Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books for the End (of the Year)


It's December 1st.  Can you believe it?  Even though 2020 seems to be lasting for eons, there are only 31 days left in the year.  Inconceivable!  I don't know about you, but I'm scrambling to figure out how I'm going to finish everything I need to do before 2020 disappears forever.  My house is only half decorated for the holidays, I've got Christmas cards to address and mail (I did print them early, so at least that part's done), there are presents to buy, a house to clean, preparations to make for my son's wedding on January 2, a mountain of laundry to tackle, etc.  Despite my never-ending to-do list, what's really on my mind is how I'm going to finish out my reading year.  Priorities, amirite?  My goal was to read 200 books in 2020 and I'm only 30 away.  I read over 30 books in October, so reaching my goal is doable, if not probable.  We'll see.  

What would I like to read in December?  Good question.  I've still got a list of middle grade novels to read for my Cybils judging gig as well as a number I need in order to finish up a few reading challenges.  Then, of course, there are a bunch I'd like to get to just for fun.  *Sigh*  So many books, so little time ...  

Today's Top Ten Tuesday prompt is Books I'd Like to Re-read.  Since I'm not much of a re-reader and I actually posted about this topic in September, I'm going to be rebellious today and focus instead on the Top Ten Books I Want to Read Before 2020 Ends.  If you want to join in the TTT fun, hop on over to That Artsy Reader Girl for all the info.

Top Ten Books I Want to Read Before 2020 Ends  


1.  The Loop by Ben Oliver—I don't read much sci-fi, but I need a book featuring robots or AI characters for the PopSugar Reading Challenge.  This YA novel, about a teen boy incarcerated in a futuristic prison run by robot guards, sounds compelling.


2.  Beauty and the Baron by Joanna Barker—I enjoyed Barker's 2018 debut novel and have been meaning to pick up another by her ever since.  Beauty and the Baron, the first installment in her new fairy tale retellings series, sounds like a light, fun read to enjoy in December.  It will also fill the "Retelling" prompt for the Nerd Daily Reading Challenge.


3.  Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham—Earlier this year, I read The Blackbird Girls by Anne Blankman, a MG novel about two young girls whose lives change forever after the explosion at Chernobyl.  The setting was intriguing, making me want to learn more about this historical event.  Midnight in Chernobyl gets good reviews and fulfills the "Genre You Don't Usually Read" prompt for the Booklist Queen Reading Challenge.


4.  The Woman Who Spoke to Spirits by Alys Clare—This Victorian mystery novel just sounds fun!


5.  Christmas Day in the Morning adapted by David Warner from the original story by Pearl S. Buck—I received a copy of this book from the publisher a month ago.  It's a slim holiday story about a man looking back on the gift that brought Christmas joy back into his life.  


6.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens—Speaking of re-reads, this is the only book I revisit every year.  It's a quick read but one that always moves me and gets me into the Christmas spirit.


7.  Why We Can't Sleep: Women's New Mid-Life Crisis by Ada Calhoun—I've been fascinated by sleeping and dreaming ever since I was a nap-resistant child.  These days, I can barely make it through the day without a midday snooze, although I often have trouble sleeping at night.  I'm interested to see what Calhoun has to say on the matter.


8.  The Power of Ritual: How to Create Meaning and Connection in Everything You Do by Casper ter Kuile—I was looking for a good motivational book to pump me up for the new year and I came across this one.  Not only does it sound inspirational, but it will work nicely to fulfill the "Self-Improvement Book" prompt for the Booklist Queen Reading Challenge.


9.  Lockdown by Peter May—I enjoy May's books, so I definitely want to make time for this one, which was published 15 years ago but just re-released.  It's a murder mystery set against a familiar background: a city in quarantine because of a deadly virus that's creating a worldwide pandemic.  Even though I'm tired of living in a pandemic, I still find them fascinating to read about.


10.  The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim—I've heard good things about this novel, which features a woman who visits her mother in L.A.'s Koreatown only to find her mom dead in a suspicious manner.  In her shock and sorrow, the daughter begins looking into her mother's death, which leads her on a journey of discovery into her mother's past as a Korean War orphan trying to make her way in California.  I'm definitely intrigued!   

There you go, ten books I want to read this month.  What are you planning to read in December?  How are you doing with your 2020 reading goals?  What do you think of my choices?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!

Monday, November 30, 2020

Fiddler on the Roof "Sequel" Lacks Warmth and Charm of Original

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I am convinced that what joins all humanity together is our capacity to endure.  Endurance is the condition under which we may feel both the glory of our distinctiveness and the depths of our sameness.  Endurance, which is distinct from suffering ... endurance unites us.  Endurance that is, thus, holy" (315).

One of my favorite musicals of all time is the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof.  I've never read the books by Sholem Aleichem on which the movie is based, nor seen the beloved Broadway play that preceded the motion picture, but I love the story of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman, who clings desperately to tradition while the modern world marches on in spite of him.  No matter how many times I watch it, the movie never fails to move me.  I laugh, I cry, I sing along ... it's just a gem of a film.  The motion picture ends with Tevye and what's left of his family and Jewish community being forced out of Anatevka, their ancestral home, in the wake of violent "demonstrations" against them by Russian soldiers.  Although the story arc feels complete, it leaves a compelling question:  What happens to them all after they leave Anatevka?

Alexandra Silber, who played Hodel—one of Tevye's daughters—on stage, often wondered what happened to her character after the events portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof.  She decided to answer that question for herself with After Anatevka.  Although the novel drops in on Tevye and his other family members, it focuses on Hodel and her fiancé, Perchik Tselenovich.  In Fiddler, Perchik is arrested for his radical ideas and exiled to Siberia.  After Anatevka starts where the movie leaves off, with Hodel journeying to Siberia to find her love, who is imprisoned in a labor camp.  Although she begs for his freedom, Hodel's pleas fall on deaf ears.  All she can do is stay near Perchik and wait patiently for his release.  How long will it take?  Will the two ever be able to marry and live happily ever after?

As you can probably tell from the skimpy story summary, not a whole lot happens in After Anatevka.  With no real plot, the tale drones on and on, with little action to keep it interesting.  The characters are not well developed, which makes it tough to feel connected to them.  Especially since there are so many of them.  Keeping all of Perchik's labor camp friends straight is a losing battle!  I did finish the book since I wanted to know what would happen to Hodel and Perchik, but considering how it ends, the whole novel just feels pointless.  For me, it ended up being a slow, depressing, dissatisfying slog.  I did enjoy Hodel's memories of life with her family in Anatevka—those flashbacks brought the warmth, humor, and heart of Fiddler on the Roof to the story, which lacks it otherwise.  Without those things, After Anatevka just doesn't have the charm it needs to be a worthy Fiddler companion.  Bummer.   

(Readalikes:  I can't really think of anything.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a few F-bombs, plus milder expletives), violence, blood/gore, sexual content, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Classic Or Not, I'd Give This Gothic Novel a Pass

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Mrs. Maxim de Winter was working as a lady's maid to a wealthy busybody on vacation in Monte Carlo when she met Maxim.  Although she was shy and awkward, the dashing widower took an interest in her.  In a surreal twist of fate, she found herself married to him just a few weeks later.  Now, she's the mistress of Manderly, a sprawling mansion on the Cornish coast.  With no experience as a wife or a woman with means, she's intimidated by both her formidable new home and her position within it.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is cold and unwelcoming, obviously finding the current Mrs. de Winter no match at all for her predecessor.  Everyone, in fact, seems obsessed with Maxim's deceased first wife, Rebecca.  Her successor becomes just as fixated.  Who was Rebecca?  Why does she still have such a hold over Maxim and his associates?  Most importantly, what really happened to her?  The new Mrs. de Winter would very much like to know ...

I'm always up for a creepy Gothic novel and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a genre classic.  I'd never read it before, but lots of people love it, so I finally decided to give it a go.  It's definitely an atmospheric tale, with an eerie, unsettling vibe that kept me feeling on edge throughout.  That was my favorite part of the story by far.  Plotwise, Rebecca moves at a glacial pace, with so much extraneous information that I yawned through a good 70% of the book.  It picks up toward the end, wrapping up with an odd, abrupt ending that had me wondering if my copy of the novel was missing some pages.  The finale is satisfying, I guess, in that it's about unlikable people getting what they deserve.  While Rebecca is more layered than it first appears to be, making some sharp and subtle observations about identity, marriage, and the subjugation of women, I found it to be a long, dull slog featuring repellant characters that I didn't care for at all.  I didn't end up totally hating the book, but I certainly did not love it.  Even if you adore Gothic novels, I'd recommend giving this one a pass.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a little of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Rebecca with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Chernobyl Middle-Grade Novel Engrossing and Enlightening

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Neither Valentina Kaplan nor Oksana Savchenko think much about what it means to live next to a nuclear power plant or the fact that their fathers perform dangerous jobs inside.  The Ukrainian government has assured its citizens that Chernobyl is infallible, Pripyat a perfectly safe place to live.  No one would dare question anything the authorities say.  So Valentina and Oksana, along with their families, neighbors, and friends give their safety little thought, going about their daily lives as they always have.  Until April 26, 1986.  When a reactor inside the plant explodes, killing both the girls' fathers, and releasing massive clouds of radiation into the air, their lives change forever.

As a Jew, 11-year-old Valentina has long been bullied by Oksana.  So, she's not happy when her mother takes charge of her nemesis in the chaos after the explosion.  She's even less thrilled when both girls are pushed onto a train in a desperate attempt to get them out of Ukraine and into Leningrad, where they will wait out the disaster with Valentina's estranged grandmother.  Thrust into a strange new world, the girls are forced to rely on each other as they work through their shock and grief to face an unknown future.  As they spend more time together, they come to see each other in a new light, even becoming friends.  When disturbing secrets are revealed, it becomes clear that Oksana's fate lies in Valentina's hands.  How far will one girl go to save another?  Is Valentina willing to risk her own life for someone who spent years bullying her?  How strong is the girls' tenuous friendship really, when push comes to shove?  

I know little about the Chernobyl explosion, so I was excited when I discovered The Blackbird Girls, Anne Blankman's newest historical novel.  The story, written for a middle-grade audience, paints a grim but interesting picture of life in communist Ukraine and Russia.  It features two sympathetic, admirable heroines, both of whom grow as characters throughout the novel.  Their story is full of tension and suspense, which makes the tale a compelling one.  While The Blackbird Girls deals with some difficult, disturbing subjects, overall it's a hopeful book that teaches important lessons about the danger of stereotyping, the value of independent thinking, the joy of finding good even in troubled times, and the saving power of friendship and found family.  Set in an intriguing period of history, The Blackbird Girls is a moving novel that is both educational and engrossing.  I enjoyed it.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't think of anything.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, scenes of peril, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Cozy Series Opener Too Far-Fetched and Silly

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Macy Hatfield's at loose ends after divorcing her cheating husband of seven years.  When her older brother suggests she join him in a new business venture, she jumps at the chance to start over in the little West Virginia town where they were raised.  Macy's excited to make the Barks and Beans Café—a coffee shop with a special area for shelter dogs needing homes—a success.  Not only will she and Bo be serving delicious joe, but they will be helping needy animals.

When the golf instructor at a local spiritual retreat facility is found dead, his Great Dane is left an orphan.  Macy's immediately taken with the giant pup, who becomes her ward.  When she finds a mysterious message under Coal's collar, she begins to wonder if the purebred dog was the reason his owner died.  Worried for the animal's safety, Macy vows to figure out who killed Gerard Fontaine before it's too late for her precious new pet.

I needed a book set in West Virginia for the Literary Escapes reading challenge, so I grabbed No Filter by Heather Day Gilbert, the first book in a cozy mystery series.  Just as I suspected, it's a quick, easy read that was engaging enough to keep me reading.  Unfortunately, the plot is far-fetched and silly, with a killer who's pretty obvious from the get-go.  The characters, including the siblings at the story's center, have little personality, which makes them feel bland and generic.  So, while I appreciated No Filter for being a clean, easy read, I only continued with it because of its setting.  I won't be moving on with the series ... unless, of course, I need a West Virginia book for next year's challenge ... 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other cozy mysteries, although no particular title or series is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence and scenes of peril

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Gut-Wrenching Murder Mystery a Hard But Heartfelt Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Police officer Michaela "Mickey" Fitzpatrick is well-acquainted with the toll opioid addiction takes on not just its victims but also on their families and communities.  Abandoned by their junkie parents, she and her sister, Kacey, were left to be raised by their cruel, resentful grandmother.  Now 33, Mickey works a high crime beat in Kensington, one of the worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia.  Not only is she on the lookout for dangerous behavior, but she keeps her eyes constantly peeled for Kacey.  An addict who pays for her habit by turning tricks, Kacey no longer keeps in touch with her sister.  Which doesn't stop Mickey from worrying about her every day.

Mickey's used to not seeing her sister for weeks on end, but when a spate of murders are committed against street women in Kensington and Kacey is nowhere to be found, Mickey starts to fear the worst.  Mickey's frantic search for both the killer and her sister becomes a dangerous obsession that puts her right in the path of a vicious murderer.  No matter the cost, Mickey refuses to back down.  She knows all too well how dispensable street junkies are—she won't let her sister and others like her slip through the cracks.  Even if it means risking everything to save Kacey.

As you can imagine, Long Bright River by Liz Moore is not an easy read.  Not at all.  It's raw and disturbing, heartbreaking and gut-wrenching.  It's also important and impactful.  Moore has spent a lot of time in Kensington and it shows.  The story rings with authenticity.  While it tells a difficult tale, the novel is a heartfelt one, woven through with sensitivity and sympathy.  Anyone who's dealt with a family member in the throes of addiction will identify with Mickey's plight.  Told in chapters alternating between the past and present, Long Bright River is not just a gripping thriller, but also an engrossing family drama, which gives the story a layered depth that makes it more than just a murder mystery.  Relevant and riveting, it's a hard but unforgettable read.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Before I Let You Go by Kelly Rimmer, Heroine by Mindy McGinnis, and the Bell Elkins series by Julia Keller)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, blood/gore, disturbing subject matter, and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: There Is Always, Always Something to be Grateful For


November is a busy, busy month in my household.  Three of my four children were born in November (although none of them were due then), there's Thanksgiving, and this year, I hosted a bridal shower at my home for my daughter-in-law to be.  This month always brings a flurry of activity which really doesn't let up until mid-January, but it's also the time when I reflect most on the things in life for which I am grateful.  This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic—Thanksgiving/Thankfulness Freebie—goes right along with that. 

Although I'm a religious person, I don't bring up the topic very often on this blog.  However, I want to share with you this short, beautiful video that was released a few days ago by Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I, and others of my faith, believe him to be a prophet of the Lord.  Whether or not you see him that way, I can assure you that he is a man of intelligence, experience, and wisdom.  I love the things he says in this video, especially his message about gratitude.  In the video, he gives listeners a challenge to flood our social media channels with posts about the things and people we are grateful for.  Because many of my friends and family members are members of my faith, my Facebook feed has been overwhelmed with beautiful, inspiring, funny, thought-provoking, and moving messages of thanksgiving.  It's been lovely—a vast improvement over all the hateful, divisive political posts that dominated social media earlier this month.  I urge you to watch this little video and find your own ways to #GiveThanks:


What am I thankful for?
  • My family.  I'm grateful to have grown up in a loving household with two kind, supportive parents and five siblings, all of whom have taught me valuable lessons.  I'm also thankful for a husband who is loving, devoted, hardworking, and kind.  Although they have given me lots of gray hairs, I'm also grateful for my four children.
  • My faith.  I have a firm testimony of God and my Savior, Jesus Christ.  This sustains me through good times and bad.
  • My country.  It's far from perfect, but I'm proud to be an American and am grateful for all the freedoms I'm afforded here.
  • My roots.  I love researching my family history and am grateful for the lives and many sacrifices of those who came before me.
  • My health.  Although I'm not going to lie and say I'm grateful for Type 1 Diabetes, I am thankful for the science and technology that allows me to take medicine and use devices to make my disease easier to manage. 
  • My friends.  I'm not a super social person, but I do have some good friends who have brought joy, laughter, and needed support into my life.  
  • Books.  Reading has been something I've enjoyed throughout my life.  I'm grateful for the abundance of books that are available and the ease of acquiring them!
  • Simple conveniences.  Seriously.  What would I do without air conditioning, microwaves, indoor plumbing, computers, etc.?
  • Nature.  I'm an indoorsy kind of girl, but I can still appreciate the beauty of an Arizona sunset, a sky full of stars, a majestic waterfall, autumn leaves, and more.
  • YOU.  I'm grateful for all of  you who take the time to read my blog, make comments, recommend books, and share a little piece of yourself and your world with me.  I appreciate it more than you know.
There you go, ten things I'm thankful for.  What about you?  What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving?  I'd truly love to know.  Leave me a comment on this post and I will gladly return the favor on your blog.

Happy TTT!

Monday, November 23, 2020

Historical Family Drama Another Heartfelt Story from Chamberlain

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Even though there's a terrible war raging in Europe, 25-year-old Tess DeMello is safe in her tight-knit Little Italy neighborhood living a happy, contented life.  She's engaged to her childhood sweetheart, pursuing a career as a nurse, and looking forward to a future full of love, adventure, and joy.  In a moment of weakness, however, her life is changed forever.  She finds herself pregnant with a stranger's baby.  Kicked out of her home by her mother, Tess is alone and terrified.  With no other choice, she breaks off her engagement, leaves school, and flees to North Carolina, where she'll beg her baby's father for enough money to start a new life in some far-flung city.  

To Tess' surprise, 27-year-old Henry Kraft suggests they marry and raise their baby together in his tiny hometown of Hickory.  While this seems like the perfect solution, Tess soon finds that an opinionated Italian woman from Baltimore is not exactly what Henry's family and friends had in mind for him.  While she does finally find some purpose and acceptance by volunteering at a polio hospital, her strained relationship with Henry brings only distress and worry.  Not only is he definitely concealing something from her, but he treats Tess with politeness rather than affection.  What is he hiding?  What will it take for a regretful Tess to find happiness in her strange new life?

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain is a compelling novel set in an interesting time period and populated with complex, well-drawn characters.  None of them are perfect—all are authentically flawed.  While not all of them are likable, their individual conflicts and dramas keep the story engrossing, even when the plot gets a bit predictable.  The tale did throw me at least one curveball, though, which led to a surprise ending that I loved.  While I didn't end up absolutely adoring The Stolen Marriage, overall, I found it heartfelt, intriguing, and, ultimately, hopeful. 

(Readalikes:  Reminds me a lot of Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain and a little of At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), mild sexual content, and violence

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

Friday, November 20, 2020

Forthcoming Psychological Thriller Riveting From First Page to Last

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

The Pine Family of Adair, Nebraska, already knows what it means to be infamous.  Four years ago, 25-year-old Danny Pine was convicted of murdering his girlfriend and sent to prison.  The family refused to accept the verdict, launching an expensive, fevered campaign to free him.  A Netflix documentary about the case cast even more doubt on Danny's guilt, bolstering the Pines but vilifying the community of Adair.  Now, the family is in the news again.  Four of the Pines—Danny's parents and two of his siblings—have been found dead in a Mexican vacation home, victims of an apparent gas leak.

Besides Danny, 21-year-old Matt is the only Pine left.  Devastated by this fresh loss, he leaves NYU and returns to Adair to bury his family.  What he finds is a hostile town and a barrage of painful memories he'd like to forget.  When FBI agent Sarah Keiler comes knocking on Matt's door, Matt realizes there's more to the deaths of his parents and siblings than meets the eye.  What really happened to them?  Why were they targeted?  As it becomes increasingly apparent that their deaths are related to Danny's case, Matt fears the truth about what really happened the night Danny's girlfriend was killed will inevitably come to light.  If it does, everyone will know the horrifying truth that Matt has kept hidden for four years—Danny is guilty.  Can Matt get justice for his family without betraying his brother?

Told from multiple viewpoints, Every Last Fear by Alex Finlay (available March 2, 2021), is more than just an edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller.  It's a layered, intimate portrayal of a family in crisis, a story that draws you into the characters' world, paints them in an authentic, sympathetic way, and leaves you dreading the tragedies you know are about to befall them.  Knowing their fates doesn't make the novel less compelling, however.  If anything it makes it even more engrossing.  True, the plot is a bit predictable, with a rather obvious killer, but still, it's a gripping thriller that had me ripping through the pages to see what was going to happen next.  Although Every Last Fear is not a happy tale, it is a hopeful one, which made it even more appealing to me.  In the end, then, I enjoyed this absorbing novel, which kept me riveted from its first page to its last.  

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, violence, mild sexual content, depictions of illegal drug use, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Every Last Fear from the generous folks at St. Martin's Press via those at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Goldin's Newest Another Ho-Hum Psychological "Thriller"

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Ever since Rachel Krall's true crime podcast went viral, she's been searching for ever more interesting content to keep her listeners engaged.  Now, she's on her way to Neapolis, North Carolina, where a headline-grabbing trial is about to begin.  The town golden boy, 16-year-old Scott Blair, is accused of raping Kelly Moore, the teenaged granddaughter of Neapolis' beloved police chief.  Everyone has an opinion about the alleged crime, an event so shocking that it's tearing the town apart.

Rachel hasn't even arrived in Neapolis before she finds a note on her car pleading for her help.  Hannah Stills is begging the podcaster to look into her sister's suspicious death 25 years ago.  Although Jenny Stills' death was officially ruled an accidental drowning, Hannah knows the truth: Jenny was murdered.  Rachel is Hannah's last hope for finding the truth.  Intrigued, Rachel agrees to take the case.  She will find out what really happened to Jenny Stills, even if it means putting herself in the path of a killer whose identity has been kept secret for more than two decades.

On its surface, The Night Swim by Megan Goldin looks like the kind of thriller I go ga-ga over.  Small-town secrets?  Check.  Moody, broody beach setting?  Check.  Intriguing mystery?  Check, check.  These elements were not only what drew me to the book, but they were also the things that kept me reading it.  I certainly wasn't in it for the characters.  The Night Swim's cast features story people who are mostly unlikable, Rachel included.  There's nothing repellant about our heroine (except that she exploits other people's tragedies for ratings), but there's nothing super laudable either.  Perhaps this is because we don't really get to know Rachel well.  Goldin includes little information about the podcaster's past or why she's so interested in true crime, which made me wonder why she was in the novel at all.  Hannah would have made a much better narrator for this story.  Add choppy prose and a predictable plotline to these complaints and you can see why The Night Swim was just an average read for me.  I kept reading because I wanted to know how both mysteries would play out, but in the end, I just didn't end up loving The Night Swim like I thought it would.  Or really at all.  Bummer.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of dozens of other thrillers, although no particular title is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder expletives), violence, disturbing subject matter, and depictions of underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Night Swim with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Third Victorian Mystery Another Entertaining Installment In An Always Enjoyable Series

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note:  While this review will not contain spoilers for Death in Kew Gardens, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Kat Halloway mysteries.  As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Although Kat Halloway doesn't run into a lot of Chinese people in her neighborhood, the London cook thinks little about a chance encounter with "Mr. Li" on the streets of Mayfair.  It's only when her next door neighbor is stabbed to death in his bedchamber that she realizes she may have come face-to-face with his killer.  As an "Old China Hand," Jacob Harkness claimed to be an expert on China.  His posh home is filled with treasures he's purloined from the Orient.  Was Mr. Li trying to reclaim a stolen relic?  Or was his motive more sinister?  Did Mr. Li truly murder Mr. Harkness as everyone believes?

With more sympathy toward Mr. Li than Mr. Harkness, Kat sets about to prove the Chinese man's innocence with the help of her enigmatic friend Daniel McAdam.  She's sure Mr. Li didn't kill Mr. Harkness.  But if he didn't, who did?

I've enjoyed every installment in Jennifer Ashley's Victorian mystery series starring Kat Halloway.  Death in Kew Gardens—the third book—is no exception.  Kat and Daniel make a fun detecting duo.  They're both kind, likable, and always up for an adventure.  The mystery at the heart of Death in Kew Gardens isn't super original and the killer isn't much of a surprise, but still, this is an enjoyable mystery.  There's enough suspense to keep the story moving and the upstairs/downstairs dynamic adds a layer of intriguing tension to the tale.  As with the previous books in this series, Death in Kew Gardens is clean, upbeat, well-written and entertaining.  

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for mild language (no F-bombs) and violence

To the FTC, with love:  I received a copy of Death in Kew Gardens from the generous folks at Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you! 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Children's Blizzard Devastating, Deeply Impactful

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

In the late 19th Century, the Great Plains region of the United States was inhabited mostly by European immigrants lured to the area by exaggerated claims of lush, fertile land free for the taking.  In reality, living on the desolate prairie was tough.  The land was unyielding, the weather was harsh, and surviving it all was a daily struggle.  Far from the Garden of Eden promised to unsuspecting settlers, it was more like Hell on Earth.  Just as a new year, 1888, dawned, a number of unfortunate circumstances—including immigrants' ignorance of the fickleness and ferocity of winter weather on the Great Plains—combined to create a devastating tragedy known today as The Children's Blizzard.  

After a bitter cold spell on the plains, January 12 was a welcome gift.  The day brought unusually warm temperatures, prompting delighted homesteaders all over the region to shuck off their heavy winter gear and flock outside to handle chores and errands that had been put off because of inclement weather.  To everyone's shock, the pleasant day turned suddenly savage when a blizzard whipped in out of nowhere bringing freezing temperatures, blinding snow, and a chilling wind.  Because the storm descended just as schoolchildren were being dismissed for the day, dozens of kids became stranded in the melee, some freezing to death almost instantly.  Whiteout conditions meant many perished only yards away from safety.  Over 200 people, as well as countless animals, were killed that day, making the storm one of the deadliest in America's history.

Melanie Benjamin's newest novel, which tells the story of the devastating storm, will be published on January 12, 2021, the 133rd anniversary of the tragic event.  The Children's Blizzard focuses on three teenage girls, two of whom are schoolteachers.  All three of them make different choices on that fateful day.  Afterward, one will be lauded as a hero, one will be shunned by her community, and one will become a reluctant celebrity.  Every one of them will be forever changed by what transpires when a surprise storm ravages their lives.  

Although the trio of girls at the center of The Children's Blizzard are all fictional, their experiences are composites of what real people went through on January 12, 1888.  Thus, the tales are intimate, shocking, and heart-wrenching.  Benjamin's expert storytelling definitely brings the tragedy to vivid life, creating a moving and memorable tale that will stick with you long after you close the book.  While I found the novel gripping in many ways, I would have liked fewer narrators telling the story so that I could feel more connected to the main characters.  Not all of them are likable, but they're all complex, interesting, and authentic.  Plotwise, the novel loses most of its steam after the storm ends.  It seems to have nowhere to go at that point, which makes the story feel unfinished.  Despite these small irritants, all in all, I found The Children's Blizzard engrossing and enlightening.  It's a devastating book, but one that makes a definite impact.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of The Children's Blizzard from the generous folks at Penguin Random House via those at NetGalley.  Thank you!

Hannah Backlist Book Not My Favorite, But Compelling Nonetheless

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Meredith Cooper and Nina Whitson have never understood their cold, emotionless mother.  They know little about her, always having preferred the company of their warm, loving father.  On his deathbed, he pleads with his grown daughters to make a last effort to break through their mother's defenses and really get to know her.  Mired in grief, Anya Whitson is as impenetrable as ever.  Instead of reaching out to her children for comfort, she spins them a familiar Russian fairy tale that has nothing at all to do with Anya's past ... or does it?  As her story sweeps from grim, war-torn Leningrad to modern-day Alaska, unfolding shocking secrets, Meredith and Nina finally get a glimpse of what their mother has suffered and what it has meant for all of their lives.  Will that understanding finally enable them to forge some kind of a relationship with one another?  Or has too much damage been done to ever find reconciliation?

Because of rich, epic novels like The Nightingale and The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah has become an author I watch closely.  Her backlist books haven't impressed me as much as her newer offerings, but I've still enjoyed several of them.  Published a decade ago, Winter Garden offers the kind of intriguing, family-secrets premise that always grabs my attention.  Its execution is a little rough, though.  The characters are difficult to like, especially Anya, whose aloofness toward her children seems extreme even in light of the tragedy she experienced prior to their births.  Her daughters are both self-centered people, although they do experience clarity and growth throughout the story.  In addition, the novel moves at a glacial pace, without the suspense I expected to be woven through the narrative.  The pacing picks up toward the end as Anya's secrets are revealed, but it does become a bit of a slog before that.  I'm not much for fairy tales, so that element of the novel really didn't work for me.  Still and all, I found Winter Garden compelling.  It's devastating, heartbreaking, and touching.  While it's far from my favorite Hannah novel, I did enjoy it for the most part.

(Readalikes:  Hm, I can't really think of anything.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives), mild sexual content, violence, blood/gore, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of Winter Garden with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Debut Psychological Thriller Lacks That Special "Something"

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As the author of a popular book on how to leave an abusive partner and host of a radio talk show on the same subject, psychologist Faith Finley has helped hundreds of people flee bad situations.  She's a respected psychologist living a successful, happy life with her loving husband, Liam.  Then, there's a car accident.  Faith wakes up in the hospital to foggy memories of the crash and a horrifying question:  Where is Liam?  She insists he was in the vehicle with her, but authorities can find no sign of him.  It seems to them as if he's done a runner, quietly slipping out of a life he no longer wants.  Faith refuses to believe that.  Something terrible happened to her husband and she wants to know what.

Then, Faith starts receiving threatening notes in the form of pages ripped from her book advising things like "Consider investing in a steel door."  Between the unsettling notes and a crisis at work, she can barely cope.  Self-medicating with alcohol and pills, Faith is hardly at her best.  Still, she won't rest until she knows once and for all what happened to Liam.  Even if it means putting herself in the path of a dangerous stalker.

Psychological thrillers are a dime a dozen these days.  It takes something special to really make one stand out over all the others.  Unfortunately, Someone's Listening, a debut novel by filmmaker Seraphina Nova Glass, just doesn't have that something.  The novel's premise is simple but intriguing.  I found it compelling enough to keep reading, even though the story suffered from predictability and uneven pacing.  My biggest beef was with Faith herself.  Not only is she unconvincing as a psychologist, but she's also unappealing as a person.  I'm not sure why I found her so unlikable; I just did.  It was difficult for me to connect with her, making it hard to care what happened to her.  All these things considered, I ended up not loving Someone's Listening.  It was just an average read for me.  

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other psychological thrillers, although no specific titles are coming to mind.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for strong language, violence, sexual content, and depictions of illegal drug use (marijuana)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of Someone's Listening from the generous folks at HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!

Saturday, November 14, 2020

With Or Without You? I'll Take Without.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

For the twenty years Stella Davison has been with her husband, Simon, she's consistently put her dreams on hold in order to help him pursue his.  While his band has had some success over the years, Simon has never achieved the fame and fortune he craves.  Stella's done with the dying dream.  At 42, she's desperate to start the family she's put off having because of Simon's single-minded pursuit of celebrity.  Already at odds, Stella and Simon may not be able to survive as their rapidly diverging needs and wants slowly destroy their marriage.

On the night before Simon plans to board a plane for L.A. for what he's sure is going to be his big break, Stella accidentally overdoses, putting herself in a coma.  Staying by his wife's side means Simon misses out on a major opportunity.  He also becomes close to Stella's best friend, Libby.  When Stella awakens after two months, everything has changed.  Not only has she been betrayed by the two people she loves most, but she's also developed a surprising new talent for portraiture.  Can Stella figure out how to get along in her strange, new world?  Does she want to go back to her old life?  Or is it finally time to break out and forge her own path?

I'm not sure what to say about With Or Without You by Caroline Leavitt.  My feelings about the novel are about as ambivalent as its title.  Actually, I veer more toward without since I just didn't love this one.  The book has no real plot, so its focus is really on the characters.  I can't say I loved any of the three people at its center, although there were times in the novel when I both liked and loathed all of them.  They feel like real people, authentic in their weakness and vulnerability.  They do all experience growth in the novel, which adds to their humanness.  Because With Or Without You is basically plotless, it feels long and unfocused, even downright dull in places.  So, while I appreciated the story's insights on aging, forgiveness, letting go, selfishness, etc., overall, With Or Without You was just an average read for me.  Bummer.

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing is coming to mind.  You?)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language, sexual content, and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love:  I received an e-ARC of With Or Without You from the generous folks at Algonquin Books.  Thank you!

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