Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wendy Darling: Stars by Colleen Oakes

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 28, 2015

Wendy Darling has a perfectly agreeable life with her parents and brothers in wealthy London, as well as a budding romance with Booth, the neighborhood bookseller’s son. But while their parents are at a ball, the charmingly beautiful Peter Pan comes to the Darling children’s nursery and—dazzled by this flying boy with god-like powers—they follow him out of the window and straight on to morning, to Neverland, a intoxicating island of feral freedom. As time passes in Neverland, Wendy realizes that this Lost Boy’s paradise of turquoise seas, mermaids, and pirates holds terrible secrets rooted in blood and greed. As Peter’s grasp on her heart tightens, she struggles to remember where she came from—and begins to suspect that this island of dreams, and the boy who desires her—have the potential to transform into an everlasting nightmare.

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All children, except one, grow up. That child, the adolescent waif who rides the back of the wind has inspired countless storytellers with his exploits among the stars, author Colleen Oakes among them. Her latest release, Wendy Darling, is a darker, more mature, re-telling of Barrie's timeless masterpiece and while I liked the idea, I admit the execution left me rather disappointed. 

I wish I could say otherwise, but my frustrations started early. The prologue is artistic, but vague and I still haven't figured out why the author thought it necessary. The scene didn't draw me in, establish relevant details or set the stage for the story to come. It's superfluous in every sense and I can't help wishing it'd been omitted. 

As a character, Wendy boasts an abundance of potential, but the early chapters of her adventure left me suspicious of Oakes and wary of the direction she appeared to be taking. My misgivings were legitimized as the novel progressed and I found myself increasingly disgusted with the liberties taken against a much loved classic. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I believe re-tellings should emulate or at least compliment the spirit of the work that inspired them. Wendy Darling does neither and stands as a flagrant affront to the themes the original author sought to emphasize and explore. 

Forgive me, but I think Oakes went too far with this adaptation. I appreciate dark storytelling as much as the next reader, but I can't condone butchering a classic children's story to do it. Were this a standalone novel, a fantasy adventure of the author's own creation I'd  praise Oakes' complex characterizations and intense motifs, but part of re-telling a story is maintaining a connection and I don't think that happened here. 

Fair warning folks, there are scenes of violent death in this book, adolescent alcoholism and a few raging hormones. If that sort of thing bothers you, it might be best to steer clear. Not bad, but not what I expected. Very much doubt I'll be continuing the series. 

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“I knew I was bound for something different. Something better. I was meant to rule the stars, not gaze at them from under our poverty.” 
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Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 22, 2015

London, 1887. As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker—a reclusive natural historian as intriguing as he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

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Lesendes Dienstmädchen in einer
Bibliothek by Edouard John Mentha 
I picked up Deanna Raybourn's A Curious Beginning without reading the jacket description. I'd not heard of the book, I hadn't read any of the early reviews and despite being a self-admitted cover slut, I can honestly say the cover image prompted little if any interest. The improbable exploits of an unladylike lepidopterist might have roused my curiosity if I'd bothered to do my homework, but the truth is that my decision was dictated by past appreciation for Raybourn's signature wit and clever dialogue.

As a heroine, Veronica Speedwell is anything but stereotypic. She flouts convention at every possible turn, but what I liked most is that she lacks the self-righteous indignation so many authors associate with women of independent mind. This is a character who lives on her own terms and does as she pleases. She makes no excuses, offers no apologies and that is all. She's not out to change the world and she isn't positioned on a soapbox to preach the evils of Victorian inequality at Raybourn's audience.

Stoker is equally unrepentant, but far less optimistic and impulsive. Brooding, boorish, and brusque, the knife throwing circus performer turned taxidermist is as atypical as his leading lady. He is brilliant, but I particularly liked how his countenance and demeanor balanced Veronica. For all her exuberance, the woman is an insufferable know-it-all and Stoker's unabashed and often blunt assessment keeps her in check.

Sparks fly, but fire between Stoker and Veronica is slow to burn. The author leaves no doubt that their partnership is leading to something more, but at this point the association is based entirely on playful banter, intellectual rivalry, and mutual admiration. Raybourn is building something authentic here, something that is more convincing than raw carnal attraction.

The narrative itself is packed with both the bizarre and comic, but I can't deny a certain disappointment with regard to how easily the intrigue surrounding Veronica's existence was unravelled. I've read too many novels or watched From Hell too many times, but I caught the scent in the first thirty pages and spent the better part of the next two hundred and fifty watching the cast blunder their way to the same inevitable conclusion.

All things considered, I'd be hard-pressed to recommend A Curious Beginning on the perplexity of its central plot, but I can't say the time I spent with it wasted. Despite its flaws, the quirky content and humorous situational drama tickled my imagination. I'm not likely to jump when the next installment is released, but I definitely plan to continue the series somewhere down the road. 

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“Mrs. Clutterthorpe, I can hardly think of any fate worse than becoming the mother of six. Unless perhaps it were plague, and even then I am persuaded a few disfiguring buboes and possible death would be preferable to motherhood.”
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Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: October 3, 2015

It's 1126. Heulwen, daughter of Welsh Marcher baron Guyon FitzMiles, has grown up with her father's ward, Adam de Lacey. There has always been a spark between them, but when Heulwen marries elsewhere, to Ralf le Chevalier, a devastated Adam absents himself on various diplomatic missions for King Henry I. When Ralf is killed in a skirmish, Heulwen's father considers a new marriage for her with his neighbour's son, Warrin de Mortimer. Adam, recently returned to England, has good reason to loathe Warrin and is determined not to lose Heulwen a second time. But Heulwen is torn between her duty to her father and the pull of her heart. Adam is no longer the awkward boy she remembers, but a man who stirs every fibre of her being - which places them both in great danger, because Warrin de Mortimer is not a man to be crossed and the future of a country is at stake...

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Henry I and Empress Matilda
I've no nostalgic memories of Elizabeth Chadwick's The Running Vixen. I've read The Wild Hunt three times, but the second installment of 'The Ravenstow Trilogy' enjoyed limited international release and was next to impossible to find when I first discovered the series in the late nineties. Fortunately for me, the book was reprinted in 2009 and I was afforded a cost-effective means of indulging my interest.  

Though not specifically illustrated, I love Chadwick's mention of The White Ship and the crisis it created for Henry I. The book itself documents events between 1026 and 1028, but it is chock full of references to The Anarchy and the events that led to it. William le Clito, Geoffrey of Anjou and Hugh de Mortimer enjoy small, but noteworthy roles and I liked how their inclusion added to the political drama that played out in the background of the novel. I was further impressed with how Chadwick made the bureaucratic unrest relevant in the eyes of her fictional cast. Miles' grandson and namesake drowning alongside William Adelin, Adam serving as royal escort for Empress Matilda, and Guyon's personal support of Stephen of Blois weren't exactly pertinent to Adam and Heulwen's story, but such details spoke to the author's deep appreciation for the facts on which her story is based and her dedication in recreating this time and place for her audience. 

As far as the narrative is concerned, I wont deny feeling The Running Vixen took a long time to find its feet. Chadwick's books usually draw me in immediately, but I was a good seventy pages into this installment before I fell into the story and I think that had a lot to do with the relationship between Heulwen and Adam. Unlike their predecessors, Adam and Heulwen have history. They are at a turning point in their association while the reader is playing catch-up. Chadwick handled the situation well, but as stated, development took a little longer than I'd anticipated. In comparing the book to its predecessor, there is also a notable shift in both style and tone. It's not bad by any mean, but it is very different. 

I found Heulwen fascinating, especially as the story progressed. She has many original attributes, but I noted traits reminiscent of both mother and stepmother in her demeanor. I made no secret of my appreciation for Rhosyn in my review of The Wild Hunt and maybe I'm alone in this, but I thought Heulwen's tendency to seek solace away from the confines of the keep a nice nod to her mother's aversion to stone walls. Her married life is challenging, but Chadwick managed to make her demons very different from Judith's which is why I feel the story works. The author picked up where she left off, but took things a completely new direction to explore entirely new subject matter. 

Guyon is a tough act to follow, but I think despite the odds, Chadwick managed to do a lot of interesting things with Adam. I thought his struggle to balance his own merit against his father's legacy inspired and feel it brought an interesting dynamic to his role, especially toward the end of the novel when his insight serves a poignant and tender purpose. I also liked that for all the skill in his sword arm, he finds himself at something of a disadvantage with Heulwen. It's not something I've noted often in medieval fiction, but I found the intimate role reversal both striking and original. 

Miles caught my eye in book one of the series, but he shines in book two. Despite his pride, the aging patriarch is openly devoted to his family and I liked how Chadwick utilized him to further his granddaughter's story. Rhodri has a lot going on under the surface and while I wasn't particularly fond of him, I wont deny appreciating how the author's presentation challenged me to think about him from different angles. As far as antagonists go, I felt Warrin de Mortimer stronger than Walter de Lacey. He's isn't likable or sympathetic, but he isn't one dimensional either and I liked the idea of villain with layers. 

The Running Vixen is heavily romantic, but it is also clever and engaging. It's a little slow in places, but it is a solid sequel to The Wild Hunt and something I'd definitely recommend to fans of medieval fiction. 

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"Widows don't stay widows long in the marches. It is too dangerous, and Heulwen accepts the fact..."
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Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Wild Hunt by Elizabeth Chadwick

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: September 27, 2015

During the 12th-century Welsh March Wars, King William Rufus orders Guyon, 28, to marry nearly 16-year-old Judith in order to secure lands from Judith's despised uncle, Lord Robert de Belleme. As the marriage begins, Guyon is angry and Judith is terrified. He is experienced in both love and war, and is hostile about marrying this child and surrounding himself with such a nest of political vipers. Judith, having watched her father abuse her mother, expects her own marriage to include rape, beatings, and humiliation. What gradually develops between them is a trust and respect that eventually blooms into a passionate love. Their story is tightly interwoven with a tenuous political situation as brothers battle for the kingdom and the barons divide themselves between the factions.

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William II and Henry I of England
I've read Elizabeth Chadwick's The Wild Hunt three times now and I love it as much today as I did when I first discovered it. As a teen, I was seduced by the romance between Guyon and Judith, but as an adult I find myself draw to the characters, atmosphere, politics, history and emotional conflict. Romance aside, there is a certain timelessness to the narrative that appeals on a variety of levels. 

Guyon's relationship with Judith might sound odd to some, but the pairing of a twenty-eight year old to a maid of sixteen was quite acceptable in the twelfth century and I like that Chadwick didn't shy from exploring the intricacies of that age gap. The novel spans four years and the emotions she illustrates in both hero and heroine are intensely authentic. The relationship ebbs and flows, it changes as the characters grow together and that really worked for me. 

Guyon's relationship Rhosyn is equally intriguing. Chadwick's treatment of the Welshwoman in downright captivating. On the surface, she is Judith's rival, a pebble in the boot of the Lady's marriage, but as a reader I couldn't help respecting Rhosyn's position and spirit. She is honest to herself, kind, generous, gentle, sensitive, accepting, practical and realistic. I liked that. Too often, authors paint the other woman in extreme shades, but I felt Chadwick's approach thought-provoking and appreciate how she handled Guyon's conflicting emotional allegiances without physical infidelity or blatant stereotyping. 

Several members of the supporting cast also caught my eye. The author had no cause to develop them as she did, but conflicts each faced over the course of the story added much to the fabric of the narrative. Eluned's childish infatuation and jealousy, Rhys' sense of possession and developing understanding of the world and Alicia's struggle for happiness both during and after her marriage pulled me further into the story. Each has an individual journey and I liked how their struggles played into the main story line. 

Chadwick's book marked my first introduction to the Welsh March Wars, but I've learned a lot about them over the years and revisiting the novel only heightens my admiration for her handling of the material. Most who read the book will remember the character drama, but the power struggle between Guyon and the other marcher lords is rather interesting if you've an interest in period politics. The novel touches on the death of William II and ascension of Henry I, but Chadwick's focus is definitely on the border violence that characterized the age. 

Atmospherically, I love this piece. There are a couple of words, treadmill for example, that stand out like sore thumbs, but for the most part the language and descriptions feel genuine to the era. Chadwick obviously understands the period and the lifestyles of those who lived in it. Folk remedies such as moldy bread are prominently depicted, but no one feigns to know why the treatment is effective and there are no undue hints that the concoction of bacteria on the aging crusts is in fact penicillin.

Bottom line, The Wild Hunt is a wonderful book. Brilliant in both historic detail and fictional drama. Highly recommended. 

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"I cannot tell you, love. Call it a political secret if you will, or just plain discretion. It is a confidence I think I would rather die than break."
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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Kurinji Flowers by Clare Flynn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Kindle Unlimited
Read: August 10, 2015

It is 1936. Ginny Dunbar, an 18-year-old debutante and amateur artist, has been exploited for years by a charismatic, older man. The fallout from this abusive relationship jeopardises her future. Ginny gets a second chance with a new start living on a tea plantation in India. Left to cope with the repercussions of her past, Ginny has to battle her inner demons, the expectations of her husband, mother-in-law, and colonial British society, and her prejudices towards India and its people. Set in South India during World War II and India's struggle for independence, Kurinji Flowers traces a young woman’s journey through loss, loneliness, hope, and betrayal to unexpected love and self-discovery. 

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Kurinji Flowers by Suresh Krishna
The Kindle Unlimited catalog is chock full of titles. I've browsed it a couple of times and bookmarked more than a few promising pieces, among them, Clare Flynn's Kurinji Flowers. None of my friends had read it, but the premise sounded different and I loved the idea of a WWII story set in a nontraditional locale so I threw caution to the wind and checked it out.

Fortune, it's said, favors the bold and my daring was justly rewarded. I felt certain aspects of the novel could have been stronger, but I genuinely appreciated a lot of Flynn's ideas and admired much of the material she incorporated into Ginny's story. The social structure of the British, its contrast to that of the natives, and the inevitable struggle between the two was particularly noteworthy. I felt the relationship between Ginny and her mother struck a very intriguing note and I liked the subtle way that politics influenced events as the story progressed. 

Not to downplay Ginny, but I was fascinated by three of Flynn's male characters. Hector is a flat out brilliant addition to the piece. His character arc really appealed to me and I felt Flynn's treatment of his trials both appropriate to the period and sensitive to the subject matter. Rupert is a disgusting example of humanity, but such individuals do exist and despite my distaste, I admit a certain appreciation for Flynn's depiction of his depraved personality. I genuinely disliked him and right or wrong, my lack indifference speaks to a penetrating characterization and that is something I feel all authors should strive for. Tony rounds out the trio and though I felt his dialogue annoyingly reminiscent of Phil in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I felt his emotional journey the most engaging of the narrative. He is arrogant, but weak, sheltered and naive. He strives to fulfill society's expectations, but he is woefully ill-prepared to do so. I might be alone here, but I liked seeing so much emotional conflict and individual struggle in a male character. I personally thought it a refreshing change of pace and lent a certain authenticity to him and his role. 

Thematically, I liked what Flynn presented, but I'm not ashamed to say I felt there was too much going on. There is a lot of great concept material within these pages, but the various concepts compete for the reader's attention and I don't think any is explored as thoroughly as it could have been. Looking back, I certainly appreciate where the story went, but I can't help wishing Flynn hadn't tried to fit many underlying motifs into a single piece. Not to sound picky, but I honing in and really developing one or two of these ideas would have been more satisfying on the reader's end.

That said, I've no regrets over the time I spent with Kurinji Flowers. I found the novel original and thought-provoking and look forward to reading more of Flynn's work. 

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"Because we can. It's called running the empire. We've been getting away with it for centuries. But our days are numbered. It's only a matter of time before we have to throw in and give them what they want - what is, after all, their right. Then, they'll probably kick the lot of us out. They'll be glad to see the back of us."
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