Tuesday, June 13, 2017

PARTY GIRLS DIE IN PEARLS by Plum Sykes






I went through a period in my twenties where I loved reading fiction about wealthy New Yorkers and other celebutantes and their white collar problems. At the time, a whole slew of writers was releasing books like these including Lauren Weisberger and Emma McLaughlin and Candace Bushnell. And, of course, Plum Sykes. It has been a few years since Sykes' last novel so I was excited to see this one come out. But, instead of New York, I was surprised to find that Sykes' latest book takes place in Oxford in the 1980s. And it's a mystery!

Ursula Flowerbutton arrives at Oxford in 1985 with dreams of learning in hallowed halls and writing for the prestigious Cherwell newspaper.  Upon her arrival, she meets wealthy American Nancy Feingold who not only becomes a fast friend but also provides Ursula entreĆ© into elite Oxford society. The fun is cut short when Ursula discovers a wealthy classmate murdered in a don's room. Determined to solve the mystery and prove herself worthy to be a journalist at Cherwell, Ursula begins her investigation and starts uncovering all sorts of sordid secrets within the walls of Oxford.

The best part of PARTY GIRLS DIE IN PEARLS were all the wonderful details that Sykes includes about Oxford life. Sykes attended Oxford and fills her book with all sorts of insider information and footnotes to explain cultural phenomena that may not be familiar to younger readers. I felt as if I were reading "Less Than Zero" in an Oxford setting. (and more humor!)  The mystery itself is fairly pedestrian. Sykes leaves enough clues that it is fairly easy to figure out where the mystery is heading. The most fun lies in the inside glimpse into life at Oxford and its students during the 1980s.  The book is a very fast and enjoyable read. Perfect for your next vacation.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. PARTY GIRLS DIE IN PEARLS is an enjoyable vacation read that is hard to put down.




Wednesday, May 31, 2017

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

( I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher)

This one was tough. I am usually a big fan of speculative/dystopian fiction but it has gotten harder for me to enjoy this type of novel in the current geopolitical climate. Books like AMERICAN WAR offer a more plausible glimpse of the future than ever before.

AMERICAN WAR is told primarily in flashbacks and follows one family's experience during the Second American Civil War in the mid- to late 21st Century. The Chestnut family lives in what is left of Louisiana. Rising waters have covered large portions of the United States coastlines and the country is fractured between what is left of the traditional U.S. (The Blue) and the rebels Southern states (the Red). Sarat Chestnut's family falls in the Purple area. Sarat lives with her parents, her older brother, and her twin sister in a modified shipping container and barely get by. Their lives are changed forever when Sarat's father is killed by a rebel suicide bomber while attempting to get a work permit to move his family north. This death sets into motion a chain of events that will eventually have repercussions for the entire nation.

I found this book entirely plausible. Much of the conflict between the southern and northern states seemed to center around fossil fuels. After they are outlawed in the North, the South continues to use them and flout the authority of the North in a resistance reminiscent of the states' rights battle over slavery. In the ensuing war, the nation is left fractured with the rebel states continuing to resist and live under their own governance. South Carolina has been wiped out by an ineradicable disease set off by the federal government. Suicide bombers and terrorists are a facet of everyday life and bomb-dropping drones that can no longer be controlled randomly kill innocent people. It is the stuff of nightmares.

I don't want to give too much away but much of the book focuses on how circumstances can change us and the course of our lives. While it doesn't justify or excuse radical action, it offers a plausible explanation about how one individual can go from innocent to murderer. The characters are interesting and the story is heartbreaking. El Akkad offers very little in the way of hope or comfort.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. This wasn't pleasure reading but it was fascinating and thought-provoking. As we watch events unfold in the book, it is difficult not to draw parallels with some of what is happening around us today. We can only hope for a happier ending than El Akkad gives us.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

THE EXPLORERS: THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY by Adrienne Kress


(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.)

When I was a child, I dreamed of adventure in far-off places. I think this was mostly fueled by the subscription to NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC that my grandfather bought me along with "Indiana Jones." The idea of exploring new places and cultures became so ingrained in me that I eventually went on to get an advanced degree in Anthropology. Oddly enough, I never discovered a new culture or rare artifact. Most of my travel has been done in museums. But I still dream of adventure and discovery.

THE EXPLORERS immediately appealed to my inner child--the one who still dreams of being a part of a secret society of explorers who travel the world.  The book whimsically begins with a pig in a tiny hat. How can one not be drawn in by that? 12-year-old Sebastian is a well-behaved, responsible young man studying math and science at a special school. His no-nonsense background does not prepare him for a run-in with a little pig wearing a hat. After changing his regular route from school one day, Sebastian and his friend encounter an unfamiliar alley with an unfamiliar door. The door has a plaque beside it that reads: The Explorers Society. After the initial encounter, Sebastian can't stop thinking about the mysterious door and returns to the alley where he runs into the little pig with a hat. This encounter provides with him an introduction into the mysterious Explorers Society where he begins a kind of internship/indentured servitude.

Sebastian discovers all sorts of fascinating things in the Society while attending to his various chores. After being encouraged by Society members to "do something inappropriate," Sebastian discovers a hidden wooden box in a wall containing information about ANOTHER mysterious group of explorers called the Filipendulous Five. When Sebastian attempts to learn more about this group of adventurers, his efforts are firmly rebuffed. Just when he is about to give up, he runs into a girl named Evie who has been thrown out of the Society after attempting to find help. Evie is an orphan. Until recently, she ate dinner once a week with a bland couple named the Andersons. At the last dinner, the evening took an unexpected turn when some sinister men forced their way into the home of the Andersons and attacked them and burned the house. Evie managed to escape with instructions directing her to find help at The Explorers Society. As it turns out, Evie is the granddaughter of one of the Filipendulous Five. Evie and Sebastian decide to find out what happened to the Filipendulous Five, to uncover the intentions of the sinister men, and to try and discover the whereabouts of Evie's missing grandfather.

The book is filled with interesting and eccentric characters and the two children are lovely. While there is quite a bit of adventure-style peril, it is on a par with a "Spy Kids" type movie and not age inappropriate. The book also contains a great deal of humor which tempers the suspense. The book ends on a cliffhanger leaving readers anxiously awaiting the next installment. All in all, it's a great choice for kids looking for an exciting read and would be a great choice for Summer reading.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. This book kept me entertained as an adult. The main characters were likeable and I enjoyed the quirky details in the story along with the perfect amount of peril and adventure. Looking forward to the next book!

Thursday, February 09, 2017

I SEE YOU by Clare Mackintosh


I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.


I have definitely been in the mood for a good suspense book and this one has all the ingredients for a great vacation read. On her commute on the London Underground, Zoe Walker spots her photograph in the classified section in an ad for a mysterious site called "FindTheOne.com." Zoe is surprised but not overly disturbed until she reads a story about a victim of a recent violent crime and realizes that woman was featured in the same ad. Zoe begins to draw connections between the women featured in the ad and violent crimes that have been happening. Desperate to find help before she becomes the next victim, Zoe reaches out to Detective Kelly Swift. The two women must work together to find the person behind the mysterious ads before another woman becomes a victim.

A few years ago, I read a book by Claire Kendal called THE BOOK OF YOU about a stalker and I SEE YOU reminded me a lot of that book. However, Mackintosh's book adds a modern touch of technology and visibility. With all of the cameras that surround us every day and all of the focus on connectedness on the internet, it is easier than ever to find details on strangers. The whole premise is unsettling. I appreciated the fact that it wasn't easy to figure out what was going to happen. The ending wasn't as cut and dry as I expected it to be. The twist at the end was a little hard to believe but it definitely left me with a chill.

Overall, this book would make a terrific vacation read. It is fast-paced and definitely holds one's interest. While I don't think I would ever read it again, it was very entertaining and I will feel very different about public transportation from now on!

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended as a vacation read. Throw this one in your bag or download the ebook for your next vacation. You will want to read this one in a bright, sunny location to offset the the creepiness factor.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

What's Next?



We are almost a month into 2017 and I am trying to plow through as many books as possible.

Completed in January 2017:

A SIMPLE FAVOR by Darcey Bell
A GAMBLER'S ANATOMY by Jonathan Lethem
THE ROANOKE GIRLS by Amy Engel
NIGHT OF FIRE by Colin Thubron
NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles


I am also thisclose to finishing PRESENT OVER PERFECT by Shauna Niequist.


Of my completed January reads, I would recommend NIGHT OF FIRE and NEWS OF THE WORLD. I was surprised by NEWS OF THE WORLD. I really didn't like Jiles' COLOR OF LIGHTNING and didn't even finish it. NEWS OF THE WORLD was short but sweet. A lovely character study of an old man and his unlikely connection with a young rescued Native American captive. NIGHT OF FIRE was fantastic. It was almost like a collection of short stories loosely held together by a fire. In the story, a divided Victorian building catches on fire. During the night of fire, the reader visits each of the apartments and learns the stories of the inhabitants. I was completely drawn in by the book. And I ended up with lots of questions! I handed my copy off to my friend Megan and I hope we can have a good discussion when she finishes it.

Although I really enjoy Lethem and think he is a gifted writer, GAMBLER'S ANATOMY was not one of my favorites. A SIMPLE FAVOR tried too hard to be the next GONE GIRL. It would be a good vacation read but is ultimately forgettable. THE ROANOKE GIRLS was a big disappointment. It sounded so intriguing! I am always a sucker for "family secret" books (as my regular readers know.)  This one was over the top. The family secret was too extreme and the whole book just didn't work.

Looking forward to seeing what February brings!

I am really craving books that will inspire me and comfort me this year. Non-fiction and fiction. So, what do YOU recommend I read next?

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Favorite Reads of 2016

(Image Source)



In the chronological order in which I read them:



1. THE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

2. A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman

3. EVERYBODY'S FOOL by Richard Russo

4. DOLLHOUSE by Fiona Davis

5. READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND by Katarina Bivald

6. MISCHLING by Affinity Konar

7.  FILL THE SKY by Katherine A. Sherbrooke

8. FIFTH PETAL by Brunonia Berry  (2017 release)

9. MOONGLOW by Michael Chabon (2017 release)

10. SETTING FREE THE KITES by Alex George

11. THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING by Fannie Flagg

I read a lot of suspense in 2016 but, as the year went on, I found myself drawn to comforting books about small towns, books, and people being good to people. So, my favorites were probably MAN CALLED OVE, READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND, and THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING.  Consider them the book version of comfort food!

I am excited to begin a new year of reading. As usual, I challenge myself to read 52 books a year. My focus is primarily literary fiction but I am always up for a good suspense/mystery novel. Longtime readers know I have a special weak spot for Gothic/family secret mysteries.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING by Fannie Flagg



I am a long-time fan of Fannie Flagg. She is such a gifted storyteller and her books just make you feel good. Last week, I was down with a really bad cold. I had Flagg's newest book in my library bag and that was my companion while I was ill. It was the perfect read not only for a sick bed but also for someone who has been feeling down about the world in general lately.

THE WHOLE TOWN'S TALKING tells the story of the town of Elmwood Springs in Missouri from its founding by Swedish dairy farmer Lordor Nordstorm in the 1800s to its disintegration around the year 2020. The story begins with Lordor's founding of the town and his search for the perfect mail-order bride. We learn about the founding families of the town and how they came together to do everything from plan the very first cemetery in town (Still Meadows) to the creation of a real downtown business district and on to the future. Readers follow the stories of these intrepid Swedes and their descendents as they live and love and experience a variety of calamities. At first, the title appears to be about the good-natured gossip that occurs around a small town. But then, readers learn that Still Meadows may be anything but "still."

This book is absolutely charming. It is so easy to get caught up in the stories of these characters as we follow them through establishing a town and various wars and economic booms and hardships. There is sadness along the way but it is mitigated in a very special way. As the book ends around the year 2020, it feels bittersweet but ends on an ultimate note of hope that leaves you feeling good.

BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. A great read for when you need a little hope in your life. An excellent "feel good" read.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Winter Stories

Each year, my son and I get out FIRESIDE STORIES from Barefoot Books right before Halloween. This is a collection of stories for special occasions throughout the Winter months.


The first tale is meant to be read on Halloween. We were a few days late this year. It is called "The Lonely Boatman" from Scotland and is more mysterious than spooky. Even though we don't get where we live in California, my son insisted reading the next tale which is meant to be read on the first snowfall.

We'll read the next tale on Christmas Eve.

My son ALWAYS insists we have a fire going when we read from the book. I am so happy that Barefoot Books FINALLY reissued this out of print title. Now, you can get it too!

I love reading out loud to my son by the fire but sometimes my voice gets tired, That is where Sparkle Stories comes into play!

A few years ago, Sparkle Stories released an audio Advent calendar. For the 25 days leading up to Christmas, the whole family sat down and listened to a 10-25 minute story each evening. It was a wonderful way to spend time together. The original audio Advent calendar is still available but they will be releasing a new version this holiday season from "Junkyard Tales." My son is so excited because that is his very favorite story series from Sparkle Stories.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

LET THEM PLAY by Jerry Lynch


(I received a copy of this book from the publisher.)

Last year, my family entered the world of competitive sports with soccer and basketball. I was not an athletic child but my son loves sports. This is all new to me. As a parent, you hear stories about sporting events and the bad behavior of other parents. So far, I haven't witnessed any of this. However, if we continue with sports, I know this issue will come up. Even at a very low, fairly non-competitive level, I often find myself getting overly involved with the game from the sidelines. I call my son's name and shout at him what I think he should be doing. After reading this book, I think I may have to change my behavior.

In his book, Lynch ties together elements of psychology and spiritual principles to give parents and coaches a game plan for giving children positive experiences in organized sports. Lynch points out that, "the magic of sport can influence a significant portion of a child's physical and emotional development for years to come. These include learning how to fail, how to succeed, how to overcome self-doubt, how to get stronger mentally and emotionally, and how to develop selflessness." Sounds good, right? But what happens when parents and coaches intervene in this process in negative ways? Lynch provides a bunch of "food for thought" as well as offering concrete ways to give children positive experiences utilizing tools such as meditation, compassion, visualization, and more. He ends the book with a Code of Conduct for adults so that our kids can truly enjoy organized sports without negative influence.

As a parent, I found this book very useful and easy to read. Especially as my son enters competitive basketball season!  I will be passing it on to my son's soccer coach and hope to share it with other parents as well. These simple reminders can help our kids get all of the good stuff out of organized sports and avoid the dreaded "parental interference" from the sidelines.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. A great tool for parents and coaches.

Monday, October 03, 2016

FILL THE SKY by Katherine Sherbrooke


(I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher)

I think that sometimes a book will find you at just the right moment in your life. Sometimes, we have to be in a particular frame of mind in order to be open to a story. I think FILL THE SKY came at just the right moment for me.

FILL THE SKY follows three forty-something friends who have been friends since they were college roommates. Tess is an independent biotech entrepreneur who has a hard time letting people in. Joline is a life coach who deeply believes in new age methods of healing. Ellie is a wife and mother who is dying of lung cancer. The three friends head to Ecuador on a quest to visit traditional healers who may be able to help heal Ellie. Each of the women comes to Ecuador with an important life choice to make.

I loved the fact that this book focused on forty-something women. It can be hard to find books like that these days. Each of the women was strong and powerful in her own way and brought unique gifts to the journey. I loved seeing how each woman struggled with her own problems while on this quest for healing. Sherbrooke shared the healing ceremonies in a way that made them seem beautiful instead of hokey. While each woman had to confront some painful truths while on the journey, I loved how the book had an underlying sense of hope. I found the ending to be tremendously satisfying.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. This is a lovely story of friendship and healing. All of the characters were sympathetic and interesting and the setting was so appealing that it made me want to jump on a plane to Ecuador. Save this one for fireside or vacation reading.