Book Review: The Masterpiece

The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

First line: Clara Darden’s illustration class at the Grand Central School of Art, tucked under the copper eaves of the terminal, was unaffected by the trains that rumbled through ancient layers of Manhattan schist hundreds of feet below.

Summary: For Clara, a struggling artist and illustration teacher, Grand Central School of Art is a stepping stone in the hopes of greater things to come. She has dreams of working for Vogue as an illustrator. By moving to New York City, she left behind everything but so far, things have not turned out the way she had planned.

After her divorce, Virginia Clay has been trying to figure out how to support herself and her daughter after spending years as the wife of a powerful attorney. When she gets a job at Grand Central Terminal in the information booth, she does not realize how much it will change her life. She discovers a watercolor behind a cabinet in the old art school and it leads her on search for the artist and the history of the terminal.

Highlights: I really enjoyed the character of Levon. He was fiery and temperamental. He portrays the iconic angsty artist. He had a rich back-story and little quirks that made him stand out. I wish that he were a real person so I could see some of the work that Davis describes in her novel.

The descriptions of Grand Central were amazing. Google is my best friend when reading historical fiction. I am always pausing my reading to search for pictures or more information about places and characters. It is sad that the terminal was in such bad shape in the 70s and that at one point it was going to be torn down. I have never traveled to NYC but I have seen the station at Kansas City and if it is half as pretty as that, it would have been a shame to lose it.

I have enjoyed the time jumps in Davis’ work. I think the thing that makes her work so great. She is able to switch between characters and time while keeping the flow of the story. I have not read her second book, The Address, yet but I am on hold for it now.

Lowlights: The beginning was a little slow to start. Davis gave us some background on the characters plus some information about the time. Then the speed of the relationships went very fast. I was a little shocked by Virginia early on but she grew on me as I continued to read. One scene in particular stood out between Virginia and Dennis.

FYI: If you like this try the novels of Susan Meissner.

Book Review: An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

First line: The road curves and twists unexpectedly as it leads higher and deeper into the Catskill Mountains, as if the farther you get from civilization, the more uncertain the path.

Summary: For the guests of Mitchell’s Inn in the Catskill Mountains it looks like a beautiful winter weekend. However, when a body of one of the guests is found at the bottom of the stairs on the first morning things become less idyllic. Add to that a power outage from an ice storm and the guests begin to fear for their safety since there appears to be a murderer staying at the hotel.

Highlights: I recently read And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. As I started reading An Unwanted Guest I was comparing the two novels. A remote location, a group of strangers, no way to leave and murder! How can you not go wrong with a combination like this? I found the story fun and engaging. Each character was interesting and had little secrets of their own. The idea of being stuck in a hotel with strangers and no electricity while a murderer is on the loose is a bit terrifying. I wish I could have read this during the winter wrapped in a blanket. I liked the atmosphere and suspense. This was a quick read and lots of fun.

Lowlights: I was a little shocked by the ending. However, I thought that when the killer was revealing everything it was a little rushed and quickly thrown together. It did not seem like it was planned out or given too much thought.

FYI: Read the author’s other two books, The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House.

Book Review: Believe Me

Believe Me by J.P. Delaney

First line: On the day of departure, guests are requested to vacate their rooms by noon.

Summary: When British acting student, Claire, is struggling for money to pay rent she starts work at a decoy for a law firm in order to entrap straying husbands. However, on her last job the wife ended up dead the next day. In order to find out who the killer is they ask Claire to try to get a confession out of the husband. As she immerses herself into her character, the lines between the act and reality begin to blur.

Highlights: In the second novel by J.P. Delaney we get a twisty psychological thriller. I was certain I had the story figured out. I was wrong. There were so many decoys and little tidbits that make the reader believe one thing when it can mean something completely different. The story was FAST! I could not believe how quickly I read this and how hard it was to put down. I loved being inside Claire’s head even though it got a little troublesome at times. The way she viewed everything as a production was a fun styling choice for the author.

Lowlights: I do not believe there were many lowlights other than the fact that it is not something new or astounding. It is a great read but it is not groundbreaking. Enjoy it but do not look for the next Gone Girl.

FYI: Try Delaney’s first book, The Girl Before.

Book Review: The Romanov Empress

The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner

First line: “We should dress alike,” I said on that afternoon when life changed forever.

Summary: In the latest historical novel by C.W. Gortner, we get the story of Minnie, the mother of the last tsar of Russia. Minnie is a princess of Denmark and destined to marry for an alliance. That marriage is to the future tsar of Russia, Alexander III. However, when trouble strikes the country the new tsar and tsarina must find a way to navigate the changing political climate before the country revolts. When Alexander dies unexpectedly, leaving their inexperienced son, Nicholas as tsar, Minnie must try to guide him before they lose their country forever.

Highlights: I found Minnie to be a fascinating woman. I knew next to nothing about her other than what is portrayed in the movie, Anastasia.  (She is the grandmother who is desperately searching to find out if her son, Nicholas, and his family survived the Russian Revolution). She sounds like a strong woman who had to try to survive in a very turbulent time. Russia has always been a country with struggles and that fact that she lived through them shows how smart she really was.

“I’d finally found the means to be useful to my adopted country, to give back to Russia something of what she’d given to me.”

It was difficult to keep track of all the relationships and marriages. I was constantly checking family trees and Wikipedia to figure out which character was which and how they played into the story of the Romanovs. Even knowing how the story ends, the Russian Revolution, I kept hoping for better for them.

Gortner does an amazing job of describing the opulence of the Romanov court. I would love to see the Winter Palace and St. Petersburg. There is so much history and culture in Russia. However, the riches and luxury that the tsar and his court lived in is hard to imagine. How can someone live like that? It just boggles the mind. It is easy to see why the peasants revolted. They were starving while the royal family drank champagne.

I remember when reading other novels about the Romanovs, that Alexandra was not very well liked.  Gortner gives us a look into why.  She seemed shy and anxious.  But Minnie, as dowager empress with lots of experience with the Russian people, tried to teach her how to act and gain their respect.  Their relationship was very volatile.  It was sad to see how much dislike there was between the two women.

Throughout the novel I was thrilled to see how well the author brought the history to life.  This is one of the best written historical novels I have read in a long time.

Lowlights: Do I have to have any lowlights? I think not. This book was great. Historical fiction is and always will be my favorite genre.

FYI: Perfect for readers of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir.

Book Review: Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

First line: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Summary: When Miryem takes over her father’s money lending business she excels at it. She has a talent for making silver into gold. Slowly bringing her family out of poverty, she garners a reputation but it may not be as all she thought it would be. She draws the attention of the Staryk king, a creature of ice and cold who preys on the people of Vysnia.

Highlights: This book is beautiful! It has classic fairy tale themes, Rumpelstiltskin, and the feeling of a Russian folktale. I wish that I had read this in the dead of winter because it is very atmospheric. The story is dark and rich. So much detail and story is packed into it that it takes a while to digest. This is not a summery beach read but one that needs to be savored.

There are at least six points of view throughout the plot and each character has a symbol to represent them. It is a nice touch to separate the narratives. Each character brings their own voice and thoughts to the story. Miryem is the moneylender’s daughter who is stolen away by the Staryk king. Wanda, the servant girl, gives us a peak into the prejudices of the village folk but also the wonder of girl who has been given a chance to better herself. Her younger brother, Stepon, is the innocent who watches and does not completely understand what is happening around him. Irina, the daughter of a duke, has been forgotten and neglected until her father hatches a plan to ensnare the Tsar and therefore putting her in danger. The young tsar, Mirnatius, has a dark secret. And finally Magreta, the nurse who raised Irina and is determined to keep her young charge safe.

With so many plot lines intertwining you would think it would get confusing but it does not. They all come together and conclude the story. The last few chapters are fast paced and the perfect way to end. Be prepared to spend time with these characters in this world. It is a hearty read but worth it.

The Staryk was a tale for a winter’s night.

Lowlights: I love the detail of the story and the characters. Every few chapters though felt a little longer than they needed to be. I am a fan of short chapters so when one stretched on for 50+ pages it took me a little longer to get through.

FYI: Read Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It is fantastic! It is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast which is my favorite fairy tale.

The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings

I have a miniature dachshund named Winston.  He HATES fireworks.  In the last few years, I have learned some tricks to help him deal with the holiday.  One of my favorite traditions now is a movie marathon with lots of action to drown out the booms.  This year we watched The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogies.  Watching these movies took me back to childhood.

One of my earliest memories is being read to every night by my dad.  One of the books that stands out the most is The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I remember him checking out an illustrated copy from our local library.  It felt so special having him read when we knew he was tired.  He worked in Wichita and had an hour commute every day to and from work with a 4 a.m. alarm.  I loved the story of Bilbo Baggins and the company of Thorin Oakenshield.  My favorite scene is and always will be the chapter, Riddles in the Dark, where Bilbo meets and outwits Gollum.  I was always a little worried for Bilbo.  Answer the riddle or be eaten?!  How scary.  Followed by giant spiders in the forest of Mirkwood.  (Why is there always giant spiders?)  Then when they reach the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo has to face the dragon, Smaug.  This book gets better and better.  But I still remember being saddened at the end with the death of Thorin.  I still am sad about it actually.

When I was in high school, my dad and I went to see the first of the Lord of the Rings movies.  I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of this movie.  It was visually stunning with an amazing cast and a great story.  I had never read the LOTR books but I did remember the story, The Hobbit.  I immediately had to buy the trilogy and start reading.  I LOVED them.  The detail that Tolkien puts in his books is beautiful and complex.  The following years, I went to see The Two Towers and The Return of the King and was so happy to see that Peter Jackson followed the source material so well.

Then several years later Jackson announced they were adapting The Hobbit!  I was stoked.  They were bringing back some of the original cast and adding new talent.  Going to the theater to see the first movie was like being a kid again.  Once again, the casting was amazing.  Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin were both exactly what I wanted.  Even though the movies veered off the story line, I felt that Jackson still gave us the feel of Tolkien.

When I happened upon an exact copy of The Hobbit that my dad read to us in a used bookstore I snatched it up immediately.  I placed it in a spot of honor next to my illustrated copies of Harry Potter!  There is nothing like a special book that makes us feel young again.  What is your favorite book from childhood?  We’d love to hear your comments!

Book Review: The Haunted Queen

Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

First line: “A health to the bride!”

Summary: Jane Seymour is the daughter of knight. With aspirations of becoming a nun, she did not consider that life at court was in her future. However, when her plans to join a nunnery change she joins the household of Queen Katherine, the wife of Henry VIII. Jane is devoted to the queen so when a maid of honor, Anne Boleyn, starts to attract the king, Jane must decide where her loyalties lie. When Anne becomes queen, Jane is forced to serve her. As Anne’s power wanes the king’s eye begins to stray. Jane becomes the focus of his attention and his future queen.

Highlights: Weir’s portrayal of Jane Seymour is the best one I have read. Jane is a very boring queen. She has very little time to establish herself in history but what we know of her is that she was meek and obedient. At least this is what we assume but in The Haunted Queen we get a little bit of fire injected in to her character. She has opinions, thoughts and questions. Even though she is afraid to voice them, we as the reader get a look into her mind and see more than the quiet mouse she is remembered as.

Lowlights: I felt that more of the book was centered around Anne Boleyn (who is my favorite of Henry’s wives). We see the events unfold through Jane’s eyes but not much about Jane herself. Which leaves a small portion at the end of story to center around her time as queen.

FYI: Weir does a great job so far on each of the queens. Check out Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen and Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession to read the first two books in the series.

Book Review: The Last Time I Lied

The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

First line: This is how it begins.

Summary: When Emma Davis is asked to return to Camp Nightingale it brings many memories and fears to mind. One summer, fifteen years before, Emma was a camper at Camp Nightingale and the three girls from her cabin all disappeared. Now as an artist on the rise, she continues to paint the missing girls Vivian, Natalie and Allison. Maybe going back will help Emma get past her demons and find out what truly happened to the girls of Dogwood cabin.

“I want to go inside, look around, see what memories it dredges up. That’s why I’m here, after all. Yet when I twist the doorknob, I realize my hand is shaking. I don’t know what I’m expecting. Ghosts, I suppose.”

Highlights: Sager’s latest novel is one of nostalgia for me. Having attended a summer camp near a large lake and cabins with no AC, this brought back many memories for me. The uncomfortable nights where everything is hot and sticky, canoeing on the lake, campfires and crafts. My sister, my cousins and I attended Quaker Haven Camp in Northern Indiana for two summers. We loved every minute of it. We made friends, crafts and memories. Even at church camp, you hear the stories of some creepy man that stalks the woods or a ghost that kidnaps children. This is what summer was as a kid at camp.
I could picture Camp Nightingale as clear as day. As Emma looks deeper into the events of fifteen years before she slowly reveals more memories that she has kept hidden. The author leads us in many different directions to keep us guessing. I loved the mystery of the lake. With each new tidbit, I was even more intrigued.
The ending was not what I expected. It wrapped up, we got the mystery solved but then…that ending! Holy cow! My chest was tight. My heart was pounding. I had to set the book down and breathe after the last page. The fact that Sager once again got a five star review from me is astounding. I cannot wait for his next book.

Lowlights: The only downfall was that I could not be reading this in a lawn chair on the shores of Dewart Lake in Indiana. That would have made this perfect.

FYI: This is the perfect book to take on a weekend trip to the lake!

Book Review: As Bright As Heaven

As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

First line: Morning light shimmers on the apricot horizon as I stand at the place where my baby boy rests.

Summary: When the Bright family, Thomas, Pauline and their three daughters, decide that they are going to move to Philadelphia they believe that it will be a new start away from the sorrow of the last few months. Thomas is apprenticing his uncle’s mortuary business. This seems a strange place to bring a family after the loss of their infant son and brother but for Pauline it helps her heal and understand death better. But suddenly the war and the Spanish Flu descend on the family. They have to deal with more than they ever expected.

Highlights: Susan Meissner can write beautiful stories rich with historical detail and human emotion. Her characters are always amazing and deep. It was a very fitting time to read about the flu after the strong strain that hit the U.S. this year. It is also the 100th anniversary of the epidemic. I liked the love stories and the history.

“She says the flu wanted to make barbarians of us, to have us think life is not precious and the dead are not worthy of our kindest care. Our humanity is what made what happened to us so terrible. Without it, nothing matters.”

Of course I had to search Newspapers.com (using the link on our library website) to see how Wichita reported the events of the time.  It seemed that the who country shut down to help protect civilians from the dreaded flu that was wiping out millions of people.


Lowlights: I felt like the narratives of Pauline and Willa were not completely necessary. They did not provide too much to the story. The story could have been shortened by 50 pages or so. I ended up skimming the last 40 pages to see how the characters and story wrapped up.

FYI: I loved her book, The Secrets of a Charmed Life, which is set during the Blitz in London during World War II.

Book Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

First line: The magpies are back.

Summary: When Harriet Westaway receives a letter from a lawyer she is confused by its contents. It is informing her that her grandmother has died and that her presence is needed at the reading of the will. Harriet has never met her grandmother. She never even knew she had one. Maybe they got the wrong person. Nevertheless, with a loan shark hounding her for money and bills piling up she decides to see what is behind this letter. Upon arriving at Trepassen she meets the rest of her “family”. Can she deceive these people and take their money? On the other hand, is there more here than she thought?

Highlights: This is by far Ruth Ware’s best novel. It took me a while to read but not from lack of interest. I liked Harriet. She is a young girl in an impossible situation. She does the best she can to take care of herself in an uncertain world. I really enjoyed the diary entries that give the reader a peak into the past and snippets of facts pertaining to the mystery. I kept coming up with new scenarios and answers. Ware did a great job setting up each little twist and turn. In addition, I was truly a little frightened by Mrs. Warren. She was always there with some dark comment or ominous look.

I didn’t mean you—I just meant—well, look, Mrs. Warren’s always had a touch of the Mrs. Danvers about her.

Lowlights: The loan sharks were the driving force to get the story started but then the threat disappeared as the plot progressed. I understand that they were just a starting point for why Hal decided to impersonate the Westaway heir but if it was a big part of the beginning maybe it should make an appearance at the end?

FYI: Ruth Ware is also the author of The Woman in Cabin 10 and The Lying Game.