Wednesday, December 31, 2014

443 (2014 #71). Christmas in Twilight

by Lori Wilde

This is the tenth and latest story in Lori Wilde's Twilight, Texas series, and I thought it was really good - both romantic and suspenseful.

This isn't a reunited lovers story, like most of the others in the series, but that's OK.  Characters from the earlier novels appear in this one, but you don't have to read any of those books to understand this one.

Brian "Hutch" Hutchinson has returned to his hometown of Twilight, suffering from PTSD, released from Army Delta Force after losing a finger and his voice as the only survivor of a failed military operation.  He comes to his Brazos River house only to find his mentally-ill sister Ashley gone and a strange woman and her son taking care of his niece.  Jane Brown immediately pepper-sprays him.

Jane turns out to be Meredith Sommers, on the run from her abusive ex-cop husband.  Hutch of course falls for her immediately, but he also needs her to stay and continue to care for his niece.  This gives time for their relationship to develop through the holiday season (thanks to both wanting to be sure the two kids have a great Christmas) and for the suspense about what has happened to Ashley as well as to the ex-husband.

I don't want to give away any more of the story.  It was not entirely predictable.  Hutch and Meredith were very likable characters, even though their actions were not always realistic. (For example - Meredith demanding to make the rules for the two of them living in the house Hutch owns.)  I enjoyed the way Lori Wilde wove in characters (major and minor) from previous stories in the series, and even some plot points like the kismet cookie legend from The First Love Cookie Club.  Lori even worked some of her personality into Meredith - they both practice yoga.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received this autographed paperback as a gift from Lori Wilde - I'll be hanging on to it.]

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

440-442 (2014 #68-70). Three Picture Books

Karen Patkau's Who Needs a Desert? is a basic introduction to desert ecosystems.  Double-page digitally-rendered illustrations feature desert plants and animals with text that will encourage readers to find the one described.  The best ones are those in the section on "Living in the Desert" which move through a day from early morning to late at night.  A little more information is provided about each plant and animal in four pages near the end of the book.  This section would have been better with larger illustrations, perhaps paired with actual photographs.  The glossary on the final page is a plus.  This is one of six books in the author's Ecosystems series.

Edie's Ensembles, written and illustrated by Ashley Spires, has wonderful, colorful illustrations, but I'm not sure what the point of the story is.  It seems to be saying "clothes do not make the [wo]man" when Edie realizes she "had been lost underneath all those clothes," but on the very next page, she once again goes "to school in one of her most daring outfits."  It's not clear to me that Edie learned anything.  Two-and-a-half stars for the cute little anthropomorphic animal characters and the vibrant "ensembles."

Edgar is a barnyard rat who thinks he's being followed by an earthworm. This is a cute story with a surprise ending, which may or may not be as good for re-reads, depending on the audience.

The unbound advance reader edition I received, translated  from French, doesn't have a statement as to the type of media used in the vibrant illustrations, but author/illustrator Jean-François Dumont has stated in a July 2014 interview that he paints "with an acrylic resin or oil pigments." Dumont's book A Blue So Blue won the 2004 Prix Saint-Exupéry, an award given annually to the best illustrated picture book in France.

Dumont also says, "Edgar the rat is my favourite character, I do not know exactly why. He is the first character in the series of the farm that I created, and he has a bad temper but he is nice to draw." Some of the other books in his barnyard series, also translations from French, are The Chickens Build a Wall, The Geese March in Step, and The Sheep Go on Strike.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received hardbound copies of the first two books through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  They have both been added to my university library's collection.]

Sunday, December 28, 2014

439 (2014 #67). NPR Driveway Moments: Love Stories

National Public Radio (NPR) describes a "driveway moment" as the unwillingness to stop listening to an unfinished story on your car radio once you've reached your destination - you are compelled to hear the end of the story.  I don't think many (if not most) of the stories in this "love stories" collection were of that type for me, however.

This anthology consists of 24 segments that first aired between Valentine's Day 1990 and July 29, 2014.  The shortest segment (also my favorite) was just over two minutes; the longest was seventeen.

I don't listen to NPR, so perhaps I was not the best audience for this book.  I do listen to a LOT of audiobooks on my long commute, which is probably why I received this to review.

What made some segments more enjoyable for me were the musical interludes that ended them.  For example, my favorite, the two-minute StoryCorps segment called "A Fiery Valentine's Day for Two Firefighters in Love" ended with the first verses of Elvis Presley's "Burning Love."  Another much longer segment (eleven and a half minutes) called "Happily Married Couples Tell Tales," about three couples with long marriages (32-38 years), ended with some lines from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."

The funniest segment was the first one on the second disc, "The Complexities of Modern Love in the Digital Age," on what might happen if two automated customer service voices, a male one and a female one, were to have a relationship. That one ended with the refrain from 867-5309.  I also got a kick out of the most recent segment (July 29, 2014), "OKCupid Messes with Love in the Name of Science," about the online dating service that deliberately messed around with the matchmaking algorithms for some of its subscribers in an experiment.  Needless to say, paying subscribers were not happy, and "Stupid Cupid" is an appropriate song here.

Stories about letters sent to Shakespeare's Juliet (answered by the Juliet Club in Verona, Italy), 1940s love letters found after Superstorm Sandy, and 1934 courtship letters between Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson sparked my interest from a historical viewpoint.

All in all, this was an enjoyable collection, good for times you need something to listen to that is short and easy.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[I received this audiobook from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review.  The audiobook will be donated to my university's collection.]

Thursday, December 25, 2014

438 (2014 #66). The Sweethearts' Knitting Club

by Lori Wilde

This is the first book in the Twilight Texas series - and I read it after numbers 3, 4, and 2.  Didn't like it quite as much as the others, I think because the heroine did not seem to be committed enough to her supposed true love.  If I were Jesse, I'm not sure I would have given Flynn so many chances.

Flynn McGregor is the oldest of the four children of recovering alcoholic Floyd and her late mother Lynn (Flynn is an amalgamation of her parents' names).  Since her mother's death, Flynn has cared for her family and worked in their business, a local restaurant.  She hasn't had any time for herself, which may be part of the reason she's turned down the marriage proposal of the local sheriff, Beau Trainer, four times.  But when her crush from high school, Jesse Calloway, is released from prison early and comes home to Twilight, it's pretty clear why Flynn has hesitated.  Jesse was framed by Beau, and he's out for retribution.  Jesse is your typical bad boy with a heart of gold, and I can understand some of Flynn's hesitance to trust him, but I think if someone is your soul-mate, you'd stand up for him a little more.

This story is set in the summer (completing the seasons - the other books in the first four in the series are set in fall, Christmastime, and spring respectively).  It doesn't seem quite as linked to my town of Granbury, Texas, on which Twilight is based.  I lived just a few blocks from the square, and it's hard for me to think about the building that used to be a movie theater there burning down, as I have wonderful memories of the restaurant that used to be in its loft.  The Brazos River itself plays a bigger part in this book - Flynn's family lives on it, their restaurant is at the marina, she and Jesse used to meet at a secret spot, and an old bridge over the river plays a big part in the story.

Some of the backstory is provided for (future sheriff) Hondo Crouch and Patsy Calloway Cross, one of the older ladies in the book who is a member of every club in town.  There's also a hint about the next book, as the club ladies refer to the scandal about Trixie Lyn[n] Parks, aka Emerson Parks, which is the basis for novel #2 in the series, The True Love Quilting Club.  In the latter, Emerson becomes Emma.  There are some truly funny incidents and conversations in this book, and despite the weak heroine, it was a fun read.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This paperback was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

437 (2014 #65). Beautiful Ruins

written by Jess Walter,
performed by Edoardo Ballerini

What an intricate story!

It begins in 1962, in a tiny coastal village in the Cinque Terre area of the Italian Riviera.  Pasquale Tursi is a young innkeeper, and Dee Moray is the young actress with a minor role in Cleopatra (being filmed in Rome) who arrives there, supposedly dying.

The story then moves to 2012, when an elderly Italian gentleman arrives in Hollywood looking for an aging actress.

The story moves back and forth between these time periods and others, introducing other characters (including Richard Burton), all of whom are connected in some way - it's pretty clear by the end.

I became interested in this book when it won the 2013 Audie Award for Solo Narration - Male; and was also a nominee for the award for Fiction and for Audiobook of the Year.  I saw the audiobook at my local public library and decided to try it.  Liked the book so much I bought a copy and also put the book on the discussion list for my book club next year.

I love the cover artwork of the print and audiobook - the image looks like an old, worn-out postcard.

In a question-and-answer session at the end of the audiobook, author Jess Walter says that writing Beautiful Ruins "was especially challenging...because of its braided stories, the intertwining of all those characters and those styles," which included a chapter from another novel set during World War II, a chapter from the memoir of a Hollywood producer, the script from a play, and a pitch for a movie set in 1846 - although I'm not quite sure why the latter was included.  The print book uses different typefaces for each of these.

Walter said he was inspired to write the book from a trip to the Cinque Terre in 1997, the year his mother died of cancer.  He worked on the novel for 15 years, writing four others in the meantime.  He says,
Pretty soon I began to see the book itself as a kind of celebration of storytelling in all those shapes and forms.  The beautiful ruins of the title mean a lot to me - the ruins of Italy, the ruins of Hollywood, the characters themselves.*  But also storytelling itself, which is a kind of lovely ruin for us.  There are these artifacts that we leave behind, the stories we tell about who we were and what we cared about.

(* One of the epigraphs at the beginning of the book quotes Louis Menard describing Richard Burton in 1980: "fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, [he] was mesmerizing.")

Actor Edoardo Ballerini is fluent in Italian, but I do wish he or the producers had taken the time to learn how to properly pronounce Cle Ellum and Willamette - characters living in Seattle would not mispronounce them.  Nevertheless, he was an excellent narrator, most deserving of his award and nominations, who contributed greatly to my enjoyment of this book.

Definitely worth a re-read - which is why I bought a copy.  I will be purchasing the audiobook for my university library, as I'd liked to listen to it again too.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my local public library, and I also bought a print copy from the local Friends of the Library book store.]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

436 (2014 #64). The True Love Quilting Club

by Lori Wilde

This is the second book in the Twilight, Texas, series, set in a mythical small town modeled on my home of Granbury.  In this reunion tale, Sam Cheek and Emma Parks, friends when they were 14, are the lovers.  Emma, then known as Trixie Lynn, lived in Twilight only one year with the man she thought was her distant father, only to learn he is her stepfather.  Her mother left the family long ago to pursue her dreams of stardom.  Trixie has stars in her eyes, too, and at 18 changes her name to Emma and moves to New York City to take up acting.

Twelve years later, down to her last penny and in trouble, she receives an invitation to do a play in Twilight.  Sam has become the town's veterinarian, and he is also a widower with an adopted son from his late wife's first marriage (that man also died).  Sam and Emma are still attracted to each other, but they hesitate to get involved, as they are very different (opposites attract) and Emma is not ready to give up her acting.

Emma is invited to join the local quilting club and help make quilts that will be the backdrops for the play she is performing in.  There are some heartfelt moments in this book as Emma unintentionally helps Charlie come out of his grief-induced silence, in part simply because of her resemblance to his late mother. Emma comes to terms with her own past too as she and Sam learn they complement each other.

I didn't like this book quite as much as the other two I've read in the series, partly because I think very few people meet their one true love at age 14 (so I couldn't relate), and partly because I found Emma to be a bit self-centered and not as likable as other heroines in this series.  However, I LOVED the hero, Steady Sam!  And of course the setting - this time, most of the events occur in the fall in Twilight, instead of spring or Christmastime.  The book even incorporates my employer, Tarleton State University, referring to students from its drama department participating in the play.

On to the first book in the you can see, you don't have to read the first four in order.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The e-book was borrowed from and returned to the public library.]

435 (2014 #63). The Welcome Home Garden Club

by Lori Wilde

I got to meet Lori Wilde at a meet-and-greet two weeks ago in my town of Granbury, the inspiration for the fictional town of Twilight, Texas, the setting for this book.  Lori wrote about her visit in USA Today.  I was at the opening reception, and was invited to attend the writer's workshop the next day, where Lori and her editor, Lucia Macro, spoke about "Creating a Sense of Place: Or How to Write a Community-Based Series," and writing (and getting published) romance (and other) novels in general.

One of the things they talked about in the workshop was romance tropes.  A trope is "a common literary or thematic device used in storytelling."  I think the reason I like the Twilight, Texas, series  - besides the fact that I can see bits of Granbury in the setttings - and sometimes the minor characters - is because the trope they have in common is that of  "reunion – our lovers knew each other in the past and generally had some romantic relationship back then."   That's my personal romance story, too, so I can especially relate to these.

The Welcome Home Garden Club is the fourth book in the series, but you don't have to read them in order.  Lori Wilde creatively weaves multiple tropes (which I've italicized) into this reunited lovers story.  Caitlyn Blackthorne Marsh is the daughter of the local judge, who is rather overprotective since his wife died young.  Her high school sweetheart is Gideon Garza, the illegitimate son of the richest man in town and a Hispanic maid (class warfare/wrong side of the tracks).  Gideon burns down his father's barn after his mother's death (when he learned the truth about his parentage), and the judge - Caitlyn's dad - gives him a choice: join the military or go to jail.  So Gideon heads for Iraq and is later reported to be dead (which turns out to be machinations of the judge - forbidden love).

Unbeknownst to Gideon, Caitlyn is pregnant with his child, Danny (secret baby).  She marries another man, but is a widow when the story opens eight years later.  Caitlyn owns the local flower shop and is a member of the garden club.  She's asked to design a romantic victory garden for a state competition.

Gideon's father dies and he returns to his hometown to try to find some closure.  He has scars from the war, both physical (an artificial hand) and emotional.  This tortured hero learns he is his father's secret heir, much to the displeasure of his two half-brothers, one of whom is courting Caitlyn (love triangle).

Caitlyn becomes a woman in peril/damsel in distress when a buried bear trap badly injures her arm while she works on the victory garden, and Gideon moves in to take care of her and be her protector - and get to know his son. He's also hired to restore the historic family heirloom carousel belonging to Caitlyn that is the centerpiece of the garden (and the source of much of the angst with her father), which has been named the Welcome Home Garden to honor returning members of the military.  The romance progresses from there.

I particularly enjoyed the ladies of the garden club (who are also members of the cookie, quilting, knitting, and book clubs - although there's no book about the latter--yet).  Raylene, Christine, and some of the others are starting to feel like old friends, and younger main characters from the first three books in the series, Flynn, Emma, and Sarah, are now members of the club(s) too.

I also LOVED Lori Wilde opening each chapter with the traditional meaning of a particular flower, from the Victorian language of flowers, and then working that particular flower into the chapter in a way often relevant to its meaning.  In an early chapter, she also associates different kinds of teas with the members of the garden club, having Caitlyn observe "how people's choice of tea seemed to reflect their personalities" (page 12).

At the meet-and-greet, Lori gave me a signed copy of her latest Twilight book, so now I have three more to read.  Great series for this time of year, when I'm so busy with holiday preparations and could use some light reading.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The e-book, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to the public library.]

Sunday, December 07, 2014

434 (2014 #62). The King's Curse

by Philippa Gregory,
read by Bianca Amato

I didn't realize there was going to be a sixth book in Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series, about the royal women of the War of the Roses.  This book is about Margaret Pole, a first cousin of Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII and the subject of the fifth book in the series. The White Princess. Margaret Beaufort, Henry's mother and the subject of the second book in the series, The Red Queen, is also a character in this book.

Despite its length (597 pages in print), and Gregory's ongoing problems with frequent and unnecessary repetition of the full names and titles of characters in conversations (which would not happen in real life), as well as "She shrugs" and "He nods" and variations thereof, I liked this book better than the last two in the series.  Margaret Pole is much more interesting than either Elizabeth of York or Anne Neville (The Kingmaker's Daughter, book four), who were rather passive characters.

Because Margaret Pole lived such a long life (1473-1541), her life also intersects with Henry VIII and his first three wives.  She's especially loyal to Catherine of Aragon and her daughter, Mary Tudor.  Margaret is also a devout Catholic who, along with her three surviving sons, is upset with Henry VIII for his persecution of the Church.  Along with the fact she has royal blood and her sons are potential rivals for the throne, Margaret has more than enough in her life to arouse the suspicions of the king.  She manages to do so, more or less, for her first 65 years.

Gregory's four-page author's note at the end of the book explains some suppositions for her fiction and purports an interesting theory about Henry VIII's degeneration and the loss of so many Tudor babies.  I was also surprised to learn that Margaret Pole was beatified as a martyr for the Catholic Church.

The print version also includes an eight-page bibliography of  five-plus pages, two maps, and two family trees, one at the book's beginning dated 1499 (where the story begins) and another at the end dated 1541 (when the story ends).  I wish the latter had gone ahead and included post 1541 death dates for those still alive when Margaret was executed.  I would have liked to have known how long her three surviving children lived beyond her death, without having to look them up.

The audiobook doesn't have the bibliography, maps, or charts, although they could have been easily added as a PDF file.  The story is told in first-person by Margaret, and is read by South African actress and audiobook veteran Bianca Amato, who also does an excellent job creating a voice for Margaret that ages as she does.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Friday, December 05, 2014

433 (2014 #61). The Valentine's Day Disaster

by Lori Wilde

This novella is actually a good length--192 pages in paperback, although I read the e-book, so I'm not sure if that page total includes the four excerpts and one sneak peak of other books that are in the Kindle edition.  Like the others in the series, it is set in my town of Twilight (Granbury), Texas, with events and settings that actually exist (or happened).

Sesty Snow is an event planner who is running a date-with-a-bachelor fundraising auction, an event "designed to bring additional tourism dollars into Hood County and justify the new lakeside conference center that some gung-ho politico had convinced voters they needed."  (So true!)

"Hunks-in-the-Hood" (known here as Handsome Hunks of Hood County) will benefit Holly's House (known here as Ruth's Place), which provides medical care to needy families in the area.  Sesty has twelve bachelors lined up, but one is no longer available due to an injury.

Who walks in to take his place (as community service for damaging the local judge's half-sister's garish Valentine's Day house decorations)?  None other than injured NASCAR driver Josh Langtree, Sesty's high school sweetheart.

You can figure out where things go from there.  Lori Wilde also incorporated a tornado into the storyline:  "The previous year, a tornado had hit Twilight and lives were lost, and now everyone was edgy when it came to thunderstorms."  Very true for me since Granbury's May 2013 tornado!

This novella seems to stand alone - it's not crucial to have read any other books in the Twilight, Texas series, although doing so probably makes some of the characters and settings feel more familiar.  Thankfully Sheriff Hondo Crouch only has a single brief mention in this book.

Overall - a fun, quick read for Valentine's Day or any other time you want a little romance.

Less than two hours until the meet-and-greet with Lori Wilde - now I feel prepared!

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to the library.]

Thursday, December 04, 2014

432 (2014 #60). The Christmas Cookie Collection

by Lori Wilde

The Christmas Cookie Collection is an anthology of four brief novellas featuring characters from the Twilight, Texas series.  Each novella is a "Christmas Cookie Chronicle" with the name of the featured character in the title.  All of the stories are occurring in the holiday season a year after the events in The First Love Cookie Club.

The stories, in order, are titled Carrie, Raylene, Christine, and Grace, and that was also the order in which I liked them.  For me, Carrie was a new character, introduced in the first book in the Twilight Texas series, The Sweethearts' Knitting Club, which I have not read.  Carrie owns the town's yarn shop, and her ex-husband Mark (they married when she was 17 and he 19; it was quickly annulled) is back in town.  He's the host of a reality show trying to disprove Twilight's legend about high school sweethearts.  While the story is somewhat predictable, the ending still brought tears to my eyes.  At 101 pages, the story is long enough to feel complete.

Raylene's story is really more about her long-lost daughter, Shannon, and Nate, a regular at Raylene's bar.  This story, the longest of the four at 135 pages, and also rather predictable, does answer some questions raised in The First Love Cookie Club, which I have read. On the other hand, had I NOT read that book first, I don't think I would have appreciated this story as much.

Christine's story, at only 89 pages, needed to be fleshed out more.  Christine, the owner of the Twilight Bakery, was a minor character in The First Love Cookie Club (and apparently barely mentioned in the first two books in the series), and while I appreciated learning more about her, I felt her romance with Eli moved WAY too fast, especially as he was a widower with four children and concerned about how they'd accept a new woman in his life.  The story was also rather straightforward (no real interesting plot twists), and therefore somewhat boring.

With only 46 pages, the last story, Grace, felt very abbreviated.  The two main characters in this story, Flynn and her husband Jesse, are also the main characters in The Sweethearts' Knitting Club, which I haven't read.  If I had read it first, perhaps I would have liked this sweet little tale more.  As it was:  too predictable, and way too thin.

In the case of this book, I think it would be helpful to have read at least the first and third books in the regular series (The Sweethearts' Knitting Club, and The First Love Cookie Club) before reading this book.  I did enjoy the references to places in and near the "real" Twilight (Granbury), Texas, such as the (now defunct) Rinky-Tink's Ice Cream Parlor, Rio Brazos Music Hall (Brazos River Music Review in the book, although it's near Glen Rose and not Jubilee/Weatherford), and the Highway 51 bridge.  Still annoyed that the sheriff is named Hondo Crouch, though.  

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to the library.]