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review 2013-08-18 00:00
The Butterfly Sister: A Novel
The Butterfly Sister - Amy Gail Hansen

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I liked this quite a bit. I didn't love it, but Amy Gail Hansen pulled me into her story easily and early. The mystery is intriguing, the characters are well-drawn, and the writing itself is sold. Part mystery, part thriller, the author blends together the various aspects of The Butterfly Sister into an interesting and compulsively readable novel. Fast-paced, with several, unexpected twists and turns, readers will find themselves drawn into Ruby Rousseau's complicated life. This is a short-ish novel, but Hansen packs a lot of punch into her three-hundred pages.

Ruby is a compelling protagonist - she's complicated, a mess, a shadow of her former self. She also believes herself to be mad, and with an attempted suicide in her recent past, it's easy to believe in her confusion and pain. Though the majority of the story is focused on the "now" timeline, there are frequent flashbacks interspersed to a year before, when Ruby was at college, and in a seemingly-better mental state. Both the past and the present narratives are connected in unexpected ways, and as Ruby tries to find Beth and figure out what happened to her a year ago, she comes to realize that life at Tarble was not exactly as she remembered. Her romance with an older man is nicely written and fraught with drama, if a bit squick-imducing when it's revealed her love is only three years younger than Ruby's own parents.

The disappearance of Beth is key to the plot, and as Ruby uncovers more about her former friend, the similarities between the two women become more and more apparent. Both were only children, both lost their fathers, and both made ill-fated romantic relationships. But while Ruby may be metaphorically lost, Beth is literally lost. The theme of feminine depression encompasses both women's lives in surprising ways -- Ruby herself is depressed, and while Beth remains unafflicted, another woman's depression has dire implications for her own life. Hansen handles the theme well, and without prejudice. Her even-handed depiction of depression is forthright and real, and never veers into political incorrectness. It helps that Ruby is shown to be a very smart woman, and a thorough researcher. She is much more than her illness, and it doesn't define her.

The final chapters of the book were weaker than the introduction. The mystery flags as the culprit is revealed and leads the characters on an increasingly hard-to-believe series of events. As it went on, The Butterfly Sister lost a bit of the subtlety that it had maintained earlier in the story, but I still couldn't put the book down. It wasn't perfect, but Hansen's first novel is an easy read that will definitely keep readers turning the page. It's unusual, compelling, and a bit weird -- and absolutely memorable.

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review 2013-07-06 00:00
The Last Camellia: A Novel
The Last Camellia - Sarah Jio

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A deft, intricate novel that encompasses two storylines of two similar women, The Last Camellia is a charming, mysterious, and fresh novel. This was my first Sarah Jio novel, and it definitely was a good first impression. A novel that reads both easily and well, it's remarkably easy to get caught up in the atmospheric feel of The Last Camellia from the very first page. With the twinned, compelling stories of Flora in the 1940s and Addison in the early 2000s, the similarities and parallels between the two women add another meaningful layer to the themes and ideas subtly woven into the narrative. With a story comprising murder, betrayal, affairs, and con men, there's clearly a lot going on in this shorter novel, but Jio pulls it off with finesse and aplomb.


I hadn't read anything from this author before, though I have seen her work more and more in friends' reviews and book buys during the last year. If any of them had though to tell me how reminiscent of Kate Morton Jio's novels were, I might've gotten around to reading them before now. Both Morton and Jio like to parallel two different women in different time zones, often with a secret or a mystery. I say Sarah Jio is Kate Morton-esque, because she is far more direct and forthright with her plotting. There may be mysteries afoot for nearly all the characters, but it takes Jio far less time to wind up her story and tie everything together. Morton remains one of my favorite authors, but the favorable comparison and similarities to this prevalent and productive author were an unexpected boon.


The enveloping atmosphere evident in The Last Camellia is one of its many strong points. From the moors of Clivebrook, to the orchards of Livingston Manor itself, the feel of the novel is omnipresent and lends well to the suspense that is introduced later in the novel. The fact that Jio takes the time to show the same location in different periods of its history (the 1940s with Flora and 2000 with Addison) create a vibrant sense of place. The intrigue and suspense that begin to built early on only add to the engrossing nature of the novel; as the pages race by, the reader is caught up in the world this author took such time and care to cultivate. The gardens, orchards and camellias come to life the most and had me googling to learn more about these gorgeous but under-appreciated blooms.


Both Flora and Addison tell their tales in first person, with alternating chapters. From the different fonts used, it's immediately obvious who is narrating, but the diverse, independent voices created for each does much more to distinguish between the two characters. Including a 60-year mystery connecting the two protagonists, the threads that tie the two women to each other are numerous and subtly shown as the stories progress. Their perspectives are used to show the theme of how the past can affect the future, often literally. Both the near past and the distant have direct impact on Addison's storyline in particular.


Mysteries and secrets are another key facet of the multiple stories being woven through The Last Camellia's pages. Nearly everyone - past or present - that lives at Livingston Manor has a secret that defines their life and their actions during the novel. The central mysteries that propel the plot - what happened to Lady Anna? How and why did she die? What did Addison do that haunts her so? What is happening to all the missing girls from the village? - are bigger pieces of the story, but from Mrs. Dilloway to Desmond, there is more going on with these people than what is immediately apparent. The reveals, while some could be predicted ahead of time, almost all made for pivotal moments in the story's main plot.


There is a lot to be said about The Last Camellia. It can be suspenseful, charming, and always enjoyable. There may be a bit of a formulaic aspect to the plot, but that doesn't lessen the entertainment I felt while reading. With a tidy conclusion that wraps up nearly every plot thread, while leaving a key few open to reader interpretation, I thoroughly appreciated how ably the novel was ended. I don't know why I waited so long to read a Sarah Jio novel, but I do know it won't be so long before I read another.

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review 2013-06-16 00:00
A Beautiful Heist (Agency of Burglary & Theft)
A Beautiful Heist (Agency of Burglary & Theft) - Kim Foster
"Everyone breaks the rules eventually.
It's just that some of us make a career out of it."
-A Beautiful Heist, p. 4

Kim Foster's debut novel is an enjoyable, convoluted and action-packed caper. It's a nonstop ride from the first chapter until the very end. Full of schemes and betrayals, human sacrifice and treasure hunts, this new but capable author captures her audience in a tightly-plotted and intricately set up first-in-series. A complicated plot, likeable but imperfect characters, and Foster's clear style of writing lend for an easy, entertaining and fast-paced read. A Beautiful Heist is less than three hundred pages, but the author manages to contain an interesting, complex, and original plot within those few hundred pages.

Catherine "Cat" Montgomery is a character to remember. She's the type of girl who wears a wetsuit under a couture cocktail dress. She's the type of girl you want on your side in a testy situation. Smart, talented and cautious, Cat has lived a double life with aplomb and finesse since a very early age. Chased by her own personal demons and a need for atonement, Cat is caught up in a hidden world of thievery, deception and danger. It helps that Cat is gifted at what she does - while other girls can sing or dance or act, Cat can pick a lock, plan a heist, and sneak around without notice. She chafes against what she does occasionally, and follows a strict credo for how and why she does what she does. All qualms aside, she's a perfect fit for "The Agency" that she works for - AB&T Inc., which she jokingly says stands for Agency of Burglary and Theft, Inc.

Cat's humor is apparent and obvious. From the first page, her voice is distinct and undeniably her own. First person POV works very well for her chapters - the audience is immersed in her head and can see her owrk through her thoughts, issues and problems first-hand. She shares the narration with her ex-lover and FBI agent Jack Barlow. Jack's chapters differ from hers in many ways. Though Foster uses first-person so ably with Cat, she switches to the more distant 3rd person for Jack. I personally am not a fan of switching between the two - either use one or the other completely. As Christina of Reader of Fictions put it so aptly: "The switch does really throw you out. I get that they're intentionally trying to connect you to some and distance from others, but it just highlights the artificiality of fiction." Whenever this would happen (and it does often), I was very aware I was reading a novel. It's jarring when the author changes perspective between chapters.

That small caveat aside, Jack's story is just as compelling as his female counterpart's. Child of an infamous thief, Jack cannot reconcile their relationship with Cat's profession. He rebelled against his infamous father by going straight-edge - by hunting down and capturing thieves and burglars. The ill-fated romance between the two principals plays a small but pivotal part of each character's motivations and actions through the novel. Jack is also drawn outside his realm of comfortability into a world where no one is who they say they are, and nothing is as it seems. Jack was harder for me to relate to than Cat was, but he can stand on his own. He's a well-developed character and his struggles to continue an unusual family tradition are seamlessly interwoven into the larger plot of the novel.

Hemmed into an tenuous situation by money issues and the ever-looming IRS as well as facing a mentor-turned-enemy, Cat finds herself out of depth when presented with a chance to steal a Faberge egg coveted by several dangerous groups. Undertaking a daunting job without any backup with Brooke undermining her in various inventive ways, Cat has to navigate some truly dangerous waters, all the while trying to get a read on the new FBI agent in town. Cat's lot isn't easy, but Foster keeps it both humorous  ("I stared at her dumbly for a minute, much in the same way I stared at my bathroom scale after the holidays. Vaguely horrified, vaguely disbelieving.") and suspenseful with interspered but well-written action scenes.  A Beautiful Heist moves at a fast pace, and you'd better pay attention or the small details will get missed that end up being rather important before the end.

This is the first book in an upcoming series and Kim Foster carries it off rather well. The ending 10% suffered the most from the breakneck pace - it felt rushed whereas the first 65% spent so much time setting the action up. With some impressive sleight-of-hand, the twists and turns are far from expected or predictable. I was genuinely entertained and often surprised at how easily the author managed to trick me (and to be fair, Cat, too.). A Beautiful Heist is a great launching point for the rest of the AB&T novels, and I eagerly anticipate where the author will take her series, and Cat, next.

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