Monday, March 27, 2017

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

There was something poignant about reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal's memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. I checked it out of the library when I read her piece in The New York Times, "You May Want to Marry My Husband," Rosenthal wrote the essay when she knew she was dying of ovarian cancer. Ten days after the piece appeared, she died.

Because Rosenthal's memoir was published in 2004, before she started publishing her children's books, it doesn't discuss them. Instead, it's very honest about her family, her feelings, her friendships, but it doesn't sugarcoat her faults. It's a clever format that I haven't seen for a memoir. She begins with an almanac that puts her life and book in context, what was popular when she wrote it, everything from news stories to children's names. She follows that with writings that led to the memoir. Then, she dives into an alphabetic discussion of her life.

Rosenthal read the entry "Encyclopedia" in an encyclopedia. One of the pertinent quotes said, "constructed like an onion, the different layers enclosing the heart". Rosenthal took that to heart, revealing thoughts and emotions. Dreams, fears, her husband and how she met him. She talks about introducing one friend to another, and feeling left out. She talks about things she's been into, such as coloring, and puts them in chronological order. Because the entries are in alphabetical order, random topics seem to come up. But, they all combine to give us a glimpse into Rosenthal's life.

At times, Amy Krouse Rosenthal's thoughts are nothing out of the ordinary. And, then there are comments that touch the heart. Under "Rainbows" she says there should be some sort of ritual associated with rainbows. "Or see a rainbow, put a dollar in a jar; then when you leave home at eighteen, your mother sends you off with your rainbow money." Just think about that - "your rainbow money". I want rainbow money in my life.

Why is Rosenthal's memoir heartbreaking while other biographies are not? Those people lived as well. Perhaps it's because her death is so fresh. Perhaps it's because of that essay about her husband, and the love she knew she was leaving behind. Knowing what we know now, that Rosenthal died on March 13 at fifty-one, the final entry is heart-breaking. It's "You". She says perhaps you think I don't matter. "But I was here. And I did things." The final line of that entry is, "I was here, you see. I was." Yes, Amy Krouse Rosenthal was.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Crown Publishers. 2004. 220p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bel of the Brawl by Maggie McConnon

"Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy." The quote from William Butler Yeats describes Belfast McGrath's life. Maggie McConnon digs deeper into Bel's pain in the second book in the mystery series, Bel of the Brawl.

Soon after high school graduation and the disappearance of her best friend, Amy Mitchell, Bel fled from Foster's Landing. She came back fifteen years later, returning to Shamrock Manor as chef for her parents' catering hall. But, it's a small community, and Bel and some of the town still suffer from Amy's loss. When the police find clothes and items that belonged to her, Bel's once again ready to believe she's dead.

But, that's not the only death she has to deal with. The family and staff is still reeling from a death at the Manor when they cater a wedding for the Casey family. It's just Bel's bad luck to find the groom dying in the ladies' room. What more can go wrong? How about the disappearance of the ten thousand dollar tip the bride's father gave to Bel's father? And, what happened to the missing waitress?

There's humor in Maggie McConnon's Belfast McGrath mysteries, provided by her family. Her mother teaches Pilates and disapproves of Bel's fancy menus. Her father is an artist. Then there are her four older brothers who have side jobs as the house band at Shamrock Manor. There's "Dad's bluster and Mom's tough-girl routine and my brothers inability to find their collective way out of a paper bag". Then, there's Bel, who enjoys playing investigator, a change from her life as a chef. 

Belfast McGrath, who still regrets the last words she said to her best friend. She left home, fleeing her memories, only to deal with them on a day-to-day basis when she returns. It's not easy being "the best friend", as a journalist says, of a young woman who disappeared. It's a tragedy that continues to linger over Foster's Landing, and Bel's life. Even as she searches for the truth behind the latest death at Shamrock Manor, she dreads the truth about Amy Mitchell. 

Bel of the Brawl is the second mystery set at a wedding and catering hall. Despite the Irish reels, the food, the dancing, and Maggie McConnon's well-drawn characters, this series has dark secrets.

Maggie McConnon's (Maggie Barbieri) website is

Bel of the Brawl by Maggie McConnon. St. Martin's. 2017. ISBN 9781250077295 (paperback), 320p.

FTC Full disclosure - I received the book to review for a blog tour.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany

Any Sherlock Holmes fan will recognize the "Elementary" from stories, movies, and TV, if not from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's actual work. Vicki Delany's clever Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mystery, Elementary, She Read, is a wonderful addition to the tributes to "the World's Greatest Detective".

Gemma Doyle, whose Great Uncle Arthur claims to be related to Holmes' creator, is "the half owner, manager, head shop clerk, and chief duster of the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium in the Cape Cod town of West London, Massachusetts". The Englishwoman is also half owner of Mrs. Hudson's Tea Room, run by her best friend Jayne Wilson. Uncle Arthur established the store at 222 Baker Street for tourists, not for collectors or rare book dealers. Gemma, who is as observant as Sherlock Holmes, and almost as lacking in social skills, knows every item in the shop, and instantly tallies in her mind what has been sold. That's why she recognizes the presence of a magazine that doesn't belong in the shop, a copy of Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887. Mentally, Gemma can picture all the people in the shop that day, and identify the woman who left it behind. Gemma and Jayne track the woman to a local hotel, but they're too late to return the magazine. They find her dead.

Gemma's honesty and straightforward conversation do not necessarily work well for her when the police show up. One officer is a man she used to date. One is a woman who takes an instant dislike to Gemma. If they won't let her help with their investigations, she'll take it upon herself to find answers. After all, she found the body, and what appears to be a magazine worth a half million dollars. Everyone in town seems to think Gemma now owns the copy of Beeton's, although she protests she only found it in her shop. She might as well use her intelligence and observation skills to find a killer.

Delany's newest series introduces a delightful amateur sleuth with recognizable traits. Her honesty, observation skills, and her lack of awareness are perfect. There's a sense of humor in the book, and it's at Gemma Doyle's expense. The clues and case are so obvious as Gemma explains them, and, sometimes, so obviously wrong. Elementary, She Read is a charming addition to all the stories related to the subject of Sherlock Holmes.

Vicki Delany's website is

Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany. Crooked Lane. 2017. ISBN 9781683310969 (hardcover), 308p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Friday, March 24, 2017

Winners and Award Nominee Giveaway

Congratulations to the winners of the last contest. Courtney W. of Loceya Spring, AL won City of the Lost. Lisa G. from Pensacola Beach, FL won The Widower's Wife. The books will go out today.

This week, I'm giving away two books that feature journalists. The books were award nominees. Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin is up for the Edgar for Best Paperback Original of 2016. Ellie Stone's holiday in the Adirondacks is interrupted by murder. Two men plummeted to their deaths on the rocks near a dangerous diving pool. But, the police soon learn the men didn't know each other. Ellie, a reporter and amateur sleuth, is caught up in an investigation involving free-love intellectuals, charismatic evangelicals, and old grudges.

Hester Young's The Gates of Evangeline was a nominee for debut novel from the International Thriller Writers. The contemporary Gothic novel takes Charlotte "Charlie" Cates to a Louisiana plantation. After a dream shows a young boy asking for her help, she accepts a job writing the story of a boy who disappeared years earlier. She's hoping she can prevent the death of a missing child while she's there. She uncovers secrets of love, betrayal and murder, secrets that could put her in danger.

Which book would you like to win? You can enter to win both, but I need separate entries. Email me at Your subject line should read either "Win Heart of Stone" or "Win The Gates of Evangeline." Please include your name and mailing address. Entries from the U.S. only, please. The giveaway will end Thursday, March 30 at 6 PM CT.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What Are You Reading?

What are you reading today? I'm enjoying the first Sherlock Holmes Bookshop mystery, Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany. I like the sleuth's voice. Gemma Doyle moved from England to West London, Massachusetts where she's part owner of Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium. It's a fun story.

So, I want to catch up. Are you slogging through an on-going book? Or, have you been racing through something entertaining? Let us know!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein

The disease of the year must be ovarian cancer. Last month, I reviewed The Mother's Promise by Sally Hepworth. Hepworth's novel focused as much on the daughter as the dying mother, because the daughter suffered from Social Anxiety Disorder. There's a dying mother in Lauren Grodstein's Our Short History, again dying of ovarian cancer. But, the voice! Oh, the voice of Karen Neulander is beautiful and ferocious and demanding. It's perfect for the novel.

Karen Neulander is dying of Stage IV ovarian cancer. She hopes to have at least two more years with her six-year-old son, Jacob. As a single mother, it's just been her and Jake against the world, her beautiful son. She has her plans made. He'll move from their home in New York City to the Seattle area where he'll live with her sister Allison's family. And, she takes him there for the summer so he can make himself at home. It's there that she starts to write a book to Jacob to tell him about her feelings for him, her love and her hopes. And, she tells Jake about her family, her job as a campaign manager for Democratic candidates. And, then Jake asks to meet his father.

When Jake's father, Dave, learned Karen was pregnant, he insisted he never wanted to be a father, and even questioned whether the baby was his. Karen left, and never told him she kept the baby. Now, when she contacts Dave, he's ecstatic to learn he has a son, and wants to meet him. Jake and Dave bond immediately, and it shakes Karen. Now, on top of worrying that she's dying and leaving Jacob, she's worried her ex will try to claim their son.

It's all on the pages. Karen's voice is the voice of a mother pouring out her life and her soul to the son she knows she won't see grow. She knows he'll be at least eighteen when he reads the story she leaves behind. All of her feelings for Jake and her anger at Dave are on the pages, "My Jackson Pollack of feelings (rage, heartbreak, longing, sadness, patience, grief, sweetness, murder." The entire book is in Karen's voice as she writes her life, explaining herself to a Jake that she admits she won't even know when he reads it. She won't know what he looks like as an adult, where he'll go to school, what sports he'll play. Grodstein gives voice to a mother's love for her son. And, when her sister Allison deals with her problems with her older children, and comes to rescue Karen in a time of need, they fall asleep side-by-side. "We fell asleep pondering the condition of being mothers, which was, of course, the condition of helping the people you love most in the world leave you."

In Our Short History, a dying Karen Neulander writes a love letter to her son. There's heartbreak here, but the love is so strong, it outweighs the heartbreak. Grodstein has created a mother's voice in her novel, and it's a strong voice of love and anger and fear. This is a book for book clubs, a book you'll remember.

Lauren Grodstein's website is

Our Short History by Lauren Grodstein. Algonquin Books. 2017. ISBN 9781616206222 (hardcover), 352p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I received the book to review for a journal.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Murder on the Serpentine by Anne Perry

Anne Perry's Murder on the Serpentine wraps up the story of Thomas and Charlotte Pitt as we know it. However, since she's going to pick up the story of the next generation, I'm sure we'll see the couple again. Even so, this mystery is an excellent finale to this storyline.

Thomas is now commander of Special Branch, the part of Her Majesty's government that deals with threats to the safety of the nation. But, he's not prepared to be summoned to meet with Queen Victoria herself. The aging Queen is troubled and concerned for her son's reputation. She's been on the throne for sixty-two years, and knows it's almost time for Edward to take over. She wants Thomas to personally look into the background of Alan Kendrick, a new friend of the prince's who seems to have a great deal of influence over him. And, she wonders if Alan Kendrick knows more than he should about the death of an advisor to the Queen.

Sir John Halberd's body was discovered in the Serpentine, a shallow river that runs through Hyde Park. Rumors swirl as Society wonders what he was doing there at night. Now, Thomas must work himself into the right places to hear the gossip, without informing Charlotte of his interest. After nineteen years of marriage, the couple has been used to working together. But, Thomas' new position, and this assignment from the Queen, means he can't tell his wife what he's doing. For the first time, Charlotte feels lost and unneeded.

As Thomas struggles with the most important case of his life, one that could influence all of England, readers witness a good man troubled by his conscience, and his need to take actions that sometimes bother him. It's a story of power, and how it can be used and misused. At the same time, Charlotte's emotions and actions are important to the story. Perry has brought the couple together, summarizing their years and their cases, in this fascinating story. And, the finale is an ending appropriate for Thomas and Charlotte Pitt's storyline.

Anne Perry's website is

Murder on the Serpentine by Anne Perry. Ballantine Books. 9780425284988 (hardcover), 288p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.