Posted in General Fiction, Supernatural

Suck It Up, Buttercup by Kristen Painter (First Fangs Club #2)

Publication Info: Published April 28, 2020 by Sugar Skull Books. I read the Kindle edition, which I purchased. This book is also available in paperback.

Summary: Now that she’s the vampire governor of New Jersey, Belladonna Barrone is moving into her new penthouse. Donna got the job only twenty-four hours ago, after the previous governor — and Donna’s sire — was thrown out of the job by the ruling vampire council. In her previous life as the wife of a Mafia Don, Donna lived in some luxury, but her new penthouse is absolutely amazing. It has a sweeping view of Manhattan and comes with a great staff of people who are there just to help her get used to her new life and job.

Donna is also a very recently turned vampire. She hasn’t even had time to tell her adult children about her new situation. While Donna loves looking slim and trim without having to work at it, getting used to only working at night does have its challenges.

She also finds herself in the middle of vampire politics. Being governor is a political job, after all. Donna’s first challenge is to deal with the vampire Governor of New York, who assumes he can control her like he did her predecessor. Just when she manages to put him in his place, someone very unexpected and dangerous pops back up from her past.

Comments: I first discovered Kristen Painter’s light-hearted supernatural novels through Audible Escape. I became an instant fan. The first book in the First Fangs Club series was free through Kindle Unlimited. When Suck It Up Buttercup came out, I just had to buy it!

I love the characters in this series and the author makes being a vampire sound positively dreamy and completely normal. I get completely pulled into the world she creates. I hate having to wait for the next installment, but I guess I’ll have to. In the meantime, I can read more of her other books!

Recommended for readers of light fiction and stories with supernatural characters.

My Rating: 4.5 STARS

Posted in Family Stories, Family Stories, General Fiction, Humor, Literary Fiction

Mr. Wizard by Jeff Wallach

Publication Info: Published April 2020, by Open Books. I read the pre-pub Kindle edition, courtesy of the Publisher. Also available in paperback.

Summary: Two brothers, now both financially successful adults, grew up thinking that their father died in Vietnam. But Mom was always cagey on the subject of their paternity. After her death, the two brothers take DNA tests. Phillip learns that his father was Irish; Spencer’s father was southern European.

The two brothers, who were raised thinking they were fully Jewish, react very differently to this unexpected news. Phillip goes into a tailspin, determined to find his Catholic birth father in Ireland. Spencer’s response, as is his answer to just about everything in life, is to throw his rapid-fire humor at the situation.

As the brothers explore themselves, their relationship to each other and their extended and various kin, they realize that family isn’t just who you’re related to.

Comments: I loved and appreciated Mr. Wizard on so many levels, I hardly know where to begin. The writing is deeply insightful, intelligent and witty. I laughed out loud in several places. I’m not typically a “laugh out loud while reading” kind of person, but I’m a sucker for smartly written humor.

While there is not a drop of Irish in me that I know of (although Dad tried to convince me that we had a Polish/Irish ancestor named O’Helska), I was raised Catholic. Very Catholic — at least on Mom’s side. Dad’s side was a bit more dubious. My sister took one of those DNA tests and confirmed what Dad had been dropping hints about for years — that we were part Ashkenazi Jewish. One Christmas, Dad slipped dreidels into my kids’ Christmas stockings. Mom had an absolute fit, screaming that she never wanted a mixed marriage. So yeah, I could totally relate to this book!

So far, I have two books firmly only top ten list for 2020 and Mr. Wizard sits jauntily perched at the top of that list.

Very highly recommended for readers who like stories about family, General Fiction, Literary Fiction and Humorous Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, General Fiction, Humor

The Big Finish by Brooke Fossey

Publication Info: Published April 14, 2020 by Berkley. I read the Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of of the Berkley, Penguin Random House and NetGalley. Other editions now avaialble.

Summary: A troubled young woman climbs through the bedroom window of an assisted living home and changes everyone’s lives, including her own.

The bedroom is shared by two elderly men, Carl Upton and Duffy Sinclair. The young woman, Josie, is Carl’s granddaughter, whom he’s never met. In fact, he barely met his daughter, having run off after signing the baby’s birth certificate. The baby’s mother was his mistress and his wife never knew about the affair.

Josie’s arrival comes as a complete shock to Carl, but also to Duffy. Carl is his best friend and they shared everything about their lives…or at least he thought they did. As for Josie, her life is in tatters after the death of her mother. She is also an alcoholic. Duffy recognizes himself in the young woman and is drawn to her, despite his better judgement.

The assisted living home is run by woman whose bottom line is rules and money, not people. Everyone lives in fear of getting tossed out if they speak up or if their health fails. Duffy and Carl decide to let Josie stay there for a week, against all house rules. They try to keep Josie a secret, but Josie doesn’t cooperate and soon all of the residents are pitching in to help her.

Comments: The Big Finish was delightful. It felt joyous and full of life, despite the ever-present specter of illness and death that is part of assisted living. I particularly liked the voice of Duffy, who told most of the tale from his perspective. In my opinion, his wry humor and witty observations elevated this novel. All of the characters seemed true-to-life. I spent quite a bit of time visiting my mother-in-law in a combination nursing home/rehab center that felt much like this place, with its activities and schedules, so I could really picture it.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in Best Sellers, Contemporary Fiction, General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mid-Atlantic, USA, Murder Mystery, Realistic Fiction

Long Bright River by Liz Moore

Publication Info: Published January 27 by Riverhead Books. I read the hardback edition through my Book of the Month membership. Other editions available.

Summary: Two sisters, Mickey and Kacey, live in a distressed neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were raised by their over-extended and emotionally distant grandmother after their mother died from drugs and their father vanished. As young children, the siblings were very close, sharing a single bed and whispered secrets. But as they grew up, they grew apart and those secrets turned into silences that came between them.

Mickey rose out of the depths of her childhood experiences to become a cop and a single mother. She worked in her neighborhood and knew its dark corners all too well. Kensington was the place to go if you wanted opioids and heroin. Kacey turned to drugs and the streets, working as a prostitute to feed her habit. Mickey knew where Kacey’s corner was and kept an eye on her, although they didn’t speak to each other.

After discovering the body of a woman, Kacey realized the deceased wasn’t just another overdose. The woman had been strangled. She tried to get more information from her department head, but kept getting the brush off. She began to worry about her sister, as she hadn’t seen her in over a month. When more women turned up murdered, Kacey risked her career to find her sister and discover the identity of the murderer.

Comments: I know it’s only February, but Long Bright River is already on my top 10 list of most memorable books for 2020. This vivid, poignant novel of how drugs impact one family affected me deeply. The author created realistic and complex characters.

I have a family member who was hooked on opioids and heroin, so have first hand experience with the tragedy that ravages through communities and families throughout the country. From this painful knowledge, I can attest to the realistic depiction of addiction in Liz Moore’s novel.

Very highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, General Fiction and those who like novels with deep, authentic characters. The novel also has elements of a murder mystery, but while that drives the plot, the novel transcends that genre.

My Rating: 5 STARS +

Posted in General Fiction

A Good Neighborhood by Theresa Anne Fowler

Publication Info: Expected publication date March 10, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. Kindle edition courtesy of NetGalley. Other editions will be available at publication.

Summary: In present day North Carolina, an older suburb is getting a makeover. Smaller, less desirable homes are razed along with mature trees to make way for multi-bath homes with sparkling swimming pools. One resident of the older homes in the neighborhood, Professor Valerie Alston-Holt watches the destruction with fear for the ancient oak tree in her own yard. The venerable oak’s root system extended far beyond the boundaries of her property. The tree also held emotional significance for Valerie. She decides to take an action to save her tree that eventually has heart wrenching consequences.

Across her back fence, the recently completed extravagant home belongs to one Brad Whitman, owner of Whitman HVAC. Whitman is a larger than life successful businessman whose TV ads exude charisma. His wife and two daughters live in his generous shadow. The oldest, Juniper, was encouraged to take a purity pledge at puberty by Whitman, her stepfather. Now almost eighteen years old, she faces a challenge to that vow.

The challenge comes in the form of the young man who lives behind her house. His name is Xavier Alston-Holt. Xavier is a very studious young man who is working hard toward his chosen career in classical guitar. He also has sworn off relationships, but that is his own choice–he knows he must work hard to reach his goals.

The two young people are both focused on their goals and seem ideal for each other except for one tiny problem — Juniper is white and Xavier is black. Biracial, actually, as his mother is black and his deceased father was white. But in present day North Carolina, this might as well be a gap as wide as the Grand Canyon. When Brad Whitman gets wind of Xavier’s attraction to Juniper, his own lewd thoughts go into overdrive and he takes drastic action to “save” his daughter and get revenge on his neighbor with the stupid oak tree.

Comments: I hope this book shoots to the top of the best seller lists and gets in the hands of many book clubs for some deep discussion. A Good Neighborhood pokes a very timely sharp stick into bigotry and white male privilege. It shines a light on the appalling black male experience in current day America. The ending made me want to cry even as I knew it’s inevitability.

Although written by a white author, A Good Neighborhood shows a deep sensitivity for her black characters. Theresa Anne Fowler obviously did extensive research and reached out for guidance.

This book made me consider the current kerfuffle about American Dirt (which I admit I haven’t yet read) and the pitfalls of identity politics. The axiom “write what you know” is taken to extremes these days, enforcing racial barriers. Literature isn’t always safe, for the writer or the reader. Taking risks — writing or reading about other races and cultures — can mean crossing bridges, acknowleging differences and possibly changing your own views, which is dangerous business in our deeply polarized political climate.

Very Highly Recommended for readers of General Fiction and Literary Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Cultural, French, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, World War I

The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell

Publication Info: Published January 21, 2020 by Berkley. Kindle Pre-Pub edition courtesy of Berkley and NetGalley. Other editions now available.

Summary: Rosalyn Acosta works as a wine sales rep for her friend Hugh in California. He offered her the job and some essential financial support after her husband died of cancer, leaving her grieving and bankrupt. She dislikes sales and is an artist at heart, but it’s hard to support herself and make enough money to pay back creditors by painting.

Hugh sends Rosalyn to a sales conference in the Champagne region of France. She doesn’t want to go since she dislikes champagne and has too many painful memories of her honeymoon in Paris.

On the plane, Rosalyn is befriended by a boisterous, wealthy Australian woman, Emma, who offers her assistance. Rosalyn just wants to be left alone, but becomes intrigued by some old letters that Emma is trying to organize and translate. The letters were a legacy from Emma’s great Aunt, written to a young soldier in France during WWI, as part of the marraines de guerre project. Emma was captivated by the soldier’s love of a young woman named Lucie Marechal, who lived in the wine caves under Reims during the war. Emma is traveling to France for both business and research.

While helping Emma translate the letters, lonely, grieving Rosalyn is pulled into the simpler pace of the French vineyards and people. With the help of new friends, she discovers her true calling and begins to heal.

Comments: There are so many things that pulled me deeply into The Vineyards of Champagne. In this warm and lovely novel, I deeply related to Rosalyn’s numbed feelings of grief and betrayal. Emma is such a bright light despite her own issues. The determination of Lucie and the other townspeople to make champagne and and thrive amidst daily bombings and shootings tugged at something deep within me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would survive or give up in despair in similar circumstances. I was reminded of my paternal grandfather, himself a soldier during the Great War.

And bright and shining, flowing through the grief and loss, is a sparkling reminder of the many joys and celebrations in life: the champagne.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction and novels about World War I, as well as those with an interest in France, champagne and wine history.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in 20th Century, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Southern Fiction

Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Publication Info: Expected publication date: January 14, 2020 by St. Martin’s Press. Pre-Pub Kindle edition courtesy of NetGalley. Other editions will be available at publication.

Summary: A year ago, Morgan Christopher never expected she’d be sitting in a jail cell, charged with a DUI when she wasn’t the driver. Her boyfriend ran off, leaving her to face the consequences. Now, her dream of a career in art shattered, she lives day to day in fear for her life.

Her nightmare gets an unexpected reprieve when she is visited by Lisa Williams, the daughter of the recently deceased artist, Jesse Jameson Williams. Before his death, Jesse had been known for his charitable support of young artists. He left a stipulation in his will that Morgan should restore a mural, and that it be done within a very short time period. Lisa was required to execute the will according to her father’s instructions or risk losing her full inheritance.

The mural was painted by an unknown artist named Anna Dale, who won a contest sponsored by the WPA in the 1940’s. Her mural, a depiction of life in a small southern town, was to have been hung in the Edenton, North Carolina Post office. It was never installed, but was found in very poor condition among Jesse’s belongings. As Morgan begins the restoration process, she discovers some very peculiar and disturbing objects in the painting and is determined to learn more about Anna Dale. The answers to her questions will shake up more than one family.

Comments: This book greatly exceeded my expectations. There are trends in publishing and one of the current ones is books with a version of Lies, Lying or Liar in the title. These are meant to grab attention, sometimes like a cheap trick. Big Lies in a Small Town is far, far better than its title.

The book takes place in two time periods — the 1940’s and present day. The author drew me into both with nary a misstep. The process of creating the original mural and its restoration are described with enough detail to feel realistic. The characters, both major and minor, are complex and compelling.

This is the first book I’ve read by Diane Chamberlain. I’m so sorry I’ve overlooked her previous novels. I’ll have to remedy that soon!

Highly recommended for readers of General Fiction, Historical Fiction (especially the 1940’s), Southern Fiction, Mysteries and those with an interest in art.

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Best Sellers, Family Saga, General Fiction, Literary Fiction

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Publication Info: Published Sept 24, 2019 by Harper. Hardback edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: Two siblings, Maeve and Danny live with their father in a monstrosity of a house in a town outside of Philadelphia. The time is shortly after the end of the Second World War. Their mother disappeared when Danny was a toddler. Maeve remembers her, but Danny doesn’t.

Their father, Cyril Conroy, is a lost soul. He takes care of his children’s physical needs via his household help, the cook and housekeeper. While they are both kind and attentive, it is no substitute for a parent. Maeve grows up too quickly, taking on the parenting role for her younger brother.

Into this house of gaudily expressed wealth and brooding portraits of past owners, walks a woman who is what Cyril’s wife wasn’t— appreciative of him and his albatross of a house. Over time she worms her way into their lives as his new wife, dragging her two daughters with her. Cyril’s son and daughter are slowly pushed out of the house until suddenly, the door is slammed against them after their father’s unexpected demise.

Adrift, they cling to each other in ways that are necessary for their survival, as they are now nearly penniless. As they struggle to overcome their drastic change of circumstances, they learn lessons about what it means to love and forgive.

Comments: The Dutch House is engrossing and accessible Literary Fiction. The writing seems effortless — and yet I know it had to be anything but — and draws the reader in as thoroughly as a nail-biting thriller.

As I read this book, something kept feeling familiar. I initially put it down to my childhood tours and fantasies of the mansions in Newport, RI. It wasn’t until I started writing this review that I realized what made this book seem so personal. My own mother was raised in much the same way as the children in this book. While their house was on a much smaller scale and lacked the gaudy touches, she was raised by a housekeeper while her parents were busy being self-indulgent. Her older sister provided some of the love she craved. My mother’s childhood scarred her for the rest of her life, ultimately damaging her relationship with me.

So, while The Dutch House may be a work of fiction, it is not fantasy by any means. It is an intimate portrait of a dysfunctional family — that was to me — all too real.

Highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, Family Sagas/Stories, Best Sellers and General Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS.

Posted in General Fiction, Literary Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction, Women's Fiction

The Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Publication Info: Published May 14, 2019 by Knopf. Hardback edition courtesy of my local library. Other editions available.

Summary: On a summer day in northern Russia, two young sisters vanish without a trace. One witness remembers seeing the girls with a white man and a dark car, but no one, including the police, has any solid evidence that the girls were kidnapped. The local investigators are taking the case very seriously but have few leads.

Several years previously another girl vanished, but the police didn’t investigate her disappearance as vigorously. After all, she was older, had a bit of a reputation and she was a native.

After the sisters disappear, the townspeople are on edge. The uneasy truce that exists between the natives and whites flares up as people look at each other with suspicion. Old-timers mourn the changes to Russia that brought strangers to the area. Mothers keep a closer watch on their children and don’t allow them to roam freely. People scurry to be home before dark–even though the girls vanished in broad daylight. It is a natural reaction to hide and become isolated after trauma. But it is only when people start to come back together and ask each other questions that the truth emerges.

Comments: While a mystery is at the core of The Disappearing Earth, the novel is about much more than that. It is the story of a changing community and vanishing cultures. Isolated from the world until 1990, the people of Kamchatka are still adjusting to intrusions from the outside world. In the novel, the big black car is more than the vehicle that snatches two unwary girls; it is a symbol of change and uncertainty.

It took me longer than I expected to get through this book. I found it emotionally draining, so I had to occasionally step away. Through vivid imagery, the novel focuses primarily on the ordinary lives of the women in the town. Their hopes and dreams are exposed and dashed. Fear and uncertainty drives them to make the safe choices in their lives. I found myself reflecting on the choices I make in my own life—and why I make them.

Recommended for readers of Literary Fiction, General Fiction, Multi-Cultural Fiction and Women’s Fiction

My Rating 4.5 STARS

Posted in General Fiction, Historical Fiction, World War II

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Publication Info: Published September 4, 2018 by Harper Paperbacks. I read the paperback. Other editions available.

Summary: In 1942, Lale Sokolov is transported by train to Auschwitz concentration camp with thousands of other people in cattle cars. He is forced to abandon his personal belongings, is shaved, tattooed and shoved into overcrowded barracks. Hungry and weak from thirst, he and the men stumble weakly from their bunks the following morning. They discover two of their block-mates are already dead.

Lale is determined to survive this place. His wits, innate charm and ability to speak several languages are valuable skills in this polyglot cesspool. His language skills get noticed by a German officer. Lale finds himself assigned the job of Tattooist, marking numbers on the arms of incoming victims. He hates his job, but with it comes privilege. He is given more freedom and additional rations, both valuable commodities in the survival game.

In his first days as tattooist, as he holds the arm of a young woman, he looks into her eyes to give her a few seconds of humanity and falls in love. From that moment, Lale’s goal is for both of them to survive and have a life beyond Auschwitz.

Comments: I’ve read other novels about the WWII German atrocities and concentration camps, but none quite so poignant as The Tattoist of Auschwitz, as it is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov. The book frankly left me a bit at a loss for words as I struggle to write this. As I read of thousands, MILLIONS of people starved, shot and gassed for just being different, I shook my head at the horror. And I think of what is happening in the world today, as people forget — and even deny the existence of — the past.

I picked this book up after learning that a sequel is soon to be published. Entitled, Cilka’s Journey, it is based on the life and experiences of another woman Lale met at Auschwitz.

Very highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction and General Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS