Off the Wild Coast of Brittany by Juliet Blackwell


Description

An unforgettable story of resilience and resistance set during WWII and present-day France on a secluded island off the coast of Brittany

Natalie Morgen made a name for herself with a memoir about overcoming her harsh childhood after finding a new life in Paris. After falling in love with a classically trained chef, they moved together to his ancestral home, a tiny fishing village off the coast of Brittany.

But then Francois-Xavier breaks things off with her without warning, leaving her flat broke and in the middle of renovating the guesthouse they planned to open for business. Natalie’s already struggling when her sister, Alex, shows up unannounced. The sisters form an unlikely partnership to save the guesthouse, reluctantly admitting their secrets to each other as they begin to heal the scars of their shared past.

But the property harbors hidden stories of its own. During World War II, every man of fighting age on the island fled to England to join the Free French forces. The women and children were left on their own…until three hundred German troops took up residence, living side-by-side with the French women on the tiny island for the next several years.

When Natalie and Alex unearth an old cookbook in a hidden cupboard, they find handwritten recipes that reveal old secrets. With the help of locals, the Morgen sisters begin to unravel the relationship between Violette, a young islander whose family ran the guesthouse during WWII, and Rainier, a German military customs official with a devastating secret of his own.

This gentle exploration of the relationships between sisters and friends provided a lovely interlude on a gray, rainy Sunday for this reader. I’ve long been a fan of Blackwell’s Lily Ivory series which is hip and witchy, but have come to appreciate her novels set in France for their relatable characters and clever plots.

Here the story flips between the present day and World War II. Each era features a female protagonist who struggles with love, ambition, and curiosity about life outside the small worlds in which they grew up. Our present day heroine, Nat, is an influencer who has made a career out of traveling the world and asking “Porquois Pas?” However, she finds that the lifestyle that landed her on a remote island off the coast of France is no longer fulfilling. Having her sister show up unannounced leads her down a different path, one that ends in truth for both of them.

The World War II era story features a previous tenant of the guest house Nat runs in the present time. Violette longs for something more than the primitive and remote island life, but the influx of German soldiers flips her reality upside down. The story of how these island women channeled the magic of earlier inhabitants and used their own imaginations and determination to trick the Nazis is one of the most enjoyable tales I’ve read in a long time.

Blackwell does a nice job of knitting the past and present together, leaving me feeling sad the story ended. Fans of Blackwell’s previous work will not be disappointed; fans of Jenny Colgan will also find this an enjoyable read.

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Description

Adapted from the adult memoir by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Water Dancer and Between the World and Me, this father-son story explores how boys become men, and quite specifically, how Ta-Nehisi Coates became Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As a child, Ta-Nehisi Coates was seen by his father, Paul, as too sensitive and lacking focus. Paul Coates was a Vietnam vet who’d been part of the Black Panthers and was dedicated to reading and publishing the history of African civilization. When it came to his sons, he was committed to raising proud Black men equipped to deal with a racist society, during a turbulent period in the collapsing city of Baltimore where they lived. Coates details with candor the challenges of dealing with his tough-love father, the influence of his mother, and the dynamics of his extended family, including his brother “Big Bill,” who was on a very different path than Ta-Nehisi. Coates also tells of his family struggles at school and with girls, making this a timely story to which many readers will relate.

Coates’ work is quite possibly the most important out there right now. His prose lifts the soul but also lays bare the inequities and injustice experienced every day by people of color. I am so appreciative that Coates and others are releasing their uplifting, brutally honest words in multiple formats that are accessible to all sorts of readers.

This book should be read by every teen out there, and by every person working with, teaching, mentoring, and loving a teen or person of color.

Teen Librarians, BUY THIS BOOK!

Letters of Note: Mothers by Shaun Usher


Description

A fascinating new volume of messages about motherhood, from the author of the bestselling Letters of Note collections. In Letters of Note: Mothers, Shaun Usher gathers together exceptional missives by and about mothers, celebrating the joy and grief, humour and frustration, wisdom and sacrifice the role brings to both parent and child.

A young Egyptian girl mourns her mother’s death in the fourth century AD. Melissa Rivers lovingly chides her mother, Joan, for treating her house like a hotel and taking her thirteen-year-old son to see Last Tango in Paris. Anne Sexton gives her daughter the advice to live life to the hilt, and be your own woman. In a letter to her teenage daughter, Caitlin Moran explains that some boys are as evil as vampires, and you must drive stakes through their hearts. The film Ladybird inspires journalist Hannah Woodhead to write an emotional letter to her mother. While at seminary, Martin Luther King Jr. writes that he has “the best mother in the world.” These thirty letters capture the endless range of feelings that comes with being or having a mother. Includes letters from E.B. White, George Bernard Shaw, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Laura Dern, Baya Hocine, Louisa May Alcott, Wallac Stegner, and more.

Mothers have been on my mind so I was attracted to this new entry in Usher’s “Letters of Note” series. In the middle of all the uprising and strife worldwide in the past year, there is one thing we all have in common – we all made someone a mother by our very existence.

Usher captures great joy, fear, anger, heartbreak, disappointment, love and hate in these letters, which include mothers and children from all over the globe. There is darkness here to be true, but there is even more light and hope.

Last year, my daughter gave me a subscription to Storyworth, a service that provides a weekly writing prompt which results in a book at the end of the year. The prompts include questions about important events, people, and experiences in your life. In reading over the prompts and my responses, I noted that I mention my mother or my grandmother in nearly every one. My children never had the chance to know either my mother or grandmother, so they only have my stories. These two women, Arline and Helen, shaped me and still whisper guidance in my ear. They taught me how to strive to be a good person and I know I have been blessed to have had them in my life.

My mother’s wake was held on Mother’s Day 1984, so the holiday has never been a favored one in my family. This year, I will remember these stories and tell them again to my children so they can know, in a small way, the wisdom and love I received from my mother and grandmother.

I was not familiar with this series by the author, but enjoyed this one so much I’m going to find the others. Recommended.

Madam C.J. Walker by Erica L. Ball


Description

Madam C. J. Walker—reputed to be America’s first self-made woman millionaire—has long been celebrated for her rags-to-riches story. Born to former enslaved parents in the Louisiana Delta in the aftermath of the Civil War, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty, Walker spent the first decades of her life as a laundress, laboring in conditions that paralleled the lives of countless poor and working-class African American women. By the time of her death in 1919, however, Walker had refashioned herself into one of the most famous African American figures in the nation: the owner and president of a hair-care empire and a philanthropist wealthy enough to own a country estate near the Rockefellers. In this biography, Erica Ball places this remarkable and largely forgotten life story in the context of Walker’s times.

I recently saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow where a Black stylist brought in a first edition of Madame CJ Walker’s Beauty Book published in 1920 and valued at $7500. The stylist commented that she still uses some of instructions found in the book. I thought that was interesting and reminded me that I have wanted to know more about Madame Walker. This book satisfied my curiosity.

Author Erica L. Ball is a professor of History and Black Studies at Occidental College and she has produced a scholarly and very readable biography of this multi-talented, complicated woman. Part of the Library of African-American Biography series, this offers a deep look into Walker’s life from her beginnings as Sarah Breedlove right through to her becoming the first Black millionaire in the United States.

Ball addresses the good and bad aspects of Walker’s life and ends up presenting a well-written, well-researched, fascinating look at an American icon. Recommended.

The Scorpion’s Tail by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child


Description

Following the acclaimed debut of Old Bones, this second “happily anticipated” new thriller in Preston & Child’s series features Nora Kelly, archaeologist at the Santa Fe Archeological Institute, and rookie FBI Agent Corrie Swanson, as they team up to solve a mystery that quickly escalates into nightmare (Booklist).

A mummified corpse, over half a century old, is found in the cellar of an abandoned building in a remote New Mexico ghost town. Corrie is assigned what seems to her a throwaway case: to ID the body and determine cause of death. She brings archaeologist Nora Kelly to excavate the body and lend her expertise to the investigation, and together they uncover something unexpected and shocking: the deceased apparently died in agony, in a fetal position, skin coming off in sheets, with a rictus of horror frozen on his face.

Hidden on the corpse lies a 16th century Spanish gold cross of immense value. When they at last identify the body — and the bizarre cause of death — Corrie and Nora open a door into a terrifying, secret world of ancient treasure and modern obsession: a world centered on arguably the most defining, frightening, and transformative moment in American history.

Preston and Child have done it again. Here’s another tautly plotted, adventuresome tale featuring super-cool characters, fascinating archaeological work, and the gorgeous scenery of the American Southwest. I really enjoy the friendship the authors are building between the archaeologist and the FBI agent. Two strong women surviving in fields dominated by men and successfully solving the crimes!

I really, really, really hope the next book finds Nora having left her post and taken a whole bunch of donors with her!

Mystical Stitches by Christi Johnson


Description

Hand embroidery can be a joyous respite from busy daily life. It is an exploration of material, an invitation to slow down, and it allows time for contemplation. Mystical Stitches combines this beloved and accessible craft with a spiritual element, introducing nearly 200 original designs for different symbols readers can use to create personal icons to wear or embellish items in the home. Christi Johnson offers patterns inspired by botanicals, animals, numbers, the cosmos, earth elements, and mythological icons for novice or well-practiced crafters to combine into talismans with personal meaning. Johnson’s folk art style is vibrant and unintimidating and provides a framework for bringing spiritual elements into physical form. In addition to basic techniques, an overview of material options, and an illustrated encyclopedia of stitches, the extensive treasury of symbols is lavishly photographed in hand-stitched, full-color spreads that will inspire readers to create personalized designs to stitch on clothes, hang on the wall, place on an altar, carry with them, or display in a place of prominence.

As a new, self-taught and still learning stitcher, I am interested in learning not just the stitches themselves, but the meaning behind them. Johnson delivers that and more in this fascinating look at shapes, colors, and stitches commonly used throughout history in needlework and art.

Johnson connects to the resurgence of the old crafts and provides historical as well as personal information about stitchery, connecting it to nature and the universe. Her writing style is chatty and colloquial, which appealed to me, and the depth of her knowledge is unmatched.

Reviewing books that rely heavily on illustrations is always tricky in a digital copy on a tablet because formatting is usually all messed up. However, the images come through crisp and clear, for both the stitches and full color photos of projects.

This is one I will definitely buy in print form. Recommended.

Publication Date: June 22, 2021
Published By: Storey Publishing LLC
Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy

Marion Lane & the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg


Description

“This is the most fun I’ve had with a book this year. Every page is a delight and the mystery got its hooks into me from the first chapter.” – Stuart Turton, bestselling author of The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder plunges readers into the heart of London, to the secret tunnels that exist far beneath the city streets. There, a mysterious group of detectives recruited for Miss Brickett’s Investigations & Inquiries use their cunning and gadgets to solve crimes that have stumped Scotland Yard.

Late one night in April 1958, a filing assistant at Miss Brickett’s receives a letter of warning, detailing a name, a time, and a place. She goes to investigate but finds the room empty. At the stroke of midnight, she is murdered by a killer she can’t see—her death the only sign she wasn’t alone. It becomes chillingly clear that the person responsible must also work for Miss Brickett’s, making everyone a suspect.

Marion Lane, a first-year Inquirer-in-training, finds herself drawn ever deeper into the investigation. When her friend and colleague is framed for the crime, to clear his name she must sort through the hidden alliances at Miss Brickett’s and secrets dating back to WWII. Masterful, clever and deliciously suspenseful, Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder is a fresh take on the Agatha Christie-style locked-room murder mystery, with an exciting new heroine detective.

What a treat! This first in what I hope will be a series of books about apprentice Inquirer Marion Lane is pure fun and packed with gadgetry, espionage, camaraderie, and just great storytelling. With nods to multiple genre types across formats, Willberg crafts a story that engages the reader from the first few pages and keeps you enthralled to the very last page. At the heart of this is one of the most interesting and admirable female protagonists I’ve come across in a long time. Marion Lane is a character for the ages and one who I hope is destined for many more adventures.

I’ll be recommending this one…a lot!

Two New Elly Griffiths This Spring!


Elly Griffiths is one of my current go-to mystery authors. I first read her Ruth Galloway series which features a free-spirited, independent forensic archaeologist who becomes involved with a gruff police investigator in Norwich England. The blend of archaeology and history with detective work is fascinating, and the Griffiths has skillfully developed the characters over the course of 23 books. Her newest, Night Hawks, is set for release in June.

Ruth is back as head of archaeology at the University of North Norfolk when a group of local metal detectorists—the so-called Night Hawks—uncovers Bronze Age artifacts on the beach, alongside a recently deceased body, just washed ashore. Not long after, the same detectorists uncover a murder-suicide—a scientist and his wife found at their farmhouse, long thought to be haunted by the Black Shuck, a humongous black dog, a harbinger of death. The further DCI Nelson probes into both cases, the more intertwined they become, and the closer they circle to David Brown, the new lecturer Ruth has recently hired, who seems always to turn up wherever Ruth goes.

I constantly recommend this series to people looking for a mystery series that isn’t twee-cozy but also isn’t full of horrifying, gory details. Griffiths has had some ups and downs over the series, but Night Hawks is one of her very best. Ruth, Nelson, and the King’s Lynn gang are back and in good form. The murder mysteries are, as usual, cleverly plotted and offered up in the author’s witty style. The thing that I appreciate the most about this series is that the characters always experience some sort of growth. They are not frozen in time, like Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury. Griffiths has finally found a good balance of the personal storylines of the characters, the forensic archaeology, and the crime and knits all of it together here along with some tantalizing local folklore into an un-put-downable story.

Griffiths has also started a new series featuring DS Harbinder Kaur, a little more gritty than the Ruth Galloway series and just as inventive.

In The Postscript Murders, the death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should not be suspicious. Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing out of the ordinary when Peggy’s caretaker, Natalka, begins to recount Peggy Smith’s passing. But Natalka had a reason to be suspicious: while clearing out Peggy’s flat, she noticed an unusual number of crime novels, all dedicated to Peggy. And each psychological thriller included a mysterious postscript: PS: for PS. When a gunman breaks into the flat to steal a book and its author is found dead shortly thereafter—Detective Kaur begins to think that perhaps there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all. And then things escalate: from an Aberdeen literary festival to the streets of Edinburgh, writers are being targeted. DS Kaur embarks on a road trip across Europe and reckons with how exactly authors can think up such realistic crimes . . .

Griffiths has cemented herself on my bookshelves as an author of favor. This new entry in the Harbinder Kaur series is one of the best I’ve read in awhile. The plot is fascinating and just twisty enough that I did not see the final revelation coming. Griffiths loves quirky but endearing characters, and the trio of amateur detectives here is just a delight. Edwin, especially, made me laugh and admire his pluckiness despite his age; Natalka and Benny are sweet and salty – a winning combination.

I really, really, really want to see one of Griffiths’ series filmed for BBC, and Harbinder Kaur might just be it! I always recommend Elly Griffiths books for people looking for a not-too-gory but not-too-cozy mystery, and these will be at the top of my recommendation lists in 2021.

Cozy Mysteries for a Cold Weekend


There’s nothing quite like an unseasonably cold weekend to make you want to settle into a comfortable chair with a hot beverage and a cozy mystery. There are plenty of them out there – mysteries that feature cooking, antiques, genealogy, libraries, and so many other topics.

Here’s a new one by an author I turn to when I need something clever but light: Deadly Editions by Paige Shelton who writes several cozy series. This one is part of her Scottish Bookshop series and features a Midwestern woman transplanted to Edinburgh and a used book shop. The Scottish Bookshop series is like candy for me, and each one is sweeter than the one before. Delaney, Tom, Aggie, Elias, Rosie, Edwin, and Hamlet are back for more mysterious and deadly shenanigans in the heart of Edinburgh. The mystery here is a treasure hunt involving a priceless copy of The Strange Case of Dr.. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Delaney finds herself smack in the middle of another bookish mystery. The writing is sassy and casual, the characters are like old friends, making this book a winner for me. I keep recommending Paige Shelton to mystery readers, and this one will be no different. Published 4/6/21 so should be in libraries and bookstores.

Coming in May is a new entry in the Witch City cozy series by Carol Perry. Featuring TV news reporter Maralee “Lee” Barrett and set in Salem Massachusetts, this whimsical series includes some of the expected Salem witchy elements but also a set of memorable newsroom characters and a group of retired ladies who thoroughly enjoy a good mystery. See Something is another solid entry in the Witch City series. Lee and Pete are up to their necks in a new, intriguing mystery while also adjusting to some changes in their personal lives. One of the things I really like about this series is that Perry allows the characters to grow and move through their lives instead of keeping everything the same and just overlaying the mystery onto a pre-determined story. In this entry, we see Lee moving on with her career, Aunt Ibby & the “Angels” making progress on their detective work, and Pete making the biggest move of all. Combined with a cracking good mystery, this one will give you a few hours of entertainment

The Avery Ayers Antique Mystery series debuts in June 2021 with Ruby Red Herring by Tracy Gardner. After her parents’ deaths, Avery Ayers takes over the family business, Antiquities & Artifacts Appraised, from the home office in Lilac Grove and a branch in Manhattan. Now living back at home with her younger sister Tilly and their newly moved-in, eccentric Aunt Midge and her Afghan hound, Avery’s life is filled with jewels, tapestries, paintings, and rare finds. But their world is rocked when Avery learns that the theft of a priceless ruby may be connected to her parents’ demise. Perfect to tuck into your bag for a vacation getaway, this charming cozy mystery will help you pass a couple hours with your feet up. The plot will appeal to people interested in antiques and jewelry and the characters will appeal to fans of cozy mysteries and mystery/romances. Nothing unusual or special, but still a lot of fun.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston


New York Times bestseller! Artemis Fowl meets Men in Black in this exhilarating debut middle grade fantasy, the first in a trilogy filled with #blackgirlmagic. Perfect for fans of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, the Percy Jackson series, and Nevermoor.

Amari Peters has never stopped believing her missing brother, Quinton, is alive. Not even when the police told her otherwise, or when she got in trouble for standing up to bullies who said he was gone for good.

So when she finds a ticking briefcase in his closet, containing a nomination for a summer tryout at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs, she’s certain the secretive organization holds the key to locating Quinton—if only she can wrap her head around the idea of magicians, fairies, aliens, and other supernatural creatures all being real.

Now she must compete for a spot against kids who’ve known about magic their whole lives. No matter how hard she tries, Amari can’t seem to escape their intense doubt and scrutiny—especially once her supernaturally enhanced talent is deemed “illegal.” With an evil magician threatening the supernatural world, and her own classmates thinking she’s an enemy, Amari has never felt more alone. But if she doesn’t stick it out and pass the tryouts, she may never find out what happened to Quinton.

I haven’t been this excited about a debut fantasy book for kids since I read the Sorcerer’s Stone ARC way back in 1997. Amari & the Night Brothers is the first in what I hope will be a long-running series featuring a young Black girl and her brother, who are magical investigators. While Quinton, the brother, is a super-talented investigator, it’s Amari who is the magician and has the most power. What a powerful message to send to girls.

When we first meet Amari, she’s confused, worried, angry, and sad for many reasons. She is targeted and bullied at school, her mother works too hard, and her brother has mysteriously disappeared. Like the boy living in the cupboard under the stairs, Amari discovers a whole new, magical world where she suddenly finds power, acceptance, and friendship – qualities that appear again and again in this story.

The author imbues Amari with integrity and loyalty, two traits that help her adjust to life at “camp” and help her through the trials she experiences there. B.B. Alston has captured the magic of a young girl starting to grow up and grow into herself.

Amari is set to become a new and improved Harry Potter for girls and boys who found a hero on the screen in Black Panther. I’ll be buying copies of this and handing them out liberally.