ARC Review – Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight

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Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
by David W. Blight

Genre: American History, Biography

Length: 896 Pages

Coming: October 2nd, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

The definitive, dramatic biography of the most important African-American of the nineteenth century: Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became the greatest orator of his day and one of the leading abolitionists and writers of the era.

As a young man Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery in Baltimore, Maryland. He was fortunate to have been taught to read by his slave owner mistress, and he would go on to become one of the major literary figures of his time. He wrote three versions of his autobiography over the course of his lifetime and published his own newspaper. His very existence gave the lie to slave owners: with dignity and great intelligence he bore witness to the brutality of slavery.

Initially mentored by William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass spoke widely, often to large crowds, using his own story to condemn slavery. He broke with Garrison to become a political abolitionist, a Republican, and eventually a Lincoln supporter. By the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Douglass became the most famed and widely travelled orator in the nation. He denounced the premature end of Reconstruction and the emerging Jim Crow era. In his unique and eloquent voice, written and spoken, Douglass was a fierce critic of the United States as well as a radical patriot. He sometimes argued politically with younger African-Americans, but he never forsook either the Republican party or the cause of black civil and political rights.

In this remarkable biography, David Blight has drawn on new information held in a private collection that few other historian have consulted, as well as recently discovered issues of Douglass’s newspapers. Blight tells the fascinating story of Douglass’s two marriages and his complex extended family. Douglass was not only an astonishing man of words, but a thinker steeped in Biblical story and theology. There has not been a major biography of Douglass in a quarter century. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass affords this important American the distinguished biography he deserves.

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I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not impacted by the publisher. 

While I had of course heard of Frederick Douglass before reading this book, my knowledge of him was spotty at best, consisting mostly of fuzzy, half-remembered elementary school lessons detailing how he cajoled white children into teaching him to read as a young slave. He then went on to become a prominent abolitionist as an adult after escaping slavery. This was the beginning and the end of my knowledge of Douglass.

Frederick-Douglas-reddit.com-colorized-history-1-736x900Blight’s biography brings Douglass into sharp focus, not just as a historical figure, but as a man. The regal looking figure we can see in photos today was once a small boy, treated as property by the Auld family. He was heartbroken when he was emotionally rejected by his mistress, Sophia Auld, who had begun his education before her husband convinced her it was dangerous to educate a slave. He had a granddaughter who liked to braid his hair. His love of music was bordering on the spiritual.

He also, like all of us, had flaws. He may have been unfaithful to his wife. His emphasis on self-reliance was so extreme that it at times felt like a blind spot. He was a self-made man who pulled himself up out of slavery to become a highly influential figure and seemed at times almost disdainful of anyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same. But that single-minded determination was perhaps his defining trait; he fought for equality quite literally up to his dying day. Douglass had a speaking arrangement scheduled for the evening of his death, before a heart attack took him unexpectedly.

“Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”

Blight’s recounting of the life of Frederick Douglass is intensely researched and thorough. It was not quite as readable as other biographies I’ve read, such as Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography, but there’s something to be said for valuing substance over style. Reading this was an infinitely valuable education experience, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in American history and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

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Review – Nightingale, by Amy Lukavics

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Nightingale
by Amy Lukavics

Genre: YA, Horror

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: Sept. 25, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

At seventeen, June Hardie is everything a young woman in 1951 shouldn’t be—independent, rebellious, a dreamer. June longs to travel, to attend college and to write the dark science fiction stories that consume her waking hours. But her parents only care about making June a better young woman. Her mother grooms her to be a perfect little homemaker while her father pushes her to marry his business partner’s domineering son. When June resists, her whole world is shattered—suburbia isn’t the only prison for different women…

June’s parents commit her to Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution. With its sickening conditions, terrifying staff and brutal “medical treatments,” the Institution preys on June’s darkest secrets and deepest fears. And she’s not alone. The Institution terrorizes June’s fragile roommate, Eleanor, and the other women locked away within its crumbling walls. Those who dare speak up disappear…or worse. Trapped between a gruesome reality and increasingly sinister hallucinations, June isn’t sure where her nightmares end and real life begins. But she does know one thing: in order to survive, she must destroy the Institution before it finally claims them all.

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Well, this book was certainly… an adventure. What started out looking like a book about a young woman suffering from Capgras delusion (a belief that someone close to you has been replaced with an identical impostor) slowly delved into weirder and weirder science fiction territory. (Or perhaps not; June is an unreliable narrator and it’s possible that the science fiction elements are all the result of a broken mind. Who can say?) I don’t want to give too much away in terms of plot, but rest assured that what you might expect from the blurb for this book bears little resemblance to the book itself.

While the unexpected is certainly not in itself a reason for a negative review, the plot twists in this book simply were not well executed. It felt like there was insufficient buildup and too many questions left unanswered. The overall result was a flimsy plot with horror elements that were far from horrifying. For example, Lukavics seemed to rely too much on gore and body horror to make the reader squirm. There was a lot of “ick” factor that simply wasn’t scary, with repeated mentions of worms crawling around in the brains of live people and the detailed description of a mangled corpse.

June had some potential to be a good protagonist, and she definitely had some elements which made her sympathetic. She bristles at the rigid expectations of her gender in the 1950’s, but it seems that Lukavics takes this trait too far in trying to drive the point home. June expresses irritation at one point that her mother expects her to wear clean clothes; hygiene is not a gendered issue, June. She is extremely resistant to learning to cook, and while this is something disproportionately thrust onto women, June honestly just seems disgruntled at the thought of being asked to do anything at all.

Her desire to be a writer when her family wants to turn her into a housewife was an engaging element of her character. She has no desire to marry the boy they’ve selected for her, for reasons which become more and more obvious as the plot moves along. I wish Lukavics had spent more time focusing on these issues rather than June’s disdain at being asked to do so much as clean up after herself. Flawed protagonists are fine, but whiny protagonists are generally unbearable. June has some internal struggles going on that would have made for really intriguing character development, but they were very shallowly explored. All in all, this book felt like a first draft; there’s a good story hiding under a bit of a mess.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Review – Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar J. Mazzeo

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Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton
by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Genre: Biography, History

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

From the New York Times bestselling author of Irena’s Children comes a comprehensive and riveting biography of the extraordinary life and times of Eliza Hamilton, the wife of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and a powerful, unsung hero in America’s early days. 

Fans fell in love with Eliza Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s devoted wife—in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenal musical Hamilton. But they don’t know her full story. A strong pioneer woman, a loving sister, a caring mother, and in her later years, a generous philanthropist, Eliza had many sides—and this fascinating biography brings her multi-faceted personality to vivid life.

Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of The Wife of Alexander Hamilton follows Eliza through her early years in New York, into the ups and downs of her married life with Alexander, beyond the aftermath of his tragic murder, and finally to her involvement in many projects that cemented her legacy as one of the unsung heroes of our nation’s early days. Featuring Mazzeo’s “impeccable research and crafting” (Library Journal), and perfect for fans of the richly detailed historical books by Ron Chernow and Erik Larson, Eliza Hamilton is the captivating account of the woman behind the famous man.

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five

“Best of wives and best of women.”

This was an immensely readable biography. Mazzeo’s writing style creates the immersive reading experience of a good novel. While this at times requires her to take certain liberties and to speculate (the book opens, for example, with Eliza blushing in response to a letter she received from Alexander Hamilton), she does seem to draw from what is known as much as possible. Eliza’s thoughts and feelings, while not always documented, can often be inferred from letters she exchanged with Alexander and others. All in all, some speculation, within reason, can certainly be forgiven in the service of crafting a fleshed-out image of a woman so long lost to history.

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Portrait of Eliza Hamilton by Ralph Earl. Earl was in debtors’ prison when Eliza sat for this portrait and persuaded other ladies to do the same. The income generated from this allowed Earl to earn enough money to repay his debts and regain his freedom.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the biography is Mazzeo’s treatment of the Maria Reynolds incident, wherein she questions the commonly accepted version of events, made famous once again by the musical Hamilton. The affair is often treated as fact, but Alexander and Eliza’s contemporaries were far from in agreement as to the truth of the matter. Was Alexander simply a cheating husband or was the whole affair a cleverly crafted ruse to cover up the illegal financial activities of which he was suspected at the time?

Mazzeo argues for the latter. I won’t go into detail, as the book will surely handle the material more elegantly than I could here, but one interesting question raised is this: If Alexander had love letters from Mrs. Reynolds to substantiate the affair, as he claimed he did, why would he not produce them? He printed transcriptions of the supposed letters in his pamphlets on the matter, but refused to produce the original documents. Mrs. Reynolds, who vehemently denied the affair, was willing to submit to a handwriting comparison in an attempt to clear her name. Alexander refused. This is just one piece of the puzzle which leads Mazzeo to conclude that Alexander’s real crimes were financial, not romantic.

If I had to name a weakness in this book it would be this: Alexander looms quite large in Mazzeo’s recounting of Eliza’s life. Yes, he was her husband, but Eliza lived to a ripe old age and had half of her life ahead of her at the time of his death, years which were filled with joy, sadness, and endless public works. Eliza was so much more than Alexander’s wife.

However, her accomplishments are by no means completely ignored. The book goes into detail about Eliza’s involvement in founding New York’s first private orphanage, as well as her involvement in public education. Children were Eliza’s passion, particularly orphans, a focus likely sparked by Alexander’s humble origins. Mazzeo paints a portrait of a strong and compassionate woman.

This is a beautiful and well-researched piece of work which shines a well-deserved spotlight on one of US history’s most interesting women. The flowing prose makes this an excellent read for fans of biographies as well as historical fiction, and, of course, fans of Hamilton. 

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on biographies? Do you prefer a more formal, fact-focused tone, or does speculation on thoughts and feelings of the people involved make for a better reading experience?

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Coming Soon – Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds by Brandon Sanderson

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Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds
by Brandon Sanderson

Genre: Science Fiction

Length: 400 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Stephen Leeds is perfectly sane. It’s his hallucinations who are mad.

A genius of unrivaled aptitude, Stephen can learn any new skill, vocation, or art in a matter of hours. However, to contain all of this, his mind creates hallucinatory people—Stephen calls them aspects—to hold and manifest the information. Wherever he goes, he is joined by a team of imaginary experts to give advice, interpretation, and explanation. He uses them to solve problems… for a price.

Stephen’s brain is getting a little crowded and the aspects have a tendency of taking on lives of their own. When a company hires him to recover stolen property—a camera that can allegedly take pictures of the past—Stephen finds himself in an adventure crossing oceans and fighting terrorists. What he discovers may upend the foundation of three major world religions—and, perhaps, give him a vital clue into the true nature of his aspects.

This fall, Tor Books will publish Brandon Sanderson’s Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds. The collection will include the science fiction novellas Legion and Legion: Skin Deep, published together for the first time, as well as a brand new Stephen Leeds novella, Lies of the Beholder. This never-been-published novella will complete the series.

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I received an partial preview of this book (in the form of the first of the three included novellas) in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

I’ve been a fan of Brandon Sanderson for several years now, but have somehow managed not to stumble across his Stephen Leeds novellas until now. While this was a fun read, I didn’t find it quite as strong as some of his other works. I’d rate it at about a 3.5/5, which I’ve rounded up to a 4/5 here. So while it was definitely  worth reading, it felt a bit lacking coming on the tail of so many novels by Sanderson which felt like solid fives.

The mental health angle was definitely one of the most interesting parts of the story; Sanderson has crafted a character with schizophrenia who is not simply coping, but thriving. Stephen Leeds has hallucinations who have skills and knowledge which he does not; these are treated as their own characters and Leeds uses them to his advantage throughout the story. It was refreshing to see a story with a character dealing with a mental health issue where the entire story wasn’t about how much he suffers from it.

Several parts of the story didn’t flow particularly well; it felt like Sanderson was forcing his own musings into the characters’ mouths in a way that didn’t feel natural. One such example is when the logical problems surrounding the functioning of a piece of technology are brought up briefly, only to be dismissed and never addressed again. Logical problems aside, the fictional piece of technology does function within the parameters of the story, and there seemed to be little narrative purpose to bringing up all the reasons it shouldn’t work without offering any theories as to how it does so. Several exchanges surrounding religious matters, specifically on the concept of faith, felt similarly awkward and forced.

There was a lot to this story: the many hallucinations of Stephen Leeds provide a distinct cast of characters, and Leeds’ ability to rely on them to perform above his own abilities makes for an interesting twist. The science fiction tech is intriguing and provokes seemingly infinite hypothetical questions to mull over. A mysterious woman who Leeds wishes to track down provides intrigue. This all feels like a lot to try to develop over the course of a novella, but one thing is certain: the reader will definitely not be bored.

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ARC Review: Not Her Daughter, by Rea Frey

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Not Her Daughter
by Rea Frey

Genre: Mystery/Suspense

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2017

Blurb via Goodreads:

Emma Townsend. Five years old. Gray eyes, brown hair. Missing since June.
Emma is lonely. Living with her cruel mother and clueless father, Emma retreats into her own world of quiet and solitude.

Sarah Walker. Successful entrepreneur. Broken-hearted. Kidnapper.
Sarah has never seen a girl so precious as the gray-eyed child in a crowded airport terminal. When a second-chance encounter with Emma presents itself, Sarah takes her—far away from home. But if it’s to rescue a little girl from her damaging mother, is kidnapping wrong?

Amy Townsend. Unhappy wife. Unfit mother. Unsure whether she wants her daughter back.
Amy’s life is a string of disappointments, but her biggest issue is her inability to connect with her daughter. And now Emma is gone without a trace.

As Sarah and Emma avoid the nationwide hunt, they form an unshakeable bond. But what about Emma’s real mother, back at home?

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four

I received an ARC through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Not Her Daughter is fast-paced, engaging, and a relatively quick read. It opens with a relatively common situation: a stressed-out mother in a crowded public place is a little rough with her daughter. Maybe a little too rough. Maybe it’s an isolated incident.  Maybe it’s not.

Those “maybes” start to pile up, and Sarah Walker, our main protagonist, can’t cope with the thought of leaving an innocent little girl in a bad situation. When she happens to encounter Emma again, she views it as a sign that she needs to find out more. After witnessing another act of cruelty by Amy, Emma’s mother, Sarah does the unthinkable and takes her. What follows is Sarah’s desperate effort to stay ahead of the hunt for Emma’s kidnapper while attempting to give her a better life.

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Amy is miserable, both before and after the kidnapping. She has anger management problems and a marriage that leaves her feeling smothered. She has never been able to bond with Emma in the slightest, and her younger child also prefers her husband to herself. She seems to spend every waking moment itching to escape.

What’s interesting about this book is that one has to question the reliability of both of the main POV characters. Sarah has unresolved trauma from childhood caused by her mother. She is also dealing with emotional distress caused by a recent breakup of a long-term relationship. She is feeling desperate and alone, and she sees herself in Emma. Emma gives her a sense of purpose and perhaps a chance to rescue the little girl she once was herself. Can this desperation cause Sarah to read too much into a situation?

Amy resents Emma deeply, and seems to ascribe a level of malicious intent that is simply not believable in a five-year-old child. Emma fidgets because she knows it drives Amy crazy. Emma climbs a tree because she’s so desperate to pull the attention away from Amy and onto herself. Emma does absolutely everything she does because it is her life’s mission to make Amy as miserable as possible.

The images of Emma conjured up by each of these women cannot possibly be the same child. Sarah or Amy must be mistaken. Personally, I think they both are to some extent, and part of the fun of this book was in trying to suss out a clear impression of the real Emma.

Parts of the plot strained the limits of credulity, especially the resolution, but that’s okay. Reading ordinary and perfectly believable events would not have made for a very interesting story. This is Frey’s debut novel, and while I think there was some room for improvement, it was a fun read. I look forward to seeing how she grows as an author over time.

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ARC Review – When Elephants Fly, by Nancy Richardson Fischer

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When Elephants Fly
by Nancy Richardson Fischer

Genre: YA, Coming of Age

Length: 400 Pages

Coming: September 4, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

T. Lily Decker is a high school senior with a twelve-year plan: avoid stress, drugs, alcohol and boyfriends, and take regular psych quizzes administered by her best friend, Sawyer, to make sure she’s not developing schizophrenia. Genetics are not on Lily’s side.

When she was seven, her mother, who had paranoid schizophrenia, tried to kill her. And a secret has revealed that Lily’s odds are even worse than she thought. Still, there’s a chance to avoid triggering the mental health condition, if Lily can live a careful life from ages eighteen to thirty, when schizophrenia most commonly manifests.

But when a newspaper internship results in Lily witnessing a mother elephant try to kill her three-week-old calf, Swifty, Lily can’t abandon the story or the calf. With Swifty in danger of dying from grief, Lily must choose whether to risk everything, including her sanity and a first love, on a desperate road trip to save the calf’s life, perhaps finding her own version of freedom along the way.

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I received an early release copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher. 

As a person with an education background in psychology, I had some misgivings about the subject matter of this novel going into it. Lily’s schizophrenic mother tried to kill her when she was a young girl. Lily struggles to deal with that trauma and also the looming threat of developing the disorder herself, given the genetic component. Schizophrenia is a such a highly stigmatized illness, and a novel with a schizophrenic character committing such a dramatic act of violence at the center of the story is concerning. While delusions in thought can cause a person with schizophrenia to become violent, most people living with this disorder are not violent and are at far greater risk of harming themselves than they are anyone else. So while Lily’s story is certainly not out of the realm of possibility in the real world, these are important things to keep in mind when reading a story like this.

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Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

That being said, I do think that Fischer made efforts to treat the subject matter with sensitivity. She has used Lily’s concerns about developing the disorder as a means to relay information to the reader; Lily has researched this topic tirelessly as a means of maintaining a sense of control over her life and mental health, and is aware, for example, of the risk of suicide for patients dealing with this disorder. Lily is a very sympathetic protagonist who is acutely aware of her risk of developing this disorder; she also gives the reader a window into what it feels like to be unfairly dismissed based on their mental health status.

Certain characters look down on Lily based on the mere possibility that she may have inherited her mother’s illness; should this possibility prove to be true, the contempt would be that much worse. Any and all of Lily’s opinions can be dismissed based on the speculated status of her mental health. For an insecure and yet passionate young woman just emerging into adulthood, this is excruciating.

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Photo by Casey Allen on Pexels.com

And then there’s Swifty. I got so emotionally invested in this baby elephant; Lily’s connection with Swifty is palpable, and my heart broke for both of them as Swifty struggled after being rejected by her mother. Many of the passages about Swifty are very well written, but some of them showcase the novel’s main weakness, in my opinion. It’s very clear that Fischer wanted this novel to educate, and that’s admirable.

However, with a 400 page book dealing with intricate subjects such as mental health, adolescence, parenting, and animal rights, the information may not always be woven seamlessly into the story. Certain passages felt forced and awkward. It sometimes felt like the author’s own research was pasted into the story without regard to the overall flow of the novel; it had the effect of pulling the reader momentarily out of the story.

Overall, this was a strong novel. It was well-paced with a well-developed and sympathetic protagonist. The story was interesting and multi-faceted. It brought us a character who, despite her overwhelming anxiety about her mental health, is more than her mental health status. Lily has people who love her deeply and a cause she’s willing to fight for.

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ARC Review – Goodbye, Paris, by Anstey Harris

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Goodbye, Paris
by Anstey Harris

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 288 Pages

Release date: August 7, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Jojo Moyes meets Eleanor Oliphant in Goodbye, Paris, an utterly charming novel that proves that sometimes you have to break your heart to make it whole.

Grace once had the beginnings of a promising musical career, but she hasn’t been able to play her cello publicly since a traumatic event at music college years ago. Since then, she’s built a quiet life for herself in her small English village, repairing instruments and nurturing her long- distance affair with David, the man who has helped her rebuild her life even as she puts her dreams of a family on hold until his children are old enough for him to leave his loveless marriage.

But when David saves the life of a woman in the Paris Metro, his resulting fame shines a light onto the real state of the relationship(s) in his life. Shattered, Grace hits rock bottom and abandons everything that has been important to her, including her dream of entering and winning the world’s most important violin-making competition. Her closest friends–a charming elderly violinist with a secret love affair of his own, and her store clerk, a gifted but angst-ridden teenage girl–step in to help, but will their friendship be enough to help her pick up the pieces?

Filled with lovable, quirky characters, this poignant novel explores the realities of relationships and heartbreak and shows that when it comes to love, there’s more than one way to find happiness.

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Goodbye, Paris was a great feel-good read for the summer. Despite Grace’s precarious position as the mistress of a man who is obviously (to everyone but Grace, that is) fundamentally selfish and childish, the tone for the story is quite optimistic. Grace begins the story as a somewhat unlikable narrator; while this may be a bit of a turn-off for some readers, it leaves so much room for growth and character development, which is what this novel is all about.

The blurb makes reference to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and this feels appropriate; Grace will feel familiar for fans of Gail Honeyman’s novel. Part of the reason she has scales over her eyes when it comes to David, her married boyfriend, is because she is otherwise so fundamentally isolated. While she has a few friends, people she has bonded with in the course of her work, there is a definite sense of a barrier there, and one can see it slowly dissolving throughout the course of the novel.

Grace is passionate about music, and Harris has woven this into every aspect of her story. Music is connected to the trauma of her youth which took away her sense of self worth, and it is intricately connected to her healing as an adult as she slowly regains her confidence. Her closest friendships come through a shared love of music. Her faith in her abilities helps her to see herself as a person of value outside of her relationship to David.

Goodbye, Paris is a tad predictable and not terribly deep, but it was immensely satisfying to read. If you’re looking for a warm and fuzzy tale of a woman coming into her own, however belatedly it may be, pick up a copy today.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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ARC Review – Tied to Deceit, by Neena H. Brar

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Tied to Deceit
by Neena H. Brar

Genre: Mystery

Length: 328 Pages

Release date: August 4, 2018

Blurb:

On a drizzly August morning, the inhabitants of the hill town of Sanover, Himachal Pradesh, wake up to the shocking news of the murder of the exquisite, secretive, malicious, and thoroughly immoral Devika Singh.
As Superintendent of Police Vishwanath Sharma begins to sift through the hidden secrets of Devika Singh’s life, it becomes evident that everyone who knew her seems to have a clear-cut motive for killing her.
Faced with the investigation of a crime that appears to have as many suspects as there are motives, Vishwanath Sharma probes the sinister web spun around a tangle of lies and deception.

Praise for Tied to Deceit

“A remarkable whodunit that’s as sharp as it is concise.
Brar enhances her taut murder mystery with an engaging setting that effectively incorporates the local culture. The smart, believable denouement will have readers looking forward to Brar’s next endeavor.”
-Kirkus Reviews
“A literary mystery saga that includes far more depth and psychological and cultural insights than your typical murder mystery’s scenario.”
-D. Donovan, Midwest Book Review

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Excerpt

Dr. Rajinder Bhardwaj, the owner and the head physician at Lifeline Hospital, Sanover, had showered after his brisk morning walk and joined his wife for an early morning tea. Gayatri Bhardwaj sat with her second cup of ginger tea on her favourite old, worn, woven chair on the verandah which overlooked their front garden: a tapestry of blooming carnations, marigolds, roses, and chrysanthemums. She longed for a clear, bright day and the dazzling blue sky of summer.

It was her favourite spot to sit in the mornings; a place from where she could witness the brilliant dawn streaking half of the sky coral; raindrops soaking everything wet during the monsoon; specks of silvery snow falling from the sky during winter. She could take in everything from the serene mountain peaks and the forest to their house—its roof, windowpanes, and the pebbled driveway that snaked its way criss-cross toward the outside big iron gate. She would sit there until Dr. Bhardwaj joined her after his daily ritual of a brisk morning walk.

They had done this for years despite the changing seasons and the changing equation of their marital relationship. They had spent endless mornings of their initial married years there, when their hearts were still giddy with the feeling of young love, and they would talk about everything and nothing. She’d been a bride at barely twenty, young and naive. He’d been ten years her senior, already on the way to establishing himself as a successful physician, the younger son of a landlord aristocratic family with old wealth. He had swept her off her feet then, and was all charm and charisma but then the magic slowly diminished and finally died due to his secret betrayals over time. Thousands of little resentments had replaced the early warmth. But their hearts, although heavy with bitterness and anger at the failed expectations, had gotten used to the solace of each other’s company that often comes with years of living together, and they never stopped performing this morning ritual of their married life.

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I received an early release copy of this book in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

This book is difficult for me to rate. I enjoyed the first half of it immensely. The setting was interesting, and it was nice watch Brar weave Indian culture and words into the story. I liked the idea of a murder mystery with an unsympathetic victim. Devika had wronged so many people that virtually every character was a potential suspect at one point or another.

Some of the major characters were very interesting, particularly Gayatri Bhardwaj, who knows her husband has been carrying on affairs, but reacts with almost indifference, with an astounding level of confidence that none of these mistresses pose any real threat to her marriage.

Brar explores gender issues in the context of Indian culture in the late 60’s or perhaps early 70’s; the exact time frame was never quite clear to me; some dates in the early sixties were mentioned as having been several years prior. The differential treatment of men and women when it comes to sexual misconduct came up time and time again. Class divides were also integral to the story, and Gayatri is again of particular interest in that regard; she expresses how she feels class can be a double-edged sword even for those in a position of privilege, as it distances her from those around her.

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There was a lot to enjoy in this book, but the second half started to drag. Vishwanath Sharma spends what feels like an excessive amount of time pursuing one particular suspect, on the cusp of solving the mystery. The actual resolution strikes the right balance of surprising while still being somewhat foreshadowed, but it takes too long to get there. The length itself is not necessarily the problem here; this is not an overly long book. However, the amount of time dedicated to one singular focus rather than vacillating between suspects makes it feel longer.

Brar also seemed very invested in driving home just how horrible Devika was, to the point where it began to feel repetitive and drawn-out. One can only read about what a manipulative snake she was so many times before it becomes boring. Personally, I would have appreciated a bit more nuance in her character. Brar does throw in a few things that seem to be an attempt at doing this, but they come so late in the narrative that they felt shoe-horned into it; something about it seemed to lack authenticity, and the overall impression of Devika does not change. She is very one-dimensional and seems to have no redeeming qualities.

Overall, I enjoyed Tied to Deceit, and it was a fairly solid debut novel. Sharma and his assistant have a Sherlock and Watson-esque relationship which is fun to observe. The cultural issues explored added a lot to the story, and the cast of characters was varied and engaging. Fans of the Sherlock stories or Agatha Christie may find this a worthwhile read!

Purchase links

Amazon India 

Amazon UK

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Kobo

Author Bio  

AUTHOR PICNeena H. Brar lives in Edmonton, Canada with her husband, two children, a highly energetic German Shepherd, and a lifetime collection of her favorite books.

A hermit at heart, she’s a permissive mother, a reluctant housekeeper, a superb cook, and a hard-core reader.

Tied to Deceit is her debut novel.

 

Author Contact Details:  

Website:  http://neenabrar.com

Instagram: @bookaddictnwriter

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NeenaHBrar/

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ARC Review – My Real Name Is Hanna, by Tara Lynn Masih

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My Real Name Is Hanna
by Tara Lynn Masih

Coming September 15, 2018

Length: 208 pages

Genre: Historical fiction, YA

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Blurb via GoodReads:

Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele—and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits. Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him—and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.

Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

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I don’t know where to begin with this book. Hanna will stay close to my heart for a long time to come. My Real Name Is Hanna explores one of the darkest times in history, but does so with a remarkable spirit of hope and faith in mankind. Central to the theme of this book is a sense of connection which transcends divides such as religious beliefs.

One of the most touching relationships in this book is between our young Jewish protagonist, Hanna, and her elderly Christian neighbor, Alla, who takes on a somewhat grandmotherly role to Hanna. Hanna’s parents don’t entirely approve of the work which she does for Alla, assisting her in decorating pysanky, a kind of Ukrainian Easter egg which is intricately decorated and rich with symbolism. At one point in the story, Alla gifts Hanna with a pysanka decorated with symbols from Jewish folklore, a gesture which speaks to a deep abiding love and the mutual respect they have for one another’s cultures and beliefs.

Hanna’s father examines the bird painted on the egg and speculates on the meaning behind it. Perhaps it is a phoenix, which would symbolize patience, or perhaps it is the Ziz, which would be a symbol of protection.

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This passage is, in a lot of ways, the crux of the novel to me. Alla and Hanna connect, not by ignoring their differences, but by embracing them, finding ways to bridge the gap, and a mutual habit of never addressing one another with a sense of superiority. This merging of cultural traditions in a time of sharp division and iniquity was a poignant symbol of hope in the fundamental goodness of people.

There is a lot of darkness in this book; it is a YA book, so it avoids going into grisly detail about some of the worst of Nazi atrocities, but it is honest and clear about the fact that Hannah and her family are facing the imminent threat of death. They endure unspeakable hardship, sustained in large part by their love for one another. They have lost their home, almost all of their possessions, and any sense of security in their own country, but familial love endures as they hold on by a thread.

Inspired by a true story of a family that survived the Holocaust by hiding out underground, this novel is a timely reminder of all that’s at stake when we fail to acknowledge the humanity of the Other. Above all else, we must value kindness and connection.

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I received an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Pre-order:
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ARC Review – The Space Between, by Dete Meserve

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The Space Between, by Dete Meserve
Coming July 24, 2018
Preorder:
Amazon
Barnes & Noble

Blurb via GoodReads:

After presenting a major scientific breakthrough to a rapt audience across the country, renowned astronomer Sarah Mayfield returns home to a disturbing discovery. Her husband, Ben, a Los Angeles restaurateur, has disappeared, leaving behind an unexplained bank deposit of a million dollars, a loaded Glock in the nightstand, and a video security system that’s been wiped clean. The only answers their son, Zack, can offer are the last words his father said to him: keep the doors locked and set the alarm.

Sarah’s marriage was more troubled than anyone suspected, but now she is afraid that her husband’s recent past could be darker than she dares to admit. Suspecting that nothing about Ben’s vanishing is what it seems, Sarah must delve into the space between old memories, newfound fears, and misleading clues to piece together the mystery of her husband’s disappearance—and find what she hopes in her heart is the truth.

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This was a great summer read! I got completely pulled into the story and I finished it in a day.

I really loved Sarah as a protagonist; I’m a sucker for a story with a female scientist, and Sarah is a high-ranking researcher for NASA who weaves her knowledge of astronomy into how she processes everything in her day-to-day life. Sarah’s way of thinking was engaging, and the story touched on her struggles as a woman in a STEM field; she feels underestimated based on her gender. Later on in the story, she also struggles with potential problems in her career due to the controversy and news coverage regarding her husband.

Overall, Sarah’s identity as a scientist worked really well, but there were a few passages that fell really flat for me. Meserve has a few lapses where really common knowledge seems to be presented as Sarah’s specialized knowledge from her work at NASA. For example, I don’t think any readers needed the protagonist to explain to us that moonlight is simply reflected sunlight. Conversely, passages such as the one that worked into the story the difference between a constellation vs. an asterism felt a lot more valuable and natural.

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I do have to say that the mystery in this novel felt just a bit too heavy-handed on the foreshadowing and predictable to me. I was able to put the pieces together faster than the protagonist; however, this didn’t seem to be as much as a detriment to the story as it could have been. Meserve was able to get me invested enough in the characters that I felt content to watch Sarah work through the mystery after the conclusion felt relatively obvious.

This was fun, fast-paced story which blended mystery, suspense, and just a touch of romance. A great beach read for this summer.

Dete Meserve is also the author of Good Sam and Perfectly Good Crime

(I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.)