[724]: No Good Deed by Kara Connolly

No Good Deed
by Kara Connolly


Ellie Hudson is the front-runner on the road to gold for the U.S. Olympic archery team. All she has to do is qualify at the trials in jolly old England. When Ellie makes some kind of crazy wrong turn in the caverns under Nottingham Castle—yes, that Nottingham—she ends up in medieval England.

Ellie doesn’t care how she got to the Middle Ages; she just wants to go home before she gets the plague. But people are suffering in Nottingham, and Ellie has the skills to make it better. What’s an ace archer to do while she’s stuck in Sherwood Forest but make like Robin Hood?

Pulled into a past life as an outlaw, Ellie feels her present fading away next to daring do-gooding and a devilishly handsome knight. Only, Ellie is on the brink of rewriting history, and when she picks up her bow and arrow, her next shot could save her past—or doom civilization’s future.


This was a chockful of fun.

I was immediately drawn to this book because I’m a huge fan of the Robin Hood legend and when I saw that Ms. Connolly’s take would feature a gender twist of sorts, I knew I had to read it.

Present-time Ellie was an archer who was dealing with the recent loss of her brother. She also lived in his shadow for he was an Olympian as well. On her way back to her hotel, she followed a man dressed in a friar’s frock with whom she thought was the same one who distracted her during her during the competition. One topsy-turvy turn, however, brought her all the way back to the 12th century; specifically, at a time when most of Nottingham was suffering in the hands of the Sheriff.

It was not long ago that I read a time travel such as this one where the character was pulled all the way back to Medieval times. Both characters went through the initial shock of finding themselves stuck and unable to come home at will. In Ellie’s case, it wasn’t just a matter of retracing back her steps to see if she can somehow find her way home. This girl finds trouble at every step of the way, and no matter what she does to lay low, the trouble finds her regardless.

I love the characters she meets and the parallelization with the characters of the original legend. And because she’s an American set in her ways, she brings about shock with the way she acts and speaks at every turn. I love seeing the reaction of those around her. She’s full of spunk; courage when there’s none to be found and kindness towards the people with whom she only just met. There might be a romance brewing on the horizon but honestly, that’s just cake. The story is great the way it is. I adore the friendships she developed amongst the people of Nottingham; the thieves and the bandits; the nuns and the outlaws.

I’m not sure if this is going to be a series, but damn. I need more. No Good Deed is a great adventure set in Medieval England. If you’re a fan of the Robin Hood legend, Connolly’s take is sure to keep you entertained from page one to the last.

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[720]: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby
by Cynthia Bond


This was such a difficult book to read and even harder to decipher. On the surface, it’s the story of a woman scorned for being a daughter of a black woman and a white man. Her beauty became the scourge that she carried most of her life; the source of her strength and frailties. The torment that had brought her insanity in her later life.

From the very young age, she’s known indescribable abuse. Her mother left her to escape the same abuse Ruby would be subjected to growing up. At 10, she was sold to a madam who would sell her every night to men of despicable character. At 13, she would lose her child who would torment her for the rest of her life. In 1950, she would escape to New York only to do the same thing over again.

This book is ripe with the kind of African American history that I never knew existed. In the South where satanism and sexual abuse seemed to go hand-in-hand in the darkest, depraved way possible. It was suffused in magical realism of the religious kind. Where the “power of the Lord” compels men to “train” girls of such young age to “hone their craft”. Is it any wonder Ruby lost her mind? A screeching, half-naked woman who carries with her the souls of dead children; forever haunted by a being who would never let her rest.

 In the midst of the overall depressing history was a slight ray of hope in the person of Ephram Jennings. He ignored ridicule and the scorn of everyone in town, including that of his sister whom he called, “mama”. They, too, came from a home who’ve seen the worst abuses from the hands of their father. In this effect, you can say that it’s love story. A love story in the simplest of form; one that had the ability to save a person from oneself.

Ruby is a heavy read – heavier than I’ve anticipated. I read it at a time when I was feeling a little lost myself so my initial rating was a little low. I remember being furious at the townspeople who have judged Ruby and the men who took advantage of someone who was not in their full mental capacity. Filthy or not, they came to her for sex regardless if she’s covered in weeks’ worth of grime. I was mad at Ruby for pushing Ephram away and I was mad at Ephram for not standing up to Ruby. This book was a real story of survival, of madness and of love. It was more often difficult but with a clearer mind, you’ll find the beauty of Ms. Bond’s words.

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[677]: Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap

27876492 Angel of Oblivion
Stand Alone
Archipelago Books | August 16th, 2016
Source: Finished copy from the Publisher
Memoir
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars


The novel tells the story of a family from the Slovenian minority in Austria. The first-person narrator starts off with her childhood memories of rural life, in a community anchored in the past. Yet behind this rural idyll, an unresolved conflict is smouldering. At first, the child wonders about the border to Yugoslavia, which runs not far away from her home. Then gradually the stories that the adults tell at every opportunity start to make sense. All the locals are scarred by the war. Her grandfather, we find out, was a partisan fighting the Nazis from forest hideouts. Her grandmother was arrested and survived Ravensbrück.

As the narrator grows older, she finds out more. Through conversations at family gatherings and long nights talking to her grandmother, she learns that her father was arrested by the Austrian police and tortured – at the age of ten – to extract information on the whereabouts of his father. Her grandmother lost her foster-daughter and many friends and relatives in Ravensbrück and only escaped the gas chamber by hiding inside the camp itself. The narrator begins to notice the frequent suicides and violent deaths in her home region, and she develops an eye for how the Slovenians are treated by the majority of German-speaking Austrians. As an adult, the narrator becomes politicised and openly criticises the way in which Austria deals with the war and its own Nazi past. In the closing section, she visits Ravensbrück and finds it strangely lifeless – realising that her personal memories of her grandmother are stronger.


The novel begins in a calm tone; a life of rural ideal on a farm near the border of Austria and Yugoslavia. The narrator’s family goes about their lives simply; tending to the farm and their animals while slowly peeling the layers that would eventually show the readers what was hiding behind the calmness.

She’s my Queen Bee and I’m her drone.

The young girl references her great admiration for the matriarch of the family. Her grandmother rules the household with relentless strength rooted in familial love and old tradition. She guides our unknown narrator through early adolescence on through the cusp of adulthood. While in the background is her mother, sensitive and prone to crying. She was hardly shown any respect least of all from her mother in law. In some ways, I felt for her. It was easy to see that she never knew how to raise her own child because someone else did that job for her. So their relationship was fragile and more often unpredictable. The narrator stands in a precarious balance between the love for her mother and her grandmother that ultimately becomes somewhat lopsided.

Throughout the novel, the readers are given a visceral imagery of the kind of influence the grandmother has over our narrator. Her mother tried her best but it was a difficult task to overcome such an overwhelming shadow. And she didn’t get any help from her husband (the narrator’s father) either. He was constantly drunk and frequently unhinged. Though, his instability could be attributed to his childhood experience of unfathomable hell which unsurprisingly influenced the man that he became.

Angel of Oblivion is an unexpected surprise. It’s a glorious feat for an author to leave her readers in a state of complacency all the while telling a difficult and poignant story. Beautiful as it were, devastating in some instances. It reminds us that we are the sum of our memories and even if we feel insignificant now, our stories could hold some influence to someone in the future. This was not an easy read by a long shot but the characters are worth your acquaintance. And because it’s a memoir disguised as fiction, I read it with ease, ironically enough.

 

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[667]: The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

27163154 The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner
Double Day Canada | July 12th, 2016
Adult Fiction | Historical
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars


A sweeping, propulsive family saga set on a romantic and beautiful Italian island, for fans of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Beautiful Ruins.

On the tiny, idyllic island of Castellamare, off the coast of Sicily, lies The House at the Edge of Night, an ancient bar run by the Esposito family. There, over the course of three generations–from the eve of World War One to the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis–the Esposito women will fight to hold their family together against the threats that break across their shores. As lush and magical as the island at its centre, The House at the Edge of Night is a story of love and secrets, endurance, loss and, ultimately, triumph.


Admittedly, The House at the Edge of Night’s initial attraction was its similarities to Beautiful Ruins; a book that I’ve read recently and have enjoyed immensely. The  small town setting has always inspired a community ideal that’s magical to me. And the townspeople possess a certain magnetism that I fail to describe time and again. Catherine Banner showed the town’s beauty so viscerally at times that I can almost hear the cacophony of the tides lapping the shores and the seagulls circling the open seas for a snack or two.

The House at the Edge of Night is the  kind of book that you take to the beach because it is truly relaxing. The drama is virtually painless and much like Beautiful Ruins, it’s the perfect escape book. You will fall in love with the town and its people; its legends and myths. Castellamare may be fictional but it’s the very idea of such a town surviving in spite of itself, amid natural disasters and global economic collapse that makes it idyllic.

How do I explain the four generations of stories involved in this book? I suppose the story should begin with the patriarch of the Esposito family. So we start off with a foundling who grew up to be a doctor. After serving his time in the military, he found himself in a small town that was to become the root of his family genealogy. After a scandal involving this doctor and the count’s wife, he was shunned and was forced to either leave or do something else. But he loves Castellamare despite the humiliation and shunning he endured. He decided to stay put and opened a bar that  he called, The House at the Edge of Night. Over the years, this establishment will become more than just a watering hole.

Indeed, it wasn’t just a bar; it’s where he would raise his family for generations to come. It’s where he would lose two of his sons and watch another barely survive the aftereffects of war. It’s where he would see his daughter fall in love with an Englishman and watch her fight for her true self – broken heart and all. It’s where he would learn to appreciate the triumph of family and love amid loss; the strength of the townspeople’s faith in the face of troubles and camaraderie and comfort in what was simple and familiar.

This book might not be intellectually challenging but it’s viscerally beautiful. It is full of love and sensuality, superstition and charming candor. The simplicity of the way of life in the small town is its foremost attraction; the heart is its people. I’ve always said reading is the cheapest way to travel and Castellamare is as close as I’m ever going to being in Italy. This book reminded me of how wonderful it is to appreciate the comfortable and easy. Not everything we read has to break our hearts, reduce us to tears or make us think about the uncertainty of the future. Sometimes, we just have to watch the story unfold like a rolling film in black and white.

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[657]: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

11447921 Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Stand Alone
Harper | June 12th, 2012
Adult Fiction | Historical
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars


The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.


Beautiful Ruins opens in a small coastal town in Italy with an innkeeper who dreams of great things for his tiny hotel and his equally small town. One day, while he was busy creating a sandy beach for his potential guests to sunbathe on, a mysterious American actress in need of rest checks in. He finds out that this actress is sick and maybe even dying. Her name is Dee Moray; she just finished filming her small role in an Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton saga, Cleopatra. Dee Moray’s beauty and elegance captured the attention of Pasquale Tursi. Over time, he becomes her champion. He falls in love but he knew Dee Moray is never going to love him the way he loves her. He’s no stranger to heartbreaks and so he would remain forever in love with her until the end of time.

This is their story; decades of parallel lives connected only through their history of what ifs and could’ve been’s. It may seem pointless, as most of these missed-connections stories go, but it’s not. The beauty of this book lies in the stories of characters in the past and the present. Imbued with the rich landscape of old Italy and Hollywood’s retro glamour, Beautiful Ruins was the perfect escapist dream.

There’d been a lot of tales about the disaster that was Cleopatra. At the time of production, it was plagued with over budget issues and cantankerous lead actors. Michael Deane, a Hollywood lackey was sent to Italy to save the movie somehow. He did so by taking advantage of Elizabeth Taylor’s inability to be loyal to her current beau. At the time, she’s being branded as a Jezebel for leaving her husband and stealing Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds. While filming Cleopatra, she has an affair with Richard Burton. And the American people are not looking too kindly on her. So Michael Deane, in a burst of inspiration, decided that capitalize on the very thing that the world was hating her for. His role in Dee Moray’s life is important, and by association, in Pasquale’s life.

Decades into the present, all their lives will collide in the most tender and more often, heartbreaking way possible. I love untangling all the threads in this novel. It was expansive, but not too complicated. The writing is exquisite in such a way that it’s not pretending to be something it’s not; simple and every bit as beautiful as the stories it convey. The setting is so perfect – dramatic, outlandish at times, and romantic. Even the short stint in Europe that showed the novel’s dark side evoked the right emotions even for a moment. The thing about Beautiful Ruins is that it’s tough to relate to the characters sometimes. And it’s not because they’re so unlikable. It’s because the story moved so fast that readers aren’t given the chance to get comfortable. But I enjoyed it immensely. Because the thing about this book is that you’re not supposed to savour it. You’re supposed to take a step back and see the big picture. After the reader connected all the dots and tied all the knots the way they’re supposed to be done, the end result is pure magnificence. I’m glad I got to read it and with the movie now in the works, I’m excited to see it in the big screen.

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[588]: Walk on Earth A Stranger by Rae Carson

17564519 Walk on Earth A Stranger by Rae Carson
Series: Gold Seer, #1
Green willow Books | Hardcover, 400 pp.
September 22nd, 2015
Young Adult Fiction | Historical
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars


Gold is in my blood, in my breath, even in the flecks in my eyes.

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.


This is a tough one to review. Western novels aren’t really my thing, so I knew going in that Ms. Carson would have to work extra hard to convince me otherwise. While it is a rarely discovered territory in YA, I can see how it could easily be a popular niche. For seekers of adventures in books, what could be more exciting than discovering The Last Frontier? Or the Wild, Wild West as it were.

If you’ve seen any Western movies or tv shows such as Little House on a Prairie, I think you’ll see that the world building in this book is pretty much on par with we’ve seen or read in the past. But if you’re like me who’s not an ardent reader, we’d probably wouldn’t know the difference. Still, I can say in all honesty that Ms. Carson did a splendid job in constructing just the perfect world.

I enjoyed reading about Lee’s ability. It’s something that I’ve not read too many of in this genre. It’s not so much that Lee can find the gold, it’s more like the gold finds her and tells her exactly where to look. Unfortunately, her ability was not really explored in this first offering. She spent most of her time trying to get to California where the gold rush was on a boom. About 40 % of the book was dedicated to this journey – which ultimately slowed the pace down by a considerable amount.

I do like Lee. There’s something to be said about a girl who’d been kicked around by life but was strong enough to keep on fighting. This girl dusted herself off and did what needed to be done to give herself a fighting chance. She’d become an orphan in so little a time. And the only relative she had left was about to take advantage of her ability if not for her quick thinking and the goodness of her father’s old friend.

There is very little romance in here. In fact, I didn’t really feel a spark between Lee and her beau. They were best friends, but I felt like they were more like siblings because they looked out for each other.

IN RETROSPECT

This is a well-written book, and with the right reader, it’s a great adventure to experience. If you can get past the lull in the middle, the start and the ending will leave you breathless.

 

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[523]: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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GOODREADS SUMMARY | Double Day Canada | Hardcover, 400 pp. | May 5, 2015 | Adult Fiction | Historical | Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars


I have to admit that this book seems much more complex than Life After Life. The plot didn’t have a deliberate destination at first, and readers may do well to bring an abundance of patience should you decide to pick this up.

If you’ll go into this thinking that it would be somewhat of a continuation of Life After Life, you would be mistaken. This companion novel makes the former look like an unrecognizable sibling. Apart from some mentions of characters from that book, it is not a sequel. It does not go back and give you a look at its predecessor. It is a whole new novel with a storyline that’s not at all different, but somehow not the same. It is still about the Todd’s family in the era of wartime Europe. But the telling difference is the absence of Ursula’s various incarnations.

For a time, I fully expected Teddy to have the same gift/curse. But as the languid tale crawls slowly along, it was quite clear that there will be no second chances for everyone here. It led me to believe that Teddy’s second lease at life in the first novel was all duly related to Ursula’s determination to keep him alive. Moreover, this book did not have the same whimsical characteristic as Ursula’s tale. It did, however share the same painfully candid account of the realities of life; unhappiness, reservations, the horrors of war and inevitable heartaches. While Life After Life provided hope of possible futures, A God in Ruins only spoke of a bleak tomorrow where death and decay were the only inescapable consequence.

Admittedly, the story took a while to find its rhythm. I scrambled to find purchase as the narrative flits from  different time periods accounting for Teddy’s life. Moreover, we were given a few perspectives. While I’ve never been a fan of taking notes whilst reading a book, I had to give in to the temptation this time around just to get my thoughts organized.

Despite some fumbling, I still found this book to be a brilliant companion novel to Life After Life. It gave me a different appreciation for complicated story telling that required infinite patience. It had me solving an intricate puzzle without knowing what the image was beforehand. And yet, in spite of it all, I was left with an imagery that’s nothing short of breathtaking.

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