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Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

[ 0 ] January 30, 2015

paying guests book coverReviewed by Rachel Mann

The Paying Guests is a gorgeous, tense, and haunting book. Like Sarah Waters’ other historical fiction, it seems perfectly and naturally detailed, unobtrusively steeped in major and minor details of the time in which it takes place. In this case, with the setting of a London suburb in the early 1920s, there are references to the small difficulties of a post-War life that is both modern and traditional: people travel by tram, for instance, while women still wear corsets and stays. The details never distract from the plot or the people. Instead, everything seems very real.

The “guests” of the title are a specific couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, the first to rent rooms in the home of Frances Wray and her mother. The Wrays have lost family and money since World War I, and Frances takes on the Barbers as tenants for financial reasons. Mrs. Wray is rather ineffectual and old-fashioned; Frances takes care of her and their home, while being forced to act as though their status remains unchanged.

The Wrays’ world is small, and the Barbers help to extend it—for Frances, at least. She soon makes friends with the younger, beautiful Lilian; in contrast, she finds Leonard off-putting, almost dangerous. The narrative starts off and moves slowly. However, its payoffs are worthwhile, from the love affair that develops between Lilian and Frances to the shocking crime whose results immediately, and then continually, threaten their relationship. The crime and its aftermath dominate the second half of the book, as the ardor and excitement from the beginning of the plot give way to guilt and despair.

From Frances’ perspective (and the reader’s too, I think), Lilian’s adultery is understandable, even necessary; its unexpected ramifications are shocking. The women’s choices take them both into new territory with uncertain, frightening consequences. I was tempted to read as quickly as possible to find out what was going to happen: how Leonard would react to Lilian’s affair, whether Lilian would survive an abortion, whether the wrong culprit would be punished, and how the other characters would react. Most of all, I wondered if Frances and Lilian would be able to achieve what they saw as their “fantasy” of a life together.

While not quite as jaw-dropping in its unfolding of events as the twisting plot of Fingersmith (my favorite Waters book), The Paying Guests fits right beside it: it is full of satisfying turns and nervous tension, with a moving love story between two women at its heart.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Riverhead. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison

[ 2 ] January 30, 2015

the bishop's wife book coverReviewed by Sarah McCubbin

Linda Wallheim serves alongside her husband Kurt in his role as a Mormon bishop. Their five sons are almost all grown and her days are spent caring for the needs of the ward. Much of what she does is very ordinary and involves community service, visiting people in their homes and offering a listening ear. On the outside, Linda appears calm and poised, but internally she finds herself struggling. In caring for their community, her work increasingly intersects with women whose lives are crumbling largely because of the many secrets they hold close and the patriarchal structure that prevents them from flourishing.

In The Bishop’s Wife, Mette Ivie Harrison’s central story focuses on a man name Jared Helm, whose wife, Carrie, has simply disappeared, leaving him to raise his 5-year-old daughter alone. Linda grows increasingly suspicious of Jared’s story of his wife’s disappearance and finds herself investigating the case further when police leads dry up. What she finds troubles her greatly. While she pursues the truth about Carrie, she begins to look at the other women differently. Where she previously dismissed oddities in behavior, she now begins to piece together the hidden brokenness in the lives of several ladies in the ward. As Linda moves outside her realm of comfort and boldly steps into the lives of these other women, she finds that while helping others heal, she is finally able to deal with some of her own past.

The insider’s view of the Mormon church in this story is intriguing but the issues it deals with are common in all walks of life and different faiths. When Linda decides to become more involved in other’s lives, she continually finds herself struggling with whether she should defer to her husband’s wishes or follow her instinct to pursue the truth. Her quiet resolve is a great reminder that courage comes in many forms and we may never know the true heroes among us. I highly recommend The Bishop’s Wife as a great work of women’s fiction. It would be an excellent choice for a book club as Mette Ivie Harrison digs deep into issues that face all women providing substantial material for discussion.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Sarah McCubbin is a homeschooling and foster mom in NE Ohio where she resides with her husband and 7 children. In addition to reading great books, she enjoys gardening, traveling and blogging at Living Unboxed.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Soho Crime. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: Mitosis by Brandon Sanderson

[ 0 ] January 30, 2015

mitosis book coverReviewed by Caleb Shadis

Mitosis is a novelette sequel to Steelheart (which is sitting on my shelf waiting to be read!). I think the narrator of the audiobook, Macleod Andrews, did a great job reading. If you have never read any of Brandon Sanderson’s work, you could do much worse than give this a listen. If you already like what he writes (and I certainly do!), I’d recommend starting with Steelheart before setting  your sights on this one.

Mitosis is about a world of super powered people. Unfortunately, all of them seem to already be or to turn insanely evil. It’s a planet with supervillains devoid of any superheroes. So it took a few regular people to become regular heroes and stand up to them. This story takes place after the first successful revolt of the regulars.

It is still too early for the vast majority living in the city to feel confident that they are free of the super. On top of that many are afraid another one is going to show up any day and lay claim to the ‘abandoned’ city for themselves. The fledgling government has tried to think of ways to deal with such a situation by putting into place a few emergency measures.

It’s a good thing they started planning right away, because they do have a problem. Mitosis has just snuck into town and he is a load of trouble. His special power allows him to duplicate himself so he can be his own spy network, or maybe army. He’s come to town looking for the man who claims to have killed Steelheart. He plans to show it was a sham, partly to keep the non-supers down and partly to bolster his own sense of god-hood. It doesn’t look good for our little hero.

Brandon Sanderson is an excellent writer; he has a very wide range of ideas that he has thankfully turned into books. I have almost all of his books, with only a couple left that I haven’t had a chance to read and I’ve enjoyed every single one. Many might have trouble with the young adult series Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians (though I thought it was hilarious) but I recommend this author very highly nonetheless!

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Caleb is a software engineer and amateur woodworker living in southern Minnesota. He has more hobbies than he has time or money for, and enjoys his quiet time reading.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Audible.com. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: The After House by Michael Phillip Cash

[ 2 ] January 29, 2015

the after house book coverReviewed by Amanda Farmer

The After House by Michael Phillip Cash was a great read for me. It wasn’t too scary and it had a great haunted feel to it. The After House divides its time between the present and the past for a certain spirit named Captain Eli Gaspar. The captain finds himself stuck in this world and he doesn’t know why, so he does what he does best–he runs his ship a.k.a. house (or tries to) and doesn’t interact much with the house tenants unless he has too. Captain Eli finds himself with new tenants, Remy and her daughter, Livie. He is not amused with them and doesn’t like how they have added throw pillows and such to his house. He does what spirits do and haunts them, to no avail; he isn’t what frightens them.

Remy is recently divorced, caring for her daughter, and juggling a new friendship with Hugh. Remy has moved herself and Livie into a new house and is adjusting to being away from her parents. She will do anything to protect her daughter. I loved how Livie wasn’t afraid of Eli and even kicked him and set him straight a time or two, which just perturbed him. He wasn’t used to people seeing him unless he wanted them too.

Throughout the story, the readers learn the reason behind why Captain Eli is still on this plane and not in the spirit world and who is really trying to harm Remy. I found the mystery behind who’s stalking Remy not all that difficult to figure out but I loved the story behind Captain Eli and reading about his adventures at sea. I also liked reading about his family. I found Remy and Livie to be likable characters; Hugh – and the ancestry that linked to Captain Eli – was interesting as well.

This was my first read by Michael Phillip Cash and it will certainly not be the last. I recommend The After House to those who like a haunting story and a dash of mystery thrown in. Readers won’t be disappointed.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Amanda loves spending time at home with her husband and their dog, Oreo. She loves reading, playing puzzle games, beading and watching movies. When she’s not reading, she’s working on her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Michael Phillip Cash. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

[ 2 ] January 29, 2015

chronicles of prydain book coversReviewed by Sarah McCubbin

Some stories are classics meant to be enjoyed for generations. Their timeless message resonates across the ages. Such are the stories in The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. A fantasy series written half a century ago with elements of Welsh mythology, it is set in a place not unlike Wales. The entire series is comprised of five books. In celebration of the 50th anniversary, The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron have been re-released in a combined audio package by Listening Library. It was narrated by James Langton, who did an excellent job of bringing this exciting tale to life.

The entire series follows Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper in Caer Dallben. In Book 1, The Book of Three, Taran is dissatisfied with his duties. He is bored and is looking for more. However, when a great disturbance causes all the animals to flee, Taran finds himself amidst greater excitement and adventure than he could have imagined as he journeys far from home in search of Hen Wen, the oracular pig. On his journey he meets Prince Gwydion, Princess Eilonwy, Gurgi and more. Traveling to distant kingdoms, he meets heroic people and enchanted animals before finally finding his way home and settling most happily into his ordinary life.

In Book 2, The Black Cauldron, danger has returned. When evil seem to regain strength, Gwydion realizes the Black Cauldron is still active. As the generating source of the undead Cauldron Born warriors, Gwydion seeks to undermine their generation and wants to find and steal the Cauldron. What follows are the adventures of Taran and the others as they seek to find it. The Cauldron proves quite difficult to acquire as many others want it as well.

The rest of the books continue in a similar fashion with Taran engaging in adventures over good and evil. As an allegorical fantasy, the message of these books will resonate with young people trying to find their place in the world. I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the landscape both real and imaginary. I could imagine myself in the Spiral Castle and in the underworld. I would recommend these books for kids age 9-12 but really anyone who enjoys fantasy will find this series well done.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Sarah McCubbin is a homeschooling and foster mom in NE Ohio where she resides with her husband and 7 children. In addition to reading great books, she enjoys gardening, traveling and blogging at Living Unboxed.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Audible. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: Closer to Home by Mercedes Lackey

[ 3 ] January 28, 2015

closer to home book coverReviewed by Caleb Shadis

Closer to Home is the first book in the Herald Spy series, which is actually part of a larger world. I didn’t know that when I started this book, but the good news is that the story doesn’t really need any more back story than what is provided.

We meet our intrepid pair as they are coming home from their previous adventures (I assume chronicled in a different series!). They are all looking forward to being back home. Mags and Amily are planning to get married but they still have Mags’ father to deal with. Surprisingly, her father has had a few months to get used to the idea and is fairly receptive to the union. Their return turns out to be very happy all around.

Shortly after arriving home, Mags and Amily get tasked with keeping the peace between two warring families that both decide to show up with plans of getting their children married. The King puts them in charge of keeping the families apart. Easier said than done. Especially since the families don’t try very hard to avoid each other.

Along with the special assignment, the pair has a slew of new duties to attend to. Both are very busy and do not get to spend much time together. Mags is putting together a nice spy ring for the king, using young orphans from the poor quarters of the city. Lots of small troubles, but a big problem is brewing under it all. Most of it originates from the domineering way the highborn treat their family–like vassals and not as a family at all.

I’ve heard a lot of people rave about Mercedes Lackey and how great she is. While I found the story to be good and enjoyed it, I was not impressed at any genius at all. It was a decent story with good characters. Several of them were way too wise in my opinion–Mags was almost a Mary Sue. While I understand many of the issues surrounding women being subjugated in the home, the preaching was a little heavy handed in this story. Especially since it was referring to a way of life that at least in the U.S. is mostly non-existent.  We do have plenty of current issues, but this one only tangentially touches on them. I’m sure I’ll try another of her books, but this one doesn’t put me in any rush.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Caleb is a software engineer and amateur woodworker living in southern Minnesota. He has more hobbies than he has time or money for, and enjoys his quiet time reading.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Group. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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