Saturday, September 29, 2012

Book Review: Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear's marvelous and inspired debut, Maisie Dobbs, won her fans from coast to coast and raised her intuitive, intelligent, and resourceful heroine to the ranks of literature's favorite sleuths. Birds of a Feather finds Maisie Dobbs on another dangerously intriguing adventure in London "between the wars." It is the spring of 1930, and Maisie has been hired to find a runaway heiress. But what seems a simple case at the outset soon becomes increasingly complicated when three of the heiress's old friends are found dead. Is there a connection between the woman's mysterious disappearance and the murders? Who would want to kill three seemingly respectable young women? As Maisie investigates, she discovers that the answers lie in the unforgettable agony of the Great War.

Synopsis courtesy of

My Review

3 Stars

Birds of a Feather is the second novel in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mystery series.  Set in late 1920s England, the series features a young private detective, Maisie Dobbs, as the heroine.   In this novel Maisie is recruited by a wealthy businessman to locate his runaway daughter.   While the case initially seems straightforward, it soon becomes complicated by the deaths of three former school friends of the runaway woman.   While it seems that the three deaths are unrelated, Maisie investigates them in the hopes they will help solve her case.  What she uncovers leads her back to events of the Great War, which turns her case into one much larger than that of simply locating a runaway woman.

While the mystery component of the series' first novel (titled Maisie Dobbs) wasn't all that mysterious, nor was it the focal point of the book (click here to read my review), in Birds of a Feather the mystery serves as the foundation for the story.  Winspear does a good job of subtlety linking Maisie's case to that of the deaths of three women so that the connection between them does not become obvious until the novel's conclusion.  Winspear also excels, much like she did in her first novel, at illustrating the impact of the lingering effects of the Great War on those whose lived through it.   Ultimately, however, I didn't enjoy Birds of Feather nearly as much as I did the first novel in the series.   My lack of enthusiasm for this book comes down to the simple fact that for much of the novel Maisie, who is clearly an intelligent and independent woman, comes across as cold and detached.   While this is understandable given everything Maisie has been through, it makes it quite difficult for the reader to connect with the heroine.  This begins to change towards the novel's end, which makes me hopeful that Maisie will continue to grow as the series progresses, but not enough to improve my rating.  Nevertheless, I will continue with this series. 

Recommended to fans of the first Maisie Dobbs novel, as well as to those interested in reading books set in the period between the two World Wars.

Note: The novel comes from my own personal collection. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Series I Haven't Finished

It's time for Top Ten Tuesdays, a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and Bookish that features a different book/reading theme each week.   This week's topic is:

Top Ten Series You Haven't Finished 

I love series, but admit that there are several series on my shelves that I still haven't gotten around to finishing.   Here are the ones that immediately come to mind (the cover images are the first book of each series):

(1) The Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon.   I loved the first four books in this series, but found the fifth one didn't live up to my expectations.   I stopped reading the sixth book after 200 pages and haven't bothering to try it again.  Even though I have the seventh book sitting on my shelf, I don't know that I'll ever finish this series (which has yet to be completed).   It's been close to fifteen years since I first started reading this series and my reading tastes have changed quite a bit since then.   As a result, this series no longer holds the same appeal for me.

(2) Sara Donati's Wilderness Series.   This series is very similar to Gabaldon's Outlander series, and it is for much the same reason that I don't know that I'll ever finish this one.   Loved the first few books, but was not as keen on the later books in the series.   I have the last two novels sitting on my shelves, but I have a feeling they'll remain unread for a long time to come.

(3) John Jakes Kent Family Chronicles.   As I absolutely love John Jakes' North & South trilogy I gave his Kent Family Chronicles a try in the hopes I would find it just as engaging.   While I liked the first book, The Bastard, I didn't enjoy it enough to continue with the series.

(4) Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori series.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series and have the remaining books sitting on my shelf to read.  I fully intend to finish this one, and have no excuse for not having done so earlier.  

(5) Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series.   I love this 20-book series set mainly on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars and featuring a British Naval Officer and his surgeon/spy best friend.  I've read the first 16 books but have put off going any further since I know that once I finish the final four books there will be no new material featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin for me to read. 

(6) Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles.   I read the first book (The Skystone) in this Arthurian series a few years back.   I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went out and bought the rest of the series.   Guess what?  I still haven't read any of them.  The fact I haven't finished is a reflection of the fact that I get easily distracted by new books and push older ones further and further down my tbr pile.   I do plan to finish this series!

(7) Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.   I thought the first two Thursday Next books (The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book) were great fun to read, but had much difficulty with the third one (The Well of Lost Plots).   I haven't tried book four (Something Rotten) mainly because I'm afraid it will be too much like book three.   I'll get through this series eventually.

(8) Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation Series.   This series is great fun, but I have to be in the right mood to read the books associated with it.  Since I haven't felt like reading light, fluffy historical fiction/ modern-day chick lit lately, the last two books in this series remain on my shelves unread.  I will read them one of these days.

(9) Conn Iggulden's Emperor series.   The first two books in this series set in ancient Rome and featuring Julius Cesar are pretty good, but I just don't care enough for the characters to continue with this one.

(10) Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series.   I've read the first five novels in this epic fantasy series.  With the exception of the series' final novel, which is due to be released next year, I have all the books on my shelves.   The fact I've not read past book five is not a reflection of the quality of the series, which I think is very well done, but rather a result of the fact that each of the books is about 1000 pages long!  I just haven't felt like devoting a significant chunk of my reading time to this series recently.    I will probably get back to this series late this year or early next.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reading Slumps, etc.

Happy Sunday!  As fall has finally arrived, I'm hoping the cooler weather and changing colours will also coincide with the release of some exceptional books.  You see, I've been in somewhat of a reading slump lately.   With a couple of exceptions (notably the first two novels in Micheal Sullivan's awesome Riyria Revelations fantasy trilogy), nothing that I've read over the past few months has blown me away, and I'm craving a book I can completely lose myself in.   Has anyone else experienced a reading slump lately?  If so, what book broke you out of it? 

I'm hoping my slump will end this coming week, which will see the release of J.K. Rowling's anticipated first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy.   In addition, October will bring the release of Kate Morton's latest book, The Secret Keeper.  To say I'm looking forward to reading both of these novels is an understatement.   Is anyone else planning to read these?   Are there any other upcoming releases on your must read list?

In other news, I'm going make a big effort in the weeks ahead to pay more attention to my blog, which, despite my best intentions, I admit to having somewhat neglected lately.  As such, in the next couple of weeks I plan to post reviews for the following books:
  • Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear
  • Tears of Pearl by Tasha Alexander
  • Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey
In addition, thanks in large part to my participation in the Historical Fiction Blog Hop, I have hit and surpassed the 100 followers mark!  As a thanks I will soon be hosting a 100 Follower Giveaway.   Stay tuned for more details.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review: Daughters of Fire by Barbare Erskine

Two thousand years ago, as the Romans invade Britannia, the princess who will become the powerful queen of the great tribe of the Brigantes, watches the enemies of her people come ever closer. Cartimandua's world is, from the start, a maelstrom of love and conflict; revenge and retribution.

In the present day, Edinburgh-based historian, Viv Lloyd Rees, has immersed herself in the legends surrounding the Celtic queen. She has written a book and is working on a dramatisation of the young queen's life with the help of actress, Pat Hebden.

Cartimandua's life takes one unexpected turn after another as tragedy changes the course of her future. But the young queen has formidable enemies - among them Venutios, her childhood sparring partner, and Medb, a woman whose jealousy threatens not only her happiness but her life.

Viv's Head of Department, Hugh Graham, hounds her as she struggles to hide her visions of Cartimandua and her conviction that they are real. Her obsession grows ever more persistent and threatening as she takes possession of an ancient brooch that carries a curse. Both Pat and Hugh are drawn into this dual existence of bitter rivalry and overwhelming love as past envelopes present and the trio find themselves facing the greatest danger of their lives.

My Review

4 Stars

In Barbara Erskine's novel Daughters of Fire, protaganist Viv Lloyd Rees is about to realize a dream with the publication of her scholarly work on Cartimandua, a little known British tribal queen remembered only for betraying Britain to Imperial Rome.  Although her book includes information on Cartimandua never before known, it is generating much advanced buzz mainly for the severe criticism leveled against it by Viv's friend and Department Head, Dr. Hugh Graham.   Hugh, also a Celtic expert, argues that much of the information contained in the book is nothing more than supposition, saying there is no historical evidence to back up many of Viv's claims.   Unbeknownst to Hugh, Viv has formed a "connection" with the Iron Age queen, a connection that revealed much of the information in her book; and which Viv is also using to develop a radio dramatization on the life of Cartimandua.   When Hugh and Viv's behaviours start to alter, followed soon after by that of Viv's dramatization partner, Pat, it becomes apparent that there is much more to Viv's 'connection' with Cartimandua than meets the eye, and that it relates, in some way, to an ancient Celtic broach believed to have once belonged to the Brigantine queen.   Viv, Hugh and Pat soon find themselves completely entangled in events of the past.  While this situation brings to light people, events and motivations that have been lost to history, they also place Viv, Hugh and Pat's very lives in grave danger.   

Daughters of Fire is a richly atmospheric novel, one in which events of the past and present become so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them.  Although a huge fan of time slip novels, I sometimes find that narrative transitions between past and present story lines can be rough and inconsistent.   This is not an issue in Daughters of Fire, as the ongoing shifts between the modern day and historical story lines are well executed.  I also found the continual narrative shifts, which are often suspenseful, helped to move the novel along quickly and kept the book, at over 550 pages, from feeling too long.   While I enjoyed the novel overall, I did have one issue with it - I didn't connect with any of the principal characters.  While it is unusual for me to enjoy a novel when ambivalent towards the main characters, my lack of connection to Viv, Hugh or Pat didn't in any way detract from my fascination with the story itself.   

Daughters of Fire is recommended to fans of historical time slip novels.   In fact, fans of time slip novels who haven't already done so are encouraged to check out novelist Barbara Erskine's works in general. 

Note: This book comes from my own personal collection.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Blending archaeological fact and legend, the myths of the gods and the feats of heroes, Marion Zimmer Bradley breathes new life into the classic tale of the Trojan War-reinventing larger-than-life figures as living people engaged in a desperate struggle that dooms both the victors and the vanquished, their fate seen through the eyes of Kassandra-priestess, princess, and passionate woman with the spirit of a warrior.

Synopsis courtesy of

My Review

4 Stars

Set in ancient Troy in the years immediately before and during the Trojan War, The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley brings the classical world to life from the perspective of one young woman, Kassandra, daughter of Troy's King Priam and twin sister to Paris. 

In an age when Trojan noblewomen were expected to do nothing more than make a good marriage and bring forth heirs, Trojan princess Kassandra is anything but ordinary.   While called to serve the gods at an early age and given the gift of prophecy, Kassandra is sent by her mother, Hecuba, to spend her formative years with the legendary Amazon warriors.  Under the tutelage of Amazon leader Penthesilea, Kassandra trains as a warrior and learns the art of war.  As a Trojan princess, however, Kassandra is not destined to permanently join the ranks of the Amazons and, after spending some time in the city of Colchis, returns to Troy.  Once she arrives home Kassandra dedicates her life to Apollo by serving as one of his priestesses.  While all seems well in Troy, one of the greatest cities in the classical world, Kassandra is subject to horrifying visions of the city's destruction.  Although Kassandra hopes these visions are not what they seem, when Paris returns home from a diplomatic mission with Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus and sister-in-law of the great Agamemnon, by his side, Kassandra knows that Helen's coming will result in the fall of the city.   Kassandra tries to warn her father and brothers, including heroic Hector, but her warnings fall on deaf ears.   Even when Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, the great warrior Achilles and their thousands of ships filled with their armies land on the shores of Troy, only Kassandra has any sense of doom.   As Kassandra's visions continue to plague her, she tries again and again to convince her family to heed her warnings.   Will Priam, Hector and Paris take Kassandra's words to heart and do whatever it takes to save themselves and their beloved city?

For readers familiar with the legend of the Trojan War, many aspects of story presented in The Firebrand will be recognizable.  What separates this novel from the multitude of others set during the Trojan War is that it is told not from the perspective of one of the key figures of the War such as Hector, Paris, Helen or Achilles, but rather from the perspective of the lesser known Kassandra.  While I was already familiar with the legend of the Trojan War before reading this novel, I did enjoy reading about it from Kassandra's perspective.  I even found myself growing increasingly frustrated right along with Kassandra as her constant warnings of Troy's coming destruction failed to be taken seriously.   The greatest strength of this novel lies in the characters, all of whom are well drawn by the author.  Kassandra is a smart, independent heroine who is willing to fight for what she believes in.  Nevertheless, she fails to change her approach to communicating her visions even after it is apparent no one believes her.   For Trojan hero Hector, honour is everything.  While determined to keep his city safe, Hector's willingness to die for Troy causes him to continually put his life in jeopardy even though it is his masterful leadership that is most needed.  Helen of Sparta, used as the primary excuse for the start of the War, fails to heed Kassandra's warnings of her role in Troy's destruction and is adamant about staying in Troy with Paris.  But Helen also possesses a remarkable strength of character that draws Kassandra to her.  Achilles is famed for his prowess in battle, but his blood lust makes him difficult to feel any sympathy towards.   These characters, along with a multitude of others, including Odysseus, Andromache, Aeneas and Hecuba, are what make the The Firebrand truly come alive. 

An enjoyable novel overall, the only aspect of the book I have an issue with is the length.  Coming in at just under 600 pages, this book is not a quick read.  I don't mind lengthy novels so long as they are well-paced, but at times, especially early in the book, I felt the story dragged.   While I thought the novel moved along nicely once Helen arrived on the scene, there were a few plot points concerning Kassandra that I don't feel added value to the overall tale.  While this didn't detract too much from my overall enjoyment of the book, it did have an impact on my final rating.  

The Firebrand is recommended to readers who enjoy fiction with strong female leads and those interested in reading about the Trojan War.  

Note: The novel comes from my own personal collection.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Partial to the Past Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop: Winner

It's my pleasure to announce the winner of my portion of the Partial to the Past Historical Fiction Giveway Hop (selected using is:

Denise F

Congratulations, Denise.   I've sent you an email to find out your book selection and mailing details. 

I would like to take this opportunity to say a big Thank You to everyone who entered the hop thereby making this my most successful giveaway yet.   I'd also like to welcome those of you who decided not only to enter, but to follow my blog as well.   I'm now over 100 followers and, in honour of hitting the 100 followers mark, I'll be hosting another giveaway very soon :-) 

One last note of thanks goes to Holly over at Bippity Boppity Book for hosting and organizing the Hop.   It was great fun and she did a wonderful job pulling everything together.   Thanks, Holly!