Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: The Confectioner's Tale by Laura Madeleine

Title:  The Confectioner's Tale

Author: Laura Madeleine
Publisher: 24th May 2015 by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers Black Swan
Pages: 336 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: womens fiction; historical fiction; romance
My Rating: 3 cups

What secrets are hiding in the heart of Paris?
At the famous Patisserie Clermont in Paris, 1909, a chance encounter with the owner’s daughter has given one young man a glimpse into a life he never knew existed: of sweet cream and melted chocolate, golden caramel and powdered sugar, of pastry light as air.
But it is not just the art of confectionery that holds him captive, and soon a forbidden love affair begins. 
Almost eighty years later, an academic discovers a hidden photograph of her grandfather as a young man with two people she has never seen before. Scrawled on the back of the picture are the words ‘Forgive me’. Unable to resist the mystery behind it, she begins to unravel the story of two star-crossed lovers and one irrevocable betrayal.
Take a moment to savour an evocative, bittersweet love story that echoes through the decades – perfect for fans of Kate Morton, Rachel Hore and Victoria Hislop.
My thoughts:
The Confectioner's Tale is an interesting dual timeline story, with lots of delectable detail concerning France in the 1900's, class structures and a sumptuous patisserie. I found this part of the story engaging - the way Paris is depicted in the early twentieth century is fascinating from the stringent dying class structures, to life on the streets, to the day-to-day running of a famous Patisserie. Gorgeous culinary detail is provided:
"the religieuse was a masterpiece of pastel shades, ornate swirls of vanilla cream and gold-leaf decoration"
I did, however, find the modern story to be somewhat contrived and artificial. Petra is a challenging character, and the whole 'scandal' I doubt would have been newsworthy in the 1980's - perhaps intriguing but far from shocking. The scenes with the biographer were a bit over the top and the modern day romance superfluous. Still it was cleverly set in the 1980s before the internet age and therefore footwork was necessary for information gathering.
"the Patisserie Clermont scandal ..... whatever happened there, it caused a great deal of damage".
Overall the dual timeline is handled smoothly, which is often a difficult thing to do. It is a pleasant story with blends of history, romance and that 'scandal', that is somewhat a simple plot to predict. I wish the ending (I found to be somewhat rushed) had been fleshed out so as to provide more meaning to the ultimate conclusion.
"I realise I have resurrected it, from where it lay hidden. I have pursued it, and now, I have one last chance to lay it to rest. I owe it to him to try". 

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.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Review: The Vintage Cinema Club by Jane Linfoot

Title:  The Vintage Cinema Club 

Author: Jane Linfoot
Publisher: 24th May 2015 by HarperImpulse - Harper Collins UK
Pages: 306 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: womens fiction; chick lit
My Rating: 2.5 cups

"A witty, warm-hearted romp through the lives and loves of three friends – with a cool retro vibe, and a sense of fun that will never go out of fashion." – Debbie Johnson, author of the best-selling ‘Cold Feet At Christmas’.

Meet The Vintage Cinema Club….

Izzy is a wow at making unwanted things pretty, but with three brothers and her shabby chic furniture business to run she doesn’t have time to date. Could a fabulous French proposal change her mind?

Single mum Luce’s vintage bridal dresses are exquisite, but there’s no way she’s ever going to wear one or walk down the aisle for that matter. She’s a strictly no romance, one night kind of woman – or so she thinks…

Dida seems to have it all – a chocolate and banana cake recipe to die for, lovely kids (most of the time!) and a great lifestyle. But what good is a fabulous home, when your marriage has more cracks than a pavlova and your husband is having it off with half of Lithuania?

Three retro fabulous friends, in love with all things vintage, run their dream business from the faded grandeur of a rescued cinema. When that dream comes under threat, they’ll do whatever it takes to save it.

Fans of Lucy Diamond, Michele Gorman and Milly Johnson are going to love this heartfelt, funny story.

My thoughts:
This story follows three friends - Izzy, Luce and Dida - as they fight to save the vintage cinema - their place of work and so much more. I believe the essence of this tale is about how these women became open to new possibilities in their lives, and the struggles to make those adjustments for a different, and perhaps better life. Letting go and moving forward. 
"There were times when she kicked herself for not daring to be more ambitious and confident. So much for moving out of their comfort zones".
I did enjoy the rich descriptions of wedding dresses and the reclaimed items and pieces that were easy to visualise. And I loved the time spent in France wandering through the markets etc. Whilst there are some passages dedicated to Luce and Dida, the focus for the most part is on Izzy and her evolving relationship with Xander. Sadly, this ultimately becomes the sole focus at the expense of a richer storyline - the plot becomes very thin and all about the sexual tension:
"Damn that the full blown, close up scent of him had knocked the breath out of her, and holy s*** to her collapsing knees"
If we are told once, we are told over and over how "how far out of her reach Xander was" and how "heart-stoppingly, sizzlingly gorgeous" he is. Got it. Move on please....maybe....guess not. So if you are into 'snogging and shagging' then this is the book for you:
"She couldn't decide whether to grab him, and give him the snog of the decade or keep her distance" - lust on full throttle ... the lust part of her brain was sending out a million messages a minutes, telling her to grab him and jump him ASAP".
At the end I found it to be ridiculous. I was not a fan of Izzy at all as she admits to using Xander and it was all about her - the whinging and 'poor me' become rather tiresome. I wanted to high five Xander when he called Izzy on it:
"doing one thing while implying you're doing something else doesn't count as deception, so long as you're the one doing it".
No guy would put up with Izzy and she only trusted him when he 'bought' her "you thinking about me at all, and understanding me, makes me know I can trust you enough to be with you". What!
There was potential here that, for me, was not realised. 
"It's so damned stupid that you only come around to realise what you want when it's too late to have it

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, June 25, 2015

Review: The Tapestry by Nancy Bilyeau

Title: The Tapestry (Joanna Stafford #3)
Author: Nancy Bilyeau
Publisher:  Touchstone (March 24, 2015)
ISBN: 9781476756370
Pages: 400 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
My Rating: 3 cups 


The next page-turner in the award-winning Joanna Stafford series takes place in the heart of the Tudor court, as the gutsy former novice risks everything to defy the most powerful men of her era.

After her Dominican priory in Dartford closed forever—collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII’s quest to overthrow the Catholic Church—Joanna resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King’s attention.

Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King, and fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. Her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.

Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be the King’s mistress. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and, possibly, victim.

Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna Stafford must finally choose.

My Thoughts:

I greatly enjoyed Nancy Bilyeau's debut novel, The Crown, but I felt the second book of the trilogy, The Chalice, faltered and lost much of the mystery and intrigue of the first book. Thinking perhaps it was simply a case of 'middle trilogy slump' I continued on, hoping the third book would recapture some of the spark of the first.

While I did find The Tapestry somewhat better than book 2, it still fails to measure up to The Crown, in my opinion. It drags from the outset, with many 'refreshers' as to what has come before in the previous books, as Joanna is summoned and then makes her way to the court of King Henry VIII. Once she arrives, an attack on her life creates a bit of intrigue, which again plods along amongst much Tudor court drama. Sadly I did not find it all that engaging, and even the ultimate resolution of this mystery is quite anticlimactic and unfulfilling.

The love triangle is once again in play, and begins to feel rather tiresome as Joanna is more indecisive than ever. Does she want Edmund or does she want Geoffrey? Or does she truly just want to be a nun and not a wife at all? She waffles and flip-flops continually until I really didn't care any more about the romantic outcome, although it does finally get resolved at the end of the book.

Bilyeau can write, and there is a lot of history presented here with many well-known figures making appearances - Joanna's interactions with the painter Hans Holbein are a highlight. However, most of it is not explored too deeply and much is simply mentioned in passing. Still, a few compelling points are made, including the reflection that in some ways historical times are not all that different from the modern day:
“Do you know that in the last twenty-five years there have been junctures when a great many people believed that the world was coming to an end? They sold all their goods and gathered in wait of the apocalypse. These are harrowing times we live in, Joanna, times of discovery and learning but also the greatest turmoil of faith in a millennium.”
For me the star of this trilogy is still the first book. I could easily have ended Joanna Stafford's story there and been satisfied, bypassing the last two books entirely. Others may feel differently, but I much preferred the faster pace and more engaging plot of The Crown.
"Turning points are not always evident to us when they appear. How different everything might have been for me if I had not nodded in agreement and then ridden with my friends to discover what was on the other side of that wall."

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Review: Seed by D.B. Nielsen

Title:  Seed (Keepers of Genesis #1)

Author: D.B. Nielsen
Publisher: 7th May 2015 by LBLA Digital
Pages: 432 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: young adult, teens, fantasy, mystery
My Rating: 3.5 cups

 A brilliant new adult paranormal romance with action, adventure, suspense and supernatural fantasy. SEED is the first book in this gripping new epic adventure series sure to appeal to young adults and crossover fiction readers who enjoy an assured blend of romance, fantasy and history. SEED and the other three novels in the Keepers of Genesis series (SCROLL , SWORD and STONE) should appeal to readers of Becca Fitzpatrick, of Stephanie Meyer, of Cassandra Clare’s MORTAL INSTRUMENTS series, of Lauren Kate’s FALLEN books, of Danielle Trussoni‘s ANGELOLOGY as well as to quest/thriller novels by Dan Brown, Matthew Reilly, Steve Berry, Simon Toyne and to fans of Indiana Jones, National Treasure, The Mummy or of Lara Croft’s adventures. 
One thrilling quest, twin sisters and their sweeping and adventurous romances, a perilous rivalry, intriguing exploration of some of Western culture's greatest mysteries, a magical tale of angels and demons throughout the ages. Incorporating historical facts intertwined with myth, fantasy, fascinating esoterica and love story, SEED is a captivating read which marks the arrival of a wonderful new voice in YA and crossover escapist literature.
My thoughts:
This book really has me stumped. There is a lot to like and there is a lot to cringe about. The story revolves around Sage, a seventeen year old girl who gets swept up in the middle of an ancient mystery upon coming across an artefact.
In the beginning the book lover in me was enthralled with all the book appreciation tie ins. Sage's bookish nature was something I could relate to:
"I often lost myself in .... worlds where the Lizze and Heathcliffs, Aragorn and Hamlets ... were intimates of mine".
There is no doubt, however, this is a 'young adult' tale. There are such mixed genres here that I would think some YA would find it hard to wade through. Let me explain. At times there is so much history I likened it to the detail provided in 'A Discovery of Witches' amplified. Yet, before the page is turned, a lovesick teenager has me cringing and I think of certain 'unlikeable' parts of 'Twilight'. The romantic aspect is a little hard to swallow at times with her infatuation with St. John and how perfect he is reading like her secret diary.
Let it be said from the beginning, there is a great deal of historical content that borders on information 'dump'. If you don't like your history you may struggle with this. And it is such a strange eclectic mix of historical detail and trivia:
"Chaldea being, in the Hellenistic context, historical Babylonia, the eleventh dynasty or sixth century BC" ...to... "a tavern like the Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings".
A great deal of research has gone into this and the archeological aspect is fascinating.Yet, I have to admit that the mixed genres did not work for me. To go from supposedly serious life threatening situations to sightseeing in the blink of an eye, left me baffled:
"What about the Grigori? How can we simply go sightseeing at a time like this? Shouldn't we have a plan of action?"
At times it's not quite believable, too 'teenagery' for me and bordering on amateurish. For example when Sage's life was saved at one stage, she claims, "it meant so much to me" - um yes! He just saved your life! And Sage being the 'Wise One' did not sit comfortably with me. Within a page you can go from intense drama to childishness.
"Despite my heartache, I found that my Mum's enthusiasm was infectious and that I was actually getting excited about the festival."
As you can see I had a great deal of trouble reconciling the many genres and different levels of maturity presented throughout the story. It's a shame because I see such potential (if only Sage had been in her 30s like Diana in Discovery of Witches) as the whole underlying concept is fascinating. If you are interested in archeology or religious history then you will love the detail. Conversely, those seeking a light YA paranormal may feel swamped. I also did not like the ending which I found rather abrupt. Nothing was resolved therefore you just have to read the rest of the series I guess. It was somewhat of an anticlimax with the spoken threat never really eventuating. 
So back to where I started. This book really has me stumped and I'm not sure what to think. 

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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Review: At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

Title: At the Water's Edge
Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher:  Spiegel & Grau (March 31, 2015)
ISBN: 9780385523233
Pages: 368 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: fiction, historical fiction, women's fiction
My Rating: 2 cups 


In her stunning new novel, Gruen returns to the kind of storytelling she excelled at in Water for Elephants: a historical timeframe in an unusual setting with a moving love story. Think Scottish Downton Abbey.

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

My Thoughts:

Written by the author of Water for Elephants and described as a "Scottish Downton Abbey", this book seemed to have the makings of a great read. Unfortunately, for me, it did not live up to that potential and left me extremely disappointed.

The story is very slow to get going, with a generally unlikeable trio of main characters who are so stereotypical they read like caricatures of pretentious, entitled snobs. I wasn't able to connect with any of them or feel invested in their stories - even Maddie, with whom we are obviously supposed to feel sympathetic. Once the action moves to Scotland, the cast at the Inn is considerably more interesting and appealing, with the developing friendship between Maddie and Meg resonating more than the eventual 'insta' romance.

However, there are many inconsistencies in the storytelling and an absolute mish-mash of story threads, several of which are just thrown in and left hanging. We have the monster, ghosts, an ambiguous relationship between Ellis and Hank, an almost Jekyll/Hyde character transformation in Ellis, allusions to the shady past of Ellis's father, as well as a continually contradictory character in Hank, to name a few. And yet, none of these are fleshed out or resolved in a compelling way. Instead, things play out in a mostly superficial fashion, with a predictable romance interspersed with blatant info dumps about the war.

The protagonist, Maddie, is clearly intended to demonstrate great personal growth, transforming from her former shallow, privileged self into a more caring, compassionate and humble individual. And she does...somewhat. She does start to see the 'other' side of life, except everything resolves far too neatly (and at times ridiculously) into such an unbelievably perfect 'happily ever after' that it completely takes away from her supposed evolution and redemption. It just doesn't feel as though she has really learned all that much in the end, and she certainly doesn't sacrifice anything to do so.

I was hoping for intriguing and original historical fiction here. As it stands, this is a rather lackluster, predictable romance novel without any real depth or resonance.

“I stared at him for a long time. If he wanted to end his search for the beast, he need look no further than a mirror.”

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.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: The Silver Witch by Paula Brackston

Title: The Silver Witch
Author: Paula Brackston
Publisher:  Thomas Dunne Books (April 21, 2015)
ISBN: 9781250028792
Pages: 320 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: fiction, fantasy, paranormal, historical fiction
My Rating: 1.5 cups 


A year after her husband's sudden death, ceramic artist Tilda Fordwells finally moves into the secluded Welsh cottage that was to be their new home. She hopes that the tranquil surroundings will help ease her grief, and lessen her disturbing visions of Mat's death. Instead, the lake in the valley below her cottage seems to spark something dormant in her - a sensitivity, and a power of some sort. Animals are drawn to her, electricity shorts out when she's near, and strangest of all, she sees a new vision; a boatful of ancient people approaching her across the water.

On this same lake in Celtic times lived Seren, a witch and shaman. She was respected but feared, kept separate from the community for her strange looks. When a vision came to her of the Prince amid a nest of vipers she warned of betrayal from one of his own. Prince Brynach both loved and revered her, but could not believe someone close to him wished him harm, even as the danger grew.

In her own time, Tilda's grief begins to fade beside her newfound powers and a fresh love. When she explores the lake's ancient magic and her own she discovers Seren, the woman in her vision of the boat. Their two lives strangely mirror each other's, suggesting a strong connection between the women. As Tilda comes under threat from a dark power, one reminiscent of Seren's prophecy, she must rely on Seren and ancient magic if death and disaster are not to shatter her life once more.

My Thoughts:

I had wanted to read one of Paula Brackston's 'witch books' for some time, so when this one became available I was eager to dig in. This book is quite slow to start, and while Brackston is a very descriptive writer, those descriptions get extremely repetitive and redundant through the course of this tale. Over and again we are given detailed accounts of the lake, the flora and fauna, the weather, Tilda's running preferences, albinism, etc. - to the point it seems as though nothing much actually happens until well over halfway into the book:

"Although it is late in the year, it is the weekend, and plenty of people have taken the opportunity to come down to the lake. The little car park is nearly full, and the bicycle racks bristle with mountain bikes and racers, their riders sitting nearby to eat their lunches, or wandering closer to the shore to view the lake. There is a family of swans being fed by some walkers, their cygnets grown large but still sporting some of their grubby brown feathers. Pushy mallards waddle onto the small tarmac quay in the hope of sandwich crusts or maybe the stub of an ice-cream cone. A harassed woman shepherds her own brood of young children away from the water’s edge, luring them toward the café with the promise of hot dogs. A party of teenage canoeists busy themselves unloading their boats from a trailer."

It sets the scene, certainly, but the level of detail is simply too much, in my opinion, and I found myself skimming these sections more often than not. Excess words spent on these endless descriptions could have been better applied to character development and plot instead, as both feel rather superficial and contrived. Once the action does finally start, there are far too many convenient coincidences to be believed, and some things are never adequately explained at all. I much preferred the past portion of the dual narrative over the modern day story, and did find the Celtic history of the area quite interesting. However, even that storyline lacks depth overall.

Given all that, this would have been a 'middle of the road' read for me had it not gone entirely off the rails at the end. I won't give any spoilers, but the culminating events, particularly the final 'showdown' with the baddie, are so eye-rollingly ridiculous they had me cringing. Sadly, my favorite thing about this book is the gorgeous cover, and that is not enough to recommend it.

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.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Reviews: The Lost Garden by Katharine Swartz

Title:  The Lost Garden

Author: Katharine Swartz
Publisher: 15th May 2015 by Lion Hudson
Pages: 288 pages
How I Read It: ARC ebook
Genre: historical fiction; romance
My Rating:  4.5 cups


Marin Ellis is in search of a new start after her father and his second wife die in a car accident, and at thirty-seven she is made guardian of her fifteen-year-old half-sister Rebecca. They leave Hampshire for the picturesque village of Goswell on the Cumbrian coast, and settle into Bower House on the edge of the village church property. When a door to a walled garden captures Rebecca’s interest, Marin becomes determined to open it and discover what is hidden beneath the bramble inside. She enlists the help of local gardener Joss Fowler, and together the three of them begin to uncover the garden’s secrets.

In 1919, nineteen-year-old Eleanor Sanderson, daughter of Goswell’s vicar, is grieving the loss of her beloved brother Walter, who was killed just days before the Armistice was signed. Eleanor retreats into herself and her father starts to notice how unhappy she is. As spring arrives, he decides to hire someone to make a garden for Eleanor, and draw her out of - or at least distract her from - her grief and sorrow. Jack Taylor is in his early twenties, a Yorkshire man who has been doing odd jobs in the village, and when Eleanor’s father hires him to work on the vicarage gardens, a surprising - and unsuitable - friendship unfolds.

My thoughts:

“She wondered who would open this gate one day in the future. Another girl, another gardener? Would they fill it with flowers, even butterflies? She almost smiled to think of the garden being redeemed and loved again”.

To my mind, this is historical fiction at it’s finest. And what is even better - you get two stories for the price of one! Katharine Swartz has interwoven two fabulous stories here: one set just after the war in 1919, the other in modern day with the ‘lost garden’ being the common thread. When historical fiction writers take on a dual timeline, I always get a little nervous, as one story tends to stand stronger than the other. Not so in this case, as both stories are equally very enjoyable. So that in itself proved a great start to ‘The Lost Garden’.

This book travelled along comfortably, with me wanting to find time to read it and, therefore, was always going to be a four star read for me as I was so engaged. I felt for Eleanor and how she and so many truly struggled with a new world after the end of the First World War:

“Thoughts of …. a life and a world which she still didn’t like but which she had to find a way to inhabit”.

However, I had to bump it up to almost a five star for a couple of very important reasons. Firstly, the direct alignment of the main themes in both stories – something I believe would be a difficult undertaking – is so well done; it’s clever and enthralling. It’s as if they are parallel storylines separated by 100 years (and modern day conveniences of course!) and the concept and seamless execution of this is a definite bonus. I would often ponder how a revelation 1919 would then relate to a parallel one in the modern story. Swartz gives you just enough information before moving on. She expertly explores the complications that come after the loss of a loved one. The grief, anger and sadness are all sensitively dealt with.

Secondly, the ending is really well done with one particular twist I did not see coming. You definitely need to make a cup of tea and settle in for the last few chapters, as you wont want any disturbances. Speaking of chapters – each of which alternated between the two timelines – left you on tenterhooks so that I often felt compelled to continue, rather than be left hanging.

And of course, the strong link between both worlds is the garden. Both leads have suffered loss and seek solace in this mysterious walled garden. As the garden is cleared and restored, so too are their lives:

“She felt as if she were stirring to life, just as the garden was, the brambles inside her finally being cleared away”.

If you love this period in history, if you love stories set in the English countryside, or if you simply want to lose yourself in a really well written story, then ‘The Lost Garden’ is the book for you.

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.