Monday, August 31, 2015

REVIEW: The Things We Cherished by Pam Jenoff

The Things We Cherished
by Pam Jenoff

Publisher: Doubleday
Page Count: 288
Release Date: July 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover

How got: local public library

First attention getter: the synopsis


From GoodReads:
An ambitious novel that spans decades and continents, The Things We Cherished tells the story of Charlotte Gold and Jack Harrington, two fiercely independent attor­neys who find themselves slowly falling for one another while working to defend the brother of a Holocaust hero against allegations of World War II–era war crimes.

The defendant, wealthy financier Roger Dykmans, mysteri­ously refuses to help in his own defense, revealing only that proof of his innocence lies within an intricate timepiece last seen in Nazi Germany. As the narrative moves from Philadelphia to Germany, Poland, and Italy, we are given glimpses of the lives that the anniversary clock has touched over the past century, and learn about the love affair that turned a brother into a traitor.

Rich in historical detail, Jenoff’s astonishing new work is a testament to true love under the worst of circumstances.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3

This is another work where I’m not 100% sure whether I liked the dual storyline or not. Individually, I liked each one to a degree. It was interesting to see the footwork behind building a legal case as well as the journey of the clock throughout history and its importance to the developing events of the early 20th century.

Yet, I felt that the historical story lost a bit when balanced against the continuous nature of the modern tale. We’re constantly exposed to Charlotte and her journey towards truth in her trial saga; the historical story is broken up into four distinct timeframes with different families. They are all connected by subtle connections and the clock, but I think the characters as people got lost since we didn’t have that long to go get to know them. Not nearly as long as Charlotte and the brothers.

I also have mixed feelings on Charlotte. I cared enough about her to be invested in her emotional journey and to see how her relationship triangle would end up. But at times I felt like she was too perfect: pretty, good at her job, dedicated to the downtrodden, and drawing men like flies. She had a slight whiff of the “Mary Sue” about her that set my teeth on edge.

Having so many historical time periods was a bit of a detract, but I do have to say that I enjoyed exploring the journey of this inanimate object and seeing how many lives it touched/impacted. Through that vehicle, the reader gets a window into the rise of the Nazi state and how it impacted these various families. We get to see the early stages of that rise: pre-WWI, the interwar years, during WWII, and the aftermath in Soviet occupied Poland. Learning the different fates both touched and saddened me.

While I enjoyed this in-depth exploration of the Nazi years through a unique vehicle, overall this book still rates as a 3 for me. The dual storylines read a bit skewed since so many historical timeframes are explored. In the modern tale, the main lead sometimes comes off as too perfect, making me hate her as much as I’m rooting for her. So a good tale but not my favorite by this author.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

REVIEW: The Uninvited by Cat Winters

The Uninvited
by Cat Winters

Publisher: William Morrow
Page Count: 343
Release Date: August 11, 2015
Format: Trade Paperback

How got: personal library; pre-ordered from Amazon

First attention getter: subject matter and author (ghosts and historical fiction? Yes, please!)


From GoodReads:

Twenty-five year old Ivy Rowan rises from her bed after being struck by the flu, only to discover the world has been torn apart in just a few short days.

But Ivy’s life-long gift—or curse—remains. For she sees the uninvited ones—ghosts of loved ones who appear to her, unasked, unwelcomed, for they always herald impending death. On that October evening in 1918 she sees the spirit of her grandmother, rocking in her mother’s chair. An hour later, she learns her younger brother and father have killed a young German out of retaliation for the death of Ivy’s older brother Billy in the Great War.

Horrified, she leaves home, to discover the flu has caused utter panic and the rules governing society have broken down. Ivy is drawn into this new world of jazz, passion, and freedom, where people live for the day, because they could be stricken by nightfall. But as her ‘uninvited guests’ begin to appear to her more often, she knows her life will be torn apart once more, but Ivy has no inkling of the other-worldly revelations about to unfold.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

I was at first a bit disappointed in the book, the balance of supernatural elements and historical fiction story telling seemed off balance to me. Yet, once things really got rolling, my eyes were opened to how the author was incorporating those creepy elements. Now I’m in awe.

The supernatural in this work is very subtle, almost ethereal and mystical. With only occasional mentions as the book opens, understated clues and foreshadowing opens a window into an amazing world of ghosts and the supernatural that leaves the reader breathless. I loved how the supernatural ties into the historical side as well. Acting as a reflection for how people are dealing with all the trauma of the era (wartime, disease, sudden death), the reader finds themselves wanting to learn more and more.

The historical side of this is as amazingly done as the ghosts. Portraying an American society on the brink, filled with despair, suffering, and violence, the author makes it come to life in both her characters and her setting. Seeing the lengths that tragedy will make a person go in both violence and benevolence are both explored to great effect. All the darkness and pain being surrounded by death and illness would cause make an appearance with such immediacy that I got a visceral reaction to it. I felt every tear and moan of pain.

At first I didn’t like Ivy that much. I felt that she was a weak character to tell the story through, and I just couldn’t respect her much. Yet, as the story got rolling and I realized her circumstances, I liked her more and more. She’s a woman who is dealing with the trauma and tragedy surrounding her to the best of her ability, trying to help others and provide comfort where she can. I grew to like her sweet and caring side more and more as the story progressed.

Daniel I liked from the start. A character visited by tragedy early on, he’s understandably angry and finds it hard to forgive. He takes restitution where he can and in so doing starts to find forgiveness and peace I liked seeing how his character changed and developed as the story progressed; by the end, his anger is outbalanced by clemency. His primary motivators are no longer those negative emotions but rather love and protectiveness.

Again, I am surprised and impressed by this author. I enjoyed her other book, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, for its intriguing exploration of lesser known historical aspects and the supernatural. This one pleases on the same fronts. Delicate use of the supernatural elements and a riveting historical fiction story kept me spellbound. Ivy and Daniel grew on me the longer I read about them. To me, this is another example of how excellent an author Ms. Winters is. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a bit of supernatural to their historical fiction.

Monday, August 24, 2015

REVIEW: Then Came Heaven by LaVyrle Spencer

Then Came Heaven
by LaVyrle Spencer

Publisher: Putnam Adult
Page Count: 332
Release Date: December 8, 1997
Format: Mass Market Paperback

How got: personal library; gotten via BookMooch

First attention getter: description and author


From GoodReads:

Can love survive a shattering loss? A grief-stricken widower learns to open his heart again in LaVyrle Spencer's touching and emotionally charged new novel.

Late summer, Browerville, Minnesota, 1950: Life is just about perfect for Eddie Olczak. A devoted husband and father, a man of unshakable faith, he derives intense pleasure from the life he's built with his beloved wife, Krystyna, and their two daughters, and is the dedicated handyman for St. Joseph's, the Catholic church that is the cornerstone of Browerville life. But when a tragic accident cuts Krystyna's life short, Eddie is sure his heart is broken forever. Krystyna was everything to him--his true companion. As friends and relatives rally around the family in the dark days and weeks that follow, there is one person who is unable to express what the loss of Krystyna means to her.

Sister Regina, the girls' teacher at St. Joseph's school, has always felt a special affinity for the family. Yet her religious vows prevent her from becoming too close to them, even in their time of need. In the past, Sister Regina had bristled under the constraints of the order, but always reaffirmed her commitment through prayer and contemplation. Now the strict rules of the Benedictine sisterhood, which once gave her life a sense of meaning, chafe at her more insistently. Time passes, and Sister Regina and Eddie Olczak continue to cross paths. Deep inside, they realize there is something between them--more than a kinship, a connection that somehow goes beyond their shared love of Krystyna and the girls. Thrilled--and secretly frightened--they both must summon the courage to look within their hearts and make their own choices. Powerful, moving, and deeply affecting, Then Came Heaven is a celebration of love and tenderness, a book LaVyrle Spencer's fans are sure to cherish long after the last page is turned.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

This final work of Spencer’s definitely reads different than her normal, gentler and more settled than dramatic and emotional, liked I’ve been used to from her. Not really a bad thing but I think I missed that high dramatic content from this “good-bye” book from her.

I liked the characters well enough. The leads were thoroughly portrayed and three-dimensional. I liked how Spencer went into detail on how Eddie dealt with his grief over his sudden loss and his struggle to cope with suddenly being a single parent. Regina’s struggle with her vocation and her quiet rebellion were vividly portrayed as well.

Their relationship was sweet and very gentle. There is no sudden upheaval or “lighting out of the sky” attraction. Their realization that they are feeling more for each other than parent/teacher and friends was a tender slide into being. The whole forbidden “loving a nun” thing never really came into being like I was expecting. Yet, there was some repercussions but nothing I would expect from such a situation. Still, a very loving romance.

The author put a lot of effort into setting and overall atmosphere than usual. The setting of small town 1950s Americana almost becomes a character itself. The reader gets a real sense for how close knit a community this little town is: everyone knows everyone, doors stay unlocked, children are looked after communally, and people pitch in like crazy when a sudden tragedy strikes.

It’s this setting where things go a smidge downhill for this book. I think the author spent so much time establishing the setting and telling the story of the community itself, that she lost the sense for Eddie and Regina. Their story got lost in the shuffle of community, and I was sad for that loss. Maybe it was because this was the author’s last book and was based on her hometown, she was trying to give it homage. I don’t know. Still a bummer…

For a last hurrah, this book lacked a bit. The main relationship and the characters were sweet and engaging. The story of a community in tragedy, banding together to support one of its own, was also uplifting. But the balance between the romance and this secondary story was out of whack. The romance got lost in the shuffle sometimes and that frustrated me. Not a bad book, but not the author’s best, either.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

REVIEW: The Proposal by Mary Balogh

The Proposal
by Mary Balogh

Publisher: Delacorte Press
Page Count: 321
Release Date: May 1, 2012
Format: Kindle

How got: personal library; bought from Amazon

First attention getter: series and author


From GoodReads:

Gwendoline, Lady Muir, has seen her share of tragedy, especially since a freak accident took her husband much too soon. Content in a quiet life with friends and family, the young widow has no desire to marry again. But when Hugo, Lord Trentham, scoops her up in his arms after a fall, she feels a sensation that both shocks and emboldens her.

Hugo never intends to kiss Lady Muir, and frankly, he judges her to be a spoiled, frivolous—if beautiful—aristocrat. He is a gentleman in name only: a soldier whose bravery earned him a title; a merchant’s son who inherited his wealth. He is happiest when working the land, but duty and title now demand that he finds a wife. He doesn’t wish to court Lady Muir, nor have any role in the society games her kind thrives upon. Yet Hugo has never craved a woman more; Gwen’s guileless manner, infectious laugh, and lovely face have ruined him for any other woman. He wants her, but will she have him?

The hard, dour ex-military officer who so gently carried Gwen to safety is a man who needs a lesson in winning a woman’s heart. Despite her cautious nature, Gwen cannot ignore the attraction. As their two vastly different worlds come together, both will be challenged in unforeseen ways. But through courtship and seduction, Gwen soon finds that with each kiss, and with every caress, she cannot resist Hugo’s devotion, his desire, his love, and the promise of forever.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3

I’m glad I didn’t start the series with this volume; it’s by far my least favorite. The most clichéd of the series, I found myself disconnecting with the story more often than not. There’s still a good emotional pull, and I liked the characters enough to still care for their fates. But definitely not my favorite…

I did like how three-dimensional the characters are. Both Hugh and Gwen have their vices and preconceived notions about class and propriety. Yet, they both still feel deeply enough to try and overcome the obstacles in their way multiple times. I mean, it’s gotta take some serious courage to propose/court multiple times, on Hugh’s part.

The romance was sweet and dramatic. I liked that Hugh was in love enough with Gwen that he was willing to face the embarrassment of initial denial and keep on courting. In his own fashion, Gwen’s willingness to experience his very different world and learn her possible place in it showed her dedication to this possible match. I liked that both were willing to meet the other in middle ground to make a solid relationship.

Where this book suffered big time was its heavy dependence on clichés for dramatic tension and a storyline that has been done to death in this genre. Hugh’s constant stressing that he “isn’t good enough” and that all aristocracy are uppity was tiring. I felt like screaming as all he’d have to do would be to talk to Gwen and learn how she really felt. The constant parade of balls, social gatherings, and the endless Regency rules were used to excess, too. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been leveled out by other methods of dramatic storytelling.

From the other books in this series, I’ve witnessed the use of the Napoleonic wars, their aftermath, and their effect on these particular people to wonderful effect. Yet, for some reason, Balogh decided not to utilize it that much for Hugh’s story. There’s mention of his time in a straitjacket and such; yet that’s it! There’s no fallout or any other utilization of his status of a man not fully in his faculties. I think that would have impacted his image himself and his place in society more than it did. It just seemed like a missed opportunity for more exploration of war and its impact on those effected. That could have some much needed heaviness to this book.

Not a bad historical romance of the Regency era, but I felt like I’d read it all before. The same social interactions and the same uses of clichés for dramatic tension were used again and again. I liked the characters and relationship, but they weren’t enough to save this book from mediocrity. I missed the special blend of angst and dramatic tension from being a member of the Survivor’s Club that could have been used here. So don’t start the series with this one; I’d actually recommend you start with book 5. It’s be the best of the bunch so far and provided a better introduction, I think.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

REVIEW: Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

Within These Walls
by Ania Ahlborn

Publisher: Gallery Books
Page Count: 464
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Format: Kindle

How got: personal library; bought from Amazon

First attention getter: that cover! and ghosts


From GoodReads:

From indie horror author and bestselling sensation Ania Ahlborn, this brand-new supernatural thriller questions: how far would you go for success, and what would you be capable of if the promise of forever was real?

With his marriage on the rocks and his life in shambles, washed up crime writer Lucas Graham is desperate for a comeback. So when he’s promised exclusive access to notorious cult leader and death row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, the opportunity is too good to pass up. Lucas leaves New York for the scene of the crime—a split-level farmhouse on the gray-sanded beach of Washington State—a house whose foundation is steeped in the blood of Halcomb’s diviners; runaways who, thirty years prior, were drawn to his message of family, unity, and unconditional love. Lucas wants to tell the real story of Halcomb’s faithful departed, but when Halcomb goes back on his promise of granting Lucas exclusive information on the case, he’s left to put the story together on his own. Except he is not alone. For Jeffrey Halcomb promised his devout eternal life…and within these walls, they’re far from dead.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3

The author definitely gains points with the scary factor. She incorporates many aspects popular in the ghost genre with great effect: shadowy figures, voices, poltergeist activity, eerie feelings, and things seen out of the corner of one’s eye. I got chills up my spine and hid my eyes (which while reading a book shows how effective this book was with my imagination!) more than once. His gift with description shows itself vividly here as I could picture each supernatural encounter with spooky accuracy.

The story itself and characters, though didn’t work quite as well. Not to say they were BAD per se, but I saw room for definite improvement.

Reading like a classic horror movie, the book’s overall story was intriguing enough. Cults, mass suicide, murder, supernatural powers, and a father/daughter relationship on the brink all made for a good story. I liked how the author presented the story half in modern times and half in the early ‘80s with Audra’s story, interspersed with police reports, newspaper articles, and paranormal investigative reports. That multi-layering of storyline and plot helped this book a lot, giving it added depth and liveliness.

Yet, as the book got further along, the story started to get predictable and stale. Reading like a classic horror movie got to be less of an asset and more of a millstone around the book’s metaphorical neck. I could predict what was going to happen, who was going to die, and how the ending would roll out long before events actually happened. Not a good thing in a horror novel.

Characters, too, got more and more predictable and irritating as time went on. Jeanie and Lucas started out fresh, two individuals trying to find themselves again after economic hardship and a family life in freefall. Lucas’ grasping at what seemed like a grand opportunity to rebuild his and his family’s life caught my heart and got me into the book.

But once poop started hitting the fan and life started to get weird, both he and Jeanie fell into ruts of behavior. They would react to each supernatural encounter with the same methods and thought patterns, not even c hanging as the ghost stuff escalated in the latter half of the book. They started to fall into the patterns of characters in horror movies; those people that do stupid things when faced with horrific elements and keep on doing it. It’s no wonder that what happened to them in the end did…

The horror ghost elements were done right. They made me jump and gasp in all the right places, enough to give me chills down my spine. The overall plot was good, intricate and detailed. However, as it wore on, it got predictable and stale. The characters fell into that same mold, started out intriguing but never changed throughout the book. The ending I saw coming a mile away, not a good feature for a horror novel. Would I recommend this one to horror fans? Probably not the diehard ones; they’d probably be disappointment. But for the casual horror fan who doesn’t read it often, this might be a good diversion, if only for the ghost elements.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

REVIEW: Only A Promise by Mary Balogh

Only A Promise
by Mary Balogh

Publisher: Signet
Page Count: 400
Release Date: June 9, 2015
Format: Kindle

How got: personal library, bought from Amazon

First attention getter: the series and author


From GoodReads:

Ralph Stockwood prides himself on being a leader, but when he convinced his friends to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, he never envisioned being the sole survivor. Racked with guilt over their deaths, Ralph must move on . . . and find a wife to secure an heir to his family's title and fortune.

Since her Seasons in London ended in disaster, Chloe Muirhead is resigned to spinsterhood. Driven by the need to escape her family, she takes refuge at the home of her mother's godmother, where she meets Ralph. He needs a wife. She wants a husband. So Chloe makes the outrageous suggestion to strike a bargain and get married. One condition: Ralph has to promise that he will never take her back to London. But circumstances change. And to Ralph, it was only a promise.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

This is my favorite volume for this series to date. I know I rated Book 2 with a five stars, but this one is above and beyond that one. I think it’s the blend of darker elements and more dramatic emotional content that tips the balance. And this book has that in spades.

Where Vincent’s and Sophie’s story was more gentle and sweet, Ralph’s and Chloe’s tale is fraught with despair, pain, and low expectations in life. Ralph’s wartime experience was as much emotional and mental as physical; survivor’s guilt is a big and looming presence in his tale, more so than the other Club members I feel. I liked the depth and layer that it adds to this budding romance.

Chloe is scarred in her own fashion as well socially and as a result of that, emotionally. Her family’s transgressions have stained any hope she had for a normal life and so she finds herself in the position as an unmarriageable woman. While not on the same level as wartime angst, her emotional pain still adds weight to an already dramatic story.

This story is a “marriage of convenience” story, a cliché that I find myself enjoying more and more. It’s a miracle me saying that as I usually HATE clichés of all sorts. Yet, this one seems to dovetail beautifully with the emotional states our leads are in, two damaged individuals who don’t think they can find love but want the benefits that the married state can bring them. Being in such close proximity all the time allows for some lovely character development and relationship enrichment.

Balogh has created a world class historical romance here. Emotionally resonant and with characters that shine, I devoured this book. It’s the best of the Survivor’s Club so far and because of how good it is, I look forward to the finishing two novels coming out soon. Another example of why Balogh is turning into one of my favorite authors for this genre!

Monday, August 17, 2015

REVIEW: War on the Margins by Libby Cone

War on the Margins
by Libby Cone

Publisher: Duckworth
Page Count: 249
Release Date: 2010
Format: Hardcover

How got: personal library; gotten via BookMooch

First attention getter: setting


From GoodReads:

Drawn from World War II documents, broadcasts and private letters, this novel tells the story of the deepening horror of the Nazi regime in Jersey and the bravery of those who sought to subvert it.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3

This book was intriguing from a historical point of view; it explores an area I’ve not seen done much in historical fiction. As the only part of British soil occupied by the Nazis, the Channel Islands give us a microcosm of how occupation might have been if Britain had been taken. The author utilizes first hand sources and empathetic storytelling to give us a window into a dangerous, spellbinding world.

I liked how the author was balanced in her portrayal of the Channel Islanders. Both the collaborators and the resistors were given page time, giving us a view into both sides of the Nazi occupation. The hard reality of war comes to vivid life as well: food shortages, round-ups, life on the run, and the slave labor of the Nazi era. Enough that the reader is sucked in immediately and lives the story along with the characters.

I liked the characters generally, though I felt there was a weird balance of the POVs that did the book a disservice. Marlene and Peter, our two fictional “leads”, are the heart of the book. Through their eyes and hearts, the reader feels like they’re experiencing the story rather than just reading it. They read like two people who get swept up into the epic that is warfare and resistance, tugging the reader along by the heartstrings.

However, there is too much emphasis and page time given to the POVs of our historically real figures like Lucy, Suzanne, and Albert. Lucy and Suzanne play a big part in the story, taking Marlene in and being driving forces behind Resistance. They could be considered leads in the story as well. So their POVs have merit.

However, they take up so much page time, along with other real figures, that Marlene and Peter read as secondary characters at times. Other POVs like Albert and Mary Erica were just superfluous, in my opinion. They were important figures and played a intriguing part in the history of the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. But for this book, they were extraneous and unneeded. Marlene and Peter’s story got lost in the shuffle of history at times which is a shame.

The author pays attention to her history and research, which is much appreciated by this WWII history buff. I liked her incorporation of first hand sources and POVs of real historical figures. Yet, those very same POVs drown out our fictional figures, which are the heart of the story and how the reader invests themselves into the story (at least for me). So an intriguing read for the history, but needs work for the fictional stuff.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

REVIEW: Only Enchanting by Mary Balogh

Only Enchanting
by Mary Balogh

Publisher: Signet
Page Count: 400
Release Date: October 28, 2014
Format: Mass Market Paperback

How got: personal library, bought @ Hastings

First attention getter: the series and author, was already following series and wanted to collect them all! :D


From GoodReads:

The Survivors' Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now, in the fourth novel of the Survivors' Club series, Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, has left this refuge to find his own salvation—in the love of a most unsuspecting woman…

Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, was devastated by his fiancée’s desertion after his return home. Now the woman who broke his heart is back—and everyone is eager to revive their engagement. Except Flavian, who, in a panic, runs straight into the arms of a most sensible yet enchanting young woman.

Agnes Keeping has never been in love—and never wishes to be. But then she meets the charismatic Flavian, and suddenly Agnes falls so foolishly and so deeply that she agrees to his impetuous proposal of marriage.

When Agnes discovers that the proposal is only to avenge his former love, she’s determined to flee. But Flavian has no intention of letting his new bride go, especially now that he too has fallen so passionately and so unexpectedly in love.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

Another volume of the Survivor’s Club, this was the fourth of the series that I read. I enjoyed it as much as the others in terms of emotional content and the characters. However, there were some aspects that didn’t jib as well with me.

I really liked the leads of Agnes and Flavian. Agnes’ n-nonsense, practical approach synchs well with how I approach things. I liked how that pragmatic outlook on life actually makes her more vulnerable to be swept away by the pull of high passion and first real love. Having not experienced those high-rolling emotions before makes them all the more potent, I think. In the end, though, Agnes comes out all the better for them.

Flavian’s emotional response to life was a nice change of pace, too. He’s moved to tears more than once when faced with an emotionally charged encounter or situation. This is not the norm for a romantic hero, and I liked that difference. I like that his injury hasn’t made him your usual grim, brooding, mysterious male (though that’s not always a bad thing!). There is still some mystery and masks to him, but his passion for life and Agnes still comes through.

The main relationship made the book. Agnes and Flavian fill each other out so well that it feels like they were just meant to be. Their pairing illustrates that the old adage of “opposites attract” holds some truth. Agnes’ solid, steady persona and Flavian’s barely contained passionate nature caused occasional sparks to fly with a strong, gelled cohesion in the end.

The outside plotline of Flavian’s family situation and Agnes’ familial shame was enjoyable overall. I liked how Balogh wove in Flavian’s injures with these situations, giving it more weight later in the book. His lost memories became an important part of the story; not being able to immediately recall the past when it has so much baring on the present must have torn Flavian a part.

However, I do wish that more emphasis or weight could have been given to Flavian’s injures throughout the whole book, not just towards the end. His stutter, his lazy eyebrow, and his absence of memories almost seemed as more of a gimmick than anything else for the first half of the book. After seeing how the injuries of Vincent and Ben played such a leading role in the emotional journeys of the characters in books two and three, I was a bit disappointed to see Flavian’s sidelined until way into the story.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable installment to the Survivor’s Club series. Vibrant leads and a main relationship one can root for make for a strong romantic read. I liked the plot, though the diminishing of Flavian’s situation in the beginning was a disappointment. I’d still recommend this one to lovers of the series and author, though. The emotional pull is still there.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

REVIEW: Rachel's Secret by Shelly Sanders

Rachel's Secret 
by Shelly Sanders

Publisher: Second Story Press
Page Count: 241
Release Date: April 1, 2012
Format: Paperback

How got: personal library, bought from Amazon

First attention getter: time period and description


From GoodReads:

Rachel, a Jew, and Sergei, a Christian, find their worlds torn apart by violence in pre-revolutionary Russia...

Rachel is a Jew living in Kishinev, Russia. At fourteen, Rachel knows that she wants more from life than the traditional role of wife and mother. She has dreams of being a writer. But everything is put on hold when a young Christian man is murdered and Rachel is forced to keep the murderer’s identity a secret. Tensions mount as the Christians’ distrust of the Jews is fueled by prejudice and rumour.

While Rachel keeps the truth to herself, she watches as lies and anti-Jewish propaganda leap off the pages of the local newspaper, inciting Christians to riot against the Jews. Violence breaks out on Easter Sunday, 1903, and when it finally ends, Rachel finds that the person she loves most is dead and that her home has been destroyed. As she struggles to survive the aftermath of the riots – or pogroms – support comes from someone totally unexpected, when a young Christian named Sergei turns against his father, a police officer complicit in the riots, to help Rachel.

With everything against them, the two young people find comfort in the bond that is growing between them, one of the few signs of goodness and hope in a time of chaos and violence.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

A promising start to this trilogy, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. YA novels are sometimes a toss-up; they can be shockingly awesome or heaping piles of stinky stuff. It all depends on which part of the YA audience the author is targeting, I think, and how much effort goes into telling a truly great story. This one falls on the awesome side.

First off, I was surprised by how much the author DIDN’T shy away from the tragedy, drama, suspense, and horror that revolve around the early 20th century pogroms in Russia. Events are shown in all their horrific and bloody boldness; giving the reader an immediate portrayal of these sad historical events.

I found this go-for-broke portrayal refreshing as its stuff that the younger generations really need to be exposed to, in my opinion. But if you want to protect your kids longer, maybe screen this one first.

I admired the amount of real historical research that was incorporated into the storyline, too. Real people and real event sequences found themselves woven into Rachel’s story with seamless effort. The times and effort the author put into getting her facts right shows.

Our leads, Rachel and Sergei, made me invested in the story even more. Very human and understandably young, the story in these horrific surroundings seems more immediate due to them. Rachel is trying to find an identity for herself outside of her society’s expectations, dreaming dreams bigger than her circumstances. Sergei is rebelling against the expectations of his father as well, standing up for his dreams of a different life as well as his own inner moral code that differs significantly from his fathers. How these two deal with the trauma and tragedy of the Kishinev pogrom pulled at the heartstrings and made me live the events with them.

This was a winner of a YA historical novel. The author took her time in her research and portrayal, giving homage to the original material at the same time making it her own for her story. Brutality wasn’t shied away from, giving the book extra weight. Our lead characters made the story very immediate and close to my heart, their young eyes providing fresh horror and depth to the intolerance of anti-Semitism. This is the first in a trilogy, and I can’t wait to follow Rachel and Sergei as they travel the world and follow their dreams.

Monday, August 10, 2015

REVIEW: The Arrangement by Mary Balogh

The Arrangement
by Mary Balogh

Publisher: Dell
Page Count:366
Release Date: August 27, 2013
Format: Mass Market Paperback

How got: personal library, bought from Amazon

First attention getter: author and series


From GoodReads:

Desperate to escape his mother’s matchmaking, Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, flees to a remote country village. But even there, another marital trap is sprung. So when Miss Sophia Fry’s intervention on his behalf finds her unceremoniously booted from her guardian’s home, Vincent is compelled to act. He may have been blinded in battle, but he can see a solution to both their problems: marriage.

At first, quiet, unassuming Sophia rejects Vincent’s proposal. But when such a gloriously handsome man persuades her that he needs a wife of his own choosing as much as she needs protection from destitution, she agrees. Her alternative is too dreadful to contemplate. But how can an all-consuming fire burn from such a cold arrangement? As friendship and camaraderie lead to sweet seduction and erotic pleasure, dare they believe a bargain born of desperation might lead them both to a love destined to be?

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

My second book in the series to read, it’s also the second book of the Survivor’s Club series overall. It’s got a bit of a different tone than book three that I enjoyed, and the characters stood out in a different light.

I liked that this book had a gentler feel to it than the previous volume I read. Not to say that the fact of Vincent’s blindness and Sophie’s dire financial straits aren’t heavy and presented with the requisite seriousness and drama. Yet, I think that there’s a lighter, gentler romantic air to this one. That was a nice change of pace.

I think a lot of that lighter feel can be chalked up to the characters themselves. Vincent has an attitude that I could only dream of having in a similar situation. He takes his blindness in stride and gets on with his life with a minimum of fuss or drama. There are occasional moments where panic attacks occur, but he meets the challenge in his life with strength of will I can only admire.

Sophie also shined. Life throws a hell of a curve ball her way; if not for Vincent, she would have been in a very drastic situation. Past emotional trauma also makes for a damaged soul. Yet, her heart is big enough to take in Vincent with all his problems as well as her own. I liked that she didn’t dwell on her hardship-filled life; she got past it quick and looked at the positive that occurred when fate wove her life’s path with Vincent’s.

There were occasional forays into eye-rolling clichés. The whole showdown in the dark thing, I felt, was really unnecessary. Yet, unlike book 3, I didn’t feel that they weighed down this book. The sweet, sweet romance and the characterizations for our leads more than make up for any clichés that might have occurred.

I adored this installment for the Survivor’s Club. The romance was tender, and our lead characters strong despite the trauma. Even the odd cliché didn’t detract from my enjoyment; I still was enthralled by this tender romance. Highly recommended for lovers of this genre.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

REVIEW: The Girl From the Train by Irma Joubert

The Girl From the Train
by Irma Joubert

Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Page Count: 320
Release Date: September 8, 2015
Format: Kindle

How got: ARC copy via NetGalley

First attention getter: the cover and description


From Amazon:

Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Auschwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks.

As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They mean to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.

Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her home. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.

But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.

Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

I haven’t come across a work as character driven as this in a long time. Everything is centralized about who these people are, how they’re impacted by the events presented, and how their character is changed in the end. I found myself impressed by the amount of work the author put into her characterization. It takes a special talent to write a POV of a girl, from age 7 to 2, and to make them sound different, yet with the same inner voice.

The book spans from 1944 to 1956 so covers a fair amount of time and events in a variety of locales, from snow covered Poland to the hot veldt of South Africa. Throughout, Joubert covers a vast amount of issues and topics: prejudice, blending of cultures, wartime atrocities, guilt, betrayal, and finding out who you truly are. The author does a fantastic job in balancing all these elements to create an overall narrative that is both engaging and introspective at the same time.

I really enjoyed some of the history explored as well. The author does a great job in getting the details right in the harsh settings of occupied Poland, both Nazi and Soviet. The world of secrecy, betrayal, and societal fear makes the reader sweat bullets right along with Jacob. Seeing the glimmers of democracy that were trying to emerge gave me hope and made me sad at their futility, historically speaking.

The 1940’s and 50’s in South Africa was also unexplored territory for me. It was intriguing to see the melting pot that was this country, very similar to America at the same timeframe. Yet, there were also the old prejudices against anything that was different or foreign. I was fascinated to see how Gretl was affected by this different world; I traveled the journey right along with her.

I’ve never read this author before and have got to say that this was a worthy introduction. She’s a fantastic character author, giving the people who inhabit her book such a depth of life not often seen in fiction. She also excels in the setting and themes departments. Highly, highly recommended author, and I’ll be checking out her other books as well.

Note: Book received for free from publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Escape
by Mary Balogh

Publisher: Dell
Page Count: 394
Release Date: July 1, 2014
Format: Mass Market Paperback

How got: BookMooch

First attention getter: the author


From Amazon:

In this poignant novel of longing and salvation, a hopeful widow and a resilient war hero discover the promise of love’s magic and new beginnings.

After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering. After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws—until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey.

Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.

My Thoughts:
Star Rating - 4

This is my first book read in this series by Balogh. I was intrigued with the idea of a series that is dedicated to leads that are damaged in some way or dealing with issues heavier than your usual romantic fluff. This introduction was pulled off fairly well, enough that I’m already dedicated to tracking down other volumes and bulldozing through them.

The leads shined in this introduction (to this reader at least). I loved that Ben dealt with more than just his physical limitations, though they were the cause of his emotional ones as well. There was a lesser feeling of self-worth and what he saw as his offerings to a relationship that kept me intrigued.

I also liked Samantha. She determined that she wouldn’t be happy in the opportunities presented to her by her in-laws so chose a dream in “wild” Wales with a man who could really only be counted as an acquaintance in the beginning. That takes balls to go into the unknown like that. I did feel that the emphasis placed on her “darker” looks and Gypsy blood was bit much, to the point of being clichéd (why can’t her darker complexion be from somewhere more abnormal like the Middle East or Native American blood?). But overall, I liked her strong inner core and dream of a comfortable, independent life.

The emotional pull of this book was off the charts. Part of that was from the author, I know, as Balogh just knows how to do emotions. Yet, I think a part of it was the circumstances of our leads and their intense yearning for family, love, and peace. Ben’s handicaps and Samantha’s family situations are intense. As they start to grow closer together and develop this deep love, there’s also a powerful sense that they may not have a future and that any relationship they have is only transitory.

At times, this was stressed to the extreme of being melodramatic, though. There were times where I really couldn’t see why these two couldn’t just hitch a ride to the nearest church and say their “I dos”. Maybe it’s a period thing, a Regency thing, that wasn’t coming across clearly for me. But that all made for dramatic reading!

Speaking of the Regency thing, Balogh really gets this time period and brings her readers into it. Maybe it’s the intense role the Napoleonic wars play in the story and lives of the characters; that certainly comes through. Yet, she also gives us a unique and thorough look at the social mores, relationship models, and the daily lives people lived back then. The Regency period is written to death in historical romance, but in Balogh’s hands, it gets a more in-depth look and becomes more than just background fluff.

This was a fantastic introduction to the Survivor’s series. I loved the characters, their emotional pulls, and the setting we see them in. At times, the story crosses into the melodramatic and the character’s backgrounds slide into cliché territory. Yet, that in no way makes this a horrible read. I look forward to continuing on this series; I’ve already made some significant headway.