Wednesday, December 28, 2016

REVIEW: Windy City Blues by Renee Rosen

Windy City Blues
by Renee Rosen

Publisher: Berkley Books
Page Count: 448
Release Date: February 28, 2017
Format: Kindle ARC

How got: ARC copy via NetGalley

First attention getter: already fan of author


From GoodReads:.

The bestselling author of "White Collar Girl" and "What the Lady Wants" explores one woman's journey of self-discovery set against the backdrop of a musical and social revolution. 

In the middle of the twentieth century, the music of the Mississippi Delta arrived in Chicago, drawing the attention of entrepreneurs like the Chess brothers. Their label, Chess Records, helped shape that music into the Chicago Blues, the soundtrack for a transformative era in American History.
But, for Leeba Groski, Chess Records was just where she worked... 

Leeba doesn't exactly fit in, but her passion for music and her talented piano playing captures the attention of her neighbor, Leonard Chess, who offers her a job at his new record company. What begins as answering phones and filing becomes much more as Leeba comes into her own as a songwriter and befriends performers like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. But she also finds love with a black blues guitarist named Red Dupree. 

With their relationship unwelcome in segregated Chicago and shunned by Leeba's Orthodox Jewish family, she and Red soon find themselves in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and they discover that, in times of struggle, music can bring people together.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

Renee Rosen does it again! This time, she explores the turbulent emerging Civil Rights movement and the passionate early blues/rock ‘n roll scenes.This author has few peers when it comes to taking obscure history and making it into a gripping story fleshed out with amazing characters and relationship ties. There were aspects to the story that took me awhile to get used to and like; yet in the end, I enjoyed the book immensely.

The beginning decades of the blues and the early rumblings of the Civil Rights movement make for an incredible story. The author is able to incorporate so many details about the different personalities and events involved, both minor and major, that I felt I was living the tale along with them. One can tell the amount of research that went into this work, not only from the extensive listing of sources the author provides but how many such details were incorporated into the narrative.

I like how relevant this book stands to current events today. It gives us a historical context, a snapshot in history, of race relations and the early stages of our modern music industry. I appreciate how the author shows multiple sides of each scenario, giving us a rounded view of racism in mid-20th century America and the evils of it.

Then of course, there are our leads: Leeba, Red, and Leonard. All three have such distinct personalities that when a POV change happens, the reader has no problem following along, even if the author had not divided each change with a name heading. I grew to love all three for their differences and the love and friendship they felt for each other and of those they considered family. They faced racism and prejudice with dignity, calm, and bravery. I especially grew to love Leonard's approach to it and his special catchphrase.

In the beginning I wasn't in love with the multiple POV's; yet I grew to appreciate them and accept what they added to the story. In previous tales, the single POV of the lead led to an intimate look at the situation’s facing the different women the author wrote about. However in this one, I still felt like I got to know Leeba in-depth and as intimately, even though she shared POV sections with Red and Leonard. I feel like the author is upping her game and developing her writing style into a more well-rounded one.

I can safely say this book has only cemented my love for the author and her works. She knows how to tell a fantastic story with well-rounded characters that I grow to love. Especially in this book, she explores some harsh themes and history that only make it stand out all the more. I feel very comfortable recommending this book to any lover of historical fiction, especially if you enjoy obscure history and the impact it still has on today’s world.

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

REVIEW: The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

The Other Einstein
by Marie Benedict

Publisher: SourceBooks Landmark
Page Count: 304
Release Date: October 18, 2016
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Amazon

First attention getter: obscure historical female figure via TV show, Legends of Tomorrow


From GoodReads:

A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

I was inspired to start this book from an episode of Legends of Tomorrow where Mileva plays a central role. I had never heard of this woman before and was fascinated to learn that she might have played such a central role in Einstein's theories and fame. Books about obscure historical figures, especially female ones, always interest me. I was excited to start this one.

The heart of this novel is this amazing woman who had so much potential yet got lost to history. I feel she's a prime example of how women have gotten lost in the shuffle of possible famous historical figures, smothered in the achievements of the men in their lives. She had so much to give and unfortunately was not given the credit she was due.

Yet part of the problem I feel was her. I don't know if historically her personality had any basis in fact. However as portrayed in this work, I can see why history forgot her. She started out strong, with dreams as large as the world and the guts to pursue those dreams with all of her being. She faced down family condemnation, societal blocks, and physical limitations to pursue a degree and a dream of making a name for herself in the intellectual world.

Once she hooked up with Albert romantically however, it seems like her dreams, personality, and needs became subsumed by his. It didn't happen all at once but gradually. By the time we approached the end of the book, she finally drew the line in the sand and struck out on her own.

However, the journey to that decision was painful. I watched this woman I had grown to admire make herself subservient and a second-class citizen to her own husband. She put his needs above her own so many times that she lost track of what she actually wanted. She put her trust in him again and again, never learning the lesson once he betrayed her over and over. At least by the end, she found her spine and stood up to Albert once his demands reached a certain unbelievable level. By the books send, I admired her again.

Now Albert... that's a figure that's interesting in this book, whether it's in the fashion of an admirable figure in science or a douche bag on the level of Hitler is up to the individual reader. If even a quarter of what he did in this book really happened, I have to question the level of admiration given to him by history.

I do know for a fact that the list presented to Mileva at the end of the book did happen; that alone makes me distain him as a human being. But throughout the entire book he treats Mileva horribly. He steals her ideas, cheats on her, physically and emotionally abuses her, and threaten the lives of her and his children for his ego. At least I can say the author shows her skill at characterization by making such an icon of scientific history so ultimately flawed as a human.

I think that’s what can be taken away from this book and what makes it such a gem. The author’s skill at making her characters so flawed and unlikable yet making us root for them all the same takes serious characterization chops. Even though I hate Albert as a person, his brilliance and charisma still stand out. And Mileva… the crap that woman went through, partly what she allowed herself to go through, shaped her into a person that at the end I could admire and root for. The character journeys portrayed in this book are its heart and soul.

To me, this book was about Mileva as a person and historical figure. I feel the world lost out on a treasure once she hooked up with Mr. Douche-bag. The author takes the reader on emotional character journeys that leave you gasping and heart-wrenched. Whether you grow to love or hate Mileva and Albert, at least through this work, they still touch you in a deeply emotional way, right to your soul. I highly recommend this work to anyone looking for an incredible character journey or who enjoy obscure historical figures.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

REVIEW: Love's Sweet Revenge by Rosanne Bittner

Love's Sweet Revenge
by Rosanne Bittner

Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Page Count: 512
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Format: MassMarket Paperback

How got: personal buy via local B&N

First attention getter: already fan of series


From Goodreads:

Their Passion Shaped a Nation

Over the years, Jake and Miranda Harkner have endured all the dangers a wild and brutal West could throw at them. Now, settled on their ranch in the beautiful Colorado hill country, they’ve finally found peace. But for a man like Jake Harkner, danger is always lurking, and the world may not be ready for an infamous outlaw-turned-lawman-turned-legend to hang up his guns.

Threatened by cruel men in search of revenge, the Harkner clan must be stronger than ever before. Yet nothing can stop the coming storm. With the Old West dying around them and the rules of this new world ever-changing, Jake vows to end the threat to his family no matter what it takes…

Even if it means sacrificing himself so his beloved Miranda may live.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3

While a part of me enjoyed seeing Jake's and Randy's story continued for so long, ultimately I felt disappointed by this addition to the tale. I don't know if the author intends to write more in the series, but I can't say that I'll be as eager for the next volume as I was for this one.

I did enjoy seeing Jake's and Randy's story continued. It's rare to see historical romances with leads as old as they are. It's pleasant to see that romance continues for so long and stays as vibrant; in this book, it does. Jake's and Randy's emotional pull are just as strong as they have ever been. I loved most of their scenes together, just like in previous books.

There were times where the author harkens back to the same old themes and emotional pitfalls of previous books, though. Jake's continuing thought processes of not being good enough for Randy and Randy's continuing efforts to counteract that do get old. While this feature is a fundamental foundation of Jake's character and personality, constantly exploring, discussing, and mentioning it made me tire of the whole thing. While it didn't kill my regard for their relationship and romance, it was definitely a downer.

I enjoyed the authors continuing effort to keep her historical background as accurate as possible. She continues to show that she is a leading lady in historical romance when it comes to this aspect along with her emotional relationships. I got a real taste for ranch life in the 1890s and the differing societal environment that came about as the Old West got tamed. Seeing Jake's struggles with this new world order as he tries to protect his own was the root of many conflicts in the novel. They added a nice dimension to the overall romantic relationship and family drama.

To me, the biggest downfall to this book is the amount of filler that pads out the impressive page count for a historical romance. Now most of Bittner's work tends to run longer so that's not as much of a surprise. It's just the sheer amount of content that is repetitious.

Big example of this is the sheer amount of sex scenes in the book. Now it’s great to know the folks Jake's and Randy's age can enjoy a healthy sex life; however, when you have sexy times almost every four or five scenes it gets a bit much. This combined with the repetitious exploration of themes, personality traits, and dangers our family faces already done to death make this book a slog through most of the time.

While it's great to have historical romances that explore a relationship as far as this series has and still have a fantastic emotional pull, this particular volume has huge flaws. Repeated themes and filler content cushion this book out to the point of absurdity. If another book is forthcoming in the series, I don't know that I'll be as eager for it as I was with this one. It might be time to retire Jake and Randy and explore other people. Their grandchildren might be an interesting choice given when they'll be coming of age, during World War I and the Roaring 20s. Now that would make for an interesting setting for a historical romance in this family!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

REVIEW: Melville in Love by Michael Shelden

Melville in Love
by Michael Shelden

Publisher: Harper Collins
Page Count: 288
Release Date: June 7, 2016
Format: Trade Paperback ARC

How got: ARC from publisher

First attention getter: title and cover


From GoodReads:

A new account of Herman Melville and the writing of Moby-Dick, written by a Pulitzer Finalist in Biography and based on fresh archival research, which reveals that the anarchic spirit animating Melville’s canonical work, Moby-Dick, was inspired by his great love affair with a shockingly unconventional married woman.

Herman Melville’s epic novel, Moby-Dick, was a spectacular failure when it was published in 1851, effectively ending its author’s rise to literary fame. Because he was neglected by academics for so long, and because he made little effort to preserve his legacy, we know very little about Melville, and even less about what he called his “wicked book.” Scholars still puzzle over what drove Melville to invent Captain Ahab's mad pursuit of the great white whale.

In The Darkest Voyage, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Michael Shelden sheds light on this literary mystery to tell a story of Melville’s passionate, obsessive, and clandestine affair with a married woman named Sarah Morewood, whose libertine impulses encouraged and sustained Melville’s own. In his research, Shelden discovered unexplored documents suggesting that, in their shared resistance to the “iron rule” of social conformity, Sarah and Melville had forged an illicit and enduring romantic and intellectual bond. Emboldened by the thrill of courting Sarah in secret, the pleasure of falling in love, and the excitement of spending time with literary luminaries—like Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne—Melville found the courage to take the leap from light works of adventure to the hugely brilliant, utterly subversive Moby-Dick.

Filled with the rich detail and immense drama of Melville’s secret life, The Darkest Voyage tells the gripping story of how one of our greatest novelists found his muse.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

Being unfamiliar with Herman Melville beyond the fact that he wrote Moby Dick, this book definitely had information new to me. It was intriguing to learn the personal side of such a giant in American literature. It's always fascinating to see such figures as human as you or I. However, some of the points the author reaches seem overly stressed. He expounds on the same points again and again, to the point of the proverbial 2x4. For a work this small, this duplicate expounding is even more evident.

The author presented his material in such a way to be very readable. He writes in an easy-flowing style, presenting the facts interspersed with quoted primary material. The narrative flows from point to point easily; the reader doesn't have to wade through chunks of dry material to absorb the information on this literary figure.

The information presented made me see Herman Melville in a whole new light. I hadn't given his personal life much thought besides the fact that he wrote Moby Dick and was an associate of Hawthorne. Yet the author is able to make this man a passionate, frenzied, melancholic, and flawed individual. He gives Melville depth by showing us his associations with friends, acquaintances, family, and lover. I finish this book feeling like I knew him on a very personal level; I'm not sure if this was the author’s intent, but it was achieved.

The author also makes some very interesting points on the writing process and inspiration for Moby Dick. Seeing how Melville's relationship with Mrs. Morewood impacted both his creative endeavors and personal life was the main focus of the book. The author does a fantastic job in shedding a new light onto Melville's inspirations and his primary work.

However, this area is also where the book fails a bit. There were times I felt the author was stressing Sarah's personality, love of nature, and hold over Melville too much. I got the point the author was conveying after the first few times the author makes it. Yet, these aspects are stressed so many times that it almost feels like the author felt his audience was dumb. And for a work this short, the overstressing of points and information is all the more a sin.

For an area that is fairly new to me, this book was engaging. It was informative and fairly entertaining to read. While there were times the author overstressed items and points, I still enjoyed this work as an intimate look into the life of an American literary icon and the impact the woman he loved had over him and his creativity. I would recommend this book to those looking for an informative and light read on a new topic.

Note: Book received for free from the publisher via a GoodReads giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

REVIEW: The Beast's Garden by Kate Forsyth

The Beast's Garden
by Kate Forsyth

Publisher: Random House Australia
Page Count: 512
Release Date: August 3, 2015
Format: Trade Paperback

How got: personal buy via ebay

First attention getter: fairy tale retelling in Nazi Germany... hell yes!


From GoodReads:

The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark' in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,' the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.

Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realize that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realization comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.

The Red Orchestra was a real-life organization in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.

The Beast's Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

This book took a while to get into; but once hooked, it was a wild ride to the finish. I went in expecting a fantastic retelling of a beloved fairytale in a time era that fascinates me. What I got was so much more! Drama, resistance, love, and horror all play a large part in the story. There's something for everyone in this Kate Forsyth work.

The characters, by and large, are sympathetic and feel real. Let's just say I fell in love with Leo from the very beginning. He's an honorable and dignified man, from a privileged background, who is faced with horrible decisions and the tragedy of the Nazi hierarchy. Some of the choices he’s forced to make will make your heart bleed; needless to say, the reader will find him very relatable.

I ended up loving Ava as well. It took me a while to warm to her; at times, she could read a bit Mary Sue-ish. However, as tragedy upon tragedy is visited upon her family and friends, I could see her mature and grow as a woman as she made difficult decisions. As the tension ratcheted up with each resistance group and subtle act of defiance Ava involved herself with, the reader can't help but be sucked in chapter by chapter, not wanting to stop for anything.

I have to give special props to the author for her careful attention to historical detail. From the minutest snapshot of daily life in Nazi Germany to the discussion of the various formats of German resistance, the reader gets a real picture of a society under siege from fear and horror. Where a simple word or stray glance could send you to prison and the guillotine, the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, actions Ava and Leo took stand out all the more.

I enjoyed learning about the various formats in which that German resistance took shape. From college students handing out pamphlets to major movements in the military, the reader gets a real sense of how people from all steps of German society contributed to the attempted overthrow of a megalomaniac tyrant. I personally had never heard of some of these movements like the Baum Group nor knew much about such organizations as the Red Orchestra and Canaris' Abwehr. For this alone, the book is worth recommending as historical fiction done right.

Yet also impressing me was the author’s very careful attention to the Holocaust details as they took place in, and impacted the community of, Jewish Berlin. So many times in the past I've seen authors summarize or skim over small details to hurry the story along. When one even gets the big details of such a tragic event wrong, I feel like history is being dealt an injustice. And yes I know, this is only historical fiction and not a documentary on the Holocaust, but I feel writing such an event and using it as a backdrop or device in the story requires respect.

For what areas use Holocaust aspects, I felt the author did this. From the intimate horrors of Kristallnacht and how it impacted one particular family to the tiny details of deteriorating daily life of the Berlin’s Jews leading up to the last big round up of 1943, the reader gets a real sense of the pain and tragedy experienced during this event. The author even went so far as to give hints of the fate of one of the first transports sent to Riga in November of 1941 from Berlin, a detail so small even some devoted Holocaust scholars might not know it. That's attention to detail, folks!

What started out as just an intriguing idea of a fairytale retold in Nazi Germany quickly grew into something else entirely. I fell in love with the characters the story was told through; both leads are empathetic and realistic, even if Ava could come off as too perfect in the beginning. However, what really drew my love and respect was the author’s attention to the slightest detail, respect for the material, and the suspenseful tale she told of tragedy, survival, and love. This was my introduction to Kate Forsyth, and I find it sets a high bar for me when it comes to her writing. I feel very comfortable recommending this book to anyone, whether you enjoy historical fiction, fairytale retellings, or just the tale of a girl trying to survive and build a life in a world gone mad.