BOOK REVIEW: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox

BOOK REVIEW: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester FoxTitle: The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House
Published: October 2nd 2018
Genres: Historical, Fantasy
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Two centuries after the Salem witch trials, there’s still one witch left in Massachusetts. But she doesn’t even know it.

New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall.

The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

The Witch of Willow Hall is a perfect fall read to me. It’s got just the right amount of thrill and spooky vibes, unlikable but compelling characters, a heroine to root for, and a little dash of romance that you’ll root for.

The first few chapters were a little bit of a slow start for me, but it’s a slow start that builds suspense and wonder about the Montrose family backstory and why they’ve had to leave Boston. It’s not solely for one obvious reason or another, and once pieces of Lydia’s story began coming together, I needed to see how everything played out. The Witch of Willow Hall is a delightfully gothic story involving witchcraft, forbidden forests, and a large and spooky house holding all sorts of secrets.

Fox’s world-building reminded me a lot of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak in the way it presents the reader with an assumption that soon reveals more truths than initially expected. If you’re looking for a fall read that’s not too spooky but with the right amount of atmosphere, twists, and historical fantasy, then check out The Witch of Willow Hall!

I received a digital review copy from Netgalley in exchange for my review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Italian Party, by Christina Lynch

BOOK REVIEW: The Italian Party, by Christina LynchTitle: The Italian Party by Christina Lynch
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: March 20th 2018
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A delicious and sharply funny page-turner about "innocent" Americans abroad in 1950s Siena, Italy. Newly married, Scottie and Michael are seduced by Tuscany's famous beauty. But the secrets they are keeping from each other force them beneath the splendid surface to a more complex view of ltaly, America and each other.

When Scottie's Italian teacher--a teenager with secrets of his own--disappears, her search for him leads her to discover other, darker truths about herself, her husband and her country. Michael's dedication to saving the world from communism crumbles as he begins to see that he is a pawn in a much different game. Driven apart by lies, Michael and Scottie must find their way through a maze of history, memory, hate and love to a new kind of complicated truth.

Half glamorous fun, half an examination of America's role in the world, and filled with sun-dappled pasta lunches, prosecco, charming spies and horse racing, The Italian Party is a smart pleasure.

As soon as I began reading The Italian Party, I was swept away to post-WWII Italy and enveloped in a domestic spy thriller that captivated me from the first page to the final sentence. Scottie and Michael are newlyweds moving to Siena, Italy, to start their new lives as husband and wife. Michael’s been sent to Italy to sell the Italians some American tractors to propel Italy to more “modern” industrialization, or so Scottie thinks. Scottie appears to be the perfect person to fulfill Michael’s want and need for a wife, or so Michael thinks. Each of them have secrets upon secrets of their own, and the book deftly explores and unravels these secrets as the story progresses.

Michael has been sent to Italy with orders from the CIA to stop the Communist candidate from winning an election. His Ford office in Siena is merely a cover for his actual work. Without spoiling too much of the novel itself, Lynch explores one facet of the post-WWII/Cold War fears of the rise of communism and the fears from America about that rise. Little struggles throughout the book, including the “favored” American dessert of a can of peaches topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry over delicious Italian gelato, showcased the “rightness” and “righteousness” of American idealism over anything else.

The Italian Party is probably going to end up on my favorites of the year list. I loved the secrets weaving themselves through Scottie and Michael’s marriage and life outside their marriage. I love the development of the characters from beginning to end, and I love how both of them choose to support each other after all of these secrets between them come to the surface. The 1950s were mostly a different time and place compared to now, but Lynch shows that even then, people struggled with and faced the same difficulties in a relationship that people do today. So much of this novel reflects the current time, and it’s eye-opening to see history begin to repeat itself.

Christina Lynch weaves in domestic life with a spy thriller incredibly well, and the pacing of the book was excellent. I loved how the chapters themselves were divided into small sections, and somehow that made it even easier to zip right through and enjoy this book. Lynch’s sparkling prose makes you feel as if you are a fly on the wall in Scottie and Michael’s life in Italy, and it’s the perfect spring escape.

Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press for sending me a free copy to review; all opinions are my own!

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done, by Sarah SchmidtTitle: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 328
Format: Hardcover
Source: Goodreads
Goodreads

In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

 How many years does it take to grow into someone?

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a strange and sometimes engaging reimagining of the famous Lizzie Borden murders. Told from alternating perspectives over the course of a few days, we are given insight into the minds of Lizzie and those involved in one way or another with the murders of Lizzie’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby.

By the end, I enjoyed this book, but I felt the book suffered from two things: target market and a slow exposition/initial pacing. I understand that publishers want to reach a wide range of audiences with certain titles, but I felt like this one was YA as I was reading it because of the writing style. It took me about a good third or more of the book to feel really engaged with the characters and the story, and then it seemed to pick up and then I couldn’t put it down. If you aren’t much of a YA reader, this one might feel a bit simplistic in the way in which it’s told. However, in some ways, I think that starkly simple language is what makes Lizzie’s story effective, because if you’re familiar with Lizzie Borden, you already know what’s coming, and by the time it does, it’s one of those chest-grabbing moments.

See What I Have Done explores in greater depth the relationships between Lizzie and the rest of her immediate household. At thirty-something, she still lives at home, unmarried, and behaves as if she is still a teenager with temper outbursts and juvenile outlooks on the world (which is where my “this feels like YA” comes from). It’s apparent from the very beginning that something is off about Lizzie’s mental state, and this disconnect between reality and what goes on in her mind adds to the Lizzie’s relationship with her father is odd and unsettling. At times, her attention-seeking behavior appears as if she’s a love-sick girl starving for the object of her affection’s attentions, and other times it feels as if her behavior is that of a child wanting her father to pay attention to her. Lizzie’s behavior toward and eventual murder of her father and stepmother stems from her deeply rooted jealousy toward her stepmother. As it happens in fairy tales, the stepmother “replaces” the dead mother, and to the main character, the stepmother is therefore “bad/evil,” and for Lizzie, she is the displaced princess.

In a series of twists and turns, Sarah Schmidt delivers a chilling examination of what goes through the minds of those closely involved with Lizzie Borden and her forty whacks. While it takes a bit to warm up to it, See What I Have Done is a solid debut.

I won a copy of this book through Goodreads giveaways for review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies

BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah JefferiesTitle: The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies
Published by Broadway Books
Published: June 20th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 448
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

#1 International bestselling novel set in 1920s Ceylon, about a young Englishwoman who marries a charming tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he's keeping terrible secrets about his past, including what happened to his first wife, that lead to devastating consequences

Dinah Jefferies’s The Tea Planter’s Wife begins with nineteen-year old Gwen arriving from London to join her new husband Laurence at his tea plantations in Ceylon. In her struggles to adjust to being a wife and to her new surroundings, Laurence begins behaving oddly toward Gwen and the two have a strained relationship throughout the book, both typical of the time period and for other reasons that I won’t spoil. After she becomes pregnant with twins and gives birth, Gwen harbors a weighty secret for years until she no longer can hide the truth.

Jefferies’s prose is vivid and descriptive, and she crafts an engaging cast of characters. We feel for Gwen’s struggle to adjust to her new life and role as mother and wife, we are charmed by Mr. Ravasinghe, and we are irritated by Laurence and his sister Verity, especially their attitudes and behavior toward Gwen throughout the novel. Each character seems well-developed and suited for the narrative, and I wanted to know more about Mr. Ravasinghe and Gwen’s friend, Fran, and their relationship, but alas. Perhaps in a future/companion novel?

The Tea Planter’s Wife highlights the racial divide, and the subject of race threads through each character’s story. It makes the reader consider the effects of prejudice and how often day-to-day struggles could be lessened if one let go of that prejudice. The book itself has those Gothic undertones that I enjoy, and while some of the events are predictable, I enjoyed the book from beginning to end. It’s the perfect book for those late summer rainy days when you can almost imagine being in one of those plantation houses in Ceylon listening to the rain.

A copy of this book was provided to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Address, by Fiona Davis

BOOK REVIEW: The Address, by Fiona DavisTitle: The Address by Fiona Davis
Published by Dutton Books
Published: August 1st 2017
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

Fiona Davis, author of The Dollhouse, returns with a compelling novel about the thin lines between love and loss, success and ruin, passion and madness, all hidden behind the walls of The Dakota, New York City's most famous residence.

After a failed apprenticeship, working her way up to head housekeeper of a posh London hotel is more than Sara Smythe ever thought she'd make of herself. But when a chance encounter with Theodore Camden, one of the architects of the grand New York apartment house The Dakota, leads to a job offer, her world is suddenly awash in possibility--no mean feat for a servant in 1884. The opportunity to move to America, where a person can rise above one's station. The opportunity to be the female manager of The Dakota, which promises to be the greatest apartment house in the world. And the opportunity to see more of Theo, who understands Sara like no one else . . . and is living in The Dakota with his wife and three young children.

In 1985, Bailey Camden is desperate for new opportunities. Fresh out of rehab, the former party girl and interior designer is homeless, jobless, and penniless. Two generations ago, Bailey's grandfather was the ward of famed architect Theodore Camden. But the absence of a genetic connection means Bailey won't see a dime of the Camden family's substantial estate. Instead, her -cousin- Melinda--Camden's biological great-granddaughter--will inherit almost everything. So when Melinda offers to let Bailey oversee the renovation of her lavish Dakota apartment, Bailey jumps at the chance, despite her dislike of Melinda's vision. The renovation will take away all the character and history of the apartment Theodore Camden himself lived in . . . and died in, after suffering multiple stab wounds by a madwoman named Sara Smythe, a former Dakota employee who had previously spent seven months in an insane asylum on Blackwell's Island.

One hundred years apart, Sara and Bailey are both tempted by and struggle against the golden excess of their respective ages--for Sara, the opulence of a world ruled by the Astors and Vanderbilts; for Bailey, the free-flowing drinks and cocaine in the nightclubs of New York City--and take refuge and solace in the Upper West Side's gilded fortress. But a building with a history as rich--and often tragic--as The Dakota's can't hold its secrets forever, and what Bailey discovers in its basement could turn everything she thought she knew about Theodore Camden--and the woman who killed him--on its head.

With rich historical detail, nuanced characters, and gorgeous prose, Fiona Davis once again delivers a compulsively readable novel that peels back the layers of not only a famed institution, but the lives --and lies--of the beating hearts within.

After reading her second novel, Fiona Davis has become one of my new favorite historical fiction writers. In The Address, Davis expertly weaves two women’s lives and the history of a landmark residence, The Dakota, in New York City. The lives of two women from the 1880s and the 1980s are woven together as the mystery behind The Dakota unfolds. The Address begins in 1985 when Bailey Camden, heir without genetic proof to The Dakota’s architect, is released from rehab and reenters the world, ready to make something of herself. The famed residential hotel, The Dakota, has fallen into disrepair, and Bailey, who is trying to reestablish herself as an interior designer, wants to learn more about the history behind the building. The narrative weaves in and out of Bailey Camden’s discovery of the history of The Dakota while exploring Sara Smythe’s connection with the residence.

For me, Sara Smythe’s part of the story was the most interesting. I have a soft spot for stories about women who rise from the bottom to become more than they ever dreamed of becoming. Sara, when we first meet her, is a hotel manager in England who saves the life of an architect’s daughter. Theodore Camden, the architect, offers her a position at the residential hotel he has built in New York City. The attraction between Sara and Theodore is immediate right from the start, and that relationship develops over the course of the novel. The twists and turns at the end of her story were a little unexpected and thrilled me. It’s revealed at the beginning of the novel that Sara stabbed Theodore, but the true thrill are all of those little events that lead up to that event. However, I felt like Bailey’s desire for a fresh start and her refusal to compromise herself tied the lives of both women and tied the story together, because no matter the hundred years between them and no matter the different social structures, both women faced similar struggles and strove to overcome them.

Overall, this is an enjoyable historical fiction novel. For the first third of it, I felt like the story was weighed down by the amount of research and detail in the set up, but that detail redeems itself when the story does pick up and become difficult to put down. I’ve already hand-sold this and her previous novel, The Dollhouse, to some of my customers looking for new historical fiction recommendations, so if you enjoy fiction about women who overcome their struggles and enjoy historical fiction set in New York City, The Address comes highly recommended!

Thanks to Netgalley and Dutton/Penguin for a review copy! All opinions are my own.