Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sour Grapes by Rachel Goodman

Sometimes a girl just has to read a romance.  And this romance, book 2 in the Blue Plate series by Rachel Goodman, has a prickly heroine and a super hot hero.  It was a really good contemporary romance.  

Margaret lives in Dallas, and is a party planner for the very wealthy.  Her mother is quite possibly the most unpleasant woman I've come across in a story in quite some time.  Margaret can never do anything right. Ever.  She's bruised from a recent breakup and unhappy with life.  She decides to get away from it all by traveling to her grandmother's bed and breakfast for a vacation.

Enter Ryan.  He's pretty impressive, and the sparks fly between him and Margaret.  Margaret is quite a pill and snippy with Ryan, who owns a vineyard next door to her grandmother's B&B.  She's uptight and unhappy, and Ryan's upbeat personality pushes her to examine her life.  Margaret's grandmother keeps her busy around the B&B changing sheets and cleaning the place, but Margaret has plans to make over the B&B and promote it to help her grandmother through a financial pinch.  But she's determined to go back to Dallas, even with her feelings for Ryan growing deeper the longer she stays.  

I didn't feel I missed anything not reading the first book in this series.  I liked knowing Margaret from this book and not coming to it already knowing  Margaret, especially because in the first book, Margaret is the girlfriend who isn't the "one".  Her pain from this breakup pushes her to make changes to her life in Sour Grapes, and her past comes full circle at the end of this romance.

Rachel Goodman writes a lively, engaging, and fun romance.  There is a definite big wallop of chemistry between Ryan and Margaret, and you can't help but cheer them on to a happy ending.  I hope the author writes more romances in this series and includes a glimpse of Ryan and Margaret.  

Thank you to Simon & Schuster for a review copy of this romance.  

Make sure you have a bottle of wine while you read this in your summer reading space!

Rating:  8/10 for an entertaining romance with a not-so-perfect heroine, a super hot hero, engaging secondary characters, and the mother from hell.  

Available as an e-book the week of May 23rd.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

I'm getting ready to talk about this book to fellow associates at work tomorrow (Thursday).  It's one of the few books I've reread; plus I bought the PBS DVD and have watched that twice.  My fascination with the many ways people die is a strange part of my personality that I just can't deny.  Forensics have always interested me, and this book is a sure hit for anyone who is a fan of chemistry, medicine, forensics,  true crime, and the history of New York City.

Dr. Charles Norris was appointed the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City in 1918, following an outcry from the legislative bodies of the state of New York.  Too many people were being murdered by poisons, and the coroners were complete incompetents.  Usually coroners were undertakers, barkeeps, lawyers, disbarred doctors, and sometimes even shopkeepers.  They took bribes from any and all, altered death certificates, and often times showed up drunk to a crime scene.  There was no procedure, and toxicology was not practiced.  It was quite easy to get away with murder in New York City.  

Dr. Norris was a different bird.  A wealthy and brilliant doctor with high standards, he hired Alexander Gettler as his chief toxicologist, and began the process of building a forensic department in New York City.  These two men were quite simply willing to go to great lengths to prove a cause of death.  Dr. Norris demanded standards for death scenes, taught police the proper protocol for crime scenes, and refused to play the bribe game. Gettler devoted his life to developing tests to accurately measure different poisons in the body, and what these poisons did to people.  His testimony at trials often times was the deciding factor in sending someone to the electric chair, or sparing an innocent life.  

Each chapter is about a different poison:  wood alcohol, carbon monoxide, arsenic, thallium, radiation.  A big portion of the book discusses the disaster of prohibition, and the increase in alcohol deaths that ravaged the city of New York.  The stuff people drank to get a buzz was truly horrifying, with equally horrifying results.  

I love this book.  It was first published in 2010 and I could swear I published a review on it years ago--but no luck finding it on my blog.  This would make an excellent Father's Day gift for your favorite history buff or armchair detective.  Or who knows?  Give it to a budding young scientist and you never know--she may become a toxicologist.  

Available in paperback, audio, and e-book format.  You can also buy the DVD from PBS or your local bookstore.  I bought mine from Barnes and Noble.  

Rating:  9/10 for an excellent science book that is neither boring or slow.  It will keep you turning the pages, cheering on Norris and Gettler.  Almost 100 years after the founding of the New York Medical Examiner's Office, look how far we've come, thanks to these two pioneers.  

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott (Audio Review)

I have a huge interest in the Civil War; especially the women who lived during such a turbulent time.  If I could do my education all over again, I would probably continue studying Civil War America, and most definitely would pursue a doctorate with a concentration in women of the South.  

But life took me in another direction.  So  instead I'll be content reading interesting books like Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy  by Karen Abbott.  What an enormous amount of work Karen Abbot much have put into this history book about four women:  Elizabeth Van Lew, Emma Edmonds, Belle Boyd, and Rose Greenhow.  These women were spies during the Civil War, and what they did was nothing short of amazing.  

Elizabeth Van Lew was a wealthy spinster in Richmond, VA.  Her family were abolitionists, and she ran a huge spy ring for the North during the years of the Civil War (1861-65).  Using her inheritance, she bought slaves and set them free, often having them work as paid house staff.  She sent her freed (no one knew outside the home her "slaves" were actually freed people)servant Mary Bowser to the Confederate White House to work for Jefferson Davis.  Mary Bowser was another famous spy for the North.  She saved countless Union soldiers from horrific prison conditions by helping to maintain a vast underground system to move escaped Union prisoners back to Washington D.C..  All of this under the ever-increasing animosity of her fellow Richmond citizens, who knew she was a Union sympathizer and ostracized her in Richmond society.  

Emma Edmonds was a Canadian who joined the Michigan forces for the Union and disguised herself as a man quite successfully from 1861-63.  She took part in battles, was recruited as a spy, and kept her secret the whole time.  She only finally "deserted" the army when she came down with malaria and knew she needed to get to a hospital.  Her only recourse was to leave her male identity behind and start life over again as a female nurse. 

Belle Boyd was a young 17 year old Rebel who shot a Union soldier for harassing her mother in their home.  She used her coquettish ways, womanly wiles, and sweet talk to carry messages to Stonewall Jackson's camp; send troop movement information to various generals, and spent time in a Union prison after being caught with suspicious documents.  She was defiant and didn't try to hide her affection for the Southern cause from anyone.  

Rose Greenhow was a widower living in Washington, D.C. with her young daughter Rose.  She used her position in Washington society to spy for the Confederates, pass information she charmed out of Union generals along to Southern contacts, and also spent time in a Union prison for spying.   She even had Alan Pinkerton tailing her around Washington and peeking in her windows.  

Each of these women were remarkable in their fierce devotion to their beliefs, even if they were on opposite sides.  We sometimes forget how ingenious women can be when placed within the strictures of societal norms.  Emma may have been the only one to see actual fighting, but they were all in a dangerous game that could have seen them all shot or hung if convicted of spying.  They used all their smarts, wits, and charm to work around the system and made a large impact on both sides of the Civil War.  Battles were fought and won because of these women.  Men were saved because of these women.  

I listened to the audio of this book and thoroughly enjoyed it.  A mixture of diary entries, letters, and newspaper articles give this a strong historical background, yet it was never tedious or dull.   I loved it!  

Rating:  8/10 for a look at four remarkable women who stood up for what they believed in and never wavered in their fight for their cause.  

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Margherita's Notebook: A Novel of Temptation by Elisabetta Flumeri & Gabriella Giacometti

This was a fun novel to read.  First published in Italy, it's due to be published in the United States this summer.  I was able to read a preview copy, and it set me up to read more of what I call "lighthearted" romantic foodie novels for the summer.  I can't help it.  I have such a soft spot for this type of genre.  They are my go to when I need a mental break and some space between heavier reads.  

Margherita's Notebook is about, you guessed it--Margherita.  She's a young woman who is living in a dismal apartment in Rome with her husband Francesco and her menagerie of pets.  Married for five years, she has moved away from her hometown of Roccafitta  to Rome in hopes of her husband finding his dream job.  Instead, he struggles to find a job and Margherita isn't doing what she loves most:  cooking.  

Margherita finds out her husband has been unfaithful, and packs up her pets and moves back to Roccafitta, her hometown.  She moves back into her father Armando's home, and is so happy to be back in the town she loves.  Cooking is Margherita's way of working through problems, and right now she has to find a job.  A chance encounter between an octopus and a very handsome man send her world into a tailspin.  Nicola is quite the hottie; a ruthless businessman, with eyes like chocolate that send a zing through Margherita.  He's also annoying, and eats frozen food.  Needing a job, Margherita agrees to make suppers for Nicola while he woos local landowners into selling their properties for a huge wine making production.  

This is a novel of crisp visualizations, flowery expressions, and lust.  It is very much an Italian novel, and I loved the unapologetic burst of passion, life, and love it sends to the reader.  My only issue was Margherita's marriage.  It was never discussed with Nicola, and while her husband does make a brief appearance to try and win her back, it seemed that maybe she should have just had a relationship that didn't work out instead of a marriage.  

The cast of characters are lively and fun, and of course there is the woman who wants Nicola--his assistant, Carla.  She's all business, except when she's fantasizing about Nicola.  And she doesn't like Margherita.  

I certainly enjoyed my trip to Italy, the fabulous food, and the peek into small town Italian life.  A perfect summer read.  

Rating;  7/10 for pure escapism, and a novel that makes you itch to get in the kitchen.  

Available in paperback and e-book at the end of July, 2016.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Bring on the Outdoor Reading Space! Upcoming Reviews for May

I have been so busy!  I started a 6 week work out program and it's taking up three nights of my week...that's three nights I don't get to read.  I work out, go home, have a protein recovery drink, take a bath, and crash into bed.  I'm lucky to squeeze in 3 pages before I shut off the light.  

But, the wonderful spring weather here in Iowa has been lifting my mood, and making me itchy to be sitting outside on my porch reading. With a May chock-full of social activities, I'll be squeezing in reading where and when I can!  Without further ado, here are upcoming books I'll be reviewing in May:

The reviews are in no particular order, and of course there may be a few additions in the mix.  Stay tuned!

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson

It will come as no surprise to many people that I am a giant fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I still have the copy of Little House in the Big Woods  that Santa brought me my first Christmas in Iowa.  The spine is broken, and it's in two pieces, but I won't let it go. 

I always hesitate to read anything about Laura now that I'm an adult; I guess I don't want my childhood warm memories of reading Laura's books to be diminished by adult thinking.  Reading her books are one of my most treasured memories and probably is a huge reason why I am a voracious reader today.  Laura had just enough sass and spitfire, yet was a good girl.  She reminded me of me, I guess; that it was alright to not always behave.  That didn't make either of us little brats, just little girls.  

I listened to this selection of letters written by and to Laura for two weeks and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the adult Laura.  She really was quite talented, a lover of books and a generous spirit.  Her letters to children are so sweet, and she says just the right things.  There are glimpses of that spitfire every once in awhile; she was no pushover.  There are even a few letters from Almanzo to Rose and they are a stitch.  He was a man of the West through and through.  

The letters Laura wrote after Almanzo died at age 92 in 1949 were poignant and just broke my heart.  She talks about her loneliness and how empty the house feels without Almanzo, and how much she misses him.  Yet she stayed at Rocky Ridge, traveled to town once a week, visited the library, and connected with friends.  She was beloved in Mansfield, MO and really was quite famous the world over.  For many years she wrote a reply to every fan letter she received until she was 85 and just couldn't do it anymore.  She still read all of her fan mail--hundreds and hundreds of letters from children, teachers, librarians, and parents.  The art of letter writing is in full force with Laura; it is such a shame people don't write letters anymore.  They are wonderful and bring a voice to Laura that we haven't heard before.  The letters between Laura, Rose, her agent George Bly, and her editor Ursula Nordstrom reveal just how much work went into writing the Little House books.  It is a fascinating glimpse into the art of creating a novel.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this audio book.  I will probably buy the book just to have it on my bookcase.  I know if I hadn't listened to the audio book I probably would have bought the book, but never read the letters.  I'm so glad I listened to them. Tish Hicks as Laura's voice is spot on. 

Rating:  8/10 for a wonderful peek into the real Laura Ingalls Wilder as an adult, an author, mother, farm wife, and citizen.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

The Versions of Us is a definite read for those who like romance, but romance that isn't an automatic happily ever after.  This romance is all about the journey; of what it means to love someone, and how that love can wither, grow, or become stagnant through life's many ups and downs.  It's about yearning, falling out of love, desperately trying to find love with someone who clearly isn't the right one. It is about the many facets of love and the complexity of it all. 

This novel is told in three parts:  Version One, Version Two, and Version Three.  Each version features Eva and Jim, two students at Cambridge in 1958.  A chance encounter on a path goes three ways:  Eva swerves to avoid a dog and gets a flat tire that Jim stops to repair--and the attraction is instant; Eva avoids the dog completely and doesn't get a flat tire--thereby not meeting Jim, who is just another person on the path; and the third version sees Eva and Jim meeting, but having a very short relationship that ends with Eva leaving Jim with just a letter goodbye.  

Each version carries on from this fateful moment on the path, through the sixties, seventies, eighties, and up to 2012.  In each version, Eva and Jim have many of the same people in their lives.  In each version  Eva either struggles to write, or is a successful writer, or comes into writing later in life. Jim is a lawyer, yearning to be an artist; in one version he's a well known painter; in another a man who never achieves much success; in another, a man who decides to follow his dream after struggling to do the right thing.  Through each version of their lives, Eva and Jim continue to connect.  Each is never far from the other's thoughts, even if they are geographically far apart, and with other partners.  

I struggled a bit with following the three versions; I found myself thumbing back to the beginning to keep the stories straight; but eventually it really didn't matter.  The powerful ending made it clear that no matter where life takes us, some people are meant to be in our lives.  Whether we spend our whole lives with them, or meet them later in life; if they are meant to be in our lives, they will somehow connect.  Love comes in many shades, and doesn't guarantee a happy ending.  Life is a struggle, even when we are with those we love the most.  I will admit I got a bit weepy at the end(s), but it was because I felt that I had been on such a journey with Eva and Jim.  I spent decades with them and their stories.  

This story reminded me of my relationship with my boyfriend.  We met in our late 30's on a blind date, and have been together for 14 years.  We talk sometimes about how we wish we'd met earlier in life--and how different our lives would be if we'd even met a few years earlier.  For sure we would have gotten married and had children.  By the time we'd met, he was past the stage of having kids, and life's challenges have kept us from taking the plunge and getting married.  I can't imagine my life without him, but I can easily imagine a different life with him, if only we'd met just a bit earlier.  We both can get a bit emotional thinking about it, and agree that we are lucky to have found each other when we did, and live the rest of our lives together, even if it is a bit unconventional.  If anything, this novel will make you think "what if?"

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a review copy.  This was a wonderful discovery and would make a good book club discussion.  I'm glad I didn't miss it.  

Rating:  8/10 for a romance that has three versions of happily ever after, and the journey to get to that place.  A novel that will make you contemplate life. 

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio book.  Available May 3rd at your local library or bookstore.