I thought that I needed to do this last week, before too much of July happened, but forgot. So before even more of July happens, I'm sharing what I've read over the last three months, and what I thought about each one.
The Calamity Cafe
, by Gayle Leeson. This was an enjoyable palate cleanser after having the flu and not being able to read much of anything.
Amy Flowers left her hometown in Florida to go to culinary school. She returned when her grandmother got sick, and once her grandmother died and left her an inheritance, she dreamed of opening her own cafe. In the meantime, she and her cousin Jackie are working for Lou Lou, at a local cafe that has been around for generations. Lou Lou is a miserable person and a terrible boss, and finally Amy decides to resign, and also offers to buy the cafe and turn it into her own business. Lou Lou flat out refuses, but later that night, her son Pete calls Amy to say that he has talked his mother into selling, and asks her to meet them at the cafe.
The bad news? When Amy arrives at the cafe, she finds Lou Lou dead in the office. This sets into motion a series of events that cause Amy to wonder if she will ever be able to have her own place.
There are quite a few twists and turns, and plenty of interesting characters here. It was a fun read.
, by Jane Harper (thanks to Sally
for noting my mistake so I could correct this!). This was a good book. Very atmospheric and evocative, and even though there were plenty of characters, it was not hard to keep track.
Aaron Falk returns to the small, rural town in Australia where he grew up for his childhood friend Luke's funeral. Everyone is shocked because it appears that Luke killed himself, his wife Karen, and young son Billy. Only the baby, Charlotte, has survived. Everyone suspects the drought and loss of income from crops pushed Luke over the edge. Except for Luke's parents, who ask Aaron if he could look into it. Originally planning to stay just overnight, he ends up taking a week's leave from his job as a federal officer in Melbourne investigating crimes involving money.
Along with the newish local police chief, Aaron begins poking around. It's not easy for him, since he and his father were more or less run out of town when both were considered strong suspects in the death of a girl who was Aaron's childhood friend. So except for a very few people, those who know/remember him are less than welcoming.
This book was really pretty riveting. At the beginning, Aaron's involvement is more of a favor to his late friend's parents, but as he and the police chief begin looking deeper, there are more questions than answers, not just about the case at hand, but about the death of the classmate years before. What I liked in the story was that it wasn't a slam dunk, nor were things easy or obvious as the story moved along. On the one hand, you wondered why Aaron would stay and continue to work on the case (though not in an official capacity) when there is so much vitriol directed at him. But you also want him to continue, because as things go along, you just know that something is not right with the story so easily accepted about the family members' deaths.
I will definitely read the next book in this series.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland
, by Patrick Radden Keefe. This is an excellent book to read if you are at all interested in Irish history, particularly the conflict in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants.
In the author's own words, this is not an historical account, per se, rather it is "narrative nonfiction." Keefe has done extensive research and has interviewed many of the people involved and their family members. And he has written a book that details so much about what happened and continues to happen by focusing on individuals and their stories.
Primarily, we read about Jean McConville, a mother and widow who was one of the first of "The Disappeared" - individuals thought to be informants ("touts" as they were called) to the Brits. She was just taken from her home while her children looked on, not knowing or understanding what was happening. Many years later, her remains were located, but until then, her family had no idea of what may have happened. Then there is Dolours Price, who along with her sister was one of the first women to become an active member of the Provisional IRA, and who was a loyal soldier (so to speak), eventually disappointed with the Good Friday Agreement which ended the active conflict. Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein is a major character of course, but only spoken of and about, as he declined interviews for the book. But one of his primary associates, Brendan Hughes, plays a large role in the book.
I also learned of the Belfast Project, which was a secretive series of interviews with players on both sides of the conflict that were archived at Boston College, known only to a few people as even being in existence. Needless to say, the interviews contain very sensitive information, and because the entire process was not completely as legally vetted as it could have been prior to its start, there have been court cases over requests for the material by the British government.
This book is fascinating, hard-to-read, and very well-done. Those whose names may have just been that - names in the news, or in stories - are shown to be real people, living in a situation that led them to the paths they took. You can call them brave, patriots, thugs, murderers, or fools, but you cannot deny their determination and efforts to follow their beliefs.
Who Is Vera Kelly?
by Rosalie Knecht. This was an interesting book, both because of the character of Vera Kelly, and also because of the way it was structured. We meet Vera in vignettes from her late teens and early twenties, when she leaves home after a fight with her mother, and eventually ends up in a correctional home for girls. Once released, she heads to New York City, where she finds employment and learns about the underground gay scene. Oh, and she is recruited by the CIA.
The other vignettes, interspersed with her background, tell of her assignment to Buenos Aires, Argentina, as a government coup is ready to happen. Working undercover as a Canadian student, she is sent to not just alert the U.S. about the coup, but to observe and report on any student groups working for the KGB and the overthrow of the government. When the coup occurs, her expected smooth exit from Argentina is thrown into chaos, and she must figure out a Plan B.
I liked this book and found Vera to be an interesting person. I am wondering if this will be a standalone book, or if Vera will reappear. At the end of this book, she has given up spying. But can anyone ever really leave the CIA?
The Library Book
, by Susan Orlean. This book takes the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles County Public Library Main Branch as the framework for both a mystery - who started it? - and for the author to write about libraries and what they mean to her.
It was well-written, and I like that she devoted chapters to the history of the library as well as to discussions she had with various librarians past and present. As usual, she really only focused on those who do the public-facing work. Being a librarian whose career has been primarily behind the scenes, I would have liked it if she had at least mentioned those workers in more detail, as their tasks after the fire and during the rebuilding were equally as monumental and in some ways more important.
However, having said all of that, it was a good read, and though the whodunit aspect is still out there, since the main suspect was released and has since died, Orlean managed to leave the reader with a lot of information to make their own judgement. Also, she illustrated how massive the loss of materials was, and how intricate libraries can be physically as far as where things are located, and how people cope with space issues when buildings become overcrowded, whether with materials or patrons.
, by Henning Mankell. Such a lovely book, with such evocative writing.
Frederik Welin is a former surgeon, who escaped to the house and island where his grandparents lived and where he spent summers as a child after a terrible mistake during an operation. For years, he has lived a solitary life, with an elderly dog and cat as his only daily companions. He sees the person who delivers his mail once or twice a week, but otherwise that's it.
Until one day he has a truly unexpected visitor from his past. Who leads him on an adventure and towards something he never considered for his own life. As the book continues, Frederik is surrounded by more and more people, much to his surprise.
I don't want to post any spoilers, so I'll just say that I enjoyed this bittersweet story that reminded me that life can still surprise you even when you think nothing will change.
, by Dervla McTiernan. This book was riveting to me - in a way that a lot of the Tana French books are.
Aisling Conroy is a medical resident in Galway who has just learned she is pregnant. It's an unplanned pregnancy, and will possibly derail her plans for her future. She tells her live-in boyfriend, Jack Blake, and they agree to discuss it in the near future. Except the next day she wakes up to learn that Jack is dead. Suicide?
Cormac Reilly is a detective who has recently relocated from Dublin to Galway, where his partner is the recipient of a lucrative grant for her scientific studies. He has been assigned cold cases, where he feels he is being used as an errand boy, so as not to be a show off, being a well-known detective from Dublin. One of his old friends from the police academy is also assigned there, so he does not feel too terribly isolated. But his new post seems to have a lot of mysterious political machinations.
When the case of Jack Blake's suicide brings up the memories of one of Cormac's first cases as a rookie, and Jack's sister who disappeared many years ago returns to Ireland, things start to get complicated. Cormac wants to be involved, but as he is not technically assigned to the case, it's not going to be easy. And Aisling and Jack's sister Maude are convinced that Jack was murdered.
Lots of twists and turns here. I wasn't sure who to trust until the end. I will definitely read another in this series.
A Cold Day for Murder
, by Dana Stabenow. This was an OK book. It's really short (only about ~160 pages), and a lot happens, but I had a hard time really connecting with any of the characters. Kate Shugak is a native Alaskan, who worked in Anchorage in the D.A.'s office, and had a wonderful reputation. After a violent attack, she returns to her home in a more rural area, where her extended family lives, and where everyone knows everyone.
When a park ranger stationed in the park near Kate's house, who also happens to be a Congressman's son disappears, and then the FBI agent sent to look for him also disappears, Kate's former colleague (and boyfriend) visits to ask for her help. She reluctantly agrees, and begins looking into things. She finds a lot of information that she didn't want to know, about family and friends, and eventually figures out what happened, with results that shake her to her core.
I did like finding out about her culture, and life in Alaska. But I could never really decide what I thought about Kate - or really, anyone else involved. So it was interesting enough, but not my favorite thing I've ever read.
Plum Tea Crazy
, by Laura Childs. This book was a wonderful read at a time when I wanted to read something that would engage me, but when I didn't have the proper head space for something serious or complicated. It's part of a series, but the nice thing I have found with this series is that you can enjoy each book on its own, without reading them all, or in order.
In this installment, Theodosia Brown, owner of the Indigo Tea Shop in Charleston, South Carolina, is with a friend and employee at an acquaintance's house watching a tall ships celebration. As they are enjoying the spectacle, they hear a loud noise like an explosion, and see a man fall from the rooftop balcony where they are standing to his death below. At first, everyone assumes it is just a terrible accident, but it's then discovered that the body has indications that it was shot with an arrow before falling.
And so, on top of everything else coming up for Theo and her shop in the coming weeks, her host asks her to poke around and see if she can find out what may have actually happened. At first, it seems really puzzling, but soon there seem to be plenty of suspects.
I have to say, this one kept me wondering until nearly the end. Then I thought of someone who might have been the killer, but could not figure out the why/how/etc.
I enjoyed this story, and of course, I love reading about the tea shop, the different teas and foods served there, and about Charleston. There are some recipes at the end of the book, including one I am definitely going to try soon.
American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
, by Victoria Johnson. I don't remember how/when I heard about this book, but I thought it would be interesting. I enjoy books about history, and people's roles in it, and am particularly taken with medical history.
David Hosack was a major person in the study of botanical medicine. Early in his life, he was fascinated with plants, and after finishing his medical training, he wanted to see how natural remedies from plants might work. His ultimate dream was to build a botanical garden in New York City, where students could study the plants, but where the common man could visit and see the beauty of the natural world.
He was a contemporary of so many illustrious early Americans: Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Jefferson. He visited England as a young doctor and became acquainted with Sir Joseph Banks, and was the first American to ever be voted as a member in the Linnean Society of England.
The book details his personal as well as his professional life, and his life was full of interesting people and places. New York City was such a small city and a largely rural one at the beginning of the book, and becoming a large, more urban area at the end.
There is a lot to be learned in these pages, and as someone who had never heard of David Hosack, I found his life and his influence to be much more than I had expected. A fascinating story of someone who should probably be more well-known than he is.
, by Jez Butterworth. This play recently won several Tony Awards for the Broadway production. It was an interesting read, especially after reading "Say Nothing" a month or so ago.
The Carney family is getting ready for the harvest, and the accompanying celebrations, when they learn that Seamus, brother to Quinn, husband of Caitlin, and father of Oisin, who has been missing for 10 years, turns up buried in a peat bog. This is during the early 1980s, when discoveries of bodies of those who had been known as The Disappeared started to be found. These individuals were often thought to be IRA members who were informants, and they were dealt with in a way that could guarantee their silence. However, the families of those who vanished were often told that they had in fact been seen in other places, giving everyone the impression that they are still alive, and have left their families on purpose.
The Ferryman is about what happens when the Quinns learn that Seamus has been found. His widow and his son were taken in by Quinn Carney and his family after Seamus disappeared. They have been living on their farm, helping to work the land and Caitlin has been doing a lot of the housework and cooking because Quinn's wife Mary has a "virus," and is seldom able to do much.
This play is sad for so many reasons. It deals with loss - not just of a spouse, but of hope, and understanding, and everyday life. Though there are many characters, once you start reading, it's not hard to keep track of everyone. This is a family doing their best, but full of people with secrets that are disturbing as well as heartbreaking. I truly hope I get to see a production of this one day.
The Diva Steals a Chocolate Kiss
, by Krista Davis. Another book that was a good, entertaining read, and a break from some more serious stuff going on for me these days.
Sophie Winston is breathing a sigh of relief that the reception party she planned for Amore Chocolates has gone well, but a wrench is thrown into her happiness when one of the guests - another chocolatier who is opening a store in town - is found dead. Between that, and the fact that the patriarch of the family owns Amore has disappeared, things are looking grim. The family asks Sophie to look into it, and while that happens, she is still trying to keep things going for the winners of a contest sponsored by Amore, negotiate peace between her ex and his current wife, and trying to figure out what is going on when more bodies start to show up.
This was a good entry in this series, and had a surprising end, at least to me.
Whiskers in the Dark
, by Rita Mae Brown. This book was an interesting and entertaining read, but also a bit of a departure for this series.
Harry Harristeen is helping prepare and then is volunteering at a competition for beagles and basset hounds that raises money for veterans. When one of the group she is cleaning up is murdered not that far from the rest of them, Harry's curiosity means that she starts trying to find out what happened. She is also wondering about a theft at her church, where a grave was dug up and the jewels on the corpse were nearly stolen. But the weird thing is, the corpse was more or less thrown on top of the coffins of the couple buried in that plot, and are hundreds of years old. At the same time in the book, a parallel story is about two farm families in colonial Virginia and their slaves.
The parallel story is clearly related to the grave disturbance in the churchyard, but at least in this book, is not completely resolved. The current day murder turns out to be something quite unexpected and really surprising.
As usual, I enjoy these books because they are well-written, and I find the conversations and commentary of the animals really enjoyable.
Pretty Iconic: A Personal Look at the Beauty Products That Changed the World
, by Sali Hughes. I really really enjoyed this book. Sali Hughes is a beauty writer, with a regular column in The Guardian. In this book, she talked about iconic beauty products - past, present, and future - and what made them so special. A lot of it is her opinion, of course, but it was still interesting to read about how a lot of the products had come to be recognizable to almost everyone. Her commentary was also enjoyable, since she is honest in her opinions, but then she backed up her thoughts in reasonable ways.
Some of the products are clearly only ones that had been/are available in England, but most were recognizable. And some were like being reminded of old friends you forgot existed - Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, or Yardley products to name a couple.
The chapters are short and each deals with an individual product. I had fun reading this book.
The Spies of Shilling Lane
, by Jennifer Ryan. Mrs. Braithwaite lives in Ashcombe, not terribly far from London, where she has been the leader of the local WVS (Women's Volunteer Service) for years during World War II. When her husband divorces her, she is ostracized in the village and relieved of her duties with the WVS. Feeling at a loss, she decides to visit her daughter Betty, who is in London working for a sewage company as part of the war effort. Except when she arrives, Betty's landlord, Mr. Norris, says he hasn't seen Betty for a few days. When she visits the office where Betty is supposed to be working, they have no record of who she is, or that she ever worked there. This is completely unacceptable to Mrs. Braithwaite, and she recruits an extremely reluctant Mr. Norris to help her find Betty.
Their search leads them to spies, double agents, the British Union of Fascists, and to Betty, who it turns out is working for M15. Mrs. Braithwaite comes to realize what her life has been, and what she wants it to be. Mr. Norris is changed in ways unimaginable to him as well. And Betty realizes things about her mother that she could not have imagined.
This book was so much fun to read, and I thought the characters were well-written. It was also so interesting due to the time and place where it was all happening, with air-raids, rationing, and other things that just became part of life in London during the war.
I decided to participate in Summer Book Bingo this year, but casually - meaning, I'm reading books and then seeing if the fit in any of the squares on my card. I'm actually enjoying doing it this way, even if I never get close to a bingo. So far, it has surprised me how many books I've read have worked for a square!
Have you read anything particularly good (or even particularly bad) lately? Let me know in the comments!