Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

As Bright As Heaven
by Susan Meissner
Release Date: February 6th 2018
2018 Berkley Books
Kindle Edition; 387 Pages
ISBN: 978-0399585968
ASIN: B072HS2J83
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters--Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa--a chance at a better life.

But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without--and what they are willing to do about it.

My Thoughts
As Bright as Heaven is the poignant story of a family poised at the end of the Great War, a time of promise and hope, until a deadly disease, the Spanish Flu, strikes with determination and deadliness, causing the Bright family to re-evaluate their priorities and their dreams.  As a history teacher with a fascination for this time period, I was enveloped into this time period by some great descriptive writing and could feel the pain and hope that people experienced during this time period.

First of all, the story began on quite a sombre note as the family was dealing with the tragedy of dealing with the death of their baby brother at just a couple of months of age.  Needing to get away, Pauline Bright convinced her husband to finally accept his uncle's proposal to live in Philadelphia and become the heir to his business.  Filled with hope, they never would have guessed that Philadelphia would have been one of the hardest hit cities during the Spanish flu epidemic, and considering that Thomas' uncle owns what is considered an early form of a funeral home, would be right and center to the pain and suffering of Philadelphia's people.  I was actually quite fascinated by the business as I never really gave the matter much consideration before, especially as to how the business must have started and how the visitation idea began.  It was also a really neat idea for the epidemic to literally come right to the Brights' door, so to speak.

The story is told in alternating POVs and I didn't mind this in the least.  I didn't really enjoy Willa's POV in the beginning as she was only six years old and her story was kind of boring, but definitely thought the rest of them were quite interesting.  There was Pauline, the mother who was still dealing with her grief and a new life in Philadelphia, Maggie, the middle sister who was quite a spitfire, and Evie, the brilliant one who wanted to be a doctor.  The author definitely didn't gloss over how difficult life was during the last year of the Great War and how traumatizing it was for the men when they returned.  I liked the author's descriptions of the flu and the way it just crept in on you and how it must have caught the city unawares and how unprepared everyone must have been.  It made made me think how unprepared we would be today for such a thing if it ever hit again, and how devastating it would be.  Even after reading this, and reading about the hundreds of bodies piled up in the streets and outside the doors to the funeral home, I don't think we have any idea how bad it really was.  Over 50 million people died during this epidemic, and even though I teach this to students, the scope of it still astounds me. 

The only thing that jarred with me a little bit was Evie's marriage; it just seemed to happen so fast and I'm not sure I agreed with it, even if I understood it.  I won't give away any details other than this so you'll just have to read it for yourself to see what I mean.  Even the author questions Evie's decision through other characters, which I liked.  I am probably being a bit judgmental here, but it is hard not to be; given the time period and what these people survived, I can definitely understand the mentality of not waiting for your happiness, but taking it as it comes.

As Bright as Heaven is an interesting story told in the midst of the devastating Spanish flu and gives an insight as to how difficult this time period was for those who lived through it.  It is also a tale of hope though, a tale of spirit and energy, that humans can survive devastation and rise above it.  I really enjoyed this author's writing style and her descriptions made you feel like you were experiencing things as if you were there.  It is definitely a book about how the human spirit can triumph even in the midst of tragedy.
Saturday, March 10, 2018

Review: A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

A Treacherous Curse (Veronica Speedwell, #3)
by Deanna Raybourn
Release Date: January 16th 2018
2018 Berkley
Kindle Edition; 352 Pages
ISBN: 978-0451476173
Genre: Fiction / Historical / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

London, 1888. As colorful and unfettered as the butterflies she collects, Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell can’t resist the allure of an exotic mystery—particularly one involving her enigmatic colleague, Stoker. 

His former expedition partner has vanished from an archaeological dig with a priceless diadem unearthed from the newly discovered tomb of an Egyptian princess. This disappearance is just the latest in a string of unfortunate events that have plagued the controversial expedition, and rumors abound that the curse of the vengeful princess has been unleashed as the shadowy figure of Anubis himself stalks the streets of London.

But the perils of an ancient curse are not the only challenges Veronica must face as sordid details and malevolent enemies emerge from Stoker’s past. 

Caught in a tangle of conspiracies and threats—and thrust into the public eye by an enterprising new foe—Veronica must separate facts from fantasy to unravel a web of duplicity that threatens to cost Stoker everything. . . .

My Thoughts
A Treacherous Curse is the third book in the Veronica Speedwell series, and I enjoyed this one as much as I enjoyed the others, which is quite a lot.  Veronica is a funny characters and I definitely enjoy her quick wit and unconventional ways. 

One of the things I really like about Deanna Raybourn books is the way the author has of delivering authentic historical facts and descriptions.  Her beautiful writing style makes you feel like you are really there and brings to life the time period so well.  I have no problems envisioning what things looked like, what the people wore, their lifestyles, and their behaviours.  And combine this with two very likable characters, Veronica and Stoker, and you have a recipe for success.  And it is definitely because of these two characters that I keep returning to these books; their lives and histories are being slowly revealed one book at a time, and I am truly enjoying the journey of discovery.  In this one, it is Stoker's life that is the front and center and I finally discovered the truth about his marriage and his ex-wife.  Finally!!  These two characters are just so much fun, plus the interactions between them are quite hilarious.  She writes amazingly witty dialogues and I love the banter that exists; Veronica is rather good at quick comebacks and I always look forward to seeing what she is going to say next. I like the suspense that is also created and I will freely admit I am rooting for them to get together, but I am not sure if that is going to ever happen.  That is the only frustrating thing about this series, having to wait and find out what is going to happen next with these characters. If there is anything that rubs me the wrong way, it would have to be Stoker and his continuous pity-party. I get that he was grievously wronged by his ex-wife, and Stoker could be quite annoying at times.  I am so glad he got over it by the end of the book.

The other characters introduced in this book were quite interesting as well, and I enjoyed the various twists and turns that came about just because of their personalities.  Even the villains were quite likable and this is definitely not the case in many books.  If there is any weakness in this book, it would have to be the overall mystery as it was quite easy to figure out as I felt the author focused a lot on Stoker and his past grievances.  I do have to look at the whole picture, and while the characters were delightful, the pacing was a bit slow and did have a tendency to drag on a bit. 

A Treacherous Curse is another fun entry into the series.  You do not have to have read the first two books in the series in order to understand this one, which is nice.  As always, the characters and their interactions are always interesting, and I truly do like the witty dialogues that are in this.  While the mystery was touted to be about Egypt and Egyptology, there really was little in the way of Egypt in here, unless you count the many references to expeditions and trips to that country.  But the action didn't take place outside of England and I was a bit disappointed by that as I was hoping they would have a fun trip to Egypt and all that would have entailed.  However, with an interesting story line, this one is a nice entry for this series, and fans will be happy with the continuing adventures of Stoker and Veronica. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Review: Look For Her by Emily Winslow

Look For Her (Keene and Frohmann, Book #4)
by Emily Winslow
Release Date: February 13th 2018
2018 William Morrow Paperbacks
Kindle Edition; 304 Pages
ISBN: 978-0062572585
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from Partners in Crime Tours

3 / 5 Stars

Just outside of Cambridge, Lilling seems like an unassuming idyllic English village, but it’s home to a dark history. In 1976, a teenage girl named Annalise Wood disappeared while riding her bike home from school. Though her body was later discovered in a shallow grave, the culprit was never found. Decades later, Annalise maintains a perverse kind of celebrity in the small town, and is still the focus of grief, speculation, and for one young woman, a disturbing, escalating jealousy.

When DNA linked to the Annalise murder unexpectedly surfaces, cold case investigator Morris Keene realizes he may now have the chance of his career. Morris and his former partner, Chloe Frohmann, hope to finally solve this perplexing mystery, and bring closure to a traumatized community. But the new evidence that should be the simple solution instead undoes the case's only certainty: the buried body that had long ago been confidently identified as Annalise may be someone else entirely, and instead of answers, the investigators face only new puzzles.

Whose body was unearthed all those years ago, and what happened to the real Annalise? Could she have had a secret child? Is someone interfering with the investigation? And is there a link to a present-day drowning with eerie connections?

My Thoughts
Look for Her is one of those books I tried really hard to like, but unfortunately, it fell a bit flat for me. It really had an interesting premise, and I was looking forward to some twists and turns as well as some interesting detective work on a cold case file.  

The novel starts off in a unique way, with a transcript of a therapy session, and you really do wonder quite a bit at first what is going on, but the session also leaves you with this feeling of unease, as if something's really wrong; I really enjoyed it and thought it was a great beginning.  I really did enjoy the author's writing style at the beginning as well.  However, the beginning seemed to drag on and on, and when nothing really happened, it began to lose interest in the characters and the story, and there were times I actually had to re-read parts of it to keep me interested and knowledgeable. I think the author tried too hard with character development that she included too many plot twists.  And while I am not opposed to plot twists, ones that don't have any bearing on the story do get annoying, especially if just thrown in to create a red herring that doesn't quite jive with the rest of the story. It really felt towards the end that while the author had a clear vision as to how she ended the novel, that vision wasn't too clear on how to get there.

I tried really hard to like the characters, but except for Frohmann and Keene, none of them really left an impression on my that was favourable.  I even got annoyed with the two detectives; I have read all of the previous novels so I am familiar with their background stories, and I have to say something felt a bit off.  I typically really enjoy these detectives and their stories, but found myself particularly annoyed with Keene for some reason.  I know the author wrote these characters to be sketchy, and she certainly succeeded in that area as I found them to be creepy and weird.  I took a particular dislike to Anna for some reason. Because the novel is told in alternating viewpoints, I couldn't wait to get back to Keene's or Frohmann's POV as they seemed the most normal of the lot; the rest just creeped me out.  The different POVs certainly helped with the plot twists though, and things sort of picked up around the middle of the novel. I did however, enjoy reading the therapist's point of view as that was the most interesting.  She was still dealing with her grief over her first husband even though she is remarried, and I found that story line to be quite interesting. 

I do have to say that while I expected the ending, it happened in a way that was the best thing about this novel.  Kudos for a great ending!!

Look for Her had a great premise and story line that didn't unfortunately live up to itself.  Sadly, the book lost its focus for me after the first few chapters, and I had a hard time refocusing on the story and the characters. What I did really find fascinating in the novel though, is the effect the media had on the murder and how it was able to keep alive the name of a girl who died for so many years.  And how so many people remembered the events because of the media.  I definitely thought about this as I was reading and how we remember certain people because of the media, and how others disappear into obscurity.  I'm not sure if I would recommend this book to people I know who love good police procedurals, but as always, I do think you should read it for yourself and decide what you think.
Friday, March 2, 2018

Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks
by Leni Zumas
Release Date: January 16th 2018
2018 Little, Brown and Company
Kindle Edition; 368 Pages
ISBN: 978-0316434812
Genre: Fiction / Contemporary
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro's best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or "mender," who brings all their fates together when she's arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

My Thoughts
Red Clocks is one of those books that I think was supposed to be controversial and a good source for some great discussion, but I don't think it quite succeeded in its intent.  There seemed to be quite a lot of questions being asked such as: If a young woman became pregnant, what are her options in a society that has banned abortion? For a single mother, what are her options in a society that allows only two-parent families to adopt? For a physician who believes it is a person's choice regarding abortion, what happens to them if they are caught? And if a person chooses to use alternative medicine, what are the repercussions for both practitioner and client?  And while the questions are great, I don't really feel as if the consequences that came about in this book really made much of an impact on me.

First of all, abortion is still such a touchy subject in a lot of countries and is outright banned in quite a few, so the real impact of this Personhood Amendment in this novel guaranteeing the right of embryos was not as strong as it could have been.  I think I was more upset of the loss of in-vitro fertilization than I was over the other issue and very much empathized with Ro who was trying to have a baby despite some medical issues.  As a single mother, she would have been excluded from being to adopt on her own as the new law coming into effect bans single parents from adopting, and apparently is a jailable offense to do it under the table.  There was even, at one point, an attempt from a doctor to suggest that Ro go abroad and adopt but he could have been jailed if he recommended that outright.  

The whole concept in this novel was brilliant considering the political climates surrounding the issues, and even the idea of a Pink Wall between Canada and the U.S. was brilliant as it also echoes some of the political climate.  The Pink Wall was an agreement between the two countries that Canada would return any U.S. citizen attempting to have an abortion or IVF treatments in Canada, where it was still legal.  Where the concept really failed in my opinion, was in the writing.  I couldn't get past some of the structures as they were written which made me lose my interest and then my empathy towards the characters.  While the author was trying to be really creative, I do think one can go too far, and this is a good example of  a story being lost in the format.  Which was a shame as the concept was intriguing.  I also really think that such a personal topic needs to involve the reader as much as possible and to invest in the characters.  Unfortunately, even the titles of the chapters, titled "The Wife", "The Daughter", "The Mentor", and "The Biographer" didn't help the situation.  While I do think the idea was on purpose, I think it was a mistake as this is not a topic where you want to be distant and apathetic towards the characters, which is how I felt.  I wanted to be embroiled in their turmoil, their disgust, their panic and so on, but I wasn't.  And I really disliked The Wife who was lazy, self-centered, and really, really annoying, and who was a character that really didn't fit into the story line. If she had been removed from the story, I don't think it would have made any difference to the story.

Red Clocks had such a fantastic premise that I was excited to read this.  Unfortunately, it didn't live up to what I think it was trying to get across.  First of all, due to the way it was written, I didn't feel much empathy for any of the characters and didn't really care what the consequences of their actions were; in other words, it had no real heart and soul.  I should have felt deeply troubled by this new law, but there wasn't anything really revelatory in this story, so while it did make me think, there was no shock value.  I'm not sure I would recommend this one, but as always, you need to judge for yourself.