A Sudden Light

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I adored The Art of Racing in the Rain, so when I had the chance to read Garth Stein’s latest novel, I jumped at it. Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity!

Trevor Riddell is about to turn fourteen, and he thought his life hit a low point when the bank repossessed his family home. That was before he learned that his parents were planning a trial separation for the summer. His mother returns to her family in England, and his father packs him up for a trip to his ancestral home, deep in the north woods of Minnesota – the Riddell House, the last remnant of the early 1900s Riddell timber dynasty, and home to an aunt and grandfather that Trevor has never met. Trevor has one objective for the summer: figure out what drove his mother away and how he can push his father into winning her back.

After arriving at Riddell House, however, Trevor finds himself easily distracted from his task. His aunt Serena is fascinating, manipulative, and hell-bent on finding a way to sell the Riddell House so she can travel the world. Trevor’s grandfather appears to be in the early stages of dementia, and though he has surprising moments of clarity, he believes his dead wife still dances for him in the ballroom. Against his will, Trevor is drawn into the history of the house and of his own family. He begins to research his great-uncle Benjamin, who fought against the idea that the Riddells should prosper by destroying the world around them. Before his untimely death, Ben struck a deal with his father about the fate of the Riddell House that has not yet been honored, and the consequences have reached right down through the century to Trevor.

A Sudden Light is a ghost story, a coming-of-age story, and a family saga. It has a distinctly gothic feel. Riddell House is massive and decaying – all stone and logs creeping with moss and ivy, and pillars made out of tree trunks still covered in bark. There are hidden staircases, entire wings of unused rooms, and plenty of spaces to hide things that shouldn’t necessarily have gone missing. Trevor imagines that an invisible fog of decay permeates the house, but he mentions several times that the house seems to be alive and breathing. The woods surrounding the house are still dense enough to get lost in, and though the house is technically part of a neighborhood community, it feels incredibly remote.

Stein really is an amazing writer. This novel examines some deep questions about family relationships, conservation, and spiritualism, but it never feels heavy. Every once in a while, I caught myself looking at Trevor’s narration and thinking, “I don’t know any fourteen year old boys who talk like that.” But the story is told as a flashback, an adult Trevor recalling one of the most important summers of his life, so his perspective is bound to be different. Sometimes the shift between Trevor’s summer at Riddell House and Ben’s story were a little abrupt, but both stories were interesting, so I didn’t mind it too much.

According to the note to readers by Trish Todd at the beginning of the book, this story originally came to life as a play by Stein called “Brother Jones,” which debuted in LA in 2005. I can’t imagine this as a play. I feel like so much of the development takes place inside Trevor’s mind, and several scenes (from the end of the novel in particular) would have been challenging to stage. This book was a strange mix of beautiful, creepy, and terribly sad, but it was a good read!

A Grave Matter

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In 2012, my mom and I kept seeing the same book pop up in our recommendation list on GoodReads – an upcoming release called The Anatomist’s Wife, by Anna Lee Huber. We mentioned it to each other so many times that I wound up buying a copy for her Christmas gift that year. She really enjoyed it and, naturally, loaned it to me when she was finished. I love historical mysteries, and this series has a really interesting premise – the main character, Lady Kiera Darby, is a widow whose ghastly husband forced her to illustrate his cadaver dissections for an anatomy textbook. After his death, she is considered a freak (or worse) by most of society, and she gets caught up in a murder investigation when her knowledge of human anatomy comes in handy. Different, yes?

The series continued with last year’s release of Mortal Arts, which was excellent, and the third book of the series is set to be published on July 1. Because Anna is a lovely person, I had an opportunity to read an ARC of A Grave Matter.

In A Grave Matter, Kiera is hoping for a restful holiday staying at her childhood home, Blakelaw House, in Scotland. During a ball celebrating the New Year, the traditional festivities are interrupted by the news that a local caretaker at Dryburgh Abbey has been murdered, and the deceased Earl of Buchan’s body stolen from his grave. Body snatchers and their crimes are nothing new in 1830, but this incident seems unique – the Earl has been dead for almost two years, and the robbers left his clothes and valuables undisturbed in his grave. At the request of the current Earl of Buchan, Kiera sends for inquiry agent Sebastian Gage to clear up the matter. But Gage’s arrival brings more questions than answers. This is not the first body to be stolen in this manner, and if this crime matches the others that Gage has been investigating, the Earl of Buchan can expect a ransom note outlining the conditions for the return of his uncle’s bones. Kiera and Gage must sift through conflicting bits of information that lead them to an angry antiques collector who believes a family heirloom was stolen from him, a botched elopement, and a crew of ruthless Edinburgh thieves led by Bonnie Brock. Nothing seems to add up, and Kiera and Gage know they must work quickly to catch the body snatchers before another set of bones is stolen – and before someone else is murdered.

This was a great mystery! Sometimes, I can see the end of a book coming, but this one kept me guessing. Anna keeps the suspense and the sense of menace running high. The relationship between Kiera and Gage continues to develop, and there are a handful of new characters that seem like they might become series regulars. Kiera’s big brother Trevor is great – I just wanted to hug him for the majority of the book. Also, Kiera’s new maid Bree seems like she will be good to have around when Kiera gets herself into her usual scrapes.

Sometimes there is a tendency with books in a series for the main character to become a static figure – a character that has things happen around them rather than with them. But Anna proves early in A Grave Matter that she’s not finished developing Kiera as a character. The first time Kiera assisted Gage with a murder investigation, she was extremely reluctant to get involved, and only did so to clear her own name as a suspect. The second time, she felt obligated to help Gage investigate since the prime suspect was a close childhood friend. This inquiry is different – Kiera finds herself wanting to be involved rather than feeling pressured. She is coming into her own as an investigator, realizing that she has a talent for the work and even enjoys it.

Also in previous books, Kiera finds a refuge from difficult times in her painting. After a terrible accident in the end of Mortal Arts, Kiera has lost her motivation to paint. It’s difficult for her to stand in front of a canvas and not be able to produce the kind of results that she has in the past. Kiera knows she has to work through this if she wants to maintain her talent, but it’s a struggle for her. The final big change for Kiera in this book is her dawning realization that she needs to find a place to call home. In the months following her horrible husband’s death, she has lived with her sister, Alana, and also Trevor for brief periods. While she appreciates their support, she is beginning to see that she can’t shuffle between their homes forever. She needs something more permanent, something that she can call her own. Kiera takes some big steps toward figuring out a direction for her life in this book.

I loved that Anna introduced us to some bits of Scottish culture in this book. The story opens at a Hogmanay festival, which is a Scottish New Year’s Eve party, and Anna describes the traditions like first-footing, the bonfire, and the ceilidh dance. Dryburgh Abbey, the location that plays such a big role in this book, is a real place – in a note at the end of the novel, Anna describes a bit about her research there. It’s nice to read a historical fiction book where the details of the setting don’t just feel like wallpaper that is only there to remind you, “Hey, you’re in Scotland in the 1800s!” Instead, Anna’s period detail is woven in throughout the story in a way that feels authentic.

If you haven’t read any of this series, I would definitely recommend starting at the beginning. If you have, I think you will really enjoy the direction Anna takes in A Grave Matter. I’m excited to see what she has in store for Kiera in future books!

The Ashford Affair

Continuing the theme this week of my joy over Lauren Willig’s newest release, That Summer, I decided to post a review that I wrote for her first standalone novel, The Ashford Affair.  This book was released in April of last year, and it’s now available in paperback.  Lauren calls this book “a little Downton Abbey and a little Out of Africa.”  If you’ve read it and felt like the ending was just a bit abrupt or left too many questions unanswered (I’m looking at you, Mom!), you may enjoy this entry on Lauren’s blog.  She posted an entire final chapter of the book that was, to use her own words, “left on the cutting room floor.”  I enjoyed the extra peak into what was going on with these characters.  Below is my review of The Ashford Affair, written after my first reading in January 2013.

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I won an advanced copy of this book from a Goodreads giveaway listed by St. Martin’s Press. I could not have been more excited. I am a big fan of Lauren Willig’s “Pink Carnation” series, and I have been looking forward to seeing how Lauren would write on a topic that wasn’t Napoleonic spies.

I was hugely impressed. Lauren’s story spans about a hundred years of one family’s history, with settings in post-WWI England, 1920s Kenya, and modern day NYC. The modern-day heroine, Clementine Evans, is an associate in a law firm and trying desperately to become a partner. She has put the majority of her life on hold for her job, and all she has to show for it is a broken engagement and the realization that her beloved Granny Addie is 99 years old and looking it. When Granny Addie mistakenly refers to Clemmie as “Bea,” Clemmie realizes there are a lot of things she doesn’t know about her own family’s history, and she decides to do some digging.

Lauren’s flashbacks to England and Kenya are great. I loved the way she described the feel of England entering the jazz age – one generation trying hard to pretend nothing has changed while a younger generation pushes fearlessly into new music, fashions and entertainments. I enjoyed reading about the challenges of trying to start a coffee farm in Kenya. Lauren describes this book as more of a “Kate Morton” style of story than her previous books, and I agree with that. Along the way, as we slip back and forth between time periods, there are hints dropped and discoveries made that add to up a surprising, very satisfying conclusion.

I thought this book was great for several reasons. First, my grandmother passed away six months ago, so I identified strongly with Clemmie’s realization that time has slipped away, and there are countless things she wants to know about Granny Addie that she never thought to ask. Also, I have always liked the style of story where a family secret stretches over generations and enough clues remain for one person to piece the truth together. Lauren did a great job with this. Fans of Lauren’s earlier work will enjoy a hat-tip to her “Pink” readers – one of characters we meet in Kenya is a descendant of Lord Vaughn and Mary Alsworthy from the “Pink” series.

I have really enjoyed all of Lauren’s books, and it’s nice to know she won’t be riding off into the sunset when she brings the “Pink” series to a close. I look forward to seeing what she will do next!

The Fortune Hunter

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Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, I had a chance to read an advance copy of Daisy Goodwin’s July release The Fortune Hunter. Ms. Goodwin has another book, The American Heiress, that I haven’t read yet, but it’s on my list!

In 1875, Charlotte Baird is a young woman with a passion for photography and a penchant for saying the wrong thing in social situations. As the heiress of the Lennox fortune, she attracts her fair share of suitors, but Charlotte is self-aware enough to realize that the men who try to win her favor are mostly interested in her money. Her overbearing brother Fred and his bitter fiancé Augusta have been managing her money and her personal life, and she has never had a reason to challenge them. But things change for Charlotte when she meets Bay Middleton, a handsome cavalry officer who finds her unladylike hobby and strange habits charming. Charlotte is starting to think she may actually have found a suitor who would prefer her heart to her inheritance, but everything changes with the arrival of Empress Elizabeth of Austria.

Empress Elizabeth, known to her friends as Sisi, lives a life of luxurious monotony. She is heralded as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and the Emperor is indulgent of her need for travel and excitement, but she is still unsatisfied. Sisi visits England for the opportunity to participate in an English foxhunt, and she brings a household of servants, courtiers and strange pets with her. When the Earl of Spencer informs her that he has selected a pilot to guide her in the hunt, she is less than thrilled. When she finds that Bay Middleton can keep up with her though, both in speed and fearlessness, Sisi decides it is not such a nuisance to have a pilot after all. Soon, she finds that Bay’s presence is necessary to her wherever she might be, and society begins to whisper that Bay may be doing more for the Empress than guiding her through her hunts. When these rumors reach Charlotte, Charlotte questions whether Bay’s attentions toward her were honest, or if he is really the fortune-hunter that she’s been warned about.

The Fortune Hunter is, on the surface, a simple story about a love triangle. But Ms. Goodwin takes her story to another level, creating a character study of Charlotte, Bay, and Sisi. Charlotte is the quintessential romantic heroine – biddable, naive, and uncertain of her own worth. But she develops into a woman who will not be told what to do and who is not content with being anyone’s second choice.

Sisi was a great character, and you can tell Ms. Goodwin had fun exploring her motivations. In the author’s note at the beginning of the novel, Ms. Goodwin admits to having a fascination with Empress Elizabeth as a child and she says she sees “ghostly parallels” between Sisi and Diana Spencer – “Both women, who married men they hardly knew and who didn’t understand them, were famously glamorous and unhappy.” Sisi doesn’t mind the gossip about her learning circus tricks on her horse, keeping a monkey as a pet, or riding out on the hunt far in front of a pack of men, but she does very much mind the idea that people will judge her by their ideal of royalty and find her wanting. She has a fear of losing her beauty, and for someone who takes great pride in her features, she has a horror of being photographed. Sisi is accustomed to getting whatever she wants without being questioned, but she still finds that her life is missing a freedom she can’t seem to grasp.

The character I had the most trouble understanding was Bay. I wondered if he might be a little too tempestuous for Charlotte in the long run. Not only does he develop a strong fascination with Sisi when he’s supposed to have an understanding with Charlotte, but he was involved with a married woman at the beginning of the novel. The book spans less than a year of time, so I found it a little hard to believe that, in the course of that time, he could be so infatuated with three different women. I definitely thought that he cared about Charlotte, but I found myself wondering if he was really a good fit for her. Maybe that’s just me putting myself in Charlotte’s shoes and wishing she could have fallen for someone a bit more reliable!

I really enjoyed the use of photography in this novel. It was a relatively new medium for people to experiment with, and none of the characters are quite sure how to feel about it. Everyone has a set idea in their head of how they appear to other people, and if a photograph contradicts that idea, it can be an unpleasant surprise. Augusta is a great example of this attitude. She is quick to snub the idea of Charlotte’s photos as art, complains about the time involved in taking a photograph and, when she doesn’t like how she looks in a picture, she takes it out on Charlotte. She becomes much more open to the process when a photographer pets her ego by posing her like a goddess in front of a painted backdrop. Characters seem to have a fear of photographs and what a photo of themselves might reveal. As Charlotte points out to Sisi when they are formally introduced, “A royal portrait is bound by its very nature to flatter its subject, but a photograph cannot lie.” With one of her photographs, Charlotte learns a particularly hard lesson about what a camera can capture that the eye might have missed.

I thought this was a great story, and I was interested to learn that Bay Middleton and Charlotte Baird are not just Ms. Goodwin’s characters, but real people. Somehow that makes the story even better to me. I’ll have to hurry up and get started on The American Heiress soon.

The Messenger of Athens

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I’ve been seeing Anne Zouroudi’s “Greek Detective” novels around for a while now, and thanks to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company, I had a chance to read the first book in the series.

When Irini Asimakopoulos’ battered body is found at the bottom of a cliff by the sea, everyone on the tiny island of Thiminos believes she committed suicide. The Police Chief says it happened that way. It was common knowledge that Irini had an affair, and that her husband beat her. No one, not even Irini’s uncle Nikos, feels compelled to look for answers. But when detective Hermes Diaktoros arrives from Athens and starts asking questions, it seems that many of the villagers are hiding pieces of a puzzle that might prove Irini was murdered.

I loved the setting for this story. You can close your eyes and picture a tiny island in the Agean with its cliffs and harbors and mountains. Greek mythology is an interest of mine, so I enjoyed the references to the gods. When Irini tells her uncle Nikos that the gods don’t exist anymore, I loved his response –
“Why so certain? Look.” He gestured up towards the hillsides, and at the open sea. “This is their terrain. They are not far away. Some say when the people stopped believing in them, they ceased to exist. But this view’s still what it was when Jason built the Argo and the Minotaur was eating virgins in the labyrinth… If you look around, really look” – he pointed to the center of his forehead – “using this eye, then you start to see. They’re here. They’re watching. And interfering.”

For all my fascination with the Greek islands, this book did not exactly make me want to vacation on Thiminos. Zouroudi paints a pretty grim picture of how repetitive and dull life was for most of the villagers on the island. Her outlook on life seems bleak, and this is clearest in her descriptions of the world through Irini’s eyes. Irini was disappointed in love before her current husband, Andreas. Her family tried to marry her off to a man she didn’t like, and that ended badly. She settled for Andreas, who she doesn’t love although she is comfortable around him, but his fishing lifestyle and the weeks he spends out at sea leave her feeling lonely and idle. When she meets Theo and falls in love with him, even this doesn’t make her truly happy. Zouroudi compares love to Pandora’s Box, and explains that “the flavors of love are many.” Zouroudi says that, when Irini discovers love, she simultaneously discovers ecstasy, euphoria, despair, devastation, hope, delusion, compulsion and obsession.

Zouroudi’s narration shifts back and forth between Hermes, Irini, Theo, Andreas, and several other characters, and it also hops backwards and forwards in time. For the first fifty pages, it was a little hard to grasp who was talking, and if what was happening was in the present timeline or the past.

It was hard to find a character in this book, other than Irini’s uncle Nikos, that I could really like. Theo seems like a decent enough romantic interest until you see how cruel he is to his wife, even before he falls for Irini. I felt sorry for Andreas when Irini lost interest in him, but I got over that the minute he decided to take his frustration out on her by nearly beating her to death. The police are corrupt. The other women of Thiminos are sympathetic in their roles in a patriarchal society, but they close ranks so blindly against Irini that I couldn’t really like them either.

The saving grace for this book is that the mystery is a good one. I had several theories on what I thought happened to Irini, and I was complete wrong. Also, several things that Zouroudi mentioned throughout the novel that I thought were just informational or backstory details turned out to be important in the end. She did a nice job of tying all her plot threads together. Also, in addition to the question of who killed Irini, there’s another mystery in this book – who is Hermes Diaktoros? Yes, he is a detective from Athens, but who hired him? Is Irini’s death the real reason why he has come to Thiminos?

All in all, a decent mystery. If it sounds good to you, there are currently seven in the series.

All Roads Lead to Austen

I shouldn’t complain about getting free books.  That would make me no better than those people that I secretly scorn who complain about free food. “Why is it always pizza?” “But I don’t eat turkey sandwiches!”  Grr.  Free stuff is free stuff.  So I shouldn’t complain about Nook’s “Free Book Friday” program.  But what I will say is that it’s been months since there was a book on Free Book Friday that I actually wanted to download.  Maybe I’m just going through a lull.  For a while, I was downloading them every Friday and loving them!  Hopefully, things will go that way again soon.  For the time being, I can be comforted by the memory of my first ever Free Book Friday download – Amy Smith‘s All Roads Lead to Austen.

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Embarrassing confession: I began reading after the briefest skim of the summary that Nook provided, and I had to stop several chapters in to confirm that this book is a nonfiction account of Amy Smith’s year-long trip through South America to see how Jane translates literally and culturally. I knew that trip was the premise of the book, but I had no idea that the trip was real – that this was a memoir. Maybe the idea of spending a year devoted to reading Jane and visiting beautiful counties seemed too good to be true.

Here is what Publishers Weekly has to say about All Roads Lead to Austen: In this humorous memoir, devoted Austen fan Smith, a writing and literature teacher, sets out to discover whether Austen’s magic translates for readers in six Latin American countries (Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina), where she organizes book clubs to discuss Spanish translations of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Though Smith continuously calls attention to her limited Spanish language skills, she skillfully highlights how and why certain Spanish words are apt for describing Austen’s world and characters. Austen’s work provides a touchstone for surprising discussions about class, gender, and race, as well as history and literature. Smith’s account reads like an educational travel blog, full of colorful characters, overviews of the history and the traditions of each culture, as well as reflections on her own preconceived assumptions and stereotypes.

I thought this book was wonderful. It’s full of great moments where the members of Amy’s discussions say things about Austen’s characters that we just don’t have words for in English. Here’s one of my favorite examples: “‘[Lydia’s] behavior was una mulada but [Wickham’s] was una cabronada.’ There’s no way to translate these words exactly, but for starters, una mula is a mule and una cabra, a goat. The basic idea is that Lydia behaved like a stubborn mule, acting without a sense for the consequences, but Wickham behaved like a horny goat, with deliberate malice.” The members of Amy’s reading group brought great new perspective to the books, and it was interesting to hear all the responses to the one question Amy asks in every discussion: “Could Jane Austen’s novels have taken place in your country?”

Jane aside, I enjoyed reading about Amy’s travel experiences. She realizes again and again that, despite her best efforts, sometimes we just can’t help believing we understand things better than we actually do. There is a hilarious incident where she invites a doorman at her hotel out for coffee “just as friends,” and he responds by sweeping her off her feet and kissing her. Some of her cultural slip-ups are more sobering – she makes a casual remark to an acquaintance in Chile about how she loves to walk on the banks of the Rio Mapocho, and his reaction is stunning. He tells her, “After the coup, that river is where people went to look for their brothers, their children. Their mothers… The banks were stained with blood because that’s where those bastards would throw the people they’d murdered.” Amy learns (and re-learns every time she moves on to the next place) that spending a few weeks in a country does not make you an expert on that country’s culture.

Other things I loved about this book: Amy’s style is quick, straight-forward, and honest. Also, the illustrations that mark each chapter are adorable, and they are different for each country Amy visited. Check out Jane in Guatemala:

ImageAnyone who is a fan of Austen or enjoys travel memoirs could find something to connect with in this book.

Bird with the Heart of a Mountain

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Thanks to a GoodReads giveaway listed by Amazon Publishing, I had the chance to read Bird with the Heart of a Mountain by Barbara Mariconda.

Set in the 1930s in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, this is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who loves flamenco. Drina lives with her mother’s gypsy people in Andalusia, but she is not accepted by them because her father, whose name Drina has never known, was Spanish. All that Drina can envision doing with her life is dancing, and she cannot understand why her mother tries to discourage her. When tragedy strikes, Drina puts her desire to dance on hold in order to take care of her mother, but the situation spirals so quickly out of control that Drina finds herself in an impossible situation – rejected by her mother’s clan and unable to find a place to call home while the country around her rages with a war she does not understand. Entirely by accident, Drina stumbles into a situation where she is united for the first time with her father. Suddenly, rather than feeling she has nowhere to go, Drina has several difficult choices to make. She can return to the gypsies, travel with her father to Barcelona to perform, pursue a grueling formal dance education in Sevilla, or go to her grandmother in Cadiz, where she will be loved and welcomed, but there will be no opportunity to dance.

Drina was a great protagonist. Mariconda does a great job walking the reader through Drina’s struggle with her identity. It’s really satisfying to watch her transform from the person who felt so much doubt and uncertainty in the beginning of the novel to a confidant woman who isn’t afraid to tell people that “I can no longer be half of who I am.”

This time period is not one that I’m very familiar with, but I thought Mariconda did a great job of giving readers enough background to understand what was happening without dragging us through a history lesson. You feel so much sympathy for the gypsies, who are nobody’s side in the war for the simple reason that nobody is on their side. They are attacked by Republicans and Nationalists, even though the majority of the gypsies don’t even understand who is fighting who or why. When Drina finds her father’s people, she sees that even among family, there can be division about which side is right and wrong. It’s unnerving to watch how quickly fear can turn friends, neighbors, and brothers against each other

I thought the most beautiful parts of the book were Mariconda’s descriptions of Drina dancing. I know absolutely nothing about flamenco, and I have no idea what any of the steps or movements would be called. The other characters talk about how Drina has the same “darkness” that her mother had, and the ability to bare her soul through her dancing. When Mariconda describes Drina’s movements, she also describes what inspires her, and that helps me to picture it more clearly. Here’s an example: “The music, raw and sharp. Rough, but smooth. I throw myself into it. Surrender. My heels hammer the floor like the roll of a machina. My head, I throw back. Arms become wings of a bird. I fly. Soar. The tocaor rakes his guitar. Slashes strings with furious fingers. I am here, but not here. There, the crack of castanets. I dance, sense my daj watching in the shadows… In my mind I see Marisol, then my father. My fingers curl and blossom like lilies. Chin up – Felipe. Down – Isabel. My body dips and swings with the Arroyos dangling from their balustrade… The threads of my heart, woven through the dance.”

I did feel like there were some loose ends left hanging when I finished the book. The primary reason that Drina runs away from her mother’s gypsy clan is to reclaim her mother’s baby. About a third of the way through the book, that plotline just drops away, and there is no resolution for it in the end. Also, Drina has two potential love interests in the book, and that situation is left unresolved. And I had to re-read the last few pages about three times before I understood what happened in the end of the book. I wonder if Mariconda is keeping a few things open-ended in order to write a sequel.

Overall, this was the best ARC I’ve won from GoodReads in the past few months.

Silence for the Dead

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This past weekend, I flew through the copy of Silence for the Dead that I won from a giveaway on Lauren Willig’s website.

Most of the people who know me know that I am not good with scary things. To put that into perspective, I had to leave the theater about 45 minutes into “The Dark Knight” (sorry, Hillary – I still owe you a movie) because Heath Ledger was freaking me out. I leave the room if Brad is watching X-Files. Obviously, my creepy-tolerance is pretty low. I also don’t do well with crazy. So it may seem like a ghost story that takes place in an early 1900s asylum is probably the worst book I could pick for myself. But I’ve enjoyed both of Simone St. James’ previous books, and I wanted to give this one a try.

In Silence for the Dead, Kitty Weeks manages to get herself hired as a nurse at Portis House, a medical facility for soldiers who are returning from the front and having difficulty “adjusting.” Kitty is not a nurse, and she has no training, but she needs a place to hide and Portis House is desperate for staff. The Matron knows Kitty faked her references, so she gives Kitty the most difficult tasks possible starting with her very first shift. Kitty manages the best she can, believing that Portis House is her last hope for keeping a job, and she does fairly well until her first week on the night shift. The men have nightmares, something is moving in the darkness, and even Kitty can hear the strange sounds like footsteps that come from the men’s lavatory.

As the days go by, Kitty is determined to work hard and earn her place, but she can’t keep herself from wondering about Portis House. What happened to the family who built the house only a few years before the war and then disappeared? Why do the men avoid the spot on the lawn in front of the library? Why did Kitty’s predecessor take off in the night, leaving her boots and a locket behind? And why is Jack Yates, England’s war hero, kept in such total isolation from the other patients that he is even referred to as “Patient Sixteen”? Kitty finds herself in Jack’s room one night, looking for a place where she can let out some of her frustration and tears unseen. Jack seems more stable than the other patients, and Kitty is so grateful to have an ally that she shelves her uncertainty about him and decides to work with him to discover the history of the house and how it might be connected to the nightmare that all the men have in common.

When an outbreak of the Spanish flu causes the Matron, half the nursing staff and orderlies, and several patients to be evacuated to the nearest hospital, Kitty and Jack are left alone to confront the ghosts of Portis House and a patient who has spiraled out of control.

To me, the most frightening parts of this story weren’t necessarily the parts that dealt with ghosts. Ghosts are less frightening to me than the monstrous way that humans are capable of treating each other. This was true for St. James’ first book, The Haunting of Maddy Clare, as well. I felt so angry and helpless reading about the way the doctors treated the patients when they came for their weekly inspections. One doctor seems to be taking detailed notes as the patients are questioned, but Kitty finds his notebook later and sees that he has been doodling on the pages rather than listening. One of the men who seems fairly healthy to Kitty, Captain Mabry, requests that his wife and children be allowed to visit him. The doctors question him patronizingly about any “episodes” he may have experienced recently. They discover that he had a nosebleed on Kitty’s first day at work. When they ask Kitty to describe the situation, they twist her answers to make a simple nosebleed sound like a symptom of something much worse, and they deny Mabry’s request to see his family. Not only have they humiliated Mabry and destroyed his hopes, they have caused Mabry to feel he can’t trust Kitty. The doctors dehumanize the patients and use fear to control them. The days when the patients’ families come to visit are no better. Most of the men have been abandoned by their loved ones, and the few who do show up are obviously uncomfortable with the situation.

Kitty notices in her first days at Portis House that there are no locks and no fences – no physical barriers preventing the patients from leaving. When she asks the orderlies why this is the case, they tell her that all the patients’ clothing and belongings are confiscated when they come on the property. The only clothes they have are the uniforms with the Portis House logo stenciled on them. Even if they did get out of the house and over to the nearest village, they would be easily identifiable as a mental patient. The men don’t try to escape because they know they wouldn’t get far.

St. James does a great job of maintaining suspense throughout the book, because she creates these mysterious and sinister situations and then leaves the reader to imagine the possibilities. I have to wonder if she’s read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, because her descriptions of Portis House and its surroundings reminded me powerfully of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The house is isolated in the middle of the marsh. The nearest town can only be reached by a bridge that’s only accessible when the weather is clear. Certain sections of the house are falling into disrepair and the plaster is cracking – that would make sense if the house were hundreds of years old, but it was built less than 30 years ago. A strange black mold grows in certain rooms, no matter how often they are cleaned, and a chill emanates from the basement. Maybe some of this sounds stereotypical rather than scary, but the total effect was spooky.

I finished this book in 24 hours because I just had to know how it all turned out. If you like period pieces from the early 1900s or ghost stories, I think you’d like this book.

 

 

The Chase

Chase

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House – Bantam Dell, I had the chance to read an advance e-copy of The Chase, coauthored by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg.

The basic premise: Everyone in the FBI knows that Agent Kate O’Hare is hunting notorious thief and con artist Nick Fox.  She’s caught him once before, and after his escape, her coworkers worry that she has become obsessed with finding him.  What only a handful of people know is that Nick didn’t actually escape – the FBI released him after extracting a promise that he would work for them in an unofficial capacity, privately helping the FBI catch “major crooks” while publicly remaining on their Top 10 Most Wanted list.  Kate works as Nick’s handler for this project although she’s officially the agent in charge of the FBI manhunt to catch him.  In The Chase, the Smithsonian Museum has recently agreed to return a valuable bronze sculpture called The Rooster to the Chinese government.  A Chinese art expert will be arriving in DC in less than a week to authenticate the sculpture and transport it back to China.  The problem?  The Rooster was actually stolen from the Smithsonian 10 years ago.  The one on display is a fake.  Nick Fox, under Kate’s supervision, has to find out who has the Rooster, steal it, and swap it for the fake at the Smithsonian in order to avoid an international incident.  In order to do this, Nick and Kate plan an elaborate con that will set them against one of the most dangerous, wealthy, and ruthless men in the US.

As someone who has never read one of Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, I went into The Chase with no expectations.  This was a really quick read with a fun plot.  It reminded me a bit of Ocean’s Eleven – cheering for the good-hearted thieves while they attempt to pull off a con of David-and-Goliath proportions.  I really enjoyed all the planning and set-up for Nick and Kate’s theft, and the other characters they bring in to be their crew were funny.  There are countless pop culture references sprinkled throughout (Pitbull, Jay Z, Downton Abbey, etc.) that will eventually make this book feel dated, but as I read through, they made me laugh.

If you’re looking for deep themes and serious character development, you won’t find them here.  But what you do get is a story that will hook you quickly and keep you interested.  This would be a great vacation read – something to entertain you without requiring a lot of concentration.  I remember thinking about halfway through that the Nick and Kate partnership seemed like a good basis for a TV series.  Then I read that Lee Goldberg is actually a screenwriter and TV producer, so that explains a lot.

I did realize about fifty pages in, because there were some heavy-handed references to Kate and Nick’s backstory, that this is actually the second novel of a series.  The first is called The Heist, and it was published in June of 2013.  Fortunately, there was enough explanation of what happened before that I didn’t feel lost at all.  I actually enjoyed this one so much that I’ll probably go back and read the other.

The Lost Sisterhood

sisterhood2

I was excited to get an advance copy of Anne Fortier’s new novel The Lost Sisterhood from NetGalley.  Several people have recommended Anne’s first novel (Juliet) to me.  I even own a copy – but I’ve never gotten around to reading it.  This book called to me because I love Greek and Roman mythology, and I am a sucker for these dual-time mysteries.

This story shifts between the present day and the ancient world, telling the stories of two women who embark on dangerous journeys, thousands of years apart, that both lead to the same end: the truth behind the legend of the Amazon sisterhood.

For Myrina and her sister Lilli, the story begins in North Africa late in the Bronze Age. Myrina and Lilli are searching for the temple of the Moon Goddess their mother used to describe for them, hoping to find a cure for the mysterious sickness that left Lilli blind. What begins as a simple quest to save her sister becomes a mission to rescue 3 priestesses kidnapped by Greek pirates, and ultimately lands Myrina right in the thick of the Trojan War.

In modern-day England, Diana Morgan is having a career crisis. Several influential people at Diana’s college, and in her personal life, have been urging her to quit chasing the myth of the Amazons and focus on more scholarly subjects. Diana is beginning to question her path and her motivation when an enigmatic benefactor offers her the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to decipher the text on the walls of an excavated temple which may confirm the existence of an ancient Amazon society. Diana can’t resist the opportunity, and she hops on a plane without asking too many questions. But things around Diana start to go wrong, a number of increasingly severe “accidents” occur, and Diana realizes that she has no idea what she’s gotten herself into or what sort of people she may be dealing with.

This is exactly the kind of time-slip novel that I love, with the story weaving back and forth between time periods and the details of a mystery coming gradually into focus. As is typical for me, I preferred the historical heroine to the modern one, but their stories were both interesting to me. The Trojan War is one of my favorite subjects in Greek mythology, and I thought Fortier’s take on it was very different than anything that I’ve read before. There were some places in the modern storyline that felt a bit rushed or forced, but I was so interested in getting to the conclusion that I didn’t let it bother me much. Fortier does a great job of making you believe that something as seemingly obscure as the history of the Amazons is a secret that someone in 2013 would kill for.

If this sounds interesting, you should head over to Anne’s website and check it out.  You can listen to a part of the audiobook, see a book trailer, and check out some excellent pictures from the research trips she made while working on the book.