Tag Archives: book review

Carpool Diem- by Nancy Star

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I picked this one up at the thrift store when I traveled to visit my son and his family. I like to check out thrift and Goodwill stores when I go places to pick up books for my Little Free Library. A lot of times, I don’t read the ones I buy but this one drew me on with the promise of being fun.

And it definitely was a fun read. The protagonist is a perfectionist who loses her job basically through sabotage but, as a reader, you get a feeling of relief that she’s getting off the treadmill that was her life working out of town all week and spending weekends at home. Her family life clearly suffered due to her lifestyle/work absences.

The reader gets to see great character arcs of several of the members of her family.

The daughter is a soccer player and most of the book revolves around her quest to play for an elite travel team. The best parts of the story are where the obsessive coach of the elite team sends crazy, ridiculous memos to the girls and their families every day. He’s loony tunes and never met an exclamation mark he didn’t like.

I spent a lot of the story laughing at his memos and hoping he’d get his comeuppance.

I’m a huge soccer nut so this book was right up my alley. The character growth was well done on the characters who had a chance to change. Not so much on the coach guy, but that was sort of expected. Lol

This book was published in 2008 but it could have come out last week as it was so up to date—other than the reference to the Larry King show.

This was a quick read—less than a day—but full of good, entertaining writing as well as a great message about life’s priorities.

Death by Pumpkin Spice by Alex Erickson

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This book is part of a series of stories with the protagonist being the owner of a coffee shop who can’t help but get involved in murders that happen in her town. She’s attracted to the detective she works with on the cases but she also has a date with a local doctor and has a former live in lover who is a stalker. In other words, she attracts drama. And she isn’t very likable.

Even though she owns a coffee shop and the title of the book makes one think there will be some kind of pumpkin spice drink—latte, coffee or even chai—nope. Not any in sight for the entire book.

A woman is killed at a Halloween party and busted pumpkins are all around her but no spices. Nope. None.

The protagonist is smart and clever in the way she can solve crimes but she is one of those types who don’t listen. Even when she is told to stay out of the crime scene, she goes willy-nilly in the room and starts touching stuff.

The first couple of times she didn’t listen were cute but then it got old. I get that the amateur sleuth needs to have access to try to solve the case in these kinds of books, but it really became annoying to this reader. I’m sure there were other ways to get around that issue but her just blatantly ignoring warning after warning became tedious. She went rogue way too many times to count.

All that being said, the mystery itself was good. It was clever to have the story take place at a Halloween party with a terrible storm so everyone was stranded there and also in costume. It heightened the danger and intrigue to make the killer not be able to escape. The other partygoers didn’t seem too concerned to be locked in a mansion with many rooms for a murderer to hide in, though.

I thought the ending was appropriate and I enjoyed the mystery of the murder.

Even though this is a series, I was able to follow the story and figure out who was who without much effort.

For a quick, easy, seasonal read with not much depth, this was a fun one. Just don’t expect any pumpkin spice.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain- By George Saunders- a Review

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This was a great book with a lot of interesting analysis of Russian short stories and their writers. The author is a professor at Syracuse University and now I want to take one of his classes. While I didn’t agree with everything he said, as in whether a couple of the stories were actually wonderful. :), he had great points to make about the seven stories he chose to analyze. I had never read some of them and fully enjoyed them even though two of them were a bit odd.

This is a great book for writers as his analyses of the tales gives the writers among us a lot of insight into the stories as well as how to extrapolate from them ways to improve our own work.  It is a dense read and takes a lot of concentration but well worth it as it seems to me to be a mini course in Russian short stories and how brilliant these writers were.  To say nothing of what a great teacher Mr. Saunders is. He’s witty and intelligent and the reading of this book was a joy. Even if you aren’t a writer, there is a lot to take away from this book and it’s well worth a read.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders- A Review

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In the Tibetan religion, the bardo is the place between lives. I didn’t know this until I picked up this book. It’s sort of what I think some western religions call purgatory. I’m not 100% sure since I’m Methodist and we don’t have that concept in our theology. Nevertheless, this was a fantastic read. Mr. Saunders, a professor at Syracuse University is a brilliant, witty writer. 

This story starts with the last illness of Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln. We are also introduced to a variety of characters in the bardo itself. They don’t know they are dead. They think they are in “sick boxes” and waiting to recover and go back to their families. 

The conversations and actions of the men and women in the bardo are repetitions of what they did in life. Some retell the same stories over and over. 

We have three main protagonists there. One a reverend, and one a man who was a printer who died when a rafter hit him in the head and one who slashed his wrists when his lover took another lover, who is still “waiting” for his mother to discover him and take him to the hospital. They show us, through their points of view, the others in the bardo. Some of the conversations are poignant and some are quite amusing. Sometimes, people leave the bardo with a flash and bang when they look at a light but our main characters resist the light as they don’t want to disappear to who knows where. They are waiting for their families to come take them home and they sure want to be there when it happens. 

Interspersed between the scenes in the bardo are some quotes of various members of the public and newspapers regarding the huge party the Lincolns threw when their son was upstairs gravely ill in the White House. Many thought they were wrong to have the party that had been planned for a while. Many thought the child’s parents were to blame for his illness as they allowed him out in the snow and cold with his little pony. It was interesting to read those comments. It appears as if they are from real articles of the time. I didn’t research to be sure of that, but they read as true. Which makes the story even more poignant. If they are fiction, it increases my admiration for the author’s cleverness.

The boy eventually dies and, after a funeral, is taken to the cemetery. He arrives in the bardo and our cast of characters assure him he’s only in a sick box and will soon rejoin his life and see his father again. 

Lincoln comes to the mausoleum where Willie’s body is and the boy tries to make contact with him. Of course, Lincoln can’t hear him. 

The main characters of the bardo become worried about the boy when he’s devastated that his father can’t hear him. They are determined to help him. Maybe he should try to escape the bardo? The young ones usually do, but Willie is determined to reunite with his father and plans to stay around. 

The rest of the story is about how they try to help Willie and lessons are learned for all of them. Well, most of them, as there will always be some who choose other paths. 

This book was a quick read that pulled me in and I found myself turning pages in thrall with the story and the talent of this writer. He encourages the reader to think about life and love of family and how we, as humans, are tied to our lives. It’s sometimes hard to let go of things and this book is a lesson in how we often have to make decisions where we might put ourselves at risk. The author teaches us these things in an amusing as well as heart-rending way. His talent in switching from one to the other is beautiful and make this a very worthwhile read.  I highly recommend this one. 

Unholy Night- Seth Grahame-Smith- a Review

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A mash up of the book of Luke in the Bible and a thriller. It’s gruesome in parts, funny in parts, moving in parts, and maybe partially sacrilegious. Maybe.

What an interesting idea this author had to make the three wise men into common criminals who find themselves in a situation where they are protecting a newborn baby and his parents from King Herod and his soldiers. Pontius Pilate as a young centurion makes an appearance in this tale. We also come across John the Baptist as a child.

As the story progresses, we learn more about the main protagonist, Balthazar and how he became embroiled in a life of crime. He became a legendary thief called the Ghost of Antioch. A price on his head, part of the adventure is the chase as Herod sends his men after not only all of the male children under two years of age in Judea, but sends them out to find the Antioch Ghost as he wants to kill him as well. He feels the Antioch Ghost has made a fool of him and Herod wants his revenge against the man.

Lots of violence in the story which can get a bit over the top—some gore, rape, and child murdering takes place so beware of that—but it was a lawless time for many in that era. Or maybe not lawless, but dangerous and life was easily lost with the Romans in charge of the world. Man’s inhumanity to man is pretty obvious in this story. The common man and woman really didn’t have any rights—especially the women. They were forced to do things against their wills in this strongly patriarchal society. The author touches on that in the scenes related to the harem of Herod.

If this sounds depressing, I don’t mean for it to. I liked the story and the hero’s journey was satisfying as it progressed to the ending. Balthasar had a lot of issues—some rooted way back in his past, but the reader gets to enjoy watching him grow as a person and learn that violence doesn’t have to be the answer—unless the whole Roman Army is trying to kill you…

This author has a unique voice and is very clever and creative.  This book was compelling and well written. As a lover of thrillers, I was entertained by this one. Lots of excitement, but also tender moments as well as a bit of humor mixed in. A good read if you can get past the violence and the sometimes disrespect for Mary, Joseph and the baby.  

The Double Agent- William Christie- a Review

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WWII Iran, 1943

The story opens with the hero in dire straits in Iran. He’s in a cell being held at the British embassy and he’s doomed if he doesn’t take action to protect himself.

The hero, Alexsi, warned the British about a plot to kill Churchill ordered by Stalin. As his ‘reward” for doing so, the British intend to send him right back into the fray as a spy for them. A sure fire way for Alexsi to be killed himself.

A clever man who has had a rough existence, he finds a way to survive. But fate has a way of chasing this man and it isn’t long until he’s back in peril. In fact, this whole book is basically him going from one perilous situation to another. Such is the life of a spy in WWII.

Excitement abounds, the story teems with edge of the seat scenarios, and the violence is sometimes stunning and off the charts.

I enjoyed this book for the storyline as well as the hero. He’s smart, industrious, witty and very likeable. Almost like a violent McGyver. He finds his way into scrapes and back out using the resources to hand.

Clearly, the writer of this story has a great way with words and figuring out a way to get his protagonist out of scrapes. I liked the sheer audacity of some of the hero’s actions.

This appears to be book two of a series and it seems there will be a book three since the war isn’t over in the timeline of the story (and even though the ending was satisfying, it is clear this character has more to do). I was pleased to find I didn’t need to have read book one to jump right into book two. There was no confusion about who this man was and why he was in the situation he was in. That being said, I’m planning to go back and read the first one since I’m intrigued by the character. And I eagerly await the next installment.

I would warn readers that the book is quite violent so if you’re squeamish, be wary. Otherwise, be ready for an interesting ride-along with Alexsi.

I received this book from Net Galley in exchange for an unbiased review.  It comes out November 15, 2022.

The Magnolia Palace- Fiona Davis

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This was a quick read that was enjoyable. I found it interesting that the main character was inspired by a real person. I knew the family who owned the Magnolia Palace were real –The Frick family. Mr. Henry Clay Frick was an industrialist as well as an art patron and eventually, he left his home to the city to make into a museum. Audrey Munson was the woman who inspired the heroine, Lillian, in this story. Audrey was used by many sculptors of that era as a model for many of the statues around the city of New York. Many call her the first super model.

The novel begins with Lillian being in the wrong place at the wrong time and she is questioned in the murder of her landlord’s wife. She flees and ends up in a job interview to be the assistant to Mr. Frick’s daughter.

The action swings back and forth from the gilded age to the 1960s where we meet a model named Veronica who has come over from England to be part of a photo shoot at the Frick mansion which is now a museum. She meets a young man who is interning at the museum.  They accidently get locked into the museum overnight in a snowstorm and blackout.

Back in the gilded age, Lillian works for the daughter of the industrialist and tries to help her in her love life as the woman’s father wants her to marry. There’s a lot of interesting psychological undertones in Frick’s son and daughter’s interactions with him as well as each other.

Lillian finds herself falling for the young man who has been chosen to be her employer’s fiancé and he falls for her as well. The daughter goes out of town with her family and sets a kind of treasure hunt around the house for her intended husband in order to amuse him while she’s gone. Lillian helps him in the quest and they draw closer together.

In the 1960s, Veronica finds the clues for the treasure hunt in the house/museum and she, along with the intern start to follow them while they are stranded in the house.

The rest of the story continues to move back and forth between the time periods and the two heroines. A murder occurs and the excitement builds in each era. I won’t say much more as I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it’s a unique and interesting story. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it if you like art, the gilded age, the 1960s, mysteries and a fictionalized look at the past in an exciting way.

Issues of racism and prejudice against women with ambition are two of the themes of this story as well as family love and conflict.  Overall, I think it’s a good story.

The Girl from Bletchley Park by Kathleen McGurl

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A tale of two protagonists. One from the 1940s and WWII era, Pam, and one from modern times, Julia, her granddaughter. The story alternates chapters between the two women. This book was an easy read as the author’s style was straightforward and uncomplicated. I found myself yelling at the modern woman for the way she allowed her husband to treat her and talk to her. I wanted to smack him for his nastiness and his thoughts that all she was basically good for was to cook and clean for him while he lolled about.

The girl from WWII who worked at Bletchley Park was naïve and a little bit too sweet for my taste but I did enjoy her storyline. She found herself working as a code breaker and signed the Official Secrets Act as part of her job. She took that very seriously although she almost messed up a few times as the story went on.

Pam was a popular girl, making friends easily and having two very different men attracted to her. She met them both when she was billeted at Woburn Abbey. One was the gardener there and the other was a young man who worked with her at Bletchley. Adventures ensue and she has to make some hard decisions, but eventually figured out her true feelings about the things happening in her life.

The modern protagonist had a lot go wrong in her life, but she drew strength from her children She was pitched a lot of curveballs as the story unfolded.

While I solved both storylines pretty early on in the book, it was still an enjoyable read and I think it is a good story for people interested in that time period as well as readers who like stories that tie together the past and the present. 

The Journal of Helene Berr, Translated from French by David Bellos

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This journal is hard to read because we know the outcome at the outset. A young woman cheated of a life of happiness at a young age due to hatred and evil. I believe it’s a must-read though since we can’t allow such evil to rise again. Being reminded of the awful things done in the name of hatred and irrational hostility must never be forgotten or swept under the rug.

Helene Berr was a French Jewish woman living in Paris during WWII.  She was a student at the Sorbonne and kept a journal of her everyday life before and during the war. Her father was an engineer and had friends in high places who helped protect him and his family for a while during the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population.

While under the impression he and his family were safe, her father continued to work in his business and his daughter, along with the rest of the Berrs, lived as if things were normal. Going to classes and cafes and even traveling by train to and from their home in the countryside.

Helene was emotionally torn between a man she had always thought she might marry and a new young man she met at the Sorbonne. She eventually realized she was in love with the new man. His name was Jean Morawiecki and he loved her as well. They planned to marry. Eventually, he left to join the free French and work with the resistance, believing her to be safe in Paris.

The journal starts out with regular days and how she and her friends filled their lives. She was a musician and many entries focus on playing her violin and listening to music. The journal moves into sadder territory when all the Jewish people were ordered to wear the yellow star. Helene’s journal entries relating to her shame and embarrassment in wearing the star are heartbreaking.

As time goes on, her father is arrested and sent to the Drancy internment camp. After several weeks, his employer was able to get him released as he was an essential employee. In our 20/20 vision of looking at the past through the lens we now have, as a reader of this journal, one can’t help but wish they’d taken this event as a hint that they should have left immediately to get to a country of safety. It really wouldn’t be fair to judge them for their inaction as they had no way of knowing exactly what happened to the people who were deported. In fact, her journal makes one think Helene thought the deportation was not permanent and that people would return after the war if the Nazi’s lost. And who could blame them? Of course, they weren’t told they were being deported to be murdered. The Nazis wanted the deportees to be compliant and non-combative so as to ease their task of getting them on the train cars to send them to the camps.

As the journal goes on, it gets more and more heartrending. The family did eventually go into hiding but they were betrayed. On a night they chose to sleep at their own home, they were taken and sent to Auschwitz. They were sent from Drancy in March of 1944- on Helene’s 23rd birthday of all things—which just makes in worse to this reader. Her mother died in April 1944 in the gas chamber, and her father was poisoned by an anti-Semite doctor in the infirmary in September, 1944, both at Auschwitz. Helene survived to be moved to Bergen-Belson in November, 1944. She died of typhus after being unable to rise for reveille and being brutally beaten by a guard in April, 1945—just 5 days before the camp was liberated by the British Army.  How absolutely tragic. 5 days. Just 5 days….

Upon her death and the end of the war, her brother sent the pages of her journal to the man she loved, Jean Morawiecki. She had entrusted the pages as she wrote them to the family cook in case the family was taken. Jean held on to the pages for almost fifty years. Helene’s sister wrote an afterward to this translation of this journal and the words of Jean regarding his love of Helene were truly poignant and so sad. A Stolen Life is what the afterward is called and it is surely right.  So many stolen lives. Senselessly stolen lives. 

Review- The Gilded Girl by Alyssa Colman

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I have a little free library at my office and tend to pick up books of all genres and subjects for the neighborhood folks to take and read. I picked up this middle grade book at our local library’s book sale a few months ago. I was intrigued enough by it to read it one Saturday.

It is a book about discovering who your true friends are and how to be a real friend as well.  The story is about two girls who start out with vastly different lives. One is the spoiled, rich girl and the other the poor orphan who is employed as a servant in the magic school the first girl comes to as a new student.

The rich girl makes friends easily, but she is someone who spends money on her friends and buys them gifts. The poor girl has a harder time as the students (as well as the owner of the school- who is a truly awful person) are not kind to the servants and staff at all. As this is gilded age New York City, that wasn’t surprising.

A change of fate is in store for the rich girl and things change drastically in her life. This change in circumstances leads to both girls discovering a lot about themselves as well as about the other people in their lives.  Many surprises and adventures are in store for them. And many discoveries about the world and life await.

This was a great story for 9-13 year olds. It teaches lessons about the true nature of friendship. It shows money doesn’t make you a likeable person or even a good person. It shows that things are not always how they seem and people can disguise their true selves depending on circumstances.

I recommend this for pre-teens but it also has valuable lessons for us adults as well.