Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Celia's House (Book Review)

Title: Celia’s House
Author: D. E. Stevenson
Publication: 1943, original hardcover; Sourcebooks paperback, 2015
Genre: Light romantic fiction
Plot: In 1905, elderly Celia Dunne decides to leave Dunnian, her lovely home in Scotland, to her great-nephew Humphrey, with the understanding that his family can live there while he is away with the Navy. She assures him that his as-yet unborn daughter Celia will one day inherit Dunnian, and she dies soon afterwards. Once settled in their new home, Humphrey’s children love Dunnian as much as Celia did, particularly the eldest son Mark and a young cousin Deb, whose friendship with Mark influences her fondness for the house and helps her become part of the family. The story follows Mark and his siblings through WWI and to 1942, and sure enough, his youngest sister is another quirky Celia, named for her great-great aunt. The book does not contain much in the way of plot other than a competition for Mark’s affection but it is an extremely pleasant family story.

Audience: Stevenson has a devoted following and fans are delighted to see some of her books back in print. Similar authors include Elizabeth Cadell, Angela Thirkell, and Rosamunde Pilcher.

What I liked: This is a little different from other Stevenson novels: very focused on the family and house and less humorous than her other books (although it begins with an amusing interaction between Celia and her gardener), but appealing in a different way. I liked the descriptions of all the Dunnes and their gossipy neighbors, and I especially enjoyed the scene where Humphrey’s arrogant cousin Maurice learns Humphrey has inherited Dunnian instead of him. There are some allusions to more serious topics: an elderly retainer with nowhere else to go (luckily, she is needed and welcomed by Humphrey and his family), Deb is neglected by her own mother until her cousin Humphrey takes her into his own family, and Humphrey’s beloved wife becomes confused and frail before her time.

Source: I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I really enjoyed this reread and am so glad that Sourcebooks brought it back with delightful artwork and packaging.  
Here's another favorite back in print!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Her Sister's Shoes (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Her Sister’s Shoes
Author: Ashley Farley
Publication: Trade Paperback and eBook, Leisure Time Books, 2015
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Three very different sisters, Jackie, Samantha, and Faith face the challenges of juggling career and family in a small South Carolina coastal town. Jackie, an interior decorator worried about turning 50, is still trying to impress the affluent women who “run” the town (mean girls who have not changed since high school), and has neglected her doctor husband and twin sons in the process. Samantha, the middle sister, has taken on the challenge of running the family seafood market, while dealing with the fallout of a car accident in which her son wound up in a wheelchair. Faith is married to an abusive, crude guy who treats her and her daughter badly but she is too ashamed to ask her family for help. Their mother, Lovie, cares deeply about her daughters’ and grandchildren's happiness but her memory issues prevent her from providing concrete assistance. This story shows the power of coming together as a family.

Audience: Readers of contemporary women’s fiction, and maybe you! Leave a comment if you are interested in reading this book, and I will pick a winner at the end of August. U.S. only, I regret.

What I liked:  As the eldest of three sisters (and one brother), I found this an entertaining, fast-paced summer read, perfect for the beach. I liked the small town of Prospect, South Carolina, and the way the author evokes a caring small town that supports the Sweeney family and their fish business, not to mention some quirky minor characters. Farley does a good job of creating the three Sweeney sisters with distinct personalities, even if they are a bit too clichéd: one is too selfish, one is too much of a doormat, and one drinks too much.  And should the title be Her Sisters' Shoes?  Jackie learns to think about and understand both sisters, not just obsess about herself.

However: I did feel there were way too many crises going on in one family – paralyzed son who was driving in the car accident that killed his best friend, family business threatened, abusive husband, mother experiencing dementia, evil brother-in-law hitting on his wife’s sister, embezzlement, philandering husband, concussed son in hospital, mean girls, attacks, stymied police, alcoholism issues and more.  Overkill?  How can one family be so unlucky simultaneously? Also, for three sisters who seem relatively close, how could they not have an inkling of the troubles the others are dealing with? And how do two of these sisters find eligible single men so easily?  Maybe we should all move to Prospect!  Lots of family drama that all ties up very neatly, if implausibly, at the end but, despite these good natured quibbles, a fun read.

Purchase LinksAmazon, Barnes & Noble

Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours but all thoughts and opinions are my own. I have one copy from the publisher to give away - please leave a comment to enter. You can visit other stops on the tour by clicking on the links below.  Thanks for stopping by!

Ashley’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, August 4th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, August 5th: Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Thursday, August 6th: Wall-to-Wall Books
Monday, August 10th: Books and Bindings
Tuesday, August 11th: Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Wednesday, August 12th: Queen of All She Reads
Thursday, August 13th: The Book Bag
Monday, August 17th: Good Girl Gone Redneck
Tuesday, August 18th: My So-Called Book Reviews
Thursday, August 20th: Buried Under Books
Monday, August 24th: Thoughts on This ‘n That
Thursday, August 27th: Ask a Bookworm

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake (Book Review)

Title: The Coincidence of Coconut Cake
Author: Amy E. Reichert
Publication: Gallery Books, July 2015
Genre: Light romantic fiction

There’s a place named Milwaukee, Milwaukee!

Plot: Lou is the talented chef of a small and struggling French restaurant in Milwaukee that she opened with two close friends. One of Lou’s biggest challenges is juggling the needs of her business with the demands of her condescending fiancé Devlin, who does not take her foodie dreams seriously. As a surprise, she makes his favorite coconut cake for his birthday but her delivery reveals Devlin in a compromising position with another woman!

Upset and humiliated, Lou falls apart at the restaurant that night, just as the sarcastic new restaurant critic comes to sample the menu at Louella’s. Al is British and hates Wisconsin; when everything goes wrong with his meal, his vicious review writes itself, appearing under a pseudonym.

Depressed, Lou ends up in a bar later that night where she meets and befriends Al, without knowing who he is. They exchange names but pledge not to discuss work. Friendly Lou decides to show Al the lesser known aspects of Milwaukee that make her love her hometown, and bit by bit they fall in love. While Lou’s restaurant heads into bankruptcy Al’s reviews take off. However, it is just a matter of time until Lou finds out it was Al who destroyed her restaurant...

Audience: Fans of chick lit; fans of the movie, You’ve Got Mail

What I liked: This was a charming story, although beyond improbable and very predictable. If you can get past those aspects, Lou is a delightful heroine, if a bit too good to be true, and her determined efforts to reveal the charming side of Milwaukee are very endearing and made me wish she had been my guide on my long ago trip when I had only a copy of Betsy in Spite of Herself and the Gen Con attendees to keep me company.* I enjoyed the descriptions of hectic, behind-the-scenes restaurant life and liked her secondary characters, particularly Lou’s friends, Sue and Harley. Lou and Al are destined to be together, despite her inevitable feeling of betrayal when she learns he wrote the review that sent her restaurant to its doom. I doubt I could be so forgiving! However, it is a fun read and I am sure you will enjoy it.
Source: I received an electronic copy of this book from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

* Elaine Koster, one of my worst bosses ever, insisted that she and I had to attend Gen Con although it was my birthday weekend and it was years before I had any friends in Wisconsin. Naturally, she canceled after I bought my plane ticket and I was stuck there, for the most part by myself, although I did have a nice dinner with then Waldenbooks SF/Fantasy buyer Jay Hyde at a lovely restaurant on the water that I think was called Eagan’s.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Newport (Book Review)

Please join Jill Morrow, author of Newport, as she tours the blogosphere with TLC Book Tours:
Publication: Trade Paperback, William Morrow, July 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 1920s Newport, Rhode Island

Plot: When Adrian de la Noye, a prestigious Boston attorney, is summoned to Newport to draft a new will for a wealthy client he is surprised to learn the elderly but very affluent Bennett Chapman is engaged to a lovely woman half his age, considered a fortune hunter by his adult children. Chapman’s children believe the fiancée, Catherine Walsh, and her niece Amy, are charlatans because they have conducted seances in which Chapman’s deceased wife allegedly appeared and commanded Chapman to marry Catherine. As if this did not present a dilemma for a legal professional, Adrian recognizes Catherine instantly as Cassie Walsh, daughter of his family’s cook, from his long ago past. Adrian and his young legal associate, Jim, who falls hard for the elfin Amy, are determined to learn the secrets behind the Walsh women’s appearance and mysterious channeling of the deceased Mrs. Chapman, although it becomes clear to the reader that Adrian has some painful secrets of his own he would prefer to keep hidden...

Audience: Fans of historical fiction about the 1920s.  This also reminded me of the movie, Magic in the Moonlight, which I recommend.

What I liked: This was a fun and fast paced read, set in the very romantic setting of a glamorous Newport mansion, although it is set mostly away from the glitzy parties of the rich and famous. I enjoyed the mixture of the 1920s story (a period I find very intriguing) with secret upon secret: mysterious séances; dastardly adult children trying to spoil their father’s alleged happiness with a second wife; an idealistic young lawyer learning his hero has feet of clay; and the flashbacks to young love. There was even an attractive and sensible character named Constance (a name usually held by the villainess)!  I also liked the character of the judge who appears late in the story.  The author left the ending open for a sequel.

What I disliked: There was a big reveal and it was surprising – Cassie’s past and elements of her friendship with Adrian – but it was based on a premise so completely unconvincing that it weakened the end of the book for me (see spoiler below). Because I couldn’t understand Cassie’s motivation, I found it hard to like her, and I did not approve of Adrian’s keeping secrets from his client that affected his representation. Also, it wasn’t plausible that Adrian could have attended Andover and Harvard, and subsequently changed his name while living in and having a successful career in Boston. As I can tell you, I can barely walk down the street in Boston without seeing a Harvard classmate and if I changed my name, those classmates would start asking why and would not allow me to go on practicing law unchallenged.  I am sure it was just the same a hundred years ago!  Long before the Internet there were gossipy friends and neighbors so if you are going to change your name, find a small town far from the East Coast and all your fellow alumni (wait, isn’t that was the Unabomber did?). Although what seemed like holes in the plot left me a little disgruntled when I finished reading, I enjoyed the book and, after all, isn't the best compliment to an author when you are still ruminating over the twists and turns several days later?
Source: I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review. Please visit other stops on the tour and connect with the author on Facebook and Twitter.
Tuesday, July 7th: BookNAround
Wednesday, July 8th: A Chick Who Reads
Friday, July 10th: West Metro Mommy
Monday, July 13th: The many thoughts of a reader
Tuesday, July 14th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, July 15th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, July 16th: Walking With Nora
Friday, July 17th: View from the Birdhouse
Saturday, July 18th: Luxury Reading
Monday, July 20th: The Book Binder’s Daughter
Tuesday, July 21st: Raven Haired Girl
Wednesday, July 22nd: Charmingly Modern
Thursday, July 23rd: FictionZeal
Monday, July 27th: A Book Geek
Spoiler: I can understand a book (and have read several) where the heroine seeks revenge on her rapist or assailant but I have a hard time understanding plotting or participating in an undertaking to marry his father and to subject a child to the knowledge that she was fathered by such a vile person (probably a hard secret to keep indefinitely even if he does not recognize you). Perhaps it would have been better just to demand financial support (albeit many years before DNA testing)? And how did the deceased mother know her son was a rapist? Are we supposed to believe that there are no secrets on the other side of the veil? I suppose that is as likely as the communication from beyond the grave in the first place!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Olivay (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Olivay
Author: Deborah Reed
Publication: Lake Union Publishing, July 2015, available in trade paper and eBook
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Olivay has not recovered from the tragic death of her husband a year ago, but one night she picks up a stranger and brings him home. Unfortunately, in the morning, her new acquaintance Henry doesn’t want to leave. Olivay is regretting the impulse that led her to spend the night with him when there is an explosion outside. Suddenly, all of Los Angeles is in chaos and Olivay herself is covered with broken glass. Henry, the mysterious stranger, cares for her tenderly, but bit by bit reveals information about himself, including that he has been stalking Olivay for some time. Confused and injured, Olivay retains enough of her wits to catch Henry in lie upon lie, and she begins to wonder exactly who is this man?

Audience: Fans of literary suspense

What I liked: This is an unusual but extremely readable book. The author does a good job of conveying Olivay’s misery at the loss of her husband – particularly, the fact that he was killed at a time when they had been quarreling. Henry is transformed from a slightly overeager one night stand to someone who begins to seem very dangerous indeed. I am afraid it is hard not to be slightly critical of someone who brings a total stranger into her home, but although I had certain suspicions I wasn’t totally sure what was going to happen, and I appreciated the element of suspense.

What I disliked: I had a hard time deciding if I liked or disliked this book. In some ways, it left me cold because both Olivay and Henry were so peculiar and unappealing but in others I really admired the creativity of the author.
Source: I received this book in return for an honest review.  Please join Deborah Reed as she tours the blogosphere with TLC Book Tours
The publisher has provided a copy of Olivay as a giveaway – please leave a comment and I will pick a winner at the end of the tour.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Tide Watchers (Book Review)

Title: The Tide Watchers
Author: Lisa Chaplin
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, June 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Winter 1803: one woman stands between Napoleon and the fall of Great Britain. Daughter of an English baronet who just happens to be a spymaster, Lisbeth eloped with a young Frenchmen who seemed charming until they were married. When her husband abandons her, she takes a menial job in a tavern as a barmaid, determined to somehow reclaim the infant son he has taken from her.

A seasoned spy known as Tidewatcher, Duncan apprenticed under Lisbeth's father and pledged to keep his mentor's pretty daughter safe—a promise complicated by Napoleon Bonaparte. The British believe he is planning an attack, and Duncan is sent to search for signs of invasion on the French coast—where he draws dangerously close to adventurous and unpredictable Lisbeth.

A sensational new invention may shift the tide of a French victory. A brilliant and eccentric American inventor named Robert Fulton has devised a deadly weapon that can decimate an enemy's fleet. To protect English ships, Tidewatcher must gain control of Fulton's invention and cross enemy lines . . . but he cannot do it alone. Left with no other options, Duncan enlists Lisbeth's help in outwitting the American inventor and uncovering Bonaparte's secret plans – in return, he will help her take her son back to England.

Going undercover for the handsome and duty-bound spy, Lisbeth risks her freedom and her life as she navigates double agents and submarine warfare to outwit the greatest military tactician in history. The only question is . . . . who can she trust?

Purchase Links

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, readers who enjoy books by Lauren Willig and Tasha Alexander

What I liked: This is a fast paced adventure combining several elements I enjoy: espionage, complicated family relationships, and women contributing to war efforts. Lisbeth is quick-witted and willing to help defeat Bonaparte although her priority always remains reclaiming her child. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, so I found this novel and its unusual setting entertaining. By far the most interesting aspect of the book was finding Robert Fulton in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars – how had I never known that, despite being born in Pennsylvania, by 1797 he was in Paris, an 18th century scientific center, where he began to design torpedoes and submarines.

What I disliked: I did not find the plot very convincing: I didn’t understand why Lisbeth’s husband courted her in the first place and why he lost interest so quickly; why her father and brothers allowed her to suffer with a known villain, far from home. Duncan’s complicated heritage was confusing, and it seemed unlikely someone would marry his chambermaid mother without any blood connection, just to secure an heir to torment. There seemed to be far too many plot elements floating around without proper setup or resolution, although I suppose the author is already planning other books in the series.
Please join Lisa Chaplin as she tours the blogosphere with TLC Book Tours. I received this book in return for an honest review.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Books to Bring to the Beach: Recommendations from Boston

Just in time for a three-day weekend, here are ten books to bring to the beach: eight I just read, one I began tonight, and an old favorite:

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics / Daniel Brown – this is more than a dramatic sports story about the rowing team from the University of Washington and its quest to win Olympic gold. It is about a group of young men, and one in particular, Joe Rantz, who struggle during the Depression yet make it to college where they become part of a team that brings excitement and pride to the whole community, and eventually the nation. I found the abandonment of Joe by his father very upsetting and admired how he overcame the sense of personal rejection to become a good husband and father. This was a great book group choice, and we especially liked the contrasting sections that moved from the U.S. to the preparations for the Games in Germany. Thanks to Tricia for lending me her copy (which my father is now reading).
Flight of the Sparrow / Amy Belding Brown - When Mary Rowlandson is captured by the Indians from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1676, family and friends are killed before her eyes and she does not expect to survive. But to her surprise, life as a slave with the Indians, although harsh, offers more beauty and freedom than her life with a sexist and narrow-minded minister in her Puritan community. Will she ever be allowed to return to her home? And does she really want to? Based on a true story, this beautifully written historical novel was hard to put down.

Losing Faith / Adam Mitzner - Everyone likes a good legal thriller and I had not come across many lately.   Here, Aaron Littman is the chairman of a large and prestigious law firm, with a seemingly perfect life and large apartment in NYC, when he is asked to represent a notorious criminal, Nikolai Garkov. This would be bad businesses for a white collar firm but Aaron can’t say no when Garkov blackmails him about an affair he had with a federal judge. This was an enjoyable read although I had mixed feelings about the ending.  There were several descriptions of downtrodden associates that rang true.
Now You See Me / S. J. Bolton - This is the first book in a series about Lacey Flint, a young detective constable in present-day London, who is catapulted into a Jack the Ripper copy-cat case when a brutally-stabbed woman dies in her arms. As the case develops, Lacey realizes she is being targeted due to a part of her past she would rather forget. At times violent, this is a compelling debut about a sarcastic and intriguing heroine. I also enjoyed the well-depicted characters she works with, stayed up until 4 am to finish.

The Precious One / Marisa de los Santos – As teens, Taisy and her brother were rejected by their father in favor of his second family but years later when curmudgeonly Wilson suffers a heart attack, she is summoned to his side. To her surprise, she develops a friendship with her much younger half-sister Willow who is at first very hostile. Less surprising to the reader is Taisy’s desire to reconnect with the boyfriend she never got over, conveniently back in the neighborhood. Although this sounds like a romance, it is more than that due to the author’s lyrical writing about relationships and about how families work, at their best and worst.
Red Sparrow / Jason Matthews – I loved this intricately-woven espionage thriller written by a former CIA agent and set in present day Russia. The hero is a young CIA operative, Nathaniel Nash, stationed in Moscow when the story begins. His opposite number is a beautiful Russian spy, trained as a “sparrow” to use sex to vanquish her victims. Although this book has some unbelievably violent scenes, it is also full of humor, particularly when Nate and Dominika, both very ambitious, begin a stilted friendship in which each is trying to “turn” the other. Nate’s two CIA station bosses are also well depicted and appealing characters, experienced spies who mentor Nate and try to channel his impetuous behavior. Luckily for me, the sequel, Palace of Treason, came out a week after I listened to Red Sparrow on audio, and it was just as good or better and even more cleverly plotted.

Saint Anything / Sarah Dessen – Fans of YA will rejoice that Dessen has her groove back after a few disappointing recent titles. Sydney is a high school teen who has been in the shadow of her bad-boy brother, now in jail. Switching schools to avoid notoriety, Sydney makes loyal new friends, Layla (so obsessed by French fries that I spent the entire book hungry) and her brother Mac. Alone of her family, Sydney feels guilt over her brother’s transgressions, and as Mac helps her cope with these feelings her growing attraction to him jeopardizes her friendship with Layla.
The Tide Watchers / Lisa Chaplin – A debut historical novel from an Australian author about a young woman who risks her life as a spy to help stop Napoleon’s invasion of Great Britain in the winter of 1803. Though the daughter of an English baronet, Lisbeth defied convention by eloping to France and lived to regret it, forced to work in a local tavern after her husband abandons her.   Duncan is a seasoned agent known by his operatives as Tidewatcher.  He apprenticed under Lisbeth’s father and has pledged to watch over his mentor’s daughter while he searches the Channel region for evidence that Bonaparte has built a fleet to invade Britain. Instead, unpredictable Lisbeth gets caught up in his espionage, taking a key part and challenging his lifelong habit of detachment. I just began this book tonight but it has all the elements of adventure and romance I enjoy.

Venetia / Georgette Heyer – You love Jane Austen but have never tried Heyer? Well, it’s time and why not start with one of her best! Due to a reclusive father, Venetia has never left her native Yorkshire and now runs the family estate while one brother is in the military and another is more interested in books than people. When the rakish Lord Damerel encounters Venetia blackberrying and steals a kiss, they begin an odd friendship. Venetia is not bowled over by his saturnine good looks but by his sense of humor and his ability to banter easily with her. But the course of true love does not run smooth: Damerel knows he is not good enough for Venetia and might destroy her life, so preemptively rejects her. It is up to Venetia to fight for what she wants using only the tools a proper 19th century young lady has at her disposal.
Wolf Hall / Hilary Mantel – Reading this historical novel about Henry VIII and his advisor, Thomas Cromwell, is not for the faint of heart: it is long and complex, and even for a 16th century major like me it was sometimes hard to keep the characters straight (try this helpful chart from Vanity Fair). However, this was easily the best book I read in the first half of 2015 although I usually read 5 or 6 books in the time this took. I was mesmerized by Mantel’s depiction of Cromwell and her ability to convince me that his allegiance to Cardinal Wolsey shaped his life and character. Moreover, she challenged my impressions of other previously beloved individuals at Henry’s court, such as Thomas More and the Duke of Suffolk. I did find irritating her use of the present tense and the references to Cromwell by pronoun instead of name – pretentious. Still, well worth reading for those who enjoy historical fiction.

Still looking? Check out my recent reviews for other summer reads or try my Downton Abbey suggestions.