Monday, April 29, 2013

The Distant Hours - Kate Morton

Title: The Distant Hours
Author: Kate Morton
Paperback: 672 pages (ARC version)
Publisher: Atria
Published date: 2011
FTC: Received to review from publisher

I've been trying to read through my overflowing ARC shelves and after reading Kate Morton's awesomely beautiful novel The Secret Keeper, I knew I had to read this one.  Isn't the cover beautiful? Unfortunately I have the boring Uncorrected Proof one shown below.  O well.  I was a tad disappointed with The Distant Hours although I had set the bar pretty high after The Secret Keeper.  The writing, par normal, was insanely good.  While the story was good, gothic and atmospheric, for such a chunkster (non-ARC paperback is 560 pages), the book could have been edited a few hundred pages and still remained good tale.

Back of the book:

A long lost letter arrives in the post and Edie Burchill finds herself on a journey to Milderhurst Castle, a great but moldering old house, where the Blythe spinsters live and where her mother was billeted 50 years before as a 13 year old child during WWII.  The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives looking after the third and youngest sister, Juniper, who hasn't been the same since her fiance jilted her in 1941.

Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother's past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Milderhurst, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in 'the distant hours' of the past has been waiting a long time for someone to find it.

My thoughts:

If you've never read any of Kate Morton's books then you should know a few things it seems like she trends on: great atmospheric writing set in the UK, usually duel stories of the present and the past, a mystery, and a great twist at the end. This is my third Morton book and she is firmly become one of my comfort novel authors - those tried and true authors who I know I can grab their book and become immersed in the story.

The story starts out in the 1990s following Edie Burchill.  She's recently been dumped by her boyfriend of 8 or so years, she's looking for a place in London to live that doesn't cost a lot (haha), and she's the sole employee of a tiny little mom pop and pop publishing company.  When her mom receives a letter that's been mislaid in the mail for almost 50 years, AND the letter makes her cry, she becomes engrossed in finding out why.

Milderhurst Castle almost becomes another character in the story.  I could actually picture the elderly three Blythe sisters: twins Percy, Saffy, and youngest sister Juniper moldering away there.  Percy is the controlling one, Saffy is kind of the dreamy one, and Juniper is just beautiful and odd.  Their father is the famous author Raymond Blythe who wrote Edith Burchill's favorite children's story The True History of the Mud Man.  I love that while this is a fictional author and story, it seems like something that could have really been written.  The book starts out with an excerpt of this gothic and creepy story.

All in all I really enjoyed this story.  My only problem was the length of the book.  I didn't feel like the story warranted the length.  While Kate Morton's writing makes hundreds of pages fly by, it still felt a bit drawn out.  If you've never read a Kate Morton book - well you should. But I'd start with a different book.  Check out my reviews for The Secret Keeper or The House at Riverton.

Here's my copy, the uninspired uncorrected proof:

Also Reviewed By:

Books Please
Pudgy Penguin Perusals
A Little Bookish

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Long Long Time Ago & Essentially True - Brigid Pasulka

Title: A Long Long Time Ago & Essentially True
Author: Brigid Pasulka
Paperback: 351 pages
Publisher: Mariner Books
Published date: 2009
FTC: Received from Reading Group Choices

I won this book from Reading Group Choices a long while back and I've waited far too long to read it.  Isn't the cover just gorgeous?  And the title is just awesome.  If you haven't ever checked out Reading Group Choices, head on over there.  They always have contests going on and a pretty darn cool website for helping you pick out your next good read or books for book clubs. They also just put out their own iPad app which I've been meaning to check out as soon as I can pry my iPad away from my toddler.  Anyway back to the book.

The synopsis:

On the eve of World War II, a young man nicknamed the Pigeon falls in love with a girl fabled for her angelic looks, and builds his way into her heart by transforming her family's modest hut into a beautiful home. But war arrives, cutting short their courtship and sending the young lovers off to the promise of Krakow.

Nearly fifty years later, their granddaughter repeats this journey, but instead of the whispered prosperity of the New Poland, she discovers a city caught between its future and its past.

Magical, wise, and sometimes even heartbreaking, A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True weaves together two remarkable stories, re-imagining half a century of Polish history through the legacy of one unforgettable love affair.

My thoughts:

What a beautiful book.  From the very beginning I was hooked with Pigeon's almost fabled story of falling in love at first sight with beautiful but shy Anielica.  Their almost fairy tale "happily ever after" is shattered by the outbreak of World War II, a move from their pastural village to the big city of Krakow, and then a country overtaken by communism.

Alternating chapters is the story of Beata, nicknamed Baba Yaga for her obvious lack in looks.  I believe it's mid-late nineties when her story takes place.  She's the granddaughter of Pigeon and Anielica.  After practically being raised by her grandmother, she takes a big step and moves to the big city of Krakow after the death of Anielica.

What I loved about this story was that it was such an interesting spin on the "coming of age" story.  We watch as Beata struggles to figure out who she is and what she wants in her life.  She realized that her grandmother didn't talk much about her past and she was very sheltered in the rural village she grew up in.  But it isn't just Beata's story - it's a coming of age story for Poland too.  After a tumulous 20th century, In the 1990s, Poland had just come out from under the Iron Curtain and were trying to re-find their identity and place in the world.  Like Anielica's aunt says, it's one thing to remember your past and another thing to have the freedom to talk about it.

With alternating past/present novels, I usually tend to prefer one story line over the other.  I got hooked into this story by falling for Pigeon and Anielica.  But I ended up becoming really invested in Beata's story and in a bigger sense, Poland's story.  I'm only sorry that I hadn't picked up this book sooner.  Loved it.

Also Reviewed By:

Devourer of Books
The Perpetual Page-Turner

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Great and Terrible Beauty - Libba Bray

Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Paperback: 403 pages
Publisher: Random House
Published date: 2003
FTC: Bought at library book sale

A short while back I found the first two books in Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle series.  I've always loved the covers and have heard pretty good things about the series.  I believe it was one of the first huge modern YA series to come out. I mean it predates the Twilight series. Yeah. Old school :)

Eh.  That's kind of my thoughts.  It's not bad writing but the story line just didn't grab me.  It felt like a darker twist to A Little Princess story which I actually like but the magic/darker part didn't really make a whole lot of sense to me.

Back of the book:

Gemma Doyle isn't like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, and who will lie back and think of England when it's required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds a chilly reception. But she's not completely alone...she's been followed by a mysterious young man, who warns her to close her mind against the visions.

For it's at Spence that Gemma's power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school's most powerful girls and discovers her mother's connection to a shadowy group called the Order. It's there that her destiny waits...if only she can believe in it.

My thoughts:

I really wanted to like this one because I love the Victorian era and think that a YA series set during that period is an awesome idea.  But right from the start I was let down. Gemma is living in India with her mom and dad and is being the biggest snot to her mother.  Then there's a terrible tragedy and she's sent to school in England.  She's not an orphan but her father pretty much loses it and her brother is pretty distant.

The whole "magic or supernatural" element of the story is pretty weird and I wasn't really sure of the point. Perhaps it's because it's book one in the series but it's laid out so that I'm left not really caring why she has these abilities or what's the point.  I also think the guy element to the story a bit ridiculous. So a handsome boy her age follows her from India to England and disguises himself by joining a local gypsy clan.  Ok.  He keeps warning her to not use her supernatural abilities and she always ignores them. Really?  If it was that important would the group he belongs to really send a boy and his threats become kind of silly as they are ineffectual and completely ignored.  Not sure the point of his character in the story other than to act as some romantic ideal for Gemma.

Anyway, to wrap it up, I'm donating these books to the library again and I don't intend on reading the rest of the series.  Are they horrible?  No but some YA books are awesome as an adult and some YA books I remember that I am NOT the targeted demographic.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Orchardist Winner!

A big thank you to everyone who entered my giveaway for Amanda Coplin's beautiful novel The Orchardist.  Head over here to read my review if you haven't yet.

The winner is: Anne!!!!

I've emailed you so please send me your address and it'll be on it's way.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Housekeeping Update


Just a quick note to say I did a little housekeeping on my blog. I've been getting tons of spam comments so I have to start word verification.  I also deleted Intense Debate as it was getting weird and confusing.  Unfortunately it's going to delete past comments but hopefully future comments will work out better.  Let me know if you have any problems or suggestions.


You may now return to your regular scheduled reading program:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Stardust Read-along, Part 1

I'm currently reading Neil Gaiman's awesome novel Stardust as part of a Read-along over at Carl's site Stainless Steel Droppings.  This is my third time reading the book and I still adore it.  I finally own a beautiful copy seen above.  The Read-along answers below are going to have major spoilers so go grab a copy of Stardust.  You could really read it in just a day or two. It's quite an addictive little book.

1. We have spent a little time with Tristran and even less time with the star. What are your initial thoughts/impressions of our two protagonists?

I sort of sped through Carl's responses (I usually read them after I write my own) and agree that this time I noticed a similarity between Tristran and Neverwhere's Richard Mayhew.  Tristran is quite young and naive - searching for the star for his "true love" Victoria who really doesn't seem to care about him at all.  He's quite blind to that little fact.  He also seems to not notice little things like when his father allows him to go beyond the Wall and how he's from there.  Did he grasp that?  I don't think so.  I remember when the movie came out and I was a little disappointed in the actor who was picked to play Tristran because he just seemed a little big eyed dumb - but actually it was a good cast because that is what Tristran is at first. This is a journey and a growing-up experience for Tristran...just like Richard Mayhew's journey transformed him.  I always loved Star.  I think it's awesome how Gaiman describes her and how she's acts.  During this part of the book we really don't get much into who she is but from the moment she lands I think we can't help but like and sympathized with her.

2. There are some very interesting potential villains introduced in this first half of the book. Do any of them particularly stand out to you? If so why or why not?

I love the lord of Stormhold and his dead and alive sons who are vying for the throne.  It's very Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings feeling except a bit more comical.  I love that the ghosts are kinds of hanging around and grumbling and mumbling to themselves. It's something I remember the movie doing really well.  The Lilim are so dark and creepy.  I love that after reading this book a few times I still get a creepy feeling when reading about the witch and what she's going to do.  I love their motivation for getting the Star too - beauty and youth.  Such a classic story line but Gaiman makes it fresh and new and super creepy. I like that there are more than one villain.  Gaiman always writes villains really well.  

3. In Chapter Three, just after the section with the brothers in Stormhold, Neil Gaiman gives us a description of Faerie that includes “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there…”. What imaginary lands do you then hope are a part of Faerie?

Hmmmm.  Well since Gaiman is British and Wall has a very British feeling, I keep thinking that classic British myths and stories are there: Camelot, Robin Hood, older myths like Brownies, etc.  What I thought more about while reading the story though was how in a world like Faerie that is supposed to be huge - it doesn't feel like it at all.  The main characters mainly just keep running into each other, like there's really no one else there.  

4. We do not get to spend a great deal of time in the market but while there we are given a number of interesting descriptions of the wares being bartered or sold. Which if any of them caught your eye, either as items you would like to possess or ones you would most certainly hope to avoid.

For some reason my imagination doesn't really run that way right now.**  Although just like any other market/fair/store I am sure I'd beeline right to the book section.  I feel like you could find some kind of magical book.  Gaiman must like this because Neverwhere and Stardust both have pretty cool markets that play a part in the story.  Although it's not surprising really because back in the day before internet, telephones, etc that was probably how you got most of your news and stories and got to meet people outside of your small community.  **I think my crazy head cold thing I've got right now is really interfering with my imagination.

5. If you have read much of Gaiman’s work, particularly his short fiction, then you have come across some rather graphic and disturbing portrayals of sex. Gaiman offers up something very different in the way of a sex scene early on in Stardust. What are your feelings of the scene either in general or as a contrast to other Gaiman-penned scenes involving sex?
For being a fan of Gaiman, I really haven't read a ton of his stuff: just four novels, the first Sandman comic, and a few short stories.  From the Sandman that I remember, it was pretty dark and graphic (pun not intended).  I was impressed with his handle of describing the scene in Stardust: you know what happens but it's not too graphic.  I prefer this way really and I think it made the quick relationship between Tristran's father and mother even more intimate and special.  It made me feel like these two characters were meant to be together - a bit of Romeo/Juliet scenario. 

6. I suspect Neil Gaiman is influenced by a number of fairy and folk tales in Stardust. Are there any elements of the story that made a particular impression and/or reminded you of other fairy stories you have read or are familiar with?

The Lilim totally reminded me of Greek mythology although I had to Google them to remember what they were called: Graeae.  I mainly knew of them from the old Clash of the Titans movie.  Again, the Stormhold reminds me of something from The Lord of the Rings, not quite sure why.  In all honesty I didn't like the books when I tried reading them back in the day. It's been on my to-do list to re-read them to see if I still feel the same way...but I digress.  So far I think that's about it.

7. And finally, which of the many side characters introduce have caught your eye and why? Or what else about the story thus far is of interest to you?

I think if I was reading the story for the first time, I would be dying about now to know more about Tristran's mother.  Who she is, how she got caught, does she age?  Other than that, my brain is still in a cold/allergy fog so that's all I have.

Head over to Carl's post and check out what he and other people think about the first half of the book.  Cheers!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey - Mary Robinette Kowal

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories #1)
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Hardcover: 302 pages
Publisher: Tor
Published date: 2010
FTC: Bought at library book sale

I had originally heard of Shades of Milk and Honey over at Carl's blog Stainless Steel Droppings.  As I was perusing a local library book sale, I found this little discarded gem and snagged it up.  This is total Jane Austen with magic.  Right now Carl has the annual Once Upon a Time experience going on so this is a great little book to curl up with a cup of tea and read in a few short days.

Back of the book:

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential for a lady of quality. Despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester's society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody's lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists the fate, and rightly so, because while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion's share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family's honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right - and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering into a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen...if she lived in a world where magic worked.

My thoughts:

The first thing you must know is that Mary Robinette Kowal can write. (Shades of Milk and Honey was nominated for a Nebula Award so that tells you something.)  I recently tried picking up another Austenesque spinoff and was completely bored out of my mind.  This is not what you'll get with this book.  Jane is such an awesome protagonist.  Just like another Jane (Eyre), this Jane has a strong character, a great sense of right and wrong without being annoying, and is a bit plain.  Her beautiful sister Melody who is about ten years younger is also written realistically as quite big-headed about her beauty, often a bit cruel to her older plainer sister, but you still understand how Jane and Melody love each other while not always getting along.

While these sisters are in a similar plight as some of Austen's characters - no male heir (no brothers) and thus needed to be married off to ensure their living, they aren't as in as much financial straights as say the Dashwood sisters are.  That said, while Jane will be taken care of if she doesn't get married, looking forward to a future where your role is dependent on your sister and being her childrens' governess isn't the most thrilling of prospects. Of course there's the handsome wealthy next door neighbor that both women are a bit in love with - think of them living next door to Mr Darcy and his younger sister.

The whole glamour magic thing is woven so delicately into the story that it's sometimes hard for me to remember that this is a fantasy book published by Tor, a favorite publisher of mine.  Magic in this world is an art-form.  Women of wealthy means are taught it but not all grasp it that well and some just have natural talent and practice it well.  The character and plot twist that I loved was the glamourist/artist, Mr. Vincent, who takes up resident with a wealthy local patron to do a glamural - a glamour mural.  His name, his rough attitude, and the fact he's a talented artist couldn't help but make me think of another Vincent - van Gogh - which I just love.

All's well that ends well in the story - of course.  I was a bit surprised when I saw that Shades of Milk and Honey was book one in Glamourist Histories.  It's surprising because book one could totally be a stand alone story.  But if you want continue on with Jane's story and her world of Regency and magic,  you can.  While I'm not bursting at the seams to get my hands on book two, I will be putting it on my to-read list and grabbing it at the library in the near future.

It looks like they changed up the old-fashioned cover a bit for books two and three.  Don't read the synopsis unless you want major spoilers for book one.

Here's book two:

And three:

Also Reviewed By:
Stainless Steel Droppings
Fyrefly's Book Blog