Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher for an honest review.

Broken Strings by Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Shirli doesn’t land the role she wants in her junior high school’s upcoming play, Fiddler on the Roof, but she does get to partner in the production with cute, popular Ben. While looking for props to use in the play, Shirli finds an old violin in her grandfather’s attic, not knowing the instrument’s connection to a tragic family secret in Broken Strings by authors Eric Walters and Kathy Kacer.

I had quite the experience with this middle grade read. It addresses a dark subject (evidenced by the barbed wire and Star of David on the cover) without having the depressing overall texture/mood of dry gloom that I find in other novels that go to such painful places. Yet, I wasn’t sure for a while if I’d finish this book. The style and phrasing had an unoriginal feel to me, and I wasn’t finding the heroine or her young peers to be particularly interesting.

But the unfolding of Shirli’s grandfather’s part in the story had me intrigued. His poignant role began to bring the story together and, effectively, to strengthen the other characters. The read became richer as I went along, taking history and the need to recognize the value of all humanity, weaving it with Shirli’s personal journey and heritage, and culminating in a beautiful, redemptive finish that tugged on my soul.

The plot held no big surprises for me, but it eventually pulled me in so well that I finished this novel in one sitting—something this reader doesn’t do every day.

 

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

All ready to get deep into a historical mystery, I picked up Maisie Dobbs by author Jacqueline Winspear. And in a strange turn of events, after getting more than 200 pages through it, I can’t say I ever got a good grasp on it.

Maybe it’s because my expectations were indeed built up to read a mystery, but the book has relatively little of that. The book cover and the initial dive into the case and investigation are essentially a smoke screen, suggesting something that only takes up a few pages of the novel before the story goes in an altogether different direction. And that different direction, for maybe more than half the novel, is the (back)story of Maisie, a coming-of-age and wartime tale that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the mystery—whatever the mystery is, which must pick up somewhere in the final third of the book.

As for the coming-of-age and wartime tale, it gave me mild enjoyment and an emotional tug or two, but I often found it to be slow, cursory, and predictable, with nothing that really stood out to me. With only about 70 more pages to go (dense pages with rather tiny type), I just ran out of steam. Hence, whatever the real mystery is in this book, for me it shall remain a mystery.

But I do like Maisie: a smart, compassionate, discerning woman who maybe could use a compelling flaw or two to make her character more interesting, but at least she isn’t syrupy or hyper-angelic. So while I didn’t finish this book, I do plan on trying at least one more in the series. With the extended introduction of Maisie’s character and background taken care of in this first novel, perhaps a following one will be heavier on the mystery side.

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Maisie Dobbs Series

 

Romance on the River by Mary Ellis

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

Romance on the River by Mary Ellis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Emily, a young Quaker woman, has a lot to handle while running her family’s farm on her own, not to mention her duty as the mistress of a safe house along the Underground Railroad. It may or may not be too soon for Emily to anticipate a marriage proposal from a young farmer nearby, but besides that, war in her country and news regarding her farm may plunge her into a future she isn’t ready for in Romance on the River by author Mary Ellis.

Now, despite the title, I wouldn’t call this short read a romance. The focus of this prequel isn’t centered on Emily’s relationship with the farmer she loves but rather on Emily’s overall situation as an orphan who’s suddenly had the weight of so much responsibility placed on her shoulders while war has broken out in the country.

Even though the circumstances are dire (even more dire than the characters could know, as the Civil War has only just begun), the read makes a little room for comedy, and there’s sass in Emily’s sense of humor. And I appreciate her conviction that no matter how “well” some masters treat the enslaved people in their charge, the institution of slavery itself is still “an abomination.”

This prequel isn’t a short story so much as its a prelude to a story. There’s no resolve to this layered and intriguing setup—a setup for the novel that follows. I’m not ashamed to say that if I’d first come across the cover of the novel, The Quaker and the Rebel, I would have skipped right over it, as there’s nothing about a man in a Confederate soldier uniform that attracts me, particularly if the image is made to look romantic.

But now being familiar with who Emily is (and hearing that the hero in the following story isn’t what he seems), I might check the novel out sometime.

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The Civil War Heroines Series

 

The Crown and the Crucible by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella

Book reviews are subjective. I tend to rate books not according to how “perfect” they are, seem to be, or are said to be in general but rather to how perfect they are to me.

The Crown and the Crucible by Michael R. Phillips and Judith Pella

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Click the title to find the book description/blurb.)

Anna, a young woman of the peasantry. Katrina, a young woman of the aristocracy. And pre-revolutionary Russia, feeling the heat of political conflict, imminent war, and inevitable change to the empire in The Crown and the Crucible by authors Michael Phillips and Judith Pella.

If I’d read this novel, first published in 1991, back in my adolescence, it might have been nigh on perfection to me.

Indeed, the story is vivid in its detail, particularly in the areas of religion, politics, and war. The simmering of social unrest is palpable, as is the layered tension between an older generation that doesn’t fully understand the discontent, ire, and passion of a younger generation hungry for a new social order. The landscape is ripe for revolution, and the historical and ideological complexities of the novel had me engrossed.

However, if I’d been younger when I’d read it, I might not have noticed what seems to be a dichotomy of tones and styles in the book.

The story goes from something rich and serious to something that’s overdramatic and almost juvenile in its quality. The narrator and characters alike begin to essentially “shout” maybe forty-five percent or more of what they say, complete with excessive exclamation points and italics. The opinionated narrator spells out pretty much everything about humble, tearful, timid Anna and spoiled, self-centered, willful Katrina. The characterizations of the two young women and other people in the story, as well as the story’s development, are rather simplistic with a lack of nuance…until the style and tone settle down and shift back to something richer and more serious. Such shifts seem to happen several times throughout the novel.

Perhaps the tell-all, commentating narrator is a throwback to classic literature. Perhaps the stretches with a more juvenile flavor are meant to reflect some of the characters’ immaturity. Perhaps the style will smooth out or shift completely one way or the other as the saga continues, or when the novels switch to only one author. I’m not sure.

Nevertheless, even with its parts that were fluff to me, the novel built a substantive and intriguing foundation overall that has me interested in seeing what happens next in the series.

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The Russians Series