Friday, April 28, 2017

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

Black Rabbit Hall was a spur of the moment reading choice for me, and I buzzed through it in a few days (even though I've had it checked out of the library for almost 3 weeks).  My "due back" notification had everything to do with my rush to read this, but I'm so glad I didn't just return it unread to the library.  It was just what I needed to read this week.  

This is a novel told in two voices:  Amber Alton, a fifteen year old girl in 1968; and Lorna Dunaway, over thirty years later. Amber's family owns Black Rabbit Hall in Cornwall, and the family spends holidays there.  Amber's parents are madly in love, and she has a twin brother Toby, a younger brother Barney, and a little sister named Kitty.  They are a very happy family, and the heart of the family is Amber's mother, Nancy.  
 There's something about Black Rabbit Hall that speaks to Amber and her whole family.  It's wild, it's crumbling; it's full of creaks and groans and sits near the sea, surrounded by woods and the mystery of Cornwall.  It is a world away from their life in London, where they go to school and have a perfectly beautiful home.  

All that changes the summer of 1968, when a horrible tragedy takes place one dark, stormy night.  It changes the family dynamics, and drapes Black Rabbit Hall in sadness.  What happens to the family in the following year will tear them apart.  And for you, the reader, it will leave a heck of a lot of unanswered questions that will keep you reading!

Lorna is traveling to Black Rabbit Hall to check it out as a possible wedding venue.  She remembers visiting the place with her mother as a child (vaguely) and feels drawn to it the moment they drive up the lane.  It's still crumbling, and badly needs renovations.  Her fiance Jon isn't thrilled with the place, but Lorna meets Caroline Alton, the lone resident.  She's old, cranky, and desperate to have the income generated by hosting weddings.  She asks Lorna to return and stay for a weekend to get a feel for the place. Lorna returns without Jon, and finds a whole lot more about the history of the house, the Alton children, and Caroline.  Where does Lorna fit into the story of Black Rabbit Hall?

I haven't read a book in a while that had me sitting for chunks of time turning the pages.  This book did that for me, which is a sign that the characters, plot, and writing are running on all cylinders at full tilt.  You may think the cover evokes a chilling, gothic type tale.  I got that feeling more from the scenes with Caroline than I did anywhere else.  Instead, it's a story about a happy family that is torn apart and never heals back into itself.  It's the story of one woman's desire to know her history in order to move forward with her life.  Mostly, it's the story of how we can experience tragedy and still step away from it to live happy lives. The past can haunt us, or it can simply be a part of us. 

There may be a few surprises for the reader; I didn't really have any as I was just patient and let the story unfold instead of trying to guess what was going to happen next.  I'll be reading Eve's next novel, The Wilding Sisters.  

Rating:  4/6 for a satisfying story that incorporates the wilds of Cornwall, a family tragedy, and interesting characters that keep you engaged until the satisfying ending.  

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.  The paperback will be out in the U.S. in July, 2017.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Curse of La Fontaine: A Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery

I'm continuing my quest to read more mysteries, and thanks to Penguin Books, I was able to try a mystery series that took me to Aix-en-Provence, France.  

There are five previous mysteries in this series, but I didn't have any problems starting this far into the series.  I may go back and read from the beginning, if only to see the backdrop to Verlaque and Bonnet's romance.  

Antoine Verlaque is a French judge; Marine Bonnet is a law professor.  They are enjoying life as newlyweds and have the pressing problem of deciding what to do with two apartments.  An appreciation of good food and wine adds a lot of charm to these characters and I felt immediately at ease with them.  

In this mystery, a new restaurant has opened in town called La Fontaine, run by Siegbert "Bear" Valets.  It's a hit, but Bear has created a stir by getting approval to have outdoor seating that nestles up against a private courtyard shared by the surrounding apartment buildings.  In that courtyard is a lovely fountain with a dark historical background.  The story goes that in times of trouble the fountain stops flowing.  The local historical society doesn't want Bear to disturb the courtyard, and a fight is brewing. 

Bear starts preparing for his outdoor seating by planning an herb garden.  Things come to a halt when his employees find a skeleton near the fountain.  Verlaque, as judge is required to do all the questioning and footwork to gather evidence to help solve the mystery of the skeleton.  Who could it be, and how old is the skeleton?  Why was no one ever reported missing in Aix-en-Provence?  As Verlaque delves deeper into the mystery, local issues with the aristocracy begin to surface, along with a case from Verlaque's past that may have sent the wrong man to prison.  

I was glad to discover this mystery series.  I was very charmed by Verlaque and Bonnet.  They work very well as a team and enjoy the simple pleasures in life.  I would say this is a lovely series with a bit of sophistication.  You certainly want to reach for a glass of wine while reading it. M.L. Longworth sets the scene of a small town in France--I certainly wouldn't mind visiting.  Once again, even the most beautiful and seemingly peaceful places can harbor secrets that lead to murder. 

Thank you Penguin Books for a review copy of this mystery.  Anyone who has a soft spot for France, likes a mystery with a bit of history thrown in, and appreciates a good meal, good wine, and a small group of friends will want to read this series.  

Rating:  4/6 for a delightful introduction to a mystery series set in France.  This is the sixth book in the series, and it is not necessary to start at the beginning to be able to capture the ebb and flow of the relationship of Verlaque and Bonnet. Charming. 

Available in  hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

Friday, April 21, 2017

My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

It took me ages to read this book.  I had to renew it from the library three times.  Why? 

I like Sophie Kinsella's novels; well, most of them.  The Shopaholic novels are the exception.  I read the first one years ago, and found the idea of a chick lit novel that centers around a woman who has a spending addiction not very entertaining.  Especially when she gets the guy and the happy ending.  What does that say about being responsible?!  But I have read some of her other novels, and I have enjoyed them very much.  

I did end up liking this novel, too.  I had a very hard time getting into Katie's story.  It is, after all, very much like other British chick lit plots:  country girl yearns to be a London ad agency superstar; falls for the handsome director, has a perfectly perfect sophisticated boss with a seemingly enchanted life.  But of course life hands Katie some setbacks and she has to find her real, authentic self.  I just didn't connect with Katie's character at all, and I struggled through the first half of the novel. I kept putting it down and reading something else, picking it up, half-heartedly reading a few chapters, putting it down again.  This went on for about a month.  The other day I decided to buckle down and finish it!

Katie struggles to find the perfect (in her mind) life in London, but it's not easy.  Her job doesn't pay much, so she shares an apartment and has to commute quite a ways to get to work.  She's often broke and to convince herself and others that life is grand, she posts pictures to Instagram showing all the fabulous things she does in London.  Except all those things don't really exist; Katie's pictures don't tell the whole story.  Her boss, Demeter, is someone Katie really wants to emulate and learn from; if only Katie can get Demeter alone for a few minutes she could pitch some of her ideas and Demeter would see just how talented Katie is and promote her.  Katie is very talented, and her gifts shine when, through unfortunate circumstances, she's fired and has to flee home to her father's farm in Somerset.  She's too broke to stay in London.  

But, she doesn't tell her Dad she lost her job, and instead tells him and her step-mother that she's on a break from her very demanding job.  She uses her talents to help her father start a glamping business on the farm, and it's a huge success.  Homemade cooking, yurts, campfires; everything sophisticated city folk want in outdoor entertainment.  Katie still yearns to get back to the city, but is having no luck finding a job. She loves the farm, but it's just not where she wants to be in life. 

And then, Demeter and her family show up at Ansters Farm for a glamping week.  Katie has a chance to get some revenge on Demeter for firing her.  But will it be enough?  

There's a whole lot more to the plot, but I won't give more away.  There's Alex, Katie's love interest, and Demeter's seemingly bizarre habit of losing emails and miscommunication that is creating tension with prospective clients.  There's Katie's relationship with her father; he doesn't understand why she wants to live in London when she could be in Somerset.  What exactly will make Katie happy?  
This novel is all about finding your happiness, and the pressure of social media to portray a perfect life with no worries.  But we all know everyone has plenty of stormy days along with the sunny, blissful days.  Katie's assumptions about others not only create misunderstandings, but make her feel her life isn't sparkly enough, when it is just fine.  

So yes, this was a fun read.  I just wasn't in the right frame of mind to dive in and read it all at once. Most certainly it would make an entertaining vacation read; I think if I'd read it in the summer I would have enjoyed it more sitting on my front porch with a cool drink. 

Rating:  3/6 for a novel about a young woman's desire to have a life that is picture perfect.  Katie is a smart young lady who's just trying to figure it all out.  Lesson:  don't believe everything you see on social media.  No one's life is perfect.  

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

This was a book that I'd looked at a few times--purely due to the cover, which I just love.  I finally got it from the library and jumped into an English version of magical realism that was perfect for the Easter weekend.

Anthony Peardew is a elderly gentlemen of secure financial means who lives in a wonderful home called Padua with a glorious flower garden and a quiet housekeeper named Laura who keeps everything in tip top shape.  Laura has grown to love Padua as much as Anthony has, and finds refuge from a horrible marriage and divorce within its peaceful environment.  

Anthony has a study that is full of objects he's found on his daily walks.  He takes them home, labels them with the date and where he found them, and keeps them all locked up in his study.  He is the "keeper of lost things" and writes stories imagining the people and the stories behind the objects.  They range from a puzzle piece, to a single blue glove, to a child's umbrella.  Hundreds of objects, just waiting to be reunited with their owners. 

 But Anthony has a sorrowful past, and his time is drawing near to be reunited with his beloved Therese.  Once engaged and living happily in Padua, Therese was killed by a car just before they were to be married.  She continues to be a presence in the house, and Anthony is tired of living without her. On the day she died, Anthony lost the precious St. Therese medal Therese had given him, and he's never forgiven himself for it.  

Anthony passes away, and leaves his home and all his earthly possessions to Laura.  He also leaves her a letter, detailing his hope that she will be able to reunite people with their lost things.  He hopes she can heal even just one broken heart.  Laura's a bit overwhelmed, and with the help of Freddy the gardener (a someone who has Laura's interest), and Sunshine, a teenager across the street who has a few special gifts of her own, Laura begins to heal from her past and look forward to the future with hope and happiness.

Another story weaves itself through Laura's modern story.  It is the story of Bomber and Eunice, and it's a pretty grand love story.  It's an unusual one, too. You may wonder how the two stories are connected--I certainly did for a large part of the novel.  But it all makes sense in the end, and everything comes full circle.  Each of the love stories (Anthony and Therese, Bomber and Eunice, and Laura and Freddy) add so much to this novel.  It has a timeless feel to it, even though it is contemporary.  And it certainly has a magical feel to it.  

Fans of Sarah Addison Allen, Alice Hoffman, and Lisa Van Allen will enjoy reading this lovely, very sweet tale of love lost, love found, and the many shapes and guises love comes to us.  

Rating:  4/6 for a delightful story that examines the oftentimes big stories behind simple lost objects.  It will make you look at lost and founds a bit differently from now on. 

Available in hardcover and ebook.  

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

I've been a fan of Charlie Lovett since reading his first novel The Bookman's Tale a few years ago, and I just couldn't wait to read his latest. I'm happy to say it did not disappoint.

I'm a fan of ancient manuscripts, King Arthur and tales of the holy grail, and, of course, glorious old libraries.  All of Lovett's novels are love letters to books and their magical powers, and also to the people who both today and in centuries past have been stewards to the written word. In The Lost Book of the Grail, not only do we see the history of one cathedral's library, but we see all the people who have (in some instances, given their lives) committed their lives to protect precious manuscripts and the secrets they hold. 

Arthur Prescott lives and works in Barchester, England as an English professor at Barchester University. He's not terribly fond of his job, but is in complete and total rapture over Barchester Cathedral's library, where he spends most of his off time looking through ancient manuscripts and trying to solve the mystery of Barchester's connection to the Holy Grail. Yes. The Holy Grail. Arthur would spend summers at his grandfather's house in Barchester, learning about King Arthur and the Holy Grail from his grandfather. Little hints and winks from his grandfather lead Arthur to believe that somehow a connection exists between Barchester and the grail. There is the fascinating tale of Saint Ewolda, a martyred Saxon saint who was the founder of the cathedral 1500 years before, and who's Book of Ewolda has gone missing from the cathedral's library after a German bombing during World War 2. Arthur's been hired to write a new guide book for the cathedral, and he's been dragging his feet because he doesn't know the whole story of Ewolda, and doesn't feel he can properly write the guide without her story framing it.  

Bethany Davis appears, and she's trouble for Arthur. She is an American there to digitize the ancient manuscripts in the library, much to Arthur's horror. He's very much old school and doesn't know much at all about computers, digitizing, or social media. His feelings of irritation towards Bethany are soon replaced with much warmer feelings as he discovers she is much more than a modern librarian and archivist. Together with Arthur's friends David and Oscar, the four set out to solve the mystery of Barchester, Ewolda, and the Holy Grail before time runs out and the ancient manuscripts are sold to fund much needed repairs to the cathedral.  

This novel moves between the ancient life of the cathedral and the guardians of the Barchester secrets through the past 1500 years of history and Arthur's contemporary Barchester. It's a fascinating background to the modern puzzle Arthur and Bethany are trying to solve and makes for a much more interesting story. There's a whole bunch of English religious history thrown in, but it's easily digestible and makes an impact on just how long and entangled religion, books, and libraries have been in England. The modern movement to digitize fragile and valuable books and manuscripts is seen by some as horrible, but by others (such as myself) as a way to preserve for future generations precious works that could be lost to the elements of time.  It is a way to share freely with the world some of the greatest treasures we have, but are now only accessible through expensive travel and appointments.

Arthur's a bit of a poop, but he is charming and hard to resist with his love of libraries, books, and the magic of religious traditions that, combined with ancient hymns, give him a sense of peace that nothing else ever has or will. He is so aware of the majesty of it all, and I found this part of Arthur very charming and sweet. 

I just loved this book. It made me long to travel to England and experience the great cathedrals, smell the incense, feel the weight of history, and sense all those who have lived, loved, and protected the treasures (great and small) of their most holy places. 

Rating:  5/6 for an enchanting tale, delightful characters, and a very clever story. Do they find the grail? Read it and find out. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

April Reads: Green Covers are the Theme

Fresh off my fairly successful TBR pile from March, I'm looking at April with Spring in my head, and it's reflected in the color green.  Pretty much every book I'm going to read and review this month has some shade of green in the cover.  This wasn't deliberate at all, but just a happy accident.  And I just realized I'm wearing a green t-shirt as I compose this post.  Hmm.  I guess I have Spring fever!

It may look like I'm unambitious this month, but there are other books I'm waiting on from the library.  If they come in April, I'll try to make room for them.  But for now, I'm sticking with a few that will hopefully keep me entertained and turning the pages in April:

Academia, libraries, and the Holy Grail!

A bit of British fun

Publisher review; new author for me

Recommended by a friend

 Here's to April, warmer weather, spring flowers, and a chance to keep the windows open wide.  I'm already dreaming of my cozy summer reading spot on my front porch.  Can't wait!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

A House Full of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations by Juliet Nicolson

It has been a race to the end of March to try and get all of my March reads in, and I'm just one shy.  I can't find the energy to finish that book, so I'll talk about that DNF in my next post. 

I was picking up a book at the library earlier this month, when I happened to see this in the new releases.  Curiosity had me flipping it open, and just a few minutes later I was adding it to my check out pile.  I'm so glad I saw this, because it was such a tremendously satisfying memoir.  And I finally learned something about Vita Sackville-West.  

Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson, who was a well respected British politician, lecturer, author, and guardian of Sissinghurst, his mother's beautiful country home famous for its gardens.  You can visit and tour the buildings, extensive gardens, and spend the day wandering in a stunning bit of English countryside.  I've heard of Sissinghurst, and saw books on the gardens, but never really knew what it was, who owned it, and especially, who Vita Sackville-West was and why she was so scandalous.  Juliet explains it all, and explains the women in her family, starting with her great-great grandmother Pepita,  a famous Spanish flamenco dancer during the mid-19th century.  Pepita was beautiful, mysterious, and doing quite well financially touring Europe when she met and fell madly in love with Lionel Sackville-West, a British politician.  Only problem was, Pepita was married, and in 19th century Spain, divorce was pretty much impossible for women.  That didn't stop Pepita and Lionel; they ended up having five children together, with Pepita living in France with her children, and Lionel visiting.  She suffered the scorn of her neighbors, and when she died in childbirth, she left her children orphans in France; left to be raised away from their father. Years later,  Lionel and Pepita's eldest daughter Victoria eventually became his shining star in Washington, D.C.; organizing dinners and social events for her political father, and becoming so famous for her charm and beauty that proposals for marriage came fast and furious.  But Victoria was afraid of marriage; after all, she'd seen how loving a man not only made a pariah out of her mother, but ended up killing her in childbirth.  No thanks. 

But, Victoria eventually became smitten with Lionel Sackville-West, her first cousin.  He pursued her relentlessly.  She finally agreed to marriage because Lionel was the heir to her father's country estate Knoles, and Victoria loved that home with all her being.  Her marriage crumbled, though, after Victoria gave birth to Vita.  The whole ordeal of childbirth terrified her so that she forbade her husband to ever have sex with her again, and that began the slow decline of their marriage, and another bit of dysfunction to add to the Sackville-West family.

Oh, there is so much more to tell you!  I found this all fascinating.  So many strong women, but each was also so fragile in their own ways; there is a definite pattern of neglect/smothering love/frustration in each generation.  It was sad to see how damaging it was to everyone, especially the children.  Juliet also suffered from an unhappy mother; her mother married into the Sackville-West family through Juliet's father Nigel, the son of Vita Sackville-West and Henry Nicolson.  Both were famous in their time; mostly because Vita was a gifted author, and notorious for her affairs with women.  Henry also fooled around with men, but somehow their marriage lasted until Vita's death; quietly devoted to each other.  

What this memoir struck in me was the realization that I don't have the luxury of talking to my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.  They're all gone, and I have no way of knowing what they were like, what they went through as young women.  They didn't keep diaries; there are only pictures to help piece together what life was like for them all those years ago.  Juliet is incredibly lucky; lucky that she is a gifted writer; lucky that she has the family papers,  Sissinghurst and Knoles to visit and discover little bits of history tucked into attics and drawers.  But Juliet understands all of that, and has crafted a memoir that is a love letter to all the women who came before her, and to her daughters and granddaughter who follow.  

Rating: 5/6 for a memoir that reads like a novel, about the generations of women in one family and how they shaped each generation to follow. This was so good! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.