Monday, January 13, 2020

#BookReview: The First Mrs. Rothschild by Sara Aharoni

Genre
Biographic Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
In this award-winning historical saga, passionate young lovers in a Jewish ghetto rise to become the foremost financial dynasty in the world.

It is the turn of the eighteenth century in Frankfurt, Germany, and young Gutle and Meir Amschel Rothschild struggle to establish themselves in the cramped and restricted Judengasse. But when Meir’s talents as a novice banker catch the attention of a German prince, Meir is suddenly afforded entrĂ©e into the European world of finance and nobility, and the Rothschilds’ lives are changed forever. As proud as Gutle is of her husband’s success, she is also cautious—very much aware of the fact that her husband’s rise is tied to his patrons’ willingness to “see past” his Jewishness. As their family grows, and a dream of fortune comes true, so does their belief that money will ultimately bring the power needed to establish Jewish civil rights.

Told through Gutle’s intimate journals, revealed across decades—from the French Revolution through personal tragedies and triumphs—The First Mrs. Rothschild paints a rich and intimate tapestry of family drama, world-changing history, and one woman’s steadfast strength.


REVIEW: 
I have mixed feelings about Sara Aharoni’s The First Mrs. Rothschild. The novel has a lot going for it, but certain aspects of the telling made it difficult for me to get lost in.

The story centers on the fictional journals of Gutle, wife of Meir Amschel Rothschild and matriarch of the Rothschild banking dynasty. Portrayed as an intensely introspective woman, Gutle dedicatedly records the details of the life she shares with her husband and the exploits of the children she bore him.

Gutle is an astute people watcher and I admired her unwavering commitment to her home and family. I was also captivated by her faith and the novel’s description of Jewish history and culture. Many stories incorporate this material, but few of my experience chronicle this particular time period or boast the same natural cadence as Aharoni’s.

Having said that, The First Mrs. Rothschild is an exceedingly long and drawn-out narrative. Gutle bears witness to the family’s rise of fortune, but she is a largely passive presence, relaying the movements and achievements of those around her more consistently than her own. I respect what Aharoni was trying to achieve with this approach, but I felt it severely hindered the pacing of the story and ultimately severed my connection to the heroine of the novel.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 5, 2020
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Friday, January 10, 2020

#BookReview: Desert Star - Volume 2 by Stephen Desberg and Enrico Marini

Genre
Historical Graphic Novel

Series
Desert Star #2

Buy Links
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Amazon UK
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DESCRIPTION:  
Matthew Montgomery's quest to solve the mystery behind his wife and daughter's brutal murder has led him as far as the train tracks go: Topeka. This cautious, law-abiding man has come to this hub of sex, violence and alcohol in search of a man who goes by the name of Jason Cauldry, from whom he intends to get some answers about the death of his loved ones. And find him he does. Turns out Cauldry is lord and master of the town's brothels, enrolling all the Indian women unfortunate enough to cross his path. Desert Star was one of them. She's dead. Wakita is another, and she decides to help Montgomery find out why an assassin would trek all the way down to Washington to kill two women he'd never laid eyes upon, leaving a strange star engraved on his victim's body...

REVIEW: 
I didn’t have expectations when I picked up Stephen Dresberg Desert Star: Volume 1, but I needed specific points of the story addressed in Volume 2 and am happy to report Desberg didn’t leave me hanging.

Villain Jason Cauldry and hero Matthew Montgomery’s role in the west come into sharper focus in this installment of the series. I needed this development but was surprised to discover both characters out shown by the strength and ingenuity of fiery survivor, Wakita.

I found portions of the story, particularly those related to women, cliched, and feel the story resolution rushed, but the philosophical aspects of the narrative worked for me, and I’d definitely consider reading more of this author’s work.

Note: Desberg’s Desert Star series has four installments. Volumes 3 and 4 were published several years after Volumes 1 and 2 and serve as a prequel to the events they chronicle. I tried to read Volume 3 but felt the publication lacked stylistic and tonal continuity. As such, I opted to abandon both Volume 3 and my intention to read Volume 4.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 3, 2020
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#BookReview: Desert Star - Volume 1 by Stephen Desberg and Enrico Marini

Genre
Historical Graphic Novel

Series
Desert Star #1

Buy Links
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA


DESCRIPTION:  
Our story starts in Washington, 1870. Matthew Montgomery has an important post at the Ministry of Defense. He's rather an inflexible man who always respects the rules, which is why he warned his daughter, Helen, not to leave with that idiot, Glover. Of course, she did it anyway, and now she wants to come back and expects to be pardoned. But when Matthew arrives home the night of his Helen’s return, he opens the door to find his wife and daughter slaughtered in the hallway and a strange star engraved on his daughter's breast. His whole life is turned upside down. Traumatized, he starts out on the trail of the killers, with just one clue to help him on his way: a name - Jason Cauldry, from Topeka. Matthew wants to know why some stranger came such a long way just to etch that damn star onto his daughter's body, so he sets off on a long journey, crossing the Appalachian mountains and the Mid-West, all the way to Topeka. But what will he find there?

REVIEW: 
I picked up Stephen Desberg’s Desert Star: Volume 1 on a whim. I’m not sure what I expected, but it caught me off-guard and proved more than a little diverting.

Desert Star: Volume 1 is definitely on the mature side of the aisle. This western is as cold and hard as the barrel of a Peacemaker. It is a violent story with more than a little nudity, but despite these realities, I found I enjoyed the author’s exploration of pain, loss, regret, and revenge.

The women of this story suffer much, and Montgomery reads a little stiff for my tastes, but I couldn’t help falling for the intrigue at the heart of the story and am curious to see where Desberg takes the Desert Star series moving forward.

Note: I made a point of reading Volume 2 of the Desert Star series on the heels of Volume 1 and feel it important to recommend prospective readers do the same as the decision to read the story in full influenced my opinion in ways it wouldn't have been had I read the books as standalone publications.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 3, 2020
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Thursday, January 9, 2020

#BookReview: The Penmaker's Wife by Steve Robinson

Genre
Historical Mystery

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Social Media
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DESCRIPTION: 
In Victorian England, a mother is on the run from her past—and the truth about what she did.

Birmingham, 1880. Angelica Chastain has fled from London with her young son, William. She promises him a better life, far away from the terrors they left behind.

Securing a job as a governess, Angelica captures the attention of wealthy widower Stanley Hampton. Soon they marry and the successful future Angelica envisaged for William starts to fall into place.

But the past will not let Angelica go. As the people in her husband’s circle, once captivated by her charm, begin to question her motives, it becomes clear that forgetting where she came from—and who she ran from—is impossible.

When tragedy threatens to expose her and destroy everything she’s built for herself and William, how far will she go to keep her secrets safe? And when does the love for one’s child tip over into dangerous obsession?

Alias Grace meets Peaky Blinders in this tale of obsession, ambition and murder in Victorian England.

REVIEW: 
Is it wrong to admit the blood tipped pen on the cover of Steve Robinson’s The Penmaker’s Wife prompted my reading the book? Does that make me an odd duck? Do I care if it does?

Set in the late nineteenth century, The Penmaker’s Wife represents a much-needed respite from the glut of twentieth-century fiction that currently dominates the market. I mean no offense to those writing or reading the latter, I love such stories, but I needed a change of pace and was happy to lose myself in the streets and shops of Birmingham circa 1880.

Robinson offers an edgy and intense intro, but the story settles into a slower pace as it progresses. The sedate nature of the narrative, however, should not be underestimated as the material grows steadily darker with each twist and turn. Robinson’s characters aren’t always likable, but they aren’t meant to be. This is story is one of desperate and ruthless ambition, of false impressions, falsehood, and cold-blooded murder.

Having said this, I admit I am hesitant to compare The Penmaker’s Wife to Alias Grace or Peaky Blinders. I understand the pitch, but I felt the story more in line with that of Martin Connolly’s Dark Angel or Peter Ackroyd’s The Limehouse Golem and would have no trouble recommending the novel to fans of dark mysteries.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 1, 2020
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Wednesday, January 8, 2020

#BookReview: A Shadowed Fate by Marty Ambrose

Genre
Historical Mystery

Series
Claire Clairmont #2

Buy Links
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Social Media
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DESCRIPTION:  
A shocking revelation from an old friend leads Claire Clairmont on a dangerous quest in this second in a fascinating historical trilogy based on the 'summer of 1816' Byron/Shelley group.

1873, Florence. Claire Clairmont, the last survivor of the 'haunted summer of 1816' Byron/Shelley circle, is reeling from the series of events triggered by the arrival of Michael Rosetti two weeks before, which culminated in a brutal murder and a shocking revelation from her old friend, Edward Trewlany.

Stunned by her betrayal at the hands of those closest to her, Claire determines to travel to the convent at Bagnacavallo near Ravenna to learn the true fate of Allegra, her daughter by Lord Byron. But the valuable Cades sketch given to her by Rosetti is stolen, and Claire soon finds herself shadowed at every turn and in increasing danger as she embarks on her quest. Is the theft linked to Allegra, and can Claire uncover what really happened in Ravenna so many years ago? 




REVIEW: 
I don’t think I could love the premise of Marty Ambrose’s A Shadowed Fate more if I tried, but I genuinely wish I’d tackled it after Claire’s Last Secret.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this piece, the characters and tone of the novel are wonderfully engaging, but A Shadowed Fate is not written as a standalone. The novel builds heavily on characterizations and concepts established and detailed in its predecessor. While I sincerely appreciated the story, I admit to feeling handicapped for bypassing book one of the series.

As a character, Claire is typically tacked on as the stepsister of Mary Shelley and/or the mistress of Lord Byron. Ambrose’s work is not truly biographical, but I love how it acknowledges the accepted understanding of Claire and attempts to reverse the stereotypical portrait. Ambrose gifts her heroine courage and emotional depth, something I found historically appealing despite the imagined embellishments of the mystery in which it appears.

Compulsively readable and fun, I’d have no problem recommending A Shadowed Fate for both the quality of Ambrose’s writing and style of storytelling. That said, I feel very strongly that the books need to be read in order and could not in good conscious push A Shadowed Fate before Claire’s Last Secret.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 24, 2019
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Tuesday, January 7, 2020

#BookReview: Yours, Jean by Lee Martin

Genre
Literary Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
“When she refused me,” Charlie says at his trial. “Well, I had that gun. What else was I to do?”

Lawrenceville, Illinois, 1952: Jean De Belle, the new high school librarian, is eager to begin the next phase of her young life after breaking off her engagement to Charlie Camplain. She has no way of knowing that in a few short hours, Charlie will arrive at the school, intent on convincing her to take back his ring.

What happens next will reverberate through the lives of everyone who crossed paths with Charlie and Jean: the hotel clerk who called him a cab, the high school boy who became his getaway driver, and the English teacher who was Jean’s landlady, her confidant, and perhaps more.

Based on a true crime and ideal for readers of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers and Elizabeth Strout’s beloved Anything Is Possible, Pulitzer Prize finalist Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a powerful novel about small town manners and the loneliness that drives people to do things they never imagined.

REVIEW: 
Loosely inspired by the real-life murder of Mildred Georgine Lyon, Lee Martin’s Yours, Jean is a thought-provoking story of intersecting lives.

Yours, Jean explores intimate human relationships, the bittersweet realities of familial loyalty, and the values we cling to when tested by situation and circumstance. Through a lens of small-town prejudice and troubled souls, Martin tasks his readers to understand flawed characters and the layered emotions of loneliness, pride, and love.

My favorite aspect of this piece is Martin’s writing. Fast-paced and fluid, the story is a true page-turner. That said, I’m a genre reader and while I appreciated the light historical notes of the narrative, I think the book more literary than initial marketing would have readers believe.

Engaging and provocative, I’d recommend Yours, Jean to fans of As I Lay Dying and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: December 23, 2019
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Monday, January 6, 2020

#BookReview: Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford

Genre
Literary Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off—a healthy boy “to a good home.”

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known—and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he’s always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion—in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

REVIEW: 
I feel like the only reader who did not love Jamie Ford’s Love and Other Consolation Prizes. I liked it, I am glad to have read it, and I do not regret the time I spent with it, but I can not claim it blew my socks off.

Inspired by a shockingly true event in which a young boy was auctioned by raffle at the 1909 World’s Fair, Ford creates a heart-wrenching tale of a life lived off the record. A story set against the gentleman's clubs, crib houses, and brothels of Seattle's red-light district. A story tinged with secrets and the dark realities of human trafficking, its victims, and its profiteers.

I appreciated the historical material, Ford’s reflection on age and the passage of time. I liked how he infused the events and circumstances of this story with complex human emotions, but the pacing of the narrative did not work for me. The material resonated, but the telling is so drawn out that my mind wandered. I wanted a page-turner, something that drew me in and commanded my attention, but this novel only tickled the edges of my imagination.

Would I recommend Love and Other Consolation Prizes? Certainly, but only to the right reader. This is a reflective and emotive piece, best-suited for those who appreciate subtle themes and delicate storytelling.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 12, 2019
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