Friday, February 27, 2015

Just Jennifer

Lighten’ Up, Y’all by Virginia Willis

Virginia Willis is a trained French chef and a born and bred Southern woman---rich sauces and gooey cheesey dishes are a natural for her.  Eating rich, deep fried foods takes its toll over the years and when this Food Network columnist decided to try and eat more healthfully and lose a few pounds, she was adamant she would not give up any of her favorite foods in the process.  Instead, Willis took her knowledge of good, healthy foods and combined that with what tastes good, added a dash of Southern sass and created riffs on traditional Southern favorites such as macaroni and cheese (add broccoli to up the nutritional content and use less of more flavorful cheeses), cornbread (Willis perfected the ratio of vegetables to cornbread batter that will produce the dense, cake-like crumb that is so familiar) and when she needs to ramp up the flavor?  Add a small amount of well-flavored bacon, well-cooked to render as much fat as possible, leaving behind only smoky goodness.  While most of Willis’s tips are sensible, not everyone will want to spray their carefully dredged okra with cooking spray instead of using a small amount of olive oil and some may rather use less cheese than choose the low-fat versions Willis recommends.  A chicken burger stays moist with grated apple and cheddar cheese; a mixture that would be equally at home in a stuffed bell pepper or hollowed out summer squash.  Willis cooks seasonally and pairs sweet summer corn with juicy ripe tomatoes to make a light summer dish; she uses the ubiquitous Southern staple, sweet tea, as a brine for a turkey tenderloin, and no Southern cookbook would be complete without a biscuit and gravy recipe, turkey sausage standing in for a fuller fat pork sausage without sacrificing any taste.  Breezy and chatty, Willis’s style is easy, her recipes approachable and full of easily found ingredients, leaving readers feeling as though they’ve made a new friend in the kitchen and eager to seek out Willis’s earlier cookbooks Bon Appetite, Y’all and Basic to Brilliant, Y’all when looking for something a little more decadent. 

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Just Jennifer

A Memory of Violets by Hazel Gaynor (William Morrow)


On the streets of late nineteenth century London, Irish sisters Flora and Rosie Flynn sell nosegays of violets and primroses with their mother.  After their mother dies, leaving the two young girls orphans, they continue to try and eek out an existence, clinging to each other and their sweet flowers until the two are inexplicably and tragically separated.  Forty years later, Tilly Harper leaves her home in the Lake District to be the housemother at Mr. Shaw’s Home for Watercress and Flower Girls, a place that provides shelter, food and care for flower girls who are either orphaned or no longer able to sell their flowers, giving them a place to live other than in the doorways of the London streets.  As Tilly settles in, she finds the belongings of Flora Flynn, including her diary, seeded with dried flowers.  Flora’s diary is the heartbreaking search for her sister Rosie and Tilly decides to take up Flora’s quest and try and find out what happened to Rosie, not realizing where her search will lead her and the profound effects it will have on her own life.  Beautifully written, with careful attention to detail both characters and setting, A Memory of Violets depicts two eras in London’s history connected by time and circumstance.  The only thing that could make this book more beautiful would be if the illustrations at the head of each chapter were rendered in color.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Just Jennifer

What You Left Behind by Samantha Hayes (April 2015)


Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher has returned to her home town of Radcote for a vacation.  Staying in the house in which she grew up in with her sister Jo and her nephew Freddie proves to be anything but restful.  Two years ago, a string of teenage suicides left the English village numb and fearing for its teenagers.  Now a young homeless man has been killed in a motorcycle accident that has been ruled a suicide and Freddie has been very tense and secretive, raising suspicion in his aunt’s policewoman’s mind.  As clues start appearing to Lorraine she pushes the local police to look further into the rash of suicides, suspecting that the deaths may not have be suicides at all and that other factors have played into the deaths, but nothing in Lorraine’s training or experience could prepare her for what she is about to uncover and how close to danger her family is placed.  Chilling and twisted, this plot does not stop until the final pages when one last shocking secret is revealed.  

Just Jennifer

Night Night, Sleep Tight by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, March 2015)

Award winning author Hallie Ephron is back with another novel of suspense and betrayal, one that will transport readers back to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and 1980’s, a time when anything went, including murder.  In 1985, Deirdre Unger returns to the Beverly Hills home of her childhood to help her father, screenwriter Arthur Unger, ready it for sale.  Deirdre is devastated when she finds her father’s body at the bottom of the lap pool he has used daily for many years.  Certain that this was a tragic accident, Deirdre is stunned when she learns the police have opened a homicide investigation and is even more shocked when she becomes a person of interest during the course of the investigation.  Dazed by these events, Deidre is even more thrown when she realizes the Realtor Arthur had contracted with was Joelen Nichol, the daughter of a once legendary actress, Bunny Nichol, and Deirdre’s best friend through school, a friend from whom she has not heard since 1963 when they were fifteen.  One fateful night after a party at the Nichol’s home, Bunny’s boyfriend was stabbed to death, a murder to which Joelen confessed.  In his rush to remove Deirdre from the scene, Arthur was involved in a car accident that left Deirdre with a lame leg.  At the time, Deirdre never considered that these two events might be connected, but as she, as literary executrix, begins to sort through Arthur’s papers, she uncovers clues to secrets that have been hidden for over twenty years, secrets that someone is obviously willing to kill for in order to keep them buried; but just how far is the killer willing to go and how many more people will die if these secrets are revealed?

This novel is full of the glitz and glamour of an early era (Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills during this time); subtle reminders of times gone by (Deirdre purchases an outfit ala Jennifer Beals in Flashdance) keep readers firmly in the past lest they forget and wonder where the cell phones and internet are.  It feels as if Deirdre has been floundering in the last two decades since her accident and the divorce of her parents and her mother’s relocation to a meditative compound where she is out of communication most of the time, even with her children (Deirdre has an unmarried brother Henry still living in the family home with Arthur).  Readers watch as Deirdre grows stronger, firmer in her resolve not to be a victim and to find the truth, not only with regards to her father’s death but the truth from 1963.  Once she learns the truth though, she realizes how dangerous the knowledge is and must make a difficult choice to save lives, leading to an unsettling by satisfying conclusion.  Ephron continues to be at the top of her game as she creates tension and suspense with nuanced characters and an unforgettable plot with more twists and turns than the canyon roads Deirdre travels on her way home.

Just Jennifer

Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight (Harper, April 2015)


The author of the 2013 hit Reconstructing Amelia is back with her sophomore effort, a chilling tale with secrets that go back decades in a small Northern New Jersey town, affecting the lives of four women and their families in most unforeseen ways. Molly, her husband Justin and their five-year-old daughter have moved to Ridgedale (a Morristown/Madison-esque town) where Justin has just gotten a job at the university.  Molly, normally the features writer for the local paper, is assigned to cover the story of a baby’s body found on the outskirts of the campus, a story that is a little too close to home for Molly who is still grieving for her stillborn baby.  Barbara, the wife of the police chief, seems to have everything under control until her five-year-old son begins acting out and her seventeen-year-old daughter Hannah becomes more withdrawn; sixteen-year-old Sandy has dropped out of high school and is being tutored by Hannah for her GED.  Sandy is also searching for her mother Jenna who has disappeared taking Sandy’s emergency money with her.  As Molly begins to work on her story, she begins to find cracks in the fa├žade of the seemingly perfect and finds honesty in unexpected places.  Carefully plotted and laid out, sometimes a little too much so, Where They Found Her uncovers secrets never meant to be in the first place and delves into some very disturbing subjects as Molly searches for the identity of the baby and unravels the twisted strands of lives that prove to be much closer to home than she thought.  

Just Jennifer

Against the Grain by Nancy Cain (Clarkson Potter)

After her son was diagnosed with celiac disease, Nancy Cain made a decision that she and her family would be gluten free, a challenge with two teenage boys, especially when homemade pizza night was a family ritual.  Cain set about learning to bake using gluten free ingredients and was frustrated and disappointed with the results.  Learning about the ingredients and techniques essential to quality gluten free baked goods, Cain learned how to make gluten free products that rivaled their traditional counterparts without chemicals or additives, such as xanthan gum.  Hitting upon what Cain considered to be the perfect gluten free pizza crust proved to be the catalyst for a new business venture for the Vermont woman and Against the Grain Gourmet was born; this cookbook is the result of endless hours and experiments, some successful, some not so successful.  Cain generously shares not only her rrecipes but also her tips and advice for gluten free baking and the reasons why certain ingredients work better than others.  Cain not only includes recipes for basic breads (using the startchiness of potatoes and their cooking water to add structure to the bread) to more complex breads made with a sourdough starter and ambitious bagels and donuts.  In addition to chapters on the usual quick breads and desserts, Cain includes a chapter of dishes that use these gluten free products (such as fiesta panzanella) and savory dishes such as lemon-thyme summer squash ravioli, a dish that could easily be adapted for use with traditional pasta.  Full of recipes that really work made with healthful ingredients, Against the Grain is sure to be a hit with those living a gluten free lifestyle as well as to those just trying to eat a little more healthfully without sacrificing variety and flavor.
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Just Jennifer

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon (William Morrow, February 2015)


Stay at home dad Simon Connolly thinks he has done a pretty good job raising his son, 17-year-old Jake and younger daughter Laney.  At times, he has felt awkward around the stay at home moms in the neighborhood, but nothing prepares him for the anger and accusations that will be hurled at him after his son becomes a suspect in a high school shooting.  As Simon waits with other parents to be reunited with his children, beyond his worst fears are recognized when he is the sole remaining parent, even after the parents of children who have been killed are notified and led away.  Jake is missing, but even more confusing, heartbreaking and unbelievable, Jake is considered to be a suspect, along with his childhood friend Doug Martin-Klein who died at the scene of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Simon and his wife Rachel, an attorney supporting the family, begin to doubt each other as Simon searches for Jake, ultimately doubting himself and the parenting job he did with the quiet son he thought he knew so well.  In flashbacks, Simon looks for signs that he could have seen this coming, but in the end, knows in his heart that Jake could never have participated in this carnage against his classmates.  What Simon finds is heartbreaking but affirms that he did know his son as well as he thought.  Well-paced, first time novelist Reardon keeps suspense high as a father searches for the son he thinks he knows and a way to live with the consequences of an unthinkable tragedy.

Just Jennifer

The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos (William Morrow, March 2015)

Ghostwriter Taisy Cleary and her twin brother Marcus have been estranged from their father for over fifteen years, since they were eighteen when he left their mother for another woman with whom he had another daughter and made another life.  Out of nowhere, Wilson Cleary calls Taisy and invites her (and Marcus) to visit for an unspecified period of time to get to know her half-sister, sixteen-year-old Willow, and write Wilson’s memoir.  Taisy is not sure why, or won’t admit to herself why she is willing to make the seven hour drive back to her home town, but does.  Upon arrival, she finds Wilson not entirely recovered from a recent heart attack, his wife Caroline (Caro) an artist, suffering dangerously from parasomnia and Willow, an exceptionally bright young woman who has just begun attending a private high school after having been home-schooled her entire life.  Told effectively from the alternating viewpoints of Taisy and Willow, the story of two families unfolds and the story of a brilliant scientist who often treats his family as if they were a lab experiment, trying to control the environment and outcomes.  Taisy begins to investigate Wilson’s background, against his wishes, for the arrogant man’s biography and finds herself seeking out Ben, the man she left behind but has never stopped loving.  Willow negotiates the minefield that is high school, being ostracized by her new classmates, but receiving not entirely unwanted, though completely inappropriate attention from a teacher.

This novel features strong, almost too good to be true women, and weak, sometimes reprehensible men who do not come to their senses until a woman sets them straight, yet it doesn’t feel heavy handed but almost redemptive for everyone who is deemed worthy of redemption.  A pleasant, quick read, The Precious One provides a glimpse at the families we are born into and how we navigate them and recreate them into the families we need at the times we need them the most.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Just Jennifer

Behind Closed Doors by Elizabeth Haynes (Harper, March 2015)

DCI Louisa Smith has long regretted not being able to find fifteen-year-old Scarlett Rainsford who disappeared ten years ago while on holiday in Greece with her family.  A recent brothel raid in Lou’s district, Briarstone, has turned up Scarlett who appears to be in good physical and mental condition, though she is very tacit and less than forthcoming with information and not at all interested in seeing her family, only asking after her sister Juliette whose own emotional state is considered tentative.  DS Sam Hollands takes the lead on working with Scarlett, trying to uncover the secrets she harbors, secrets Hollands feels goes much deeper than Scarlett’s ten year absence.  Lou and her team are busily working on the murder of a bar owner and the beating of a nineteen-year-old male, two crimes that Lou is certain are connected if only they could just catch a break; when that break comes, no one is more surprised than Lou where it leads.

Haynes’s style of telling the story from various points of view, past and present with short time and date stamped chapters is, for the most part effective, but does get a little confusing with Scarlett’s narrative.  The insertion of police reports helps summarize certain events and interviews without having to devote several pages to them.  Lou is an interesting character, seemingly tough as nails and wholly devoted to her career, but in reality is more fragile and affected by things than she’ll admit to herself and certainly not to her boyfriend Jason.  This second entry into the Briarstone crime series has a different feel from Haynes’s earlier stand-alone novels, but still has the same psychological tension and twisty plots she is noted for. 

Just Jennifer

Down Don’t Bother Me by Jason Miller (Bourbon Street Books, March 2015)

Slim, a single father to a twelve-year-old daughter, doesn’t really like his job in the Southern Illinois coal mine called Knight Hawk; his supervisors know Slim is hardworking but still don’t like him, continue giving him the most distasteful assignments.  A reporter is found deep below ground, dead, a notebook stuffed in his mouth and mine owner Matthew Luster isn’t happy.  In addition, Guy Beckett, a photographer who had been working on a story with the reporter has disappeared---oh, and one more thing: Guy is Luster’s son-in-law.  Slim has a reputation for finding people who disappear “blood-hounding: as Luster calls it; Luster promises Slim a secure pension and secure health insurance for Slim and his daughter if he can find Beckett.  Slim is hesitant, especially after his first meeting with Temple, Beckett’s daughter, and a roughing up by someone posing as a cop, but something Temple said stays with Slim and gives him a slight idea of why Beckett has disappeared, but he just can’t quite put his finger on it yet.  If Slim is correct, life for Slim and everyone connected with Knight Hawk will never be the same again.

A gritty atmosphere, both literally and figuratively, defines this first novel and provides a backdrop against which characters struggle to do more than just survive.  Slim’s daughter is a very grown-up twelve and can see beyond her small Illinois town. Slim’s lady friend Peggy is very cautious in her relationship with Slim, but knows Slim is hardworking and honest and adores his daughter, but also knows her limitations and what she can bear.  Slim knows Luster must have his reasons for entrusting the task of finding Beckett to to Slim rather than the police and he grows even more uneasy---but more determined---when he discovers that he may have stumbled into something much bigger than he ever imagined having to handle.  Good instincts, a calm head and a secret weapon from his past help Slim put all the pieces together before it is too late for him and those he loves, even if it is too late for everyone else. 

Just Jennifer

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell (Harper, March 2015)

The Alter sisters, Lady, Vee and Delph are perfectly delightful if somewhat quirky, to those who know them.  As they approach their mid-fifties and the turn of the twentieth-century they are living together in their family’s Upper West Side apartment and have decided their lives will end as the twentieth-century comes to a close.  But first they need a suicide note, outlining the reasons for their decisions, reasons that stretch back generations to their great-grandfather who was considered by some to be a brilliant scientist and whose inventions and discoveries help people to kill each other more efficiently.  Living with the lore of bad luck and many familial suicides, including their own mother, the sisters feel that the sins, in this case of the great-grandfather, are visited in the next several generations---much like the Kennedys, and decide this curse must end with them.  A mysterious turn of events that begins in a September storm calls into question everything the sisters have learned and believed of their heritage and might---just might---give them a way out of their fate.

A detailed, deeply felt portrait of multiple generations of one family, A Reunion of Ghosts seamlessly, with gorgeous prose, intertwines the lives of historical figures with fictional characters as a family tree of sadness and bad luck is traced by three beguiling, very funny women, who ingeniously use a suicide note for three to define their family and its roll in events of the twentieth century. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Just Jennifer

Night Night, Sleep Tight by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow, March 2015)

Award winning author Hallie Ephron is back with another novel of suspense and betrayal, one that will transport readers back to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and 1980’s, a time when anything went, including murder.  In 1985, Deirdre Unger returns to the Beverly Hills home of her childhood to help her father, screenwriter Arthur Unger, ready it for sale.  Deirdre is devastated when she finds her father’s body at the bottom of the lap pool he has used daily for many years.  Certain that this was a tragic accident, Deirdre is stunned when she learns the police have opened a homicide investigation and is even more shocked when she becomes a person of interest during the course of the investigation.  Dazed by these events, Deidre is even more thrown when she realizes the Realtor Arthur had contracted with was Joelen Nichol, the daughter of a once legendary actress, Bunny Nichol, and Deirdre’s best friend through school, a friend from whom she has not heard since 1963 when they were fifteen.  One fateful night after a party at the Nichol’s home, Bunny’s boyfriend was stabbed to death, a murder to which Joelen confessed.  In his rush to remove Deirdre from the scene, Arthur was involved in a car accident that left Deirdre with a lame leg.  At the time, Deirdre never considered that these two events might be connected, but as she, as literary executrix, begins to sort through Arthur’s papers, she uncovers clues to secrets that have been hidden for over twenty years, secrets that someone is obviously willing to kill for in order to keep them buried; but just how far is the killer willing to go and how many more people will die if these secrets are revealed?

This novel is full of the glitz and glamour of an early era (Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills during this time); subtle reminders of times gone by (Deirdre purchases an outfit ala Jennifer Beals in Flashdance) keep readers firmly in the past lest they forget and wonder where the cell phones and internet are.  It feels as if Deirdre has been floundering in the last two decades since her accident and the divorce of her parents and her mother’s relocation to a meditative compound where she is out of communication most of the time, even with her children (Deirdre has an unmarried brother Henry still living in the family home with Arthur).  Readers watch as Deirdre grows stronger, firmer in her resolve not to be a victim and to find the truth, not only with regards to her father’s death but the truth from 1963.  Once she learns the truth though, she realizes how dangerous the knowledge is and must make a difficult choice to save lives, leading to an unsettling by satisfying conclusion.  Ephron continues to be at the top of her game as she creates tension and suspense with nuanced characters and an unforgettable plot with more twists and turns than the canyon roads Deirdre travels on her way home.

Just Jennifer

Lacy Eye by Jessica Treadway (Grand Central, March 10, 2015)

Three years again, Hanna and Joe were beaten in their home and left for dead: Joe did not survive, but Hanna did.  Their youngest daughter Dawn’s boyfriend Rud was tried and convicted of the attack and murder; charges were brought against Dawn but she was not indicted.  Rud has just won an appeal and a new trial.  Hanna, who has no memory of the attack, vows to remember what happened that night to ensure Rud is kept imprisoned for the rest of his life.  Upon hearing this news, Dawn returns home to live with her mother and slowly, memories return to Hannah, memories that make her questions everything she thought she knew about her daughter, about herself and about her family. 

Although readers may realize from the beginning there is only one inevitable conclusion, Hanna’s trip of discover of the family of which she was proud and discovery of herself, is a fascinating journey. When Dawn was first diagnosed with amblyopia or “lazy eye”, she thought the doctor said “lacy eye” and it became Joe’s catch phrase for when he felt his family was not seeing things clearing or trying to fancy up a situation.  Hanna spends much of her time reliving Dawn’s childhood and teenage years, fraught with teasing and bullying, to see where she may have gone wrong, but misses where she went right with her older daughter, Iris, even though she didn’t lavish Irish with as much attention growing up aw she did Dawn, yet when all is said and done and it is Hanna who needs saving from her memories, her guilt, herself, it is Iris who steps up and provides support, much to Hanna’s surprise.  Even more than the story of a family in crisis, this is the story of a woman in crisis, alone, having lost the person on whom she could truly depend and finding strength within herself and from unexpected people to continue to life safe and free from guilt.

Just Jennifer

Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy (Putnam, March 3, 2015)

Jacob McNeely realizes his life in the Appalachian town of Cashiers, North Carolina is harsher than most.  His mother is a crack addict, living away from her son and husband from whom she stole the drugs, angering the man who runs a profitable meth ring, laundering the money through his garage, keeping the necessary people on his payroll to appear legitimate.  Jacob, who has been working for his father since he was a young boy dropped out of school two years ago at the age of sixteen and has cut himself off from his friends and peers.  The only hope he has left is the distant possibility of reuniting with Maggie, his first and only love, the girl whose heart he broke, he thought, so she could save herself and get far away from Jacob and the place Jacob hates even if he can’t.  When a fatal mistake is made by others working for his father, Jacob realizes this is his chance to get out.  But then events take a turn that make Jacob realize he is forever tethered to his family and these mountains unless he can stand up and face his father, a Sisyphean task that few survive to tell about.

David Joy’s prose is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking and gut wrenching as he portrays the mountains of North Carolina as a harsh a brutal place, but then finds one element about which to meditate on for a sentence or two as he juxtaposes hope with despair and the willingness of Jacob to accept his fate even with the distant promise of Maggie.  As Jacob begins to see glimpses of hope and a young woman willing to take a chance on him, he allows himself to believe it might be possible, until, too late, he realizes all hope is lost for him as he sacrifices everything to keep alive the faith he has in the woman he love as this story reaches its inevitable heart wrenching conclusion.  Fans of the Southern fiction of Ron Rash and Wiley Cash will fall in love with this new voice. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Just Jennifer

13 Things Mentally Strong People Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears and Train Your Brain for Happiness by Amy Morin (William Morrow)

Clinical social worker and psychotherapist Amy Morin offers a new take on the self-help genre by focusing on mental strength and the behaviors that cause us not to be mentally strong, along with strategies to change our behaviors in order to be mentally strong.  A checklist that accompanies each of the 13 “Don’ts” (which include: waste time feeling sorry for yourself, give away your power, dwell on the past, shy away from change and expect immediate results) to help narrow down which behaviors we most often engage in and exhibit, allowing readers to focus on areas where they feel they need more help.  Each chapter includes a brief anecdote or case study, the checklist, an explanation as to why we might engage in the specific behavior, why the behavior is a problem, more examples and some helpful illustrative points, ending with a list of “What’s Helpful” and one of “What is not Helpful”.  Morin focuses on developing a self-awareness and a consciousness that we are free to make our own choices and that often the “negative choices” seem easier, but in fact, take more energy than positive behaviors and choices once learned.  Commonsense advice and strategies presented in a clear, straight-forward manner make this book accessible and easy to navigate, allowing readers to focus on chapters pertinent to their current situation.  Take the How Mentally Strong Are You? quiz.  Click here for a clip from the audiobook or here for a video introduction to the book.

Just Jennifer

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh (February 10, 2015)

A young boy’s teenage years, in fact, most of the teenage years of a group of children in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana neighborhood, are colored by the rape of one of the girls, a rape that goes unsolved.  The fourteen-year-old narrator has been in love with Lindy Simpson, the girl from across the street with long blonde hair and long legs from bicycle riding a track, for as long as he can remember.  Lindy has never returned his love and adoration, with the exception of the year immediately following the rape, as she turns to him with a strange type of friendship.  As the narrator relates his story to an unseen listener, he relives that summer with great detail including the fact that he was considered a suspect.  The narrator is determined to solve Lindy’s rape at all costs, so much so that his sister’s death and his parents’ subsequent divorce have very little effect on him and he almost misses his teenage years because of his obsession, first with Lindy and then with the crime.  This new voice in Southern gothic fiction details the atmosphere of a sultry Louisiana summer, captures the essence of being a teenage boy in love and is able to tell the story in retrospect with a feeling of immediacy when everything is new and unknown rather than with retrospection.  A haunting and tender coming of age story, when the rape is finally solved, it is more of a “huh” moment rather than an “aha” moment.   

Just Jennifer

Hush Hush by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, February 2015)
Ten years ago, Melisandre Harris Dawes parked her car with her two-month-old daughter in it and sat on the shores of the Patapsco River to wait for her to die.  Melisandre, after a mistrial, was found not guilty by reason of criminal insanity; she left the country and relinquished custody of her two surviving daughters to their father who has subsequently remarried and has a new baby boy.  Melisandre has returned to Baltimore hoping to reunite with her estranged daughters, now fourteen and seventeen, and plans for the reunion to be part of the documentary she is making.  Former reporter, now private investigator, Tess Monaghan has been hired to Tyner Gray, Melisandre’s attorney and Tess’s new uncle through marriage, to help set up security for Melisandre.  Tess, a relatively new mother, finds Melisandre repulsive and disturbing and security really isn’t her bailiwick, but she can use the business so agrees to take the job with the help of her new partner, retired Baltimore PD homicide detective Sandy Sanchez.  As Melisandre is by association, Tess’s client, Tess tries to understand the woman so she can best assess her security needs, but Tess just can’t seem to figure Melisandre out: was she truly insane ten years ago or was she just, as Tess feels she is now, a master manipulator who feels she is entitled to everything just because she wants it.  Now Melisandre finds herself under suspicion of murder again, but is she insane this time or just cold and calculating?  At the same time, Tess finds herself being stalked by someone who is increasingly angry and begin to reassess her and her family’s safety as she is continuously amazed by how much she can love her three-year-old daughter, yet how quickly she can become frustrated by her.
Tess is a wonderfully complex character and has grown and changed throughout this long running series.  Her daughter has a personality all her own and adds another dimension to Tess as she frustrates and delights.  Tess is no nonsense, but always professional which makes this assignment very difficult for her as she does not like her client, nor can she even understand neither her motives for anything nor her actions.  Punctuated by the interviews being conducted for the documentary Melisandre is funding, the story of her daughter’s death, subsequent mistrial and trial are revealed with details that cast doubt on everything and form a kaleidoscopic puzzle whose pieces do not fall into place until the final interview with Melisandre who may just not be as much of a monster as Tess would have liked her to be.

Disturbing, but wholly absorbing, this latest Tess Monaghan novel is another satisfying read for long time fans of the series as well as for readers just discovering this dynamic character for the first time.

Just Jennifer

Bones and All by Camille DeAngelis (St. Martin’s Press)

Maren Yearly is not your typical sixteen-year-old.  If you show her too much affection, she’ll eat you.  Her mother has tried to hide this secret, moving to a new state after each episode; when Maren turns sixteen, though, her mother leaves her with a birth certificate bearing the name of the father Maren never knew and several hundred dollars in cash.  Maren decides to search for her father, deep down inside knowing what she will find, but finding many surprises along her journey, including the fact that she is not alone with her proclivities and that eating comes in all forms and shapes and that maybe, just maybe, she is not as unusual as she thinks she is.  Maren’s trip to find her father is also one of self-discovery as she realizes she will have to live on her own as her own person and make her own way in the world.  This coming of age story is truly original and not nearly as gruesome as it sounds. Readers will root for Maren to find her family and some answers; their hearts will break as they realize that Maren will never be able to have “normal” relationships, but will cheer as she makes her own decisions, finds a life that suits her and is able to come to terms with her special personality traits.  

Just Jennifer

Dorothy Parker Drank Here by Ellen Meister (Putnam, February 24, 2015)
The second book to feature the acerbic wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker not only lives up to its predecessor, it exceeds it in bringing to life this unforgettable character and all the elegance of mid-twentieth century around the fabled Round Table in the Algonquin Hotel.  In life (in the novel) Mrs. Parker signed Percy Coates’s guest book at the hotel, a book that once signed, offers the signee the chance to remain in this realm after their death, in corporal form if they wish as long as the book is kept open.  Over the years, Mrs. Parker has seen her friends and compatriots from Mr. Benchley to Groucho Marx stop for one last drink before heading to the white light, a fate which Mrs. Parker vociferously eschews.  Only Mrs. Parker has chosen to stay behind and now is getting lonely but knows where she might find a kindred spirit:  several floors up the reclusive author Ted Shriver is in hiding while he waits to dying from an operable brain tumor; if Mrs. Parker could just get Shriver to sign the book, she is certain she will have a companion for, well not quite life, but the in-between time.  Shriver was an ascending literary star in the 1970’s when a plagiarism scandal sent the author into hiding with nary a word of explanation, defense or apology.  Mrs. Parker isn’t the only one looking for an audience with Shriver, however: a young television producer, Norah Wolfe, is searching for a guest that will save her talk show from certain death and she is pretty sure that Shriver is that guest.  But, as with Mrs. Parker’s request to sign the guestbook, Shriver flat out refuses Norah but she is determined.  When she and Mrs. Parker meet, they each think the other will be the key to getting Shriver to agree to both their requests and the two form an unusual partnership that sends the pair chasing through Manhattan and into a dusty attic in Connecticut looking for the enticement Shriver needs to be agreeable.  But Shriver, and other players, have their own agendas and secrets to keep, sending things wildly out of control, leaving Norah fearful she will soon be with a job and Mrs. Parker facing eternity alone.  All the while Norah and Mrs. Parker are on their quest, another party is seeking to get her hands on the guestbook which could have devastating consequences all around were it to happen.

With uncanny accuracy, Ellen Meister captures not only the voice of Dorothy Parker but her fabled essence.  Tidbits about the famed Algonquin Round Table are liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative without disrupting the plot; she easily intersperses Mrs. Parker’s amazement at, and often contempt for, new developments since her heyday.  Norah’s number one motive is clearly saving the show and her job, but readers will quickly guess her ulterior motive in meeting Ted and will admire her restraint at keeping her personal secret while she tries to book Shriver on the show, a coup that will benefit many in addition to her.  Plenty of publishing lore, big egos and delicate personalities populate this delightful look at the Algonquin Hotel and its residents as Meister deftly combines legend and lore, fact and fiction past and present, bringing it all to life and rendered with a lot of love in all its many forms. 

Just Jennifer

A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison (Random House, January 27, 2015)

Annie Black has put her nineteenth winter, a winter spent with reckless abandon in London, far behind her.  Living in San Francisco, she is now almost forty years old, has a successful career and business as a lighting designer, is married and has three children.  An anonymous letter brings a photo in the mail one day, making Annie realize she hasn’t put things as far in the past as she thinks; there are things that happened that winter details about which she is still unsure.  Annie finds a strong pull back to London and back to a past that holds the secrets, some of which will help reveal recent events in Annie’s life, some of which will cause the life she has built to unravel at an alarming rate.  This family drama is written with more a sense of curiosity than urgency about Annie’s past; so much so that when a secret is revealed it is startling both to Annie and the reader.  Ellison has carefully crafted the details of both her narrative and her characters, even choosing Annie’s career as a lighting designer, someone who illuminates and sets the mood, even as she keeps herself and others in the dark about her past.  The narrative is effectively told in Jane’s alternating voices, first person for her time in London, but then directly addressing someone, telling them the story that has led to their present, almost as if it is a confession.  Annie’s story is compelling and addictive, Annie’s secrets shocking, their effects lasting, but perhaps not irreversible.  

Just Jennifer

The Life I Left Behind by Colette McBeth (Minotaur, February 24, 2015)

Six years ago, Melody Pieterson was a vibrant young woman until she was attacked and left for dead, her friend and neighbor David convicted of the crime.  Since then, Melody has become introverted, trusting no one, hiding behind locked doors and fences, from everyone, including and except herself.  Shortly after David is released from prison, another young woman is attacked in a similar way; but Eve Elliot was not as lucky as Mel (as she now calls herself).   Now Eve’s ghost remains and tells her story, alternating with Mel’s as the two young women form an unusual alliance to catch a killer.  As Mel learns more about Eve’s murder, she begins to think that David was not responsible for the attack on either woman, an idea that leaves her more unsettled than ever, but also oddly resolved to uncover the truth, something that Mel finds liberating as she finds her voice and herself once again.  Haunting and suspenseful, McBeth’s elegant storytelling is by twists and turns surprising, healing and redemptive and while some readers may see the end coming, McBeth makes the trip more than worth it.

Just Jennifer

Before He Finds Her by Michael Kardos (Mysterious Press, February 2015)
Melanie Denison has been living in the West Virginia trailer of her aunt and uncle for the past fifteen years, since the night her father Ramsey Miller killed her mother in the New Jersey shore town of Silver Bay; it was assumed that he meant to kill his daughter, then called Meg, who was rescued and swept off to live in the Witness Protection Program as Ramsey was never caught.  Melanie has never been allowed to do the things most children and teenagers do, including things as simple as school events and surfing the Internet.  As Melanie approaches her eighteenth birthday, she begins to year for things she considers to be “normal” and convinces her aunt and uncle to allow her to finish out her schooling at the public high school and then to attend the local community college.  In spite of, or perhaps due to, the sheltered life she has led, Melanie begins a relationship with a young teacher from the high school she graduated from, and becomes pregnant.  No longer wanting to live hidden in the shadows and not wanting her child to grow up the way she did, Melanie confides in Phillip and then sets out for Silver Bay to uncover the truth of what happened that night, almost daring her father to find her, not knowing the secrets that trouble her parents individually and as a couple, and not knowing the secrets she will be stirring up, but willing to take the chance if it means freedom for herself and her unborn child.

A tightly written plot, even as things unravel, that illustrates the closer someone is to a situation, the less clearly it can been seen and how easily people often take the word of someone they love at face value and how quickly all of that can fall apart.  Effectively told, the story of Ramsey Miller unfolds in two ways: from the stories told to Melanie, the truth she believes, and in flashbacks to the days leading up Allison Miller’s murder.  Pitch perfect writing, no detail overlooked or extraneous, make this not only a satisfying thriller, but a story of familial love, love of self and the families we create ourselves, and what happens when that love is used as a weapon of fear rather than an instrument of hope and encouragement. 

Just Jennifer

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson (William Morrow, February 2015)
In classic Hitchcock or Patricia Highsmith style, Peter Swanson’s sophomore offering (after The Girl with a Clock for a Heart) starts when two apparent strangers meet in the lounge at Heathrow airport, share some gin martinis and begin to plot a murder: Ted Severson thought he was happily married and that this beautiful wife Miranda loved him for more than his millions of dollars.  Not so, he learns when he sees Miranda and the general contractor who is building the Severson’s---at least Miranda’s---dream house in Maine, having sex while going over the plans.  Now Ted is angry, angry enough to tell Lily, the young woman he thinks he has just met for the first time, that he would like to kill his wife.  Lily takes Ted at this word and offers to help make Ted’s dream come true: but, as with many things in life, this is an offer that is too good to be true. Lily has a past---and present---full of secrets, secrets that Ted should have taken the time to learn before agreeing to let this beguiling young woman help set up a plot to murder his wife and starting to play her dangerous and deadly game.  With a plot as intelligent and graceful as Lily herself, readers will quickly find themselves down the rabbit hole, not sure where the next twist or turn is or when it will be coming.  As the plot unfolds, secrets are revealed and new plots begin to formulate inside the players’ heads----or do they? Have there been deeper, more devious plots all along?  Reality and opportunity soon become impossible to separate in this breathtaking journey.  Do not start this book unless you have plenty of time to see it through until the last surprising sentence that will leave evil grins on the faces of many.

Just Jennifer

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders (Minotaur, February 2015)
Samantha “Sam” Clair is a seasoned London book editor with a wry, often sardonic, sense of humor.  She is not only a capable editor, but can handily deal with all the various personalities and egos she runs into from her steady stream of office assistants, many of whom have yet to master the vagaries of the alphabet enough to perform basic filing tasks, to Prima Donna authors and her colleagues, editors who consider their acquisitions far superior to Sam’s more commercial women’s fiction.  At forty, Sam’s personal life is as bland and banal as her work life is hectic and glamorous (not) save the occasional dinner party given by her unstoppable, unflappable mother, a high-powered attorney.  But all this changes when police officer Jake Field arrives at Sam’s office asking about a manuscript that may or may not be missing and that may or may not have been stolen from a courier who was killed in a hit and run.  Sam isn’t too interested in the whole thing at first, she never knows when manuscripts may arrive and there are most often enough multiple paper and electronic copies floating around that it wouldn’t make sense to try and steal one copy.  When she realizes that the manuscript in question is a scandalous tell-all about the life and murder---uncovering other illegal activities along the way---or a Spanish fashion designer, written by gossip monger and dirt digger extraordinaire Kit Lovell, who is also one of Sam’s favorite authors, Sam perks up.  There is a good deal in that manuscript that will open Kit, and in turn the publisher up to possible libel and slander suits, but Sam isn’t worried about that, Legal always vets everything carefully and will deal with that.  What does concern her is that Kit misses a meeting and seems to simply vanish into thin air.  Jake Field isn’t impressed at first as Kit is a bit of a flake (Sam once found six months’ worth of not listened to voice messages on his mobile phone) but Sam is adamant and using Kit’s book as a cover story but also as a road map, begins to follow Kit’s trail, a trail that leads her into corporate intrigue and corruption, government investigations and right into the hands of a crazed murderer.

Laugh aloud funny, Sam’s dry wit and wry observations coupled with her mother’s no nonsense approach---and arsenal of skeleton keys---and insider secrets from the publishing world, including a comedy of errors involving the misunderstood manuscript of one of Sam’s longtime authors, along with a smart, clever mystery, make this first novel from Victorian expert Judith Flanders a slam dunk for all mystery readers.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Just Jennifer

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life by Andy Miller (Harper Perennial, December 2014)


In the tradition of Henry Miller’s (no relation) The Books in My Life, editor and writer Andy Miller writes homage to his love of reading by reading classic novels, and some not so classic.  He sets his sights high, fifty pages each day and begins with Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  Some books he is rereading (Of Human Bondage) as he didn’t finish them the first time he tried them; others are books he has said over the years he read (but didn’t really) and some find their way on to his “List of Betterment”.  Miller had planned to start with a dozen or so books, but to his chagrin, he had missed many more classics along his way to forty than he thought (Jane Eyre, War and Peace, Don Quixote) and his list soon numbered around fifty titles.  With a fair amount of self-depiction along the way, Miller talks about his successes (he was surprised to learn he enjoyed Middlemarch) and his less than favorite books (The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart) honestly.  While not meant as a literary criticism, this book offers some unusual insights into the classics and not so classics: who else could successfully compare Moby Dick to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.  The book is filled with quotes and footnotes for the true book geek and three appendices in the back of the book include Miller’s List of Betterment, The Hundred Books that Influenced [Me] Most and Books [I] Still Want to Read offer more books to be added to any to-be-read or re-read list.  Readers can go to his website: www.mill-i-am.com for updates on his ongoing project.  Anyone who has ever wanted to embark on a reading project will find much in here to enjoy.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Just Jennifer

Clean Slate: A Cookbook & Guide: Reset Your Health, Detox Your Body & Feel Your Best (Editors of Martha Stewart Living)

The holidays will soon be over and the new year upon us; many people will use this as a starting point and vow to eat healthier throughout the coming year.  But where & when to start?  Clean Slate is a good choice, even if it is the middle of March when people decide to revamp their eating habits and lifestyle.  Filled with easy to understand advice, lists of “super foods” presented in an accessible way, a 3-day or 21-day detox plan and almost a hundred recipes that use ingredients that are easily found in most supermarkets and that readers may already have in the cupboard, Clean Slate will have readers back on track in no time.  The recipes are clearly written with a bit of explanation as to which benefits each star ingredient will provide.  A section with two dozen juices and smoothies will offer a variety of choices: detoxify, recipes with anti-inflammatory properties, energizing and hydrating, and will inspire readers to try new combinations.  Recipes are labelled vegan, dairy-, nut- or gluten-free as appropriate for people on special diets.  A recipe chart in the order of the recipes indicates which of these recipes has each property.  A thorough source list includes not only where readers can find equipment and ingredients, but websites with useful dietary and healthful information to assist readers in starting a new eating plan.  The Martha Stewart Living trademark clean design translates well in this cookbook with simple type and inviting pictures.  The only thing that is slightly disconcerting is that the attribution to the nutritionists who vetted the information is tucked in the back, two-thirds of the way through the acknowledgements.   
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Just Jennifer

Novel Interiors by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti, Photographs by Ivan Terestchenko (Potter Style)

Designer Lisa Borgnes Giramonti has found and restaged rooms that are reminiscent of over sixty novels and invites readers to take inspiration from her groupings: British Cozy Cottage Charm (Dickens, Austen and Gaskell), more structured, formal rooms (Wharton and James), a more casual, outdoorsy approach (Willa Cather), glitzy and glamorous (who else but Fitzgerald), bold and a bit chaotic (Dinesen or Katherine Mansfield) or dramatic (Wilde and Proust) or following her examples, find your own styke from your favorite author or novel.  Lavishly illustrated and heavily peppered with literary quotes, the “how-to” text may appear a little sparse unless you’ve first read the foreword that explains these rooms and photos are meant to be starting points rather than step-by-step instructions to help you design the room of your dreams and comfort.  Each chapter begins with a few brief sentences to set the tone and concludes with “Finishing Touches” such as embroidered door hangings and brass samovars in “Anything Goes”.  “Living au Natural” includes a section on how to plant a medicinal potted garden and a list of glamorous cordials is included in “Oh, the Glamour of It All”. 
A chapter after the rooms lists the authors, their novels and what specifically about each inspired Giramonti.  A thorough Source appendix gives readers ideas where to find furnishings and accessories of the periods, though not the specific items found in the photographs.  Location credits are listed alphabetically by the residents’ last names and are mostly found in California, though one location can be found in nearby Bernardsville, though it is up to the reader to determine which one it is.  The most frustrating part of this well-indexed book of inspiration is all the interesting and enticing shelves of books shot too far away too allow most of the spines to be readable.   A book that you will be able to turn to time and time again for either inspiration or just entertainment.   
FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Just Jennifer

Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar (Ballantine Books, January 2015)


This novel, depicting the lives of the four young adult Stephen siblings, Adrian, Thoby, Vanessa (later Bell) and Virginia (later Woolf) living parentless in London at the turn of the 20th century, in sympathy with each other, creating a salon-like world, drawing in artists, writers and keen observers of society and culture.  Beginning with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa, written in 1912 and asking forgiveness for an unknown offense, the narrative then shifts seven years earlier where, much like Woolf’s fabled Mrs. Dalloway, the story begins with Vanessa making a list for an evening the siblings are hosting.  Told with diary-like entries, telegrams and notes between other players (notably Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and Leonard Woolf), readers are given a glimpse into the everyday lives of the men and women who made up the Bloomsbury Group.  In her second novel, Parmar focuses mainly on the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia, though told from Vanessa’s point of view she is the more completely drawn character.  Virginia’s mental illness is addressed as are her, and those of her brothers’, odd proclivities that have fascinated readers and scholars for decades.  As Vanessa tries to take care of her sister, she learns she must look out for herself as well, finally succumbing to Clive Bell’s proposals of marriage the third time, only learning too late how deep Virginia’s jealousies of her lie and how naively she has been looking at her life.  This is an enchanting and intimate look at a cast of characters that were larger than life, and remain so in the retelling and revisiting of stories.  Readers not well steeped in Bloomsbury lore will find the Cast of Characters presented at the front of the book of enormous help.  Parmar invites us to be flies on the wall, witnesses to these famous lives; gorgeous prose with a heart breaking ending brings these characters to life with a unique perspective. 

Just Jennifer

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley (January 2015)


Daisy Richmond is twenty-seven and has been cancer free for three years:  she is finishing her master’s degree, her husband his veterinary science degree and she is trying to stay as healthy as possible.  A routine follow-up scan finds that not only has her cancer returned, her body is now riddled with an aggressive stage IV cancer, including a tumor in her brain, and she may only have six months to live.  Reeling with the idea that she may not live out the year, Daisy becomes confused and overwhelmed, especially with the medical decisions she musts face.  Looking for something on which to focus, perhaps even control, she focuses on Jack who may be an outstanding vet and all-around charming good guy but who she feels, needs someone, like herself, to take care of him and navigate daily life.  Daisy, with the help of her best friend Kayleigh, throws herself into finding a new wife for Jack, not realizing he won’t be the only one hurting and missing Daisy after she’s gone.  During the process of finding a new wife for Jack, Daisy begins grieving her marriage, and perhaps herself, realizing that maybe shutting Jack out and planning for him when she is gone may not be the best way to spend the time she has remaining, and that maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t want Jack to find a replacement wife for her too soon, and maybe, neither does Jack.

Just Jennifer

Fear the Darkness by Becky Masterman (January 20, 2015)

Former FBI agent Brigid Quinn is adjusting to retirement and to marriage to not quite former priest and philosopher Carlo when she learns that her younger sister has died from complications from MS.  Brigid had promised Marilyn that Marilyn’s daughter Gemma-Kate could live with Brigid and Carlo to establish residency in Arizona so the seventeen-year-old could attend college at instate rate; Brigid, who never had children cannot and does not fathom the changes that are in store for her when the teenager enters her life.  Brigid continues to work as a private investigator and agrees to look into the death of the fourteen year old son of Jacqui Nielson and her husband Tim the previous year.  Joe drowned in the family’s swimming pool and the death was ruled in accident, something Jacqui does not believe.  At first, Brigid doesn’t realize what a hornet’s nest she is stirring up, but after one of Pugs eats a poisonous toad she gets suspicious of everyone around her, including and especially her niece who gets involved with the group of boys who were friends of Joe’s.  When Brigid begins experiencing physical ailments similar to many neurological disorders including Parkinson’s she becomes concerned and confused, and after her church congregation drinks coffee tainted with anti-freeze she wonders if she is crazy or if someone is after her.  But sometimes, what we need to see is right in front of us and Brigid may be asking the wrong questions of the wrong people and may not realize it until it is too late.  Sharply drawn characters punctuate a quickly paced narrative.  Brigid’s worsening physical condition and what it does to her mentally, may be uncomfortable for many readers as it rings very true to life.  Carlo and others in her life are supportive of her and her frustration is palpable as she knows what she needs is just beyond her grasp.  

Just Jennifer

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books, January 13, 2015)


Traveling to London on the train each day, Rachel sees a couple sitting on their terrace and imagines the perfect life for them.  The day after Rachel sees the wife kissing another man, she reads that the wife has disappeared.  Rachel, whose own life is built on secrets and lies, is desperate to contact the police and the husband to tell them about the man she saw in the garden.  Events quickly spiral out of control for Rachel and she knows there is something locked in her memory, just out of her reach, something that would uncover what really happened the night of the disappearance if she can just remember.  Rachel tries to sort events and memories in her head, attempting to distinguish between the lies and the truths, sinking ever further into a place from rich she might not be able to return.  This first novel is fast paced and gripping with a classic noir feel to it; a book not to be started when there is not enough time to rea it through to the very satisfying, unsettling conclusion. 

Just Jennifer


My Father’s Wives by Mike Greenberg (January 2015)

Jonathan Sweetwater appears to have it all: a career he loves that provides him with more than enough money to live comfortably in Connecticut, a son and daughter who are, to his mind, perfect and a beautiful wife, Claire, with whom he feels he has a mature, adult relationship based on love and mutual trust.  The only thing that is missing from Jon’s life was a relationship with his father both when he was a child and as an adult and now that Percy Sweetwater is dead, there is no hope of every reconnecting with the man who left his life with Jon was nine years old.  Percy became a serial husband, marrying five more women after Jon’s mother who seemed to take Percy in stride and did the best she could to raise the man she did.  Jon comes home from work one day and finds a man and woman in his guest bedroom (the one with the good sheets); he cannot see their faces but fears that the woman is his Claire.  His world shaken, Jonathan decides that he must learn more about his father in order to understand more about himself and possibly his marriage and sets out to find his father’s ex-wives to see if he can figure things out.  During this journey and Jon’s travels, he learns things about his employer, who he thought he knew and with whom he thought he had a more than cordial relationship, and most importantly, he learns about himself and what he learns will make him a better father, husband and man.  

Just Jennifer

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis (William Morrow, January 2015)


In this first novel, Tina Seskis takes her main character, Emily Coleman, now Cat, on a journey that many of us imagine but few ever take.  Emily has left her husband, her family and home behind to start her life over.  The now former attorney rents a room in a London flop house and starts a new job at a London advertising agency where her rise to the top is swift, but on the edge.  With her new friend Angel, Cat manages to keep one step ahead of anyone looking for her, erasing all traces of her past, except for her memories: memories of growing up as a twin in a dysfunctional household and memories of how she thought she had escaped her life growing up when she married her husband.  What Emily cannot escape is the memory of the events that have led to her running away and if she is not careful, it will catch up with her as her present collides with her past and things that Emily thought she had under control spin so far out of control that she may never be able to recover and regain a life that is her own.  Flashbacks are told in the third person while Emily’s present life is related in first person, a very effective technique as readers watch her spiral out of control still held fast by her past.  Emily/Cat is a tough character to get to know as she reveals very little about her present self.  Readers will come up with many variations on what might have caused Emily’s break with her life but few will see the twist that comes.  A little too much detail is given after the big reveal slowing down the pace of the story a bit but wrapping up any loose ends and questions that were remaining.

Just Jennifer

The Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova (William Morrow, January 2015)
Thea Slavin has left her family and native Bulgaria to study piano at Princeton University.  Upon arriving there, she learns she had a sister, Elza, who also attended Princeton fifteen years earlier but died as a freshman under mysterious circumstances, her body disappearing from the funeral home before her parents were able to claim their daughter.  Thea becomes almost as obsessed with the death and disappearance of her sister as she is with her piano lessons but just as quickly becomes by the Estlin brothers, unaware at first that there are two men, but both of whom have become fixated on Thea, the older, Rhys, more so, though the closer the pair gets, the further he holds her back.  As Thea learns more of the mythical world inhabited by Samodiv or Wildalones, she becomes more caught up in her own family’s story, a story from which she may never be able to escape.   This debut is full of Greek mythology, including a professor who was obsessed with Elza’s theories about a vase, Bulgarian folk lore, mysterious, wealthy, seductive strangers and a young woman struggling to reconcile a past she never knew with the future for which she is hoping.  Part fantasy, part romance, this debut novel is smart and full of mythology, Ancient Greek History and Bulgarian folk tales and is entirely captivating and engrossing. 


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Just Jennifer

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen (St. Martin’s Press, January 2015)

Readers who fell in love with the Waverleys and their magical and mysterious ways will be delighted to be back with them in Bascom, North Carolina.  Claire has been mass producing her herbal candy and is beginning to become worn out and is afraid she may be losing her touch; her sister Sydney is still creating hairstyles that can change your life while Sydney’s teenage daughter Bay has a knack of knowing where and with whom things and people belong, though her hear is breaking because she knows she belongs with Josh Matteson who doesn’t seem to notice her at all.  In the background of the Waverley women is an apple tree that loses its petals at the first frost, only to come back to life and right everything that is topsy-turvy.  A stranger appears in town and threatens to change the Waverley’s family histories, and perhaps their futures, with the secrets he claims to hold.   Beautifully told, full of wistfulness, hope and happiness, Bascom feels like home to all who visit it and the Waverley women like long lost friends. 

Just Jennifer

Death with All the Trimmings by Lucy Burdette (Prime Crime, December 2, 2014)


Key West Key Zest food critic Hayley Snow is fairly certain she will not be having a white Christmas this year, but she is hoping to have a murder-free Christmas so she can spend time with her friends and her family, since her mother Janet has just moved down to Key West with her new boyfriend Sam and has taken Key West by storm working for a catering company, already getting assignments to plan holiday parties.  Hayley loves her mother but is focused on keeping her job and hopes her current assignment, interviewing Key West’s newest chef, transplanted from Manhattan, Edel Waugh, will not only secure her job, but maybe even win her some more notice in the journalism community.  Hayley is a little taken aback when Edel tells her, off the record, that she thinks someone is sabotaging the kitchen at Bistro on the Bight, including changing recipes in Edel’s recipe bible, and wants Hayley to look into it.  It becomes clear when a fire during the annual Key West Christmas parade (complete with Hayley on Key Zest’s float dressed as an elf) burns down Bistro on the Bight that someone has ratcheted up the ante, but when Hayley learns that Edel’s ex-husband and business partner was killed in the fire, determined to be arson, Hayley must gather all her wits and smoke out a killer, a killer that may be closer to Hayley than she guessed, to ensure a good night to all.
In her fifth mystery, Hayley stays as fresh and engaging as ever.  She has adapted to life in Key West, taking care of Miss Gloria on her houseboat and taking Key Zest by storm, ferretting out all the latest food trends and unsung restaurants.  Hayley, proud as she is of her mother, is a little uncertain how Janet’s permanent arrival and residence in Key West will affect her, but helps her mother in her new career as much as possible.  After ending a bad relationship, which landed her in Key West to begin with, Hayley is skittish on the romance front, especially with her boss Wally with whom she is pretty sure she shares a mutual attraction, but doesn’t want to move to quickly and jeopardize their friendship and working relationship.  Hayley’s doggedness and search for the truth serves her well in both her career and her sideline of amateur sleuth.  There may not be a nip in the air this December for Jersey-girl Hayley, but when there’s a murderer on the loose, or a new restaurant in town, Hayley is on the case.   A cameo by Burdette’s first mystery character, Cassie Burdette (from the Golf Lover’s Mysteries written as Roberta Isleib) will be a welcome return for longtime fans and will send others in search of this first series.

Just Jennifer

Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography by Fred Schruers (Crown Publishers)

Since the release of his first album Cold Spring Harbor in 1971, Billy Joel has delighted, fascinated and grown up with legions of loyal fans who feel that he “gets” them with his heartfelt lyrics and haunting melodies.  Music journalist Fred Schruers has been chronicling Joel for many years, interviewing Joel, his friends, family and music colleagues, all culminating in this in depth biography that begins with Joel’s German Jewish roots and a family history that begins with his grandparents leaving Germany to escape Nazi persecution, continues through Billy’s non-traditional family growing up (his father moved back to Europe and had a second family, his mother took in Billy’s cousin after the death of his aunt), his first marriage when he was a young man, his very public marriage and divorce to Christie Brinkley, and his most recent marriage (and divorce) to Katie Lee.  Joel, whose mother was a pianist, took to the instrument at an early age and grew up influenced by the great pop and cult idols of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Joel did most of his own writing into the 1990’s; Joel’s most recognizable single Piano Man was released in 1973 was not his highest ranking single, many of which came from albums released in the early 1980’s.  Joel’s fabled trip to the USSR in 1987, a trip that cost Joel over one million dollars, made Joel one of the first Americans to play in the Soviet Union since the Berlin Wall was erected.  Using the lyrics from many of Joel’s songs, Schruers details not only Joel’s epic career, but the ups and downs of his life from the failed marriages to financial problems, health issues and alcohol problems.  Written in a breezy, journalistic style, this biography is a fast-read with details so vivid you will hear your favorite Billy Joel song (mine is Big Man on Mulberry Street) playing in your head.  Joel has sold over 150 million albums so far, his fans are loyal and his popularity continues as does his unprecedented residency in Madison Square Garden with concerts scheduled thus far through June 2015; an intimate a look at The Piano Man as any one of his songs.
 

Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Just Jennifer

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag (Ballantine Books, January 2015)


Etta Spark’s dress shop is on a quiet side street in Cambridge, but women who need Etta’s magic find their way into her shop.  Etta’s dresses have a way of finding the owner who needs them the most, and Etta stitches a little extra magic into each dress, helping the wearer’s dreams come true.  The only people she seems not to be able to help are her twenty-five year old granddaughter Cora and herself.  Etta’s daughter Maggie and her husband were scientists on the verge of a breakthrough that they felt would put an end to world hunger when they were killed in a fire twenty years earlier.  Cora has followed in their scientific footsteps but fancies herself too logical for things such as love and magic.  The young bookstore owner, Walt, a shop or two away has had his cap set for Cora since he was five and she was eight, but has never had the courage to tell Cora.  Etta, who was happily married for many years, still pines for her first love, her true love and decides that Cora’s, and Walt’s, life will not be filled with regrets and what-ifs and takes matters into her own hands, tilting things on an axis where nothing is what it seems nor as it should be as Cora sets off to prove her parents’ deaths were not an accident, but murder.  Filled with sparkle and magic, but most of all heart and love, Van Praag (The House at the End of Hope Street) has once again written an enchanting tale that will provide several hours of enjoyable escape and hopefulness.