Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, A Review

Standard

Set in 1950 in Mexico, this book appealed to me initially because the cover is so beautiful and because I’ve loved gothic tales since I was a young reader. I have to say, the book did not disappoint. It definitely lived up to the promise made by the cover. It was creepy and had just the right touch of horror.

The author is very adept at descriptions. Her moldy, genteel, neglected manor house was sufficiently sinister and so easy to picture with the atmospheric way the author detailed the wallpaper, the darkness of the place, the shadows and the crumbling textures of the various rooms. Not much electrical light in the house and the use of candles and lanterns added to the eerie atmosphere.

The inhabitants of the home were also well-drawn. The patriarch of the family the heroine came to stay with when she was concerned about her cousin was utterly horrific and macabre. The way the author conjured him and his smelly breath and scent of decay was absolutely divine (if you like creep-tastic descriptions).  I could almost smell the nastiness rolling off him. It was deliciously horrifying.

One character I loved to hate was the female resident of the house—not the heroine’s cousin, but the mother of the only remotely normal person (and that’s saying a lot) in the house. This woman was awful and just completely unkind to the heroine. No talking at dinner, controlling her son, controlling the heroine’s cousin and just being an all-around hateful person. I wanted to smack her.  

The story itself had traditional elements of the gothic genre as well as a lot of horror elements. It kind of reminded me of the movie Crimson Peak–at least in the descriptions of the manor house that had fallen into disrepair and neglect.  Mold and mushrooms were a big theme in the story and I don’t think I’ve ever been so unsettled by mushrooms in my life. I loved it, though.

A sense of foreboding which is essential to gothic stories was seeped into every page after the first chapter or two. The dawning horror the heroine faced built in a fabulous manner and by the last few chapters, I was on edge for her and wondered how the author was going to resolve the dilemmas our heroine found herself in.

I usually figure out stories really early on, but this one had some twists and turns I didn’t see coming and I really enjoyed that. All in all, this was a great read. Not sure I want to eat any mushrooms after that, though.  🙂

Bells, Tails & Murder by Kathy Manos Penn – a Review

Standard

I’m a big fan of cozy mysteries, especially those set in Britain. I’m also a huge animal lover so this one intrigued me from the cover and title. It was a bit of a slow start and I almost stopped reading it because nothing much was happening in the first chapters. The writing style wasn’t really up my alley either, but that’s a personal preference. Others may love it, so I’m not downgrading my review due to that.

I persevered and the story got better. One thing that bothered me was I couldn’t tell how old the heroine was. She seemed young and stylish, and men kept asking her out- ones that seemed young and also ones that seemed older- (which could really mean she’s any age—but, it was a bit confusing not to be able to picture her properly) but she kept calling herself an old lady and she took a ton of naps. Every day, she got so tired she had to nap. Her age may not matter in the grand scheme of the plot, but it stayed in the back of my mind as I read. I confess, it was distracting as she’d seem young one moment and older the next.

The Cotswold village was well-described and had all the elements one would expect, from the pub to the tea room, to the bookstore and inn. The village was peopled with an interesting cast of characters as well. The premise surrounding the murder and the author of the Peter Pan books, J.M. Barrie was clever and well done.

While I did figure out who was the red herring and who was the culprit pretty early on, I enjoyed the story as it unfolded. The added fun of the cat, Christie, and the dog, Dickens, who the heroine could understand as if they spoke English rather than barking and meowing, was a neat take on the cozy mystery genre. I liked that some of the characters had names with ties to the Peter Pan tales and the pets were named after writers.

There was lots of wine and lots of Greek salad in the book which made me hungry and I was glad the author included her father’s recipe for the salad and dressing. That was a nice surprise at the end of the book.

I’m giving it three stars for the slow start, but I recommend the reader keep going if discouraged by the lack of action at the beginning. It gets better.

Over the Hedge by Paulette Mahurin, A Review

Standard

This one was hard to read for a number of reasons. The main one, of course, was the brutality of the subject matter. This book was harrowing and, often times, turned the reader’s stomach as to the behavior of human beings who took joy and pleasure in harming other humans. The Nazi regime created many monsters. The one question that will forever haunt me on the atrocities of the acts on Jewish people is did the regime create these monsters or were so many already lurking in society and they were freed and allowed to run rampant based on there being no consequences (at least during those years when the evil was in power)?

The heroes and heroine of this true to life story were amazing and awe-inspiring. That two of them were Jewish themselves and risked it all to save children is admirable. They didn’t hide away, though who could have blamed them if they had? The fact they survived and made a difference as long as they did was remarkable. Henriette Pimental and Walter Suskind were truly angels on earth for the children they helped to escape and give a chance to live. Johan van Hulst, the professor who started it all, was also a brave man to not sit back and allow innocent lives to be destroyed. It’s terrible that they weren’t able to save more, but those they did save were reward enough. Every life that went on was a victory.

This was a tale that everyone needs to read even though the subject matter is tough.

The two faults I found with the book was it was hard to tell if it was a fictionalized version of facts or if it was a true and accurate telling of the actual events. The tale moved from almost reading like a text book to dialogue and dramatization. In places it was dry and then it would segue to an almost novel-like approach. The cover states it’s a novel, but it was hard to tell by the actual text. The other fault was the paragraph formatting. It may have just been in the ARC copy I have, but the formatting was disjointed throughout. Hanging sentences that joined up after an inserted return all through the copy made it hard to read properly.

I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but it definitely made an impression. The author did a good job in showing the reader just how awful and harrowing the residents of the Netherlands had it in WWII. What a terrible time and place for so many to have to endure. I’m sure it was hard for the author to write as it was definitely hard to read.

The Gilded Shroud by Elizabeth Bailey

Standard

This story set in the 1790s was intriguing and a solid read. The heroine (a widow) becomes a companion to a dowager marchioness when her nephews she was helping raise left for school. Her brother wanted her to stay on with him and his wife but the heroine wanted an adventure and the job was temporary as the dowager marchioness’ regular companion was recovering from a broken leg.

Our heroine definitely got her adventure. Pretty soon after she arrived at the home of the dowager, the current marchioness was found dead in her bed—strangled. And the kicker? The lady had been heard to be arguing loudly, in the middle of the night, with her husband, the marquis. The marquis ordered his carriage and horses shortly after the argument was heard and that morning when the body is discovered, he’s nowhere to be found. Maybe he absconded to France where he has a second home? Or did he run elsewhere after killing his wife?

The heroine, a sharp lady with a keen mind, sets herself the task of finding the murderer—she doesn’t know the marquis but with the family in disarray over their fears for his life if he’s found and convicted of his wife’s death—to say nothing of the scandal—she feels she needs to pitch in and assist the marquis’s younger brother in the task of clearing the marquis’s name.

The dowager is a plucky lady too and won’t tolerate anyone treating her as if she’s elderly and incapable of being in on the unmasking of the villain. She plays a big role in the book and I liked that she wasn’t shunted aside.

As the investigation ensues, the reader is caught up in the clues with the three main characters. I confess, I figured out who did it early on, but still enjoyed the story and how the author tied up all the parts and loose ends. A bit of romance thrown in as well made this an enjoyable read.

The Blitz Bus by Glen Blackwell

Standard

I received a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

This middle grade book is a good one for children to learn about the London Blitz and WWII days of 1940. The main characters, Jack and Emmie are in modern day London and Jack is assigned to write an essay about the London Blitz and how a lot of children were evacuated to the countryside during that time. Meanwhile, in Emmie’s drama class, they are acting out the children leaving their parents.

Jack has a hard time envisioning the city at that time and is kept back at school that afternoon to finish his paper,, making him almost late to meet his friend Emmie. 

When they are finally on the bus headed home, they look out and see a shop they haven’t seen before.  In the window is a mannequin who has a gas mask.

Exiting the bus, there is a large unexplained bang. It’s raining and they take shelter at a tube station. Everyone is dressed differently than Emmie and Jack. There are cots set up in the station. The two children think they’ve stumbled onto a film set. Until very real bombs start falling and they find themselves in the middle of an air raid.

They make friends with a boy in the shelter, but don’t tell him they have somehow come from another time period.

The adventure really begins here. Jack and Emmie discover food lines, cratered buildings, rationing, bombs, anti-aircraft balloons, air raid shelters in yards, and, as well, have to hide from authorities. They fear spies are around and being taken for spies themselves with their modern items like Jack’s calculator. They find some help from their new friend, Jan, a boy from Poland.  

Even though I am nowhere near the age for middle grade stories, I enjoy them and this one was particularly good. The fact that the children were studying this era in school and couldn’t imagine how people were living and then were transported there is very educational—yet done in a fun way—A lot of interesting historical facts came through in a way that entertains and would have a younger reader on the edge of their seat worried about the two protagonists and how they would solve their problems as well as how they would be able to get back to their own time period.

The only thing I would have liked to be added to the story would be an epilogue of the children finding the friends they made in the 21st century when the friends were elderly. That would have been a fun ending. Overall, I was happy with the story and would recommend it to the middle grade age group as a history lesson full of interesting reading that will hold their interest.

The Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie

Standard

I learned about this book on Twitter when a lady I’ve met there, Pauline, from Scotland, tweeted about it. I’d never heard of this Scottish priest and her tweet piqued my curiosity. I found the book online and ordered it. I didn’t have a chance to read it right away, and now that I have, I wish I’d made time earlier as it’s truly a lovely, well-written book by an absolutely brave, caring and gentle man who did extraordinary things during WWII to aid allies, soldiers, sailors and private individuals to escape from the Nazis in France.

The Reverend Caskie was from Scotland—Islay—but was the priest of the Scottish church in Paris before and at the time of the German invasion. On the eve of the invasion in 1940, he led his flock in the last Sunday service, packed a bag and left the city on foot. He prayed along the way for the safety of his fellow evacuees as well as the people who had no choice but to stay behind as the enemy closed in.

He made his way to Marseille with some harrowing moments such as being strafed by German pilots along with thousands of other refugees. Many fell dead as they ran. He was also suspected of being a spy and surrounded by angry villagers in one town as he bought a bicycle and didn’t realize it had an iron cross on the back of it.

Once he made it to Marseille, with the aid of a friend, he found a place to stay. In that home, he prayed about what he needed to do. A Voice came to him that clearly called him to give assistance to the people who were in need. He made his way to the American consulate as it was still open and was told about the abandoned sailors’ mission building. He then went to the local police station to get permission to use the building to help stranded British civilians. He was given permission, but told if he helped one soldier or enemy combatant, he would be shut down.

What ensued was a tale of how this gentle man followed his special calling and helped anyone who needed it. How he raised funds to feed these people and how he was approached by the secret services to assist airmen and escaping soldiers into neutral Spain. He had to get civilian clothing for the escapees as well as false papers. He found places to hide them. He risked his life every day and saved quite a large number of men and women. Many of the townspeople of Marseille also aided in hiding these men and in getting supplies and clothing. It was a secret, yet community effort.

I read a book a while back about Nancy Wake, the famous Resistance fighter who was also in Marseille at the time and I was pleased to see some of the same people she worked with in this book. Ian Garrow and the Pat O’Leary group. Pat was actually a Belgian doctor, but during the war, he was an agent who posed as Irish. It was like finding old friends in the pages of this book. I like to think Donald and Nancy knew each other and supported each other’s missions.

Donald Caskie eventually ended up being betrayed and imprisoned. This part of the book was particularly moving. No matter what the Nazis put him through, he kept his faith, even carving Bible verses on the wall with his fingernail—which, he found out a few months later from a cellmate in a different prison, saved that man’s life when he was about to commit suicide.

This is a beautiful book and such bravery from one man is amazing. His faith pulled him through a difficult period of time and he is a true hero. Quiet, unassuming, and just getting on with the task. I highly, highly, recommend this one. It’s a tale of love, compassion in the face of unbearable cruelty, and how even one man (with divine guidance and some friends) can make a world of difference.

The Romanovs- Simon Sebag Montefiore- A Review

Standard

The author clearly is a scholar and spent a massive amount of time researching this book. It definitely shows in the prose that he’s made a complete study of the Romanov tsars and their world. Where I had issues was the densely written text that made the book tedious to read as well as the seemingly endless details about various battles and generals. The over-descriptive passages regarding clothing and various peripheral members of society also bogged down the text. I learned some things about the tsars that I didn’t know—especially some of the brutality that seems to have been glossed over in other texts that this author had no qualms about going into great detail over. Some of the descriptions in early reigns were particularly disturbing although they did paint a picture of a society that makes one wonder about the people of that particular era. Brutal death and bloody streets seemed to be the norm and it was viscerally brought home that those were terrible days to live in.

I also learned more about Alexandra and her mental state that greatly contributed to the downfall of the house of Romanov. Other books about the end of the dynasty focus more on Rasputin, but this book, with the excerpts of Alix’s letters to Nicky, showed she was unstable and he was deluded into going along with her thinking. He was, like most all of the tsars, anti Semitic and took joy in their mistreatment so it’s a bit hard to feel sorry for him, but the brutal murders and unrelenting behavior of the assassins was brought home particularly harshly in the descriptions in this book.

I’m giving it 3 stars due to the tedium of the prose and the unnecessary detail about the wars (that didn’t add much to the topic of the dynasty). The author clearly knew his topic but didn’t seem to know how to condense the text to the essential elements. I won’t try to slog through this one again, but I did learn some new information I hadn’t read before so I’m glad I took the time to read it.

Sunflowers Under Fire by Diana Stevan

Standard

Perseverance, grit and sheer pluckiness describe the heroine of this fictionalized story about the life of author’s grandmother. What a lady she was. From the opening sequence when she gave birth by herself on the kitchen floor, got up and cooked for her husband who just joined the army and then walked the food a number of miles while half a day post-partum, to her bravery when she decided to move her family to an unknown land where they didn’t know the language, Lukia is someone to admire. She was an amazing human being and the author captured the spirit of this lady in a way that made this reader relate to her (even though I’ve never been faced with anything like the situations Lukia faced).

The heroine handled herself well and kept her family fed and with shelter in all kinds of adversity. The losses she suffered were horrible, but she didn’t let them daunt her or cause her to lose her faith.

I very much enjoyed reading this book even though it was dismal and heartbreaking in parts. My admiration of Lukia grew throughout the book. She was just not going to sit down and take it when life didn’t go her way.  If you like tales of fortitude and overcoming tribulation, I recommend this one highly. 4.5 stars

Dracula’s Death, a Review – by Laszlo Tamasfi; Illustrations by Jozsef Svab

Standard

Dracula’s Death is a retelling of a Hungarian silent film that has been lost to time. The author has meticulously researched this film as well as the novelization of the story. He has translated the tale from Hungarian and it’s a gem of a story. This is not your standard Dracula tale. This one involves a mental asylum, a young girl in love but sad due to her father’s impending death, and a lot of creepy inmates of that asylum. The heroine is a sweet character and I found myself rooting for her throughout the story. 

The story is evocative and well-told. The descriptions are lovely and this reader was transported to the snowy mountains of Europe just reading the prose. The illustrations are also lovely and amazing. Even the cover of the book is delicious. I very much enjoyed this story and appreciate the efforts made by the author to translate this to English as otherwise, it wouldn’t be available for us here to enjoy. 

After the story—which is very creepy and exciting—the author shares his research into the film. He translates many articles that were published during the time the film was being made as well as publicity ads during the era of the release of this silent film. Photos are also shared that bring this movie to life. It’s sad that its been lost to the annals of time, but wow—good job to Mr. Tamasfi for his work in bringing it to us—as well as the articles about it—and the Mr. Svab for his wonderful illustrations. 

If you like horror or Dracula tales, this one shouldn’t be missed as it’s a different take on a popular character and suitably creepy. If you’re a film buff—silent or talkies—this is a great resource for a missing piece of film history. 

Book of Skulls by David Hutchison, a review

Standard

I received this book in exchange for an honest review.

Let me start by saying how much I love Edinburgh and historical novels so this was right up my alley. I think I was already half-inclined to love it just from the cover and the setting. The author did the rest. His writing is visual and visceral. Some parts were a bit gruesome but the story called for it, in my opinion. This was not a lovely picnic on Arthur’s Seat on an early fall day. This was a murder mystery with a number of grisly murders….all in the name of science. A touch of Burke and Hare and their life of crime/murder adds to the historical feel of the book.

The protagonist, Liz, is a medical student who happens to be female. An uphill battle in the 19th Century for sure. She makes friends with another female student as they fight for their rightful place in the school. She also makes friends with a young man and the local police medical examiner. She’s accepted as an assistant with the coroner and gets some valuable experience in actual medical science, albeit on dead bodies, not living patients. But then she is also asked to assist in a local clinic and learns valuable skills. She seems to be on her way to being successful as a doctoress even though the powers that be at the school want the females out.

The story has many twists and turns and a number of exciting sequences where the reader fears for the protagonist and her friends’ safety. It was a ride for sure. The author is excellent at building suspense and even though I figured out the villain early, the book was still a page turner and very enjoyable. The side plot with the medical examiner is a great addition to the tale.

Overall, this was a delightful read…even with the violence and macabre parts. I give it 4.5 stars.

It seems there will be more adventures with this protagonist and I, for one, plan to be on the lookout for the next volume.