Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Reluctantly Charmed by Ellie O'Neill

Title:  Reluctantly Charmed

Author: Ellie O’Neill
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster (October 1st 2014)
Pages:  448 pages
How We Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: magical realism, romance, fairies, chick lit
Our Rating: 2 cups

Kate McDaid is listing her new-year’s resolutions hoping to kick-start her rather stagnant love life and career when she gets some very strange news. To her surprise, she is the sole benefactor of a great great-great-great aunt and self-proclaimed witch also called Kate McDaid, who died over 130 years ago. As if that isn’t strange enough, the will instructs that, in order to receive the inheritance, Kate must publish seven letters, one by one, week by week.

Burning with curiosity, Kate agrees and opens the first letter – and finds that it’s a passionate plea to reconnect with the long-forgotten fairies of Irish folklore. Almost instantaneously, Kate’s life is turned upside down. Her romantic life takes a surprising turn and she is catapulted into the public eye.

As events become stranger and stranger – and she discovers things about herself she’s never known before – Kate must decide whether she can fulfil her great-aunt’s final, devastating request ... and whether she can face the consequences if she doesn’t.

Our thoughts:

There are many interesting aspects to this debut tale by Irish-Australian author Ellie O’Neill, particularly the topics of Irish folklore, fairies, and life in modern day Ireland.

The reader is provided with a window on city living in Ireland’s capital - “Dublin competes with itself all the time. It feels like it should move on and look modern, but it doesn’t really want to.” – with bike riding, new cultures and pub life all regaled.  O’Neill is not frightened to express what really is being embraced here:

“This New Ireland doesn’t look back, because we’ve been led to believe that there’s nothing there worth looking back for. Look back and you’ll find hundreds of years of oppression and misery, the famine, poverty and emigration. Why should we dwell on our past? Recent events have made me think that perhaps it is time to look back. Have we been wise to ignore our rich heritage of Celtic mysticism an spirituality?”

Herein lies what is at the heart of this tale – Irish folklore, namely fairies, and our need to recognize and maybe embrace what they have to offer:

“But I like the idea of fairies, and guardian angels and cosmic coincidences. It was just really hard to believe in any of it when you couldn’t see it. I’d read self-help and spiritual guidebooks - I was a normal 26 year old after all. I was interested in understanding how things worked and how I worked. I looked to the universe for coincidences. I tried to understand.”

Through some humorous moments, O’Neill provides thought provoking ideas by way of the seven letters Kate must publish, seven steps that will resonate with any environmentally aware person in today’s world. What were these scripts of old that would ultimately allow Kate to assess and make changes to her life in some unexpected ways?

“They’re all kinds of things. They're quite nice really, mainly about appreciating nature. They’re just nice little messages…. What harm is there in taking half a minute out of our busy lives to stop, to pause and appreciate, to know that we are all of the same earth, that we work together? Do it. You’ll be happier for it"

This book is not entirely how we imagined it to be, seesawing between genre styles and at times a little drawn out. It loses its footing a bit here and there, but Kate’s efforts to reconcile and come to terms with the steps are always interesting and often comical. There is an array of secondary characters that provide colour to the story – quite literally for Kate’s parents!  So if you are after a light whimsical read, and are open-minded about the possible existence of fairies, then this is the book for you.

                                 Our Rating:

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan

Title: The Hawley Book of the Dead
Author: Chrysler Szarlan
Publisher:  Ballantine Books (September 23 2014)
ISBN: 9780345545022
Pages: 352 pages
How We Read It: eARC
Genre: adult fiction, mystery, fantasy, paranormal, witches


For fans of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and A Discovery of Witches comes a brilliantly imagined debut novel brimming with rich history, suspense, and magic.

Revelation “Reve” Dyer grew up with her grandmother’s family stories, stretching back centuries to Reve’s ancestors, who founded the town of Hawley Five Corners, Massachusetts. Their history is steeped in secrets, for few outsiders know that an ancient magic runs in the Dyer women’s blood, and that Reve is a magician whose powers are all too real.

Reve and her husband are world-famous Las Vegas illusionists. They have three lovely young daughters, a beautiful home, and what seems like a charmed life. But Reve’s world is shattered when an intruder alters her trick pistol and she accidentally shoots and kills her beloved husband onstage.

Fearing for her daughters’ lives, Reve flees with them to the place she has always felt safest—an antiquated farmhouse in the forest of Hawley Five Corners, where the magic of her ancestors reigns, and her oldest friend—and first love—is the town’s chief of police. Here, in the forest, with its undeniable air of enchantment, Reve hopes she and her girls will be protected.

Delving into the past for answers, Reve is drawn deeper into her family’s legends. What she discovers is The Hawley Book of the Dead, an ancient leather-bound journal holding mysterious mythic power. As she pieces together the truth behind the book, Reve will have to shield herself and her daughters against an uncertain, increasingly dangerous fate. For soon it becomes clear that the stranger who upended Reve’s life in Las Vegas has followed her to Hawley—and that she has something he desperately wants.

Brimming with rich history, suspense, and magic, The Hawley Book of the Dead is a brilliantly imagined debut novel from a riveting new voice.

 Our Thoughts:

As you can see from the synopsis detailed above, there is a lot going on in this novel. We found it to be a very descriptive tale with well-rendered settings and events that immersed us and made us feel we were experiencing everything right along with the characters.

This is a well-written narrative, with a truly haunting and magical flavor. Simplistically, it would at first appear that this book is a straightforward mystery thriller about a stalker out to destroy a family. However, delving deeper, one discovers that this tale is about magic - and not just stage magic - as you are introduced to a parallel world that exists just beyond the veil – fascinating! There are interesting tidbits regarding stage magic scattered throughout, as well as intriguing information about Irish mythology woven into the history of the tale.

Szarlan knows how to write, and there are some wonderful references to the more ‘everyday’ forms of magic that we all experience:

“Writing is a kind of magic. One person sits in a room alone and makes marks on a page that represent the image in her mind. Another person looks at those marks, weeks or months or a hundred years later, and similar images appear in that person’s mind. Magic.”

The character portraits are very real and relatable: the main character of Reve is really earthy, and we enjoyed her journey to discover the truth about her life. Her conflicted emotions, feelings of fear, anger, guilt, and particularly grief, felt true to life and authentic. It takes a talented writer to seamlessly relate a tale that can skillfully combine fantasy in a realistic setting, and Szarlan does an admirable job, crafting a book with a paranormal mystery, thriller elements, hints of mythology and even a touch of romance – very clever.

We would like to point out that the comparison made to A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness is a bit of a stretch. Yes, they are both stories involving a mysterious book and centering on witches, but overall they are quite different. This book is less complex and has more of a ‘thriller’ feel to it. There is not as much historical detail presented, and here the magic is based on a specific ‘gift’ unique to each individual witch rather than involving actual spells per se. The working of magic is more alluded to than overt. And that’s okay – we found this book to be very enjoyable - but don’t go in expecting a Harkness (HUGE Harkness fans here) or you may be disappointed.

Although this book is the first in a series, rest assured that it does not end with a cliffhanger. This opening volume resolves nicely while leaving plenty of potential for further stories. After this solid debut effort, we look forward to what else Szarlan has in store for us with the next novels in The Revelation Quartet, for let it be said, we all need a little more magic in our lives:

“Why we no longer want to believe in magic in our real lives is a puzzle, but we don’t. The possibility frightens us, makes us retreat into the turtle shells that our rational minds are.” 

 Our Rating:
This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher provided through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn

Title:  Silent in the Sanctuary (Lady Julia Grey #2)

Publisher:  December 28 2007 by Mira
ISBN: 0778324923 (ISBN13: 9780778324928)
Pages:  552 pages
Source of Book: Amazon kindle ebook
Genre: historical fiction, romance, mystery

Fresh from a six-month sojourn in Italy, Lady Julia returns home to Sussex to find her father's estate crowded with family and friends but dark deeds are afoot at the deconsecrated abbey, and a murderer roams the ancient cloisters.

Much to her surprise, the one man she had hoped to forget--the enigmatic and compelling Nicholas Brisbane--is among her father's house guests; and he is not alone. Not to be outdone, Julia shows him that two can play at flirtation and promptly introduces him to her devoted, younger, titled Italian count.

But the homecoming celebrations quickly take a ghastly turn when one of the guests is found brutally murdered in the chapel, and a member of Lady Julia's own family confesses to the crime. Certain of her cousin's innocence, Lady Julia resumes her unlikely and deliciously intriguing partnership with Nicholas Brisbane, setting out to unravel a tangle of deceit before the killer can strike again. When a sudden snowstorm blankets the abbey like a shroud, it falls to Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane to answer the shriek of murder most foul.

Our Thoughts:

The second volume in this Victorian mystery series picks up several months after the end of the first. Lady Julia is on vacation in Italy recovering from the traumatic events of her investigation into her husband's death (mystery from the first novel).  At the summons of their father, Julia and her brothers return home to England for Christmas at the very gothic Bellmont Abbey. What follows next is a clever amalgamation of an Agatha Christie ‘whodunit’ with a good game of Cluedo – there’s even a candlestick! The plot twists and suspects keep coming as Julia and Brisbane once more work together on this murder case.

This read was light and fun, a nice break from the more serious reads. The mystery is intriguing and the twists and turns combined with a number of smaller intrigues help to keep the pace moving along nicely. Lady Julia's eccentric family is one of the main features in this book and are a delight to read about. Yet the heart of the book is the relationship between Lady Julia and Brisbane - the chemistry between the two is most engaging. One of Raybourn's major talents is creating characters that are easy to love and fun to spend time with – they make you smile.  Being the second in the series, there's also that feeling of familiarity right from the first few pages as the characters you know and love are back and facing another mystery. Her stories are full of humour – it’s laugh-out-loud stuff:

Morag, my maid, entered the drawing room to announce a visitor.
"The Count of Four-not-cheese".
I gave her an evil look…. "And his name is Fornacci," I hissed at her.

A few hours after a dinner:
"Aquinas, I am afraid the Reverend Mr Snow has died suddenly."
Aquinas was a superior servant; he betrayed little reaction to the news that there was a corpse in the chapel.
He merely blinked once, slowly, and then crossed himself.
"I do hope it was not the duck, my lady."

“I know what that is!” I cried suddenly. “It’s a hookah!”
“And you know this from your many nights spent in opium dens?”he inquired blandly.
“Alice in Wonderland, actually” I admitted. “The caterpillar”.

This was such a fun and entertaining read. We would highly recommend this series to everyone as it appears to be shaping up to be a 'go-to' read when you need to delve into familiar, friendly characters with a touch of the intrigue and romance.

Our Rating: