• The Memory Keeper of Kyiv by Erin Litteken

    Rating: 5 out of 5.

    Had I not read Erin Litteken’s bio prior to reading her debut novel, I have no doubt it would have still been painfully and poignantly obvious that this story has personal roots. The depth found here is just something that can’t be taught; it has a connection that you can curate but not create, and has a heart that spins a tragic story into hope. Simply put, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv is powerful, inspiring, heart wrenching, and as near perfection as they come. 

    Alternating between 1930’s Ukraine and early 2000s United States, The Memory Keeper of Kyiv brings together four generations of a family who never realized how little they knew about themselves, and each other. 

    In 2004, 31 year old Cassie is living in Wisconsin and failing to put her life back together after the tragic death of her husband the previous year. Her five year old daughter Birdie hasn’t spoken a word in 15 months, lives in too small pajamas, and writer Cassie’s laptop sits buried under a pile of who knows what. At the urging of her mother Anna, she returns home to Illinois to help her aging grandmother Bobby, whose life before Anna the family knows surprisingly little about. 

    In 1929, 16 year old Katya is living a happy life in her small Ukrainian village; her family’s farm is thriving, and she is going to marry her beloved boy next door. Over the next five years, Stalin’s collectivism policies transform from an annoyance into an epic and tragic famine, and Kayta’s world shatters piece by piece. The loss and hardships she endures will shape the rest of her life, and for seventy years she stays silent. Through a journal she has kept since her youth and a special connection with great-granddaughter Birdie, she finally breaks her silence, allowing her to find the peace that has eluded her, and helping her granddaughter come to terms with her own grief.

    Drawing on personal family stories, oral histories and clearly deep research, Erin Litteken transports you to a dark period in history that is tragically too little known. Daily life in Katya’s Old World in sprinkled with enough detail to let you see what she sees, without sinking into the mundane; I want to sit in Katya’s kitchen while her mother cooks varenyky, peer from the barnloft as Tato tends to the animals, and enjoy the simplicity of walking to the next farm to steal a kiss from Pavlo. On the other side, you can feel in your bones when she lies starving and shivering on the bed she has always shared with someone she loves, and may cry ugly elephant tears each time another loss or impossible decision rears its ugly head.

    Don’t start reading after dinner, unless you plan on being sleep deprived the next day – this captivating novel will keep you awake, steal your heart, crush your spirit, and hopefully remind you that we must learn from the past or be doomed to repeat it.

    A share of proceeds will be donated to DEC’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal

    #thememorykeeperofkyiv #netgalley

    The Details:

    The Memory Keeper of Kyiv
    Erin Litteken
    May 16, 2022
    Boldwood Books
    Historical Fiction

    Thank you to NetGalley and Boldwood Books for an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

  • A Coin for the Ferryman

    Rating: 2 out of 5.

    An enviably creative premise with some fun moments, but ultimately misses its mark (unless said mark was a new take on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, of course).

    An enviably creative premise with some fun moments, but ultimately misses its mark (unless said mark was a new take on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, of course).

    A title like A Coin for the Ferryman is in itself a draw, and sets some expectations. The idea is terrific – a Nobel Laureate with a heartbreaking childhood story dedicates his life to time-travel to make up for a good deed gone wrong as a child, and decides to use Julius Caesar as his coup d’etat. He assembles a team, spews Elon Musk-esque eccentricities, and away we go.

    Unfortunately, the idea and an interesting modern prologue is where the greatness ends. From very early on, the characters perpetuate antiquated stereotypes, the science is lacking any semblance of accuracy, and the story never approaches believable. Of course time travel and everything around it are imaginary in this context, but the hallmark of successful sci-fi & fantasy is that you forget. In this case, the story does the opposite and constantly reminds you of it’s lack of realism.

    The crux of the story begins as project leader Andrew Danicek is assembling his team, which at five people is laughably small for a team trying to prove time travel by nabbing Julius Caesar. At the same time, Cassandra is a young woman dreaming of a college education, happens to speak fluent Latin, and is about to take the leap from Vegas waitress to Vegas call girl. But in the first of many overly coincidental events, she never even has to slip off a shoe and has her future dreams handed to her. Eventually these two worlds collide, because college freshman Cassandra is decided by Andrew’s IDES team to be the foremost expert on spoken latin, though it’s pretty clear the underlying reason is that she is actually the most attractive Latin speaker they can find.

    The rest of the book continues in this vein. Very large decisions, such as how to behave when Julius-freaking-Caesar lands in the 20th Century, are made by a committee of bickering scientists, one of whom intentionally dons neon lycra to shock and awe because she has been jilted by Danicek. Caesar displays no culture shock beyond some quizzical looks and antiquated behaviors towards women, until that script is flipped in such a way that knocks down all the strength Cassandra had managed to build. Illogical coincidences aside, she was the one strong character until her plotline crashed into the stereotypes of the others.

    There are some fun moments to lift it to a second star, purely because there is just enough to keep you wondering how it’s going to end. Will it come around and undo some of the absurd misogyny? Will we finally get a taste of what it would really look like for an ancient figure to land in modern times? Or will all the flames just come together into an epic conflagration?

     A Coin for the Ferryman is a fabulous idea that fell victim to overused and sometimes offensive tropes, simplified writing, and a lack of editing that allowed for at least three too many irrelevant storylines to distract. 

    *Note: review of narration by Mark Ashby has not been included intentionally, as the playback quality was extremely poor. My initial reaction is around three stars – he seemed to have the talent but almost felt as though he wasn’t sure how to play the material – but I can’t in good conscience judge without knowing what is due to his narration vs. the poor audio quality.

    Thank you to NetGalley and Imbrifex Books for an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. 

    The Details:

    A Coin for the Ferryman
    By Megan Edwards
    Narrated by Mark Ashby
    Published March 1, 2022
    Imbrifex Books
    General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Sci Fi & Fantasy

  • Last Call at the Nightingale, by Katherine Schellman

    Rating: 3 out of 5.

    An atmosphere that transports you to the back alleys of 1920s New York in stellar fashion, with engaging characters walking through a story that is just shy of being good enough for them

    Set around a speakeasy in prohibition era New York, Last Call at the Nightingale transports you to the world of Vivian Kelly, a girl who’s life hasn’t been especially rosy and is trying to find her place. Right now that place is surviving the drudgery of being a dime-rate seamstress by day, and escaping to the Nightingale to reinvent herself by night. Flanked by her friends Bea and Danny, employees of the Nightingale, and at constant odds with her puritanical sister, her life leaves a bit to be desired and she is constantly at risk of losing everything. Narrator Sara Young has a terrific voice for Vivian, and adds some depth to Vivian’s character that could have ended up lacking without her interpretation. Vivian has a great base as a character, but does get muddled by her naivete a bit too often, but Young helps her power through. 

    The plot here intends to revolve around a murder mystery after Vivian and Bea find a body in the alley behind the club, but it bobs a weaves a bit too much for the mystery to ever really take hold. Instead, the bulk of the time is spent describing the rough and tumble 1920s New York scenery, and adding color to the characters. The sister shows up just often enough to keep Vivian’s guilt holding tight, their unfeeling boss is a proper tyrant, and you will wait with bated breath to learn whether the mysterious Leo Green or the manipulative but ultimately goodhearted club owner Honor will win the battle for Vivian’s heart (or body, depending on the mood). 

    The atmosphere is truly the star of the Nightingale show, with vivid descriptions of the sights and sounds of the Jazz age. Vivian’s half-baked attempts at solving a mystery, based on what was ultimately a scheme of sorts that just happened to work out ok, takes her through a wide strata of social classes. Vivian herself lives in the projects (were they called that back then?), and you feel the struggles she has lived with when walking through her neighborhood. When delivering fancy dresses to fancy ladies in the upper echelons of society, it puts an even starker contrast on the different lives these women lead. 

    The mystery itself isn’t bad, but does suffer from slower pacing and being a bit underwhelming giving the build up given to it in the last quarter or so of the book. This end section is also the fault in Young’s performance, as you get the feeling she knows the conclusion isn’t as climactic as intended so she overperforms to compensate. 

    Despite some failings, it is just well rounded enough to have potential as the start to a new series. I won’t clamber for the next one, but will likely give it a shot when the time comes. 

    Thank you to NetGalley and Dreamscape Media for an advance copy of this audiobook in exchange for my honest review. 

    The Details:

    Last Call at the Nightingale
    Kathleen Schellman
    Narrated by Sara Young
    Published June 7, 2022 by Dreamscape Media
    Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

  • A Noise Downstairs

    Rating: 3 out of 5.

    It doesn’t fit the bill of haunting or psychological, but it does evoke emotion. But anxiety and frustration are not likely what Barclay was going for.

    It doesn’t fit the bill of haunting or psychological, but it does evoke emotion. But anxiety and frustration are not likely what Barclay was going for.

    Centered around Paul Davis, your average suburban college professor with a so-so marriage who nearly dies after stumbling upon a co-worker on his way to bury a few bodies, A Noise Downstairs is billed as a psychological thriller that is sure to twist you in knots. It does the knots well, but I’m sure in the way Barclay was going for.

    As Paul recovers from nearly dying and the shock of finding a friend to be a grotesque killer, he is on a sabbatical and having regular sessions with therapist Anna, who has some gray areas in her professional boundaries. At this wife Charlotte’s suggestion, he decides to dig into what makes his former friend tick, what made him a killer. To complete the idea, Charlotte brings home an antique typewriter to help spark her English professor husband’s motivation. 

    It seems like a great idea, until the typewriter starts to send Paul messages. Creepy in itself, there is the extra layer here that the killer, dubbed the Apology Killer, forced his victims to type apologies on a coincidentally similar old machine. As Paul feels more and more detached and starts to question his own sanity, we also spend time with Anna and her father who seems to be suffering from some early dementia, another patient of Anna’s who has all the well known sociopathic traits, and friends and family of the murdered women.

    The premise is good – though the haunted typewriter doesn’t quite do the trick as the haunting and creepy inanimate antagonist – but the details come together in an anxiety inducing way. There is too much information, and also not enough. Unlike other novels that have had great success with the  “unreliable narrator with a wacky twist” plot device, this one gives up it’s ghost far too early, and then leaves you hanging without a handhold. It is clear early on that Barclay is going for that “wham” moment, but the story then proceeds at a slow pace without any substantial developments. You know there is a big ole twisty bit coming and want desperately to play amateur detective, but there just isn’t enough. When the finale does come, there is surprisingly little shock given how little there was that pointed to it. Essentially, one big ball of frustration and anxiety, getting distracted and probably missing details because you are so focused on waiting for the shoe to drop.

    In the end, A Noise Downstairs is a conundrum wrapped in an ice cream sandwich – the story itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it is somehow written in a way that drives some crazy emotion and just won’t let you stop until you know. Not Barclay’s strongest, but I’m still frustrated by it a week later so I’ll chalk it up to a tally in the win column.

    The Details:

    A Noise Downstairs
    Linwood Barclay
    Narrated by George Newbern
    Published July 12, 2018

  • The Murder of Mr. Wickham by Claudia Gray

    Rating: 3 out of 5.

    What’s not to enjoy in this creative Jane Austen fan-fic, multi-verse edition, where you get to say goodbye to the original Regency romance scoundrel? Ride-or-die Austenites will appreciate the joining of so many beloved characters

    No, the title is not a tease – this really is a story about Mr. Wickham’s murder, which should be reason alone for any Austen fan to pick it up. If you aren’t thrilled at the idea of the original Regency romance scoundrel being thrown from a tall building (not a spoiler), then we may have too many differences to continue this relationship. 

    Set around a house party hosted by Emma and Mr. Knightly, The Murder of Mr. Wickham takes a trip down memory lane by creating essentially an Austen multi-verse. With many of the major characters from Austen’s other books filling out the guest list, Claudia Gray has done a wonderful job connecting so many varied stories as well as giving almost all of them a very solid reason to throttle dear Wickham.

    When said scoundrel shows up unannounced to the house party, with a doozy of a rainstorm hot on his heels and forcing him to stay, no one is particularly surprised when he turns up dead. Well, they are outwardly surprised because this is the land of manners, but you know every one of them was thinking “about damn time..”. Because almost everyone has been given a motive, the only two with legitimate alibis are the youngsters – the Darcy’s eldest son Jonathan and Juliet Tilney, daughter of Catherine and Henry visiting from Northanger Abbey. As an additional twist on the mystery, we also get the coming-of-age bit where Juliet gets to tackle drawing the epically rigid and awkward Jonathan further out into the real world.

    The creativity that went into this novel is fantastic, and Gray does a good job with the characterization and language. Especially impressive is conveying the rift between the Darcy’s, that showed them as real people who have challenges but without sacrificing Elizabeth’s wit and Darcy’s super-secret emotions. Managing to weave Wickham into the lives of characters he had zero reason to be connected to in the canon was also done well, though some are a little threadbare – Fanny’s motive specifically is one of the characterization misses, as it is so unlikely for the time period that it can be tough to take seriously. 

    In addition to the handful of small details that are less believable, the overall plot structure also seems to suffer from the effort put into other areas. The plot is a bit slow in the middle, and the mystery doesn’t create much feeling of actual “whodunit”. There are some great clues thrown in, but too many red herrings, too few real clues that move anything forward, and too many suspects that never seem to get whittled down end up muddying the waters. You never get that “oh, maybe!” moment that you grasp for in a good mystery that keeps you both wondering and guessing. This one kept me wondering, but kind of knocked down the fun scale by never giving me enough to guess. 

    Ultimately, a great cozy read that Austen fans will appreciate, though the plot weakness may make it less appealing to others who aren’t anchored in by the character connection. 

    #themurderofmrwickham #netgalley #claudiagray

    The Details:

    The Murder of Mr. Wickham
    Claudia Gray
    May 3, 2022
    Vintage Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Vintage
    Historical Fiction, Crime, Jane Austen Fan Fiction

    Thank you to NetGalley and Vintage for an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

  • A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong

    Rating: 4 out of 5.

    Just enough inspiration from well-known favorites like Outlander to intrigue, with enough original fun to thrive on its own – looking forward to the next books in the series

    As a sometimes rabid Outlander lover (ok, all the time, I have the scotch thistle wedding ring…), I am a sentimentalist who gives a chance to most any book that even hints at similarity in theme or setting. More often than not they are too fan-fic, preposterous, or outright copycat and quickly land on the DNF shelf. I was intrigued by A Rip Through Time, but went in expecting to be disappointed; this is my first Kelley Armstrong and I admittedly had judged her book by its cover, specifically her other book covers that scream a bit too much vamp romance for my normal taste. Thankfully, intrigue won and I was happily transported to Armstrong’s gothic Edinburgh and cannot wait to go back. 

    As time travel stories go, the beginning isn’t earth shattering – seemingly street smart big city homicide detective Mallory Atkinson visits her dying grandmother in a foreign city, makes a dumb choice to follow strange noise in dark alleys at night,, and is attacked by the retail-rage bad guy. The meat of the story begins when she wakes up in the same alley and finds it is no longer 2019, and she is definitely not in her own body.

    The bones of this tale are a bit formulaic, with quite a few very convenient pieces moving the story forward. The body she lands in belongs to Catriona, who happens to work for the part-time crime solving undertaker Dr. Duncan Gray. The good not-real doctor lives with his widowed sister Isla, who’s social conscience and women’s rights views are progressive before their time. A murder spree has just begun, so she has landed in a scene perfect for her existing skills, despite her being completely unfamiliar with the customs of 1869 Victorian Scotland.

    Where A Rip in Time wins is taking a tried and true base formula and not getting sucked into a story that feels like a template. The foundation may be predictable, but the story built on top of it is colorful (a special accomplishment given the setting is creepily gothic and dark), layered, and believable. The setting of scenes is also where Kate Hanford’s narration really starts to shine, with a tone and emphasis that is like a welcoming painting or a creepy gothic build up in all the right places. Her soft comedic timing is also perfect in her portrayal of Mallory’s trial and error moments of trying to find the correct Victorian words for what she is trying to say. 

    The other place both Armstrong and Hanford both pull out the stops is creating compelling characters that you can’t help but care about quite quickly. 

    Mallory is a wee bit too lucky in a few places, but overall is perfectly flawed – she is smart enough to keep herself alive and with a roof over her head, but doesn’t just magically fit into a completely foreign place ala Claire Fraser (just because I love it doesn’t mean it’s perfect). Duncan is a bit death-obsessed and socially awkward, but manages to not become the creepy undertaker cliche and is charming in a quirky sort of way. As a 19th century character written by a 21st century female author, Isla’s character could have been overshadowed by modern girl power but she remains a woman with thoughts before her time, but not inappropriate for her time. She’s progressive and giving but also pragmatic, which lends just the right amount of drama to her relationship with Mallory. The slow boil starting between Mallory and Duncan is predictable because it’s always going to be a guy who keeps the girl in the past, but the Mallory/Isla friendship is one to look forward to in future books. I also sincerely hope Kate Hanford gets to bring these voices to life again.

    As with a lot of time travel books where the TT is really more of a means to an end rather than the star, my only major issue is the lack of attention to the “how” and potential impacts. Mallory does ponder what must be going on in 2019, where the real Catriona has presumably taken over her life, but this thought causes a pretty minimal level of stress given how much chaos the Victorian petty thief could be causing. She also doesn’t always succeed at bringing her modern forensics knowledge to the past without what should be pretty large ramifications. Every time I read a book of this genre, I think of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 – I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it but if you have, you know (and if you haven’t, you really, really should).

    For once, I’m thrilled to be drawn into an Outlander comparison that really isn’t much at all like Outlander. I’m even more thrilled that this is a series debut, because I’m looking forward to spending more time with these unique characters in their mysterious gothic world. 

    #aripthroughtime #netgalley

    The Details:

    A Rip Through Time
    Kelley Armstrong
    Narrator: Kate Hanford
    May 31, 2022
    Macmillan Audio
    Historical Fiction, Crime, Time Travel

    Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.