Thursday, July 13, 2017

REVIEW: Little Bighorn by John Hough Jr

Little Bighorn
by John Hough Jr.

Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Page Count: 320
Release Date: June 14, 2014
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Amazon

First attention getter: subject matter

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

Little Bighorn is the beautifully written, uniquely American story of the coming-of-age of eighteen-year-old Allen Winslow during the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the fraught weeks immediately preceding it. The novel abounds with memorable characters, including Allen himself, his beautiful sixteen-year-old traveling companion, Addie, and the brave but monomaniacal Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Hough brings to life the American West and heartbreaking history, brilliantly portraying the flawed and tormented Custer.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

I had the opportunity recently to re-visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield after twenty years. I first visited as a child and of course at that age you’re not really paying attention nor can grasp the true significance of the events discussed. Now, I was able to absorb so much more and immerse myself into the history presented. So of course my interest was perked to read more on the battle. I’ve had this title on my Kindle for quite a while, two years in fact. It’s been on my to-read list for three. So now was a great time to dig in.

Given what I've recently learned after my historical immersion, the author seemed to have stuck pretty closely with the history that’s known, without an excessive use of creative license. As Allen goes west and is sucked into the Custer family’s orbit of influence, the reader travels along with him into the historical record.

From small period details like travel by train, dress, and daily army fort life to analyzing aspects of the battle itself and interpersonal politics between the officers, Hough shows he’s taken the time to get the historical details right and relay them to his audience perfectly. The author even discusses how he went to the battlefield itself so he’s seen the landscape and immersed himself as well. That’s dedication…

Hough also does a fairly well done job in characterization. He gets into the mind and personal feelings of George Armstrong Custer, giving us a possible insight into why Custer did what he did and how he felt. This mystical American West figure feels more human in Hough’s hands. Allen and Addie are the perfect foils to tell the main story through. Their initial innocence and emerging maturity make the journey very relatable. The reader can’t help but be drawn into their struggle and lives as they deal with the momentous events that was Little Bighorn.

The one hitch I found for this work was the writing style. Descriptive passages were done well, giving a great sense of the vastness that was Montana and the Dakotas at that time (and really still is) and also the workings of the various historical settings. Yet, when it came to conversations/dialogue, the narrative tended to turn choppy and abrupt. Rather than being incorporated into other paragraphs, people talking mostly got their own paragraphs, even if conversation exchanges only involved 3-4 words.

Despite that discrepancy, Hough tells a rousing tale of bravery, maturing through epic events, and humanization of history. He has relatable characters and conveys the history of his story descriptively. I was swept along for the adventure and the tragedy, living each moment with Allen, Addie, and Custer. I’d recommend this work to any lover of history, especially the American West. It takes a seminal event in that historical timeline and brings it to vivid life.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

REVIEW: The Conqueror's Queen by Joanna Courtney

The Conqueror's Queen
by Joanna Courtney

Publisher: MacMillian (out of the UK)
Page Count: 448
Release Date: May 18, 2017
Format: Hardcover

How got: personal buy via Amazon UK

First attention getter: already loved the author

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

A crown can be won, blood cannot be changed.

Mathilda of Flanders is furious at her father's choice of husband for her. William of Normandy has a reputation as a rough warrior but after a violent start to their courtship Mathilda discovers him to be a man of unexpected sensitivity, driven by two goals: to win her heart and to win her a throne.

Astoundingly the throne seems to come first, for King Edward of England invites the newlyweds to Westminster and declares William his heir. But with the passing of time, this secretive promise is soon forgotten . . . though not by William. Or Mathilda.

As events either side of the Narrow Sea reach crisis point, Mathilda has to decide what she wants: heart or throne? How deep does her ambition run and what is she prepared to sacrifice to succeed?

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

As a final chapter in Courtney’s 1066 queen trilogy, this finale rounds out the perspectives on this series of events nicely. Giving us a human look at figures commonly translated as the villains in the story, I was amazed again at how well the author is able to bring her historical figures to life so vividly. So little is known about William and Matilda that isn’t shadowed by legend; it was a real treat to see them as real people in a series of events so important to English history.

Commonly, William the Conqueror is showcased as the bad guy of history. I’ve read him in several fictional renditions, each time he’s portrayed as conniving and ruthless. And yes, Courtney doesn’t shy away from that aspect of him. Her William is very politically savvy, coming off as conniving at times. He’s also extremely ruthless, which given his personal history and the times he lived is understandable. If you’re an individual or town that betrayed his hard-earned trust, god help you.

Yet, Courtney rounds him out also as a man who loves deeply and strongly, loyal to the death. He might expect rock solid loyalty, but he also gives it. I also appreciated how intelligent she made him, both politically and in reading humanity. He has a special talent for reading a person, inspiring their loyalty if allies and reading through them if enemies. He’s uniquely devoted to Matilda as well. Given his history as a bastard and the grief his beloved mother faced due to her circumstances, he vowed to hold unto Matilda and no other, focusing all his energy and emotions on her. This makes for an incredible relationship, given the norms for such in the early medieval period.

Matilda also stands out in the characterization department. At first, I had some reservations. We started out with her so young, and she had the character traits of that age. Flighty and self-centered, I was cringing at first, hoping against hope that this wasn’t going to be a continuing trend as I can’t get behind a heroine like that. I should have had faith in Courtney. Matilda quickly shows her intelligence, practicality, and down to earth nature pretty quickly. I loved how she approached life, dealing with situations and relationships as they came up with common sense, thinking things through. She doesn’t get carried away with flights of drama; she examines a situation and deals with it. I found her to be the PERFECT match for William.

I go on and on about how well the characterizations are done by Courtney, but that in no way means she lacks in other areas. The main relationship between William and Matilda stand out as one firmly grounded in intelligence, mutual respect, loyalty, and hard-earned trust. I think it’d be hard to find two people more suited for each other. They have their abrasive moments, especially when it comes to William’s prickly sense of trust and loyalty. Yet, they always find ways of working through them and coming through the fires all the stronger.

Courtney also draws her readers into a time period rife with conflict and shifting loyalties. The events leading up to the Battle of Hastings are examined in depth, mostly from the POV of William/Matilda since this is their story and other POVs have been explored in previous novels. Yet we also get a few glimpse from William’s cousin and Matilda’s sister, Judith, wife of Tostig Godwinson, to see another side of the story. We get a visual for a territory in turmoil, not completely controlled by William and loyal to him. Yet, when the prospect of conquest is on the horizon, Normandy comes behind him full stop. I found myself as sucked into the developing invasion as I was to William and Matilda’s relationship.

This is another stellar example of Courtney’s writing. She has everything: outstanding characters, a solid prime relationship, and a bubbling cauldron of treachery, war, loyalty, and coming invasion that was early medieval Normandy and its court. I’m not sure if more will be coming from this series as I think I remember it being mentioned it was a trilogy, not an ongoing series. However, if Courtney ever decides to write anything else, I’ll be first in line to take a gander. She stands as one of my favorite writers now. Keep ‘em coming, Joanna!!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

REVIEW: The Samurai of Seville by John Healey

The Samurai of Seville
by John Healey

Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Page Count: 256
Release Date: June 13, 2017
Format: EBook ARC

How got: ARC from NetGalley

First attention getter: the sheer idea!!

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

A sumptuous novel inspired by one of history’s most intriguing forgotten chapters—the arrival of Japanese Samurai on the shores of Europe.

In 1614, forty Samurai warriors and a group of tradesmen from Japan sailed to Spain, where they initiated one of the most intriguing cultural exchanges in history. They were received with pomp and circumstance, first by King Philip III and later by Pope Paul V. They were the first Japanese to visit Europe and they caused a sensation. They remained for two years and then most of the party returned to Japan; however, six of the Samurai stayed behind, settling in a small fishing village close to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where their descendants live to this day.

Healey imbues this tale of the meeting of East and West with uncommon emotional and intellectual intensity and a rich sense of place. He explores the dueling mentalities of two cultures through a singular romance; the sophisticated, restrained warrior culture of Japan and the baroque sensibilities of Renaissance Spain, dark and obsessed with ethnic cleansing. What one culture lives with absolute normality is experienced as exotic from the outsider’s eye. Everyone is seen as strange at first and then—with growing familiarity—is revealed as being more similar than originally perceived, but with the added value of enduring idiosyncrasies.

The story told in this novel is an essential and timeless one about the discoveries and conflicts that arise from the forging of relationships across borders, both geographical and cultural.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 3

The sheer idea behind this book is what drew me. I knew of diplomatic and trade missions from Europe to Japan, but Japan to Europe?? Nope. And to find out that these events truly happened, there really was a diplomatic mission from Japan that travel through New Spain in the New World to Spain proper and onto Rome to meet the Pope just blew my mind. It's little nuggets of obscure history like this that make me love the historical fiction genre so much.

For the most part, the author pulls things off well. He obviously knows his subject matter and locations well; the book shines in these areas. Yet, there are times where the author falls behind in his characters and book pacing.

I'm not sure if the author has physically been to the Iberian Peninsula, Japan, or Central America, but his writings surely read like he has. His depth of knowledge when it comes to cultures from those areas and physical landscapes defies expectations. He conveys these images in his readers’ heads in such a way that we experience the setting rather than just reading it. He has a gift for description and cultural understanding that stands out above your standard fictional writer.

The real meat of the story was examination of cultural interactions between two such a divergent societies, through the eyes of a Japanese samurai new to Spanish shores and various Spanish individuals. The author’s cultural knowledge, understanding, and respect come through excellently as he tells the story. As Shiro grows on his journey, the reader can't help but be drawn into his story, going from staunch samurai warrior who decried interaction with outsiders to a confidante of Spanish nobles and royalty and a prized member of that society.

Our main lead of Shrio is a great example of a vibrant, intriguing lead. Yet at times, there are too many characters being explored, some having no bearing on the story at all beyond being a famous name to throw in there for extra punch. This is especially evident in the beginning of the story where we have Cervantes introduced as a character for one scene in a bar just to give exposition; then we don't see him again until the very end where he dies. I mean, did we really need him to add anything to the story besides his name??

In the beginning, we also have way too many people introduced in a very short timeframe. I'd say for about the first three or four chapters, I was lost in a deluge of names and places. That's why I had such a hard time starting this work and getting into it. Thankfully, once things got flowing as the Japanese expedition had finally left their stores, I got into the flow enough to tell characters apart and could follow the action. Yet, even throughout the rest of the work, there would be times I’d lose track of people as the story progressed.

There were also some issues with the pacing of our story. Like I mentioned with the characters in the beginning, the novel starts with a bang and rush as we hit the ground running. Exploring the beginning of the Japanese delegation and Spanish shores readying to receive them, the reader is sucked into a maelstrom of movement and political maneuvering. Then we come to a slow section exploring either characters or just slow sequences, like sailing on the ship or exploring Spain. While having different paces in the story is a good thing, and in this particular one they were nicely done as well. It's the transitions from one pace to the other that jarred me, personally.

This work seems to be lesser-known given the small amount of reviews and comments I've noticed across the Internet. For all that, I felt it was an admirable attempt. The sheer idea is enough to give the author props. I enjoyed exploring this obscure corner of the historical record, through the eyes of a character that is both vibrant and well rounded. While there are hiccups along the way, this novel still comes over as enjoyable. Not the best out there, it certainly isn't the worst. I'd still recommend it, even if only for the extremely unique story it holds and how well the author handles the various cultures.

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

REVIEW: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The Alice Network
by Kate Quinn

Publisher: William Morrow
Page Count: 528
Release Date: June 6, 2017
Format: Trade Paperback ARC

How got: ARC giveaway on LibraryThing

First attention getter: already loved the author and spy stuff in WWI

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

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

1947. In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She's also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie's parents banish her to Europe to have her "little problem" taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she's recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she's trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the "Queen of Spies", who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy's nose.

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

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

Kate Quinn stands as a personal favorite of mine; I know that anything she writes will be visceral in its setting/story and her characters will be as real as I. When I learned she was departing the worlds I knew her from, ancient Rome and Renaissance Italy, to explore the dramatic setting of World War I and II, I was all on board from day one. She doesn't fail to deliver, either.

World War II spy thrillers are almost a dime a dozen nowadays. Everywhere you look, someone has their own take or spin on the familiar tales, especially when you talk about spy thrillers in Nazi France. Yet, WWI is a whole new world when it comes to espionage stories. Then Quinn explores one of the most successful spy rings from that era, ran by women no less, and you've got a suspenseful narrative to hold you on your seat’s edge.

Quinn applies her skill at world building to this era just as well as her previous historical escapades. The harsh reality of German occupied north east France during the First World War comes to stark life as she portrays a population who will do anything to survive, snakes who profit from such an environment, and a German occupation force who revel in their control. The odds these women faced, fighting for their country in their own way, were truly staggering. On top of the already inherent dangers, these women also faced draconian prejudice and views on their role in war and their reputations. The bravery shown by these gals in the face of all that truly inspires. Sad to say, not every member of this ring had a happy ending, either, so the odds got some folks.

On top of utilizing some excellent historical details and scene settings skills, Quinn continues to create excellent, realistic characters through which to tell her story. Every single one stands out as a real individual, even the secondary background folks. It's our leads, though, that really shine. Each is damaged by war in their own way, all experiencing grief and some elements of PTSD. From the severe case of Evelyn who faced the true horrors of war and mankind's evilest behavior to Charlie's obsessive grief over her cousin's disappearance, each tale takes the audience on an emotional journey unlike any other. Not many authors can achieve as much success with their characterizations as they do with their world building, but Quinn is one of them. Truly a master!

Then on top of everything, Quinn weaves an intricate plot line that ties everything together in a truly suspenseful climax. Hidden connections as both world wars unfold surprised me left and right. I loved how the author tied in her character’s emotional journey with the story as well. Healing from past trauma and facing your demons played a huge part in the story overall. As our characters traverse over France looking for their missing pasts, the reader can't help but be transported in this journey of growth and overcoming the odds.

One can never fail when reading a Kate Quinn book. She has it all: great characters, a spellbinding story, and a setting and world you can sink into. Not once was I bored and looking for the motivation to continue on this epic story. I can't recommend this book highly enough; safe to say that if Kate Quinn wrote it, it's got to be good!!

Note: Book received for free via LibraryThing giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

REVIEW: Brimstone by Cherie Priest

Brimstone
by Cherie Priest

Publisher: ACE

Page Count:304

Release Date: April 4, 2017

Format: Trade Paperback

How got: local library

First attention getter: already liked the author and synopsis

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

In the trenches of Europe during the Great War, Tomas Cordero operated a weapon more devastating than any gun: a flame projector that doused the enemy in liquid fire. Having left the battlefield a shattered man, he comes home to find yet more tragedy for in his absence, his wife has died of the flu. Haunted by memories of the woman he loved and the atrocities he perpetrated, Tomas dreams of fire and finds himself setting match to flame when awake....

Alice Dartle is a talented clairvoyant living among others who share her gifts in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. She too dreams of fire, knowing her nightmares are connected to the shell-shocked war veteran and widower. And she believes she can bring peace to him and his wife s spirit.

But the inferno that threatens to consume Tomas and Alice was set ablaze centuries ago by someone whose hatred transcended death itself....
My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

Cherie Priest always finds a way to please my palate. Her unique gift of combining gripping storytelling, supernatural elements, and the darker side of life makes her stand out in the crowd. With this new addition to her body of work, she still continues to please overall. I anticipated this novel highly when I heard that it dealt with WWI and supernatural fire starting, two elements that at least I can say I've never seen combined. So I knew I was in for a different kind of story. Despite one little element I had a hard time with, this book still ranks as a great tale.

The author chose a turbulent time to set her story. Set post WWI, the story explores the themes of healing from tragedy and fighting against prejudice. I enjoyed her usage of historical details like the ever popular world of mysticism that arose after the war as people try to contact their lost ones. She uses that heavily as a strong vehicle to bring together her two protagonists as they prepare to face off true evil. Her ability to bring everyday life from this timeframe also stood out. The fashions, Prohibition, and lingering pain from the war and recent Spanish flu epidemic all play interesting parts in the tale.

As always, Priest excels at combining her supernatural elements with the overall story. Demonic spirits, fire starting, psychic sessions, and guiding lights make this story distinctive when held up against other historical fantasy titles. I really like how they also played such an important part as the bedrock for the overall story and struggle. The author created a fight against evil and prejudice with psychic elements and ghosts on both sides of the story. She draws on the lingering distrust of “witchcraft”, making the need for a creation of a community like this one and using that as both a scene for the narrative and objective as well.

It's one of the two leads where this book falls down a bit. I liked Thomas. He's a tragic figure whose life has hit hard with multiple painful events and an obsession with connecting to his past. After losing his wife and emotional health post war, the universe decided to kick him in the nuts even harder by connecting what seems like an evil entity to his soul. That serves as the basic plot line for the story, and what a story it is! Through it all, Thomas fights with a deep well of courage that the reader can't help but admire. Even if Thomas doesn't think he's being brave, we all know different.

So with all that good, you're probably wondering what I'm talking about when I mention that this area is where the book fell out. It's Alice that's the problem. She's not flat out horrible by any means. I still felt like I could identify with her and connect with her as she put herself in this community of peers. However, at times she came off extremely immature. I felt I was reading the inner thoughts of a young teen rather than a young woman. She read too innocent to my mind. I think I would have connected to her better if her inner thought processes had been that of an older woman.

A unique set of supernatural elements set this post WWI ghost busting tale apart. The author uses great historical details and a great main character to keep her readers moving forward rapidly. While the other main character can be immature at times, I still couldn't help but want her to pull through and help fight the evil hunting Thomas. While not the best work Priest has done, I would still feel comfortable recommending the story. It's a unique anecdote that will please many a reader.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

REVIEW: The DarkAngel series by Meredith Ann Pierce



Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Co
Page Count: 936 all together
Release Date: 1982-1990 originally
Format: Mass Paperbacks, most recent publications

How got: personal buy from B & N

First attention getter: already fan of series

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

DarkAngel:

Aeriel is kidnapped by the darkangel, a black-winged vampyre of astounding beauty and youth. In his castle keep, she serves his 13 wives, wraiths whose souls he stole. She must kill him before his next marriage and comes into full power, but is captivated by his magnificent beauty and inner spark of goodness. Will she choose to save humanity or his soul?

Gathering:

Aeriel's love has broken the curse on the darkangel Irrylath, making him human again and freeing him from the control of his mother, the dreaded White Witch. But the Witch is far from defeated. Her wicked plans require all seven of her vampyre sons, and she will not give one up so easily. There is but a single hope for the Witch's defeat--solving an ancient, mysterious riddle. So Aeriel sets off to solve the riddle, sailing across a sea of dust and straight into the worst of the Witch's terrors. But if Aeriel is to save Irrylath and her world, she will have to overcome his bloodthirsty darkangel brothers--and ultimately confront his terrifying mother face-to-face.

Pearl:

All the world’s wisdom and magic resides within the iridescent depths of a small white pearl. “All my sorcery,” the Ancient Ravenna had said of the pearl. “It is left to you to save the world.” But is the pearl powerful enough to enable Aeriel to defeat the White Witch? Aeriel’s people have assembled an army--led by the redeemed darkangel Irrylath--and are soon to attack the Witch and her darkangel sons. But their cause is hopeless unless Aeriel can unlock the mysteries of the pearl . . . and of her own destiny.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

I've been hit by a wave of nostalgia lately which has triggered re-watches and re-reads all around. I initially read the series when I was in high school, late 90’s. I remember being so completely enthralled by Aerial and her struggles to save her loved ones and face down evil. I admired her courage and occasional bursts of vulnerability. Now, 20 years later, I can see where this trilogy has some flaws but my initial love still stands strong.

The plotline/setting still holds as unique now as back then. While holding some elements of your typical fantasy series (young person saving the world, unique creatures, some aspects of magic, etc.), the world and its history stand out. Set in some distant vision of the future, post colonization of the Moon, this vision of a dying world who’s creators have abandoned makes for a bleak and awe-inspiring setting for Aerial’s struggles.

The overarcing story also stands out. Elements like saving the world and fighting an evil witch may seem like they’re common place. Yet, it’s the small details that set this series apart. For most of the story, Aerial has allies, but they’re never with her for the full way. Most of the strength needed for this journey comes from her. Very unique creatures, minions of our villain, and atmosphere of the world give the trilogy a gothic, dark tone not often seen in young adult fantasy, either. This small detail makes Aerial’s struggle all the harsher as at times, she's facing her foes alone, unaided.

I loved Aerial as a character. Her courage knows no bounds, and her strength of will leaves me breathless. Ultimately, she doesn't let anything the White Witch throws at her stop her from saving her friends and world. Yet, she's also refreshingly vulnerable and lacks faith in herself at times. With so much responsibility placed on her shoulders, at times she feels lost and alone. This mix of strength and vulnerability make her a relevant character anyone can relate to.

I feel what really sets the series apart from the rest, though, is the ending. Without giving too much away (don't want to spoil anything for anyone), I will say that it's completely unexpected and so different than the usual, run-of-the-mill young adult fantasy trilogy. In a trilogy series written nowadays, it might not stand out as so different. However, the series was written between 1982 and 1990. For a trilogy from back then, it's a real departure.

While doing this re-read, though, I did notice myself having a hard time with time telling. The author uses an odd format of “fortnights” and “daymonths”. Nowhere in the book trilogy does it give any pointers on how these relate to normal methods of time telling. The reader’s left trying to suss things out for themselves given context.

As a young reader just flowing with the fantasy, this feature probably doesn't weigh that heavy against the book. Yet, as a mature reader, 20 years down the road, I found myself getting hung up on this. I kept trying to get a picture in my head of how the story was flowing and kept getting thrown out by the bizarre way of telling time. This may not be a problem with other readers, though, since it is such a small part of the book. Take that into account while we whether to read this trilogy or not.

Personally, I found this a pleasant revisitation of my early reading history. Aerial still stands as a wonderful character with hidden depths. The plot flows seamlessly in all its unique and vibrant glory. All my sweet and nostalgic youthful memories of this trilogy stand strong; even despite the issue with the time telling aspect, I would still recommend the series to readers today. People of all ages would find enjoyment out of Aerial’s tale of ultimate hope and arrival.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Land of Hidden Fires by Kirk Kjeldsen

Land of Hidden Fires
by Kirk Kjeldsen

Publisher: Grenzland Press
Page Count: 212
Release Date: January 24, 2017
Format: Kindle

How got: free copy from author

First attention getter: setting/synopsis

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

Occupied Norway, 1943. After seeing an allied plane go down over the mountains, headstrong fifteen year-old Kari Dahlstrøm sets out to locate the wreck. She soon finds the cocky American pilot Lance Mahurin and offers to take him to Sweden, pretending she's a member of the resistance. While her widower father Erling and the disillusioned Nazi Oberleutnant Conrad Moltke hunt them down, Kari begins to fall for Lance, dreaming of a life with him in America. Over the course of the harrowing journey, though, Kari learns hard truths about those around her as well as discovering unforeseen depths within herself.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

A riveting tale of suspense, survival, and danger, this title has some strong points in its favor for a small publishing house\self-published book. The reader can't help but be pulled chapter to chapter, being held on the edge of their seat to see what happens. While not perfect, I'd still highly recommend this book.

Strongest point is the suspenseful story and how well the author does in keeping the audience engaged. Reading as a spy thriller mixed with a coming of age, the narrative has no problem flowing from scene to scene. The author has a talent in keeping the tension ratcheted up as Kari and Lance make for the Swedish border in frigid temperatures and with enemies hot on their tails. The alternating POV's do detract a bit from this aspect; however, the author still keeps things ramped up enough to make the climax a suspenseful showdown and a growing experience for Kari.

I'm not sure if the author is a native of Norway; his name might suggest so. His bio says he lives in Germany and got his degree in California. Yet, even so, his depth of knowledge and way of conveying the landscape and aura of Norway are incredible. I could literally feel the frigid mountain majesty of the northern peaks and feel the bite of the snow on my cheek. Very specific mountain, river, and town place names puts the reader right into the country. A country held under the Nazi thumb also came through vividly. The struggle to survive both the climate and the oppressors added a depth to the story.

When it comes to characterizations, this book also stands out. Each POV and secondary character has their own distinct personality and motivations. There was also a significant change and growth as the story progresses. This was especially evident in Lance and Kari as they struggle through the frigid arctic conditions, the dire circumstances that arose revealing their true natures. Yet in all parties explored, the author has a deft hand when it comes to revealing the inner depths of his character’s psyches. We really got to know everyone, which isn't always the case in a book this short.

There's one aspect that is this books shortcoming, though, and it sort of falls in this area. For a book that clocks in at 212 pages according to Goodreads, I felt like this book had too many POV's. The count standing at four, I felt like I was ripped from one tale to another, just as I was getting into the action of a certain storyline. Some of the suspense got lost and at times, the POV's would get muddled. While engaging, Sturre’s POV in particular, felt completely superfluous. The bits he added to the story could have been better done with Kari, Erling, or Moltke.

At the end of the day, though, this dynamic tale of survival, escape, and resistance keeps the reader engaged. Great characters, a vibrant setting, and action filled narrative keep the story hopping to a fantastic climax. Despite that one fallback, I still feel comfortable recommending this tale to lovers of historical fiction, especially for World War II fans and those who love spy thrillers. Not many tales explore World War II occupied Norway, so this is a real treat.

Note: Book received for free from author in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

REVIEW: A Perilous Undertaking by Deanna Raybourn

A Perilous Undertaking
by Deanna Raybourn

Publisher: Berkley
Page Count: 338
Release Date: January 10, 2017
Format: ARC Trade Paperback

How got: ARC gotten via bookmooch.com

First attention getter: already loved book one

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

London, 1887 . . 

Victorian adventuress and butterfly hunter Veronica Speedwell receives an invitation to visit the Curiosity Club, a ladies-only establishment for daring and intrepid women. There she meets the mysterious Lady Sundridge, who begs her to take on an impossible task saving society art patron Miles Ramsforth from execution. Accused of the brutal murder of his artist mistress Artemisia, Ramsforth will face the hangman's noose in a week s time if Veronica cannot find the real killer.

But Lady Sundridge is not all that she seems and unmasking her true identity is only the first of the many secrets Veronica must uncover. Together with her natural historian colleague Stoker, Veronica races against time to find the true murderer a ruthless villain who not only took Artemisia s life in cold blood but is happy to see Ramsforth hang for the crime.

From a Bohemian artists colony to a royal palace to a subterranean grotto with a decadent history, the investigation proves to be a very perilous undertaking indeed....

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

A fantastic addition to the Speedwell series, this volume adds to the original and builds on our lead’s pasts to create stronger characters. Along with a character chemistry that is second to none and for the most part solid mystery component, Raybourn’s new series has a future that never looked brighter.

Favorite part hands down our Veronica, Stoker, and their relationship. I've never read a pair who have so much chemistry on the page and such intriguing interactions. Alternating between hilarious exchanges and heated UST scenes, these two banter their way across London as they encounter artists, royals, and an abandoned sex club. The intensity and hilarity never lightens up.

The mystery aspect wasn't as original as book one but still enjoyable. Reading more like a mystery than the previous book, this one delves into an enigmatic secret behind a murder in an artist circle's mansion. I wasn't as surprised at the eventual who done it as I might have been. Yet, the journey through the various clues and discussions was pleasurable nonetheless.

What I did enjoy about the mystery part was how much it added to our leads pasts again. While touching lightly on Veronica and her familial connections, the best part we got was more exploration on Stoker’s past. We get to see the family circumstances that develop his character and personality, getting to see how the bitterness developed when it comes to his family. Since most of book one was devoted to developing Veronica, these peeks into Stoker’s past helps develop him more fully.

And that's what makes this series so unique and special. Every aspect of the story, even the mystery itself, always builds and supports our leads personalities and pasts. It's not totally about the mystery itself; it's about the people involved: investigators, allies, suspects, and victim. I think that's what makes Veronica, Stoker, and their relationship so extraordinary. The author concentrate so much on building them up, then centering the mystery around them rather than the other way around.

Even though the mystery itself wasn't as enthralling as the first one, this book is still a solid five for me. The leads, how they play off each other, and the overall story carry the day. I can't help but find myself drawn into Veronica's and Stoker’s chases across London, reveling in their hysterical sniping banter and heated UST scenes. The mystery flows smoothly, if a bit predictably, yet it also enhances our leads and their backgrounds. If you're a fan of book one, definitely look this one up. If you haven't read book one and now this one, where have you been hiding?!?! Go read the series now! I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

REVIEW: Shattered by Jennie Marsland

Shattered
by Jennie Marsland

Publisher: self
Page Count: 270
Release Date: September 24, 2011
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Amazon

First attention getter: incorporation of 1917 Halifax explosion

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

Liam Cochrane no longer belongs. He lost his youth and his brother on the battlefields of Europe. Now he’s home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, trying to dull his pain with liquor and the occasional willing woman. He’s become a stranger in the North End neighbourhood where he grew up.

Alice O’Neill has never belonged. Able to read notes, but not words, she dreams of teaching music – and of Liam, who has held her heart for years and never known. But Liam has shadowy ties in England that he’s revealed to no one, and in that fall of 1917, Halifax is on a collision course with fate. On December 6, a horrific accident of war will devastate the city’s North End. What will be left for Liam and Alice when their world is shattered?

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4.5

What drew me to the book was a personal disappointment, but this was made up for by a fantastic portrayal on other aspects I wasn't expecting. The Halifax explosion of 1917 is one of those forgotten events in history, outside the community where it happened. Hardly anyone nowadays seems to know about it which is a tragedy since it had such an impact, was so large, and killed so many. When I read it was incorporated into this title, I was eager to start. After finishing, I was pleased ultimately by a fantastic tale, great characters, and vibrant relationships.

Disappointment was aroused by how little the explosion actually played a part in the story. This is a personal quibble, as that's what drew my attention to the book in the first place. Yet, this massive event was smooshed onto the end, feeling like it was a tacked on afterthought rather than an integral part of the story. What we got was devastating and illustrated how this event wiped out an entire community and brought untold destruction and tragedy. I guess I was just looking for more exploration on how this event impacted the community and people who live there overall. Still, stacked against everything else, this is a small and personal quibble.

That being said, the rest of this book was fantastic. The characters shine as strong individuals, especially Alice. I loved her special blend of vulnerability and steely core. While she comes off as a bit of a doormat in the beginning, as the story gets rolling she matures into a strong woman who doesn't take gruff from anyone. She overcomes a dysfunctional, borderline abusive home situation and disability to make her own path in life, with her own goals and choices.

I also love Liam and his strength of character to overcome some truly tragic mental health issues. With a severe case of PTSD from the trenches of World War I Europe, he found the inner strength to overcome dark thoughts and build a life for himself. His family and Alice help him along the way, creating a truly inspiring tale of self-healing and overcoming obstacles.

Liam and Alice together make the story. Their depth of emotion for each other and strength in supporting each other create a vibrant relationship. Liam creates the strong bulwark Alice needs against her family’s violence and emotional damage. Alice is a well of love and acceptance for Liam as he faces the demons of war and heals. Together they are an example of historical romance done right.

But it's in the area of the World War I vets that this book really shines, unexpected for me. The author surprises in her in-depth portrayal of men caught in the horrors of war and bloodshed, then coming home to peacetime and family life. Not everyone is able to cope and some get lost along the way. The author shows the varying degrees of success, or not, that the different men have in dealing with the horrors. From Alice's brother to Liam to Liam's friend, the reader is taken on an emotional journey that reflects strongly on the plight of veterans and servicemen today.

This book was a pleasant surprise overall. The author takes us on an emotional journey of self-healing and strength in the face of adversity. Both Liam and Alice grow throughout the book, creating intriguing character arcs that can't be resisted. The only downer is the lack of details on the explosion itself and its importance on the story. It's tacked on nature at the end seemed rushed and an afterthought to me. Yet, that's a personal disappointment and may not stand out as strongly to another. I’d still highly recommend this book for its strong characters and emotional depth. This novel stands as an example of self-publication at its best.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

REVIEW: The Girls of Ennismore by Patricia Falvey

The Girls of Ennismore
by Patricia Falvey

Publisher: Kensington
Page Count: 448
Release Date: March 28, 2017
Format: E-Book ARC

How got: ARC via NetGalley

First attention getter: time period/location and pretty cover

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

Set in Ireland during the turbulent early 20th century, Patricia Falvey's sweeping novel explores an unlikely friendship between two girls of vastly different backgrounds, as each tries to overcome the barriers set by class and birthright... 

On a June morning in 1900, Rosie Killeen crosses the road that divides her family's County Mayo farm from the estate of Lord and Lady Ennis, and makes her way to the "big house" for the first time. Barely eight years old, Rosie joins the throng of servants preparing for the arrival of Queen Victoria. But while the royal visit is a coup for Ennismore, a chance meeting on the grounds proves even more momentous for Rosie. 

Victoria Bell, Lord and Lady Ennis's young daughter, is desperately lonely. Though the children of the gentry seldom fraternize with locals, Lord Ennis arranges for Rosie to join in Victoria's school lessons. For Rosie, the opportunity is exhilarating yet isolating. Victoria's governess and aunt, Lady Louisa, objects to teaching a peasant girl. The other servants resent Rosie's escape from the drudgery of life below stairs. Bright, strong-willed Rosie finds herself caught between her own people and the rarefied air of Ennismore--especially as she grows closer to Victoria's older brother, Valentine.
As they near womanhood, the girls' friendship is interrupted. Victoria is bound for a coming out season in Dublin, and Rosie must find a way to support her family. But Ireland is changing too. The country's struggle for Home Rule, the outbreak of the Great War, and a looming Easter rebellion in Dublin all herald a new era. Not even Ennismore can escape unscathed. And for Rosie, family loyalty, love, friendship and patriotism will collide in life-changing ways, leading her through heartbreak and loss in search of her own triumphant independence.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

I was drawn to this book due to my recent obsession with Irish history and reading fiction set during it; I'm glad I picked the title up yet have some reservations. While the author excels in some key areas, I had an issue with some characterization and our primary relationship. Still, this stands as a beautiful depiction of an Ireland on the brink of change and two women caught up in it.

Descriptions of the timeframe and situation of our two heroines are lovingly described. I got a real sense for the differences between classes, the gentle splendor of a pastoral estate, and a capital city on the revolutionary brink. The author takes her time in presenting a setting the reader can experience and feel with the senses. The stark differences between the peaceful years before the Rising and the turbulent scenes of urban street fighting and death that followed make for an eye-opening difference in scenes. I can't credit the author enough for her fantastic use of the descriptors, making her readers really live the action and feel the emotions

Both leads also had distinct personalities all their own. The reader gets the real feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of both girls. They face their changing world and circumstances with courage and maturity. Both learn to think for themselves in a world that would keep them subjugated, especially Victoria. The most change is visible in her as she pursues a career, political belief, and relationship inappropriate to her old world.

I did have an issue with Rosie at times. She displays a strong courageous streak and incredible willpower to create a life on her terms, despite society’s expectations of a girl from her class. She works hard to find jobs to support herself and her family, finding a career and new life in politics and revolution. However, when it comes to her emotions and emotional maturity, I have to say there are times she felt like a dud. So many times she’d be faced with an emotional crisis and instead of dealing with it, she'd flounder and do nothing. Other times she face it with irrational anger and grudges, resulting in lashing out. This made her hard to empathize with.

I also took issue with Valentine. I had to admire his love for the land and wish to do the right thing. Yet, I also felt he went along with life too much, not striving for what he truly wished for. He let life happen to him rather than make his own way. This lack of ambition, both professionally and emotionally, led him to miss out on many opportunities to create a better life for himself and to achieve the relationships he desired.

Thankfully, as we approached the end of the book, Rosie and Valentine improved. Revolution and danger sparked something in them to finally act. Yet, this didn't translate into the relationship at any time. If you could call it a relationship… Not even at the very end, did I ever feel these two have any chemistry. All interactions, even emotional ones like confrontations or love confessions, felt flat and boring. Even being on opposite sides of a rebellion didn't add that extra spark of forbidden love. These two together are just boring, hands down.

The other relationships in the book at least save this title from relationship purgatory for me. Brandon and Victoria are just sweet together. Two people from different sides of the class barrier, their relationship has the element of the forbidden that Valentine's and Rosie's lacked. My heart couldn't help but soar as they strove to be together, despite war and societal expectations. I also adored Rosie's relationship with Cathal. Now there is a relationship with incredible chemistry and emotional turbulence from the past that the pair do a great job in overcoming, even despite Rosie's emotional issues. The issues and consequences in that relationship felt real. Why oh why couldn't that relationship have worked out and made it to the end?!

At least this book had a suspenseful tale of rebellion and character growth to carry it. Both Rosie and Victoria's maturation were a joy to partake in. Relationships with Brendan and Cathal also added spice and emotional depth to their characters. Even though Rosie fell flat emotionally for a large part of the book, at least by the end I felt some connection to her. However it's in the area of her relationship with Valentine and how long it took Rosie to develop that brought this work out. So in the end, this is a upper-to-middle of the road book for me. I'd be open to other works by this author in future, though, since she displays promise as a writer and suspenseful storyteller.

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

Friday, March 3, 2017

REVIEW: Summon the Queen by Jodi McIsaac

Summon the Queen
by Jodi McIsaac

Publisher: 47North
Page Count: 352
Release Date: January 17, 2017
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Amazon

First attention getter: loved book one!

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

It may be impossible to alter the past, but Irish revolutionary Nora O’Reilly is determined to try. Armed with a relic given to her by the goddess Brigid and joined by immortal Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, Nora is hurled back through time to the sixteenth century. There Nora and Fionn seek the infamous pirate queen Granuaile—Grace O’Malley—the one woman who may be fierce enough to stop Queen Elizabeth I’s tyranny over the Irish people.

But finding Granuaile is no easy feat, and securing her help is tougher still. Nora and Fionn face enemies at every turn, risking capture, separation, and even death in their quest to save Ireland and finally put an end to the centuries-long curse that torments Fionn. But as Nora’s connection to Fionn grows stronger, her loyalties are tested: she may not be able to save both her country and the man she’s grown to love.

In Jodi McIsaac’s thrilling and heartbreaking sequel to Bury the Living, Nora will once again battle time, history, and her own intense desires in an attempt to rewrite the past—and to change the fate of all she holds dear.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

This middle book of the trilogy keeps the magic flowing with Fionn and Nora traveling to late 1500s Ireland, the grip of Elizabethan England ever expanding westward. McIsaac knows how to keep the story moving forward, not an achievement every middle book of a trilogy can boast. This book whetted my appetite for more Nora and Fionn, all the while building up anticipation for book three.

The favorite part for me was the exploration into more of the Irish history of this period. I don't think it's a timeframe that gets written about much, especially Irish history. Yet, it's got so much potential. We're right on the cusp of Gaelic Ireland’s death and the complete domination by Britain.

McIsaac uses Nora, Fionn, and their magical journey as a fantastic foil through which to explore it. We get to meet influential figures from the time: Grace O'Malley, Hugh O’Connell, Donough O'Brien, and Elizabeth I herself. We also get a picture of a society on the brink, Irish chieftains and nobles fighting tooth and nail to keep their traditions alive and family land intact, to varying degrees of success. Some saw the benefit of cooperating with the English and some fought for the old ways with every fiber of there being. I was held in thrall seeing how each figure dealt with the timeframes perils, and my heart was torn by the plight of the everyday person caught in the middle.

The time spent in establishing Nora's and Fionn’s characters in book one really paid off in the second volume. With such well-established personalities, we were able to focus on their relationship, both working and personal. I enjoyed watching the romantic feelings for each other grow with each passing chapter, despite the many obstacles that arose against them. From wild magic to rivals to imprisonment, the author holds nothing back in throwing stones into the romantic pathway. Reading Nora and Fionn rise to the challenge made my heart soar. Even though by the end everything wasn't worked out nor rosy (far from it!), the reader could still get a sense that this romance might have a HAE after all.

I like the additions we got to the folklore and magical aspects as well. McIsaac really tested how far Fionn’s powers go, keeping him alive through some pretty ghastly circumstances. With the timeframe these two are going to next and the individual they're going to face, I have to wonder what's in store for this poor guy. That specific individual also will add a ton more to this area of the story, too; I definitely look forward to that. I loved getting more insight into the actual time travel stuff too; we learn the details about the real power behind that. What that means for Nora's family history and herself makes me twitch in anticipation for book three.

Between historical setting stuff, awesome characters themselves, a vibrant central relationship, and time travel magic, this book ticks off all the right boxes for me. Keeping strong despite being the middle of a trilogy, a position notorious for mediocrity, this book keeps the trilogy and narrative rocketing forward with suspense, emotion, and anticipatory glory. I hope to the high heavens that book three follows as quickly as two did to one; I don't think my anticipation can take any longer of a waiting period. LOL I highly recommend this book along with book one; I'll be the first in line for book three!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

REVIEW: Bury the Living by Jodi McIsaac

Bury the Living
by Jodi McIsaac

Publisher: 47North
Page Count: 302
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Kindle

First attention getter: genre and synopsis

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

Rebellion has always been in the O’Reilly family’s blood. So when faced with the tragic death of her brother during Northern Ireland’s infamous Troubles, a teenage Nora joined the IRA to fight for her country’s freedom. Now, more than a decade later, Nora is haunted by both her past and vivid dreams of a man she has never met.

When she is given a relic belonging to Brigid of Kildare, patron saint of Ireland, the mystical artifact transports her back eighty years—to the height of Ireland’s brutal civil war. There she meets the alluring stranger from her dreams, who has his own secrets—and agenda. Taken out of her own time, Nora has the chance to alter the fortunes of Ireland and maybe even save the ones she loves. In this captivating and adventurous novel from Jodi McIsaac, history belongs to those with the courage to change it.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

A tale filled with Irish folklore, history, and time travel, this book was tailor-made to please my palate. In the beginning, things started a bit slow. A lot of time was spent on building up Nora as a character and the background that developed her. Yet, as the story progresses, things picked up quickly, and the story railroaded to a suspenseful finale that left me on the edge of my seat.

I felt the time spent on Nora’s development was ultimately time well spent. The audience gets to see where her motivations come from and see her personality grow from a teen on the rocks to a mature, courageous woman. I felt like I got to know Nora from the inside out, which made the sometimes tragic events that happened feel all the more real.

I've been on an Irish history kick lately so this book was right up my alley. Traveling back to the height of the Irish civil war, Nora started her journey with an explosive situation as she experiences the horror of Ballyseedy. From that seminal event, the story takes the audience and Nora on a suspenseful tale of war, tragedy, family, and magic.

I love how the author explored the pain the Civil War generated, pitting friend against friend, family against each other. Seeing how women prisoners had it in Kilmainham Goal also made for fascinating reading. Exploring their struggle through disrespect, hunger strikes, and creating what they can of a life in prison resonated with me as I've been to Kilmainham Goal, seen the cells, and can't imagine their life. It gives you respect for these women and their struggle.

The hints of Irish folklore and magic added a nice, ethereal spice to the tale. The goddess Brighid is the vehicle for Nora's journey into the past, both as her motivation and the actual medium. Yet, the biggest presence is that of Fionn mac Cumhaill. His legend and struggles drive the story. Nora vows to help him with his curse; in the process, she finds herself growing closer to him on an emotional level. Who he is and his background make for unique challenges to a relationship.

As the start of a trilogy, this book stands solid. It gives a strong background in character development and mythology and Irish history. As the book ends, Nora and Fionn are headed even further into the past, embarking on a journey that proves to be interesting to say the least. I love how the author build up every element of the story and feel comfortable in saying that the rest of the trilogy will be as intriguing as well. I look forward to exploring them all.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

REVIEW : Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

Becoming Josephine
by Heather Webb

Publisher: Plume
Page Count: 310
Release Date: December 31, 2013
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Amazon

First attention getter: reviews by other bloggers

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

Rose Tascher sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris to trade her Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. She arrives exultant to follow her dreams of attending Court with Alexandre, her elegant aristocrat and soldier husband. But Alexandre dashes her hopes and abandons her amid the tumult of the French Revolution.

Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until the heads of her friends begin to roll.

After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious independence and the love of an awkward suitor. Little does she know, he would become the most powerful man of his century- Napoleon Bonaparte.

Becoming Josephine is a novel of one woman's journey to find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to find herself.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 5

I chose to indulge in another look at Josephine after reading an account that left a bad taste in my mouth. In the previous take, she is portrayed as a shallow and vain woman, only interested in her own survival and self-indulgence. I found few redeeming qualities in her. I didn't want that to be my last take on her so I cracked open this novel, knowing it had some great reviews. I'm glad I did as Heather Webb has woven an intricate tale of a woman caught in the maelstrom of change and revolution yet who is able to keep her personality intact, navigating cruel politics and personal relationships.

Josephine’s characterization in this book has saved her as a woman for me. She still has some of the hallmarks from the previous take on her I read; she still uses sex for survival of times and there still a hint of the self-serving there. Yet, in this portrayal, there’s so much more. She's a loving mother, a caring friend, compassionate to those less fortunate, and a sharp intelligence when it comes to politics and diplomatic maneuvering. As she navigates the agony of the French Revolution, a marriage on the rocks, and the turbulence of Napoleon’s Empire, one can't help but root for her, despite her flaws. I grew to appreciate her for all her aspects.

Besides Josephine, the item that really shines in this novel is the secondary characters. Where in the previous book secondaries are flat and stereotypical, they shine here. For example, Josephine's first husband Alexander is still a douche in the beginning in the way he treats her. Yet, he's also a passionate believer in change for the masses. He's a loving father and towards the end of his life, a friend to Josephine. They come to an understanding and part on good terms as the tragedy of the revolution enveloped them personally.

I also enjoyed the portrayal of Barras and Napoleon. Both are depicted as human with both virtues and vices. Barras isn't a sexual deviant; he's a caring friend who just enjoys the physical aspects of friendship and loving. Napoleon is still the intense autocratic leader of the French people. Yet, he's also a man who loves passionately, to the point of obsession. Even after his relationship with Josephine is altered irrevocably from betrayals, he still relies on her for diplomatic advice and cares for her deeply.

The whirlwind scene of revolution and bloodshed makes for a terrifying back drop to Josephine’s story. On both sides of the Atlantic, she faces death, destruction, and change. The author holds no punches back as she describes a world on the brink of upheaval. I felt like I was right there in the action along with Josephine, facing each scene of blood and tragedy. Webb also brings to life the glitter of balls and salons, the intellect and emotion of both things coming across sharp and clear.

This book breathed fresh air into Josephine, her fellow characters, and the bloody world of revolution. I found everything vivid in their portrayals, and the characters vibrant with life. I succeeded in my objective when I originally started this book; my understanding of Josephine and her life were revolutionized (pun intended LOL). This book was engrossing where previous was not. If you're looking for a look at Josephine and her life, look no further than this novel. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

REVIEW: The Fire By Night by Teresa Messineo

The Fire By Night
by Teresa Messineo

Publisher: William Morrow
Page Count: 320
Release Date: January 17, 2017
Format: ARC Trade Paperback

How got: LibraryThing giveaway ARC

First attention getter:synopsis

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

A powerful and evocative debut novel about two American military nurses during World War II that illuminates the unsung heroism of women who risked their lives in the fight—a riveting saga of friendship, valor, sacrifice, and survival combining the grit and selflessness of Band of Brothers with the emotional resonance of The Nightingale.

In war-torn France, Jo McMahon, an Italian-Irish girl from the tenements of Brooklyn, tends to six seriously wounded soldiers in a makeshift medical unit. Enemy bombs have destroyed her hospital convoy, and now Jo singlehandedly struggles to keep her patients and herself alive in a cramped and freezing tent close to German troops. There is a growing tenderness between her and one of her patients, a Scottish officer, but Jo’s heart is seared by the pain of all she has lost and seen. Nearing her breaking point, she fights to hold on to joyful memories of the past, to the times she shared with her best friend, Kay, whom she met in nursing school.

Half a world away in the Pacific, Kay is trapped in a squalid Japanese POW camp in Manila, one of thousands of Allied men, women, and children whose fates rest in the hands of a sadistic enemy. Far from the familiar safety of the small Pennsylvania coal town of her childhood, Kay clings to memories of her happy days posted in Hawaii, and the handsome flyer who swept her off her feet in the weeks before Pearl Harbor. Surrounded by cruelty and death, Kay battles to maintain her sanity and save lives as best she can . . . and live to see her beloved friend Jo once more.

When the conflict at last comes to an end, Jo and Kay discover that to achieve their own peace, they must find their place—and the hope of love—in a world that’s forever changed. With rich, superbly researched detail, Teresa Messineo’s thrilling novel brings to life the pain and uncertainty of war and the sustaining power of love and friendship, and illuminates the lives of the women who risked everything to save others during a horrifying time.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

Not holding back when it comes to the hard descriptions of war, this debut author has created a book worthy of losing a few hours in. Be prepared to ignore daily life and the need for sleep while reading this. There are a few issues holding this book back from true perfection, yet overall the book is in engrossing read.

I love how the author wasn't afraid to explore the truth about war, especially the harshness entailed with World War II. From the blood and pus of army medical tents to the starvation of Japanese internment camps in the Philippines, the author explores the true grit needed to survive such events. I also love how the author didn't let her characters escape such circumstances without some effect. Life decisions and goals grow and change as the girls experience pain and tragedy.

Of the two girl’s storyline, I enjoyed Jo the most. This might have been, in part, because more time is spent on her story; she is the more developed of the two. The lengths she goes to protect the men under her care and provide for them while stuck behind enemy lines shows true grit and survival instinct. She demonstrates the true heroism of the Army nurse during World War II. I found myself captivated by her story and by Jo herself. I loved how the author explored Jo’s PTSD as well; it’s refreshing to see an author explore how it affected the women in war as well as the men.

Kay's story wasn't as engrossing for me, which is odd given the circumstances of her story. She doesn't face less horrors then Jo; yet, I found myself more intrigued by the other girl. What we got, though, of Kay’s story did make for a fascinating tale. She faces the invasion of the Philippines and the tragedy of Japanese internment camps with the other Allies stuck behind Japanese lines. The few chapters we got of her (so short!) were packed with emotional turbulence and pain. Again, I love that the author showed the impact the events had on Kay's personality and outlook on life. She is forever changed by her experiences in World War II’s South Pacific theater.

Beyond the unevenness of story balance between our two women, the only other issue I have is the unexpected scene shifts the author makes. Sometimes happening even mid paragraph, the author will jump locations and even timelines with no warning to the reader. I feel the author was trying to go for flashbacks. But the absolute no warning that we're going to shift tales threw me from the narrative more than once. A subtle break, more space between paragraphs or a small paragraph break bar or something would've been appreciated. Maybe this is a personal thing. All the reviews I've read of this book don't mention this aspect at all; maybe it's just me.

Despite those few small issues, I found the story a worthy addition to the body of World War II historical fiction out there. The reader is drawn into the story of army nurses who face the same dangers and pain as the soldiers yet were rarely given the respect of the same. Our two girls grow incredibly, maturing and changing as they face tragedy after tragedy. The high emotional tone of the book draws you into their story and makes you root for them, chapter by chapter. Even though I was thrown from the narrative now and then by those ambushing breaks, I still devoured this book and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys World War II historical fiction.

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

Monday, February 6, 2017

REVIEW: Two Empresses by Brandy Purdy

Two Empresses
by Brandy Purdy

Publisher: Kensington
Page Count: 384
Release Date: January 31, 2017
Format: Kindle ARC

How got: ARC from NetGalley

First attention getter: synopsis

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

1779, France. On the island paradise of Martinique, two beautiful, well-bred cousins have reached marriageable age. Sixteen-year-old Rose must sail to France to marry Alexander, the dashing Vicomte de Beauharnais. Golden-haired Aimee will finish her education at a French convent in hopes of making a worthy match.

Once in Paris, Rose’s illusions are shattered by her new husband, who casts her off when his mistress bears him a son. Yet revolution is tearing through the land, changing fortunes—and fates—in an instant, leaving Rose free to reinvent herself. Soon she is pursued by a young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who prefers to call her by another name: Josephine.

Presumed dead after her ship is attacked by pirates, Aimee survives and is taken to the Sultan of Turkey’s harem. Among hundreds at his beck and call, Aimee’s loveliness and intelligence make her a favorite not only of the Sultan, but of his gentle, reserved nephew. Like Josephine, the newly crowned Empress of France, Aimee will ascend to a position of unimagined power. But for both cousins, passion and ambition carry their own burden.

From the war-torn streets of Paris to the bejeweled golden bars of a Turkish palace, Brandy Purdy weaves some of history’s most compelling figures into a vivid, captivating account of two remarkable women and their extraordinary destinies.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 2

My introduction to this author, this book stood out as hard to finish and left a bad taste in my mouth. The only thing the author got right, for the most part, was the scene setting and a bit on one characterization. Beyond that, I hope this book isn't an example of what I can expect from other works by this writer. If so, I think I'll skip those.

One area the author excelled, again for the most part, was the scene setting and historical details. Tropical Martinique, revolutionary Paris, and exotic Istanbul all stand out as unique settings. Lush with details and vivid descriptions, I could easily see the scenes portrayed and enjoy the background at least.

However, even here the author has an issue. There were times where her settings came off as almost comical and caricatures of the real thing. Maybe she was trying too hard at description, but it backfired on her. Revolutionary Paris, at times, seemed way too sexualized. Some of the descriptions of Josephine's experiences between marrying Napoleon and losing her first husband are comical to say the least, though I don't think the author meant it to be. Maybe her portrayals have some basis in historical fact; I’m not a historian for the time. However, her portrayals didn't come over as fact.

The author also has a problem with the Sultans court and his harem in Istanbul. Again, the scenes come off as caricatures and stereotypes of the real thing. I mean, Aimee's story comes right out of Arabian nights! The way the harem women dressed/acted, the details of daily life, and just the overall atmosphere seemed unreal. Again, I am not a scholar for this time or locale, so maybe the author had some basis for her portrayals. But if so, that didn't come across on the page.

And then there are the characterizations. I'm sorry to say that Josephine is shallow, vapid, has no common sense, and is a slut, not a descriptor that I like to use but fits the bill here. Every action Josephine takes is motivated for her own self-preservation or to make her life easier. Her portrayal makes her unsympathetic in the extreme. While maybe realistic to a degree, Josephine made me hate her more than empathize with her.

Aimee is kinda the opposite. Showing at least some intelligence, her character is far more sympathetic than Josephine’s. However, there's only a slight improvement. Aimee, unfortunately, goes to the other extreme of the character spectrum. She's too perfect! And until the very end, she's a freaking doormat. She doesn't actually do anything, the events of the story happened to her. She just sits there and either observes or just reacts. However, at least at the end, she did something proactive. That saved her storyline for me.

And then, to add one more stick to this fire pile of horror, the author completely screwed up her story balance. One of the things that first drew me to this title was the tale of two women caught up in the flow of history and how they made their way to places of power in different societies.

Well, this book isn’t about that. This book is about Josephine with a few side chapters about Aimee. A shame as, of the two, Aimee is easily the more enjoyable of a character. So much time is spent on Josephine’s story that Aimee is left on the wayside. I feel that if more time had been spent on Aimee’s tale, she might not have been as much of a doormat as she was; she might've had more time to actually do something. We would have gotten a fascinating tale of survival and harem politics rather than the sexcapades of Josephine. Missed opportunity there, author.

As you can see, my ultimate emotion with this title was disappointment. I had high hopes of a tale rife with excitement and exploring two women, one of whom have been lost to history. What I got was a messy soup of over-the-top historical scenes, extreme and unenjoyable characterizations, and a story balance that was a disservice to both women. If this is an example of the author’s usual writing, I don't think I'll be hunting out her other books immediately. There are better offers out there. Maybe this is just a low point; I'll let you be the judge. Yet, I wouldn't recommend this author off this book alone.

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

REVIEW: Venus in Winter by Gillian Bagwell

Venus in Winter
by Gillian Bagwell

Publisher: Berkley
Page Count: 448
Release Date: July 2, 2013
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Amazon

First attention getter: obscure female historical figure

Synopsis:

From GoodReads

On her twelfth birthday, Bess of Hardwick receives the news that she is to be a waiting gentlewoman in the household of Lady Zouche. Armed with nothing but her razor-sharp wit and fetching looks, Bess is terrified of leaving home. But as her family has neither the money nor the connections to find her a good husband, she must go to facilitate her rise in society.

When Bess arrives at the glamorous court of King Henry VIII, she is thrust into a treacherous world of politics and intrigue, a world she must quickly learn to navigate. The gruesome fates of Henry’s wives convince Bess that marrying is a dangerous business. Even so, she finds the courage to wed not once, but four times. Bess outlives one husband, then another, securing her status as a woman of property. But it is when she is widowed a third time that she is left with a large fortune and even larger decisions—discovering that, for a woman of substance, the power and the possibilities are endless . . .

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 2.5

A book purported to be about Bess of Hardwick, I looked forward to exploring the life of such an important figure in female history during the Elizabethan age. From what I've gleaned from Wikipedia and other research sources, I knew her to come from rough beginning to rise as one of the wealthiest women of her era, ancestress of throne claimants. However, what I got from this book was the history of the Tudors through the eyes of an onlooker. NOT what I wanted from this title…

I will say the author does a great job with historical details and scene setting. I got a clear mental picture of the glamour inherent to Tudor courts. The sumptuous fabrics of court costumes and the splendor of palaces and castles were easily visualized. This part of the book was experienced rather than just read.

The bits actually about Bess were intriguing. The author started out well, giving us a family situation hovering on the brink of poverty and debtors prison. Bess is lucky enough to find connections that launch her into court life where she finds opportunities to better herself and help her family. Throughout the book, Bess shows some intelligence and ability in being able to balance the dangers of intrigue and power-shifts as Henry the Eighth's family and courtiers vie for the throne. She protects and provides for her family, husband, and children as best she can in an ever shifting world.

However, I felt the author spent so little time on Beth herself that this book shouldn't be touted as a work on her. More time was spent talking about the history of the Tudor family, the various events in the different reigns of that dynasty. Little was shown on how those events impacted Beth and her family; it seemed like I was presented with a timeline of the various Tudor reigns rather than a book on Bess of Hardwick.

Despite having shown some intelligence, Beth’s characterization overall is of a doormat. She's too perfect. She's the perfect wife, perfect mother, perfect friend, and perfect subject. She's ever loyal and ever true. At least seeing her beginning with some aspects of her intelligence showcased saved her character in this book.

And then the author makes the added insult in neglecting to include the most dramatic and interesting part of Bess' life, that of her last marriage and her involvement with the jailing of Mary Queen of Scots. Of all her marriages, this one probably was the rockiest and most problematic. I think the including of this part of the story of her life would have helped elevate my doormat image of her. I think the author missed a golden opportunity by excluding this part of her life. It would have lifted the book from mediocrity into a truly enjoyable historical fiction, on a woman that stood out in history.

From the author notes, the author makes it clear that she wanted to concentrate on Beth early life. So the exclusion of that last part of her life, I suppose I can understand. However, this book still stands out only for how bland it is. Concentrating more on individuals that have had volumes and volumes written about them, I think the author missed the boat when it came to the opportunity on portraying a historical woman that could stand to have more exploration done on her herself. What little I got only made me thirst for more, but what I got to round out those wonderful glimpses was a doormat of a woman who is too perfect to be real. If you're looking for a light read and not expecting much, maybe give this book a look. However, I wouldn't go out of my way to look for a copy.

Friday, February 3, 2017

REVIEW: Witch Hunt: Of The Blood by various

Witch Hunt: Of The Blood
by Devin O'Branagan, Suzanne Hayes Campbell, Keri Lake, Krista Walsh, K. L. Schwengel

Publisher
: self
Page Count: 364
Release Date: December 8, 2012
Format: Kindle

How got: personal buy via Amazon

First attention getter: enjoyed book 1

Synopsis:

From GoodReads:

Five novellas based on Devin O'Branagan's bestselling novel, Witch Hunt.

The anthology begins with O'Branagan's own novella about the Hawthorne matriarch, Vivian. She and her fellow British witches work together to prevent a Nazi invasion during World War II. Then there is Colonial maiden, Bridget, who struggles with the guilt of failing her family in Salem, 1692. Her younger sister, Prissy, mysteriously disappears and finds another magical world. Julia, torn by family loyalties, love, and her spiritual quest, pays a huge price to continue the bloodline. And Miranda uses her powers against the great influenza outbreak of 1918 - but finds the ultimate foe is prejudice against her kind.

Discover what was left out of Witch Hunt and revisit your favorite characters with these exciting novellas.The story isn't done until the battle's lost and won.

My Thoughts:

Star Rating - 4

I was already a fan of the first book in the series that I read back in October on my family road trip. That book was one of my best reads of 2016; so needless to say, this collection of short stories that explore some of the secondary characters from that book was a must read for me. For the most part, it held true to its promise, but it lacks the magic (sorry for the pun LOL) of the original work.

I enjoyed exploring the background and personality quirks of some of the lesser characters from the original. I think Vivian especially benefited from a second look. In the original, she comes off as a bit of a bitch with little to recommend her. Yet, her tale in the collection gave us more of a look at why her personality developed as it did and why her distrust of non-witches is so strong. The actions that she takes in book one are more understandable after watching her core personality develop.

My favorite tale though, hands-down, is Madeline. The idea of exploring the Spanish flu and how witchcraft, or the illusion there of, might influence the actions of those in that time period was fascinating to explore. Madeline herself also made the story. I loved her dedication to her craft and her vulnerability when love finally found her. It was the end of that tale, though, that cemented my love. The author showed incredible bravery to go where she did, and this reader, at least, appreciated the journey. Definitely have a hanky handy for this story.

I also liked that the tales in this book, for the most part, followed in the footsteps of the original in their tone. The first book stood out in that it wasn't afraid to explore harsh and tragic themes in all their blaring light. The tales in this anthology follow suit. Not every story has a happy ending, and the one that does, isn't smooth sailing. We get to see an early modern version of a witchhunt, character death, and horrific pain. These tales will break your heart just as much as the original book does, so be forewarned on that point.

My one disappointment for this book, though, was that for some of the characters, I didn't feel as invested with their stories as others. Priscilla I actually found a bit boring. I guess compared to all the drama and tragedy of her other family members, her tale was fairly tame. I also had a hard time connecting to Julia's tale, even though it was loaded with as much drama and despair as Vivian’s.

Though not all the characters grabbed me as strongly as others, this collection of character pieces still stand as a worthy follow up to book one. Secondary characters are more fleshed out and the overall mythology of the witch world Devin's created is added to. If you liked book one, definitely check out this one!