Monday, October 29, 2018

The Witch of Willow Hall (Book Review)

Title: The Witch of Willow Hall
Author: Hester Fox
Publication: Graydon House, trade paperback, October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Massachusetts, 1821
Plot: In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. Mr. Montrose is a prominent businessman and is busy with new ventures while the women in the family have little to do but squabble.  The estate seems sleepy and idyllic, but a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia and her younger sister, Emeline.
All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, and Lydia will be forced to draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end, for good or for evil . . .  Audience: Fans of dark and haunting books such as The Widow’s House and Imaginary Girls
The Barrett House parlor
My Impressions: The premise of this book was interesting and it was certainly an atmospheric Halloween-season read as I flew from Boston to St. Louis yesterday but I couldn’t help thinking my mother’s verdict would have been: “Overwrought!” and I have to agree.  How many scandals can one family experience in a few months?  Rumors of incest, a broken engagement, mysterious sobs on the night, ghostly figures, a young lady carrying on improperly in public, another calling on a young man without a chaperon, a tragic death, an attempted suicide, a much-telegraphed pregnancy, a dramatic illness and recovery, blackmail – and that doesn’t even include finding out your ancestor is a witch or the many scandals in another character’s past (birds of a feather flock together).  I became weary of all the drama and it was not very convincing.   For example, if you know your sister is a liar and wants to hurt you, why would you believe anything she says that contradicts more reliable sources?  If you are being blackmailed, maybe it is time to stop hiding things from your father, who might be able to help (mine would have!), rather than trust someone already proven to be completely unreliable.  Perhaps better not have tossed so many elements together like a salad but woven them together more subtly or simply crafted the plot less extravagantly in the first place.
Barrett House, the inspiration for Willow Hall
The strength of the book was the depiction of the sisters’ menacing new home, Willow Hall.  It is not surprising to read that author Hester Fox based this on real-life Barrett House in New Ipswich, New Hampshire at which she interned long ago.  I liked that it had made such a lasting impression on her.   Fox writes with precision and careful research most of the time but a good editor would have replaced the jarring “like” with “as” and made a few other judicious replacements to maintain the 19th century feel.  
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. 

Review Tour:

September 24th: Moonlight Rendezvous
September 25th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
October 2nd: Jessicamap Reviews
October 3rd: A Dream Within a Dream
October 8th: Cheryl’s Book Nook – review and excerpt
October 11th: Broken Teepee
October 15th: Laura’s Reviews
October 16th: Booktimistic and @booktimistic
October 17th: @hotcocoareads
October 18th: @bookishmadeleine
October 19th: Books and Bindings
October 19th: @bookishconnoisseur
October 22nd: Really Into This
October 23rd: Fuelled by Fiction
October 24th: Katy’s Library and @katyslibrary
October 25th: Bookmark Lit
October 26th: Girls in Books and @girlsinbooks
November 3rd: The Lit Bitch

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter (Book Review)

Title: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter 
Author: Hazel Gaynor
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: From The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Came Home comes a historical novel inspired by true events, and the little-known female lighthouse keepers of the past two hundred years.

“They call me a heroine, but I am not deserving of such accolades. I am just an ordinary young woman who did her duty.”

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Island of Adventure (Book Review) #1944Club

This is my final entry for the #1944Club:

Title: The Island of Adventure (published in the US as Mystery Island)
Author: Enid Blyton
Illustrator: Stuart Tresilian
Publication: Macmillan, 1944
Genre: Juvenile mystery series
Plot: In this series launch, Blyton sets the scene with the two pairs of siblings who will feature in all eight Adventure books.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Young Bess (Guest Book Review) #1944Club

When I realized that my mother’s favorite book, Young Bess, was published in 1944, I asked her to contribute a review for the 1944 Club, in which Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings promote a specific year of published books.

Title: Young Bess
Author: Margaret Irwin
Publication: 1944
Genre: Historical Fiction

The original cover
Recently there has been a spate of novels about the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and his wives. And, of course, Elizabeth I as queen has been extremely visible in fiction, on stage, in opera.  More unusual is the vivid portrait of Elizabeth as a vulnerable girl in Margaret Irwin’s memorable book, Young Bess. It begins in 1546 with the 12-year-old Bess on the ship Great Harry with Henry and his entourage, and ends eight years later at the death of her young brother Edward VI. In between she copes with loneliness, treachery, and dangerous rumors about her relationship with her stepmother’s husband, all the while learning how to survive and eventually to rule. There are many well drawn characters, such as her kind stepmother Catherine Parr, her feisty governess, Cat Ashley, her tutor, Roger Ascham, and the noblemen jostling for power over the boy king.
The book is scrupulously accurate; that is, it makes good use of the historical evidence, and doesn’t go far afield. Obviously, we cannot know what Elizabeth’s thoughts were, or what actually went on between her and Thomas Seymour. But if there are to be historical novels featuring real people, this is a model. Margaret Irwin went on to write two more novels about Bess: Elizabeth, Captive Princess (how her sister Mary imprisoned her in the Tower) and Elizabeth and the Prince of Spain (well, you know that part.) They are very good, but Young Bess rules.
A more recent cover (the popular headless look)
A personal note: somehow I discovered this adult novel in fourth grade. From that moment I was fascinated by the period, and went on to read the rest of the trilogy and much more, and to choose as my college major the Renaissance and Reformation. In England long afterward I saw the original of a letter Bess wrote in 1548. It was a thrill, especially since I had known it word for word since I was ten.

Source: First edition/personal copy
Deborah Kerr was originally to play Elizabeth
in the 1953 MGM movie but wound up as Catherine Parr 
Stephanie Martin

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Christmas Camp (Book Review)

Title: Christmas Camp
Author: Karen Schaler
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2018
Genre: Fiction/Romance
Plot: Haley Hanson is an up and coming brand strategist at Bergman Advertising, and is about to bring in a huge client, Tyler Toys, which should deliver her the partnership she craves. Instead, her boss sends her to Christmas Camp, a feel good week at a quaint country inn where he hopes Haley will learn the true meaning of Christmas. After she returns, he’ll let Haley compete with jovial Tom for the right to pitch the business to Tyler Toys (which is complete unfair, as Haley did all the finagling to get the meeting in the first place; maybe she has a discrimination lawsuit).

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton (Book Review) #1944Club

The 1944 Club is a theme in which two prolific bloggers, Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, promote a specific year of published books. Anyone can join in by reading and reviewing a book published in 1944 and adding a link to that book's review in the comments on Simon's blog. 1968, 1951 and 1977 have also been promoted.
Title: Dragonwyck
Author: Anya Seton, author of Katherine and My Theodosia
Publication: Houghton Mifflin, 1944
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 19th century Connecticut and New York

Plot: Miranda Wells is the delicately lovely daughter of a no-nonsense Connecticut farmer, more likely to be caught reading a book than doing her chores, when her mother receives a letter from a rich cousin. Nicholas Van Ryn, master of a breathtaking estate in the Hudson Valley, Dragonwyck, invites Mrs. Wells to send a daughter to be his daughter’s governess. Abigail Wells has a hard life and wants better for her daughter, so she and Miranda use all their ingenuity to persuade dour Ephraim to let his daughter go (and he nearly changes his mind when they reach New York City and he sees what he considers the useless excess of their hotel, Astor House; he rightly thinks an extravagant lifestyle will go to Miranda’s head).

From the moment Miranda lays eyes on her kinsman, Nicholas Van Ryn, she is captivated by his Tall Dark Stranger looks and charismatic demeanor. She is swept away up the Hudson to Dragonwyck, and awestruck when she first beholds it – a gothic and foreboding mansion that hides dark secrets. Nicholas’ wife is an unhappy woman interested only in sweets (not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless you devour the wrong cake), who immediately resents Miranda, and little Katrine is a stolid child, happier in the kitchen than in the classroom. Nicholas is both a kind benefactor, providing Miranda a beautiful new wardrobe, and a capricious host, ignoring the fact that his wife and guests consider her nothing but a servant. Miranda is so bedazzled by her cousin that she makes excuses for his dark moods, the harsh way he treats his tenant farmers, and his impatience with his family. Everything she observes is colored by the deep attraction she feels for Nicholas, but this is a dangerous yearning that could lead to disaster . . .

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, gothic enthusiasts; those interested in the history of New York State. Seton grew up in New York and Connecticut, and loved history. My Theodosia, which I recently reviewed, is about Aaron Burr’s daughter, known now to millions.
Not Mr Darcy

My Impressions: Anya Seton’s Katherine is one of my all-time favorite books, a magical story, widely considered an outstanding example of historical fiction, and I thank Sister Sessions, the shrewd librarian who led me to it in 7th or 8th grade. Surprisingly, I had never read this one, Seton’s second novel, which is very different, although both are about innocent young women, initially out of their depths, who develop into strong, determined women. Miranda is intimidated by the dark halls of Dragonwyck and her awkward situation, disliked by her hostess and completely in the power of her manipulative host, who can move her to euphoria or misery with a few words. From the minute they meet, the reader experiences the same roller coaster sense of imminent doom as the heroine, although she tries to ignore it.

Dragonwyck is a compelling read, although too over the top to be considered a great novel like Katherine. On the other hand, I read until 3 am, unable to predict where Seton was taking her narrative, and finished it as soon as I got home from work the next night. From the obese, sullen wife and the outspoken doctor to the Irish maid who becomes Miranda’s only friend, Seton creates memorable characters, but most of all lurking in the background is the immense and unnerving Dragonwyck, a character itself, designed by its obsessive owner. And I did not mention the plain spoken doctor from Hudson, the closest town to Dragonwyck, whose sturdiness and integrity is a sharp contrast to the dangerous charm of Nicholas Van Ryn.  Even though we know Nicholas is a bad guy and Jeff Turner is good, Nicholas is far more fascinating!  The reader feels his sensuous appeal along with Miranda.
Part of my fascination with this book is that my grandmother grew up near the imaginary Dragonwyck in Newburgh, New York (where one of the Van Rensselaers mentions a soiree) and I was fascinated by the painstaking historic detail. As always, Seton’s research was exhaustive, and her portrayal of 19th century New York, both the social scene in Manhattan and life on a remote, affluent estate in upstate New York, is vivid and convincing (and does not make me crave to be part of The 400 – although I would choose the most excruciating party over the chicken Miranda is expected to kill and pluck in the first chapter). And the depiction of steamboats racing on the Hudson is enough to give a gentle reader nightmares!

Movie: Friends tell me the movie of Dragonwyck, billed to audiences as in the tradition of Rebecca, starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Vincent Price, and Jessica Tandy, is well worth seeing but my old author Leonard Maltin only gives it 2 ½ stars. I must ask movie maven Laura her opinion.   She will doubtless appreciate the pageantry of the production.

Source: Library

Sunday, October 14, 2018

I Know You Know (Book Review)

Title: I Know You Know
Author: Gilly Macmillan
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2018
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Twenty years ago, eleven-year-old Charlie Paige and Scott Ashby were murdered in the city of Bristol, their bodies dumped near a dog racing track. A man was convicted of the brutal crime, but decades later, some believe he was innocent.

Since childhood, Cody Swift has been haunted by the deaths of his childhood best friends. The loose ends of the police investigation consume him so much that he decides to return to Bristol in search of answers. Hoping to uncover new evidence, and to encourage those who may be keeping long-buried secrets to speak up, Cody starts a podcast to record his findings. But there are many people who don’t want the case—along with old wounds—reopened so many years after the tragedy, especially Charlie’s mother, Jess, who decides to take matters into her own hands.

When a long-dead body is found in the same location the boys were left decades before, the disturbing discovery launches another murder investigation. Now Detective John Fletcher, the investigator on the original case, is asked to reopen his dusty files and decide if the two murders are linked. With his career at risk, the clock is ticking and lives are in jeopardy…

Audience: Fans of psychological suspense – authors such as Nicci French, Denise Mina, Tana French, Sophie Hannah

My Impressions: Gilly Macmillan is an author I have been meaning to read so I was pleased at the opportunity to review her new book. This is a dark mystery about the murder of two children twenty years ago and the present day discovery of another body in the same location, and the connections between them.  Macmillan delivers a number of twists and crafts vivid and complex characters – although some were hard to like. The most interesting were Jess, the one-time single mother of one of the murdered boys, who has rebuilt her life and has the most to lose if the case is reopened, and John Fletcher, the detective who thinks he is smarter than anyone else.  Jess clearly made some mistakes as a young mother but is portrayed with some sympathy although she continues to make poor choices.  Some of the story is told in podcasts which was a key element of the plot but seemed too gimmicky to me (maybe I would feel differently if I had succumbed to the podcast craze).  Also, at times, I found the plot hard to follow as the author moved back and forth from past to present but it was a fast-paced and entertaining read.

Purchase Links: Harper Collins * Barnes & Noble * IndieBound * Amazon
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Review Stops:

Tuesday, September 18th: Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, October 2nd: Comfy Reading
Tuesday, October 2nd: Ms. Nose in a Book
Thursday, October 4th: Books and Bindings
Thursday, October 4th: 5 Minutes For Books
Saturday, October 6th: Instagram: @brookesbooksandbrews
Tuesday, October 9th: Jessicamap Reviews
Wednesday, October 10th: As I turn the pages
Thursday, October 11th: Kahakai Kitchen
Thursday, October 11th: Into the Hall of Books
Friday, October 12th: Write – Read – Life
Saturday, October 13th: Tales of a Book Addict

Monday, October 8, 2018

When the Men Were Gone (Book Review)

Title: When the Men Were Gone
Author: Marjorie Herrera Lewis
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, October 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Football is an important part of the community in Brownwood, Texas, as it is in many small towns. Tylene Wilson became a football fan as a child, attending games with her father and drawing up plays for fun. Now, as an Assistant Principal at the high school, she has seen too many of the town’s young men go off to fight in WWII without returning, including the football coach. Determined that the seniors will get to enjoy their last season, Tylene takes on the role of head football coach but encounters unexpected hostility from people she’s known her whole life. Can she get the team behind her and make it to the first game of the season?

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Royal Order of Fighting Dragons (Book Review)

Title: The Royal Order of Fighting Dragons
Author: Dan Elish
Publication: Vesuvian Books, paperback, ebook, 2018
Genre: Juvenile Fantasy
Plot: Ike Rupert Hollingsberry is trying to be a normal sixth grade at a private school in New York City but random strangers and social media constantly remind him of his father’s tragic death while filming a cult-like TV show called The Fighting Dragons. Ike was a child when his father died and has learned to tune out obsessive fans and does not listen to his classmate Elmira when she tries to tell him the show was not really a fantasy. However, when Ike is attacked by a giant locust, he discovers inner strength that allows him to face down the monster until Elmira comes to the rescue unexpectedly.

Ike and Elmira are joined by two other descendants of the original show’s lead characters and learn they are the next in line to take command of the Royal Order of the Fighting Dragons, and their first assignment is to fly dragons, which Ike had previously believed did not exist. Now Ike is a reluctant but resolute leader, following in his father’s footsteps, and the four children, with some help, must lead the battle to save the world from the enemy locusts!

Audience: Think Gordon Korman meets Rick Riordan meets James and the Giant Peach. My nephews (11 and 13) really like quest-based fantasy and I am sure most children their age would enjoy this.

My Impressions: First of all, what a stunning cover which beautifully sets the tone for a quirky fantasy. In this lively adventure story, there are six very different children, all with their own quirks and personalities. Ike is an appealing main character, one minute avoiding bullies in the cafeteria (which anyone can identify with!) and the next fighting off a giant locust (ugh) and learning how to manage people (tell me your secret!). Author Elish uses humor and the epic tradition of King Arthur to craft a fast-paced story.

Locusts were a real problem in the 19th century in this country. I wondered if the author had ever read On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder? That is the book in which locust destroy the Ingalls’ crops and completely demoralize the whole family and other homesteaders, per the New York Times:

Sweeping across North America, flying hordes of Rocky Mountain locusts were once an awesome and horrifying sight, huge glittering clouds of insects laying waste countless acres of crops. Throughout the 1800's, the whirring swarms periodically ravaged farm fields from California east to Minnesota and south to Texas. 
The locusts were easy to please, eating barley, buckwheat, melons, tobacco, strawberry, spruce, apple trees -- even fence posts, laundry hung out to dry and each other. 
When women threw blankets over their gardens, the locusts devoured the blankets then feasted on the plants. Farmers lit fires, blasted shotguns into the swarms and scoured their fields with so-called hopperdozers, large metal scoops, smeared with tar or molasses to grab as many of the offenders as possible. But it was all to no avail.
I had two small concerns: one was that when Ike is given his father’s sword he finds the initials of his ancestor, SMH for Sir Matthew Hollingsberry, were engraved on it – but no one would monogram an honorific! That is like monogramming a D for Doctor. Second, an Italian character’s name is Alexandro Lafcadio Cortesi, and I believe an Italian boy would be called Alessandro. Moreover, he uses several variations of “miei amici” and not all seemed accurate. An editor should help with such issues.

Purchase Links: Amazon * Barnes & Noble * IndieBound
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the author and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Friday, September 21st: Write – Read – Life
Monday, September 24th: Instagram: @biblio_files
Wednesday, September 26th: Instagram: @lifebetweenwords
Friday, September 28th: Instagram: @throneofshatteredbooks
Monday, October 1st: Jathan & Heather
Tuesday, October 2nd: Instagram: @e_mellyberry
Thursday, October 4th: Instagram: @megabunnyreads
Friday, October 5th: Read Till Dawn
Tuesday, October 9th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, October 10th: InkyMoments
Thursday, October 11th: Instagram: @betty_books
Saturday, October 13th: Instagram: @alurkingbooknerd
Friday, October 19th: Instagram: @the_need_to_read