I have a lot of books to give away, and that will be a separate post soon, so things don't get too confusing. (At least for me ...)
Back to January and February, though. Here is what I read during the beginning of 2014.
City of Hope, by Kate Kerrigan. I am not exactly sure what I think about this.
I won this book in a Goodreads First Read drawing, and the author was kind enough to send this along with the first book, "Ellis Island," which I read a couple of months ago.
In this book, the heroine of the earlier book, Ellie Hogan, has lived in Ireland for the past ten years with her husband John after leaving her somewhat glamorous life in New York during the 1920s. She has made a life for herself by having a few busineses of her own going, and is making a nice living. Even though they are childless (she has suffered several miscarriages), John and Ellie are happy in their life together.
When John dies suddenly of a heart attack, Ellie leaves his graveside service, packs a bag, and heads back to New York. She tells herself it's for a "holiday," to grieve and pull herself together.
The New York she returns to is in the throes of the Great Depression, and life is very different than when she was there before. With her money and some desire to help the homeless, she buys a house and invites some of the women and children to live with her. With her money and business sense, and word of mouth, she eventually ends up with several houses, a shop, and a name for herself. She creates a Women's Cooperative, where everyone shares the work and the profits. People come and go, problems arise and are resolved, she gets involved with a couple of men (one a former beau), and for all intents and purposes, is a success.
She returns to Ireland, where she visits her mother-in-law, trying to convince her to return to New York City with her. She also straightens out her business affairs, clearly not planning to return.
Of course, there are plenty of other developments, and the book is interesting. But I have had a hard time deciding what I really think about it. Ellie is a strong, independent woman, and she does help people. But she also seems incredibly self-involved to me. (Keep in mind that I am the Queen of Self-Involvement.) I'm not sure that I like her that much as a person, though I admire her ability to get things done. In the end, I think she might be too much like a real person to be appealing to me.
Having said that, I enjoyed reading the book, and seeing what would happen next.
All Mortal Flesh, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. I haven't read a book in this series for a while, and though I still liked this one, I didn't like it as much as the previous ones. Unlike most people, my favorite thing isn't for characters who are attracted to one another to get together. Sometimes it makes perfect sense, and other times, it just seems to dilute the premise.
Anyway, as this installment begins, Rev. Clare Fergusson is finishing up a personal retreat in a cabin in the woods loaned to her by one of her parishoners. A representative of the bishop comes to find her, to inform her that - due to certain "difficulties" (i.e., her relationship with Russ Van Alstyne, a married man and Chief of Police in their town, Millers Kill) - she is being assigned a deacon to assist her with her church duties. Clare isn't thrilled about this, but she is also relieved the "punishment" is no more severe.
Upon returning to town, she learns that Russ' wife Linda, who recently kicked him out of the house upon learning of his relationship with Clare, has been found murdered in her kitchen. As the story progresses, Russ is considered the prime suspect, though he is trying on his own to solve the murder. Later in the story, some think Clare is the murderer, to get the wife out of the way.
Several things lead to identifying other suspects, which makes Russ think that the victim of the murder was not his wife, but someone who resembled her. He begins trying to track her down.
As with any crime like this one, certain facts, secrets, and disturbing things are learned in the investigation about nearly everyone mentioned. Friendships become strained, careers are called into question, and gossip rules.
The ending is not all that satisfying, and the discoveries and events leading up to it were really disturbing to me. I know there are more books in the series, and I am guessing that Clare and Russ end up together. I'll likely read at least one more to find out, but I think for me they may become less interesting as a result.
The Hundred Foot Journey, by Richard C. Morais. I really enjoyed this book. Admittedly, I'd not heard of it, until I read an article about books being made into movies this year. Like most books, I think this will likely not translate as well to film, especially if they want to make it more "relevant" or "modern." But I'm not here to talk about the movie!
Hassan Haji and his family's story begins in their native India, then moves them to London after a family tragedy. London is not as kind to them as they would have hoped, and eventually they find themselves in Lumiere, a small village in the French Alps. They purchase a property across the road from a Michelin three-star restaurant, owned and run by Madame Gertrude Mallory, one of the most well-known and respected chefs in all of France. Hassan's father decides to open an Indian restaurant, which causes problems between the Haji family and Madame Mallory. She does, however, have an encounter with Hassan in the kitchen, and decides he is one of the rare people who are born chefs, and becomes his mentor.
Years later, Hassan moves to Paris to further his learning and his career, and over the years, becomes the owner of a very well-respected French restaurant, and an expert French chef.
That's the basic story, but it is all so much more than that. Hassan is the narrator, and through his eyes we learn about family, love, food, and what it means to be an outsider. His life becomes one lesson, one experience, one cultural shift after another, and he turns out having friends that change his life in so many unexpected ways. Throughout it all, his family, and in particular the memory of his mother, guide his way.
This is a really good book about family, food, culture, and how just one person can make all the difference in someone else's life. Though it is fiction, it's as engrossing as any memoir.
Also, the author apparently lives in Philadelphia, so that was a fun discovery at the end of the book!
The Diva Takes the Cake, by Krista Davis. I read this out of order in the series, but it was still enjoyable. Sophie Winston's sister, Hannah, is getting married again, and Sophie has done all of the planning. She is not overly fond of Hannah's fiance, Craig, but mainly because she thinks he is dull more than anything else.
The wedding weekend gets off to a bad start when Craig's ex-wife - who Hannah didn't know about - turns up dead in the garden of Sophie's ex-husband's house. The wedding is on again/off again, and more and more suspicious things happen. Craig seems like a prime suspect, but then Hannah insists he is innocent, and the wedding happens. Except another body is discovered at the end of the ceremony.
Again, not amazing literature, but this series has some amusing and appealing characters, and I find it enjoyable when I am in the mood to read but not read something complicated and deep.
Still Life With Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen. Rebecca Winter made her name as a photographer with a photo taken after a party at her house, called "Still Life with Bread Crumbs." Everyone in the art and photography world knew her work and her name.
She has rented a cottage in upstate New York to have some time to herself, as she is at the point in her career where she is "yesterday's news." Some still know her, but it seems she has had her fifteen minutes of fame. She takes the cottage to figure out what to do next - her bank account balance is low, she has a lot of expenses and a lot of people depending on her, and is at a crossroads.
The cottage leaves a lot to be desired, and she begins to think it's one of the biggest mistakes she could have made. But she meets some of the townspeople, gets work through an acquaintance photographing birds for the state wildlife bureau, and also comes across some small tableaux of white crosses that seem to be telling a story.
By the end of the book, Rebecca's photographic series about the white crosses have brought her back to prominence in the world of art photography. But just as importantly, she has been able to decide what is important to her, and how she wants her life to be. It is a tale of personal growth, but it also proves that when things start off less than stellar compared to expectations, the end result can make everything else worthwhile.
I Always Loved You, by Robin Oliveira. I was lucky enough to win this book in one of the Goodreads "First Reads" giveaway, and decided to read it during February.
It is a fictionalized story about the relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, told from Cassatt's viewpoint. Mary Cassatt is one of my very favorite painters (as well as being from Philadelphia), and I am also a fan of Degas. This story tells of their first meeting, when Cassatt is in Paris trying to make a name for herself, and Degas is already pretty well established as an artist.
Their friends and acquaintances are, of course, a who's who of literary and artistic Paris in the nineteenth century: Edward Manet, Emile Zola, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Gustave Caillebotte, and so many others that I recognized. This for me was part of what made this such an enjoyable read.
Cassatt and Degas become each others' best friend and harshest critics. He shows her new ways of seeing things and introduces her to artistic circles in Paris. She admires his work, and becomes his staunch defender when his often caustic personality offends others. We are also introduced in some detail to some of Mary's American friends, as well as her mother and father and sister Lydia, who come to Paris to live with her. The interrelationships of friends, artists, and family is really interesting to read about.
I liked this book not just because I found the principals to be interesting people, but because of their relationships not just to one another, but to their art, as well as their dedication to the desire to keep going even when success is not directly at hand.
French Pressed, by Cleo Coyle. In this installment of the Coffeehouse Mystery series, Village Blend owner Clare Cosi gets involved in a murder investigation when her daughter Joy is arrested for the murder of one of New York's most famous chefs. Joy is doing her culinary school internship at the chef's restaurant, as well as dating him (though he is a married man). When he is found dead and the knife used to kill him is Joy's, things don't start out well. Plus, one of her classmates was also stabbed to death, after he left desperate messages on her phone.
With her ex-husband Matteo's help, as well as her current love interest's assistance, Clare gives the investigation all she can, knowing that her daughter is innocent, and wanting to bring the real killer to justice.
This had an interesting cast of supporting characters, and was very informative about the workings of a restaurant kitchen. As most "worlds" are, the world of high-end restaurants has its share of petty rivalries and underhanded practices. Clare finds herself at one point dealing with the Russian Mob and their involvement with the restaurant business in New York.
A fun and entertaining read.
Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black. This was a slow-starter for me, but once it picked up, I really enjoyed it.
The main character, Quirke, is a pathologist in a hospital morgue in Dublin in the 1950s. He spent some of his early years in an orphanage, but was adopted by a prominent judge. His adoptive brother is a gynecologist at the same hospital where Quirke works.
When the brother is found in Quirke's office/lab, writing notes in a folder, Quirke is puzzled but also intrigued. He pulls the file that was hurriedly placed in the drawer when he showed up, and it is for a young woman named Christine Falls, and Quirke notices that it gives her cause of death as something other than death in childbirth, as he later learns. When he challenges his adoptive brother about falsifying the records, the brother claims it is so her family will not be shamed to find out that she was pregnant out of wedlock. Quirke becomes obsessed with finding out the whole story, as well as what became of her baby.
This leads to a series of weird, dark, and sad events, that reach from Ireland to Boston. Quirke learns some upsetting truths, about himself and his adoptive family, the Catholic Church, and people he thought he could trust. In the end, though, he feels that he found justice for Christine Falls.
An interesting story. I think I'd like to try another Quirke story, to see how it progresses from the first.
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion. This was a fun read!
Don Tillman is a professor at a prestigious Australian university, with a Ph.D. in genetics. He is socially awkward, and leads a very organized, scheduled life, and is quite happy with that life. His best (and only) friends, Gene and Claudia, are a married couple,with an open marriage (at least according to Gene).
Don embarks on something he calls The Wife Project. He decides that the best way to find the most compatible person for a partner is to go about it logically, and devises a questionnaire that is supposed to be foolproof. The problem is, it has not turned up anyone even remotely worth serious consideration. Then his friend Gene, who is helping him review the submitted questionnaires, sends a young woman named Rosie to Don's office. She is completely wrong and does not fit into any of the good categories in Don's questionnaire, but he finds her fascinating and before you know it, he is helping her locate her biological father (The Father Project, as it becomes known).
I found this book very entertaining. Don is a character that is amusing in a book, but could be frustrating to know personally. Yet, I feel that everyone has someone in their lives that is a pretty close match to Don. I think part of the reason he is so appealing is because he is so incredibly organized and scheduled, and though he is an extreme case, I can appreciate his desire for a life of order in this messy world.
The book is about finding love, finding yourself, and how understanding those around you and being more "conventional" does not mean you can't also be different.
I really feel that I started the year with some good books - I hope that continues!