Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag

Title:  The House at the End of Hope Street
Author: Menna van Praag
Publisher:  Published March 25 2014 by Penguin Books
ASIN: 9780143124948
Pages:  320 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: magical realism, female empowerment
Find it at Goodreads

 Synopsis:

A magical debut about an enchanted house that offers refuge to women in their time of need.
 
Distraught that her academic career has stalled, Alba is walking through her hometown of Cambridge, England, when she finds herself in front of a house she's never seen before, 11 Hope Street. A beautiful older woman named Peggy greets her and invites her to stay, on the house's usual conditions: she has ninety-nine nights to turn her life around. With nothing left to lose, Alba takes a chance and moves in. 
 
She soon discovers that this is no ordinary house. Past residents have included George Eliot and Beatrix Potter, who, after receiving the assistance they needed, hung around to help newcomers--literally, in talking portraits on the wall. As she escapes into this new world, Alba begins a journey that will heal her wounds--and maybe even save her life.
 
Filled with a colorful and unforgettable cast of literary figures, "The House at the End of Hope Street" is a charming, whimsical novel of hope and feminine wisdom that is sure to appeal to fans of Jasper Fforde and especially Sarah Addison Allen.

Our thoughts:

We love the genre of magical realism, particularly the work of Sarah Addison Allen, so when we saw the description for this book we knew we just had to read it. This is an enchanting and delightful tale of three women who have lost their way and the magical house that helps to set each of them back on their proper path in life.

Almost everyone can relate to the desire, at one time or another, to simply run away, escape from one’s life for a time, gain some perspective and rediscover the true wishes of one’s heart. The House at the End of Hope Street and its caretaker, Peggy, provide the haven that allows our main characters to do exactly that. The House has served this same purpose for countless women over nearly 200 years, and in fact, can only be found by women in need or those whom the House has beckoned or invited. Once the women arrive, each reeling from her own traumatic experience, they are allowed to stay for a period of just ninety-nine days in which to turn their lives around. 

 “No rent, no bills. Your room will be your own to do with as you like. But take care of the house, and it’ll take care of you.”

And, indeed, during their stay on Hope Street, the House, Peggy, the many famous former inhabitants (in the form of framed photographs that can talk and interact), as well as a ghost or two, all help to guide and enlighten these women as they struggle to heal their souls and regain their direction.

The House is a character unto itself, and the star of the book, with walls that breathe, notes that float from the ceilings, bedrooms that magically fill with the things its inhabitants cherish most, subtle (and not so subtle!) clunks and creaks and flickers of lights, all of which make the occupants well aware of its wishes and opinions, while also providing each of them with exactly what they need to move forward with their lives.

 “This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need.”

Peggy has the gift of extraordinary insight, and she serves as a compassionate mother figure that imparts important life lessons as she gently helps her guests to find their way. And to her surprise, she even discovers that the House has a thing or two left to teach her as well. 

 “We all have to make choices, since we can’t have two lives, only one. But, most of those choices we make fresh every day, not just once. So, if you regret something, if you want to change your mind, you usually can.”

Although the characters are not particularly multi-dimensional and the tale is a bit predictable, the writing here is absolutely beautiful! The author creates amazingly vivid mental images with her lyrical prose, and it is such a joy to read that it helps the reader to overlook any minor flaws in the story. The plot drags somewhat, especially toward the middle of the book, and the multiple and overly frequent changes in point of view can be quite hard to follow at times.

All in all, however, this is an engaging and enjoyable read that will wash over you and warm your heart with its gorgeous writing, whimsical magic, and insightful pearls of wisdom. Pick it up the next time you are looking for a light and lovely read!

Our Rating

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley


Title:  The Midnight Rose
Author: Lucinda Riley
Publisher:  Published March 18 2014 by Atria Books
ASIN: 9781476703572
Pages:   496 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: women’s fiction, historical fiction, romance
Find it at Goodreads

Synopsis:

In the heyday of the British Raj, eleven-year-old Anahita, from a noble but impoverished family, forms a lifelong friendship with the headstrong Princess Indira, the privileged daughter of Indian royalty. As the princess's official companion, Anahita accompanies her friend to England just before the outbreak of WorldWar I. There, she meets young Donald Astbury, reluctant heir to the magnificent, remote Astbury, and his scheming mother.

Ninety years later, Rebecca Bradley, a young American film star, has the world at her feet. But when her turbulent relationship with her equally famous boyfriend takes an unexpected turn, she's relieved that her latest role, playing a 1920s debutante, will take her away from the glare of publicity to a distant corner of the English countryside. Shortly after filming begins at the now-crumbling Astbury Hall, Ari Malik, Anahita's great-grandson, arrives unexpectedly, on a quest for his family's past. What he and Rebecca discover begins to unravel the dark secrets that haunt the Astbury dynasty. . .


Our thoughts:

We found this to be a bit of a frustrating read. As we’ve mentioned before, dual timelines can be very tricky to execute well, and unfortunately, we don’t feel this author was able to carry it off successfully. The book is very slow to start and doesn’t really pick up interest until the past story begins to be explored. Anahita is an appealing and interesting character, and the story of her life and travels from India to England, France, and eventually back home, is compelling and poignant. The descriptions of India are especially lush and evocative.

The modern-day story, however, is much thinner, overly drawn out and repetitive, with little substantial content. This portion of the novel is not nearly as well-written, with flat and rather stereotypical characters, and the dialogue, in particular, feels terribly stilted and unnatural. The resolution of this storyline combines elements of the 'over-the-top' bizarre with the utterly predictable, and ultimately we found it to be unbelievable and extremely disappointing. Partway through the book we began to simply skim these sections in order to return to Anni’s story, because sadly, they failed to touch us or to resonate in the same way her story did.

"(Her) platitudes fell on me like ineffectual raindrops in a drought, not touching my inner core which was so in need of redemption."

Had the author eliminated the contemporary storyline altogether and instead focused the entire book on Ahahita’s tale, we feel this could have been quite an engaging piece of historical fiction. As it stands, however, the modern-day elements distract and detract from the overall appeal and effectiveness of the narrative and extend the book unnecessarily. Still, if one can overlook the shortcomings, this is a worthwhile, if somewhat long, read due to the strength of the historical tale alone.

Our Rating

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Review: The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier


Title:  The Lost Sisterhood
Author:  Anne Fortier 
Publisher:  Ballantine Books
Release Date: March 11 2014
ASIN: 9780345536228
Pages:  608 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: women’s fiction, historical fiction, romance, mythology, adventure
Find it at Goodreads

Synopsis: 
From the author of the New York Times bestseller Juliet comes a mesmerizing novel about a young scholar who risks her reputation—and her life—on a thrilling journey to prove that the legendary warrior women known as the Amazons actually existed.

Oxford lecturer Diana Morgan is an expert on Greek mythology. Her obsession with the Amazons started in childhood when her eccentric grandmother claimed to be one herself—before vanishing without a trace. Diana’s colleagues shake their heads at her Amazon fixation. But then a mysterious, well-financed foundation makes Diana an offer she cannot refuse.

Traveling to North Africa, Diana teams up with Nick Barran, an enigmatic Middle Eastern guide, and begins deciphering an unusual inscription on the wall of a recently unearthed temple. There she discovers the name of the first Amazon queen, Myrina, who crossed the Mediterranean in a heroic attempt to liberate her kidnapped sisters from Greek pirates, only to become embroiled in the most famous conflict of the ancient world—the Trojan War. Taking their cue from the inscription, Diana and Nick set out to find the fabled treasure that Myrina and her Amazon sisters salvaged from the embattled city of Troy so long ago. Diana doesn’t know the nature of the treasure, but she does know that someone is shadowing her, and that Nick has a sinister agenda of his own. With danger lurking at every turn, and unsure of whom to trust, Diana finds herself on a daring and dangerous quest for truth that will forever change her world.

Sweeping from England to North Africa to Greece and the ruins of ancient Troy, and navigating between present and past, The Lost Sisterhood is a breathtaking, passionate adventure of two women on parallel journeys, separated by time, who must fight to keep the lives and legacy of the Amazons from being lost forever.

Our thoughts:

WOW! We scarcely know where to begin with this review – just WOW! This book has it all – adventure, intrigue, romance, exotic locales, strong female characters, amazing historical detail, ancient mythology, and Amazons, yes, Amazons! Even though we read Fortier’s first novel, Juliet, and loved it, we were slightly nervous when we first noticed the length of this book…but we shouldn’t have been! This is a big book at 608 pages, but it kept us utterly captivated throughout every single page. The author grabbed our attention with the prologue and never let go until the very last word.

The story is told in parallel timelines – one ancient and one contemporary – each with its own strong and engaging female lead character. This type of storytelling can be difficult to pull off, but when done well it is one of our favorites to read. We are pleased to say that Fortier manages it masterfully, and the tale moves seamlessly from one timeline to the other. We found both storylines equally compelling (which often isn’t the case), and with each switch we were eager to catch up with the characters being featured. Fortier interweaves the two tales perfectly, as whenever a ‘discovery’ is made in the modern story it is also explored and explained in the context of the Bronze Age timeline. Locations are shadowed, as well, as our modern adventurers trace the movements of the ancient Amazon women in an attempt to discover their final destination.

The mysteries keep you guessing, allowing you to discern just enough to keep you engaged, while still withholding secrets to surprise you as the tale unfolds. The romances develop over time and are not overdone. Myrina’s relationship in the past timeline is particularly charming.

We are big fans of ancient history and Greek mythology, and we found the author’s reimagining of the events of the Trojan War to be nothing short of brilliant! We adored the twists she made to the ‘traditional’ tale, and her alterations were so entirely plausible they deftly illustrate the concept that the story we ‘know’, while hitting some of the same highlights, could easily be very different from the actual course of events.

The relevant issues of Black Market trading of antiquities and the importance of repatriation of such treasures are subtly touched on. Obviously, however, in a tale about Amazons one of the more overriding themes is the strength of women. This is aptly explored in both storylines, without coming across as overly feminist, and both main characters learn to embrace their strength and resilience, and resolve to never forget their legacy.

“I am an Amazon, the killer of beasts and men. Freedom runs through my veins; no rope can hold me. I fear nothing; fear runs from me. I always walk forward, for that is the only way. Try to stop me, and you will feel my rage.”

It was fascinating to read a story about the Amazons, a group not often written about, and the idea of the possibility of modern day members of this sisterhood was especially intriguing.

We cannot say enough good things about this book and feel it will almost certainly be one of our best reads of 2014. We would love to hear what you think of it should you decide to pick it up!

And remember, as Diana learns while reading the history of her ancient Amazon sisters, “’Only we, the Amazons, will live forever.’ What more do you need to know?”

Our Rating 

(We had to increase the size of our teacups for this one because 5 regular sized teacups simply weren't enough for this truly amazing book!)
 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn


Title:  City of Jasmine 
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher:  Published February 1st 2014 by MIRA 
ASIN: B00IADVDCS
Pages:  ebook 368 pages
How I Read It: ARC
Genre: women’s fiction, historical fiction, romance

Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn delivers the captivating tale set against the lush, exotic European colonial outposts of the 1920s...

Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke never expected to see her husband, adventurer Gabriel Starke, ever again. They had been a golden couple, enjoying a whirlwind courtship amid the backdrop of a glittering social set in pre-war London until his sudden death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later, beginning to embrace life again, Evie embarks upon a flight around the world, collecting fame and admirers along the way. In the midst of her triumphant tour, she is shocked to receive a mysterious — and recent — photograph of Gabriel, which brings her ambitious stunt to a screeching halt.

With her eccentric aunt Dove in tow, Evie tracks the source of the photo to the ancient City of Jasmine, Damascus. There she discovers that nothing is as it seems. Danger lurks at every turn, and at stake is a priceless relic, an artefact once lost to time and so valuable that criminals will stop at nothing to acquire it — even murder. Leaving the jewelled city behind, Evie sets off across the punishing sands of the desert to unearth the truth of Gabriel’s disappearance and retrieve a relic straight from the pages of history.

Along the way, Evie must come to terms with the deception that parted her from Gabriel and the passion that will change her destiny forever...


Our thoughts:

First of all, we highly recommend reading the prequel to this novel: Whisper of Jasmine. It details how Evie and Gabriel met, gives good insight into the beginning of their relationship, and explains their fondness for Peter Pan, which proves to be an underlying theme in the following novel. (It also includes appearances by some of the characters from Spear of Summer Grass, which readers of that book should enjoy. We certainly did!)

We started with the prequel and instantly fell in love with the characters. Raybourn's writing is such a wonderful blend of descriptive settings, mystery, humour and romance that you are immediately drawn in. City of Jasmine is set five years after the events of Whisper of Jasmine, and unlike in the prequel, Evie is no longer a na├»ve young girl. She has grown up to be quite the strong, capable woman who can stand up for herself and doesn't let anyone push her around. So when the photograph of her believed to be dead husband surfaces, she goes in search of her ‘Lost Boy’, looking for answers in order to finally put her past to rest. “It’s time to stop. Face down your ghosts. Exorcise them once and for all. Forgive them, forgive yourself and get on with the business of living.”

The story is set in Syria in 1920, and it’s very interesting to read about a place not often the subject of tales. Raybourn provides historical detail into a place rarely recalled and highlights the subtle yet serious undertones of warfare in Northern Africa as well as the fallout afterwards – issues not to be disregarded in this rollicking tale. Over the course of the novel, Evie and Gabriel are thrown into lots of adventures and come across a lot of suspicious and dangerous characters. The descriptions of nomadic life in the desert are fascinating and seeing the area through Evie's eyes brought the country to life.

Not only were there in-depth main characters but some wonderful secondary characters as well. Aunt Dove is a classic, “Is it very wrong that I want to grow up to be your Aunt Dove?” (don’t we all!) They added so much to the story and revealed the wonderful writer that Raybourn is, as even the smaller characters were not glossed over in any way. The many fun and feisty humorous moments in the story kept us giggling - “I do apologise Mr. Halliday. My husband always did have a filthy temper and death hasn’t improved it” - and provided delightful moments of levity.

We don't want to say too much more about this other than there is lots of action, humour - “Good God, if your stomach roars any louder they’ll be able to track us by the sound of it” - romance (the comedic chemistry and bantering between Evie and Gabriel will put such a smile on your face) and mystery. Raybourn's writing is truly something you need to pick up for yourself and read, because you are going to love it. Her work always transports you back in time, into another place, another world and another lifetime. On this occasion we were reminded of the 1940s movie ‘Casablanca’ – desert style, with a bit of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure.

This was another book we just couldn't put down! Deanna Raybourn is fast becoming one of our favourite historical authors. She keeps you eagerly turning the pages to the very end.  Yet for all the fun, there is an admirable underlying tone: Don’t recall how the story ends? “Yes, you do. Peter takes Wendy home. And he tells her to leave a window open for him. Because he always comes back in the end.”


Our Rating

Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: The Boleyn Deceit by Laura Andersen

Title:  The Boleyn Deceit (Boleyn Trilogy #2)

Author: Laura Andersen
Publisher:  
Ballantine Books (November 5, 2013)
ISBN-13: 9780345534118
Pages: 416
How I Read It: ARC copy through GoodReads First Reads giveaway
Genre: Historical Fiction, Alternate History


Synopsis:

Perfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Allison Weir! After presenting readers with an irresistible premise in The Boleyn King (what if Anne gave birth to a healthy royal boy who would grow up to rule England?) Laura Andersen returns in this deepening saga, into the dangerous world of the Tudor court, where secrets can bring down an empire, and even the strongest of monarchs may not be able to prevent history from repeating...

The regency period is over and William Tudor, now King Henry IX, sits alone on the throne. But England must still contend with those who doubt his legitimacy, both in faraway lands and within his own family. To diffuse tensions and appease the Catholics, William is betrothed to a young princess from France, but still he has eyes for only his childhood friend Minuette, and court tongues are wagging. 

Even more scandalous—and dangerous, if discovered—is that Minuette’s heart and soul belong to Dominic, William’s best friend and trusted advisor. Minuette must walk a delicate balance between her two suitors, unable to confide in anyone, not even her friend Elizabeth, William’s sister, who must contend with her own cleaved heart. In this irresistible tale, the secrets that everyone keeps are enough to change the course of an empire.


Our thoughts:

We read The Boleyn King (the first book in this series) prior to reading The Boleyn Deceit and absolutely loved it. As soon as we finished, we raced to read the second book and daresay it is even better than the first! The story in this installment of the trilogy continues very shortly after the events of The Boleyn King, in which the author was able to cleverly blend fictional characters and happenings with actual historical figures and events to craft an alternate history based on the premise that Anne Boleyn gave birth to a son who lived and became King of England. In The Boleyn Deceit the author once again does a masterful job of weaving together fact and fiction while telling a tale that is packed full of political intrigue, action, drama and romance. The writing is beautiful, and the plot is compelling. The characters have wonderful depth and progression. 

We simply could not put this book down! We eagerly await the third book (scheduled to release in July 2014) to experience the resolution of this tale and to see how the author maneuvers her alternate history to once again align with the actual historical timeline. This book is a real page-turner and a truly fabulous read. If you enjoy this time period or the Tudors and are looking for a fantastic series read, we highly recommend you pick up Ms. Andersen's Boleyn Trilogy!

Our Rating