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The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg

Source: Lake Union Publishing and TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 174 pgs
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The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg is set in 1920s Singapore, and Agnes Hussein is a teenager living in a rundown family palace, known as Kampong Glam.  The palace is a symbol of the cooperation of among the British and her long dead ancestors, but some view the palace as symbol of bribery by the British.  She is not Singaporean only, but also part British and part Chinese.  Her family is eccentric, and to make ends meet, the family relies on her British grandfather’s pension and the small sum they earn from their equally eccentric borders.  Rosenberg has created a character in Agnes who is a bit all over the place in her thoughts and in her actions, much like real teens, and she’s the strongest part of the novel.

“Perhaps, in order to start afresh, we needed to do away with all the old structures, the old assumptions.  Would these precious old things need to be torn down in order to make way for the new? I had to admit to myself in all honesty that I did not know the answer.” (page 146 ARC)

While there are elements of the 1920s in the novel such as Agnes’ comments on her own hairstyle and clothes, there is little else to suggest the time period, other than her grandfather’s triumphs in the Great War.  Agnes is naive in many ways about men and the political workings of her home nation.  She is like most teens; she falls quickly in love, is blind to the loyalty right in front of her, and is oblivious to the plights and machinations of those around her.  While a quick and easy read, the reader could feel separate from the characters and the main action of the novel, and the novel may have been better served with a focus on the grandfather or her uncle.

The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg is a coming of age novel that draws in some elements of Singapore and the 1920s, and Agnes is a typical teenager trying to make her own way in the world without offending tradition and without giving up her own dreams.  While she is naive about the larger world around her, she remains loyal to her family and her ancestry as she strives to earn money enough to help keep up their home.  With a little more background on the 1920s and the relationship between Britain and Singapore, this novel could have been fantastic, but as it is, it was just a good read about a young teen growing up.

About the Author:

Liz Rosenberg is the author of more than thirty award-winning books, including novels and nonfiction for adults, poetry collections, and books for young readers. She has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Paterson Prize, the Bank Street Award, the Center for the Book Award, and a Fulbright fellowship in Northern Ireland in 2014. She is a professor of English and creative writing at Binghamton University, in upstate New York, where she has received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. She has guest-taught all over the United States and abroad, and has written a book column for the Boston Globe for the past twenty-five years. Her previous novels, Home Repair and The Laws of Gravity, have been bestsellers in the United States, Europe, and Canada. She and her husband, David, were raised on Long Island, and went to the same summer camp at ages seven and eight, respectively.

34th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

67th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

The Paradise Tree by Elena Maria Vidal

Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Paperback, 252 pgs
I am an Amazon Affiliate

The Paradise Tree by Elena Marie Vidal recounts the real life of Daniel O’Connor, the author’s great-great-great-grandfather, based upon his own letters and writing and family lore and woven into a work of historical fiction.  Daniel O’Connor was a young man during the potato famine in Ireland, and watched as his parents struggled against starvation, political wills, and bigotry.  Even as he had dreams of becoming a doctor, laws in the land of his birth forbade his ascension in the profession, despite his skill in setting bones and working as an apprentice with other non-Catholic physicians.  After running out of the funds to attend medical school, he set his sights on a new life — one that would take him across the Atlantic into the harsh wilderness of Ontario, Canada, in the late 1880s.

Vidal has crafted a tale based on fact, and although it is fictionalized, the prose has a very non-fiction feel, which leaves readers at a distance from the characters.  The factual feel of the novel can fall flat for readers looking to connect with the characters, especially as the years pass along and the interactions are few in dialogue and often seem more like a recounting of the past.  Daniel and his family are separated from one another for a long time as he makes his way in a new country and builds his own family, but eventually, he is reunited with some of his kin as they follow him to the new world.  Vidal does an excellent job of demonstrating the lifeline that the Catholic faith becomes for the O’Connor family and how it binds them together in the toughest of circumstances.

The Paradise Tree by Elena Marie Vidal is about the perseverance of family and faith in the face of a number of struggles, though at times the prose is a bit too dry.  The O’Connor family not only faces hardships in Ireland, but in Ontario as they literally cut out a life for themselves from the wilderness.  They must battle against prejudices toward Catholics in both settings and strive to be their own guidance in their faith, as there are few churches close enough to them to tend to their religious needs.

About the Author:

Elena Maria Vidal grew up in the countryside outside of Frederick, Maryland, “fair as the garden of the Lord” as the poet Whittier said of it. As a child she read so many books that her mother had to put restrictions on her hours of reading. During her teenage years, she spent a great deal of her free time writing stories and short novels.

Elena graduated in 1984 from Hood College in Frederick with a BA in Psychology, and in 1985 from the State University of New York at Albany with an MA in Modern European History. In 1986, she joined the Secular Order of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Elena taught at the Frederick Visitation Academy and worked as a private tutor as well as teaching children’s etiquette classes. During a trip to Austria in 1995 she visited the tomb of Empress Maria Theresa in the Capuchin crypt in Vienna. Afterwords she decided to finish a novel about Marie-Antoinette she had started writing ten years before but had put aside. In 1997 her first historical novel TRIANON was published by St. Michaels Press. In 2000, the sequel MADAME ROYALE was published, as well as the second edition of TRIANON, by The Neumann Press. Both books quickly found an international following which continues to this day. In 2010, the third edition of TRIANON and the second edition of MADAME ROYALE were released.

In November 2009, THE NIGHT’S DARK SHADE: A NOVEL OF THE CATHARS was published by Mayapple Books. The new historical novel deals with the controversial Albigensian Crusade in thirteenth century France. Elena has been a contributor to Canticle Magazine, Touchstone Magazine, The National Observer, and The American Conservative. In April 2009 she was a speaker at the Eucharistic Convention in Auckland, New Zealand. In August 2010 Elena spoke at The Catholc Writers Conference in Valley Forge, PA. She is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild and the Eastern Shore Writers Association. She currently lives in Maryland with her family.  For more information please visit Elena’s website and blog.  You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

23rd book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Ireland)

 

 

33rd book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

65th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

3rd book for the Ireland Reading Challenge.

The Other Girl by Pam Jenoff

Source: NetGalley/Kindle
ebook, 21 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

The Other Girl by Pam Jenoff is a complementary story to her new novel, The Winter Guest (my review), in which Maria finds herself married and estranged from her father in rural Biekowice, Poland, during WWII.  Maria, who is married to Piotr, finds that she is an outsider at her in-laws home, and is unable to share even her sense of loss with them after he was conscripted by the Germans.  She fills her days avoiding the scrutiny of her mother-in-law, and dreaming about what life will be like when her husband returns.  She feels alone now that she’s severed herself from her father, whom she caught selling information to the Nazis.  However, her father’s betrayal is the least of the secrets she will uncover.

“War had nipped at the edges of their tiny village, Biekowice, changing little things first, like the requirement of registration cards.  Later had come the food requisitioning that left the market so bare.  Piotr’s family had not been affected as badly as most — the farm produced enough simple fare to keep their stomachs full.”

While she lives in relative comfort, Maria must remain strong for herself and a young Jewish girls she discovers hiding in the family barn.  Maria is a young wife who is still finding her place in her new family, while at the same time trying to make sense of the families around her who turn in their neighbors or make other deals with the Nazis to survive.  When she is faced with the dilemma of a little Jewish girl, it is clear that her father’s betrayal propels her to take a different action.  The Other Girl by Pam Jenoff expounds upon a minor character in her novel, The Winter Guest, giving readers a glimpse into how much the paranoia and fear had begun to permeate even the smallest villages as Nazis traipsed through the city squares and fought through the countryside.  It’s too bad that this story is so short; it would make a good novel.

About the Author:

Pam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.  Visit her Website and Facebook page.

22nd book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Poland)

 

 

 

32nd book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

27th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff

Source: Diary of an Eccentric
Paperback, 352 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff explores the bonds between sisters, particularly twins, and how those bonds can be tested and crack beneath the pressures of war and persecution.  The Nowak twins live in a small fictitious town in Poland, Biekowice, and are charged with raising their two younger sisters and brother after the death of their father.  Ruth is considered the more feminine and nurturing of the sisters, while Helena was adventurous, gathering wood and setting animal traps with their father from a young age.  Ruth was the first to fall in love and have her heart broken, and this heartbreak helped to define her views on family and loyalty, while Helena has yet to fall in love and does the best she can to provide for the family as the Nazis move across Poland and take over not only Krakow, but smaller villages along the way.

“As I stroll beneath the timeless canopy of clouds, the noises of the highway and the planes overhead fade.  I am no longer shuffling and bent, but a young woman striding upward through the woods, surrounded by those who once walked with me.”  (page 8 ARC)

Jenoff is a talented story-teller and her ability to transport readers into the harsh conditions of a rural town in Poland during WWII is nothing short of miraculous.  Readers will feel the biting cold, the harsh stares of neighbors looking for information to sell to the Nazis to get ahead, and feel the warmth of the Nowak family even as it struggles to stay together.  Ruth weighs loyalty above everything, while Helena places her family’s happiness above her own for so long that when she sees happiness for herself within her grasp, she wants to hold it close and not have to share it.  Like all sisters, Ruth and Helena share the burdens of bringing up their siblings alone, keeping food on the table and checking on their mother who is in a Krakow hospital.

Helena stumbles upon an American paratrooper in the woods and the Nowak family’s trajectory becomes skewed.  Jenoff has created twin sisters who are connected but seeking their own individuality while keeping their family together.  These dynamic women must face their own fears, as well as the reality of the WWII knocks on their door, literally.  The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff demonstrates how the unexpected can be a blessing and a curse, how families can pull together even when they don’t really like one another at that moment, and how guilt can compel us forward to make things right.

This book was phenomenal, well told, and would be a great pick for book clubs — also it is likely to make the 2014 Best of list.

About the Author:

Pam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.  Visit her Website and Facebook page.

21st book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Poland)

 

 

 

 

31st book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

26th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

This Is How I’d Love You by Hazel Woods

Source: Penguin
Paperback, 320 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

This Is How I’d Love You by Hazel Woods is a WWI novel set in 1917 that demonstrates the power of the written word.  New York Times columnist Sacha Dench, who graciously agrees to be a pen-pal and chess opponent to Charles Reid, is forced to resign from his position as sentiment in the United States leans more toward entering the war than remaining isolated from it.  He and his daughter, Hensley, leave quickly for Hillsboro, New Mexico, to take up the residence of a former mine supervisor.  Dench’s letters to Reid are philosophical debates about the justice of the war and its final outcome, but they are also a test of wills on a chess board that mirror those tensions.  Hensley is intrigued by the letter and utterly infatuated with a play director in New York City, but when she’s forced to decide between staying in New York with her brother or go to New Mexico, she chooses to leave.  Like the notes in the margins of her father’s letters, her life is lived on the outskirts of the proper role she is meant to play as a young 17-year-old woman without a mother.

“Mr. Dench has taken one of Charles’s pawns in the third move of the game, their bishops facing one another and the next move of utter importance.  Charles must be wary of the temptation to play too aggressively, putting his own pieces at risk in the next turn, which, he senses, is probably his opponent’s strategy.  A classic lure.  But playing like this, without body language or eye contact, is a new challenge.” (page 5 ARC)

It is striking how Woods uses the game of chase to depict the art of war on many levels, from the war between Dench and Reid’s competing philosophies to the difficulties in playing chess without the social cues to guide him as they would in hand-to-hand combat.  Reid is not so much a soldier as an ambulance driver from the United States who signed up to make something of his life, rather than live the life expected of him by his rich parents.  While he finds his actions independent, he is also aware as the war goes on just how foolhardy the decision may have been.  Feeling adrift on foreign fronts, Reid holds onto Dench’s letters and later the secret correspondence he has with Hensley as a lifeline.  But her life is far from as simple as she would like him to believe in their forced exile.

“By the end, the lead had become so dull that his signature is hardly more than a thick looping smudge.  Even so, Hennie moves her index finger across the page, mimicking the script, slowing especially over his name, until she can trace his signature perfectly.  Inhabiting his body, exiting her own, she crouches down under the table, imaging the cramped feel of the cellar, the roughness of chapped lips, the stale smell of urine on her clothes, the sound of artillery just outside.”  (page 71 ARC)

Hensley is living in the world of their letters as much as he is, but soon she is forced to make a choice — not once, but twice — that could change the course of her life forever.  This Is How I’d Love You by Hazel Woods explores the power of letters, the devastation of war and grief, and the societal pressures to which we can succumb or fight against.  Woods has made WWI vivid and gruesome as it must have been, demonstrating the irreparable harm that soldiers may face but also the inner strength it requires for them to move forward and to continue doing so even when they return home.  Expectations should be their own and not imposed upon by others, and only through compassion and love can these men soldier onward.

About the Author:

HAZEL WOODS lives in New Mexico with her husband and two children.

30th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

20th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in France)

 

 

 

 

25th book (WWI) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

 

 

 

 

 

63rd book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis

Source: Running Press
Paperback, 304 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis is a roller coaster ride at the circus, complete with big top, illusions, and creepy mute-like clown/mime.  In a town named for the whales off the coast of an eccentric town where everyone is just a little bit odd.  Skylar Rousseau tells her story in the first person and as she unravels the mystery of her three-month disappearance, readers will be pulled into the underworld of a circus that thrived 16 years earlier.  Ellis’ novel is atmospheric, creepy, and foreboding, as Sky reconnects with the friends who thought she had died while she thought she went on with her normal daily routines of going to school, studying for tests, and hanging out with her friends in a town where a weathervane is haunted.

“Sky shook her head.  Madame Curio was well known in Blackfin, even though she was avoided by most.

‘How did you even get in there?’ The woods had been secured against intruders for as long as Sky could remember, the talk of roaming wolves and lightning trees that electrocuted passing children not being enough to keep out idle teenagers.”  (page 70 ARC)

Skylar sets on a path to uncover what actually happened to her and where she went for three months with the help of Sean, her friend that she wants to be more.  Along the way she uncovers secrets in Blood House, the family home, as it opens attic doors and pushes her in the right direction, learns things about her family and her mother that upend her world, and gets even closer to the truth through a series of unimaginable journeys.  Ellis’ ability to create a believable world in which the circus becomes a prison and gifted people are anxious to leave but unable to do so is fantastic for a debut novelist.  Beyond the darkness, however, Ellis sprinkles in the humor, making it easy for the reader to relate to these characters because they are not overly serious and the novel is not too dark.

“Sky joined him as he leaned against the back of the Jeep, looking out over the twisted townscape of Blackfin.  The houses looked like precariously stacked playing cards, balancing against the hillside while they waited for a gust of wind to carry them off into the sea.  From this height, Sky saw the thirteen black dots of the cemetery cats lazing on top of the tombstones lower down the mountain slope.  Further still, the school teetered at the seafront, with Silas’s iron form spinning crazily on the roof.”  (page 150 ARC)

Ellis balances characterization, atmosphere, and mystery well and Blackfin comes to life with all of its quirky characters.  She bends the light to reveal new dimensions and hues of the town, its residents, and its history, while maintaining readers’ interest and passion to find out how it all ends.  From the mundane routines of going to school and hanging out with friends to the traveling to the circus for answers, Sky must find the strength within herself to accept her new reality and find a way to save herself and everyone she loves.  Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis is light refracted, speeding up and slowing down, as Sky uncovers her own truth.

About the Author:

Kat Ellis is a young adult writer from North Wales. Her debut novel, BLACKFIN SKY, is out now in the UK (Firefly Press) and the US (Running Press Teen).

Check out her Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads, and her Website.

 

59th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

My 1st book for Peril the Second!

The Vintner’s Daughter by Kristen Harnisch

Source: Caitlin Hamilton Marketing and She Writes Press
Paperback, 368 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Vintner’s Daughter by Kristen Harnisch is set in Loire, France, in 1895 on the Thibault vineyards, as a family struggles to revive their grapes after a blight rocked the industry.  Sara has dreams of becoming a vintner like her father, and he has cultivated those dreams, allowing her to work the vines and learn all that she can from Jacques, the foreman.  She keeps a seasonal notebook about each harvest and process for making the wine, but when a blight threatens their harvest once again and the set price for barrels offered by the Lemieux family is too low to pay the vineyard’s debts, her father makes a fateful decision that changes the course of the entire family’s lives.  Harnisch clearly knows wine, vineyards, and the trade itself; her research is in depth and adds layers to her narrative.  Her characters are dynamic and engaging, and readers will be drawn into the Thibault family and cheer for them to triumph over the rival Lemieux family.

“Upon Jacques’s return, Sara wished him adieu and lifted her skirts to trudge through the mud between the vines toward the other end of the field.  There she hunched over to examine one of the vines more closely.  She ran her fingers over the leaves’ withering edges, fearing the worst.  She took her knife from her belt and split the vine’s bark.  With the tip of her blade, she scraped out hundreds of translucent eggs that lined the interior of the vine.  Some had already hatched, producing the dreaded pale yellow insects that were now sucking the vine dry.”  (page 8 ARC)

Fleeing France with her sister, Lydia (who resembles the Lydia of Pride & Prejudice in some ways), Sara finds herself adrift in New York City and reliant on the kindness of a convent and the church.  In their highly regimented life, she learns of the lush land in California and its vineyards, and she finally begins to dream of a way in which she can reclaim her family’s lost fortune.  While she’s making plans, she’s swept up in a different life, assisting a midwife.  As she learns to hold her ground in this more modern world in which women are making their own way, Sara is even more confident that she can right the wrongs done to her family.  When tragedy strikes again, Sara is forced to remain strong and to do what she thinks is best as she runs from the specter of the guillotine.

The Vintner’s Daughter by Kristen Harnisch is a fascinating look at the business of vineyards right around the time of prohibition in the United States and during the suffrage movement for women.  Sara comes into her own in the New World, and she learns what it is she truly has lost when she is pushed back to France by her boss in California.  Harnisch has crafted a emotional journey of a young woman coming into her own in the modern world and learning to forgive and be forgiven.  Stunning debut.

About the Author:

Kristen Harnisch’s ancestors emigrated from Normandy, France, to Canada in the 1600s. She is a descendant of Louis Hebert, who came to New France from Paris with Samuel de Champlain and is considered the first Canadian apothecary. She has a degree in economics from Villanova University and now lives in Connecticut. The Vintner’s Daughter, her debut novel, is the first in a series about the changing world of vineyard life at the turn of the century.

29th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

 

 

 

 

56th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

Source: Harper
Hardcover, 336 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is told from two points of view; in Lakshmi Patil’s broken English we see all sides of her marriage to a man she doesn’t love in a country that is unfamiliar and in her Africa-American therapist Maggie Bose’s voice readers are exposed to the cultural dissonance that occurs between multicultural couples and friends.  Stories take on a life of their own in Umrigar’s latest novel, and it is the weaving and unweaving of these stories that brings to the forefront the struggles Americans continue to have with those from other countries.  There is a lack of understanding for cultural norms and often judgments that come with that lack of understanding.  In Lakshmi’s hour-long therapy sessions, Maggie see the differences and similarities between them come alive, but cultural dissonance is not just one-sided here.  Lakshmi also struggles to understand her therapist’s choices when it comes to her marriage to Sudhir and own happiness.

“He turns around and his face look surprise as I rush toward him like the Rajdhani Express.  He take a steps back, as if he thinking I will run into him, like train derailment.  But I stops just in front of him and now my mouth feels dry and no wordings are coming to my mind.”  (page 7 ARC)

Maggie’s life was far from perfect before she met her husband, and while at college, surrounded by similarly minded people, she felt at home and respected.  But when she ventured outside of the campus, it was clear that others perceived her based on appearance or their own cultural experiences.  While these are the experiences that shaped her, she continued her schooling to become a therapist, one so well liked by her colleagues that they often referred to her the most difficult of cases.  But her school and work experiences are not all of her, and there are secrets that she hasn’t even told her husband about, at least not completely.  She has created a narrative that she is comfortable with, even though she knows that it is not the truth of her.  Lakshmi also lives a life clouded by lies, but her lies are to those outside her marriage and to herself.  She must also learn to move beyond the story she has created for herself and others to get at the truth of her being.

Through these ladies’ points of view, questions of identity, culture, and isolation are explored, and ultimately, these characters need to learn to break down the barriers between themselves and others if they wish to find happiness and freedom.  The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is seductive in its multilayered approach, leading readers to be sucked into the isolated life of Lakshmi and the idyllic American life of Maggie, only to discover that assumptions and first impressions are not the truth.  We create our own stories for ourselves and for others, but it is only when we tell the truth of who we are that we can be set free from perception and judgment.

About the Author:

Thrity Umrigar is the author of three other novels—The Space Between UsIf Today Be Sweet, and Bombay Time—and the memoir First Darling of the Morning. A journalist for 17 years, she is the winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University and a 2006 finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award. An associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, Umrigar lives in Cleveland.  Please visit her Website.

Other reviews of this author’s books:

Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James

Source: NetGalley
Paperback, 400 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James takes readers back into Jane Austen’s teen years, between the time she is a young girl free to play and the time she comes out and becomes a woman.  While her sister Cassandra and she share everything and every confidence, there are some tender emotions that are too new and sacred to share right away — that of a first love.  Jane Austen is 15 when she is given an unprecedented opportunity to attend a ball and a month of festivities in Kent to celebrate her brother Edward’s nuptials before she comes out to society.  Things are not all that they seem to a young girl who longs to be out with her sister and share in all the activities Cassandra does.  James paints a picture of Austen that is lively and young, as she enthusiastically takes on challenges before her — to prove herself not only to others but to herself — and enjoys every event set before her.

“My anticipation of the expected visitors was shared by Louisa, Charles, and Brook Edward, who kept running to the window to ascertain if they could perceive a hint of an impending arrival.”  (ARC)

Jane is ever the observer of human nature, actions, and character, even at the young age of 15, but even though she observes carefully, her interpretations are not always as accurate as she presumes them to be.  Meeting the lively and enigmatic Edward Taylor, Jane is besotted as any young girl would be who finds someone she admires in looks and in intelligence.  But he also challenges her outlook on society and its traditions, as well as her own role in that society.  James has created a complex relationship that could have happened in real life, and perhaps helped to shape Austen’s views on society, love, and more.

“We are a living part of history!” cried Edward Taylor.  “We are making history this very moment.” (ARC)

James weaves in not only the facts of Kent, her real brother’s marriage to Elizabeth Bridges, and many other characters, but the events and paraphrased lines of Austen’s very own novels.  James cannot be praised enough for her ingenuity and dedication to the spirit of Austen and her novels.  She pays tribute to a young Jane in the best way possible.  Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James is the author’s best novel yet, and a must read for anyone who loves historical fiction, Jane Austen, or coming of age stories.  This is a definite contender for the 2014 Best Reads List.

About the Author:

Syrie James, hailed by the Los Angeles Magazine as the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings, is the bestselling author of eight critically acclaimed novels, including The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte, Nocturne, Dracula My Love, Forbidden, and The Harrison Duet: SONGBIRD and PROPOSITIONS. Her books have been translated into eighteen foreign languages.

In addition to her work as a novelist, Syrie is a screenwriter, a member of the Writers Guild of America, and a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. An admitted Anglophile, she loves romance and all things 19th Century. To learn more about Syrie, visit her online at www.syriejames.com, Follow Syrie on Facebook.

Pies & Peril by Janel Gradowski

Source: Janel Gradowski, the author
ebook, 192 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Pies & Peril: A Culinary Competition Mystery by Janel Gradowski is punchy and fun, a perfect read for kicking back on a rainy day or on the beach during the summer.  While “beach read” is often a looked down on term, these are the kinds of books readers crave when they want pure entertainment and to enjoy characters and their stories.  Gradowski’s characters are not like those in typical cozy mysteries; they have good heads on their shoulders, are professional, and are not throwing themselves in harm’s way without thinking things through first.  Amy Ridley is no dumb blonde. She’s focused to win every culinary baking contest she enters, but when things go awry for her former friend and now baking nemesis, Mandy Jo, she takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of her death.

“The physical side effects of becoming a triple champion made her feel like she had been caught in a stampede of tap dancers from Ms. Carrie’s Dance Academy.” (ARC)

“Okay.  Dirty dishes didn’t talk, but she couldn’t stand to see them sitting there, like batter coated chore devils perched on her shoulder.” (ARC)

Amy is spunky and determined to uncover the truth, but she’s also aware that there should be boundaries to her tenacious search for a killer.  She’s lurking in corners to eavesdrop and running into clues, but she’s also wise enough to know that she should be careful and scared of the killer who is writing her threatening notes.  Her friend Carla is a doll, and readers will enjoy their banter as they go over some of Amy’s theories about the murder and her even more outrageous theories behind the murder.  Gradowski’s style is filled with humor and characterization; readers will get to know these characters in such a short period of time, it will feel like they are friends known for much longer.  The author has a way of packing in a lot of background and characterization in a small space, making it easier to flow with the relationships and the story as it unfolds.

“… The Cookbook Nook.  Not a single auto repair or vampire book could be found on the shelves.  Just cookbooks.  Glorious, fascinating cookbooks.” (ARC)

Pies & Peril: A Culinary Competition Mystery by Janel Gradowski will have readers’ mouths watering, and it includes recipes at the end to keep those taste buds dreaming.  Cozy mysteries may drive some readers crazy for their dopey heroines that carry their infants into dangerous situations or just rush headlong into places they shouldn’t as they investigate mysteries, but Gradowski has found the perfect balance between the cozy mystery formula and strong heroines that leave the tough stuff up to the cops.

About the Author:

Janel Gradowski lives in a land that looks like a cold weather fashion accessory, the mitten­-shaped state of Michigan. She is a wife and mom to two kids and one Golden Retriever. Her journey to becoming an author is littered with odd jobs like renting apartments to college students and programming commercials for an AM radio station. Somewhere along the way she also became a beadwork designer and teacher. She enjoys cooking recipes found in her formidable cookbook and culinary fiction collection. Searching for unique treasures at art fairs, flea markets and thrift stores is also a favorite pastime. Coffee is an essential part of her life. She writes the Culinary Competition Mystery Series, along with The Bartonville Series (women’s fiction) and the 6:1 Series (flash fiction). She has also had many short stories published in both online and print publications.  Check her Website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.  Check out her books.

Other books by this author, reviewed here:

China Dolls by Lisa See

Source: Random House
Hardcover, 400 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

China Dolls by Lisa See spans pre-WWII, WWII, and after the war when Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese were constantly stereotyped and pushed to the sidelines, and when America goes to war against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, proving you’re American becomes even more important.  Grace Lee has left Ohio in a hurry and ends up in San Francisco with crushed dreams and no friends, until she meets Helen Fong, who is from a traditional Chinese family in Chinatown.  She’s uptight and traditional, harsh on Grace and later on Ruby Tom, but she’s also searching for her own path, wishing that her own dreams could be realized.  Hollywood is often considered the land where dreams come true, but in this case, these Asian women find their dreams in San Francisco, though those dreams are often marginalized by their own pettiness and the world that looks down on their culture and abilities.

“Helen and I sat on the floor a little apart from the other ponies, who massaged one another’s feet, stretched, and gossiped.  Every day Helen arrived at rehearsal in a dark wool skirt, long-sleeved black sweater, and charcoal-gray wool stockings, but she quickly changed out of them.  To my eyes, it seemed like she was shedding not just layers of clothing but layers of tradition.” (page 47 ARC)

Grace is a broken young woman of seventeen and very naive, and in many ways Helen and Ruby are all too happy to teach her lessons about the real world, but they often underestimate her resiliency, her willingness to forgive, and her determination to succeed.  Whether she is running from her past in Ohio, her failed attempt at stardom at the Golden Gate International Exposition, or the rumors that circulate around her during WWII, Grace must turn inward to find her strength and remain true to her dream.  She may take advantage of every opportunity around her when it presents itself, even if it comes as something tragic befalls her friends, but she never purposefully creates those opportunities.  Ruby and Helen, on the other hand, are downright Machiavellian, though in Helen’s case, her machinations come from an emotional devastation that she struggles to keep hidden daily.

“I don’t want to remind them”—and it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out I was talking about the FBI and the WRA—”I exist.  I don’t want to risk being sent to Leupp to join my parents.  I want to forget all that.  You left your mother behind.  Now I’ve left mine.” (page 262 ARC)

China Dolls by Lisa See is about chasing your dreams, making them come true, and all the petty jealousies and ups and downs that come with that, particularly in show business.  See masterfully weaves the history of the time period into these ladies’ lives.  It would be an excellent selection for book clubs as it raises questions about racial discrimination, inter-race relations, and prejudices within cultures based on socioeconomic and cultural differences, as well as what it means to be patriotic.

About the Author:

Lisa See, author of the critically-acclaimed international bestseller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), has always been intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world today. Ms. See’s new novel, Shanghai Girls, once again delves into forgotten history.  Visit her Website, Facebook, and Twitter.

17th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

Save the Date by Mary Kay Andrews

Source: Tandem Literary
Hardcover, 448 pages
On Amazon, on Kobo

Save the Date by Mary Kay Andrews came unexpectedly in the mail, but my mom decided to pick it up when she was here on vacation.  Rather than write a traditional review, I offered to ask her some questions about her reading experience.

Who are the main characters?

Cara, Brook, Jack, Bert, Gordon, Patricia, Cullen Kane, Marie, and Ryan.

Cara is a florist and wedding planner originally from Ohio who moves to Georgia.  She has issues with love after her divorce.

Ryan and Jack are carpenters who restore buildings.  Bert works for Cara in her shop.  Brook is supposed to get married to Harris, but has a bit of cold feet.  Gordon and Patricia and Marie are Brook’s parents.

Does Cara blend in well with Savannah residents?

She seems to fit in with everyone well, and she has a lot of friends.  She also gets a lot of referrals to her flower shop.  She does floral arrangements for weddings, funerals, graduations, etc.

Is it obvious who Cara’s love interest will be?

Yes.  She meets him at his brother Ryan’s wedding.  They hit it off for a bit and then end up going their separate ways, etc.

What’s the theme?

Love has a restorative power.

Overall impression?

Read to see what happens.  5-star reads.

Mom read this one in a couple of days.  Share your thoughts about this one.