Sunday, 29 July 2018

The Lost Vintage

Author: Ann Mah
Genre: Historical Ficiton (WWII)
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: William Morrow
First Published: June 19, 2018
First Line: "Meursault, Burgundy - Sept 2015: I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but the truth was this: I had vowed never to return to this place."

Book Description from GoodReadsSweetbitter meets The Nightingale in this page-turning novel about a woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy and unexpectedly uncovers a lost diary, an unknown relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II

To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine Examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, she travels to Burgundy, to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations. There she can bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian vintages and reconnect with her cousin Nico and his wife Heather, who now oversee the grapes’ day-to-day management. The one person Kate hopes to avoid is Jean-Luc, a neighbor vintner and her first love.

At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousins clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, behind a large armoire, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, some Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. Piqued by the secret space, Kate begins to dig into her family’s history—a search that takes her back to the dark days of the Second World War and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great half-aunt who was teenager during the Nazi occupation.

As she learns more about her family, the line between Resistance and Collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection?

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: If there ever was a book that made me want to grab a seat on the next plane to France and drink wine it is this book. 

Ann Mah, a Travel and Food writer and novelist, provides readers with stunning descriptions of the Burgundy region of France, its wine and history, as the backdrop to a story about a long-held family secret. 

The story is told using two equally compelling narratives:  Kate, a young woman in 2015 who is studying to become one of the top wine experts in the world and the other narrative uses bits and pieces from an old diary that Kate finds while cleaning out the basement in her family's ancestral home in their vineyard in Beaune, France. 

It's through this second POV that readers get a bird's eye view into the French Resistance and the harsh backdrop of German occupied France. The indignities, abuse and horrors that French locals lived through for years are vividly portrayed and Mah doesn't hold back as she educates readers on how female collaborators (or merely suspected collaborators) were treated after the war.

This book easily makes one of my top picks for 2018 so far. You don't have to be a Dionysus groupie to enjoy this well-crafted Historical Fiction read. This is an engrossing story about perseverance, the tenacity of the human spirit and family in all its complicated variations. 

If you'll only be reading one Historical Fiction this summer, let it be this one.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Believe Me

Author: J.P Delaney
Genre: Psychological Thriller/Suspense
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Double Day Canada
First Published: July 24, 2018
First Line: "My friend hasn't shown yet."

Book Description from GoodReadsIn this twisty psychological thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Before, an actress plays both sides of a murder investigation.

A struggling actor, a Brit in America without a green card, Claire needs work and money to survive. Then she gets both. But nothing like she expected.

Claire agrees to become a decoy for a firm of divorce lawyers. Hired to entrap straying husbands, she must catch them on tape with their seductive propositions. The rules? Never hit on the mark directly. Make it clear you’re available, but he has to proposition you, not the other way around. The firm is after evidence, not coercion. The innocent have nothing to hide.

Then the game changes.

When the wife of one of Claire’s targets is violently murdered, the cops are sure the husband is to blame. Desperate to catch him before he kills again, they enlist Claire to lure him into a confession.

Claire can do this. She’s brilliant at assuming a voice and an identity. For a woman who’s mastered the art of manipulation, how difficult could it be to tempt a killer into a trap? But who is the decoy . . . and who is the prey?

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 2 stars (ie. 'meh')

My Review: I was initially drawn to this book, my first by author J.P Delaney, because of the unique premise of a struggling actress being hired to ensnare cheating men. 

There is a murder and the now garden-variety unreliable narrator which leaves the reader to wonder the identity of the culprit. Twists are thrown in, the plot progresses but by the half way mark I was losing interest for a few reasons. The characters are categorically unlikeable, there's waaay too much mention of Baudelaire (and his 'Les Fleurs du Mal' BDSM poem) and I wasn't a fan of the sadistic slant of the plot. Not my cuppa tea. There's also this odd 'screen play within the story' aspect that felt forced and was more than a little distracting. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, my interest in the characters' lives and the 'who dunnit' aspect withered until I really didn't care how it ended. 

I was underwhelmed by this book. The plot had good bones with its twists and manipulations but overall the execution was shaky at best. Believe me when I say … I wish I had liked this book more.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Sharp Objects

Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Suspense
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 393
Source: Publisher

Publisher: Broadway Books

First Published: 2006
First Line: "My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly."

Book Description from GoodReads

WICKED above her hipbone, GIRL across her heart 

Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker's troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille's first assignment from the second-rate daily paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls.

NASTY on her kneecap, BABYDOLL on her leg

Since she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family's Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory.

HARMFUL on her wrist, WHORE on her ankle

As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims--a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.

With its taut, crafted writing, Sharp Objects is addictive, haunting, and unforgettable.

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Dark. Eerie. Traumatic. That about sums up Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn which is a disturbing, yet fascinating read about a dysfunctional family and the murder of two young girls in a small town.

In the past, the only book I'd read by Gillian Flynn was her mega-hit Gone, Girl and I'll be honest … I wasn't a big fan. But I'm so glad I don't hold bookish grudges because this was a great read!

In Sharp Objects, Flynn doesn't shy away from some meaty issues: psychological trauma, family dysfunction, abuse and a boat load of other sensitive issues. And it works. Readers are pulled into Camille's family and witness how their destructive dynamic continues to tie them together and understand why Camille's upbringing took such a toll on her mental health. Readers will feel hard pressed to look away from the destruction within this unique family and fans of Amy Engle's The Roanoke Girls will notice a similar feel since both books deal with a family scared by a dark history.

The only issue that brought my rating down was the ending. It felt too quick and glossed over issues I wanted more closure on. Otherwise, this is an engrossing read about dysfunction, with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. While this book isn't for the faint of heart, it is a captivating read and has put Flynn back on my bookish radar. I cannot wait to see the miniseries staring Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Gunners

Author: Rebecca Kauffman
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 261
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Counterpoint
First Published: March 20, 2018
First Line: "Mikey Callahan discovered something about himself when he was six years old."

Book Description from GoodReadsAchieving bold emotional complexity, The Gunners explores just how much one moment, one decision, or one person can change us Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called "mesmerizing," "powerful," and "gorgeous," by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with "The Gunners," his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally's death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: The Gunners is a story about six inseparable childhood friends who name their group after the surname on the mailbox of the dilapidated old house where they hang out. This group - Mikey, Sally, Alice, Sam, Jimmy and Lynn - did everything together until they were sixteen years old and Sally inexplicably left their group, fracturing it beyond repair.

Years later, they come together for Sally's funeral. Through different points of view, in two different eras, Kauffman shows the ups and downs involved in growing up within a tight knit group of friends. These relationships were wonderful, complicated and helped them weather the challenges of growing up.

This is a story about complex family dynamics and the effects of long-held secrets, but the main focus is on friendship and how, if you're lucky, the friends you make growing up will continue to have a special place in your life. These are the people who have seen you through tears, helped you weather family squabbles, stood by you after that horrific perm of Grade 6 and everything in between. As this story progresses, secrets are revealed, confessions are made and the bond, made decades before, remains one of the things that continues to hold them together. 

This is a feel-good kind of story that focuses on the influence life-long friendships can have on who we become as adults. If you're lucky enough to still be in touch with childhood friends, this book will have you reaching out for your 'oldie but goodie' friends and taking a trip down memory lane. 

Note: This review is dedicated to my very own Gunners: Beth, Nicole, Kris, Drew, Chris, Larissa, Barb, Kelly, Tracey …. I'm so very lucky to still have you in my life (and thankful that you don't have any pictures from the 'perm that shall not be named'). xo

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos and Other Tales From the Wild Side of Wildlife

Author: Lucy Cooke
Genre: Non-Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Basic Books
First Published: April 17, 2018
First Line: "How can sloths exist when they're such losers?"

Book Description from GoodReadsMary Roach meets Bill Bryson in this "surefire summer winner" (Janet Maslin, New York Times), an uproarious tour of the basest instincts and biggest mysteries of the animal world

Humans have gone to the Moon and discovered the Higgs boson, but when it comes to understanding animals, we've still got a long way to go. Whether we're seeing a viral video of romping baby pandas or a picture of penguins "holding hands," it's hard for us not to project our own values--innocence, fidelity, temperance, hard work--onto animals. So you've probably never considered if moose get drunk, penguins cheat on their mates, or worker ants lay about. They do--and that's just for starters. In The Truth About Animals, Lucy Cooke takes us on a worldwide journey to meet everyone from a Colombian hippo castrator to a Chinese panda porn peddler, all to lay bare the secret--and often hilarious--habits of the animal kingdom. Charming and at times downright weird, this modern bestiary is perfect for anyone who has ever suspected that virtue might be unnatural.

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: The truth about animals is that they're fascinating and most humans don't have more than a basic understanding of the creatures we share this planet with. Using her wicked sense of humour, Oxford educated zoologist, Lucy Cooke debunks myths about some of the animal kingdom's most misunderstood residents and shows the ludicrous and sometimes barbaric lengths humans have gone to in order to better understand animals. 

Think you know a lot about the sex lives of penguins, the antibacterial qualities of vulture poo or the just how well-endowed bats are? Well, think again, my friend!  

Cooke brings readers into the private lives of thirteen animals and shows just how misguided (and often downright wrong) we've been about animals over the centuries. While the research side got a little heavy in places, overall, she successfully balances the information (both ancient texts and more modern beliefs) with a healthy dose of humour and it is clear that she truly loves and respects the beasties she studies. 

This is an informative read but it's also peppered with truly hilarious anecdotes that will have readers giggling out loud. You can't NOT laugh about myths involving beavers pelting hunters with 'unique' missiles, chimpanzee farts, or be in awe of hippo suntan lotion or shocked by the special ingredient in some vanilla extract! (Yikes!)  But I know my husband was thankful when I finally finished this book because after reading each chapter I'd regale him with funny tidbits about sloths, moose (my fav!!), pandas, eels etc. The man can only take so much of my giggle-filled updates of all things animal, apparently.

Human arrogance, rampant anthropomorphism and ignorance has proven to be detrimental and downright lethal to many animal species. From hippos to pandas, to hyenas and the slooooowww moving sloth, Cooke's knowledge, respect and love for animals is evident and hopefully readers will become more informed about the unique and fascinating creatures in this bestiary so that we can better appreciate and understand them before it's too late. 

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Blood of Fire

Author: Marlow York
Genre: Fantasy
Type: e-book
Source: Reedsy
Publisher: Independently Published
First Published: January 8, 2018
First Line: "I was in the orchard, picking apples with the other Harvesters when it happened."

Book Description from GoodReads: Seventeen-year-old Valieri Fiero must flee for her life when her peaceful farming village is destroyed by the City, her clan’s powerful yet mysterious rulers. Haunted by the deaths of her parents and her older sister’s disappearance, Valieri must learn to survive on her own when she is captured by the Grakkir, a forest-dwelling Warrior race with rumored abilities to control god-like beasts.

The more time she spends in their world, built upon a foundation of strength and honor, the more lies she discovers about her own world and the City she once revered. But a fiery secret runs through her veins. Will she be able to harness this power and find her sister, or will the City stand in her way?

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the author via Reedsy in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: This is an impressive debut fantasy novel that will immediately engage readers with its well-paced plot, interesting array of characters and intense action scenes.

It's a good binge-worthy read that will immerse readers into York's fantasy world - a world that has enough similarities to our own to make new-to-fantasy readers not feel like they're totally out of their element, but gives ardent fantasy fans a little something new too. Readers will soon notice that the characters are different bunch and I was surprised when I found myself warming to a character that I never even remotely wished good will before -- Saven, I'm looking at you and your brethren.  

The other secondary characters, animal and human, are well-fleshed out and add to the overall plot but it's Valieri who will engage and impress readers as the main character. She has the right balance of uncertainty and drive as she learns to persevere after great loss and begins to see the world through different eyes. It's through Valieri that York addresses bigger issues involving society, the abuse of power and subjugation of others. These issues are woven into the larger plot and give the story a solid framework making this more than just a simple YA fantasy read.

The only thing that lowered my rating was the sometimes excessive self talk that Valieri would have in her own head or with Saven. The 'you can do it, just believe in yourself' inner dialogue felt long-winded when I just wanted to get back to the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The gorgeous cover art will pull readers in initially, but it's the well-paced, engaging plot and characters that will keep them glued to the pages. Fans of series like Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games or Joelle Charbonneau's The Testing, should enjoy this new fantasy series that brings teens, with much to lose, into the forefront of a world wrought with danger and uncertainty. The tension is kept high but it is the well-paced plot, unique and well-developed characters that will have readers eager for the next book to come out as soon as possible. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

An Ocean of Minutes

Author: Thea Lim
Genre: Dystopian
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Touchstone Books (Simon & Schuster)
First Published: June 26, 2018

Book Description from GoodReadsAmerica is in the grip of a deadly flu. When Frank gets sick, his girlfriend Polly will do whatever it takes to save him. She agrees to a radical plan—time travel has been invented in the future to thwart the virus. If she signs up for a one-way-trip into the future to work as a bonded labourer, the company will pay for the life-saving treatment Frank needs. Polly promises to meet Frank again in Galveston, Texas, where she will arrive in twelve years.

But when Polly is re-routed an extra five years into the future, Frank is nowhere to be found. Alone in a changed and divided America, with no status and no money, Polly must navigate a new life and find a way to locate Frank, to discover if he is alive, and if their love has endured.

My Rating: 3/5 stars (a good read)

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Review: I was intrigued by the unique premise of An Ocean of Minutes and by the publisher's comparison with The Time Traveler's Wife and Station Eleven. A dystopian tale, little time travel and a love story that asks, "can true love stand the test of time?" Yes please!

Buuuuut, the similarities between the three books is weak.  Yes, there's a flu pandemic (Station Eleven) and yes there's time travel (Time Traveler's Wife) but that's where the connections end. I wanted to feel more energy, heartache, passion and the danger of a new world.

I found myself slowly becoming invested in the book with its descriptions of the post-apocalyptic world and needing to see how things would pan out for the couple. But I had issues with Polly and Frank.  I didn't feel the love between them. A little dysfunctional codependence, sure. But a sweeping romance to stand the test of time? Nope. I wanted to crawl inside their relationship to understand what they were giving up, but the reader is kept at arms' length with Polly, Frank and the secondary characters. As a main character, Polly is rather dull, emotionless and quickly goes from initially trying to find Frank in her new world, to half-hearted attempts to find him to apathy which was more than a little frustrating. 

While it wasn't all rainbows and unicorns for me this time out, there were parts I enjoyed and found this to be an easy read.  Lim has a fantastic premise and I applaud her for how she incorporated issues of immigration, migration and class structure into her story.  But with more romance, a stronger dystopian vibe and more connection to the characters I would have given this book a higher rating.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Her Pretty Face

Author: Robyn Harding
Genre: Suspense, Canadian
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
First Published: July 10, 2018
First Line: "Phoenix - Courtney Carey, 15, left her parents' home in the Phoenix suburb of Tolleson on the evening of February 23 to meet friends, and has not been seen since."

Book Description from GoodReadsFrances Metcalfe is struggling to stay afloat.

A stay-at-home mom whose troubled son is her full-time job, she thought that the day he got accepted into the elite Forrester Academy would be the day she started living her life. Overweight, insecure, and lonely, she is desperate to fit into Forrester’s world. But after a disturbing incident at the school leads the other children and their families to ostracize the Metcalfes, she feels more alone than ever before.

Until she meets Kate Randolph.

Kate is everything Frances is not: beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and confident. And for some reason, she’s not interested in being friends with any of the other Forrester moms—only Frances. As the two bond over their disdain of the Forrester snobs and the fierce love they have for their sons, a startling secret threatens to tear them apart…because one of these women is not who she seems. Her real name is Amber Kunick. And she’s a murderer.

In her masterful follow-up to The Party, Robyn Harding spins a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal, asking the question: Can people ever change? And even if they can, is it possible to forgive the past?

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 2.5 stars (an okay read)

My Review: Her Pretty Face is a domestic thriller that deals with deceit, hidden pasts and whether people with heinous pasts can truly change. The book focuses on the lives of two suburban moms whose lives start to unravel as their pasts come back to haunt them. 

This was a quieter, fairly predictable read that I wouldn't consider an edge-of-your-seat thriller. The story is told via alternating points of view as well as flashbacks involving an old murder.  While there is no mention that the plot is based on a real-life crime, Canadians will easily recognize the striking similarities between a highly publicized, violent crimes that happened here in Ontario in the early 1990's. The book follows this notorious crime so much that the suspense suffered for those of us who still remember the details of Canada's notorious serial killers.

Overall, this was an okay, lighter read but could have been so much more with added twists, more complex characters and a stronger ending. While I don't consider it a thriller, it is an interesting look at whether a person can truly change after committing a horrendous crime.

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