Friday, August 10, 2018

Review: Under the Harrow

Under the Harrow Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nora is visiting her older sister Rachel. When she walks into her sister's house, she finds her sister's body.

Rachel has been murdered.

About 15 years ago, when both girls were teens, Rachel was brutally attacked. The person was never caught. So Nora stays around her sister's town, investigating, not trusting the police.

Nora is a bit of an unreliable narrator, and she holds back certain information from the reader. I'd go, wait, what, and then realize that Nora holds some details back. And the way Nora tells the story -- sometimes it's almost dreamlike. In that Nora thinks "if only." Pretends alternates. Like, if Rachel was still alive. Or, what if I do this. So now and then -- including at the end -- I wasn't sure what was real and what Nora was hoping was real.

One more thing, and I don't consider this a spoiler. I like mysteries but I hate how often teen girls or women are Victims. Not in, the victim the story revolves around; but in how victimized they are. Rachel is a victim without being a Victim.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Review: Someone to Care

Someone to Care Someone to Care by Mary Balogh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I so adore all Mary Balogh books.

Viola is in her early 40s and lived her life the way she was told do. Married the person her parents wanted, and so got the title and the money and the whole perfect Regency life. Book #1 starts with her husband dead, and the family finding out Viola wasn't his first wife; and that his first wife was still alive when he married Viola. Yeppers! She was never his wife, her three children are illegitimate, and it's Regency England so it's scandalous and terrible and the worst things ever.

So. In this book, Viola meets Marcel: they had met years ago, when she was unhappily married and he was a known flirt. She was proper the whole time, never disclosed her emotions and feelings, and sent him away. So now they are both single and both decide, hey we're grownups... and read the rest yourself.

What I like about this book is what I like about Balogh books: most of the people are good, decent, and kind. The example here is that all of Viola's friends and family -- including her not-really-husband's family -- are as loving and welcoming to her as always. The worst person is the dead not-really-husband. Even among Marc's family, when I first thought "oh this is going to be the person who causes trouble because of x or y or z" -- they turned out to be good folks, even if often of differing opinions on how things should be.

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Monday, August 06, 2018

Review: Then She Was Gone

Then She Was Gone Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Half mystery: what happened to Ellie, who disappeared ten years ago at age fifteen?

Half a look at a mother's grief over a lost child: how Laurel has put together a life, in the ten years since, but it's not a complete life. How can it be?

Like many others, I'm the type of reader who adds "Ellie disappeared ten years ago" and "Laurel's new boyfriend has a nine year old daughter who looks like Ellie" and gets four.

Then She Was Gone is about what happened to Ellie and what is happening to Laurel. And yes -- I skipped to the end to find out what happens, in part to reassure myself about how it would end. And then I went back and read it to see the why of how it got there and the motivations.

And while there is a mix of grief and hope, and love and forgiveness, there is also evil.

I need to find mysteries that don't involve bad things happening to teen girls.

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Friday, July 27, 2018

Review: The Outsider

The Outsider The Outsider by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Stephen King -- but his favorites have been his earlier books. I confess that I stopped reading around Tommyknockers, except for short stories.

But, excerpt in Entertainment Weekly really intrigued me, so I started this -- and couldn't put it down. It was wonderful, and I see this is now part of a series, and I look forward to reading the first three.

What I particularly liked is how the supernatural was so gradual -- it didn't really show up until a good way into the book. But, I guess, it was always there -- but, for the folks in the book, they just thought they were living their regular, non supernatural lives.

Heck, I was half convinced that there wasn't going to be anything supernatural.

I also enjoyed how the band of investigators came together; and that they were mainly older folks. It's not just teens or twentysomethings fighting the evils. Of course, this probably reflects the author himself, realizing as he gets older that the protagonists he writes about can be older as the fight the big bad, sometimes winning, sometimes losing.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review: The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton by Elizabeth Speller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even better than the first Laurence Bartram mystery. Disappointed to discover there are only two books in this series.

In addition to the time period, I liked the character growth and nuances across the series. I also liked that this book took place a couple of years after the events in the first.

The ending gutted me. It made sense but what a heartbreaker.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: Arcadia Falls

Arcadia Falls Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s an entertaining mystery - a good summer read. Loved the setting.

But who finds a mysterious journal and then just takes months to read it?!?

Since “changeling” and identity are part of the story, I guessed one major reveal fairly early and was frustrated that the narrator hadn’t figured it out herself. Also, what happened to her own parents? The way they were barely mentioned felt very YA to me.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Review: A Cottage By The Sea

A Cottage By The Sea by Ciji Ware. Sourcebooks. 2010.

The Plot: Blythe Barton Stowe flees to Cornwall after a bitter divorce. She walked in on her movie director husband Christopher with someone else -- and while she's getting a nice settlement, the money hardly makes up for the pain, the loss, the betrayal.

Her grandmother says their family came from Cornwall, so Blythe decides to do some exploring in addition to hiding out from the press. She rents a cottage on the estate of "Barton Hall," that may or may not be linked to her family. She meets the handsome widower who is the current owner, struggling to make ends meet.

And she also finds herself having visions -- of an eighteenth century Blythe Barton, who had a husband named Christopher. What wil l the past tell her about the present? And her future?

The Good: I enjoyed this book -- a nice romance, and the supernatural aspect was nicely interwoven into the present story. I like a story that is about a person picking up the pieces and reinventing themselves, and Blythe does that -- and also has to deal with the complicated feelings from her divorce.

And the setting! All very Poldark.

Main drawback: most of the other women are viewed and portrayed as competitors for first her husband, then her boyfriend. Very old school romance -- it seems the books I read in high school always had a snobby posh girlfriend (or practically girlfriend) for the love interest, who was terrible yet somehow the guy never realized it.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Review: Caroline: Little House, Revisited

Caroline: Little House, Revisited Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed feelings. Very well written and will be enjoyed by adult fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And has some of those “how people did stuff” details that I love about the Little House books. Here, it answers all those questions about going to the bathroom or childbirth.

And sometime I got a chuckle out of Caroline’s thoughts, like when she realizes Mary can be a bit annoying by being good to get praise.

The “buts”. But, in matching the time period to the Kansas LHOP book, it leaves untouched some fascinating and interesting questions about Caroline’s childhood, especially how shaped she was by poverty, and the early years of her marriage lived in other people’s houses and with such a long time without a baby.

When the poverty is touched on, it’s sad in that Caroline believes she’s creating a better life for her girls when she isn’t. But, that’s knowledge brought by the reader who knows what the future will bring. And the opportunity to dig into her belief to be satisfied by what one has, rather than try for more, is passed by - as well as the negative consequences of such a belief structure.

The biggest “but” is the racism. It matches the source material and the history, yes - but it still resulted in a lot of problems for me as a reader. Any judgement about it is mainly from the reader, not the text. This could have been explored deeper, even if the result was uncomfortable.

And still - there was a lot I liked in how Caroline saw things, what made her tick. I’m interested in reading more from Caroline’s viewpoint.

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Experimenting with GoodReads

I'm going to be playing around with using GoodReads and this blog.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: The Sacrifice Box

The Sacrifice Box by Martin Stewart. Viking Books for Young Readers. August 2018.

The Plot: 1982. Five friends find a box in the woods and each put a treasure in it, and tell themselves the rules: Never come back to the box alone. Never open it after dark. Never take back your sacrifice.

Four years later ... something is coming after them.

Someone broke the rules, the box is not happy . . . and something is coming after them.

The Good: I read the publisher pitch for this and was sold: "A horror story about friendship, growing up, and finding a place in the world: Gremlins meets The Breakfast Club by way of Stephen King and Stranger Things."

I was sold. And did The Sacrifice Box deliver?

Well, this is my first post in almost two years.

Which means I either loved it. Or hated it.

And the answer is.....

Loved it!

I was reminded of the horror books I loved as a teen, by Stephen King and Peter Straub. And since I was reading those books in the 1980s, the 1980s time period makes perfect sense.

Two sets of kids find the "sacrifice box," that speaks to them and whispers the rules in dreams. One, in the early 1940s; another in the 1980s.

Both groups find that breaking the rules can be deadly; for them, and for others.

I enjoyed the group dynamics, good and bad, for the two groups of kids. The kids live on an island, and Sep - the primary main character in the 1980s group - just wants to leave for the mainland. One reason? He has no friends. He's a loaner who doesn't quite fit in. He can only really remember fitting in once, and that group of friends sealed their friendship with a sacrifice at the "sacrifice box." But it turns out, that was a group who came together one summer because, well, they were the ones who were around. It wasn't anything more than that... at least, that's what Sep tells himself.

And now.... now something has crawled out of the sacrifice box and Sep and those who once were his friends have to get together and figure out who broke the rules and whether they can be fixed.

As I said, great group dynamics. And very, very creepy -- including some giant crabs and I do not want to know if they are based on something real. Also good use of setting -- the isolated island an d the mix of folks who like the small village life and those who can't wait to escape, to those who see it as comforting and those who see it as limiting. Also, it goes "there" -- folks die. Which, yeah, for me -- horror has to have some skin in the game. Dead things, not just pets.


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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: Arrowood

Arrowood by Laura McHugh. Spiegel & Grau, and imprint of Random House. 2016. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Arden Arrowood is returning to her hometown after twenty years away.

Twenty years ago, while she babysitting her twin toddler sisters, she stepped away from a moment -- and they vanished.

Before: Arden and her sisters and their parents and their grandparents, in the big family house in Keokuk on the Mississippi River. Picturesque and perfect.

After: it all falls apart. First Arden's parents leave Keokuk, moving from place to place until they divorce and each builds a new, different life. Arden drifts, in her own way, unable to finish her graduate degree, unable to commit to anything permanent.

Now: Arden's father has died, and she inherits the family home. The home that was the last place she saw her sisters. Arden returns, for many reasons. Because she has no place else to go. Because once it was home, and no matter where she has lived, it's never been home. And maybe, just maybe, the mystery of the twins can be solved.

The Good: I love a gothic mystery, and this is a present-day, present-time gothic mystery. Arrowood takes and twists and updates these elements.

Instead of a castle, there is the old family home, where generations of Arrowood's lived before Arden and her parents and her grandparents. And it's a big home, almost abandoned in the years since her sisters were kidnapped. No one wanted to live there anymore, so when Arden comes home it's to a house that is almost frozen in time. One nice spin is that even there Arden has a legacy of a family name and home, that legacy, to be blunt, doesn't include money.

Arden's financial concerns aren't limited to her own needs. It's also the town of Keokuk, which is a place that is no longer as vibrant as she remembers, is a place with shuttered stores. It's fallen on harder times. Old family friends have stayed, and Arden has to decide what her role, if any, will be in the town of Keokuk. Keokuk as a setting is key, and I confess at first I thought it was a made up location until they started naming famous residents and I recognized a name and looked up to the town and saw it, and some of the history in the book, was real.

There is mystery and suspense: what happened to those little girls? As grown up Arden begins to look into the past, she discovers secrets about her parents and grandparents that make her question her memories, as well as how she now views her parents.

And there is Arden herself, who I liked in part because she isn't perfect. Her returning to her childhood home is in some ways a running away from her current life, and part of her realizes that, as she tries to figure out what to do and how far to pursue the truth.

Where Arden's search ends up raises lots of questions, not all answered by the end of the book, and that's part of what I like about the book. I want to talk more about her parents, and her mother, and her father, and her grandparents, and what is said and not said. And I want to talk about those twins.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Review: The Passenger

he Passenger by Lisa Lutz. Simon and Schuster. 2016. Library copy.

The Plot: What's a woman to do, when her husband falls down the stairs and accidently dies?

Well, I guess some women would call the police and believe that because they didn't do anything, it would all end up alright. Those are the women who wouldn't dream that anything bad would happen, that anything would go wrong, because bad things don't happen to good people.

Then there are the women who know better. Who see that the world isn't fair, and bad stuff happens for no reason, and secrets can be dangerous, and the best thing to do is to pack a suitcase and run.

Tanya Dubois is the type of woman who knows better than to stay around.

And the reason she knows this, is, well, needless to say, Tanya Dubois isn't her name. And she has a story to tell you.

Just, as she tells you -- keep an eye on your id and your credit cards and your cash.

The Good: A mystery. No, not the mystery of Frank (that's the name of Tanya's husband) (the one at the bottom of the stairs.) The mystery of who Tanya was before she was Tanya, and why she is Tanya, and what she is running from.

With a healthy dose of suspense, because what Tanya is running from is starting to catch up with her. She is playing a dangerous game of survival, as she figures out who to trust, who not to trust, who is trying to kill her --

And I don't want to give away too many twists and turns.

But I'll say this; there is a bit of wry humor to the story, and in some ways you have to be as self-centered and focused on Tanya as she is herself. You can't think of the people whose names she takes, of those she lies to, of people who are hurt because they happen to be in her way. It's Tanya's story. Not theirs. She has to take care of herself, put herself first, if she wants to stay out of prison. If she wants to stay alive.

Some of the people whose paths she crosses, some you can trust. And some you cannot.

And yes, you'll start wondering, can you even trust Tanya? Or whatever her name is?

And you'll start wondering, what would you do, if you had to leave all you knew, including your name? How could you start over with nothing but yourself?

My last thoughts -- what I liked best about The Passenger was Tanya. Because she gets up and keeps going. Because she's a survivor. Because she's a decent person who is impossible situations, just trying to figure out how to put one step in front of another. And because of who she is and what she does, her cleverness, I kept picturing Kristen Bell as Tanya.

Teen Appeal: This is an adult mystery, but there is some teen appeal. Tanya is an adult -- not yet thirty -- but there are flashbacks to her teen years. And then there is the whole aspect of invention and reinvention and survival.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Saturday, July 23, 2016

TV Review: Stranger Things

Stranger Things, Original Netflix Series.

The Plot: A small town in the 1980s. A young boy rides home on his bicycle, and disappears. A desperate mother, a sheriff who didn't know he was looking for redemption, a brother who feels responsible, and boys who just miss their friend all search for answers.

There are stranger things in their town than they ever dreamt.

The Good: I loved this miniseries. It's amazing, it's wonderful, and you can read just about anywhere what made this so terrific. 

It's a love letter to the movies of Steven Spielberg and the books of Stephen King, and so much more from that time period. I can't wait to rewatch, because there are so many things I'm sure I missed. It's not just the four friends -- it's the music, the way scenes are framed, the clothes.

It's almost perfect.


And now we have spoilers. Because I had the misfortune of watching this after I'd seen Ghostbusters, and as I watched Stranger Things, I couldn't help but notice how the women were portrayed. And not portrayed. And that this is not a love letter to the childhood of the 80s, but, rather, the boyhood of the 80s.

I can have something I love, but also be disappointed and wish it were better. So, here are things that bothered me. And standing alone, individually, perhaps not a big deal, but the totality of it was what got to me

Winona Ryder (and man do I love her and she is terrific here) is Joyce, the mother of the Will, the missing boy. She's divorced and struggling financially and will do anything to get her son back. She's among the first who not just realizes that something supernatural has happened -- she goes all in, even if others think she's crazed from grief and not rational.

Her opposite is Karen, the mother of Mike, one of Will's friends.  She has the nice Colonial house with the husband and three children. Joyce and her home are messy and frantic; Nancy and her home are well put together. The working class struggling family versus the nuclear family. But, they seem to get along, and Karen comes over to offer Joyce support.

Joyce is a mom who will do anything, believe anything, to get her boy back. And yes, that's good....

But both Joyce and Karen, as the main adult women, are defined primarily by them both being mothers and what they do for their children. Later adult women include a mother whose child has been taken from her and is now comatose over it; and a spurned librarian (I thought that was funny, actually.)

The sheriff investigating the case, the police working the case, the scientists (yes, there are scientists because this is also as much science fiction as supernatural) are mainly men. There may be a secretary or assistant scattered there, but the main characters are men.

Then there is Nancy, Karen's teenage daughter and Mike's older sister. (There is also a younger sister, Holly, who mainly seems to remind us of Gertie from ET and I'm totally fine with that.) Nancy and most of her storyline is out of a John Hughes film. To Mike she is annoying, but at least one of his friends has a crush on her, so from the start she's introduced as the object of affection.

A cute boy likes Nancy, but Steve's a bit of an entitled prick but she doesn't see it, his friends are snarky and mean, hers is insecure. Remember, I said spoilers. When Nancy sleeps with the boy, the consequences are out of the horror films of the 70s and 80s: her best friend goes missing, photos are taken, everyone knows. And while there is a throwaway line or two to defuse it, it's a classic "punished for having sex" plot.

But it gets worse than that. Will's older brother, Jonathan, is out in the woods by where his brother's banged up bike was found taking photos at night, as one will. He sees Nancy and her friends and starts taking photos. And continues to do so - he's the one that takes the photos mentioned above. But because he is the "poor outcast" boy and Steve and friends are "entitled pricks" when Steve and company start giving Jonathan grief for what he did, Nancy wants them to stop and is clearly sympathetic to Jonathan. Steve breaks Jonathan's camera, and the sympathy is to Jonathan.

So basically: Jonathan stalked Nancy, took photos, but it falls within the "oh it's just that he likes you" line of storytelling and because she's a nice girl, she is pretty much OK with it. Because she just "knows" that it wasn't creepy stalking, it was accidental because I like you and I just happened to be there with my camera. And then, because her friend has gone missing like his brother, they band together to find out what happened. Which I am fine with, actually -- it's the much too easy acceptance of what he did that bothers me.

Nancy's efforts to save her friend turns her into a bit of a bad-ass. And it changes her relationship with Steve, which is great. And what happens also changes Steve, also great. But, without going into the details of how, as adventures happen and battles are fought, she adventures...and has to be rescued. She fights but ultimately needs another to save her.

And now we come to Eleven, a mysterious girl who is found and taken in by Mike and Will's other friends. They hide her in the basement. The actress is wonderful and engaging. Eleven has super powers that she is still just learning to control, and they have limits. What this means is that despite those super powers, she has to be saved and rescued and carried by the boys. (Oh and when she does her mind stuff she has "bleeding from the nose" which is yes, a total trope, but when the only one bleeding is the girl on the edge of puberty, the combination of power/blood/weakness is interesting, to say the least.)

But there's one more thing about Eleven. Mike, Will, and their other two friends (Dustin and Lucas) are all boys. Eleven is a girl. And the introduction of Eleven is quasi-Yoko like, causing division among the friends. Oh, and like Nancy, she becomes the object of affection. Because she cannot be a peer of the boys who find her: she also has to be a love interest. There is even, I kid you not, a makeover moment including wig, dress, and makeup, where Eleven then self-identifies as "pretty" -- pretty thanks to the boys! Not pretty until they make her up the way they think a "girl" should be, with a little-girl dress and a blond wig and makeup. (Eleven did indeed need some type of costume to help her hide in plain sight, because she has a shaved head, but the level they took it is...interesting.)

So, yes, I'm sure some are thinking I'm just being a crank or I didn't get it or I'm over-reading this.

So let me say again: I loved this series. It was great. But it's clearly a boys story, with very little places for a girl to see herself in the narrative that isn't "mother who'll do anything" or "girl who the boys like" or "girl who gets saved."

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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