Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Favorite Books of 2019

I'm a little surprised at my list of favorite books of 2019. All the titles were published in 2019. Every author on the list was new to me at the time. That doesn't mean it was their first book, just the first I had read. I credit Library Journal for some of that. As a reviewer, I sometimes read and review books I wouldn't have otherwise read. It's great! I'm introduced to new authors. I love that discovery. It gets me out of a rut. I also know I've become pickier with my choices because of Library Journal.

Here's my annual disclaimer. I've been doing these favorite lists for a while now. This isn't a best of list, as so many newspapers and sites do. This is my list of favorites read during the year, the books that still jump out at me by the end of December. Of course, most of the books on the list are crime fiction. And, there's a strong emphasis on character, because I usually read for character. But, the list changed as of the last week of the year when I discovered Sarah MacLean's historical romances. I'm currently reading the third of her books in a week, but it's her most recent one, and the first one I read, that's on the list.

The books are only in alphabetical order by author, other than my top selection for the year. If you've read my blog at all in the last couple months, you know what it is. I'm kicking off my favorites of 2019 with Allen Eskens' Nothing More Dangerous, my favorite book.

Nothing More Dangerous is not Allen Eskens' first book. In fact, The Life We Bury, his debut, was a multiple award winner and nominee. But, the author told me this was the book he became an author to write. It's a coming-of-age novel set in the Ozarks. It's a story of racism, friendship, classism, murder and suspense. It's a timely, unforgettable novel.

Connie Berry's A Dream of Death is the only debut mystery on the list. Kate Hamilton, an antiques dealer from Ohio, visits her late husband's home on the Isle of Glenroth in Scotland. A death in the country house hotel there is a reenactment of a famous crime from the past. It's a story of a cold case, murder and violence, legends and folklore. There's an intelligent, mature amateur sleuth and hints of romance. Berry's second mystery, A Legacy of Murder, was also released in 2019. It's a promising series with a stamp of approval from one of my sisters as well.

A Bitter Feast is the latest Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James novel by Deborah Crombie. It's an intriguing puzzle that slowly comes together with input from most of the cast. The beautifully written story is descriptive and atmospheric. The cast shines in Crombie's latest mystery. My conclusion when I reviewed this book said, "Some readers will enjoy the accounts of all the food in the pub and earlier restaurants. Some will appreciate the gardens. Crombie brings all those elements, and that strong group of characters, together in one of the best books in the series." This book was also on the favorites list of my friend, Kathy Boone Reel. You might want to check out her list as well. (We really only had a couple cross-overs on the list.)  http://bit.ly/2rJZazq

I'm probably one of the few in the mystery community that can say Jane Harper's The Lost Man was my introduction to the author. She brings the Australian outback to life with a vivid depiction of the heat and dirt and isolation. It's the story of a family with problems that are somewhat caused by that isolation. The fascinating, atmospheric novel is a powerful story of fear and power and family dynamics.

There are two romances on this list. The first is a humorous contemporary romance, The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren. It's a delightful romance with wonderful characters. The protagonists show a great deal of growth in the course of the story. It was a fun story of the maid-of-honor and best man at a wedding, the only two who didn't suffer from food poisoning at the reception, who take the newlyweds' honeymoon to Hawaii. She's outspoken and honest, and there was quite a misunderstanding about their initial attraction. The scenes get hot and sexy, but, can their relationship flourish once they're back on the mainland?

Sarah MacLean's historical romance, Brazen and the Beast, changed my reading for the last week of the year, and this list. It's the second of the Bareknuckle Bastards books set in Victorian England. It features a strong woman, determined to take control of her life before she turns thirty. She wants to be ruined for marriage, so she can take over her father's shipping business. But, the man who stands in her way could be a strong romantic partner while also a rival in business. It's a sexy, steamy romance with a strong, capable woman and a man who tries to take care of everyone he loves, even as he builds a better life for the people in his community. Best of all, in this one and the earlier book in the series, Wicked and the Wallflower, the heroines set out to save themselves or even the men in their lives. They don't wait around for a man to do that. I'm on my third book by Sarah MacLean. Strong women, sexy men, humor, intelligence, and romance.

The only nonfiction book on the list is Mary Pipher's Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing As We Age. This one isn't for everyone. If you're a woman nearing or over sixty, Pipher provides hints as to how to live a successful, happy life after that age. And, her definition of successful means satisfied with what life has handed us. She examines issues women face as we age. It's filled with stories, interviews, and mistakes. It's not a road map as to how to live, but it certainly is a tipsheet.

W.C. Ryan's A House of Ghosts was released in the U.K. in 2018. It went on to be a finalist for the NBA Irish Book Awards Crime Book of the Year. Set in 1917, it has everything - spies, ghosts, wartime issues, a touch of romance, an isolated house mystery a la Agatha Christie. It's an engrossing ghost story/historical mystery. An armaments manufacturer who has lost two sons in the Great War, tries to take advantage of his mansion's reputation as haunted, calling together people who might be able to contact ghosts. Two people are sent by the Secret Service because there's suspicion that a spy will be there, someone who has passed secret documents to the Germans. It's a ghost story and a mystery, but also the story of a lost generation and the cruelty of war.

I don't usually rave about the writing in a book, but James Sallis' writing in Sarah Jane is strong and unforgettable. It's a lyrical, haunting character study with an ambiguous ending. The writing is spare and concise as Sarah Jane narrates her lifestory from her childhood to that unusual ending that leaves readers wondering. From the time she says I didn't do all of the things they claim I did, the reader is sucked into the life of this flawed character. She has a choice of jail or the army at one time, and ends up in the Mideast. She marries an abusive husband, a cop, and has a long relationship with another one. She becomes a cop, and then acting sheriff when her mentor disappears. Then, Sarah Jane's past comes calling, in the form of an FBI agent and a cop. Sallis' sentences, as Sarah Jane relates her story, are beautiful and memorable.

The opening paragraph of my review of Jay Stringer's Marah Chase and the Conqueror's Tomb said, '"An archeologist and a spy walk into a bar...: If that caught your attention, you're a good candidate for the action-packed page-turner...If you're a fan of James Bond, Indiana Jones or the television show The Librarians, or any adventure novel or comic with gutsy protagonists, you might want to try this one."' Marah Chase now uses her background as an archeologist to work as a grave robber. An M16 agent blackmails her into searching for a powerful weapon buried in Alexander the Great's tomb. Treasure hunters, spies, religious zealots, and smugglers race to find the world. Some want to save the world, while others want to destroy it. It's a fun, fast-paced adventure.

2019 was an exciting year. I loved the discoveries I made. I hope 2020 is just as exciting in the book world.

(Check back in future weeks. On Thursday, one of the regular readers on the blog will talk about his favorite books of 2019.)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Have You Heard? The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams

Are you a fan of contemporary romances? If I didn't convince you to read Lyssa Kay Adams' The
Bromance Book Club when I reviewed it, check out Sandie Herron's review of the audio book. She almost makes me wish I had listened to it. Sounds fun! Thank you, Sandie!

The Bromance Book Club
Written by Lyssa Kay Adams
Narrated by Andrew Eiden and Maxwell Caulfield
Unabridged Audiobook
Penguin Audio (11/5/19)
Listening Length:  9 hours, 9 minutes

I enjoyed this book so much that when I finished it, I turned it over and read it again!  The second time I listened to it with my husband, and we had many laugh-out-loud moments.

Imagine a professional baseball player for the Nashville Legends named Gavin Scott.  His wife Thea has recently kicked him out of the house and requested a divorce. He is devastated and not willing to give up on their marriage.  When his buddies find out, they invite him into the fold of the book club they formed in which they read romance novels to learn more about what their wives and girlfriends want.  They study them and discuss what works and what falls flat. They choose a title just for Gavin titled “Courting the Countess.”

What Gavin isn’t telling the guys is the reason for their breakup.  On the night of a grand slam home run, Gavin discovers that his wife has been faking orgasms their entire marriage because she has a real one, and he can tell the difference.  The sexual tension in the book runs high. The ball players even have a term for their own arousal from a book. Each has been in Gavin’s shoes and has words of advice. Gavin begins to court his wife taking her on dates, meeting at their twins’ school play, flirting, and paying close attention to her.   

What sets the audiobook apart from the printed book is the narration.  Andrew Eiden does wonderfully at depicting the guys, especially during one very funny scene in which Gavin is hung over and the idea of reading romance novels is introduced.  But it is the very proper British narrator Maxwell Caulfield who takes the cake as he reads the passages that are the actual romance novel within this novel. His first passage may be a few pages, but each quip gets shorter and shorter until the character Gavin and the regency romance “author” seem to start exchanging barbs with each other.  

While the book is very funny, it is also quite touching.  This is a couple trying to find romance and get past their inner struggles to find each other again.  Do Gavin and Thea get back together? Well, I can’t answer that or I would spoil the book. They, and we, sure enjoyed their courtship.  I’m looking forward to a sequel.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Overdue by Elizabeth Spann Craig

As much as I appreciate the settings of the library mysteries by Miranda James and Jenn McKinlay, Elizabeth Spann Craig's Village Library Mysteries truly are set in the world of public libraries. In Overdue, she covers everything from the library cat to copier breakdowns to problem board members. Craig even seems to know what the steps are like in a Carnegie library. Most of the time, though, the library board members don't end up dead at the bottom of the stairs.

Because a library board member doesn't show up to help another with the books for the Friends of the Library booksale, librarian Ann Beckett is the one who finds Carmen King dead at the bottom of the stairs. And, Ann is aware that the blood on the back of Carmen's head means she was hit from behind. Her death wasn't an accident. Ann must have just missed the killer because it didn't take her long to reach the stairs when the library director said Carmen needed help with the books.

Ann admits to Burton Edison, the police chief, that she respected Carmen because of her accomplishments as a fundraiser and board member, but no one at the library actually liked her. It's surprising what a librarian can learn from listening to customers. It seems Carmen had a complicated love life involving three men. And, two of those men were angry at her just before she was killed.

As a librarian, I enjoy all the details of Ann Beckett's work life. This cozy mystery series also includes an entertaining cast of characters, including Fitz, the library cat, who is now the "author" of an advice column under "Ask Fitz." I'll admit, I correctly guessed the killer early on in this book, but it still was a fun mystery.

If you love library mysteries, you might want to try Craig's Checked Out, and then Overdue.

Elizabeth Spann Craig's website is ElizabethSpannCraig.com

Overdue by Elizabeth Spann Craig. 2019. ISBN 9781946227539 (paperback), 218p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought a copy of the book.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

Sarah MacLean's historical romance, Brazen and the Beast, is the reason I don't post my list of favorite books until January 31. I finished this second in the Bareknuckle Bastards series on Thursday, and it's the best romance I've read this year. It's going on my favorites list. I picked it up originally because Entertainment Weekly (EW) had it on their list of best romances of 2019.

1837 was supposed to be the "Year of Hattie". Lady Henrietta Sedley has big plans for her twenty-ninth year, beginning with a trip to a women's bordello so she can be ruined, escape marriage, and take over her father's shipping business. But, there's a man in the way. She finds the handsomest man she's ever seen unconscious and tied up in her carriage. Before she pushes him out of her carriage, she kisses him.

Savior Whittington, known throughout Covent Gardens as Beast, doesn't know who attacked him and left him in a carriage. But, he was captivated by the violet-eyed beauty who has secret plans, and shoves him out of the carriage so she can continue them. Only one of the men who ruled the area, one of the Bareknuckle Bastards, is able to track her down to the high-class bordello that caters to the women of society. It's there in a private room that he learns her five-point plan for the "Year of Hattie". And, he's certainly willing to help her with the first one, Body. It's too bad they'll be rivals in the shipping business, though.

It doesn't hurt that Whit, known as Beast, is the handsomest man Hattie has ever seen. But, he's built his life living in, and fearing, the past, while Hattie is all about the future. And, as much as Hattie would love to have a future with this sexy man, she's strong enough to put her faith in herself.

MacLean's latest romance is sexy and steamy. It also features a strong woman, determined to take responsibility for her own life. Hattie wants the family shipping business, and, if she's thwarted by her brother, her father, and Beast, she'll take matters into her own hands. This woman who grew up on the docks finds a delicious way to enact her revenge.

A strong, capable woman. A sexy Beast who tries to take care of everyone he loves. It's an explosive combination in Sarah MacLean's outstanding Brazen and the Beast.

Sarah MacLean's website is http://www.sarahmaclean.net/

Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean. HarperLuxe, 2019. ISBN 9780062911506 (large print, paperback), 554p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Darcy Christmas by Amanda Grange, et al.

While looking for light holiday reading, I came across a reference to A Darcy Christmas: A Holiday Tribute to Jane Austen. It's a collection of three novellas by Amanda Grange, Sharon Lathan, and Carolyn Eberhart. If you're a fan of Pride and Prejudice, this is an excellent choice for the holidays.

The collection was published in 2010. At that time, Carolyn Eberhart was a debut author whose story, "Mr. Darcy's Christmas Carol" kicks off the anthology. It's the first Christmas after Elizabeth Bennet's rejection of Mr. Darcy's proposal. Although Darcy is a generous man, the ghost of his father appears, and tells him there are three ghosts coming, who will show him his past, the present, and his future without Lizzie Bennet. It's an excellent tribute to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

In Amanda Grange's "Christmas Present", Darcy and Elizabeth are married, and expecting their first child. But, Elizabeth's sister, Jane, just had her first baby, so the couple travels to the Bingleys' to see the newborn, and celebrate Christmas.

Sharon Lathan takes readers through the years in "A Darcy Christmas". She begins with a family portrait, then backtracks to a lonely Fitzwilliam Darcy who can't believe he loves Elizabeth Bennet. But, through all the Christmases celebrated in the novella, they celebrate each holiday with their growing family in a romantic story of love and family.

It's not always easy to read an anthology when one story might be weaker than the others. In this case, the authors of A Darcy Christmas have put together a collection that should satisfy most fans of Darcy and Elizabeth.

A Darcy Christmas: A Holiday Tribute to Jane Austen by Amanda Grange, et al. Sourcebooks Landmark, 2010.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Thursday, December 26, 2019

What Are You Reading?

Well, it's Thursday. I'm back to work, and it's time for What Are You Reading?  I don't expect as many of you today, the day after Christmas. Many of you may be still visiting with family, or enjoying the holiday. I had a peaceful holiday, spending Christmas Eve with friends, and Christmas Day at home with my cats and books, including the one I'm reading right now.

I'm taking a break, not reading a mystery at the moment. Instead I'm reading Sarah MacLean's historical romance, Brazen and the Beast. Lady Henrietta Sedley has reached the age of twenty-nine, unmarried, and hoping to snatch the family shipping business from her brother, who is hopeless. But, she finds all of her plans for "The year of Hattie", upended when she finds an unconscious man in her carriage. It seems her brother has taken on one of the most powerful men in London. He'll be lucky if he lives to regret it.

I don't often have the chance to read a good historical romance, but it takes me back to the years when I discovered Georgette Heyer. And, Sarah MacLean's characters are wonderful. Just what I wanted to for Christmas.

What are you reading this Christmas week? Have you had any time to yourself? If so, I hope you take the time to tell us about your book or books.

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas!

Every year when I sit down to write this Christmas message, I'm aware of people I know who have lost family members or close friends, or people who are suffering through grief and difficulties. Life isn't easy, and the holiday season often doesn't make it any easier. We're aware of the empty place in our lives, the person we've lost. While others are celebrating, it sometimes just makes that place more raw. It hurts more. The music and lights, the hurriedness, doesn't help.

I have no beautiful words of comfort for those who lost a parent, a husband, a wife, a child, a friend. As I get older, I'm more aware of those losses throughout the year. And, I'm aware that even those whose families are together do not always have easy holidays. Sometimes, even that closeness is uncomfortable. I'm sorry. Please reach out to someone. Call a friend or a family member. Please don't let that grief become overwhelming.

All I can do is hope that the holidays do rest easy on your hearts, as others have said. I hope you find moments of comfort, moments of quietness to acknowledge there is still beauty in the world, whether it's a hug or a laugh or the sparkling eyes of someone who loves Christmas.

I hope you spend some time with someone you love. No matter what holiday you celebrate, or even if you don't observe any holiday, I hope you find some peace and happiness this holiday season. As adults, we all know that love and peace and happiness are what we want to celebrate. We can acknowledge it's a hopeful wish for all of those.

This Christmas, I wish you hope.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas Reading?

Do you have Christmas traditions of reading? Or, do you search for new Christmas books to read
every year? Maybe you don't have time to pick up books right now, but if you do, are you doing any holiday reading?

I've read a few Christmas books this year, but nothing memorable. However, yesterday I started a collection that I'm hoping will be satisfying. It contains three novellas. A Darcy Christmas is subtitled "A Holiday Tribute to Jane Austen".  Carolyn Eberhart's opening story is also a tribute to Dickens' A Christmas Carol. At the time I'm writing this, I haven't yet read the stories by Amanda Grange or Sharon Lathan, but I'm looking forward to them. The old-fashioned feeling is perfect for me this year.

I do actually have Christmas readings. Jim and I always celebrated on Christmas Eve, and we started the evening with three readings. First, he read "Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus." Then, I always read and cried over O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi". We'd end with a reading of the Christmas story from Luke in the Bible. I still read all three of these on Christmas Eve.

What about you? Do you have holiday readings for the season, whatever holiday you celebrate?

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Feret-Fleury

I do understand why translations don't always work at our library. Different review sources called Christine Feret-Fleury's novel, "Delightful", "Enchanting", "Life Affirming". Maybe The Girl Who Reads on the Metro is missing something in Ros Schwartz' translation. It was an interesting novel because it's about books, but I wouldn't refer to it as delightful or enchanting. Just my opinion. I'm going to wait to see what a friend says because I'm handing it to her on Christmas Eve. We'll see. She reads more literary works than I do.

Juliette is a loner. Her mother kept her safe, and now she remains cocooned in her own little world, taking the Metro back and forth from her office job. She reads, or she studies other people to see what they're reading. And, because she always takes the same route, she sees some of the same people, the woman who carries an Italian cookbook, the man who reads about insects.

Juliette tried to get excited about finding homes for people, but after one day when she knew she'd never see her clients again, she hears a cry of "Zaide", and steps into the world of "Books Unlimited". Soliman, Zaide's father, is almost buried in a room of books. He asks Juliette if she'll become a "passeur", passing the right book to people she observes on the Metro or elsewhere. Juliette impulsively quits her job, paints a room in Soliman's house, and tries on her new life as a "passeur".

There are several interesting twists to Juliette's plans to work for Soliman, twists that would spoil the book for anyone planning to read it. I'll just say there are several wonderful passages about the love of books, and the shy Juliette who hides from the world takes a startling step into the unknown. Her short time in the world of books gives her courage to step from the shadows into a bigger world.

What kind of person turns their entire world upside down based on a whim? Well, maybe it's The Girl Who Reads on the Metro. I find it a little unlikely based on Juliette's personality, but who am I to say books can't change a life? It's an interesting book, and that's my description. I wouldn't add "delightful" or "enchanting" to the description. I wonder how the book comes across in the original French. Just curious.

The Girl Who Reads on the Metro by Christine Feret-Fleury. Translated by Ros Schwartz. Flatiron Books, 2019. ISBN 9781250315427 (hardcover), 175p.

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

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Checked Out by Elizabeth Spann Craig

While I've been known to complain about the amateur sleuths in cozy mysteries who ignore their jobs, I don't have that complaint about Ann Beckett in Elizabeth Spain Craig's Checked Out. The librarian does her job, shows up early, works late, and asks her questions on her lunch hour. Well, occasionally she talks to people at the library. Why would she suspect that a little research would put her in danger?

Most librarians don't have to rescue drowning cats from culverts, though. When two young boys report cats caught in the culvert during a rain storm, Ann's the one who crawls on her belly to save the mother and son. And, that little orange boy who wouldn't leave without his mother is a hit with the library staff and patrons. Ann's appearance isn't such a hit. Her director reminds her that she has a date that night, and really should go home and change. The library patrons in Whitby, North Carolina are a little too eager to fix Ann up. This time, her blind date is with the great-nephew of one of her patrons.

When Ann arrives at Roger's for dinner, there's no answer at the door, but she does smell the grill. Around back, she finds the murdered body of her date. Fortunately, the new police chief believes her. Ann Beckett really doesn't have a reason to kill a man she never met. But, she's a librarian who grew up on Nancy Drew books. She uses her involvement in finding the body as an excuse to ask questions and do some research.

There are so many reasons to like the first book in Craig's first Village Library Mystery. Let's start with those cats. They're adorable. Then, there's the amateur sleuth. Ann Beckett is a librarian, and Craig does an excellent job in depicting the library and all of the behind-the-scenes preparation. The library has a well-balanced, interesting staff. (Or, at least, as a librarian I found them that way.)  Best of all, Ann isn't involved in a romance or a romantic triangle by the end of this first book. In fact, she has reasons to be a little gun-shy when it comes to her personal relationships. And, of course, the murder of her blind date doesn't help.

If you enjoy Jenn McKinlay's Library Lovers Mysteries or Miranda James' Cat in the Stacks ones, featuring the cat named Diesel, take a chance on a new librarian in town, and a cat or two. Try Checked Out. (I so wanted to say check out Checked Out, but I'm sure someone already has.)

Elizabeth Spann Craig's website is ElizabethSpannCraig.com

Checked Out by Elizabeth Spann Craig. 2019. ISBN 9781946227430 (paperback), 236p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I don't remember how I received this book, but the author probably sent it to me.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Cosy: The British Art of Comfort by Laura Weir

Today, December 21, is winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It's the perfect day to talk about Laura Weir's book Cosy: The British Art of Comfort. Even before you pick up the book, you might notice that it's spelled "Cosy", the British spelling, instead of "cozy". And, there are parts of the book that are actually directed to the British. You'll notice foods you may only recognize from British books, and cosy places to stay that are in Britain. But, then, the weather there, and Weir's love of winter create that cosy atmosphere. Rose Electra Harris' illustrations just add to the comfortable feeling of this book.

Weir's introduction draws the reader in, creating a feeling of comfort. Several of her comments about times and locations made me think of comfort. "I was with my parents, and that reassuring comfort of being with people you love is key." Here's one for all of us who become anxious, those of us who spend too much time listening or reading the news. "Over the past few years I have found myself seeking comfort from politically dark winters and the relentlessly bleak news cycle."

Whether your comfort is tea, as it usually is for the British, or hot chocolate, as it is for me, or wine, Weir's comment makes sense. "I don't just want to drink a warm cup of tea, I want my emotional state to mirror that of a cuppa too - warm, predictable, reassuring."

What's cosy? It's warm clothing in the cold winters. It's sweaters (jumpers) and blankets. It's definitely food, whatever is comfort food for you. To the author, it's fires and candles and baths. It's hunkering down in a cosy corner, a small space, not a large cavernous room. It's home. And, it's the time of year to recognize that not everyone has a place to be warm and cosy. Weir mentions British charities in one chapter, but there's no reason we can't find the one that touches our hearts. She lists cosy films and cosy reads, including Little Women, which is appropriate for this year, but, it's always appropriate.

In the end, Laura Weir's book can really be summarized by saying cosy isn't expensive or showy. It's private or shared with loved ones. It's whatever means comfortable. Frederick Loewe described my version of a cosy world perfectly in two verses Liza Doolittle sang in "My Fair Lady". 

"All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the cold night air
With one enormous chair
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?
Lots of chocolate for me to eat
Lots of coal makin' lots of heat
Warm face, warm hands, warm feet
Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?"

Laura Weir doesn't mention "My Fair Lady", but that's my description of cosy right there, with the addition of books and cats. You might want to check out her version in Cosy: The British Art of Comfort.

Cosy: The British Art of Comfort by Laura Weir. HarperOne, 2019. ISBN 9780062948168 (hardcover), 184p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi

I love Christmas books. I enjoy mysteries set during the holiday season, and romances set at Christmastime. But, every year I look for an unusual Christmas book, one that isn't sweet or one that is humorous. It's one reason I've always loved Connie Willis' collection, A Lot Like Christmas. There's a little bit of everything, laughter, romance, and tears in her book. John Scalzi manages to induce quite a bit of laughter and a tear or two with his new collection, A Very Scalzi Christmas.

John Scalzi is best known as a science fiction writer, but if you ever followed his website or his Twitter account, especially his account featuring his cats, you'll know he has a warped sense of humor. I love that humor, although others might not. That humor is reflected in these stories. Just check out the cover with the ninja on it, the cat, and the Christmas Bunny. If you're looking for dry humor, check out "An Interview with Santa's Lawyer". There are all kinds of reasons poor Santa needs a lawyer. Scalzi writes poetry, "Jackie Jones and Melrose Mandy". "Script Notes on the Birth of Jesus" is a little over the top.

My personal favorites were Scalzi's two short stories. In his introduction, he mentions he wrote one story just to make his mother-in-law cry. You'll know which one it is. My favorite story had a military presence, "Christmas in July". And, I can quote from that story without giving anything away. "When you give a gift, you are presenting kindness. You are showing the person that you see them. That you appreciate them. That you want something for them that will ease their burdens and the load they carry. You want to make them happy, if only for a moment. A gift is a kindness."

So, here's my gift to you, a kindness. If you're looking for something a little different this year, check out John Scalzi's A Very Scalzi Christmas.

John Scalzi's website is https://whatever.scalzi.com. If you love cats, check out his Twitter account, @scamperbeasts.  He can also be found @scalzi, which I enjoy, but, before following him there, make sure you read his Notes for followers. His politics and opinions are not for everyone.

A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi. Subterranean Press, 2019. ISBN 9781596069329 (hardcover), 144p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Thursday, December 19, 2019

What Are You Reading?

I told you I'd be back on Thursday. I always want to know what you're reading!

I've just started Elizabeth Spann Craig's first Village Library Mystery, Checked Out. Nothing like a dramatic cat rescue to kick off a cozy mystery. That's really not the mystery, though. Librarian Ann Beckett reluctantly agrees to be set up on a blind date by one of her patrons. What's the worst that can happen? Well, she could get stood up for the date, but only because her date was murdered.

As I said, I just started it, so I've only read the scene in which the cats are rescued during a rainstorm. But, I like the voice in this book, so I think I'm going to enjoy it.

Tell us, what are you reading this week? We'd all like to know.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Short Holiday Break

Consider this a short three-day holiday break. Of course, I'll be back on Thursday for What Are You Reading? But, right now, I'm trying to catch up, make my Thursday deadline for Library Journal, and read a Christmas book or two to share with you. And, maybe even watch a holiday movie or two.

I did go to a play yesterday. My friend, Donna, gave me a gift of season tickets to the Evansville Civic Theatre. We went to see a really funny comedy, "An Old-Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas". It was just what we needed, but the end did bring a tear or two, and I had to break out the tissues for both of us. That's the perfect holiday show, laughter and a couple tears. But, I never thought I'd see three Wise Men like I did today.

In the meantime, while I'm gone, enjoy the season, and come back on Thursday with a book or two to talk about.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman

When Barb Goffman asked me if I was interested in an anthology called Crime Travel, she captured two of my interests, mysteries and time travel. However, she wouldn't have been able to tell me ahead of time how enjoyable the stories would be. A couple of them, including Goffman's own "Alex's Choice", brought tears to my eyes.

I can't even begin to describe the variety of stories in this collection. And, I can't give too much away with any of these stories. Following Donna Andrews' introduction to the book, Melissa H. Blaine kicks off the anthology with the first story that made me tear up. In "Living on Borrowed Time", two time tourists from the future bring a warning for a woman.  I'm not even going to give the name of Anna Castle's amusing story because the title would give away the method of time travel. It's not always about machines in this book.

In Adam Meyer's "The Fourteenth Floor", a security guard receives a reward for his actions thirty-nine years earlier. One of my favorite stories was Barbara Monajem's "The Last Page" in which she sends a thief running from the mob into the past. This one might surprise you. And, Cathy Wiley really should write a novel featuring Detective Chief Inspector Trevor Ashcroft, featured in "And Then There Were Paradoxes", a story that also features Agatha Christie.

There's so much variety in this solid, entertaining collection. If you're a fan of time travel, mysteries, and anthologies, you really should look for Crime Travel.

Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman. Wildside Press LLC, 2019. ISBN 2370000726483 (paperback), 182p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The editor sent me a copy of the book, after inquiring if I was interested in reading it.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Christmas from the Heart by Sheila Roberts

I'm a day late, but I just didn't have the five hours to give to Sheila Roberts' Christmas from the Heart until Friday. If you only have time for one Christmas romance this year, you might want to make it this one. It's a reformed Scrooge story, as so many are this time of year, but it's hard not to root for Scrooge in this one.

Olivia Berg is the fourth generation of women in her family to head up Christmas from the Heart, the only charity that serves the needs of the residents of Pine River, Washington. Livi took over when her mother died too soon. Until this year, she could always count on a hefty donation from Hightower Enterprises. Her great-grandmother had started that relationship. But, Guy Hightower is now the CFO of the family company, a company tightening its belt as it deals with some problems. And, when Guy turns Livi down, then sends a small personal check, the two did not get off to a good start. She sends him a  sarcastic response, and he calls her a leech.

So, when Guy's fancy sports car breaks down outside Pine River, and he's rescued by an attractive young woman who introduces herself as Livi Berg, there's a reason he freezes and gives his name as Joe Ford. He knows who she is, but she has no idea she's consorting with the enemy. And, a very handsome enemy he is. To make matters worse, "Joe" realizes the auto mechanic at the garage is in love with Livi, and Morris doesn't trust Joe at all. Then, the only motel in town has no vacancies, and Livi invites Joe to stay with her and her father.

While Joe waits for the belt for his Maserati, he and Livi spend time together, over cookies and milk, and then helping the town prepare for Christmas. Livi never saw Morris as more than a good friend, and she has stars in her eyes when she sees Joe. But, what's going to happen when he confesses he's really Guy Hightower?

I like Christmas stories and romances. But, I really appreciate the ones with well-developed characters, not just cookie-cutter ones in a "Hallmark"-type romance. Roberts' Christmas from the Heart offers those characters, and a working class community that pitches in to take care of itself. Just the type of Christmas story I appreciate.

Excerpt, CHRISTMAS FROM THE HEART by Sheila Roberts

By the time Guy came down, his hostess had the cards out and hot chocolate poured into mugs. More cookies sat on the plate on the kitchen table. Greeting card perfect.
She smiled up at him as she shuffled the deck and taunted, “Prepare to lose.”
“I don’t lose at cards. He and his brothers used to play a lot of poker on those ski trips to Vail. He always came away with the pot.
She cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? Ever hear the expression pride goes before a fall?”
“Yeah, and I’m afraid you’re gonna fall big-time,” he said as he sat down. All those shiny curls, those pretty, green eyes—someone else at this table was in danger of falling. Big-time.
She dealt three cards for the first round. “I almost feel sorry for you.”
“You that confident, huh?” he teased. Her perfume reached out with invisible fingers and tickled his nose. He wanted to play with a lock of her hair. 
She looked at her hand and smiled. “I am.”
She must have gotten a wild card. “Want to bet on it?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Ah, not so confident after all. I don’t want that card, by the way,” he said, passing on the four of diamonds on the discard pile.
“Oh, I am. But, on the off chance that you got lucky I wouldn’t have anything to pay you with. I’ve only got a couple of dollars in my purse. I don’t want that, either,” she said.
He drew and got a wild card, which gave him three of a kind. “So, wager something else.”
“More cookies?”
“You already gave me cookies.”
“Not that into fudge.” Looking at Livi, he had something much better in mind.
“Okay, then what?”
“How about a kiss?”
Her eyes opened wide and her face flushed. “A kiss?” she repeated as if he’d just proposed she sleep with him.
Okay, that had been stupid. What could he say? He’d been under the influence of perfume.
He bluffed it out. “Hey, I like to gamble big.”
“We hardly know each other,” she protested.
Wasn’t that the truth? If she knew he was Guy Hightower she’d spit in his face. But right now he was plain old Joe Ford, enjoying an evening with a pretty woman.
“We’re getting to know each other,” he pointed out. And he realized he wanted her to get to know him, to see that he was more than the stingy guardian of a company’s treasure chest. “One kiss won’t hurt. Unless there’s someone else?” 
“No, no.” The words came out half assurance and half regret.
“Well, then?”
“What will you give me if I win?” she asked, her cheeks still flushed.
If I lose, I’ll make breakfast tomorrow. How’s that?”
That was acceptable. Her smile returned. “Okay. We just happen to have plenty of eggs.”
“Good,” he said, then discarded and laid down his cards, faceup.
“You had a wild card,” she accused.
“But not up my sleeve.”
She frowned and drew. Then laid down. She’d had a wild card, too, but nothing else matched. Even when she played it on what he’d laid down, he still caught her with ten points.
“I’m looking forward to that kiss,” he teased, bringing back her blush.
“It’s only the first hand,” she said. “You got lucky.”



Sheila Roberts' website is www.sheilasplace.com

Christmas from the Heart by Sheila Roberts. MIRA, 2019. ISBN 9780778360964 (hardcover), 280p.

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

Friday, December 13, 2019

Have You Heard? All the President's Menus by Julie Hyzy

Although I mentioned I was going to be on vacation, that doesn't mean I've had time to finish a book yet. Thank you to Sandie Herron for stepping up with an audio book review. Today, it's All the President's Menus by Julie Hyzy.

All the President’s Menus                                                             

White House Chef Mystery, Book 8
Written by Julie Hyzy
Narrated by Eileen Stevens
Audible Studios (4/10/15) originally published 1/6/15 in pb
Listening Length:  8 hours, 41 minutes

White House Chef Olivia “Ollie” Paras is bored.  The government is under sequester which means no state dinners, practically no guests, and not much more to do than the first family’s meals.  Chief Usher Peter Sergeant visits Ollie in the kitchen to tell her that a visit from four chefs from Saardisca planned over a year ago will still occur, with the chefs arriving shortly.  Their visit coincides with a visit from Saardisca‘s female presidential candidate.  

Four big men are escorted into the kitchen.  They do not pay attention to Ollie who is welcoming them to the US.  When her first assistant, Bucky, speaks up, they stop talking among themselves.  Ollie knows this will be a difficult experience, especially if they view women as inferior.  A trip to the pastry kitchen to meet Marcel ends in disaster when Marcel faints from a double dose of medication, breaking his arm in the fall.  With Marcel hospitalized, Ollie turns to the foreign chefs to help out. All they want to do is work. They do not believe this little kitchen has served hundreds of people at once.  They have been taught it is all propaganda.  

Marcel returns, so the men visit the chocolate shop with him, and again Marcel collapses.  As the Saardiscan chefs return to the kitchen, two fall ill, and one chef dies! Just what was in that chocolate drink they all shared?  Ollie insists the chefs speak English since she has a bad feeling about what they are whispering. Ollie’s request for a translator posing as a new chef is grudgingly granted.  The woman fumbles her way through part of the day until she goes pale listening to what the chefs are saying and refuses to stay. Ollie sneaks in a tape recorder to catch some of those conversations and takes them to the translator at home.  On the way, however, Ollie is followed and threatened, yet she makes it to the translator’s home just in time. They call the police and review the tape. The translator confirms Ollie’s suspicions that they are planning an attack. Two men wearing panty-hose masks burst in.  Was this part of their plan? Saardisca had already sent the chefs’ boss to keep an eye on them. Would he help pick up where the others left off?

This eighth entry in the White House chef mysteries was just as taut and engrossing as the earlier entries.  Even with Eileen Steven’s excellent narration, I had some difficulty understanding the heavy accents of the Saardiscan chefs even while speaking English.  I found this annoying, but then perhaps that was the point, since Ollie was just as frustrated. The Saardiscan view of America compared to their country was so skewed that I began thinking of the world as it exists today. The entire series has brought the reader almost too close to the real world, which is part of what creates the believable tension that kept me reading way too late into the night.  Definitely recommended.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

What Are You Reading?

It's Thursday! And, after our holiday party at work this morning, I'm off until next Wednesday. Lots of reading time! Of course, I have some errands to run first - car wash, groceries. But, I hope to settle in with the cats and books once I'm home today.

I've just started a book that may appear to be a Christmas novel. Yes, Trish Harnetiaux' White Elephant is set at holiday time, but Christmas isn't really the theme. Henry and Claudine Calhoun are the owners of Aspen's premier real estate firm. Every year they have a party for their staff, and the white elephant exchange has become a competitive event that stirs up jealousy and rivalry. But, this year, someone unwraps a murder weapon that Henry used years earlier to help launch the business. Claudine helped him cover it up. Now? Who knows their secret?

So, what are you reading this week? You might not have a lot of time right now, but I hope you find some reading time before the end of the month. Let us know what you're reading, please!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Motherless Child by V.M. Burns

Motherless Child is only the second book in V.M. Burns' RJ Franklin mystery series, but I feel as if I
know Franklin and his world. He's a homicide detective, but he's also a member of his Indiana community, devoted to his adopted grandmother, Mama B. He's been dating Paris Williams, a successful businesswoman, for three months, and worries about what to get her for her birthday. He's a churchgoer, partially because of the women in his life. And, now he's teaching law students as well. But, first he's a police detective.

He's a detective who gets called away from a college football game on a perfect day. Paris calls him from a wedding reception to say there's been a murder. He's been at the game with his partner from work, Harley Wickfield IV, so they both show up at the crime scene. The victim is the father of the bride. But, the bride dislikes him so much that she and the groom take off for their honeymoon at Disney World. She says everything else can wait.

Franklin doesn't think the murder investigation can wait. But, he doesn't know when he's met so many people who hate the victim. JP Rollins was a billionaire, but he wielded his money and his power like a club. His daughter and his lawyer both say anyone who knew him hated him enough to stab and kill him. Harley and Franklin spend a lot of time interviewing people, but they don't seem to get anywhere. Yes, everyone hated the man. But, "everyone" seems to have been elsewhere when JP was killed.

There are very few nice people associated by JP Rollins. The groom was having an affair with a bridesmaid, both before and after the wedding. The bride surprised everyone by her appearance at her wedding, an appearance meant to shock her father. JP was having an affair with his daughter's best friend. He had ruined people's lives, their businesses, their homes. So many people had reasons to want him dead.

Franklin knows something is missing in his puzzle. He can't put his finger on it. It only takes a conversation with the wise elder in his life, Mama B, for him to catch a glimmer of a clue. Franklin and Harley may have been looking at JP's murder from the wrong angle.

While the mystery was interesting, there were very few admirable characters in JP Rollins' life. However, readers will discover a number of admirable characters in RJ Franklin's life. Mama B is the voice of wisdom, a respected figure in "the hood". Paris is a strong woman. RJ admires a retired judge who asked him to teach first year law students about law enforcement. And, he respects his boss. Burns surrounds RJ with ethical people, giving him a strong network of family and friends. While RJ Franklin is dedicated to his job, he leads a full life filled with people he loves, church, and Mama B's soul food.

Motherless Child is the story of the investigation of a murder. It's also a study in contrast between two men, one who becomes a victim, a cruel, abusive man, and RJ Franklin, a man of strength, a man who cares.

V.M. Burns' website is https://www.vmburns.com

Motherless Child by V.M. Burns. Cavel Press, 2019. ISBN 9781603816922 (paperback), 188p.

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A St. Louis Getaway

Donna and I have been friends long enough now that we no longer give each other "things" as gifts, unless they mean something. Instead, we try to do something together so we can share a memory. This year, Donna gave me a trip to St. Louis.

It all started with The London Tea Room. I had been there earlier this year with a friend, Kathy Boone Reel, when author Deborah Crombie appeared there. But, a couple days a week, they're doing a Christmas tea now. So, our first stop in St. Louis was the tea. What a treat! It was so relaxing. Just soft conversation in the room. A Christmas tree. My first Christmas cracker! The crowns were inside the crackers. Two pots of tea per person, and a delicious tier of sandwiches, scones made right there, and pastries. You can see how beautiful it all was.

My Christmas cracker

With my Christmas cracker

Donna with our tea 

Before checking in at our Bed & Breakfast, we stopped at the St. Louis Public Library. Neither of us had ever been there. But, because a man at the front desk suggested we take the one-hour tour, we decided to go back the next morning instead of rushing through on our own.

If we're anyplace near the theatre district in St. Louis, we stay at Grand Center Inn. The bed-and-breakfast is just perfect for us, and it's within walking distance of the Fox Theatre and a number of small venues.

Grand Center Inn

On Friday night, we walked down to the Grandel Theatre. We had dinner reservations at The Dark Room, the bar and restaurant in the building, and there was a wonderful piano player.

The Grandel and The Dark Room

Then, we walked across the lobby to the theatre itself to see the Metro Theater company perform "It's a Wonderful Life". It was "a reimagined version", just an hour long about a radio station in which the cast of the broadcast of "It's a Wonderful Life" all succumbs to food poisoning. Everyone, from the announcer to the receptionist to the cleaning lady put on the show, and they even recruit a deliveryman to play George Bailey. It was so much fun, with a marvelous cast.

Saturday morning, we headed to the St. Louis Public Library. They have several one-hour tours on Saturdays. The docent told us all about the history of the library, which was unusual because it was a Carnegie Library, and Andrew Carnegie seldom gave money for a large building. He gave money for small neighborhood libraries. This one was built in 1912, and closed down for two years and renovated just a few years ago. It's beautiful, and they used artisans from the St. Louis area for the renovations, including one company headed by the third generation of artisans. Ceilings, stained glass, lighting. As Donna said, this library now has the best lighting of any public library we've been in.

The lights were restored - marble, alabaster and onyx

Stained glass honoring Poetry and Music

Decorative fireplace in the children's department

Once the tour was over, we went outside to see a sculpture, "Mariposas", meaning Butterflies. It was done in 2015 by Manola Valdes, and it's on loan to the library. The butterflies look different, depending on how the sun shines on the wings.

(And, I had to take a couple pictures of Christ Church Cathedral across the street, because of the gargoyles.)

Donna's Christmas gift was just perfect, an experience and memories to share.