Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Not New but Notable with Lydia: FROG MUSIC by Emma Donoghue


(Editor's Note: Welcome to our new guest blogger, Lydia Vald├ęs!  So excited to have her on board!)


As Donoghue’s follow-up novel to her wildly successful and imaginative ROOM, I welcomed the opportunity to reunite with this author. What I found was a story I wanted to devour but had to trudge through, at times. Donoghue uses a historical fiction format to infuse suppositions and create a narrative frame for the research she gathered about a real-life, unsolved murder.

FROG MUSIC takes place in San Francisco, summer of 1876. Jenny and Blanche quickly strike up an unexpected friendship, and Jenny’s murder soon after they meet leaves Blanche wanting answers. Blanche sets out to find Jenny’s killer, and we continue learning about Jenny (and Blanche herself) through Blanche’s investigation. Jenny, a professional frog catcher, sold frog legs to local restaurants. Her methods and ethics were questionable, and her penchant for cross-dressing was off-putting to many at a time when cross-dressing was illegal in San Francisco.

Blanche is a burlesque dancer and prostitute with complicated relationships. Her profession and network allows her to ask some questions that others might not in her quest to solve the murder. Blanche also has cause to examine her own choices as she looks into who would want Jenny dead.

The story weaves music throughout and touches on various social taboos, many of which remain controversial today. It is a story of friendship, love, motherhood, and the dance between the personal and societal definitions of what it means to be a woman.


BOTTOM LINE: Recommended with Reservations. The story itself is compelling, but the delivery is convoluted and did not hold my interest fluidly. Various plotlines and too many characters with non-distinctive traits run together leaving the reader flipping back and forth between pages to remember who’s who. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

THE GRACEKEEPERS by Kirsty Logan





I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

For such a short novel, THE GRACEKEEPERS is incredibly difficult to describe.  When I started reading it, it instantly brought to mind the movie "Waterworld."  However, where "Waterworld" was a failure in its depiction of a world mostly covered in water, THE GRACEKEEPERS is much more successful. THE GRACEKEEPERS takes place in the future where much of the world is now covered in water. Humanity is now broken into two factions--the landlockers who lives exclusively on land and the Damplings who live exclusively on water.  The two groups are even separated in death.  When damplings die, their loved ones must bring them to a gracekeeper for burial. Gracekeepers live solitary lives in the middle of nowhere and survive primarily on the payment given to them for conducting burials. The deceased are wrapped in a shroud and submerged in the waters surrounding the Gracekeeper's cottage.  The Gracekeeper then suspends a birdcage over the body.  The cage holds a special kind of bird called a grace. Graces serve as physical reminders of the length of a period of mourning. The graces are not fed and, when they die, the mourning period is finished.  Callanish is a Gracekeeper and her solitary life helps her to protect a secret. Elsewhere, we meet North who is a circus performer.  This circus on the water travels from island to island entertaining the "clams" in exchange for food and other goods.  North's performance is special because she does an act with a bear. In a world with very little land, bears are unusual. Eventually, the paths of Callanish and North will cross and their lives will never be the same.

Logan has created a really beautiful novel.  The characters are fascinating and Logan manages to convey a lot of story in such a short book.  My only gripe is that I was left with so many questions!  I would have loved for Logan to spend more time introducing us to this world. There was so much more story to tell!  While the story that Logan gives us is ultimately fairly predictable, the beautiful language and imagery distracts the reader from the tale's ultimate conclusion.  Logan does a wonderful job of giving readers a very clear idea of what this world looks like. I only wish there had been more.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. A lovely tale of love and loss set in a watery futuristic landscape.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A REUNION OF GHOSTS by Judith Claire Mitchell


I received an advance copy of this book from the Amazon Vine Program.

This was a very unusual book. It reminded me a little bit of THE WEIRD SISTERS by Eleanor Brown. The book focuses on three sisters who live together in a rent-controlled apartment in New York City that generations of their family have lived in.  The eldest sister, Lady, has been suicidal for years and has attempted to end her life many times. The middle sister, Vee, is terminally ill with cancer. The youngest sister, Delph, follows the lead of her older sisters as they have been better maternal figures to her than her own mother ever was.  The sisters come from a seemingly cursed family where many members have met untimely ends. The sisters believe their family might be cursed and that the curse stems from their scientist great-grandfather whose creations may end up having killed millions.  The sisters decide to write the history of their doomed family as they face decisions about their own mortality.

Mitchell is a very gifted writer.  I found myself underlining quite a bit in the book. The Alter family is truly an interesting creation. That being said, I never really found myself connecting with the characters. They were interesting but I could not connect with them emotionally. This meant that the book didn't have quite the impact it could have. Although I found the ending a bit frustrating, I felt the last chapter was the best one in the book.  The story of the Alter sisters makes the reader think about the legacies we inherit and how much blood really affects our destinies.

BOTTOM LINE:  Recommended with reservations. An unusual story that may be off-putting to some.  I didn't particularly care for the story overall but I think Mitchell is a wonderful writer.  I look forward to future novels from her.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Quarterly Book Riot #BKR06 Unboxes **SPOILERS**

I don't do many subscription boxes anymore.  We limit ourselves to Kidstir for my son and the occasional PopSugar Must Have box for me. But the one I can't get rid of is my Quarterly Book Riot subscription.  At $50, it is my most expensive subscription but I can't help being drawn to all things bookish.  Plus, it is only quarterly rather than monthly.

Here is the theme for #BKR06:

"We've chosen a chilling theme to go with the oh-so-chilly weather.  Hunker down, huddle up, and wrap your mind around some matters of life and death and the in-between."





Here is the first thing I saw when I opened the box:




There was a bookmark right on top that accompanied the mass market paperback:




While I typically not a fan of mass-market genre fiction, I am willing to give this one a try as I trust Book Riot's taste.  It could be fun!

Next in the box was a flask:

I am not much of a flask-user but I found this one amusing. I may have to find a reason to use it.

Next in the box was another book:


Although I am more of a fiction reader, this title interests me.  We just recently got a copy in the library.

Finally, there was this cute composition book:

This was probably my favorite thing in the box.  It is almost too cute to use! I'll have to think of something special to do with it.

Although I like to price out my other subscription boxes to see the value, I don't do that with my Book Riot boxes because you can't really put a value on being exposed to new authors and ideas.

Can't wait to see what the next one brings!



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Story of Toulouse

Today, I am remembering my beautiful cat Toulouse. I had to say goodbye to my constant companion of 14 years yesterday and I am heartbroken.

Go to my creative blog to read the Story of Toulouse.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Something New

A long time ago, I attended college at Trinity University in San Antonio. I entered college with some pretty negative opinions about the Greek system. My only examples of Greeks growing up were the cookie cutter girls from SMU.  Trinity has a local Greek system and does not do pledging until the Spring. The fall of my freshman year, I noticed some sophomore girls in my anthropology class who just seemed unbearably cool. They were confident and intelligent and interesting. You could have knocked me over with a feather when, on Jersey Day, every single one of those women showed up wearing a red Greek jersey.  I couldn't wrap my mind around it. How could women this cool belong to a sorority? Maybe I needed to rethink this whole Greek thing.  And maybe I needed to find out which sorority wore red jerseys.

I did my due diligence and, to my amazement, Zeta Chi welcomed me into their ranks in the Spring of 1994.

(That's me on the left!)
I met a lot of amazing women in my time with Zeta Chi but, over the years, I lost touch with almost all of them. This is one of the reasons why I am so thankful for Facebook. Because of Facebook, I managed to reconnect with many of the women of Zeta Chi.  Some of them I even got to know better through Facebook than I ever did in college.  One of these women is Lydia.  Lydia is also an avid reader and she and I definitely share the same taste in books. I am humbled by the fact that Lydia has been enjoying this little blog and has gotten some good book recommendations from it.  As hard as I try, however, I can't always hit the many terrific books that come out each year on my blog.

So.....

Lydia is going to be a guest poster on my blog doing a new feature called "Not New But Notable."  She'll be checking in with some titles that I may have missed so we can cover more ground with reviews here on Life by Candlelight. She already has some great ideas for reviews and I can't wait to share them with you!

Stay tuned for Now New But Notable with Lydia!


Thursday, February 12, 2015

On the Wish List: A Little Free Library

I have a milestone birthday coming up. This May, I turn 40 years old.  Wow.  How did THAT happen?!

For several years now, I have been wanting to put up a Little Free Library in my front yard. I live in a neighborhood with an interesting mix of people.  We get lots of foot traffic going by our house. I love the idea that people could stop by and get a free book right in front of my house.  The next best thing to my dream of owning a brick-and-mortar bookstore!

(Photo borrowed from and owned by Little Free Library)


My problem has been that these Little Free Libraries are usually $300-$350.  If only I had the woodworking skills and tools to make my own!  I am not going to give up though.  What better gift to my neighborhood than the gift of free books?  This is why I think print books are not going to go away.  A print book requires no technology beyond itself. And it can be shared again and again. 

I think this is a great goal for my 40th year.  What do you think?

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

THE FIFTH GOSPEL by Ian Caldwell





( I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.)

Ian Caldwell has not written in a book in ten years since he co-authored THE RULE OF FOUR with Dustin Thomason.  It is clear that a lot of thought and research went into this new book. The book will draw inevitable comparisons to DA VINCI CODE but I would caution readers about looking for a new Dan Brown story within Caldwell's work.  On the literary spectrum, I would say Caldwell falls closer on the scale to Umberto Eco than Dan Brown. While Dan Brown is a good storyteller, he isn't much of a writer.

THE FIFTH GOSPEL takes place in 2004 as the end of Pope John Paul II's reign.  Father Alex Andreou is a Greek (Eastern) Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican walls with his young son.  Father Alex teaches the gospels to young men hoping to someday become priests.  Father Alex's brother is Father Simon Andreou who is a Catholic priest holding a prestigious position high in the Secretariat. The two brothers have grown up with close ties to the Catholic church with a father who was a Greek Catholic priest and an uncle who holds a position high within the Church. The brothers embody the split between Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodox that came from a great schism within the church hundreds of years ago. Both of them are closely involved with a mysterious exhibit that is about to take place in the Vatican Museums.  The curator, Ugolino Nogara, claims to have made an important discovery regarding the Shroud of Turin. Before Nogara can open his exhibit, he is found in Castel Gandolfo dead from a gunshot wound.  Simon is fingered as the killer and Alex must figure out who is framing his brother and why.  As he attempts to discover what other secrets the exhibit may have been carrying, Alex must figure out who to trust and how to protect his family.

This is a very difficult book to summarize. There is A LOT going on here.  There is a murder mystery and a secret exhibit with a possible coverup within the Church. We see Pope John Paul's final days as the leader of the Catholic Church and his attempt at building a legacy.  There are two brothers and the intricacies of the relationship as well as the legacy of their family.  There is Alex who struggles not only with his complex feelings surrounding his brother but also with his life as a solo parent in the aftermath of his wife walking out five years before.  There is the difficult relationship between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholics and all the history that surrounds that relationship.  Whew! It is hard to keep track of everything! 

Caldwell is a careful writer who takes him his time in allowing his story to unfold. He offers a lot of detail about the history of the Church and the Shroud.   While DA VINCI CODE was a fast-paced thriller where every single chapter ended on a cliffhanger, THE FIFTH GOSPEL does not need to resort to that kind of plot device.  Caldwell allows his story to unfold slowly and methodically. He takes his time with his characters so that we know and understand them all very well.  We get a lot of back story not only of the characters but of the Church as well. While the story of the exhibit and Shroud take center stage, the relationship between the two brothers and their family is just as important.

There was so much going on in the book that I sometimes found it difficult to follow what was happening. There were a lot of characters to keep track of!  Still, I really enjoyed the book. It was thought-provoking and interesting.  The best part for me was the story of this unique family and their complicated bonds. I found it even more compelling than the mystery of the exhibit and Nogara's death. Fans of the DA VINCI CODE may be disappointed if they come here looking for more of the same. This isn't a fast-paced conspiracy-driven thriller.  It is much more thoughtful. Instead, I would recommend this book to individuals fascinated with religion and Catholic Church history.  Reading this book definitely made me want to go and do my own research about Church history and the Shroud of Turin.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended.  Ignore all comparison to the DA VINCI CODE. This book stands on its own as a well-researched and well-written story of the history of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and the Shroud of Turin.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

I have been very attracted to suspense/thriller novels lately.  Maybe it's the time of year.  This particular book has been compared to Hitchcock and GONE GIRL so I was especially excited to read it.

Rachel is an alcoholic.  She has never recovered from her divorce two years ago and the subsequent loss of her job due to her alcohol problem. Each day, she takes the train into London in order to appear to others as if nothing has changed.  As she rides the train, she finds herself looking at the window at her old house where she had lived so happily with her husband. Now, he is making a new life there with a new wife.  A few doors down, Rachel notices another happy couple.  She names them Jess and Jason and creates a fantasy life around them. One day, Rachel notices "Jess" kissing another man and her fantasy life falls apart.  She decides to get off the train in her old neighborhood and confront someone in her unhappiness. The next day, Rachel cannot remember anything that happened. But she sees in the newspaper that a woman named Megan ("Jess") has gone missing.  Rachel finds herself drawn into the drama of Megan's disappearance as she tries desperately to remember what happened that night.

I absolutely loved the setup of this novel.  It definitely has a "Rear Window" feel.  The fact that Rachel is an alcoholic who blacks out definitely adds something to the drama. Overall, however, this book did not work for me.  Every single character was completely unlikeable.  I could never emotionally connect with the story. It also appeared fairly obvious to me early on as to what was going to happen. Hawkins is a bit heavy-handed with her clues. I feel like Rachel got too directly involved in drama to make the suspense really work. I also found the ending dissatisfying.  I am baffled by the GONE GIRL comparisons. There was never an "AHA!" moment in GIRL ON THE TRAIN. I never really felt the dramatic twist worked since it was so obvious what was going to happen.

BOTTOM LINE: Not recommended.  This book had a lot of potential but it just didn't work for me. I was hoping for so much more!

Monday, January 05, 2015

Best of 2014

2014 was full of calamity for me.  Although I did a lot of reading, I had trouble keeping up my reviews. Mostly because I did so much reading from a sick bed.  Here are some of my favorite reads from 2014 (in no particular order):

1. US by David Nicholls--I think this book found me at the right time. I just loved it. Much much more than ONE DAY.

2. THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS by Keith Donohue--Think of M. Night Shyamalan in book form.

3. THE STORIED LIFE OF AJ FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin--Incredibly sweet book reminiscent of SILAS MARNER.

4. CHAPLIN AND COMPANY by Mave Fellowes--Full of quirky characters!

5. THE BOOK OF YOU by Claire Kendal--The scariest thing I have read in a long time!

6. THE BOOK OF LIFE by Deborah Harkness--A fun ending to a great trilogy.

7. DOLLBABY by Laura Lane McNeal--Think Fannie Flagg crossed with THE HELP.

8. THE VISITORS by Sally Beauman--I have had a hard time convincing anyone to read this.  This is an old-school novel where you have to take your time.  It is worth it!

9.  CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS by Chris Bohjalian--Bohjalian does it again!

10. AND THE DARK SACRED NIGHT by Julia Glass--I am not usually a Glass fan but I really loved this one!

I tried to include only those books published in 2014 on this list.  I also read some great books that will be coming out this year.  So much to look forward to!  Happy Reading!