True Love and Secrets

firestarsOf Fire and Stars

By Audrey Coulthurst

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

 Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

 When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

 But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

Via Goodreads


So the description above is a good summation of the plot. What I enjoyed about the book was the natural way the relationship between Mare and Denna developed. First they were forced together with Mare giving Denna horse-riding lessons. Then they become friends as they search for the assassin. And finally they fall in love.

The chapters switch between Denna and Mare, each in first person, which could have been tricky. While the voices and styles weren’t completely different between the two of them, I was able to remember who was speaking at all times. Certainly the chapter labels helped but even putting down the book halfway through a chapter and picking it back, I could tell who was speaking.

They need to find out how far they are willing to go to stay in each other’s lives. Denna has been raised to do the right thing, put duty first, so making a choice from love is a scary thought. Mare has always been an outsider in her royal family and as much as she does her own thing, she doesn’t want to force anyone to go along with her.

Add to the romantic tension Mare’s family who abhors magic and Denna’s secret powers. The magic becomes a catalyst for their relationship so it’s more than a fun, flashy element to the story. Mare’s kingdom hates and fears magic, and prepares to go to war with a neighboring kingdom known to support those with magical abilities. Denna must decide if she can trust Mare with her secret; otherwise she will be punished like the others.

Of Fire and Stars is a love story encased in larger tale of kingdoms and war and machinations. It is a story of two young women discovering who they are and what they are willing to stand up for.

Cozy Hats in London

hatAt the Drop of a Hat

Hat Shop Mystery #3

By Jenn McKinlay

Cousins Scarlett Parker and Vivian Tremont’s fashionable London hat shop, Mim’s Whims, is visited by a new customer bearing an old hat box. Ariana Jackson is getting married and wants to restore her mother’s bridal hat and veil for the occasion. The elegant item was made by Scarlett and Vivian’s grandmother over thirty years ago, so Viv is delighted to take the job.

When Scarlett goes to Ariana’s office to consult about the restoration cost, she finds her outside, standing over her boss’s dead body. Though Ariana claims to know nothing about his demise, the investigation unveils a motive for murder. Now, with the bride-to-be in custody and the wedding on hold, Scarlett and Viv must find the real killer before Ariana’s future is boxed up for good.

Via Goodreads


I’m very picky about cozy mysteries. I’ll read at least one in any series but I won’t commit to the series unless I like the protagonist. Sometimes the amateur sleuths are a little too nosy for my liking or have too many quirks or problems that make relationships difficult for them. I’m all for complex female characters but the very nature of a cozy, as well as its structure, don’t allow for too much complexity. I enjoy watching characters develop over many books in a cozy series. There simply isn’t enough room in a cozy for a mystery and a deep dive into someone’s mind.

And I read them to escape into a charming world with lovely people I’d like to know so nothing too heavy, please.

Jenn McKinlay succeeds for me on all points. Scarlett has a primary personal problem – a previous relationship that ended spectacularly and in a public/social media way that leads to a vow to not date men for at least a year. Of course the foil is a childhood friend who is clearly interested in her and is quite attractive to Scarlett. This primary problem continues throughout the books, an undercurrent to each mystery.

This installment was nice because as Scarlett starts to resolve her primary problem a new one arises – the question of Vivian’s love life. Her cousin never dates, seems to avoid men who are interested in her and won’t say why. Scarlett is just nosy enough to want to know what is going on with Vivian since she wants her cousin to be happy.

The book ended on an excellent note – as the new problem is explained it impacts the primary problem for Scarlett. This is a great way to keep the tension within the romantic relationship. ‘Will they, won’t they’ can only go on for so long. Introducing a new element is key and well done.

I enjoy visiting Mim’s hat shop in London. Having visited London once, I have enough of a vision in my head to overlay on McKinlay’s story. Tea is constantly prepared, rain always falls and murders must be solved.

The Many Ways I Get Books

I am someone who smells books – both new and used. There is a difference between them and I love them both. I love to touch books and feel the pages. (Can we talk about the dust jacket for 1Q84 and the silky paper?) I will always buy copies of books to put on my shelves, typically ones I know I will read and read again.

I’ve also become a convert to ebooks. I’ll read on my phone in a pinch but I prefer my Kindle. The blue light does keep me awake (another vote for a book in hand) but I can download anything if I need something new to read immediately.

[Side note – This does happen, as in, I realize I need something to read RIGHT THIS MINUTE and nothing I have on shelf, read or virtual, will do.]

There is a hierarchy I’ve imposed on an ebook versus a print book.

Print Book Ebook
I will reread this book. I’m not even sure if I will like this book.
I already LOVE this author and will read anything s/he publishes. Who wrote this?
I am into this series and want the next one. I don’t know if I will like this series.
Fiction Non-fiction (not usually read again)
I am convinced I will love this book. (Mind you, I may be wrong.) I don’t know if I’ll even read the entire thing. (Mind you, I may be wrong.)

It feels strange and kind of bad to admit that I use ebooks to take a chance on an author or a book. Ebooks are cheaper than print books so less of a financial commitment. I used to take a chance by simply perusing a bookstore and buying whatever looked good. Now I do that with ebooks and feel better about the savings. I will then buy a print book if it needs to be on my shelf. Like The Martian.

Quick sidebar.


And we’re back.

A while ago I learned about my library’s ebook lending website and that let me take more chances for free. I swear I’m not a cheapskate. I like libraries and I like authors but I can’t support both at the same time. The one drawback, well, two drawbacks are: limited ebooks available and the potential waitlist.

The library waitlist can be fun. I put in a reservation and then weeks/months later I get an email that a book is ready to be downloaded. It’s like a present.

However, the waitlist doesn’t help me in my urgent time of need for a BOOK RIGHT NOW. I go to my Kindle for that. Amazon’s got them all.

Then I decided to give Kindle Unlimited a try. One month in and I like it. There are certainly limitations – not every author nor every book is included so I still need to purchase some ebooks. However I have read books and authors I may never have stumbled upon, for better or for worse, if I’m being honest. In the past month I have read:

  • The Paper Magician Trilogy by Charlie N. Holmberg – all three books
  • Ross Poldark by Winston Graham
  • Beacon 23: Parts One and Two by Hugh Howey
  • The Coven: Book One by Chrissy Lessey
  • The Harlow Hoyden: Book One by Lynn Messina

I don’t think any of the books listed above are anything that I would read again but they suited me at the time and kept me engaged enough to read through to the end. (Although I can never forget the fact that authors are paid based on pages read with Kindle Unlimited so it would have to be pretty bad storytelling for me to give something up. And I’m someone who will drop a boring book like a bad habit.)

It’s an interesting dilemma sometimes to decide if a book will be purchased as print or ebook, or not purchased at all but borrowed. I’m certainly happy with the gluttony of options. But I still know that when the final book in the Pink Carnation series comes out on August 4th, I’ll be in a bookstore picking up my print copy to read and shelve next to the other eleven. The lure of the print book will never die.

Here’s the deal . . . (again)

In lieu of the massive amount of money I spent on books last year and the fact that I have books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet, I have decided to reinstate some limits. I’m bringing back my book allowance.

With each paycheck I can spend $30 on books. No more, no less – well, maybe less. I will horde my change each week – if there is any – to put toward the next purchase.

I plan on mainly buying new fiction in fancy hardcover but I will be frugal at times and cash in on a 2 for 3 sale or prowl a used bookstore.

Not that this means I will only read one book every two weeks. If I finish a book before the next payday, I can browse my existing shelves for a book that will be new to me or check something out from the library.

Fingers crossed this plan works to keep me reading and writing and keep me in the black.

A novel in stories

I have mixed feelings about the concept of a novel in stories – interwoven stories that overlap characters and action. I love delving into character history, the meatier the better, and a novel in stories seems to be a way to access this. But with no overarching plot the stories land a bit lighter than intended, more like writing exercises than storytelling.

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister has many elements I enjoy – teases of magical realism, sensual descriptions, moments of lovely broad back story. I finished quickly and promptly felt hungry.
The first chapter/story is about Lillian, the instructor of The School of Essential Ingredients, a class she offers on nights her restaurant is closed. We learn about her quest to use cooking to coax her mother back to the world of the living after her father abandons them. Recipes provided by Abuelita are less instructions and more ideas – they read like a magical spell.
(Side note – I really never like reading about a young child left to wander around and make friends of strangers, like the kindly grandmother figure who owns a strange cookery store and teaches the girl to cook. Maybe it’s when the child is wandering around in a more ‘real’ world that it bothers me. Plunk an eleven-year old in a dark forest filled with unicorns and it’s a quest. It doesn’t feel like a quest when she rides the bus. That feels like neglect. I’ll have to work that element of fiction out, I suppose.)
So, spoiler – Lillian succeeds with Abuelita’s help and her mother once again pays attention to her. Then we’re thrust into another chapter following Claire, a student of The School. That chapter ended with Claire eating the crab she had clobbered herself (Victory!) and then “Slowly, Claire opened her eyes.”
I think I sighed here but I pushed on, 56 pages in was enough to commit to a couple more. I read about Carl and Helen – she cheated, he forgave her. Antonia, an Italian transplant, is beautiful and lonely. Chloe is young and obsessed with her boyfriend, a bad boy. I’ll spare you.
Tom’s chapter could have been an entire book. This should have been the book. (Him or Lillian, or both, knowing how Bauermeister sets things up.) His grief compels him toward the kitchen where his dead wife reigned. He works through his sadness as he works on a recipe. There are some more heavy lines handed from present to flashback. Lillian tells Tom to stir the eggs with a fork and make sure there are no lumps. After some blank space, we learn Tom found the lump in his wife’s breast.
I will be the first to say writing isn’t easy. I know it’s not. It should look easy thought – that is good writing. Bauermeister reads obvious, which is a different point all together. She is drawing lovely lines between cooking and many aspects of life but lumpy eggs to a lump in a breast is just obvious. The ideas are lovely; the execution is not subtle enough.
No overarching plot – except that the same group of people keep returning to the restaurant one night a month – so the main point becomes the bringing together of people. How food brings people together. Nothing new here. Although one coupling in the story surprised me, in a good way – young Chloe leaves her jerk boyfriend and, needing a place to stay, moves in with Isabelle, the confused old lady who shows up on the wrong day sometimes. Assuming Chloe really is a sweet girl and won’t rob Isabelle blind, that connection alone felt novel.
The School of Essential Ingredients was fine. It reads fast and includes many vivid descriptions of food. There is a nugget of goodness buried in this idea. I wish it had been brought to fruition.