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.