Monday, October 16, 2017

The Prince and I by Karen Hawkins

Reviewed by Ambrea

Murian MacDonald loved Rowallen Castle, and she loved the immeasurably happy life she lived.  But when the earl killed her husband and stole Rowallen from beneath her, Murian vowed revenge.  Now, she waylays the earl’s wealthy guests with a loyal band of misfits, trying to lure him and his guards into pursuit so she may sneak back into the castle and find evidence of his misdeeds.

Her plan is working well, until she stops the coach of Gregori Maksim Romanovin, a prince of Oxenburg, and the Grand Duchess Natasha Nikolaevna.  Although she bests him in a duel and makes off with her prize, Murian hasn’t heard the last of Prince Max—and, whether she likes it or not, she may very well need his help if she hopes to reclaim Rowallen and defeat despicable earl who ruined her life.

I rather liked Karen Hawkin’s novel, The Prince and I.  It’s a curious blending of romance and Robin Hood, and I enjoyed it.  Max is the quintessential hero:  dark, brooding, capable and confident—not to mention, he’s a literal prince.  Murian, on the other hand, is anything but a damsel in distress:  she’s calm, competent, hard-working and surprisingly agile with a blade.  She’s been dealt a terrible hand, having lost her husband and her home, but she’s making the best of her situation and managing to survive.

When a sweet romance develops between them, I couldn’t help gush over the tenderness of their relationship.  Murian is driven by her desire for revenge and, while it does mark her growing affection for Max, it also makes her a more conflicted, complicated character.  Their relationship isn’t cut and dry, rather they’re faced with a number of hurdles to jump, not least of which a conniving earl that will see Murian dead and Max brought to heel.

It’s rather exciting.

However, I think my favorite character was Max’s grandmother, the Grand Duchess.  Natasha was, by far, the most comical character and, I think, the most knowledgeable.  She doesn’t care how others perceive her; rather, she likes the idea that others consider her a witch.  (It’s why she most often threatens to turn others into goats and frogs.  She much prefers infamy to anonymity.)  Moreover, she’s often caught in the thick of trouble, one way or another, and yet she still manages to turn circumstances exactly how she wants them.

This last quality makes me think that she’s not the doddering old witch she likes her grandson to think she is.  Natasha is wily, not necessarily senile; in fact, she strikes me as being preternaturally intelligent.  For instance, if she hadn’t lost in a card game to the earl, they never would have traveled to Scotland.  Max would never have met Murian; Max would never have gotten involved in the earl’s business and discovered what the man did.

Natasha is the force that propels the story forward.  She helps shape it the most and, while she may seem laughably naïve or even foolish, I have this feeling that she’s not what she seems.  Throughout the story as I learned more about her, I had this odd suspicion that she knew exactly what she was doing, that she calculated every move to her—and, by proxy, her grandson’s—benefit.

Personally, she’s part of what made The Prince and I so enjoyable.  I may have to read more of the series if it means I can reacquaint myself with the Grand Duchess.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

Reviewed by Jeanne

When Dr. William Ravenswood and his sister Mary arrive in London in 1815, they are all but friendless.  They are newly arrived in England, being the children of wealthy planters who, abhorring the slave trade, freed their workers and sold their plantation. Their charming manners and wealth soon attract interest, and their letter of introduction allows them to meet others of similar station.  They are looking for someone in particular, however;  Henry Austen, a gentleman who has a sister with a secret.  She’s an author.

The Ravenswoods have secrets as well.  They are not brother and sister, those are not their real names, and they have come from a great deal farther than Jamaica.

They are time travelers, sent back to try to obtain by hook or by crook a copy of a never published Jane Austen novel.

Let me say at the start that I can be a bit squeamish about light fiction using actual historical characters.  I tend to second guess a lot, wondering whether or not Ben Franklin or Edgar Allan Poe or Jane Austen would really have behaved in the manner depicted.  The reviews on this book were good, so I decided to chance it.

It is well-written and quite well thought out.  I don’t know if author Kathleen A. Flynn has ever read Connie Willis, but some elements reminded me of her marvelous Oxford Time Travel series:  the travelers’ base institute is in Oxford, for example, and the elaborate contingency plans are made.  There is some description of the rigorous training involved when time traveling back to 1815: learning to ride a horse, getting properly dressed in the garments of the time, and the crucial ability to blend in with the population.  

Characterization was well done, and the reader gets a good feel for the time period.  The story is told from the point of view of Dr. Rachel Katzman, aka Mary Ravenswood, a medical doctor who has provided humanitarian aid in various countries under difficult circumstances.  She is adept at hiding her horror at some of the living conditions—handwashing, for example, isn’t nearly as prevalent as in modern times—but occasionally chaffs at the restraints she must endure as a woman in a time when women had limited influence.  

I enjoyed The Jane Austen Project.  The author had done her research, and still managed to pull out a few surprises.  The result is a very satisfying novel.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Nevermore: Eleanor Oliphant, Lost City, Shadow Man, Lost City of the Monkey God, Inferno

To start, Nevermore dived into Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a debut novel by Gail Honeyman.  Eleanor Oliphant is not your average heroine.  Serious, socially awkward, and painfully odd, Eleanor tries to avoid any kind of social interaction or hiccup that might disturb her carefully orchestrated life.  That is, until she meets Raymond, the IT guy from her office, and subsequently saves Sammy, an elderly gentleman who took a spill on the sidewalk.  Now, Eleanor has to wonder if her isolated life has been worth it—and if opening her heart to someone else might be a risk worth taking.  Our reader called Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine an intensely emotional and incredibly moving novel.  “[I found it] so beautiful how her friendships help her survive” the worst parts of her life, she said.  She highly recommended Honeyman’s debut, saying it was well worth reading.

Next, Nevermore checked out The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston.  In 2012, Doug Preston joined a team of scientists on a quest to rediscover this incredible, lost city.  Called the “White City” by the conquistadors and legendary among indigenous people, the Lost City of the Monkey God held an undiscovered trove of treasures and history.  Using LIDAR to help them chart a course, Preston and the rest of the team set off into the Honduran rain forest.  They were astonished by the discoveries they made and the dangers they faced—and brought home.  Our reader loved The Lost City of the Monkey God.  She said it offered an astonishing depth of knowledge on the history of the region, as well as detailed some of the more extreme dangers the scientific team faced.  It was truthful of the hardships and it shed light on the various plights, pitfalls, and problems with which archaeologists deal.

In Shadow Man, Detective Ben Wade has returned to Rancho Santa Elena in search of a quieter life.  Filled with peaceful streets, quaint communities, and excellent schools, Rancho Santa Elena is the perfect place for Ben to take a break and rebuild his crumbling marriage—until a daring serial killer arrives on the scene.  Now, Ben and forensic specialist Natasha Betencourt must stay one step ahead of a killer, before he chooses his next victim.  Thrilling and thought provoking, Shadow Man is a fascinating detective story on how personal secrets can quickly wreak havoc and destroy lives.  Our reader gave high praise for Alan Drew’s novel, saying he enjoyed it immensely; however, he also noted he’s ready for a change of pace:  “[I’ve come] to realize…I’ve read too many mystery books in a row.”  He’s ready for his next book to be of a scientific variety.

Nevermore jumped back in time with Jane Austen’s classic, Persuasion.  Published in 1818, Persuasion tells the story of Anne Elliot.  When she was only nineteen, Anne fell in love with Captain Wentworth; however, with neither fortune nor title to his name, she was forced to break her engagement with him and warned never to see him again.  Seven years later, Anne reconnects with beloved captain—now, a wealthy and accomplished Navy man—and she begins to wonder if second chances really do happen, or if she’s pinning too many hopes on a fond memory.  Our reader admitted she enjoyed reading Persuasion more than she expected.  She thought it was a sweet, romantic story that offered an unexpectedly astute view on class, wealth, and privilege.  It was a nice change of pace for our reader, even if she wondered how women could possibly be content with being entertained and wooed all the time.  “It seems [very] boring,” she noted.

Last, Nevermore jumped into Inferno:  A Doctor’s Ebola Story by Dr. Steven Hatch.  Hatch, an infectious disease specialist, fired worked in Liberia during 2013 at a hospital in Monrovia.  Within six months, several physicians were dead and Ebola was quickly growing into an international crisis.  Hatch also helped create the Ebola Treatment Unit with the International Medical Corps, trying to stop the spread of this horrific disease—and temper the xenophobic politics that stemmed from this crisis.  Inferno is an uncompromising look at Liberia’s violent history and the virus that nearly destroyed it.  Our reader called Hatch’s book “absolutely fascinating.  [It was] very informative and very well written.”  She added that it was very interesting to see how the history of Liberia factored into the spread of the Ebola epidemic and how doctors were able to track the virus, going into such great detail as to hypothesize on the victim of the very first Ebola infection.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Navel Gazing by Michael Ian Black

Reviewed by Ambrea

When I first picked up Navel Gazing, I realized I recognized the author’s name.  He was relatively famous, I knew that; I’d seen him on a screen somewhere, even if I couldn’t remember exactly where.  However, I’d never recognized him as a writer.  It surprised me, and I couldn’t help wondering if this wasn’t just another memoir by a celebrity with a ghost writer.

Except Michael Ian Black isn’t just another celebrity writing a book about his career; rather, he’s a man writing about the trials of everyday life with a terminally ill parent.

He discusses his family and his life as he grapples with his mother’s deteriorating health; he discusses his health and what he’s not doing to improve it; he discusses his beliefs, his religion and how it impacts him as his mother struggles with one medical diagnosis after another.  It’s a candid account on life in general and full of humorous musings on health, happiness, and faith.

I loved reading Black’s memoir for the simple fact that I could relate to him.  When he talks about his health and his worries regarding growing older, yet he doesn’t want to schedule another appointment with the doctor, I understood his fear of disease and his subsequent reluctance to do anything about it.  I mean, it sounds exactly like something I would do; in fact, it sounds like something I’ve done.

Likewise, when Black discussed his floundering attempts to become healthy and, for instance, decided to take up jogging as a healthier alternative to binge watching Netflix, I understood and connected with his experiences.  I understood his struggles with weight and physical exercise (it’s exhausting), and I recognized his desperate desire to discover something deeper, more important in his running routine.

“The toughest thing about training for the half marathon was the time commitment:  hours per week, hours that could have been more fruitfully spent not running.  Why did I persist, week after week, through the summer heat and into the chilly days of autumn?  What was my fascination with running?  [...]  What did I want?  The truth is, I knew what I wanted from running, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to admit it:  I wanted enlightenment.  And this is where are all my convoluted feelings about my body and Mom’s declining health and aging and my own fear of death and praytheism congeal into a goopy sludge.  This is the nexus.  It is a stupid nexus, to be sure, but I could not quite shake the idea that running could save me.”

I laughed at his self-deprecating humor, of course, but I enjoyed his candor and I connected on a personal level with his experiences.  I know what it’s like to struggle with weight and health concerns (doesn’t everyone?), and I know what it’s like to hope that you can find something—anything—in physical activity.  You hope to find enlightenment, contentment, peace—you know, something you can’t quite name—and it’s always a little disappointing if you don’t.
Overall, I loved the reading Navel Gazing.  It’s fun and humorous, like it’s intended to be, but it’s also insightful and relatable.  It connects on a deeply human level, exploring our individual foibles and disappointments, our worries and fears and insecurities.  Personally, I came away from Navel Gazing with a familiar, ‘intense...almost electrical connection” to another human being.

It’s a feeling that I’m sure any reader will appreciate after finishing Black’s memoir.