Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

When it came out in the news a couple of years ago that there was a perfectly preserved apartment in Paris that had been closed up and untouched since WWII, it was such an intriguing piece of news. Why would someone walk away from their apartment, never to return? What was in this unexpected time capsule? Were the people dead and gone, victims of the war? Were they still alive but unable to face the memories of the place? The truth could have been anything. The romance of it was in imagining the story behind all of it. If in fact, the real story did come out, it wasn't covered in the news anywhere near as completely as the discovery itself was. Karen Swan imagined her own back story for an apartment like this, complete with a fabulously wealthy family, war crimes, amazing art treasures, and closely held secrets in her newest novel, The Paris Secret.

When the Vermeils, a wealthy and high profile French family, discover that they own an apartment in Paris that hasn't been opened since 1943, they call in a discreet fine arts agency to examine, catalog, and potentially sell whatever might be inside. A codicil to Mr. Vermeil's late father's will forbids Jacques and his wife from going into the apartment themselves until after both the late Francois' and his still very much alive wife's deaths. Flora Sykes is the fine arts agent assigned to the strange and intriguing find, made even more exciting when the apartment turns out to be filled with valuable art. It falls to Flora to trace the provenance on everything they discover, including a long lost Renoir and smaller pieces by other famous artists. As Flora chases down the history of the pieces, she is also dealing with a devastating family situation at home in England. The urgency and discretion required by both situations are overwhelming; luckily Flora is a professional. Although she cannot or will not share everything that is going on in her life, she does have some good friends in Paris to lean on for support. They come in particularly handy when she clashes repeatedly with the spoiled, angry, obnoxious, and badly behaved in every sense of the word, adult children of Jacques and Lilian, Xavier and Natascha. But if playboy, partier Xavier is truly so unpleasant, why is Flora so pulled to him?

Of course, the family is, or should be, of little consequence to her; she is working on the amazing art. Unfortunately she can get no further on the provenance of the art treasures than that they were last known to be sold to a notorious Nazi collaborator, a fact that renders them close to worthless despite their authenticity. Dogged in her determination to find the proof that the Vermeil family came to own these pieces honestly and not simply because desperate Jewish families sold the only things they had of any worth in an attempt to escape Hitler's genocide, Flora digs deep, uncovering secrets that the will's codicil was meant to forever hide, changing and then changing again the Vermeil family's knowledge of itself.

Anyone who knows the art world will immediately see the difficulty in finding a long abandoned stash of valuable art in Europe and have certain expectations regarding the plot of the novel. Swan has done a good job leading even the non-art savvy to the same conclusions and then to twist the plot a hair's breadth, writing a very different story than the one the reader expects. But that's not the end of her slight of hand as she is clearly a master of the unexpected. The family crisis that consumes Flora is very slowly revealed and its importance seems to be only in adding to Flora's stress level until it too is takes on rather more weight in the narrative. While Flora is well fleshed out, some of her motivations or actions are given a tad bit of a short shrift, and despite being an expert at her job and therefore used to dealing with impossibly large sums of money and the people who have it, she is strangely uncertain and occasionally even timid in most of the dealings highlighted in the book. The secondary characters do change the direction of the plot on several occasions but, for the most part, they remain fairly unrealized beyond these plot diversionary roles. The romantic connection is background rather than the main focus of the novel although it grows in importance as the story progresses. There are a few hiccups in the plot such as why, if the family has never stepped foot in the apartment or have any knowledge of what's inside, do they immediately call a fine arts dealer to inventory the contents and why is it so easy for serious and real trust issues to be overcome in the end (over a mere half page) simply by declaring "love"? Over all though, this is an engaging imagining of the story behind an abandoned apartment and an interesting look into the world of fine art and the detective work required to verify and trace it. Readers who love uncovering deeply buried secrets, those who want a small glimpse into the rarefied world of the super rich, and those with an interest in art will find this a worthwhile read.

For more information about Karen Swan and the book, check out her publisher author page or like her on Facebook or Twitter. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.
Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Left to Chance by Amy Sue Nathan.

The book is being released by St. Martin's Griffin on November 21, 2017.

Amazon says this about the book: No one knows why Teddi Lerner left her hometown, but everyone knows why she’s back.

Twelve-year-old Shayna― talented, persistent, and adorable―persuaded "Aunt Tee" to return to Chance, Ohio, to photograph her father’s wedding. Even though it's been six years since Shay's mother, Celia, died, Teddi can hardly bear the thought of her best friend's husband marrying someone else. But Teddi’s bond with Shay is stronger than the hurt.

Teddi knows it’s time to face the consequences of her hasty retreat from family, friends, and, her old flame, but when she looks through her viewfinder, nothing in her small town looks the same. That’s when she truly sees the hurt she's caused and―maybe―how to fix it.

After the man she once loved accuses Teddi of forgetting Celia, Teddi finally admits why she ran away, and the guilt she’s carried with her. As Teddi relinquishes the distance that kept her safe, she’ll discover surprising truths about the people she left behind, and herself. And she'll finally see what she overlooked all along.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: Kiss of the Highlander by Karen Marie Moning

After I blazed through the Outlander quartet twenty years ago (and yes, I know there are 4 more than that now as well as another two planned), I added a lot of Scotland set books to my collection. In fact, I probably added Karen Marie Moning's The Kiss of the Highlander specifically because the jacket copy on my mass market paperback sounds an awful lot like Outlander. There's time travel and romance and danger, a more modern heroine and an historical hero. In fact, while these elements are all there, this is a significantly different book than Outlander, more firmly in the romance genre and with the addition of magic and druids.

Gwen Cassidy's life is pretty dull. She works for an insurance company processing claims and she has no personal life to speak of. The tour around Scotland that she's signed up for is populated by senior citizens instead of potential love interests. She's never going to lose her virginity at this rate. When she heads into the Highland hills to have some time to be alone and think, she ends up falling into a hidden cave, landing smack dab on top of a braw, sleeping Highlander. When Drustan awakens, he tells her that he is The MacKeltar, that he's from 500 years in the past, and that he needs to get back to his own century to save his clan. She thinks it's possible he's a mental patient but she agrees to help him get back to his castle, thinking that she can then give over care of this strange but compelling man to his family. As she sees his reaction to the 20th century along the way to his castle, she starts to wonder if he is indeed telling the truth and, of course, to fall for him as he is falling for her in return.  When she sees who he really is and what he is capable of, history, the present, and everything around them will change for the two of them.

Gwen as the heroine is an interesting character. She is incredibly smart (a gifted physicist) but she's also rather pitiful and not great interpersonally thanks to her late, unfeeling parents who only valued her for her potential contributions to science. Drustan is very much a stereotypical sixteenth century hero. He's ridiculously chauvinistic, even when at the mercy of Gwen's time period and her continued goodwill. Of course, he is also chiseled and delicious looking so despite his overbearing high-handedness, Gwen's hormones cannot wait to tango with him. Her intelligence challenges him, something that he quickly learns to appreciate in the present day but that his past persona really struggles with, keeping them apart despite their white hot lust for each other. The plot is quite involved given the time travel aspect but everything is explained quite well and easily enough so that each part of the story is as believable as something predicated on magic and time travel can be. The ending was amazing and incredibly inventive and although there are more books in the series (and three prior to this one as well), this felt complete in its primary plot line. If you are a historical romance reader, a fan of sexy time travel, want to read an inversion of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, or just like the idea of a man in a plaid, this will absolutely be your guilty pleasure and I'm happy to say that although this was published in 2001, it holds up just fine in 2017.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Royally Wed by Teri Wilson

I was 10 when Charles and Diana married in what was billed as a fairy tale wedding. We were awake at a ridiculous hour gathered around a television set holding plates from high tea in our laps as we watched the prince marry his princess. Leaving aside that this was real life and not a fairy tale, as future years would surely prove, it was a magical event and one I remember fondly. Thirty years later, while wearing a plastic tiara and noshing on delicate British snacks, I sat with friends and watched William and Catherine marry. Another stately, beautiful, and yes, magical royal wedding. Although I was in good company for both of these events, I do admit that even on a regular day, I have a bit of a soft spot for the British royals so I was more than happy to get my hands on Teri Wilson's Royally Wed, a short contemporary romance about a royal wedding, a princess, a Duke who may be hiding something, a gorgeous American, blackmail, and infidelity.

Asher Reed is having a bit of a rough time of it. A professional cellist, he has been invited to play a difficult solo at the wedding of the century after Yo-Yo Ma falls ill and has to cancel. The problem is that as a last minute substitution, he has no hotel room and hasn't practiced at all. The Queen installs him in Buckingham Palace, in The Blue Room, a room in Princess Amelia's suite of rooms and he is given access to St. Paul's after hours his first evening in London. He is affected by the gorgeous cathedral and the famous buried there, playing a hauntingly beautiful piece. It's the first piece he's played since his former fiancee dumped him for his mentor and Maestro.  That both his former fiancee and his Maestro are also in London to perform for the wedding is not making things easy for him.  Princess Amelia is also in St. Paul's, weeping over her upcoming marriage, not exactly the picture of a bride in love and eager for her wedding. And she's not that bride; this wedding is an arranged one to the father of Amelia's best friend. She isn't overjoyed to be marrying Duke Holden but she is trying desperately to live down the nickname of Princess Naughty and do what her family needs her to do. But she and Asher have an instant attraction and their close proximity and an incorrigible corgi named Willow conspire to throw them together, fanning the flames of desire in the mere 10 days before the wedding.

While this is the third book in the series, it easily stands on its own. Princess Amelia is both a sad and an appealing main character. She is clearly torn between her duty to her family and what she really wants, even before Asher enters the picture. For having a reputation as a bit of a bad girl, she is surprisingly naive about what marriage will require of her (yes, you'll have to kiss your husband and sleep with him too!) but when she is with Asher, she doesn't seem to be that completely innocent naif which makes for a bit of a strange dichotomy in her character. Wilson has done a nice job drawing the princess as having both a public and a private persona as well as how lonely it must be to have to be on guard all the time. Asher is a character to sympathize with, torn apart by circumstance, cheated on by his fiancee and the man who meant the world to him, now feeling as if his music has left him, unable to work through stage fright and play to his potential, and falling for a princess set to marry another man in mere days. The only other characters who are in the book for any meaningful span of time are Willow the corgi and James, seemingly the only attendant in the entirety of Buckingham Palace. This makes the book fly past at break neck speed, with only one real plot line. There are some fun nods to Charles and Diana's wedding and relationship that even casual royal watchers should pick up on sprinkled in the book (and in fact one of them makes for a rather pivotal plot point). Anglophiles, contemporary romance fans, and little girls who wanted to grow up to be princesses will enjoy this light and easy tale and may want to search out Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire and Jane Powell, the movie that served as inspiration for this breezy, quick read.

Thanks to Melissa at Pocket Books for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Book Jumper by Mechthild Glaser
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens
Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
The Lake House by Kate Morton
Shelter by Jung Yun
The Center of the World by Jacqueline Sheehan
A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
The Beauty of the End by Debbie Howells
Country of Red Azaleas by Domnica Radulescu
A Hard and Heavy Thing by Matthew J. Hefti
Paint Your Wife by Lloyd Jones
The Company They Kept edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Thousand-Miler by Melanie Radzicki McManus
Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe
Close Enough to Touch by Colleen Oakley
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Hope Has Two Daughters by Monia Mazigh
After the Bloom by Leslie Shimotakahara
Metis Beach by Claudine Bourbonnais
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The New York Time Footsteps by various authors
The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

Reviews posted this week:

The Little French Bistro by Nina George
Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly
Plaid and Plagiarism by Molly MacRae

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

To Love the Coming End by Leanne Dunic
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault
A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe
City Mouse by Stacey Lender
Cutting Back by Leslie Buck
Siracusa by Delia Ephron
The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
A Narrow Bridge by J.J. Gersher
The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson
The Heart of Henry Quantum by Pepper Harding
The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler
Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani
How to Survive a Summer by Nick White
Bramton Wick by Elizabeth Fair
The Finishing School by Joanna Goodman
Meet Me in the In-Between by Bella Pollen
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
The Island of Books by Dominique Fortier
Lights On, Rats Out by Cree LeFavour
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar
What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? by Noemi Jaffee
Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
The Talker by Mary Sojourner
When the Sky Fell Apart by Caroline Lea
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
'Round Midnight by Laura McBride
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
Last Things by Marissa Moss
All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
Civilianized by Michael Anthony
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
In the Woods of Memory by Shun Medoruma
Before the Wind by Jim Lynch
Dinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent
Inhabited by Charlie Quimby
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
You and I and Someone Else by Anna Schachner
Meantime by Katharine Noel
The Portrait by Antoine Laurain
So Much Blue by Perceval Everett
The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber
Mothers and Other Strangers by Gina Sorell
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell
How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry
Between Them by Richard Ford
Kinship of Clover by Ellen Meeropol
The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman
The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker
Morningstar by Ann Hood
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell
The Original Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
A Season of Ruin by Anna Bradley
Incontinent on the Continent by Jane Christmas
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar
Sourdough by Robin Sloane
A Paris All Your Own edited by Eleanor Brown
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
Living the Dream by Lauren Berry
Lawyer for the Dog by Lee Robinson
Lily and the Octopus by Stephen Rowley
Beginner's Guide to a Head-On Collision by Sebastian Matthews
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
A Well-Made Bed by Abby Frucht and Laurie Alberts
Kiss of the Highlander by Karen Marie Moning
Emily Goes to Exeter by M.C. Beaton
The Book Jumper by Mechthild Glaser
From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
Devil's Bride by Stephanie Laurens
Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review: Plaid and Plagiarism by Molly MacRae

I have a wee bit of a fascination with Scotland and I've been trying hard to broaden my horizons with my reading lately so Molly MacRae's Plaid and Plagiarism, a Scottish Highlands set cozy mystery (a genre I rarely read) where the amateur sleuths have bought a bookshop should be a perfect way to ease into something not in my usual way of things, right? It certainly should have so I'm left wondering if it was the book or if it was me or some unfortunate combination of the two since the bones and the desire were there (so appropriate a phrase given a mystery, no?).

American Janet Marsh, her best friend Christine, Janet's daughter Tallie, and Tallie's college roommate Summer, have bought a Scottish bookshop called Yon Bonnie Books and are embarking on second careers as book sellers in the quaint Highlands town, Inversgail, where Christine grew up. Janet and her family used to spend summers in Inversgail and Janet ended up with the cottage they summered in after her divorce from her ex, The Rat. The four women, who used to be a librarian, a social worker, a reporter, and a lawyer respectively, plan to learn the book selling business from the former owners Kenneth and Pamela. They are also renovating the upstairs as a B and B and next door as a tea shop. When they first arrive, Janet, who is truly the main character and who the narrative focus is mostly on, discovers that she and Tallie cannot move into her cottage because it has been vandalized. The realtor is convinced that the local agony aunt, Una Graham, who wants desperately to be an investigative reporter, is behind the vandalism. But then Una's body, a sickle in her neck, turns up in the ugly shed at the back of Janet's garden. Secrets come to light showing that almost everyone in town had a reason to dislike Una so figuring out who disliked her enough to actually kill her won't be easy. As Una's body is found at Janet's and as the bookshop is also involved, the four new owners team up to try and discover the murderer at the same time they are trying to get ready for the local Inversgail Literary Festival and navigate the tensions in the local literary community.

As the first in a new series, MacRae introduced a lot of characters here in addition to her four bookshop owners. Creating so many characters and trying to give them each enough of a backstory that she wasn't just introducing names with no identifying characteristics, she also had to add plot thread after plot thread. This might have worked better with fewer secondary characters, waiting to introduce some of the locals later on in the series. As it was, there were too many characters and not enough fleshing out of those most important to this first book. The narrative pacing was uneven, slow and drawn out in the beginning and too quick in the end. The constant rehashing of what each of the four women knew took away from the story and could easily have been skipped. Their sleuthing was rather scattershot, making it surprising that they figured out who the murderer was (although on the plus side, the who of it was a surprise to the reader). In fact the plot, the characters, and the book as a whole could have used a lot of tightening up. I really did want to like this but found myself easily distracted from the story and had a hard time settling back down into it each time I picked it up. If you are a cozy mystery reader and are used to the long build up in the first of a series, you might appreciate this one enough to pick up the second. For me though, I just don't think I'm cut out for the slow start, or maybe mysteries are never going to be my thing.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly

OK, a little bit of real talk here. $23.00 for a slender, little, less than 100 pages of text, hard cover book of "micro-memoirs"? What insanity is this? Surely this is a ridiculous price for something so physically insubstantial, right? I mean, the book, even with the bulk of the hard cover, is but the size of a paperback and with those few pages, well... And yet in my usual inimitable fashion, I ignored the price and bought it anyway. I can say that it was worth every penny. I read aloud from it to people I was with the weekend I bought it and raved with an unseemly enthusiasm, even to people who clearly wished me to stuff a sock in it already. Mississippi state poet laureate Beth Ann Fennelly's Heating and Cooling, a collection of "micro-memoirs," tiny memoirs akin to short stories or flash fiction, is funny and thoughtful, real and subtle, surprising and economical. She shares insights into her life in childhood and as an adult, into her marriage, into her parenting, and into memory, and she manages to do it in fewer words than I'm likely to use in this review.

Each micro-memoir is a short, tiny jewel, self-contained and complete within itself but a vital part of the whole. The book is not arranged chronologically and each piece runs from one sentence to no more than five pages. Fennelly's prose is spare and succinct and each word and idea are carefully considered with perfect turns of phrase. The book is deceptively simple, each instance building on the previous one, until the full impact of the memoir hits you. Some of the pieces are delightful, full of joy and love, and some are disturbing, telling of terrible, hidden things. My personal favorite will have me checking page 50 in all of my books for a long time to come. Bit by glorious bit each brief part reveals something more about Fennelly and about the experiences in life that have made her who she is. I couldn't stop turning the pages even as I willed myself to slow down and savor the writing. In the blink of an eye I'd come to the end of this magnificent, intimate book wishing that Fennelly lived next door to me so we could be friends. Read it. You won't be sorry.

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