Review of “I Was Anastasia” by Ariel Lawhon

Lawhon, Ariel. I Was Anastasia. New York: Doubleday, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0385541695. $26.95. 

3.5 stars

I picked up this book out of fascination with Anastasia’ story, and curiosity to learn more about Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be her. And while I found this book wonderfully crafted, it doesn’t hold many surprises for those who know the truth behind the fiction, despite being billed as “historical suspense.”

Through the structure of the book, Lawhon does try her best to maintain the suspense of who Anna truly is, given  that the story is set in an era prior to DNA testing, but writing the sections from Anna’s POV backwards meant I often felt more disconcerted with her parts of the book and only identified with her in part, as we didn’t get to see her growth from someone who saw an opportunity to better her circumstances to someone who had truly grown weary of the notoriety.

However, I did enjoy the sections from Anastasia’s POV, which surprised me, given this part was written in first person present tense, a style a normally loathe. But this portion of the book poignantly captures the dark realities of the Romanovs’ imprisonment between 1917-18, with their revolving door of increasingly worse guards and the increasingly worse treatment they received now that they were no better than anyone else. It was especially shocking to me, because while I was acquainted with many of the basic details of their captivity, I had no idea about the darker details that preceded their executions, like the murder of a beloved family pet, sexual assault, and physical violence. Given Lawhon’s portrayal of the Romanovs as such vulnerable, innocent people, it is unbelievable that they were subjected to this sort of behavior. While Nicholas II may not have been the most effective or popular ruler, I can’t imagine what would cause people to be so heartless as to not realize that, beneath all the wealth and power that they’ve stripped away, they are people too, especially the children, who played no role in their parents’ political decisions.

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Review of “To the Farthest Shores” by Elizabeth Camden

Camden, Elizabeth. To the Farthest Shores. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2017. ISBN-13: 978-0-7642-1880-4. $15.99 USD. 

4 stars

This is my first book by Elizabeth Camden, and while it is not the a perfect book by any means, I will be reading more from her. In To the Farthest Shores, she manages to take a premise of a romance between two people with deception and secrets between them and make it work, against a rich historical backdrop of early 20th century California.

While some aspects of the romance between Ryan and Jenny seem a little bit unbelievable, especially since they were supposedly so in love after a brief period, yet circumstances when his career meant he would be in Japan indefinitely led him to take up with another woman, the reunion and the building of trust again between the two feels authentic. When they reunite, they each have secrets, and once they are revealed, they are able to move forward as a couple. Camden conveys this as a positive, as well as the presence of Ryan’s adorable daughter, Lily.

I am also hopeful we haven’t seen the last of Finn, even if Camden doesn’t really write series, since it was wonderful to watch his journey through recovering from addiction to opiates, including exploring the stages of withdrawal. I loved seeing his growth by the end, to the point where he actually serves a pivotal role in helping Ryan and Jenny get together.

However, there are some shortcomings, both in terms of the prose and way I felt certain plot points were executed. I feel like the former could have been polished further by an editor, such as at one point in the book from Jenny’s POV, when they arrive at Ryan’s home, and she encounters Ryan’s chef for the first time. Initially, it says, when she was introduced to the man, “At first glance, Jenny assumed the cook was Japanese, but he introduced himself as Boris Lu, a man whose grandparents were among the first wave of Chinese immigrants to California in the 1850s.” (143) Then, pages later, Ryan reiterates the same information, with some additional details in conversation. I feel like one of these passages was not needed.

As for the latter, despite it not being a mystery specifically, I felt like a lot of time was spent on the attempts on Ryan’s life, generating curiosity that it would be important later, only to have the culprit revealed without fanfare, and, due to his familial relationship to Ryan, not punished. While he was never seriously hurt, I did feel like there should have been at least more of an explanation for what happened, and some consequences.

Review of “The Empress of Bright Moon” (The Empress of Bright Moon #2) by Weina Dai Randel

            Randel, Weina Dai. The Empress of Bright Moon. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-1-4926-1359-6. $15.99 USD. 

5 stars

The second book in Weina Dai Randel’s Empress of Bright Moon duology is just as good as the first, if not better. It builds on the palace intrigue and conspiracies of the last book, showing both how the stakes have been raised and how Mei has grown as a person.

Randel continues to show the injustices against women in the Palace with great poignance, from the depiction of Mei’s exile at the beginning and struggle to be accepted due to her past to the importance of woman’s fertility and the way she is shamed if she does not prove fruitful, with disregard for the man’s behavior, as was the case with Empress Wang.

I also loved seeing the continuing trajectory of Mei’s relationship with Pheasant, considering they have even more odds against them this time. I found myself rejoicing during the triumphs, such as when Mei is made a Lady of the Court and has a son, but feeling immense sadness and sympathy with them when their daughter is killed, leading to a brief rift between them. This is another credit to Randel’s wonderful writing, that she is able to take historical figures and bring flesh and blood to their unlikely and difficult love story.

Review of “A Change of Heart” (Bollywood #3) by Sonali Dev

Devi, Sonali. A Change of Heart. New York: Kensington, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-1-4967-0574-7. $15.00 USD. 

5 stars

A Change of Heart may just be the best book I’ve read by Sonali Dev so far, as she beautifully provides healing for two people who have experienced trauma in the past. She also manages to merge different genres with ease, providing both a rich romance and a compelling suspense plot.

Having got to know Nic and Jen in The Bollywood Bride, I was initially stunned by the turn of events that transpired between books. But this paved the way for the beautiful story within the book, as well as seeing Nic’s character growth, not to mention that Jen is still very much a presence in the book, even with her death. It is wonderful to see him grow to care for, and fight to protect, Jess, not as a replacement for Jen or to drown out his grief, but as a source of healing and new love.

I also loved how Jess’ dark past was revealed, especially when the circumstances that led to her making the choice to deceive Nic  were revealed. Dev captures the feeling of not having choices in life so eloquently. And through her, we see a great example of beauty coming out of darkness, as even though being sexually assaulted led to her becoming pregnant with her son, she has found happiness in being a mother.

Review of “Love and Ruin” by Paula McLain

McLain, Paula. Love and Ruin. New York: Ballantine Books, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1-101-96738-6. $28.00 USD. 

5 starsis

I had read The Paris Wife ages ago around the time it first came out, and somehow, Paula McLain disappeared from my radar after that until I heard she had released another book about Hemingway. And much like the prior book, Love and Ruin is wonderful, reimagining the life of a woman who I had known little about prior to reading the book, and now feel she is someone who was overlooked during her lifetime, due to her connection to one of the most famous American writers.

While I wasn’t sure going in what I would think of the story’s trajectory, given the bare facts of Hemingway’s complicated love life, I was quickly won over with the “voice” of McLain’s Martha Gellhorn and found her a historical heroine worth rooting for, despite knowing that her decisions in her relationship and marriage would lead more to “ruin” than “love” in the long run. Not only did I admire her ambition to be seen for her own merit, but I also could identify with her difficulties with balancing her domestic and professional lives, an issue which continues to this day. It is wonderful to see everything Gellhorn worked for to make a name for herself come full circle as another female writer who shares some of the same struggles publishes her story, so that we can have a a fuller appreciation for such a wonderful, underappreciated, and sometimes maligned, historical figure.

 

Review of “A Princess in Theory” (Reluctant Royals #1) by Alyssa Cole

Cole, Alyssa. A Princess in Theory. New York: Avon Books, 2018 ISBN-13: 978-0-06-268554-4, $7.99 USD. 

4 stars

A Princess in Theory is overall a great book, but not without its flaws. While I felt like the first half of the book was well-done, establishing who Ledi and Thabiso are and building the relationship between them, once it hits the middle, the book does fall flat slightly. I feel the mystery element as far as what was going on with Ledi’s parents and the mysterious illness was compelling, but the story ended with some unanswered questions. And despite there being a major reveal at the halfway point for Ledi, I didn’t feel like that or how it impacts her relationship with Thabiso going forward, is properly addressed, even though the premise is that she’s his betrothed, and his family intend to honor it by the end, despite entertaining other options. While I understand that the characters have more modern notions of romance, given the subgenre, I still wanted more closure there.

However, I did really like Ledi and Thabiso, and how their characters are written contrary to expectations of both their character types and the popular hero and heroine types in romance. Thabiso does kind of have a bit of a sense of entitlement, due to his upbringing as royalty, but he is definitely a sweet guy at his core, and the opposite of the typical alpha hero (one particularly fun, meta moment is when he mentions sneaking his mother’s Mills & Boon books).  Ledi is very different from the nerdy, quiet characters you stereotypically think of in people in STEM fields, and I like that there is equal focus put on her relationship with the sometimes problematic relationship with her best friend as there is on her professional life and her developing romance with Thabiso. The character are also complemented by great world-building through the development of the Thesoloian religion and culture, which only enriches this story.

Review of “Counting on a Countess” (The London Underground #2) by Eva Leigh

Leigh, Eva. Counting on a Countess. New York: Avon Books, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0062499431. $7.99 USD. 

4 stars

While the first installment in Eva Leigh’s London Underground series failed to live up to my expectations, Counting on a Countess is a far superior book with much more engaging characters with searing chemistry, and realistic stakes that challenge their ability to make a life together. While it is still a flawed book, it is much closer in quality with Leigh’s prior books.

While some of the aspects of the marriage-of-convenience narrative are familiar, including the agreement that it’s a business arrangement, not a love match, the twists Leigh conceives make the trope her own. While I often find myself skeptical at the idea that an experienced man like Kit can be brought to his knees by a sexually inexperienced woman, the fire in Tamsyn makes her more than a match for him.

And while I did understand that Tamsyn had good intentions when she began engaging in smuggling, it did still feel like Kit changed his way of thinking in that regard a little too quickly, especially considering how much was made of his moral standards due to his past career in the army. I did like that, in the end, they did both acknowledge that they both went into the marriage with intent to deceive one another, and that in the end, they came to a resolution that, while not exactly what each had originally planned, fulfilled each of their goals, and allowed them to do it together.

Review of “The Moon in the Palace” (Empress of Bright Moon Duology #1) by Weina Dai Randel

Randel, Weina Dai. The Moon in the Palace. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-1-4926-1356-5. $14.99 USD. 

5 stars

I knew very little about Empress Wu prior to reading this book, except that she was not a well-remembered ruler of China. But through reading Weina Dai Randel’s novel that explored her early years as a part of the Emperor’s Court, I feel like I have developed a greater understanding not just of her, but of the intensely competitive and dangerous world of palace life during the Tang Dynasty in general. A constant theme of the novel is the idea that ambition can lead to increased power, but overstepping or offending the Emperor can mean you fall just as swiftly as you rise. Randel poignantly portrays the consequences of the overly ambitious, while foreshadowing the great promise of Mei, the story’s heroine.

It is wonderful to follow Mei on her journey as she, becomes wiser in the ways of the courts. And I love that Randel works to make her a sympathetic heroine who isn’t only out for herself right away, especially through her initial interactions with the antagonistic Jewel. And despite it seeming a little bit odd to me at first, once I looked at it in the context of the times, I really liked the development of the relationship between her and the Emperor’s son, Pheasant, and knowing how they end up, I look forward to seeing more of them in the next book.

Review of “The Secret of Flirting” (Sinful Suitors #5) by Sabrina Jeffries

Jeffries, Sabrina. The Secret of Flirting. New York: Pocket Books, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-1-5011-4448-6. $7.99 USD. 

4.5 stars

This is my first Sabrina Jeffries book, and while normally I would not jump into a later book in a series, this was the book chosen for Eloisa James’ Book Club this month, and considering that there are not only four prior books in this series, but two other series that are connected to this one, I took a chance.

And I found it paid off. I love stories rife with political intrigue, and in setting her novel during the London Conference of 1830, there was plenty of opportunity for that. I love how she seamlessly interwove her historical world and characters with illustrious historical figures like the Duke of Wellington and Prince Leopold to create a compelling historical novel.

But of course, this being a romance, that was the major focus. I loved both Gregory and Monique and the evolving dynamic between them. And while at one point, it had the potential of rubbing me the wrong way in terms of its depiction of the clashing views on whether they should get married or not after having slept together — twice — without protection, which is one of my pet peeves in historical romance, I felt the issues felt much more real this time around than in others that contain this trope. I loved how this didn’t become a major plot point, and instead served as a growth moment for each of them and their relationship. And I loved seeing them ultimately work together to bring resolution to the assassination attempts.

The extended cast is also great, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of them and Chanay in Jeffries’ work. While I know the state of the romance market makes a book about Princess Aurore and Lady Ursula unlikely, I do hope things work out for them. And I also thoroughly enjoyed the banter between the count and the dowager Lady Fulkham, and given the hints about the state of their relationship (or lack thereof) by the end of the book, I would love even a novella that follows their romance.

Review of “Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers” by Sara Ackerman

Ackerman, Sara. Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. Don Mills, Ontario: MIRA Books, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-7783-1921-4. $15.99 USD. 

5 stars

I discovered Sara Ackerman at the same book event during which I discovered Bridget Quinn, and I was surprised and excited, after living in Hawaii all my life and largely considering the majority of the local literature as “not for me,” to find a Hawaii resident who wrote a book in a genre I was interested in. And upon digging into the book, I found it was a truly enjoyable reading experience.

Mixing first and third person POV can be a hit-or-miss with me, and in this case, it definitely worked well to differentiate the voices of both Violet and her daughter, Ella, and even makes sense narratively when it comes to the crucial moment when Ella reveals that she knows what really happened to her father.

The story also benefits from a diverse and colorful cast of characters, which reflects the demographics of Hawaii during the war. I love how Ackerman managed to capture the real sense of community between people from different backgrounds, presenting a narrative about the experience of Japanese Americans and their friends in Hawaii during a time when the government was against them, especially if they were in a position of influence.

Despite the story focusing mostly on the bond between the female characters, there are romantic elements, including a slowly building relationship between Violet and Parker, one of the soldiers temporarily stationed there. But it isn’t the major driving force of the story, so even if the ending left the romance feeling a little unresolved, I still felt that the book had accomplished all of the things it had promised to do, with no disappointment was I read the final words, as I had a feeling that things would be all right between them.