A Sudden Light

sudden

I adored The Art of Racing in the Rain, so when I had the chance to read Garth Stein’s latest novel, I jumped at it. Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity!

Trevor Riddell is about to turn fourteen, and he thought his life hit a low point when the bank repossessed his family home. That was before he learned that his parents were planning a trial separation for the summer. His mother returns to her family in England, and his father packs him up for a trip to his ancestral home, deep in the north woods of Minnesota – the Riddell House, the last remnant of the early 1900s Riddell timber dynasty, and home to an aunt and grandfather that Trevor has never met. Trevor has one objective for the summer: figure out what drove his mother away and how he can push his father into winning her back.

After arriving at Riddell House, however, Trevor finds himself easily distracted from his task. His aunt Serena is fascinating, manipulative, and hell-bent on finding a way to sell the Riddell House so she can travel the world. Trevor’s grandfather appears to be in the early stages of dementia, and though he has surprising moments of clarity, he believes his dead wife still dances for him in the ballroom. Against his will, Trevor is drawn into the history of the house and of his own family. He begins to research his great-uncle Benjamin, who fought against the idea that the Riddells should prosper by destroying the world around them. Before his untimely death, Ben struck a deal with his father about the fate of the Riddell House that has not yet been honored, and the consequences have reached right down through the century to Trevor.

A Sudden Light is a ghost story, a coming-of-age story, and a family saga. It has a distinctly gothic feel. Riddell House is massive and decaying – all stone and logs creeping with moss and ivy, and pillars made out of tree trunks still covered in bark. There are hidden staircases, entire wings of unused rooms, and plenty of spaces to hide things that shouldn’t necessarily have gone missing. Trevor imagines that an invisible fog of decay permeates the house, but he mentions several times that the house seems to be alive and breathing. The woods surrounding the house are still dense enough to get lost in, and though the house is technically part of a neighborhood community, it feels incredibly remote.

Stein really is an amazing writer. This novel examines some deep questions about family relationships, conservation, and spiritualism, but it never feels heavy. Every once in a while, I caught myself looking at Trevor’s narration and thinking, “I don’t know any fourteen year old boys who talk like that.” But the story is told as a flashback, an adult Trevor recalling one of the most important summers of his life, so his perspective is bound to be different. Sometimes the shift between Trevor’s summer at Riddell House and Ben’s story were a little abrupt, but both stories were interesting, so I didn’t mind it too much.

According to the note to readers by Trish Todd at the beginning of the book, this story originally came to life as a play by Stein called “Brother Jones,” which debuted in LA in 2005. I can’t imagine this as a play. I feel like so much of the development takes place inside Trevor’s mind, and several scenes (from the end of the novel in particular) would have been challenging to stage. This book was a strange mix of beautiful, creepy, and terribly sad, but it was a good read!

Happy Release Day, Deborah Lawrenson!

sea garden

Today’s book birthday is Deborah Lawrenson’s latest, The Sea Garden. It’s actually a collection of three novellas with a common theme. Sometimes, I have trouble appreciating novellas. They are so short that I usually feel like I’m just getting to a good place when they end. But these novellas are all connected, may I won’t have that experience here.

Here is what Harper has to say about The Sea Garden:

Romance, suspense, and World War II mystery are woven together in three artfully linked novellas – rich in drama and steeped in atmosphere – from the critically acclaimed author of “The Lantern.”

THE SEA GARDEN

On the lush Mediterranean island of Porquerolles off the French coast, Ellie Brooke, an award-winning British landscape designer, has been hired to restore a memorial garden. Unsettled by its haunted air and the bitterness of the garden’s owner, an elderly woman who seems intent on undermining her, Ellie finds that her only ally on the island is an elusive war historian …

THE LAVENDER FIELD

Near the end of World War II, Marthe Lincel, a young blind woman newly apprenticed at a perfume factory in Nazi-occupied Provence, finds herself at the center of a Resistance cell. When tragedy strikes, she faces the most difficult choice of her life . . . and discovers a breathtaking courage she never expected.

A SHADOW LIFE

Iris Nightingale, a junior British intelligence officer in wartime London, falls for a French agent. But after a secret landing in Provence results in terrible Nazi reprisals, he vanishes. When France is liberated, Iris is determined to uncover the truth. Was he the man he claimed to be?

Ingeniously interconnected, this spellbinding triptych weaves three parallel narratives into one unique tale of love, mystery, and murder. The Sea Garden is a vivid and absorbing chronicle of love and loss in the fog of war-and a penetrating and perceptive examination of the impulses and circumstances that shape our lives.

Top Five Friday: Young Adult Books

This summer’s release of the movie version of The Fault in our Stars seems to have revived the debate about adults reading young adult books. There are people who stand firmly in the “adults should be embarrassed to be seen reading kids’ books” camp, and then there are those who feel like YA is more easily accessible or relatable than “literary fiction.” There are also booksellers, teachers and librarians who argue (rightly) that they can’t hope to be effective at their jobs if they don’t read YA.

My feelings on this are similar to my feelings about reading romance novels – I think everyone should feel free to read whatever they want without feeling remotely embarrassed by it. Even though YA doesn’t make up the majority of what I read, there are plenty of books that fall into that category that I’ve read recently and enjoyed. When I was teaching, I liked reading the books that my students recommended to me so that we could talk about them. That’s how I read Twilight, Prophecy of the Sisters, and Wicked Lovely.

For today’s Top Five Friday, here are my favorite young adult books (or series!) that I know I will be rereading for years.

 harry potter 1. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. These books will be special to me for my whole life. Beth and I were just talking about how wonderful it is to reread these books and find references hidden in the early books to something that happens at the end of the series. I find something different to love each time I read them or listen to the awesome audiobooks narrated by Jim Dale.
 sweetness 2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Really, I enjoyed all the books in this series, but something about the first one was so wonderful and unrepeatable. I loved the setting. I loved the mystery. I loved snarky little Flavia and laughed out loud on a regular basis when she would talk to her bicycle, Gladys, or exclaim, “Oh, scissors!” when something didn’t go her way.
 trickster 3. Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. I know Pierce is prolific, but these were the first books I ever read by her. She does a really great job of world building, and somehow in less than 500 pages, I’ve gotten a new mythology, class and political systems, and geography down without feeling like I’ve been hit over the head with it. I thought the story was unique and really interesting.
 smack 4. Smack by Melvin Burgess. Unlike the other books on the list, this book isn’t fantasy, or funny, or lighthearted. It’s a book about heroine addiction, and it is pretty terrifying – not because anything particularly gory or horrific happens, although there is plenty of drama. It’s terrifying because it is such an accurate portrayal of a slippery slope, or the way that we talk ourselves into things. The message that jumps out of this book on every page is that, when we say we’ll do things “just this once,” we never really mean it. Somehow, Smack manages to drive home a powerful lesson about addiction, or really about poor choices, without being preachy.
westing game 5. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I’ve talked about this one before, but I read this book for the first time in 6th grade and kept on reading it on a regular basis afterward. Somehow it doesn’t get old for me.

Happy Friday!

Happy Release Week, J.K. Rowling!

silkworm

The Silkworm, the second mystery novel in Rowling’s “Cormoran Strike” series, will be released this week. Amazon UK and Barnes & Noble both say June 19, so even though I’ve seen different dates on other websites, I think Thursday will be the day.

I read The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first of this series, last year. I do like mysteries, but I’ll freely admit that the only real reason I picked up a copy was because the news had just broken that J.K. Rowling was the author (she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith). Her 2013 release, The Casual Vacancy, was a little disappointing to me, and I was hoping her newest book would be more up my alley. I thought it was great, so I’m really looking forward to reading her latest.

Here is what Sphere has to say about The Silkworm:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, she just thinks he 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 realises. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were published it would ruin lives – so there are a lot of people who might want to silence him.

And when Quine is found brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any he has encountered before . . .

A compulsively readable crime novel with twists at every turn, The Silkworm is the second in the highly acclaimed series featuring Cormoran Strike and his determined young assistant Robin Ellacott.

A Grave Matter

grave

In 2012, my mom and I kept seeing the same book pop up in our recommendation list on GoodReads – an upcoming release called The Anatomist’s Wife, by Anna Lee Huber. We mentioned it to each other so many times that I wound up buying a copy for her Christmas gift that year. She really enjoyed it and, naturally, loaned it to me when she was finished. I love historical mysteries, and this series has a really interesting premise – the main character, Lady Kiera Darby, is a widow whose ghastly husband forced her to illustrate his cadaver dissections for an anatomy textbook. After his death, she is considered a freak (or worse) by most of society, and she gets caught up in a murder investigation when her knowledge of human anatomy comes in handy. Different, yes?

The series continued with last year’s release of Mortal Arts, which was excellent, and the third book of the series is set to be published on July 1. Because Anna is a lovely person, I had an opportunity to read an ARC of A Grave Matter.

In A Grave Matter, Kiera is hoping for a restful holiday staying at her childhood home, Blakelaw House, in Scotland. During a ball celebrating the New Year, the traditional festivities are interrupted by the news that a local caretaker at Dryburgh Abbey has been murdered, and the deceased Earl of Buchan’s body stolen from his grave. Body snatchers and their crimes are nothing new in 1830, but this incident seems unique – the Earl has been dead for almost two years, and the robbers left his clothes and valuables undisturbed in his grave. At the request of the current Earl of Buchan, Kiera sends for inquiry agent Sebastian Gage to clear up the matter. But Gage’s arrival brings more questions than answers. This is not the first body to be stolen in this manner, and if this crime matches the others that Gage has been investigating, the Earl of Buchan can expect a ransom note outlining the conditions for the return of his uncle’s bones. Kiera and Gage must sift through conflicting bits of information that lead them to an angry antiques collector who believes a family heirloom was stolen from him, a botched elopement, and a crew of ruthless Edinburgh thieves led by Bonnie Brock. Nothing seems to add up, and Kiera and Gage know they must work quickly to catch the body snatchers before another set of bones is stolen – and before someone else is murdered.

This was a great mystery! Sometimes, I can see the end of a book coming, but this one kept me guessing. Anna keeps the suspense and the sense of menace running high. The relationship between Kiera and Gage continues to develop, and there are a handful of new characters that seem like they might become series regulars. Kiera’s big brother Trevor is great – I just wanted to hug him for the majority of the book. Also, Kiera’s new maid Bree seems like she will be good to have around when Kiera gets herself into her usual scrapes.

Sometimes there is a tendency with books in a series for the main character to become a static figure – a character that has things happen around them rather than with them. But Anna proves early in A Grave Matter that she’s not finished developing Kiera as a character. The first time Kiera assisted Gage with a murder investigation, she was extremely reluctant to get involved, and only did so to clear her own name as a suspect. The second time, she felt obligated to help Gage investigate since the prime suspect was a close childhood friend. This inquiry is different – Kiera finds herself wanting to be involved rather than feeling pressured. She is coming into her own as an investigator, realizing that she has a talent for the work and even enjoys it.

Also in previous books, Kiera finds a refuge from difficult times in her painting. After a terrible accident in the end of Mortal Arts, Kiera has lost her motivation to paint. It’s difficult for her to stand in front of a canvas and not be able to produce the kind of results that she has in the past. Kiera knows she has to work through this if she wants to maintain her talent, but it’s a struggle for her. The final big change for Kiera in this book is her dawning realization that she needs to find a place to call home. In the months following her horrible husband’s death, she has lived with her sister, Alana, and also Trevor for brief periods. While she appreciates their support, she is beginning to see that she can’t shuffle between their homes forever. She needs something more permanent, something that she can call her own. Kiera takes some big steps toward figuring out a direction for her life in this book.

I loved that Anna introduced us to some bits of Scottish culture in this book. The story opens at a Hogmanay festival, which is a Scottish New Year’s Eve party, and Anna describes the traditions like first-footing, the bonfire, and the ceilidh dance. Dryburgh Abbey, the location that plays such a big role in this book, is a real place – in a note at the end of the novel, Anna describes a bit about her research there. It’s nice to read a historical fiction book where the details of the setting don’t just feel like wallpaper that is only there to remind you, “Hey, you’re in Scotland in the 1800s!” Instead, Anna’s period detail is woven in throughout the story in a way that feels authentic.

If you haven’t read any of this series, I would definitely recommend starting at the beginning. If you have, I think you will really enjoy the direction Anna takes in A Grave Matter. I’m excited to see what she has in store for Kiera in future books!

Happy Belated Release Day, Deanna Raybourn!

twelfth

Lots of new books are out today, but none of them are as exciting to me as Deanna Raybourn’s release from June 1. No offense to Hillary Clinton intended – I do know Hard Choices was released today, and I’m sure if insider accounts of political events are your cup of tea, it will be a great read for you. But I’d much rather tell you about Deanna’s e-novella Twelfth Night.

I missed posting about it because Twelfth Night was released on a Sunday rather than a Tuesday. This seems to be the case with all of Deanna’s novellas. This is the third one she has published now related to her Lady Julia series, and it catches readers up with where we left Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane at the end of The Dark Enquiry.

The Dark Enquiry was the last new release in the Lady Julia series, and it came out in 2011. Many readers (including myself) have been wondering if Deanna has any plans to return to Lady Julia for a full-length novel. If you’re a fan of the series, and you’ve been wondering the same thing, definitely read Twelfth Night. If you haven’t read anything by Deanna, I would recommend either Silent in the Grave (the first of the Lady Julia novels) or City of Jasmine, her standalone novel from March of this year.

Anyway, here is what Harlequin MIRA has to say about Twelfth Night:

To mark the passing of another decade, the esteemed (and eccentric) March family have assembled at Bellmont Abbey to perform the Twelfth Night Revels for their sleepy English village. But before Lady Julia and her handsome sleuthing husband, Nicolas Brisbane, can take to the stage, a ruckus in the stable yard demands their attention. An abandoned infant is found nestled in the steel helm of St. George. What’s more, their only lead is the local legend of a haunted cottage and its ghastly inhabitant—who seems to have returned.

Once again, Lady Julia and Nicholas take up the challenge to investigate, and when the source of the mystery is revealed, they’ll be faced with an impossible choice—one that will alter the course of their lives forever.

Any time Deanna throws Julia together with a crowd of her siblings, things get interesting quickly! It’s a very good and very fast read.

Top Five Friday: Summer Reads

Wrapping up my week of excitement for Lauren Willig’s new release, That Summer, I thought I would devote today’s list to summer books! Some of these books are set in the summertime, and some of them just seem like great choices to take to the beach.

lost lake 1. Lost Lake, by Sarah Addison Allen. This is a great read about a young widow named Kate who takes her daughter Devin for a spontaneous and much-needed vacation to Lost Lake, GA. They meet a charming and eccentric cast of characters, most of whom have been spending their summers at Lost Lake for years. The cottages on the lake are owned by Kate’s aunt Eby, and when Kate realizes that Eby is planning to sell the place at the end of the season, she and the other vacationers know they’ve got a limited amount of time to change Eby’s mind.
 grown-up 2. A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson. It may be best to let Joshilyn describe this book for you herself: “Every fifteen years, trouble comes after the Slocumb women. Now, as their youngest turns fifteen, a whole new kind of commotion is chasing all three generations. Mosey’s desperate to know who used their yard as a make-shift cemetery, and why. The oldest, forty-five year old Ginny, fights to protect Mosey from the truth, a fight that could cost Ginny the love of her life. Between them is Liza, silenced by a stroke, with the answers trapped inside her. To survive Liza’s secrets and Mosey’s insistent adventures, Ginny must learn to trust the love that braids the strands of their past—and stop at nothing to defend their future.” It’s a mystery and a coming-of-age story all wrapped into one. Also, the chapters written from Liza’s perspective were fascinating. This book feels summery because, thanks to the southern setting, there are lots of descriptions of hot days and sunshine.
 south of broad  3. South of Broad, by Pat Conroy. This was my first Pat Conroy novel, and I read it with my book club a few years ago. I keep meaning to go back to it. This is the story of Leopold Bloom King, the eclectic group of friends that he gathers in high school, and the ways that they continue to impact each other’s lives (for better or worse) twenty years after they graduate. Conroy’s publisher calls this book “a love letter to Charleston.” With all the references to the beach and Charleston life, this is a great summer book (although, perhaps not for you, Laney).
 forgotten garden  4. The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton. This is (another) one of my favorite time-slip books. In modern England, Cassandra’s beloved grandmother Nell has passed away. Cassandra feels like she’s lost everything that matters to her, but then she finds that Nell has left her a book of strange and dark fairytales by Eliza Makepeace, a Victorian authoress who wrote this one book and then vanished. Cassandra decides that her best hope of getting her life back on track is to take her book of fairytales and revisit Nell’s past to answer the questions she’s always had about her family. A great read for any time of the year, but any book that has a garden as such a central feature feels distinctly summery.
 hundred summers 5. A Hundred Summers, by Beatriz Williams. Lily Dane decides to spend the summer of 1938 with her family in the oceanfront community of Seaview, Rhode Island. What Lily wants is rest and relaxation, but what she gets is a blast from the past: Nick and Budgie Greenwald. Budgie and Lily were best friends when they were girls, and Nick and Lily were a serious couple for a long time – until Budgie decided that she wanted him, too. Lily, Nick and Budgie stumble through a summer of awkward interactions, with Budgie trying to act like the past doesn’t exist and Nick doing his best to avoid both of them. Lily tries to understand Budgie’s betrayal and the many secrets that she’s hiding, unaware that a powerful hurricane is about to make a sudden and devastating landfall right in the heart of their town. No explanation necessary for why this one makes the list!

 

Happy Friday!

The Ashford Affair

Continuing the theme this week of my joy over Lauren Willig’s newest release, That Summer, I decided to post a review that I wrote for her first standalone novel, The Ashford Affair.  This book was released in April of last year, and it’s now available in paperback.  Lauren calls this book “a little Downton Abbey and a little Out of Africa.”  If you’ve read it and felt like the ending was just a bit abrupt or left too many questions unanswered (I’m looking at you, Mom!), you may enjoy this entry on Lauren’s blog.  She posted an entire final chapter of the book that was, to use her own words, “left on the cutting room floor.”  I enjoyed the extra peak into what was going on with these characters.  Below is my review of The Ashford Affair, written after my first reading in January 2013.

ashford

I won an advanced copy of this book from a Goodreads giveaway listed by St. Martin’s Press. I could not have been more excited. I am a big fan of Lauren Willig’s “Pink Carnation” series, and I have been looking forward to seeing how Lauren would write on a topic that wasn’t Napoleonic spies.

I was hugely impressed. Lauren’s story spans about a hundred years of one family’s history, with settings in post-WWI England, 1920s Kenya, and modern day NYC. The modern-day heroine, Clementine Evans, is an associate in a law firm and trying desperately to become a partner. She has put the majority of her life on hold for her job, and all she has to show for it is a broken engagement and the realization that her beloved Granny Addie is 99 years old and looking it. When Granny Addie mistakenly refers to Clemmie as “Bea,” Clemmie realizes there are a lot of things she doesn’t know about her own family’s history, and she decides to do some digging.

Lauren’s flashbacks to England and Kenya are great. I loved the way she described the feel of England entering the jazz age – one generation trying hard to pretend nothing has changed while a younger generation pushes fearlessly into new music, fashions and entertainments. I enjoyed reading about the challenges of trying to start a coffee farm in Kenya. Lauren describes this book as more of a “Kate Morton” style of story than her previous books, and I agree with that. Along the way, as we slip back and forth between time periods, there are hints dropped and discoveries made that add to up a surprising, very satisfying conclusion.

I thought this book was great for several reasons. First, my grandmother passed away six months ago, so I identified strongly with Clemmie’s realization that time has slipped away, and there are countless things she wants to know about Granny Addie that she never thought to ask. Also, I have always liked the style of story where a family secret stretches over generations and enough clues remain for one person to piece the truth together. Lauren did a great job with this. Fans of Lauren’s earlier work will enjoy a hat-tip to her “Pink” readers – one of characters we meet in Kenya is a descendant of Lord Vaughn and Mary Alsworthy from the “Pink” series.

I have really enjoyed all of Lauren’s books, and it’s nice to know she won’t be riding off into the sunset when she brings the “Pink” series to a close. I look forward to seeing what she will do next!

Happy Release Day, Lauren Willig!

that summer

Ok y’all, get ready, because I have been looking forward to this day for months. MONTHS, I tell you. Today, June 3rd, is release day for Lauren Willig’s latest standalone novel That Summer.

For those of you who do not know, I love and adore Lauren Willig in a way that rivals Leslie Knope’s enthusiasm for Ann Perkins.

Leslie Ann

I started reading her books about four years ago, and I own every one. She writes the Pink Carnation series, which are historical fiction and mysteries set in the early 1800s. The eleventh book in that series is coming out later this year.

Lauren announced recently that her Pink series would be coming to an end with the publication of book twelve in 2015. Although I’m sure there will be plenty of weeping and existential crisis when I’ve read the last one, I’m so glad to know that Lauren won’t be done with writing when she is done with Pink. Last year, Lauren published her first standalone novel, The Ashford Affair, which wove together the stories of a modern Manhattan girl with her grandmother who lived in Edwardian England and Kenya. It was excellent, and now I cannot wait to read her latest release.

Here is what St. Martin’s Press has to say about That Summer:

A page-turning new novel from New York Times bestselling author Lauren Willig, about a woman who inherits a house in England… and the mysterious past that comes with it.

2009: When Julia Conley hears that she has inherited a house outside London from an unknown great-aunt, she assumes it’s a joke. She hasn’t been back to England since the car crash that killed her mother when she was six (and gave her nightmares that have lasted into adulthood). But when she arrives at Herne Hill to sort through the house—with the help of her cousin Natasha and sexy antiques dealer Nicholas—bits of memory start coming back. And then she discovers a pre-Raphaelite painting, hidden behind the false back of an old wardrobe, and a window onto the house’s shrouded history begins to open…

1849: Imogen Grantham has spent nearly a decade trapped in a loveless marriage to a much older man, Arthur. The one bright spot in her life is her step-daughter, Evie, a high-spirited sixteen year old who is the closest thing to a child Imogen hopes to have. But everything changes when three young painters come to see Arthur’s collection of medieval artifacts, including Gavin Thorne, a quiet man with the unsettling ability to read Imogen better than anyone ever has. When Arthur hires Gavin to paint her portrait, none of them can guess what the hands of fate have set in motion.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, Lauren has posted the first chapter on her website so you can take a peek at it.

While you are doing that, I’ll be at the book store.