Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: Cherry Cheesecake Murder

Even if I've tired somewhat of the formulaic stories in Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen mystery series, I continue to check out the audio offerings my library has available. They provide an easy story to get engrossed in while walking on my treadmill. Nothing too heady to wrap my mind around; just a simple story with the added plus of some tasty recipes thrown in the mix (I always say I'm going to check out the hard copy of the book so I can access the printed recipes, but never seem to go back and do that).

In this episode of the series, Hannah Swenson, owner of The Cookie Jar and unofficial town investigator is excited to welcome a Hollywood production filming in her very own Lake Eden, Minnesota. This provides an added wrinkle to Hannah's already complicated love life (she is pondering not one but two proposals from the previous book). One of the members of the movie team happens to be an old college friend, Ross. No longer with his college sweetheart, Ross has set his eye on Hannah and attempts to woo her while they are together focused on the movie project (a woman with two proposals is a stretch, but add in a third beau and the believability really begins to be stretched thin). When the difficult director, Dean Lawrence, attempts to give direction to one of his actors to demonstrate a suicide scene, all are stunned when the gun actually fires and kills him. Hannah, true to form, feels compelled to solve the mystery and determine whodunnit!

The only recipe offered in this book that tempted me was the one for peanut butter and banana cookies. I enjoy a good peanut butter and banana sandwich and the thought of incorporating this blend into a cookie sounds enticing. Once again, I say I'm going to check out the book so I can copy down this recipe. We shall see if I actually do or not (although, I'm leaning toward not, since I'm still trying to shed some unwanted pounds prior to my blood lipid test). If my library didn't have the next few books in the series in audio form, I probably would give up on reading further (this is book 8 out of 20 in the series).

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Review: A Faraway Island

This was another situation where I checked out the second book in a series (Annika Thor's The Lily Pond) only to discover that it was a series book and I had missed the first installment. To remedy this, I sought out the first book, A Faraway Island. Although I couldn't secure this one in audio format (I enjoyed listening to the story that way for The Lily Pond), it was a quick and easy read.

In the summer of 1939, twelve-year-old Stephanie Steiner and her seven-year-old sister, Nellie, travel from their home in Vienna to a small island off the coast of Sweden. The two Jewish girls are expecting to be refugees there for only six months, until their parents can obtain the necessary paperwork for the family to flee to America. Lodging with a quietly, stern woman, and feeling beholden for every hand-me-down she is given, Stephanie tries to bear up under the weight of homesickness and anxiety for her parents.

I think my favorite part of the story is when Stephanie decides to walk across the frozen water all the way to the mainland in an attempt to get someone to hear her pleas for help for her parents. If I were a nail-biter, I would have been biting away. Unaware of the danger she is in or the path she is following, Stephie finds that she has merely circled around the island and returned to her starting point.

This coming-of-age book deals with displacement, familial bonds, the devastation and fear brought on by war, and questions of identity. I love the cover, with its beautiful photo of two sisters in braids (and cringed at the part in the book where another child accidentally-on-purpose burns the bottom of Stephie's braid, requiring her to cut her hair short). I love that the Lucia festival (something I participated in when my parents were stationed at a Scandinavian Salvation Army corps) is presented in the book. Another great option for a read-aloud if your children are wanting to learn about Jewish experiences during the war. I believe there are four books in the series, but my library doesn't have any more of the books available. Too bad, because it is a lovely story.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Book Review: Ordinary Grace

Oftentimes I cull titles of good reads from our book club's search for our eleven selections each year. In December, the leader gathers all our suggestions, looks up a few of her own, and produces a long list of possible books to explore. Ordinary Grace, a New York Times bestseller and winner of several other awards, was on this year's list but didn't make the list of book selections. This is a book that will stay with me a while, bouncing around in my brain.

Here are the snippets of story teaser that sucked me in: "New Bremen, Minnesota. 1961.... For thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.... When tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family - which includes his Methodist minister father, his passionate, artistic mother, Julliard-bound older sister, and wise-beyond-his-years kid brother - he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal..."

Of course, the title sucked me in as well. Even though sometimes you can read a book with "grace" in the title and find it has nothing to do with God's grace, in this case the story really did present a view on what is both called the "awful grace of God" and "ordinary grace." Although it is not a Christian book and certainly isn't proselytizing, the book causes the reader to consider God's role and response in our suffering. This is a coming-of-age tale where the narrator must grow up quickly because of the many things he sees and learns in the space of one summer. It is full of reflections on sin and suffering and the grace that can be revealed through these things.

I did figure out the ending long before it played out, but it was still an enticing read getting there. Moreover, I thought it portrayed grief very well. Readers will certainly be able to relate to the sentiments and emotions portrayed in these pages. In many ways, the words were delicious. I enjoyed the book, though not enough to label it a highly recommended book.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Book Review: P.S. Longer Letter Later

I've been in a bit of a reading slump. I simply haven't had any desire to bury my head in a book. Still, I know this occurrence is temporary. This too shall pass.

Thus, I could only rouse myself for a very simple book this time around. P.S. Longer Letter Later is a book co-written by the famous writers Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin. The book contains a story told in letters between two twelve-year-old girls, Tara and Elizabeth. It is my understanding that Danziger wrote Tara's letters and Martin wrote Elizabeth's. Together they create a world that tests the bonds of friendship and family.

When Tara Starr moves away, her best friend Elizabeth is determined to keep in touch. Thus begins a year-long correspondence between the two girls. Each girl pours out victories and woes to the other. For Tara, life is changing because her parents have become more responsible adults (they had her when they were both teens and haven't always been reliable). While Tara's world becomes more stable, Elizabeth's solid world is crumbling. Her father loses his job, begins to drink more, purchases things they cannot afford, and runs from his responsibilities.

This was a sweet, tender tale of friendship. I'm always a sucker for epistolary novels. I'm eager to begin the sequel (I accidentally checked it out first and then discovered our library didn't have this first book). It will be interesting to have the story move up to a more recent time frame, since the second book is titled Snail Mail No More.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Review: Love Letters

I've been enjoying Debbie Macomber's Rose Harbor Inn series. The stories, while simple, are pleasantly engaging and always uplifting. Once again, in this third installment, Macomber manages to weave a few stories of reconciliation and healing.

While the inn's owner, Jo Marie, is busy trying to ferret out more information about her mysterious handyman, Mark Taylor, she also plays hostess to several visitors at the inn. The young Ellie Reynolds comes to Cedar Cove on a mission her mother fears is destined for danger. She is meeting, in person, a man she met on the Internet. Her over-controlling mother phones repeatedly to make sure that Ellie is safe and secure, but neither Ellie or her mother are prepared for the events this meeting sets into motion.

Maggie and Roy Porter have come to the inn for a weekend away in the hopes of restoring their crumbling marriage. With hurts on both sides, they attempt to reconcile and forge a better relationship. Before they can do that, they are presented with a bit of news that threatens to shake the very foundations on which they are attempting to rebuild their marriage.

In each of these stories, including Jo Marie's own story, love letters are exchanged bearing expressions of love forged in difficulties. These written words hold the power to provide healing. Sadly, the letters have to be received and fully believed in order to work their magic. If you are looking for an inspirational series full of redemption and hope, you cannot go wrong with this series of books. I'm anxiously looking forward to the fifth and final installment, Sweet Tomorrows, due out on August 2nd of 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There

Generally, I really like Bill Bryson's books. I remember laughing out loud while reading A Walk in the Woods. That was a travel book. Neither Here Nor There promised to be a travel book about his experience travelling through Europe. I thought I would really enjoy it (enough so that I recommended it to someone when I was just a few pages in). I thought I would get a good chuckle here or there. I didn't.

Perhaps it was that it frequently descended into vulgarity and coarseness. Perhaps it was that I quickly tired of hearing about drinking sprees and lousy food. He seemed to rip on every country he visited for a variety of reasons. Attempts at humor left me feeling like he tried too hard. All of that sounds rather harsh for an author often lauded as an outstanding humorist.

I'm not ready to give up on his books. This just wasn't a hit with me. I wish I could take back the handful of hours it took for me to digest this book. I sincerely wish his humor had been cleaner and more appealing. I was really hoping for a good laugh or two. Instead, it left me shaking my head in dismay.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Andy Warhol was a Hoarder

This book, Andy Warhol was a Hoarder, is fresh from the presses. Our library acquired it in February. I could tell it was a 2016 publication because the author referred to the neurologist Oliver Sacks in the past tense (he died in August of 2015). My fascination with the brain and how it works extends to mental illness and how it influences our lives. This book promises to take you inside the minds of history's great personalities.

Author Claudia Kalb selected twelve individuals to present in this book about how various famous people would probably be diagnosed today. She explores Princess Diana's eating disorders, Abraham Lincoln's clinical depression, Frank Lloyd Wright's narcissistic personality disorder, Charles Darwin's anxiety disorder, George Gershwin's probable ADHD, and Einstein's possible Asperger's Syndrome (among others). Each chapter focuses on the celebrity and their accomplishments, then delves into their particular neurosis.

I especially liked one particular passage that spoke of the very premise my most recent novel is attempting to convey, that the world would be a very shallow place if it attempted to strain out all the irregularities and limitations presented by certain "illnesses" or "diseases." Where would our world be without the Lincolns, the Gershwins, the Einsteins of our past? What if doctors attempted to eradicate their quirks by medicating them for their ADHD or anxiety disorders? Would the medicine rob us of the great achievements such hardships and challenges often produce? Our limitations are part and parcel of who we are. This book offers a key-hole look into very interesting lives and the disorders that challenge even the greats among us.