Publisher: Bantam

April 26, 2017

Mini Reviews | Historical Fiction

Mini Reviews | Historical FictionThe Dressmaker's War by Mary Chamberlain
Publisher: Random House, January 2016
Pages: 304

In London, 1939, Ada Vaughan is a young woman with an unusual dressmaking skill, and dreams of a better life for herself. That life seems to arrive when Stanislaus, an Austrian aristocrat, sweeps Ada off her feet and brings her to Paris. When war breaks out, Stanislaus vanishes, and Ada is taken prisoner by the Germans, she must do everything she can to survive: by becoming dressmaker to the Nazi wives. Abandoned and alone as war rages, the choices Ada makes will come to back to haunt her years later, as the truth of her experience is twisted and distorted after the war. From glamorous London hotels and Parisian cafes to the desperation of wartime Germany, here is a mesmerizing, richly textured historical novel, a story of heartbreak, survival and ambition, of the nature of truth, and the untold story of what happens to women during war.

During my latest historical fiction kick, I wanted to love this book so dearly. The cover was so beautiful and the story sounded so intriguing…but it was utterly uninspiring. Ada’s childish tendencies made her appear selfish and ignorant. While this would have been a great launching pad for her growth into a fantastic character, the character development was overshadowed by the powerful historical backdrop. In the end, Ada faded into the background instead of helping to tell the story of World War II.


Mini Reviews | Historical FictionMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Publisher: Vintage, January 1970
Pages: 434

A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel presents with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan's most celebrated geisha.
In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable.

I’ve always heard excellent reviews about Memoirs of a Geisha and after finally reading it, I understand why. The powerful narration made it easy to hear the difference between the storyteller’s past and present, even the narrator’s occasional interjections. Combined with the fascinating history and culture of the geisha and a compelling main character, I can see why this book is a winner again and again.


Mini Reviews | Historical FictionThe Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
Publisher: Pegasus Books, March 2016
Pages: 512

London, 1912.
The suffragette movement is reaching a fever pitch, and Inspector Frederick Primrose is hunting a murderer on his beat. Across town, Fleet Street reporter Frances “Frankie” George is chasing an interview with trapeze artist Ebony Diamond. Frankie finds herself fascinated by the tightly-laced acrobat and follows her to a Kensington corset shop that seems to be hiding secrets of its own. When Ebony Diamond mysteriously disappears in the middle of a performance, Frankie and Primrose are both drawn into the shadowy world of a secret society with ties to both London's criminal underworld and its glittering socialites.
How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory? From newsrooms to the drawing rooms of high society, the investigation leads Frankie and Primrose to a murderous villain with a plot more deadly than anyone could have imagined.

In the midst of the girl power era, I’ve fallen in love with the suffragettes. These women turned convention on its head so we can work, vote, and be ourselves. So, therefore I wanted to love The Hourglass Factory just as much, but it wasn’t in the cards.

The novel started out strong enough with a vibrant atmosphere built out of beautiful attention to detail and descriptive that dropped me in the middle of London. The main character of Frankie was engaging, inspiring, and familiar. She’s the underdog you want to cheer for. But it started to take too long for anything to happen. Overwhelmed by minor characters grabbing possession of the story, The Hourglass Factory quickly lost its way.


Mini Reviews | Historical FictionThe Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel
Series: Empress of Bright Moon,
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2016
Pages: 395

There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power. . . .
A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
The first volume of the Empress of Bright Moon duology paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death—and the woman who came to rule it all.

Thank goodness for GoodReads’ annual book contest, or I would miss gems like The Moon in the Palace. I loved the insight into another historical era I’d never heard of before. Together with the powerhouse of a main character, the dynamic Mei (later known as Wu Zetian or Empress Consort Wu), The Moon in the Palace is a must for historical fiction fans, whether or not you’re interested in Chinese history. Between the historical backdrop, the forbidden love, or the astounding atmosphere that dropped you into Mei’s shoes, you’ll find something to love.


Mini Reviews | Historical FictionMr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Series: Maggie Hope Mystery,
Publisher: Bantam, April 2012
Pages: 358

London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.
Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary should be a great book. Set in WWII London, it follows American-British Maggie Hope as she works for Prime Minister Churchill in the early to mid days of the war. Sounds like a winner, right? Yet behind the historical drama of England in the midst of the war, I finished the book with a wanting feeling. It had a good premise, mostly good execution, so what was missing? My vote? The passion in the characters. They were all right, but with a bit of a push, they could have been excellent.

Posted April 26, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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January 23, 2017

Review | Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Review | Dragonfly in Amber by Diana GabaldonDragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
Series: Outlander #2
Publisher: Bantam, August 2001
Pages: 743
Format: Paperback
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 With her now-classic novel Outlander, Diana Gabaldon introduced two unforgettable characters—Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser—delighting readers with a story of adventure and love that spanned two centuries. Now Gabaldon returns to that extraordinary time and place in this vivid, powerful follow-up to Outlander.  DRAGONFLY IN AMBER  For nearly twenty years Claire Randall has kept her secrets. But now she is returning with her grown daughter to Scotland’s majestic mist-shrouded hills. Here Claire plans to reveal a truth as stunning as the events that gave it birth: about the mystery of an ancient circle of standing stones... about a love that transcends the boundaries of time... and about Jamie Fraser, a Scottish warrior whose gallantry once drew a young Claire from the security of her century to the dangers of his.   Now a legacy of blood and desire will test her beautiful copper-haired daughter, Brianna, as Claire’s spellbinding journey of self-discovery continues in the intrigue-ridden Paris court of Charles Stuart... in a race to thwart a doomed Highlands uprising... and in a desperate fight to save both the child and the man she loves.

Claire Randall Frasier has lived the past twenty years believing that Jamie was dead. And finally, she has gathered the courage to go back to Scotland for the first time in nearly two decades to discover what happened to him at the Battle of Culloden.

Dragonfly in Amber is, quite simply, an emotional roller coaster ride. Gabaldon’s narrative switches between 1968 Claire, a woman who is trying to make it work after she loses the love of her life and 1740s Claire, trying desperately to stop the fall of Scotland. While the same women, these two characters are vastly different. It’s hard to believe t

While the same women, these two characters are vastly different. It’s hard to believe that 1740s Claire could be considered naive, considering what happens to her in Outlander, but she embodied it again and again as they worked to stop Charles. Yet naive doesn’t mean stupid. I loved how she stood up for herself and others in a society where women weren’t often allowed or encouraged to do so.

On the other hand, 1968 Claire was charming, engaging, and initially allowed a little of her sorrow to show. All naivete was gone, erased by the loss of her husband, a scar she hid well. It’s this Claire, this dynamic, fascinating character, that was the star of Dragonfly.

She was cool and composed on the outside, an exterior that hid rioting emotions: guilt, wistfulness, joy, and sorrow. It was only once she, Brianna, and Roger started their hunt for Jamie that this calm composure began to crack.

It’s been a while since a book made me feel the way Dragonfly did. From the battle scenes of 1740s Scotland to the drafty graveyards of the 60s’, Gabaldon tugged – no, YANKED – at the heartstrings.

Yet the second Outlander installment did have its faults. There were pages of information, large sections filled with what felt like the most minute details of the French court, the Scottish towns, and everywhere in between, that could have been summarized or possibly skipped entirely. Maybe this is more of personal preference; I wanted the story to get on with it.

In retrospect, that was a minor detail. The beauty of Dragonfly in Amber isn’t in the particulars of the setting or the descriptions of dress. Instead, it lay in Claire, a woman torn between two marriages, two times, and two worlds.

4 Stars

Posted January 23, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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May 12, 2016

Review | Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich

Review | Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet EvanovichTricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich
Series: Stephanie Plum, #22
Publisher: Bantam, November 2015
Pages: 292
Format: Ebook
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Something big is brewing in Trenton, N.J., and it could blow at any minute.
Stephanie Plum might not be the world's greatest bounty hunter, but she knows when she's being played. Ken Globovic (aka Gobbles), hailed as the Supreme Exalted Zookeeper of the animal house known as Zeta fraternity, has been arrested for beating up the dean of students at Kiltman College. Gobbles has missed his court date and gone into hiding. People have seen him on campus, but no one will talk. Things just aren't adding up, and Stephanie can't shake the feeling that something funny is going on at the college - and it's not just Zeta fraternity pranks.
As much as people love Gobbles, they hate Doug Linken. When Linken is gunned down in his backyard it's good riddance, and the list of possible murder suspects is long. The only people who care about finding Linken's killer are Trenton cop Joe Morelli, who has been assigned the case, security expert Ranger, who was hired to protect Linken, and Stephanie, who has her eye on a cash prize and hopefully has some tricks up her sleeve.

Stephanie Plum knows her own weaknesses, but when a frat brother called Gobbles skips bail, she thinks this one will be a piece of cake. What she doesn’t know is that Gobbles’ fraternity, Zeta (reminiscent of Animal House) will do anything to keep her from nabbing him. As the case unravels, so does her personal like, making it a definitely Tricky Twenty-two.

Evanovich’s 22nd installment has all the hallmarks of the series – humor, a little slapstick, and a light-hearted atmosphere that betrays some of the deeper topics – but what I loved about Tricky was her emphasis on Stephanie.

Usually, Stephanie’s personal development goes by the wayside as she chases after whatever crackpot is wreaking havoc in Trenton, but when, barely after the story opens, Joe Morelli breaks things off with Stephanie, Evanovich gets real with her trademark character. Stunned by Morelli’s decision, Stephanie is forced to reconsider just what she wants out of life and, to be blunt, grow up.

Don’t get me wrong – I have a serious soft spot for Stephanie, especially since we share crazy curly brown hair and a love of cake. It’s refreshing to see her character get a chance to grow and move out of the phase she was in for a majority of the series.

Besides Steph, Tricky Twenty-two has all the hilarity I’ve come to expect from Evanovich. The references to Animal House and scenes with her family added an extra bit of humor that kept me laughing the entire plane ride. Lula, as always, shines through the book and keeps the atmosphere from getting too serious.

Light, fun, and fluffy as always, Tricky Twenty-two is must read and is definitely heading to my reread shelf! I can’t wait to see where Steph heads next.

4 Stars

Posted May 12, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments

February 11, 2016

Review | A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Review | A Storm of Swords by George R.R. MartinA Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
Series: , #3
Publisher: Bantam, March 2003
Pages: 1177
Format: Paperback
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Here is the third volume in George R.R. Martin's magnificent cycle of novels that includes A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Together, this series comprises a genuine masterpiece of modern fantasy, destined to stand as one of the great achievements of imaginative fiction.
Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage as alliances are made and broken. Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of of the Seven Kingdoms. His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, victim of the sorceress who holds him in her thrall. Young Robb still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun. Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenerys, mistress of the only three dragons still left in the world. And as opposing forces manoeuver for the final showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost limits of civilization, accompanied by a horde of mythical Others—a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable. As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords...

There are some books that are simply impossible to review. A Storm of Swords is one of these books.

There’s a majesty in Martin’s words, an ebb and flow that hooks me, even when I think I can put the book down and walk away. It’s his quiet narration that draws me in and drops me in the middle of the Iron Islands or in the Red Keep. This narrative pull keeps coming back to his massive tomes, keeps me reading even when the chapters aren’t grabbing my attention the way I hoped they might, and keeps me up late at night for just one more page.

Out of Martin’s many characters in Storm, a few stood out: Sansa, Arya, Cersei and Tyrion. I gobbled down their chapters like I was starving and couldn’t wait for their names to appear on the chapter introduction pages. Sansa’s development in the last book, continued in this one, is extraordinary. She’s changed from a somewhat spoiled girly girl into a young woman hardened by many horrible things, the least being life in Joffrey’s court. Arya’s wildness grew even more, and while her chapters were occasionally slow, seeing the events through her eyes painted the narrative in an entirely new meaning. Cersei has gotten used to her role of power as Queen Regent and isn’t quite ready to let it go yet. Tyrion…well, it’s safe to say he’s my favorite character of the bunch.

Tyrion Lannister, Storm of Swords

He handles some of the worst situations with a darkly funny humor and has the most unbiased commentary of the bunch of the story.

I’d heard about many of the events that go on in Storm, but there was nothing like actually reading them. Holy moly. “Storm” of swords, indeed. Even as each army recovers from the battle at the end of A Clash of Kings, there’s skirmishes, loyalties (both mixed and true) tested, and, well, just general chaos. It was addictive.

Why no five star rating? Well, there were certain portions of Storm that I found myself skimming. I think Bran will play a huge role in the story to come (especially after what happens in this book), but his chapters didn’t do much for me. Dany’s storyline was a hit and miss – there were elements I loved and others I could have done without. Some chapters didn’t feel necessary to move this story forward and slowed the pace.

I’m interested to see how Martin brings all of these storylines together. The mass of well-developed characters, the strength of their passion and histories, and their individual motives will force the story to go above and beyond.


4 Stars

Posted February 11, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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September 24, 2015

Review | Wicked Charms by Janet Evanovich

Review | Wicked Charms by Janet EvanovichWicked Charms by Janet Evanovich, Phoef Sutton
Series: Lizzy & Diesel, #3
Publisher: Bantam, June 2015
Pages: 308
Format: Hardcover
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Lizzy and Diesel return once again in an all-new adventure in the #1 New York Times bestselling series from Janet Evanovich and her co-author, Phoef Sutton!
Murdered and mummified more than ninety years ago, bootlegger Collier “Peg Leg” Dazzle once found and re-hid a famous pirate’s treasure somewhere along the coast of New England. A vast collection of gold and silver coins and precious gems, the bounty also contains the Stone of Avarice — the very item reluctant treasure seeker, Lizzy Tucker, and her partner, Diesel, have been enlisted to find. While Lizzy would just like to live a quiet, semi-normal life, Diesel is all about the hunt. And this hunt is going to require a genuine treasure map and a ship worthy of sailing the seven seas . . . or at least getting them from Salem Harbor to Maine.
Greed is eternal and insatiable, and Lizzy and Diesel aren’t the only ones searching for the lost pirate’s chest. There are people who have dedicated their entire lives to finding it, and are willing to commit murder or make a deal with the devil, just to hold the fortune in their hands. One of those people may even be Wulf, Diesel’s deceptively charming and enigmatic cousin. Wulf desires the Stone of Avarice. He also desires Lizzy. It’s hard to say how far he’s willing to go to gain either one.
It’s a swashbuckling adventure full of raiders, monkeys, minions, and mayhem. Lizzy and Diesel are going to have to do everything they can to keep their heads above water and hope they are living a charmed life.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I adore Evanovich: the queen of wacky characters, fun plots, and hot sexual tension is high on my favorite authors list. On the other, I kinda sorta maybe felt like I read this book before.

We rejoin Lizzy and Diesel as another stone is revealed (in a pirate museum, of all places) and the hunt begins. This time, there’s a creepy man who is convinced he’s the demon lord of greed, his wacko sidekick who is more than a little mentally unstable, and our heroic duo trying to save the world. 

The pirate lore was interesting, but I felt the story went a little too far when Glo and Lizzy find themselves locked in a rotting ship’s hold. This act of violence didn’t quite fit the story and, to be honest, felt unnecessary. Actually, quite a few elements (plot and character) just didn’t need to go there. 

I enjoyed the trademark Evanovich elements: wacky plot, strong banter in the dialogue, and the sense of fun. I do wish that Lizzy and Diesel’s relationship (or whatever it is) would progress, even just a little. This standstill is starting to get old.

Maybe this is just me (and it very well may be), but I kept getting Lizzy and Stephanie Plum confused. They sound the same. Joe calls Stephanie cupcake. Lizzy makes magic cupcakes. The relationship between Lizzy and Diesel is a lot like that between Stephanie/Joe and Stephanie/Ranger.

Just me?

Will I read the next one? Probably. Curiosity and a love of the Steph Plum books will keep me coming back to Evanovich’s books.
3 Stars

Posted September 24, 2015 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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