Tag Archives: book review

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

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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

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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 Blitz Bus by Glen Blackwell

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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 Romanovs- Simon Sebag Montefiore- A Review

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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

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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

Book of Skulls by David Hutchison, a review

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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.

If She Dies- by Erik Therme – A Review

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The blurb for this story set me up for a certain kind of story and, surprisingly, it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. Don’t get me wrong, there were twists and turns and some surprises, and it definitely held my attention despite not leading me where I thought it would. The beginning was not like a traditional thriller. It was a slow start that built through the first almost ¾ of the book. I liked it a lot and being surprised by a few things made it even more enjoyable. It didn’t take me long to read it, because it moved fast and held my interest.

There were a couple of places where I thought the protagonist, Tess, was a little naïve and slow on the uptake, but it served the plot, so I can get past that. She wasn’t one of those heroines that make the reader want to slap some sense into her and the naivety was somewhat understandable.

The minor characters like Tess’s brother and husband were well-drawn with good back stories and motivations for their actions. Her husband, Josh, was a bit OCD, but that showed the author put a lot of thought into how he would act as well as react to Tess. I did get a bit peeved at Josh a few times, but to me, that’s a sign of a good story since it means I am relating to the characters.

I have a friend who lost her child in similar circumstances to how Tess and Josh lost Lily and so much of how these characters dealt with their grief was familiar to me from what my friend and her husband went through, the scenes dealing with the sadness, loss and lack of communication really resonated with me. Well done to the author for being able to realistically write about such horrific loss as well as making the story suspenseful.

This one is a 4.5 star read for me. A hard subject handled skillfully. 

Penny Pinching Tips for the Morally Bankrupt by Libby Marshall– a Review

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Let me first say, I think I would love to spend a day with this author. She has a very vivid imagination, a clear love for Cold Stone Creamery, and a disturbing way of looking at many regular occurrences in all of our lives.  And I don’t say that in a bad way.  🙂

This book is a collection of short stories and some even shorter views of things we all experience, but certainly don’t think about in strange ways. At least not until they’re pointed out by Libby Marshall.  Then it’s so obvious that she observes events and normality in a different way than most of us.

Some of the stories are poignant and some are really funny in a twisted way. I won’t say which I felt was which lest I be judged for my giggles.  

I enjoyed these little tales and vignettes during my lunch hour and on small breaks from work. They are just short enough to fill in gaps in the day when you need a little smile….or a bit of melodrama. 🙂

Some of my favorites—by no means an exhaustive list—are “Witnesses of Historic Moments Who Missed the Point; 90 Day Fiancé: Dracula; A Man Goes on His First Date Since His Wife was Hanged for Witchcraft; Please Continue this Conversation as Normal or I’ll Be Forced to Assume it was About me; Yes, of Course I’m satisfied by just the Tip of this Piece of Cheesecake; and Yelp Reviews of the Chuck E. Cheese Haunted by the Spirit of Princess Diana.

There are so many more awesome little tales in this book. I recommend it highly for its sense of fun as well as the author’s sense of humor and her appreciation for the ridiculous. I really enjoyed this one.

Miss Graham’s Cold War Recipe Book- a Review

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This reader wanted to love this book. Alas, even though it had a number of good points and some parts were immersive and well done, the beginning was slow and the last chapters—excluding the epilogue-ish last chapter, were devastating and made this reader angry.

This story had a slow start with way too many characters thrown into the first chapter which slowed the story even more as I tried to get a handle on who was who.

Edith, the character who was the point of view character for most of the book, was naive and put her trust in people too easily. She was recruited as a spy, so this was not a good characteristic for her to have. I see how it was relevant to the story line though.

The plot picked up after the first 100 or so pages. It was a dense plot with a lot of moving parts which I like. I didn’t have any problem following along at all. I usually read fast but this one took me a number of days off and on. I became invested in Edith and her journey. Recruited as a spy, she had some skills and was able to make people feel safe to talk to her (thereby giving away some of their secrets), but the misplaced trust issue became problematic. She couldn’t keep a secret and talked to pretty much anyone in her inner circle about what she was doing. I liked the character and was rooting for her.

There was a lot of graphic detail about the Nazis and the atrocities they inflicted; including the acts perpetrated on children and the disabled. I read a lot of books set in the WWII era so that was expected. What was not expected was how it turned out. Completely disappointing. I was enraged at the time I spent invested in this book to have it utterly dissatisfy me. The very last chapter went a little way to make me less furious, but not a lot. I am still gutted by the ending.

I give this one three stars as I enjoyed the style of writing, the premise, the attention to detail and the parts in the middle where things were happening.  I downgraded it for the time it took to actually get into the story and for the way I felt betrayed as a reader invested in a story by the two big events near the end.

Highland Cove- A Book Review

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Highland Cove by Dylan J. Morgan

Five friends with ambitions to become documentarians travel from London to an abandoned asylum on a Scottish island. The doctor who ran the asylum died sixty years prior and the hospital was closed and is rumored to be haunted.

The author is excellent at evoking atmosphere. The descriptions—first of the pub where the friends met the man who was taking them to the island—then of the island itself—and, finally, the inside of the asylum. The descriptions were creepy and very well done. Dark clouds hanging over the island and the storm complete with lightning added to the exquisite sense of anticipation of meeting some supernatural beings in the corridors or hospital rooms in the abandoned building. Peeling paint, dead leaves and icy wind whirling through the scenes were particularly evocative.

This reader enjoyed the suspense of the book for most of the novel. Figuring out an essential plot point early on was interesting and upped the anticipation of what was ahead.

What was unexpected was the shock of what happened later in the story, and without any spoilers, it’s hard to say what that was, but it was almost too much for this reader. I confess, I glossed over some of that, swiping my e-reader pages faster until the tale moved past that part. I imagine many readers of this genre would revel in that section, but not this one. It didn’t ruin the story for me, but it was disturbing.

The flashes back to the past added to the overall creepiness of the novel. The author is definitely gifted with a talent for descriptiveness. I could see all the places in the story and some made my skin crawl.

If you’re a fan of horror, you shouldn’t pass on this one. The ending was particularly disturbing. Just don’t read before bed or you might wake up at 2 a.m, like I did thinking I heard someone calling my name…..