Tuesday, June 21, 2016

REVIEW: Karolina's Twins by Ronald H Balson

Karolina's Twins
by Ronald H. Balson

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Page Count: 320
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Format: ARC Kindle copy

How got: free ARC from NetGalley

First attention getter: setting and synopsis


From GoodReads:

From the author of Once We Were Brothers comes a saga inspired by true events of a Holocaust survivor’s quest to fulfill a promise, return to Poland and find two sisters lost during World War II.

Lena Woodward, an elderly woman, enlists the help of both lawyer Catherine Lockhart and private investigator Liam Taggart to appraise the story of her harrowing past in Nazi occupied Poland. At the same time, Lena’s son Arthur presents her with a hefty lawsuit under the pretense of garnering her estate—and independence—for his own purposes. Where these stories intersect is through Lena’s dubious account of her life in war-torn Poland, and her sisterhood with a childhood friend named Karolina. Lena and Karolina struggled to live through the atrocity of the Holocaust, and at the same time harbored a courageous, yet mysterious secret of maternity that has troubled Lena throughout her adult life. In telling her story to Catherine and Liam, Lena not only exposes the realities of overcoming the horrors of the Holocaust, she also comes to terms with her own connection to her dark past.

Karolina’s Twins is a tale of survival, love, and resilience in more ways than one. As Lena recounts her story, Catherine herself also recognizes the unwavering importance of family as she prepares herself for the arrival of her unborn child. Through this association and many more, both Lena and Catherine begin to cherish the dogged ties that bind not only families and children, but the entirety of mankind.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - none given since DNF-ed @ 20%

I must be in the severe minority when it came to this book and author. Maybe it was trying to get into characters and story while starting with book three; don’t know. Yet, I found myself disappointed, DNF-ing at 20% because I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Given the hype this author has garnered, there’s got to be something to his writing. I heard his first book was on book club reading lists, a bestseller, and the rights have recently been optioned for a movie. So obviously something good is going on here.

Apparently I’m not like most folks. Maybe books one and two were better. However, this one was a chore to get through, even up to the point of the 20% where I dropped it. Except for a few scenes between Catherine and Liam, the entire first 20% was one huge information dump in the form of a lawyer interview, conveying Lena’s story of Holocaust survival.

While the information and story doesn’t lend itself to boredom, I found myself slogging through one endless conversation. I couldn’t immerse myself into Lena’s story as we were just told everything. The sights, sounds, and emotions of that suspenseful tale were lost in the format in which they were told. I never thought I’d come across a book that would make the Holocaust boring, but this book accomplished that.

Sad to say I wasn’t thrilled with this one, especially since I dropped it so quickly. The endless slog of a lawyer interview/conversation that lasted chapters killed it quickly. Maybe if the author had chosen a different layout or format to tell the story. Who knows? I might give books one and two a look; maybe I’ll get the author’s writing style and Catherine’s and Liam’s characters better then. Sad I started with this one, though.

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

Monday, June 20, 2016

REVIEW: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People
by Jennifer McMahon

Publisher: Doubleday
Page Count: 317
Release Date: February 11, 2014
Format: Trade Paperback

How got: bought used @ local library sale

First attention getter: a good review I read way back when


From GoodReads:

West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. 

Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara's farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. 

Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea's diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother's bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara's fate, she discovers that she's not the only person who's desperately looking for someone that they've lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4.5

I went into this book expecting a vivid horror, ala Pet Semetery (think I got that comparison from another review I read). While there are some aspects that echo this horror classic, this one shines as much in the mystery department as it does the actual horror stuff. A great introduction to the author, I look forward to more of her creepy stuff.

McMahon has a real talent for foreshadowing and hooking together crumbs she’s left throughout the story. Several times I had that “ah ha!” moment when things clicked together to create a creepy whole. She spreads out her clues smoothly throughout the entire story, having her different plot threads overlap and touch in enthralling ways. There was never a dull spot, and I was kept on tenderhooks the entire time.

I loved Ruthie and Sara as primary storytellers, Ruthie a bit more than Sara. Sara’s life was filled with unimaginable tragedy, so much so that she reaches a breaking point and makes a fateful decision that drives the rest of the book. How the rest of her situation devolved into the bloody finale to that thread made for engrossing reading and a jaw dropping character arc.

Yet, I felt more connected to Ruthie than Sara. Maybe it’s because Ruthie was experiencing the horror and tension from a position of ignorance, learning as the events happened just like the readers. With Sara’s previous knowledge, I didn’t connect with her on that score. I liked Ruthie on a personal level, too. She’s a typical young adult facing life after graduation, the whole world at her fingertips, yet being held back by her family’s past as well. I felt she faced the events portrayed with a realistic array of actions and attitudes, liking her for it.

The horror aspects were more of an atmosphere creepiness than outright, poop-in-you-pants scarefest. McMahon has a real gift for atmosphere, from skeletal trees to utter silence to local folklore legends of missing people and the walking dead (anyone see Rick Grimes walking through the snowy landscape?? LOL). The reality of the Sleepers, how they functioned and survived, harkened back enough to a classic horror story to really make this story stand out. That last scene?? Just shiver inducing for its subtle indications…

A fantastic introduction to McMahon and her ethereal creepiness, I found her type and brand of horror to be a great departure from the usual horror fare. While there’s enough to definitely classify this story as a horror story, what’s there serves as a creepy atmosphere for a great story and characters as well. All around, we get a great package. I look forward to more!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

REVIEW: Avelynn by Marissa Campbell

by Marissa Campbell

Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Page Count: 352
Release Date: September 8, 2015
Format: Trade Paperback

How got: personal buy from Amazon

First attention getter: forbidden romance and pretty cover


From GoodReads:

This dazzling debut brings the Dark Ages to light and illuminates one Saxon noblewoman's romance with a Viking warrior and her struggle to find her path in a changing and dangerous world

869. For eighteen years, Avelynn, the beautiful and secretly pagan daughter of the Ealdorman of Somerset, has lived in an environment of love, acceptance, and equality. Somerset has flourished under twenty years of peace. But with whispers of war threatening their security, Avelynn's father makes an uncompromising decision that changes her life forever.

Forced into a betrothal with Demas, a man who only covets her wealth and status, Avelynn's perception of independence is shattered. With marriage looming, she turns to her faith, searching for answers in an ancient ritual along the coast, only to find Alrik The Blood-Axe and sixty Viking berserkers have landed.

In a year of uncertainty that sees Avelynn discover hidden powers, stumble into a passionate love affair with Alrik, and lead men into battle, Avelynn must walk a fine line as her deceptions mount and Demas' tactics to possess her become more desperate and increasingly brutal.

Avelynn and Alrik are caught in the throes of fate as they struggle to find the way back to themselves and onwards to each other.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

I went into this book with certain expectations (forbidden romance is always a grabber for me!); yet found myself enjoying the book for completely different reasons. I was failed a bit in one regard but rewarded in another.

Strongest point to this book is our lead, Avelynn. You want a woman with guts? Look no further! Facing a brutal, tragic timeframe for women in history, she fights for choices in her life and to lead the one she wants. She personally experiences violence and the threat thereof; yet she doesn’t let that break her. She reminds me of another female from the British Dark Ages I came across in another book recently. Badass doesn’t begin to describe Avelynn!

All of that bravado and guts is balanced out with an impulsive nature that leads to the ruin of many of Avelynn’s plans. She doesn’t always contemplate all the consequences of her actions or thinks she’s completely prepared for what may come. She makes choices that burn many of her bridges in life; regret is an emotion she’ll become familiar with in book two, I predict.

The author does a great job in making Dark Ages Britain a real location. Around the time frame of a young Alfred the Great and at the height of the Viking threat, all the gory brutality and threats make an appearance, from bloody battlefields to graphic threats against Avelynn’s person. She also shines a light on local customs, holidays, and religion. I especially liked seeing Christianity and Avelynn’s Four Goddess’ religions shown side by side; it was interesting to see the strengths and weaknesses of both religions and their adherents.

My one let-down with this one was the romance, my biggest expectation that wasn’t met. Don’t get me wrong; the chemistry and emotional connection between Alrick and Avelynn is there when they share page space. They were powerful when together and made my heart sing.

However… And it’s a big “however”. The page time these two share is ridiculous for a book that pushes its romance as a big draw. For the actions that transpire at the end, I didn’t see any build up to it. They seem to come out of nowhere and with little motivation. Their romance is one of those “insta-love” things that drive me up a wall. Little development makes it lack much of the punch that I could have had given its forbidden nature and their mutual chemistry when together. Missed opportunity there.

Where the book leaves off makes me believe that we’ll get more development of this primary relationship in book two. I mean, it can’t help but develop unless Campbell changes the story flow drastically from where it left off. So this disappointment looks to get better in future; I can only hope as this was what drew me to the book in the first place.

While it failed in some expectations for me, I still got a great story and main character. Her history provides a vivid backdrop for Avelynn and her struggles; what romance there was shining all the brighter for the background darkness. The relationship front looks like it might get more development and page time in book two. I look forward to more of that development as I would desperately love to see more of these two together. I’m looking forward to book two; Campbell, bring it on!

Monday, June 6, 2016

REVIEW: The Girl and the Sunbird by Rebecca Stonehille

The Girl and the Sunbird
by Rebecca Stonehill

Publisher: Bookouture
Page Count: 375
Release Date: June 17, 2016
Format: Kindle ARC

How got: ARC copy via NetGalley

First attention getter: forbidden romance


From GoodReads:

A haunting, heartbreaking and unforgettable novel of a woman married to a man she can never love, and drawn to another who will capture her heart forever…

When eighteen year old Iris Johnson is forced to choose between marrying the frightful Lord Sidcup or a faceless stranger,Jeremy Lawrence, in a far-off land, she bravely decides on the latter.

Accompanied by her chaperone, Miss Logan, Iris soon discovers a kindred spirit who shares her thirst for knowledge. As they journey from Cambridgeshire to East Africa, Iris’s eyes are opened to a world she never knew existed beyond the comforts of her family home.

But when Iris meets Jeremy, she realizes in a heartbeat that they will never be compatible. He is cold and cruel, spending long periods of time on hunting expeditions and leaving Iris alone.

Determined to make the best of her new life, Iris begins to adjust to her surroundings; the windswept plains of Nairobi, and the delightful sunbirds that visit her window every day. And when she meets Kamau, a local school teacher, Iris finds her calling, assisting him to teach the local children English.

Kamau is everything Jeremy is not. He is passionate, kind and he occupies Iris’s every thought. She must make a choice, but if she follows her heart, the price she must pay will be devastating.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3.5

Any tale of forbidden romance will always draw me in; this one was no different. The author creates a great relationship and historical story behind it. Yet, she falls a bit short when it comes to some mannerisms and motives of her characters. I felt they were off balance with the times or just off altogether.

The history really blew me away on this one. Of course, history on any region of the world with which I’m unfamiliar will make me squirm in happiness. From a rigid British colony in 1910s to the rumblings of the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s, the reader watches as Kenya develops into the modern nation we know today. Told from the point of view of four individuals (a white British girl, an Indian tailor, an African man, and a mixed race man), the author gives a well-rounded analysis of Kenya’s growth from many perspectives.

Of course, it’s the forbidden romance that initially drew me. A relationship between an African man and white woman during this time, in this locale, definitely is going to raise some eyebrows. As the story proves, it also has dire consequences for the parties involved. Yet, the chemistry and draw between Kamau and Iris makes you root for the couple even knowing that it can’t end well. Their romance is gentle, sweet, and caring; it proves that relationships can develop across cultural barriers given the right personalities.

Now those mannerisms and motives I mentioned… I felt that the author could be a bit skewed or judgmental when it came to her characters. The biggest offender was Jonathan’s and Iris’ arrangement. I can’t see that going as smoothly as it did; Jonathan would have put up more of a fight or demanded more information on why Iris asked it of him if we were going for realism here. I also felt that Mr. Lawrence might have gotten a bit of a harsh rep. Yes, he’s a crude, self-centered, heavy-handed boor who views the world through British colonial glasses. Yes, he was a horrible husband for Iris and her personality. But would I classify him as cruel?? Eh… I wouldn’t. He acted and reacted realistically, if unemphatically, in my eyes.

Kamau and Irish are somewhat of a toss-up. Kamau sometimes came off as a paragon, unrealistically. He’s gentle, passionate, sweet, intelligent, and all Iris could ask for. Iris came off as immature (maybe it was her young age of 18). Given the harsh circumstances she experienced and endured, she grew up a bit. Yet, I found her hard to connect with in the beginning until about the last half of the book. For all that, though, I liked them well enough to get behind their stories and romance. I could empathize with them and their struggles.

For a story that had shadowy character motives and personalities that could read too unrealistic, I still enjoyed this look at a country finding itself, forming into the nation we know today. The main romance kept me engaged with their sweet emotions. So, all in all, this is a pleasant read; I wouldn’t say no to another work by this author.

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

Sunday, June 5, 2016

REVIEW: Sounds and Sweet Airs by Anna Beer

Sounds and Sweet Airs
by Anna Beer

Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Page Count: 304
Release Date: May 10, 2016
Format: ARC Paperback

How got: ARC copy won through LibraryThing giveaway

First attention getter: nonfiction about obscure historical female figures


From GoodReads:

SOUNDS AND SWEET AIRS reveals the hidden stories of eight remarkable composers, taking the reader on a journey from seventeenth-century Medici Florence to London in the Blitz.

Exploring not just the lives and works of eight exceptional artists, historian Anna Beer also asks tough questions about the silencing of their legacy, which continues to this day. Why do we still not hear masterpieces such as Hensel’s piano work "The Year," Caccini’s arias and Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 130?

A long-overdue celebration of neglected virtuosos, SOUNDS AND SWEET AIRS presents a complex and inspirational picture of artistic endeavour and achievement that deserves to be part of our cultural heritage.

The featured composers are Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Marianna Martines, Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn), Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger and Elizabeth Maconchy.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

The subject matter of this book is what first drew me; obscure female figures from history are always a win. The author goes into lots of detail of their lives, giving us figures that felt real and that we got to know. However, sometimes the author could go into TOO much detail. I felt I was drowning at times in scene descriptors or tangents that supplemented the women’s stories.

From the introduction, it sounds like the author faced much the same challenges that her subjects did as she researched their lives. Facing down the idea that a woman’s place was under a man and not in the musical world showed through quite clearly, even in the 20th century.

Yet, Beer gives us eight women who didn’t let those attitudes and society stop them from doing what they loves. Faced with family tragedy, pressure to conform, and the vagaries of patron support, each woman shows us the guts it took to face the world down and create.

The amount of detail incorporated into this book was both a blessing and a curse. The author spends a huge amount of time giving us small details into the lives of her subjects: the intimate relations, the dramatic works that launched some of them, honeymoons, romantic letters, and illnesses. All made for vivid reading and creating a connection between these women and the readers.

However, I found that at times the author could get too wordy and detailed with her extras. While they added depth to the women portrayed, sometimes the extras would overpower their story in their vivid glory. The early works that shaped Caccini are a prime example. The various plays and musical events she took part in are relevant, yes, but the amount of them talked about and the abundant details used seemed excessive to me.

Talking about obscure female figures will always be a plus for me, and Beer does a good job in bringing them and their works to life. She provides lots of details in a readable format for those who don’t read non-fiction often. Yet, those details could also sometimes bog down her narrative; I felt like there was padding going on in this book. Still, she always came back to her eight women and their lives. This was an enjoyable read, and I look forward to more.

Note: Book received for free from Library Thing giveaway in exchange for an honest review.