Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: The Pierced Heart by Lynn Shepherd

Title: The Pierced Heart
Author: Lynn Shepherd
Publisher:  Delacorte Press (October 21 2014)
ISBN: 9780345545435
Pages: 256 pages
How We Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, horror
Our Rating: 2 cups 

The shadow of Bram Stoker’s Dracula looms large over the darkest mystery yet faced by Victorian detective Charles Maddox—as the acclaimed author of The Solitary House and A Fatal Likeness once again pays homage to a literary classic, in a chilling tale of superstition, dangerous science, and shocking secrets.
When an Austrian nobleman offers a substantial donation to the University of Oxford, Charles Maddox is called on to investigate the generous benefactor. It is a decidedly mundane task for the increasingly renowned criminal investigator, but Maddox welcomes the chance to trade London’s teeming streets for the comforts of a castle in the Viennese countryside. Comfort, however, is in short supply once Maddox steps onto foreign soil — and into the company of the mysterious Baron Von Reisenberg.
A man of impeccable breeding, the Baron is nonetheless the subject of frightened whispers and macabre legends among his countrymen. Though Maddox isn’t one to entertain supernatural beliefs, the dank halls and foreboding shadows of the castle begin to haunt his sleep with nightmares. But in the light of day the veteran detective can find no evidence of the sinister — until a series of disturbing incidents prove him gravely mistaken, and thrust Maddox into a harrowing quest to expose whatever evil lurks behind the locked doors of the Baron’s secretive domain. After a terrifying encounter nearly costs him his sanity, Maddox is forced to return home mentally defeated — and still pursued by the horror he’s unearthed.
London is on the verge of widespread panic, thanks to a string of gruesome murders committed by an elusive predator branded the Vampire. But there’s little doubt in Maddox’s mind who is responsible. And whether his enemy proves merely mortal — or something more — Maddox must finally end the monstrous affair . . . before more innocent blood is spilled.

Our Thoughts:

“It is a rare and precious gift that you possess, and yet there are some…in this supposedly civilized little English town, who would condemn it as witchcraft, or shun it as the delirium of the insane.” 

This is the fourth novel by Lynn Shepherd featuring Charles Maddox – we read the first but found in this one we really did not get to know him very well. The plot is twisted, with sinister characters, brutal murders, supernatural mystery, and historical elements referencing Dracula.

Being a relatively short book one would think it a quick read, but in some places it was rather drawn out and required an effort to persevere. The beginning was gripping and set the scene for a cliché horror story.  However, a substantial part of this tale was more difficult to read. Although suitably dark and atmospheric, it was a struggle to get through, and we wished the earlier brisk pace could have been maintained throughout the whole of the novel.

The style in which this book is written made it difficult to enjoy. It is fairly inaccessible, challenging in its viewpoint; it kept us from connecting to the characters or the plot. The interchanging chapters from Charles and Lucy’s points of view are not necessarily smooth in their transitions. Those featuring Charles are related in a third person omniscient style of narration, which, although effective in conveying supplemental information, kept us from feeling much investment in him. In fact, Charles comes across as a somewhat unlikable ‘hero’. Perhaps those who have read all three previous novels will have more of his back-story to draw upon and find him more relatable, but in this single volume he is not the most appealing character. In contrast, Lucy’s story is told in first person via her journal entries, which did allow us to feel more empathy towards her and her plight. However, time jumps, both backwards and forwards, between the various sections had us struggling to accurately follow the timeline of events.

This book gives a scientific spin to the traditional vampire tale, and there are some astute insights regarding the blurred lines between actual science, the supernatural, and mere superstition:

“We are all seeking an explanation for what we observe, whether from superstition or from science. Indeed, have not some of our greatest advances stemmed from precisely such a procedure, even – or most especially – when the forces at work are invisible to the eye?”

The ending is confusing to say the least, seemingly coming a bit out of nowhere, and while not a complete cliffhanger, it definitely leaves one major loose end dangling - a starting point for the next book in the series, perhaps?

The Pierced Heart should appeal to fans of gothic stories, particularly Dracula, as this tale combines familiar themes and characters from that classic work, stories of gothic superstition and elements of scientific discovery. It will be interesting to see what literary classic Shepherd chooses as inspiration for the fifth installment of this series.

 “The detective has become the detected, and in the most unsettling manner.”

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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

Title: First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen
Author: Charlie Lovett
Publisher:  Viking Adult (October 16 2014)
ISBN: 9780525427247
Pages: 320 pages
How We Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, romance
Our Rating: 2 cups


A thrilling literary mystery costarring Jane Austen from the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman’s Tale.

Charlie Lovett first delighted readers with his New York Times bestselling debut, The Bookman’s Tale. Now, Lovett weaves another brilliantly imagined mystery, this time featuring one of English literature’s most popular and beloved authors: Jane Austen.

Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.

In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books.

Our Thoughts:
“What really gets me is these Austen fan girls. Running around pretending the sun rises and sets with some chick who wrote soap operas two hundred years ago.”

We love Jane Austen and are always open to books based on her novels. However, this book just did not make the cut.  Of course the prospect of uncovering a long-lost first draft of a Jane Austen manuscript is intriguing to any Austen fan, and even the idea of exploring possible influences on her work has such great potential. Unfortunately, we don’t feel that potential was realized effectively in this book.

Although the implication that Austen could have been a plagiarist is unsettling in itself, we found even more troublesome the premise that her work could have been so heavily prompted and directed by the 80-year-old Mansfield. Their friendship and like-minded appreciation of literature is believable, but the level of influence he is suggested to have had over every aspect of her writing simply is not. We feel this idea could have worked if employed a bit more subtly, but too much is attributed to Mansfield here.  It feels overdone, in our opinion, and makes it seem that without Mansfield’s guidance Austen’s writing would not have amounted to much. (He is an entirely fictional character, by the way, which the author explains in his note at the end of the book.)

The modern day protagonist, Sophie, is a bit of a frustrating character. While likeable enough, she is quite inconsistent – exceptionally smart and insightful one minute but thoroughly dim-witted the next. The 'love triangle' never really worked for us, and when Sophie ignores her better judgement and gut instincts merely on the basis of good sex, we found ourselves rolling our eyes and had to exercise considerable restraint to keep from screaming at the pages! 

We did, however, enjoy the humor of the opening chapters:

 “I don't like Dickens.”

“How can you not like Dickens?”

 “All that poverty. It depresses me. At least Austen's heroines end up in nice big houses.”

But when Eric disappears, for the majority of the book, so too does the humor walk out the door and ridiculousness walk in.

Sophie’s interactions with her beloved Uncle Bertram are quite touching though, and there are many aspects of their discussions that are sure to resonate with bibliophiles. We particularly appreciated the descriptions of how book-lovers feel about books: 

“A good book is like a good friend. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. When you first get to know it, it will give you excitement and adventure, and years later it will provide you with comfort and familiarity.” 

The Jane Austen sections were less engaging even though all their actions and dialogue appear to be accurate for the period.

This was a quick read, and despite any frustrations, the mystery did hold our interest enough to follow it through to its conclusion, but the ending wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, and includes some pretty improbable events.

By comparison, we found the historical intrigue and controversy of Lovett’s first novel, The Bookman's Tale, to be far more engaging, and the emotional struggles of its protagonist more authentic and compelling. His second historical literary mystery just was not our cup of tea. Overall it could be stated that it was a pleasant tale but lacking in so many ways as to make it somewhat bland and superficial at times.

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: Ruth's Journey: The Story of Mammy from Gone with the Wind

Publisher:  October 14th 2014 by Atria Books 
ISBN: 1451643551 (ISBN13: 9781451643558)
Pages:  416 pages
How We Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: historical fiction, military history
Our Rating: 2 ½ cups


Authorized by the Margaret Mitchell Estate, here is the first-ever prequel to one of the most beloved and bestselling novels of all time, Gone with the Wind. The critically acclaimed author of Rhett Butler’s People magnificently recounts the life of Mammy, one of literature’s greatest supporting characters, from her days as a slave girl to the outbreak of the Civil War.

“Her story began with a miracle.” On the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue, an island consumed by the flames of revolution, a senseless attack leaves only one survivor—an infant girl. She falls into the hands of two French émigrés, Henri and Solange Fournier, who take the beautiful child they call Ruth to the bustling American city of Savannah.

What follows is the sweeping tale of Ruth’s life as shaped by her strong-willed mistress and other larger-than-life personalities she encounters in the South: Jehu Glen, a free black man with whom Ruth falls madly in love; the shabbily genteel family that first hires Ruth as Mammy; Solange’s daughter Ellen and the rough Irishman, Gerald O’Hara, whom Ellen chooses to marry; the Butler family of Charleston and their shocking connection to Mammy Ruth; and finally Scarlett O’Hara—the irrepressible Southern belle Mammy raises from birth. As we witness the difficult coming of age felt by three generations of women, gifted storyteller Donald McCaig reveals a portrait of Mammy that is both nuanced and poignant, at once a proud woman and a captive, and a strict disciplinarian who has never experienced freedom herself. But despite the cruelties of a world that has decreed her a slave, Mammy endures, a rock in the river of time. She loves with a ferocity that would astonish those around her if they knew it. And she holds tight even to those who have been lost in the ravages of her days.

Set against the backdrop of the South from the 1820s until the dawn of the Civil War, here is a remarkable story of fortitude, heartbreak, and indomitable will—and a tale that will forever illuminate your reading of Margaret Mitchell’s unforgettable classic, Gone with the Wind.

Our thoughts:
We were so excited to receive this book to read but, for us, it was somewhat disappointing that it read more like a non-fiction book – a detailed historical analysis - that left a lot to be desired for these readers longing to escape back to Tara. As a consequence of this, there was little expression of feeling from the characters, which made it hard to feel investment in their fates.

Rich in history (more non-fiction than fiction), events such as President Jefferson and the embargo on American goods, or the inclusion of direct quotations from the ‘South Carolina Legislature December 20, 1820, are well executed but at times tedious. The problem, of course, with this is that sometimes Ruth’s story becomes an aside, e.g. the whole detail and saga regarding the horse racing and ‘Red Stick’. There is no denying that this is a very well researched book, but unfortunately it is rather convoluted and does not get interesting until Mammy gets to Tara with the O’Haras (the book ends where 'Gone With The Wind' starts – the day of the barbeque). For all of this, we cannot take anything away from the writing and research, which is outstanding.

The first half of the book was very slow, wordy and – sad to say - boring. Frustratingly it did not seem like ‘Ruth's Journey’ at all! At the beginning it was not told from her perspective. We learned a lot about Solange (the story is really about her and Ellen. “Who is Solange?” She is Scarlett’s grandmother) and her three husbands, her children, and other various white plantation owners of the era. Yes, it was at times interesting to be a witness to Scarlett's grandparents, but it just got to be too much to be honest.

Another reason the story is difficult to follow is because a large portion of the novel is written in pre-Civil War black vernacular. On the one hand, it is great that it comes directly from Mammy's viewpoint; however, honestly, it is difficult to understand at times.

We also found the writing to be disjointed in parts, at one stage the timeline doing a major jump, and with so many characters that makes it exceedingly difficult to keep up with the storyline. Undeniably, it was chunky and chops around a bit, requiring real concentration to stay on track. We also had issues with how closely it attempted to replicate 'Gone With The Wind' in many places. For example: Solange being the ‘favoured, spirited daughter’ – it was easy to see Scarlett in her grandmother. Also, Solange “imagined brave men fighting over her was romantic” (decidedly Scarlett) or the multiple marriages that would become common in the family and finally, the way the family was snubbed at times (much like Scarlett and Rhett were).

Despite all this, you will love Mammy Ruth and feel sorry for her (there is a lot of sadness in this tale), and ​you will love learning about ​her strength, love and loyalty for the people she cared for that ​kept her going on through all of that sadness. Overall, it was her calling to be the wise and devoted carer of these families– the Robillard and O’Hara families – that would see her witness days of joy and days of incredible sadness.

For devoted ‘Gone With The Wind’ fans, you will still pick this book up in spite of any shortcomings – any excuse to spend ‘some’ time with much loved characters and locations. For as Mammy states:

“I ask myself, why I loves her? Why I want know everything she up to? ….. She ain’t like most folks!.....Miss Katie (Scarlett) am who she am! She like sun goin’ down and moon comin’ up. Ain’t nothing you can do ‘bout it but be glad.”

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.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn

Title: Silent on the Moor (Lady Julia Grey #3)
& Midsummer Night (Lady Julia Grey #3.5)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: March 1 2009 by Mira
ISBN: 1426829396 (ISBN13: 9781426829390)
Pages: 558 pages (3.5 novella 50 pages)
How We Read It: Amazon kindle ebook
Genre: historical fiction, romance, mystery
Our Rating: 4 cups

Despite his admonitions to stay away, Lady Julia arrives in Yorkshire to find Brisbane as remote and maddeningly attractive as ever. Cloistered together, they share the moldering house with the proud but impoverished remnants of an ancient family: the sort that keeps their bloodline pure and their secrets close. Lady Allenby and her daughters, dependent upon Brisbane and devastated by their fall in society, seem adrift on the moor winds, powerless to change their fortunes. But poison does not discriminate between classes.... 
A mystery unfolds from the rotten heart of Grimsgrave, one Lady Julia may have to solve alone, as Brisbane appears inextricably tangled in its heinous twists and turns. But blood will out, and before spring touches the craggy northern landscape, Lady Julia will have uncovered a Gypsy witch, a dark rider and a long-buried legacy of malevolence and evil. 

Our thoughts:

Deanna Raybourn provides a third installment in the wonderful story of Lady Julia Grey. Silent on the Moor is another interesting, mysterious, romantic tale. Julia risks traveling to the far reaches of Yorkshire to find what has become of the troubled Nicolas Brisbane. Julia is a woman not of her time (l9th century) and goes about breaking society's rules. She is intelligent, fallible, rich and loves a good mystery. Brisbane is the brooding hero, and set on the Yorkshire Moors, images of Heathcliff quickly come to mind.

Julia finds Nicholas in trouble and dealing with his past as this tale reveals more of his story, which we thought was great. The author continues to build solid characters that are not only multifaceted but exhibit real emotions, allowing you to become a part of not only the history of the time but also the growing connections that exist between them.

At the heart of each of book has been the growing relationship between Julia and Brisbane. This installment will not fail to deliver:

“I sagged against him in relief, and his arm came around to catch me close to him. I could feel the beat of his heart under my ear and it was the pulse of all the world to me”.

How will it all resolve itself? If you haven't read the first two books in the series, you'll want to do so as you become absorbed in the lives of these fascinating characters.

“I was the daughter of an earl…born to privilege and wealth most people could not even hope to imagine. And in that moment, I would have happily traded places with a little maid who had everything I did not”.

The novella - Midsummer Night - is short and well-paced tale of Brisbane and Julia’s wedding - inclusive of all the wonderful, colourful characters and historical details that we know and love from this series. We fully appreciate and approve of novellas in this series as it fills in the life gaps of the larger stories with incidentals that were not included in earlier books.  Fans will want to know about their wedding, and with all of the hilarious and eccentric March family involved in the day, the short story is a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Our Rating:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review: The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen

Title: The Night Garden
Author: Lisa Van Allen
Publisher:  Ballantine Books (October 7 2014)
ISBN: 9780345537836
Pages: 352 pages
How We Read It: eARC
Genre: magical realism, womens fiction, chick lit
Our Rating: 4.5 cups


For fans of Sarah Addison Allen, Aimee Bender, and Alice Hoffman, The Night Garden is a luminous novel of love, forgiveness, and the possibilities that arise when you open your heart.

Nestled in the bucolic town of Green Valley in upstate New York, the Pennywort farm appears ordinary, yet at its center lies something remarkable: a wild maze of colorful gardens that reaches beyond the imagination. Local legend says that a visitor can gain answers to life’s most difficult problems simply by walking through its lush corridors.

Yet the labyrinth has never helped Olivia Pennywort, the garden’s beautiful and enigmatic caretaker. She has spent her entire life on her family’s land, harboring a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. But when her childhood best friend, Sam Van Winkle, returns to the valley, Olivia begins to question her safe, isolated world and wonders if she at last has the courage to let someone in. As she and Sam reconnect, Olivia faces a difficult question: Is the garden maze that she has nurtured all of her life a safe haven or a prison?
Our Thoughts:

“To visit the Pennywort farm was to be reminded of everything in the world that was beautiful and bountiful…luxurious and endlessly good.”

No quote better sums up the tale that is The Night Garden.  This is such a compelling novel filled with loss and love, grief and happiness, hope and redemption. Lisa Van Allen has an exquisite way of creating a truly enchanted realm that is bought vividly to life with her poetic prose and rich descriptions. Her writing stretches further still with the insightful incorporation and portrayal of the various conflicted states of mind of the main characters. Their struggles are heartrending, their longings palpable, their emotions poignant. And aside from the eventful comings and goings of these leads, this novel is full of their – and quite possibly your own - life lessons that will really give you pause for reflection:

“Let her live out her days as plants did, simply ‘being’ without questioning, without the unceasing self-flagellation that comes with the human condition, the ‘why me?’ and ‘why this?’ and ‘what now?’

The imagery is so real that you feel as if you are walking through the maze, pausing to rest on one of the many garden benches, and contemplating life and how to handle what comes your way:
“The only thing that stands in the way of your inner wisdom is your fear of it.”
Although one cannot help comparing it to the likes of Sarah Addison Allen, this tale is really quite original, crafted in such a beautiful way and truly magical from so many points of view – literally and figuratively. For you see the author strikes just the right balance of friendship and warmth, longing and love, all wrapped up in nature, providing a holistic escape to another somewhat magical place.

“The way to happiness wasn’t nearly as convoluted as the various channels of the maze: it was simple and straight. It was unresisting acceptance of what was.”

And the ending, we believe, is really well done. It’s not simply spelt out for you; it’s not the perfectly happy ever after. Like the rest of Van Allen’s writing, it is mystical and thought provoking and full of an undeniable sense of hope:

“He thought of how it was said that stories that seemed to end happily were merely stories that had not been told through to their bitter ends. But this, he had learned, was the line between cynics and optimists…some days would be cloudy and some days the sun would shine…but as long as the sweeping spirit of optimism (would) thrive…there would be more happiness than sadness, more vegetables than weeds.”
We found this to be an entirely captivating and delightful read, and we look forward to reading more from this exceptional author in the future.

 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.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn

Title: Night of a Thousand Stars
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher:  Harlequin Mira (September 30 2014)
ISBN: 9780778317753
Pages: 368 pages
How We Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, romance


New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn returns with a Jazz Age tale of grand adventure.

On the verge of a stilted life as an aristocrat's wife, Poppy Hammond does the only sensible thing—she flees the chapel in her wedding gown. Assisted by the handsome curate who calls himself Sebastian Cantrip, she spirits away to her estranged father's quiet country village, pursued by the family she left in uproar. But when the dust of her broken engagement settles and Sebastian disappears under mysterious circumstances, Poppy discovers there is more to her hero than it seems.

With only her feisty lady's maid for company, Poppy secures employment and travels incognita—east across the seas, chasing a hunch and the whisper of clues. Danger abounds beneath the canopies of the silken city, and Poppy finds herself in the perilous sights of those who will stop at nothing to recover a fabled ancient treasure. Torn between allegiance to her kindly employer and a dashing, shadowy figure, Poppy will risk it all as she attempts to unravel a much larger plan—one that stretches to the very heart of the British government, and one that could endanger everything, and everyone, that she holds dear. 

 Our Thoughts:

A new novel by Deanna Raybourn is always a source of excitement and anticipation, and there is much to enjoy in her latest offering. This book starts off with a bang, full of Raybourn’s trademark action and humor, engages your interest immediately and has you laughing out loud.

As the story evolves further, one discovers that this book, while able to be read as a stand alone, is actually a follow-up of a sort to the author’s previous novel, City of Jasmine, which we loved. Much of the action is again set in Damascus, framed by rich and evocative descriptions of the setting, and several story threads from the previous book are woven into the current plotline. We were pleasantly surprised by this, and loved learning more about the Lost Boys and their exploits as well as about the organization of the Vespiary itself.

Readers of both City of Jasmine and the Lady Julia series will be delighted to see several well-known faces cropping up throughout this tale. These familiar supporting characters add tremendously to the story - so much so, in fact, that the pace seems to lag a little in the middle portion of the book when they are largely absent. The two leads don’t carry the tale quite as well on their own, and their banter, usually Raybourn’s forte, feels slightly flat at times. However, despite the underlying romance, this is very much Poppy’s story, and her journey of self-discovery definitely takes center stage overall.

“I’ve spent the whole of my life giving up, and that is not who I am now….I am a woman who follows through, who knows her mind and has a single-minded purpose to direct her.”

The pace picks up again in the latter portion of the book, and it finishes with a flourish. As an additional bonus for fans, several of the answers Poppy finds on her quest not only resolve her personal storyline, but also serve as a very effective postscript to Lady Julia’s tale as well. Although not quite as strong on its own as some of Raybourn’s other works, when considered with all of the tie-ins and allusions to previous books, this novel is a satisfying read and certainly not to be missed.

In addition to book club discussion questions, this volume also contains an excellent Q&A with the author at the back of the book, which we found to be very worthwhile.

 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.