Thursday, May 21, 2015

Scent of Triumph by Jan Moran

Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 20, 2015

Scent of Triumph is the story of Danielle Bretancourt, a talented young French perfumer with a flair for fashion and a natural olfactory gift. In the language of perfumery, she is a Nose, with the rare ability to recognize thousands of essences by memory. The story opens on the day England declares war on Germany, and Danielle and her family are caught in the midst of a raging disaster sweeping across Europe. Her life takes a tragic turn when her husband and son are lost behind enemy lines. She spies for the French resistance, determined to find them, but is forced to flee Europe with fragments of her family. Destitute, she mines her talents to create a magnificent perfume that captures the hearts of Hollywood's top stars, then gambles again to win wealth and success as a couturier. Her intelligence and flair attracts the adoration of Jonathan Newell-Grey, of England's top shipping conglomerate, and Cameron Murphy, Hollywood's most charismatic star. Danielle charts her course through devastating wartime losses and revenge; lustful lovers and loveless marriages; and valiant struggles to reunite her family. Set between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities, here is one woman's story of courage, spirit, and resilience.

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I don't know where to begin with Jan Moran's Scent of Triumph. The book made an unmistakable impression, it left me speechless and I find myself at a loss in describing my experience with it.

Moran's style and tone grated my nerves from the start. The language she employs struck me as repetitive and the story is positively saturated with purple prose. I make a point of ignoring the odd hiccup in spelling and grammar, but Moran struggles with neither. This is a technique and one that didn't hold much appeal for this particular reader.

The book is character heavy which might have worked, if any of the cast had struck my fancy. Unfortunately, I felt the lot underdeveloped, wooden and clichéd. Danielle Bretancourt and Jonathan Newell-Grey lacked charisma and depth. Cameron Murphy had potential, but I don't feel Moran executed it to her best advantage. Heinrich and Sofia were promising, but they enjoy relatively minor roles and weren't as necessary to Danielle's experience as they were Nicky's.

To make matters worse, I felt Moran's execution predictable, unbalanced and heavy-handed. Danielle's takes place against WWII, but the global conflict hardly competes with the author's portrayal of the perfumer's art. I felt the first half of the narrative entirely unnecessary and I often found myself wondering at the author's delivery. There is a distinct lack of tension and many of the main plot points are weakly tied together.

I'm a stubborn mule and finished the novel for no other reason than a desire to say I did, but nothing about this piece worked for me and I don't see myself recommending it down the road.

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They all raised their glasses. Marie cleared her throat and held her glass high. “And to those who’ve gone on before us, may they watch after us,” she said solemnly, then added with a lilting laugh, “and may we never cease to amuse them."
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Saffron Crocus by Alison McMahan

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: May 16, 2015

Venice, 1643. Fifteen-year-old Isabella longs to sing in Monteverdi’s Choir, but only boys (and castrati) can do that. Her singing teacher, Margherita, introduces her to a new wonder: opera! Then Isabella finds Margherita murdered. And now people keep trying to kill Margherita’s handsome rogue of a son, Rafaele. Was Margherita killed so someone could steal her saffron business? Or was it a disgruntled lover, as Margherita—unbeknownst to Isabella—was one of Venice’s wealthiest courtesans? Or will Isabella and Rafaele find the answer deep in Margherita's past, buried in the Jewish Ghetto? Isabella has to solve the mystery of the Saffron Crocus fast, before Rafaele hangs for a murder he didn’t commit, though she fears the truth will drive her and the man she loves irrevocably apart.

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I was of two minds going into Alison McMahan's The Saffron Crocus. On one hand, I have a hit and miss relationship with young adult fiction and was worried the book wouldn't work for me. On the other, I was intrigued by the premise and curious to see if the author could make such a story work. 

Looking back, I can easily say I lucked out with the book and found it quite satisfying. McMahan's is well-rounded and memorable, but the mystery at the heart of the story makes the piece. The amount of historic detail also stuck a chord with me and I was fascinated at the level of authentic detail the author was able to squeeze into the narrative. 

Beautifully imagined and thoroughly engaging, The Saffron Crocus was well worth the time I spent with it. A wonderful story for both young adult and mature audiences.  

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It was Piero. Face down, one arm stretched out before him, as if in supplication. A puddle of blood under him. Dead.
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Blackwood Crossing by M.K. McClintock

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: May 14, 2015

Torn between loyalty to her family and refusal to marry a laird she despises, Rhona Davidson accepts a dangerous proposal from a man she knows only as Blackwood. Leaving behind a life of leisure, Charles Blackwood bravely serves his country with honor and the skill of a trained British agent. When his newest case returns him to the wild Highlands of Scotland, he is faced with a choice between killing a man and saving the only woman he has ever loved. Charles and Rhona join their lives, only to discover that their choices will result in bloodshed, unless they can uncover a truth long buried, deep in the Highland soil.

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Confession time folks. I liked M.K. McClintock's Blackwood Crossing more than its predecessor. Charles and Rhona appealed to me in ways Alaina and Tristan didn't and I felt the story itself a tad more engaging. 

Charles and Rhona's shared history complicates their association, but it also manufactures a really fun dynamic for McClintock's readers. Again, I wasn't on the edge of my seat, but I found the chemistry between the leading characters and the intricacies of their relationship quite entertaining. 

Word to the wise, the book does reference Alaina Claiborne and while I don't think it entirely necessary to tackle the books in order, I'd highly recommend it. 

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She pulled against the force of his grip, but her strength did not match his. "I have means enough to make my own place and to live comfortable. I neither need nor desire a husband."
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Monday, May 18, 2015

Alaina Claiborne by M.K. McClintock

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: May 11, 2015

How far would you go to avenge your family and save the one you love? In nineteenth-century England, Alaina Claiborne had a loving family, a cherished friend, and devoted servants. She spent her days riding across the grassy hills of the English countryside, joyful and at peace. Then tragedy strikes and her world is forever changed. Searching for those responsible is her only focus... until she meets Tristan. Tristan Sheffield, a man of many talents, searches out those who don’t want to be found. His past is filled with secrets and deeds he would rather leave deeply buried. However, when his life unexpectedly entwines with Alaina's, he soon discovers they share more than a mutual desire to catch a murderer. On their hunt for a man driven by greed, Tristan and Alaina find that love is the greatest weapon against evil, and they'll stop at nothing to survive.

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I have mixed feelings about Alaina Claiborne by M.K. McClintock. It's a nice story and entertaining in it's way, but I felt like I knew where it was going most of the time and that sense of predictability didn't have me sitting on the edge of the seat. 

I don't mean to sounds harsh or turn anyone from the novel. McClintock's characterizations are quite interesting, her settings are delightfully original and the plot has a lot going for it in terms of movement. It's a fun piece, it just didn't have the ambiguity and tension I'd anticipated going in. 

That said, I'm excited about moving forward with the British Agent series. My expectations were a little off base and certainly colored my experience with the novel, but I enjoyed the time I spent with it just the same and am interested to see what McClintock will offer readers Blackwood Crossing.

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Tristan remembered ever man and every move. He has seen two of his agents go down, each taking a culprit with him. One had escaped, but he couldn't recall how. They might be the best at what they did, but they had made a deadly mistake. Tristan once again studied his partners and friends. Neither would forget what happened either. They woman and child's screams promised to haunt them all for years to come. 
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Teresa of the New World by Sharman Apt Russell

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: May 8, 2015

In 1528, the real-life conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked in the New World where he lived for eight years as a slave, trader, and shaman. In this lyrical weaving of history and myth, the adventurer takes his young daughter Teresa from her home in Texas to walk westward into the setting sun, their travels accompanied by miracles--visions and prophecies. But when Teresa reaches the outposts of New Spain, life is not what her father had promised. As a kitchen servant in the household of a Spanish official, Teresa grows up estranged from the magic she knew as a child, when she could speak to the earth and listen to animals. When a new epidemic of measles devastates the area, the sixteen-year-old sets off on her own journey, befriending a Mayan were-jaguar who cannot control his shape-shifting and a warhorse abandoned by his Spanish owner. Now Teresa moves through a land stalked by Plague: smallpox as well as measles, typhus, and scarlet fever. Soon it becomes clear that Teresa and her friends are being manipulated and driven by forces they do not understand. To save herself and others, Teresa will find herself listening again to the earth, sinking underground, swimming through limestone and fossil, opening to the power of root and stone. As she searches for her place in the New World, she will travel farther and deeper than she had ever imagined. Rich in historical detail and scope, Teresa of the New World takes you into the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest.

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I’m not sure what prompted me the tackle Teresa of the New World by Sharman Apt Russell, but I’m very happy I took the chance. The book is different, but I greatly enjoyed the scope and artistry of the piece. 

Russell flirts with both spirituality and history over the course of Teresa’s story and while I would definitely classify it as a young adult piece, I think it has certain appeal for more mature readers as well. In terms of content, I liked how Russell painted the indigenous people and the balance she struck between fact based material and the more fantastic elements of the story. 

I don’t consider myself a particular fan magical realism, but Russell makes it work. The end result falls far outside my regular stomping grounds, but proved well worth the time I spent with it. 

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Rain bagan to fall in earnest. The raven flapped and flew to the hole in the grass roof. Water greening the thorn forest, water rushing to sea, a power, a magic rushing through everything, everyone and everything, each day bringing its own amazement.  
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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mesabi Pioneers by Jeffrey Smith & Russell Hill

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: May 7, 2015

Here is the highly readable account of one of the remarkable achievements of the 19th century: how a remote tree-covered area of northern Minnesota became America's greatest source of iron ore. It is 1891. An improbable team of American businessmen and European immigrants hunt for iron ore in a formidable expanse of dense pine forest. Fighting isolation, harsh winters, and mosquito-infested summers, they find it. What follows is an extraordinary tale of both personal and technological achievement. Mesabi Pioneer s brings the pursuit of iron ore to vivid life, illuminating the men and women mostly forgotten by history, who built an industry, carved towns from trees, and created a rich culture that lasts to this day.

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Mesabi Pioneers by Jeffrey Smith and Russell Hill was a bit of a one-eighty in my book. I mean no disrespect, but I’m typically drawn to war era stories or biographic fiction set between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance which is why a nineteenth century piece centered in northern Minnesota felt different in my estimation.

For the record, different isn’t a bad thing. Smith and Hill put a lot of wonderful research into this piece, allowing readers insight to a world that strikes a stark contrast to our modern existence. There is an artistic quality to the writing that is also worth noting. The content is interesting in and of itself, but I felt the style and tone of the narrative enhanced the themes and drama of Arthur Maki’s story.

Mesabi Pioneers is unlike anything I usually read, but I found it addicting just the same. A brilliant combination of social and regional history.


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Johnnie turned to Wood. “I hope you learn better to control that tongue of yours. This isn’t your outfit-it’s mine. I say who’s on it and who’s not. If you have a problem with that, then I suggest you go back to Duluth.” He turned back to the Indian who showed the slightest of smiles and watched Wood out of the corner of his eye. Arthur figured Charlie understood more than he let on, and he wondered if the reason the two men continued to speak in Chippewa was only to keep Wood out of the conversation. 
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Risking Exposure by Jeanne Moran

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: April 29, 2015

Munich, Germany, 1938. The Nazis are in power and war is on the horizon. The law makes fourteen-year-old Sophie Adler a member of Hitler Youth; her talent makes her an amateur photographer. Then she contracts polio. During her long hospitalization, her Youth leader supplies her with film. Photographs she takes of fellow polio patients are turned into propaganda, mocking people with disabilities. Sophie realizes her new disability has changed her status. She's now an outsider, a target of Nazi scorn and possible persecution. Her only weapon is her camera. Will she find the courage to separate from the crowd, photograph the full truth, and risk exposure?

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Risking Exposure by Jeanne Moran was a no brainer for me. I’m a sucker for WWII fiction and barely glanced at the blurb before accepting the novel for review. Naturally I was a little thrown when I sat down to actually read the book, but I was ultimately quite pleased with the narrative. 

Sophie is a remarkably memorable character. I’m not typically drawn to adolescents, but I enjoyed the unique perspective of Moran’s heroine and how Moran utilized Sophie’s youth in the context of the story.  I also liked the broader message of the piece. Moran really delves into the persecution of the disabled community and treats her work as a platform to educate readers on atrocities committed in Nazi Germany. 

Risking Exposure is a young adult piece, but I think easily appreciated by readers of all ages. Definitely something I’d recommend down the road. 

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Papa had taken photos of Jews, showing how they’d become targets. I’d add photos of cripples. They, I mean we, were targets too. The people of England and all the people in the world needed to know. One mistake of sharing your canteen with a sick girl, one illness, one injury, even for a German citizen or former Youth member, and we were written off as useless, same as the Party’s other targets.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Pledge of Better Times by Margaret Porter

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: April 29, 2015

A sweeping tale of ambition, treachery, and passion... For generations Lady Diana de Vere’s family loyally served England’s crown. But after King Charles II’s untimely death, her father becomes an outcast for refusing to submit to James II’s tyranny. Charles, Duke of St. Albans—the late king’s bastard son by actress Nell Gwyn—escapes his newly crowned uncle’s matchmaking efforts by secretly pledging to wed Diana, then departing for the Continent to become a soldier. Before the battle-scarred war hero returns to claim his promised bride, political and religious turmoil brings about revolution and yet another coronation. As companion to Queen Mary Stuart, Diana has followed her de Vere forbears into royal service. Though she hopes Charles will abandon his military career after marriage, he resists joining the ranks of the courtiers he despises and mistrusts. In palace corridors and within their own household the young duke and duchess confront betrayals, scandals, and tragedies that threaten to divide them. And neither the privileges of birth nor proximity to the throne can ensure their security, their advancement—-or their happiness.

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A Pledge of Better Times by Margaret Porter wasn’t supposed to be that book. You know what I mean. The one you start, put aside, and can’t shake. I’d agreed to review the novel on a whim, but it quickly became that piece that followed me around which is odd since the period isn’t one of my favorites. 

I was not familiar with Diana de Vere prior to my reading, but I loved how Porter illustrated her story. I can’t speak to how accurate the tale is, but if period detail is anything to go by, I think it safe to say Porter didn’t wander too far from the beaten path. That said, her characters are remarkably engaging and thoroughly enjoyable. The history was new to me, but Porter’s writing drew me in and sparked my imagination. 

A definite must for fans of Andrea Zuvich and Marci Jefferson, A Pledge for Better Times isn’t one to be missed. 

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Placing her hand upon his arm, she drew him out of the formal gardens, eager to return to the place where they had met. On that distant spring morning, standing together on the canal bank, they hadn't guessed their lives would be linked. 
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Behind the Forgotten Front, A WWII Novel by Barbara Hawkins

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: May 9, 2015

It’s 1942 and Harry Flynn leaves behind the love of his life to journey into a world of tigers, elephants, and Himalayan Mountains. Here he must take risks if he is to survive. He enlists to fight in the war, expecting to find the thrill of danger and honor of military service. Instead of a fighting position, Harry is sent to the Forgotten Front in the Indian subcontinent as an ordinary supply officer. There, General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell is constructing a ‘road to nowhere’ through Japanese-occupied Burma. The general will do anything to get the road built. In this exotic world with Naga headhunters, opium smoking kachin tribesmen, and marauders who scorn both life and death,Harry forges unlikely friendships. He’s also forced to obey orders that challenge his principles and is torn between being true to himself or ‘no man at all.’ Not willing to let Uncle Sam needlessly condemn the road crew to death, he rebels. He tries to sabotage the road’s progress where an all-black construction regiment is losing a man a mile due to disease and crumbling lopes. Then a commanding officer spots his unconventional skills. Immediately he’s transferred to America’s first guerrilla-supported unit: Merrill’s Marauders and later the Mars Task Force. Here, he must entrust his life to others. During a time when boys were forced to come of age on the battlefield, Harry must find what makes his life worth living or die. The lessons learned in World War II apply to all wars, where men walk away carrying unspeakable memories and lives that 'could have been' haunt those that lived. Behind the Forgotten Front brings them all back to life and shows that history is about facts driven by passions and sometimes the mistakes of real people. 

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I love starting off my reviews with confessions and today is no exception. When the offer came to review Behind the Forgotten Front, A WWII Novel by Barbara Hawkins, I was intrigued, but I was also skeptical. I’m a sucker for WWII novels, but the cover art wasn’t doing it for me. I was hesitant and questioned what it was I’d gotten myself into. Boy do I love being proved wrong. 

For the record, Hawkins style took me a while to get into, but in terms of content, I loved everything about this piece. The exotic setting added a great deal of perspective to the conflict and lent the narrative a refreshing sense of originality. There is also a lot of internal conflict in Harry Flynn and I really appreciated the insight that offered to men of this particular generation. He’s a complex character I thought Hawkins did a great job illustrating the layers of his personality. 

In short, Behind the Forgotten Front was not what I expected. It proved me wrong in the best possible way and I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with it. I’m still not a fan of the cover, but I’d easily recommend the piece to anyone with an interest in WWII fiction. 

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“It’s not guts you’re going to need— its smarts, in case we’re walking into a trap. All I want is to go home.”
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Friday, May 8, 2015

To Catch a Falling Star by Anna Belfrage

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: May 2, 2015

Some gifts are double-edged swords... For Matthew Graham, being given the gift of his former Scottish manor is a dream come true. For his wife, Alex, this gift will force her to undertake a perilous sea journey, leaving most of their extensive family in the Colony of Maryland. Alex is torn apart by this, but staying behind while her husband travels to Scotland is no option. Scotland in 1688 is a divided country, torn between the papist Stuart king and the foreign but Protestant William of Orange. In the Lowlands, popular opinion is with Dutch William, and Matthew’s reluctance to openly support him does not endear him to his former friends and neighbours. While Matthew struggles to come to terms with the fact that Scotland of 1688 bears little resemblance to his lovingly conserved memories, Alex is forced to confront unresolved issues from her past, including her overly curious brother-in-law, Luke Graham. And then there’s the further complication of the dashing, flamboyant Viscount Dundee, a man who knocks Alex completely off her feet. All the turmoil that accompanies their return to Scotland pales into insignificance when a letter arrives, detailing the calamities threatening their youngest daughter in Maryland – at the hand of that most obnoxious minister, Richard Campbell. Matthew and Alex have no choice but to hasten back, no matter the heartache this causes. Will they make it back in time? And what will Richard Campbell do?

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I’ve a confession folks, so I hope you don’t mind if start there and get it off my chest. I was over the moon when I received my copy of Anna Belfrage’s To Catch a Falling Star, but a part of my didn’t want to read it. I’ve loved each and every installment of the Graham Saga, but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Truth be told, I’m still not.  

That said I think this installment of the series is my favorite. The writing itself feels much stronger than it did in book one and I love the contrast in how these characters have grown over time, how experience has altered their views and solidified certain elements of their personalities. More importantly though, I loved how this book, more than any other, complimented A Rip in the Veil. The story brought closure to so many key points and functioned as a flawless bookend to some of the most sensitive elements of the saga. 

Don’t get me wrong, the historic hallmarks of the series are still there, but this time around it was the Alex and Anna’s emotional journey that struck a chord in me. You read that correctly, I did just reference the author, but in all fairness her personality and passion shines through this piece, as unmistakable and profound as the star that graces its cover. I think every author puts a bit of themselves into their work, but this is one of the rare occasions in which I felt the story gave insight to the creative spirit behind it. 

I’ve never been against time slip novels, but I didn’t consider myself a fan until reading these books. I’ve enjoyed each and every one and recommend them as one of the best fiction I’ve had fortune to come across. 

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Matthew tightened his grip on Alex's hand. My miracle lass, my gift from God.
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