The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

isabelBook – The Japanese Lover is a sweeping saga of enduring passion, friendship and reminiscing in old age.  It is also a tale of secrets.  Our central character, Alma Belasco in her 70’s has come to the realization that her health is failing.  Her personal assistant, Irina along with Alma’s grandson, Seth have been asked to help her write her family history.  They suspect that Alma has a lover, because she leaves her nursing home to go on secret errands every few weeks with an overnight bag packed with lingerie.  The story of a romance slowly unfolds as we go back to pre WWII, when Alma at the age of 8 arrives from Poland to live with her uncle’s family in San Francisco to keep her safe from the looming war back home. Feeling displaced, she quickly becomes friends with Ichimei the son of the family’s gardener.  Spanning over 50 years their love for each other remains strong, despite many separations including the internment of Ichimei and his family in Utah after Pearl Harbor.  The two manage to meet sporadically over the years despite children and spouses. Irina and Seth piece together some of the story by going through Alma’s correspondence and diaries. But Alma is not the only one with a mystery, Irina’s panful past is also revealed.

This is a lovely spellbinding, and bittersweet story. This book reminded me of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and you might also enjoy Garden of Evening Mists.  We have many of Isabel Allende’s other titles.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

indexBook – The opening of the book sets the tone of A Reliable Wife. Widower Ralph Truitt waits on a train platform in bitter cold blizzardy conditions in rural Wisconsin.  It is 1907 and the wealthy business man awaits his future bride, Catherine from Chicago, whom he chose from numerous responses to his newspaper ad seeking a “reliable wife”.  He is shocked to find that the photograph that she had sent him represented her as a plain looking woman versus the stunning beauty before him and it makes him wonder what other secrets she may be keeping from him.  Despite his suspicions, he marries her anyway due to his loneliness and his own ulterior motives. Catherine, haunted by a tragic past is motivated by greed and plans to eventually leave Wisconsin as a wealthy widow.

After the wedding Catherine and Ralph treat each other amicably. Catherine tries to be cheerful, though she feels trapped, because of the cold and snow. She also misses her fast-paced life in the city.  Sensing her restlessness Ralph reveals to her a splendid house on the property filled with treasures.  He had built it for his wife, Emilia and had not gone in it since her death.  Ralph also wants to find his estranged son to atone for the abuse that he had stowed upon him. So when some detectives have a lead that he is in St. Louis, Catherine jumps at the chance to go kick up her heels in the city under the pretext that she would try to coax Andy to come home to his father.

Things become more twisted when Andy becomes part of the plot. The gothic tone of this suspenseful story will keep the reader engrossed and the pages turning. If Hitchcock would have been alive, I’m sure he would have made a movie out of this. This book reminded me of Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Redwood & Wildfire by Andrea Hairston

imagesBook – Redwood is a girl with music in her bones and magic in her fingers, a born performer with a gift for hoodoo and witchcraft. She was never going to be the kind of girl who stayed home on the farm, but rural Georgia in the early 20th century is a dangerous place for a black girl in love with an Irish-Seminole man. So she and her lover Aidan strike out for the big city to get into the movies — Chicago, the birthplace of American filmmaking.

This is a poetic kind of book, full of enchanting twists and turns, beautiful vignettes of what life was and could have been like for people usually ignored by history, although it’s not strong on plot; if you want a strong story to carry you through, you might want to skip this one. But like a mosaic, the scenes in Redwood & Wildfire add up to more than the sum of their parts. If you love magic, romance, Blues music, movies, Chicago, and glimpses of joy that emerge from the struggle for survival, give this book a try, I think you’ll like it. (And if you do, don’t miss its science-fiction sequel, Will Do Magic for Small Change.)

Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998)

EverafterposterDVD- Danielle was raised from a very young age as a servant to her new stepmother after her loving French nobleman father dies unexpectedly. She has also inherited 2 step sisters. Jacqueline is a shy soft spoken sister with a true heart. Marguerite on the other hand is a loud, obnoxious, spoiled rat of a human being. Danielle learns to find happiness her life and takes care of her own. Unfortunately her evil stepmother sells her friend (another servant) to pay debts. Danielle decides the only way to get him back is to dress above her station and demand her “servant” be released and pay the debt owed with money she received from an impromptu run in with the future King of France, Prince Henry. The penalty for this crime of pretending she is more than she really is will be death. She must pull herself together and not let anyone know she is terrified and totally faking it. She catches the eye of Prince Henry, and soon they start dating. However he knows her as royalty, not the lowly commoner she truly is. Will he understand? Will he accept her?

This is by far my most favorite movie of all time. Yes it is a Cinderella story, but its not animated. I enjoy the story as a whole, but really appreciate the costumes and sets of this movie. I gives me a peak into the history of what life was like back in those days. I feel there is no one better suited to play Danielle than the one and only Drew Barrymore in this amazing fairy tail Ever After- A Cinderella Story.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

indexBook – The Signature of All Things is an epic saga of the Whittaker family that takes place in the late 18th and early 19th century, the Age of Enlightenment and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This work of fiction is a new venture for non-fiction author Elizabeth Gilbert author of Eat, Pray, Love and will delight readers.

Henry is a wealthy American import tycoon whose ambition left behind his life of humbleness and poverty in England. His daughter, Alma is bestowed with all the benefits of money; a good education and fine material possessions. Though she is scholarly and has a passion for learning about the natural world, especially botany, she is rather plain in her looks and socially awkward. Having lived a sheltered life, she is thrilled when almost middle-aged, she meets Ambrose Pike an artist, spiritualist, and dreamer who shares her love of flowers and plants that he expresses in his artwork. They soon get married and Ambrose whisks Alma, who has never been out of Philadelphia, on a ship to exotic Tahiti. Though the story reveals insight into the couple’s relationship, it mainly focuses on Alma’s love and impact on science and emerging theories on evolution. Well researched, this is a fascinating story, not to be missed about a woman who was well ahead of her time.

When asked about the title, in an interview the author explained, “The Signature of All Things is the title of a 16th century botanical/divine theory posited by a German shoemaker-turned-mystic named Jacob Boehm, who believed that God so loved the world that He had hidden in the design of each plant on earth some clue for humans as to that plant’s usefulness. (For instance: Walnuts are good for headaches, and are also—helpfully—shaped like brains).”

 

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

6174e2-23JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Sometimes, it’s easy to know from the outset whether a book will be a good fit or not.  Such is the case with The Gentlemen, a book about a vain Victorian poet who meets the Devil at a masquerade ball, accidentally sells his wife’s soul in exchange for poetic inspiration and consequently launches an expedition (peopled by his bluff adventuring brother-in-law, his scandalous sister, a shy mad scientist and a stalwart butler) to Hell to retrieve her.  If that premise sounds as delightful to you as it did to me, you’ll love the book; if not, don’t bother.  Simple as that.

Forrest Leo’s language in The Gentleman is perfectly Victorian, his parodistic humor is spot-on for the absurd, over-the-top story he’s looking to tell, and the steampunk elements of his universe are used sparingly and well.  While reading, there was a moment when I feared I would feel cheated by the ending, but I was happily mistaken in that.  If I had to quibble, I wouldn’t have minded a little more swashbuckling action.  Overall, however, The Gentleman was a delightfully silly, light, fast-paced, fun first novel, with a great and original premise, from a clearly talented young writer.  I can’t wait to see what he writes next!

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

17668473Book-It was a dark and foggy night. Gretchen Müller was in the car with her brother and friends when a Jew was seen walking across the street not too far ahead. Without warning, Kurt decides it speed up in order to hit the Jewish man. When that attempt failed, the boys left car with the sole purpose of beating the man to death. Why? Because to Gretchen and her friends, Jews were evil people. That is what Adolf Hitler told them and ‘Uncle’ Dolf would never lead them astray. Hitler was the man who took Gretchen and her family in after her father was killed saving Hitler’s life. They owed him everything.

But that night, instead of reveling in the idea of taking out the cancer of Germany, Gretchen found herself really looking at the Jewish man. His eyes were full of terror as he was about to be attacked by two members of the Nazi party. Going against everything she was taught by her parents and Hitler, Gretchen ran after the boys in order to stop them.

That night was the first small step on a journey of self-discovery that Gretchen goes on throughout this book. She takes her next step when a young Jew tells Gretchen that her father did not die to save Hitler’s life, he was murdered. In her pursuit of the truth, Gretchen learns some startling facts about Hitler and his party. Now she has to decide if her loyalties truly lie with Hitler and her family or Daniel, the Jew.

You can find Prisoner of Night and Fog on the Lincoln Award Shelf and on the Lincoln Award Kindle. Once you read it, check out the sequel Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

indexBook The Light in the Ruins is a wonderful blend of historical fiction and a murder mystery.  The story starts during World War II at the Rosati Villa in Monte Volta, Italy. The Nazis have a keen interest in an Etruscan tomb on the property and coerce the family into helping them seize Italian works of art.  Unfortunately, this cooperation and the fondness between Christina Rosati and one of the German officers is seen as betrayal to some of the locals.  What they did not realize is that the Rosatis also secretly sheltered partisans on their estate.

Years later in Florence in 1955, Francesca Rosati is found murdered with her heart cut out and displayed.  It is up to Serafina, a young detective to solve the crime.  Things are further complicated when the matriarch of the family, Beatrice is murdered in the same fashion.  The detective determines that this is a vendetta against the Rosatis and wonders if the family’s activities during the war had somehow triggered these killings.  It also appears that Serafina, who is severely scarred by burns received during the war, may also have had some sort of connection to the Rosati’s.

Heartbreak abounds during the war and as a result of the homicides for the remaining family.  The Villa is no longer grand but falling into ruin, since the Rosatis cannot afford its upkeep. The suspense builds as Serafina races to catch a murderer, before another Rosati is killed.

I think this book would appeal to fans of Kristin Hannah’s Nightingale and Chris Bohjalian’s other works such as Sandcastle Girls.

The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah

19367226Book– In the vein of The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (which uses Conan Doyle’s characters), Sophie Hannah has set out to write a new Hercule Poirot novel, with the permission of Agatha Christie’s estate. When a contemporary author sets out to reanimate the legendary characters of a deceased author’s canon, she has a tall task ahead of her and a lot of expectations to meet that do not apply to a wholly original novel, but I tried to be fair when I read her attempt.

Hannah does not do a great job of imitating Christie’s characters. For example, bumbling police inspector narrator, Catchpool (an original character), who exists as a reader surrogate for Poirot to be smart at, is afraid of dead bodies due to an apparently traumatic incident at his grandfather’s funeral. Barring how silly it is for a police inspector to fear murder victims, Catchpool is also gratingly incompetent and has all kinds of tiresome (if justifiable) doubts about his fitness for police work. Poirot is not rendered pitch perfect either. He overuses some typically Poirot-esque mannerisms, such as “little grey cells” and gratuitous French, but for reasons I cannot pinpoint, does not hit the mark.

Despite these complaints, I would still recommend this book. The mystery itself is elegantly constructed, with plenty of red herrings, and a beautiful resolution at the end. I did not correctly guess the murderer early on, which I typically do, and actually needed the scene at the end where Poirot explains the plot to everybody to wrap my head around how the murders went down. The Monogram Murders was a much better experience once I decided to read just for the plot, which is excellent, rather than the characters, which were not.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

13158378BookTop Chef meets Pirates of the CaribbeanCinnamon and Gunpowder is a fun adventurous seafaring tale that mainly takes place on a pirate ship called the Flying Rose in 1819. Owen Wedgwood is the renowned personal chef to Lord Ramsey, the wealthy owner of the Pendleton Trading Company.  The ruthless pirate is Captain Mad Hannah Mabbot, who murders Owen’s employer and has her right hand man Mr. Apples kidnap the chef.  Though the ship has a cook, Hannah feels that she deserves a gourmet meal once a week and tells Owen that she will spare him his life as long as he obliges her.  Though his culinary skills are extensive, even Owen is challenged to create edible fare with the limited supplies on board, such as gruel, rat meat, and moldy potatoes.  Though a prisoner, Owen dines with Hannah weekly and learns that her mercenary pursuit of another rogue pirate, the Brass Fox, might be for noble reasons.  As time goes on his cooking skills evolve with the help of provisions picked up along the journey and the reader’s mouth will water with the delicacies he creates.  This swashbuckling read is a pure delight!