Category Archives: reading

The Alchemist’s Daughter Release Day Book Review

The Alchemists Daughter cover

In The Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Lawrence brings the world of London 1543 to dark life. It begins with the rats. Rats may have been more numerous than people in that era. As the story opens, someone is collecting the vermin for an unseemly purpose.

I chose to read this novel because the main character is similar in personality to Lucinda Martin York, the main character of my books Gold Rush Girl and Gold Rush Deluge. She’s an herbalist, she’s motherless, and she’s a strong female protagonist.

Bianca Goddard, the main character, lives a precarious existence, a 16th century equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck. She creates potions and salves to cure her customers of what ails them. One of her biggest customers runs a house of ill repute where Bianca’s best friend Jolyn was employed. Jolyn is engaged in a relationship with a well-to-do gentleman and is about to embark on a fairy tale life. The fairy tale is cut short when she dies suddenly in Bianca’s apartment. Due to the circumstances surrounding her death, Bianca becomes the prime suspect, and must solve the mystery of her friend’s death or face the gallows herself.

As the story unfolds, Bianca goes deeper into London’s underworld and discovers the secret of the rat collector. She’s accused of witchcraft, and ends up in a place no one would ever want to go. Once she escapes, she has to go back to that place again to prove her innocence and to prove what dark events are happening in the London shipyards.

This is a well-done mystery, with plenty of twists and turns. The language, customs, and events are all authentic to the time, proving the author did her research. Bianca Goddard stands out as a woman ahead of her era, pursuing herbal studies and a career, preferring to support herself rather than marry young. This novel is a perfect choice for readers who enjoy Tudor history and mysteries with a strong female protagonist.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Follow this link to read more about The Alchemist’s Daughter on Goodreads.



Snowbound by Richard S. Wheeler

Snowbound cover

Not many people know about the disastrous 1848-1849 winter trek of John C. Frémont and his men. Thirty-three men with one hundred thirty mules and plenty of supplies set out for California along the 38th parallel. Frémont brought along an expert topographer, a doctor, an artist, and many loyal men from his previous California campaigns. John C. Frémont was one of the premiere trailblazers of his time, yet through arrogance or poor judgement, or a little of both, he incurred devastating losses in this fateful journey.

The author develops the story through multiple viewpoints; that of John C. Frémont, Dr. Andrew Cathcart, Edward Kern, Bill Williams, and others. I especially enjoyed the chapters in the doctor’s point of view. All of these men lent a different slant to the story, but throughout it all, the reader is led to believe that Frémont had an oversized ego and a distance from human emotion and connection. Yet, he still managed to make him appear to care about his men and their condition.

The story begins with the team heading westward across the mountains in good cheer and good health. Bill Williams, the guide, tells Frémont the route along the 38th parallel is too dangerous, but Frémont doesn’t listen and instead pushes forward. Later, as the mental acuity of the guide begins to wane, they find themselves boxed into an impassable area buried deep under snow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, fighting to keep themselves alive. By the time Frémont understands that Bill Williams is lost, he has one option. He leaves most of his men behind in small camps and goes to New Mexico for relief. The story of the relief efforts is heartrending.

This biographical novel is engaging and thoroughly researched. Snowbound was my introduction to the author Richard S. Wheeler, and I’m quite happy to have discovered his book. I’ll be looking for more books by this author.

Laura Morelli’s Authentic Arts Series: Florence

Dear Reader,

Laura Morelli has two new books out today in her Authentic Arts series. The reasons I love these books are many fold:

  • She excels at sharing with her readers the beauty of Italy.
  • She knows how to share the history of the region in an engaging manner.
  • Her books’ photos of the topics are stunning.
  • She knows how to bring Italy to life, both past and present.

Morelli-Florence-AAThe two new books out today are Florence: A Travel Guide to Fabric, Frames, Jewelry, Leather Goods, Maiolica, Paper, Silk, Fabrics, Woodcrafts, and More and the accompanying shopper’s guide, Artisans of Florence.

In the first book, the reader learns about the living traditions of the artisans. Some work out of their shops where they sell their crafts, and you can watch them work as you peruse their wares. Others work in a private shop and sell their wares at traditional and yearly festivals. Reading about the artisans gives you a glimpse into the history and process of their work, and a new respect for the high quality craftsmanship.

This book is all about learning how to find authentic souvenirs to bring or ship home. “Authentic doesn’t have to be expensive, but it will be the most valuable souvenir of your trip,” says the author.

Of course, if you’re going to visit and shop in Florence, you need to know how to get around town. Ms. Morelli explains that the neighborhoods are identified by the main church anchoring it. For example, Duomo and San Lorenzo are named for the churches in those neighborhoods. Also, if you’re looking for a house number, you’ll get lost immediately unless you know the secret of the door colors. Red, or rosso, after the street number tells you the place is a business. Black, or nero, after the street number tells you it’s a residence.

Morelli-FlorenceNow that you know those two important things, you’re ready for the shopper’s companion, Artisans of FlorenceIn it, the author lists artisans and museums by neighborhood. She also listed the artisans and museums by their traditional arts. You’ll find the contact information and addresses for each one.

Shoppers will be happy to learn how to tell if something is authentic, made in the traditional way. Also, determining price can be a confusing matter, but not once you’ve read Ms. Morelli’s book. Before you begin your shopping adventures, she suggests you visit several museums to help train your eye in the traditional arts of the area and see for yourself what is truly authentic.

I’ve reviewed two other books by Laura Morelli, Venice: A Travel Guide to Murano Glass, Carnival Masks, Gondolas, Lace, Paper, & More and her novel, The Gondola MakerIf you love history, travel, and shopping, I highly recommend the Authentic Arts series. You can click on the covers below to read my reviews.

Morelli-Venice-cover     The Gondola Maker

About Laura Morelli

Laura Morelli, author photoLaura Morelli holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and contributes pieces about authentic travel to national magazines and newspapers. Laura has been featured on CNN Radio, Travel Today with Peter Greenberg, The Frommers Travel Show, and in USA TODAY, Departures, House & Garden Magazine, Traditional Home, the Denver Post, Miami Herald, The Chicago Tribune, and other media. Recently her art history lesson, “What’s the difference between art and craft?” was produced and distributed by TED-Ed.

Laura has taught college-level art history at Trinity College in Rome, as well as at Northeastern University, Merrimack College, St. Joseph College, and the College of Coastal Georgia. Laura has lived in five countries, including four years in Italy and four years in France.

Laura Morelli is the author of the guidebook series that includes Made in Italy, Made in France, andMade in the Southwest, all published by Rizzoli / Universe. The Gondola Maker, a historical coming-of-age story about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice, is her first work of fiction.

Disclaimer: I received e-ARCs of the two books reviewed today from the author in exchange for an honest review.

You can see more of Laura Morelli’s books on her author page at Amazon.

You might also like to read my review of Laura Morelli’s Venice and her novel, The Gondola Maker.

The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett

Voyage of the Narwhal cover

Just one look at the cover of this book will give you an idea of the complexity and complications faced by the 19th century Arctic explorers. In this engrossing tale of the search for Franklin and his lost expedition, Andrea Barrett brings to the page the hidden motivations and desires that accompanied these men on their ships.

On the other hand, we get to know the women standing watch patiently at home waiting for the explorers to return safely. Andrea Barrett breathes life into these characters through her literary prose and her incredible knowledge of the era.

Erasmus Welles sets off in early summer on board the Narwhal with Ezekiel Vorhees, his friend and soon to be brother-in-law. When Ezekiel begins making unconscionable demands of the officers and crew, and goes deeper into his own personal quest, Erasmus is torn between his instinct for survival and the consequences of that survival.

The power of the ice, and the unrelenting landscape and seascape join forces to test the men beyond human limits. The Esquimaux come to their aid, but consider the explorers inferior and helpless. What Ezekiel brings back from his journeys is as cruel and shocking as can be imagined.

This book is a satisfying mix of historical fact, character development, and human psychology. The author leaves many questions unanswered, open to the interpretation of the reader. This is a serious work of fiction, a fulfilling tale of adventure and acrimony.

The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout

I love being in a book club at the local library. We read books together that I might never hear about or discover without them. The February 2015 selection was The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout.

The writing is as sparse and cold as the Nebraska countryside in which the story takes place. This served to make the story even more real to me, as I read of personal tragedy and personal triumph. Swarthout’s writing style is reminiscent of Hemingway, whom the author reportedly admired.

From the very first chapter, surprises happen. I’m always in awe of the strength and stamina of our pioneer forefathers, one reason I like to write about the 1800s. Yet we seldom hear about the people who didn’t have the psychological strength to survive those harsh conditions. This story tells the tale of women who lost their mental grounding and needed to be escorted back east to their relatives or to a sanitarium.

The main character, Mary Bee Cuddy, volunteers to take the women home across the plains in the dead of winter. A degenerate criminal named Briggs joins her, not because he wants to, but because she saves him from a bizarre sort of hanging. Plus, she offers him $300 to be paid upon the safe delivery of the women. Mary leaves her homestead in the care of a neighbor, a risky gamble at best. With every move they make along the journey back home, the plot twists in unexpected ways. At one point, I was so shocked by a character’s actions that I wanted to give up the book. However, I read on to the end, and was delighted with the denouement.

After reading the book, I watched the movie. Tommy Lee Jones is the perfectly cast in his role as Briggs, as is Hilary Swank as Mary Bee. They truly bring the story to life. Here’s a trailer of the movie.

Glendon Swarthout was a prolific writer in several genres. The historical accuracy and plain good writing make this book one to add to the shelf of anyone who loves Western American Historical Fiction.

Write Away, by Elizabeth George

Write Away coverSometimes when you take a writing course, the syllabus includes reading books that are phenomenal. Write Away, One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, by Elizabeth George is just that. Phenomenal.

This is one of the writing books that will have a special place on my writer’s craft bookshelf, shoulder to shoulder with other great books that I refer to time and again.

Elizabeth George, if you don’t know, is a bestselling author of crime novels. She lives in California, but her books are all set in England. Her chapters on setting and landscape are the best I’ve ever read. She explains her entire process of creating her English settings from beginning to end.

She maintains a chatty, friendly tone throughout. Her book makes you feel as if you’re sitting down to tea and a private lesson with a master of the craft. She doesn’t nag, she doesn’t berate. She’s encouraging, helpful, and aware that your process may be different from hers. But she gifts you with jewels of advice to take away from her table.

My favorite part of the book was her detailed description of her writing process. This topic covered several chapters, and left me wanting to know more. Her books are well-developed with intricate plots and subplots. Learning how she pulls all the threads together without dropping a stitch was enlightening and empowering.

The book is broken into sections, and each section has several chapters.

Part 1 An Overview of the Craft

What makes a great story idea? How do you make a setting seem real? How do you transform your characters from flat cardboard to flesh and blood? Here she goes into great detail about story, character, and setting.

Part 2 The Basics

do you wonder what people mean when they talk about an author’s voice? How can you make your dialogue true to life? The author writes about how to choose your story viewpoint, how to find your unique voice, and tricks to master dialogue.

Part 3 Technique

George gives advice on how to master the finer points of writing.

Part 4 Process

From baby steps to bum glue, this is the nitty-gritty of getting it done.

Part 5 Examples and Guides

This part ties everything together into an easy to access guide with references and notes.

All in all, this book is one I recommend as a worthwhile investment for writers.

If you found this post helpful, you might enjoy these other Writing Tips posts on my blog.

Happy reading and writing!


The Girl on a Train is a fast thrill ride

Girl on a Train coverWhat a ride! I couldn’t get off this train until I finished the entire story in one sitting. Paula Hawkins is a master at telling a story and diverting attention from the real crime and criminal.

My book club decided to read this book, and the hype about it is true. Paula Hawkins conjures the spirit of Hitchcock in this tale.

This psychological thriller is told from the viewpoints of three women, none of whom are reliable. The reader is left to piece together clues. Clues which are as unreliable as the narrators.

Rachel is an alcoholic, unemployed, divorced, young woman who rides a train to and from London each day, in an attempt to fool her flatmate into thinking she still has a job.

Anna is the woman who married Rachel’s ex-husband Tom and had his child. Anna and Tom live in a house Rachel passes by each day as she rides the train. Anna comes across as a stable, loving wife and mother, but as her story progresses, things get a little bit…weird.

Megan is a woman who has faced major tragedies in her life. She’s a bit nomadic, and has been a runaway, a waitress, owned an art gallery, and is now unemployed. Rachel also watches Megan each day as she passes by on the train.

As these women’s stories unfold, they are so entangled that it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s imagined. It’s up to the reader to try and work through all the knots, and discern what’s to be believed and what’s to be tossed.

The story is fast paced, and I absolutely could not put it down until I read the entire thing in one sitting. In the end, I was taken by surprise, but it all made sense. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a psychological thriller.

If you’re a writer, this is a perfect book to study how to develop authentic characters, and how to develop a good mystery.