Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Book of Polly by Kathy Hepinstall

I'm always up for reading an author who decides to take a chance and write a novel that's quite different from their previous works. Kathy Hepinstall wrote two previous books that I loved:  Blue Asylum and Sisters of Shiloh. Both revolved around the Civil War and took place in the South.  The Book of Polly does have a distinctly Southern flavor, but it's contemporary and utterly wonderful.

Told through the voice of Polly's young daughter Willow, the story unfolds with an unusual twist:  Polly became pregnant with Willow at age 58, and found out she was pregnant just after the sudden death of the Captain, Polly's husband. Willow's mother is much older than her schoolmate's mothers, and Willow is obsessed with her mother dying. Her obsession leads her to spin wild tales about her mother, and Willow becomes a very colorful liar.  
Polly is a pretty unusual mother, and not just because of her age. She's a real pistol; witty, sassy, and not above borrowing a falcon to perch on her shoulder as she goes to visit the counselor at Willow's school to discuss Willow's out of control lies. Yes, Willow told the children her mother has hunted with a falcon. And Polly isn't going to make Willow look bad at school. As she says to the counselor about Willow's tall tales, "It's not my fault that the gray of everyone else's stories makes the color stand out." 

Willow's obsessed with her mother dying (Polly smokes Virginia Slims and drinks margaritas) and the life her mother lived before she was married and had Willow's older brother Shel and sister Lisa, both grown and on their own. Polly is from a small town in Louisiana, and refuses to talk about her life, the town, and the people she knew. Of course Willow's obsession never ends, and as she becomes a teenager and the Bear (cancer) strikes home, she becomes determined to know her mother's whole life.  

I loved Polly. A larger than life character, she is so darn funny I kept chuckling over some of her witty lines. Seventy-two years old and raising a teenager, she is at her wit's end:  

"Jesus isn't gonna help me with a teenager, Lisa. He was good with lepers and whores and blind people, but he can't cure the smart-ass years and you know it." 

At times a strong woman raising a child on her own, to a vulnerable woman struggling to weather life's ups and downs, Polly is an unforgettable character. Willow is just as complex and funny. I can understand her terror at her mother dying and leaving her alone so early in life. There comes a time in all our lives when we realize our parents will someday pass on, and thinking of life without their presence is terrifying. For Willow, this fear is part of her life very early on, and most of this novel is about her struggle to cope with her fears. The mystery of Polly's early life in Louisiana (the story is set in Texas) is always a part of the background, and her refusal to tell Willow any of it just drives Willow to do some detective work and figure it out on her own. Will Polly ever tell Willow her story--which, in turn, is part of Willow's family history? 

I am so glad I discovered the story of Willow and Polly Havens. I didn't want to finish their story and say goodbye. The rest of the cast of characters: Shel and Lisa, Willow's older brother and sister; Phoenix, a childhood friend of Shel who worships Polly; and battling next door neighbors who drive Polly nuts made me feel a part of the family.  

A big thank you to Viking/Penguin (Pamela Dorman Books) for a review copy of this novel.  I would have missed it otherwise, and that would have been a shame. 

Rating:  5/6 for endearing characters, a complicated yet loving mother-daughter relationship, and that Southern flair I love so much.  Fans of Fannie Flagg would enjoy this novel. Full of humor and heartfelt moments. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Always by Sarah Jio

I faithfully read every new Sarah Jio novel and I haven't been disappointed.  Until now, darn it.  I don't like to give unfavorable reviews, but this one just didn't do it for me at all. 

Sarah returns to Seattle, which is the setting for most of her novels.  This time, the story bounces between 1996-1998 and 2008, as Kailey Crain is caught between her past and her future.  As a new resident of Seattle in 1996, Kailey meets Cade McAllister one night.  He's a successful music label owner who has a sixth sense about new artists, and Seattle in the 1990's was full of grunge rockers (Nirvana anyone?) trying to break out.  Kailey's love for Cade is shattered in 1998 when things go bad, and Cade leaves Kailey's life.  Heartbroken, she moves away, only to come back to Seattle years later, and fall in love with Ryan, a successful businessman.  They're engaged, and ready to begin life together.  But one night, leaving a restaurant, Kailey spots a homeless man standing outside the restaurant.  It's Cade.  He doesn't recognize Kailey, but she recognizes him, and, well, you know where this is going. 

What follows is Kailey's growing involvement in finding Cade, getting him help, and understanding what happened to leave him homeless, broken, and apparently without any memories of his previous life.  Kailey's job as a reporter covering a potential business deal that could detrimentally effect the homeless of Seattle keeps her in moving in Cade's world of homeless people who wander the streets and take up valuable real estate (according to Ryan's business connections).  What's she going to do?  And how long can she keep this secret from Ryan?  And why would she keep Cade a secret?  

This story just didn't live up to Sarah's previous novels.  It was maudlin, and this comes from someone who can take a lot of saccharine.  Kailey's life just seemed absolutely fantastical, and the tossing around of famous music names and songs just got old.  I have no desire to revisit the 1990's music scene in Seattle.  None of it felt very authentic to me.  At the end, I felt that there was never going to be a complete contentment from Kailey with the choices she made--and they were big choices.  

Drats.  I was disappointed in this one.  If you're a fan, by all means don't let this review stop you from reading Sarah.  I'll keep reading her; I just think this one missed the mark.  It felt like a very cheesy movie.

Rating:  1/6 for a story that just was too hard to believe, a heroine who didn't feel authentic to me, and ugh-an ode to 90's grunge music. 

Available in hardcover, audio, and e-book. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

One thing I miss about working in a bookstore is being near the kid's books.  I always enjoyed walking into that space and looking at all of the great stories on the shelves.  I'm pretty sure if I'd had the opportunity to see so many kid's  books when I was a youngster I'd probably have danced around and twirled a bit through sheer excitement.  

I realized as I started reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon that I had read Kelly Barnhill's earlier novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack years ago when it first came out in 2011.  I loved that book; it took place in Iowa, and was very unusual and magical.  What an imagination Kelly Barnhill has--what a gift!

I picked up this novel because it had just recently won the Newbery Award and I was curious.  Whenever I read a teen or young reader novel, I have to constantly check my inner voice and basically tell it to shut up.  I have to remember who the intended audience is, and that they are reading from a much more innocent, non-adult place.  I think it will do me a lot of good to read more young reader and teen books!

So, to the novel.  The Protectorate is a town that is filled with sorrow.  It's always gloomy, the sun never shines, and the people live very poorly.  The Elders and the Sisters run the show, and they have a yearly tradition that feeds more sorrow into the atmosphere (and keeps people under control):  once a year, they take the youngest baby in the village, and leave it in the forest as a sacrifice to the witch that lives there.  This keeps the witch from coming to the village and wreaking havoc on everyone.  It keeps them safe.  This year, a mother fights to keep her child, and is deemed crazy and taken to the Tower, where she is imprisoned by the Sisters.  The child is taken to the forest and left there.  

Here's the kicker:  The Elders have made it all up.  They leave the baby in the forest to die from exposure or, worse yet, animals.  There's no witch, as far as they're concerned.  It's just a way to keep control of the village.  Very teen dystopian!  

Here's the other kicker:  there really is a witch, Xan, who lives in the forest with her friends Glerk, the swamp monster, and Fyrian, the little dragon.  She finds the babies every year, and takes them to the other side of the forest, into the towns and villages there, and gives them to loving families.  She has no idea why they leave the babies in the forest, but she takes care of them and saves them from certain death.  This time, when a baby girl is left, Xan hesitates to take her to the villages for adoption.  Feeding her moon magic, she gives the baby too much, and the baby becomes magical.  Xan decides to keep the baby for herself, names her Luna, and raises her as her grandmother in the forest. Xan knows when Luna turns thirteen her magic will really kick in, and it will be time for Xan to give all her magic and die.  After all, Xan is 500 years old, and ready to be done.  

Of course, this plan doesn't work out that well.  Luna is a powerful little girl, and the magic is leaking out of her constantly. She has no way to control it, so Xan puts a spell on her that will keep the magic tamped down, and make it impossible for Luna to learn about magic or use it until she's thirteen.  

But that's not all that's going on in this story.  There's a young man in the village who struggles with the yearly tradition, and seeks a way to reconcile his feelings and find a solution.  He's got hope, a tiny spark of hope, that things will change.  But the change is not something that the Elders or Sisters want.  

I wondered if a child reading this novel would understand the undertone of powerful people doing bad things, and the oppression of people.  That the face some people put on in public is not who they really are, and it can hide some bad stuff.  That those people you think are bad just by hearing stories or seeing their physical self, actually are very kind and loving people who got a bad rap through stories and gossip.  They are the true healers and good people. 

I did enjoy this novel; I do wonder at the length for young readers.  I'd say advanced readers would swallow it up pretty quickly, but younger kids would struggle a bit.  The writing is fantastic, and the plot is pretty clever.  You can almost feel the magic oozing off the pages.  I enjoyed how the story unfolded and concluded.  Worthy of the Newbery.  Hope to read more of Kelly Barnhill; if she ever wrote an adult novel I'd grab it without hesitation. 

Rating:  4/6 for a beautifully written young reader novel about family, love, magic, sacrifice, and the evil that lurks behind those who are supposed to be looking out for all of us.  

Available in hardcover and e-reader.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Matchmakers of Minnow Bay by Kelly Harms

Yes, I know this wasn't on the list for March. But, I finished it at the end of February and didn't have a chance to review it before March rolled around, so here is a bonus review for you.  

Kelly Harms writes a novel that is what I call, to borrow a term from the foodie world, a "palate cleanser".  By this I mean after reading something heavy duty, like Sisi, I needed something fun, light, and entertaining to shake off the really sad story of Empress Elisabeth.  Something that would reset me for more good books in March. 

Matchmakers is chick-lit set in Chicago and Wisconsin.  Lily Stewart is in her early 30's, and still lives in the lousy apartment she first rented 10 years before after graduating from art school with her best friend, Renee.  Her dream was to make her living from her painting, and live a wonderful, carefree life in Chicago.  Now ten years later, she's broke, her paintings aren't supporting her, and she's just been evicted from her apartment.  With only one place left to stay for a few days (her step-brother's place), she's packing up when she finds an envelope hidden in her kitchen drawer.  Oops.  It's the annulment papers she was supposed to sign 10 years ago after a quickie Vegas wedding to a stranger.  

Except she forgot to sign them.  She's been married to this man for 10 years.  Lily, with the help of Renee, her college bestie now turned lawyer and married to Lily's ex-college boyfriend, tracks him down to Minnow Bay, WI.  Ben Hutchinson is a computer science high school teacher and no longer the rich computer guru Lily met on that night in Vegas.  She decides the only decent thing to to is to travel to Minnow Bay, find Ben, and apologize in person and hand him the signed papers. 

Of course not all goes as planned.  Lily ends up prolonging her stay in Minnow Bay, meets some great people along the way, and struggles to figure out her life and her awakened attraction to Ben.  Minnow Bay is not Chicago, and Lily's gallery owning boyfriend (who's a creep) is expecting her back in Chicago.  But whatever kept Lily blocked from painting with her heart in Chicago is gone in Minnow Bay, and she finds herself getting inspired by everything around her.  Does she stay or does she go back to Chicago?  Are the people in Minnow Bay as kind and friendly as they appear to be?  What about Ben?  

Lily's got a lot to figure out.  She's not a bad character, but there were certainly  times when I wanted to shake her.  She's pretty naive about money, people's motives, and the art world.  It's time for her to grow up.  Heck, I'd move to Minnow Bay in a second if it actually existed.  Sounds like a wonderful place. 

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining mix of chick lit, romance, a bit of the art world, and small town friendships.  I really enjoyed the folks of Minnow Bay. 

Available in hardcover and e-book. It will be out in paperback in August, 2017. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

March Reads: That Time I Went to the Bookstore and the Library and Got in Trouble

Somewhere along the way in the past week, I lost my book loving mind.  I had a handle on things; was making my list of books to read and review for March; had it all figured out. 

Then I met my friends at B&N for our book group, and I went to the library-twice.  Then I had a late night conversation with my brother Dan, and this conversation had me pulling a book out of the stack for "later" and moving it up to "now!".  I can't decide what to put back for April, so guess what:  this month I'm being very ambitious and a little crazy and having a read and review bonanza!  

What's coming up in March:

Newberry winner!

Publisher review

If you've followed my blog, you know I love Sarah Jio.  Can't wait!

Uh...Neil Gaiman.  Enough Said.  Had to buy this one. 

Saw this at the library and was intrigued.  

My brother told me my sis-in-law is reading this right now and is freaked out.  I immediately moved it to my March reading pile.  Bought last week at B&N with a great deal!

A book I'm positive I've bought, but can't find.  Checked it out from the library.  Originally came out as a teen novel, now the rest of the series is considered adult Sci-Fi.  Hmmm.

I've read Beth Gutcheon before and loved her writing.  Saw this at the bookstore and then found it at the library.  

I'm overly ambitious, I know.  I'm going to enjoy this month's reading binge!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sisi: Empress on Her Own by Allison Pataki

I started reading this novel, and I must confess I was a bit confused.  It seemed to start right in the middle of Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary's life.  I quickly realized there is a book before Sisi that begins with Sisi's early life and marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph, and the difficulties she had adjusting to life as an Empress in the stifling Austrian court. I recommend you read  The Accidental Empress before you tackle Sisi so that you may get the complete story of Sisi's incredible life and tragic death.  

With that being said, after a quick history lesson on Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, I was ready to keep reading, and I was impressed at the research Allison Pataki put into this historical novel.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire of the mid 1800's was vast, and a powerhouse.  Sisi's husband, Franz Joseph, was born and raised to be an Emperor.  His mother, Archduchess Sophie ruled the court, and Sisi always felt like a failure, and was completely demoralized when her first two children, Rudy and Gisela were swiftly taken from her arms after birth and raised away from Sisi, with no input from her at all.  Her third child, Valerie (born many years later) stayed by Sisi's side.  She had grown enough backbone to refuse to send Valerie down the same path as her siblings. 

Sisi was known for her beauty and floor-length hair.  People refer to her as the Princess Diana of her day, and that may be so in that both women felt trapped by their lives, and searched for ways to escape.  For Sisi, she often traveled away from court--usually for weeks at a time.  Hungary was her favorite place, and there she enjoyed the peace of the countryside and the forbidden love she shared with Count Andrassy.  Sisi's husband Franz Joseph loved his wife, but so much of their relationship was damaged by the interference of his mother and the demands of rigid court life. She never felt that Franz was there for her.  What had started out as a marriage with high hopes and love had become distant and cold.  

This novel continues where The Accidental Empress left off in 1868 up through 1898, when Sisi was assassinated on a street in Geneva, Switzerland simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sisi's life really was a soap opera, full of forbidden love, political upheaval, and malicious court gossip. Sisi's frustration at being distant emotionally from her children, and her constant roaming around Europe cast her as a very lonely woman who was never able to be happy.  I really got invested in Sisi's life, and even though I knew it was coming, it was still hard to read about her death.  I'm certainly tempted to read more about Sisi, and if I ever get to Austria, I would love to visit Hofburg Palace, Sisi's home in Vienna.  

Thank you to Penguin/Random House for a review copy of this book.  I never knew anything about Empress Elisabeth, so I am very glad I had this opportunity to read about her life.  This is definitely a must read for fans of historical fiction.  

Rating:  5/6 for a well-researched and detailed novel about Princess Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary.  It was hard to put down!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Hive by Gill Hornby

I recently had the opportunity to talk to a class of graduate students in library science about my blog.  This class was discussing The Hive for that week's look at the chick lit genre, and so I took the opportunity to read the book so I could take part in the discussion.  I realized just how much I had missed reading British women's fiction that could be classified as chick lit, a genre that has evolved since the term was first coined.  

I am a big geek when it comes to British authors writing about contemporary British women.  I was surprised and charmed by this novel, which centered around a group of women who all had children attending St. Ambrose school in a town outside of London. The "queen bee" of the group was Beatrice.  She somehow managed to always get everyone else to do all the work, while she took credit for everything.  And somehow, the women in the group thought she was just fantastic.  Rachel is a children's book illustrator going through a divorce; she was one of Beatrice's favorites, but finds herself slowly being pushed out of the group.  Heather is a mother of one who desperately wishes she was a mother of more children and will do anything to fit in the group.  Georgie (my favorite) left a career in the city to marry a farmer and raise a large family and is content to fly under the radar.  She pretty much does as she pleases and it quite aware of the manipulations of the group.  Georgie is the most down to earth of the ladies and quite a hoot. Melissa is the new parent,  a mysteriously put together, makes everything okay kind of woman.  She is the calm in the middle of every potential disaster. 

The novel follows this group of women over the school year as they work to raise money for the school through car boot sales, lunches, and even a crazy ball that is quite the funny scene. As the year passes, there are ups and downs, and Beatrice keeps pulling the strings to keep her place as queen bee.  But can she be knocked off her perch?  

As I said earlier, I really enjoyed this novel.  I love British snarky humor, and there is plenty here.  I actually smirked and laughed out loud quite a bit.  Yes, there is some slang that you may puzzle at (what exactly is a lesbian tea?  Chamomile), but that is what makes it a fun read.  I envisioned a Jennifer Saunders series similar to Clatterford--oh, I so wish that was a reality!  But there is a serious side to this novel:  be true to yourself, don't try to fit into a mold that isn't you; your kids are watching how you treat other people; there is nothing better than good friends.  Life is too short to put up with manipulative people.  

Is this chick lit?  It's up to you to decide.  If it is, it's part of the evolution of the genre.  Doesn't matter to me, I thought it was a good read. 

Rating:  4/6 for an entertaining look at the power struggle of a group of women in a small town in England, where appearances are everything, volunteering for school functions is a sign of good parenting, and friendships undergo struggles.  I had many a good laugh reading this novel. 

Available in paperback and e-book.