History of Wolves

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History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Literary Fiction)

History of Wolves is a beautifully written coming-of-age story that grabs hold of the reader on many levels and does not let go. Emily Fridlund’s descriptive prose carries one into the wooded reaches of northern Minnesota to experience first-hand the isolation and loneliness, not only of this remote area but also of fifteen-year-old Linda who lives there with her aging hippie parents. Born into a now-defunct commune and raised in a cabin in the woods, Linda is an outsider in her school and pretty much of a loner. When a married couple with a small boy moves into a summer home across the lake, she befriends the young wife and agrees to babysit their four-year-old. But something’s not quite right, and Linda, in her naïveté, doesn’t know how to respond.

The story is narrated by Linda as a twenty-six-year-old, and as she includes more details about her dysfunctional family and a questionable teacher-student relationship in her school, she also makes occasional reference to “the trial” and questions “they” would later ask her. Something bad is going to happen, and we are skillfully taken there while learning to care more and more about Linda and those around her. A sense of foreboding grows until we realize what’s going to happen, and then we wait anxiously to learn how the trial will play out.

The author poses questions that remain with the reader: What’s the difference between what we consider doing and what we end up doing? At what point, if any, are we obligated to take responsibility for the well-being of someone else? What do we owe our friends in terms of loyalty? Linda’s need for connection and acknowledgement from others colors her view of what’s happening around her, and her inexperience with life and desire to please leave her without the wherewithal to act appropriately. But what would we have done under the same circumstances?

Grandma gives History of Wolves five stars. 5 stars

History of Wolves is scheduled for release on January 3, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Atomic Number Sixty

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Atomic Number Sixty (Sixty Minute Reads Book 1) by Dave Johnston (Short Story/Thriller)

Atomic Number Sixty is the first installment in a series, with each book meant to be read in one hour. In sixty chapters, it documents the countdown, minute by minute, of a bomb set to go off in the basement of City Hall. That bomb is attached to hostage Holly Holloway, who is strapped to a chair. In each one-minute chapter, Holly relates either her situation at the moment or the history of how she came to be there. Her fun, wise-mouth observations made Atomic Number Sixty a light-hearted story that had me chuckling even in the face of pending doom.

This very clever approach to story-telling is unique and entertaining. In addition to the story itself, the idea of one-minute chapters keeps the reader willing to read “just one more” until the book is done, and completing a book in one hour feels like an accomplishment. That said, this is not even a novella, but a short story with an abrupt ending that felt a little too pie-in-the-sky and seemed to come out of nowhere. Since time and space limitations were self-imposed by the author, one expects him to deliver a satisfying, believable outcome within those limitations.

I think it will be interesting to see where this series goes. Book 2, Massacre of the Sixty, is due to be released in early to mid-December, 2016. At that time, from December 11 through December 15, Atomic Number Sixty will be free to download on Amazon as part of the launch celebration. However, at its current price of 99 cents, this fun little book is worth the investment.

Grandma gives Atomic Number Sixty four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Sacred Flame

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The Sacred Flame by Nanette Littlestone (Historical Fiction)

This well-written love story takes place in ancient Rome during the days of Vestal Virgins. Livia has given thirty years in service to the goddess Vesta, living only with her fellow Vestals, and her commitment is almost up. Now she’s looking forward to marrying her childhood friend, Kaeso, with whom she sees herself having a chance at happiness, even though she doesn’t love him as anything more than a friend.

But the Fates intervene, and suddenly Livia’s life becomes complicated in ways that not only threaten her ability to leave the Vestals, but also put her life in danger. She incurs the wrath of a fellow Vestal, as well as that of a woman of social prominence, and defies Roman society when she falls in love with a married man. Throughout, we watch her struggle with duty, passion, commitment, fidelity, love, friendship, and the terrible weight of responsibility and expectations thrust upon her by others against her will.

We see the action through the eyes of several different characters, in addition to Livia herself, a technique that limits how deeply we can get to know her as a person. We’re often observing her from the outside, which builds tension as we become privy to the motives and plans of others, but also keeps her at a distance. Still it is a rich story with interesting characters in a fascinating time and place. The writing style fits the period, and it’s clear that the author has researched the subject well and writes with confidence. The ending took me completely by surprise, adding to the pleasure of reading this ambitious novel. Anyone who enjoys stories set in ancient Rome will be completely satisfied with The Sacred Flame.

Grandma gives The Sacred Flame five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Ruler of the Night

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Ruler of the Night by David Morrell (Historical Fiction/Mystery)

Ruler of the Night is a blend of fact and fiction and is the final installment in a trilogy of murder mysteries set in Victorian England during the Crimean War. In 1855 a respected gentleman is brutally murdered on an English passenger train, setting off a frenzy of fear among travelers on this new mode of transportation. In the adjoining compartment are Thomas De Quincey, the brilliant author famous for writing about his on-going addiction to opiates, and his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Emily, who serves as his caregiver. Together with two Scotland Yard detectives, they seek to solve the murder and soon become involved in a much larger plot involving the Prime Minister of England, members of London’s high society, a German doctor accused of murdering Czar Nicholas of Russia, and a water-cure clinic on the outskirts of London that panders to the wealthy.

David Morrell is an acclaimed writer of both fiction and non-fiction, beginning with his debut novel in 1972, First Blood. His extensive research into the life and times of Thomas De Quincey brings this unusual man and his feisty daughter to life. De Quincey uses logic and clues in ways not yet common to police work, and his daughter’s knowledge of medicine gives them additional insights. Morrell vividly portrays the oddities and attitudes of the time period, effectively transporting the reader to smoky Victorian London with all of its grit and smells and discomforts alongside the haughty opulence of its upper class. The fast-paced story, told from multiple points of view, quickly involves us in the action and keeps us guessing while moving toward an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

Lovers of historical fiction, the Victorian era, or simply a good, well-written thriller will enjoy this book.

Grandma gives Ruler of the Night five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books was given a free copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour: Fifteen Words

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Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas

Two young doctors form a profound and loving bond in Nazi Germany; a bond that will stretch them to the very limits of human endurance. Catholic Max – whose religious and moral beliefs are in conflict, has been conscripted to join the war effort as a medic, despite his hatred of Hitler’s regime. His beloved Erika, a privileged young woman, is herself a product of the Hitler Youth. In spite of their stark differences, Max and Erika defy convention and marry.

But when Max is stationed at the fortress city of Breslau, their worst nightmares are realized; his hospital is bombed, he is captured by the Soviet Army and taken to a POW camp in Siberia. Max experiences untold horrors, his one comfort the letters he is allowed to send home: messages that can only contain Fifteen Words. Back in Germany, Erika is struggling to survive and protect their young daughter, finding comfort in the arms of a local carpenter. Worlds apart and with only sparse words for comfort, will they ever find their way back to one another, and will Germany ever find peace?

Join us on December 1 for a guest post by author Monika Jephcott Thomas on what inspired her to write Fifteen Words and read our review of this historical novel.

Between Dreams

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Between Dreams by Cynthia Austin (Paranormal fantasy)

We do not normally publish a review that is less than three stars. Instead, we connect with the author and let him or her know why we cannot give the book a better review. However, this book is getting some high star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, meaning that it appeals to a certain group of readers, if not to us. Because our two stars mean “We are not enthusiastic, but you may be,” we are taking this opportunity to explain our rating and to let readers decide for themselves if they find our concerns relevant to them.

The description was promising: Sidney Sinclair was living the dream of any eighteen year-old girl… A handsome rock star boyfriend, a closet full of designer clothes, a limousine service at her beck and call, and a mansion in the hills of Los Angeles. Even with all that glamour and excitement at her fingertips, she still feels as if she’s been missing something in her life so she decides to leave. While trying her best to put her dysfunctional romantic relationship aside and tend to her beloved Granny, Sidney unexpectedly stumbles upon an intriguing emerald pendant boxed away in her grandmother’s closet. Soon she learns it once belonged to her long-lost mother who committed suicide when she was just a baby. Suddenly feeling emotionally connected to the woman who had birthed her, Sidney begins to wear the necklace. This sends her on a whirlwind journey that alternates between fantasy and reality… Almost immediately, she starts having dreams linked to the mysterious pendant. As danger begins to seep into her life, Sidney refuses to remove the necklace and instead documents each dream to help her further understand them. However, she soon begins to wonder if they are dreams meant to bond her to a mother whom she never knew? Or a subconscious warning that threatens her very life?

Unfortunately, we found the story itself to lack the promised intrigue. Instead, we found ourselves skimming the last half, hoping something would happen. The rock star boyfriend (Ray) is a cliche, and the “beloved Granny” is a device to give Sidney a reason to leave Ray, go home, and find the pendant. Granny is in a coma, and Sidney doesn’t “tend to” her at all; she hires a nurse and goes back to her old grocery clerk job and her friends. Perhaps Granny is being kept alive in the book so she can come out of her coma for a happy ending in a future installment, but so far, she has no presence whatsoever.

Ray floats in and out of Sid’s life, claiming he cares but apparently bedding other women, and she keeps taking him back because he’s her true love, for whatever reason. At the same time, she’s having dreams about a green-eyed man and then meets him at the grocery store and again at a bar, and of course, he’s unbelievably handsome and sexy and she’s torn between him and Ray. Still nothing happens, but we know she’s conflicted. She also rants about religion and the Catholic church, which does nothing to move the story along, and just feels like venting by the author.

What cinches the two-star rating for us are two things: dreams related in detail and an out-of-the-blue cliffhanger ending dropped like a bomb.

Dreams are dreams, not reality; if they are not what’s actually happening to the main characters, they can feel superfluous, even when they’re meant to  portend doom. They’re still only imagination until something actually happens, and too many of them, related in detail, hold back the action and become ho-hum reading at best, boring at worst.

Cliffhanger endings work for a TV series; in fact, they have become obligatory. They should not happen in a novel, however, as an abrupt ending that just comes out of nowhere and stops the action (or lack thereof) cold. Yes, the ending is a jaw-dropper, but that’s not a good thing when it makes you think, “Where did that come from?  Are you serious?”

If we are expected to pick up Book Two in the Pendant series, it’s going to take some build-up to a new crisis in the making, not something that blindsides us. Think of a series like The Hunger Games or Divergent or Twilight. Each book in the series stands alone, with a story arc that is complete and satisfying and makes you want to stick with the characters because you’ve seen them grow and change, and their welfare has become important to you. You care about them as people, and you want to know what comes next. That’s not happening here. At least not for us.

We give Between Dreams two stars. 2-stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy of this book from the author in return for an honest review.