Review: A Twist In Time (Julie McElwain) @JulieMcElwain

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Former FBI agent Kendra Donovan’s attempts to return to the twenty-first century have failed, leaving her stuck at Aldridge Castle in 1815. And her problems have just begun: in London, the Duke of Aldridge’s nephew Alec—Kendra’s confidante and lover—has come under suspicion for murdering his former mistress, Lady Dover, who was found viciously stabbed with a stiletto, her face carved up in a bizarre and brutal way. Lady Dover had plenty of secrets, and her past wasn’t quite what she’d made it out to be. Nor is it entirely in the past—which becomes frighteningly clear when a crime lord emerges from London’s seamy underbelly to threaten Alec. Joining forces with Bow Street Runner Sam Kelly, Kendra must navigate the treacherous nineteenth century while she picks through the strands of Lady Dover’s life. As the noose tightens around Alec’s neck, Kendra will do anything to save him, including following every twist and turn through London’s glittering ballrooms, where deception is the norm—and any attempt to uncover the truth will get someone killed.

Last year, I read and loved A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain. It was an amazing experience: a book that was fun, well-written, featuring a kick-ass heroine and wonderful supporting characters. The mystery was engaging and it was a gripping story as well. I couldn’t wait to dive into the sequel, A Twist In Time, and I must say I was not disappointed. This book follows Kendra, who is still stuck in the XIX century, while she investigates another crime with the help of the Duke (now that she’s officially his ward) and tries to save her friend Alec, who has been accused of murder.

I know some of you aren’t sure of these books because of the premise, but really, I’d love to convince you to try this series. They’re not fantasy books… the only magical element is the time travel aspect, which isn’t that important once you’re in the middle of the case. And no, these aren’t romantic books either. There’s a bit of a love story, but it is like 5% of the plot and it doesn’t bother me because I love both characters. These are purely mystery novels. Classic whodunnits. The whole book is basically Kendra and her friends attending parties and questioning the suspects.

I already said this, but Julie McElwain’s novels remind me of Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries. Kendra is quite a peculiar character: she always speaks her mind and loves to make up theories that might end up being true. She doesn’t always share her thoughts until she’s sure she’s right, and that is something that she shares with Poirot. I also love how she is a modern woman and refuses to let tradition change her beliefs. When someone (mostly men) questions her abilities, she always knows what to say.

I think I enjoyed A Murder In Time a bit more, but mainly because it was the first one and there were more funny moments because of Kendra’s arrival. However, now, everyone is used to having her around. I think I’d like for more people to know about her secret, as I think it could lead to potential crazy fun situations.

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ARC, Pegasus Books, 2017

Becoming Bonnie (Jenni L Walsh)

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The summer of 1927 might be the height of the Roaring Twenties, but Bonnelyn Parker is more likely to belt out a church hymn than sling drinks at an illicit juice joint. She’s a sharp girl with plans to overcome her family’s poverty, provide for herself, and maybe someday marry her boyfriend, Roy Thornton. But when Roy springs a proposal on her and financial woes jeopardize her ambitions, Bonnelyn finds salvation in an unlikely place: Dallas’s newest speakeasy, Doc’s. Living the life of a moll at night, Bonnie remains a wholesome girl by day, engaged to Roy, attending school and working toward a steady future. When Roy discovers her secret life, and embraces it—perhaps too much, especially when it comes to booze and gambling—Bonnie tries to make the pieces fit. Maybe she can have it all: the American Dream, the husband, and the intoxicating allure of jazz music. What she doesn’t know is that her life—like her country—is headed for a crash. She’s about to meet Clyde Barrow.

I don’t know how I came across this title in the first place, but I’m so glad I did! The first thing that I noticed was the beautiful and shiny cover. The title was appealing too: Becoming Bonnie. I clicked on the link and found out the novel was about Bonnie, from Bonnie and Clyde. Late 20’s, Dallas, Texas. Prohibition and depression. I quickly added it to the TBR. A couple of weeks later I saw the book on Netgalley and immediately requested it. It didn’t have many reviews yet.

As soon as I started the book, I knew it would be a special one. And I know because I hated having to put it down! I was so deeply immersed in the story that I kept thinking about what would happen even when I was at work. And when I wasn’t reading, I was looking for pictures of Bonnie and Clyde and reading their Wikipedia page. I had seen the movie but didn’t remember much about it. Now I want to know everything there is to know about this woman.

I don’t know exactly why I found this story so wonderful, but I guess it just clicked with me. I think Jenni L Walsh is an amazing storyteller. You know when you’re reading a book and absolutely everything makes sense? Sometimes I read novels that I enjoy but I don’t understand certain decisions and find myself wishing some things had been different. In Becoming Bonnie, everything happened just the way I hoped. Bonnie’s coming of age, the events that unfolded, the relationship with her family, friends, and lovers. And the author managed to introduce every historical aspect in a smart and smooth way, so you understood why Bonnie chose to do what she did because of the context and what was going on around her.

This is not a book full of twists of surprises, but the story of a very special girl who’s trying to figure out her life. And despite knowing how it all would end, I still couldn’t get enough of her story. Keep in mind that Clyde doesn’t show up much at first, but I thought he was a great character (at least, for now).

I loved Bonnie. I love how she changed so much from the first page to the last, how she matured, how she became fearless. How she learned to say no, to stand up for herself and discover what she really wanted to do with her life. And I can’t wait to follow her and Clyde’s adventures in the sequel!

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Netgalley, Tor Books, 2017

‘Round Midnight (Laura McBride)

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Spanning the six decades when Las Vegas grew from a dusty gambling town into the melting pot metropolis it is today, ‘Round Midnight is the story of four women—one who falls in love, one who gets lucky, one whose heart is broken, and one who chooses happiness—whose lives change at the Midnight Room. June Stein and her husband open the El Capitan casino in the 1950s, and rocket to success after hiring a charismatic black singer to anchor their nightclub. Their fast-paced lifestyle runs aground as racial tensions mount. Honorata leaves the Philippines as a mail order bride to a Chicago businessman, then hits a jackpot at the Midnight Room when he takes her on a weekend trip to Las Vegas. Engracia, a Mexican immigrant whose lucky find at the Midnight Room leads to heartbreak, becomes enmeshed in Honorata’s secret when she opens her employer’s door to that Chicago businessman—and his gun. And then there is Coral, an African-American teacher who struggles with her own mysterious past. A favor for Honorata takes her to the Midnight Room, where she hits a jackpot of another kind. Mining the rich territory of motherhood and community, ‘Round Midnight is a story that mirrors the social transformation of our nation. Full of passion, heartbreak, heroism, longing, and suspense, it honors the reality of women’s lives.

‘Round Midnight is the second novel written by Laura McBride, whose debut We Are Called to Rise was critically acclaimed and quite big success (and I still haven’t read it!) I admit this was a case of cover love, pure and simple. Isn’t it gorgeous? And then I saw it was set in Las Vegas and in the 50s…

The book was divided into three different parts, all set in Vegas. Firstly it’s the 50s, with June, then the 90s with Honorata and Coral and then Engracia in the present time. But don’t worry if you miss June, Honorata and Coral, as they will keep showing up in the future, although they won’t be main characters.

My favorite storyline was June’s, maybe because it was the first, or perhaps because it was the one we got to spend more time with. And her tale was a great one, as it featured racism, love, and sacrifice. I really liked reading about her life and definitely wanted to know more, but then it was the 90s and she was not the center of the story anymore. I was a bit disappointed, although the other two sections were still interesting.

The writing was simply amazing in this novel. I loved how the author introduced every section (someone watching the main character from a distance) and the way the stories were told: it was beautifully written and easy to read at the same time. And those are the best ones in my humble opinion. When the writing doesn’t feel simplistic at all and yet it flows.

Still, something weird happened with this book. I was thoroughly captivated by the story and the pages flew by, but at the same time, I wasn’t feeling what I should. I think it lacked that essential ingredient that usually makes me fall in love with a book. I’m fully aware that it might only be me, as I’ve seen glowing reviews all around! It’s a really good book, believe me. It just didn’t touch me as I hoped.

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Netgalley, Touchstone, 2017

The Night She Won Miss America (Michael Callahan)

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Inspired by a true story, a young woman is swept up in the glamour and excitement of chasing the title of Miss America 1950—only to vanish the night she wins. Betty Jane Welch reluctantly enters the Miss Delaware contest to make her mother happy, only to surprisingly find herself the judges’ choice. Just like that, she’s catapulted into the big time, the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. Luckily, her pageant-approved escort for the week is the dashing but mercurial Griffin McAllister, and she falls for him hard. But when the spirited Betty unexpectedly wins the crown and sash, she finds she may lose what she wants most: Griff’s love. To keep him, she recklessly agrees to run away together. From the flashy carnival of the Boardwalk to the shadowy streets of Manhattan to a cliffside mansion in gilded Newport, the chase is on as the cops and a scrappy reporter secretly in love with the beauty queen threaten to unravel everything-and expose Griff’s darkest secret.

I know some of you were curious about this title when I published my weekly wrap-up. I don’t know if it was the unique title, the beautiful cover, or the fact that the novel took place in 1949 that made me want to read this one. Probably an equal combination of those three aspects. And April couldn’t come soon enough.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from The Night She Won Miss America. It didn’t seem like a typical read, which I definitely appreciate. I only knew that it wasn’t a proper romance (although it featured a love story) and that it was loosely based on a true event that happened in the 1930s. Color me intrigued.

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever watched an actual beauty pageant on TV -I’m a fiction girl, after all-, but I still won’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Miss Congeniality (okay, more than 5). And well, after all the crimes and creepiness, I was eager for something girly, so this novel seemed like the perfect fit. I’m glad to say I loved it!

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While it wasn’t a particularly twisty book, I’d say this took me on an unexpected journey. The first part of the novel (the beauty pageant) was lovely, fun and completely captivating. I couldn’t stop picturing it all in my head: the girls, the gowns, the escorts, Atlantic City… and Michael Callahan’s writing was subtle and flawless. The second part of the book turned into something much darker but I was equally engaged. I felt so sorry for Betty and Griff because they were so sweet in the beginning, but my favorites were always Miss Rhode Island, Ciji, and reporter Eddie Tate (crush alert!).

My (tiny) issues: as amazing as the title is, it’s also a bit spoilery, given that that doesn’t happen until later in the book. And, in my opinion, the present events felt a bit irrelevant, especially when you compare it to the actual story, which was the main focus after all. However, if I’m being completely honest, none of those things bothered me at all because the book was still delightful and unforgettable.

I can’t wait to read another novel by Callahan!

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ARC, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

Guest Post & Review | The Returning Tide (Liz Fenwick)

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Two sisters and one betrayal that will carry across generations… In wartime Cornwall, 1943, a story between two sisters begins – the story of Adele and Amelia, and the heart-breaking betrayal that will divide them forever. Decades later, the efforts of one reckless act still echo – but how long will it be until their past returns? The Returning Tide will sweep you away to the beautiful Cornish coast, full of secrets and mystery.

A Guest Post by Liz Fenwick 

(Thanks to the wonderful Liz for writing this great post so quickly and letting us know about her writing process and sources of inspiration. And for the amazing soundtrack!)

Writing a novel that is two thirds historical gave me sleepless nights – many of them. All my previous books had been contemporary with historical touches. I love history, always have. My editor had to reassure me on a regular basis that I could do this. And I tried my best to believe her, I really did, but in the middle of the night I would wake worrying. It was a trying time.

I’d learned from writing A Cornish Stranger it was best not to do all the research before I finished the first draft. I only needed enough to put the story together. Because when writing A Cornish Stranger I was certain my older heroine was going to be in the SOE so I researched like mad…half way through the first draft I realised she was not…so much time had been lost.

Lesson learned this time I began writing with just enough to leave my draft full of XXXXs telling me I needed to return to these spots and fill in the missing pieces. This allowed me to discover the story.

The Returning Tide began with my mother-in- law. She was a Wren telegraphist during WW2. One night over dinner we were discussing something that had been mentioned in the papers that morning about the Slapton Sands incident. She turned to me and said she was working that night with the Americans. She heard them die. The men went from code to using plain language. I shivered then and I shiver now. Although I asked several times for her to write down her experience she never did. Only while researching did I realise that she was still under the Official Secrets Act and she had held that experience inside her all those years carrying it alone.

From my mother-in- law’s experience, I built the story. I read the fabulous Debs At War by Anne de Courcy. This was a book I kept coming back to…to ‘hear’ the voices of the past. At the same time as writing I tried to discover more about my mother-in- law’s experience but somehow all her photos and letters from that time had been lost. I knew she’d been in Weymouth and Portland so through Twitter I contacted the Wrens Association there.

Christine Baker who runs the Twitter account was wonderful and she put me in touch with two women who served at HMS Attack the same time as my mother-in- law. Talking with both these women gave me an insight into a world that was so different.

Looking out to Portland on a glorious spring day it was hard to imagine it filled with ships and sailors. But their memories began to colour in the experience. One of the woman loaned me her diary from 1944. I cannot tell you how using a primary source helped. The hardest thing for me to understand was the not knowing. Today almost as soon as a bomb drops it’s on the news. But in the war no one really knew anything. By looking through her diary I knew what she saw on 28 th April 1944. She saw the bodies of young American soldiers on the quay side but she didn’t know why. That was incredibly powerful.

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After speaking with these women, I began tracking down books written by women who served as Wrens. Many of them were privately published. They had wonderful titles like I Joined for the Hat. These books helped to understand the mind-set of a young woman in the 1940s. Stockings or the lack thereof was almost universal in all the memoirs. In today’s world of plenty it’s important to understand the lack of things.

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I spoke with people who lived in Cornwall during the war. Currently Cornwall is a picture of loveliness but if you look you can still see evidence of the war along the Helford River.

Despite these relics, it’s hard to imagine it filled with landing craft. There are some fantastic film clips of the 29th Division available on line through Critical Past. Even though the beach at the bottom of Trebah Gardens is still mostly concrete, it’s hard to imagine it could have happened.

The other research that helped me ‘feel’ the past was music. Music for me acts as a time machine. Recently my teenage daughter has been discovering the music of my youth. Out of the blue she played a song I hadn’t heard in years…Smoking in the Boys Room. In that moment, I was in primary school with Sister Brigid Mary teaching and I could smell the disinfectant that they used to clean the floors. I then turned to the music of the war.

However I can’t write with music playing as I will drift into the story told by the song. But I found that I could use it before a writing session to put me in the ‘time’ or to wind down afterwards. I’ve made a Spotify playlist of the music referenced in The Returning Tide.

The Returning Tide was also the novel I found Pinterest came into its own for me. As I hunted down pictures I collected them on a page. The more I added the more Pinterest sent me to. I have done a board for every book but for this one the visuals were really important as I didn’t live through it.

Each story presents its own challenges and The Returning Tide aside from the lack of sleep allowed me to dwell in the past and gave a greater appreciation for those who lived through WW2. I hope those reading the story become as immersed as I did!

My Review

I knew I had to read this book as soon as I saw the beautiful cover. And the blurb said for fans of Kate Morton, so I was already sold. The Returning Tide was a dual-time novel featuring a beautiful love story and a complicated relationship between twin sisters. There’s nothing I love more than a tragic ending and this novel certainly delivered.

The prose was engaging and elegant, subtle and easy to read. I was equally interested in both the past and present story; the past because it was the main focus, and the present because I wanted the characters to reunite. Lara was my favorite and I admit I had a soft spot for Jack and his moody ways as well. They didn’t properly “meet” until later in the book, but I already felt the chemistry.

The past story, featuring Amelia, Adele and “the American” was simply wonderful. I loved that even though I already suspected what was about to happen, I nearly gasped out loud when I learned about the betrayal. And there was one part of the mystery that I definitely didn’t see coming and I admit I shed a few tears. I don’t want to say much more about the plot because it’s better if you find out by yourselves.

It’s no mystery that I love reading novels set in the past. I’ve always thought that letters and old tradition make for great stories and they never fail to engage me. The events of this book would’ve never happened nowadays, which is definitely good for the characters, but at the same time our loss because we wouldn’t get to enjoy these beautiful tragedies.

All in all, this was a classic historical novel: poignant, beautiful and sad… I read it all in a sitting and it wasn’t exactly a short book. What can I say? I was swept away by The Returning Tide.

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ARC, Orion Books, 2017