Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday

It's time for Waiting on Wednesday, a weekly meme hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine that spotlights books we are eagerly anticipating the release of.

This week I'm waiting for:

Touch of Power by Maria V. Snyder (Healer #1)
Release Date: 20 December 2011

Laying hands upon the injured and dying, Avry of Kazan assumes their wounds and diseases into herself. But rather than being honored for her skills, she is hunted.   Healers like Avry are accused of spreading the plague that has decimated the Territories, leaving the survivors in a state of chaos.

Stressed and tired from hiding, Avry is abducted by a band of rogues who, shockingly, value her gift above the golden bounty offered for her capture.  Their leader, an enigmatic captor-protector with powers of his own, is unequivocal in his demands: Avry must heal a plague-stricken prince—leader of a campaign against her people.

As they traverse the daunting Nine Mountains, beset by mercenaries and magical dangers, Avry must decide who is worth healing and what is worth dying for. Because the price of peace may well be her life.... 

Synopsis courtesy of mariavsnyder.com

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review: Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman

Emma, a prima ballerina in London, is at a crossroads after an injured knee ruins her career. Forced to rest and take stock of her life, she finds that she's mistaken fame and achievement for love and fulfillment. Returning home to Australia, she learns of her grandmother Beattie's death and a strange inheritance: a sheep station in isolated rural Australia. Certain she has been saddled with an irritating burden, Emma prepares to leave for Wildflower Hill to sell the estate.

Beattie also found herself at a crossroads as a young woman, but she was pregnant and unwed. She eventually found success-but only after following an unconventional path that was often dangerous and heartbreaking. Beattie knew the lessons she learned in life would be important to Emma one day, and she wanted to make sure Emma's heart remained open to love, no matter what life brought. She knew the magic of the Australian wilderness would show Emma the way.

Wildflower Hill is a compelling, atmospheric, and romantic novel about taking risks, starting again, and believing in yourself. It's about finding out what you really want and discovering that the answer might be not at all what you'd expect.

Synopsis courtesy of Chapters.indigo.ca

My Review

5 Stars

Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman is a beautifully written novel that moves back and forth in time between modern-day and 1920s-50s Great Britain and Australia, following the lives of Beattie Blaxland and her granddaughter, Emma.  

While the modern-day component of the story is compelling -- after a career ending injury, Emma is forced to rediscover herself -- it is Beattie's narrative that makes this novel shine.  Beattie's story captures the reader's interest right from the opening chapters, when, as a young pregnant woman forced by her mother out of her home, she follows her married lover to Australia to start a new life.   Beattie's life in Australia is anything but ordinary.  While she experiences great joys, Beattie must also deal with tremendous heartache.  Through it all she never gives up and her strength of character and perseverance ultimately lead her to achieve great success in business, an inspiring feat considering she lived in a world still very much dominated by men.  

In almost all aspects, Wildflower Hill is a novel reminiscent of those written by Kate Morton, and I've seen several "If you love Kate Morton, you'll love this..." references to it.   As a huge fan of Kate Morton's works, I think the comparison is valid.   While not as atmospheric as Morton's writing, Freeman's narrative technique, style and themes are similar to those found in Morton's novels.   In addition, like Morton, Freeman has created characters and plot lines that leave the reader eager to keep turning the pages.

In short, I was completely captivated by this novel and had a difficult time putting it down.  Indeed,  Wildflower Hill has earned a place on my list of favourites.   I'm very much looking forward to hearing more from Kimberley Freeman.  

Note: This novel comes from my own personal collection.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Review: From Notting Hill With Love...Actually by Ali McNamara

She was just a girl, standing in front of a boy ...wishing he looked more like Hugh Grant. Scarlett loves the movies. But does she love sensible fiance David just as much? With a big white wedding on the horizon, Scarlett really should have decided by now ...When she has the chance to house-sit in Notting Hill - the setting of one of her favourite movies - Scarlett jumps at the chance. But living life like a movie is trickier than it seems, especially when her new neighbour Sean is so irritating. And so irritatingly handsome, too. Scarlett soon finds herself starring in a romantic comedy of her very own: but who will end up as the leading man? 

Synopsis courtesy of Amazon.co.uk

My Review

3.5 Stars

From Notting Hill With Love...Actually, the debut novel from British author Ali McNamara, is a charming read for anyone who enjoys, as the title implies, romantic comedies. 

Scarlett O'Brien is a young woman with a love of the cinema, a love her family and friends simply don't understand.   After a row with her fiance David, Scarlett's father convinces her to take time for herself in order to determine what she really wants out of life.   When an opportunity to house-sit in Notting Hill arises, Scarlett leaves her home in Stratford and heads for London.   Although her family and friends think Scarlett is spending time away to make sense of her life, Scarlett herself sets out with the intent of proving that life can, in fact, be just like the movies.   While in Notting Hill, Scarlett meets an interesting cast of characters, including handsome next-door neighbour Sean, who set into motion events that leave Scarlett thinking she will be able to prove wrong all those naysayers telling her life isn't like the movies.  Along the way, however, Scarlett comes question if she is meant for a happily-ever-after and realizes that her actions can cause unintended pain to those she loves.  Will Scarlett actually be able to prove that life is like the movies after all? 

From Notting Hill With Love...Actually is fun, it's humorous and it has a wonderful cast of characters.   While the plot itself is predictable, it does include a few twists that made me briefly wonder if the outcome I expected would indeed come to pass.   While initially wary of Scarlett herself, mainly because it's hard to connect with a character obsessed with films, I ultimately found her endearing.   Her difficulties in knowing what to do about life and love is a theme to which many readers can relate.   My only criticism of the novel pertains to the characterization of Scarlett's fiance, David.  While Scarlett is bubbly and full of life, David is flat and uninspired leaving it hard to understand why Scarlett is engaged to him.   While this serves to make it easier for readers to attach themselves to Sean, Scarlett's friend in Notting Hill, with little to like about David it makes the unfolding and resolution of the love triangle plot that much more predictable.   Nevertheless, given this is a novel version of a romantic comedy, the ultimate outcome of the love triangle is never really in doubt anyway and, for this reason, the lack of depth or likeability to David didn't impact on my enjoyment of the novel.  

Note:  This novel comes from my own personal collection.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mailbox Monday

Another week, another Mailbox Monday.   Mailbox Monday is a weekly travelling meme that is being hosted for the month of October over at Savvy Verse & Wit.

Thanks in large part to a fabulous sale at my favourite bookstore, many new books found there way into my home this week (unless otherwise stated, synopses courtesy of Chapters.indigo.ca):

The Secret Philosopher by Matthew Plampin

Ambitious young journalist Thomas Kitson arrives at the battlefields of the Crimea as the London Courier's man on the ground. It is a dangerous place, full of the worst horrors of war but Kitson is determined to make his mark. Under the tutelage of his hard-bitten Irish boss Cracknell, and assisted by artist Robert Styles, he sets about exposing the incompetence of the army generals.

Two years later, as Sebastopol burns, Thomas returns to England under mysterious circumstances. Desperate to forget the atrocities of the Crimea, he takes a job as a 'street philosopher', a society writer reporting on the gossip of the day. But on the eve of the great Art Treasures Exhibition, as Manchester prepares to welcome Queen Victoria, Thomas's past returns to haunt him in the most horrifying way...

The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Winder (synopsis courtesy of amazon.co.uk)

In the spring of 1613 Mr William Shakespeare, a gentleman farmer in Warwickshire, returns to London. It is a ceremonial visit; he has no further theatrical ambitions. But the city is still reeling from the terrorist panic of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and fate soon forces him to take up his pen again. It was never possible to write about Henry VII while his granddaughter Elizabeth was Queen, but now he must. It is a perilous enterprise: King James I's spies are everywhere. There is no evidence that Shakespeare wrote Henry VII, but in a compelling piece of historical recreation, Robert Winder asks: what if he did? After 400 years, he gives us a unique world premiere - a brand-new, full-length Shakespeare play. The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare is an exhilarating portrait of England's greatest author - not in love but raging against the dying of the light. It is an outrageous tour de force of theatrical imagination, full of the spirit of the Bard. 

The Countess by Rebecca Johns

Was the "Blood Countess" history's first and perhaps worst female serial killer? Or did her accusers create a violent fiction in order to remove this beautiful, intelligent, ambitious foe from the male-dominated world of Hungarian politics?
In 1611, Countess Erzsébet Báthory, a powerful Hungarian noblewoman, stood helpless as masons walled her inside her castle tower, dooming her to spend her final years in solitary confinement. Her crime-the gruesome murders of dozens of female servants, mostly young girls tortured to death for displeasing their ruthless mistress. Her opponents painted her as a bloodthirsty škrata-a witch-a portrayal that would expand to grotesque proportions through the centuries.

In this riveting dramatization of Erzsébet Báthory's life, the countess tells her story in her own words, writing to her only son-a final reckoning from his mother in an attempt to reveal the truth behind her downfall. Countess Báthory describes her upbringing in one of the most powerful noble houses in Hungary, recounting in loving detail her devotion to her parents and siblings as well as the heartbreak of losing her father at a young age. She soon discovers the price of being a woman in sixteenth-century Hungary as her mother arranges her marriage to Ferenc Nádasdy, a union made with the cold calculation of a financial transaction. Young Erzsébet knows she has no choice but to accept this marriage even as she laments its loveless nature and ultimately turns to the illicit affections of another man.

Seemingly resigned to a marriage of convenience and a life of surreptitious pleasure, the countess surprises even herself as she ignites a marital spark with Ferenc through the most unromantic of acts: the violent punishment of an insolent female servant. The event shows Ferenc that his wife is no trophy but a strong, determined woman more than capable of managing their vast estates during Ferenc's extensive military campaigns against the Turks. Her naked assertion of power accomplishes what her famed beauty could not: capturing the love of her husband.

The countess embraces this new role of loving wife and mother, doing everything she can to expand her husband's power and secure her family's future. But a darker side surfaces as Countess Báthory's demand for virtue, obedience, and, above all, respect from her servants takes a sinister turn. What emerges is not only a disturbing, unflinching portrait of the deeds that gave Báthory the moniker "Blood Countess," but an intimate look at the woman who became a monster.

The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy

A gripping tale of passion and courage set in World War II-occupied Guernsey, "The Soldier's Wife" tells the story of housewife and mother Vivienne de la Mare, as she is torn between loyalty and love. 

 The Traitor's Daughter by Paula Brandon

Here's the beginning of a lush, epic, wholly original new trilogy that shines with magic, mystery, and captivating drama.

On the Veiled Isles, ominous signs are apparent to those with the talent to read them. The polarity of magic is wavering at its source, heralding a vast upheaval poised to alter the very balance of nature. Blissfully unaware of the cataclysmic events to come, Jianna Belandor, the beautiful, privileged daughter of a powerful Faerlonnish overlord, has only one concern: the journey to meet her prospective husband.  But revolution is stirring as her own conquered people rise up against their oppressors, and Jianna is kidnapped and held captive at a rebel stronghold, insurance against what are perceived as her father's crimes.

The resistance movement opens Jianna's eyes―and her heart. Despite her belief in her father's innocence, she is fascinated by the bold and charming nomadic physician and rebel sympathizer, Falaste Rione-who offers Jianna her only sanctuary in a cold and calculating web of intrigue. As plague and chaos grip the land, Jianna is pushed to the limits of her courage and resourcefulness, while virulent enemies discover that alliance is their only hope to save the human race.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Synopsis courtesy of Chapters.indigo.ca

In this mesmerizing debut, a competition between two magicians becomes a star-crossed love story.

The circus arrives at night, without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within nocturnal black and white striped tents awaits a unique experience, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stand awestruck as a tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and gaze in wonderment at an illusionist performing impossible feats of magic.

Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves. Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is underway--a contest between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in 'a game,' in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

My Review

4 Stars

'Captivating,' 'Enchanting,' 'Magical' and 'A Must Read' are but a few of the words being used to describe Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus.   Released in September to significant advanced buzz, the novel is being touted as the 'it' book of the year in many quarters.   While I am usually leery of widely-hyped novels, The Night Circus seemed a book that would appeal to me.  Unfortunately, the novel failed to live up to my expectations -- although beautifully written, the plot itself was lacking in many areas.  

I'll start with the good -- the writing.  Morgenstern has a magical way with words.  The Night Circus is one of the most beautifully written novels I've had the pleasure of reading.   Morgenstern's descriptions of the circus itself are both vivid and breathtakingly beautiful.  At times I would reread certain passages simply to marvel at the prose.  

While Morgenstern's writing is certainly deserving of high praise, the story itself fails to captivate and I found the plot slow moving and, at times, tedious.   The primary characters are flat and poorly developed, leaving me ambivalent towards them and unconcerned with their fates.   According to the book jacket, Marco and Celia share a 'deep, passionate and magical love,' but I found little evidence of this in the novel -- a grand love story this book was not.   Furthermore, the concept of two 'dueling' magicians fails to live up to expectations, as the competition between Celia and Marco could hardly be called a duel in the traditional sense of the word.

Perhaps my expectations for the novel were just too high, but The Night Circus was not a magical read for me.  Yes, the prose is five-star worthy, and the concept of the novel unique, but the characters and plot ultimately left me unsatisfied.  In arriving at my four-star rating, I struggled in balancing the novel's strengths against its weakness.   My initial rating was three stars, yet I didn't feel this rating reflected how elegantly written the novel is.   Given the strength of the writing, I settled on a four-star rating.    

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mailbox Monday

Mailbox Monday is a weekly travelling meme is being hosted for the month of October over at Savvy Verse & Wit.

My busy schedule has kept me from posting to Mailbox Monday for the past few weeks, but I did receive several books over that period so this week's edition is a selection of books I've received since my last Mailbox Monday post.

Unless otherwise stated, all synopses are courtesy of Chapters.indigo.ca

I received one book for review:

The Hypnotist by M.J. Rose

Haunted by his inability to stop the murder of a beautiful young painter twenty years ago, Lucian Glass keeps his demons at bay through his fascinating work with the FBI's Art Crime Team. Investigating a crazed collector who's begun destroying prized masterworks, Glass is thrust into a bizarre hostage negotiation that takes him undercover at the Phoenix Foundation dedicated to the science of past-life study. There, to maintain his cover, he submits to the treatment of a hypnotist. 

Under hypnosis, Glass travels from ancient Greece to nineteenth-century Persia, while the case takes him from New York to Paris and the movie while the case takes him from New York to Paris and the movie capital of the world. These journeys will change his very understanding of reality, lead him to question his own sanity and land him at the center of perhaps the most audacious art heist in history: a fifteen-hundred-year-old sculpture the nation of Iran will do anything to recover.

The rest of the books I received are my own purchases:

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

From the 'New York Times'-bestselling novelist, a stunning story of a great medieval warrior-king, the accomplished and controversial son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Richard, Coeur de Lion.

They were called 'The Devil's Brood,' though never to their faces. They were the four surviving sons of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. With two such extraordinary parents, much was expected of them.

But the eldest-charming yet mercurial-would turn on his father and, like his brother Geoffrey, meet an early death. When Henry died, Richard would take the throne and, almost immediately, set off for the Holy Land. This was the Third Crusade, and it would be characterized by internecine warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. And, back in England, by the conniving of Richard's youngest brother, John, to steal his crown.

In 'Lionheart,' Sharon Kay Penman displays her remarkable mastery of historical detail and her acute understanding of human foibles. The result is a powerful story of intrigue, war, and- surprisingly-effective diplomacy, played out against the roiling conflicts of love and loyalty, passion and treachery, all set against the rich textures of the Holy Land.

The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran

Set against the sumptuousness and intrigues of Queen Elizabeth I's court, this powerful novel reveals the untold love affair between the famous poet John Donne and Ann More, the passionate woman who, against all odds, became his wife.

Ann More, fiery and spirited daughter of the Mores of Loseley House in Surrey, came to London destined for a life at the court of Queen Elizabeth and an advantageous marriage. There she encountered John Donne, the darkly attractive young poet who was secretary to her uncle, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He was unlike any man she had ever met-angry, clever, witty, and in her eyes, insufferably arrogant and careless of women. Yet as they were thrown together, Donne opened Ann's eyes to a new world of passion and sensuality.

But John Donne-Catholic by background in an age when it was deadly dangerous, tainted by an alluring hint of scandal-was the kind of man her status-conscious father distrusted and despised.
The Lady and the Poet tells the story of the forbidden love between one of our most admired poets and a girl who dared to rebel against her family and the conventions of her time. They gave up everything to be together and their love knew no bounds.

Season of Storms by Susanna Kearsley

In the 1920s, in a beautiful Italian villa called Il Piacere, the playwright Galeazzo D'Ascanio lived for Celia Sands. She was his muse and his mistress, his most enduring obsession and the inspiration for his most original play. But the night before she was to perform the leading role, she disappeared.

Some sixty years later, a theatre in the grounds of Il Piacere, Alessandro D'Ascanio is preparing to stage the first performance of his grandfather's masterpiece. A promising young actress - who shares Celia''s name, but not her blood - has agreed to star. She is instantly drawn to the mysteries surrounding the play, and to her compelling employer. And even though she knows she should let the past go, in the dark - in her dreams - it comes back

From Notting Hill With Love...Actually by Ali McNamara (synopsis from Amazon.co.uk)

She was just a girl, standing in front of a boy ...wishing he looked more like Hugh Grant.  Scarlett loves the movies.  But does she love sensible fiance David just as much? With a big white wedding on the horizon, Scarlett really should have decided by now ...When she has the chance to house-sit in Notting Hill - the setting of one of her favourite movies - Scarlett jumps at the chance.  But living life like a movie is trickier than it seems, especially when her new neighbour Sean is so irritating. And so irritatingly handsome, too. Scarlett soon finds herself starring in a romantic comedy of her very own: but who will end up as the leading man?  

That is what was in my mailbox.  What came to yours?  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Book Review: The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs

In 406 BC, to seal a tenuous truce, the young Roman Caecilia is wedded to Vel Mastarna, an Etruscan nobleman from the city of Veii. The fledgling Republic lies only twelve miles across the Tiber from its neighbour, but the cities are from opposing worlds so different are their customs and beliefs. Leaving behind a righteous society, Caecilia is determined to remain true to Roman virtues while living among the sinful Etruscans. Instead she finds herself tempted by a mystical, hedonistic culture which offers pleasure and independence to women as well as a chance to persuade the Gods to delay her destiny. Yet Mastarna and his people also hold dark secrets and, as war looms, Caecilia discovers that Fate is not so easy to control and that she must finally choose where her allegiance lies. Exploring themes of sexuality, destiny versus self-determination and tolerance versus prejudice, The Wedding Shroud is a novel that vividly captures a historical time and place while accenting the lives of women of the ancient world.

Synopsis courtesy of elisabethstorrs.com

My Review

4.5 Stars

Elisabeth Storrs debut novel, The Wedding Shroud, is set primarily in a time and place rarely found in historical fiction - the Etruscan city of Veii during the early 4th century B.C. 

Opening in ancient Rome, the novel follows the life of Caecilia, a young Roman woman whose hand is offered in marriage to an Etruscan nobleman in order to cement a peace treaty between Rome and the neighboring Etruscan civilization.  Forced into a union she doesn't want, Caecilia must not only marry a man she knows little about, but she must also come to terms with living amongst Etruscans, a people whose culture and belief systems are vastly different from those of early Rome.  

The development of Caecilia's character is one of the greatest strengths of this novel.   While Caecilia goes into her marriage with the intention of staying true to Rome, Storrs skillfully illustrates Caecilia's inner struggles as she finds herself caught between two worlds.  In reading the novel, the reader is witness to the evolution of Caecilia as she works to find her place in the world, and it is through these efforts that she comes to better understand herself and those around her.  

Vividly descriptive and rich in historical detail, The Wedding Shroud successfully brings to life not only Caecilia's story, but also the customs, beliefs and political machinations of ancient Etruria and early Rome.   It is evident right from the opening pages that a significant amount of research went into the writing of this novel.   Well-written and engaging, this is novel that fans of historical fiction should find enjoyable.  I look forward to Elisabeth Storrs' next book.

Note: This book comes from my own personal collection.