Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Whiskey Sea (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: The Whiskey Sea
Author: Ann Howard Creel
Publication: Lake Union Publishing, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction, 1920s New Jersey
Giveaway: Thanks to the author and publisher, I have a copy of this book to give away to a US or Canadian reader! If you are a fan of historical fiction, please leave a comment telling me your favorite setting or time frame and I will pick a winner at or around the end of August.
Plot: Homeless when their mother (the town whore) dies, Frieda and her sister Bea are adopted by a kindly fisherman Silver. Frieda loves the sea and Silver’s way of life while the more delicate Bea excels in school. But Silver doesn’t approve of Frieda’s desire to join him deep sea fishing when she leaves school, so he sells his boat to a quiet young man named Sam Hicks who admires Frieda. Forced to think creatively about how to support her sister and adoptive father, Frieda persuades Hicks to teach her how to repair engines. Some of the fishermen are reluctant to trust a woman for such work and some people in town can’t forget her scandalous origins but Frieda scrapes out a living. When she is invited to help the skipper of a large boat smuggle liquor, her family and Hicks disapprove but Frieda sees not only a chance to make extra money as a mechanic but also finds excitement as the smugglers are often chased by the Coast Guard (trying to uphold Prohibition restrictions). Adding to the drama, Frieda falls for the handsome young Princeton alum who shows up to help with the smuggling as a lark - if he disappears as quickly, will he take her heart with him?

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, especially of feisty heroines longing for a non-traditional role in the world. Creel is also the author of While You Were Mine, set just after WWII.

What I liked: There are many books about this time period told from the perspective of flighty (or not so flighty) flappers, some of whom, like Frieda, yearn to escape the expectations of family but author Creel spotlights a very different heroine – one from a small town with little money and long memories – she is judged and found wanting due to her birth and sharp tongue. Frieda loves her adoptive father and sister but ignores their pleas to stop smuggling, justifying her actions as being done to support them. The descriptions of whiskey running are detailed, vivid and terrifiying, leading inexorably to disaster.
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Purchase Links

Amazon | Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble

What I disliked: For most of the book, I found the heroine hard to like. She was ashamed of her mother’s behavior and reputation so it didn’t make sense that she would so easily succumb to the charms of a stranger. Plus, it annoyed me that she was such a pushover even while the author skillfully conveyed Charles’ magnetism. I was also extremely irked that after Frieda risked her life on multiple occasions to fund her sister’s desire to attend college and become a teacher, Bea was so willing to toss her dream away and, even worse, not be available when Silver and Frieda needed her.
Source: I received a copy of this novel from TLC Book Tours and Lake Union Publishing in return for an honest review.  Don't you like the cover?  Although Frieda looks a bit too fashionable...  Please visit other stops on the tour:

Monday, August 22ndMusings of  a Bookish Kitty
Tuesday, August 23rdYou Can Read Me Anything
Thursday, August 25thI Wish I Lived in a Library
Friday, August 26thThoughts on This ‘n That
Monday, August 29thBookNAround
Tuesday, August 30thBlack ‘n Gold Girls Book Reviews
Wednesday, August 31stCaryn, The Book Whisperer
Thursday, September 1stSharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Friday, September 2ndThe Warlock’s Gray Book
Monday, September 5thPatricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, September 6thJust Commonly
Wednesday, September 7thReading is My Superpower
Thursday, September 8thWrite Read Life
Monday, September 12thBibliotica
Tuesday, September 13thMelissa Lee’s Many Reads
Thursday, September 15thView from the Birdhouse
Friday, September 16thFictionZeal
Monday, September 19thReading the Past

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Another Brooklyn (Book Review)

Title: Another Brooklyn
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publication: Amistad, hardcover, August 2016
Genre: Fiction
About the Book: "The acclaimed New York Times bestselling and National Book Award–winning author of Brown Girl Dreaming delivers her first adult novel in twenty years. Running into a long-ago friend sets memory from the 1970s in motion for August, transporting her to a time and a place where friendship was everything—until it wasn't. For August and her friends, sharing confidences as they ambled through neighborhood streets, Brooklyn was a place where they believed that they were beautiful, talented, brilliant—a part of a future that belonged to them. But beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion."

Audience: I was reminded of another coming of age story, Black Ice by Lorene Cary, which my book group read many years ago. Cary wrote about being one of the first African-American women to attend St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and the lasting image of that book is her loneliness. In a way, Cary’s book is the missing section of Another Brooklyn as it is made clear that August improbably attends Brown University but the part of her story where she excels academically in order to reach the Ivy League is reduced to an offhand mention of APs and PSAT review.

Another coming of age book I thought of was Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons about a Southern family in which the heroine’s mother is also the victim of mental illness and, if I recall correctly, appears and disappears mysteriously when she is receiving psychiatric treatment. August yearns for her mother and refuses to accept that her mother is dead and not returning.

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Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

What I liked: I chose this book because I had heard a lot about Jacqueline Woodson but never had an opportunity to read any of her books, and I thought this would be outside my comfort zone. Her writing is beautiful despite the background of violence that is commonplace for the heroine and her friends. The descriptions of Brooklyn are incredibly vivid and make the reader feel she is there with August, although, truthfully, I did not like this Brooklyn, full of sexual predators and drug users, and did not want to visit.

The most interesting relationship is between August, her father, and her brother. Her father is lonely and brings women home to the couch in the family living room which serves as his bedroom. He is not comfortable in traditional churches, believing they are for whites only, and is recruited by the Nation of Islam, where he becomes a fervent supporter (but doesn’t stop bringing women home – ah, hypocrisy, thy name is religion). The father provides for his children as best he can and while they run wild and are dressed shabbily, he is caring enough to take the day off when August’s friend Angela’s mother disappears and to find August an educated woman from the Nation of Islam to talk to when she is a depressed teen.

August’s nameless brother follows his father’s religion and maintains it as an adult, but August, compliant on the surface, dislikes the new lifestyle and diet the family follows, and yearns for bacon. I was worried that when August made friends and started hanging with them every day that her brother would wind up in trouble but perhaps his love of math kept him as safe. Eventually, August becomes an anthropologist (having honed her powers of observation) and does not appear to have much time for religion but she and her brother have a good relationship as adults and it is clear the bond of their neglected childhood still unites them. The book begins when they are burying their father.

What I disliked: The book moves from present to past to not so distant past, and one reviewer compares it to a “fever dream” which is very apt. Reading books that consist of streams of consciousness is not really my thing. The book was extremely readable but very sad, and I was distressed by all the different threats August and her friends faced in their neighborhood. As August points out, she and her brother were lucky their father cared about them and did his best to give them a home where they were never hungry. However, they were neglected and in danger. On the other hand, August’s friend Sylvia was from an affluent home and provided with most advantages, and that did not prevent her from misadventure. I had a hard time keeping August’s friends straight until the end, although they were very different.
Source: Thank you to Amistad/HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for giving me this book in return for an honest review. You can visit other stops on the tour by clicking here.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Hating Game (Book Review)

Title: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Fiction
Plot: When two publishing companies merge, the co-CEOs manage to hide their hostility and disdain for each other but their executive assistants do not. Wildly competitive and sniping at each other all day, Lucy Hutton is emotional and passionate about the industry while her counterpart Josh Templeton is a disciplined numbers guy. Once a coveted new management position is created and both decide to apply their “hating game” becomes even more intense. But after Lucy and Josh get to know each other outside the office, she wonders if she really hates him - and vice versa . . .

Audience: This is chick lit with dimension and reminded me of books by Kathleen Gilles Seidel and Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

What I liked: I loved The Hating Game from the first page. Hasn’t everyone had a rival at work who, accurately or not, you suspected of watching and sabotaging your every move? Lucy is warm and funny, obsessive about documenting each offense made by Josh, with whom she shares an office (and somehow notices the shade of every shirt he wears as well). She gives him a hard time and he promptly responds to every snide comment; their banter is pretty entertaining. Josh appears to be a genuine villain until, following a corporate game of paintball (ugh, I had to do laser tag once and that was bad enough), Lucy gets sick and he refuses to abandon to her to her misery. Although the reader certainly wants them to get together, I liked that there were genuine obstacles, including not just their work rivalry but complicated family situations to deal with. Both Lucy and Josh are appealing characters (I liked him before Lucy admitted she did) and author Thorne provides some good supporting characters to distract from the fact that the outcome is never in doubt.
ate her either. Or maybe this is just another game.
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Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

 What I disliked: A small quibble but Bexley & Gamin is not a very convincing publishing company, and Lucy and Josh seem overqualified to be executive assistants, yet not sufficiently experienced to become Chief Operating Officer.
Source: I received a copy of this charming debut novel from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review. I really enjoyed The Hating Game and can’t wait to see what this talented Australian author writes next.  Follow her on Twitter for news.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Traitor's Story (Book Review)

Title: The Traitor’s Story
Author: Kevin Wignall
Publication: Thomas & Mercer, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Six years ago, Finn Harrington, a British espionage agent, was about to retire but agreed to take on one last assignment on his way out – it went disastrously bad and he retired to Switzerland. When 15-year-old Hailey Portman disappears, her parents, who live in Finn’s building and heard rumors about his past from an indiscreet girlfriend, ask him to help when the police seem indifferent. Finn has guarded his emotions closely in recent years and is reluctant to get involved but finds himself investigating Hailey’s disappearance. Once he digs into Hailey’s background, he finds chilling evidence of a connection between Hailey and the disastrous events that ended his first career.

Audience: Fans of thrillers. I read a lot of suspense but not that much espionage and am glad I made an effort to get this one.

What I liked: This is a fast paced and enjoyable story; perfect for summer reading and carries the reader along with sufficient speed to overlook a few holes in the plot. The story is set up in alternating chapters between the puzzling present and the darkness of the past, leading dramatically to what really happened on that final weekend in Kaliningrad. Finn is an interesting character: at first extremely cold and not very likeable. He has reinvented himself as a bestselling historian who gets recognized in airports by fans (not sure this really happens to anyone but David McCullough or Ken Burns, but it’s a nice touch) and his insight to Hailey’s disappearance is intriguing. He is at his best when interacting with her quirky classmate Jonas but otherwise has no friends and has alienated his live-in girlfriend without even noticing. He evolves during the book but it seems clear that he could not move on emotionally from the events of six years earlier until all the remaining questions are resolved (except one that the author shares with the reader at the very end).

What I disliked: Although this is a well thought out novel, the motivation of several characters was perplexing and Finn’s patriotism or lack thereof is never fully explained.  Also, if his enemies hold a grudge, why not just kill him?  On another issue, it was very surprising that several characters say, “Me and X” – I hate grammatical errors was amazed a British writer would get this wrong. Thomas & Mercer is an Amazon imprint but I thought there were actual editors so these errors should have been corrected in manuscript.

Other reading: If you want to read some classic spy novels, try this list (got to love the comparison of The Riddle of the Sand to Swallows & Amazons).  In addition, Wignall has written several other books that look appealing, such as A Death in Sweden.

Source: I got The Traitor’s Story from the Norwood, MA library after reading a glowing review in Publishers Weekly, and recommend it.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

10 Books for the Hamilton-Obsessed

It’s the Ten Duel Book Commandments - what to read if you’re obsessed with Hamilton!
Believe me, I understand your fixation. You love Hamilton whether you’ve actually seen it or just listened repeatedly to the cast recording. You’ve never been to NYC but you’ve seen every Ham4Ham on YouTube. You follow Lin-Manuel on Twitter and practically watched him cut his hair. I was very lucky that my younger sister bought tickets and took most of the family to see Hamilton in November 2015, and that we have had each other to share our Lin obsession in the months since – quoting and capping our favorite lines, listening to the music in the house or in the car, speculating on what we would say to him or how we can get our copy of the book signed (I carried it to NYC on my last trip, planning to go hang out at the stage door, but my sister informed me knowledgeably that Lin’s wrist was hurt). We all clearly need something new to read, to distract us from the fact that Lin, Leslie and Philippa have left the cast. . .

Some prefer nonfiction:
1. Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick. This is a new hardcover by the highly regarded Philbrick, which I hope to read on vacation later this month and feel safe in recommending. His focus is on loyalty and personal integrity in the context of the Revolution, describing the fascinating but ill-fated relationship of Washington and Benedict Arnold. Due to Lois Duncan (see Peggy below), whom I read at a young age, not to mention the Childhood Biography of Nathan Hale (I regret that I have but one life to give for my country), I blamed Arnold for Hale’s death and saw him as someone who got tired of waiting for his brilliance to be recognized (I guess most of us can relate to that) and in a self-serving way decided to betray his country (not like most of us). It is up to General Washington to recover from Arnold’s defection and to rise above the egos surrounding him to create enough unity among his worn-out staff to hold on for victory.

Of course, there is also Ron Chernow’s book on Hamilton which inspired our Lin in the first place, as well as the Hamiltome (which you can read about here) but you already know those. Also, while I have enjoyed some of Chernow’s book and despite my History and Literature roots, I am more of a historical fiction fan these days so I picked some favorites you will actually finish the same year you start them:

Dear Theodosia, what to say to you?
2. My Theodosia by Anya Seton. Don't you want to know more about Aaron's daughter? I recently reviewed this historical novel about Aaron Burr’s beautiful and intelligent daughter.  Theodosia was unusually well educated for her time and was one of the few people Burr loved - but that didn't protect her from his ambition!

Have your seconds meet face to face!

3. Dawn’s Early Light by Elswyth Thane. As many know, Thane is one of my all time favorite authors and this is the first in her famous Williamsburg series, bestsellers in their day. Young Julian Day arrives in Williamsburg from England in 1774 amid the hubbub of pre-Revolutionary War Virginia. Will the friends he makes there overcome his Tory inclinations? Can a shy schoolteacher make his place among the bold Patriots (no, not those Patriots!) of the New World? What happens when he falls in love with the woman promised to his new best friend?
4. Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. Celia is an orphan (hey, Alexander isn’t the only orphan trying to rise up) in Charleston, SC, patriotic enough to spy for the Revolution while working as a seamstress (thus I knew before Hamilton that someone discreetly taking measurements and making clothes could overhear useful information!) I also enjoyed this book for its warm depiction of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, a lesser known Revolutionary hero, who mentors Celia and her devastating beau.

5. Judas Flowering by Jane Aiken Hodge. Hodge is another favorite author, sister of the renowned Joan who wrote the Wolves of Willoughby Chase. This book by big sister Jane begins in 1774 as Mercy Phillips, recentlyly arrived in the colonies, witnesses her father being killed by a mob that wants his printing press. She is rescued by Hart Purchis, the young master of an old Southern family and plantation. Hart acquires some dangerously patriotic notions while completing his studies at Harvard, and returns to war-torn Savannah where his family is split in its loyalty and only Mercy shares his dreams.

Leave a note for your next of kin!

6. A Catch of Consequence by Diana Norman. First in a trilogy, with an opening scene set just blocks from my office, the heroine is a feisty tavern owner (understand this is different from being a tavern wench) who “catches” a member of the English nobility drowning in Boston Harbor and reluctantly brings him home to nurse him back to health. Makepeace is a patriot and disapproves of the British-imposed taxes but the Sons of Liberty don’t care that she’s on their side when they learn she helped the enemy, so Sir Philip saves her life in turn by helping her escape from Boston.

Confess your sins, ready for the moment of adrenaline when you finally face your opponent!

7. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson. A fascinating and disturbing story about Octavian, a young black slave, born in the U.S. and brought up in Boston by a group of sanctimonious philosophers, who see him and his mother simply as chattel, valuable only as fodder for experiments. It is well researched and beautifully written, winning the National Book Award for Young People in 2006. I think it reads as an adult book, however, and my book group read and enjoyed in 2009.

Your Last Chance to Negotiate!
8. The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope. This is a jewel of a YA historical fantasy from an author wrote only two books (both outstanding). When orphaned teenaged Peggy goes to live with her cantankerous uncle in upstate New York, her loneliness results in encounters with characters from the Revolutionary War. The contrast between the 20th century and the British-occupied countryside is entertaining and British officer Peaceable Sherwood is as charming a character as you will find in a story that combines history, romance, and humor.

“A gentleman can hardly continue to sit,' he explained, in his serenest and most level voice, 'when he asks a very remarkable young lady to do him the honor of marrying him. And - 'he somehow contrived to grin at me wickedly, 'I usually get what I want, Miss Grahame,' he added, and pitched over in a tangled heap on the floor.”

9. Peggy by Lois Duncan. Duncan, who died last month, was better known for her juvenile suspense, but I read this novel about Peggy Shippen, Benedict Arnold’s beautiful wife when I was growing up and just loved its flawed characters. There is also a Betty Cavanna about the Shippen sisters, told from the perspective of a quiet Quaker friend.

10. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. For the younger Hamilton fans, here is a Newbery Medal winner and much beloved favorite which my fifth grade godson recently enjoyed. Johnny is the gifted apprentice of Ephraim Lapham, a silversmith in Revolutionary-era Boston where he mingles with Paul Revere and John Hancock. While it was written with a youthful audience in mind, this story is compelling and is especially suitable for parents to enjoy with their children. Johnny is a typical teenage boy with flaws and occasional arrogance but as he becomes acquainted with the local patriots he begins to believe in the cause of liberty and does some rising up himself.

What are your favorites?

(photo of Lin-Manuel Miranda is copyright to Rolling Stone Magazine)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Silent City: a Claire Codella Mystery (Book Review)

Title: Silent City: a Claire Codella Mystery
Author: Carrie Smith
Publication: Crooked Lane, Hardcover, 2015
Genre: Mystery/suspense
Plot: Claire Codella, a NYC detective, is returning to her job after successfully battling cancer with months of chemo. On her first day back, she is assigned the murder of an elementary school principal, who was admired by everyone but his own staff. Self-conscious about her changed appearance and wondering if she is really ready for the stresses of the job, Claire is also aware that her supervisor resents the attention she received on an earlier case and will do her no favors if she can’t solve this crime quickly. Partnered with an appealing gay detective, Eduardo Munoz, who is also persona non grata with the bullies at the police precinct, Claire is plunged into the surprisingly cutthroat atmosphere of the Manhattan public school system as she investigates two murders, and navigates her way among teachers, parents, and coworkers.

Audience: Fans of suspense and of female detectives who don’t take garbage from anyone; I was actually reminded more of TV shows like Blue Bloods and NYPD Blue than of current mysteries but maybe that is because the sense of place was so strong.

My Impressions: This is a fast paced debut, full of interesting characters and their interrelationships, with a vivid and gritty New York setting. I like Claire, who has been through a tough time with her cancer treatment – and the one person she thought she could really rely on, her best friend and former partner, Brian Haggerty – never made it inside the hospital to visit her. Claire has learned to rely only on herself, so she has to learn all over again how to trust and when to ask for help or she will not survive a dangerous investigation:

She preferred the truth to gentle fantasy landings. During investigations she always gave the truth – as sensitively as possible, of course – to the families of the violently murdered.

Claire’s candor, her post-treatment symptoms, and her determination to handle a high profile case so well that even her unpleasant boss couldn’t complain make her a very sympathetic heroine.

I wondered if other cancer survivors would be interested in this book and identify with Claire or if they would prefer more escapism in their suspense fiction, so mentioned it to a coworker who fits that category and had just told me she wasn’t reading any more cozies! Well, this is not a cozy – there is plenty of bloodshed and the kind of language you would expect from police, so I am lending her my copy.

I liked the relationship developing between Claire and Munoz (he is taunted so unmercifully by the homophobic detectives in the Manhattan North homicide unit that I wanted to offer my legal services pro bono) and appreciated the desperate shame of her friend Haggerty who knows he let her down when she needed support. Maybe I guessed who the killer was halfway through the book but it was really about more than just finding a killer.   
Author Carrie Smith

Source: I put this on my list after reading a very favorable review in Publishers Weekly, and checked it out from the Brookline Library. According to Smith’s website, a second book is coming in December.  Recommended!

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