ARC Roundup: April 2018

It’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to blog that a lot of really wonderful ARCs I’ve received lately have gone un-reviewed–until today! Today’s roundup includes books about friendship, science fiction, and (of course) murder mysteries.

Death at the Selig Studios

The next book in the Emily Cabot series is set in 1909 and involves the blossoming film industry. Interestingly, Emily is very judgmental of the actors and actresses, thinking that the films are tawdry and for the working class. When Emily’s brother Alden, who is involved in the movies (and possibly with one of the actresses), is accused of murder, Emily is torn between her desire to vindicate her brother and her desire to make him face the consequences of his choices.

I like how the historical setting in this book made such a difference in the characters’ actions and attitudes, making it different from many historical fiction mysteries I’ve read in which the time period stays firmly in the background. If you enjoy the combination of historical fiction and murder mysteries, you might want to give this series a try.

Strawberries and Strangers

Dumped by her cheating husband, Jenny King is trying to build a new life in the small seaside town of Pelican Cove. Locals are lining up at the Boardwalk Café for her tasty cakes and muffins. But when her aunt is accused of killing a stranger, Jenny is forced to set her apron aside and put on her sleuthing cap.

Jenny battles with the cranky local sheriff and quirky local characters to get to the truth. Aided by her new friends, she will move heaven and earth to find out who the dead stranger was and what he was doing in Pelican Cove.

If you like cozy murder mysteries with friendly small towns, scenic settings, yummy food and a touch of romance, you will like Strawberries And Strangers. (Summary via the author)

Romance and mystery abound on a small island on the East Coast. After a murder at one of the most exclusive parties in this small town, Jenny splits her time between wrangling with the sheriff, whom she can’t seem to meet without arguing, and trying to prove the innocence of her aunt.

I enjoyed the island setting–you know I love a cozy mystery with a good setting–and the interesting characters who populate the island. I’m usually not a big fan of romance, so I didn’t care much about Jenny’s love life in the book, but I am curious about where it will go in future installments. If you prefer a modern cozy mystery over a historical one, this is a light, relaxing read.

Belong

This book about friendship was lovely; much better than I anticipated. The design of the book is beautiful, and the advice contained within goes far beyond the usual tips for making friends. Agrawal suggests that you go IN first and gently deal with your own baggage, discovering what kind of friends you’re looking for and what kind of friends you need to distance yourself from, before you go OUT and find these people in the real world. Some of her advice wasn’t great (I couldn’t fathom why the author is so against identifying as an introvert or extrovert when this can be such a helpful tool in understanding personality, especially since both types clearly want and need friends), but on the whole, I greatly enjoyed the book. If you want a book about making friends that avoids cliches and has a lovely design, I highly recommend this one.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Fresh Ink

I really enjoyed this collection of YA short stories. Some are SFF, some are stories set in the real world, and all feature diverse characters of all kinds by many wonderful authors. I would love to read some full-length books by these authors (and, in fact, I have several of their novels on my TBR list!).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Apple Strudel Alibi

This book is a fun addition to the Oxford Tearoom series, in which Gemma and the Old Biddies go to Vienna and must solve a murder which takes place in their hotel. I missed the usual Oxford setting (always one of my favorite parts of the books in this series), but it was fun to see Gemma and some of our other favorite characters in a new setting. As always, the mystery and the characters are fun and lighthearted. If you’ve enjoyed other books in this series, you’ll like this one too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Bob

Bob is a fun, short story of a girl rediscovering a childhood friend–who might just be a zombie. But this middle grades book isn’t scary. It’s fun and sweet and heartwarming and a little magical. It hasn’t stuck with me, but I enjoyed it as I read it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inventors at No. 8

George, also known as Lord Devonshire, is living in a crumbling house with only an old manservant for company, after the unlucky deaths of both his parents. When he reluctantly tries to sell his grandfather’s map, he meets up with Ada (a young Ada Lovelace) and Oscar, who loves painting and adventuring with his orangutan. They go on a wild adventure across Europe in order to find George’s lost family treasure, find Oscar’s pirate father, and save Ada from the organization who wishes her harm.

I liked Ada and her flying machine, but I found both orangutan-owning Oscar and curmudgeonly George to be irritating. Still, the group’s adventure was fun, and their friendship despite the frequently insensitive or hurtful comments they made to each other was a lot more realistic than most friendships in MG books.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Fiction Roundup: February 2018

An eclectic assortment of fiction books I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading an eclectic mix of fiction over the past two months, and they’ve all been enjoyable in different ways. But if you want to find out which book actually captured my imagination and kept me turning pages, scroll down to the end of this post!

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

What do a dead cat, a computer whiz-kid, an Electric Monk who believes the world is pink, quantum mechanics, a Chronologist over 200 years old, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (poet), and pizza have in common? Apparently not much; until Dirk Gently, self-styled private investigator, sets out to prove the fundamental interconnectedness of all things by solving a mysterious murder, assisting a mysterious professor, unravelling a mysterious mystery, and eating a lot of pizza – not to mention saving the entire human race from extinction along the way (at no extra charge).

This mystery/ghost story/sci fi novel by Hitchhiker’s Guide author, Douglas Adams, is just about what you would expect it to be. The book is funny and bizarre, and although it is (mostly) centered on earth rather than on space, it still has that science fiction/supernatural element that Adams is known for. If you’re looking for a quirky, entertaining book that defies strict genre classification, you’ll probably like this book.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Little Elvises

LA burglar Junior Bender has (unfortunately) developed a reputation as a competent private investigator for crooks. The unfortunate part about this is that regardless of whether he solves the crime or not, someone dangerous is going to be unhappy with him, either his suspect or his employer.

Now Junior is being bullied into proving aging music industry mogul Vinnie DiGaudio is innocent of the murder of a nasty tabloid journalist he’d threatened to kill a couple times. It doesn’t help that the dead journalist’s widow is one pretty lady, and she’s trying to get Junior to mix pleasure with business. Just as the investigation is spiraling out of control, Junior’s hard-drinking landlady begs him to solve the disappearance of her daughter, who got involved with a very questionable character. And, worst news of all, both Junior’s ex-wife and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Rina, seem to have new boyfriends. What a mess.

I read the first book in this series a long time ago, and I finally got my hands on a copy of the second book. The Junior Bender series has a bit more grit and gore than the mysteries I typically read–think action movie complete with guns and car chases–but it’s nothing too intense. Just like in the first book, the characters are interesting, the writing is fast-paced, and the mystery will keep you engaged. I did find a fair amount of weirdness in this book (why does the 37-year-old character living in 2012 not understand how to use Google and YouTube? What’s up with Junior’s relationship with his ex-wife, his daughter, and women in general?), but I’m still looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

This book has some similarities to Life After Life, which you may recall is one of my favorite books ever. The kalachakra live the same life over and over again, with complete memory of all previous lives. Harry has to outwit his former friend Vincent, who is having kalachakra killed before they are born, destroying Chronus clubs, and trying to build a quantum mirror, no matter what the cost.

I think the fact that this book is similar to one of my all-time favorite books did it a disservice, as I kept comparing it unfavorably to Life After Life. The other main issue I had with the book is the torture scenes (yes, multiple). It was a little too intense for me, and I had to stop listening to the audio book and borrow an ebook version so I could skim the rough parts.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Maltese Falcon

Sam Spade is hired by the fragrant Miss Wonderley to track down her sister, who has eloped with a louse called Floyd Thursby. But Miss Wonderley is in fact the beautiful and treacherous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and when Spade’s partner Miles Archer is shot while on Thursby’s trail, Spade finds himself both hunter and hunted: can he track down the jewel-encrusted bird, a treasure worth killing for, before the Fat Man finds him?

I don’t enjoy a detective story as much as other kinds of mysteries, but I can see why this book is a classic. Sam Spade is iconic as the hard-boiled PI, and I did enjoy reading about his adventures. The book is very well written, but (of course) filled with sexism. I have another Dashiell Hammett book on my TBR list, so I’m looking forward to more tight writing, well-crafted characters, and several sighs and eyebrow raises over the author’s treatment and portrayal of women and minorities.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Year of Wonders

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.”

This book is my favorite on this list, and honestly, one of my favorite books of 2018 so far. It provides a well-researched, heartbreaking look at a village who cut themselves off from the world when the plague started to ravage their residents. The novel looks not only at how the disease makes life difficult, but how residents sometimes turn on each other rather than supporting each other. It’s fascinating historical fiction, and the author’s note provides interesting information on how much of the story is based in fact. I highly recommend Year of Wonders whether or not you think you’re interested in the plague. It’s that good.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Comics Roundup: February 2018

The best of the comics I've been digging into lately--starring strong, interesting, flawed female leads. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been reading a lot of comics over the past few weeks, and I’ve found some that I really enjoyed. I discovered that most of my favorite comics are published by Boom! Studios (Lumberjanes, Adventure Time, Giant Days, and Goldie Vance are all theirs), so I’m really excited to explore some more of their series. (Note: Because I’ve read varying numbers of issues for each of these series, I’m just writing a brief summary of the series as a whole, rather than trying to give a specific rundown of each issue’s plot!)

Giant Days

Three college girls overcome boy troubles, finals, and childhood enemies, making each college event an adventure.

I’m loving the female characters and their college mishaps in this series! The girls are very different from each other, which makes them a lot of fun to follow, but it also creates tension within their group. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of this series. It brings back memories about the crazy adventures of college, while also coating all the boring parts with a layer of fun and silliness.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Lumberjanes

A group of girls at summer camp discovers that there’s more to the camp than meets the eye–in fact, there are a lot of magical creatures and adventures to discover.

The continuing adventures of the Lumberjane girls! I read several issues of this series previously, and I really enjoyed it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to read the most recent issues, as I had forgotten some of what happened in earlier issues. But this is still one of my favorite comics ever.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Goldie Vance

Goldie Vance, a young valet at a hotel in Florida, is constantly getting wrapped in mysteries.

Goldie is constantly getting into trouble investigating mysteries when she’s supposed to be parking cars, but that’s exactly what makes her fun to follow. The old-fashioned Florida resort is a great setting, too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Paper Girls

A group of rough and tumble girls discover a possible alien invasion during their route and have to fight to stay safe.

This series is a bit harsher than the other comics I’ve been reading lately. There is more swearing and more content that is… not for kids. It feels similar, really to the other Brian K. Vaughan comic I’ve read. I did enjoy reading it, but I’m not sure if I will continue the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Gravity Falls

Dipper and Mabel end up spending the summer at Gravity Falls, fighting wacky monsters while hanging out with their weird Grunkle Stan.

This was okay. I’ve never seen Gravity Falls, although I’ve heard the show is very good, so maybe I’m missing something? I’ll probably read the next collection in the series, just to make sure. It just doesn’t come across as quite as funny or clever as I’m sure the TV show was.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

ARC Reviews: The Boy from Tomorrow and Seven Pets for Seven Witches

Quick ARC reviews of The Boy from Tomorrow and Seven Pets for Seven Witches. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received a free copy of these books from the publishers. All opinions are my own.

(All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Seven Pets for Seven Witches

Double, double toil and trouble…
The pets in these cozy paranormal short stories are stirring up nothing but fun—and maybe a dash of trouble—for the witches in their lives.

These short stories are fun, cozy mysteries about witches and their pets/familiars. It’s impressive how, although these stories are written by different authors about different characters, they all hang together so well–each has a similar feel. All the stories are silly and sweet. If you like cozy mysteries with a bit of magic, you’ll find plenty of new authors here.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Boy from Tomorrow

Josie and Alec both live at 444 Sparrow Street. They sleep in the same room, but they’ve never laid eyes on each other. They are twelve years old but a hundred years apart.

The children meet through a handpainted spirit board—Josie in 1915, Alec in 2015—and form a friendship across the century that separates them. But a chain of events leave Josie and her little sister Cass trapped in the house and afraid for their safety, and Alec must find out what’s going to happen to them. Can he help them change their future when it’s already past?

A girl from 1915 and a boy from 2015 are able to communicate through a talking board (basically a Ouija board), and what they say changes each child’s life. It’s both exciting and heart-wrenching to watch as Alec uses his resources–the library and the internet–to help Josie and her sister escape from their abusive mother.

At the beginning, this book seems like it’s going to be spooky and mystical. Both Alec and Josie initially think they’re communicating with spirits through the talking board. But when it becomes clear that the two kids are communicating across time, the story becomes much more interesting.

This book isn’t for everyone. I think younger kids are likely to be frightened by the spooky events, or by the abuse Josie and Cass suffer. But for older kids, this book has a fun twist on the typical ghost story.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mystery Series Roundup

I'm reviewing all the mystery series I've been reading recently. I love me a good mystery! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing to wrap up my reviews for all the books I read in 2017, and you know I’ve been reading some mysteries. If you’re looking for a new mystery series to try, maybe one of these series will be for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Aunty Lee series

This series focuses on Aunty Lee, a Singaporean cook with an interest in murder. She gets her information by being nosy but friendly and plying suspects and detectives alike with her delicious food.

These mysteries are always fun with diverse, unique characters and a Singapore setting that is fascinating to me. Although I predicted most of the twists in at least one of these books, I still enjoyed the ride.

If you like learning a bit about Singaporean culture while curling up with a cozy mystery packed with interesting characters, you should give this series a try.

Thursday Next series

This series can only marginally be classified as a mystery series. Jasper Fforde, as always, jam-packs his books with quirky SFF elements and lots of action scenes. I’ve previously read and reviewed the first set of books in the Thursday Next series; the second half of the series takes place many years later, when Thursday is middle aged and raising children with her husband, as well as fighting criminals and conspiracies in the Book World and the real world.

As always, I love Fforde’s humor and wild love of books. I missed having the real Thursday–we follow the written version for much of the second book–but it was still very fun. In the third book, we get more of the story of Jenny the mindworm, which was wonderful, but it was hard to read about Thursday getting addicted to pain killer patches (I have a hard time reading about drug addiction).

I didn’t enjoy the second half of this series as much as I loved the first half, but even so, I will always be into Jasper Fforde’s writing.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line

Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is not a simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

I loved this! The story feels so much like the writing of the Veronica Mars show and makes connections with the characters and events of the show and the movie. Plus, the fact that the audio book is read by Kristen Bell just makes it even better.

Marshmallows, you definitely need to get into this book. If you haven’t seen the show (and the wonderful movie!), check that out before you pick up Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Classics Roundup: December 2017

In today's classics roundup, I'm sharing the rest of the classics that I read in 2017! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve finally finished reading all the classic books for my 2017 book challenge! It came down to the wire a bit (I struggled my way through a few of these), but I made it! Below are quick reviews of all the classics I’ve been reading lately. Before the end of the year, I’ll have a post up summarizing both of the book challenges I participated in this year. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Awakening

When first published in 1899, The Awakening shocked readers with its honest treatment of female marital infidelity. Audiences accustomed to the pieties of late Victorian romantic fiction were taken aback by Chopin’s daring portrayal of a woman trapped in a stifling marriage, who seeks and finds passionate physical love outside the confines of her domestic situation.

This was an interesting classic in which Mrs. Pontellier has an “awakening” of her self and refuses to fall in line with societal expectations. She does this by having an affair and moving into her own home, so I can see how this would have been shocking to contemporary readers.

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Kate Chopin’s writing, but I had no idea what to expect from this book. I was pleasantly surprised by it, but it isn’t one of the classics that I’ll be mulling over for years to come.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Dracula

Jonathan Harker is travelling to Castle Dracula to see the Transylvanian noble, Count Dracula. He is begged by locals not to go there, because on the eve of St George’s Day, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will come full sway. But business must be done, so Jonathan makes his way to the Castle – and then his nightmare begins. His beloved wife Mina and other lost souls have fallen under the Count’s horrifying spell. Dracula must be destroyed . . .

Several years ago, I attempted to read Dracula and utterly failed. I got freaked out by the castle scenes and never made it into the rest of the book. So I was excited to read this one for real this time. I found that it was well written and not too scary, but oh, there was a lot of sexism. I get that the time period in which this book was written was sexist, but it made it difficult to sympathize with the male main characters. Still, I’m really glad I read this one all the way through this time.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Swallows and Amazons

The first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series, originally published in 1930: for children, for grownups, for anyone captivated by the world of adventure and imagination. Swallows and Amazons introduces the lovable Walker family, the camp on Wild Cat island, the able-bodied catboat Swallow, and the two intrepid Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blackett.

What a fun children’s book! It’s slow to get started, but I found the siblings’ adventures on Wild Cat Island really fun and quaint–it’s reminiscent of the Penderwicks series. I definitely recommend this book for adults who like old-fashioned adventures or children with the patience for the slower-paced action of a classic book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Raisin in the Sun

“Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, has so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage,” observed James Baldwin shortly before A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959.

Indeed Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning drama about the hopes and aspirations of a struggling, working-class family living on the South Side of Chicago connected profoundly with the psyche of black America–and changed American theater forever.  The play’s title comes from a line in Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which warns that a dream deferred might “dry up/like a raisin in the sun.”

This play offers a powerful and painful look at a black family in the 1950s who receive a large insurance payment and each have different ideas of what to do with it (pay for the daughter to go through medical school, buy a house in a white neighborhood, get involved in a questionable investment). It hurts to watch the characters struggle because of racism as well as their own poor choices, but I’m glad I read it. I don’t generally enjoy reading plays, so I’m not likely to re-read this one, but I might go see it someday.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Outsiders

According to Ponyboy, there are two kinds of people in the world: greasers and socs. A soc (short for “social”) has money, can get away with just about anything, and has an attitude longer than a limousine. A greaser, on the other hand, always lives on the outside and needs to watch his back. Ponyboy is a greaser, and he’s always been proud of it, even willing to rumble against a gang of socs for the sake of his fellow greasers–until one terrible night when his friend Johnny kills a soc. The murder gets under Ponyboy’s skin, causing his bifurcated world to crumble and teaching him that pain feels the same whether a soc or a greaser.

Wow. I can see why this book is a classic that is still taught in high schools today. It’s hard to believe that the author was only 16 when she wrote The Outsiders–it is powerful, heart wrenching, and realistic. I loved the relationships between Ponyboy and his brothers, Soda and Darry, as well as their friendships with their group of greasers and their rivalry with the well-to-do Socs. Despite the fact that this book was written 50 years ago, it is still relatable for teenagers trying to fit in and find their group. The group names may have changed, but the teenage struggle has not.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The War of the Worlds

Even long before man had learned to fly, H.G. Wells wrote this story of the Martian attack on England. These unearthly creatures arrive in huge cylinders, from which they escape as soon as the metal is cool. The first falls near Woking and is regarded as a curiosity rather than a danger until the Martians climb out of it and kill many of the gaping crowd with a Heat-Ray. These unearthly creatures have heads four feet in diameter and colossal round bodies, and by manipulating two terrifying machines – the Handling Machine and the Fighting Machine – they are as versatile as humans and at the same time insuperable. They cause boundless destruction. The inhabitants of the Earth are powerless against them, and it looks as if the end of the World has come. But there is one factor which the Martians, in spite of their superior intelligence, have not reckoned on.

I was surprised at how enjoyable and interesting this book was. It offers a fairly short account of how London–and the world–was almost destroyed by Martians. This is the grandfather of alien invasion stories, and I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. It’s worth a read.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

1984

Published in 1949, the book offers political satirist George Orwell’s nightmare vision of a totalitarian, bureaucratic world and one poor stiff’s attempt to find individuality. The brilliance of the novel is Orwell’s prescience of modern life–the ubiquity of television, the distortion of the language–and his ability to construct such a thorough version of hell.

This was intense. It was slow to start, and I was worried that nothing would ever happen, plot-wise. But I was so wrong. I listened to the audio book, and I could barely listen to the descriptions of torture. The beginning was dark, the ending was dark, and I barely made it through because of the lack of hope that anything would ever get better (and I usually don’t mind dystopian fiction!). I won’t be re-reading this one.

Rating: Meh

Crime and Punishment

The poverty-stricken Raskolnikov, a talented student, devises a theory about extraordinary men being above the law, since in their brilliance they think “new thoughts” and so contribute to society. He then sets out to prove his theory by murdering a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. The act brings Raskolnikov into contact with his own buried conscience and with two characters — the deeply religious Sonia, who has endured great suffering, and Porfiry, the intelligent and discerning official who is charged with investigating the murder — both of whom compel Raskolnikov to feel the split in his nature. Dostoevsky provides readers with a suspenseful, penetrating psychological analysis that goes beyond the crime — which in the course of the novel demands drastic punishment — to reveal something about the human condition: The more we intellectualize, the more imprisoned we become.

As I was reading the Goodreads summary of this book (above), I felt a little guilty that as I read through this book, I wasn’t thinking about any of these deep themes. What I was mostly thinking about was, “Why is Raskolnikov so whiny?” Very few of the characters are truly sympathetic, least of all Raskolnikov, the murderer and main character. I was hoping to enjoy this book more, as the last great Russian novel I read (Anna Karenina) really captured my imagination, but I felt kind of bored with a lot of Crime and Punishment. The end, however, is surprisingly hopeful, which I actually enjoyed (perhaps a reaction against 1984 above!).

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Latest ARC Reads: November 2017

This post offers quick reviews of the latest ARCs I've read. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received these books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

River Rising

Weeks after his parents disappear on a hike, engineer Adam Carson, 27, searches for answers. Then he discovers a secret web site and learns his mom and dad are time travelers stuck in the past. Armed with the information he needs to find them, Adam convinces his younger siblings to join him on a rescue mission to the 1880s.

While Greg, the adventurous middle brother, follows leads in the Wild West, Adam, journalist Natalie, and high school seniors Cody and Caitlin do the same in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Like the residents of the bustling steel community, all are unaware of a flood that will destroy the city on May 31, 1889.

River Rising is the first book in a new series by John Heldt (whose previous books I’ve reviewed herehere, here, here, here, and here). In this series, the Carson siblings must travel back in time to the 1880s in order to rescue their parents, who are stuck in the past.

If you’ve read any of Heldt’s previous books, you’ll have a good idea of the flavor of this book. There is plenty of romance and peril as the family tries to blend into their new surroundings and track down their missing parents.

The book feels slow to begin, and everyone falling in love gets a bit too sentimental for me. But I liked how both the siblings and their parents are portrayed as they travel through time to try to find each other, and I especially enjoyed the historical fiction elements (the flood in Johnstown and its aftermath was fascinating and heartbreaking). If you’re looking for a sweet, escapist romance with a bit of history tucked inside, you might enjoy this book.

Another One Bites the Crust

Champagne and ball gowns, fairy lights and music… Oxford summer balls are one of the highlights of the calendar and tearoom sleuth Gemma Rose is looking forward to taking a break and slipping into something gorgeous for the evening. But when the night ends with a celebrity chef murdered by his own whisk, Gemma finds herself plunged into a new mystery—and the nosy Old Biddies keen to help with the investigation!

But trouble is also brewing at her quaint Cotswolds tearoom: between fighting claims that she’s serving “fake” custard tarts and stopping her little tabby, Muesli, from being catnapped, Gemma has her hands full—and that’s before she has to fend off an amorous Italian. To top it all, her boyfriend Devlin’s mother is coming to visit and Gemma is anxious to make a good impression… although Mrs O’Connor isn’t quite what she expected!

I really liked this installment in the Oxford Tearoom series (you can see previous reviews here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Gemma finally meets Devlin’s mother, who is much different than Gemma expected her to be, and tries to solve the murder of a famous chef who was electrocuted before a show at Oxford. Plus, there’s a lot of cute Muesli, Gemma’s mischievous cat.

This latest book in the series gives readers more of Gemma and Devlin’s relationship, which I love. The characters in this series make the stories shine, and I love the times when we get to zoom in on specific relationships. And as always, the mystery is interesting and engaging without being gory or scary. A wonderful cozy mystery to spend an afternoon with.

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics

Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier is the book that got me into meditation in the first place, so I was excited to find out that he had written a new book filled with practical tips for meditating. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics offers helpful, practical ideas that will help overcome the reluctance of those who want to get into meditation but aren’t into the more “woowoo” aspects. 

Dan wrote this book with the help of his friend, meditation teacher Jeff, as they toured the country in a bus and talked to widely varying groups about meditation. Everyone from former juvenile delinquents to the military to news and radio personalities gets a mention, so no matter what your hangups about meditation, the authors have advice for you. The book is also filled with short meditations that you can try out for yourself.

I enjoyed this book, and if you’re interested in meditation but don’t want to get all mystical about it, you should definitely pick it up.

Comics Roundup

I don't usually read comics, but this is what I came up with when I ransacked my roommate's collection. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m not a big reader of comics, but my roommate has a huge collection, so one day I decided to explore a few of his comics. I’m offering these up as possible entryways into comics if you (like me) have no interest in the stereotypical superhero types. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Serenity, Vol. 1-4

If you enjoyed the show Firefly, I really do recommend these comics to you. They are able to bring back the characters of this beloved show, mostly in a way that feels true to who they were. Serenity also fills in some of the backstory for characters like Shepherd Book and River, which I appreciated. As far as I know, there are only these four volumes, but that’s better than nothing for Firefly fans!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Love and Wonder

Set in a 1920’s New York where Prohibition outlaws the brewing of spells, the story follows Vincent Byrde, a hard-boiled PI who struggles with a magic curse. After a long career hunting magic bootleggers, Vincent has become obsessed with the frustrating case of Jimmy Wonder: a young, up-and-coming spellrunner who keeps slipping out of the hands of the law. Their dance takes a complicated turn when Kitty Lovelace — well-known to be Jimmy’s main girl — walks out on Wonder and into Vincent’s life.

The first thing you’ll notice about this comic is the beautiful art, so if art is your main interest, you should check out Love and Wonder. This is a noir story based on the Prohibition of magic, and it takes all the cliches of the 1920s and puts a magical spin on them. I’ll admit, the story wasn’t really for me (and there is some sexual content, so be aware!), but again–that art!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1

London, 1898. The Victorian Era draws to a close and the twentieth century approaches. It is a time of great change and an age of stagnation, a period of chaste order and ignoble chaos. It is an era in need of champions.

In this amazingly imaginative tale, literary figures from throughout time and various bodies of work are brought together to face any and all threats to Britain. Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde and Hawley Griffin ( the Invisible Man) form a remarkable legion of intellectual aptitude and physical prowess: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

This well-known comic is a little more closely related to the stereotypical action/adventure comics. But instead of superheroes, this comic stars book characters such as Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Mycroft Holmes, who interact, argue, and get into trouble.

This is another comic that wasn’t exactly for me–at least, I don’t really have any interest in reading more of it. But it kept my interest while I was reading it, and I think it might be a good option if you’re looking to ease your way into comics.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Fried Green Tomatoes and Little Beach Street Bakery: A Comparison

A comparison of Fried Green Tomatoes and The Little Beach Street Bakery--they have more in common than you think. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In today’s post, I’m going to do a little bit of a comparison, rather than separate reviews for these two books. As I was thinking about Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Little Beach Street Bakery, I realized that they actually have a lot in common–and that the reasons I loved one book are the shortcomings of the other. One is a modern-day classic; the other is a book that was hugely popular a couple of years ago.

Each of these books centers itself around two important aspects: location and food. Fried Green Tomatoes exists mainly at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the center of small town Alabama life for a tight-knit community. Little Beach Street Bakery is on a small island off the coast of England, where a recently divorced woman tries to put her life back together by baking.

First, here’s a quick summary of Fried Green Tomatoes, in case you’ve somehow missed out on reading it or seeing the movie:

It’s first the story of two women in the 1980s, of gray-headed Mrs. Threadgoode telling her life story to Evelyn, who is in the sad slump of middle age. The tale she tells is also of two women — of the irrepressibly daredevilish tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth, who back in the thirties ran a little place in Whistle Stop, Alabama, a Southern kind of Cafe Wobegon offering good barbecue and good coffee and all kinds of love and laughter, even an occasional murder. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Basically, this book explores life in the South during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the life of a woman in the 1980s. This involves race relations, gender roles, midlife crises, and relationships with those who are different from you. But the book never becomes preachy (many of the main characters make questionable decisions), and each of the characters, from Idgie and Ruth to their friends and family to the elderly Mrs. Threadgoode and her unlikely friend Evelyn, is unique and flawed in a lovable way. I thought this book was lovely.

Meanwhile, here’s what happens in Little Beach Street Bakery:

Amid the ruins of her latest relationship, Polly Waterford moves far away to the sleepy seaside resort of Polbearne, where she lives in a small, lonely flat above an abandoned shop.

To distract her from her troubles, Polly throws herself into her favorite hobby: making bread. But her relaxing weekend diversion quickly develops into a passion. As she pours her emotions into kneading and pounding the dough, each loaf becomes better than the last. Soon, Polly is working her magic with nuts and seeds, olives and chorizo, and the local honey-courtesy of a handsome local beekeeper. Drawing on reserves of determination and creativity Polly never knew she had, she bakes and bakes . . . and discovers a bright new life where she least expected it. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is much more centered around a romance rather than around the relationships of a cast of characters, and that basic premise already makes me less inclined to enjoy this book. I picked up this book because I had heard it described as a great summer read, light and enjoyable. But I didn’t quite feel that way about it.

While Fried Green Tomatoes centers around the Whistle Stop Cafe, its proprietors, and the many people–both locals and out of towners–who spend time there, Little Beach Street Bakery focuses more on the broken relationships in the isolated town of Polbearne. Polly has to fight with her landlady, who is desperate to cling to her monopoly on baked goods, as well as struggling with her attraction to a couple of the men she meets on the island.

While Polly eventually finds love and fulfillment in her new life, Little Beach Street Bakery never has the warmth and humor that I got from Fried Green Tomatoes. Its characters are more forgettable and less quirky–something I really missed. And although there is less talk about food in Fried Green Tomatoes than in Little Beach Street Bakery, that’s really my only complaint. Both books offer up their respective settings as important pieces of the story, but whereas the setting of Little Beach Street Bakery is cold and forbidding, just like its weather, Fried Green Tomatoes takes a cue from the warmth of a summer in the South and imbues the story with that feeling.

I’m not saying that Little Beach Street Bakery is a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, and I can see why it became so popular. But it can’t compare to the wonderful characters, setting, and quirky but heartwarming story of Fried Green Tomatoes.

Mystery Roundup, October 2017

Today I'm reviewing all the latest mystery books I've read. It's a wide variety for different ages and settings. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m a big fan of mysteries of all kinds, and in today’s post I’m reviewing a wide variety of mystery novels. There are standalones and series; MG, YA, and adult books; and settings from Australia to London to Singapore. There’s something for everyone here! (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Aunty Lee’s Delights

After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could easily have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai,” an idle rich lady devoted to mah-jongg and luxury shopping. Instead she threw herself into building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean home cooking is graciously served to locals and tourists alike. But when a body is found in one of Singapore’s beautiful tourist havens, and when one of her wealthy guests fails to show at a dinner party, Aunty Lee knows that the two are likely connected.

The murder and disappearance throws together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson Mark, his social-climbing wife Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore, and an elderly Australian tourist couple whose visit-billed at first as a pleasure cruise-may mask a deeper purpose. Investigating the murder is rookie Police Commissioner Raja, who quickly discovers that the savvy and well-connected Aunty Lee can track down clues even better than local law enforcement.

I really enjoyed this mystery. A blog reader told me about this series when I asked for suggestions for diverse mysteries, and this book really fit what I was looking for. The Singapore setting is wonderful, and so is Aunty Lee. I know practically nothing about Singapore, so reading about their food, their culture, and their daily lives (with the addition of murder, of course) was fascinating. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Murder Most Austen

A dedicated Anglophile and Janeite, Elizabeth Parker is hoping the trip to the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath will distract her from her lack of a job and her uncertain future with her boyfriend, Peter.

On the plane ride to England, she and Aunt Winnie meet Professor Richard Baines, a self-proclaimed expert on all things Austen. His outlandish claims that within each Austen novel there is a sordid secondary story is second only to his odious theory on the true cause of Austen’s death. When Baines is found stabbed to death in his Mr. Darcy costume during the costume ball, it appears that Baines’s theories have finally pushed one Austen fan too far. But Aunt Winnie’s friend becomes the prime suspect, so Aunt Winnie enlists Elizabeth to find the professor’s real killer. With an ex-wife, a scheming daughter-in-law, and a trophy wife, not to mention a festival’s worth of die-hard Austen fans, there are no shortage of suspects.

I picked up Murder Most Austen on a whim (and because it cost fifty cents!). I was expecting something forgettable and bland, a mystery that covers well-trodden ground. What I found was surprisingly fresh and fun. There is enough Jane Austen here for fans to enjoy, but the novel never becomes stale by relying too heavily on Austen’s well-known stories and characters. This book isn’t as saccharine as many cozy mysteries are, but it’s certainly not scary or gory. If you’re looking for a light but interesting mystery with a bit of Jane Austen flair, this book might be for you!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Poison is Not Polite

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t about Daisy after all—and she is furious. But Daisy’s anger falls to the wayside when one of their guests falls seriously and mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. It’s up to Daisy and Hazel to find out what’s really going on.

With wild storms preventing everyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem—and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy begins to act suspiciously, the Detective Society does everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

It has been a long time since I read the first book in this middle grade series, but this is a good follow up. Poison is Not Polite takes the form of a classic English country house mystery (think Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles), but it feels fresh and new because of the main characters–two young girls who are spending their school holiday at the house. Daisy and Hazel, along with their two school friends, take it on themselves to solve the murder of the unpleasant man who was invited to the house. But the deeper they dig, the closer they get to digging up some family secrets that Daisy may not want to know, after all.

For a MG mystery, this book doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness of murder (or of the secrets that families sometimes try to hide, or of the casual racism that Hazel experiences). Still, it remains mostly lighthearted. I’m looking forward to seeing what mystery this Detective Society solves next.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Husband’s Secret

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

I read this for book club (because of course we read it), and honestly, I think everyone else disliked this book more than I did. I hated the book at first–there’s a lot of cheating, family drama, and of course secrets–and most of the characters are very unlikable. But once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down! Sure, there are some cheesy moments, and if you need a likable character in order to really enjoy a book, this one probably isn’t for you. Still, I can see how The Husband’s Secret became so popular. This would be a good beach read, I think.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Agency series

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

I read the first book in the Agency series a long time ago, and I remember really enjoying it. But when I re-read the first book, followed by the rest of the series, I felt kind of… meh about it. I forgot how sexist the love interest, James, is and how the writing isn’t very sharp. (To be honest, that’s not the kind of thing that usually bothers me, but there were several instances where I thought, this book could have used another round of edits.)

While I like the idea of this series–a young woman in Victorian London finds freedom in being an undercover spy, despite the restraints on women during that time period–it doesn’t work well for me as it plays out. If you’re going to give me a fictional spy agency which allows women to have more freedom, why don’t you give me at least a couple of characters who also believe in rights for women? This is particularly annoying with James. I think the author is trying to present him as a Darcy-esque character, but while Darcy eventually comes to admire Elizabeth’s quick mind and wit, James continually tries to keep Mary from doing her job in the most patronizing ways possible. I found it very irritating.

I did think that the last book was the best in this series. Mary and James have a much better relationship, and she is able to do more mystery solving than in any of the previous books. In my mind, these books are almost equally balanced between the poor writing and sexist characters and the fun of the mysteries, particularly the last one. I don’t think I’ll be reading this series again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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