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. 

Just Jennifer

Five by Ursula Archer (Minotaur Books, December 2014)

Fans of Scandinavian crime fiction can now look toward to Austria and Detective Beatrice Kaspary for their next obsession.  A young woman is found murdered in a cow pasture; on her feet are fresh tattoos, an odd, but vaguely familiar, combination of letters, numbers and symbols  Beatrice recognizes the alpha numeric sequence as map coordinates and enters the world of geocaching with her partner Florin Wenninger.  In place of the usual trinkets found by geocachers, Beatrice and Florin find severed body parts, all belonging to the same corpse; with each cache they find a twisted clue that leads them to someone who unknowingly has information that provides the next set of coordinates bringing the pair ever closer to a malicious and diabolical killer who knows everyone’s secrets, including Beatrice's.  The graphic nature of the crimes may not be for everyone but the clever plot and interesting characters with all their flaws and foibles make this a page turner from beginning to end leaving readers breathless and eager for more cases for Beatrice and Florin.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Just Jennifer

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (Harper Perennial,reprinted October 2014)

There is probably not a book group today who has not read &discussed one of Ann Patchett’s lyrical novels, most likely Bel Canto or State of Wonder, but anyone who has not read her essays is missing out on something special, especially when they are personal essays as they are in this collection.  Patchett, co-owner of the independent bookstore Parnassus in Tennessee, freely admits that for any writer, non-fiction, including essays, can often be the bread and butter of their existence, allowing them money to pay the bills but still time for writing what is their true passion.  But Patchett’s essays, mostly published in other places, do not feel as if they were written “to pay to bills” but rather to pay homage to the people, places and events in Patchett’s life that are so dear to her, whether or not she recognized them at the time.  In “The Best Seat in the House” Patchett describes her introduction to the Metropolitan Opera in 2007 when performances began being simulcast in movie theatres throughout the country, including Patchett’s hometown of Nashville.  Not only, as Patchett describes, was the performance on a larger scale (screen) than it would have been had she been at the Met, allowing her to see minute details, but during intermission there were interviews and behind the scenes features rather than the usually long lines for the rest rooms or jockeying for a glass of champagne.  After finally getting a chance to view an opera live at the Met, Patchett realized that while the details were lost, and admittedly some of the scene to an ill-placed tree on stage, she felt the magic in the proximity and intimacy of the experience, but deemed the experience equal to, though different, to watching the production on a big screen.  Patchett also includes her address to the Clemson Freshman class in 2006, challenging them to consider the reasons they chose college, remembering that they are no longer here because it is required by the law nor are they surrounded by people who are demographically similar to them, being drawn from a geographic area such as a school district.  She reminds the incoming class that they are adults and have made adult decisions, but now have the responsibility to act as adults if they expect to be treated as such.  Whether reminiscing or challenging, Patchett’s essays never lose sight of her passion for the written word and what her final words of benediction to the Clemson class are “…keep reading.”

Just Jennifer

The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (Harper Perennial, reprinted October 2014)

Eleanor Roosevelt (born Anna---Theodore’s niece) was born in New York City on October 11, 1884, married her cousin (to the dismay of her mother-in-law) in 1905, bore six children, was first lady for twelve years beginning in 1933 and served on many councils, presidential commissions and was a delegate to the United Nations before her death in 1962.  Roosevelt watched as the United States went from the Gilded Age into the First World War and into a deep depression, events that couldn’t help but shape her philosophies and sensibilities.  During her husband’s presidency, Roosevelt faced America coming out of the Great Depression, the world at war once again and the United States’ entry into what would become World War II.  She stood by her husband’s side, and alone, as she travelled throughout the country she loved, fighting for civil rights, women’s rights and welfare for all.  She toured war torn countries with Franklin Roosevelt meeting world leaders, staying active in the Democratic Party after his death in 1945.  Roosevelt quickly became a role model for women with her staunch commitment to high ideals and her ability to humanize people and problems without minimizing them.  Her role as a humanitarian and wise woman became her legacy after her death in 1962.  Widely recognized as Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, companion and partner, a great deal of her achievements happened in the eighteen years after his death.  Her autobiography is frank and practical, much as the woman herself, and needs to be read by a new generation of not only women, but men as well, her life one to be emulated.  

Just Jennifer

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography (Crown Archetype, October 2014)

There are certain actors who will forever be a particular character they portrayed: Bob Denver will always be Gilligan, Henry Winkler, the Fonz, Barbara Eden Jeannie and Neil Patrick Harris will be forever in the hearts and minds of his fans Doogie Howser.  And he’s okay with that (pretty much).  Harris’s love of theatre and acting began when he played Toto in his older brother’s middle school production of The Wizard of Oz, disturbed by the fact that at times Toto ran on all fours but other times paraded around on his hind legs.  Encouraged by his middle school teachers, Harris was off and running and so was his career.  At sixteen he was cast by Steven Bochco as a medical genius who was still in high school.  And because he was still actually in high school, Harris’s first year on the set was punctuated by classes and chaperoned by his parents; once he was seventeen and no longer had restrictions, he was able to rent his own apartment and live the life of a young television star.  Doogie Howser ended when Harris was twenty and he made several movies, but was still enraptured by live theatre; he spent as much time going to Broadway shows as possible and even convinced his brother that $70 was better spent on a show than on a new sweater.  Harris also has a talent for magic and is able to play a broad range of characters from Tobias Ragg in Sweeney Todd to the Emcee in Cabaret.  He has hosted the Tony Awards four times and was brash enough to tell Nathan Lane that Harris thought a big finale COULD be done…and he did.  Unique in format, this biography may take a little getting used to.  Using the Choose Your Own Adventure format so popular in the 1980’s Harris allows the readers to choose the path his life will take.  It is worth going back and choosing the other path or even finally reading straight through.  Harris does not apologize (perhaps even exaggerates a bit) for his wilder life during his early twenties, and talks freely and with a fierce amount of love of his husband David Burtka and their two children twins, Gideon Scott and Harper Grace.  Don't pass up the instructions on the back cover of the book: a nifty trick continues Harris's playfulness and sly wit.  A bit tongue-in-cheek at times, Harris’s chosen format echoes the way he has chosen to live his life…one adventure at a time, willing to take a chance to see where that path will take him.

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