Goddess Born by Kari Edgren

Goddess Born by Kari Edgren(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Pennsylvania, 1730

Selah Kilbrid keeps a dangerous secret: she has the power to heal.

A direct descendent of the Celtic goddess Brigid, it’s Selah’s sacred duty to help those in need. But as the last of the Goddess Born living in the New World, she learned from an early age to keep her supernatural abilities hidden. The Quaker community of Hopewell has always been welcoming, but there’s no doubt they would see her hanged if her gift was revealed.

When a prominent minister threatens to try her with witchcraft unless she becomes his wife, Selah has only one hope–that her betrothed, a distant cousin from Ireland, arrives as planned. Marrying Samuel would keep her secret safe, preserve her sacred bloodline, and protect her from being charged as a witch.

But when news of Samuel’s death reaches the Colonies, Selah is truly on her own. Terrified, she faces an impossible choice–forfeit her powers and marry the loathsome Nathan? Or find an imposter to pose as her husband and preserve her birthright?

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

From the blurb, I had pretty high expectations about Goddess Born.  Not only that, it came highly recommended to me from a friend/colleague!  So you could say Kari Edgren’s book had a lot to live up to.  As it turns out, Goddess Born would far exceed my high expectations.  The characters were excellent, the world-building was fantastic and Kari Edgren brought the early Colonies to life.

First off, the characters were excellent.  Selah in reality, had a horrible decision to make when she learned of her cousin’s death.  Her father is dead so there’s no man to protect her from the law and Nathan’s wrath.  Her only hope is to marry her cousin, who’s dead.  But nobody in Hopewell knows that, do they?  So she embarks on a long, arduous and sometimes funny journey when she marries Henry, an indentured servant set to play the role of her cousin.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that yes, of course Henry and Selah are going to develop feelings for each other, but I also have to say that those feelings were far from Insta-Love.  In fact, it was almost Insta-Hate for a while there.

Both Selah and Henry stand out for me as characters.  They both have complicated histories behind the circumstances that found them married and neither one is really keen to divulge their past to the other.  At the same time, it’s obvious that both of them feel for the other’s plight.  Selah doesn’t like forcing Henry into a marriage just to save her own skin and Henry doesn’t like the fact that he’s the only one standing between Selah and Nathan’s considerable wrath.  He feels for Selah and she for him, but of course things are always more complicated than that.

As for the magic of Selah’s line, I think it was pretty well thought out.  It comes from the Celtic goddess Brigid and puts a lot of strain on its possessors.  They have the power of life and death over medical matters, so you really have to appreciate the fact that Selah is a good person who would never hurt anyone, even her own worst enemy.  Power like that can become heady and change people, but Selah is the sweet and level-headed young woman that she always has been.  What I really liked about the fact of Selah’s power is that she does run out and she does have to do a complicated ritual to renew it by going to the Otherworld.  Maintaining her power is not easy and adds another layer of conflict, rather than like in most stories where the power is never-ending and/or naturally replenishes itself.

I have to say that I also loved both the descriptions of the time as well as the pacing of the plot.  Kari Edgren really made me feel like I was in Pennsylvania in 1730, even though obviously I haven’t and I’ve never even studied that period of history.  I can’t vouch for authenticity in her descriptions but I do know that her writing really makes you feel like you’re in the period.  Sometimes that’s almost better than being accurate and boring.  The pacing, however, doesn’t allow for boredom.  It starts out a little slow at first, but quickly we have Selah’s life spiraling out of control as Nathan makes his ultimatum, her father dies, she learns her cousin dies and she marries an indentured servant to pose as him.  There is no such thing as a boring moment in Goddess Born.

So, at the end of all this, I don’t have anything but praise for this book.  It came highly recommended and exceeded my expectations.  It was fast-paced, felt historically authentic and the characters were amazing.  I can’t recommend it enough and even if you’re not necessarily a big reader of historical fiction, I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Best Seller by Martha Reynolds

kindle cover(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Set in New England at the time of the American Bicentennial, Best Seller is the poignant story of a displaced young woman struggling to figure out who she is within the context of her hometown and the carefully masked dysfunction of her family. “Everything can be fixed by writing a check.” Words to live by for Robin Fortune’s wealthy father, until he can’t buy her way back into college after she’s expelled for dealing pot. Now he chooses not to speak to her anymore, but that’s just one of the out-of-whack situations Robin’s facing. At nineteen, she feels rudderless, working in a diner by day and sleeping with a buddy from high school by night – all so strange for her because she was always the one with the plan. While her college friends plotted how to ensnare husbands, she plotted a novel, which she scratched out into a series of spiral-bound notebooks she hides in the closet. But now, there’s nothing. No vision, no future, no point. In fact, the only thing she feels she has to look forward to is that her favorite author, Maryana Capture, is paying a visit to the local Thousand Words bookstore. Robin surmises that if she can convince Maryana to help her get her novel published, she’ll finally get herself back on track. Except that life never takes a straight path in this intensely satisfying coming-of-age novel.

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

I have to say that for all of my hesitation about Best Seller, it actually isn’t a bad book.  It’ll never be a great book but Martha Reynolds is a pretty solid writer.

Her main strength is her characters because although I hate people like Robin in real life (naive, unambitious sorts of people who have never done a thing for themselves) I actually didn’t mind her in fiction.  Do I like every decision she makes?  Of course not, particularly when it concerns her love life.  However, it’s a testament to the strength of Reynolds’ writing that I didn’t throw the book at the wall like I normally would with a character like this.  In some ways I enjoyed Robin’s journey from pretty darn naive for a 20 year old to an almost adult by the end, and in some ways I was a little frustrated at the same time.

The reason I was frustrated was the plot.  I love a good character novel but I do feel that a book has to have some sort of overarching plot or theme that the main character struggles with.  That wasn’t necessarily so in Best Seller.  There’s a lot of inter-character conflict but the main point of the novel (Robin is an aspiring young writer) gets wrapped up in just a couple of pages at the end.  Just like every other conflict Robin faces, it gets wrapped up in a pretty little bow at the end with not even a little ambiguity anywhere.  It’s just too perfect, really, especially when you consider characters like David who do a total 180 by the end.

I haven’t exactly lived through 1976 so I’m not going to talk about any historical accuracy in the novel.  But, at the same time, Martha Reynolds’ writing made me feel like I was there with the characters: breathing in the smoke before smoking indoors in public places was illegal (which I do actually remember), tasting the breakfast at the diner and so much more.  She has a very descriptive writing style and yet she never crosses into boring territory.

So when a writer can make me like the sort of person I’d rather slap in real life and can bring me back to an era I’ve never lived through, I can definitely appreciate their efforts and their talent.  I just wish that Best Seller had more of a plot/point.

I give this book 3/5 stars.

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The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson by Lois Simmie

The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson by Lois Simmie(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

John Wilson came to Canada from Scotland in 1912, leaving his wife and family with the promise to return in a year. In 1914 he joined the Mounties, and while stationed in Saskatchewan village, he caught TB and fell hopelessly in love with the young woman who took care of him. He would do anything for her, anything at all.

Winner of the 1995 Arthur Ellis Award for Non-Fiction, The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson is played out against a backdrop of catastrophic events; World War I, economic depression, the TB and Spanish Flu epidemics. It is the riveting account of a mounted policeman and the women who loved him.

I initially picked up this book because it was semi-local.  (When you’re in Saskatchewan, any fiction vaguely mentioning your province is ‘local’, no matter how far away the story plays out from where you actually are.)  I like true crime books, even if I don’t necessarily always review them.  But this one I had to review.

Now, the main problem with The Secret Lives of Sgt. John Wilson is that it tries so hard to be both a novel and a nonfiction account of a cold-blooded murder.  In the end, it works as neither.  In some respects, this has to be a fictional novel because (despite the award for nonfiction!) Lois Simmie really does insert her own flair into it and speculates highly on what John Wilson was feeling at the time.  This is without backing it up with evidence like testimony from his trial or something similar, mind you.

And that’s why, despite the award, I also don’t consider this to be nonfiction.  This is more of that hybrid genre, creative nonfiction. Normally the genre of something wouldn’t matter to me at all except for the fact that this book works as neither fiction or nonfiction for me.  As fiction, it’s boring and as nonfiction it’s not exactly strictly true to the facts the way you see with other true crime.

Enough of my griping about categorization, though.  It’s not all that relevant when a short read like this (something like 200 pages) was threatening to put me to sleep.  As I said, part of it was the fact that Lois Simmie included almost verbatim the letters of Polly Wilson’s relatives, who had sent them to so many different policeman it made my head spin.  Frankly, the first part of the book leading up to the murder was boring as well.  There was too much focus on mundane events whereas the murder itself barely had any page time at all.

It shouldn’t have been because it really had the potential to let us watch John Wilson’s slow descent into madness and murder, but it was because Lois Simmie has a very dry writing style.  It’s like she’s writing a textbook for schoolchildren, not an actual book (be it nonfiction or fiction).  Even nonfiction writers can insert their own flair as long as they’re not playing with the facts, just like Toby Wilkinson in his book The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt.  He was very factual and backed up his speculations with evidence, but he also added in his own commentary of events on occasion in very cynical one-liners.  He also wrote in such a way that his audience was engaged whereas Simmie doesn’t seem to care whether anyone is interested in her book by the second half.

I had been interested in this murder case, having never heard of it before, which is why I picked up this book.  However, had I known it was going to be such a dull affair as this, I never would have wasted my time with it.  I can’t honestly recommend it.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

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The Last Song by Eva Wiseman

The Last Song by Eva Wiseman(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Spain had been one of the world’s most tolerant societies for eight hundred years, but that way of life was wiped out by the Inquisition. Isabel’s family feels safe from the terrors, torture, and burnings. After all, her father is a respected physician in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Isabel was raised as a Catholic and doesn’t know that her family’s Jewish roots may be a death sentence. When her father is arrested by Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, she makes a desperate plan to save his life – and her own.

Once again, master storyteller Eva Wiseman brings history to life in this riveting and tragic novel.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

I honestly couldn’t have been more disappointed in this novel; it’s pretty hard to make a story set in the Spanish Inquisition boring but Eva Wiseman certainly managed to.  The main problem was that the writing style of this book is awful.  It’s essentially this: Isabel did [x].  She didn’t know how she felt about it.  Then she reacted to [y].  She felt sad about it.

Are you snoring yet?  That’s basically how the entire book goes.  We are told something happens, then told how Isabel feels about it without actually seeing what happens or seeing anything resembling emotions from our main character.  It’s like she’s carved from wood!  Not only that, there are so many inconsistencies in her character because she goes from “Ugh, Jews” to “sure I’ll go dress as a boy, sneak out of my house and go to a Torah study session with this boy I just met a couple of days ago”.  We’re told she warred about the decision but it really didn’t feel like it at all.  Just like when we’re told she’s worried about her father in Torquemada’s custody but you don’t really get the feeling that she is.

This is a middle grade novel so obviously some things are left out or simplified, but with this excruciatingly boring kind of writing style it was also impossible to empathize with any of the characters.  They’re basically just stereotypes that you find in a thousand other middle grade novels.  Isabel is the poor little rich girl who’s betrothed to a man she hates, her mother is the melodramatic sickly type, her father has always been the supportive and encouraging one who then admonishes her for thinking independently, etc.  Even Yonah, a character who could have been quite interesting, was boring because Eva Wiseman never really went into the hows and whys of his character.  He just exists to guide Isabel to Judaism and be the love interest, not to have anything resembling a personality.

My final problem with this book is that it was so predictable.  A poor little rich girl gets betrothed to a man she hates, something comes along that makes that betrothal impossible and she gets to marry the man of her dreams, usually a person of much lower rank and/or wealth.  Pretty much the whole book was summarized in the blurb above, so there were no real surprises in either the characters or the plot.  The Last Song wasn’t even particularly poignant at the end, when the Jews and ‘Moors’ are expelled from Spain on pain of death.  It should have been a touching, sad moment but it wasn’t.  This book just totally lacked emotion.

What can I say?  If you like being told a story but not actually having to think about it for yourself and discover things about the characters, I suppose this book is for you.  If you like three dimensional characters or unpredictable plots, I can’t even recommend it.  I just don’t see where there’s anyone who would like this novel, aside from pre-teens and early teens who have never read about the Spanish Inquisition.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

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Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert

Edwin; High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert(Cover picture courtesy of A Well-Watered Garden.)

Debut historical fiction series vividly recreating the rise of the Christian kings of Northumbria, England

In 604 AD, Edwin, the deposed king of Northumbria, seeks refuge at the court of King Raedwald of East Anglia. But Raedwald is urged to kill his guest by Aethelfrith, Edwin’s usurper. As Edwin walks by the shore, alone and at bay, he is confronted by a mysterious figure–the missionary Paulinus– who prophesies that he will become High King of Britain. It is a turning point.

Through battles and astute political alliances Edwin rises to power, in the process marrying the Kentish princess Aethelburh. As part of the marriage contract the princess is allowed to retain her Christian faith. But, in these times, to be a king is not a recipe for a long life.

This turbulent and tormented period in British history sees the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon settlers who have forced their way on to British shores over previous centuries, arriving first to pillage, then to farm and trade–and to come to terms with the faith of the Celtic tribes they have driven out.

The dramatic story of Northumbria’s Christian kings helped give birth to England as a nation, English as a language, and the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the English.

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback copy in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

I was actually pleasantly surprised with Edwin.  The first page left me a little bit skeptical because of the strange setting and all of the strange names, but by the time we get to the mysterious stranger on the beach that helps Edwin I was hooked.  Edoardo Albert has a very interesting writing style: he describes things quite well for the modern reader and yet he keeps an air of authenticity about his writing.  He really does stay true to the period in the words and actions of his characters but at the same time he doesn’t leave his readers confused either.  I’m very new to the period being discussed and yet I came out of the book not feeling confused at all.

Edwin is not your typical hero in modern tales.  He’s dark and broody and occasionally prone to wartime atrocities.  At the same time, he’s a good man in that he cares for his children tenderly and is always there for his friends (especially the ones that were with him in exile).  Essentially, he’s a man of contradictions because his actions hardly make him a hero but neither do they make him a villain.  Edoardo Albert does this balancing act extremely well and you’re left with the feeling that even though you may not exactly sympathize with him, you do understand him.

For historical fiction of this magnitude and scope, Edwin is surprisingly fast-paced.  We are swept along through Edwin’s victories that lead him to declare himself High King of Britain and eventually through his conversion to Christianity.  Hardly anything seems to go his way at first, but through sheer force of will Edwin eventually succeeds.  Whether he actually can hold onto his power is another story, what with all of the back-stabbing rivals who aren’t happy with his self-proclaimed authority over the whole island.  The ending was sad, but not entirely unexpected considering the fact that kings in the early years were far from long-lived.

Like I said, I was pretty skeptical about Edwin: High King of Britain but by the end of the book I have to say that I’m a fan.  I honestly can’t wait for the rest of The Northumbrian Thrones!

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Caesar’s Daughter: Julia’s Song by Alex Johnston

Caesar's Daughter Julia's Song by Alex Johnston(Cover picture courtesy of History and Other Thoughts.)

After serving Julius Caesar on assignments in Gaul and Alexandria, Marcus Mettius is finally back home in Rome. His work with Caesar had been lucrative, but dangerous. So you can imagine his trepidation when the Roman soldier Quintus shows up at the tavern where Marcus is drinking with yet another letter from Caesar.

You’ve got to admit, Caesar certainly had balls, asking Marcus for his help yet again. On his last two assignments, Marcus was arrested by a mad Egyptian Pharaoh, almost burnt at the stake, and nearly lynched by an angry mob.

But this time is different (you can almost hear the Fates chuckling with glee at THAT line!) All Caesar wants Marcus to do this time is to take a gift to his daughter, Julia, and have a little chat with her while he is there. Certainly no harm can come from that, right?

Well, the next thing you know, Marcus is all tangled up with the leading figures of late Republican Rome – Pompey, Cicero, the deposed King of Egypt, and, of course, the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, aedile and former Tribune of the Plebs.

Once again, Marcus’ life hangs in the balance, in ways he could scarcely have imagined. But he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, he’s Caesar’s Agent Man. And odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow. Join Marcus and his friends in the thrilling sequel to Caesar’s Emissary!

I previously read and reviewed the first book in Alex Johnston’s short story series about Marcus Mettius, Caesar’s Ambassador.  Well, I absolutely loved his funny take on Roman history through the eyes of a bit player.  I mean, how can you not love Marcus Mettius, the consummate salesman?

The book starts off with us hearing about the most feared slave since Spartacus: Vinus, Marcus’ wine slave who writes critical reviews of wine throughout Italy that can make or break a vineyard.  He’s not that important in the scheme of things but it certainly sets the tone as Marcus decides Vinus really doesn’t understand how the whole master-slave relationship works out because Vinus tends to dictate to him and not the other way around.  This isn’t just meaningless joking, though.  It serves to tell us a lot about the aftermath of Spartacus’ rebellion and how the First Triumvirate are faring currently (despite the rogue Clodius terrorizing all of Rome).

One thing about Alex Johnston’s writing that I really appreciate is his obvious deep love and respect for Roman history.  You can really tell that he loves it but at the same time is able to create some rather irreverent versions of famous historical characters like Cicero and Pompey Magnus.  He uses modern dialogue and slang to convey the idea that while obviously not accurate, Romans had their own sort of slang and ways of speaking rather than the usual dry dialogue I find in historical fiction.  They had crude language (Latin is a beautiful language to swear in), the younger generation’s version of rap, etc.  He really captures that sort of turning point in Roman culture as the Republic is failing and although some events are changed a little for the story Caesar’s Daughter it’s actually very historically accurate.

Add on top of all this awesomeness the fact that Alex Johnston is a truly hilarious writer.  I was in stitches, literally laughing out loud half of the time.  There are some jokes where you have to know Roman history to truly appreciate but the majority of them are hilarious non-insider jokes.  You really can’t get a better take on history that’s funny, historically accurate and yet not historically accurate at all.  The only thing I can really criticize is the overuse of capitals when characters are exclaiming things excitedly.  They lose their effect after a while.

Although I’m kind of in a mixed up order for the series right now I’m really looking forward to reading the second short story Caesar’s Emissary some day.  I’d recommend giving Alex Johnston’s short stories a try for pretty much everyone, even if you’re not a big Roman history buff.

I give this short story 4.5/5 stars.

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Queen of Someday by Sherry D. Ficklin

Queen of Someday by Sherry D. Ficklin(Cover picture courtesy of Cindy’s Love of Books.)

Before she can become the greatest empress in history, fifteen-year-old Sophia will have to survive her social-climbing mother’s quest to put her on the throne of Russia at any cost. Imperial Court holds dangers like nothing Sophia has ever faced before. In the heart of St. Petersburg, surviving means navigating the political, romantic, and religious demands of the bitter Empress Elizabeth and her handsome, but sadistic nephew, Peter. Determined to save her impoverished family and herself Sophia vows to do whatever is necessary to thrive in her new surroundings. But an attempt on her life and an unexpected attraction threatens to derail her plans. Alone in a new and dangerous world, learning who to trust and who to charm may mean the difference between becoming queen and being sent home in shame to marry her lecherous uncle. With traitors and murderers lurking around every corner, her very life hangs in the balance. Betrothed to one man but falling in love with another, Sophia will need to decide how much she s willing to sacrifice in order to become the empress she is destined to be. In a battle for the soul of a nation, will love or destiny reign supreme?

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Let me make two things very, very clear right off the bat:

1.  Yes, this novel is about Catherine the Great of Russia.

2.  No, this is not historically accurate and nor was it meant to be.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way I think a bit of an explanation is in order.  This is about Catherine the Great’s younger years before she became empress of all Russia.  It’s about her struggles acclimatizing to the Russian court and trying to win the love of Peter, the future emperor.  As Sherry Ficklin mentions in the dedication as well as the historical note, while she really does stay true to the spirit of the times this was not meant to be historically accurate.  And that’s okay because it really does capture the zeitgeist in Russia at the time and paints a fascinating picture of how Catherine the Great became, well, ‘the Great’.

The thing that I really appreciated about Queen of Someday was not only Ficklin’s honesty about accuracy and such but also her characters.  Catherine’s husband Peter is a hotly debated ruler in Russian history and I like how the portrayal of him in the book makes sense if you look at his later life before Catherine’s coup.  He’s jealous and toys with women and men alike, reveling in his power over not only their emotions but their very lives.  Catherine is at first the naive young Sophie trying to find a little bit of happiness in a marriage that’s all but being forced upon her.  As she grows into her role as future empress and learns what real love is like, she’s faced with some horrific decisions that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.  Sherry Ficklin certainly knows how to present such a quick change from naive young girl to cynical empress very well.

The plot is far from fast-paced by most people’s reckonings but it is fascinating.  There are real events in Russian history going on throughout the story and Ficklin stayed true to most of the broader strokes of Catherine’s early years.  It’s mostly a character-driven story and that’s something that I also appreciated about Queen of Someday.  This is only the first installment in the Stolen Empire series and I really can’t wait for the rest of Catherine’s story.  It’s just a shame that this book doesn’t actually release until October for the general public!  Thank goodness for pre-ordering is all I can say because I really do have to recommend it to people who love a good read.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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