Review: THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine Arden

Review:  THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine ArdenThe Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Also by this author: The Bear and the Nightingale
five-stars
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #2
Published by Del Rey on December 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Also in this series: The Bear and the Nightingale
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Katherine Arden’s The Winternight Trilogy is one of the most captivating series I’ve ever read.  I fell in love with the series last winter when I read the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale.  Filled with lush worldbuilding, a feisty heroine, fascinating Russian folklore, and a touch of the supernatural, The Bear and the Nightingale entranced me from the first pages and I just fell in love with everything about the story.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the second book, The Girl in the Tower, and was thrilled to be approved for an advanced copy to review on my blog.

I didn’t think it was possible to top the gorgeous storytelling in the first book, but Arden proved me wrong.  As much as I adored The Bear and the Nightingale, I thought The Girl in the Tower was even more amazing!  It has all of the same wonderful elements as the first book – the magic, the Russian folklore, beloved characters like Vasya, her horse Solovey, and the Frost Demon.  But then, there’s just also so much more to love.

In The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has really come into her own in terms of character growth.  She is still a free spirit who refuses to bow down and do what society expects young women to do, but now she is also more mature and a bit wiser because of what she went through in the first book.

The Girl in the Tower picks up right where The Bear and the Nightingale left off. Because of what happened to Vasya in the first book, there are rumors swirling around her village that she is a witch.  Faced with the choices before her – either marrying someone she doesn’t love or being sent to live in a convent —  Vasya decides to create her own destiny and runs away from home.  When the story opens, we meet Vasya traveling, disguised as a boy, with only her horse, Solovey, by her side.

The roads she travels on are rugged and unsafe, but Vasya’s journey ultimately takes her to Moscow where she is reunited with her monk brother, Sasha; her sister, Olga, who is now a princess; and her cousin Dmitrii, who is the Crown Prince of Moscow.  Desperately trying to conceal her true identity, Vasya gets caught up in a web of deception, lies, and political unrest and finds herself faced with extremely dangerous choices everywhere she turns.

How will she get out of her predicament and what will happen to her if her true identity is revealed?

As with the first book, the atmospheric quality of The Girl in the Tower was one of my favorite parts of the novel.  As soon as I began reading, I felt as though I had been transported to Vasya’s world.  Arden masterfully paints a medieval Russian landscape and skillfully dots this landscape with a fascinating mix of supernatural elements and Russian folklore.  Her descriptions are so vivid that I could practically hear the snow crunching under Solovey’s hooves as he and Vasya traversed the snowy landscape, just as I could easily envision the tiny magical spirit guardians hidden in each building Vasya entered.

Vasya is of course still a major favorite of mine.  I admire her bravery and her feistiness and the fact that she doesn’t want to be forced into marriage or into a convent.  She has no interest in society’s expectations for women and, instead, wants to be an adventurer and travel the world.  Vasya has a spirit that cannot be tamed, and I couldn’t help but cheer her on, even though I know it’s likely to be dangerous for her.

In addition to Vasya, another favorite character of mine is her stallion, Solovey.  Solovey and Vasya can communicate with each other, and some of their exchanges are truly hilarious.  I love Solovey for his loyalty, his sassiness, and for his fierceness.  You’ll want a Solovey of your very own after reading this story.  He’s the perfect companion for Vasya.

And, of course, I can’t leave out an unexpected favorite character, Morozko, the Frost Demon.  Arden adds layers and layers of complexity to Morozko in this second book and I just fell in love with him even more than I did in the first book.   The details of his history, along with his connection to Vasya, are what truly take this story to the next level, and even though I probably shouldn’t ship Vasya and Morozko, I totally do.  I just can’t get enough of the two of them together!

I also loved that this story seemed a little darker and a little more grounded in reality than the first story because of the focus on political unrest in Moscow. It added a layer of danger and intrigue that really made for an exciting and fast-paced read.

The only issue I had while reading this book was that it started out a little slow for me.  It may have been because it took a few pages to actually get to Vasya’s story, but I’m actually going to chalk it up as a personal issue because I was trying to start the book while riding on a train and was constantly distracted.  Once I got home and continued reading where there were less distractions, I devoured the rest of the book in less than 24 hours.

The Girl in the Tower is a tale that is beautiful yet dark, enchanting yet also horrifying. With its gorgeous prose, memorable characters, and intricate storytelling, it has also secured itself a spot on my Top Reads of 2017 list.  Katherine Arden has truly captivated me with this series and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final installment.  I highly recommend this series to anyone who loves a strong, feisty, independent heroine and good solid storytelling, as well as to anyone who is interested in Russian folklore.  You won’t be disappointed!

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

five-stars

About Katherine Arden

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

Review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

Review:  Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha SilvaMr. Dickens and His Carol: A Novel of Christmas Past by Samantha Silva
four-half-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on October 31st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Samantha Silva’s Mr. Dickens and His Carol is a charming, heartwarming tale that follows Charles Dickens at a difficult time in his life.  Dickens has been a hugely successful writer for years, with each book selling better than the last.  That is, until Martin Chuzzlewit, whose sales have unexpectedly flopped.  Three weeks before Christmas, Dickens’ publishers pay him a visit to tell him the bad news about his book sales and to issue him an ultimatum:  write a heartwarming, best-selling Christmas book in the next three weeks or else face financial ruin.

Needless to say, this does not put Dickens into the Christmas spirit, especially when on top of his bad news, he also has to contend with his family who is expecting the same lavish Christmas that they are used to.  Additionally, one of Dickens’ cousins is lurking about because he wants money for an investment, and Dickens’ deadbeat father is also milling around town racking up debts and expecting Charles to take care of them.

Dickens begins to feel backed into a corner and starts to lash out at those around him, eventually driving his wife and children away from their home.  At first, Dickens flat out refuses to write a novel on demand because it’s not his style, but ultimately realizes he has no choice and sits down to write.  There’s just one problem – he has no inspiration whatsoever and a huge case of writer’s block.  Growing increasingly frustrated, Dickens begins to wander aimlessly around the city of London and eventually finds himself on an Ebenezer Scrooge-like journey that ultimately becomes the inspiration for what ends up being his most beloved novel, A Christmas Carol.

There were so many things I loved about this book, but I think the Dickensian atmosphere was what I loved the most.  I truly felt like I had been transported back to Victorian London while I was reading.  Silva does a marvelous job of capturing all of the sights, sounds, and smells (both the good and the bad!) of the time period and the overall effect was just magical! It was instantly clear that Silva had done her homework, both with respect to Dickens himself and to the time period.

I also loved the way Silva brought Charles Dickens to life for her readers.  She portrays him as likable and charming, and yet so flawed and human at the same time.  His family means everything to him and he’s worried that he may not be able to take care of them because of his lagging book sales.   I really sympathized with what he was going through –everyone wanting something from him because of his success,  his wife telling him that he has changed and that she and the children are leaving until he gets himself sorted out, and then having to write a Christmas story on demand in order to keep from falling into financial ruin.  It’s a lot for anyone to have to deal with and Dickens also feels the tremendous pressure of up-and-coming writers such as Thackeray and begins to doubt that he can compete with them.  Dickens’ frustrations were palpable and so very understandable, as were his feelings of self-doubt.  The writer’s block that follows is something that all of us who write can relate to, and I thought it was brilliant that Silva uses all of these pressures she has piled onto Dickens’ shoulders to take him on a Scrooge-like journey of his own, which is what ultimately inspires his writing of A Christmas Carol.

I’m a huge fan of both Dickens and A Christmas Carol, so every time I was reading and happened across a shout out to either A Christmas Carol or one of Dickens’ other works, it made me smile.  I thought it was especially fun when he came across names he thought would make good character names and jotted them down, or on other occasions when he met someone he didn’t like and vowed to use them in his book to exact his revenge on them on paper.  I also chuckled to myself that Dickens would grumble “Humbug, bah!” when he was in a particularly foul humor and then ended up incorporating the now famous words into his tale, since he obviously modeled Ebenezer Scrooge after himself.  In this sense, I would think the book would be a lot of fun for Dickens fans.

Overall, this was such an enjoyable read for me, but I will mention that there were a few spots that were heavy in description, which slowed the pacing a bit.  Thankfully though, the lulls were brief and the action picked back up pretty quickly.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol is a charming, heartwarming tale that is perfect for fans of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, or even just Christmas itself.  I personally think it would make a lovely Christmas gift for the Dickens fan in your life.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Shakespeare in Love meets A Christmas Carol in this transporting debut novel set during the whirlwind period in which Dickens wrote his beloved classic, as he embarks on a Scrooge-like journey of his own.

For Charles Dickens, each Christmas has been better than the last. His novels are literary blockbusters, and he is famous on the streets of London, where avid fans sneak up on him to snip off pieces of his hair. He and his wife have five happy children, a sixth on the way, and a home filled with every comfort they could imagine. But when Dickens’ newest book is a flop, the glorious life he has built for himself threatens to collapse around him. His publishers offer an ultimatum: either he writes a Christmas book in a month, or they will call in his debts, and he could lose everything. Grudgingly, he accepts, but with relatives hounding him for loans, his wife and children planning an excessively lavish holiday party, and jealous critics going in for the kill, he is hardly feeling the Christmas spirit.

Increasingly frazzled and filled with self-doubt, Dickens seeks solace and inspiration in London itself, his great palace of thinking. And on one of his long walks, in a once-beloved square, he meets a young woman in a purple cloak, who might be just the muse he needs. Eleanor Lovejoy and her young son, Timothy, propel Dickens on a Scrooge-like journey through his Christmases past and present—but with time running out, will he find the perfect new story to save him?

In prose laced with humor, sumptuous Victorian detail, and charming winks to A Christmas Carol, Samantha Silva breathes new life into an adored classic. Perfect for fans of Dickens, for readers of immersive historical fiction, and for anyone looking for a dose of Christmas cheer, Mr. Dickens and His Carol is destined to become a perennial holiday favorite.

 

four-half-stars

About Samantha Silva

Samantha Silva is an author and screenwriter based in Idaho. Mr. Dickens and His Carol is her debut novel. Over her career she’s sold film projects to Paramount, Universal, New Line Cinema and TNT. A film adaptation of her short story, The Big Burn, won the 1 Potato Short Screenplay Competition at the Sun Valley Film Festival in 2017. Silva will direct, her first time at the helm.

Silva graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where she studied in Bologna, Italy and Washington, D.C. She’s lived in London three times, briefly in Rome, is an avid Italophile, and a forever Dickens devotee.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Book Review:  The Alice Network by Kate QuinnThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn
four-half-stars
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 6th 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 503
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

I love historical fiction that is set during WWI and WWII, so Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network was the best of both worlds for me as it has a dual time line, one of which takes place during WWI while the second takes place a couple of years after WWII.  What an incredible read this was! And the fact that the story is based on an actual real life women’s spy network that was active in France during WWI?  Amazing!  How did I not even know there was such a thing?

The Alice Network follows the story of two women, Charlie St. Clair and Eve Gardiner, and what happens when their lives unexpectedly cross paths.

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair is pregnant and unmarried.  The year is 1947, so as you can imagine, Charlie’s parents have deemed her situation a “problem” and so are shipping her off to a clinic in Switzerland so that it can be taken care of low-key so as not to ruin Charlie’s reputation at home.  Charlie makes the trip with her mom, and when they have a layover in England, Charlie runs away because she is on a mission of her own:  to find out what happened to her cousin Rose who had been living in Nazi-occupied France and disappeared during WWII.  Her family has presumed she is dead, but Charlie is convinced that she is still out there somewhere.  She only has one lead at this point, an address in London and a name, Evelyn Gardiner.  She has no idea who Evelyn Gardiner is or how she can possibly help her find Rose, but she is determined to follow this lead wherever it takes her.

Enter Evelyn, or Eve as she is known, Gardiner.  I’m not sure what Charlie expected when she first knocks on Eve’s door, but a snarky, stuttering, gun-toting drunk with horribly disfigured hands was probably not it.  At first Eve barely even listens to Charlie’s story about her cousin Rose and has no interest at all in helping her. That is, until Charlie mentions Le Lethe, which was the name of the restaurant where Rose was working at just prior to her disappearance, and Monsieur Rene, the owner of the restaurant.  As soon as Eve hears those names, her whole attitude abruptly shifts and she decides to help Charlie.

As Eve sets out to help Charlie, we are also taken on a second journey, this time back to 1915, where we follow Eve and see how she has ended up the way she is when Charlie meets her in 1947.  In 1915, Eve is working as an administrative assistant at a law firm in England, but she desperately wants to do something more important. Specifically, she wants to join the action in WWI fighting against the Germans.  She unexpectedly gets her chance when a visitor to the law firm, notes that Eve has qualities that would ideally suit her to working as a spy.  Namely, she appears to remain calm, cool, and collected no matter what is going on around her, and she is able to lie with a straight face.  Those qualities, coupled with a horrible stutter that make others assume she’s a bit dim-witted and therefore underestimate her.  Because of these qualities, the visitor recruits her to become a part of The Alice Network, an all-female spy network that was operating in France, right under the German’s noses.  Eve is eager to join and so we follow her through her spy training, to her primary assignment in enemy-occupied France during the war and all of the dangers it ensues, all the way through to why the names Le Leche and Monsieur Rene struck such a chord with her so many years later when Charlie St. Clair mentions them.   Eve’s journey is equal parts riveting and horrifying, and 100% life-changing.

I love when a dual timeline narrative is handled well and author Kate Quinn does a marvelous job presenting both Charlie and Eve’s stories in The Alice Network.  The chapters alternate between the 1915 and the 1947 timelines so Eve’s backstory is presented a little at a time as is Charlie’s mission to find out what happened to her beloved cousin.  Both stories are so compelling that I found myself easily pulled along, particularly because I really wanted to know what happened to turn Eve from spy extraordinaire to a bitter, disfigured woman with a major drinking problem.   I also wanted to see how exactly Eve was supposed to be the key to helping Charlie find Rose, not to mention I really wanted to know if Rose was still alive, and if so, why has she gone two years without trying to contact her family.

I also think that part of the reason the dual timeline works so well in this story is the active presence of Eve in both timelines.  She is such a fascinating and complex character, both in her younger days where she so desperately wanted to fight against the Germans and as we see her in 1947, where she is ready to take her Luger and blow the head off of anyone who so much as looks at her funny.  I adored Eve’s bigger-than-life personality and the way it just fills the pages of this story.  She made me laugh, she made me cry, and she had me scared to death for her at so many points throughout the story.

Charlie is very likeble as well, but in a different way, since we only see her at age 19.  What I liked about Charlie was her spunk and her determination, as well as her absolute devotion to her cousin, who was more like a sister to her.  Charlie’s youthful enthusiasm, combined with Eve’s fierce snark, makes them a pretty formidable team as they journey together to find Rose.

Kate Quinn also does a brilliant job of depicting the settings, both in 1915 with enemy-occupied France and then 1947, with both the French countryside and with London.  The sights and sounds felt authentic, and Quinn’s attention to detail is spot on.  As I read and followed these women, I felt myself transported to each time period and location.

I wouldn’t really call it a dislike, but I do have to admit that I found Eve’s storyline to be a lot more compelling than Charlie’s.  I loved both characters and was invested in both storylines, but Eve’s journey and the life-threatening danger she faced every moment while working as a spy was just absolutely riveting. Charlie’s story just fell a bit short in comparison.

If you’re looking for a well written, riveting read, I’d highly recommend checking out The Alice Network.  It’s sure to be a favorite for fans of historical fiction, but I think anyone who enjoys reading about strong and complex female characters would love this read as well.  Since this was a fictionalized account of the actual Alice Network, I find myself now wanting to go out and learn more about it since I had never heard of it during any of my history courses in school.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1915.  In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1948. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth …no matter where it leads.

four-half-stars

About Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network.” All have been translated into multiple languages.

Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

Book Review:  The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and VirtueThe Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
five-stars
Series: Guide #1
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on June 27th 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 513
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

Who knew historical fiction could be laugh out loud funny?  I had no idea what I was expecting when I picked up Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, but I was certainly not expecting to devour 500+ pages of historical fiction in just over 24 hours, chuckling to myself the entire time.  But that’s exactly what happened.  What an absolutely brilliant read this is!

Set in 18th century Europe, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue follows Henry Montague, or “Monty” as his friends call him.  Monty, for lack of a better description, is a hot mess.  As the son of an English lord, Monty has been raised with every imaginable privilege – money, education, endless connections.  His path to a successful future shouldn’t even be in doubt, except that Monty is unfortunately his own worst enemy.  In spite of being educated in the best boarding schools and raised by the strictest of fathers, Monty is a free spirit who cannot be tamed.  He lives the life of a rogue, his days and nights filled with endless partying and drinking, gambling, and even seducing both men and women.  When Monty gets kicked out of Eton, one of the most prestigious schools in England, his father has had it.  He sends Monty on a Grand Tour of Europe with the expectation that Monty returns to England a mature young man ready to assume the responsibilities of taking over the family’s estate.  Knowing his son’s ways all too well, Monty’s father adds in the stipulation that if he does one more thing to embarrass the family name, particularly if it involves jumping into bed with one more young man, Monty will be disinherited and will henceforth have to fend for himself in the world.

Monty sees the Grand Tour as his last hurrah.  He has resigned himself to the fact that he is stuck taking over the family estate, even though it’s not what he really wants.  But he has been beaten down enough by his father’s chronic disappointment over the years to assume that he’s pretty well useless when it comes to anything else.  He plans to go on this tour, engage in as much pleasure and vice as he can, and then come home and take his place by his father’s side.

There are just a few hitches in this plan, however.  First, he’ll have his younger and obnoxious sister, Felicity, in tow for much of the tour, who is sure to put a damper on his plans for “entertainment.”  Second, he will be accompanied on this tour by his best friend, Percy.  While that shouldn’t be an issue in itself, the problem lies in that Monty has a mad unrequited crush on Percy and has felt this way for years.  This tour sounds like the perfect time to try to find out if there’s any chance of Percy feeling the same way, but to pursue his attraction to Percy, means Monty is also flirting with the idea of being disinherited.  And finally, third, a Mr. Lockwood will be traveling with Monty as well, serving as a guide and of course as a witness to any and all of Monty’s antics.

Will Monty change his ways and finally conform to what his father and what proper 18th century English society expects of him, or will Monty choose another path for himself?

This is just one of those stories where there’s so much to like, I could go on forever so I’m just going to pick a few highlights, most of which revolves around the wonderfully, unforgettable characters Mackenzi Lee has created.

Let’s start with Monty.  Monty is the one who tells the story and I have to say he is one of the most entertaining narrators I’ve read in a long time. I mean, seriously, laugh out loud funny.  And I loved everything about him.  Even when he was behaving like a complete train wreck or an insensitive brat, there was still somehow just this lovable quality about Monty.  One of Monty’s best (and worst) qualities is his big mouth.  He spends much of his time running his mouth and getting himself and his friends into scrapes they probably wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise.  By the same token, however, he is also a smooth talker and his big mouth has often gotten them all out of scrapes that they’ve managed to get themselves into.  So even when you want to throttle him, you still find yourself cheering him on and chuckling at his antics.

It’s also not just all fun and games with Monty though, which is another reason why I adored this character.  Even though he’s this privileged young nobleman, somehow Monty still manages to have this underdog side to him that makes you root for him in spite of himself.  I thought his crush on Percy was just so adorable and was really cheering for him to do something about that.  I also had tremendous sympathy for Monty because his father was so awful to him and was really hoping that he would stand up to his father and realize his own self-worth.

Monty’s sister, Felicity, was another of my favorite characters in the story.  At first she comes off as this obnoxious girl who just wants to have an attitude and annoy her brother at every turn.  But then the more we get to see and learn of Felicity, the more likeable she becomes.  It turns out she’s a brilliant girl who is ahead of her time and wants to be a doctor.  She has been studying medicine on the sly and those skills come in more handy on the Grand Tour than any of them could have possibly anticipated. Felicity’s attitude and general sassiness stems from her general frustration with being prevented by society’s expectations from doing what she wants to do.  Once I saw that, all I could think was ‘Girl, you be as sassy as you want to be.”

And then of course, we have Percy. Percy is just one of those people who have a beautiful soul and that you can’t help but be attracted to.  Unlike Monty, Percy does not live a life of privilege. Percy is biracial at a time in society where it is not widely accepted and so he has to constantly deal with the ugliness of racism.  He also has the added difficulty of suffering from epilepsy at a time when few understood what it was and assumed that it was some kind of mental deficiency.  His father has sent him on this Grand Tour with Monty as his own kind of last hurrah before he is locked away in an asylum because of the epilepsy.  Even though he has all of this going on in his own life, he still manages to be there for Monty every step of the way, the best possible friend.  He’s just the sweetest person and it’s so easy to see why Monty has been in love with him forever.

Okay, let’s talk about that romance.  Those who regularly read my reviews know that romance is generally not my thing. Usually I find it just unrealistic, in the way, etc.  Well, not this time!  I cannot even express how hard I was shipping Monty and Percy together.  Their chemistry was just off the charts sweet and sexy, and the constant tension of “Will they or won’t they move past the friend zone?” just kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire story.

The Grand Tour itself.  While the Grand Tour itself probably should have been a fairly standard affair, since many young adults made similar trips after university, there was absolutely nothing standard about Monty and Co’s tour.  They left England and traveled to Paris, Barcelona, and Venice along the way, and what was meant to be a trip to give Monty some much needed culture and refinement to help him change his ways, instead becomes a dangerous and fast-paced rollicking adventure that includes highway robbers, pirates, and much, much more.  Some might say that their adventures were a bit over the top, but I didn’t care because it was all just so thoroughly entertaining!

I really can’t think of anything I disliked.  The ending perhaps felt a bit rushed, but I was so happy with the ending overall that I won’t complain about that.

Equal parts adventure story and coming of age story, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a book I think pretty much anyone would enjoy.  It’s an entertaining read with such delightfully memorable characters that even if you don’t typically enjoy historical fiction, I think Monty and the gang could change your mind.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores. 

five-stars

About Mackenzi Lee

Mackenzi Lee holds a BA in history and an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults, and her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Crixeo, The Friend, and The Newport Review, among others. Her debut novel, This Monstrous Thing, won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award. Her second book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, a queer spin on the classic adventure novel, was a New York Times bestseller (what is life?), and ABA bestseller, earned five starred reviews, a #1 Indie Next Pick, and won the New England Book Award.

She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home, where she works as an independent bookstore manager.

ARC Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

ARC Review:  The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine LockeThe Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
five-stars
Series: The Balloonmakers #1
Published by Albert Whitman Company on September 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Katherine Locke’s The Girl with the Red Balloon is such a gorgeous and moving book that I’m nearly at a loss for words to convey just how good it really is.  I finished reading it a few days ago and just can’t stop thinking about it.   The Girl with the Red Balloon is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination – it deals with weighty subjects like the Holocaust, racism, homophobia, and what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall fell. For the most part, it’s a dark and gritty dual time period read that shows how horrific it was for Jews during World War II as well as how difficult it was to live under the eye of a totalitarian regime in 1980’s East Germany. It’s not all darkness and horror though. Katherine Locke uses a hint of magic and a bit of romance to offset all of that darkness.  You see, not only is this novel historical fiction that deals with more than one time period.  It’s also a time travel novel.

The Girl with the Red Balloon begins in present day Germany where we meet one of our main characters, sixteen year old Ellie Baum, who has traveled there on a class field trip.  She sees a red balloon floating nearby while hanging out with her classmates and asks her best friend to take a photo of her with it for her grandfather.  It reminds her of a story her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, always tells her, about how a girl in a purple dress handed him a red balloon when he arrived at a concentration camp during the war, and the balloon floated him out of the camp and to safety.

When Ellie grabs the balloon, however, the unexpected and unbelievable happens.  She travels back in time to 1988 and finds herself in East Berlin and in imminent danger!  There she is found and led to a safe house by Kai and Mitzi, a Romani gypsy and a German lesbian, who are part of a magical resistance group who uses red balloons to float people over the Berlin Wall and into West Germany.  The catch?  These balloons, while magical, are not supposed to travel through time.  The balloon makers are stumped as to what has happened to bring Ellie to them and are therefore unsure of how to get her back to her own time period.  The resistance group vows to keep Ellie safe from the East German police and to do everything they can to find a way to get her home, but when dead time travelers start turning up with red balloons, it becomes clear that someone is experimenting with forbidden dark magic and time travel.  Why is someone trying to travel back in time and why are they so willing to do it, even at the expense of innocent lives?  If others are dying when they grab these balloons, how was Ellie able to safely travel back in time? It becomes a race against time to stop who is behind this before the bodies start piling up, even if it means Ellie loses out on perhaps her only way back to the future.

LIKES

This is another one of those books where I could just write pages and pages about what I liked.  I don’t want to give anything away though so I’m just going to list a few highlights.

The friendship between Ellie and her two protectors, Kai and Mitzi, was one of my favorite parts of the book.  These three become fast friends while living in the safe house together, and their chemistry is fantastic.  They’re immediately like The Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.  I also loved the diversity that these characters represented – Ellie is Jewish, Kai is Romani, and Mitzi is a lesbian. This diversity further forges a bond between them since all three are considered undesirable in East Berlin during this time frame.  The police would love nothing more than to find a reason to arrest them, so they always have each other’s backs.

As I mentioned, there is also a romance in this book and even though on the surface it might sound like somewhat out of place since we already have time traveling, the Holocaust, magical balloons, etc., the romance actually worked well for me.  First, it’s not instalove, so yay.  No, instead, the relationship develops quite naturally as Kai and Ellie get to know each other better.  Kai is kind of dark and brooding at times and he sees Ellie as this softness and light that he needs in his life.  Ellie becomes attracted to Kai, not just because he is handsome, but because of how he puts himself on the line trying to help as many people as he can get over into West Germany.  Ellie is also touched when she sees how devoted Kai is to his younger sister, Sabina.  He would literally do anything to keep Sabina safe and it’s heartwarming to see.

I was incredibly invested in this relationship not just because I liked that it developed naturally and that their two personalities really complimented each other, but also because it just tugged at my heart strings.  What happens to their relationship if the balloon makers are able to figure out how to send Ellie back to her own time period?  Would she go or would she stay with the man she is falling in love with?

Other highlights for me were the completely unique premise and the major themes of the novel.  Seriously, it doesn’t get much more creative than the idea of using magical red balloons to save people.  In addition to the unique premise, there were also so many themes that resonated me with as I was reading.  With respect to those balloons, I loved the beautiful message that there were heroes everywhere, both during World War II and during the time of the Iron Curtain – people who risked their own safety trying to save as many people as they could.  Another darker message that resonated with me as I got further into the story was more of a question of ethics – if a person’s overall intention is good, does that excuse any unethical behavior he or she may engage along the way accomplishing that goal?  This was definitely food for thought for me as I was reading.

A final highlight for me was the way the story was presented.  It’s presented in alternating chapters from the perspective of Kai and Ellie in 1988 East Berlin and from Ellie’s grandfather, Benno, as a young boy during World War II.  I loved how presenting the story this way effectively moves Ellie’s time traveling story forward as well as her relationship with Kai, while at the same time, circling back and showing the origin of the red balloons.  Seeing Benno’s horrific experiences in the Jewish ghettos, surrounded by disease and death, served as a poignant reminder that without that red balloon, neither Ellie nor any of her other family members would exist in present day.  Ellie literally owes her life to that magical balloon.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

The only real issue I had with this book was that it took me a few chapters to acclimate to the three alternating points of view.  I’m not going to call that a dislike because once I got used to it and remembered, I thought it was a beautiful way to tie together what happened with Benno and a red balloon during the war and what happened to his granddaughter when she touches a red balloon over 40 years later.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, magic, time travel, romance, and even mysteries.  Not only does it have a little something for everyone, but it’s also just a beautifully written story that will be on your mind long after you read the final pages.

RATING:  5 STARS

Thanks so much to Katherine Locke, Netgalley, and the Albert Whitman Company for allowing me the opportunity to preview an advanced copy of this book. It in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

five-stars

About Katherine Locke

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a small town outside Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, magic, and time travel. She secretly believes all stories are fairytales in disguise. Her YA debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 2017 from Albert Whitman & Comapny.

Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper

Book Review:  Stalking Jack the RipperStalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1) by Kerri Maniscalco
four-stars
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Published by Jimmy Patterson on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 326
Source: Library
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Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.

Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.

 

MY REVIEW

Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper is, as its title implies, a retelling of the murderous rampage of infamous serial killer, Jack the Ripper.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think of it as a cross between the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then on a more modern note, a little Forensic Files with a touch of Rizzoli and Isles thrown in.  The end result is a novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat and thoroughly engaged.

LIKES

Maniscalco does a wonderful job of fleshing out her main character, Audrey Rose Wadsworth and making her seem so realistic.  She’s fiercely independent, headstrong, and sassy as all get out, which makes her such a fun character to follow.  Even with the overriding creepy serial killer plot, Audrey Rose still managed to make me chuckle quite a few times throughout the novel.   You just never know what she is going to say at any given moment, but you can pretty much guarantee that it will be completely inappropriate based on society’s expectations.  Speaking of society’s expectations, Audrey Rose truly doesn’t give a flip about those and instead is way ahead of her time and wants to pursue a career in forensic medicine.   When the novel opens, she is, much to her father’s chagrin, working as an apprentice to her Uncle, who is an expert in the field. I kept thinking to myself “She’s like a Victorian Era Maura Isles” (from the popular series Rizzoli and Isles).

Maniscalco also adds a character flaw or two, which serve to further humanize Audrey Rose.  Recklessness, in particular, seems to be a hallmark trait of hers.  While it’s easy to admire how passionate Audrey Rose is about catching this serial killer who is on the loose, at the same time, I wanted to scream at her at times for lurking around in shady areas of the city and putting herself in harm’s way trying to catch him in the act.  It was downright infuriating actually. For someone who is clearly supposed to be quite intelligent, Audrey Rose definitely doesn’t always make the smartest choices.

Speaking of infuriating, let me talk about another main character, Thomas Cresswell.  Cresswell is another student of Audrey Rose’s uncle and may actually be the most arrogant and annoying person on the planet.  However, he is as brilliant as he is arrogant and annoying and somehow the combination actually works to make him incredibly charming. Weird, right?  As they study the Ripper’s victims, Cresswell’s powers of deductive reasoning are so astute that every time he spoke, he reminded me of a young Sherlock Holmes.  From the moment they meet, he gets under Audrey Rose’s skin and their chemistry is off the charts.  I don’t know if I would ever buy into them as a couple, but they are quite the dynamic duo as they work together to solve these murders.

Aside from these two entertaining main characters, Maniscalco also does a brilliant job of making the reader feel as if they are truly in 19th century London and that there really is a killer on the loose.  It was clear Maniscalco did her research on every aspect of the story.  The descriptions of the city feel authentic and the atmosphere at night is utterly creepy.  You can practically sense the danger lurking around every corner, which makes for a real page turner.

 

DISLIKES

I think my only real dislike was that even though this was a retelling and so the author had creative license to make Jack the Ripper whoever she wanted him to be, I still had the murderer figured out way too soon. In that sense, I was a little disappointed.  The murderer’s reasoning for the killings was quite another matter though. Totally did not see that coming and liked the unexpected Dr. Frankenstein-ish twist.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I very much enjoyed Stalking Jack the Ripper and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in historical fiction, anything to do with the crimes of Jack the Ripper, or even an interest in forensic medicine or 19th century society’s expectations for its young women.  I would issue a word of caution to anyone who doesn’t like to read about blood and gore, however. As is probably expected since we’re dealing with the Ripper and his victims and we’re examining the victims from the vantage point of forensic scientists, the descriptions of the victims are quite graphic and stomach-turning.  It’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  If that doesn’t bother you though, it’s a fascinating read.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Kerri Maniscalco

Kerri Maniscalco grew up in a semi-haunted house outside NYC where her fascination with gothic settings began. In her spare time she reads everything she can get her hands on, cooks all kinds of food with her family and friends, and drinks entirely too much tea while discussing life’s finer points with her cats.

Her first novel in this series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It incorporates her love of forensic science and unsolved history.

Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Book Review:  Homegoing by Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on June 7th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Source: Purchased
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Goodreads Synopsis:

The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

MY REVIEW:

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read and it’s also probably one of the most ambitious.  Homegoing begins by introducing the stories of two half-sisters who are destined to never meet each other due to forces beyond their control.  One sister, Effia, is married off by her family to an Englishman and whisked away to live in a castle in Cape Coast.  Unbeknownst to Effia, her new home is actually a “slave castle” and thousands of her fellow countrymen and women are imprisoned in dungeons right beneath her feet, where they will soon be sold into slavery and transported across the Atlantic.  Included among those prisoners, the half-sister Effia has never met and never will, Esi. The rest of the story then traces the family lines of both Effia and Esi from the 1700s up to present day, demonstrating just how deep the scars of slavery run even today.  While the story is beautifully written – Gyasi is a brilliant storyteller – the journey itself is raw, honest, and often painful.  Gyasi powerfully captures the brutality of the slave traders, the dehumanizing aspects of slavery, as well as the pervasive racism that has continued long after abolition.

STRENGTHS  OF HOMEGOING:

I was completely impressed that Gyasi was able to cover so much ground historically in just 300 pages, but not only does she do it, but she does it beautifully and intimately.  She accomplishes this by using alternating chapters to trace each family line forward in history.  She starts with a chapter on Effia, then follows with one on Esi, and then continues this alternating pattern with each new chapter giving us the perspective of one of Effia’s or Esi’s descendants.  Each chapter is a standalone story, a vignette basically, that serves to provide both an intimate portrait of a descendent and show us how that descendent connects back to either Effia or Esi, and then goes on to provide a vivid snapshot of the racial history at that particular period in time.   In this manner, we are taken through the 300 years of racial history from 18th century tribal wars in Africa, colonialism, and slavery, to the Fugitive Slave Act, abolition, Jim Crow law, Harlem in the 20th century, continued racism, and so much more.

What truly blew me away was how Gyasi was able to craft such vivid characters in so few pages.  Only about 20 pages, sometimes even less, are devoted to each descendent, but in each 20 page segment, Gyasi paints such a rich and vivid portrait of the descendent  that I easily became invested in all 14 characters whose stories we are presented with – their hopes, their fears, their pain, everything.  I actually found myself becoming sad at the end of each chapter because I wanted to follow the characters further, but knew I probably wouldn’t encounter them again because of the way the novel was structured.  But seriously, 20 pages to make me that attached to a character?  Wow. That’s powerful writing!

WEAKNESSES:

Aside from me wanting to keep following each character beyond his or her allotted chapter, I can’t think of anything I would consider to be a weakness.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I honestly think Homegoing is destined to become a classic and I’d love to see it make its way into high school and college classrooms.   It’s an important book because of the history that it covers, and it’s also a beautifully written book, that I think everyone should read.

I very much look forward to reading more from Gyasi because she is truly a gifted writer with a bright future.

RATING:  5 STARS

About Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in African American Review and Callaloo. Her debut novel, is the Homegoing (Knopf, June 2016).

ARC Review: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

ARC Review:  The Wonder by Emma DonoghueThe Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Also by this author: Room
four-half-stars
on September 20th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  In Emma Donoghue’s latest masterpiece, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.  Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale’s Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels–a tale of two strangers who transform each other’s lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.

* * * * *

My Review:

Emma Donoghue is fast becoming one of my all-time favorite authors.  She is such a master of weaving together compelling stories that ask tough questions and that you won’t be able to stop thinking about for days, even weeks,  after you’ve finished reading them.  I first fell in love with Donoghue’s writing style and storytelling abilities when I read her immensely popular novel, Room.  Even though it has been nearly six months since I read and reviewed Room, Donoghue’s writing is so powerful that I still think about that story all the time and it’s probably one of the books that I most often suggest to anyone who asks me to recommend a good book.

Needless to say, when I heard she had a new book coming out this fall, The Wonder, I immediately rushed over to Netgalley to request a review copy.  Thanks so much to Netgalley, Little, Brown and Company, and of course Emma Donoghue for granting my request and allowing me to preview The Wonder for my blog.  I’m thrilled to say that upon reading The Wonder, my love for Emma Donoghue and her gorgeous writing has only continued to grow.

* * * * *

So, what did I love about The Wonder?

First of all, I loved that it features a strong female protagonist. I was immediately drawn to Donoghue’s protagonist, Englishwoman Lib Wright.  Widowed at the age of 25, Lib decides to become a Nightingale Nurse.  We learn that she actually trained with the famous Florence Nightingale and worked alongside her caring for soldiers during the Crimean War.  When she returns home after the Crimean campaign, Lib expects that her career as a nurse will take off but instead finds herself relegated to doing little more than menial work at the local hospital.  Dissatisfied, Lib jumps at what sounds like an exciting opportunity to travel to Ireland to provide care at a private residence for two weeks.  I felt sympathetic towards Lib right from the start, both for the loss of her husband at such a young age and for the frustration she was experiencing in her career.  At the same time, however, I greatly admired Lib’s sense of independence and her determination to find more fulfilling work even if it meant packing up and traveling to another country to do so.

When Lib arrives in Ireland, she learns that she and another nurse, Sister Michael, have been hired to watch eleven year old Anna O’Donnell around the clock for two weeks. Anna is said to not have taken a bite of food for four months, but yet appears to be remarkably healthy.  While there are many in her devout Roman Catholic town who believe she is a miracle child, there are some who believe it is a hoax. So Lib and Sister Michael are to observe Anna and document whether or not Anna actually eats any food. Because of her background in science and medicine, Lib is very skeptical of Anna and makes it her mission, so that this trip is not a complete waste of her time, to find proof Anna and her family are frauds.  I particularly loved the fierceness Lib displays as she basically dismantles Anna’s room looking for any place where food could possibly be hidden.

Mystery and Suspense.  You wouldn’t think a book that is primarily about sitting and watching a young girl to see if she is eating would be such an exciting read, but by having Lib so determined to get to the bottom of what is actually going on, Donoghue successfully weaves a sense of mystery and suspense into her tale.  We follow Lib each shift as she attends to Anna and as she continues to search for any clues that Anna and her family are perpetuating a grand hoax.  With each passing day that no evidence is found, however, more and more questions arise, both for Lib and for the reader by extension. Is Anna eating or is she not? If she is eating, why can’t any proof be found?  If she’s not, how is that even possible and how long can it possibly go on?  Is she really a miracle or are these seemingly simple people really somehow managing to outsmart everyone around them?

Conflicts and Tension.  Even though the bulk of the story takes place in Anna’s tiny bedroom, Donoghue infuses the story with several major conflicts – that of England vs. Ireland, Protestantism vs. Roman Catholicism, and Science and Medicine vs. Religion and Local Superstition.  These conflicts not only add weight to the overall story, but they also create momentum by effectively ratcheting up both the tension and the drama as we move further into the two-week observation of Anna.  Because Lib is English and a Protestant, she is perceived as an outsider and the O’Donnells and the townspeople do little more than tolerate her presence in their lives. When she then expresses skepticism of their religious convictions and of the strange superstitions that many in the village seem to embrace (a belief in fairies, for example), their opinion of her only goes downhill from there and thus any scientific arguments Lib uses to express her concern that Anna is harming herself by not eating are immediately rejected as ‘You just don’t understand the way we live here.’

It’s especially frustrating, not just for Lib, but for the reader as well, that not even Anna’s parents seem to have their daughter’s best interest at heart, which leads to what is perhaps the primary conflict of the novel:  the moral and ethical dilemma that faces Lib  — how can she just sit back and simply observe Anna starve herself as she has been hired to do when every fiber of her being is screaming at her to take care of this child and get her the nourishment she needs, even if she has to resort to force to do so? Donoghue does a phenomenal job of portraying the frustration that Lib feels as this decision weighs on her mind every time she looks at Anna.

The Bond between Lib and Anna.  In a novel that is oftentimes disturbing because of the way everyone just sits back and lets Anna refuse food, there is a lovely and moving element to the story as well and that is the bond of friendship that forms between Lib and Anna.  At first Lib is filled with dislike and distrust for Anna because she’s so convinced the girl is a fraud, but Anna quickly wins her over with her kind spirit, her piety, and her quick wit.  As we move through the novel, Lib grows more and more fond of Anna, and often comes across as more of a parent to Anna than Anna’s own mother and father do. There’s what I would call a healing or restorative quality to their relationship and both Anna and Lib benefit from their interactions.

* * * * *

Anything I Didn’t Like?

I liked the overall pacing of the novel and the slow buildup of tension and suspense, but I have to say there were a few moments just over the halfway point where my interest started to wane a bit.  Thankfully after a few more pages, the action really started to pick up and I sailed right through to the end.  Other than that minor lull in the story, I thought everything else about it was beautifully done.

* * * * *

Who Would I Recommend The Wonder to?

If you’re looking for a light and fluffy read, this is definitely not the book for you. However, if you like a compelling read that will make you think and that poses tough questions when it comes to ethics and morality , then The Wonder might be a good fit for you.

Rating:  4.5 stars

Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder is due out on September 20, 2016.

four-half-stars

About Emma Donoghue

emma donoghue

Emma is the youngest of eight children of Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin, apart from one year in New York at the age of ten. In 1990 she earned a first-class honours BA in English and French from University College Dublin, and in 1997 a PhD (on the concept of friendship between men and women in eighteenth-century English fiction) from the University of Cambridge. Since the age of 23, Donoghue has earned her living as a full-time writer. After years of commuting between England, Ireland, and Canada, in 1998 she settled in London, Ontario, where she lives with her partner and their son and daughter.

ARC Review: The Girl from Venice

ARC Review:  The Girl from VeniceThe Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith
four-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 18th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The highly anticipated new standalone novel from Martin Cruz Smith, whom The Washington Post has declared “that uncommon phenomenon: a popular and well-regarded crime novelist who is also a writer of real distinction,” The Girl from Venice is a suspenseful World War II love story set against the beauty, mystery, and danger of occupied Venice.

Venice, 1945. The war may be waning, but the city known as La Serenissima is still occupied and the people of Italy fear the power of the Third Reich. One night, under a canopy of stars, a fisherman named Cenzo comes across a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and soon discovers that she is still alive and in trouble.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia is on the run from the SS. Cenzo chooses to protect Giulia rather than hand her over to the Nazis. This act of kindness leads them into the world of Partisans, random executions, the arts of forgery and high explosives, Mussolini’s broken promises, the black market and gold, and, everywhere, the enigmatic maze of the Venice Lagoon.

The Girl from Venice is a thriller, a mystery, and a retelling of Italian history that will take your breath away. Most of all it is a love story.

My Review: 

I had no idea of what to expect when I first started reading Martin Cruz Smith’s The Girl from Venice.  That gorgeous blue cover with the silhouette of a girl standing on the bow of a boat caught my eye as I was scanning the Netgalley site for upcoming releases.  When I read the title and saw that the book was set in Venice during World War II, I was immediately intrigued, being a big fan of historical fiction and having also just visited this beautiful Italian city last summer.

Highlights for me:

I became engrossed in the story right away because Smith does a fantastic job of transporting his readers back to Italy during the final days of WWII. He perfectly captures the dangerous and tense atmosphere of a Venice that is still occupied by the Nazis and where no one feels they can trust anyone else.  There’s also a sense in the air that the end of the war is approaching and with it a Nazi loss, and yet there are still pockets of Nazis desperately fighting on and rounding up all Italian Jews.

Into this treacherous environment, Smith introduces two characters that I fell in love with right away. The first, Cenzo Vianello, is a fisherman born and raised in Venice.  He is a good man with a simple plan – to just keep his head down and survive until this awful war is over.  The second character, Giulia Silber, is an Italian teenager who, up until the time of the war, had lived a privileged life. The war has changed all of that though because Giulia is Jewish and thus a target for the desperate Nazis that are still stationed in Venice.  Cenzo and Giulia cross paths when the Nazis round up the rest of Giulia’s family from their hiding place.  Giulia’s father shoves her in a laundry chute and she is able to escape and is swimming to find help in the lagoon where Cenzo fishes when he comes across her.   Cenzo is immediately taken with Giulia and so vows to protect her from the Nazis and get her to safety, and thus his simple plan for surviving the war takes an unexpected turn into dangerous waters (pardon the nautical pun).  I love a story where I have an underdog I can cheer on and how can you not cheer on a fisherman trying to protect a young Jewish woman from the Nazis?

I especially loved Cenzo in the sense that he’s like an onion, many layered. The more we get to know him, the more layers are peeled away and the more complex his life becomes.  As Giulia gets him to open up about himself, we learn that he is not just a fisherman, but also a painter, and then we also learn that he has been betrayed by his older brother, a movie star who had an affair with Cenzo’s wife.  On top of that, Cenzo’s mother now expects Cenzo to marry the widow of his younger brother, who was killed in the war, but Cenzo does not love the widow and so is doing everything he can to put off this undesirable marriage.  After learning all of the misfortune in Cenzo’s life and that his brother has basically made him a laughingstock, I felt all the more sympathetic toward Cenzo.

What I loved about Giulia is her resourcefulness.  She has a bit of an attitude with Cenzo at the beginning, until she determines she can trust him, but once she realizes he is worthy of her trust, she is game to do whatever she needs to do in order to escape from the Nazis – even if it means hacking off her hair, dressing like a boy, and learning to be a fisherman’s apprentice.  She’s feisty and spirited, and again, like Cenzo, just a completely sympathetic character. Because both characters are so sympathetic, one of my favorite aspects of the novel was watching their friendship grow as they worked to secure Giulia safe passage away from the Nazis.

As much as I loved their growing friendship, I do have to say that I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of Cenzo and Giulia as a romantic couple.  The shift from friendship to romantic partners happened rather abruptly and I guess I just missed it, but I was a little ‘Wait, what?! Where did that come from?’ when it happened.

Characters aside, I also loved the fast pace of the story and all of its many twists and turns.  When Cenzo decides he’s going to help Giulia but then the plan somehow gets betrayed and Giulia disappears, Cenzo is determined to find her no matter what.  This quest takes him out of his league and deep into the political underbelly of the war.  We are transported away from the almost romantic lagoons of Venice to the treacherous Salo, which houses Mussolini, Communist partisans, Nazis, collaborators, resistance – basically a who’s who of everyone you could possibly want to stay away from if you’re a fisherman whose goal is to keep your head down and survive the war.

This section of the novel is just filled with suspense. People are constantly approaching Cenzo, trying to make deals with him, telling him they can help him find Giulia, and he just has no idea who he can trust, if anyone.  No one is who they seem to be, and loyalties are so divided that even if someone seems to be on your side one day, the next they may not be if they think they can get a better deal from the other side.  Even though this is technically historical fiction, The Girl from Venice really takes on the tone of a thriller as Cenzo maneuvers his way through all of the political landmines that surround him while he’s searching for clues about Giulia in Salo. These chapters were very exciting, and I blew through the last half of the book in just a few hours.

Anything I didn’t like?

Aside from not being completely sold on the romantic chemistry between Cenzo and Giulia, I did have a moment’s pause early on as we were learning about Cenzo’s life as a fisherman.  When the narration turned to descriptions of fishing, I had a few painful Moby Dick flashbacks to whole chapters devoted to boring and superfluous descriptions of whaling. Thankfully, however, Martin Cruz Smith smoothly weaves in his descriptions of life as a fisherman so that they flowed organically with the rest of the story.  I felt like I learned a little something about fishing in Venice without being deluged with dry, unnecessary facts so major hat’s off to Smith there.

Who would I recommend this book to?

I think I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction, especially from the WWII era.  I know there are some who complain that it has been too trendy a subject for books, but I think this books’ focus on Italy and Mussolini give it a unique and fresh perspective.

I would probably also recommend it to anyone who loves a good thriller so this one has so much suspense and so many mysterious and deceptive characters.  It’s a story that will keep you guessing until the end as to who is trustworthy and who isn’t.

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Simon and Schuster, and Martin Cruz Smith for the opportunity to read and review The Girl from Venice.

 

Rating:  4 stars

four-stars

About Martin Cruz Smith

Martin Cruz Smith (born Martin William Smith), American novelist, received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. He worked as a journalist from 1965 to 1969 before turning his hand to fiction. His first mystery (Gypsy in Amber – 1971) features NY gypsy art dealer Roman Grey and was nominated for an Edgar Award. Nightwing was his breakthrough novel and was made into a movie.

Smith is best known for his series of novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko. Gorky Park, published in 1981, was the first of these and was called “thriller of the ’80s” by Time Magazine. It became a bestseller and won the Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association. Renko has also appeared in Polar Star, Red Square,Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin’s Ghost, and Three Stations.

In the 1970s, Smith wrote The Inquisitor Series under the pseudonym Simon Quinnand penned two Slocum adult action westerns as Jake Logan. He also wrote theNick Carter: Killmaster series under the alias Nick Carter with Mike Avallone and others.

Martin Cruz Smith now lives in San Rafael, California with his wife and three children.

Book Review – The Light of Paris

Book Review – The Light of ParisThe Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown
four-stars
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on July 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 308
Source: Library
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

The miraculous new novel from New York Times–bestselling author Eleanor Brown, whose debut, The Weird Sisters, was a sensation beloved by critics and readers alike.
 
Madeleine is trapped—by her family’s expectations, by her controlling husband, and by her own fears—in an unhappy marriage and a life she never wanted. From the outside, it looks like she has everything, but on the inside, she fears she has nothing that matters.  In Madeleine’s memories, her grandmother Margie is the kind of woman she should have been—elegant, reserved, perfect. But when Madeleine finds a diary detailing Margie’s bold, romantic trip to Jazz Age Paris, she meets the grandmother she never knew: a dreamer who defied her strict, staid family and spent an exhilarating summer writing in cafés, living on her own, and falling for a charismatic artist.  Despite her unhappiness, when Madeleine’s marriage is threatened, she panics, escaping to her hometown and staying with her critical, disapproving mother. In that unlikely place, shaken by the revelation of a long-hidden family secret and inspired by her grandmother’s bravery, Madeleine creates her own Parisian summer—reconnecting to her love of painting, cultivating a vibrant circle of creative friends, and finding a kindred spirit in a down-to-earth chef who reminds her to feed both her body and her heart.

Margie and Madeleine’s stories intertwine to explore the joys and risks of living life on our own terms, of defying the rules that hold us back from our dreams, and of becoming the people we are meant to be.

My Review: 

I was unfamiliar with Eleanor Brown prior to reading The Light of Paris and have to confess the main reasons I picked it up were 1) I had just visited Paris last summer and wanted to recreate the magic I experienced during my time there, and 2) that gorgeous purple cover kept catching my eye every time I saw it displayed at the bookstore and in the library.

I’m so glad that I picked up The Light of Paris though because it introduced me to a wonderful writer in Eleanor Brown and it most definitely made me fall in love with Paris all over again.

 

View of Paris from the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral - photo taken by me.

View of Paris from the bell tower at Notre Dame Cathedral – photo taken by me.

 

So what did I love about The Light of Paris?

Dual Narrative Point of View and Time Jumps:

I’ve always enjoyed novels where a historical tale is framed within a contemporary one and The Light of Paris fits that bill for me.  Eleanor Brown has beautifully woven together the stories of Madeleine in 1999 and her grandmother Margie in 1924.  Aside from their biological relationship, their stories, although being told 75 years apart, are tied together by another common thread as both women are dealing with the same basic struggle – how to live their own lives and pursue their passions when societal and family expectations dictate they should do otherwise.

Brown begins with Madeleine’s journey.  Madeleine is dealing with an overly controlling husband and, consequently, an unhappy marriage.  When she learns that her mother is selling her home, Madeleine uses this as an excuse to get away from her husband for a while.  It is while she is at her mother’s home that Madeleine discovers some old journals in storage and first learns about Margie and her trip to Paris.  The rest of the novel alternates between Madeleine in 1999 and Margie in 1924 as they each try to find their own way and live life on their own terms.  I have read books where the time jumps and switch in point of view can be confusing and doesn’t work well, but Brown does a lovely job and the story flows smoothly and naturally between Madeleine to Margie from start to finish.

Setting:

I also love the way Brown captures the sights, sounds, and spirit of Paris as she describes Margie’s time there.  If you’ve never been to Paris before, by the time you’re finished reading, you’ll have a first class case of wanderlust and will want to pack your suitcase and head there for a romantic adventure of your own.  And if you’ve been to Paris before, Brown will make you fall in love with the City of Lights all over again.  Brown also paints a truly vivid portrait of 1920’s Jazz Age Paris — so much so, in fact, that as I was reading, I half expected Ernest Hemingway to come strolling through the doors of one of the cafes that Margie frequented.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo taken by me.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris. Photo taken by me.

Main Characters You Can Root For:

Margie’s story was, by far, the more interesting of the two narratives for me.  Margie’s dilemma is that while her parents expect to her marry and settle down with a suitable husband as soon as she is finished with her education, what she really wants to do is follow her passion, which is writing, and become an author.  It was spectacular watching her go from being this little cotillion-attending, debutante girl doing everything that was expected of her to suddenly rejecting the suitor her parents have chosen for her, then further rebelling against them by refusing to return home from a trip to Paris and instead living there on her own for months.  She was really a woman ahead of her time in that sense and I cheered her on every step of the way.  Watching her blossom into her own person as she sat in cafes indulging in her writing habit and then finding love on her own terms was so inspirational.  I loved Margie’s story so much that if that had been the sole focus of the novel, this probably would have been a 5 star read for me.

Where Margie’s story was inspiring, however, Madeleine’s story was often frustrating for me.  Similar to Margie and her passion for writing, Madeleine has a passion for art and actually wanted to go to school to study to become an artist.  Instead of following her heart though, Madeleine instead lets her family convince her that being an artist isn’t a viable career and that she should study something more practical like Marketing, and then find herself a good husband.  I loved Madeleine and wanted her to be happy, but it blew my mind how much she let her mother, in particular, dictate how she lived her life.  As I watched her mope and lament this miserable marriage she’s supposedly trapped in, all I kept thinking was ‘Why did you marry Phillip in the first place? He’s a controlling ass. Why would you let anyone — your husband or your mother — convince you that you shouldn’t pursue your love of art? It’s 1999 and you are a modern woman so start acting like one!’  It made no sense to me that Madeleine needed to read about her grandmother’s rebellious and romantic time in Paris to come to the conclusion that perhaps it was time to kick Phillip to the curb and try something different.  I actually think if Margie had still been alive in 1999, she probably would have wanted to give Madeleine a kick in the pants and tell her life is too short not to do what makes you happy.

Likeable Secondary Characters:

I guess it’s a quirk with me but I have to have a likeable secondary cast of characters in order to thoroughly enjoy a story and Brown has given me exactly what I need with the characters of Sebastian and Henry.  Sebastian is an artist that Margie meets while in Paris, and Henry is a restaurant owner that Madeleine meets while visiting her mother.  Both Henry and Sebastian are charming, down to earth, and just delightful characters.  I liked the touch of romance that each of the characters brought to the story, and I especially liked the pivotal role each of them plays in helping Margie and Madeleine discover who they are meant to be.  In addition to showing her all that Paris has to offer on a social and artistic level, Sebastian is actually the one who convinces Margie she should stay in Paris when the trip with her cousin doesn’t go as planned. He takes her to a place where she can find suitable, affordable housing and that also helps with job placement for Americans.  Henry plays a similar role in Madeleine’s journey,  first and foremost, by being her friend and being supportive about things that are of interest to her, namely her artistic abilities, which is something her husband never bothered with.  Henry also serves as an inspiration to Madeleine because the whole reason he has this restaurant next door to Madeleine’s mother’s house is because he left his job as a chef at a restaurant to follow his dream – that of owning his own restaurant.  If he hadn’t followed his own heart, he and Madeleine never would have met. His journey, especially when considered alongside Margie’s brave and adventurous sojourn in Paris, really give Madeleine the push she needs to start re-evaluating the direction her life has taken and to forge a new and more fulfilling path for herself.

Anything I didn’t care for?

Aside from my frustration with Madeleine, I can’t think of anything else that I didn’t enjoy.  Margies’s cousin, Evelyn, was a nasty little girl, but that said, I like to have characters that I can actively dislike as well and she definitely falls into that category.

Who would I recommend this book to?

The Light of Paris was a delightful read on many levels so I’d recommend it, first of all, to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a hint of romance. I’d also recommend it to anyone who wants a taste of the City of Lights and to anyone who likes a story about people finding themselves.

 

Rating:  A strong 4 stars

 

 

 

four-stars

About Eleanor Brown

Eleanor Brown is the New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of The Weird Sisters, hailed by People magazine as “a delightful debut” and “creative and original” by Library Journal.

Her second novel, The Light of Paris, will be published by Putnam Books in the summer of 2016.

Eleanor teaches writing workshops at The Writers’ Table in Highlands Ranch, CO, and at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, CO, as well as writing conferences and centers nationwide.

An avid CrossFit participant, Eleanor is the author of WOD Motivation and a contributor to CrossFit Journal.

Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Eleanor lives in Colorado with her partner, writer J.C. Hutchins.