Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Book: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release date: March 22, 2011
Source: Borrowed from library


Summary from Goodreads:

Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

From the very first sentence, this book grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go. I devoured this book in two sittings, staying up late into the night, furiously wiping away tears so I could finish. I was so thoroughly invested in Lina’s story that I had a hard time letting go.

Lina, along with her mother and brother, is ripped from her Lithuanian home by Soviet secret police late on a June evening in 1941. They are given 20 minutes to pack a bag before they are whisked away on trucks and herded onto train cars bound for Russia. From there, we follow Lina’s harrowing journey of survival by train to Russian and Siberian forced labor camps.

The book moves quickly thanks to short chapters, often punctuated by Lina’s memories of moments from a better time. These snippets give us a glimpse into the girl she was before she was taken. They serve as a jarring juxtaposition against her situation in the camps – starving, worked near to death, fighting disease and failing health. Her memories are those of any girl, and reminds us of her humanity and innocence.

Lina meets a number of people on the train and in the camps, and they all captivated me in different ways. Ruta Sepetys, who researched this book by visiting Lithuania and hearing survivors’ experiences, created such vivid characters despite their dire circumstances. I felt for each of them in different ways, much like the way they each process their situation. No one person reacted the same way to what was happening – we saw denial, fear, shock, outrage, defiance, and defeat. Nothing can prepare you for the gamut of emotions that Sepetys paints onto each page.

This is a gorgeous, haunting, and incredibly moving book. I highly recommend it, but be sure to keep some tissues handy.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Book: Grave Mercy
Author: Robin LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: April 3, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley
Series: His Fair Assassin #1


Summary from Goodreads:

Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous giftsâ??and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittanyâ??where she finds herself woefully under preparedâ??not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Deathâ??s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

First impressions: YOU GUYS. LADY NUN ASSASSINS. Enough said.

Lasting impressions: Ismae may be one of my favorite heroines of all time. She’s up there with Claire Randall, vying for the top spot. She’s smart, humble, kind, merciful, and oh yeah – a stealthy handmaiden of death.

Conflicting impressions: While the convent was a large focus of the first part of this book, the ending didn’t tie up many loose ends in that regard. I have a feeling much of this information will become the focus in later books, but I felt a little jilted in this book when it came to Sybella and some of the other sisters.

Overall impressions: It’s a historical novel with courtly intrigue and a protagonist who is a kick-ass murderer. But a nice kick-ass murderer. I would have bet anyone a million dollars that I would love this book.

Guess what? I win!

The premise of this book could never hold the weight of its own ambition without a heroine that makes the reader care about her. From the very first page, Ismae stole my heart. Trapped under an abusive father, marked by Death himself to be an outcast, and thrust into a marriage with a disgusting pig of a man, I couldn’t help but want something more for her. When she is offered a home and a purpose for her miserable life at St. Mortain’s convent, Ismae can finally start to believe in herself. 

The bulk of the novel focuses on one of Ismae’s first major assignments. She is assigned to play mistress to Lord Duval and accompany him to the Breton court to ferret out traitors that need assassinating. There is a delectable romance that builds between the two unlikely lovebirds, and I appreciated that LaFevers devoted more time to personality based obstacles than class driven ones. Yes he’s a Lord and one of the most influential men at court, and she’s just the lowly peasant girl, but that never seems to be the focus for why these two shouldn’t fall in love.

Perhaps why I loved Ismae so much was precisely because LaFevers made her more complicated than the usual historical trope. Despite her training and occupation, Ismae is an Everywoman. She’s unsure of herself and makes mistakes. She follows at times she should be leading. She trusts when she shouldn’t. Yet we don’t fault her for any of it. We understand why she makes the decisions she does, and it makes her all the more believable and compelling. 

Do I think this story needed to meander through nearly 600 pages? No. There were moments where the pacing lagged and Ismae got a bit repetitive with her musings. At its core, however, this novel has a pure soul that guides us carefully through morally complicated situations that at times benefited from a lengthier examination. As Ismae determines her true calling as Death’s handmaiden, the book culminates in one of the most spiritually enlightened moments I’ve ever experienced in fiction. 

The vast depth to this book offers pure pleasure to the reader. If you’re willing to invest the time, it will heap its rewards upon you. There’s a reason for the hype, and this one definitely lives up to it.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Review: Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould

Book: Cross My Heart
Author: Sasha Gould
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release date: March 13, 2012
Source: eARC from NetGalley

Summary from Goodreads: Venice, 1585.

When 16-year-old Laura della Scala learns that her older sister, Beatrice, has drowned, she is given no time to grieve. Instead, Laura’s father removes her from the convent where he forcibly sent her years earlier and orders her to marry Beatrice’s fiancé, a repulsive old merchant named Vincenzo. Panicked, Laura betrays a powerful man to earn her way into the Segreta, a shadowy society of women who deal in only one currencyâ??secrets. The Segreta seems like the answer to Laura’s prayers. The day after she joins their ranks, Vincenzo is publicly humiliated and conveniently exiled. Soon, however, Laura begins to suspect that her sister’s death was not a tragic accident but a cold-blooded murderâ??one that might involve the Segreta and the women she has come to trust.

First impressions: Man, I am such a sucker for historical settings. The rich details and ominous beginning had me hooked.

Lasting impressions: A fun historical mystery that’s recommended for fans of both genres.

Conflicting impressions: The romance didn’t feel real for me, and I felt the story could have done without it.

Overall impressions: If there’s one thing I love more than historical fiction, it’s secret societies. This book offered me both, and for the most part I was not disappointed.

Laura is a pleasant protagonist, who is stuck in the most unfortunate situations for much of the book. I really rooted for her, because nobody likes to see nice people in sucky circumstances. Forced to live in a convent while her father uses all the available dowry money to try and marry off her older sister, Laura’s life is bleak. When her sister dies suddenly in a mysterious drowning, her father pulls her from the convent to use as a back-up bride.

Say it with me: ICK.

Laura goes along with this plan while out enjoying society for the first time, but soon learns that her new husband-to-be is a decrepit, dirty old man who promises nothing but a lifetime of misery. He’s skeezy in every sense of the world and I shuddered at the thought of poor Laura forced to spend the rest of her life with him.

Say it with me: DOUBLE ICK.

This is where the Segreta comes in. They are a secret society of powerful women that help make things happen in Venice. They pull strings, using the power and influence of secrets to bribe and undermine the men that rule over their lives. It’s an intriguing concept, and one that I wish had been developed a little more. We are given only the face value of this group, with no explanation into their surely rich history and inner workings. As written, it felt a little like a device used to propel Laura’s story forward instead of a vital, integrated thread of the plot.

Similarly, Laura develops a romance that was very ho-hum for me. I didn’t sense much chemistry or connection between them, and it jumped from friendly to ohmigodpleasemarryme in 4 seconds flat. Though the character provides an interesting subplot to the book, I personally would have found the book more satisfying with more emphasis on the Segreta and less on the romance.

The mystery of Laura’s sister’s death at times gets shuffled to the backburner as the story progresses, but the reveal at the end was interesting and I enjoyed the mystery component. I think fans of Renaissance Italy and mystery books will like this one as much as I did, despite its few small flaws.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Mini-Reviews: Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries

Book: What Angels Fear
Author: C. S. Harris
Publisher: New American Library
Release date: November 1, 2005
Source: Borrowed from library
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) In London, 1811, a young woman is brutally raped and murdered, her body left on the altar steps of an ancient church. The prime suspect: Sebastian St. Cyr, a brilliant young nobleman still haunted by his experiences in the Napoleonic Wars. Now he is running for his life, desperate to catch the killer and prove his innocence. Moving from Mayfair’s glittering ballrooms to St. Giles’s fetid back alleys, Sebastian is assisted by a band of unlikely allies and pursued by a Machiavellian powerbroker with ties to the Prince Regent himself. What Angels Fear seamlessly weaves an intimate knowledge of the period with a multi-layered and compelling story, and is the first of a series of novels featuring these characters.

Overall impressions: This is a terrific historical mystery with political intrigue and a dose of humor. Though its reliance on the historical setting led to a glacial pace, I appreciated the rich detail that completely transported me. If you like Regency London and an interesting murder mystery, this is your book.

Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, has a lonely and somewhat depressing life. He is the third and only living son of the Earl of Hendon, and as a young boy was devastated at the death of his mother and the realization that his father was disappointed that he is to be the sole heir. He also had the misfortune to fall in love with an actress, who broke his heart to prevent him from being disinherited. After running off to join the war against France, he returns a much changed man.

When he is framed for murder, Devlin is determined to find the real killer, not only to save his own hide but to correct the grave injustice suffered by the young victim. Devlin has a condition that provides him with extraordinary eyesight and hearing, which serve him well as he struggles to stay alive in his quest to track down a murderer. Full of twists and turns, gorgeous historical details, and vibrant characters, this is a gem of a book for historical mystery fans.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Book: When Gods Die
Author: C. S. Harris
Publisher: New American Library
Release date: November 7, 2007
Source: Borrowed from library
Series: Sebastian St. Cyr #2

Summary: (from Goodreads) Brighton, England, 1811. The beautiful wife of an aging Marquis is found dead in the arms of the Prince Regent. Draped around her neck lies an ancient necklace with mythic origins-and mysterious ties to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin. Haunted by his past, Sebastian investigates both the Marchioness’s death and his own possible connection to it-and discovers a complex pattern of lies and subterfuge. With the aid of his lover, Kat Boleyn, and a former street urchin now under his protection, Sebastian edges closer to the killer. And when one murder follows another, he confronts a conspiracy that threatens his own identity…and imperils the monarchy itself.

Overall impressions: Viscount Devlin is once again investigating the murder of a young woman in this second installment in the series. Having proved his outstanding potential as a detective in the first book, he is personally solicited to help in a touchy case of a murdered aristocrat found half-dressed in the Prince Regent’s chamber during a party. The deeper he digs, the more things point to unrest, rebellion, and a possible overthrow of the monarchy.

This one was not nearly as intriguing as the first entry. Devlin is not as personally invested since his own life is not on the line, so it lacked the same urgency. The case is interesting, but revolved heavily around politics of the time, and as someone not as familiar with Regency England’s political history, I felt like I was missing things at times.

I appreciated seeing my favorite characters back again – the Irish doctor performing autopsies, the actress and lover Kat Boleyn, and the adorably sweet street kid-turned-servant Tom. The setting and characters are so fully realized that I felt like I was stepping back in time. For these reasons, I will likely continue in the series, but hope that the future plots remain as interesting as the first one.

Rating: 3/5 stars

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Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Book: The Night Circus
Author: Erin Morgenstern
Publisher: Doubleday
Release date: September 13, 2011
Source: Borrowed from local library, then bought

Summary: (from Goodreads) The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underwayâ??a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into loveâ??a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.

First impressions: Opening a debut novel in 2nd person narrative is ballsy. But, oh man, did it work in this case. By introducing the reader to the wonder that is this night circus through gorgeous prose and the immediacy of the perspective, we are hooked from the first sentence. The circus arrives without warning.

Lasting impressions: I relished this book in a way that rarely happens for me – slowly. For the week I spent reading it, I rarely thought of anything else, yet I prolonged the reading experience in order to get the most out of it. This is a book that inspires reflection in all of the best ways, and rewards you for taking the time to read every word carefully. The story builds slowly, but purposefully, until the exciting climax threatens to turn the entire world of these characters upside down. It’s a beautiful journey to witness.

Conflicting impressions: I confess that I read all of the negative reviews of this book first. Surely no book could live up to the kind of magical hype this book has had heaped upon it, right? So I read the most blistering, scathing reviews, preparing myself for a slow, boring, overly dense novel with wooden characters and little action. And you know what I got? Subtle characters deftly written by a master puppeteer. Erin Morgenstern fills the pages with lush details, yes, but they all serve to inform us about the characters and the setting. I understood this world so well that I wanted to live in it for as long as possible, which is why I took so damn long to finish it. And why I bought a copy for my shelf the day before I returned my library book. I didn’t want a single day to go by without having this book in my possession.

Overall impressions: This book is magical, but not because it contains magic. This is not Harry Potter. Our young protagonists learn magic through natural ability and frustrating lessons by their parental figures – no straightforward schoolteachers to be found. They learn through trial and error, cruelty, and their own perseverance and curiosity.

Celia and Marco do not spend a lot of time in each other’s company, and as readers we are often much more knowledgeable than our characters. For me, this made the plot that much more enjoyable, as I had an inkling of where the story was going, but no idea how it was going to get there. As the story unfolded, I was more than willing to go along for the ride. This is a novel you either succumb to completely, or resign yourself to frustration. I think by the end of the first few chapters any reader will be able to tell if this is the book for him/her.

The Night Circus has rich period details, lots of colorful characters, and more than a handful of intrigue. This was not only one of my favorite books of the year, but one of my favorite books, period. If you’re looking to be entertained by something truly fresh and surprising, you must get your hands on this one.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Waterfall by Lisa T. Bergren

Click the cover to purchase at Amazon
Book: Waterfall
Author: Lisa T. Bergren
Publisher: David C. Cook
Release date: February 1, 2011
Source: Borrowed from Writer Musings
Series: River of Time #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) In Waterfall, American teenager Gabi Betarrini accidently finds herself in sixteenth-century Italy . . . Knights. Swords. Horses. Armor. And Italian hotties. Most American teens want an Italian vacation, but the Betarrini sisters have spent every summer of their lives there with their archaeologist parents. Stuck on yet another hot, dusty dig, they are bored out of their minds… until they place their hands atop handprints in an ancient tomb and find themselves catapulted into the sixteenth-centuryâ??and in the middle of a fierce battle between knights bent on killing one another.

First impressions: I actually read the first chapter, put the book down, and thought about not picking it up again. But if I have any advice it is this: KEEP READING! It doesn’t take long for the story to zoom off, whether or not you’re buckled in for the ride. Once I picked it up again, you practically had to pry this book from my clenched fingers.

Lasting impressions: Disgustingly good. Lisa Bergren is a diabolical plot genius who will keep you fully immersed in this world, despite bedtimes, homework, jobs, or significant others.

Conflicting impressions: For me, the opening chapters with the girls in the present time weren’t as engaging as the rest of the novel. For some reason, I just didn’t connect with that material as well, and felt I got more backstory than I really needed.

Overall impressions: If you’re not already loading this one into your online shopping carts, you haven’t been paying attention. This story has it all: adventure, suspense, romance, and mystery. It will keep you guessing, and keep your heart in your throat.

Gabi is a wonderful protagonist. She is thrust back through the centuries, uncertain if her sister is there with her, and winds up smack in the middle of an ongoing Italian turf war. Despite political, physical, and emotional hurdles, she uses her brain to make the best of her unexpected situation. Even though she doesn’t know who she can trust, she outmaneuvers everyone to put together a daring plan to rescue her sister.

I am a sucker for time travel books, mostly because it is a personal fantasy of mine. In the hands of an excellent researcher, that wish nearly comes true. I can always tell when a historical novelist really knows their stuff, and Bergren does not disappoint. Everything about the world rings true, which only sucked me deeper into the story. I melted into Gabi’s castle life with ease, and every room, road and character was brought vividly to life.

And oh, the characters! A flirtatious sidekick, a mothering cook, a sickly heir, a mean girl. It would be so easy to write the caricature and be done with it, but Bergren doesn’t do easy. She writes complicated, deep characters that read like actual humans faced with difficult circumstances. Each of these types becomes so much more, surprising our expectations and threatening our snap judgments.

Above all, this story has heart. Gabi will stop at nothing to find and save her sister, yet just when she thinks she is ready to leave, the beautiful Marcello gives her pause. It is a testament to Bergren’s gift that we can simultaneously want Gabi to leave and to stay. Her choice is difficult because we see the good Gabi can bring, and the love that can be her reward. Yet she struggles to cement her own fate one way or the other. It is the ultimate impasse, and completely riveting.

To me this book was like Outlander for teens. No lust. No sex. But a courageous, stubborn, time-traveling heroine who discovers more about herself in the past than in the present? Oh yes. That, and so much more.

Rating: 5/5 stars

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Not enough gushing for you? Want to see even more high praise for this amazing book? Check out Small Review’s take and see if you can resist this book after that!

Need it now? Check out this interview with Lisa Bergren and win a copy of Waterfall at I Am A Reader Not A Writer. Be sure to check back here tomorrow, where I’ll be hosting a giveaway of my own!

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Book: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release date: December 9, 2003
Source: Borrowed from local library
Series Gemma Doyle Trilogy #1

Summary: (from Goodreads) A Victorian boarding school story, a Gothic mansion mystery, a gossipy romp about a clique of girlfriends, and a dark other-worldly fantasy–jumble them all together and you have this complicated and unusual first novel.
Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order. A Great and Terrible Beauty is an impressive first book in what should prove to be a fascinating trilogy.

First impressions: Wow. The first few chapters of this book are gorgeous. Gemma is a feisty 16 British girl living in India with her parents, and witnesses the tragic death of her mother under mysterious circumstances she has a difficult time processing. We don’t know what Gemma saw, but it was scary and strange and compelling.

Lasting impressions: I think the summary says it best. This book is complicated. The friends Gemma makes in her new English boarding school are difficult to like, because we don’t know if we can truly trust them. If nothing else, this book is very suspenseful.

Conflicting impressions: Since the main characters were not that likable, I had a hard time getting into the middle of this book. The story is so dark and strange that for me, I just couldn’t get into it.

Overall impressions: Full disclosure: I skimmed the last third of this book. I couldn’t really stand to read it in-depth because I was discouraged by Gemma’s nasty “friends.” Still, I wanted to know what would happen when Gemma’s visions drew more people into them and how the mysteries would be solved. The ending delivers quite the punch, and I’m sure is terrifically satisfying for readers that connect more with the characters. Though I couldn’t fully engage with the material, I did appreciate the unique and mysterious plot.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Want a different perspective? Check out this review by The Elliott Review.

Review: The Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn

Book: The Minister’s Daughter
Author: Julie Hearn
Publisher: Atheneum
Release date: May 17, 2005
Source: Borrowed from local library

Summary: (from Goodreads) In 1645 in England, the daughters of the town minister successfully accuse a local healer and her granddaughter of witchcraft to conceal an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but years later during the 1692 Salem trials their lie has unexpected repercussions.

First impressions: The book introduces us to two different perspectives from the start: one is the young Nell, granddaughter to a local healer, in 1645 England; the other is Patience, younger sister to Grace, daughter of the town minister, who writes her own account of the events from 1692 Salem. I liked this alternating style, which added a level of deception and spite to the unfolding accusations of witchcraft.

I was also immediately taken with the voices of the girl Nell and the woman Patience. Hearn does a great job of establishing the stubborn ignorance of Nell, and the woeful remorse of Patience. These contrasting views only add to the heartbreak we know is coming.

Lasting impressions: I was quite taken by surprise with the amount of magical wonder throughout the book. The townspeople are new to the Puritanical religion, and are hesitant to completely disregard the paganism that has been a large part of their lives. Hearn takes this belief and spins it as truth, with the characters interacting with fairies and little creatures called “piskies.” It is fanciful and yet confusing. Are we readers to believe these creatures exist? Or are these the imaginings of a simple people who are not able to make sense of the world around them? I’m not sure what the intent was, but it was still delightful to read.

Negative impressions: That said, some of the longer scenes with the fairies and piskies didn’t feel like they belonged in this tale. The shorter sightings and interactions were much more effective for me. Though Nell goes through a long sequence to obtain an item that becomes incredibly important later in the book, while I was reading it I couldn’t figure out the point of that scene and it frustrated me as a reader.

Overall impressions: This is the kind of story that resonates with me. The “witchcraft” that so many women were said to practice in the 1600s was typically nothing more than pagan ritual, and oftentimes accusations flew to draw attention away from themselves or to act out against the repressive male hierarchy. The mass hysteria that fuels this hunt for wrongdoing and scapegoats turns my stomach, and insults my sense of justice in the world, so I was quite taken with the subject matter.

Here, a minister’s daughter discovers she is pregnant, is rebuffed by her lover, and decides to start acting possessed as a way to cover her tracks. Nell despises the haughty attitude of Grace, and refuses to give her an abortifacient when she realizes that the baby may be a “merrybegot” like herself – a sacred child of nature. So begins the quest for revenge, with Grace providing more and more nails in Nell’s withcraft coffin, and poor Nell unable to see how her pagan rituals are only adding fuel to the fire.

These events are also told retrospectively by Patience, Grace’s sister, who is in the midst of her own witchcraft trial in Salem some 40 years later. By her admittance that Grace is only pretending, we can only read on in horror as Nell and her grandmother are persecuted by their peers. It is a quickly moving tale with depth of feeling and carefully layered expositions into the actions of the main players. We soon realize that Grace and Patience’s father, the minister, may be more complicit than first assumed, and that other characters may not care whether or not Nell is actually innocent.

I highly recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, particularly those with an interest in the witch hunts. Although the primary narrative is not concerned with the trial, it is a fascinating study of how these types of charges were set up and delivered with the kind of one-two punch that can only result in a knockout. These women had no chance to refute the charges against them, completely oblivious to the danger approaching as they went about their daily lives. The book also speaks to the benefits of doing what is right no matter the cost, as you never know when your actions may come back to help or haunt you.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell

Book: The Vespertine
Author: Saundra Mitchell
Publisher: Harcourt Children’s Books
Release date: March 7, 2011
Source: NetGalley ARC
Website: (Trailers, interviews, period information, and more!)

Summary: (from Goodreads) Itâ??s the summer of 1889, and Amelia van den Broek is new to Baltimore and eager to take in all the pleasures the city has to offer. But her gaiety is interrupted by disturbing, dreamlike visions she has only at sunsetâ??visions that offer glimpses of the future. Soon, friends and strangers alike call on Amelia to hear her prophecies. However, a forbidden romance with Nathaniel, an artist, threatens the new life Amelia is building in Baltimore. This enigmatic young man is keeping secrets of his ownâ??still, Amelia finds herself irrepressibly drawn to him.

When one of her darkest visions comes to pass, Ameliaâ??s world is thrown into chaos. And those around her begin to wonder if sheâ??s not the seer of dark portents, but the cause.

First impressions: The opening chapter takes place in the fall of 1889, which we soon find out is after the events that span the rest of the book. On first read it is captivating enough, with Amelia being imprisoned in her brother’s attic, revealed to us as our “ruined” heroine. The brilliance of this first chapter is that as I progressed through the story, I could turn back and read it again, gathering more insights into the action. Just like the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, this opening chapter tells us of doomed love, and definitely got me interested in what events led to that outcome.

Lasting impressions: L’amour, l’amour! The relationship that gradually unfolds with Nathaniel is touching and mysterious and dangerous and…grand. Amelia knows she is not supposed to take an interest in this (by their standards) pauper, but she is intrigued by her strong attraction to him. After all, aren’t we always drawn like magnets to those we shouldn’t love? There is more to him than just his profession, however, and the more Amelia learns about Nathaniel, the more we understand why she doomed her reputation for him. These two left me aching for them.

Negative impressions: Every time I try to think of something negative to say, I talk myself out of it. I could say that I wish Amelia’s visions had appeared sooner or taken a more prominent role earlier on, but then I like that the reader discovers them at the same time as she does. This novel is perfection, and I can’t really think of anything I didn’t like.

Overall impressions: For me, this is that book. The one that you know you will read over and over again. The one you will put at the top of your favorites list. The one that means something to you, even if you can’t quite put your finger on what that something is.

Amelia is an everywoman…with a gift. She is eager and curious and shy and impulsive. She has this ability that she doesn’t understand, and just when she starts to learn how powerful it can be, it’s too late. She is rushed into the bustle of Baltimore, thrown into a whirlwind friendship with a bright star named Zora, and before she even has time to get her bearings, falls in love. Yet the story doesn’t run away from her as you might expect. No, this story grabs her and won’t let go, and I went right along with them.

Saundra Mitchell carried me through this novel with delicacy and ease. It swelled with period details, yet didn’t get weighed down by them. The dialogue rang true, and told us everything we needed to know about the characters. Zora’s mother is entirely revealed to us through her interactions with the girls, and she became one of my favorite characters because of that. Mitchell takes her time, revealing the details to us piece by piece, and I savored every moment. Each scene was like a sweet treat I wanted to take under the covers and unwrap where no one else could get at it.

For all of its lush setting and budding romance, this book really takes the cake with its ominous tone. Just as Amelia’s first few visions come true, she begins to foresee more horrifying events. You would think, given that we know how Amelia’s summer ends, that the story would lose its suspense, but it didn’t. Instead, my heart raced with anticipation, desperate to find out what would truly come to pass.

If you like historical fiction, even in the slightest, you should read this book. Amazing, vibrant, and touching, this is what great books are made of.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Interested in another point of view? Check out Small Review’s take on The Vespertine. There’s another review and giveaway at Fire and Ice.

Anachronistic tendencies

All of this talk about steampunk around here lately got me thinking about my fascination with history.  It’s one of my favorite subjects to study and read about.  I’m unable to resist pondering the lives of people in other times.  What was it like to wear their clothes?  Use their bathrooms?  Eat their food?  Clean their houses?  Show me a passage that describes daily life in another time and I will read it voraciously.

I love historical fiction for that reason.  Books like the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon that are so impeccably researched are my kind of thing.  Gabaldon is so great at building up the world around her characters so you feel you are roughing it in 18th century Scotland and America right along side them.

That rich world building laced with history is part of what makes steampunk so appealing to me.  Yet the fantasy lover in me can also get on board with the anachronism of the futuristic gadgetry.  Combining the two sort of creates the perfect existence – the advantages of technology and the formal etiquette of days gone by.

I certainly have my moments when I wish I could be living in another time.  Who is the comedian who joked that nobody ever pictures themselves as a serf or a slave?  It was a really funny bit I remember watching where they talked about how when we think of reincarnation and being in another time it’s always as a queen or lord or some other high-ranking society member, despite the odds being against that situation.  Quite funny, and I’m as guilty of it as the next person.

If I could live in any other time, it would be 17th century France.  I have some serious love for the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Seeing Versailles was a high point of my honeymoon. Imagining the palace filled with servants and courtiers, looking through windows as thousands of others had done for centuries…chills.  Nothing makes me swoon more.

What time and place do you fantasize about the most?  What era do you envy?