Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review: The Lace Weaver

Title:  The Lace Weaver
Author: Lauren Chater
Publisher: 1st April 2018 by Simon & Schuster
Pages: 400 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 4 cups

Each lace shawl begins and ends the same way - with a circle. Everything is connected with a thread as fine as gossamer, each life affected by what has come before it and what will come after.
1941, Estonia. As Stalin's brutal Red Army crushes everything in its path, Katarina and her family survive only because their precious farm produce is needed to feed the occupying forces.
Fiercely partisan, Katarina battles to protect her grandmother's precious legacy - the weaving of gossamer lace shawls stitched with intricate patterns that tell the stories passed down through generations.
While Katarina struggles to survive the daily oppression, another young woman is suffocating in her prison of privilege in Moscow. Yearning for freedom and to discover her beloved mother's Baltic heritage, Lydia escapes to Estonia.
Facing the threat of invasion by Hitler's encroaching Third Reich, Katarina and Lydia and two idealistic young soldiers, insurgents in the battle for their homeland, find themselves in a fight for life, liberty and love.
My Thoughts

‘Every shawl we make will be laced with defiance. Every stitch will carry a message out into the world.’

Set during the Second World War, this is a captivating look at Estonia which found itself caught between, firstly the occupation of Russia, and then later, Germany. I knew very little about the Baltic area during this time in history and found it fascinating - everything from the dual occupation, to the resistance of the ‘forest people’, to the strong influence lace making as part of the culture and heritage had been.

‘The peace I had experienced briefly at Aunt Juddit’s this morning was gone, the threads of it scattered like a shawl unravelling in the wind.’

This is not only a story of survival but of family and friendship. The characters here are totally engaging. Lydia who was half Estonian-half Russian and had connections to  Stalin’s regime (made for some interesting Google research to read of the factual inspiration); to Kati the daughter of an Estonian farmer. These two characters are brought together happy to have shaken off the invading Russians, only to then fall under the Nazi regime and the terrifying labour camps. Infused throughout all this turmoil is the tradition of knitting circles and shawl making amongst the women.

‘ stay alive and to fulfil the promise I had made my Grandmother; to maintain our culture through the knitting circle, to keep sharing our stories and continue the tradition of making shawls.’

The Lace Weaver is Aussie author Lauren Chater’s debut novel and the writing is something special. Characters and stories are brought to life as the heartache and trauma of this impossible situation is compellingly presented. Lauren skillfully interweaves fact and fiction and leaves you breathless at times.

‘As she read from the book’s pages, Mama’s beautiful language had flowed around me like dust motes in the air, the words settling on my skin.’

I found The Lace Weaver to be beautifully written and presented a fresh take on an otherwise well documented time in history. Stories of WW2 from this part of Europe are rare, especially with many countries being consumed by the USSR.  Such histories then often became hidden, with individual country cultures and traditions erased. This tale shines a bright light in a most enlightening way and I highly recommend reading about it.

‘Who will keep our stories? Who will guard our history until it is safe to tell?’

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, April 20, 2018

Review: Egyptian Enigma

Author: L.J.M. Owen
Publisher: 1 March 2018 by Bonnier Publishing Australia
Pages: 250 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, crime, Egypt
My Rating: 3 cups

Dr Elizabeth Pimms, enthusiastic archaeologist and reluctant librarian, has returned to Egypt.
Among the treasures of the Cairo museum she spies cryptic symbols in the corner of an ancient papyrus. Decoding them leads Elizabeth and her newly formed gang of Sleuthers to a tomb of mummies whose identities must be uncovered.
What is the connection between the mummies and Twosret, female Pharaoh and last ruler of Egypt's nineteenth dynasty? How did their bodies end up scattered across the globe? And is the investigation related to the attacks on Elizabeth's family and friends back in Australia?
Between grave robbers, cannibals, misogynist historians and jealous Pharaohs, can Dr Pimms solve her latest archaeological mystery?
Filled with ancient murder, family secrets and really good food, Egyptian Enigma is the third adventure in the charming series Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth. Really cold cases.
My Thoughts

I was looking forward to this one, as I love all things to do with Ancient Egypt. However I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed with this book. Thinking I would be on some fabulous journey down the Nile, only the first initial chapter was in Egypt (and that had little to do with the story in general), everything else was discussions around 3D printed mummies. Sadly I have to admit to very quickly losing interest.

Not having read the previous two books in the series, I was informed this would not really be an issue as each was pretty much a standalone and it would be easy to follow. I beg to differ. I was totally lost on family dynamics, underlying familial themes and outside friendship connections. Therefore I found the characters difficult to relate to. I did enjoy the obtuse references to all things to do with Canberra but found the detailed food references rather perplexing.

What I did enjoy - and fervently wished there was more of - were the chapters set in Ancient Egypt. More time spent here would really have added to the story. Following Tausret was very interesting and I would loved to have read more about her. Unfortunately, the present day group of friends sitting around measuring, examining and discussing 3D mummies in an attempt to unravel an ancient mystery was boring, and this sadly takes up the majority of the book. On too many occasions it felt like a huge information dump, ‘Why don’t we walk through it step by step?’ with everything neatly and rather coldly presented and all rather ending up artificial. If I had to, ‘walk through the same basic analysis’ one more time, or read, ‘Can we see that in his teeth?’, ‘What are his teeth like?’ I may just scream.

The story had an unsatisfactory ending and overall was just too academic in terms of forensic science info dumps, there was just not enough pertinent story involving a mystery in Egypt. I do not deny the great amount of research undertaken but just wish there was more from Tausret the final Pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty, rather than present day musings.

‘Elizabeth shared the group’s frustration but tried to remain positive. So far, apart from being able to list various metrics about the mummies, they hadn’t really discovered anything to help them identify the people buried in the Golden Tomb.’

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.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: On a Cold Dark Sea

Title:  On a Cold Dark Sea
Author: Elizabeth Blackwell
Publisher: 10th April 2018 by Lake Union Publishing
Pages: 290 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, tragedy, drama
My Rating: 4 cups

On April 15, 1912, three women climbed into Lifeboat 21 and watched in horror as the Titanic sank into the icy depths. They were strangers then…
Con artist Charlotte Digby lied her way through London and onto the Titanic. The disaster could be her chance at a new life—if she hides the truth about her past. Esme Harper, a wealthy American, mourns the end of a passionate affair and fears that everything beautiful is slipping from her grasp. And Anna Halversson, a Swedish farm girl in search of a fresh start in America, is tormented by the screams that ring out from the water. Is one of them calling her name?
Twenty years later, a sudden death brings the three women back together, forcing them to face the impossible choices they made, the inconceivable loss, and the secrets they have kept for far too long.
My Thoughts

I am always up for anything ‘Titanic’ related, some are good and some ... not so good. I am happy to say, that this is one of the good ones - a unique take on this infamous tale.

‘... men who did their duty and went down with the ship. It sounds like a noble sort of death, but it isn’t: it’s loud and painful and terrifying. No one surrenders to the water without a fight.’

For this particular tale, we have three women who survived the sinking of the Titanic and found themselves together on a lifeboat on ‘a cold, dark sea’. The story is told from their alternating viewpoints, as we gradually learn a bit about each woman's past, her interpretation of the tragedy and what occurred in the years to follow. All up, ‘On A Cold Dark Sea’ is a captivating tale of survival and how one tries to start over after witnessing and being part of such a tragedy.

‘I hate to think where I’d have ended up if the Titanic hadn’t sunk.’

The book is divided into four parts: life before then life after the tragedy, what occurred on Lifeboat 21 and finally, many years later. I really enjoyed the different stories from all three women who came from such contrasting backgrounds, yet together experienced a tragedy that would link them for a lifetime. This is a very well written tale with the pacing being just right. All characters, not just the three main women, are strong and engaging, highlighting three very different lifestyles in the early years of the twentieth century.

Two points that make this book a standout for me: one, although a work of fiction, the necessary research has been done and it came across as a most realistic portrayal of this well documented tragedy. Everything from how passengers were evacuated, to the crew and the implications of them of not having enough training or necessary equipment. Secondly, the background stories really made this tale. It was definitely not just about the sinking, it was more about these three women and how they came to be on the ship in the first place and how they handled what occured in both the short and long term. How could three women from such varying socioeconomic backgrounds forever be linked together? My only slight disappointment was the ending, it did not really tidy things up enough for my liking.

‘The moment she’d pulled Charlie into the lifeboat—without even thinking, simply reaching out in need—was the moment she’d lost him.’

Reading this book you get a first hand account of how lives were before and after being part of such a tragedy. And how, some twenty years on, they were still very much dealing with haunting memories and critical decisions made on that fateful lifeboat.

‘On that night, it was impossible to imagine that each small decision might later be magnified beyond reason, or that one spontaneous gesture could be held up as evidence in the court of public opinion.’

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, April 10, 2018

Review: The Portrait of Molly Dean

Title: The Portrait of Molly Dean
Author: Katherine Kovocic
Publisher: 1 March 2018 by Bonnier Publishing Australia
Pages: 288 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction, mystery, crime
My Rating: 4.5 cups

An unsolved murder comes to light after almost seventy years...
In 1999, art dealer Alex Clayton stumbles across a lost portrait of Molly Dean, an artist's muse brutally slain in Melbourne in 1930. Alex buys the painting and sets out to uncover more details, but finds there are strange inconsistencies: Molly's mother seemed unconcerned by her daughter's violent death, the main suspect was never brought to trial despite compelling evidence, and vital records are missing. Alex enlists the help of her close friend, art conservator John Porter, and together they sift through the clues and deceptions that swirl around the last days of Molly Dean.
My Thoughts

‘My interest in Molly Dean’s portrait may have started as a way to bump up the value, but this is more of a story than I ever expected.’

For a debut novel, this was really engaging and highly commendable. A dual time narrative with an intense and absorbing mystery, revolving around factual events from Australia in the early 1930s. Molly Dean, an aspiring writer but working as a school teacher, was brutally murdered in a Melbourne laneway and her case remains unsolved to this day. There were suspects and a trial even organised but it all amounted to nothing.

What Katherine (author) has done here is indeed very clever. In one timeline, she has reimagined events leading up to the death of Molly and in the 1999 timeline has a fictional Art dealer, Alex, uncovering the portrait of Molly and researching the background behind the artwork. Alex’s initial intention was to just increase the painting’s value by restoring the work and providing provenance with the background story. Except Alex became involved in the history surrounding the portrait. So on the one hand you have Molly wonderfully detailing life in Melbourne of the 1930s (loved reading about my home city - from tram rides to Luna Park) and living a bohemian lifestyle with Colin Colahan (actual painter) - then Alex in 1999 providing a fascinating insight into art auctions, restorations and the like.

Sounds intriguing - and it is! Katherine has done a marvellous job of both timelines. Her art knowledge in terms of history and conservation is clearly evident and most enlightening. The range of characters (both real and fictional) are well formed -from the 1930s and Molly’s mother and Adam Graham brought to life, to the 1990s fictional Alex with the highly amusing inclusion of her friend John and ever faithful Hogarth (dog). The banter between Alex and John is fun, which serves to highlight how the author brings light and shade to the intriguing novel.

If you like a good mystery then the unique appeal of this one is the central plot based around factual events. I love historical fiction and the gripping mystery around poor Molly Dean, her life goals and eventual murder is fascinating. I appreciated the ‘Author’s Notes’ at the end detailing what was fact and what was fiction. A very engaging read that I highly recommend.

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.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: Tangerine

Title:  Tangerine
Author: Christine Mangan
Publisher: 27th March 2018 by Hachette
Pages: 320 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: mystery, thriller
My Rating: 3 cups

The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the accident at Bennington, the two friends—once inseparable roommates—haven’t spoken in over a year. But there Lucy was, trying to make things right and return to their old rhythms. Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy—always fearless and independent—helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country.
But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice—she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.
Tangerine is a sharp dagger of a book—a debut so tightly wound, so replete with exotic imagery and charm, so full of precise details and extraordinary craftsmanship, it will leave you absolutely breathless.
My Thoughts

‘Tangier covered you—smothered you, according to some, though I found only comfort in it, pride even. Tangier had left its mark on me, claimed me as one of its own.’

‘Tangerine’ is an intriguing little book and one I have mixed feelings about. This is the story of the friendship between two women -  Lucy and Alice were roommates and friends at College until tragedy struck and the ensuing falling out. A few years later, Lucy turns up unannounced at Tangiers, where Alice is living with her husband. The story then moves back and forth in alternating chapters told from the viewpoints of both women as tensions build and ultimately, things go awry.

The first part of the book is very slow - a lot of detail and whilst I enjoyed some of the descriptions of Tangiers (at times it was overwritten), you found yourself wishing the plot would move along faster. At about the halfway point, the story really starts to get going with the disappearance of Alice’s husband and then events move very fast. Unfortunately however, the plot seemed somewhat predictable with many reviewers aligning it with Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ of which I tend to agree. Yet the story did hold my interest to the end, with just the pacing of events and cumbersome descriptions being its downfall. Also, the voices of Lucy and Alice are very similar to each other and, never really liking either character as both could be described as high maintenance (but in different ways) it became, at times,  confusing and I had to read back as both Alice and Lucy were so alike in their voice. A lot of narrative with not a great deal happening all up.

‘Now was the time to rectify it, I knew. The final chance to make things right. To leave the past in the past. If it meant making Morocco my own, I was prepared to do just that. I was a Tangerine now, after all.’

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, April 6, 2018

Review: Birthright

Title: Birthright
Author: Fiona Lowe
Publisher: 19 February 2018 by Harlequin (Australia), TEEN / MIRA
Pages: 445 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: women's fiction, contemporary
My Rating: 3.5 cups

Australian author Fiona Lowe returns with a juicy family saga, set against the backdrop of Victoria's high country, about unforgettable characters tangled together by a wealthy inheritance, secrets and betrayal.
Is an inheritance a privilege or a right?
Does it show love? Margaret, the matriarch of the wealthy Jamieson family, has always been as tight-fisted with the family money as she is with her affection. Her eldest daughter, Sarah, is successful in her own right as a wife, mother and part owner of a gourmet food empire. But it’s not enough to impress her mother. Always in the shadow cast by the golden glow of her younger brother, Sarah feels compelled to meet Margaret’s every demand to earn her love.
Does it give security? After a poverty-stricken childhood, Anita has claimed the social status she’s worked so hard to achieve by marrying Cameron Jamieson. Although they have a comfortable life, she’s never able to fully relax, fearing everything could change in a heartbeat.
Or does it mean freedom? Ellie, the youngest, has lived a nomadic and — according to her siblings — a selfish life, leaving them to care for their ageing mother. For her, freedom means staying far away from the strings attached to her inheritance, but she needs to consider her young son’s future as well.
As their mother’s health deteriorates, will long-held secrets and childhood rivalries smash this family into pieces?
An addictive and page-turning story of the relationships between siblings and of deceit, betrayal and revenge.
My Thoughts

The premise of this book, as stated in the synopsis, ‘Is an inheritance a privilege or a right?’, is an interesting thought to ponder, especially for the Jamieson family in this particular situation. You put yourself in their shoes - are you simply entitled to the family inheritance? Should it be distributed evenly? Fairly based on recognition? What if you disagreed with the will? How far would you go to contest what you rightly thought was your entitlement?

“That it doesn’t change the fact that you made a life-altering decision without discussing it with me?”

With so much to consider from varying viewpoints, this became a long story. Perhaps a tad too long for my liking, as I felt some sections could have been shortened. Undoubtedly it is well written with a strong cast of characters who provide a most thought provoking family saga - the key word there would be provoking and I will get to that in a moment. Of course, families do not get along all the time, at the best of times, and many will relish this confronting and at times, difficult drama filled situations. In many ways it held potential as some situations or characters had recognisable dilemmas.

‘After all, who in their mid-forties, sandwiched between teenage children and ageing parents and with so many people making demands on them, didn’t crave time on their own?’

Apart from the hefty size of the tale, I struggled with a couple of other things. Firstly, these people were at times downright brutal to each other. Early on it did not sit comfortably with me but towards the end I did not enjoy how rude and confrontational they were to each other. There are some really unlikable characters here. The second thing I found difficult was the array of issues - everything from spousal affairs and vasectomies, to homosexuality and sexual abuse - just to name the main ones.  It was just too many and too much and became overwhelming and ridiculously drama filled.

Overall I enjoyed some of the story and some of the characters - I had a lot of respect for Ellie and how her part played out and would have loved to learn more about the father, Kevin. But on the whole, there was just too much bitterness for me to swallow and many characters were too difficult to connect with as their infighting went to a whole new level.

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, April 3, 2018

Review: Cinderella and the Geek

Title:  Cinderella and the Geek
Author: Christina Phillips
Publisher: 19th February 2018 by Entangled Publishing, LLC (Embrace)
Pages: 350 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: romance, contemporary
My Rating: 3.5 cups

From Christina Phillips a sexy, new romance with a hero you won’t forget…
I'm not looking for love or a Happily-Ever-After because I know how that ends. I just need to concentrate on my degree and look after myself. But there's something about my boss, Harry, I can't resist. It's crazy since he's so hot and smart it should be illegal.
And then, just like Cinderella, I have my night at the ball and a midnight kiss, and for a week all my sexy daydreams come true. That fake date changes my life in a way I could never imagine. It turns out, Harry wants me too.
But I’m off to pursue my dreams, and he’s taking his business to the next level. There’s no way this fairytale has a happy ending, but that doesn’t keep me from wishing for it.
My Thoughts

“He’s taking you to a ball. You’re going to have your very own Cinderella moment.”

You know the feeling, you’re between reads and really in need of some light entertainment - then this is the perfect book for you. A really cute read that contains some laughs and loads of sexy romance - just what was required for a quick, no brainer escapism. This is not meant to be deep and meaningful, it’s chick lit, light and fluffy.

A super easy read, the perfect filler between your more heavier reads and just what I was looking for. It’s a sweet new adult romance as Alice is preparing for college, while Harry is in his early 20s. The fun take on this particular read, is that they are both nerds and awkward, not knowing what to do or how to express their feelings. See .... cute!

The Cinderella moment at the awards night and ensuing fallout is fun. I liked the dual, alternating perspectives for both Alice and Harry as it gives you a fuller understanding of both sides, especially their backgrounds and what made them the way they are and therefore, act the way they do. Of course the other Cinderella aspect is the classic coming from different backgrounds and wondering if she would get her Prince Charming.

It’s not all fluff, there is much to be said about not being honest with your feelings, allowing past hurts to impact on present relationships and of course the main plot, misunderstandings. Inside all of us is that person scared of being honest, showing how you really feel and prepared to take that chance to fall in love. This ticks all the boxes for a feel good, chick lit romance.

Let’s make it clear - this is no ground making plot here. But what you do have is a light hearted, sexy romp with just enough depth and a lovely brush with fairytales. What’s not to like?

No need to be back by midnight.” She winks at Alice who pretends not to notice. “Don’t forget to take loads of selfies.”

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

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: The Paris Seamstress

Title: The Paris Seamstress
Author: Natasha Lester
Publisher: 27 March 2018 by Hachette Australia
Pages: 448 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: women's fiction, contemporary, historical fiction
My Rating: 5 cups

1940. Parisian seamstress Estella Bissette is forced to flee France as the Germans advance. She is bound for Manhattan with a few francs, one suitcase, her sewing machine and a dream: to have her own atelier.
2015. Australian curator Fabienne Bissette journeys to the annual Met Gala for an exhibition of her beloved grandmother's work - one of the world's leading designers of ready-to-wear. But as Fabienne learns more about her grandmother's past, she uncovers a story of tragedy, heartbreak and secrets - and the sacrifices made for love.
Crossing generations, society's boundaries and international turmoil, THE PARIS SEAMSTRESS is the beguiling, transporting story of the special relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter as they attempt to heal the heartache of the past.
My Thoughts

‘Be brave. Love well and fiercely. Be the woman I always knew you would be.’

The final page has been turned, the cover closed and I wipe a tear from my eye ... *deep sigh* ... this is without a doubt, one of the best books I have ever read. If historical fiction is close to your heart (even if it’s not, as Natasha tackles dual narratives for the first time) you will be hard placed to find a more heart wrenching tale than this. For this is, in my opinion, Natasha’s best book yet. With her first book, ‘A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald’ making a remarkable debut, her follow up, ‘Her Mother’s Secret’, cemented Natasha at the forefront of historical fiction with meticulous research, endearing characters and mesmerising  mysteries. If I gave these previous two novels five stars how on earth am I to rate this one as it is off the richter scale!  I don’t think I have ever read a book that has touched me so deeply, so profoundly and felt such an array of emotions.

‘His pillow carried the scent of him and as she rested her cheek against it, she knew that if what she felt wasn’t love, then love must be so acute it couldn’t be survived. Because what she felt right now was agony.’

Based on fact (some of the characters existed, as do the buildings some of which are central to the story and can be viewed on Natasha’s blog) I feel at a loss to voice my thoughts ... I don't think I have ever read a book so profound and which made me feel so much. Writing one compelling narrative is commendable, writing two within the one book is rare indeed. The fact that both stories held so much depth is a credit to the author. The changeovers were seamless and I found myself whispering a shocked, ‘No!’ at the conclusion of many a switch in timelines. It just all came together so well, which each section complimenting the other.

‘... she would not help Alex and Lena tear away the fabric of the stories she and Lena had been told because that would leave her naked and with nothing.’

This is one rollercoaster ride. Natasha writes of strong women and here you have not one but two - grandmother and granddaughter - who through their personal journey, experience the many highs and lows, love and  heartache and will have you literally gasping for breath. I willing admit there are plot twists that shocked me and my eyes welled up as events played out on the pages before me. Never before have I been so emotionally invested in such an array of characters (primary and secondary) in both timelines - once again a testament to Natasha’s writing.

“...if the government had known the city would be bombed, then why hadn’t they taken the people, wrapped them in sheets, and saved them instead of panes of lifeless glass.’

Do yourself a favour, escape to Paris with Estella in war torn France, then start putting all the pieces together with Fabienne in present day New York. I challenge you not to be shocked as secrets are revealed at just the right points throughout the story, or feel triumphant when your heartfelt hopes are realised. This is historical fiction, indeed storytelling, at its finest. I simply cannot wait to see what Natasha will come up with next.

‘But it seems wrong that we leave it all to a few people like you to take on the burdens that the rest of us are unable to face. Thank 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.