Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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.

The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes.

The book is being released by Minotaur Books on January 23, 2018.

Amazon says this about the book: Set amid the legendary Mitford household, a thrilling Golden Age-style mystery, based on a real unsolved murder, by Jessica Fellowes, author of the New York Times bestselling Downton Abbey books.

It's 1920, and Louisa Cannon dreams of escaping her life of poverty in London.

Louisa's salvation is a position within the Mitford household at Asthall Manor, in the Oxfordshire countryside. There she will become nursemaid, chaperone and confidante to the Mitford sisters, especially sixteen-year-old Nancy, an acerbic, bright young woman in love with stories.

But then a nurse―Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of her famous namesake―is killed on a train in broad daylight, and Louisa and Nancy find themselves entangled in the crimes of a murderer who will do anything to hide their secret...

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

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.

Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict.

The book is being released by Sourcebooks Landmark on January 16, 2018.

Amazon says this about the book: From the author of The Other Einstein, the mesmerizing tale of what kind of woman could have inspired an American dynasty.

Clara Kelley is not who they think she is. She's not the experienced Irish maid who was hired to work in one of Pittsburgh's grandest households. She's a poor farmer's daughter with nowhere to go and nothing in her pockets. But the other woman with the same name has vanished, and pretending to be her just might get Clara some money to send back home.

If she can keep up the ruse, that is. Serving as a lady's maid in the household of Andrew Carnegie requires skills he doesn't have, answering to an icy mistress who rules her sons and her domain with an iron fist. What Clara does have is a resolve as strong as the steel Pittsburgh is becoming famous for, coupled with an uncanny understanding of business, and Andrew begins to rely on her. But Clara can't let her guard down, not even when Andrew becomes something more than an employer. Revealing her past might ruin her future -- and her family's.

With captivating insight and heart, Carnegie's Maid tells the story of one brilliant woman who may have spurred Andrew Carnegie's transformation from ruthless industrialist into the world's first true philanthropist.

Monday, January 8, 2018

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft
Word of Mouse by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

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
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 Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J. Andersson
The New York Time Footsteps by various authors
This Far Isn't Far Enough by Lynn Sloan
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Reviews posted this week:

The Crown Derby Plate by Marjorie Bowen
The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian
The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft
Word of Mouse by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein
Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

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

no 2018 books yet!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Review: Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Family togetherness can be both a blessing and a curse. Once children are grown, families tend to gather together less and less and often only around the holidays. If you've just been with family at the holidays, you know how hard it can be to be under one roof together for an extended period of time. Now just imagine of you weren't just together but that you were quarantined so there was definitely no way to escape your loved ones, no popping out to grocery shop, no walk down the street, no outside contact at all. This is the situation in Francesca Hornak's novel Seven Days of Us.

The Birch family is about to spend seven days together in quarantine over Christmas. Eldest daughter Olivia is a doctor just returning to Britain after spending time in Liberia treating victims of the deadly Haag virus. She has to stay locked up for the seven day viral incubation period in case she comes down with the terrifying disease. Despite not returning home for the past several years for Christmas, this year Olivia will have more than enough time with her parents and her younger sister at their country place, Weyfield Hall in Norfolk, beyond the reach of good cell service and reliable wi-fi. Mother Emma has just been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma but she's keeping her diagnosis a secret, worried that Olivia won't come home if she knows what a danger her presence could be. Instead she's invested in being the cheerful, nothing's wrong, martyr mum as she caters to her family, trying to keep all their traditions alive, even if no one else cares much about them anymore. Father Andrew is snarky and emotionally distant. He's a former war correspondent turned unhappy food critic who is more than uncommonly unkind in his reviews. He's also harboring a secret this holiday season, having gotten two emails from a young American man named Jesse who is the product of a one night stand Andrew had in Beirut before he and Emma married. This heretofore unknown son wants to meet Andrew but Andrew's best defense against Jesse is to ignore the emails and definitely not tell his wife and daughters about them. Youngest daughter Phoebe is used to being the center of attention. She's the golden child. She's also self-absorbed, frivolous, and shallow and she's just gotten engaged to her long time boyfriend, who is a complete and total wanker. She's more consumed with planning her wedding and whether or not George got her the right earrings for Christmas than anything else (except maybe lording her most favored child status over Olivia) but under all of this bratty self-centeredness, she has a lingering sense that her relationship is not all it could or should be. Olivia should be the heroic figure, the doctor who risks her life treating others, but she's so condescending and intolerant of her family's affluence and traditions that she comes across as judgmental and sanctimonious. Like the others, she too is hiding something this Christmas. She's fallen in love with a fellow doctor and the two of them broke the strict "No Touch" rule they lived under in Liberia, a fact that she is at great pains to hide, especially once Sean is diagnosed with Haag himself and is splashed all over the media.

Just the secrets and lack of communication between the Birches, never mind their divergent personalities, means that spending seven days together with no respite will not be easy. This enforced family togetherness will challenge them, exposing the cracks in their relationships with each other, highlighting how little they share anymore, and showing how much they still have the capacity to hurt each other. But it turns out that it won't just be the four of them together as two other people show up unexpectedly and are forced to join in the quarantine, complicating the dysfunctional family dynamic even further and stressing things to the breaking point.

The novel is told in sections detailing each day of the quarantine and then subdivided into short chapters focused on each of the major characters in turn. As the days pass, the reader can see the frustrations rise, the lack of communication grow, and each character become more purely and stubbornly him or herself. The narrative starts off with some pretty huge, rather unbelievable coincidences but Hornak actually makes them work far better and less predictably than might have been expected. These coincidences don't stop as the story goes on, but by then the reader is invested enough in the outcome that it no longer matters. The characters mostly all start off as not very likable and while they don't change out of all recognition, each of them learns and grows and becomes a little more sympathetic during the seven days they spend together. The end of the novel could very well descend into a treacly disaster of a Christmas story and it is greatly to Hornak's credit that it doesn't, instead striking just the right note for both satisfaction and believability. A generally enjoyable read, this will make you cringe and laugh as you contemplate your own family quirks and conflicts and you'll find yourself grateful that you aren't likely to be (figuratively) locked up with them again until next Christmas.

Sunday Salon: Tops of 2017

I hate to create my "best of" list before the year is well and truly over in hopes that I will read an amazing book in the waning hour of the year. So even though 2017 ended last Sunday, I had high hopes for my last reads of the year and held off declaring my favorite reads. But the year is well and truly over now so the list is complete. My sole criterion for making the list (besides being a fantastic read) is that I read the book in 2017, no matter the publication date. I used to try and keep it to ten books but I had too many this year so I cheated by doing a baker's dozen of fiction and have other best of types so I can squeeze in even more. ;-) If you'd like me to review one of the unreviewed books on here, just let me know and I'll try to get right to it.

A baker's dozen of top fiction:
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
The Chilbury Ladies' Choir by Jennifer Ryan
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen Flynn
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Before the Wind by Jim Lynch
One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain
Nuclear Family by Susanna Fogel
The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian

Best short stories:
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies

Best memoir:
Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly

Best essay collection:
Books for Living by Will Schwalbe

Best mystery:
The Girl with the Kaleidoscope Eyes by David Handler

Did you read any of these this past year? What does your top of the top list look like?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Review: Word of Mouse by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

I rarely read middle grade books, especially now that there are no middle grade readers in my house. But every now and again one crosses my path that looks too cute to pass up. Patterson and Grabenstein's pun-tacularly titled Word of Mouse is one of those.

Isaiah is a mouse. But he's not just any mouse, he's a very special mouse. Together with his ninety-six siblings, he lives in a lab and has clearly been modified to be a rather spectacular specimen of mousehood, even if he is the smallest and youngest of his mischief (the name for a group or family of mice). He can read and communicate via computer. He can say a few words, very quietly, and he can mimic other animals. Oh, and he's blue. His fur is blue, one of the only colors mice can actually see. One day with his siblings, he breaks out of the lab but it turns out he's the only one who isn't immediately recaptured and returned. This is hard because he's not a very brave mouse and he's all alone as he navigates the suburbs, birds, cats, and humans out to get him. But when he meets a pretty girl mouse who sings, even though only boy mice are supposed to be able to sing, he learns that being brave isn't about never feeling fear, that family has always got your back, and that being different isn't a bad thing. With his newfound bravery and the help of his friends and family, he determines to rescue his siblings from the evil lab.

This was in fact a cute book about embracing difference and taking chances. Its unusual mouse main character, who narrates his own tale, is sweet if occasionally a little overt in imparting the lessons he's learning. There are inconsistencies in what Isaiah, who has never been outside the lab before, knows and doesn't know thanks to his laboratory upbringing but these can mostly be ignored to go with the story flow. Complimenting the text, Isaiah's exploits are rendered beautifully in drawings by Joe Sutphin and his narrow escapes, in paragraph and picture will surely delight middle grade readers who will also happily absorb the moral of the story: "We're all different. It's the only thing we have in common."

Friday, January 5, 2018

Review: The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft

I hadn't even finished reading out the back cover copy for this book before members of my book club were shaking their heads vehemently and saying no and nope as fast as they could. Interestingly, their reactions mirror the reactions of the characters in the book when the word cannibalism (sorry, it's anthropophagy according to the character suggesting it because that somehow makes the concept more palatable--snort!) is first brought up. All I have to say is that it was their loss since this was a slyly funny and highly entertaining read about morality and taboo set in the normally staid, hidebound world of academia.

It's 1969 in Oxford. St. Jerome's College is the epitome of the hallowed halls of learning, with a gatekeeper who regularly yells at students to keep off the grass, gowned faculty and students, tutorials, crews of eight, and so on. Intriguingly, St. Jerome's is also the site of a secret dining society, the Shadow Faculty of Gastronomic Science, and one of the gastronomically adventurous dinners they throw is going to bring them some rather unwanted attention. Japanese diplomat, Takeshi Tokoro, the guest of one of the shadow faculty members prepares the potentially deadly delicacy of fugu for the assembled company. An incorrect preparation means death. And Tokoro does indeed do one small thing that ensures his own death right at the table. Now this group of six gourmands, all members of the faculty and staff of St. Jerome's, is garnering attention and threatened with forced disbanding. First, the vice-chancellor, a veritable stick in the mud whose taste buds run to bland nursery food, gets the group in his sights for causing him to have to hush up an international debacle that could have cause the college's reputation grave harm. Then a snobbish undergraduate whose opinion of his own importance is excessive, the Honorable Matthew Kingsley-Hampton, takes offense that he has not been invited to join this secret society (assuming incorrectly that it's made up off fellow undergraduates like himself) and so determines to expose the society, but mostly through manipulating others around him to do his dirty work.

The best thing to do given the climate at the school would be for the shadow faculty to either skip one of their scheduled end of term meals or at least not court controversy in any way. But Professor Arthur Plantagenet, one of the founding members of the group, an eccentric, and lifelong food and wine enthusiast, discovers that his unbridled appetites have left his heart failing and his time on earth much shorter than anticipated. Rather than fighting fate, he devises a plan for his remaining time and for what to do with his remains after death and his plan will embroil the shadow faculty in a situation the likes of which they've never before faced. He is going to donate a piece of himself for consumption at one of the shadow faculty's culinary adventures, looking on this as a scientific donation to determine not only what people taste like but if he tastes better than the animals we do eat. The others are horrified and when the time comes, as executors of the good professor's will, they will face moral, legal, and ethical dilemmas as they contemplate the horror (or is it intrigue?) of eating their late colleague.

Flitcroft has managed to write a hilarious novel about one of the biggest taboos in our society. The characters are wonderful, from the pragmatic Augustus Bloom to the spiritually agonizing chaplain Charles Pinker, from the unpleasant bully Matthew Kingsley-Hampton to his meek and downtrodden roommate Patrick Eccles. The novel feels madcap and somehow filled with hijinks even though it really isn't. The shadow faculty can be pretentious in their gustatory delights and pompous opinions but they are also endearing and the reader enjoys spending time with them as they go into raptures at their over the top dinners and as they spar with each other over the subject of eating Arthur's left thigh. Sounds wonderful and crazy, right? It is. This novel has it all: decadent, mouth-wateringly described feasts, a ghost or two in the wine cellar, undergraduate shenanigans, a moral and ethical dilemma, a wet blanket of an administrator, a secret society with declining membership, and plenty of gallows humor. Clever, funny, and original, after reading this rollicking tale I might be a bit wary of eating anything with Flitcroft but I'll happily read more of his work.

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