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.

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.

The Family Next Door

The Family Next Door

The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth (Women’s Fiction/Psychological Thriller)

This book involves five women who live in the upscale neighborhood known as Pleasant Court, where families mingle but also cherish and protect their privacy. Three women – Ange, Fran, and Essie – are married with young children. The new neighbor, Isabelle, is single and childless. Barbara is Essie’s single mom and grandmother to Essie’s little girls. All five women have their secrets and their frustrations, and we get to know them well as they take turns telling this story from their individual points of view.

Sally Hepworth (The Mother’s Promise) brings all of it together in an ending I didn’t see coming. Throughout the story, we’re aware of each woman’s struggles with motherhood, marriage, and men who disappoint in one way or another. We know about their psychological breakdowns, their mistakes, and what wears them out by the end of the day. We watch them grapple with personal demons that require difficult decisions. And running throughout is the question, who is the anonymous, mentally disturbed narrator who has taken someone else’s baby from the hospital?

All in all, it’s an interesting look at the face we put on for others and leaves you wondering what you don’t know about that nice family down the block.

Grandma gives The Family Next Door four stars. 4 stars

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

The Family Next Door will be released on March 6, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

False River

False River

False River by H.G. Reed (Fantasy/Paranormal)

Joe Lawson has sold his soul to the devil, who takes on human form as a seductive young woman known as Ellie May. Joe did so out of love ten years ago, to save the life of his wife-to-be, Catherine, and now Ellie May is back. She has a new, terrible demand he dare not refuse if he hopes to protect Catherine and their young daughter, Madeline.

What Joe doesn’t know is that his town is full of Others — angels and archangels who are aware of his predicament and there to help, if only he will ask. Once he does, angels and demons take up sides to do battle in his front yard, with the fate of Joe’s family riding on the outcome.

Having read the excellent archangel novel Fall From Grace by J. Edward Ritchie, I was intrigued with the premise of this one. The execution, however, was a disappointment.

Joe Lawson is a pretty tedious guy. He can’t really feel love without a soul, and so he hasn’t been a great husband or dad. The family farm — an apple orchard, of course — is dying in the throes of a drought, and he has given up hope of holding on much longer. He mulls over his desperate situation again and again, paralyzed by his lousy luck, making no progress whatsoever. Meanwhile, Catherine is not a sympathetic character; we never see her as anything other than angry at Joe. The archangels have their moments, but overall — with the exception of Gabriel and a brief cameo by an unlikeable Michael — they are pretty flat. The one lively, well-rounded character is the devil, Ellie May. She’s witty and unerringly evil. She knows why she hates mankind, and she is the one character we truly understand.

There’s inference that Madeline’s existence holds something akin to messianic importance for the future, but that is never explained. A sequel in the making, perhaps? Overall, with more inspired writing and the injection of a personality for Joe, this could have been a fun read, but mostly I was counting the pages until it ended.

Grandma gives False River three stars. 3 stars

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

We Own the Sky

We own the Sky

We Own the Sky by Sara Crawford (Fantasy/Paranormal)

Although this isn’t classified as Young Adult, the 16-year-old protagonist, Sylvia, her personal demons, and her knowledge of contemporary music make this an interesting, although sometimes dark, read for fans of Young Adult fiction.

Sylvia comes from a dysfunctional family, suffers from depression, and has been institutionalized for attempted suicide — facts that estrange her from most of the kids in her Marietta, Georgia, high school. She questions her own sanity because of the “flickering people” only she can see, including a handsome guy who keeps showing up whenever she is singing or playing an instrument. In time, she comes to realize that all of the flickering people hover around artists and that they are Muses — not the classic Greek ones, but Earthly Muses, deceased human artists given the opportunity to inspire others.

It’s a fun concept, and for a while it’s a pleasure to watch Sylvia’s life improve as she and her Muse, Vincent, interact, giving Sylvia a new lease on life and a chance to excel at what she loves — writing and performing music. However, some of the classic Greek Muses don’t agree with the concept of Earthly Muses and plot to put an end to their existence.

This is Book One in The Muse Chronicles, and as such it ends with a major cliffhanger that leaves one feeling abandoned. I also found her father’s ultimate reaction to her behavior hard to accept as reasonable, but to say more would give away too much. Overall, however, it’s a worthwhile read, as long as you’re ready for some dark moments without resolution until Book Two.

Bella gives We Own the Sky four stars. 4 stars

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

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke (Young Adult)

I’m going to come right to the point on this one: it was a big disappointment.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner is an obscenity-filled book about a nasty teen with a filthy mouth and a rotten attitude. That she finally decided to do something decent for someone else at the end of the book did not make for a satisfying character arc nor did it turn this into a worthwhile tale. It simply made me wonder why I kept reading in the hope that there might be a point to this book.

I understand using language that a teen reader might use in order to make a book feel relevant, but it was not necessary to give Jane Sinner such a foul mouth. Unlike Jessie in This is Not a Love Letter, Jane is not a girl I would want for a friend. The constant vulgar language did not make her endearing or funny. In fact, her stabs at irony fell flat more often than not. That a nice guy like Robbie would find Jane Sinner attractive was hard to believe.

The blurb: “The only thing 17-year-old Jane Sinner hates more than failure is pity. After a personal crisis and her subsequent expulsion from high school, she’s going nowhere fast. Jane’s well-meaning parents push her to attend a high school completion program at the nearby Elbow River Community College, and she agrees, on one condition: she gets to move out.

“Jane tackles her housing problem by signing up for House of Orange, a student-run reality show that is basically Big Brother, but for Elbow River Students. Living away from home, the chance to win a car (used, but whatever), and a campus full of people who don’t know what she did in high school… what more could she want? Okay, maybe a family that understands why she’d rather turn to Freud than Jesus to make sense of her life, but she’ll settle for fifteen minutes in the proverbial spotlight.”

So much of the story required suspension of disbelief. Did her highly religious, highly responsible parents really not insist on knowing where their previously suicidal seventeen-year-old was living? Was the teacher/advisor who hung out with students, encouraging them to gorge themselves on Chicken McNuggets until they threw up, supposed to be for real? The whole “she-becomes-a-reality-TV-star” felt like a fantasy written by a wannabee YouTuber.

The writing itself was fine, and the formatting used for the various journal entries was interesting.

Bella gives Nice Try, Jane Sinner two stars. 2-stars

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