Thursday, January 31, 2019

Review: Half Spent Was the Night

In 2017, my book club read Ami McKay's The Witches of New York and we (mostly) all loved it. Personally, I loved it because it was well-written and such a good story about witches as they could have existed. Harry Potter is great and all but that kind of magic never really seems real (no matter how many of us hope(d) for a letter from Hogwarts ourselves). The magic in the world McKay has created seems entirely possible. When my book club learned there would be a novella that would allow us to see what Adelaide, Eleanor, and Beatrice were up to, we were ecstatic and immediately knew Half Spent Was the Night would be our December 2018 pick.

Here's the novella's (it's only 92 pages!) description:
Beloved author Ami McKay is back, bringing us a magical follow-up in the tradition of Victorian winter tales to her mesmerizing bestseller, The Witches of New York
During the nights between Christmas and New Year's, the witches of New York--Adelaide Thom, Eleanor St. Clair and the youngest, Beatrice Dunn--gather before the fire to tell ghost stories and perform traditional Yuletide divinations. (Did you know that roasting chestnuts were once used to foretell one's fate?)
As the witches roast chestnuts and melt lead to see their fate, a series of odd messengers land on their doorstep bearing invitations for a New Year's Eve masquerade hosted by a woman they've never met. Gossip, dreams and portents follow, leading the witches to question the woman's motives. Is she as benevolent as she seems or is she laying a trap. And so, as Gilded-Age New York prepares to ring in the new year, the witches don their finery and head for the ball, on the hunt for answers that might well be the end of them.
The book is subtitled A Witches' Yuletide and I had thought (before reading the synopsis) it would take place at Christmas. Instead, the story begins on December 29 and ends on New Year's Day, with an epic New Year's Eve party in between. (A quick Google search of yuletide also provided some background information - yay, learning!)

The book opens with a line I absolutely love and thought of often during the same time frame last year:

Is that not perfection?

As you'd expect, this book was as well written as the first Witches book. The world McKay has created is so interesting and the characters, the three main witches especially, are so multi-layered and fascinating.

All that being said...I know it's a novella and it isn't supposed to be long buuuut I found it way too short. I could have used more time with the women to really feel like I understood how they were feeling about their lives at that moment and about the mysterious New Year's Eve party. The story almost felt surface level and there wasn't quite the depth I wanted and expected from McKay. Even though it was well written. Am I even making sense? The best I can figure is this story was published to fully wrap up a storyline from the first book and to introduce the next twist. (And holy is it ever an interesting twist!)

The magic at the party was much more...grandiose, let's say, than what you normally encounter with these witches. But, once things wind down and you realize what really know why it was such a spectacle. I wish that explanation had been explored a bit more because I felt like I was missing something.

I am glad I read Half Spent Was the Night and think that anyone else who loved The Witches of New York should read it as well. It didn't quite satisfy my need for a sequel though so I will continue to impatiently wait for the next full length novel (oh, how I hope there actually will be a next) about these witches from Ami McKay.

*A copy of this book was provided by Penguin Random House in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*

Monday, January 28, 2019

Review: The Gown

I knew about Jennifer Robson's books well before I ever picked one up to read. I had purchased them for other people but, for some bizarre reason, never got around to reading them myself. That changed last year when I heard her speak at a local library event and I bought, and had signed, Goodnight from London. I read it immediately and fell in love. I paid close attention from then on because she had mentioned that night about her next book, which was going to be about women who worked on Queen Elizabeth's wedding dress. Perfect timing since I, and everyone else, was binge-watching The Crown and waiting for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding. This novel though? The Gown is about so much more than a wedding dress worn by a future monarch. And it's incredible - one of my top reads from 2018.

Here's the (really long) synopsis:
From the internationally bestselling author of Somewhere in France comes an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century—Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown—and the fascinating women who made it.
“Millions will welcome this joyous event as a flash of color on the long road we have to travel.”—Sir Winston Churchill on the news of Princess Elizabeth’s forthcoming wedding
London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.
Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?
With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.
Historical fiction can be tricky...I find authors might try to teach me too much and the novel will read like a textbook or they'll toss facts around willy nilly in a way that makes it seem like they haven't done their research or they had a story idea and just decided to plunk it down in the past. Robson though? She is one of my favourite historical fiction writers. She knows what she's talking about (having a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford and a father who's a historian) and is a damn good storyteller. She's able to weave together (ha! No pun intended) a story and I really feel like I'm right there with Ann and Miriam. She knows all the little details that would place the story in 1947 but it doesn't feel like she's lecturing at me. The story and setting sucks me in and I love it.

I hadn't realized, when I first started hearing about the novel, that there would be a contemporary component to this story. I liked reading about all three women and looked forward to their stories intertwining, because I knew they had to, one way or another. I don't think the contemporary story was quite as strong as I expected but I still looked forward to each of Heather's chapters.

The three characters Robson created - Ann, Miriam, and Heather - are amazing women and I adored them. They all face hardships (though Heather's are very much "first world problems"but problems nonetheless - and ones I could completely identify with) and are strong enough to work through them. They can see a solution and will do whatever it takes to get through the tough times. The revelation about Ann just about broke my heart but I was also in awe of how she managed to make the most of the situation. I just wish connections had been kept, though I could understand why she wouldn't want to (vague enough for you?). The friendship between Ann and Miriam is something to be envied and I loved reading it.

The actual plot - Miriam and Ann are embroidering the dress Elizabeth will wear when she marries Philip and, in present-ish day, Heather searching for answers about her grandmother and herself - is also so interesting. You may think that things would get complicated, given the many threads ( pun intended) Robson has to bring together but she's a talented writer and everything flows smoothly.

The Gown is a historical novel that perfectly brings together a specific moment in time with characters who stand out as much as - if not more than - the dress they're embroidering for a future Queen. Jennifer Robson has written one of my favourite books of 2018 and one I've been recommending to everyone and their sisters (I'm also not the only one as it's been on the bestseller lists for multiple publications over the last few weeks!). Even if you think one part of this novel isn't for you, read it anyway because you're going to fall in love.

*I received an ARC of this novel at an event I paid to attend last fall, which was hosted by HarperCollins Canada. There was no expectation for a review but I loved the book so much I needed to tell you all about it.*

Monday, January 21, 2019

Review: Be the Girl

There are a few authors who are on my "I will read absolutely anything they write" list and K.A. Tucker is one of them. She wrote one of my favourite books of 2018 (The Simple Wild, which I reviewed here last year if you missed it) and is gifting us with another book early in 2019. Be the Girl - just released today! - is a little different than anything she's ever written before but it's no less amazing.

Here's the synopsis:
From the national bestselling author of the Ten Tiny Breaths series and The Simple Wild comes a poignant story about a girl trying to change her future while evading her past.
Almost sixteen-year-old Aria Jones is starting over. New postal code, new last name, new rules. But she doesn’t mind, because it means she can leave her painful regrets behind. In the bustling town of Eastmonte, she can become someone else. Someone better.
With the Hartford family living next door, it seems she will succeed. Sure, Cassie Hartford may be the epitome of social awkwardness thanks to her autism, but she also offers an innocent and sincere friendship that Aria learns to appreciate. And Cassie’s older brother, Emmett—a popular Junior A hockey player with a bright future—well … Aria wishes that friendship could lead to something more. If he didn’t already have a girlfriend, maybe it would.
But Aria soon finds herself in a dicey moral predicament that could derail her attempt at a fresh start. It is her loyalty to Cassie and her growing crush on Emmett that leads her to make a risky move, one that earns her a vindictive enemy who is determined to splinter her happy new world.
As I mentioned, Be the Girl isn't quite like any of Tucker's other novels. For starters, she's self-published this one - after years of being traditionally published. That doesn't necessarily make it different than her other books but, to me, that indicates that this was a story that had to be told even if the publishers may not have thought so. The other big thing is that this is a YA novel. It's possible this story could have been told with adult characters but it wouldn't be nearly as good.

Tucker is such a phenomenal writer with an amazing knack at writing deep emotions. That meant this book gave me all the feels - including ones I hadn't really felt since I was in high school myself. Many YA authors can write that angsty, emotional roller coaster that are the feelings of a teenager but there was just something about this book that totally transported me back to my own high school. Maybe because the book was set in a town that was ridiculously similar to my own hometown - also a small town in Ontario, north of the big city of Toronto (though slightly more north than I think this fictional town is supposed to be). I felt this so acutely that I could immediately picture and smell my town's arena when Tucker described the arena Aria was setting foot into. There's a distinct smell to small town arenas and it's one that's hard to explain unless you've been in one.

This book also made me incredibly glad social media didn't exist when I was a teen. In fact, I don't even think Mark Zuckerberg was at Harvard when I was Aria's age. *checks internet* OK, I can't figure out when he started but I'm pretty sure thefacebook officially began the year I turned 17, a year older than Aria. But I digress. Social media is pretty brutal for adults sometimes so I can't imagine the special hell some teens face these days. I was also feeling pretty thankful that I sort of stayed under the radar when I was in high school. I did my best to not attract attention because I was so shy and awkward (which, let me tell you, is not easy to do when you're a six foot tall female basketball player in a school that holds the jocks at the top of the popularity hierarchy). I was lucky that I found my people early on and we had a solid group of friends. But I also wondered, as I read Aria's story and got to "know" Cassie, if I could have been a better person. Probably. I imagine I was never outright mean nor did I knowingly bully anyone but I'm sure there were instances where I giggled with my friends over someone different or ignored someone who was just trying to be friendly. It's a hard thing to think about yourself but that's part of why Tucker's new novel is so necessary. It makes you take a hard look at how you treat others and think about what you could do to be better. To paraphrase Emmett, there's no excuse to be a dick to someone just because they're a little bit different.

You may have noticed I've gone on a lot about the feelings this novel inspires instead of the actual plot. That's because Tucker has woven an incredible tale that I can't talk about too much because I'll spoil it all and you'd be pissed. Trust me. Aria's story is completely hidden at the start and is revealed bit by bit over the course of the novel. And that's the way it should be. So enough about plot!

Moving right along to the characters...I loved Aria. She's real, she's flawed, and she's trying hard to be a good person. Although, I don't think she really needs to try that hard. It's no work at all for her to be friends with Cassie. Cassie was an absolute joy to read. Her bubbly personality leapt off the pages. On the other hand, my heart broke every time someone ignored or teased her. I am so, so glad Tucker has written a book that features such a gem of a character. Emmett would have made teenage me swoon so I completely understood how Aria was feeling. A cute jock who has a heart of gold? Sign me up. Zach, Emmett's best friend, also deserves so many standing ovations for being such an incredible human.

I've realized this review of Be the Girl isn't exactly like most other reviews I write. But I think K.A. Tucker's novel isn't like most other novels. It encourages discussion and deep introspection and is a book that needs to be read by everyone. Young, old, in between. Everyone. You won't regret the time you spend with Aria, Cassie, and Emmett. You may cry (I did) but this is a story that's going to stick with you for a long time.

Buy Links
Amazon * iBooks * Kobo * BN

Print and audio will be available at a later date.

About the Author
K.A. Tucker writes captivating stories with an edge.

She is the USA Today bestselling author of 18 books, including the Causal Enchantment, Ten Tiny Breaths and Burying Water series, He Will Be My Ruin, Until It Fades, Keep Her Safe, The Simple Wild, and Be the Girl. Her books have been featured in national publications including USA Today, Globe & Mail, Suspense Magazine, First for Women, and Publisher's Weekly. She has been nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Romance 2013 for Ten Tiny Breaths and Best Romance 2018 for The Simple Wild. Her novels have been translated into 16 languages.

K.A. Tucker currently resides in a quaint town outside of Toronto with her family
Find K.A. Tucker Online

*An ARC of this novel was provided by the author in exchange for review consideration. All opinions are honest and my own.*