Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts

Thursday, December 1, 2016

I'll Take You There by Wally Lamb


Title: I'll Take You There
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: November 22, 2016
Source: copy received from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

I’ll Take You There centers on Felix, a film scholar who runs a Monday night movie club in what was once a vaudeville theater. One evening, while setting up a film in the projectionist booth, he’s confronted by the ghost of Lois Weber, a trailblazing motion picture director from Hollywood’s silent film era. Lois invites Felix to revisit—and in some cases relive—scenes from his past as they are projected onto the cinema’s big screen.

In these magical movies, the medium of film becomes the lens for Felix to reflect on the women who profoundly impacted his life. There’s his daughter Aliza, a Gen Y writer for New York Magazine who is trying to align her post-modern feminist beliefs with her lofty career ambitions; his sister, Frances, with whom he once shared a complicated bond of kindness and cruelty; and Verna, a fiery would-be contender for the 1951 Miss Rheingold competition, a beauty contest sponsored by a Brooklyn-based beer manufacturer that became a marketing phenomenon for two decades. At first unnerved by these ethereal apparitions, Felix comes to look forward to his encounters with Lois, who is later joined by the spirits of other celluloid muses.

Against the backdrop of a kaleidoscopic convergence of politics and pop culture, family secrets, and Hollywood iconography, Felix gains an enlightened understanding of the pressures and trials of the women closest to him, and of the feminine ideals and feminist realities that all women, of every era, must face.


My Review:

It's no secret that I am a huge Wally Lamb fan, and have been for some time.  As mentioned in previous reviews of his work, he sets all of his fiction in and around the not-so-fictional town of Three Rivers, Connecticut.  I say "not-so-fictional" because if you're a southeastern CT native (like me!), you can see that Three Rivers mirrors Norwich, CT rather closely (and Three Rivers is the name of the community college in that town).  Anyway, I always get a kick out of seeing familiar landmarks in Lamb's writing, and that paired with his talent for crafting intense family dramas has made me a long-time Lamb fan.

So, here comes his new release!  And of course I'm all over it.  To be honest, didn't even really read the description that closely.  Wally Lamb is just one of those authors where I know when I see his name on a cover, I want to read it.

In the end, I found this novel to be quite different from his other fiction work.  A few points of difference were obvious early on: this novel is quite a bit shorter than his others, so the prose is a bit more succinct, the characters less fleshed out.  Also, ghosts.  There are ghosts in this book.  Totally was not expecting the supernatural element (my fault, like I said...I should have read the description!).  While it wasn't my favorite thing about the novel, I did appreciate how Lamb used the ghosts to teach readers about an often-forgotten segment of Hollywood's history (that of its early female directors).  Even beyond the ghosts, there is quite a bit of thought-provoking history woven into this novel, and that was one of its biggest strengths.

However, the biggest difference between this book and Lamb's others, for me, was its lack of subtlety.  This is not a novel that encourages you to think very hard, which was a big disappointment for me as a reader.  The overarching themes of the novel (women's rights, feminism, etc) are hammered so hard, I had a headache by page 10.  I'm not saying that these themes aren't relevant and important (hi, talking to you, President-Elect), but I wish they had been allowed to flower within the prose more naturally.  Instead, because the novel was so much shorter than Lamb's others, I quickly wondered if that meant he had to do away with the thoughtful, more drawn-out narrative that fans of his work are likely used to, and instead fell back on this more directive writing to make sure his points got across.

Overall, this was an enlightening read, and Lamb proves that he still has his flair for historic detail and convoluted family relationships.  However, I have to admit that it's likely my least favorite of his fiction works thus far.  For me, that still means 3 stars on Goodreads though!  This may work for someone who wants to try a Lamb novel but is not ready for one of his longer tomes.

As always, much thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour!
Want to find out more?


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

2 Mini-Reviews and They Are Both AWESOME.

So busy around here these days, reader friends!  In the last couple of weeks, I've run 3 races (if you include my virtual 10K--recap coming soon!), we road tripped to Connecticut to watch my stepbrother graduate from the Coast Guard's Officer Candidate School (woot!), I had a busy/excellent Mother's Day with my crew, and (most importantly) my husband successfully defended his doctoral dissertation after 7 LONG years of hard work!!!  I am beyond excited for him, and we are gearing up for the graduation this weekend.
Me, my brother, and my stepbrother at OCS graduation.  I am a proud seester!  Go Coast Guard!
Then we have all the things on the horizon: Small Fry's last couple weeks of preschool, planning for my mom's 60th birthday celebrations in June, gearing up for a beach vacation in July...

These are all great reasons to be busy, but my head is spinning and it leaves little time for bloggy activities.  Luckily, I am still reading, because I have so many good books on the docket right now that I'm having a tough time choosing between them!  And for my running friends--my marathon training starts on Tuesday (the 17th), so I'm getting ready to fit that into my life as well.

If you want to stay up-to-date on my reading/running activities, your best bet is Instagram (@thewellreadredhead), because a quick snap from my phone takes way less time these days than a blog post.  ;)  But lucky you, I did manage two mini reviews for today...and both of these books rocked my socks!

Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer
Da Capo Press, 2007
personal purchase



I hope that Switzer's name is, at the very least, ringing a small bell for you, but if not: she was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon in 1967.  (Roberta Gibb ran it before her, but "bandited" the race--ran it without registering--whereas Switzer actually registered (as K.V. Switzer) and ran it with a bib.)  Because she registered with her initials, race officials did not realize she was a woman until the race was underway and the press trucks started following her.  One of the officials was so furious that he actually tried to attack her/rip her bib off during the race--a now-famous confrontation that she was able to escape, as she went on to finish the race.

Switzer's story was incredibly inspiring to me well before I read her memoir, but after I finished Marathon Woman, I had a whole new respect for her journey.  After that first marathon (Boston was her first!), she went on to cut over an HOUR from her marathon PR, win the NYC Marathon, and organize an international series of women's races that showed the world that women are just as capable of running (and competing) in distance races as men.  All of these things had an integral role in making women's running a respected sport (leading to the eventual addition of the women's marathon to the Olympic games) and helped make it the mainstream activity that it is today.  If you are a woman who runs, for fun or for competition, Kathrine Switzer is someone you should thank!

To top it off, Switzer's voice in the memoir is wonderfully candid and funny, while still emphasizing the lasting importance of her work in women's sports.  (I also had the AMAZING opportunity to meet Switzer at the Right to Run 19K in Seneca Falls, NY last weekend, and can tell you that her demeanor is every bit as inspiring and lighthearted in person!)  This book is NOT just for runners!  If you want a memoir that inspires, I can't recommend this one enough.
My copy of Marathon Woman. Now featuring extra awesomeness!
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, 2016
copy received from the publisher for an honest review

The #1 reason I picked up this book was because of its author.  I've not found a Chris Cleave book yet that did not agree with me (and/or was downright amazing--Gold is one of my favorites).  That said, I was a little unsure about the subject matter in this one, as WWII era historical fiction novels have been hit-or-miss for me in the past.  I know that's a real broad genre to comment upon, but still.  I had my reservations.  To give a very general synopsis, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is set in WWII London during the Blitz, and focuses on three (okay, the description says three, but I think it's more accurate to say five) extremely different characters that are thrown together in the desperate circumstances created by the war.

WHY DID I HAVE RESERVATIONS?  This is likely on my favorites list for 2016. You know how sometimes you're reading a book, and things are happening that are making you get very emotional, or at the very least are causing your blood pressure to rise, and it all just gets to be TOO MUCH and you have to set the book down for a while so you can catch your breath and recoup?  This is that book.  And I just love a book that can leave me breathless for a bit, don't you?

In addition to being in awe of the events of the story as they unfolded, I was also impressed by the writing.  Cleave's prose is insightful and incredibly quotable (thank goodness I read this on my Kindle, as the highlighting was fast and furious), and the dialogue (especially Mary's and Alistair's) is amusing and snappy.  Even if you're unsure if this story is right for you, genre-wise, the novel is worth reading just so you can steep yourself in such excellent wordsmithing.

Read. Enjoy. Thank me later!

What are your current reads?  Have you met any authors/gone to any book signings lately?  What recent read of yours has had the best/most enjoyable dialogue?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

It's Time to Talk About OUTLANDER!

Hello, reader friends!!  I know, I fell off the face of the Earth, AGAIN.  Lots going on in our household lately--all good things, no worries, but it's left very little time for blogging.  (Even this post was pre-written, as I am running the Flower City Half Marathon today--WOOHOO!!)  That said, I've been chomping at the bit to talk with you all about Outlander by Diana Gabaldon!

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I finally decided to tackle this much-talked-about tome.  I've had a copy on my shelf longer than I've been married (9 years this year, woop!).  I think there were two things that kept me from picking it up right away: the length (800+ pages, in a series of books that are ALL 800+ pages, feels like a huge commitment) and the genre (historical fiction is OK by me, but romance is not my forte).  However, the time had come.  I had to see for myself if the hype was warranted.

(A quick synopsis for those unfamiliar with the novel, from GoodreadsThe year is 1945. Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of Our Lord...1743.
Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life, and shatter her heart. For here James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire—and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.)

As the novel opened, I was off to a slow start.  Getting to know Claire and her husband Frank was interesting, but not particularly captivating.  Then the time travel thing happened, and I was kind of ehhhhhhhhh about that whole piece of it.  Don't get me wrong, time travel done well is a cool plot element (The Time Traveler's Wife is still one my favorite novels), but I didn't know if I really loved how Gabaldon worked it into the story here.  Plus, I felt like Claire acclimated to her new environment (200ish years in the past) WAY faster than I'd think is normal.  (But what do I know, right?  When was the last time I traveled to 1700's Highland Scotland?)

ANYWAY.  I tried to let all this slide.  I was in for the long haul here, and I had to believe there was more in store.

(Okay, there was definitely more in store, there were still 600 pages left.)

After Claire time traveled and settled into her new home at Castle Leoch, that's when things turned over for me.  Gabaldon's period details, plus Claire's sassy attitude, AND the ever-so-delightful introduction of Jamie Fraser, turned this into a totally different novel for me.  I was totally on board.  And, I'm happy to say, completely taken with Claire and Jamie's romance.  I love how it has this constant undercurrent of "but what about Frank?!" as you wonder about the husband that Claire left behind.  Can't wait to see more of that in the rest of the series.
The Jamie Fraser memes out there are just hilarious.
I don't want to give any spoilers for others who haven't read it, but by the end of the book, I was completely taken.  100% on board the Outlander train.  I did have a lot of hesitations, both before I started reading and within the first several chapters, but I was happy to see all of those hangups dashed by the time I reached the final page.  That said, while I think readers who don't often read romance could still enjoy this book, it would be awfully hard to like it if you don't have a thing for historical fiction.  That's definitely the dominant genre here, and the details that drive it make up many of the 800+ pages.

I have a few other books I'm hoping to tackle in the coming weeks, but Dragonfly in Amber (part 2 of this series) is already sitting on my night stand...so the series will continue!  :)  Much thanks to all of my friends that pushed me to read this one.  Now to decide if I want to make time for the TV series as well...

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Leap Day 'What Are You Reading?'

Um, more like what am I NOT reading this week?  I've had a whole bunch of fun reading adventures going on lately.  Time to share!

What am I reading now?  Currently reading 3 different books...I know, craziness.  I've been trying to avoid multiple books at the same time lately, because it fries my brain and usually ends up making me dislike at least one of the books because I'm not paying it enough proper attention.  But sometimes you just can't stop yourself.  The three I'm currently immersed in:

1. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Been on my TBR for YEARS, been listening to many many friends telling me how I need to read it for YEARS, and have been avoiding it...for yes, years.  I've heard great things, but the books in this series are so long, it felt like a giant commitment to start.  Not sure what finally pushed me to go for it, but I'm easing into them.  I'm about 150 pages in and have to be honest--I don't see the hype yet, but it's still very early on.  I enjoy historical fiction but I'm not a big fan of romance, so I could see this going either way for me.  I'll push on and let you know what I think at the end.

2. The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer: Just started this for a TLC book tour.  A mystery/thriller involving a mom and her missing daughter sounds like a good match for me!  Too early to give much of a reaction, but you'll have a full review in a couple weeks.

3. The Walking Dead: Compendium 1 by Robert Kirkman: I've mentioned here a few times that I LOVE LOVE LOVE The Walking Dead (TV show).  I knew about the comics and always meant to pick them up, but just never got around to it.  I finally put the first compendium (collection of the first 48 issues) on hold at the library and picked it up this week.  I'll admit that I was likely pushed into this by my curiosity over Negan, who is being introduced to the show soon and all the comics fans are FREAKING THE FRICK OUT over.  Plus, I'm just really excited to see the differences between comic and TV!

Up next?  After all that reading, I've got a couple books from the library that I'm hoping to get to: The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johnscock, and The Vacationers by Emma Straub.  If I like Outlander, I'd like to try the second book in the series (Dragonfly in Amber).  And I also have another TLC tour for the end of March, All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer.

The reading is GOOD right now, people!  What are you reading this week?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

February Minis: 3 for 3!

Hello, readers!  I know, I completely fell off the wagon with Book Blogger Appreciation Week halfway through.  MY BAD.  You know how my blogging is these days.  However, I have been busy reading, and I've got 3 new mini-reviews for you...and all 3 are books that I thoroughly enjoyed.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Penguin, 2009
borrowed from the library

This is the latest pick from my MOMS Club book club.  Right after I started reading it, my BFF Cari texted me to alert me that this is one of her top 5 books of ALL TIME!  Quite the endorsement!  And I have to say, I now completely understand why.  I loooooved this novel.  Book club is going to have a lot to discuss!

Synopsis: 29-year-old Alice wakes up on the floor of a gym after falling and hitting her head.  Which is weird, because she hates gyms.  But then she finds out that she's not 29 anymore--she's 39.  She's also not pregnant with her first child anymore (as she thought), but now has 3 kids.  And she's also not married to the love of her life anymore--she's getting a divorce.  Yes, Alice hit her head and lost 10 years of her memories.  Now she's trying to figure out what went wrong...and can she regain the person she thought she was 10 years ago?  (Does she want to?)

This is the first time I've read Moriarty's work, and it won't be the last.  The dialogue is lighthearted, but the core issues of this book are not.  The ending is perfection, and guaranteed to leave you with so much to mull over.  This novel is not even a little bit the predictable sappy love story that I feared it might be.  Can't recommend this enough!!

Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
G.P. Putnam, 2015
borrowed from the library

This book was recommended by ALL THE BLOGGERS.  I saw it on a bunch of best-of lists for 2015, and finally decided to pick it up at the library.  Synopsis: Clayton Burroughs is the sheriff on Bull Mountain in the woods of north Georgia.  He also happens to be the youngest brother of the outlaw Burroughs clan, currently run by his oldest brother Halford.  But Clayton is trying to be different--he's a man of the law, and determined to keep his family's criminal ways out of his life.  And he's doing a pretty good job of it.  Until ATF agent Simon Holly shows up at his door.

I have to admit that I was skeptical of this one.  Half crime thriller/half historical fiction, I didn't know if this would be a great fit for me.  But let me tell you, I was glued from page one.  I even skipped a yoga practice to wake up early one morning and finish it!!  :)  The way Panowich makes this story unfold is absolutely brilliant.  Even if I guessed at some of the twists before they happened, I didn't care, because Panowich has such a way with words that he made them feel surprising anyway.  Complex characters, gripping conclusion--yup, this has it all.  Read it!

Hansons Half Marathon Method by Luke Humphrey with Keith & Kevin Hanson
Velo Press, 2014
borrowed from the library

Have to throw in my latest running read!  Since I am doing so many 13.1s this year, I've been enjoying reading about different training methods for the distance.  I heard amazing things about Hansons, so I had to pick this one up.  Full disclosure: when I first got the book, I immediately flipped to the training programs.  I took one look at these intense 6-day-a-week plans and said NOPE.  Not for me.  I put the book down and decided I'd save this one for a time in my life when I had more availability for such an involved program.

Then I got the notice that the book was due back to the library...and decided maybe I should at least read it first.  So I renewed it.  And I started reading.  And now I am a BELIEVER!  While I still think this is not the right time for me to follow a Hansons plan, I am 100% on board with their methodology, and I feel like I learned SO much more about the hows and whys of the training process.  Hansons plans are based in well-researched exercise science, and reading through them gave me a wealth of helpful new running information, even as I follow a different training calendar.  Absolutely a valuable read for anyone serious about the 13.1 distance, even if you're not going to use one of their plans.  I'm hoping to try one out when I have more time to dedicate to it.

What are your current reads?  Any good book club picks?  What's the last thing you read and loved because of a recommendation from a friend?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Last 2 Books of 2015!

My last 2 mini-reviews of the year!  I was able to squeeze these in right under the wire, bringing me up to 49 for the year.  Not bad!

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
Little, Brown and Company, 2005
personal purchase

I put this book on my 30 Before 35 list because I've heard raves about it for the last 10 years, and have had a copy on my bookshelf for almost as long, but I kept pushing it off due to the fact that it's a pretty sizeable chunker (676 pages).  I finally picked it up on a whim, not even knowing what it was about, and was pleased to find that it's a historical fiction novel about the legend behind Dracula.  How fortuitous that I read Stoker's famous book just a few months ago!  However, reading Dracula before The Historian is certainly not a requirement, as this book provides more than enough background to keep you on top of things.

Quick synopsis: the narrator is a teenager in the 1970's, living with her father (a diplomat) in Amsterdam.  One day, she stumbles upon some old letters in her father's study, which turn out to be the beginnings of a rather epic mystery surrounding the legend of Lord Dracula.  When, in the midst of learning about this mystery, the narrator's father disappears, she begins her own journey to figure out where he went, what sort of discoveries he made in the past, and what really happened to her mother.

I only gave this book 3 stars on Goodreads, which feels underwhelming, but unless you are a serious fangirl/fanboy of medieval history, this book is surely going to drag in parts.  And I feel bad saying that, because this book is positively overflowing with lavish detail--a more elaborate story would be hard to find.  But that doesn't erase the fact that it's terribly drawn out, the frequent flashbacks making an already-detailed story even tougher to follow at times.  Even so, the mystery at the heart of the story is intriguing, and I enjoyed the little twist in the epilogue.  Thus, 3 stars is accurate for this middle-of-the-road novel.

Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide by Hal Higdon
Rodale Books, 2011 edition
received as a Christmas gift :)

What a surprise, right?  Haha.  Now that I am fairly certain I will be running my first marathon in late 2016, I figured it's time to start doing some reading.  I'm a huge fan of Higdon's race training plans (they have worked for me at both the 15K and half marathon distances), and I plan to use one of his novice marathon plans in the fall.  However, I also have a lot of questions about proper nutrition during training, hydration needs, tricks for staying in the game mentally, etc. and I thought this would be a good place to start.

I was correct in my thinking!  Higdon speaks equally to novice and more advanced runners in this book.  Some of the information was familiar to me after following his programs in the past, but some of it was new as well, and a LOT of it is going to be re-read as I dive into marathon training in the late spring.  In particular, I was very interested in the parts about the different varieties of speedwork (seriously, I still have a hard time telling a fartlek from a stride from intervals...), proper long run pacing, and pre-race nutrition.  Plus, I found this book to be a great motivator in general.  Reading about Higdon's formulas for success has left me feeling excited for the marathon journey ahead.

If you're a newbie marathoner looking for some solid advice starting out, or a more advanced marathoner who wants to shave time off of a PR, Hal Higdon's Marathon is an excellent read to help you get going in the right direction.

What's your last book of 2015?  Runners, any other good marathon training books I should look for?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

#30Authors Giveaway with Into The Valley by Ruth Galm!

Hello there, reader friends!  If you've not yet heard, Allison at The Book Wheel has once again organized a fantastic reader/author/blogger event for the month of September called #30Authors.  I will be talking more about it in 2 days (as the official host for Sept 12th's #30Authors post!), but the general gist is this:

30 authors each choose a book to read/review (by a different author), and their reviews are posted, one a day, on a different book blog throughout the month of September.  So during this month, you're getting 30 different authors reviewing 30 different books, one on each day of the month.  And you get to visit some terrifically fun book blogs along the way.  Kudos to Allison for that brain child, right?

I have the privilege of pairing up with Ruth Galm, author of Into the Valley, for this event (she has dubbed us a #30Authors "dynamic duo," and I can't disagree).  Even though it is not required for me to read/review Ruth's book, I thought it would be fun to do so before her post goes live here on the 12th, especially since her debut novel sounds so darn intriguing (summary from Goodreads):

Into the Valley opens on the day in July 1967 when B. decides to pass her first counterfeit check and flee San Francisco for the Central Valley. Unmarried at 30, B. doesn't understand the youth counterculture but doesn't fit into her mother's world of dresses and kid gloves.

B. is beset by a disintegrative anxiety she calls “the carsickness,” and the only relief comes in handling illicit checks and driving endlessly through the valley. As she travels the bare, anonymous landscape, meeting an array of other characters—an alcoholic professor, a bohemian teenage girl, a criminal admirer—B.’s flight becomes that of a woman unraveling, a person lost between who she is and who she cannot yet be.


Into the Valley came at a perfect time for me, because I've read a lot of fast-paced thrillers/psychological dramas this year, and while I do love those genres, I've been yearning for something a little less...overt.  A novel that relies more on atmosphere and subtlety rather than shocking twists and suspense (though this book does have suspense, in its own way).  Plus, it's got a pretty cover.  I'm a serious sucker for a pretty cover.

The novel's Central Valley setting infuses itself into Galm's writing style.  The searing heat, the unforgiving landscape, the unsettling isolation: these background elements are felt so intensely as you read that they eventually take on their own life within the story.  After a while, B. is the valley and the valley is B.  I've never even been to this part of California, but every time I picked up this book, it felt familiar.

B.'s journey is not a typical soul-searching mission.  I loved trying to figure out what makes her tick: what is it that is missing in her life, that could make her "carsickness" disappear?  (Does she want the carsickness to disappear?)  After a while, her exploration turns into more of an unraveling, leaving you with an increasingly uneasy feeling as you read on.  The conclusion was both not at all what I expected, while also being exactly what I wanted.

Sound like a good read?  I thought so, too!  If you want your very own copy to enjoy, Ruth and her team at Soho Press are kindly offering a copy to one of my lucky readers.  Enter the giveaway in the Rafflecopter below (US/Canada only, ends Sept 16th).  There is also a separate MEGA book giveaway going on with #30Authors, which you can enter here on the 12th, so stay tuned!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

5 Star Review! The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman


Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author: M.L. Stedman
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: July 31, 2012
Source: received as a gift from Cornelia at Small Hour Books

Summary from Goodreads

After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them.


My Review:

This book is AMAZING.  It is also really, really, really (really really) sad.  If you want to be completely absorbed by a beautifully-written, thought-provoking, thrilling novel, while also crying giant alligator tears, then do I have the book for you!

The absolute best thing about The Light Between Oceans is the moral ambiguity of each character's actions.  Tom and Isabel make a startling choice when the boat washes up at their home on Janus Rock.  Taken at face value, it's a choice that is illegal and unjust.  But as Tom and Isabel each explain their actions in their own way, readers can't help but see the possible good in what they've done.  Right and wrong are certainly not easily separable in this novel--not just for Tom and Isabel, but for many of the other characters that are brought into their complicated web.  As things begin to spiral out of their control, the couple must constantly re-evaluate their intentions, and what "right" really means.

That said...you're always waiting to see when that other shoe is going to drop, hence the nail-biting suspense.  This is a very emotional, heart-wrenching book, but Stedman writes it in a way that allows you to appreciate the writing, while simultaneously scrambling to get to the next chapter and see what's to come.  I find that many of the books I read with particularly beautiful prose are usually not also page-turners (in terms of plot action), but The Light Between Oceans bridges that gap.

I can't end this review without giving a thumbs-up to Stedman's use of setting, which plays a huge role in the atmosphere of this novel: both post-war Australia in general, and Janus Rock/the lighthouses in particular.  I've read very few books set in Australia, but this one combined the physical location with a rich history that really submerged me into the story.  Plus, the isolation of Tom and Isabel's life on Janus Rock was a key element to many of the major plot points, and that sense of remoteness was palpable in their everyday lives.

Five stars on Goodreads, and going on the favorites list.  I haven't been able to say that in a while!  This book was so much more than I expected, and I'll definitely be picking it up for re-reads in the future.

What was your last 5 star read?  Have you read any other good novels set in Australia?  (This is not a setting that I've visited in my fiction very often!)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Did Someone Say Bradley Cooper? Serena by Ron Rash


Title: Serena
Author: Ron Rash
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: October 7, 2008
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads:  **kind of spoilery**

The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning. 

My Review:

I gave a spoiler warning for the book description on this one, because when I read it after finishing the novel, I realized it basically outlines the ENTIRE thing, except maybe the last 10 pages.  What's the fun in that??  Read the first two sentences of the description and that's enough to get you started, I'd say.

Serena is the latest novel chosen by my MOMS Club book club.  We decided to choose a book that is being/has been turned into a movie, so that we could both read and watch and then compare.  We had a lot of good options on our final voting list, but let's be honest--we all knew the ladies couldn't resist a Bradley Cooper movie, AMIRIGHT??

We have yet to see the movie (I'm still not entirely clear when it's being released--apparently this was a real disaster of a film project?), but having recently finished the book, I'm sure we'll have plenty to discuss!

I'm happy that I didn't read the entire description of this book beforehand, because I was able to go into the novel with a fresh look at all of the characters.  On page 1, I loved Serena.  I thought she was one seriously bad-ass bitch (especially given the Depression-era time period), and I couldn't wait to see what she had up her sleeve.

The book moved a little slow after those initial pages, but bit by bit, I started to see what Serena was really all about.  First I just had some doubts about her, but then...well, they became much more.  The best part of this novel is definitely watching Serena's layers unfold.

Another plus: I like how the author occasionally relayed the story from the lumber workers' perspectives, especially when Serena and George did something...unsavory.  It gave an outsider's view to their actions that made the narrative much more colorful.

Overall, I'm happy to say that this book was a hidden gem for me.  I wasn't expecting much (especially because I had never heard of it before my book club voted for it), but it's an excellent story with some truly twisted characters--much more of a psychological thriller than I thought I would get from this historical fiction novel.

What's the last book-to-movie adaptation you read?  How did the movie compare?

Monday, March 9, 2015

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Set against Iceland's stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. 

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes's death looms, the farmer's wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they've heard.


My Review:

I have mixed feelings here, friends.  Burial Rites gets a lot of raves--you can look all over Goodreads and other book blogs to see that quite plainly.  Unfortunately, this one isn't sticking with me quite as strongly as I had hoped.  I'm not in love with Burial Rites, but I'd say I'm in like with it.

Kent has certainly done something unique here, as the basic story of Agnes Magnusdottir is, in fact, true.  She was the last woman executed in Iceland, back in 1828.  Kent took the general details of Agnes's conviction, imprisonment, and execution, and then made the story fictional by filling in all the information that you can't get from historical documents.  Agnes's relationships with her priest, the family that houses her as she awaits execution, and (most importantly) the men she allegedly killed, are all slowly brought to fruition as the novel unfolds.  In the end, you are left with a very morally ambiguous story that gives readers the opportunity to make their own decisions about Agnes's guilt (or innocence).

We've established that this book is unique and well-crafted.  And the writing is beautiful--no denying that.  So why am I only in LIKE with it?  Why couldn't I fall in LOVE?  For me, that answer lies in the pacing of the story.  As I said above, Agnes's story unfolds slowly...and by that I mean slowwwwwwwwwwwly.  The true nature of her relationship with the murder victims is brought to light through a series of conversations that she has with her priest and her host family.  Every one of these conversations is always cut short at some climactic moment, because a guest arrives, or the grass has to be harvested, a cow has to be milked, whatever.  By the last bit of the novel, it was enough to drive me crazy.  LEAVE THE COW ALONE, I WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS.

I don't always need a fast-moving plot to keep my attention--I love drawn-out, character-driven novels too.  But while the character development was very central to this book, there was still an element of mystery to it that left me feeling like I wanted things to move along a bit more.

So, while I did enjoy the questions that were raised at the end, by the time I got there, the lackadaisical pacing had tamped down my interest quite a bit.

Overall, I'd say this is a high quality read, and a unique take on historical fiction for sure.  However, the plot moved a bit too slowly for me, and that made it feel like more of a middle-of-the-road reading experience as a whole.  That said--I am definitely in the minority on this one, so if the description of this book has piqued your interest at all, don't let my lukewarm review keep you from giving it a try.

What was the last widely-loved novel you read that didn't quite hit the mark for you?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review (DNF): The Blonde by Anna Godbersen


Title: The Blonde
Author: Anna Godbersen
Publisher: Weinstein Books
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Source: ARC provided by the publisher via Edelweiss for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads

Marilyn Monroe is at the height of her fame, the object of the world’s desire. Attention is her drug, the very definition of who she is. Her own wants and needs have become fleeting at best, as if she sees herself only through others’ eyes. But there is one thing Marilyn still wishes for beyond all else—to meet her real father. That’s the part you already know, the legend—but here’s the part that’s never been told.
 
In Anna Godbersen’s imaginative novel, set at the height of the Cold War, a young, unknown Norma Jean meets a man in Los Angeles—a Soviet agent? A Russian spy?—who transforms her into Marilyn the star. And when she reaches the pinnacle of success, he comes back for his repayment. He shows her a photo of her estranged father and promises to reunite them in exchange for information: Find out something about presidential candidate John F. Kennedy that no one else knows. At first, Marilyn is bored by the prospect of, once again, using a man’s attraction to get what she needs. But when she meets the magnetic Jack Kennedy, she realizes that this isn’t going to be a simple game. What started with the earnest desire to meet her father has grave consequences for her, for the bright young Kennedy, and for the entire nation. The Blonde is a vivid tableau of American celebrity, sex, love, violence, power, and paranoia.


My Review:

Uuuuuuuuuuuuugh, you guys.  I wanted to love this book SO MUCH.  I hardly ever request ARCs anymore, but I jumped on this one because I adored Anna Godbersen's Luxe and Bright Young Things series.  Those novels are young adult historical fiction, whereas this is more of an adult, history-with-a-twist sort of fiction, but I thought for sure she would nail it.  Plus, it's Marilyn Monroe!  What a cool historical figure to reimagine, especially with so many mysterious elements in her life.

Alas, my excitement was unwarranted.  I trudged through this book up to the 40% mark, and then I could give it no more.

I had two big issues with The Blonde.  One: I was bored.  Despite the amount of the book that I did read, I felt like very little was happening beyond what the above summary already clued me into.  Marilyn is working for a secret agent, hoping to meet her father in trade for secrets about JFK.  So she has lots of sexy meetings with the future president, and finds out...very little of interest.  But she does have a LOT of sex, which I started to think was the only thing meant to keep my attention.

That led to the second issue: this book seems to quickly devolve into a voyeuristic look at the relationship between Marilyn and JFK.  If you want to get your jollies by having a front-row seat for their every (hypothetical) sexual encounter, then this book is for you.  I'm not sure that there's enough plot to draw you in beyond that.  And Marilyn, despite her larger-than-life persona in her heyday, comes across the page as disappointingly flat and monotonous as a result.

I know there's still 60% of this book that I never experienced, but if a book is billed as "part thriller" and I've not yet been thrilled 40% in, I think I'm done.  Sorry Anna Godbersen, I will be in for your next YA historical fiction venture, but this new angle did not work for me.

What was the last book you had high hopes for, but ended up disappointed?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book Review: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell


Title: Gone With The Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: September 1, 1936
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Civil War, Margaret Mitchell's epic love story is an unforgettable tale of love and loss, of a nation mortally divided and its people forever changed. At the heart of all this chaos is the story of beautiful, ruthless Scarlett O'Hara and the dashing soldier of fortune, Rhett Butler.

My Review:

HOW to review a novel as vast, as famous, as this one??

This book has been on my TBR pile for a long, long time.  I operate on the principle that if there is a well-known movie based on a book, I must try to read the book first.  Such is the case with Gone With The Wind.  Somehow, I successfully avoided the movie for the last 30.5 years of my life (minus endless clips of Rhett Butler's famous "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn"...which was actually mildly spoilery for the book, by the way), and I was able to first enjoy this story in written form.  And enjoy it I did!  For over two months, in fact.  I spent most of the summer finishing this book, and I have zero regrets about savoring those 1024 pages for so long.

I knew that GWTW was a romance, but it is so much more than that.  Because first of all, how fantastic of a character is Scarlett O'Hara?  She is such a force to be reckoned with, especially for a woman in the Civil War era.  At the same time, she is outrageously self-centered and naive, very much to a fault.  I alternated frequently between cheering for her to get on with her bad self, and shaking my fist at her stupidity.  The complexities of her character are endless, though in the end I really did love her, despite her many faults.  (Okay, except maybe her role as a mother.  She was a positively horrid mother.)

Beyond the romance, beyond Scarlett, we have a novel set quite dramatically against the backdrop of the Civil War.  Scarlett and Rhett's story is inseparable from the tragedies of wartime in 1860's Atlanta.  Not only is their relationship perfectly woven into this turbulent time period, but the novel does a pretty excellent job of detailing Civil War history.  I was raised in Connecticut, where I imagine the Civil War is taught in schools with a bit of a different tone than it is in Georgia, or any of the southern states.  This was probably the first account of the Civil War that I've read from a southern perspective (albeit a fictional one), and it was extremely eye-opening.  The historical detail in this novel is every bit as compelling as Scarlett and Rhett's dramatic romance.

One of the most important messages in GWTW is this: be happy with what you have, when you have it.  The grass is not always greener.  Love the one you're with.  I won't tell you if Scarlett learns these lessons or not, but it's quite a ride watching her try to get there.

I am so glad that I finally got around to tackling this classic.  It is absolutely an epic novel that's worth your time!  Now I need to get to the movie...although I must admit, the few clips I watched on YouTube already have me feeling like it won't do the book justice.  (That famous Rhett quote isn't delivered in anywhere near the same tone it was written in the book...#readerproblems.)

This was my third pick from the TBR Book Baggie! My next pick from the baggie is:

Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen!

YA up in the hizzy!  And another main character named Scarlett?  Weird.  Stay tuned for a review...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Book Review (DNF): The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Harnett


Title: The Hollow Ground
Author: Natalie S. Harnett
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Source: ARC received from publicist for an honest review

Summary from Goodreads:

"We walk on fire or air, so Daddy liked to say. Basement floors too hot to touch. Steaming green lawns in the dead of winter. Sinkholes, quick and sudden, plunging open at your feet."

The underground mine fires ravaging Pennsylvania coal country have forced Brigid Howley and her family to seek refuge with her estranged grandparents, the formidable Gram and the Black Lung stricken Gramp. Tragedy is no stranger to the Howleys, a proud Irish-American clan who takes strange pleasure in the "curse" laid upon them generations earlier by a priest who ran afoul of the Molly Maguires. The weight of this legacy rests heavily on a new generation, when Brigid, already struggling to keep her family together, makes a grisly discovery in a long-abandoned bootleg mine shaft. In the aftermath, decades' old secrets threaten to prove just as dangerous to the Howleys as the burning, hollow ground beneath their feet. Inspired by real-life events in now-infamous Centralia and the equally devastated town of Carbondale, The Hollow Ground is an extraordinary debut with an atmospheric, voice-driven narrative and an indelible sense of place.


My Review:

As you all know, I'm not really accepting ARCs for review other than for TLC Book Tours (and even that got scaled way back).  However, when I was approached with an offer to read The Hollow Ground, I jumped on it.  Mostly, it was the setting that did it for me--I have been rather fascinated by the history of the coal fires in Centralia, PA (a literal ghost town--Google that shizzle), and my mom's family is from northeastern Pennsylvania, not far from Carbondale.  My grandfather was a coal miner.  So I thought for sure this would be a match made in heaven for me.  But alas, it was not to be.

This is going to be a short review because, yes...I DNF'd this book.  (Did Not Finish, for the layperson.)  And I hardly ever do that (in fact, it's only the third time ever).  But I worked my way through 46% of this novel, and I just could not connect with it, no matter how hard I tried.  And I tried...OH MY GOD did I tryyyyy (a little early-90's rock for you right there...anyone?  You can thank me later).

I think there were two issues for me here.  First was the main character, Brigid.  She was so static.  I felt like a lot of things were happening TO her, but she was rarely ever making things happen.  She was very passive, and thus came off as a weak protagonist.  I didn't build any emotion for or against her, which is rarely a good sign.

The second issue was that there wasn't much plot movement.  I made it to nearly the 50% mark, and didn't feel like I had reached any level of anticipation for these "decades' old secrets" that were mentioned in the book's summary.  Perhaps that anticipation would have come later, but by the halfway point, I found myself unwilling to wait for it any longer.

Hopefully others will have a better experience with this one (there are quite a lot of excellent reviews on Goodreads!), but The Hollow Ground was a miss for me.

Readers, have you had to DNF any novels lately?

Friday, November 8, 2013

GIVEAWAY and Book Review: The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio


Title: The Last Camellia
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Plume
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
Source: won in a giveaway on Nadia's blog (A Bookish Way of Life)

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

On the eve of World War II, the last surviving specimen of a camellia plant known as the Middlebury Pink lies secreted away on an English country estate. Flora, an amateur American botanist, is contracted by an international ring of flower thieves to infiltrate the household and acquire the coveted bloom. Her search is at once brightened by new love and threatened by her discovery of a series of ghastly crimes.

More than half a century later, garden designer Addison takes up residence at the manor, now owned by the family of her husband, Rex. The couple’s shared passion for mysteries is fueled by the enchanting camellia orchard and an old gardener’s notebook. Yet its pages hint at dark acts ingeniously concealed. If the danger that Flora once faced remains very much alive, will Addison share her fate?


My Review:

I have to admit--I was a little unsure of how I would do with this novel.  You may remember that I read my first Sarah Jio novel (Blackberry Winter) earlier this year, and it left me feeling kind of "eh".  Liked it, didn't love it.  I was surprised, because so many people had raved to me about Jio's work, but Blackberry Winter was too predictable for me to completely get on board.  However, I was determined to give her another shot, and this giveaway win from Nadia came at the perfect time for a second try.

The Last Camellia fits well into a variety of genres: romance, historical fiction, and mystery being the primary categories.  I'm not usually a romance reader, but the relationships in this novel are not overly schmoopy or steamy.  They add a warm and fuzzy "background music" to the plot, if you will.  As for the historical fiction, that is one area that I knew Jio would excel in after reading Blackberry Winter.  I really enjoy how she merges the past with the present rather seamlessly, as modern-day Addison entwines herself in the question of what happened to Flora and the residents of Livingston Manor in the 1940's.

As for the mystery--this is where I was wary at first.  I was afraid that I would see the finale a mile away, and I simply can't stand a mystery that lacks, well, mystery.  HOWEVER, that was completely not the case here.  While I did have some hunches along the way about "whodunit", in the end I was quite surprised by the ending.  There are so many complicated players in this story that I think even the hints you do receive leave you feeling hesitant before you draw any big conclusions.

I'd say that my only hiccup with this novel is that some of the major events that occur happen rather abruptly.  For example, Addison is hiding a big secret from her husband (don't worry, not a spoiler--you find that out pretty much on page one), and when it's finally revealed, the unveiling is rather quick and terse.  Same goes for some of the events that wrap up the ending.  Given the flowing, beautiful prose of the rest of the novel, these too-quick bursts of action stick out like a sore thumb.  However, I'd say this is more an issue of styling than anything else, and it doesn't detract from how much I liked the story overall.

Sarah Jio was originally recommended to me as "the lesser-known Jodi Picoult", and I absolutely see that comparison in The Last Camellia.  A fluid blend of past-meets-present, a little bit o' love, and a good mystery = a reading win.  I'm feeling much more interested in trying Jio's other novels!

GIVEAWAY TIME!
When I won the giveaway on Nadia's blog, I received not one, but FIVE copies of The Last Camellia!  So I am keeping one, and graciously giving the other four away.  Just fill in the Rafflecopter below for your chance to win!  :)  (US/Canada only please)
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review and Giveaway: The Midwife's Revolt by Jodi Daynard



Welcome to the next stop on the review tour for The Midwife’s Revolt by Jodi Daynard.

Title: The Midwife's Revolt
Author: Jodi Daynard
Publisher: Opossum Press
Publication Date: January 1, 2013
Source: e-copy received from Novel Publicity tours for an honest review

Book Description:
The Midwife’s Revolt takes the reader on a journey to the founding days of America. It follows one woman’s path, Lizzie Boylston, from her grieving days of widowhood after Bunker Hill, to her deepening friendship with Abigail Adams and midwifery, and finally to her dangerous work as a spy for the Cause. A novel rich in historical detail, The Midwife’s Revolt opens a window onto the real lives of colonial women.

Jodi Daynard’s historical fiction The Midwife’s Revolt has eared a 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon and praise from libraries, historical associations and is even featured at The Museum of the American Revolution.

“A charming, unexpected, and decidedly different view of the Revolutionary War.”
—Publishers Weekly

“This humorous, exciting and touching story retells the familiar saga of the Revolutionary War in a stunning new way that feels fresh and alive.”
—Kirkus Reviews


My Review:
I used to read a LOT of historical fiction--I got especially hooked on the Tudors a few years ago, but after a while I felt a little burnt out in that genre.  However, lately I've been hankering to get back into it, and when I saw The Midwife's Revolt offered as a Novel Publicity tour, I couldn't resist.

This was a new foray for me in historical fiction, because I've never read anything in that genre focusing on the Revolutionary War.  This time period has always been interesting for me though, because I grew up right down the street from a Revolutionary War battlefield (where the Battle of Groton Heights was fought in Connecticut).  Also (coincidentally enough), last weekend my husband, Small Fry, and I discovered the Saratoga National Battlefield not a far drive from our house--and the Battle of Freeman's Farm (located there) is actually mentioned in The Midwife's Revolt!  So I was pretty fascinated by all the real-life history around me as I read this novel.
Saratoga National Battlefield (photo courtesy saratoga.com)
(And you're thinking, okay, great Kel, what about the book?)

The Midwife's Revolt does precisely what you want a historical fiction novel to do--it leaves you wondering where the fact ends and the fiction begins.  The protagonist, Lizzie Boylston, is surrounded by notable figures of the Revolution that you will surely recognize--John Adams, George Washington, Abigail Adams, etc.  The novel's central focus is on Lizzie and her personal journey throughout the war, but her interactions with these famous patriots lends the strong historical background that gives this novel its strength.  As a reader, I was constantly wondering how much of Lizzie's story (and the stories of those around her) were true, which kept me on my toes and wanting to turn the page.  (I won't spoil it for you, but rest assured that Daynard does make some notes at the end to let you know what was fact, and what was fiction.  Some of it is quite surprising!)

The storyline is complex; Lizzie goes through a lot in the many years that the novel covers, so it's quite epic in scope.  Despite this complexity, the novel never loses its feel of historical accuracy.  It's clear that Daynard did meticulous research to make sure that the book was fitting for the political and social customs of the period.  At times I will say it felt a little "textbookish"...there was so much historical detail, sometimes not interspersed with much personal dialogue, that it occasionally toed the line towards feeling like a nonfiction article.  This also led to the characters sometimes seeming a little flat, as it felt like they were trying too hard to be historically "true".  However, the movement of the plot always eventually got back on track, and Lizzie's story shone through.

Overall, I think The Midwife's Revolt is a good choice if you're looking for a historical fiction fix--especially if you have particular interest in the Revolutionary War.  History buffs will be impressed, and fiction fiends will enjoy the mysteries that Lizzie uncovers, as well as her personal struggles as a woman attempting to help the Rebel cause.  Lizzie certainly has a force of passion that makes her a unique character for this time period, and that alone should be a draw for many readers.

About the Author: Jodi Daynard is a writer of fiction, essays, and criticism. Her work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review, The Village Voice, The Paris Review, Agni, New England Review and in several anthologies. She is the author of The Place Within: Portraits of the American Landscape by 20 Contemporary Writers (W. W. Norton). Ms. Daynard’s essays have been nominated for several prizes and mentioned in Best American Essays. She has taught writing at Harvard University, M.I.T., and in the MFA program at Emerson College, and served for seven years as Fiction Editor at Boston Review. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, The National Women’s Book Association, and the Author’s Guild. The Midwife’s Revolt is her first novel.

Prizes! Who doesn’t love awesome book themed gifts?  Jodi is offering A Kindle Fire to one reader as well as a Artemis Cameo Necklace, an American Flag Folk Art and a $25 Amazon Gift Card.  All you have to do is leave a comment and enter the Rafflecopter (below).  Of course, there are plenty of other ways to enter to win just by helping spread the word about The Midwife’s Revolt.

a Rafflecopter giveaway The Tour: Follow along and read more reviews of The Midwife’s Revolt.  You can see the full list of participating reviews HERE.
 
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