Saturday, April 30, 2022

Review: Portrait of a Thief

Title: Portrait of a Thief

Author: Grace D. Li

Publisher: 12th April 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 369 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: suspense, contemporary, art history

My Rating:  4.5 cups


This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of 23 pieces of priceless Chinese art. Even in this back room, dust catching the slant of golden, late-afternoon light, Will could hear the sirens. They sounded like a promise. 

Will Chen, a Chinese American art history student at Harvard, has spent most of his life learning about the West – its art, its culture, all that it has taken and called its own. He believes art belongs with its creators, so when a Chinese corporation offers him a (highly illegal) chance to reclaim five priceless sculptures, it’s surprisingly easy to say yes.

Will’s crew, fellow students chosen out of his boundless optimism for their skills and loyalty, aren’t exactly experienced criminals. Irene is a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything; Daniel is pre-med with steady hands and dreams of being a surgeon. Lily is an engineering student who races cars in her spare time; and Will is relying on Alex, an MIT dropout turned software engineer, to hack her way in and out of each museum they must rob.

Each student has their own complicated relationship with China and the identities they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but one thing soon becomes certain: they won’t say no.

Because if they succeed? They earn an unfathomable ten million each, and a chance to make history. If they fail, they lose everything . . . and the West wins again.

My Thoughts

When you have multiple quotes highlighted and you are only at page 30, well, I think that is testament to good writing. Portrait of a Thief is a book that includes great writing covering some major themes with Grace having done an amazing job on each of them. This debut novel presents an unlikely mix of heists and friendships, exploration of colonialism through art and setting up discussions on Chinese-American identity. 

I went into this novel intrigued by the above themes, unsure what to expect. Many readers are not happy with perhaps the lack of energy surrounding the heists, or had set expectations regarding the clash of cultures. I, on the other hand having no set ideas, was open minded and just loved what Grace offered. 

‘All of Beijing was reflected in the blaze of her eyes. “I want you to take back what the West stole.”

The heists drew inspiration from classic old movies or even the modern day offerings of Ocean’s Eleven or Fast and Furious and parallels were sure to be drawn. Whilst an entertaining aspect, for me, it was not the main draw card and I just enjoyed the logistics of setting up such an endeavour. 

‘Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?’

What did draw me in fully was the history surrounding museums acquiring and keeping objects that rightfully don't belong to them. Matters are complicated with an argument surrounding how morally and unethically items were obtained. Fascinating to consider: did they have a right to steal them back, returning them to their country of origin?

‘China and its art, its history, would always be a story of greatness. It would always be a story of loss.’

The five main characters themselves presented a selection of young Chinese America college students and covered a range of dilemmas. The strongest of course concerned how it felt to be a part of two cultures - to which did you belong? Delving deeper and understanding the heavy weight of family and cultural expectations not only affected the past but could also possibly be allowed to affect the future? 

‘How could he explain how it felt to know, with a terrible and unflinching certainty, that you were not enough for your dreams? There was so much he wanted, so much that would always be out of reach.’

Then there is the writing - I found Grace’s prose to be eloquent and on point especially given there are some heavy topics under the microscope. I could go on about certain passages that totally gave me pause for reflection, however, where I think Grace was truly successful was aligning the characters struggles with the history of Asian art and hoping it would all fall into place. Superb. 

‘… he thought of the Old Summer Palace burning, of all the ways history was retold, made easier and softer and less true. So much had been taken that museums would not even acknowledge. Tonight they would take something back.’

I found Portrait of a Thief to be an honest and unique story that holds much appeal. Aside from the heist aspect, the consideration of the lasting effects of colonialisation, museum ethics and the plight of immigrant populations was vividly and successfully brought to light. 

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Time for tea with Leslie Johansen Nack - author of the upcoming The Blue Butterfly

Time to sit and share a cuppa with Leslie Johansen Nack, author of The Blue Butterfly published by She Writes Press and available on 3 May. Welcome Leslie to Great Reads & Tea Leaves. I so much enjoyed reading your book and am happy to share some insights with readers today. 

Firstly, tell us briefly what the book is about.

It is New York 1915, Marion Davies is a shy eighteen-year-old beauty dancing on the Broadway stage when she meets William Randolph Hearst and finds herself captivated by his riches, passion and desire to make her a movie star. Marion learns through trial and error to live as Hearst’s mistress when a divorce from his wife proves impossible. A baby girl is born in secret in 1919 and they agree to never acknowledge her publicly as their own. In a burgeoning Hollywood scene, she works hard making movies while living a lavish partying life that includes a secret love affair with Charlie Chaplin. In late 1937, at the height of the depression, Hearst wrestles with his debtors and failing health, when Marion loans him $1M when nobody else will. Together, they must confront the movie that threatens to invalidate all of Marion’s successes in the movie industry: Citizen Kane.

What makes you passionate about Marion Davies? 

I caught the inspiration to write about Marion Davies years ago while on a tour at Hearst Castle. It struck me deeply that Marion had been dismissed both in Hollywood and in the history of Hearst Castle. I couldn’t name any of her movies, and although I knew she was the mistress of the late, great William Randolph Hearst, and hostess of some amazing parties at Hearst Castle, I didn’t know much else. Who was she really? 

The passion stuck around through the writing of my first book until I was ready for my next project. The inspiration never left me. 

Why hasn’t Marion been included in the “best of” lists in Hollywood? 

I think the legacy of Citizen Kane has everybody still believing that she was a drunk, talentless bore. Sixty years after her death, her reputation does seem to be improving a bit slowly. People are starting to take another look at her and her movies, and the choices she made in her life, and learn about her. I hope to be part of restoring her reputation by giving people information and letting them look behind the glitz and glamour of all that Hearst money. 

Do you think Marion will ever overcome the shadow Citizen Kane cast? 

I’m hoping she does. I wrote the book so people can see who she really was. Condemning somebody because they are portrayed a certain way in a movie seems wrong. Why should we believe Orson Welles portrayal of her? He didn’t even know her. 

What inspired you to write about Marion Davies? 

On a tour at Hearst Castle the docent said something like Marion Davies loaned William Randolph Hearst $1 million dollars when Hearst was near bankruptcy. It stopped me cold. When has a woman in 1937 ever saved a man as powerful and rich as William Randolph Hearst? How is that possible? Who is this woman? Why don’t we all know this story? 

What do you think about the age difference between Marion and Hearst? 

I think it’s a big age difference. Nobody can defend it. He was 52 and she was 18 when they got together. Is he any different than Charlie Chaplin marrying a 16-year-old? Or Picasso at age 46 having an 18-year-old mistress? 

I think what makes it different perhaps is that Hearst and Davies stayed together for 34 years, until his death. She tended him until the very end, and he tried to give her the world. They loved each other. 

Do you think we can still admire Marion even though she had affairs on Hearst?  

Admiration is a funny thing. When I was writing this book, I discovered things about Marion that were less than admirable. I struggled with those things. One of them was that she didn’t do more for women and help get the vote for women, using her power and money, but she was newly in her relationship with Hearst, and she was only 21. 

Hearst made choices, so did Marion. They had a modern relationship. They loved each other and were together but they also had other lives as well. Hearst had five children and I admire him more knowing he spent time with his children, even if it cost him in his relationship with Marion. He had to leave Marion for holidays and summers and be with his children and their mother (whom Hearst did not want to be married to any longer). It’s a tough situation. Hard to judge from the outside. Marion took care of herself. Her passion for comedy and the romantic attentions of Charlie Chaplin led her to have an affair. I don’t disrespect her or look down on her for this. Would it be appropriate here to mention that men have been having affairs with women all through history and are we asking this question of them? Do we respect Pablo Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright for having affairs on their wives and having a mistress? No. So let’s not have a double standard. Marion was human and she was an adult. I admire her greatly for everything she accomplished and for how devoted she was to Hearst. 

Well thank you for your time today. For historical fiction lovers this is a must read for 2022, perfect read for fans of Old Hollywood and all things drama, showcasing the dazzling golden age of the film industry and peeking behind the curtain of the rich and the famous. This timeless, heavily researched novel follows Marion Davies and her 34-year relationship with William Randolph Hearst, including a secret child, harrowing family excesses, a love affair with Charlie Chaplin, and the movie that stole Marion’s legacy… (Plus, look at that drop-dead gorgeous cover ). I think readers will find the rise and fall of Marion Davies inspiring, infuriating, and overall captivating.

Thank you for the lovely tea break and chat Leslie. Congratulations on the upcoming release of your new book next week and I can’t wait to see what you offer your readers next. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Review: The Embroidered Book

Title: The Embroidered Book
Author: Katie Heartfield

Publisher: 2nd March 2022 by HarperCollins Australia

Pages: 655 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism

My Rating: 4 cups


A sweeping historical epic with a thread of magic, perfect for readers of THE FAMILIARS, THE BINDING, and THE MINIATURIST.

'Power is not something you are given. Power is something you take. When you are a woman, it is a little more difficult, that's all'

1768. Charlotte arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Two years later, her sister Antoine is sent to France to marry another stranger. In the mirrored corridors of Versailles, they rename her Marie Antoinette.

But the sisters are not powerless. When they were only children, Charlotte and Antoine discovered a book of spells - spells that seem to work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.

In a world of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, Charlotte and Antoine use their secret skills to redefine their lives, becoming the most influential women of the age.

But every spell requires a sacrifice. As love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.

Brimming with romance, betrayal, and the hidden power of women, THE EMBROIDERED BOOK reveals and reimagines a dazzling period of history as you have never seen it before.

My Thoughts

Being the lovers we are of historical fiction here at Great Reads & Tea Leaves, we were so excited to receive a copy of, The Embroidered Book, a clever twist of fantasy and magic in one of the most notable periods in history. To have a rich and complex historical tale interwoven with layers of magical realism would undoubtedly be something special. 

‘The embroidered book is still lying open on the floor. Charlotte closes it gently, gratefully. The stitches of the book's cover are familiar to her fingertips: the hard knots at the centres of the forget-me-nots, the feathered chain stitch of the vine at the edge. She can even feel the slight change in the length of the stitches where her own work begins.’

In 1767 two young Hapsburg Princesses found an embroidered book left by their governess filled with spells and magic. Charlotte will soon journey to Naples and later Antoine (Marie Antoinette) to France. Both sisters have dreams of their futures but could never have predicted how their plans would play out in a magical war. I am well versed in French history and Marie Antoinette, so to bring in a correlating story with her sister Charlotte was inspired. This is a story of great drama and politics with royal intrigue and plotting.

The author has done a marvellous job of combining fact and fiction with sprinkles of magical realism! No mean feat! The writing is clever and flows well for the most part, although this is a big book and does get a little slow at intervals. However, you are sure to be swept away with the world these sisters find themselves in. Adding a magical element to this well known period of history was inspired. A story of sisters, power and politics, magic and mystery. 

The Embroidered Book is a complex tale and one I most definitely recommend to lovers of historical fiction - a strong political tale with magical elements was something special to read.

‘… the spider-thread that connects sister to sister even now, the thread they have 

chosen to preserve when it would have taken nothing but a thought to snip it and end it, and be enemies. She isn't quite sure how they managed it, she and Charlotte, or whether the thread itself is stronger than their wills and their regrets. She isn't quite sure what it will mean that, despite everything, they are sisters.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Review: Verity

Title: Verity

Author: Colleen Hoover

Publisher: 25th January 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 314 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: thriller, mystery, suspense

My Rating:  4 cups


Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.

Lowen arrives at the Crawford home, ready to sort through years of Verity's notes and outlines, hoping to find enough material to get her started. What Lowen doesn't expect to uncover in the chaotic office is an unfinished autobiography Verity never intended for anyone to read. Page after page of bone-chilling admissions, including Verity's recollection of what really happened the day her daughter died.

Lowen decides to keep the manuscript hidden from Jeremy, knowing its contents would devastate the already grieving father. But as Lowen's feelings for Jeremy begin to intensify, she recognizes all the ways she could benefit if he were to read his wife's words. After all, no matter how devoted Jeremy is to his injured wife, a truth this horrifying would make it impossible for him to continue to love her.

My Thoughts

‘The clever and talented Verity is no longer in there. Was her body the only thing that survived that wreck? It’s as if she were an egg, cracked open and poured out, and all that’s left are the tiny fragments of hard shell.’

There has been so much written about Colleen Hoover - her books are everywhere! This particular novel is not her usual style or genre, therefore demonstrating her obvious ability as a writer. Verity ranges from the suspense, thriller, intrigue right up to the very dark and disturbing. It is creepy, sinister and psychologically unsettling.

The writing and story is of a level where you are unsure if you truly love it or hate it, if you side with the characters or are opposed to them. It is certainly a disturbing story that enthralls readers as it totally messes with their minds. Is that a good or a bad thing? There will be moments where you might forgive yourself for thinking you were reading a Stephen King novel. Is this the same Colleen Hoover famous for her romance books? Well, she certainly stepped outside of the box for this one. For sure there is romance and plenty of sex scenes but more of the psychological thriller type.

So if this is a genre that appeals to you, a read that is equally disturbing and thrilling because it’s clever, then be sure to check out Verity

‘No matter which way I look at it, it’s clear that Verity was a master at manipulating the truth. The only question that remains is: Which truth was she manipulating?’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review: The Secrets of Summer House

Title: The Secrets of Summer House

Author: Rachel Burton

Publisher: 21st April 2022 by Head of Zeus

Pages: 416 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: women’s fiction, contemporary

My Rating: 3 cups


1976. Rushing out of the University Library, undergraduate Alice Kenzie bumps straight into PhD student Tristan Somers. There begins a whirlwind romance, and Alice falls pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl. Then Tristan is killed in a car accident. Unable to cope, Alice takes her baby to Summer House, Tristan's family home in Suffolk, leaves her there and disappears.

2018. Olivia Somers has always been told that her mother died in the same accident as her father. But when she finds a bundle of old letters in Summer House, everything she ever believed about her mother is called into question. Can she find her – and even more importantly, forgive her?

My Thoughts

The Secrets of Summer House by Rachel is a dual time narrative alternating between the late 70’s and present day. It’s a book about family secrets and the journey to uncover them.

‘They need to talk about the future - their fragile uncertain future - but to get there they both need to unravel the past.’

Olivia was raised by her grandparents as both her parents died in an accident. But after her grandmother’s death, she finds some pictures that don’t relate with the story her grandmother had told her - thus the ensuing mystery unfolds. Sadly, I did not really engage much in the mystery side of this tale. The aspect that appealed most to me was Cambridge of the 1970s. Rachel presents a vivid picture of life there at that time. 

This is a big book that I feel needed better editing as it just became too repetitive going over the same emotions and angst of the two leading characters from both timelines. I wish character development had been deeper and more was written of the summer house as a character in itself. I do enjoy Rachel’s books but this one did not quite work for me.

Overall this is a book about forgiveness, family and friendship. Other themes included parental expectations, grief, postnatal depression and second chances. What would you do if you suddenly found out your life had not been grounded in what you had been told?

‘I always thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. I’ve never known if chasing the past is something we should do or not.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Review: All She Wants

Title: All She Wants

Author: Kelli Hawkins

Publisher: 2nd March 2022 by HarperCollins Australia

Pages: 307 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: General Fiction (Adult) | Mystery & Thrillers | Women's Fiction

My Rating: 4 cups


Ask no questions. Tell no lies. The utterly compelling new novel from the bestselling author of Other People's Houses

Lindsay just wants to be a mother. And when she discovers her partner is leaving her for another woman, her dreams are left in tatters. He was her last chance at a family ... or was he?

Then she meets Jack, they fall hard for each other, and suddenly everything seems perfect. But why is his sister Natalie so strangely protective of him, yet eager to pass the responsibility to Lindsay? Who are these siblings, why did they really leave the UK, and what terrifying secrets lie in their past?

And does Lindsay really want to know?

My Thoughts

Having read Kelli’s previous debut book, Other People’s Houses, I was eager to see where she would go from there. I am happy to say that once more Kelli has delivered another great domestic thriller to keep you on the edge of your seat. 

‘The moment stretched out as if weighted with its own importance.’

This is a story told mainly through two characters - Natalie, a Private Investigator and Lindsay who comes to her with suspicions that her partner is cheating on her. They keep in contact and, in fact, Natalie introduces her to her brother Jack. Lindsay and Jack get along with both seemingly wanting similar things in life. Yet, there just seems to be other factors at play here. Questions arise without answers. Are secrets being kept? Why did these siblings leave the UK? You will, of course, have your suspicions, with Kelli delivering a writing style full of plot twists and turns that you cannot help but see you rushing to find out exactly how things will end up.

‘Sounds perfect.’ They agreed on a time and Natalie rang off a delicious thrum of anticipation zipping through her veins.’

All She Wants is a wonderful domestic psychological thriller that I certainly recommend for lovers of this genre filled with suspense and drama.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.