a Bulgarian history lesson in a very good book

When I saw an ARC of Elizabeth Kostova’s new novel available for request on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it because her earlier novel THE HISTORIAN is one of my top… twenty-five favorite books of all time. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to read it, and I apologize to Ms. Kostova and the publisher for this late review.

As with THE HISTORIAN, THE SHADOW LAND has skips from past to present and back again. This isn’t the easiest thing to follow until you get used to it, because you have to get used to it or you risk missing an important, powerful story.

I won’t compare this novel to the other Kostova book I read any more than that. This one stands alone and it was simply that one that made me want to read this one.

The lead character, Alexandra, comes off as awfully naive, almost to the point of being cliched in her innocent-American-caught-up-in-European-intrigue storyline. The lead man in the story is more original and interesting, though it’s vaguely irritating that he proclaims to be so proud of his Bulgarian heritage but insists that he be called Bobby instead of Aspurah.

One thing it is easy to love about this novel is that, once again, Kostova manages to weave intricate, not well-known Eastern European history into a fascinating story without having the story end up too heavy with historical facts and figures or too light and uneducated. I’ve never learned so much about Bulgaria as I did reading this book and I thank the author for that. That being said, I went into the story expecting folklore (sorry, one more reference to THE HISTORIAN) but I was pleasantly surprised it went into the Communist history of Bulgaria, and of Europe as a whole, instead. This is, as an added bonus, the first book I’ve ever read set in Bulgaria!

Here’s the thing about THE SHADOW LAND, in conclusion –

I would read the story of the Past, of Stoyan Lazarov and his wife and family as they struggled to survive communism. And I would read the story of American Alexandra and Bulgarian Bobby, of their fight to right wrongs and find healing and love. But I am not 100% convinced that the two stories meld together as well as they should. It’s almost… too much coincidence, luck, and circumstance that Alexandra ends up caring what happened to Stoyan. Basically, I want two books instead of one. Which is always a good thing!

The conclusion of the story (as opposed to my conclusion above, it seems) is a little disjointed because of the separate stories. The Bad Guy is the same in both timelines, in both stories, and that’s a good thing. But Alexandra ends up sort of tossed into what is obviously supposed to be a meaningful relationship with a very minor character, making their love lose some of it’s oomph, and Bobby hardly gets an ending at all.

I cared about these people and I want them to have more, darn it!

Overall, though, it’s a good book and it gets four stars from me for Bulgarian history.

I received a copy of THE SHADOW LAND through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own, my review is posted on my blog, on Goodreads, and on NetGalley.

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the maid and the mogul… a match made in literary heaven

Being from western Pennsylvania, though more to the north than Andrew Carnegie was, I requested an ARC of Marie Benedict’s Carnegie’s Maid because historical fiction is my genre of choice and because you can’t live in western Pennsylvania without having some idea of who Andrew Carnegie was and what he did. I’ve seen him covered a hundred times on History Channel documentaries about the ‘men who built America’ but I’ve never read a biography or a history. And I wouldn’t know where to start, so I started with this book, involving a real man’s interactions with a fictional maid in his household.

 

Fictional biographies of real people can be hit or miss but maybe this book doesn’t count as that because Clara Kelley is entirely fictional. There’s an argument to be made that Clara, an Irish immigrant from a tenant farm in the 1860s, is too… perfect but it’s also easy to take her as a summary of those that were good, and even a allegory to Carnegie, an immigrant himself. Almost like telling Carnegie’s story in a different way.

 

That Clara takes on an entirely new identity in order to send money back to her family in Ireland, pretending that she is knowledgeable about the things the ‘new money’ Carnegies are not is an interesting twist I haven’t seen in other novels. It wouldn’t work in all of them, and it’s the real-ness of the Carnegies that makes it work here. Once again, it is almost a story of America that an immigrant was able to come and be something newly created, whether it’s Andrew Carnegie going from factory boy to steel baron or Clara becoming a ladies’ maid instead of a seamstress or washerwoman.

 

Having not read much about Irish immigrants to America at the time of the Civil War, I can’t say if the backstory Benedict gives Clara is realistic, but it is something I’m going to research more.

 

The key plot to Carnegie’s Maid is the friendship between Clara, who serves as a maid to Carnegie’s mother, and Andrew. There are hints of a, forbidden, romance but Clara is, after all, fictional. So it’s never more than would-be, could-be romance and an incredibly strong friendship that I’d like to hope Andrew Carnegie might have had with someone. The idea that someone like fictional Clara influence Carnegie’s philanthropy is a nice one to have.

 

Their relationship ends badly, with secrets spilled and secrets kept, but how could it not end badly when Clara never existed? That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story. It is. It is so good that I sometimes forgot that Andrew Carnegie was real. I found myself incredibly invested in the personal life that Benedict created for him. But, in an epilogue of sorts, Benedict ties some of Carnegie’s philanthropic ideas to Clara’s influence and that is a nice way to end the novel.

 

Andrew Carnegie is an incredibly important figure in American history and, from my novice perspective, he is done justice here.

 

This novel has passed the ultimate test I give to historical fiction novels… it has made me research something real, made me learn more about something I don’t know a lot about, and made me reach for more books!

 

(I received a copy of CARNEGIE’S MAID through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own. This review is posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.)

Old Hollywood glamour brought to life

All I know about Mary Pickford came from Granny Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and all Granny ever said was how much she liked Mary and how Mary was ‘one of them.’ Or something like that. It’s been awhile since I watched that particular old show, though I do love it.

Combining an affection for Granny Clampett and a love of historical fiction, I jumped at the chance to get an ARC of Melanie Benjamin’s novel about Mary Pickford and famed early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, who I had never heard of.

Though I finished the book, my trust in Granny was slightly misguided.

I’ve never been particularly fond of novels about Real People. I haven’t read many because I’m not overly fond of the idea of them. Is it really a biography if it’s largely made up? No. And should a ‘fictional biography’ even be a thing? Not if you ask me. Not before I read THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE and, to be honest, not after reading it.

It took me too long to realize that Fran’s parts of the book are written in first person and Mary’s are third person. At first, I liked it. Then I didn’t like it so much. I’m not sure I understand Benjamin’s purpose with the dueling narratives. Is it because Mary is the Film Star and Frances is the one behind the scenes? That’s what it seems like and, for a story meant to be about an equal friendship, it doesn’t seem quite right.

My general problem with historical biographies and novels about real people is how much is made up. It can be done well. Or it can be done not quite right. This book falls more in line with not quite right. Things go too easily for Mary and Fran, even when they’re going badly. Everything is colored with old Hollywood glamour and it makes things almost too… Hollywood. Like, their life reads like a script that will have a happily-ever-after because that’s what the audience demands.

That’s not real life.

Even when Frances goes to Europe during World War I as a filmmaker, and sees the aftermath of Verdun, it’s through the lens of ‘filmmaker’ and that takes something from the realness of the war.

It is, however, a good look at the fabled Old Hollywood of entertainment history. It sent me to Wikipedia to research the actors and directors and, to be honest, that was almost more interesting at times than the book.

One thought that stuck with me as I read the book was a question about the source material Benjamin used. Were there articles written about Mary and Fran? Did they write autobiographies or even leave journals detailing their friendship? Did some other witness to their friendship leave stories behind? The answer to all that seems to be maybe. It is, according to Benjamin’s afterward. She even admits that fights she created between the women were created solely based on the fact that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion didn’t work together again after one particular movie.

So what, I wonder makes this better than writing biographies about two of the most powerful women in early Hollywood? Possibly, probably it’s just that I shouldn’t read these types of books.

That being said, I did read it and I did, for the most part, enjoy my time reading it. If you like historical biographies and old Hollywood, this is the book for you.

(I received a copy of THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE through NetGalley and Random House Ballantine Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Coming of age in 1970s Alaska… you don’t want to miss this book…

As a reader, I’ve seen Kristin Hannah books everywhere. I’ve never bought one. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps it was fate, because I was meant to read this Kristin Hannah book.

Either way, requesting an ARC, being ever so kindly granted an ARC, and reading THE GREAT ALONE over the holidays was the perfect way to end a year and start a new one.

This book is long, 450 pages, but I could not put it down and I read it in five days between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s one of those books you rush through because you can’t stop and then it’s over and you’re sad… until you realize you can read it again, almost like new because you read it so fast, and all is well again.
I’m not the only one who feels that way about books, am I?

Anyway, I started reading this tale of wild, untamed Alaska at what might seem like an inopportune moment because I live in Erie and for Christmas Erie got… sixty-some inches of snow in the two days before I started this book. I mean, who wants to read about Arctic weather while you are living it?

Me. Apparently.

I knew this for a fact when I started the book and got to 12% without looking up long enough to realize it had snowed another two inches. This after days of being a little weather-obsessed.

Hannah has created a masterpiece for me with this story. The backdrop of remote, unpredictable Alaska being combined with the struggles of a Vietnam POW and a coming of age story for a teenage girl is immediately haunting and magical.

Ernt Allbright is listless and tormented in regular life after surviving years as a POW during the Vietnam War. He loves his wife, Cora, and his thirteen year old daughter, Leni, but he doesn’t know how to… he doesn’t know how to be. So when a man named Earl Harlan writes to tell him that his son Bo, who died in Vietnam, would want Ernt to have his land in Alaska, the Allbrights leave Seattle for Alaska.

Earl, as it turns out, is more commonly known as Mad Earl and spends his days with his family in a compound that’s part survivalist, part doomsday prepper, and part anarchist. Mad Earl brings Ernt into the fold and they feed off each other, creating a powder keg that’s always ready to spark. More so for Ernt and the demons he battles from the war.

Leni makes friends in Alaska, despite it all, even developing a crush on a boy. The boy is the son of the man Ernt thinks has eyes for Cora, which doesn’t help anything. The tiny town rallies around Cora and Leni as Ernt begins to beat his wife. The tragedy is that Cora doesn’t think there’s any way out, that as long as Ernt doesn’t hit Leni, that he still loves her…

Her constant refrain to her daughter is that “I wish you remembered him before…” and that becomes a sort of theme for the novel. Everyone has a Before and sometimes it’s all you can do to hold tight and fast to that fleeting memory.

As I said, rural Alaska provides a deadly backdrop for the topics and threads that Hannah weaves seamlessly together. Domestic abuse, coming of age, race relations in the 1970s, mental health care for veterans, political beliefs, the wealthy versus the poor, how the law treats women and how it treats men…

There are parts of THE GREAT ALONE that could seem a little forced, a little too perfect. I think they work. They’re forgivable because of everything else that this book is. I can’t go into too much detail because they’re spoilers and I very much need for you to read this book asap.

Seriously. I know this makes for a terrible review but, let’s face it, if you’re following me, reading my reviews… we have similar tastes in books so there’s a strong you’ll love this book as much as I did. Do. Definitely still love this book.

The rest of the books I’m going to read in 2018, be warned. The bar has been set HIGH.

(Also, if you’re seeing this on the book page on Goodreads or something… just get it. You already want to. You won’t regret it.)

(I received a copy of THE GREAT ALONE from NetGalley & the publisher in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Russia, Russia, Russia… this time in fiction, probably

Russia, Russia, Russia.

No, this isn’t a current events article on the state of things in the world. It could be (and that’s kind of frightening) but it’s not.

This is a review of Karen Cleveland’s spy thriller NEED TO KNOW.

The synopsis as posted on NetGalley, who were kind enough to grant me an ARC of the book, kind of, sort of seems to give away the game in that I knew when I thought ‘yes! I want to read that!’ that a CIA analyst’s husband works as a Russian sleeper agent. That’s why I hit ‘request’ on the page, because it sounded good. And yet the reveal scene, where Vivian finds out that Matt is not actually Matt at all, is really intense. When it shouldn’t be… because I knew he was going to be a Russian agent. So kudos for that reveal!

The theme of the book, even more than Russian sleeper agents everywhere!, seems to be the question of just what would you do if, say, you were a CIA analyst (specializing in Russia, of course) and you found out your husband (and the father of your four children) had been a Russian agent for two decades, give or take. What would you do if, say, he said “no, I never told them anything about you or your work” and “you have to turn me in” in the same breath? Do you believe him? Do you still believe him as more and more lies drip out? Do you find that you still love him despite the lies and despite the fact that you’re now stuck in a giant hole whose walls are about to collapse?

Vivian errs on the side of what seems to be self-preservation. That’s understandable. It’s also questionable. It makes her look pretty terrible at her job, when she’s supposed to be this expert at uncovering handlers and ringleaders, so that the CIA can find the agents. Vivian tells the story of dealing with the revelation about Matt (Alexander) in the present tense, which does make for very intense, dramatic storytelling. She flashes back to earlier moments in their relationship in the past tense, which makes for not the most compelling portrait of her intelligence gathering skills.

Can love really make a person so blind that, as a new mother in a new marriage, you’re not like “I don’t know, honey, I like working the Africa desk… why do you think it’s so important I move to the Russia section? And, you know, not stay home with the kids?”

I don’t know. I’m not a CIA agent (thanks to those who are, I could never be one), but Karen Cleveland was in the CIA so I’ll take her word for it, despite my questions. And maybe those questions, maybe Vivian not being super great at her job, at least as it relates to her personal life, are what makes it such a compelling story, one that I could not put down.

There is an ‘80s Cold War vibe to NEED TO KNOW, which is fun and intense. It doesn’t seem out of place either, since there’s a ‘80s Cold War vibe to the present day, which is less fun and more intense.

It’s a quick read. It’s an intense read. It’d make a great tv show. It’s fun! If you like thrillers and espionage, with a touch of romance, please be getting this book!

P.S. I feel like there could be a sequel, given the reveals that end the book. I would definitely read a sequel!

3.75/5 stars

(I received a copy of NEED TO KNOW through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own. My review is posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.)

a new ‘buddy cop’ duo to root for in louise luna’s TWO GIRLS DOWN

Thrillers will never go out of style in literature. Missing children will never go out of style as a plot in books. And the combination of a gruff, slightly older guy who is weary of the world pairing off with a tough, younger woman who wants to fight the world will never go out of style as compelling main characters.

Louisa Luna checked all three of those boxes with TWO GIRLS DOWN.

Luna starts the story with a mother stating that she is not a bad mother. Whether she’s telling the world, telling herself, or telling some combination of both, it is what she says. And then she cops to smoking pot and having too many boyfriends. All this sets the stage for a story of abducted children and a small town’s dirty little secrets.

The world-weary guy is Cap… I honestly forget his first name (Mike, maybe?) because he is only ever called Cap or Caplan in the book… who is an ex-cop turned PI who took the fall for a friend who had more to lose when something went wrong.

The fight-the-world woman is Vega… I remember her name is Alice because she sometimes think of herself that way, as everyone else calls her Vega… who has achieved celebrity-like status as the finder of missing children.

(I sense a series of books coming focused on the combined efforts of Cap and Vega, and a possibly romance between them… I am 100% on board with this. Just saying.)

The town where Bailey and Kylie Brandt go missing is a place called Denville in eastern Pennsylvania. Opioid addictions run rampant and the town is struggling to keep afloat, as many small towns are. This sets the stage for many dodgy suspects and a general air of suspicion against everyone from dealers to cops. There’s even a missing, handicapped adult who seems to be either a suspect or maybe taken by the same people, and his mother is dying of cancer.

(This is in no small part thanks to the pollution spewed by the coal mines in the area. I really didn’t expect there to be so many social statements in this sort of a novel but I like it. There really isn’t any better way to open someone’s eyes than to put it in a story.)

A small flaw in the story are the abundance of small-town cliches and cop-related tropes. It’s almost… too perfectly screwed up, if that makes sense. The gritty and harsh setting fits the story Luna is telling but can that many bad things really happen in that tiny section of a world? Maybe. I suppose.

Cap and Vega don’t seem like they’d work well together at all. He’s quiet and deliberative while she’s loud and reactionary (she may endear herself to him in a scene involving hot tea and a deadbeat husband’s genitals). But they get they job the job done despite the secrets she keeps and the life he has with his teenage daughter. Vega does spend a lot of time flashing back to her life in California and the cases she’s worked, and that comes off kind of disjointed and almost randomly attached to her, but it’s kind of part of her quirky nature.

In a sense, TWO GIRLS DOWN reads like a weekly crime drama. Not a case-of-the-week show like Law & Order but something that lasts a season. The characters are drawn into a vivid scene and everyone has their carefully crafted role to play. The way things turn out is entirely satisfying and it made sense and I am so glad I got the chance to read this book.

Again, to Louisa Luna, I would totally read more stories with Cap and Vega!

4.5 stars/5

Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH BELOW STAIRS does everything right…

34927953Is it possible to give a book seven stars out of five? I would give Jennifer Ashley’s DEATH BELOW STAIRS seven stars out of five, if I could. So let’s say that I have. Good? Good. Now let me tell you why…

I think I’d read six percent (I’d happily received an eBook ARC) when I liked it enough to peek at it on Goodreads. Let me tell you, I was thrilled (thrilled!) to see there will be a sequel this summer. That’s a lot of investment from me that early on in a book, but you do what a book tells you to do. And this book made me want more of this world, of these characters, of Jennifer Ashley’s writing, and of the things that happened here.

DEATH BELOW STAIRS drops immediately into 1881 London (a definite hook for the historical fiction addict that I am) and I found myself meeting Mrs. Holloway as she starts a new job as a cook in one of the fancy Victorian houses that so much historical fiction likes to focus on. Mrs. Holloway, who is only about thirty years old and uses the idea of missus with some liberty, finds herself employed by Lord and Lady Rankin. They are minor characters in the story, hardly ever part of the action, but they are compelling. As are Mrs. Bowen and Mr. Davis, the housekeeper and butler of the Rankin house. The cast is rounded out by Sinead – a kitchen maid, James – a boy at home in the streets, Lady Cynthia – the unmarried sister of Lady Rankin, and Daniel McAdam – the mysterious man and father to James, who shares some history with Mrs. Holloway.

I adore them all. Absolutely adore them. They are, all of them, interesting and complex and fun.

It’s obvious that Daniel, who exists as easily as a wealthy man-about-town as he does a day laborer who hires himself out for menial chores and sleeps above stables, has something like love for Kat. (Kat is Mrs. Holloway, though only Daniel calls her that… and never in front of anyone else.) He might not be willing to admit it, but it’s there. And his hesitancy makes it all the more perfect.

I never watched Downton Abbey and my other experience with Upstairs-Downstairs dynamics in fiction is limited. But this? This murder mystery spin on that is something that works incredibly well.

I never guessed who might have killed the victim, why anyone might have killed the victim, or even how the murder would be solved. Even a murder in the Rankin house took on a whole different look under the wider scope of the Fenians, Queen Victoria, and openness and equality in Victorian England.

It’s Lady Cynthia who fascinates me, as much as I do the not-yet-couple that is Kat and Daniel, because it is Lady Cynthia who really bridges both worlds best. She can do it, she has to do it, because she doesn’t fit in either world. Not as she like to be accepted. (I may have cheered aloud when Mr. Thanos declared her beautiful and fascinating… and they may be one of the best reasons to read the sequel.)

I didn’t expect such breathless and yet balanced suspense and drama and action from this book. Maybe because I expect the Victorians to be stuffy and dull or maybe because I expected it to have more romance. I am very happy to have been proven wrong and I am sorry (and also not sorry, because how else would I be so surprised?) for it.

The story ends with sadness, which is essentially how it began, but it seems as though the message is that sadness gives way to a chance at hope and happiness. It’s awfully poetic and nice. And though there is a sequel to be released this summer, the main plot lines of this story are fully wrapped up. There is no cliffhanger and this book could stand alone easily (and I’m tempted to skip the sequel and let it, because I’m afraid nothing can be this good!).

I read it too fast and it was over too soon but I love this book. It comes out January 2, 2018 and I’m going to buy it. I hope you will too!

I received a copy of DEATH BELOW STAIRS through NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own & my review is cross-posted on NetGalley, Goodreads, and my blog.