Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Blood Countess by Andrei Codrescu

Rating: NA
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 30, 2015

A Hungarian-American journalist confronts the beauty and terror of his aristocratic heritage in this suspenseful chronicle of murder and eroticism. Turmoil reigns in post-Soviet Hungary when journalist Drake Bathory-Kereshtur returns from America to grapple with his family history. He's haunted by the legacy of his ancestor, the notorious sixteenth-century Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who is said to have murdered more than 650 young virgins and bathed in their blood to preserve her youth. Interweaving past and present, The Blood Countess tells the stories of Elizabeth's debauched and murderous reign and Drake's fascination with the eternal clashes of faith and power, violence and beauty. Codrescu traces the captivating origins of the countess's obsessions in tandem with the emerging political fervor of the reporter, building the narratives into an unforgettable, bloody crescendo. Taut and intense, The Blood Countess is a riveting novel that deftly straddles the genres of historical fiction, thriller, horror, and family drama.

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Countess Elizabeth Bathory
No. Just, no.

I’m tempted to leave my thoughts on Andrei Codrescu’s The Blood Countess at that, but I think my fellow readers deserve an explanation. That said, I want to be very clear that I did not finish this book. I made it through 45% of the narrative and bailed. I did not bother skimming through to the end as there seemed no point in subjecting myself to material I found both salacious and repugnant. I’d award a single star to the portion I completed, but as I did not finish the book I’ve chosen to leave this review unrated.

I am familiar with Elizabeth Bathory, but my objections to the material within these pages have nothing to do with blood baths and dead virgins. I don’t know how the author utilized the material later on, but the obscene sexual nature of the chapters I did experience didn’t sit well with me. Drake’s climax in the iron maiden was uncomfortable, Elizabeth’s hands on approach to Johannes’ encounter with the gypsy disturbed me, and don’t get me started on the harlequin doll. I’ll give Codrescu the benefit of the doubt and assume the material was meant to elicit the response it did, but the depravity he depicted went too far and I lost any and all interest in the story he was trying to tell. 

Speaking of story, I felt the contemporary elements of the piece should have been scrapped altogether. I didn’t care a whit for Drake or his experience. These sections were tediously slow and dominated by exposition better suited to nonfiction. I will note the religious elements of Elizabeth’s story arc were interesting, but Codrescu’s narrative is so drawn out that the ideas felt fractured and incoherent. 

The description claims the novel unforgettable and for once I honestly agree with the sales pitch. The Blood Countess is unforgettable, but for all the wrong reasons. Not for me and not something I could possibly recommend.


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Elizabeth Bathory was a powerful woman in a time of powerful women. She was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth. Educated in the highest traditions of the late Renaissance, she was the absolute ruler of her domains, which were situated at the center of Christian Europe. If it was true that she tortured and killed, bathed in blood, and ate the flesh of young girls, these charges had to be carefully considered by those who would judge her.
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Avelynn by Marissa Campbell

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 29, 2015

One extraordinary Saxon noblewoman and one fearless Viking warrior find passion and danger in this dazzling and sensuous debut. Marissa Campbell's debut novel is a winning combination of romance, history, and adventure sure to appeal to fans of Diana Gabaldon. It is 869. For eighteen years, Avelynn, the beautiful and secretly pagan daughter of the Eadlorman of Somerset has lived in an environment of love and acceptance. She hasn't yet found a man to make her heart race, but her father has not pressured her to get married. Until now. With whispers of war threatening their land, her father forces Avelynn into a betrothal with Demas, a man who only covets her wealth and status. The dreaded marriage looming, she turns to her faith, searching for answers in an ancient ritual along the coast, only to find Alrik the Blood-Axe and sixty Viking berserkers have landed. Alrik is unlike any man she has ever known, strong and intriguing. Likewise, he instantly falls for her beauty and courage. The two stumble into a passionate love affair, but it's more than just a greedy suitor who will try to keep them apart. As the Saxons and Vikings go to war, Avelynn and Alrik find themselves caught in the throes of fate. Can they be true to their people as well as to each other?

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As of July 29th, Marissa Campbell Avelynn has logged thirteen ratings on Goodreads. Of those thirteen, twelve are five star reviews. The thirteenth is my own and I honestly find that fact rather amusing. I’m not in the business of following the crowd and I’m not afraid to stand alone. I call it like I see it and while I enjoyed the book well enough, I can’t say it blew me away. 

To be fair, Avelynn started strong. The historic and cultural details Campbell incorporated in the early chapters of the narrative put me in mind of Patricia Bracewell’s Shadow on the Crown and that is no small feat. Unfortunately for me, Campbell’s focus shifted as the story progressed. The romantic storyline overshadowed period detail and pagan mythology eclipsed authentic social norms. The latter chapters felt more like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and much as I like Arthurian legend, the shift in Campbell’s tone didn’t work for me. 

To make matter worse, I didn’t feel either element particularly convincing. Avelyenn and Alrik share moments punctuated by taunt nipples and tented trousers, but I didn’t understand the chemistry that was meant to exist between them. To add insult to injury, the circumstances of their coupling can only be described as a medieval booty call and call me crazy, but I don’t find that sort of situational drama appealing in any capacity. As to Avelynn’s faith, Campbell’s depiction of the paganism struck me as superficial. Religion is not a theme of the narrative and the author does not explore the doctrine in any way, shape or form. It’s there, but it serves as a plot device rather than a motif. 

In the realm of supporting characters, I found Demas’ personality and story arc predictable, a fact that crippled much of the story’s climactic final scenes. I genuinely enjoyed Muirgen, but her role is marginal at best and the reader doesn’t get a lot of face time with her. I think Alrik and Edward had a lot of potential, but I don’t feel the author took full advantage of it. Both drive Avelynn in different ways, but neither felt rounded in their own right. 

At the end of the day, I found Avelynn a diverting and at times amusing read. The author obviously put a lot into researching the piece and though I’d have preferred a less fluffy plot, I admit to enjoying both the heroine and the time I spent with engaged in her story. 

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This was supposed to be my legacy, these people my responsibility. I wouldn’t give it up so easily. I turned back to Bertram. This was the chance I’d been waiting for, the opportunity to finally prove myself as a competent leader—a leader who didn’t need a husband to make decisions for her.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Stalin's Gold by Mark Ellis

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author/Publicist
Read: July 18, 2015

December 1938. Moscow. Josef Stalin has lost some gold. He is not a happy man. He asks his henchman Beria to track it down. September 1940. London. Above the city the Battle of Britain rages and the bombs rain down. On the streets below, DCI Frank Merlin and his officers investigate the sudden disappearance of Polish RAF pilot Ziggy Kilinski while also battling an epidemic of looting unleashed by the chaos and destruction of the Blitz. Kilinski’s fellow pilots, a disgraced Cambridge don, Stalin’s spies in London, members of the Polish government in exile and a ruthless Russian gangster are amongst those caught up in Merlin’s enquiries. Sweeping from Stalin’s Russia to Civil War Spain, from Aztec Mexico to pre-war Poland, and from Hitler’s Berlin to Churchill’s London a compelling story of treasure, grand larceny, treachery, torture and murder unfolds. Eventually as Hitler reluctantly accepts that the defiance of the RAF has destroyed his chances of invasion for the moment, a violent shoot-out in Hampstead leads Merlin to the final truth...and Stalin to his gold.

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I picked up Mark Ellis’ Stalin’s Gold the day I finished Princes Gate. I don’t think it necessary to tackle the two back to back, but I had the novel on hand and didn’t have reason to delay. 

One of the things I liked about this installment is that begins with Frank Merlin’s personal life. It moves on to the mystery fairly quickly, but I think the insight these scenes afforded created interesting context within the narrative. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I liked seeing the detective off duty and getting to know him in a more casual setting. 

Like its predecessor, the tone and humor of the piece are very English. The book also presents a detailed portrait of the political situation in Britain, Russia and Poland. I felt the mystery elaborate, but well-crafted and ultimately quite satisfying. I also liked how Ellis factored the Blitz into the action and used it to complicate the investigation process. 

In a lot of ways, I think I appreciated Stalin’s Gold more than the founding installment of the Frank Merlin series. The storytelling felt tighter and the action more engaging. The ending was a little drawn out for my tastes, but I was quite pleased with the time I spent on the book. 

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He couldn’t stop thinking about it. Gold worth over $6 million. He knew in his bones that his people had got the count right. Perhaps more than $7 million. That gold no longer existed on paper. Would its loss be noticed?
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Monday, July 27, 2015

Princes Gate by Mark Ellis

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author/Publicist
Read: July 15, 2015

Princes Gate is the first in a new series of crime thrillers that involve DCI Frank Merlin. These atmospheric books are set in wartime London mixing historical and fictional characters and featuring a charismatic and intriguing half-Spanish detective. When a brilliant emigre scientist is killed by a hit and run driver and a young woman's body is washed up in the Thames, Merlin and his team must investigate. The woman is an employee of the American Embassy, whose Ambassador at this time is Joseph Kennedy. DCI Merlin's investigation of diplomats at the Embassy ruffles feathers at the Foreign Office - the American Ambassador is a well-known supporter of appeasement and many powerful and influential Britons favour the pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement with Hitler. The death of another Embassy employee leads Merlin into some of the seedier quarters of wartime London where a corrupt night-club owner, various high-flying diplomats and the Ambassador himself appear to be linked to the events surrounding the deaths. Merlin has to pursue his detective work under the interfering supervision of an Assistant Metropolitan Commissioner who is fearful about the impact of Merlin's investigations on Anglo-American relations at a time when America represents to many Britain's only hope of salvation. Capturing the atmosphere of Britain in 1940 during the 'phoney war' when, although war rages on the Continent, life continues relatively peacefully in Britain, Princes Gate is an enthralling detective novel.

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Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
It didn’t take much to rouse my interest in Mark Ellis’ Princes Gate. A mystery set in wartime London involving Joseph Kennedy, the Foreign Office and potential peace settlements with Hitler sounded absolutely fascinating and I couldn’t wait to get started. Looking back, I can’t say that enthusiasm misplaced as the book has a lot of wonderful things going for it, but I’m not sure it’s quite the enthralling thriller its jacket styles it to be.

Though noticeably similar to Michael Kitchen’s Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, I found Ellis’ Frank Merlin an interesting protagonist. His mixed heritage and world views made a refreshing change of pace and I liked the balance Ellis struck between his professional responsibilities and personal history. 

Ellis provides a well-researched portrait of politics during the Phoney War and I liked how he used the American Ambassador’s reputation to his advantage in the context of the story. The tone and style of the narrative is very English and while the pacing left much to be desired, I found the mystery itself quite satisfying.

Ideally I have liked more dramatic tension, more movement and a stronger supporting cast, but I’m not disappointed with the time I spent on this piece and would easily recommend it to fans of period mysteries.  

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He didn’t give a damn for the defeatist Kennedy, or indeed for that stuffed-shirt Chamberlain, whom Hitler had comprehensively hoodwinked. Nothing should stand in the way of a murder investigation, however lowly the victim. No doubt Joan’s fate would seem unimportant in the greater scheme of things whenever the Luftwaffe got round to bombing London, but that was nothing to him. It was his job to seek out the truth behind her death, regardless.
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Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Flying Affair by Carla Stewart

Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: July 7, 2015

Daredevil Mittie Humphreys developed her taste for adventure on horseback, on her family's prosperous Kentucky horse farm. But her love of horses is surpassed by her passion for the thrill of the skies, especially since the dashing pilot, Ames, first took her up in his plane. When handsome British aviator Bobby York offers her flying lessons, he is equally surprised—and beguiled—by Mittie's grit, determination, and talent. Soon, Mittie is competing in cross-country air races, barnstorming, and wing-walking. But when Calista "Peach" Gilson, a charming Southern belle, becomes her rival in both aviation and in love, Mittie must learn to navigate her heart as well as the skies.

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My Netgalley account is flooded with unread titles which annoys me to no end. In an attempt to address the situation, I challenged myself to buckle down and tackle the backlog one story at a time. In light of that goal, I fired up my kindle, picked a book at random, and began reading. Unfortunately the first book I picked was Carla Stewart’s A Flying Affair and the experience was less than satisfactory. 

A companion piece to The Hatmaker’s Heart, I found the novel suffered many of the structural issues I noted in its predecessor. The narrative was dull and Stewart’s heroine was something of a Mary Sue. There is little to no atmospheric detail in the narrative, the plot was predictable and the characters mundane. The author’s interest in fashion is once again evident, but it made less sense this time around as Mittie is not part of the fashion industry.  

I took further issue with how little of the novel was dedicated to aviation. Mittie’s emersion in the field took ages to get off the ground, but it also competed with her and passion for horses. There was simply too much going on in Mittie’s world and I felt Stewart’s inability to pare down created a disjointed and incohesive patchwork of plot. To make matters worse, the author’s illustration of the aviation as a profession lacked authenticity. I hadn’t liked the characters in The Beauty Chorus, but Brown’s descriptions of the cockpit, the mechanics of and mental focus required to fly left Stewart in the dust. 

Long story short, A Flying Affair was a total and complete bust. On reflection, I probably shouldn’t have attempted it, but I now know for certain that Stewart and I are not a good fit and will make a point of avoiding her work in the future. 

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“Serendipity that day was meeting you and falling in love with flying all in one afternoon.”
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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 12, 2015

Set in a small town in Massachusetts, Next to Love follows three childhood friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, whose lives are unmoored when their men are called to duty. And yet the changes that are thrust upon them move them in directions they never dreamed possible—while their husbands and boyfriends are enduring their own transformations. In the decades that follow, the three friends lose their innocence, struggle to raise their children, and find meaning and love in unexpected places. And as they change, so does America—from a country in which people know their place in the social hierarchy to a world in which feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and technological innovations present new possibilities—and uncertainties. And yet Babe, Millie, and Grace remain bonded by their past, even as their children grow up and away and a new society rises from the ashes of the war. Beautifully crafted and unforgettable, Next to Love depicts the enduring power of love and friendship, and illuminates a transformational moment in American history.

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Into the Jaws of Death - U.S. Troops wading
through water and Nazi gunfire
Ellen Feldman's Next to Love was a recommended read. Heather, the voice behind The Maiden's Court, suggested it at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver and I tracked down a copy soon after returning home. I wasn't at all familiar with it, but her rending of the plot had me sold sight unseen. 

She mentioned the trials of life on the home front, but was very clear that the story focused on post-war America as well. She mentioned that one of the heroines struggled to understand her husband’s PTSD and that another was defined by her husband’s death. She went on, but my mind was already racing. I flashed on that scene in A League of Their Own, the one in the locker room where the Peaches apprehensively watch Jimmy Dugan walk the telegram down the line. The audience breathes a sigh of relief for Dottie Hinson, but what happened to Betty Horn? How did she weather the years without George? It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but I couldn't argue the potential in the story of a war widow.  

At this point you’re probably wondering if the book lived up to Heather’s praise and/or my imaginings and I’m happy to report, it did. I think Babe, Millie and Grace make very interesting protagonists and I liked watching their lives and personalities change with each passing year. I also liked style and tone of Feldman’s writing and found it very easy to slip into the world she created within these pages. 

My only complaint is the structure of post-war chapters. I didn’t like the sudden shifts to narrators in the supporting cast. Sporadic intervals with Naomi, Claude, King, Jack, Al, Mac and Amy felt awkward in the context of the story and made it difficult to remain focused on the central trio. The erratic timeline caused further confusion and often forced me to stop and rearrange events in my head to make sense of the order in which they took place. I liked how Feldman used multiple perspectives to explore various themes, but I can'd help feeling her execution imprudent and that the latter chapters of the novel suffered as a result.

Obviously I'd have liked a stronger ending, but I can’t say I felt the time I spent with Next to Love wasted. The presentation was disappointing, but I greatly enjoyed the plot and look forward to reading Feldman again somewhere down the road. 

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“The official line is that, after the war, women couldn't wait to leave the offices and assembly lines and government agencies. But the real story was that the economy couldn't have men coming home without women going home, not unless it wanted a lot of unemployed vets. So the problem became unemployed women. "How you gonna keep us down on the farm after we've seen the world,"' she ad-libs to the old World War I tune. 'Enter the women's magazines, and cookbook publishers, and all these advertising agencies carrying on about the scourge of germs in the toilet bowl, and scuffs on the kitchen floor, and, my favorite, house B.O. Enter chicken hash that takes two and a half hours to prepare. I can just hear them sitting around the conference tables. 'That'll keep the gals out of trouble.”
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Monday, July 13, 2015

The Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 20, 2015

A young woman comes to Hollywood to escape her past. She finds work in a vintage clothing store that sells clothes used in the movies. One day she discovers a way to transfer human character through these vintage clothes, and she uses this ability to transform from a lonely, insecure young woman to a glamorous heartbreaker. But she also discovers that with the good comes the bad as character flaws are transferred too. She begins to worry: what if one of the vintage clothes she has sold to some unsuspecting customer had been previously worn by a deeply troubled soul? One day her fears become crystallized—intrigued by a man who comes asking about a beautiful scarlet dress she has recently sold, she looks into its history and discovers a secret that terrifies her. So begins a quest to find the scarlet dress complicated by a budding romance and the threads of her past, which intervene like trip wires. Emotions run high, and in the background the quickening drumbeat of the race to find the scarlet dress, potent as a loose, loaded weapon.

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Studio publicity portrait for film Niagara (1953).
The premise of Praveen Asthana’s The Woman in the Movie Star Dress looked vaguely interesting when I skimmed the description, but my main interest in the book was that it wasn’t historic fiction. I’d just come off a heavy hitting period piece and I was looking for a break. I mean no offense, but I didn’t expect much of this piece and was entirely unprepared when it captured my imagination hook, line, and sinker. 

I’m a voracious reader, but when I don’t have my nose in a book, I greatly enjoy movies which probably explains my enthusiasm for the myriad of motion picture references in The Woman in the Movie Star Dress. The title garment is the striking red number worn by Marilyn Monroe in Niagara, but the story also refers films such as When Harry Met Sally, Roman Holiday, Before Sunset, Witness for the Prosecution, Alien, Silence of the Lambs, Double Indemnity, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Casablanca. There are others, but what I’m getting at is how Asthana’s allusions draw readers into the narrative by playing on the emotional connections we make to films and those who star in them. It’s an interesting tactic, but it works beautifully beginning to end. 

Another thing I loved about this book is how deliciously atmospheric it felt. I reveled in the authenticity of scenes at Griffith Park, onboard the Queen Mary and inside the chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano. I grinned over the author’s illustration of the street performers that occupy the cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre and sympathized with Genevieve’s frustration with traffic on the five. It isn’t often that one sees their corner of the world through the eyes of a storyteller, but I can’t help feeling Asthana interpretation genuine. 

As to Genevieve, well, Asthana’s leading lady took some getting used to, but she grew on me as the story progressed and I felt quite connected to her when all was said and done. She’s an emotionally complex character and I liked that a lot. The same can be said of much of the cast now that I stop and think about it. Renzo and Todd are just as distinct and not just from one another. They’ve a unique quality about them, something real and relatable. 

Conceptually intriguing and dramatically dark, The Woman in the Movie Star Dressed proved an absolute pleasure. Brilliantly imaged and thoroughly addicting. 

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But what she was recalling was not the stars, but the characters they had played: Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Ava Gardner in The Killers. What they all had in common was that they were femme fatales—seductive, manipulative, destroyers of hapless men. She needed to be that.
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Friday, July 10, 2015

The Hatmaker's Heart by Carla Stewart

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 18, 2015

For Nell Marchwold, bliss is seeing the transformation when someone gets a glimpse in the mirror while wearing one of her creations and feels beautiful. Nell has always strived to create hats that bring out a woman's best qualities. She knows she's fortunate to have landed a job as an apprentice designer at the prominent Oscar Fields Millinery in New York City. Yet when Nell's fresh designs begin to catch on, her boss holds her back from the limelight, claiming the stutter she's had since childhood reflects poorly on her and his salon. But it seems Nell's gift won't be hidden by Oscar's efforts. Soon an up-and-coming fashion designer is seeking her out as a partner of his 1922 collection. The publicity leads to an opportunity for Nell to make hats in London for a royal wedding. There, she sees her childhood friend, Quentin, and an unexpected spark kindles between them. But thanks to her success, Oscar is determined to keep her. As her heart tugs in two directions, Nell must decide what she is willing to sacrifice for her dream, and what her dream truly is.

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My interest in Carla Stewart’s The Hatmaker’s Heart began, as so many of my selections do, with the cover. I like the detail and think the direction of the lighting quite interesting. The contrast it creates over the figure and her worktable caused me to pause, and ultimately request a copy of the title for review. Unfortunately, Stewart’s content failed to do the same and looking back, I can’t help thinking the time I spent with the piece wasted.

Forgive my blunt assessment, but I found Stewart’s treatment of the material mundane and lifeless. Nell Marchwold didn’t interest me in the least and I had great difficulty rousing sympathy for her predicament. She is a naïve Mary Sue who I felt lacking in both depth and intrigue. I caught myself yawning at her expense on more than one occasion and grew increasingly annoyed with her as the story progressed. 

The author’s interest in period fashion is evident and appropriate considering the scope of the narrative, but I can’t help wishing she’d put the same effort into recreating the atmosphere of New York in the nineteen twenties. I could well envision the hemlines and shape of this or that ensemble, but such detail and texture were absence in Stewart’s portrayal of the city itself and I had difficulty envisioning the world as Nell saw it. 

Stubborn to a fault, I finished the novel not for pleasure so much as pride. Ridiculous as it sounds, I refused to be defeated by these three hundred and some odd pages of text. Many readers seem to have enjoyed Stewart’s brand of storytelling, but I am forced to admit it held little satisfaction for me.

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Nell held her breath. Yes, she’d wished for that, too, but an old nursery rhyme ran singsong through her head. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva by Eliza Redgold

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: May 14, 2015

We all know the legend of Lady Godiva, who famously rode naked through the streets of Coventry, covered only by her long, flowing hair. So the story goes, she begged her husband Lord Leofric of Mercia to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if forced to pay. Lord Leofric demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town. There are various endings to Godiva's ride, that all the people of Coventry closed their doors and refused to look upon their liege lady (except for 'peeping Tom') and that her husband, in remorse, lifted the tax. Naked is an original version of Godiva's tale with a twist that may be closer to the truth: by the end of his life Leofric had fallen deeply in love with Lady Godiva. A tale of legendary courage and extraordinary passion, Naked brings an epic story new voice.

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I often refer to myself as a cover slut and Eliza Redgold’s Naked is yet another brilliant example of that comic personal quirk. Truth is I’ve little interest in the legend of Lady Godiva as there is virtually no historic evidence indicating her erotic exhibitionism actually took place, but I do enjoy art and John Collier’s striking oil was hard to ignore. I requested the book without much thought and only realized my general indifference as I downloaded an advanced reader’s edition to my kindle. 

Silly me right? Such is life, but a book is a book and I enjoy a challenge so it should come as no surprise that I poured myself a steaming mug of caribou coffee, opened my notepad and went to work. Three hundred and some odd pages later, well, I can’t say my opinion has changed, but I didn’t really expect it would so I suppose that a moot point. 

Atmospherically Redgold did not capture the period to my satisfaction. My introduction to historic fiction began with eleventh century England and all things considered, I’ve a fairly high standard of expectation. Fair or not, Redgold’s interpretation felt basic in comparison and I struggled to see Coventry through her heroine’s eyes. 

The romantic elements of the story were stronger than I expected, but had I done my homework I’d have noted Redgold has a couple of romance titles to her name. I don’t hold it against her, she handled the more intimate moments of the story rather well, but they did catch me off guard and I can’t help wishing there’d been some hint of them in jacket description. 

I felt Redgold’s interpretation of Godiva straightforward and lacking in depth, but her understanding and illustration of the political stage impressed me. Redgold’s presentation of the ruling class and their affairs was clear enough for those unfamiliar with the material to grasp, but not so rudimentary as to bore readers who might already possess a comprehensive understanding of Godiva’s situation. 

Redgold’s narrative style felt awkward and dialogue heavy, but the plot was certainly more coherent than that showcased in Galland’s Godiva. Unfortunately neither packed much of a dramatic punch and while each proved a pleasant enough diversion, neither fully captivated my imagination. 

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Shame. I licked it on my lips, tasted its vinegar on my tongue. Only moments before I’d told Aine I would feel no shame bringing justice. Now my head drooped like a harebell on a stem.
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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Rip in the Veil by Anna Belfrage

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Author
Read: March 15, 2015

On a muggy August day in 2002 Alexandra Lind is inexplicably thrown several centuries backwards in time to 1658. Life will never be the same for Alex. Alex lands at the feet of Matthew Graham – an escaped convict making his way home to Scotland. She gawks at this tall gaunt man with hazel eyes, dressed in what looks like rags. At first she thinks he might be some sort of hermit, an oddball, but she quickly realises that she is the odd one out, not him. Catapulted from a life of modern comfort, Alex grapples with her frightening new existence. Potential compensation for this brutal shift in fate comes in the shape of Matthew – a man she should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him. But Matthew comes with baggage of his own, and at times it seems his past will see them killed. How will she ever get back? And more importantly, does she want to?

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I owe my introduction to The Graham Saga to Amy Bruno at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. Anna Belfrage was not a name I’d known before receiving an invitation to review the author’s sophomore release and while I remember thinking Like Chaff in the Wind looked vaguely interesting, I also remember wrestling down a significant amount of skepticism. I never expected to fall in love with the world Belfrage created, to connect with her characters or become thoroughly captivated by their experiences, but that is exactly what happened. 

To make a long story short, I loved the book and inhaled installments three through seven as soon as they were published. That said, it wasn’t until early 2015 that I decided to backtrack. Book one had taunted me for two years and I didn’t feel right tackling the series finale without knowing where Alex and Matthew’s journey began. My timing couldn’t have been better as the action in To Catch a Falling Star is closely related to plot points introduced in A Rip in the Veil. Linked as they are, I couldn’t help feeling the two served as beautiful bookends to the series and while I feel book one the most challenging in terms of content, my understanding of the how the novels progress allowed me to appreciate the intent and purpose of the novel in a way that is probably much different from those who approached the books chronologically. 

First and foremost, I want to note A Rip in the Veil is historically lighter than the rest of the series. Don’t misunderstand, there is plenty of period detail in these thirty-seven chapters, but Belfrage’s focus is in developing the relationship between hero and heroine. On a macro level this makes perfect sense as their partnership is the cornerstone of the series and requires solid development. The same can be said of the attention Belfrage pays time nodes, their nature and function, but I can see where fans of historic fiction may feel those elements received too much emphasis when considering the novel as a standalone. To this, all I can say is push forward before passing judgement. Trust me on this, it makes a lot of sense of the stories progress. 

The book is character heavy and frequently shifts between a number of narrators. Some may find this a little overwhelming, but I personally loved the movement and perspective Belfrage’s alternating POV afforded. I appreciated the insecurities the author established in both Alex and Matthew and how she wasn’t afraid to showcase lovers with flaws, quirks and personal demons. I also appreciated the care Belfrage took in crafting her antagonist and while I can’t say I’ve much affection for Hector Olivares, I can admit him exceedingly well-developed. He is an adversary with layers of rage and a personal vendetta as deep and complex as the centuries it spans. 

In sum, I loved the book as much as I did its successors. I could kick myself for waiting so long to read it, but that’s neither here nor there. A permanent part of my library, I can’t recommend the book or series highly enough. Thoroughly enjoyable, fun and imaginative. 

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“Like man before the fall from grace,” he said, his hot breath tickling her. “And this is our Eden spread before us.” He turned her to face him. “This is your life now, here, with me. It’s time, Alex, to let the old life go.”
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Monday, July 6, 2015

Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 6, 2015

When the British Empire sets its sights on India in the 1850s, it expects a quick and easy conquest. After all, India is not even a country, but a collection of kingdoms on the subcontinent. But when the British arrive in the Kingdom of Jhansi, expecting its queen to forfeit her crown, they are met with a surprise. Instead of surrendering, Queen Lakshmi raises two armies—one male, one female—and rides into battle like Joan of Arc. Although her soldiers are little match against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi fights against an empire determined to take away the land she loves. Told from the perspective of Sita, one of the guards in Lakshmi's all-female army and the queen’s most trusted warrior, The Last Queen of India traces the astonishing tale of a fearless ruler making her way in a world dominated by men. In the tradition of her bestselling novel Nefertiti, which Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, called “a heroic story with a very human heart,” Michelle Moran once again brings a time and place rarely explored in historical fiction to rich, vibrant life. 

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Rani of Jhansi
I knew nothing about Queen Lakshmi or the Indian Rebellion of 1857 when I picked up Michelle Moran’s Rebel Queen. My eye was drawn to the unusual locale and an eagerness to experience a story that was both foreign and entirely unfamiliar. I’d enjoyed Moran’s work in the past and was optimistic of my prospects, but looking back I can’t help feeling the reality fell short of my expectations.

In theory, Sita was a well-positioned narrator, but I don’t feel Moran’s treatment of the character lived up to the jacket description. Sita spends relatively little one-on-one time with Queen Lakshmi and much like Varvara in Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace, is wholly removed from the queen during the most exciting and important events of the narrative. The emotional and at times physical distance between Moran’s heroine and her headliner is substantial and I felt that fact limited the author’s ability to convincingly develop the queen’s complexities and personal views. 

I was further frustrated by the pacing and tone of the narrative. I truly appreciated the cultural insight Moran offered throughout the text, but I spent most of my reading waiting for something to happen. Eighty percent of the novel focuses on some form of sisterhood and that’s great, but I personally found the quiet intimacy of those relationships tedious and dull. I crave movement, action, political tension and urgency, but such moments didn’t arrive till the eleventh hour and felt exceeding awkward tacked on in final moments of Sita’s story.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot from Rebel Queen, but I can’t help wondering if my personal tastes would be better satisfied by the work of John Masters or Christopher Nicole. I don’t regret the time I spent with this book, but I don’t think it Moran’s strongest release and would have reservations recommending it forward.

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“We've all done things we'd rather keep in the dark. It's only by shedding light on them that our demons can disappear.”
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Friday, July 3, 2015

Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific by R.V. Burgin

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: June 22, 2015

This is an eyewitness—and eye-opening—account of some of the most savage and brutal fighting in the war against Japan, told from the perspective of a young Texan who volunteered for the Marine Corps to escape a life as a traveling salesman. R. V. Burgin enlisted at the age of twenty and, with his sharp intelligence and earnest work ethic, climbed the ranks from a green private to a seasoned sergeant. Along the way, he shouldered a rifle as a member of a mortar squad. He saw friends die and enemies killed. He saw scenes he wanted to forget but never did—from enemy snipers who tied themselves to branches in the highest trees, to ambushes along narrow jungle trails, to the abandoned corpses of hara kiri victims, to the final howling banzai attacks as the Japanese embraced their inevitable defeat. An unforgettable narrative of a young Marine in combat, Islands of the Damned brings to life the hell that was the Pacific War.

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It sounds horrible, but I didn’t set out to read Islands of the Damned. Truth is it was one of those right time right place selections, the kind of thing that more or less falls into one’s lap. I’d just watched The Pacific for the umpteenth time and got it into my head to do a little background reading. With the Old Breed and Helmet for My Pillow were first on my list, but unfortunately neither was available at my local library. A quick search for other titles on similar topics turned up several pieces including Battleground Pacific and Red Blood, Black Sand, but it was Burgin’s name that jumped from the catalogue screen which is how the audio edition of his memoir ended up accompanying me home. 

A friend of mine was moving so I listened to much of the book the following weekend as I repeatedly traversed the stretch of freeway that bisects Camp Pendleton. Traffic was slow, stop-and-go most of the way, and I was thankful for the distraction Burgin’s work afforded. Alone in my SUV, I was able to focus on Sean Runnette’s narration, but I soon found myself at odds with the sedate tone of Burgin’s prose and frustrated by the lack of intensity presented his audience. The comparison isn’t fair, but the book didn’t pack the punch of Leckie or Sledge’s recollections and the end result made it much harder for this particular reader to remain engaged in the account. 

I don’t argue the value of the material and I like the sense of perspective Islands of the Damned offers alongside With the Old Breed, but as a standalone I felt the memoir challenging. It isn’t as comprehensive as other titles and relies heavily on singular interpretation. The author’s voice is mild and he has a tendency to repeat his favorite personal anecdotes. I felt his romance with Florence Risely heartwarming and I was stuck by his memories of Captain Andrew ‘Ack-Ack’ Haldane and First Lieutenant Edward ‘Hillbilly’ Jones, but I prefer those accounts that delve into the complex psychology of life on the front lines and that was not a topic Burgin felt the need to explore length.

I’m glad to have experienced Islands of the Damned, but I’m not ashamed to admit I struggled with it. I went in with an expectation it didn’t achieve and though I’d certainly recommend the title to those interested in WWII’s Pacific Theater, I can’t claim it my favorite Marine Corps memoir of the period.  

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What sticks with me now is not so much the pain and terror and sorrow of the war, though I remember that well enough. What really sticks with me is the honor I had of defending my country, and serving in the company of these men. They were good Marines, the finest, every one of them.
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Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of the Band of Brothers by Cole C. Kingseed

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: June 22, 2015

On the hellish battlefields of World War II Europe, Major Dick Winters led his Easy Company—the now-legendary Band of Brothers—from the confusion and chaos of the D-Day invasion to the final capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. But Winters’ story didn’t end there. It was only the beginning. He was a quiet, reluctant hero whose modesty and strength drew the admiration of not only his men, but millions worldwide. Now comes the story of Dick Winters in his last years as witnessed and experienced by his good friend, Cole C. Kingseed. Kingseed shares the formative experiences that made Winters such an effective leader. He addresses Winters’s experiences and leadership during the war, his intense, unbreakable devotion to his men, his search for peace both without and within after the war, and how fame forced him to make adjustments to an international audience of well-wishers and admirers, even as he attempted to leave a lasting legacy before joining his fallen comrades. Following Winters’ death on January 2, 2011, the outpouring of grief and adulation for one of this nation’s preeminent leaders of character, courage, and competence shows just how much of an impact Dick Winters left on the world. This is a story of leadership, fame, and friendship, and the journey of one man’s struggle to find the peace that he promised himself if he survived World War II.

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I asked for and received Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of the Band of Brothers by Cole C. Kingseed for Christmas 2014, but I didn’t find time to dive into it until recently. One of the downsides of being a reviewer is that you work on a schedule and don’t always have time for the pieces no one asks you to review. Finding a gap was difficult, but when I did Kingseed’s work was at the top of my list.

Jumping into the first few chapters, I admit my first impressions were optimistic. The book started strong and I liked how Kingseed allowed Winters to speak for himself. The famed commander’s personality shines through his dialogue and I felt his reflections on his experience both during and after the war heartfelt, shrewd, and intuitive. Unfortunately, my admiration of the title was soon tainted by the author’s blatant hero worship, tendency toward repetition and overtly superior tone. 

I don’t doubt the author’s sincerity, but as a reader I felt Kingseed’s sentimentality suffocating. It prevented him from impartiality and detracted from Winters’ views. Kingseed’s retirement ceremony and discussions with his daughter seemed superfluous and I often felt annoyed with how far the author wandered from the intimate one-on-one discussions he shared with Major. 

When push comes to shove, Conversations with Major Dick Winters is not study on leadership, fame or struggle. It is a chronicle of Kingseed’s friendship with Winters and while I’ve nothing against that, I can’t help feeling disappointed that the publication failed to deliver the insights advocated on its jacket description. There are moments, quotes that I very much appreciated, but I don’t think the book compares to pieces like Easy Company Soldier or Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends.

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“Wars do not make men great, but wars sometimes bring out the greatness in good men.”
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Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan Tomasz Gross

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Open Library Loan
Read: June 24, 2015

On a summer day in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Poland, half of the town of Jedwabne brutally murdered the other half: 1,600 men, women, and children-all but seven of the town's Jews. In this shocking and compelling study, historian Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts as well as physical evidence into a comprehensive reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but hidden to history. Revealing wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism, Gross's investigation sheds light on how Jedwabne's Jews came to be murdered-not by faceless Nazis, but by people who knew them well.

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Memorial in Jedwabne
Image by: Fczarnowski
My journey to Jan Tomasz Gross’ Neighbors started with a movie suggestion. Amazon recommended Pasikowski’s Aftermath and I was so captivated by the trailer that I dug into the backstory and discovered the fictional 2012 Holocaust-related thriller was loosely inspired by the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom. 

If you’re scratching your head, take comfort in knowing you aren’t alone as Jedwabne isn’t a particularly well-recognized event. I only discovered it while reading The Wherewithal, but I’d never studied the pogrom and wasn’t overly familiar with the details. Natural curiosity paired with fond memories of Schultz’s prose prompted a search for nonfictional resource material which is how I found myself with a copy of Gross’ work.

I’d high hopes going in. The book has several outstanding reviews, but after experiencing the text firsthand, I can’t help feeling many reviewers based their opinions on the emotions elicited by Gross’ chronical of the atrocity. I mean no offense and I don’t mean to downplay the importance of Gross’ content, but structurally this is one of the most poorly formatted case studies I’ve ever encountered. Gross’ presentation is illogical and difficult to follow. The author’s strong opinions are poorly concealed and his terminology often prompted me to wonder at how objectively he’d researched the material. 

I fully appreciate what Gross tried to convey within these pages, I respect the spirit in which it was written and I admit his work opened my eyes to what occurred in German-occupied Jedwabne on July 10, 1941, but the tone and format of the book make endorsing it something of a challenge.  

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Can a local community that has just been involved in the murder of its own neighbors generate such a response to a hostile takeover? How can anyone trust people who have murdered, or knowingly denounced to their murderers, other human beings? Furthermore, if we have acted as instruments of violence, in the name of what principles can we oppose the use of violence turned against us by somebody else?
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Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Memory Painter by Gwendolyn Womack

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: July 1, 2015

Two lovers who have traveled across time. A team of scientists at the cutting edge of memory research. A miracle drug that unlocks an ancient mystery. Bryan Pierce is an internationally famous artist whose paintings have dazzled the world. But there's a secret to his success: Every canvas is inspired by an unusually vivid dream. When Bryan awakes, he possesses extraordinary new skills...like the ability to speak obscure languages and an inexplicable genius for chess. All his life, he has wondered if his dreams are recollections, if he is re-experiencing other people's lives. Linz Jacobs is a brilliant neurogeneticist, absorbed in decoding the genes that help the brain make memories, until she is confronted with an exact rendering of a recurring nightmare at one of Bryan's shows. She tracks down the elusive artist, and their meeting triggers Bryan's most powerful dream yet: visions of a team of scientists who, on the verge of discovering a cure for Alzheimer's, died in a lab explosion decades ago. As Bryan becomes obsessed with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the scientists' deaths, his dreams begin to reveal what happened at the lab, as well as a deeper mystery that may lead all the way to ancient Egypt. Together, Bryan and Linz start to discern a pattern. But a deadly enemy watches their every move, and he will stop at nothing to ensure that the past stays buried.

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My purchase of Gwendolyn Womack’s The Memory Painter was something of a surprise. I mean no offense, but when push comes to shove I’m a bit of a penny pincher and rarely buy books blindly. Truth is, I’d not heard of this piece before spotting the striking yellow cover at the Historical Novel Society Conference bookstore and was entirely unfamiliar with the author. I queried a handful of my peers and while they agreed the book looked promising, no one had read it and I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted to be the first to plunge into a debut. Historically speaking, such ventures seldom ended in my favor, but something about the description sparked my curiosity and refused to let go. I debated a while, but ultimately caved to indecision and acquired the title. 

I’ll be honest, things did not start well. I spent the first three chapters wondering what I’d gotten myself into, but all that changed in chapter four. The plot started coming together and the story began to find its feet. The rush, however, was short-lived and by the end of chapter eleven, I felt I could confidently predict how things would turn out. Chapters twelve through thirty-nine didn’t leave much of an impression, the drama was diverting enough, but predictable in my eyes. The pacing intensified in chapter forty and the curve-ball in chapter forty-five found me cheering Womack’s creativity, but the moment was all too brief as the novel concluded only three chapters later. 

Did I like the story? Yes, looking back at the plot, I think The Memory Painter a fun crossover piece. There isn’t as much history as I’d hoped, but I enjoyed the elements Womack wove into the narrative. I think the author could have done more with the emotional relationship between Bryan and Linz, but the pair proved enjoyable protagonists nonetheless. I found Finn and Conrad incredibly interesting, but you’ll have to read the book to understand why. As far as supporting characters are concerned, I liked Barbara, but felt Claudette, Martin and Layla underdeveloped in comparison which bothered me as I felt their roles should have placed them on more equal footing.

Ideally, I’d have loved a historical note. Something that explained how and why the author chose the historic figures that appear throughout the piece. Personally, I’d have loved to know why certain figures, Louis Le Vau and Pedro Damiano for example, were less prominent than Origenes Adamantius and Alexander Pushkin. I’d also have liked a slightly stronger finish. I appreciate that Womack’s conclusion is meant to lead into a follow-up, but the final notes of the narrative felt rushed and awkward just the same.  

Would I recommend The Memory Painter? As usual, that would depend on the reader. Diehard historic fiction fans might find the book a difficult sell, but the book incorporates exciting elements of both thrillers and science fiction and should prove quite entertaining to those with varied tastes and open minds. 

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Michael didn't know what the right course was anymore. All he knew was that Renovo had the power to change human existence, and the responsibility that came with being its creator was paralyzing. Was he a monster or some sort of hero? He didn't know.
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