Book Reviews

The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer #Review @melodiewinawer @TouchstoneBooks

The Scribe of Sienna cover

Back in November, I received an email from Simon & Schuster offering a free ebook if I was willing to take part in a study to help them learn more about how readers engaged with their books. All I had to do was create a Jellybooks account, pick my freebie, and start reading. At the end of every chapter, I would click on a button that said ‘sync reading stream’… easy-peasy.  Of the five book choices, I had already read one of them, and had my request on Netgalley declined for another. Thinking I would choose the latter, I signed up. I had to read the blurbs for the other books—no self-respecting bibliophile would skip doing that, right?—and my mind was changed as soon as I read the blurb for The Scribe of Siena.

I’ll own up to the fact that it was the Outlander mention/comparison that made my choice an easy one. (If you know me, you know I am totally obsessed with love the story of Outlander, so you aren’t surprised in the least.) I think I would have chosen this book regardless, because the plot greatly appealed to me. I went into reading it a bit warily, though, because the last book I read that compared itself to Outlander—despite being a very good book—felt like false advertising, in that regard. After giving it some serious thought, I’ve come to decide that the The Scribe of Siena is worthy of the comparison. The stories, settings, and plots aren’t mirror images, of course. It is exactly like Outlander, however, in that it can’t be boxed into one single genre, but to a group of genres—specifically time travel, historical fiction, suspense, and romance. They are close enough in the ways that count to make it an acceptable comparison to me.

When books have historical settings, it’s important that everything fits the time and place;  dress, language, societal hierarchies… all of it has to be right, to feel right. Lovers of historical fiction are sophisticated enough to hone in on little details that don’t belong, and it can’t ruin the entire book for them when it happens. Thankfully, that didn’t happen with this book. Winawer clearly did the necessary historical research to bring this fourteenth-century medieval Italian setting to life, and it paid off beautifully in vivid characters, settings, and dialogue.

The conspiracy at the heart of the story was gripping, and my breath caught more than once as the conspirators set about committing their dastardly deeds. I enjoyed how it tied in to the research Beatrice’s brother did prior to his death, and why a particular person in the present day was so motivated to get his hands on that research.

As much as I loved the historical portions of the story, the present day story was equally enjoyable to read.  Most of the action understandably takes place in 14th century Siena, but Beatrice’s life in modern-day Siena had memorable moments, as well.

The love story between Beatrice and Gabriele was sweet. As is typical concerning lovers from different centuries, Beatrice ultimately has to decide whether to stay in his time, or go back to hers. The catalyst for this decision wasn’t something I’d foreseen, and that was a welcome surprise.

I absolutely adored this book, and I highly recommend it. I think fans of the Outlander series would really enjoy it, as well as readers who enjoy a good time travel story lush with historical detail, a healthy dose of romance, and a good batch of suspense added to the mix. The Scribe of Siena is a brilliant debut, and I’m fervently hoping to see more novels from this author in the future!

I received an advance reader copy of this book courtesy of Touchstone and Jellybooks.

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Author: Melodie Winawer

Title: The Scribe of Sienna

Genre: Historical Fiction, Time Travel, Romance

Publication Date: May 16, 2017 by Touchstone

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Purchase Links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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About the Book

Equal parts transporting love story and gripping historical conspiracy—think The Girl with a Pearl Earring meets Outlander—debut author Melodie Winawer takes readers deep into medieval Italy, where the past and present blur and a twenty-first century woman will discover a plot to destroy Siena.

Accomplished neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato knows that her deep empathy for her patients is starting to impede her work. So when her beloved brother passes away, she welcomes the unexpected trip to the Tuscan city of Siena to resolve his estate, even as she wrestles with grief. But as she delves deeper into her brother’s affairs, she discovers intrigue she never imagined—a 700-year-old conspiracy to decimate the city.

After uncovering the journal and paintings of Gabriele Accorsi, the fourteenth-century artist at the heart of the plot, Beatrice finds a startling image of her own face and is suddenly transported to the year 1347. She awakens in a Siena unfamiliar to her, one that will soon be hit by the Plague.

Yet when Beatrice meets Accorsi, something unexpected happens: she falls in love—not only with Gabriele, but also with the beauty and cadence of medieval life. As the Plague and the ruthless hands behind its trajectory threaten not only her survival but also Siena’s very existence, Beatrice must decide in which century she belongs.

The Scribe of Siena is the captivating story of a brilliant woman’s passionate affair with a time and a place that captures her in an impossibly romantic and dangerous trap—testing the strength of fate and the bonds of love.

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About the Author

Melodie Winawer
Melodie Winawer (Photo © Dana Maxon)

Melodie Winawer is a physician-scientist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University with degrees in biological psychology, medicine, and epidemiology, she has published forty-seven nonfiction articles and book chapters. She is fluent in Spanish and French, literate in Latin, and has a passable knowledge of Italian. Dr. Winawer lives with her spouse and their three young children in Brooklyn, New York. The Scribe of Siena is her first novel.

Author photo and bio via Simon & Schuster.

Book Reviews

#Review: Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz @gracewuertz @randomhouse

Everything Belongs to Us cover

At the start of the year, I mentioned that one of my blogging goals was to read more diverse books. Set in South Korea in 1978, Everything Belongs to Us is the first diverse book I’ve read this year.

I went into this book knowing very little about South Korea’s history and culture, so I had no preconceived ideas about the location or how the characters might be portrayed in the story. I think this made the book more interesting to me, because I wasn’t just reading a story; I was learning about a place I knew practically nothing about.

The story centers mainly around Jisun, Namin, and Sunam, three Seoul National University students who come from vastly different backgrounds.

  • Jisun is the rebellious daughter of a wealthy and powerful man. Rejecting the wealth she was born into,  Jisun is a political activist who regularly takes part in protests. She’s often frustrated in her efforts, however, because of who she is.
  • Namin—Jisun’s childhood friend— is the smart, ambitious daughter of poor parents who make their meager earnings by operating a food cart. She dreams of becoming a doctor to help her disabled younger brother, and lift her family out of poverty… but her older sister Kyungmin  makes that goal difficult in more ways than one.
  • Sunam is the son of middle class parents. He desperately wants to become part of an elite group known as the Circle, via his connection to Juno—Jisun’s older brother. When he’s invited to attend a Circle gathering for prospective members, he meets Namin (who is also yearning for acceptance into the group) and Jisun… setting into motion a chain of events that will affect all of their lives.

Of the three, the story of Namin and her family was the most captivating for me. I’ve always been fond of characters who must overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in order to achieve their dreams, and Namin certainly had a tough row to hoe in that regard. Kyungmin resents that she must work long hours, and deal with unenviable household tasks while Namin is expected only to study. Kyungmin resentment of her life of toil reaches the boiling point, and she makes choices that have a devastating affect on Namin’s dreams.

There were times my attention would wander a bit as I was reading. Sunam’s story, in particular, evoked that reaction from me. He was easily the least interesting character of them all, in my opinion. Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I’m glad I read it. Solid three star rating for this one.

I received an advance review copy of this book courtesy of Netgalley and Random House.

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Author: Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Title: Everything Belongs to Us

Genre: Women’s Fiction, Historical Fiction

Published: February 28th 2017 by Random House

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Purchase Links

Penguin Random House | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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About the Book

Two young women of vastly different means each struggle to find her own way during the darkest hours of South Korea s economic miracle in a striking debut novel for readers of Anthony Marra and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Seoul, 1978. At South Korea s top university, the nation s best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success could lead to a life of rarefied privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind.

For childhood friends Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn t be more different. Jisun, the daughter of a powerful business mogul, grew up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin s parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew; her sister works in a shoe factory. Now Jisun wants as little to do with her father s world as possible, abandoning her schoolwork in favor of the underground activist movement, while Namin studies tirelessly in the service of one goal: to launch herself and her family out of poverty.

But everything changes when Jisun and Namin meet an ambitious, charming student named Sunam, whose need to please his family has led him to a prestigious club: the Circle. Under the influence of his mentor, Juno, a manipulative social climber, Sunam becomes entangled with both women, as they all make choices that will change their lives forever.

In this sweeping yet intimate debut, Yoojin Grace Wuertz details four intertwining lives that are rife with turmoil and desire, private anxieties and public betrayals, dashed hopes and broken dreams while a nation moves toward prosperity at any cost.

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About the Author

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Author Yoojin Grace Wuertz (Photo credit: Nina Subin)

Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and son.

Author photo and bio viaof author’s website.

Book Reviews

Review: The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers @AlgonquinBooks

The Second Mrs. Hockaday cover

When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away?

Inspired by a true incident, this saga unfolds with gripping intensity, conjuring the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel. As she comes to understand how her own history is linked to one runaway slave, her perspective on race and family are upended. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how this generation–and the next–began to see their world anew.

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Author: Susan Rivers

Title: The Second Mrs. Hockaday

Genre: Historical Fiction

Published: January 10th, 2017 by Algonquin Books

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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I received an advance review copy of this book courtesy of Netgalley and Algonquin Books.

17-year-old Placidia has barely met Major Gryffth Hockaday when she agrees to marry him. Leaving her childhood home behind, she travels with her new husband to the farm that is her new home, and meets her infant step-son for the first time. Placidia and Gryffth have two brief days together as husband and wife before he must return to fight in the Civil War. Young Placidia is left to care for her new child in her new home, and is ill-prepared for either task. Despite the weight of so much responsibility on her shoulders, Placidia adapts as best she can, and longs for the day her husband will come home to her.

When Gryffth returns two years later, he is shocked to hear his wife recently gave birth to a baby, and has been accused of killing the child. Despite Gryffth (and others) demanding to know who fathered the child, Placidia refuses to name him, though her reasons for remaining mute are a mystery.

The story is told in a series of letters written by Placidia and others, as well as diary entries. That may be off-putting to some readers, but being told in an unconventional way didn’t harm the narrative in the least. It won’t work for every story, but I felt it worked beautifully for this one.

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WHAT I LIKED:

The secrets. There are layers of secrets in this story, and two big ones caught me by surprise when they were revealed. I’m always delighted when a secret is revealed that I never even came close to guessing, and that was the case with these particular secrets.

The history. We weren’t given a blow-by-blow of every single battle/skirmish during Gryffth’s two year absence, but that’s a good thing, as it wouldn’t have fit in this story. Instead, we got just enough to remember that Gryffth was off fighting in the war somewhere.

Stayed true to the time period.  There’s nothing more infuriating for me than reading something that’s out of place (or rather, time) in historical novels. Luckily, that wasn’t the case here—the clothing, the language, social mores—everything was as it should be.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

Please, can I have some more? I would have liked a bit more story dealing with Placidia’s step-mother and step-sister, and perhaps Achilles, as well. But I suppose that’s mostly because the characters were interesting to me, not because their storylines were lacking in some way.

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FINAL THOUGHTS:

Rivers debut is well worth the read. Replete with engaging characters, intense drama, and stunning plot twists, it’s an excellent novel to curl up with on a cold winter’s day.

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About the Author

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Susan Rivers

Susan Rivers was awarded the Julie Harris Playwriting Award for Overnight Lows and the New York Drama League Award for Understatements. She is also the recipient of two playwriting grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and has had short fiction published in the Santa Monica Review. In 2007 she earned an MFA in fiction writing from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, where she was also awarded a Regional Artist Grant from the Arts and Sciences Council. She currently lives and writes in a small town in upstate South Carolina. The Second Mrs. Hockaday is her first novel.

Author photo and bio via Goodreads.

Book Reviews

Review: Yellow Hair by Andrew Joyce

Yellow Hair by Andrew JoyceThrough no fault of his own, a young man is thrust into a new culture just at the time that culture is undergoing massive changes. It is losing its identity, its lands, and its dignity. He not only adapts, he perseveres and, over time, becomes a leader—and on occasion, the hand of vengeance against those who would destroy his adopted people.

Yellow Hair documents the injustices done to the Sioux Nation from their first treaty with the United States in 1805 through Wounded Knee in 1890. Every death, murder, battle, and outrage written about actually took place. The historical figures that play a role in this fact-based tale of fiction were real people and the author uses their real names. Yellow Hair is an epic tale of adventure, family, love, and hate that spans most of the 19th century. This is American history.


I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Yellow Hair is an epic novel detailing the history between the United States and the Sioux Nation. Throughout the 19th century, the Sioux were repeatedly manipulated, lied to, and cheated by a government power who saw them as less than human, with an insatiable greed to claim all the Sioux lands at any cost—continuing a centuries-old policy of taking whatever they wanted from Indigenous Peoples, and leaving death and devastation in their wake.

The story begins with a large group of people heading west to seek a better way of life. Included among them is Jacob Ariesen,heading to California with his parents and siblings. But it’s a lethal trip—tragic accidents, an Indian attack, and a deadly cholera epidemic leaves Jacob as the sole survivor, and he is at death’s door when he is found and cared for by a Dakota woman named Suni. Once he is well enough, she takes him to her home and teaches him the ways of her people. Jacob chooses to stay with Suni and becomes known as Yellow Hair. As Yellow Hair, he experiences first-hand the treachery and deceit meted out by the United States, with one treaty after another being broken practically as soon as the ink dries, and feels the desperation and anger of his adopted people as more of their lands are stolen and they are starving from lack of food—setting into motion an unstoppable chain of events that leads to war, loss, heartache, and the complete destruction of their way of life.

There were many things I liked about this book—the use of the Lakota language, detailing actual events that have been lost to history, to name only two— all of which enriched the story in many ways. The portions dealing with the actual people and events were fascinating to read. For some readers, it may be the first time they hear about certain events, inspiring them to learn more and (as someone who loves history) that’s a very good thing.

But—if I’m being honest—there were a lot of things that bothered me, as well. The repeated use of “as the whites count time” and other “as the whites…” phrases felt like overkill after a while. I felt like an unnecessary reminder.

Another thing that bothered me was the way the narrative would switch, without warning, from the fictional world of the story to detailing historical facts (sometimes decades beyond the time frame of that moment in the story) in a very non-fiction kind of way. It was almost as if I were reading two books—one fiction, one non-fiction— that had been merged together. I enjoyed reading those parts, but they always felt out of place… as if I were reading something best used as a footnote… and threw me out of the story.

The thing that bothered me the most (and prevented me from giving a higher rating) was ‘too much tell, not enough show’. This is the issue that made me hold off on writing my review for two days, because I dreaded addressing it. I enjoyed the book, but I never really connected emotionally to any of the characters, and I think that’s because I was never  shown how they were feeling. I read the words they spoke, but there was rarely, if ever, a strong indication given by their actions of what they were feeling inside. Sometimes (many times?) the words spoken by a character aren’t nearly as powerful and meaningful as something they could be doing instead. Bear with me as I make up my own (not so great) example of what I mean:

Example A:

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Talk to me.”

He turned away and said, “I don’t want to talk right now.”

Example B:

Her brow creased, and she bit her lip to stop its trembling. “What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice shaking with the strain of keeping her fear under control. “Talk to me.” Her eyes silently pleaded and she reached out to touch him, only to be stopped cold by the sudden clench of his jaw and the narrowing of his eyes.

He gave her a scathing look and turned away, his back stiff with barely-repressed rage. “I don’t want to talk right now,” he hissed.

Both examples use the same dialogue, but when descriptions of their actions and demeanor are added, it gives an additional depth to what they’re saying, and creates an emotional connection. This is the sort of thing I’m always subconsciously looking for when I read, and I always notice when it’s not there, because (for me) it leaves a void that makes the characters feel somewhat two-dimensional. Same goes for long passages of dialogue without actions of any kind. I need to know more than just the words they’re saying. I need indicators of how they feel inside… and not by being told about them, but  by being shown

Despite the things that bothered me, I still enjoyed reading the book, and would recommend it to others who enjoy historical fiction, with the caveat that there were a few things that bothered me, but not enough to quit reading altogether.

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Author: Andrew Joyce

Title: Yellow Hair

Genre: Historical Fiction

Published: September 22nd 2016 by Andrew Joyce

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

Book Reviews

Review: The Other Side of Courage: The Saga of Elizabeth Blackwell by Robert Nordmeyer

The Other Side of Courage: The Saga of Elizabeth Blackwell

Historic Courage changed the World.

In 1849 a single, simple action altered the course of women forever. Elizabeth Blackwell received her degree in medicine. In that profound moment she shattered that glass ceiling by becoming the first woman ever to do so, emerging as a fully accredited physician. Her path was not without suffering the constant throes of anger and antipathy from the medical profession. However, despite this bitter and harsh treatment, Elizabeth was determined to prevail through stubborn courage and an iron-clad will and triumphed for the good of all society.

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Author: Robert Nordmeyer

Title: The Other Side of Courage: The Saga of Elizabeth Blackwell

Genre: Historical Fiction

Published:  July 1st, 2016 by CyPress Publications

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

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I received a review copy of this book courtesy of the author.

In her quest to become a doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell faced nearly-insurmountable odds. One medical school after another turned her away, outraged and scandalized that a woman would be so brazen as to attempt to become a doctor. Discouraged and disheartened, Elizabeth continued to push on. Luck was on her side when she applied to Geneva College in Geneva, New York. The Dean left the decision in the hands of the students who would have to learn and work alongside her, and (much to his surprise), they unanimously voted to allow her admission into medical school. When she graduated in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was entered into the annals of history as the first woman ever to earn a medical degree.

While this book focuses mainly on Elizabeth’s struggle to become a doctor, and her subsequent career, it also provides insight into her earlier years. We glimpse her life as a child living in England shortly before a tragedy forces her family to emigrate to America, and see the chain of events that led to her decision to become a doctor. Elizabeth faced many hardships in her life, but she never let anything stand in the way of her goals, nor was she afraid to take on controversial topics in order to better educate the public about health matters.

I’ve been interested in Elizabeth Blackwell since I first learned who she was, and why she was such an important historical figure. This is the first time I’ve read a book about her, however, and I learned a great deal that I didn’t know. Elizabeth Blackwell lived a fascinating life, indeed.

This book was as enjoyable as it was informative. If you like reading historical fiction novels based on real people and events, you won’t want to miss out on this one.

 

About the Author

Robert Nordmeyer
Robert Nordmeyer

Robert Nordmeyer has written professionally for more than 45 years as a published journalist, columnist and author, as well as creating advertising copy for both print and broadcast media, developing public relations and promotional materials, and writing text for marketing campaigns. His published books include Shepards in the Desert, commissioned and published by the Diocese of Tucson and Guide to Organizing and Successfully Operating a Nonprofit Organization, published by the Graduate Group. For five years he was a Professional member of the Society of Southwestern Authors and served on the Society’s Board of Directors. Robert and his wife Rita are residents of Tucson, Arizona.