Saturday, April 29, 2023

Stacking the Shelves #1


Sometimes I just want to post about books I'm planning to read or have recently added to my shelves. Stacking the Shelves is perfect for's a weekly meme hosted by Reading Reality. While I might not do it every week, it looks fun to do when I am wanting to share what my TBR pile is looking like. Happy Reading!

Book One in a new series.....combine Scotland, a cozy mystery, and a manor house and you make me happy! I recently posted for Can't Wait Wednesday about book two in this new series so I thought I'd start with the first one. Hoping I've found another Verity Bright-type of book. 

I'm currently watching this movie (it's four hours long so I'm viewing it in chunks!) and it's on my Classics Club list to read in the next five years. May as well get started, right? I love, love, love Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean so I'm hoping the movie doesn't spoil my enjoyment of the book if the images in my head aren't aligned. Also, born, raised, and lived in Texas all my life so we will see if I like how it portrays my home :) 

As spring arrives and we near summer vacation, I just go crazy for all things Caribbean. I have wanted to read this book for awhile and it was on sale at Book Bub so I bought it for my Kindle. After seeing the length (over 800 pages) and realizing not all the sections look interesting to me, I've decided to read the parts that I want to and just take my time with it. But that cover....can I move there please?

What new books have you acquired recently? Share with me because I'm always up for new things to read!

Friday, April 28, 2023

Josephine: A Life of the Empress by Carolly Erickson

Publication Date: April 1, 1999

Length: 400 pages

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐☆

This is the third biography by Carolly Erickson that I've read. She is one of my favorite authors for narrative non-fiction, meaning books that are true but feel much like a novel. Her research is always solid and includes a multitude of primary sources, diary entries, and little tidbits of information that really make one feel like she is in the mind and personal life of her subject. 

The book is divided into Josephine's early life, her marriage to her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, son of the French Governor of Martinique and a member of the French nobility, her marriage to Napoleon, and later, her life as the divorcee former Empress of France. She was born in the year 1763 on the island of Martinique to impoverished sugar planter parents, Joseph and Rose Tascher who struggled to make ends meet. Living in near poverty and existing alongside the African slaves on the plantation, Trois-Ilets, Josephine and her siblings grow up with the slow, languid style of island life which stays with them throughout their lives. As children, they are free spirited and often unsupervised, learning the customs and ways of those around them.  With their father unable to send them off to more polished, sophisticated schools where they could hone their common edges, the Tascher siblings find themselves caught between two worlds: that of the island and that of the future expectations awaiting them in France. 

Her first marriage to her aunt's godson and the son of Alexandre de Beauharnais is lonely and troubling for Rose (her name until her marriage to Napoleon). Unused to sophisticated Parisian ways, she is often insecure in the forced social settings and must cope with her husband's lack of interest in her and his overwhelming loyalty and obsession with his mistress. They manage to produce two children during their tumultuous marriage, although Rose finds she is helpless when Alexandre decides to assert his rights as guardian and at one point even removes her son from her care. 

As the French Revolution heats up and the Reign of Terror begins, Rose is forced to confront the fact that she is powerless as a member of the nobility and throughout imprisonment and some of the most trying circumstances of her life, her fragile yet kind nature is revealed. Although she is often unscrupulous in her willingness to seek refuge from her despair, Rose manages to maintain her sanity and emerges with a determination to start a new life. 

Meeting Napoleon Bonaparte charts a course for her that will take her from poor impoverished daughter of the West Indies, to Empress of the French and throughout she uses her charm and survival instincts to thrive in a world that is constantly changing and challenging her ability to live the carefree life she craves.

Without giving away the entire story, it is fair to say that Erickson does her best work during the chapters on the French Revolution. She evokes the misery and degradation suffered by the imprisoned, helpless citizens caught up in the frenzy of madness and I found myself seeing, hearing, even smelling the sights and sounds of what it must have been like. Each day crowded into cells with strangers, not knowing if you will be taken out to lose your head clearly left indelible scars on Josephine. 

Napoleon enters the book about halfway through and I found his family dynamics absolutely fascinating, including their total disdain for his wife and Napoleon's inability to defend her against his unforgiving Corsican relatives. He comes across as an incredibly odd and socially awkward man who alternates between total obsession for his wife romantically with disregard for her feelings. Although Erickson explains the history behind the wars and battles he led, her focus is more on her subject and the nature of her relationship to Napoleon himself. 

Throughout the book, Josephine is often presented as sexually promiscuous to a fault, although one almost forgives her as it is framed within the loose social mores of the times, especially her life in Paris during the marriage to her first husband and during the Revolution, when all decency ceased in the chaos of the time. She still manages to come across as a sympathetic figure, and in light of her two disappointing marriages and inability to be with her true romantic lovers, one understands that she was using whatever she had in her arsenal to make ends meet and provide for herself and her family. She makes no pretense about wanting to live the comfortable life and uses her charm and grace to her advantage.

I enjoyed this book and although I'd have preferred a bit more history behind Napoleon and the political dynamics of the day, Erickson does a good job of including just enough to keep one informed. But it is clearly focused on relationships and romantic intrigue so if you are looking for a biography with more historical depth, this probably isn't the place to start. There is a lot of emphasis on fashions of the day and the lifestyles of the rich and famous French aristocracy which might turn off serious history buffs. I found that part interesting but sometimes tedious and could have done without so much of it. But overall, a solid four star work on the life of a fascinating, flawed lady.


Saturday, April 22, 2023

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie


Publication Date: 1944

Length:  288 pages

My Rating:  ⭐⭐⭐⭐☆

This is the April selection for the Read Christie 2023 challenge. I just love the cover and the title, it is such a contrast of festive and celebratory with the sinister. Having many other books to get through right now and being a teacher in the middle of testing season I wasn't sure I was going to add another Christie book to my TBR pile. But I am glad I didn't skip this one. It was a quick, easy read but with a fun premise that kept me intrigued. I think I'm becoming a Christie fan after all!

One year ago Rosemary Barton died suddenly at her birthday party, ghoulishly falling over at dinner, blue and gasping from the poison she ingested. It is assumed that she committed suicide due to her depression after recovering from a serious bout of flu, however her younger sister Iris Marle is not so sure. Living under the guardianship of her widower brother in law, George, Iris has discovered that Rosemary was having an affair prior to her death and was planning to leave her husband. Evidence that she was deserted by her love leads Iris to think this was the true cause of her depression. As more unfolds, it begins to seem as if Rosemary's death may in fact not be suicide at all, but rather, murder. 

In the first part of the story we are introduced one by one to the other guests at the table. There is Ruth Lessing, George's faithful, hard working secretary, Anthony Browne, the American who appears unscrupulous and having had a previous affair with Rosemary, quickly tired of her. The married Farradays, Stephen and Sandra, who are part of the upper crust, Stephen in Parliament and Sandra an heiress of the powerful Kidderminster family, and finally George, who comes across as a rather boring, dutiful, cuckolded husband. When George arranges to recreate the dinner a year later, hoping to expose the possible murderer of his former wife, he is in fact poisoned in the same way, at the same table, in the exact same restaurant. It seems highly unlikely that this a coincidence and now all the members of the dinner party are bewildered and concerned about who might be next. 

The detective for this story is neither Hercule Poirot nor Miss Marple, but rather one I'd never heard of before....Colonel Race. He is a former military fellow and astute to the goings on around him, trying to warn George not to take things into his own hands. I didn't feel like I got to know him very well here but I see he appears in other books (had no idea!) and might need to read one to get a better idea of his personality. 

I enjoyed this book and liked how the first part went through each main character and their link to Rosemary. I was kept guessing throughout and although I was ultimately correct about who the murderer was, I was way off as to the why they did it. It was very cleverly crafted and with details I only saw after finishing the story, a hallmark of so many of Christie's books I now notice. It is amazing how the pieces all end up fitting together in the end. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Can't Wait Wednesday: The Sugar Merchant's Wife by Lizzie Lane


For this week's Can't Wait Wednesday, hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings, I'm featuring The Sugar Merchant's Wife by Lizzie Lane. I was drawn by the cover, the title, and the time period. The story is part of a series and that appeals to me too. It looks like a romantic saga but with lots of interesting twists. If you've read one of the books in the series...what did you think?

May 25, 2023
**After posting this I found out this book is not new. It is being republished under another name (same author). It was originally published in February 2005 titled Just Before Dawn, by Jeannie Johnson. 

Historical Fiction

Description courtesy of NetGalley

In the face of changing fortunes, the Strong family must unite to keep their wealth and status…or risk losing it all.As Cholera sweeps through the streets of Bristol, no one is immune. Blanche and her husband Conrad Heinkel, sugar merchant and master sugar baker, are devastated when their seven-year-old daughter Anne, is taken by the deadly disease.

Lost in her own immense grief, her childhood sweetheart Tom Strong, is the only man who can heal Blanche’s terrible hurt and reignite the passion for life and love that has died within her.
But Horatia Strong, daughter of the eldest Strong son, has her sights on grabbing power of the Strong family dynasty. Ambitious and more ruthless than most women, she is still desperately in love with her adoptive cousin, Tom, despite his humble birth. As her brother Nelson succumbs to his opium habit, Horatia, believes that only Tom can give her the wealth and strength to take the family businesses to new heights.

Will Tom be able to leave his romantic history with Blanche behind for the sake of the Strong family? Or will Blanche and Tom get their happy ending they deserve?

Friday, April 14, 2023

The Bookseller of Inverness by S.G. MacLean

Publication Date:  August 4, 2022

Length:  330 pages

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐☆

This book had everything I look for in a novel. Mystery, exciting history, well written characters and of course, the Highlands as a location. Add in that it takes place right after the last Jacobite uprising of 1746 and it was a must read for me. 

Six years after the Battle of Culloden, Iain MacGillivray is a bookseller in Inverness, trying to forget terrible memories from that time. He spends his days absorbed in his daily routine and is not interested in opening up to either friends or romantic entanglements. Brought up since the age of four by his Highlander grandmother, Mairi Farquharson, he has been schooled on tales of bravery and brutality in the Jacobite wars of 1715 onwards. His grandmother and her friends, called the Grandes Dames, are a tight knit group bound by loyalty to the Stuart cause and their grief at losing sons and husbands in the wars. They are bitter toward the Hanoverian soldiers which have overtaken northern Scotland and the town of Inverness where they live. Everyone is tense and afraid that at any moment they will be the victim of the soldiers' control and wrath. 

Underneath this daily current of fear, the Grandes Dames and other Jacobites plot and plan to be ready for another uprising. When a customer of Iain's is found murdered in his shop, stabbed with a knife bearing a white cockade, symbol of the the Jacobites, all are suspicious and anxious as to what it could mean. He seemed to have been searching for a book, but why? And which one? 

Iain's father Hector soon arrives from France where he is an undercover agent of the displaced King James and his son, Charles Edward Stuart. Hector is vague about his intentions and as he has been sporadically present in Iain's life, they are not close enough to share much with one another. When more murders occur, Iain and Hector begin to work together to unravel who the culprit is and why they seem to be seeking vengeance for the Stuart cause.

This mystery has a strong historical background with rich details that keep one interested beyond the criminal plot. Although I have read quite a bit about this time period, this author is actually from Scotland and has researched so much detailing the Jacobite wars that there were things I hadn't heard about before. One of the female characters, Ishbel, has a background story that includes her transportation and indentured servitude in the colonies and the details reveal a deeper knowledge than I normally find about the time period. Many atrocities committed by the soldiers are fleshed out with specific incidents and locations that were new information. She also does a good job of showing both sides and that some of the Hanoverian loyalists were not all vicious and were often conflicted about the behavior of their fellow soldiers. 

While the first two thirds of the book held my interest and made me want to eagerly turn the pages, my enthusiasm did wane somewhat as the mystery part took over. I love historical fiction and historical mysteries but sometimes the mystery part starts to feel strung out and repetitive. I was kept in suspense for most of the book but really felt like the reveal was not terribly exciting. She did throw in some extra surprises at the end and so it definitely rates four stars instead of three but overall I much more enjoyed the first half of the book when the background of Iain and his family was being established. 

I know this author has two other series set in Scotland during the 1600's. While I'm sure they are good I don't know if they would interest me as the setting for this book was the big draw. Those wanting a fast paced mystery with good historical details won't be disappointed in this story though.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Can't Wait Wednesday: Murder in the Scottish Hills (The Scottish Ladies' Detective Agency Book 2) by Lydia Travers


For this week's Can't Wait Wednesday, hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings, I'm featuring Murder in the Scottish Hills by Lydia Travers. This is book two in the series, The Scottish Ladies' Detective Agency, and it was originally available in the UK. I'm showing you can pre-order both books now on Amazon here in the U.S. so that's great news!  This looks like a fun, cozy mystery to add to my TBR pile. And I just love the colorful cover. Hoping it's a good one and I can access it here in the states soon!

May 26, 2023

Historical Fiction/Mystery and Thrillers

Description courtesy of NetGalley

When Maud McIntyre and her lady’s maid Daisy travel into the Scottish Highlands, the last thing they expect to find is a body on the train… Will these keen amateur sleuths stop a murderer in his tracks?

Edinburgh, 1911: When Maud McIntyre receives a letter from a maid called Rose, sharing her suspicions that something strange is happening in the house where she works, she and her assistant Daisy immediately travel to the Highlands to investigate.

But as they are changing trains, the body of a man falls from the carriage right in front of them, a bullet in his head. Maud and Daisy can’t believe it – they’ve waited ages for a new case, and now one has literally landed in front of them! And when the local police rule the death as a tragic accident, the pair have no choice but to investigate what they believe is a murder…

Arriving in the Scottish village, Maud and Daisy go undercover to begin their hunt for the murderer, while also investigating the strange behaviour of Rose’s employer, a local art dealer. As they begin to piece together the chain of events, Maud and Daisy wonder whether the cases might be linked. Is it possible the man on the train was killed to cover up something in the village? And, if so, who would do such a thing?

When a local artist is found murdered, Maud and Daisy become convinced the two cases are connected. Searching for the link between the deaths, will Maud and Daisy solve the case before another mysterious murder takes place?

A page-turning historical whodunnit, perfect for fans of the mysteries of Helena Dixon, Verity Bright, T.E. Kinsey and Catherine Coles.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty

Publication Date:  1941

Length:  284 pages

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I don't know why it took me so long to read this book. I have loved the movie my whole life ever since my parents introduced me to Bette Davis, and next to All About Eve, it is my favorite. It never fails to make me cry at the end when she says, "Oh Jerry don't let's ask for the moon....we have the stars!" Melodramatic yes. But I love it.

Maybe I thought the novel would ruin it for me but that was definitely not the case. I was afraid it would be so different from the picture in my head created so superbly by Davis and Paul Henreid (who plays her love interest) but the movie adaptation appears to have strayed little from the original story. It is an easy, flowing book to read, keeping you interested and moving along swiftly. 

Charlotte Vale of the wealthy Boston Vales has had a nervous breakdown and spent the last year in a sanitorium called Cascade, convalescing and trying to save herself from her domineering Mother and looming, permanent spinsterhood. Buying more time away from home to continue to blossom, she has embarked on a long, overseas cruise and meets Jerry, an unhappily married man who accompanies her on sightseeing excursions. As Charlotte gets to know Jerry better she starts to let down her guard and let him in on her past and how painful and lonely her life has been up until now. The youngest child born to a mother of advanced maternal age with uptight Victorian values, Charlotte has never been allowed to mature and become her own person. Her mother has told her that "she is a child of her old age" and it is clear she wasn't wanted. Having three older, successful brothers who have shown her disregard and contempt has only served to divide her further from a feeling of independence and confidence.

Jerry, and his friends who are on the cruise with him, reveal his troubles at home with his serious, prim, Puritanical wife, Isobel and his sense of devotion and love for his daughters cause him to stay bound to a miserable marriage where he provides for his family in practical ways while ignoring his lifelong dream of becoming a successful architect. Charlotte and Jerry begin as friends and companions but as events cause them to spend more and more time together, their innocent relationship moves from sporadic flirtation to a full romantic entanglement. When the cruise comes to an end, the two part, agreeing it will be the last time they will contact each other. Each return home to the harsh reality of their lives in America vowing to be grateful for their time together but determined to create a future without one another.

Charlotte tries to keep her end of the bargain. Using the new found confidence instilled in her from her beloved psychiatrist from Cascade, Dr. Jacquith, she asserts herself with her mother and although she plans to stay at home for now, she makes certain she carves out her own identity. She and her mother arrive at a truce of sorts and learn to live with the changes brought about in Charlotte's newfound lifestyle. The only reminder of Jerry is the camellia flowers he anonymously sends her that serve to let her know he still loves and cares for her. But just when she thinks she is ready to move on with a new chapter in her life, fate steps in and pulls them back together. 

This novel is written simply but has a deep, meaningful message throughout. The author skillfully conveys the transformation of Charlotte from ugly duckling to beautiful swan and just like in the movie version we are often privy to her stream of consciousness dialogue inside her head and get to witness firsthand her struggles and insecurities. You root for her to succeed and for Jerry to be happy. Both are adherents of duty and obligation and strive to do what is right even if it means sacrificing their own happiness. Prouty creates characters here that make you long for them to be together while feeling that the very fact that they aren't is why you respect them. 

Charlotte's mother is also expertly portrayed as the uncaring, selfish woman who has done her utmost to ruin her daughter's life. At one point she states, "when she was young, foolish, I made decisions for her, always the right decisions. One would think a child would wish to repay her mother's love and kindness."  Later in the book Charlotte tells her, "I didn't want to be born, you didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides."

There are two other novels about the Vale family. I am interested in reading them but they are hard to find. Now, Voyager was a cinematic hit and so it is easily available online and to purchase in book form. Until I started doing a bit of research for this post, I had no idea there was more to the family's story. Some people have described her books as early YA fiction but after reading this book, I disagree. While her writing style isn't hard to understand or full of difficult vocabulary like some classic works, the subject matter would not be as easily identified with in a younger person who has not been through some heartache. It is one of those stories that I have grown up with but didn't fully "get" until I was a bit older. It is a great book to read even if you've seen the movie. 


Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Top Ten Tuesday: Self-Published Books


This Top Ten Tuesday theme, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, is all about self-published books. Now I admit I had no idea which authors or books I like were self published so I had to scour the net. I haven't read most of these but know some of the authors and/or they just looked interesting to me. 

I was also surprised to see some of the authors and books that were considered self published or published by Indie publishers. It is not something I know much about but I'm all for people being able to take charge of their own projects. Hopefully I can read some of these soon.

1. Liberty or Death by David Cook

The first in a trilogy, this book follows the fictional character of Major Lorn Mullone who is caught up in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. This is a unique subject to tackle and one I haven't seen in many books. I also love series books so this might need to go on my TBR list.

2. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

A reimagining of Homer's The Illiad, it seems to have been a huge hit and looks to me like an ambitious premise to choose. Not sure I'd read it as I'm not a fan of this time period but I can appreciate the author's work. 

3. The Maid by Nita Prose

This one is on my TBR list because I hear they are making a movie about it. Described as a "Clue like, locked-room mystery" it looks like a tale of a  socially awkward, working class girl unwillingly caught up in a whodunit when one of the patrons at the wealthy hotel where she is employed mysteriously kicks the bucket.  

4. The Lindbergh Nanny by Mariah Fredericks

This is my kind of historical fiction. It is based on the real crime of the kidnapping of Charlie Lindbergh and the nanny who adores him in her quest to find out what has happened to him.

5. All the Broken Places by John Boyne

I'm not a big fan of WWII or Nazi Germany historical fiction but I know it is very popular. So I'm listing this book for others. It is a time shifting novel about a girl named Gretel and her pain at being the daughter of a commandant of the Reich during the war. Gretel has to reconcile her own guilt with protecting her lifelong secret shame. 

6. Empire of Ice and Stone by Buddy Levy

I love adventure based history books that read like novels. This looks like this type of story. During the year 1913, The ship, Karluk, while on an expedition in the Arctic Ocean is icebound and their expedition leader and some members of the crew decide to embark on a hunting trip. When there is no sign of their return after 10 days, their Captain, Bob Bartlett, along with a local Inuit man, attempt a treacherous 1,000 mile journey to find rescue for the remaining crew members. 

7. Homecoming by Kate Morton

An epic novel, Homecoming is the story of Jess, a journalist, and her grandmother, Nora and a long buried criminal case. Jess attempts to find out how her family is connected to a notorious unsolved murder case from 1959. 

8. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

The story of the luxury ocean liner, Lusitania, the ship that meets disaster in 1915 during the days of WWI. Erik Larson is always excellent at making history read like a novel.

9. A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

Anytime I see Scotland and Jacobite I'm in! So I really need to try one of Kearsley's books. This one is about Jacobite exile, Mary Dundas and her journal and the woman who tries to crack the code three hundred years later. 

10. The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester

I'm not sure this book would hold my interest but it looks unique and I thought others who love history as much as I do would want to know about it. Winchester ponders how we became 50 unified states by exploring the men who played huge roles in shaping the country. Lewis and Clark, along with the creators of the railroad and national highways are featured in their quest to physically and geographically unite the nation into one. 

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Balian d'Ibelin: Knight of Jerusalem (Jerusalem Trilogy Book One) by Helena P. Schrader

Publication Date: June 30, 2020 (new edition) 
Originally released in 2014

Length: 402 pages

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I don't give 5 star ratings too often when I write a review. I think 4 says a book was great and even 3 means the book was good but not spectacular. So for me, 5 stars means I highly recommend it and found very little fault with it. This is one of those books and I can't want to read the next two in the series. It is also unique, a topic very rarely tackled, and so that makes it even more special for me. It is more a "one of a kind" type of book.

This story takes place between the years of 1171 and 1178 when Balian went from an insignificant youngest son to a member of the royal family in marriage to Queen Maria Comnena. His father, the former Count of Jaffa is deceased and his eldest brother Hugh also dies after a fall from his horse. Hugh prefers Balian to be the one to inherit Ibelin Castle and its lands but it is supposed to go to the middle brother, Baldwin, who is already Lord of Ramla. Baldwin is presented as a sour, disagreeable character who is not anxious to abide by Hugh's wishes. When Balian goes to King Almaric in Jerusalem to plead his case, Baldwin, or Barry, as he is called in the story, is not enthusiastic and is hopeful he will be rejected. 

Balian succeeds in making a name for himself in his service to the young Prince Baldwin IV who is just ten years old and suffering from the terrible affliction of leprosy. Teaching Baldwin to ride without his hands and befriending the lonely boy, Balian develops a close bond with him while also becoming smitten with his beautiful stepmother, Queen Maria, lonely wife of King Almaric. After King Almaric's death, Balian becomes even more valued by Baldwin and Maria as they often lean on him for support. 

Balian eventually rises to become Constable of Ascalon. During this period he comes into contact with the famous warrior, Salah al-Din and has to defend his territory and protect the helpless refugees fleeing the Muslim advance. Through courage, diplomacy, and luck Balian triumphs in the Battle of Montgisard and saves his people from the forces of Salah al-Din. 

Schrader tells the story of Balian while adding some fictional characters for depth and color. His various stable boys and assistants are given backstories and a slave woman tells her gripping story in order to help reveal the fate of those kidnapped by the Muslim forces. Throughout the novel we meet real life figures such as Reynald de Chatillon, Agnes of Courtenay (mother of King Baldwin), and Aimery de Lusignan of the famous de Lusignan family. 

Schrader's grasp of this time period is impressive. Only Sharon Penman's The Land Beyond the Sea holds a candle to it. I was drawn into the story the way I am with the best historical fiction.....authentic details, historical accuracy, along with romance and well depicted battles. I admit the battle scenes can sometimes bore me but she does a good job of not spending too long in one place and dragging it out too much. It is clear she has spent a lot of time researching and visiting her subject and I learned things I haven't found in other novels set during the time period. While I have read that there is not a lot of historical evidence detailing Balian's life, and I'm sure she had to create a lot of the story from her own mind, from what I can gather the novel is as accurate as possible given the scant information. 

Her books have won several historical fiction awards and she has others set during this time. The Balian story is part of a trilogy and I will definitely be reading the other two.