Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Review: The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

From the Back Cover:

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

My Thoughts:

I was drawn to this book for two reasons: one, that it features Mary Seymour, daughter of my favorite of Henry VIII's wives, and two, that it features time travel from the past to the future. From the very beginning, when Alison Bannister spotted Mary's newly discovered portrait in a gallery window (mistakenly identified as Anne Boleyn because of the initials on a box, which actually stand for Alison Banestre), I was hooked.

From there a delicious story unfolds of two poor orphaned girls of noble birth struggling to make lives of their own while being dependent upon the generosity of others--until Alison stumbles across a portal to the future. Both women are very well drawn and worthy protagonists: Mary, in the past, navigating the pitfalls of Tudor society and the ambitions of those who would use the dead queen's daughter for their own gain, and Alison in the present, desperately trying to find a way back to the past and the son she left behind yet increasingly finding herself torn between her new life and her old one. It was a joy to watch their lives unfold side by side yet separated by the centuries, and to watch Alison try to find the clues Mary left her. And, as a sucker for a good romance, it was also a joy to watch both women find love.

I was absolutely loving this book and couldn't put it down, but unfortunately I thought the resolution left a lot to be desired. While some things seemed to be too convenient, even "pat," if you will, others were too obscure. One storyline ends well, but the other was very unsatisfying. Actions that seemed very out of character led to tragedy, seemingly just for the sake of having a tragedy in the story. Also, a number of threads seemed to slip through the cracks. Hard to go into detail without spoiling anything, but foremost in my mind is why a certain character in the present day looked so much like a character in the past, yet the connection was never explored. And considering the Phantom Tree plays no role in the story, (and I had theories on what it would turn out to be and was disappointed), I don't know why it was chosen for the title.

Still, I was really loving it and felt sure this book was going to end up being a favorite until the ending left me feeling unsatisfied. And that's really the worst. But I am going to give it four stars because it was so good up until that point. And I do think it's worth a read for anyone who enjoys stories set in Tudor England, mysteries, and romance.

My Rating:  4 Stars out of 5

*Please Note: This review references an advance digital copy received from the publisher via NetGalley, and therefore the final published copy may differ. Though I received this book from the publisher, my review is voluntary and these are my honest and unbiased thoughts. I was not compensated in any other way for reviewing this book.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Blog Tour Q&A + Giveaway with Pat Wahler, Author of I am Mrs. Jesse James

Please join me in welcoming Pat Wahler to Let Them Read Books! Pat is touring the blogosphere with her new historical novel, I am Mrs. Jesse James, and I recently had a chance to ask her a few questions about bringing her heroine to life on the pages. Read on and enter to win a paperback copy of I am Mrs. Jesse James!

A penny for a promise will change her life forever.

For Jesse James, the war will never be over. For Zee Mimms, the war is only the beginning.

The long, bloody Civil War is finally at an end when Zee Mimms, the dutiful daughter of a Missouri preacher, is tasked with nursing her cousin, Jesse James, back to health after he suffers a near-fatal wound. During Jesse’s long convalescence, the couple falls in love, but Jesse’s resentment against the Federals runs deep. He has scores to settle. For him, the war will never be over.

Zee is torn between deferring to her parents’ wishes and marrying for security or marrying for love and accepting the hard realities of life with an outlaw―living under an assumed name and forever on the run. For her, the choice she makes means the war is only beginning.


Hi Pat! Thanks so much for visiting Let Them Read Books!

Thank you so much for allowing me the opportunity of meeting your readers, and providing such thought-provoking questions.  

Most Americans know who Jesse James is, but not many could tell you the name of his wife. What inspired you to tell Zerelda "Zee" Mimms's story?

I’m from Missouri, the home state of Jesse James, and here there are references to him everywhere. Yet nothing satisfied my curiosity about what his personal life might have been like. I knew he had a wife and children and couldn’t help wondering how Jesse’s activities affected them. In a quest for answers, I discovered very little information on Zee. That sparked the idea to write her story.

What kind of research did you do to piece Zee's story together and bring her voice to life?

I immersed myself in everything I could find on Zee and Jesse. Some of it came from fairly reliable sources such as census records or well-researched historical accounts. Other things were more suspect, like reflections of family or friends, often colored to cast a flattering light. Even newspaper accounts were often skewed, especially after Jesse made a powerful friend in the editor of a Missouri newspaper. Nevertheless, I read it all and used that information to form my own picture of Zee. Then I held that image to portray her life, imagining how she might have reacted to her circumstances while staying as true as possible to matters of record.     

Did you come across anything in your research that surprised you?

There were several things that came as a surprise. One of them was the length of time it took Jesse to recover from his war wounds (Zee nursed him back to health), although there is still debate among historians over whether the extended recovery was a ruse devised by Jesse and his family to protect him from being accused of additional crimes. That brings me to another surprise. There is a fair amount of disagreement to this day about what is truth and what is fiction in the life of Jesse James.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?

As you might guess, a lack of primary sources and contradictory information created obstacles in my research. Yet from a novelist’s perspective, this also brought opportunities and gave me plenty of room to portray Zee’s character.

Do you have a favorite scene in the book?

Although tragic circumstances were involved, my favorite scene to write occurred at the home where Jesse grew up. I don’t want to spoil the story by saying more than that. However, I believe the scene revealed Zee’s core of determination and grit.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Blog Tour Review: Sons of Blackbird Mountain by Joanne Bischof

From the Back Cover:

A Tale of Family, Brotherhood, and the Healing Power of Love

After the tragic death of her husband, Aven Norgaard is beckoned to give up her life in Norway to become a housekeeper in the rugged hills of Nineteenth-Century Appalachia. Upon arrival, she finds herself in the home of her late husband’s cousins—three brothers who make a living by brewing hard cider on their three-hundred acre farm. Yet even as a stranger in a foreign land, Aven has hope to build a new life in this tight-knit family.

But her unassuming beauty disrupts the bond between the brothers. The youngest two both desire her hand, and Aven is caught in the middle, unsure where—and whether—to offer her affection. While Haakon is bold and passionate, it is Thor who casts the greatest spell upon her. Though Deaf, mute, and dependent on hard drink to cope with his silent pain, Thor possesses a sobering strength.

As autumn ushers in the apple harvest, the rift between Thor and Haakon deepens and Aven faces a choice that risks hearts. Will two brothers’ longing for her quiet spirit tear apart a family? Can she find a tender belonging in this remote, rugged, and unfamiliar world?

A haunting tale of struggle and redemption, Sons of Blackbird Mountain is a portrait of grace in a world where the broken may find new life through the healing mercy of love.

My Thoughts:

I was immediately drawn to the description of this book. A historical romance with strong themes of faith and forgiveness, the story centers on Aden, a young widow recently arrived from Norway, and Thor, the middle of the Norgaard brothers, apple farmers who make a very healthy living selling hard cider and wine. Set adrift and unsure where she belongs in the world, Aden begins to find a semblance of home on the mountain and finds her heart opening to Thor, but Thor's drinking brings up painful reminders of her marriage. While outwardly the brothers seem to have it all, old hurts and tensions run between them, particularly with the youngest, Haakon, and run-ins with their bitter neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan bring the threat of real danger.

From the very beginning I was drawn to the characters and their farm in southwest Virginia, but there is one in particular who captured my heart. Ah, Thor. A deep soul who often finds himself frustrated by the inability of others to understand him, with emotions so big and uninhibited that they can come out rather intensely. Numbing his pain and resentment with alcohol from the moment he wakes up every day. Never daring to hope that a woman would come along with the desire to see past his deafness, to make an effort to understand him and get to know him, to fall in love with him, to want to spend her life with him. Until Aden comes along, and what follows is a tender, emotional, angst-filled tale of love and overcoming addiction that really pulls at the heartstrings.

However, I ended up with mixed feelings about this book. I was absolutely in love with the love story and couldn't wait to see how it would play out, but I found the story often got bogged down by tedious details and description. Of course details and descriptions are vital in bringing the past to life, but it's easy to give too much and throw off the rhythm of the story, slow it down unnecessarily. And so I ended up skimming a bit. I also thought it had too many plot threads going on to do full justice to any of them. After finishing, I learned that this is first in a series and the author needed to set up several threads that will run through all of the books, but I still feel like these were complex themes--alcoholism, racism, superstition, grief, post-war hostility--that seemed sort of glossed over or rushed. And finally, Haakon sort of pulled a 180 and did some crazy things at the end that seemed to come out of nowhere. Turns out that was all a setup for the next book, but it just felt tacked on and contrived. I haven't decided yet if I'll read the next book because I don't really want to read about Haakon, but I probably will because, well . . .Thor.

If you're looking for something different in historical romance, this should definitely be on your radar. And it is a wonderful love story. Just be prepared for all of the other stuff that gets in the way.

My Rating:  3 Stars out of 5

Sons of Blackbird Mountain is on a blog tour!

Amazon | Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble | iBooks

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Guest Post: The Italian Couple by J. R. Rogers

Please join me in welcoming J.R. Rogers to Let Them Read Books! I'm happy to have J.R. here today with a guest post about La Teleferica Massaua-Asmara, an engineering marvel that played a pivotal role in Italy in World War II and plays a pivotal role in J.R.'s newest historical novel, The Italian Couple.

Colonel Francesco Ferrazza, a disciplined and inflexible Royal Italian Army officer with Italy’s Fascist Military Information Service, and his attractive British wife, Emilia, are posted to Asmara affectionately referred to as ‘Little Rome’ by Mussolini. The colonel is a familiar figure at the military casino and bordello where he brags at the bar he can bend a fireplace poker in half. But he is astonished when in 1938 he is ordered by his Rome superior to set in motion an unusual but clandestine sabotage operation of the engineering marvel that is the Asmara-Massawa cableway that links Italian Eritrea to the sea.

Built by the Italians it is the longest aerial line of its kind in the world but it is of such strategic importance the army comes to realize they may have made a strategic mistake in constructing it. They fear it could fall into the hands of neighboring Ethiopia—whom they defeated in a colonial war just two years ago.

Fearful of the devastating power of exposure Ferrazza sets out to find someone to carry out Operation Red Lion and meets Mario Caparrotti, an amateur race car driver. He plans to compete in the first Christmas Day automobile race through town.

Greedy, boastful, and ignorant, Caparrotti is all of the things the colonel detests in his fellow human beings, civilians in particular. But Ferrazza is desperate to recruit him because he is a cableway mechanic who has unfettered access to the engine room. The colonel entices him with his wife. Prodded by her husband the reluctant Emilia unhappily plays her part by becoming Caparrotti’s lover.

But things begin to fall apart: Caparrotti balks and now also demands significant sums of cash and when the colonel murders a colonial civil servant who has somehow learned of the plot he orders Caparrotti to help him dispose of the body. With the driver more reluctant than ever, and with the deadline drawing nearer, the colonel will do anything to ensure the sabotage is carried out.

Unexpectedly, Gyles Aiscroft, a Rome-based British freelance foreign correspondent, and an old family friend of Emilia’s parents arrives in Asmara. Her father, Edmund Playfair, the senior intelligence officer at the British embassy in Rome, has asked Aiscroft to look in on her. An older man, she finds herself drawn to him and confides her plight to him. They embark on a brief, intense affair. But what she doesn’t count on is his falling in love with her and wanting to whisk her off to Capri.

Determined to leave Africa with his mission complete, and with the deadline almost upon him, Ferrazza instructs the resigned and fearful Caparrotti how to go about setting the dynamite charges.
And as the tick-tock of the clock counts down the final hours the colonel belatedly begins to grasp that in ‘Little Rome’ nothing is what it seems, no one can be trusted and, when serving Mussolini, failure will never be condoned.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Guest Post: The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career by Cameron MacKenzie

Please join me in welcoming Cameron MacKenzie to Let Them Read Books! Cameron is here today with a guest post about finding narrative voice as he wrote his debut historical novel about the early life of Pancho Villa. Read on, and enter to win a paperback copy of The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career!

“I am not the revolution...I am the instrument of another hand.” So does Francisco “Pancho” Villa begin the tale of his rise from thief to warlord to the revolutionary leader of northern Mexico. By turns a confession and an act of seduction, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career chronicles a country remaking itself through blood and violence, giving shape to the boy who would dare to step from anonymity into power through the inexorable force of his will.

An exile at 16 after the murder of his family’s landowner, Villa begins a journey through dusty desert villages and barren mountaintop camps where his principles are formed and tested by endemic injustice. Building a group of outlaws around him, Villa begins to wage a war on the landowning dons that control the state, but as the savagery increases and the betrayals multiply, the ascension within Villa’s command of the mysterious and sadistic Rodolfo Fierro puts Villa’s ideals, and his vision of the future of Mexico, to the test.

Luminous, disturbing and powerful, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career weaves history and drama into a driving tale of ambition and brutality, insisting that those who would remake the world must first set fire to the old.

Narrative Voice
by Cameron MacKenzie

I think perhaps the most important (as well as the most difficult), element of the writing process is finding and controlling the narrative voice. If you can hit on the proper voice for the book, the book seems to come together around it. If you can’t find the right voice—and by voice here I’m talking about tone, about point of view, about vocabulary and length of line and rhythm—if you can’t find all that, the book can feel sunk before it starts.

A lot of historical fiction is told from the first person because it plants the reader concretely in the historical time and place. But in order to believably pull off a first person narrator in historical fiction, the writer needs to have a firm grasp on not only how people expressed themselves in that time and place, but how that particular character would understand him or herself from within a sociological, economic and cultural situation that is oftentimes quite foreign to us from where we sit today. The writer has got to do a ton of research to get this right.

I struggled for a long time with what perspective to use when writing my book on Pancho Villa, The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career. I had good writing from Villa’s perspective in the first person, but the more I learned about Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the more intimidated I became. This was an epic figure, one of the more important leaders of the 20th century—a man who pulled himself up from poverty and through lawlessness in a perilous landscape to eventually lead a country to freedom. What could I believably say about him?