Monday, July 25, 2016

Nine Lives by Wendy Corsi Staub

Reviewed by Jeanne

Bella Jordan’s life was almost picture-perfect: a wonderful son, a husband she adored, a lovely home.  The only fly in the ointment was Sam’s mother, a rigid individual who believed no woman would ever be good enough for her son and let Bella know how inadequate she was. Thank goodness Millicent lived a thousand miles away in Chicago; their meetings were infrequent and brief.

Until Sam died.

Now Bella has to load up her precocious son Max and all their possessions to drive across country to live with a woman who has never had a kind word for her. On the way, she ends up in the town of Lily Dale, a little community known for its annual psychic workshops where she finds herself filling in for Leona, an innkeeper who passed away unexpectedly.  It’s only delaying the inevitable, but Bella finds herself relieved at the reprieve.  She doesn’t buy into the supernatural hoopla surrounding the town although she is surprised at how normal everyone seems—or almost everyone— as they talk about mediums, trances, auras and such.   

To complicate matters further,  Max becomes instantly attached to a pregnant cat who turns out to belong to the late Leona. The cat bears an uncanny resemblance to a cat who turned up hundreds of miles away at Bella’s home just before she and Max hit the road. It can't possibly be the same cat... or can it? Bella finds herself drawn to the town and its quirky inhabitants, but odd dreams and visions begin to intrude.  Even as she resists the notion of ghosts, psychics, and traveling cats, Bella begins to wonder if Leona could have been murdered.

I picked this one up because of good reviews from people whose opinions I trust.  Corsi Staub is the author of several series, including a well-reviewed YA series also set in Lily Dale.  The characters were appealing, especially Max and Chance the Cat.  (Fans of the movie Being There will get an extra kick out of that reference.)  The plot was serviceable enough, especially for a first book in a series; many such books spend so much time setting the stage and introducing characters that the plot suffers.  This one moved along at a steady pace, which bodes well for sequels.

Chance the Cat is appropriately adorable—as we all know, I judge a series in part on how well the felines are depicted – and I enjoyed learning about Lily Dale.  Another important point for me is that  characters are likeable.  I confess I have to like at least one of the characters in a book or I'm not going to invest the time.

However, what I enjoyed most was the setting.  Lily Dale is a real place.  It’s the town with a long history of being a part of the Spiritualist movement; the Fox Sisters’ house was moved there from Hydesville, NY. The town does indeed host numerous workshops on clairvoyance and psychic phenomenon, and offers year round access to registered mediums.  Since she grew up in the area, Corsi Staub demonstrates a real familiarity with the area and its persnickety weather as well as places of local interest such as the Fairy Trail and Inspiration Stump. 

 I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Something Buried, Something Blue which is due out in October.   

If you’re curious about Lily Dale, their website is

Wendy Corsi Staub's website is

Friday, July 22, 2016

When in Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison

Reviewed by Ambrea

Gemma Craig has had enough of dating; instead, she has decided to focus on her job, which she’s surprisingly good at—and that suits her just fine.  She’s thirty-seven, she has a successful business working as a private chef, and she has a steady stream of clients who keep her life busy.  She loves the challenges, but, more than anything, she loves the predictability.  “Recipes are certain.  Use good ingredients, follow the directions, and you are assured success,” as she points out in the book, whereas life is much, much messier.

And then her life is turned upside down—first by a peacock, and then by an unexpected fling with handsome gentleman.  As Gemma struggles to pull the pieces of her world back together again, she finds herself coming face-to-face with her past and wondering how she could have walked right off the edge of straight-and-narrow.  But with a little luck, a pinch of hope, and, of course, a little bit of butter, Gemma will discover the true value of happiness and just how important love can be.

I listened to When in Doubt, Add Butter earlier this year, picking it specifically for the evenings when I walked my dog.  I originally chose it because I liked the title—and, if I’m being honest with myself, I probably picked it for the image of cupcakes on the cover as much as the title—but I was pleasantly surprised by Beth Harbison’s novel and Orlagh Cassidy’s narration.  Filled with lots of crazy, quirky characters and heart-warming stories, When in Doubt, Add Butter is a truly fabulous novel.

Gemma is an excellent narrator.  Witty and realistic, plagued by all the familiar hopes and fears of the average woman who worries about her professional career and her financial state, she can easily connect to readers on an emotional level—and, more importantly, she’s funny.  She’s candid, and she has a way of recounting her story so that it has an emotional impact and makes you laugh.  Coupled with Orlagh Cassidy’s skills, Gemma comes to life in a way that is, simply put, spectacular.

And speaking of Orlagh Cassidy, I absolutely loved the variety and range of characters she could play.  I was suitably impressed by the emotion she could convey and the changes of tone that signified specific characters, distinguishing particular personalities apart, that allows her to really reach listeners.  When in Doubt, Add Butter seems to take on a life of its own, and I couldn’t wait to return again and again to the story.

Honestly, I can’t think of any reason this book isn’t appealing.  It features a fun, heartwarming story, oddball characters, food (I mean, who doesn’t like food?), an excellent narrator and a dash of humor.  Granted, I found the plot to be a little predictable for my usual tastes.  For instance, I totally called the identity of Gemma’s mysterious “Mr. Tuesday,” and I saw the romantic entanglement from a mile away.  However, overall, I found the story to be incredibly poignant and unexpectedly riveting.  I was drawn in to Gemma’s story from the very first chapter—and, if I wasn’t, I’d have certainly been hooked by the ignominious incident with a peacock in the second.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nevermore: Dark Money, Running With Scissors, Alligator Candy, Shiloh Autumn, Houses of Civil War America

This week, our readers kicked of Nevermore with Dark Money:  The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.  A profound and insightful piece of literature, Dark Money offers a glimpse into the skewed political climate and economic inequality of the United States and explains how “a network of exceedingly wealthy people with extreme libertarian views bankrolled a systematic, step-by-step plan to fundamentally alter the American political system.”  Our reader said it was very well written with pages and pages of notes in the back, detailing Mayer’s resources; however, she also said it was one of the more depressing books she’d ever read.  The subject matter was frustrating, because it detailed many of the outrageous inequalities inflicted on the American public by individuals like David and Charles Koch, who created organizations to influence everything from academic institutions to Congress.  She admitted that she had to stop a few times in order to take a breather from such frightening and disheartening material.

Next, our readers looked at a memoir by Augusten Burroughs:  Running with Scissors.  At the tender age of twelve, Burroughs came to live with his mother’s psychiatrist, a startlingly unorthodox guardian who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and provided few, if any rules, for the young ward in his care.  A harrowing and sometimes hilarious account of one boy’s struggle for survival in a new, eccentric household, Running with Scissors is a strange but incredibly memorable book.  According to our reader, Burroughs’ memoir is “one of the most bizarre books I’ve read in a long time,” but she praised it for its depth and its originality.  Another reader chimed in, saying, “It’s so weird,” but she too had enjoyed it when she finished her own copy.  Both highly entertaining and incredibly unusual, Running with Scissors was a big hit at Nevermore and received excellent reviews—and it quickly traveled to the hands of another reader, who was extremely excited to read it.

Nevermore also took a look at another memoir, Alligator Candy by David Kushner.  Kushner, an award-winning journalist and contributor to popular magazines like Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, among others, has written a poignant memoir about his childhood in the 1970s Florida suburbs—and the day his older brother, Jon, disappeared.  On the inside cover, it reads:  “Every life has a defining moment, a single act that charts the course we take and determines who we become.  For Kushner, it was Jon’s disappearance…”  Kushner, intent on discovering something new about his brother’s disappearance, returns to his hometown as a reporter and investigates that “defining moment” in the hopes of capturing something he lost long ago.  Our reader was intrigued by Kushner’s book; however, she discovered she wasn’t a big fan.  Although she finished reading Alligator Candy, she said it was a bit of a downer and not quite what she wanted to find this week.

Next, Nevermore took a look back at the Great Depression with Shiloh Autumn by Bodie and Brock Thoene.  Even in the heart of the Great Depression, the Canfield and Tucker families live peacefully in Shiloh, Arkansas—until the cotton market collapses in Memphis on October 1, 1931.  Based on the lives of Bodie Thoene’s grandparents, Shiloh Autumn is a “really wholesome [book], but it was really good,” according to our reader.  She said she was initially interested in the book because of the title, thinking it was a book about the Civil War and the Battle of Shiloh; however, she was surprised to find a very different story—and very surprised to find she enjoyed it.  While Shiloh Autumn was her typical fare, she found she was fascinated by the historical detail Bodie and Brock included in their novel and she said the story was particularly compelling.

 Product Details
Last, Nevermore went even farther back into history to take a look at the Civil War, specifically the architecture in Houses of Civil War America:  The Homes of Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, and Others Who Shaped the Era by Hugh Howard.  The title was a bit of a mouthful, but our reader really enjoyed reading Howard’s collection on Civil War era houses.  He said it was fascinating, calling it “a marvelous thing.”  Houses of Civil War America offered a comprehensive and insightful look into the houses of notable individuals involved in the civil war, offering both historical documents and a photographic tour of each of the homes.  It has lots of “super pictures” and history, which he enjoyed—and he especially enjoyed reading about Longwood (otherwise known as “Nutt’s Folly”) in Natchez, Mississippi.  An old antebellum mansion, Longwood was a house designed by Samuel Sloan with the unique occupants in mind, combining Italianate architecture with an octagonal design to create a truly unique residence; however, with the start of the Civil War, the Nutt house was never finished and has remained unfinished for the better part of 150 years.  It’s a wonderful coffee table book, our reader enthused.  He highly recommended it to everyone.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Familiar Tail by Delia James

La Nuit ponders A Familiar Tail

Reviewed by Jeanne

A Familiar Tail:  A Witch’s Cat Mystery by Delia James begins with Annabelle Britton visiting her best friend in Portsmouth, NH in an effort to get her life in order after a break-up.  Things aren’t going well financially, so free room and board wouldn’t go amiss, either. Annabelle’s never been to Portsmouth before, but her grandmother once lived there.  Maybe that explains why Annabelle feels an immediate connection to the place and why her “Vibe”—a mysterious sense that lets her know if a place is good or safe—seems to be happy.

Before she even has a chance to settle in, Annabelle finds herself dogged (no pun intended) by a gray cat the locals call Alastair.  Alastair has been roaming the town since his owner died in a fall, and no one has been able to catch him. Annabelle tries, following him into an abandoned house where she finds much more than she ever bargained for:  a sort of altar with her own picture on it. Then her Vibe kicks in and she knows that the death of Alastair’s owner was no accident.

It takes a bit longer to convince Annabelle she has some unusual supernatural gifts, and that she’s not the only one.  There are a number of witches in Portsmouth who work together to try to keep the town and its people safe, but are all of them trustworthy?  And why does a mention of her grandmother make some people very uneasy?

First books in series can be very tricky. Authors want to lay a firm foundation for subsequent books but sometimes this means the first book bogs down.  I’m pleased to say that James does a very good job of introducing a diverse cast of characters and laying the supernatural groundwork for this series.  Annabelle still has her doubts about how real the “woo woo” is, but for the most part she goes with the flow.  (I have a personal peeve about paranormal books in which the hero/heroine remains in denial for the entire book or even multiple books. I feel that if you ask a reader to accept a concept, you should at least have your main character buy into the premise pretty quickly.) This doesn’t mean that she accepts everything immediately or even trusts all she’s hearing, but she’s open to the idea.  The characters were fairly done, and the book moved at a good pace, though I did get a bit impatient that Annabelle follow up at first to get answers from her grandmother. Annabelle is a likeable heroine even if she is--shudder!-- a morning person, and feline Alastair is a charmer. I expect he'd sweep La Nuit off her paws.  While the villains of the piece were easy to guess, there were enough twists to keep it entertaining in this para-cozy.  (If that's not a word it should be!)

Some things fell into place a little too easily, but I liked the premise and enjoyed the characters.  I’ll be looking forward to the next in the series.