Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Title: First Frost
Author: Sarah Addison Allen
Publisher:  St. Martin's Press (January 20, 2015)
ISBN: 9781250019837
Pages: 291 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: magical realism, women's fiction, contemporary
My Rating: 4.5 cups 

From the New York Times bestselling author of GARDEN SPELLS comes a story of the Waverley family, in a novel as sparkling as the first dusting of frost on new-fallen leaves...

It's October in Bascom, North Carolina, and autumn will not go quietly.  As temperatures drop and leaves begin to turn, the Waverley women are made restless by the whims of their mischievous apple tree... and all the magic that swirls around it. But this year, first frost has much more in store. Claire Waverley has started a successful new venture, Waverley’s Candies.  Though her handcrafted confections—rose to recall lost love, lavender to promote happiness and lemon verbena to soothe throats and minds—are singularly effective, the business of selling them is costing her the everyday joys of her family, and her belief in her own precious gifts.

Sydney Waverley, too, is losing her balance. With each passing day she longs more for a baby— a namesake for her wonderful Henry. Yet the longer she tries, the more her desire becomes an unquenchable thirst, stealing the pleasure out of the life she already has.

Sydney’s daughter, Bay, has lost her heart to the boy she knows it belongs to…if only he could see it, too. But how can he, when he is so far outside her grasp that he appears to her as little more than a puff of smoke?When a mysterious stranger shows up and challenges the very heart of their family, each of them must make choices they have never confronted before.  And through it all, the Waverley sisters must search for a way to hold their family together through their troublesome season of change, waiting for that extraordinary event that is First Frost.

Lose yourself in Sarah Addison Allen's enchanting world and fall for her charmed characters in this captivating story that proves that a happily-ever-after is never the real ending to a story. It’s where the real story begins.

My Thoughts:

On the day the tree bloomed in the fall, when its white apple blossoms fell and covered the ground like snow, it was tradition for the Waverleys to gather in the garden like survivors of some great catastrophe, hugging one another, laughing as they touched faces and arms, making sure they were all okay, grateful to have gotten through it.” 

I love Sarah Addison Allen’s writing, and Garden Spells is a particular favorite, so the prospect of revisiting the Waverley family was exciting to say the least. While you could read this book on its own, your appreciation will be much greater if you begin with Garden Spells and experience the earlier events of this family’s story before diving into First Frost. Other reviewers have compared reading this book to coming home and visiting old friends, and it truly does feel that way. Though 10 years have passed since the end of Garden Spells and their lives have moved on and changed in various ways, the Waverleys are all still the same endearing yet imperfect characters, complete with their various magical gifts, personality quirks, and struggles to find their way.

As always, Sarah’s prose shines and the magical elements are incorporated with such subtle finesse that they are entirely believable. While not quite as perfect as Garden Spells was for me, this book is a very close second. There is a bit of mystery involved here and we gain some insight into Grandmother Mary, who raised the Waverley sisters, as well as their mother, the enigmatic Lorelei. Obviously, the focus of the story is slightly different this time, less romance and more family, but still completely engaging and filled with wonderful insights on life as the Waverley’s endeavor to get through the unsettling time before First Frost.

I must say that I did miss the antics of the irrepressible apple tree, as it is ‘asleep’ during most of the novel awaiting that first frost. I also would have loved to see a little more involvement from Tyler and Henry. Evanelle, however, is a delight as usual, and the unpredictable Waverley house gets up to some mischief that will keep you chuckling as well.

You simply cannot read one of Sarah’s books without feeling blanketed by a warm comforting glow, and First Frost is no exception. It is a delightful read and not to be missed, especially for fans of Garden Spells. I highly recommend it!

Happiness isn’t a point in time you leave behind. It’s what’s ahead of you. Every single day.

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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King

Title:  Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes #13)

Author: Laurie R. King
Publisher: 17 th February 2015 by Bantam
ISBN: 0345531809 (ISBN13: 9780345531803)
Pages: 352 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, cultural Japan
My Rating:  two cups


For years now, readers of the Russell Memoirs have wondered about the tantalizing mentions of Japan. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes had spent three weeks there, between India (The Game) and San Francisco (Locked Rooms). The time has finally come, to tell that story.
It is 1925, and Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes arrive home to find…a stone. A stone with a name, which they last saw in the Tokyo garden of the future emperor of Japan. It is the first indication that the investigation they did for him in 1924 might not be as…complete as they had thought. In Japan there were spies, in Oxford there are dreams. In both places, there is a small, dark-haired woman, and danger.

My thoughts:

This was my first book by Laurie R. King and sad to say, it will be my last. I was excited by the premise and pictured myself immersed in a thought provoking Sherlock Holmes suspenseful mystery – not to be. Reading more like a travelogue and FULL of detail that lent so very little to the wafer thin plot as it stood, I could not wait for the tale to be over.

The fact that the emphasis was on Mary and not Sherlock Holmes did not concern me, but surely using that name as a point of reference would lend some depth to the tale?  Yet the relevance of so many conversations and details were highly questionable and the fact that I had to read 50% of the book before I found out what the whole purpose was all about was ridiculous. Halfway through and finally:

“What is the thing your young Emperor-to-be wants us to retrieve”.

I almost wanted to give up on the book but because of my faith in Sherlock mysteries, I decided to stick with it. Still, it has to be said that wading through half a book with a whole lot of nuthin’ is really hard going without a skerrick of actual detective work. There were entire paragraphs dedicated to describing cuff links:

“The cufflinks I had chosen for him were oval, and two millimeters larger than his usual studs. Their shiny black surface was circled by a pencil-thin line of red enamel and set with a ruby in approximately one millimetre….”
(And it went on further in the description)

In all fairness, there is obviously a contingency of people who love this series (it is number 13 – she must be doing something right?) and it is clear that the factual material in this book was well researched. However due to that amount of detail in describing scenes and historical events, it began to read more like a travelogue. There were far too many pages dedicated to descriptions and minute details for my liking. There was a lot to read about cruise ships and cultural Japan in the 1920s and it's not that it's not interesting; it's just that it took away from the of laying foundations for a strong Holmes type mystery.

“A universal characteristic of the Japanese people, I had discovered, was their energy. This industrious nation seemed never to pause”.

 The story has little action and even less serious mystery. Sentences are long and difficult to wade through and, sadly, it became a real chore to read. Due to the slow pacing of the story, I would skim parts, but truth be spoken, not miss a thing:

“A long corridor hugged the inner wall of the U, with paintings and doors on one side and windows to a formal courtyard garden on the other. A short length of side corridor across from the stairway ended in the big arched window over the portico, making the U of hallway more of a Y. This truncated corridor… .”
 (And on it went further in the description)

If you are a fan of the Mary Russell series and enjoy reading about cruising and Japan in the 1920s – at a very leisurely pace – then this is the book for you.  Readers, like myself, who are expecting to have a mystery to solve, will become impatient and bored.

For me, this book was a challenge and I would recommend abandoning ship:

“Our initial intention, to abandon ship at the earliest opportunity, was rendered less urgent by this unexpected series of challenges”.

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: Leaving Before the Rains Come - Alexandra Fuller

Title:  Leaving Before the Rains Come

Publisher: 26th February 2015 by Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
ISBN: 9781473521032
Pages: 272 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: autobiography, memoir, nonfiction, relationships, African culture
My Rating:  four cups


"I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquillity interspersed with organized adventure. He would stay in Zambia because he loved the romance of it. I could remain here, safely. Our lives would be the 'three rifles, supplies for a month and Mozart' of Out of Africa without the plane crashes, syphilis and Danish accent." In 1992 Alexandra Fuller embarked on a new journey, into a long, tempestuous marriage to Charlie Ross, the love of her life. In this frank, personal memoir, a sequel to Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, she charts their twenty years together, from the brutal beauty of the Zambezi to the mountains of Wyoming - the new adventures, the unexplored paths, the insurmountable obstacles ...and the many signals that they missed along the way.

My thoughts:

“The truth is, most of the things that change the course of our lives, happen in fleeting unguarded moments; grief buckling us at the knees; fear shattering through us like buckshot; love pulling us out on an unseen tide”.

Having read Fuller’s books before, I was really excited to get the chance to read her newest memoir. This time around Fuller examines her life once more from her marriage and the factors that led to its dissolution.

“At night our sighs and exhaustion left our mouths and settled over our bodies: a cloud of unmet expectations, a threatening storm of unbroken promises, a low-pressure system of the unsaid”.

Let me say from the outset, I love Fuller’s writing. For even though it is once again an examination of her upbringing and life, she conveys it so well, that if she wrote it on the back of a paper bag I would read it.  I am never disappointed as she captures the essence of not only Africa but how that impacted upon the way she views the world and her approach to life.

“What did I know about the fifty-five (give or take) countries of Africa? I carried within me one deep personal thread of one small part of it, and it had changed and colored everything”.

This tale, like others, has infiltrated through it, stories of her unusual childhood and the impact her quirky parents have had on the way she views the world. So, whilst a memoir most certainly, it would also fall into the category of relatable musings and thoughts on occurrences in life that we all can relate to. The focus for this instalment is about her marriage, her search and desire for protection and safety amongst the chaos of her troubled family and country.

“I loved my family, but at some point I had lost the mettle and the imagination to surrender to the promise of perpetual insecurity. Instead I chose to believe in the possibility of a predictable, chartable future, and I had picked a life that I imagined would have certainties, safety nets and assurances”.

It is heart wrenching and real, yet eloquent and exquisite.

“Someone had planted me in this soil and I had taken fierce hold. And although I had no illusions – this land wasn’t mine to inherit, none of it belonged to me – I couldn’t help knowing that I belonged to it”.

I am biased, as I adore her writing, highlighting passage after passage for further contemplation. I highly recommend reading something, anything, of Alexandra Fuller’s; if only to experience the magic that seeps from each page into your own consciousness.

“You always think there will be more time and then suddenly there isn’t. You know how it is. You have to leave before the rains come, or it’s too late”.

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan

Title: Fiercombe Manor
Author: Kate Riordan
Publisher:  Harper (February 17 2015)
ISBN: 9780062332943
Pages: 416 pages
How We Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, drama


In this haunting and richly imagined dual-narrative tale that echoes the eerie mystery of Rebecca and The Little Stranger, two women of very different eras are united by the secrets hidden within the walls of an English manor house

In 1933, naive twenty-two year-old Alice—pregnant and unmarried—is in disgrace. Her mother banishes her from London to secluded Fiercombe Manor in rural Gloucestershire, where she can hide under the watchful eye of her mother’s old friend, the housekeeper Mrs. Jelphs. The manor’s owners, the Stantons, live abroad, and with her cover story of a recently-deceased husband Alice can have her baby there before giving it up for adoption and returning home. But as Alice endures the long, hot summer at Fiercombe awaiting the baby’s birth, she senses that something is amiss with the house and its absentee owners.

Thirty years earlier, pregnant Lady Elizabeth Stanton desperately hopes for the heir her husband desires. Tormented by the memory of what happened after the birth of her first child, a daughter, she grows increasingly terrified that history will repeat itself, with devastating consequences.

After meeting Tom, the young scion of the Stanton family, Alice becomes determined to uncover the clan’s tragic past and exorcise the ghosts of this idyllic, isolated house. But nothing can prepare Alice for what she uncovers. Soon it is her turn to fear: can she escape the tragic fate of the other women who have lived in the Fiercombe valley . . .

 Our Thoughts:

“There is something enchanting and mysterious about it…. you glimpse places…. lonely houses tucked into the countryside, almost hidden in the folds of the hills. You wonder who lives in them, what’s happened in their history.”

This is a story of two women told in two time periods (alternating chapters) and the events that occur resulting from the societal attitudes of the time. It is a story of relationships. Both women, Elizabeth in 1890s and Alice in 1930s, are expecting a child and both are at the mercy of their family’s - Alice is banished from her family, for foolishly falling in love with a married man; Elizabeth seeks approval from her husband and the pressure of having to provide a male heir.

(There is a) tangible bond to connect Elizabeth’s time and mine, and I thought again of the silken tether that seemed to pull me back towards her.”
Fiercombe Manor is a substantial read being over 400 pages with Riordan presenting vivid descriptions– the setting, both manor house and the surroundings are really well portrayed – but at times it borders on a little too much and therefore becomes a bit tedious.

“I indulged myself…looking at the manor with new eyes, seeing it not just as a house brimming with centuries of secrets – secrets sewn into the faded tapestries and slipped down the cracks in the floorboards.”

What we believe Riordan does very well is portray mental health issues in the late 19th century – this aspect of the story is riveting and sadly, captivating. It makes you stop and consider the attitudes of the period towards women, pregnancy and the associated mental health.
…The air crackled and vibrated as if some remnant of their presence echoed down through the centuries, an empty valley crowded with ghosts.”

The last segment of the book concerning Alice was disappointing; it felt as if everything was resolved too neatly. For example the way Alice’s relationship with her mother evolved or the sudden romantic aspect, that just seemed forced and a weak, contrived link - disappointing. Also, the earlier haunting ghost aspect seemed to drift away. Here was one component that we felt so much more could have been made of. We wanted Riordan to take it that step further and make connections, past and present, in a Katie Morton fashion. Elizabeth's story, however, was an entirely different matter - We found it totally mesmerizing and emotionally moving.  It's a tragic tale that fills the reader with a sense of horror and at times anger. So on the whole we enjoyed the story and maybe it will weave enchantment over you:
The valley and the people who had lived here were weaving their enchantment around me already.”
 Our Rating:

**International readers please note this title is also released as The Girl in the Photograph. 

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.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley

Title: The Book of Lost and Found
Author: Lucy Foley
Publisher: 1st February 2015 by Harper Collins Australia
ISBN: 9780007575343
Pages: 330 pages
How We Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: historical fiction
Our Rating:  four and a half cups

In many ways, my life has been rather like a record of the lost and found. Perhaps all lives are like that.
It’s when life started in earnest
HERTFORDSHIRE, 1928 The paths of Tom and Alice collide against a haze of youthful, carefree exuberance. And so begins a love story that finds it’s feet by a lake one silvery moonlit evening . . .
It’s when there were no happy endings
PARIS, 1939 Alice is living in the City of Light, but the pain of the last decade has already left its mark. There’s a shadow creeping across Europe when she and Thomas Stafford – now a world famous artist – find each other once more . . .
It’s when the story begins
LONDON, 1986
Bequeathed an old portrait from her grandmother, Kate Darling uncovers a legacy that takes her to Corsica, Paris and beyond. And as the secrets of time fall away, a love story as epic as it is life-changing slowly reveals itself . . .
Sweeping and heartrending – the perfect read for fans of Victoria Hislop and Kate Morton.

Our thoughts:

This book is good. Real good. It’s hard to believe this is Foley’s first novel! A sign of a good book? You simply cannot put it down, it is irresistible:

“The past called to me, staked its claim once more upon me. And the lure of revisiting that time – both the good and bad of it – was, in the end, irresistible”.

The prose is so beautifully written, you will be drawn in and not want to leave.  There is just so much to love about this book. The characters and varying time periods are dramatically bought to life and a story of love and loss, and how decisions made impact upon not just the individual, but those around them and those that follow, is highly enthralling.

Before you know it, you will be swept away through space and time, from the carefree days of the roaring twenties, to occupied Paris, remote Corsica and flamboyant New York. Each location vividly bought to life by Foley.

“There was a kind of alchemy to photography back then….we were attempting to collect some fragment of what we saw with no guarantee that we would bring back anything of worth”.

Telling a story that moves between time periods is no easy task. Foley does it seamlessly, making subtle and clever links as the story progresses. You ride along with Kate as she desperately searches to unravel a mystery from decades before.  There is such strength displayed by so many of the characters – Alice is quite extraordinary – that Foley is to be commended for the depth and complexity that they demonstrate. And I can’t forget about Thomas either who I found fascinating:

“There was no doubt in my mind that Thomas Stafford was a rare and wonderful man”.

This is a novel that will stay with me for some time, so I have no hesitation in highly recommending it. Yes it is romantic and some will state obvious and predictable, but its such a satisfying and rich tale that one cannot help but become immersed in it. It’s the realism that pulls at your heartstrings not a sugary happily ever after. It is an exceptional debut novel and I can’t wait to see what Foley will come out with next. 

“In many ways, my life has been rather like a record of the lost and found. Perhaps all lives are like that.”

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