Wednesday, April 30, 2014

That Summer

That SummerThat Summer by Lauren Willig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julia has been fiercely American since moving to New York when she was a young girl. She has blocked out nearly all memories of her years in London while her mother was still alive, so when she receives word she's inherited a house from a great aunt she doesn't remember having, she thinks it might be a scam. Then during the course of cleaning out the house and the accumulated detritus of generations, she discovers a vibrant painting in the back of a wardrobe, and curiosity leads her to investigate its provenance and ties to a portrait in the drawing room. She is aided by Nick, the handsome antiques dealer her cousin Natalie has laid claim to...which doesn't do much for family harmony.

One hundred and sixty years earlier, Imogen Grantham reluctantly posed for a portrait her husband commissioned. She had no desire to spend so much time in the presence of a man who seemed to see too much, but like most things in her life, she had little choice in the matter. Over the course of their weekly sessions, however, artist and subject gradually became friends. When their friendship turned intimate, life got complicated.

This would make a great book group selection. When I finished reading, I desperately wanted to talk it over with someone, to discuss and analyze what really happened back in January of 1850.

The story alternates between 1849 and 2009, primarily, and I found myself getting nervous reading the historical sections because the atmosphere felt so dark and oppressive that it didn't seem likely Imogen and Gavin's story would end well. Emotionally it was easier for me to read the modern-day sections, even as Julia struggled to finally face the truth of what happened the day her mother died a quarter century ago.

For readers' advisors: character doorway is primary, story and setting secondary. There are only a couple of mild swear words that I can recall, and no on-screen sex scenes.

I received a free Advance Reader's Copy (ARC) from in exchange for my honest review.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

A Potion to Die For: A Magic Potion Mystery

A Potion to Die For: A Magic Potion MysteryA Potion to Die For: A Magic Potion Mystery by Heather Blake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Carly Bell Hartwell's love potions are never more popular than when Mr. Dunwoody predicts someone will be getting divorced soon. His occasional prognostications are never wrong and inevitably lead to Carly being chased to her potion shop by a mob of panicked spouses worried that their marriages might be less solid than they thought. That all changes the morning Carly and her hex-selling cousin Delia discover a body in Carly's break room--a body clutching one of Carly's potion bottles. The fact that the potion wasn't the cause of death doesn't seem to matter to the spooked crowd, which evaporates as quickly as it gathered. The investigation, led by Carly's delicious ex-fiance, Sergeant Dylan Jackson, doesn't progress fast enough to suit Carly's dwindling bank account, and when her falling down house demands immediate repairs, Carly decides to ferret out the truth of who killed local lawyer Nelson Winston, and why she's being framed for it.

Quirky characters fill the pages of the first book in this fun new cozy contemporary mystery series from the author of the Wishcraft Mysteries. Blake does a good job of bringing the small town of Hitching Post, Alabama, wedding capital of the South, to life.

For readers' advisors: story doorway is primary, character and setting are secondary. I'm marking it "clean reads" because I can't remember any bad language, and there are no sex scenes or on-screen violence.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Garden Spells

Garden SpellsGarden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So far as I can tell, this has been my most popular review on Goodreads.  Since I'm behind in writing my reviews, I decided to post this older (2007) one here in the meantime.  Enjoy!

What I learned from this book is...if an apple tree throws its apples at you, for goodness sake, pay attention already!

This book is lovely, magical, enchanting. I sat down to read just one chapter, basically to decide whether it was worth holding onto even though it was already overdue. At 2:30 a.m. I finished the whole darn thing. Couldn't stop myself. I floated in a state of suspended reality, where time had no meaning.

The basic idea of the book: two sisters experienced their childhoods very differently. Now, as adults, they must come to terms with choices, past and present, and with the unique abilities each woman inherited. In Bascom, North Carolina, townsfolk know Claire's garden grows produce with mystical properties, like the honeysuckle wine she makes that lets you see in the dark. Sydney has a gift for revealing a person's inner self through a haircut. Bay always knows where things belong. And whatever Evanelle gives you, no matter how strange, you'll be certain to need before too long.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

Jane's Melody

Jane's Melody (Jane's Melody, #1)Jane's Melody by Ryan Winfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jane first sees Caleb at the cemetery, standing at her daughter's new grave, but he vanishes before she can talk to him. She next runs across him playing his guitar on the streets of Seattle, where he is reluctant to speak about her daughter, Melody. The third time she finds him, he has just been mugged, robbed of his guitar and hence his livelihood, so she makes the impulsive decision to take him home with her, hire him to do a major yard renovation, in the hopes that he'll open up and tell her more about her daughter's last days and weeks before her drug overdose. She soon learns that Caleb is mature far beyond his 24 years, and his presence in her life might be the balm she didn't know she needed, if only she is brave enough to take the necessary leap.

For a romance novel, there is an enormous amount of grief and melancholy permeating the pages. Jane's life hasn't been easy--from her family of addicts and enablers, to the boyfriend who abandoned her when she got pregnant in college, to raising her daughter on her own on an insurance agent's unpredictable salary, to the heartbreak of losing her daughter to drugs and alcohol. Still, she has created a life for herself in spite of her obstacles. She has a close circle of friends and a nice home. What she lacks is self confidence, which is one of the three reasons I had difficulty suspending disbelief on occasion. I just couldn't always buy that Caleb would be so attracted to a woman who had no concept of her own self-worth that he'd think a 16-year age difference was irrelevant. What did he find irresistible about a grieving woman who had no faith in her own lovability?

The second quibble I had with the story was also related to Caleb's age. Twenty-four is still in the "Knight" phase for men (see Alison Armstrong's PAX Program) where they are seeking adventure and testing their mettle. Had Caleb been a few years older--say, 30--it would have been far easier to believe he was wanting to find his "Queen" and build his castle, so to speak. Likewise, it would have been more plausible that he had had time to cultivate domestic and handyman skills. It jolted me out of the world of the story every time Caleb demonstrated knowledge and aptitude for something that it didn't seem likely he'd have learned while homeless or couch-surfing, although I suppose some of those skills might have been learned when he was still a kid.

My third bone to pick with the book happened mostly in the middle of the novel when Jane and Caleb were having sex in every conceivable room on every conceivable surface all the time. I think it's a male delusion that (sorry for the blunt language ahead) women orgasm due solely to penetration. Almost no women can do this (see Mary Roach's book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex). I guess it just makes men feel better to believe what works for them also feels earth-moving to their partners? So it was absurd to have Jane in raptures at Caleb's prowess when most of the time he was just demonstrating stamina, not finesse. My eyes rolled so hard, I think I sprained muscles.

That said, I really did enjoy large chunks of the story. The scene where Jane reads Melody's baby book had me bawling. Jane's friendship with Grace was beautiful and also had me in tears sometimes. When I could forget the age, self-esteem, and sex issues, I was totally absorbed in the book.

For readers' advisors: character doorways is primary, story and setting (Puget Sound area, mostly) secondary. Clearly there are sex scenes, so don't suggest it to anyone who asks for "clean reads." It's a contemporary romance, the first in a series that continues with Jane's Harmony.

I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

The Winter Lodge

The Winter Lodge (Lakeshore Chronicles, #2)The Winter Lodge by Susan Wiggs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jenny Majesky has secretly always wanted to be a writer, but instead she's been running the family's bakery since her grandfather died and her grandmother had a stroke. Lately she has also been writing a popular food column for the local newspaper based on her grandmother's old recipes from Poland, and she dreams of turning her columns into a book, but her dreams go up in smoke one night when the family home burns to the ground only a few weeks after her grandmother passes away. Shell-shocked by her series of staggering losses, Jenny teeters on the brink of despair, rescued by the estranged love of her life, police chief Rourke McKnight, her newly discovered half sister Olivia, and the wider Bellamy clan.

When Rourke heard the address of the house fire, he broke all kinds of speed records racing to the scene, heart in his throat, bargaining with God the entire way. He vowed to never again be so stupid as to let Jenny go if only she could please survive the conflagration. And when he discovered her alive and well at the bakery, puzzled by his unexpected arrival, his relief confused her even further, for it had been years since the pair had allowed themselves to so much as be in the same room together. Then Jenny learned she was homeless, and Rourke leapt at the chance to make good on his promise and insisted she stay with him until she could get back on her feet...or forever. But first it will take a lot of work to overcome the years of pain and guilt that have kept them apart.

I absolutely LOVED this book. The characters felt so real, even when they made bad choices I could sympathize. The love triangle between Rourke, Jenny, and Joey was heart-breaking because each of them truly loved the other two and wanted what was best for them, despite disagreeing what that might be.

Wiggs continues her pattern of setting up future books in the series, most particularly with the Daisy sub-plot (see Marrying Daisy Bellamy). And I thought the structure of flipping back and forth between past events and present-day worked better in this book than in the first book in the series (which I admittedly accidentally read after this one). I am tagging this book "mystery" as well as "romance" because Jenny finally uncovers the truth about her mother's disappearance all those years ago, and it has repercussions--and dangers--for her life today.

For readers' advisors: character and story doorways are both strong, and setting (bucolic Avalon, NY) seems to be a big draw for some readers as well. There is a little swearing and some sex, but not terribly explicit. I had a very hard time putting this book down.

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