I Was Anastasia

 I Was Anastasia

I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon (Historical Fiction)

In 1917, Czar Nicholas II of Russia was deposed by the Bolshevik revolution and exiled to Siberia with his wife and five children. Within a year, the Red Army executed the entire family and several of their servants, but did not reveal the location of their graves.

In 1920, a young woman named Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia, the youngest of the czar’s four daughters. She said she had survived the attempted assassination, and she had the terrible scars to prove it. For the next fifty years, she would fight in international courts to prove her identity.

Ariel Lawhon has written a book that I found gripping, much of it because of the way she laid out the story. Teen-aged Anastasia tells us about her life as the revolution begins and she and her beloved family are suddenly imprisoned in the royal palace. We hear about the arrogance of their captors and the family’s struggles to adjust as they go from obscene opulence to near poverty. We learn to care about twelve-year-old Alexey, the fragile hemophiliac son and heir to a throne he will never possess, and we watch Anastasia and her beautiful older sisters experience the first loves in their young and soon to be cruelly shortened lives.

Meanwhile, in alternating chapters we meet Anna Anderson in 1970. Fifty years have passed since she began her quest to convince the world that she is Anastasia, and now in her seventies, she is still trying. Then, in a storyline reminiscent of the movie Memento, her tale is told in reverse, with more and more details cleverly revealed with each backward movement in time. Finally, the two narratives, Anastasia’s moving forward and Anna’s moving back, converge in the fateful time period and reveal all.

I admit I have a special interest in Anastasia’s tale. I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when publications were full of articles speculating whether Anna Anderson was the tragic royal survivor or a loathsome impostor. The idea fascinated me, and I never did learn the truth. I approached this book’s take on what happened with great anticipation, and Ariel Lawhon did not disappoint.

Grandma gives I Was Anastasia five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I Was Anastasia will be released on March 27, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

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The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (Paranormal, Mystery)

The girls referred to in the title of this book have been sent to Idlewild Hall, a creepy, second-rate boarding school in a small Vermont town. They are the girls no one knows what to do with – hard to handle, illegitimate, or simply unwanted. Built in 1919, the school is rumored to be haunted, and the girls who live in this dreadful place over the years pass along stories of Mary Hand, the resident ghost. Even after the school is closed in the 1970s, the abandoned buildings continue to throw a chilling pall over the town and its inhabitants.

In 2014 Fiona Sheridan, a local journalist, has her own reasons for hating Idlewild Hall. Twenty years ago, her older sister was murdered and her body was dumped in the abandoned school’s playing field. Now the place has been purchased and is about to be restored, and Fiona uses the potential story as cover to feed her obsession with the property and its history. She is on the grounds the day a shocking discovery is made, and soon she is delving into more than she bargained for.

The novel follows two different timelines – Fiona in 2014 and four Idlewild Hall girls in 1950. We get the points of view of all five characters in alternating chapters, and before long their stories begin to intertwine. Each 1950s Idlewild girl has a unique backstory, and when one of them goes missing, her friends must fight to have authorities take her disappearance seriously. That disappearance, along with sightings of Mary Hand, will affect Fiona, as well.

The author has created an eerie setting populated with characters we come to care about. I thoroughly enjoyed her writing style and found her dialogue to be exceptionally true to how people speak. The story itself is a gentle inclusion of paranormal with mystery, suspense, and historical fiction, and the ending satisfyingly answers the questions raised throughout the book.

Grandma gives The Broken Girls 4.5 stars. 4.5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Broken Girls will be released by the publisher on March 20, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

The Murder of Manny Grimes

The Murder of Manny Grimes

The Murder of Manny Grimes by Angela Kay (Mystery/Thriller)

This book was a mixed bag for me. I was interested in the basic story: who killed Manny Grimes and why? The story bogged down once in a while, but it had its share of worthwhile developments and complex details. The characters were all a little too prickly for me; I didn’t find any that I truly cared about as individuals, which makes it harder to be invested in the outcome. Still, I wanted to know what happened and found the plot interesting.

Unfortunately, this book needs a good copy editing. Most annoying is improperly punctuated dialogue with random paragraph breaks that make it hard to know who is saying what. Odd phrasing (Claire unleashed her arms with a sighCalhoun took her lips to his) and misused words (…Walker replied, becoming irritant …a completely separate incidence to Grimes’ murderHis questionable eyes turned to shockThe furniture and decorum sent out an unwelcome sensation…) are distracting. Mixing of tenses in a single sentence and sloppy grammar occur too many times to be ignored.

The structure could also use some tightening, and the author gives away too much when she suddenly puts us inside the perpetrator’s head about two-thirds of the way through the novel. Until then, we know what the investigators know, which makes sense. Suddenly giving us the perp’s point of view doesn’t add anything that won’t come out eventually, and while it may be meant to add tension, it simply feels out of place and awkward. I believe the author has promise, but she needs guidance in order to do her best work and would benefit from working with a good editor.

Grandma gives The Murder of Manny Grimes three stars. 3 stars

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

Engadine Aerie

Engadine Aerie

Engadine Aerie by Bluette Mathey (Mystery/Suspense)

This is Book Five in the Hardy Durkin Travel Series, Durkin being one of those likeable everyday guys outside of law enforcement who just happens to keep stumbling upon, and solving, crimes and mysteries. In this case, there’s a murder, attempted murder, an attempted terrorist bombing, and a terrorist arms deal.

The author provides lots of characters to keep track of. Durkin is an outfitter/trekker who has joined a friend guiding her first ski tour group through a trip to the Engadine Valley of the Swiss Alps. We know every member of the group by name and follow their stories. We also follow wealthy royalty from Abu Dhabi and a set of sinister fraternal twins who live in the Engadine, plus a middleman or two in the arms deal. And because this is a stand-alone novel based on a series, we are brought up to date on Durkin’s past and his relationships with additional characters who appeared in previous books and are back again. For some of the aforementioned, we learn detailed family histories – in one case dating back to the Crusades, with theories about the Templars thrown in for good measure.

Mathey personally visits the off-the-beaten-track locations she writes about, a strong point in this series. She also does a lot of research. We get details about various parts of the Alps with histories of hotels and other significant sites, brand names for what the rich are wearing, and descriptions of the expensive cars they’re driving. Falconry plays a part in the story, and the author does a good job of bringing that to life.

The plot is complicated, as tales of international intrigue often are, and I admit to sometimes losing track of it all, but not enough to miss out on the main points. Overall, this is a very ambitious book that is generally successful but could use a trimming of the minutiae.

Grandma gives Engadine Aerie four stars. 4 stars

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

Sleep, Savannah, Sleep

Sleep Savannah Sleep

Sleep, Savannah, Sleep by Alistair Cross (Paranormal Mystery)

Sleep, Savannah, Sleep is a real treat: well-written, engaging, with a smart, appealing main character who has experiences that are just creepy enough to be on the edge of possible. Jason Crandall, mid-thirties and newly widowed, moves his two children – a belligerent teen and a sweet little seven-year-old – to a new town. He meets seemingly well-meaning people as well as a troubled young woman, a scary neighbor, and some sinister townsfolk. When the young woman goes missing, Jason starts experiencing night terrors, hallucinations, and visions. Before long, the reader isn’t sure which of his new acquaintances Jason should be trusting.

This is a paranormal murder mystery with a number of twists and an unexpected murderer. The paranormal aspects build tension without being unnecessarily horrifying, a feature I appreciated. The book’s main appeal, however, was a likeable protagonist I quickly came to care about. Jason has a sense of humor. He makes mistakes. He misses his deceased wife, but he doesn’t dwell on it. He finds himself attracted to women he meets and is conflicted by it. He struggles with fathering a rebellious son and a little girl who needs mothering, and all the while he’s seeing disturbing things that are scaring the crap out of him.

I enjoyed the author’s similes – “Brent’s jaw dropped open like a glove box” – except for his repeated references to a leathery voice. Try as I might, I could not make the connection between a voice and something tactile, visual, and possibly olfactory, but, in my experience at least, basically soundless. Nit-picky, I know, but each time it came up, it took me out of the story. That and one of my pet peeves: one does not “try and” do something, one “tries to” do it. This book was too well edited and proofread to allow that. That said, I plan to read Alistair Cross’s other novels. I’m hooked.

Grandma gives Sleep, Savannah, Sleep five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Sleep, Savannah, Sleep will be released on September 25, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows

The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows by Matthew A. J. Timmins (Humor/Mystery)

This is probably the most unique work I’ve reviewed in a very long time. It reads like a historical novel set in Victorian London, with a strong sense of place and gritty, Dickensian characters with lots of quirks and warts. At the same time, it’s very funny.

The setting is not exactly London but the very similar city of Claudon, capital of Albion, on the banks of the River Plew. Our anti-hero, Mr. Robin Sparrows, is a lowly legal clerk who is paid a pittance to do menial tasks for a disreputable law firm. He’s a timid, self-effacing fellow who falls prey to all sorts of dilemmas, most often due to the nefarious behavior of others. Still, his sense of duty propels him forward and keeps him going as he seeks to deliver a package to the Empire’s most notorious criminal, a man responsible for starting the Crocodile War with the nation of Crocodon.

I loved many things about this book. The writing is superb. The eccentric characters are entertaining, and the names of places — Upper-Hem-On-The-Edge, St. Audley’s Home for Limbless Soldiers — and the names of people — Lord Ernest Arenblast, the diminutive Warden Webert Stillbee — have the sparkling creativity of J.K. Rowling. I found myself chuckling at clever similes and plays on words as well as the outlandish situations in which the hapless Robin finds himself — attempting to hide on a windowsill while being attacked by a territorial pigeon was just one of many.

Readers with an appreciation for the mildly absurd and those who enjoy clever narrative and strong writing skills will find this refreshing novel most entertaining. If Mr. Sparrows were to return with new adventures, I would be happy to meet up with him again.

Grandma gives The Miseries of Mr. Sparrows five stars. 5 stars

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

Smugglers & Scones

Smugglers and Scones

Smugglers & Scones by Morgan C. Talbot (Cozy Mystery)

This cozy mystery has the clever setting of a bed and breakfast devoted to mystery writers, giving the spunky young proprietor, Pippa, plenty of amateur help in solving the murders that plague her seaside Oregon town. The B&B, once the home of a famous mystery author, also provides additional clues through its collections of his books and notes and Pippa’s uncle’s knowledge of the late mystery writer’s personal history in the town. The writer himself shows up in the book through the quotes that open each chapter, giving us a sense of a gruff, cigarette-smoking, heavy drinking, no-nonsense tough guy straight out of the 1940s.

Pippa is a lively narrator who immediately grabbed my interest. I also enjoyed the author’s flair for dialogue, giving different characters different speech habits that added to their believability. Her descriptions of the Oregon seacoast made me feel as though I was there, and the major characters became people I could visualize and care about. I did find Pippa’s immediate and constant drooling over the love interest, Lake, unrealistic and hard to take at times. I also question the value of including the part about the Glaze and Gossip club, since they mostly came off as a group of nosy women with nothing better to do than worry about other people’s business and felt more like a device than a real part of the story.

Overall, I found this book to be a quick, light, and enjoyable read, and I think the Moorehaven Mysteries series is one I’ll look forward to following.

Bella gives Smugglers and Scones four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.