Sunday, January 21, 2018

This Love Story Will Self-Destruct by Leslie Cohen

Ah, relationships.  Relationships in our twenties.  Fun times.  Some of us are still with that person we met in our younger years, and have had a lifetime of commitment, ups and downs, and more to come.  Some of us are just fresh in a relationship, and still figuring things out.  I think we all look back and examine  past relationships under a microscope, wondering how they shaped us, how they led us to where we are now, and the person we eventually found and loved. This novel, by first time author Leslie Cohen, reminded me of all of that relationship "stuff" that can drive us all crazy, but we can't help ourselves, sometimes.  

Eve and Ben attended Columbia College together, and were only vaguely aware of each other in a large group of friends and friends of friends.  Eve's relationship with Jesse is a bit of a mess, and while it causes some angst, it's what Eve expects in a relationship, and she's not comfortable without it. Plus, Jesse is a musician, and Eve wants to write about music. Seems like a natural match, but Jesse uses drugs, is full of angst, and has no problem being unfaithful to Eve and very noncommittal in a future together. 

Eve is a young woman who has definitely been affected by her childhood:  her father left when she was young, her mother died on 9/11, leaving Eve and her sister to have only each other and their stepfather, who has an apartment where the girls crash in-between jobs and apartments. She's a solitary figure surrounded by the hustle and bustle of New York City. 

Years later, Eve and Ben meet again at a bar with old college friends.  This time, they feel a connection.  Ben, a civil engineer, is working on the new Freedom Tower.  He's everything Eve doesn't want: stable, thoughtful, steadfast.  Yet somehow, through many stops and starts, they fall for each other.  But as we all know, relationships take work; they startle us sometimes with discoveries about our partner; sometimes we make bad choices and pay the consequences.  Just how much Eve grows and matures is evident as the novel moves along. Her deeply seated belief that if she anticipates bad things happening, they will happen and she'll be prepared, leads to bad decisions.  We all know that person who believes if they ever feel happy, something is sure to come along and ruin it.  Eve is that person.  Ben is not.  He calls things as they are, and lives in the here and now with a optimistic view of life.  

I would compare this novel to the novels of Rainbow Rowell.  It is more than a novel about young relationships, but also an ode to New York City, where anything is possible; to the generation who grew up with 9/11.  Mostly, I felt,  it speaks to everyone who is afraid to be happy. You deserve a healthy relationship. Get out of the one that's making you miserable. Enjoy the ride.  Love big.  Don't be afraid to be happy; it makes the hard times bearable.  

A big thank you to Simon & Schuster  and Gallery Books for a review copy.  This novel will be available for sale on January 23rd in the U.S in paperback and ebook.  

Rating:  4/6 for a modern look at love, and all the pitfalls the latest generation has to conquer.  A colorful, loud look at New York City, and the lingering devastation of 9/11 on our national psyche.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

That Time I Finally Read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Yes, I know this has been out for a few years.  I bought the hardcover as soon as it was released, and it sat on my bookcase.  I even picked it up at one point and read about 30 pages before putting it down.  Not because it's awful, not because the writing is bad or I couldn't connect to the characters.  I avoided it mostly because I adore Ruta Sepetys' novels, and they stomp on my heart every time.  I knew this would be the same. 

But, I finally sat down and read it this morning before work.  I've got a book club next week that is reading it, so I knew my time had come.  This is a young adult novel, but it packs a wallop.  Ruta's imagery, if written solely for an adult audience, could be taken up a notch in the graphic department, and cross over into just horrible scenes of death and destruction.  She writes for a young adult audience, and while for some the scenes of life being treated so cavalierly, so without worth or care, are disturbing, I find them even more so because of her spareness of words, and the matter of fact way she writes about them.  Growing up in a time of peace (Cold War as a child-yes, but nothing like a World War) in the United States, I simply cannot imagine how people not only survive(d) war, but how they cope with the after effects.  I just don't think I could bear it.  I don't imagine anyone thinks they can, but they do.  I marvel at that.  

This novel is told through four different people, all on the same mission.  It is early 1945; Russia is making huge inroads into German territory, and the end is near.  The Russian army is ruthless as they plunder, rob, murder, and rape across Poland, Lithuania, Prussia, and Germany.  It's a mad dash to the Baltic sea, where Germany is trying to conduct a massive evacuation of troops and German citizens before the Russians arrive.  In Salt to the Sea, we have Joana, a Lithuanian nursing student who is in German territory and trying to get to her family; Emilia, a Polish teenager hiding a terrible secret, who is rescued by Florian, a German young man who is also carrying a huge secret, and has been wounded by shrapnel. There is Alfred, who is a German solider with illusions of grandeur that become more and more outlandish. There's also Heinz, the shoe poet--an elderly shoemaker who has befriended a little boy (known as the wandering boy) on the road to safety.  There are a few other characters that round out this group of rag-tag refugees, starving, freezing, and trying to avoid both Russian and German troops, all while enduring bombing from Allied aircraft on a daily basis.  It's just simply intolerable, but tolerate it they do-the struggle to survive is fierce. Mistrust and  language barriers create a lot of tension between the characters, as they find themselves on the same journey to safety, but not knowing if it will be safety or death when they arrive.  I felt cold, tired, and worn out just reading about their journey.  

The novel takes places over, I'd say, a few weeks time.  Joana is so tough, so resourceful.  Emilia, bless her, just makes your heart ache.  Florian is torn between his duty--which is actually revenge--his growing feelings for Joana, and his reluctant concern for Emilia.  The shoe poet is a kind old man who sees all, and is the voice of wisdom through it all.  

All of this culminates in the short voyage and terrible tragedy of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship that was packed with 10,000 soldiers and refugees, and torpedoed by the Russians mere hours into their journey to safety.  Over 9,000 people died, in what is the worst maritime tragedy ever--outdoing the Titanic by thousands of lives lost.  Most people never stood a chance.  And guess where our characters have landed? On the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Who lives, and who dies?

Oh, this was such a good novel.  I unashamedly admit to crying at the end.  War is so damn ugly.  It destroys not only countries, but the best of humanity.  There is no bouncing back from experiencing war.  It stays with you forever.  I am so glad Ruta Sepetys finished this novel with closure that helped in the mourning process for me.  Yes, I actually had a bit of mourning for the characters.  I was very touched by this novel, and now I'm deeply interested in learning more about the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Unfortunately, there isn't much out there.  The Germans certainly didn't want anyone to know about such a blow to their empire, and the Russians could have cared less about the horrible death toll.  The Wilhelm Gustloff still lies at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, a massive grave to so many who were trapped as the ship went down within 10 minutes.  Thousands survived the initial sinking, only to die in the freezing waters.  Over 5,000 children perished.  Haunting.  

This is what I love about Ruta Septeys.  She writes history for young adults, but it's so very personal to her in her quest to understand her Eastern European roots.  It's some of the best historical fiction I've read. I am looking forward to her next novel, and have the patience to wait until she delivers it to the world.  

Rating:  5/6 for an amazing novel that culminates in the portrayal of the worst maritime disaster in history, where over 9,000 people perished the Wilhelm Gustloff sinking during World War 2.  She puts a face to the tragedy, the horror of war, and the decisions people make to survive and retain their humanity. You'll be turning towards history books and your computer to explore more after you've turned the last page.  

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

Well.  I told myself I wouldn't read anymore of the husband/wife/marriage/insanity/thriller genre that has become so dominant since Gone, Girl (which I haven't read, but I know the story).  I read a few last year that were pretty good, but I was satisfied with those few and decided that there wasn't much more that could be done that would surprise or even interest me.

Enter The Wife Between Us.  I seriously underestimated this novel.  While I did figure out one of the big twists early on, there were a few other twists that I didn't figure out, and when they were revealed, I looked like this: 


The story is told through alternating voices:  Vanessa and Nellie.  Vanessa is a mess.  She's divorced from Richard, living with her Aunt Charlotte in New York City, and is an alcoholic.  She works as a personal shopper at Saks and struggles to get to work on time and actually be present while she's there.  Her life is an unending routine of depression, sneaky drinking, and popping sleeping pills to conquer her insomnia.  She's not very likable.  She also seems obsessed with the woman who is newly engaged to Richard, and will be marrying him soon.

Nellie is a young, newly engaged woman who works as a preschool teacher in New York City.  She's excited and a bit nervous about leaving her job and her apartment to begin a new married life with...Richard.  He's nine years older, suave, handsome, and a big muckity muck who makes some serious cash in the New York financial world.  He is kind but controlling.

Vanessa, I wasn't a big fan for a big chunk of the book. I always have anger issues with female characters who let life rattle their cages so much that they become incapable of getting out of bed. I just wanted to shout at her.  Until I figured things out. Nellie certainly seemed very likable, but I felt sorry for her struggle to be herself while learning how to operate in Richard's much more sophisticated world. The issues she'd had in college that made her afraid to be alone and pretty much uneasy at every little noise made me think she just needed a good "put your big girl panties on and deal with it" kick in the pants.  I was wrong. I'd like to insert a swear word here: _______ you, Richard. You'll see. Just read the book. 

There are some pretty good twists in this story.  I can't possibly even begin to reveal anything at all, because I want you to enjoy the moments of discovery.  There's so much going on; I was constantly mentally apologizing to Vanessa and Nellie for thinking badly about them.  Yes, I was apologizing to fictitious women.  I will say, the ending is satisfactory, sad, and creepy.  The epilogue is a cherry on top of the sundae.  There are a whole lot of power struggles, mental manipulations, and just plain scare tactics happening throughout the story.  I know I'm being vague, but just trust me.  Read the book.  You'll enjoy it.  You'll especially enjoy the changes in Vanessa.  She finally walked past her fear and took control.  Bravo.

This novel will be for sale in the United States on Tuesday, January 9th.  Available in hardcover and ebook.  

Rating:  5/6 for a very clever novel about marriage, relationships, and the damage we do to each other. Fantastic--read it!
Thank you to St. Martin's Press for an advanced copy.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Sweet Tea and Sympathy (A Southern Eclectic Novel) by Molly Harper

I picked this novel out at my library and decided to read it last weekend while the temperature outside had a high of -10 (without the wind chill) and I went deep into hermit mode. I reluctantly left the house Sunday morning for a grocery run, and then returned, not leaving until Tuesday morning for work.  January through March, I prefer to stay home every night, out of the cold.  The bitter cold Iowa has had for the past week or so has made it even easier to just say "Nope, not going out!" and plopping myself on the couch.  I haven't even turned the TV on; preferring quiet and a good book. 

I recognized Molly Harper's name from the years of shelving romance novels at Barnes and Noble.  She's pretty popular, and has fun, paranormal romance down.  I may have even read one or two of her books in the past, so I was willing to give this one a try.  The subtitle: A Southern Eclectic Novel had me wondering just what the heck that was--does it go along with country sophistication?

I think I figured it out.  It just means you're going to read about a big family and a town that has some oddballs in it.  And yes, running a funeral home/bait shop is unusual.  Margot Clary lives in Chicago, and is a successful event planner, on the cusp of getting a huge promotion.  But then what should be a successful party turns into a disaster after the chef disregards her directions and serves shrimp to the crowd, not understanding that one of the big-wigs is allergic to shrimp in a horrible way.  Cue the allergic reaction, waiters tripping, fire starting, and media there to capture the whole disaster.  She's fired, and basically blackballed from the industry.  

Margot is saved by a phone call from her Aunt Tootie, living in Georgia in the small lakeside town of Sackett.  Margot's paternal cousins (and her father) are complete strangers to her, but she's got nowhere to go, and Tootie's offer of a full-time job and a place to live have Margot leaving Chicago for Georgia.  It's the typical big city girl moves to small, rural Southern town schtick, and there are no surprises here as Margot puts her foot in her mouth, dresses inappropriately for the hot, humid weather, and realizes she's actually working in the town's funeral parlor.  There is the hot principal that she meets on her second day in town; he's an intriguing guy.  There's Margot's difficult relationship with her father, who she hasn't heard from or seen since she was a very small child.  And there are the small town politics she needs to navigate.  It's a pretty formulaic novel with no surprises, but that's okay.  My only beef was that it seemed as if every character just had to be quirky and endearing in some way; I got exhausted and went looking for just a normal, small town character.  I didn't really find one.  But, I enjoyed the novel enough that I want to read the second in the series, coming out in June: Ain't She a Peach, which focuses on Frankie, Margot's cousin, the colorful and quirky mortician.  Yes, that's what I said: colorful and quirky mortician.

If you like to read light southern fiction with a big splash of romance, this is your cup of tea.  Or your glass of sweet tea.  

Rating:  3/6 for a light novel about finding family and your place, along with plenty of quirky characters and a small town struggling to survive.  I felt that there were too many quirky characters, and longed for just your average Joe.  I will, however, read the sequel, coming out in June.  Cause I'm quirky that way. :)

Available in paperback and ebook. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

A New Year, A New Reading Goal, and the Temptation of Gift Cards

My boyfriend is a pretty wonderful man. Every year for the past 15 years, he has given me gift cards to Barnes & Noble at Christmas.  I always ask for them, because I want to play it safe and make sure they're on my list.  He's generous, but it still only it takes me about one month to spend all the gift cards.  Last year I made it to mid-February.  This year I'm going to try and stretch them out to at least April.  Working at a public library helps keep my spending down, but I still can have a hard time controlling myself at a bookstore.  

2018...you're the year I will read new titles, but also tackle my bookcases.  They are now filled with more books that I haven't read than books I've read. That is a problem. I can't give any away to friends until I've read them. Trust me, I've tried to pick out books I could give away, but I just can't do it without reading them first.  Pulling from my bookcases, here's what I'm going to read this month:

Ready to give Nora Robert's futuristic tale a try.

Reading for a book group.  Love Ruta Sepetys; I know it's going to be a tissue kind of novel. 

A fun romance and first in a series--and my only library book on the list!

Book review for publisher.  Intrigued. 

Book review for publisher.  And heck yes, I can't wait to read it!
I'd better get cracking.  Look for the review to Still Me later this month, as the novel will be published in the U.S. on January 30th.  

As for my reading goal this year, I'm sticking to 100 books.  I always do a much better job of focusing when I've got a solid goal to reach for, and this year is no different.  Now to just have some discipline with those gift cards...

Happy Reading Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Top Ten Reads of 2017: I Even Surprised Myself

I never have an easy time picking my top ten.  I usually have a few in mind that I know without a doubt will be on the list. Others sneak up on me when I'm looking at my list and remembering how I felt about the books after I'd read them.  So even books that got a better rating than others may not show up on the list, merely because I'm contrary and might pick something with a lower rating that had a greater impact on me in the long run.  

This year I'm including a short list of honorable mentions.  Books that I really enjoyed, but didn't quite make the top ten because it's a top ten and not a top fifteen or twenty.  I have to stop myself somewhere!

Here are the honorable mentions, in no particular order:

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert.  Great historical fiction about leprosy and Hawaii.

The Lies She Told by Cate Holohan.  A story within a story, with plenty of plot twists to keep you turning the pages. 

Nutshell by Ian McEwan.  A novel told from the perspective of an unborn baby who hears his mother and her lover plotting the murder of his father.  Brilliant.  

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston.  A non-fiction adventure into the jungles of Honduras looking for a legendary lost city.  

Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village by Louis de Bernieres.  Each chapter is a story about the folks who live in an English village.  Funny, moving, and hard to put down. 

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall.  An elderly mother raises her daughter by herself, whipping up margaritas and being sassy.  A look at mother-daughter relationships.  You'll get a kick out of Polly.

The Last to See Me by M. Dressler.  An unusual ghost story.  

Caroline:  Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller. A retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Caroline's point of view.  It was refreshing to be inside Ma's head.  At first I had trouble getting into it, but by the end I was tearing up as they left their little house in Kansas Territory. She was one tough lady!

And Now...The Top Ten of 2017

This was hard!  Although I think it's a very good thing when there are too many fantastic books to pick from each year.  There are books that would have surely made my list (and made my choices more difficult) if I'd gotten to them this year; so I guess that means I'll face the same difficult decisions next December. Here we go:

10.  Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty
I listened to this on audio and wow, it really hit home. I'm in a time of my life where opportunities still abound, changes can be made, and there's plenty of life left to conquer.  I bought the paperback to keep in my home library.  

9.  The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

I read this novel early in the year, and I just loved it. I'm a big fan of Civil War novels, and this was one of my favorites.  It's short, but powerful. 

8.  A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

I still haven't read World Without End, the second in his series of Kingsbridge, but that didn't stop me (and it shouldn't stop you) from diving into this big book set during Elizabeth I's reign.  Follett explains history in a readable way that will send you searching for more information at your local library or bookstore.  He's such a good writer.  

7.  Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I read this for a book group, and I am so glad I did. A very good novel about immigrants in modern day New York City; their desire for a better life, and the choices they must make to create that better life.  Is it better to be an immigrant in America, or to go home and change the life you left?

6.  The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack

This novel was a total impulse buy at the bookstore, then sat in my TBR stack for a while.  When I did finally read it, I was enthralled.  Ancient history, the great Library of Alexandria, magic, and a bit of a thriller.  All ingredients for a novel I will enjoy.  

5.  See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Oh, Lizzie Borden.  How you fascinate me.  This novel was high on the creep factor, but so damn good.  Just read it.  

4.  The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

I'm a fan of Charlie Lovett.  His novels reflect his love of books, libraries, and the knowledge they protect and pass down.  A novel set in England and about the Holy Grail?  Count me in.  This made me yearn to travel to England again.  

3.  The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron

Oh, this book was one that I hadn't planned on reading, but I decided to push myself to try something different and I am so glad I did!  I still get teary-eyed thinking about Girl, and her struggle to survive.  What an amazing character.  What an amazing tale. 

2.  The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

It's no secret that Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite authors.  I pretty much dropped everything to read an advanced copy of this novel, which is a prequel to Practical Magic.  I adored everything about it, and if you haven't read Alice Hoffman, get to it.  She's amazing.  

And My Number One Book of 2017 is...

1. Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

This novel had me eagerly anticipating its release for months, and I gladly bought the hardcover as soon as it was available.  The tale of Milo, a soul that has lived 9,995 lives is nothing less than amazing. I loved it. Maybe that's because of where I am in life, or my philosophy on souls and life purpose. But whatever the reason, Milo's quest to get it right with his remaining 5 lives--before he ends up in the nothingness, takes you on a journey through some of the lives Milo has lived over the centuries, and even on other planets and as various life forms.  An imaginative and interesting look at what it means to live with purpose, and what happens when we die. As soon as I turned the last page I knew it would be my favorite read of 2017.  

So there it is.  My life in books for the year of 2017.  I can look at these titles, and remember where I was in my life this year.  That always shapes what I read, and when I read it.  I can't wait to see where my reading life takes me in 2018.  What were your favorite reads this year?  Let me know!  I'm always fascinated by what other folks read, and why.  

Happy Reading and Happy New Year!

The Bookalicious Babe 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas at Two Love Lane by Kieran Kramer and I'm Done With Christmas Reads!

I've made a pretty good dent in my month of Christmas reads, but I decided today that I just can't read anymore holiday themed novels.  I'm ready to get back to my regular reading.  So much so that I've already put so many books on my mental January reads list that it's impossible for me to read them all.  I'm afraid to sit and actually write down what I'm planning on reading for January. The bone chilling cold that has visited Iowa in the past few days (and not leaving any time soon) has me yearning (and yes, I do mean yearning) to plant my tush on the couch and read for days.  Those are my plans for this coming weekend, so I hope they become reality.

I bought this novel last month while perusing the holiday reads at B&N.  I hadn't read a holiday romance since last year, and when I read the back cover, I had to buy it. Anything that is set in Charleston has me won over.  I've never been to Charleston, but it's on my travel list as a must see. I'm halfway in serious like with a city I've never been to, but someday I'll get there.

After my unhappy reading experience with Christmas in London, I was ready for a romance with some heat, and Deacon Banks, hailing from New York City, was just the ticket.  He's in Charleston for the month of December to help his Aunt Fran settle into her winter condo and make her entrance into Charleston society.  A famous talk show host, she's retired and wanted to make a change, so Charleston was her change.  She wants Deacon to settle down, so he's reluctantly promised her he'll date a few women while he's in Charleston, just to make his Aunt happy.  Enter Two Love Lane, where Macy Frost and her two friends run a matchmaking service.  They've got the magic touch, and are well known as matchmakers who help folks find their true love.  Deacon just wants a few dates with no strings attached, but the first time he lays eyes on Macy, it's lust.  Macy tries to keep it professional, but she feels the pull of attraction, too.  

Macy is a matchmaker who believes in love, but not for herself.  That, and Deacon's unwillingness to admit that it's more than lust with Macy make the road to happily ever after a bit bumpy. As they spend the December social scene  together, and get to know one another, it's clear this is a love match.  Clear to everyone but the two of them.  I got a little lost in some of the finer details as to why they just couldn't admit to their deeper feelings; it seemed to take way too long, even after they did sleep together.  I think the story could have been shortened by about 50 pages by cutting out some of that dragging plot.  But, that was about all I had to complain about.  The sparks between Macy and Deacon were hot, they were cute and funny together, and the secondary characters were delightful.  I can't imagine that Charleston is as small town as it appears to be in this novel--everyone knows everyone, and everything is in walking distance--but that is part of the charm of the setting. I'm willing to overlook it. 

There is a sequel coming out next week, called Wedding at Two Love Lane.  It is the story of one of Macy's partners, and it looks like fun, too.  I'll probably be reading it just to see how things turn out.  I suspect there will be a third, to round out the trio of ladies who own Two Love Lane.  

So, I am ending my Christmas reads with this novel.  I have a few that I didn't get to, or gave up on, and I'll have a roundup of those in a later post. I'll say goodbye until next year to my holiday reads.  I'll be ready to tackle another pile of them come December 1, 2018.  

Rating:  3/6 for an entertaining romance set in Charleston in December.  The chemistry between the two main characters is palpable, and the secondary characters are pretty fantastic. Available in mass market, and ebook. I'll read the sequel coming out next week.