Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review: Ember Island by Kimberley Freeman

Title:  Ember Island

Author: Kimberley Freeman
Publisher:  April 15th 2014 by Touchstone
ISBN: 1476743509 (ISBN13: 9781476743509)
Pages:  448 pages
How I Read It: ebook ARC
Genre: historical fiction, romance, womens' fiction


In a compelling, complex story from the bestselling author of Wildflower Hill and Lighthouse Bay, two women separated by a century discover long-buried secrets in an Australian manor house. In 1891, Tilly, a recently married young English woman, is reeling with shock and guilt after her tempestuous marriage ends in horrific circumstances on the remote Channel Islands. Determined to get as far from England as she can, she takes on a new identity and a job on Ember Island in Moreton Bay, Australia, where she becomes the governess to a prison superintendent’s young daughter, Nell. Tilly fights her attraction to the superintendent, Sterling Holt, and befriends one the few female inmates, Hettie Thorpe, and a dangerous relationship develops. She doesn’t know that Nell is watching her every move and writing it all down, hiding tiny journals all over Starwater, her rambling manor home.

More than 100 years later, bestselling novelist Nina Jones is struggling with writer’s block and her disappointing personal life. Her poet boyfriend has recently broken up with her, and a reporter who is digging into her past insists on speaking to Nina about her great-grandmother, Nell. There are some secrets Nina may no longer be able to hide. Retreating to Starwater, she discovers Nell’s diary pages hidden in the old walls and becomes determined to solve the mystery. Though Tilly and Nina are separated by many years, Starwater House will change both their lives.

Deeply affecting and beautifully written, Ember Island is a sweeping novel of secrets, second chances, and learning to trust your heart.

Our thoughts:

Given the many positive reviews of her work, and always on the lookout for new (to us) authors who write in dual timelines, we had been looking forward to reading our first Kimberley Freeman novel for some time. When we saw the synopsis for this upcoming release, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to give one of her books a try.

Regrettably, it was not as impressive as we had hoped. The book feels poorly constructed. It begins by introducing not two, but three different tales, which do eventually weave together as the book progresses. However, until they start to interconnect, we found the three open storylines to be a bit unwieldy and quite difficult to follow.

Nina's story in 2012 seems completely unnecessary. She is an annoying character and adds little to the overall narrative other than serving as a means to reveal portions of Nell's story from the 1890s. Tilly's story, also set in the 1890s, is more interesting, with a definite Jane Eyre feel to it. Unfortunately, however, this portion of the tale is overstated and overly drawn out, spending far too many pages simply plodding along, with the plot going nowhere fast. At this point in the book, we felt so frustrated with Tilly and her foolishness we would have loved to give her a good shake!

The romances, past and present, are not handled terribly well. They feel less like actual romance and more like overactive hormones on the part of the female characters! It seems this book could have benefited greatly from heavier editing to eliminate some of these issues and to pare down the unnecessary content.

Our interest was piqued a bit more when Nell and Tilly's tales finally intersect near the middle of the book, but both the past and modern storylines play out in such predictable and simplistic fashion, with all loose ends tied up much too quickly and neatly, that we felt disappointed in this book overall.

Our Rating

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: The Collector of Dying Breaths by M.J. Rose

Title:  The Collector of Dying Breaths (Reincarnationist #6)

Author: M.J. Rose
Publisher:  April 8 2014 Atria Books
ISBN: 1451621531 (ISBN13: 9781451621532)
Pages:  384 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, suspense, fantasy, romance
Find it at Goodreads

A lush and imaginative novel that crisscrosses time as a perfumer and a mythologist search for the fine line between potion and poison, poison and passion…and past and present.

Florence, Italy—1533: An orphan named René le Florentin is plucked from poverty to become Catherine de Medici’s perfumer. Traveling with the young duchessina from Italy to France, René brings with him a cache of secret documents from the monastery where he was trained: recipes for exotic fragrances and potent medicines—and a formula for an alchemic process said to have the potential to reanimate the dead. In France, René becomes not only the greatest perfumer in the country but the most dangerous, creating deadly poisons for his Queen to use against her rivals. But while mixing herbs and essences under the light of flickering candles, Rene doesn’t begin to imagine the tragic and personal consequences for which his lethal potions will be responsible.

Paris, France—The Present: A renowned mythologist, Jac L’Etoile, is trying to recover from personal heartache by throwing herself into her work, learns of the 16th century perfumer who may have been working on an elixir that would unlock the secret to immortality. She becomes obsessed with René le Florentin’s work—particularly when she discovers the dying breathes he had collected during his lifetime. Jac’s efforts put her in the path of her estranged lover, Griffin North, a linguist who has already begun translating René le Florentin’s mysterious formula. Together they confront an eccentric heiress in possession of a world-class art collection. A woman who has her own dark purpose for the elixir… a purpose for which she believes the ends will justify her deadly means. This mesmerizing gothic tale of passion and obsession crisscrosses time, zigzagging from the violent days of Catherine de Medici’s court to twenty-first century France. Fiery and lush, set against deep, wild forests and dimly lit chateaus, The Collector of Dying Breaths illuminates the true path to immortality: the legacies we leave behind.

Our thoughts:

We have enjoyed and admired this author, reading some of her previous novels and even giving one five stars – but with this particular tale – where did it all go wrong? Working with so much rich historical data the potential was huge and we can only speculate that perhaps, with this being book six in the series, this tale had run its course. Using aromatherapy ourselves and fascinated by reincarnation

“You won’t ever find peace until you accept there’s more than just the here and now. Souls live on.” 

we eagerly embraced this sequel. But like her main character, we have to question, “what had happened, or was Jac’s (MJ Rose) imagination running wild”!

Unfortunately, this book failed to work for us in several aspects. There were many inconsistencies throughout the book which we found frustrating – from simple geographical errors (a character was said to live in Bath and yet they travelled to Wales); to disjointed time jumps within the story without any explanation of the intervening years; to whiplash quick changes of a character’s perspective and emotions, again without any supporting explanation within the story.

As Rose writes, “She didn’t have to understand in order to accept other realms and constructs.” Indeed, in order to engage in this book one must abandon all understanding, because several of the happenings within the story are simply too convenient and far-fetched to possibly be believed – spontaneous discoveries, invisible forces, easily justified murder, perfectly falling tree branches – to the point that even the author notes “the coincidence of it seemed impossible” – yes, it certainly did!

The genre of this work seems unclear. It lacks a cohesive overall story and feels more like a jumble of individual character tales as they each traverse their own independent journey. At times it reads like a textbook with the level of detail that is given, and at others it veers into a religious dissertation. It never seems to find one definitive and unifying voice that pulls the tale together.

Finally, Jac, the main character, and her constant focus on her own emotions became tiresome and annoying over time. She is weak and misguided, feeling “what choice did she have?” when in fact she did have choices she simply chose to ignore, and even went along with amoral acts such as thievery and suspected murder without any question or protest.

We wanted to love this book. We truly did. We approached it with great anticipation given our positive experiences from the author’s previous novels. We were sadly disappointed.

Our Rating:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review: Silent In The Grave by Deanna Raybourn

Title:  Silent in the Grave (Lady Julia Grey #1)
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher:  MIRA Books
ASIN: 9781460302828
Pages:  348 pages
How I Read It: ebook
Genre: Historical - fiction, mystery and romance
Find it at Goodreads

These ominous words, slashed from the pages of a book of Psalms, are the last threat that the darling of London society, Sir Edward Grey, receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, Sir Edward collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.

Prepared to accept that Edward's death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggest that Sir Edward has been murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers the damning paper for herself, and realizes the truth.

Determined to bring her husband's murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward's demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.

Our thoughts:

It’s no secret we have loved Deanna Raybourn’s recent releases, A Spear of Summer Grass and City of Jasmine, so we thought we really should check out her popular Lady Julia Grey mystery series as well.

The first installment of this series, Silent in the Grave, thrust us right into the middle of the action with its dynamic opening lines and kept us turning the pages thereafter.

"To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."

Eventually this shocking first meeting leads to Lady Julia partnering with private inquiry agent Brisbane to track down her husband’s murderer. Over the course of their investigation Lady Julia truly begins to come into her own. She transforms from a meek and quiet little “mouse” content with normalcy into a daring, self-assured and independent woman who is at times a little too impulsive for her own safety.

“I sat for a long time, uncomfortable both with the person I had been and the person I was finally becoming.  Caught between the two of them, I felt rather lonely, as one often does with a new acquaintance.”

As always, Raybourn’s writing is smart and flows beautifully. The main and secondary characters are unique, well drawn and interesting, and the dialogue is authentic and sharp. The mystery itself is cleverly done with lots of twists and turns.

There are plenty of amusing and colorful moments courtesy of the bold and eccentric members of the March clan and the widely varied household staff, and Julia’s first person narration provides many wry and humorous observations as well. We found ourselves not only smiling but literally laughing out loud on several occasions while reading this book.

The interactions between Julia and Brisbane are tempestuous and witty, with some definite (but largely unacknowledged) romantic sparks flying in the mix. This first book leaves the fate of their relationship unresolved, but we can’t wait to see how it evolves as the series progresses.

While this title might not satisfy hard-core mystery fans, if you are looking for a more lighthearted mystery with a bit of history, a bit of romance, and a bit of humor then this should fit the bill perfectly. We found it to be a quick and entertaining read!

Our Rating

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Title:  The Museum of Extraordinary Things
Author: Alice Hoffman
Published February 18th 2014 by Scribner
ISBN: 1451693583 (ISBN13: 9781451693584)
Pages: 384 pages 
How I Read It: eARC copy 
Genre: historical – fiction, mystery and romance

Coney Island, 1911: Coralie Sardie is the daughter of a self-proclaimed scientist and professor who acts as the impresario of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show offering amazement and entertainment to the masses. An extraordinary swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl,and a 100 year old turtle, in her father's "museum". She swims regularly in New York's Hudson River, and one night stumbles upon a striking young man alone in the woods photographing moon-lit trees. From that moment, Coralie knows her life will never be the same.

The dashing photographer Coralie spies is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father's Lower East Side Orthodox community. As Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the mystery behind a young woman's disappearance and the dispute between factory owners and labourers. In the tumultuous times that characterized life in New York between the world wars, Coralie and Eddie's lives come crashing together in Alice Hoffman's mesmerizing, imaginative, and romantic new novel.

Our thoughts:

Set in 1911 New York City, the author frames her tale between two massive fires which effected the area at that time: the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which claimed the lives of many young garment workers, and the Dreamland Fire, which devastated Coney Island. Over the handful of months separating these two fires, the story follows the lives of two young people, Coralie Sardie and Ezekiel (Eddie) Cohen.

Coralie’s strange and domineering father owns the museum featured in the title of the book and uses it to showcase his “living wonders.” “My father called them wonders but to the world they were freaks – they were unique and fascinating and terribly brave in the ways they revealed their most secret selves.” Coralie herself “was her father’s daughter, a living wonder, an oddity no common man could ever understand” - or so she thought. Her father keeps her under strict control and has been secretly training her from a young age to take her place as the Mermaid in his display of wonders. She eventually does just that, and is forced by her father to perform in ways she never imagined, making her long to escape to another life.

Eddie, who came to this country from Russia along with his father, ends up disowning his religion and his father and sets out to find his own way as a photographer: “He yearned for the ability to see into the world of shadows…he saw only the light, darkness, black or while and all that lay in between was invisible to his eyes…Eddie’s purpose was to pursue the light and find what was lost….to see true beauty of the world and…to capture a single moment of that beauty”. As he strives to do so, he also struggles to determine “Was the future set or could a man change his destiny and make his own decisions as to what came next?”

Their tales are told alternately, with glimpses into each of their pasts as well as their internal dialogues, until the two of them are eventually brought together while uncovering the mystery behind the disappearance of a young woman. They immediately fall in love, and both learn that all is not as it has seemed in either of their lives.

This novel was interesting and beautifully told. Hoffman’s evocative descriptions of the horrific fires are truly remarkable. She captures the scenes so perfectly you feel as if you are standing next to the characters and experiencing the events right along with them. It was fascinating to read about the aspects of life in Coney Island at that time, as well as the rivalries between the parks and attractions.

We did have some issues with the evolution of the relationship between the two leads (the ‘love at first sight’ aspect rang a bit hollow for us), and the lack of a true reconciliation between Eddie and his father was bothersome, even though such a reunion was implied. The ending also seemed somewhat rushed, with all loose ends tied up a little too quickly and neatly in one all-encompassing letter. In spite of this, however, we liked this book overall and feel it should more than satisfy the reader interested in this period of history and also those who are looking for some romance mixed with mystery. And we found it very rewarding to watch the main characters learn the important underlying lesson:

“You are who you are, whatever you’re called.”

Our Rating