Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

Pages: 320
Released: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Penguin
Received: Finished copy from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads 

I was hoping for a spooky, twisty Gothic thriller and that's exactly what I got. Creeping, menacing supernatural happenings stalk Elsie and the terror builds steadily until the shattering climax and the final, horrifying ending. This is in no way a feel-good book, but it is a fabulous read for chilly winter nights or Halloween.

The story alternates between three different time periods: Elsie after the climax, Elsie leading up to the climax (both in the 1800s), and an older series of events set in the 1600s that provide insight into the supernatural happenings Elsie battles against. All three sections were gripping and the slow unraveling of information was well spun across these sections.

A part of me does wish everything had been explained a little more. In the broad strokes, the story is immersive, gripping, and satisfying. If I start to think more deeply on events, however, I come away with questions and some events that are only tenuously explained. But, really, that doesn't matter and didn't impact my enjoyment at all. I don't mind a little unexplained happenings in supernatural stories, and that does seem to be par for the course in Gothic novels to an extent.

Bottom line

Highly enjoyable. I am looking forward to reading more from Laura Purcell.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Book Review: The Secrets She Carried by Barbara Davis

Pages: 368
Released: October 1, 2013
Publisher: NAL (Penguin)
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

A dual era mystery with touches of romance and long-hidden family secrets should have been the perfect book, but perhaps suffers in comparison to books I've read previously. The Secrets She Carried had so many elements in common with my beloved Tradd Street series (Southern setting, the gorgeous writer male lead, and the prickly female lead) and I think that worked against it. I couldn't help but compare the two, and Secrets just didn't measure up.

The mystery was extremely predictable, and so the unraveling of it had less desperate "I need to find out what happened!" and a lot more "finally" when it was all revealed. Still, it's a dual era mystery with shades of history and a slower burn romance, so despite my frustrations with the similarities and less-than-inspiring mystery, I did still enjoy it.

As often is the case for me, I liked the historical sections more than the modern sections, though I think in this case part of that had to do with the way each section was written. The modern sections are third-person past-tense, whereas the past sections are first-person present-tense. I wish they had both been first-person past-tense and I think the writing style hindered my immersion and enjoyment. The characterizations in the historical sections were a lot richer and it was easier to become invested in the heroine and loathe the villainess.

Bottom line

I'd give it a solid good. I'll probably find myself picking up another book by this author at some point.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Book Review: My Name is Victoria by Lucy Worsley


Pages: 372
Publisher: Bloomsbury/Candlewick
Released: February 8, 2018/May 8, 2018
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

Here's the thing, I really don't like reading about Queen Victoria. There are certain historical figures I adore and just click with (Marie Antoinette, Mary I, Cleopatra), and others that I have a really hard time getting on board with. Victoria falls solidly in the latter camp. Even Carolyn Meyer couldn't get me to like her.

So Lucy Worsley has done what I had previously believed was impossible and made me actually like Victoria. Or, well, not quiet. But she wrote a book about Victoria that I was able to really like. I still don't like Victoria.

How did she pull it off? In part because of a narrative approach I usually dislike: the "through the eyes of a servant" narration. More points to you, Ms. Worsley. In this case it really worked. Victoria's irritating personality was tempered by the fact that she wasn't the main character and that Miss V is fully aware of how annoying Victoria can be.

And, finally, for the third "usually I hate this, but Lucy Worsley made me like it" thing that happened...well, I can't tell you about it. It would be a spoiler. I'll say there's a historical twist that isn't true, but gosh do I wish it was. I imagine this is something that readers are either going to love or hate. Usually I would hate it because It's Not Real, but I wish it was real so much that I'm giving it a pass.

Anyway, chapters are short, the narrative is easy breezy, and the characters are sufficiently real that I cared about them. Miss V slowly comes to realize and come to terms with the people surrounding her and all their shades of grey. I really enjoyed this aspect and my heart broke for her as the people around her were hurt by the system or orchestrated the system. Miss V's shifting feelings regarding her father, his role, and his character was devastating. 

I appreciated the small details that were added in that gave the story depth and a sense of place and people. I didn't know until after I had finished the book that Lucy Worsley is a historian, and a fun one at that. A ton of her documentaries are available on Youtube and I've since spent many happy hours watching them.



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: Two Modern Austen-Inspired Stories

Scones and Sensibility by Lindsay Eland
Pages: 320
Released: December 2009
Publisher: Egmont
Received: Library
Age: Middle Grade
Rating: 3.5/4 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

I really, really enjoyed this book. It was light, fun, sweet, charming...all those words that describe that kind of book I seek out when I just want something nice to read. There was just enough relationship drama (friendships, family) to make this engaging and touching without being annoying.

Polly's love of all the classic kindred spirit books (think Anne of Green Gables, Jane Austen's hits, etc.) made everything extra endearing and I loved every reference she made to all my own well-worn favorites. Her tendency to ape the social norms and ways of speaking during those times was spot on and definitely one of the things I loved about this book. The fact that she works in a family-owned bakery was icing on the cake (yes, yes, I know, that's a terrible pun but I just couldn't avoid it). Highly recommended, especially if you love books like The Penderwicks, any of the above mentioned classics, Keeping the Castle, or Stephanie Kate Strohm's books.

  
Prada & Prejudice by Mandy Hubbard
Pages: 286
Released: June 2009
Publisher: Razorbill
Received: Library
Age: Young Adult
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Goodreads

I'm mixed on this one. On one hand, the main character was super annoying and could not stop pushing her modern ways of thinking on everyone and then getting hugely offended with them when they held beliefs in line with their time period. The pride, prejudice, and jumping to assumed conclusions that Jane Austen cautioned about in her original story were definitely Lessons to Learn for Callie. She was just behaving so stupidly and rudely, and even if she was ultimately right in some ways, her methods made her wrong, wrong, wrong.  It was painful to watch her blunder around like a bull in a china shop.

And yet, this was still a fun, light time travel story with romance and balls and dresses and endearing friendships and a hint of sweet romance. So. I'm a sucker for all that and despite Callie's groan-inducing moments, overall this was exactly the light, sweet, forgettable-but-enjoyable romp I was hoping it would be.


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

DNF Explanation: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Pages: 313
Released: January 2, 2018
Publisher: Berkley Books (Penguin Random House)
Received: E-ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
DNF: 31%

Jennifer Ashley is probably better known for her romance novels, but she does branch off occasionally and that's when she piques my interest. My one experience with her was her historical fiction take on Elizabeth I and I was pretty impressed with her storytelling, characterizations, and historical detail. So I had high hopes for Death Below Stairs.

The good? Just like in her Elizabeth book, Jennifer Ashley focuses on a historical craft and brings it wholly to life. In the Elizabeth book it was fashion and sewing, but in Death Below Stairs it's all about the food. The main character serves as the cook in a fancy British house ala Downton Abbey and the descriptions of the dishes she makes are detailed and divine. Honestly, I would have enjoyed the book if it was entirely about the cooking. The Downton Abbey feel of the upstairs, downstairs relationships and the big house was charming and thoroughly enjoyable.

So why the DNF? Mainly two reasons: I didn't like the main character and I didn't like her romance. The character of the main character didn't ring true to me and she was far too Strong Female Character for her own good. In an early scene she boldly sasses the master of the house while standing in defense of one of the servant girls who he occasionally likes to get handsy with. Now, don't get me wrong, she was in the right and the master of the house was very much portrayed as the Villain of the Piece, but it all felt so contrived. She also ran off half-cocked, which is behavior that would be more likely to get her fired than not. Which, a woman in her position would know and therefore not likely behave in such an eye-roll-inducing way. I know these traits are supposed to make us root for her, but it really just made me shake my head at her and find her off-putting and not realistic.

And then there's the romantic lead. He's a scoundrelly guy with Secrets who engages in work that isn't exactly above board. He has a network of spies and secret handshakes and disguises and he felt like such a contrived caricature and I just could not care less about him. He and the main character apparently have a history together, which is hinted at very strongly (which, really, the purpose was to hamfistedly direct the reader to the prequel novella) and yet he keeps so many secrets from her. I imagine this is supposed to make him seem dangerous and mysterious and therefore alluring, but I feel like I'm too old for that crap and I just want him to cut the childish games and be trustworthy, honest, and stable for her.

To be fair, much of this is simply a case of "wrong reader" as opposed to any real flaw in the book. The romantic lead is very much the adult version of the Dickensian street scamp, and that's a character I tend not to like very much.

Anyway, then, underneath all this, there is a murder mystery. I was interested in following this part of the story, but between the unappealing main characters and historically unrealistic vibe, I found it hard to stick with the story.

Bottom line

Readers who click with the main character and romantic lead should find enjoyment with Death Below Stairs. There are a lot of elements here I can get on board with and I want to love this series, but I think it's probably just not for me.




Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Book Reviews: Merrie Haskell

I reread The Princess Curse at the end of 2017 and I remembered how much I loved the book and how I had shunned Merrie Haskell's two follow up books because they weren't the longed-for sequels to The Princess Curse. I know, I make strange reading decisions.

I decided to suck up my disappointment that they weren't sequels and give them a shot in their own right. And now I'm sad that they don't have sequels and that I don't have anymore Merrie Haskell books to read. At this point, she's an auto-buy author for me.

Handbook for Dragon Slayers 
Pages: 336
Released: May 28, 2013
Publisher: Harper Collins
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Let's see...beautiful imagery, a scrappy band of friends, dragons, legends, subtle nods to The Princess Curse and touching lessons learned. Plus, magical horses. And a creepy dash of Blue Beard. There's so much packed into this slim book that it's hard to describe everything and do it justice. Merrie Haskell has a knack for referencing a zillion different stories while creating a story that is wholly her own. The result is a multi-layered treasure hunt and a story with texture and depth. Highly recommended.
 

The Castle Behind Thorns
Pages: 332
Released: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I put this book off because I thought it would be boring. And, granted, it is a slower book. There isn't a ton of action. There's a lot of slow unraveling. The slower pace is a positive thing though and it isn't a boring kind of slow. It's a quiet, peaceful kind of slow. More like Juliet Marillier's Heart's Blood. The characters in this book needed to heal, and that is a process that takes time. The emotional healing of the characters ran parallel with the slow mending of the broken castle and made for a lovely, touching story. A book to sink into, savor, and let it work its slow-burn magic.

 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

DNF Explanations: Path of Fate and Haven

Path of Fate by Diana Pharoah Francis
ARC from NetGalley
Goodreads

I originally added this series to my TBR because it was recommended for readers who like the Firekeeper series by Jane Lindskold. Mostly I'm guessing the link between the two is because they both have human main characters who are able to speak to animals. Maybe there's more of a connection?

What I do know is that the political system of the Firekeeper series is interesting, and the political system in Path of Fate was annoying. Firekeeper's felt like the world was created for the story. Path of Fate feels like the world and story were created for the author to send a thinly veiled message about the real world. And I don't want that. So, DNF.

Haven by Mary Lindsey
Finished copy from publisher
Goodreads

I feel guilty about DNF-ing this book. It came, unexpectedly, with a fancy package filled with confetti, a mug, candy, and other treats. So, in deference to materialism, of which I am always a sucker, I dropped everything and started reading Haven.

Unfortunately, Haven was written a few years too late for me. Had this been written during the Twilight craze, Haven would have been a smash hit. The characters are generally good people and it was easy to care about them. There's a heavy dose of "lost puppy, adoptive loving family" syndrome, and I'm a sucker for that. The paranormal aspects were typical, but in a good way. The teen angst was heavy, including a fairly prominent romance that would have likely had me swooning ten years ago.

Maybe I'm too old for this story. Maybe the Twilight craze is too far in the past. Whatever the reason, Haven seemed like a good book that I have generally positive feelings for and very little interest in actually reading at this point in my life. Readers who are still searching for the next Twilight should definitely check out Haven.


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