Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Toast - To Resolutions and 2014



I had a wonderful 2014, if trips alone are counted. I was lucky enough to go to Left Coast Crime in Monterey, Book Expo America in New York City, and make a second eight-day trip to New York to see ten Broadway shows. I went to two book festivals, one in Kentucky, one in Nashville. Wonderful! And, 2015 means a trip to New York in June with my mom and sisters, and Bouchercon in Raleigh. I'm rooming with a long-time online friend, Kaye Wilkinson Barley at Bouchercon. We've never met, but I think we're related in spirit.

It was a good year. My mom, my sisters and I are all healthy. The cats are great.  I have wonderful friends all over the country, and a wonderful friend here in Evansville who loves theater and books as much as I do.

But, this year, I'm making a resolution for 2015, something I never do. I've found my blog a little boring this last year, and I worry readers will lose interest if I do. I haven't lost interest. What I have lost interest in is participating in as many blog tours, and committing to so many reviews. Done. I'll still do a few when the book or author really interests me. But, I found I'm too committed to reviewing certain books on certain dates. It spoils the surprise and serendipity in reading. I like to stumble across a book I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did, or a new author, or a subject I normally wouldn't read.

In January, I'll have written Lesa's Book Critiques for ten years. I still enjoy it, and I still love sharing books and authors with other readers. But, I want to find surprises, and I want you to find them as well. The book chats will still happen. (Readers may go up in arms if Jinx doesn't appear once a month.) I'll still run contests, and introduce you to the Treasures in My Closet. But, I'm not going to commit myself to as many dates on the calendar.

I have trips and family and friends, cats, concerts and theater, and lots of good books to enjoy in 2015. So, my resolution is fewer commitments in 2015, and more serendipity.

Here's to 2015, and good books for all of us!




Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Favorites of 2014

The end of the year means time to mention my favorite books of 2014, although most of them appeared on Kaye Wilkinson Barley's blog, Meanderings and Muses, when I did a guest post for her a few weeks ago. As I've always said, these are my favorites, not a list of "Best of" 2014.

Probably my favorite book of the year was Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. It's hard to resist this story of an island bookstore, its eccentric owner, the little girl whose left at the bookstore, and the sales rep who grows to know his interests over the years. And, the police chief! The book clubs. It's just a wonderful book for anyone who loves independent bookstores and books.







There's one juvenile book on my list, A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd. It's a debut novel about a town that once had magic, and lost it. A young girl who loves words, and has a gift of words, brings magic back to the town.









Barbara O'Neal's The All You Can Dream Buffet spoke to me. It's the story of four bloggers, all women, who find the strength they need through their friendship. And, it does take strength for some of them to change their lives, moving on from their familiar, if not comfortable, lives.








How about another story about a bookstore? Sarah Jio's Goodnight June was a charming story about a workaholic who inherit's her aunt's children's bookstore. While trying to decide if she should sell or save the store, she finds treasures; her aunt's correspondence with Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon. The book is a romance, a story about secrets, and, of course, children's books.






Linda Francis Lee's The Glass Kitchen was magical. It's filled with food, family, and love. It's the story of a young woman from Texas who moves to New York City, and refuses to acknowledge her gift, the ability to know what food people need.








There are a few mysteries on my list, beginning with Linda Castillo's The Dead Will Tell. Her latest Kate Burkholder thriller involves a cold case. A thirty-five-year-old case comes to light when people are murdered. And, each person seems to have had a connection with the slaughter of an Amish family years earlier.






Do you notice a pattern here? Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof is a story about a college professor and the academic community whose lives are changed forever by a new bookstore employee. This is a book involving mental illness, substance abuse, a child, misunderstandings, and, yet it's uplifting and wonderful.








In recent years, there's always been a Louise Penny book on the list, and this year is no exception. In The Long Way Home, Armand Gamache and a small group of friends travel to the far reaches of Quebec in search of Peter Morrow.








I was torn between two of Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire books for this list, Wait for Signs or Any Other Name. In the end, I went for the story collection, Wait for Signs. It brings together all the characters we've grown to love. Some stories are Christmas ones. These are the stories of what's happening to Walt in between the novels. I can't do any better than to rewrite a paragraph in my original book review. "Wait for Signs should be added to so many collections. Consider it as a gift for those who love, and miss, Westerns. It's a perfect companion to Johnson's Spirit of Steamboat. I'm buying a copy for myself to keep with my favorite Christmas books, even though not all the stories are set at Christmastime. It's for all of us who want to know what Walt Longmire is up to in between his larger adventures. And, it's for all of us who love Craig Johnson's beautiful writing, his stories about Walt and his friends. In fact, Craig Johnson's Wait for Signs is just right, for so many reasons."


And, the tenth book is historical fiction, Daisy Goodwin's The Fortune Hunter. It's the story of a love triangle between cavalry captain Bay Middleton, Charlotte Baird, and Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria. It was so riveting that I raced through it, and looked up all the people in the book to find out what really happened to them.

I reviewed, and loved, all of these books in 2014. Longer reviews are available on my blog. But, I just wanted to look back one more time. These are the books that I vividly remember out of the 165 books I read this year.




Monday, December 29, 2014

By the Book edited by Pamela Paul

Betty Rosenberg's First Law of Reading was "Never apologize for your reading tastes." So, I'm a reverse reading snob. It doesn't surprise me one bit that the authors I couldn't relate to in By the Book were the more literary ones. Every Sunday readers of The New York Times Book Review turned to Pamela Paul's "By the Book" feature to see what author she interviewed about their reading interests. Now, sixty-five of those columns are collected in this fascinating book.

"What book is on your night stand right now?" "What were your favorite childhood books?" "If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be?" Guilty pleasures? Most of the authors do not apologize for their reading taste. Paul had the opportunity to interview Colin Powell, Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, Carolyn Kennedy, John Irving, Neil Gaiman, James Patterson, Malcolm Gladwell. Paul said she had a "genuine desire to know what others, smart people, well-read people, people who are good writers themselves - were reading in their spare time."

Some of the authors' answers just delighted me. David Sedaris was the first author interviewed. When he was asked about his favorite books as a child, he mentioned "a series of biographies with orange covers in my elementary school library." Orange covers! Those books were wonderful. I read all those biographies with orange covers when I was a kid.

When Colin Powell was asked what author he'd like to meet, he answered, "J.K. Rowling". I loved Caroline Kennedy's answers, so many with humor. I could tell we're about the same age. Asked about her favorite childhood character, she answered with one of my favorites, "the Country Bunny, from The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, by DuBose Heyward. I see her now as a woman who reenters the workforce after raising a family..." And, her answer to "If you could meet any character from literature, who would it be?" was "I was in love with the Scarlet Pimpernel for a pretty long time, but I don't know if I would want to meet him now. The moment may have passed for us."

Anna Quindlen loves Georgette Heyer's Regency romances. And, Jo March from Little Women was an inspiration for a number of female writers. A Wrinkle in Time was a favorite of girls who were loners.

If you have a "genuine desire" to discover what writers are reading, what authors and books matter to them, check out By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review. It's fun, interesting, and thought-provoking.

By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review edited by Pamela Paul. Henry Holt and Company. 2014. ISBN 9781627791458 (hardcover), 314p.

*****
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book Chat - Penguin's Berkley Prime Crime & Obsidian




It's time for the first book chat of 2015, January mysteries from Penguin's Berkley Prime Crime & Obsidian. And, what's a book chat without Jinx?

Here are the featured mysteries, scheduled for release on January 6th.

For Whom the Bluebell Tolls by Beverly Allen - 2nd Bridal Bouquet Shop mystery
A Seamless Murder by Melissa Bourbon - 6th Magical Dressmaking mystery
In Hot Water by J.J. Cook - 3rd Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade mystery
Feta Attraction by Susannah Hardy - 1st Greek to Me mystery
Snow Way Out by Christine Husom - 1st Snow Globe Shop mystery
All the President's Menus by Julie Hyzy - 8th White House Chef mystery
Ghost in the Guacamole by Sue Ann Jaffarian - 5th Ghost of Granny Apples mystery
No Ghouls Allowed by Victoria Laurie - 9th Ghost Hunter mystery
Snoop to Nuts by Elizabeth Lee - 2nd Nut House mystery
Lie of the Needle by Cate Price - 3rd Deadly Notions mystery
Diners, Drive-ins, and Death by Christine Wenger - 3rd Comfort Food mystery




Saturday, December 27, 2014

What are You Reading?

I spent yesterday reading a book for a Library Journal book review, so I didn't have time to finish the
next book for here. I'm reading By the Book, in which writers talk about literature and the literary life. Sixty-five authors have discussed that topic for The New York Times Book Review.

We're all busy this time of year. Have you had time to read anything? What are you reading right now? Or, what are you looking forward to reading when everything gets a little quieter?

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

"We were no longer in charge of ourselves or even our own names." TaraShea Nesbit's debut novel, The Wives of Los Alamos, was a surprise. I never really thought about the families of the scientists who went to Los Alamos, the secrecy, the isolation, the loneliness. Nesbit's unusual writing style emphasizes the anonymity forced on these wives. It's a powerful novel, precisely because of that style with its emphasis on a collective group.

Nesbit chose to write about "we". She did emphasize that women had different feelings and ideas, but, overall, they were caught up in one giant government project. In 1943, scientists were approached, and those who accepted told their wives they were going "out west", without telling them where they were moving. These women, wives of scientists and academics, sometimes academics and scientists themselves, were told to pack up. They couldn't tell their parents where they were going. Some of the women figured it out by going to libraries, and finding names of other scientists in the books about New Mexico. But, none of the women were prepared for the dust, the dirt, the unfinished houses, the lack of bathtubs, the military life in an isolated fenced in community.

When they arrived in Los Alamos, they were often given new names. Mrs. Mueller was suddenly Mrs. Miller. Their letters were censored. They no longer knew what their husbands were doing in their lab. These intelligent women were faced with only each other for company, a school that was not yet finished, houses that weren't yet built. They competed for larger houses, only provided when a baby was added to the family. Children grew up in Los Alamos with no contact with their grandparents, no pictures allowed of their growth. And, the women were forced to build a community with other women who were equally in the dark as to what their husbands were doing.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a powerful book because of the secrecy demanded in this community. Nesbit's style enables the reader to sink into this life where strong women were forced to live drab, anonymous lives, not knowing how other women in the world were dressing, how life was changing. From 1943 to 1945, until the atomic bomb was dropped, these women were as imprisoned in their own lives as the families who were sent to internment camps in the U.S., a comparison that was mentioned once in the book. The story is all the more dramatic because of the quiet day-to-day routine of the lives in Los Alamos, and the names and words that are never even mentioned, or not uttered until the end of the book. Nesbit never says "Manhattan Project". Most of the scientists remain unnamed until the bomb is dropped. And, the women themselves only have first names.

The Wives of Los Alamos is one of the most quietly dramatic novels I've read. Nesbit's debut is a glimpse into unknown lives, a revealing story of women forced to live in secrecy.

TaraShea Nesbit's website is www.tarasheanesbit.com

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit. Bloomsbury. 2014. ISBN 9781620405031 (hardcover), 233p.

*****
FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas from my house to yours. May you have music and laughter, warmth and love in your house this year; quiet times for reading and moments to reflect. I'm sending you hugs, and thanks for everything you've meant to me this year. Merry Christmas!

Dickens - He's watching! He knows when you've been good!

Nikki

Jinx

Like Josh, I hope you have time for a nap in the sunshine!

Merry Christmas from all of us!


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve

Family, food, travel, Christmas movies. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are probably two days that most people are too busy to pick up a book. I'll save a review of a novel about Los Alamos for after Christmas.

Instead, I hope you're enjoying your holiday traditions, however you celebrate. If that means quiet time, just for you, I hope you enjoy the solitude and the time to reflect. If you're celebrating time with family and friends, I hope you appreciate them.

Celebrations change over the years. My family often celebrated on Christmas Eve because my father worked shift work and wasn't always home on Christmas Day. And, we made Christmas Eve trips to my grandparents' house, and then looked for Rudolph's nose in the sky on the way home. Once I was married, Jim and I celebrated on Christmas Eve with food and special Christmas readings. This year, I'm heading to friends' for dinner.

Merry Christmas Eve! It may be a busy day for you, or the calm before the hecticness of Christmas Day. I wish you a few moments to yourself, a little quiet time, maybe for a Christmas reading or two. And, I wish you memories of those you love.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Once Upon a Grind by Cleo Coyle

Cleo Coyle might utilize fairy tales in the latest Coffeehouse Mystery, Once Upon a Grind, but you have to remember, the Brothers Grimm's stories were scary, and not cozy bedtime stories. Coyle's mysteries are not cozy bedtime stories either. The latest one turns the idea of fairy tales upside down to show a dark world underneath.

It's Fairy Tale Week in New York City. The city's first Storybook Kingdom features a weekend festival celebrating the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose and classic literary characters in Central Park. Clare Cosi, manager of the the Village Blend coffeehouse, is in the middle of it with their coffee truck. And, her ex-husband and business partner, Matt Allegro, is determined that she try some of the "magic beans", coffee beans he brought back from Ethiopia. Clare finally concedes, only to have a vision that leads her to a Russian model dressed as one of the twelve dancing princesses. But, this princess is not just sleeping. She's in a drug-induced coma. And, the death of another Russian "princess" leads a few cops to suspect Matt of murder.

Once Upon a Grind is not just a fairy tale mystery, although Coyle skillfully entwines fairy tales into the latest book. As always, Coyle involves Clare and her friends and co-workers at the Village Blend in the story. Readers return to the Village Blend setting for the friendship, atmosphere, coffee and desserts. There's a wonderful supporting cast of staff at the coffeehouse, from Esther, the poet, to the young want-to-be actors. And, there's Clare, her cop boyfriend, Mike Quinn, her ex-mother-in-law, the wonderful Madame Dubois, her daughter's boyfriend, another cop, and her ex, Matt. Once Upon a Grind is the latest story in the on-going saga of this wonderful coffeehouse and cast.

Keys, dancing princesses, knights, wolves and witches. Coyle expertly capitalizes on the popular craze for fairy tales. However, Coyle is an expert who understands the dark elements, the frightening side of fairy tales. Everyone doesn't always live happily-ever-after. Clare Cosi's magical visions may be the key to finding answers for drugged princesses, worried children, and an ex-husband locked away in jail. And, if Clare wants a happy future with her own knight in shining armor, Mike Quinn,  she needs to listen to her own heart, the indicator of truth in so many fairy tales. All the elements of a good fairy tale, and a good mystery, are present in this wickedly good story, Once Upon a Grind.

Cleo Coyle's website is www.coffeehousemystery.com

Once Upon a Grind by Cleo Coyle. Berkley Prime Crime. 2014. ISBN 9780425270851 (hardcover), 402p.

*****
FTC Full Disclosure - The author sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Gift to Remember by Melissa Hill

I wrapped up my summary of a week in New York City, but it's hard for me to leave that magical city behind. So, the two books I read are perfect to provide a little nostalgia, plus a couple book reviews. What's more enchanting than a bookseller in Manhattan, a romance, and Christmastime? That's Melissa Hill's A Gift to Remember.

Darcy Archer, manager of Chaucer's bookstore, always has her mind in a book, whether she's working, curled up with a book, dreaming of one of her favorite romantic heroes, or riding her bicycle to work. But, when her bicycling on a snowy day leads to an unfortunate accident, she has to come back to earth. When Darcy runs into a well-dressed man walking a Husky, she finds herself in unfamiliar territory.

When Darcy's victim ends up in the hospital, she's left with the dog whose tag says "Bailey". And, the man in the hospital, according to his driver's license, answers to Aidan Harris. But, he has no memory of his life, other than the dog. Although, Darcy has no idea why no one is looking for this man, she finds him interesting. Since she's sure she ruined his life, she's determined to track down his life for him, beginning with keys and Bailey's return to familiar territory in an extremely upscale neighborhood.

Melissa Hill's latest novel is a charming story set in just a few days in Manhattan. It incorporates city landmarks and hot spots, such as Magnolia Bakery and Radio City Music Hall, for those of us who love to recognize sites. But, it also brings in books, everything from Little Women to Pride and Prejudice to The Princess Bride. And, of course, there's Darcy's search for answers as she falls under the spell of the mysterious Aidan Harris.

Darcy's search may have only taken a few days, but it seemed a little too long during the book. And, I would have appreciated a little more of the bookstore. Saying that, it's a sweet story filled with New York atmosphere. A Gift to Remember is a light read evoking the romance of the season, perfect reading for a busy time of year.

Melissa Hill's website is www.melissahill.info

A Gift to Remember by Melissa Hill. St. Martin's Griffin. 2013. ISBN 9781250057884 (paperback), 408p.

*****
FTC Full Disclosure - library book

Sunday, December 21, 2014

New York City - Dream Trip - Final Days

I'll wrap up Thursday and Friday quickly. Thursday morning, we headed out for a New York bagel, and then walked to the Flatiron Building. The Flatiron Building is the home of friends at Macmillan, St. Martin's Minotaur. Thanks to Hector DeJean and Shailyn Tavella for the welcome and tour.


I went to the Thursday matinee of The Phantom of the Opera, hoping to see Norm Lewis as the Phantom. Darn. I was disappointed to find out he doesn't perform on Thursdays. I hadn't seen Phantom before. It was OK, but I didn't really appreciate it until I came home, bought the dvd of the 25th Anniversary cd with Ramin Karimloo, and watched that a couple times. It was probably the disappointment because I didn't get to see Norm Lewis.

Anna and I met up for dinner, and went to the Carnegie Deli for dinner, wonderful pastrami. Interesting experience there, where they just pack people in. But, the pastrami was good.

But, Thursday night couldn't have ended on a better note. We went to see Cabaret with Alan Cumming. Emma Stone was supposed to be in it, but she had been out sick a couple days. The show was at Studio 54, the perfect theater to be the Kit Kat Klub. Alan Cumming was amazing, appropriately sleazy for the Emcee. The setting was perfect for the orchestra. As the emcee says, "Even the orchestra is beautiful." So, as many plays as I saw in NY, Cabaret topped them all because of Alan Cumming.



Friday morning we went to the New York Public Library Center for the Performing Arts. We originally went to see a display of Broadway costumes. But, we also went to a wonderful Sesame Street exhibit celebrating 45 years of the television show. I'm sharing the exhibit here.







When I go to New York City, I go for the shows. Anna and I were supposed to do a light tour of the city on Friday night, but she went off with Alice (Cleo Coyle) for the tour while I went to one more show - my all-time favorite, Les Miserables.


Perfect week in New York City. Ten shows in eight days, and everything else we did. Plus time spent with a good friend I hadn't seen in two years. Just perfect!


Saturday, December 20, 2014

New York City - Dream Trip - Wednesday

Wednesday was a triple threat. We met the married couple, Marc and Alice, who make up the writing team of Cleo Coyle. We had a wonderful lunch at Pigalle, both food and conversation.



While Anna and Alice headed off to see A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder, I went across the street to see You Can't Take It With You with James Earl Jones and Mark Linn-Baker. Just think! I was about six feet from James Earl Jones. This one was just a fun play.



Anna and I had dinner reservations for Pigalle again. Loved their French onion soup. And, then, for a final time, we headed to A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder. If you've never seen this show, you don't know how clever and fun it is. Bryce Pinkham is leaving in January to be in The Heidi Chronicles. I just can't picture the show without him.

So, I'll end with a taste of that show, the Tony Award-winning A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder.


Friday, December 19, 2014

New York City - Dream Trip - Tuesday

The weather forecast for Tuesday was rain all day, so we changed our schedule. Before heading to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the day, we stopped at the Plaza. My friend, Kaye Wilkinson Barley, is a big fan of Eloise, so I made a point of taking some pictures for her. Happy Belated Birthday to Kaye and Eloise.





And, it definitely was rain all day. So, we enjoyed the Met, the Nativity Tree, some of the historic rooms, the Faberge eggs. We went to an exhibit of mourning clothes. Anna, who has been there numerous times, hit some of the highlights she thought I would enjoy. The Nativity Tree was definitely a highlight, with the angels in the tree, and the nativity scene all around it.



It's hard to catch cabs at the Met in the rain, so we shared a cab with a couple heading back to Broadway, too. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant on Restaurant Row, Orso, and went to see It's Only a Play. Probably the worst play we saw while we were there. Nathan Lane was funny. Megan Mullally, Rubert Grint, Stockard Channing, and a new young actor, Micah Stock were very good. But, the plot was dull, and Matthew Broderick was as dull as the plot. Very poor performance. With Nathan Lane, Megan Mullally, and Rubert Grint leaving, I wouldn't recommend this play to anyone.



Thursday, December 18, 2014

New York City - Dream Trip - Monday

The theaters are dark on Monday, but that doesn't mean we couldn't find shows to go to. We started our day at Radio City Music Hall to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, narrated by Santa, and featuring the Rockettes.

Before the program even started, Radio City Music Hall itself is spectacular with this enormous chandelier in the lobby. And, then, when you walk in, they have two organs playing, and the organs rise and descend through the floor. The curtain has snowflakes playing across it before the show starts.
Anna and me. I actually was dressed like every New Yorker, in a black puff coat and boots.



It was spectacular, and, if you get the chance you really should see the show once.

We caught the subway to Union Square and met an editor friend of Anna's, Jennifer, at a restaurant called Le Midi. And, then we headed to WNYC for a live radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol. I'd never been to a radio broadcast before, and to see one put on my NPR was special. The man who did the sound effects does them for Garrison Keiller's Lake Wobegon. Bill Kurtis was the narrator. Jefferson Mays from A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder played the ghosts. Mark Linn-Baker played Scrooge. John Hockenberry was in it. It was wonderful!

We had to grab a taxi in order to make it to the next event, a tour of Brooklyn with all the Christmas lights. It's actually Dyker Heights, which, this time of year, is called Dyker Lights. It was started by a woman named Lucy, who, when neighbors complained, answered by telling them if they didn't like it, "Move". The neighbors got into the spirit of things, as you can see. We ended the tour with cannoli and hot chocolate. I'm ending Monday with pictures from the light tour.


Lucy's house this year