Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Review: The Hangman's Daughter

It was kind of funny. When I went to the book club meeting where we selected our eleven books for the year, I brought my list, which included markings for books I'd already read, books I would probably go ahead and read even if they didn't end up being selected by the group, and only one book marked as something I was not interested in at all. Two of our selections were ones I've already read, but would indeed be willing to read again. Three selections were ones I had marked to be read regardless. And, the one book I didn't want to read at all, well  ... that made this month's selection: The Hangman's Daughter.

I wasn't excited about reading a book about an executioner. Nor was I thrilled that the book promised to explore cries of witchcraft  in seventeenth century Bavaria and to include the appearance of a character known by the people as the devil, who boasts a hand of visible bones. None of that appealed to me in the slightest. I really thought about not reading the book at all and just skipping March's club meeting. I declared to my husband that I was only giving the book 50 pages to make my decision. Somehow, at the end of 50 pages, I wanted to read on to find out what was going to happen and who was responsible for the crimes being committed in the small town of Shongau.

From the beginning, the reader learns that the executioner is not thrilled about his job, but feels resigned to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. Then, dead children begin to show up. The first is pulled from the icy waters of a raging river, with multiple stab wounds and a strange mark etched into his skin. The mark is taken for a symbol of witchcraft and immediately the town suspects the midwife (who deals in many natural remedies or brews for childbirth and its complications). I was sucked in. I wanted to know who was killing the children (three were murdered) and to what purpose. I wanted to find out if the town would indeed employ the executioner to torture the midwife into a confession so they could tidy things up by burning her at the stake.

Potzsch certainly manages to keep the suspense alive and to up the ante over and over again. Just when you think the hangman and the young town doctor (who is disgracing his father by falling for the hangman's daughter) will come to harm in their quest for the truth, they manage to escape and a further development is revealed. The remaining children hold the key to the mystery, but in fear they are hiding out in an undisclosed place.

So, I have to admit that I enjoyed the novel more than I anticipated. Still, it wasn't without fault. I was jarred by the constant use of phrases which seemed far too modern for the time frame established. It was translated, so perhaps the translator is responsible for the modern terminology. While the book held my interest, it felt like the author was trying hard to maintain a frantic pace of action. It seemed more thriller than historical fiction (or perhaps it was just that the historical bits didn't seem to ring true always). Even though I discovered that this is merely the first book in a series, I can say with certainty that I won't be seeking out the rest of the books. Just not my thing (although better than I expected).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: A Step of Faith

I am continuing to listen to Richard Paul Evans' The Walk series. This book, A Step of Faith, is the fourth installment in the tale of Alan Christoffersen's journey from Seattle, Washington, to Key West, Florida. These books are part travelogue, part story. The food aspects of the travelogue get a bit tiresome, but the tidbits about the geography and towns are usually interesting enough. The characters Alan met in this book were a bit more eccentric and the story not quite as riveting, but it was still an enjoyable experience to listen to as he reflects on loss and life and the necessity of faith.

This installment of the journey begins with Alan going to surgery to have his brain tumor removed. In the midst of this trial, he seems to alienate everyone who loves him - his father, who wants him to remain in California with him after the surgery instead of resuming his intense walk, Falene, who loves him and recognizes that he doesn't return the sentiment, and Nicole, who is also in love with Alan. Must be tough to have two women clamoring for attention, right?

Alan meets some real winners in this book. He stumbles upon a divorced and remarried pastor who offers him shelter and a satisfying meal (of course, a meal). He encounters a savior-figure of a wild religious cult. Finally, when his energy is failing him and he is stuck in the Okefenokee swamp, he is picked up by a man who is preparing for the end of the world by securing an arsenal of protection for himself. With only one more book in the series, I hope the situation with his conflicted love life resolves and he ends his walk with an affirming feeling for his magnificent accomplishment.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

Once again, in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley has created a mystery titled with a nod to fine literature (taken from Shakespeare) and featuring the inimitable Flavia de Luce. Flavia is a super-sleuth extraordinaire! I love her character and her mysteries are always delightful. That said, this was still my least favorite of the Flavia series. It meandered a bit too much and was full of secret societies and code words, but less substance. Plus, I just missed the town of Bishop's Lacey and her jaunts on her beloved bike, Gladys.

For this episode, Flavia has crossed the ocean and taken up residence in a boarding school in Canada. Despite not enjoying this book as much as I have the others (perhaps it is simply due to the fact that she is away from her beloved English country estate, Buckshaw), it was still an enjoyable read. Flavia is sent to her mother's school, Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, with the hopes of studying with a chemistry teacher once accused of murder (Flavia's favorite subjects ... chemistry and murder). Within the hours of the first night, a body turns up, wrapped in a Union Jack and stuffed up the chimney of Flavia's room. She is quickly sucked into a maelstrom of curious characters and urged to "trust no one." Are the other boarding students members of the Nide, mentioned in the previous book? Why are students vanishing? Will Flavia be able to deduce the identity of the remains? Why does the skull not match the body?

Not surprisingly, Flavia is homesick (even for her horrid sisters who treat her abominably). I was a bit surprised that the only person to write to her was her beloved butler, Dogger (with a small note from the pesky Undine). Moreover, I could have done without the excess vomiting which takes place throughout the novel. Still, there are several nods to Dickens (always love a Dickens reference) and Shakespeare. I was happy to see that Flavia will return to her normal turf for the next book. Hopefully, the she will resume her feisty activities and the next mystery will be more appealing.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Book Review: The Road to Grace

This is the third journal of Richard Paul Evans' The Walk series. Once again, I tackled it in audio form so that I could walk alongside throughout the journey. Although I'm still peeved with the constant mentions of the food consumed, this was another fairly enjoyable, light-hearted excerpt of the story (not my favorite series, but inspirational nonetheless).

The last episode concluded with an unknown woman approaching Alan Christoffersen on his long walk from Seattle, Washington, to Key West, Florida. We discover that the woman, who stalks him for many miles, is the mother of his deceased wife and he wants nothing to do with her because she abandoned her daughter at a young age. He softens his position once he is forced to hear her out and comes to forgive her for the damage she has caused. Other characters he meets along the way include an old Polish man who survived a concentration camp, an elderly man searching for the ghost of his wife, and a woman trapped in a small town by her deceased husband's family.

I was thrilled that the story line remained wholesome when Alan rejected the advances of the widowed woman. Moreover, the final chapter's exposition on grace was a beautiful passage, especially poignant, given that Alan has just learned that he has a brain tumor. The book is full of thoughts on forgiveness, grace, and hope. I'm pretty sure I'll stick with it through the final two installments.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Book Review: Harmless

Once again, I was knee-deep in attempts to find a novel similar to the one I am trying to pitch to agents, when I discovered this young adult novel by Dana Reinhardt. Harmless is in a similar vein to the book I have written. I think I have nailed an acceptable comparison title to offer up to prospective agents.

A lie is such an easy thing to produce. Yet, the consequences can be so far-reaching. Three girls learn this lesson quite effectively in Harmless. Emma, Anna, and Mariah are freshmen at a local private school. One night they tell their parents they will be seeing a movie at the campus cinema. Instead, Mariah leads them to her older boyfriend's house to hang out. When one set of parents decide at the last minute to see the movie, too, they are shocked when the girls are nowhere in sight. Fearing they will be grounded for life, the girls plot a story to tell to shift suspicion off themselves. They tell of a foiled rape attempt, not realizing their parents will insist they go to the police. This story alters their lives and the lives of everyone in the community.

Although it took a while to get to the inciting incident, the lie, I loved how the author got to the root of the problem and illustrated so clearly how the lie affected each of the girls in different ways. The characters were well-drawn. The story is told from three different perspectives, which can sometimes prove cumbersome, but in this case worked in the author's favor to tease out the differences between the girls. This story is sure to appeal to teen readers who may have found themselves in similar circumstances and been tempted to lie in order to escape inevitable punishment. Really anyone could put themselves in the shoes of these normally upstanding young girls and see how one stupid mistake can lead to devastating consequences.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Book Review: Seven Letters from Paris

I was up for a love story. Thus, when I noticed this book on the recent acquisition shelf, I took the bait. Besides that, it is a memoir and I've been on a bit of a memoir kick. I did notice that the author doesn't mention an agent and says that the editor picked the manuscript from the slush piles. So thankful that things like that still happen (since the evidence leans more to the contrary, that you have to have an agent in order for your manuscript to see the light of day in the piles and piles of manuscripts which come across publishers' desks these days).

As far as love stories go, this was indeed a sweet love story. When Samantha was nineteen, she and her travelling companion met two Frenchmen in Paris and spent a wonderful evening and day with the two. The men begged the girls to stay in Paris for a few more days, but their itinerary required moving on to another city. Thus, Jean-Luc, the man with whom Samantha was temporarily smitten, waved good-bye on the train platform. Jean-Luc proceeded to write seven love letters. Although she always kept the letters, she failed to respond to a single one.

Twenty years later, as Samantha sat bemoaning a failing marriage with her friend (the same travelling companion), the friend mentioned the love letters and the sad truth that not many men write such extravagant love letters. This prompted Samantha to google Jean-Luc's full name in the hopes of finding him and apologizing for never responding to his letters. She admits that the abandonment of her biological father played havoc with her ability to trust men or allow herself to grow close to another individual. End result? The two end up happily married and now live together, with Jean-Luc's two children in France.

While I enjoyed the sweet tale, I did have a hard time with the details of the experience. The seven love letters were not, in my opinion, love letters to rival all others. Plus, she is still married when she initiates the re-intertwining of their lives. After reconnecting and dispatching several hundred e-mails, as well as numerous phone conversations, when he pays for her to visit, she jumps into bed with him the minute she gets to a room in France. They both pursue divorces in order to pursue their rekindled romance. I guess I am skeptical that momentary passion is a sound basis for relationship. For her sake, I hope that she is indeed happily settled in this romantic love affair. But, my inner critic tends to think they jumped quite quickly and without much forethought (especially, on the rebound).

Moreover, the tale seemed a bit too sunny (surely there were some relational conflicts between the two of them, as such conflicts are inevitable). She does mention in the acknowledgements that her new husband would have preferred a fictional account of their story, instead of a memoir, but that is the tricky thing with memoir ... when you write truthfully about your life, you have to include the details of other people's lives in the process and oftentimes, others don't wish their details made public. It is. therefore, difficult to assess whether the value of the telling overshadows the sacrifice of privacy. And in opening herself up to share her story, she runs the risk of finding readers whose ethics cause them to criticize her actions (sorry). Hopefully, her story succeeds in its goal and inspires others to seize a second chance at love.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Review: Seraphina

I don't really seek out fantasy literature, but I'm not opposed to it either. Thus, when I saw the cover of this tween novel about dragons (a beautiful illustration of spires, a clock tower, a distant castle, and a flying dragon) on Sheila's blog at The Deliberate Reader, I decided to give it a go. While it wasn't one of my favorite reads this year, it was still a fairly delightful little tale about a girl who is caught in a world of dragons and humans and the tenuous peace of this supposed world.

In the kingdom of Goredd, dragons and humans live side by side because of a treaty drawn up years before. The anniversary of this treaty is drawing near, but the peace it accords is threatened. A member of the royal family has just been murdered in a way consistent with dragon behavior (his head has been bitten off), but no one knows who is to blame. Seraphina is a court appointed musician with a secret of her own, but drawn into the intrigue by her curiosity and precocious knowledge of dragon-kind. Together with Prince Lucian Kiggs, she seeks to ferret out the truth while hiding her own truth.

I think the author did a grand job of creating a world of humans and dragons co-existing (not quite as funny or delightful as we see in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, but equally plausible). Anyone with a fascination for dragons would probably really enjoy this tale. The dragons are not treated as sub-human (indeed, many of the dragons serve as teachers and scholars), but the distrust remains and provides an undercurrent of suspicion and conflict.

Seraphina's secret is divulged to the reader early on, so the reader is caught up in the whole question of whether or not she will be outed. I enjoyed the characters and the conflicted love story which develops between Seraphina and Prince Lucian (a man who is already betrothed and thus, out of reach for Seraphina). While the story was somewhat drawn out (perhaps longer than it needed to be), it still kept the reader engaged. I enjoyed it reasonably enough and would probably give it three stars.

It appears that a sequel, Shadow Scale, has just been released recently. I liked the first book enough that I would be willing to venture into a second book. I would be most interested to find out whether Seraphina and Prince Lucian ever have the future of their dreams.