Thursday, August 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Finally! I’ve read a book. This has been a bizarre summer and I’m getting no reading done.

However, The Secret of the India Orchard by Nancy Campbell Allen is being released this month, and it sounded like a good candidate for bringing me out of my reading slump.

I’ve read a few books in the Proper Romance line published by Shadow Mountain. They are clean romances that are consistently a cut above. The Secret of India Orchard is no exception.

Sophia Elliot, sister of the Earl of Stansworth, has caught the eye and the heart of her brother’s best friend, Anthony Blake, the Earl of Wilshire. He has determined to court her formally. Unfortunately, on the same day that he plans to ask her brother’s permission, he is contacted by his old employer, Lord Braxton, head of spies in the War Department. Although Anthony felt himself happily out of the business when he inherited his title, Braxton has another job for him. A top secret document, naming all the important spies as well as their habits, families, and acquaintances, has been stolen from Braxton’s office. Anthony is the only one he trusts to hunt down the document before it is sold to the French or some other enemy.

Anthony does not like Braxton and wants to refuse. However, that would put all his former colleagues at risk, as well as his friends. Sophia is named in the document. To keep her safe, he must take the job.

The onerous duty requires that he leave immediately, dumping Sophia in a letter which stresses the brotherly friendship he feels for her, to return to the continent and resume his previous undercover activities, which include acting like a devil-may-care playboy.

Sophia is heartbroken.

Two years later, the document is still not recovered. Anthony has traced it to India. Sophia has also decided to go to India for an adventure to take her mind off her continuing heartbreak. There is an alternative marriage mart there for Englishwomen who haven’t had success in London. (Sophia would have had great success but for her continued devotion to Anthony, despite her best attempts to forget him.) Sophia wants to move on. On the other hand, she knows Anthony will be there. . .

Naturally, they are thrown together and the feelings they had for one another blaze back to the fore. To the book’s credit, the love story does not bog down in mutual misunderstandings and petty recriminations. They care for and respect one another too much for that.

In addition to a thoughtful, mature, sweet Romance, there is a page-turning mystery for the two to solve. Who stole the documents and why? There is abundant danger, a little bit of clashing of cultures, and despicable villains–something for everyone! For those who enjoy historical mystery/Romance, this one comes highly recommended.

Monday, July 17, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien de Castell

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

The Greatcoats are back. Fans (of which I am one!) of Sebastien de Castell’s fantasy adventure series have been awaiting the release of the fourth and final book, Tyrant’s Throne. Naturally books 1, 2, and 3 should be read first. Then you’ll be pleased that Falcio val Mond, the "First Cantor," and his brothers-in-arms, Kest and Brasti are still together and still determined to save the kingdom of Tristia from. . .well, from everything.

After the last book, Saint’s Blood, it was difficult to see what else de Castell could find to throw at the heroes. They had already battled evil aristocrats, brutal magical foes, and even gods. Despite deep bonds of friendship and loyalty to their dead king’s ideals, and, most importantly, the entertaining banter among the three leads, the series had become increasingly dark and violent. When this novel opened with a threatened public rape, I almost gave up on it without reading further. But I read on past and the story improved, thankfully.

Tristia is still being governed, loosely, by Valiana the Protector of the Realm, Falcio’s adopted daughter. And they are still awaiting the coronation of the heir to the throne, young Aline. But the nobility, each in their own little domains, are unwilling to see a female rule over them.

In the midst of the political maneuvering, Falcio gets to hankering for the clarity of the good old days when his role was to simply pick up his sword and fight for his beliefs. There is too much ambiguity in politics. He finds himself in too many situations where he is tempted to betray the king’s rule of law in order to do what he thinks is best for his loved ones and the kingdom–at least in the short term. Fortunately, his trusted comrades are there to keep him from abandoning the faith.

Tristia is, as always, faced with numerous threats from within, but the more immediate concern is a new threat from without. The barbarians from over the mountains, fierce warriors who intermittently terrorize the border dukedoms of Tristia but who haven’t been considered much of a threat because of technological and strategic inferiority, have found a new warlord. He provides them with weapons and teaches their armies to fight with discipline. They are coming over the mountains and the divided dukedoms of Tristia are in no way prepared for the fight.

Falcio is no soldier. He doesn’t lead armies, he fights alone or in his small band of Greatcoats. This new battle is one that he’s not sure he wants to undertake. Worse, he has to band together with the worst of his old enemies to fight the new ones. Is such a compromise worth it? Is Tristia worth it?

In some ways this book goes back to the basics: nothing magical or supernatural and the story is better for it. The straightforward adventure is a fitting end to a thrilling series.

Monday, June 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo is a sweet and heartbreaking story of the love between Botticelli and his muse, Simonetta Cattaneo, the model for Botticelli’s masterpiece: The Birth of Venus.

Simonetta is the daughter of a minor nobleman in Genoa who captures the eye of a handsome, wealthy, politically-connected Florence noble named Marco Vespucci. By showing appreciation for her love of Dante’s poetry as well as her extraordinary beauty, (mostly the latter, though Simonetta fixates on the former), he woos and wins her. He promises she’ll be the toast of the court of the powerful Lorenzo de Medici, who is a great patron of the arts. Although she’s a little intimidated by all the wealth and power, and by the sometimes heretical-sounding conversations, Simonetta is eager to immerse herself in the intellectual and artistic company that surrounds Lorenzo.

Marco is right. The court (at least the men) fall at Simonetta’s feet. At Lorenzo’s home, Simonetta first notices Botticelli’s art and then she is introduced to the man. At once, he makes known his desire to paint her. Simonetta is thrilled, though at first it seems wishful thinking on both their parts rather than an actual possibility. Marco doesn’t take to Boticelli, a social inferior.

The marriage between Marco and Simonetta is a happy one at first. He is devoted and she wants to be in love. However, their interests diverge. Marco is a political "climber." Having a wife who is known as the most beautiful woman in Florence, perhaps all of Italy, and who is intelligent and charming as well, helps to make Marco a favorite with the Medicis. But he doesn’t share her love of art, poetry, or literature. He’s a busy man. So when Simonetta is finally allowed to sit for a portrait by Botticelli, and they fill long days with conversations about topics dear to Simonetta’s heart, it’s clear that the marriage is in trouble. Marco’s subsequent behavior makes things worse.

This novel lushly describes the beauty of Renaissance Florence by making Simonetta its emblem. Her matter-of-fact acceptance of her physical attributes and the way she accepts that advantages flow her way because of her appearance yet never seems particularly vain, and her frustration with being seen always as an object make her a sympathetic and admirable protagonist. She retains a sweet naivete even as she challenges expectations and breaks rules.

But even perfect beauty and a generous spirit provide no guarantees against heartbreak. This poignant love story is a wonderful addition to the genre showing artists and the significant others who give them inspiration.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Over the years, I’ve seen a bunch of reviews for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is uniformly praised as one of the best novels about books—a literary historical fiction adventure. I finally sat down to read it.

The protagonist is Daniel Sempere, the son of a rare book seller in Barcelona in the mid-twentieth century. When Daniel is just a boy, his father takes him to "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a secret place, in an attempt to help ease his heartbreak over the fading memory of his deceased mother. Daniel wanders through miles of bookshelves to find just the right book to adopt and settles on The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. He falls in love with the book and determines to read everything by Carax. However, he discovers that not only is Carax virtually unknown, but that to the rare bibliophiles who have heard of him, the books are secondary in importance to the mystery surrounding him.

Julian Carax was an obscure man whose works were published in limited runs by tiny presses. The books never achieved any success. Carax died in mysterious circumstances. Someone went around acquiring and destroying every copy of his work. Now it seems that Daniel has the only existing copy. The book and Daniel become targets.

Daniel devotes his young life to learning about Carax and trying to unravel the explanation for the destruction of the books. Along the way, Daniel grows up, grows apart from his devoted father, falls in love a couple of times and works in the bookshop alongside his father. He also is threatened by a mysterious figure who smells of burned paper and who tries to get the book away from him.

The plot becomes increasingly complex as Daniel meets more and more characters related in one way or another to Carax. As he comes closer to understanding, he also notices more and more disturbing parallels between himself and the author. As he inserts himself into Carax’s story, the danger increases for Daniel and for those close to him.

I have mixed feelings about the book. It has a lengthy set up and the first half reads slowly. The set up is necessary, but the book was very easy to put down and I kept considering switching to something else. Still, I was determined to finish. After about 200 pages, enough of the plot was coming together to keep me reading. Some of the secondary characters were compelling, though I never really warmed to Daniel. The prose was quite beautiful with wonderful imagery, but the unfolding of the story was sometimes clunky.

The novel does wind its way to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Loose ends are tied up and things that seemed coincidental were shown to actually have been carefully plotted. It’s a book I’m glad to have read, but am also somewhat disappointed to find it didn’t quite live up to expectations—which may be a fault of the expectations rather than of the book.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

My most recent read is The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan. It focuses on the inhabitants of a small farming and fishing village in Normandy in the time leading up to D-Day. The heroine is Emma, a young, talented baker, who learned her craft from a Jewish baker. "Uncle Ezra" was much beloved by the villagers, but they were powerless to help the day the occupying Germans shot him on a trumped-up charge.

Emma’s bread is discovered by the German commander occupying her town. He decrees she must make twelve baguettes per day for his table and he’ll give her the provisions to do so. It occurs to her to stretch the dough with ground straw so that she can make two extra loaves each day that she secretly distributes. As she gives away the bread, she learns the particular needs of her neighbors, as well as what each is able to provide in return. Slowly, she creates a network of exchange that helps undermine the German oppression and helps her neighbors to survive.

Emma is a wonderful protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She’s judgmental and holds grudges. But she’s also patient, intelligent, and good. She’s pragmatic, dealing with each day as it comes, refusing to indulge in the rather hopeless optimism of those who wait for the allies to liberate them. She also regularly confronts the village priest whose exhortations to attend mass and pray seem to her to fall short.

Other characters round out the village: Odette, the cafĂ© owner who hides her knowledge of the German language and serves both villagers and enemies with black market goods; Guilhaume, the gentle, large-hearted veterinarian; the Monkey Boy, a cross between village idiot and idiot-savant; the Goat Boy (cruelly named by Emma), a rag-tag member of the resistance; Pierre, an old farmer, veteran of the Great War. There are also collaborators, the beautiful Michelle and the embittered, petty tyrant DuFour. While they are all types, they are also well-developed. Emma has compassion even for those she doesn’t like.

The French villagers have hunkered down in survival mode. Time grinds them down. The Germans, uniformly villainous, murder for the flimsiest of reasons. In this atmosphere of terror and deprivation, they wait for deliverance, doing what they can to support one another and the resistance.

The book has a slow build but then becomes impossible to put down.

WWII fiction is always compelling, but so depressing. Even though they often have uplifting messages and brave, compassionate protagonists, the good people are surrounded by ugliness and the worst examples of humanity. It can be painful to read. Nevertheless, The Baker’s Secret is well worth it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I am a big fan of Ruta Sepetys’ writing. Between Shades of Gray still stays with me as one of the best examples of YA historical fiction I’ve read. Although Out of the Easy was not as memorable for me, it was still an excellent read. Just a different focus. Now Sepetys has returned to the WWII setting in Salt to the Sea. She has a talent for bringing attention to the more obscure atrocities. This time, the novel centers on the evacuation of refugees from East Prussia as the Russians advanced against Germany. The devastation and loss of life among civilians was appalling.

Salt to the Sea is told from four different viewpoints. Joana is a young Lithuanian woman who was repatriated to Germany where she worked as a nurse. Intelligent, stalwart, compassionate, and pretty, she carries a lot of guilt because she has survived where so many, including some close family members, have not. Emilia is a fifteen-year-old, pregnant Polish refugee. She speaks little German but is extraordinarily sensitive and can discern things about people that others do not. Florian is a young German man, an art restorer, who was involved with Hitler’s campaign to steal and warehouse art to put in the private collections of Nazis. Florian was not truly aware of what was going on until it became impossible to ignore. Now, he is on a mission of vengeance. And Alfred is a young Nazi. Cowardly, bullying, perverse, and verging on mentally ill, Alfred is a cog in the Nazi wheel, one of the sailors manning the evacuation boats.

The first three are thrown together in a small group of refugees making their way to Frauenberg, hoping to find a way west, away from the Russian army. There are other misfits in the group: Ingrid, who is blind but fiercely brave; Eva, a bristly older woman; a wise and kindly cobbler who they call "the shoe poet," and an orphaned, six-year-old named Klaus who stumbled upon the group and was named "the wandering boy." Joana is unofficially the leader. She holds them together and champions the weak. Florian, a late arrival, tries to stay detached–his mission pushes him onward, but he needs them even more than they need him.

Short chapters in each of the POVs propels the story onward. The characters’ concern for one another grows along with the readers’ concern as they move toward their goal. Obstacles and dangers are present every step of the way. And even when they reach Frauenberg and have safety within reach, the dangers increase.

This is a heartbreaking novel. It’s painfully realistic and re-emphasizes the horrors and cruelties of war. Sadly, although this is historical fiction, these horrors are not all in the past. Novels like this one are important. News can be numbing. Strangely enough, fiction can sometimes make the human cost more real.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter

Having so enjoyed the first of M.J. Carter’s Blake and Avery books, The Strangler Vine, I jumped right into book 2: The Infidel Stain.

Three years have passed since William Avery met Jeremiah Blake, when they were paired by officers of the East India Company to find a lost poet in India’s interior. Avery, who remained in India, is Captain Avery now. He has returned to England a war hero with a pregnant wife to settle down as a country squire. It’s not the life he particularly wants. When he is summoned to London by his long-lost partner, he goes–eagerly and warily.

Blake has been working in London as a private inquiry agent for the same men who utilized his services in India. He dislikes them, but he’s good at it and has to earn his keep. He is, if anything, even more jaded and downtrodden. But he’s as clever as ever.

Blake and Avery have been recommended to Lord Allington, a crusader for the destitute of London, for a special task. An impoverished printer was found butchered in his workplace. The police are doing nothing to find the killer. Allington wishes to show the working people that they are not forgotten and that the law works for them as well as the upper classes. He wants the murderer found.

The book starts slowly as Blake and Avery reconnect and start to look for clues. This is more of a classic whodunit than The Strangler Vine, which had more of an adventure element to it. As Blake and Avery collect clues and suspects, the bodies start to pile up. Criminals, blackmailers, printers of pornographic material, political activists, religious do-gooders, Chartists and journalists are all tangled up in the crimes and the two protagonists have to sort it all out before being killed themselves by one faction or another, or before being arrested as murderers themselves.

Avery is not quite the innocent he was in book 1, but he still has many of his illusions intact. He is even more the gentleman than he was before, and, as a member of the privileged class, has a hard time coming to grips with the poverty and desperation he encounters in London. Blake is under no illusions. Always one step ahead of Avery, Blake nevertheless relies on him, even if it means using Avery’s naive blundering as a means to his own ends.

The two make a splendid pair. Once again, the author describes the settings meticulously and does a wonderful job of incorporating political and historical context. Blake may be a little bit too clever to be entirely credible, but the book is such a page-turner that I’m willing to suspend disbelief. I want Blake to be larger than life. And now I have to read book 3.