Book Review: Miss Julia Knows a Thing or Two by Ann B. Ross—and a Giveaway! @VikingBooks

Miss Julia Knows a Thing or Two
Miss Julia Series #21
Ann B. Ross
Viking, April 2020
ISBN 978-0-525-56051-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Miss Julia has decided to turn over a new leaf. It’s time to stop meddling in other peoples’ lives, she thinks–but her hands are full before long! Her neighbor Mildred is sent into a tizzy when a grandchild she’s never met shows up on her doorstep. And Mildred’s husband keeps forgetting who she is, so she’s all on her own. Meanwhile, Etta Mae is worried about losing her job now that the Handy Home Helpers is up for sale. Luckily, Miss Julia has experience dealing with children dropped on doorsteps, and sweeps in to lend a hand. But there’s something missing in that child’s life, and Miss Julia knows exactly what it is.

Living in small towns such as Abbotsville, NC, tends to make people a little busybody-ish and Miss Julia has recognized in herself an inclination towards being overly critical and obdurate so she’s decided to make an effort to be more open to other ideas, more sensitive and less prideful, especially after what’s been going on with her friend and next door neighbor, Mildred Allen. Poor Mildred really has a lot on her plate right now.

Mildred is coping, not very well, with her husband, Horace’s, growing cognitive impairment while her son, Tony, has recently become estranged, following his transition to daughter, Tonya. Then, out of the blue, a previously unknown grandchild shows up practically on Mildred’s doorstep. What is the beleagured woman supposed to do? Well, quite naturally, she seeks out advice from her friend and it doesn’t take long for Miss Julia to realize that things are more than a little suspicious and her tendency towards snoopiness aka sleuthing rises to this new challenge.

While Mildred’s problems are absorbing much of Miss Julia’s time and effort, she’s also concerned about Etta Mae Wiggins who may be about to lose her Handy Home Helper job for dubious reasons. Miss Julia’s determined to ferret out some truths so her good intentions of becoming more conscious of how she can rub people the wrong way just might have to wait. On top of all this, the Christmas holidays and all that entails are fast approaching and demanding her attention.

The mystery elements are lightweight here but that’s not really what the Miss Julia stories are all about—enjoy this for the appealing characters and setting as well as the warm-hearted, enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2020.

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Giveaway

To enter the drawing for an advance reading
copy of Miss Julia Knows a Thing or Two,

leave a comment below. The
winning name will be drawn on
Monday evening, April 20th.
Open to residents of the US and Canada.

Book Review: Miss Julia Takes the Wheel by Ann B. Ross

Miss Julia Takes the Wheel
Miss Julia #20
Ann B. Ross
Viking, April 2019
ISBN 978-0-525-56048-7
Hardcover

This is the 21st in this popular series but it is the first I’ve read.  So, a bit of background for those who also haven’t read others in the series.  The series is set in North Carolina and the main character is Miss Julia, a wealthy white southern woman.  In this book, Miss Julia is very concerned because her doctor and his wife are taking an extended European vacation, leaving the doctor’s practice to a substitute.  Although neither Miss Julia nor her husband, Sam, are ill, she worries that they could become ill and have to see a doctor they do not know.

Having been asked to reach out to the substitute doctor (Dr. Don Crawford) and his wife (Lauren), Miss Julia invites them to dinner and introduces them to other couples who are friends of hers.  While Miss Julia finds the doctor to be charming, the dinner is strained due, in part, to Lauren’s shyness and unwillingness to talk  other than to answer direct questions.  Later her friends raise some concerns about Don.  Nevertheless, Miss Julia and her friend Hazel Marie try, with limited success, to engage Lauren in local activities including play dates with Hazel Marie’s and Lauren’s children.  Meanwhile, Miss Julia is also helping her friend’s teenage son with learning to drive.

There is much going on in this book including a mystery, the outcome of which was not hard to deduce, Miss Julia’s willingness to help her friends in need, and her often self-sacrificing behavior.  While I realize that this series is considered funny and entertaining, this book deals with a serious problem which is neither funny nor entertaining.

Finally, I  want to address the  conversations between Miss Julia and her African- American maid, Lillian.  While Miss Julia turns to Lillian for advice and takes Lillian into her confidence, Lillian’s side of their conversations is written in a particular manner that clearly puts her in a lower social class than Miss Julia.  To illustrate with just a few examples of which there are many:  Lillian’s dialogue includes “ast” instead of “asked”; “liberry” instead of “library”; and “growed up” instead of “grown up.”  This comment is not directed toward any region’s way of speaking but rather to the obvious racial overtones in such conversations.  Because I did not find the book funny, nor the mystery a challenge, and I was put off by the thinly veiled racism in the narrative, I do not recommend this book.

Reviewed by Melinda Drew, December 2019.

Book Reviews: A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib and Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson @SaraBLarson @Scholastic @rajiahassib @VikingBooks

A Pure Heart
Rajia Hassib
Viking, August 2019
ISBN 978-0-525-56005-0
Hardcover

The Gubran family led a normal, content life in Cairo. Rose and Gigi were, to Rose’s thinking, the best friends that sisters are meant to be. There would always be quarrels, but nothing to break their bond. Even as they age, pursue further education, broaden their horizons with new people and ways of life; they would surely stick together.

Thinking back, though, maybe Rose hadn’t been so supportive. Or remotely open-minded. As Gigi grew more devout and adopted some Muslim customs that Rose considered outdated; rather than addressing it with Gigi, Rose silently stewed, waiting for her little sis to ‘come to her senses’. Perhaps if she’d attempted to understand—sincerely—they may never have agreed, but neither would they have grown apart. Maybe.

Younger siblings seem to live in someone else’s shadow, making self-discovery slightly more difficult. Delving deeper into her religion may have been the best way for Gigi to create her own light. She can almost understand why her parents essentially ignore the changes they have to see in her, but Gigi is stunned when her family makes no effort to understand her disappointment and dismay with her elder sister.

First, Rose decides to marry an American. To leave Egypt for the United States. She took his last name. Her sister should be “Dr. Gubran”, as she’s always dreamed. Proudly bearing the name of the family that supported her throughout, not the surname of some folks from West Virginia.

Unless…

Did Rose make those allowances for love? That, Gigi can understand. She, too, has chosen the love of a man, but over objections from her parents and friends. Gigi may not have made the best choice, but she doesn’t know that yet. Instead, she simply sees similarities between her love-life and Rose’s. She was pleased to, once again, have something in common.

Happiness for herself is short-lived. She feels sad for Rose, who doesn’t know about this connection. Gigi envisions sharing the secret she’s carried alone for years.  She must mend her relationship with Rose. She knows the perfect place to start. The American brother-in-law will be staying with her family while he is conducting interviews in Egypt for an upcoming article. Gigi vows to go above and beyond to assist him.

That is the decision that will ultimately change all of their lives.

Reading Rajia Hassib‘s A Pure Heart is like watching a moonflower unfurl, as dusk darkens, until the almost-iridescent, snowy-white bloom is wide open against the pitch-black night.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2019.

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Dark Breaks the Dawn
Dark Breaks the Dawn #1
Sara B. Larson
Scholastic Press, June 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-06869-6
Hardcover

Dark and Light were meant to exist independently, yet harmoniously. This provides and maintains balance for the world. Only, the rulers of Dark want more. They are determined take away the magic of Light and have waged war.

That very war has already taken Princess Evelayn’s father, and is currently keeping Queen Ilaria away from home. But (finally) the day of Evelayn’s 18th birthday arrives. The “18th” being of upmost importance as the ability to access full power has proven dangerous when wielded by immature beings. Evelayn has been impatiently awaiting this day since the moment she found out that the “more” she craved was not just possible, but promised.

So, that’s a pretty big deal, but there is something that pushes its way past the magic thing. The queen has promised to return for Evelayn’s special day. Even though the trip will take her from the frontlines, where she has been battling alongside the kingdom’s best soldiers.

And herein lies my first favorite thing: Royal Court receives pampering and protection during normal, every-day activities only. When it is time to fight, no one is expected to be more ferocious and fearless than the leaders.

Having always taken her physical training seriously, Evelayn can more than hold her own in a fight. And, the princess of Light has mastered the mask—the stoic expression that is to reveal nothing of her thoughts or feelings. Albeit not always employed, she is also able to perform her duties with the courtesy and politeness expected by her parents. Yet, she is nowhere near ready to replace her mother; Evelayn can’t even shift.

As day breaks, Evelayn awaits the arrival of her full power and her mother, while Dark prepares the grand finale. Step one being to kill Queen Ilaria.  Without the conduit, the people of Light will not be able to access individual powers.

The magic may be restored. It’s just a small matter of Evelayn becoming Queen, performing the requisite ceremony with her high priestesses, then accessing and redistributing. In three days. If it doesn’t go down, exactly right, in that tiny time window, there is an opportunity for Dark to steal the magic for themselves.

Ms. Larson is not afraid to hit the ground running (really) in her magic-filled-fantasy, Dark Breaks the Dawn. I may not have fully understood everything at first, but that couldn’t keep me from franticly flipping pages to find out what’s next. Just as the big picture was coming into view, I smugly ‘figured out’ how this tale would end.

I was wrong. Now I’m off to find a copy of Ms. Larson’s Bright Burns the Night because I haven’t had nearly enough of this world.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2019.

Book Reviews: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré and The Trespasser by Tana French

A Legacy of Spies
John le Carré
Viking, September 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2511-4
Hardcover

The Cold War may have ended many years ago in real life, but not for John le Carré, who has now written a fascinating book derived from two of his earlier George Smiley novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Smiley merely plays a background role in Legacy.  Instead, Peter Guillam, his disciple, who retired from the Circus (the British Secret Service) to the family farmstead in southern France, plays a central part in the story.

Peter receives a letter summoning him to London where he is instructed to review files and interrogated about an operation during the Cold War in which an operative and a source were killed.  It would appear that a potential parliamentary inquiry or even a civil action blaming Peter and others for the deaths and seeking monetary damages, brought by the offspring of the two unfortunate victims, is possible.

As Peter reviews the material, le Carré recreates the times and travails of the period, as we relive through the actions of the characters conditions in East Berlin and the spy craft during the Cold War.  It is history recreated with all the tensions of the period, excellently written with humor and panache.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

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The Trespasser
Dublin Murder Squad #6
Tana French
Penguin, August 2017
ISBN: 978-0-1431-1038-5
Trade Paperback

Antoinette Conway and her partner, Stephen Moran (who she brought on board in the Dublin Murder Squad after working with him in a previous novel) are the newbies in the elite Irish police group, and as such, only receive humdrum domestic dispute assignments.  Until one day the gaffer hands them what turns out to be a murder case of a pretty young woman.  The case turns out to be anything but a simple lovers quarrel.

Antoinette, the only female on the squad, takes a lot of guff from other members (who want her anywhere else), and her resentment shows throughout the book.  While she enjoys her work, she contemplates leaving for an offer in the private sector.  Meanwhile, she has a murder to solve as her first lead detective case and goes about it diligently if somewhat misdirected by an experienced detective assigned to work with the partners for reasons not revealed until the end.

One criticism I made in the previous novel by Tana French was that it was tedious and slow reading.  The same is true of The Trespasser.  One has to plod through a couple of hundred pages of continual repetition before it all begins to make sense.  And then, and only then, does the reading become enjoyable and worthwhile and the plot begin to come together.  The novel would have been rated at a higher level had it not been for this criticism.  Certainly, Ms French writes well and creates clever plots.  One could wish she would now turn her attention to some judicious editing.  That said, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2017.

Book Review: Miss Julia Weathers the Storm by Ann B. Ross

Miss Julia Weathers the Storm
Miss Julia Series #19
Ann B. Ross
Viking, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-7352-2047-8
Hardcover

Miss Julia, a Southern gentlewoman of a certain age, is happily remarried to a loving and generous retired lawyer, Sam Murdoch. Her husband is certainly a contrast to her late husband Wesley Lloyd Springer, who was quick to criticize and tightfisted to boot. It wasn’t until after she buried him that a young woman turned up on her doorstep with a boy in hand—her late husband’s son, as it turned out.

But Miss Julia befriended Hazel Marie and young Lloyd, who is now part of her family. Hazel Marie  married a private detective, Mr. Pickens, who Miss Julia has never warmed to,  and now has twin toddlers.

When her husband suggests renting a beach house on an island and inviting Hazel Marie and her family along, Miss Julia balks. Not because of any dislike of Hazel Marie, but because Miss Julia really doesn’t care to travel. But her husband is so excited about the idea, she relents. Who else to invite? There’s their lawyer friend, Binkie, and her husband Coleman, a sergeant in the local sheriff’s department, and their young daughter Gracie. Then there’s the housekeeper Lillian, and her six year old great granddaughter Latisha. Rounding out the group is Miss Julia’s friend, LuAnne Conover, who suspects her husband is cheating on her, and Etta Mae Wiggins, a home health aid, who manages a mobile home park, and could use a vacation.

Latisha spends her time at the beach looking for sea shells, but on one of the days a lot more than sand dollars washes up on the shore. Hundred dollar bills, suspected to be dumped overboard by drug smugglers, have vacationers scrambling for the money. Three strangers  are overly interested in Latisha’s finds, and later show up in Abbotsville, after Miss Julia and her entourage have all returned home. Is the little girl in danger?

An entertaining addition to this long-running series. Fans of “Steel Magnolias” or Fannie Flagg’s novels will enjoy this slice of southern life, with characters that will keep you wanting more. It’s the nineteenth book in the series.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, July 2017.

Book Review: Buffalo Jump Blues by Keith McCafferty

Buffalo Jump BluesBuffalo Jump Blues
A Sean Stranahan Mystery #5
Keith McCafferty
Viking, June 2016
ISBN 978-0-5254-2959-3
Hardcover

From the publisher:  In the wake of Fourth of July fireworks in Montana’s Madison Valley, Deputy Sheriff Harold Little Feather and Hyalite County Sheriff Martha Ettinger investigate a horrific scene at the Palisades cliffs, where a herd of bison [a/k/a buffalo] have fallen to their deaths.  Are they victims of blind panic caused by the pyrotechnics, or a ritualistic hunting practice dating back thousands of years?  The person who would know is beyond asking, an Indian man found dead among the bison, his leg pierced by an arrow.  Farther up the valley, fly fisherman, painter and sometime private detective Sean Stranahan has been hired by the beautiful Ida Evening Star – – a Chippewa Cree woman who moonlights as a mermaid at the Trout Tails Bar & Grill  – to find her old flame, John Running Boy.  The cases seem unrelated, until Sean’s search leads him right to the brink of the buffalo jump.

This is the fifth entry in the series, and to call it eclectic would be an understatement.  Both the fishing and wildlife aspects of it, which predominate in the early sections, are entirely foreign to this reader, whose usual preference is for character-driven novels.  But the header for Chapter 8, “A Mermaid, an Arrowhead, and True Love,” captures the elements of most of the rest of the book.  The aforementioned Ida is the first of these, the arrowhead a piece of evidence in the search for the murderer of the Indian Man, and true love is – well, as Sean says: “True love knows not logic nor lust, but the synchronized bearing of hearts.”

The bison was the “icon of the West” that only a century ago had stood at the brink of extinction.  When Harold comes upon the first body, he puts the dying animal out of its misery.  He muses, “The irony of what he had done, killing the first bison to have returned to these ancient hunting grounds in one hundred and fifty years, was not lost on him.”  But he had done what he had to do, and cannot second-guess himself.  Shanahan is a terrific protagonist, of whom Martha says “You’re what I call a Montana Renaissance man.  You have about five different jobs and still you have to stick a hose down a gas tank to siphon up enough fuel to get to the store.”  (He guides during the trout season, writes for fishing magazines and paints in the winter (or when he gets a commission).  He says of himself “I’m a better artist than I am a detective.  Or fishing guide.”  But he is selling himself short, as he demonstrates during the ensuing investigation, assisting Martha in the search for the man or men behind the events.  The geography of Montana is vividly presented.  The writing is terrific and filled with humor, e.g., “Fishermen are born honest, but they get over it.”  The beauty of Montana is vivid, and that and the wonderful writing have pointed me to the fourth novel in the series which I had somehow missed, Crazy Mountain Kiss, next up for this reader.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2016.

Book Review: Aunt Dimity and the Summer King by Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity and the Summer KingAunt Dimity & the Summer King
Aunt Dimity #20
Nancy Atherton
Viking, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-670-02670-8
Hardcover

I thought it would be fun to begin my Aunt Dimity adventure with this twentieth book in the series. By now, the series is fully developed and later I could go back and work my way forward, if I liked what I read.What’s not to love in the premise of the series? Lori Shepherd from Chicago has relocated to Finch, a small cottage in England’s Cotswolds she inherited from her Aunt Dimity. And Aunt Dimity has even stuck around after her death, always available to communicate with Lori by mysteriously writing to her in a blue journal whenever Lori looks inside. Aunt Dimity is a guide/best friend for Lori, helping her to develop her thoughts about the current mystery taking place in Finch. That mystery is why the two empty cottages in Finch have not been sold.

Lori also has her newborn daughter in this book and is just as involved with her as she is with solving the current mystery. Unfortunately, this baby is a very normal baby and reading about the details of caring for a baby becomes rather tedious at times (breastfeeding, naps, diaper changes) – nothing really different here than a normal healthy baby. She is much loved and tended and there is barely a conversation which isn’t interrupted by the baby. It is a realistic portrayal of life with a newborn. This might be entertaining or even enlightening for a reader who doesn’t realize how much a baby can change your life and I would recommend it to those readers. For the rest of us, we may need to just skim those parts and not let ourselves get bogged down.

In solving the empty cottages mystery, Lori meets the Summer King who lives just over the town line, and seeks to understand the rivalry between the two towns. We are introduced to lots of colorful characters in the town. I would have liked more of the book to be about them and Aunt Dimity and the Summer King and his family. These sections of the book are delightful and the book is at its most charming when Lori gets to know him and his family and visits his home.

If you are already an Aunt Dimity fan, I think you will enjoy this book too. If you’re not yet a fan, you may want to start with an earlier volume.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, June 2015.