Tuesday, June 14, 2016

All Summer Long (Book Review)

Title: All Summer Long
Author: Dorothea Benton Frank
Publication: William Morrow hardcover, May 2016
Genre: Fiction
Plot: When glitzy New York interior designer Olivia Ritchie got married, she promised her professor husband they would one day retire to his home town of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Now Nick, some 15 years older than Olivia, has retired and it is time for her to move, despite her poorly masked horror at leaving NYC. This drastic lifestyle change comes at a not inconvenient time for Olivia, whose business is going through a bad patch. She hopes that selling her New York condo and living modestly down south will help her and Nick recoup their fortunes. Olivia also has an extremely rich and needy client, Maritza Vasile; she spends most of the book zipping glamorously around the world with Maritza and her billionaire husband, and their marital issues cause Olivia to realize that money does not buy happiness.

Audience: Fans of commercial women’s fiction will enjoy this book. I was reminded of Elizabeth Adler and Eileen Goudge, although I had been expecting something more like Elin Hilderbrand and Nancy Thayer, who also write about families and relationships but in a less glitzy way than this book. Here is an interview with the author.

What I liked: All Summer Long was a fun, entertaining read, perfect for a big comfortable chair and a relaxing day. I grew fond of Olivia and her secrets and financial worries, and her affection for her sloppy husband. Although it was in her best interests to keep Maritza happy and eager to spend money, Olivia turns out to be genuinely fond of her rich, spoiled client, and gave both Maritza and her husband good, practical advice. The large cast of characters (including many bitchy women) added humor and dimension to the story which did not have much actual plot other than ‘money can’t buy me love,” but my favorite was Olivia’s hard working assistant Roni and I was glad she seemed to be getting a happy ending. And I do yearn for a trip to Charleston which I last visited in the seventh grade!

What I disliked: While I enjoyed this book, it was not at all what I expected and I got tired of all the designer name dropping. I thought it would be about Olivia’s and Nick’s slow but ultimately happy acclimation to Sullivan’s Island but they spent most of the book jet-setting with the Vasiles. Most of that wound up being diverting but I would have liked more about the famed Lowcountry of South Carolina and got very tired of their saying how much they loved each other all the time. Do people really do that? I wished they would make some local friends and I also disliked the dream Olivia has in Chapter 16 (I suspect this dream was to punish readers like me who were predicting such an outcome). 
Source: Thanks to TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for giving me a copy of this book in return for an honest review. You can visit other stops on Frank’s tour to see how they enjoyed the book or click below.

Tuesday, May 31st: A Tattered Copy
Wednesday, June 1st: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, June 2nd: bookchickdi
Friday, June 3rd: Stranded in Chaos
Monday, June 6th: Seaside Book Nook
Tuesday, June 7th: Books and Bindings
Wednesday, June 8th: Tina Says…
Monday, June 13th: 5 Minutes For Books
Tuesday, June 14th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, June 15th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Monday, June 20th: Kritters Ramblings
Wednesday, June 22nd: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, June 23rd: A Soccer Mom’s Book Blog
Friday, June 24th: Queen of All She Reads

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Room Where It Happens

I wanna be in the room where it happens
The room where it happens
The room where it happens . . .

That hardly makes me unique but the other day I actually got to be in the room where it happens! I had left some documents at Boston City Hall for the mayor’s signature, and when I went back to pick them up his secretary noticed my curious glances down towards his office. She kindly offered me a quick tour (knowing he was in China for a few days, I could accept without worrying he would appear and find me gawking) and when she told me the mayor uses former Mayor Curley’s desk I was enthralled. “Sit down; I’ll take your picture,” she offered.
For those who don’t know, James Michael Curley (1874-1958) was a legendary four-time mayor of Boston (and one term governor of Massachusetts) whose popularity reflected the increased influence of the Irish community. Accused of campaign bribery, among other things, he was indicted twice but was still reelected to a fourth term. During his fourth term, he actually went to jail. John Hynes (grandfather of goalie John Hynes who took Shakespeare with me in college, now a big developer) served loyally as acting mayor, until Curley returned from jail in Connecticut, greeted by enthusiastic crowds and a brass band. Not the kind of person I would like in real life but intriguing to any historian!

James Michael Curley
Without any of the usual courtesies one would expect from the courtly Curley, the old mayor once back in his office brusquely pushed Hynes aside. Curley seemed to believe that it was important for him to quickly re-assert primacy over city government, and that the best way to accomplish this goal was to diminish the man who had ably served as caretaker during his five months in Danbury Prison. Later in the day, convening an impromptu press conference, Curley remarked that he had accomplished more in that one day than Hynes had done in five months. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Curley was a master of the political arts, but he made a fatal mistake. He had given the mild-mannered Hynes an invaluable political asset: passion. Hynes would not soon or easily forget the insult – his son would recall that he had never seen his father as angry as he was that day – and 1949 offered him the chance to exact revenge on the aging and increasingly out-of-touch Curley.
There was no fifth term for Curley. An outraged Hynes ran against Curley and won in a very close race, portraying Curley as out of touch and corrupt. As James Aloisi says in CommonWealth, also cited above, this election was a conscious choice by Boston voters to put aside nostalgia and elect someone who would move the city forward.

(Apparently it's not uncommon to get a tour of the mayor's office - his secretary wasn't breaking any rules.  But it still made me feel extremely special!)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Deception Island (Book Review)

Title: Deception Island
Author: Brynn Kelly
Publication: Harlequin, June 2016, Hardcover
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Plot: Rafe Angelito thought he was done with the demons from his past—until his son is kidnapped. Blackmailed into abducting an American heiress, the legionnaire soon finds himself trapped in paradise with a fiery, daring beauty who’s nothing he expects…and everything he desires. But when he uncovers her own dark secret, Rafe realizes he’s made a critical mistake—one that could cost him everything.

Playing body double for a spoiled socialite was supposed to be Holly Ryan’s ticket to freedom. But when she’s snatched off her yacht by a tall, dark and dangerous stranger, the not-quite-reformed con artist will make a desperate play to turn her captor from enemy to ally, by any means necessary. Yet as scorching days melt into sultry nights, Holly is drawn to the mysterious capitaine, with his unexpected sense of honor and his searing touch.

When they’re double-crossed, they’ll have to risk trusting each other in ways they never imagined…because in this deadly game of deception, it’s their lives—and hearts—on the line.

Audience: If you like Cherry Adair and Cindy Gerard, you will enjoy this book.

My thoughts: This was a fun, fast-paced read with a fairly likeable heroine who deserves a happy ending. The deserted island was too dangerous to be romantic but the setting makes the book a good beach book and the hero has the requisite dark past. Although the actual plot and characters are not very convincing, the action sweeps the reader along without much time to quibble. Perhaps giving the mercenary a conscience and an appealing child was meant to endow him with depth but he simply did not come across as realistic in any way, including his transition from trained killer who has “no firsthand experience” of love to someone who wants to settle down with “the people I love” and run a business – all in the span of about five days. Or maybe it’s just my bad luck that I only know men lacking the firsthand experience of love who never evolve like Rafe . . . at least, comfortingly, I have been spared the paid assassins!

As someone who likes impersonation stories, I was a little disappointed that that part of the story line was over before it began. I became more curious about the real Laura Hyland than about Holly’s eventual fate. Maybe Brynn Kelly will write Laura’s book next!
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review. You can read what other bloggers thought about Deception Island by clicking here.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Death at Breakfast (book review)

Title: Death at Breakfast
Author: Beth Gutcheon
Publication: William Morrow Hardcover, May 2016
Genre: Fiction
Plot: When Maggie and Hope, two old friends, travel to small town Maine to attend a week of cooking classes at a historic inn, they expect to hang out with other foodies and figure out if they would make good travel companions for more distant trips. However, in the midst of mastering pumpkin polenta, they get entangled in the mysterious murder of an unpleasant Greek-American magnate, and decide their combined common sense and connections can be used to help Hope’s son, Buster, the oddball deputy sheriff, find out what really happened before breakfast at the Oquossoc Mountain Inn.

Audience: fans of witty contemporary fiction; readers who like Elinor Lipman and Laura Zigman

What I liked: What made this book were the quirky friends: Maggie, a retired private school headmistress, and Hope, an affluent divorcee whose children attended the school. They are surprisingly insightful, with complementary strengths, and while the actual mystery was not very hard to figure out, the way they attacked the situation and mingled with hotel guests, staff, and townies was entertaining and got the job done.

As a fan of classic mysteries that take place in an isolated manor house or at a house party, I appreciated the modern setting of a residential, upscale cooking class where the characters are stranded when a murder takes place. A nice touch was that the Inn had poor Internet access, driving all the guests crazy when first they are curious about the obnoxious new guests and then when they want to tell all their friends about the drama taking place at the Inn.

What I disliked: I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight but after a while I figured out which ones were going to matter and all became clear in the last few chapters. I never understood why Hope’s son was so wary of his mother, however. Was it merely self protective because he doesn’t feel he has lived up to her expectations? It was Maggie more than Hope who had been judgmental about him in the past.
Source: This was a fun and different read which I recommend (the food descriptions were an added bonus but I don't read reading while hungry). I have enjoyed books by Gutcheon, a fellow Radcliffe alumna, in the past and had been looking forward to this since I heard about it (and that was before I realized her current editor is my talented friend Jennifer Brehl).

I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review, and suggest that you visit the tour to check out other reviews:

May 10th: A Chick Who Reads
May 11th: Dwell in Possibility
May 12th:  Five Minutes for Books
May 13th: Back Porchervations
May 16th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
May 18th: Booksie's Blog
May 19th: Booked on a Feeling
May 23rd: Books and Bindings
May 24th: From the TBR Pile
May 23rd: Buried Under Books
May 27th: Kritters Ramblings
May 30th: Ms.Bookish.com

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Secrets of Flight (book review)

Title: The Secrets of Flight
Author: Maggie Leffler
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
Plot: Mary Browning, an elderly widow who presides over a writers’ group of would-be memoirists, is estranged from her family due to secrets in her past. When a teenage girl who reminds Mary of her long-deceased sister joins the group, Mary hires her as a typist and is finally able to share her own story – that of a Jewish girl named Miriam who escaped her Pittsburgh home during World War II by enrolling in flying lessons and winding up in Sweetwater, Texas as one of Jackie Cochran’s Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). At 15, Elyse is an aspiring writer with secrets of her own, including a crush on a cute but unreliable high school boy* and parents going through a painful separation; however, her surprising friendship with Mary enriches both their lives by empowering each of them to confront their secrets and cope with difficult situations.

Audience: Enthusiasts of WWII fiction, books about female aviators, fans of books like The Orphan Train

What I liked: Historical fiction set during WWII is one of my favorite genres and I am especially interested in books about women doing war work.  This is an enjoyable and moving read.  The book shifts back and forth from the present day to Mary/Miriam’s youth before WWII, told from Mary's and Elyse's alternating points of view. Leffler does a good job capturing the three primary settings of this story: the small Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh where Miriam and Sarah live with their mother and stepfather near his shop; the training facility for the women flyers in Sweetwater, Texas; and the present day setting that alternates between Elyse’s family and high school and Mary’s life among the senior citizens. Because Jackie Cochran realizes there is no synagogue nearby for Jewish flyers, she arranges for Miriam to travel to Abilene for services, where Miriam will meet a handsome future medical student but, ironically, her relationship with this “nice Jewish boy” will result in estrangement from her family. This gesture by Cochran seems a little out of character but adds a nice element to the story.
What I disliked: I would have liked to read much more about flying and less about Elyse’s family. The relationship between Mary and Elyse was a bit too predictable (on several levels) and while Mary’s back story was convincing she did not come across as a particularly warm character and there was a lot of time unaccounted for between her marriage and her return to Pittsburgh. One nice touch (see spoiler below) . . .

Author: This is the third novel by Maggie Leffler, a family physician in Pittsburgh, and demonstrates her enthusiasm for historical fiction, including careful research on a variety of topics. I also liked the mentions of Ballet Shoes, All of a Kind Family, and The Secret Garden which show good appreciation of classic kidlit.
Source: I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review, and suggest that you visit other stops on the tour to enjoy other reviews.  Here are a few:

Wednesday, May 4th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Thursday, May 5th: bookchickdi
Friday, May 6th: Doing Dewey
Tuesday, May 10th: Back Porchervations
Wednesday, May 11th: A Bookish Affair
Thursday, May 12th: Savvy Verse & Wit

* Note that whether in fiction or real life, it is always a mistake to dump your friend for a cute (or otherwise) boy. You will be punished and rightfully so.

Spoiler from above: It was a nice touch to have Mary pay for Elyse to visit her grandmother before her death, but if only she had accompanied Elyse Mary would have been reunited with her niece. The other characters did not seem to find this as sad as I did!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

My Theodosia (Book Review)

Title: My Theodosia
Author: Anya Seton
Publication: Houghton Mifflin, Hardcover, 1941; Mariner, paperback, 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: This is a fictional and fascinating account of the life of Theodosia Burr, the beautiful and well educated daughter of Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, and their close relationship. Named for the mother who died when she was 11, Theodosia, at a very young age, married Joseph Alston, who was from a prominent South Carolina plantation family and later became Governor of that state. As a married woman, she faced many challenges, not least of which must have been adjustment to a very different way of life than her upbringing in New York City. She suffered through her father’s fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton (1804), lost her only child to illness (1812) and was involved in Burr’s bizarre attempt to annex Mexico, then ruled by Spain. When news of Burr’s plotting reached President Jefferson, he was disgraced and stood trial for treason, with Theodosia loyally at his side (1807).

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and American history; enthusiasts of Hamilton, the musical.  Everyone is reading Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton; why not read up on Theodosia Burr?

What I liked: I read this book so long ago I had forgotten most of the details but what always stuck in my mind was that despite his flaws, Burr loved his daughter, provided her with a classical education, very unusual for that era, and she also served as a graceful young hostess for him. After seeing Hamilton in November, I became curious about Theodosia. Fans of the musical know that Aaron Burr sings a song to his daughter, Dear Theodosia, and at the fateful duel exclaims, “This man will not make an orphan of my daughter.” (Hey, Aaron, shouldn’t you have thought of this before you issued the challenge??)
artist: John Vanderlyn
Seton’s portrayal of Burr is not dissimilar to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s: Burr is fiercely ambitious and somewhat paranoid. Burr is depicted as so determined to build support for his presidential candidacy that he bullies his beloved daughter Theodosia into marrying someone she barely knows and does not really like so he can acquire the support of powerful landowning families in the South. Throughout her marriage, she and her father remain close, much to the annoyance of her husband (and maybe to the reader - one almost wants her to see Aaron for what he is, yet her husband is so unsatisfactory, she needs to believe in a loving father). Theodosia’s life seems extremely sad, both in this novel and in other accounts, as she takes her father’s disgrace to heart and eventually dies under mysterious circumstances.

Despite the melancholy that pervades Theodosia’s adult life, I enjoyed the book and believe those curious about Burr and his daughter will find it extremely readable. It includes fascinating details about old New York. Seton also includes a possible romance between Theodosia and Meriwether Lewis, best known as the leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which explored the Louisiana Purchase. It appears they were acquainted but there is little evidence of a romantic relationship. I did not learn from the Childhood of Famous Americans biographies I once favored that Meriwether’s life also ended tragically young.

Anya Seton knew was it was like to have a famous father. She was the daughter of Ernest Thompson Seton, a well known writer and naturalist, who was instrumental in founding the Boy Scouts in America. According to her, she spent a lot of time in the Southwest as a child on a family ranch, and her name was suggested by a Sioux chief who was visiting the family shortly after her birth. He called her Anutika, which means “cloud-gray eyes,” so although she was named Ann, her family called her Anya.
Anya Seton
I became a fan of Seton after devouring a copy of Katherine at the library. I love this book about John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford but it seemed quite racy to junior high me so I hid it (inexpertly) under my pillow where, naturally, my mother came across it and, to my surprise, she told me it was a favorite of hers and that it had been serialized in the Ladies Home Journal in the 50s. My Theodosia was Seton’s first novel; subsequent books include Dragonwyck and Foxfire, which were made into successful movies, and Green Darkness, a big bestseller, set in the 1970s with reincarnation flashbacks to the 16th century. Her books are well researched, with an unerring sense of place. My Theodosia includes many quotations and references to actual letters.

What I disliked: Descriptions of the slaves owned by the Alston family and the harsh treatment they receive are hard to read but appear realistic. Seton does not believe in the myth of the happy slave and Theodosia is portrayed as uncomfortable with the slavery of the Deep South, but that is not the focus of the book.

Source: I checked out this book from the Newton Free Library; likely the very copy I read as a teen.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Pattern of Lies (Book Review)

Title: A Pattern of Lies: a Bess Crawford Mystery
Author: Charles Todd
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover 2015, paperback 2016
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Plot: Bess Crawford, a capable nurse stationed in World War I France, becomes embroiled in a mystery relating to former patient recuperating in Kent. A tragic explosion at the Ashton Gunpowder Mill is now being blamed on Philip Ashton. While visiting the family, Bess learns of the threats made to the Ashton family and tries to assist them in understanding why they are being maliciously targeted. Back in France, Bess deftly deals with the trauma of the last months of the Great War while also trying to locate a key witness to the explosion, protect herself from a killer, and put a stop to the lies threatening her friends.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction and of the Maisie Dobbs (no doubt this series was inspired by its success); fans of Downton Abbey (for my other Downton-esqe recommendations, click here).

What I liked: Beautifully written and painstakingly researched, this series portrays both the harsh reality of life at the front and of the worries experienced back in the English countryside. Bess was invaluable in solving the mystery through her ability to ask questions others are unable to pose.  She is improbably mobile for a nurse stationed in France, in an era when women of her class surely did not travel alone, but I like that the author plots her travel carefully, using the exigencies of war (here, escorting wounded soldiers to England).  I also enjoy her relationship with her father, a distinguished officer, whose devotion to the army (and duty!) Bess has inherited.

I had missed a couple books in the middle of this series but it didn’t matter – these books stand on their own and one reads for the characters rather than the actual mystery. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about World War I and came across this WWI quiz as I was reading (I did well except with the chronology of WWI battles).   I am a big fan of this author(s) and enjoyed meeting them years ago at my favorite mystery bookstore, Black Orchid (now closed, sadly).
What I disliked: Bess is so perfect that she is slightly lacking in personality.  There is no hint as to her romantic feelings: does she care for Simon Brandon, her father’s former batman, now an indispensable family friend? I can’t remember and, in any case, I am sure will all be revealed in good time.

Source: I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review. Recommended! You can visit other stops on the tour to see what other bloggers thought about the seventh Bess Crawford installment:
Tuesday, April 12th: FictionZeal
Wednesday, April 13th: A Book Geek
Thursday, April 14th: #redhead.with.book
Monday, April 18th: Jayne's Books
Wednesday, April 20th: Reading is My Super Power
Wednesday, April 20th: Mel's Shelves
Thursday, April 21st: Tina Says…
Monday, April 25th: Mama Vicky Says
Wednesday, April 27th: Sharon's Garden of Book Reviews

Charles Todd is also the author of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series, set just after WWI.