Friday, August 31, 2018

Review: The King's Justice by E.M. Powell

The King's Justice (Stanton & Barling, Book #1)
by E.M. Powell
Release Date: June 1st 2018
2018 Thomas & Mercer
Kindle Edition; 288 Pages
ISBN: 978-1542046015
Genre: Fiction / Mystery / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

England, 1176. Aelred Barling, esteemed clerk to the justices of King Henry II, is dispatched from the royal court with his young assistant, Hugo Stanton, to investigate a brutal murder in a village outside York.

The case appears straightforward. A suspect is under lock and key in the local prison, and the angry villagers are demanding swift justice. But when more bodies are discovered, certainty turns to doubt—and amid the chaos it becomes clear that nobody is above suspicion.

Facing growing unrest in the village and the fury of the lord of the manor, Stanton and Barling find themselves drawn into a mystery that defies logic, pursuing a killer who evades capture at every turn.

My Thoughts
The King's Justice is the first book in the Stanton & Barling mystery series, and it was definitely not what I was expecting.  I think I was expecting a grander historical novel, with more historical figures, but it was much better than that as the story took us to a simple village and a murder that took place there, but the reader also got a glimpse into what life was like during this time period so I found it really interesting.  Much better than if it was about the famous historical figures.  

Whatever you may say or think about Henry II, and there is a lot of to say about him as he was well-know for his temper and bullying behaviour, he definitely accomplished a lot during his reign, one major accomplishment being the establishment of the new English judicial system, which included courts and prisons, and some very strict rules.  While some of the rules are not something we would see today, thank goodness, many of them did acknowledge the role of the Church in their lives and often left final decisions to God.  So, throwing a trussed up person into a deep pit full of dirty water to see if he floats or drowns is one of the ways matters were decided back then; if one floats, he is guilty and is immediately hung, if he sinks, he often drowns but is declared innocent.  

First of all, the main characters, Barling and Stanton, are still dealing with previous traumas with definitely have an impact on their lives in this novel as well as some of the choices they make. Stanton appears in The Blood of the Fifth Knight so I was already familiar with his story and understood his anger toward Henry II.  It doesn't really impact the story here though, but if you're interested that is where you'll find his story. I loved Barling and really enjoyed his more serious mien; hints of his background were given several times but no explanations were given at this time. 

What is hard when reading a historical novel such as this is placing oneself during the time period and not trying to relate it to our modern time period when things are so, so, so different.  While Stanton abhorred the cruelty that was often seen, a lot of it had to do with his background and not necessarily because he was against the cruelty itself having grown up with it - understand?  People relied on their lord to keep them safe so if their lord was cruel or whatever, their protection was gone and they suffered horribly.  And in order to keep the peace, the consequences of breaking the rules was usually quite severe, creating a culture of fear.  So it's not surprising that Stanton would have difficulty getting information during the investigation and would have to earn the people's trust as some of the secrets could get those people into a lot of trouble.

The story itself was very interesting, with lots of twists and turns, some of which I didn't see coming.  I thought the characters were quirky and each had an interesting tale to share, trying to make it through life despite the difficulties they faced.  The Lord was okay, but definitely not fully trustworthy, selfish and always looking out for his own interests.  I really enjoyed both Stanton and Barling as a team and thought they worked very well together, with Barling mellowing quite a bit throughout the story, and Stanton showing that he had some backbone and some insights that would help the investigation.  The pacing was really good and who I thought was the murderer was way off, which surprised and pleased me as I don't get surprised very often.  The only thing that kind of bothered me was the ending; the author kind of switched formats towards the end as if she didn't the reader to be able to figure things out on their own and that bothered me a little bit.  Having everything laid out for you is not always the way to go - I like figuring things out for myself.

The King's Justice was a solid book that was both entertaining and enjoyable.  While there were quite a few twists and turns, sometimes I felt there were too many and I thought for a while the story was going to get out of hand and run away.  Luckily the author managed to reign it in and pull everything together.  Barling and Stanton are a solid team and I am looking forward to seeing how they work together in the future and develop this fledging relationship they have started.  It should be interesting to see how much trust they develop in one another and whether it will be enough to share their secrets.  The King's Justice is much more than a historical mystery and you get quite a good sense of the time period and what it was like to live under the reign of Henry II.  I am definitely looking forward to reading the next book in this series, The Monastery Murders, coming September 27th.
Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Review: The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths

The Dark Angel (Ruth Galloway, Book #10)
by Elly Griffiths
Release Date: May 15th 2018
2018 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Kindle Edition; 352 Pages
ISBN: 978-0544750326
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

Dr Ruth Galloway is flattered when she receives a letter from Italian archaeologist Dr Angelo Morelli, asking for her help. He's discovered a group of bones in a tiny hilltop village but doesn't know what to make of them. It's years since Ruth has had a holiday, and even a working holiday to Italy is very welcome!

So Ruth travels to Fontana Liri, accompanied by her daughter Kate and friend Shona. In the town she finds a medieval shrine and a dark secret involving the war years and the Resistance. To her amazement she also finds Harry Nelson, who is enduring a terrible holiday at a resort nearby. But there is no time to overcome their mutual shock - the ancient bones spark a modern murder, and Ruth must discover what secrets there are in Fontana Liri that someone would kill to protect.

My Thoughts
The Dark Angel is the tenth book in the Ruth Galloway series, and while I enjoyed the development of the characters and some of the story line, I wasn't overly crazy about the mystery and the archaeological part was not up to this author's usual standards.  I tend to have a love/hate relationship with these books anyways, some I absolutely adore, and others, well...enough said.  For me, while I loved the setting and thought the characters were quite quirky and interesting, the story just didn't draw me in like it usually does, and Nelson kind of drove me crazy as well.

First of all, what I have always liked in these books is the character development.  All of the characters are usually quite interesting and have their personal quirks which I really, really like.  Sometimes, it can be taken a bit too far, and as a reader, you just go, REALLY?, but you move on and try to accept it.  I'm not quite sure how Ruth and Shona are best friends though, as they really don't seem to have a lot in common, and sometimes I think the author just includes Shona so that Ruth has a babysitter at her convenience to fit the story line.  The author does use Shona quite a bit to point out Ruth's so-called deficiencies and I really wish she would just let that go already.  I think there are better ways to mention that Ruth feels self-conscious without constantly comparing her to Shona.  Besides, I think it sends a bad message to women who are trying to feel comfortable in their own skin and to accept who they are.

While I liked the story line, this is a mystery novel and the actual mystery doesn't start until halfway through the book.  The rest is really just an interesting story about Ruth vacationing in Italy on the pretense of looking at some old bones, but except for one scene, there is very little mention of the bones and what is happening with them.  It is simply a set-up for another mystery that goes back decades, involves half the town, and is really about the fact that even small towns have deadly secrets they don't want revealed.  That being said, most of the story is about Ruth going to the beach, to the pool, to a party, or watching a Disney DVD with the children, or even about the food.

The mystery itself is about a priest who is murdered and Ruth just happens to be the person who finds the body.  Nelson has no jurisdiction in Italy (yes, he shows up there, in the lamest excuse in the world) and tries to help out.  But there is really no investigation as the Italian police manage quite fine on their own.  There really wasn't enough to keep my interest, and I found myself drifting a few times while reading.  As for Nelson, this little menage-a-trois really needs to go into the past and stay there as its getting old fast.  First of all, I didn't really liked Nelson's attitude when he discovered that Ruth had taken Kate to Italy without telling him. No offense, but he's still married to Michelle and really has to rights when it comes to Ruth and telling her what to do especially as she has full custody. Second, the little love interest with Michelle is also getting old.  All of these people are cheating on each other and the story just goes on an on in each book.  However, I did not see one resolution to the convoluted love lives of these people coming and I am wondering where the author will take this next.  Hopefully, it won't take another five books to sort it out though.

The Dark Angel is one of those books where I was so disappointed in the lack of archaeology as well as the lack of historical information.  I would have liked to have known more about Angelo's grandfather's role in the Resistance and Samir, the most interesting character, was left with the weakest story line.  Now that would have been some interesting stuff.  The whole Italian story line just kind of bombed for me and I wasn't overly impressed.  I love Ruth, but I do think the author needs to really think about where she is headed and what she wants to focus on; I think there is too much focus on the convoluted love affairs of these people and she has lost track of what is really interesting in these books, the intriguing archaeological mysteries.  I really hope these last couple of books were just little bumps in the road or I really think the next one, if it's like this one, will probably be my last, which is so sad.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Review: The Other Woman by Daniel Silva

The Other Woman (Gabriel Allon, Book #18)
by Daniel Silva
Release Date: July 17th 2018
2018 Harper
Kindle Edition; 497 Pages
ISBN: 978-0062834829
ASIN: B0739Z4XJ9
Genre: Fiction / Thriller
Source: Review copy from publisher

3.5 / 5 Stars

She was his best-kept secret …
In an isolated village in the mountains of Andalusia, a mysterious Frenchwoman begins work on a dangerous memoir. It is the story of a man she once loved in the Beirut of old, and a child taken from her in treason’s name. The woman is the keeper of the Kremlin’s most closely guarded secret. Long ago, the KGB inserted a mole into the heart of the West—a mole who stands on the doorstep of ultimate power.

Only one man can unravel the conspiracy: Gabriel Allon, the legendary art restorer and assassin who serves as the chief of Israel’s vaunted secret intelligence service. Gabriel has battled the dark forces of the new Russia before, at great personal cost. Now he and the Russians will engage in a final epic showdown, with the fate of the postwar global order hanging in the balance.

Gabriel is lured into the hunt for the traitor after his most important asset inside Russian intelligence is brutally assassinated while trying to defect in Vienna. His quest for the truth will lead him backward in time, to the twentieth century’s greatest act of treason, and, finally, to a spellbinding climax along the banks of the Potomac River outside Washington that will leave readers breathless.

My Thoughts
The Other Woman is the eighteenth book in the Gabriel Allon series and while it was good, it didn't have that 'edge of your seat' feeling that most of his books tend to have.  What I really felt is that it was a filler, like a second book in a trilogy, where there was action, but it was really building for the next book in the series and setting itself up for some explosive and interesting moments in the next book.  So, while I did find it interesting, I did find it a lot more predictable than usual and I thought the plot was a bit too easy to figure out; gone was the intricately plotted action of previous novels and this did leave me a bit disappointed in the end. And while I might be in the minority here, I have read every Gabriel Allon book, and loved them, but there was just something missing in this one. 

First of all, this book focuses a lot more on what I would simply call  the spy trade rather than action.  During a rather sensitive operation, Allon has discovered there is a Russian mole in M16 and is working rather closely with his British counterpart in order to discover who it is.  Because of the way the story is told, or just because, it was rather easy to figure out who it was, despite the red herrings and other twists that were set up in the story.  This is the first time where I thought the twists and turns were rather weak as usually I have no idea what is going on in these books and it takes me a while to figure things out.  Knowing who it was early on kind of spoiled it for me.   I also wondered why Allon, being in a management position, would be able to just up and leave the way he did in order to be central to all the action.  I would think his underlings would object to him doing their jobs. As head of Israeli Intelligence, you would think that he wouldn't just be able to head off wherever and whenever he wanted to; plus, he would just be too visible.  I think it gets to the point where the author needs to figure out exactly what role he wants Allon to play, super spy or head of intelligence, but he can't really do both.  Personally, I wouldn't have a problem with some of the secondary characters being given more leading roles as there are definitely some interesting people who work for Allon who could be given a chance at some character development.  And it wouldn't ruin the stories at all because Allon could still be a main part while running his empire from the background, using his remarkable talents in different ways.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was the writing.  As always, the author has a way of drawing in the reader and making them feel like they are part of the action.  While some of the story line is flat, the premise is interesting and it definitely sets up future books as there is no doubt the main issue is now going to be Israel against Russia.  And while Kim Philby's life was certainly interesting I think the way he was introduced into the story kind of disrupted the events and stalled them.  I wonder if there was a better way of discussing Philby and the Cambridge Five or maybe just assuming that people who read these types of novels already know who they are.  I'm not really sure what the solution would be, but I do know that it kind of felt off in the novel and didn't quite fit into the story line the way it was written.  Or maybe it was just me.  I also didn't care a lot for the person who was the mole as I felt they weren't all that dynamic or interesting; I certainly hope the author will develop their character and make them more dangerous or something. 

The Other Woman was interesting and the action was pretty straight forward, right from the start.  To be honest, I found it rather formulaic and rather predictable, but I like the author's way of writing and was drawn into the events right away.  It was only afterwards that I realized how predictable it was; the mole was easy to figure out, once I heard the name Kim Philby I knew what the story line was going to be, and it just felt flat.  I also had a hard time imagining Allon being able to do what he did without a lot of backlash, some of which he did receive from his prime minister, as head of intelligence.  While in these novels you can expect some rules to be bent, the suspension of reality can only go so far.  I usually love these novels, but I did feel as if it was a set up for future novels and I am curious to see what happens next which is why I will continue to read these books. 

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Review & Giveaway: The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner


The Romanov Empress
by C.W. Gortner
Release Date: July 10th 2018
2018 Ballantine Books
Kindle Edition; 448 Pages
ISBN: 978-0425286180
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from HF Virtual Book Tours

4 / 5 Stars

Narrated by the mother of Russia’s last tsar, this vivid, historically authentic novel brings to life the courageous story of Maria Feodorovna, one of Imperial Russia’s most compelling women who witnessed the splendor and tragic downfall of the Romanovs as she fought to save her dynasty in the final years of its long reign.
Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage—as her older sister Alix has done, moving to  England to wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir and becomes empress once he ascends the throne. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie—now called Maria—must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.
Her husband’s death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas’s strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has lead her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.

My Thoughts
The Romanov Empress is definitely one of the best books by this author I have read and I have read all of them.  And although I've usually enjoyed them, this one had that certain something that really made you empathize with the main character and although I was quite familiar with her story, it gave me a new perspective as to what she must have gone through and the agonizing decisions she would have had to make.  And the regrets she would have had to live with.  

Born as a Danish princess, Minnie has known her entire life that she was destined to marry into royalty and do her duty to her family and to the crown.  However, Minnie's upbringing was rather chaste and poor, having little money and learning to mend her own clothing and cook her own food, so the splendours of Imperial Russia literally blew her away.  But so too did the extravagance of the royal family who lived very opulent and luxurious lives, barely registering the poor who suffered under terrible and tragic circumstances.  When Minnie first arrived in Russia, the emancipation of the serfs had already occurred but few really saw their suffering or realized that more needed to be done for them.  Minnie spent her life trying to help them and trying to make first her father-in-law see their plight, then her husband.  While Alexander II seemed to be more willing to listen to ideas about things that could be done to help, Minnie's husband Sasha, who would eventually become Alexander III, seemed not to hear her pleas or her advice.  I can't imagine what it would be like to live in fear everyday knowing that something bad could happen simply because those in power refused to really see what was happening around them while Minnie could see but was helpless to do anything.  It wasn't that she didn't adopt an extravagant lifestyle herself as there was mention of the cost of her gowns and how much she spent for her parties and galas, but she certainly went out of her way to endorse her charities and worked hard at ensuring they were properly funded, even becoming a nurse herself so she could properly tend to those afflicted while having the knowledge to do so.  That little bit of information I didn't know, so I was glad to discover that.  

It was definitely the relationship between Minnie and her daughter-in-law Alexandra that interested me the most however, considering that she was partly to blame for the fall of Imperial Russia.  The author wrote this from the women's perspective and the toll that Alexei's illness had on all of them, including Alexei himself who chafed at his limitations, but also at the effect it had on politics and what was happening around them.  Minnie developed from a timid teenager to a bold and strong woman, but even she was stumped at the antics of her son and wife and you can just feel her desperation as she tried to keep her family together and alive during those turbulent last years.  What I really loved was the family dynamics and drama as well as the relationships between all of them as they tried to keep themselves alive during the Revolution and afterwards.  I have to admit, trying to picture any of them gardening was difficult as most of them had probably never even poured tea for themselves, never mind digging in the dirt and cultivating vegetables.  

The Romanov Empress is definitely a compelling fictional look at a woman who lived through some very turbulent times, who suffered some very great losses, yet through it all retained her dignity, her strength, and her courage.  While she definitely couldn't have seen the future, through her personal letters and diaries, she definitely was worried about what was to come and spent many years counseling her husband and son, warming both of them to be careful.  I don't know if the full horror of those last years, or the Rasputin years, really came through in this book, but enough did to make you understand how difficult life must have been for the aristocracy at the end.  However, living in a bubble the way some of them did made them vulnerable to what happened; perhaps they should have paid a bit more attention to their history lessons. Minnie's life was certainly not your average life, nor was her family the average family, but she certainly lived in interesting times, met some really interesting people, and lived a very full life, full of love as well as heartache.  It is clear the author did a lot of research for this book and really brought to life this time period that I adore.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a good story as well as historical fiction. 


Romanov Empress