Saturday, December 31, 2011

The House of Special Purpose by Colin Falconer

Rating: ★  ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: Dec. 21, 2011 

For years no one knew what happened to Czar Nicholas and his family after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It was decades before the whole truth came out. The deadly account of what happened to them in Ekatinerberg, in the House of Special Purpose draws on eyewitness accounts and is told from the point of view of Anastasia, the Czar's youngest daughter. The facts are so ghastly - and so farcical - they defy belief. The story brings to vivid life the events of the last months of the Romanovs and is the prequel to Colin Falconer's bestselling novel: Anastasia. How was it possible for any of the children to have survived? You won't believe the answer; except that it's all true.

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

Engagement official picture of Tsar Nicholas II
and Alexandra Feodorovna
I must apologize. I’ve hardly done any reading lately and as a result I have neglected my blog. In truth I haven’t been feeling all that great, but I’m back on my feet. Well, better than I’ve been at any rate. Anyway, enough about me. Now for my thoughts on The House of Special Purpose.

There is a line in historic fiction. It is either a fictional account of the truth or a fantastic romp featuring characters who happen to have actually existed. I favor the former and in general don’t have a lot of appreciation for the latter. Colin Falconer’s novella might entertain those unfamiliar with the facts, but I found his story poorly researched. Some elements appear to be purely fabricated while others are based on nothing more than rumor and gossip.

In Falconer’s narrative, all five children arrive in Yekaterinberg together. This is an element that contradicts the known facts. The family was briefly separated in April 1918. Alexandra (or Alexandria as Falconer sometimes refers to her) and Nicholas traveled with Maria several weeks before the other children. Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexei remained in Tobolsk until Alexei was well enough to make the journey.

Every chapter opens with a quotation, a few unattributed lines of text. This is what I mean by fabrications. The content doesn’t concern me as much as the lack of source material. These quotes don’t appear in any other document. I’ve googled them and the only results are hits for Falconer’s work. I guess I don’t understand why the chapters open this way. The quotes appear out of place in the story as well as misleading as they don’t appear to belong to any character historic or fictitious.

As for elements based on rumor and unverifiable fact I have only three words to give you: Tatiana ganged raped. I know rape was a common rumor and I understand why. Four princesses held in captivity until their bloody execution. What vilifies their captors more than portraying them as having stripped away of the innocence of one of these young women by violating her body? I’ve read several books on the family's captivity, but not one of those academic texts states that a rape occurred in the Ipatiev House. One of the guards said “I felt the empress myself and she was warm” and another is supposed to have declared “Now I can die in peace because I have squeezed the empress’s breasts” while disposing of the bodies, but beyond the rather disgusting idea of violating a corpse I’ve found nothing to support the event Falconer exploits in the course of his story.

I have a million other comments on the novella, but I think one example of each point more than adequately expresses my opinion. Would I feel differently if Falconer explained the content in his author’s notes? Perhaps, though I think it is important to state that The House of Special Purpose carries no disclaimers, no references, nothing beyond “If you enjoyed this book, look for the sequel: Anastasia now out on Kindle: US and Kindle UK.” The lack of commentary speaks louder than the piece itself and the sales attempt discloses what I believe to be the true purpose behind the piece.


The truth of the Romanov’s last days will never be known, but I find Falconer’s version overly exaggerated and sensational. A disgraceful exploitation of the tragic fate of the Romanovs. The only thing I find more upsetting is the final line of the cover blurb. It’s all true. This story was published in 2011. The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Botkin, Demidova, Trupp, Kharitonov and one of the younger daughters were discovered in 1979 and were officially identified through DNA testing in 1998. The remains of Alexei and the last Grand Duchess were discovered in 2007 and officially identified through DNA in 2008. The idea of a survivor is great story telling fodder, but at this point, when science has disproved the possibility, I have a lot more respect for the authors who stick to fictionalizing the unknown aspects of what we know to have happened.

One final note. The sequel blurb (I have no intention of actually reading the book) put me in mind of the 1986 made for tv movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna which starred Amy Irving, Olivia de Havilland, Omar Sharif, Rex Harrison and a very young Christian Bale. The Mystery of Anna takes place in two parts, featuring the last days of the family, then flashing forward to a young woman throwing herself into a river in Berlin. The woman is rescued and sent to an institution where she is diagnosed amnesic. The story is of course based on the life of Anna Anderson. Falconer’s Anastasia appears to take place in Shanghai, obviously not Berlin, but according to the blurb the story also begins with an amnesic woman being rescued from a river. I sincerely hope my initial impressions prove incorrect, but I can't help but be turned off by the overused story line.

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Two more bullets hit the doctor in the stomach and as he doubled over she saw another bullet make a sudden, dark hole in the top of his bald head and he collapsed into the floor.
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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Irish Eyes by Andrew M. Greeley

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ 
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: Dec. 16, 2011 

Nuala Anne McGrail, that beautiful Irish spitfire, now lives in Chicago with her husband, Dermot, and their new baby, Nellliecoyne. As Nuala fans may suspect, Nelliecoyne is no ordinary baby: she is fey like her mother, and can see into the past as well as the future. Both Nuala and her daughter have had strange vibrations from a place on the lake where a shipload of Irish-Americans lost their lives a hundred years ago. In the course of their investigation, Nuala and Dermot make some dangerous enemies, and eventually have to solve a murder and find a buried treasure. Will Nuala survive the attacks of a sleazy DJ, and a dangerous run-in with the Balkan Mafia? And how does the diary of a young Irish woman at the turn of the century play into these events? Once again, Andrew M. Greeley--that master of the human heart--creates an engaging, charming story that will delight fans young and old.

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

Time it seems has changed my opinion of the Nuala Anne books. I read the first book of the series, Irish Gold, nearly ten years ago and greatly enjoyed it. So much so I immediately sought out the sequels. I devoured Irish Lace, Irish Whiskey, Irish Mist and Irish Eyes that same summer. I set the series aside to focus on my academic obligations but somehow didn’t find my way back to them until now. I decided to reread Irish Eyes to refresh my memory. Greeley tends to recap key information about the characters so I didn’t see much value in revisiting all five novels. No. Irish Eyes would be enough. Sadly, the book just wasn't as good as I remembered.

Why was I disenchanted my second go round? That’s a dumb question. The real query is where do I start. For one, Dermot is a push over and he knows it. He self-validates in every novel. It is annoying. Almost as annoying as his spending the entire book shaking his head and saying yes dear without complaint. I don’t find it appealing. I like a man with a little backbone, who has opinions and isn’t merely an extension of his spouse.

Nuala is perfection personified. She always has the answers, is always in the middle of things, never fails to be less than amazing and always looks fantastic doing it. People like her don’t exist. Real people have faults, real people make mistakes, real people have depth, complexity and baggage. Her flawlessness is exasperating.

Did I mention the couple has no real world worries or concerns? Dermot is a college drop-out who managed to make a pile of cash while working at the Exchange. His mistake allowed him to retire in his mid-twenties. He writes novels as a hobby more than anything else. Naturally the books are bestsellers. Nuala has an accounting degree but makes a living as a folksinger. Is anyone shocked that her records go platinum?

I don’t think I need to go into the fact that Dermot and Nuala’s daughter is a perfect replica of her mother (minus the red hair) and it goes without saying Nelliecoyne is intelligent and advanced for her age. No child of Coyne’s would dare be anything else less than impeccable. Gag me.                                     

I think I’ve stated I don’t have a problem with sex in literature and for the record, I don’t think the intimacies in Irish Eyes would offend the casual reader. The problem is that I just didn’t find the scenes appealing. A man suckling his wife for breast milk just didn’t do it for me. I don’t mean to sound judgmental, some people might get hot and bothered by the idea but for me it was just awkward. Very awkward.

Having thoroughly stated why I dislike these books we come down to why I bother reading them. As always, it is the history. Greeley loves Chicago almost as much as he loves Ireland and her people. Reading his books is like entering a portal to times long forgotten. In Irish Eyes, we glimpse the booming shipping industry of the Great Lakes and harsh realities of life at the turn of the century with just a touch of Irish mysticism.

Greeley’s richly imagined storylines are also nothing to sneeze at. While vacationing, Nuala, Nelliecoyne and the Coyne's wolfhound, Fiona, pick up strange vibrations from a ship that sank off Grand Beach nearly one hundred years ago. In an effort to understand their latest physic episode, the Coyne’s start an investigation that leads them to a forgotten chapter of Chicago’s past, its connection with Ireland’s political struggles and the fate of the Ardagh Chalice. Meanwhile the couple is dealing with a media circus caused by the sensational accusations of DJ Nick Farmer. Nick’s unexpected death only complicates matters, more so as his fate seems to have ties to the Balkan mafia.

Will I read the rest of the series? Probably. Will I recommend to others? Not without a disclaimer. The books aren’t awful but they aren’t for everyone. I do want to make two further notes before I wrap up. Greeley is a Catholic priest. The books are not preachy in the least, I wouldn’t even call them religious fiction but I would avoid his work if religious concepts aren’t to your liking. The same concept applies to Republicans. I wouldn’t usually address the subject but every novel in the series seems to take a dig at conservatives. I find it annoying as I don’t appreciate party politics in fiction but I wouldn’t be surprised if these comments upset more political readers.

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It wasn't the chalice, Nuala Anne. It was a winter storm that came too early, an old boat, and a dangerously irresponsible captain. Ellen's parents were young and romantic and convinced that they were immortal.
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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Netgalley 
Read: Oct. 9, 2011 

A dazzling debut novel of love and loss, faith and atonement, on an untamed nineteenth-century Scottish island. Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of extreme hardship and unearthly beauty. Everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie when they arrive at the St. Kilda islands in July of 1830. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie—bright, beautiful, and devoted—is pregnant with their first child. As the two adjust to life at the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and babies perish mysteriously, their marriage—and their sanity—are soon threatened.

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St. Kilda is an archipelago some 40 miles from North Uist on the western edge of Scotland. Geographically remote, isolation emerged as the predominant theme of life in this sequestered corner of the world. Nowhere is this concept better illustrated than in Altenberg's portrayal of Lizzie McKenzie. Newly married and pregnant, Lizzie views St. Kilda as an adventure. Soon after her arrival, her fantasies are shattered by tragedy and she is forced to acknowledge the true nature of her situation. Removed from the natives by a difference of both culture and language, Lizzie must push the limits of her own character or perish.

Historically, Altenberg did her homework in regards to both the islands and their inhabitants. The descriptions of the native culture were extraordinarily detailed and skillfully folded into the plot. The additional exploration of the nature of faith, ethics and the relationship between a man and wife added an appealing emotional quality to the novel. Thoroughly impressive as Island of Wings is Altenberg's debut novel.

The flowery prose is somewhat overwhelming but underneath there exists a captivating story of hope and commitment. There is no denying that Island of Wings is a beautiful interpretation of the harsh realities of life on St. Kilda but is also a insightful tale of human nature and our ability to overcome. Powerfully moving if one can navigate the composition.

Recommended to fans of Confessions of a Pagan Nun: A Novel by Kate Horsley and the Women of Genesis series by Orson Scott Card.

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Time was no longer linear in this place where no one could remember who built the houses, cleits and dykes and where the seasons were marked by the comings and goings of the migrating birds. The ancestors were near the living, and the world of men was closely linked with the rock, the sea and the birds with which they shared these elements. Time and space seemed suspended, so that here and now was always and everywhere.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Nov. 9, 2011 

From the brilliantly imaginative New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes an unforgettable new character in an exceptional new series. England, 1916. Independent-minded Bess Crawford's upbringing is far different from that of the usual upper-middle-class British gentlewoman. Growing up in India, she learned the importance of responsibility, honor, and duty from her officer father. At the outbreak of World War I, she followed in his footsteps and volunteered for the nursing corps, serving from the battlefields of France to the doomed hospital ship Britannic. On one voyage, Bess grows fond of the young, gravely wounded Lieutenant Arthur Graham. Something rests heavily on his conscience, and to give him a little peace as he dies, she promises to deliver a message to his brother. It is some months before she can carry out this duty, and when she's next in England, she herself is recovering from a wound. When Bess arrives at the Graham house in Kent, Jonathan Graham listens to his brother's last wishes with surprising indifference. Neither his mother nor his brother Timothy seems to think it has any significance. Unsettled by this, Bess is about to take her leave when sudden tragedy envelops her. She quickly discovers that fulfilling this duty to the dead has thrust her into a maelstrom of intrigue and murder that will endanger her own life and test her courage as not even war has.

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I don't have much of a background with regards to World War I lit. All Quiet on the Western Front all but killed my interest in the genre. For years I wouldn’t touch anything on the subject. I changed my tune after reading Barbed Wire and Roses. The book left such an impression on me that I started looking for other books set during the Great War. One of the first titles that caught my eye was a murder mystery involving a young war era nurse. I all but ran to the library to find a copy of Duty to the Dead.

Now, I rarely have this problem but every time I opened this book I found myself fighting to remain conscious. The plot was decent but the writing was bland, the characters forgettable and the murder mystery decidedly mediocre. I did enjoy the complicated web of loyalty between the various members of the Graham family but the lifeless story telling killed the book as a whole.

Looking back, the only really notable aspect of Duty to the Dead was the sinking of the Britannic but even here I felt short changed. While technically well-illustrated I found myself caring more about the historical event than its place in Todd’s story. I liked it but it has little relevance to Bess Crawford's experience with the Grahams. I find it sad that the most interesting scenes in the book don't really fit the rest of the novel.

This was my first time reading Charles Todd and I can’t say I am that impressed. I’m not writing off other titles by this mother/son writing team but I’m in no hurry to sample their other work.

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It was impossible not to like him, and liking him, it was impossible not to feel something for him as he fought a gallant but losing battle with death. I wasn't foolish enough to believe I was in love, but I was honest enough to admit I cared more than I should. I'd watched so many wounded die. Perhaps that was why I desperately wanted to see this one and snatch a victory out of defeat and restore my faith in the goodness of God. But it was not to be.
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Love Finds You in Victory Heights, Washington by Tricia Goyer & Ocieanna Fleiss

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: Nov. 10, 2011 

The Second World War has stolen Rosalie's fiance from her. But rather than wallow, Rosalie throws herself into her work at the Boeing plant in Victory Heights, shooting rivets into the B-17 bombers that will destroy the enemy. A local reporter dubs her Seattle's Own Rosie the Riveter, and her story lends inspiration to women across the country. While Rosalie's strong arms can bear the weight of this new responsibility, her heart cannot handle the intense feelings that begin to surface for Kenny, the handsome reporter. Fear of a second heartbreak is a powerful opponent - but will it claim victory over love?

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I’ve steered clear of the Love Finds You series for a long time. I can’t put my finger on what it is but something about the books told me to look elsewhere in my literary wanderings. Still, I am a WWII nut and the subject matter of this particular title proved a real temptation. My resistance crumbled entirely when Love Finds You in Victory Heights, Washington turned up as a kindle freebie. No offense to the authors or fans but next time around I hope I listen to my gut. I prefer grittier storytelling and this was just too sugar coated for my taste.

I had a real problem with Rosalie’s lack of emotion in the face of loss. Her grief over her fiancé’s death should have been palpable but for me it read only lukewarm. Additionally, I couldn’t give weight to Rosalie’s ‘fear of a second heartbreak’ when her first was never properly developed. What grief she experienced seemed to stem more from her own inadequacy and guilt than any real affection. Her belief that marrying Vic would have been a mistake further undermined the authenticity of her emotions and went a long way in minimizing the internal conflict touted so prominently in the book description.

Emotional depth wasn’t the only thing I noted as lacking. I also felt a distinct absence of creativity throughout the book but nowhere is it more obvious than with our leading lady. Christening the rivet wielding heroine Rosalie was as uninspired as Kenny’s exploitation of the Rosie the Riveter comparison in the newspaper. Thank you Captain Obvious. Is it really any wonder his boss wouldn’t give him a hard story? His breakthrough piece was half written in the American psyche before he even touched pen to paper. It might work for other readers but this was just too cutesy for me to get into.

One thing I did appreciate was the attention to detail. The story and writing style weren’t for me but there was an obvious amount of effort put into recreating war era America. The lingo, the pastimes, the prejudice experienced by women in the work place, all of it speaks volumes about the ladies who put Victory Heights together. The end result didn’t hold much water with me but even so, I applaud the effort that went into writing it.

Before descending my soapbox I want to note an observation not of the book itself but of some the other reviews. Many of those who issued lower ratings cite surprise over religious themes as the cause. With all due respect I can’t give these reviewers a lot of credit. I realize the blurb doesn’t hint at the inspirational content but that is the case with a lot of religious fiction. If you don’t appreciate the subject matter, take time to learn how to recognize it so you know what to avoid. That sounds harsher than I mean it to but there are plenty of indicators if you know where to look.

Both Amazon and Goodreads classify the novel as religion based entertainment. Summerside Press bills itself as “an inspirational publisher offering fresh, irresistible Christian fiction” on their website and in the publication information of the book itself. Tricia Goyer’s website and author bio states she was named ‘Writer of the Year’ at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference in 2003. According to her author bio, Ocieanna Fleiss contributes to a bi-monthly column in the Northwest Christian Author. The Love Finds You series “features real towns and combines travel, romance, and faith in one irresistible package” per the series information in the back of the book. The copyright segment clearly states that “unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, King James Version.” The acknowledgement section even provides a few clues as it thanks the Emmanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Jesus Christ before concluding with “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto they name give glory. Psalm 115:1.”

Before you ask the answer is no, I do not seek out Christian fiction. It is my affinity for historic fiction that leads me to many of these titles. I’m not particularly religious but the subject doesn’t bother me. All the same, I like to be aware that I am venturing into the realm of faith based lit. It might sound complicated but once you know where to look these titles are easy to identify. Don’t blame the book because you didn’t do your homework. If it really inhibits your enjoyment you will find that spending an extra two minutes to research a particular title is more than worth your time

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All her life she never thought she'd love a man, not with the passionate commitment she loved Kenny with. And now, the one thing she dared not to dream of came to her like an unexpected gift.
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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Irish Healer: A Novel by Nancy Herriman

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 26, 2011 

Fiction in the ever-popular Historical/Romance genre -- during the deadly 1832 cholera epidemic in London, a heartsick Irish healer must find the strength to overcome her most fearsome obstacles. Accused of murdering a child under her care, Irish healer Rachel Dunne flees the ensuing scandal while vowing to never sit at another sickbed. She no longer trusts in her abilities—or God’s mercy. When a cholera epidemic sweeps through London, she feels compelled to nurse the dying daughter of the enigmatic physician she has come to love. James Edmunds, wearied by the deaths of too many patients, has his own doubts about God’s grace. Can they face their darkest fears? Or is it too late to learn that trust and love just might heal their hearts?

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I don’t often find books like this. The Irish Healer by Nancy Harrimann is a beautiful novel with a message that both secular and nonsecular readers can enjoy. The Irish Healer is inspired fiction and incorporate strong religious themes but I think the personal journeys of Harrimann's cast have wide appeal.

I love getting lost in a good book and one of the easiest ways for an author to make that happen is to create characters and situations a reader can relate to. At the beginning of Harrimann's story, James is struggling with the death of his wife and Rachel is questioning her value as a healer after losing a young patient. Self doubt is something everyone can understand and most of us have experienced the loss of a loved one. By incorporating these very common emotions Harrimann was able to craft two notably compelling and unique leading characters.

The story itself is simple but I think it works in Harrimann's favor. Nothing here seems overly contrived. James and Rachel are brought together in very realistic circumstances and bond in similar fashion. The authentic quality of the story is something I really appreciate. The comprehensive depiction of evolving affection is much more affecting than the more dramatic and less believable love at first sight scenario.

Historically not as strong as I would like but The Irish Healer is a heartwarming tale of personal trial and triumph. Recommended to fans of The Song of Acadia Series by Janet Oak and Davis Bunn. 


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He signaled for Rachel to join him. When she came to his side, he slid his arm around her waist and tucked her close. Her slim, small body fit perfectly, as if made to be a part of him.
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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Destiny's Child by Iris Gower

Rating: ★  ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Nov. 5, 2011 

It was a prophecy told to her by an old woman: she would marry a man with flame-coloured hair, and bring forth a King of England. But Margaret Beaufort had been forced by feeble-minded Henry VI to marry the Duke of Somerset's son, so how could she ever be married to handsome, red-haired Edmund Tudor, even though she loved him? And even if that came to pass, how could any son of theirs ever become King, when there were so many others with better claims to the throne? But slowly the prophecy began to be fulfilled: at the age of thirteen Margaret was married to her beloved Edmund, and she bore him a son — but not before Edmund had died of a fever. And so Margaret poured all her love and devotion into the life of her son Henry, vowing that, whatever the cost, one day he should be King of England.

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

Margaret Beaufort
I am absolutely never reading Iris Gower again. Destiny’s Child is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad book and that is being generous. I give the author pity points for attempting to fictionalize the life of Margaret Beaufort but beyond that, the book is a waste of both time and paper.

The novel begins just before or after Margaret’s ninth birthday and concludes when Margaret is forty-one. Issue number one is that between point a and b there are exactly zero references to the date. You read that correctly, zero, as in none, nil, niente. Unless you are familiar with the timeline of Margaret's life you have absolutely no idea how much time has passed between events.

Issue number two is that time slows to a crawl or rushes forward without regard for the actual timeline of events. As I said the book starts at age nine(ish) and ends at age forty-one. At the halfway point, Margaret is a new mother at the age of thirteen. I’ll save you the trouble of calculating the figures and make it simple. The first half of the book covers four years while the second covers a span of twenty-eight. Atrocious formatting.

Issue number three. Margaret was twelve years old when she married the twenty-five year old Edmund Tudor Now, I can accept the age gap and in all honesty Margaret could have easily been married to a much older man so thirteen years is not that big a deal. The problem I have is that Gower made this marriage the love match of the century! I’m sorry but I don’t see it. This was pure politics my friends. Given time it may have evolved into an affectionate arrangement but I highly doubt it was the passionate affair Gower fabricates here.

Moving on to issue number four. Margaret is twelve when Gower writes “You are lovely and innocent as a child.” and “…lifting her skirts like a child, she ran across the green to meet him.” I hate to point this out but Margaret is in fact an adolescent. Now child marriages were common place in medieval England but even so, Margaret was younger than most. The issue here is that Gower has no understanding of an adolescent’s mind. Gower’s characterization of Margaret is as savvy and intelligent as Eleanor of Aquitaine at her height. Where was the development? Where was the growth?

I don’t think I need to go much further than issue number five. In Gower’s story Edmund becomes sick during an extended visit to his father. Margaret wakes in the night to his rasping breath and realizes her beloved husband’s time is limited. Sweet story but complete bull. Edmund was captured in mid-1446 and imprisoned in South Wales. The sixth month pregnant Margaret was not in attendance when he died of plague. Upon hearing the news, Margaret fled to the protection of her brother-in-law at Pembroke Castle. Being unable to create an appropriate character, fabricating a romantic attachment, and omitting chronological references are enough to make me angry but rewriting history is an offense I cannot forgive.

I’m going to end before I write a novel. Recommended to no one, avoid at all costs.

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Her breath caught in her throat as she watched it being placed on hair that was like a flame under the richness of the crown. Her son, this tall young man, was now the King of England.
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Friday, November 4, 2011

The Guardian Duke: A Forgotten Castles Novel by Jamie Carie

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Nov. 2, 2011

The Guardian Duke is award-winning novelist Jamie Carie’s most exciting story yet, a uniquely arranged Regency-era romantic adventure where hero and heroine know each other through written letters but have yet to meet. Gabriel, the Duke of St. Easton, is ordered by the King to take guardianship over Lady Alexandria Featherstone whose parents are presumed dead after failing to return from a high profile treasure hunt. But Alexandria ignores this royal reassignment, believing her parents are still alive and duly following clues that may lead to their whereabouts. Gabriel, pressured by what are actually the King’s ulterior motives, pursues her across windswept England and the rolling green hills of Ireland but is always one step behind. When they do meet, the search for earthly treasure will pale in comparison to what God has planned for both of them.

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

As an avid reader I hate admitting this but I am confused as to what this book was trying to do. There are many aspects to the novel but none of them felt fully developed. Half-baked is a wonderful way to go when you making chocolate cookies or eating Ben and Jerry’s but it doesn't work as well with literature.

Lady Alexandria, as a character, lacks cohesiveness. She doesn't know how to write a proper letter to a duke who she believes by definition must be old, monocled and suffering from gout but she has no difficulty leaving the only home she has ever known, travelling across the country, tracking the movements of her parents a year after their last correspondence or booking passage to Iceland? Either she is an inexperienced aristocrat who has no idea how to cope with life off her island or she a determined young woman who is more than capable of taking care of herself despite the conventions of the day. She can’t be both.

Alex’s motives also seemed inconsistent. She is so determined to find her parents that she defies the king’s wishes but she tarries in Belfast to watch Baylor compete in a local contest and is more than content to order fine clothes and attend the opera and a masked ball in Dublin? I’ll grant that she intended to seek out information at both Dublin events but she seemed to lose her drive and focus during her sojourn there. I was left questioning where the heroine was coming from. 

Gabriel suffers from hearing loss mysteriously brought on when he is named guardian of the supposedly orphaned Alexandria Featherstone. The affliction plagues him the first half of the novel but disappears without mention when he leaves London. Naturally the condition reappears as he prepares to leave for Ireland which is why I am upset that there was so little attention paid to his momentary recovery. It is a good idea but the execution is sketchy. It needs to be all or nothing. Commit to the story line or forget it entirely. 

Jamie Carie is an inspired fiction writer and B&H is a religious publishing group but The Guardian Duke doesn’t feel like most of the religion based fiction I've encountered. Alex mentions God and faith in her letters and lets loose the occasional prayer but just the same, I found it incredibly easy to forget heroine is in fact a devout character. There is too much religion to say the book shouldn't be classified as inspired fiction but I also feel there isn't enough to it to feel like it solidly belongs in the genre. Again, half-baked.

In terms of storytelling I was frustrated that there was no real climax. There is this huge build up and then… nothing. There is an art to writing series. The books need to be connected but each edition also needs to feel like a complete story in and of itself. For me, The Guardian Duke felt like an extended epilogue.

On the upside, I did like what Carie did with the letters. I live in an age where people fall in love online, essentially losing themselves to someone else’s words. Carie’s handling of the letters between Gabriel and Alex and the emotions each felt upon reading the correspondence translated very well throughout the book.

Light regency romance recommended to fans of the Daughters of Mannerling by Marion Chesney. 

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It was a  sad truth that lies had always flown out of her mouth with the ease of a bard telling a tall tale. She couldn't seem to help it.
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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: Nov. 1, 2011 

Divorced at ten, a mother at thirteen & three times a widow. The extraordinary true story of the 'Red Queen', Lady Margaret Beaufort, matriarch of the Tudors. Born in the midst of the Wars of the Roses, Margaret Beaufort became the greatest heiress of her time. She survived a turbulent life, marrying four times and enduring imprisonment before passing her claim to the crown of England to her son, Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. Margaret's royal blood placed her on the fringes of the Lancastrian royal dynasty. After divorcing her first husband at the age of ten, she married the king's half-brother, Edmund Tudor, becoming a widow and bearing her only child, the future Henry VII, before her fourteenth birthday. Margaret was always passionately devoted to the interests of her son who claimed the throne through her. She embroiled herself in both treason and conspiracy as she sought to promote his claims, allying herself with the Yorkist Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, in an attempt to depose Richard III. She was imprisoned by Richard and her lands confiscated, but she continued to work on her son's behalf, ultimately persuading her fourth husband, the powerful Lord Stanley, to abandon the king in favour of Henry on the eve of the decisive Battle of Bosworth. It was Lord Stanley himself who placed the crown on Henry's head on the battlefield. Henry VII gave his mother unparalleled prominence during his reign. She established herself as an independent woman and ended her life as regent of England, ruling on behalf of her seventeen-year-old grandson, Henry VIII.

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Margaret Beaufort
The thing I appreciate most about this book is that Norton doesn't try to recreate Margaret’s personality. She hints here and there but it is always based on Margaret’s own words or actions. For example, Norton covers the intense feelings Margaret had regarding the early marriage of her granddaughter but she doesn’t make assumptions about Margaret's emotions during her own early marriage to a man nearly twelve years her senior. It would be all too easy to say Margaret was a terrified bride, widow and mother by age thirteen but Norton resists temptation, restricting herself to the available facts and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. It is a style I personally appreciate as I like forming my own opinions rather than being told what to think, especially when it comes to nonfiction.

Factually this is a wonderful biography of Margaret Beaufort but it is a tough book to read. The spelling reverts to old English at random. Now I’m reasonably proficient in old English but I found myself stumbling more often than I care to admit. More than that, I found the formatting of the book difficult to absorb. Norton frequently starts a paragraph but follows her thoughts through years ahead of where she started only to backtrack again with the next paragraph. Again, I love that amount of information Norton compiled here but all the same, I found it hard to follow.

By and large I have few criticisms of the book beyond what I've already mentioned. Norton's work is wonderfully detailed in so much as the surviving records allow. Fact heavy but well researched. Recommended to fans of Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn.

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Fortune's Wheel was both kind and sometimes unkind to Margaret: the daughter of a probable suicide, the greatest heiress in England, divorced at ten, married to the King's half-brother at twelve, a widow at thirteen, a mother at thirteen, twice more a widow, a plotter, a prisoner, the mother of the king, most of all, Margaret Beaufort can be remembered as the mother of the great Tudor dynasty.
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley 
Read: Oct. 25, 2011 

A strong-willed 16-year-old girl fights for survival in 18th-century North America. Françoise Laurent has never had an easy life. The only surviving child of a destitute washerwoman and wayward soldier, she must rely only on herself to get by. When her parents die suddenly from the smallpox ravishing New France, Françoise sees it as a chance to escape the life she thought she was trapped in. Seizing her new found opportunity, Françoise takes a job as an aide to the wife of a wealthy fur trader. The poverty-ridden world she knew transforms into a strange new world full of privilege and fine things -- and of never having to beg for food. But Françoise's relationships with the other servants in Madame Pommereau's house are tenuous, and Madame Pommereau isn't an easy woman to work for. When Françoise is caught stealing a pair of her mistress's beautiful gloves, she faces a future even worse than she could have imagined: thrown in jail, she is sentenced to death by hanging. Once again, Françoise is left to her own devices to survive... Is she cunning enough to convince the prisoner in the cell beside her to become the hangman and marry her, which, by law, is the only thing that could save her life? Based on an actual story and filled with illuminating historical detail, The Hangman in the Mirror transports readers to the harsh landscape of a new land that is filled with even harsher class divisions and injustices.

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I lucked out with this one. True to form I saw a vaguely interesting cover and filed it away in the recesses of my mental archive as 'to-read' without reading the description. For once, my inattention worked in the author's favor for if I had read the blurb there would have been no reason to read the book. Ninety-five percent of the content is spelled out for the reader in that simple passage. Rather disappointing really.

In addition to giving away most of the plot, the blurb is one of the two places that state the book is based on true events. During the reading, I noted the unique story line but upon reading the blurb I realized how little of the plot actually came from the author's imagination. Again I found myself disappointed as the aspects I appreciated most came straight out of an obscure history book.

Françoise Laurent, the central character of The Hangman in the Mirror, lacks the charm and charisma of Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp but she is without doubt molded in their image. Morally ambiguous, she is a difficult personality to warm to and while I admired the direction Cayley took in crafting her identity, I was less than enthusiastic about the execution. Françoise is selfish and irritating but she is presented in such a way that I found myself flat out disinterested in her fate.

All things considered it would be all too easy to dismiss the book entirely but I prefer to give credit where it is due. I was displeased by Cayley's leading lady but I found Françoise's parents intriguing. Her father, a drinker and gambler of little skill, reveals himself as more complex than he appears. A hard man, it comes as a surprise that he, in his way actually cares for his sole surviving child. Françoise's mother, a laundress, is a classic example of what happens to those who lose all hope. Depressed by the harsh reality of her existence, she spends much of her time recounting the glories of France while attempting to drown herself in bottles of cheap booze. The depravity of their situation was well-illustrated and the multifaceted nature of these two characters gives me hope for Cayley's future publications.

Not my cup tea but then, not every book is. Recommended to fan's of Celia Rees' Sovay.

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They will hang me in the winter and I will hang dead in the snow. My face swollen, my spine broken, I will swing in the wind, in the wide open spaces of New France, and I will stand as a warning for all those who are born with nothing and wish for more.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 24, 2011 

Marley was dead to begin with... These chillingly familiar words begin the classic Christmas tale of remorse and redemption in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Now R. William Bennett rewinds the story and focuses the spotlight on Scrooge s miserly business partner, Jacob T. Marley, who was allowed to return as a ghost to warn Scrooge away from his ill-fated path. Why was Marley allowed to return? And why hadn t he been given the same chance as Ebenezer Scrooge? Or had he? Written with a voice reminiscent of Dickens, Jacob T. Marley is to A Christmas Carol as the world-famous Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz as this masterfully crafted story teaches of choices, consequences, and of the power of accountability. It is sure to become a Christmas favorite.

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If there is a truly tragic character in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is Jacob Marley. Ebenezer Scrooge gets a second chance at redemption but Marley is condemned to shoulder the weight of his transgressions for all eternity. Not a whole lot of justice in that is there? Now apparently, I’m not the only who feels this is a serious offense. Author R. William Bennett also concluded Dickens treated Marley unfairly and being a far more creative person than myself, he penned a positively delightful reprisal of the classic tale in an effort to address the maltreatment.

I can honestly say this is one of the best retellings I have come across. It is also one of only three that I rate higher than the work that inspired it. I’m not exactly a fan of A Christmas Carol but that made Bennett’s job all the more challenging. It is a testament to his skill I enjoyed Jacob T. Marley as much as I did.

In an interesting twist Bennett’s story exposes the extent of Jacob’s influence on Ebenezer. As a young man, Scrooge stands on the edge of a great precipice. He understands greed but it is not until he forms a partnership with Marley that Ebenezer crosses over and begins to transform into the greedy miser we all know so well. Only in death is Marley able to recognize his role in the molding of Scrooge’s character, whereupon he swears he will do all in his power to save his former associate from damnation.

Bennett not only respects and follows the familiar plot of the original; he also imitates the language of the holiday favorite. The extra effort goes a long way in recreating the feel of A Christmas Carol and helps the two stories blend seamlessly together.

A heartfelt recreation of the spirited favorite. Recommended to fans of This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel and The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor.

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Marley was, of course, perturbed at this younger version of himself. And of the fact that Scrooge was exactly that younger version, Marley was admiring as well, the way an opponent who had just been checkmated might feel about the one who possessed the skill to do it to him.
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Last Letters of Thomas More by Thomas More, Introduction by Alvaro De Silva

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: Oct. 16, 2011 

Written from the Tower of London, these letters of Thomas More still speak powerfully today. The story of Thomas More, recently told in Peter Ackroyd's bestselling biography, is well known. In the spring of 1534, Thomas More was taken to the Tower of London, and after fourteen months in prison, the brilliant author of Utopia, friend of Erasmus and the humanities, and former Lord Chancellor of England was beheaded on Tower Hill. Yet More wrote some of his best works as a prisoner, including a set of historically and religiously important letters. The Last Letters of Thomas More is a superb new edition of More's prison correspondence, introduced and fully annotated for contemporary readers by Alvaro de Silva. Based on the critical edition of More's correspondence, this volume begins with letters penned by More to Cromwell and Henry VIII in February 1534 and ends with More's last words to his daughter, Margaret Roper, on the eve of his execution. More writes on a host of topics—prayer and penance, the right use of riches and power, the joys of heaven, psychological depression and suicidal temptations, the moral compromises of those who imprisoned him, and much more. This volume not only records the clarity of More's conscience and his readiness to die for the integrity of his religious faith, but it also throws light on the literary works that More wrote during the same period and on the religious and political conditions of Tudor England.

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As the title suggests, the book is the collected correspondence of Thomas More in the years prior to his execution. Poignant and thought provoking, I found the letters themselves fascinating even if they were challenging to read. Be warned, don't attempt this one if you struggle with Old English. In truth, Last Letters gave me more trouble than Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Without the introduction this would be a four star book but I took issue with Silva's commentary. I felt it was ridiculously lengthy and long winded but also found it detrimental to my enjoyment of the missives. His analytical dissection and exposition undermined the emotion and power of More's words. On top of that it was flat out boring to read. If I wanted a dissertation, I would have attended a lecture dude. Bad form friend, bad form.

Those who follow my reviews are aware I usually close by recommending additional titles but Last Letters isn't that kind of book. The nature of the it is such that I can't recommend it to anyone but die hard scholars of the humanist/statesman.

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I neither look for, nor long for, but am well content to go, if God call me hence forth tomorrow.
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Rose's Pledge by Sally Laity & Dianna Crawford

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 20, 2011 

Step back into the early days of America, where Rose Harwood and her sisters become indentured to the highest bidders. When Rose’s new owner takes her deep into Indian Territory, a young frontiersman named Nate Kinyon tags along, hoping to save Rose from the machinations of a grubby trader and the appraising looks of young braves. How much is he willing to pay—in dollars and sense—to redeem the woman he loves? And how much is Rose willing to sacrifice for his protection?

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Rose's Pledge begins in Bath but quickly takes us across the sea and deep into the wilderness and the center of a political firestorm about to erupt into what we know as the French and Indian War. Bonded in service, Rose Harwood has little choice in traversing miles into the unknown and soon finds herself living among the natives in a world she never imagined. Over the course of the novel we witness both the evolution of her faith and initial outbreak of conflict in the Ohio River Valley.

First off, I have to say I jumped at the chance to review this book because a) I love history and b) Sally Laity and Dianna Crawford are the ladies who turned me on to inspired fiction. Many authors in this genre focus on their message but these two ladies have mastered the art of weaving a remarkable amount of history into their novels in addition to their spiritual message. There are strong religious themes in their work but I find the context of their stories on par with some of my favorite secular writers. Needless to say I was excited to find the two had reunited and were collaborating once again.

That being said, the words 'indentured servant' set off warning bells. There are a lot of directions to take the concept but all the same, Laity and Crawford tackled the subject pretty extensively in The Gathering Dawn. The bells grew significantly louder in a scene where Rose stood on the deck of the Seaford Lady as it arrived in port. The brief conversation she shared with Seaman Polk is more than a little reminiscent of the exchange between Susannah Harrington and Seaman Yancy Curtis on the deck of another ship upon their arrival in the colonies in the opening scene of the aforementioned novel. Much to my relief the story took a new direction and bells soon ceased. Unfortunately, the respite was short lived. Not only does Nate Kinyon have the same solution to Rose's situation as Daniel Haynes did for Susannah but he is as inarticulate as his counterpart when it comes to propositioning the lady in question. At this point it really didn't surprise me that the ladies themselves reacted in an identical manner and brushed off their suitors with the same level of indignation.

As a fan I found this recycling sharply disappointing but it begged the question as to whether or not I should downgrade my rating. Having just completed Long Trail Home, a book where recycled material played a key role in determining my overall opinion, I wondered if it was hypocritical to let this one slide. Ultimately I decided that as a reviewer I needed to mention the similarities but it would not factor in my rating of the novel. Before you start rolling your eyes be assured I struggled with this one. The simple explanation is that Long Trail Home paralleled other books in the Texas Trail series where Rose's Pledge resembles a completely different collection that was published nearly two decades ago. Additionally, Rose's Pledge covers a significantly wider historic scope, the details of which provide more than adequate compensation for us older readers.

On the subject of content I want to mention the sub-story of Hannah Wright. She appears in a single chapter but I found her scenes to some of the most powerful of the entire novel. I  wont lie, the imagery wont appeal to everyone, especially readers whose imaginations are as vivid as my own. Ever a fan of realistic depictions in literature, the graphic quality of these scenes appeals to my historian nature. White settlers and traders who pushed west of the established colonies traversed an invisible line, essentially their movements placed them in the middle of a war zone. Tragically , many of these individuals were caught in the crossfire as England, France and assorted Indian nations vied for control of the territory. Hannah represents these individuals and the description of her experience was appropriately intense.

All things considered, I enjoyed Rose's Pledge and while I look forward to the next installment of the Harwood House series, it is not without trepidation. Mariah's character draws comparison to Jane, the flighty marriage obsessed sister of Daniel Haynes and I don't know if I'll be as inclined to dismiss the rehashing a second time. Recommended to fans of The Midwife of Blue Ridge and the Freedom's Holy Light series.

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If Rose wanted him to be one of those Christians who shunned anyone who came from another country or had darker skin, she was barking up the wrong tree. As far as he was concerned his God didn't mind folks having a little fun now and then either.
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This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Oct. 16, 2011 

Victor and Konrad are the twin brothers Frankenstein. They are nearly inseparable. Growing up, their lives are filled with imaginary adventures...until the day their adventures turn all too real. They stumble upon The Dark Library, and secret books of alchemy and ancient remedies are discovered. Father forbids that they ever enter the room again, but this only piques Victor's curiosity more. When Konrad falls gravely ill, Victor is not satisfied with the various doctors his parents have called in to help. He is drawn back to The Dark Library where he uncovers an ancient formula for the Elixir of Life. With their friend Elizabeth, Henry and Victor immediately set out to find assistance from a man who was once known for his alchemical works to help create the formula. Determination and the unthinkable outcome of losing his brother spur Victor on in the quest for the three ingredients that will save Konrad's life. After scaling the highest trees in the Strumwald, diving into the deepest lake caves, and sacrificing one’s own body part, the three fearless friends risk their lives to save another.

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Before I begin I think I should confess something. I have never attempted to read Frankenstein. I've never even watched the films. Despite my abiding love of classic movie monsters I have never been remotely interested in the Modern Prometheus. As such this review is nearly free of comparison. It is impossible not to know bits and pieces of the story but for sake of argument, lets consider me a Shelley virgin.

Dr. Frankenstein is sort of a psychopath when you think about it. I mean, it takes a certain level of insanity to dig up, assemble and reanimate the dead. Disturbing though is sounds, I love the idea of exploring where this obsession comes from. The inclusion of mysteries chateau, a dark library and secret experimentation in the field of alchemy didn't hurt either. I understand from other reviews that Oppel took certain liberties with regards to the original but as I have no no particular regard for Shelley's work, I found the story enjoyable.

I have to assume there are references my limited knowledge base failed to recognize but I am familiar with Polidori. For those who don't know, John William Polidori was a contemporary of Shelley and author of The Vampyre. Considered the father of the romantic vampire genre his work predated Bram Stoker's masterpiece by nearly eighty years. Obviously outshone by his successor, Polidori doesn't enjoy the same notoriety and I appreciated the nod Oppel afforded him in This Dark Endeavor.

I rarely watch book trailers or author interviews but I made an exception with this book and watched both while polishing my review. First of all, I love that the book trailer features the same building I decided would represent chateau Frankenstein during my reading. I try not to indulge my ego but a small part of me likes that I was on the same page as the creator and marketers of the novel.  On the other hand, I was disappointed by the author interview. I enjoyed what Oppel had to say about the development of his idea but the admission that ARCs were used to sell the rights to the producers of Twilight irked me. I'm of the opinion that authors should care more for their readers and personal integrity than their pocketbooks and find Oppel's actions both distressing and unattractive.

My opinion of the author's actions aside, This Dark Endeavor is gratifyingly gothic tale of mystery and intrigue. Recommended to fans of The Raven Bride by Lenore Hart and Dracula In Love by Karen Essex.

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I dreamed of fame and wealth. But looking upon Elizabeth's face at that moment, I suddenly knew there was something I wanted even more.
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