The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains

The Madonna of the Mountains by Elise Valmorbida (Historical Fiction)

Northern Italy in 1923 is the setting for this story of Maria Vittoria, a young woman about to begin an arranged marriage. We travel with her through the next two decades as Fascism and Mussolini take over the country and “Trust no one” becomes her mantra. World War II brings cruel Nazis and marauding Partisans, hunger, deprivation, and fear. Meanwhile, she is raising five children, enduring an abusive marriage, and doing what she believes she must to feed her family and keep them safe.

In addition to painting a picture of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, this is a tale of a loveless marriage, misplaced pride, religious dominance, and the devaluing of women, not only by their fathers and brothers, but also by their husbands and sons. Maria endures not only political tyranny but also that imposed by the men in her life. Yet, she is a traditionalist willing to impose the same fate on her daughters.

As with any story spanning several decades, children grow up before you have a sense of who they are, things happen in the background, the main characters age, and, unless it’s a three-volume saga, you begin to feel like you’ve missed a lot. I care about Maria’s children because they’re Maria’s children, not because I know them as individuals. In fact, mostly, I don’t like them, based on the little I’ve seen. I dislike her husband, and because I’m judging from a blurry snapshot, it’s hard to tell if he has changed much after all these years.

Still, this is the story of a survivor, a woman who perseveres. It is a tale of the sort of hardships that drove many of our own ancestors to seek a better life in a different country. It is well-written and kept me engaged enough to finish it in two days.

Grandma gives The Madonna of the Mountains four stars. 4 stars

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

The Madonna of the Mountains will be released on June 12, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

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Alternate Side

Alternate Side

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen (Literary Fiction/Women’s Contemporary Fiction)

Alternate Side is a character-driven slice-of-life story, the type at which Anna Quindlen excels. You get to know her people as though they were friends. As with most of us, their lives have moments of drama among mostly no-big-deal daily stuff, but because you know these people, you’re interested. If, perchance, you can identify with them and their problems, all the better.

Nora Nolan and her husband, Charlie, live in a closely knit New York City neighborhood of comfortably rich people with housekeepers and a shared handyman. They all know each other, socialize at catered neighborhood events, but are not quite friends. In other words, they don’t bare their hearts to one another. Still, they care about each other, and when something happens to one, the others come to help.

After nearly thirty years together, Nora and Charlie have grown apart. Their twins are graduating from college and moving on with their lives, leaving an empty nest. While Nora loves New York City life, Charlie wants to move to a warm climate where he can golf year-round. She has a job she enjoys; he’s not all that happy in his. Little things he does are starting to annoy her. He’s threatened by the possibility that she will take a new position with status greater than his. When an act of violence rocks the neighborhood, she and he see the incident very differently.

Having grown up in a friendly Midwestern neighborhood where block parties were common, I could identify with the measured camaraderie among neighbors. And being of a certain age, I could understand how Nora and Charlie felt. This story also deals with race relations, class privilege, and what are often referred to as first-world problems, yet refrains from passing judgment. If you are looking for fast-paced action , mystery, or romance, this book is not for you. But if you enjoy fine writing, Alternate Side is that.

Grandma gives Alternate Side five stars. 5 stars

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

Alternate Side will be released on March 20, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

Darkest Night

Darkest Night

Darkest Night by Tara Thomas (Romantic Thriller)

One of the things that drew me to this book was its setting – Charleston, South Carolina. This is the first book in the Sons of Broad series, which implies something location-driven (think Pat Conroy). It is not.

The setting is Charleston, but we could be in Omaha. We never hear anything about the city itself, and it has absolutely no influence on the story. There is none of the lush detail that transports you to its unique beauty, not even a single mention of Spanish moss.

If this book were the work of an indie author, I would be contacting her and suggesting she employ a good content editor. But this book is being published by St. Martin’s Press, and as such, it is a major disappointment.

It feels like a first novel that’s incorporating every storyline the author ever came up with, regardless of whether or not it contributes to a cohesive plot. Keaton is the youngest of three wealthy, handsome brothers: Kipling, Knox, and Keaton Benedict. He  miraculously discovers his spunky long-lost childhood sweetheart, Tilly, working in a gentleman’s club, heroically struggling to make her own way. They reunite and immediately fall into wild, passionate love. But then a crazed, conniving female fortune hunter (Elise), willing to commit blackmail and even murder to get Keaton to marry her, enters their lives. And, a dangerous, powerful villain (The Gentleman) is sending out his minions to destroy the Benedict brothers and makes Tilly his target. There’s also a vulnerable young girl (Jade/Kaja) working for The Gentleman. But she is strangely drawn to helping the Benedict brothers in spite of the fact that doing so will endanger her own life. She’s especially good at being in the right place at the right time. Oh, and did I mention the tough, no-nonsense female detective (Alyssa)? Or the fact that the Benedicts find their deceased father had another family?

The characters are flat but we do know they’re having good sex because we’re treated to all the details since this is billed as a romantic thriller. There’s not a real build-up of tension, but there are victims – dead or grievously injured – showing up regularly. And, because this is the first of a series, a lot is left unresolved. Tilly’s life is still in danger. The identity of The Gentleman remains unknown. Jade/Kaja remains on the run, and Kipling continues to flirt inappropriately with Alyssa.

If the prose were beautiful or the descriptions creative, this review might be nudged to three stars, but neither is true. The book starts with one of the brothers receiving a single, long-stemmed rose in a box, and the author doesn’t even bother to mention what color the rose is. When I found myself picturing a gray rose, I knew this book was in trouble.

Grandma gives Darkest Night two stars. 2-stars

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

Mr. Tender’s Girl

Mr. Tender's Girl

Mr. Tender’s Girl by Carter Wilson (Thriller)

Mr. Tender is a fictitious character in a graphic novel written by the father of fourteen-year-old Alice Hill. He’s a bartender who likes to ask people, “What would you be willing to do to get what your heart desires?” Obsessed by the idea of pleasing Mr. Tender, and goaded by a supposed message from him, Alice’s friends – twin girls her age – attempted to kill Alice with a kitchen knife.

Fourteen years later we meet Alice, who has survived but at a terrible price. She experiences severely disabling anxiety attacks and mourns the loss of her family. After the knifing, her mother blamed her father and moved Alice and her brother from London to the U.S.A. Her father has met an untimely death in London, and now Alice finds she has once again become a target.

This is a thriller full of scary events and situations that make you glad you’re not Alice. At times, though, it can be hard to read about her anxiety attacks and the depths to which she has fallen and continues to fall. Drugs, alcohol, death, and more become almost routine to her as she tries to put an end to her continued persecution. Some of the dysfunctional people around her begin to tip their hands early, but not all. It’s hard to call this an enjoyable book, but it was definitely one I could not put down. A little slow in the beginning, it eventually took off and is worth wading through to get to the good parts.

Grandma gives Mr. Tender’s Girl four stars. 4 stars

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

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.

The Knight’s Secret

myths-and-magic-bardwell.jpg

The Knight’s Secret by Jeffrey Bardwell (Fantasy)

This novella by Jeffrey Bardwell (Rotten Magic) is currently available only as part of a Kindle anthology called Myths and Magic: An Epic Fantasy and Speculative Fiction Boxed Set. The anthology of 16 science fiction and fantasy authors is available for a limited time on Amazon. I did not read the entire anthology and offer only this review of The Knight’s Secret as requested by the author of that work.

Bardwell writes about mages and knights who fought together in defense of the Iron Empire but are now at odds. A mage has been accused of murdering the emperor, and all mages are now being hunted down in a pogrom ordered by the reigning empress. The elderly, highly decorated knight, Sir Corbin, has a daughter who is a mage, putting his family into a no-win situation. But before he can travel to meet his fellow knights and turn the tide, Sir Corbin dies. Now his twenty-year-old granddaughter — his biggest fan who knows all his war stories — must impersonate him, with a little help from her magical mom and a ring he always wore on a chain around his neck.

The tale that follows takes a number of twists, some humorous and some dark. The young woman now possesses male parts, which take her on an adventure she’s never had before. She meets people her grandfather never told her about and learns the story behind the ring. She witnesses and participates in some dark deeds. And the story ends abruptly, to be continued in four more named installments in The Mage Conspiracy. Unfortunately, that series doesn’t seem to exist as all links at the end of the novella lead to a “page not found” message on the author’s website and the books don’t seem to be available anywhere else. Very confusing and probably not worth your time (or ours) as the entire thing appears likely to disappear before long.

Bella gives The Knight’s Secret two stars. 2-stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of The Knight’s Secret from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Accident

The Accident

The Accident by Glen Ebisch (Suspense/Thriller)

As in many suspense novels, the lead character in The Accident is a damaged former cop who is investigating a possible crime sub rosa. In doing so, she creates enemies in a small town, runs afoul of the local police, and must fight her own inner demons as well as the perp who now turns his sights on her.

Karen was involved in a terrible car wreck that left her physically and emotionally damaged. Now an old friend has asked for her help. The friend’s younger sister has disappeared from the family beach house in Maine; could Karen move into the house and do her best to find out what happened to the sister?

It’s impossible to say much without giving away who is responsible, but let’s just say I felt this story was riddled with improbabilities, including the relationship between the investigator and the perpetrator. It has peripheral characters who feel like filler material. A tight, well-written thriller contains characters who contribute to the tension — they or their circumstances make them potential suspects — or else they remain in the background. In this case, a co-worker’s personal struggles to buy a house, when those struggles had nothing to do with the story in any way, was material that should have been edited out.

That said, is this a book worth reading? Sure. It has a mystery to solve, a missing woman, some creepy guys, an annoying co-worker, a little budding romance. You may or may not figure out who did it before the reveal. The writing is easy to read. The location is oceanside in southern Maine, an area the author obviously knows. The former police officer, Karen, is a sympathetic character with a tragic backstory who, by the end of the book, is making progress toward healing.

Grandma gives The Accident three stars. 3 stars

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