Friday, January 29, 2016

Winter Street by Elin Hilderbrand

In Winter Street we are introduced to Kelley and Mitzie Quinn who run the Winter Street Inn on Nantucket Island.  Between them they have four grown children, an ex-wife, and a lover.  The story runs from December 23 to Christmas Evening as the family and their significant others gather.  Within the group, there are multiple issues going on, leading to a wide swath of emotions ranging from sheer joy to utter agony.  One might say that it is a bit unbelievable that so much drama could be happening at once.

It wasn't a happily ever after ending but it kept my spirits high.   The characters were all distinctly individualistic ones.  The story lines and setting were credible and the warmth of the season crept through the book.                                                                      

Everything She Forgot by Lisa Ballantyne

  Some things aren't meant to be remembered...Margaret Holloway was told this as a child.  Margaret Holloway was one of two deputy teachers at Byron Academy, and the only woman on the senior management team.
     As Margaret was driving home, she had her mind elsewhere, on a troubled student, her daughter's acting class, the next day's meeting when she rear-ended another vehicle and was trapped in her car.  The news was calling it the worst pileup in London history.
     Margaret is trapped in her car while other vehicles are piling up on the road behind her.  She tries to get out of the car but finds that she is trapped. Just as she begins to panic, a disfigured stranger pulls her from the car seconds before it's engulfed in flames.  After he has broken the window out and helped Margaret get as far away from the flames as possible, he simply disappears without a word.
     Margaret escapes with minor injuries, but she feels that something's wrong.  She's having trouble concentrating. She's having flashbacks to the crash and also dredging up lost memories from her childhood.  Whatever happened when she was a child, she chose to forget. Somehow, Margaret knows deep down that it has something to do with the man who saved her life. Margaret uncovers a mystery with chilling implications for her family and her very own identity.
      Everything She Forgot is a great mystery with a surprise ending that will keep you reading and guessing until the end. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Since discovering author Neil Gaiman last summer, I’ve been meting out his novels to myself like a harried mother with a limited supply of Halloween candy.  So, after surviving 2015 relatively intact, I rewarded myself with his 2006 novel, Anansi Boys. The novel proved to be a treat worth savoring as it exemplifies the very things that make a Gaiman novel worth letting your clothes lie wrinkling in the dryer: characters that are funny, endearing, and immanently human; a story that is fantastical and engrossing; and a narrative voice that is confiding and not a tiny bit cheeky.

Anansi Boys builds upon themes that readers of his earlier novel, American Gods, will find familiar; however, it can stand alone perfectly well.  The story opens in England, with “everyman” Charlie Nancy.  He’s your average work-a-day fella, the archetypical accountant: shy, quiet, unassuming, and unremarkable in any way.  When pressured by his do-gooder fiancĂ© to attempt to contact his long-estranged father to invite him to their impending nuptials (Charlie’s reluctance to do so stems from what he perceives as a childhood of perpetual and near-fatal embarrassment at the hands of, via proximity to, and on behalf of said father).  Upon phoning a childhood neighbor in Florida, Charlie is surprised to find that his father has quite suddenly died. He crosses the Atlantic to just miss the funeral, and learns two things that beggar belief.  The kindly old neighbor, Mrs. Callyanne Higgler, informs him, matter-of-factly, that his father was the God/Legend Anansi, and that he has a brother, who inherited all the father-to-son god-like traits.  When asked how he might reach this heretofore unknown brother, Mrs. Higgler casually mentions that he need only to speak to a spider on the matter.  One long transatlantic flight and several glasses of wine later, Charlie, on a bit of a lark, does just that.  What follows from there is a wildly entertaining journey that crosses continents and worlds.

Lovers of fantasy and/or plain old clever writing need look no further, Neil Gaiman has it covered.

Posted by Jennifer Wilson

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Mama Tried: Dispatches from the Seamy Underbelly of Modern Parenting by Emily Flake

You know the feeling of dread you get when an acquaintance, or stranger, asks you about a certain topic? You know the topic well. You may even love discussing this topic with your close friends. But you dread having to answer anyone else's queries on the matter because as soon as you enter that conversation you take on the role of a politician holding a press conference. You don't want to offend or be judged on a personal level for the phrasing of your response. You choose each word of your answer more carefully than you crafted your wedding registry because you are so worried about how you may be interpreted. In Mama Tried, Emily Flake doesn't worry about such things as she delves into the controversial topic of modern parenting.

In the first paragraph of the introduction, Flake tells the reader that "Never before in human history has it been so possible to convince yourself you're doing everything horribly, horribly wrong." She is, of course, referring to the plethora of conflicting research to be found on every minuscule aspect of parenting and child-rearing, as well as the so-called "Mommy Wars" that plague every modern parent. None of this is news. If you are a modern parent, you have these things thrown in your face daily in the form of articles trying, almost too desperately at times, to be politically correct. What is a breath of fresh air, however, is Flake's candid, no-filter, nothing is off limits style of writing. Through her accounts of her every parenting experience from deciding when to have children to parenting her toddler, she says exactly what we all want to say but don't for fear of judgement. Her quick whit and blunt humor make her stories flow more like a blog post than your typical work of nonfiction. Upon cracking the cover and flipping through the pages, one would find her work more reminiscent of a children's book than anything - the text broken into short, succinct stories divided by pages of captioned illustrations and comic bits - making it the perfect read for the modern parent who is more concerned with being able to sneak away long enough to use the restroom alone than with finding the time to read a novel.

While the humor and blunt nature of Flake's writing does give Mama Tried a relatable and enjoyable lightheartedness, it also makes the more taboo topics she weaves into her story easier to read about. When she takes her reader through her miscarriage and her period of "the baby blues," we don't feel as though we are being drug through the muck and down into a deep hole of emotion, but we also don't feel cheated of the experience either. Her account is simply matter-of-fact, this is how I felt right, wrong, or indifferent. It commands a certain level of understanding, or at the very least respect, before reading along as she pokes fun at herself and mothers as a whole in the next sentence.

This book is certainly structured in a way as to be enjoyed in the short bursts of time parenting allows us, but I must admit I couldn't put it down and would consider it a great read for any parent. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Curse of Crow Hollow by Billy Coffey

This book begins with a traveler who mistakenly finds his way to Crow Hollow and is invited by the narrator to sit and rest a bit on a bench. There's a story to be told, one rich with superstition and small-town secrets.

Up in Campbell's Mountain resides a widow named Alvaretta Graves ; an old woman rumored to be witch. And after four teenagers trespass upon her property in search of a missing piece of jewelry, the rumors appear to become reality after a sickness sweeps through Crow Hollow, affecting only female teens.

Strange horseshoe-shaped tracks are discovered and the towns people are convinced that Alvaretta has conjured up something evil ; in the form of her late husband Stu Graves. He'd died in an auto accident years earlier and Alvaretta had vowed vengeance after being denied the request of having him buried on her property.

Panic sets in (invoking spiritual revivals and boot-legger paybacks) and soon the residents of Crow Hollow are taking the law into their own hands.

I must admit that I put this book down on more than one occasion, basically because I was having difficulty keeping the characters in order. However ; I'm glad that I finished it. A fictional reminder that there's a fine line between good and evil and occasionally things (and people) are not always what they appear to be.

Friday, January 08, 2016

My Name Is Lucy Barton

There is a simple pretext to Elizabeth Strout's new book. A woman named Lucy Barton is in the hospital, recovering from what should have been a simple operation but has turned into a lengthy hospital stay, and her mother comes from a long distance to see her. Sounds rather uninspiring, right? In this capable author's hands, it is anything but that. Strout uses this simple structure to explore the mother-daughter relationship in deep and illuminating ways. Before this visit, Lucy hasn't spoken to her mother in years. Lucy's childhood was troubled and mired in poverty, and there are complicated feelings of blame from daughter to mother, for not protecting her, for not loving her enough, for not understanding her. Lucy's mother skates over all these issues and over the few days of her visit shares simple gossip of the town and general small talk. But she is reaching out from her own feelings of powerlessness in the only way she can to try to demonstrate her love and regret. And Lucy so obviously needs her. In their simple conversation, we gain glimpses of Lucy's sad past and learn of Lucy's loving, healthy relationship with her own daughters and husband. Strout shows that all relationships are complicated and layered with all kinds of, well, gunk. But every once in a while, even in the worst situations, the gunk can be stripped away to reveal love.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Harbour Street

Ann Cleeves is the best selling author of two very different mysteries.  One series stars Jimmy Perez and takes place on the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland.  Harbour Street is the sixth book in the Vera Stanhope series, which takes place in Newcastle in the north of England.  Vera is not your typical detective though she is smart, bold, and patient..  She is also overweight, out of shape and irrascible.

This case begins during a bad snowstorm in the city of Newcastle.  Detective Joe Ashworth and his daughter Jessie are on the Metro train returning home when it is stopped in its tracks by the snow.  Everyone disembarks, except for one elderly lady who Jessie discovers is dead. Margaret Krukowski was stabbed in the back, assailant not seen.  Vera and her team, including Joe, are assigned to the case.

Margaret lived and worked in a boarding house in Mardle Northumberland run by Kate and her two teenage children.  She also volunteered at a shelter for abused women and was active in the local church.  So the list of suspects include the other boarders, the women at the home, and those who reside or work in the neighborhood.

Vera, Joe, Holly, and Charlie work overtime to check out suspects.  Vera deals with supervising more and less and with Holly who wants praise and attention, which is not Vera's supervisory strength.  As the team delves into Margaret's past, which seems to contain the impetus for the crime, another woman is murdered, which throws the case back into the present.

Vera is a wonderful character.  The stories progress slowly so the different characters can be studied.  The weather always seems to play its own part in her novels, and the snow works to her advantage on several occasions.  These novels are published in England about a year earlier than available in the United States.  So this book has already been filmed as part of the "Vera" series.  The entire series is available at the library.  And if you like these, check out her Jimmy Perez books.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

Many of us have heard of the Marquis de Lafayette at some point in our lives, whether he was a footnote in our high school history books or if we have stopped to look at the sign on the statue outside of the Tippecanoe County courthouse. But have we ever wondered who this man was that inspired the names of countless towns, parks, and streets around the country? The story of Lafayette and his role in American history is fascinating. He was a 19-year-old who abandoned his pregnant wife to come to America in search of military glory (not just without pay, but at his own expense). He was a cunning strategist, valuable ally, and good friend to George Washington. He was a celebrity so huge that when he returned to America in 1824, more than 80,000 New Yorkers (65% of the city’s population) came out to greet his ship, and his face was plastered on commemorative souvenirs including women’s gloves. Intrigued? So was I. The story of Lafayette and the French government’s role in the revolution is a complicated one, and Vowell faces the challenge head on, digging deep into both Lafayette’s life and the events of the war, telling the tale in a way only she can.
Sarah Vowell is one of those authors who is difficult to describe. On the surface it appears she writes about American history, but there is so much more to her books than that. She includes social commentary, witticisms, and her own personal experiences and thoughts. In Lafayette, she is quick to point out that she is not an historian but an "historian-adjacent, narrative nonfiction wiseguy,” which is a pretty accurate description. Where she really shines is in her ability to make historical events not just relatable, but pertinent to modern life. This is not just the story of Lafayette and the French, but also a story of the often contentious beginnings of our country. This is the somewhat United States, a country founded on disagreement and compromise and the strain of states’ rights vs. the federal government. The struggles we see today are not new, and, Vowell argues, are what make such a large country full of such disparate interests and factions somehow work.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is a well-researched, entertaining read for anyone who enjoys their history with a dose of humor and insight. 
-posted by Portia Kapraun