our lives hidden from everyone else. Past heartbreaks, tragedies, and bad behavior can keep us up at night; but come morning, we stride into our daily lives with none of it showing.  Sometimes the ugliest people hide behind pretty faces, and sometimes a bad person is just a bad person with no redeeming qualities.  

Even though there were parts of the novel I didn't care for, overall I did very much enjoy this book.  I found myself talking out loud when I figured something out before Merilee did; I found myself reading this in big gulps because it kept pulling me along (and I didn't resist that pull).  I spent a whole morning before work lying on my couch reading, and anxiously waiting until I could come home again to finish the last few pages.  

Rating:  4/6 for a novel that explores the choices women make in their youth that can haunt them; the good and bad of living in a small town, and strong friendships between women that become the backbone to overcoming the hard parts of life.  There's a bit of potential romance in here, too--but not so much that it gets in the way.  

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


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Summer Reading is Almost Over: Upcoming Reads and Reviews

I just can't believe it's the middle of August.  In my part of the U.S., kids start back to school next week.  Then it's a short hop to Labor Day weekend, the gateway to all things pumpkin spice and bonfires galore.  

My summer reading is coming along, but I'm not getting to nearly all the books I'd hoped to--a change in jobs and a last moment vacation have thrown my routine into chaos.  September is going to be my reset button.  Now that my commute to work has shortened from 2 hours a day to less than 20 minutes a day, I will be rethinking my audio book choices. I'll miss listening to the audio books, but not the commute. 
Here's what I've got in my reading pipeline:

Life as Ma Ingalls from Caroline's point of view
A legendary creature in Victorian England
A thriller that mixes reality and fiction: who did what?
A young woman serves as a physician to supernatural creatures in London
I've heard rave reviews about this ! Something completely different for me.

While the weather is still warm I'll be sitting on my deck reading whenever I have a chance.  Can't wait to dig into these titles!  And, of course you know I'll have a few random reads thrown into the mix.  :)

Happy Reading!
The Bookalicious Babe