Sunday, July 22, 2018

Something in the Water (Book Review)

Title: Something in the Water
Author: Catherine Steadman
Publication: Ballantine, various formats, 2018
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Told in the first person, this is a chilling story of how one bad choice causes a ripple effect that irrevocably changes two newlyweds. Erin, a brilliant filmmaker, and her fiancé, Mark, a London banker, have the perfect life – until Mark loses his job and his self-confidence. Erin is busy on her first feature length documentary, following three individuals being released from prison, but takes a break to go to Bora Bora for their honeymoon. When she and Mark go scuba diving, they find a bag full of cash. They do try to turn it in to the authorities – but it comes back to their luxurious bungalow like some kind of fateful boomerang – and the next minute they are in danger that threatens to destroy their lives.

Audience: Fans of fast moving suspense – authors such as Harlan Coban, Ruth Ware, Sharon Bolton, and Tana French.

Catherine Steadman
My Impressions: This was a dark and fast-paced novel that was hard to put down but full of “No, please, don’t do that!” train wreck moments that made it hard to conventionally enjoy as I was too busy being afraid of what would happen next. The book starts with a bang with Erin is digging a grave, then flashes back to three months earlier when Erin and Mark were enjoying a weekend in Norfolk, preparing for a fancy wedding, and we learn more about their history and relationship. The most intriguing character is Eddie Bishop, a notorious criminal Erin meets with in prison, prior to his release, so she can feature him in her film. Their relationship is terrifying – who knew making a documentary could be so dangerous? And Erin is not a good liar, or is she?

Author: Catherine Steadman is an English actress best known to American audiences from Downton Abbey, in which she played Mabel Lane Fox, an heiress who marries one of Lady Mary’s rejected suitors.  She is much prettier in real life, which is not surprising.   You may remember what Charles Audley says in Regency Buck: "I'm come home to try my luck with the heiress.  Where is she?  Does she squint like a bag of nails? Is she hideous?  They always are."

Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher through NetGalley for review purposes. Recommended for fans of psychological suspense and as fun summer reading – not necessarily for those who prefer the historical fiction genre provided in my Downton Abbey suggestions.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Five Things

Is mowing the lawn exercise? Yes! The actual amount of calories burned depends on your weight and the type of mower but this is comforting news. I suspect all my bending to pick up sticks and branches is more valuable fitness-wise than pushing the mower but you never know.
My favorite striped petunias on the front steps
Perhaps this week’s moral lesson is NOT to buy Talenti Gelato unless it is on sale. I was brought up to know better and I am punished for too quickly grabbing a pint of Sea Salt Caramel which, upon arriving home, turned out to be Coffee Chocolate Chip Gelato, a flavor I don’t like. I would like to give it to someone if I could deliver it unmelted.

Newly planted hydrangea
The other night my sister Andrea and I tried to go to my favorite ice cream store, Cabot’s in Newtonville. To our distress, Cabot’s was closed for the 4th of July holiday week!  I don’t begrudge their holiday but I was sad about my peppermint stick deprivation. We went to White Mountain Creamery in Chestnut Hill where the raspberry sorbet fell off my cone (they replaced it with a much smaller portion).

I found a crisp $5 dollar bill on Cambridge Street as I dashed to the Red Line the other day, and hesitated before picking it up. After all, I pick up a stray penny (all the day you’ll have good luck), so why not $500 pennies? I waited a couple minutes in case someone came back to claim it but, really, on a very busy Boston street, someone else would have grabbed it, right?

Gardening is not something I enjoy but I really want to have a beautiful, labor-free garden so I try every summer to plant and cultivate. So far this year I have planted six hydrangeas and killed two and a half.   In the fall, I think I will plant more day lilies as they seem reliable and relatively maintenance free.
This day lily is making its second appearance

Monday, July 2, 2018

Star of the North (Book Review)

Title: Star of the North 
Author: D. B. John
Publication: Crown Publishing, hardcover, 2018
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Jenna’s twin sister disappeared 12 years ago while studying in Korea, devastating the while family.  Jenna has tried to rebuild her life and is a successful academic at Georgetown University when she learns there is a possibility Soo-Min is alive.  Abandoning her career, she joins the CIA in an attempt to learn as much as possible about North Korea and expedite any opportunity to rescue her sister.  Other characters include a North Korean diplomat, Colonel Cho, part of the Pyongyang elite who is sent on a mission to negotiate with the United States – where he meets Jenna – and Mrs. Moon, a North Korean peasant living near the Chinese border, trying desperately to support herself and an invalid husband.

Audience: Fans of suspense, particularly those who enjoy strong female characters.  I recommend to readers who enjoy David Baldacci and Dean Koontz.

My Impressions: What a timely book written by Welsh-born David Johns and, more importantly, it was impossible to put down!  Jenna is an appealing and compelling heroine whose nightmares about her sister’s disappearance and survivor’s guilt have prevented her from developing close relationships as an adult, although she is beautiful and brilliant.   Her dual heritage from her African-American military father and her Korean mother has set her apart and focused her academic interests so when she is recruited to join the CIA, she can almost immediately discern information on North Korea that is not apparent to Washington insiders. 
Parallel with Jenna’s story is a convincing look at the highest and the lowest in North Korea:  Colonel Cho Sang-ho appears to have it all as a member of North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a high-ranking position, serving Kim Jong-Il (father of the current despot), and Mrs. Moon has a heartbreaking life of selling scraps by a railway station in North Korea’s Ryanggang Province, bribing police out of her meager profits to survive each day.   I was so busy reading I forgot to wonder how her story intersected with the others, and was surprised and impressed by the author’s skill in weaving these disparate personalities into a disturbing yet enthralling narrative. I am embarrassed at how weak my geography is – hence the map above.  I did not have much interest in North Korea prior to this year but found this story fascinating.  Best of all, there is clearly room for a sequel but not at the expense (as my sister was just complaining) of ending this book without a conclusion.

Source: This book was recommended by my talented college classmate Nick Kristof in his newsletter, and I got a copy from the Boston Public Library.   I suggest you give it a try.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Rainy Day Friends (Book Review)

Title: Rainy Day Friends
Author: Jill Shalvis
Publication: William Morrow, various formats, 2018
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Plot: After Lanie’s husband dies, her grief is offset by bitterness when she learns he was a multiple bigamist. Trying to escape from painful memories, she takes a temporary graphic design job at a family-managed Capriotti winery. Welcomed by an outgoing family that provides lasagna for lunch every day, Lanie is reluctantly attracted to handsome Mark Capriotti, a deputy sheriff and single father. Although neither Lanie nor Mark is looking for a relationship, they fall for each other pretty quickly and Lanie starts to regain her self-confidence – until her new life is threatened by a young, pregnant, new winery employee, River Brown . . .

Audience: Fans of Susan Wiggs, Susan Mallery, and Kristan Higgins

My Impressions: This was a fun, if predictable, "life after heartbreak" summer read with an entertaining setting. It is book 2 in a new Wildstone series but it works well as a standalone. Shalvis is known for her quirky and interconnected characters and everyone in this story has lots of personality except the unhappy and reserved Lanie. Lanie is an interesting heroine, recovering from the betrayal of her husband’s infidelity and understandably unwilling to be around anyone or anything that reminds her of such a painful situation. She resists being pulled into the Capriotti family but they give her no choice! Cora Capriotti, the family matriarch, is a great character, warm and welcoming to those in need such as Lanie and River – I hope she gets her own book before this series is over!
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes, and immediately ordered the first book in the series.  You can visit other stops on the tour by clicking below:

Monday, July 2nd: The Book Date
Tuesday, July 3rd: bookchickdi
Wednesday, July 4th: Broken Teepee
Friday, July 6th: A Soccer Mom’s Book Blog
Monday, July 9th: Stranded in Chaos
Tuesday, July 10th: Jathan & Heather
Thursday, July 12th: Time 2 Read
Friday, July 13th: Girl Who Reads
Monday, July 16th: A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, July 17th: Instagram: @Novelmombooks
Friday, July 20th: Not in Jersey

Five Things

My amazing cobbler in Brookline managed to resuscitate this favorite pair of black peep-toe shoes but oddly he put something in the left heel that rattles. I feel like someone about to break into a tap dance!
I am on my way to DC for a Credit Building Symposium and am glad my friend persuaded me to stay at the conference hotel instead of the budget hotel inconveniently located. I only wish I had been able to find my DC Metro card, which I prudently removed from my wallet prior to going to England in April lest I lose it. Yes, of course, I could not locate the safe place I put it in but did find my missing prescription sunglasses! Does that mean it will be cloudy in DC?

I remembered to pack postcard stamps so I could write to the nephews at camp in Maine!

I had hoped to work on department budgets for work before I left for the airport but one of the three necessary people texted me at 8:15 am that his cat was *still* vomiting and needed to go to the vet. No meeting. Then the second person shared her cat woes with me when I updated her. No pets for me!

I had a red pepper, one of the few vegetables I like; no time to eat it before I left but did not want to waste it so I popped it into my tote bag. No knife, obviously, as I want to pass through airport security - shall I eat it like an apple?

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Dancing Girl by Gladys Malvern (book review)

Title: Dancing Girl
Author: Gladys Malvern
Publication: Macrae Smith Company, Hardcover, 1959
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Setting: About 28-29 A.D.
Plot: One of ten rescued from a shipwreck, Claudia, brought up as a dancing girl, becomes the slave of Herod-Daniel in Galilee, soon after the death of John the Baptist.  Orphaned Claudia faces her new challenges bravely, relying on the friendship of two Greeks, kindly Baladan and his handsome son Julian. When the local ruler, Herod-Daniel, finds his new slaves include a talented dancing girl from Tyre, a scholar of great learning, and a gifted athlete, Claudia is set to entertain the household, Baladan begins tutoring Herod-Daniel’s frail son Enoch, and Julian is responsible for Enoch’s physical wellbeing. Soon both Julian and Enoch have fallen in love with Claudia, who has become preoccupied with a young prophet, Jesus, who is preaching and performing miracles nearby. While the words and deeds of Jesus are scorned by the ruling class of Galilee, Claudia’s friendship with the followers of Jesus jeopardizes her life but ultimately leads to happiness.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, although intended for young teens

My Impressions: Gladys Malvern wrote a wide variety of books for young people, ranging from career romances (of which my favorites are Gloria Ballet Dancer and Prima Ballerina), biographies about historical figures such as Lady Jane Gray, historical novels set in colonial America, the England of William the Conqueror, and the Old and New Testament. This is one I had never come across and I learned about it when reading an anthology called Dancers Dancers Dancers edited by Lee Wyndham, herself a noted juvenile writer (1912-78) who wrote about all types of dancers and lived outside New York (I wonder if she and Gladys ever met?). Some of the stories in the anthology had been published in American Girl magazine, which my mother read as a girl. The book included an excerpt from Dancing Girl, which I then requested from ILL.

Claudia is the usual intrepid Malvern heroine – dedicated, wistful, affectionate – and as an orphan who has never experienced love or kindness, she is fascinated by handsome Julian who saved her from drowning and his thoughtful father. More interesting than the love triangle between Claudia, her rescuer, Julian, and Enoch, the son of her new owner, however, is her growing devotion to the new teacher, Jesus. As the book opens, John the Baptist has just been murdered by another Herod, a governor appointed by Rome, his life bartered for a dance by Herod Antipas’ stepdaughter Salome. The backlash from this unpopular move makes some people in Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, more interested in the preaching by Jesus, and although Claudia is from Phoenicia and has previously worshipped the god Ba’al she is intrigued by this unusual message of love:
He spoke in a voice of authority.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” came the voice of the vibrant young teacher, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Ridiculous,” scoffed Enoch.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
What an absurd theory, thought Enoch.
“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
The sermon went on. At first Enoch was restless, wanting to leave, but Claudia, Baladan and Julian seemed enthralled so he relaxed, wondering how men as wise as Baladan . . . could be taken in by such impractical teaching . . .
In this depiction, Jesus seems mystical and distant but after he cures a leper even skeptical Enoch is close to becoming a believer while Claudia’s growing devotion to Jesus results in grave danger. And while Claudia and her fellow slaves are imaginary, some of the events of this book are inspired by the Gospel: Matthew 5:1-7, 8, 1-17, 14: 2-11; Mark 6:16-28; and John 4:46-53, Malvern’s combination of fact and fiction make this little-known novel unusual and appealing.
Gladys Malvern, sketched by sister Corinne
Note that Malvern also wrote Dancing Star, a biographical novel about Anna Pavlova (which must have been reprinted many times as it is quite easy to find), and that title usually comes up if you search for Dancing Girl – it is enjoyable but they are definitely not the same book.  Unfortunately, while some of Malvern's books have been reprinted or made available electronically, this is not one of them.  My other Malvern reviews can be accessed here.

Source: I am grateful to the BPL for getting this book for me via InterLibrary Loan from the famous Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore (a coincidence that this book contains an important character named Enoch).

Saturday, June 2, 2018

I'll Be Your Blue Sky (Book Review)

Title: I’ll Be Your Blue Sky
Publication: Harper Collins hardcover, 2018
Genre: Fiction
Plot: On the weekend of her wedding, Clare Hobbes meets an elderly woman named Edith Herron. During the course of a single conversation, Edith gives Clare the courage to do what she should have done months earlier: break off her engagement to her charming—yet overly possessive—fiancé.

Three weeks later, Clare learns that Edith has died—and has given her another gift. Nestled in crepe myrtle and hydrangea and perched at the marshy edge of a bay in a small seaside town in Delaware, Blue Sky House now belongs to Clare. Though the former guest house has been empty for years, Clare feels a deep connection to Edith inside its walls, which are decorated with old photographs taken by Edith and her beloved husband, Joseph.

Exploring the house, Clare finds two mysterious ledgers hidden beneath the kitchen sink. Edith, it seems, was no ordinary woman—and Blue Sky House no ordinary place. With the help of her mother, Viviana, her surrogate mother, Cornelia Brown, and her former boyfriend and best friend, Dev Tremain, Clare begins to piece together the story of Blue Sky House—a decades-old mystery more complex and tangled than she could have imagined. As she peels back the layers of Edith’s life, Clare discovers a story of dark secrets, passionate love, heartbreaking sacrifice, and incredible courage. She also makes startling discoveries about herself: where she’s come from, where she’s going, and what—and who—she loves.   (description from the publisher’s website)

Told from both Edith and Clare's perspectives, I’ll Be Your Blue Sky brings back some of the favorite characters from de los Santos’ first two books, LoveWalked In and Belong to Me.

Audience: There is no one who writes as beautifully as Marisa de los Santos so it is hard to identify similar authors but I think people who enjoy Luanne Rice and Jacquelyn Mitchard would like her books.

My Impressions: A new book by Marisa de los Santos is always a treat!   As always, this was lyrical prose, although as my sister pointed out, Clare’s engagement to the overly possessive fiancé was never very convincing.  One doesn’t read these books for the plot per se but because de los Santos is such a kindred spirit - for example, she writes:
In a book I loved as a kid, a girl named Randy plays a game in which she wanders around the wide yard of her family’s big quirky, wonderful house and pretends she is a traveler, far from home and alone in the world.  It’s nighttime, so, through the windows, she can see the family – brothers, sister, father, housekeeper, dogs – moving around in their warm, interior light, going about their evening rituals, while Randy, outside in the cooling air, can hear bathwater running, a dog’s bark, a radio, the father’s typewriter, all the blessed and ordinary music of a happy family, and she stands in the grass, getting sadder by the second, aching with longing and loneliness.  And then – whoosh – she allows herself to suddenly remember that the house is hers, the family is hers, and flooded with the sweetest relief, she runs inside.
I knew the minute I read 'Randy' that this was Elizabeth Enright’s Randy Melendy but I can’t place the quote.  There are four books about this delightful fictional family – my mother gave me the first book, The Saturdays (1941), which is set in New York and involves the four siblings pooling their allowance so that each can have a more expensive city adventure than they would be able to afford individually.   But this quote refers to the house the Melendys bought in The Four-Story Mistake (1942) when they leave their Manhattan brownstone for a sprawling home in the country (I always assumed Connecticut but a quick look at my book indicates it was Carthage, NY which seems awfully far from NYC – also, wasn’t Mr. Melendy a professor?  Where is he going to teach in the middle of nowhere?).  In the third book, Then There Were Five (1944), the Melendys add another son (I don’t remember reading this one as frequently), and the fourth book is my favorite, Spiderweb for Two (1951), which is about how Randy and Oliver cope with their loneliness when their older siblings leave home (this was my favorite; I even remember the brownish red color of the rebound library copy I frequently borrowed).  I had forgotten until I just reread an earlier blog post that de los Santos mentioned her love of Enright in an NPR interview several years ago.

There is also an Anne of Green Gables reference: I told you this author is a kindred spirit! Of course, the book is well worth reading even apart from her very congenial kidlit mentions, whether you have read de los Santos before or are complete new to her.

Quiz:  Someone has done a Melendy Family quiz – I got 10/10, can you?

Source: I checked out I'll Be Your Blue Sky from the Boston Public Library.   Click here for my review of Falling Together (2011).

(Illustration of The Four-Story Mistake is copyright to the publisher - now, I think Henry Holt.  I am so glad they are still available - especially as I don't seem to own them all)