Category Archives: Individual Books

Commentary on stand alone books

The Light of Paris

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Title:  The Light of Paris
Author:  Eleanor Brown
Publisher:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-399-15891

Book Summary:
Caught in an unhappy life, Madeleine has always allowed herself to be molded by others.  First, her mother shaped her school activities, scoffed at her love of painting, and created a persona that Madeleine struggled to maintain.  Her marriage to Phillip is no different; he dictates what she wears, criticizes her body image, and expects her to follow the standards of a high-society wife.

When she feels that she is at the breaking point, Madeleine escapes to her hometown.  Although her mother’s house has never seemed a refuge, Madeleine hopes for a sense of balance.  She is shocked to discover that her mother is preparing to sell the family home.  Swept up in helping to clear out over 50 years of memories and treasures, Madeleine discovers a diary written by her grandmother.  Although she passed when she was just a child, Madeleine remembers her grandmother as elegant and refined.  What she finds in the diary is a journal of one epic, memorable Parisian summer.

As Madeleine reads about her grandmother Margie’s exploits and awakenings, she too begins to explore who she was and who she had wanted to be.  Picking up a paintbrush for the first time in years and reconnecting with acquaintances from high school help Madeleine recognize the changes, challenges, and joys in everyone’s lives.  Before she can find her own dream and destiny, Madeleine must decide who she wants to be and what life she wants to live.

Book Commentary:
As I have been on a Parisian obsession recently, this book quickly caught my eye.  What made me read it however was the author, Eleanor Brown.  Her previous novel The Weird Sisters detailed the lives of three sisters whose father was a Shakespearean scholar; I loved this book and enjoyed the fluid and engaging writing style but I had to pick up this new book.

The Light of Paris is a bit different; both Madeleine and Margie’s stories are told separately, but the personal growth and discoveries parallel one another.  The author wrote Margie’s stories as though Madeleine retold them after she read the diary; it was an interesting perspective and style.  I am not sure if I liked it but it reflected how the primary story of Madeleine was influenced by Margie’s own evolution.  At times, I felt that Madeleine’s interpretation of Margie’s story was a bit biased but it provided great insight on Madeleine’s progress of self-discovery.

Who might like this book:
Although I didn’t feel as immersed in Parisian culture as some other novels I have read, The Light of Paris delves into the artists of Paris in the 1920’s.  I really liked the descriptions of the artwork through Margie’s innocent eyes and Madeleine’s artistic knowledge.

This would be a fun book for a book group.  There is ample fodder for discussion about life goals and the people and situations that both assist and interfere with their attainment; however, it is truly a story about the choices people make and that ultimately we must take charge of our own destiny.

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The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

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Title:  The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris
Author:  Jenny Colgan
Publisher:  William Morrow
Publication Date:  2014
ISBN:  978-0-4022-8440-3

Book Summary:
After a ridiculous, yet horrifying, accident at the chocolate factory she works at as a supervisor, Anna Trent is surprised to find her hospital roommate is her old school French teacher, Claire Shawcourt.  As Anna struggles through her recovery, Claire is battling chemotherapy for cancer.  Because neither can really go anywhere in the hospital, they slowly build a friendship.  When Anna is released, she finds her life in a state of limbo; she can’t go back to her old job but is unsure where to go next.  Claire has the perfect solution.

Years earlier as a young woman, Claire escapes from her over-bearing, controlling Reverend father for a summer when she travels to Paris and works as a nanny to her mother’s pen-pal’s children.  While there, she meets and falls in love with a robust, handsome chocolatier.  At the end of the summer, Claire must return home to England and Thierry was sent to Algeria to serve in the military service.  They both went on with their lives but never forgot one another.

It is Claire who writes to Thierry and secures Anna a job in his famous Parisian shop, Le Chapeau Chocolat, and Anna heads across the channel for a grand new adventure.  Working in Thierry’s chocolate shop is nothing like the factory in England, and Anna must decide if she is truly committed to the artistic creation and temperament of a Parisian chocolatier.  With the help of Anna’s flamboyant costume designing flat mate, Thierry’s estranged and aloof son, and the other chocolatiers in the shop, Anna improves her chocolate making skills, her palette, and her view of life.

Book Commentary:
The Jenny Colgan books are so much fun!!  This is the fifth book I have read by this author and I admit that they do follow a similar formula — girl is in a stagnant place in life, something catastrophic (divorce, job loss, accident) occurs, girl embarks on a new adventure, meets new friends, and discovers a new path in life – but hey, it works!  Colgan creates relatable characters that the reader truly roots for and wants to find success.  There is a little romance, an interesting and unique setting, and quirky secondary characters that create an enduring and delightful read.

This particular book deviates a bit from the formula as it tells both Anna’s story and Claire’s past as they are woven together.  I enjoy how the author shows that as different as times and situations are, most people really just want a sense of purpose and to find happiness and love.

Who might like this book:
The books are perfect for the carpool line, a long flight, or the beach and provide a fun escape from reality.  I enjoy reading these because I know there will be a satisfying and happy ending.  Some days, you just need that.  Oh, and there are recipes . . . chocolate recipes . . . and that is always a good thing.

I have written review for two of her other books.  You can check them out here:
The Little Beach Street Bakery
The Bookshop on the Corner

Arrowood

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Title:  Arrowood
Author:  Laura McHugh
Publisher:  Penguin
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-8129-9639-5

Book Summary:
In 1994, eight-year-old Arden Arrowood played with her twin 20-month-old sisters, Tabitha and Violet on a hot, September Labor Day afternoon on the grounds of the family home of Arrowood.  The twins argued over a lone dandelion and Arden quickly went around the house to gather more.  When she returned, she saw her sisters in the back of a gold car driving away.  Since their disappearance, Arden’s parents divorced, her mother remarried and moved away, and her grandparents died.  Now, a history student trying to finish her master’s thesis, Arden returns home to Keokuk, Iowa.  Following her father’s death, she learns that the family estate of Arrowood has been left to her.

Much in the town of Keokuk has changed in the years Arden had been away.  Homes are in disrepair or completely uninhabited, the A&W is closed, and the Kmart is now an Assembly of God.  Fallen on hard times, the town personifies Arden’s own crumbling life.

As Arden wanders through her new, old home, memories of times, both good and bad, fill her thoughts and haunt her nights.  When Josh Kyle, a writer and researcher for Midwest Mysteries, asks to speak with her about the twin’s disappearance, she is skeptical.  Josh begins to unravel many of the tangled stories and perceptions and Arden starts to question her own memories.  As she reaches out to past neighbors and family members, she discovers secrets that her eight-year-old self would never have known.  It becomes apparent that the facts of the disappearance aren’t as clear as they once seemed.

But Arden suffers from her own anxiety and confusion; her abrupt departure from her school in Colorado proves the fragile state of her own mind.  What of her memories can she trust; what of her current observations can she believe; what secrets does she know?

Book Commentary:
Wow!  Psychological thriller at its best!  This was a very griping story.  Normally, I avoid books about child disappearances; as a mother, they make me very uncomfortable and they rarely end well.  This story attracted me because of the setting of Keokuk, Iowa, which is right along the Mississippi River.  The references to Midwestern life – the feel of nagging river gnats, the heaviness of the humid late-summer air, the familiarity of Kmart and A&W – reminded me of my own childhood, not far from the Mississippi on the Illinois side.  It was the setting that implored me to take a chance with the story.

I am glad that I did.  What a complex tale that wasn’t so much about the children’s disappearance, but rather the manipulative power of memory and suggestion.  At one point, I truly thought that Arden might be insane and the story was a fabrication of her mind.  I was very ambivalent towards Arden’s character and didn’t always feel that I could trust her.  I think the author’s presentation of the character created a sense of uncertainty in the readers’ minds which only added to the suspense.  The reader is forced to question not only Arden’s believability but also whether or not the reader himself can trust his own memory.

Who might like this book:   
I’ll be honest that I am not sure if I actually liked the book but it was very intriguing and I was compelled to finish it.  When I completed the last page and closed the book, it made me question my own memories of childhood.  I think this would be a fascinating book to discuss in a group.  My oldest daughter is taking AP Psychology and I would love to hear her thoughts.  Definitely a book that makes you go “hmmm.”

The Bookshop on the Corner

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Title:  The Bookshop on the Corner
Author:  Jenny Coogan
Publisher:  William Morrow
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-06-246725-6

Book Summary:
In the current age of technology, social media, and financial cutbacks, the Birmingham library where Nina Redmond works finds itself without purpose and Nina, without a job.  At age twenty-nine, all Nina has ever known and loved are books.  Her roommate has finally hit her limit of all the lost and lonely books that Nina brings home and declares that Nina and her books must go.

Now, out of a job and a home, Nina searches for a new start.  In the transition program that is meant to help the displaced workers find that next step, Nina reveals her lifelong dream – to own a bookstore.  However, with limited means, Nina instead settles on a search for a book van and she finds one . . . in Scotland.

As so begins a grand adventure of negotiating the purchase of the van, finding a new place to live, figuring how to get her books to the van, learning how to drive the van, and endeavoring to make a living sharing her love of books with the readers she meets.

Along the way, she meets a host of characters: Edwin and Hugh, her pub buddies; Lennox, her cantankerous landlord, Marek, her mysterious and sexy book smuggler; and Ben and Ainslee, the children whose secrets tug at her heart.  But as Nina shares her passion for books and talent at perfectly matching reader to story, she must also decide which chapter of her own life she will follow and if she is willing to step out from behind the pages of the books that she is reading and face the world.

Book Commentary:
I loved this book.  Straightforward and simple, it had all my favorites – a nerdy heroine, a rakish hero, books, and Scotland.  Sigh.  As with the other Jenny Colgan books, for many they might be considered “chick lit,” but I really feel that her metaphors for life are spot on.  She comments that for Nina, whenever the grim, harsh, and unpleasant realities of life rear up, “she always turned to a book.”  I think a lot readers do this; find sanctuary and peace in stories that aren’t their own realities.

The author, however, through Nina does warn of the dangers of constantly escaping into a book and forgetting to live your life.  The constant imagery and metaphors of books and new chapters really resonate with the reader; the story is a delightful tale, but also a cautionary one.

The author comments that this book – her seventeenth – was written for her readers.  She expounds on her favorite reading spots and understands the spark of matching a perfect book to a wounded, expectant, or nervous soul.

As someone who has read a lot of books to children, I also appreciated the theory that “children were evolutionarily engineered to listen to stories, because it stopped them from wandering off in the woods and getting eaten by hairy mammoths.”  Makes sense!

Who might like this book:
This book is for book-lovers.  It will make you think a bit about why you read and how you read, but most all, it will make you smile.

I have read and loved two other Jenny Colgan books – Little Beach Street Bakery and Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery . . . and I might possibly have two more waiting in my to-be-read pile.

The Summer Before the War

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Title:  The Summer Before the War
Author:  Helen Simonson
Publisher:  Random House
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-451-48211-2

Book Summary:
Following her father’s death and the lukewarm reception from her relatives, Beatrice Nash is compelled to seek out employment on her own.  After traveling the world with her father and handling all his papers and correspondence in exotic locales, East Sussex is quite the lackluster destination.  But, in 1914, a woman seeking a position as a Latin teacher, must accept any opportunity that is offered.

Agatha Kent is a force to be reckoned with in the small, insulated community of Rye.  Her reputation and word are on the line as she has pushed for the hiring of Miss Nash.  Her husband works in the Foreign Office and although there is plenty of unrest on the continent, no one is very concerned during this idyllic summer.  As Agatha and John Kent have no children of their own, they dote on their two nephews.  As different as can be, Daniel dreams of writing poetry and enjoying the pastoral life while Hugh works to finish his medical degree and impress both Sir Alex Ramsey, his mentor, and Lucy, his daughter.  Both nephews, however, dote on their aunt and assist with her numerous involvements.

And so begins a summer in Rye.  Beatrice tutors three reluctant and diverse boys from the community, the Mayor’s wife continues to flaunt her position and influence, and the town opens its homes to Belgium refugees.  Although the refuges tell of the horrors of the war, the town continues to live in denial until the inevitable happens.  As England joins the war, the town and its population will never be the same.

Book Commentary:
Wow!  This book was nothing like I expected.  I was familiar with the author whose first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, garnered a great deal of attention and honors, but I haven’t read it.  It is now on my list.  The book starts as a truly beautiful and nostalgic visit to simpler times.  The town gossip, the shock at a woman riding a bicycle, the prejudice towards both the Belgium refuges and the traveling gypsies all encompass the minds and talk of the townsfolk.  A friend asked me what I thought of the book when I was about two-thirds of the way through and I said it was “nice.”  It was a quiet, peaceful, armchair kind of read.

Then suddenly for the reader, the shock, horrors, and reality of the war are thrust into the forefront.  The author created the same feel for the reader that townspeople must have felt; all that they held true and right was destroyed in an instant.  I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book; I was riveted by the final third.  The author slowly and meticulously shows the destruction of a previous way of life.  I gasped and sobbed as I finished the final third of the book.  I felt compelled and driven to continue reading but at the same time was constantly fearful and anxious as I turned each page.  Truly a brilliant work and one I highly recommend.

On a separate and a bit humorous note, I accidentally purchased the Large Print version off Amazon.  I’m not quite to the age or need for this type of book, and I struggled a bit with the format.  As I got further into the story however, I was reminded of my grandmother who used to read the Large Print versions of books, and although she was just a child at the start of World War I, I couldn’t help but think of how her family and life were also forever changed.

Who might like this book:   
I’ve been reading a lot of post-World War I books recently, but few before the war.  The contrast between the times is sweeping and heart-breaking but I admired the endurance of the characters and their spirit.

Letters from Paris

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Title:  Letters from Paris
Author:  Juliet Blackwell
Publisher:  Penguin
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-451-47370-7

Book Summary:
After Claire Broussard’s mother dies in a car accident when she is just an infant, and her father is deemed an unfit parent, Claire is raised by her maternal grandmother, Mammaw.  As a child when she wanted to escape from the world, she would sneak up into the eaves of the attic.  It was there she discovered the wooden crate sent from Paris by her great-grandfather after World War II.  Inside was a mix of sawdust, crumpled scrap paper, and a life-size face of a lady.  The sculpture was broken in numerous places, but her serene demeanor and beautiful countenance provided a sense of peace and calm for Claire.

Years later, as a successful independent woman working for a software company in Chicago, she receives the call that Mammaw was dying.  She leaves her newly-ex boyfriend, quits her job, and heads back to Louisiana.  Mammaw had saved Claire as a child and she owes it to her grandmother to care for her; she also feels that there is something lacking in her life and something waiting in her future.  Mammaw and Claire share stories and memories, and Mammaw encourages Claire to seek out the secret of the woman’s mask.  Claire discovers that the piece was known as L’Inconnue de la Seine, the Unknown Woman of the Seine.

After Mammaw’s death and feeling compelled to find a purpose, Claire travels to Paris to the mold-making business from where the mask was sent.  At the Lombardi family business, Claire meets Giselle and her cantankerous cousin Armand.  Through a combination of need-to-know and want-to-help, Claire begins working at the Lombardi business.  Her Cajun French and American personality are the perfect combination to deal with both customers and Armand.

Through the letters that Claire writes back home to her Uncle Remy and the scraps of notes she discovers in Paris, a story of love and loss and hope is woven together across the generations.  As Claire delves further into the mystery of the unknown mask model, she un-knots the strings of her own past and seeks answers for her future.

Book Commentary:
Okay, loved, loved, loved this book!!!  I am a big fan of Juliet Blackwell’s Witchcraft Mysteries and was completely delighted by her first Paris book, The Paris Key; however, I think this book surpasses them all.  An absolutely beautiful and endearing story of love and hope and perseverance and redemption. My husband laughed at me when I finished the last page with a huge smile; the book comes to such a complete and satisfying conclusion.

Claire is a complex and yet very straightforward character.  There is so much in her life that she accepts at face value; she has questions from her past but they don’t ever overwhelm her in her life back in the states.  It is only when she comes to Paris that she discovers that there might be more to who is she and who she wants to be.  I loved watching her growth as a character; there were few shocking, slap-in-the-face revelations, but rather an evolution of understanding and acceptance.  Her quest of knowledge about L’Inconnue also isn’t an obsessive pursuit, but rather a series of clues and ideas that progress to a hidden meaning.

I certainly don’t want to give the impression that the book was slow; rather, quite opposite.  What I appreciated was how the author created such a warm and intoxicating story without having to traumatize the reader or create discord in the plot-line. So many novels rely on the shock factor to progress the story along; this story unfolded naturally. It was just a really, really great story.

Who might like this book:
The author obviously has an appreciation and love of Paris; the story is told with the sights, sounds, and impressions of a native, rather than a tourist.  The author is truly a gifted storyteller and engages the reader’s attention and interest without using clichés.  Although it is a completely independent novel, I also highly recommend the author’s The Paris Key as well.

The Canterbury Sisters

The Canterbury Sisters

Title:  The Canterbury Sisters
Author:  Kim Wright
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
Publication Date:  2015
ISBN:  978-1-5011-0076-5

Book Summary:
Che de Milan is about to embark on an adventure of grand proportions . . . whether she wants to or not.  In life, Che’s mother Diana was eccentric, experimental, and radical; in death, she still is.  After being diagnosed with cancer, Diana returned to her roots and rediscovered religion.  Her greatest desire is to make the pilgrimage to Canterbury, following the same path as Chaucer’s pilgrims.  Che promises to accompany her mother as soon as she feels better.  But Che’s mother does not get better, and three weeks following the funeral, Che receives her mother’s ashes and a reminder of the promise she made to take her mother to Canterbury.  As she tries to figure out how to honor her mother’s wishes and avoid traveling to England, Che receives another letter.  This one is from her long-distance, long-term boyfriend who informs her that he is breaking up because he believes he has found “the one.”  To escape dealing with Ned, Che books a private guide and heads to London.

Luck, however, is not with Che.  Her tour guide has to undergo emergency surgery; fortunately, she was able to get Che in with a group of women called “Broads Abroad.” As an only child, Che is uncomfortable with the idea of bonding with the group but becomes dependent on them when she loses her cell phone.  And so, the pilgrimage to Canterbury begins.

Tess, their fearless guide, leads the women on a six-day trek. Che is joined by Steffi, the athlete who tries to maintain a healthy routine on the trek; mother and daughter Jean and Becca, trying to forge strength in their relationship to last the teenage years; Angelique, a BRAVO Housewives of Jersey star; Claire and Silvia, two good friends with six husbands between them; and Valerie, the quiet one.

To help pass the time and be true to Chaucer’s original story, each woman takes a turn on the trek to tell a story about true love.  Tess will determine the winner of the story-telling once they reach Canterbury.  As the stories are told, it becomes clear that the pilgrimage to Canterbury is much more than just a journey for the body and soul.  It is a quest for understanding, peace, acceptance, and love.

Book Commentary:
I discovered this book by reading about it on a blog!  A shout out to my friend April’s blog on SmartGirlsRead.  You can check out her review here:  Smart Girls Read Review.

The book title attracted me immediately.  As you might have guessed, I am a complete nerd.  One of my favorite pieces of literature to read and teach was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  His grave was top on my list of places to see in Westminster Abbey and the pilgrimage to Canterbury is definitely on my bucket list. I remember first reading it as a junior in high school.  Mrs. Rein had us memorize the first eighteen lines of the Prologue in Middle English and I can still do it today!  That is how I get through my workouts; I mentally recite those lines to distract me from my body’s pain!

I love the idea of taking a pilgrimage; in a lot of ways it is like a family vacation.  Often the journey is so much more meaningful than the actual destination.  The stories that the women tell are very personal; I enjoyed how the author used the stories to not only give depth to each individual character but developed the personalities of the other characters through their reactions.

Who might like this book:
This book would definitely be listed under chick-lit; however, I hate that moniker.  It is definitely a book about women, for women, but the depth of self-understanding and acceptance precludes it from being “fluff.”  There is also a great deal of humor and self-deprecation.  Something I think that all women can relate to.  Che asks her phone “What is the meaning of life?” to which Siri replies “I don’t know; but I believe there is an app for that.”

Definitely a great book for a women’s book club; the discussion questions at the end of the novel are actually pretty good and would provide a great guide for lively dialogue.  The book has inspired me to push Chaucer’s pilgrimage closer to the top of my bucket list.