August 22, 2014

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Bella Vista Chronicles, Book 1

This series is set at the Bella Vista apple orchard in Sonoma County, California, in the small town of Archangel. I read these out of order, starting with book 2, The Beekeeper’s Ball, which I liked so much that I immediately ran out and got this book. They don’t have to be read in order, but probably is better to do so.

This story centers around Tess Delaney, an antiques appraiser working for a prestigious California auction house like Sotheby’s. She grew up in Dublin with a single mom who travelled a great deal, so really her grandmother raised her.  The grandmother had an antiques store and Tess loved being there with her, and learned a great deal that helped her in her career. Her mother told her that her father was a one night stand and she didn’t even know his name.

Tess is on the verge of a big promotion and move to New York when Dominic Rossi enters her life. She originally believes he’s come to her for an appraisal, but is shocked to discover that he’s there to deliver some bad news. Her grandfather, Magnus,  has taken a tumble and is in a coma. The news would be devastating to anyone, but the real shocker is that Tess never knew she even had a grandfather. Then she comes to find out that she also has a half-sister.

Dominic is divorced with two kids and dogs and is the executor of Magnus’s estate, and tells Tess that the two granddaughters are equal heirs. Stunned to learn she stands to inherit an estate, Tess decides she had better go meet her half sister, Isabel, and find out more. Along the way she falls in love with the area, and with Dominic, but the estate is on the verge of bankruptcy. Dominic works for the bank that holds the mortgages, but try as he might, the conglomerate that owns the bank won’t budge – until Tess ferrets out a rare antique that is worth millions.

The backstory here is a complicated family one, with some really interesting flashbacks to World War II in Copenhagen, and the Danish resistance. A very fast read with characters that come alive on the pages, and I truly hope there are more books to follow.

8/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE BEEKEEPER’S BALL by Susan Wiggs. Harlequin MIRA; Reprint edition (April 29, 2014). ISBN 978-0778314967. 448p.


August 20, 2014

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Bella Vista Chronicles

This was the first book I’ve read by Susan Wiggs, and as soon as I realized it was the second book of a series, I went and got the first – this is the sequel to The Apple Orchard . Hopefully, there will be more to come.

This story is set at Bella Vista farm in Sonoma County, California, in the small town of Archangel. Isabel Johanson is a culinary school dropout but a gifted chef, and she is converting the large hacienda where she grew up into a farm-to-table cooking school. She is also busy helping her half sister Tess plan her wedding, which will be held at the recently converted barn on the property.

Bella Vista is home to a small apiary, and Isabel is determined to expand it. She leaves a message for a local beekeeper and is waiting for some help, but her bees have minds of their own and start swarming, looking for a new home. As she tries to capture the swarm, a young man stops, who she assumes to be Jamie, the beekeeper. But he knows even less than she does about bees, and gets stung, triggering a life threatening allergic reaction.

Turns out he is Cormac O’Neill, a famous journalist who is on his way to Bella Vista to work on a book about Isabel’s grandfather, Magnus, who worked with the Danish resistance during World War II. This is a family with a lot of secrets, and having the writer there helps them all come out.

There is obvious chemistry between Cormac and Isabel, but she is hesitant about getting involved. She had a bad experience in culinary school and hasn’t really come to terms with everything that happened, but she is forced to when her ex shows up in town to open a restaurant.

There are a lot of threads to this story, and Wiggs masterly weaves them all together seamlessly, creating an engaging page turner with historical significance – I learned a lot about about Denmark’s role during the Holocaust. Her characters are skillfully brought to life, and the setting becomes another character here. There are a few honey based recipes included as well, and I’m dying to try the Bee Sting Cake, a sort of breakfast sweet bread.

If you liked The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult, try The Beekeeper’s Ball – I liked it even more.

8/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE BEEKEEPER’S BALL by Susan Wiggs. Harlequin MIRA; First Edition edition (June 24, 2014). ISBN 978-0778314486. 368p.


July 4, 2014

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The Treynovsky family escaped the pogroms in Russia and emmigrated to the lower east side of New York, where Malka grew up to become Lillian Dunkle, the eponymous ice cream queen in Susan Jane Gilman’s charming first novel. Her journey from poverty stricken immigrant to enormously successful ice cream magnate is the quintessential American story.

The streets of New York are not always the safest place for children, teeming with vendors and their push carts. Malka is out one day when the Italian ices man’s horse accidentally crushes her leg in a truly Dickensian moment. Malka’s father takes off, her mother can’t handle it and ends up in a sanitarium. Mr. Dinello feels guilty for crippling the child and takes her in, so this Jewish immigrant girl is raised by an Italian immigrant family. The Italian ices cart grows into an ice cream factory and Malka learns the business until both Mr. and Mrs. Dinello pass away. Their sons form a partnership and a new company, and leave her out in the cold.

Revenge drives Malka, who eventually changes her name to the more American sounding Lillian. She meets Albert Dunkle, a movie star handsome Jewish immigrant with a bad stutter. She tries to help him and they fall in love and marry. Together they start up Dunkle’s Ice Cream. Albert invents a machine that makes soft serve ice cream (think Carvel here, I certainly did) and they become hugely successful. But vindictiveness against the Dinello family fuels Lillian’s fire, and she won’t be happy until they are out of business. Lillian is an unscrupulous businesswoman, and eventually her chickens come home to roost.

This is a family story about the immigrant experience in America, told with a lot of humor and pathos. The characters come alive on these pages and while you may not always like Lillian Dunkle, you can’t help but cheer her on.

7/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE ICE CREAM QUEEN OF ORCHARD STREET by Susan Jane Gilman. Grand Central Publishing (June 10, 2014). ISBN 978-0446578936. 512p.


June 30, 2014

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This is the story of a blind French girl and a mathematically inclined German boy in World War II occupied France, and it is one of the most beautifully written and memorable novels that I’ve read in a long time.

I heard about it through Library Reads, it was one of the top ten picks for May. I have found some terrific books through this list of librarian favorites, and I urge you to check it out.

Marie Laure goes blind when she’s six years old. She lives with her father in Paris near the museum where he is a locksmith. He builds her a minature village to scale of their neighborhood and teaches her to navigate on her own. But when the Germans invade Paris, they flee to Saint-Malo to stay with Marie Laure’s uncle, who is a severe agoraphobic. He has a multi-story home on the sea that he shares with a housekeeper/caretaker.

Meanwhile Werner is a 14 year old boy living with his sister in an orphanage in Germany. He is selected to test for engineering school, where he excels. But school under the Third Reich is difficult for Werner. His best friend is a gentle soul and he knows nothing good can come of that in the land of Hitler Youth. Werner is eventually sent out to hunt down illegal transmitters, and that is how he spends the last few years of  his childhood, and the war.

Marie Laure is growing up, and grows very close to both the housekeeper and her uncle. When her father goes missing, they care for her. Eventually Saint-Malo becomes a closed city, and life is very difficult for those still living there. Food, even water, are scarce and freedom becomes a thing of the past.

Werner’s and Marie Laure’s stories ebb and flow, moving back and forth in time and place until inevitably they meet. The war is their backdrop, but the book, surprisingly, is about the kindness people can show one another, even in extraodinarily difficult times.

Reading groups will love this as universal themes of love, war, deception, loyalty, impairments and more will offer great fodder for discussion. Most of the chapters are extremely short, and even though it is a highly descriptive novel, the story moves and is quite gripping, I couldn’t put it down.

All the Light We Cannot See is one of my favorite books so far this year.

6/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. Scribner; First Edition edition (May 6, 2014). ISBN 978-1476746586. 544p.


June 25, 2014

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I found this book on the long list for the Mann Booker prize in 2013 and it was published here in the U.S. by Grove Press in April.

I always find books about the Orthodox Jewish community fascinating, it’s a whole different culture from anything I’ve personally experienced. This story is set in London, which adds another layer to the story.

Chani Kaufman is getting married. She’s 19, she’s had three dates with Baruch, who is looking for a wife before he goes off to Jerusalem to rabbinical school. Baruch comes from a very wealthy family, but Chani does not. Her father is a good man, a rabbi himself, but of a small congregation.

Baruch’s mother is none too pleased with her son’s choice. She wants him to find a rich girl to subsidize his studies, and to keep things on an even playing field. But Baruch sticks to his guns and Chani thwarts her future mother-in-law’s plans to end the relationship.

The book is about these families, and also about the Rebbetzin that Chani is studying with. She is a deeply unhappy character, and the book moves between these various characters and  their families, as well as moving back and forth in time, but it is always interesting and easy to follow. Definitely for fans of Naomi Ragen’s books or The Innocents by Francesca Segal.

6/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE MARRYING OF CHANI KAUFMAN by Eve Harris. Grove Press, Black Cat (April 1, 2014). ISBN 978-0802122735. 384p.


January 28, 2014

Ragen goes back to her roots, Ultra Orthodox Jewish family stories, this time using Rose and Pearl Weiss as her vehicle.

Growing up in the ultra Orthodox Jewish community in 1950’s Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the sisters Weiss paths diverge as they become young adults. Rose, the elder sister, meets a young French girl at school, and a visit to their home changes her life forever. Rose is headstrong and by chance, finsd her calling in life as a teenager – she wants to become a photographer. Her community, her family, her Rav (rabbi) all reject this choice for her. They forbid her from seeing her new friend and send her off to live with her Bubbee (grandmother) and force her to attend a Satmar school. The Satmar’s are even more religious and don’t really believe in educating women; they consider that they are there to learn to be good Jewish wives and mothers before they are married off.

But Rose is rebellious and in her isolation learns to lie to her family. They decide the only solution is to marry her off at age 17, the usual age girls marry in that community. They even let Rose choose her husband, but at the last minute, she decides she cannot live that life and runs away. She loses touch with her family for the next forty years, which is her biggest regret in life.

The story then moves ahead to Rivkah, Pearl’s daughter, who is in a similar situation to that of the aunt she’s never met, and their worlds collide with some devastating effect. Rivkah finds a box hidden under her mother’s bed with a letter from this exiled aunt, and a newspaper clipping about her photography award.

Rivkah can’t bear to go from being someone’s daughter to someone’s wife, so she runs away, first, to the cousin she’s never known, and then to her aunt. But she learns that there are no easy answers, and that all choices come with consequences and responsibility.

Naomi Ragen grew up in this community and currently lives in Israel, so is accustomed to the lifestyle; she’s lived it. She is intimately familiar with the difficulties, and the blessings, that have kept her people going for so long, and likes exploring all sides in her stories.

The characters are well developed, the culture interesting and I learned a lot. This is a fast read, albeit not an easy one. This is a family I won’t soon forget.

01/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch

THE SISTERS WEISS by Naomi Ragen.  St. Martin’s Press; First Edition edition (October 15, 2013). ISBN 978-0312570194. 336p.