Mini-Reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 2

Dinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family TableDinner: A Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table by Jenny Rosenstrach
Published by Ecco

Blogger Jenny Rosenstrach has finally decided to put together the story of how she came to be the incredible cook she is, why she values family dinner time so much, and how the average person with a million things to do and a job and a life and kids can make it happen, too.

I feel like it’s not even fair for me to review this book because I haven’t actually cooked anything from it (yet) but I LOVED it so much that I have to share it with all of you! There’s a lot more to this book than family recipes – although there are a ton of those, of course. It’s full of advice and helpful hints and tips and tricks and ways to simplify cooking and dinner so that it’s doable for any family of any size and any level of busyness. Also, the author tells her own story, allowing the reader to get to know Rosenstrach herself – and she seems like a pretty awesome person, I must tell you. I unfortunately got this from the library and had to return it before I could cook something from it, but I plan to check it out again very soon and make something. All of her recipes are in the easy-to-medium range and I feel confident that I can make just about anything in this book. I’m very excited to try something!

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's EliteWithout You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
Published by Crown
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Journalist Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary/teacher at one of North Korea’s most exclusive and elite universities, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, for six months. Her memoir of her time there is fascinating and incredibly sad. I am honestly shocked and baffled that there is a country in the world, that RIGHT NOW, is this way. These people are so repressed, so completely in servitude to their Dear Leader, so unknowledgable about the world around them, it truly baffles the mind. I don’t have much to say about this one other than that it should be required reading for anyone who cares at all about the world, and please read it for yourself to understand what I mean. Craziness, folks, is what this is.

A Share in Death (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James, #1)A Share in Death by Deborah Crombie
Published by Avon

This book is the first in a long series about Scottish detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. Everyone raves about this series so I thought I’d finally give it a try. A Share in Death takes place at a vacation cottage where Kincaid is trying to relax and take his mind off work, when a gentleman who works there is killed, and of course Kincaid can’t help but get involved in trying to solve the murder.

I liked this book well enough but wasn’t wowed by it. I think because so many people LOVE this series I was expecting a little more. It was your average mystery to me, nothing too special. I liked the characters, though, and I can see how there will be chemistry between Kincaid and James going forward, so I may continue with the series at some point. It’s just disappointing when you go into a book expecting to be blown away and it doesn’t happen.

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French
Published by Viking Adult

From the publisher:

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

The level of excitement that I feel when Tana French publishes a new novel can’t quite be explained. I think she is so incredible, so thoughtful in her plotting and characterizations, so insightful with how she uses her characters and their motivations to tell a story, I can’t get enough of her.

There was so much about this book I loved. The fact that teenagers were in the spotlight here was something different from her previous novels and a welcome surprise. Who among us bookish people doesn’t appreciate a good boarding school drama? Although, to be honest, these teenagers certainly got on my last nerve more than once. Since I don’t have a teenager at home, I’m not as familiar with their particular mess of anxiety, self-hatred, overconfidence, bitchiness, etc., but friends of mine with teen daughters say that French was spot on with these girls.

I liked Stephen a lot and appreciated his relationship with Conway. I’m REALLY hoping Antoinette Conway gets to be the focus of French’s next book – while I liked Stephen, it’s possible I found her slightly more compelling than him. I liked how well French got Stephen’s personal feelings about Mackey and Mackey’s daughter mixed into this story and how it was clear that his relationship with Mackey was clouding his judgement about Holly. It was just enough to make me question a LOT of where my own head was at with this story.

In the end, the culprit was not the person I had guessed, but looking back it would have been easy to figure out if I was looking for the right clues. (And if I was even remotely good at guessing these things, when in fact I am not.) I loved The Secret Place, just as I’ve loved all of her novels, and even an imperfect Tana French is almost perfect for me. Highly recommended!

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Published by Mulholland Books

From the publisher:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…

Robert Galbraith, AKA J.K. Rowling, has done it again – written an engaging, thoughtful, suspenseful mystery with fully realized, interesting characters, and overall created another novel that I just could NOT put down.

The Silkworm is darker, grittier, and more gruesome than the first book in this series, but weirdly the gore didn’t bother me (much). It felt appropriate to the story and I didn’t feel that it was gratuitous at all. But I feel it’s important to warn you – there is some gross stuff happening here. The details of Quine’s murder and exactly how he was murdered are pretty horrific, but you’d just have to read the book to understand that it fit the context of Quine’s personality and his life and everything just right.

I don’t even know what to say about The Silkworm, I just enjoyed it SO much. Besides the suspense of trying to figure out the murderer (and it was quite suspenseful, there were LOTS of possible suspects with valid motives), I just loved getting to know Strike and Robin more and I loved the inside look into publishing – something it’s clear Rowling has lots of personal experience with. The way Strike and Robin are developing as characters throughout this series, so far at least, is perfection in my book. The reader is given some of them, but not too much, enough to intrigue and keep reading and keep hoping to get to know them better as the series progresses. The relationship between the two of them took an interesting course in this book but I trust Rowling not to steer them wrong. I also loved how much more involved Robin was in the private investigating, as it definitely seems like she’s going to figure even more prominently in Strike’s practice as this series continues.

I just loved The Silkworm and there’s not much else I can say about it. Galbraith is Rowling at her absolute finest and I’m so excited to continue reading these books.

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Published by Mulholland Books

From the publisher:

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.

I’m one of those people who only considered reading The Cuckoo’s Calling once it was revealed that Robert Galbraith is actually a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I am also one of those people who MUST read everything Rowling writes, so there you go – obviously at some point, I had to get to reading this book. And I’m incredibly happy that I did, because although it might be my bias that leads me to believe J.K. Rowling can do no wrong, she solidified that once again with this fantastic and wonderfully written mystery.

Despite everything that is unfortunate about Strike, I couldn’t help finding him incredibly endearing. His life is just SO depressing, and yet he continues to put his blinders on and never really deals with the real issues in front of him. The fact that Bristow asked him to take this case is a complete miracle and exactly the thing he needed to get his mind off all of his failings and faults – so the fact that he ran into the opportunity full steam ahead was something I absolutely loved. I read someone (can’t remember who, tell me if it’s you!) compare him to a smaller in size, non-magical Hagrid, and oh my goodness I can totally see this and I love the comparison. He’s just so unappealing as to make himself appeal to me – does that make sense?

I also loved Robin, Srike’s temporary assistant, who over time grew just as invested in the murder as Strike did. I actually thought her character could have been used a little more to further the story and so I’m excited to see where Galbraith takes her in the next installment of this series.

Murder mysteries aren’t totally my thing, although I do enjoy the ones I read, so I don’t have the experience to be very critical of the specifics of the plot in The Cuckoo’s Calling, but I will say that I thought it was well done. Maybe I’m naive, but I definitely didn’t see the ending coming, but I do think, looking back, that the clues were placed in such a way that it was possible to guess the killer, which I think is kind of the point of these kinds of books. Although maybe I’m wrong about that? You can see my unfamiliarity with this kind of read – but whatever, I really loved where the book went and I was kept on my toes the entire time.

Where Rowling always shines, and continues to do so in The Cuckoo’s Calling, is her incredible writing and great characters. As always, her writing is super descriptive, to the point that I can picture characters, scenes, and events in my mind with crystal clarity. And as I’ve already said, I found these characters incredibly interesting and well-drawn. I couldn’t put this book down and I’m anxious to read The Silkworm, the next book in the series. No matter what name Rowling writes under, her talent truly shone through here for me and I’m so glad I got to discover another batch of her excellent characters with this novel!

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs, #1)Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Penguin

From the publisher:

Maisie Dobbs isn’t just any young housemaid. Through her own natural intelligence—and the patronage of her benevolent employers—she works her way into college at Cambridge. When World War I breaks out, Maisie goes to the front as a nurse. It is there that she learns that coincidences are meaningful and the truth elusive. After the War, Maisie sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment, seemingly an ordinary infidelity case, soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets, which will force Maisie to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind.

The Maisie Dobbs series has been a favorite among book bloggers, which is why the first two books have been on my shelves for years. When I finally dug into the first installment, I could see why bloggers have been delighted by Maisie – I was definitely charmed by her intelligence and pluck – but at the same time, I was slightly underwhelmed by the overall experience of reading the novel.

The best way I can think to describe Maisie is a grown-up Nancy Drew. The mystery, while being of a serious nature, is relatively tame overall, and the plot and getting to the bottom of things isn’t very complex. Maisie is extremely smart, driven, and will do just about anything to get to the truth, and since the book has a historical setting, these qualities weren’t exactly encouraged in women at that time, making her even more fun to read about and get to know.

There’s a love story intertwined with the mystery, and I think that was a nice departure from the rest of the novel – Winspear struck a good balance between solving the mystery and giving the reader adequate insight into Maisie’s life before becoming a private investigator. The war setting is a compelling one, too, as we learn just how deeply Maisie and those around her were affected by it.

I think because I was expecting a lot from this novel, it didn’t quite live up to what I was hoping for. But I still enjoyed Maisie Dobbs and will probably continue with the series. I think as I get to know the character of Maisie, her story and the mysteries she solves might become more compelling.

This House is Haunted by John Boyne

This House is HauntedThis House is Haunted by John Boyne
Published by Other Press

From the publisher:

Written in Dickensian prose, This House Is Haunted is a striking homage to the classic nineteenth-century ghost story. Set in Norfolk in 1867, Eliza Caine responds to an ad for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives at the hall, shaken by an unsettling disturbance that occurred during her travels, she is greeted by the two children now in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There is no adult present to represent her mysterious employer, and the children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, another terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.

From the moment Eliza rises the following morning, her every step seems dogged by a malign presence that lives within Gaudlin’s walls. Eliza realizes that if she and the children are to survive its violent attentions, she must first uncover the hall’s long-buried secrets and confront the demons of its past. Clever, captivating, and witty, This House Is Haunted is pure entertainment with a catch.

I don’t read ghost stories all that often, but when I do, I need them to also have good writing and well-written characters I connect with, otherwise I’ll simply get scared and want to put the book in the freezer indefinitely. I was super excited upon picking up this book and reading the first ten pages or so, as I discovered that This House is Haunted has both of those things. I was captivated by Eliza from the very instant I met her, and I absolutely loved Boyne’s writing – even though I anticipated hating it as I didn’t think Dickensian prose did anything for me – so while this book wasn’t perfect overall, it was perfect for me.

The fact that the creep-factor in this novel starts before Eliza even gets to the house added to my enjoyment of the book. Right from the start, I knew I was in for a sinister, twisty novel that wouldn’t provide easy answers. The kids are super strange and Isabella especially is like something out of Children of the Corn. Just NOT normal. I was pulled into This House is Haunted so quickly that I read this book in pretty much one sitting, racing through the pages to find out what exactly is haunting this house and why. And WHY on earth were these parentless children so freaking strange?

I read this for one of my book clubs and not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. A few of us felt that the ghost story part was too obvious, too contrived, that Boyne did way too much explaining, especially toward the end. Not everyone likes their ghost stories to make sense, I suppose. I totally get that – and I agree – but since I read so few of these kinds of books, when the writing is this good and the characters as interesting, I don’t really care. So the lack of ambiguity didn’t bother me one bit.

Oh! And I loved that just when I thought things were wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end, BAM! – so not the case. Boyne made me want a sequel!

I really liked This House is Haunted and can definitely recommend it. Highly entertaining, is what this novel is.

Return to Tradd Street by Karen White

Return to Tradd Street (Tradd Street, #4)Return to Tradd Street by Karen White
Published by NAL Trade
Review copy provided by the publisher

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love Karen White’s books, and the Tradd Street series in particular is one of my favorite things (as a whole) that she’s done. So when I learned she was coming out with another book about Melanie and Jack, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to read it right away. Warning – this will contain spoilers for the first three books in the series.

The book begins with Melanie, sick in her first trimester of pregnancy, and utterly devastated at the fact that she and Jack are not currently together (not that she’d ever admit that, of course). After Melanie declared her love for Jack, and he responded with “thank you”, she turned down his marriage proposal. Of course. So now she’s alone, again, in this big old house she’s renovating, when yet another ghost comes into the picture and demands answers – and Melanie, as always, answers the call and begins hunting for clues to solve this new ghost story.

I have yet to be disappointed by Karen White and this new installment of the Tradd Street series was another hit with me. I love the dynamics between Melanie and Jack – just when I think I’m over their bantering back and forth and not being honest with one another about their feelings, another book comes out with the exact same dynamic and I’m hooked once again. I just love these two! Add to the picture them having a baby together and things just got crazy, in the best possible way.

The ghost story in this book was another good one, the fact that it was about a mother and baby was that much more relevant to Melanie as she is pregnant and then gives birth herself over the course of the novel. The ghost was truly speaking to her, mother to mother, desperate for Melanie to uncover the secrets of the house’s past and let the ghost go “home”. The way the truth of what happened to this ghost was revealed was done slowly and expertly, as White knows how to do perfectly.

I absolutely loved the ending to Return to Tradd Street, and although it ended in a way that suggests White is finished telling Melanie and Jack’s story, there were a few hints at the very end that suggest that might not be the case. I would of course love another book about them, but I also feel satisfied with how this book ended so I’d be okay with the series finishing with this book. Either way is good with me!

I highly recommend this series of books for a combination of ghost story, historical old homes, romance, and a main character in Melanie that you can’t help but love, frustrating as she may be at times. Highly recommended – but start with the first book if you haven’t read the rest of the series!