Thursday, June 23, 2016

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series ~ Louise Penny

Still Life: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel (A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery Book 1) by [Penny, Louise]

I am currently reading/listening to the Chief Inspector Gamache series (set in and around Quebec) by author Louise Penny, which has turned into such a joyous experience that I am sad to know I only have one book left before the August, 2016 release of book eleven, A Great Reckoning. All of these books, save the newest, are narrated on audio book by the amazing Ralph Cosham, who passed away in September, 2014.  Mr. Cosham narrated over 100 books over the course of his life, and he made the characters in this wonderful series, especially the intelligent, calm and wise Gamache, come to life.  There really is no comparison to this outstanding series, though, as a librarian, I often attempt to find read-a-likes for fans hungry for titles to satisfy them during the long wait before a new Inspector Gamache novel is published.  If you haven't heard of this series, and are interested in checking it out, you won't be disappointed.  Some are better than others, as you find in all series, but the author does such an incredible job of revealing a bit more about her characters in each book, that you can't help but keep on reading.  Enjoy!

The Matchmakers of Minnow Bay ~ Kelly Harms (Pub. Date: August 9, 2016)

Harms, Kelly. 2016. The Matchmakers of Minnow Bay. New York, NY:  Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 978-1250070616. $25.99 USD

Looking for a beach read?  Or something to beat the heat?  In August, you’ll want to immerse yourself in this charming tale set in Chicago and Wisconsin in the middle of winter.

Lily Stewart is a painter in Chicago, just starting to show her work in the gallery owned by her sometimes-boyfriend, when she finds herself evicted from the only home she’s known for the past ten years.  She finds that all her art school friends have moved on to settle down in marriages with families, and both her boyfriend and her best friend refuse to help her out, thinking she needs to grow up and stop “playing” at art.  As she is packing up her few household items (she mostly owns paints and canvases), she comes across a letter from the State of Nevada, requiring her to submit certain documents to annul a quickie Vegas wedding from ten years earlier.  With no place to live, she embarks on a road trip to Minnow Bay, Wisconsin, to deliver the news to Ben Hutchinson, her still-husband, and finish the annulment. But the universe has other plans for Lily Stewart…..

This fairly simple description doesn’t do justice to the incredible character development that the author of The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane has created in her new novel.  With a cast of well-developed supporting characters and a small town Wisconsin setting that is almost a character itself, reader’s will fall in love with this feel-good read about a down-on-her-luck artist and her attempts to turn her life around.  I truly enjoyed this refreshing novel that hits all the right notes.

Borderline ~ Mishell Baker

Baker, Mishell. 2016. Borderline. New York, NY: Saga Press, a division of Simon & Schuster.
ISBN 978-1481453066. $25.99 USD

Mille Roper is a paraplegic film director with Borderline Personality Disorder.  Did you ever imagine reading that description for a heroine/protagonist in an Urban Fantasy novel??  Well, you will be surprised how well this works in Mishell Bakers debut, Borderline.

Millie is in a psychiatric unit after a failed suicide attempt that has left her missing parts of both legs and struggling to learn to deal with her BPD diagnosis, when she is visited by an aloof stranger offering her an unusual job with a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality, filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales. Millie knows her chances of working any other type of job are slim, so she takes the offer, despite the severe reservations of her therapist, with whom she has made quite a bit of progress.

This author has done her homework on BPD, and we are educated in the coping skills used by people suffering from this disorder. I actually read some articles just to educate myself (information junkie that I am), and was pleasantly surprised at the accuracy written into the book’s main character.

Millie joins a group of rag-tag mental patients who are tasked with keeping track of (and keeping out of trouble) a number of fey who are masquerading as celebrities in Hollywood. Millie’s first assignment is tracking down a missing movie star who also happens to be a nobleman of the Seelie Court. In order to find him, she’ll have to interact with some of Hollywood’s power players and immerse herself in what lies beneath the glamour of Tinseltown. Millie’s own inner demons are giving her enough trouble, but if she fails to locate the missing nobleman, she’ll be out of a job and possibly contribute to the shattering of a centuries-old peace which could spark an all-out war between worlds. No pressure.

With the unusual set-up of this fresh Urban Fantasy novel, you wouldn’t think it would work.  But, somehow, it does and we are treated to a unique new world where protagonists with real disabilities co-exist with a secret world, unseen by most of society.  Luckily, this is book one of the Arcadia Project series, and hopefully we can look forward to more of Millie and her co-workers’ adventures in the next novel to come.  As with most novels these days, expect some language and graphic descriptions interspersed with a surprising amount of humor.  I was surprised how much I enjoyed this unconventional novel and the curmudgeonly heroine, who, in spite of her circumstances, still manages to convey hope for her future.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

First Star I See Tonight ~ Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Pub. Date August 23, 2016)

First Star I See Tonight by [Phillips, Susan Elizabeth]
Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. 2016. First Star I See Tonight. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
ISBN 978-0062405616. $26.99 USD

Welcome back, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, a consistently enjoyable romance author who has provided many hours of escapist reading for her legion of fans!  She took a slight detour in her last novel, Heroes are my Weakness (puppets?) and now returns to the Chicago skyline and the fictional Chicago Stars NFL football empire in her new novel, First Star I See Tonight, to be published August 23rd.

Cooper Graham is a retired Stars quarterback, who went out on a professional high by winning the Super Bowl for the team.  He now owns a celebrity nightclub where he is the main draw.  Piper Dove is a struggling private investigator in debt from purchasing her father’s PI Agency from her step-mother, since her deceased father never allowed her to work with him.  But she is feisty and determined.  She gets caught following Cooper for someone vetting his company as an investment opportunity and loses her only client.  An irritated and angry Cooper blackmails her into doing some investigative work for him, and…..sparks fly!

Piper is anything but a girly-girl, wholly unlike the models and actresses Cooper usually dates. She’s tough, argumentative, and in some ways, more masculine than he is; but there is something about her…..Piper thinks Coop’s ego is the size of the Star’s football stadium, although his physical presence is the stuff of daydreams.  Shakespeare’s statement that  “the course of true love never did run smooth” is quite apt in describing this delightful novel, full of snappy dialog, a cast of quirky supporting characters, including some favorites from previous Stars novels, and a HEA that Cooper and Piper struggle to reach.  Though this novel can be read on its own, I highly recommend all of the Chicago Stars books, starting with It Had to be You.  Looking for beach reads?  This series is perfect for you, then!

Monday, June 20, 2016

All the Missing Girls ~ Megan Miranda (Pub. Date June 28, 2016)

Miranda, Megan. 2016. All the Missing Girls. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
ISBN 978-1501107962. $25.00 USD.

YA author Megan Miranda makes her adult fiction debut in All the Missing Girls, and has created an unusual and challenging mystery written in reverse chronological order.  Nicolette Farrell left Cooley Ridge, North Carolina after her best friend, Corrine, went missing one night after attending the local fair.  Nic left behind her family, her boyfriend, Tyler, and a number of secrets.  Ten years later, now engaged to a main line Philadelphia attorney, Nic is called home by her brother to help get her childhood home ready to sell, and deal with her father’s increasing dementia.  She has also received a note from her father saying, “I saw that girl,” and Nic is convinced he’s talking about Corrine.

Once she arrives in Cooley Ridge, she is visited by her old boyfriend, and within a day the girl he is now dating goes missing.  History seems to be repeating itself, the box of secrets is about to be opened, and Nic’s closest family and friends may be implicated.

What makes this novel different from other mysteries I’ve read is the author’s clever use of reverse chronology, so that each chapter steps backwards in time, over a two week period, and clues are revealed which alter the reader’s perspective and understanding of the events that have, and are, happening.  I recommend paying close attention while reading this one, even keeping notes and a timeline.  The unusual narrative of this excellent novel kept me fascinated right up to the satisfying end.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Vinegar Girl ~ Anne Tyler (Pub. Date 6/21/2016)

Tyler, Anne. 2016. Vinegar Girl. New York,NY: Hogarth Shakespeare/PRH/ The Crowne Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0804141260. $25.00 USD.

I was a huge fan of Anne Tyler’s early work, especially “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” “The Accidental Tourist,” and “Celestial Navigation.”  I spent four years studying classic literature as an English major in the 1980’s, and was so burned out, I didn’t read anything remotely “literary” for years!  Eventually, I discovered the early works of Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Tyler and have been a voracious reader of contemporary fiction ever since.

 Ms. Tyler, in my opinion, put the “fun” in “dysfunctional” families!  Recently there have been a spate of novels dealing with the subject of dysfunctional families, but I have found many of them to be depressing.  As an author (which I am not), I think you need a balance of humor with the family dysfunction in order to not turn off your readers.  Anne Tyler seems to understand this.  I have to admit, I have not read many of her later works, but I was looking forward to her contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, “Vinegar Girl.”  This novel is part of an ongoing project to provide contemporary adaptations of some of Shakespeare's best known plays. Other authors who have signed on include Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Tracy Chevalier, Gillian Flynn and Jo Nesbo, to name a few.

What the reader needs to understand about this book is that it is the author’s interpretation of the major themes in Shakspeare’s play, one of his most challenging.  It is not a “re-telling” of it.  In “Vinegar Girl,” we meet Kate Battista, a college dropout and assistant preschool teacher who lives at home with her father, a stereotypical absent-minded scientist, and her sister, Bunny, an airheaded teenager.  Dr. Battista is about to lose his valued lab assistant, Pyotr, due to work visa issues and concocts a plan to marry him off to Kate in order to get him a green card.  Simple, right?  In Anne Tyler’s capable hands, these characters come alive.  Kate’s curmudgeonly inner and outer dialogue is juxtaposed with Pyotr’s sweetness (for the most part) and his challenges with the English language, providing some of the greatest scenes in this slim volume (“Khello, Katya!”).  So long as the reader has a little background on The Taming of the Shrew, and understands the author’s intent, I feel this novel will be an entertaining and satisfying experience.

Missing, Presumed ~ Susie Steiner (Pub. Date 6/26/2016)

Steiner, Susie. 2016. Missing Presumed. New York, NY: Random House. ISBN 978-0812998320. $27.00 USD.

I read a lot of books for my work as a librarian, to keep current for readers advisory, and for my personal pleasure, as well, as time allows.  I have never really developed an attraction for British police procedurals (though I’m a fan of Ian Rankin and Ken Bruen (Scottish and Irish detectives, respectively). However, I know British mysteries are popular here in the states, so I’m familiar with the most well-known authors of this genre.  I was intrigued by "Missing, Presumed," because, based on the description, the main character, a female DS named Manon Bradshaw, seemed like someone I wanted to know more about.

Although it was a slow start for me, I eventually became very invested in the police investigation, the supporting characters and Manon’s personal life. In this mystery, set in Cambridge, a beautiful graduate student goes missing, leaving behind very few clues. Her parents are highly connected in the area, and the Cambridgeshire police force knows the spotlight will shine brightly on the investigation. As Manon and her colleagues follow what few clues they have, we are treated to a solid police investigation, as well as the inner lives of several characters affected by the crime.

Not all successful books are written in short chapters with cliffhangers, lots of dialogue and graphic violence, though that seems to be what often makes it to the best-seller list these days.  So, for me it was a pleasure to read a novel like this one, with well-done POV changes, engaging dialogue, and real-life characters, flaws and all.  I will be recommending this one to my patient readers who aren’t in such a hurry to get the finish line and who can enjoy the journey.

The Highwayman ~ Craig Johnson

Johnson, Craig. 2016. The Highwayman. New York, NY: Viking Press, a division of Penguin Random House. ISBN: 978-0735220898. $20.00 USD.

Craig Johnson is an author who knows how to take care of his fans.  As we eagerly, impatiently, await his one full-length Longmire novel to be published each year, he gifts us with short stories, sometimes on his website, and sometime published as novellas mid-year.  Such is the case with "The Highwayman>" Thank you, Mr. Johnson!

In this short title, Wyoming Highway Patrolman Rosey Wayman, who first made an appearance in the Longmire title "Another Man’s Moccasins," has been transferred to the remote Wind River Canyon area, known to be a “no-man’s land” due to the lack of radio communication caused by mountain tunnels.  It’s also known as a haunted area where, 50 years ago, a Native American highway patrolman, Bobby Womack, met a fiery death.  When Rosie starts to hear “officer needs assistance" calls on her patrol car radio at the same time each night, her supervisor thinks she’s losing her mind. Hence, the call to Walt and Henry Standing Bear to help solve this supernatural puzzle.

This isn’t the first Longmire story where Johnson uses references to supernatural occurrences in his narratives, usually related to Native American folklore. Walt actually wears a ring belonging to a deceased Native American whose ghostly presence helped him survive a blizzard in another novel. Sometimes these literary tangents work well, and sometimes, not so much.  In "The Highwayman," reality and other-worldliness co-exist well and make for a satisfying story.  A cast of interesting side characters round out the usual entertaining dialogue between Walt and Henry, and a surprising twist to Rosey’s backstory leaves the reader with a satisfied sigh.

As we wait for September’s "An Obvious Fact," the next full-length Longmire novel set in an around the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, "The Highwayman" serves as a pleasant balm to our Longmire withdrawal.  For those of you who enjoy the Longmire TV show on Netflix, episodes are currently being filmed in Santa Fe and Las Vegas for a binge-watching release, hopefully in September.  And, having had a sneak peak at the new Longmire title coming in September, as well, all I can say is….best opening chapter, ever!

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Second Life of Nick Mason ~ Steve Hamilton

Hamilton, Steve. 2016. The Second Life of Nick Mason.New York, NY:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN:  978-0399574320.  $26.00 USD.

The controversy surrounding this new novel by Steve Hamilton caught my eye months ago, and based on the description of the book, I was intrigued.  Mr. Hamilton left his publisher of 17 years and moved to G.P. Putnam after making a statement that he wasn’t well treated by St. Martin’s Press, causing an extended  delay in publishing the first title in his new series, The Second Life of Nick Mason.  I was happy when the book came in, and since I’m a librarian, I had one of the first holds – a secret perk of working in a library!

Nick Mason was a thief, a very good one who partnered with some childhood friends, primarily stealing cars. But he changed his ways after wanting to settle down with his wife and child, and tried to “go straight.”  He is reluctantly drawn back into one last job, where, unfortunately a DEA agent was killed.  He refused to implicate his friends and was sentenced to 25 years in a federal prison.  After 5 years of keeping his head down and avoiding trouble, he is approached by a fellow inmate named Cole who wields a tremendous amount of power, both in and out of prison.  And Nick makes a devil’s bargain for the opportunity to get to know his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since he was imprisoned.  His sentence is vacated in exchange for some future unnamed favors for Cole, and he finds himself free, twenty years earlier than expected.

At first, his life is a dream: a mansion to live in, classic cars to drive and a beautiful roommate, all the property of the devilish Cole.  He tries to reestablish a relationship with his daughter, but his ex-wife has remarried and doesn’t want anything to do with Nick.  And one of the former police investigators of the case, Sandoval, is extremely suspicious of Nick’s early release and has Nick on his radar.

All these elements seem to be a great mix for an excellent thriller. But…it just doesn’t really work. The characters are rather flat and underdeveloped, the money/mansion/cars/love interest are unrealistic.  And when the phone rings, and Nick finds out he is required to become an assassin for Cole, and does, I kind of lost respect for this character. It’s supposed to the first in a series, and I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say, that the devil’s bargain won’t be paid anytime soon.

This novel was snatched up by Lionsgate, and I have to say, it will probably make a good film, along the lines of Taken or The Equalizer. But a book is supposed to be better than the movie, and in this case, I doubt that will end up being true.  This novel was almost universally praised by many well-known authors and professional media, so please take my review with a grain of salt.  I read a lot of books, and some I just enjoy more than others - like any book-lover!

A Wife of Noble Character ~ Yvonne Georgina Puig (Pub. Date 8/2/2016)

Puig, Yvonne Georgina. 2016. A Wife of Noble Character. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 978-1627795555. $27.00 USD

I adore contemporary adaptations of classic literature, so I was intrigued to see an attempt to modernize Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.  I grew up in Houston, so I enjoyed reading references to places I’ve been and the representation of the types of people I’ve encountered in that sprawling city.

Vivienne Cally is part of the privileged Houston society, but in name only.  The sole child of a wealthy family, she is orphaned while young, and has been raised by a stern aunt.  The family money has long since been depleted, and though Vivienne enjoys being part of the Houston social elite, she has always been on the outside looking in.  She strongly feels, at the beginning of the novel, that her only goal in life is to marry the rather boorish Bucky in order to have the stability she so longs for.

Preston Duffin, childhood friend of Vivienne and her social circle, has never had the wealth that they share, and is finishing up a degree in architecture in order to make a name for himself.  He has long been enamored with Vivienne, but realizes that he will never be able to compete with the wealthier men surrounding her.  However, he is her friend and tries to help her see that there is more to her than her outward assets.  This novel is considered an examination of social manners, and first time author Puig creates an almost pitch perfect example, updated for the 21st century - including references to sexual situations and language one would not find in the classic examples.

However, I feel that to get the big picture of this book, one needs to be a bit knowledgeable of its classic counterpart, The House of Mirth; otherwise, Vivienne comes across as fairly shallow, and her motivations – to marry Bucky and improve her position in society – seem unenlightened in this day and age. On the other hand, by sticking with this novel, one gradually witnesses Vivienne’s growth as a person, one who has something to offer other than her name and looks.  The characters in the book are larger than life and may seem like caricatures, except I’ve known some of those people!

Ultimately, the best characters are Vivienne and Preston, who keep ebbing and flowing in and out of each other’s lives until they’ve reached a level of esteem in themselves that allows them to be their true selves with each other.  I much prefer the ending of this book than Edith Wharton’s.  Enough tragedies are around us every day and in many of the dark novels so popular right now.  By the end, the reader feels Vivienne and Preston deserve their chance at happiness: they’ve worked so hard for it, you see.

The City Baker's Guide to Country Living ~ Louise Miller (Pub. Date 8/9/2016)

Miller, Louise. 2016. The City Baker's Guide to Country Living. New York, NY:  PRH/Viking/Pamela Dorman Books. ISBN: 978-1101981207.  $26.00 USD.

What a joy and pleasure it has been to read Louise Miller’s debut, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, especially since I was laid up recovering from knee surgery!  From the opening scene involving a flying, flaming Baked Alaska to the last walk through the Vermont woods, this novel kept me entertained, moved, and eager to enjoy every last “crumb,” so lovingly written and shared by the author.

Olivia Rawlings, a talented pastry chef with a penchant for crazy hair color, causes a disaster by dropping her Pistachio Baked Alaska in front of an elite crowd at the Boston Emerson Club where she works, including her married lover, no less. Fleeing the scene, she lands in Guthrie, Vermont, home to her best friend Hannah, who is married and expecting.  She is offered a temporary job at the nearby Sugar Maple Inn making desserts and, though missing being in a large city where she has always lived, she gradually comes to find life in the country more satisfying than anything she has ever known.  With a cast of quirky characters, a realistic examination of small town life, some surprising secrets, and a slow and sweet romance, this novel reveals how a lonely, banjo playing chef learns a lot about herself in the year she spends in Guthrie, and what it means to call a place “home.”A nice respite, in more ways than one, from the literary thrillers I've been reading lately!