Review – Ashenden

AshendenAshenden is an old, yet still grand, English country house. Falling into disrepair over the years, it can still impress, even if it’s just by the enormous cash reserves needed to heat the place. When Charlie and his sister inherit the crumbling estate, the stress of how to care for the place takes a toll on their already distant relationship. The two begin consulting engineers and surveyors to determine what needs to be done and whether or not selling or renovating is in their best interests, or the house’s.

While a decision is made about the house’s future, its past begins to unfold giving the reader a glimpse of the people it has sheltered, the sorrows and joys felt in its rooms, and the memories that have seeped into its walls. We are introduced to the people that have walked the halls of the house from the architect who envisioned the grand space, to the staff who kept the fires burning, and the families that owned the property.

What I enjoyed about this book was the way all of the stories were tied together, each flowing smoothly into the next. It wasn’t about the people but how the house was transformed by the years from a money pit that was wanted more for the prestige it bought, but was ultimately unaffordable, to the original builder, the individuals that toured the house, and the sick it protected. The people come and go but the house itself is the one constant that brings everything together.

Ashenden is a mixture of short stories about the people that admired the grand house, found love and heartbreak inside its walls, and those that recovered in the green expanse that was part of the property. Its residents, owners, builders, all make and break the house and while the reader sees the past, it’s the current owners that are struggling with the future. I liked the way Wilhide smoothly moves the story along while it remains in place at the same time. It’s a very effective way to tell the story of the house and make it more than simply a structure of bricks, glass, and wood. It becomes a living part of the story, in fact, the story itself. With each new chapter, I wanted to know how it was holding up and what it had become in its new reincarnation as it does change with each new generation that walks through the doors. From the start, you know it’s not a simple home but something built and imagined to be more than that.

Many of the stories told here are very sad but overall I wouldn’t say that about the book. It made me smile many times, and even though the individual stories being told were not on the whole always happy, it was an honest look at the people who passed through the halls and that I could appreciate — nothing too sad but not all that happy either, a nice equilibrium of stories.

Wilhide is a writer who cares very much about the details and it is those details that make this story. Without the finer points and the clear image she creates of the house, this story wouldn’t work. The particulars create an invisible web that lets the story meander, but always bringing it back home. It’s such a lovely story and a satisfying read for a winter evening.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Ashenden

By Elizabeth Wilhide

Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 9781451684865

Review – City of Dark Magic

City of Dark Magic

I have a soft spot for urban fantasy. I don’t know if it’s the paranormal haze that overtakes the story or if it’s the ridiculous quality that some stories take on when fantasy and paranormal mix, but in this book, it’s the latter. That ridiculous quality is the draw for me.

Sarah Weston is a talented music student in Boston but a student with few lucrative prospects in her path. When she’s offered a very profitable summer job in Prague cataloguing Beethoven’s manuscripts for a new museum, she jumps at the opportunity. Sarah arrives in Prague and is immediately hit with bad news — her mentor, the man who most likely recommended her for the position, is dead of an apparent suicide. She has trouble believing the story which gets even stranger when odd things begin happening to her. Weird symbols start appearing in unlikely places, she accidently stumbles on a Cold War conspiracy involving a very prominent U.S. Senator, and then there’s the time travel inducing drug she takes without knowing what it does. Throw in a romance with a prince and you’ve got a very busy summer that also includes putting together an exhibit on Beethoven.

A standard rule I have when reading a book such as this — remove all sense of reality then enjoy at will. City of Dark Magic is a fast read, silly, yet entertaining. It’s campy and you want to keep reading because it’s compelling in its strange way. I wanted to know what else could be thrown in the mix. This book is a huge mashup of genres: paranormal, mystery, thriller, time travel, and romance. Prague, with its long and sometimes dark history, is a good setting for it all but I do wish the city itself had played a larger role in the story. It’s a location and not much more.

Sarah’s the center of everything weird going on but she’s not the most interesting character for me. There are two others: Pollina, a blind musical prodigy who keeps warning Sarah with cryptic references about Prague, and Nicolas, a little person with a penchant for stealing valuable objects and who hints at being alive for close to 400 years. Pollina and Nicholas play scant parts in the story but they also made it for me. You don’t know much about either but each time one of them shows up, something interesting happens. I like characters like that.

Then we have the romance, which is more like sex in weird places rather than a straight forward romance. Sarah falls for Max, the heir apparent of the Prague royal family and also heir to an enormous fortune. Frankly, I had no idea what Sarah saw in him. He gets slightly more interesting as the story goes on but he’s sort like a light bulb — on one second, off the next but the two work as a couple.

I gravitate toward books with any time travel element. Here, it’s a bit different, less actual travel to the past and more watching the past thanks to a drug that allows users to see the remnants of history but not interact with it. Think of it as watching a movie. The concept is cool. In fact, it works extremely well and is one of the best parts of the book. Points for creativity need to be awarded for this.

Sometimes you want a book that simply entertains and City of Dark Magic does that. There’s a bit of everything and when one scene seems impossible, know that the next will top it. Go with it. It’s a good ride and a great way to escape reality for a bit.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

City of Dark Magic

Magnus Flyte

Penguin Books

ISBN: 9780143122685

3.5 stars

 

Review – Island of Bones

There are some books you finish and want more of, immediately. For me, this is one of those books. I loved the setting, the characters, the mystery — everything. I’ve been reading a lot of historical mysteries lately, and oddly, they’ve all been series and I’ve started all of them somewhere in the middle rather than from the beginning. The same is true for this book; it’s Robertson’s third book featuring the characters of Mrs. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. Surprisingly, this hasn’t dulled my enjoyment one bit.

Mrs. Harriet Westerman is a woman still mourning her husband, even after her mourning period is officially over. Now, rather than be a spectacle to pity, she is trying to move forward with her life. When a request arrives to investigate the discovery of an extra body found in a crypt that had been supposedly untouched for many years, the idea of an adventure appeals. Mrs. Westerman, and Gabriel Crowther, a reclusive anatomist, set out for the Lake District to investigate the circumstances surrounding the skeleton. Crowther, also known as Lord Keswick, a title he has shunned and has done all he could to distance himself from not only the title but also his family, meets his past head on when they arrive in the Lake District. Not only is there a dead body and a mystery surrounding it, but Crowther’s sister and nephew are also in residence at Silverside Hall, a place once owned by Crowther and his family until he sold it. A happy family reunion it is not.

While the mysteries mount, a strange thing begins to happen — long held beliefs of the townspeople start taking center stage in the investigation. A lost relic called The Luck, a gold cross embedded with jewels, becomes part of the discussion and makes its way into the investigation of Mrs. Westerman and Crowther. More than one person’s hidden family history comes to light before the mystery is solved.

There’s something so very likable about Robertson’s writing. She writes great characters. They’re frank, smart, and surprising. I loved how she took a very relaxing setting and overlaid it with death, local folklore, and a mystery of family proportions that only seemed to grow larger by the day. It all fit so well together. When the story started coming to a close, I wanted more even after the satisfying conclusion. And, yes, there is a satisfying conclusion. I like that in a mystery.

Going back to the main characters, Mrs. Westerman and Gabriel Crowther — I said they were likable but it’s more than that. The two are a strange combination but a combination that works brilliantly. Crowther is a grump of a man, a recluse who takes no pleasure in people except for the few he can tolerate, and yet, his scientific analysis is a fascinating attribute. In fact, it’s an interesting aspect of the story itself and slightly morbid as he does care to spend more time with the dead than the living. Mrs. Westerman is a great counterpoint to his standoffish qualities. I also like unconventional women in historical fiction and she’s certainly unusual for her time. I should point out that the story is set in 1783 and a woman investigating murders is far from the norm.

Now that I have used one too many laudatory words in describing what I liked so much about this book, I leave you with this — read Island of Bones. They’ll be no regrets. I had high hopes for this book and those expectations were met.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Island of Bones

By Imogen Robertson

Pamela Dorman Books

ISBN: 9780670026272

4.5 stars

 

Review – Death in the Floating City: A Lady Emily Mystery

Lady Emily Hargreaves, accompanied by her husband Colin, is on her way to Venice to help a childhood friend named Emma Callum. A better description would be a childhood nemesis — Emily and Emma were not exactly the best of friends as children and Emily did her best to distance herself from Emma whenever possible. However, Emma has asked for her help and Emily can’t turn down a plea for help, even when that plea comes from Emma Callum. Years ago, Emma ran off with an Italian Count and caused a bit of a scandal at home, but is now in desperate need of Emily’s detective skills. Her father-in-law has been murdered in the home she shares with her husband, and her husband, who is a suspect in his father’s murder, has disappeared making the case against him look even more telling. She needs Emily to find the murderer and clear her husband.

Weary of her Emma’s motives but still willing to help, Emily and Colin begin their investigation and Emily soon finds herself fascinated by Venice, a city she’s never visited before. With few clues besides an old ring to go on, Emily enlists the help of a Venetian historian and his daughter, Donata, to help her navigate the city and open a few palazzo doors for her to ask questions. With the help of Donata, Emily stumbles upon a centuries old love story that tore two individuals, and their families, apart. The same feud is still going strong which doesn’t help Emily when she needs questions answered. She begins searching frantically through libraries and family trees for any clue that will help solve the case while Colin begins a search for Emma’s missing husband.

This is my second Lady Emily mystery and I’m becoming addicted. I need to plan some reading time to go back and start this series from the beginning. Even though this is a series, these books do stand on their own but the characters and settings are so good I want to go back and spend more time in this world. Emily and Colin are incredibly likable characters and the settings, especially this particular book’s setting of Venice, are so lovely you want to step into the pages. Alexander does a fantastic job with the crumbling palazzos, dusty old books, and gondolas gliding along the canals.

Let’s talk about the mystery for a moment because there is one here. What I liked most about the mystery was the way it was wrapped up in a love story a la Romeo and Juliet style. Told through letters interspersed throughout the story, the centuries-old love story starts to show up in Emily’s mystery in unexpected ways. In the end, Alexander wraps this one up nicely with a little sneak peek of what’s ahead for Emily and Colin.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the way I was able to fall into the story and get lost in the mystery, the romance, and the city of Venice. I was pulled into the story very early and I didn’t want to leave. There’s just enough of everything in this book to make me a happy reader. Obviously, I’m waiting for Emily’s next adventure.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Death in the Floating City: A Lady Emily Mystery

By Tasha Alexander

Minotaur Books

ISBN: 9780312661762

4 stars

 

Review – The Map of the Sky

H.G. Wells is an unhappy man. His latest work, The War of the Worlds, has a sequel that he didn’t write. Having agreed to meet with the American author who he believes has unjustly made money off his idea, Wells grumbles his way through the streets of London to the pub for the meeting. This author, who impresses Wells more than he cares to admit, tells him incredible tales of monsters and aliens and when Wells fails to believe, he offers to show him. In a locked room at the natural history museum, Wells gazes upon what he believes to be a true Martian — just like the creatures he created in his latest book.

At the same time, in America, young socialite Emma Harlow is once more declining the attentions of almost every eligible man in her social circle. When one of the men, Montgomery Gilmore, manages to annoy her to the point of a challenge, she tells him what it will take to win her hand in marriage. A fan of H.G. Wells’s latest book, she wants him to re-create the Martian invasion from The War of the Worlds. Gilmore, a man with money to burn, accepts the challenge and sets out to construct the invasion in the hope of winning Emma’s heart.

When the day arrives for Gilmore’s event, people gather around a supposed space ship in a field outside of London. Among the onlookers are Emma and Wells who was drug there by an inspector from Scotland Yard believing Wells would know what is going to happen. What happens is beyond them all and has them running for their lives.

Palma takes several different stories and weaves a tale that starts in London, travels to the Antarctic, heads to America, and then lands back in London. I have to admit that starting this review was daunting simply because I didn’t know where to start. There is so much going on in this book but Palma manages the story well, tying up loose ends and making each part of the book feel complete.

The Map of the Sky is the sequel to his first novel, The Map of Time. While I want to say this book can stand alone, there are some characters that return, in new incarnations, and having the entire back story does help in reading this one. Palma obviously has a special regard for Wells’s work and even though his works are prominent aspects of this book, I don’t think one has to have read the books — in this particular case it is Wells’s The War of the Worlds — to enjoy the story.

Time travel, aliens, historical figures — it’s a nice mix. I enjoyed the odd historical figure thrown in, Edgar Allan Poe for example, and Palma does a good job of not making you feel as if he’s tossing out names but creating enough back story for that character to make sense in the full context of the book. I appreciate that. However, I will caution that this isn’t a book that lets you come and go; there’s a lot going on for it to be a leisurely read. It’s more the type of book that sucks you in with the small hints buried in the story and twists and turns that don’t seem to have an ending until the entire scheme is played out.

Palma is an appealing writer and I have to say I enjoyed both of his books. He’s into the details which make his stories come alive.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Map of the Sky

By Felix J. Palma

Atria Books

ISBN: 9781451660319

4 stars

Review – The Map of Lost Memories

Irene Blum has spent her life studying the Khmer Empire and acquiring knowledge of ancient civilizations and artifacts. She’s an expert in her field and fully expects to be running the Brooke Museum of Oriental Arts in Seattle, which houses a collection she helped to build, in due time. When the curatorship is given to another, it devastates her. Still reeling from the death of her father a few months earlier, she turns to Henry Simms, a close family friend and the man who helped raise her after the death of her mother. He is also the person who instilled in her the intense interest she has in the Khmer Empire. Mr. Simms is dying of cancer, and knowing it will be the last great adventure of his life and the start of one for Irene, he shares an unknown diary with her that talks about lost copper scrolls containing the history of the Khmer. The scrolls are supposedly hidden in an ancient Khmer temple in the Cambodian jungle. With nothing left for her in Seattle, Irene leaves for Shanghai to convince a woman named Simone Merlin to join her on the trip to Cambodia. Both women have much to prove — to each other and themselves — and the trip to discover the lost scrolls becomes a test of wills.

While the big draw for me was the setting, Shanghai and the Cambodian jungle in 1925, it was the characters that surprised me. Everyone has secrets so deeply ingrained it drug them all down and each and every character fought out of desperation; each not wanting to admit being wrong or to give in. The setting amplified every single flaw these characters carried.

Irene and Simone are bound together in horrific ways that neither woman wants to think about — murder, drugs, and a personal history neither knew existed until Irene found Simone in Shanghai. Their interactions are sometimes painful to witness but that’s what I enjoyed so much about this particular relationship. In 1925, two women struggling to be more than what society has deemed appropriate was great to see. Their efforts to regain some sense of themselves, understand their dreams, and deal with how those dreams have changed made for notable characters.

The Map of Lost Memories is full of mystery and suspense — some of it brought on in the course of the discovery of an archeological gem in the jungle and at other times it’s complete human folly. I adored the mixture. I feel like I’ve skipped the brilliant setting in favor of discussing some flawed but captivating characters. The setting and the discovery of an ancient Khmer temple deep in the Cambodian jungle was what made me want to read this book and it turned out to be a book full of characters looking for and waiting for redemption in different forms.

Historical fiction is a favorite of mine and the thing that keeps me reading this genre are books that make me want to know more about an event, a person, or discovery after I finish the book. This book did just that. I found myself wanting to know more about the Khmer Empire and the forgotten temples covered by moss and vines.

A setting that’s fascinating, thrilling, and dangerous, and characters that are in turn annoying and absorbing with strong personalities but are flawed and human. Together these elements made it difficult for me to put this book down. Fay obviously has a love for Asian culture and history. If she decides to write more books with this setting, I’ll be reading.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Map of Lost Memories

Kim Fay

Ballantine Books

ISBN: 9780345531346

4 stars

 

Review – Shadow of Night

In Shadow of Night, we pick up with Diana Bishop, now Diana Clairmont, and her new husband Matthew in 1590 Elizabethan England. Having time walked back to 1590 to find a witch capable of understanding Diana’s magic and who can teach her how to control her powers, the two soon get caught up in 16th Century English politics and court intrigue. It’s a particularly fascinating place for Diana, being the scholar that she is, but for Matthew the new setting brings on a fresh set of problems and emotions. Matthew, a vampire who once hunted down witches, now has to reconcile his old role as witch hunter which is more than difficult now that over 400 years later, he finds himself married to a witch. He also must come to some understanding with his father — a man he knows as dead in his present.

In only a few months, Diana and Matthew have to find Ashmole 782, the mysterious book that brought them together months ago in their present time at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Hoping it may still be intact in 1590, they’re both somewhat optimistic that Diana’s burgeoning powers can help them understand who they are, what they are, and what will happen to their families. All the while they are dealing with Matthew’s past, well-known historical figures — Queen Elizabeth I anyone? — famous playwrights, witches, family drama, and weddings. Diana and Matthew not only have to figure out how to be married but also how to be a witch and vampire married to each other while looking for a book that they hope holds the answers to their future.

Matthew is still his controlling self — he’s a vampire but it’s still hard to ignore this annoying trait of his — but Diana is finally starting to understand what her witch heritage means, how to control her powers, and starts to stand her ground. Once reluctant to accept witchcraft, she finally begins using it and accepting it as part of who she is. Something her husband, a man who wants to control everything, struggles with as well. Their relationship becomes more of a partnership in the second book. These two obviously have picked a strange road to follow and one that many don’t see ending happily. I felt this second book in the All Souls trilogy (Shadow of Night is the second book in the series following A Discovery of Witches) had a bit less mystery for me but a lot more intrigue. I enjoyed the numerous strange characters that appeared and we finally get a look at Matthew’s past. Getting to meet Matthew’s family and friends explains his sometimes irrational mood swings and what both he and Diana will be facing in their life together.

I’m a series reader and am happy to say that Shadow of Night kept up with A Discovery of Witches. Book two in a trilogy can sometimes feel like a place holder, and while Diana and Matthew’s questions aren’t answered, their lives do move on and I liked seeing their relationship change. They both wonder about their intrusions on the past and how their actions will alter their futures and the past. Diana finally accepts witchcraft as part of who she is but there are few precious hints at what it will hold for her future self. Matthew’s history hits him full on in 1590 and Diana understands for the first time why her husband falls into such dark places.

In short, time walking, famous dead people, more vampires, witches, and daemons, and lots of magic shape book two in the All Souls trilogy. And yes, I’m now sitting and hoping Deborah Harkness writes faster because I’m anxious to know what happens to Diana and Matthew.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Shadow of Night

Deborah Harkness

Viking Adult

ISBN: 9780670023486

4.5 stars

 

Review – The Reckoning

The Reckoning is the second book in The Taker trilogy. My review of The Taker is here.

The Reckoning picks up where the first book in The Taker trilogy left off — with Lanny running away from Adair, the man who bestowed eternal life upon her. After escaping the small cell Lanny imprisoned him in, Adair is now free and looking to exact revenge on Lanny, the woman he supposedly loves and has convinced himself he cannot live without.

Lanny is on the run with her new love Luke trying not only to avoid criminal charges for murder back in Maine but also any last vestige of her previous life. The last 200 years, while memorable for numerous reasons and punctuated with the odd famous individual or well-known events, have also been filled with terror for her. She knows that the prison holding her former lover, and tormentor, Adair, may break at any time and he will come looking for her. When the day Lanny most dreaded arrives and Adair is freed, she tried to impress on everyone in her life, current and past acquaintances, that Adair being free is more than a simple matter of hiding. She knows he will find her and she doesn’t want to let that happen knowing only years of pain, fear, and humiliation will be hers to endure. Thanks to her immortality, death will never be a release from the nightmare she knows awaits her.

Luke doesn’t understand her fear, and not having ever known Adair or anyone else from Lanny’s past, he believes her fear to be irrational. Knowing she can’t have Luke found by Adair, Lanny leaves him to search out the others and hopefully find answers and some solace in their company. What Lanny finds is not at all what she expected.

As in the first book in this series, The Taker, a good deal of the story is told through flashbacks of Lanny and Adair’s lives. They spend days thinking over their pasts and wondering where it got them. This is especially true in the case of Adair, who after 200 years of imprisonment is now part of a world that doesn’t conform to his style of living. For a man with freedom, he seems oddly intimidated by it —- he can’t frighten the world and its people into submission. Even the ones he has bestowed eternity upon aren’t as he remembered.

While Adair is trying to form some sense of identity (and search out Lanny to exact vengeance for locking him behind stone) Lanny is looking for some sort of forgiveness. I have to admit that I felt some of the characters, Adair in particular, changed too much and too little all at the same time. Adair is a monster, to be certain, a man obsessed with a woman he’s tortured physically and mentally, and, yet, he can’t understand why she wants him buried behind a stone wall. Of course, any time he becomes soft hearted, you’re immediately reminded of his past actions. Katsu doesn’t let you forget you aren’t supposed to like Adair.

At the end of The Taker, I was wondering where Katsu would take this story and now at the end of The Reckoning, I’m feeling much the same curiosity. I think Katsu has a skill for building characters with extensive pasts that continue to fascinate. In many ways, I was left guessing as to what the truth was and what was told to impress or scare. The characters all walk fine lines. They may be immortal but they’re all part of a mortal world that most likely wouldn’t understand or accept them. Most find ways to blend in and survive but I still can’t get past their actions. It’s a character driven story with incredibly interesting and sometimes hateful characters and that’s keeping me firmly attached to the story.

If you’re interested in The Reckoning, start with The Taker. This is a story best read from the beginning. It’s a tale of obsession, love, and fear among immortals who can’t be harmed by the trials of life but who manage to do a number on each other. You’ll need all the gory details to understand why waiting on the final book in this series will feel like an eternity.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Reckoning

By Alma Katsu

Gallery Books

ISBN: 9781451651805

4 stars