A wonderful, engaging historical fiction novel that has the science of botany as a key element. It has anOriginal review posted on Layers of Thought.
A wonderful, engaging historical fiction novel that has the science of botany as a key element. It has an amazing strong female character and an encompassing theory on the nature of all things.
Description: When Alma Whitaker is born in Pennsylvania, USA in the year 1800, her exceptionally wealthy British father Henry is pleased. Alma will be his only natural child, will receive an education uncommon for women, and will want for almost nothing for her entire life. Alma is not a beautiful woman, but her strengths lie in her brilliant scientific mind and her excellent constitution. She spends her childhood days categorizing plants and reading in her father’s huge library. As an adult Alma becomes one of the first women to publish within the field of botany.
This is the richly imagined life story of Alma Whitaker, her driven father whose interest and dedication to botany build him a fortune, and her stalwart and complex family. It is set relatively soon after the American Revolution, during the civil war, and while the theory of evolution was taking form.
Thoughts: There’s a lot to like about this book. From the very start it becomes apparent that Elizabeth Gilbert is an expert story teller. I was entirely swept away with writing that flows and that captured me from the first page until the last. I particularly like that the characters are well developed and complex with a lot of back story. The book also has some famous historical characters which adds to the richness of the story line - such as Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook, who where significant contributors to science and botany - giving the book an authentic historical feel. There are some interesting settings within the novel which may intrigue readers, such as Kew Gardens, a botanical garden in London established in 1756 that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Tahiti, where the author goes into a good deal of depth about the culture and the setting.
As the title suggests one of the book’s major themes is a grand sweeping theory about the nature of humans and life in general, and since it is one that I agree with it made me like the book even more. My only quibble would be a strong and slightly embarrassing sexual thread that runs through the novel, which was a bit much for me. If this particular element had been a little lighter the book would have rated higher in my opinion. However, it’s a terrific novel and comes highly recommended. I would say one of my favorites this year at 4.5 stars. ...more
An atmospheric mystery with a moody setting that questions the connections behind a missing mother and aOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
An atmospheric mystery with a moody setting that questions the connections behind a missing mother and a murder.
Description: Set in the Ozark mountains, the story starts with a local photographer discovering the mutilated body of a mentally disabled young women at the base of a tree. Just eighteen years old, Cheri’s death disturbs the small close-knit community and particularly Lucy, who was a friend to Cheri and whose mother had gone missing when she was a small child. In the back of Lucy’s mind she cannot help but connect the two losses and becomes determined to find out more about both. What this determined young woman finds is disturbing and unexpected.
A convoluted, dark, coming-of-age story that is told in alternating chapters from the main character Lucy and her mother Lila, while also bringing in the perspective of the other key characters from the story as the book progresses. It unfolds piece by piece, slowly revealing what happened, with a shocking ending that questions the strength of the bonds between family members.
Shellie’s thoughts: The story has the perfect setting for a thrilling read. It’s a place with forested land and a large cave with a dangerous passageway that plays a significant part in the story. The small close-knit community that does not take well to strangers also contributes to the isolation and dark feeling that pervades the novel.
An excellent and accessible read with writing that flows, this is for the reader who likes thrilling stories that keep you guessing and engaged. It’s for readers who enjoy realistic settings since it does not contain any paranormal elements. And it’s definitely for fans of horror, as it has violent scenes as well as a variety of other mature themes. So it’s not for sensitive readers. And if you enjoy themes that highlights human darkness then this will be a great book for you.
Conversely, there is a small amount of romance which lightens the story a tad. And with it’s spunky 17 year old main character it will appeal to readers who like feisty female leads. The story will speak to women in particular since most of the main characters are female and it also addresses women’s issues. But I think many men will enjoy it too. This is a recommended read and a great debut from a promising new author who is one to watch out for. Highly recommended at 4 stars....more
A darkly intriguing mystery/romance and the second book in an action packed steampunk series. Including a brilliaOriginal review at Layers of Thought.
A darkly intriguing mystery/romance and the second book in an action packed steampunk series. Including a brilliant and strong willed female lead that goes against the Victorian-like social norms of the setting, and perhaps a glimpse of a “Jack the Ripper–ish” sort of villain.
*(SPOILER ALERT) Please note if you have not read the first in this series this review does contain spoilers. Read my review for Tarnished (book #1) and pick it up first. I believe that they are still selling the ebook version for .99 cents at various online retailers. What a deal!
About: In a realistic yet fantastical setting – a steam powered Victorian London - we have the second in this atmospheric series. The complex and strong main character, Cherry St. Croix, was once a circus waif and performer, giving her physical attributes which allow her to pursue and apprehend persons of greater strength and stature than herself. A petite red-head with striking thick hair which she covers with lampblack on her outings into the polluted city underworld, she is not of bad character. Her darkness is due to forced circumstance. She is addicted to Laudanum (a poppy -derived opiate that was popular during Victorian times) and is also what is termed a “collector” – where she finds wanted persons or information for nefarious others for a price. It’s her way to maintain her addiction and to prevent herself from going mad due to the constrained mores for women of the times. Cherry does her best to get by in this world where women aTarnishedre not allowed to own property and are considered wards of their male family members.
In the first book of the series (Tarnished) we become familiar with Cherry, her romantic entanglements, and find out that she is the daughter of a crazy scientist and a beautiful socialite. In this second book, Cherry is in pursuit of a killer (she thinks Jack the Ripper perhaps?) who is dissecting the underworld “sweets” (prostitutes.) However, she finds that there is in fact another killer – so another mystery ensues.
Thoughts: Karina Cooper writes in an old fashioned convoluted style in this series, which works very well for the setting. It creates text that feels authentic and Victorian-ish. I do need to mention that readers may have to consult Google when looking up some of the old fashioned English words the author uses. Even John (my UK/English dictionary/husband) had some difficulty telling me what several words meant. But this is all good. We both “learnt somefink”.
It also has another fun cover much like the first in the series. I am really glad there is not a naked guy or a lot of skin featured on it. Which brings me to mention that I liked the light and tasteful romantic involvement included in both books since there’s nothing worse than a sex scene that makes me laugh when it’s not supposed to.
What happens to Cherry as we find out more about her and her romantic interests is the best part of this story. Cooper does romance well. But most compelling is how the author sets up this book for the next in the series with it’s heart pounding, drop off the edge of your seat ending. So don’t expect closure, I am thinking the next in this series will have a “Kill Bill-ish” flavor set in steampunk Victorian times? I can’t wait.
Recommended for readers who like strong and dark female leads, unexpected twists, a bit of a murder mystery and of course romance and steampunk. Skip this if you are looking for a solid ending, want happily ever after, or are not interested in being addicted to a series. I enjoyed this book A LOT. It’s a fun second book to hopefully a long series. 4 stars. My only regret is that I am not reading this series after the entire collection has been completed. ...more
A page-turning posthumous noire novel, by crime fiction master James M. Cain. Told from the first person perspective of the gorgeous Joan Medford – who, the reader is left to decide, is either a victim or a murderer.
About: Joan Medford is a “knock out” - leggy, curvy and smart too; some of the characteristics of a quintessential femme-fatale. However, looks and brains have not stopped her from making mistakes, like her accidental pregnancy and subsequent marriage to a brutal drinker. Her story begins after the “accidental” death of her inebriated husband, when she winds up at a local bar as a cocktail waitress – to help her pay her bills.
Although socially unacceptable for “nice women” to work in bars (this is the 1950’s), she is more than grateful for her new job serving alcohol in the required uniform of velveteen shorts and a peasant blouse. She knows that she can now financially care for her toddler and turn on the electricity, which was cut off for non-payment. It's even better when she starts receiving unusually large tips from a very wealthy older businessman who becomes smitten with her.
But to Joan’s chagrin, she has also caught the eye of a poor, booze-loving, but handsome rake that she finds all too alluring. Still, Joan is determined to do the best for her little boy and chooses to marry the richer older man. She is relieved that the marriage will not be consummated, since her husband-to-be has a delicate heart which will not withstand the exertion of marital relations.
Events become intriguingly complicated around this warped love triangle as the men in Joan’s life die, or are murdered. As she tells her story in an uncompleted and direct way, the reader gets to decide – is Joan an unreliable narrator or a victim?
Thoughts: It’s kind of neat that this novel has been published 35 years after the author’s death. It’s interesting to think about the effort that the editors have had to put into piecing it together, attempting to imagine what the author would have done had he been alive to help the process. Interestingly, there is a 11 page afterword describing how some of this was done, by editor Charles Ardai. Regardless, I do have to say the results are wonderful.
The Cocktail Waitress is my first noire crime fiction. I have learned that noir is told from the perspective of one of the victims, suspects, or perpetrators. Which is different from a detective novel, told from the perspective of a crime fighter. I think that is one reason why I enjoyed the novel so much. It was written as if Joan was attempting to explain her story to the reader and judge. It’s written with her old fashioned voice, appropriate to the character during the time, and in my opinion creating a page-turning pleasure to read. I don’t have any other books by Cain to compare this with, but if it’s any gage of what to expect from his other books, I am going to have a blast attempting to read his entire collection.
Additionally, I enjoyed the book for other reasons. My favorite characters are strong women, and the darker the better. So Joan could be a perfect fit, depending on your opinion of her after finishing the book. I liked the ambiguity of not knowing whether Joan was an unreliable narrator. So the book is one of my favorites for 2012 at 4.5 stars. Highly recommended for crime fiction lovers, and anyone who enjoys strong female leads.
Content advisory: This book has adult themes, nudity, sexual references and scenes, violence, as well as strong language (although I do not recall any cursing) so some readers should be advised....more
Shellie’s quick take:A retelling of the Gothic classic Jane Eyre - it’s a special young-adult novel featuOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
Shellie’s quick take:A retelling of the Gothic classic Jane Eyre - it’s a special young-adult novel featuring snippets of Victorian genre classics at the beginning of each chapter. It also spotlights significant and current issues present in young women’s lives – such as romance, self esteem, drug abuse, violence - all in a readable, atmospheric story with a different type of vampire, and a sweet mythic thread.
Shellie’s description: “Mousy girl” is Jane William’s nickname. She is from the lower-class and violence-ridden town called Helmsdale - or “Hellsdale” as they term it. Jane is an orphan and once ward of the state, who has lived in foster homes since she was 6 years old and remembers nothing of her previous life because of an accident. Although Jane’s life is not easy she has a stubborn tenacity, clinging to a belief that studying and getting high marks in school are her way out of the troubled and rough town - where the norm is drug addiction, prostitution, violence, and where the most ruthless males control the streets.
As a result of her good grades Jane receives an all expense paid scholarship to the exclusive and very wealthy boarding school “Birch Grove Academy”. Arriving at the school Jane is overwhelmed by her own little cottage, an expense account, and new clothes to replace the used hand-me-downs she’s become accustomed too. And just a few days after arriving, the school’s poised head mistress Mrs. Radcliff invites Jane to dinner. There Jane meets the Radcliffs’ model gorgeous son, Lucian, and their other son Jacob who is a down-to-earth musician, and not quite as cute as his brother. Jane is blatantly smitten with Lucian and annoyed by Jacob. But as are most things that appear just a little too wonderful - all is not as it seems. And this is only the beginning of the story, which is an intriguing retelling of the Gothic classic - Jane Eyre.
Shellie’s thoughts: First off, this is a physically gorgeous book. It’s a small easy-to-handle hardbound book which has a moody dark cover with a slightly metallic shine – so it glows gently. It has a stylish interior layout with Gothic themed print and decorations giving this a book a flavor that would make it a special gift for someone. Best yet is that beyond the surface it’s jam-packed with layers of wonderful stuff.
The most stand-out element is that Marta Acosta includes an intriguing trope where quotes from 100 plus year old Gothic literature are included at the beginning of each chapter. Each snippet has a significant meaning for the chapter. The quotes pull the reader into its classic writing, creating a desire to research the works that are highlighted (or at least it did for me!) Marta Acosta uses examples from authors such as Eliza Parsons, the Bronte Sisters, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Ann Radcliff, J. Sheridan Le Fanu and more. With 37 chapters and an epilogue there are loads of quotes to ponder and to “Google”.
The book also has multi-layered themes twisted to especially suit teens, containing many important elements and issues. For example, it has unique and well developed characters, great romance, a setting near San Francisco (gotta love that, since it’s my home), a “mythic” theme, and an interesting take on vampire mythology. More importantly, it also examines science, art, family, love, abuse, race and class issues (all important for everyone to think about.)
I listened to Dark Companion in audio (as well as read bits) where it features a realistic enactment from its talented reader - Kate Reading. But what I liked best was that Dark Companion is a story dealing with very real life issues that many teens face. I am also a big fan of Gothic novels - the more I read them the more I enjoy them and the deeper I go. Let’s hope this book works the same magic on its younger readers as it did on me. A splendid retelling that I recommend for teachers to give to students, for parents/adults to give to teens, and to be read in groups for discussion. It’s a 4.5 stars for me, and highly recommended....more
A wonderful women’s historical fiction story set in Renaissance Italy and France, layered with the fairytaOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
A wonderful women’s historical fiction story set in Renaissance Italy and France, layered with the fairytale of Rapunzel and a slight touch of dark magic.
Description: It’s France, June of 1666 (note all the 6’s) and Charlotte-Rose de la Force, an actual person and writer, has been banished from the court of King Louis XIV due to scandalous behavior. The king has forced her to live in a secluded convent where she serendipitously hears the story of Rapunzel from an old nun.
But it’s more complicated than that, with it’s layered and convoluted storylines. There are a bunch of things which add to its complexity - in front of each section are poems about Rapunzel written by other writers; the author has included operatic titles for each section of the book and the way the story builds has an operatic feel to it; and each of the key characters’ stories are told within the story of the others. Charlotte-Rose tells her story in first person, while Soeur Seraphina tells the fairytale to Charlotte-Rose, Margherita is the child that has been banished to a secluded tower, and Selena Leonelli (La Strega Bella) is the gorgeous witch. We get an involved tale about each of these key characters, all mixed up and blended together nicely.
Thoughts:Bitter Greens is well written and drew me in, with just enough historical details to give it depth and cultural context. And despite the complexity of the format for the story it is mostly easy to read and follow. I believe I was only confused once or twice when reading the trials of one of the many characters. I liked that the author takes the reader into 17th century France and 16th century Italy and that the character Charlotte-Rose was a real person. It was interesting to find out more about the court of King Louis XIV and the role that women played in society at the time. Also intriguing were the histories around the religious strife that occurred during his reign, as well as the complexities of Italian life and living in the time of the Black Death in Venice during the 1500’s.
Since I love to read and like the feel of real books, I want to mention that the lovely hardbound version of the book is easy to handle and well organized. It contains its operatic storyline sections listed in the first part of the book, there are also chapter titles and dates included for each of the sections, and poems are listed in front of the chapters. I liked that the chapters are typically short and that there are sometimes shorter sections broken down within the chapters, so that it is easy to dip in and out of the book.
All in all a terrific book that will appeal to women readers who like fairytale retellings, enjoy a touch of the magical in their reads, like strong and dark female characters, and love historical fiction. It is definitely a woman’s book. I also loved how the story ended which, importantly for me, is not one of those fantastical happily-ever-after conclusions. 4.5 stars for this page turning historical fiction with a touch of fantasy. It was a complete pleasure to read....more
It’s a page-turning, action-packed steampunk murder mystery with even steamier romantic elements. It hasOriginal review posted at Layers of Thought.
It’s a page-turning, action-packed steampunk murder mystery with even steamier romantic elements. It has a feisty lead character so it’s a perfect read for the fans of Gail Carriger – only it’s a bit darker.
About: Petite and feisty redheaded Cherry St. Croix is a bit tarnished. Orphaned at an early age, she is from an upper class family and lives comfortably with a variety of servants in her estate home - albeit as a ward to a never-present male benefactor, since women from this alternative Victorian period cannot own and are considered property. Darker still is that she is addicted to laudanum or opium depending on which is closer at hand; and she is a collector – a hired bounty woman who tracks down the wanted.
As she travels the polluted and sooty underworld of this different sort of London, she is asked to “collect’ a “ripper” who is killing local “sweets” (the most beautiful and desirable prostitutes) and taking their body parts for goodness knows what. It’s in the process of finding this insidious killer that she discovers darker things about her past; and sidesteps two romantic entanglements.
Thoughts: I really liked Cherry, the intelligent, tainted and strong main character who denies the existence of magic and only believes in science. It was also appealing that she is adamant about not wanting to get married, contrary to proper behavior for the time.
Although I really dislike comparing newer novels to wildly popular ones, I would say that this historical-ish novel felt quite similar to Gail Carriger’s Soulless, which I really enjoyed - although Tarnished is darker, less humorous, and has a more realistic setting than Carriger’s books. But like Soulless it includes science and gadgets, along with Victorian fashion and propriety, so it’s a genre-blender mystery story like Soulless.
My only niggle was that I had a slight problem getting into the author’s writing style at first. But I found it became easier after several chapters. And once I did I was completely hooked. I also want to mention that this first book is a cliff hanger, but what better way of starting off a series since it definitely created a desire to read the next in the series, even if I now have to wait.
Highly recommended for those interested in steampunk, historical romance, urban fantasy, murder mysteries, and especially for those who like strong female leads. It’s a 3.5 star read for me. I can’t wait for the second in the series....more
John’s quick take: A murder mystery whodunit featuring a plucky nurse-cum-detective, set in EnglaOriginal review by John posted on Layers of Thought.
John’s quick take: A murder mystery whodunit featuring a plucky nurse-cum-detective, set in England and the battlefields of France during the First World War.
John’s description: Bess Crawford is a frontline nurse, serving in aid stations just behind the trenches during the grim battles of the First World War. She is also the daughter of a highly respected and well-connected Army Colonel – hers is a family that is steeped in military history and traditions.
It is early in 1918 and to add to the horror of war, the Spanish influenza epidemic is sweeping through the region, leaving behind a trail of destruction and death. Bess and her colleagues, already exhausted and close to breaking point, now have to deal with a huge influx of sick and dying soldiers that have been struck down by the disease.
Then in the midst of the madness, the body of an officer is discovered among the piles of dead waiting to be buried in mass graves; but he has been neither shot nor infected by the contagion – he appears to have been murdered. But before Bess can report the murder, she too falls sick and for a long time her life hangs by a thread. When she finally recovers, she discovers that the only other witness to the murdered officer’s body has reportedly committed suicide and the officer’s wife has received official notification that he died in battle. Bess is determined to seek justice, but with no body, no other witnesses and no-one but her aware that a crime has been committed, how can she identify and find the murderer among the killing fields of the Western Front? As she sets out to solve the mystery, she soon becomes a target for the unknown killer.
John’s thoughts: This is definitely a book for whodunit fans, which is a category I don’t normally fall into, but the unusual setting drew me to the book. My grandfathers both served in the First World War, and like many whose close relatives experienced it I am fascinated (and absolutely horrified) by the madness of this terrible war. Needless to say anything set during that period has a good chance of grabbing my attention. And it did, because Todd does a good job of capturing some of the circumstances and atmosphere and conveying what it was like for people who were caught up in the war. So far so good.
Where I struggled a bit was with the storyline and the main character – it just didn’t feel realistic or authentic. The notion of an upper-class woman serving as a nurse on the frontline, able to frequently travel to England and back, fighting off attackers and roving the Western Front trying to solve mysterious murders just didn’t ring true for me. But perhaps that is the point and that An Unmarked Grave is intended as a piece of escapism. If that is your preference and you enjoy stories about amateur sleuths trying to solve heinous crimes, then this one is for you. The setting is unusual and certainly makes for a dramatic backdrop. So personally I’d rate this book three stars; it was an entertaining book and an enjoyable read that I’m sure many fans of the murder mystery genre will rate more highly. ...more