Tuesday, 28 August 2018

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart


Author: Holly Ringland
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 388
Source: Publisher
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
First Published: July 31, 2018
First Line: "In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire."

Book Description from GoodReadsThe most enchanting debut novel of 2018, this is an irresistible, deeply moving and romantic story of a young girl, daughter of an abusive father, who has to learn the hard way that she can break the patterns of the past, live on her own terms and find her own strength.

After her family suffers a tragedy when she is nine years old, Alice Hart is forced to leave her idyllic seaside home. She is taken in by her estranged grandmother, June, a flower farmer who raises Alice on the language of Australian native flowers, a way to say the things that are too hard to speak. But Alice also learns that there are secrets within secrets about her past. Under the watchful eye of June and The Flowers, women who run the farm, Alice grows up. But an unexpected betrayal sends her reeling, and she flees to the dramatically beautiful central Australian desert. Alice thinks she has found solace, until she falls in love with Dylan, a charismatic and ultimately dangerous man.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is a story about stories: those we inherit, those we select to define us, and those we decide to hide. It is a novel about the secrets we keep and how they haunt us, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. Spanning twenty years, set between the lush sugar cane fields by the sea, a native Australian flower farm, and a celestial crater in the central desert, Alice must go on a journey to discover that the most powerful story she will ever possess is her own.
 




Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to House of Anansi Press for providing me with a complimentary copy of this title in exchange for my honest review. 

My Rating: 3.5 stars


My Review: When I first began this debut novel by Australian author Holly Ringland, its eye-catching cover and its engaging beginning impressed me immediately. Filled with family tragedy and a young heroine readers could get behind, I quickly understood why this book was such a hit in Australia. 

Throughout the book there are beautiful sketches of flowers native to Australia as well as tidbits of info on them that some readers will enjoy. The book has three distinct parts and I was most riveted with the first third of the book as we witness Alice's tumultuous and often abusive childhood. The second part is filled with her new life on a flower farm with her grandmother and a bunch of lost souls where she learns more about her parents' early relationship. Many characters are introduced, some just pop in and others we're given a brief background, but there were some (specifically, Twig, Candy Baby and June) whose contribution to the story felt too brief.

Unfortunately, I found the last third of the book to be weak. It strayed too far from the feeling of the first two-thirds of the book and had a distinctly overly melodramatic feel. More characters are introduced (oh how I wish Moss had a bigger role!) and Alice became someone I almost didn't recognize; she was irritating, immature and made obviously bad decisions. Unfortunately, this part of the story did not grip me as the earlier parts of the book and I found the ending to be predictable. 

My feelings seem to be all over the place with this book. The parts I enjoyed were fantastic and overall, this is an impressive coming-of-age debut that tackles some larger issues. The descriptive writing brings readers into two beautiful and distinct parts of Australia. The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart has a family saga feel to it. I just wish it had more depth to some of its characters and a stronger ending.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Women Talking


Author: Miriam Toews
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Canadian
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 240
Publisher: Knopf Canada
First Published: August 21, 2018
First Line: "My name is August Epp -- irrelevant for all purposes, other than that I've been appointed the minute-taker for the women's meetings because the women are illiterate and unable to do it themselves."

Book Description from GoodReadsBased on actual events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a remote Mennonite community where more than 100 girls and women were drugged unconscious and assaulted in the night by what they were told (by the men of the colony) were "ghosts" or "demons," Miriam Toews' bold and affecting novel Women Talking is an imagined response to these real events.


The novel takes place over forty-eight hours, as eight women gather in secret in a neighbour's barn while the men are in a nearby town posting bail for the attackers. They have come together to debate, on behalf of all the women and children in the community, whether to stay or leave before the men return. Taking minutes is the one man trusted and invited by the women to witness the conversation--a former outcast whose own surprising story is revealed as the women speak.

By turns poignant, witty, acerbic, bitter, tender, devastating, and heartbreaking, the voices in this extraordinary novel are unforgettable. Toews has chosen to focus the novel tightly on a particular time and place, and yet it contains within its 48 hours and setting inside a hayloft an entire vast universe of thinking and feeling about the experience of women (and therefore men, too) in our contemporary world. In a word: astonishing. 



Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Rating: 3/5 stars

My Review: I picked this book up for a few reasons. It's by a well-known Canadian author, it's based on an actual event and I live in a community with a large Mennonite population, so the Mennonite aspect intrigued me. 

This little book is a fictional tale based on the abuse that was endured by a group of Mennonite women and girls, who live in a secluded colony in Bolivia. The abuse included repeatedly being drugged and raped by a group of males in their small community.  The women meet in secret to discuss what they should do - do nothing, stay and fight or leave the colony. Readers are privy to the dialogue and debate between these women, who form two different groups, each with a distinct opinion of what the women should do. 

The subject matter isn't for the faint of heart and is quite emotional. The main emotion I felt was anger. Anger for the sexual abuse these women and female children endured. Anger for their lack of power and choices. Anger for their lack of education and how they were kept secluded and denied access to the outside world. 

Women Talking would provide book groups with a lot of discussion points, especially those who have strong religious convictions since the struggle to decide what these women do is firmly rooted in their religious beliefs. I personally had a difficult time connecting with this aspect of the book and this caused me to put down the book several times. Since this book is largely one big conversation between the women as they argue and struggle to decide what to do, I'd suggest reading this book in one or two sittings.

Overall, this was a unique and emotional read that focuses on abuses many women still sadly endure. Even though this book is only 240 pages, this book packs quite a punch.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Sold on a Monday


Author: Kristina McMorris
Genre: Historical Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
First Published: August 28, 2018
First Line: "Outside the guarded entrance, reporters circled like a pack of wolves."

Book Description from GoodReads

2 CHILDREN FOR SALE

The sign is a last resort. It sits on a farmhouse porch in 1931, but could be found anywhere in an era of breadlines, bank runs, and broken dreams. It could have been written by any mother facing impossible choices.

For struggling reporter Ellis Reed, the gut-wrenching scene evokes memories of his family’s dark past. He snaps a photograph of the children, not meant for publication. But when it leads to his big break, the consequences are more devastating than he ever imagined.

At the paper, Lillian Palmer is haunted by her role in all that happened. She is far too familiar with the heartbreak of children deemed unwanted. As the bonds of motherhood are tested, she and Ellis must decide how much they are willing to risk to mend a fractured family.

Inspired by an actual newspaper photograph that stunned the nation, Sold on a Monday is a powerful novel of love, redemption, and the unexpected paths that bring us home.



Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary digital copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Rating: 4 stars

My Review: Inspired by an actual newspaper photograph showing children sitting by a sign that reads Children For Sale, Sold On A Monday is a tragic, yet heartwarming, story set during the Depression. 

This is one of those books that you'll sink into and suddenly find yourself immersed in a compelling story, time and place.  McMorris brings her readers into the grim setting of 1930's America where people were desperate to ensure they had money in their pocket, a place to live and food on the table for their families. Many were not so lucky.

With an engaging story and well-developed characters, readers will be swept into the lives of Lily Palmer, a young woman who dreams of making it as a newspaper reporter,  Ellis Reed, a reporter who wants to find a story to get his first big break, and two young children who find their lives dramatically changed by one photo.

This is a story about how two decisions, one by a stranger and one by a parent, compounded by dire circumstances, changed the lives of two children. It's a story of love, heartbreaking loss, redemption and perseverance. Fans of Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train will enjoy this book. 


Monday, 20 August 2018

Wonderstruck


Author: Brian Celznick
Genre: School-Aged, Contemporary Fiction, Deafness
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 640
Publisher: Scholastic Press
First Published: 2011
First Line: "Something hit Ben Wilson and he opened his eyes."

Book Descriptions from GoodReadsBen and Rose secretly wish for better lives. Ben longs for the father he has never known. Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his mother's room and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out alone on desperate quests to find what they are missing.

Set fifty years apart, these two independent stories - Ben's told in words, Rose's in pictures - weave back and worth in symmetry.


My Rating: 3.5 stars

My Review:  Using printed words for Ben's story and beautiful illustrations for Rose's, Selznick provides his readers with two distinct stories involving Deaf children in two different eras. 

As a former Sign Language Interpreter, I'm always drawn to books involving Deaf characters and after seeing Millie Simmonds in The Quiet Place and knowing she was in the movie version of Wonderstruck, I knew I wanted to read this book before seeing the highly acclaimed movie.

For a 640 page book, this book is a fast read and shouldn't intimidate readers. The story smoothly jumps back and forth between Ben and Rose's POVs which are 50 years part. They each are missing someone special and yearn to find them. I was impressed with how smoothly these two points of view, with very different methods of telling the story, meshed together.

The artwork is the highlight of the book for me. It is detailed, quite stunning and captures Rose's story perfectly …



Along with the personal stories of these two kids, Selznick also incorporates a bit of Deaf history/culture within the pages which I appreciated and hopefully its inclusion will educated Hearing readers about Deafness. But for such a unique way to tell a story, the actual story itself was slow moving and a bit predictable. 

Overall, I enjoyed this book and look forward to seeing the movie.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Not Her Daughter


Author: Rea Frey
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Women's Fiction
Type: e-book
Source: NetGalley
Publisher: St Martin's Griffin
First Published: August 21, 2018
First Line: "I grip her hand."

Book Description from GoodReads
Emma Grace Townsend. Five years old. Gray eyes. Brown hair. Missing since June.

Emma Townsend is lonely. Living with her cruel mother and clueless father, Emma retreats into her own world of quiet and solitude.
Sarah Walker. Successful entrepreneur. Broken-hearted. Abandoned by her mother. Kidnapper.

Sarah has never seen a girl so precious as the gray-eyed child in a crowded airport terminal—and when a second-chance encounter with Emma presents itself, Sarah takes her, far away from home. But if it’s to rescue a little girl from her damaging mother, is kidnapping wrong?
Amy Townsend. Unhappy wife. Unfit mother. Unsure she wants her daughter back.

Amy’s life is a string of disappointments, but her biggest issue is her inability to connect with her daughter. And now she’s gone without a trace.
As Sarah and Emma avoid the nationwide hunt, they form an unshakeable bond. But her real mother is at home, waiting for her to return—and the longer the search for Emma continues, Amy is forced to question if she really wants her back.
Emotionally powerful and wire-taut, Not Her Daughter raises the question of what it means to be a mother—and how far someone will go to keep a child safe.
My Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to the publisher for providing me with a complimentary digital copy of this book, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.
My Review: In her debut novel, Not Her Daughter, Rea Frey has written a compelling and often emotional tale about loss, the struggles of parenting and love for a child.
I took this book on holiday recently to Boston and when we weren't out exploring that great city, I was glued to these pages. The story jumps between the points of view of Amy (the unhappy mom) and Sarah (the child abductor) and includes scenes before, during and after the abduction to give readers better insight to the characters' inner thoughts and motivations. It's hard to like Amy and while I didn't jump on the Amy bandwagon, Frey enabled me to understand how Amy got to that very low point. 

Sarah was a little hit and miss for me and that stems from some of her choices that were hard to believe. At times she seemed immature for a successful businesswoman in her mid-30's and a few of her choices, especially those that put herself and Emma in danger, were hard to swallow. Readers may also have to suspend belief with some aspects of the plot (especially in this digital/public camera/cell phone age) and how smoothly things went for Sarah. That said, I quite enjoyed this read and found the plot moved at a good pace. 

I have to give Frey credit, she doesn't shy away from broaching some difficult subjects including the issue of the public's responsibility when they see child abuse and the darker side of parenting some people experience - the struggles, extreme stress and loss of self. Life is not all play dates, park outings and cute photo ops for many parents and Frey brings many of those issues to light. 
While I would have welcomed more resolution in the ending, overall this was an impressive debut that will keep readers on the edge of their seats and emotionally connected to the plight of this five-year-old girl. If you've got a good mother, this book will make you want to give her a call and be oh so thankful for what you have.

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.

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