Best of 2014, First Half

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Welcome to the first half of 2014 - it's been an odd year. I went through a reading slump in the spring. I've started and abandoned many books. I've read a lot of different types of books and yet there have also been a lot of great books that will be life-long favorites. I think my reading taste is growing and changing more than it has in past years. It will be interesting to see how the next six months pan out!

Five Star Fiction

The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
(Review coming next week on publication day)

Five Star Non-Fiction

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Four Star Fiction

Four Star Non-Fiction

Summer Review Copies

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


The last few weeks have seen some exciting review copies arriving in the mail. Even though I think of summertime as a slow spot in the year's publishing schedule, this stack proves that there are always potential new additions to the TBR pile!

A follow-up to the first novel (Stormbird) in Iggulden's new series. I better get started on this series before the third book in the series arrives!

This look fabulous - almost five hundred pages long, the first in a new series about the Great War and full of a wide cast of characters on the battlefield and on the home front. A little bit heartbroken that this one arrived a couple days AFTER my vacation.

Another novel about the battlefield and home front during the Great War. I read this in e-galley form and adored it. Winspear has written the novel I always wanted to read about this time - my first (and only) five-star fiction read this year. 

This one arrived unsolicited out of the blue. I've never heard of the author but it looks like a serious take on the female perspective during the Wars of the Roses (no Phillippa Gregory needed!). 

Set in the Revolutionary-era Carolinas - I've already read the first few chapters and was drawn in by the atmospheric intensity of the writing. 

The one non-historical fiction title - I picked this at random from the Harper Collins review copies list because it reminded me of a phase I went through in college when I read piles of fiction by Indian-American writers. 

I really want to like this novel set in Egypt during the discovery of the Tomb of Tutanakhamen. Right now, I'm stalled at 100 pages waiting for the plot to really get going. I will give it a another try because I can't resist the setting. 

I'm not a huge fan of present-tense narratives and I wasn't overwhelmed by Fremantle's first Queen's Gambit but it's a new take on the Tudor era, through the eyes of the Grey sisters. 

Review: Elizabeth is Missing

Monday, June 16, 2014

In this darkly riveting debut novel-a sophisticated psychological mystery that is also an heartbreakingly honest meditation on memory, identity, and aging-an elderly woman descending into dementia embarks on a desperate quest to find the best friend she believes has disappeared, and her search for the truth will go back decades and have shattering consequences. Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory-and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.

But no one will listen to Maud-not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth's mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend. This singular obsession forms a cornerstone of Maud's rapidly dissolving present. But the clues she discovers seem only to lead her deeper into her past, to another unsolved disappearance: her sister, Sukey, who vanished shortly after World War II. As vivid memories of a tragedy that occurred more fifty years ago come flooding back, Maud discovers new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey's disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth? (from Goodreads)

The first fifty pages of this book upset me - so much so that I put it down for almost two months and only came back to it when I needed something to read while on vacation. Now that I've finished the book and loved it, I think I know why those first fifty pages bothered me so much. 

They were too effective. 

Healey delves into the deteroriating mind of an old woman so convincingly that it all felt too real, too frightening and that - of course - is the sign of a successful thriller. 

But Elizabeth is Missing is so much more than a suspense novel with a good hook. It's a chance to step into someone else's shoes and understand their world, a world that horrifies our youth-obsessed, constantly on the move society. This world is terrifying because Healey renders it such rich detail and because it is the fate that ultimately we'll all share - growing old and losing our grasp on time and the memories that make us who we are. I would rather read a thriller about this than any serial killer or detective novel out there. 

The narrative follows the twists and turns of Maud's mind, switching back and forth between the current day and post-WWII Britain, a world of bombed-out buildings and ration books. There was so much to like about Elizabeth is Missing that it would be easy to overlook this brilliant rendering of an exhausted Britain and the price of victory exacted on average citizens. It's a rarely-used time and setting in historical fiction and it was a perfect setting for a story of fear and suspicion. 

I won't say too much about the current day storyline as I don't want to give away the ending but I was very happy to see that Healey did not resort to any cheap narrative twists and turns. The focus is always on Maud and the overall themes of loss and the passage of time. 

I would highly recommend this book to all readers - it's going on my end of year list as one of my favorites! 

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in return for a fair review. 

The Lost Duchess Blog Tour

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Today I'm very happy to be a part of the blog tour for The Lost Duchess. I read Jenny Barden's first book, Mistress of the Sea last year and loved the sense of adventure and discovery. It's very rare to find a book that gives you a feeling for what it was like to be an explorer in the Americas and I was so happy to discover a historical novel set in a new place and time.

I was lucky enough to win her follow-up book, The Lost Duchess in a contest on another blog. The Lost Duchess can serve as both a sequel to Mistress of the Sea and as a standalone novel. I enjoyed finding out what happened with some of the characters from Mistress of Sea but new readers will be able to jump right in.

Since I was young, I've been fascinated by the mystery of the Roanoke colony and this is the only novel I can think of that really looks at what might have happened and comes up with a viable scenario. I wish we had many, many more books like this here in the United States that look at our early history in a vibrant and fast-paced story.

Please join author Jenny Barden as she tours the blogopsphere for The Lost Duchess from May 26-June 20.

Paperback Publication Date: June 5, 2014 Ebury Press Paperback; 448p Add to GR Button     

An epic Elizabethan adventure with a thriller pace and a high tension love story that moves from the palaces of England to the savage wilderness of the New World. Emme Fifield has fallen about as far as a gentlewoman can. Once a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth, her only hope of surviving the scandal that threatens to engulf her is to escape England for a fresh start in the new America where nobody has ever heard of the Duchess of Somerset. Emme joins Kit Doonan's rag-tag band of idealists, desperados and misfits bound for Virginia. But such a voyage will be far from easy and Emme finds her attraction to the mysterious Doonan inconvenient to say the least. As for Kit, the handsome mariner has spent years imprisoned by the Spanish, and living as an outlaw with a band of escaped slaves; he has his own inner demons to confront, and his own dark secrets to keep... Ever since Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement in Virginia was abandoned in 1587 its fate has remained a mystery; 'The Lost Duchess' explores what might have happened to the ill-starred 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke.

Buy the Book

Amazon (AUS) Amazon (UK) Book Depository

About the Author

I've had a love of history and adventure ever since an encounter in infancy with a suit of armour at Tamworth Castle. Training as an artist, followed by a career as a city Jenny (Portrait 2)solicitor, did little to help displace my early dream of becoming a knight. A fascination with the Age of Discovery led to travels in South and Central America, and much of the inspiration for my debut came from retracing the footsteps of Francis Drake in Panama. The sequel centres on the first Elizabethan 'lost colony' of early Virginia. I am currently working on an epic adventure during the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada. My work has appeared in short story collections and anthologies and I've written for non-fiction publications including the Historical Novels Review. I am active in many organisations, having run the 'Get Writing' conferences for several years, and undertaken the co-ordination of the Historical Novel Society’s London Conference 2012. I am a member of that organisation as well as the Historical Writers' Association, the Romantic Nevelists' Association and the Society of Authors. I'll be co-ordinating the RNA's annual conference in 2014. I have four children and now live on a farm in Dorset with my long suffering husband and an ever increasing assortment of animals. I love travelling, art, reading and scrambling up hills and mountains (though I'm not so keen on coming down!).

Author Links

Website Facebook Twitter Jenny Barden's Blog English Historical Fiction Authors Blog

Also by Jenny Barden

Mistress of the Sea

Publication Date: June 20, 2013 Ebury Press Formats: Paperback, Ebook Add to GR Button     Mistress Cooksley may be a wealthy merchant's daughter, but she blushes at my words and meets my eyes look for look. Yet I cannot hope to court her without fortune, and a dalliance with a pretty maid will not hinder me from my path. Captain Drake's endeavour might bring me gold, but I, Will Doonan, will have my revenge. The Spaniards captured my brother and have likely tortured and killed him. For God and St George, we'll strike at the dogs and see justice done. I thought I'd left Mistress Cooksley behind to gamble everything and follow Drake, and here she is playing the boy at the ends of the world. She's a fool with a heart as brave as any man's. Yet her presence here could be the ruin of us all...

Virtual Tour & Book Blast Schedule

Monday, May 26 Review & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books Book Blast at Reading the Ages Book Blast at Literary Chanteuse Book Blast at Bibliophilia, Please 

Tuesday, May 27 Review at A Bibliotaph's Reviews Book Blast at Flashlight Commentary Book Blast at To Read or Not to Read 

Wednesday, May 28 Review at Carole's Ramblings and Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell 

Thursday, May 29 Book Blast at The Maiden's Court Book Blast at Cheryl's Book Nook Book Blast at Book Reviews & More by Kathy 

Friday, May 30 Review at WTF Are You Reading? Book Blast at The Mad Reviewer Book Blast at Curling Up by the Fire 

Saturday, May 31 Book Blast at From L.A. to LA Book Blast at Gobs and Gobs of Books 

Sunday, June 1 Book Blast at Lily Pond Reads Book Blast at So Many Books, So Little Time 

Monday, June 2 Review & Giveaway at The Tudor Enthusiast Book Blast at The Bookworm Book Blast at CelticLady's Reviews 

Tuesday, June 3 Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book Book Blast at West Metro Mommy Book Blast at bookworm2bookworm's Blog 

Wednesday, June 4 Review at The Wormhole Interview at Oh, For the Hook of a Book Book Blast at Kelsey's Book Corner 

Thursday, June 5 Book Blast at Books and Benches Book Blast at Book Lovers Paradise 

Friday, June 6 Interview at Dianne Ascroft Blog Book Blast at Kincavel Korner Book Blast at Caroline Wilson Writes 

Saturday, June 7 Book Blast at Royal Reviews Book Blast at History Undressed 

Sunday, June 8 Book Blast at Book Nerd 

Monday, June 9 Review at A Chick Who Reads Book Blast at The Musings of a Book Junkie 

Tuesday, June 10 Review at She Reads Novels Book Blast at Just One More Chapter Book Blast at History From a Woman's Perspective 

 Wednesday, June 11 Review at Historical Fiction Obsession Book Blast at Books in the Burbs

Thursday, June 12 Book Blast at Big Book, Little Book Book Blast at Historical Fiction Notebook

Friday, June 13 Review at Susan Heim on Writing Review at Svetlana's Reads and Views

Saturday, June 14 Book Blast at Hardcover Feedback Book Blast at One Book at a Time 

Sunday, June 15 Book Blast at Passages to the Past 

Monday, June 16 Review at Layered Pages Review at Starting Fresh Review at Ageless Pages Reviews

Tuesday, June 17 Review at The Lit Bitch Book Blast at Griperang's Bookmarks 

Wednesday, June 18 Review & Giveaway at Luxury Reading Book Blast at Princess of Eboli 

Thursday, June 19 Review at A Bookish Affair Review at Little Reader Library Book Blast at Girl Lost in a Book 

Friday, June 20 Review at Broken Teepee Review at Jorie Loves a Story Review at The Musings of ALMYBNENR Guest Post & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair

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Review: The Romanov Sisters

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle. Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it. The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Helen Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados. (from Amazon)

I came very close to not requesting a review copy of this book. I thought there was no point. I thought I'd reached my limit on Romanov books - they rarely contain anything new, they're all drawing on the same primary source material and sadly, the Romanovs have reached a point at which they don't even really seem like real people anymore. They're more like copies of characters in some old novel. 

I am so glad that I went ahead and read this - not only is it one of my few five-star reads so far this year, it will probably become one of my favorite Romanov books of all time. Rappaport is a brilliant writer and researcher. She has accomplished what I did not think was possible - taught me many new things about life in Imperial Russia, about the lives of these four young women and why I should care about them and given me an eerily real sense of that long-ago time. 

My e-galley copy is filled with highlighted passages and notes - many of them noting places with brand-new anecdotes from previously unpublished sources. I kept coming across them with genuine delight and surprise - I've been reading about the Romanovs for twenty years and never come across some of these stories. Rappaport also has a good ear for excerpting funny, poignant and revealing passages from the girls' letters and diaries. You get a very good sense of their individual voices from reading this book. 

I feel as though - for the first time - I can actually tell the girls apart and that the differences in their personalities are a revelation. I have a much more nuanced understanding of the Romanov family. Rappaport also managed the almost unthinkable in getting me to feel empathy for the Empress Alexandra. I am not a big fan of hers and believe she was an utterly disastrous ruler, wife and (even) mother. Rappaport looks sensitively at her background and helped me understand Alexandra's troubled mind while not excusing her actions. 

All in all, a highly recommended work of non-fiction. Despite having received an eBook for review, I will immediately purchase a hardcover copy to add to my collection - it's that good! 

Disclaimer: I received an advance eGalley from the publisher for review. 

Book Bingo & 1 Giveaway Winner!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Thank you to everyone who stopped by as part of Armchair BEA week. This was my third year participating and  - as always - it went by very quickly and I met so many new bloggers and readers! 

As part of Armchair BEA week, I started a giveaway of 3 historical novels. One was timed to finish along with the end of Armchair BEA - the winner of the giveaway of The Perfume Garden by Kate Lord Brown is........ Laura L. Congratulations Laura!

The two other contests are still going on - just scroll to the next post below to fill out the giveaway form. I'm giving away one copy of The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn and one copy of The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas.  

I listen to a lot of great book podcasts throughout the week. I've found that they're a nice companion while cooking or cleaning or commuting. My favorites are Literary Disco, Dear Book Nerd, Book Riot, Bookrageous and Books on the Nightstand. At some point, I'll put together a post that goes through each of these podcasts and the reasons I like listening to them. But that's for a week that is not quite so close to Armchair BEA!!!!!!

In the meantime, I thought I'd post a link to a Summer Book Bingo dreamed up by the Books on the Nightstand hosts. It's a fun way to try something new or just to keep track of your summer reading. Each bingo card is randomly generated but I've seen historical fiction pop up often in the squares. Enjoy!!!!!!