Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

This is a fascinating story of the French Revolution.  Marie Tussaud learned the art of sculpting wax model from her uncle in their Salon de Crie in Paris.  Together they made their Salon one of the most popular sights in Paris by always showing current ‘newsmakers’ in their tableaux of wax. 

Having affiliations on both sides of the revolution, Marie has to walk a fine line to prove her patriotism.   She becomes a tutor to the King’s sister, yet some of the most important revolutionaries meet to discuss plans in her home. 

The details of the book are extraordinary, from the fashion of Marie Antoinette to the details of wax modeling, to the staggering gruesomeness of the guillotine.  Ms. Moran’s writing is incredibly readable. I loved it!

4 Stars (Rated R – for the horrific details of the Revolution) 

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Chased the Moon welcomes you to her newest locale: Walls of Water, North Carolina, where the secrets are thicker than the fog from the town’s famous waterfalls, and the stuff of superstition is just as real as you want it to be.

It’s the dubious distinction of thirty-year-old Willa Jackson to hail from a fine old Southern family of means that met with financial ruin generations ago. The Blue Ridge Madam—built by Willa’s great-great-grandfather during Walls of Water’s heyday, and once the town’s grandest home—has stood for years as a lonely monument to misfortune and scandal. And Willa herself has long strived to build a life beyond the brooding Jackson family shadow. No easy task in a town shaped by years of tradition and the well-marked boundaries of the haves and have-nots.

But Willa has lately learned that an old classmate—socialite do-gooder Paxton Osgood—of the very prominent Osgood family, has restored the Blue Ridge Madam to her former glory, with plans to open a top-flight inn. Maybe, at last, the troubled past can be laid to rest while something new and wonderful rises from its ashes. But what rises instead is a skeleton, found buried beneath the property’s lone peach tree, and certain to drag up dire consequences along with it.

For the bones—those of charismatic traveling salesman Tucker Devlin, who worked his dark charms on Walls of Water seventy-five years ago—are not all that lay hidden out of sight and mind. Long-kept secrets surrounding the troubling remains have also come to light, seemingly heralded by a spate of sudden strange occurrences throughout the town.

Now, thrust together in an unlikely friendship, united by a full-blooded mystery, Willa and Paxton must confront the dangerous passions and tragic betrayals that once bound their families—and uncover truths of the long-dead that have transcended time and defied the grave to touch the hearts and souls of the living.

Resonant with insight into the deep and lasting power of friendship, love, and tradition, The Peach Keeper is a portrait of the unshakable bonds that—in good times and bad, from one generation to the next—endure forever.

4 Stars (PG-13 for brief sex scenes)

Made in the U.S.A. by Billie Letts

The bestselling author of WHERE THE HEART IS returns with a heartrending tale of two children in search of a place to call home.

Lutie McFee's history has taught her to avoid people, to places, and to almost everything. With her mother long dead and her father long gone to find his fortune in Las Vegas, 15-year-old Lutie lives in the god-forsaken town of Spearfish, South Dakota with her twelve-year-old brother, Fate, and Floy Satterfield, the 300-pound ex-girlfriend of her father. While Lutie shoplifts for kicks, Fate spends most of his time reading, watching weird TV shows and worrying about global warming and the endangerment of pandas. As if their life is not dismal enough, one day, while shopping in their local Wal-Mart, Floy keels over and the two motherless kids are suddenly faced with the choice of becoming wards of the state or hightailing it out of town in Floy's old Pontiac. Choosing the latter, they head off to Las Vegas in search of a father who has no known address, no phone number and, clearly, no interest in the kids he left behind.

MADE IN THE U.S.A. is the alternately heartbreaking and life-affirming story of two gutsy children who must discover how cruel, unfair and frightening the world is before they come to a place they can finally call home.

3 Stars (R for descriptions of violence, rape and making of porn)

Alice's Tulips by Sandra Dallas

Story about me reading the book first:  I picked this book off my bookshelf to read (used copy from on a Tuesday evening.  After 10-15 minutes of reading my eyes started itching and watering, my hands and chest were itching.  I could only come to the conclusion that the book was infested with cat dander to which I am severely allergic.  I was really getting into the book!  Angrily I put the book down, went and washed my face, hands and chest and then picked up “New Mercies” to read.  The next night I went to book club and told the women about my ‘cat-infested’ book.  One sweet, wonderful woman said she had a copy at home and she would mail it to me.  I received it the next day so I could start it as soon as I finished “New Mercies”.  It’s wonderful to have good friends.

 Alice’s Tulips” is an epistolary novel.  In it Alice Bullock a newlywed, whose husband has just joined the Union in the Civil War, writes lively letters to her sister.  Alice is left to run her husband’s family farm with her mother-in-law. Their troubles and experiences are thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable.  In some review Alice was described as the Northern Scarlet O’Hara, an apt description.  Dallas is at her best with writing about women depending on women to get by and what it means to be a friend.

Mormon Mention: At one point in the book, they have no horse to pull the plow, so one woman pulls the plow while the other drives it.  “Mrs. Kittie stopped by this afternoon and laughed at the two of us and repeated a song the Mormons sang as they pushed their handcarts across the prairie: ‘Some must push and some must pull, as merrily over the plains we go.’”

4 Stars (PG very mild sexual references.)

New Mercies by Sandra Dallas

In Natchez, Mississippi in 1933 a murder/suicide takes place in an old plantation home called Avoca.  Nora Bondurant, from Colorado reads about the incident surrounding “the goat lady” in the newspaper, passing it off as an interesting, curiosity only to find out that the woman was her aunt and she is the only remaining relative. 

She travels to Natchez to claim her inheritance and escape some secrets of her own.  In Natchez, she becomes enmeshed in the mystery and the community.

Good story, but not one of Dallas’ best. 

3 Stars (PG-13, some mild sexual references)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Heaven Is Here: An Incredible Story of Hope, Triumph, and Everyday Joy by Stephanie Neilson

Stephanie Neilson had a perfect life.  She was raised in a large, loving family.  She married her ideal man at a young age and promptly had four beautiful children.  Her life was exactly as she dreamed it would be.  She wrote and published pictures of her idyllic life on one of the original “Mormon Mommy Blogs” The Nienie Dialogues. 

One day in August 2008, she and her husband Christian were in a near fatal airplane crash (the one other man in the plane did die).  Christian was burned over 20% of his body and had a broken back.  Stephanie was burned over 80% of her body.  She was in a medically induced coma for 3 months. 

This book is her story.  It is one of devout faith, devastating injuries, great hope and true love.  She details her memories of the accident and how she escaped the airplane with help from the other side of the veil.  She tells of waking up in the hospital with, initially, no memory of what happened and her horror of coming to grips with what happened to her and what that meant to her and her precious children (who were being cared for by her sisters). She explains the excruciating details of what her body had to go through to heal. She shares with the reader her underlying, undoubting, unshakeable faith in her Father in Heaven and how He helped her through this terrifying time.

There were passages that made me weep, but overall she taught me about extraordinary courage and faith.

5 Stars (Rated PG for disturbing description of the accident and injuries)

In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodd’s experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

Kept me reading all the way to the end.  Erik Larson has a true talent for writing about historical times. 

4 stars (PG-13 for disturbing violence)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

So Brave Young and Handsome by Leif Enger

If Monte Becket nurtured dreams of being the Great American Novelist, those hopes crumbled soon after his first book was published. Now, five years later, it's 1915, and he is about to formalize his defeat by reclaiming his gloomy job at remote Minnesota post office. Before he bites that sour bullet, however, he accepts a vague invitation to travel overland to Mexico with an aging, decrepit outlaw. Becket might be just following the strongest current, but old train robber Glendon Hale is on a feverish mission: He wants to erase mistakes that he made 20 years before. As this unlikely pair travels deeper and deeper into the West, they move further and further from any tranquil certainties.

This is a great western story, not as good as his first "Peace Like a River", but a good story nonethe less.

4 stars (Rated PG13 for shoot 'em up stories)

To My Dearest Friends by Patricia Volk

Alice and Nanny have never met before, but they have one thing in common: their late friend Roberta. Alice is the prim proprietor of a chic Madison Avenue shop, while Nanny is a sharp-eyed Manhattan real-estate broker. This New York odd couple is thrown together when Roberta trusts them with her last request—that together they open her safe-deposit box. What they find inside compels these women to address a surprising truth about their beloved Roberta. A profound yet hilarious novel, To My Dearest Friends is the story of two women and a journey of friendship neither chose to take.

While Ms. Volk’s writing is exceptionally lyrical and lovely to read, the book contains much too much sex and sex talk for my taste.

2 Stars (Rated R – too much sex)

Buster Midnight's Cafe by Sandra Dallas

May Anna Kovacks was discovered on the dusty streets of Butte, Montana and went on to become a Hollywood star. War, fame, marriage, love, and heartbreak came and went. What never changed was the bond she shared with her two best friends, Effa Commander and Whippy Bird. When scandal, murder, and betrayal made a legend of May Anna, only Effa Commander and Whippy Bird could set the record straight.

Sandra Dallas is one of my new favorite authors.  I think this makes the fourth of her books I’ve read in the last few months.  She tells a good story and her specialty is friendship. She understands relationship and writes them well.

4 Stars (Rated PG – for adult situations)

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

A riveting historical narrative of the heart-stopping events surrounding the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The anchor of The O'Reilly Factor recounts one of the most dramatic stories in American history—how one gunshot changed the country forever. In the spring of 1865, the bloody saga of America's Civil War finally comes to an end after a series of increasingly harrowing battles. President Abraham Lincoln's generous terms for Robert E. Lee's surrender are devised to fulfill Lincoln's dream of healing a divided nation, with the former Confederates allowed to reintegrate into American society. But one man and his band of murderous accomplices, perhaps reaching into the highest ranks of the U.S. government, are not appeased.

In the midst of the patriotic celebrations in Washington D.C., John Wilkes Booth—charismatic ladies' man and impenitent racist—murders Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre. A furious manhunt ensues and Booth immediately becomes the country's most wanted fugitive. Lafayette C. Baker, a smart but shifty New York detective and former Union spy, unravels the string of clues leading to Booth, while federal forces track his accomplices. The thrilling chase ends in a fiery shootout and a series of court-ordered executions—including that of the first woman ever executed by the U.S. government, Mary Surratt. Featuring some of history's most remarkable figures, vivid detail, and page-turning action, Killing Lincoln is history that reads like a thriller.

Extremely interesting and extremely readable.  Do not miss this book just because you don’t like Bill O’Reilly.  There are none of his politics in it.  I learned a lot that I did not know about the Civil War (it just covers the last few days), Lincoln and the conspiracy concerning his death (I didn’t know that there WAS a conspiracy). 

5 Stars (Rated PG – gory war and death details)

One Day by David Nicholls

Emma and Dexter meet for the first time on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways. So where will they be on this one day next year? And the year after that? And every year that follows? Twenty years, two people, ONE DAY.

I think I expected more than I got.  We follow Emma and Dexter for twenty years…if felt like twenty years to get through the first half of the book.  The second half was more interesting but I didn’t like the way the book ended.

3 stars (Rated R – Too much sex)

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

A hero with an incredible talent...for breaking things. A life-or-death rescue a bag of sand. A fearsome threat from a powerful secret network...the evil Librarians.

Alcatraz Smedry doesn't seem destined for anything but disaster. On his 13th birthday he receives a bag of sand, which is quickly stolen by the cult of evil Librarians plotting to take over the world. The sand will give the Librarians the edge they need to achieve world domination. Alcatraz must stop them! infiltrating the local library, armed with nothing but eyeglasses and a talent for klutziness.

What a fund read!  Great themes for children to discuss…families, good vs. evil, shifting paradigms, how important books can be and more. 
4 stars (Rated G)

Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah

Meredith and Nina Whitson are as different as sisters can be. One stayed at home to raise her children and manage the family apple orchard: the other followed a dream and traveled the world to become a famous photojournalist. But when their beloved father falls ill, Meredith and Nina find themselves together again, standing alongside their cold, disapproving mother, Anya, who even now, offers no comfort to her daughters. As children, the only connection between them was the Russian fairy tale Anya sometimes told the girls at night. On his deathbed, their father extracts a promise from the women in his life: the fairy tale will be told one last time - and all the way to the end. Thus begins an unexpected journey into the truth of Anya's life in war-torn Leningrad, more than five decades ago. Alternating between the past and present, Meredith and Nina will finally hear the singular, harrowing story of their mother's life, and what they learn is a secret so terrible and terrifying that it will shake the very foundation of their family and change who they believe they are.

Kristen Hannah is a master at human emotions. This is an amazing story of the relationships that exist in families. The historical aspect that takes place in Russia is fascinating.  Great Read!

4 stars (Rated PG-13 for some sex)

Papa Married a Mormon by John D. Fitzgerald

Born in Price, Utah, in 1907 to a Scandinavian Mormon mother and an Irish Catholic father, he grew up influenced by both cultures. He left Utah behind at age eighteen, working at such varied jobs as playing in a jazz band, working in a bank, and serving as an overseas newspaper correspondent. At the time of his first break into the national literary scene, he was a purchaser for a steel company in California. Fitzgerald began writing Papa Married a Mormon, a family history about his boyhood, to fulfill a promise made to his mother on her death-bed. She implored him to tell the story of those who settled the west. Not so much a story of the Mormons, but of the people themselves – specifically Fitzgerald’s family and members of the Mormon/Gentile community in which they lived.

Set in the fictional southern Utah community of Adenville, Fitzgerald creates a nostalgic picture of small town life in early 1900s. The story tells of the conflicts between the Mormons and gentiles within the community, and how leaders on both sides managed to unify the town, despite their differences and animosities. Because many parts of the book are similar in prose to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn novels, Papa Married a Mormon fits the mold of a Victorian look at an era long gone.

This is an interesting look at the Mormon community from someone on the outside without it being anti.  Wonderful story to read to family but be warned; there is some of the “Wild West shoot-em-up cowboy” scenes and a few “fallen women” too.  I read this for one of my book clubs and it was a unanimous success.  We all loved it!

 4 Stars (Rated PG for the reasons listed above.)

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).

Over the years I have read many of Bill Bryson’s books.  He is the reason I have added the “Travel Book” genre to the list of my favorites.  There is a section in this book that tells a story of one night on the Appalachian Trail when Mr. Bryson thought there was a bear outside of his tent.  The scene is soooo funny that the first time I read it, it literally made me pee my pants.  He has a very humorous way of observing the absurdities of life around us.  On my second reading (this time) of this book, I looked beyond the humor and found a lyrical writer.  Some of his descriptions of the nature around him transported me to his surroundings and I could visualize the panorama through his words.  He also tells snippets of history that thoroughly interesting and entertaining. 

 4 Stars (Rated – PG for infrequent “frat-boy” talk)