The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins – Book Review

The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins
Published by NAL Trade, an imprint of Penguin

Majella always assumed she would fall into motherhood as easily as she has fallen into everything else in her life. She has never NOT been a success and has no reason to think that having a baby would be any different – until an extremely long labor throws off her birth plan and forces her to have a c-section. From that point on, Majella is plagued with doubts and fears, including a horrifying vision of dropping her baby. Majella has a strained relationship with her own mother, and now she is beginning to think that she is genetically predestined to be a bad mother – a theory that is supported by a diary she finds in the attic, which seems to show sometime terrible done by an ancestor of hers.

That ancestor is Ginny Doyle. Before the Potato Famine hits Ireland, Ginny and her family seem to be in fairly good shape. In addition to their potatoes they have a wheat crop and a small vegetable garden. Even when the famine first hits, this is enough that her family can pay their rent and even have a bit to eat. When the blight spreads and the famine fails to end, the Doyles begin to face the same starvation as their neighbors. Ginny’s husband heads to America in order to try to make money to send home, but when she doesn’t hear from him months after he leaves, Ginny must do whatever it takes to feed her children – even if it means leaving them alone.

YOU GUYS SO GOOD. Seriously. I have no idea how Cummins took a storyline about modern motherhood – complete with postpartum depression and a quite impressive potty mouth – and successfully married it with a storyline about a mother doing what it takes to get her family through the Great Potato Famine. Typically in dual time period novels one story is primarily in service to the other, but in The Crooked Branch both stories are equally important, equally well-drawn. Okay, but if there are two equally strong stories and they are so different there must be discord between them, right? WRONG! Cummins makes the theme of family the primary concern of the novel, and with the familial connection between Majella and Ginny it all just WORKS.

The Crooked Branch is a wonderful book that I strongly recommend not only to readers, but also to anyone who wants to write a dual time period novel. Readers, enjoy; writers, study.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Author.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson – Audiobook Review

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson, narrated by Susan Duerden
Published in audio by Tantor Audio, published in print by Bloomsbury USA

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. Though Lizzie is on fire with her religious calling, Eva’s motives are not quite as noble, but with her green bicycle and a commission from a publisher to write A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, she is ready for adventure.

In present day London, a young woman, Frieda, returns from a long trip abroad to find a man sleeping outside her front door. She gives him a blanket and a pillow, and in the morning finds the bedding neatly folded and an exquisite drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some delicate Arabic writing, and a boat made out of a flock of seagulls on her wall. Tayeb, in flight from his Yemeni homeland, befriends Frieda and, when she learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.

Thoughts on the story:

I wish that the entirety of A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar had simply been Eva’s story. Frieda’s story fails to be very compelling. It does connect with Eva’s storyline, but not in a way that adds very much to the novel as a whole. Primarily I just found it distracting.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Duerden does a fairly good job with the narration overall, varying voices so it was clear who was talking. In particular she differentiates well between the two different time periods. However, the voice she uses for Eva’s point of view was almost syrupy sweet and grated on my nerves, which made the book all the more difficult to listen to. For more, see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

I can’t say that I was a particular fan of the story or the narration. I’d personally skip this one, although I’d be willing to listen to Susan Duerden again as she was technically good, I just didn’t like the choice she made for Eva’s point of view.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Audiofile Magazine.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio – Book Review

Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio
Published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin

It is an unseasonable cold May night in Seattle, 1933 when Vera Ray leaves her three year old son Daniel at home alone so she can work the night shift. While she’s gone, the city is blanketed in a late season snow storm known as blackberry winter and when she returns home, Daniel is gone.

In 2010, Claire Aldridge awakens to a similar late season storm. As a Seattle Herald feature writer whose work has been somewhat lackluster of late, Claire’s editor gives her an assignment to do a human interest piece on the storm, and its corollary nearly 80s earlier. It is during research for this article that Claire discovers Vera and Daniel’s story. Their tragedy tugs at Claire’s heartstrings until she becomes immersed in their story, regardless of the consequences. She may not be able to fix her failing marriage, but Claire is determined to find out what happened to Daniel and Vera Ray.

Blackberry Winter is perhaps the loveliest and most moving of Sarah Jio’s books to date. Both the present and past stories are equally important in Blackberry Winter, lending it a sense of balance, so that the reader is always both sad and exciting to transition from one woman’s story to the other’s. It might have been easy to judge Vera Ray for leaving such a small child home alone, but Jio deftly circumvents that response from the beginning by highlighting Vera Ray’s dire straits, without necessarily seeming to do so. Claire too has the potential to be a problematic character, but is quickly turned sympathetic by Jio’s deft characterization.

A moving and heartfelt book, Blackberry Winter is difficult to put down as the reader becomes increasingly invested in the lives and fates not only of Vera Ray and Daniel, but of Claire as well. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Legacy by Katherine Webb – Audiobook Review

The Legacy by Katherine Webb narrated by Claire Wille
Published in audio by Harper Audio, published in print by William Morrow Paperback, both imprints of HarperCollins

Synopsis:

From the publisher:

When they were children, Erica Calcott and her sister, Beth, spent their summer holidays at Storton Manor. Now, following the death of their grandmother, they have returned to the grand, imposing house in Wiltshire, England. Unable to stem the tide of childhood memories that arise as she sorts through her grandmother’s belongings, Erica thinks back to the summer her cousin Henry vanished mysteriously from the estate, an event that tore their family to pieces. It is time, she believes, to lay the past to rest, bring her sister some peace, and finally solve the mystery of her cousin’s disappearance.

But sifting through remnants of a bygone time is bringing a secret family history to light—one that stretches back over a century, to a beautiful society heiress in Oklahoma, a haunting, savage land across the ocean. And as past and present converge, Erica and Beth must come to terms with two shocking acts of betrayal . . . and the heartbreaking legacy they left behind.

Thoughts on the story:

There was a bit of a slow start to The Legacy. Erica and Beth’s story begins well enough, but it takes quite awhile to figure out how Caroline (the aforementioned heiress)’s story fits into theirs, which I found somewhat frustrating. Because of this it took me well over a week to get through the first half of the book, I just wasn’t engaged enough to make a point of picking it up. Once the storylines began to come together in the second half, however, I became increasingly interested in just what  had happened to this family to leave them like this.

I will note that there were a few times when Caroline and those around her in Oklahoma used words that seemed to be British (at least at other times Erica and Beth used the same words). It may be that these would actually have been used in the United States a century ago, but I suspect that they were just Britishisms used by American characters, which distracted me quite a bit.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Clare Wille is a new-to-me narrator, but I would definitely listen to her again. She has a good voice for audio and delivery that allowed me to pay more attention to the story itself than to her narration.

Overall:

Slow to start, but eventually enjoyable. Not an audio (or a book) to start if you’re feeling easily distracted, but worthwhile if you can concentrate.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Print*
Indiebound: Print*
Audible

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian – Book Review

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House

Laura Petrosian is an author of light-hearted women’s fiction who also happens to be 1/4 Armenian, although for most of her life she gave her heritage little thought. When an old friend calls, claiming she has seen a picture of Laura’s grandmother from the time of the Armenian genocide in the newspaper, she decides to delve more deeply into her family’s past and write a book completely different than anything she has written before.

In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott of Boston arrives in Syria with some minimal nursing training and the blessing of the Friends of Armenia in order to help the refugees and witness and report on the genocide occurring in the Ottoman Empire. While there, she meets and falls in love with a young Armenian engineer named Armen Petrosian who lost his wife and infant daughter to the marches across the desert.

Chris Bohjalian has called The Sandcastle Girls the most important book he will ever write, but it is not strictly didactic. Instead, The Sandcastle Girls is beautiful and sad; Bohjalian walks a fine line, sharing the realities of the tragedies of the Armenian genocide without being too clinical or engaging in emotional manipulation. His characters are realistic, flawed but likable. Particularly impressive is how he keeps even the most minor characters – the American consul, a pair of German engineers, an Armenian woman and the orphaned girl she has taken into her heart – engaging. Their stories are interspesed with Laura, Elizabeth, and Armen’s and Bohjalian manages to do this without slowing down the story. If anything, these additional stories add richness and layers toThe Sandcastle Girls, layers that help make it such a wonderfully epic and meaningful novel.

I’ve never read another work of fiction that has more completely and almost effortlessly captured the Armenian genocide of the early 2oth century. Bohjalian manages to capture both the emotional impact of the events in question as well as the facts and background, all smoothly within his narrative and without resorting to any info dumps. The Sandcastle Girlsis a truly wonderful and important novel. Very highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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