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.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Second Life (Book Review)

Title: Second Life
Author: S. J. Watson
Publication: Harper Collins hardcover, June 2015
Genre: Suspense
Setting: London and Paris
Plot: From the New York Times bestselling author of Before I Go to Sleep, a new psychological thriller about a woman with a secret identity that threatens to destroy her.  How well can you really know another person? How far would you go to find the truth about someone you love?

When Julia learns that her sister has been violently murdered, she must uncover why. But Julia's quest quickly evolves into an alluring exploration of own darkest sensual desires. Becoming involved with a dangerous stranger online, she's losing herself . . . losing control . . . perhaps losing everything. Her search for answers will jeopardize her marriage, her family, and her life.

This is a tense and unrelenting novel that explores the hidden lives led by people with secrets; and the dark places in which they can find themselves. Second Life is a nerve-racking work of suspense that is uncomfortable to read.

Audience: Fans of dark suspense. 

My thoughts: This was a fast but very disturbing read. I didn’t exactly enjoy Before I Go to Sleep but thought it was fairly well done amnesia story. This book is very different. First of all, it is unbelievably melodramatic and written in the present tense, which I find pretentious (I eventually forgave Hilary Mantel). The plot was not convincing (in fact, it was completely ridiculous) and I became quite tired of reading about heroine Julia’s self-destructive behavior which begins when she decides to investigate her sister’s murder (or at least that is how she justifies her obsessive behavior to herself – it is soon apparent she is bored with her life and yearns for the artsy life she led in Berlin with her first serious boyfriend, Marcus). However, from this point, the book just provided one cliché after another: illicit and violent sex, drugs, alcohol, mysterious muggings, online romance, and secrets from the only people who love her.  

Julia does nothing to comfort her son (actually her nephew but she and her husband adopted him) for the loss of his biological mother except cause him more stress. In terms of characters, I did not like any of them (this doesn’t always prevent me from enjoying a book but it was an obstacle here). I did guess wrong about who had fathered Connor but most of the plot developments were extremely predictable. And yet ... it was genuinely chilling at times. There were several moments when I shivered and was glad I wouldn’t meet any of these characters in a dark alley.
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours but all thoughts and opinions are my own.  To read other reviews, click here.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ruthless (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Ruthless
Author: John Rector
Publication: Thomas and Mercer, Trade Paperback, June 2015
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Nick White is down on his luck, and at the end of a failed marriage. He is drowning his sorrows in a local bar when an attractive woman mistakes him for someone else. “You’re early,” she says, and he plays along as a joke. Before she leaves, she hands Nick an envelope, which turns out to be full of cash and a picture of young woman she wants him to dispose of. Realizing too late that her mistake might not be funny, Nick hurries after her but it is too late: she is gone. And then he sees a ruthless stranger who looks like the paid assassin Nick was mistaken for and this guy looks as if he’s guessed Nick got his money and assignment. As my law professor used to say, “Who’s not happy about that?”

Nick is faced with a tough decision: to go to the police, who might not believe him but would almost certainly confiscate the money, or do nothing which might result in another assassin being hired. He chooses another option – he goes to warn the proposed victim, Abigail Pierce. After her initial shock, Abigail turns to Nick for help, and he is drawn into a conspiracy surrounding her birth that becomes more dangerous. His only hope for survival is to get out of town unless he can figure out the truth behind the attempts on his and Abigail’s lives.

Audience: Fans of noir suspense

What I liked: Rector has a definite gift for storytelling. There were numerous twists and turns that I could not predict, and while Nick was not the kind of hero with whom one identifies he engendered a certain amount of sympathy for his good intentions.  I had not come across Rector before but he has written several other books: The Grove, The Cold Kiss, Already Gone, and Out of the Black.   Ruthless reminded me a lot of one I reviewed several months ago, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart.  I think it's an entertaining read and I have a copy to give away - leave a message if you are interested, and I will pick a winner.

What I disliked: This type of suspense does not include enough character development for me but that didn’t prevent me from reading it at one sitting.
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours but all thoughts and opinions are my own.  Here are the other stops on the tour:

Monday, June 1st: From the TBR Pile
Tuesday, June 2nd: She Treads Softly
Wednesday, June 3rd: 5 Minutes for Books
Friday, June 5th: Vic’s Media Room
Monday, June 8th: You Can Read Me Anything
Tuesday, June 9th: The Bookish Universe
Wednesday, June 10th: Built By Story
Thursday, June 11th: A Chick Who Reads
Friday, June 12th: Books a la Mode – guest post
Monday, June 15th: Bell, Book & Candle
Wednesday, June 17th: Life is Story
Monday, June 22nd: Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Tuesday, June 23rd: Reading Reality
Wednesday, June 24th: Fictionophile
Thursday, June 25th: Mom in Love with Fiction
TBD: The Bookish Universe
TBD: Books a la Mode

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Mapmaker's Children (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: The Mapmaker’s Children
Author: Sarah McCoy
Publication: Crown Publishers, hardcover, May 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 19th century and 21st century United States
Purchase Links: Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble
Plot: When Sarah Brown, daughter of abolitionist John Brown, realizes that her artistic talents may be able to help save the lives of slaves fleeing north, she becomes one of the Underground Railroad’s leading mapmakers, taking her cues from the slave code quilts and hiding her maps within her paintings. She boldly embraces this calling after being told the shocking news that she can’t bear children, but as the country steers toward bloody civil war, Sarah faces difficult sacrifices that could put all she loves in peril.

Eden, a modern woman desperate to conceive a child with her husband, moves to an old house in the suburbs and discovers a porcelain head hidden in the root cellar—the remains of an Underground Railroad doll with an extraordinary past of secret messages, danger and deliverance.

Ingeniously plotted to a riveting end, Sarah and Eden’s woven lives connect the past to the present, forcing each of them to define courage, family, love, and legacy in a new way.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction; those interested in the Civil War and/or strong heroines

What I liked: The Mapmaker’s Children was one of my favorite books of 2015 and should be included on your summer reading or future book group list. I was fascinated by the description when I first read about it, months before it came out, and I immediately asked if I could participate on the blog tour. I particularly enjoy books that move from the present to the past, especially when written by a skillful author such as this one, and which feature a strong heroine. McCoy moves effortlessly from prevent day West Virginia where Eden, a troubled woman, is trying to make a new start in a quirky and appealing community, to one of the most troubled times imaginable, and a heroine who moves from New York to West Virginia to Massachusetts to California in a time where most women stayed within a few miles of where they were born. Her description of John Brown’s surviving family and how they coped with the notoriety that was his legacy to them kept me reading late into the night. I loved the character of his daughter, Sarah – her ingenuity and courage and dedication to her father’s dream. I almost resented whenever we left her story for Eden’s modern-day problems and unreasonable quarrels. Those interested in the Underground Railroad will also be interested in Sarah’s clever way of disguising maps to freedom.

Author Information: I was delighted to see that Sarah McCoy was going to be in Massachusetts on her tour for The Mapmaker’s Children and caught up with her at the Brookline Booksmith in May when she appeared with Jenna Blum (a writer whose work I look forward to exploring). It was so much fun to hear how her upbringing in the South has informed her love of history and her ability to convincingly evoke a Civil War setting and heroine. In common with other readers, I loved the characters of the Hill family, especially Freddy Hill, who is a perfect combination of handsome hero and loyal friend. As little is actually known about Sarah Brown, McCoy walks a careful line between factual information (such as her artistic talent and the time spent being educated with the Alcotts in Concord) and the fictional information necessary to craft a novel. I yearned for a happy ending that would not have been supported by what is known about Sarah.  For more information on author Sarah, please visit her website.
Because I am usually more interested in the English Civil War than the American Civil War, I did not know much about John Brown (except the doleful song) and surprised Sarah by asking how he became so associated with the Harper’s Ferry plot when he was from New York (I am still astonished that he would bring his family down from NY for the proposed raid, putting them in grave danger, but I suppose it is not so different from those who picnicked while watching the battle at Bull Run). Hearing about her research was fascinating. In turn, she was pleased to hear that I and others in the audience immediately started reading more about John Brown after we finished reading, and she told us that is a great compliment to the author to know she has inspired that much interest in the period.

Giveaway: Thanks to the generosity of TLC Book Tours and the publisher, I have a copy to give away.  US and Canada only, please.
a Rafflecopter giveaway
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours but all thoughts and opinions are my own.  You can visit other stops on the tour by clicking here.  I bought an earlier book, The Baker's Daughter, at the event and look forward to reporting on that soon.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Case of the Invisible Dog (Book Review and Giveway)

Title: The Case of the Invisible Dog: A Shirley Holmes Mystery 
Author: Diane Stingley 
Publication: Alibi ebook, May 2015, $2.99
Purchase Links: Amazon | Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble
Genre: Mystery
Plot: Down on her luck actress Tammy Norman has given up on Hollywood and returned home to North Carolina but even there she is unsuccessful at getting and keeping a job.  When she responds to a newspaper ad for an assistant, she finds herself working for eccentric Shirley Holmes, who believes she is the great granddaughter of the famous sleuth.  Alas, Shirley does not share Sherlock’s acumen and Tammy finds herself apologizing to everyone in sight for the tone deaf escapades of her new boss, but it’s better than being unemployed…

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Daughter (Book Review)

Title: The Daughter
Author: Jane Shemilt @janeshemilt
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2015 (first published in England in 2014)
Genre: Suspense/Fiction
Plot: How well do you really know your family? Jenny thinks she has the perfect life, with a busy medical practice in Bristol, England, a successful surgeon husband, and three teenagers. Of course, she’s busy and tired, but isn’t everyone? Then her daughter Naomi fails to come home one night after starring in West Side Story, and Jenny and her family will never the same again.  Jenny looks at everyone around her with suspicion, blames herself for failing to notice changes in her daughter’s behavior, and can no longer handle everyday life.  She realizes that she will never be able to cope with Naomi’s disappearance until she knows what happened, but her search into Naomi’s last months reveals a girl Jenny barely recognizes.

Audience: Fans of Jodi Picoult, Anita Shreve, Sue Miller

What I liked: The book is well written and deliberately paced, moving back and forth from the days before and just after Naomi’s disappearance to a year afterwards.   Told from Jenny’s perspective, the story begins with what seems like a reasonably happy family but, once Naomi is gone, their apparently perfect life is over, and the tension and suspicions slowly escalates to a controversial conclusion.  The author is especially skillful depicting some minor characters: Jenny’s kindhearted partner in her medical practice, Michael the police/family liaison officer, and a dreadful mother whose daughter was Naomi’s friend – neither mother nor daughter is very willing to help with the investigation.  Parts of the book were very painful to read.

I found Jenny and her family all quite unlikeable.  I don’t require engaging characters in order to enjoy a book but their lack of appeal kept me at a distance and prevented me from being very emotionally involved in Naomi’s disappearance.  To me, that is usually where Jodi Picoult is so successful: even with some of her more outlandish plots, I am usually sufficiently captivated by the people in jeopardy that I can’t stop reading.  Here, I felt sorry for Jenny but I didn’t agonize over her pain.  On the other hand, I did care what happened to her and am indignant on her behalf that the she had very ineffective investigators on the case, not to mention a useless husband.  Overall, an entertaining summer read, helped by the fact that the author is a doctor herself.

Source: I received The Daughter from the TLC Book Tours and invite you to visit the tour to read other reviews of this book.