Tuesday, April 17, 2018

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

I first read Paulette Jiles years ago, when I stumbled on Enemy Women at my bookstore.  I was gobsmacked by that novel, and it remains one of my favorite Civil War novels. 

I've had an advanced reader's copy of this book for a few years.  I was excited to read it, but somehow lost my enthusiasm about 30 pages into it, put it down, and didn't pick it up again until last week. I deliberately picked it for my book group this month so I would finally read it.  It's only a few hundred pages; easy enough, right? Read it in one sitting.  

Yet it still took me the better part of a week to read, and my only thought about that is because I liked Captain Kidd and Johanna so much I didn't want anything to happen to them on their journey.  I just couldn't bear to read a passage that would endanger, injure, or tear Johanna away from the Captain.  So that very reason kept me from reading it a few years ago, and had me taking a week to read a book I could have read in a day. 

It's a simple enough story.  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a man in his early 70's who travels the West reading newspapers to audiences. It is, indeed, news of the world. His eloquent, commanding voice, and his choices of which articles to read make him a popular man in his travels.  The Civil War is over, yet fallout remains.  Texas, where this novel is set, is torn apart by political factions, hideouts from the war, and Native Americans attacking pioneers, cowboys, and pretty much everyone. Kiowa Indians are in a fight for survival that sadly they won't win. Captain is asked to deliver ten year old Johanna to her Aunt and Uncle, after being rescued from the Kiowa tribe that killed her parents and sister four years earlier.  Johanna has completely lost any identity as a white child, and is scared, angry, and speaks only Kiowa. She wants to go back to the tribe, which she considers family.  

As Captain and Johanna travel from Wichita Falls through Texas on a 400 mile journey, they slowly get to know each other. Their developing relationship is the heart of the novel, and for me that was the best part, and the most surprising part.  I kept waiting for disaster to strike, and it did, but Captain and Johanna came together and saved themselves in a pretty ingenious way.  My fears of a journey plagued by fire, floods, and attacks were unrealized, and that made me very relieved.  Instead, this novel is about a child who is suffering from PTSD, an elderly gentlemen who has been around (and also suffers from PTSD), fought wars, lived, loved, raised children, and is now continuing to spread the "news of the world" to folks who have little contact with the world outside their towns.

A bigger conversation could be had about the effects of tragedy on small children, and what family means, especially when children are forcibly returned to family that neither cares nor wants them. It's stirred my interest in historical figures Cynthia Parker and Olive Oatman, two women who were returned to white society after living with Native Americans.  Their stories are available in books and films, and are fascinating.  

Rating: 4/6. I'm glad I had the chance to go back and finish News of the World. I love Paulette Jiles' writing style; she says a lot with few words, and her characters  become quite endearing very quickly. You'll not soon forget the Captain and Johanna. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio. A National Book Award Finalist. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover: Stories by Michael Andreasen

Short stories are something I haven't read much of over the years, so when I had the opportunity to read this collection, I decided to explore the world of short stories again. I realized it is always much easier to stop and start in a collection of short stories than to do so in a larger work; being able to read 25 pages and finish a story makes it easier to reset the next day and start a new one. I've come to enjoy short story collections and hope to read more this year.

I'll say this is not a collection that will appeal to everyone. It is full of oddball characters, strange situations, and a hefty dose of imagination. In Our Fathers at Sea, the issue of taking care of our elderly parents is solved in a neat and utterly horrible way that is completely approved of by society. Heck, the children of elderly parents think about that day in the future when they, too, will step into that capsule, sit in a cushy chair, and be dropped into the sea (along with a few other people). I think my emotions went from mildly amused to dawning horror pretty quickly. It was a very powerful tale about how we treat the elderly in today's world--we literally drop them out of sight. 

The title tale The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is a quirky tale about a ship that is slowly being crushed and dragged into the depths of the sea by a lovesick sea beast.  The men on board are running out of food, slowly going crazy, and have no hope of survival. It's very odd!

Other tales involve a man who's one time cheating on his wife ends up as an alien abduction; a middle school boy who glows with a radioactive light; a group of kids taken on a tour of a time travel museum, and a bear and a young boy who can hear each other's thoughts as they travel with an odd bunch through closed down amusement parks.  Every tale is uniquely different, wildly imaginative and tinged with a bit of melancholy and sadness. They are all, at their core, about love, connections, and the desire of any creature-human or not, to be acknowledged and cared for by someone or something. It is a universal yearning not limited to humans. 

If you like quirky short stories, a bit of magical realism, or are, like me, just beginning to read short story collections, think about trying this one out.  It's definitely different, and would make some great discussions with friends. A big thanks to Penguin Random House for providing a copy for review.  Again, another book I wouldn't have read on my own, but enjoyed it very much. 

Rating:  4/6 for a very unique collection of stories that will spin you around, make you smile, and think about what drives us all to survive. You will be amazed at the imagination of Michael Andreasen. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

I've Been Thinking...Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life by Maria Shriver

I've always admired Maria Shriver; always felt she was a smart, sharp woman, on top of her game, fearless, and always able to speak with kindness and compassion. This little gem of a book, chock full of wisdom from Maria, is just what I needed at this time in my life. I can't wait to gift it to my sisters. 

The chapters are short, and each focuses on so many topics we as women have overlooked or felt guilty about dwelling on for years. The power of being a woman; the power of forgiveness, and how it can heal us when we let go. The power of letting go of old beliefs and embracing new ones. The power to be okay with taking a break; to rest and recharge. Most importantly, the power of loving ourselves even in those times when we are less than we know we can be. 

At the end of each chapter Maria offers a simple prayer for each topic. I found myself pausing over each prayer, and thinking about each chapter. It's a small book; easy to tuck into a bag and carry around. Even though this book is short, it took me a few weeks of reading a few chapters, putting it down, ruminating on it, and then picking it up. It was, for me, a bit of a meditation. I sometimes feel less than, because I'm not a wife, or a mother. I have a great job, but I feel less than, trying to learn everything to be my best, and wondering if I've just left it too late to begin again. Maria's book gave me some peace, and let me know I'm not alone feeling these things. Perfectionism is overrated, and no one is perfect. Being cheerful and encouraging to others is a good thing, but if we're not loving to ourselves, and encouraging to ourselves, we're missing the big picture. 

Most of all, what I felt after reading this book was hope for myself; to keep trying everyday, and to have courage, but also to love myself when I don't feel particularly lovable. Meditation in any way we can get it, and in any way that feels good to ourselves is important. Whether it's listening to music, or going for a walk; running and listening to podcasts, or puttering around the kitchen. Reading a book in a quiet space, or driving in silence. They all count, and help us refocus. Prayer to whomever you pray to is also important. Just a simple ask for a good day helps set a positive tone and a positive frame of mind.

So I have to say thank you to Maria Shriver, and to Pamela Dorman/Viking Books for the opportunity to read and review this wonderful little book. It's something I would have skipped over in my hurriedness to read other books, exercise, and get through the week of work and obligations. And I can't wait to share it with my sisters. 

Rating:  5/6 for a book full of a woman's wisdom about life and how to live it. Maria points out that everyday is a new beginning, and paying attention and living in the here and now, loving ourselves and helping others is the way to living our best lives. 

Available in hardcover, large print paperback, and ebook--this would make a great birthday, Mother's Day, graduation gift! Or just a great "Hey I was thinking of you" gift.  

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James

I've been waiting for the latest Simone St. James to be released for MONTHS.  I've read all of her books, and in my opinion, this is her best book.  One of the main reasons I love Simone's novels so much is because they're ghost stories. I have been a fan of ghosty stories since I was a little kid.  These are like Mary Downing Hahn books for adults.  

What makes Broken Girls different than her previous novels is the modern setting. Set in the small town of Barrons, Vermont, the narrative moves between 1950 and 2014. In 2014, 37 year old Fiona Sheridan still struggles to move past her older sister's brutal murder in 1994.  Found on the playing fields near Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for girls, her sister Deb's boyfriend was convicted and has spent the last 20 years in jail. Fiona saw the destruction of her parent's marriage, and the unraveling of her famous journalist father's career as a result of that dark November night.  She herself, a journalist writing "fluff" pieces for a local magazine, is dating a police officer, and is wary of pretty much everyone and everything. Something about her sister's death has never settled with Fiona.  

In 1950, we learn the story of Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for troublesome girls.  These days, these girls would be perfectly normal teens, but in the conservative 1950's they were seen as embarrassments and shipped off and out of sight.  Katie, CeCe, Roberta, and Sonia all room together and form a deep friendship in a place that is so creepy even the teachers hate being there.  Yes, there is something very unsettling about Idlewild Hall, and generations of girls have written notes to each other in textbooks about Mary Hand, the ghostly presence that scares the hell out of everyone.  She is a substantial part of the plot, and so eerie that even I, sitting on my couch, was a little bit creeped out. 
 No one knows who she is, but she roams the school buildings and land.  Students even have a little rhyme about Mary:

"Mary Hand, Mary Hand, dead and buried under the land...
Faster, faster. Don't let her catch you. 
She'll say she wants to be your friend...
Do not let her in again!"

The ghost of Mary Hand makes you look at the worst part of your life.  She writes on windows, stands next to you and sends chills down your spine.  One of the best ghostly characters I've come across in a long time.

The plot revolves around something terrible that happens to the four girls in the 1950's, and Fiona's journalistic curiosity in 2014 as Idlewild is purchased and is being prepared for renovation, to become a boarding school for girls again. Will this renovation stir up old spirits? Does Mary Hand still roam Idlewild?

I have to say, the plot was on point. The stories of the four friends: Katie, CeCe, Roberta, and Sonia continue into 2014, and wow, the twist is pretty clever.  This plot went where I never would have expected it to go. Fiona's story is also interesting, as her digging into the history of Idlewild raises more questions that must be answered, and help her find out just what really happened to her sister in 1994. I'm not going to tell you anymore, because I don't want to give anything away. I say, just read the book!  It really is a page turner. I couldn't wait to read at night, read at lunch, and read early in the morning. I was frustrated I couldn't devote hours at a time to read it. Yes, for me, it was that good. 

Rating:  6/6.  Yes, perhaps I am biased because I love Simone St. James' novels so much, and a good chilling ghost story is hard to find.  But darn it all, this was a really great read.  One of my favorites for 2018.

Available in hardcover and ebook.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Still Life by Louise Penny

I've had a few disappointing reads lately, but thankfully Louise Penny put a stop to that.  My library has started a new book group, called Another Round Book Group, which meets in a local lovely bar once a month, and we pick books to read based on a monthly theme.  For our first inaugural "read" we had to pick a debut fiction book from an author.  Aha!  I thought. This is my chance to read one of the many new books I've got at home.   Instead, I jumped at the chance to read Still Life.

 I did a little investigating and found that Still Life is Louise Penny's first book. Yahoo!  I've had countless people tell me to read this series, and for years I've nodded, said yes, and then just not read it. Now I had a legitimate reason to start the series. I am so glad I did. 

Also known as the Inspector Gamache series, this novel takes place in the small village of Three Pines, located over the border of the U.S. near Montreal. I have to tell you, I want to live in Three Pines.  Full of small, quaint houses, a B&B run by two partners who know how to cook and entertain, and full of talented artists, it's a hidden gem in the Canadian countryside. It also is home to a murderer.  

Jane Neal, a beloved retired school teacher and secret artist living in Three Pines is found murdered in the woods early one morning. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, an elegant, thoughtful, and intelligent middle-aged man, is called in to investigate, along with his team of investigators. What at first looks like it might be an accident quickly becomes a murder investigation. Jane Neal was killed by someone with a bow and arrow. While the woods are full of hunters during this Thanksgiving weekend, the clues lead to a few dead ends and everyone in the village starts getting worried--who would have wanted to kill Jane?  

As Gamache and his team dig deep, you get to know the residents of Three Pines, and they are all interesting, fully developed characters. As Gamache discovers, the residents of Three Pines aren't to be dismissed as country bumpkins. Intelligent and yes, worldly, those who have settled in Three Pines all have backgrounds that I suspect will be examined more closely in the continuing series. Gamache falls under the spell of this village, and I did, too.  As I've stated before, I'm not a huge mystery reader, but I'm slowly becoming one.  I think for me it's just a matter of finding the type of mystery I enjoy.  I can say without a doubt Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Gamache series is already a favorite after just reading one! I've already bought the next in the series, A Fatal Grace; I'm happy to say there are over ten books in this series.  I'll have plenty of delightful reading time this summer to make my way through each mystery that visits Three Pines. 

All I can say is, why isn't this a TV series on Acorn?! I also have to say thank you to everyone over the years who has told me to read Louise Penny. Friends, customers, library patrons have all said how good her mysteries are, and they hit the bullseye.  Now I'll have to tell others to read them, too. I'd say anyone who is looking to try mysteries, this is a good place to start.  Also, if you're looking for something to get Mom or Grandma, this is a great introduction to mysteries or even just the entertaining writing of Louise Penny. Anyone who loves art will also like Still Life.

Ah...thank you April!  This is no April Fool's joke.  I seriously loved Still Life.  I'm so happy I finally "discovered" Louise Penny. 

Rating:  5/6 for a delightful murder mystery.  Yes, that sounds odd, I know. But Louise Penny masterfully brings a small village to life  with three dimensional characters, a puzzling murder, and a pretty clever whodunit. When I read the passage that gave this mystery its title, well, I was just blown away. I can't wait to return to Three Pines, and get to know Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.  

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

April Reads: Debut Novels Abound!

A fresh, clean slate begins April reading--which I've started at the end of March.  After March's lackluster struggle to read, I'm pumped for April.  I start thinking about the next month's reads a few weeks in advance, and by the time I write my post, usually my choices have changed.  That was the case here.  I've got three titles that are debuts for the authors.  One, Louise Penny's Still Life, is her debut mystery novel in the Armand Ganache series.  Published in 2005, it's been around awhile, but it's new to me.  I've had so many people tell me to read this series, that I'm finally starting.  Just goes to show that any read is a new read if you haven't read it before.  I've got an ambitious list, but I honestly don't think I can wait any longer to read a few of these titles:

Reading for a book group where we have to read the debut novel of an author.  Gives me the excuse to finally read Louise Penny.

Another book group read.  I started it a long time ago, put it down, and didn't pick it back up.  This time, I'll finish it, and come at it with a fresh attitude. 

 This book has been so highly anticipated by so many people!  YA fantasy--a debut novel by Tomi Adeyemi.  Something completely different this month. 

Followers of my blog know I love Simone St. James.  This is her latest-in hardcover.  I bought it.  I expect to love this. Fingers crossed!

Short stories--and yes, Michael Andreasen's debut.  I've started this, and am captivated by his imagination.  I need to read more short story collections.  Publisher review.

I've always admired Maria Shriver.  A chance to review this for the publisher had me saying "yes".  A book about life and living it with an open heart and optimism.  I absolutely adore the cover.  

So I'm all over the place with my reads this month.  That's what makes it fun.  I may toss in a light novel to break up the month.  Spring has me wanting to read lighter novels to honor the time change and to celebrate (or mourn?) my release from self-induced hibernation.  Making plans to set up my front porch and back deck for optimal reading experiences as soon as warmer weather hits.  

Happy April!  What books are you reading this month?

Sunday, March 25, 2018

March is the Month of Reading Struggles-and a Review of The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller

Ever have one of those months where you can't wait to read books, and it turns into a complete drag?  March has been that month for me. This post is me tossing in the towel, admitting defeat, and moving on to other books. 😕

I was so excited to read this book.  I made it about 80 pages in, and just gave up.  A little too much philosophizing and not enough concrete story for me.  I am so bummed.  I read the end, and decided I still didn't want to wade through the rest of the story.  

The Philosopher's Flight by Tom Miller was another book I couldn't wait to read, and 50 pages in I was fully engaged and really enjoying the story of Robert Weekes, male philosopher in a world where women have all the power to fly--yes, fly using sigils to control their flights, and a history of rescuing injured soldiers during war and becoming famous around the world.  There is a group called the Trenchers, who think the philosophers are nothing but evil witches, and they routinely hunt down and murder philosophers, and fight to have them banned for good. 

 Robert wants to join the Rescue and Evacuation Department of the U.S. Sigilry Corps, but is up against tradition--only women are allowed entry into this prestigious, yet extremely dangerous Corps.  It's World War I, and the United States is just entering the war.  Young men and women still believe in the romanticism of war, and have no idea of the horrors war actually brings. Robert gains admittance to Radcliffe, one of a handful of men in the philosophy program.   The barriers he runs into are exactly what women have had to deal with over the centuries, and that is probably the best part of this novel.  It's a world where women have the power, and men don't. I did enjoy the characters--they were well formed, interesting people, all with backgrounds that would lend themselves to further exploration if this became a series. 

While I was enthralled with this novel, it only lasted about 100 pages.  Then I struggled mightily to keep going.  I skimmed the last 100 pages because I just didn't want to quit, but I had completely lost the drive to continue.  Why?!  There was a whole lot of inaction in the middle that bogged down the story.  I got a bit lost in the descriptions of certain actions Robert had to complete in his training, and the sigilry descriptions got a bit too much for me.  There is certainly a possibility that there is more to come, and I would be interested in reading more about Robert's life after Radcliffe.  Maybe by then I'd be able to enjoy his fantastic tale.  But as of now, ugh. Just couldn't say this was much fun for me.  

Rating:  3/6 for a novel with a lot of potential and a clever plot.  Too much down time in the middle made me lose interest that I just couldn't get back.  Available in hardcover and e-book. 

Not sure why March has been such a difficult book month for me.  I've got quite a few new books to read for April, and I hope to read a few that help me reset my reading groove.  I feel a big weight off my shoulders admitting defeat and admitting that yes, sometimes a book starts out so good, and sputters to a halt soon after, and there's nothing that will bring it around.  

I'll be posting my April reads this week, before Easter weekend.  I've got a few that I'm reading for book groups, and who knows what else I'll pick?

Happy reading everyone!