Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand

The Matchmaker is the fifth book by Elin Hilderbrand that I've read and reviewed here on the blog.  I enjoy her books--they have a tendency to grab hold of the reader fairly quickly, and this one is no different.  If you click here, here, here, and here, you can read the previous Hilderbrand book reviews posted to this blog.  I could tell where this story was headed pretty much from the first complaints of "not feeling right" by one of the characters.  But when I tell characters to do something, they never listen to me, so this one kept putting off going to the doctor, which was really annoying.  Like there were several days when she couldn't get out of bed because that's how much pain she was in, and she still wouldn't go!  Then after three straight days in bed, her (grown) daughter says to her father, should we take mommy to the hospital?  And the father's all, oh, give it another day.  Dude.  This is why your wife stepped out on you--you're condescending, you're distant, you're disconnected, you treat her like a child, and when you should have hauled her ass to the hospital, YOU DON'T.  Also when you get towards the end of this book, make sure you have tissues, okay?  You will need them.  Lots of them.

Dabney hasn't felt right for weeks--she's exhausted, she has pain in her abdomen and her back, she's losing weight, and although she chalks it up to the distress and upheaval of her ex and one true 'perfect match,' Clendenin (what kind of name is that?  This dude isn't even a native Nantucketer, so there is no excuse for his name;) abrupt return home to the small island of Nantucket.  She hasn't seen nor heard from Clen for over a quarter of a century per her orders when he left which were to cut off all contact.  Meanwhile, Dabney's much older husband, Box, (I know his name isn't much better than Clen's, but at least it's a nickname taken from his middle name 'Boxwood') a world renowned economist and Harvard professor condescendingly and obliviously chalks up Dabney's symptoms to work stress.  Dabney's doctor can find no reason for the symptoms besides her mysteriously elevated white blood cell count.  But in order to run more tests to find out why the white blood cell count is elevated, Dabney would have to go to Boston, which she will not do.  This is because she hasn't been off island in over 25 years (!!!) thanks to a rather unique mix of OCD, paranoia, and agoraphobia stemming from her childhood abandonment by her mother and the conviction that nothing good comes when she leaves the island.  Girl. NO.  GO TO THE DOCTOR IN BOSTON FOR THE TESTS.  At this point I already know everything will end in tears.

Dabney has a special gift: she can match people with their one true love, and she has dozens of successful pairings to her credit to prove it.  But her gift didn't work for herself because Clen left even though she couldn't go with him and she knew he couldn't stay.  Instead Dabney settled for a life and marriage with Box the economist even though their relationship has devolved to being mere roommates/friends while his work and reputation takes precedence over their relationship.  AND Box (and Dabney's daughter) thinks her matchmaking gift is a bunch of malarkey and that Dabney shouldn't be meddling in other people's personal lives.  The only things Box has going for him is that he's a good father (even though his daughter's fiance has him so snowed that he can't see the man or the red flags for what they really are), and for the most part, he means well.  But when Clen returns, so do all Dabney's feelings for him.  And so the two begin rebuilding a friendship that a hot second later becomes a full blown extramarital love affair.

Complicating Dabney's already complicated life is the recently announced engagement of her (and Clen's) daughter, Agnes, to a man who is most certainly not her true match.  This Dabney knows; she knows the man is too old, too controlling, and she suspects that his charming exterior (that has Box so charmed) hides much more sinister personality traits.  Dabney knows it would be a colossal (and dangerous) mistake for her daughter to follow through with this marriage.  But previously sharing this knowledge with Agnes blew up in Dabney's face and resulted in a months long estrangement between mother and daughter.  So Dabney must tread lightly in the wake of the engagement news despite her determination to forestall and completely derail this marriage.  Normally I don't like meddling people, but this is one instance that requires a meddling mother--abuse is a dealbreaker, Agnes, and even though he hasn't physically battered you yet, girl, stop ignoring all the warning signs.  

There are some tension filled passages in this book involving Agnes and her fiance, and that whole relationship is thisclose to ending in tragedy, but pulls up short fortunately.  We have enough to cry about at the end, we don't need to cry about Agnes's ill fated love affair.  If you're expecting a happy ending, you should go read a different book.  This ending is bittersweet (with many tears).  I recommend this book to anyone looking for a good read.  Elin Hilderbrand fans won't be disappointed.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Silence For The Dead by Simone St. James

Silence For The Dead is the third novel by Simone St. James.  It was released in April, and since my reading habits have been hit or miss and otherwise sporadic when it comes to reading books, I've only now gotten around to reading it.  This was the other book I was reading when I started Without Warning.  I've previously read and reviewed St. James's two previous novels, The Haunting of Maddy Clare and An Inquiry Into Love and Death, here on the blog.  AND St. James will release her next book, The Other Side of Midnight, next April.  This book was rather terrifying, not unlike her others; however, the supernatural aspect was much more subtle, but no less scary and insidious.

Set in 1919 in rural England, Kitty is a young woman on the run from a bad childhood, an abusive father, and only God knows what else.  Thus, she holds herself out as a properly trained, credentialed, and experienced nurse in order to land a position at Portis House, a very isolated, very mysterious sanatorium for war veterans suffering from shell shock.  At Portis House, due to its isolated locale, staff and patients alike live on campus and its isolation and room and board make it attractive to Kitty.

Built on an island connected by a single, wind buffeted and treacherous bridge to the mainland, Portis House was once the luxurious residence of a wealthy Swiss expatriate family named Gersbach.  The parents Gersbach kept their family to themselves, rarely mixing with the folk who lived in the nearby village on the mainland.  But now the Gersbachs have disappeared from the mansion, having dismissed their servants and decamped to parts unknown.  The abandoned residence was then converted into the present mental sanatorium now home to nineteen shell shocked veterans struggling to recover their mental health in the wake of a brutal war.  However, despite its idyllic, isolated location and the still relative newness of the mansion, the structure itself has abnormally quickly fallen into decay in the year since the disappearance of the family  Gersbach.  In addition to decay, its patients' mental illnesses are exacerbated by the inherent darkness resident to the mansion that preys on the mental fragility and fears of its inhabitants.  Plagued by chilling nightmares, visions of a man who does not exist, mysterious noises in the walls and ghostly possessions, the already fragile mental stability of the patients descends further into madness.

Kitty isn't one to follow the rules, which is how she comes to meet and bond with the mysterious 'patient 16' a.k.a. the national war hero, Jack Yates.  Soon Kitty realizes that the house itself preys upon the men, that the Gersbachs may have never left the island, that the decay of the house is connected both to their disappearance and to the state of the present atmosphere of the mansion.  But Kitty can't solve this mystery on her own, so she reluctantly teams up with Jack.  The pair do some clandestine detective work, but before they can put the pieces together to reveal the whole picture of the brutality that took place on the island, a near natural disaster combined with a medical emergency further cuts off the sanatorium from the mainland, placing the remaining patients and staff alike in mortal danger.

There are some characters that I really hated--matron, couldn't stand her, although she is revealed to be a rather misunderstood character by the end of the novel; Roger the orderly and his beady little eyes were really nasty.  Dr. Thornton should have lost his medical license and been thrown to the wolves.  And Creeton was mean, nasty, cruel, and so angry, and I wasn't sorry when they locked him up and threw away the key (belated spoiler alert).

A thoroughly frustrating element of the story is the stigma attached to mental illness, the 'treatment' (or lack of) the men receive for shell shock, the attitudes of the staff towards the patients, while true to the time period, was extremely disheartening and heartbreaking.  The very people who should be helping these veterans are blind to the effects the house has on the patients' psyches.  And the so-called doctor responsible for the care and recovery of these men can't be bothered to learn their names, take proper notes during group sessions, or show a modicum of compassion.  One wonders about the true motives of the mysterious, absent Mr. Deighton, who owns and runs the place but does not live on campus.  And if the Gersbachs never left, why didn't anyone investigate their disappearance?  And how did the sanatorium move onto the premises in the absence of any present owners able to legally sign the property over?

I highly recommend this book.  Fans of historical period drama, ghost stories and mysteries will all enjoy it.  And if you haven't read St. James's previous novels, I also recommend them.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Without Warning by David Rosenfelt

I had already started reading another book when I started Without Warning by David Rosenfelt.  The other book isn't a library book, but Without Warning is, so I decided to read that one.  When I first started reading this book, I wasn't sure I'd stick with it.  Then after several chapters, the story sucked me in, and it was hard to put down.  I mostly wanted to see how the story ended and who the mastermind was behind the big crime and why the perpetrator was doing what he was doing.  I feel as if the whole motive behind the crimes was one of misplaced blame and rage.  It's clear the perpetrator is local, that he/she has spent years meticulously planning their revenge and that both protagonists know this person. Ultimately this person is hiding in plain sight under an alias.  And I kind of wondered why Jake didn't recognize the person sooner.

In the wake of a hurricane that has devastated a small, Maine town, the local newspaper publisher, Katie Sanford, and her managing editor, Matt Higgins, unearth the town's most recent time capsule that had been buried five years previously to check for water damage.  When they dig it up, they are shocked to find a human skeleton atop the capsule.  Katie calls in the local police chief, Jake Robbins, to report the decomposed skeleton.  The next day when Jake opens the capsule to check its inventory against the list that Katie has brought along, an extra unlabeled box of predictions is found in the capsule.  The predictions in the box are cryptic and tell of forthcoming tragedies that started the year after the capsule is buried.

The first of these tragedies is the murder of Jake's wife, Jenny, at the hands of her lover, Roger Hagel, who was Katie's husband.  The presence of this prediction re-opens the case of Jenny's murder, although Roger's eventual exoneration comes too late for him since the man was himself murdered in prison.  What is clear about the murders that have already occurred and were foretold in the set of chronological predictions in the unlabeled box is that each victim is connected to Jake.  In fact, Jake could be seen to hold a grudge against each of the victims although that wasn't actually the case for all of them.

Meanwhile, Katie and Jake have a complicated relationship.  The two were high school sweethearts who parted ways when they went to college, after they returned home with their respective spouses, the couples became friends.  However, upon the revelation of Jenny and Roger's affair and in the aftermath of her subsequent murder that friendship implodes.  Now that this new case has brought Katie and Jake back into each other's orbit, the two are pleasantly surprised by a spontaneously blossoming romance.  But their romantic entanglement is complicated by the case of the time capsule murders, and it must take a back seat until the case is solved.  When Katie suddenly disappears days after an attempt on Matt Higgins' life the pressure is on Jake to figure out who is targeting these people and why and what the person's endgame is.

Short chapters of shifting perspective help move the action along.  Despite the darkness of the story, the writing tone itself is light and at times humorous.  This is ultimately a thrilling page turner even if the reveal of the bad guy(s) and their motive seemed to pop up out of nowhere and was a little rushed.  And there is at least one chapter in which the copy editor really didn't do his/her job.  Harold a.k.a. Howard Novack, the newspaper's legal counsel, switches first names--in fact, in one sentence he is referred to by one first name at the beginning of the sentence and then by the other name at the end of the sentence.  Overall, there were several instances throughout the book that needed a tighter copy editor.  The incident with the name switcheroo really took me out of the story because I had to go back to double check and re-read it to make sure I was actually reading it correctly.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Delicious! is Ruth Reichl's debut fiction.  Although Reichl is a well known food writer who has published several non-fiction books, I hadn't heard of her before nor read any of her books.  I first read the excerpted first chapter of this book in a magazine.  I forget which one.  Good Housekeeping, maybe?  I enjoyed reading this book, and all aspects of food permeate throughout the novel--really food is almost another character.  One thing that bothered me was that we find out that Billie's given name is Wilhelmina, but we only know Genie as Genie.  What was Genie a nickname for?

Billie is used to living in the shadow of her older sister, Genie.  She looks up to her, she idolizes her, she adores her older sister, and Billie is more than happy for Genie to take up all the attention of everyone they meet everywhere.  Genie is smart, beautiful, popular, and perfect in every way.  As young girls, the two sisters started a bakery that quickly became famous for its delectable treats that were both visually arresting (thanks to Genie's talents) and mouthwateringly delicious (thanks to Billie's talents).  The sisters' partnership was a match made in business heaven, and the bakery was only shuttered when both girls went off to the same college where Genie continued to outshine Billie.

Billie quits college a year short of graduation, picks up and moves across the country to New York City to take a job as the assistant/secretary to the editor of Delicious! magazine (to be honest, that exclamation point really annoyed me throughout the book).  After her initial trial period at the magazine, Billie's position becomes permanent as she starts contributing articles for publication in each month's 'book.'

It's clear from the beginning of the book that Billie has run away from something in her past, and it is something that she avoids talking about or sharing with any of her new friends in the big city.  She's put physical distance between herself and her home and insists on keeping an emotional distance between herself and her family as well.  It's also clear that something has caused an estrangement between Billie and Genie and that whatever happened is that which caused Billie to run away.

Fortunately for Billie, she meets a motley crew at the magazine where she works during the week and is adopted into a second family at Fontanari's, the Italian, family run cheese and deli shop where she works weekends.  She's settled into her new life, writing for the magazine and building up a writing portfolio when that all abruptly comes to a halt when the magazine is suddenly shuttered.  Billie temporarily stays on at the magazine to answer its reader hotline, but for the most part she's become unmoored and uncertain about her future.  Then one day she unlocks the magazine's mysterious library and in its archives discovers the World War II era letters of Lulu Swan, a girl from Ohio, who corresponded with the legendary chef, James Beard throughout the war.  Billie works on a deadline to locate all the letters that have been mysteriously hidden among thousands of letters that span decades of reader correspondence.

The letters give Billie a welcome distraction, and they also help her work through the heavy and emotional baggage she's carried with her from California.  Together with a former colleague from the magazine, Billie works to uncover all the letters, the mysteries of why they were hidden and by whom, while she undergoes a physical and emotional transformation.  As Billie immerses herself in the mysteries of the letters, Lulu's fate, and the history of the mansion that housed the magazine's headquarters, she also begins a personal journey out of the shadows of her sister's perfection.  She learns that her sister had her own struggles about which those closest to her knew nothing.  As Billie learns some of her sister's secrets, she also learns to let go of her sister, of her grief, and of her need to live in the shadows, unnoticed.  She learns to embrace her own unique talents, personality and beauty.

Overall, this was a good book and a page turner while Billie's on the hunt, first for the letters, and then for Lulu herself.  The world of food, baking and cooking also added another dimension to a story populated with colorful characters.  I'm not gonna lie, I wasn't too far into the book before I figured out why Billie and her sister, Genie, are estranged.  And the slow burning romance between Billie and another character was another part of the story that the reader could see coming from the beginning of the book.  Despite, or rather partially because of these two elements, the book was hard to put down because just as much as you want to find out what happens to Lulu, you also want to find out just what happened between Billie and Genie and what happens with Billie and her beau.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind The Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! On PBS by Rebecca Eaton

Most people who know me know that I love British TV, and I watch a lot of British period dramas and British dramas in general.  I've watched Downton Abbey since the beginning, and I must admit that season 3 was losing me.  Then season 4 pretty much sucked me right back in.  Rebecca Eaton has served as the producer of PBS's successful and long running Masterpiece series that airs British period, contemporary, and mystery dramas each year.  I thought maybe the memoir about her experiences in this position would be an interesting read.

I actually finished this book a while ago, and I'm only now getting around to posting the review.  I don't normally read non-fiction.  For example, after this book I tried reading The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel, and I got about 60 to 100 pages in before I skipped to the epilogue and then ditched the book because I lost interest.  I'll just watch the movie.

Eaton intentionally writes in a conversational tone; despite this conversational tone, there are some passages that become tedious.  The chronology of events recounted within some passages can be confusing when she starts at one point in time and then backtracks in the following paragraphs to elaborate on how she ended up hiring a certain consultant, for example.

This is both a personal memoir and a history of the Masterpiece series.  Fans of PBS and Masterpiece will enjoy this book.

--Review by Ms. Angie