Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Phantom Tree

Author: Nicola Cornick
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Graydon House
First Published: August 21, 2018
First Line: "She saw the portrait quite by chance, or so she thought."

Book Description from GoodReads
“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”
Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.
The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.
But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…
My Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to the publisher for my complimentary digital copy of this book, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.
My Review: The Phantom Tree blends history, a lesser known Seymour and a dollop of supernatural to make for a unique reading experience. The story focuses on two women, in two different eras - Allison Bannister in modern day and Mary Seymour, a young woman in Tudor England who has connections to the Crown.

I appreciated that this book wasn't heavy in British history as some Tudor Historical Fiction. I also enjoyed the descriptions of 16th century England but overall, The Phantom Tree fell somewhere in the 'I enjoyed the read, but it's not a fav' realm for me.

I think the biggest issue I had with the book is that the reader isn't given any real explanation to account for the supernatural and time travel elements which were a big part of the overall plot. No standing stones, no magic jewels, no magical cupboard to Narnia etc. I can suspend belief, but I need the issue to be addressed. When you add in the clairvoyance/telepathy aspect, it made for a rather substantial supernatural focus in this Historical Fiction read. 

I appreciated that Mary and Allison's story line are balanced well within the plot, but I was much more drawn to Mary's story. Allison's experiences in modern times felt forced. It bothered me how easily Allison was able to blend in to the 21st century and how readily the people around her accepted her tales of time travel. I guess I expected more 'fish out of water' drama. 

Overall, this is an entertaining read that gives readers a unique supernatural element to the popular Historical Fiction genre. If readers are able to suspend belief and go with the flow, they should enjoy this novel that blends history, supernatural, a bit of mystery and even some romance for good measure.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Masterpiece

Author: Fiona Davis
Genre: Historical Fiction (US)
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Dutton
First Published: August 7, 2018
First Line: "Clara Darden's illustration class at the Grande Central School of Art, tucked under the copper eaves of the terminal, was unaffected by the trains that rumbled through ancient layers of Manhattan schist hundreds of feet below."

Book Description from GoodReadsFor the nearly nine million people who live in New York City, Grand Central Terminal is a crown jewel, a masterpiece of design. But for Clara Darden and Virginia Clay, it represents something quite different.

For Clara, the terminal is the stepping stone to her future, which she is certain will shine as the brightly as the constellations on the main concourse ceiling. It is 1928, and twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the lauded Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public's disdain for a "woman artist." Brash, fiery, confident, and single-minded--even while juggling the affections of two men, a wealthy would-be poet and a brilliant experimental painter--Clara is determined to achieve every creative success. But she and her bohemian friends have no idea that they'll soon be blindsided by the looming Great Depression, an insatiable monster with the power to destroy the entire art scene. And even poverty and hunger will do little to prepare Clara for the greater tragedy yet to come.

Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined almost as sharply as Virginia Clay's life. Full of grime and danger, from the smoke-blackened ceiling to the pickpockets and drug dealers who roam the floor, Grand Central is at the center of a fierce lawsuit: Is the once-grand building a landmark to be preserved, or a cancer to be demolished? For Virginia, it is simply her last resort. Recently divorced, she has just accepted a job in the information booth in order to support herself and her college-age daughter, Ruby. But when Virginia stumbles upon an abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, her eyes are opened to the elegance beneath the decay. She embarks on a quest to find the artist of the unsigned masterpiece--an impassioned chase that draws Virginia not only into the battle to save Grand Central but deep into the mystery of Clara Darden, the famed 1920s illustrator who disappeared from history in 1931.

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Review: The Masterpiece is a historical fiction novel set in New York City in two different eras (1920's and 1970's) that follows the lives of two women who share a connection with Grand Central Terminal. Davis weaves these points of view with rich historical details of both eras and, most especially, the vivid descriptions of Grand Central in her glory days as well as later when its very existence is threatened.

The story is told using dual narratives of Clara in the 1920's and Virginia fifty years later and while I enjoyed their stories - especially how they intersected with the Terminal and their mutual struggles as women in male dominated eras - I can't say that I was connected to either beyond a superficial level.  My favourite character of the book was actually Grand Central herself - the history, layout and grandeur of the historic train terminal, including how people, some quite famous, fought to preserve this iconic Terminal as others threatened to destroy it in the name of progress. (And yes, it's Grand Central Terminal, not station as I quickly learned from this book). 

This was an enjoyable read and while I found the plot a little predictable, it was an easy read and I enjoyed learning more about this well-known structure that is so deeply embedded in the history of NYC. I believe this book will inspire some readers to research more into the rich and long history of this well-known building. I know it's inspired me to put a return trip to New York City closer to the top of my vacation bucket list so I can finally see this iconic structure for myself. 

Saturday, 11 August 2018

An Unwanted Guest

Author: Shari Lapena
Genre: Mystery, Canadian
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 304
Source: Doubleday Canada
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
First Published: July 26, 2018
First Line: "The road curves and twists unexpectedly as it leads higher and deeper into the Catskill Mountains, as if the farther you get from civilization, the more uncertain the path."

Book Description from GoodReadsWe can’t choose the strangers we meet.

As the guests arrive at beautiful, remote Mitchell’s Inn, they’re all looking forward to a relaxing weekend deep in the forest, miles from anywhere. They watch their fellow guests with interest, from a polite distance.

Usually we can avoid the people who make us nervous, make us afraid.

With a violent storm raging, the group finds itself completely cut off from the outside world. Nobody can get in – or out. And then the first body is found . . . and the horrifying truth comes to light. There’s a killer among them – and nowhere to run.

Until we find ourselves in a situation we can’t escape. Trapped.

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 
My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Shari Lapena, a Toronto-based author, has quickly become one of the authors whom I avidly keep an eye on for upcoming books. I've read and enjoyed two of her previous novels (The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House) but this book, An Unwanted Guest, took me a bit by surprise. Instead of a 'typical' suspense novel, Lapena brings her reader into a very Agatha Christie-esque situation with a group of characters who find themselves stranded in a remote hotel as the bodies begin to pile up.

This is a compelling story with a group of characters who are quite varied and give the reader a good look at their issues, secrets and pasts as well as a bird's eye view of the current disturbing situation. As readers progress through this character-driven read, they'll begin to doubt their initial ideas of the culprit's identity which heightens the tension and makes for a wonderfully twisted murder mystery.

Overall, this was a refreshing and clever 'who-dunnit' that has a healthy dose of menace, an intriguing ensemble of characters and spattering of murder that puts the characters as well as the reader on the edge of their seats.  While this book gives a hearty nod to Dame Christie (an author who knew a thing or two about how to craft a well-written mystery), Lapena provides readers with a compelling, multi-layered old-school mystery with her own personal touches.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Dear Mrs. Bird

Author: A.J Pearce
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Scribner
First Published: July 3, 2018
First Line: "When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst."

Book Description from GoodReadsA charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

My Rating: 3 stars

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher, via NetGalley, in change for my honest review. 

My Review: Dear Mrs. Bird is a Historical Fiction novel set in London during the Blitz -- a time when the daily lives of Londoners were filled with fear, loss and destruction, yet they carried on despite the ever-present threat of the Luftwaffe. 

While some war-time issues are addressed, the feel of the story remains on the lighter side with the characters and story line lacking somewhat in depth. Emmy came across as a little too perpetually plucky for my tastes and her continual and odd Use Of Caps For Certain Phrases wore thin early on. But, overall, the characters (besides the ol' Bird) were endearing and I liked that friendship was a main theme throughout. I just would have loved to have known why and how Mrs Bird became the 'staunch, rule-follower-no-matter-what' sort of woman she was. That information is left to the readers' imaginations.

This is a sweet, lighter read that is set during a horrific time and I feel the publisher's comparison with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is aptly made.  The premise was interesting but what I truly appreciated was how the reader is privy to a view of the war through the eyes of a young woman who wanted more out of life than society was willing to give her.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

The Lost Vintage

Author: Ann Mah
Genre: Historical Ficiton (WWII)
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 384
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: William Morrow
First Published: June 19, 2018
First Line: "Meursault, Burgundy - Sept 2015: I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but the truth was this: I had vowed never to return to this place."

Book Description from GoodReadsSweetbitter meets The Nightingale in this page-turning novel about a woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy and unexpectedly uncovers a lost diary, an unknown relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II

To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine Examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, she travels to Burgundy, to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations. There she can bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian vintages and reconnect with her cousin Nico and his wife Heather, who now oversee the grapes’ day-to-day management. The one person Kate hopes to avoid is Jean-Luc, a neighbor vintner and her first love.

At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousins clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, behind a large armoire, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, some Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. Piqued by the secret space, Kate begins to dig into her family’s history—a search that takes her back to the dark days of the Second World War and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great half-aunt who was teenager during the Nazi occupation.

As she learns more about her family, the line between Resistance and Collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection?

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: If there ever was a book that made me want to grab a seat on the next plane to France and drink wine it is this book. 

Ann Mah, a Travel and Food writer and novelist, provides readers with stunning descriptions of the Burgundy region of France, its wine and history, as the backdrop to a story about a long-held family secret. 

The story is told using two equally compelling narratives:  Kate, a young woman in 2015 who is studying to become one of the top wine experts in the world and the other narrative uses bits and pieces from an old diary that Kate finds while cleaning out the basement in her family's ancestral home in their vineyard in Beaune, France. 

It's through this second POV that readers get a bird's eye view into the French Resistance and the harsh backdrop of German occupied France. The indignities, abuse and horrors that French locals lived through for years are vividly portrayed and Mah doesn't hold back as she educates readers on how female collaborators (or merely suspected collaborators) were treated after the war.

This book easily makes one of my top picks for 2018 so far. You don't have to be a Dionysus groupie to enjoy this well-crafted Historical Fiction read. This is an engrossing story about perseverance, the tenacity of the human spirit and family in all its complicated variations. 

If you'll only be reading one Historical Fiction this summer, let it be this one.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Believe Me

Author: J.P Delaney
Genre: Psychological Thriller/Suspense
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Double Day Canada
First Published: July 24, 2018
First Line: "My friend hasn't shown yet."

Book Description from GoodReadsIn this twisty psychological thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Before, an actress plays both sides of a murder investigation.

A struggling actor, a Brit in America without a green card, Claire needs work and money to survive. Then she gets both. But nothing like she expected.

Claire agrees to become a decoy for a firm of divorce lawyers. Hired to entrap straying husbands, she must catch them on tape with their seductive propositions. The rules? Never hit on the mark directly. Make it clear you’re available, but he has to proposition you, not the other way around. The firm is after evidence, not coercion. The innocent have nothing to hide.

Then the game changes.

When the wife of one of Claire’s targets is violently murdered, the cops are sure the husband is to blame. Desperate to catch him before he kills again, they enlist Claire to lure him into a confession.

Claire can do this. She’s brilliant at assuming a voice and an identity. For a woman who’s mastered the art of manipulation, how difficult could it be to tempt a killer into a trap? But who is the decoy . . . and who is the prey?

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 2 stars (ie. 'meh')

My Review: I was initially drawn to this book, my first by author J.P Delaney, because of the unique premise of a struggling actress being hired to ensnare cheating men. 

There is a murder and the now garden-variety unreliable narrator which leaves the reader to wonder the identity of the culprit. Twists are thrown in, the plot progresses but by the half way mark I was losing interest for a few reasons. The characters are categorically unlikeable, there's waaay too much mention of Baudelaire (and his 'Les Fleurs du Mal' BDSM poem) and I wasn't a fan of the sadistic slant of the plot. Not my cuppa tea. There's also this odd 'screen play within the story' aspect that felt forced and was more than a little distracting. Unfortunately, as the book progressed, my interest in the characters' lives and the 'who dunnit' aspect withered until I really didn't care how it ended. 

I was underwhelmed by this book. The plot had good bones with its twists and manipulations but overall the execution was shaky at best. Believe me when I say … I wish I had liked this book more.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Sharp Objects

Author: Gillian Flynn
Genre: Suspense
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 393
Source: Publisher

Publisher: Broadway Books

First Published: 2006
First Line: "My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly."

Book Description from GoodReads

WICKED above her hipbone, GIRL across her heart 

Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker's troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille's first assignment from the second-rate daily paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls.

NASTY on her kneecap, BABYDOLL on her leg

Since she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family's Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory.

HARMFUL on her wrist, WHORE on her ankle

As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims--a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.

With its taut, crafted writing, Sharp Objects is addictive, haunting, and unforgettable.

Disclaimer: This Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) was generously provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Dark. Eerie. Traumatic. That about sums up Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn which is a disturbing, yet fascinating read about a dysfunctional family and the murder of two young girls in a small town.

In the past, the only book I'd read by Gillian Flynn was her mega-hit Gone, Girl and I'll be honest … I wasn't a big fan. But I'm so glad I don't hold bookish grudges because this was a great read!

In Sharp Objects, Flynn doesn't shy away from some meaty issues: psychological trauma, family dysfunction, abuse and a boat load of other sensitive issues. And it works. Readers are pulled into Camille's family and witness how their destructive dynamic continues to tie them together and understand why Camille's upbringing took such a toll on her mental health. Readers will feel hard pressed to look away from the destruction within this unique family and fans of Amy Engle's The Roanoke Girls will notice a similar feel since both books deal with a family scared by a dark history.

The only issue that brought my rating down was the ending. It felt too quick and glossed over issues I wanted more closure on. Otherwise, this is an engrossing read about dysfunction, with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. While this book isn't for the faint of heart, it is a captivating read and has put Flynn back on my bookish radar. I cannot wait to see the miniseries staring Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Gunners

Author: Rebecca Kauffman
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 261
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Counterpoint
First Published: March 20, 2018
First Line: "Mikey Callahan discovered something about himself when he was six years old."

Book Description from GoodReadsAchieving bold emotional complexity, The Gunners explores just how much one moment, one decision, or one person can change us Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called "mesmerizing," "powerful," and "gorgeous," by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with "The Gunners," his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally's death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.

My Rating: 4.5 stars

My Review: The Gunners is a story about six inseparable childhood friends who name their group after the surname on the mailbox of the dilapidated old house where they hang out. This group - Mikey, Sally, Alice, Sam, Jimmy and Lynn - did everything together until they were sixteen years old and Sally inexplicably left their group, fracturing it beyond repair.

Years later, they come together for Sally's funeral. Through different points of view, in two different eras, Kauffman shows the ups and downs involved in growing up within a tight knit group of friends. These relationships were wonderful, complicated and helped them weather the challenges of growing up.

This is a story about complex family dynamics and the effects of long-held secrets, but the main focus is on friendship and how, if you're lucky, the friends you make growing up will continue to have a special place in your life. These are the people who have seen you through tears, helped you weather family squabbles, stood by you after that horrific perm of Grade 6 and everything in between. As this story progresses, secrets are revealed, confessions are made and the bond, made decades before, remains one of the things that continues to hold them together. 

This is a feel-good kind of story that focuses on the influence life-long friendships can have on who we become as adults. If you're lucky enough to still be in touch with childhood friends, this book will have you reaching out for your 'oldie but goodie' friends and taking a trip down memory lane. 

Note: This review is dedicated to my very own Gunners: Beth, Nicole, Kris, Drew, Chris, Larissa, Barb, Kelly, Tracey …. I'm so very lucky to still have you in my life (and thankful that you don't have any pictures from the 'perm that shall not be named'). xo

Saturday, 14 July 2018

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos and Other Tales From the Wild Side of Wildlife

Author: Lucy Cooke
Genre: Non-Fiction
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 352
Source: Local Public Library
Publisher: Basic Books
First Published: April 17, 2018
First Line: "How can sloths exist when they're such losers?"

Book Description from GoodReadsMary Roach meets Bill Bryson in this "surefire summer winner" (Janet Maslin, New York Times), an uproarious tour of the basest instincts and biggest mysteries of the animal world

Humans have gone to the Moon and discovered the Higgs boson, but when it comes to understanding animals, we've still got a long way to go. Whether we're seeing a viral video of romping baby pandas or a picture of penguins "holding hands," it's hard for us not to project our own values--innocence, fidelity, temperance, hard work--onto animals. So you've probably never considered if moose get drunk, penguins cheat on their mates, or worker ants lay about. They do--and that's just for starters. In The Truth About Animals, Lucy Cooke takes us on a worldwide journey to meet everyone from a Colombian hippo castrator to a Chinese panda porn peddler, all to lay bare the secret--and often hilarious--habits of the animal kingdom. Charming and at times downright weird, this modern bestiary is perfect for anyone who has ever suspected that virtue might be unnatural.

My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: The truth about animals is that they're fascinating and most humans don't have more than a basic understanding of the creatures we share this planet with. Using her wicked sense of humour, Oxford educated zoologist, Lucy Cooke debunks myths about some of the animal kingdom's most misunderstood residents and shows the ludicrous and sometimes barbaric lengths humans have gone to in order to better understand animals. 

Think you know a lot about the sex lives of penguins, the antibacterial qualities of vulture poo or the just how well-endowed bats are? Well, think again, my friend!  

Cooke brings readers into the private lives of thirteen animals and shows just how misguided (and often downright wrong) we've been about animals over the centuries. While the research side got a little heavy in places, overall, she successfully balances the information (both ancient texts and more modern beliefs) with a healthy dose of humour and it is clear that she truly loves and respects the beasties she studies. 

This is an informative read but it's also peppered with truly hilarious anecdotes that will have readers giggling out loud. You can't NOT laugh about myths involving beavers pelting hunters with 'unique' missiles, chimpanzee farts, or be in awe of hippo suntan lotion or shocked by the special ingredient in some vanilla extract! (Yikes!)  But I know my husband was thankful when I finally finished this book because after reading each chapter I'd regale him with funny tidbits about sloths, moose (my fav!!), pandas, eels etc. The man can only take so much of my giggle-filled updates of all things animal, apparently.

Human arrogance, rampant anthropomorphism and ignorance has proven to be detrimental and downright lethal to many animal species. From hippos to pandas, to hyenas and the slooooowww moving sloth, Cooke's knowledge, respect and love for animals is evident and hopefully readers will become more informed about the unique and fascinating creatures in this bestiary so that we can better appreciate and understand them before it's too late. 

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